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for the best of all possible worlds

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~O~

 

“It is noble to write as one thinks; this is the privilege of humanity.”― Candide, ch. 25, Voltaire

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

 

...

 

There's no one home when Tobio arrives from school. He sheds his shoes at the genkan and deposits his umbrella in the basket stand. He heads first to the fridge, takes out a milk carton and pours himself a glass; it only fills by a quarter. He drinks it all in one big gulp.

After changing into his training gear, he waits by the sofa. He rolls a volleyball in his hands until Kazuyo-san comes in, a sheaf of papers under his arms.

"Tobio! Are you here already?" Kazuyo's eyebrows shoot up as he flicks on the switch. "Goodness me! Why are you sitting there all by yourself in the dark? Where's Miwa-chan?"

"I don't know," Tobio says. He stands up and slings his backpack on.

Kazuyo taps his finger on his chin. "Hmm. She's probably still in school... Well, I can definitely see you're raring to go," he says, chuckling after. "Come now, Tobio! I'm sure you've been waiting for this match the entire day."

Tobio nods and dashes to his side immediately.

 

...

 

The Little Falcons won 25-14, with Tobio tallying eleven service aces. Coach Fujikura stares at him for a while, considering, before patting him on the shoulder and congratulating him for playing well. After the quick team meeting, the rest of the boys disperse, chatting animatedly in pairs or trios. Tobio sits on the plastic bench and waits for his grandfather to show up.

"You really had them on their knees, you lil' tiger!" Kazuyo exclaims. He pats Tobio's shoulder. "That toss you did in the second set, right when the blockers were ready to shut down your wing spiker? That must be one of your personal bests, huh?"

Tobio nods as Kazuyo hands him a fresh towel to wipe the sweat over his eyebrows. "It felt good to toss like that."

"Ha! I don't doubt that at all. You really did look like you were enjoying yourself," Kazuyo says. He leads them towards the exit.

Tobio darts a glance up at Kazuyo. "Is there anything else I should do, Kazuyo-san? Fujikura-sensei didn't say, but maybe you noticed something while you were watching from up there."

Kazuyo ponders that. "Hmm... you do hesitate a little when the last ball comes to you. What are you thinking about during those times?"

Tobio purses his lips. "Whether I'd hit the ball high or low."

"Mhmm! That boils down to how good you are at tracking where everyone is on the court! If you know where the defenders would be, you'd attack where they would least likely get the ball up," Kazuyo explains. "You have to sharpen your court awareness, and be able to perceive from there both your opponents’ and teammates' next moves. It's what we call 'game sense'."

Tobio's ears perk. Game sense! he repeats in his head. That sounds really cool. "How do you improve that?"

"By playing in more games, of course!" Kazuyo says with a laugh. "But not just play. You have to take note of what you're doing right or wrong in every match, and tweak your plays accordingly."

"Oh. How do you do that?"

Kazuyo hums. They wait for the traffic lights to turn red, before crossing the pedestrian lane. Once they reach the other side of the road, Kazuyo says, "When I was in university, I was teammates with this big-name player. He was really good. Easily the best player in the prefecture. I was roommates with him when I was in first-year, and every time our game ended, I saw him jotting down notes on a big pad of paper."

"What did he write?"

"Oh, all sorts of things! You wouldn't believe it, but he mostly wrote about the things he did wrong rather than those moves that went well. All those chunks of notes, he'd read it before a game so he'd remember what he shouldn't do." Kazuyo smiles. "I was inspired, and I tried it once, but I dropped it soon after. Keeping a logbook is a lot of commitment, Tobio. You think you can do it?"

Tobio nods vigorously.

Kazuyo lightly squeezes Tobio's forearm. "Are you hungry right now? Why don't we head for the stationery shop first before it closes? I was thinking of getting some envelopes too for myself..."

Despite his stomach's insistent growling, Tobio answers, "I'm not hungry."

"Alrighty, then!"

They take a while in the store, mostly because Tobio has a hard time picking what kind of notebook he wants to get. There's so many kinds to choose from. When he decides that he wants a ring-bound journal, he spends almost half an hour searching for one with Vabo-Chan on the cover, to no avail. With deep resignation, he chooses the one with Keroppi the Frog near the edge of the flap.

They get dinner in the ramen shop next to the stationery store. Tobio listens with half an ear as Kazuyo talks about his friend abroad. His eyes fleet to a family of three across the street: a harried-looking mother pushes a stroller while her daughter follows, her small hand clutching the hem of her mother's skirt.

"—booked for an entire month, which is unheard of. And Lucio says the kid's quite talented. 'Jumps better than a flea' is what I remember he wrote in his letter. Maybe as crazy for volleyball as you are. Tobio, are you listening?"

Tobio cranes his neck. "Yes?"

Kazuyo chuckles before taking a sip of water. "I was talking about my friend and his new pupil. You remember Katou Lucio?"

"A little. Isn't he your..."

"Friend in Brazil," Kazuyo prompts. "Yes, that's the one. In his letters, he mentioned a kid the same age as you who's very interested in learning volleyball! Lucio says the boy kind of reminds him of you, Tobio."

Tobio tilts his head. "Is he Japanese, too?"

"Oh!" Kazuyo's eyes widen. "Why, yes he is! I forgot to mention. Apparently, his parents moved to Rio de Janeiro before he was born. Did you know that there are a lot of Japanese in Brazil, Tobio? Most of them aren't staying in Rio, though, I think."

Tobio shakes his head. "Brazil is good at volleyball," he mutters. He feels envious of this unnamed kid already.

"Oh, they're absolutely splendid. But it's only a matter of time until another conqueror will rule the skies, hmm?" Kazuyo wipes his chin with a cloth. "I'm sending Lucio a reply tomorrow. Why don't you write Hinata-kun a letter, too?"

"Hinata?"

"The boy," Kazuyo clarifies. "Hinata Shouyou is his name. He can understand Japanese so it's okay to write to him."

Tobio frowns. "What do I tell him?"

"Anything you want!"

The skin on Tobio's forehead wrinkles. "What if I don't want to write to him?" he asks.

Kazuyo laughs. "No one can force you to do anything you don't want, Tobio," he says. "I just thought… since you're the same age and you both like volleyball so much, maybe you two could be friends. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Tobio doesn't answer. Instead, he looks down at his empty ramen bowl and gives it a huge thought.

He's still thinking about it when he gets home, dribbling the volleyball against his bedroom wall. He only stops when his older sister knocks on his door.

"I'm studying," Miwa says flatly. "Keep the noise down."

"Sorry," Tobio says, tucking the ball in his arms. When Miwa's about to close the door, he blurts, "Do you know how to write a letter?"

"A letter?"

"Mhmm."

Miwa's eyes narrow into slits. "Is it a confession letter?"

"What's a confession letter?"

"Hmmm. Nothing." Miwa eyes him contemplatively before stepping inside Tobio's room. She puts her hands on her hips. "What's this letter for then?"

"Kazuyo-san's friend in Brazil has a new student. Kazuyo says I can write him a letter."

"Okay. What for?"

Tobio halts. "Kazuyo-san said we could be friends," he eventually says.

Something in Miwa's expression changes. She directs Tobio to sit by the desk and bring out a paper and a pen. "You want to be friends with that student? Can he understand Japanese?"

Tobio nods once.

"What do you want to talk about?"

"Volleyball."

One side of Miwa's lips curls up. "Volleyball, huh. You sure about that?"

"Kazuyo-san says he plays volleyball, too."

Miwa blows out a breath. "Of course he does," she says, slightly amused. "What's his name? This student?"

"Hinata Shouyou."

"Alright." She points at a spot on the blank paper. "So first, you write the date here, and then you add his name here..."

They take almost an hour drafting the letter, and another twenty minutes for Tobio to write the final version. Tobio apologizes for taking her time away from studying, which Miwa acknowledges with a soft grunt.

"I'll let you borrow my spelling guide," Miwa says. "You should know how to spell, at least, Tobio. Maybe I'll throw in a dictionary or a thesaurus as well. I don't use them as much anymore."

"Mhmm."

She takes the final version in her hands, reading the whole thing, before smiling minutely. "It sounds..."

"Sounds what?"

"It sounds just like you." She hands the paper back to Tobio. "Tell me if he writes back."

"Okay."

"No more dribbling on the walls."

Tobio nods and watches as she closes the door behind her.

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

 

...

 

Shouyou runs to the intersection, narrowly avoiding a cyclist and a yellow taxi taking a sharp turn to the right. One of the three men in green and white vests shout at him in Portuguese, "Hey! Be careful there, kid!"

"Sorry!" Shouyou shouts back, slowing his dash into a jog as he crosses the pedestrian lane. He then runs again once he reaches the footbridge to Parque do Flamengo.

By the beach, Lucio is already teaching a handful of high school students how to do a jump serve. Shouyou buys two coconut water from the nearby vendor and then sits on one of the wooden benches, watching them play as he dips his toes on the sand.

After the session, Lucio beams at the fresh coconut as he approaches Shouyou. "Are you bribing me with that, Shou-kun?" he says in Japanese. "Talk about splendid timing."

"Dad always buys two!" Shouyou chirps. "One for himself and another for someone else. He says that's how you make friends!"

Lucio chortles. "A journalist sure knows his way around." He sits beside him and takes a sip. "Ahhh. That really hits the spot. So, what do you want to do today?"

"I want to spike!"

"Alright. You're very early, so take this time to watch how the older kids play, okay? Then let's have you run some drills with some of my elementary school students later and I'll squeeze you in a game or two."

"Okay!"

Once Lucio's second class starts, Shouyou joins the other school kids, who stretch out their arms and greet him warmly and loudly. They form two lines with Lucio playing as setter. He tosses a free ball for them to spike, with another line on the other side of the net attempting to receive the ball. After twenty minutes of this, they do two sets of blocking drills, and then they do a scrimmage with the winning team being the first to reach ten points.

Shouyou and his pair, Lucas, only win once out of three games. Lucas takes the loss better than Shouyou does.

"Cheer up, Shou! We'll get them next time." Lucas pats Shouyou's arm with a sand-crusted hand. "You know, from your accent, I would've thought you're a carioca."

Shouyou rearranges his frown into a smile. "Ahh, I am! I was born here in Rio and I've been here ever since."

Lucas jolts back. "Eh, really? I haven't seen a lot of guys like you in school."

"Oh. I go to St. Jude's." Shouyou purses his lips in thought. Now that Lucas mentioned it, he realizes that he's the only one of Japanese descent in his primary school as well.

"You go to that private school in Botafogo?"

"Yeah!"

"Ahh. Figures." Lucas grins. "I have to go—my mom's going to cut me if I arrive home late—but let's have some coxinhas next time."

"Sure!" Shouyou says, waving as Lucas jogs towards the cemented path framing the beach.

He helps Lucio pack all the volleyballs in the duffel bag. As they clean up, Lucio tells Shouyou about the upcoming junior beach volleyball tournament that's going to be held in November, which is three months away.

"You'll have to practice three hours a day, seven days a week," Lucio says as he zips the bag with great effort. "You think you're up for it?"

Shouyou nods. "Should I do more than that? You know, since I'm only starting?" He thinks he can do seven hours a day. Maybe even twelve hours. He shudders in anticipation.

"We can bump it up to four, but that's as much as I'm willing to allow, Shou-kun." Lucio bumps his hip with Shouyou. "I know you can run several hundred laps without ever catching your breath, but it's important for you to learn not to overestimate how your body responds to stress. Alright?"

Shouyou deflates, though he nods again.

They walk and follow the scallop-shaped lanes again, moving past the tennis courts and the people gathered beneath the sodium vapor lamps lining the paths.

"You still have school, lil' carrot," Lucio reminds him with a laugh. "Your parents will wage epic wars with me if you end up repeating fifth grade."

"Can you teach me math, too?" Shouyou is absolutely terrible at fractions and percentages.

Lucio guffaws. "Why'd you think I'm still hassling myself with a poor coach's salary instead of getting an engineering degree? Anyway, you work hard on both ends, yeah? And I'll help you as much as I can with volleyball."

"Thank you, Lucio-sensei!"

"My pleasure. Volleyball nuts like you aren't as common as you think, you know." Lucio then snaps his fingers. "Ahh! Right, I almost forgot..." He reaches for his bag and unzips the back pocket. "I got a letter from my friend in Japan, and his grandson plays volleyball, too. He's about your age, I remember."

"Really?"

"Wait a sec—aha! Got it! Knew I put it in here. My memory hasn't failed me yet." Lucio pries open an envelope and takes out the sheet of paper inside. "Kazuyo's grandson wrote you a letter, apparently. I haven't read it, of course."

Shouyou makes a leap for it as soon as Lucio holds out the letter. "This is for me? Really? This is so cool!" No one has sent Shouyou a letter before. He's going to read it as soon as he gets home, where the lights are brighter and he can comfortably think of many things to reply to this kind stranger.

"When you reply, you can put in your address instead of mine so you two can correspond at your own time."

"I will!"

Lucio laughs. "Look at you getting all excited. That old-timer really has some good ideas from time to time," he says quite fondly.

They say their goodbyes at the bend in the main avenue. Shouyou rushes to the elevators and sprints to his family's apartment. He greets his mom and Natsu with his usual bluster, though he finishes his dinner in record time and shuts himself in his room, the letter hot in his hands.

He sits on the edge of his bed and unfolds the paper.

"Wow," Shouyou remarks. "Is this in code?" Whoever wrote this has awful handwriting. He squints and pulls the paper closer to his face.

 

July 28, 2007

 

Dear Hinata Shouyou,

My name is Kageyama Tobio. Here in Japan, we call each other by our last names, so you can call me Kageyama. But you can also call me Tobio. You choose.

I'm ten years old. My birthday is on December 22. I'm a fifth-grader from Akiyama Elementary in Natori, Miyagi. I've been playing indoor volleyball since second grade. I'm a setter.

My grandfather says you play volleyball, too. What position do you play? How long have you been playing? How do you train? Why is Brazil good at volleyball?

Talk to you soon.

 

Kageyama Tobio

 

"Huh," Shouyou says out loud. That was a bit unexpected. Even though this Kageyama person had rattled off information about himself, the letter as a whole seems rather impersonal.

Still, Shouyou really appreciates that someone had thought of reaching out to him, his grin growing wider at the idea of making a new friend on the other side of the globe. Maybe this is how it's like at first. He resolves to change the mood, and wishes that Kageyama will respond.

Shouyou stretches and yawns, before taking out a sheet of paper from his drawer of school supplies. He taps his pen against his chin, thinking about what he should say to sound friendly and trustworthy, though he gives up altogether after ten minutes and just writes whatever he feels like telling Kageyama.

It's not like he'd get to see and hear Kageyama laughing at him if Shouyou does end up writing something embarrassing, which is neat. He uses three leafs of paper for his first ever letter. He hopes Kageyama wouldn't mind that much.

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

 

...

 

It rains in streams outside. Tobio watches it all from his bedroom window and frowns. His Japanese language textbook is laid out on his desk. It’s untouched for almost an hour now. Everything was gibberish the first time he tried to read the passages. He doubts that it would magically make sense if he'd read it again.

"Tobio!" someone calls from downstairs. It sounds like Kazuyo.

Tobio bolts from his desk and heads to the living room. He finds Kazuyo shaking the rain droplets off his hair and leaving the dripping umbrella in the basket.

"Sheesh, the weather channel didn't say anything about 'em late autumn rains." He smiles at Tobio. "How are you, kiddo?"

"Good." Tobio glances at the way Kazuyo's tracksuit clings to his skin. "I'll go get towels, Kazuyo-san."

"Please do!"

In the bathroom, the towels are stacked at the topmost wooden rack. Tobio brings a stool from the kitchen and pokes at a navy blue one that's sticking out until it falls off the edge.

Kazuyo is coughing mightily by the time Tobio gets him the towels. "A glass of lukewarm water, please, Tobio," he wheezes.

"Okay." In the kitchen, Tobio takes out a mug and pours hot and cold water in equal parts. He then sits next to Kazuyo on the couch and hands him the water.

Kazuyo sighs when he finishes. "Starting to get a little cold now, huh? You keeping warm, Tobio?"

"Yes," Tobio says. "Why were you out, Kazuyo-san?"

"Did some errands. Took me a while, but..." Kazuyo fishes out an envelope from his black fanny pack. "I got a special delivery for my favorite grandson. Ooff. It got a little wet on the edges, but I hope you don't mind."

Tobio shakes his head. He takes the envelope carefully in his hands.

"Remind me to give you my spare stamp collection album," Kazuyo says, smiling at Tobio's glazed expression. "I think you and Hinata-kun would be having a very lengthy correspondence."

Tobio reads the back of the yellow envelope.

 

From:

Hinata Shouyou
R. Machado de Assis 20
Flamengo
Rio de Janeiro - RJ
22220-060
BRAZIL

 

To:

Kageyama Tobio
5-8-17 Natorigaoka, Natori
Miyagi 981-1235
JAPAN

 

Tobio stares at it, committing Hinata Shouyou's address to memory. "He wrote back," he mutters.

"Of course he did. Want to read it now?"

Tobio sticks his index finger at the end and pries the flap open. His eyes widen as he takes out multiple papers from the envelope. A sticker sheet of cute zoo animals playing volleyball falls out when he unfolds the letters.

Kazuyo lets out a booming laugh, slapping his thigh as he does. "Looks like Hinata-kun doesn't do anything by halves." He pats Tobio's shoulder. "I'll make us some snacks."

Tobio places the sticker sheet over the couch pillow to keep it from getting wet. He then reads.

 

August 19, 2007

 

Hey there, Kageyama!

I'm Hinata Shouyou (but I bet'cha know that already :D). You can call me Hinata if you're more comfortable with that. Here in Rio, people call me Shou. You can call me that, too, if you want!

You're in fifth grade, too? That's awesome! I'm older than you, though. I had my birthday last June 21st. Does that mean you should call me Hinata senpai? I've never been anyone's senpai before, so that's pretty cool!!! As a good senpai, I've sent you stickers I got from the souvenir shop in Maracanãzinho. I hope you like them!

