On a cold, wet Friday in autumn, eyes searching the darkening clouds passing over the mountain, Kei says something about rain, and beside him, Yamaguchi stops walking.
Kei has never liked rain. It’s cold and wet and annoying and it gets everywhere. He’s too busy thinking about the looming inconvenience of having to run home to dodge the downpour he thought they’d managed to avoid by staying late at practice to notice, at first, that Yamaguchi has halted his involved recap of this week’s Boruto and also disappeared from his peripheral. When he does, he blinks and cranes his neck back, grunting questioningly.
The upside-down Yamaguchi’s eyes are on his sneakers, and his freckled face is ashen. He doesn’t respond, which is enough to compel Kei to slump his shoulders in exasperation and turn fully around, brows sinking.
“Did you forget your notebook again?” he groans. “Because I am not walking all the way back for—”
Yamaguchi blurts out, “Tsukki!”
The shrillness of his voice cuts an echo down the street and hits Kei like a dart to the forehead. A white cat prowling along the fence to his right freezes mid-step and hops down out of sight.
Kei flinches back, confounded, and stares at him. Yamaguchi is leaning forward, feet spread wide, fists trembling at his sides; his freckles have vanished beneath a vivid bloom of red, and his chin is crumpled unattractively, as though he’s just tasted something very sour that he isn’t allowed to spit back out.
Kei hasn’t seen him this way since, maybe, junior high, when he’d been trying to gear himself up to compliment a girl he found cute in the class next door to theirs.
Kei glances surreptitiously right and left to make sure that there are no cute girls around to explain this behavior.
“Yes?” he says after a few seconds.
Yamaguchi’s demeanor intensifies, and he inhales deeply as if preparing to blow into a trumpet before forcefully repeating, “Tsukki!”
Kei says again, “Yes?”
“There’s—!” Yamaguchi chokes out, and then flounders. Kei can smell the oncoming storm now, potent and electric. “There’s, uh… something…!”
He suddenly shakes his head, wrenches his eyes shut, lifts both of his hands, and slaps them, hard, onto his own cheeks.
Kei’s seen Hinata do stuff like that before—and the bygone Tanaka and Nishinoya, and about every other boisterous, passionate idiot he’s had the misfortune of playing volleyball with—but the physicality of the action is new for Yamaguchi, and not even his persistent blush can blot out the pink handprints it leaves behind. When he lowers his hands and opens his eyes, his bearing has changed.
He levels Kei with a focused, determined stare, as though Kei is suddenly the sole determining factor between life and death, or something, and Kei shrinks from the intensity, eyebrows arched.
“Okay,” Yamaguchi declares with renewed resolve, “okay, listen; I’ve been—thinking a lot, lately, and I, um—I mean, I… I sort of… realized… something?”
The brief flash of confidence dwindles into nothing by the end of the sentence. His voice tweaks and rises on the last word, like he’s asking Kei if that sounds right, acceptable, cool—and it needles at something under Kei’s skin, an old guilt he’s only recently learned how to try reconciling. He curls his fingers into fists in his pockets where Yamaguchi can’t see them.
“Okay,” he says with a nod.
Yamaguchi nods, too, a single, forceful one that splays his hair briefly into his face and makes his short ponytail bounce. He’s gripping his jacket with one hand, the other clenched adamantly in front of him.
“Right!” he exclaims, sounding relieved and frantic all at once. “Right, I realized something! Yeah! And, uh, the thing that I realized is that I, um—Tsukki—you and me—I mean—I really…”
“Yamaguchi,” Kei interjects, “not to be, like, rude—but it’s seriously about to rain; can we talk about this at your place?”
(Not to be rude? You? sneers a voice in his head that sounds suspiciously like Kageyama.)
“No!” Yamaguchi emphatically flings an arm out behind himself. “No, we can’t!”
Kei blinks owlishly at him as he claps a hand over his mouth and splutters out through his fingers, “I mean, sorry, Tsukki, but no! I really, really have to say it now! Or I might not say it ever! I promise I’ll buy you new headphones if they get rained on!”
Kei starts to tell him that he doesn’t have to do that, seriously, but then Yamaguchi takes another breath and blurts out, in a swift, rushing exhale: “Tsukki-I-like—!”
Kei considers himself to be, by nature, a rational person. More rational than, say, Hinata, but that’s like saying the ocean has more water than the desert. He knows that the flow of time, in spite of one’s will or want, does not do things like stutter to a stop, suspending raindrops yet to fall and holding Yamaguchi’s tense body in place. Of course it doesn’t. Logically, there can’t be more than a splinter of a second between the last fraught, half-shouted syllable his brain manages to register and the inevitable word that’s sure to follow it; it doesn’t take guesswork or prescience to know where to hurl up a wall and pray that it holds—he knows. He knows.
And yet—everything seems, in a screeching instant, to lock into place, like the entire universe has just slammed on the brakes. In the stillness, a clamoring of inconsequential details reaches his awareness all at once: the slow rumble of far-off thunder; the way the street glistens, still wet from the afternoon’s rain, and distorts the reflections of the yellow street lights as they start to flicker on; a blast of wind rushing through the tree in the yard to his left, jostling the crimson leaves until they breathe.
Yamaguchi’s eyes, wrenched shut, as if he’s about to cry. Yamaguchi’s fingers, locked into fists, clutching some invisible rope tied fast to his heart, afraid to let go. Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi.
The electricity thrumming in the air is almost in his lungs now, in his blood, too much to contain. The beat of his heart is new and thunderous with panic, roaring in his ears like wind through headphones. For a second, he swears he sees Yamaguchi as if through a telescope in reverse, an impossible distance away, his whole body curled forward and preparing to create the last word, thin eyebrows stitched together, lips parted. Kei can register nothing but silence, about to lose the last foothold on an invisible precipice, suspended between earth and emptiness without a root to grasp.
The uncertainty warps into fear, and then total, annihilating alarm.
“I’m going to the store.”
Everything resumes. The wind lessens; the branches waver and go still; the thunder quiets. Yamaguchi’s last word loses its form, breaking apart falteringly into nothing.
He gawks at Kei as though he’s just been smacked head-on with one of Ushiwaka’s spikes.
“Eh?” he rasps.
“I just,” Kei says, pointing vaguely over his shoulder, hopefully in a direction associated with some store, somewhere in the prefecture, “uh, remembered. I have to go. To the store, I mean. I… forgot to get… something.”
Yamaguchi practically deflates before his eyes, all traces of color slowly draining from his face. His arms drop, dangling limp at his sides. Kei would find the sight comical if it did not feel as though something very sharp was slowly being driven into his back the longer he looked at it.
“Eh...?” Yamaguchi says again, blinking rapidly.
Kei turns on his heel, still pointing, and loudly clears his throat.
“I’m just going to, uh, do that. I’ll probably be a while, so don’t wait.” Awkwardly, he sets two fingers against his temple and jerks them outward in some sort of… salute? Don’t think about it. “Later.”
“You—the—” Yamaguchi sounds dazed. “Later, Tsukki…”
Kei winces and lifts his headphones to his ears, letting them snap into place in the hopes that the jolt of discomfort will lessen the mounting pressure at the center of his head. It does not. It just hurts.
He walks in urgent, loping strides, about as quickly as he possibly can without breaking into a run. The sound of his own labored, choppy breathing is almost deafening, like he’s some character in a horror movie fleeing for his life. His heart is so far up his throat that he might choke on it.
