Nayeon never forgot.
Back in middle school, when she used to play for one of the best teams in the prelims, she thought maybe she could make it. Maybe she could endure every single disgruntled stare and offhand remark. Maybe nothing could phase her as bad as going to school did.
She was in 9th grade (so young) and time was closing in on the end of the fall tournament. If they could win one more game they'd take bronze medals home for their loving families. Dankook wasn't the best school out there, not by a long shot, so no one had actual hopes of taking first place and the gold medals that came with it. However, most of the team was hoping for at least silver until they got curb stomped in the last set. It hurt Nayeon's pride more than anything else had in her life that far.
They were on the last match of their set, and they'd already lost twice, bronze out of the picture for good. Her teammates gave it their all and it sparked a fire in Nayeon, one that sent her chasing after every airborne ball, one that had her slamming balls down onto the opposite side of the net. She was alive in that moment with the bleachers full of parents and peers cheering her on and praising her adolescent talent. She was able to tie the score at 12-12, three points left for both teams to win the match.
Competing for the lead with the thirteenth point, she leaped into the air and let out a silent scream as her leg gave out on her jump, her body hitting the ground with the force of a boulder. No one said a thing as the ball came back down on their side, striking the gym floor and giving the opposing team their cherished advantage.
She couldn't feel her leg. She wasn't able to stand on it, move it, she could barely wiggle her toes. Her coach at the time helped her limp off the floor and encouraged her to sit on the bench. She had no choice, sitting down, fury boiling in her gut. She couldn't even bring herself to cry while she watched her team lose the set she tried so hard to win. There was nothing she could do. She was rendered weak. Useless. What kind of player was she if she couldn't move?
After her team had finished bowing, she got up to find her leg was working again, only a little numb. She wanted to rip it off for failing her at a crucial moment, for ceasing to work when she needed it most. Tears were hot in her eyes and she blinked them away as she hoped no one saw.
She waited patiently for her parents to come and congratulate her, to tell her how good she did, how it doesn't matter that she failed to win because at least she tried.
They didn't rescue her fast enough. Two bitter old men walking by made themselves known, made sure their faces and words permanently etched themselves into Nayeon's very being.
"She's a liability. You can't rely on someone with a leg like that!"
"Agreed. She's amateur at best, fucked up leg or not, she'd never make it anywhere in the actual tournaments. It's sad but it'd be sadder to watch her attempt to play."
By the time her parents were at her side Nayeon was having a full blown breakdown. She couldn't handle it, the mean words and the hateful glares. It was almost as if she insulted them simply by being alive and trying her best. Her body didn't know how to react other than to hyperventilate and leak all the tears she'd been holding back. Her parents were trying to console her, but it didn't matter. The words had already sunk in and tattooed themselves over Nayeon's heart.
Nayeon never forgot.
The palm of her hand is red and throbbing from spiking all the balls Jihyo's thrown for her. Nayeon's glad to have Jihyo on her team, to have a captain that actually cares. Dankook may have been a middle school but no one there cared about their teammates or the game itself. Gomizen came with one Park Jihyo, a great wing spiker and a greater friend. If Jihyo had any doubts or questions about why Nayeon was pushing herself so hard, she kept them to herself, and Nayeon couldn't have appreciated it more.
"One more. Please." Jihyo looks like she's going to drag Nayeon out of the gym and yell her ear off about pushing her limits. Instead, she picks another ball from the basket, nods at Jeongyeon to move back in front of the net and waits until Jeongyeon and Nayeon both nod at her.
They didn't call Gomizen the bears from hell for nothing. Nayeon hits another ball smack into the middle of Jeongyeon's block and groans as it rebounds back onto her side of the net. She puts her hands on her thighs as she sucks the oxygen into her begging lungs, glances up to notice Jeongyeon smirking down at her. She flips her off as she catches her breath and her frustration only grows when Jeongyeon actually laughs.
