“It should only take a few days,” Daichi says, voice hoarse yet strong as though he’d always spoken with dust in his lungs. He coughs and Tsukishima looks at him. His skin is sallow, once celebrated muscles leaned out by sickness and malnutrition, daily strain. He turns his eyes back to the egg yolk yellow glow of the sun. “Please, Tsukishima. I know you can do it.”
He nods curtly, refusing to bring his eyes away from the line of ruptured roofs on the horizon. The view wavers either with heat or his own sway of chronic fatigue. “I just don’t…” He trails off, interrupted by the sound of wheezing laughter a few paces away. Tanaka is crouched over Nishinoya’s half-laying form alongside the shed where the community keeps their foodstuffs, blocking him from the glare of the midday sun. Their grins are identical, reminding him briefly of practices at the Karasuno gym, before the seeming eternity of what has happened since. Nishinoya’s eyes don’t look quite so bloodshot in the shade. “I’d rather not have him with me,” he finishes. Stubbornly, he blinks back to Daichi, doesn’t say you need him more here.
Daichi smiles, or at least attempts it with a weak pull of his lips. “Nonsense!” He gives him a good-natured pat and a knowing look. “We’ll be fine. Besides, he’s the only other healthy one here!”
Tanaka strolls up as if on cue, mouth thoughtfully down-turned. It then splits into a blinding grin and he slings an arm over Tsukishima’s shoulders, skin gritty and sticky over him in the boiling sunlight. “Ready?”
With a frown, he tries vainly to free himself. One day with such a loud personality is unimaginable, let alone a few of them. “Of course. Just sit quietly in the passenger seat until you can be useful for something.” He gets a rough head rub in response, which leaves him ruffled and his hair charged with static. Daichi ignores his pleading look.
Tanaka finally releases him in order to peer into the dusty window of the car, some compact thing with a Toyota symbol on the front and a thinning coat of forest green paint. “Can you really do this?” He asks doubtfully, inching away from the door so that Tsukishima can open it and get to the steering wheel.
He doesn’t grace him with an answer, instead quickly pulling the plastic cover off and wrenching at the coils within. It takes a bit of finagling to get the battery wires to spark, but when the engine spurts to life his eyes soften at the corners, lips curling slightly in satisfaction. Once he’s broken the steering lock he lets himself glance back casually, eyebrows upturned in innocent question. “You were saying?”
Tanaka shoves his back hard with a gruff laugh, almost toppling him into the front seat. “You lanky genius! Who knew that old book you’d found was actually good for something?” He doesn’t help him straighten up, jogging to the passenger side of the car while Tsukishima delicately resettles the frames on his face.
By the time Sugawara has given the thumbs up, after shuffling around the car to double-check supplies and the integrity of the vehicle, the sunset has blossomed into an apprehensive pink blush. Those healthy enough in the community to walk have congregated along the edges of the clearing to see them off. He ignores the line of mounds at the Southern end of the area, a little wider with the passing of Ennoshita and a few others in the night a short while ago. The gathering is quiet, an unspoken discomfort rippling through them. Asahi and a few of the bigger townspeople raise the wall high enough for the car to get through, and they drive outside the compound with no fanfare, no goodbye aside from a sweeping look at the wan faces around them. It has been a long time since anyone has left the confines at nightfall, but they don’t really have the time to waste.
“Right,” Tanaka’s voice cuts through the stuffiness in the car, before it is choked back into silence. “Uh…” he uncrumples the map on the dashboard and hesitantly traces the penned-in route with a calloused finger. “Just like, follow that I guess.”
The car feels infinitely smaller with the two of them crammed inside, and Tsukishima is too big for his skin. He snorts. “I’ll wake you when it’s time to switch.” Tanaka sighs quietly beside him, releasing some tension as he turns towards the worn synthetic fibers beneath the door handle. With each breath that nudges him closer to sleep, Tsukishima feels more comfortable. This is the longest the two of them have spent alone together in….ever, he thinks. Not that he hates Tanaka or anything, but they’ve always kind of run in different circles, personalities never creating more than dissonance, and in the day-to-day demands of surviving their new reality they have been able to put off cultivating their partnership. He fiddles quietly with the radio for a few moments, only to shut it off after his third journey through various flavors of white noise. The route is fairly straightforward, bringing them first across the plains surrounding the smaller town the team had found themselves in when months of unseasonably warm temperatures had accumulated into the most devastating bout of dust storms this country had ever seen, which only went unaddressed by the many agencies dedicated to disaster relief because climate change had wreaked havoc in other overwhelming ways the world over.
He peeks idly through the rear view window, meeting nothing but desert brush and cracked asphalt through the windblown surface of the glass. Talk about a bad time to be abroad for a volleyball tournament. He steers his mind away from hovering thoughts of his family and glances instead at the moon where it strengthens its claim in the sky with the fall of the sun. Ironically, with the growing size and intensity of the sun, Hinata had succumbed quite violently to what they were simply calling the Heat Sickness. He weakened with each passing day, until one morning he didn’t awaken at all, and had been comatose ever since. But he held onto life with a shallow breath that the others had not mirrored, reminding everyone around him of the graves they had already dug, might need to continue digging. The next town is just beyond the beginning of more mountainous terrain, according to the map, but it shouldn’t be so steep that the car wouldn’t be able to handle it. Some people from their compound had made the trip before. A lot had happened since that first case, what with symptoms appearing across the compound, climbing casualties, and attempts to stretch both food and medicinal rations losing their effectiveness. An itch of guilt bothers him then, realizing that he isn’t sure exactly how long the redhead has been sick. The moon’s light streams through the window, illuminating the map before him. It is peaceful.
