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WHITEKNUCKLE

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It takes a while. But it'll come.

 

 

====

 

 

“Atsumu, please take your feet off of the dashboard.”

“It’s fine.”

Sakusa pulls his phone away from his face again. “It’s not fine. Please take your feet off of the dashboard.”

Atsumu shakes his head, does not remove his feet from the dashboard, and shoves himself deeper into the passenger seat. The cushioning groans against his weight. He reaches towards the volume knob on the radio for the umpteenth time with the expectation that Sakusa will grab his wrist, which he does. They make eye contact over Sakusa’s mask.

“Feet,” Sakusa says. Oliver’s voice can be heard scratching through the phone’s speakers. Sakusa? Atsumu hears him say. Are you still there?

Yes, he’s there, Atsumu thinks. They’ve been sitting in Bokuto’s 98’ Toyota at a lowered train crossing in the middle of a rice field for the past ten minutes, with no trains in sight. As they’d pulled up, no train had come, and Sakusa and Atsumu had fidgeted beside one another in expectant silence for several minutes before Sakusa announced that he was going to call Oliver.  Bokuto was passed out in the back seat behind them, sleeping the deep sleep of the blissfully ignorant. No train had come.

Atsumu had stared through the sunlight at the empty train track and the lowered crossing gate as Sakusa’s thumbs tapped out the tones of Oliver’s number, and his phone rang through its tinny speakers once, twice. Atsumu had squinted at the crossing gate. No train was coming. Someone needs to call him, Sakusa had said, with incredible dispassion, when Atsumu had nearly snarled at the idea. There’s no point in waiting, Miya.

Sakusa’s phone had stopped ringing abruptly when Oliver picked up. Hello, Sakusa? And with those words through the receiver Atsumu had jammed his forefinger into the car radio’s ON button to cut him off. Sakusa grabbed his wrist and missed. Heavy metal boomed through the car. Bokuto didn’t wake up. Sakusa turned the music down, made eye contact with Atsumu, and apologized into the bottom of his phone: Sorry, Oliver. That was Atsumu. Atsumu wanted to strangle him. He wanted to strangle Oliver.

Now they sit at the empty train crossing, five minutes later, Atsumu’s feet on the dashboard and his wrist, this time, successfully caught in Sakusa’s hand. Oliver’s voice is still crackling through Sakusa’s iPhone. Sakusa, hello? Did you hear me? All I meant earlier was that—

“I’m not taking my feet off the dashboard.”

“Fine, fuck you.”

Oliver’s line hisses: Sakusa? Can you hear me?  I told you that— 

And Sakusa slams the phone back against his cheek so that Atsumu can’t hear, and lets go of his wrist. Atsumu’s hand curls in on itself, hovering before the volume knob. He retracts it. The heavy metal remains at a low hum.

Oliver had been talking to Sakusa in private for the last month about quitting the band. This is a phone call about it. Oliver still hasn’t told anyone else, and he doesn’t know that Atsumu knows. Atsumu only knows because Sakusa had let the news slip to him unintentionally last week, the night after a gig, the words hanging in the cold air as the two of them tried to pack their equipment, tetris-like, into the back of Bokuto’s van. That was a night where Oliver had already disappeared, the moment they’d left the stage, off to some unspecific obligation he’d claimed to have all week.

“Well, no, it makes sense.” Sakusa had said. Atsumu had been bristling since they closed, cursing Oliver under his breath, refusing to put on a coat, chattering with his whole jaw as he hauled their amplifiers onto the matted floor of their band’s van. Sakusa made brief eye contact over his mask as he passed Atsumu a bundle of cables. “That he ran off, I mean. His girlfriend wanted to see him tonight. Something about a lease. He’s told me he’s moving to Hokkaido with her next month, probably.”

And then Sakusa’s hand stilled in mid-air as it dawned on him what he’d said.

Atsumu broke from his crouch in the van’s bed. Sakusa didn’t move. The silence was brief and unbroken, until Atsumu opened his mouth. “ He’s moving to Hokkaido next month?

Sakusa stared, unblinking, across the vacant parking lot. Bokuto was just barely visible at the far end, lingering and chatting with two bar patrons who'd stayed behind to ask for copies of their album. His laughter carried through the dark chasm of space. The laughter of the blissfully ignorant. This was their third show in three nights; they were picking up Oliver early the next morning and then heading west, for four more. Slow, creeping momentum. Slowly growing crowds. Later, longer nights.

“Yeah,” Sakusa said. “Probably.”

The bed of the van seemed to warp around Atsumu’s feet. The look in Sakusa’s eyes seemed to warp beneath the ticking streetlight. Something deep, hard, and cold slammed into the bottom of Atsumu’s stomach.

“Oh,” he’d said.

Oliver hadn’t told Atsumu, even after that, on the next morning, when they’d picked Oliver up from his girlfriend’s parents’ house as planned and Atsumu hadn’t said a single word during the three-hour drive to Osaka. Oliver hadn’t told Bokuto either. It was no wonder: Oliver knew what moving to Hokkaido would mean for the band, and Oliver knew what the announcement of a move to Hokkaido would mean for him. Atsumu’s awareness of Oliver’s incoming absence had seemed to sit with them in the car that morning, like a corporeal, threatening, prophetic, thing; like a fifth member of the band. Like a fifth member of the band that was soon only going to be three.

Here they sit, now only three, in the same van, in front of a lowered train crossing gate that is protecting them from an absent train. Atsumu looks at the car radio’s clock: 8:34 . Twelve minutes since they pulled up. The sun is sinking into a spot on the horizon that the train would be blocking, were it there. Oliver’s voice crunches through Sakusa’s phone. No train.

“Yeah,” Sakusa says, in response to a long, crackling monologue on the other end of the line. “I know.” Oliver’s voice scratches something brief. “So you’ve signed it,” Sakusa says.

Atsumu looks to him. He readjusts his feet on the dashboard to block out the sun. So you’ve signed it. It might be the most that Sakusa has spoken since Oliver picked up the call five minutes ago.

“Yeah.” Sakusa nods, then, as if Oliver can see him. “I figured. Well. I can tell them.” Another crackle of Oliver’s voice. “Yeah, text me later.”

“Sakusa.”

Sakusa ignores him. “It’s okay. Let Himari know, and then I’ll see what we can arrange with the equipment. We’re driving back to Tokyo right now anyways.”

“Sakusa.”

“Yeah. Thanks for letting me know.”

Atsumu’s begun chattering, like the night that Oliver disappeared after the gig, when he was slamming amps onto the bed of their van, refusing to put on a coat. “ Sakusa.

“Mm-hm. Talk to you later.” 

Sakusa lowers the phone from his face as if it’s incredibly fragile and about to break, shuts off the call, and makes eye contact with Atsumu over his mask. He adjusts the part of his mask that sits over the bridge of his nose, and Atsumu nearly flinches. Sakusa never does that.

“He’s moving to Hokkaido,” Sakusa says, then. 

The train rushes through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They sit like that in silence, staring at the twelve-minute-long train that seemed to need twelve minutes of preparation to arrive. It shoots between them and the sinking sun, flashes shadows over their forms in perfect rhythm. Atsumu studies the cracked asphalt before their car and watches the train’s shadows strobe over it, pushes his body into the hum of the engine, and tries to see if he can’t disappear into the passenger seat.

He’s chattering into the warm air, still, like the night after the gig when Oliver disappeared. Maybe he didn’t need to be told, then, he thinks, that Oliver running off after the show really meant something else; maybe he knew already that his absence after the gig was an open premonition of what was to come, like a fray at the bottom of a sweater that brings with it the binding promise of an eventually, one-day completely-unspooled sweater. Atsumu picks at the bottom of his t-shirt. Like a missing band member that brings with him the binding promise of an eventually, one-day completely-unspooled band. Or a van that used to sit four, that now only sits three.

Maybe he’s chattering into the warm air because he’s thinking of Osamu, or because he’s thinking of Oliver, who now reminds him of Osamu. Atsumu looks over to Sakusa, who sits beside him still, for now, unmoving, gaze set towards the strobing sun. He’s not a missing lead singer, like Osamu or Oliver, but he reminds him of them too.

Atsumu looks away. He had wanted to strangle Sakusa while he was on the phone, to see if he couldn’t thrash some caring into him, some kind of emotion, some visible understanding of the gravity of the situation. His uncaring silence, too, now screams at Atsumu like some kind of fray at the bottom of his sweater. The binding promise that Sakusa’s presence here beside him might be as transient as Oliver’s, Osamu’s was.

