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the space between me to you

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Yamaguchi doesn’t show up to morning practice.

Dramatic, is Kei’s first thought. The kind of showy thing Yamaguchi would normally shy away from. Something everyone they know would immediately notice.

But it’s ridiculous, thinking about it that way for more than a second. Dramatics. As if there’s any universe where Yamaguchi would publicly give Kei the silent treatment as some passive aggressive shot at him.

There’s another, more likely reason Yamaguchi isn’t here, something bitter flitting in the back of Kei’s mind about hypocrisy and that isn’t this the same person who grabbed him by the collar and yelled about pride, but he ends that line of thinking before it starts.

He isn’t about to call his best friend the same thing that he calls himself when he’s beating himself up. That isn’t the kind of person Kei is, whatever people think of him. Or – not anymore, at least. Even if Yamaguchi is being—

Kei exhales.

The one good thing that’s happened today, at least, is that no one’s bothered Kei about it. He’d braced himself when he saw Hinata headed his direction after practice ended, but he’d only cowed him about being off his game. Nothing that much different than any other day.

There’s probably some irritating implication beneath it, something off about his demeanor or one of the upperclassmen having picked up on the atmosphere yesterday and told everyone to leave Kei around. But Kei is too tired to look a gift horse in the mouth.

He slings his bag over his shoulder and starts to head out of the clubroom – the last one out, other than Daichi, though he really could care less – when Daichi puts a hand on his shoulder and pulls him aside.

“Tsukishima,” Daichi says, and his eyes are soft but more nonchalant than Kei expected, “are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Kei motions to leave, but a single glance in Daichi’s direction is enough for Kei to know that his answer isn’t enough. “Why are you asking?” he adds, even though he could probably figure out exactly why.

Daichi scrunches his nose, sheepish and a little embarrassed instead of the I’m disappointed in you for lying expression Kei anticipated.

“Your playing wasn’t as good as usual,” he says too easily, too harshly if he was speaking to anyone other than Kei, and he immediately catches himself. “Uh— not that that’s— We’ve all got off days. No one is mad about it. Good thing it was a practice day, anyway!”

Daichi’s hand comes down on his back, some awkward attempt to diffuse the tension, but Kei can barely process the feeling over his brain trying to make sense of what Daichi is trying to say to him.

Dancing around Yamaguchi is one thing, and Daichi right now seems like he’d rather pull out his teeth than have an impromptu conversation about Kei’s hypothetical issues fifteen minutes until class starts. Kei understands that.

But that he’s dodging it with this strange, obvious lie does sting, a little. To hear from his captain. Even if it… isn’t true, which Kei knows, because he’s the first one who would know if he were playing badly.

Kei sighs. He’s being oversensitive. Whether Yamaguchi is trying to get to him or not, he’s already acting like this.

“Didn’t mean to sound like I’m— scolding you. Just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything going on,” he says. “Well, uh… Always here if you need something. Sure the rest of the guys are, too. Let us know, alright?”

“I will,” Kei says, leaving the empty words over his shoulder as he steps past Daichi and out of the clubroom.

♙ - ♙ - ♙

Yamaguchi doesn’t show up to class, and Kei starts to wonder if Yamaguchi is actually sick.

It verges too strongly on wishful thinking for Kei’s tastes, like a boy wondering if the reason that his date is three hours late is that she’s been hit by a car, but it’s true Yamaguchi has never been the type to play hooky on a whim.

Rolling a mechanical pencil between his fingers, Kei plays with the idea of showing up at Yamaguchi’s apartment with fever reducers and cough syrup and cold medicine. To either help him get better or let him know exactly how he feels about the way he’s been acting. To be the one to grab him by the collar, this time.

Kei won’t. Yamaguchi hasn’t missed enough work in one day of class for him to have an excuse, and Kei would never intrude on him that way anyway. Especially after the night before and that Kei can count the amount of times he’s been to Yamaguchi’s apartment on one hand, but…

It’s a nice thought.

♙ - ♙ - ♙

Kei’s turning the corner by the vending machines when he catches a familiar smattering of freckles on the bench in front of the school.

Hunched over a cell phone, arms tucked into his lap, sits Yamaguchi, basking in the sunlight like he’s got nowhere else to be.

Before Kei realizes it, he’s standing over him, possessed by that same feeling that fantasized about breaking down his door. “Where were you?” Kei hears himself say, the edge of his words too sharp. When Yamaguchi doesn’t reply, Kei puts a hand on his shoulder, and Yamaguchi flinches, almost recoils.

It reminds Kei of the past, and he retracts his hand. He wonders if things have really gotten this bad, and how he never realized it, but Yamaguchi looks up at him and – stiffens in a different way. Not fear, at least.

Removing his earphones with both hands, he opens his mouth and asks “Tsukishima-kun?”

Kei stops cold.

“Why are you calling me that?” Kei almost winces when he hears himself say it, doesn’t even realize he’s starting to speak before the words are out. Vulnerable. At least a sign that if this entire thing is an attempt to get to him – he’s gotten to him.

Still. Yamaguchi has never been that type of person. To get to him on purpose.

“Ah, um, sorry.” Yamaguchi’s cheeks flush a faint pink. “Tsukishima-san, then.” He looks at Kei expectantly, and when his expression doesn’t clear, Yamaguchi worries his lip. “Kei-kun? Oh, but… we weren’t that close when we were younger, so I don’t think I, uh. I’d be able to call you by your first name. Sorry.”

Kei’s chest is tight, and the feeling that had taken seed since Yamaguchi looked him in the eye and called him Tsukishima infiltrates the rest of his body. Calculated thoughts about passive aggression and fear and vulnerability vanish.

We weren’t that close when we were younger.

“Yamaguchi…” Kei says, grasping for the words that will make this moment make sense, make this entire day make sense, and then Yamaguchi’s cheeks color again.

“I-I didn’t know you know my name. Honestly, I didn’t know you realized we were in the same middle school.” He rubs the back of his neck, and smiles a little to himself, the kind of face he used to make around Yachi. “It’s nice. If you, uh, if it’s important to you, you can call me Tadashi. It might take me a while to get used to it, though.”

“Yamaguchi… what are you talking about?”

Kei’s voice is hoarse now, and Yamaguchi’s stopped babbling, brown eyes suddenly clouded with worry. His hands are out, extended towards Kei to catch him if he falls over but hovering just far enough so the proximity isn’t strange. Like he doesn’t know if he has permission to touch him.

“Tsuki— ah, uh. Are you okay? Maybe you should sit down.” Yamaguchi gathers his bag and puts it on the floor, gestures to the seat next to him with a tilt of his head.

Kei isn’t going to fall. Nothing is happening to him, not like he’s going to keel over with a fever or pass out from a concussion, and he does feel like something else now, the unsettling atmosphere of a dream combined with the certainty of reality, as plain as the heat of the sun on his skin, but it isn’t enough to—

Yamaguchi is looking at him, and Kei sits down.

Yamaguchi twiddles his fingers. “You know, you never told me why you came over here. Not that I mind! I’m just, uh. Wondering.”

“Yamaguchi, if you’re—“ Kei coughs. “If you’re upset with me. If that’s why you’re acting like this, it’s— It’s not true I won’t be mad at you. But it’s enough already. If you’re trying to win, you already have.”

The words are heavy on Kei’s tongue, the feelings he’d never voice if things were different, even to Yamaguchi. Even if that might make him even more upset.

Vulnerability, losing, winning. Kei would rather say he was never playing the game at all.

But saying this, admitting this – it isn’t losing, not with bizarre atmosphere emanating off of Yamaguchi, vibrating through the air and seeping into Kei’s skin. Not when his best friend is in front of him and acting like they don’t know each other.

His words aren’t loss if he’s better off if they’re true.

“W-What are you… talking about? Are you feeling okay? Maybe you should talk to someone.” Yamaguchi says, words dripping with caution and almost… fear.

That’s something. Kei wants to laugh. Yamaguchi is afraid of him.

Yamaguchi has never been that kind of person.

Kei closes his eyes, tethers himself to his seat with palms open on the bench, feels the rough concrete beneath his fingertips. He opens his eyes and exhales softly. “Yamaguchi.”

“You’re saying my name a lot.” Yamaguchi says it like a joke, but there’s a distinct shakiness in his voice.

“Because I know it.”

Kei closes his eyes again, thinks about his situation. Thinks about the way no one in volleyball club looked for Yamaguchi, the way his name hadn’t come up during roll call.

He spent a long time wondering where Yamaguchi was, didn’t bother paying attention to anything else. But he still should have realized something was off.

He runs his tongue over the back of his teeth.

“Your best friend. Who’s your best friend?” he asks, and the words are childish in Kei’s voice.

It’s something Yamaguchi’s never called him, even when they were younger, but that doesn’t matter. Their friendship has never been the kind they had to confirm with sentimental phrases. Kei has always felt, and Yamaguchi has always known.

But things are different now. Yamaguchi doesn’t know. If he has to, Kei will change, too.

(If saying those words enough will make them true, Kei will say them.)

“It’s—“ Yamaguchi begins, and turns his gaze to his lap. Kei just barely catches the way his expression darkens, and he realizes he might not want to hear the answer either.

“Why is it important?” Yamaguchi finally says, and it’s a statement more than a question.

Kei looks at Yamaguchi – hunched into himself, gaze shifted towards the floor, closed. No matter how much prying Kei does, he knows there’s no answer Yamaguchi will be willing to give him.

For a second, Kei entertains the idea that the reason he can’t say anything is just because he doesn’t know the answer. He’s forgotten him, and he’s just upset he can’t remember. Like some kind of retrograde amnesia.

He’s seen it in movies and television shows, the sappy kind his mother makes him watch and Yamaguchi used to join them for, a little too invested for the disinterest he played it off.

Those films were maudlin, diaries and shared memories and favorite places and old stories, but that’s fine. Kei can tolerate maudlin. As long as it means he’ll never have to hear Yamaguchi call him Tsukishima ever again.

But Yamaguchi shifts in his seat, shoulders still slumped, and as he does, he accidentally kicks the bag by his feet, the same one Kei had only glanced at when he homed in on him earlier. A nondescript backpack in an unpleasant shade of off-white, fabric pilled and stained with mud.

Kei has never seen it in his life.

“I want to talk to you.”

♙ - ♙ - ♙

Yamaguchi comes with him too easily. After a lackluster apology from Kei for acting strange, the tension disappeared from his shoulders and he went back to that stilted, chatty demeanor he’d sported earlier, even volunteering the family restaurant they ended up going to.

Their conversation on the walk there is so empty that it might as well be silence, but Yamaguchi is so content with Kei’s one-sentence answers that he can’t bring himself to mind.

The restaurant is nowhere Kei has ever seen before for its proximity to their school, but it isn’t so unique the setting leaves Kei at a loss. When the waitress comes, he orders a plate of french fries and tells Yamaguchi to eat, since it isn’t like he has an appetite anyway.

“Oh, th-thanks.” Kei nods, and Yamaguchi rubs the back of his neck, uncomfortable in the silence. “You know, that’s, uh, my favorite food.”

“I do,” Kei says before he thinks better of it. But he doesn’t really mind the slip of the tongue.

It puts Yamaguchi off – he’s leaning his head on the inside of his palm, fingers laced through the hair on the back of his scalp, avoiding Kei’s eyes – and they sit in silence for a minute. It’s enough time for Kei to think.

“In elementary school,” Kei begins to say, his words slow and deliberate. “You were bullied?”

Yamaguchi’s face darkens again, but not as severely as it had earlier. He looks up at Kei and smiles insincerely. “You’re— You’re still as blunt as when we were younger,” he says with a weak laugh. “It’s funny, I thought that you got nicer since, uh, so many girls like you, but!” He bites the inside of his cheek. “Oh, not that it’s— bad! It’s refreshing, maybe? Since you’re how I remember.”

Kei doesn’t know how to reply to what Yamaguchi is saying to him, so he doesn’t say anything. Yamaguchi exhales and slumps down, just a little bit.

“I was bullied. You’re right,” he finally admits, not looking at him. “I was hoping you forgot.”

“You don’t need to be embarrassed.” The words are for Yamaguchi’s benefit, but his cheeks color pink and he still won’t look up. “But wasn’t there a time when we were younger, and a group of boys were harassing you on the playground—”

“—and you saved me, right?”

Yamaguchi’s eyes are lit up now, both hands braced on his side of the table as if to hold himself back. The smile ghosted across his lips is genuine, if still just slightly hesitant.

Something swirls in Kei’s chest. The Yamaguchi he knows.

“I had no idea you remembered that! That’s— That’s really cool! You know, I never, uh- I-”

Kei exhales, weary enough to slow Yamaguchi’s words. “I don’t. You told me about it. When we really met, and a few times after. I go along with it, but the truth is that forgot what I did that left such a big impression on you,” he admits. “I think you figured that out. That it embarrasses you that you remember it so well, and I don’t.”

A beat passes. Kei said too much. There’s a kind of catharsis, talking to Yamaguchi like this. That he’ll hear him, but he won’t understand. He imagines this is what Yamaguchi must have felt like when he’d babble on through the night during their childhood sleepovers, thinking Kei long asleep.

It’s something. Honesty without consequence.

“I… do remember it, but… what are you talking about? You said sorry because you were acting weird, but you never— stopped, you know? I would have… preferred that. To an empty apology.”

Or, maybe. Honesty with some consequence.

Yamaguchi’s outburst carves out a silence that threatens to linger, but before it can settle, their waitress comes and drops off their french fries. A meek “thank you” escapes Yamaguchi’s lips, and Kei exhales again.

“I know I’ve been confusing you,” Kei says. “I’ll explain. You might think I’m crazy, but…” He taps a finger on the table. Thinks about something like – rock bottom and where else he has to go. “I don’t mind. I’d rather you know everything and think I’m crazy than not know anything at all.”

Yamaguchi is speechless, but not scared. He isn’t closed off the way he’d been when they were in the schoolyard together. It’s enough for Kei to work with. He pushes the fries towards him.

“Eat. They’re for you.”

Obediently, Yamaguchi takes one. Kei feels like he brought a handgun to the bank. He rubs the back of his neck.

“I think you might like the story, anyway. Like those soapy dramas. You enjoy those, don’t you?” Kei eyes Yamaguchi, who’s still chewing. “I know, even if you pretend you don’t. I don’t know why you bother with that, anyway. I don’t care.”

Yamaguchi swallows, opens his mouth like he’s about to speak and then doesn’t. Kei sighs.

“We’re best friends. Or I’ve… never called you that, but you and I both know that’s what we are. Since we were kids.”   

Yamaguchi’s twirling a french fry between his thumb and forefinger. The hint of a frown is ghosted on his face. “That sounds… nice, Tsukishima-kun,” Yamaguchi says, refusing to look at him. “But this is the first time we’ve talked. Not even since we were younger. This is the first conversation we’ve— ever had, you know?”

Kei bites the inside of his mouth. Tsukishima. It’s the first time he’s said it since he went up to him in the schoolyard, and it pierces just as much as it did then.

The first conversation they’ve ever had.

Kei thinks.

“You live in an apartment with your mother, and she works a lot. You—“ You never liked being alone. Too much; Kei bites his tongue. “Since she always seemed so busy when you were younger, you didn’t want to bother her, so you never told her you were being bullied. Right?”

“…I told you that?” Yamaguchi asks, french fry hanging out of his mouth.

He… didn’t. Kei figured it out, piecing together Yamaguchi’s attitude and the hushed whispers of his mother talking to Akiteru in the kitchen. It’s not that I don’t like him, Mom, but shouldn’t he spend some nights at home?

“That was a bad example.” Kei wracks his brain. “You watched Super Sentai religiously until you were in your last year of middle school. But you never told anyone because you thought it was embarrassing.”

Yamaguchi swallows. “I don’t understand how you know that.”

“You used to make me watch it with you. When we were younger, and you were sick of watching the things I liked,” Kei says. “We were best friends. We— are best friends. But I woke up this morning and suddenly none of it ever happened.”

Kei slumps back in the booth. He can feel the frayed threads coming up from the leather underneath his fingertips.

“My dreams are never this real. But I don’t know what else it could be.”

Yamaguchi’s lips quirk up slightly, to comfort Kei rather than out of genuine happiness. “That really is like a drama,” he offers. “But, you know, it doesn’t make sense to me we’d be— best friends. It’s not like we really have anything in common.”

That… isn’t something Kei’s really thought about before. What do they have in common? Volleyball, for one thing. It’s how they met.

It’s how they met, but… volleyball is something Kei has had in common with a lot of people, and no one else has ever been Yamaguchi. Kei can barely remember the faces of the people in his middle school volleyball club.

“Five years,” Kei says, a little too sentimental even for all the times he’s said “best friend” today. “That’s what we have in common.”

Yamaguchi scrunches his nose and frowns in joking disappointment. “Eh? Really? We’re only friends because we’ve known each other for a long time?” He reaches for another french fry, chews on it thoughtfully. “It doesn’t seem like enough. For me to, uh, be so close with someone like you.”

Someone like you? Kei isn’t sure what Yamaguchi wants to hear. Though – he might’ve gone too deep too quickly, like before. “We’re in volleyball club together.”

Yamaguchi’s eyes light up. “Really? That’s even more unbelievable than me being your best friend!” He bites his lip. “Ah, but I’m, uh… not really suited to sports, anyway. I must just bring you down. Especially someone at your level.”

Kei suppresses a sigh. Annoying. It’s just his luck that this is one of the few things that stays the same about Yamaguchi when everything else is so different.

Though…

“You know, Yamaguchi… it’s annoying enough to hear you talk like that normally, but didn’t you say this is the first time we’ve ever spoken? ‘Someone at my level,’ ‘someone like me’… what does that even mean to you?”  

The words leave a bitter taste on Kei’s tongue, and he knows the last thing he should be doing right now is testing Yamaguchi’s seemingly limitless patience, but he can’t bring himself to really regret what he said.

It is irritating when Yamaguchi gets this way. Kei respects him too much to pretend it isn’t.

Yamaguchi, on his part, is looking down, eyes fixed on the half-eaten french fry he’s rolling between his fingers. His eyes dart towards Kei and he looks away just as fast, cheeks turning the lightest shade of pink.

“It’s… embarrassing,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “But I guess it’s okay if I tell you, since you said all that weird stuff about us being best friends.”

Yamaguchi exhales.

“We never talked, but since you saved me that time in elementary school, I always thought you were really, uh… cool, you know? And when I overheard some of the boys in my class talk about how you were in our school’s volleyball club, I wanted to see you play, and I was right! You were really cool! So I went all the games I could after that!”

Yamaguchi is leaning forward in his seat now, the food in front of him forgotten, the fact that Kei is in front of him forgotten. Kei can see the beginnings of stars in his eyes.

“It doesn’t sound that special now, but that was since elementary school! I knew you were gonna be really good way before everyone else did. That’s, uh… I know it’s not that impressive, but it was really cool to know it all the way from back then and then watch everyone realize it when you got really good near the end of middle school!”

Yamaguchi is talking so quickly it’s difficult for Kei to parse what he’s saying.

“You were so good we all thought you were gonna get scouted by Shiratorizawa! Or at least Seijoh. But you ended up choosing Karasuno. Uh… because of your brother, right?”

Yamaguchi looks at Kei’s face, tries to read something, and then keeps going.

“Oh, is that personal? I know you don’t really talk about him much anymore. I heard he quit playing after high school! I guess it gets harder in university,” Yamaguchi muses. “What is he doing now? I always thought he must be really cool if he’s the one who taught you how to play!”

Kei catches that. Leave this Yamaguchi to worship Akiteru, too. Though – Kei guesses that is what they had in common, all the way back in the beginning. “He’s a business major. Job-hunting, soon.”

“Oh, really? You know, I’m lucky he’s your older brother. Since it’s the reason you went to Karasuno!” Yamaguchi says. “I still would’ve gone to your games anyway, but it’s cool we go to the same school, too!”

And with that sentence and the ensuing silence as Yamaguchi waits for a reply – somehow, it finally sinks in. What Kei didn’t try to understand while Yamaguchi was talking, because he didn’t… want to.

He considers it, really, then. That what he’s experiencing right now is more than an exceptionally vivid dream, imagines that these things Yamaguchi is describing have been his whole life.

Yamaguchi, always hunched over, stuttering every other word, only the version of himself that Kei knows when he’s talking about Kei. Kei, who Yamaguchi has never spoken to in his life.

(Until now. But Kei knows this doesn’t even begin to count.)

Kei imagines it: this universe, where Yamaguchi idolizes him like Hinata idolizes the Little Giant, but with none of the drive. Where Yamaguchi thinks he’s lucky that he sometimes gets to see Kei’s face in a crowded hallway. He imagines what it would be like if he went to a different school, imagines Yamaguchi going to his volleyball games and standing on the wrong side of the bleachers.

He imagines Yamaguchi thinking about him like this, supporting him like this, but never making the move to actually speak to him because he doesn’t think he’s worth his time. His entire life. Both of their entire lives.

Kei thinks about “Tsukishima-kun,” and then thinks about throwing up.

“Yamaguchi,” he hears himself say, his voice oddly hoarse, “why aren’t we friends?”

The question is enough to sober Yamaguchi almost immediately. He’s looking down again, playing with stray french fry scraps on the plate in front of them. He rubs the back of his neck and smiles a little wistfully. “You know, Tsukishima-kun, it’s just as weird to me that you think we are.”

Kei can’t think of anything to say over the turning of his stomach. A moment passes, and Yamaguchi frowns.

“Ah, I do believe you, though! You know all that stuff about me and you wouldn’t, uh… you wouldn’t be talking to me like this for any other reason. It really is like a drama!”

He flashes Kei a forced smile.

“I know you do, uh… That this is really strange for you. It’s really strange for me, but you are, um. Everything here must be wrong.” Yamaguchi bites his lip and then looks at Kei. “I will help you, Tsukishima-kun. Because you did tell me everything, and uh. Since that’s probably why. I want to help you.”

“I told you because you’re my best friend,” Kei says, even though he knows he shouldn’t.

“That’s, uh…” Yamaguchi looks away from Kei and rubs the back of his neck. “Oh, um! I bet if this is happening to you, it’s happened before, right? There must be some kind of solution! We could probably find something about it if we looked it up. Though… my laptop is at my apartment. Uh, you can come over if you’re okay with it!”

He looks at Kei, searches his expression for something and looks down.

“Sorry I didn’t, uh… I don’t… know. It’s a lot. But I am happy you trust me, Tsukishima-kun.”

Yamaguchi’s face then reminds Kei too much of when they were children, way before he’d gotten comfortable on the volleyball court, way before he stopped hiding behind Kei when he was scared.

Kei remembers the kind of person he had been before he met Yamaguchi and knows it isn’t so different from the person he is now. But that doesn’t mean he wants to slip back into it. Or, at least… he doesn’t want to treat Yamaguchi like that.

“Don’t apologize, Yamaguchi. I should… I should be thanking you,” he says, tripping over the words.

Yamaguchi’s gaze pierces through unkempt bangs, something in his eyes Kei can’t decipher. Kei exhales.

“And… I want you to call me Tsukki.”

♙ - ♙ - ♙

It’s been almost an hour, and every lead he and Yamaguchi have chased has turned out to be a dead end.

Kei had expected this from when Yamaguchi suggested it, when they were sitting together in that restaurant, but Yamaguchi had been so enthusiastic about it and Kei couldn’t think of another excuse to stay with him.

The truth is, he’s sure if anyone had ever been in his situation and the story had been as easily accessible as to be found by a search on the internet, he would have heard it already. What they need is something else, something deeper, some expert on the multiverse theory or the key to the dark web, but Kei isn’t far enough in where he is to be thinking about the way out.

It’s good to be calculating and practical, and Kei usually is, but he’s been so disoriented all day that all he wants to do is stay with Yamaguchi until he feels like a human being again. To at least have that. And then he’ll think of a way to make things right again.

“I think I found something!” Yamaguchi exclaims from his desk, and Kei sits up from his half-slouching position on Yamaguchi’s bed. “Let me read the article.”

Kei withholds a sigh. It isn’t the first time Yamaguchi’s gotten his hopes up. He starts to wonder if humoring Yamaguchi is only hurting him, but he watches Yamaguchi squint determinedly at his too-bright laptop screen and can’t find the willingness to tell him it’s pointless.

He thinks about sitting back at the stool Yamaguchi had pulled for Kei at his desk, to at least play at helping, but just as Kei is about to get up, Yamaguchi exhales deeply.

“It was just a horror story,” he says, and Kei can see the tired in his eyes. “I must have gotten your hopes up. Sorry, Tsu— ah, um, Tsukki.”

Sorry, Tsukki! The reason Kei’s been sitting here for an hour while Yamaguchi’s been trying to catch the wind in a jar. “It’s fine, Yamaguchi. You should rest for a while, anyway.”

Yamaguchi turns around in his chair to look at Kei, maybe to protest about how he can keep going, but when he finally sees him, something clicks in Yamaguchi’s mind. “Oh, uh, are you hungry? Do you want something to drink? Sorry, I, um, I never have people over so I… forgot.”

“We just ate,” Kei points out. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“Ah, um. Okay,” Yamaguchi says, turning around to close his laptop and then turning back to face him. “What did you want to, um… You know, I did see a couple of dramas where something like this happens! But I don’t think that will really help unless someone you know is secretly a witch… Though, I guess that could be possible! Since I didn’t think something like what happened to you could happen until today.”

“Mm,” Kei says, for lack of a better response. He waits until a second, and then says what he meant to before Yamaguchi got off track. “When we were at the restaurant, I asked why we weren’t friends anymore. It wasn’t completely rhetorical.”

“Oh, uh.” Yamaguchi rubs his neck, uncomfortable again. “You know, you talked a little about it, but I’m still not really sure how we became friends, so it’s kind of unclear to me, too. In, um, the opposite way, I mean.”

“The first day of volleyball club in fifth grade, you thanked me for saving you, and then you followed me around until I got used to it.”

Yamaguchi’s cheeks pink. “Sorry. That must have annoyed you.”

“It’s fine,” Kei says, and he can’t help it if he can’t keep the irritation from his voice. “You’re my best friend.”