Driving like a dream, he dozes in and out of focus on the world around him. The miles stretch before and behind him in a dizzying repetition of dehydrated plants, bubbling concrete, and never-ending sand. He is a sleepwalker bathed in moonlight and the soft snores beside him, the passage of time acknowledged only by an insistent tickle at his throat, which he refuses to let past his lips. He doesn’t realize he has driven into a ditch until Tanaka jolts awake beside him and lets loose a stream of curses, which all hit him in waves dampened by the stinging around his eyelids.
“What the hell, man?!” Tanaka’s voice is booming, and Tsukishima curls over the steering wheel in response. He’s just so damn loud. He watches from his protective crouch while Tanaka looks wildly out the window, wishes Yamaguchi were there instead. He blinks slowly. Suddenly Tanaka is out of the car, across the hood, and pounding on his window. “Get out,” he says with authority.
He shakes his head, brows furrowing in a mix of irritation and confusion. “ ‘m Fine.”
“I said get out. It’s gotta be past noon.” He draws a circle in the air with his fingers and looks at him expectantly. “My turn.”
Tsukishima crosses his arms over his chest and leans all the way back until the tips of his hair are scratching the head rest. “Drop your play for dominance, I said I got it,” he grits out. It’s too hot for this bull shit. “Come on, let’s go.” Tanaka launches his arm out, preventing him from grabbing the steering wheel again. “What’s your problem!?”
“No. We need to switch because you’re asleep on your feet.” Distaste curdles his veins, reminding him for the umpteenth time how much he hates these combative types. Tanaka is leaning into his space now. “…Your eyes are a bit red.” He swallows, resisting the urge to flinch back. Tanaka continues, “when’s the last time you slept, anyway?”
Tsukishima climbs reluctantly out of the seat and over the center console, if only to get the upperclassman off his back. Thankfully, he’s an idiot. “I don’t know. When’s the last time Nishinoya stood up?” It’s a low blow, he knows, but prying never won many points with him. Obviously, it has been a while since any of them slept well, so he doesn’t even bother answering. “Get in, then. We should pass an old gas station by tomorrow afternoon. There might be something we can use there.”
Tanaka stares at him silently until he has settled in the passenger seat. Then he forces out a heavy breath, gripping the short hair at the nape of his neck, before plopping down himself and slamming the door shut. The car crawls out of the ditch, them both breathing quietly beneath the suddenly oppressive heat pushing them towards the opposite walls of the vehicle, away from each other. Tsukishima means to stay alert, to give Tanaka pointers and make sure he’s following the map correctly, but after a few miles of watching his straight posture and sharp gaze out of the windshield, something in him relaxes enough to turn his stinging eyes towards the window, to count the tumbleweeds he passes or follow the sun across the landscape. Tanaka’s arms ripple slightly with the minute movements of keeping the car centered in the lane, and his face scowls out at the road—passively like he’s arguing with a memory. It’s different than when he’d try to intimidate a neighboring team. Tsukishima nods to himself, let’s himself space out in the passenger seat, which is as close as he could hope to get towards sleeping. Again, time passes beyond him like knowledge of melting ice caps—undeniable yet completely disconnected, irrelevant to his own reality. When he is once again aware of the rumbling road beneath him, he unfolds himself from the seat, placing his tingling legs on the dirty mat below. “So how long do you think he has,” he asks before the thought has fully solidified in his mind.
Tanaka’s grip barely tightens on the steering wheel. “Excuse me?”
It’s too late to go back, and now that he thinks about it, a reasonable question. “Nishinoya. How long do you think he has? Like Yamaguchi has been coughing nonstop, so I think he’s got another week and a half at most—“
“They’ll be fine,” Tanaka spits, the words bullets from his mouth.
He sits up with a frown. “Well yeah, that’s why we’re getting more medicine. I’m just saying,” his fingers form a triangle in his lap, lazy and loose, “if you had to say objectively—how long?”
The car speeds up a little, pale brush zipping by. “What I have to say is that is that it doesn’t matter. They’ll be fine.”
Tsukishima scoffs quietly, peeling a bit of the plastic off the dashboard before dropping it to be swallowed by the grime around his shoes. “It’s not like they’re going to die if you think about it. It’s just better to be prepar—“
“Nah. I don’t need to think about it because they’ll be fine. How close are we?” He nudges the map towards him and glares out of the windshield, eyes hard and face closed off, in a way that it rarely ever was, before.
Tsukishima watches him for a few moments with pursed lips. For someone who is usually so expressive, he shuts down quite well. Kind of like his brother. He jolts up, snatches the map from the windshield and peers into it like he’s reading for something that isn’t quite there. He does not think about his brother.
“Take a right here, it should be past that group of boulders.” Tanaka nods and they inch down the slope in relative silence, air filling with the chatter of crunching gravel. At the edges of the rocks he spies the gaunt looks of three or four dogs, probably house pets turned wild after abandonment and hardship. They slink out of sight and he removes his glasses temporarily to wipe the sweat from the bridge of his nose. When they do not appear again, he relaxes. They back into a space between more rocks farther on, making sure the car is out of sight but not bothering with the locks, since nobody should be out here anyway. But you never know. Tanaka hops out of the driver’s seat with a childlike enthusiasm, earlier tenseness shed like old skin. He leads the way towards the old gas station from the map, and they come upon it suddenly. Or at least, they think they do. Tsukishima decides the word 'deserted' is wildly inefficient as he slinks around the one or two pumps still standing above the sand. There’s a portion of a store front exposed to the sun.
