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Cognizance

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Sweat dripped in rivulets down Tobio’s face, running in several rivers that coalesced at the bottom of his chin. The beads of perspiration collected into a large, thick droplet, then dropped down onto the collar of his tee-shirt. The white fabric had long since been drenched, forming a half-moon of soaked fabric that clung to his skin. He couldn’t be bothered to tug it free, however, as he was too focused on the line of water bottles sitting on the opposite side of the court. Only one remained standing, perspiration blooming on the plastic from the ambient heat of the gym; the others were on their sides, rolled this way and that. 

Ten in a row. That was Tobio’s goal for today. He had to accurately knock down ten bottles of water in a row with his sets. If he failed, he’d stand them all up again and start again. He’d been at it for three hours now; for the last four times, he’d gotten to the last bottle and screwed up, the ball falling just shy of his goal. Despite the burning in his muscles, despite the sweat coating his skin, he wearily walked to the other side of the court to line the water bottles up again. 

Last one, he told himself as he eyed the last standing water bottle; it stood like a stoic sentinel, a relic of its fallen comrades. He leaned over with his hands on his knees, slowly breathing in and out. Concentrate. He couldn’t let his attention slip now, now when he was so close to achieving his goal. Tomorrow he would push it further, but today—today, victory was within his grasp. 

Without pulling his gaze away from the water bottle, Tobio reached down to pluck the volleyball from the floor. He ran his hands over its smooth yet slightly bumpy surface as he slowly straightened up, leaving streaks of sweat behind. He inhaled, then exhaled, then inhaled again; on the next breath, he flung the ball up over his head. His eyes snapped away from the water bottle and up to the volleyball, watching it rotate. 

Time always seemed to slow down when Tobio had his eyes on the ball. He could see the lights of the fluorescents playing over the ridges, making the white and black patterns shine; he could see the logo printed on the side slowly turning, coming into view and out again. He could visualize the arc of the ball in his head, and even more importantly, he could visualize where he wanted it to go. 

He shifted slightly to the right, and as the ball came down, he bumped it with the fingertips of both his hands. Just enough power, just enough spin… It sailed across the net, and Tobio froze to watch the result. Down, down, down… and then it struck the water bottle with a resounding thwack! Tobio couldn’t resist the breathless grin that blossomed on his lips as he watched it fall onto its side, while the ball went bouncing off toward the wall of the gym. 

He was alone in the gym, so he even allowed himself a celebratory fist pump. 

Ugh, but now he had to clean up. He ran his hand through his hair, grimacing at the feeling of the sweat-slicked strands sticking to his fingers. There was nothing for it, though; Coach Ukai would tear him a new one tomorrow if he left the water bottles and volleyballs scattered around the gym. He started to walk toward the other side of the court— 

and the world spun around him. 

“Wha-whoa,” slipped from his lips as he staggered. His legs felt like they had been replaced by jelly. He managed to half-crouch, half-fall into a sitting position, planting his arms out on either side of him as the world continued to whirl in a blur of colors. It made nausea swirl in his belly, and he repeatedly swallowed to try and stifle the urge to hurl. 

When the strange vertigo had just begun to fade, he made the mistake of trying to stand up. 

“Ugh!” he exclaimed as his legs collapsed underneath him. His vision whirled in every direction, and as he fell, he instinctively tried to throw out his arms and brace himself. With his depth perception completely out of sorts, he failed miserably. His hands flopped uselessly against the floor, and there was a loud crack! as his jaw struck the floor. This time, he listened to his body and remained still, although this time he had to do it with tendrils of white-hot pain snaking through his nerves. And the gym continued to whirl around him like he was free-falling, around and around and around…

He anxiously waited for the strange sensation to ebb, just staring into the confusing swirl of colors. As he did so, they shifted as someone cut a path through. 

“Ah! Are you all right?” the newcomer exclaimed. Hitoka, he recognized dimly. Though everything was all swirly, he could tell that she kneeled down in front of him. He could feel as she placed a hand on his cheek, and it was cool—when did he get all flushed? Regardless, it felt good against his hot, red skin, and he instinctively leaned into it with a quiet sigh. He grounded himself against her palm, and the vertigo finally began to fade. 

“Nggh… That was strange,” he mumbled. His arm felt strangely heavy as he lifted it to press the heel of his palm against his eye. Somehow, the action made another pulse of pain bloom in his jaw, and he groaned. 

“You hit your face pretty hard!” Hitoka fretted. 

Ugh, she saw that? How mortifying. 

Her hands fluttered over his head, afraid to touch him but wishing to help somehow. Finally, she rested her fingertips where he struck his jaw. Instantly, pain shot through the side of Tobio’s face, making him hiss in pain. 

“I’m sorry…” she apologized. Ugh, he wanted to be mad, but he just couldn’t be with how she was pouting. Her bottom lip jutted out and her eyebrows cinched in concern… It made his heart stutter in his chest, the fact that she was fawning over him like this. 

Damn. He must have hit his head pretty hard. 

“Ow, damn,” he mumbled again when he felt something hot and thick drip out of the corner of his mouth. “I think I bit my lip…” Sure enough, when he reached up to dab at the corner of his lips, his fingertips came away shining with bright red blood. 

“Stay right here! I’ll go get something to clean you up!” Hitoka cried. She stumbled to her feet and rushed off towards the bathrooms, the tap-tap-tap of her flats echoing through the empty gym. As he watched her scurry away, Tobio momentarily considered sitting up. His entire body pulsed in response, his muscles loudly voicing their opposition. As such, he just rolled onto his back to stretch himself out, letting the coolness of the gym floor seep into his body. 

