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Fox in the Henhouse

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~The Fox Den~

He clutched his shoulder. Slow motion fingers found nothing. No muscle, no bone, no ligaments or tendons or cartilage.  He tried again. No skin …

No blood.

“Help me.” It was more of a whimper than a scream, but still it scorched his throat leaving him rasping.

Waking too early, too abruptly and too rigidly in his bed, his hands and jaw clenched. Unable to move.

For the third time that month.

Another hand reached over, clutching his upper arm, while another brushed the sweat-drenched hair off his face. “Atsumu, it’s okay.”

“I’m okay?” Dumb question now he’d opened his eyes. Of course he was. It was four AM and he was in his bedroom, not on court. He was not on the floor but in his bed, even if the covers had been thrashed off.  His right arm was numb, but that was a consequence of how he’d lain, and soon it would prickle back into life. Grasping his shoulder—just in case—Atsumu felt irrational relief flood through him, even though he already knew the truth. There was no pain. There would be no pain. Not here. Not now.

“Yes.” The hand continued to stroke his face. “Do you want to try going back to sleep?”

He shook his head then found he couldn’t stop shaking.

“Want to talk about it? Might help.”

Help what? There was no deep meaning here. No need to examine his psyche. He was scared—that was all. Scared of something he could ward against, but could never one hundred percent prevent. A rogue incidence could change the course of his life, and no matter how many times he told himself it would never happen and he’d continue to play and serve and serve and play and toss the best that he could, the best in the world, the thought he buried deep in the recesses of his mind would bubble up irrepressibly when night fell.

Even with Shouyou there.

“Or watch a movie?”

He shuddered, feeling cold now.

“Hold me,” Atsumu pleaded.

***

 

It was Suna’s fault. Every which way he looked at the situation it all came back to Suna-fucking-Rintarou. Not that he was going to admit it to anyone (least of all ‘Samu) but the goading from his old teammate at an Inarizaki reunion shortly before the National team selection laid dormant in his consciousness.

“You won’t ever leave,” Suna said, his tone lazy even if his eyes belied that.

“Hey, if a scout came along—”

“A scout? Come here? To watch you?”

“Leave it,” Osamu murmured.

But Suna would not be deflected. “You’re a pig wallowing, Atsumu.”

“WHAT!” He’d almost punched him then. Only Aran-san’s early warning twitch of a restraining arm had stopped the movement.

“It’s not a bad thing. Pigs wallowing in mud and shit are perfectly satisfied where they are,” Suna continued, before he pierced Atsumu with his eyes. “Are you, though, Miya? Are you?”

He leant across the table, staring back, annoyed when Suna didn’t flinch. “If you’re asking’ if I’m satisfied, then nope. Never am, never will be, but I’m happy with that as long as I have a goal.”

“And your goal is?”

“Starting setter for Japan,” Atsumu replied, quick as a whip.

“Against Kage—” began Suna, eyebrows raised, before Osamu hushed him with a kick.

 

Atsumu used to chide teammates for not giving a voice to their aims, laughed at the suspicion which haunted them saying that it could ‘jinx it’ if they spoke of it. The Olympics had flashed past them, and he’d not been the starting setter. Depending on tactics, he’d split duties with Kageyama, the latter having a shade more of the playing time. Not that it should bother him, Shouyou had said.

‘You had a better serve rate.’

Yeah, that was true, but …

He wanted to be the automatic choice.

Did not want Shouyou placating him.

And he didn’t want to be so fucking needy ... just fucking better.

 

Atsumu had caught up with Japan’s coach in Tokyo. With time to kill, he’d been mooching around the city and had contemplated calling in on the volleyball headquarters when he’d run into Hibarida outside his block and together they’d walked to work, grabbing coffee on the way.

Hibarida-san hadn’t dismissed him. “You’re both valuable team members. Picking the line up is always tactical, whether it’s starting with your best players first to make an impact, or spreading … hmm … spreading the joy.”

He’s laughing at me.

“I’m not ungrateful,” he insisted.

“I know. Atsumu, do you watch cricket?”

“Uh … no. It’s like really boring, slow baseball.”

Hibarida laughed. “It’s tactical. They have their team, and the best batters are placed third or fourth. One and two are the brute force to take the sting out of the other team’s bowlers.”

“So Tobio’s brute force, right?” He perked up a little hearing that, but it sounded off even as he said it.

Then Hibarida shook his head. “I’d offer the platitude, ‘it isn’t a competition’ but we know it is, which is what makes you both such important players. Kageyama is … perhaps … a touch more adaptable than you are.”

“Huh? I c’n adapt. I play with all sorts of people.”

But he hadn’t. Not really. He’d played for Inarizaki, then the Jackals. And he took time to warm up. It didn’t matter so much in the domestic league, but … wow … against Argentina.

“Did you know Oikawa Tooru?” he asked.

If he were surprised at the subject tangent, Hibarida didn’t show it, apart from a short pause to sip his coffee while he collected his thoughts. “Aobajousai were a powerhouse school during his time, yet never qualified for Nationals,” he said at last. “It’s interesting you mention him because of all the players I’ve seen, he has the most adaptability of all. And his style suits the Argentinean league.”

“Because it’s faster?”

“Yes.” He half smiled. “And dramatic. For all your flair, Atsumu, there is a part of you that requires the utmost stillness.”

“And that’s what sets me back,” he stated, chewing his nails.

“You accommodate your spikers by giving them belief they can hit anything you send their way. Oikawa accommodates them by giving them the belief they can push it further. Both are effective.”

“And Tobio?”

“A mixture of both. This is my office, so here’s where we part.” He stopped on the pavement, draining the last of his coffee before throwing it in a bin. “What are you doing in Tokyo? I never asked.”

“Shouyou flew back to Brazil last night. I’m killing time before I go back this afternoon.”

“Ahh, not looking to change teams then. Mix things up by signing for the Adlers,” Hibarida teased.

He shook his head. “Tokyo and me don’t get along. Good for a visit, or when we’re beating the pants off the opposition, but I like home.” He frowned down at his half-drunk coffee. “Is that a bad thing?”

“In what way?”

“Is that why I’m stuck? Cuz I like home so much?”

“Atsumu,” Hibarida asked, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Who has said you’re stuck?”

He shrugged. “Just wondering.”

“Look, I have to go. Early meeting and then flying to Poland with Iwaizumi.”

“Watching Wakatoshi, right?”

“Amongst others. It’s a series of exhibition matches to promote the Polish league, similar to what we’re planning next year.”

“Ah right. Sounds … uh … fun.”

“It’s different. The Polish league is interesting. Lot of strength.”

“Six Wakatoshis. That’s scary.”

He laughed. “Very! Although they have a sprinkling of finesse players, too.”

 

Atsumu arrived back in Osaka at seven. There was a long queue at Miya Onigiri, so he didn’t stop to chat, but picked up his pre-order, a pack of four beers and mooched back to his apartment.

<< Sorry>> Samu texted. <<rly busy here 2nite. Aimi off sick so cant drop round. U ok?>>

<<yeah>>

<<Shouyou get off alright>>

<<yep he’s good.>>

Probably. Their last hug had been tight, Atsumu not wanting it to end, and when they’d broken apart, both laughing in that careless way which meant nothing and everything simultaneously, he’d felt a Shouyou shaped loss immediately. And then, Shouyou with stars and the sun in his eyes had waved a last reluctant goodbye and raced to board.

He’d still be flying whereas Atsumu was sat on the floor drinking beer and flicking through the TV channels.

 

Samson Foster had left the Jackals, flying back to America to take up a post in California. He’d once told Atsumu that the problem with the Jackals were that they were ‘a team of shining cogs that needed an emollient’. Shouyou had been that emollient, and Foster-sensei had rubbed his hands with glee watching how the team had clicked.

“I wanted you boys to win the championship. And you’ve done that,” he told them at his leaving dinner. “You’ve done that in style.”

Bokuto had been heartbroken, not attempting to hide his tears. “You’re the best coach I ever had. Don’t you like it here anymore?”

“I love it, Koutarou, and you boys have made me so proud,” Samson had said fondly. “But it’s time to move on. Grab another chance while I can. California’s my home and I need to breathe that ocean air again.”

***

Three days after he returned, Atsumu finally caught up properly with Osamu, who ditched work and dropped round, bringing not just onigiri but dango and bottles of beer.

“You make these?” Atsumu said munching his way through a dango and relishing the sweetness as it stuck to the roof of his mouth.

“Aimi did. She’s back at work. Think I should add them to the menu?”

“Mmm, they’re good.”

“How’s training? Barber cracked a smile yet?”

“Meh. Same old, same old.”

He didn’t want to talk about it. Foster’s replacement was taciturn. Strong tactically, but Coach Barber had none of Foster’s warmth. And that wouldn’t have bothered Atsumu too much, except Barber was a disciplinarian wanting to impose fines for the slightest infringements, which included goofing around. (So obviously, Sakusa loved him.)  And the Shouyou-hole in the team, might not have been as gaping as when he’d first left, but Atsumu still found himself sending a ridiculous quick set into the air in the hope Shouyou or even Osamu would suddenly appear.

“If Aimi’s this good,” Atsumu murmured, “then you should hand over everything to her and come back and play.”

“Ha!” Osamu grabbed the remote and sat heavily on the futon. “You’d yell at me all the time and my ears have only just recovered from school. So, what movie are we watching?”

“Uh… d’you mind if we watch volleyball. Only I found a channel showing a tournament Ushiwaka’s playing in.”

“Sure.” Osamu frowned slightly. “Why you so interested?”

“Hibarida-sensei and Iwaizumi have gone to watch. And … uh … Tobio’s playing.”

“Huh? Has he moved to Poland?”

“Naw, his dumb Italian team have been invited and also a French team, the Chanticleers.”

“Interesting.” Osamu’s frown deepened. “Doesn’t the French setter play for them?”

“Uh … yeah.” 

“He was cool,” Osamu said, and easing back he opened up a beer. “Kinda effortless.”

“The whole damn team were…” Atsumu trailed off as the Chanticleers appeared on the screen making their way to the court. One of them—Toussaint, the setter he’d seen at the Olympics—looked dead ahead, not stopping to smile for the camera until he ruffled his hair with one hand, and turned to give a wink.

“He’s kinda hot, too,” Osamu mused.

“Should you be saying that?”

“Hey, he’s a few thousand miles away. It’s not like he can hear. However …” His eyes narrowed. “You are not to tell ‘Tarou.”

“He’s kinda arrogant,” Atsumu continued, snorting as Toussaint tossed his hair again before donning a headband. “Stupid hair.”

“Must be a setter thing,” Osamu said innocently, and laughed as he dodged Atsumu’s slap.

“So I’m cool too, right?”

“Haaa… ‘Tsumu, you’re my brother. My twin brother. My identical twin brother. But somehow the cool gene skipped you.”

 

The Chanticleers were playing a Polish Collegiate team. A not-very-good team, giving them a warm up but little else.

Do you think they’re that bad, or are the Chanticleers that good?” Osamu asked after they’d won the first set 25-10.

“Bit of both. Polish team are students, and the French team are stylish. They had four of the gold medallists in their team, and one bronze, but most of them have moved on now.”

“Really?”

“That’s the Olympics for you. It’s like a market where we’re all showing our wares. Remember that scout from Russia made an approach to me?”

“Yeah, you gave us earache going on about it,” Osamu muttered. “I’m glad you didn’t seriously consider it. Russia’s a long way.”

Mmm. There’d been a representative from Serbia, too, and one from Spain, but after the Olympics and the tumultuous year, he’d not mentioned it to ‘Samu.

“I’d have liked to play the French,” he said instead. “Wish we’d drawn them.”

“Beat them to gold?”

“Naturally,” he half-joked, then frowned as he scrutinised Toussaint taking the ball to serve. “He’s a little off his game. Maybe a pre-season thing.”

“Huh? His sets have been good.”

“Serving,” Atsumu countered. “Look, I watched the guy whenever I could, live and on video. He’s like the complete player, and he’s the main reason they won gold, but …”

“You say that about every setter,” Osamu said and feigned a yawn. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Just watch.”

Toussaint walked past the baseline, spinning the ball between his hands, then closing his eyes to breathe before he turned for his run up. It was a jump float, delicate and deceptive, landing between two players, leaving the Libero stranded on the other side of the court. Pinpoint.

“Nothing wrong with that.”

Atsumu flapped his hand. “The opposition are flattering his game. They’ll win this match, but next one will be a lot tougher.”

“You’re pulling a face.”

“It’s Ushiwaka’s team. If they don’t shape up, he’ll rip through them like a knife through paper.”

“At least it’s not Kageyama’s,” ‘Samu replied as the camera switched to another game, just as the Italian team swanned their way through their opening set, with Tobio setting up an almost lazy spike for their Ace.

“True. Gah, the Italians are so classy!”

He saw Osamu’s side-eye, heard a small clear of his throat and waited for the reply. “Classy but poncey,” ‘Samu said.

“You don’t have to humour me,” Atsumu replied, “but thanks. They are poncey, right?”

“The ponciest,” Osamu said, then winced as they showed a clip of Tobio serving hard and painting the line. “Ouch, I felt that.”

“And that’s what Toussaint usually does.”

“Maybe he’s honing his jump floats? Same as when you wanted to add a serve to your game and … it’s not like this is an important tournament.”

Atsumu shrugged. In his experience they were all important, whether they counted towards the league, or were for publicity. And maybe Samu was right and Toussaint was taking this time to polish rather than blast, but it wasn’t as if he were trying anything new.

Something’s not right.

Halfway through Tobio’s team’s game, Atsumu realised Osamu was asleep. Normally, he’d kick him on the shin, or shove a cushion in his face, but looking at him now, he noticed dark circles under his eyes and felt oddly protective. So instead of berating him, Atsumu snatched a blanket from his bedroom, and draped it across Osamu before returning to the last game of the night.

The Chanticleers were in action again, and this time the opposition were Orzel Warszawa.

“Now show ‘em what you’ve got, Ushiwaka,” Atsumu breathed.

Orzel Warszawa weren’t a team of six Ushiwakas. They were formidable, but it wasn’t purely brute strength that made them so. As Hibarida had said, they had finesse, and more than a sprinkle. The other thing that Atsumu found himself noticing was the differences between this team and the Adlers. It was, in a way, like watching Ushijima in his school days, where the team was based around him, and yet, Atsumu could see he’d not reverted to his former style of play, but adapted to the greater demands of the Polish team, and even managed to increase his fire power.

As he’d predicted, Ushijima and Warszawa ripped right through the Chanticleers’ defence in the early part of the game. The flair they’d shown previously was doused as their opposition put on a display of such power it was hard not to think of ants getting crushed underfoot.  Watching the match, Atsumu clawed his face in vicarious horror as Toussaint unleashed a serve with all the power of cotton wool.

“Oh man! That was pisspoor!”

“Whassat?”

“Go back to sleep, ‘Samu,” he soothed.

“I wasn’t—” he broke off to yawn. “Okay, so maybe I closed my eyes for a bit. What’s happening?”

“Ushiwaka’s destroying the Chanticleers. Oh … hold on. They scrambled that back.”

“Monsieur Hot about to serve,” Samu said with a grin. “Why are you hiding behind a cushion?”

“You missed his last one. Like getting punched with an onigiri. Gahhh, come on!”

“It really bothers you, doesn’t it?”

“Setter thing,” Atsumu muttered.

“Unless it’s Kageyama.”

“Naw, I don’t want him to be poor… I just want me to be better,” Atsumu declared, and feeling affronted he turned back to the screen. Toussaint was spinning the ball again, blowing out his cheeks, and then as if he could hear Atsumu, he began his run up, this time looking as if he was going to blast it.

He did.

The ball cannoned over the net, aimed at Ushijima to take him out of the play. And with no one quick enough to take over, Ushijima received the bullet serve delivered with a tiger’s ferocity, and just failed to control it, sending it spinning off court. He raised his hand to apologise to his team, but everyone else’s attention was to the other side of the net.

As the cameras caught up, Atsumu straightened, his jaw dropping open and mouth dry.

“Jeez.”

Atsumu barely heard his brother, but crawled closer to the screen, blinking in case he was mistaken… but no, Toussaint, the French Setter and winner of so many matches, their lynchpin and the classiest of conductors, was slumped on the floor gripping his shoulder.

“Fuuuuck,” Atsumu whispered.

“That looks bad.”

“Uh…” He swallowed, then reached for his phone just as Shouyou’s message came through.

<<Are you watching the match?>>

<<Yes.>>

<< It’s not you.>>

<<I know. Thanks>> He put the phone on his lap, giving him room to think, and staring at the television where the medic had appeared and Toussaint was led off the court.

“Might not be that bad? A strain?” Samu murmured.

Unable to watch, Atsumu collected the beer cans and took them to the bin. He crushed each one with his hands, feeling the dent imprint on his palm, hoping somehow the destruction would take his mind off it. But, he figured, it’d take more than a dented can to distract him.

“Think Shou-kun’s texting ya,” Osamu called out, yawning into his hand. “And the French brought someone else on.”

“Thanks,” he muttered and picked up his phone.

<<Are you alone?>>

<<’Samu’s here. I’m fine.>> He clicked send then added, <<How are things with you?>>

<<Good. Training is hard, but you know I don’t mind that. I was going to call, but I have to rush as there’s a meet n’ greet with the fans. Speak tonight, instead?>>

<<Sure. Don’t get writer’s cramp from the autographs.>> He added three kisses so Shouyou would know he wasn’t being sarcastic, waited for the kiss and heart reply, then munched his way through another dango.

“Aimi really has talent,” he started to say as he wandered back, but ‘Samu had fallen asleep again.

It had been a tough year for Onigiri Miya, not that ‘Samu would admit it, saying only that it was tough for everyone, but he’d lost experienced staff, hadn’t opened the newest concession he’d planned to and with fewer sporting events, he’d had to spread himself wider to make up the shortfall. Atsumu removed the can from his hand, tucked the blanket around him, and settled down to watch as the Chanticleers crumpled under Ushijima’s attack.

***

The pick of the university teams had signed for the Jackals at the close of last season. Hoping for a kid with springs in his heels, Atsumu had refrained from scowling when they’d welcomed another setter. An obedient one.  Nakisuna Ao had been part of the Japan squad from High School. With a different style, they could complement each other if on court together. Atsumu recognised the wisdom of having more depth in their squad and felt no strong urge to prove how much better he was.

Maybe that’s the problem.

In the past he’d had to be the best.

The thing was, in the domestic league, he now was and … and …

Oh.

 

Training a week later involved an open day with Junior Jackals, a few practise sets for the fans and then autographs and selfies. It was never a productive session, but everyone recognised it as essential for the team to integrate with the community and build the fan base. It was the sort of event Bokuto loved, Sakusa loathed, leaving Atsumu somewhere in the middle.

“What is your problem today?” Sakusa rasped.

“Huh?”

“That toss was impossible. I’m not a giant.”

“Jump,” Atsumu snapped. “It’s easy. You put some impetus into your feet and let rip.”

“Impetus? You mean propulsion.”

“Whatever.”

“I’m not Hinata.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get that. Believe me, I know!”

“Guys!” Bokuto hustled up to them. “What’s the problem? We’re being watched!”

“My toss was off, okay, but this guy refuses to adapt!” Atsumu retorted. “Why are you looking at me like that, Oomi?”

Sakusa took a step towards the bench, picking up his water bottle and taking an inordinately long slurp before replying. “You just admitted your toss was off. That’s new. Miya Atsumu admitting he’s wrong.”

“Hey, I’ll always—ah, what’s the use?” He swivelled to where Meian was looking over with Barber. “You want me?”

“Switch out with Nakisuna,” Meian said. “Need you to lead some serve practise with the juniors in a bit. Make sure you’ve stretched properly.”

“I always do,” Atsumu replied.

Afterwards he wondered why he’d surrendered his place without objecting, but at the time, he wandered off court to take on some water, and rolled his shoulders.

“We have a visitor,” Inunaki murmured. “No, don’t look.”

“Why not?” Atsumu asked, immediately turning to where Inunaki had been staring up into the stands. “Oh, what’s he doing here?”

“Shhh!”

Too late. Bokuto with his ears on elastic had caught the exchange, followed Atsumu’s gaze and immediately began bellowing.

“KUROO-HOO-HOO! WHY DIDN’T YA TELL ME YOU WERE COMING?”

“Now see what you’ve done,” sighed Inunaki. “He’ll be even more hyped.”

“Why’s that a problem? He’ll play well.”

“And I’ll be on the receiving end of his bullets,” he grumbled.

Narrowing his eyes, Atsumu tried to make out who Kuroo’s companion was, but it wasn’t anyone he recognised. Not one of Shouyou’s old friends, or anyone from the federation.

Looks foreign, he thought, but then Kuroo was always showing foreign VIPs around.

As Inunaki predicted, Bokuto became wilder for the rest of the practise match. Atsumu was almost pleased he didn’t have to deal with it. He watched on as Nakisuna faltered over one toss, sending it to another of the new players instead of the better-placed Bokuto.

“You’re wincing,” Inunaki murmured from the sidelines.

“I’d have used Bokuto.”

“He scrambled a good spike, though, and Bokkun’s still hyped up.”

“Mmm.”

“The kid never saw Bokkun’s meltdowns at Nationals,” Inunaki continued.

“Meaning?”

“Maybe you’re still influenced by them.”

He flat out denied it, but perhaps there was some truth in the words. Bokuto might not be the temperamental player he’d been at school, but Atsumu could still remember the irritation and almost rage he’d felt towards him when he’d put his setter in the awful position of not being able to use him.

“You instinctively want to keep him happy.”

“It’s the way to get points and we win the game.”

“And Sakusa? You like riling him.”

“Goes both ways. He riles me. Been the same since the first training camps.”

“The three of you know each other inside out.” He stopped speaking, dumped his bottle and ran on as Tomas swapped out with him.

Warmed and loose, Atsumu wandered over to the other court where the Juniors were lining up. They were a familiar bunch, greeting Atsumu with cheers and smiles, to which he responded with the same, then watched on as they practised.

It didn’t take long for them to persuade him to take a turn. So with a melodramatic sigh, he bounced the ball four times, and began to pace out his run up. In front of the Juniors, it didn’t matter so much that he rarely landed his first serve with the precision of an ace. They knew, as did the fans, that sometimes it could take a while to warm up. And yet, maybe it was because he was in friendly territory, that he relaxed and then let rip a serve so powerful he thought it could have torn even Ushijima’s arms off.

“YES!” he clenched his fist before pumping it in the air.

“Atsumu-san, that was awesome!” breathed one of the boys.

“Can you teach me that?” demanded another.

“Uh, I c’n give you pointers,” he replied, ruffling the boy’s hair, “but really it’s about finding what works for you and honing that. Then practising, right?”

He could tell the ones who were serious by the furious expressions and deepening intensity. There was so much potential here, but Atsumu knew potential would come to nothing without the burning need and drive to improve.

He was joined by Bokuto and Tomas, who unleashed their serves too, and agreed to so many selfies, Atsumu’s cheeks were aching by the end of the session. Massaging his mouth, he picked up a stray ball, intending to put it in the basket, but then, with a spirit of devilment, he launched one last serve, giving himself a silent fist pump when it landed in the far corner.

“Yo, Miya!”

“Hey, there.” Atsumu turned, not surprised to see Kuroo, suited and booted, along with the similarly attired man. “Don’t often see you in this neck of the woods. Tokyo getting stale?”

“Ha, no. But it’s always good watching you guys. Bokkun’s playing out of his skin again.”

“Mmm, always does.” His eyes flickered to Kuroo’s companion, who’d remained silent. Definitely not Japanese. Dark hair greying at the sides, slight tan, European, maybe?

Noticing his interest, Kuroo turned to introduce them just as his companion interrupted, holding out his hand before withdrawing it with a chuckle to bow.

“Parlez-vous Français, Monsieur Miya?”

“Huh?”

“Anglais?” the man continued. “Do you speak French or English?”

“Uh, English, yeah why?” He blinked and turned back to Kuroo, switching briefly back to Japanese. “Who’s this?”

“Pierre Allarde is my counterpart in France,” Kuroo said in English. “He also works for the Chanticleers. You’ve heard of them, right?”

“Sure. I watched your team on television last week.”

“Alas, we were not as good as we should have been. I imagine you saw Toussaint’s injury.”

“Uh … yes … How is he?”

“Requires surgery.” He blinked at him, then held out his hand again. “I’m on a scouting mission, Monsieur Miya, to find a replacement. To sound you out.”

“Uh … what?”

“How would you like to live in Paris?”

Huh?

“And play for the Chanticleers?”

 

His first thought was to call ‘Samu. His next was to call Kita-san, knowing he needed a cooler head to discuss it with. His third and final thought was that he was really hungry and needed something to eat before he could even get his head around the offer. Allarde hadn’t been kidding him. It wasn’t a put up job by the rest of the Jackals, and he didn’t think even Suna would have been able to coerce Kuroo in on a joke.

The Chanticleers—the top team in France—wanted Atsumu to be their Setter.

And everyone knew that while the Italians were classy, the Argentineans dramatic, and the Brazilians had dominance, the French had flair and were … cool.

That’s me!

But he’d not said yes straight away. He’d not snapped the guys hand off because what sort of bargaining tool was that, and Kuroo had clapped his arm around his shoulders and ended the meeting fairly early on saying Atsumu would have to have a good think about it before he agreed to anything. While Coach Barber had listened in, not, it seemed, entirely displeased.

So here he was, speeding along to Miya Onigiri to share his news. His good news, Atsumu reinforced because wasn’t this the dream? Actual International recognition and no sign of fucking wallowing!

Faltering as the shop came into sight, he tried to work out what to say because this was HUGE and he had to be sensible and talk it over properly with ‘Samu rather than just charging forwards and not paying his brother any mind.

Okay, relax, breathe, you got this. Sound him out first. Test the waters and get his reaction to a theoretical move before you land this on him. Nothing’s set in stone. It’s not a done deal. I need to be sensible.

He breathed deep before pushing open the door. Onigiri Miya was buzzing. It was often busy this time of the afternoon, with school kids coming back from clubs, or office workers nipping out for a snack before they headed home for their main meal … but this was different. He saw Aimi at the counter serving, ‘Samu, he glimpsed in the kitchen rushing through an order, but there was also someone with a camera and woman holding some kind of recording device as she spoke to a customer at one of the tables. Oh … is ‘Samu making an advert? Atsumu wondered and stepped closer.

“So,” the reporter said, leaning over the table, “you’ve landed a new sponsor, and you’re celebrating here. Do you have plans to move back to Hyogo, Suna-san?”

Suna. Huh?

Atsumu got ready to backpedal, not wanting to include Suna in his discussion right now. Maybe he’d come back in an hour, or call Kita-san and talk it over with him, but as he stepped away, Suna caught sight of him and raised his hand.

“Atsumu, you made it!”

“Say what?”

“I’m celebrating a shoe endorsement, a three year contract and Vice Captaincy of EJP. So pleased you came along!”

“That’s … uh...”

“Oh.” The reporter’s face fell. “So you’re not joining the Jackals or the Sunbirds.”

Suna shook his head. “Not my style. Besides, we’re better as rivals, right Atsumu?  Rivals in everything. I am so looking forward to beating the pants off the Jackals this season.” Especially you, his eyes said, even as he smiled at them both.

“Yo, ‘Tsumu, whatever you want, it’ll be a while,” ‘Samu said, appearing briefly from the kitchen and placing three steaming onigiri on Suna’s table. He flashed a smile at the reporter. “Tuna, especially for you.”

“C’n I have one?” Atsumu asked. “I’m really hungry and I got something to—” He stopped speaking as Osamu rushed back to the kitchen. “Dammit.”

“Of course, you were all at school together, weren’t you?” the reporter said, turning to Atsumu. “Suna was scouted, I’ve been told but you and your brother already lived here.” She fluttered her eyelashes at Suna. “You must have been exceptionally good to have been scouted.”

“That’s not for me to say,” Suna replied idly, “but Inarizaki are a powerhouse school, and only the best make the team.”

“And you were on the same team? Who made it first?”

“Me,” Atsumu said a little coldly. “With Samu. Suna was next then Ginjima Hitoshi.”

“But we all played different positions,” Suna told her.

“And you don’t feel a burning need to return, that’s sad for those of us who are fans of yours,” she said sighing.

“Aichi’s my home.”

Gahhh, laying it on with a trowel. Next he’ll talk about how hard it was being away from home and how only volleyball kept him going. With nothing to kick, Atsumu returned to the counter, watched as a not-as-cheery-as-usual Aimi packed some dango and onigiri into a box for a customer, then peered into the kitchen. “Yo, ‘Samu!”

“You’ll have to wait and we’re out of tuna, have” Osamu snapped. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“It’s not food. I have news,” Atsumu tried to reason. (In his head he was reasoning, but Aimi had flinched so maybe he’d raised his voice.) He slipped past the counter and through the beaded curtain.

