There’s a reason why Tobio has only practiced serving for the past week and a half.
He just doesn’t know what that reason is yet. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever know what it is. He tells himself he doesn’t need to know—the reasoning is inconsequential. He knows two things, and two things only: first, the sensation that starts in the palm of his hand and spreads like the slow crawl of an insect, an unshakable tingle that he can’t outrun; second, the thwack of his hand against the ball and the resounding thump that follows seconds later as the ball barrels past the endline on the other side of the court. Step, step step, jump. Swing, hit, land.
He goes at it until the ball cart is empty and the floor is littered blue yellow green and red. The raging between his ears doesn’t subside. He keels over, panting, and listens to the incessant hum of the lights above. Wonders if he’s going mad. Never has volleyball felt so unsatisfying before; never has he been so restless, so unhinged . A good serve used to be like the gentle exhale at the end of a day—now, it’s like the gasps of the dying, vanquished lungs already forgetting how to breathe. And so he goes again, and again, and again. Goes until he forgets why he’s jumping, where he’s hitting, what he’s trying to quell.
Everyday, he goes home with his right arm sore and throbbing. Still, it is not enough. Never enough. In the morning, he winces when he pulls his shirt over his head, the burn in his shoulder still fresh. In the morning, he drinks his cartoned milk and goes to morning practice. In the evening, he does it all over again. Rinse and repeat.
Kageyama Miwa is eight years older than her brother, and she doesn’t know what to say to him.
She used to have a lot of things to say to him. Not always the right things, surely, but she was young and she was older, and she got to say whatever she wanted. Nice things, mean things, and everything in between. She was the one who taught him how to pass, how to set. How to practice at home, and how to practice by himself. Tobio used to look at her like she hung the sun for it, and as a sixth grader, her ego was big enough that it felt that way too. Like maybe she did hang the sun—if not for the world, then at least for her little brother.
Things changed after she quit volleyball. Slowly but surely, without volleyball, they gradually drifted apart. It wasn’t because he resented her for it, or anything like that—she knew he just wanted her to be happy, and she was. She liked her hair long, after all, and her relationship was fun while it lasted. Volleyball for her was never what it was to Tobio—a form of breathing, as deep and essential as the rise and fall of his lungs. She knew this from the very start.
What she didn’t know, however, was just how much their relationship revolved around it. She stopped tagging along to their grandfather’s practice, stopped watching reruns with them, stopped keeping up with the pro season. She still went to his games if she was free and had nothing better to do, but over time she forgot the strategies and the intricacies she once knew. Everyday, she forgot more and more; everyday, Tobio got better and better. Everyday, the chasm between them grew, and a year and a half in, it was almost like she never played volleyball at all.
Now, their grandfather is dead, and Tobio is in his last year of middle school. Miwa comes back to Miyagi the night before the funeral, but Tobio isn’t home. It’s not until the morning that she finds Tobio slinking out of his room for a glass of milk that she gets a good look at him. He’s taller than her now, and he is no longer a child. When he looks at her, it’s with deep blue eyes that do not shine. They sit in silence both on the way to and from the funeral, and when they get home he’s already heading out the door with his gym bag slung over his shoulder before she can take off her shoes and ask him how he’s been.
She opens her mouth to tell him to wait, to ask where he’s going, to ask if he’s okay, but the door slams shut before the words can find their voice.
Tobio declines the invitation to Aoba Johsai. Two weeks later, he is rejected by Shiratorizawa.
Of course, they don’t reject him outright. They simply fail to include his name on the list of accepted applicants, as if that might soften the blow. It doesn’t. Still, his rejection doesn’t really come as a surprise. Academics were never his strong suit, and without a direct invitation, taking the entrance exam was his only choice. He figured he’d give it a shot, despite the less than stellar indicator his recent midterms might have been. Thought that maybe, just maybe, he’d make it. Hoped even that the recruiters had simply forgotten to extend an invitation to him somehow, and after seeing his name on the application they would have realized their mistake.
It wasn’t a mistake. Tobio knows this now.
He’s not as upset about it as he thinks he should be. Ever since his grandfather died, there has been an ache where his ribs meet and fuse like a shield over his chest. He’d been told for so long that he was untouchable—the crack that splinters through his ribcage begs to differ. No hurt has yet to compare. Not the burn in his shoulders after a long practice; not the jolt in his shins when he serves one too many times. Shiratorizawa hurts, but he is already hurting.
The day after, he calls Aoba Johsai to change his mind. The coach tells him that their team has already been finalized. There is no place for him there anymore; sorry to disappoint. Tobio grinds his teeth and is not disappointed. He doesn’t want to be second to Oikawa anyway—he will not sit on the sidelines and watch someone else win for him.
