Santiago, always the quickest on the uptake, is the first to spot the man of the hour. He grabs Mateo by the sleeve, reels him in, and hisses, “Nine o’clock, with the short orange dude,” in a valiant attempt at a clandestine whisper that nonetheless rings in a few decibels higher than normal conversational volume. Without glancing up from his phone Javier makes a turn the volume dial down gesture in their general direction and Santiago flushes and mouths sorry! Considering that Javier isn’t actually looking at them, Mateo isn’t too sure who exactly was supposed to be the recipient of the apology, but it’s not his problem.
“Who the hell…” Mateo’s scan over the plaza snags first on a vibrant head of orange hair, then on the taller figure beside him. Broad shoulders, spiky dark hair, polo tee. Face in profile, something about it banging on the front door of his memory. The key, where is it? Fumble, then it clicks into place— “Holy fuck! Is that Iwachan? The Iwachan?”
Everyone on the team knows of the fabled Iwachan, Tooru’s childhood best friend slash high school teammate slash something nebulous none of them had quite managed to pry out of Tooru even after three rounds of Argentinian liquor during a team bonding night. The name slips out of him in offhand anecdotes embroidering the edges of his life, main star of its colourful recurring cast. Iwachan used to collect cicada skins with him when they were kids. Iwachan used to headbutt him in front of all their juniors, how mean! Iwachan used to be their school’s arm-wrestling champion. All these slivers of mundane memories, handful of a previous existence. Tooru is not in any way furtive about his life in Japan, but he isn’t necessarily forthcoming about the details either. And Mateo isn’t a nosy guy; he can respect that Tooru wants some separation between his past and his present, it’s just that Tooru is so controlled in nearly every other aspect, so that soft and open unguardedness that shows its face whenever he talks about Iwachan strikes Mateo harder. He can’t help but wonder what kind of person exerts such a hold over their powerhouse setter from tens of thousands of kilometres away. Or, as it looks like, from five metres away.
The two men stop in front of the ATM near the bench they’ve staked out and in unspoken assent Santiago and Mateo lean a little further to the left, squinting against the sun to make out Potentially Iwachan’s nametag like a pair of middle-schoolers trying to catch a glimpse of their crush without getting caught in the act. The orange one rocks forward on his feet, frenetic with energy—same type as Santiago. Always has to keep moving.
“Iwaizumi Hajime,” Santiago sounds out. Those damn telescope eyes. “Huh. I thought his name was Iwachan?”
“Is it the wrong guy?” Mateo narrows his eyes. “No, that’s definitely him, that’s the dude from Tooru’s homescreen… is it?”
“Only one way to find out!” Santiago says cheerfully.
“What?” Javier’s head snaps up in alarm, probably a conditioned response to that particular tone of Santiago's voice. “Wait, don't—”
“HI IWACHAN,” Santiago hollers, waving with both arms.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Mateo mutters to himself. Then he takes a breath, and yells, “HEY! IWACHAN! OVER HERE!”
Probably Iwachan and Bouncy And Orange swivel around in tandem. Eyes widen, jaws drop. It dawns on Mateo what they look like: two random men of unknown origin in blue track jackets shouting unhingedly in their direction. Thankfully, before the situation nosedives entirely off the precipices of direness, Almost Certainly Iwachan recovers. “… Argentina?”
At that, Human Embodiment Of Fanta Naranja lights up. Like, there are actual sparkles in his irises, how the fuck does he do it? Mateo’s momentarily too dazed to respond. “Oikawa-san!” the guy exclaims. Then in English: “Um… is he here?”
“Tooru’s with some of our other teammates,” Mateo says. Maybe he should be glad Tomás managed to unglue himself from Santiago long enough to head out with Tooru, because somehow the only Japanese Tomás has picked up is I love you and that would certainly have made for an even more interesting first impression. “We could call him?”
“Ah… no need! We’ll see him soon,” Miniature Sun burbles.