” I’m kinda busy with ‘Tarou turning up. He got made vice, did you hear that? And landed a new sponsor.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

Samu stopped mid-roll of an onigiri. “And you’re jealous. Can’t bear someone else doing all right, can you?”

“Where did that come from?”

“You should be happy for him.”

“Did I say I wasn’t?”

“Your face says it all!”  He threw a cloth at Atsumu. “Make yourself useful or leave. I’m busy right now and will talk to you later when you stop being such a fucking child!”

“That’s not fair!” Atsumu yelled and balling the tea towel in his hands he threw it back at his brother. “I came here because I have news, life-changing news, not fucking media crap, and you’re the one person I wanted to talk to about it, even before Shouyou.”

“Really?” Sarcasm poured off him. “Or is it because you can’t get hold of him?”

“I could if I wanted,” Atsumu huffed and pulled out his phone, pretending to dial. “How about I try now? Hey Shouyou, I got great news, ‘Samu doesn’t want to know, so you’ll be first. So here goes.” Aware the café was silent, and there was a row of people at the counter listening in, he lowered his voice and stepped closer to Osamu. “I got scouted today.”

“Pfft. You’ll never leave the Jackals,” Osamu scoffed. “’Tarou’s right about that.”

Turning his back to his brother, Atsumu continued his pretend conversation. “Yup, that’s right. The Chanticleers. I’m going to Paris, Shou-kun. Paris, France!”

And then, pushing through the beads and past Aimi, he left.

 

Whether Osamu actually believed him, or had just snapped and decided to volley more abuse, he didn’t know and wasn’t even sure Osamu knew, but his brother stormed after him.

“DON’T WALK OUT ON ME!” he yelled, grabbing his arm.

“YOU DON’T WANT ME AROUND!” Atsumu seethed and wrenched away. But he didn’t walk off.

“YOU’VE MADE A DECISION LIKE THIS WITHOUT EVEN TALKING TO ME. OR IS THIS JUST MORE LIES CUZ YOU CAN’T BEAR SOMEONE ELSE GETTING THE LIMELIGHT!”

Osamu’s eyes were flashing, his face a strange mottled white and red as rage vied with shock. Atsumu, knowing he had his attention, lowered his voice and stared levelly. “Guy came to watch me today. Wanna talk to Kuroo Tetsurou? He’ll tell you!”

If it was supposed to placate his brother, it was the wrong move. Osamu leapt at him, grabbing him by the shoulders, and it was as if they were back in the gym again, fighting over volleyball, happiness, and who sucked the most.

“And you signed just like that?” Osamu hissed. “Didn’t talk to me. Didn’t mention it to anyone at all.”

“And that’s what’s bugging you?” Atsumu spat. “You think I don’t know my own mind!”

“This ain’t opening a new bank account, or deciding what socks to wear, ‘Tsumu. It’s moving to another country!” He released him, and the momentum sent Atsumu sprawling backwards. “Fuck you!”

The sound of a door slamming briefly diverted Atsumu from getting up straight away and lamping his brother. He’d not realised car doors had a distinctive noise, but there was a creak and them a definite slam and he knew without even checking who’d just arrived.

“Wasn’t sure I’d witness a Miya brawl again,” Kita said. He walked across offering his hand to Atsumu. “Unfortunately my captaincy days are over and I can’t report you to Kurosu-sensei.” Waiting for Atsumu to get up, he released him and then took a deliberate step between them. “Osamu-kun, I brought more rice and also a large basket of duck eggs, and Granny would like your opinion on her cherry liqueur.”

Osamu swallowed, avoiding his eyes. “Right.” His eyes bored into Atsumu’s face. “You’re in the wrong, you know that.”

“Whatever. It’s my life. Let me screw it up my own way!”

As Osamu trudged off, loaded with Kita’s goods, Atsumu brushed the dirt off his trousers.

“What exactly are you screwing up now, Atsumu?” Kita asked gently, with a small smile.

“Change of team,” Atsumu replied.

“Really?” Kita blinked at him, apparently speechless, before recovering. “Ah, so are you joining Aran at the Falcons?”

“And a change of country. ‘Samu’s not happy. Don’t want me to improve, clearly.”

“Oh … that is good news.”

“You don’t sound so sure,” Atsumu replied.

“Mild surprise, that’s all. I thought you were fixed here, despite the change in coach. Settled like the rest of us. But you have itchy feet, do you?”

“It’s a good offer and I need something, Kita-san. ‘Samu just can’t accept it.”

“Give him time, and maybe some understanding?”

“Huh?”

“The past two years haven’t been easy for him, have they? And just when things are getting back on track—”

“Um… what?”

Kita tilted his head to the side. “He’s not told you, has he? About Aimi?”

“Aimi? What about her? He’s always telling me what a great worker she is and how good it is to have her around, and her dango is good.” He thought back to her wan face when he’d pushed past her. “What’s she done?”

“Her family are moving,” Kita said. “She’s going to have to leave unless she finds somewhere to stay.”

“And he couldn’t tell me that!”

“Maybe, just maybe, your brother didn’t want to worry you,” Kita replied, and brushed some dust off Atsumu’s arm. “He knows you miss Hinata-kun and he knows things aren’t as good as they could be for you right now with the Jackals.”

“Still don’t mean he can’t discuss it with me. Am I that unapproachable?”

“Like you discussed moving abroad?” Kita raised one eyebrow, then released a chuckle. “You pair are so alike.”

Atsumu scuffed the pavement with his toe. “Identical twins are like that.”

“Not just in looks. You haven’t discussed it because you haven’t made your decision yet, have you?”

In reply, Atsumu shrugged and stared at the ground. He didn’t reply, but after Kita squeezed him on the shoulder and sighed again, saying he needed to take the rest of the goods inside, Atsumu turned to make his way home. He was still hungry so picked up some pork buns, but they were dry and unswallowable so he threw the rest in a bin and stomped onwards.

Maybe he’d call Shouyou, but the twelve hour time difference meant he’d still be in bed and sometimes … sometimes Atsumu knew he should sort things out himself.

***

It was much later, gone midnight; Atsumu was still weighing up the pros and cons and not coming to a conclusion, when there was a knock at the door. He hesitated before answering, not wanting to speak to anyone except ‘Samu (who had a key so wouldn’t be knocking) but he got off the floor and shuffled to answer.

It was ‘Samu. Atsumu scowled—their usual greeting—and he stepped to the side to let him in, only then noticing Suna was hovering.

“Don’t worry,” Suna said briskly. “I’m only here to make sure he crosses the threshold and the pair of you talk. I’ll wait in the car.” He hesitated, then gave Atsumu a smile. “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Mmm, thanks.” It was raining outside, he’d only just realised, and watching Suna as he turned his collar up, he stepped behind Osamu and called out. “Uh … come in, if you want.”

With a nod, Suna followed both of them, then tactfully sat in the far corner of the room and busied himself with flicking through ‘Volleyball Monthly’ settling on reading the interview with Hoshiumi about the coming season.

“Before you say anything—” Atsumu began as they sat on the futon.

“I’m sorry,” ‘Samu interrupted. “You’ve got the right to make your own decisions and I guess I ain’t been around for you much so it’s not like you had the opportunity to talk.” He studied his hands. “It was a shock … uh … a surprise, I guess. When d’you go?”

“I … um … don’t know. I’ve not actually signed anything yet,” Atsumu admitted, and peeping at his brother from under his fringe he was both pleased and disconcerted to see Osamu’s eyes flaring with hope.

“You’re not going?” he croaked.

“I need to think about it. The practicalities and all that shit. It’s a different country, different playing style, new team members, new language for fucks sake. Like, I’m totally out of my depth here. French? What am I thinking!”

Osamu shifted a bit closer and poked his arm. “But you want to go, right?”

At that Atsumu let out a deep sigh and settled back into a cushion. He stared up at the ceiling, mulling over the dilemma. The Jackals were his team, like family—a dysfunctional family, but still a family—and there was his actual family here in the shape of Osamu and his parents. Kita and Aran were on hand, Ginjima too when he turned up to watch. He’d miss all of that. He might even miss Suna (even if he was licking his fingers before he turned over each page making Atsumu wince).

“’Tsumu?”

“I think I need to,” he replied. “I need to be better and I don’t know how to make that happen here, right now. I …” He paused and sucked in a breath. “I’m not just stuck, I’m stagnating.”

“You’re not!” Osamu protested. “You’re the best setter in the country. You know that? Opposition teams are shit-scared every time you step up to serve. And your tosses are amazing.”

“But that’s not enough, is it?” Suna glanced up from the magazine, laying it to the side. “Sorry, I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping and I’ll butt out if you want, but it seems to me …”

They were both silent so Suna took that as permission to continue. He cleared his throat. “When I left Inarizaki, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to turn pro. I never said anything because there’s always this idea that if you question it then you clearly don’t want it enough, and I didn’t want to close off that path. In the end I didn’t want to have the regret of not trying. That and I really wanted to whoop your ass on court.”

“Ha, as if.”

“You’re saying he should go,” Osamu accused.

“I’m saying Atsumu needs to work out which option would give him fewer regrets.” He picked up the magazine again, turning back to Hoshiumi’s interview. “He hasn’t mentioned his height once—how strange.” Then he grinned and continued, “Mind you, everything’s easier with the benefit of hindsight. As far as I know, I could have been much happier being media personality.”

“You don’t have one,” Atsumu said automatically. “A personality, I mean.”

“And you,” Suna replied softly, fixing him with a gimlet stare, “like I said before are far too happy here to ever seriously consider it.”

“That’s not true!”

“You’re not happy!” Osamu exclaimed.

“Not entirely,” he admitted with a sniff. He got up and wandered to kitchen, gripping the sink with his hands.

“Hey, talk to me,” Osamu murmured behind him. “’Tarou’s not listening.”

“Remember that first game against Shouyou and Tobio. We were complacent and we lost. But it did us good, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“I need to shake things up, ‘Samu.”

“You’ve decided.”

He rubbed his nose, then turned around to face his brother. “Look, if I go, then I’ll need someone to look after this place. Wouldn’t want a lot of rent, just someone trustworthy who’ll pay the bills.”

“Huh?”

“Like … um … you, and you could rent out your place above the café or maybe Aimi, she seems trustworthy—”

“You’ve been thinking about it.” Osamu’s voice was sad, his eyes downcast and even his eyebrows seemed to droop.

“Thinking ‘bout nothing else since I met the guy.”

“What does Shouyou say?”

“He doesn’t know. I wanted to try and work it out for myself first.”

“Oh.” He appeared to take heart from that, straightening up. “And have you?”

He hadn’t, not until that exact point when he caught the flick of resignation and also support in his brother’s eyes.

“Yeah,” he said, and brought Osamu close, to hug not to wrestle with. “I want to go. I need to try, ‘Samu.”

 

~The Henhouse~

 

‘Hey, Samu
Dropping you an email because my internet here is schonky so I don’t think I can facetime, not even on phone. Yeah, I’m the scrub who didn’t listen and hasn’t sorted out a phone contract yet so roaming charges are astro-fucking-nomical.
Anyway, it’s all good here. In fact it’s great. Team are great – particularly the captain.  He’s HUGE! Like Hyakuzawa with broader shoulders. Food’s good. You’d love it. You should definitely come over and invent some snail onigiri or frogs legs or this great dish called coq au vin which is chicken in wine and really great and—‘

Atsumu stared at the email, rereading it and wondering what else he could say. Was it vague enough? Was it too vague?

I’ve used great too many times. Will they cancel each other out?

Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he willed cheerful thoughts to flow from his brain to his fingers, something he could tell ‘Samu, who’d obviously pass it on to the others.

Okay, here goes.

‘Training’s pretty different here. It’s intense but not all day, so I’ve plenty of time to do my own thing. I’m not the only new guy. The team is changing which is kind of exciting.’

Of the four guys who’d won gold, only two remained—one being Toussaint who was injured and the other a wing spiker called Lafayette. The others had departed almost as soon as they’d landed back in France. Still, maybe that was a plus point and the excitement would eventually draw them altogether.

‘And they’re not all French, either. Apart from the captain, the Libero’s Italian, there are two Spanish Outside Hitters called Perez and Garcia –one’s really smiley and the other’s got mad curly hair, but not sure which is which yet. Oh, and one of the middle blockers is an Estonian who has really cool tattoos on his arms and neck. He’s kind of scarily intense, but an amazing player. We had a practise match recently which was good.
My room is really great. I’m boarding with the manager’s sister who’s a great cook.
Anyway, I have to go. I’ll get some pics soon of me in my new team strip. I’m number 19. Red shirt with a gold cockerel on the front. Pass on my best to the guys, and tell Bokuto to stop moping.

‘Tsumu’

At least the part about the room wasn’t a lie. It was small, true, but to the right of his desk he could see the bustling street out the window, and beyond that the Seine. White walls encompassed him, for although his landlady had assured him he could hang whatever he wanted, Atsumu hadn’t made a start on making it homelike, rather liking the difference between this and his apartment back home. A literal blank canvas. With nothing out of place. Kita-san would approve, he thought.

It was the rest of his life in chaos.

He hit send, then collapsed back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. France was five hours ahead of Brazil, so he’d call Shouyou after training, and maybe get hold of him on a break.  

***

WHYYYYYYY? Atsumu slapped himself around the face. WHY AM I SUBJECTING MYSELF TO THIS?

“Hey, Sumo!” yelled Alain du Bois, Captain of the Chanticleers. “There’s a practise going on.”

“It’s Atsumu,” he replied.

“It’s a joke, lighten up,” du Bois laughed.

He made his way over, slapping Atsumu on the back and reaching for his water bottle. “You really don’t want to get snippy with the guys.”

“Snippy?” Atsumu frowned, not quite understanding the word and wondering if it was du Bois’ Canadian accent.

“Snip-snip,” du Bois replied and mimed scissors with his fingers. As he’d told ‘Samu, du Bois was a big guy, tall and broad even by volleyball standards, the sort of frame Atsumu thought more suited to ice hockey, and yet here he was the stand-in captain of the Chanticleers, with Toussaint out, and the self-appointed guardian of Atsumu, mainly because he was the friendliest but also because he spoke the best English. “You know what they called me when I first arrived?”

“Um, Alain?”

“Nope. Bieber as in Justin Bieber. I mean the guy’s not even French Canadian, but that didn’t matter.” He gave a slight wry smile. “I’d have preferred Celine Dion, to be honest.”

Refraining from asking ‘who?’ Atsumu tried to uncrease his scowl. “They know what Sumo wrestlers are, right?”

“That’s the joke.” He was still smiling, even as he leant closer, but now the grin looked more like a warning and pressure of his hand on Atsumu’s shoulder increased. “Go with the flow, Sumo, or it’ll get worse.”

Stifling not just a sigh but an urge to yell, Atsumu took one last gulp of water then jogged back to the court. “Yo, here now. Uh … thirsty.” He rubbed the back of his neck and tried his bashful smile. “What’s next?”

“Three-on-three.”

Still?

“You don’t like three-on-three?”

“It has its place,” Atsumu murmured to do Bois.

Which was back at middle school when you’re learning the game and need everything to be fun.

He joined Laronde, an opposite hitter, with short blond hair cropped in an almost military style, and a scowl to match. Better known as a pinch server, he had a mean jump float, and with his first touch blocked a ball from du Bois, slamming it down for a point. The other player on his side, one of the Spaniards, Perez, the smiley one, gave a whoop and flashed him a grin, but Laronde merely picked up the ball and skulked back to the baseline. He served, but it lacked his usual accuracy and du Bois treated it like a ball made of cotton wool, batting it to a teammate who slammed it over Atsumu’s head.

“Couldn’t get that?” Laronde muttered.

“Too distracted by your serve,” Atsumu retorted. “What was that exactly?”

Laronde scowled and starting to mutter a stream of what Atsumu assumed were insults in French. He smirked back. Maybe Laronde was like Sakusa and they’d thrive on the banter, but he was looking stone faced across the net gearing himself for the next serve.

Du Bois served, softer than his usual bullet, and Laronde received but sent it skewiff to Atsumu, who nonetheless controlled it enough and set the ball for Perez. It was a perfect toss—slightly away from the net and just high enough for Perez to jump and send to the opposite corner. He whooped again, sounding a little like Bokuto, so Atsumu grinned at him. “Nice hit!” Then he turned to Laronde. ‘Nice dig,” he tried, but there was nothing not even a nod of acknowledgment.

Maybe he’s like Kita-san, he thought watching as Laronde cleaned his hands when the set was done. Or else he’s just a rude bastard who hates me.

He could deal with that. He was a rude bastard himself, had been since school, and knew as long as they connected on court then off court didn’t matter.

Except that Laronde was popular, currently joking with the rest of the team.

And back at Inarizaki he’d always had ‘Samu, even when they were fighting.

Coach Berniére, a grizzled bear of a man in his late-fifties, gathered them all to the centre of the court. “Starting team for Saturday: du Bois, Perez, Cascarino, Garcia, Rebane, Lafayette and …” He paused, clearly for dramatic effect. “Miya.”

Even as du Bois and Perez congratulated him, there was a rumble from the French contingent, but Berniére silenced it with a glare, then approached Atsumu.

“Bien,” he said. “I want to see how you do against proper opposition. They are not a top team, but it will not be a … a …” He glanced at du Bois, murmuring something in French, and received an answer. “Walkover,” he continued. “It will not be a walkover.”

“Thank you for the chance. Um … Merci,” Atsumu replied and gave a bow, then straightened up at the sudden laugh erupting from Perez and the look of astonishment on the coach’s face.

Jeez, I’m like a fucking Middle Schooler asking him to take care of me.

There was a definite frisson in the changing room after. As far as Atsumu knew, he’d not displaced anyone by arriving here, Toussaint was out due to injury, and their reserve setter was inexperienced, which was hardly his fault, so maybe it was just that a new team was forming and they were wary of the new guy. But groups had formed, small enclaves muttering as he rummaged through his kitbag for a towel.

The shower wasn’t hot, but it was warm enough to be comfortable without wanting to stay in too long. With eyes closed, he lathered up his shampoo and let the water cascade over him, humming to himself to counterpoint the changing room chatter. As the temperature cooled, he stepped out wrapping the towel around his waist. Thinking the changing room would be half-empty, he was surprised to see the team still there, although it was noticeably quiet. And then, as he made his way back to his bag, he understood why.

It was gone. Not only was his bag no longer there but none of his clothes either.

Really? Didn’t we get past this in High School? Only Bokuto thought this gag was still funny.

“Cool, guys,” he said, turning around. “But can I have my bag back now?”

“Qu’as tu dit?”

 “Quel sac?”

“Je ne vous comprends pas, Sumo.”

“Que dit-il?”

“My bag! Uh … sac? Is that right?”

“No bag here,” Laronde replied. “You came like that.”

“Huh?”

“Dressed in that way. It is what you wear, yes?”

“A towel. You think I wear a towel in October.” He scowled at Laronde, who’d turned back to laugh with his group.

“In your country,” said one of the others, opposite hitter with a decent spike action, Atsumu thought, although his name escaped him.

“We wear towels in Japan and nothing else? That’s news to me.”

“More like diapers, eh, Sumo?” Laronde laughed.

“Ah, I get it! Very funny. I am a Sumo wrestler so I wear this all the time. Wow, the French sense of humour is soooo clever.”

Laronde flinched, so Atsumu assumed he was still glowering, and discovered he’d also stepped closer, yet even though he was the almost naked guy and surrounded by an opposition who weren’t giving him remotely friendly looks, he felt no intimidation.

I’m used to being unpopular, you fuckers.

Then he felt a hand on his arm and du Bois stepped up to his side. “Where’s the bag?”

“Dans la poubelle,” Laronde spat.

“Huh?”

“À l’interieur ou l’exterieur?” du Bois rifled.

“Inside,” Perez interrupted. “I saw them.”

“Um, what?”

“They put it in the bin,” du Bois replied, and strode to the corner, reaching inside to pull out the bag. “Check it’s all there.”

“C’est une blague! Je ne suis pas un voleur.”

“Just cool it!” du Bois yelled and held out the bag.

Hearing his phone, Atsumu snatched the bag back and delved inside. It was Shouyou, clearly having calculated the best time to call. Just a shame no one had told Laronde and the others. He answered and sat heavily on the bench ignoring them.

“Hey,” Shouyou said. “Things okay?”

“Yeah, it’s cool.” Then he snorted. He didn’t have to lie. None of the knuckleheads here understood Japanese. He could slag them all off and if he smiled and laughed they’d have no idea.

“Only I tried calling before but it rang out,” Shouyou was saying, his voice a touch strained. “Are you alright? Are you finding it tough?”

“Uh, it’s fine. Sorry, I just finished a training session, and my bag went on a walkabout.”

“Walkabout?”

“Guys played a prank. I’m wearing a towel like a sumo wrestler. Apparently that’s funny.”

“They’ll be so overawed by your muscles they’ll keep doing that,” Shouyou suggested and laughed. “My first few training sessions here, the guys used to put my kit on the top shelf and make me jump. You’re definitely all right then?”

“Oh sure. Hey, can I call you back? I’m still dripping from the shower.”

“That’s why I called, actually. We’ve got a match in Brasilia, so I’m about to get on a flight. I have to go.”

“Ah, sure. Let me know the score and make sure you win. Jump your highest.”

“I will. And, ‘Tsumu.”

“Hmm?”

“It’ll get better. New boy pranks and all that stuff.”

“No problem. I’m laughing with ‘em. OH OH and the good—”

“I gotta go. Love ya!”

“—news is I’ve been—” He was speaking to dead air. “Selected.”

Ah, well, that could wait. He looked up, saw the group of players had thinned now, some of them disconsolate as they left the gym, others still sniggering. Shoving the phone back in his bag, he finished drying himself then dressed hurriedly, wrapping a scarf around his neck as proof against the breeze outside.

“’Une blague’ means a joke,” du Bois said. “New boy tease.”

“I know. Hey, Laronde!” He got up, swung his bag over his shoulder and headed towards him.

“Don’t start anything,” du Bois warned.

Laronde hesitated by the door. “What?”

“It is called a mawashi.”

“What is?”

“It’s what sumo wrestlers wear. A mawashi, not a towel or a nappy,” he said and pushed past him out into the grey overcast Parisian sky.

“Atsumu!” du Bois called, catching up with him in the car park.

“Yup.”

“Congrats on being selected. Look, after the match, we go out for meal. As a team. Not compulsory or anything, but kind of a tradition. You up for it?”

They used to do this at MSBY; he’d not often gone along, preferring to get home rather than ruminate on the minutiae of the game with everyone. Then Shouyou had joined and he’d found himself going to every social event.

“Am I welcome?” he muttered, knowing he sounded sulky and petulant but not caring at that particular moment, particularly as Laronde and one of his other cronies was listening in.

“Serve for us like you do for Japan and you’re welcome any time,” du Bois replied.

No pressure then.

He raised his hand. “Sounds good. Uh … bien!”

“Great.”

“Hey, one thing?”

“Hmm?”

“That last serve of yours. Did you … um …” What were the words he was looking for? “It wasn’t strong.”

“Yeah, you got me. I went easy on you. Coach wanted to see how the three of you played together. Can’t do that if I’m firing aces at ya. Anyway, I have to go and pick up the youngest from pre-school. You settled in a bit now?”

“Mmm.”

“Cool.” He finger gunned him. “Marie and I’ll have to have you over some time for dinner. Our son’s crazy about anime, so I should warn you he’ll quiz you like mad. If that’s okay,” he said, sounding a touch worried. “He’s eight.”

“Um … yeah, anytime.” He waved him off, unsure if that was a polite captain’s thing he had to do, or whether the invitation was real. Whatever. He was here to play and win, not make friends.

But you said that ‘bout the Jackals, said the voice in his head which sounded annoyingly like ‘Samu’s, and look what happened there.

He meandered back from training, taking in the sights and the side streets, hoping to find some sense of … of … well, anything. It had been just over a fortnight, so not long, and though he’d not thought there’d be some familiarity and warmth for the place yet, he wasn’t finding anything to excite him either.  Shouyou had told him once about how interesting and inspiring he’d found Rio, how in the early days it had all been an adventure—precarious often—but enthralling too. But then Shouyou was a shrimp who’d dared to dream he could take on the big guys, whereas Atsumu had always been sure of his place.

On the breeze an aroma reached him, sweet in the air, making his mouth water, but right then  it wasn’t what he hungered for. He wanted rice. He wanted tuna. He wanted ‘Samu’s onigiri made with Kita-san’s first rice of the season (Damn I’m missing that!) and not cream sauces, garlic and whatever croissants were being baked that day. Wandering into a store, he ignored the image of ‘Samu rolling his eyes, and bought microwave rice, a tin of tuna and some eggs, then turning away from the scent which now seemed to mock him with its opulence, he sidestepped his way home.

Samu hadn’t replied to his email, but he’d be gearing up for his evening rush of customers. Again his mouth watered, so kind of hating himself, he fired off another email.

‘First rice of the season. I want pictures!’

 

***

It wasn’t surprising the crowd (such as it was) was unhappy. The Chanticleers, currently trailing eighteen-thirteen in the third set, were supposedly the better team, but whether it was because they were misfiring (they were) or that the opposition were playing a bunch of Olympians as ringers, Atsumu didn’t want to think about. Had he really signed for this team? Were they actually this shit?

He’d had bad games before, but usually it was a matter of warming up, and there’d be someone else covering his slack (‘Samu) but here the rest of the team seemed either truculent or lethargic, and he couldn’t seem to pull them together.

And none of this had been helped by Rebane, the Estonian Middle Blocker, taking himself off court and out of the match with stomach pains.

“Sumo,” du Bois muttered. “If you’re ever going to show us your serving skills now would be a good time.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he mumbled, and took the ball to the baseline.

The problem wasn’t just that he wasn’t warmed up, that he was a slow starter, or that this was his first game for a new team, but that the crowd were so darn noisy. They whooped and whistled, rather like a football match, and although he could put up with barracking from the opposing team, Atsumu still had that need for quiet from his section of the crowd. Just … no one had told them that. And the commentator during the game had made a big deal, even showing highlights of his Olympic matches, on the big screen to warm up the crowd. So now they expected the best, without knowing what he needed to give that to them.

Shut them out. Shut them out. Shut them out, he chuntered in his head, but the piercing whistles and cheers permeated. On the sidelines, Laronde was watching, expression unreadable, but Atsumu was pretty sure it wasn’t a pleasant book and the Coach was murmuring to the backup Setter.

Okay, I gotta do this, or I’m on the next plane back.

He bounced the ball, then started to pace out his approach.

As the commentator spoke, the crowd whipped up their voices again, and Atsumu gritted his teeth.

Shut the fu

“FERMEZ VOS BOUCHES!” yelled someone in the crowd. “SILENCONS!”

Uh … silence? Was that what was said?

Atsumu breathed again as the heckler continued uttering out loud a stream of French, which somehow caught their attention, and the home supporters in his corner suddenly hushed.

It caught on, the Chanticleer supporters setting up a ‘SHHH’ rather like a vocal Mexican Wave, which then stopped completely, even catching the opposing fans by surprise so they hushed too.

Thank you or rather Merci whoever you are, Atsumu thought, and then, with a last squeeze of the ball he began his run up.

It was not his best serve. In his top ten of best serves ever, it wouldn’t have ranked, and yet in the top ten of satisfying and thank fuck for that, it registered at least a three as the ball sailed over the net with the force of a Pumped Up Bokuto spike and careened off the opposing Libero’s arms.

“YUS!” He crouched and clenched his fist, then felt a thump on his back which had to be from du Bois, and looking across at the sidelines, even Berniére was less stony-faced.

“Otro!” Perez cried.

As Atsumu blocked out the roar of the crowd, and picked the ball up again, he strode once more to the baseline, huffing out a breath and staring at the ball to increase his focus.

Shut up shut up shut up, he began his mantra in his head, but this time there was no need. The roar from the home supporters ceased and as one they appeared to hold a collective breath.

“ACE!” yelled the commentator.

The score flicked to eighteen- fifteen and, more importantly, the Chanticleers were perking up and even the constant piss-taker that was Lafayette glanced round to give Atsumu a smile.

The ball left Atsumu’s hand, tossed high and falling just where he liked it, and as he struck, he knew.

Aaaaand that’s a third! 

Untouchable. Finally.

This was why he was here. This was why he played.

His fourth serve was bumped by the Libero, and the opposition managed to scramble a point off a clumsy blockout. He could sense their relief that he was no longer serving and with the score now at nineteen-fifteen, they clearly expected to wrap up the match.

But Atsumu’s serves had revitalised the Chanticleers and with du Bois slamming down a spike and Perez delighting the crowd with a feint from one of Atsumu’s sets, the momentum was theirs.

They took the set twenty-five to twenty with Lafayette deftly threading a spike through the opposing blockers’ arms. As he landed, he punched the air, then turned to receive the plaudits from his teammates, raising his palms in the air as if to say ‘See what I can do!’

