Tobio’s feet thumped the ground, splashing past puddles and gaps in the pavement, his shoes already soaked. A thud-thud from behind him told him Hinata was right on his heels, his bicycle rattling at his side. Tobio quickened his pace and heard Hinata yelling challenges as he fell behind.
Another win for me.
He wasn’t sure where the finish line was, because they’d never raced out of school before, but if Hinata fell too far behind Tobio would wait at the spot where their paths diverged, even with the rain pouring down, just to point out the win. He was drenched already; there was no harm in it.
A hurtling sound, more rattling, and then Hinata was sailing past him, having mounted his bicycle at a run. A flash of lightning illuminated the grey world around them—Tobio saw dripping orange hair, white teeth set in a wide grin—and then he was running after Hinata, calling for him to stop.
“You’ll get hit!” Tobio shouted. “Lightning hits the highest point, dumbass!”
“There are houses!” Hinata yelled back.
“We should find somewhere to wait!”
Hinata just pedaled faster, taunting him, and Tobio pushed himself to continue the headlong rush, hoping he wouldn’t slip and brain himself on the pavement.
“I mean it!” Tobio yelled, suddenly a little less concerned about winning. Hinata was short, but standing on his bicycle pedals he was a lot taller than Tobio. “What if it hits you on the way home?”
Hinata was drawing up to the street corner where their ways parted, finally slowing. He reached it first—bringing the score to sixty-three even—and stopped, dismounting and looking around at Tobio.
“Do you mean it? You think I’ll get hit?”
Tobio reached the street corner, stumbling into a crouch and breathing hard. “It’s possible. We should—go to my house.” Gasps and thunderclaps punctuated his words, and after a short moment Hinata nodded.
“The King’s house,” he sing-songed, and Tobio glared. “I wonder what it’s like?”
Hinata made it sound like they were strolling through a park, not standing in a deluge during a thunderstorm. Tobio grunted and started leading the way to his house, feeling a strange nervousness when Hinata began following him. He threw a glance over his shoulder.
“Keep up, okay? And no getting on your bicycle.”
Then they were running again, down deserted streets and through growing puddles, the iron-cast sky ominous over their heads. A flash from nearby made both of them jump, and thunder sounded mere seconds later.
“Did you hear that?” Hinata asked, his voice somewhere between wonder and fear.
“We’re almost there.”
They ran onto the tarmac of the street in front of Tobio’s house, and Tobio reached for Hinata’s bike. He maneuvered it through the gate and let Hinata lock it while he ran up to the front door, stabbing his key into the lock. The lock clicked open—and they were inside, dripping.
“I think there’s a dry spot on the small of my back,” Hinata said, shaking his arms as if it might cast the water off. “But other than that I’m soaked.”
Tobio fought a smile, watching water cascade off his classmate, the normally gravity-defying hair slicked down against his skull. Tobio knew he looked no better; water had saturated his clothing down to his underwear, and he could feel the chill of the rain directly on his exercise-warm skin, leeching his heat. His eyebrows were dripping.
“I told you we should have gone back to the gym,” he said, though he was the one who’d run after Hinata after the challenge was issued. He could have gone back by himself—but he hadn’t even considered that an option at the time. Chasing Hinata when he ran was habit by now.
“Come on,” he said, feeling that nervousness again. He hadn’t had a friend over since his first year in middle school—was there anything he was doing wrong? A glance at Hinata told him nothing; Hinata was looking about the hallway with an open mouth. Tobio took a breath.
“It’s nothing special,” he mumbled as he shucked his shoes. Hinata did the same, calling out a general sorry for intruding that cut off when Tobio told him no one would be home yet.
“Your parents both work?” Hinata asked, bent over to take off his soaking-wet shoes.
“Yeah. Come on.”
Hinata stayed in the entryway, looking down the hall awkwardly. “I can’t. I’ll make everything wet.”
“I’ll put some towels down later. You need dry clothes.”
Hinata’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “They’ll be big.”
Tobio stared him down. “So? You want to stay wet?”