Yamaguchi doesn’t answer. Kei coughs, and presses on.

“But you never— you told me once, something about how you wanted to join a sports club to get strong. You never felt that way?”

Yamaguchi’s shoulders slump, and he fixes his hands on his knees, like a tether. “I… did. But it isn’t a good— It’s kind of embarrassing.”

Kei doesn’t say anything, because he knows he isn’t in the position to pressure Yamaguchi into talking about it. That he’s a complete stranger and he’s asked Yamaguchi for a thousand things today and he’s sitting on his bed, right now.

Yamaguchi’s eyes dart up to look at Kei, and then look back down. “I guess I should tell you. Because you told me so much today. Uh…” He pauses for a second, still not looking up, and then swallows. “It seems like for you, I joined volleyball club. But when I wanted to play a sport in elementary school, the one I chose was baseball.”

Yamaguchi’s hands clutch his knees a little tighter.

“But, uh, I guess I must be clumsier than your Yamaguchi, because I was really hopeless at it, and… I dunno. The team kind of… noticed. And they, uh… encouraged me to leave, but I didn’t want to, because it’s not cool to be a quitter, but they were really… adamant about it. So I ended up quitting. I was pretty bad at it anyway, so…”

Kei scoots over on Yamaguchi’s bed, hangs his legs off the foot, and puts his hand on Yamaguchi’s shoulder, a little awkwardly. It jolts something in Yamaguchi, and he looks up, straight into Kei’s eyes, and Kei swears he can see the beginning of a sparkle.

“What do you mean,” Kei starts to ask, even though he’s sure he already knows, “that they encouraged you to leave?”

Yamaguchi glances at Kei’s outstretched arm to his shoulder, and Kei can see him contemplate shaking him off, but he knows he’d never be that impolite.

Kei doesn’t move, uses the hand on his shoulder to remind Yamaguchi that he’s here, with him. Yamaguchi breathes out sharply, the kind of sound that might be a wail if he was alone. “I-I don’t like talking about it. It was years ago now, so…”

The shaking in Yamaguchi’s voice, the words he’s saying, make something deep and poisonous rise up in Kei with nowhere to go, and Kei closes his eyes.

Yamaguchi said that it’s been years now. That’s true.

It’s also true that hearing about this is barely different than knowing all the things he’s known about him before they were friends, and he hadn’t cared about Yamaguchi’s bullies back then. Even the day Yamaguchi’s never forgot, Kei is sure he stopped because he was bored and they were being annoying, not because he wanted to save Yamaguchi the way he likes to think he did. 

Yamaguchi was bullied when he was younger? Kei’s always known that. Hypocritical to be angry about it now.

Except, when elementary school ended, it was supposed to finally be over. He was supposed to attach himself to Kei’s back and Kei was supposed to—

Kei breathes in, breathes out, calms down, and looks at the person sitting in front of him.

“Yamaguchi, that story isn’t… embarrassing,” Kei finally says. “If anything, it’s embarrassing for your club members. Since…”

A thousand vitriolic words cross Kei’s mind, but he knows that they won’t help Yamaguchi right now, that it won’t do good for Kei to change that ridiculous insecurity embedded inside of him to hate. That any insult from Kei, no matter how sharp-tongued, probably won’t be enough to change it to hate anyway.

“Since no one is amazing at anything when they’re beginning, and I know you would’ve become good at baseball if they hadn’t given up on you so quickly.”

Yamaguchi doesn’t move, but Kei can see the corners of his lips quirk up, just slightly. “You’re flattering me.”

“Do I seem like the kind of person to flatter people? There are times I…” Kei closes his eyes. Yamaguchi’s shoulder is bony, but warm. “I’m only telling you this because of the situation we’re in. Since you spoke to me openly. There are times I’m afraid you’ll outrun me because of how good you are. How hard you can work when something matters to you.”

The first time I saw your serve, a shiver ran down my spine.

“I know you don’t know the first thing about research. About parallel universes, or my situation. But you turned on your laptop, and you kept at it for an hour, and you probably would’ve stayed up all night, if I hadn’t stopped you. Because that’s the kind of person you are.”

The silence that follows Kei’s words is type that expands and takes up half the room, and Kei is starting to wonder if he’s finally crossed the line for first conversations when Yamaguchi opens his mouth and—

Laughs.

Yamaguchi covers his smile with his hand, but the sound is unmistakable – that same teasing laugh accompanying Yamaguchi’s trademark Sorry, Tsukki, the one Kei hears after Yamaguchi makes a small joke at his expense.

“That’s so… cheesy, and also a little mean. I never thought you were so—“ Yamaguchi chokes back a laugh. “Thank you, Tsukishi— Tsukki. This is, uh, this whole situation, it’s really… weird, but it also feels like a dream. Like I’m imagining you. Especially since you just said that. I guess that’s why it’s so easy for me.”

Yamaguchi still won’t look at him, but for different reasons than before. He takes his hand away from his face to brush a stray piece of hair behind his ear, and it feels like years since Kei’s seen that expression on his face.

“Sorry, I just— It’s been a long time since I’ve— I’m really… It’s nice. To talk to you like this. Thank you for, uh. Thank you.”

“You said that already,” Kei replies, a little bit at a loss for the way Yamaguchi is acting, the way it settles in his chest. He retracts his hand, and Yamaguchi laughs again.

“You really are— I think I should’ve known something was strange from the beginning. When I said you were meaner than I thought. The way you are here, I think you are a little.... less blunt than this. Or… strange. But I’m glad I met you this way. It’s funny.”

Yamaguchi finally looks at him then, sends an openly teasing smile his way. Something about the moment fits Kei like a glove.

Kei backs up, leans his shoulder against Yamaguchi’s wall. “Could you tell that? I thought today was the first time we’ve spoken.”

“My friend Yachi-chan— oh, she’s not, uh, my best friend. She just noticed me sitting alone at lunch one day and, um. Felt bad for me, I guess. But she’s one of the volleyball club managers and she, ah, she really likes you! Almost as much as I— oh, um. But she’s not the kind of person to like someone who isn’t nice.”

“Someone like me,” Kei clarifies, and Yamaguchi knocks him lightly in the shoulder.

“Eh, I already said I’m glad I met you this way! I thought you don’t like me repeating myself,” Yamaguchi replies easily. “Anyway, Yachi is the kind of person to get scared if someone treated her the way you’re acting now, and she does really like you! It made me happy to think you’re nicer now, too. Since I mostly just see you when you’re playing volleyball.”

Yamaguchi bites his lip, scrunches his nose in thought.

“Actually, she likes you so much sometimes I wonder if she has a crush on you. Which is, uh, kind of—”

“You’re imagining it,” Kei replies immediately, because he’s currently in a universe where he and Yamaguchi have never spoken and if Yamaguchi is right, he’d rather not know. There isn’t enough room in his mind right now for him to contemplate some version of Yachi with feelings for him. “I’m sure she’s just humoring you. Since you’re so… enthusiastic.”

“I never thought of it that way… You might be right,” Yamaguchi muses. “That would be a relief, then! Oh, uh, because—“

“You have a crush on her,” Kei cuts him off. Better to lay it out now than to let Yamaguchi talk circles until he eventually admits it.

Though, Yamaguchi’s feelings for Yachi… That’s something Kei’s forgotten about since she first became their manager, but seeing Yamaguchi now and knowing the way he’s never liked the childish who-likes-who kind of drama… Of course Kei would be reminded of the reason behind the way he’s acting now.

It stings, a little bit, that Yamaguchi and Yachi’s— what? Semi-cordiality? That their relationship has carried on from here to there, in this place where he and Yamaguchi have never spoken. The same way Yamaguchi’s strange immediate affection towards Akiteru has.

But Kei’s rational enough to know it’s only bitterness.

Eh? On Yachi-chan? Me and her, we— I don’t— I—” Yamaguchi trails off and looks at Kei, in a way more indulgent and obvious than any other way he’s looked at him today. His cheeks light up pink. “Yeah, I— I guess I do. I mean, I do. Have a crush on her.”

“You didn’t realize until now? For someone who makes fun of me for being tactless” – which Kei isn’t, he just doesn’t care, and Yamaguchi likes to assume the best from people – “you’re pretty oblivious. You don’t need to be embarrassed now, anyway. I’ve seen you act stupid in front of her enough times to be used to it by now.”

It’s strange, actually. Recently, Yamaguchi’s been more coherent and normal around Yachi, so Kei assumed he’d just gotten over it. If he’s even closer with her here (at the cost of their friendship, the bitter part of Kei’s mind says again) and he likes her, he must just get better at hiding it.

That, or Yachi has the patience of a saint.

“You’re so mean,” Yamaguchi says, laughing again. “Ah, but, is that true, though? Your Yamaguchi has a crush on Yachi-chan? It’s kind of strange I would tell you.”

“We’re— I’ve known you since elementary school. Even if it’s true you didn’t tell me.” Kei crosses his arms over his chest. Petulant. “I can’t understand the things you get embarrassed over.”

“You’re a really strange kind of person, Tsukki. Even when everyone was afraid of you when we were younger, I thought you just had a bad attitude. I never expected this was how you’d be,” Yamaguchi says, a lilt in his voice and a grin on his face. He’s sitting cross-legged in his computer chair now, hands on his ankles and leaning forward. “It’s not weird to be embarrassed about a crush.”

Kei sighs, places a hand on Yamaguchi’s bed to anchor himself while he adjusts his position. “I remember being glad you weren’t mooning over Shimizu-senpai because the rest of the team was annoying enough. Then Yachi joined the club and I had to watch you trip over your own feet.”

Kei is exaggerating. Yamaguchi had been unbearable for maybe a handful of exchanges, the first two days or so, and then slightly irritating for a few weeks after, and then Kei stopped noticing. But it had irritated him, before he forgot about it.

“Shimizu-senpai? Oh, that’s right! Your Yamaguchi is in volleyball club with you. I still can’t imagine that at all,” Yamaguchi says, scrunching his nose, hand on his chin. “I’m hopeless at sports. What position would I even play?”

“Pinch server.”

Yamaguchi frowns. “A-Ah. That’s… disappointing. Well, it’s still really cool I’m on the team, though!”

“What did you want to be? Ace, like Hinata? Libero?” Yamaguchi doesn’t answer, just looks at him, expression turned blank, and Kei knows him better than the back of his hand. “You’ve never been the type of person to care about things like that. Your position, or whatever it is.”

Yamaguchi tugs on a strand of stray hair. “Oh. I guess you’re, uh, right. I’m… not.”

Yamaguchi’s slumping in his chair now, biting one of his lips. The air in the room’s changed. Kei sighs. “Isn’t it tiring to be so self-conscious all the time?”

A moment passes, and there’s no reply. Kei said the wrong thing.

Kei fixes his gaze to meet Yamaguchi’s eyes. Clouded, and closed off. Completely different from the ones of the boy who’d been laughing a minute ago.

“Yamaguchi. You don’t need to be ace to be important to the team. Without your float serve, we might not have even made it to nationals.”

Kei exhales, thinks about how nice it would be if Yamaguchi didn’t need people to tell him these things. If he could just know them. And then he remembers the situation they’re in, and realizes what he’s saying.

“I don’t know why I’m even telling you this. It’s not like you remember.”

Yamaguchi’s lips quirk up, just slightly. More for Kei’s benefit than out of actual happiness. “It’s… nice to hear that you think about him like that, though. I wonder what it’d be like to be the Yamaguchi that you know.” He looks up to meet his gaze, and Kei catches a glimpse of something wistful. “I said you were mean, but you’re a good friend, you know?”

Just like Yamaguchi, to look at everything in the least optimistic way. Kei opens his mouth to reply—

And his phone starts to ring.

“That’s you?” Yamaguchi asks, putting his feet back on the floor to roll over to Kei’s bag and toss it to him. “Ah, I didn’t realize the time!”

“It’s fine. I didn’t either,” Kei says, pulling his cell phone out of the side pocket. 7:54 PM. Mom.

He answers it and it’s almost nothing, a fifteen-second-long conversation about where he is and when he’s coming home. He tells her something about losing track of time and he’ll be home soon and she accepts. The conversation ends as quickly as it starts.

Just before Kei puts away his phone, he notices an unreasonable number of texts from the team about the fact he missed afterschool practice. Out of curiosity, he opens the text from Daichi.

(Dont forget what I told you this morning)

Strange, the way they treat him here. Though it isn’t like he’s ever made a habit of skipping practice. Maybe they’d react this way if Kei played hooky in a normal situation.

Not that it matters. Kei slips his phone into his pocket.

“You’re leaving?” Yamaguchi asks, and Kei nods.

The disappointment on his face is palpable, even though Kei’s been with him all day. But Kei isn’t in a position to judge him over that; it’s not like he wouldn’t stay if he could. Maybe this is how Yamaguchi felt when they were kids.

“We have school tomorrow. I’ll talk to you again then,” Kei replies, standing up and pulling his bag over his shoulder.

“Oh, uh, yeah!” Yamaguchi says, stumbling after Kei as he leaves his room. “I didn’t realize we got so off-topic. My mom gets home late, so I can try to research stuff about your situation until then!”

Kei laughs, just slightly, but Yamaguchi picks up on it, and goofy kind of smile lights up his face. “Don’t exhaust yourself. You’ve done enough for today.”

“Ah… Oh, but… will you be okay? I can walk you to the station,” Yamaguchi says as he watches Kei slip on his shoes.

“It’s fine. I know where I am. You used to make me walk you home when you were still afraid of the dark,” Kei says. “I don’t live far from here.”

“Huh? I’ve never been afraid of the dark.”

Kei thinks to himself he’ll never understand the things Yamaguchi gets embarrassed over. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll be fine getting home.”

“Okay,” Yamaguchi says, and then he looks down, something strange clouding his expression.

Dramatic, Kei thinks. Really, this time. It’s just until tomorrow.

“Uh, before you leave, Tsukki, I wanted to, uh—”

Yamaguchi’s eyes are fixed on the floor, somewhere around Kei’s dress shoes. “What’s wrong?”

“I know I’m not – your Yamaguchi. But if it’s okay, if we don’t find anything or it takes a while, I could— I could be your best friend. If that’s okay with you.”

Ah. What Kei had meant to say before his phone rang. He puts a hand on Yamaguchi’s shoulder to make him look at him. “You know, you really have no right to call me strange. ‘The Yamaguchi I know,’ ‘the Yamaguchi I’m best friends with’ – that’s you. You and him are the same person, no matter how differently things happened here,” he says, and he thinks he sees something in Yamaguchi’s eyes clear. “You’re Yamaguchi.”

“Oh, um… I guess I am,” Yamaguchi says, half-joking, shoulders still slumped. Kei takes his hand back and turns around.

“Mm.” Hand on the doorknob, Kei gets ready to leave the air in the room behind, but— just before he opens the door, he turns back. “And Yamaguchi?”

Yamaguchi stands up a little straighter, something like worry in his eyes. “Huh?”

“With things like that, you don’t need to ask.”

Kei does leave then, but just as he’s halfway to the elevator, he hears Yamaguchi voice, carrying easily over the distance. “Tsukki! See you tomorrow!”

Yamaguchi’s standing in his doorway, waving at Kei, smile wider than Kei’s seen in a long time.

Just slightly, he feels his own lips quirk up. “See you tomorrow, Yamaguchi.”

♙ - ♙ - ♙ 

When Kei gets back, his mother is watching a variety show in their living room. He moves to put his bag down next to the couch.

“I’m home.”

“Welcome home,” she replies, smiling at Kei as he sits next to her. She picks up the remote and lowers the volume on the television. “There’s food in the kitchen if you’re hungry. What took you so long?”

“Practice ran late,” Kei says easily. “I forgot to text you. I’m sorry.”

It isn’t a lie Kei’s worried about – simple and small, vague enough to be believable – but his mother bites her lip, nose wrinkled. “Kei…”

“Hm?”

“I know I shouldn’t complain, since you have high grades and you’re passionate about volleyball and Akiteru always tells me how you’re better than he’s ever been, but… even though I’m glad I raised you to work so hard, it’s okay to take a break sometimes, too,” she says. “You’ll only be this young once in your life, you know. You should enjoy it.”

Kei thinks about Yamaguchi, holed up in his apartment, doubtlessly doing what Kei specifically told him not to do and staying up until 2 AM to chase his own tail. He thinks about the way Yamaguchi had been smiling right when he saw him in his doorway.

“I am,” Kei says.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

Kei wakes up late, the rays of the sun filtering straight through his blinds and onto his face. He’s never made the habit of oversleeping, but his mother is usually up at this time. It’s strange she let him completely miss practice today.

Well, it isn’t that big of a deal, even if the team might be even more concerned that he acted strange and then skipped two practices in a row. Far from a problem he’s unable to handle.

But then Kei sits, rubs his eyes, sees what’s unmistakably a Shiratorizawa blazer hanging on the back of his door—

And instantly knows he’s somewhere else.

Chapter Text

“Why are you here? Your homeroom isn’t even on this floor.”

Kei can’t place the voice behind him, but there’s enough hostility that Kei knows there’s history there.

It’s nothing. Kei doesn’t mind. He has that kind of history with almost everybody. But talking to someone he knows might help him find Yamaguchi. He starts to turn around—

“You look like some kind of stalker.”

Ah. Just Kei’s luck, for this to be the first person to talk to him today. At least no one noticed he was lost earlier.

Kei turns around, and can’t shake the feeling that this is someone he’s seen before. Slant-cut bangs, about a quarter-foot shorter than him, that permanent distasteful expression…

Kei places it. Shiratorizawa’s setter. One of them, at least. Funny that he’d forgotten anything about that game. Even during the part of the game he had to sit out, he’d been watching it like the result would dictate the rest of his life, and after…

(“There’s no way you were lame! Are you stupid?”)

Kei closes his eyes and opens them. Useless to remember now.

“Is Yamaguchi in this class?” Kei asks.

It’d be more accurate to ask if he goes to this school, but he’d prefer no one to notice he’s disoriented this way. He's lucky he’d been in Karasuno the day before.

The boy narrows his eyes after Kei ignores his antagonizing, but doesn’t press it. “Yamaguchi?” he says. His nose wrinkles like he’s trying to recall something, but he shakes his head. “I don’t know who you’re talking about. Go be creepy somewhere else.”

Kei sighs. Strange how he got someone from another homeroom to hate him so much, but right now it’s far from his biggest concern.

He starts to turn away so he can check the other classrooms, but just before he can, the bell rings.

The boy in front of Kei smirks.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

“Tsukishima-sensei! Were you looking for me, too?”

Tsukishima-sensei. Kei sighs. Another inexplicable thing for Kei to deal with at this awful school. He wonders what the hell he’d been doing to get into these ridiculous situations. At Karasuno, his classmates hadn’t been half as sociable.

“Sensei?” Kei asks, deciding he’ll have to humor it, and a laugh rings out behind him.

“You’re the sensei. I’m Goshiki!”

Goshiki. Kei’s heard that name before. He takes a second to place the pitch of his voice and remembers – Shiratorizawa's overly-earnest spiker. He turns around—

And sure enough, there’s a boy with a bad haircut grinning to himself over his own lame joke. “Next time, you should just get a table if you can’t find me. It’d be easier for me to meet you that way! Also, I’d like if you could reply when I text you.”

Kei’s phone is at half-battery life, turned off and stuffed in the deepest pocket of his bag. He hadn’t charged it the night before, and he’s not about to let it die so he can return texts he doesn’t even remember the context of.

“Hey, where’s your books?” Goshiki asks, the beginning of a frown on his lips and his eyebrows just slightly furrowed.

Kei tries to figure out a way to play the conversation off without acting suspicious. “Hm?”

Goshiki’s eyes widen, like he’s found understanding in Kei’s two-letter answer. “Ah! Could it be you don’t like lunch sessions? You suggested it. Because of that sciency thing you do after school,” Goshiki says, thumb under his chin. “I liked it because I get tired after practice, too, but if you want to go back to after-school sessions… I can soldier on!”

Goshiki swings the arm his notebook is tucked into over in an overly-showy movement and uses that hand to flash a thumbs-up.

Kei exhales. What an abnormal situation. Tutoring the kind of annoying kid who calls him sensei and is diligent enough to try to track him down during their lunch period.

“No, I… can’t today. We’ll reschedule for tomorrow,” he says. He looks at Goshiki, whose eyes are dulling by the second. “You’re a… good student.”

“Thank you, sensei!” Goshiki says, and he’d sounded like he was joking the first time he called him that, but Kei thinks he hears a hint of reverence on the edge of words. “We already meet tomorrow, but I’ll take your words to heart.”

Goshiki laughs to himself again, and then calms down when a moment passes. He looks at Kei with wide eyes.

“Oh, but! Could I still sit with you? I already left Ushijima-san’s table, so I think it might be awkward if I go back,” he says, hands clutching the edge of his notebook.

From what Kei knows about Ushijima’s personality outside of volleyball, he’s sure he isn’t in a place to be calling anything awkward, but Kei bites his tongue. Making fun of Shiratorizawa’s ace to try to get Goshiki to leave him alone would probably just end with a fistfight in the cafeteria.

He’s well-meaning, anyway, and seems to look up to him. It’d be a shame to mess up whatever this version of Kei had cultivated.

“Fine.”

They find an empty corner and sit across from each other, Goshiki fully focused on pulling a squished-up piece of bread from his pants pocket.

“You’re in volleyball club?” Kei asks as he watches Goshiki unwrap a pork-flavored bun. He shoots him a strange look.

“Huh? Of course I am. That’s why Takaya-sensei made you tutor me, remember?” Goshiki squints at Kei peculiarly.

“No, I was wondering. That boy in volleyball club with the awful bangs,” Kei clarifies as Goshiki furrows his brow. “He hates me.”

Realization descends upon Goshiki’s expression, and his mouth opens into an unabashed grin. “Oh, Shirabu-san? That’s a funny thing to call him! Though… I would probably say it the other way around.”

“Hm?”

Goshiki tears his bun in half with his teeth. “You’re the one who hates him,” he explains through mouthfuls.

Huh. Annoyance and disinterest, Kei could believe, but hate is a strong word. He wouldn’t feel like that about someone like— What was his name? Shirabu? Shirabu, who he didn’t recognize when they spoke face-to-face.

If Goshiki is right, there must be a reason.

“Why?”

“Huh?” Goshiki immediately replies, turning his gaze away from his pork bun to fix Kei with another scrutinizing stare, and Kei realizes the strangeness of his question.

“I was wondering… why you thought that.”

Goshiki breaks into brazen laughter, to the point that the people around them shoot scowls their way. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard you tell a joke, I think, Tsukishima-kun.”

“A joke?”

The smile on Goshiki’s face thins to nothing, and he starts squinting at Kei again. “Are you okay? You’re acting strange. Actually, you aren’t even eating!”

Goshiki jumps a little bit when he notices it, and then turns his gaze to the torn-up piece of bread in his hand. The inner moral war he’s experiencing over whether or not he should sacrifice part of his lunch to Kei is plain on his face. Kei sighs.

“I’m not hungry. I just want to know why you think I’m joking.”

Goshiki squints harder at Kei. “You were… there. Unless… Ah!” Goshiki’s face lights up and he smiles to himself. “Is this part of an experiment? That sciency thing you do after school?”

“It is,” Kei tries, and Goshiki swallows the lie easily.

“Oh. That’s fine! You should’ve just told me. I don’t mind helping you since you’re the reason I’m passing all my classes.” Goshiki breathes in and out, like he’s about to tell a long story. “Okay! The reason I think— Well, I would say ‘know’ instead of ‘think,’ actually. Is that okay?”

“It’s fine.” Goshiki grins wider, and then wrinkles his nose in thought.

“Remember that time, I think… the second time you tutored me? That was a long time ago now!” He laughs to himself. “And you were still weird and stiff, so I was calling you Tsukki because I thought it might make you less stiff. And you hadn’t told me you disliked it yet because you were so busy being stiff.”

Goshiki takes a bite of his bread and then swallows.

“Anyway, we were in the library, and Shirabu-san saw us, and he said something to me. About me being stupid? You know, I don’t really remember what it was because you reacted so fast! I guess you thought he was bullying me, because your face got really dark, like you were possessed! And then you said something about Shirabu-san being bad at volleyball since he didn’t get drafted into the team.”

Goshiki laughs good-naturedly at the memory.

“He’s really sensitive about that! So I got freaked out and said ‘Calm down, Tsukki!’ and I was trying to tell you what Tendou-san told me our first club meeting which is ‘He’s just like that, don’t mind it.’ But Shirabu-san interrupted me. He said, uh— Actually, I don’t remember what he said either, but he called you ‘Tsukki’” – he sings the nickname when he says it this time, inflecting a mocking sort of tone, strange in Goshiki’s voice – “and when he did you suddenly stood up in your seat! And I think if I didn’t grab you by the arm, you would have wrung his neck!”

Goshiki squints into the distance, deep in thought, and then looks at Kei. He breaks into a grin.

“I guess it was kind of cool! Actually, you have strong arms for someone who knows geometry. That’s why I started calling you ‘sensei,’” Goshiki explains, grinning at Kei and taking another bite from his bread.

Kei isn’t sure what the correct reaction to that is, so he doesn’t say anything. Goshiki keeps talking.

“But it’s funny you thought I needed you to defend me. I think you didn’t realize at the time because we were sitting down, but I’m actually taller than Shirabu-san.”

Goshiki grins a little smugly.

“If we ever got in a physical fight, I think I’d win pretty easily! Not that we ever would. He’s my upperclassman. It’s just hypothetical. But I do fifty pushups a day on top on what Tanji-sensei makes us do!”

“Impressive,” Kei says, because it probably is, and if he keeps encouraging Goshiki, he might keep talking and say enough things that Kei might be able to understand what he’s already said.

Goshiki beams. “Anyway, I guess that’s it! Why I think you hate Shirabu-san. You were pretty unfair to him, and then you almost tried to kill him!”

“That’s… It makes sense,” Kei says, and it does. And… Kei needs to face the fact that Goshiki doesn’t know him well enough to explain why he’d act the way he’s describing.