“Good, eh?” he said to Atsumu.

“Yeah, great spike. Good … uh … direction? Through the arms. Um… clever.” Was that what he meant? He was trying to say something about the accuracy, but Lafayette appeared satisfied with that and clapped Atsumu on the back, yet said nothing about the toss. Although his English wasn’t great so it was possible he didn’t have the words.

“We’re not so shit, eh?” du Bois laughed behind him.

“Huh?”

“Your face in the first set said it all. You were wondering what the hell you’d done signing for us.”

“Pfft, no.” Then he gave a sheepish grin. “Maybe, but the style’s different, right. And we don’t … uh … match up yet.”

Placing a hand on his back, du Bois guided Atsumu to the team line up at the net, where they shook hands with the opposition.

“Someone in that crowd is clearly a fan o’ yours,” he said. “And knows you need silence rather than hyping up. You shoulda said, ‘Sumo.”

“Ah,” he felt his face flush, even under the sweat and exertion of the game. I assumed you’d know. Like have done some research?  “I thought I would try without.” He shrugged. “New country, new team, you know. What did the guy say, exactly?”

“’Fermez vos bouches’ – that’s shut your mouths, or hush.  You didn’t know him?”

Shaking his head, Atsumu scanned the crowd, but no one leapt out at him. “Did you see him?”

“Not properly. Red hair, maybe?”

He whipped his head round, studying the crowd with a ferocious intensity. Could it be?

“What’s up?”

Shaking his head, Atsumu sighed. “I know someone with red hair but it won’t be them.”

He carried the thought of Shouyou being magically transported to Paris with him to the changing room. Perhaps it was like a spirit, a phantasm, proof that the connection they had wasn’t just on court.  

Changing room banter wasn’t like it was at the Jackals. For one thing there was no Bokuto howling the Jackal cry when they won and not letting up until everyone had joined in. Not that Atsumu expected a Bokuto, but it was kinda subdued—as if they’d lost—when he wandered in. He’d glanced around the stadium for a few more minutes after the match, signed some autographs and shaken hands with one or two fans, then apologised for not understanding the stream of French which greeted him. “Pardon, Je ne dit pas Français, but … uh … merci!” he’d said, hoping that was comprehensible. They’d seemed to understand and shaken his hand harder, one grinning widely, then placing a finger to his lips.

“Shhhh,” he’d mimed, then laughed louder.

The Chanticleers, it seemed to Atsumu, were more fractured than the Jackals and far more than Inarizaki had ever been. Bokuto and Hinata had been the glue that held the Jackals together, and at Inarizaki he guessed the cohesiveness had been a mixture of Kita-san’s moulding and the fact that everyone disliked him which gave them a common cause. But here, there were distinct groups comprising of the French players, then the two Spaniards joking together, leaving du Bois and Cascarino on the outside. He half wondered if Rebane would have been another outsider, and whether he minded.

“There you are,” du Bois greeted him. “Meeting the fans?”

“Um, yeah. Wondered if the red haired guy was there.”

“Shhhhhhh.”

“Huh?”

“Shhhhumo,” breathed the French contingent as a man.

He tried not to scowl not sure if this was another ‘joke’, but nodded to Lafayette who appeared to be smiling.  “Want to say something?”

“Shhhhuuuumo!” Laronde repeated. “You like silence, yes? I’m sure the opposing fans will oblige. Anything else we should know?”

“François!” du Bois warned. “Keep a lid on it.”

“It’s fine,” Atsumu replied. He licked his lips, thinking if they needed to clear the air, now was as good a time as any. “I like silence, but I am not dumb enough to think I’ll get it from everyone. Be nice from my teammates and fans though.”

There was a muffled snort emanating from the French group.

“My advice to you is to grow out of needing it,” Laronde continued, arching an eyebrow. “You’ll be eaten alive because you’re predictable.”

“Huh?”

“Easy to read,” Laronde clarified, leaning forward until his face was close to Atsumu’s. “At least in this league where we have some intelligence.”

“Really?” Atsumu shrugged off du Bois’ hand, and didn’t move back. “You bounce the ball three times before a jump float and five if you’re going for a spike serve,” he countered. “If I’ve worked that out, then I am sure everyone else has.”

“Any more observations, Shuumo, after your five minutes with us?” Lafayette said, throwing his arm across Laronde’s shoulders.

“If you want.”

“Hey, let’s leave the post-mortem for training,” du Bois tried to interject. “This is not the place.”  

“No, I want to hear what this expert from Japan—Japan of all places—can teach us,” Lafayette said, and now his English sounded polished and Atsumu knew he understood every word.

“Alright,” he retorted. “You have this way of jumping which is … um … you waste energy. Not efficient, that’s what I mean. You can jump higher.”

“They’re so short over there, jumping’s all they know,” Laronde laughed.

“Uh … what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You might love the game over there, but your national team is shit,” Laronde continued. “And you think you can lecture us. We won gold, you know?”

“You didn’t. You weren’t there,” Atsumu sniped.

“Hey, ease up.”

Interessant! Let me finish,” Laronde murmured, eyes glittering dangerously. “I wasn’t there, because France has depth.  You’re so hard up, you have a couple of short arses not just the squad but in the actual team.”

“We have a squad that tries. That works their asses off week after week,” Atsumu spat. “You could learn from them!”

Laronde would not be deflected. “The red-head even started! Seriously? I mean, sure, Ushijima and Yaku are world class, and so is Kageyama. He really is one hell of a setter—”

Oh, don’t go there.

“When Allarde told us he’d signed a setter from Japan, we prayed it was him.”

Fuck you.

“But the rest of you?” Laronde continued. “Mediocre. You qualified because you were the host country—that is all.”

“Leave it!” du Bois ordered. “Laronde, back off!”

“Perdóneme,” Perez called from across the way. “Until the final Atsumu had the best serve record of the tournament.” He gave him a grin. “I checked you out a few times when Spain didn’t have a match.”

“Thank you… uh … gracias.” He gave him a small bow, and stepped back. Du Bois released his hold on Atsumu clearly thinking the dispute was done, but just as he did, Atsumu reached out and plucked Laronde’s shirt sleeve.

“That short-arse red head you are insulting is called Hinata Shouyou and he plays for Asas São Paulo. Heard of them?” Then he turned away, storming back to his bag, and pulling off his shirt before throwing it in the laundry basket.

He dressed quickly without showering then despite du Bois and Perez calling him back, he left for home. Or the place he currently slept in, not sure it would ever be home. His throat hurt and he swallowed down what felt like a well of sadness, then angrily dashed away a rebellious tear from his eye.

What the fuck am I crying for? I’m Miya Atsumu, I can handle a fucking twatty Pinch Server.

He was tired. He was hungry, and what he wanted right now was nothing more than to sit at ‘Samu’s counter and moan while he waited for an onigiri. And if Shouyou were at his side, then even better. His stomach protested as he reached his street and it was only when he reached his lodgings that he remembered he was supposed to be at the team meal.

Madame threw her hands in the air not as not expecting him back right after the match she assumed he was ill. After assuring her he was fine, she then began to squawk about how she wasn’t sure she had enough cassoulet for him as she had a friend coming over and …

Aww, nooo, she’s entertaining a man. Ewww, I do not want to be here.

He hoped he didn’t cringe. “You did not think I’d be here? Madame, it’s Saturday and about time I saw Paris at night, so I’ll leave you to your evening in.”

“You ‘ave someone to show you around?” she asked.

“Ahh, don’t worry about me,” he said, beaming wider. “I will shower and go.”

He left just after seven, stomach rumbling, but at least he was freshly showered and with clean clothes and a scarf wrapped around his neck, he felt prepared to take on the late October wind rattling at his window.

‘Samu would be asleep, and Shouyou maybe in the middle of a match. He’d email one and call the other soon, but for now, he was going to stroll, take in the sights, find some food and glory in the fact that he’d won his first game for the Chanticleers.

It didn’t necessarily follow that it was a hollow victory because he was alone and pacing the streets. It wasn’t that he needed their applause (Definitely not. I ain’t Bokuto!) but some acknowledgement would have been nice. Even during his most petulant teen years, when he’d been a brat, his teammates had always been grateful.

Even Suna.

Yeah, he’d been grudging about it, but he’d at least known Atsumu’s importance to the team. And it worked in reverse. Once a player had earned Atsumu’s respect and attention, he’d devoted his play time into sending the best tosses their way.

Even Sakusa.

Especially Sakusa because he so wanted him to admit how great his sets were.

The thought of Sakusa refusing to pay even lip service when he sent the sweetest of tosses his way made him smile. It used to infuriate him, but then he’d realised Sakusa was of the same mindset: they were performing to their best because that was what was expected.

He ground his teeth thinking of Laronde, and even Lafayette, not just because of the clique they were forming against him, but the complacency, the settling for what they could do rather than improve, got his goat.

His phone rang. He answered without thinking, but then he knew it wasn’t ‘Samu or any of the guys. “Hey, Alain.”

“I take it you’re not coming to have food with us,” du Bois said, and for du Bois he sounded irritated.

“Um, sorry, I did forget until I got home. Got a bit too … uh … annoyed. Best I don’t.”

“Things are sorted out over beers and food, Atsumu,” du Bois replied. “You don’t have to drink.”

“You did say it was optional.”

“Not when we have a team to build. I woulda liked you to be there.”

“Look.” He paused to frame his thoughts, his fury, into tempered English words. “It will be better without me there. They can … um … bond.”

“Running away isn’t the way to find commonality!”

“Uh… what?”

“Things in common. Similarities. Let the guys ask you stuff. And stop being so fucking defensive!” Then he sighed. “Okay, it’s too late now. Take some time out to reflect and back to training on Monday. Where are you, by the way? I can hear traffic.”

“Walking. About to get food. I have to go. Bye!”  He clicked off and wandered across to the side of the road to stare across at the Seine. There were boats sailing up and down, some merchant ships he guessed, whereas others were pleasure cruises, partygoers having fun.

He took a lungful of air, resolutely turning away in search of food and shelter. The wind had picked up, whistling through the main streets as if they were a wind tunnel, so he ducked down a side street, tightened his scarf and made a mental note to buy a thicker jacket. Paris by night, with its lights, sights and bustle was kinda beautiful, but it was also cold, made worse because he was still in search of food, the hunger pangs gnawing at his stomach and leaving him almost lightheaded. And although earlier he’d craved rice, dreaming of his brother’s onigiri, it was now something else tantalising his taste buds, an aroma reaching him which was as unlike anything he smelt in ‘Samu’s place or on the street corners of Osaka, but it was leading him onwards, enticing him down another street. He quickened his pace, mouth watering as the richness reached his nose.

Oh …

A familiar scent. And what astounded him was that it was familiar to France and not one from Japan haunting him. He crept along the cobbled pavement, almost too scared to approach in case it whipped away from him, until finally after taking pigeon steps he found the place and celebrated by inhaling deeply.

Sweet.

Warm.

Ahhhhh, chocolate.

And then a figure appeared, stepping out of the shop. Wearing the sort of hat chefs wore (a toque he later discovered) and a striped apron, Atsumu was about to apologise for almost bumping into him, when the lamplight fully illuminated the shop owner.

“Oh ...” He peered closer, wondering if his eyes and the gloom were deceiving him. But why would he imagine him of all people? And why would he imagine him looking like this, with close cropped hair instead of spikes and a row of studs pierced into his ear.

“Tendou? Tendou Satori?”

He smirked. “Miya-Miya Atsumu, I wondered when you’d find your way here.”

 

~The Chocolatier~

“Why are you here?”

“Hmm? It’s my shop. Why wouldn’t I be here?”

“I mean in Paris.” He blinked, taking a step back and surveyed the shop, taking in the rows of chocolates in the windows and the brightly coloured, cheerful boxes stacked to make a display. “Your shop?”

He nodded, then squinted at Atsumu. “I’m a chocolatier. Didn’t you know?”

“Uh, why would I?”

“Dammit, that wounds me. I thought everyone knew by now, but I guess my great internet fame hasn’t reached everybody. And you don’t have a lot of internet down Osaka way, do ya? Still listening to the ‘wireless’ I bet.”

“Hey!”

Tendou grinned, his eyebrows lifting high towards his hair line. “Kidding. Look, as delightful as this is catching up on a Parisian shop front when the weather’s as gorgeous as it is, would you like to come inside and stop shivering? I can get you a coffee or something. Might warm you up.”

“Um … yeah … thanks.”

“Cool.” He gestured towards the door, hanging back to let Atsumu in first.

The shop was small, with starry lighting and the aroma not just of chocolate but something floral as well as coffee hitting his nose. Tendou offered him an armchair in the corner, with a small table in front of him and a bookshelf above his head. There was a fluffy rug on the floor, setting a snug and cosy ambience, a place to reflect. Tendou placed a tray on the table, pushing a plunger down on a cafetière and nudging a small jug of cream towards Atsumu’s hand.

“I drink it black so take as much as you want.”

“How long have you been living here then?” Atsumu asked, his eyes flicking from small pumpkin shaped sweets to larger white chocolate skeletons.

“Opened the shop November twenty-twenty. Been in France and Paris near enough since I left school. I trained here,” he explained. “You sound surprised.”

“I thought you might turn pro,” Atsumu admitted. “Was disappointed not to come up against you again.”

“I am a pro. Just not volleyball. It was never my plan. Volleyball was fun, but chocolate is my passion. Whereas you’re like Wakatoshi, a single volleyball braincell. I’m guessing you never considered anything else.”

Shaking his head, Atsumu took a sip of the coffee before replying. It was good coffee, strong and full of flavour. “Parents wanted me to go to college or learn a trade. Keep my options open, but I’m not school smart, so it would have been a waste and why would I want to do something else?”

“True, I guess.”

“Is this place a café, too?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. This is just an area for people to wait for their orders. Most things are boxed up and ready to go, but sometimes I’ll get a commission which requires more attention and a space to talk things through. You like it?”

“Yeah, it’s kinda unexpected though.”

“In what way?”

“Uh, like, don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s not very … um … French, but you’ve not made it Japanese either.”

“Ha!  No offence taken. I don’t dare try and pull off an authentic French look. And Japanese just felt a bit too clichéd ‘cause that’s what they expect.” He put his coffee cup on the table. “I’m a novelty, or rather I was. Everyone here expects me to act whacky like a manga character, you know. I may have played up to that in the beginning, so I’m kinda known as eccentric. But gimmicks don’t work long term. Tell me, what does this place remind you of?”

“Um…” He took another look, noting the bright boxes again, the dimmed, yet colourful lights, ebony dark floorboards, gleaming countertops and displays inviting him to look closer. “All that’s missing is a fireplace and I’d think I was in a magic shop!”

“Ha! You’ve got it. Well done. Yeah, that’s the aura I want, but sadly the roaring fire is a no-no because melted chocolate isn’t the look I’m after.”

Atsumu asked more questions, remembering phrases like ‘footfall’ and ‘customer base’ from ‘Samu’s experience, all the while taking tiny sips of the excellent coffee. When he’d finished, he reluctantly set his cup back down on its saucer, preparing himself for Tendou to usher him out the door, but to his surprise, his host seemed oblivious to whatever sensibilities Atsumu had about overstaying his welcome.

“Do you have a lot of staff working for you?”

“Two floor staff. One in the kitchen. And temporary packers towards Christmas and Easter – they’re both huge celebrations in Europe.” He massaged his ear. “Miya-kun, I’m not sure why you’re asking me all these questions. I mean, it’s a delight talking about myself and in Japanese for a change, but … why are you here?”

“Call me Atsumu,” he muttered. “I play for the Chanticleers.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He flapped his hand. “I know that. I mean, why are you in here quizzing me about my business when it’s a Saturday night in Paris?”

“Oh… well, I didn’t know you were here, but my landlady is entertaining some guy and I was s’posed to be out, but I’m not, and … uh … yeah.”

“Some chick stand you up? Wow, rude!”

“Nope. I … um … should be out with the team, but changed my mind.”

“Ohhhh. You won, though.”

“Yeah.”

“So why wouldn’t you go. Like after a loss, I get that, but you won, and you were great—especially that third set and why wouldn’t you want to cele—”

“IT WAS YOU!”

“Huh? What was me?”

“In the crowd telling everyone to shut up. Firmay vo boushe, or whatever.”

“Haaa!  OOOH, you heard that! Shucks, it was nothing.”

“It was—” Everything. “It was helpful.”

“Youda been fine without, but I like getting involved and hyping up the crowd. Only sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”

The door jangled, a set of bells over the frame sending the signal, and a couple of customers walked in.

“Order to pick up,” Tendou explained. “No, don’t get up. Help yourself to more coffee, if you want, and … uh …” He reached up to a shelf, bringing down a small, beribboned box. “Have a truffle or three.”

He backed away then bounded towards the customers, switching from Japanese to French with an alacrity Atsumu didn’t think possible. And the customers, who looked so typically Parisian, with their smart but understated clothes, elegant coiffeurs and suave demeanours, responded to Tendou’s brand of customer service with small, stiff smiles before giving way to wide grins and laughter.

And suddenly, Atsumu was reminded of Shouyou, how he defied expectations when he came to the Jackals and scrapped his way into the first team, but also, and possibly more importantly, how he became the glue holding them together.

But now what he needed wasn’t another Shouyou on a team, but a way of holding himself together.

Jeez, why am I here?

As Tendou continued to serve, packing up more boxes, and gesticulating wildly to other samples on tiny dark red dishes, Atsumu heard his phone beep.

<<Hey, got your phone contract sorted yet?>> ‘Samu had texted.

<<Jeez, it’s like three in the morning, what’s up?>>

<<Simple question,>> came the reply. <<Have you got your phone contract sorted out yet?>>

<<No. Soon though>>

<<THEN HOW COME YOU CAN TALK TO SHOU-CHAN ON THE PHONE BUT NOT YOUR OWN BROTHER!>>

Fuuuuuuck. He swallowed down, no amount of lying would get him out of this, and of course ‘Samu knew there was something wrong.

“Hey, you look like you’ve seen a real ghost and not one of my chocolate ones,” Tendou said, making his way over after ushering his customers out the door. “Wow, I need a picture of your face – perfect shade of white chocolate there!”

“My brother,” Atsumu mumbled.

“Oh shit. Bad news?”

“He wants to know why I haven’t called.”

“Wow. I’d heard twins were close but … um … you have to check in with him?”

“Not exactly. I’ve not called. Since I’ve been here, I mean.”

“Oh … I take it there’s a reason?”

“Needed some time. Still do.”

“Ohh-kay,” Tendou replied and whistled through his teeth. “You need to reply to him, though. If he’s texting at this time, he’s not gonna let it slide.”

“True.” He returned to his phone, almost too scared to touch it in case the heat of ‘Samu’s anger scorched him.

<<If I type, ‘no reception’ will you believe me?>> Atsumu tried, cringing before he hit send.

<<SERIously scrub, wtf is wrong that you can’t call me? Have I pissed you off that much!???>>

“Yikes,” Tendou said, peering over his shoulder. “He maaaaad at you!”

“Yeah, he’s playing the guilt card now. Ughh, ‘Samu!”

“He’s got a point though.”

“I know.” He sighed and returned to the fray.

<<No. Look it’s cool. I will call you very soon, but not now. I’m out>>

<<Where?>>

Grinning, Atsumu lifted his phone. “You don’t mind a selfie, do you? It’ll distract him.”

“Sure, lemme sort out my hat,” Tendou replied, and pulled it a little more rakishly over one eye. Then he strolled back to Atsumu, draped his arm over his shoulder and winked at the camera.

Atsumu clicked, then hit send.

<<OH MY FUCKING GOD!  THAT’S THE GUESS MONSTER!”>>

<<Yep. Now, look, go to sleep and I will call you later. I promise and I’ll tell you everything.>>

<<SLEEP! HOW CAN I SLEEP!>>

<<Count onigiri>>

<<You’ll defo call me, right?>>

<<Promise. Twin pinkie swears.>> He’d invoked the childhood promise, no going back now.

“Will he be satisfied with that?” Tendou asked, when they’d both sat back down again.

“Yeah, think so. I need to call him tomorrow. Can’t put it off any longer.”

“Interesting …” Tendou stared intensely, then waggled his eyebrows. “Tell me everything.”

And maybe it was the fact he was now meeting the first person in Paris who could speak Japanese. Perhaps it was the warmth of the coffee and the sweetness of the truffles perking him up, but Atsumu decided that unburdening was the exact right thing to do now.

Even if it was to Tendou Satori.

YOU HATED HIM IN HIGH SCHOOL! screeched a choir of Inarizaki voices in his head.

Hey, I hated everyone in High School, he scolded them. Perhaps I’m a little bit more mature now.

Maybe he should swerve a little.

He took a breath. “Things aren’t going great and I didn’t want to worry him, that’s all.”

Tendou snorted and blocked with a smirk. “You won today. What’s not great about that?”

“He’ll know,” Atsumu mumbled.

“Know what?  Come on, I’m intrigued now.”

He had that look, the one Atsumu remembered so well from their matches, and the other times he’d watched Shiratorizawa. He’d always found Tendou exhausting to play against—not just his prescience, but his ability to snatch points from nowhere. And there’d always been a look, a code to what he was about to do next, one Atsumu had once been on the verge of cracking before they’d come up against Karasuno instead and he’d never seen Tendou again.

He crumpled.

“It’s like this. If I call him, then he’ll know just how shit things are here and there’ll be this whole shed full of ‘I told you so’s’ and all that crap.”

“He’d do that?”

“Um…” He chewed at a hangnail, then stopped in case it messed up his thumb. “Probably. Like I would.”

“Ooooh, mean twins. Both of you evil. I like that.” Tendou chuckled and then he reached for a chocolate, threw it in the air and caught it in his mouth. “Um, but has it really been that bad since you got here?”

Wiping his face with his hand, Atsumu nodded slowly. “I wanted to get back on the plane after the first meet ‘n greet, but I was too stubborn.”

Tendou nudged the truffles across the table and poured more coffee, then sat back in his armchair, not saying a word as he waited. And Atsumu, wise to most traps, unfurled, mainly because it was a relief to get it out and not let it fester inside of him any longer. He started from his arrival, something he’d not even told Shouyou about.

 

The car picking him up had been fine, but there’d been no one from the club, just the driver who spoke very little English and certainly no Japanese. The explanation, given later, was that there’d been a practise match. Atsumu, tired from the flight, hadn’t minded much and had been grateful to be dropped off at his lodgings. His landlady was fine. Jolly and full of effusive welcomes, it was rather like going back to his Granny’s. So he’d sat in her kitchen, sipping tea and eating her cake (a bit dry but palatable) before taking her advice to go for a lie down as he looked ‘très fatigue … fatigued … tired.’ After showering, he collapsed on his bed in a bathrobe and had been trying to sleep, when a flurry of footsteps and a rapping at his door announced the arrival of the assistant coach apologising profusely for not arriving at the airport in time (The match ran on, was the explanation.) then issuing him with an invitation to attend a team function given in his honour.

It had been a clear instruction, couched in velvet words, no thought given to his jet lag, and he guessed he could have made an excuse, but it was better to plough on, he decided, so he agreed, then hurriedly changed into whatever clothes he could find that weren’t too crumpled from his suitcase.

 

“Ouch, you were caught on the hop.”

“Yeah, my flight had been delayed, so they’d planned it thinking I’d have had a few hours to get accustomed to the place.”

“So … not all their fault…” Tendou trailed off, maybe thinking he’d said too much and interrupted the flow. Atsumu, considering that day, coughed before he continued.

“Uh, no, course not, but then I got to this reception and—”

They’d all been there, a bit miserable after losing a practise match (he’d later found out it was to a rival team in a lower league) yet du Bois kicked off the introductions, striding forwards with a beaming smile and holding out his hand, which he whipped away to give a self-conscious but low bow.

“Miya-san!” he said, voice loud and booming

Say what?

“MIYA-SAN!” the rest of the team greeted and also bowed, some stiffly (Rebane) others with a flourish (Perez) and the French contingent smirking.  He’d bowed back.

‘Uh, Atsumu, please,” he replied.

“But your shirt, it says Miya. That is your name.”

“Um, yeah, but call me Atsumu.”

“I thought that was impolite,” Coach Berniére stepped up, glasses slipping down his nose. “We were told that was impolite.”

“I don’t mind. Or ‘Tsumu, if that’s easier,”

“Sumo?” Berniére queried. “Are they not the wrestlers? You do not look like a wrestler, Miya … I mean, Sumo.”

“Atsumu,” he corrected, but his voice was faint as the team began to murmur Sumo, reaching a crescendo and laughs.

And then there’d been the cake. In the shape of Hello Kitty. And Perez, approaching with a drink asked him about Ghibli films. Laronde began a conversation about Jackie Chan, asking if ‘Sumo knew him’.

“He’s from Hong Kong.”

Champagne had been opened, and the questions changed to ones about anime and sushi of all things. Questions fired at him in English in varying accents, which still suffering from the flight he struggled to process. Knocking back his drink, the bubbles shot up his nose causing him to splutter, and du Bois thumped him on the back while the room filled with laughter.

“You are not used to alcohol?” Berniére had asked gravely, removing his glass and replacing it with an orange juice. “I am sorry. We did not think. I have heard of this. Alcohol affects you badly, yes?”

“Uh … no, not really,” he’d tried to explain, but Berniére had chattered away in French and all he could hear was a chorus of ‘ahhhh’.

“You don’t drink?” du Bois asked. “That’s fine. No one’s going to make you!”

“I like beer,” he tried to explain, but du Bois was pumping him again for information.

”So, my kid is really excited you’ve signed for us.”

“He knows who I am?”

“Uh… not exactly. He loves anime and all the martial arts stuff,” du Bois continued. “Can’t get him into volleyball at all. That’s Daddy’s thing.”

And it had gone on. Atsumu politely sipping orange juice now as the conversation raged around him. Trying to keep up, or at least steer the conversation to something he had more interest in, he’d asked Rebane about volleyball in Estonia, and if he thought the National team would qualify for Worlds, but the Middle Blocker had started to answer in his fractured English, then accepted a beer from Lafayette and started a conversation with him in French.

 

“So there you go,” Atsumu finished. “Manager made a mistake with my name, and I’m now Sumo. They think it’s funny.”

“Jeez, if they knew what those guys earned and the crowds they pull in,” Tendou whispered.

“Exactly, but it’s all a joke to them. They also find it fricking hilarious that I don’t drink, even though I do.”

“Then what?”

“Huh?”

“What else happened? What made you want to get on the first plane back?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“Really?”

“Okay, okay!” he snapped. “I felt out of it and awkward and I ain’t felt like that since I was twelve and found out no one liked me, and even that wasn’t as bad because I didn’t like them much either, useless scrubs. But I left the gym, saying I had a headache, and—”

“Did you thank them?”

“Yeah, course.”

Had he? It was a blur except for the bowing and the names and the damn champagne bubbles choking up his nose and the insistence later he was called Sumo and wearing a nappy and—

“I can’t speak to ‘Samu, ‘cause he’ll know I’m miserable,” he said baldly.

Tendou scratched his head. “So, you’re pissed at the team for bowing, and getting your name wrong, and thinking you don’t like alcohol?”

Put like that …

“You think I overreacted, even though they rolled out every single cliché about Japan in one welcome mat?”

“I think it was a clumsy attempt to welcome you based on what they knew about Japan. And I don’t get why you hated them calling you Miya. Like, it’s your name and it’s on your shirt.”

“I’m not Miya,” Atsumu said.

“Who the heck are you?” Tendou peered closer, screwing up his face into both a squint and a snarl. “OH MY GOD, IT’S OIKAWA TOORU!”

“NO!” He groaned. “You’ll think it’s dumb.”

“Well, derr, yeah. So you have to tell me now, so I can laugh. What’s wrong with them calling you Miya?”

“I’m Atsumu. My brother’s Osamu. We’ve never been ‘Miya’ to people. Except on court, and even then that was only on the shirts.”

“You do know he’s not here. He won’t hear them. Probably won’t even mind.”

“I do,” Atsumu mumbled. “And it’s stupid, I know that. But things have got worse from then on, ‘cause every time I tried to explain, one twat started the Sumo crap and then they all joined in, and I’m expected to take it.”

“Breathe,” Tendou whispered. “Wow, I could rake it in as a therapist.”

“Today we won and there was a meal planned for afterwards—win or lose—and I don’t usually like that sorta thing, but I’d agreed to go. Like, I get on okay with the Captain and the two Spanish guys. At least I did, but there was another argument and I walked.”

“From the team?” Tendou yelped.

“Noooo, just for the meal. Thought I should put some space between us. Kita-san used to say that ‘bout me and ‘Samu, and also me and the team ‘you need space, Atsumu-kun’ and I thought I’d got past that, you know. Thought I’d stopped being that guy.”

“You never had fights at MSBY? Or on the national team?”