It has been gutted, the carcass of a great beast with broken shelves sanded down by countless winds bringing debris and gravel with them. There is nothing they can take from here. He jams his hands into his threadbare pockets and glances around blankly before training his eyes on the back of Tanaka’s head. He replays their earlier conversation, pointedly does not think about his brother. “Um.” He squints at the ground, forces away the tickle in his throat with willpower. “By the way….”
“Yo, Tsukishima,” Tanaka interrupts him, appearing on the other side of one of the shelving units with his canines glinting in the biting light. “Try to block me.” He holds one of the many tumble weeds above his shoulder, this one tightly wound and about the size of a volleyball.
He blinks owlishly in the face of that smile. “You can’t be serious.”
“What, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how to play?” He winks irritatingly, but his expression is clear, open. “It’s fine,” he replies to the apology caught in the furrow between Tsukishima’s brows. “Come on."
He tips his head towards the sky and exhales, allowing the tension and the guilt to drain out of his face and evaporate into the cloudless afternoon. Yamaguchi had told him countless times that he was too serious with the more extroverted members of the team, that he held onto too much. If he were here now he'd probably remind him again, and Tsukishima would tell him to shut up without a second thought, ignoring the snickers which would undoubtedly follow.
But he isn't around, so there's no point in going through the act. Might as well give the whole "letting things go" method a try. He shuffles to the center of the shelving unit on the opposite side and brings his arms loosely to chest level, curled like lazy questions. "This is pretty dumb, but I'll humor you since you're an upperclassman and all." A smirk blooms onto his face for the first in what feels like a long time.
Tanaka grins in kind, mouth angled sharp and mean, but his voice comes out warm with none of that bite. "You're gonna eat your words, you little shit." He backs away some and pauses long enough for concentration to quietly eclipse his features, before running forward in a jump serve. Tsukishima waits where he is, jumping a moment earlier than he had imagined he would need to, slamming the tumbleweed out of the air. Its quiet scrape against the sand does little to satisfy, but Tanaka's splutter makes up for it.
"I'm a little rusty! Best 4 out of 5!" He catches the weed with ease when Tsukishima pops it over the shelf, and before he has really readied himself for the next round, Tanaka has dumped the coil of thorns right back over. "Eye's on the prize, pretty boy," he sings.
"That's really mature." He shakes his head to cover up the smile tickling his features.
"I'm sure you know all about 'mature', you kill joy on stilts," He huffs a laugh and skips to midway behind the shelf, preparing to square off for the third round. This time, he actually gives Tsukishima a chance to get ready, and he can't stop the feeling that this is...kind of nice. He hasn't done anything playful in a while, especially since Yamaguchi's deterioration. The air doesn't feel quite so heavy. "Well what are you waiting for? Come on, baldy." He wouldn't say he's taking this seriously, exactly, but if he slacks off too much Tanaka will break the tie, which is unacceptable. They play a few rounds like that, trading points but not really keeping score. So focused are they on their game that they're both surprised at their interruption.
"Hey! What are y'all doing?" The intruder is a short girl with frizzy black locks, stretched out taut in a protective frame around her face, fried by unrelenting sun. She grips a thick stick with one hand and does not give them a chance to reply. "This's my territory! Whatever you've found is mine, got it?"
Tsukishima scowls, arms crossing before him as he stretches to his full height. Even in the middle of the desert, there are annoying short people. Will wonders ever cease?
Tanaka takes a different route, coming from around the shelving unit and exposing his palms appeasingly. "We don't mean any harm. Didn't take anything either."
"Not that there was anything to take," he can't help but interject, which earns him a look from the upperclassman.
"We're on our way to the next town over, just stopped for a bit of volleyball." His smile this time is softer, eyes gleaming with friendliness. Tsukishima frowns deeper, wondering how he can be this kind to thanklessly rude people. Like strange gremlins with Napoleon complexes. Often, like himself.
The girl hums decisively, hair stiff and short where it moves with her nodding head, many freckles dancing with the movement. "I get you, no harm no foul. Can't stay here though." She thinks for a moment, adding, "there's a storm coming, by the way. And there's dogs. Best o' luck on your travels, but you should probably go."
They don't wait around, leaving the tumbleweed behind them as they stroll unhurriedly in the direction of where they've parked. Her attitude is understandably gruff, had a stranger approached them on the road or nearer to their own territory, anyone from their compound would have acted the same. The trek back is silent, rocks casting long shadows where the day inches towards evening, and Tsukishima slows when they approach the vehicle, just to make sure that they haven't been followed. They haven't.
"Not that there was anything to take," Tanaka mocks suddenly, pushing an index finger to adjust an imaginary pair of glasses on his nose.
He halts and then gives an unimpressed huff. "Well, there wasn't."
"I know," he chuckles and offers a conspiratory grin over the top of the car, "but you didn't have to say it!"
"Oh no, I most certainly did." The smirk betrays his bland tone, settling over his face without permission, and some unknown tension leaves him again. Maybe Tanaka isn't so unbearable, he decides. "Ugh," he grimaces at the wheel by his foot, "we're going to have to dig out of some of this sand if--" The words fracture in his throat, split open by a burning sensation that explodes out of his mouth like a homemade firecracker. Loud coughs rip out of him unexpectedly, causing him to bow over the car while they tumble out arrythmically. The lack of air makes him dizzy, but he can't seem to stop the onslaught long enough to sneak a breath. It's over around the end of a minute, but he stays quiet for a few moments afterwards to catch his breath and let the fog in his brain fade.