Tsukki, I like—
Frantically, he searches the road ahead of him, eyes passing over every closed door and unknown name. His house is still a good twenty minutes away, and it isn’t like that will serve as a great shelter in this crisis anyway, what with the pictures of him and Yamaguchi and the t-rex figure Yamaguchi gave him for his birthday last year and the unavoidable, crushing presence of Yamaguchi, as a memory, as a concept—so when his attention catches on a line of characters he recognizes, erected over the water-darkened tiles of an irimoya rooftop, he lets his legs carry him there without even thinking.
He’s done this before.
It had not been raining then; Kei had felt the summer heat leaning torpidly on him even as he stepped into the air-conditioned Sakanoshita Shop. The unrelenting chatter of cicadas outside faded as the door slowly eased shut on its own behind him. He had run all the way from home in his tee shirt and athletic shorts, and he was sweaty.
“Eh? Tsukishima?” Coach Ukai’s typically gruff face was slack with unguarded surprise. “What the hell? Are you lost?”
The shop had, despite the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon, been empty. It smelled like cigarette smoke and Swiffer cleaner fluid and bad coffee. It was the first time in his auspicious first year of high school that Kei had ever been inside.
Whatever 90s alt-rock Ukai had chosen to play on his low-quality phone speaker was the only noticeable sound, save for the faint whirring of a metal fan at the checkout counter as it languorously pivoted from right to left.
Only then had an awareness of his surroundings begun to coalesce, detail by detail. He hadn’t realized that he’d practically torn the door off the rail when he’d thrown it open, nor that he was doubled over, hands braced on his knees; immediately, he straightened up, snapping his mouth shut to keep himself from panting. He had to remain calm. Remain calm.
“Oi.” Ukai started to rise from his chair, moving to put out a cigarette he must have just started smoking in a nearby ashtray crowded with crushed butts. “Did you hear me?”
The look on his face had not been one Kei would describe as concerned, per se; more bemused, a little uncomfortable, as though worried he was going to have to provide some sort of guidance that did not directly pertain to how to best receive a jump serve.
“I heard you,” Kei said dully. With some effort, he drew in a breath and held it, even as his blood began to throb pent-up in his ears.
Ukai blinked at him for a moment, clearly expecting more than that, and when it became obvious that Kei was not that generous, he sighed, reaching a hand up to scratch his head in befuddlement.
“Are you just gonna stand there?” he asked at last. “Do you need help finding something, or what?” He narrowed his eyes, as though he had just figured out something. “You looking for that friend of yours—freckle-face—Yamaguchi?”
“No,” Kei said to all of it, and it was the truth. He pushed his slipping glasses up his nose with two fingers and let his hand go still there, shuttering his eyes.
Ukai let out a hum that was both thoughtful and very annoyed.
“Tsukishima,” he said after a moment, “I’m not in the mood for the mysterious act. Ever, but especially not tonight.” He shook his head before plopping back into his chair, reaching for the copy of Monthly Shounen Jump he’d been perusing before Kei had come clattering in. “Look, just don’t steal anything, all right? We close every day at ten.”
That, though he concealed it well, surprised Kei. He stiffened a little, slowly lowering his hand from his face, and evaluated Ukai, searching for some catch, some—something. But Ukai was no longer paying attention to him, already thoroughly engrossed in Jump.
Kei breathed out. He absorbed the silence, the social emptiness, and the lo-fi music that was not at all to his tastes. His mother’s voice, delightedly greeting Akiteru as he walked through the front door for the first time in nearly four months, felt less inescapable; Akiteru’s same penitent silence and ducked eyes, even as Kei fled with a flimsy excuse about needing to buy mouthwash, felt less like it had opened an old wound.
He had not gone to Yamaguchi’s house. He had run right past it, fighting to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach at the thought of crying in front of him, and freaking him out, and inevitably being asked why. It wouldn’t have been the first time, or anything—but walking back from a match he wasn’t supposed to see, wiping his running nose on one sleeve while Yamaguchi’s small hand held fast to the other, was supposed to be the last.
“Ukai-san,” he said now, staring hard at the floor, “um, thanks.”
“I’ll just say one thing,” Ukai declared, idly turning a page. “If you’re gonna be making a habit out of this, you’d better be a paying customer. Or pitch in some free labor! Ba-ha-ha!”
The moment evaporated, and Kei’s face settled comfortably back into a scowl. “Your generosity is inspiring, Coach.”
“I liked ‘Ukai-san’ better,” Ukai drawled. “But yes. It is, isn’t it? I’m a great guy, aren’t I?”
Kei was already making his way over to the beverage coolers. He was thirstier than he’d maybe ever been. He halted for a moment when he saw a row of melon sodas. They had always been Akiteru’s favorites on hot days, and even when Kei had been little and pushy, Akiteru had never once minded sharing with him. Their mom still stocked them, sometimes, when she knew Akiteru would be home for a weekend. Kei, in yet another act of pettiness, never partook of them anymore.
In the end, he went with a bottle of unsweetened green tea. Ukai let him have it for half-off.
“Things always look a little better when you get a surprise discount on something,” he told Kei, and then chuckled to himself, as if he’d just made a great joke. “It’ll work out, Tsukishima.”
“Hm,” said Kei.
The tea tasted plain and refreshing. Kei swished it in his mouth for a second, imagining fleetingly and brazenly that it would turn into melon soda if he willed it to.
He finished the bottle sitting at the folding card table that Ukai always set up on Thursdays so that Daichi and Sugawara could discuss strategies, who was evolving and who was stagnating. He thumped his foot restlessly against the floor the whole time, even as the hot summer afternoon receded slowly into twilight, and Ukai didn’t tell him to stop.
“Tsukishima, I worry about you.”
Kei slams a box of Pretz onto the check-out counter and looks witheringly down at Ukai, who has not stood up from his chair nor put out his cigarette since Kei entered, which is pretty horrible customer service, in Kei’s opinion.
“That must be very tiring,” he says acidly.
Ukai narrows his eyes at him before swiping the box away one-handed and scanning the barcode. This will be Kei’s tribute for amnesty. It is certainly better than having to mop the floor or carry boxes out to the delivery truck, which has been required of him far too many times.
“Half-off; fifty yen,” Ukai grunts. Kei drops the change into his open palm. As he distributes it into the cash drawer, he shakes his head ruefully. “I really do worry about you, Tsukishima.”
Kei knows that he is going to keep saying it until he asks him why. Though he couldn’t possibly care less, he’s not in the mood to beat his head against the stubborn wall that is Ukai With Something to Say, so he pulls the seam of the box out and sighs, like he’s reading from a script, “Why’s that, Coach?”
Ukai plucks his cigarette from his mouth and blows out a stream of smoke through his nose.
“You run away too damn much,” he explains. “That’s why I worry about you.”
He locks onto Kei with his steely glare and growls, jabbing the cigarette in the air with each emphatic syllable: “Blockers. Don’t. Run. Away.”
Kei stares back at him emptily. “Ah, I see, yes. That would make blocking the ball hard, I guess. I will definitely consider that the next time I play volleyball, which is a sport, and not real life.”
Ukai lets out a noise that sounds a lot like his grandfather’s crotchety, “feh,” clearly about to begin the second phase of his lecture, but when he gets a good look at Kei’s face, he halts. Kei doesn’t need to read into it—he knows how pathetic he looks, because it’s probably about as pathetic as he feels; that is, unbearably pathetic.
“Coach,” Kei says to his shoes, resentful of the crack in his voice and all that it reveals, “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
Ukai considers him, his features softening with understanding that just makes Kei feel worse. The honesty had been graceless and unplanned, as glaring as an exposed nerve, and it had probably conveyed without much trouble that, were Ukai to continue this line of inquiry, it would be altogether akin to kicking Kei while he’s down.