“Uh …”

Yeah, he had, especially close season when things always got tense. Bokuto would get even more hyper and Sakusa—who pretended not to suffer under pressure—would become surlier, snapping out the bluntest of replies.

“It was different.”

“Why?”

“Squalls, that’s all. They blew over. And, I don’t know, maybe it was easier because I wasn’t having to be angry in English.”

At that Tendou laughed. “You need to learn some French swear words. They roll off the tongue beautifully. Anyway, look, I get it. I understand why you’re pissed and you’re bound to feel unsettled. Jeez, I know what I was like when I first moved here.” He shook his head. “Ay yi yi, another time.”

Was that a cue to leave? Deciding he must have outstayed his welcome, Atsumu got to his feet.

“You can stay if you want. I’ll be closing soon,” Tendou said, smothering a yawn.

“Um.” He considered his options, just as his stomach made the decision for him. “Actually, I’m really hungry, so I’ll find something and take it back to—” Except Madame would be entertaining. Meh, I’ll find a diner.

“Split a pizza? I’ve got one in the freezer,” Tendou suggested. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. I’ve been on my feet all day, and sometimes I need to slob with nothing fancy. We can eat out the back.”

“You mean it?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“You don’t want me out of here after I’ve spent all my time moaning?”

“Nah, it’s like being back at school. All the drama!” He laughed. “Miya Atsumu, will you do me the honour of sharing my crappy, highly non-gourmet frozen pizza?”

He agreed, feeling lighter, as if the spontaneity had lifted him into the air. Selecting another truffle, he bit into it, then smiled at Tendou, a beam of pure pleasure. “You make the best chocolate, Tendou-san.”

“I know.”

***

There was no training the following day, but mindful of Tendou’s faint admonishment, Atsumu spoke to du Bois again and apologised for not making the meal. Then he messaged Berniére in French, explaining he was using a translation tool in case the message came off weird.

<<It is fine, Atsumu,>> Berniére messaged back. “We will see you on Monday.>>

Atsumu? Okay, that’s new.

Heartened, he turned to his most important task of the day, which was face-timing Osamu.

“Hey, Scrub,” he meant to say, but the words stuck in his throat as soon as Osamu’s face unblurred on the screen and he could see him at the back of his kitchen with a glass of water and munching an onigiri.

“’Tsu—” Osamu dashed at something in his eyes, took a gulp and then spluttered it out all over his phone. “Now look what you’ve made me do. Damn Ninja sneaking up on me!”

“Bwahahahahha, how can I be related to someone as fricking ungainly as you?”

The tension dissolved. In a matter of seconds, Atsumu could speak again, and Osamu got back to berating him. Asking all the right questions about Miya Onigiri, and pleased to hear Aimi had stayed, Atsumu watched as Osamu relaxed, his eyes less reproachful and wary.

“She’s watering all your plants.”

“I don’t have any.”

“Uh, then she’s watering whatever you left growing in your fridge, scrub,” Osamu laughed, and then he pulled his face straight and lowered his voice a touch. “Seriously, that was a good thing you did. She’ll be a great tenant for you, and she loves your place.” Sighing he munched into onigiri. “Almost wish I coulda moved in. ‘Tarou would have liked it too.”

“And that’s exactly why I’m ecstatic Aimi-chan’s there instead.” He opened a bottle of mineral water, taking a glug. “How is he, anyway?”

“Uh, busy. EJP started out well, you see that?”

“Yeah, he played great from what I could see.” He didn’t even say that grudgingly. “We won, yesterday.”

“I saw! At least, I saw the result, but not caught the match yet. How was your serving? How long did it take you to warm up?”

“OHHH GAHHHD TOO LONG! Third set, then I whipped ‘em out, but that was down to some help in the crowd.”

“What help?”

“Getting ‘em to shut up. Jeez, I thought I was past all of that.”

“This help in the crowd…” He stared at Atsumu, a faintly quizzical look in his eyes.

And he was going to tease a little longer, but there was a yell in the kitchen, and he knew he wouldn’t have Osamu’s undivided attention for much longer.

“Yeah, it was Tendou Satori of all people. Hey, do you know what he does now?”

Osamu nodded—several times. “Chocolatier. I KNOW! His YouTube videos are amazing. He’s a genius with confectionary. I can’t believe you’ve actually met him.”

“He’s that famous?”

“Well, derr, yeah. He was in a documentary. You musta seen it. Ushiwaka was in it too.”

“Um, no, missed that. Anyway, I had pizza with him last night, and ate loads of truffles. My diet is going to rack and ruin over here, ‘Samu. My mouth’s watering at the onigiri.”

“Make it yourself.”

“Naw, you got the cooking genes in the family. Falls to bits in my hands.”

“You’ve got time now, though. Pretend it’s like perfecting a serve.”

Hmm, maybe.

“And then when you’re half as good as me, you can open the Paris branch of Onigiri Miya.”

“Haaaa, no. I’ll stick with volleyball.”

“Will you?”

“Huh?”

Osamu’s eyes bored through the screen. “It’s been hard right?”

“Who have you been talking to?”

“No one. I guessed. Twin Telepathy or whatever. Look …” Osamu stood up and wandered right out to the back where the stores were kept. It was darker, and his face was in shade, but his eyes were bright enough as he stared at his brother. “’Tsumu, if you hate it there, then come back. No one’s going to think any less of you. Or laugh.”

“Rintarou would.”

“Yeah, well, maybe for a minute, but I’d sort him out. I could deny him—” He broke off to grin lasciviously.

“NO NO NO, I don’t want to hear that!” He took a deep breath, feeling his lungs fill before he whistled out a breath, and the knots in his shoulders untied a little. “Thanks, though. It means a lot. And, yeah, it’s been really hard. Half the team hate me, but.” He smiled ruefully. “Better than the whole team in school, right.”

“Don’t joke. For one thing you never cared about that sort of stuff, and for the most part you deserved it, but if it’s affecting you now and you’re unhappy, you won’t play well.”

“I’m … Look, I won’t deny I’ve been fucking miserable, but we won yesterday, my serving got into a groove and now I need to keep going. Only way is up and all that crap,” he said, bonhomie pouring out of him.

“You have nothing to prove, you know.”

“I do. And, no, it’s not just about proving Suna wrong, or fear of everyone laughing, or even ‘cause I want Shouyou to see that I can also play abroad.” Wow, he’d not admitted that before, and yet Osamu was nodding sagely, so he must have guessed even before he had. “I need the challenge, ‘Samu. I need to prove it to myself, and I don’t care about them liking me, as long as the team are rooting for me when I step on court.”

They chatted a while longer, slipping into old speech patterns and insults. Osamu wandered back to the kitchen, finished his break, yet kept up the conversation as he prepared orders. He was content, far less tired than the last time Atsumu had seen him, and carrying the mantle of his responsibilities lighter than he had been these past few months. And it struck him then how Osamu had truly found his niche without his twin, whereas Atsumu was starting again, looking for something he could connect to.

Kita’s first rice, Osamu told him, had been even more of a success this year. Hyping it on social media, Osamu had devised a new onigiri menu which had been a sell out.

“You better still be making fatty tuna!”

“I thought you wanted new things, ‘Tsumu. Stop you getting in a rut.”

“Believe me, I’ve had all the new food I can take for a while. What wouldn’t I give for some decent rice or a bowl of Yaki Soba? The others…” He swallowed. “How they keeping?”

“’Keeping’? Okay, granddad,” Osamu mocked. He reached for a plate, arranging the order, three kids sized onigiri stuffed with salmon. “Ahh, they’re all good. Kita and Granny were here only yesterday. She showed me this new recipe for pickled cucumber. Aran-san dropped by with the Sunbirds. They won. ‘Woot Woot’.” He pumped his fist in the air. “Um, Gin’s been away on some course, but is back tomorrow, and … uh … OH Riseki-chan. Forgot to tell you—”

“What? What about him?”

“He’s about to sign for the Falcons. Our boy’s coming home!”

“Whoaaa, that’s great news. Hope he hasn’t picked up them there Tokyo fancy ways.” Atsumu laughed, remembering how earnest Riseki had been in their third year.

“Hey, you better not be picking up swanky European habits either, scrub.” There was a noise in the background, pans clashing and a yell, causing Osamu to turn away. “I better go,” he said. “We’re getting busy. Look, it’s great to see you, and talk to you properly. Don’t be a stranger and make sure you call Mom and Granny, ‘k?”

“I will. Thanks ‘Samu, it’s good to see you too—” He broke off as Osamu left his field of vision and soon the call ended.

I should have called you that first day, he thought, staring at the ceiling. It was kinda odd how much better he felt now, even though he knew he still had a wall to smash through with the Chanticleers, at least he knew had a wing spiker at home who had his back and maybe … a former middle blocker, too.

Shouyou’s contact list was long. He had phone numbers from kids he’d played with from years before, plus those he’d been to junior high with, friends from Brazil, and a whole host of people from his home town. He liked the connections, he’d once told Atsumu. I like to know what makes people tick because they’re interesting.

Atsumu’s contacts were connected with volleyball—not even loosely—they were all players or associated directly with the game.

No friends. He hadn’t needed them at school.

But now …

He had a new number so typed a quick message of thanks for the pizza last night and an offer to buy Tendou a meal when he was free.  Hitting send, he put his phone on the table and not anticipating an immediate response he got ready to face the day.

“You have training?” Madame asked, surprised when he landed downstairs.

“Uh, no, I’m going for a run. There’s a big park near here, is that right?”

“Oui!” She began to give voluble instructions in broken English and faster French, then stopped, rolled her eyes (he assumed at herself and not his lack of comprehension) and started to draw out directions on the back of a receipt.

He waited patiently, deciding not to tell her his phone could direct him, thanked her and then set off.

For as long as he could remember, he’d always run with someone. At school there’d been a pack of them, and he’d be at the front running rather than jogging with ‘Samu at his elbow. If his brother hadn’t been around, he’d either not go, or badger Aran and Gin until they agreed. At the Jackals, there’d always been Bokuto and later Shouyou who’d willingly keep pace with him. Running was a necessity, an aid to fitness, to increase his stamina, something to be endured. It wasn’t for pleasure but a means to an end.

However in Paris, and with a team that didn’t promote running as part of their regime, he’d found himself longing to stretch his legs, even if he had to do so alone.

The park was for runners, some serious, others for fun, and some more concerned with their Instagram pictures at the end. Deciding the running track would bore him, Atsumu ran on the sticky-with-mud paths, starting at a slowish pace before he found his stride rhythm and breathing pattern.

It was odd.

Odd not having someone at his side. Yet he didn’t stop, but ploughed onwards, dodging the walkers, dogs on leads, kids on bicycles and everyone else who’d decided to come out on a Sunday morning.

This is a Catholic country, he wanted to yell. Shouldn’t y’all be in church, you heathens!  Instead he snorted as he imagined a group of priests holding onto their pointy hats, and nuns with wimples flying, as they sprinted down the track.

After fifteen minutes, he picked up his pace, wanting a workout rather than an exercise in de-stressing. The runners around him thinned, stepping to the side when they heard his feet pounding up to them.

Politeness costs nothing, Atsumu-kun.

Yeah, I know, Kita-san, and this is me being polite now.

“Merci,” he called out raising his hand.

Pound pound pound. A group of walkers milled on the pathway, chattering happily with cameras and notebooks.

JEEZ GET OUT THE WAY!

They’re enjoying themselves. People exercise for different reasons.

Yeah, yeah, you can butt out, Shou-chan. You only ever ran to beat someone—usually Tobio.

Just because they don’t break into a sweat or don’t care about personal bests it doesn’t make their motives less valid than yours, Atsumu.

Aww, Jeez, Aran, what are you doing here?

He started to grin, and then a laugh erupted from him, air rushed into his lungs and he propelled himself forwards, swerving round a kid on a bicycle and surprising himself that he didn’t launch into a torrent of swear words.

Reaching an open space, he sped up, pumping his arms in time with his legs, and feeling the burn of his leg muscles. His throat rasped with the cold air, yet the tightness in his chest and shoulders had long since dissipated leaving him freer and lighter than before. This was the way to run. This was the way to warm up. Gove him a ball now and he’d send a toss to Shouyou so perfect, he’d slam it past any blockers. Give him a ball now and he’d power a serve over the net so fierce Wakatoshi would be stepping around a crater in the gym floor. Give him a ball now and no one would dare claim it back.

It was when he’d slowed to walking, that he felt his phone vibrate and saw that Shouyou had already sent several texts. Must be eight in the morning. Don’t you ever have a lie-in?

<<You WON!>>

<<DID YOU CELEBRATE?>>

<<WE LOST. I’M MAD>>

<<Why u mad? Team of six and all that>>

<<I got subbed on. Didn’t start. Only played last set. It was frustrating. YOU WON THOUGH!>>

<<We did. It was a hard match. Took ages to get going. I’m mad at myself, too.>>

<<Did you go out with the team?>>

Hmm, where’s that come from?

<<No. Met up with someone though>> He grinned then sent the picture of Tendou to Shouyou.

<<Yayyy, you’ve met Tendou-san, that’s great!>>

<<Did you know he was here?>>

<<Yeah, sure. Didn’t you?>>

<<Had no idea. Let me guess. You have him on speed dial>>

<<No, but I talk to Goshiki-kun sometimes. Did you try any of his chocolate?>>

<<I did. He opened a box of truffles and they just melted in my mouth.>>

<<And what are you doing now?>>

<<Running. By myself, would you believe it? Well, I’m walking now, but discovered quite a cool running park, so all’s good.>>

<<You sound very positive for a Sunday.>>

Yeah … I am. Even back in his Jackals days when waking up with Shouyou, he’d been bad tempered on a Sunday.

<<Yeah, it’s odd I’m not having post-game crash>>

<<Lucky you. Look, I have to go. They’ve called us in early for our match debrief.>>

<<Good luck with that! Tell them they should play you from the start.>>

<<Yeah, I’m sure that’ll work. :D :D :D>>

 

 Post-game crash. Something he’d always suffered from, whatever the result, adrenaline draining from his nervous system, usually left him a grumpy mess for the next day, but today?

I’m fine.

Why?

The thought that it didn’t mean as much to him, collided with another better thought that perhaps here in France he was maturing and able to see the bigger picture at last.

Shut up, ‘Samu, he muttered to the laughter in his head.

He bought croissants on the way back, a bag of them—freshly baked—and took a photo to post to his Instagram. His follower count was up, not that he generally noticed, but this was a sharp uptick so he paused to sit on a bench. Mainly French, he thought, and studying a few profiles, he realised they were Chanticleers’ fans, or sports fans in general.

Another upside to being in France, he captioned his photo before posting, pleased he’d decided to substitute ‘the’ for ‘another’.

Keep it mild. Keep the rants off social media at least until you were established. He’d learned as much from ‘Samu when he’d been publicising Onigiri Miya. (He’d taken advice from Suna, who curse him, was far more media savvy than the pair of them put together.)

Work out your brand, was another thing Suna said, and don’t be afraid to rebrand.

Is that what I’m doing? He smiled and munched on a croissant. Yeah, maybe. Mild ‘Tsumu from now on.

The autumn sun appeared, warming his face and muting the breeze which had whipped at his hair and nipped at his fingers. He thought about going back, but it was kinda nice sitting here watching the world go by,

They’d won yesterday.

He’d met someone who might become a friend.

He’d spoken to ‘Samu.

Life is sweet.

Sweet as chocolate .

~Vin et Fromage~

He remained buoyed up for the rest of Sunday, and even on Monday morning, as he approached the training centre, Atsumu had a definite spring in his step and a whistle on his lips. He stopped, wondering if that was too casual and disrespectful. Despite knowing that they were in the wrong, he also thought there was a chance he needed to make amends for his blunt tongue.

Not everyone understands your ‘humour’, Aran had said time and time again. Or, to be frank, you. Tone down the attitude, Atsumu-kun.

He was one of the first to arrive. Unfortunately Laronde and Lafayette were already there, along with Rebane, changing in the corner. On seeing him, the French pair got to their feet. He sauntered over, about to make amends or at least offer some kind of apology, but before the words made it out of his mouth, they bowed low to him.

Okay, is that mockery?

Probably.

Right… French greeting? What is it they do? Oh my god, it’s that double kiss thing. Sorry, Shouyou.

With no smile, and keeping his body upright, Atsumu stepped closer, then took Laronde by the shoulders and kissed both sides of his face, landing two full smacks of lips on his cheeks. “Bonjour!” he said cheerily.

“Fuck off.”

“Huh? Isn’t that how you greet people in France? I’ve been lacking in French manners, so thought I should ... um … be more French.”

“You are taking the piss,” Laronde snarled, wiping his face with his hand.

Someone snorted. In fact two people snorted, not just Rebane but Lafayette who was struggling to hide a smirk. 

“Uh…” He smiled. “Maybe. Yeah, I am. We can bow if you really want, only if you’re trying to be respectful, then you need to bow from the waist and keep your back straight.”

“We don’t really kiss like that,” Lafayette laughed. “Just a small … um … small,” he mimed a peck of an air kiss, “yes?”

“Ahh, right. Okay, so I got that wrong and yesterday’s match, in the changing room, I spoke too much.”

Lafayette shrugged. “I asked your opinion. You told me. It is fine. And you were not lying about Hin-ata. Alain looked him up. He really plays for Asas, right? That’s huge. Aren’t they favourites to win the Worlds?”

“Yup.”  Well, it was marginal, but he ignored Tobio’s dumb team.

“Et le pauvre Sumo est coincé ici avec nous.”

“What?”

“Francois!” Lafayette sighed. “He did not mean that.”

Atsumu jerked his head towards Laronde. “What did you say?”

“Poor you stuck with us,” Laronde drawled. “Must be such a comedown.”

“Where did this come from?” Genuinely perplexed, he forgot he disliked Laronde and turned around to face him. “I signed for the Chanticleers ‘cause you’re classy. Some of your guys won gold. I want to get better, while I still can, and to do that I have to play with and against different teams.”

“All for you, eh? Selfish.”

“Hey, if me being selfish means we win, then what’s the problem? Maybe it’ll get the Chanticleers to the Worlds next year!”

“You,” Laronde replied, his voice icy, “are not the Chanticleers’ Setter. Not the cockerel. Not the director of our team. You are filling in, that is all.”

Atsumu blinked, unsure whether to laugh or lamp the guy.

Akagi-san had met hostility with faint mockery and a whip-like wit.

“You’re right. I’m not a cockerel. I’m not a rooster or a hen or any kind of bird. Never have been, never will be. My last team were a pack of jackals, did you know that?”

“Pfft. It is meaningless.”

“Hey, you brought up the animal stuff.” He smirked at him. “Before then, I was a fox.”

Rebane coughed from his bench, staring up at Atsumu with something like a quirk of recognition on his lips. “I—” he began to say, before faltering and shaking his head as if to clear it.

“A fox in a hen house,” said du Bois from the door. “You’re here to shake us all up, are you, Atsumu?”

“Moi aussi,” Rebane blurted out.

“Huh?”

“Minu perekonnanimi tähendab rebane… uh … mon nom de famille signife renard.”

“Uh… what?”

Du Bois was laughing and Lafayette too, the latter reaching over to clap Atsumu on the shoulder. “He says he’s another fox. Rebane means fox in Estonian.”

“Looks like we have a pair o’ foxes in our coop,” du Bois replied. “Now I sure hope there isn’t going to be any trouble. No blood spilt from clawing or … uh … peck marks. Hey, Rebane, complètement rétabli, j’espère?”

He nodded. “Oui.” Then with an eye on Atsumu, Rebane continued. “I am better. Alain say you serve good on Saturday.”

“Thank you.” He held out his hand to fist bump him. “Rebanes stick together, okay?”

“Okay. Good. We play well.”

Laronde had remained silent, and turned away when the other team members jogged into the changing room. And while Atsumu didn’t assume hostilities were over, he decided not to poke the rattlesnake. When the third years had left Inarizaki it had unsettled everyone without their dynamics holding sway over the team. They’d damn near come unstuck, especially when Atsumu had been made captain, but ego and thirst had come to the rescue and the new Inarizaki had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the old. It was the way of things. The Olympics had showed the players their worth and as a result the Chanticleers had lost their mainstays by accident and design, but Allard and Berniére were determined to put them back together.

“Right, so the coaches are gonna be a bit late,” du Bois began, so we’ll start with warm-ups, then serve and receive practise, and possibly some three-on-threes.”

It was a struggle, but Atsumu reckoned he did a saint-like job of keeping his face impassive.

“And if Atsumu hasn’t complained ‘bout that—” du Bois continued, smiling wryly, “then we’ll take a break and wait for the debrief. We won on Saturday, which was great, but, well, we all know we made a meal of it.”

“Huh? Meal?”

“Shoulda been a snack,” du Bois explained, “Um… easier than we made it. They’re not great opposition, but we’re not gelling … uh—” He linked his fingers together. “We’re not connecting yet. Okay, get changed and then we rock and roll!”

 

It was a noticeably different practise from the ones which had gone before. Maybe the win under their belt had relaxed the team as a whole, or perhaps it was that Atsumu felt a part of it rather than the newcomer, but there was a faint hum of camaraderie and any tension which had existed between the differing factions looked to have slackened its stranglehold. And when both coaches appeared and the post-mortem of their match began, Atsumu listened intently, immensely pleased that Berniére had picked up the points he had and provided other insights he’d not thought of.

Next match we’ll be better.

After, he was invited by Perez, Garcia and Cascarino for coffee in a nearby diner, where they grabbed baguettes and swapped anecdotes. The conversation drifted from the game, with Cascarino telling them about his family in Rome and his sister’s latest baby.

“It is her third child and the first girl. She’s providing all the grandchildren,” he said, grinning. “Takes the pressure off me. What are your parents like, Atsumu? They want you to marry?”

“Um… not really.” He paused, wondering whether to tell the blunt truth that marriage and kids were never going to be on the agenda, or go with something which was partially related. Let’s not rock this boat yet.  “I’m a twin and we were—” He scratched for the word. “Not bad, uh… noisy and fighting a lot.”

“Troublesome Twins, eh?” Garcia muttered.

“Um, yeah. Anyway, my parents say they need a long, long break from having to look after kids, even grandchildren, so they’re fine with us being single. I’m not sure my Granny wants to risk it either – haha.”

“And leaves you free to go out with all the girls,” Cascarino agreed. “After Saturday, they’ll be after you like bees to honey. You made the papers, you know?”.

“Too focused on volleyball right now.” Atsumu used his standard reply, then whipped back. “Papers? Really?”

“You did not see? They even spelt your name right,” Perez told him. “And there was a picture.”

“Wow, cool. Must send that to Shou… er… ‘Samu—that’s my brother.”

“The twin?”

“Uh-huh. There’s no more of us.”

“So, I think you are about to become Monsieur Populaire!” Cascarino laughed, shrugging in an exaggerated manner. “They miss Toussaint, who was the figurehead of the team. Du Bois is a good captain and a great player but does not have the same charisma, you understand?”

It’s only been one game, Atsumu told himself, but he couldn’t quell the stir of excitement in his gut. And something else was happening, he was interested in them, interested in the stories that had nothing to do with volleyball, except they were what made his teammates tick.

Wow, Shouyou, I finally get it.

 

Saying goodbye, he meandered home despite the faint drizzle in the air, and almost on impulse took a detour towards Tendou’s shop, following his nose as the scent of chocolate and vanilla wafted towards him. The shop was busy, and Tendou’s staff in black and yellow, looked like bees as they buzzed around serving everyone. Peering through the mullioned windows, there was no sign of Tendou, so maybe he wasn’t there, or more likely busy in his kitchen.

Ah well. He turned on his heel, ready to go back to his digs, but he’d come this way, so why not step inside and buy something. Maybe they even delivered abroad.

He browsed the counters under glass, looking over the delicate chocolates shaped like roses and tulips in pinks and purples. There were also pictures, like street plaques, made entirely of chocolate and featuring Parisian streets.

“Wow, he’s an artist.”

“Puis-je vous aider, monsieur?” asked one of the assistants, a short girl with a shiny bob of blonde hair and wide, brown eyes.

“Sorry, I don’t speak much French. I’m from Japan.”

“Might I help you?”

“You speak Japanese?”

“Tendou-san has taught me a few phrases.”

“Wow, good teacher.”

“My university professor might disagree,” she replied, grinning impishly. “I’m taking a degree in Asian languages: Japanese and Mandarin.”

“Ahh, nice.”

“So, were you looking for anything in particular?”

“Is Tendou around? I know him.”

“He’s not. He’s had to go and see the suppliers, but I can tell him you called.”

“Uh … no, that’s fine. Uh… do you deliver? Like, do you deliver abroad?”

“We can do, but it depends on the country.”

“Japan and Brazil?” he asked.

“Japan is no problem and Brazil … might depend where.”

“São Paolo. It’s one of the main cities.”

“Should be fine. Let me check. Anything special you want to send?”

“Um, the French things, like the chocolate Eiffel Towers and .. oooh the bicycles are cool. Is cycling a big thing here?”

“Come and see us when the Tour de France is on, and you’ll understand,” she laughed.

“Um, okay, so three of the Eiffel Tower plaques please, and can you send them all to one address in Japan, but I’ll put separate notes in, and then the bicycles to Brazil.” She was frowning a little as she stared at him. “Sorry, am I speaking too fast.”

“No … no … it’s your accent. It’s different from Tendou-san’s. Oh! Is it kansei-ben?”

“Yeah!” He beamed at her. “I’m from Hyogo. It’s a dialect rather than accent though.”

“Yes, I can tell.” She tipped her head to the side. “Fascinating. I’m Mathilde, by the way.”

“Ah, Miya Atsumu. It’s good to meet you, Mathilde.”

“Pleasure is all mine,” she replied, her lips curving at the corners. “Now let me finish your order for you. Tendou-san should be back soon if you want to wait.”

So he sat again in the armchair by the fake fire, this time flipping through a newspaper. Trying to act casual, he turned to the sports pages at the back, scanning until he found some familiar words. There was no picture in this report, but his name featured three times, so he ran the words through his phone translator. “New hen… huh? That don’t sound good. Cut wings? What?”

“You need to learn the language, ‘Tsumu,” said Tendou over his shoulder.

“Ahhh, cool you’re back. Sorry, I only dropped by to say hi and thank you for Saturday. Hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Not at all. Mathilde tells me you’ve been buying up the store. Something to Brazil, eh?”

“Ah… yeah, for Hinata. He sends me … um sends all of us stuff from Brazil all the time, so it’s only right I reciprocate.”

“”I’m not complaining. You can send him anything you want,” Tendou replied. “So, trying to decipher the match report, right?”

“Yeah. Something about a hen with cut wings.”

“Rooster with clipped wings,” Tendou supplied after flicking through the report.

“Oh… that’s not good.”

“Only in the first set. It says you started to really fly in the third when you were allowed to play. They’re also saying on this evidence, you’re a decent replacement for Toussaint. ‘Tsumu, you mighta just made it.”

“One game. Long way to go yet.” But he was pleased. “I made a bit of a breakthrough with the guys as well,” he admitted. “Had coffee and some lunch.”

Tendou sighed. “So, you don’t need the old Guess Monster anymore, is that what you’re saying? Don’t sugar coat it, ‘Tsumu, I can take it straight.”

“Uh, what?”

“You’re breaking up with me,” Tendou wept. “I knew it!”

The customers in the shop were staring, although Mathilde by the counter who could clearly hear and understand every word, continued to pack up chocolates into boxes, obviously used to Tendou’s melodrama.

“Actually, I was going to treat you to lunch some time, but I’m now too scared you’ll think it’s a date,” Atsumu replied.

“Lunch? Hmm, it’ll be a grabbed sandwich at the moment, but …” Tendou pulled out his phone, then tapped on the calendar. “I’ve got a plus one thing to go to.”

“I ain’t fake-dating you,”

“Nah, it’s nothing like that,” Tendou said, and his tone had lost its tease. “I’d appreciate you going with me because sometimes these events are really stuffy and you might just liven it up.”

“Embarrass you?”

“I’m unembarrassable, but what do you say?”

“As long as it’s not rock climbing or something hazardous.”

“Nope, unless you over indulge.”

“Huh?”

Tendou leant back over the chair, showing him an invitation. “How about it, Atsumu?”

“Wine tasting?”

“And cheese. It’s kind of a trade thing, pre-Christmas. Wanna come along?”

“Wine? I don’t have much experience.”

“That doesn’t matter at all. And it’s on a Wednesday, so you won’t have a match the next day.”

“Then, yeah. Great. I’d like to.”

 

Practices increased, both in length and intensity over the next two weeks, leaving Atsumu both exhausted and exhilarated.  Gratified that the Chanticleers appeared to be taking the game far more seriously than he’d originally thought, they were bonding better too. His café trips continued, and included Rebane, who was far less taciturn. He still didn’t speak much, but he understood the conversation soaking it up like a sponge.