“Hey,” Javier says, shooting out of his chair, phone now forgotten. “It’s the guy Toto ditched us for the time we went to Rio on holiday!” He switches into animated Portuguese, to which Baby Berocca eagerly responds in kind, and while Mateo can usually follow along with rudimentary levels of comprehension he’s got bigger fish to fry right now.
To everyone’s delight, Iwachan has a decent grasp on conversational Spanish. With a jury-rigged vocabulary of Spanish, English, and enthusiastic gesturing, conversation stumbles haphazardly forth. His name is not, in fact, Iwachan, but Hajime. He’s here as Team Japan’s athletic trainer. “So what do you play?” he asks.
“Outside hitter,” Mateo says.
“I’m an opposite hitter!” Santiago chimes in.
“The aces, huh?” Hajime says, cracking a smile. Memory like a cameraflash: 4 on a shirtfront, the parabolic arc of a ball from one person’s fingertips to another’s palm.
“Guess so,” Mateo says. Careful. They’re skirting the edges of uncharted waters now, tectonic shriek of the past and the present coming up against each other.
But Hajime only nods, simple acceptance. An ease in the way he holds himself, backgrounded by the sizzling blue of the midmorning sky. If there’s anything there he’s made peace with it. Hesperidina Shot peels away from Javier and says something in Japanese to Hajime.
“We better get going,” Hajime says. “Our team’s waiting for us.”
“Sure, we’ll see you around,” Mateo says. “It was good to finally get to meet you! Tooru talks a lot about you, you know.”
“Does he?” A startled colour to the words.
“Why are you surprised?” Santiago says, peering curiously at him. “You’re best friends, aren’t you?”
Hajime’s expression goes distant. It reminds Mateo a little of how quiet Santiago gets after a loss. You didn’t expect it from him, the almost uncanny stillness, how his focus inverted itself, but he’s the type to hoard defeats close to the chest. So is Tooru, though. Mateo and the others—they curse, they yell, they go a couple hours in the gym to burn off the frustration. And Tooru seethes like the best of them, only there’s an eye to his storm. A hurricane bluster wrapping up a remote and lethal calm. Santiago and Tooru, turning their losses over like pearls, one more layer smoothing over the luminous centre so the next time they stand on the court they’re a little tougher, a little more whole.
Whatever Hajime is turning over, it hasn’t emerged just yet. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “We are.”
Apparently the entire Japanese team is made up of people who were either directly or indirectly Tooru’s high school rivals. “That’s actually kind of impressive, if you think about it,” Mateo points out at lunch. Tooru is at the buffet table piling tiny glazed bread rolls onto his plate—Mateo snagged one off Santiago earlier; they’re a bit like pan de leche, so definitely not dietician-approved, but whatever. They’re at the Olympics, they can indulge if they want. “I feel like most people never even get a single high school rival at all. Did you? I didn’t.”
“We had rival schools,” Tomás says thoughtfully. “Could probably still name a few of the aces. And Santiago, of course.” Santiago bobs his head genially, because he really is a once-in-a-century type of player. It’d be more infuriating if he demurred, so Mateo lets him off with a gentle elbow. “But personal rivals? I don’t think so. Not with the, like, passionate metaphorical monologues that Toto made it sound like they were nonstop firing off at each other.”
“High school volleyball in Japan must be crazy intense,” Mateo says. “What’s an indirect rival, anyway?”
“Like… the rival of your rival, maybe?” Tomás suggests. “Rival-in-law?”
“Wait, what’s that thing people say—enemy of my enemy is my friend? Uh… rival of my rival?”
“Not in volleyball,” Tomás says. “Only rivals! No friends.” He high-fives Santiago.
“Now, now, kids,” comes Tooru’s light voice as he swans towards them, carb/sugar grenade in hand. “Are we not getting along?”
Tomás and Santiago are the youngest players on the team, part of the same generation, though by some accident of luck of the tournament draw they’d never managed to go head-to-head before they both qualified for U21s, then both got snapped up by La Unión, neatly sidestepping the issue of rivalry altogether. Usually Mateo and Javier get stuck with babysitting duty by virtue of Javier having actual kids, and Santiago having imprinted on Mateo like a duckling. Tooru hangs around because he hangs around everyone. Setter thing, probably.