Oikawa Tooru wants nothing more than to never see Kageyama Tobio’s face ever again.
Despite this, he still drags Iwaizumi to the Junior High Tournament anyway, because the only thing Oikawa hates more than Kageyama is missing out. Iwaizumi calls him a bastard and says he better not start brooding over Kageyama again or he’ll make him regret it, like that’s supposed to be intimidating. Oikawa sticks his tongue out and insists he doesn’t brood .
Despite Oikawa’s best attempts to forget about the inevitable, rumors about Kageyama still follow him like ghosts at the heels of the living. The King of the Court, they call him. Oikawa sniffs, and pretends he isn’t upset that he never got a cool nickname like that. Iwaizumi rolls his eyes and puts a surprisingly gentle hand on Oikawa’s shoulder when he leans forward to get a better look at the players warming up on the court.
There is no escaping the fact that, some day, Kageyama will be a better player than Oikawa. Oikawa knows it’s only a matter of time. Kageyama’s talent seems boundless; Oikawa has already suffered the consequences of pushing himself to the limit. His knee still creaks when he gets out of bed in the morning; still throbs when a storm is coming. He’s learned the hard way that, to be a star, he would have to destroy himself piece by piece by dying piece, and in the end all he’ll have left is a legacy. For people like him—good, but not genius—you can play hard or you can play long, but never both.
He still hasn’t decided what he’d prefer to sacrifice.
But Kageyama—Kageyama is different. He doesn’t have to decide. He was born with an ability that most take years to achieve and ambition to match. He’ll get to have both a long and brilliant career, and for that, Oikawa will never forgive him.
“That’s new,” Oikawa says under his breath, when Kageyama tosses the ball for the first serve of the game. Kageyama’s form is impeccable, Oikawa notes bitterly, and when he hits the ball at the peak of his jump Oikawa stops breathing. For a second, he feels like a rabbit trying to outrun a cheetah—doomed, but too scared to stop running. Kageyama’s serve ends up getting caught in the tape, and it’s only when the ball drops to the ground on the wrong side of the court that Oikawa learns how to breathe again.
“He looks pissed. ”
That’s new, too. The Kageyama he knew was all stoic and naive optimism—Oikawa doesn’t think he’s ever seen Kageyama look so upset. Even from the stands, he can tell that Kageyama is furious—frenzied even, in a way Oikawa only knows too well himself.
Oikawa doesn’t say he would be pissed too, because Iwaizumi already knows.
Iwaizumi always knows. It’s the reason why he squeezes Oikawa’s shoulder when the first rally begins, why he doesn’t let go even when Kitagawa Daiichi scores their first point and everyone in the stands shoots up to cheer. Iwaizumi knows what he’s scared of—he’s seen Oikawa practice past the brink of breaking too many times already. He’s listened to the sound of Oikawa sobbing in the aftermath and tried to beat some sense into him, but the fear that lingers in the back of Oikawa’s mind is not so easily defeated. Kageyama haunts all of Oikawa’s nightmares, and there is nothing Iwaizumi can do to make him disappear.
But right here and right now, Kageyama is young and human and flawed. It becomes clear as soon as Kageyama makes the first set of the game that Oikawa still has time. Kageyama’s sets are too fast, too difficult to hit. Oikawa can’t hear what Kageyama barks at his teammates from up in the stands, but he doesn’t need to.
He feels relieved. There is no one there to tell him he shouldn’t.
“It’s too fast,” he says to Iwaizumi, who can see for himself. Oikawa leans back, and Iwaizumi pulls his hand away from his shoulder.
“I wonder what happened,” Iwaizumi muses. Oikawa looks away.
In the second set, Kageyama gets benched, and Kitagawa Daiichi wins without him.
Two months after their grandfather’s death, Tobio’s sister suggests they go visit the family grave.
Tobio almost says no. He was planning on going to the gym. He’s been working on his jump serve every day he doesn’t have practice—it’s the only thing ruthless enough on his body for him to actually be able to fall asleep at night. The protest dies on his tongue, however, when he realizes that he hasn’t been to visit his grandfather at all since the funeral.
The walk to the Koriyamakyodo cemetery doesn’t take long. The plastic bag full of grapes and tea and chrysanthemums digging into Tobio’s hand is just starting to hurt when they arrive. He switches it to his other hand. His sister washes her hands at the well, then takes the bag from him. He follows suit, the water running cold over his hands and cleansing his skin of the sweat that gathered where the plastic cut angry red lines into his palms.