And really. Kei is sure Goshiki isn’t lying, but trying to comprehend his story is like trying to make two and two make five.

The last time Kei got mad enough to become violent was— maybe that time he’d seen Akiteru across from him in the bleachers and the boy that had argued with Kei about it started crowing at him. Middle school. And he hadn’t even done anything because Yamaguchi was there.

Yamaguchi… What did Kei get mad over? “Tsukki”? It’s true the nickname’s overly familiar, and it put him off when Yamaguchi started calling him it, but he hadn’t minded enough to tell him to stop.

The nickname only started actively irritating him when people picked it up from Yamaguchi a lot later, by the time it’d become Yamaguchi’s and no one else’s. But even then it was nothing more than passing irritation.

Still… if that’s true, that he dislikes the nickname so much that he was firm enough that someone like Goshiki stopped calling him that, that he apparently almost killed someone over it, that means he knows Yamaguchi.

Kei almost breathes a sigh of relief. He’d been afraid they hadn’t even gone to the same elementary school here, or maybe he hadn’t been born, or he had been born but in Europe, maybe he wouldn’t be able to meet him at all, but—

He knows Yamaguchi.

“Goshiki-kun. Have you ever heard the name ‘Yamaguchi Tadashi’?”

“Huh?” Goshiki’s hand is on his chin again, and he scrunches his nose so hard Kei worries he’s overworking his brain. “I… think I have…?”

That’d been a shot in dark, but Kei can feel his heart start to race. “I must have talked to you about him at some point.”

That’s another Hail Mary, but Goshiki responds well to it, eyes lighting up and grinning again. “Ah, I remember now! Last month, or maybe before that? We were doing… proofs? And you kept getting distracted and saying things that don’t make sense! So I asked if you were okay, and then you asked me to stop calling you sensei, and then I didn’t reply because I didn’t want to stop and you said ‘Do you remember Yamaguchi?’ And I didn’t know who Yamaguchi was so I asked you and you said I played against him so I said ‘I don’t remember his name, what does he look like?’ and you got really frustrated for some reason! And you said ‘Never mind, this is stupid. Forget I talked to you about this—’”

Goshiki’s eyes widen, and he pauses.

“Ah, um. Oops.”

“No, it’s… good you told me,” Kei says, rubbing the back of his neck. “You have good memory.”

Goshiki beams, and then turns back to his bread.

So. Goshiki hasn’t given him a lot, and it’s a strange story – maybe he’d had an argument with Yamaguchi that day; he doesn’t know how their friendship has changed with distance. Stranger he’d confide in Goshiki, even if he apparently rethought it – but Yamaguchi still plays volleyball.

Sitting down with Goshiki turned out to be useful after all. Kei wants to guess Yamaguchi playing with Karasuno, but in the bizarre situation Kei’s been finding himself in, there aren’t any safe guesses. Even if the thought of Yamaguchi playing alongside that showy setter at Seijoh irritates Kei to the core.

Kei checks the clock. There’s ten minutes left to their lunch period. Not enough time for Kei to find anyone who might remember Yamaguchi and ask where he is.

He looks at Goshiki, who’s finished with his bun and deep in thought. He notices Kei’s gaze and smiles, a little more reservedly than he usually does.

“You know, Tsukishima-kun, about Shirabu-san,” Goshiki starts, and the change in subject takes Kei aback. “You shouldn’t hate him so much. Tendou-san was right when he said he’s just like that. It’s true he says mean things a lot, but he doesn’t mean them. Actually, you were meaner that time than Shirabu-san has ever been to me!”

Goshiki laughs to himself, and then his expression clears and there’s a determination Kei hasn’t seen in his eyes all day.

“He’s also nice to me when we’re playing together, and tries to make me feel better when he thinks I feel bad about something. Actually, I’m not that easily shaken, but I appreciate it! So…” Goshiki bites his lip. “Deep inside of him, I think he must be a good person! I told Tendou-san that and he laughed at me, but… I still believe it!”

Kei looks at the person sitting in front of him and thinks to himself he might be able to understand why he’d get so angry over someone being mean to him.

“Oh! Also, just because he didn’t get drafted into the team doesn’t mean he’s bad at volleyball! He’s actually kind of good.”

“I’ll consider it,” Kei says, and Goshiki grins.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

“Hey, there’s a first year with an awful expression trying to spy on the volleyball club,” a voice sings, and a chill runs down Kei’s spine.

The first person today that Kei recognizes in an instant, and it’s because he’d been able to get underneath Kei’s skin in a way almost no one does. He wonders what kind of reputation he has that the only people at the school who come up to him willingly are this difficult to talk to.

Honestly, he wishes it’d been Ushijima to run into him instead.

“You know, you’re not even doing a good job with it. Generally, hovering around the entrance to the gym when you’re as tall as a phone tower isn’t the most subtle way to go!”

That’s something, to get lectured about subtlety by someone with slicked-up firetruck-red hair, but Kei brushes it off. He’s been antagonized enough today, and he has more important things to do than bicker with someone dead-set on irritating him.

“I’m not spying on the volleyball club,” he says, and the entire sentence is a waste of breath but Kei tries not to mind it. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“Me?” Tendou’s smile stretches and splits his face in half, like something out of a horror movie. “It’s an honor, Too-Good-For-Volleyball-kun. Ah, and Kenjirou-kun’s mortal enemy, right?”

Kei doesn’t have time for this. He elects to ignore half the things coming out of Tendou’s mouth. “Do you remember playing against Yamaguchi Tadashi?”

“Huh? Yamaguchi Tadashi…?” Tendou says, nose wrinkled, and it isn’t a great response, but there’s a sense of satisfaction in having found a way to shut him up.

“He’s a little under six feet,” Kei says, but it isn’t descriptive enough. He bites the inside of his cheek and tries to recall Yamaguchi’s face in a way someone who doesn’t know him does. Tries to remember the way Yamaguchi would look if he didn’t see the teasing in the curve of his smile, the excitement in the black of pupils.

“Brown hair, and he has three-part bangs, so his hair is always in his face. Freckles and brown eyes? Ah, and he always has a piece of hair sticking up in the middle, like a chicken.” Kei thinks some more. As a volleyball player, what would he remember? “He can do a float serve.”

“Wow, are you filing a police report? Don’t worry. I know who you’re talking about, officer. That annoying #11 from Karasuno!”

Tendou flashes Kei a toothy grin.

“Ding ding ding! Did I get it right? Well, actually, I should’ve thought of it sooner. That was the time I saw you lurking around the locker rooms and I thought you were the monster from that video game! Ah, what’s his name? The one with the suit? Eh, whatever. You’re a real creepy kind of guy, you know!”

Tendou cackles to himself, but Kei doesn’t even have to make himself ignore it this time because – Kei goes to Karasuno games, and he meets Yamaguchi after. No matter where he is right now, no matter what sport he does or doesn’t play, he knows Yamaguchi here.

Kei could sing.

“You’re wrong that he does float serves, though. Not that I’d expect the guy who talks about how volleyball’s a waste of time to know the difference between a server and a blocker!”

“Thank you, Tendou-san,” Kei says, turning on his heel and starting to walk away.

“Eh…? Thank you?” Kei hears Tendou say from behind him. “Heh. No problem, Awful-Face-san!”

It’s a terrible insult, but Kei can’t bring himself to care less.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

It’s almost an hour and a half later, just about the time when they start filing from the court to the clubroom to change, and Kei is standing by the Karasuno gates.

In the white pants and blazer Kei hadn’t had the time to go back and change out of, Kei’s more than conspicuous, but classes let out a long time ago and everyone left is too absorbed in club activities to worry about the boy in a Shiratorizawa uniform trespassing their grounds.

By the time Kei gets to the gym, most of the team’s already cleared to the clubroom. Deciding he’ll have to wait it out, he turns the corner to the vending machine and buys a strawberry milk.

The drink is sweet on his tongue, that familiar taste he’s gotten used to looking forward to after particularly long or tiring practices. It’s something, that there are things that are still the same.

He sits on the bench they’ll pass by the gate and wonders if he should just crash their clubroom, but he doesn’t feel like talking to anyone except Yamaguchi. The sun is already hanging too low in the sky for Kei’s taste, and he knows barging into a room with Hinata in it while wearing Shiratorizawa uniform will become an ordeal he doesn’t have the time for.

It takes a while, waiting for Yamaguchi. The box of milk is drained and crushed in Kei’s hands by the time he sees the team start to file out, too slowly. The third years, trailed by Nishinoya and Tanaka, trailed by the rest of the second years.

Kei hunches into himself and clutches his bag by his chest to prevent bringing attention to himself, but it’s unnecessary; the upperclassmen are all absorbed into a conversation Kei can only bring himself to care enough to make out snippets of.

It’s taking too long, Kei is thinking to himself, and the reason Yamaguchi usually leaves the clubroom close to last is because he waits for Kei, so it doesn’t make sense, and then—

An annoying shrimp yelling out “Kageyama!” loud enough to ring out through the courtyard, and then there, walking just a little behind Hinata—

Kei finally sees him.

“Yamaguchi,” he calls as they pass, standing up without realizing it, his voice loud and assertive but not enough to count as a shout.

But enough to make Yamaguchi stop in his tracks.

He freezes when he sees Kei, and his pupils are pitch black, opaque in a way Kei thinks he’s never seen for all the time he’s known him. And then a second passes and his eyes clear and he turns to his teammates, who stopped with him, and says, “Go on without me.”

Kei can hear Hinata complaining, things like “Who is he?” or “Why’s there someone from Shiratorizawa here?” but Yachi herds the rest of them away, and eventually the they blur with the horizon, their words turning to murmurs turning to nothing.

The second they’re gone, Yamaguchi walks straight up to Kei, eye-to-eye in a way they rarely are, and asks, “Why are you here?”

“I wanted to see you,” Kei says easily, and it’s not something he’d normally say. It’s strange and out-of-character and vulnerable, but for this conversation, for Yamaguchi, it doesn’t matter. Better that he notices something is off, so when Kei explains what’s happening, it’ll be easier for him to swallow.

It’s Yamaguchi, anyway. He doesn’t want to lie to him if he doesn’t have to.

But there’s no familiar quirk to the edge of Yamaguchi’s lips at Kei’s sentimental words, no laughter or teasing. The silence they stand in stretches seconds into hours.

“It’s been two years,” Yamaguchi says, tone cold in the same way Kei hadn’t heard from how he spoke to him a minute ago, and Kei can hear the rest of it.

And you shouldn’t be here. And I don’t want you here.

Two years. Kei doesn’t need to ask him to clarify. Knows exactly from the tone of his voice what two years means.

And it doesn’t make sense. Because Kei went to Yamaguchi’s match against Shiratorizawa. Because he cares enough about the nickname Tsukki that he won’t let anyone call him that.

Because every “Tsukishima-kun” tore into Kei’s chest yesterday, and Yamaguchi knows him again, and Kei can’t—

“Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says, and it should feel like a balm on Kei’s rapidly deteriorating mental state but it’s clinical and it’s cold and there’s something Kei’s never heard before in Yamaguchi’s voice, something like contempt, “if you want to apologize. That’s good. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to forgive you.”

Yamaguchi’s pupils are opaque.

Kei feels nauseous.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

And actually, it doesn’t make sense. That Kei came here to see Yamaguchi.

It doesn’t make sense that Kei woke up this morning and the first thought that came to his mind was to track down Yamaguchi, to find him and explain to him everything that’s going on.

The last time he did that, even after Yamaguchi finally believed him, he was clueless. The fact that he didn’t believe him anymore is proof that he was out of his element. All Kei got from what he did yesterday was a conversation, and he was fine with it, telling himself he’d deal with it later.

It’s later now, and Kei is here again, after a day wasted on a wild goose chase, and there’s a look on Yamaguchi’s face that’s making Kei’s mind unravel.

Selfish? Or stupid. That Kei’s first thought was to come here and burden Yamaguchi with something he couldn’t solve. What did he even want? Companionship? Understanding? That’s soft, for Kei. But mostly useless.

There’s no solution here, with him. Kei wonders what the person he spoke to yesterday is doing now. If he stayed up all night like Kei knew he would.

If he wasted his time.

This is some kind of punishment, probably, the way Yamaguchi is looking at him now. The way he’s standing up straight and staring him down like an obstacle. The confidence, the strength, the sheer emotionlessness in the words leaving Yamaguchi’s mouth and cutting straight to Kei’s chest.

Yamaguchi had been glowing before Kei saw him, standing up tall and straight and laughing and grinning without hiding his face. Unabashedly happy in a way Kei can’t remember the last time he’s seen.

The way Kei feels now is deep and sharp and heavy, and… his own fault. Because of his selfishness. His stupidity. And—

And, probably, more than that.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

Kei knew exactly what two years meant the second the words left Yamaguchi’s lips, and maybe the fact that what Yamaguchi is talking about was so close to happening, that he thought about it so hard he never forgot, means that Kei deserves to live in a world with the fallout.

Kei should live in a world with the fallout.

Two years ago, Kei and Yamaguchi stood across from Akiteru in the bleachers of a Karasuno volleyball match, but that isn’t the part of the story that matters, when it comes to Yamaguchi.

The part of the story that matters is what came after.

That day, Yamaguchi saw a part of Kei die, and instead of leaving him alone, he attached himself to his hip. Herded him out of the bleachers and down the stairs, walked him all the way home and stayed with him until Akiteru came and the night turned pitch black.

And then, the next day, showing up at his house ten minutes before the time he left so they could walk together, coming home with him, staying at their house until it was so late he couldn’t justify it.

And then the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. Over and over and over. Yamaguchi next to him, almost constantly, just so Kei could never convince himself he was alone.

Kei is grateful for that now, knows that if Yamaguchi tried something like giving him space, if he pulled back even the slightest bit, they would never have spoken again.

But it had been suffocating then. Yamaguchi’s smile, Yamaguchi’s laugh, the tread of his footsteps. Kei was a child and there was nothing in the world that he wanted more than space, more than silence, and Yamaguchi wouldn’t leave him alone.

Every moment, meaningless chatter about how volleyball club was today, about how funny their teacher’s joke was, about what happened in the last episode of the drama his mom was watching. Conveniently avoiding any mention of Akiteru or the way Kei’s behavior had changed, over the past few weeks, and then month, and then months.

If Kei had actually been alone like he wanted over that period of time when he just found out, when he started pretending he couldn’t see Akiteru and his mother was powerless over the way the lie reshaped their household, he knows the inside of his chest would have twisted into something beyond repair.

But that hadn’t happened. Yamaguchi stayed with him. But Yamaguchi was just one person against the growing black hole inside of Kei, and his chest still twisted.

It was something like a game, seeing how long he could make Yamaguchi stop smiling. Just out of curiosity, in search of something close to pleasure.

It began almost harmlessly at first, things like “this is stupid” or “this is a waste of time” or “shut up,” but those words provoked nothing, and then starting provoking laughter, and it wasn’t enough.

So Kei became braver, started treading ground he never tread before because of things he stopped having the energy to care about, things about best friends and it being Yamaguchi and why would he ever try to hurt him.

Because it didn’t matter anymore. Yamaguchi was his best friend the way that Akiteru was his hero, and he knew the way they were couldn’t be they way they’d be forever. The time they spent together stopped being fun the day Kei stopped having an older brother, and Yamaguchi tried hard, but he wasn’t immune. Kei knew he would get sick of it. Knew he would be gone eventually.

So Kei let himself speak freely. Told Yamaguchi things about cowardice, about weakness, about uselessness. And like a weight lifted off of his chest, Kei felt it.

The satisfaction in the quiver of Yamaguchi’s lips.

He remembers the closest he’d ever gotten to making him cry – an afternoon in Kei’s room while Yamaguchi kept yammering on about nothing, valiantly ignoring Kei’s total silence.

Irritation building up in Kei’s chest until it bubbled over, and then: “Why do you even come here, Yamaguchi? I know you can’t be enjoying it. Are you afraid of losing your only friend?”

The immediate silence, the glistening of Yamaguchi’s eyes, the shock of pain behind the O of Yamaguchi’s lips. A rush of delight flooding Kei’s system, and then—

“I’m, uh, I’m always happy when I’m with you, Tsukki! I know we’ve been friends for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you always know how I feel. It’s funny that you think you do, though.”

Lips pressed into a forced smile, and then…

“But I guess I understand! Because I feel like I know you really well, too,” Yamaguchi had added, anxious again in the silence. “That you like to say things you don’t mean a lot.”

It’d been enough, then. Kei didn’t argue. That single rush of happiness had faded with the moment, leaving something that tasted like iron on Kei’s tongue.

In the end, Yamaguchi went home early that day, because his mother was coming home early, too, but really because Kei had gotten too deep under his skin.

Kei’s mother noticed, even if she didn’t pick up on the way Yamaguchi’s broken face flashing through his mind affected Kei. Over the rice balls she meant to give them, she mentioned it.

“He left early,” she’d said, eyes fixed on the door like she could still see Yamaguchi’s retreating back. “Is he coming again tomorrow?”

“Probably.”

She smiled, then. Kei can remember like it happened yesterday. “That’s good. He’s a good friend.” She turned to look at Kei, eyes soft, and laughed just lightly. “He’s used to you by now, Kei, but you should be good to him, too. He hasn’t been a lucky kid. But he’s still nice and comes over to spend time with you every day, right?”

“He does,” Kei said, and after his mother ruffled his hair the way he didn’t like and turned back to the stove, Kei thought about the way Yamaguchi’s face had looked.

He thought about “he hasn’t been a lucky kid” and all the time Yamaguchi spent in his house, rambling about nothing, shooting Kei worried looks when he thought he couldn’t see. He thought about the last time he saw Yamaguchi smile, really smile. Not the way he did when he was sitting on the floor of Kei’s bedroom and pretending everything was okay.

The kind of smile he’d see did when they were playing in Kei’s backyard and Yamaguchi nailed a particularly good serve.  The way Yamaguchi smiled when Kei said something embarrassing to him and he broke into the kind of laughter he couldn’t contain, the kind of laughter that made Kei knock him in the shoulder, and Yamaguchi would try to stop but he couldn’t.

Kei thought about the last time he saw Yamaguchi really smile, and found that he couldn’t remember.

Kei realized what it meant to be good to him.

He’d gone to his room then, leaving his plate barely-touched and alone on the kitchen table, and dug out his cell phone. He opened his last conversation with Yamaguchi and stared down the empty message box, and worked hard at something for the first time in ages.

In a sense, Kei had always been good at words. Could figure out exactly how to make someone angry beyond the point of rationality within the span of a single conversation, could read a person’s insecurities like they were written on their back.

This was only Yamaguchi, and he knew what would hurt him like the back of his hand. How he never mentioned his past, or how kids used to treat him. The mother he rarely talked about, the way he always hated silence.

But Kei didn’t want to hurt Yamaguchi. He just needed him to leave. And even though he could make most people leave him alone as easy as breathing, that wasn’t true for Yamaguchi. It had never been true for Yamaguchi, since the beginning.

Or maybe he just hadn’t ever wanted to make him leave. Not really.

Kei shook his head. Meaningless, useless thought. As if things hadn’t evolved past what Kei wanted.

For his own good. Kei stared at the empty text box, and cleared his mind, and thought. Something to make Yamaguchi leave.

I’m quitting volleyball cl

Yamaguchi I

Leave me alone from now o

Not enough.

Not enough.

Not enough.

Something to make Yamaguchi leave. To make him realize that there was no more trying, no more “I know this isn’t what you really mean.” That it was done.

No one else with him on his way home, that they’d never stand on the side of a volleyball net together again, that there’d be no more late-night movies or pointless afternoon ranting.

It was done.

It was done, and they would never speak to each other again.

Something to make Yamaguchi understand that.

And Kei’s vision had started to blur, and it’d gotten unbearable, and he couldn’t type anything, but before he could bring himself to do something about it—

His phone rang.

“Hi, Tsukki! Did you know there’s going to be a new Godzilla movie? Let’s watch it on Saturday!”

The way Yamaguchi’s face had looked in their room. The way his eyes glistened. He’d almost been crying.

They were speaking to each other then, and just like always, in the heat of the moment, the words immediately came to the tip of Kei’s tongue.

You’re exhausting, Yamaguchi. Annoying. It’s pathetic. You’re pathetic.

I never want to see you again. I never will see you again.

“What time?”

♟ - ♟ - ♟

Strength is something.

The Kei that knows this Yamaguchi, the one with the confident smile and the opaque eyes. Kei is sure he’s leagues stronger than he is.

♟ - ♟ - ♟

“You’re doing well, Yamaguchi. I shouldn’t have come,” Kei hears himself say, and it sounds like someone else’s voice, hollow and broken and strange. “I should leave.”

He should leave.

Burdening this Yamaguchi with anything is too much. The fact that he came and forced him to see him again is too much.

This Yamaguchi is free. This Yamaguchi is happy. This Yamaguchi is better off.

Kei should leave. He has to leave.

And it’s easy enough. One foot after another, until his back is nothing more than a memory in Yamaguchi’s mind, gone so quickly that he might have been a hallucination.

But his legs are gelatin underneath his torso, and Kei can barely hold them steady enough to keep standing, and—

“Tsukki!” Yamaguchi’s voice says, and it’s different, and there’s something in it, this time. It should alleviate something in Kei, but Kei isn’t at a point where he can handle anything. “Are you crying?”

And it isn’t true and it can’t be true, because Kei doesn’t cry, because he never feels enough to cry, no matter what happens. But when Kei finds the will to bring his hand to his cheek, it comes off wet.

For a while he just looks down and stares at it, like he’s imagining the glistening of his fingers, but his vision starts to blur again and a hand curls around his wrist and pulls him along.

“Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says, like he’s chiding him, and he’s bringing him somewhere back behind the gym, near the track, and then he’s staring down the sinks they usually fill their water bottles with. Yamaguchi turns the faucet. “Wash your face.”

Kei isn’t in a state to do anything other than what he’s told, so he takes both of his hands and cups them underneath the running water. He splashes it on his face, and the water is cold enough to shock Kei back into himself.

It’s enough for Kei to know that it’s strange that Yamaguchi brought him here, and that he shouldn’t have made him. That the worst possible thing he could have done to Yamaguchi is cry in front of him.

Thoughts are swirling through Kei’s mind, but just enough so Kei can still hold it back. He turns off the faucet and glances at Yamaguchi, wonders if he’s brave enough to ask why he didn’t go home. Knows he should ask him to go home.

But Yamaguchi is standing by his side, his gym bag on the floor with the zipper half-opened, and he’s holding out a clean t-shirt. “It’s my spare. I didn’t use it. Wipe your face.”

The confidence in Yamaguchi’s voice is enough, and Kei takes it, dabs at the moisture on his cheeks as Yamaguchi stares him down.

His eyes are different now. There’s fire behind them. Kei can see it.

“Is this the first time you cried in your life?” Yamaguchi asks when Kei’s face is buried in the fabric. There’s frustration seeping through his tone, and it’s something, that his words aren’t calm and measured anymore. “You shouldn’t have— It’s messed up, Tsukki! That you came here after two years just so you could— so you could cry in front of me!”

 “I’m sorry,” Kei says, and the words are heavy on his tongue. “I shouldn’t have come. I didn’t think I’d…”

“I know,” Yamaguchi cuts him off, looking everywhere but Kei now. “Why did you come? What did you think was going to happen?”

Kei doesn’t have an answer to Yamaguchi’s question that will satisfy him, so he doesn’t say anything, just rubs the back of his neck. Yamaguchi looks him in the face, expression contorted with something in the vicinity of rage but… still far from it.

“You’re not the only one who’s cried, you know. I— I cried more than you! It’s…”

Yamaguchi falls into silence after struggling over the words, eyes gravitating back to the floor. Kei hands him his shirt back, and he takes it. “I’m sorry,” he says again.

“You should be,” Yamaguchi says, and they’re the kind of words to walk away from an apology with, but there’s no heat behind them, and Yamaguchi doesn’t make a move to leave.

Silence settles over them, and Yamaguchi runs a hand through his bangs and exhales like there’s something heavy in his lungs.

“I rehearsed that. What I said earlier,” Yamaguchi finally admits, and it’s like he’s looking through Kei. Like he’s talking to no one. “Or I didn’t… I imagined it, a lot. What I’d do if you tried to come back.” He breathes in, sharply. “At first, I, uh… I wanted to forgive you. Because you’ve always been… But all that time passed, and you never came back, and I got angrier, and…”

“You shouldn’t forgive me,” Kei says. “You’re better off now.”

“It’s just… Things aren’t the same anymore, and we can’t… pretend, it’s—” Yamaguchi’s eyes widen and he looks at Kei with urgency. “What did you say?”

“You shouldn’t forgive me.”

“I don’t,” Yamaguchi says, his tone dull instead of cutting. “But not that.”

“You’re better off now…?”

Yamaguchi’s eyes sharpen like knives and Kei can see something build in his chest, bigger and heavier than what he’d been dealing with before. “That— That better not mean what I think it means!” Yamaguchi says, leaning forward like he wants to knock him in the chest.

Or pick him up by the collar.

“For someone who I always thought would be the smartest person I’d ever know, you sure are stupid, Tsukki!”

And Kei is on the edge of understanding what Yamaguchi is trying to tell him, knows he just needs a little bit more and the truth will bloom in his chest, but—

His stomach growls, almost as loud as Yamaguchi’s been yelling, and all the rage building up in Yamaguchi seems to disappear, and then redirects itself elsewhere. “You’re hungry?”

“I forgot to buy lunch today.”

“Tsukki! Did you stop taking care of yourself when we stopped being friends?” Yamaguchi says, voice still as irritated as before, like Kei’s choice not to eat was a personal affront.

Kei doesn’t say anything, because he doesn’t think Yamaguchi wants an answer and there’s no reason for him to apologize for his own choices. Yamaguchi exhales and turns around to put the slightly-damp shirt back into his bag and zip it up.

Kei is about to wonder if his stomach growling was enough to snap Yamaguchi back into himself, to make him realize who the person he was yelling at was and that he doesn’t even deserve that, but then Yamaguchi is back at Kei’s side, bag hanging off of his shoulder.