“I’m not a kid,” Santiago protests, pretending that he isn’t preening under the heatlamp of Tooru’s attention.
“Anyway, I can’t believe you met Iwachan and didn’t even message me,” Tomás grouses. “I wanted to meet him too!”
Tooru goes very still. “You met Iwachan?”
“Yeah, in the Athlete’s Plaza while you guys were scoping out lunch,” Mateo says. He takes a meditative slurp of his green juice. “He’s the athletic trainer for Team Japan, he was with this little orange dude. How come you never told us his name isn’t actually Iwachan?”
“What?” Tomás says. “Then what’s his name?”
“Hajime,” Tooru says faintly. He blinks, once, twice. Then, increasingly heated: “The fucker! He didn’t tell me! How could he not tell me he was coming to the Olympics? What the fuck!” He draws a hand down his face, hiding his expression from view.
Santiago glances uncertainly at Mateo. “Surprise?” he offers.
Tooru’s shoulders shake. The hand drops. He’s laughing, Mateo realises. Uncontainable mirth tipping his head back, wicking the tension out of the air. “The national team, huh,” Tooru says, seemingly to himself. “We both made it here.” Curlicues of delight blooming like the infusion of yerba into hot water. “Feels like a dream.”
There really is something childishly indulgent about the idea of a national team, the complex topography of interclub enmities leveled out for an all-stars collaboration. This is Mateo’s second Olympics on the roster and it’s still like a mouthful of soft sweet bread, the unexpected thrill of a condensed milk cream centre, knowing he’s surrounded by giants, the best of the best. He doesn’t think about it often, but Tooru’s openhearted relish pulls the feeling out of him again.
“We told him you talk about him all the time,” Mateo says.
“What! I most certainly do not—”
“Well, he seemed pretty happy to hear it,” Mateo says. Patiently, he watches the conflicting impulses of denial and gratification battle it out across Tooru’s face, waiting for it—and there! Tooru’s shoulders slump, pink glittering over the tops of his cheekbones.
“Ugh,” Tooru says. “Fine, okay, maybe so—”
“Speak of the devil,” Tomás says. “Check out who just walked into the dining hall.”
Mateo twists around. None other than what must be the Japanese volleyball team are filing through the door. Mateo makes uncomfortable accidental eye contact with the one with wavy bangs, who regards him flatly, though it’s difficult to parse out much of his expression given that the majority of it is hidden behind a facemask. Swiftly, Mateo looks away. A smirking blond built like an artillery tower has an arm draped over the shoulders of Tiny Orange Guy from earlier, who notices them, visibly double-takes, and waves.
Then he’s beelining towards them, flanked by two stone-faced teammates, who together create the world’s most impassive retinue. It’s as if they’re operating on a strict quota of expression shared among the three of them and Vitamin C Supplement has used it all up. “Oikawa-san!” he cries, and basically hurtles into Tooru’s open arms.
“Hi, Shouyou!” Tooru says, sweeping him into an embrace and pillowing his cheek against Shouyou’s hair.
Mateo looks at the two bodyguard-esque men. They look back at him. The larger and incrementally more stoic one says, in careful English, “Oikawa Tooru was an esteemed competitor of mine in high school. We came to greet him.”
“Friends of Tooru’s are friends of ours!” Tomás says. “Rivals of Tooru’s are friends of ours? Give me a second…”
So it turns out that these three in particular were Tooru’s direct high school rivals—two of them were even Tooru’s middle school rivals, which is genuinely amazing. Mateo doesn’t think he was conscious during middle school.
“How’d you guys all already find each other,” says a voice, newly familiar, and Tooru whips around so fast Mateo’s neck twinges in sympathy.
