In 1293, a seven-magnitude earthquake devastates Kamakura.
Years later, second-year Kageyama Tobio is learning about said earthquake in Miyagi, not for pleasure of course, but in the context of a Wikipedia passage he would not have even skimmed otherwise. He reads, as best he can, in English: the great earthquake of 1293 not only created physical schisms in the land, but amongst the Kamakura Shogunate as well — in what is now known as the Hiezen Gate Incident, a regent carried out a purge against his subordinates, which resulted in ninety deaths.
“There's one word I don't quite get,” Kageyama admits, after much consternation.
“Which one?” Tsukishima asks. “All of them?” By the virtue his own generosity, he's allowed Kageyama and Hinata to come to him with questions for exactly seventeen minutes a day, up two from their first year. Tsukishima toys with them by pulling up English Wikipedia articles on his phone, and tells them, point blank, to read him random sentences. A few days ago, he'd picked Crow. Yesterday, Garbage. Today, The 1293 Kamakura Earthquake.
“Just this.” Kageyama points to the word, schism. He thinks he knows it, maybe, based on the context; for a moment, he even imagines a field of dirt, splitting in half out of nowhere. But he doesn't want to get the word wrong, not in front of Tsukishima at least, so he makes no guesses.
“Schism,” Tsukishima repeats in their native tongue. “Usually, it's used in terms of religious institutions. Or governments. Sometimes they don't agree and faction off.” He stares at the empty chair in front of ahead of them. “In short, a separation.”
“Then why not just say that?” Kageyama asks.
“Ah, yes, like I know the origin of every word in existence.”
The timer goes off on Tsukishima’s phone, effectively ending their session.
“That was not seventeen minutes,” Kageyama says.
Tsukishima glances again, at Hinata’s empty chair. “If only half of you are here, you only get half the time. Now, if you'll excuse me,” he says, “I'll be closing up shop now. Have a nice day.”
In go the headphones, and Kageyama loses Tsukishima forever. He does not fight him for the lost minutes. After all, they have the spring tournament to prepare for, and he knows he will forget his new words as soon as finals are over; because even if he never had to read English for the rest of his life, he knows that his most fluent language comprises of no words, no definition, just the feel of hands against leather.
In truth, Kageyama hadn't noticed the empty chair, or the fact that Hinata wasn’t there to occupy it. What mattered — or didn’t — was that Hinata hadn't been at practice that morning at all. Sick at home with a fever the last few days, the maniac had somehow learned to rest instead of biking, uphill, over the usual mountain pass. No jumps left the floor. No quicks slammed, then flew over anyone's heads.
Everyone, in turn, had noted the absence. Tsukishima said he’d reached nirvana from the quiet. Yachi looked up recipes for porridge. First years, more in awe of him than anything else, had shivered at the mysterious draft in the gymnasium.
But Kageyama knows better: that Hinata Shouyou will come back tomorrow. That the ball, in and out of Kageyama’s hands, will keep spinning today. So he goes to evening practice. He takes notes on plays and new drills and other players and opponents. He runs up the path with or without Hinata, over familiar roads and new streets and the worst hills he can find.
The first years follow in the night. Out of breath, and lacking their sun, they all ask, “when does this stop feeling so impossible?”
In his first year, Hinata would've dashed back down the hill and around the court to show them. He'd leap higher and higher each time, regardless of fever, and smack his teammates’ hands with his a too-warm touch. He’d rise, then fall. The earth would split as he ran himself deep into the ground.
The Hinata of now, the one who rushes less and stops himself short of burn-out, would tell them, “one day, you'll just know.” They wouldn’t sound like encouraging words out of his mouth, but the truth.
The Kageyama of then and now is aware: he isn’t always one for encouraging words. But what he does get is how to answer them, in the language he knows best.
A serve comes from the other side, and then a bump. When the ball comes towards him, Kageyama puts his hands up to speak.
Up towards the ceiling, the ball rises so that someone may strike it down.
Today, this does not belong to Hinata. But tomorrow, surely, one will.