“Ah,” Ukai says after a long, uncomfortable pause. “Well.” He clears his throat. “You know. Don’t mind, and all that.”
“Thanks,” says Kei.
“It’ll work out.”
Liar, Kei thinks.
“And anyway,” Ukai continues brightly, “the one nice thing about being at your lowest is that things usually can’t get any worse, right?”
There is a moment—a single, beautiful, glorious moment—during which Kei innocently and peacefully exists in a world in which he can almost believe that. And then the sliding door rattles open.
“Cooo-oooach! Kageyama wouldn’t shut up about wanting a milk box and the vending machine is out because he bought all of them so I—uwah!”
Kei whips his head over his shoulder to glare threateningly at the source of the thoughtlessly noisy intrusion while he still has the energy for it, before he gives up on everything, forever, with no hope of recovery. Hinata, hair mussed in its headband (mini-Ukai, he thinks offhandedly) and cheeks red from running, is standing several feet behind him in the doorway, one hand braced on the jamb and the other pointing rudely right at his face.
Clearly, Ukai had not needed to worry about kicking Kei while he was down. The universe at large is already taking care of it.
“Ts—Tsukishima!” Hinata squawks, as though he had believed Kei to be long dead. Kei narrows his eyes threateningly and he immediately stands at attention, appending a stiff, “…-kun.”
Kei sneers witheringly at him. “I thought I told you to address your vice-captain as ‘-sama.’”
Ukai pointedly clears his throat.
“Not in a million, billion years,” Hinata retorts, and sticks his tongue out, even though they are almost eighteen now, and not, as he seems to mistakenly believe, five. “Stingyshima-chan.”
“So the King sent you on his grocery run, huh?” Kei continues in his loftiest voice. “Sad. I suppose that is your lot in life, though, as one of the peasantry.”
Rather than instantly taking the bait, Hinata simply blinks, once, before exclaiming, “Whoa, vintage Tsukishima! I haven’t heard you break out the ‘King’ thing in forever!”
“Wh—” Kei fumbles. “Whatever. Moron.”
“Anyway,” Hinata breezes right along, snatching away Kei’s one hope of derailing the conversation so that it could not, under any circumstances, reach the station of His Business, “why the heck are you in here? You’re never in here!”
“That’s what you think,” Ukai grumbles under his breath. Kei loudly and fakely clears his throat to obscure the words.
“I guess it’s not important!” Hinata shrugs, and Kei knows now that this is not idiocy, but pity. “Hey, Tsukishima, I saw Yamaguchi when I was running over! He looked super upset, like, bwaaah.”
He somehow contorts his face into a near-perfect imitation of a crestfallen Yamaguchi’s; Kei’s stomach curdles with guilt at the sight.
It only lasts briefly before he points over his shoulder to the door he’d come in from and starts toward it, beaming. “I’ll let him know you’re here!”
Kei’s heart shoots straight up his throat and incapacitates his brain: “No!”
Hinata freezes mid-step, right leg and left arm raised in the air. Woodenly, he creaks his head back to fix Kei with the most poorly concealed shit-eating grin that Kei has ever seen in his life, and Kei is acquainted with Kageyama Tobio.
“No,” Kei repeats, but it sounds significantly more pathetic.
“How—” Hinata’s attempt at a nonchalant tone comes out as a choked squeak. “How come he’s not… with you?”
“How come you’re not with Kageyama?” Kei retorts, and Hinata goes red, spluttering. “Stop. Don’t answer that.”
“Are you, like… okay?” Hinata asks, with honest and genuine concern, and Kei wants to go drown himself in the river, if only to escape this new and horrible reality in which Hinata Shouyou feels sorry for him.
“Shut up,” Kei mutters, for sore lack of anything better.
Hinata’s eyes do not leave him. Kei knows that if he had the courage to look back, he would see himself reflected, about to be subsumed, of as little consequence as those on the other side of the court when Hinata, Karasuno’s blazing sun, their mass of greed and ambition and foolish, decent pride, catches sight of victory’s ghost and leaps to take it in his hands. He has always known how he looks to Hinata from that peerless vantage point: insignificant and left behind, miles behind, fumbling with unguarded desperation for what he wants—to be here, to win, to keep standing—but already too late to reach it. Like a fool. Flightless.
“Ah…” Hinata speaks in that comprehending way that Kei has heard once or twice when he has badly pretended to understand Kei’s explanation of normative phrases on the English homework. “I see.”
He gazes meaningfully at Kei for only a moment longer before strolling past him, and when he passes there is a movement of air in his wake that grazes Kei’s shoulder, and he almost flinches away from its warmth.
“Coach,” Hinata calls cheerfully, “can I get a milk carton for Kageyama?”
Ukai is out of sight, bent over behind the register to adjust a cable, but his voice comes back perfectly clearly: “You know where they are, peewee. I’m not a waiter.”
Hinata jolts in offense. “Geh! Peewee…!”
As he storms churlishly over to the drinks aisle, Ukai resurfaces, thumping at a crick in his back.
“Tsukishima is hiding here,” he announces, and Kei almost falls over. “Because he’s a coward.”
He hears the glass door of the refrigerator slam shut, rattling the bottles inside, and suddenly Hinata has zipped back into view, his big brown eyes honed back in on Kei with absolute relish.
“Hiding?” he yells, so loudly and excitedly that the whole street hears it, probably. “Tsukishima? Hiding? Why is he hiding, Ukai-sensei?”
At the honorific, Ukai puffs up considerably, face splitting into a delighted, sharkish grin.
“Why is he hiding, Hinata?” he asks.
Hinata taps his foot, tongue sticking out in thought. Kei is still paralyzed with shock at the suddenness of Ukai’s betrayal, and so can do nothing to slow or interrupt the already devastatingly long process that is Hinata’s brain having to process a piece of information.
The answer dawns on Hinata far too quickly, and he gapes at the door in realization as if Yamaguchi will be standing right outside, and Kei is convinced, once and for all, that to be alive is to suffer.
“Coach. I’ll kill you,” he murmurs emptily. He wills a dark and wrathful energy to emanate from his body and curse Ukai’s descendants for a thousand generations.
“Wohhhh!” Hinata howls, bouncing up and down and flapping one hand. “You—and Yamaguchi!—and you and Yamaguchi—!”
“There is no me and Yamaguchi,” Kei hisses, driving each word into the air like a knife, wanting nothing more than to grab Hinata roughly by the collar and throttle him. “As usual, you have no clue what you’re talking abou—”
“Just like Carly Rae-chan!” Hinata exclaims with a frankly theatrical gasp, staring up at Kei with his mouth agape as though he’s just seen directly into his soul.
Kei wrinkles his nose, partially at the ridiculous expression and partially at the notion that Hinata considers himself familiar enough with this Carly Rae person to address her so casually.
“Who?” he asks warily.
Hinata marches up to him and stops far too close, more than Kei has probably ever allowed any human, except for Yamaguchi, when his shaking fists were in Kei’s shirt and his teeth were bared and the moonlight through the drifting clouds made him look invincible.
Ah, Kei thinks offhandedly when his heart truly and legitimately skips a beat at the memory.
There’s none of that passion and hurt and fury in Hinata’s big eyes now, only an infuriating satisfaction. Kei leans away as far as he can without having to step back, teetering in place.
Hinata points accusingly up at him, triumphant. “You’re running away from your feelings, Tsukishima!”
Kei swats his hand down immediately. “I don’t have feelings.”