They won their next two matches. The crowd latching onto Tendou’s chant, so ‘Fermez vos bouches’ rent the air as soon as it was Atsumu’s turn to serve, then a sudden cessation as silence blanketed the home crowd, followed by a loud cheer of ‘MIYYYAAAAA’ if he landed an ace.

There’d been a courtside interview too, with du Bois alongside providing translation where he had to, although after Atsumu falteringly apologised for his ‘mal Français’ the reporter laughed and conducted the interview in English.

“You came across as humble,” du Bois muttered.

“Sorry, what?”

“Modest… uh … grateful.”

“I am. Grateful, I mean, what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, just you’re usually cockier.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

“Nope. It’s something I’ve noticed with Setters and Aces. Makes ‘em what they are, I guess. Whereas us Middle Blockers are far more unassuming.”

“Ha!” His mind flashed not just to Shouyou, but Kuroo and Tendou. “Unassuming my ass.”

“Maybe,” du Bois leant closer, “we’re just better at hiding it. Anyway, you’ll have endeared yourself to the French press with that, not to mention the fans.”

“As long as we keep winning, right?”

“That, too.” He steered Atsumu towards the locker room, pausing before they entered to add, “Anyway, I keep meaning to invite you round for dinner, but Marie suggested I invite the team round for a party. Would you fancy that? Mi casa es su casa type of thing. I’m sounding people out about possible dates.”

“I’m free, ‘cept this Wednesday.”

“Ooh, hot date?”

“Ha, not exactly.” How would he describe Tendou? “Discovered an old friend lived here, so I’m out with him.”

“Okay, well this’ll be nearer Christmas. And you can bring him along, if you want. Or land yourself an actual date.”

“Nah – too focused on volleyball.”

“You’d be surprised how quickly that focus changes when you find the right one.”

“You lost focus on the game? Not sure I’d want that.”

“I said ‘changes’ not ‘lost’.  Put simply, I switched teams. The Canadian League is good, but the travel is … exhausting.  Moving to France means we have more time together.”

“Oh, right. Yeah, that makes sense. I have a former teammate in Brazil. Always on a plane flying from one end of the country to another. Not sure how he copes, except he’s like this big ball of energy that never needs recharging.”

“Hinata, right?”

“Yeah. We played together at MSBY, but before that we were High School rivals. He loves it in Brazil. Went there after school and took up beach volleyball—can you believe that? They called him Ninja-Shouyou – ha – and that’s what he’s like on court. Everywhere you don’t think he’ll be, he’ll appear, and setting for him was a dream. It was—”

Du Bois was staring at him, and he was acutely aware that now they were in the locker room, everyone else had turned their way.

“What?”

“That’s the most I’ve even heard you talk about another player. Must be a good friend,” du Bois murmured.

“Uh, yeah, he is,” Atsumu bluffed. “It’s like we sometimes find a player we click with, right? My brother was one, but then we played together since we were small. Hinata’s another. But…” he trailed off then assumed a wide, wide grin, “Hinata clicks with a lot of people. He’s that kind of person.”

Laronde was watching, stopping mid-shirt change, and it looked as if he were about to speak—likely something sarcastic—but at that moment Garcia opened a bottle of coke and it sprayed everywhere to braying laughter from Cascarino and Lafayette.

Another prank, Garcia on the end of it this time, probably because he’d scored the final point of the match and had been cheered loudly by the fans.  It took the heat off Atsumu, yet he approached his own bottle of energy drink with trepidation in case they’d shaken that one up, too.

***

<<Meet me at the Eiffel Tower>> Tendou had texted. <<You don’t have to wear a suit, but something smart would be good.>>

<<Not my kit then?>>

<<No way. It’ll clash with my outfit and can’t have that>>

<<So you have a colour scheme planned.>>

<<Magenta. It clashes beautifully with my hair. Hey, do you have a yukata with you? That would look cool.>>

<<Sorry, decided to embrace the whole European thing. Don’t worry, I scrub up pretty good. Won’t embarrass you.>>

<<You never could, sweetie-pie. Okay. CU at 7.30>>

 

At seven that evening, dressed in an amethyst-coloured shirt (Madame had been only too happy to iron it once she knew he was going out) and smart charcoal-grey trousers, Atsumu left the house and sauntered towards the Champs de Mars. The evening was cool, a light breeze rippling the Seine, but the sky was clear and bright with stars and a sliver of a new moon.

Shouyou had called earlier, so he’d sent him a photo of himself dressed in his finery and received an ‘Oh la la!’ in response plus a kiss emoji.

<<Have fun>>

<<It’s Tendou Satori. I need a warning, not encouragement. Tell me why I’m going again. I don’t even like wine.>>

<<Because Tendou-san is interesting and I’m sure you’re going to end up having a great time.>>

<<You sound like my mother.>>

<<Aww, I was going for the Kita-san pep talk. Anyway, have a good evening and send pics!>>

<<What are you up to?>> he asked belatedly.

<<Just finished training and meeting Pedro tonight. He’s here for a week.>>

<<Niice. Have fun.>>

The wind had picked up, so he picked up his pace, cursing that he’d not brought a smarter coat with him so had resorted to a light jacket and a scarf. He had no idea where the wine tasting was, just that Tendou had said to meet him at this spot.

Why not at the event? he grumbled, cupping his hands and breathing onto them as he tried to warm up. But he had to admit it was a great place. As he approached the Eiffel Tower, he tipped his head right back, trying to see to the top. The Skytree might have been bigger, and was prominent across the Tokyo sky line, but this structure, with its four feet planted and wide on the ground, dominated the entire landscape.  He moved to the centre, taking his phone out, but only succeeding in taking a poorly lit ‘god knows what that is’ picture.

“Hey, hey!”

Oh my god another Bokuto. But he turned quickly on his feet and plastered a casual ‘I’ve not been waiting long’ smile on his face.

“Am I late?” Tendou asked. “No, no I’m not.” He bounded closer, then stopped abruptly, his eyes flipping up and down as he studied Atsumu. “Wow, that’s one cool shirt and it compliments my suit!”

He had not been joking about the colour. Under the street lights the magenta popped. He’d teamed it up with a paler pink shirt and a darker bow tie, which he flicked with his finger and thumb.

“Am I cool or what?” he asked.

Rhetorical question, but Atsumu answered anyway. “You’re definitely ‘what’, Tendou-san.”

“Hey, drop the suffix, and as I’m calling you Atsumu, then feel free to use Satori. Most of them here call me that.”

“Uh… okay, Satori,” he replied, wishing he’d practised so it didn’t sound awkward. “So where we going? Have we got far to go?”

“One hundred and twenty-five metres,” Tendou replied and gave a wicked grin as he pointed upwards.

“What?”

“The Jules Verne restaurant in Le Tour Eiffel. Hope you’re not afraid of heights, Atsumu.”

“Nope,” he replied, clenching his fist. “Uh … how high’s that?”

“Second floor, and don’t worry, there’s a lift. Although it would be nothing to an athlete like you. Come on, you look cold.”

 

Tendou had said it was a trade event, and as they got closer, that particular reality pasted his face like a blast of cold air. Trade meant other French traders. All speaking French. With Tendou who could also speak French. And not Atsumu whose French was ‘très mal’.

“You’re looking concerned.”

“Uh, just wondering how many of these guys are experts.”

“Worry not, mon petit pois,” Tendou whispered and grinned. “I kinda like this side of you, Atsumu, a little insecure and unassuming.”

“HA!”

The lift door opened just as he yelped, causing the waiters and the assembled guests to turn their heads. “Well, that’s one way to make our entrance,” Tendou jibed and swanned in a step ahead of Atsumu and handing over the invitation to a stuffy-looking, dark haired waiter with a green cummerbund around his waist and a handkerchief in the same shade in his top pocket.

“Monsieur Tendou,” the stuffy waiter began, “et … Monsieur …”

“Miya,” Tendou supplied. “He doesn’t speak much French but his English is decent, Thomas.”

“Ah…” Thomas’s demeanour changed, and his voice deepened as he switched languages, “Mr Miya, I shall wait on you both myself. It will make a change conversing in my mother tongue.”

“You’re English?”

“Half English, half French and from Jersey, which is a little different. Please take your seats, and I shall be along soon with the first wine.” He clicked his fingers at one of the waiters, “Table cinq, Jerome.  Fromage et charcuterie.”

Ushered to the table, Atsumu said nothing while the waiter poured them both water, and laid a silver platter of different cheeses and meats in the middle of the table. Jerome spoke a little to Tendou, and under the lamplight appeared to blush when Tendou replied.

“You know him?” Atsumu asked.

“I’ve been to these events before. Jerome is very fond of chocolate, so I bring him a treat. I’m like a god to him.”

“Just the chocolate?” Atsumu enquired, watching as Jerome fumbled a serviette at another table, his eyes still on Tendou.

Tendou followed his gaze, met Jerome’s eyes and then spluttered on his water.

“Any chance of chocolate now?” Atsumu asked innocently.

Recovering quickly, Tendou wiped his face. “No, you heathen! You’ll offend the wine gods. Cheese and meats first. Cheese is for cleaning the palate. There’ll be some samples of other foods paired with specific wines, and then chocolate with the dessert wine.”

Worried the restaurant would be uber-stuffy and posh, Atsumu was relieved that not everyone was wearing a suit and there appeared to be an easy air blanketing the room. The lighting was low, with small spotlights pinpointing the tables, but also large candles on the window sills and the bar.

And the setting was beautiful. With glass walls, the panorama was spectacular. Boats sailed up and down the Seine, some lit up like Christmas trees, others small tug boats, ferrying passengers to each side.

“I never get tired of the view,” Tendou said, following Atsumu’s gaze. “It’s better in Spring, like most things, but tonight with clear skies you can forget it’s the dreary month of November.”

“Do you miss Japan?”

“’Of course’, is what I’m supposed to say, but to be honest, not really. I’ve got too much going on here and there’s not a lot there for me now.” He shrugged. “I don’t get too fixated on places. If I go back, then I’ll catch up with the guys, but there’s always this harking back to what we were, not what we are.” He rapped his head. “Whoa, I’m getting deep on you, Miya.”

“You’d have fitted in at Inarizaki. ‘We don’t need memories’ was made for you.” He paused and broke up some bread. “I get it. Too much wallowing means you get stuck.”

“I think the trick is to find something you’re happy to wallow in,” Tendou replied. “Gimme a vat of chocolate and I’m happy.”

“Are you? I can’t see you being satisfied only making chocolate truffles for the rest of your life.”

“You dissing my truffles?”

“Nope. I’m saying that you don’t seem to be stuck or wallowing in the slightest. You create new things.”

Thomas approached, followed by Jerome hauling an ice bucket.

Removing the serviette from a bottle with a flourish, Thomas began his spiel. “This, is a Chablis. Usually it would be served at the start with oysters or caviar, but it is also a good to drink on a hot summer’s day. It is light and with no pretension.”

“Uh… what?” Atsumu whispered to Tendou behind his hand.

“Not a fancy-pants wine. Try it.”

“Um, sure.”

“Inhale first,” Thomas instructed. “Whatever it reminds you of is the right answer, heh? Then swirl the glass, inhale again, then take a sip.”

Tendou was already at sipping stage, then rolled it around his tongue before swallowing.

“We … uh … don’t spit it out anywhere, then?” Atsumu asked.

“What a waste!” Thomas replied, with an unstuffy wink. “At a larger event, and for professional wine tasters, then there’d be spittoons, but we want you to enjoy tonight.”

“Ah, cool.”

He took a sip, let it smooth over his tongue, tingling the tip and then the sides. “Uh, lemon? I like it.”

“Then that is what matters.” Thomas poured a little more in each glass, then backed away, leaving the bottle in the ice bucket.

“How many wines do we get to taste?” Atsumu asked, taking a gulp. There was a bottle to get through, so he guessed he should make inroads now.

Tendou laughed. “Five. So go easy on the first one.”

“But this is good.”

“‘Tsumu, ‘Tsumu, ‘Tsumu, quell your impatience. Others might be better. Play the long game.”

 “I’m more of a Seize the Day guy,” he said taking another slug.

“Training, ‘Tsumu,” Tendou cooed.

“You sound like Kita-san.”

“Who?”

Atsumu goggled at him. At least, he assumed that was what he was doing because his throat had dried and he seemingly couldn’t blink. Plus what Tendou was asking was preposterous.

“Kita Shinsuke,” he tried.

“Nope. Is he a TV star or something? Remember I’ve been out the country a while and Wakatoshi doesn’t keep me up to date with the latest shows, specially not now he’s in Poland.”

“My old captain. From Inarizaki, I mean.”

“OHHHH, I get you. Blond guy. Co-captain, right? But didn’t play much.”

“Yeah,” Atsumu replied, unable to keep the belligerent tone out of voice which always surfaced when he perceived someone dissing his former captain for not playing.

“You lot were shit-scared of him every time he so much as twitched,” Tendou laughed. “Never mind step on court. See, I’m crap with names, but can remember the dumbest details about individual games. So what’s he up to now? Let me guess, he’s a teacher terrifying High Schoolers, or something?”

“He’s a rice farmer.”

“No shit.” Tendou leant back in his chair, and swirled his wine glass again. “That’s kinda cool.”

He didn’t sound as if he were taking the piss, so Atsumu stopped glaring and relaxed. “My brother will only use his rice. It’s like the best there is, and that first crop—“ he chef’s kissed his hand,  “—gah, that was when I got homesick knowing I’d missed that.”

“And now? Still homesick?”

“Right now? No.” He picked up his glass again. “I’m playing. We’re winning. And I’m not sitting in my room wondering what the hell to do.”

“You’re in Paris, the city of love and lights. There’s plenty to do here, ’Tsumu.”

“Tell me.”

And so Tendou began to talk, leaning forward across the table, his chin across his hands. At first he talked of the big things: the galleries, theatres, and the historical sites. Atsumu listened with half an ear, not interested much in art and suchlike, but his ears pricked up when Tendou mentioned the sports matches, and again when his tone quietened and he began to talk of smaller things.

“When I was a student, I’d skip out at the end of lectures, buy a baguette and cheese then stroll by the river. Or I’d walk through the markets, soaking up the atmosphere. Everywhere around, there’d be this amazing slice of life in front of me—better than any show.”

“You can get that back home.”

“Mmm, sure, but here it seemed … uh … exotic, maybe because I didn’t speak the language as well as I do now, so their lives would play out in front of me, and I’d be the one writing their conversations.” He paused and finished what was left in his glass, just as Thomas returned with their second bottle and a small bowl of mussels to share. “Sometimes I miss being a total stranger. Do you miss that, Thomas?”

“I have been here a long, long time,” Thomas replied smoothly, “but sometimes I feel I’ve only just arrived.”

“Paris does that to you,” Tendou said. “I was telling Atsumu about the best places to visit before he leaves.”

“Is this just a holiday?”

“Uh, no. I’m here on a contract. I play volleyball.”

“Ahh, not a sport I know. I prefer rugby. Now …” he set down the bowl, “the next wine is a muscadet, perfect with mussels. It’s refreshing and uncomplicated.”

“That’s me!” Tendou laughed.

“Uncomplicated? You?” Atsumu, remembering the lesson from before took a sniff of his wine, swirled, sniffed again and the tasted. “This is drier.”

“It’s a little salty,” Tendou said, sounding surprised.

“Correct. You have an excellent palate as always, Satori. Usually it would be served with shellfish, but it also works well with a cream based dish.”

“Why?” Atsumu asked when Thomas had left them. “I mean, how can he tell which suits which dish? It’s all wine to me.”

“This one cuts through the richness of cream, so neither overwhelm,” Tendou explained. “It’s more noticeable with dessert wines, actually. They’re sweet, but if you have them with something else that’s sweet … like …”

“Chocolate,” Atsumu answered.

“Give that boy a star! Yeah, serve a sweet wine with chocolate pudding and the chocolate takes some of the sweetness away. Sorry, I find anything to do with taste buds and food combinations fascinating.”

“You should meet my brother.”

“Now, I have heard of his onigiri. I’m not that out of touch.”

“You have?”

“Mmhm. Wakatoshi visited me and he mentioned it, so it must be good because he’s generally a food is fuel type of guy.”

“Is Poland far from here?”

“Two and a half hour flight. He’s been here once since he moved, and I’ve visited him twice.” He chewed on a mussel, swallowing it down with some wine before continuing. “He’s really not changed that much, you know. Everything centred around volleyball.  Still got that amazing focus, but I guess all you guys have or you wouldn’t be successful.”

They continued to eat and drink, with only the odd words of appreciation. Atsumu pondered his own focus, surprising himself by wondering if it were always such a good thing. In the middle of a game, sure, but volleyball had, at times, rendered him with tunnel vision. And, he thought, as he stared out of the panoramic windows and across the Seine, that’s when you miss what’s under your nose.

“You’ve gone thoughtful on me again.”

“Being here is making me see things in a different light,” Atsumu said, then he stopped, not sure he wanted to finish where this train of thought was leading. “Or maybe it’s the wine.”

Right on cue, Thomas approached with their third bottle. “And here is one of Satori’s favourites.”

“Rhone Syrah?”  Tendou asked, his eyes blinking in appreciation. “Ahh, this one’s good and great with the charcuterie board we have, as long as ‘Tsumu here hasn’t eaten all the meat.”

“It’s not just been me,” Atsumu protested.

“Gentlemen, I can fetch you more. Yes, this is a Syrah from the Rhone.” Thomas set the bottle down, uncorking it before he poured in fresh glasses.

It was red, probably most people would say the Syrah was the colour of berries, but to Atsumu the wine as it licked the sides of the glass he was reminded of Kita-san’s Inarizaki jacket flaring behind him before they stepped on court.

“So, what is the wine making you see in a different light?” Tendou asked, breaching the silence.

“Um, you for one thing.” He was only half-bluffing. In reality his perception of Tendou had begun to change as soon as he’d seen him on the doorstep of his shop.

“In what way.”

He was lightheaded—now that was down to the wine—but also feeling a touch reckless, as if about to send a toss to Kiyoomi, who’d have to stretch and would complain after. “I really disliked you in school. You were that one player who drove me nuts from Shiratorizawa.”

“More than Wakatoshi? I thought he was the one drove you all bananas.”

“OH GOD YES! You were so annoying, never seemed to take it seriously, yet you were always there blocking some of the sweetest shots I’d set up.”

“And now, you think I’m not so bad.” Tendou frowned. “Wow, I’m slipping.”

“Sorry.” Atsumu shook his head. “Was that insulting? The fact you got under my skin at high school is a compliment. Also I kinda like you now and I like spending time with you, which I would not have believed from before.”

“Did you get on with anyone from another school?”

“Um… Komori was a snarky shit – we got on well.”

“Libero?” Tendou questioned, and when Atsumu nodded he nodded back, “Well, that’s because his position on court rarely affects you. Like, he can’t serve or hit your tosses, so there was no reason for you to yell at him. And nope, you haven’t insulted me. My brand was to irritate the hell out of the opposition. I managed to irritate most of my kouhais too.”

“You hated us, didn’t you?” Atsumu asked as he folded up some Parma ham and slipped it into his mouth. “The Miya Twins.”

“Well, sure. You got all the attention! Jeez, your whole team played on your idol status and I hated not having that spotlight.” He swallowed some wine, then speared an olive with a cocktail stick. “The person that really, really pissed me off, though, was that fucking Middle Blocker.”

“Which one?”

“Um … you know me and names. Describe them.”

“Uh, well you probably played against Ren the most. Tall and stern looking.”

“Ah, the scary one. Naw, not him. What’s he up to now? Prison guard?”

“Close. He works in Customs. No smuggler would dare get past him.”

“Ha.”

“So, if it’s not Ren, then you must mean Suna Rintarou.”

“Ohhh, yeah, that’s the guy. Had that monstrous core stability, could twist his torso anywhere. So unfair! And Jeez, he was a snidey git. Never smiled or got excited unless he were grinding you into dirt. You know, the main reason I was pissed we didn’t qualify for that last tourney was because I wanted one last chance to wipe that supercilious smile off his face. OH MY GOD IT’S ALL COMING BACK TO ME NOW. SUNA RINTAROU, YOU BASTARD!” He squinted at Atsumu. “What’s he up to now?”

“He’s playing pro and …” Pausing for dramatic flair, he cleared his throat. “He’s currently shacked up with my brother. They’re very much in love and it’s so cute.”

Tendou’s jaw dropped. “Oh … I am … so sorry … insulting almost-family like that. Please, please forget what I said. High School rivalries, gah, who needs ‘em?”

At that Atsumu snickered. “I don’t like cute. He pisses me off all the time. And pissed me off at school. Always knew the right buttons to push but couldn’t fault him as a player. It is, however, his fault I’m here.”

“Hmm?”

So he explained. Told Tendou about the conversations regarding happiness.

“You left because he compared you to a pig wallowing?” Tendou struggled not to laugh. “That’s maybe the dumbest reason to leave the country I’ve ever heard.”

“The worst thing was that he was right. I was stuck and couldn’t see how to improve.” Biting his lower lip, Atsumu recalled the conversation back at his apartment wondering what he’d have done if Suna hadn’t been there. “He also reminded me that I might regret not going, and much as I dislike the guy, I think he was right. Our school motto used to be ‘we don’t need memories’ which I tie in with regrets.”

Tendou paused his eating, reached for the Syrah and topped up their glasses. “Then let’s toast him. To Suna Rintarou, the twisty-torsoed bastard who always found a way through.”

“And also to you, Tendou Satori,” replied Atsumu after they’d clinked their glasses. “For inviting me tonight, and for not holding it against me that we always beat the pants of you.”

“Ah, I always knew we’d get along, so I’m real pleased you’re in Paris and we get this chance,” Tendou said, accepting the toast. “Here’s to you, Miya Atsumu, for deciding not to wallow and trying something new. And … would you like more words of wisdom from the all-seeing, all-knowing Guess Monster?”

“Go ahead, Youkai. Surprise this fox.”

“Maybe, just maybe, another word for stuck, is finding your niche.”

The fourth wine was another red; Thomas telling them it was a Burgundy with ‘a cool earthiness’ which went ‘exquisitely well with duck confit’. Atsumu had no idea what duck confit was, but Tendou appeared to be excited at the prospect, so he said nothing until Jerome had placed a small platter in the middle of the table.

“It’s duck,” Tendou explained.

“I figured.”

“It’s salted, cured, cooked slowly and then stored in its own fat.”

“Sounds like a heart attack on a plate.” He poked it with his fork.

“Totally worth it. The guy in the far corner will have provided it, and he’s one of the best gourmet food producers in France.” Lifting a forkful to his mouth, Tendou paused. “Honestly, try some and then the wine.”

So he tried it, still dubious and expecting a mouthful of grease. Instead he found an intense flavour explosion, with the meat melting on his tongue. With Tendou’s urging, he tried the wine too, and then he realised what both Thomas and Tendou had been talking about; how two contrasting flavours could bring out the best in each other.

“Good, eh?”

“Yeah, it’s like … the other pairings worked because they complimented each other, but this … um … enhances.” He tried more duck, then slurped some wine. “You know what this reminds me of?”

“Something to do with volleyball?” Tendou asked, his eyes wide.

“Uh … yeah. It’s like setting for Bokuto and expecting him to smash it, then watching as he pulls off the sweetest feint, or the first time I saw Shouyou and laughing ‘cuz he was just this li’l shrimp and he forgot to hit a spike, did you know that?”

“Uh—”

“But then, despite all that he was so fast and jumped so high and I was in awe. Like ‘Samu always said my mental age reduced to that of a five year old when I was playing, but really it was seeing the coolest shots from the most unexpected people, and Shou-kun really was that and—” He blinked. “Why are you smiling like that?”

“Shou-kun is Hinata, right?” Tendou asked.

“Oh … yeah.” He felt his cheeks flame.

“He made an impression on you.”

“Um…”

Flapping his hand, Tendou helped himself to more duck. “He made an impression on everyone, I remember. Wow, even Wakatoshi was affected. And I get the analogy, cuz he really is a player of contrasts.” Swallowing some wine, he paused before finishing, “You know, Atsumu, you talk a lot about your past teams and teammates, but not your current one. Are things still bad?”

“Bad? No…” He considered exactly what they were now. Not exactly good, for despite the winning streak, they were grinding out the results and not flowing as he’d like. But things weren’t bad. And it was far, far better than losing. “Different,” he settled for. “We’re still gelling, I guess.”

“And that’s exciting.”

“Sure. New teams always are.”

But it wasn’t, not really, it was more frustrating than anything else.

He finished up his share of the duck, letting the flavours permeate his taste buds and after making a promise to send some to ‘Samu, he took a last drink of the wine.

When Thomas approached with the last bottle, a smaller one containing a darker white, almost yellow liquid, Atsumu huffed out his cheeks wondering if he had any room, for not only was his stomach replete but his head was spinning a little. Picking up his water, he drank slowly, hoping it would invigorate him, especially when he saw the accompanying food.

“Gah, chocolate pudding!”

“It’s a chocolate bombe,” Tendou replied. “You pour on the hot caramel sauce and it melts in a gooey puddle. Delicious, if I say so myself.”

“You made these?”

“I provided the ‘bombe’ and the caramel sauce. “The ice cream inside is from a dairy farmer, who is … over there!” He lifted his hand to wave at a fierce-looking woman, hair smoothed in perfect place and a sharp profile. “Thomas and his team assembled it all. Anyway, I hope you have room because it’s truly sensational with the sauterne.”

“I’ll make room.”

Thomas poured the wine, instructing them to take a sip first, while he got on with pouring the chocolate caramel sauce over the chocolate mould. The wine was sweet like honey, a little cloying and not something Atsumu would choose to drink. Then on Tendou’s advice, he tried a spoonful of the melted chocolate mixture. Let that trickle over his tongue and desperately tried to refrain from collapsing in a puddle himself.

“Gahh, that’s so good.”

“Now the wine again.”

“No, I don’t need an overload of sweetness. I’m good.”

“Try it,” Thomas insisted.

So, under both their beady eyes, Atsumu sipped the sweet as honey wine again and expecting his teeth to ache, was pleasurably surprised to find the contrast.

Or not so much a contrast, but a very definite easing up of the saccharine sweetness of the wine. It was still syrupy, but now a hint of lemon and floral undertones seeped through.

“Oooooh, this is … interesting. It’s … completely different to how I thought it would be. They don’t cancel each other out, but…” He tried the pudding again. “They pudding tones the wine down, but not the other way around.”

“Yup. The pudding is the star, which to use a volleyball analogy is Shirabu, the former Shiratorizawa setter’s understated play to Wakatoshi’s bullet spikes.”

“Noooo, this is different. Wakatoshi’s too powerful and your setter was … um … not strong enough by himself. This is like the setter subverting the intended play.”

“A dump shot!” Tendou exclaimed, then sniggered when the table closest to them jumped in surprise.

“Or setting up a decoy move,” Atsumu pondered, and now his head was full of that first game with Shouyou against the Adlers, and that final point when he’d flared across the court, jumping so high it was if he’d had springs in his shoes, and fooling them all—even his most fierce rival—leaving Bokuto to bring the set and match home. “I could grow to like this wine.”

“But only with my chocolate, ‘k?”

 “Deal.”

They mulled over the wine and the chocolate for a short while longer, and then Thomas returned offering them both ‘an aperitif’.

“A what?” Atsumu mumbled.

“Another drink, like a cognac. Or if you wanted more wine, then they’ll get you that.”

“I … um … have probably had enough. Is that all right? Won’t upset them?”

“You’re good,” Tendou replied. “I’ll take a cognac, please, Thomas.” He turned back to Atsumu. “I am sorry to spring this on you, but I do have to socialise for a while, just basic ‘hellos’ and rubbing shoulders. I won’t mind if you want to tag along, but it will be trade talk, or you could sit by the window and admire the views.”

“Um… yeah, I might head off, if it’s all the same to you.” He started to scrape back his chair, then gave Tendou a smile. “I really have enjoyed myself tonight. It’s been fun and … um … educational. Can’t wait to tell ‘Samu ‘bout that duck and your chocolate bombe.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, I feel like I’m pushing you away.”

“Not at all. I have training tomorrow—afternoon, luckily—but I should leave now. “Getting up, he finished the last drop of Sauterne and then gave Tendou a bow. “And I still owe you lunch or dinner, or something.”

“How about some front row tickets some time?”

“Done.” He stepped away from the table, and then remembered his captain’s invitation. “If you want to meet the team, then du Bois is having a party and I can bring a plus one.”

“Hey, I ain’t fake dating you, Miya,” he reposted, winking. “But, that would be fun. Oh …. Oh! I’ll create some special chocolates and you should blag an onigiri recipe from your brother.”