“There’s a meat bun place we always go after practice,” Yamaguchi says, tone still scolding. “You’re paying.”

♟ - ♟ - ♟

They walk to the Foothill Store in frustrated silence, and Kei can tell just by the shuffle of his footsteps that Yamaguchi wants to chew him out more. His right hand is curled around Kei’s wrist as he pulls him along, too tightly. Kei wonders if he’ll leave a mark.

Ukai is already behind the counter when Yamaguchi leads Kei in, nose buried in the newspaper. He raises an eyebrow when he catches sight of the two of them. “Eh? You didn’t go home yet? Who’s that?”

“No one,” Yamaguchi says, and Kei can’t help the way the words sting. Yamaguchi lets go of his hand. “Can we have two meat buns?”

“Right up.” Ukai’s chair creaks as he stands up, paper left open on the counter. Yamaguchi valiantly ignores Kei as they wait, and Kei pretends to be interested in the headlines. A minute passes, and Ukai drops a paper bag in front of them. “600 yen.”

Kei doesn’t react, and then Yamaguchi nudges him, and he digs through his backpack for his wallet. After he puts the coins down on the counter, Yamaguchi says, “Thank you. See you tomorrow, Ukai-sensei.”

“Don’t stay out too late.”

As the door shuts behind them, Yamaguchi’s hand closes around Kei’s wrist again, and he tugs him all the way to the park they first met Hinata and Kageyama in. Yamaguchi scans the area, and when he finds a bench tucked away in an empty corner behind the basketball courts, he beelines the both of them towards it.

They finish eating in silence. Kei is wondering if he should say something, or if this is some ritual for Yamaguchi, the final thing he’ll do for him, when Yamaguchi presses something soft and oddly shaped into the palm of his hand.

Kei picks it up by its small chain and studies it. 

One of those stress-relieving keychains that are in fashion, the oversized squishy ones. Yamaguchi doesn’t have rage issues, but Kei’s always thought they’d be the kind of thing he liked, the way all of them are made so soft and cutesy.

It’s in the shape of a container filled with french fries, the kind you get from fast-food restaurants that you can hold in one hand, but a smiling cat is poking its head out of the middle. Kei gets the faint sense he’s seen it before.

“What is this?” Kei asks, because for all he’s been trying not to burden Yamaguchi he can’t understand what’s happening right now for the life of him. Yamaguchi scowls.

“Shut up, Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says, sounding tired. “I knew it was from you the second Yachi handed it to me.” He pouts almost bitterly. “I can’t believe you told her it’s from a fan. No one else would give me something like that.”

Just like that, Kei remembers.

Kei’s waiting for Yamaguchi to finish paying for the studying one of the tchotchke displays they keep by the cash register while he’s waiting for him, and the french fry keychain in their strange fast food-themed kitty line catches his eye.

“Tsukki, do you mind if we stop to get coffee? I’ll buy you cake!” At the sound of Yamaguchi’s voice, Kei drops the keychain he’d been holding, and Yamaguchi leans his head closer to Kei. “Hey, what are you looking at? Did you want to get that?”

Yamaguchi’s badly trying to hide his grin, and Kei rubs the back of his neck. “I thought you would.”

Yamaguchi’s smile splits his face open and he laughs, just lightly. “Because I like french fries? I’m not a kid, Tsukki. Come on, let’s go.”

“I still keep it in my gym bag,” Yamaguchi admits. “I was gonna… When I got home, I wanted to throw it out, or hide it in the bottom of one of my drawers and never think about it again, but… I couldn’t do it.”

The keychain in Kei’s hand is misshapen and discolored around the edges. Kei would never give Yamaguchi something so worn, especially after avoiding him for two years.

“I thought I was going to see you again, after that. I kept thinking about it. But you never came.” Yamaguchi hunches forward. His hands are clasped together, and Kei can see his nails digging into his own skin. “When you came to that game… were you thinking about talking to me? Was there something you saw that day that… made you not want to see me anymore?”

Kei doesn’t need to think about the answer. If he made that decision two years ago, he would have meant it. He wouldn’t go back on it, wouldn’t go back and interrupt Yamaguchi’s happiness, just because he did something like miss him. “No. I never planned to see you again.”

Yamaguchi unclasps his hands, leaving a line of half-moon indentations down the back of them. “When we were younger, I really… I really looked up to you. Since you were cool and strong, and I was weak and pathetic. I wanted to be just like you. I even tried… tried to copy you sometimes. I was never that good at it.”

Yamaguchi laughs, forced and empty.

“I’m— I’m glad I was never good at it, because you ended up being like this!”

Yamaguchi should be happy he was never good at it because he’s always been fine the way he is. Because he definitely wouldn’t be improved upon if he acted more like Kei. But Yamaguchi already knows that. Kei doesn’t think he should say it.

He looks down. The cat in the keychain smiles up at him.

Yamaguchi is right, Kei thinks to himself.

“What you said before, about me being better off. If you really… I hope you didn’t mean what it sounded like, because if you did… you really are stupid!” Yamaguchi says, his words like water from a floodgate. “When we were younger. Back then. If you gave me the choice between being your friend for the rest of my life or being the best volleyball player in Japan. Or a millionaire. Or a… a Super Sentai!”

Yamaguchi’s hand clenches into a fist. Kei can hear the cracking of his knuckles.

I would have chosen being your friend. Do you understand?”

Something in Kei’s chest swallows itself. The weight of what Yamaguchi is saying about him, the person he is, the way he’s always felt about him against the weight of what he’s done to Yamaguchi, what he hasn’t done to him, what this version of himself has done to him – it’s too much for Kei to process. “I wanted you to be happy,” Kei hears himself say.

“That’s awful, Tsukki! I wish you really did just get sick of me!” Yamaguchi says, emotional in a way he hadn’t been before. “It’s worse that the reason you hurt me so much is because— because you’re an idiot!”

Yamaguchi’s eyes are glistening now, and by instinct, Kei leans over, awkwardly places a hand on Yamaguchi’s shoulder to steady it. He doesn’t shake it off. “I’m sorry,” Kei says, and the words are heavier than any other time he’s said them today.

“I know you’re sorry! I don’t forgive you, but I never— I never really blamed you, because I know you’ve always been stupid about feelings, and we were in middle school, and everything with Akiteru-kun was making you weird, but I didn’t think— I didn’t think you were that stupid!”

Yamaguchi wipes his face with his sleeve. Kei tries to rub his shoulder the way he saw his mother rub Akiteru’s when he was upset.

“Do you know how it felt to go from being best friends to you treating me like— like you never even knew me? How it felt to lose the first friend I ever had? I… We can’t just go back, you know? I finally… I finally got used to you being gone, and now you showed up again, and…”

Kei squeezes Yamaguchi’s shoulder, maybe too hard. “It’s okay, Yamaguchi. You don’t have to worry about it. I won’t come back after today.”

Yamaguchi finally shakes Kei off, elbowing him in the side of his stomach hard enough for it to sting afterwards. “That’s even worse! I can’t believe you still think… You’re still so stupid! I won’t feel better if I never see you again!”

Something swirls in Kei’s chest. “I… I don’t understand.”

“You were— Or, you are— I don’t… know. My best friend, Tsukki. I don’t want you to die alone just because you’re an idiot.” Yamaguchi inhales, and it almost gives way to a sob until he chokes it back.

Kei doesn’t know what to say. Maybe “thank you.” But those words are too small for the moment they’re in, so Kei slips his arm on the outside of Yamaguchi’s shoulder and pulls him towards his chest.

Yamaguchi doesn’t fight him, just stops holding back the emotions welling up in his eyes. His cheek is wet against the fabric of Kei’s pressed shirt.

For a long while, they don’t move, and the world settles down around them. The kids running around the jungle gym finish their ceaseless game of tag and start filtering out of the park, and the teenagers playing three-on-three stop cowing each other about their game and start to leave. The sun hangs lower and lower in the sky.

Yamaguchi exhales, clear and deep. Out of nowhere, he snatches the keychain from Kei’s hand. “I need this back,” he says, half-satisfied exhaustion clear in his voice. “It’s still mine. I just wanted to show it to you.”

Kei swallows. “Thank you,” he finally says. Instead of sorry. “For… showing it to me.”

Yamaguchi laughs weakly, and then worms his way out of Kei’s arms and stands up. He puts both hands on his hips, in some show of confidence. “I have to go home, but I’m going to— I’m going to contact you again!” he says, and Kei can see fire behind his eyes. “Ah, um… is your number still the same?”

“It is.”

Yamaguchi smiles, in a way that Yamaguchi wants so desperately to be real that maybe it is. “Good. Uh, I don’t… know when I’ll contact you. If it’ll be tomorrow, or the week after, or maybe even months from now, but… when I’m ready, I’m going to contact you again! And when I do, I want you to— to talk to me! Instead of just sitting there!”

Kei laughs, just lightly, and half of what’s keeping Yamaguchi’s legs steady is bluster, but he almost looks like he’s glowing. “Okay, Yamaguchi.”

“I waited two years for you, Tsukki! Wait for me, okay?”

Vulnerability flickers behind Yamaguchi’s gaze in a way that betrays his tone of voice. “I will.”

Yamaguchi drops his arms, adjusting the strap of his bag, and looks at Kei, like he’s seeing down his soul. Yamaguchi swallows. “I’ll… see you later,” he says, and like he’s pulling teeth, he forces himself to turn around and walk away. But right before he’s out of earshot, Yamaguchi says, “Don’t forgot to eat lunch anymore, Tsukki!”

“I won’t,” Kei says. “See you later.”

Yamaguchi grins and disappears behind the approaching night.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

When Kei wakes up, the blazer he’d left hanging on his desk chair is suddenly gone, replaced with a black gakuran laying flat on his table. Kei can’t even find the energy to be surprised.

He sits up on his bed and checks his cell phone. It’s the same day it was yesterday, and the day before. Kei’s just woken up, and he thinks this is the most tired he’s ever been.

He wonders if he should just text Yamaguchi to see what awful thing is in store for him today, but he might as well try to figure things out from here than dive headfirst into his school-wide search. He tries open up his texting app, but he clicks the photo app instead by accident, and—

He finds a seven second video.

Yamaguchi’s making a peace sign and smiling at the camera, angled so it also has full view of Kei eating a piece of shortcake with a neutral expression.

Yamaguchi stays completely still, and then drops the peace sign and moves closer to squint at the camera. “Eh?”

“Yamaguchi, what are you doing?”

“Nothing, Tsukki!” The camera pans to the ceiling, and the screen goes black.

Two days ago. The time Yamaguchi insisted on dragging him to the pop-up bakery the girl that sits a row away from them in homeroom couldn’t stop raving about. Kei remembers it.

The relief that washes over Kei almost moves him to tears.

Chapter Text

Yamaguchi is already there when Kei gets to practice.

He’s talking, or— listening to Hinata talk would be the better way to put it. They’re too loud, Hinata going off about something in the incomprehensible way he always is and Yamaguchi just standing there, pretending to understand what he’s talking about.

It’s a lot, to see Yamaguchi there, standing casually on the court with him, in the number 12 jersey. That it’s so easy to have him in the same room, to have him know him. It’s only been two days, but it feels like ages since this has happened.

A scattering of words pushes for Kei’s tongue, something about happiness or I missed you or how are you, but Kei swallows them. “Yamaguchi,” he says, not loudly enough.

But Yamaguchi hears it, finds Kei standing halfway between them and the doorway. He shoots him a strained smile, not moving from where he is. “Hi, Tsukki.”

Kei walks towards him and Hinata, something he’d never do if things were normal, because he’s got better things to do than waste his time with an annoying shrimp, but Kei doesn’t care. Hinata’s voice doesn’t grate the way it usually does, and he can barely hear it over the feeling of Yamaguchi standing next to him.

Here. Normal.

Yamaguchi’s eyes widen just slightly when Kei settles next to him, but when he feels Kei glance at him, he only flashes him the same smile he had before. Usually he says more, but usually Hinata isn’t there.

Kei tries to think of something to say. Mundane things he already knows the answers to, like if Yamaguchi ate breakfast (he never does), or something like… You’re my best friend, Yamaguchi. Isn’t that what things like this are supposed to come down to?

That Christmas movie. A man wakes up in a world without him and realizes he’s important. Kei wakes up in a world without Yamaguchi and realizes Yamaguchi’s important.

He knew that already. But not as much as he knows now.

Still, it… doesn’t matter. Kei doesn’t have the words to neatly wrap everything up into some sentimental conclusion, and Hinata is standing across from them. Things are fine the way they are now.

They stay like that until practice starts, Hinata continuing to yammer on about whatever Kei couldn’t be bothered to listen to and Yamaguchi interjecting just enough into the gaps in conversation for Hinata to keep going. And it really is next to nothing, the kind of memory that would be one of the first to fade if circumstances were different, bur for that moment, it’s enough.

Being there with Yamaguchi. It’s enough.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

Yamaguchi is upset.

It takes Kei too long to realize it. He’d gotten caught up in the relief of Yamaguchi just being there and wrote off any oddities in his behavior to early morning-spaceyness, if he even noticed them. Not even mentioning how the past two days have scrambled and obliterated Kei’s standard for Yamaguchi’s normal.

It wasn’t until this morning, after practice – when he waited for Yamaguchi to walk to homeroom after changing and he stumbled away after saying something about having to use the restroom and then didn’t come back until a minute before the bell rang.

Curt, quick, a little scared. And then, like he hadn’t obviously been avoiding him, flashing Kei that same smile he did before as he slid into the seat behind them, not sparing anything more than a “Hi, Tsukki.”

But it’s Kei’s own fault. He’d forgotten that that first day he’d been irritated with Yamaguchi even before he thought he skipped practice. Not to mention that he barely would have cared about him skipping if he wasn’t already irritated with him.

Here, their fight – if you could call it that – was yesterday. For Kei, it was only two days ago, but it’s like it happened years ago now, after everything. All the emotions that Yamaguchi had welled up in him then, Kei can’t remember how they felt. Or even care.

Kei knows it wasn’t a meaningless argument, because he doesn’t have meaningless arguments with Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi is an agreeable person, especially when it comes to Kei, and Kei can’t be bothered with the stupid fights people like Hinata and Tanaka get caught up in. But whatever it meant, whatever had gotten Kei so upset he’d wanted to yell at Yamaguchi, Kei doesn’t mind letting it go. Not if it means he and Yamaguchi can be normal again.

When the bell rings for lunch, Kei turns around and says, “Yamaguchi,” in a way that forces him to look him in the eye.

He isn’t all there – and it’s strange, maybe, how affected Yamaguchi is, but Kei’s memory of that day is blurry after everything else and it’s true he’d been angry – but he still turns and looks at him. Kei can see his own reflection in Yamaguchi’s glassy eyes.

“You’re acting strange,” Kei begins, and he’s about to say more, but Yamaguchi immediately exhales, sharply through teeth held closed, like slowly releasing air from a balloon. It puts Kei off.

Yamaguchi breaks his gaze, and for the first time that day the corners of his mouth tip downwards. His bangs hang too low for Kei to see his eyes. “Tsukki. You’re my… closest friend, you know?”

That’s not what Kei expected him to say. It’s something, that this kind of opportunity for a touching moment falls into his lap this way. You’re mine, too. As easy as three words.

Kei can’t bring himself to say anything.

“I know I said I… that it’s fine. I really— I’m grateful. It is fine. You’re important to me. I’m happy we’re still friends, it’s only— I need a while.” Yamaguchi swallows, gaze glued to his empty desk. He rubs his neck. “I know I shouldn’t ask you for even more, but I— For now, I can’t, Tsukki. We’ll— Things will be normal again soon, but… not yet.”

I’m happy we’re still friends. As if their fight had been so bad the fact that they’re still talking is a miracle. It’s true Kei doesn’t remember it well, but even the day after it hadn’t even occurred to him that it might endanger their friendship. That he’d been so irritated he hadn’t realized leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

Kei swallows. They never talk about their arguments after they happen, and doing what he’s about to do feels like navigating traffic without his glasses on, but he needs to do this for every time he never did before. For the Yamaguchi he saw yesterday. “When we fought yesterday. The things I said to you, I was too—”

Yamaguchi’s head shoots up, and there’s something indecipherable in his eyes. Something between fear and disappointment. “We didn’t fight yesterday,” he says, and his voice is clear for the first time that day. “Unless… Tsukki, are you—” He swallows, and starts twirling and untwirling a loose strand of hair. “Are you mad at me?”

Kei takes Yamaguchi’s anxious hand by the wrist and sets it back on the desk, gently. His skin is warm underneath his fingers. Kei avoids Yamaguchi’s gaze. “I’m not… happy about what happened. When you get that way. I wish you wouldn’t. But…” Kei scratches the back of his head. He can’t bring himself to look at Yamaguchi. “I know it’s… It’s not something I should blame you for. It’s not your fault.”

“A-Ah,” Yamaguchi says, something in his voice absolutely broken, and when Kei looks at his pupils, they’re glistening and bottomless. He pulls his hand back sharply, enough to sting Kei’s fingers, and stands up. “I, uh— I told, uh, Yachi we would eat lunch together, so I should— I should go meet her.”

Yachi, again. Unfair how she gets to be a fixed point.

But something is wrong, in Yamaguchi’s voice. In his awkward fumble. Yamaguchi isn’t a weak person, and he’s never been one. Kei’s honesty has never been enough to break him this way, especially when Yamaguchi knows he’s right.

And he knows that Yamaguchi knows he’s right. The same way he knew Yamaguchi was right at training camp.

“Before you go,” Kei says, and Yamaguchi spares him half a glance, looking right through him. “Two days ago. You dragged me to that café, didn’t you? And I ate strawberry shortcake, and the only thing you had was coffee. You remember that, too.”

“I don’t—” Yamaguchi starts, and he sounds even worse. His shoulders shake. “I don’t know why you’re bringing that up. It’s already… I’ll see you later, Tsukki.”

As Yamaguchi’s back gets smaller and he disappears as he turns by the doorway, it sinks in.

It isn’t over yet.

Things are different.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

“Hey, Tsukishima! What’s with that look on your face?”

Kei’s pulling on his gym shirt while he resolves to ignore Nishinoya’s crowing, but Yamaguchi turns away from Hinata to glance at him, the smallest frown on his face for just a second, and Kei almost sees red. “Shut up, Nishinoya-san,” he says, and the accidental harshness in his voice is enough to stop Nishinoya in his tracks.

It’s also enough the rest of the volleyball club to turn to their collective gaze to him, making the air in the clubroom change to a stale kind of suffocating. Kei zips up his bag and puts it in his locker, in a hurry to leave.

When he gets to the gym, the atmosphere is palpably different, the entire court silent save for the conversation between Yachi and Shimizu. The expanse of near-emptiness and the quiet is enough for Kei to sit on the floor and finally think. To take the time and try to figure out where the hell he is now.

When Kei checked during lunch, there wasn’t anything out of place in his phone. They haven’t texted the past few days, but Kei’s never seen the point in texting someone he sees daily. Dead end.

But the video is real, and it’s so recent Kei can’t possibly figure out how the universe has changed so much. From what Kei’s gathered, it’s just traded a fight for a different one, but for the life of him, Kei can’t figure out what it is.

Kei can count their arguments on one hand. Kei never gets angrier than too-harsh comments, and Yamaguchi is the kind of person who laughs when Kei is mean.

Kei scrunches his eyes shut like there’s answer behind his eyelids, and exhales too deeply. When he opens his eyes again, Yachi and Kiyoko are looking at him with something like concern, and as he looks back at them, Kei realizes.

Yachi.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

“So, uh, what did you need, Tsukishima-kun?”

It’s after practice, and Yachi’s sitting on the bench in the courtyard across from the clubroom, waiting for Kei. Yamaguchi is already long gone; he’d changed leagues faster than anyone else on the team and cleared the school grounds in less than five minutes.

And Kei felt the rest of the team shoot curious glances his way as the door closed behind Yamaguchi, but Kei can’t bring himself to care.

“I want to talk to you about Yamaguchi,” Kei says as he sits down next to Yachi.

Her eyes widen to the size of dinner plates, and Kei thinks to himself that she looks more apprehensive than she did when he asked if they could talk privately. He almost sighs.

She doesn’t need to be so afraid of him when he’s never been anything but polite to her. But he thinks pointing that out will hurt more than it helps.

“He doesn’t, uh!” she says, waving her arms in front of her. “He hasn’t said anything to me! I don’t know what you want to talk to me about!”

Her voice is high and she’s so stressed Kei’s afraid she’ll run away if he makes any sudden moves. She’s so obviously lying that Kei wouldn’t waste his time pointing it out even if Yachi wasn’t at risk of a breakdown.

Kei looks her in the eyes, tries to do it gently and hide the annoyance from his expression.

“I’m not going to be angry at you for what Yamaguchi tells you,” Kei says, trying to sound patient and gentle, but at best coming off as flat. “Or him. You should calm down. It’s not going to be whatever you’re afraid of.”

Yachi doesn’t say anything, just looks at him, maybe a little suspiciously. Kei scoots a little bit away from her on the bench in hopes her extra space will give her confidence, and then decides to just get into it.

“When you had lunch together,” Kei begins, and it’s a good place to start. A definite time they spoke, and while Yamaguchi was upset. Maybe he’d thought Yachi was trustworthy enough to confide in.

(As opposed to—)

“Huh? We didn’t eat lunch together,” Yachi says. “Doesn’t he eat lunch with you?”

Yamaguchi… lied to him. Kei wonders if that’s a relief.

Stupid. Of course it isn’t, isn’t anything more than another dead end. Like when he searched his cellphone.

Still. Yachi knows something, or she wouldn’t have reacted the way she did when he brought up Yamaguchi. Kei leans back on the bench and looks up at the sky, avoiding Yachi’s gaze. He brings his hand up and rubs the back of his neck.

“Yamaguchi and I… had an argument yesterday,” Kei says, voice measured and hopefully soft. Not threatening. He feels Yachi sit up straighter next to him, with something like concern.

“You fought with him?” she asks, and the disappointment in her voice is palpable. “I… should have known, the way you two have been acting all day, but— Ah, I mean! You, uh. You did?”

Kei brings his hand back down and grips the edge of the bench. He looks Yachi in the face, and she won’t meet his eyes. “You’re a bad liar,” he says. “You don’t need to be. I told you I won’t get mad.”

“Uh…” Yachi exhales, still clearly stressed out even though she’s given up. All the bluster escapes from her chest. “Yesterday morning, Yamaguchi seemed anxious, so I tried to calm him down. Since it’s my job as manager! And he, uh. Told me what happened.”

She rubs the back of her neck and sighs. Like she’s talking about the death of someone’s goldfish. Kei bites the inside of his lip. “What happened?”

“Eh…? You were there…” Yachi looks at him, totally confused, and Kei isn’t sure what to say. A moment passes and her eyes narrow. She leans toward Kei, hands clenched at her side. “Tsukishima-kun… are you making fun of him? You know, I don’t—” Her chest puffs up, eyebrows knit together in something on the edge of anger. “I don’t care if you get mad! It’s not nice of you to— to talk about him like this and—"

“You’re overreacting,” Kei says. Absently, he thinks to himself that it’s nice that she’s at least a good friend to Yamaguchi, since she’s the one who always gets to be friends with him. Not that he ever doubted that, anyway. “Yamaguchi is my friend. Why would I make fun of him?”

“I don’t…. understand.”

Kei sighs.

If she’s so defensive. He might as well just tell her.

“I’m asking you because I don’t know what happened, and if I ask Yamaguchi, I’m afraid I’ll hurt his feelings. I think I… I already have,” Kei says. “I want to know what happened so I can find out how to fix it, and you’re the only one who would know.”

“Why don’t— Why don’t you know?” Yachi asks. Her anger isn’t totally gone – there are wisps on it in the stiffness of her shoulders – but confusion has settled over her expression, mouth pressed into a frown. “Am… nesia? Shouldn’t you see a, um. A doctor?”

Kei thinks about everything that’s happened the past few days, the ridiculousness of the situation he’s in. That he’s not even free now. “It’s a long story. I don’t want to get into it now, but it’s not something a doctor can fix.”

Kei can feel Yachi’s eyes on him, eyes still narrowed. She doesn’t say anything.

“Yachi-san. I know we’ve never been that close, but you must know me well enough by now to know I wouldn’t find this kind of thing funny.”

Finally, Yachi relaxes her shoulders. “I think… Yamaguchi-kun wouldn’t like you so much if you were mean that way,” she says. “I don’t really understand what’s happening to you, but, uh. If you want me to just tell me things you should know already. That’s fine, I think.”

Yachi worries her bottom lip, too deep in thought to look at Kei. After the silence stretches too long, she speaks again.

“Ah, uh, do you remember the day before yesterday? He told me you went out together after practice.”

“I do.”

Yamaguchi had already been acting strangely then, but not enough for Kei to do anything about it. He’d written it off to the way he gets sometimes, the same way he’d been after he messed up that serve against Seijoh or when he stopped walking home with Kei because he was secretly learning how to do a float serve. Something about puberty and the way Yamaguchi’s always been. Kei doesn’t mind it, and eventually Yamaguchi gets over it. It’s how they are, and Kei hadn’t seen any reason to change yet.

Yamaguchi insisting they go to a bakery they overheard a girl they weren’t even close with talking about was just one of those strange things he did to pretend he was normal. And Kei stopped saying no to Yamaguchi when it came to those kinds of things a long time ago.

It wasn’t anything special. Just them doing something they always did one more time. Kei doesn’t know why it’s so important Yachi’s mentioning it.

“Eh? But if you remember that, I, uh… I don’t know what you need me to explain,” Yachi says, corners of her lips turned downwards.

Kei sighs. “I can’t think of anything that happened that would make Yamaguchi act like this. We went to a bakery, I ate cake and he drank coffee, and we went home. I don’t understand why it’s so important he spoke to you about it.”

Yachi scrunches her nose, mouth worrying her lip. A moment passes and her eyes clear. “Oh! I saw this in a movie once. Repression…?”

“It isn’t— It doesn’t matter.” Kei looks her in the face, gaze sharp enough to make her meet his eyes. “What did he say happened?”