“Do, too,” Hinata singsongs like a preschooler, but then he crowds even closer, with a friendly conspiratorial demeanor that very much makes Kei want to dunk him into the nearest trash can. “Hey, if you dumped Yamaguchi, you should know everyone likes him way better than you, so you might get kicked off the team.”
“I’m the vice-captain, moron!” Kei snaps. Behind the counter, Ukai starts laughing. “Coach, please—”
“Did you dump Yamaguchi?” Hinata asks, suddenly very serious. His eyes have darkened with profound concern. “He kind of looked like he’d been dumped. Like, sad, you know? Why would you do that?”
An uncomfortable, prickling heat begins to crawl up the back of Kei’s neck with each second that passes during which he thinks about Yamaguchi being sad because of something he did. Hinata is still staring at him. Ukai is still laughing. He kind of wants to hit something.
“I didn’t dump anybody,” he grits out at last. Then, realizing a second too late how much that implies, he tacks on, “There was nobody to dump in the first place! And even if there were,” his voice is rising to an undignified, offended pitch, “it’s none of your business!”
“Sure it’s my business!” Hinata retorts, crossing his arms. As if it is the most obvious thing in the world, he calmly closes his eyes and says, “We’re friends, Tsukishima.”
Kei physically feels his own face convulse into a glower. Swiftly, he raises his right hand and brings it down in a chop directly onto the crown of Hinata’s head.
“Ow,” Hinata squawks, elbows jerking up, but it’s more out of surprise than pain. Kei suspects—nay, knows for certain—that he has received much worse from Kageyama, so he feels no guilt whatsoever.
“Say that again,” Kei dares him, squinting, not removing his hand. “I dare you.”
Hinata creaks open one eye, peering resentfully up at him.
“You’re not cool, Tsukishima,” he grumbles, pouting, “and we’re friends.”
Kei lunges at him. Hinata yelps and ducks, reflexes as freakish as ever, and Kei’s arms swing clumsily through empty air as he darts out of the way—and crashes directly into a pyramid display of Sangaria Hajikete melon soda that’s on sale.
Kei hears Ukai shout wordlessly in horror over his shoulder, but it does nothing to dissuade him from leaping at Hinata again. Hinata is only able to gawk at the mess he’s just made before he has to scamper away again, rolling out of Kei’s reach toward the safety of the instant yakisoba aisle. Kei chases after him, uncertain as to what it is about this, in particular, that’s gotten him riled up enough to expend even a modicum of physical energy on Hinata, and as he does, he passes a metal slatwall and bumps into a peg hook holding several bags of assorted dagashi, knocking them in a heap to the floor.
He corners Hinata against the wall of drinks and takes two deliberate steps toward him.
“Ts—Tsukishima, don’t be mad!” Hinata squawks, arms stuck out in front of him, feet spread wide, bracing for impact. “I was trying to be supportive! Y-Yama really likes you, so—!”
Yama. The pinch in Kei’s gut manifests as a seized muscle at the edge of his mouth.
“What the hell do you know?” he asks quietly, still advancing.
Hinata laughs fearfully. “S—Some things!”
“Even that’s being a little optimistic.”
This is the bait that Hinata finally rises to, abandoning the defensive stance in a blink to clench his teeth and raise a fist, snapping in his tiny, not even remotely intimidating voice, “You wanna fight, Tsukishima?!”
“THAT DOES IT!” Ukai roars, surging out of his chair and slamming the newspaper onto the counter with a loud bang that makes Hinata squeak and freeze in place. Kei blinks, unperturbed to the untrained eye, but it has been so long since Ukai’s wrath was aimed even vaguely in his direction that he can’t help quailing, a little, on the inside. “If either of you delinquents takes one more breath, I’m kicking you out, and—calling your parents, and—benching!—benching you!”
“B-Benching—!” Hinata wails.
“This is a place of business!” Ukai goes on, undaunted. “Can’t you see you’re bothering the customers?!”
Kei and Hinata glance guiltily, in unison, at each other, then at the empty store, then back to Ukai.
“Sorry,” they both mumble.
Ukai exhales heatedly through his nose, arms crossed sternly, eyes closed as if to help him better imagine the concept of restraint. Kei feels instinctively reproached, which annoys him, the same as it always has. Hinata is standing at attention next to him, fists quivering at his sides, eyes glistening like he’s about to cry but is working very hard to hide it—he’s never done too well with getting yelled at.
Ukai lets them wallow in their shameful silence for a good few seconds before finally stabbing the last of his cigarette into the ashtray, twisting it thoughtfully into the ashes as he no doubt begins to outline the most useful way to address the problem in front of him.
Kei very strenuously wishes he wouldn’t.
“Clean that up,” Ukai says at last, gesturing to the mess they’ve made. “Hinata, soda. Tsukishima, snacks. Then tell me exactly what the hell is going on so that I can tell you how to fix it and we can all go home.”
“I would really rather not,” Kei says, pained. Hinata elbows him in the ribs.
“Last I checked, the beanpole who vandalized my store doesn’t get a say in it!” Ukai barks, causing Hinata to snicker inelegantly. “Don’t laugh, peewee! I’m not through with you, either!”
“Geh! Peewee again!”
Kei and Hinata clean up their respective messes in silence, not looking at each other. Kei wonders as he hangs a bag of junk food back on its peg if Yamaguchi made it home all right. He wonders what might have happened if he’d stayed. He wonders how the words that Yamaguchi had been poised and ready to give him might have sounded. He wonders what it must feel like not to be a coward.
He almost wants to throw everything on the floor again, just so he can go back to pretending it’s the only mess he’s made today.
“You know, Tsukishima,” Hinata says thoughtfully, holding an armful of soda cans, and Kei stops moving, “you could just say you’re sor—”
“You said he really likes me,” Kei murmurs, barely audible. Hinata goes immediately silent and attentive; it’s unnerving. “Did he tell you that?”
Hinata watches him for just a few moments too long, bug-eyed and bewildered, enough to make Kei start to feel restless.
Then, Hinata beams at him and says, like nothing delights him more, “Yep! He did!”
Kei slumps his shoulders and rubs slowly at his right eye, pushing his glasses askew when he does. This is probably the point at which he should start meticulously rifling through each detail of his actions in life that might have led him to this moment—not only learning that Hinata Shouyou knows about his maybe-sort-of-feelings for his best friend, but more or less admitting it to him in their coach’s convenience store—but he can’t muster the energy.
It’s the truth now, then. There is no avoiding or rewriting it. Yamaguchi likes him. Yamaguchi likes him and has told people about it and—
“More than once, too!” Hinata is babbling on, gesticulating with the hand that isn’t trying to balance a mountain of fallen sodas. “One time he even told Kageyama! But that was an accident.”
“Kageyama,” Kei repeats to himself in a whisper. “Kageyama.” He lifts a mournful hand to his head and lets it drag, in agony, down his face. “This is it. I’m in hell.”
“Tsukishima… hm… how to say this,” Hinata muses, wrapping one finger around his chin like that will help whatever stale walnut he has for a brain work better. “Um… well… did Yamaguchi ever tell you?”
The question lands softly on Kei, barely there, but he still thinks he might bend under the weight of it if he lets his guard down. Memories rush vividly at him before he can begin to parse their significance: I caught the coolest cicada, Tsukki; you have to see it; ah, but I put it in a jar so it won’t fly in your face this time—You make me want to work a lot harder—I remembered you were coming over, so I asked Mom to pick up strawberries—You have the height, brains, and instinct, so why do you decide that getting any better is impossible—I can think of a lot of words, but uncool definitely isn’t one of them—It makes me happy to see you get fired up, Tsukki—Thank you for the other day, at, um, the park—Are you okay, Tsukki—Ah, c-can I call you Tsukki, is that okay, that’s not weird, is it, it’s weird, right—Tsukki—Tsukki.