For now, a separation.
The fever ends, and Hinata returns after five days of bed rest.
“Took you long enough,” Kageyama says, as they meet just outside school grounds. They never plan this. Yet, this morning dash is something they come to expect of each other; because even though Kageyama’s already warmed up from his previous run, he knows that this is one to be won — and that the idiot, running just behind him, will never stop trying to close the distance.
As usual, Kageyama wins the race, but Hinata is the first to pry the gymnasium doors open. He throws his arms out wide and peels his head up, fever broken, stomped on.
“Let’s go,” Kageyama hears. He realizes Hinata hasn't muttered a thing. It's all in his head until it isn't; because Hinata can speak in the same motions he does, wordless and too loud to ignore.
“You don't have to tell me twice,” Kageyama says to him, words out of thin air.
Hinata looks back, confused for a moment, before understanding.
None of them are boys anymore, but beings on the verge of something new. By their third year, they take up new numbers, both in jersey and height, and speak of responsible things like protein intake and carbo-loading and deadlift PR’s. Kageyama, years ahead, already knows that the body can talk: that this unspoken thing of bone, of muscle, will say everything by the way of growth and hurt. It sweats when he's played hard. It digests his food and molds it into fuel, then new muscle. It sleeps, when he's done all he can, and then some more, and rises without an alarm.
Hinata rises when he jumps, but higher than before. When they record his new vertical reach for a tournament pamphlet, he scores a new personal best.
“Careful, or you might touch the ceiling,” Yamaguchi teases.
Kageyama hadn’t noticed before, that the others speak to their bodies, too. How backs broaden and twiggy legs turn to trunks. That separation is not just about distance, but the way muscles make lines across skin, and that even the scrawniest of boys, with time and hard work, can turn into men.
This is an observation he knows he will forget, maybe within the hour, the next five minutes. Noticed things turn into normal things, and soon enough they're invisible again.
Still, Kageyama writes down the new number in his notebook. He thinks of ways to get the ball to this new body, and how it will eventually outgrow his notes again.
At the end of their last match at nationals, a scout approaches Kageyama and tells him he is from the V-League. He says he is impressed: by Kageyama’s height, his build, and most importantly, his abilities on the court as a setter.
The scout’s words fall away, then approach Kageyama again, piecemeal and foreign. He doesn't hear what team he’s from, or which prefecture he'll have to leave for, or how he’ll have to get there. All he knows are the things that reach him, the things that defy nouns and adjectives and vocabulary: after high school, starting setter, you'll reach these stages again —
— but better.
Kageyama doesn't remember how he responds to the scout. In that moment, he cannot even remember his name. His age. If the answer came out in a yell or gargled up his throat.
All he knows, and always knows, is that it amounts to a yes.
“Well, that's good to hear,” the scout says. “We’ll see you, come summer.”
In bodies, and time, come separation.
On graduation day, Kageyama does notice the empty chair this time. He also notices when his older sister, Miwa, places a volleyball on the seat. It's old, and peeling in its synthetic leather. The colors have worn. Grandfather.
That spring, Kageyama collects his certifications. At the end, they sing Hotaru no Hikari, and his mother buys him flowers. When they all gather together at the gate, another chapter nearly closed, he pretends not to notice the empty space their family keeps on the sidewalk.
“Do you want to go eat something?” Miwa asks him after the ceremony. “We could get you curry. I'll even make sure you get an egg on top.”
“Later,” he says, arms still wrapped around the volleyball. “Right now, there's something else I'd like to do.”
Regardless of things like life and death, one stage into the next, the old man remains. He lives in the threads of the ball, the small force of Kageyama’s favorite metal nail clipper. He exists again, every time Kageyama runs up an incline, and comforts him, on the downhill back home. He is the pencil scribbles in his notebook, the rewound tapes, and sayings on tournament t-shirts: SETTER’S SOUL, it says, he says, which Kageyama still keeps even though he's long outgrown it.