“He, uh… He kissed you,” Yachi says, after a pause. She keeps silent for a while, glancing at Kei expectantly, and then starts talking again when he doesn’t answer. “He said something about— whipped cream on your face? Because you were— Oh, uh, that might be personal!”

Whipped cream on his face. Kei remembers that. Yamaguchi laughed at him for being childish, and dabbed at his face with a napkin to drive in his point. He’d been embarrassed after he realized what he was doing, but it’s always been Yamaguchi to get embarrassed over nothing. Kei didn’t think twice about it.

Something personal. Kei doesn’t understand what Yachi means. He can’t comprehend what she’s saying at all.

“Yamaguchi… kissed me?” Kei hears himself say, measured in a way that doesn’t reflect the inside of his skull.

“Mm. I guess… since he avoided you all day today, you must have rejected him. That’s… He was so stressed when he was talking to me, he must have expected it, a little. But…”

Yachi’s barely paying attention to him now, worrying the bottom of her lip. Kei can’t think of anything to say. Can’t find the words to make this moment make sense.

“That’s… all he told me,” Yachi finally says, after a silence that’s either taken too long or not any time at all. Kei can feel her gaze on him, trying to make sense of him like a subject in a lab experiment. But Kei really could care less about the way she’s looking at him.

“Why did he kiss me?” Kei asks before he can think about how his question sounds, and the somberness of Yachi’s expression shatters, confusion plain across her face.

“Well... Because he likes you, right? I think he must have told you yesterday, even if you forgot,” Yachi says patiently.

Kei still can’t find the words.

“I… know it’s a lot to think about, but… please be nice to him, okay? This kind of thing is hard, and I think he has to like you a lot, from the way he talked to me yesterday,” Yachi says, still biting her bottom lip.  “It must be strange for you, but… It’d be really sad if you two didn’t talk anymore. Or, uh, Yamaguchi-kun would be.”

Yamaguchi would be. Those three words are only coming from Yachi, who hardly knows Kei, and he knows she’s only saying them because she barely knows him, but they sting so sharply Kei almost winces.

What does Yachi think he’ll feel? What does Yachi think of him?

What does Yamaguchi think of him?

“I would be, too,” Kei says, and he doesn’t know who he’s proving himself to. Why he still has to prove it, after all the awful days he’s woken up in the morning and had to track Yamaguchi down because he wasn’t part of his life. “He’s my best friend. Of course I would be.”

Yachi’s eyes are big now, and her mouth is open, probably about to fumble over an apology, but Kei cuts her off.

“No, I— Thank you for talking to me, Yachi-san,” Kei says. “You can leave. I have to— I have to find a way to fix this.”

“Huh? Fix…?” Yachi stares at Kei for a second, and then shakes her head, gathers her things, and stands up. “Uh, good luck, Tsukishima-kun!” she says over her shoulder as she starts to walk away.

I’ll need it, Kei thinks to himself.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

Kei can accept Yamaguchi having feelings for him as one of those upside-down things that have happened in parallel universes. Like Kei having an inexplicable friendship with Goshiki or Yamaguchi thinking of him as some untouchable celebrity.

It’s easier to think about it like that. To ignore the fact that everything Kei knows about the world says Yamaguchi would never think of him that way. That… That Yamaguchi’s always been clear they’re something like family, the way he accidentally calls Kei’s mother “Mom” sometimes and grins so widely when Akiteru calls him the little brother he wishes he had.

Because it’s that, and it’s also— Kei knows what Yamaguchi looks like when he has feelings for someone. He remembers what it was like with Yachi, listening to Yamaguchi stutter out sentence after sentence of nothing until Yachi got confused and left. The time they were in line at WcDonald’s and he handed the cute, short cashier a completely inadequate sum of money because he couldn’t stop looking at her, and then turned cherry-red when she pointed it out.

Yamaguchi’s never acted like that once when they were alone together.

And— Imagine that, really. Yachi commiserating with Yamaguchi over his crush on him. Upside-down thing is the right term, considering how the roles are completely reversed.

(Though it’s true Yamaguchi’s never taken the time to talk to Kei about his infatuations. Part of Kei is bitter he wouldn’t trust him with things like that, but the other part of Kei knows that kind of talk would irritate him to his core. Not to mention how little he tried to hide his annoyance every time he watched Yamaguchi make a fool of himself.)

Kei doesn’t mind leaving that behind. Logic. His acute knowledge Yamaguchi so obviously has a type – small and cute and sweet, like all those things he’s liked since they were young but was too embarrassed to say – and Kei is the polar opposite of that. It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter, except Kei can’t believe it.

Because— Because it’s true, at least, that the other universes he’s been to have made sense in some convoluted way.

When they were younger, Yamaguchi stuck around Kei because he was being bullied, so without him, it makes sense that it didn’t stop, no matter what dark kind of feeling the thought of it builds in his chest. And he needed a hero then, from how easily he started worshiping Akiteru alongside Kei. For it to be Kei instead of Akiteru, because he never got to realize Kei was no hero. It makes sense. As much as he hates it.

And Kei almost left Yamaguchi behind, after Akiteru. That’s something Kei never forgot, not even a question. Back then, he’d only stayed in volleyball because he didn’t want to upset Yamaguchi even more, so without him, he quit. Kei understands that. And maybe— maybe if he lost Yamaguchi completely, he’d be desperate enough to project him on the next bright-eyed kid he was forced to spend time with. As much as he doesn’t want to, he can’t write it off as even unlikely.

He knows he needs Yamaguchi. Of course he can’t write it off.

But this, something as outlandish and ridiculous as Yamaguchi having a crush on him, just accepting it is like trying to just accept the idea that there have always been two moons in the night sky, or that the ocean’s always glittered red. It’s just, out of everything— Kei can’t.

Kei knows it’s not true. Even if it’s just for this, just for here, Kei can’t just pretend it’s true.

Or maybe—

Or maybe he’s afraid to.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

Kei doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he feels about Yamaguchi.

It would be something like contemplating the taste of water, or evaluating how brightly the sun is shining in the morning. Yamaguchi is – the way things are, or the way things need to be. Kei doesn’t have… think about them. Him.

As long as they’re next to each other and Yamaguchi still smiles, Kei doesn’t need to complicate it. Doesn’t need to name the warmth that blooms in his chest when Yamaguchi laughs, or the awful stinging when Yamaguchi stumbles over his words when they’re with someone small and nice. Doesn’t need anything more than the way things are.

And need— Need is something, but need is something Kei’s never questioned. Definitely not enough to be put through the facsimile of purgatory he’s being put through now.

Even if he doesn’t think about it every day, or thank the heavens for Yamaguchi whenever he wakes up, he’s always known he needs him. Ever since too many long afternoons alone started bringing him emptiness instead of comfort. Because he’d gotten used to something better.

And… Kei knows what it sounds like. Has heard it a million times in those dramas his mother watches and the cartoons Yamaguchi used to like.

But it doesn’t matter what it sounds like, because Kei won’t think hard enough about it to know exactly what it is. Because he’s fine with the way they are.

Feelings like those make friendships implode and everything he’s been through, everything about the world right now, is beating into his mind how much he needs Yamaguchi. That he can’t be happy without him. And that’s worth more than some idea he can barely imagine, where he names his feelings and communicates them to Yamaguchi and then— and then what? Things get better than they are now? What does that even mean?

Things get better than they are now, something Kei doesn’t even understand, something Kei can’t even describe, or Kei loses his oxygen. It isn’t even a question.

He’s sick of losing Yamaguchi. He’d be stupid to risk it happening again.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it?

In this stupid fairytale universe, Yamaguchi risked it. Yamaguchi risked it, and Kei rejected him.

What had Kei said before? Upside-down thing? Kei wants to laugh. Imagine that. Kei rejecting Yamaguchi, because he likes him more than he does. Or in the wrong way.

What the hell is Kei supposed to do.

He’s sick of playing pretend. The first day, Kei almost had a breakdown, and all Yamaguchi did was treat him like he hung the sun in the sky. The second day… Kei thought it couldn’t possibly get worse than that.

It’s like he’s being insulted, right? Talked down to. And the third day’s lesson, the one he learns after almost going insane in front of his best friend, or his club manager, or perfect strangers from an entirely different school, is something horrible and saccharine like— something in those dramas. Face what’s in your heart. Admit your feelings.

Like that’s what’s supposed to happen. He’ll do it, he’ll run to Yamaguchi’s door like some shoujo manga hero, confess his undying love, and then they’ll— kiss or something, and be… dating. Or whatever happens after the credits of those romantic movies.

And then Kei will go to sleep and wake up in another bizarre universe, one where Yamaguchi goes to a school on another side of the country or something. And he’ll have to do everything again.

Or… even worse.

Then Kei will go to sleep and wake up in a universe exactly like this one, except Yamaguchi didn’t kiss him in a trendy café. Yamaguchi didn’t tell him he has feelings for him. Because he doesn’t. And Kei knows it.

And his days will stop resetting, and the world will stop changing. And he’ll have to stay there, in the universe where Yamaguchi didn’t kiss him, for the rest of his life.

Kei shakes his head. Melodramatic. But he would rather die than dance to this tune again. If he remembers right, the nature channel is having a special on walruses, and he’s missed it two days in a row. Bad form to miss it a third time, since the universe is so keen on giving him another chance.

Yamaguchi said he needed time. Kei doesn’t mind giving it to him.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

The train arrives as soon as Kei gets to the platform. It’s on the cusp of rush hour, the time of day when there’s a small scattering of people standing up but no lack of empty seats if you’re willing to squeeze.

Kei leans against the door when it shuts and closes his eyes.

It’s funny, maybe. That this of all things is easy. Maybe he should have done this from the start. He wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t seen Yamaguchi the first day.

He would’ve gone home and stewed over their argument that feels like ages ago now, but he knows he wouldn’t have actually gone to his apartment and knocked on his door, wouldn’t even have left him a text. Their friendship, the ins and outs of it. It’s always been waiting.

Maybe it’s fine to leave the things he did the past few days behind, all the investigating and the yelling and the crying. Maybe it’s fine to go back to the way things have always been instead of trying to fix everything over and over again. Like that saying about the definition of insanity.

There’s a turning in the pit of Kei’s stomach that doesn’t quite believe it, but it’s not the kind of feeling he can’t just swallow. The fact that the silence of the train car is the kind he can hear, the way the announcements over the speaker ring through his ears, he swallows it.

When Kei steps out of the station, he pauses, for a minute. Looks in a different direction, down a road he almost never takes.

A left at the corner, and then straight until he sees the grocery store. Right for five blocks, three floors up, and two doors down.

“Watch it! You’re taking up space, kid!”

Kei squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again. There’s a dull pain in his shoulder.

Stupid.

Kei stops looking in the wrong direction and heads home.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

“Hey, Tsukki. You’re okay, right?” Yamaguchi says, bouncing a volleyball off of his basketball hoop.

Kei looks up at him from his seat on the back porch. He knows it’s because he’s sitting, but there’s something odd about the way Yamaguchi seems so much taller, something that stirs something uncomfortable in Kei’s chest.

Still. Even more uncomfortable. That question. It’s strange, hearing Yamaguchi say something like that. Straightforward.

When Yamaguchi thinks Kei isn’t okay, he sits next to him on his couch and pretends to enjoy nature documentaries all the way until he’s passed out over the armrest. When Kei thinks Yamaguchi isn’t okay, he pretends to want to visit the local pet store’s half-dead, ancient lizard so Yamaguchi can look at the dogs. That’s how their friendship works. Not by just asking.

“Why?”

“I guess because I never ask you! And you never ask me, too,” Yamaguchi says, and he laughs a little bit. He catches the volleyball and serves it back against the backboard. “You know, we never talked about Akiteru-kun, or how you got really strange after it happened! I think it’d be nice if we could be open about things like that, so you don’t have to hurt my feelings when you’re upset.”

Hurt my feelings. Yamaguchi’s words sting the core of Kei’s chest. “Sorry.”

“Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says, stretching the nickname out with something like intermixed teasing and pity, “don’t you think you’ve said that enough already?” He returns the ball as it hurls towards him and it bounces back against the backboard, effortlessly. “Well, it’s good start, though! You saying things like that. So, are you okay?”

“I’m exhausted,” Kei says. “I’m tired of fixing things that only become broken again when I wake up. I don’t want to, anymore.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” Yamaguchi catches the ball again. “But I dunno. You seemed pretty eager this morning! What happened?”

Kei doesn’t say anything for a minute, just listens to the sound of the ball hitting the backboard and the inside of Yamaguchi’s hands. “You know what happened,” he finally says. “Why would you— Why would you tell me you like me?”

“Well… why would the first thing you do in a different universe be looking for me? Don’t you have better things to do?”

Kei rubs the back of his neck. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“A lot of things don’t make sense, Tsukki. But if you want something, you have to get it! That’s how it is! Even if you have to work really hard, or it’s risky!”

“I rejected you. You didn’t ‘get it.’”

“Well, you tracked me down yesterday, and I made you cry, but you still tried again today, right? To make me feel better.”

“Until I gave up,” Kei says, and he hates the taste of those words, but he knows they’re true. Wants nothing more than for Yamaguchi to climb down from his unrealistic optimist utopia and join him in reality.

“You did?” Yamaguchi asks, but he doesn’t sound upset or even surprised. “Well, that doesn’t matter. I like you, Tsukki! Because it’s true, I’ll say it. I’m not the scared little kid I used to be. Did you know that?”

“But It’s not true,” Kei says, and Yamaguchi ignores him, just keeps concentrating on the volleyball and the headboard of Kei’s basketball hoop.

The even rhythm of the volleyball bouncing off of the backboard, Yamaguchi’s easy confidence as he serves it back. The familiarity of his movement. The longer Kei watches it happen, the longer he sits there in silence... Somehow, it becomes unsettling.

With a high-pitched yelp, Yamaguchi caught the volleyball sailing towards his nose, just in time. He turned to send a playfully irritated glare in Kei’s direction. “Don’t talk to me! Keeping a streak going is hard enough without having to listen to you.”

“You spoke to me first,” Kei pointed out. “And I didn’t ask you to beat my record. You don’t have to. I don’t know why you were even counting, earlier.”

“Yamaguchi…” Kei hears himself say. “When did you get so good at that? You don’t… When we’re out here talking… isn’t it usually me who’s standing by the hoop?”

“It is?” Yamaguchi asks, catching the ball easily with both hands. For the first time, he doesn’t immediately throw it back, just turns to look at Kei.

His face is… strange. A wispy kind of glowing. Kei can’t look away.

Without any warning, Yamaguchi tosses the ball in Kei’s direction, full force. “Maybe we should switch places, then.”

♔ - ♔ - ♔

The sky is pink outside of Kei’s living room window. There’s an aching on the side of his head.

A blanket is spread over him, and there’s light coming from the kitchen, along with the quiet hum of a radio. The television he fell asleep in front of is switched off.

Kei runs his hands through his hair, lowers them to rub the back of his neck. That special on walruses really was just a special on walruses. He remembers being too stressed and exhausted to pay attention, and then… nothing.

He stretches when he stands up, an awful kind of weight pressing down on his shoulders. Hazily, he wanders into the kitchen.

“You’re awake?” Kei’s mother asks, glancing at him from over the kettle. She sets to stove to low and pulls a cup from the cabinet. Before turning away, she pauses. “Do you want tea?”

“It’s fine,” Kei says, sliding into a chair at their kitchen table. He rests his elbow on the top and rubs his forehead.

“Are you okay? Drink some water.” His mother pulls a glass from the cabinet and tips water into it from their pitcher, and then sets it down in front of him as she settles into the seat across from him.

Kei takes a sip mostly to humor her. It clears his mind, a little. “I’m fine. I… think I had a bizarre dream.”

That’s funny. It’d just been on the edge of his mind until now. It’s still nothing more than a blur; in the back of his mind, he can see the figures of himself and Yamaguchi, together in his backyard.

“Really? You never tell me about your dreams,” Kei’s mother says, and an easy kind of smile lights up her face.

“I don’t usually remember them.” He barely remembers this one; just foggy images and a feeling like a chasm on the inside of his ribcage. Like he’s forgetting something, but urgently.

Kei’s mother leans forward, smiling at Kei’s hazy disorientation after being reassured he wasn’t ill. She probably thinks he’s just groggy. “What was it about?” she asks, amusement in her tone.

“It was… me and Yamaguchi. In our backyard. He was saying something to me…. Something strange, I think. I still can’t remember.”

His mother is looking at him, and the laughter in her expression is disappearing. Kei takes a sip of his water in some effort to placate her, and her eyes soften, just a little. “That was enough to count as strange?” she asks playfully. “You two talk every day, don’t you?”

That’s true, even for Kei now. He isn’t sure if it would be true for the Kei from here, with the way their relationship has changed, but he doesn’t think anything would be enough to make it so talking to Yamaguchi would be considered an abnormality for him.

Though… considering what he’s seen, maybe that assumption isn’t a safe one to make.

Or… what he’s seen… what he’s seen!

Kei sees it, finally clear: Yamaguchi in his backyard, so much bigger than Kei is, asking him who he is, telling him about the things he wants. Why he’s been working so hard all this time. And tossing him the volleyball.

Like holding a coded note up to a mirror, or finding the definition of the final word in a foreign passage – everything suddenly makes sense.

Everything he’s done now, everything he’s seen, has taught Kei just how much he needs Yamaguchi. That him without Yamaguchi is like clouds without the sun – impossible, paradoxical, nothing. Or, at least, nothing worth seeing.

In the first universe, he and Yamaguchi had never even spoken. In the second universe, Kei forced Yamaguchi to de-anchor himself from him, to go free, and it ended up hurting the both of them. Here, Yamaguchi kissed him and Kei rejected him and Yamaguchi needed time.

It’s been the source of his grief, waking up every day with a new and foreign and always seemingly unbridgeable space between him and Yamaguchi. And that’s what it is, that’s what the connection is between all of them is – losing Yamaguchi.

In every universe, something has changed so it’s strange for them to talk, to the point where they don’t talk at all. Where they aren’t friends anymore. Where the only thing Yamaguchi is to Kei is nothing.

If Kei doesn’t say anything, if he doesn’t do anything – they never talked about Akiteru. Kei refused to talk to Akiteru. And for years, Kei lost a brother and hurt his best friend every day.

Yamaguchi was the one who gave him his brother back, who grabbed Kei by the collar and cleared the two-year-old space between them in a single moment.

Kei is tired. Kei can’t pretend even to himself that he’s fine, that this isn’t the most exhausted he’s ever been in his life, but who gives a damn that he’s tired? No matter how intent the universe is on tearing him and Yamaguchi apart, he isn’t going to let it.

If Kei has to spend every day he ever lives building new bridges between him and Yamaguchi, ones that inevitably come undone every morning, then so be it. He’ll do it. After all, Yamaguchi’s been doing that for him their entire lives.

The least Kei can do is pay him back.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

And it’s – something else, too. Something that Kei might be ashamed of. That he probably should be ashamed of.

Kei needs Yamaguchi. That’s something he’d never deny, not after everything, something that he probably even wouldn’t deny before. He’s always known he needs Yamaguchi. But isn’t all of it.

More than that, Kei wants Yamaguchi, and it’s more because it’s only Kei pushing it down and ignoring and pretending it isn’t happening that stops it from eclipsing his need. Consciously standing back and clearing his mind when he’s with Yamaguchi so his mind doesn’t get consumed with thoughts of lips on freckled cheeks.

Kei is sick of it, but it’s worth it if it means Yamaguchi stays with him. But – thinking about Yamaguchi kissing him, that day in the bakery. In his bones and the depths of his chest, Kei understands.

Kei wants him. And that’s it, isn’t it?

“A lot of things don’t make sense, Tsukki. But if you want something, you have to get it! That’s how it is! Even if you have to work really hard, or it’s risky!”

After everything. Exhaustion, futility, difficulty. It doesn’t matter. Kei wants him, and he’s in the one universe where Yamaguchi wants him, too.

Damn the future, damn what he’ll have to deal with later. Damn what hurts.

He’s going to have him.

♔ - ♔ - ♔

Yamaguchi’s apartment building isn’t anything fancy, but in the darkness of the night, it’s like it’s towering over him.

It’d been a shame. For all he’d been doing to stop his mother from worrying, she’d been completely thrown when he interrupted the story he’d been unintentionally tuning out – in the last strange dream she had, there was a burglar in the house and she protected Kei from him by waving around a kitchen knife, only to realize it was Akiteru in a ski mask – by standing up and telling her he had to go to Yamaguchi’s house, as soon as possible.

He’d done something adjacent to arguing with his mother about it; her pointing out the time, he looked like a mess, did Yamaguchi even know he was coming? But Kei already made up his mind, and it was Yamaguchi. His mother always understood, when it came to Yamaguchi.

He’s standing in the doorway of Yamaguchi’s apartment building in sweatpants and bedhead, using the flashlight of his phone to read the call buttons for Yamaguchi’s apartment building. After a minute, he finds Yamaguchi scrawled next to the button for 3C and presses it.

“Mom? You didn’t tell me you’re coming home early.” Yamaguchi says, and the garble of the intercom exacerbates the exhaustion in his voice. “Did you forget your keys? How did you lock the door this morning?”

“Yamaguchi,” Kei says, and he can hear Yamaguchi’s voice hitch even through the static. “It’s me.”

There’s a click and silence, like Yamaguchi’s stopped connecting his side. A minute passes.

“I know you’re there,” Kei finally says, and cringes at the way he sounds. “I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t important. Yamaguchi.”

There’s another gap in conversation, and then Yamaguchi connects his side again. “Why didn’t you call? I didn’t even know you remembered where I live,” he says, and there’s a desperation in his voice, like he’s trying to cling to a reason to stay irritated with Kei. Because he’s… not, anymore.

He’s getting through to him. Kei swallows. “I have to tell you something. I know I… seemed insensitive before, and it’s not the kind of thing I can say over the phone.”

“You can’t just show up like this.” There’s something still strange in his voice. Kei thinks to himself that he hates the way he sounds over the intercom. “I told you I needed a while, and you showed up at my building. It’s already— It’s already hard enough, you know?”

A while. Kei doesn’t have a while, knows acutely how much he doesn’t have a while. But he can’t explain it to Yamaguchi, not in the state he’s in. “I… What I have to say to you, Yamaguchi. If I don’t tell you this tonight, I’m scared I never will.”

Another minute passes. “You can’t say things like that to me, Tsukki. You’ll—” Kei can hear Yamaguchi swallow, and then almost choke. “Just go home, okay? We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“I…” I can’t wait until tomorrow. Kei can’t say that. “I never do things like this. I need to talk to you. I can’t force you to let me in, but I can’t leave, either.” He pauses. Yamaguchi doesn’t say anything. “Yamaguchi, I don’t— I don’t want to give up on you anymore.”

The silence that follows is a long one, and a part of Kei is afraid he’s given away too much. That he’s been acting too opaque, and it’s pissed Yamaguchi off for good. But there’s a crackle over the intercom, and Yamaguchi’s voice is soft when he speaks again. “What are you talking about? Why are you… Why are you so persistent, Tsukki?”

“Because it’s important to me,” Kei says. “Because…” Kei swallows, scrunches his eyes shut and opens them again. “Because you’re important to me.”

Yamaguchi’s breath hitches, again, and there’s a click on the intercom. Kei thinks maybe Yamaguchi is finally going to let Kei up, but the silence stretches into minutes, and eventually Kei accepts that he can’t just stand by the doorbell all night without getting flagged as a suspicious person.

He releases the call button and settles down to sit on the small staircase leading up on the doorway.

Kei wonders if he should leave, but he knows that after everything he can’t, and Yamaguchi hadn’t told him to, anyway. Just disappeared. He isn’t sure if that’s better.

He’s sitting there for a couple of minutes when a salarywoman he doesn’t recognize stumbles towards the door and takes too long to dig her keys out of her bag.

When she finally pulls them out and holds them up in triumph, Kei catches her eye, and she stares at him too long. Like he’s an animal at the zoo. Kei thinks to himself that he’s lucky she’s probably to inebriated to report him to anyone.

“Eh? You lost? Homeless? Y’look pretty young,” she says, red-faced and words forced out like she’s having difficulty with them.

“I’m waiting for my friend to let me in,” Kei says. “He went out. I’m supposed to meet him here.”

“It’s pretty late, you know? ‘Snot safe out here,” she says, and she unlocks the door to the apartment, holding it open with one arm, a little showily. “Jus’ come in. Wait in the lobby.”

Kei shakes his head. Knows he can’t give into the temptation of just running up to Yamaguchi’s apartment and yelling at him. That it’ll only make him close up more. “I said I’d wait for him.”

The woman frowns, in the nonchalant overdramatic way. She shrugs her shoulders. “If the landlord sees you, he’ll call the police. But suit y’rself!”

The door shuts behind her, and as the silence he’s sitting in stretches longer, Kei wonders if he’s made the wrong decision. If he’ll end up sitting here until daybreak.

Funny, that that might be possible. Maybe if Kei never goes to sleep again, he’ll never have to leave.

But before Kei can entertain that train of thought any longer, his phone starts to ring. Yamaguchi. He swipes to the right and holds it against his left ear.

“Tsukki. Are you still there?”

“I am,” he says. He can hear the why on the tip of Yamaguchi’s tongue, even if he doesn’t say it. Some part of Kei wants to laugh at that. Something like relief. Because he’s… talking to him.

“Fine,” Yamaguchi finally says. “I’ll buzz you in.”

♔ - ♔ - ♔

The second the elevator doors close, Kei regrets not taking the stairs. The silence is too large, expanding to fill up the entire space, and the gravity of what he’s doing starts to catch up to him.

He hasn’t done… anything. Hasn’t planned this, the words he’ll say or even how he’ll start. He hasn’t even combed his hair. And this is probably… the only chance he’ll ever get, to tell Yamaguchi the way he feels.

Kei scrunches his eyes shut and opens them. What a stupid thing to get self-conscious about. Yamaguchi is upset. He has bigger things to deal with.

Yamaguchi is waiting for Kei at his door, arms crossed. His mouth is fixed into an exaggerated pout, and Kei can see a hint of pink behind his cheeks, in his corners of his eyes. His hair is slightly damp at the edges.