Woah! You've been playing volleyball for that long already? You must be good! I'd love to play with you someday! Or maybe against you!!!! Brazil versus Japan in an epic, life or death battle! Wouldn’t that be cool?

I love spiking, so I'm usually my team's wing spiker! I only started playing indoor this year, but I like beach just as much. I still suck a lot. Receives are so hard!

I'm actually entering a beach volley tournament this November. I'm soooooo nervous!! But I'll practice really hard so I won't lose! Lucio-sensei's making me practice three hours everyday, with two hours on beach and one hour indoor. I want to do more, but Lucio-sensei won't let me. He says it's for my health, but I don't really feel sick or anything. But I trust him since he's Lucio-sensei and he's a good coach so I'll follow whatever he says!

Everybody here in Brazil's crazy about football, but loads of people pay attention to volleyball, too! My dad says that since volleyball has a lot of fans here, then there are more people who will support and grow the game. My dad writes sports for a newspaper, so I'm sure he knows this stuff. He writes mostly about football, though. I'm trying to convince him that volleyball's wayyyyy better. I'll tell you when I succeed!

Oh! There was this time when the men's team who won the gold medal in the Olympics had a parade in Avenida Rio Branco, and I was there with my mom and dad. They were so tall and sooooo coooooll!!! I want to be like that, too! They don't have a Japanese person on their team, but I'll be the first one to join. I'll tell you when that happens, too!

Sorry about the rainbow drawings in this letter. My little sister Natsu insisted I add a few to make this colorful. She said it looked too boring without it. I hope you don't think it's lame.

I live with my mom and my sister, and sometimes my dad. My dad's usually away because of work, but when he comes home, he usually brings a souvenir for me and Natsu. Last time, I got an autograph from the captains of the men's and women's national volleyball team. So awesome!!! Maybe next time, I'll get a signed jersey! Do you want one, too? I can ask my dad!

Aside from volleyball, what else do you like doing, Kageyama-kun? Do you play football? Do you play video games? Can you surf? Can you ride a bike? Can you ride it one-handed? How's your family like? Do you have any pesky younger sisters? What's it like in Japan? How does snow look like?

Sorry if I have a lot of questions! I'm really, really, really curious!

Hope to hear from you soon, Kageyama!!!

 

Your friend,
Hinata Shouyou :D

 

Despite the letter's length, Tobio reads it two more times. For some unknown reason, his cheeks heat up whenever he reads the last part.

He begins wondering about parades and sandy beaches. About how Hinata Shouyou looks like. Does he look as cheerful as he sounds? Does he have many friends? Do they all play volleyball?

He then folds the papers into neat rectangles and waits for Kazuyo to finish making onigiri.

 

...

 

"Miwa-san."

Miwa looks up. "Yes?"

Tobio hesitates before holding up Hinata's letter. "He wrote back," he says.

Miwa stands up from her desk, brushing her towel against her wet hair. To Tobio's surprise, she smiles as soon as she sees the chunks of paragraphs crammed in each paper. When her fingers graze the rainbows at the margins, the bits of crayon stick to her skin.

"He sounds cute," Miwa says when she finishes reading. "A volleyball freak. Just like you."

Tobio's face reddens. "What should I do now?"

"What do you mean?"

Tobio holds out his palm, and Miwa refolds the letter and gives it to him. "He sent me stickers," he answers tinily.

"Do you like them?"

"Yeah."

"Then send him something back that he'll like."

That's the problem. "I... I don't know what he likes," Tobio admits.

Miwa scratches her neck and looks up at the ceiling. "Make an educated guess then," she says.

Tobio frowns. "What's that?"

"It means that you make a good guess based on the information you currently know. From what Hinata-kun told you in his letter, what do you think he'd like to receive from you?"

"Oh."

"Run along now, Tobio. I have lots of homework to do." She gives Tobio a serious look. "Finish yours, too. Alright? Dad won't be too happy if he sees your grades slip again."

"Okay."

Once Miwa closes the door, Tobio pads back to his room, disgruntled. He was expecting his more experienced older sister would give him some practical suggestions; making an "educated guess" seems too much to ask of Tobio. He doesn't like making guesses. What if he guesses wrong and messes up, and Hinata won't write to him anymore?

He forgoes doing his homework again and instead goes over the letter once more. He wishes that some hints of Hinata's likes and dislikes would just fall out.

"Should I send him stickers, too?" Tobio says to himself, but immediately thinks, no way. That would be cheating. He's fairly sure that there shouldn't be any repeats. That would be like telling Hinata that he doesn't care.

He has to give something better. Something really good. Tobio won't lose at this.

Tobio reads the letter for what seems like the tenth time already, and then his eyes start to fall on that same line, over and over: How does snow look like?

It's still November, way too early for snow to fall yet. He slides open his bedroom window and peers down. There's a lumpy heap of yellow and red orange leaves in their backyard, still wet from the rain. Maybe he'll start getting a few of them when they dry out.

He then searches for that encyclopedia he opened only once or twice, and gets a pair of scissors.

 

~O~

Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro

...

 

It's the last day before summer break starts. Shouyou is vibrating in his seat, sweat collecting at the seams of his white, short sleeve polo and the waistband of his black slacks. Once the bell rings, the language teacher says goodbye, and all the boys and the girls explode into chatter.

"Where are you going, Shou?" Jacobi, a tall boy with curly, light brown hair asks, pushing his desk aside to get to Shouyou quicker. "We need a striker for our game later!"

Shouyou slings his bag before wiping the sweat off his brow. "Ohh, sorry! I have practice."

"Aww. Volleyball? Again? Wasn't the tourney over already? And just how many times do your practices run in a week?"

"Everyday!"

"You're crazy! Oh well. I'll be in the park this weekend with the rest of the gang. Catch you later! And don't bail next time! We really need you out there."

Shouyou grins. "Have fun later, Jacobi!"

"No need to tell us that!" Jacobi waves and turns to the gathering of boys by the window.

Shouyou dashes through the hallways and the main stairwell, dodging a few teachers and students and almost bumping into one of the custodians roving on the second floor. When he reaches the open space in front of the school chapel, he looks up at the skies and flings his arms wide.

"Ahhh, freedom!" Shouyou says to the pillowy clouds. He crosses the street and flags a bus to Flamengo.

As he looks over the window, he thinks about what Jacobi said. The sting of the tournament loss has barely abated, and it was only about a week ago before Shouyou had stopped picking at the scab and let his mind refocus on the future. Lucio had been very upfront about Shouyou's shortcomings. He has no time to sulk when important people are doing whatever they can to help him become better.

When he arrives at the Aterro, he runs again at the cycle tracks lined with palm and coconut trees. It's three hours past noon, and there are already school children like him loitering around the park, chatting and laughing and having a grand time by the beach or at the skatepark. A few tourists flock to a newly opened quiosque selling caipirinhas, tawdry souvenirs and fruit-laden hats.

Lucio tells him that they'd be doing indoors for today, so they relocate to the covered courts at the end of the Aterro.

"Am I your only student for today?" Shouyou asks as Lucio unlocks the gates.

Lucio nods. "I don't have any classes scheduled today."

Shouyou's jaw drops. "Really?" He was really psyched to see Lucas and his classmates, especially the older kids. Although their towering height made him gulp and tremble at first, they were fun to play with and they gave him loads of good advice in attacking. A thought then occurs to him, and he bows deeply. "I'm so sorry for taking away your precious day off!" he shouts at the floor.

Lucio shakes his head frantically. "Oh no, Shouyou, don't be! I had nothing to do today. My wife's out with her friends and she brought the children with her, so really. You're keeping me from lounging all afternoon long in an empty nest."

When they walk past the court, Shouyou questions, "We're not doing drills today?"

"Nope!" Lucio says. "We're going to watch some tapes."

Shouyou's entire being brightens. "Tapes?" he exclaims.

"I had my wife film you," Lucio says with a wink. "I already watched it. You're a little off-center, but it's good enough for us to track your movements." He opens the door to the small A/V room and turns on the light. "Afterwards, let's watch some games from actual pros and let's see what tricks they have that you can replicate, yeah?"

Shouyou jumps as high as he can. His hair grazes the door frame. "Awesome!" he cheers.

 

...

 

"Shouyou," his mother calls from the kitchen. "A letter came for you this morning."

"What?"

"A letter. Don't shout at your mother, Shouyou."

Shouyou smiles sheepishly before sitting before her at the dining table. When she hands him the envelope, he looks up to stare at her in puzzlement. "It's open," he says.

It's his mother's turn to look shamefaced, hiding behind the work laptop propped open in front of her. "I was worried it would contain something…illicit."

Shouyou flushes in indignation. "That's so unfair! I don't open any of your letters!"

"Don't shout at your mother," she repeats firmly and then sighs. "It's the first time we received a letter addressed to you instead of to me and your father. You know how much I worry. A mother can never be too safe."

"Sorry," Shouyou says. "But it's just from a new friend of mine in Japan. I told you about Lucio-sensei, right? His friend has a grandson who plays volleyball, and he wrote me a letter a few months ago."

"He did? But he doesn't know you, does he?"

Shouyou beams. "Yeah! That's why it's so cool!"

Mother blinks, before smiling slightly. "It's as if making friends with all sorts of folks here isn't enough," she says. "Tobio-chan sounds like a sweet kid, Shouyou. I'm glad. And quite relieved, I must say."

Shouyou groans. The chair creaks when he pushes himself up. "Mom, oh my god, don't spoil it to me!"

Mother laughs and waves him off. "Alright, alright. Next time, I won't open any letters coming from one Kageyama Tobio of Miyagi. Go ahead and read it now. If you need someone to talk about it, you know where I'll be."

Shouyou pouts and makes his displeasure known, stomping his feet on the floorboards before retreating to the privacy of his room. He sighs as he closes the door, before looking at the envelope. He almost forgot about the letters—he sent Kageyama a reply last August, and by the time November came, the whir of school requirements and volleyball had pushed it off his mind.

The white envelope feels hot and heavy in his hands. Shouyou jumps on his bed, nervousness and excitement making his limbs all tingly and uncooperative. He takes out the first sheet of paper.

 

November 22, 2007

 

Hinata,

Thank you for your reply. I didn't mind the rainbows. I liked the stickers. I'll put them on my volleyball journals beside the dates, like markers.

 

"He has volleyball journals?" Shouyou hadn't thought of that. Maybe he should make one, too.

 

I don't know how to play beach volleyball. There aren't that many places here in Japan where the weather and the sand are nice enough for it. Did you win your tournament? How many points did you score?

I'm jealous that you live in Brazil. Volleyball isn't popular here. All the boys in my grade like to play baseball or football. My school doesn't have a formal volleyball team, so I had to join a neighborhood league and compete with all the other grade-schoolers from other districts.

For this month, I won against eight teams, three from our district and the rest from the other places. But they all ended quickly with just two sets each. I want to play longer, but my coach, Fujikura-sensei, said we can only have official matches twice a week at most, and I can't play as a starter every time so that other kids could get to be setter. I don't understand why, but Kazuyo-san says I just have to play really well every time so no one could say I didn't try my hardest.

Here in Miyagi, we have Interschool sports competitions, and recently I watched strong middle school teams play against each other in our prefectural qualifiers. The score was 25-21 in the third set. It wasn't over quickly, which was nice. I will go to a powerhouse school and represent our prefecture in Tokyo. I'll let you know when I do.

I talked to Kazuyo-san if it's alright to ask for Maurício Lima-san's jersey, but he told me that sending it over here in Japan might be too expensive for students like us. So I won't, but thank you for offering.

I don't play video games. I don't play anything else aside from volleyball. I do other sports to train. I run everyday, and sometimes I swim in our city's public pool when it's warm enough. I haven't learned how to ride a bike yet, but I will someday. I have parents, an older sister in high school and my grandfather. We live in a two-floor house in a small community. It's close to the gym where we can play volleyball.

Japan is really hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter. You asked about how the snow here is like, but when I got your letter, it's still autumn here, and I wanted to write to you back immediately. I got you pictures of my country in the winter instead. I don't know if you've ever seen autumn leaves, so I added them as well, just in case. They're from our backyard. Kazuyo-san helped me press them.

I want to play with you, too. And against you. Let’s make Japan vs. Brazil happen when we're older. And I'll win.

Kageyama Tobio

 

Shouyou flips the envelope and takes out the rest of the contents. There are two pages worth of cut-outs of Japan in the winter from books and magazines, carefully pasted like a collage. A particularly magnificent picture of Mt. Fuji graces the center, beside the glossy photo of torii gates in Kyoto and the massive ice sculptures in Sapporo. There are scribbles at the margins of some of the photos as well.

Shouyou thumbs over a picture of a quaint village blanketed by snow. The caption says Shirawaka, Gifu Prefecture. The scenery looks like a totally different world, with the wooden farmhouses and the surrounding pine trees, and it's now Shouyou's runaway favorite of the bunch.

My family went there for a weekend in February, Kageyama had written under the photo. I was three years old, so I don't remember. But from what I saw in our family's photo albums, everyone liked it there. It must be nice.

Shouyou's jaw drops when he unfolds a thick matte paper. It's a spread of yellow and orange autumn leaves, like the one Shouyou had seen in movies. They're very brittle; one leaf has already crumbled into brown spicules, falling off to Shouyou's green bed sheets.

I don't know anything about plants, so I asked Kazuyo-san. They said they're ginkgo leaves. We have a lot of them here in Japan, Kageyama had written.

"Ginkgo," Shouyou whispers, hands shaking as he gingerly places it on his desk. He then lays out the collages next to it, and he stares at them for a long while.

These are really nice gifts. Probably the best one he's ever received. Shouyou smiles and rubs his eye.

Now he really wants to go to Japan, see the sights Kageyama has seen for himself.

It occurs to him that he has no clue how to store these gifts, especially the ginkgo. He dashes out of his room and calls, "Mom, do we have something I can—"

Mother appears from the hallway quickly and gives him a softbound pad of watercolor sheets. Only the first two pages were used; there are jagged edges of paper where they're ripped off at the seam.

Shouyou beams at her. "Alright!" he cheers. "Thank you, Mom!"

"Anything, sweetheart."

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

...

 

Tobio takes the roundabout way home despite the snow that's threatening to turn heavier by the minute. He passes by houses with thick lawn hedges covered in white, and a man fixing his car in his garage, installing snow chains around the tires. Right next to the community center is the town's post office. He peers inside the windows and finds that it's open. He already has his hand on the glass doors when he recalls that he just bought a fresh sheet of stamps a month before, and so he pulls back to the streets again.

He walks past a group of school kids. They're younger than him, judging from the yellow caps and their ski jackets and their chaperones. Tobio stalks to the other street when they both reach a fork in the road.

When he finally gets to his place, the lights in the living room are still out. "I'm home," he says to no one in particular. He slips his sneakers off and heads to the fridge for milk.

He slinks to his room, yawning. He’s about to change to his training gear when he notices an envelope resting on his pillow.

It must be a letter from Hinata. Someone from his family must have put it there. Tobio scrambles from his dresser to his bed, almost hitting his toe on the rubber stopper of his desk chair.

Sure enough, it really is from Hinata. It's a bit heavy and bigger than usual—a lot of things must be inside this time. Tobio tries not to rip it open, prying the flap with care.

 

 

December 9, 2007

 

Hey, Kageyama!

Thank you so, so much for your present! It was the absolutest greatest bestest thing I've ever gotten! Ever!!! I almost teared up! But like, with manly tears, you know?

 

Tobio's mouth curls, a little gratified with that information.

 

I really didn't do well in the tournament. I always get nervous before games, so I was in the bathroom a lot. My friend Lucas had to help me up when he found me still strapped to the toilet an hour before game time.

I lost all four games, which really sucked. I guess you could say I'm pretty short. I'm only 142 cm, and the guys out here are huge! The one in my last match already reached the 160s. Unreal! In beach volleyball, there's only two of you, and I can't defend our side of the court on my own while my partner's attacking. I felt so bad for almost a month. Thankfully, I have Lucio-sensei, Lucas and the rest of my friends with me, and they got me out of my funk.

Your gift helped a lot, too! If only I had tons of money, I'd come to Miyagi and thank you personally! I was feeling really down, and you really cheered me up a lot, Kageyama!

 

Tobio's cheeks heat up as he turns the page.

 

Next time, I'll win! I'll win it all!!! And I'll definitely write to you when it happens!

Ohhh, so you don't have any other hobbies? You must be really boring LOL but you know, I kind of get it. If you didn't have school, you'd be playing volleyball all the time, right? I'd be the same, though I made a promise to Jacobi (he's one of my classmates and friends!) that I'd play football with them once in a while. It's our summer break now, so I have loads of time to spend it in the gym or the beach. From the collage you sent me, it must be snowing there already. I hope it isn't too cold for you to play volleyball. They have all kinds of heaters there in your gyms, right? I'd tell you to bundle up and keep nice and warm, but you probably know that already!

You said your birthday's on the 22nd, right? This letter will probably come to you weeks later, but who knows? Maybe it'll get to you on the exact date. So, Happy Birthday, Kageyama Tobio! I'll use up my birthday wish for next year, to wish you to have the craziest, bestest, awesomest birthday ever!!! Tell me what presents you got, alright? I hope you get something cool, like those stripey limited edition shoes from Asics. I heard they could increase your jumping power by a thousand!

I'm not sure if you guys celebrate Christmas over there, so I'll hold off the Christmas present for now.

My mom works as some kind of editor thing for magazines, but she also knows how to take some wicked photos. I had been meaning to send you these with my first letter, but I didn't know how to ask her without sounding weird. But now she knows about you and she wants us to be very good friends, so I got you these photos from all around Rio! My face is in some of them, but the backgrounds are so pretty, my mom insisted I print them out, too. I hope you don't mind!

When you come by, I'll definitely show you around these places! The people are really great and friendly (like me!)

 

Your bestest friend,
Hinata Shouyou

 

P.S. - Man!!! I'm so jealous that you won eight times already. Is your team undefeated? Have you ever lost a match? I haven't won anything yet, but I'll definitely catch up to you. Why don't we track how many wins we got on official matches?

