Yachi Hitoka has spent her entire sixteen years of living daydreaming. She’s lived an independent life, no choice of her own with her mother spending long hours at work and her father nowhere to be found. She feeds herself, she clothes herself, she dedicates herself to her studies and managing the volleyball team, and she repeats. It’s a routine she recites in mixed order when anyone asks her, “how have you been, Yachi-san?” or “Hitoka-chan, are you eating well?” Even though she wrestles with the initial shock of being asked those questions in the first place, she always has an answer.
Then, there’s a part of her ritual that she keeps locked away in her heart. A secret that would make her blush to admit outloud. That’s where the daydreaming comes from.
She paces around her bathroom, her room, listening to the same comfortable songs. They’re nothing profound. They’re melodies that are so sweet, so sickening that if you listen to them once, they’ll live in the folds of your ears forever. Her eyes are still, but her mind is dreaming, painting images of a Girl in her head. And as she paces, the Girl is in motion. Talking to her, holding her hand, promising a world beyond what they can see.
The Girl has taken many forms. In middle school, she was the student body president who was kind enough to help Hitoka with her schoolwork once. Elegant, slender fingers that brushed over numbers, glossed lips that were impervious to the cold Miyagi winters, that was the first Girl. Then there was an actress on television, who had empathetically portrayed the struggles of an anxious schoolgirl taking care of her entire family. Most recently, that Girl was Kiyoko Shimizu, beautiful and brave with gorgeous raven-black hair and bruises decorating her legs like medals.
Yachi isn’t sure she’ll be able to get over the last one so easily.
Kiyoko dances in her mind among clouds and flowers, no matter where Yachi is or what she’s listening to. Even when she’s right in front of her, sitting still and watching volleyball games unfold before her. Yachi wants to laugh at herself. It’s all so silly. She understands what a “schoolgirl crush” is from loving Kiyoko Shimizu. When presented with reality, her mind still manages to paint an unrealistic picture.
Even here? Yachi thinks to herself with frustration. Even here, her mind echoes back. They’re sitting in the stands of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gym, watching multiple games at once as the Karasuno Volleyball Team rests in between matches. Perched on the ground or flitting around the venue, the crows finally have a reprieve before their next Judgement Day.
She’s admiring the profile of Kiyoko’s face when she feels a warm hand on her shoulder. “Yachi-san!” Hinata asks, apologetically, noticing her grimace as she’s shaken from her reverie. “Oh, sorry for interrupting you…”
“Oh!” Yachi shakes her head, immediately feeling guilt in response to Hinata’s guilt. She’s not sure why her mind works that way. She tears her gaze from Kiyoko’s silhouette, remembering she’s here to manage the team, not daydream about impossibilities. “It’s nothing. Did you need something? I-I can make it happen!”
Hinata’s eyes are shining. He’s rummaging for something in his pocket, and Yachi can read the fact he’s wearing — he’s about to ask her for a favor. “Could you check the t-shirt stand and see if they have one of those Tokyo t-shirts? The tourist ones… and the smallest size you can find. It’s for Natsu. I promised to bring her something back!”
He slides some folded up bills into her outstretched hand. “But I don’t think I can make it to the t-shirt stand in time and back for when warmups start. Sorry to trouble you, Yachi-san,” Hinata’s voice trailed off, “Have you been to the t-shirt stand before?”
Yachi shakes her head. “No, but it’s okay! I can figure out my way. It shouldn’t be harder than navigating a train station in the city!” she replies reassuringly, even though she’s got plenty of disaster stories from those ventures. “I’ll see what I can do!”
Hinata disappears as soon as he appears, never staying still in the ever-changing world. Yachi sighs, getting up from her position as she slides in her earbuds. She doesn’t like the sensations that come from being in large, open places packed to the brim with people. The noises, the chances of running into people tripling in probability, everything is just jarring. But she’s used to braving storms alone. The best she can do is permeate her ears with something familiar.