Hinata looked like he was about to argue, so Tobio reached out and squeezed some of that orange, plastered-down hair, causing cold rivulets of water to course down Hinata’s neck. Hinata flinched away with a shiver.
“You didn’t have to do that!” he said, glaring up at Tobio.
“Dry clothes?” Tobio asked innocently.
“Yes please,” Hinata mumbled, following Tobio into the house. Tobio picked up towels from the bathroom before leading Hinata into his bedroom, his stomach twisting a little at the thought of Hinata seeing the room he’d grown up in.
Stupid, Tobio thought to himself. It’s not normal to be nervous about that.
And anyway, they were just changing—it wasn’t like Tobio was giving Hinata a grand tour of the house. They needed to be here because of unforeseen circumstances, nothing more; this point was driven home when Hinata groaned and started peeling off his jacket, followed by his shirt. He wadded them up and laid them by the door, starting to unbutton his trousers.
Tobio looked away. The sight of Hinata’s skin had been doing strange things to him lately; whenever they changed, he found his eyes drawn to his classmate, seeking out the downy hair at the base of his neck, the jut of his hips over his boxers, the muscles in his back and shoulders. The images stayed with Tobio longer than they should, popping up at odd moments. Hinata was his partner, and maybe his friend, but it made no sense for Tobio’s eyes to follow him so closely away from the court, or for his brain to stockpile images of him.
Was he collecting data for their matches? Tobio had thought so, at first—that it was normal to observe his valuable teammate, Karasuno’s not-so-secret weapon—but he never felt the need to watch Asahi or Tanaka off the court.
It’s because he’s useless on his own, Tobio had told himself time and again, but the assurance wasn’t quite true anymore. Hinata was getting better; he could work with other setters now, and shine. It didn’t make sense for Tobio to notice him more now than he did before, and he wondered what Hinata would think if he caught him at it. He made sure not to be caught looking.
Tobio let his schoolbag drop against the floor—Hinata had discarded his in the entryway—and began wriggling out of his clothes. Hinata was already toweling off, and Tobio finished undressing down to his damp boxers, sitting down on the bed to run his towel over his damp arms and legs, then his hair. When he looked up Hinata was watching him, the towel creased in his hands.
“Um,” Hinata said quickly. “Clothes? To change into?”
“Right.” Tobio stepped to his closet, drawing out a pair of nondescript black boxers that would probably work just as well as volleyball shorts on Hinata. He tossed them over, and dug around for a long-sleeved shirt and sweat pants, throwing them in short order.
When he turned to ask Hinata if it was okay, the other boy was shimmying out of his underwear, his side turned to Tobio. Tobio gave himself whiplash looking away so fast.
“Tell me if you’re going to get naked!” he yelled at his closet, his cheeks flooding with color.
“What? You threw me boxers! What else was I supposed to do?”
“Tell me not to look! Of course!” Unless it was normal to be naked in front of your friends? But surely that only happened in communal baths—not in people’s rooms.
“I don’t have any parts you haven’t seen before,” Hinata said—which was true, unless Tobio’s mind placed extra value on those parts being Hinata’s.
Which it did. What was wrong with him? Even now a part of him was disappointed that he hadn’t quite seen anything—that he still didn’t know whether the hair leading down from Hinata’s navel was the same ridiculous orange color as his head hair. Tobio was no genius off the volleyball court, but even he knew those thoughts had nothing to do with friendship.
Tobio shook off his self-recriminations and changed out of his underwear under his towel—because that was polite, he told himself—then pulled on his change of clothes roughly, savoring the feel of dry clothes against his skin: sweats, a plain T-shirt. He should have picked out a sweater for himself, but he’d tossed Hinata his favorite and didn’t care to stand naked while he rooted around for another. Goosebumps stood out on his arms.
When he turned around Hinata was attempting to un-drown himself from Tobio’s shirt, his hands lost in the long sleeves. Tobio marched over and sought out Hinata’s hands in the tangles of cloth—his fingers were warm to the touch—and folded the familiar fabric back over them. “Are you warm enough?” he asked.