“Yeah,” he says to Hinata, staring wide-eyed at a colorful advertisement for spicy ramen on the opposite wall. “I mean. Kind of. Maybe.”
Hinata gasps theatrically. “Really?!” He drops a soda can and scrambles to pick it up, groping blindly for it because he cannot tear his eyes away from Kei. “What did you say back?!”
Kei exhales, harsh and heavy, and finishes hanging the dagashi back on their pegs.
Hinata wilts. “Oh…”
Kei halts a moment before letting go of the last pack of fue ramune, remembering a lunchtime the previous week when Yamaguchi had shared some with him and he had teased him for still eating the candy he’d always picked in junior high. They’re fun, Yamaguchi had argued, and they always make me think of you. The casual tone of this altogether sappy declaration had nearly been enough to make Kei double over in his seat.
“What?” says Hinata. Kei hadn’t realized that he had spoken the word aloud, soft and defeated, but there’s no sense in acting elusive now, he supposes.
“Stupid,” he repeats lifelessly. “This is stupid.”
“What is?” Hinata prods him, blinking.
Kei’s fingers twitch, just slightly, restrained from reaching for the memory of a small hand that had not let go, even when it could have.
“This feeling,” he murmurs.
“Right?” Hinata groans, setting a hand over his heart and leaning backwards, gritting his teeth resentfully at the ceiling. “It’s the worst!”
“I’m sure volleyball will return your feelings,” Kei says snidely.
“Damn it, Stingyshima! Can’t you just have a human emotion, like, once?!”
“Tsukishima,” Ukai calls from the door, where he has just flipped the shop sign to closed. Kei notices, with an inward start, that it’s gotten completely dark out.
“Yes?” he answers.
Ukai is watching the street outside with an unreadable expression and his hands on his hips. Hinata puts away the last of the sodas and scurries over to stand beside Kei, though he was absolutely not invited. A momentous silence grows, such that Kei wonders if he’s expected to fill it, but then Ukai drops his head with a quiet, near-imperceptible exhale, closes his eyes a moment, and opens them again with new resolve.
“Tsukishima,” he says again, angling his shoulders toward them enough that he can lock eyes with Kei without turning around. “Listen. It’s tough when it’s your friend—your best friend. Tougher than you ever thought it would be, right?”
Kei considers throwing up the wall. Stalls. Relents.
“Yeah,” he says. In his peripheral, Hinata tenses in shock.
Ukai’s mouth twists ruefully before he turns away again to hide it.
“Yamaguchi was very brave to say what he did,” he says. “I think he learned that from you.” He slouches his hands in the pocket of his hoodie and tsks. “You’ve probably thought for a while, ‘Yamaguchi is someone who walks ahead of me,’ or something like that. Right?”
Kei stiffens. Beside him, Hinata coos; without breaking his attention from Ukai, Kei reaches over and stabs his fingers punishingly into the crown of his head.
“But that’s not true,” Ukai continues. “The two of you took some time to figure out your paces, and they didn’t always match, but that’s not so anymore. You walk beside one another. You always will. Whatever that means for you—you decide.”
There are no better words for it: Kei is moved. He bows his head so as to conceal all accessible evidence to this fact. There is a new and steady rhythm to his heart now, but he knows it as well as he knows the approach of Yamaguchi’s footsteps on school mornings; this time, too, he opens the door.
“Right,” he says, and swallows down all the rest. “Thank you, Coach.”
“Yes, yes; thank your Coach for his benevolence and wisdom!” Ukai gloats, throwing his head back to roar with laughter. “Pick a soda from the refrigerators, you two. On the house, as a consolation prize for your idiocy.”
Kei grumbles at the insult, but Hinata practically glows, bounding down the aisle as though he has just been offered an elixir that will make him ten feet tall. Kei gives himself a moment of peace before resignedly following, because he is thirsty, and he does deserve this.
Without thinking on it, he opens the glass door and takes a melon soda.
“So?” Hinata asks, bouncing eagerly on the balls of his feet as he pushes down the stopper of his original Ramune. “Do you feel better? Did we fix everything?”
We? Kei thinks, but shockingly does not say. “Mm.”
“So you’re going to talk to Yama again?” Hinata brightens, eyes aglimmer. “I’m relieved! I was worried I’d have to beat you up to avenge him!”
“Words do not exist,” Kei says calmly, “to describe how stupid you are.”
“Answer the question, Tsukishima!” Hinata needles him, jabbing him in the ribs with four fingers. Kei jerks his elbows down and silently dares Hinata to make a comment about the fact that he’s ticklish. “Don’t think you can escape just by being your usual stingy self! I’m onto you now!”
“Please don’t remind me.”
“Tsukishima, damn it—”
“I’ll figure it out,” Kei cuts him off, because, as Hinata had said, he’s onto him now, and there’s little point in pretending otherwise. It’s relieving, in a way, once he gets past the absolute, apocalyptic shame of it. “Eventually.” He glowers pettishly at him over the neck of the bottle after he screws off the cap and tilts it back to take a drink. “I’ll write him a letter or something.”
“He should be here in a few minutes,” Hinata says, “so you can just tell him then.”
Kei spits out his drink before he can stop himself. It dribbles unattractively down his chin. “What?”
Hinata holds up his flip phone, eyes wide and innocent. “I texted him and told him to come pick you up.”
Kei carefully considers whether or not a lifetime in prison would be worth it to strangle Hinata right then and there.
“Kageyama said he’s fine with it if I don’t come back tonight,” Hinata says cheerfully, pocketing his phone and producing a battered blue iPod in its stead. “Come on; I told Yama we’d wait out front. I can introduce you to Carly Rae-chan!”
Carly Rae-chan is... energetic, to say the least. Kei ends up sitting beside Hinata on the sidewalk in front of Sakanoshita, hunched forward so as not to disrupt the fragile equilibrium of their shared earbuds, listening to a bouncy electronic pop song in English—or trying to, anyway, over the sound of Hinata's passionate, atrocious singing.
“I’m amazed you can understand any of this, flunker,” Kei deadpans with a skeptical sidelong glance.
Hinata beams at him, white teeth and scrunched eyes, bouncing back and forth.
“I can’t!” he crows like he’s bragging about it, and then resumes his performance. He is not so much singing along as he is making sounds that vaguely align with the English words.
Maybe Hinata can’t, but Kei can. English isn’t his best subject by any standards, and his spelling sucks, but he’s always done well enough on comprehension, as is the case with most things.
When my heart breaks, it always feels like the first time.
What is that even supposed to mean, he mentally grumbles, and then says, “This is lame.”
Hinata is too busy bobbing to and fro to hear him, waving his arms rhythmically in the air in what is presumably supposed to be a dance. Kei eyes the movements warily, prepared at any moment to stop an errant elbow from smashing into his face.
Eventually, he curls up, wrapping his arms around his awkwardly raised knees (he outgrew being able to sit on sidewalks in the sixth grade) and letting his eyes rove over the dark street, still wet and shining from the earlier storm. The rain smells old now, in that resilient, primordial way that will linger in the air for a little while after the clouds have passed, and it nudges at something in him, something like nostalgia, something like a memory of a sleepover at Yamaguchi's when they were little enough to fit in the same blanket fort. The power had gone out, and Yamaguchi's mom had given them an electric lantern, and they had huddled around it on the floor under Yamaguchi's Pokémon-printed sheets, and Yamaguchi had not been afraid of the sound of the thunder, even when it had seemed close enough to beat down the door, and so Kei had pretended not to be, either.