The train takes what feels like twelve minutes to roll by. Atsumu doesn’t look at the clock on the car radio to check. Its departure is announced when the tail end of its shadow whips over them, and Sakusa jerks up a hand to block out the sun. Slowly, with a long-suffering groan, the crossing gate flashes and heaves its metal arm to let them pass through. Sakusa doesn’t put the car into drive. They sit there in the motionless van on the road in the rice field. Atsumu chatters with the engine.

“He’s moving to Hokkaido, right?” Bokuto asks, then.

Atsumu and Sakusa jerk around. Bokuto is upright, awake, and staring back at them. He’s crammed into the back seat beside the piles of equipment he’s been sleeping on all afternoon. Atsumu wonders, briefly, how long Bokuto has been awake, and if he’d overheard Sakusa’s phone call; he then stops when he remembers that it doesn’t really matter, because this is the kind of thing that Bokuto can taste in the air.

Sakusa and Atsumu exchange a glance. Atsumu feels for a moment like a distant father, telling his child that yes, he and his mother are getting a divorce, or something of equal measure. His feeling of self-pity briefly becomes divided and redistributed: self-pity, and pity for Bokuto. “Yeah,” Atsumu says.

Bokuto nods thoughtfully. He stares towards the sun, without blinking, before looking back at Atsumu. “Well,” he says. “We’re going to need a new singer.”

Sakusa has twisted and around and put the car into drive, and they’re shuddering over the train tracks.

“Yeah.” Atsumu says. His own voice sounds foreign to him.

“Just wait,” Bokuto says. He’s pulling out his phone. Atsumu is watching. “I know a guy.”



====



Atsumu is laying on Sakusa’s carpet. He would like to think that the carpet smells stale, like he imagines a carpet is supposed to smell, but the carpet smells like nothing. He twists his head around to stare at the vacuum cleaner in the corner, and then at Sakusa, who sits on his bass amp beside it. He pictures Sakusa vacuuming his spot on the carpet over and over in dutiful preparation for his arrival, suctioning away the stale smell that a carpet ought to have. The head of Atsumu’s guitar taps against a bass stand as he leans to one side, and he jerks when he hears Sakusa’s voice.
“Careful.”

Atsumu makes eye contact and screws up his face. He feels something hard and cold in his stomach. “Fuck you.”

“Okay.”

This is Sakusa’s apartment, and he’s sprawled out with his guitar on his stomach between Sakusa’s row of bass guitars and Bokuto’s drum set, which by some miracle of spatial engineering they have managed to set up in the corner. He shoves the head of his guitar a little further towards the right, dangerously close to Sakusa’s row of basses, just to be inflammatory.

Sakusa blinks at him once and plays on. He, masked and headphoned and hunched over his bass in the very image of aloofness, seems to embody his own past week’s worth of behavior towards Atsumu—masked, headphoned, hunched and aloof. It’s been a week since they sat in Bokuto’s van at the train crossing and listened to Oliver leave the band over the phone, and it’s been five days since Bokuto confirmed that his friend from Brazil wants to come sing for them; they are waiting, now, for Bokuto and this friend to arrive. Atsumu’s gut has flared at the sight of Sakusa’s disinterest the entire time, burning with some kind of righteousness, as if Sakusa ought to be fired up that the Black Jackals are falling apart, that they had to cancel three shows in Oliver’s absence, that their future hangs delicately from a thread attached to the singing ability of Bokuto’s friend from Brazil.

They’d immediately said yes, a week ago in the car, when Bokuto asked if Brazil could try out for them; Sakusa because he seemingly did not care, Atsumu because he felt had no other choice. He wanted Oliver back. He wanted Osamu back. He wanted to go back to the time before the train crossing and the phone call, he wanted to go back to before the night in the parking lot when he’d learned that Oliver was leaving; he wanted to go back to before the time that he’d learned, three years prior, that Osamu was leaving; he wanted to go all the way back to high school, when he and Osamu would sit back-to-back on an amplifier in their garage and Osamu would scream into a shitty 5,000-yen microphone and Atsumu would pluck out riffs on his guitar until his fingers bled.

He’d thought, absently, that if Bokuto’s friend from Brazil couldn’t bring him back there, then he didn’t want him. That wasn’t true.

They’ve agreed to meet Brazil this morning, in Sakusa’s apartment, because their usual setup in Bokuto’s basement isn’t as nice, and apparently they’re still keeping up some kind of appearance for those trying out for them. Which is only one person trying out for them. And trying out , Atsumu thinks, is a pretentious word, for bands with more money, for bands who have a real studio, for bands who broke into the metal scene a year and not three months ago, for bands whose manager shows up when the band is falling apart and they have to have tryouts.

I can’t make it, I’ve got a meeting in Osaka tomorrow. But tell me how it goes, their manager had said over the phone last night. It was over Atsumu’s phone into Sakusa’s ear, because Sakusa had snatched it from him the moment Atsumu’s face had twisted in preemptive fury at the dial tone. If you like him, I’ll contact the label first thing. Sakusa had grunted in confirmation and killed the call.

The Black Jackals have only had a manager, or a label, for three months. A small label even for a metal band, and a shitty manager, and no proper studio of their own, but enough album sales to begin traveling—enough that Sakusa had taken one month’s leave from his shitty modeling gig in Tokyo, that turned into two months’ leave, that turned into three. But Atsumu had heard him on the phone earlier this morning in his well-vacuumed apartment talking to his other manager, his modeling manager, to see if he might be able to pick up some gigs in the meantime. Atsumu doesn’t like the word meantime. He doesn’t like what it means to be in meantime. He wants to be back on the road; he wants it to be road time, not meantime.

And if Bokuto’s friend from Brazil is going to be able to sing them out of meantime and back into road time, then Atsumu will take him. He’s been going through daily life with a sense of doom for the past week. He will take him.

“That’s them,” Sakusa says, back in the apartment, hunched, masked, aloof. There’s a noise at the door. Sakusa’s fingers have gone still against the strings of his bass.

“Ah.” Atsumu listens from the floor, and hears two voices in the hallway. He then watches, unmoving, as Sakusa sets his bass guitar down like it’s incredibly fragile and about to break, and heads for the other side of the apartment. Atsumu doesn’t move from his position on the well-vacuumed carpet. His guitar slides down lower on his stomach. Maybe Bokuto’s friend ought to get this kind of first impression of the Black Jackals, he thinks: prone. On the floor. Guitar sliding to one side. It would be honest of them.

Atsumu then closes his eyes and listens to the distant noise of Sakusa’s footsteps and the front door opening, and the sound of Bokuto’s voice coming into focus, and the laughter of the person who must be Brazil.

“—no, this is—”

“—Bokuto, one second—”

“—from Brazil, one month ago—”

“—Hinata Shouyou—”

“—you can leave your shoes—”

Not Brazil. Hinata Shouyou, rather, Atsumu thinks. He turns the name over on itself mentally, as if looking for somewhere to place it. Hinata Shouyou from Brazil. He tries to picture him.

“—normally we practice—”

“—manager said that—”

“—our guitarist is—”

He’s only getting snippets of conversation, until the footsteps are returning, and Atsumu is shutting his eyes to imagine himself and how he’s about to look to Hinata Shouyou as he lays there sprawled out on the floor.

“We’re set up in here for today.” Sakusa’s voice is near. “I think Atsumu’s still in there.”

“Unless he ran away!” Bokuto chimes.

Atsumu listens to the door swing open, and watches three shadows spread themselves across the ceiling and go still. He doesn’t move.

Hinata Shouyou from Brazil pauses for several seconds, and then speaks in a tone that seems to suggest that he has not noticed that Atsumu is laying on the ground. “Hi! I’m Hinata Shouyou. Nice to meet you.”

Atsumu pushes himself up onto his elbows and lays eyes on Hinata Shouyou for the first time.

Everything goes still, except for his guitar, which slides off of his torso onto the carpet. Sakusa and Bokuto stare. Hinata’s giving him a tentative smile. The silence stretches to every corner of the room. Something warm and deep slams into the bottom of Atsumu’s stomach.

No, scratch that, Astumu thinks. He’s laying eyes on Hinata Shouyou for the second time. A sentence has come to mind in the stillness; Atsumu’s own words, shouted beneath a bar’s floodlight, seven years ago:

I’m gonna play for ‘ya someday.