Hinata bent to roll up the legs on the grey sweatpants, then straightened. “Yeah! Really warm.” He looked around at the room, noting volleyball posters and various relics from Tobio’s childhood. “Have you always lived here?”
“I like it!”
Tobio pretended to check his hair, fighting embarrassment. “I’ll put your stuff in the drier.”
He hurried out to do just that, collecting Hinata’s sodden clothing on his way, but stopped when there was a flash of lightning accompanied by the lights in the apartment flickering off.
Loud, running steps behind him, then: “Kageyama!”
Tobio turned, the barely-there light from the windows still enough to see by. Hinata stood crouched, excitement on his face. His hands were balled into fists, his feet set apart as if he was about to leap into the air.
“Ghost stories,” he said, in a tone of great reverence. “What do you say?”
Ghost stories? Tobio thought, not understanding at first. Then he imagined a contest of courage with Hinata, here in the dark with lightning flashing outside—and his body lit up inside, the way it always did when Hinata got that look in his eyes and directed it at him. It was instantaneous, a reflex, and he felt a grin splitting his face. Hinata’s wet clothes were forgotten; he tossed them on the drier and went in search of candles and matches, digging through kitchen drawers until he found them. Hinata dove onto the couch while Tobio set the candles up on the coffee table, his heart hammering with excitement.
He wasn’t even sure he liked ghost stories; his much-older cousin had given him nightmares with the ghost story she had told, once, but he liked competing with Hinata, and scary stories were as good a way as any. He sat down on the opposite end of the couch, folding his legs under him. The candles flickered, and a rumble of thunder sent shivers of anticipation down his spine.
“Okay,” Hinata said. “I’ll start.”
“Wait. How will we measure who won?”
Brown eyes narrowed in thought. “Whoever’s most scared loses. It’ll be obvious.”
“Are you sure?”
“We can take each other’s heart rates after the story?”
Said heart rate sped in Tobio’s chest. “I’m not sure that’s—”
“It’ll be fine! Okay, I’m starting.”
There was no time to argue. Tobio braced himself. He was still thinking about Hinata’s fingers under his jaw or on the inside of his wrist, taking his pulse, and hating how much the thought affected him. Why couldn’t he drool after Shimizu the way all the others did? Why was it Hinata that made his heart speed up?
There was no point to liking a boy; not one like Hinata, who couldn’t utter complete sentences in front of Shimizu. Tobio knew that much, but his body refused to listen. It insisted on being a total idiot where Hinata was concerned, filling with warmth at the smallest things, unconsciously keeping track of Hinata like a flower turning to the sun, attuned to him at all times. It was infuriating, but he was getting used to it.
Presently, Hinata was sitting across from him, talking animatedly: “…so they decided to use the volleyball they found in the storage room, and it was really good! Their team won for the first time…”
Tobio made an effort to listen, ignoring Hinata’s left clavicle peeking out over the hem of his shirt. Hinata’s ghost story seemed to be about a haunted volleyball that granted an unnamed volleyball team special powers at a steep price; team members kept dying in volleyball-related accidents. Tobio had trouble keeping a straight face at times, and when Hinata finished his story—with an intrepid first-year confronting the volleyball in the storage room, and the power going out—the effort of fighting the smile became too much. He hid his mouth behind his hands, his laughter coming out in strangled gasps.
Hinata jumped on Tobio, moving his hands away from his face. “What? You’re scared, right?!”
“Dumbass Hinata! That wasn’t scary at all!” Tobio was obviously gasping with laughter, but Hinata decided it was an act. He put both his hands on Tobio’s neck, intent on finding his pulse, and Tobio tried to dislodge him.
“Hey, stop it—”
“Just hold still!”
Hinata had crawled into his lap, straddling him clumsily. Tobio acquiesced with the air of a frightened animal, all his laughter disappearing, and he closed his eyes tightly. Don’t speed up, he commanded his heart, as if it would listen.
