Kageyama’s father had worked closely with Mr. Hinata last summer when the townspeople built the new schoolhouse. He told Kageyama that Mr. Hinata was a very kindly, cheerful man. His parents had met the rest of the family too, and declared that they were plain good people who did all their work with a great spiritedness. Kageyama’s mother admired Mrs. Hinata’s needlework, the way she tied her soft hair, and the patience with which she spoke to her two children. Kageyama had observed the youngest child, the daughter, at recess, while he worked across the street. She was all smiles and encouragement to her peers. Kageyama was also familiar with the son, who was his age and had the same red hair as his father and sister. He thought it unfortunate that two good people happened to have been given such a son as this one.
Hinata wasn’t nearly responsible enough for his age. Though he was a full three years out of school, he still hung around the schoolyard all the time, on the premise of seeing his sister. But the real motivation, which Kageyama observed through the window as he worked at the tailor’s, was to chit-chat with the older girls there. If Hinata was aiming to find a wife, Kageyama thought he ought to be proving his aptitude for work rather than conversation. Families needed to be supported.
Whenever he happened to see the redhead in town, the sight was always accompanied by loud laughter, or spontaneous singing, or general noisiness and reckless running around. Hinata acted like a month old calf in a clover field most of the time. And when Kageyama did happen to catch him doing some real work, he was always screwing up, or on the verge of doing so, at which time Kageyama had the opportunity to watch his progress crumble to nothing around him. No one could deny that he was a strong young man, but he had no real skill with his hands. Sure, he had the spiritedness that Kageyama’s father found so admirable, but his head was never in synch with his body. Kageyama had once watched him knock an entire stack of someone else’s 20-foot logs off a wagon bed. Somehow the redhead had come out unscathed; maybe if it were otherwise, Kageyama thought, he would have learned a lesson from it.
The long and short of it was that Kageyama found him to be too much hindrance and not enough help, as well as being generally annoying. He was glad that their parents’ claims were on opposite sides of town, and that there was no chance in hell Hinata would be working for the tailor anytime soon.
This winter it had snowed a lot, but for the most part, not in the form of a storm. Tobio didn’t complain out loud, but it was hard work walking in such deep snow, and it was the absolute worst when the wagon tracks had been filled in by the time he left work in the evening. His legs felt like lead when he got home, just in time to do chores. Maybe that was why it irritated him that other young people found nothing but enjoyment in all the snow.
One day as he was working in the front of the shop he had suddenly heard a great ruckus, shouting and horses and so many bells it was like a flock of birds. He looked toward the big window, and in a moment a pair of horses and a large makeshift sleigh whipped past. The woman who had just stepped into the shop smiled between Kageyama and the tailor.
“There were days when I had my fun,” she said. “You’d better not keep Tobio until dark, he shouldn’t have to waste all his young time.”
Kageyama only frowned and approached the window. There were three pairs of horses and almost two dozen kids, one sleigh and two wagon boxes with runners put on instead of wheels. There were silver bells on all the harnesses, rattling with every buck of the horses’ haunches.
“You can go if you like, Kageyama,” the tailor was saying. “I said that you would set your own hours, you don’t have to stay until four every day.”
Kageyama shook his head and returned to the crates he had been working on. Once he had finished, it was time to put up for the evening, so he did his share of the tasks, then went to the back to bundle himself for the walk home. The sleighing party was still out, and he wished he could stay in until they were gone, but all that was left was the bookwork, so Kageyama wasn’t of use here anymore. The tailor locked the front door behind him.
He had determined not to pay them any attention, but then the sleigh flew past, mere feet in front of him, and if he hadn’t been paying attention he would have been seriously injured. He wasn’t even slightly surprised to see that the driver who looked back at him was the young Hinata.
He heard a shout, and watched the redhead hand off the reins, then jump out of the seat. The others shouted at him, a girl screamed, and Hinata landed in a snowdrift between two buildings, sinking in up to his waist. Kageyama was so surprised that he hadn’t moved by the time the redhead sloshed his way out and came running back toward him. There was nowhere to go now. Hinata stopped in front of him, powdered and grinning.
“Are you done working? You want to come riding with us?”
“I have to go home,” Kageyama said.
“Oh. Maybe next time, then.”
Kageyama said nothing and walked around him, turning the corner to head off.
“I’ll see you,” the boy chirped behind him.