Into the gym, he takes his grandfather with him. Huddled in his arms, he sees what Kageyama has gotten to see: the hardwood, the net, up and ready for a jump serve.
”Here we are.”
Kageyama thinks about making prayers, before realizing he knows none. That to him, missing someone is not a matter of spoken prayers, or offerings, but how one moves forward with all they'd been given. His grandfather wouldn’t have minded that, he thinks. Proud, his grandfather would've said, remember me, sure, but only in the way you know best.
Head to ball, Kageyama decides not to pray. Instead, he reminds his grandfather not of nationals games, or finals, or games where people flew and made monsters of themselves. He tells him about that all the time. That for the years he spent at Karasuno High School, a crow, he was also once a little falcon, botching serves on purpose in the fear of a game that would end too soon.
Do you remember that day?
Why, of course I remember that day, Tobio. What about it?
Kageyama throws the ball into the air. When he jumps and makes relentless contact, he hopes his grandfather feels it, somewhere — not as a prayer, but an assurance.
I just wanted to tell you that I don't botch serves anymore.
That's great, Tobio. And what about the people you play with? Do they make you better?
On the other side of the net, hands come together in fists, and arms raise to receive a high school setter’s last serve. The ball bounces away, like all the others before it, but neither of them go to save the things lost to time and distance.
“See you later, Kageyama!” Hinata says, out of nowhere.
“Yeah,” Kageyama tells him right back. “See you later.”
With movement, comes separation.
In 2016, a setter for the Schweiden Adlers signs autographs for children. At first, he's not sure what to make of the task; he's heard of the Oikawa story, where he once approached an Argentinian pro as a child to get — of all things — a jockstrap signed, and it was completely fine (the jockstrap only went through the wash once), and the fact that children are not all like small animals (because some small animals are adults anyway, while some children, already primed to play volleyball, are tall and built for their age). Still, Kageyama Tobio knows nothing about interacting with children big or small, and this shows when they give him gifts and compliments and autograph boards and all he can do is accidentally scowl.
Luckily, the children don't cry. Well — sometimes they do cry, even wail, but that's because they're nervous, he tells himself. Sometimes, they want to take pictures, thinking he's Ushijima. They like high fives and autographs on arm casts. They wear jerseys with Kageyama's name on them. Some of the children even remind him of Hinata, with their big-eyed stares, and their insistence that one day, they will come to defeat him.
Kageyama doesn’t mind them, even the Hinata-copycats. Even though he’ll never know a thing about children, and whether or not they still like other things like Tikachu, or what kind of video games they're into, he knows he’ll be just fine, when he sees them, carrying their own balls and wearing their own knee pads.
“So, what's your favorite part of the game?” he hears the giant bird mascot, Adloo, ask over a group of numerous children.
“Playing!” one says. “Getting my hands on the ball and making it go, fwuah!”
Kageyama does not scowl this time. Knowing their language is enough for him to sign a million illegible autographs.
“Kageyama-senpai, Kageyama-senpai!” one of boys shouts at him. “I have a question for you!”
“Yes. Me. That’s.” Tongue-tied, he wasn’t expecting to field any inquiries today. “Yes, me.” He points to the back of his jersey, number 20, to clarify.
“Is it true?” the boy asks, undeterred. “That you'll be going to the Olympics this summer?”
The Olympics. The mere mention of this makes something rise up in him with a geyser’s force. The physical therapist would have said something about blood pressure. Regardless of what it is, Kageyama has already watched tape on all the qualifying countries, and taken notes on all the other setters, both starting and backup. He has nightmares about it, honestly, but the good kind, because all they want to make him do is jump out of bed, hit the court running, and take his place on a stage he's never seen before in his life.
He opens his mouth to start, before inhaling. He stops to find the words.
“Yes,” he says, and it is resounding. “Yes, I am.”
In Rio de Janeiro, Kageyama never thinks about the beach. He only remembers its existence when he sits on his room balcony for the first time, with an enamel board, a nail clipper, and a journal in his lap.