Walking out of the stadium doors, Yachi feels as if she’s one of those goldfish scooped out of a tank and deposited into a larger basin. There’s too many different places to go to the point all she wants to do is dart back to her place next to Kiyoko-san, something that tethers her to home. She’s never seen so many tall men in her life, traveling in crowds, filling the air with the stench of sweat. She takes several steps out into the open, when she starts feeling faint.
She stares at her hands, surprised to see she has a corporeal form and hasn’t spirited away in the process. In a sea of strangers, she imagines them as monstrous spirits that are so engrossed in reaching their destinations that they don’t notice a mere human like her. Her blonde hair stands up, like she is a cat paralyzed with fear. Why am I so dramatic ... Yachi curses her mind. I can’t even buy a t-shirt in peace!
While Yachi inches her way through a crowd, a girl named Yonezawa Maiko blazes a path through the Red Sea exactly ten meters away from her, barking at a group of tall, crimson red-clad men who are bunched together. She scowls at them, muttering under her breath about how much she hates people who lack consideration for the general public.
“All bunched up like that and blocking everyone’s path,” Maiko hisses under her breath, her hands shoved in her pockets. “Only guys would think that’s okay.”
Maiko is leagues smaller than the people that surround her, but her presence is immense. She radiates with such furious energy, that no one dares even brush against her. She adjusts the strap of her bag, her little Vabo-chan keychain rattling in the process as her intense brown eyes are fixated on where she’s going next. She walks with larger-than-life strides, each step the same length as the ones she takes on the court, dancing from one side of the court to the other, as one of Niiyama’s fearsome spikers. Where Kanoka isn’t, Maiko will be. That’s how it’s always been.
“Kanoka,” Maiko makes a face as she passes a baldie that resembles the boy that the Girl in her mind keeps talking about. Guys always get in front of everything, in places where they don’t belong, she thinks to herself. She pouts, staring daggers into the ground. “Why him ?”
Yonezawa Maiko hates admitting it, but she’s a romantic. Her mom gives her the nickname “Hachidori” which means hummingbird, always seeking some kind of flower in the midst of it all. Her wings beat by her side, whether she’s gravitating toward a flower named volleyball or another flower named Amanai. She’s a seeker by every definition of the word, even when she’s not quite sure what she’s looking for. Maiko dreams of finding someone, just like the knights in shining armor that she used to read about in childhood picture books. She wants to sweep someone off their feet and show them the world, and she wants that someone to be a girl, as scared as she is of admitting that outloud.
She’s five meters away from Yachi Hitoka, but none of them can see each other or even knows the other exists. Yachi takes a misstep in the wrong direction, almost walking into a bustling group of children running into the stadium. Her panic sends her running diagonally, two meters closer, knocking an earbud out. Maiko stops for a moment, looking for her phone in her bag as she checks the time. Twenty minutes until her team goes out for lunch, her stomach rumbles as she imagines the bentos that their cute manager must’ve packed.
Yachi spots the t-shirt stand, bolting toward freedom. She doesn’t know that in space, she’s one meter away from a chance encounter. She skips to the sound of her music, pretending she’s running alongside Kiyoko-san, unknowingly half a meter away. Seven inches. She’s not paying attention to the world around her, because she’s stuck in a dream.
And just like that, two dancers collide without knowing they’re dancing. Yachi falls forward like fortune’s fool, ready to land face first on the concrete because falling is all she seems to know how to do, figuratively and literally. She’s not like Kiyoko, Hinata, or Kageyama, who fly. She’s Townsperson B, who walks among mere mortals.
Except she never falls. Because Yonezawa Maiko has the reflexes of God in the body of an impossibly cute high school girl, who’s been bracing for this exact scenario for years. She catches Yachi’s wrist in her hand, and is a hell of a lot stronger than the small blonde that she hoists to her feet. “Eh?” Maiko reels Yachi in, like she’s the catch of the day.
Yachi has read countless shoujo manga in her lifetime. It’s one of those guilty pleasures, like how older women are glued to pointless tabloids and fads, Yachi is bought by the idea of romantic fantasies that are set in real life, but would never take place in real life. Maiko doesn’t fit the girls that Yachi has imagined in her daydreams before, or any of the girls that she’s read in manga, but her heart skips a beat as she looks back into brown eyes that are far more intense than her own.
