The silverette was sure that there wasn't going to be anyone using the indoor court at this timing. It was half past nine on a Sunday night and people normally wouldn't be around in the public stadium this late, at least as far as he knew. But then he heard the familiar sound of ball hitting the wooden floor as he and his junior approached hall, and he knew he was in for a surprise.
Standing on the court was Karasuno's number twelve, clad in a plain dark green t-shirt and a pair of black shorts. It seemed like he was practising his serves alone, judging from the lack of company. Semi couldn't remember the teen's name, but he was intrigued enough by his jump float serves in the last Spring match, despite being called into the court only when his team was in a pinch, to ever forget how he looked like. Besides, it was only natural for him to keep an out for an opponent who is also a pinch server like him.
He stood at the entrance silently and watched as the green-haired boy served again and again. Everytime the ball hit the bottle at the other end of the court, the freckled boy would light up in satisfaction and skip across to retrieve the ball. Aside from his amazement at how well the Karasuno player was able to maneuver the ball with his serves, it was frustrating to watch him move across the court to and fro between every serve. Which made him wonder, why was he practising alone? With nothing but a ball and sheer determination as his fuel?
"Semi-san, should we look for some other place?" Goshiki asked, adjusting the volleyball bag resting on his shoulder. Semi had promised him to toss him some balls tonight so that he could practise on his spikes. Even though the third-year setter had no plans on pursuing volleyball after he graduated from high school, with a little persuation, he was willing to help him with his practise. Goshiki usually practised with Shirabu and Taichi at their school indoor court, but they had schoolwork to be completed. That and because they didn't want to risk getting caught sneaking out of their dormitory late at night for practice.
"Do you recognise him?"
"Hm?" Goshiki leaned in and took a closer look at the lone boy in the court. His eyes lit up in recognition. "Oh, yeah... He's the pinch server from Karasuno, right? The one with the jump float serve?"
"Yes. Come on, let's ask if we can join him."
In an instant, a look of reluctance flashed across the first-year's face. He opened his mouth to object, but the words disintegrated at the tip of his tongue when his senior gave him a knowing glare. He pursed his lips together and frowned, seemingly angry at himself as his mind flew back to the small confrontation he had with Shirabu during the training camp.
"I don't know about asking my rival for help..."
"Rival? What are you talking about? You should probably get rid of that unnecessary pride."
Semi walked into the hall first. Like a little duckling following its mother, Goshiki trailed after his senior quietly and obediently, not making anymore protests despite not feeling up to practising with a player from another school. Was he really that prideful? Was he too conscious about letting his rivals see his mistakes and weaknesses? The unnecessary desire to only display strength and power in front of those he will fight against in the court.
He told himself all the time that it was not so much a matter of pride than his underwhelming performance whenever he practiced in the presence of a player from a different school. Even back then in the training camp, he though that he could've done better if not for the analytical looks the others gave him for every movement he made. But was he wrong? Was it really just pride afterall, like Shirabu had told him?
It didn't take long for the Karasuno player to notice them making their way towards him. He jumped a little, a surprised squeak escaping from his throat and the ball in his hands falling out of his grip, rolling away slowly towards the pair of newcomers.
"Sorry for scaring you and interrupting your momentum." The third-year setter bent down and picked the ball up, spinning it in his hands before handing it back to the owner. The said owner only took it back with trembling hands and nodded. "We just wanted to ask if you would like to practise with us."
"Oh- um... sure..."
They noticed his hesitation and uncertainty. Semi figured that he was only shy and brushed it off. "Nice. So, um... what position do you play?"
He smiled. "Perfect. I play setter and Goshiki here is a wing spiker."
"Soon-to-be ace." Goshiki chimed in proudly.
"Yes. But anyway, this is perfect, isn't it? We have a setter, a wing spiker and a middle blocker. With my tosses, Goshiki can on his spikes and you can practise on your blocks."
The two first-years exchanged glances, excitement sparkled in Goshiki's eyes as he prepared himself to show off his skills whereas the other had slight discomfort flashing in his.
"Alright, Goshiki, go do some quick warm-up while I help..." Semi trailed off and looked at the middle blocker for help.
"Y-Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi Tadashi..."
"...while I help Yamaguchi with his serves."
Goshiki nodded, setting the volleyball bag on the floor. He then ran over to one side of the hall and started doing jumping jacks and some stretching. Likewise, Semi did a few stretches before he kneeled down, unzipped the bag and took out a few balls. He arranged them next to the net and stood up. "I'm Semi, by the way. Semi Eita. But you can just call me Semi."