And then came that tap-tap-tap again, and Hitoka was once more kneeling at his side. She began dabbing a wet paper towel to his lips. His head twitched toward her in response, and while she nursed his small wound, he stared up into her face. 

“I’m all right, you know.” It felt strange. He was lying on the gym floor while Hitoka doted on him. He didn’t like it, but… he kind of did. More than he didn’t like it, and that unsettled him. 

And how had he not realized how pretty Hitoka was? Gleaming chestnut-brown eyes and silky golden hair framing her cute round face… As Tobio gazed up at her, his heart began to stutter against his ribcage again. 

His dreamy admiration was interrupted by Hitoka’s quick snap, “No, you’re not okay!” 

Tobio’s eyelashes fluttered as he reeled in shock. He’d never heard Hitoka raise her voice, or even be angry at all. Yet she was glaring down at him, her cheeks puffed out and her eyes watery as they quivered. 

“I-I’m sorry…?” he sputtered, honestly not sure how to react. Panic flared up inside of him as tears blossomed in her eyes, threaded over her gold lashes in little watery bubbles. 

“Are you?” she huffed, and the question just made Tobio reel even more. “You have no idea what’s going on, do you?” Tobio just blinked at her, and Hitoka just pursed her lips even tighter. “You didn’t even think to ask what I was doing here, did you?” 

Tobio’s eyes widened. It was over three hours after regular practice had ended. By all rights, Hitoka should be long gone, headed home. Yet… Here she was, tending to him. 

“I came back,” Hitoka sighed. The words bounced around in Tobio’s head, not really making sense beyond their literal definitions. She resumed dabbing the damp paper towel at his lips, applying slight pressure to the puncture wound his tooth had made. “Did you think no one would notice? That you were killing yourself with this extra practice? You’ve been so tired lately…” 

It was true, loathe as he was to admit it. The many hours he’d spent trying to perfect his sets combined with the regular intensity of practice had begun to weigh on him. He slogged around, his muscles aching from overwork, and his eyes tired and baggy from having to stay up late to do the schoolwork and studying he was putting off until deep in the night. No one had said anything, but… Hitoka noticed? And more, it bothered her?

“I’m just doing what I need to do to be a valuable member of the team,” he answered. He really wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Sure, he’d just collapsed in what one could only assume was his body telling him to just stop, but after a good night’s rest, he’d be good to go, right? 

“Dummy!” she cried, punctuating it with a sharp flick to his forehead. Though he’d been dealing with all the aches and pains, the sharp whack of Hitoka’s fingernail against his skin stung. He immediately reached up to rub the bright red spot in the center of his forehead, looking up at Hitoka in both perplexion and awe. “You don’t have to kill yourself to be a valuable member of the team! You already are!” 

Oh, that made him feel good. Way too good. He wanted her to say it again. And maybe a lot of other things, too. 

“What good are you so exhausted that you’re collapsing and hitting your face on the gym floor, huh?” Hitoka accused. Ugh, he didn’t like that. He wanted her to go back to complimenting him. As she chastised him, she put a little too much pressure against his lip, digging in and making a little bit of drool seep into the paper towel. “That’s exactly why I came back here to check on you! You can’t keep overworking yourself like this! I’m worried about you!” 

“You’re worried about me?” Tobio echoed, his voice a little slurred from Hitoka pushing at the corner of his mouth. Hitoka froze, her expression becoming shocked—like she didn’t realize that she’d said it. She slowly pulled back her hand until it rested on his chest, the damp paper towel just barely brushing his chin. 

“I… Yeah.” A faint dusting of pink spread across her cheeks, and she dropped her gaze as a small smile formed on her face. “Of course I am. I, um…” She wiggled her shoulders shyly, and then spluttered, “It’s the future manager’s job to worry about the players!” 

Hitoka may have had Tobio thinking all sorts of strange ways, but he wasn’t that addled. 

“I think you were about to say that you were going to like me,” he said, cocking an eyebrow as he smirked at her. Hitoka’s face immediately blazed red, and she straightened up like a rod. 

“N-n-n-no I wasn’t!” 

“Are you sure?” 

“S-so what if I was?” She looked nervous, like she wanted desperately to know what he was going to say but like she dreaded it at the same time. 

So damn cute. 

“I would say that I like that you like me,” he answered matter-of-factly. Tobio wasn’t exactly that into girls—he had volleyball to worry about, after all—but he liked Hitoka. She was cute, and driven, and he had quite enjoyed her fawning over him and only him. It was something he could get used to, and the idea of having her as a girlfriend didn’t repulse him… Quite the opposite, in fact. 

The vertigo had long since faded. Tobio used that. He swiftly boosted himself up, propping himself up on his hands so he sat face-to-face with her. He didn’t stop there, though. After giving her a cocksure smirk, he leaned in to press a light, chaste kiss to her lips. He retreated just as quickly as he came in, leaving Hitoka blank-faced and blinking in his wake. 

Then, her face lit up with that lovely shade of red that made her so adorable. 

“Y-y-you!” she exclaimed, dropping the paper towel to hide her face with her hands. She couldn’t help but peer through the gaps in her fingers at him, though, her eyes hopeful. “Is that your way of asking me out?” 

“So what if it is?” he teased, mirroring her earlier question. A little smile peeked out from behind her hands. 

“I would say that I like that way of asking me out.” 

Well, Tobio hadn’t set out to achieve two victories that day, but he couldn’t say that he hated it. Maybe… Maybe tomorrow he would take it easy. He couldn’t make his new girlfriend worry too much, after all.