"You're gonna have to either overpower or avoid Jeongyeon's blocks, here," Jihyo hands Nayeon her water bottle and the anger within her vanishes, content to witness Jihyo smile as she straightens her back and drinks heavily from the bottle, "it's probably best to avoid them altogether. It'll be better for when we inevitably go against Sejong or, fuck, Neukdaema. I don't think even our defenses can hold against them."
Nayeon stares at the court for a second, tries to think of a team that could possibly get through Jeongyeon, Seulgi, Yeri, and Jihyo. That'd require one hell of an attack. Maybe, though, it just required one hell of a player.
She knew Jihyo rose the morale of everyone on the team. It was possible Neukdaema had someone like that. It was hard to imagine, since Jihyo was amazing as both a player and a captain, and Nayeon didn't think anyone could get more versatile than that.
"Hey, I'm standing right here! No one can get through these guns," Jeongyeon flexes to emphasize her point and both Jihyo and Nayeon burst out laughing.
"You and Seulgi are a wall like no other, Jeongyeon. A noodle armed wall, but a wall nonetheless," Nayeon says, smirking. Jeongyeon gives her the sharpest death glare she can manage without breaking out laughing.
"I won't hesitate to tear you apart like paper with these noodle arms, Im Nayeon."
Jihyo comes between their friendly dispute and forces them to shag all the balls they had previously scattered all over the gym. It's tiring and Nayeon wishes she hadn't hit all the balls beforehand. She thinks about a lot, though, while she's cleaning and comes to the conclusion that with Jihyo, they could probably win 3 sets against any team in the prefecture.
Nayeon knew without Jihyo, the team as a whole wouldn't be as strong, and neither would she. Nayeon herself wasn't that strong, not through her own eyes (weak, useless, a liability) but Jihyo fanned her into a fire that couldn't be drowned.
They were Gomizen and they proudly wore their titles as the bears from hell.
Jeju Tech was no school to mess with. You didn't need good grades. You needed potential, you needed creativity and a will to exceed greatness. You needed to want whatever was in front of you, and you had to want it with such a ferocity that no one fought you for it.
That was what comprised the volleyball team of Jeju. Three first years, a second year, and two third years with enough ferocious power to knock you off your feet. No one expected them, though. They were the team that no one thought would succeed or make it past a single match. They were unheard of, but surprise always worked as an advantage for them.
"Dammit!" Tzuyu's face was blank, not knowing how to react when all she did was what Sooyoung told her to do, which was block her attacks. Tzuyu didn't know how Sooyoung actually thought this would go, considering she was the notorious Jeju iron rod that made up the entirety of their front line defense. It didn't matter that Sooyoung was the ace or that she was only an inch shorter than their star middle blocker. Tzuyu was a wall all of her own and nothing went through her arms. Sometimes she jumped off to one side, and even then she narrowed down the spiker's line of attack, not allowing them to easily get a clear shot on her team.
"Dahyun, can you come set for me? Seungwan wasn't meant to set," Sooyoung asked, ignoring how Seungwan flamed her from over her shoulder. This was how Jeju always was: dysfunctional, yet co-operational. They worked well together on the court. Off the court was another story.
"You should probably use honorifics, but can't you get Jennie unnie to do it? I'm helping Chaeyoung serve." Jennie sighed, switching places with Seungwan.
Jennie was a much better setter than Seungwan, not better than Dahyun, but she had to know how to set if she was to work with the ace. Jennie was the fall back in Jeju's armor, the pick me up for when Tzuyu couldn't fully block an attack. No other libero could quite set like she did, and not in the manner she did it, either. It was almost always jump sets that went straight to Sooyoung or veered toward Chaeyoung's line of sight, leading to a quick that neither of them were usually prepared for.
She tossed the ball into the air, flung it right in front of the net where Sooyoung jumped and watched as another hard spike came into contact with Tzuyu's unmovable arms. Tzuyu didn't flinch at all at this point and it made Jennie laugh. She earned a very hateful glare from Sooyoung for that and made sure she set it up nice and high for her ace the next time. Again, the ball pitifully drove into Tzuyu's forearms and struck down on Sooyoung's side of the net. If Sooyoung kept like this for too long, Jennie was sure either Sooyoung or herself would go insane.