Kageyama tried not to think of it, but the walk was dull, and once in a while he couldn’t help it. He had no idea the boy was so short.
It was 15 below zero the next day, and there was no sleighing party. Kageyama ate his lunch in contentedness despite the unpleasant walk that awaited him. Then he went back to work, changing the fabric displays in the front window. From here he could see the schoolhouse, just letting out for break. He rolled his eyes when he saw Hinata waiting there. But the redhead didn’t talk to the grown-up girls today, not more than a greeting. He waited for his sister, who came trodding down the steps staring at her feet. Hinata called to her, and she hurried to him; they sat a little ways from the rest, and the little girl became distressed as she spoke. Kageyama couldn’t tell if she was crying, exactly, but her face didn’t look right.
When she was done talking, her brother started. He put his hand on her shoulder as he spoke with energy, gesturing to the sky, and across the town with a sweep of his arm. He kept talking as he fixed her pigtails, smoothing the front neatly and retying them. By the time he finished, she had a weak smile on her face. He smiled broadly with his eyes closed.
Kageyama stepped hastily away from the window when he heard the bell on the door tinkle. He didn’t look across the street anymore as he continued his task. Caring about his sister didn’t make the boy a saint, anyway.
The day after this there was another sleigh ride. Kageyama never looked up, but he couldn’t block out the noises of merriment. When he walked out the door he expected to meet danger, but he didn’t expect to find Hinata hopping around outside the front of the shop, keeping warm as he waited. Apparently Kageyama was what he waited for.
“Hello, it’s me again!”
He frowned in response.
“It’s Kageyama, right?”
He nodded once.
“I’m Shoyo Hinata.”
“Nice to meet you,” he grumbled, starting away.
“Do you want to ride with us? We have four sleds today, there’s plenty of room.”
“No thank you.”
“You have work to do at home?” Hinata said. “Or you’re just tired?”
“Why do you care why?”
“Uh, because it’s fun? And most people like fun over work.”
“But most people also know work is important.”
He spun on his heel and walked off.
“Well, have a good night,” the boy called.
His walk, though 25 degrees warmer than yesterday’s, was more bothersome. He was directly against the wind, and at one point his pantleg came loose around the ankle and his boot filled with snow. Only a hundred yards farther, it happened to the other boot too, and he stomped home with cold, wet stockings and a curse on his breath.
The time he got off work was apparently the ideal time for sleighing, as the next day they were at it again, and Hinata, again, was just outside the shop door when Kageyama stuck his head out to check. The redhead grinned.
“Do you want to go riding today?”
“Shouldn’t you be helping on your family’s claim?”
“Hm? Well of course I help.”
“I don’t see how you have time, with all this fooling around.” He gestured at the sledding party.
Hinata scowled. “What’s the matter with you? I’m just trying to include you, nobody has to work all the time.”
“Well you can stop including me because I won’t be joining in anytime soon.”
He got a few steps away, and then:
“That sounded like a challenge,” Hinata said.
He glared over his shoulder. “It wasn’t.”
“Well I just made it into one. I’ll be seeing you!”
He dashed off before Tobio could answer back.
He did see Hinata, for the next three weeks, every time there was a sleigh ride. He would bail out of his place to wait in front of the tailor’s shop for Kageyama, who always came out at four o’clock. Hinata would have a big silly grin on his face as he asked if Kageyama would like to go for a ride today. Kageyama refused him each time. Then he would walk around the side of the building, or Hinata would shrug his shoulders and run off to catch up to his party. There was hardly an alteration to this routine, except that Kageyama noticed how most of the large, hay-filled wagons had been traded for real sleds and cutters, so small they could only hold two people comfortably. Hinata was one of those who switched sleds, and from that time he pulled his horse up to the door and got out to stand next to the sled as he waited for Kageyama. Sometimes Hinata’s little sister was inside it, but sometimes it was empty and waiting to be filled. Still, Kageyama had no intention of filling it, and advised Hinata to find some other company if that was really what he wanted.
The weather continued to be exceptionally fine, the soft, cold snowfalls perfect for sleighing, and Kageyama resented it. Hinata never had anyone in his sleigh at the beginning of the ride, though Kageyama didn’t know how he proceeded after each of his refusals. Everybody else, it seemed, had a certain partner that they picked up at a certain time and place; often it was after school got out, that the boys would line up down the street to pick up the older girls for riding. The younger kids didn’t get to go as much anymore, which Kageyama thought rather unfair, as they could afford the most fun of anyone in town.