“S-sorry!” Yachi backs away instinctively, bowing a thousand times over as Maiko watches her with confusion. “Thank you for bracing my fall!”
“Oh?” Maiko is just as confused as Yachi is, her expression still containing traces of smugness as she thinks to herself, I really just caught a girl like one of those shonen anime protagonists! Wait ‘til Kanoka hears about this. “It’s nothing. Good receiving practice.”
“Are you…” Yachi’s eyes grow wider as she looks Maiko down head-to-toe. The giant white winter jacket, the two black stripes down her arms, the red inner lining… Yachi can recognize a design and its source within seconds. “You’re from Niiyama! A queen!”
Maiko has never been called a queen directly to her face before, but she learns that she likes it. She brushes aside her perfectly cut bangs, striking a pose before Yachi, who takes in her presence. “You got that right,” Maiko says, smirking as she casts glances over her shoulders. “I’m from Niiyama Girl’s High. We’ve won Nationals before. So I guess you can say that this entire place is my domain. Anyways, are you lost?”
Yachi stares at her, her mouth agape. She’s so confident… how is that even possible? Yachi’s mind is racing, her brain making associations where they don’t make sense. Her eye color and hairstyle remind Yachi of Haku from Spirited Away, but she has the smugness and bravado of Kamen Rider One. “I was just about to head to the t-shirt stand,” Yachi replies, breathlessly. She’s much shorter than the other players here, and yet I don’t think I’ve met a bigger person.
“Perfect!” Maiko says, motioning for Yachi to follow her. “That’s where I’m headed, too. What’s your name?”
And just like that, a strange girl that came out of nowhere ripped Yachi out of her neverending Kiyoko dream and rooted her in reality, with a motormouth that could go for days. Maiko spoke so much that Yachi had no choice but to give her full attention, as to not miss a single drop of the stream of words that came out of her mouth. In five minutes, she learned Maiko’s name, her sisters’ and brothers’ names, random facts about the Niiyama Girls’ team and their unfortunate tastes in men, and that they lived half an hour away from each other in Miyagi. “Probably ten minutes if you go by bus,” Maiko says, pulling Yachi closer to her as they made their way through the crowd.
They’re in front of the t-shirts, exchanging phone numbers. Talking about school and what’s been going on at Nationals, and perusing merchandise. Yachi wrinkles her nose at some of the slogans and designs while Maiko seems to read her mind. “You think these quotes are kind of crass, huh?” Maiko teases knowingly, flipping through the sizes to find a women's size small. “My uncle works with the people who work on merchandise for Nationals. And lemme tell you, it’s just a room full of old men. What do they know about being cool?”
Yachi can’t help but laugh. Her mom complains about things just like this, about how design firms are all too often staffed by men, and how men are “tacky” when it comes to matters of taste. “I’m not surprised,” Yachi chuckles, holding up the t-shirt that Hinata asked her to get for Natsu. The only color in this size is a vibrant lime-green with a black outline of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. “Do you think this would be a good present for a younger girl?”
Maiko gawks at her. “ Hell no,” she says, grabbing a Vabo-chan keychain from the display. “Just get her one of these. Cuter, cooler, and friend-shaped. See? Just like mine.”
Yachi squeezes the soft plushie between her fingers with awe. She’s just met Maiko, but for some reason the usual trepidation that comes with meeting strangers isn’t there. She feels at ease for the first time, a rare occasion, and it’s largely in due part because Maiko keeps offering her things, whether they be words or suggestions. “Get this too for your hair,” Maiko gushes, grabbing a cute volleyball enamel pin. “I bet it’d look cute. Not that the star isn’t already cute… here, let me fix it, it’s slipping off your hair.”
At the sound of being called cute, Yachi finds herself blushing. Her face gets even hotter as Maiko’s hands work quickly, readjusting the clip that clings onto her hair. They’d just met and yet, she’s already made more progress than she usually does in a month when it comes to meeting a new girl. She doesn’t hesitate, Yachi thinks, wishing she had some of Maiko’s energy.