"Okay, stop, you're not gonna get through like that," she said, directing Sooyoung's eyes to the spots on the sides of Tzuyu's block, "hit it there and you'll at least be in bounds. You might be able to break another school's block, but not your own. Not Jeju's."
Sooyoung grunted out an okay and lifted into the air one last time when Jennie set it higher than normal, Sooyoung flying for a moment before slamming the ball into the gym floor on the left side of Tzuyu's block. She squeals when she lands, high-fives a tired looking Jennie and beams proudly at Tzuyu. She only shrugs, giving Sooyoung her own lopsided smile for a second as she begins gathering up the balls and heading over to Chaeyoung to see her progress.
"You think we're ready for the practice game Sunday?" Tzuyu asks Dahyun, their captain, as she watches Chaeyoung serve a ball forcefully yet gently, wobbling as it heads over the net.
"Not sure. Probably. I believe in us. Besides, we get to scope out the competition on Saturday. It works out for us either way." Tzuyu nods and gives Chaeyoung a silent thumbs up when she turns around and grins at them.
"Who's playing on Saturday? I know it's the one red and gold team, but I don't remember names."
"Gomizen is the red and gold team. They're going up against the party animals." Tzuyu grimaces as she remembers who in the prefecture would claim that nickname with pride.
"The wolves, Neukdaema? I hope they've got the patience to deal with them for 3 matches on the court." Dahyun snickers as Chaeyoung sends another ball flying over the net.
"Only Neukdaema's captain has the patience for them," Dahyun tuts, shaking her head, "actually, now that I think about, I don't think their captain can deal with them. That's a new level of crazy, right there." Tzuyu takes the minute to laugh, glad for the distraction from their own practice game that's coming up. It takes only that minute for Sooyoung to send a ball careening wildly into Tzuyu's chest, and Sooyoung nearly loses her serving arm.
It's a practice game for the upcoming spring tournament, yet it feels like the tournament is already occurring. The bleachers high up above the gym are considerably packed with parents and students alike. The railings are decorated with colorful banners depicting the schools they love and support, a bright red banner hanging behind the court on Gomizen's side with "strength in numbers" painted on in gold letters. It's pretty, yes, but it doesn't warrant nearly as much as attention as the opposing team's banner does.
Gomizen didn't know who they were going to be playing against during the match. They weren't supposed to until they arrived and now that they're in the gym, staring at Neukdaema's banner, it's clear who their opponent is. It rattles Jihyo right down to her marrow and she can't deny that she has doubts about the winner of these next few sets. She knew her team was good, but everyone knew Neukdaema and their strengths. Jihyo wasn't sure if Gomizen could hold a match to their offensive abilities.
She can't stop staring at the banner. It's completely black except for the one silver word written on it. Bite. All it said was "bite", and they had an entire saying on their banner that couldn't compete with the boldness of that single word. Bite.
"Yo, Jihyo-ah," Jeongyeon remarks, snapping her out of her daze and giving her a crooked smile, "they're walking in. They don't look... intimidating at all."
Jeongyeon was right. Jihyo glances out over the court, notices them spreading out on the gym floor as they stretch, and they appear harmless. In fact, Jihyo thinks she can hear one of them giggling, although she's not confident that it's one of them considering she's surrounded by people of different ages and voices.
"Maybe this won't be that bad. Don't let your guard down, though, big bear." Jeongyeon mock salutes at Jihyo's command and it relieves her of the previous stresses that she carried on her shoulders, if only for a short while. Jihyo peeks out over the players of Neukdaema again and catches who she believes to be their libero staring at her. She's got bangs and short dark hair and she's the only one wearing a mainly silver jersey. Jihyo assumes she was right in thinking it was the libero and returns her attention to her team.