Kei’s chest sinks at the realization. That’s why Yamaguchi took so long. Because he was trying to hide the fact that he’d been crying.

Yamaguchi’s eyes meet with Kei’s for about thirty seconds, but his staring must be too much, because he moves his gaze to the floor, and then after Kei doesn’t stop looking at him, he turns around to walk further in his living room. Like he’s running away.

“You look like a mess,” Yamaguchi says over his shoulder, but there’s no bite in his words.

The door shuts behind Kei, and he strides towards Yamaguchi, until he’s at his back. When he sits down on the couch, Kei sits next to him. “When I thought of it. I came straight here.”

Yamaguchi grunts in agreement, less harshly than he could, and doesn’t say anything. He still won’t look at Kei, probably afraid he’ll notice what he’ll already did. For a while, they sit in silence.

Yamaguchi won’t look at Kei, and Kei can’t stop looking at Yamaguchi. He notices a stray strand of hair in front of Yamaguchi’s eyes, and before he realizes what he’s doing, he’s lifting a hand and pushing it back. Yamaguchi’s face is cool against his fingertips.

The entire time, Yamaguchi doesn’t move, just lets Kei touch him, and then – Yamaguchi lifts his own hand and encases Kei’s wrist, and pulls it down to their side. “Tsukki,” he says, and his tone of voice gives away more than what he wants to, Kei knows. “You can’t touch me like that. This is why— why you should have called first.”

Ah. This transition is… difficult, for both of them. That Kei’s spent the last four hours learning to stop pushing aside everything on the inside of his chest and Yamaguchi’s been learning to kill it. What Kei said to him during lunch break…

“So what is it?” Yamaguchi says, breaking a silence Kei hadn’t even been aware of. His voice is low. “What’s so important you had to show up here?”

I like you. But that’s too much too quickly, especially in the state Yamaguchi is in. “I’m sorry,” Kei says. “I was insensitive before. I don’t… dislike that you feel the way you do about me.”

Yamaguchi still won’t look at him, just stays with his knees pulled up to his chest, staring at his blank television like there’s a show he can’t miss on. It’s quiet for another moment, but Kei is used to it now. “You can’t show up at my door in the middle of the night to say sorry. I know you’re not the kind of person to— be mean the way you’ve been to me on purpose. I wouldn’t like you if you were.”

Yamaguchi wraps his arms around his knees, buries his chin in further.

“But you have to… you have to make this easier for me. You have to stop doing things like this.”

“I don’t want to,” Kei says. “I like you, so I don’t want to.”

Yamaguchi’s shoulders instantly stiffen, and he closes his eyes and then opens them. Kei can hear him swallow. “Tsukki, I’m— I’m glad you care about me this much. Our… friendship. We can… We can still be friends even if you don’t like me back. It’s fine, okay?”

Yamaguchi’s voice is thin, like if Kei doesn’t do anything he’ll start crying. Kei puts his hand on his shoulder to try to calm him down, but for the first time, Yamaguchi takes his hand and peels it off, still refusing to look at him. “What are you talking about?”

“This won’t make it easier! Saying these things to me, it’s only going to— it’s only going to hurt me more in the long run! I— You’ll ruin my life, you know? I just need time,” Yamaguchi says, and Kei knows he’s crying now. “Why can’t you just wait?”

“Yamaguchi,” Kei says, and Yamaguchi doesn’t react, just keeps burying his face into himself. “Yamaguchi, look at me.”

“You told me we didn’t have to talk about it! You told me you didn’t mind forgetting about it! I didn’t even— I didn’t even ask you to, Tsukki! But you said it was fine, that you would, that nothing had to change!” Yamaguchi’s voice muffled into his knees, nails digging into his forearms so deeply Kei can see his skin turn white. “Why can’t you let it go now? What do you want from me?”

Yamaguchi’s words pierce like an arrow into his chest, and Kei scrambles to do something, anything. He didn’t think he’d— But he knows he would, that hearing a confession before he was ready to hear a confession would leave him at a loss, but—

Sorry. But sorry isn’t enough. He wants to pull Yamaguchi into him, wraps his arms around him, rub his shoulders until he stops feeling like he has to cry. But Yamaguchi doesn’t want him to touch him.

Yamaguchi,” Kei says, and he uses the voice he hates using, the one that makes Yamaguchi nervous. “Look at me. I want you look at me.”

Finally, Yamaguchi does, and his face is red again, his eyes bloodshot. All that work gone to waste. Kei is about to find the words to say, but Yamaguchi interrupts him. “I’ve liked you for such a long time. And you— And you—” He wipes his eyes with his wrists. “My feelings aren’t a joke, Tsukki!”

Kei fixes his hands on both of Yamaguchi’s shoulders. Keeps his eyes trained on him, as much as Yamaguchi tries to look away. “I don’t— I was… scared then. But I promise you, Yamaguchi. I’ve liked you— I’ve been in love with you longer.”

The words are too big to come from Kei’s chest, and it hurts to cough them out, but he knows this is the only chance he’ll ever have to say the word “love” to Yamaguchi. No matter how much he deserves to hear it, in every universe.

“When you yelled at me in the bathroom after the Shiratorizawa match. When you grabbed me by the collar at training camp. When you— When you followed me home, every day after Akiteru. When you started calling me Tsukki instead of Kei because you wanted to be special.”

Yamaguchi is stricken, just staring at him. Kei tries not to think about the tear he can see rolling down his cheek. Tries not to lose heart in quiet.

“Even… that day in the bakery, I was in love with you. I am in love with you. I’m not lying anymore, Yamaguchi.”

Yamaguchi is frozen, and Kei is afraid there’s going to be another silence, one that will stretch longer and pierce the inside of his chest. But Yamaguchi says, “Why did you— Why did you say those things to me?”

“I was… afraid. You’re my best friend. I don’t… I know the kind of person I’d be without you, and it’s not someone worth being.”

Kei leans forward, rubs the tear he’d been staring at off of Yamaguchi’s cheek with his thumb. Yamaguchi’s pupils are so large, in a way Kei hasn’t ever noticed. He thinks he can see himself in them.

“But I’m sick of being afraid. I like you, Yamaguchi. I love you.”

Yamaguchi drops his knees and crosses his legs, leans towards Kei the same way he’s leaning towards him. He reaches his arms around Kei’s neck and clutches the back of his shirt. “Tsukki. If you’re lying, I’ll— I’ll kill you.”

Yamaguchi is too close to him. Kei can hear his heart thump in his chest. He thinks it’s the first time he’s ever been able to hear it, this way. “I’ll let you.”

Neither of them speak for a long time, just stare each other in the eyes, and it’s a different kind of quiet. Full, and the type that you can feel, but in a way that overflows in your chest.

After a long time, or a short time – Kei thinks he lost the ability to keep track a while ago – Yamaguchi’s lips part, and he breaks the silence. “I want to— I’ll… ask, this time, Tsukki. Can I—”

Before Yamaguchi can finish, Kei wraps his arms around his neck and pulls him into him, and the feeling explodes in Kei’s chest. Yamaguchi’s lips are chapped and he tastes like salt, but Kei can’t imagine a way for this moment to be any better than it is now.

Yamaguchi is warm, in his arms and underneath his fingertips and against his lips, and Kei can’t stop thinking of the saccharine words he’s always hated, like love and home and happiness. It’s too big and too much, the kind of thing Kei never believed he could ever really have, and then—

And then Kei is suddenly cold again, everything soft underneath him evaporated to nothing.

When Kei opens his eyes again, he’s alone.

♚ - ♚ - ♚

Kei almost wants to cry, but he remembers that he promised himself he wouldn’t cry anymore. That he’d fight for Yamaguchi as much as the universe tried to wrestle him away from him.

He takes a minute. Chokes down everything he felt, all the things he thought he had and immediately lost. Reminds himself that it’s not about him, that for the first time he needs to focus on something other than himself. Needs to focus on Yamaguchi.

Kei stands up.

He’s still in Yamaguchi’s living room, but the lights are all switched off and he knows this can’t be the same place he was in ten minutes ago. The little things – the half-drank glass of water on the coffee table, the way the pillow on the loveseat was lopsided – are different, and Kei can feel it in the atmosphere.

But Kei isn’t in total darkness. There’s faint light streaming into the living room from somewhere, and when Kei looks, the light is on in Yamaguchi’s room, the door half-again. Kei stands up, walks towards the light before he even knows what he’s doing, and when he pushes the door open –

Yamaguchi’s desklight is turned on, but no one is sitting on it. Instead, Kei can see a silhouette sitting on the side of Yamaguchi’s bed, facing out towards the window.

“What are you—” Kei hears, and it’s Yamaguchi’s voice, strained like he’s been crying. “What are you doing here?”

Chapter Text

Tadashi’s walking home with Tsukishima, but he isn’t looking at him, just staring at the sidewalk and trying to ignore the feeling of Tsukishima’s too-obvious glances.

There’s an undercurrent of worry in Tsukishima’s eyes that he doesn’t want to see. Tadashi doesn’t have to be looking at him to know that.

Tadashi can’t remember the last time he looked in Tsukishima’s eyes and didn’t see an undercurrent of worry.

It doesn’t matter. Tadashi knows it doesn’t matter. It’s a look in Tsukishima’s eyes he sees from time to time, and after a while, it goes away. After Tadashi gets better, maybe. Even if Tadashi doesn’t really know what that means.

He isn’t sure if it counts as getting better if it’s only— learning to ignore the things weighing down his chest. Until he can’t anymore.

And then Tsukishima gets worried again.

Tadashi squeezes his eyes shut. That kind of thought is… Pointless. Too negative, probably. The kind of thing that makes Tsukishima look at him the way he does, the way that used to make Tadashi feel embarrassed, and then guilty, and now makes him feel nothing. Which is – he still cares, about how this affects Tsukishima. His best friend. But he knows he used to care more.

He wishes he could get better. Whatever that means. It’ll happen eventually, Tadashi thinks. It’s just… taking a while, this time. For the feeling in the pit of his stomach to go away.

Still. It’s too long. Tadashi knows Tsukishima won’t do anything because he’s never been that kind of person, but he doesn’t like it, the way he’s been looking at him. There’s something more awful about it now than there’s ever been before.

He needs to do something else. The kind of thing that will convince Tsukishima he’s okay. Invite him out for a movie, spend all his time with him again. Make all that small talk that usually comes so easy to him. But it’s exhausting to try to do those things, the way he’s been feeling lately. And maybe pointless. Since it’s so easy for Tsukishima to see through him anyway.

Yeah. Tadashi doesn’t have the energy to pretend right now, and Tsukishima might get more worried if he sees him obviously faking.

Halfway on their walk to the station, Tadashi turns to Tsukishima and tells him he has something else to do. The look in his eyes is the same as it always is, and Tadashi turns away as quickly as he can, tries to tune out his gaze on his back the way he tries to tune out the silence.

It’s only a flat “okay” that escapes Tsukishima’s lips, but Tadashi can hear everything beneath it. Wishes he couldn’t. Can’t stop the echoing in the back of his mind.

Tadashi spends the rest of the afternoon doing float serves alone in the park and thinking about getting better.

♚ - ♚ - ♚

Tsukishima used to take care of Tadashi.

That might not be the right way to put it. Tadashi doesn’t know if Tsukishima remembers their childhood that way, and maybe it’s more like Tadashi used to force Tsukishima to take care of him, but that’s the way he thinks about it. Tsukishima used to take care of him.

It’s like this: when Tadashi was younger, younger than him and Tsukishima playing his first ever volleyball game together, Tadashi was alone.

It’s one of those things that happened so long ago that Tadashi can barely remember it except for the fact that it was bad. Late nights spent alone in front of the television watching cartoons about friendship, school days spent ducking bullies. Things he objectively knows were how he used to spend his days but can barely imagine anymore.

Which is for the better, because he probably wouldn’t want to even if he could.

What he does remember, though, is running from all of it – running from kids who wanted to make sure Tadashi knew exactly how worthless he was, running from afternoons spent alone, running from how scared he was that the rest of his life was gonna be like that – and while doing that, running into Tsukishima, and then after him.

It’s almost like an old, sappy, romantic cliché: My life didn’t start until I met you. Before I met you the world was in black and white. You saved me.

Because – it was saving like Tsukishima kept bullies away from him just by being tall and also with a few cutting words, sometimes, but that isn’t all of it. That isn’t even most of it. The way his classmates treated him… Maybe it was that bad, Tadashi can barely remember, but he knows that wasn’t the worst part of his life then. That the worst part was being alone.

And then Tsukishima came, and didn’t mind when Tadashi glued himself to his shadow. Didn’t mind letting him spend all his time with him, walks home and long afternoons. He was someone who was next to him when no one else wanted to be next to him, and back then, that was everything.

In hindsight now, though, Tadashi knows that it’s more than that, because it wasn’t just anyone. It was Tsukishima. Tsukishima who held his own against Ushijima Wakatoshi until he was forced off the court, Tsukishima who’s the smartest person Tadashi’s ever known by far, Tsukishima who could be the best volleyball player Tadashi’s ever seen if he just wanted it a little more.

Because – that’s another thing, too. You can’t really do two things at once if you’re doing them well. Or if you’re still trying to – if you’re doing one thing really well, then you’re not doing the other thing as well as you could.

Back then, and even now. Tsukishima’s always been a good friend.

Tadashi thinks about it a lot.

♚ - ♚ - ♚

It’s a different afternoon and a different half-finished sunset, and Tadashi’s walking out of the park bathroom, water still dripping from the ends of his bangs. There’s barely any feeling left in his arms.

To be an expert at something, you have to spend ten thousand hours doing it. Tadashi heard that somewhere. He wonders if being an expert is what he needs to get better. How many perfect float serves he has to do to fill the void in his chest.

Tadashi shakes his head, the water from his hair splashing around a little bit. Pathetic, Tsukishima would say, if he were the kind of person to comment on the way he’s been acting.

Tadashi needs to stop thinking like this. Lately, he’s forgotten what Tsukishima looks like when he isn’t worried. He’s only started minding less because he’s been seeing less of him.

Tadashi would feel bad about that, if he felt anything lately. No, that’s pathetic, too, more like— Tsukishima hasn’t said anything, and the look in his eyes hasn’t changed, become darker or more vulnerable. So it’s fine. Tadashi just wants to be an expert. Tsukishima knows about drive, too, even if he only just found out about it. He understands.

Tsukishima always understands.

Tadashi brushes the hair from his face and slings his bag across his chest, heaving a sigh as he starts heading towards the park exit. It’s almost dark, but he wishes he stayed on court a little longer. Knows he’d prefer the sound of volleyballs thumping against concrete to his train of thought right now.

What would make him better? A million perfect float serves, winning nationals, being a regular?

It’s starting to feel pointless, thinking like this. Tadashi feels like he’s lived his entire life coming up with goals, zeroing in on them, achieving them, sometimes. Most of the time.

Join a sports club, you’ll stop being a coward. Become best friends with the cool tall kid in your volleyball club, you won’t have to be scared of being alone forever. Do a killer float serve, you’ll prove you’re not worthless.

The ones that he completed, the ones he didn’t. They all seem to end up the same way anyway. Alone, in a park, running away from the fact that he’s pathetic by putting all his energy into doing something that’s supposed to make him different. Better. But still feeling like this.

Maybe it’s time. Maybe he should just give up and accept it.

Tadashi squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again, pretends not to notice what’s welling up behind his eyes. Maybe it’s good he feels enough to cry. Or maybe that’s such a pitiful thought it makes him want to throw up.

That counts as feeling, too, maybe.

“Hey, you,” Tadashi hears a voice say, creaky and deep. The way an oak tree would sound, if it had a voice, he thinks. “You’re out late, aren’t you? Fancy a game?”

Tadashi turns, and there’s an old woman at the stone table by his side, sitting in front of an empty board, lantern sitting next to her. Strange, that he hadn’t noticed her before; even if she’s in the area the shogi players usually are, she’s alone. A little suspicious, but whether or not Tadashi’s a coward, he’s never been the kind of person to be afraid of old ladies.

“I don’t have any money,” he says politely, flashing her a weak smile. “I should get home.”

“Indulge an old woman in a game of shogi, won’t you? I don’t need your money,” she says. “It gets boring around here on weeknights.”

It’s tempting. Usually it wouldn’t be – he’d rather be walking home with Tsukishima or watching his favorite television show than be playing a board game in the park with a woman he’s never met – but he kind of likes the the idea of putting off his inevitable sleepless night, even if just for a little while. But… “I’m not, uh— not really any good at it.”

“Do you know how to play?” The old woman’s face is dim by the light of the lantern. Tadashi can’t read her expression.

“I do,” he says, and she smiles, lips pressed closed.

Shogi was one of Akiteru’s phases. Like science and dinosaurs. He got into it enough to force Tsukishima to play with him, even though Tsukishima didn’t pick it up the other stuff he was into, and then lost interest himself in a couple of months. Tadashi thinks the last time he saw his shogi set, it was collecting dust in Akiteru’s room alongside his telescope.

But Akiteru still had time to teach the game to him, before all of that. Tadashi hadn’t been so enthusiastic about the game either, because it seemed even more boring than the nature documentaries Tsukishima made him sit through. But it was Akiteru.

They’d already known each other kind of well then, and Akiteru was nice to him since the first day they met, but still. Shogi was complicated, and having Akiteru pay attention to him long enough to teach him all the ins and outs of it was really something. The guy who was so cool Tsukishima thought he was cool.

And then things turned out the way they did. But that was a lot later.

“That’s good enough. Sit down, if you don’t mind,” she says, the edge of a laugh on her voice. As soon as she finishes speaking, Tadashi does, pulling the bag off his shoulder and placing it by his feet.

The woman digs through the box at the side of the table and then holds a handful of pieces out to Tadashi, and he takes them, rolling them like she wanted. It’s the first time he’s done this – Akiteru used to just let him go first because he was younger – and there’s something nice about the way the pieces clack together in his hands, the smoothness of the wood. His arms feel a little less sore.

When they fall on the table, half of the pieces turn up unpromoted, and the woman smiles wryly as she starts setting up the board. “I could let you go first, if you want. Since you’re so worried about being a beginner.”

Tadashi shakes his head, still smiling politely as he moves to help set up his side. “It’s fine. It doesn’t make a difference anyway.”

“Spoken like a true shogi player,” she replies, a lilt in her voice like she’s teasing him, in that warm way older people do. There’s something comforting her tone.

She starts the game then, moves a single pawn forward, and Tadashi flounders as he tries to match her. Neither of them speak and for a while they’re playing in silence, except for the occasional snort from Tadashi’s opponent and the sound of the pieces against the board.

“Checkmate,” he hears her say only about ten minutes since they started playing, and when he turns to look at her, she laughs. “You don’t know much about shogi, do you? That was a fool’s mate. A quick win, but easy to see through, if you know enough recognize it.”

“Oh,” Tadashi says, rubbing the back of his neck. “You’re, uh, right. The last time I played was in middle school, actually. I wasn’t that serious about it.”

“It’s fine. We’re all beginners at one point,” the woman says, smiling at him a little more gently. “We’re not that serious here, either.”

“Well, um… Thank you for the game, oba-san,” Tadashi says, about to reach for his bag, but she stops him.

“Do you have to leave already?” she asks, fixing the board like she knows there’s no one waiting for him. “Let’s play one more game. I’ll go easier on you this time; no cheap strategies. What do you think?”

Tadashi thinks about it. There’s something nice about playing a game he doesn’t know anything about with a stranger. No stakes. And he still dreads the idea of an empty apartment. “I’d… like that.”

“I’ll let you go first, this time. Since I was so mean to you our first game.”

“Ah, thank you,” Tadashi says, and the woman laughs again. It’s oddly warm.

Eventually, they fall into a rhythm again, and he takes a little more time to think before he moves. He can feel his opponent consider him a little more seriously, which he would take a little bit of pride in if it weren’t for the intermittent concerned tsks that he heard under her breath after some of his moves.

Back when Akiteru taught him to play, Tadashi thinks he told him a little bit about strategy, but he spent more of his time with Akiteru absorbing the brightness in his smile than any actual shogi knowledge. He’s also not sure if Akiteru ever was that good, anyway, looking back at it now.

After about a half hour, the woman blindsides him again with her checkmate. She looks at him with a somber kind of smile. “I thought it’d be better to put you out of your misery. It’s good you weren’t foolhardy like most beginners, but we would have been here all night, with how scared you were to go on the offense,” she explains. “But you improved a lot, for one game. Thank you for playing me.”

“Oh… I should thank you, I think.”

“Polite, aren’t you?” she asks, starting to put the pieces away, carefully and one-by-one. Tadashi thinks about helping her like he did before, but he’s afraid he can’t match the care she’s handling her set with. “Tell me, do you want to get better?”

That wording. Tadashi swallows. But… “At shogi? I enjoyed our game, but, uh, there are other things—”

The woman laughs. “That’s not what I meant. You seem the kind of person to want a lot of things. It’s what I got from your game, anyway.”

“I, uh— I don’t understand—”

“It’s not a bad trait,” she says. She picks up the last piece on the board with two fingers. Her king, invincible and untouched. “I’ll give you this. The next time you want something, really want it, this will help make whatever you want come true. Like that old story about the magic lamp, but with fewer loopholes.”

Oh. The downside of talking to strange women in parks. Tadashi thinks must really have been out of it to forget about it. “I can’t take that from you. You’d have an incomplete set.”

“It’s fine. I lose pieces all the time. I only play shogi in the park,” she says. “Just take it. Hold onto it. And at least pretend to believe an old lady’s superstitions, won’t you?”

There’s no point in arguing. It’s not like it makes any difference, whether or not Tadashi takes a game piece from an old lady. “Ah, um… Okay,” Tadashi says. The wood is smooth against his fingers. He moves to pick up his bag, but before he stands up, he looks around. “It’s late. Will you be okay getting to— wherever you need to get to?”

“I will. Take care on your way home, Tadashi-kun,” she says, and Tadashi nods.

Before he walks out of the park, Tadashi drops the shogi piece in one of the front pockets of his schoolbag and forgets about it.

♚ - ♚ - ♚

Tadashi thinks he’s getting a little better at volleyball.

When they played the Neighborhood Association yesterday, it’d taken five serves before they were able to break his streak, and Tanaka smacked him on the back.

Maybe some of it was luck, but he’s been practicing a lot lately. Sometimes, when he’s standing in the gym with the weight of a volleyball in his hands, he can feel the difference.

It was nice, probably. The way the team looked at him after, like they were proud. Something to finally make him feel a little better, except—

Except that look is still in Tsukishima’s eyes, the concern Tadashi can see behind his own reflection that he works so hard not to see. It hasn’t gone away. And it’s hard to feel nice about anything with that gaze on him.

Like – when they were heading back home that day and Tadashi told him he had to go do something else again, before he could turn around, Tsukishima said, “You played well today.”

It was the kind of out-of-character thing that should have made Tadashi’s chest swell with pride – that he did so well even Tsukishima had to mention it – but instead the words sank down his stomach, slow and sickly, the way it feels when you eat too much ice cream out of tub.

It was also that he said that in particular. About playing well. It wasn’t kind of thing he wanted to hear from Tsukishima right then, not when Tadashi knew that these last couple of weeks, while Tadashi’s been playing a little better, Tsukishima’s been playing a little worse.

The whole thing is… It’s not enough for anyone else on the team to notice. Just every now and then, a block that got smashed through too easily or a spike that Tsukishima would have intercepted if he was paying closer attention. Small things. Tadashi’s only noticed because he’s been watching Tsukishima to see if he’s watching him.

He wonders if Tsukishima’s noticed. Tsukishima’s always been the most observant out of all of them, plus it is Tsukishima himself who’s doing it, so he thinks he has to know, but…

Tsukishima’s been distracted lately. It’s why his playing’s been off. And it’s possible, Tadashi thinks, that maybe what’s been distracting him is distracting him so bad that he hasn’t even realized he’s gotten worse, but…

That thought kind of makes Tadashi want to throw up.

♚ - ♚ - ♚

They lose their practice match against Seijoh, and Tadashi feels sick the entire bus ride back. He thinks Tsukishima notices, even if he doesn’t say anything.

He’s the only one who still feels like this. Before they got on the bus, Ukai spoke to the team. We didn’t play Seijoh today just to win. It would’ve been a bonus, but it isn’t the reason. The point of practice matches is to practice. To figure out where our weaknesses are when it doesn’t really matter, so we can win when it does.

It was a good speech. Ukai used to sit exactly where they’re sitting now, so of course it was.

After he spoke, the atmosphere in the bus got lighter pretty quickly, even though you could still feel the sheer exhaustion. It really was just a practice match; they’ve had enough of them that no one really gets broken up about the outcome. The only reason Ukai spoke was because it stung a little more to lose to Seijoh than Nekoma.

But Tadashi’s insides never stopped twisting.

Eventually, they pull up to the school, and the second they do, Tadashi rushes to the gym bathroom and washes his face. The water is cool, and it pulls him out of that gross feeling just a little bit. He pulls up the neck of his shirt to dry the rest of his face, and when he’s done, he looks into the mirror, closer than he’s looked for a long time.

There are bags becoming a little more visible under his eyes. It’s not that bad; it’s true he’s been losing a lot of sleep lately, so much he falls asleep in class sometimes, but he didn’t get that much sleep before, either. He’s never been that good at it, except when he’s in a futon fixed next to Tsukishima’s bed.

He doesn’t want to think about that, though. Not now.

His eyes aren’t red. It’s why he ran over to the bathroom, because he was afraid he felt so bad you could read it off his face, but his eyes aren’t red. He washed his face anyway, though.

Pale. He might be pale. He thinks he shouldn’t be pale because of all the time he spends at the park, but it’s around sunset when he’s there so maybe he wouldn’t be tanning that much anyway. But it doesn’t matter, because Tadashi doesn’t remember what shade he was before and it’s hard to tell underneath the too-yellow bathroom light.

His hair is fine. A little disheveled, the way it always is, but he just spent all afternoon playing volleyball so it’d be weirder if it wasn’t. He’s not the kind of guy to obsess over his appearance. Other than now.

