Tobio loved volleyball. He loved it more than anything, and he was happy, as long as he got to stay on the court.
But today he hadn’t even been able to play a full set. He’d been benched halfway through the first one, and he’d never been benched before.
It hurt. It hurt a lot.
The match kept replaying in his mind. The disappointed look his coach had briefly given him after substituting him, dismissing him as if he’d been nothing more than a pile of untapped, wasted potential. And then there had been Kindaichi’s hateful glares after the match was over, and Kunimi’s empty stares.
Tobio clutched his head in his hands, fisting his hair and trying desperately to dispel the memories and drown out the sneering voice that kept repeating that it was his fault, his fault.
They had lost because of him, because he’d been too wrapped up in his own head to realize that his teammates couldn’t keep up with his quick tosses.
It truly hit him in that moment, just how alone he really was. He didn’t have any friends, and he had never gotten on well with his teammates, but he had always taken for granted the fact that they would unquestionably be there when his tosses went up. He’d obviously been wrong.
How was he supposed to accept Seijou’s offer now, knowing that most of his current teammates would be going there as well?
He’d been ecstatic when he’d received a direct invitation from Seijou’s coach. Seijou was after all a powerhouse, the second strongest schools in the prefecture after Shiratorizawa. Going there seemed like the obvious next step for Tobio, since he had already flunked the entrance exam to Shiratorizawa.
But just the thought of spending the next three years with the same people made him feel sick. Not to mention the fact that after today’s crushing defeat, Seijou’s captain, Oikawa-senpai, would probably use this against him and make sure he’d spend as little time on the court as possible, and that was if Tobio even managed to get on the team at all.
Because, when it came down to it, what good was being a volleyball genius if no one was going to hit his tosses?
He shut his eyes, his breathing growing ragged. He tried to push the awful feeling down, but it was pointless.
The feeling of shame and rejection clawed up his throat, burned and gnawed at his chest, between his ribs, squeezing around his heart and his lungs like barbed wire. The back of his eyes prickled, and a lone tear spilled over his cheek, trailing down to his chin.
Chilled fingertips brushed against his forehead, a featherlight touch that pushed his bangs to the side, away from his eyes.
Tobio’s eyes snapped open.
There was a boy leaning over him. He had a round face with big, brown eyes and wild orange hair, the washed-out color looking like it’d been fiery and bright once.
He was leaning far too close in Tobio’s personal space, his nose just inches from Tobio’s, and his gaze was unwaveringly focused on Tobio’s face.
Tobio yelled. The boy yelled, yanking his hand back as if he’d been stung.
“What the fuck–“ Tobio recoiled, almost toppling over in his haste to scramble away from the boy. The boy shrank back, looking equally as shocked. “Who the hell are you? And why the hell were you touching me like that!”
The boy’s mouth fell open. “You can see me?” he asked, voice filled with wonder.
A prickle of annoyance flared in Tobio’s chest, temporarily shutting the gnawing feeling of shame and guilt. “Of course I can see you, idiot! What the hell is wrong with you?”
The boy’s eyes grew impossibly wide. “You can see me!” he repeated, leaping to his feet and whooping loudly. “And you can hear me too!! Oh my god, I can’t believe it! That’s amazing!”
Tobio glared at him. Was the kid high on sugar? Or was he just extremely stupid? Tobio didn't wait around to find out. He got up and dusted off his pants, fully intending to leave.
“Wait, where are you going?” the boy said, running to catch up and falling into step beside him. “What’s your name? Are you a ghost too?”
“What? No! I’m not a ghost,” Tobio snapped. “Just leave me alone.”
“Hey, wait! Can you please stay for a bit? I just want to talk!”
Tobio hissed out an angry breath, craning his neck and glancing around the park, trying to spot the kid’s parents.
“You can't ignore me now! I know you can hear me,” the boy huffed petulantly. “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for your parents.” Tobio replied. “Aren’t you, like, ten or something?”
The boy puffed out his cheeks in indignation, his face going red. “I’m fifteen!” he fumed.
“Impossible,” Tobio scoffed. “No way we’re the same age,”
“Not all fifteen-year-olds are freakishly tall like you, you know!”
Before he could even register what was happening, a weight landed on his back, and a set of flailing arms and legs locked tightly around Tobio’s midriff.
“Get off, idiot!” Tobio snarled, struggling to keep his balance, as one of the boy’s knees jabbed him in the stomach.
The boy held on tight, but Tobio was bigger, stronger, and eventually managed to fling him off.
The boy stumbled shakily back up. “You’re rude,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at Tobio. “But you’re the only person in this whole town who can see me, so I’m not letting you go!”