Hinata was heavier than he looked. He sat on Tobio’s crossed legs solidly for half a minute, his warmth pressing into Tobio, but eventually he crawled away disappointed.
“Fine,” he said. “I guess you’re not that scared. Your turn.”
Tobio breathed a long sigh of relief. He wondered what would be worse: Hinata thinking that awful story had scared him or Hinata realizing the real reason for his increased heart rate. Both seemed equally mortifying.
He hummed and tried to recall the story his cousin had told him years ago. It had been about a girl and a little dog who slept under the girl’s bed at night. When she was scared, she would reach under the bed and the dog would lick her hand and she’d know everything was okay, even when there were scary sounds outside and reports about a suspicious man in the neighborhood.
Shivers ran through Tobio as he told the story, recalling his cousin’s hushed tones. He tried to emulate them, and he could see it was working. Hinata’s legs were drawn up with his arms wrapped around them, his eyes wide, a tremor in his fingers where they gripped his shins.
“And so—” how did the next part go again? “—the dog went missing, but the girl knew he’d come back. He always did. So that night she went to bed like usual, and when she woke up in the middle of the night after hearing something she stuck her hand under the bed, and felt her dog’s warm tongue on her fingers. She went back to sleep.”
Hinata’s eyes were wide, and he didn’t seem to be breathing. A clap of thunder made both of them jump.
“And then—then the next day, the girl got up, and she looked under her bed. But the dog wasn’t there. She was worried, but she thought maybe her mother had let the dog out. So she went to the fridge, and opened it—“
A flash of lightning reflected in Hinata’s eyes—
“And saw a tuft of grey hair, the same as her dog, and a note in unfamiliar writing: Humans can lick too. And suddenly, she felt a presence behind her… the end.”
Hinata moaned and threw himself down on the couch, his face pressing into the seat. Tobio didn’t give him time to recover; he placed his fingers in Hinata’s neck and counted beats: they were fast, like he’d been exercising.
“I win,” Tobio declared, drawing back. Hinata caught his wrists and held them, still facing down.
“I’m… kind of scared.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?”
Hinata raised his head, showing a penitent expression. “I didn’t expect to actually get scared! Not like this.”
He’s so cute, Tobio thought, before coming to his senses. No, annoying.
He looked at those regretful brown eyes again, large under mussed orange hair. Okay, maybe both.
Hinata was still holding his wrists, and Tobio’s attempts to pull his hands back kept being thwarted by Hinata’s strong grip. “Let go,” Tobio said, an edge of apprehension in his voice.
He mustered a glare, still trying to pull away. “Why not?”
“Because!” Hinata’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been weird lately.”
“No I haven’t!”
“Yes you have!”
Tobio stopped struggling, letting Hinata have his way. He sighed heavily. Had he been weird? On the inside, yes—but he thought he was hiding it. The dumb flutters he felt in his stomach didn’t show in his face, did they? What would he do if they did?
“How have I been weird?” he asked.
“Sometimes you flinch away when I touch you,” Hinata said. “And you don’t criticize me as much as you used to. And sometimes you get really quiet and you don’t get angry at all.”
“Stupid! That’s because you’re getting better.”
“Then what about the first thing?”
“I—I don’t know! Maybe you surprised me?”
Hinata glared, and finally he let go of one of Tobio’s wrists only to place his hand in the middle of Tobio’s chest, where his heart hammered. Tobio tried to back away, but he was already sitting up against the couch arm. “What are you doing?!”
Instead of answering, Hinata moved forward on his hands and knees, his face coming to rest an inch from Tobio’s, peering intently. He was so close Tobio could smell the faint scent of his skin—a scent that went straight through him, waking up parts of him that were better left sleeping.
“You’re scared of me,” Hinata said, sounding confused. “Why—”
“I’m not scared!”
Hinata grasped his chin and peered into his eyes, his other hand still over Tobio’s racing heart. He was so close—close enough to draw in and kiss. Tobio imagined Hinata falling into him, imagined pressing a kiss to the smooth skin that showed where the too-big sweater gapped. He bit back a groan.