“There,” Maiko smacks her lips together. “If I didn’t have to play volleyball all the time, I think I’d be a girl with lots of clips in my hair. But it’s not practical.”
“I- I see,” Yachi stammers. “Actually, I think playing volleyball is really cool!”
“Me too,” Maiko says with self-satisfaction. “It’s why we’re both here right. You have a team to take care of, and I have a team I can’t let down. We’re different, but still the same.”
The same? Yachi can’t see any similarities between the two, even though unbeknownst to both of them, there’s a world of similarities that could bring them together. They’re just chipping at the surface with first impressions and name swapping, but their hearts are in the same condition. Both of them are seekers for something that they can’t have. Both of them have spent day in and day out fixated on after-images of Girls in their head. Both of them are looking for each other, without knowing it. They could have easily passed each other in the crowd, disappearing in different directions and memories fading before they even began. But none of them realize it, as their hands brush a second time.
“Oh, I should probably pay — ” Yachi begins, staring to fish bills out of her pocket when Maiko appears faster than lightning, paying for two keychains and a clip in one swipe and handing them to Yachi, who lets out a noise of indignation.
“My gift,” Maiko says with an easy smile. Yachi doesn’t know it, but Maiko has been tense the past two days. It’s rare for her to travel anywhere without Kanoka, and in fact, she had set out to break away from her teammates without prompting anyone because she needed the space. This chance encounter with Yachi had brought back her confidence, a force that had been dwindling the past few hours as she’s facing her next match. “It’s not every day that a cute girl stumbles across your path. I want you to have something to remember me by. Now we have matching keychains!”
As the words leave Maiko’s mouth, it suddenly dawns on her how ridiculous and over-the-top she sounds. It’s an unfortunate side effect of being this dramatic, she thinks to herself, recoiling as she tries to stop herself from cringing. Her cheeks flushed hot with embarrassment, she opens her mouth again, “Wait, this is way too soon for me to say anything like that, I’m sorry Yach — ” she says hastily, when Yachi catches her hands.
“Please!” Yachi can’t express how she’s feeling, but it’s not every day she meets someone so needlessly dramatic just like her, who makes her feel better for the way she thinks. “Please don’t apologize… I’m the same. Also, you can call me Hitoka. I want to see you again, too.”
It’s Maiko’s turn to be flustered. She’s grappling with what’s happening in front of her. A cute girl wants to see her again. She’s just spent some of her Christmas money on a complete stranger. Her entire world is whirling around her, and she curses how much she loves women, because that love is putting her in this highly disorienting situation. “Niiyama is very close to Karasuno,” Maiko mutters under her breath as she’s trying to work it out in her head. “You live thirty minutes from where I live by foot, ten minutes by bus. We can definitely see each other again, Hitoka-chan. You can call me ‘Mai.’”
“Of course,” Yachi says bracingly. “Mai-chan… you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Maybe when we’re back in town, we should go shopping somewhere even bigger than here. You said you have a hard time with fashion, right? Let me pick out your outfits to return the favor. Eh? Mai-chan?”
Maiko is swaying back and forth, impervious to her surroundings as she doesn’t even notice that her team has come to get her. “Maiko!” yells her intimidating captain, spotting her small figure from far away. “We’ve been looking for you. It’s lunch time.”
“Well,” Maiko clears her throat. She’s trying to reclaim whatever coolness she has left, leaning into Yachi so that her voice breezes by Hitoka’s ear, a gentle song-like vibration that lingers. “I’ll take you up on your invitation, Hitoka-chan. Let’s meet again when we’re both home.”
“I’d like that, Mai-chan,” Yachi’s face is glowing pink. She waves at her companion, watching her disappear into the crowd of nameless faces, her hands still holding on to the keychain. She unclips the glittery volleyball pin and wears it in her hair, walking back to her team alone, a new Maiko-shaped dancer emerging in the corner of her mind.