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
“So anyway,” Hinata shouts—even though the song is really not that loud—and Kei winces away at the volume, scowling. “There’s this one song on this album where she’s like, ‘I don’t like feeling things so I’m going to go to the store’ and it's maximum Tsukishima—”
“I do not care,” says Kei.
“I’ll play it for you!” Hinata exclaims, already scrolling through his library to find it. “Actually, let me send you the whole album—I have your email, right? Ah, there it is! Yama likes her, too, so you can tell him all about—”
"I'm going home," Kei says, moving to stand up. The motion pulls the earbud from Hinata's ear, resulting in a horrified yelp and a chaotic blur of motion as he, too, scrambles to his feet.
"Huh? Buh! You can't go home!" Hinata splutters, yanking the remaining earbud from Kei and holding the cord protectively to his chest. His round eyes are brimming with dismay and, to Kei’s vast annoyance, admonishment. “Yamaguchi's probably going to be here any minute—”
“He won’t.” Kei brushes the seat of his pants off idly, straightening his jacket, readjusting the strap of his bag—rebuilding a wall, stone by stone. Apathy has always been the quickest and easiest for him to assemble from nothing, and it’s no different now, but it feels worse, half-hearted, disgraceful. Lame. That Hinata is probably able to see that so plainly is—
“Tsukishima…” Hinata’s eyebrows scrunch together sorrowfully.
“Quit looking at me like that, idiot,” Kei sighs, closing his eyes so he does not have to look. “It’s, like, ten o’clock.” He goes to bed at nine-thirty on school nights. “He’s not coming.”
He steps out into the street, but he doesn't walk away yet. He feels more at ease with his back to Hinata; he always has, like he’s shading his eyes from a harsh light.
“It doesn't matter,” he whispers. It comes out hollow and cold, even for him.
“It does!” Hinata cries sharply.
Kei whirls around, fury seizing his features. Hinata doesn't balk. Shut the hell up, Kei wants to snarl, along with a flurry of other petty, useless things, but he’s so damn tired, like he’s just had to do a dozen uphill running drills and folded beneath the weight of the stench of grass and sweat in the air, with a stitch between his ribs and a deep, unknown ache in his chest. He says nothing, in the end, staring down Hinata and standing as still as he can in the hopes that it will disguise his elevated heart rate and his hot palms and his gritted teeth; but Hinata still doesn’t falter, beetle-browed, his fury-wrenched face broadcasting his every feeling so obnoxiously clearly. Kei is exhausted just looking at him.
“What are you so freaked out about?” Hinata demands, his voice surging until it breaks and grows hoarse. “Why do you keep running away?!”
Kei thinks about the immense and annihilating power given to things by the senseless act of caring. He thinks about his brother, sobbing on the floor among the things he had collected out of love and passion and helpless, human wanting. He thinks about how easy it had been two years ago, when volleyball was just a club and Yamaguchi was just his friend and his Moment, the one that Bokuto had spoken of so confidently, had not yet come. He thinks about all of the things he has decided he doesn’t deserve. He thinks about the familiar conviction that there is a part of Hinata he will never understand, the one that desires without fear and jumps without the thought of falling. He thinks about Yamaguchi’s hands in his shirt. He thinks about Yamaguchi’s hands.
“I don’t get you.” Hinata practically spits the words out. “I don’t get you, Tsukishima.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” Kei snaps.
He moves to walk away, but suddenly Hinata is in front of him, arms spread wide, and there is that presence of his that Kei has only felt in matches, as engulfing and earth-halting as a sun flare.
“Don’t you like Yamaguchi?” he yells, like he's the one who got rejected.
Kei tries to side-step him, but Hinata surges to block his path.
“Don’t you?” he repeats.
I’ve always liked Yamaguchi.
Kei’s composure snaps in two.
“It must be nice to be so dense,” he snarls, and Hinata bristles, hurt flashing in his eyes. “Man, it must be nice. What the hell do you know? What the hell do you know about any of this? Losing things has never mattered to you; all you ever do is go after what you want. Just because it’s there and just because you want it. Normal people would call that selfishness, you know. You just get up and try again, over and over and—”
“Yeah!” Hinata is right in his face now, unyielding—direct sunlight. “I do!”
The two of them stand there panting at each other for several seconds, long after the echo of Hinata’s words has faded from the fraught air. Kei feels calmer, somehow, than he did a moment ago. He doubts this was Hinata’s intention—to expect that much care and forethought of him would be a degree of optimism bordering on delusion—but it’s true all the same.
He’s the first to look away, but there’s no shame or cowardice to it. It just feels like the proper thing to do.
His jaw strains to form the words. “It’s not like it’s that easy.”
There’s the sound of a rustling sleeve, and when he glances up he sees, to his bewilderment, that Hinata has shot out his fist and has it extended, in what Kei quickly realizes is supposed to be some emotional display of encouragement. His gaze is expectant, as though he has not entertained the slightest thought that his action will not be reciprocated.
Kei reaches out and pats his hand.
“Yeah, yeah,” he mutters wearily. “You’re exhausting, you know that?”
“Yes!” Hinata squawks, face splitting into an utterly shameless grin.
Kei shoulders past him so that he does not have to keep looking at that ridiculous expression, and Hinata steps aside to permit him passage. He almost thinks he’s managed to escape at last, at last, but then—
“Tsukishima-sama!” Hinata screams ardently after him through cupped hands, and the presence of it takes up the whole street, the whole night, the whole sky, until it rattles the stars. “Fiiiiiiiiight!”
“You’re so cool, Tsukki!”
“Knock it off, Yamaguchi.”
“I mean it! I really, really mean it!”
“You always say that like you aren’t cool.”
“I’m not that cool. I mean, I didn’t slam Ushiwaka’s ball down and score back the second set and—”
“I think you’re cool, Yamaguchi.”
“I’ve always thought you were cool.”
After a long, pensive bath that puckers his fingertips beyond recognition, Kei crawls into bed and blearily checks his phone for new messages. There are none.
The most recent mail in his inbox is from a week ago; he and Yamaguchi had met up to buy notebooks, and Yamaguchi had gotten lost in the shopping district and texted him in a panic. It had taken Kei only a moment to find him, but Yamaguchi had clung to his arm and breathed the sigh of relief of a man cut off from civilization for a decade.
That same arm hangs heavy at Kei’s side when he walks to school alone the next morning. At the gate, he almost gets trampled by Kageyama and Hinata as they sprint bellowing into the building, neck and neck. When he enters class 4, Yamaguchi is already at his desk, and for the entirety of the day’s lessons, he does not look at Kei.
Kei tries not to take it personally. He knows Yamaguchi well enough to recognize that he isn’t up to a confrontation yet, and that’s fair, considering how the last one went. (He also knows Yamaguchi well enough to notice how his pencil trembles in his hand when the teacher asks Kei a question about matrices and Kei concisely gives the correct answer.)
When the last bell rings, Yamaguchi stands and packs up his bag with no telegraphed intention of waiting for Kei, but for the whole walk to the gymnasium, Kei follows a few paces behind him, and he makes no effort to shake him off. They change into their workout clothes in silence, and enter the gym in silence, and line up with the others for the pre-practice meeting in silence.
It’s a serve-and-receive day, because there’s apparently nothing Ukai would rather cultivate in them than a tolerance for suffering. Kei suppresses a groan. Out of nowhere some words that Akiteru had spoken gently in their winter-chilled backyard a lifetime ago take root in his mind with great clarity: It never goes the way you want it to, does it?