Tadashi leans forward and tries to look into his own pupils, like maybe he’ll be able to find something there, but all he sees is his own reflection. It’s a little funny, like when you’re standing between two mirrors and it seems like it’ll go on forever. But Tadashi can barely make out the reflection in his eyes.

It’s nothing, though. The way Tadashi looks right now. It’s fine. There’s no reason to fixate on it. There’s no reason for anyone to fixate on it.

The restroom is cleaner than it usually is; Tadashi thinks the janitor already made his rounds. He stays in there for a while, just standing in front of the sink and staring forward and thinking and breathing.

The time is good. It lets him pull himself together the way the bus ride didn’t, and by the time he’s breathing evenly, he thinks the turning in his stomach is settled enough that he can head home. He won’t go to the park today, he thinks.

But when Tadashi starts to leave the school, Tsukishima is waiting for him by the gate.

“Tsukki!” he says, and he forces a smile in a way he hopes seems genuine. “You’re still here.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t be?” Tsukishima says, and his voice is sharp; the way he talks to other people, the way he only talks to Tadashi when he’s really annoyed him, or he’s cranky. The look in his eyes would be enough to kill anyone else. “You’re avoiding me.”

The queasy feeling Tadashi spent all that time trying to get rid of comes back full force. “I, uh— I just had to go to the bathroom. Sorry I didn’t tell you! I know I usually do, but there’s, uh— I’ve been thinking about a lot of things recently! So…”

It’s— It’s at least an okay excuse, and not even really a lie. He has been thinking about a lot of things, and he did really have to go to the bathroom. But Tadashi thinks he could have come up with the best excuse in the world and Tsukishima wouldn’t believe him. Not if it wasn’t the complete truth.

Tsukishima’s been less observant lately, but not when it comes to Tadashi. When it comes to Tadashi, Tsukishima’s never been more observant. Every fake smile, every second-long frown. Everything. He knows Tsukishima sees it.

“Don’t lie to me, Yamaguchi. You’ve been avoiding me. I’d have to be stupid not to notice.” Tsukishima moves forward a little, takes a step towards Tadashi. Tadashi takes a step back.

It’s true, what Tsukishima is saying. Tadashi doesn’t know how to respond. Saying yes, pointing out that everything he’s been thinking while he looks at him is true. It’s the last thing he wants to do.

But he doesn’t need to, also.

Tsukishima knows what’s true. No matter what Tadashi says.

“Fine,” Tsukishima says, after the only thing Tadashi’s been able to force himself to do is keep his eyes trained on him. “There’s something you’ve wanted to tell me all afternoon. Say it. I deserve at least that.”

Tadashi swallows. He can’t say it. He can’t say it, because if he says it, he’s going to say everything and he can’t do that. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t know why Tsukishima is here, trying to force him to.

“What are you waiting for, Yamaguchi?” he asks, and he’s seething. Tadashi can count the number of times he’s been this mad at him on one hand. “Say it.”

Suddenly, Tadashi can’t bear to look at him. “I don’t know—”

“I know you’ve been thinking it. I’ve seen it in your eyes a thousand times already,” Tsukishima says. “Just do it. Tell me it was my fault we lost today.”

Tadashi doesn’t look at him. Tadashi doesn’t say anything.

“Is that it? The reason you decided it wasn’t even worth pretending you weren’t avoiding me? Because if I hadn’t misread half the spikes on the court today, we would have won.”

“That doesn’t— It doesn’t make sense,” Tadashi says, because it doesn’t. Like he’s keeping Tsukishima around because he’s good at volleyball. “It’s not your fault that we lost.”

It’s the wrong answer. Tsukishima takes another step forward, and Tadashi takes another step back. “I told you to stop lying to me. I know it was my fault. The entire team does.”

Tadashi isn’t scared of Tsukishima, even when he’s like this. Tadashi hasn’t been scared of Tsukishima since he went up to him on his first day of volleyball club and watched him blush over how cool he thought his older brother was.

And, of course. It’s Tsukishima. He knows him like the back of his hand. Maybe better. He’d never be afraid of him.

But that doesn’t mean— it doesn’t mean that this moment is fine, or that Tadashi isn’t scared. Of what Tsukishima is trying to do right now. Of the conversation he’s trying to have.

Tadashi and Tsukishima have always known things. About each other. They’ve known things, and not said them. Like, all the way back when they found out about Akiteru and Tsukishima was really harsh with him for a while, Tadashi knew he was just upset and needed someone to get his mind off it. So he got a little more aggressive with the whole following him home thing and laughed whenever he was being mean. And every time he did, Tsukishima got a little bit nicer. All the way to where he is now.

And Tsukishima now – it’s the “You played well today,” from yesterday, and whenever he feels like he’s upset, he goes along with whatever he wants a little bit easier. Like the other day, when he dragged him to that random bakery, and Tsukishima got whipped cream on his nose, and it was so cute Tadashi almost forgot the void in his chest. It was nice, before it made him feel guilty.

Still, they never just say things. It’s strange. It’s not the way they are, and thinking about trying to do it makes Yamaguchi feel sick.

But Tsukishima is mad at him now, and he… should be. Tadashi knows he should be. He should have been angry a long time ago. So if Tsukishima wants to have this conversation… he owes it to him to at least try.

No matter what it means. How it might change them. He owes it to him.

“I’m not lying,” Tadashi says, almost choking on the words.

“Look me in the eye and say that. And then I’ll believe you.”

Tsukishima’s using that voice again, the one he uses when he tries to make Tadashi do something he thinks he doesn’t want to. And he’s right, that Tadashi doesn’t want to.

The truth is, Tadashi only does things when he uses that voice because he rarely uses it with him, and if it’s that important to him he doesn’t mind doing it for his best friend. But just that isn’t enough for right now.

Tadashi scrunches his eyes and thinks about— the only look he’s been seeing in Tsukishima’s eyes, these days. The way he played against Seijoh today. The smartest person he’s ever known. His best friend.

The truth. He owes it to him.

“It’s not your fault we lost today!” he says, and he’s looking straight at Tsukishima and shock takes the place of worry underneath the anger in his eyes.

Because Tsukishima knows when Tadashi is lying. And Tadashi isn’t lying.

“It’s not your fault, Tsukki! Because it’s— Because it’s mine!”

Something else floods Tsukishima’s pupils, something Tadashi doesn’t know the name of and maybe Tsukishima doesn’t either. But he leans forward, moves closer to Tadashi too quickly for him to move back, and says, “Yamaguchi… What the hell are you talking about?”

Angry. He’s angry, but there’s something else, too, but it doesn’t matter, because Tadashi started telling the truth and now it’s bursting out of him, words from his mouth and tears from his eyes. “If you weren’t— If you weren’t so worried about me the last few weeks! If you never had to worry about me, you— you’d be—”

Tsukishima isn’t moving towards him anymore, just rooted where he is. Like the anger put him in shock. “Are you serious?” he says, and his words are dripping with the sarcastic kind of loathing Tadashi hasn’t heard directed towards him since they found out about Akiteru. “I can’t even fail on my own now? You have to turn it into another reason for you to hate yourself?”

Tadashi should laugh. You’re being a little dramatic, Tsukki. That’s the way he dealt with that voice before, the way he got through it even when Tsukishima singled out and pushed on his insecurities. Because he was upset, and he didn’t mean it. He was just pushing him away because he was scared.

But Tsukishima isn’t pushing Tadashi away. Tsukishima means it, these words that exact themselves on the weak part of his heart. He wants him to hear them, know that they’re true, and know that he knows that they’re true.

But Tadashi already knows he doesn’t like himself, hasn’t liked himself since he was a kid and has tried and tried and tried for years to be someone better. And that hurts, and he doesn’t want to bother anyone about it, but that doesn’t mean that for a second he ever pretended it wasn’t true.

Between the two of them, Tadashi isn’t the one who’s denying the truth.

And the truth is: Tadashi is reason Tsukishima’s so angry. Tadashi is the reason that they lost the game today, why he can barely remember what Tsukishima looks like when he’s fully, unabashedly happy. The crinkle in his eyes, the little blush sometimes. All Tadashi can remember is worry.

Tsukishima is better than this. Tsukishima can be better than this, if just one thing changed. And… if Tsukishima isn’t pushing him away, then Tadashi just has to—

The thought pierces the inside of his chest. Tadashi doesn’t— he doesn’t want to.

But he owes it to him.

But Tsukishima is his best friend.

The awful nausea that had taken the backseat to Tadashi’s medley of terrible emotions suddenly becomes defined then, and it’s too much— Tsukishima looking at him, standing so close, this entire conversation, he never wanted to have this conversation, and—

Tadashi backs up then, because he can’t do this anymore, not right now, he’s going to be sick and he has to get out of here, before Tsukishima makes him think about the things he has to do again. But just as he turns around, Tsukishima grabs the front of his schoolbag.

“Stop running away! I don’t care if whose fault you think it is. Just listen to me!”

Without saying a word, Tadashi pulls his bag out of Tsukishima’s grip.

/

/

/

The second Yamaguchi wrenches his bag out of Kei’s hands, Kei thinks about reaching out for it again. Stares at his back and thinks about running after it, and grabbing him by the collar. Yelling at him until he stops looking the way he’s looked for weeks.

Like Yamaguchi did for him.

But it’s not Kei’s style to run after people. When he has to, he corners them, forces them to stay trapped where they are with a sharp tone and cutting remarks. But his words have never worked as well on Yamaguchi as they have on other people, and running, and grabbing, and yelling. That’s not the kind of person that Kei is.

But as he stares at Yamaguchi’s retreating back, Kei thinks about being that kind of person and wishes, more desperately than he’s ever wished for anything, that he could be.

/

/

/

“The world doesn’t revolve around you, Yamaguchi!”

Tadashi is far away now, and Tsukishima's words are faint, growing fainter with the distance, and but the anguish in his voice cuts so deeply into Tadashi that he might as well be in front of him.

Tsukishima’s still in denial. Tadashi doesn’t know— Tadashi doesn’t know why he has to push this, why he couldn’t let things just stay the same, but—

No, it’s— It’s good for him, Tadashi knows. Even if he’s still in denial, Tadashi at least knows the truth and he can’t hide from it anymore, and Tsukishima is his best friend. And he wants him to smile again, and to be good at volleyball, and the smartest person in the world and whatever else Tadashi held him back from—

But it hurts. Because it’s Tsukishima, his best friend, the person who saved him, who changed his life, and took care of him and…

That’s funny, right? Because in retrospect, thinking about it now, that’s so much. So much to take from a single person. It’s enough. It’s selfish to want anything more. Tadashi knows that.

Tadashi knows what has to happen. The kind of person Tsukishima has to become, the kind of person he can only become if Tadashi stops holding him down. He just… With everything in his chest.

He wishes he didn’t have to be the one to do it.

Chapter Text

The uneven feeling that expanded around Kei when he found himself somewhere else, the quietly growing trepidation that increased with every step he took, the prickling foreboding crawling up his chest. The second Kei sees Yamaguchi, it disappears.

And that makes sense, because everything always disappears when Kei sees Yamaguchi.

The rage that had ignited when that boy whose name he’s already forgotten tried to say “I told you so” to Kei in the bleachers of a Karasuno volleyball match, the one that had almost given way to violence until he caught eyes with Yamaguchi. It was years ago now, but Kei can remember everything like it happened yesterday – that twinkle of fear, the concern curled into his lips – and the way all his anger evaporated in an instant. How he let Yamaguchi lead him out of the gymnasium, and after Kei promised he’d see him at volleyball club the next day, the way they went home together in silence.

Not comfortable, but calm. Together.

Kei can’t stop thinking about it. Together. The person in front of him is a shadow compared to the boy he kissed in the living room of another apartment, the way the warmth of his smile and the liveliness in his laughter was enough to fill the inside of Kei’s chest, but in a way, that boy is a shadow compared to the person in front of him.

Because every Yamaguchi is Yamaguchi, and Kei would do anything for any of them just because of that, but the Yamaguchi in front of him is his Yamaguchi. The boy that thanked Kei for something he didn’t remember the first day of his middle school volleyball club, the boy that followed Kei home every day no matter the poison that escaped his mouth, the boy that grabbed Kei by the collar and yelled at him about pride.

Everything that Kei remembers, everything that Kei knows he did. That was this Yamaguchi. The second Kei saw him, he felt certainty flood his entire body in a way he’d never felt with all the versions of his best friend he met before.

His Yamaguchi. After everything. Kei feels like he could cry from relief.

“I was afraid I’d never see you again,” Kei hears himself say, not an answer to anything Yamaguchi’s said to him, not even something he’s aware of saying or was even aware of before he said it. “You’re here.”

Yamaguchi’s eyes are wide as he turns to look at him. Kei thinks he might have been able to see his reflection in his pupils if it weren’t so dark, but he doesn’t mind it, by the way Yamaguchi looks in the dim light of his desk lamp. Kei can see the tinge of pink in the whites of his eyes and the redness in his cheeks, but there’s something enchanting about it, somehow. Something enchanting in the slight downward curve of his mouth.

Kei is moving before he even realizes, taking up the empty space on Yamaguchi’s bed, legs hanging off the foot, arms outstretched towards him. Kei’s left hand finds his shoulder and his right wipes a tear rolling down his cheek, and just slightly, Yamaguchi smiles. “I’m imagining you, aren’t I, Tsukki?”

Kei could say something, but he doesn’t, because if he tries to make sense of this moment he knows he might realize nothing that’s happened made sense, all the versions of Yamaguchi that he’s met the past three days, that what’s happening now is even happening, but none of that matters, because his Yamaguchi is here and in front of him and warm underneath his palms.

Or… maybe it does make sense. Thinking about it. Suddenly, Kei floods with understanding. He knows what’s happening now, remembers it from countless fairy tales he heard as a child. Kei with another Yamaguchi in another living room. True love’s kiss. Enough to wake the cursed princess, enough to turn the beast back into a human, enough to make the frog a prince again.

Enough to bring Yamaguchi back to him.

Somewhere deep in the back of his mind, Kei remembers it was something he used to hate, something he used to think was overdone and saccharine and unrealistic, but sitting here, as Yamaguchi wraps his arms around his neck and buries his face into his shirt, Kei can barely comprehend what hate even feels like. Can’t imagine anything except love.

There’s something so strangely complete about it, the comforting heat of his best friend against his chest, the wetness seeping from him into the front of his shirt. Kei wonders how he ever thought he’d been happy without it.

“I missed you,” Kei breathes out, the words bypassing his brain again, but he’s barely aware of them even after he says them, just wrapped up in the feeling of his best friend who he’s been in love with since he isn’t even sure sitting there encased in his arms.

“I’ll miss you, too,” Yamaguchi mumbles against his chest, the words pleasant vibrations against his heart.

Kei kissed Yamaguchi before, and he knows he’d been euphoric, but he can barely imagine anything feeling better than the way he feels now. They stay like that, curled together wordlessly because the atmosphere is too loud for them to hear each other anyway, until either Yamaguchi pulls Kei down or Kei pulls Yamaguchi down and they’re lying next to each other, limbs tangled, Yamaguchi’s cheek nuzzled against Kei’s neck.

It’s another feeling, bigger than what Kei can fit inside his chest. One Kei doesn’t think he’s ever felt before.

Just for a minute, Kei imagines this moment lasting forever.

- - -

Kei knows something’s wrong the second he wakes up.

It isn’t like the feeling’s new; in the last few days, he’s been waking up to some unfamiliar horrible thing that’s gone wrong that he has exactly twenty-four hours to fix. For a second – that moment between awake and asleep when you’re not fully conscious of what’s happening yet – he thinks that it’s just happening again, with a new, stranger, different problem.

Yamaguchi in bed next to him, eyes wide and body stiff, like he woke up next to a monster. And then – Yamaguchi pushing him away, almost enough to push him off the bed if he wasn’t half-weak from shock, and then jumping out.

“You’re… still here,” Yamaguchi says, corners of his mouth turned down. “You’re— You’re real? How did you get here? I was… I woke up in the middle of the night and you came into my room and— I didn’t think you were—”

He’s just babbling, but it’s enough to orient Kei, to flood his brain with memories of what happened the night before. Kissing Yamaguchi, and then finding himself somewhere else, and then his Yamaguchi crying alone in his room. And then… pulling him against his chest, and falling asleep next to him.

That’s… embarrassing. Kei wasn’t himself last night. Yamaguchi just thought he imagined him, but Kei holding him like that… This Yamaguchi isn’t even in love with him. Selfish, probably.

Still. The Yamaguchi he knows. Kei looks at the person in front of him: the shadows beneath his eyes, the pale white ghosted across olive skin, the way he babbles, the way he looks at him. After yesterday, Kei should be more cautious about certainty, but he can’t believe he mistook any of the other Yamaguchis for the one in front of him now.

Kei was out of it last night, but he was right about one thing. This is him.

He got to touch him, hold him in his arms, wake up next to him. This Yamaguchi, the one he’s always known. He’s real, and he’s here. Wherever they are, whatever place the universe decided to take him to next. He’s with him.

Kei is scared to let the feeling turn into relief – because their fight here was last night, and he can see the remnants of it raw behind Yamaguchi’s pupils – but he can’t prevent the warmth spreading in his chest. Like he’s finally come home.

Kei squeezes his eyes shut. If he keeps up this train of thought, he’ll end up as bad as he was last night, and Yamaguchi isn’t hysterical enough to blindly go along with Kei without thinking. He needs to cool down; act logically, now. Yamaguchi is here and with him, so he doesn’t have to spend his time tracking him down and trying to talk to him. He needs to figure out what’s going on.

What had Yamaguchi said? “You woke up in the middle of the night and I walked into your room?” Kei asks. That makes sense; it must have been around midnight when Kei was waiting for Yamaguchi to let him in. But Kei feels like he’s been asleep for hours, and it’s still dark outside of Yamaguchi’s window. “What time is it? No, clarify something for me first. Yesterday, we lost to Seijoh, and I fought with you about it, didn’t I?”

There’s a moment when Yamaguchi doesn’t move, just covers himself with a blanket like he’s wearing anything more embarrassing than a t-shirt and boxers, and fear starts to pierce through Kei like a slow-motion gunshot. But then, almost imperceptibly, he nods, and the concern in his eyes is palpable.

“You don’t need to be scared. I’m not mad at you anymore. The way I got here is… a long story. But you’re with me, so… I just want to figure out where ‘here’ is.” Kei gets out of bed to lift the blinds in Yamaguchi’s room. All he can see is pitch black. “I don’t think we’re in Miyagi.”

“We’re not in Utah anymore. Like The Wizard of Poz,” Yamaguchi jokes as he crawls out of bed, but his voice is thin and still cautious. Kei knows this voice like the back of his hand, exactly the way it irritates him to his core when he directs it at him.

It takes everything inside of him to withhold a sigh. “You don’t need to be scared, Yamaguchi. I wasn’t lying when I said I’m not mad at you. If you are scared, it should be… because of the situation we’re in. Not because I’m here with you.”

“It’s— I’d never be scared of you, Tsukki! Just, uh…” Yamaguchi rubs the back of his neck and chews the inside of his cheek. “You forgave me pretty quickly, didn’t you?”

“Like I told you, it’s a long story,” Kei replies, and then reaches for Yamaguchi’s wrist and gestures towards the bedroom door with a tilt of his head. “Come on. Let’s look around.”

“You don’t, uh— You don’t need to hold on to me, you know? I can just follow behind you.”

Kei remembers the way Yamaguchi disappeared beneath his fingers the night before. The way he’s been disappearing every morning. Keeping his hand curled against Yamaguchi’s wrist… it probably won’t be enough to stop him from leaving if the universe is so hell-bent on taking him from him. But it makes him feel better, every second he knows he’s with him.

That’s… a little saccharine. Too sentimental for Kei. But after everything, he thinks he’s earned the right to caution.

“If you want me to let go, I will. But I’d prefer not to.”

“Oh, um… okay.”

Maybe Yamaguchi’s going along with everything too easily. But the way he’s been, recently— It’s strange to be worrying about this again. Kei hasn’t had to worry about it in what feels like ages.

Still, Yamaguchi swallowing whatever happens to him, whatever way he’s feeling, and hiding all of it from Kei with an obviously forced smile, and obvious façade of playfulness and normality… Kei’s used to it, even if does make him feel sick to his stomach. But he’s not mad at Yamaguchi, he reminds himself. At least for now. He has bigger priorities, and Yamaguchi is letting him hold on to his wrist.

Kei leads him out into the living room, and he tries to figure things out from there. The lights all seem to work, even though all the clocks have gone blank, like everything’s been unplugged and plugged back in. He checks his phone for the time and it tells him it’s January 1st. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Every now and then Yamaguchi comments if they find something particularly strange, but he’s still smiling the way he always does, thin and cautious and forced. For a second, Kei wonders how long he’s been this bad, but he reminds himself it’s a problem for later.

By the time Kei’s finished searching the apartment, he hasn’t found anything, so he starts to head for the door. To see how far the empty, unworking universe stretches. Even though he’d only seen pitch black when he looked outside, maybe if he had a flashlight—

“Stop!” Kei hears, and Yamaguchi’s pulled his wrist out of Kei’s grip, is the one holding Kei back now. His hand is curled tightly around his arm, nails digging into his skin. Kei winces from the sting of it. “Don’t go outside, Tsukki.”

Yamaguchi didn’t see the view from the window, Kei knows. Only he did. After the way Yamaguchi babbled, he didn’t want to stress him out even more. “What are you talking about?”

Yamaguchi backs up, jerks Kei’s arm forward and away from the doorway. He stumbles towards him, easily pliable in the sudden shock of movement. “Don’t go outside,” Yamaguchi repeats. “Don’t leave.”

There’s something in Yamaguchi’s voice that Kei hasn’t heard in ages, something akin to confidence but more severe, more scolding. Like betrayal. Kei can’t find relief in the sound of it; even though Yamaguchi’s casual apathy has been whittling away at the hole in his chest, this isn’t the emotion Kei wanted from him. This isn’t who Yamaguchi normally is at all.

“There’s nothing in your apartment, Yamaguchi. I need to find a way for us to go home.” Kei breaks his shoulder out of Yamaguchi’s grasp, and then fixes his hand around his wrist again. “You don’t need to be so upset over it. It’s not like I’m leaving you behind.”

Kei tugs him towards the door again, and like he’s been burned, Yamaguchi wrenches his hand out of his grip and backs up. “I— Just stay here!” he says, and his voice is strained in a way that would sound like a plea if it weren’t for the steady current of anger full beneath it.

Kei would feel guilty in another situation, but this isn’t something he can compromise on. “You know I can’t,” he says, trying to find a grip on his patience. “Why is it so important to you, anyway? You don’t know what’s outside. And as long as we stay in here, neither of us will.”

“Please, Tsukki!” he says, the force in his tone overcoming the politeness of his words, both hands clenched at his sides. “I don’t want you to— Just stay!”

It doesn’t make sense, that Yamaguchi is throwing a tantrum over this. He hadn’t cared about anything that they saw before, or anywhere Kei pulled him along to, and Yamaguchi, as much as people still or used to think of him, has never really been a coward. No matter what scares him, bullies or sports teams or rejection, he charges forward, introduces himself, and faces them head on.

Yamaguchi isn’t an illogical person, and he doesn’t get mad at Kei when he knows he’s right. He knows they’ll have to go outside eventually, and he’s always been the kind of person who does what has to be done. He’s been acting strange lately, but strange doesn’t cover changing the core of who he is.

Kei swallows the frustration building inside of him, closes his eyes, and then opens them again. He turns to look at Yamaguchi, straight in the face the way he couldn’t when he’d been jarred by his sudden anger, and—

He sees it, behind the harsh tones, behind the way he’d dug his nails into Kei’s skin: Fear. A glimmer of the kind of fear Kei doesn’t think he’s ever seen on Yamaguchi’s face, one that strikes him in the depths of his chest.

Yamaguchi is scared of something, bigger than waking up in a universe that doesn’t make sense, bigger than the kids that tormented him all throughout his childhood.

What is he afraid of?

But just as Kei thinks he’s on the verge of something, Yamaguchi backs away from him, turning away to hide his face. “Fine! If it’s so important to you, you can—" He cuts off abruptly, choking on the words he was about to say. A moment passes, and then he clenches his hands into fists at his side and speaks again. “But I won’t come with you!” he says, and then runs out of the kitchen somewhere towards the living room, gone before Kei has a chance to react.

He must have been staring. But staring or not, Yamaguchi is… strange. The way his emotional state had been before everything, even before the fight, plus the fight, plus the situation they’re in – it makes sense, maybe. That he’d be irrationally afraid like this. Or maybe it’s another irritating way the world is trying to inconvenience him.

Even though Kei can’t stand that idea. That they’re even messing with his Yamaguchi, now. Like he hasn’t been through enough.

Kei looks towards the door. For a second, he entertains the idea of walking through it, finding whatever way there is to go home and coming back, but he knows he’d have to stupid to leave Yamaguchi alone after everything. That if he came back to an empty apartment he’d only have himself to blame.

The world he’s familiar with has become his personal hell just because Yamaguchi isn’t with him. Losing Yamaguchi here, in this strange and unworking place with nothing else in it? Kei would rather die.

Heaving a breath, Kei heads towards the living room and finds Yamaguchi sitting on the couch, hugging his knees to his chest while he fiddles with the television remote. The only thing playing on the screen is static. When he hears Kei walk in, Yamaguchi lifts his head. “I thought you were going outside,” he says, still a little bitter. That’s fine; after what happened in the kitchen, Kei prefers bitter.

“I told you I’m not leaving you behind,” Kei reminds him. “What are you—” What are you scared of? He can’t ask Yamaguchi that, not after the way he ran off in the kitchen. “Why are you so against leaving, anyway? You know we’ll have to, eventually.”

“I don’t want to,” Yamaguchi says, hunching back into himself. “Can’t you just— Isn’t that enough?”

Kei looks at him, the way he’s turned his gaze back to the ground. He won’t tell him anything more.