====



It had been at some cramped and sweaty house show in Sendai. A tiny venue, the “ underground ” scene, 1,000-yen entry, someone’s dad’s bar-cafe overrun for the night with metalhead college students and their girlfriends and shitty high school death metal bands who were convinced that they were making it big. It was the kind of show Atsumu went to just to get thrashed around. Osamu had been with him; he’s pretty sure they’d been in Sendai for a show of their own the night before. This was sometime in their second year of high school, when they still played thrash metal, when the tips of Atsumu’s fingers were scabs, and when they were going to the ends of the earth to get paid dirt for single gigs and were convinced that they were making it big. Kita and Suna must have stayed back at the motel and slept. Maybe that was a good idea.

Atsumu can still remember: the third act was almost done, and he and Osamu had just fought their way through the crowd up to the stage, when Osamu had grabbed onto his elbow like a vice and shouted into his ear that he wanted to leave. I’m tired, ‘Sumu. He could barely be heard over the wailing guitars. It’s been like two hours. We have to leave early tomorrow.

And Atsumu had gripped his elbow right back in the cramped space available to them and twisted it violently behind his back until he shouted, like they did to each other when they were kids. Shut the fuck up. And they’d fought, Atsumu’s pretty sure, pushing against one another and pushing against strangers, who pushed back, as was expected; the details of what had happened between then and the closing band are now blurry.

But the memory of the closing band is not blurry. The closers were to be a group of high schoolers; Atsumu had overheard this somewhere in the crowd in the hush before their set and nearly jeered; nearly yanked Osamu towards the door in a fit of petty anger, as if to say You’re right, we’re going home . But when the silhouettes of the guitarists stumbled onto the darkened stage, Atsumu let go of his grip on Osamu’s arm to stare pointedly at the way they plugged in their equipment, as if this were objective assessment of their ability. It was a shitty show, he’d reminded himself, none of the bands had been that good—closing someone’s shitty house show in Sendai was not some great achievement, even for a group of high schoolers.

Atsumu dug his nails into Osamu’s arm when the lights flooded over the stage and the music crackled into motion. Osamu dug his nails back. Yeah, ‘Sumu? Fuck you. And they’d sparred again to the rising wail of the guitars, as some kind of desperate distraction, until Atsumu shoved a hand in Osamu’s face to get him to stop and twisted his head back around to stare at the stage. He’d braced himself against the music and the suddenly too-palpable anticipation of the crowd around them, and held onto his brother tightly, angrily, as if his life now depended on it.

The music was loud. And the stage was bright. And their guitarists were tall. Atsumu didn’t know where to look, so he focused on the one he suddenly felt like he recognised: a lanky black-haired underclassman who wore some sheen of absolute calm that Atsumu wanted to believe was forced. The floaty, delicate riffs that were know cutting through the silence with knife-like precision earned him whoops from the crowd, as if this was something they awaited from him; the roar that he pulled from his guitar as the melody slowly crashed into motion earned him screams. Atsumu found himself whipping his head around, as if everyone else was in on some joke that he wasn’t privy to. He stared back at the guitarist and his bandaged fingertips and the mechanical exactness in his movements, and resented his own grin as it spread across his face.

Their drummer couldn’t be seen, save for the bun of hair that swayed atop his head; their bassist was taller, blond and glasses-clad, and projected an even more powerful aura of indifference, as if the very act of playing bass guitar required this—Suna was a fine example of this, and Sakusa would be, too, as Atsumu had yet to learn—and he hovered at the back of the stage and kept his eyes trained on the two underclassmen in front of them.

Atsumu then went still against Osamu in the jostling crowd and asked himself how the hell he knew that the two in front were underclassmen. He was aware of his own heartbeat in his neck. He stared, again, at their dark-haired lead guitarist. He knew him from somewhere. 

‘Sumu, Osamu shouted into his ear, then, as the music slowly began to pick up. Look at this kid.

Osamu was pointing at the band’s singer, who sat crouched in the middle of the stage, motionless. Atsumu had missed him. He hadn’t sung a word yet. He was small, or appeared small in his hunched posture, wearing a tank top that hung off of his frame and crowned in a mop of ginger hair that shone near-orange under the light. He’d been half-kneeling there with his head bowed for the song’s whole opening, as if lying in wait. When he began to sing—which was happening slowly, quietly, in some steady crest of sound that was rising over the rest of the music—a stillness swept over the crowd. The motion around Atsumu calmed until it reached only a gentle vibration, and Atsumu could see clearly for a moment, and all was left was the hundreds of pairs of eyes, the music, and this kid , crouched like an animal over his microphone in a pool of white light.

And then he began to sing. He began to sing , and the guitars shrieked their riffs in chase, and all pretense of stillness in the crowd dissolved instantaneously. The blurry image of him onstage was thrashed to the right as Atsumu was shoved against his brother all at once, and he was twisting his head, pushing against the bodies around him, trying to keep an eye on the blurry, over-illuminated form that now stood curled and screaming into the mic.

Atsumu elbowed and snarled his way through the layers of bodies ahead of him until he could smack a hand around the metal barrier and pull himself against it. The image of the singer steadied before him in all its white overluminescence, and Atsumu sucked in air.

The improvised stage lights had looked awkward, too-bright on everyone else; this kid seemed to outmatch them. The tank top that hung too-big over his chest was getting plastered against him with the sweat that trailed down from behind his ears. His fellow bandmates had long vanished behind him, into the roaring, cycling eruption of music that served only to thrust him higher. And the scale of it all—the scale of the voice that rang from that sweat-plastered chest, the whiteknuckle grip around the microphone too big for his hands, the way his form shook and thrashed with a ferocity that couldn’t possibly belong to him, to someone that young, to someone that small—no matter how high the scale of it swelled, there was a calm in his eyes. 

It was a distant, inaccessible kind of calm. It was the kind of quiet self-possession seen in the eyes of piano prodigies, in Olympic sprinters floating down a track. His eyes swept over the crowd as he twisted the microphone’s cable around his arm, settling over Atsumu’s shoulder, and then on Atsumu, before tearing away. You cannot follow me here, those eyes seemed to say. I’m somewhere that you will never know.

Atsumu whiteknuckled the cold, sweat-slick metal of the barrier and pushed himself harder against it. He went numb to the music, was only half-aware of just how hard he was grinning. The singer’s chest heaved as he sang; his eyes projected stillness.

I want to know where you are, something in Atsumu seemed to say. I want to know where that place is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was behind the venue, five minutes after their set had ended. Atsumu had grappled with Osamu, angry and bruised, the entire way. Where the fuck do you think you’re going? Atsumu had elbowed his way through the mass of bodies and shoulder-checked the venue’s back door open, and he and Osamu spilled out into the cold air. He immediately began to chatter.

He didn’t know what he was looking for. A van, maybe, a bus, a pile of equipment; he stared up at the parking lot’s too-bright lights for a moment and felt the world swirl around him. Osamu was shouting something behind him. He heard the audience’s rumble go mute as the venue’s door slammed shut. Atsumu started.

There they were, gathered beneath a floodlight’s glare, shuffling their guitars and amps through the row of barriers behind the stage doors. A head of ginger hair bowed to pick up a bundle of cables and pass it to a figure standing in their van’s bed. A too-big tank top was plastered to his form. The back of his head glinted near-orange in the pool of light. 

HEY ,” Atsumu shouted, before Osamu could stop him. They began moving forwards.

Two heads turned beneath the floodlight. Atsumu kept moving towards them. Osamu was hanging onto his arm and yanking and spitting curses. What the fuck do you think you’re doing, ‘Sumu— 

Atsumu collided with the metal barrier and squeezed a hand around it. Osamu was clawing violently at his shoulder. “You—” he began.

The dark figure standing in the van stopped moving, and the bundle of cables in his hand pendulumed beneath the light. The head of ginger hair rose from his crouch and turned. His eyes met his, and locked them into his own stillness. The world continued swirling around them, but Atsumu went steady. A single bead of sweat dripped down from behind his ear. Atsumu heard his own heartbeat.

Osamu’s hands were on him. ‘Sumu, what the hell are you— 

Atsumu raised a sweat-slick, trembling finger. He squared his feet behind the barrier. The head of ginger hair cocked to one side.

“I’m gonna play for ‘ya someday.”



====



“Do we like him?” Sakusa asks.

Atsumu nearly thrashes himself up from the floor. Bokuto turns to look at him from his position on his stool. 

Sakusa has gone still with a hand on the wall, having reappeared in the doorframe to his apartment’s living room. Where Hinata stood not a minute ago, smiling impossibly bright and waving goodbye and thanking them for letting him try out and apologizing for having to leave early after singing for them for two hours. I need to go pick up my sister.

Atsumu opens his mouth helplessly. He stares at Sakusa’s carpet. There he’d been, not five minutes ago—that impossible form arched and screaming into a mic, the too-big tank top swinging from his chest, the voice with a scale that threatened to topple and crash, the memory of seven years ago plunged into reality, unchanged. Singing their music for them. Singing their music, somehow, with the grace and confidence of someone who’d been singing it his whole life. 