“Yamaguchi, practice with m—” Kageyama starts to demand as everyone pairs off, but Hinata springs into view and claps a hand over his mouth, dragging him forcibly away.
Yamaguchi gives his usual pep talk, brief but earnest, that fires up all of the first- and second-years probably more than it should for a regular afternoon of practice. It is not Kei’s responsibility as vice-captain to remember any of their names, but he makes an effort once in a while, when one of them manages to do something memorable—Arinaga, second-year wing spiker, whose ferocious straight had taken back a close set against Ougi Nishi High the spring before; Hayato, their all-star second-year libero, who’s almost as talented as Nishinoya and twice as unmanageable; Nakanishi, the up-and-coming first-year middle blocker who Hinata keeps trying to take under his wing… and, whatever; the rest.
Truthfully, they’re all fine players, but none of them have or will measure up to the senpai of his time, though he’d die before admitting that. Not that Kei feels particularly deprived by not having Tanaka and Nishinoya tackle him to the ground every time he executes a devastatingly cool block, or anything.
The team disperses after Hayato leads them in a totally needless pre-battle chant, ushered along by Yachi, who Kei swears gives Yamaguchi a trembling thumbs-up as she passes. Yamaguchi nods in understanding, but makes no move to follow them, so Kei doesn’t, either.
He waits, breath held fast in his chest. Just as he’s geared himself up to split the silence, Yamaguchi straightens his spine and pivots to face him. Kei’s open mouth falters at the sight of his wan, self-effacing smile.
“Ah—sorry; I was zoning out a little there.” He laughs, underscored by an apologetic wave of his hand, and to anyone else, it would sound as conversational as usual, but Kei senses the strain in it instantly. “What’s up? Want to practice together?”
“In a minute,” Kei tells him. He casts around for courage, for anything, and eventually grabs hold: “I need to talk to you.”
“Need to—?” All at once, the mask drops. Yamaguchi points dumbly to himself, and at Kei’s firm nod, he gulps. “S-Sure.”
Kei draws in a breath as far as it will go, until there’s nothing left in him but the words it will become. The cloud-mottled sunlight pouring in through the high windows has gathered, dusty and radiant, into the ends of Yamaguchi’s loose ponytail and at the edge of his shoulder and arm, and for a moment, Kei is dumbstruck by the sight, by his sudden desire to preserve it.
“It’s about…” He watches Yamaguchi’s face carefully for reactions and signs, but also just because it’s there and there is suddenly no place on earth he would rather look. “About what you were going to say last night—”
“Ah... yeah.” Yamaguchi laughs quietly, setting a sheepish hand on the back of his neck, and ducks his head. “Yeah, that was a little weird, huh? Sorry about that. We can just—”
“Don’t apologize,” Kei says.
Yamaguchi goes completely still, his mouth still half-open. His eyes widen briefly at the words. The forgery of a smile disappears.
“Don’t apologize,” Kei says, barely audible this time.
He watches Yamaguchi breathe out, watches the tension shakily unravel from his shoulders and his eyebrows rise, pinched with an emotion he can’t identify. The sounds of practice are so far away now, mountains behind them, hardly real. Kei can't help feeling he's just said something very important.
“Tsukki.” The two syllables linger in the air between them. Kei has never been more acutely aware that they are his. Yamaguchi’s voice is low and hoarse, his countenance grave. “Can I tell you something?”
Kei nods once. “Always,” he says, even though he doesn’t need to.
“Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says again, and he sucks in a shuddering breath. His fingers find each other, lightly and nervously tangling together, without array or intent. Kei can't take his eyes off of them, the lightly freckled joints and the trembling tips. “You’re my best friend.”
“You, too,” Kei says evenly.
“And,” Yamaguchi continues, hushed, “and I… for a long time, I—”
He closes his eyes. “I really like you.”
“I like you, too,” Kei replies.
Yamaguchi jolts, lifting his head and gaping gracelessly at him.
“No, I—” he stutters, reddening. “I mean, I really like you.”
“Yeah,” Kei says mildly.
“Like, I really—I really, really like you!”
“I like you, Tsukki!”
Yamaguchi flounders, flushed to his neck, eyes glistening. His fingers, blanched at the knuckles, are gripping the hem of his shirt.
“I know what like means, Yamaguchi,” Kei says.
“Tsukki!” Yamaguchi squeaks, covering his furiously blushing face with his hands as though Kei has just stripped naked in front of him.
Cute, Kei thinks calmly, offhandedly. As naturally as noticing the rain.
Kei takes a step forward and, without hesitation, reaches for Yamaguchi's wrist, closing his fingers loosely around it. Yamaguchi freezes, but he still lets Kei slowly ease his hand down, even though his upper lip is quivering and his eyes are riveted onto the floor.
When Kei finishes lowering the first hand, he takes the other and does the same, measured and steady. Yamaguchi watches the motions with painstaking focus, his eyes glassy, like he’s not sure if he’s dreaming or not. It hits Kei like a punch to the stomach: he loves that expression.
In spite of himself, Kei allows fondness to take form on his face. He doesn’t let go of Yamaguchi's hand.
“Did,” Yamaguchi mumbles, “did you get what you needed at the store? I never actually asked.”
Kei's attention catches on a flash of red hair in his peripheral and he glances over before he can stop himself. Hinata is chugging from his water bottle on the other side of the gym with almost too much vigor, clearly trying to look casual and not like he has been spying on Kei and Yamaguchi this entire time with an undoubtedly infuriating grin on his face. Kageyama jogs over to him and raps him on the head, barking at him about what a useless moron he is when he's distracted, but even Kei can tell that there's little force behind it. He realizes he can’t even remember the last time there was.
Ukai approaches them both with his hands on his hips, chiding Hinata about how badly it trips up the team when he isn't focused. There is something in his demeanor, too, that reveals it for the stilted performance that it truly is.
In unison, they both turn and look directly at Kei. Ukai gives him a firm thumbs-up. Hinata pumps his fist up and down in a cheering motion—fight, he mouths. Kageyama stares at them like they've both announced they're going to join Seijoh.
“Uh, yeah,” Kei replies.
“I got a melon soda,” Kei announces.
He kind of yells it, actually. Activity in the gym briefly stalls and a jungle of heads turns to gawk at him all at once. Jurassic World, he thinks gravely.
“It,” Kei mumbles, absolutely certain that his entire body has spontaneously caught on fire, “was good.”
Yamaguchi stares at him. Mercifully, Hinata chooses that exact moment to sprint onto the court and perform an especially noisy Rolling Thunder (Kei has never been more grateful for Nishinoya’s unavoidable legacy), and everyone’s attention whips away to follow it.
This, the fact of the melon soda, is something that has, in the instant since Yamaguchi asked about the store, taken on such momentous importance that it had morphed from vague thought into earth-shaking declaration before he could figure out a more composed and articulate way to say it. It feels as if it has exposed him so spectacularly that he may as well have written it down and tucked it into Yamaguchi’s shoe locker.
Yamaguchi is still staring at him and—is that a smirk? Kei is still holding both of his wrists. He drops them swiftly when he notices this, spluttering.
“Sorry,” he blurts out.
“Huh? It’s fine,” Yamaguchi yelps, but he’s eyeing Kei’s hands with unabashed disappointment.
“Where were we?” Kei asks. He could slap himself. He sounds like he’s about to commence a business conference.
Yamaguchi slackens, mouth just barely agog, arms still hovering awkwardly in the spot where Kei had been holding them.
“Tsukki?” he says, a hundred desperately hopeful questions compressed into one.
