Life in Tokyo is a new experience.
You’re going to be a city woman! So sophisticated! Hitoka had said when Kiyoko told her where she was going for university. In the duration of her first week as a sophisticated city woman, Kiyoko learns many things. Things like how Tokyo is at once too big and too small and how a friend in the city really means more than an hour’s ride on the metro if she wishes to see Sugawara; things like the number of minutes it takes to bike from her tiny apartment to campus, and how many more it takes to walk. She learns what it’s like to come home to an apartment with the lights out for the first time, and what it’s like to miss her mother’s voice and the smell of her father’s coffee in the morning.
She re-learns the way she felt in her first year of high school, shy and awkward, not knowing quite how to continue conversations with people when they talk to her first, and never really figuring out how to be the one to approach. The loneliness follows her through the loudness of a college campus and sinks into her skin in the quiet of her home, and she thinks that Hitoka must have overestimated her, because she doesn’t feel sophisticated at all, she just feels small.
There’s no first-year Sawamura to invite her to join a club before she has to confront her options on her own—she has to do it herself, this time, and she tells herself that the hardest part was mustering the strength to move to Tokyo alone, and if she could handle that much, she can do this, too.
She tells herself this again when she stands outside the gymnasium door on the first day of the third week of practice, trying to find the courage she had when she had contacted the captain to ask if the team was looking for a manager. (The captain, wing spiker from Saitama by the name of Satou, had been positively beside himself when she had approached him, and Kiyoko had thought that he might cry when she told him that she had managed a team that went to nationals.)
But now, as she finally enters to face her new volleyball team for the first time, she wavers in the determination she had worked so hard to muster, finding herself face-to-face with someone with a too-familiar grin in a too-unfamiliar city.
“I’m Shimizu Kiyoko,” she says, and doesn’t look at him. “I’ll be a manager for the team starting this year. Please take care of me.”
“Karasuno’s Manager-chan,” Oikawa Tooru says, smile widening, “fancy meeting you here.”
Perhaps Kiyoko should have given Kageyama more credit, back then. At the time, she had chalked it up to a long-running personal rivalry between old middle school teammates, but, she learns, he was right: Oikawa Tooru really does have a terrible personality.
Oikawa is a good volleyball player, maybe even a great one—easily one of the best on the team, and the only first-year to make the starting lineup for their first match. He takes great pride in this fact, too, and makes no effort to hide it as far as Kiyoko can see.
So much for modesty.
“I’m counting on all of you,” he always says, before they start a match, smiling in a way that is simultaneously serene and disconcerting. To Kiyoko, it sounds something more like, I know you’re all counting on me.
He carries himself with a confidence which often crosses the line to arrogance, and he promises his team only the very best, expecting nothing less than the same in return. And he delivers, right from the start—she had studied Karasuno’s rivals in high school as a manager on the opposing team, but to see them in action from the same side of the net is different entirely.
Oikawa is plagued with an insatiable hunger for improvement which Kiyoko is not unfamiliar with, and it is perhaps the only part of him that she finds she is comfortable with. She was the manager of a nationals semi-finalist team, after all. When Oikawa saunters around the court cooing and crooning words of encouragement and criticism and arrives to practice followed by a small gaggle of fans is one thing, but when he is focused on practice, focused on playing, Kiyoko finds herself in familiar territory, and the uncertainty eases from her shoulders. The Oikawa who plays volleyball is not frivolous or flighty, but serious—the kind of serious that walks the tightrope between passion and destruction. It is because of this, Kiyoko knows, that he has been able to get to where he is now, and she finds that despite everything, she marvels at how much he’s honed his skill even since the spring high preliminaries.
Back then, Ukai had said that Oikawa was a setter that draws out the fullest potential of the other members of whatever team he is on—that was what he had already achieved as a high schooler, but the Oikawa before Kiyoko is even stronger than he was then. It’s not any ordinary talent, she knows, for a setter to instantly blend so seamlessly with an already-established team, and yet he does it.
And then he steps off the court, and Kiyoko’s amazement fades to annoyance.