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 0 | Losses - 4

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 8 | Losses - 0

 

Tobio turns over the envelope and the photos start falling out. He spreads them all over his bed. There are eleven photos, printed on glossy paper like postcards. There's one showing a stretch of different, brightly colored houses stretching up the hillside, even up the summit. Another shows cobbled streets with walls of graffiti.

Hinata's in two of them. In one picture, he's standing on the white sandy beach, a beautiful stretch of coastline behind him, and a mountain peeking out of the landscape. He's definitely short, almost a dwarf next to the beachgoers lumbering in the background. He has his arms stretched out, beaming at the camera, eyes shrinking. Tobio hadn't known it was possible for a person to smile as wide as that.

Hinata has thick, red-orange hair, curling up at the ends. Tobio can't help but stare at it for a while. It's a very unusual hair color. He imagines Hinata running from one side of the court to another, and wonders if people who're watching the beach volleyball matches would have their eyes tracking Hinata's hair as well, as drawn and as stricken as Tobio is.

In another picture, Hinata's crouching behind a tree trunk, pointing at a monkey eating some tropical fruit up the branches. Looking at Hinata's gleeful expression, Tobio cracks a grin. He has an idea why Hinata's mother wanted to send this photo; the monkey and Hinata bore some uncanny resemblance.

Tobio takes out a notebook from one of his drawers. It's one of his grandfather's gifts to him, a fancy oilskin diary that he bought for Tobio the next day he received his first letter from Hinata. For safekeeping, Kazuyo said. Precious memories must be kept and protected as they deserve.

He pastes the photos on the pages, with all sides aligned, just like how his mother does it with their photo albums. He doesn't include the photo of Maracanãzinho stadium, deciding to paste it to his volleyball journal instead.

Hinata had written on the margin with blue ink, When we're older, let's play each other here!

"Okay," Tobio mutters. He takes out his pen and writes in his journal: December 22, 2007. It's my birthday. I got Hinata's letter. He sent me this photo. He also included a picture of himself. He's got weird orange hair and brown eyes. So far, I've won more matches than him, and...

 

~O~

 

January 13, 2008

 

Hinata,

It's snowing heavily right now in our place. I can't go outside and play at the training center since it's closed. There's a snowstorm coming. I'm bundled up and warm, though, so you don't need to worry.

I'm practicing receives with Kazuyo-san in our backyard, but it's not the same. I want to be on the court.

I'm in the 160s right now. 165.7 cm, to be exact. I'm way taller than you, so I win. Are you eating right? You need to up your protein and drink lots of milk. We're still growing, remember? If you want to win, then you have to do everything properly. Don't eat junk, even if your friends tell you to.

My older sister gave me a book about your place, and I saw the botanical garden in one of your photos. I don't think trees grow as tall here in Japan. It must be because of the sun. Are the animals there really real? And you can see them up close, like that monkey? Do they bite?

I don't think animals like me very much. Especially cats. There was one time I got a scratch even though I was just staring at it as it sat on the wall. Is that normal?

I sent you a wristband of the Schweiden Adlers. They're a pro volleyball team based in our prefecture's capital, Sendai. I think they're my second favorite team, after the ALB Akita Ravens. But the gap's pretty close.

Thank you for the birthday gift. I'll keep them well always.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 0 | Losses - 4

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 8 | Losses - 0

 

...

 

March 19, 2008

 

Kageyama!!!

I can't believe you sent me a wristband that glows in the dark!!! It gave me a big scare the first night. I thought an alien just popped in my room, and I didn't have my baseball bat with me. Warn a guy next time, okay?

Jeez, you sound like Lucio-sensei when he's being particularly strict with me. And you're so frickin' tall, ugh!!! I'm so jealous! Watch me eat all the steaks here in Flamengo, and I'll show you growth!

Also! I won an official match recently! :D I was partnered with this really tall spiker who's older than us by a year. His name's Lorenzo, and he's half-Argentinean, so it's kinda funny talking to him since he mixes his Spanish and Portuguese a lot. I got picked on at first by one of the jerks in the opposing teams before the match 'cause they thought I'm skinny and short, but Lorenzo and I really lit it up out there. And I was like, woah! So that's how it feels like to win. I want to keep winning and winning! Both in beach and indoors!

And woah, really? You were just standing there and a cat attacked you? Maybe it's because your face is too serious and scary. You kinda sound serious and scary. Plus you're freakishly tall! Most pets like warm things, so you gotta be nice and cute and friendly! They won't bite if you don't frighten them, Kageyama-kun~

I know your grandpa said I shouldn't be sending you jerseys or anything like that, but the post office said I can send you "small articles of clothing" with just a couple reals, so I sent you some socks! They're from an Electrobas-RJ store. They're my hometown team. Aren't they cool? I hope you like black and orange together!

 

Your super awesome friend who's gonna grow by two meters in high school,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 1 | Losses - 4

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 8 | Losses - 0

...

 

April 6, 2008

 

Hinata,

Thank you for the socks. They're surprisingly warm. I can't wear them to school because of the colors, but I did wear them during my first match as a sixth-grader, and I won. I'll keep wearing them, see if they're lucky. If they're not, I'm throwing them out.

They're a lot of players who talk a bunch of nonsense. Don't mind them. Do better and make them eat sand.

I don't think I've mentioned it, but I hate winter. It's always cold, and I can't play volleyball properly. There aren't that many games either. Every time December comes around, I keep forgetting how much I hate it. It's like I'm hoping it gets better, but it really doesn't. Then spring comes and all the snow turns into mush, and then I remember why I hate winter and why I'm glad it's over. The only bad thing about spring is that classes start again.

I know you want to see Japan and the snow, but I think Brazil is better. All that sun seems really nice.

I sent you a list of all the things you should do to grow taller. I got it from this fitness book my older sister loaned from the library.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 1 | Losses - 4

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 12 | Losses - 0

 

~O~

 

There's a light tap on his shoulder. Tobio glances up.

A girl with a high ponytail and a beige blazer over her blouse smiles at Tobio. "Kageyama-kun, before you go home, can you go take the sheets and curtains from the nurse's office? It's your turn to wash them," she says.

Tobio scrunches his eyebrows, trying to place her face. He then recalls. "I will, Class President."

She smiles wider. "Sorry for disturbing you," she says, peering down at his desk. "You seem busy."

"Ahh." Tobio tries to conceal the sheets of paper with his arms. "It's nothing."

A boy with jet black hair jumps to her side. "What's this? Ahh, Kageyama-kun! I'm surprised you're not on snoozles-mode today! We're already midway our lunch break!" he exclaims, laughing after.

Class President pinches the boy's ear. "You're so loud, Fuwa-kun!" she complains.

"You mean fun," Fuwa rejoinders. He then gasps at the empty envelope that Tobio has failed to hide, pointing at it with an accusatory finger. "Woah, is that a confession letter? You like someone, Kageyama?"

"No," Tobio replies instantly. He stows the papers in his bag.

"Ei, don't be like that! We're seatmates, aren't we?" Fuwa says. "Now we've got something in common! What's her name? I'll tell you the name of my crush if you tell me yours. I'll keep it a secret! Mizutani-san." He tilts his head in a shooing motion at Class President. "This is a boy's only conversation. "

Class President snorts. "Quit making Kageyama-kun uncomfortable." She doesn't join him in the interrogation, but even she looks interested. She keeps beside Fuwa, one hand on her hip.

Tobio frowns. "It's for... my friend."

Fuwa's eyebrows rise. "A friend? A girl?"

"No," Tobio answers. "A boy."

Class President can't fully contain her amazement. "A boy?"

"He lives in Rio," Tobio explains. "Brazil."

"Is that in like another prefecture?" Fuwa says.

"No, dummy, it's another country!" Class President places a hand over her chest. "I want to write letters to my friend, too. But I don't have anyone far away whom I could write to. That's so sweet, Kageyama-kun."

Fuwa rolls his tawny brown eyes. "More like lame." He waves his hand. "Oh, well. Not that I was expecting much. Catch you later, Mizutani-san. Kageyama-kun."

Class President chuckles at Fuwa's retreating figure. "Oh, don't mind him. He's just jealous he's got no thoughtful friends. Remember the sheets, Kageyama-kun." She then skips back to her friends, who are hunched together at one corner, whispering madly about something.

When the coast is clear, Tobio brings out the papers again and writes.

 

~O~

 

July 31, 2008

 

Kageyama!!!

My team won in an indoor volleyball team tourney! We got third place!!! My teammates are just so tall and frickin' good! I think I've scored more points in one game than I've ever scored in an English spelling test. My spikes still get picked up a lot, so I have to work more on that.

I'm 145.3 cm now, by the way. I only grew 3.3 cm! Ugh!!! I don't know what I'm doing wrong. I've been eating right and sleeping early and doing all those things you told me I should do. I kinda hate my parents right now 'cause they're short. And Lorenzo said I can't do much about... whatever it is that gets passed on from short parents to sons.

I keep getting sidetracked into playing football with my classmates. It's fun playing with them, but I want to spend more time on the court. I wanted to make a deal: if I'd play football with them, they'd have volleyball matches with me. But they won't play volleyball with me. They keep saying it's not their thing, and that their arms get too sore and that their fingers bleed, and they don't understand why I love it so much. If I said that I liked the soreness in my arms and the tingly feeling in my fingers, would they think I'm weird? Would they stop being my friends in class?

I got this cute keychain for you! I won it from the fair a month ago. I asked if they had anything that's volleyball related, but they didn't. Mom said your first name came from some kind of fish that flies along the seas (so cool!), so I got you a fish keychain! I hope you like them!

 

Your most amazing friend who's got mad ring tossing skills,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 7 | Losses - 20

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 29 | Losses - 2

 

...

 

October 11, 2008

 

Hinata,

I won most of the games in our athletic meet, but they didn't matter. I lost a volleyball game. It wasn't my fault. I played my best. I gave my teammates all the best tosses I could give. They can't score. They kept saying it was just one match, and that it was just volleyball. It made me so angry hearing those. I wanted to shout at them. I wanted to tell them everything they did wrong. It wasn't some street game. It was volleyball. But they didn't take things seriously. I want to be the best, but I can't be one if I'm part of a team full of lazy players. They don't care about winning. They don't care at all. No one here does.

Kazuyo-san said I should always keep my emotions in check. It's hard, but I can do it. I just get really angry sometimes when people I toss to aren't doing what they can to score. I won't get angry again.

I can't wait to get into a school with a proper volleyball program. I want to be around people who love volleyball. I want to be around people who don't suck. I want to be around people who care.

I sent you the bandana from our sports meet. I washed it very well, so I'm sure it's not going to be smelly and awful. I also made this list of drills you could do indoors to get better at receiving.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 18 | Losses - 42

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 56 | Losses - 3

 

...

 

January 3, 2009  

 

Kageyama :D

Do you remember what I said about how hard it was running laps in the sand? I think I'm doing better now! Lucio-sensei always tells me I need more strength in my legs, because if I can't jump higher and faster than the blockers, no one would ever really want me. I still get passed on when the assigned captains every scrimmage pick their teammates, but it's not as bad as before. There was one time last week I was picked first! I was the first choice! Finally!!!

My grades are terri-bad, as always. Mom's taking extra time to tutor me, but she kind of gave up when my math scores kept on going down instead of up. She said that even if she has a son as dumb as bricks, she'll love him anyway. I hope Natsu isn't as bad at school as I am. I don't want my mom's hair falling out so soon.

Just like you, I'm trying to get into a school with a good sports program, with loads of people who love volleyball just as I do! So I really have to get better grades. I'll do my best, Kageyama!

I sent you a fresh set of photos from Rio! Most of them are from Ipanema and Tijuca. There's one or two that are a little blurry because my hands were sweaty and shaky, but they're pretty awesome, right? If I got my mom's short height, maybe I also got her camera skills, too! I also took a picture of that very fancy seafood place in Santa Teresa. You remember? I told you about how I wanted to eat there from my other letters. Look at how huge the mango shake is! Be jealous!

Your volleyball player slash photographer friend,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 19 | Losses - 44

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 61 | Losses - 3

 

...

 

March 7, 2009

 

Hinata,

I got into my choice school. I'll be in Kitagawa Daiichi Middle School starting this April. It's a bit farther away from our house. I'll have to walk for almost an hour to get there even if I'll take the shortest route. Miwa-san said it's an expensive school, but my parents said that I could still go. I just have to do okay in English and Math and I'll be fine.

I'm glad. Kita-Daii has a really strong team. If I'm in one, then I'll get to play with stronger opponents. I'll beat them and I'll get to play longer.

I sent you my acceptance letter.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 24 | Losses - 45

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 70 | Losses - 9

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

...

 

The rice is already cooked when Tobio comes down from his room to the kitchen. He reheats the prawn soup from the fridge and clacks his chopsticks before eating. He hasn't heated it properly—there are still some parts of the prawns that are almost icy when he sinks his teeth in the meat—but it doesn't taste bad. He slurps the broth as quietly as possible.

Miwa's footsteps on the stairs come when Tobio's washing the dishes. The footsteps come nearer, and then a hand appears in Tobio's line of sight, knocking on the stainless steel mount of the sink.

"I'll be in the pool today with some friends," Miwa says. She's wearing a thin cotton shirt with strawberry prints, denim shorts and flip flops. Her hair is propped up in a loose bun. "Aren't you going with Kazuyo-kun to the training center today?"

"I am."

"Okay. Lock up properly."

Tobio nods.

When the front door closes, Tobio lays back on the couch, tossing a volleyball in the air. His parents forbade him from doing drills in the living room after he broke a vase that once belonged to his grandmother. But now there aren't any fragile things left for Tobio to break. Besides, no one's home to call him out for it.

The door opens again sometime after one o'clock. Kazuyo must've known that Tobio has been waiting as soon as he finished lunch, for Kazuyo laughs when he sees Tobio's expression.

"Are you that excited to see me and play volleyball?" he says. "Or are you excited to finally have your letter?"

"Both," Tobio answers honestly.

Kazuyo holds the envelope out. Tobio stares after it.

"It took a wrong trip to a different house on the street next to ours. Good thing I sorted it out quickly with our neighbor." Kazuyo laughs loudly when Tobio stretches out his palm. "Okay, okay. Why don't you read it first and think of a reply? I'm a little tired. Let me take a nap first, alright?"

"Are you sick?"

"Ahh, no. Of course not. I just find it difficult to catch my breath sometimes. But don't worry."

"... Alright."

"Don't waste your concerns on a geezer like me," Kazuyo says, patting Tobio's arm. "Go and see what Hinata wrote to you."

Tobio doesn't need to be told twice. When Kazuyo starts laying back on the couch, Tobio goes up to his room and jumps to his bed, flipping open the envelope.

When he sees a few water stains and blotches of ink at the corners of the paper, Tobio's stomach sinks. He sits up, lips downturned.

 

July 31, 2009

 

Kageyama,

My dad and I fought.

 

The sinking feeling immediately turns into an unpleasant churning. Tobio chews on the inside of his cheek and continues reading.

 

We usually get along pretty well. But he was never too sold on me wanting to make it into the volleyball scene, you know? He said I was too short, and I didn't have the "proper constitution" to get into the pro leagues or whatever. Which is such a load of horse dung, right? I got into a good sports school! It took me three tries and I think I was at the near bottom of the waitlist, but I got in! I did it! I told him that, but he just said that I couldn't carve myself a place at the top even if I tried more than three times. Brazil is a volleyball country. He told me so many times. There would be no shortage of taller, stronger players. He said that no Asian kid has ever made it, and that I was setting myself up to a lifetime of disappointment.

But who cares what he thinks? It's not like he had ever loved anything as much as I love volleyball. So I told him that, and he shouted at me about being stupid and stubborn and how I was such a bad son and some other bad words, and then mom was shouting back at him, and Natsu started crying so I started crying, too, and I'm still crying while I'm writing to you and I can't seem to stop.

I don't understand. My parents had always been supportive of me with volleyball ever since I saw the Olympic games on TV with them. I said I wanted to play, and they gave me permission to get instruction from Lucio-sensei. But now that I'm taking a huge step towards my goal, they just want me to give up. I think they're scared that I'm serious. Why should they be? Shouldn't they be happy that I know what I want to do for the rest of my life? I love playing volleyball so much. I want to be on the court until the end.

I'm sorry I don't have anything nice to give to you. I'll give you something super extra special next time! Besides, I don't think I can top that signed photo from Shimasaki Yoshinori just yet. Your birthday presents are so cool! Really on a whole other level!!!

Your letters are what keeps me going most of the time now. It's really nice to hear from someone who loves the game as much as I do. And it's sort of a relief, too, to have someone who understands how I feel, even if we do have whole other countries and oceans separating us.

Talk to you soon, Kageyama!

 

Your bestest friend in the universe,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 40 | Losses - 51

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 84 | Losses - 12

 

Tobio swallows hard; the thick lump lodged on his throat makes it especially difficult to breathe properly. He lies back down on his pillow and stares at the ceiling. He wonders whether there's anything he can say that would make Hinata feel better. Tobio always seemed to have a special talent in making people uncomfortable, sometimes furious or combative. He never seemed to succeed in doing the opposite, and he's long stopped trying to make it so. His feelings are his own. Along that same vein, it's useless to force other people to change what they felt about him.

Tobio has no idea how to cheer up someone, especially a friend who's a thousand kilometers away.

He brings the letter up to his face, and rereads the last part.

Your letters are what keeps me going most of the time now, Hinata had written. It's sort of a relief, too, to have someone who understands how I feel, even if we do have whole other countries and oceans separating us.

Tobio inadvertently flushes and rolls to his side, thinking again.

Hinata's dad must be an idiot. Tobio didn't have to be there to know that Hinata had the mark of an athlete of great potential. Grown-ups just see things differently, think of things way too badly. It's probably why they're all sad and lumpy and graying. The only exception must be Kazuyo-san, and to some extent, Katou Lucio-san.

But they're grown-ups. They have the power to make children do whatever they want, whenever they please. Tobio sits up again, his earlier sadness morphing into a complicated mix of anger and anxiousness and dread.

Hinata can't give up volleyball. The two of them have already come so far, and they promised.

If one of them gives up, then what was the use of them doing this, all this time? If they don't have volleyball, then what other reason do they have to keep on writing to each other?