Kei almost hides from it, from how much it makes clear, or perhaps always has—Yamaguchi could have said his name, just like that, on the walk back from school the evening before, and if Kei had been listening, or been ready to listen, he might have seen it for what it was: Yamaguchi’s whole heart, pressed without fanfare into his hands.
A ball whizzes past them, bouncing once on the floor, and someone runs after it. Almost.
Kei pretends to suddenly be very interested in cleaning his glasses, slipping them off and wiping at each of the lenses with the hem of his shirt.
“I’m not,” he mumbles, “very good at this stuff.”
Yamaguchi inhales and sets both of his hands bracingly on Kei’s shoulders. Kei jolts, lifting his head, mouth half-agape, but there is something in Yamaguchi’s eyes that stops him from speaking.
Yamaguchi shakes his head fervently and exclaims, “Me neither!”
“I know,” Kei deadpans.
Yamaguchi stiffens, spluttering in offense. Kei puts his glasses back on.
He crosses his right arm over his chest and lays his hand over Yamaguchi’s. This only causes Yamaguchi's face to darken even more severely, if such a thing were still possible.
He doesn’t say anything more, though he feels like he should. There is no way that he yet knows to convey the buzzing warmth rushing through his limbs, so all-consuming that he feels like he might never sleep again, the closest thing he can think of to an exhilarating awareness of what it means to be alive in this exact moment, in this exact gym, on this exact cold, gray day. It’s a little ridiculous.
“Yeah,” Yamaguchi says, mouth wobbling, and then he’s started to cry—but he’s smiling, wide and full and luminous, and Kei’s own mouth twitches sheepishly to join it.
No one knows him better than Yamaguchi, he thinks, and no one ever will. It’s a peculiar feeling, putting it into words, committing it to certainty—but that is the truth at the center of all the others, each more inconsequential than the last by comparison. Yamaguchi knows him. Yamaguchi has chosen to know him. All else is built upon this.
Something takes form in his throat as he watches Yamaguchi fumble to regain his composure, wiping at his nose and eyes with his sleeve and sniffling noisily, a convergence of affection and want. He wants everything about Yamaguchi, every freckle, every muscle; he wants it all for himself.
“What made you want to say it all of a sudden, anyway?” he asks, watching with a fond smirk that he will definitely kick himself for later as Yamaguchi steps back and releases him. “It was kind of out of nowhere.”
“Wh—I don’t know!” Yamaguchi chokes out, punching Kei very gently in the shoulder. “I’d been trying to plan the right moment for, like, a month… but you just—you looked nice… walking.”
“I looked nice walking,” Kei repeats.
“Not like that!” Yamaguchi says. This time he punches him a little harder in the other shoulder. “I don’t know; haven’t you ever just, like, noticed the way somebody’s walking next to you and thought, ‘Wow, I like this person so much?’”
“No,” Kei says. What he does not say is that he thinks he definitely could, someday, if that person is Yamaguchi. “That’s kind of weird, Yamaguchi.”
Yamaguchi sighs, all dramatically, head thrown back and everything. Kei’s eyes follow the line of freckles along his exposed throat, a little lighter than they had been a year ago. He very nearly has to physically restrain himself from reaching over to touch them.
“Are you two going to stand there all day staring at each other or am I going to see some receives?” Ukai shouts from the sidelines. Yamaguchi jumps. “Tsukishima, damn it, how many times do I have to tell you that just because you’re vice-captain doesn’t give you a free pass for sitting on your ass?!”
“Very inspiring, Coach,” Kei calls over his shoulder, glaring at the ceiling.
“And Yamaguchi! Don’t encourage him! You’re the captain, aren’t you? No picking favorites!”
“Yes, Coach!” Yamaguchi chirps with a salute. “Tsukishima, one lap of diving drills for slacking off!”
Kei chokes on nothing. “What?!”
Yamaguchi winks at him, flashing a peace sign that is altogether more smug than encouraging. “Do as your captain says.”
Kei fights back significantly less than is strictly dignified. As he hits the floor near the corner, sliding along until his elbows sting, he catches sight of Hinata, who is supposed to be paying attention to Kageyama’s serve so that he can receive it but is instead beaming proudly at Kei. Kei wills Hinata's slip in focus to bite him in the ass, and for once, the universe complies: Kageyama’s ball clobbers Hinata square in the face, knocking him spectacularly backwards.
Kei hears Yamaguchi laughing from the other side of the gym. It spurs him to into standing.
“You two again,” Ukai groans, tossing up his hands.
When Yamaguchi and Kei had walked in from the growing snowstorm, he’d been in the middle of dusting an endcap. It’s already dark outside, and the snow has been tumbling incessantly down since the early morning; on the walk to school, Kei had needed to rescue Yamaguchi from slipping on a patch of ice no less than five times.
“Good evening, Coach!” Yamaguchi practically sings as he strolls over to the candy aisle, slinging his earmuffs around his neck. Kei is glad that someone is happy, as he is snow-laden and utterly miserable. “The rest of the team will be here soon! It’s pork bun night!”
“I might’ve known.” Ukai pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand and braces the other on his hip. “Well, we should have just enough.”
“It’s Tsukki’s treat,” Yamaguchi adds, and Kei glares in his direction. “He’s such a kind, generous senpai. No wonder they all look up to him.”
“Literally,” Kei mutters.
Once Yamaguchi is out of earshot and Kei has shaken out his hood, Ukai twists his head around until Kei meets his eye and shamelessly winks at him.
Kei’s whole body seizes up, affronted. He grumpily tugs his scarf up over his mouth and escapes to join Yamaguchi.
“Since when is it my treat?” he grumbles.
“Since I decided it was,” Yamaguchi says merrily.
“You’re going mad with power,” says Kei, and Yamaguchi snickers, then leans over and kisses him.
Kei, huddled into his sweater and second sweater and hoodie and parka like an old man, unravels in an instant, warmed to his toes. He sighs, and it shivers more than he would like, and he assures himself that it is simply a result of the cold. He could fall asleep just like this, with Yamaguchi’s tongue grazing his cold-stung lips, utterly, besottedly content. When Yamaguchi withdraws, pecking him once more for good measure, he has to trawl up the effort it takes to open his eyes.
“That’s not fair,” he mumbles.
Yamaguchi ruffles his hair, which is even less fair. Kei makes a displeased noise to disguise how close he comes to leaning into the touch.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Yamaguchi promises. “You’re so high-maintenance, Tsukki.”
“Am not,” Kei says, and, because he is still a little cold, he shuffles closer to Yamaguchi and drops his chin onto his shoulder, stuffing his mittened hands into the pockets of Yamaguchi’s jacket to sap his body heat.
Yamaguchi snorts and pats his shoulder, reaching for a candy bar with the other. Such efficiency, Kei muses with great admiration, eyes drifting shut. He could fall asleep like this, too.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Yamaguchi scolds him, and finally elbows him off. His phone buzzes in his back pocket and he tugs it out, flipping it open. “Hinata says they’re almost here.” He flings a finger in the air. “Prepare the buns!”
“Yeees,” Kei drones. When Yamaguchi’s fingers close around his wrist and lead him to the counter, he trails along without struggle.
Ukai emerges from the back room with a heaping plate of steamed buns. Even Kei can admit that they smell pretty nice. Nostalgic, kind of, even though the time and feeling that they embody have not yet ebbed into history; he'd had to fill out a career planning form in class that morning, and yesterday his mother asked him about universities, and Yamaguchi, against all odds, has grown another inch.
Yamaguchi edges his hand down from Kei’s wrist and loosely laces their fingers together, even though he doesn’t really have to.
Maybe this, Kei thinks, is why Carly Rae-chan sings.