And there's Hajime again, emerging from behind Centre Part Middle School Rival's shoulder. The pulse of held-breath silence that follows is excruciating. Then Tooru says, quietly, “Iwachan…”
The much-anticipated reunion is, in the end, startling in its simplicity. They walk up to each other. They exchange a few words in Japanese, and Hajime laughs. Tooru punches Hajime on the upper arm; at the same time, Hajime cups a hand over Tooru’s other elbow, like completing a circuit. Tooru shakes his head, eyes shuttering on a smile, and then they step apart.
Hajime’s gaze finally catches on Mateo, and he lifts a hand in recognition. “That was quick,” Mateo says, as Hajime draws nearer. “Was sort of expecting more, hmm…” He gestures. “Fireworks. You know how Tooru is.”
“We’ll talk more later,” Hajime says. A fond uptick to his lips. “And you don’t even know the start of it. The way he was back in high school—damn impossible to handle.”
Tomás pretends to shudder. Mateo chuckles. “I can only imagine. Why didn’t you tell him you were here with the Japanese team?”
“Thought I’d surprise him,” Hajime says, mischievous lilt. “I wanted to see his face when he realised.”
“Tomás did let the cat out of the bag a little early,” Mateo says apologetically. “His face was incredible, though, rest assured.”
Santiago adds, “If we’d known your plans I totally would’ve snapped a photo for you.”
“He’s taking care of himself, yeah?” Hajime says. Over at the other end of the table Tooru has reentangled himself with Shouyou and is engaged in conversation with Javier and the rivals. Setters, always forging connections.
“Don’t you guys talk?” Tomás says.
A shrug. “Habit,” Hajime says. “It is my job to look after athletes.”
“He’s not on your team, though,” Santiago points out, the embers of his ever-dependable competitive nerve flaring up. “He’s ours.”
Hajime snorts. “He’s always going to be my job,” he says.
Physically, Mateo is maintaining a pleasantly neutral expression. Mentally, his eyebrows have rocketed clean off his face. “Yeah, he’s good,” he says. “Real conscientious about managing his health. We all are, we’ve got to be.”
“He used to try to do everything himself, the idiot,” Hajime says. Almost wistful. “Glad he’s still got a team he can count on.”
The only Tooru Mateo knows is the one so settled in his own skin it ripples outwards from him like water displaced by a stone, imparting some of that assurance to every other player on his side of the court. Not complacency, just self-knowledge, completed. But Mateo’s been a teenager and not even that long ago, thank you Santiago; it's easy to summon up the way it felt like you were standing right over a faultline and the slightest tremor would send your sense of self crumbling to pieces.
A few hours into team bonding night they’d started pulling up old high school match footage, ribbing one another over the younger and more unrefined images of themselves onscreen. Shaky-cam montage of Santiago's killer straights, scored to earsplitting hoots from his friends wielding the phone. Javier’s elegant floaters making hairpin swerves as they barrelled through the air. Tomás flicking the ball back up with his typical casualness bordering on arrogance. And the last toss of Tooru’s high school volleyball career, not to either of the spikers nearest to him, but to his #4 on the other side of the court. Hail Mary type of move shaped out of desperation, but the thing was, the play was technically faultless. Gorgeous toss, gorgeous spike, textbook stuff. You opened the dictionary to set (volleyball) and this was what you'd see. Mateo's palms itched with envy.
“No signs,” Santiago mumbled. “The fuck…? How’d he know?”
That incredible faith. It'd knocked the breath clean out of Mateo's chest, though it'd turned out to be the wrong call. Somehow the other team had known it was coming and then it was over for Tooru's team. The video cut off.
“Fuck, dude,” Mateo said fervently, into the ensuing pause. “That was a fantastic toss. Shame it didn’t work out.”
“It was perfect,” Tooru agreed, and knocked back the rest of his glass.
The Tooru Hajime knows both is and isn’t the same. Which does Hajime see, when he looks at Tooru in Argentina blue? The boy of his shared childhood, a stranger, something inhabiting neither space? Mateo sticks his hands into his tracksuit pockets. “You tell him that?”
The set of Hajime’s shoulders snaps taut as a tripwire. “I’m sure he knows already.”