They huddle up and it doesn't allow for Jihyo to keep sneaking glances at the other team, thank God. She gives them the pep talk they need and then dives into specifics.
"Yeri, I know we have Seulgi and Jeongyeon as our wall, but be extra alert just in case, okay? I think they're gonna get through more than the average couple of times," she sighs, runs a hand through her hair, looks between her two best attackers, "you two don't need to do anything drastic. Chaeyoung, you watch them like always, tell us if there's any patterns. Nayeon. You can slam as many balls as you want, Yeri or Seulgi will get the ball to you. I only ask that you try to predict their movements. Yeah?" They all nod and Nayeon responds for once with a subtle "okay". They have a countdown from three, yelling in unison as they all find their places on the court.
Jihyo takes a second to go and talk to their coach first, notifying them that if she calls for a timeout, it means they need a timeout, no arguments. Their coach agrees and Jihyo runs to her spot on the left in the back row, crouching down as she waits for Neukdaema's first serve.
Jeongyeon tracks the movement of the ball as it sails over the net, calls out to Yeri just as it snakes down and lands next to Jihyo instead. It throws her for a minute, then she realizes the curvature of that serve, and turns back to find eyes scoping her out hungrily. She's in the front row and she can see every pair of eyes staring over at her side of the court, at the point they earned from that serve. One pair of eyes is trained on her, however.
The server that pitched that ball downward in an ungodly manner is smiling at Jeongyeon. Mina waves as if they've known each other for years, then heads back behind the serving line as her team starts yipping and releasing a chorus of "wahoo!'s". Jeongyeon couldn't be more confused about the nature of their team.
Luckily, Yeri picks up the next serve, putting it above Seulgi's head. Seulgi's hands toss it into the air near the net and Nayeon rushes forward, flying into the air and noticing the hole in their defense immediately. Her hand arcs downward and viciously strikes the ball before realizing there's something, someone in the way of the ball. It's not the libero, no, it's a black uniform gliding into place to block Nayeon soundlessly, hands turning downwards and dumping the ball back onto her side of the court.
Jeongyeon's there, digging it up into the air without control and sending it over the net. The girl in front of Nayeon is smiling, bright and wide and intoxicating, dark eyes following the ball as she lands the same time Nayeon does.
"Chance ball!" Momo shouts, bumping the ball into the air as Mina switches places with Lisa, deftly pitching it high above the net on the opposite side of the court from where Nayeon was. The girl in front of Nayeon disappears in a flash, sprinting across the court and leaping into the air like it was natural, crashing the ball down into an empty space. Yeri's body follows a second later, sliding across the floor with an outstretched arm and a curled fist.
Sana drops to the floor, falling backwards and onto her ass, laughing ridiculously as her teammates congratulate her and holler about another point gained for them. Momo and Mina help her up, cuffing her on the back as she wipes away a bead of sweat from her forehead. She glances out over the court, notices Nayeon still standing there as if she couldn't believe what happened and staring at Sana. Truth was, Nayeon didn't have any fucking clue as to what occurred before her own eyes and was tearing her brain apart trying to figure it out.
Nayeon had a lot of pent up anger. Like, a lot. If she wanted to she could probably crush Sana's head between her hands. She wasn't jealous (she was), she wasn't going to murder the pretty girl with barrier breaking reflexes (she might), and she was going to keep her cool when dealing with that aggravating number four (she wasn't). She had to. Otherwise, there was no chance that they'd win a single set.
Sana strode back in front of Nayeon, facing her with a grin that could put the stars out of business. Nayeon doesn't so much as budge underneath her gaze and instead focuses on the girl behind Sana, number thirty two, who was going to serve once more.
"You okay? You look like you've seen a ghost," Sana asks, bending her knees as she crouched down to Nayeon's level, eyeing her warily.
"Fuck you," it's not friendly, it's venomous, and Nayeon really didn't mean to say it out loud.
"You can if you want later. I've got the stamina, obviously."