"Tsukishima," Tanaka tries to stare him down, but he finds several things around them much more interesting to look at. "What was that?"
"Got some dirt in my throat, that's all." He silently curses and nudges a layer of sand away from the wheel with his toes, where it sinks in around his shoe to fill in the progress he'd made. "Just a coincidence, don't worry," he lies, feeling the tickle settle behind his tongue where it has sat for days. Can't jeopardize the mission. "Help me dig this out."
Tanaka gives him another silent once over, before apparently feeling satisfied and crouching down to help dig the car out of its small bed. It doesn't take long, but sunset comes fast out in the desert, and an inflamed glow coats them and their surroundings when they climb back into the vehicle, Tanaka back in the driver's seat. He doesn't start the engine for a while, and when Tsukishima gives him a questioning look he just points out the left corner of the windshield. What Tsukishima had passed off as an ugly formation of brush turns out to be a shivering cloud of dust lumbering over the sand and devouring everything in its path. He sighs, no stranger to the whims of the landscape, realizing that the storm the girl had spoken of was more than an attempt to make them leave. They sit in the car and idly watch the beast blow closer, before Tanaka shifts his seat back and mutters, "guess we're spending the night. Better get some sleep."
The sweat from their earlier game has cooled the fabric of his t-shirt, and he focuses on that instead of the desire to yawn when Tanaka does. "Mm," he responds noncommittally. He watches the dust cloud move closer, feeling the ache in his limbs and the throbbing behind his eyes. He closes them, curls into a more comfortable position, and knows that he will get no rest. "Good night."
The sensations around him tell him of time's passage. Tanaka's soft snore soon blends into the whiny moan of the storm outside, until they both lapse into silence; and the insistent hot breath of day from the gap in his window eventually turns into the chilly whisper of night against the hairs on his arm. He doesn't stir for a long time, first reflecting on the itinerary and then wondering if he can tweak one of the machines back in the compound for a more useful purpose. He does think a bit about his brother, whom he has not been able to contact since all this began; and replays an old memory of his and Yamaguchi's early days of friendship, so that the long-ago feeling of their interaction doesn't scare him. He contemplates how Asahi became more reliable as things got worse, how Kageyama became dangerously reminiscent of his old personality, how Tanaka's entire being seemed to droop since the night they buried Ennoshita, though sometimes he can hide it.
When the night wind tickles him again he opens his eyes to the bluish scene beyond the smudges of the window. Quietly, he pops the door open and slides out onto the dirt. He keeps it parted after pushing himself onto the car roof with a boost from his seat, and only once he has looped his arms around his knees and taken in the full blanket of stars above does he notice the pinch in his shoulders release somewhat. His wrists appear oddly small compared to his hands, and while he acknowledges that something more than a lack of practice has thinned his arms, there's no need to give that another thought, so he doesn't. The night view could make one linger on sad thoughts of home or mirages of what could be, but Tsukishima only thinks of opportunity and the power of lucky circumstance. He considers the steady orbit of planets and the deaths of stars countless miles away, and doesn't necessarily feel burdened by the nagging sting around his eyelids.
When a watery gold in the corner of the horizon begins to stain deeper throughout the sky, turning it pink and yellow like an abstract Hitoka anxiously apologizing for the coming day, his ears pick up stirring below. Tanaka does not ease into consciousness like most people. Unlike his waking self, who always shares his intentions with a whooping shout or a leering glare, Tanaka holds onto sleep until the last possible moment—gathering the energy needed to wake deep within the stock-still form of his body until his eyes burst open and he suddenly and surely joins the day. He is a tumbling creature of activity except when he isn't, and as soon as Tsukishima hears the creak of the driver's seat the door is opening to reveal sharp gray eyes and lips parted to speak.
“How long have you been up?” He asks, already lifting himself onto the roof.
Tsukishima scoots over a little before he can be nudged aside, though he had not imagined he would be joined. “Just a few minutes. You snored really loud suddenly.”
“Oh, my bad,” His mouth stretches wider, smile spring-warm but voice less booming than he'd expected, as if mindful of the early morning. “You're looking a little yellow.”
“It's the sun.” He waves a hand dismissively and they watch said sun climb proudly for a few quiet moments.
“Pretty amazing, huh,” Tanaka starts, though it sounds more like the middle of a thought. “How there've been millions of sunrises like this, and probably will be when we're gone.” He chuckles sheepishly and nods at Tsukishima without looking at him. “You ever think about that? All that feeling of possibility and luck and shit?”
He snorts amiably. “Yeah, sometimes I think about all that 'and shit'.” Tanaka shoves him again, but his skin doesn't prickle so angrily after and he recovers quickly, using the momentum of it to glide off the roof. “Ready?”
Tanaka leaps down with a dusty thud and returns to the driver's side. “Born ready, dude. Let's get some fucking medicine!”
Before the wheels of his exhausted mind can supply a really good retort, Tanaka has clicked on the stereo. “There's nothing but static, I already tried.” He squeezes a hint of sympathy into his words. He would kill for even a sixteenth of his music library right now.
Tanaka waves him off and backs out onto the road, before diving a hand deep into the space between his seat and the center console. “Behold, rookie.” He unearths a disk and jams it into the stereo before Tsukishima can get a look at it. Nothing but the anticipatory hum of the stereo tasting the CD plays for a minute, and Tanaka beams smugly into the windshield, offering no hint of the music to come.