“Manager-chan,” he always calls out, and really, she would ignore him if not for the fact that he is their starting setter and she is their team manager. Every time he does, she says a mental prayer of thanks that she had ended up at a high school with the likes of Sawamura and Sugawara and Azumane rather than him. If someone like Oikawa Tooru had walked up to her in her first year of high school and asked her to be the volleyball manager, Kiyoko thinks, she certainly would have said no.
Kiyoko’s notes from the practice match aren’t in her bag.
She realizes it when she’s packing up to leave the library, and chides herself for forgetting to get her notebook back after the meeting. By now, it’s likely been a good few hours since the other members of the team have left, and she isn’t sure which one of them had it last.
“Ah, sorry about that, Shimizu,” Satou says when he picks up his phone. “I was in a rush and forgot to give them back to you before I left. I think I left them on the bleachers.”
“It’s fine. I can get them,” Kiyoko replies, then bids him a polite good night.
When she arrives at the gym, she isn’t at all surprised to see that it’s still occupied—managing a team that went to nationals meant witnessing plenty of late-night team practices and even more individual training after hours. She also isn’t surprised in the slightest to see Aoba Johsai’s Oikawa there practicing serves, either, because she remembers the past years—she remembers taking notes on not just his team, but specifically on him, studying them, because Aoba Johsai had been one of Karasuno’s most formidable opponents, and it had been Oikawa himself who had made it possible.
She also remembers the look on his face when he lost to Karasuno in the spring qualifiers.
Defeat, Kiyoko knows, is never easy to accept at any stage. She and Karasuno, at least, had the privilege to lose at nationals.
Oikawa Tooru did not.
His serves are even more powerful now than they had been back then, and she knows from seeing him in action in university matches that the defeat earlier in the year had only spurred him to fight harder. Now, in practice, his serves are more intense, wilder than they had been with a match.
During the match, Oikawa burned with a concentration necessary to win the game. Kiyoko knew it well; Karasuno knew it well. This is different. Over and over again, the balls hit the ground with what seems like inhumanly precise aim, and, she watches, mesmerized, as he serves to fight a different battle, one against himself. There’s an increased urgency with each serve, she notes. It’s a difficult pace to keep up with, even when not agitated, and it’s only a matter of time—
A serve lands with a smack mere centimeters outside of the boundaries, and Oikawa swears loudly. Behind him, Kiyoko clears her throat.
Almost instantaneously, the frustration melts off of his face to be replaced with a model-worthy smile. “Manager-chan!” he chirps. “Come to watch me, I see.”
“No.” She blinks. “I came to pick up my notebook.”
“This one?” He winks, holding it up for her to see. “I couldn’t help but notice,” he says, flipping through the pages, that you drew hearts around my name—”
Kiyoko stares at him, unimpressed.
“Oh, Manager-chan,” Oikawa sighs, dramatic as always. “I feel so exposed when I’m around you. It’s like you’re undressing me with your eyes!”
Everything about his body is relaxed, the same charmingly irritating, easygoing attitude which draws so many into his orbit. But there is nothing casual about his gaze—shrewd and critical, assessing her as though she were an opponent on the other side of the net. He’s testing her, of course, trying to see how she’ll react. She would expect nothing less from Aoba Johsai’s former captain.
So Kiyoko doesn’t spare him another glance, instead taking the forgotten notebook from his grasp. “I’m not undressing you with my eyes, Oikawa-san,” she says, opening the gym door to exit. “I was simply thinking about how your shirt is on inside-out. Please don’t let it happen at an official match.”
She lets the door click shut behind her before he can squawk a response. Really , she thinks, he should expect nothing less from Karasuno’s former manager.
Weeks of practice and matches turn into months, and Kiyoko grows more used to her new team. They aren’t like Karasuno—not nearly as rowdy, and far more well-adjusted to most things in life. Some of them have tasted the sweet satisfaction of making it to high school nationals, and some of them haven’t.
Oikawa Tooru hasn’t.
And yet, she thinks, while they are on the court, he is an undeniable leading force. She does not believe for a moment that Karasuno’s victory in the spring high preliminaries was a fluke, or mere luck, but she does know that if Oikawa had been as good a few months ago as he is right now, they would not have won. He is strong. He was strong, but so was her team, too.