One other thing changed as a fourth week of invitations extended into a fifth. It was a thing that Kageyama couldn’t understand, that made him question his maturity. He started to feel his cheeks get hot when Hinata asked, even though it was the same, utterly expected question every time. Then it started happening when he first saw Hinata, before any question at all. His frustration reached its peak when he started to blush at the mere thought of leaving work, knowing on the days when he heard sleigh bells that Hinata would be outside.
One day as he was cleaning up, and had just caught his face in the act, he happened to see that his boss was smiling at him. Kageyama dropped his eyes and tilted his head down.
“If you left early you might be able to miss him,” the tailor said.
Being seen through only made the blush worse, and Kageyama made no response and said no goodnight when he left, at the usual time.
“Want to go riding today?”
“I put on new bells, these ones are bigger!”
Kageyama stomped around the side of the shop. He heard the jingling as Hinata led the horse up to the corner.
“There’s fresh powder, it’ll be fast if we go a little ways out of town.”
“I’m going home.”
“I can take you home! I’d take you home every day if you let me.”
He plodded along the half-filled wagon tracks, not looking back.
But he continued to leave at four o’clock, each and every weekday.
One day when he had opened the door and stepped out into the noise of the party, today singing carols, he stood there in confusion for a moment, because the greeting from Hinata was not to be had. He only walked a little slow as he headed for the corner, only took a short look at the sleighs going up and down the main street. Hinata wasn’t in any of them.
But then he saw him, on the far side of the street, with two horses and a regular wagon. He was talking to some friends who stood below his seat. Then he touched his hat to them, and drove off out of town.
Kageyama looked both ways and jogged across the street. He had decided to follow him, just for a bit, to see if by some miracle he might catch him doing something productive.
Hinata didn’t go far; when Kageyama reached the spot, he looked back and could easily identify each of the buildings in town. He watched from the top of the ridge as Hinata, down in a low place, released his horses from the wagon. Kageyama almost called out to ask what the heck he was doing letting the horses go; apparently he trusted them to stay close on their own. Hinata grabbed a shovel and a scythe from the wagon box and walked out into the middle of a deep, smooth spot.
It was a slough, Kageyama realized as Hinata started to shovel two feet of snow off the long, flattened grass below. He watched him trade the shovel for the scythe and cut off handfuls at their bottoms. He was haying it. The Hinatas must not have been adequately prepared for winter, now they had run out of feed for their livestock. This reminded Kageyama of the ant and grasshopper story his father had read him as a child.
Kageyama stood on the ridge and watched him work. Snow flew almost constantly as he worked the shovel down to the grass. Once he had cleared a section, he would pick up the scythe and slice the grass free. He dropped it into a pile, then moved on to the next section, making a circle around the entire frozen pond. And he was always almost smiling, in everything he did.
Kageyama watched, and his eyes focused sharper and sharper. Hinata’s face grew red with labor. When he swung the scythe, even under his coat Kageyama could see the force roll through the muscles in his shoulder and back. His legs squatted and shot up to create the power for tossing away the snow. Sometimes a full smile broke across his face, even in the middle of hefting the shovel. As he worked, his image seemed to get sharper, maybe because his body was invigorated, or maybe because Kageyama just started to notice in more detail. His hair got redder, wilder, dancing like a candle flame. His cheeks were bigger, higher in a cheery way. He was getting stronger as he worked, rather than more tired, Kageyama would swear it.
The town party was so gay that Kageyama could hear it behind him. He knew Hinata loved to join in the singing on days when it caught on. He sang loudly, and well, from what Kageyama had heard. It was strange, that probably the merriest, biggest party was going on in town, and Hinata was not at the center of it, but out here haying in a slough, all by himself.
Hinata was an only son like him, with a bigger family. They were newer than the Kageyamas to their claim, and the beginning was always the hardest. Tobio knew he probably shouldn’t have assumed what he did about Hinata’s contribution to his family’s well-being.
Kageyama marched himself down the slope of the slough.
The tooth of the scythe almost collided with Hinata’s own leg as he whirled around.
“Kageyama? What are you doing out here? You almost scared the pants off me!”
“What are you doing out here?” Kageyama said. “There’s a sleigh ride in town.”
