Thirty minutes into their study session, Hinata lets out a loud groan, startling Hitoka out of her focus. She gasps and Hinata turns his head where it’s pressed to the surface of the table.
“Sorry, Yachi-san,” he mumbles.
Across from them, Tsukishima rolls his eyes. “You’re not going to pass if you can’t focus. You don’t want to fail again, do you?” He smirks. “Though we don’t need you to get to Nationals anyway.”
Predictably, Hinata shoots straight up at this, scowling at Tsukishima. “Shut up!” he squawks. “You do too need me!”
Tsukishima shrugs. “Do we need someone who can’t be counted on to make it to our games?”
“I will make it! I’m going to pass this test so hard, and you’ll eat your words—"
Kageyama slams his own head on the table. “Both of you, shut up!” he roars. “Stop making so much noise! I can’t concentrate!” He stares at the math worksheet in front of him, frustration creasing his forehead. “None of this makes sense!”
Yamaguchi pats Kageyama’s shoulder, leaning over to look at the sheet. “I think you’re doing the wrong side of the paper, Kageyama-kun,” he says kindly. “You might have better luck starting from the first question.”
Kageyama stares at him, then flips the page over, expression turning deadly.
“Um,” Hitoka says timidly. The boys’ eyes turn to her simultaneously. “Maybe we need a break? I can get us snacks.”
Kageyama and Hinata brighten visibly at this. “Snacks!” Hinata repeats, nodding frantically, a grin splitting his face. Hitoka returns it, pretending not to see the desperate edge to it that screams I want to procrastinate.
“Thank you, Yachi-san,” Yamaguchi exclaims. Tsukishima echoes him. “Would you like any help?”
“Oh, that’s alright, thank you! It’s no problem!” she says. She gets to her feet and heading to the kitchen. She surveys the contents of the fridge and pantry, deciding on a mixture of fruit, rice crackers, and a box of specialty chocolates her mother brought back from her last trip.
As she cuts the fruit, she hears the swell of another argument between Kageyama and Hinata, their voices loud and bright, harshness undercut with the slightest hints of teasing and affection. Tsukishima mutters something too quiet for her to hear, and Yamaguchi breaks out into peals of laughter, silencing everyone for a moment before Hinata starts to giggle along with him, despite the joke probably being at his expense.
Her apartment has been so much livelier, she muses, since she they decided that her place would be their place to study, despite how out of the way it is for them. Hitoka is used to waking up to silence and harried texts and to the opening of the door late at night. She’s used to exchanging a few loving but tired words with her mother. She hadn’t realized how lonely she felt at home until she was introduced to the constancy of her friends’ presence.
Hitoka brings the food out a few moments later, and Hinata and Yamaguchi cheer loudly.
“You’ve saved us from starvation, Yachi-san!” Yamaguchi cries dramatically. He prostrates himself in front of her and Hitoka squeals with laughter as she dances around his body.
“It was really no big deal,” she assures them, sitting and grabbing a chocolate straight away.
They slowly get back to studying as they eat, the atmosphere warm. Tsukishima and Yamaguchi get roped into helping Hinata with science, their words a comforting drone as Hitoka reabsorbs herself into her English homework. But as she reads, her neck prickles with the sensation of being watched.
She looks up and sees Kageyama glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, brow slightly furrowed. Her heartrate ticks up.
“Is…is something the matter, Kageyama-kun?” she asks quietly.
Kageyama flinches. “Ah, sorry,” he mumbles. “I was just…” He sneaks a glance at the other three, seeming to find them sufficiently distracted. “Yachi-san,” he says seriously. “I was wondering…we’ve been here a few times and stayed late, but your parents don’t seem to be here often.”
Hitoka’s heart gives a strange flop. “Ah, yes,” she says. “Okaa-san’s job is demanding, so she has to leave early and work late, and when she is home, she has deadlines to meet.” She tries to smile. “It’s okay, really! She’s very busy, and I don’t want to bother her too much.”
Kageyama’s frown deepens, and Hitoka is surprised to find understanding in his eyes. “My parents, too,” he admits softly. “They work very hard, and they’re away a lot, so I’m on my own most of the time. My sister comes back often, but…” He seems a little lost, all of a sudden. Hitoka’s smile slips.
Kageyama gets it. He actually gets it. Her heart twists in her chest, a lump rising to her throat.