Would this moment ever end? It had better—and so Tobio said the thing that was sure to make Hinata back up, words tumbling from his unwilling mouth: “It’s because I like you, dumbass.”
There was a pause, then: “I touch plenty people I like!”
Dumbass, dumbass, dumbass—“Not like that! It’s a different like, okay? Let go.”
Hinata stared. “Different like? Like—”
“Yes! Like that. I didn’t mean for it to happen, okay?”
Hinata’s eyebrows drew together in stark confusion. He drew back a bit, letting his hands fall so they rested on Tobio’s bent knees. Tobio managed not to flinch away. “But that would mean that you wanted to touch me, not the opposite.”
Tobio glared at the wall, his face turned away from Hinata’s questioning gaze. “I do want to touch you. That’s why I try not to. Happy?”
He could feel Hinata’s stare still boring into him, though he made sure not to face the other boy. He didn’t think Hinata would stop playing volleyball with him—that was beyond a worst case scenario—but what if this ruined the makings of their friendship, or rivalry, or whatever it was? He didn’t want to stop racing Hinata to the gym, or eating lunch together, or getting into shouting matches. He didn’t want Hinata to feel sorry for him or be cautious around him, but what other option was there? Hinata wasn’t subtle enough to just ignore it and move on, was he?
Unable to take the silence much longer, Tobio glanced at Hinata, and felt his face heat up.
“What?” he ground out. Hinata was staring; there was color flooding his cheeks, and his mouth was opening and closing.
“Me?” Hinata asked, obviously still processing the reality of Tobio’s crush.
“It’s not on purpose! You think I wouldn’t rather be in love with Shimizu-senpai like you and the rest of the dumbasses?”
“Hey!” Hinata said. “I’m not in love with Shimizu-senpai! She’s just—really pretty. Like, bwaaah!-pretty. She’s like a movie star.”
Tobio thought about it. He did think Shimizu was beautiful—but he found her relaxing to be around, unlike a certain orange-haired boy who embodied raw energy and never knew when to quit.
That didn’t stop him from wanting to be around that boy all the time, though.
“Anyway,” Tobio said. “Could you please just forget?” I’ll get over it, he wanted to add, but he wasn’t sure that was true, not when they were still on the same side of the court. He’d feel it each time Hinata spiked one of his tosses—each time Hinata jumped on blind faith alone, the feeling would be there as strong as ever.
Or so it seemed, anyway. Tobio wasn’t sure.
He was about to say more when the power came back on, bathing them in yellow light. Tobio looked down at Hinata’s hands still resting on his knees, and Hinata retracted them slowly.
“Shouldn’t I give you an answer?” Hinata asked. “That was a confession, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t—you shouldn’t—it’s fine.” Tobio glared at a spot a little above Hinata’s head. “Sounds like the storm has passed. You could go home, if you wanted to.”
“I’m still wearing your clothes, though—”
“You can give them back whenever.” Tobio stood up. “Unless you plan on ignoring me…?”
“Ignore you?” Hinata stood up too. “Why—I wouldn’t! Never!”
That was comforting, at least. “Then you can leave; I’ll give you your wet clothes tomorrow. Do you need anything else?”
Tobio knew his words sounded clipped, but embarrassment made it impossible to pretend at a cheerfulness he didn’t feel. He’d just confessed to a boy—his teammate. It was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas; the last thing their team needed was Hinata doubting him. He should have just wrestled Hinata off him—it wasn’t like he’d never wrestled him before—but the secret had wanted out, and found its own way.
A minute later Hinata was still looking sort of stunned as Tobio bustled him out the door, his color high. There were a million questions in Hinata’s eyes, and if he stayed longer Tobio knew those questions would erupt in an endless and unanswerable torrent. He was saving himself, and so he felt little guilt when Hinata stood outside the apartment with his mouth open and his schoolbag clutched in his hands.
“Bye,” Tobio said, and closed the door between them.
Leaned back against it.
Groaned loud and long, his hands clasped over his face.
What had he done?