After receiving an effusive farewell from Thomas and a more flustered goodbye from Jerome, Atsumu took one last look at the view then took the lift to the ground floor. It was cold outside, unsurprising as it was the end of November, but instead of turning up the collar of his jacket and tightening his scarf, Atsumu lifted his face to the sky, looking at the moon and the spangle of stars. He was warm inside thanks to the food, wine and also the company, so instead of hurrying back home, he meandered across the pavement and headed close to the river to watch the boats. The lights were blurring his vision a little, so he found a bench, tightened his scarf and sat down. Then he took his phone out, intent on taking photos of the city to show the guys back home, before turning the camera on himself and snapping what he hoped was a cool shot.

“Paris by night, Shou-kun,” he murmured, then took another one where he puckered up his lips.  “Wish you were here.”

 

~Cultural Exchange~

November trickled into December, and with more wins under their collective belt, the Chanticleers were according to the papers, ‘ruling the roost’ and ‘perched high at the top of the league’. At least that’s what Tendou told him when he translated the reports, adding that there were plenty of ‘crowing’ comments, especially related to Atsumu.

“They still like you,” Tendou said, folding the paper over and handing it back. “You can do no wrong in the eyes of the Press. How are the team?”

Tendou had a way of launching an attack which Atsumu had still not got used to. Praise, casual questions and then bam, something that he couldn’t wave off with a bland reply.

Still, he tried a feint, answering with a ‘Fine’, but Tendou squinted at him.

“I go for coffee and lunch with some of them. Practises are better—although there’s still this damn obsession with three-on-threes—and most have them have learnt my actual name.”

“But …”

“Still figuring some of them out.”

I can’t figure Laronde out, is what he meant, but Tendou didn’t require names, although he was staring at him, waiting for Atsumu to continue.

“Okay, so there’s one guy who hates me. And, look, I know I’m not the most likeable person in the world… I mean there are some people that actively dislike me—”

“Go figure,” Tendou muttered, then toe-poked him. “Rising above unpopularity is a chore that happens to the best of us.”

“—but I kinda hope we can forget all that on court and play well. But he hates me so much he’s uncooperative and it’s to the detriment of his own place on the team.” He swallowed the coffee in front of him, and concerned he might have said too much tried to change the subject, asking Tendou about his Christmas themed chocolates.

“Who are we talking about here? A first team regular?”

“Uh sort of. I shouldn’t say.”

“Well, it’s his problem,” Tendou replied, easing up as he stretched then flopped back in the armchair.

They’d taken to meeting casually, no set times, but Atsumu would drop by the shop and if it wasn’t overrun, then he’d stop for a chat by the unlit fire. If he were really lucky, then Tendou would have finished a batch of something new, and would bring something out for Atsumu to try.

“I like these chocolate stars. The layers look cool.”

“Thank you. They’re popular. I’ll bring a batch to your captain’s party. He has kids, right? What ages?”

“Yeah, the boy is about eight and the girl younger.”

“Cool. How’s the onigiri coming along?”

He pulled a face. “Maybe I’ll take rice crackers instead.”

“No no no, and we should dress up.”

“Uh … what?”

“Kimonos!”

“I’ve just got them to stop calling me Sumo, Satori!”

“And now you’re taking back control. It’s either that or I wear a striped jersey, beret and a string of onions round my neck, and I tell ‘em you said I had to dress like that.”

“You would as well.” Atsumu yawned. “I have nothing with me.”’

“Embrace your heritage, Atsumu-kun!”

“I’d rather embrace more chocolate. Look, I’m more of a jeans and shirt guy and I have nothing with me.”

“I can find you something. Come on, it’ll be fun. We can show them how we partyyyyy!”

“I guess.” He scowled then confessed (grudgingly) that du Bois had suggested an international theme.

“Well, there you are! We go BIG, ‘Tsumu, or go home.” He swallowed down the last of his coffee, and then got to his feet, his hands fidgeting with his apron strings. “Now, I hate to chivvy you outta here, but I’m chivvying you outta here. Some of us have plans.”

He was blushing a little, the flush stealing across the bridge of his nose and into two splodges on his cheeks.

“Anyone I know?” Atsumu asked guilelessly.

He caved immediately, clearly excited. “Okay, okay, you got me. Jerome’s coming over later and I’m going to cook for him, which means I need to get a move on!”

“Okay, then I’m going for a run tomorrow morning.”

“Uh … good for you, but why?”

“Because I’m coming back tomorrow for all the deets, Satori and need to take pre-emptive action against all the chocolate you’re gonna feed me.” He grinned and raised his hands. “Hey, I was the one that nudged you in that direction, the least you can do is gimme more truffles.”

Back in his room, he sent ‘Samu a message asking for ‘easy onigiri recipes’ received back a laughter gif and <<Leave the onigiri to me, and I’ll leave the volleyball to you>>

<<Okay, then fly out here next week and make me loads for my team party>>

<<OOOOH, party! Okay, I’ll send you some links. Or you could check out this YouTube channel.>>

A link appeared, but he didn’t click.

<<Your method will be best>>

<<Click the link, scrub. That’s me. Tell Tendou-san I took a leaf out of his book and have filmed some tutorials.>>

OH!

As he typed out a ‘congrats’ reply, Atsumu couldn’t help smile, but it was wistful too. ‘Samu was moving onwards, and he, even after fleeing the country, didn’t feel as if anything were new.

 

He was pondering Laronde as he ran the following morning, pondering in particular, why he felt such antipathy towards Atsumu. It wasn’t just because he was a newcomer as he didn’t seem to have the same loathing for Perez and Garcia  (besides, he’d been there close to two months now, so that should have worn off) and it wasn’t like he was a Setter who’d been replaced by Atsumu’s arrival. Even then, surely pulling together for the sake of the team was more important, but there were some days, and some practises when he wondered why Laronde stuck around.

He’s a pinch server who’s accepted that’s all he’ll be, Atsumu decided.

It wasn’t as if that was a bad thing, Pinch Servers won them games and had an important part to play, and his reliability had kept him as first choice to make an appearance. But that very reliability was fraying. Stroppy at practise, he missed chances Atsumu sent his way, and even his changing room banter had quietened to sullen jibes with no wit.

For Atsumu, who would set to anyone willing to hit his toss, the lack of thirst was an anathema.

Only a scrub can’t hit my sets, he’d once told Tobio, and much as he wanted to utilise every player on the court, he wasn’t going to expend energy if there was no response.

 

The Chanticleers lost. It had been close, but they’d still lost and no one remembered points scored, merely the result. With gritted teeth, Atsumu ploughed a furrow to the changing room and sat with his head in his hands. Opposite, Rebane was similarly sat, utterly still and staring at the floor. Lafayette had headed straight to the showers, Perez was facing the lockers. Garcia and Cascarino were muttering to each other, faces dark as thunder. Entering after the press interview, du Bois looked harried, but he smoothed his expression into passivity and broke the silence.

“Come on, guys, it had to happen once.”

Atsumu knew he was right, he knew that in an odd way this was good because it released some of the pressure which had been building a head of steam due to their last results, but it felt off.

Not losing the match, but the atmosphere here afterwards. They were apart, solitary, disjointed in their response.

Too quiet.

Bokuto would have been ranting by now. Back in the day, he and ‘Samu would have torn seven strips off each other, before Aran clipped the pair of them behind the ear and hollered at them to ‘shut the fuck up!’

Far too quiet.

 “Fuck this!” he yelled. “We shoulda won.”

The team as a man stared at him, and he realised then he’d stood up.

“We didn’t,” Perez muttered.

“There’s no should,” Laronde stated, sounding bored as if dealing with a petulant child. “We lost.”

“But we’re better than that. We’re better than them. We shouldn’t have done.”

“Atsumu, save this for the debrief,” du Bois replied. “It does no good to have you picking holes into what went wrong when we’re all feeling bad.”

“Are we though? No one seems to be feeling anything! And I wasn’t about to pick holes… I just … just … WE LOST! And everyone’s so fucking quiet!”

“Howl. You want to howl, eh?” Rebane rasped.

“I’d like someone to kick my ass because my last serve was fucking shit, how ‘bout that?” He gulped, thinking of Shouyou, “and then someone else to say ‘it’s a team of six, ‘Tsumu.’”

“It is though,” Lafayette said, towel tucked around his waist and another drying his hair. “It was not one person’s fault, we all know that. Team game.”

But we’re not a team. Today we played like a bunch of individuals. Again!

“It sucks.”

“What are you? Five?” du Bois teased.

“Okay …” He gave a scowl and stuck out his tongue “It fucking sucks.”

At that a ripple of laughter flowed through the changing room, a faint thread in unison. Du Bois grabbed him, holding in a head lock and ruffled his hair. “Ah, you’re a big baby, ‘Tsumu. Kick our butts back to winning ways, eh?”

“Geroff!” he protested, trying to wriggle free.

“Only if you promise to come out with us for the match meal,” du Bois replied, but he slackened his hold.

“Uh…” He flicked his hair back into place, trying to look casual. “Sure, why not?”

 

<<You went out to dinner with them??>>

<<Sure, what’s the issue?>>

<<Took you two years and Hinata to get you out with us after a match!!!>>

Pfft. Atsumu ignored Bokuto’s jibe.

<<How are the guys?>>  he asked instead.

<<Ugh>>

<<Come on it can’t be that bad. Ur winning>>

<<Mixed results. We’re third.>>

<<You’ll win more. I saw that last match on stream.>>

<<UGHHHHHHHH>>

<<Yeah, you lost, but you’re connecting. Setter’s young, that’s all.>>

Jeez, why was he comforting Bokuto?

<<How’s Oomi? Why wasn’t he playing?>>

<<OMG, he got a cold>> He sent several laughing emojis. <<I know that’s mean, but he’s blaming all of us and we haven’t even had a sniffle. Anyway, he’s refusing to come out with us and is being ultra cautious with hand washing and stuff. Inunaki-san made some comment about not respecting guys who don’t take care of their health and he glared so hard his face was purple.>>

Atsumu laughed, literally out loud, causing a couple of girls at the café table next to him to turn around. Picturing Sakusa’s outrage at germs daring to find him., was making his face ache with smiling so much. The fact he wouldn’t be able to find a culprit would only intensify his anger.

<<I’ll send him a care package.>>

<<No No, send something to me! Saw Myaa-sam last week and he was still going on about the chocolate you sent him. I want to try Tendou’s chocolate!>>

<<Lmao. It is really good. I’ll see what I can do>>

<<Bring some back with you. You’ll be back soon, right>>

Ah …

<<Not sure.>>

<<You must miss us by now, Tsum-Tsum??>>

<<Course I do.>> He swallowed down a lump. <<I’ve got a contract. Can’t just up and leave.>>

<<Not even for winter break? You’ll miss the festivals and we have a match in Hokkaido, so some of us are planning to make a long weekend of it.>>

Damn that does sound fun.

<<Aghh, that’s tempting, Bokkun, but, you know it’s a long flight and I’d be jetlagged for all of it.>>

Plus, he was here, in France—in Paris—and although two months ago he was a hair’s breadth from dropping everything and flying home, now … now …

<<Hinata’s not coming home either L >>

<<Well, he does have the Worlds to prepare for, Bokkun!>>

<<Gah, that kid. Why aren’t you there with your fancy team? Though then I wouldn’t have known who to root for.>>

He laughed. The idea of Bokuto rooting for anyone but Shouyou was a myth.

<<Well, if I’d been here last year, then maybe the Chanticleers woulda beaten Wakatoshi’s to claim a place>>

<<And maybe if the pair of you had stayed here, we’d have qualified instead>>

<<Don’t be grumpy>>

<<Sorry. It’s not the same here without you and Hinata and Coach Foster. You’re the best setter I ever played with.>>

<<Well. Now I know ur bullshitting, cuz Akaashi-kun’s your favourite setter.>>

<<Apart from Akaashi. It’s you. And now you’ve left us.>>

<<A year’s not that long, Bokkun. It’s not even a year. Just a season.>>

For now.

<<But will you be okay without us?>>

 

He’d be okay.

 

Paris was buzzing at this time of year, streets full of shoppers and party-goers wrapped up against the gusty wind. Festive lights hung from the shops, lampposts and trees, and a slew of Christmas markets appeared selling all kinds of novelties and delicious-smelling food.

“So, ‘Samu, my parents, and even Granny understand why I’m not going back, but Bokuto seems to take it as a personal insult.”

“Take pictures,” Tendou said, pausing to pick up a couple of candy canes. “Explain that you’d miss all of this if you went back home, and who knows when you’d get the chance again?”

He stopped at a craft stall, glancing at the jewellery in case there was something he could send his mum, when a charm threaded onto a leather string caught his eye. Shaped like the sun, it glimmered under the street lights. “I’ll take this please, and the leaf earrings.”

“He means holly,” Tendou put in.

“Yeah, holly.  And yeah, you’re right, I should make the most of France while I have the chance.”

“Aaaand, there’s always the chance of a quick trip to Rome, right.” Tendou winked and then as if he had to underline the point, he nudged him in the ribs.

“My schedule is chocka,” he grouched. “Like, obviously I’d like to watch the Worlds but the only dates I could make are the final, and have you any idea what the ticketing is like? GOLD DUST, Satori!”

Tendou was bounding across the pavement, careening across stalls and not listening. “How’s the onigiri making?”

“Uh … great,” he lied. “Maybe I could buy éclairs or something. I like éclairs.”

“No, no, no no, noooo. Leave the desserts to me. Ah, just wait when you see the kimonos I found, we are gonna look so cool!” He jerked him in the ribs with his elbow. “Stop moping. It’ll be fun!”

“Yeah, probably. I’m just …” He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets. “Nothing. How’s Jerome?”

“Cute as a button and with an ass as squeezable as bread dough. Want me to ask if he has a friend?”

“Er … no.”

“Come on, it’ll fun. Or I could see if Mathilde’s interested.”

“No, no, no. I’m fine.”

“But…” Tendou let out a dramatic sigh, stopped walking and flopped his head onto Atsumu’s shoulder. “I don’t like to think of you all alone.”

“I’m not. I have the team and I have you.”

“I’m flattered, but I’m not interested in a bunk up, ‘Tsumu. Although … Maybe …” He snuggled closer, his hands slipping around Atsumu’s waist.

“Get off me, you scrub,” Atsumu said and pushed him away.

“You don’t like me?” Tendou implored, pulling his goofy face.

 “I have a partner,” he mumbled. “They’re just not here right now.”

“AH-HA! I knew it.” He squinted, twisting his face into a weird grin. “And if my intel is correct then …”

“You don’t know ‘em,” Atsumu reposted swiftly.

“Oh-ho, I do!”

“Huh?”

“I knew him before you did, Miya Atsumu, when he was a pain in the ass Middle Blocker who fooled us all into thinking he was joke, and then out-jumped and out-played everyone who got in his way.”

Atsumu gaped at him, jaw dropping. “How? Oh, Ushiwaka told ya right?”

“Wakatoshi is so obtuse, you could be snogging in front of him and he wouldn’t notice unless it was interrupting play.” He snorted. “Actually, he probably does know, but he’s really not interested in anything gossipy.  I … um … sort of worked it out myself. You’re always talking about him.”

“I am?”

“Yeah, and you keep sending him chocolate, don’t think that’s gone unnoticed. Plus ... drumroll please …” He tapped his fingers on Atsumu’s scalp. “I checked out Hinata’s Instagram. There are a lot of pictures of you. Stop scowling, I’m not going to tell anyone. How long is it since you’ve seen him?”

“September. Saw him off at the airport.”

“And that’s why you need to get to Rome for the championships!”

***

“There’s something wrong with the rice!” Atsumu yelled into his phone. “It’s falling apart on me!”

“What rice are you using?” Osamu asked, sounding amused.

“Sushi, like you told me.” He squished it again, frowning down at the mess in his fingers. “It’s sticking to my palms too.”

“Wash your hands, then wet them again.”

“Oh … yeah, forgot that.”

“What fillings have you got … other than tuna?”

“Uh… chicken and mayo, and salmon in some kind of cream cheese thing.”

“Cream cheese? Really?”

“I’m preparing food for people who tip a gallon of cream into everything they cook, ‘Samu. It’s about feeding the crowd.”

“True. Any umeboshi?”

“Can’t find any. Did find nori though.”

“Okay, my top tip before I have to go, is wrap nori round the onigiri just before serving.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not an amateur.”

Was ‘Samu snorting? “Have fun.”

“I’ll be stealing your trade and running you out of business before you know it,” Atsumu joked.

“Just open a branch in Paris and we’ll split the profits,” Samu countered. “Okay, must go. Remember, you got this! And I want pictures.”

Taking a breath, and now with wet hands, Atsumu faced the bowl of rice again. “You guys not only have to taste good, but look good for the photos, or ‘Samu will disown me.”

Finishing with fifteen minutes to spare, he covered them, then jumped in the shower washing every vestige of tuna which he’d ‘accidentally’ helped himself too, off his face and skin.

And then Tendou turned up right on time, carrying two kimonos encased in a suit holder. Telling himself that if they were too out there (and knowing Tendou they would be) then he could easily decline, Atsumu continued to dry his hair, feigning no interest as Tendou unzipped the holder.

The first one was magenta, with an orange and green dragon on the back and twirls of cherry tree branches across the sleeves.

“Uh…”

“That’s mine,” Tendou declared. “I didn’t think you were cool enough to carry that one off.”

“Hey, I could so wear that.”

“Naw, the colour’s not for you. I thought something more … dramatic.”

Oh, don’t like the sound of that.

But as Tendou pulled out the second kimono, any doubts inside stopped festering and dissolved. It was black—predominantly—but with silver threads delineating the moon and stars on one side and the sun in gold on the other.

“Oh.”

“Is that a good ‘oh’, a bad ‘oh’, or an ‘oh’ that should be in italics because you meant to think it instead of saying it aloud’?” asked Tendou, sounding of all things concerned.

Sunshine like Shouyou.

“It’s an ‘Oh it’s good to see you have taste, Satori’,” he replied, his voice a little thick. “Thank you. I had this idea you’d choose two really whacky kimonos.”

Tendou arched an eyebrow. “You think I want you outshining me? Come on, let’s get ready. Uh… I also brought tabi and zori, but I understand if you’d prefer trainers.”

He stared at the kimono and also at the footwear Tendou was pulling out of a bag. They’d complete the look, although he was pretty sure he’d have the piss taken out of him forever, but …

So what?  “You’re right,” he said firmly. “It’s time to embrace my culture.”

“GO GO, ‘TSUMU!”

 

When he’d gone through about a dozen scenarios in his head about the party, ranging from everyone immediately swooning because he looked so cool, to him and Tendou fighting them all for roaring with laughter and calling him Sumo forever more, the actual reaction completely blindsided him.

It was Lafayette who started it, although Marie du Bois gaping as she opened the door should have tipped him off. Instead he’d assumed she was astonished at his outfit and wondered what he’d let himself in for.

“You!” Lafayette yelled and pointed at them.

“It’s called a kim—” he began.

“TENDOU SATORI!” Lafayette continued, stared for a few more second before rounding on Atsumu. “You didn’t tell us you knew him.”

“Ohhhhhh,” Perez whistled through his teeth. “El hombre chocolate.”

“Si!” Tendou grinned wickedly and bowed low giving a large flourish with his sleeve. He toed off his shoes, then slipped the zori onto his feet, handing Atsumu a pair too. “I am the chocolate man,” Tendou replied. “Did Atsumu not mention me?”

“I didn’t know you were that famous,” Atsumu muttered switching to Japanese. “I told ‘em we were school friends.”

“Were we?”

“Rivals then.” He gestured towards Tendou. “Um, not sure he needs an introduction, but this is Tendou, uh… and we brought some stuff.”

Marie blinked up at him. She was a short woman, with dark hair waving like a cloud around her face. She bowed, a little nervously in reply to Tendou’s theatrics, then coughed and held out her hand. “Welcome to our home, Tendou and … uh … Miya, is that right? Charlie tells me Japanese people like to use their surnames.”

“Atsumu,” du Bois prompted from behind her. “He prefers we use his first name. Charlie’s our son. Currently eating—” he broke off and raised his voice “—FAR TOO MANY NANAIMO BARS! Charlie, come here and do your duty as a coat check boy. And can I get either of you a drink?”

“Uh, a glass of vin rouge would be great,” Tendou replied. “I’ve got the taste for it now I live in France.”

“And something soft for you?” Marie put in, turning back to Atsumu. “I was told you don’t drink.”

“Beer would be good, please,” Atsumu replied. “That was a mis-um … mis—”

“Misunderstanding,” Tendou supplied. “I’m trying to convert him to wine. We had a great time tasting it, but he still prefers beer.”

A boy rushed into the hallway wiping his hands on his trousers, he stopped in front of them, then stared up at Atsumu in awe. “Wow.”

“Um, hi.” He shuffled his feet.

“Your costume is awesome,” Charlie whispered. “Like a samurai warrior.”

“We left the swords at home, kid,” Tendou replied. “Now, you look as if you’ve been eating chocolate.”

“He has. Marie made Nanaimo bars and my son decided to sample them. I hope there are some left.”

“Nanaimo bars? What are they?”

“Canadian cake bars,” Charlie replied. “We crushed biscuits them Mom made the filling, then we melted chocolate and poured it over.”

Tendou squinted down at Charlie then stuck out his hand. “Lead the way, Charlie. I need to see them.”

“Can you take these with you?” Atsumu asked, thrusting the box containing the onigiri at Tendou. “The nori’s in there too.”

“Nori?” Charlie turned back to look at him. “That’s seaweed, right?”

“It is! How d’you know that?”

“Charlie has been doing a  project at school all about Japan. He’s fascinated,” Marie replied, fondly ruffling her son’s hair. “So, what have you brought us, Atsumu?”

“Onigiri.”

“Oh wow.” Charlie’s eyes were round. “I learnt about them. I must have pictures for my power point.”

“We can assemble them now, eh, kid?” Tendou said, waving Atsumu away. “You leave the cooking stuff to us experts, ‘Tsumu.”

With a chuckle, du Bois took their coats, then directed Atsumu through to the lounge where Laronde and Coach Berniére were talking next to a large fireplace, housing a glowing fire.

It was a big room, with two sofas, a pile of cushions and bean bags on the floor, and festive decorations festooned across the walls. Atsumu and Tendou were not the last to arrive, but most of the team were there, along with a partner, and there were three small girls—one of whom he assumed was du Bois’ daughter—sitting in the corner watching a cartoon.

“Atsumu!” Berniére exclaimed. “You look very … um … Japanese.”

“Thought I’d show you how we celebrate,” he replied and gave a swooping bow. Then he nodded to Laronde, who managed a polite smile and a hello.

“Hey, François! You’re never going to guess who Sumo’s friend is,” Lafayette said, bounding up to them. He blinked when Berniére frowned at him. “Sorry, I mean Atsumu. So, guess who his friend is?”

“I have no idea,” he drawled. “Ken Watanbe?”

“That’s an improvement. At least you know he’s Japanese,” Atsumu replied softly.

Lafayette cleared his throat but before he could interject, there was a sound coming from the kitchen, an acoustic fanfare, caused by Tendou pretending to play a trumpet as he ushered an onigiri-carrying Charlie into the centre of the room. “I give you, the finest onigiri in Paris!”

“Aw, shucks.”

“I recognise him,” Coach Berniére hissed. “He’s very loud. I’ve heard that voice before.”

“Tendou Satori.” Laronde for once sounded impressed.

“Who?” Berniére asked. “No, no, he’s the noisy fan. The one who told everyone to be quiet at the first match. Ahhh, he’s Japanese! Like you!”

“Tendou Satori comes to our matches?” Laronde goggled at Atsumu, his tone accusatory. “You kept that quiet.”

“I had no idea he was that big a deal until we turned up here.”

“I came to the first game,” Tendou explained, and taking the plate from Charlie he offered the onigiri around. “I’m usually working. But, yay, go Chanticleers! You should try these, they’re amazing. Of course, Atsumu’s brother is the finest onigiri maker in all of Japan, so it’s not surprising his brother’s got mad skills too.”

Atsumu watched as his teammates—even Laronde—took an onigiri and began to munch. Some were dubious. Others, initially cautious, tucked in with gusto, and they all finished the onigiri and looked at Atsumu with renewed interest.

“If we’d known you could cook like this, we would have stopped going for coffee and turned up at your house,” Garcia said, reaching out for another. “As you do drink, you have to try the Cava I brought.”

“Cava is what?”

“Far superior Spanish version of champagne,” Garcia quipped.

“Oh lordy, don’t start,” du Bois sighed.

 “I’ll stick to beer for now.”

A short while later, when Cascarino had turned up with a large panettone which Tendou drooled over, and Rebane appeared with his wife and something he called kartulisalat or potato salad, and some small pastries filled with meat and cabbage,(’Pirukad’ he anounced) Atsumu had loosened up and was halfway down his first bottle of beer. Half-listening to Tendou talking to Garcia and Perez in Spanish, he saw Charlie standing by the table staring then hurriedly looking away when he realised Atsumu had seen him.

He wandered over. “Can I try one of those um ... nanime bars?”

“Um ... yeah,” Charlie replied, and nudged the half full plate towards him.

“Did I say it right?” Atsumu asked.

Charlie bit his lip. “It’s Nanaimo,” he whispered.

“Not nanime!” Atsumu nodded gravely. “I get it.” He took a bar, bit into it, and was immediately greeted by a sweet taste explosion in his mouth. A crunchy base, a creamy custard and then crisp chocolate on top. “Wowzers. This is good.” He licked the custard off his fingers, savouring the sweetness even more. “Your dad says you like anime.”

Charlie nodded, then stared at the ground. “He said you might not want to talk to me about it though.”

“Huh?” Oh, he guessed he had been a bit offhand. “Oh, no, I think anime’s cool, and I love talking about it with other fans. Just some people …” he trailed off not wanting to say ‘mock me about it’ and settled for. “Some people don’t really get it. So what’s your favourite?”

“Full Metal Alchemist! I like Edward – he’s so cool.”

“Ah, I like him, too. And Alphonse.  But Roy Mustang’s the coolest.” Assuming a haughty expression, he snapped his fingers, making Charlie laugh. “You watched Captain Tsubasa?”

He shook his head.

“Oh, you have to watch that and read the manga. It’s a classic. There are these twins in it, called the Tachibana Twins and they have all these really cool moves when they play.”

“Play?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry, it’s about football. Anyway, my brother and I are twins too, so it was … uh … uh … special … uh …” He waved his hands around. “Sorry, can’t think of the word. We were like them, except we did crazy stuff on a volleyball court.” He coughed, “Not as crazy as them, though.”

“What sort of crazy moves?” Charlie asked, adding. “I like soccer. I play it at school.”

“Yeah, it’s big in Europe, right? Um, so, they had his move where one would jump on the other’s … um … feet when he was on the ground.” He shook his head at Charlie’s incomprehension, then, with a smile, he lay on the floor, curling his knees to his chest. “One twin would be like this and the other would jump off his feet like … um …”

The room was silent. Atsumu looked from Charlie’s face to see everyone staring at him.

“What are you doing?” Lafayette asked, laughing. “Yoga?”

“Tachibana twins special move,” Atsumu replied, trying to sound nonchalant and refusing to get up. “Satori, help me out here. What would you call it in English?”

“Sky Lab Hurricane!” Tendou roared, and jumped towards them. “Yeah, there’d be one twin on the ground, and the other would spring off his feet and leap in the air, then score. Hey, you should get Hinata to try that for Japan.”

“Ease up.” Du Bois walked across, held out his hand to Atsumu and pulled him to his feet. “He’ll be trying that on his sister. Charlie, you’ve bothered Atsumu enough.”

“He really hasn’t.” Atsumu fist bumped Charlie. “You’re cool. Any time you want to watch anime or read manga, you let me know.”

“Thank you,” du Bois murmured. “I did tell him not to bug you.”

“He didn’t. I bugged him.”

“I didn’t think you’d want to be pestered about Japanese things all the time, and then you appear wearing that outfit and …” du Bois gave him a small smile, and frowned a touch “You’re a mass of contradictions, Atsumu.”

“Am I? I think we got off to a bad start, that’s all. I was tired from the flight and … um … everything Japanese was thrown at me.”

“We were trying to make you feel at home,” du Bois protested, but gently, then he chuckled. “I get it, though. I turned up and I got moose jokes thrown at me for a month. But they mean well, just … um …”

 “Yeah, I know. I guess I was also feeling odd because strange country and all of that.”

Rebane had moved up to them, reaching across for a plate, he said in fractured English, “When I joined the Chanticleers, they not know a thing about Estonia and tell Russian jokes. I am called Ivan the Terrible for a month.” He shrugged. “It is the way of things.”

“And we were all shit-scared of you. He turns up with shaved hair, tattoos on his arms and neck and scowling at us all,” du Bois explained to Atsumu. “Then kicked our asses with his training regime. Super fit, and we had to catch up. He’s not complained about you.”

Rebane was frowning again, pondering his Captain’s words. “Atsumu works hard. Why would I complain?”

Tendou was holding court with Marie, Rebane’s wife, and the three girls who’d stopped watching their cartoon and were sitting in a pile of cushions. The conversation was in French, but Atsumu managed to recognise a few words and gathered they were having an in depth conversation about desserts, and chocolate in particular.