Hinata can't give up volleyball. Tobio won't let him.

Fury makes his fingers shake as he writes in a stream, no longer caring how he sounds like. He needs Hinata to know what he wants, and Tobio can't think of any better way than to write what his heart is telling him to say.

 

August 20, 2009

 

Hinata,

You're right. Who cares what your dad thinks? He knows crap about volleyball. I don't care if he reads this letter, because what I'm saying is true.

No one can force you to do anything you don't want to. And no one understands what is and what isn't important to you better than you do. That's what Kazuyo-san always says. He's never wrong about these things so you should listen. You love volleyball, and you want to keep doing it. So that's it. Do it. He doesn't get to have a say in that, even if he's your dad. He's not you, is he? Ignore him. Even though he's older, he's not better than you.

If you ever write back to me and say you don't want to play volleyball anymore, I will go there and find you and beat you up until you come back to your senses and take those words back because I know you don't mean it. You're not a quitter, are you? Don't start acting like one, dumbass. Do what you have to do, and it goes without saying that I'll do what I have to do, too.

That picture of the stadium you sent me, I have it in my journal always. I've lost a couple of matches ever since we've been writing to each other and I'd always feel terrible afterwards. Losing always sucks. But whenever I'd see that picture, I'd think of what you said.

You wanted to play against each other when we're older and I agreed. I want it, too. I've never broken a promise to anyone. I won't let someone like your stupid dad break my streak.

So don't cry anymore.

You asked pictures from my elementary school yearbook, so here you go. Don't tell me my face is scary again. That line is getting old.

I already hit the ninety mark for wins. Keep up, dumbass.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 49 | Losses - 52

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 90 | Losses - 15

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

...

 

Shouyou opens the letter, and when he finishes reading it, he doubles over in laughter.

His mother sends him alarmed looks from the sofa, the noise blaring from the TV not enough to overpower his resounding cackles.

When he recovers, he gestures to his mother not to mind him.

Yeesh, Kageyama-kun can really be downright mean when he wants to be, Shouyou thinks cheerfully, ambling towards his room. He then recalls Kageyama's sixth-grade yearbook photo, and a new peal of laughter escapes from his mouth. Even in black and white print, his expression can be clearly seen, looking like he's severely unimpressed with Shouyou's antics.

Shouyou closes the door to his room. He gets a fresh sheet of paper and writes.

 

~O~

 

December 8, 2009

 

Hinata,

Your new school specializes in sports, right? Do you have a lot of good players there? I think going to Kita-Daii was a good choice. I haven't matched with a lot of my teammates yet, but most of them are really good. Two of the third-years, most especially. One's a setter and the other's a spiker. They play really well together. They've been friends since they were kids. But most of the time, they act like they don't. They're always bickering. I wonder if that's how they got their good chemistry on the court.

Oikawa-senpai (the setter) can always bring out the best in his spikers, plus he's an excellent hitter and he knows how to do a jump serve. But I can't seem to talk to him properly and ask how he does things. He always sticks his tongue out at me. Iwaizumi-senpai (spiker) is hard to talk to, too, but he doesn't stick out his tongue like Oikawa-senpai does.

Kazuyo-san has been in and out of the hospital recently. But there was time he was discharged and he watched one of my games against a powerhouse school. I wasn't first-string since Oikawa-senpai's there, but I got a chance to play on the second set. I had 8 running sets, 20 stills and 0 faults. I also scored twice. Kazuyo-san was really happy he got to see me play. I hope he gets better so he can always watch.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 64 | Losses - 53

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 119 | Losses - 21

 

...

 

February 2, 2010

 

Yo, Kageyama!!!!!!!!

I made a new friend! His name's Hyakuzawa. He's Japanese, and he's staying in Flamengo for a while. He's so tall! Like, probably taller than you. I think he's already in the 170s or 180s. He's just huge!!!

See, I met him in the skate park near the beach where I practice. And I was like, woah woah woah!! He looked Japanese, and I heard him curse in Japanese when he fell off his skateboard. So I approached him and talked to him, and now we're buddies! He doesn't know how to play volleyball, so I'm going to teach him tomorrow. It's going to be a blast, I'm sure!

There aren't any Japanese kids in my year, or the entire school. Most of the Japanese people here in our area are grown-ups, and the few kids that were born here don't stay long. They usually go back to Japan. So it's just really me and Natsu. I don't know why, though. Maybe I should ask Mom and Dad about it.

 

Your awesomest friend,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 78 | Losses - 55

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 124 | Losses - 21

 

...

 

April 22, 2010

 

Hinata,

I'm getting better at serving. I still can't pull off a jump serve without the ball hitting the net a few times, so I can't use them in proper matches. Too risky.

I'm our team's starting setter now since Oikawa-senpai already graduated. I'm still not as good as him. The way he makes spikers do what he wants seems effortless. But I won't lose. Once I get better than him, I'll be the best setter in the prefecture.

Our school's rivals are getting tougher to beat as well. There's a third-year libero from another school district that sees through almost all our attacks. He got up the ball so easily and we lost to him in all sets. He's got really huge eyes like a bug's. Maybe that helps him track his opponents clearly.

The vending machines here run out of milk so quickly. I guess a lot of people want to get taller, too. Maybe I should come by ten minutes earlier than everyone before they run out.

There were a few tricks from Oikawa-senpai that I learned from watching how he moves during a match. I tried to sketch them out for you. The blue lines are the antenna markers, and the dashed green ones are the attack lines. The center line's at the center, obviously. If you could memorize some of the key positions, then you could get better at reading and doing attacks from all around the court.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 83 | Losses - 60

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 126 | Losses - 21

 

...

 

September 30, 2010

 

Hey, Kageyama! :D

I 'm getting along with my team super duper well! I'm not a starter (yet!!!) but when I do get to play, my teammates pass me the ball a lot and are pretty supportive! Except for one guy who always calls me a midget, and some word I don't know but my other teammates think are pretty bad. So it's great! I hope Coach will let me play in more games in the future, though. I really want to jump and spike!

Our classes are pretty great, too! I didn't know that there were so many ways to make your balance better. We also got our stride length and step length measured, and we do this hop thingy to improve our gait. It's really cool! I sent you a couple of notes from class. I hope they're readable enough.

Oh man, my parents bought some new furniture last week. I tried to help in lifting the new couch, but I was almost flattened, Kageyama! Flattened!!! I thought I broke my wrist. The moving guys were all snickering and ruffling my hair and trying to make me feel better. So embarrassing! It's like I haven't done any weight training at all.

Do I need to hit the gym? But the people there are so huge and scary-looking. They might shred me to ribbons if I bump into them.

 

Your greatest friend who's gonna get more muscles,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 85 | Losses - 60

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 141 | Losses - 22

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

 

...

 

"Shouyou?"

Shouyou snaps his head up, his hand reaching out to hide Kageyama's letter from plain view. "Yeah, Dad?" he says.

Father closes the door behind him. "Can we talk, son?" When Shouyou nods, he sits on the edge of his bed. "I want to talk to you about... About volleyball."

Shouyou clams up. "What about it?"

Father glances on the walls of Shouyou's bedroom. Hanging on one of the pegs near the wardrobe is Shouyou's jersey, the number ten taking up much of the space on the knit fabric. Beside it are the pictures Kageyama has sent from Japan, pinned on a huge corkboard Mother bought for him years ago.

He doesn't say anything for a while, so Shouyou says, "Dad?"

Father looks at him in the eye, and then sighs. "I want to make sure," he mutters. "That you're perfectly aware that there aren't a lot of opportunities for people like us. For someone like you, in a place like this."

Shouyou nods again.

"You're going to have to force things to go your way," Father tells him, and he looks very sad when he says this. "It's—it's not going to be easy, is what I'm trying to say."

"I know that."

"Really? You do?" Father says. "If only I'd known you were going to choose this eventually... Your mother and I would have stayed in Japan instead. Maybe it wouldn't be as hard for you."

Shouyou shuffles over to his father's side and sits straighter, hands curled into fists over his thighs. "Brazil is a volleyball country. You said so before," Shouyou says. "So I'm glad Mom gave birth to me here. I'm very happy about that, Dad."

Without warning, Father pulls him into a tight hug. He sighs again, deeply into Shouyou's shoulder blade. "No parent in his right mind would want to see his child go through a rough patch," he says when they break away. "We work hard to make the road a field of flowers for you. But if you're this determined, then I won't stop you. Just—just be happy, okay?"

Shouyou grins. "Yup! Of course!"

"Very good, Shouyou," Father says and smiles back, the laugh lines on his face deepening. "I'll always worry, but I do hope that I'll be worrying for nothing."

"Dad, really. I'll work hard. No one can match me when it comes to doing my best."

"Alright. Good talk, lil' carrot." Father stands up and darts a glance at Shouyou's pillow, turning amused. "You know, your mother and I are starting to get jealous over your friend. What have you kids been talking about all this time?"

Shouyou's cheeks warm. "Volleyball, obviously," he says through pursed lips. "Sometimes, we talk about other stuff, too. Like school."

Father's smile grows wider. He looks again at the pictures on the walls, gaze landing on the photo of a tanuki pinned next to Kageyama's yearbook picture. "Other stuff, huh. I'm sure they're very interesting."

Now, all of Shouyou's face has started to heat up remarkably, but he still says, "Kageyama sounds like a big volleyball robot half the time, but sometimes he says something funny, so writing to him's fun. He's won a lot of matches already. He's really good at volleyball."

"You make it sound like volleyball's the only thing that matters between the two of you."

Shouyou stares at him in puzzlement. "What else is there?"

Father snorts. "Hmm. Nothing else, I suppose," he says wryly. "I'll get back to work now. Thank you for listening, son."

Shouyou shelves his earlier confusion and shouts, "Buy me a new pair of shoes, Dad!"

"Bring up that math grade first, and then we'll talk." Father laughs as he closes the door.

 

~O~

 

March 5, 2011

 

Kageyama!  

Lucas and I won in a huge beach volleyball match! There were TV crews and everything! My mom cried out loud when Lucas and I got on stage and received our price. She's a terrible crier, and it was probably caught on camera. So embarrassing. But yeah, totally worth it!

The assistant coach for Circulo Verde (it's a popular beach volleyball team here in Rio!) told me that I did really well! Nobody aside from Lucio-sensei and my teammates ever said that to me before!

Next time, I'm going to win again! For an indoor volleyball match! I'm going to practice so hard until I hurl! Just you watch, Kageyama!!!

I sent a picture of Lucas and I with the cup! The blurry orange thing at the bottom is just Natsu trying to get into frame.

 

Your super friend who's gonna conquer the world,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 90 | Losses - 61

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 163 Losses - 38

 

...

 

June 24, 2011

 

Hey, Kageyama!!!

Third-year middle schoolers in Japan must have it bad, huh? Dad was telling me it's a bloodbath trying to get into a good high school. How are you holding up? I don't think your puny brain can store as many English words when you already have so much volleyball stuff crammed in there, but I'll be cheering for you, Kageyama-kun!

Also, my mom's bugging me to get my hair cut, but I think my hair's just fine! She wants me to get those boring bowl cuts I see in Japanese shows, but I don't want to look like an unripe tomato or anything. All the guys in my class have long-ish hair. My teammates, too! They said the 'bro flow' makes them more 'aerodynamic', whatever that means. I wonder if it really does help in volleyball somehow. Do you know anything about that, Kageyama?

 

Your amazing friend with the great hair,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 102 | Losses - 63

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 163 Losses - 38

 

...

 

December 18, 2011

 

Kageyama,

Hey, are you doing alright? It's been a while since I heard from you.

If there's anything I could do, just let me know. Okay?

My family and I went to Cuba sometime last month. We stayed for three days, but it was great! I sent you some pictures and souvenirs. I hope you'll like them.

Your bestest, most trustworthy friend,
Hinata Shouyou

 

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 122 | Losses - 78

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 163 Losses - 38

 

...

 

February 27, 2012

 

Kageyama-kun,

We got until the third round of preliminaries for a community indoor volleyball meet. It wasn't easy. A lot of teams are good and their players are so tall and talented, but we squeaked a couple of wins until we couldn't anymore. It was a good experience all around.

I'm not sure if you're getting any of my letters. Maybe you moved away or something. Still. I hope everything's alright.

If you do get this, please let me know.

 

Your best friend who misses you a lot,
Hinata Shouyou

Hinata Shouyou's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 122 | Losses - 78

Kageyama Tobio's Official Matches Tally
Wins - 163 Losses - 38

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

 

...

 

Lucas and Shouyou are playing Mortal Kombat in Shouyou's room. Shouyou doesn't own any consoles, so Lucas offered to bring his newly minted PlayStation and told Shouyou to be honored that he gets to play. Lucas gets very stingy when it comes to his video games.

"I am so not prepared for three more years of school," Lucas moans after they finished off the Sheeva and Stryker tandem. "Mom didn't get to finish high school, so she's extra determined to make me go. You thinking about going to high school, Shou?"

Shouyou nods. "I have to. I need to get into a good high school team to play in big indoor matches."

Lucas hums. "You really want to make it to the big boy leagues, huh." He selects Shao Kahn as his avatar and fiddles with the controls. "I'm not sure if I've ever asked this before, but seriously, where do you get all the motivation? You spend more hours on volleyball than Neymar frickin' Junior on his own sport, and that dude's a nutter. There's gotta be days when you don't feel like doing anything at all, right?"

Shouyou leans back in surprise. "Well, yeah," he says. "But—don't you hate losing?"

"Hell yeah, I do. But I ain't the one who's planning world domination with my bros—"

"What do you mean, 'world domination'—"

"Dude, whatever. I'm just saying." Lucas shrugs. "You've got friends, I've got mine. And from what I see, it's more normal to lose interest in your childhood sport than to cling to it like some baboon or whatever. Aren't we like, what, almost fifteen already? And quite frankly." He pauses the game and looks at Shouyou straight in the eye. "No one in the SuperLiga looks like you, Shou. I ain't saying nothing else, but you know..."

Shouyou is too stunned to be furious or bitter over Lucas' statement. Lucas never really glazes over the truth. Maybe that's why they've been friends for so long. "I just love volleyball," Shouyou says. "Don't you want to do stuff you love?"

"Well, yeah. But... you make it sound so..."

"So what?"

"So simple. It ain't like that for mere mortals like us, Shou."

Shouyou shrugs with a shy grin. "Sorry. That's all I got."

"Yeah, yeah. And don't apologize, stupid. For what's it worth, I think you can make it."

"Really?"

"Yeah, no pretense," Lucas answers. "You and that other Japanese freak of nature you've been exchanging love letters with."

Shouyou can feel his expression fall before he can stop himself, and he chews on his lower lip. "He's not—Kageyama hasn't been sending me anything since last year."

Lucas' eyes bug out of his sockets. He puts down his controller, the game already forgotten. "Whaddya mean, 'since last year'? What the heck, Shou?" he says. "Is that what's been going on?"

"Huh? What do you mean?"

Lucas halts, before shaking his head. "So he ain't been saying nothing to you? None? Nothing? No word?"

Shouyou stares down on his legs. He's got a nasty bruise on his left ankle, sustained from a bad landing in jumping for a block, and he pokes at it, letting the dull ache-y feeling distract him a bit.

"Shou."

"Hmm?"

"Yo. Look at me, man."

Shouyou does, and Lucas gets a good look on his face. He must've seen something there, for Lucas' expression twists and he clasps on Shouyou's shoulders.

"Hang in there, man," Lucas says, shaking Shouyou a bit. "This Kageyama guy sounds like a total tool, anyway. So like, good riddance."

Shouyou's laugh breaks in between. "I know," he says, chest feeling tight.

"Did you talk to Lucio about it?"

Shouyou shakes his head.

"Why the heck not?"

Shouyou balls his fist, but he doesn't say anything. He can feel his heartbeat pick up at the thought of talking about Kageyama with Lucio-sensei. He doesn't want to know any news about Kageyama through Lucio's own correspondence with Kageyama's grandfather. Shouyou can't find the right words to explain how he feels just at the idea of it. Like he wants to punch something, or slam a few doors, or cry and hide. Thoughts of Kageyama and his sudden radio silence always make Shouyou feel strange. Lucio's nice enough never to bring him up.

"You know, you can be really fricking stupid, Shou," Lucas remarks. "Let's ask him later. He probably knows something. I'll come with you."

"Okay."

"One round. Then let's go."

Shouyou swallows then nods.

...

 

Kageyama Kazuyo died on February 26, 2011 due to failing kidneys, and Shouyou feels more stupid than ever.

He feels dumber and dumber by the second Lucio tells him about how Kazuyo's relatives sent him a letter about the older man's passing, and how Luciou had thought Shouyou knew about the circumstances—he and Kageyama talked so regularly before after all, more than he and Kazuyo had. It's a fair assumption.

Lucio says in Portuguese to Shouyou and Lucas, "I've met Tobio only once. But... I can say that he seemed like an odd bird. Very quiet. Sticks to Kazuyo like a shadow. You wouldn't think he's related to the most cheerful man I'd ever known." He glances at Shouyou. "People deal with grief very differently, Shouyou. I don't think Tobio meant any harm with what he did."

Shouyou doesn't say anything, still reeling. Thankfully, Lucas is there to ask all the right questions: did Kageyama and his family move away somewhere? Is Kageyama still playing volleyball? Is it still alright to send Kageyama letters?

Lucio's answers are "No" to the first question, "Most likely" to the second, and "I don't know" to the third.

Shouyou goes home in a daze, with Lucas accompanying him in silence. Lucas packs his console back in the bag and pats Shouyou on the arm before he leaves, leaving Shouyou at home all by himself.

Shouyou goes to his room and tears a page from one of his old notebooks. He writes.

 

March 29, 2012

 

Kageyama,

Hey. I heard about your grandfather. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry for only finding out about it just now. I'm an awful friend.

Please don't hate me.

 

Your friend,
Hinata Shouyou

 

It sits on Shouyou's desk for days until he feels bile rising up to his throat just at the sight of it. He crumples and chucks it away.