Soon enough, a strong beat coughs out of the poor speakers, followed by a woman's voice cooing, “oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.” Tsukishima's eyes widen and he turns them on Tanaka pleadingly. “Please tell me this isn't what I think it is.” Tanaka is nodding enthusiastically, gaze trained on the broken road. Of course it is. The first song he's heard in months and of course, it would be this. He closes his eyes and sinks into his seat, resigned to early 2000's bubblegum pop. Perhaps it isn't the first music he's heard in months. Perhaps he is already dead, and this is his reward.
“I think I did it again,” Tanaka bellows in a choppy accent, forcing Tsukishima's eyes open again. His voice is a rock slide crashing through matchsticks but he only increases the volume with Tsukishima's blanched look of stunned horror. “I made you believe we're more than just friends,” he makes a pained expression on the note.
Tsukishima remains pressed into the upholstery, cornered by the bouncing sound around him. “Please don't.” He is drowned out by the verse, not that his begging would be heeded anyway. The chorus is coming. He sighs.
“OOPS, I DID IT AGAIN! I PLAYED WITH YOUR HEART, GOT LOST IN THE GAME! OH BABY BABY, OOPS YOU THINK I'M IN LOVE!” When Tsukishima forces the window down and leans out as far as he can, Tanaka breaks to laugh, full of life and free of malice. Tsukishima has never liked Brittany Spears, but he can't resist the way his lips pull at that sound, and points them out at the passing road. He belts out the entire song, voice cracking on the higher notes, and by the end Tsukishima is quietly, secretly, speaking the lines into the air like little gifts to evaporate. What else is he going to do?
They continue like that for the entirety of the CD, though they have to skip “Hit Me Baby One More Time” when it repeats the word “confess” about seven times without sign of moving forward. Tsukishima's arms strain from him all but pulling his torso out of the car, but a pleasant hum stretches from the road beneath them and drapes comfortably over he and Tanaka both, traveling back out through the speakers. After the CD, Tanaka reveals more of the stash he located, an odd mix of groups like Nico Touches the Walls, Depeche Mode, Justin Timberlake, and Namie Amuro.
They go through each one, and in silent agreement play them again out of order instead of returning to the greedy quiet of shutting the stereo off. He has to hide a stream of throat-clearing growls beneath a guitar riff somewhere in the third play through of one song, but otherwise it's a nice day of driving. They eat as they go, talk shit about the irritating guy who takes trash duty too seriously at the compound, and make brief, fond comments about the old days. In the evening they stop for a bathroom break before switching places, and Tsukishima goes farther away than necessary to try to force the burn out of his throat. It takes more out of him than he expects, quickly seizing power until he feels less like he is forcing it out and more like he is shrinking away from the flames inside him. By the end of it he is crouched on all fours, dizzy, hands scrabbling at the parched roots of a nearby bush for air or water or some kind of relief that he cannot grasp.
When he returns, Tanaka scrambles up from where he was seated against the edge of the vehicle. “Have a nice shit?”
He frowns and shuffles around the back of the car instead to reach the driver's side. “Don't be vulgar.” He snaps his fingers into the air once he sits and acts like he's inspecting something in his mirror. “Let's go, we should be able to get there after a few more hours.”
“...Okay.” Tanaka takes his time sitting down and leans forward to brush some dust off of the broken A/C unit. He stays hunched forward and strains to get a full look at Tsukishima's face. “You okay dude? You're looking a bit...worn out.”
Tsukishima files that caring and perceptive nature away as a detriment for the time being and busies himself with studying the map. “Well, I have been cramped in a car with you for two days. If I'm only looking a little worn out, I'm doing great.” He feels the odd desire to soften the blow, so he chuckles.
Tanaka leans back, chirping, “you're such a dick,” but Tsukishima can feel him staring as they pull back onto the road, can almost see the wheels turning in his brain. It's more than jeopardizing the mission at this point. He almost—he almost feels guilty. For lying. Not that it means anything. With the steady slide into deep night they leave the stereo off, and he keeps his window cracked for something to listen to.
Though he had taken to gazing out the window for a while, a few miles in has Tanaka sneaking glances back at Tsukishima's face, brow furrowing more with each one. “You should get some sleep,” he finally suggests, when it looks like Tanaka's going to say something. “I wasn't belting like a certain fool this afternoon, so I've still got some energy.” Tanaka is silent like he hasn't spoken, which does not bode well. He peeks back at the map and opens the window a little further, slanting his body against the glass. The sky is lightening and they're so close to their destination. His trunk is sore from the coughing fit earlier, and the back of his skull is overwhelmed by a yawning, desperate desire to sleep.
“Tsukishima.” He doesn't mean to look, but there is a finality to the utterance that he does not often hear, like his name is a condemnation of guilt, a diagnosis of some long-festering and only just acknowledged terminal disease. “Why didn't you say anything?” He doesn't even sound that surprised, just resigned. Upset.
“Tell you what?” He strains his eyes back over the road ahead, as though that will push the car faster. The sun is racing him to the city and he's losing, badly.
“Don't fuck with me,” Tanaka growls from beside him. “You should see how fucking bloodshot your eyes are right now.” Anger pours off like from an overfull basin and laps uncomfortably against his side. “Why didn't you tell me you were sick? How long?” The hurt in his questions feels personal, seeping into his guilt and making it heavy, so he responds the only way he knows how.