“Did you guys hear?” someone on the Olympic judo team had asked a few hours before, as they marched in the opening ceremony. “Everyone on the indoor volleyball team has a view of the beach! What about us? What’s that?”
“So?” Kageyama had countered, under the blanket of noise and light.
“What do you mean, so?”
“Doesn't every country have an ocean somewhere? Sand?”
(From then on, the entirety of the men’s judo team would call Kageyama joyless behind his back. The swimmers, catching wind of the rooms, would bargain for a trade later that night.)
Regardless, it only takes Kageyama a moment to affirm that he doesn't care about the sand, or the beach, or the lights, or the view, and that a room is just a room, regardless if it's in the Olympic Village. Because even if he can make out the lights down the coast, and the ant lines of new people, he knows where his line of vision stands, above the rest; that a few kilometers from his room with a view, is a stadium that houses air salonpas and games and victories that aren’t his yet.
Kageyama inhales, then forces the air out after six seconds. He follows this routine a few more times, as instructed by the physical therapist; because one must remember to breathe, as much as they play, until they become one.
He contemplates the word joyless, but doesn't take offense. He never does. Because even in elementary school, when the other kids chided him for the lack of video games, and manga, and toys, he’s always known that joy is something one finds on their own terms. For some, it is judo. Swimming. The touch of the ball on bare hands.
When he's done with his breathing exercises, and taking care of his nails before bed, he gives the view a try. Past the palm trees, and the different ways the buildings rise from Tokyo’s, Kageyama squints when he finds nothing but another city; that every country, no matter where he goes, is simply somewhere new to play.
Kageyama spots, instead, a net rising, just over the horizon on the beach. Two people, instead of six, rise and fall together on one side, only to find the ball again. The sand kicks up. Even there, people know how to fly.
Hinata runs across the back of Kageyama's mind, never a still image. He comes in waves: Hinata, the non-Olympian, standing in front of that giant Jesus statue and yelling, Obrigato! in the only LINE video he’s ever learned to post in the group chat; Hinata, who must always get sand in his pants and up his nose, and sun tans that burn when someone slaps him on the back. It occurs to Kageyama that Hinata still exists, not just in Miyagi, but here, regardless of the barely-there phone calls, the non-existent texts. That someday, when this city is said and done, Hinata will be there, on the other side of the net.
Out comes the notebook, a pen.
Hinata, he writes for himself, and no one else. He'll be dangerous when he learns to play in the sand.
Across the city, Hinata watches Kageyama play on national television. He rides on, knowing he'll be next to face him —
— and that people, even in separation, don't forget.
They don’t go all the way, in Rio de Janeiro. While several judo team members receive gold medals, and the swimmers get to stand on podiums, Kageyama goes home with nothing but a bigger appetite than before.
”I’ll take A5,” he tells a waitress, pointing to a menu. “With three extra over-easy eggs on top.”
Once upon a time, Kageyama had cried over his meal after a loss. It was after his first inter-high, following a three-set loss to Seijou. As he ate, he was surprised he still could, until hunger devolved into more hunger ad nauseam. It took a few more losses, and eliminations, until he began to understand what his body had said then: that your stomach is not empty from loss, Tobio, but the things left to fill and the victories unsaid.
That night, Kageyama slips one of his eggs onto an empty plate across from him. He doesn’t feel like crying tonight, but he knows others do.
“Eat,” he says, while a teammate takes his first bite in tears.
Kageyama Tobio is twenty-one years old when he finds Hinata again, on the other side of the net.
Kageyama remembers, and Kageyama forgets. Meals come and go, as do the lines he reads for curry commercials; words, learned for exams and long un-remembered, will never be needed again. But what lives in him, past remembrance, past forgetting and remembering again, is the promise he's made — by the touch of the ball, by the graze of his hands.
Hinata, always out of nowhere, everywhere, receives the message. The ball flies up, his today, and reminds Kageyama of the people who speak his language.
Well, I don't know any beautiful words, Kageyama thinks. But the ball spins, on and on, and that's enough.