He turned to find Lafayette at his elbow and Laronde just behind him. “You know him from school, yes?” Lafayette asked. “He was a fox, too? He looks like one with that red hair. Très renard!”

“Different school,” Atsumu replied. “We came up against each other in volleyball tournaments. Tendou-san was the worst Middle Blocker I ever faced back then.”

“He was bad?”

“Oh, no, he was amazing. He had this whole … um … vibe where he could guess the move before you made it. Almost … um … he could read minds? He was called the Guess Monster. Think he liked that.”

“Psychic,” Lafayette. “And yet he decided not to turn pro?”

“Told me he wasn’t interested, and he’s pretty much more successful than the rest of us put together, so …” He tipped his head to the side, considering. “I used to think that if you had the talent, then you had to turn pro. I got really angry with my brother when he refused, but ‘Samu, that’s my brother, had as much ability as me but always said I loved it more.”

“That is profound,” Lafayette intoned, a slight lilt to his voice.

Was he taking the piss? “My brother would have been miserable playing pro. He’s happier now.”

“Making rice balls?” Laronde put in, sounding interested but faintly scathing too.

“Creating, cooking, running his own business, serving customers, all that kind of stuff,” Atsumu countered.

“It is not very challenging,” Lafayette said. “Not like playing a match week in week out and knowing you must not lose. To be top of your game at all times.”

Shrugging, Atsumu picked up the last onigiri, slightly annoyed to find it was the salmon and cream cheese one, but he ate it, remembering how long it had taken him to make. “Different sort of challenge. We might be doing different things, but ‘Samu’s a lot like me in more than looks.”

“And you need the constant challenge, eh?” Lafayette said.

“I hate feeling stuck.”

“It’s a sports thing,” Lafayette agreed. “Needing to move or improve.”

“Chanticleers lost a few players after the Olympics,” Atsumu said. “Were you tempted to move on?”

“Had offers,” he replied and shrugged. “But I like Paris, and the challenge is still here for me. Qualifying for Worlds, for instance, and retaining my place in the National squad.”

“And you?” Atsumu asked Laronde, wondering if in this informal situation he might unbend.

“There is such a thing as loyalty,” came the reply, leaving Atsumu open-mouthed.

 “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Atsumu replied, but he was curious. Why would you stay if you didn’t get first team play? Is it the status of the club that is so important to him?

“But you clearly think it’s better to jumps clubs, cherry-pick the top ones.”

Cherry-pick? What? “Uh, I don’t understand.”

“You move on when something better comes along.”

“I grabbed a chance to play for the Chanticleers and to live in Europe. Is that bad?”

“No loyalty,” Laronde repeated and turning on his heel, he stomped off to the kitchen, saying he was getting another drink.

Lafayette let a whistle hiss through his teeth then drained his drink. “Don’t take it personally.”

“How am I supposed to take it?” Atsumu hissed.

“François’ situation is … uh …” Lafayette sighed and took a breath. It looked as if he were about to explain, when suddenly a loud bellow from the hallway reached their ears: du Bois welcoming a new arrival.

 “YOU CAME!”

It was clearly someone who’d been invited but only half-expected, and yet the anticipation was high, and he could practically see the tension across the room. Tendou was watching the door with curiosity and sidled up to him. “Oh-oh.”

“Who is it?” Atsumu hissed.

“I’m guessing your nemesis, from the look of rapture on the grumpy pinch server’s face.”

And then the guest walked in, or more like he sauntered in, hair waving to his shoulders, no headband this time, wearing a sharp suit, lilac shirt, and a jacket hanging casually off one shoulder. As a man the Chanticleers crowded to meet him, so it was a while before Atsumu could get a good look at the person he’d previously only seen in a volleyball kit.

“I was right,” Tendou murmured. “Olivier Toussaint has landed, looking as glamorous as he does on court. I’m surprised there are no flashing lights and dry ice announcing his rock star entrance. No wonder the girls go ca-ca over him.”

“He looks well,” Atsumu muttered back, then as Toussaint stepped away from those gathered around him and into the space, he immediately wanted to retract his words.

“’Cept for that sling, you mean.”

“There is that. What are you doing?” he demanded as Tendou shoved him forwards.

“You gotta say hi, ‘Tsumu, it’s only polite. ‘Sides, he’s seen you now.”

“More likely coming over here to go ca-ca over you like the rest of them,” he muttered darkly.

“Oh, I love it when you’re bitchy! Go introduce yourself.”

But he didn’t need to. Toussaint tossing his stupidly handsome head with his stupid hair and looking stupid was strolling over to them. He stopped a few paces in front of Atsumu, then bowed, from the waist and with his back ramrod straight.

“Monsieur Miya,” he said as he righted himself. “I hear you’ve been doing pretty good.”

“Uh … thanks. How is your shoulder?”

“You’re direct. I like it! Most people avoid the subject.”

Laronde had followed. “How touching, and nothing to do with wanting to know when he’ll be out of a job,” he said, softly but in English so Atsumu could understand.

“I’m healing,” Toussaint interrupted, and grimaced. “Rotator cuff tear, so surgery was required. There’s a long way to go yet.”

“Yeah, it looked nasty,” Atsumu said.

“You were at the match?”

“Ah, no, I watched on television.”

“And you got your job application in straight away, eh?”

He rounded on Laronde. “No, I did not! Will you quit—”

“He grabbed his chance as soon as you were hurt. You heard him!”

“François,” Toussaint said, his voice soothing. “My injury is not Miya’s fault. As soon as we knew I’d be out for a while, Berniére and Allarde asked my opinion in who I thought were the best setters and …” He gave Atsumu a long look. “I watched your games. I wish we’d had a chance to play against each other.”

“And you couldn’t afford Oikawa Tooru, right?” Tendou quipped. “’Tsumu, I’m kidding!”

Toussaint gaped at Tendou, taking in all his dragon laden kimono glory. “You know Oikawa Tooru?” Then he toned down the awe, squinting at him “You look familiar. Are you a volleyball player too?”

“No, he makes sweets,” Laronde grumbled. “That’s all.”

“Yeah, that’s me. But I have played against Oikawa. Back in the day, my team used to beat his regularly. We had an Ace who was reasonable.”

Atsumu kept his face straight.

“And who was that?” Toussaint asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Ushijima Wakatoshi. Heard of him?” He smirked. “Hi there, I’m Tendou Satori and yeah, I make sweets.”

“Satori… yeah, I’ve been in your shop. In fact, I just gave Marie a box of your truffles.”

“Well, that’s nice to know I have one customer,” Tendou replied and graced Toussaint with one of his more becoming smiles. “So it must have sucked being out the game.”

“Another one who is direct.” Toussaint laughed. “Yes, it did suck, but then it gave me a chance to focus on other things.”

“Like what?” Tendou asked.

“Other things?” Laronde queried, eyes widening.

There was a beat of a pause, a look that flashed between Toussaint and Atsumu, a moment, he thought later, of complete understanding.

What do you do with your life when your path now has a barricade?

The Toussaint chuckled and with his good hand, pushed his hair back off his face. “I read a lot of books and watched a lot of films. Still got a stack left, though.”

“You said treatment was going well,” Laronde said, almost accusing.

“Mmm, it is, but best not to push, right?”

The words were loaded, yet Laronde, instead of protesting, stared at his hands then backed away saying he needed another drink.

“I think alcohol is the last thing he needs right now,” Toussaint said with a sigh. “I am sorry. We’ve been friends for years and he’s …uh … protective.”

“Forget it,” Atsumu muttered with a wave of his hand. “I don’t expect everyone to like me. I’m … um … not easy. I have a temper, and … what’s the word, Satori?”

“He’s an abrasive, bad-tempered bastard—at least you were when I knew you back in high school—but he’s mellowed now.”

“Not that much, I hope,” Toussaint replied. “The Chanticleers could do with a kick. Jeter un pave dans la mare!” he exclaimed, then moved his hands up and down, as he glanced at Tendou. “Comprenez?”

“It literally means throw a paving stone into a pond,” Tendou explained. “Make waves.”

“Make them flow instead of stagnating,” Toussaint insisted. “Anyway, I should catch up with the others. I hope to see you at training soon.”

“Mmm, sure. Um … thank you.”

“What for?”

“I’ve got your spot. You could have ignored me. Instead you’ve been … uh … welcoming.”

Toussaint smirked. “Maybe this is the feint and I’m about to take you out the game, Miya.”

He laughed out loud, loving the audacity. “Well, good luck with that, Toussaint!”

“It’s Olivier,” he said, lips twitching.

“Call me Atsumu.”

A beer and then plates of a delicious Bœuf Bourguignon later, and Atsumu was slyly checking his watch when du Bois announced he was putting the volleyball on. “I’m guessing otherwise you’ll all leave, otherwise, especially Atsumu and Tendou.”

“Ah, cool. It’s Wakatoshi’s match up first,” Tendou said as they settled into cushions on the floor and the TV flared into life. He continued to chatter, half in English and half in French to Lafayette and du Bois, telling them more stories about Ushijima. As Pool B matches were scheduled for the rest of the afternoon, and as Shouyou’s team were in Pool A, Atsumu felt a disconnect, knowing he could watch with an objective eye. He sipped more beer, helped himself to some of the truffles Tendou had brought, and relaxed into a beanbag as he chatted to Perez during the build up. And then …

“Highlights from yesterday!” Tendou declared. “Great, I missed them, and yay, it’s the shrimp’s match.

“Uh…” He twisted his head round, facing the screen and leaving the rest of his conversation with Perez unsaid because there on the television was Shouyou, lightning fast across the court and jumping as if he had electronic springs in his shoes to score Sao Paulo’s last point of the first set and asserting their dominance over the Iranian side.

Gahh, I miss setting for you, playing alongside you and … I just miss you, Shou-kun.  He sniffed, wiped rebellious tears leaking from his eyes and then made an excuse to leave the room. Tendou was watching, but he gave him a grin back, and then walked to the kitchen to stare out of the window at the du Bois garden.

Someone joined him and he looked down to see Charlie sipping on a juice. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Ah, I’m fine, Charlie-kun,” he mumbled. “Needed a break. You have a nice garden.”

“Papa says he’ll build me a treehouse in the Spring.”

“Whoa, that’s cool. We had one when we were kids, although it wasn’t that high up because our mom thought we’d push each other out.” His hands gripped the counter top, the sudden nostalgia for his childhood home overwhelming him as he remembered summers spent in their garden, picnicking on whatever they could scavenge from the fridge, the initial thrill, the inevitable fights, and then forgetting it all when the next thing came along. “She was probably right. Hey, anymore of those Nanaimo bars?”

Charlie fetched the plate from the fridge and together they sat at the table, Atsumu drinking water, knowing if he drank more his melancholic mood would deepen.

Then Tendou wandered in, kimono swishing as he shimmied towards them. “The build up to these games gets crazier, and Perez has gone doki-doki when ever his former teammates appear. Ohh, private party! Room for one more?”

Pushing out a chair, Atsumu nudged the plate of Nanaimo bars Tendou’s way.

“Thanks.” He munched on the food. “You know, I need to make a version of these for the shop. Might have to take you on as a taster, Charlie-boy.”

“I’d like that.” He dimpled a smile at Tendou. “I like your kimono, too. You’re both awesome!”

“That we are!”

Swallowing his water, Atsumu smirked, and handed over his phone to Charlie. “Will you take some photos?”

He took several, especially after Tendou pulled dumb faces in most of them, overshadowing Atsumu when he was pulling his best cool warrior face. In the end, Atsumu settled on one where they were both smiling and sent it to Osamu. Then he sent one where he was doing his best Roy Mustang impression, and Tendou was laughing, to Shouyou.

<<What’s the food in the background>> Samu sent in reply. <<Did they like the onigiri?>>

Typical.

<<Looking good, ‘Tsumu!>> Shouyou texted. <<Are you watching the match?>>

And yeah, that was typical too.

So he went into as much detail as he could for ‘Samu, sending close-ups of each plate, but for Shouyou he sent him an assurance he would be watching, and much love.

<<Play well tomorrow>>

<<Not in the team>>

<<Uh, wut?>>

<<Getting rested. Big squad and well, you know>>

<<Crazy! UR their best player!!!>>

<<You’re biased>>

<<No, I’m a great setter>>

<<That too.>>

<<Are you at the match>>

<<Not yet>>

<<I’ll keep a lookout.>>

<<I’ll wave at the camera>>

<<I want more than a wave>>

<<ha ha haaaaa xxx>>

“Your brother okay?” Tendou asked, sounding innocent.

“That’s not … uh … yeah, he’s cool and wants more food pictures. “Where’s that panettone?”

“Guys, match is about to start!” du Bois called.

So they left the quiet of the kitchen, tugging Charlie along with them, and returned to the volleyball emporium that was the du Bois lounge. He was welcomed back with a high five from Perez and a plea that he had to support the team from Valencia.

“My old team.”

“Ah yeah, but there’s Wakatoshi!” Atsumu said seriously.

“New teammate over old, Atsumu!” Perez protested. “And all those tosses of yours I hit.”

“You got a point. Go Castellon!”

The match was a balanced display of power and finesse, with Wakatoshi tearing through the Castellon defence as if they were a gauze curtain and not an impregnable stone wall, and although he’d said he’d support the Spanish team, there was something so breathtaking about Warszawa’s play that day, he couldn’t stop the fist bumps and yells over to Tendou when they won yet another point. Yet they were long rallies, the Spanish side putting up a superb display but unable to make it count at the final moment.

And then, as the teams changed ends, and Castellon took a time out, the cameras panned across the crowd, and although he was behind one of the immensely broad-shouldered Brazilian Middle Blockers, the red hair was unmistakeable.

“Ah, there’s the ninja!” Tendou exclaimed. “I played against him once. Jeez, he’s a handful, eh, Atsumu?”

Half-listening, his eyes bored into the screen and over one thousand, four hundred and twenty kilometres willing Shouyou to look at the camera. And as if he’d heard, Shouyou peeked above his teammates head, and the camera caught him giving his screwed up wink-which was more of a blink- and blowing a kiss to the camera.

Ridiculously happy, he spluttered on his water, coughing so much Charlie had to whack him on the back.

<<Nearly choked on my water. Ur a minx>>

<<Eyes on the game, ‘Tsumu!>>

Then he sent another text.

<<Watch the Middle Blockers for me, will you? Could get either one of these in the semis. Ask Tendou-san, too xxx>>

 

Much to Perez’s despair, the game ended in a resounding victory for Ushijima’s side, but even the most ardent Castellon fan had to admit they were outplayed.

“Must be favourites now,” Lafayette said, draining his beer, and levering himself off the floor a touch unsteadily. “They were so good against us, I’m not surprised. Title has to be Warszawa’s. Anyone want another? Atsumu, still nursing your water?”

“Mmm, I’m fine.” He got his phone out, frowning as he concentrated.

<<Initial thoughts: They’re strong and solid, but not fast. They don’t use the width of the court. You’ve got springs in your shoes. You can fly. Speak later. xx>>

“Is that the Ninja man?” Charlie whispered, looking over his shoulder and obviously seeing Shouyou’s profile picture.

“Yeah, it is. I used to play on the same team as him,” Atsumu replied, and put his phone away.

He still used the same picture for him, a snap he’d taken from when Shouyou had first pulled on his MSBY shirt, before they were an item, before they’d even played a match, but Atsumu had known from then that everything was about to change.

“You cannot ignore Roma,” Cascarino protested. “Their setter is —”

“Beatable,” Atsumu drawled. “But, yeah, Tobio’s the kind of setter you need to get past those blockers. And he knows Ushiwaka’s game inside out.”

“Who do you think will win the tourney?” du Bois asked.

“São Paulo,” Atsumu replied and shrugged in an attempt at nonchalance. “Okay, I’m a little biased, because he’s an old teammate, but they’ve got that spark.”

 

~The Tale of Chanticleer and the Fox~

There was no training the following day—Berniére assessing that the majority of the team would be hungover had decided they could have the day off—so Atsumu took himself off to the park again for a run.

It was a cold morning, with frost in the air nipping at his cheeks and dragging at his lungs on every indrawn breath. He started slowly, letting his limbs warm up before he stretched and increased his pace.

The park wasn’t busy—too early maybe for the Parisians even those with young families—so there were fewer dogs and cyclists to dodge and he found the voices in his head which had plagued him the first time he’d run here, had quietened, leaving him to his own thoughts.

He’d enjoyed the party. It surprised him how much, given that he was away from his home and everything familiar. But then, he’d been in Paris, been a player for the Chanticleers for over two months now, and he felt a familiarity in the sights sounds and smells of the streets. He liked the contrasts, and was pleased he could recognise them. The sophistication living side-by-side with eclectic artistry.  It reminded him of Japan, of home, and the realisation that places could be both different and the same, light and shade. Old culture clashing with the brash.

Like me parachuting into their henhouse.

And maybe that was Laronde’s problem. Atsumu was too much for him and his usual ways of doing stuff. Well, tough shit. I’m here now and not going anywhere.

When he pondered it afterwards, his initial thought had been that he’d manifested Laronde by ruminating too much on the guy. His dark thoughts giving form to the pinch server, for when he rounded the corner of the field, Laronde was ahead of him, his figure familiar but unwelcome. He refused to turn back, but remembering the continual sniping from yesterday, he didn’t have to acknowledge him, so he upped his stride pattern instead and smoothed his way past him without so much as a ‘hi’.  He wasn’t exactly surprised when a short while later he heard footsteps and from the side of his eye, he caught a wisp of Laronde encroaching on his right side.

So of course he ran faster.

And of course Laronde increased his pace.

And then they were running almost side by side like a relay team except neither wanted to hand over the baton. Neither spoke to the other, not even curse words. Neither looked or smiled or in any way showed they knew the other was there. It was, in a way, reminiscent of running with ‘Samu back at school, except that always ended in a collapsed heap together, whereas he had the feeling if he didn’t show Laronde a clean pair of heels then it would end in harsh words and harder fists.

Laronde huffed alongside him, eyes dead ahead, still ignoring his ‘companion’ as they approached a narrower path lined with trees. And as Laronde got ahead, Atsumu was faced with a choice: be sensible and drop back or take him on.

Was there a choice?

He sped up, assessing the gap ahead and knowing it would be tight, but he could make it, slip past Laronde and then make his break along the path, like the dying hundred meters in a fifteen-hundred meter race.

What he wasn’t prepared for was the elbow in the ribs.

“Hey!” He dodged around Laronde, skipped onto the verge and inched around him

Laronde raised his arm. “Get out of my way!”

“Your way? Since when?” he spat back, glancing over his shoulder.

“I was ahead of you.”

“And I should drop back,” Atsumu puffed, “because of that?”

“It is my right of way.”

“We’re running. There is no right of way.”

“I was here first.” He’d edged up to Atsumu. “You should not have passed me.”

“That was back in the field. Free run, Laronde.”

“It is not polite!”

“So I drop back because you’re in the lead? Like forever?”

“What?” Laronde scuffed the ground with his toe, falling forwards. His arms windmilled as he strove to keep his balance. On instinct Atsumu righted him, grabbing his jacket. “Get off me!”

“Sorry for saving you from falling on your face! Hey, I want to know how your running theory works. Does it apply to everything? Do we stop trying in a match when we fall behind? Stop the competition when someone pulls ahead?”

“This is not a competition!” Laronde yelled and seized his arm.

“Everything is, you asswipe!” Atsumu shouted. “Let go of me.”

When Laronde gripped tighter, Atsumu shoved him away, then turned to the path and started to run again. “Okay, let’s go with your theory, and you stay there, Laronde. Stuck forever.”

And he guessed he shouldn’t have said the last two words, but he was so bound up with frustration and fury at the intransigence of the guy that he didn’t stop before he finished speaking. And he didn’t pay due care to all his senses and didn’t hear the footsteps pounding up behind him until it was far too late, and he was face down on the ground resting mud after a flying tackle sent him tumbling to the ground.

“MERDE ARROGANTE!” Laronde yelled, attempting to turn him over.

And Atsumu should have been scared of getting a pummelling, but he wasn’t a Miya twin for nothing and all the years of battles and scraps and fights had taught him far too much about an opponent’s weak spots and how to get free. He flipped himself onto his back, raised his hands to gain leverage and used his knees and feet to force Laronde off him.

Getting up, he wiped the mud off his face, and watched as Laronde, now winded, gasped for breath.

“Why do you hate me? What is it? Because I’m Japanese?”

“No!” Laronde shouted from the ground. “It is because you are arrogant.”

“Every setter’s arrogant. Every fucking sportsperson is an arrogant bastard. At least the good ones are. It’s what makes us winners!”

“And that’s what you are, eh?”

“I’m not doing too bad, am I? Got signed by the Chanticleers. Your team wouldn’t sign a loser.” Feeling twinge in his shoulder from when he’d landed, he added coldly, “Although they don’t seem to offload them.”

He could see the punch coming his way, but too late to dodge, he flailed with one arm to defend his face, then grabbed Laronde’s wrist.

“DO NOT FUCKING TOUCH ME!”

“DO NOT CALL ME A LOSER!” Laronde shouted. His face purple with exertion and anger, he raised his other hand, this time catching Atsumu off guard as he landed a punch on his nose.

“FUCK YOU!” Atsumu lashed out, but his fist failed to land on Laronde, who dodged.

(And even in that moment, Atsumu couldn’t fail to be impressed with his reflexes.)

His hand landed instead on the side of Laronde’s chest and he shoved him away.

Nose stinging, he felt a familiar warm sensation before the taste of copper reached his mouth.

“Great. A nose bleed! If you’ve broken it, I’ll fucking have you! I’m sure the coach is going to be really happy you’ve taken the setter out—”

But his anger abated, words stopping in his mouth as Laronde’s face lost its colour, his breathing shallow.

“Your nose,” he gasped.

“Jeez, please don’t tell me you faint at the sight of blood.”

“No, no,” he shook his head, then pulled out a large handkerchief from his pocket, offering it to Atsumu. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“Well, you did,” Atsumu spat, but after a beat he accepted the handkerchief, dabbing it onto his nose.

“I should not have punched you,” Laronde said as he approached, which all things considered was pretty brave given that Atsumu still wanted to punch him back. “I am sorry.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” His nose was numbing now, and the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. He dabbed it a little more, then felt it gingerly. Probably not broken. “I shouldn’t have … um … said you were a loser. I don’t mean said, but can’t think of the word, uh … hinted?”

“Implied,” Laronde muttered. “And maybe you are right. I have not progressed.”

“Does it bother you?” Atsumu asked. “You’re still playing and still valuable to the club.”

“Would it bother you?”

“Well, yeah, but then I’m—”

“Special?”

“No, I’m restless. It’s not a great thing. I’m unsettled, or at least I’m not happy being settled.” He sniffed, then regretted it. “I left my team because I needed another challenge, and … you know … I like it at the Chanticleers, and I’m learning so much from everyone—even you—but I miss them. I miss my family and friends a lot.”

“You have Tendou. You’ve made friends here,” Laronde replied.

“Satori is fun, getting to know him helps, and the guys are cool, but this isn’t my home.”

“Hmm, I understand. You took the move I never did,” Laronde said. “I lived here and joined the Chanticleers from school. Back then, I was ‘up and coming’. Now, I’ve … uh … gone.” His lips twitched as he tried a joke, and then he sighed.

“What are you talking about? You play for a top French side!”

“Sometimes. Most of the time, I wait.”

“If your court time bothers you that much, then you could sign for another club.”

“Mmm, it is balancing which bothers me more, I suppose.”

“I thought that was me,” Atsumu said wryly. “Still don’t know why you hate me so much. I know I’m annoying and big-headed but surely not more than Lafayette.”

At that Laronde snorted. “He is an acquired taste.” Brushing his hair off his face he let out a sigh. “I don’t hate you, exactly, just what you might mean.”

“Huh?”

“You’re a world class player, Atsumu.”

“It’s envy? Is that all?”

He shook his head. “Olivier is too.” He stopped talking then huffed out a breath bracing himself to face Atsumu with the truth. “I want to play at the Worlds. It’s been a dream to play for the Chanticleers at the team championships for a very long time.”

“That’s not impossible. Qualifiers start next year, and look, last time you lost by a whisker to Warsaw, but they’re beatable.”

“I know that. But. Okay, this is the confession, Atsumu,” he said and began to gesticulate with his hands as the words tumbled out of him. “I want Olivier to get us there. I want him back as captain and setter and for us to win the thing. It is irrational, but I don’t want you to be a part of that. It is our dream, and not yours.”

“Even if me being here gets you that qualification spot? Toussaint’s recovery isn’t going to be quick. Not for the early rounds.”

“I said it was irrational.” He shrugged. “And unfair, but I don’t want you having the success that’s meant for him.”

“Oh … uh … are you two …um…” He linked his fingers. “Are you two together?”

Laronde laughed. “I am not gay, if that’s what you’re thinking. But we’re close. We were at school together.”

“Ah, I understand that.”  He got up, touched his nose again, and was satisfied that it was nothing serious.

“Are you going to tell Berniére what happened?” Laronde asked, sounding resigned. “Only I’d rather tell him myself.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Anyone asks I’ll say I ran into a tree. Uh, one thing though, you do know my contract is temporary.”

“They might extend it.”

“Who says I’d accept? There are other challenges, Laronde. So are we good now?”

“I think so. You’re still the most arrogant player I’ve ever met.”

He grinned. “Yeah, I know.”

***

Tendou’s text had been brief.

<<Lunch today?>>

<<Late one, yeah.>>

<<Restaurant over the road from my shop at 3.>>

<<See you then. Any reason?>>

<<I’ll explain when I see you. Oh and no crowing about your crow, got it>>

Atsumu grinned. <<Sure>>

“You look happy?” du Bois said. “Some good news?”

“Just Tendou suggesting lunch. He might pay as long as I don’t mention Shouyou’s team stuffing Wakatoshi’s in the semi.” He paused to consider, pulling on his training top. “Think it would be worth me paying just so I can see him crack.”

“It was hardly a stuffing,” Laronde said. “Your friend played very well, but it was close.”

It was five days after their fight, and although Atsumu didn’t think they’d ever be bosom buddies, he found he could rub along with him quite easily. And if the others had noticed the thaw between Atsumu and Laronde, they tactfully didn’t mention it.

“He really does have springboards in his shoes, eh?” Lafayette interjected. “Will he be happy playing Roma in the final? Home team are the favourites.”

“Ha, yeah. It’s his dream to beat Tobio as many times as possible.” Tucking his necklace inside his shirt, he beamed at them all. “Okay, bring on the three-on-threes, I’m ready!”

Du Bois grabbed his shoulders, giving him a shake. “What have you done with the real Atsumu? Give him back!”

 

It was a good practise, one of the better ones since Atsumu had joined, one where his tosses worked, and his serves were strong from the off. The sort of practise he relished in the build up to a match, which was a shame because they had no match that Saturday due to the World’s final.

And Toussaint had turned up. Observing the three-on-threes from the sidelines for much of it, he held a weight in his hand swinging it like a pendulum as he exercised his shoulder and yelled encouragement.

“You have some movement,” Atsumu remarked when he was swapped out. “That’s good, right?”

“Still stiff, but this exercise works as well as the others and I’m getting a little more rotation.”

“Won’t be long,” Laronde said, joining them.

“If you’re saying that to provoke Atsumu then stop,” Toussaint warned.

“It’s fine,” Atsumu replied, and reaching over, he soft-punched Laronde on the arm.

“We have reached une entente cordiale,” Laronde replied with a smile.

“It’s disconcerting,” du Bois interrupted. “But they both seem to be playing well with each other.”

What du Bois said was true, it seemed as if hating Atsumu had been a burden weighing too heavy on Laronde’s shoulders, but now he’d been able to shrug it off, his world view had shifted and his play was looser, less restrictive and far less predictable.

Taking chances doesn’t have to be about changing teams, Atsumu thought, watching now as Laronde swapped in again.

“I still have a way to go,” Toussaint muttered. “But I am getting there, you know.”

“I’m pleased.” He meant it.

“Even if I take your spot, Monsieur Miya?”

“Toussaint, you’re a true player and the heart of that Olympic team. When you crashed on the floor, I …” He stopped and licked his lips. “I felt it. And much as I want to be the best, I want it to be because I am the best and not the last setter standing.”

***

“You’re looking in the pink!” Tendou catcalled as he approached.

“It’s salmon not pink,” Atsumu replied pulling at his shirt. “Gah, I am starving.”

“Good practice?”

“Yeah, very, but I didn’t even stop for an energy bar so lemme see the menu.”

“Relax, I’ve ordered already.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t have long as really busy in the shop, but it’s a cheese platter and some other stuff.”

“We could have met another time if you’re busy,” Atsumu said, puzzled.

Tendou didn’t reply, but waved the waitress over as she brought the wine, two glasses and a carafe of water.