Nayeon almost loses it when the ball comes soaring over the net, landing squarely on Chaeyoung's arms and bouncing upwards. Yeri flicks her fingers toward the net, grunting before performing a jump set as Chaeyoung, Nayeon, Jihyo, Seulgi, and Jeongyeon all ran towards the net.
Nayeon eyes her all the way from across the court and Yeri flings it straight into the palm of her hand. The others are all jumping and swinging, diverting Sana's attention because she didn't believe they were going to trust Nayeon to hit again. She realizes her mistake too late, rushing from her spot in front of Jihyo all the way to Nayeon, but Nayeon spots her blocking hands and tips it over them, putting it a millimeter behind her. There's no one there to pick it up and with that, Gomizen had scored their first point.
"I was serious about that offer, by the way. You seem fun." Nayeon ignores Sana and the way her eyes are practically glowing from how outgoing she is. "My name's Sana. Minatozaki Sana. I already know who you are, don't bother trying to keep your name from me, Im Nayeon." Nayeon perks up at this, staring slightly less hatefully at Sana.
"There we go! Got your attention. Talk to me after the match?" Nayeon can't help but agree if it'll get her to shut up. Sana makes a pleased squealing noise and Nayeon assumes she's appeased her enough to halt their conversation.
The next few turns go the same way, attacking then receiving, someone screwing up a serve and the other team getting a short but gradual pull ahead. It's far too monotonous for Nayeon's liking and she finds herself wanting someone on either team to make a break through, she didn't care whether it was Gomizen or Neukdaema, she needed a thrill.
Jengyeon was bored out of her mind, needing more to block than their lunatic middle blocker and flightless attacker. Their ace was predictable at best, sloppy at worst, and she was a mosquito for Jeongyeon to squish every time she began to fly. Whenever Lisa chased after the ball, Jeongyeon was there, blocking her powerful attacks and breaking the pride Lisa held in her eyes piece by shattered piece. It was what Jeongyeon was known for and she did it far too fucking well for her own liking.
She wasn't a bad person. She wasn't, right? Then why did it hurt to watch Lisa's face fall as she got denied on every spike?
Maybe that was what made Jeongyeon a good person, something more than a pawn. She felt guilt when she blocked Neukdaema's ace. Maybe that was what made her weak, too. She needed to stop caring. If she could do that, it would make her stronger, and she wouldn't hesitate each time their flighty number four jumped with a smile at the ball.
"Jeong, focus," Jihyo says, snapping Jeongyeon out of her momentary trance, "we need you. I need you, okay?" It's all Jeongyeon needs to throw herself back into the game they were currently losing, 12-14. She could catch them up without a problem. The only issue was, it would take their defense specialist and put her on the offense for a bit, which they couldn't afford with the attack power Neukdaema was projecting. It was worth it, though, if Jeongyeon could get them an advantage, no matter how tiny.
On the next serve, Jihyo switches with Jeongyeon, placing Jihyo on the front line before the net. Neukdaema's captain had a terrifying serve, powerful and icy as it left Joohyun's hand and crashed down into Yeri's arms, the ball launching back up into the air. Jeongyeon runs after it, lungs deflating in the process of herding the off course ball, legs springing off the ground and her fingers making contact with the ball. She thrusts the ball forward with all the strength in her fingertips, watches the ball as her body collapses on the unforgiving gym floor.
Jihyo follows the ball with her eyes, tracking its movement like a wild animal and striking it down right as it hits the peak in its elevation. Sana wasn't there, Seulgi made sure of that by distracting her with her own play, acting like she instead was going to go after the ball.
She didn't account for Momo, who was knelt down and lunging on the floor to cover the area where the ball would land. It shoots back up and Momo smiles, another ball successfully put back into play. As long as the ball didn't touch the ground, it was still viable. Momo would keep the game going for as long as her limbs didn't give out.