Atsumu stands up. He feels some kind of inaccessible calm pull over him; the kind of calm he imagines is only available to piano prodigies, or Olympic sprinters, or 167-centimeter-tall metal singers with heads of ginger hair. 

Atsumu stares at Sakusa. “We’re taking him or I quit.”



====



Hinata Shouyou from Brazil is not from Brazil. He had lived in Brazil for two years after high school.

“To learn a new kind of music,” he says. “In my second year I saw a Brazillian samba school’s bateria online and I thought it was beautiful.”

Atsumu stares at him helplessly. “So ‘ya just… moved there?”

And Hinata Shouyou from Brazil smiles and nods.

Later, after they’re done practicing, he pulls out his generations-old brick of an iPhone and shows Atsumu blurry videos of him and 100-something other Brazillian drummers twirling and dancing through the street to a kind of syncopated rhythm that Atsumu can’t wrap his head around. A bateria , he explains. A troupe of parade drummers. It’s impossibly far removed from the grimy house show in Sendai, impossibly far removed from the way Atsumu had just seen him wrap a microphone’s cord around his arm and wail, impossibly far removed from the slightly stale smell of Bokuto’s basement carpet, where the two of them sit a foot apart from one another. Hinata swipes again to a video of him standing at the head of a bateria of drummers, piping a whistle and thrusting his fist into the air to the beat. “That’s a repinique , the kind of drum that I’m playing. This was right before carnaval .”

And Atsumu nods and flicks his eyes between the beaming grin on Hinata’s face and the blurry video of the beaming grin on Hinata’s face, and hears his own heartbeat in his ears.

It’s a kind of incongruency Atsumu is learning to expect. Hinata Shouyou from Brazil plays death metal late at night in Sendai and thrashes and screams onstage before a crowd of hundreds, and he also twirls in facepaint with a drum hanging from his hips in the streets of Brazil. He also smiles and hums in what must be some kind of meditation on the floor whenever they’re done with rehearsal, which they’ve had eight of since he officially joined the band two weeks ago.

You like him? Their manager had asked over the phone, to Sakusa, the day after Hinata had tried out. You’ve only heard him once.

And Atsumu had imagined the feeling of ripping the phone from Sakusa’s hands and screaming into it.

Yeah. Sakusa had said. We like him.

And the Black Jackals’ van went from seating three to seating four.

Bokuto loves him. They knew each other in high school, somehow. Atsumu had stumbled downstairs for their second rehearsal last week and found the two of them behind Bokuto’s drum kit, sharing the stool, banging out some complicated and dense rhythm that Atsumu couldn’t wrap his head around. Their grins were uncannily similar, and so was the way that they handled drumsticks—the spiraling, loose motions of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. 

I wanted to learn everything, Hinata had said, when Sakusa later asked him in his blunt and dispassionate way how on earth he knew how to drum like that. So I learned everything. And Hinata had smiled and let loose again behind the drum kit with another one of those impossible syncopated rhythms, and Bokuto had whooped in approval.

Atsumu had grabbed him from the stool, then, and pulled him out from behind the drum kit, and lifted his own guitar from off his shoulders like a piece of heavy armor and placed it in Hinata’s hands. 

Five minutes later, they’d all found themselves laying on the floor with the exception of Sakusa, halfway drifting off to some kind of impossible syncopated guitar melody that Atsumu had never heard before, pulled from Atsumu’s electric guitar by Hinata’s fingertips. He wanted to learn everything, Atsumu had thought. He watched Hinata’s shadow sway gently on the ceiling, watched the silhouette of his fingers dance over the fretboard. So he learned everything.

Sakusa loves him too, in his own way. “He is neater than Oliver,” he offers, when asked in the empty van by a prodding Atsumu if he actually “ likes him .” They’re going to get the van’s oil changed, sitting in traffic on their way into the city, the seats folded down and the back cleared out in ritualistic preparation for the long leg of shows that they have before them. Sakusa adjusts his mask where it sits over the bridge of his nose. “And he can sing.”

And Atsumu nods, and thinks about the way his guitar had looked in Hinata’s hands. Sakusa had agreed this morning to go with him to take the van to the mechanic, because Atsumu had damaged it the last time he took it out alone, and because Sakusa had already been forced to clear his schedule of modeling gigs in Tokyo due to the new string of shows that their manager had put together for them.

Their manager still hadn’t heard Hinata in person, or even met him, but the new practice recordings that they’d sent to their label had sent out shockwaves, apparently. Their manager had left a voicemail in Sakusa’s inbox saying that the execs would be happy to pay for them to come in and re-record their months’ old album with Hinata in the studio this time.

And they’d said yes, they’d do that, but that they wanted to do some shows first. And suddenly, all they have are shows.

Atsumu and Sakusa return to Bokuto’s apartment with an empty van early in the evening, oil changed, tires rotated, and several other complicated things that Sakusa doesn’t understand and that Atsumu pretends to. They need to leave early for Kyoto the next morning, so they leave it parked in front of the apartment with the back cleared out in preparation. Atsumu waits outside with Sakusa as he does one last pass with a hand vacuum over the mats. 

“We should put your hard cases on the far left side this time, when we pack.” Sakusa’s voice is muffled. “Bokuto’s snare case will fit better that way.”

Atsumu is leaning against the side of the van, staring at the facade of Bokuto’s first-floor apartment, half-listening to Sakusa’s voice over the sound of the vacuum as he strategises their next game of equipment tetris . It’s going to be their first time on the road with Hinata; their first show with Hinata; their first show, at all, in four weeks. Meantime is transforming into road time. Atsumu tips his head back to meet the van’s hull. He can see movement in the half-size basement windows of Bokuto’s apartment. “Wait,” he says, and he frowns when Sakusa’s words finally process. “But my guitars fit good last time on the right side. Why are ‘ya trying to move that around?”

Sakusa shuts the vacuum off. The van shifts against Atsumu’s back as Sakusa drops from its bed. He stands next to Atsumu, and stares through the apartment’s basement window, where Hinata and Bokuto can just barely be seen through the evening sun’s glare. They’re turned away, hunched over Bokuto’s drum set, banging out a hurried rhythm that’s only audible if Atsumu listens closely.

“There’s no room. The seat on the right has to be up now.” Sakusa points through the window. Hinata’s head is tipped back in laughter. “There’s four of us again.”



====



Seven years after promising Hinata Shouyou that he’s going to play for him, Atsumu plays for him.

It’s a sweaty, cramped house show in Kyoto. It’s their first show on their new string of a dozen-something. The kind of show that Atsumu used to play at just to get thrashed around; the kind of show he plays at, now, with a sort of urgency that suggests his life somehow depends on it. The kind of show that he would go to during his high school years, with his scabbed-over fingertips and encroaching tinnitus; the kind of show where he would run into singers like Hinata, who crouch animal-like around the microphone at the beginning of the set and then rise beneath the stage lights like the incandescent sun.

Putting him onstage allows Atsumu to see everything that he’s missed, in the meantime. The tank top that hangs off of Hinata’s form hangs a little closer than it did seven years ago; the arm that he coils the microphone cable around is now tanned and banded with muscle, scarred down the middle of the tricep. His head of ginger hair is shorter, cropped in the back, exposing the streaks of sweat that begin behind his ears and trail down the lines of his back. Atsumu watches those lines closely. 

Atsumu doesn’t remember the songs that Hinata sang seven years ago, that night in Sendai. He wonders at the songs that he missed in the meantime, at the knowledge of words like bateria and repinique stored beneath that cropped head of ginger hair; he wonders at the rhythm that Hinata feels as Bokuto’s sticks begin swinging through the air and his and Sakusa’s riffs cascade over one another, and if that rhythm belongs more to the streets of Brazil or more to the dimly-lit cafe-bars of Sendai, or somewhere in-between. Maybe it just belongs to him, now. Hinata thrashes and screams and the crowd screams back as if possessed. Maybe all of it belongs to him.

Atsumu does remember the songs Hinata sings now. His songs, namely, the Black Jackals’ songs, some of which had their roots in the garage of the Miya residence in Hyogo, coaxed into existence nine years ago by two figures sitting atop an amplifier with a 5,000-yen microphone and electric guitar in hand. There’s an incandescent sort of unreality to hearing those melodies blasted into a mic by that voice, from that sweat-slick throat, beside him on the stage. As if there’s some kind of finality to it. As if the band name that Atsumu came up with a lifetime ago achieves deliverance the moment Hinata is the one to announce it to their crowd. I’m Hinata Shouyou, and we’re the Black Jackals!