Yamaguchi nodded. He clutched the ball in his hands tighter, completely overwhelmed by the unexpected company. Never in a million years did he thought of practising with volleyball players from a different school. Tsukishima had shared with him his experience going to Shiratorizawa for the first-years' training camp, the camp that was meant only for the best first years in the prefecture. And there he was, standing in the same side of the court with not only one but two of them.
He watched as Semi jogged over to the other side of the court and got into a receiving stance. "Whenever you're ready."
Yamaguchi nodded and got into position behind the line. He close his eyes and took a deep breath as he tried to calm himself down and bring his wandering mind back to the court. He then opened his eyes, tossed the ball upwards and hit it.
He thought the serve was not bad. It felt good in his palm, but there was a loose spin in it. The ball was not changing direction like it was supposed to and Semi received it with ease.
"That was good, but I want to see the ones that you did in our match."
Yamaguchi nodded and picked up another ball. Even though he didn't let it show, he was actually surprised that Semi had been paying attention to his serves during their game. The fact that his opponent wanted to receive his serves. He felt flattered just thinking about it. There was a familiar feeling swelling in his chest and the next thing he knew, he wanted to impress the third-year Shiratorizawa setter.
He took another deep breath, once again trying to compose himself and concentrate on the ball. He tossed the ball up and hit it. But he hit it a little too hard this time and the ball went out of the court, right past Semi's outstretched arms. He tried again and again, but the ball somehow didn't seem to want to work with him this time. How lame. He suddenly lost his ability to do the jump float serves in front of the one person he wanted to impress at that moment.
"Is there something wrong, Yamaguchi? You seem so tensed and out of focus." Semi was already heading over towards him. Only when the third-year stood face-to-face with him that he realised they were about the same height. And yet, Semi felt a lot bigger, stronger and far more charismatic than he is. "You were doing so well before Goshiki and I joined in."
"A-Ah, it's nothing... I just tend to mess up when people are watching me." He looked to the side, already starting to feel intimidate by the older teen.
"I see. Goshiki's like that too." He turned to look at the boy in question as he reminisced the past trainings they had together, lips curving into a small smile. "He keeps saying how he feels pressured when everyone's attention is on him during training. But when the real match comes, I think he does just fine."
Yamaguchi nodded. "He played well in the finals."
"Yes, but he can be better." He turned back to Yamaguchi. "Want to try again?"
Yamaguchi spent the next fifteen minutes trying to get his serves right. Each time he failed, a tiny part inside him died. Goshiki ended up joining Semi at the other side as soon as he was done with his warm-up. Together they received all of Yamaguchi's serves. Regardless of whether or not his jump float serve had been successful, Yamaguchi would then quickly got into a defense position and tried to block the ball from entering his territory.
It was difficult and exhausting to run around on his own with no one to depend on, but it was exhilarating. The whole side of the court belonged to him alone and it felt like he was in a real match, executing a one-man serve and block move he had been working hard on with Tsukishima. He would do anything to keep the ball in the air, even if he ran out of breath.
They spent another forty-five minutes on the court until Yamaguchi risked his finger trying to stop a particularly hard spike from Goshiki. It ended up being a one touch and the ball bounced off his middle finger, bending it at an inhuman angle.
"Did you see that?!" Goshiki exclaimed, looking around to see if Semi and Yamaguchi had witnessed the amazing spike. The proud smile on his face vanished as soon as he laid his eyes on Yamaguchi. The middle blocker was gripping his finger with his other hand.
Semi went over to examine his finger and Goshiki followed. "What's wrong?"
"O-Oh, it's nothing. Just a little..." He showed the torn skin between his middle and ring finger, blood slightly oozing from the wound.
Goshiki winced at the sight. He knew full well that he was to be blamed for Yamaguchi's injury. Hurting someone was the last thing he wanted, and to think he just hurt someone he'd practised with for the first time.
"Boys, it's past the closing hours already. Please pack up and leave, I need to lock the doors now." A middle-aged man, donned in a security guard uniform, appeared at the entrance. The keys were jiggling in his hand and he was tapping his foot in annoyance.
Semi nodded at the security guard, gestured that they'll leave very soon and then turned to Goshiki. "Take him to the washroom and wash the blood off. I'll pack our stuff and wait outside."
Neither first-years waited a moment longer. They immediately walked out of the hall and headed for the men's public washroom while Semi picked up all the balls and bottles.