“Your balance is better than mine,” she says as she takes the bag from him and sets a wooden pail full of water at his feet, the hishaku bobbing buoyantly on the surface. He picks it up with a grunt and follows after Miwa. He holds his breath as he walks, shuffling, to the back of the cemetery where the Kageyama family grave sits. The water sloshes against the sides of the pail with every step, clashing and receding only to clash again, turbulent and routine.
Miwa stops abruptly, and Tobio stumbles, the water in the pail nearly flowing over the brim. “Why did you—” he starts, but when he looks up it’s their name that is carved into the looming tombstone. Kageyama, in thick elegant letters in the front, their given names carved into the side.
His grandfather had been against the idea of having all of their names carved from the get go, but Tobio’s father had insisted. It was cheaper, and it was the traditional way. After all, the Kageyamas were nothing if not traditional. Tobio finds his own name, lined in red, next to his sister’s and under his father’s—the strokes spell a prophecy, a grim reminder of his mortality. And above that, Kazuyo —strikingly bare over the red of the living. A prophecy fulfilled.
“Kazuyo-san,” Miwa starts, jolting Tobio out of his trance. “It’s me, Miwa, and Tobio-chan.”
She talks about her past year in college, and about the neighbors who had come to offer their condolences. When she glances over at Tobio, he looks down at his feet, and so Miwa tells Kazuyo about him too. About how he’s applying to high schools now. She doesn’t talk about what happened with Aoba Johsai, or Shiratorizawa, or the tournament where he was benched—after all, she doesn’t know. Tobio didn’t tell her.
“We hope you’re okay, wherever you are now. We’ve brought you some fruit, and some tea. Your favorites.”
Tobio watches his sister pick up the hishaku. The water in the pail is still now, almost mirror-like; it breaks, rippling, when Miwa drags the handle through. She pours the water over the tombstone, and it flows, glistening, over the dull stone, leaving trails like tears down the sides. The knot in the back of Tobio’s throat swells, the space behind his nose prickling as he tries to suppress his own.
“It’s your turn,” Miwa says, holding out the hishaku for him to take. Tobio lifts his hand listlessly, as if merely a puppet, succumbing to the commands of an invisible puppeteer. He takes the ladle, fingers curling gently around the delicate handle, and with the turn of his wrist the cleansing begins again.
He can hear Miwa shuffling through the plastic bag behind him as he places the now-empty ladle back into the wooden pail. The tombstone glistens in the waning sun, as if renewed with the life of flowing water and prayer. Miwa places a string of grapes on the centerpiece, followed by a bottle of Ito En Oi.
Tobio doesn’t say that they should have brought Kirin Rich Green tea instead. Kazuyo-san was always picky like that. Blegh, he’d say, whenever the only tea available was bottled, and even worse, Ito En Oi. Tastes like shitty water.
Miwa probably forgot. It’s been a while since she’s been home, after all. Luckily for her, the dead do not protest.
Tobio applies to Karasuno on a whim.
Karasuno wasn’t on his list—he’d been so dead-set on Shiratorizawa that he didn’t even really have a list. It wasn’t until Tobio had given up his invitation to Aoba Johsai and been rejected by Shiratorizawa that he even thought about looking at other schools, and even then, Karasuno doesn’t seem like a worthwhile option until he overhears his coaches gossiping about the possibility that Coach Ukai will be coming out of retirement.
That winter, it rains endlessly for weeks on end. It’s raining when he mails out the application on the day it’s due with priority stamps—it’s still raining when he sits for the entrance exam a week later. When the acceptance letter arrives in the mail, it’s Miwa who brings it up to him, clothes wet and hair dripping. Here, she says, tossing the envelope—dry and pristine—onto his bed. He leaves it unopened on his desk for days.
It’s not until Miwa asks about the letter that Tobio remembers to open it. Accepted. He feels disappointed and doesn’t know why.
Tobio doesn’t expect anything out of Karasuno. In mid-February, two weeks after Tobio mails out his enrollment decision, news of Coach Ukai’s hospitalization makes its rounds in the volleyball rumor mill, and with it the last of Tobio’s hopes drift away like a stray balloon in the wind. He wants to be angry, but there is no anger left in him. Only an unfeeling cold; the remnants of a failure said and done.
That winter, Tobio finally tells Miwa about Shiratorizawa, and how he’d gotten benched. She tells him about her new girlfriend, and how she wants to cut her hair short. They sit in the living room by the fireplace until two in the morning talking, and it’s at two in the morning with a blanket over their legs and their hips pressed together in the divot of the shitty living room sofa that Miwa says, “You know, there’s more to volleyball than just powerhouse schools.”