“Don't act like this is about you,” he spits with a roll of his eyes. Tanaka flinches back like he'd been slapped and he continues. “Everybody was getting sick. Besides, you're such a 'hero' you'd probably try to stop me from coming or something asinine like that.” Tanaka turns forward, face steely again and Tsukishima leans over the steering wheel, urging the car forward. He doesn't stop talking. They're so close he can feel it in the bags beneath his eyes. “Why would I tell you? You can't do anything for me.” He stops himself from bringing up the others and adds instead, “Besides, I'm not even contagious at this point. You're probably immune anyway, so give it a rest.”
“I just thought,” his voice is quieter now, hard as ice but brittle like it too, “that we were close enough that you could tell me. I thought we'd become,” he chuckles darkly and flexes his fists, “I don't know, friends or something.”
Friends. He would never admit it, but he'd kind of thought so too, as little good as that does them. Hearing it surprises him, and he turns to see Tanaka looking at him. He opens his mouth to speak but his lungs have other plans, immediately twisting his words into inhuman vocalizations that leap out of his throat in the worst fit he has had yet. It is loud, and sudden, gunshots firing wildly and ricocheting off the surfaces in the car, turning each desperate and startled gasp into injections of poisonous air that fan the fire and make everything worse. He doesn't know for how long he coughs, only watches helplessly as fear arrests Tanaka's face and feels tears spring to his eyes, shaken down his cheeks by the violent shuddering of his body.
The car lurches off to one side and he jams the brake to keep from sending them into a rock, torso crumpling until his forehead smacks the steering wheel and summons a wailing cry that could be his, but must be coming from the car. He quickly goes dizzy from lack of good air and only seems to cough more fiercely, unable to hear Tanaka's frantic questioning for the thundering between his ears and the howling around them. He can't think coherently. His eyes are closed. He opens them when he feels arms around him, realizes distantly that it's someone from the city, they're pulling him out of the car. His ears ring in the sudden absence of wailing. Tanaka appears to be shouting. That must be the ground below him, but he can't remember which direction is up. Someone is forcing something into his mouth. Can't they see he can't take anything in, can only reject it violently? The sky is a beautiful bright blue, crushing him beneath its weight, until his body decides there's nothing left to cough and not enough air inside to keep him awake. He passes out.
When he comes to, it's on a cot so worn it might as well be a strip of coarse lint on a flat rock. His elbow is digging meanly into his rib cage so he shifts, but doesn't get up, disoriented. He hasn't been unconscious in so long, he isn't sure how he's supposed to feel.
The movement makes someone stir on the floor beside him. A bulky man shoots up, hair brown like Kinnoshita's, but darker. “You're up! I'll go tell your friend, he was real worried about you.” He takes a step but backtracks, pressing a package of capsules into the open curl of Tsukishima's hand. “Take this before you start moving again. The rest of your doses are in the car.” He's out without introducing himself or saying another word. He does not come back, so Tsukishima sits up and swallows the pills with a gulp of saliva, grimacing when they drag down the edges of a throat that feels abused and scraped raw. His glasses are folded neatly beside the pillow, so he settles them on his face, takes a deep breath blessedly free of that tickle in his throat that had plagued him like a shadow, and leaves the spacious room of bunks into a clearing. He glances around idly, taking in the high towers sprinkled through the city, the makeshift fence connecting them and the hazy forms of people stationed at each one. It has a more spiraled shape then their own compound, but is permeated by the same feel of cautious comfort.
“Yo, Tsukishima!” Tanaka's voice calls to him distantly, but when he looks Tanaka is sprinting towards him with an unmistakable glow of relief. He aborts his advance when he's about a pace away, and looks at him with a complicated expression. “You're okay.”
Tsukishima thinks back to their last conversation, sees it laid out ugly on the ground between them, and sneaks one arm across his body to hold the other while he gives an awkward smile. “Yeah. Thanks. Um, how long was I out?”
“A day or two,” he offers easily, like it's old news, but Tsukishima's brow furrows in controlled despair. A day or two. They couldn't afford a day or two. Some of the people at home couldn't wait. His grip tightens. “But don't worry,” Tanaka continues hurriedly, arms high and placating, “these guys know more about the Heat Sickness then us! So uh, they think everybody's out of the woods. They'll pull through 'til we get back.” His voice is sure, and his stance is surer, like the pillar he always was on the court. He turns back the way he'd come, finishing, “but we should go since you've recovered. They packed the car with as much as it could carry.” The comments amount to nothing more than “they're probably fine,” but Tanaka's false bravado is so good that he almost believes it. With no other choice, he might have to. He buries a sigh in the taut line of his lips and quickly follows behind.
When he comes in sight of the car, Tanaka has a hand comfortably draped over the soft green hood and is beaming at the man from earlier with the dark brown hair. There's an assortment of strangers collected around the vehicle, and Tsukishima nods to them as thanks for everything they'd done while he was out. The poor dusty compact sinks under the boxes roped to its roof and the countless items loaded into the trunk, but it has taken them this far and Tsukishima knows it will take them home, inches in between its tired shell and the strangers peppered alongside it. How peculiar, to feel more trapped in open air surrounded by kind faces he has never seen. When he coughs once, thoughtlessly, Tanaka catches his eye.
“Oh—Here I go rambling when we've got places to be. Leave it to this guy to keep me on track!” He offers a mock salute which is reciprocated by three or so others in the group, and Tsukishima wonders again about the easy sociability of his companion. “Thanks for all your help. See ya!” They enter the car at the same time, the resulting slam of their doors echoing in the hot air around them and sealing the hardest part of their trip with an audible finality. For all of Tanaka's acting, he steers them back down the hill with urgency, face holding a grim impatience not matched by the lazy and cloudless afternoon. He does not turn on the stereo.