They walked side by side down the dark and empty corridors. The lights had been switched off and the only source of illumination was the moonlight. Neither spoke; Goshiki because he felt terribly guilty for injuring the middle blocker's finger, and Yamaguchi because he was too shy and nervous to initiate a conversation with the wing spiker. And as the seconds went by quietly, the pressure to talk was starting to bear them down.
Goshiki sneaked a few glances at Yamaguchi and his hand. The blood on his torn skin had dried and he was lightly rubbing on it. The Karasuno player didn't show it on his face, but Goshiki knew that he was holding in the pain.
"I'm sorry about your finger..." Goshiki finally spoke up.
"I-It's fine... It doesn't hurt as much as it looks." Another long minute of silence fell upon them again before Yamaguchi decided to break it once and for all. "It reminds of when my friend, Tsukki, almost got his fingers ripped off trying to block one of Ushijima-san's spike."
When he noticed Goshiki giving him a puzzled look, he continued. "The tall, blond middle blocker with glasses... Remember him?"
Goshiki's face turned sour as he remembered the player who stopped Ushijima's spike. "Oh, him..."
"Yeah..." Yamaguchi looked down at his hand, a small smile forming on his lips.
"Even with blood dripping down my hand, I still wanted to continue practising. A small injury like this could never stop me from blocking more spikes even though I know it will hurt more every time I stop them." He paused for a moment, searching himself for what to say next. "I've never gotten myself injured before so I've always wondered how others are so determined to continue even when they're hurt. But now I know... this is probably how Tsukki felt when he blocked Ushijima's spike. Thank you, Goshiki-kun."
Goshiki had no idea how to respond to that. The whole speech had been inspiring in a way, but did he seriously just thanked him for the injury? And did he just compare his spike with that of Ushijima? Was that an implication that his spike was just as good as Ushijima's? He knew that couldn't be true, at least not yet. But to be compared with the one person he's determined to defeat in a positive way felt really good and he could himself brimming with pride.
"Just Goshiki is fine! And of course- I'm going to be Shiratorizawa's future ace, afterall. I'm going to be as good as Ushijima-san."
Yamaguchi smiled, instantaneously recalling what Semi had said to him. "I think you can be better than him."
To be acknowledged and complimented by a rival. Goshiki was overflowing with pride that night.
"You can be better too, so train hard. I might just break all your fingers when we compete for real in the next InterHigh."
The first thing Goshiki did as soon as he stepped into his dormitory was to fish out his mobile phone and scroll through his contact list.
After they had rinsed the blood off Yamaguchi's wound, they went out of the stadium to meet up with Semi. They walked together until they had to go separate ways eventually; Semi and Goshiki back to their dormitories, and Yamaguchi back home. Along the way, they talked about how the practice had been really meaningful and effective for both of the first-years years, as well as exchanging numbers so that they could remain contacted.
Semi told them that he most likely wouldn't be able to help them with practice anymore after he graduated and that they should probably look for someone else to practise with them, if they planned to continue with this late night practice. After that night's practice with Yamaguchi, Goshiki knew that he couldn't just settle on any of his second-year seniors. He never thought that he would one day wish to practise with his rivals, but there he was lying on his bed as he tried his hardest to remember anyone he knew from another school.
And as if his efforts had been heard and valued, his eyes caught the contact name he had long forgotten about.
Wasn't that the very tall player from Date Tech who had an odd tuft of dyed bangs? The one who had eagerly asked him for his number at the end of the training camp? Didn't he say that he was a setter in his team? His eyes flashed in excitement and hope.
"I don't know about asking my rival for help..."
Now he was sure about asking his rivals for help.
He scrolled down further until he found the name that he wanted to see.
He was too proud to admit that he had forgotten Yamaguchi's name and decided to settle on that alias for his contact name. He tapped on the name, opened up a new chat and typed out a short message.
Sunday, 23 March, 11:15pm
Goshiki T. : Hello, have you reached home yet?"
Yamaguchi T. : Yes, have you?
Goshiki T. : Yeah.
Goshiki T. : The Nationals start next month, right?
Yamaguchi T. : Yeah... I'm so nervous about it, haha...
Goshiki T. : I'm sure your team will do great. All the best!
Yamaguchi T. : Aw, thank you! I'll deliver your message to my team! :)
Goshiki T. : Please don't.
Goshiki T. : Anyway, about the practice next Sunday... I found someone who can set for us.
Yamaguchi T. : Oooh, who is it?
Goshiki T. : Hold on, I'll add him here.
[Goshiki T. added Koganegawa K. into the chat.]