Tobio looks up to find Miwa’s gaze trained on him. The curve of her mouth is tender, almost apologetic—but her eyes are set, stony with certainty. “And there’s more to volleyball than just the perfect set, or the perfect serve. Winning isn’t about the scoreboard, it’s about you. And your teammates. Together.”
Tobio doesn’t respond. Miwa stands, and ruffles his hair as she passes. “You should get some sleep. Goodnight, Tobio.”
The next day, the clouds part. The sun shines, and dries the earth of its tears.
Hinata Shoyou has three things he wants to do in high school. First, he wants to play volleyball. Second, he wants to find the chance to use those cool looking KT tape things at least once. Third, he wants revenge.
The first one is easy. His homeroom teacher is only halfway through dismissing the class when Hinata shoots out of his seat to ask where he can find club applications for the boy’s volleyball team. He fills it out and submits it before the end of his lunch break. The next day, he fidgets through all his classes and glances nervously at the clock every three minutes until the final bell rings, signalling the end of the day.
He sprints to the gym because he can’t stand to wait a second longer. He’s eleven minutes too early, but he’s already waited long enough for this—a chance to play volleyball with real volleyball players against real volleyball teams. Ever since he first saw that volleyball game, aired live in technicolor on the fancy new TV behind that shop window on the street, this is all he’s ever wanted. The sound of the ball on skin and wood; the glare of the ceiling lights blinding. The moment when the boy with a dream and a will takes flight. It’s that moment, frozen in time, that carries him all the way to the gym, the map of the school he’d burned into the back of his mind during his last class of the day leading the way.
Much to his surprise, he’s not the first one there. When he skids to a stop in front of the gym entrance, there’s already a scowling, dark-haired boy standing behind the endline, dribbling a volleyball with incredible focus. Hinata’s still catching his breath when the boy tosses the ball—takes a step, then two, then jumps. He watches the boy take flight, and a giddy thumping grows in his chest. He knows nothing about form, but he imagines this is what good form must look like—elegant. Powerful. Effortless .
Familiar . Recognition dawns on him like a bag of bricks, and the scream that escapes Hinata’s mouth echoes ominously off the floorboards. “Why are you here?” he demands, arm outstretched and finger pointing.
Kageyama looks just about as surprised as he is. The ball bounces whimsically off Kageyama’s head, and if Hinata weren’t so flabbergasted he’d laugh at the way Kageyama grunts in response.
Hinata doesn't expect Kageyama to remember him, but he does. For a moment, Hinata forgets his indignant anger. His heart soars—Kageyama’s greatness is unmistakable (as much as he hates to admit it), and right now, Kageyama is looking at him like there might be greatness in him too. Like someday, he might play against the king and win.
Kageyama ruins it barely a second later, because as Hinata will come to learn, Kageyama ruins everything. The rest is chaos—a flurry of killer serves and bad receives and toupees flying later, Daichi slams the gym door in their faces and all of Hinata’s goals slip right through his fingers.
Tobio always knew he’d be up against Hinata again someday, sooner or later.
It’s been three years since they first parted ways—Tobio to the pros and Hinata to Brazil, of all places. He remembers saying goodbye on a bridge between mountains, the spring breeze blowing sharp against his cheek. I’ll be back, Hinata had said, and Tobio believed him. Still believed him, after six months turned into a year turned into two and the only sign that Hinata was even alive was that one picture of him on Oikawa’s instagram. Call it a reckless hope, but Tobio’s gotten far enough in life that he can afford to be a little reckless. And now, here on the court, with Hoshiumi to his left and Romero in front of him and Ushijima opposite, Tobio has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Tobio didn’t expect anything out of Karasuno, but he ended up getting everything he’d wanted and more. He’s wondered more than once whether he would’ve still made it to where he is now without them—without Daichi and Coach Ukai and Hinata and even Tsukishima, the bastard. Would things have been the same if he’d gone to Aoba Johsai, or Shiratorizawa? Would he have ever gotten out of his own head and become a setter that could make it to the national team? To the Olympics?
Tobio glances at Hinata on the other side of the net. He’s on the back line, knees bent, weight centered, arms outstretched and beckoning. Ready .
Tobio’s waiting for the referee to give him the signal when he decides he probably would have still made it without Karasuno. He’s not so naive that he doesn’t recognize his own talent—it might have taken him longer, but he would’ve done it eventually. There is nothing, after all, for him to do if not play volleyball. But when he catches the determined glare in Hinata’s eyes, the confident set of his shoulders; Tobio knows it wouldn’t have been the same.
No matter what happens today, he’s already won.
The referee blows the whistle. Tobio tosses the ball and jumps.