“Most people know that work is important.” Hinata grinned.
Kageyama clucked his tongue, then picked up the shovel.
“What—What are you doing?”
“You’re definitely going to be out here until dark if you keep going at this rate,” Kageyama said. “Is that what you want?”
He stuck the shovel into the snow and hefted it away. He scooped again and revealed a square of grass. He looked at Hinata, who looked from the ground back to him. Kageyama scooped again, and again, until he had separated them by several yards.
“I’m not doing it for you—”
“Ah—I know! Right!”
Hinata picked up the scythe and started to work behind him, cutting and making the piles as Kageyama cleared the path for him. At several points he offered to trade for the shoveling, but Kageyama doubted whacking at the frozen grass stems would be much easier, so they continued in the same way, until the circle had been gone over five times. Hinata whistled the horses back, hitched them, and drove around to the piles while Kageyama threw them in. Then he got up onto the seat beside Hinata, and they drove to the redhead’s claim. Kageyama usually wore only an undershirt beneath his coat when he was doing farm work, so he had soaked himself in sweat. Hinata had drips of it running from his hair down the back of his neck, and both of them were still huffing a little by the time they reached the barn. He helped Hinata haul the grass up into the loft, where they spread it out to dry.
Then Hinata sprang down the ladder after him, and with so much energy that it was astounding, hefted up a whole belled harness, shook it above his head, and said:
“Kageyama, do you want to go sleigh riding?”
He was too surprised to immediately decline. They had just finished two hours of backbreaking labor and now Hinata wanted to go fool around, as well as add to the work by rehitching the horses and then driving them?
The redhead was smirking.
“I know you don’t have that much work to do, because you had time to help me with mine.”
Kageyama looked hard at his boots, willing his cheeks to stay cold.
“I have to be home soon, so…Just for a short ride.”
He heard a little gasp, and Hinata was gaping when he looked up at him. Then it turned into a bright, toothy smile.
Hinata had the horses hitched to the cutter and was bringing it around to the front of the barn before Kageyama could even come to terms with the situation and help him prepare.
“There’s still daylight to burn, girls,” he called to the horses, as he stepped into the sleigh. He took a moment to arrange the quilt on the seat, and the one on the floor. Then he smiled at Kageyama and motioned him forward. The taller boy stepped into the sleigh, and Hinata offered the edge of the floor quilt for Kageyama to put over his lap. He grinned one last time at his passenger.
“Pull up your scarf!”
He yelled to the horses and they started without a touch. It took only a dozen yards for them to break into a run, and Hinata cheered then fell laughing against the back of the seat. They zipped across the prairie, runners blasting up a cloud of flakes behind them, and when Hinata ran the horses toward a high curving drift and the sled swept up to its peak, Kageyama almost laughed.
Then he almost cursed, as Hinata ramped them over a drift and stood up, jerking Kageyama out of his own seat so that it felt like he would fly off. The sleigh slammed to earth and they fell back on their rears.
“This isn’t a wagon,” he laughed, “So you don’t have to treat it like one!”
He urged the horses into a serpentine path, and bumped playfully into Kageyama’s shoulder each time the sleigh slid to the right. When he did it then looked up, so that their noses were close, Kageyama felt a whoosh through his gut, though it may have been from the dive down into a coolie. They came out on the other side and sped right into main street.
Hinata shouted a greeting as the horses straightened out on the road and merged into the party; but the sleigh skidded on the ice and swung wide to the right.
They nearly sideswiped another cutter, but Hinata leaned their weight quickly enough to move the sleigh away.
“Shoyo, you could have hurt us!” the girl passenger screamed.
“I could, but I wouldn’t!”
“Is that Kageyama?” the boy called.
Hinata flashed a grin over his shoulder as his horses outstripped theirs. The singing fell off into plain noise as they passed other sleighs. Laughter filled the air. The couples waved and clapped at the new addition, until Hinata shot them right out of town, beyond the curve of track that would turn them around. They hit some hard drifts that jerked the sleigh up and down; Kageyama clenched his teeth and held on as the horses turned and the sleigh continued to bump as it slid sideways. When they were straight and headed for town again, he found that his arm was tangled in the quilt and also around Hinata’s waist. He hurriedly pulled it back to himself.