“It’s lonely, isn’t it?” she whispers. Kageyama meets her gaze, his shoulders hunching. He nods jerkily.
At the same time, they register the silence. Eyes wide, as one, they turn to the others.
Hinata and Yamaguchi stare at them, wounded. Tsukishima’s face is utterly blank. Hitoka exchanges glances with Kageyama, who seems almost as panicked as she does.
“Uh, don’t worry! Everything’s okay!” she squeaks out, gesturing wildly. Kageyama nods again, stolid, eyes darting between them. Another silence falls, awkward and heavy. Hitoka doesn’t know what to do. Kageyama shifts beside her; she sees his hands clench into fists from the corner of her eye.
Finally, Tsukishima lets out a terse breath. He rises abruptly and begins to pack his things.
“Are you leaving?” Hitoka asks, shrill. Tsukishima shakes his head.
“I’m tired of teaching. I want to watch a movie,” he declares. Hinata sucks in a gasp and leaps up, Yamaguchi following with a brilliant smile. “And we can study later this weekend. I think we’ve imposed enough on your hospitality, Yachi-san. We should go to the King’s house next; I’m sure he can host us just as well.”
Hitoka sees the instant Kageyama gets it. He looks away, swallowing, his face red. “You can’t just invite yourself over!” he barks. Tsukishima just raises an eyebrow at him elegantly before turning away.
As they settle onto Hitoka’s small sofa to watch Jurassic Park, Hitoka finds herself squeezed between Yamaguchi and Kageyama. They’re warm and solid around her, and she relaxes. She glances over at Kageyama and finds him already looking at her. He smiles at her, an awkward, gentle, burgeoning thing, and she wonders how she could ever have found him scary.
Quickly, nervously, Hitoka takes his hand and squeezes once, tight and reassuring. She knows they’re thinking the same thing.
It’s not lonely now.
Hitoka doesn’t know what to do.
As they line up for the bus, no one is speaking, faces drawn, jaws tight from biting back tears. Hitoka’s throat closes up and her eyes sting. She bites her lip furiously. What right does she have to cry when it’s her team—her brilliant, glorious, inspiring team—who actually played and won, and won, and won, and then…lost. She’s just Villager B. She’s not the main character in this story.
Hitoka swipes at her eyes, hands clenching around her bag. She should be finding something to say, do, help somehow. But what can she do? What can she do?
A hand lands on her shoulder. Hitoka looks up into Shimizu’s wan, tear-streaked face.
“Senpai,” Hitoka whispers. “I’m sorry.” She bows her head. “I don’t know what to do.”
Shimizu shakes her head, squeezing Hitoka’s shoulder until she looks up. She smiles.
“The only thing we can do,” her senpai murmurs, “as their managers and as their friends, is be there for them.”
Hitoka nods, her heart in her throat.
“And grieve with them,” Shimizu adds, her eyes knowing and warm. “It’s our loss, too, Hitoka-chan. We’re just as much a part of this team as the players are.”
Hitoka’s nod is slower this time. Shimizu sends her one final smile before stepping into the bus.
Hitoka follows. She watches Shimizu slide into a seat next to Asahi, a seat behind Daichi and Sugawara. The third years are an island of their own, exhaustion and sorrow and, amazingly, pride on their faces. Hitoka looks away, allowing them their privacy, and slides into a seat of her own in the front, fisting her hands in her skirt.
She watches as the second years slink into the bus and take their own seats, forming their own little pods of comfort. Murmurs rise from them, finally breaking the silence, but Hitoka isn’t listening.
Hinata walks up the steps, mask dangling under his chin. His eyes are dull and distant even as they are unnaturally bright—he was still running a slight fever when he was discharged, which the doctors assured them would resolve with adequate rest and nutrition. His face is so blank Hitoka actually shivers when she sees him.
Hinata slumps into a seat behind her. Hitoka turns in her seat and opens her mouth to say—what? What on earth can she possibly say?
Hinata notices. He looks up and sends her the fakest smile she’s ever seen in her life. “I’m fine, Yachi-san,” he says quietly. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Fine,” a voice scoffs. Hitoka looks up to see Tsukishima looming over them, his eyes boring daggers into Hinata’s skull.
Hinata shrivels, looking away. He shrugs.
Tsukishima scoffs again. “What could possibly be fine about this?” he demands. “We both failed when it most counted, didn’t we? Your fever, my leg.”