In the relative silence, Tsukishima picks at the faded fibers beneath the door handle and thinks again of their argument and how it ended. How it would have ended had they not been as close to the city. He waits a long time, letting the rumble of the engine tick and tick and tick the minutes into hours until the sun explodes into an angry rash that tints everything a burning scarlet. “Regarding what I said before,” he studies his fingers where they curl over the threads, still thin but not as pale as they were before months of unending sun, and continues, “I'm sorry for how I acted. And that I didn't tell you. I don't like worrying my friends.” He looks out at the feverish sunset as soon as the words leave his mouth and pretends he isn't holding his breath. “Or something.”
Tanaka starts like he had been somewhere much farther away than the neighboring seat, and then sighs a chuckle—easy, light, and most importantly, forgiving. “Or something,” he repeats with the echo of a smile. Tsukishima relaxes into the phrase, lets it balloon out in the blush red air and give him space in the car.
“You know,” Tanaka starts abruptly, maintaining the car's brisk pace, “I shouldn't have gotten so mad. It just sucks that I can't do anything, you know? Besides staying positive. I can't keep anyone--” He clips the sentence with a close of his lips, squints as the light quickly moves into the bruise of night. “It's good you're okay. We'll all be okay.”
He watches the growing moonlight play tricks on Tanaka's form, how the shadows make him look hunched and tired, and thinks about Ennoshita and Nishinoya and everyone else they left behind. Then he turns his eyes to the windshield, towards home, and says, “I'll drive the night shift, when the moon's a little higher.”
When the constant throbbing in the back of his head increases and Tanaka's driving begins to slow, Tsukishima mentions the moon above and tells him it's time to switch. Maybe if he hadn't been thinking about unforgiving deadlines, or it had been a different time of day, he would have been a little more mindful of the location. Regardless, they've got the doors wide open and he is passing the driver's side headlight when Tanaka shouts and the shadows around the vehicle leap into focus with violent snarls. Three large mutts circle in around them—a tall silver beast that would be pretty if well-groomed, a shaggy black one with a particularly mean look, and one more that he can hear rather than see, grumbling on the other side of the car. He thinks back to the girl they met near the gas station and irritably remembers her curt warning of their presence.
“Shit! Dogs!” Tanaka curses.
He backs against the hood with a humorless grin. “Yeah, I can see that.” He eyes the two before him warily and realizes with a sinking clarity that they must be after all the food packed against the medicine in the backseat. They can't afford to lose any supplies, and they're already way short on time. He's debating between opponents when he spies a flash of brown and yellow nearly blocked from sight by the black dog's shoulder, where a smaller mutt is slinking towards the gaping driver's side door. “Hey!” He shouts and leaps to shut it, which has the black dog launching towards him with a fierce growl. He twists his body into the dog, feeling the impact of its bulky muscles against his side, and hears a scuffle closer to Tanaka's side of the vehicle. The black dog recovers quickly, rolling upright in the dirt and racing towards him again with snapping chops. It's knocked off-balance when another dog slams into it, a leaner, beige thing that Tanaka had apparently grabbed and thrown.
He whoops incredulously, scrambling to cover Tsukishima's back while the dogs regain their footing. “I can't believe I threw a dog!”
“I've always been more of a cat person, myself.” He blinks at the pair on the ground and then shares a quick look with Tanaka. He isn't 100% sure they're on the same page, but when Tanaka gives him a small nod he is suddenly dashing around the rest of the hood, grabbing the brown and yellow dog by the scruff and flinging it away. He kicks the door closed and whips his head back at the simultaneous whimper of one dog and cry from Tanaka. While he had focused on the smaller dog, Tanaka had taken on the black and tan dogs—apparently launching an arm out to shove one away, and leaving himself wide open for the lanky silver dog to attack from somewhere out of sight. It still clung to Tanaka's arm now, blood dribbling onto it's light coat regardless of the retreat of the other dogs that had sensed the failure of their mission.
“Aw, fuck,” Tanaka's teeth shine through the dark in a grimace as he tries unsuccessfully to pry the dog's jaws off of his forearm. The words shake Tsukishima out of his shocked trance, so he stalks back towards the hood and grabs a nearby branch in one hand, smacking it solidly across the dog's back so hard that the impact ripples up through his arm. The dog yelps and drops to the ground, where it finally struggles in the opposite direction of the car, and Tsukishima watches with a hollow feeling when the other three reappear and help to drag him behind a clump of rocks. “Ha ha, damn,” Tanaka's tone hovers on the edge of bitter and Tsukishima moves in close to inspect the damage. “I feel like that took forever. Wild dogs, really? Can we catch a break?”
Tsukishima frowns but silently exhales in relief. It doesn't look too bad. He retrieves the first aid kit from the glove compartment and apologizes quietly when the antiseptic wipes have Tanaka hissing into the once again quiet night. “We can make up the time,” he says, eyes trained on the wound. “Thanks for looking out for me. It was dumb, but thanks.”
Thankfully, Tanaka smiles at that, standing still and offering his arm for Tsukishima's care. “No worries, man. What's a few dogs between teammates? Besides, my sister...” He chokes on the word, whatever happy memory he had been about to recount curdling in his throat.
Tsukishima can sympathize, wrapping the arm in gauze and letting each layer bury unbidden thoughts of family. “You're sister's going to be stupidly proud of you for sticking your neck out for rude underclassmen like me.” He nods at his handiwork and gives Tanaka a quiet look. “Get in and get some sleep.”
Tanaka's eyes might be shining a little more than usual, but his voice is normal and gruff when he says thanks. They get to their seats in silence, and when he asks, “when are you gonna sleep?” Tsukishima pauses and lets his eyes crinkle in soft humor.