 

~O~

 

Bicycles aren't allowed in elevators, so Shouyou has to climb eight flights of stairs while he hoists his bicycle to their apartment. Father always thought of him ridiculous for doing it, but Shouyou argues that he won't turn his nose up at any opportunity to get precious exercise. It's definitely worth it, considering how Shouyou isn't wheezing as hard as he used to when he arrives at their floor.

Shouyou opens the door and slips off his shoes next to the rug at the entrance. "I'm home!" He lifts his bike and brings it to the balcony.

"Shouyou! That you, son?"

"Dad? You're here already?" Shouyou shouts in bewilderment. He goes to the kitchen, and he finds both his mother and father sitting side by side before the rosewood table. It's such an unusual arrangement that Shouyou can't help but raise his eyebrows. "Is everything okay?"

"Of course," Mother says. "Why don't you sit down for a second?"

If Shouyou's eyebrows could shoot up to the skies, it already would have. "O-kay." He sits and wipes his forehead with his shirt collar. "Sorry, I reek. Should I go change first?"

"No, sweetheart, it's fine. We'll talk quickly," Mother interjects. "How are you feeling?"

Shouyou tilts his head. "I'm... fine?" he says.

Father asks, "You're not feeling—out of sorts, or anything like that?"

"Uh, no. Not really."

Father glances at Mother before looking at Shouyou again. Shouyou bites back a snicker. That pass wasn't subtle at all.

"'Cause your father and I were thinking of taking a vacation this Holy Week," Mother says. "We should go out of town. It's been a while."

Shouyou's eyes widen and he claps unconsciously. "What? That's great! Where are we going?"

"Miyagi."

Shouyou blinks. "Eh?"

Father presses his lips firmly, and then says, "We're planning to go to Miyagi, Japan."

"It's beautiful in the spring," Mother tacks on. "You and your sister should see it. We have relatives there in Sendai, both your father and I. It would be nice to see your relatives, wouldn't it?"

Miyagi, Shouyou thinks. He's going to see Miyagi, Japan in spring. His stomach flips in unease. "Is this about—"

"Of course not!" Mother exclaims with a high, breathy laugh. "Of course not. This is about us as a family. I got myself promoted, and your father would be away for more than three months this time. We should spend our time together as much as we can, hmm?"

"The tickets aren't that expensive, are they?"

"Oh, dear. Don't concern yourself with those things just yet. We wouldn't make this an option if we thought we wouldn't be able to do it, right?"

"I guess," Shouyou mutters, half-convinced. "Miyagi, huh."

Mother smiles wide, and Shouyou can't help but grin back at her. He might have inherited his dad's orange hair, button nose and brown eyes, but he definitely got his smile from his mother.

"The indomitable Hinatas invade Japan," Father says. "How's that for a headline, son?"

"It's awesome!" Shouyou crows. He's amazed to find that he really means it.

 

~O~

Sendai, Miyagi

...

 

The roads are wider than what Shouyou expects them to be, but the cars are much smaller, compact. The driver's seats are on the wrong side—the right side, instead of the left. People cycle on the left, with the flow of the traffic. The buildings are mostly made out of bricks or reinforced concrete, white and gray and beige. It's like the upscale part of Sendai city is allergic to violent splashes of bright colors.

They're heading to Koriyama, according to Shouyou's aunt, Hinata Mizaki. It's where most of the relatives from Shouyou's father's side currently reside. Some have migrated to Tokyo and to the States.

"Now, Daisuke—I mean, your father, was just a different creature altogether. No one had ever thought he'd move to South America, and I guess that's why he did it." Mizaki laughs as she peeks at the rearview mirror. "You punk. You gave mom such a hard time," she tells Shouyou's father, who only rolls his eyes and snorts at the back seat.

"Are we going to meet other people with orange hair?" Natsu suddenly questions, leaning her torso to the front seat as she sits on Mother's lap. "No one back in Rio looks like us."

"Hmm. Your grandmother doesn't have hair like yours anymore. But look at mine, see?" Mizaki says. "Very bright and orange. Like wildfire."

Natsu nods once, satisfied with that answer.

Shouyou presses his face at the glass when he sees the riverbank. The cherry blossoms have already bloomed, and the soft pink petals fall gracefully on the clear waters. "Pretty," he mumbles.

Natsu teeters to the windows. "Can we swim there?" she then asks Mizaki-san, pointing at the river.

Mizaki chuckles. "I'm afraid not," she says. "But I do know a part of the river where it's okay for people to swim. I'll take you and Shouyou there tomorrow, okay?"

Natsu and Shouyou holler in unison.

 

...

 

He almost uses up all of Father's memory cards, taking pictures of all the things he finds unique and beautiful about Japan, which is a lot.

The state-of-the-art buildings are such an interesting juxtaposition with the numerous traditional houses in the residential areas. Shouyou spends a lot of time under the majestic cherry trees, even though some have crawling insects all over the trunk and branches. He takes pictures of Natsu playing with the petals on her hair.

After walking around the empty parks, Mother and Father take them to the street stalls, where a variety of poultry, shellfish, rice and regular grocery times are sold. There's even a stall selling live chicks. Shouyou and Natsu stoop down at the cage and gape at the different colored feathers in wonder.

"I'm glad you two are enjoying yourselves," Mother says with a light laugh. "But it's already past noon. Aren't you kids hungry?"

"A little," Shouyou concedes.

Father nods. "Alright. We'll eat at someplace special, then."

Natsu peeks at Shouyou, before declaring, "I want steak. A big steak. Ginormous!"

Mother, Father and Auntie Mizaki all laugh.

"I know a place that serves food that is better than steak," Mizaki claims.

They drive northward for thirty minutes and stop at a buffet place near Hirose-dori Station. Shouyou makes an awed sound at the smoke billowing dramatically out of one of the kitchen windows. When they enter, the combined scent of tofu, dashi and curry makes Shouyou's mouth water.

"Eek." Natsu shudders when she sees the earthenware pots on the tables. "Vegetables. Blergh."

"Now, sweet plums, you remember our deal," Father says, squeezing Natsu's shoulder lightly. "If you eat your greens, we'll—"

"Take me swimming!"

"Yes, very good."

Mizaki bows at a smiling lady sitting across them. "Do you guys want to go to an onsen?" she then asks the children.

"Onsen?" Natsu says. "What's that?"

Mizaki exclaims, "Hot springs! Why, I'm surprised you haven't heard of those yet. Miyagi is famous for them. Daisuke." She then cranes her delicate neck to Shouyou's father. "Why don't we take them to that place?"

Father hums lowly to himself. "Matsushima?"

Mizaki nods.

Unlike Natsu, Shouyou has heard all about onsens. He knows what people do to fully enjoy the heat of the waters. "We have to be naked, don't we?" Shouyou squeaks. "All the way?"

"That's the idea."

Natsu gasps as she juts out her chin. "I don't want to see onii-chan's pee-pee!"

Shouyou squawks indignantly. "Shut up, Natsu!"

"You're going to come with me, sweetie, and Dad will be with Shouyou. That's how it works here," Mother explains gently. "Anyway, let's not talk about bathing while we're at the dining table, children. Let's eat."

 

~O~

 

It's a steep climb up the mountains to get to the hot springs. One of the ryoukans close to the wide, shallow pools gushing with hot water is secluded from the rest of the village. Steam enshrouds the facade of the building. One of the owners greets them at the entrance, a soft-spoken old man with yellowing teeth, opening the shutters wide for the Hinata family.

"The water is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. But in April, the temperature is just right," the old man tells them. "You came at the perfect time."

It takes a while before Shouyou musters enough courage to shed his clothes, eyeing the bubbling waters dubiously. He dips his toes first, before plunging all of his legs in the pool.

Father laughs out loud at Shouyou's overjoyed expression. "You sure are a Hinata through and through," he says. "There's more where that came from. Come on."

They climb up the slippery, jagged rocks, stark naked, until they reach a small waterfall where a thick cloud of steam settles over a larger, deeper pool. Shouyou scrambles past the rocks, the smooth pebbles clattering under his feet, and he jumps into the pool. He swims towards the other end and sits directly under the water gushing down.

"Not all onsens have this," Father divulges, sitting next to him. "So be sure to enjoy this while we're here."

Shouyou nods vigorously, groaning in pleasure as warm water falls over his back. "I love Japan," he declares.

"You should," Father says with a laugh. "Never forget your roots, son."

"I won't." The heat of the water makes Shouyou's eyes sting when he tries to open them, so he keeps his eyelids shut. "Are you—are you thinking of moving back here in Miyagi?" he asks. "Grandma and Auntie seem to want you to stay here for much longer."

"It's not up to me to decide. Do you want to live here, Shouyou?"

Shouyou ponders for a while, before answering, "I like it here, but Rio is our home now. Isn't it?"

Father pushes back Shouyou's bangs. "That is true," he says warmly. "I think we made quite a life for ourselves there, and that's quite a miracle, don't you think?"

"We make our own miracles!" Shouyou cheers, repeating the words his volleyball coach in Gávea says before matches. Work for your miracles, Cesár-sensei always crows at them. Nothing is impossible for a person who works hard to make himself aplenty.

Father chuckles once more. After a long stretch of silence, he says with a strange, steady voice, "Natorigaoka is very close to Koriyama. It's only a forty-minute drive from where we're staying, I believe."

Shouyou's eyes jerk open. He blinks rapidly to keep the water from getting into his eyes. "R-really?"

"Oh, yes." There's now a hint of a laugh in Father's voice.

Shouyou keeps silent. Hesitating, in a way he rarely does. He can feel his mouth twitching in unease. "Uhh, Dad. Can we—"

"Yes." Father laughs openly now as he leans back on the rocks. "Of course, Shouyou."

Shouyou's skin prickles with newfound warmth. "It's just—volleyball. You know?"

"Of course."

"You mean it?"

"Hinata Shouyou," Father says. "Do you know why your mother and I can't help but worry about you? Because no matter what, you're always—rushing towards something. No matter how many times you tripped and fell. You're always running with your eyes glaring straight forward. Where did you think you got that stubbornness?"

Shouyou slowly grins. He no longer feels like he's standing on a cliff; instead, he feels like peering over the edge, and jumping without a care. "From mom?"

Father splashes him with spring water. "Close enough," he says. "I'll talk to her and your aunt later. Alright?"

"Okay."

Father cranes his neck up, making his face meet the splashing water from above. Shouyou presses his back against the rocks and copies him.

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

...

 

Tobio smacks his lips as he walks back home, trying to get rid of the tacky feeling in his mouth. His white messenger bag bumps against his hip with every step he takes. It's almost sundown. Today's practice was uneventful, somewhat feeble. He frowns to himself and kicks a stray rock like a soccer ball, until he's close to the canal and he kicks it with enough force that a metal post pings loudly when it hits. He frowns even deeply and walks again.

He keeps his head down, eyes trained on the asphalt, his mind carefully blank, until he reaches a sharp bend in the road. He spots a gray car parked in front of the gate. It must be his neighbor's.

"I'm home," Tobio says absently, shrugging his shoes off at the genkan. His feet then skids to a stop when he sees four unfamiliar people in his living room.

Three of them—a man, a teenage boy and a tiny girl—have unruly, burnt orange hair.

"Ahh, Tobio!" Mother says, holding a tray of rice balls and lemon juice. She's wearing a pencil skirt, her wire-rimmed glasses slightly askew. "There you are! You have visitors!"

Without forethought, Tobio says, "You're home?"

"I had to meet a client today, and it was just at a coffee shop near us, so I got home early." She then smiles at their guests. "A stroke of fate, I believe. I hope you didn't wait too long outside, Hinata-san."

"Oh, we didn't, and it was fine," the woman with the kind brown eyes and bright smile says. "There are a lot of parks around here in your neighborhood. My kids had ample space to run around all that time."

After handing their drinks, Mother turns to him and mutters pointedly, "Tobio."

It succeeds in breaking him out of his trance. Tobio bows lowly at them. When he surfaces, his eyes meet dark brown orbs set on a tan, elfish face.

A moment passes as they stare at each other intensely, until the other boy's face breaks into a wide, blinding smile. Tobio almost squints at the sight of it.

Tobio finally tags a voice to all the letters he's received these past six years, when he hears Hinata Shouyou say, "Wow. You look even scarier than in your pictures, Kageyama-kun!"

 

...

 

Dinner was very awkward. Or at least it was to Tobio. The Hinatas and his mother had a lovely good time, as expected, sharing stories about their trips. From what Hinata said in his letters, Hinata Daisuke and Hinata Yui are extremely well-traveled folks due to the nature of their jobs. Tobio's mother, who's been to more places than the rest of the Kageyama family have combined, trades amusing airport tales and horror stories in tourist traps with them.

Tobio didn't have much of an appetite, opening his lips barely to chuck the prawn tempura inside his mouth. All throughout, he kept his gaze persistently on his bowl, fully aware of Hinata sneaking glances at him from time to time.

The grown-ups and Natsu have now relocated to the living room, chatting some more. Tobio's mother seems to revel at the attention the unexpected guests have brought. On a good day, no one in the Kageyama family is fond of partaking in lengthy, almost aimless conversations save for her.

In the hallway, Tobio meets Hinata's eyes again. "Can we talk outside?" he grates out.

Thankfully, Hinata nods and follows him out. They walk in total silence until they reach an empty park near the community center. One of the street lights flickers ominously.

Tobio stops in front of the slide. Hinata mirrors him, halting and standing a foot away. From an onlooker's point of view, they probably look ridiculous—it’s like they're girding up their loins for a showdown similar to that Shao Lin movies Tobio's classmates like to reenact during recess.

"Why are you here?" Tobio says. His voice sounds terribly weak, even to his own ears. He straightens and steels his shoulders.

Hinata rolls his eyes. "To see you. Duh." His hands are balled into tight fists at his side.

"Why?"

Hinata glares at him. "Would it kill you to look at least a bit happy about it?" he says. "Your mom's a heck of a lot nicer than you are, that's for sure."

"Do I seem like I'm happy?" Tobio says. Great. He's shouting. He's doing it again, yelling and glowering down at people. Tobio had sworn to himself he wouldn't be acting like this anymore. But Hinata being here brings back all the memories Tobio didn't want to remember, all the ugly, frightening feelings Tobio had tried to tamp down suddenly coming to surface.

"But why aren't you happy?" Hinata asks, sounding genuinely curious. "My family's having a vacation here in Sendai for our school break, and I told them I wanted to see you, so we did. Normal people would be happy about that. So why aren't you?"

Tobio says, aiming to keep his voice level again, "I'm just not. Why do you want to see me?"

"Jeez. You're really dumb, aren't you? You weren't sending me letters anymore, and I heard about your granddad, so it's obvious I'd want to come see you—"

"But I didn't want to see you."

"Well, too bad! Because you're not the boss of me." Hinata's back to glaring at him again. "And you owe me an explanation as to why you suddenly stopped. So, explain it to me while I'm still being nice."

"I don't need you to be nice to me," Tobio ripostes. "I don't owe you an explanation."

"I don't?" Hinata yells at him. One of the dogs in the neighborhood barks in response. "You just froze me out for a year without a heads up, and you think you don't owe it to me? Wow. I'm just—" He laughs, loud and bitter and with no trace of amusement. "You know what? You never did try to sound like a decent human being in your letters, Kageyama. I shouldn't be surprised, but wow."

Tobio levels Hinata with his best, furious glare, but it doesn't seem to have any effect on the other boy. It's like Tobio's outrage is just egging Hinata on to get even angrier, kindling the irrepressible fire until everything around them begins to burn out of control.

Hinata huffs. "I've always considered you as my friend, and even though you're more of an infuriating asshole in person, I won't just ignore all that stuff we said to each other. So as your friend, let me give you a piece of advice. When people come to ask you something nicely, you answer back the same way. You're going to get yourself beat up at this rate."

"Friend? Yeah, like I matter to you," Tobio says. "I was just some kid you met through your coach. It's not like I'm there with you as you go gallivanting around with your real friends in shitty beach city."

Hinata's eyes widen. "What do you mean, 'like I matter'? If you don't, why would I even come all this way to see you—"

"Stop fucking lying to me and to yourself, Hinata. You have them while I only have volleyball. Volleyball doesn't mean the same to you as it does to me. Just admit it."

"What the heck are you talking about? Look here, you big jerk—"

"I am looking at you!" Tobio bites back. He wants every part of Hinata to hurt, just as much as Tobio had when he decided to stop writing back to Hinata's rambling, comforting letters. "I've been looking at you ever since you broke into my house! You're still short and scraggly! You look so powerless! It's like all you've been doing is fooling yourself and wasting everyone's time! What the hell have you been doing these past six years, you useless scrub?"

Hinata's expression darkens just as his eyes burn bright. He takes quick, sharp strides towards Tobio, and then he swings his fist and hits Tobio right in the face.

 

...

 

They're slumped against the plastic chairs in the emergency department. As he stares up the fluorescent lights, Tobio parts his mouth a little to breathe. The sting from his cut lip makes him do a full-bodied flinch. He puts the ice pack the nurse gave him over the welt under his eye.

All that furious energy has been sapped out of him; Tobio feels like he just played ten full sets non-stop. He wants to go home and sleep and eat something hearty the next day. Maybe curry or sukiyaki.

Tobio peers down at Hinata, who's got a blood-stained white cloth pressed over his knuckles. It looks like the bleeding has stopped.

Still, Tobio asks, "Has it stopped bleeding yet?"

Hinata jolts, and quickly unwraps the cloth. They don't look swollen, but there are several cuts across the joints, which did stop bleeding. "I think it looks okay now," Hinata tells him.

Tobio sighs in relief. "Isn't that your spiking hand?" he grouches. "Why would you punch me using that, dumbass?"

"I wouldn't have gotten you if I hadn't," Hinata argues. His eyes then roam Tobio's face. "Ha! I really got you good, didn't I?"

"Shut up!"

"Sorry about your face," Hinata says. "Does it still hurt?"

"Not so much," Tobio lies.

"Oh. That's good, then. Do you have a girlfriend, Kageyama?"

"No."

"Oh, that's good. I was worried I'd have to answer to someone for ruining your already ugly face."

Tobio scowls at Hinata and knocks their knees together, ignoring the sharp bite of pain on his mouth and jaw. Hinata laughs at him breathlessly.