There’s an instability there, crime scene under the blacklight of his spiker’s instinct, but this isn’t the court. And this is what Hajime must have repurposed his own for, too, the process of pressing for sore spots and shoring them up instead, the setting of a bone and not the breaking. “Still,” Mateo says gently. “It’s good to hear things even if you already know them. It's good to hear someone else say them.”
He considers Hajime, the brittle structure of his discontent. The things he won’t say to Tooru but will say to the person who stepped into the space he used to occupy. My job, as if it were an obligation and not something he’d chosen to undertake and kept choosing, quietly, like any alternative was unthinkable. They both know what it is to be an ace directed by Tooru Oikawa; there’s a thread there, some gradation of blue, that lies loosely between them.
Mateo takes hold of one end and casts the other out like a rope into the uncertain deep. “Hey,” he says. “Feel like a game?”
“I haven’t played in ten years and you guys are Olympics-level athletes,” Hajime says, straightening up out of a hamstring stretch. “Anyone else seeing a problem with this?”
With the assistance of Santiago’s phone and Hajime’s navigational prowess, they’ve made their way to the nearest volleyball court, ensconced high up in the third level of one of the indoor training facilities. Mateo scuffs the tip of his shoe against the flooring, an acidic chlorinated blue fuzzy with paler splotches of reflected light. “Relax, man,” he drawls. “We won’t go all out, this is just for fun.”
“Plus, we gotta save some moves for the actual match,” Tomás adds, with a wink. “Can’t give everything away so fast!”
“We’ll go two on two like beach volleyball,” Santiago says. “But without the sand and the hot babes, sadly.”
“I resent the implication that I am not a hot babe,” Tomás says.
Mateo rolls his eyes. “Everyone warmed up? Isabella’ll have our heads if we pull something right before an Olympics match—”
“Starting a match with my best friend without me?” interjects Tooru’s singsong. He cuts a dramatic and probably planned silhouette in the doorway, hands braced on his hips.
Mateo raises his voice. “Thought you were too busy canoodling with what’s-his-name, Shouyou—hey, how’d you even find us—”
“I have eyes everywhere,” Tooru says, tossing his head. “I’m always watching.”
“Toto, you’re throwing off our numbers,” Santiago complains.
“Let’s go two-on-three then, even out the playing field,” Mateo suggests. “So how about… me and Tomás on one team, Santiago and Tooru and Hajime on the other?”
Santiago administers a bolstering whack across the delts to Tomás, who splutters and jabs him in the solar plexus in retaliation. Ah, friendship. “Don’t worry, Iwachan,” Tooru calls, stepping onto the court with a ball summoned from fuck-knows-where tucked under his arm. “I still remember what kind of tosses suit you best. It’ll be super ultra mega hittable!”
“The hell is this, Eyeshield 21?” Hajime growls, following him on. Without looking at each other they press their knuckles together, before Hajime moves closer to the net.
“What’s Eyesh—” Santiago begins, but Tomás lunges for him and slaps a hand over his mouth so the rest of the sentence fragments into a muffled squeak.
“Shh,” Tomás hisses. “It’s a setter-ace reunion, they’re having a moment, don’t interrupt!”
Santiago pries Tomás’s hand off his face. “I feel like there’s, like, some rule against fraternising with the enemy?”
“If Javier doesn’t say it’s not okay, then it’s okay,” Tomás says, then frowns. “Was that too many negatives? If Javier doesn’t—”
“Just get on the court,” Mateo sighs. Santiago salutes and ducks under the net to join Tooru and Hajime on their side of the court.
Since Tooru’s already holding the ball nobody contests his first serve. He spins the ball, fretwork of shadow dancing over his hands. The serve is the only part of the game that’s just on you. So of course you have to carry that weight—and by God does Tooru carry that weight—but it means that everything else is so enmeshed no single element can be teased out of its woven matrix. Every victory, every loss apportioned equally.
Tomás is moving almost before Tooru makes contact, the ball smacking cleanly off his bared forearms and back up. Mateo ducks in and hits cross-court, pleasant sting of a quality strike against his palm, but the ball’s picked up again by Santiago, sailing unaccosted through the air. And for the first time in ten years Tooru tosses the ball to Hajime, and Hajime spikes.