Yes we are. We finally are.

The crowd eats him up. The show goes great. The same kind of hush occurs that occured in Sendai, once the silence before their last song takes hold: when Hinata curls over the microphone and waits, the crowd’s rumble pulls back like a reverent tide. 

And then Hinata explodes, and Atsumu grins, and the crowd explodes in turn, just as he knew it would, and the scale of his voice is sky-scraping and impossibly grand for his form; Hinata falls to his knees and leaps and shouts and Atsumu is watching his experience from seven years ago over again, from the stage instead of the pit this time.

Hinata turns around briefly, deep into their last song, and Atsumu catches it exactly in the way that he expected: the inaccessible calm in Hinata’s gaze, unchanged. The kind only available to prodigies, or geniuses, or the blurry over-illuminated figure on the other side of the stage that stares at him as if held in perfect stillness. He remembers the words that had echoed around inside of him seven years ago:

I want to know where you are. I want to know where that place is.

Hinata beams at him. The crowd roars.

Atsumu thinks he’s getting there.



====



Atsumu had been seventeen years old when Osamu told him that he was quitting music. 

The words were barbed, vicious, falling out of some vacuum within him that had just been torn open: When we’re on our death beds, I’m gonna turn and look ‘ya right in yer face! And I’m gonna say I had the happier life!

He’d stared at the screwey grin on mirror-image face across from him and felt something burn, inside. Atsumu hadn’t believed those words, and Osamu knew it. Osamu was bent over him, yanked down violently by the fabric of his sweatshirt. Atsumu felt his brother’s fists tighten against the fabric of his own. Oh yeah, ‘Sumu? Do you really think that?

Those words echoed in his head as he lay in the garage alone that night, back bent across their amplifier, guitar sitting on his stomach. Osamu’s shitty 5,000-yen microphone sat unused on the floor beside him. They hadn’t beaten each other, that afternoon, but Atsumu had imagined the feeling of it. He’d imagined hurling Osamu around onto the ground beneath him and pounding the kind of remorse into him that left bruises; he’d imagined Osamu bashing his forehead into his nose, the way they did when it got bad; he imagined, now, that this pain might not be so bad if he had a bloodied bandage across his face and a swollen lip, and that seeing Osamu with a bloodied bandage across his face and a swollen lip might make him feel better, too. At least the motherfucker would feel something .

He wondered now how long they were going to ignore each other. He let his fingers fall from the strings of his guitar, and reached out to touch the microphone on the floor, which rang in protest. He yanked it off the floor and held it against his guitar’s pickups, and listened to the crackling distortion as it built and crescendoed into a siren’s scream in the amplifier beneath him. He let it fall back to the ground. Its meeting with the floor echoed through the garage.

He wanted Osamu to feel something. He wanted Osamu to feel something for the band, for the music, for the twin brother spitting at him and tearing at the collar of his hoodie. I’m quitting the band after high school. Osamu had simply stared at Atsumu after he said it, pleased with himself, grinning at the empty words that spilled out of Atsumu as he stood cocooned in some unreachable state of self-custody that Atsumu could only stretch towards and claw at. Atsumu’s self-custody had always been wrapped up in Osamu’s, and Osamu was going to leave him.

Their band was good. The songs they’d been screwing around with in their garage since forever had crystalized, in their first year of high school, with the addition of a bassist and a drummer. They now drove to places like Sendai and Kyoto and played thrash metal at cramped and sweaty house shows. Atsumu’s speed and precision with a guitar’s fretboard had swelled into what felt like infinity. The power behind Osamu’s voice had reached some kind of fruition.

And now they had one year left. Then he was leaving.

Atsumu lay in the garage with his guitar that night, in a state of mourning, until the spots of sun on the floor slid over him, onto the wall, and then onto the ceiling, and out into the open sky. Osamu had said that he’d be going into the food industry. Onigiri. Atsumu’s vision of a life with him in the next five years was now trying to force and warp itself into something new, and failing. Atsumu had only ever had the music, and Osamu. Osamu had always had the music, and himself. 

Osamu came into the garage eventually. He paused in the doorway and stood backlit by the foyer’s ticking light like some kind of monstrosity, and Atsumu watched. Atsumu wondered if he had come so that they could beat each other, finally; if their precarious composure earlier had been a fluke. Atsumu held eye contact with him him from his prone position on the amplifier and continued to play. Osamu shut the door, sat on the floor, and took the squeaking microphone in his hands, as if it had been laying there waiting for him. As if Atsumu had been laying there waiting for him. The microphone ticked, and Osamu began to sing.

They hadn’t beaten each other this afternoon, when they’d argued; they wouldn’t be beating each other now. Fighting was their rash, immediate kind of pleasure that stung blindingly hot, and then faded into a deep, guilty ache. Sitting beside one another in unspoken truce was the opposite of that: an immediate kind of aggravation that, with patience, simmered into a deep, resounding calm. Atsumu didn’t think about the band. He didn’t think about the next five years. He thought about the neck of the guitar in his hands and his brother’s voice beside him.

Osamu sang. An apology. Not a change of heart, but an apology. Atsumu cursed him for knowing exactly what he needed, and giving him what he could.

They played that night until Atsumu’s fingers bled.



====



“Was that good?”

It’s after their fourth show. A not-so cramped, sweaty bar show in Nagoya. Hinata’s sitting precariously on the bathroom sink in the back of the venue while the next band’s music thuds through the walls. Atsumu’s got him by the elbow, holding him steady as he wraps a coil of bandage around Hinata’s bleeding forearm. “What?” Atsumu asks.

“Was that good, I mean.”

Atsumu looks up. His hand stills against Hinata’s arm. Hinata’s eyes are closed in half-sleep. The single fluorescent light above them flickers, and illuminates a bead of sweat as it drips between Hinata’s eyebrows. Post-show sweat.

Atsumu falters. “I don’t. . . I don’t know what you mean.”

“Like. . .” Hinata begins. He trails off into some kind of delirium, keeps his eyes shut. Atsumu watches him, and then catches his own eye on the mirror behind Hinata. He gets an image of himself: post-show sore, sweaty, tank top plastered to his chest, standing between Hinata’s legs in a dimly-lit single-stall bathroom with a vice grip around his injured forearm. He loosens his grip on reflex.

A review of how they ended up here comes to him automatically: Hinata scraped his arm against the barbed-wire ends of the strings at the head of Atsumu’s guitar as they’d launched themselves onstage earlier tonight, and hadn’t told anyone. He’d sung the whole show with a growing smear of blood on his left forearm that began at the elbow and trickled down to his wrist. If the audience had noticed, no one had let on; if Sakusa or Bokuto had noticed, they hadn’t let on either. Atsumu had noticed only after their set, when they stepped offstage in a euphoric haze and Hinata accidentally wiped blood onto his own t-shirt.

Oh, this? He’d said, holding up his blood-smeared forearm. A drop fell from his elbow onto the floor. It’s not so bad.

Sakusa had practically rocket-launched medical supplies at them from their emergency kit in the back of the van and gave Atsumu a long, silent look that said keep that as far away from me as possible.

Atsumu had pulled an exhausted Hinata into the bar’s bathroom with an air of dutiful solemnity and lifted him up onto the sink, where Hinata had immediately shut his eyes and tipped his head back against the mirror in delirious, sleepy contentment. This is how he was, post-show; he left everything onstage and barely made it into the van before falling asleep with a smile on his lips. Atsumu wondered at that sleepful smile as he struggled to open Sakusa’s pack of medical supplies; he wondered at the blithe confidence that allowed Hinata to play a whole show with his own blood dripping down his arm; he wondered at the cluelessness, or self-custody, or tiredness, that allowed Hinata to spread his legs on the bathroom sink and pull Atsumu between them to let him swipe alcohol wipes down his forearm. Atsumu heard his own heartbeat over the muffled sound of the next band’s music.

“I mean,” Hinata begins again. He flutters his eyes open and stares at Atsumu. “I mean, was that good. Today. Was I good.”

Atsumu’s hand goes still around the roll of gauze. He stares at Hinata’s arm. The fluorescent light above them flickers again. “ What ?” is all he manages.

“Was that good, today?” Hinata repeats it as if good is the part that Atsumu doesn’t understand.

Atsumu falters again. He watches at the blood-stained t-shirt rise and fall atop Hinata’s chest, and he falters. He stares at the locks of ginger hair plastered to his forehead, and he falters. He meets those wide, asking eyes, and he falters. He hears the question in his head, repeated, Was that good? , and he falters on some new, never-before-achieved level.