He made a grab for Tobio’s wrist but Tobio snatched it away, managing to put some distance between them thanks to his longer strides.
The boy didn’t let that deter him, sprinting forward and springing up into a jump right in front of Tobio.
Tobio stopped dead in his tracks. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t at least a bit impressed. The boy surely knew how to jump high, and Tobio could’ve sworn that for a fraction of a second he’d been at eye level with the boy’s knees.
It didn’t matter though, and he scowled, brusquely shouldering past him and reaching to the edge of the park. The boy, however, clung to the strap of his gym bag, using all his weight to tug him back.
“You’ve gotta believe me!” he insisted. His head whipped from side to side, gaze flitting about frantically before it finally settled on a woman a little up ahead on the main street.
“Watch this, I’ll show you,” the boy declared, and let go of Tobio’s bag. Tobio lurched forward and crashed onto the gravel path, caught off guard by the change in momentum.
Mouth twisting in full-blown anger, he glanced up, ready to yell at the brat, but all the insults he was ready to spew died on his tongue, as he watched the boy shout and wave his arms madly next to the woman and the little girl. Neither one of them seemed to take notice of him as they kept walking looking totally unfazed, as if nothing strange had occurred.
Dread seized Tobio, goosebumps crawling up his spine. He felt as though he’d just been doused with a bucket of freezing water, the coldness seeping deep into his bones.
He kept watching in dawning horror as the boy darted up and down the street, trying and failing to catch the attention of a few more strangers, but it was clear that none of them saw him. His mouth felt dry, his tongue sticking uncomfortably to the roof of his mouth. He was still speechless when, after a few more attempts, the boy ran back to Tobio.
“See now?!” he panted. “I told you they couldn’t see me, you jerk!”
“Is this a prank?” Tobio asked. There had to be a rational explanation, there had to be–
“No!” the boy said. “I… I–I’m a ghost. I know it’s hard to believe, and I still don’t really know how this whole thing happened, to be honest. I just remember having an accident and dying and then baaam! The next thing I knew, I was back. But ever since then no one’s been able to see me,”
The boy rubbed his chin absentmindedly. “I guess that makes me a ghost? Or a spirit, maybe? Whichever is cooler.”
As if in silent agreement, they had both silently gone back to the park, choosing a secluded area near a line of trees, away from the kids’ playground area. The sun had just started to sink on the edge of the mountains, the pale blue sky tinged with yellows and oranges and streaks of pink.
Tobio’s mind was whirling. He was still baffled by what the boy had claimed, having absolutely no clue what to make of it.
“So I’m the only one…” he said.
The boy nodded. He had sat back down on the grass, hugging his knees to his chest. He looked even smaller like that.
“Why me?” Tobio asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe you have psychic superpowers or something.” the boy said, his voice slightly muffled by the fabric of his jeans. “Are you sure you’re not a ghost too? Maybe ghosts can see other ghosts.”
“I’m not a ghost, dumbass,” Tobio hissed. “I think I’d know if I’d died.”
Something prickled at the back of Tobio’s neck as if that had not been the right thing to say, but the other boy seemed unruffled.
“Oh, I almost forgot, animals can see me too.” he added almost as an afterthought, as he let a ladybug trail up a blade of grass and onto his finger. “At least I think they can see me. Most of the dogs that come here with their owners bark at me and lick my hands when I pat them.“
That… that didn’t clear things up in the slightest, in Tobio’s opinion.
“You said you wanted to talk,” he mumbled gruffly, trying to keep his thoughts from spiraling.
“Oh, yeah!” the boy brightened. “It gets really lonely when everyone around you ignores you, you know. And I really, really miss talking to other people.”
“You don’t say,” Tobio said drily.
“I mean, I’ve tried talking to my family and my friends, but they can’t hear me, so it’s just a one-way conversation… I kind of get bored after a while.”
“So, what do you want me to say?”
The boy hummed. “Well, you could start by telling me your name,”
“It’s Kageyama.” Tobio said. “Kageyama Tobio.”
“Nice to meet you, Kageyama!” the boy said cheerily, beaming up at him. “My name’s Hinata Shouyou.”
Kageyama looked away from the boy’s stupidly wide grin, letting his gaze drift to the mountains in the distance.
“Hey,” Hinata piped up. “Why were you crying earlier?”
Tobio stiffened. “I wasn’t crying.”
“Fine. Why were you sulking then?”
Tobio opened his mouth to reply but hesitated, slowly realizing that agonizing over losing a single match might probably seem laughable to someone like Hinata, who'd apparently gone through far worse.
“It was nothing.” he lied, jerking his eyes away and casting them to the ground.