They merged in with the others, and Hinata kept them to the path and matched the easier speed. The cutters flew past each other and Kageyama saw blurs of smiling girls with their hair in their faces, of the boys who pulled daring moves with their reins, and he heard people sounding surprised as they called out to Hinata. At the other end of the street they turned around again, and as Kageyama looked at all the tiny, cozy sleighs, each picturesque with a young man and woman in them, he suddenly understood. Hinata had asked him to go sleighing, had waited outside the shop every day, to take him out with other young couples, who were probably beauing. That was why they always had the same partners, that was why the younger kids had stopped being included. And Hinata, he didn’t have a partner to pick up at the schoolhouse like all the other young men. Kageyama remembered what he had said once: “I’d take you home every day if you let me.”
Hinata didn’t realize until a whole lap later that Kageyama had gone very still beside him. When he did, he leaned forward to look up into Kageyama’s face, the visible sliver of it between his scarf and hat, and saw that he was dark red and fiercely avoidant of his eyes. Hinata eased on the reins, and stopped his calling and daring to the other drivers. When they went around the end turn and were approaching the tailor’s shop, Hinata said:
“I’ll take you home.”
He slowed the horses to just a trot, and eased them around the corner, back into the quiet country and the Kageyamas’ claim.
Kageyama had entirely forgotten the everyday manners he had been taught; it was almost as if Hinata wasn’t there at all. He was so deep in thought as to make even Hinata accept silence between them.
This was difficult. It wasn’t as if Tobio had never felt a measure of fondness for Hinata, though he had never thought on it enough to classify the specific kind of fondness. It wasn’t as if he had never wished to be seen that way by someone, as a potential…person, as at least a valuable partner to have, if not a desirable one. But that Hinata could have for some time been seeing him this way, that Hinata Shoyo wanted to offer him a ride every day for a reason other than to be a nuisance, Kageyama would never have lifted his eyes to something like that. So it was a good thing, he supposed, that it had just happened.
Still, he was uncertain. There was no other pair of young men participating in the sleigh rides. And Tobio was not the kind of person to throw his heart into anyone’s hands. He would rather it be safe than anything, at the moment. But he was sitting next to Hinata right now, and Hinata must be expecting, or at this point faintly hoping, for something like encouragement. That, Kageyama could give him.
“I had fun. It was—fun.”
Hinata turned so fast his hat slid sideways on his head. He stared at Kageyama. Then he smiled, teeth dazzling under his hair like the snow under the orange sunset. But Kageyama felt foolish, because they were still a hundred yards or more from his house, and he didn’t know if he had anything else to say.
“I knew you would,” Hinata said, “That’s why I kept inviting you. Did you not believe me?”
“You were—You asked too often, I thought you only fooled around all the time.”
“It only worked because I asked often! Would you have followed me today if I hadn’t been asking you all the time? No, you wouldn’t have.”
“But—you talked to all the girls at the schoolhouse. I saw you.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Why didn’t you ask one of them to be—to go with you? Did they all refuse too?”
“I didn’t need to ask them, I already had someone I wanted to ask.”
“Then why did you talk to them all the time?”
“I don’t talk to them all the time, and what’s wrong with that? Talking to people in town?”
“Talking is fine,” Kageyama said, “But you were—probably flirting.”
“Flirting? I was not! Just what do you think you saw through your little peeping window across the street? Did you check every recess to see if I was flirting?”
“No, but I’m sure that you were.”
“If you really believed that you wouldn’t have agreed to go with me,” Hinata said. “Would you.”
Kageyama only scowled. They were slowing down now, and Hinata brought them to a stop right at his front door. The redhead’s smile wasn’t teasing anymore. Kageyama stepped out of the sleigh.
“I’m glad you came along,” Hinata said.
Kageyama stayed quiet.
“Would you—Would you like to come again, sometime?”
He thought. Then he nodded a few centimeters.
Hinata nodded too, though he was looking at his lap now. “Good.”
“I’m going to drive, though. Next time.”
Hinata looked up and smiled, before remembering his embarrassment and hunching back into his scarf as his face heated. Suddenly Kageyama found that he couldn’t take his eyes off him, and he almost laughed, but managed to keep it to a little cough and a big smile. Then Hinata stood up in the cutter, and judging by his face, he had seen.
“I knew you were worth it,” he declared. Then he smiled, sat down, and drove away. Kageyama turned and nearly ran for the barn. He didn’t want his parents to see him like this.