“It’s just that my old band would tell me if I was doing something wrong.” The sleepful smile still hasn’t disappeared from Hinata’s lips. “You guys haven’t given me any feedback.” He states it matter-of-factly.

Hinata had beamed like the sun on that stage. He’d whipped the mic’s cable around and flung himself onto the ground and sung and screamed and the crowd had screamed back with the deference of a well-conducted symphony. The execs at their label had seen videos of Hinata from their last three shows and were flooding Sakusa’s voicemail inbox with calls asking them when they could bring him into the studio. A small crowd had stayed behind at their last show to get their albums signed by him. Hinata had laughed like he didn’t get it. Atsumu had seen him onstage that night, and had stood there watching him sign albums, and had absolutely, one-hundred-percent gotten it.

My old band would tell me if I was doing something wrong.

Something in Atsumu must break, because he secures the bandage on Hinata’s arm around itself rashly, and leans forward to grab him off of the sink, and pulls him against his chest. Hinata, exhausted, settles into him without questioning it, as if he belongs there; he just might, because when he wraps his legs around Atumu’s hips and his arms around his shoulders, Atsumu can suddenly just stand there in perfect balance. The two of them hover sweat-slick and defeated beneath the bathroom’s single fluorescent light.

Atsumu now has full view of himself in the mirror. He makes eye contact with himself, or at least with the wide-eyed image of the man staring back at him; he’s not sure if he recognises himself this far into the future, standing in a bar’s grimy bathroom with an overilluminated, exhausted form curled into his arms and a head of ginger hair tucked into his shoulder.

Atsumu stands there dumbly. He feels Hinata’s chest rise and fall against his. He feels his limbs sink and relax their weight against him in sleepful defeat. Atsumu stares at himself.

“I think I’m gonna take us to the van,” he says, because he doesn’t know what else to do.

And Hinata hums warm agreement into Atsumu’s neck.

They’ve just spilled through the venue’s back door into the cold air when Atsumu stops.

“Of course you were good,” Atsumu bursts out. He stares into the night, the parking lot where their van sits beneath a floodlight, Sakusa and Bokuto shuffling equipment inside of it. He burns. He’s helpless to stop the words. “Of course you were fucking good tonight. You’ve never been anything but fucking good.”

And Hinata stirs against him gently. Atsumu feels him nod.

Atsumu keeps walking towards the van, because he doesn’t know what else to do. He hitches Hinata up higher on his hips. He burns with each step, each nod of Hinata’s warm weight against him. The sentence repeats in his head for the dozenth, hundredth time: My old band would tell me if I was doing something wrong.

The question is an unstoppable force, flying out of him: “Who the hell was in your old band?”



====



The Schweiden Adlers are returning to Osaka on Friday for their second sold-out concert at Shinsaibashi Muse Hall. The Tokyo-based band’s first nationwide tour is coming to a close this week, with bassist Fukuro Hirugami and lead guitarist Kageyama Tobio telling YFT news that

Atsumu tears his eyes away from the TV, and the misaligned subtitles popping up beneath the newscaster’s unblinking stare. His vision blurs at the sight of the checkout counter, where his purchases are being tallied up and scanned through faster than he can shove them into his plastic bag. A pack of M&Ms. Pepsi. A 400ml can of Pocari Sweat. A philips-head screwdriver. A set of six travel-size tissue packs. A shitty car charger. Band-Aids. Rubbing alcohol. A lighter. Ibuprofen.

2,780 yen. Atsumu slides his credit card over the layer of grime on the counter, looks down into his bag, and marvels briefly at everything that can be purchased at a gas station.

When he’s almost out the door, he stops in his tracks and stares at the reflection of the TV in the window’s half-mirror, still hovering just inside the threshold. His plastic bag taps and stills against his leg. It’s no longer the zombie-like news host, it’s drone footage of what must be Shinsaibashi Muse Hall —which he’s never heard of, for the record—during the Schweiden Adlers’ last concert there. The camera zooms in on a dark-haired guitarist, who plays to a thrashing crowd with some sheen of absolute calm that Atsumu wants to believe is forced. Narrow subtitles in a cheery shade of yellow scroll past him on the bottom of the screen. Atsumu squints to try to read them backwards. —will be lead singer Hosihiumi Kourai’s last tour with the band, following an unexpected announcement that he plans on leaving the lineup in the spring in order to—

Atsumu tears his eyes away again, shoulder-checks the gas station’s door open, and tumbles out into the warm rain. Hinata has told him about the Schweiden Adlers. Or about Kageyama Tobio , rather, the first name that had fallen from his lips as Atsumu had settled his curled, sleepful form into the van’s back seat that night in Nagoya. Atsumu knows only a handful of things about him: Kageyama Tobio was Hinata’s lead guitarist all through high school. Kageyama Tobio is extremely tall. Kageyama Tobio plays guitar extremely well. Kageyama Tobio went on tour for two years directly out of high school, while Hinata lived in Brazil. Kageyama Tobio now plays for the Schweiden Adlers , a band that is, apparently, on the news. 

He’s a genius.

A what?

He’s a genius. A guitar genius.

Those don’t exist.

Hinata had stared at him blankly. Yes they do.

That had been a week ago, late at night, with Hinata behind the wheel and Atsumu in the passenger’s seat, flying down the highway somewhere between Kyoto and Matsue, or Matsue and Hiroshima, or Hiroshima and Osaka. They’re a month into their impromptu tour, now, and Atsumu doesn’t remember the places or dates anymore. All he has is a long, thin stretch of memory, propped up between manic stage-highs: the strobing trails of streetlights flying over them, the steady sound of Bokuto’s snoring in the backseat, and the way Hinata’s voice goes gentler at night.

Hinata had quickly earned driving rights for the van. Within the first week of the tour. This was something Oliver had never accomplished; the Black Jackals had spent years with only two of four members permitted to drive the van, Bokuto because it was technically his, and Sakusa because he orbited it like a small moon, hand vacuum and insurance paperwork in hand, and also because he drove like a driving instructor.

Hinata had earned driving rights for the van somewhere before Kyoto or Matsue and somewhere after half-telling Atsumu who Kageyama Tobio was. This left Atsumu the only remaining Black Jackals member without driving rights for the van, and it also left him awake late at night balled into himself in the passenger seat, quietly asking Hinata somewhere on the highway between Matsue and Hiroshima for the third time who Kageyama Tobio actually was, because he would have sworn he recognised him from somewhere all those years ago, while Bokuto snored in the backseat and Sakusa did an impressive job ignoring the outside world.

He’s just a really good guitar player.

Atsumu had faltered. So am I.

I never said that you weren’t.

And Atsumu had opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it, and then looked away from Hinata, who was smiling, because he was fucking with him. Atsumu had been aware of how he sounded, in that moment, and equally aware of the redness that bloomed across his ears. I didn’t mean it like that. And Hinata had smiled with the same sheen of innocence and asked Hm? in that way of his, and Atsumu had shoved his feet up on the dashboard in helpless defeat.

They later established, to Atsumu’s relief, that Atsumu had seen Kageyama Tobio at some point in high school prior to the show in Sendai, at a national young musician’s showcase that they’d both been invited to in Atsumu’s second year. Atsumu was also certain to establish that he didn’t care about Kageyama Tobio, or anything to do with him for that matter, that he’d just wanted to know where he’d seen him before, and that Hinata didn’t need to worry about it.

And Hinata had pulled his eyes from the road and given him a smile that told him that he wasn’t worrying about it in the slightest, and that Atsumu, rather, was the one who didn’t need to worry about it. Atsumu had pushed himself deeper into the cushioning of the passenger seat and worried about it.

That, too, had been a week ago. Atsumu still grapples with the image of Kageyama Tobio ; Atsumu grapples with the mental image of himself carrying Hinata’s exhausted form out of that bar’s bathroom; he grapples with the words my old band and tell me and doing something wrong ; he grapples with the way that Hinata is capable of smiling while telling him that his old guitarist went on to tour without him after high school, and that his decision to go to Brazil was not entirely independent of that.

Atsumu ducks his head and begins to half-jog through the rain, through the parking lot and past the gas pumps, towards the blurry image of their parked van. The train of thought helpfully adds to itself: Atsumu grapples with the fact that the Schweiden Adlers and Kageyama Tobio are on the late-night news at this shitty gas station, and that Hinata isn’t with them; that Hinata is in the parking lot of this shitty gas station instead, sprawled out on top of their busted van’s hood, smiling up into the night sky’s open downpour with his phone to his cheek.