Mina's there to propel the ball further after it descends into her skillful hands, directing it expertly into Jisoo's waiting hand and smiling as it barely tipped over the net. Mina hears Momo begin to howl and cheer when there's a grunt from the other side of the net. Jihyo's body lays there, smiling brightly up at Mina as the ball drops right behind her. Nayeon floats down right beside her and it's scary, the aura of raw power - of stubborn determination - that they exude is overwhelming. Jeongyeon strides up behind them and claps them both on the shoulders with her hands, beaming wildly at Mina as she stared.
Everyone in the prefecture knew their respective titles. Neukdaema were the rabid wolves, unpredictable and practically oozing stamina. They were fast, strong, and incredibly excitable. They were also known for their excessive partying and will to survive any match they were put in.
Gomizen was almost the exact opposite. Sure, Neukdaema was a preparatory school and they should've been more put together than Gomizen High, but no one could outrank Gomizen in their defensive stature. They were bears, slow and calculating, but with the force of the sun behind them. No one had seen Neukdaema and Gomizen butt heads like this for years. Yet here they were, duking it out in a practice match, showing off their strengths to anyone who would lay eyes on them. It was absurd and it was exactly what both teams needed; it was a challenge and a rivalry all in one.
There was a name for it, back when Sunmi still coached for Gomizen, when Neukdaema and Gomizen went against each other. The battle of the old Gods.
Not a single person in the gym could deny the ancient war unfurling on the court before them.
"They're really going at it. Jesus Christ," mumbled an awestruck Chaeyoung, watching the match from her spot on the bleachers between Dahyun and Tzuyu.
It was brutal, the way Sana kept leaping into the air as a decoy and Nayeon trailed after her, landing heavily on their feet as they chased ball after ball. Momo and Yeri were throwing themselves all over the floor, too, bruises forming around their elbows and uncovered arms.
Jeongyeon and Seulgi were tired, seeing as they were halfway into the second set after winning the first, and the exhaustion was catching up slowly. No matter how happy Gomizen was about winning the first set, it wouldn't stave off their fatigue long enough to provide all throughout the rest of the current set and the next.
"Someone's gonna wear out, eventually," the minute Tzuyu spoke, Nayeon threw herself into the air again, smacking down the ball from the back row and landing with only a slight stumble, smiling as wide as the moon, "she's tossing herself about like it's nothing, but Gomizen doesn't have the stamina Neukdaema does, and their ace certainly doesn't. Don't you know Gomizen's ace?"
Tzuyu turns to Dahyun now and this diverts her attention from the court to her friend. Dahyun was paying too much attention to the way Gomizen was playing and it was driving her insane. Something was off, Dahyun just couldn't place it.
"I know Jihyo, their captain, and by extension their ace. To answer your question, Nayeon really wasn't made for chasing Sana around like a dog does a cat. It's -" Dahyun stops, eyes locked on the court, trained on the motion of their ace and Neukdaema's energetic middle blocker. Sana is slowing down, rapidly at that, and Nayeon isn't moving after her anymore, Seulgi is. It clicks.
"You were right, Tzuyu. Someone has worn out." This captures both Chaeyoung and Tzuyu's focus as they look towards the court where Nayeon is standing lopsidedly in her position in the back row. Dahyun almost can't believe that it's happening here, now, at their practice with Neukdaema. Of course luck had gone and fucked over Nayeon. Why wouldn't it?
The three girls from Jeju watch on with anticipation, because none of them know how it's truly going to play out.
Nayeon is limping. Nayeon is limping hard.
Jihyo was worried, of course, because anyone with eyes could see Nayeon was struggling to stand, let alone jump or hit the ball. She didn't have to hit every ball, of course not. That wasn't her job as the ace. However, her job was to be the hard hitter, the reliable strength, the prominent alpha in their attack.
If she had to play with one leg, then so be it, Nayeon would play with one leg. She wasn't weak, she wasn't breakable, she wasn't going to sit down and wait for her team to lose. She had to do whatever her body could handle, whether or not her body allowed it.
Nayeon never forgot, and she wouldn't forget today, either.