Adrenaline aside, he actually feels like if he tried, for the first time in a while, he might be able to. “When indeed,” is what he says. This time when Tanaka goes to shove him he is ready for it and dodges cleanly. At his look of impressed shock Tsukishima allows himself to laugh.
He drives much like he did that first night, meters and minutes falling away in a meaningless collection of bushes passed, breezes against the skin, and whisper-quiet snores beside him. With a lead foot he speeds along the winding highway and hopes that time is stretching just a little bit like the endless sky above. His eyes still sting, but he does not doze at the wheel this time, occasionally flicking his eyes up as the stars first make a shy appearance in the sprawling navy, and then quietly begin burrowing beneath the orange folds of dawn. Things are quiet for a few more hours, sun appearing for another cloudless day.
Tanaka is spread over his seat like an ungainly starfish, totally still until his eyes abruptly shoot open and he retracts into a sitting position. “I miss anything?” He asks, surveying their surroundings with a bright eye.
Tsukishima glances over before blinking back to the road. “What could you possibly miss,” he punctuates the question with a few halfhearted coughs, adding, “I made up a bunch of time though.” He looks back when he feels a reproachful stare. “What?”
“Gotta take your meds, dude, you're coughing again.” He starts twisting to reach into the back but Tsukishima waves disinterestedly. “What do you mean, 'no'?”
“I'm fine. Save it for the others.”
“Don't give me that shit!”
They glare at each other for a few moments, before Tanaka slides back into his seat with a grumble. “While stupid, I admire the manliness of your action. Carry on—actually, pull over and let me drive.”
He snorts but hurriedly pulls over since Tanaka had already opened the door without waiting for a full stop. Though he had made time, he can't shake the worry that they will be too late, and judging by his hurry it seems Tanaka feels the same. His eyes catch on the gas gauge and he halts, frowning deeply at the white zero glaring back at him.
“What's up?” Tanaka cranes his head around Tsukishima's shoulders, a bit close for comfort but unfortunately his usual distance, and spies the gauge. “Oh that? Don't worry, my sister drives past empty all the time.” He does not trip over the word this time, which has him feeling bizarrely optimistic. He shoos Tsukishima to the passenger side and hops into the driver's seat with the barest shiver of enthusiasm. It falls off of him in little jolts that charge the stale car air with anticipation. Just a few hours more. Just a few hours to home.
They haven't even eaten lunch by the time the main wall of the compound juts into view like a proud sharp growth on the sand. Tanaka is grinning when he gives the horn two short pumps, more a call than a wail. A few minutes pass and then the wall shudders, rising heavily to reveal Asahi, Daichi, and only one other person tiredly holding it up. Tanaka's grin is as tight as Tsukishima's grip on the seat belt when they quickly roll to the inner side.
Daichi shuffles to the front window with a smile wide enough to pull the tightness out of them. “I was starting to believe you'd gotten lost! Nishinoya and the rest are going to be so glad to see you.” Tanaka visibly relaxes at that, and Daichi flicks his gaze to Tsukishima, who has not released the strip of fabric over his chest. “Suga's getting water now. Would you believe Yamaguchi still wanted to help?”
Tsukishima allows his hand to peel away from the belt and curl into his lap like a very small animal. He gives Daichi the barest of smiles and says, “That's just like him.” Asahi and the woman who helped raise the wall give the two of them a very warm welcome, and it takes a bit of time before Tanaka can convince Asahi that his arm really is fine, the bandage more of a precaution. Between the five of them, unloading supplies becomes very quick work. Sugawara and a few others come a bit later, smiling and discussing how best to distribute dosages, but it is apparent that there are fewer people up and about than when they'd left, and Tsukishima decides not to look towards the Southern end where the graves are, at least not yet.
He's pulled back to the present by Tanaka's laugh, and instinctively leans away from a shove only to find an arm snaking around his shoulders. “Beloved Tanaka and Tall Asshole Save the Day—it's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?” Tanaka says with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
Tsukishima rolls his eyes and tilts his head in question when he finds Daichi staring at them with a surprised look on his face. “What is it?”
“Oh nothing, just...you guys seem a lot closer than I remember.” He hacks a few ugly coughs, and then his mouth breaks into a beaming smile. “That's great!”
Tsukishima feels the back of his neck warm, just a little, and huffs with all the boredom he can muster. “You're becoming delirious. Asahi, make sure this one gets extra medicine.” Daichi only laughs again and when Sugawara shoos at him and Tanaka, telling them to go get some rest, he shrugs out of Tanaka's loose hold and walks off without another word.
He is stepping through the compound and re-acclimating himself to its paths when a soft wheeze catches his attention. He retraces his steps along a shed and heads behind it, coming face to face with a skinny freckled form. “Hey Tsukki!” Yamaguchi's voice is weak but his smile is as warm as ever, even sunken tiredly into his skin. “How was your trip?”
Tsukishima allows the nickname to be kind, and sits down next to his friend. “It was okay. Tanaka's not so bad. Did you take some medicine?”
“Yeah. I'm glad you made another friend!”
“Shut up, Yamaguchi,” his response is immediate.
Yamaguchi chuckles quietly and waits until Tsukishima has made himself comfortable along his side. “Are you going to sleep?”
His eyelids are already so heavy that he is sure they are connected to his toes. Later, he'll start thinking about how they can get home for real. “Yeah,” he sighs into the warm air, folding up to the bony thinness beside him, “'m going to sleep.”
And he does.