“—pulled over outside Shimonoseki. Bokuto said something about a carburetor. Or a drive train. Or an oil gauge. Or something.” A pause, and then Hinata’s laughing into the phone. “I dunno. The van just sort of chugged to a stop. I’m pretty sure Sakusa called a mechanic. We’ll be fine.”

Atsumu approaches with his plastic bag full of waterlogged items swinging against his leg. He feels almost ridiculous, now, for having hurried through the rain when Hinata’s spread-eagled across their car’s hull, as if trying to soak in as much of it as possible. Atsumu pulls out his phone and glances at it. 2:46 A.M. Their van had blown something on the highway thirty minutes ago, in a great rumble and a cloud of exhaust from the back that had stirred all of them awake save for Bokuto. Sakusa had steered them into the nearest rest stop, put the van in park, and typed some long number into his phone before disappearing, Bokuto not long after him. We’re in Shimonoseki. I know a guy. That was his thing, Bokuto. Disappearing at highway rest stops, and knowing a guy.

Atsumu stares at Hinata sprawled out on the van’s hood. If this new instance of knowing a guy works out like their last, Atsumu considers, he will not complain.

Once Sakusa and Bokuto ran off, Hinata had stayed with Atsumu in the van and helpfully offered to brainstorm a list of things they might need from the gas station. Atsumu, feeling a little useless and very willing to oblige, had offered to take this list across the parking lot into the gas station so Hinata wouldn’t have to get out of the car and get wet. Hinata had smiled and nodded. Atsumu had schlepped himself in and out of the gas station in his sweatpants, and has now returned to the sight of Hinata very intentionally getting wet.

“Here’s ‘yer M&Ms.” Atsumu says this quietly, so as not to interrupt Hinata’s phone call. Hinata smiles and nods and takes the dripping pack of M&Ms from Atsumu before ripping them open with his teeth and laying back down on the van’s hood. “Yuh-huh,” he mumbles into the phone.

Atsumu hovers in uncertainty for a moment before sprawling himself out in the space on the hood beside Hinata. He pulls out the can of Pocari Sweat and lets the flooded plastic bag fall to the ground.

“Mm-hmm.” Hinata hums into the receiver. A male voice scratches through the other end. “Yeah, I heard! He told me it’s going great.”

Atsumu lets himself sink into the dissipating heat of the van’s engine, hyperaware of the damp fabric of his t-shirt clinging to his back. He tries to keep his eyes open, but the rain whips against his face, and he’s forced to shut them. They fly open again when he feels a warm pressure against his hand.

Atsumu props himself up on one elbow. It’s Hinata, pressing M&Ms into his palm and staring at him expectantly. Atsumu remains frozen in place for a beat before he pops them into his mouth. They’re wet with rain. He smiles. The voice on the other end of Hinata’s call scratches through.

“It’s on the news?” Hinata says, then, breaking eye contact and laying himself back down onto the car. “Oh, no, I didn’t see that. I’m still by the car. I had no idea.” A pause. “Huh. He did always say he wanted to try something else.” A pause. ”I’m surprised that he’d announce it on such short notice, though. They weren’t planning on going on hiatus, then.” Another pause. “That’s a shame. They’re down one.”

Atsumu settles back down onto the hood beside him. Hinata’s phone crackles as the other person speaks, and then suddenly there’s a long stretch of silence that follows, where neither Hinata nor the other guy says anything. Atsumu can hear the sound of the rain whipping and skittering across the car’s hull. He casts a sidelong glance across the darkened parking lot, at the gas station’s neon OPEN sign, which flickers, as if in response. He holds his unopened can of Pocari Sweat to his chest, and watches the reflection of the passing cars’ headlights streak wet beams across the gas station’s windows.

“No,” Hinata says, then, out into the open sky. His head is tilted back against the windshield. “That would really be an incredibly kind offer, but I wouldn’t. Even if he asked me.”

The other voice on the line says something brief. The realization crashes over Atsumu like a whipping sheet of rain, and he can suddenly hear his heartbeat in his ears. He forces himself to remain still against the van’s hull.

“Well, if he does ask if I want to.” Hinata’s sitting up, then, fishing around in his damp bag of M&MS for a few more to pass to Atsumu. He presses them into Atsumu’s palm without looking, holding the phone to his cheek and staring out across the rain-lashed freeway. “Tell him I’m happy where I’m at.”



====

 

 

“You’re different.”

“Fuck you.”

They’re outside the bar, in a narrow sparking space. Atsumu’s got the back of the van popped open and his open guitar case in his lap, compulsively trying to buff away a fresh blemish on his guitar’s face with one of Sakusa’s microfiber cloths. Osamu is standing in the parking space, feet shoulder-width apart, beer in hand.

Osamu doesn’t dignify Atsumu’s Fuck you with a response; he just stands there and stares at him and lets his grin grow slightly more shit-eating. Atsumu looks up, sees this, and falters. “I’m different . What the hell is that even supposed to mean, ‘Samu.”

The rest of the band is inside the bar, and Atsumu knows that if he were to lean forward and crane his neck he’d see Hinata and Bokuto and some of those guys from the Adlers through the window, probably tipping their heads back and slamming empty shot glasses down with uncanny synchrony. They’d played a show tonight, not at a bar, but at a big venue—normally Atsumu participates in this post-show bar-hopping ritual eagerly, on the nights that they have enough energy left in them to go out for drinks. Sometimes he takes part just to sit there lining up shots with the other two and stare at the unmoved, nonparticipatory look on Sakusa’s face. 

Tonight he’d refused to enter the bar, partly because of some unfamiliar stubbornness, partly because Osamu had shown up uninvited and stood outside with him like a leech or a lost child, partly because the band that closed for them tonight had been the motherfucking Schweiden Adlers .

How this had come to fruition when Atsumu hadn’t been looking still isn’t clear; the Schweiden Adlers were closing their big-ticket tour next week, since Hoshiumi Kourai was pulling a Hinata from Brazil and hopping off to some foreign country to play exotic music next month; some phone call in the car last week between Sakusa and their manager or their manager and the Adler’s manager had established that the Black Jackals and the Adlers were going to be in the same city on the same night, and before Atsumu could jam his finger into the car radio’s on button to drown it out, the words Why don’t you guys come open for us on Saturday? were scratching through Sakusa’s iPhone speakers.

And Hinata with his driving rights for the van had whooped enthusiastic approval from the driver’s seat.

“I mean that you’re different now. You play different.”

“Huh?” Atsumu stares at Osamu and his smile and his beer, and he frowns. Osamu hasn’t been to a Black Jackals show since before Oliver left. He hasn’t been to a Black jackals show for years, for that matter. Not since before the release of their latest album, not since before their label and their studio and their manager and the clunky 98’ Toyota. He stands here, now, beer in hand, smiling, decidedly present, a couple years late. Hey, I think I can make it tonight, he’d said over the phone this afternoon, as Atsumu was unpacking for soundcheck, with a level of informality that suggested that this was a non-event. Atsumu had whiteknuckled the neck of his guitar. He’d wondered if being mean would discourage him. It didn’t.

“You play different up there. Compared to high school.”

Atsumu returns to buffing away the scratches on his guitar. He considers the most inflammatory thing he could say. “I play better without you, you mean?”

“Nah,” Osamu says. “You play different.

Atsumu grits his teeth. He punches down the awareness that he will not be able to buff away this scratch on his guitar, since it is a scratch and not a smear, and he buffs harder. What the hell could have been different ? The show had gone amazingly well. The kind of huge venue that the Schweiden Adlers play is the kind of venue that the Black Jackals are beginning to play; Atsumu no longer feels out of place on a stage that seems to break out from under him at the edge and expand into a vast, dark sea of bodies. The energy of the crowd had been like a lightning rod. The Schweiden Adlers—their music, their lead guitarist—had been like a lightning rod. 

Kageyama Tobio, lead guitarist, had pulled Hinata into a hug after the show, backstage. Atsumu had accomplished the herculean task of pretending that he didn’t see it, and that he wasn’t listening to and committing to memory the hushed, laughing tones of their voices. Kageyama had then disappeared, the next time Atsumu turned around, and hadn’t reappeared with the rest of the Adlers at the bar after the show.

He said he wanted to rest, Hinata had offered when prompted. They’ve still got a week of shows. He’d given Atsumu the same smile from the highway between Matsue and Hiroshima; the one that said I’m not worrying about it, and you shouldn’t either, and Atsumu had continued stacking equipment and done a terrible job of not worrying about it.