“Oh, come ooon,” Hinata wheedled, curiosity evident in his voice. “You can trust me. I won’t tell a soul.”
“Don’t joke about that, dumbass!” Kageyama hissed, and Hinata giggled.
“Tell me or I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Tobio scowled at the sour thought. “Fine.” He relented, reclining his head back, back, until it hit the bark of the tree they were sitting under.
“My team lost the final today.”
Hinata’s ears perked up, and he turned to face Kageyama, eyes sparkling and reflecting the setting sun. “Team? Wait, like a sports team? Do you play sports, Kageyama?”
Kageyama sighed. “My volleyball team. Today we had the final match of the prefectural middle school tournament and we lost.”
His hands clenched into fists. Because of me. If I hadn’t screwed up so badly–
“Whaaaaaaaaa!” Hinata shrieked, startling Tobio out of his musings. He grabbed the front of Tobio’s shirt excitedly, almost vibrating out of his skin with glee. “You play volleyball? Why didn’t you lead off with that! I love volleyball, it’s like my favorite thing in the whole world!!“
Tobio yelped, his face growing hotter as Hinata nearly climbed on his lap in his excitement, ending up straddling one of his legs. He was very much real and corporeal, all chilled skin and skinny limbs.
Tobio jerked, trying to shake him off. “What the hell, dumbass! Get off of me!”
Hinata didn’t seem to hear him, though, as he started to fire off question after question.
“And woahh, the prefectural tournament!!? That is so cool! If you made it all the way to the final then you must have played lots of games, right? What schools did you go up against? Were they strong? And what’s your position? Are you a regular?”
“I’m a setter,” Kageyama said, a faint blush still on cheeks as he tried to pry Hinata off him. “We did beat a few strong schools, but It’s not a big deal. We lost in the end.”
“But still, you played in the finals! That is so freakin cool!” Hinata pinched his thumb and forefinger. “You came this close to winning the tournament!”
Kegayama’s face scrunched up and Hinata laughed airily, letting himself fall onto his back on the grass, arms splayed wide.
“I play volleyball t-“ Hinata cut himself off, seemingly catching himself. “I used to play,” he said, a bit more subdued than before. Tobio could see the light in Hinata’s eyes slowly dimming, misting over with pain and sadness.
Tobio’s heart twisted in his chest. Despite their differences, he could sort of understand what Hinata was feeling. He knew what it was like to not be able to play anymore, to only be able to watch from the sidelines.
Well, his situation wasn't even remotely on the same scale as Hinata’s, but still, he’d felt the pain and the frustration of not being able to play volleyball mere hours ago, and the feeling was still fresh in his heart.
Was that the same soul-crushing sort of pain that Hinata was feeling?
Abruptly Hinata sat up, a new spark in his eyes.
“You can play volleyball with me!” he said, shooting up and bouncing around excitedly. “I’m a spiker, so it’s perfect! I’ll hit any toss you give me!”
Hearing those words made something flip funnily in Tobio’s gut.
“We can’t.” he said, gaze fixed on the ground.
“Because we don’t have a volleyball, dumbass.”
Hinata’s face fell. “Oh, you’re right.”
He sounded heartbroken. It shouldn’t have concerned Tobio, who typically didn’t care much about anything or anyone, but for some reason something tugged at his chest, and he felt strangely compelled to do something.
“Tomorrow,” he found himself saying. “I’ll meet you here at the same time. I’ll bring a volleyball.”
Under normal circumstances, he knew he’d never suggest something like this. He already had his own regular volleyball practice after school, and he should know better than to overwork his body. But these were not normal circumstances, were they?
If Hinata was dead, he would never be able to play volleyball again, and that wasn’t fair.
Kageyama grunted indistinctly, and Hinata’s eyes shone incredibly bright.
“Yeah!!!” he exulted. He was radiating happiness, quivering like a coiled spring ready to shoot into the sky.
Kageyama huffed out a breath as he got to his feet and slung his gym bag over his shoulder.
“Hey, we weren’t done talking yet! Where are you going?” Hinata scrambled to keep pace with him. “Don’t walk so fast!”
“I have to get home before my mom starts to worry about me.” Tobio replied tersely.
“Oh, okay,” Hinata sounded slightly put out, but recovered quickly. “Bakageyama, you weren’t just saying that, right? You’ll actually come, won’t you?”
Kageyama glared at him from the corner of his eye, slightly irritated by the nickname. “You better not suck.” was all he said.
Hinata stared at him for a moment longer before his face split in the widest, happiest, most aggravating smile Tobio had ever seen on anyone’s face.
“Great!” Hinata beamed, his dumb, toothy grin taking over his whole dumb face. “I can’t wait!”