It’s hazy, but Mateo can see it, past the net, squinting through the veil delineating past from present. The outline of what they must have been like as partners, shining and synchronised, blurring into one. Scattershot of light off the floor tinting them in a softer hue, the colour of their high school team, like a memory reconstructed, or made anew.
Naturally he and Tomás win, but there’s a levity to the air, a clear brightness. Far from exhaustion but only the satisfaction of time well-spent. A victory shared. The ease from their first meeting back in Hajime’s stance. Mateo sticks a hand out, and Hajime clasps it. Grip firm and callused, familiar. They exchange grins.
“It’s been a long time since I was actually on the court,” Hajime says. “Thought I might have forgotten how to hit the ball.”
“You don’t forget,” Mateo says. Hajime’s eyes gleam. The flex of his fingers, that little unconscious tic shared by spikers everywhere; even now Mateo’s own hands twitch in echo. “How it feels. You don’t forget it.”
Something Tomás likes to say is, “You never forget where you were the first time Tooru ever told you I'll be counting on you!” complete with theatrically besotted expression and hand over heart.
It’s true. For Mateo: Buenos Aires five years ago, summer, a friendly practice match with Club Athletico San Juan that had devolved alongside the sticky night into a couple rounds of random interteam matchups and he’d found himself on the same side of the court as San Juan’s new Japanese setter, who introduced himself with the flash of a Colgate-commercial smile, ran a hand through his boybander hair, and said those words in flawlessly unaccented Spanish.
The set began. Ball in play; Mateo had to stretch a little further than he would have liked to hit the toss Tooru sent to him, but it was a fine set and he made fine contact with it, rewarded by a shaky block one of the San Juan middle blockers currently on his team deflected with ease. Point to them.
“Too high, right? Sorry about that,” Tooru said, turning to him before Mateo had even opened his mouth. “I’ll get it right next time.” And he did. He got it absolutely perfect. Mateo’s palm connected with the ball so beautifully he felt every cell in his body come into alignment, all of him resonating at a single pure frequency like a struck tuning fork. Mateo had worked with incredible setters before—his own club’s setter Federico would throttle him to death if he claimed any different—but this was something elevated completely out of the water. Every toss that came his way calibrated with razorfine precision as though Tooru had been working with him for years and not minutes.
In the break between sets he scrubbed a towel across his face. He wasn’t sure what kind of expression he was wearing. Something thunderstruck, probably. Javier, who he’d played alongside at the U23s, caught sight of him and solemnly clapped him on the shoulder. “First match with Tooru, eh?”
“What the fuck,” Mateo breathed. “Is he always like that?”
Javier laughed. “You have no idea what you’re in for.”
He really didn’t. And even now the bright and unadulterated joy of getting to spike one of Tooru’s tosses hasn’t dimmed at all, the whole world winnowing down to the way the ball cleaves through the air like a knife towards the bullseye of his palms. Reminder that his strength is the strength of others is his strength. That’s what Tooru does, when he counts on you: he makes it impossible to forget.
Standing in the middle of Ariake Arena Mateo can’t resist the urge to crane his head back and stare at the flipped dome of the convex ceiling, the tiger stripes of honey-coloured wood dotted with floodlights. No doubt it was designed with this goal in mind. Dazzle of lights and scuffle of shoes on the polished floor, but always that massive space over their heads telling them all to keep their eyes up.
“Aww, guys, look, Tooru’s old high school teammates are cheering us on!” Tomás is saying, brandishing Tooru’s phone aloft like a lantern. Mateo scoots closer. Onscreen, there’s a picture of a cluster of guys with Argentinian flags painted on their cheeks pulling faces at the camera. “Hey, Toto, what’s the message say?”
“We’ll be counting on you,” Tooru says, a pleased flush to his ears, and Mateo laughs. They never forgot either, it seems.