Hitoka flinches, startled by the vitriol in his voice. “Tsukishima-kun,” she says. “That’s not fair.”
He stares at her, lip curling.
“It’s not,” Hitoka insists. “There was nothing more we could have done.”
“It’s not enough,” Tsukishima says roughly. His eyes glitter alarmingly as he barks a bitter laugh.
Oh. It’s then that Hitoka understands. Tsukishima isn’t angry at them; he’s angry for them.
“It’s not,” Hinata echoes, making eye contact with Tsukishima. For one instant, Hitoka watches understanding pass between them, a resolution of sorts. To get better, Hitoka thinks. To be better.
Without another word, Tsukishima sits next to Hinata. Hinata sighs, and slowly, he tilts sideways to rest his head on Tsukishima’s shoulder.
Hitoka’s heart fills. Seized by a sudden, trembling courage, she gets up and squeezes into the seat next to Tsukishima. It’s an incredibly tight squeeze, but he puts an arm around her, and she rests her head on his shoulder, too, reaching across him to hold Hinata’s hand.
Through teary eyes, she watches Yamaguchi and Kageyama get on board. They don’t say a word about the three of them squeezed into the seat, just slide into the seat across from them. Hitoka watches in sad but quiet contentment as Yamaguchi wraps an arm around Kageyama, the setter slowly melting to lean into the comfort. She reaches her other hand across for Yamaguchi to grab, exchanging solemn gazes with Kageyama as she does.
It’s uncomfortable; Hitoka will probably have to let go when her arm falls asleep. But this is exactly where she is meant to be.
And despite everything, with her friends surrounding her, Hitoka can’t help but smile.
Hitoka erases the message, types it, erases it again. Her heart hammers against her chest, blood roaring dully in her ears.
Hi, Runa-chan! I was wondering if you might want to see a movie with me next weekend?
She pauses, then deletes it.
“Oh, Yacchan,” Yamaguchi says into her ear. She screeches, phone nearly flying from her fingers.
Yamaguchi laughs brightly, slipping into the seat across from her. Tsukishima sits beside him, an amused smirk dancing on his lips.
“Still haven’t sent it, huh?” he says, shooting Yamaguchi a I told you so look.
Hitoka scowls at him. “There’s a lot to think about!” she protests. “I have to make sure it’s inviting and casual, and not demanding, and also make it clear it’s a date and not just a hangout, but also give her room to reject me if she wants—”
“Who’s going to reject you?” Hinata comes bounding up to the table, crowding into the seat beside Hitoka with flailing limbs. Kageyama sits beside him, swatting him upside the head for apparently no reason. Hinata frowns at him.
Sensing the impending fight, Hitoka quickly says, “Runa-chan. Maybe!”
“Maybe?” Kageyama echoes. He stabs his milk with the straw. “You still haven’t sent it?”
Hitoka groans and lets her head hit the table. A second later, she feels a hand patting her head sympathetically. “There, there, Yacchan,” Hinata says.
“I don’t get it,” Kageyama says bluntly. “If you like her and she likes you, what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know for sure that she likes me!”
Tsukishima snorts. “Then you’d be the only one. She couldn’t stop looking at you during our last practice match with Johzenji. Everyone noticed.”
Hitoka blushes furiously. “It’s just…not that simple,” she mutters.
Kageyama shrugs. “I think it is.”
Hitoka frowns at him. “How did you and Hinata-kun get together, then? I’m sure it wasn’t as easy as you make it sound.”
Yamaguchi giggles. “You’d be surprised,” he whispers.
Hinata nods emphatically. “I figured out I liked him after that one practice Ennoshita-san made us stay late to clean the gym, and then I told him when we were walking home. And then he said, ‘Okay, I like you, too.’ And then we bought meat buns and practiced more volleyball at his house.”
Hitoka gapes at him. “That’s it?”
To her surprise, Kageyama goes red. “Well, there was…other stuff,” he mumbles.
Hinata beams at him. “Other stuff like this,” he chirps, then grabs Kageyama’s shirt and hauls him in for a kiss.
“Dumbass!” Kageyama shouts when they separate, and not even the verbal barrage that follows can hide the love-struck smile on his face.
Over the yelling, Yamaguchi shares a fond grin with Hitoka. Tsukishima sighs, put-upon. “Well, they operate differently than most humans with complex thought do.”
“So, you and Yamaguchi-kun got together…less simply?”