The neighbor who intervened in the fight earlier bids them farewell with an awkward, bewildered smile. Hinata and Tobio bow in earnest.

"You really didn't fracture it or anything?" Tobio double-checks.

"You mean my hand? The doctor said they didn't find anything. You heard him."

"Yeah, but still. Maybe you should rest that for a few weeks when you get back to Brazil."

Hinata looks at him weirdly. "You're telling me to take a break from volleyball?" he says. "Are you really Kageyama Tobio?"

"I'm being serious, dumbass."

"I am, too. It's fine now."

"Did I hurt your side? Your hip?" Tobio faintly recalls kicking Hinata there when they fell on each other.

"It's probably gonna bruise, but nothing too painful." Hinata wrinkles his nose. "I'm really, really sorry about your face, Kageyama."

Tobio shrugs. It's not like a black eye and a few cuts would keep him from playing volleyball. He didn't get the short end of the stick here.

Suddenly, Hinata laughs again. "Is this your first fist fight?" he manages in between snickers.

"Yeah," Tobio says, eyes widening in the realization. "Is this your first, too?"

"Uh-huh. I'm not a hooligan, you know."

Tobio can't quite manage an eye roll, and Hinata grins at that.

"My mom's always scared I'd be involved in some royal rumble every other day back in Rio," Hinata says. "It's kinda funny that of all places, I'd be having my first fight here, with you."

Tobio almost smiles. Speaking of mothers. "I'll talk to my mom, you go talk to yours," he mutters, eyeing the two dark-haired adults having a heated conversation at the end of the hallway, with the beleaguered ER nurse mediating.

Hinata whistles. "Divide and conquer?"

Tobio nods resolutely.

~O~

 

It took some convincing, but Tobio and Hinata got their parents to reconcile, and to realize that, save for that altercation in the park, the tussling and the bickering are harmless, a product of their subtle similarities in personality rather than their stark differences.

Hinata comes over with his mother the next two days, and his father on the third. As soon as Tobio arrives home from school, they do volleyball drills in the park, or at the Kageyamas' backyard.

"Really? You didn't get in?" Hinata says as he tosses the ball back to Tobio. "What, like the test's hard?"

"It's Shiratorizawa. It's the strongest athletics school in the prefecture," Tobio says with a grunt. "Of course it's hard." He tosses the ball higher and farther.

Hinata leaps back and receives it, a little unsteadily. "I got in to my first choice, though."

"Yeah. But you didn't have to sit through an exam like I did, dumbass Hinata."

Hinata chuckles. "I guess I would have bombed that, too," he says amiably. "Like, how should I know that the Earth's satellite is the actual moon?"

"Who even cares?" Tobio agrees.

Hinata jumps and spikes the ball. Tobio crouches and receives it cleanly.

"So where are you going now? Didn't you say you wanted to go to—" Hinata scrunches his eyebrows. "Aba Baba academy, or something?"

Tobio almost misses the toss. He spikes it harder than he meant to, the ball hurtling towards the dried bushes near the see-saw.

"Oi!" Hinata yells, jogging back to retrieve the ball. "That one was out of bounds! Play fair, Kageyama!"

Tobio grimaces. "It's Aoba Johsai," he mutters when Hinata's back in earshot.

"Huh? What?"

"It's Aoba Johsai. Not Aba Baba, idiot."

"Oh, sorry." Hinata tilts his head. "So you didn't go there?"

"No. I went to Karasuno High."

"Why not Aba—Aoba Johsai?"

Tobio glares at the other boy. "Toss the ball, Hinata."

Hinata tosses, but still, he asks, "So why not Aoba?"

Tobio sighs wearily. He sets the ball back. "I couldn’t go there."

"Huh? But I thought Kita-Daii students usually get invites there. Did you suddenly suck, Kageyama?"

Instead of tossing, Tobio extends his arms and grabs the ball in his hands. He doesn't know what expression he's making, but Hinata's staring at him searchingly.

"I never suck," Tobio grits out.

"I know," Hinata says, shrugging. "That's why I'm asking."

"I was invited. But I didn't want to go there."

"Why?"

"People—" Tobio clamps his mouth shut and then opens it again. "The players there don't like my tosses."

Hinata's eyes bug out. "Really?" he says. "But your setting is perfect, though."

Tobio scowls despite the heat creeping up to his neck. "Yeah? Well. Not everyone's like you, Hinata. People don't like playing with me, so." In his mind, he hears the sound of a ball hitting the floor. Loudly, unexpectedly. He sees the hazy scene of his middle school teammates. They turn their backs one by one and leave him alone in the court.

Tobio shakes the mental images away. "If only I could spike and set and receive all by myself," he grumbles, turning the ball in his palms. "I'd do everything on my own, if I could." Unthinkingly, he sets the ball as high and as fast as he can, not caring anymore where it'll go.

But Hinata chases it, zooming across the open space, and he jumps—

Tobio's jaw slacks.

Then Hinata hits the ball with a forceful smack, and it whizzes close to Tobio's ear. Hinata's sneakers thud when he lands on the ground.

Hinata frowns at him. "What was that for?" he whines. "You sent it flying out of bounds again! Just when I was complimenting you about your tosses, you pull something like that."

Tobio flounders. "H-how did you... you were just..." Hinata was right there, and then he was suddenly over there—not to mention that ridiculous jump...

Hinata rucks up his shirt sleeves, revealing the tanned curve of his shoulders. "What? Told you I'm fast." He grins maniacally at him. "You gonna be left behind, Kageyama?"

"Like hell I am." Tobio picks up the ball and narrows his eyes at Hinata. "Dumbass. Jump like that again."

"Huh? Like what?"

"Jump like you mean it."

"What do you mean? I was jumping with all I have this whole time!"

"No, you weren't." Tobio eyes him severely. "Put all of your weight on the inside of your feet. Don't let your jump drift, moron."

"Jump like you mean it," Hinata sneers. "Explain it properly and I’ll do it, jeez!" He then laughs with his head thrown back. His hair blends with the red orange skyburst of the setting sun. "Okay. I’m ready, King-yama!" he cheers, putting his thumbs up.

Tobio freezes. "Don't call me that."

"Why?" Hinata tilts his head. "It suits you."

Somehow, he doesn't get the urge to throw the volleyball at Hinata's face, nor does his stomach flip in unease. "Shut up," Tobio mutters. "Jump there. Let's see what's your highest point. I want to try something."

Hinata laughs again. "See what I mean? It suits you perfectly! Man, I want a cool nickname, too!" He then bobs his head. His tongue peeks out as he watches the ball hungrily. "Alright, alright, your highness. Ready when you're ready."

Tobio frowns as Hinata adopts a stance. Your highness doesn't sound grating or mean, coming from Hinata's mouth. He doesn't seem like he's calling Tobio an overly demanding, brutal dictator. A cruel king of the court.

Hinata makes it sound like it's worthy of admiration. Like it makes Tobio a better player than everyone else.

"Psst! Is there something wrong? Are you Tired-yama already?"

Tobio flushes deeply. "I'm not tired." He rolls his shoulders before tossing the ball. His eyes gleam as he watches Hinata take off and soar like a crow in the air.

 

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

...

 

"What a very eventful week," Aunt Mizaki says.

Kageyama's mother laughs. "It truly was." She bows at the Hinatas. "It was nice meeting you. You can visit us anytime you'd like! Just give us a ring."

Mother bows back. "Thank you very much for having us." She gives Shouyou a withering look. "And for letting our rowdy son spend some time with your adorable Tobio-kun."

"That's not a big deal at all. Besides, teenage boys can be very—"

"I know."

Shouyou tries his best not to roll his eyes. He bumps Kageyama's shoulder and jerks his chin at their commiserating mothers, who're apparently close enough to read each other's minds and finish each other's sentences.

Kageyama snorts softly in agreement.

Natsu appears to have a weird fascination with Kageyama and his height. She likes standing in front of him and craning her neck up, like a challenger waiting to be acknowledged. "You're going to be a volleyball player just like onii-chan, right?" she questions.

Kageyama peers down at her. "Yeah."

"Okay!" Natsu chirps. "Do your best, Tobio-san!"

Kageyama nods.

Father beckons them over to the departure lane, their luggage stacked precariously on the trolley. The grown-ups bow again at each other, and Aunt Mizaki gathers the Hinata children in her arms.

Shouyou turns to face Kageyama. "See you later, Kageyama," he says.

Kageyama gives him a sharp quirk of the head. "See you."

Shouyou watches him carefully, and notices how Kageyama's dark blue eyes seem to look sad in a way none of his face does to betray his thoughts. He hopes that by the time he comes back, Kageyama will look better and feel better and play better. Shouyou's counting on it. "Write to me," he says.

"I will."

"Do you promise?"

The tiniest bit of spark returns to Kageyama's eyes. "Yeah. I promise."

Shouyou throws him his happiest grin, and Kageyama punches his arm.

"Hinata."

"Hmm?"

"Did you mean it," Kageyama asks. "When you said you want to compete on the world stage together?"

Huh? This again? "Yeah, obviously." Shouyou quirks an eyebrow. "If you're going to be the best in Japan, then I'll be the best in Brazil. And I'm going to win."

Something about that seems to sit well with Kageyama. The spark turns into a flare, blue eyes glimmering in anticipation. "You've got lots of work to do."

Shouyou snorts. "Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time."

"Shouyou-kun," Kageyama's mother says, smiling in mirth. "Your family's waiting for you at the checkpoint."

Shouyou whirls around. Natsu is stomping her feet, while his parents are laughing and gesturing for him to come over already. "Oh, sorry," Shouyou says sheepishly. He ambles towards the security scanners. "Thanks for everything, ma'am! Bye, Kageyama! Write to me a lot!"

"Take care, Shouyou-kun! And don't worry! I'll make sure he sends you something every week!" Kageyama's mother says, waving a dainty hand. Her son just stares after Shouyou, looking embarrassed, and Shouyou laughs at Kageyama's constipated expression before turning away.

 

~O~

 

June 21, 2012

 

Happy birthday, dumbass.

We're doing summer training camp. Everything's okay so far. The third-year seniors are nice. One of them's the starting setter, but he's letting me play first string in more games than he does. His name's Sugawara. He reminds me of Oikawa-san a little. He knows how to amp up his teammate's playing abilities and our spikers trust him a lot. But Sugawara-san's personality is way better than Oikawa-san's.

We have a coach, but he doesn't know a lick of volleyball, so he got a former Karasuno player to coach us during practice and actual matches. I told you about Ukai-sensei, right? He's one of Kazuyo-san's friends. He coached Karasuno really well that they got into nationals. That former player is Ukai-sensei's grandson. He knows his stuff. If Ukai-sensei couldn't be in Karasuno, then I suppose his grandson is the next best thing.

I finally got to do jump serves against one of our rivals in the prefecture. One of them was a service ace.

I got you red ginseng tea. Add some lemon to it. My mother gave me pictures of us during your spring trip here. I sent you copies.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

...

 

September 5, 2012

 

Kageyama!

Man, high school is hard! My math teacher just laid me out to dry this morning 'cause I got the lowest score in our class. I just don't get what the letters stand for when we get asked to "compute for their values". I already suck at English, and now there's x's and y's in math, too? Blergh!!!

I guess my only consolation is that my teammates are really super cool! They sometimes pick on me because of my height and hair, but they're all just words, and we laugh about it afterwards. There are a lot of big bullies in all three years, but I haven't gotten into a fist fight yet ever since I enrolled. Maybe it's because our giant team members scare those people away. Even though I can defend myself, it's still so cool! I really love being in a team!

Rodrigo, one of our middle blockers, broke his right wrist 'cause he got into a street fight with three upperclassmen. It kinda worries me that it's so common, but I guess that's why people here are so tough and strong. I'll have to sub for him for a few weeks until he gets better. Though I'm sad that Rodrigo's hurt, I get to play in more games!!! We have a sports meet this October with some big community teams, and I'll be one of the starters. Cheer for me, Kageyama!!!

Oh, yeah! I haven't mentioned that I'm a middle blocker for our team, right? Well, I am! It's supposed to be a position for the tallest players, but Coach said since I can jump really high and run really fast, he wants to use me to give our team more attack options. So cool!!!

My dad just got home from a trip to Florence. He got us keychains from the Italy SuperLega. Hope this gets to you soon!

 

Your bestest middle blocker friend,
Hinata Shouyou

...

 

December 13, 2012

 

Hinata,

We made it to the third round of Interhigh preliminaries but we lost to Aoba Johsai. Oikawa-san is their team's setter.

I was no match for him. Everything about him is just better. He completely read all my moves, like he knew me as well as he knew his own teammates. It's like I haven't changed from middle school at all, and he knew it.

I may have forgotten to tell you about my last year in middle school. We were down 18-14 on the second set, and Shiogame Middle already took the first. We were getting blocked every step of the way. So I tossed as fast as I could to evade the walls, but we kept missing on our combinations. We couldn't finish. I wanted to go to nationals. I probably yelled something at my team. I don't remember what it was. Next thing I knew, I tossed the ball up behind me, but no one was there. No one came to hit it.

I was benched for the rest of the game, and we got eliminated in the semis. After that, no one wanted to play with me. So I did drills outside of school on my own.

I decided to enter Karasuno so I could play with a good team under a good coach and make it to nationals.

I'm glad I did. Coach Ukai and Takeda-sensei taught me a lot, and we have good practice matches with skilled teams. I'm able to match with the people here. When I toss, the hitters come. It frightened me to think that no one would jump to my sets. But they're there. And they hit it.

When they joke around and call me "King" or "Your highness", they sound just like you. I'm not so afraid anymore.

There's only one guy I don't like. He's an irritating blond middle blocker who always gets on my face. Still, I won a lot of games with him and the rest of the team. Volleyball is fun when I'm with them on the court. But I'm still far and away no match for Oikawa-san.

I never suck at volleyball. But I don't think I'm the best at talking and getting people to talk. Sugawara-san and Sawamura-san gave me advice on communicating properly, though it doesn't work a lot of the time. Takeda-sensei says I should be more patient. Oikawa-san still has two more years worth of experience.

I noticed Sugawara-san makes everyone in the team comfortable with him by slapping us on the shoulder and grinning a lot, but Tanaka-san said my smile looks creepy sometimes. So I guess I have to find another way to do it. I wish I had a smile like yours.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

...

 

January 4, 2013

 

Hey, Kageyama,

In our school, we have retreats. Usually, we go hiking up a mountain and pray, then back in our rest house all the students from the same class form a circle and talk about their feelings and stuff.

There were a lot of kids in my class who are feeling a little lost, I guess. They have no clue what they want to do after high school, and they sometimes think that going to classes is all pointless. I suppose I'm one of the lucky ones, since I know what I'll be doing after high school, but I don't really know. One of our hitters, Eurico, is in my class. He wants to quit volleyball already. He hasn't said why, just that he thinks it's going to mean nothing in the end.

I want to convince him to stay, but it's not like I can make people change the way they feel, right? If someone doesn't want to play volleyball anymore, then I can't force him, right?

There's no one in my team who wants to go pro like I do. Even Lucas, who's been my partner in beach volleyball for so long, doesn't want to play beach anymore after high school. It's weird. They're way taller than me and are fantastic players in their own right. If they want to, I'm sure they can make it.

I guess I feel a little lonely not having someone here who wants the same things I do.

But I still have you, haven't I? Sometimes, when I can't sleep 'cause I keep on worrying about the things I should be doing to improve my game, I would open my drawer and read your letters. Other times, I'd just sit in our apartment's balcony and wonder about how you're doing. How far ahead you already are. Usually, I'd get too excited to fall asleep, but when I think about how impatient you get as I run after you, I feel so much better already. It's like my dreams aren't too big and too heavy to crush me, because you're already there and waiting for me to hold it up with you.

Just wait a little longer, Kageyama.

 

Your best friend,
Hinata Shouyou

~O~

Shibuya, Tokyo

...

 

"—yama-kun. Kageyama-kun. Kageyama-kun."

Tobio whips his head up and turns around. "Yes?"

It's Shimizu-san. She's holding up a towel, onigiri and a bottle of water. "I thought you'd be hungry. You haven't eaten yet."

"I was going to get something later." Tobio bows as he takes the towel and food in his arms. "Thank you, Shimizu-san."

"Don't mention it." Her gaze flits towards the paper and pen on the bench. "You're writing to someone? Family?"

Tobio shakes his head. "A friend."

Shimizu's eyes widen slightly. "A friend?"

"He's in Brazil," Tobio explains. "A student of my grandfather's friend in Rio. He's Japanese."

Shimizu hums in understanding. "A pen pal, huh. Have you two ever met before?"

"Once. When we were fifteen."

"What do you guys talk about?"

"Volleyball. Mostly."

Shimizu smiles at that. "You two must have been writing to each other for a long time already," she observes. "I don't think I've ever seen you so absorbed in something except when you're holding a volleyball."

Tobio places a palm over the warming skin of his nape. "Hinata rambles a lot," he decides to reveal, which is the truth. Hinata talks so much in his letters that Tobio can't help but write back the same way. Hopefully, his letters don't contain as much drivel as Hinata's.

Shimizu nods. Her glasses reflect the stadium lights with a bright glare. It makes Tobio's eyes hurt. "I'll leave you to it, then. If you want more onigiri, just call me or Hitoka-chan. Alright?"

"Yes." Tobio bows again.

 

~O~

 

August 4, 2013

 

Kageyama!!!

We won! We won in our district's biggest beach tourney! Oh my god, I can't believe that we won!!! We won everything!

You should've been there, Kageyama! I didn't even realize that I was the one who scored the last point until Lucas screamed at me and slammed me down the sand, and he's so huge, I thought he was going to murder me! And then Lucio-sensei ran up to me and screamed at me, too, and then all the beach kids from our community team just ran up to us and threw us in a big huddle. It was flat out insane!

I know nothing can top you getting in the U-18s and making it to nationals, but seriously, this is the biggest thing I've ever won since I started playing volleyball! I couldn't have done it without a lot of people!!! And that includes you!!!