Maybe that had been different , he considers. Maybe that’s what Osamu means. Maybe the Schweiden Adlers, or Kageyama Tobio or the way he touches Hinata is why he played different tonight. Maybe it’s the fact that he’d played tonight with the words my old band used to tell me when I was doing something wrong ringing around in his head, and that he’d played louder, better, harder for it, in some righteous attempt to elevate Hinata, or Hinata’s voice, as if to challenge the audience or the band standing in the wings to find something fucking wrong with it. Maybe that was different , and Osamu had seen it.

A muffled roar of voices is audible through the bar’s propped-open door. Atsumu continues buffing his guitar, and pictures Bokuto performing another feat of alcohol consumption. He doesn’t say anything to Osamu, and that must be reply enough, because Osamu speaks, and it’s quieter this time:

“You know what I mean, ‘Sumu.” The grin can no longer be heard in his voice. He pauses before speaking again. “I always knew you were going to be okay.”

Atsumu’s hand stills against his guitar.

He stares at his fingers, and at Sakusa’s microfiber cloth, before lifting his head slowly. Osamu’s standing there, taking a swig of his beer, watching him. All thoughts of Kageyama Tobio and Hinata vanish. So that’s what he meant, the motherfucker. The sentence carries an unspoken implication, two words that Atsumu can provide on his own: I always knew you were going to be okay without me.

Atsumu tries, but he can’t pull another Fuck you out of himself.

He can’t pull out a You left me when I needed you and it was never a given that I was going to be okay; my being okay now has nothing to do with you; it is despite of you; you have no right to participate in it.

But he doesn’t say that, because it wouldn’t be true.

There must be an upper limit, he thinks, to the number of untrue things that he can say on any given day; he must have reached it just now by pretending he didn’t know what Osamu meant by different . Or maybe he reached the limit permanently, seven years ago in their garage in Hyogo, when he’d yanked Osamu off the ground by his shirt and screamed into his face that he was going to have the happier life.

He’ll be okay now, he thinks, if Osamu has the happier life.

He’ll also be okay, now, he thinks, if he tells Osamu that he’s right.

“I guess, yeah,” he says. It feels almost warm, like surrender. “I was gonna be okay.”

Osamu passes him his beer, like surrender, and Atsumu takes a sip of it. Osamu holds it steady in the air between them, hand over Atsumu’s, when Atsumu tries to give it back. Osamu splits into a grin. “And besides, you never would have gotten here if I’d stayed.”

“Gotten where?”

Osamu jerks his chin towards the bar’s window. “I mean here .”

Atsumu cranes his neck and looks, and there’s Hinata smiling in the bar, tapping on the window, beckoning him to come inside.



====



Somewhere in a rice field forty minutes east of Osaka, there’s a train crossing that’s broken. The gate lowers twelve minutes before the train comes, and hovers for another three after it leaves. Miya Atsumu has had a run-in with this train crossing once before, with three people in a beaten-up 98’ Toyota van, one of them on the phone, the other sleeping, and another trying to disappear into the passenger seat.

He finds himself at it again, now, seven months later, in an incandescent sort of unreality. It’s the kind of unexpected reunion that parodies itself, that requires a double-and triple-take; the kind of reunion that requires him to lean forward on the dashboard with his whole body and gawk, and then put his feet up on it, just to compare the angle to the image in his memory. The sun sits low in the evening sky, where a train would block it, strobe its light over the pavement, if a train were there. No train is there. The asphalt before their car is chewed and broken, and the lowered gate sits a little crooked, as if groaning beneath its own weight. Overgrown grass taps against the signal pole. No train comes. It’s the same place.

Atsumu sits leaned forward, staring at it in reverent silence. The engine ticks and hums beneath him. The beat-up 98’ Toyota is the same as last time, but its passengers are not.

“Is the train gonna come?” Hinata asks, from the driver’s seat, with his beaming smile and his driving rights to the van. He taps his hands against the steering wheel in a syncopated rhythm that Atsumu can’t wrap his head around.

Atsumu splays his fingers out on the sun-warm plastic of the dashboard. They’re here again because they’re following the same leg of the tour that had brought him and Bokuto and Sakusa here seven months ago, coincidentally; the leg between Osaka and Tokyo they needed to drive to haul the van back to Bokuto’s apartment. He and Hinata are now taking the van to Tokyo one last time, cleared-out and hand-vaccumed, to be sold—traded in and added to the stack of money their label is throwing at them for a tour bus.

Their last tour had gone on for three months longer than expected. The album they were supposed to record with Hinata got delayed, because they were too busy driving around the country with Hinata, who turned out to be the missing piece they’d needed to start selling out the venues that were suddenly calling them, asking if they could come. The van had remained in its position for longer than was practical. They’d turned down dozens of offers from the label to equip them with a tour bus, even after the van broke down again outside Niigata. They’d said they’d take the label up on the bus offer once they were back in Tokyo, recording.

Here they are, returning to Tokyo, sitting in the van in a rice field outside Osaka at a train crossing with no train.

“It takes a while,” Atsumu says, with a quiet sureness so rarely his. Hinata has shifted the car into park; they’ve been here for at least two minutes. Atsumu watches his hand still over the gear shift. “But it’ll come.”

“Huh,” Hinata says. He pulls his hands from the controls and sets them in his lap. “How do you know?”

Atsumu meets his gaze. He sometimes wonders, in moments of unnatural clarity, if Hinata remembers the show in Sendai, and the seven-years’-old promise beneath that bar’s floodlight. They’ve only mentioned it in passing, skimming narrowly by that night in Sendai in conversations about Kageyama and Osamu and high school and thrash metal. The words I’m going to play for you one day have remained unspoken, unmentioned. Atsumu often finds himself entertaining the thought that Hinata doesn’t remember those words at all, and that the memory is privately his, and that any attempt to bring up those words in conversation would somehow tear a hole open in the reality so precariously held together by them.

It would make sense if Hinata doesn’t remember, he thinks. The memory is only etched into Atsumu because he lives it, every day, in the messy head of ginger hair across from him. He wonders if the memory would have slipped away into anonymity, in some other reality where Hinata did not fall from the sky into his lap, his band, his life. That reality is difficult to imagine, sitting across from Hinata in the technicolor, sun-baked air of the Toyota. 

“‘Cause I’ve been here before,” Atsumu says. He stretches his feet back up onto the dashboard, just to test the fates, or whatever god of irony that might be watching. He hears Sakusa’s voice in the back of his head, and he smiles. Atsumu, please take your feet off of the dashboard.

“When?” Hinata asks.

Atsumu chews on the question before answering. “Before I met you.”

“Huh,” Hinata says. He’s smiling too.

Hinata doesn’t ask Atsumu to take his feet off the dashboard. He doesn’t stop him when he jams his finger into the car radio’s on button, and heavy metal begins booming through the van’s half-busted speakers. Hinata sings along with the music, as a matter of fact; he turns the volume up and he sings along to the music until Atsumu is singing along to the music too, and they’re thrashing their heads and shaking the van in its frame and shouting the wrong lyrics out onto the rice field and the empty train track through the rolled-down windows. Atsumu’s soul gets whiplash.

Atsumu sees a flash of it, then, when the music stops and the radio host’s voice crackles through the speakers, and the car is sunk into a sleepy hum: the impossible, delicate stillness in Hinata’s gaze, cast out over the train tracks in silence.

“When you sing, Hinata.” The question is an unstoppable force, seven years in the making, flying out of him: “Where do you go?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The train takes more than twelve minutes to come. They pack themselves out of the van at the twenty-minute mark, and climb on top of it to sit beside one another on the van’s sun-baked roof. The rice paddy, soaked to the roots with sun, stretches itself out around them in green accommodation; the train does not.

Atsumu decides, as they sit up there in the center of the great sprawling sun-bleached sea of green, that it doesn’t matter if Hinata remembers the promise from beneath the floodlight in Sendai. It doesn’t matter if the promise is only his to know. Hinata is here on the van’s roof, overilluminated in white, a head of ginger hair, delivering on the promise anyways.

“I don’t know where I go,” is Hinata’s ten-minute-late answer. He leans back, settles against the roof of the van, makes eye contact with Atsumu. The words sigh from him. “I don’t know where I go when I sing.”

Atsumu watches the breeze push his bangs out of his eyes. The van’s engine ticks. The grass hisses against itself. “Mm.”

They both watch as Hinata reaches out, extends his fingers, wraps them around Atsumu’s bare forearm. The stillness is there again, in his eyes, and in the question falling from his lips: “But you see me there?”

Atsumu’s world stops, beneath a floodlight, beneath the beating sun.

“Yeah.”

Hinata tugs Atsumu’s forearm down; tugs Atsumu towards him.

The train rushes through.