“Try this,” he said, pouring Atsumu a small glass. “It’s perfect for lunch, not too heavy, but full of flavour.”

Remembering the tasting, Atsumu sniffed, sipped, then sluiced the wine around his mouth. Blackcurrenty, he thought with approval and set the glass down for some more.

“My gahhd, I’ve converted Miya Atsumu to wine – it’s a modern day miracle.”

“When in Rome …” He drank some more. “Not that I’m in Rome.”

“Ah, yes, to be in Rome,” sighed Tendou and fluttered his eyelashes. “What could be going on?”

Subconsciously fiddling with his necklace, taking some small comfort from the representation of Shouyou he could hold next to his skin, Atsumu grinned. “I thought I wasn’t allowed to mention the match.”

“Very true. Ah-ha, here comes the food.”

It wasn’t the platter, for on the plate were two steaming bowls of a thick soup laden with cheese.

“Ohhh, this smells good.”

“French onion soup. I thought you should try it. There’s a crouton in there too, so it should fill you up.”

As he slurped (he was hungry, table manners be damned) it occurred to Atsumu how French this all was. The food and the wine: onion soup with hunks of bread, and drinking wine with this late lunch was such a French thing to do, in his eyes. All I need now is a flurry of cyclists and an accordion player, and that’s the clichés well and truly lived up to.

“You must have needed that,” remarked Tendou, who was only halfway down his bowl. “Things okay with the team?”

“Yep, all cool.”

“With all of them?” Tendou quirked an eyebrow.

“Mmm, even Laronde.”

“And that bruising around your nose.”

“Ah, I kinda fell into his fist, but we’re good now. Like old times and fighting with ‘Samu.” He licked his lips as the platter arrived, helping himself to some bread to soak up the rest of his soup. “Sorry, it was a great practise and I worked hard, and I’m pretty dumb and stupid when I’m hungry, but I’ll wait for you to finish your soup before I have any more.”

“I’m fine. Appetite of a sparrow, especially now I no longer play.  I eat by osmosis and chocolate fumes these days. Tuck in.”

He drank some wine instead, popped a grape into his mouth, and then asked Tendou a few questions about his day, learning that he was actually working on the Nanaimo bar truffle, which he was going to name after Charlie. “He came in the shop with his mum and sister, so I gave him a little lesson in chocolate piping. Might turn it into a thing, actually, with local kids.”

“Not adults?”

“Kids are more fun.” Finishing his soup, he speared a cube of cheese. “So, the elephant in the room is … where are you watching the final?”

“Not sure. Cascarino said I could go to his, so I might, but depends what you’re doing really?”

“Me?” Tendou grimaced. “I’m flattered, ‘Tsumu, but sadly I’m going to be working, which is a real bummer.”

“Aww, I’d like to watch with you. Can’t Mathilde hold the fort?”

“As I was saying before you interrupted,” Tendou said, glaring. “It’s a real bummer because … I happen to have this.” Reaching into his jacket pocket he pulled out a brown envelope, and face side down pushed it over to Atsumu.

“What’s this?”

“Take a look.”

He turned it over, saw his name on the front along with a small drawing of a fox in a Santa hat, and glared back at Tendou. “What is this?” he repeated.

“Early Christmas present.”

If he’d known what it was, he was sure his hands would have trembled, but instead thinking it was an invite to another wine tasting, or hopefully beer, he ripped it open with a knife then rifled through the contents.

It wasn’t an invitation. And there wasn’t a Christmas card. What dropped out of the envelope and onto his crumpled napkin was a ticket—actually two tickets—one for a flight and the other …

Once the breath had returned to his body, Atsumu yelled, “For the final? WHAAAT? Satori! How did you—why did you—what the fuck!!! Are you serious?”

“Deadly.  Look, it’s no biggie.”

“Yeah, yeah it is. How d’you get hold of this? They’re like gold dust!”

“Friend of a friend. Actually it’s Jerome who has a friend in Rome and … look, it really isn’t a big deal. I was planning on going myself but then your guy beat my guy and I really should stay here and work because Jeez, it’s nearly Christmas and we’re kinda rushed off our feet, and I had the flight ticket just in case, but I got the name changed and …what are you doing?” He batted Atsumu away. “Get off me.”

“NO NO NO, Come here and let me hug you, Guess Monster. I’m going to Rome. I’m gonna see Shou-kun. OH MY FUCKING GOD I’M GOING TO SNOG THE LIFE OUT OF HIM!”

“Do that after the match, or he’ll never get to play,” Tendou laughed, submitting to the hug. “Now get off me. Your cheese’ll get cold.”

“Wow. I’m not hungry anymore. Jeez, I have to pack. And get in touch with Shouyou. Or shall I surprise him? What d’you think?”

“He’s your boyfriend, sweetcheeks. Would he want to be surprised? Your hunkiness might put him right off his game.”

“Ha. Nothing and I mean nothing can put Shouyou off his game.” He lifted his glass, clinked it to Tendou’s then glugged back the rest of his wine.

“To São Paulo and Hinata!” Tendou toasted.

“Nope, I’ll do that tomorrow.” He poured more wine into both their glasses then raised his again. “To Paris, Tendou Satori, and friendship. And thank you again.”

“Forget it.” He swallowed a gulp of wine. “I love France, you know. I’m settled here, but I admit it, there are times I ache for decent donburi. Or even proper rice. It’s good having you around, and having that connection to home. So, to you, as well, Miya Atsumu.”

Flushing, Atsumu fumbled a grape dropping it on the floor. “Please, please thank Jerome for me, too.”

Tendou flashed him a wink. “I’ll be sure to do that. Now, eat some more food. Don’t want you fainting all over Hinata.”

***

<<WAKEY WAKEY RISE AND SHINE SHOUYOU!!>>

<<I am awake. Why are you up so early, SleepyTsumu?>>

<<No reason. What you up to?>>

<<Going for a run. No one else is awake, but you know me.>>

<<In a gym?>>

<<Noooo, through Rome. It’s actually really quiet this time of the morning and not much traffic, so ideal>>

<<See any sights?>>

<<Some. They have a lot of churches here>>

<<What about that big fountain thing?>>

<<Trevi? Yeah, that’s close>>

<<Throw a coin in it for me, will you?>>

<<Hmm?>>

<<Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do. Throw a coin in backwards and it means you’ll return. If you throw one in for me, maybe we can come back together>>

<<Sounds like a plan.>>

<<And send me a photo!>>

<<Yep. Okay, setting off now.>>

It was seven thirty in the morning. Atsumu had landed in Rome an hour earlier to a crisp, cold December day. Wrapped up in a thick jacket (borrowed from Tendou) scarf, gloves and a woolly bobble hat, he’d taken a taxi to the city centre and was now leaning against the barricade around the Trevi fountain.

“Don’t swim in the fountain,” Cascarino had warned him. “You will be fined or even locked up and then you’ll miss the game.”

“Too cold!”

“In fact don’t even sit on the lip. They might not be lenient with you. Take coins.”

“Why?”

“To throw in, of course. One means you’ll return, two means you’ll find love and three means you will marry. Now, do you need a place to stay? My cousin lives there and she’ll put you up.”

“Nah, flying visit. Land early, leave later that night.”

“Then you definitely have to throw in a coin, or how else will you see the beauty of Roma!”

He’d finished his coffee and to keep his circulation going, Atsumu walked around the fountain, taking some snaps from different angles. Cascarino had told him it was a busy attraction, but the early hour and the cold meant he had good views as very few people were around. Cascarino had also given Atsumu a crash course in the history of the fountain, but he’d not taken much of it in, only remembering that the dude in the centre riding a chariot was some kind of god of the sea. It was all sculpted, he knew that, and yet if he squinted he really could imagine it was set on rocks and the waves thundering down were the actual sea and not hewn from marble.

He scanned the square, thinking perhaps he should hide now, but just as he’d had that thought, a figure jogged into view, bundled up in leggings, shorts, a jacket gloves and a pale blue hat. And even though the hat was pulled down over his ears and covered every curl, Atsumu knew if he whipped it off, he’d reveal hair as vibrant as a sunset. He turned away, watching out of the side of his eyes as Shouyou approached the fountain, then stopped and pulled out his phone. He held it up to take a selfie—or so Atsumu thought—but seeing his lips move, he realised Shouyou was going to video the coin toss as well, so with a grin he crept closer.

“So what I need to do now is throw some coins in,” Shouyou said to his phone. “One is that I’ll return, two I’ll find love, three and I’ll marry. Hmm, I do want to return, but I want to return with you, and the coin thing doesn’t really take that into account.”

At that point he broke off reaching into his pocket to pull out some change. Atsumu took his chance, pattering softly from his hiding place he slunk behind Shouyou, pretending he was tying a lace

“And two? Well, I’ve already found love. Maybe I’ll throw two but individ— WHAT!!!!”

Atsumu stood up, grinned then plumped his chin on Shouyou’s shoulder. “Hello.”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

“Uh, someone told me there was a volleyball match going on, and there’s this opposite hitter—” he snaked his hands around Shouyou’s waist, holding him close and kissed his cheek, “—who’s really hot and I might, just might, find love with him.”

Fumbling with his phone, Shouyou gasped and spun around in Atsumu’s arms to face him. “You got a ticket? I thought you couldn’t.”

“My guardian angel in the form of Satori and his new boyfriend gifted me one. Um…” He stared down at Shouyou, taking in everything about his face—the tan, the new freckles he’d not divined over camera, and then, he gulped, the fact that the hat had a fox motif embroidered on the front. “Love the hat,” he tried to mutter, but the words caught at the back of his throat.

At that Shouyou cupped his face and standing on tiptoes, dusting his lips on Atsumu’s mouth. Cold lips, slightly chapped, briefly kissing before he pulled away.

“Hey, come back,” Atsumu grumbled.

“You’re usually more … uh … circumspect in public,” Shouyou replied.

“I’m an idiot then. And I’ve missed you, and right now I never want to let you go.”

They were cold, but the shiver running through Atsumu as they kissed again had nothing to do with temperature. And he didn’t care that they might be seen, that the world’s sporting press could land upon them at a moment’s notice, all he wanted right them was to mould Shouyou’s body to his, to inhale the scent of his skin and feel that hot breath on his neck.

“Wow, Atsumu, you really have missed me,” Shouyou murmured. “How long are you here for?”

“To see you win, then I gotta go back.”

“See me win – I like the sound of that.”

“Hey, I have confidence in you,” he replied and brushed his lips to Shouyou’s forehead. “You’re cold.”

“A bit.”

“Want breakfast, or do you have to get back?”

“I’ll have a drink and watch you eat,” Shouyou decided. “Should attend the team breakfast. The Coach usually makes his most profound speeches as we’re about to tuck in.”

The cafe they found, was bustling with take-out customers, but had a table for two in the corner and an obliging waitress who smiled at Shouyou’s attempts at Italian then replied in perfect English. A short while later she returned with a hot chocolate and biscotti for Shouyou and a cappuccino for Atsumu, assuring him his ‘crespelle’ were being made fresh.

“I need to take a picture of this for Satori,” Atsumu said when his pancakes stuffed with banana and chocolate arrived. “He’s obsessed with chocolate.”

“It’s his job,” Shouyou replied. “He might say you’re obsessed with volleyball.”

“Both vocations, I guess,” Atsumu said and started to tuck in. “So, you’re definitely starting, right?”

He nodded as he dipped his biscotti into his drink, letting it soak in the thick gloopy liquid before biting into it. “Got told after the semi. I was a bit worried that … um …”

“What?”

“The fact Kageyama knows my game inside out might have meant I was sidelined.”

“Huh? You evolve like a Pokémon, Shou-kun, and Tobio won’t be able to keep up. ‘Sides, it works both ways. Saw that against Ushiwaka.”

“Any advice about Roma?”

“You’ve got the best coach in Brazil, I’m sure you don’t need my thoughts,” Atsumu mumbled, but he was flattered.

“You’re good on details.” He dipped another biscotti on his drink, swirling slowly. “I miss playing with you.”

“Rubbish.” He reached across and taking Shouyou’s hand he gave it a squeeze. “Buddy, are you okay?”

“Not sure. This is the final.”

“It’s nerves, that’s all.” He started to fork up more pancake, then stopped seeing Shouyou was still stirring his chocolate. “Roma are quick, but you’re quicker. São Paulo are physically stronger, although Tobio will be well aware of that, and he’ll send tricksy tosses to his hitters. But you and … there’s an Outside Hitter of yours, uh, got side moves a bit like Suna…”

“Ribiero? Thirteen?”

“Yeah, that’s the guy, He’s speedy too. The pair of you can beat Roma at their own game, while the Middle Blockers close everything down.” Holding out the pancake on his fork, he offered it to Shouyou who accepted it and munched, gesturing for Atsumu to continue. “Your setter doesn’t use you enough.”

“I’ll say it again, you’re biased.”

“It’s true, though. And that fucks up the possibility of you being a decoy. He’s strong, and his tosses are accurate, but he’s kinda predictable, and Tobio will know that. Might unnerve him, though.”

“Because he focuses on the setters.”

“Because he knows how much he wants to toss for you, so it’ll puzzle him.” He slurped some coffee, washing down the pancake in his mouth. “At least, it would me.”

“How are the Chanticleers?” Shouyou asked after a while.

“They’re .. uh … we’re good. Gearing up for the next game.”

“And your pinch server. Are things okay with him or has he reverted to being an ass again?”

“I understand him more now, and I get where he’s coming from.”

“That he’d rather his team lost because his friend isn’t playing?” Shouyou snorted. “Game of six not two, ‘Tsumu. Especially as it’s not like you took Toussaint out with a metal bat.”

Atsumu shrugged then shovelled more food in his mouth. “I’m cool with it. And it wasn’t him wanting to lose, exactly, more he didn’t want Toussaint to miss out.”

Shouyou raised his eyebrow but didn’t question it. “Where’s your seat?”

“With your supporters. Satori assumed he’d be watching Wakatoshi. So in the middle of the first tier at the front.”

“I’ll look out for you, and I’ll tell Natsu, so wave at the camera to her, will you?”

“How’s she doing? She stayed with the Angels, right?”

He nodded. “On tenterhooks seeing if she’ll get an under 21s call-up. I’m more nervous for her than I was for me.” Staring right into Atsumu’s eyes, he said softly, “I know you won’t want to worry me before a game, but you’d tell me if things were shit, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course. Shouyou, I did tell you everything, which was more than I told ‘Samu. Things are fine. They’re good. I’ve made some friends—not just Satori— and we’re playing well. Not only that, but the supporters love me, and ‘Fermez vos Bouches’ has made it onto t shirts! And … uh …” He lowered his voice. “I haven’t had that nightmare for a while.”

“That is good. Can’t be worrying you as much.”

He thought back to Toussaint swinging his arm like a pendulum. And maybe it’s because I know it’s not necessarily the end of everything.

“I’ve been sounded out about extending my contract,” Atsumu said, ultra-casually. Throwing the paving slab into the sea. Waiting for the waves.

“Oh.” Shouyou pushed his half empty cup away. “What will you do?”

“Not think about it until I’ve watched you beat Tobio.”

“Why? Will the result today affect your future plans?” Shouyou asked, squinting at him.

He paused before replying, then leant over the table and rubbed a smear of chocolate off Shouyou’s cheek. “Will it affect yours?”

“No.”

***

The table at the local restaurant was large enough for them all, plus partners and children, and friends and anyone else who tagged along. Atsumu listened in on the conversations swirling around him in a multitude of languages, but was content to sit back in his chair, sip the beer in his hand and ponder the game.

They’d won. It had been a good match, one of the best he’d played in, and better than that the result had assured them a spot in the qualifying rounds for Worlds. He’d served well, and signalled ‘SHHHH’ to the fans while Cascarino on the sidelines had conducted the crowd as they chanted ‘Fermez vos bouches. Fermez vos bouches!’ In the front row, Laronde had been laughing, then focused back on the game as Atsumu’s serve was received and returned, but he’d guessed the direction correctly and scored a blockout.

“You look pensive. What are you thinking about, Atsumu?” Laronde asked.

“That last point.”

“It was … uh … satisfying.”

“As satisfying as playing the whole game?”

Laronde shrugged the epitome of a Gallic shrug and one corner of his mouth lilted upwards. “Last game of the season. It’s good to mix things up, eh? What about you?”

“Hmm?”

“Being subbed out for the second again.”

Atsumu tried a shrug but knew it was half-hearted. “Not satisfying,” he replied, “but expected. He is playing well.”

Toussaint was laughing at one of Lafayette’s jokes, probably already drunk because they weren’t that funny, unless it was a language barrier the humour couldn’t pass.

“Better than ever,” Laronde murmured, faint pride powdering his voice.”Thank you.”

“What have I done?”

“Gave him something to aim for,” Laronde replied. “Chanticleer needed the fox, I think.”

“Huh?”

“You do not know the story of Chanticleer? Eh, Alain, Atsumu does not know the story behind the team name!”

“You’ve been here all this time and never asked.”

“I thought it meant chicken, like a male one.”

“Charlie,” du Bois called. “Come here and tell Atsumu the story of ‘Chanticleer and Le Renard’.”

Obediently Charlie shuffled along the bench and sat in between his father and Atsumu.

“Chanticleer was a rooster.”

“That’s a male hen, right?”

“Yes, the ones that like to crow at sunrise. And he was good at crowing.” Charlie puffed out his chest, then, after encouragement from his mum and dad, he stood up, deciding to turn this into a performance “The finest rooster in the land, he also had the finest voice. Cock-a-doodle-dooooo!”

“Cock-a-what?” Lafayette asked. “Nooo, it is COCORICO!”

“Chicchirichi!” Cascarino joined in.

“Anymore?” du Bois sighed. “Atsumu, what sound would he make in Japan?”

“Kokekokkou!” Atsumu replied, grinning.

Charlie coughed, then bent his arms into his chest to resemble flapping wings. “He was a proud rooster. Very proud of his voice, his farm and his wives.”

“Wives.”

“He had a few,” Laronde drawled. “What do you expect from a cock?”

“Moving on,” du Bois interrupted. “Charlie, tell Atsumu who Chanticleer’s favourite wife was.”

“Pertelote,” he chimed. “She was clever and Chanticleer would always ask her advice, so one morning, after he’d woken too early to crow, he flapped off to find her, and said…”

He pointed to Toussaint who got to his feet and began to cry plaintively, “I had a bad dream. I dreamt a bad creature came to eat me. He snatched me in the farm and carried me off in his mouth.”

“And Pertelote replied…” Charlie mimed a microphone, handing it to his father

“Do not worry, Chanticleer, my love,” du Bois replied in a falsetto, gazing up at Toussaint from his seat. “Dreams always mean the opposite and good fortune is on its way.”

“Chanticleer believed her,” Charlie continued, and started to prowl in front of Atsumu. “And then one day a stranger arrived at the farm.”

“Is that me?” Atsumu whispered.

“He was sly-looking.”

“Hey!”

“But handsome,” put in Marie, and wriggled in the space next to him. “I shall tell you what to do.”

“And he approached the proud and vain Chanticleer and said he wanted to hear him sing.”

“You’re on,” Marie whispered, pushing him off the seat.

“Oh, okay.” Atsumu stood up. “Chanticleer,” he said and smoothed his hair back. “I’d like to hear you sing.”

“Now, Chanticleer didn’t trust the stranger immediately because he looked like a fox.”

“Oh, I like this guy!”

“But the fox was very persuasive.”

“Aww, go on. I heard you got the best voice around.”

“I am not sure,” Toussaint replied and side-stepped away.

“I’m a big name in the music industry,” Atsumu declared and puffed on an imaginary cigar, now thoroughly enjoying himself.  “I’ll turn you into a star!”

“So Chanticleer began to sing, and then as he stretched out… the fox grabbed him by the throat—”

“Oh … uh …” With a smirk, Atsumu went to bite Toussaint, but as he dodged, laughing, he settled for holding him in a loose headlock.

“—and carried him away,” continued Charlie, “out of the farm and across the fields.”

“Looks like you’re done for, Chanticleer,” Atsumu said. “Dinnertime.”

“But…” Charlie said.

“Oh, Monsieur Renard,” Toussaint replied, “I’m sure you have a fabulous voice too.”

“Hmm?”

“I’d love to hear you sing,” the Toussaint Chanticleer said and fluttered his eyelashes.

“Um, sure,” Atsumu replied and started to sing. “La la laaaa laaaaaa!”

“You’re supposed to be holding him in your mouth,” Marie stage-whispered.

“I’m not sure I’d be dumb enough to fall for that.”

“Okay.” Du Bois stepped forward. “Monsieur Renard, please show us how you serve. I hear they are the best in the world.”

“Yeah, that works.” Atsumu released Toussaint and he mimed a serve.

Laughing as the rest of the team put their fingers to their mouths and ‘shushed’, Toussaint dodged Atsumu and hugged du Bois. “Ahh, my clever Pertelote. You saved me from the evil fox.”

“You are too proud and vain,” ‘Pertelote’ replied, then glanced at Atsumu. “You both are.”

“That’s setters for you,” Cascarino said, causing a roar of laughter from the rest of them.

“And I was hungry,” Atsumu declared, then with a bow, and some applause, he took his seat. “So that’s the story of the Chanticleers, huh?”

“We keep letting foxes in our henhouse,” Laronde sighed, indicating Rebane too.

“But perhaps Chanticleer was wiser after his encounter with the fox,” Toussaint pondered.

“And the fox won’t get fooled like that again.” Atsumu fistbumped Charlie. “Cool story. You should be an actor!”

“Is Tendou coming tonight?” Charlie asked hopefully.

“No, sorry. He has to work, but he sent some chocolate volleyballs for everyone and promises to come back next season.”

“Will you?” Charlie mumbled and stared at his hands. “Dad says you might be leaving.”

He took a breath, sipped his beer and then turned his head close to the boy’s, giving him a slight, wan smile. “Honestly, Charlie, I don’t know.”

“You could stay.”

“Mmm.” He took a break before continuing, wondering how to phrase the words. “Your sister? Do your parents say you gotta share things with her?”

Charlie nodded, frowning a little.

“Yeah, mine did too. I was never good at that.” He glanced up, watching Toussaint as he stretched across the table for the ice bucket, stretched out his previously injured arm and to bring it towards him, lifting one-handed over the heads of those seated, before placing an open bottle of champagne into the ice.

A whole range of movement. No stiffness. No pain at all.

Olivier had healed, and a part of Atsumu, the part he kept hidden in the recesses of his mind, had healed as well.

“Toussaint-san hates sharing, too,” he whispered. “It might be a team game, Charlie, but setters are selfish.” Swallowing the last of his beer, he finished with a chuckle. “Besides, Monsieur Renard didn’t hang around after his run in with Chanticleer, did he?”

“Guess not. Where do you think he went?”

“Hmm, back to his den. Planning with his pack when to return.”

***

Atsumu patted his pockets, especially checking his jacket, for maybe the fourth time.

“All there?” Tendou drawled.

“Ticket-check. Passport-check. Sweets to suck and magazine to read in bag-check”

“Handkerchief for blowing your nose and staunching the flood of tears as you go through the gate?”

“Huh?”

“Come on, you might not miss the Chanticleers, but surely you’re gonna miss good old Satori.”

“I’m stoic,” Atsumu assured him, zipping his mouth. “Keep it all inside.”

“Riiiight! Drink your coffee. They’ll be calling the gate soon.”

“It’s not true.”

“They will be calling the gate, ‘Tsumu. You can still change your mind and stay, but they’ll be calling that gate whether you’re on the flight or not.”

Atsumu arched an eyebrow (or tried to, he was never quite sure whether he managed it or simply lowered the other one). “I meant that I’ll miss the Chanticleers, despite the challenge.”

“Or maybe because of it. I thought you were gonna quit after that first game, but you dug in.” Tendou reached over, cuffing Atsumu’s ear softly, then mock-sobbed, “I’m proud of you, my boy. Actually, considering I played against you and remember how fricking tenacious you foxes were, then I’m not that surprised.”

“This is the last call for KLM Flight 273 to Osaka, leaving from gate ninety-three. This is the last call for KLM—”

“That’s me. Last call, wow, when did I miss the others?”

“When you were buying up the gift shops,” Tendou replied and fished under his chair. “You forgot something, by the way.”

“Huh?”

Tendou handed over a bag from his shop. A beautiful red and black paper bag bedecked with stars and interlaced with a golden ribbon.

“What’s this?” Atsumu frowned.

“It’s an engagement ring, of course!” Tendou declared fluttering his eyelashes. “Ha, no, stop panicking. It’s a few boxes of chocolates, that’s all.”

He pulled out a box, laughing at the picture on the front. ‘Chanticleer et Renard’, he read. “This is cool.”

“New line. Stories illustrated in chocolate. Thought I’d start with this, and maybe sell ‘em the weekends the Chanticleers are playing.”

“Good idea,” Atsumu murmured.

“All those kids biting the heads off chocolate foxes? I didn’t think you’d care for that.”

”The pack reforms,” Atsumu replied. Then, stuffing the box back in the bag, he stood up. “I really should go now.”

“Hey, I’m not letting you go without a hug!”

“Get off me,” Atsumu yelped as Tendou pounced, but he complied with the enveloping arms, and briefly snuggled his face into Tendou’s jacket. “Thanks, Satori. Thank you for everything. I’ll really miss—”

“Me? Yeah, I know you will.”

“The chocolate,” Atsumu replied, chuckling.

 

‘Samu met him at the other side. ‘Samu, who was holding up a big sign saying ‘SCRUB’ greeted him with a wickedly familiar grin and also several tears as if he couldn’t quite believe Atsumu had returned.

“I said I would. I said it was temporary.”

“No, you didn’t, and then you were offered a new contract with ‘em, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“So, is this you back for good, or are you here to think about it?”

“Can we at least get out of the airport before you start interrogating me?”

“This ain’t an interrogation. It’s your brother trying to get you to talk!”

Atsumu laughed. “Missed you too, scrub.”

Osamu picked up one of his cases from the trolley. “So, what’s the plan?”

“An extra large fatty tuna onigiri,” Atsumu replied. “That’s the only thing on my to do list right now.”

“Well that’s a given. I mean after that.”

“Gotta meeting with a team,” Atsumu murmured. “And in between that, I need to crash.”

 

It smelt the same. The aroma from the Jackals’ gym pervaded his nostrils as soon as he entered. Sweat vying with salonpas, old sneakers and new shoes, a mix utterly heady for him, something he hadn’t realised he’d missed until he’d walked back in.

Nakisuna Ao was the first to spot him. On the sidelines, he raised his hand and sidled over, a rather sad expression on his face but a deep bow all the same.

“Hey,” Atsumu muttered. “How are you now?”

“Recovering. I was out with an injury for a while.”

“Burn-out,” Sakusa had told him, a month before the season end, as he tried to bite back the irritation in his voice. “Are you coming back?”

“That’s the closest you’ve ever come to appreciating me, Oomi-kun!”

“Simple question. I like to know who I’m expected to play with.”

“Not sure,” Atsumu replied.

But he knew. He’d known all along, from the moment he’d stepped on the court for the Chanticleers, that Paris was not his home. An instructive and later exciting break as far as his volleyball development went, but he was not Oikawa with a whole past he needed to disprove, he was not Kageyama on the search for better and better players, and he was not Shouyou with the constant urge to battle not just his nemesis but the demons telling him he’d never succeed.  

He was Miya Atsumu, not stuck, but looking for his niche.

“TSUM-TSUM!”

“Bokkuuuuuuun, did you miss me?”

“OF COURSE!”

“Hardly knew you’d gone,” Inunaki drawled, but loped over with Bokuto.

“Where are our presents?” Bokuto demanded.

“What are you, five?” Atsumu retorted, then with a grin he handed over a bag of ‘Fermez vos Bouches’ tee shirts and some boxes of chocolate truffles.

“These are cool,” Bokuto said, holding up a shirt and throwing another at Kiyoomi. “Try it on!”

Kiyoomi scowled but accepted the shirt. “Are you back for—”

“OH OH, you know my disciple is back next week?”

Atsumu smirked, hoping he looked nonchalant. “I had heard.”

“He’s twenty-seven, Bokkun. I hardly think Hinata can be classed as your disciple anymore,” Meian put in. He ruffled Atsumu’s hair. “Good to see you, man. Is this is a flying visit?” The question, light in tone, was nonetheless laden with intent.

They’d talked the week before, Meian, full of plans now he was assistant coach, had his own brand of persuasion—laidback but enticing—yet Atsumu hadn’t quite known the answer until he’d entered the Jackals’ gym.

So, he screwed up his nose, making a pretence of considering. “Foxes can’t fly,” he replied, paused then relented. “But, yeah, I’m back, if you want me.”

“YES!” Bokuto punched the air. “With you and Hinata, we’ll win the league easily!”

Atsumu felt his lips twitch. Encompassing them all with a grin, he settled on Bokuto, staring him straight in the eyes. “Why stop there, Bokkun? We’ve got the World to conquer.”