Don't get mad at me, but I think some of Lucio-sensei's teammates tricked me into drinking alcohol. We went out yesterday night to celebrate in this swanky restobar in Copacabana, and I swear it really looked like soda! It tasted really weird, like one of those bitter gourd concoctions your grandma makes you drink "for your health". I swear, I won't do it again until I'm finally eighteen (which is next year already, wohoo!).

I'm finally getting better, Kageyama! On to the next game, right?

 

Your 2013 Rubio Grand Circuit Beach Volleyball champion,
Hinata Shouyou

...

 

October 27, 2013

 

Hinata,

Last week, I got a message from the U-18 team. They asked me if I could participate in more practices starting this second week of November. They want me to be part of the team they'd be sending to the Asian U-18 Volleyball Championship next year in September. I would be in Sri Lanka for more than a week.

I thought about it for a while, but I said no. I just got off the phone to tell them. I told them the dates for the tournament coincides with Interhigh nationals. Next year would be my last year in Karasuno. So I couldn't go. They said they understood, and that they'd respect my decision.

That was the right decision, wasn't it? I did say I wanted to take Karasuno even further. I won't break my word. The world stage can wait. Right?

My sister taught me how to make an e-mail address. She said that if we want faster replies, we should use it instead. She made one for me this morning: kageyama.tobio@yahoo.co.jp. You can send me messages there. Do you know how? If you don't, Miwa-san wrote a guide for you. It's on the back of this letter.

If you prefer written letters, then we could still do this. I use my dad's laptop most of the time, so Miwa-san said maybe privacy would be a problem. Just let me know.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

...

 

Shouyou's got his dad's camera linked to their desktop computer in the living room, as he texts Samuel about their chemistry homework. There's a lot of pictures that he wants to send to Kageyama, but the computer's running a bit slow today. He's already been sitting for an hour, bouncing his legs and waiting for the green bar to fill up completely.

Natsu suddenly jumps in his line of sight. "Onii-chan! Onii-chan!"

"What is it this time, Natsu?" Shouyou says. "I already told you, you can't borrow any of my clothes for you to mangle. Play designer with something else."

"Why? I want to sew patches on them!"

"They look ugly! That's why!"

Natsu puffs her cheeks. "Take me outside!" she demands.

"What for? Can't you see I'm busy?"

"I'm hungry! I want to eat dinner outside. Mom and Dad wouldn't be back before eleven, right?"

Shouyou leans back on his chair in surprise, glancing at the clock on the wall. It's already seven in the evening. He already ate earlier with his teammates, but Natsu hasn't had dinner yet. He forgot about his parents staying out late for work. "Right. Sorry," Shouyou says in chagrin. Older brothers can be useless, sometimes. "Let me just go grab some cash. What do you want to eat?"

Natsu follows him to his room. "Steak!" she crows.

Shouyou wrinkles his nose at her. "I don't have enough money for that, Natsu. You want a burger or something?" Maybe they could get something good from the lanchonetes at those intersecting streets between Rua do Catete and Rua Bento Lisboa, where there are a lot of cheap places to eat beside the hostels.

Natsu seems to consider this seriously, pursing her lips in thought. "I take that back. I don't want to gain too much weight," she then says. "So let's get sandwiches, onii-chan!"

Shouyou looks at her in alarm as he closes the apartment door behind him. "What do you mean you don't want to put on weight? You're only twelve!"

As they traverse the streets, Natsu tells him at length about her dream: she wants to be a fashion designer. She says she needs to look good first before she gets to make others look good with the clothes she designs.

"Whenever I watch your games on the beach, I get so jealous. There are a lot of pretty girls with beautiful bodies." She huffs, crossing her arms. "I want to be like that, too! So people would buy my clothes!"

Shouyou chuckles. "Isn't that what models are for? You don't need to look all glammed up when you're the one designing things, right?"

"Onii-chan." Natsu throws him a severe look. "Have you ever seen an ugly fashion designer? Honestly?"

"I don't know much about fashion," Shouyou admits. "What I do know is that you should eat properly. You're still growing, Natsu."

"I'm already grown up!"

"Not when you still need my help getting the blender from the cupboard, you're not, pipsqueak."

Natsu growls at him. "You need muscles for volleyball, so you eat a lot," she says. "But I don't want muscles! I need to be thin and pretty!"

Shouyou pulls up the hood of Natsu's purple hoodie up to her eyes. Despite his unsettlement, he still can't help but mess with her a little. "Uh-huh. I get what you mean," he says. "But you need to be strong, too. And how can you be strong if you don't eat well?"

A smile blooms on Shouyou's face, when he recalls the words: If you want to win, then you have to do everything properly. Don't eat junk, even if your friends tell you to. It makes him remark, "If you were Kageyama's little sister, you would've gotten a huge scolding by now."

"Hmph! Tobio-nii san will treat me like a proper lady!" Natsu exclaims, blowing a raspberry at him. "Unlike some guys I'd like to mention."

Shouyou scoffs derisively. "Kageyama doesn't know how to talk to girls without sounding like a douche." There was one time Kageyama e-mailed him in panic when he made a girl cry at the back of their school's cafeteria. That jerk didn't even realize he was being confessed to. Shouyou had to resort to sending him anonymous message boards about letting a girl down gently. "Ha! Probably why he doesn't have a girlfriend yet."

"You don't have a girlfriend either, so does that mean you're a douche?"

"Say that one more time and you're not getting any chocolate milkshake from me for dessert."

Natsu cries, "Nooo, onii-chan! I'll be good!"

They enter a lanchonete with trendy lighting and a lot of nostalgic photos hung on the dandelion yellow walls. Shouyou gets a pulled pork sandwich for himself, while Natsu orders chicken pratos feitos and a chocolate milkshake. Shouyou smirks at the side as she eats with relish.

 

~O~

Kita, Tokyo

...

 

Tobio's body hits the floor soundly when he dives to receive a feint, but he fails to get it up. Takahashi Junpei, the crafty first-year opposite hitter, grins down at him with malevolent glee. Tobio blinks and stands to his full height. He dusts off his knees.

"Good job, Junpei-kun!" Yamada Ito, the second-year libero, laughs and smacks Takahashi on the back. "Slick! You really had 'em fall for it, eh?"

Someone puts a hand on Tobio's shoulder. "Don't mind, Kageyama," Miyamura Shingo tells him. He's a middle-blocker and a second-year captain from Katago Senior High, a powerhouse school from Shizuoka.

Tobio frowns. "I don't."

"Oh." Miyamura then smiles. "That's good."

The match ends 25-23 after three sets, with Tobio's team losing three rounds out of five. After hitting the showers and eating dinner, Tobio heads back to the dorm rooms, his yawn echoing across the high-ceiling hallways. He looks for hallmarks as he goes; he's gotten lost way too many times now in this building. He smacks his lips tiredly and rubs his eye.

When he enters his room, his phone vibrates in his pocket. He flips it open and sees that a new e-mail came in.

 

(1) Unread Message

From: Hinata Shouyou
To: Kageyama Tobio
Subject: I got tickets to see a live league game!! Be jealous!!!

 

Tobio snorts.

"Ew, Kageyama," his roommate, Shindo Yuuto, gripes, zipping up the front of his tracksuit. "Quit making faces at your phone while you're texting your girlfriend. I'm still here, you know."

Tobio's eyebrows raise. "I don't have a girlfriend."

It's Yuuto's turn to snort. "Oh yeah? Then whom is it you're giving the eyes to? Your mom?"

"My friend."

"A pretty gal?"

"No. He's a guy."

Yuuto stops shortly. "Hmm. I wasn't expecting that, but I guess I'm not objecting," he says in what sounds like a playful tone.

Tobio seems to have lost the thread of the conversation. This tends to happen when he's with people not from Karasuno, though he finds it occurring more frequently when he's with the other U-18 picks.

He saunters to his side of the room and informs Yuuto, "Team dinner's over. The cafeteria's already closed."

"I wasn't gonna go for a second round," Yuuto says with a chuckle. "I'm gonna go out for a bit. I'm meeting a friend who lives in the neighborhood."

"But it's already past curfew."

"Learn to live a little, Kageyama. We had a good game today, hadn't we?" Yuuto grins lopsidedly, pulling his bangs back. His platinum blond hair is still damp from the shower.

Tobio wants to tell him to put on a cap or a beanie, but he refrains and keeps his mouth shut.

"I won't cover for you," Tobio says instead.

Yuuto laughs again. "I wasn't expecting you to, bro. I won't get caught, if that's what you're worried about."

Tobio nods. "I'll keep the door unlocked." He changes into his pajamas.

"Aww, aren't you the sweetest? Sleep well! Say hi to your friend for me!" Yuuto cheers as he shuts the door.

Tobio closes the lights and flings the sheets, twisting and turning until he gets to a comfortable position. He then flips his phone open.

 

Kageyama! :D

I got tickets to the Superliga game next week! It's going to be a huggggeeeeeee showdown between RJ and Florianópolis! I'm gonna bet my right spiking hand that RJ's going to win it all. Florianópolis might have Silva and de Moraes, but RJ's got human tank Cesár Pereira. I'm sooooooo hypppeeeedd!

How's the youth national team practices going? Are you getting picked on a lot? You better be! Your ego's getting so huge lately. It's gonna get you in trouble someday, so someone better take you down a notch or two. Or a thousand.

 

Tobio sneers at the screen. Like you can talk, he thinks.

 

Jason, Rogério and I ate at this new foreign buffalo wings place that opened a street behind our school. It was sooooo good! Just look at how blown away we were!

 

Tobio opens the file attachment and waits for the photo to load. He almost falls asleep, but then his screen brightness changes in intensity and his eyelids flutter open spontaneously.

All three of them are gathered around a stainless steel table. Jason and Rogério must be the other two kids. Tobio can't tell who's who; Hinata has introduced him to way too many of his friends that he's sure he wouldn't be able to match the face to the name, even if he tries.

Hinata is flashing a peace sign with his free hand, a half-eaten chicken wing in his other, plastic-wrapped fingers. He's got barbeque sauce smeared all over his mouth.

This idiot really knows no shame, Tobio thinks. He presses his thumb over Hinata's smiling face on the screen, before finally succumbing to sleep.

 

~O~

 

January 12, 2014

 

Heyyyyyy, Kageyama!

Thanks for still sending me letters! It's really nice to hear from you more often, but it's just extra cool to get something from the mail every other month. I'm always so excited when I get a post from you! It's like I'm opening a present every time!

We're in the middle of summer break, and I'm spending every day training with Lucio-sensei. There's also a new indoor coach who's partnering with sensei, a German guy from São Paulo. He wants to teach me how to block properly! I think I've gotten decent with blocking over the years, but if it's a 1v1 block? Maaannnnn. I get shown almost every time.

Rodrigo said I need to be a "stud to combat all the other studs", so I thought I'd have to work on my arms, work out to make them stronger and stuff, but the new coach said I had to work more on my footwork and deciding who I should target. Once I have all the details, I'll let you know what I learned!

Also, something happened on New Year's Eve. I went to a party one of my classmates threw in his house. There were a lot of people who came that the drinking and chatting already spilled over to the streets. There were grown-ups and kids from other schools who joined, too. There were beers and other stuff everywhere. I didn't drink because I puked my guts out the last time I did and I don't want a repeat of that, but the other guys did. Some were being very loud and were vomiting all over the kitchen floor. I've been to a few parties, but I think that was the wildest one I've ever been to.

There was this girl who's older than us by a year. I've always thought she was pretty and nice, and I think I mentioned it to one of my teammates before. Some of the guys wanted to play a prank on me, and locked me in with her in the bathroom. She then kissed me, Kageyama. It didn't last long, 'cause I freaked out and pushed her away. She was drunk. I could smell the alcohol from her mouth.

You were right about having girls cry because of you. It feels really awful.

It took us an hour before my teammates let me out, and I don't think I've ever been as angry as I was at that time. They thought they were doing me a solid, but... I'm not sure how else I can explain it to you. It's like I stole something from someone, and no matter what I do, I can't give it back to her.

My teammates and I made up, but whenever I ran into the girl at the beach or at our neighborhood, and no matter how many times I apologized and she laughed it off, I still felt really terrible. Whenever I thought about that night, I felt like puking again.

I don't think anyone can make me go to Carnaval or a street party or anything that involves drinking for a long time. Maybe it's for the best.

 

Your best friend who's gonna stay sober until he wins gold in the Olympics,
Hinata Shouyou

 

...

April 28, 2014

 

Hinata,

I got myself a pet mouse. Someone left the cage in one of the footlockers. It was squeaking so loud and rattling its cage. It was irritating, so I took it home. Yachi-san suggested I put a notice on our school's online message board about it. She said maybe one of the students under the sciences track had to do an advanced biology experiment involving mice, so I was expecting one of them would claim it. But no one came forward. It's been a week.

No one's home. My dad's away on a business trip. So is my mom. She'll be back in two days, I think. Miwa-san's moved out years ago. We don't have other pets. So it's just me and this puny white thing with red eyes.

I've already scoured the internet for guidelines on how to take care of white mice. Yachi-san, Yamaguchi and even that bastard Tsukishima helped me with getting information from the library 'cause I've never borrowed a book there before. So far, it's eating and shitting well. Some of my kouhai took it to the vet with me. Given my track record with animals, I don't think we'll be getting along much. I just hope it doesn't die soon.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

 

 ...

 

July 10, 2014

 

Kageyama!!!

Things are going crazy right now. Brazil hosted the World Cup this year, did you know? I bet'cha don't! Well, we played against Germany in Minas the other day, and we lost! 7-1!!!! It was unbelievable! A crushing defeat!! Even my dad started getting teary-eyed when Germany scored their fifth goal.

Dad said that it's the first time Brazil has been defeated in home soil for 39 years! Yesterday, there were riots everywhere in São Paulo. Like, a couple of buses were torched down (there weren't any passengers inside, so that was a relief).

Man, football just makes everyone's blood run hot in this country! I love volleyball too much, but honestly, I did feel like streaming out to the streets when the whistle blew. I was so hyped, and then them flaming out of the tournament like that... I won't set buses on fire, though! I don't think I'd ever do that. But whenever our team loses a match, I do feel like kicking and screaming and burning stuff to the ground, so I suppose I understand.

Everyone's love for football is just crazily infectious!!! I wonder when volleyball will ever get to that level here, or anywhere. Gosssshhh, I want to play in a stadium full of people, too, and give people a show of their lives! Imagine the world gasping and crying every time we score! That would be so amazing!!

Your super cool best friend who lives in a super cool sports country,
Hinata Shouyou

 

~O~

São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro

 

...

 

When Shouyou sees the overpass next to the feira, he knows he's close. He picks up his pace and takes a right turn to a street where white, five-story buildings have coalesced to form a narrow strip of concrete and hybrid territories.

The road then opens up to a plaza, where Shouyou's high school building resides on one corner next to a bustling marketplace. He starts pedaling slowly when he reaches the junction where the crowd starts to thicken, and then he enters the black gates.

He's locking his bike in one of the racks when he suddenly hears someone moaning in pain. Shouyou peers from behind one of the walls.

There are a group of teenagers—they're from Shouyou's year, he realizes, but all from a different class. One lanky guy has his hand against the chest of another boy with spiky black hair, effectively pinning him against the wall. Another teen wearing only a sleeveless undershirt is cackling at the side.

"Cough up, sissy," the lanky guy says. "You owe us."

Spiky hair glowers at them, but says nothing.

"Ahaaaa. This fucking weeb has grown some goat balls, eh? Aren't you a big boy now?" Lanky guy jeers.

Sleeveless guy sneers. "Quit acting tough, Pedro. Just give him the money."

Spiky hair—Pedro—continues to glare at them in silence. Lanky guy seems to have run out of patience, and proceeds to slap Pedro with the back of his hand.

It's like someone else has taken over his body—Shouyou steps out of the shadows. "Oh, hey, Pedro!" he says, his voice hitching at the end. "Where have you been? I was looking everywhere for you!"

Sleeveless and Lanky stop to look at him. Lanky's grip on Pedro slacks, and Pedro's butt plonks on the cemented floor.

"Oh, it's the Asian volleyball midget," Lanky chirps. "Good going, Pedro. You're buddies with a Jap? Can't be one, so you made friends with one?"

Sleeveless chortles. "Oh, man. Is he gonna marry Shrimpy to gain citizenship?"

Shouyou's face heats.

Pedro looks at him in distress, his eyes pleading for him to leave.

It makes Shouyou all the more determined to stand his ground. He tells the two bullies, "Sorry, but Pedro and I have to get going now. It's very urgent." Now, his voice sounds really weird. It sounds dark and deep and seething. It's like it doesn't belong to him.

"Yeah? And who said my needs aren't urgent?" Lanky shouts. He grabs Pedro by the shirt and slams his head against the wall. There's a sickening crack that makes Shouyou's blood turn icy cool. "Get the fuck out of here, Shrimpy. Pedro and I have something to settle first."

Shouyou's eyes track the trickle of red dribbling from Pedro's scalp. "He's bleeding," he says.

Lanky huffs at him. "What, you gonna cry over a little scratch, you slant-eyed bitch?" he says.

Shouyou meets Pedro's gaze, before he ambles towards them and punches Lanky in the jaw.

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

...

 

Tobio glances at the bland white walls, the glass cabinets, the vase filled with beautiful pink flowers. He then stares at Hinata's cheerful but exhausted face for almost a minute, and says through gritted teeth, "You fucking dumbass."

Hinata laughs, and the image of him quakes. He probably has his laptop propped on his belly. The webcam light blinks in a steady rhythm. "Hey, Kageyama. Is it nighttime there already?"

Tobio ignores that. "Who fucking told you it was a good idea to go around punching people? Are you part of a yakuza?" he shouts at the screen. "It was already a miracle you didn't break your fingers when you hit me! And now..." His throat tightens, not wanting to imagine all the other things that could've gone wrong in that fight. "You should've just let that guy handle it by himself."

"Pedro was bleeding, jeez. I couldn't just stand there!"

"Who gives a shit?"

"That's—that's evil, Kageyama!"

"Shut up! You of all people should know how important it is to take care of your body. Nobody said you should be using yourself as a shield."