But of course Tooru is the kind of person who still holds such a firm grip over the reins of his high school team’s loyalties, even a decade down the track. Sure, the charisma bomb he knows as Tooru Oikawa has had a decade to steep into deadly potency like a choice vintage, but throw teenage hormones into the mix and it more or less cancels out. If he’d been on Tooru’s team back then, he probably would’ve followed him into cataclysm. So Mateo sympathises with the poor bastards. And it’s always nice to have a few more voices raised on their side, this far away from home ground. Lending them their strength.
“Man, you must’ve been one hell of a captain,” Mateo says.
And Tooru grins. Full-body expression, upwards lift, a childish glee to it. “They were one hell of a team.”
After the match Javier passes him a bottle sweaty with condensation from where he’s seated beside Tomás on the bench and Mateo accepts it, too tired for words, but grateful nonetheless. He twists open the cap and takes small gulps of water, allowing his body to adjust to the fluid intake. They let the peaceable camaraderie of the moment envelop them, the quiet space before the celebration. Then Tomás nudges Mateo’s shin with a foot, jerks his head at something behind Mateo, and Mateo turns around to see.
A few paces away, Tooru and Hajime are standing by the net. They’re speaking in Japanese, a light exchange. Tooru gestures behind him at the Argentina bench, careless smile and careful eyes. Hajime shakes his head, curls his fingers around Tooru’s wrist and pulls him to the Japan bench, where they sit down, knees almost touching. He takes out a medical kit, pulls out a roll of sports tape.
“Hey, it looked like Toto jarred his fingers in that last one, does he need to—” This time, Santiago’s mouth clacks shut before Tomás can do it for him.
You never forget where you were the first time Tooru told you he was counting on you, but Tooru’s been counting on Hajime his whole life. Does Hajime remember? The terrifying, stunning depth of Tooru’s faith in him, does he grasp its sheer dimension? Mateo looks at the firmness of Hajime’s grasp, the attentive tilt of his head, and it’s the same instinct that zeroes in on a gap between blockers or sends him diving to one side in anticipation of a feint or intuits the precise trajectory of a serve as it hurtles through the air, the same instinct every single person in this arena shares: of course Hajime does.
The four of them watch those hands that had connected perfectly to the ball Tooru sent his way, heart-in-mouth recklessness, brushing over Tooru’s. They stand on opposite sides of the court now but Hajime had been Tooru’s team before there was a team at all. Still looking out for Tooru even now. Winding the tape around the length of Tooru’s fingers, scaffolding with care the instruments with which Tooru conducts his work. A gentleness there near painful.
Hajime smooths the end of the tape into place, but he doesn't let go, eyes lifting from Tooru's fingers to his face. Now they're holding hands, gazing into each other's eyes, and generally looking as if the rest of the world has fallen away and all that's left is each other. It's like they're in their own personal snowglobe, insulated from the press of the crowd all around them. This is where the violins would start swelling, were they in one of the terrible Netflix-special telenovelas Mateo will never admit to bingeing on occasion. Reflexively he almost has to blink back tears. It's a fucking thunderclap of tenderness, followed by a quiet that blankets the rest of them like an unexpected overnight snowfall. Waking up to see the world silvered over, that luminous sheen on every single thing that, for that one initial moment, turned the most mundane of days into something unspeakably exquisite.
Then Santiago says, uncharacteristically hushed, “Reckon they know?”
“They can’t… not know, right? They’re smart people.” But there’s a dubious frown creasing Javier’s forehead.
Tomás slings an arm around Javier’s shoulders. “Matters of the heart, my friend,” he says sagely, “confound even the wisest of men.”
"You're speaking to the only person here who’s actually married,” Javier says.
Over at the Japanese team’s bench Tooru murmurs something with a smile and the contact breaks, their bodies shifting out of alignment as he stands up again, but Mateo’s vantage point provides him with an unparalleled view of the flush sweeping down the back of Hajime’s neck. That milk-centre sweetness, that pearl glimmer. Middle-school crush—who knows, maybe even elementary school—grown into the shape of their mature selves.
“Well, in that case,” Mateo says, “we better not ruin the surprise.”