They exchange glances. “Well, kind of?” Yamaguchi says. “We’re childhood friends, so there was a lot of history there. A lot we could have lost, you know? But after our match against Kamomedai last year…” They all grimace. It’s still a sore spot. “After that, I was at Tsukki’s and we were just, uh…” He blushes. “Comforting each other. And one thing led to another—”
“Don’t say it like that,” Tsukishima hisses. His cheeks are glowing, and Hitoka hides a smile behind her hand. He glares at her. “I confessed, he returned my feelings, and it was just…”
“Easy,” Hitoka finishes. “Exactly like Hinata-kun and Kageyama-kun.”
“Not exactly!” Yamaguchi cries, a laugh in his voice, just as Tsukishima screws up his face in disgust and says, “Never compare us to them again.”
Hitoka sighs heavily, the noise drawing Hinata and Kageyama’s attention again.
“I don’t have the confidence you all do,” she confesses. “I keep thinking, what’ll happen if the date goes horribly? What if we break up and I lose a good friend?”
Hinata pats her head again. “I get it, Yacchan. But think of it this way. There’s never a time you’ll be ready to do a serve until the very moment you do it, and no certain way to know if it’s in or out or received. All you can do is hope, and something horrible could come of it—” His gaze flickers to Kageyama, no doubt recalling the ball sent at his head. “—or something really, really good could, too.”
“Seriously, do they only speak in volleyball?” Tsukishima mutters.
“Shut up, Tsukki,” Yamaguchi chides.
Surprisingly, the metaphor helps. Or maybe it’s the fact that Hitoka is sitting outside on a beautifully sunny day, her friends surrounding and supporting her as they always will, no matter what happens.
“Thank you, Hinata-kun,” she says. She looks at the others, smiling. “Thank you all.”
She grabs her phone, types the message out, and hits send.
Usually, the trip to the large hill by Hinata’s house, the one that has been their stargazing spot since second year, is filled with chatter, laughter, and light-hearted bickering. Tonight, the night before graduation, it’s somber, each step laden with the heavy understanding that this is the last time they’ll be doing this for a while. Kageyama and Hinata lead them, their fingers laced and expressions muted, murmuring quietly between themselves. Hitoka has her arm through Yamaguchi’s, who holds Tsukishima’s free hand, the other occupied by a bag of glowsticks.
They reach the top of the hill and stop.
Sendai is a big city, and even with the quiet and relative lack of light pollution that Hinata’s area affords them, they usually only see a few scattered in the sky. Tonight, the sky is crystal clear, the stars across the sky like diamonds on deep-blue velvet, utterly resplendent.
“Look!” Kageyama whispers, pointing up at the moon, a sliver nestled among the pinpricks. There’s a wondering smile on his face, and Hitoka feels herself and the others smile at his childish excitement. She pulls out a glowstick and holds it, basking in the faint warmth against her fingers, and then hands the rest of them out with a smile.
Silently, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, their own little stars glowing in their palms. They’re beacons, Hitoka thinks, a reminder that even in different parts of Japan, different parts of the world, the stars connect them, both in the heavens and on earth.
“When we’re apart,” Yamaguchi murmurs, echoing her thoughts, “we should remember all the times we’ve come here. All the good memories we’ve had together.” He cuts himself off, his throat working sharply.
“It’s not the end,” Hinata says softly. There’s a quiet certainty in his voice, a steadiness that has only grown in him since first year. “We’ll talk all the time, and video-call, and visit. We’ll be friends forever, you’ll see.”
Kageyama snorts. “You’ll be blowing up our phones with messages, won’t you?”
Hinata grins. “You bet! You won’t even have time to miss me!”
Tsukishima has been silent this whole time. When he turns to them, everyone quiets. “I’ll only say this once,” he says roughly, unsteadily. “I will miss you. All of you. Thank you all for being the best friends I could have had.”
Under the moonlight, his face shines with tears.
The world blurs in front of Hitoka’s own eyes. A hand sneaks into hers—Yamaguchi’s, solid and grounding—and she’s tugged forward into her best friends’ embrace as they crowd into a hug.
Hitoka thinks of distance, of being cities and countries apart, of adulthood and the terrifying precipice of the future ahead. She thinks of volleyball, of connecting, of secrets and hugs shared, of the lock-screen picture they all have saved. She thinks of the golden, intertwined spans of the rest of their lives, and like Hinata, she knows.
Love like this will last forever.