Hinata's not smiling anymore. He shifts himself up and stares at Kageyama gravely. "Kageyama-kun, seriously. It's just a small fracture," he placates. "I don't need surgery or anything. I'm okay. I'll be—"

"Fuck you, Hinata," Tobio whispers hotly. "You don't get to fucking say anymore that I'm too full of myself to function, not with that reckless shit you pulled. You never thought you'd ever get hurt, did you? You never thought about how things would be when you go down? Have you ever spared a thought about the people you're with? Your teammates? Your family? You fucking don't, do you?"

"Kageyama..."

"You could've died, you selfish piece of shit! You could've—" Tobio snaps his mouth shut. He squints and turns his head away. "Don't tell me I'm overreacting. 'Cause I'm going to go there and strangle you if you do."

"I wasn't going to." Hinata's voice breaks at the end. It makes Tobio look up. "You know, I've got five to six weeks of no volleyball, Kageyama. Can't you cheer me up a bit?"

Tobio's vision goes a little blurry. Seriously, fuck this guy. "I'm not going to sing for you, if that's what you're thinking," he says stiffly.

Hinata laughs, and something hot and sharp lances through Tobio's chest, his rib cage tightening around his lungs. It hurts to breathe.

"No, jeez. I can't lose my hearing as well," Hinata says, flashing him a brittle smile. "Just tell me about your day. Is it really nighttime there already?"

Tobio exhales forcefully through the narrow gap between his lips. "It's midnight," he says. He doesn't have to look at the clock to know. Everything is so quiet, so dark and still.

"Oh. Do you need to sleep now? Do you have a match tomorrow?"

"No," Tobio lies to both questions. He settles back on his bed, putting his dad's laptop over his pillow. "What do you want to know?" he then asks, his heartbeat now settling into an easier, more comfortable rhythm. Breathing hurts less now.

Hinata grins fully now, and launches a multitude of questions.

 

~O~

 

October 10, 2014

 

Yoooo, Kageyama!

My right hand's healing up pretty nicely! The doctor said I broke some bone in my pinkie, but now it doesn't ache anymore whenever I try to spike the ball. The rehab specialist says I'm coming around faster than expected, which is amazing, right? I'm still keeping my movements light, though.

The past few weeks were crazy. I don't think I've ever encountered this much drama in my entire eighteen years of existence. Remember when I e-mailed you about the teachers deliberating about kicking me off the team for good? Well, the decision came in just now: I'll still be part of the team!!! And they won't give me any probation! My coach and our captain vouched for me that I wouldn't really resort to violence if I could. Then the board got into an epic argument with coach and Pedro's parents about how it was a shame that a private school had so many bullying cases, and that it's the school's job to stop it and stuff. I had to step out of the room after that, so I didn't hear much more about it.

Also, Pedro and I are super close now! He knows a lot of anime and manga, so when I was sick, he'd come and trade DVDs and comic books with me. And his parents were super nice! They offered to pay for my hospital bills, but my parents refused because it was entirely my fault I got myself into this mess. They still kept on sending me gifts. They got me all this volleyball training equipment. They must be well-off. Some of them are kinda expensive. I feel guilty taking them, but they insist every time.

I also felt really bad that I didn't get to play with my team for the indoor annual community tourney for our division (and it's my last year already, ugh!). But everything's looking up now! I'm still thinking about whether or not I should go to college. As long as I get to play lots of volleyball and make it to the Olympics, I don't really mind school.

Kageyama... I haven't really said, but I really wouldn't put myself in harm's way willingly. You know that, right? I've worked too hard to get to where I am just for some creeps to ruin it. I hope you're not angry anymore.

I know I'll always be short in this place where it's normal for guys to be around 180 cm tall. But all this time, I had other people with me. I have a team. I’m very lucky I have such great friends and partners who support me. Thanks to them, I'm able to see the view from the top! They always put themselves in the line of fire just for me. I seriously don't think I would've gotten this far without them.

Back in that parking lot, there was no one else. But I was the only one Pedro had. Someone who could stick up for him like my teammates have done for me. So I had to try, right?

If it was you right there, I would've done it, too. Even if we are rivals.

I just wanted you to know. I'll never get in a fight again, I promise. And I pledge not to use my awesome volleyball muscles against mere civilians for as long as I could!!!! :D

 

You super strong best friend with super fast regenerating ability,
Hinata Shouyou

 

...

 

December 16, 2014

 

Hinata,

Both of our school's gym's heaters are broken, so we're practicing more in the community training centers near Karasuno. We played against some alumni and a few neighborhood teams. The alumni are a little rusty, especially the ones who haven't played since high school. But their bodies are way more developed than ours. They hit faster and stronger. It was hard to eke out a win against them. But it was a good match. My control with my serves has gotten better. I had eight service aces that day. Are you working on your jump serve like I told you to?

Without Nishinoya-san and Matsuda-san for receiving, we're not as good as we used to on defense. Our new libero is a first-year. He's only started playing recently. He comes to me for advice even though I'm a setter.

It's weird being vice-captain. I've never been given a leadership post before. Not that I want to, either. I was just voted in. If only Yamaguchi could take both positions. I'm better suited as just a regular player, I think. People expect something more from captains and vice-captains, don't they? They call me a king, but I don't think kings make good leaders half the time. Our history teacher said so.

Takeda-sensei said that I'm the team's setter, and that's a leadership post. I can do whatever I want, but that's only on the court, isn't it? Off the court, what are leaders supposed to say?

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

...

 

January 4, 2015

 

Kageyama!

I think I'm doing well on blocking! I still need more practice, but I'm able to read the tosses from our opponents' setters better now! Bothast-sensei had me talk and practice a lot with a high-caliber libero who plays in collegiate volleyball from the United States, and he taught me a couple of tricks in reading the other team's offense. Apparently, blocking needs a lot of talking with the other players, so that when I jump in for a block, the backcourt could work their magic, too.

There's an upcoming regional tournament, but my team isn't participating, which sucks. A lot of the players are getting ready for the university entrance exam. I haven't studied anything yet. I tried once, but all I keep thinking about is playing more volleyball, and I get so hyped up I run to the beach and play with the locals instead. Natsu says I have a brain the size of a pea, and that I should forgo college altogether and look for other ways to play volleyball. I'm honestly considering it.

Also, Natsu sent you a gift! I think I mentioned to her once that you get cold easily like an old lady, and the next thing I knew, she's been accosting me to send you a letter already with this scarf she made for you. I'm extremely jealous. She's never knitted anything for me before. It's in black and orange (I think it's black, but she insists it's blackened blue. I don't get why they're not the same, but she says it's because there's some blue tint in it. I don't see it though). Those are Karasuno's colors, right?

She wants to be a fashion designer, so cheer on her, too, Kageyama-kun!

 

Your awesome best friend who's gonna have a famous younger sister,
Hinata Shouyou

 

~O~

Natori, Miyagi

 

...

 

Miwa flicks the report card to Tobio's side of the table. "Your grades are shitty," she says, tone wry. "No university in Tohoku will accept you, let alone in Tokyo."

Tobio takes the report card and places it over his lap.

"I guess this is added motivation for you to do well this coming Spring Interhigh. You need pro league teams to notice you, or all your plans are shot."

"Alright. I'll do that."

Miwa bobs her head. "You might do well in volleyball," she says. "But in the pros, the team you'll end up in will be asking more from you, sometimes more than what you want to offer. I'm sure you know that."

"I understand."

"Good. So take care of your appearance," Miwa intones. "Hair, face, everything. I'm not saying you should wear make-up, but if they need to put some on you, don't get too distressed over it. It's normal. You'll be on cameras a lot. Alright?"

Tobio's eyes widen, before nodding.

One side of Miwa's lips curls up. "Why did you cut your own hair?"

"O-oh." Tobio absently fiddles with the report card in his hands. "I saw you do it to yourself a lot of times, so I thought I could do it, too." His fringe has gotten so long that he couldn't see the ball as clearly, his bangs obstructing his line of vision like a thick curtain when he's on the move. Irritated, he got a pair of kitchen shears, stood in front of his bathroom mirror, and cut the annoying thing off. It did the job well enough, so Tobio isn't complaining.

Miwa barks out a surprised laugh. "You're lucky you didn't poke your eyes out," she says, before standing up to brew more coffee. "I already got my certification. So ask me next time, Tobio."

Though he has no idea why, Tobio flushes at that and ducks his head. "Yes."

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

...

 

There aren’t that many people in the Aterro when Shouyou arrives. A handful of yuppies and shirtless men and street kids litter the area, but there’s no crowd at this time of the night. He bikes through the cycle path, passing numerous, colorful quiosques. Palm trees and thin fences outline the concrete track, and the wind is harsh as it hits Shouyou's face when he speeds up. There’s a police car on the cross street, and the men in uniform lean on the hood, chattering lively to themselves.

Shouyou hits the brakes and sits on his usual spot, where he's got a great, unobstructed view of the moon above. It’s not quite full yet, but it’s giving off enough light for the bay underneath to glow in the darkness. The bench creaks when Shouyou adjusts himself and takes a swig from his water bottle.

He's been sitting for around thirty minutes, he figures, when his phone rings and vibrates in his pocket. He dips his socked toes in the sand when he sees the caller ID.

"Kageyama?" Shouyou says in alarm. "Did something happen?"

He hears nothing for a while, until Kageyama's voice crackles from his phone, "Nothing happened."

"Oh. Okay." Shouyou vibrates on his seat, itching to ask why Kageyama's calling. International calls are expensive as heck; he's sure, though, that Kageyama's aware of that. So he waits.

His patience is rewarded after half a minute of silence. "We lost today," Kageyama begins.

Oh. It's the second day of Spring Interhigh, according to Kageyama's e-mail. "Really? Against who?"

"Fukurodani Academy."

Shouyou licks his lips. This is Karasuno's earliest outing ever in nationals since Kageyama made the team. "Was it a good match?"

"Yeah. They've got new blood that were a cut above the rest. Two of them were in the U-17s."

"Must be annoying."

"Yeah."

Shouyou looks up at the starless night sky. The more he stares at it, the more forlorn he feels. So he settles his gaze back on the sand, or onto the great expanse of water before him, the waves hitting the shore with a calming thrum.

"I did my best," Kageyama utters.

"Of course."

"I gave everyone the best tosses."

"You wouldn't do anything less," Shouyou concurs. Losing just sucks.

Another beat of silence.

"A scout from the V. League approached me after the game," Kageyama says.

V. League? "Isn't that the professional league in Japan?" Shouyou says in amazement.

Kageyama grunts. A yes.

Shouyou stands up from his bench. "Is that for real?" he yells at the receiver. Some of the bystanders glance at him curiously.

There's a smile in Kageyama's voice when he says, "I wouldn't make this up, dumbass." He sounds a little smug, but mostly overjoyed.

Shouyou laughs out loud. "You turd," he spits. "You calling to gloat or something?"

"Yeah."

Shouyou lets out a whoosh of air as he sits back down. He grins widely at the skies this time. "Well, I'm not congratulating you, if that's what you want, Greedy-yama. Sorry for wasting your minutes."

Kageyama doesn't seem to mind that. "To the top of the world stage," he reminds Shouyou. "I'm getting closer. I win this time, too."

Shouyou's cheeks flush as his skin tingles with an unnameable emotion. He wants to hit Kageyama, and hug him tight until he can't breathe afterwards. It's a bit confusing. "I'll catch up," Shouyou says. "And beat you, no matter how long it takes."

Kageyama turns so quiet at that, and Shouyou thinks the line has already been cut. But then he checks his phone, and the call is still going.

"Kageyama?" he prompts.

No response again, until, "Where are you?"

"Oh." Shouyou purses his lips. "I'm on the beach near our place. Why?"

"I thought I heard the waves," Kageyama says. "I was right."

Shouyou wrinkles his nose in amusement. "Weirdo. I guess it's quiet enough out here tonight that you can hear it. What else were you listening out for?"

Kageyama then says, unexpectedly, "I'll go there. Wherever you are. Someday."

"Someday?" Shouyou mutters, shocked once again. "When we battle?"

Kageyama makes a strange noise. "On a regular day," he says.

"Alright," Shouyou says. There's a lot of stuff he wants to say, but he holds his tongue. Maybe when they were both younger, Shouyou wouldn't be hesitating so much. But he's only a few months away from being nineteen—he’s grown, a lot more than he expected he would, and Kageyama had witnessed it every step of the way.

Here in Rio, the days have become a lot shorter. When Shouyou awoke from an afternoon nap earlier, he saw that it was completely dark out. So he left his apartment and biked through the neighborhood, wanting to dispel the bouts of loneliness that come once in a while.

It's hard to tell from the many faces he passes in the lively streets, whether what he's feeling is what they're experiencing, too. It wouldn't be polite to ask.

Are you lonely, too, Kageyama? Maybe before, it's a question Shouyou can ask. Maybe it's something he can ask in their letters.

But it's hard to say out loud. Perhaps if he speaks of it, it'll come true. Shouyou doesn't want Kageyama to be lonely.

"I have to go," Kageyama says. "We'll be getting on the bus in a few minutes."

"Take care, your majesty," Shouyou says. "Keep your ears warm."

"Goodnight, Hinata," Kageyama says, very softly. The line clicks off, and all Shouyou hears is the sound of the waves.

 

~O~

 

May 16, 2015

 

Hinata,

I didn't move away from home, since the Adlers is based in Sendai. I got lucky. I have some stuff in our house that I don't know how to bring with me if I ever have to move away.

You and your family, you like traveling. I don't think I like it as much. I guess that's what surprised me the most about this. I thought all the media work I have to do would be what I'd dislike the most, but it doesn't bother me as much. But when there's an away game, I'd sometimes feel a little queasy. Maybe it's because I've never liked being in airports.

Miwa-san told me I got lost in Sendai International once when I was five. I don't remember the details. The personnel lost track of one of our baggage, and my parents had to sort that out. When they were done, they couldn't find me anywhere. Miwa said I sat next to a customer service clerk and waited for three hours until they got to me.

But I don't think that's the reason since I can't really remember. I think it's because a lot of people cry at airports. I've only been with the Adlers for one month, but I think I've already passed four couples and families crying with each other as I went through security. Crying people don't make me uncomfortable. But seeing them in airports do. I don't know why.

When I'm on a plane, my insides feel weird. Like it's heavier. Not poop-heavy. But something else. All I want is to get back on the ground as soon as possible.

Our team captain said it's just something I'm going to get used to. I'll still go to Rio, or wherever you're going to be.

I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I just felt like writing that down. Sorry. I don't understand what I'm thinking sometimes. Whenever my head feels too full, I just write to you, and I feel better. Maybe it's because I know your brain has too much space. You could afford to share some of my thoughts.

Good luck with the upcoming beach circuit.

 

Your friend,
Kageyama Tobio

 

...

 

July 3, 2015

 

Kageyama,

I'm not going to university. I'm going to train under Lucio-sensei and Bothast-sensei for beach and indoor. I'm going to have to spend some time in São Paulo for at least two weeks every other month. The commute is going to be brutal, for sure. I wouldn't be able to handle that and study, so I'm not going.

Mom's a little worried. She said that I'd be the first person in the Sasaki clan who wouldn't be getting a college education, but I assured her that it'll be fine! Besides, can you imagine me as a university student? The apocalypse would be upon us, if that ever happened!!! I'm man enough to admit that I won't ever get better in academics. And I've struggled already with enough Math and English as it is.

It's super duper cool, though! I get to play with lotsa strong players! Not that I hadn't been playing with strong players, but they're just fwaaammmm!!! One of them wants to be a pro player, too, and he's an exchange student from France! He knows a little Portuguese, so we can communicate a bit, but I'm trying to learn French so we can speak more. Man, French is really hard, though. It's like I have to talk with something stuck up my nose.

 

Your coolest, multilingual friend ever ; )
Hinata Shouyou

 

~O~

Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro

 

...

 

"Knock, knock."

Shouyou jerks back, and he hits his head on the bed frame, the volleyball rolling away on the floor. His parents guffaw by the doorway.

"No wonder we haven't heard a peep from you all day," Mother says. "You're practicing in bed now, lil' carrot?"

"I need to keep at it. Touching and tossing the ball, I mean. I'm still not that good at setting." Shouyou pouts. "And I'm not little anymore."

"I'm not taking a shot at your height, sweetie." Mother's face then turns somber. She sits on Shouyou's bed while Father draws Shouyou's desk chair.

Shouyou shuffles and brings himself up. "Is there something wrong?" He then notices the folder with a stack of documents inside. "What's that?"

Mother and Father glance at each other, before Father says, "There's something we need to discuss, Shouyou."

 

~O~

 

From: Hinata Shouyou
To: Kageyama Tobio
Subject: Are you there?

Kageyama,

My parents just talked to me about my citizenship. My parents are still Japanese nationals. They applied for this Brazilian permanent resident thingy when they decided to live here for work. Since I have Japanese parents, I'm still a Japanese citizen. But the law here also says that since I was born here in Rio, I'm Brazilian, too. I don't understand why, but that's just how it works, apparently. So I'm kind of like both, you know? Like a dual katana wielder, which sounds pretty frickin' awesome!

But when I turn 21, I have to decide whether I'm still gonna keep my Japanese citizenship or give it up. I can't have both. Dad says I won't get my Japanese citizenship back if I choose Brazil and then change my mind in the future. And if I ever wanted to live in Japan, it would be hard to get that permanent resident stuff.

Then Dad says he looked into the volleyball leagues in both Brazil and Japan, and he said that my chances of making it here in the pro leagues in Brazil are "pretty slim". He was honest about it, which I guess is nice.

And then Mom says something about it being difficult for me to live and work in Japan, too, since I lived here in Rio for so much of my life already. "The people there are nice and polite, but they can be really close-minded at times" is what she said. Both options wouldn't be easy.

Sorry. I didn't mean to dump this all on you. You must be getting ready for a game at this hour.

I still have two more years to decide what I should choose, yeah? But what if it's too late for me, and I lose my window to go pro?

I guess I'll have to do a lot of thinking for this one. Anyway, thanks for hearing me out.

 

Your very confused (but still awesome) friend,
Hinata Shouyou

 

 

...

From: Kageyama Tobio
To: Hinata Shouyou
Subject: re: Are you there?

Can I come see you?