“Fine,” Kei finally says, taking the seat next to him on the couch. He leaves a healthy distance between the two of them. “I’ll wait for you. Until you’re ready. I’ve never really been able to force you to do anything you don’t want to. And it doesn’t seem like time matters here, anyway. Were you trying to watch something?”

“The channels don’t work.” Yamaguchi relaxes a little in his chair after Kei changes the subject. “Maybe the DVD player will, but uh. I don’t know if I’m in the mood for a movie right now.”

“Mm.” They should be finding a way out of this instead of watching a movie, but Kei said he’d wait for Yamaguchi, and with things like this, Kei doesn’t lie. And… it isn’t as if Kei isn’t guilty of wasting time just to be with Yamaguchi instead of looking for answers.

Still, thinking of that…

“Do you remember the long story I told you about? How I got here? I think it’s time I tell it to you. You might stop being afraid to leave,” Kei says. “Actually, it’s strange you didn’t ask about it again sooner.”

“Oh, well, uh.” Yamaguchi rubs the back of his neck. “It’s you, and not some random person. Even if we did fight last night… you’re still person I’d want to be here with me the most, for this. So I don’t mind. It’s nice to be here with you for now.”

Yamaguchi isn’t smiling the way he always is when he says things like what he just said, or hiding his face because he’s embarrassed. Instead, his tone is casual, a little lifeless. The words that should have been reassuring, that Yamaguchi meant to be reassuring, Kei knows, just grate on him. Yamaguchi is hiding something and lying to him and Kei’s ignoring a problem that he knows will only get worse.

But Yamaguchi just was upset with him; he can’t really afford to probe at anything deeper right now. He doesn’t even know how to go about trying to do it, considering how well it went last time.

Anyway, talking about hiding things. Kei doesn’t think he has the right to get irritated with Yamaguchi about it, considering how little he’s told him.

“The past three days…” he starts to say, and then wonders if he’s starting off at the right place. But his experiences have been so bizarre he isn’t sure if there even is a correct way to explain them.

Kei turns to look at Yamaguchi and his eyes are wide, shoulders stiff.

Ah. Three days means something different to Yamaguchi. The day at the bakery, the game against Seijoh. Their fight. Kei did do this the wrong way.

Too late now.

“I’ve been living the same day— Tomorrow. Or today. The day after our fight. I’ve been… it’s been happening over and over again, but every universe I wake up in is… different. The first day, I… You didn’t… You weren’t at volleyball practice, and when I tried to talk to you, you called me Tsukishima-kun.”

Yamaguchi’s mouth is a thin line on the edge of a frown, but when he catches Tsukishima looking, he forces a smile. “I don’t think I’ve ever called you that in my life,” he offers, trying to make his voice sound light.

“I know. Apparently, you joined baseball club instead of volleyball, and…” You were bullied out of it, and never learned to be confident the way you are now. When you aren’t like this, anyway. But Yamaguchi doesn’t need to know that. “…we never became friends. But after I saved you in the park, you started coming to all my games. But never talking to me. You never… tried to talk to me.”

Yamaguchi is just listening. No shock, no I’m glad that didn’t happen, no I can’t believe there’s a universe where we aren’t best friends! Maybe a couple of years ago, he wouldn’t be embarrassed to just say something like that, with a wide grin and maybe a hug. He used to hug him a lot when he was younger.

But he doesn’t look like he even wants to say it. Like the thought hasn’t even crossed his mind. Kei remembers feeling sick the first time he called him “Tsukishima-kun.” Kei thinks he feels a little bit sick now.

Yamaguchi notices, Kei thinks, because he lets out a thin almost-chuckle, in some attempt to lighten the mood, and says, “I must have been really shocked when you talked to me, then!”

It’s one of those things that he only says to pretend things are normal, but Kei takes the out. “You were. You… got angry at me, actually. Because I kept calling you my best friend.”

Yamaguchi laughs again, but it’s real this time, even if it’s still weak. “Really? I can’t remember a time you ever called me that. I guess I appreciate it, though.”

Pointless comment. Overdramatic. Yamaguchi, his Yamaguchi. He knows that’s how he thinks of him. Yamaguchi always knows. “Mm.”

It’s silent again. Yamaguchi shifts in his seat. “Ah, um. What happened after that?”

Kei spent the rest of the day with Yamaguchi, and talked to him about his life then, and his crush on Yachi, and the baseball team, and everything he means to him. But he doesn’t really want to put that afternoon into words, or at least not with the way Yamaguchi is now. “Nothing. I told you I would see you tomorrow, and the next day I woke up in a different universe.”

“So I never saw you again? That’s kind of…” Yamaguchi rubs the back of his neck. “It’s probably for the better, anyway.”

It was. It brought me to you. But as strange as Kei has been lately, it’s too sentimental for him to say outright. “I’m here now.”

“Yeah,” Yamaguchi replies, but his smile is thin. He either didn’t catch Kei’s meaning, or didn’t care for it. But Yamaguchi isn’t stupid. “So, uh. What happened in the other universe? You said it’s different, right?”

Kei remembers the other universe. Crying for the first time he can remember. Yamaguchi yelling at him. The weight of the memory is too much for right now. And… the things that happened they after. Kei doesn’t think he can tell Yamaguchi about them, not without mentioning the fact that he…

Ah. He really shouldn’t have gone into so much detail. “It was different. I went to Shiratorizawa, and… Well, it’s a waste of time to give you a play-by-play, anyway. Eventually I figured out that in every universe, the only thing that changed from our own is we never became friends. Or we stopped being friends, or we were about to stop being friends. I had to track you down every day and fix it. It wasn’t… easy.”

The revelation doesn’t spark anything in Yamaguchi. No shock, no curiosity. Just lifelessness. The way he’s been this entire time. Waking up in some void next to Kei and not even caring. Kei wonders to himself if Yamaguchi is faking or if he just stopped feeling.

Both of those thoughts make Kei’s stomach turn.

“But the point I was trying to make. Whatever it is that’s making me go through this… I doubt it wants to kill us. If it wanted to kill us, it would have done it already.” It would be easier to just kill Kei than to turn the world into his personal hell several times over, he knows. “It only… wants to torture me, I think.”

“Was it torturing you?” Yamaguchi mumbles, so quiet Kei thinks he’s misheard. Kei hopes he’s misheard. His blood is on the verge of running ice cold, and he wills himself to stop.

“What did you say?” Kei’s voice is too sharp, too cutting, too cruel.

(Rein it in, rein it in, rein it in. Yamaguchi isn’t acting like himself. It isn’t his fault.)

“I… Last night, I decided…”

Yamaguchi’s voice is raw and vulnerable and something else, the string of guitar plucked so hard it’s about to snap. It’s real, which Kei knows should be a relief, but he can’t shake the feeling that what Yamaguchi is about to say is what he absolutely never wants to hear.

“No, uh… A few weeks ago, I was at the park late, and there was an old woman there who wanted to play shogi with me, and… She gave me a shogi piece and told me I could make a wish on it. I thought she was crazy, so I just took it, but…”

Yamaguchi’s babbling, like something out of a movie. Talking about a wish… but if Yamaguchi made a wish, and it caused everything that happened to Kei to happen, what did Yamaguchi wish for?

(Rein it in, rein it in, rein it in. Look at his face.)

“I forgot about it until this morning. Yesterday was… I thought that last night I must have wished to spend a day with you again normally until I have to— but it’s not— this isn’t… like we’re normal.”

It’s ridiculous. Yamaguchi meeting a mysterious old crone, the kind of magic that grants wishes… Is this what’s been making Yamaguchi act so strange? That’s stupid; Kei knows it isn’t, but his blood is running cold and— “If that wasn’t it,” Kei says, and he knows his voice is stilted, but it’s better than what it could sound like, “then what did you wish for?”

Yamaguchi is hugging his knees to his chest again, staring down at the floor like there’s something he can’t look away from. Like he has to avoid any sudden movements or the monster near him will pounce. “Why did you have to look for me, Tsukki?” he says, his voice big and real and desperate. “It could have been easy.”

Yamaguchi—” Kei starts to say and he isn’t reining it in anymore, couldn’t possibly hold back the way he feels at what he knows is true. But he can’t yell at him. He can’t get mad at Yamaguchi the way he is now. “I can promise you. Nothing about the last three days has been easy.”

Before any more of the cold rage pushing for Kei’s mouth can escape, he stands up and walks out of the living room, leaving Yamaguchi behind him without a turn of his head.

- - -

Kei ends up in Yamaguchi’s mother’s room, because the rage wasn’t enough to turn him stupid, especially not enough to leave Yamaguchi in the apartment alone, and it’s… strange.

It’s the first time Kei’s ever been in here, but the room reminds him of Yamaguchi’s mother, the handful of times he met her. Bed sloppily made, dirty clothes close enough to the hamper to almost count as cleaned up, nothing not strictly necessary save for the framed picture of her with her arms around him and Yamaguchi when they were kids.

Risney World. One of the rare times she’d been able to take them out.

It’d never been the kind of thing Kei was interested in, and he doesn’t think he enjoyed it as much as someone else his age would, but he remembers the way Yamaguchi looked when he walked around the park. Saw the castles and the princes and princesses. Kei hadn’t enjoyed the place itself, but it was nice, seeing him like that. Kei remembers the warmth in his chest, the way he felt watching Yamaguchi watch the fireworks.

Kei wonders how Yamaguchi remembers that trip. He’d dragged him along for everything. Long conversations on the endless wait for rides that Kei was never even interested in, ones he knows he enjoyed even though he couldn’t recall them now if it would save his life; being forced to take a try on every game Yamaguchi played even though he’d always lose, because he didn’t care about winning; that hand that felt glued to his wrist.

(You don’t have to hold on to me, you know?)

Kei came along even though he thought he wouldn’t enjoy it, and he enjoyed it, even though he thought he wouldn’t. Yamaguchi must have… He’d seemed so happy then, on their trip so long ago the only thing Kei can remember that well is the exact detail of his expression. That smile.

But he must not have been that happy, if he’d been willing to throw that entire trip away, every moment they ever spent together— just to— just to what? End their—

Kei picks up a pillow by the night-table he’d been standing at – stops himself from grabbing the photo of the three of them with the small part of his brain still clinging to reason – and hurls it at the wall. It’s no volleyball, and the sound it makes is nowhere near as satisfying as the way it sounds when a ball bounces off the headboard in his backyard. When it smacks against the floor in a match.

His shoulders are shaking. Akiteru, three years ago. Kei can remember that, can remember the ice-cold hate that swelled inside of him as decided to cut a brother out of his life.

He doesn’t remember ever being this angry.

For the first time in his life, Tsukishima Kei screams.

- - -

When Kei walks out again, maybe an hour or so later, he finds Yamaguchi in the kitchen, leaning over a frying pan.

“Hi, Tsukki,” he asks, smiling in the only way Kei’s seen this Yamaguchi smile for the past month. “I got hungry. Do you want some?”

It’s just like him, Kei thinks. To pretend everything’s still normal. But in the past hour, all the anger that was enough to turn Kei’s mind to nothing consumed everything in his chest and left only exhaustion in its wake.

This probably still irritates him. But he doesn’t have enough energy to care.

“Mm,” Kei says, moving to stand behind him at the frying pan. Yamaguchi’s frying eggs, probably making the rolled omelet Kei’s mother taught him to make a couple of years ago from the things Kei can see on the counter. “Do you need any help?”

Yamaguchi’s mouth opens into a little “o,” and he looks at Kei, eyes soft and vulnerable and something strange. Kei doesn’t pay it any mind. “Since you mention it, do you think you could wash the dishes?”

“Of course I can.”

Kei clears the counters while he’s at it; egg shells Yamaguchi really should have discarded immediately, empty packets he doesn’t need anymore. He makes short work of the bowls Yamaguchi used earlier, and by the time the food’s being plated, Kei’s already putting everything away.

It’s silent the whole time, save for the sound of running water and oil frying. Yamaguchi stares down at the eggs like they require total focus, like it isn’t a recipe he’s had memorized since middle school.

Between the two of them, Kei knows he’s the one who enjoys the quiet, but the way they’re standing now, the air in the kitchen fraught and empty, something about it grates on him in the worst kind of way. A part of him wants to make some kind of small talk (like any talk between them can be small, the situation they’re in) but he can’t find the energy and it’s always been Yamaguchi who’s been good at that. Filling in awkward silences. Never him.

But after they sit across from each other and say, “Thanks for the food,” Yamaguchi smiles at him and any part of Kei that might have become really irritated is immediately quelled.

The food is good, anyway; Yamaguchi must have made the eggs sweeter for him, and it’s been a long time since he’s eaten anything Yamaguchi’s made. Whatever had been annoying Kei before, the food is warm and wards off any feeling of emptiness inside of Kei. Something his best friend made especially for him.

It’d be a peace offering, if Yamaguchi ever thought that way, but Kei knows that isn’t who he is. Yamaguchi does kind things, thinks of other people, because he always does. Never for some ulterior motive, like if he made the eggs too sweet for his own tastes but just right for Kei, Kei suddenly would forget everything that he said to him in the living room. Yamaguchi knows him too well to believe that would ever happen, but Kei knows he’d never even get there. That the thought wouldn’t have crossed his mind.

Or, if Yamaguchi did have an ulterior motive, it would be: making the eggs like this would make Kei happy, and that would make Yamaguchi happy. Because it makes him happy to make other people happy.

Well… The way he is now, Kei isn’t sure if Yamaguchi can still feel happy, but it’s still Yamaguchi. And that’s the sort of thing Kei’s been thinking a lot recently, between everything that’s happened to him, but he knows it’s true. Every Yamaguchi is still Yamaguchi. And to Yamaguchi, kindness is a reflex.

Whatever’s happening. Whatever Yamaguchi’s done. Kei knows it.

“It’s good,” Kei says, and he watches the corners of Yamaguchi’s mouth turn up. The smile is still forced, but less than the other ones. If Kei squints, he thinks he can see something real behind it.

“I’m glad you like it,” Yamaguchi says after he swallows, a little bit of forced cheer in his voice, though it doesn’t irritate Kei as much as it did before.

A little better. But… He’s eating slowly, Kei notices. Like he can’t force the food down. Yamaguchi has always been the kind of person to clear any plate you put in front of him out of sheer politeness.

(And when he was smaller, he’d eat a lot trying to grow, eyebrows furrowed in determination, grin splitting his face in half, and—)

No. Useless to be worried about him now. He can’t get mad again. Until he figures out what to do, he’ll just shelve the thought. He’s never been the type of person to deal with things on impulse, and the times he let himself try doing it with this, he made Yamaguchi even worse than he was before.

Eventually, Yamaguchi gets up to do the dishes, swatting Kei away when he reaches over to do them instead with a halfhearted joke about how he’s already filled his nice quota for the day and it’s fine if he wants to be normal again. When he turns around, it’s like he’s seeing the kitchen for the first time that day. “Wow, Tsukki, you really cleaned up!”

Yamaguchi’s eyes are wide with genuine surprise, and the smile on his face doesn’t bother Kei as much as his last one did. Kei remembers the what he’d thought about earlier, about making other people happy because it makes you happy. Kei’s never been that kind of person, and he doesn’t know if Yamaguchi’s mood now is enough to count as happiness, but the thought sits comfortably in Kei’s chest.

“It wasn’t hard,” he replies, because it wasn’t, even if he didn’t know how old some of the garbage was.

Yamaguchi lets out a halfhearted laugh as he brings both of their bowls to the sink. “But still, you’re being really… nice, you know?” His voice is thin and almost strange. “Thank you.”

“You’re my best friend,” Kei points out, matter-of-fact, and after everything he’s been through, it’s so easy to say now. The kind of display of emotion that would have embarrassed him before, rolling off his tongue as easily as breathing.

Because it’s true. And both of them know it.

Still, whether it’s true or not, it’s the wrong answer, though Kei knew that before he said it. Whatever Yamaguchi is trying to pretend about what they mean to each to each other, Kei thought he could use the reminder.

“Mm,” Yamaguchi says, and they don’t talk anymore as he finishes washing the dishes, but Kei relishes this silence. The way he can feel Yamaguchi turning the words best friend over in his mind.

Kei follows Yamaguchi when he goes out into the living room, sits next to him on the couch. There’s a stack of well-worn manga on the coffee table; the first few volumes of a series Yamaguchi used to make Kei watch with him as a kid. He still reads them when he’s upset, Kei knows.

But Kei has no right to worry over it, told himself earlier it was pointless to worry anyway. He was upset, too. If all Yamaguchi did was read manga, he did better than him.

When Yamaguchi notices Kei eyeing them, he picks up the pile with both hands and hides it next to his side of the couch, placing it gingerly on the floor. The entire thing is redundant, because Kei knows Yamaguchi knows he saw it, but he doesn’t mind it. It’s far from the biggest issue on Kei’s mind.

They sit there in silence for a while, Yamaguchi anxiously tapping his fingers on his thigh while Kei leans against on the couch, head back and staring up towards the ceiling like he’ll find some answer to his dilemma there.

No, his dilemmas. The absurdity, the unreality of the situation they’re found themselves in and the way Yamaguchi’s acting now, empty and fake and nothing like himself, even more nothing like himself than he’s been the past month. And Kei can’t solve one without first solving the other, and every time he tries to solve the other, he loses control and makes it even worse.

Kei sighs. Useless train of thought. He’d done enough thinking in the other room, while he waited for the rage to blow over. He’s tired of it now. Still, since he’s tired… No point in worrying about losing control. He doesn’t have anywhere near enough energy for that to happen.

The way things have been, too, no point in worrying about Yamaguchi going back to acting like himself. That’s not happening, either. Though… he did like the way Yamaguchi looked when he called him his best friend.

Maybe he’ll do that again.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” Kei hears, and he nearly startles at the sound of Yamaguchi’s voice. Stupid, to get so invested in thinking about Yamaguchi he forgets he’s sitting next to him.

When Kei turns to look, he’s still restless, jiggling his leg now alongside the tapping of his fingers. It’s nervousness more than agitation, and Kei can’t bring himself to mind it. But Kei stares without realizing; when Yamaguchi catches him looking, he flashes him an uneasy smile, and he remembers he’d asked him a question.

A movie. It’s a ridiculous suggestion, considering the situation they’re in, but after eating breakfast together in the kitchen with him like it was just another day, Kei doesn’t have the right to point that out. He isn’t sure he wants to, either.

Yamaguchi isn’t happy. If he wants something, Kei might as well go along with it. Not like anything else has been working.

“Mm,” Kei says, and takes a little joy in the relaxation of Yamaguchi’s expression. Yamaguchi stands up quickly, livelier with something to do if not quite cheerful, and moves to thumb through the extensive collection on the shelf of their living room. They’re all mostly older, Kei knows. The things Yamaguchi used to spend his time doing during afternoons alone.

Kei watches as Yamaguchi searches for a DVD Kei can probably predict the name of even if he didn’t bother to tell him. Kei is staring unabashedly now; it’s stupid to try to hide it when Yamaguchi knows Kei’s been watching him, and just like he doesn’t have the energy to get angry, he doesn’t have the energy to put up a façade of normality, either. After all, he’s not Yamaguchi; it’s not like he’s used to it.

But Yamaguchi doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. It’s like when he was cooking earlier; he’s squinting at movie titles like it’s life or death, too deep in whatever world he is to even register Kei in the room with him.

They stay like that for maybe five minutes, and then Yamaguchi fishes out the DVD Kei knew he would pick: a documentary they watched together on the television together when they were much younger, one that enraptured Kei so much he didn’t stop bringing it up for a few weeks. What the research team was doing now, what new information had come out since they filmed it. He talked so much about it everyone commented on it, and his next birthday, both Yamaguchi and Akiteru gave him the DVD.

Akiteru convinced Yamaguchi to keep his copy for whenever Kei spent the night at his apartment, even though they both knew that never happened anyway. Since then, it must have been sitting on that shelf, collecting dust. He knows Yamaguchi only watched it for his sake, anyway.

That thought in mind, Kei stands up and moves behind Yamaguchi, plucking the documentary from his hands and putting it back on the shelf.

“I don’t feel like watching this,” he says, and it’s not completely a lie. He’s seen it enough times as a child, and while it’d be easier to tolerate than most of the inane things in Yamaguchi’s movie collection, it’s not something he wants to relive. Not when he’s seen it so much every single fact, every single moment, is a reminder of a different conversation he had with Yamaguchi when they were younger.

(Yamaguchi sprawled out on his bedroom floor, pretending to be interested as Kei brought up everything he learned in the newest volume of his nature magazine; Yamaguchi sitting next to him at lunch, laughing after he described everything they’d shown in the newest television update, saying, Wow, you must have really enjoyed that, Tsukki! Kei doesn’t want to think about it now.)

Instead, he scans the shelf for a different film, one with fighting princesses and dragons that he hadn’t bothered hiding his distaste for when Yamaguchi put it on for him, when they were much younger. It’d been when Kei was still being too harsh with him and he hadn’t cared enough to read him the way he does now; not even noticing how eager he’d been when he brought the movie up, criticizing every other scene… Yamaguchi had laughed then, but Kei remembers the way he never brought it up again. The way he’d gotten embarrassed that time his mother suggested they watch that movie he really liked together.

I don’t— I don’t like that movie anymore! It’s lame. I…

It’d been something, then, Yamaguchi embarrassed about that kind of thing around Kei. He didn’t think he could get embarrassed, the way he made him watch every episode of Super Sentai and laughed at all of his snide comments, but Kei remembers it.

The first time he really hurt him.

After a minute, Kei finds the film at the bottom of a stack of movies, collecting dust on the second-lowest shelf. “Let’s watch this instead,” he says, pressing it into Yamaguchi’s right hand.

Yamaguchi’s eyes are wide as he scans the cover, recognition flashing in his eyes before confusion. He’s biting his lip as he lifts his head to look at Kei, and then starts to ask, “Why are you—" before he cuts off abruptly. Probably thinking better of it. “We don’t have to— We shouldn’t watch this. It’s not… You won’t enjoy it.”

It’s cute, how confused he is. The way he’s biting his lip. The thought is completely inappropriate for the situation they’re in now, but Kei can’t stop thinking about it. “Of course I’ll enjoy it,” he says plainly. “You’ll be watching it with me, won’t you?”

“H-Huh?”

It’s worth it, Kei thinks. Forgetting about how angry he was, ignoring the fight looming over them. Just to see Yamaguchi’s face like this. “You’re my best friend,” he explains, and takes the movie back. “Sit down. I’ll put it on.”

Yamaguchi is a little stiff as he walks backs to the couch and sits down, back up straight. His hands are on his knees again, gripping them with something like nervousness. But Kei doesn’t mind it.

If Yamaguchi is nervous, if he’s going to doubt himself. He wants it to be over this. Over the things he’s throwing away, the person he thinks he is to Kei, the person Kei is to him.

The things that matter.

It doesn’t take a long time for Kei to figure out Yamaguchi’s DVD player, despite its age. The movie is on in a matter of minutes, and if he sits a little bit closer to Yamaguchi than he usually does, neither of them comment on it.

The film is as inane as he remembers, cliched and unrealistic and riddled with plot holes, but Kei bites back the sharpest comments before they escape his mouth. It’s true, too, that he doesn’t mind it as much as he did back then. He can see the rush of childhood nostalgia, the pure excitement reflected in Yamaguchi’s eyes when he’s swept up by an intense low-budget fight scene. The beginnings of a smile, slight but genuine, tugging just gently at the ends of Yamaguchi’s mouth but threatening to split his face in half at any second.

Staring... Kei hasn’t been good about it. But watching Yamaguchi so close next to him, expression soft by the light of the television, he can’t bring himself to care enough to look away.

Eventually, the movie ends, and Kei gets up again, picking out the boxset Yamaguchi’s mother had gotten him for his birthday when they were younger. It’s a better memory than the other one; coming over to Kei’s house the next day with a backpack that looked bigger than him slung over his back, his mother and Akiteru happily joining their marathon as they all watched a nonsensical show about the power of friendship.

Kei’d been a little annoyed with it, but it wasn’t enough for Yamaguchi to stop liking it, and Kei liked that about Yamaguchi, too. How happy it made him. How happy he refused to stop being.

This time, when he puts it on, Yamaguchi doesn’t protest, and when Kei makes fun of something, Yamaguchi laughs and shoves him in the stomach. They’re sitting closer now, consciously or unconsciously, and there’s something relaxing in the warmth of Yamaguchi’s body next to him.

It’s funny, that he’d already forgotten. The way he felt the first time he saw Yamaguchi again. Reality’s already weighed in on them, is hanging over the air around them, but it’s true, too, that this moment, sitting quietly next to Yamaguchi, the person he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about over the past three days that felt like years, is more than Kei thought he could ever have again, sometimes. Here, with the Yamaguchi he’s always known, like nothing bad ever happened between them.

It isn’t the same euphoria as last night, because it can’t be, after everything, but it’s still something. Warmth, maybe. Or comfort. That he can still share moments like these with Yamaguchi, even if it won’t be forever. That he can be with him, and Yamaguchi will laugh or smile.

The episodes blur together in a narrative Kei is too tired to keep track of, memories he becomes too exhausted to recall after a long while. At some point, after the second or third time he replaces the disc in the player for the next one, Yamaguchi crashes gently into his arms, head leaning lightly against his chest. Kei can swear he’s half-awake, the way he falls into him, but when Kei fixes an arm around him to hold him closer, he doesn’t push him off, just settles more comfortably inside his arms.

Kei does what he can to savor it, Yamaguchi flush against him. When there’s nothing else on the DVD, he reaches for the remote and turns the television off, and just sits there, basking in the way he feels now. The way he felt last night. Yamaguchi’s eyelids are fluttered shut, and Kei can’t stop thinking about the length of his eyelashes, the softness of his skin, the freckles across his nose.

Yesterday, Kei kissed Yamaguchi, and he can recall the memory perfectly, chapped lips against his, the warmth that flooded his body, but what he can recall just as well is the moment right before it. Yamaguchi so close to him it was like he was seeing his face for the first time; the way his eyelashes fluttered, the sprinkling of freckles across his face like stars scattered across the night sky, the depth behind delicate pupils. How scared he was of how Kei might respond, and how he asked him anyway.

This isn’t the same Yamaguchi, Kei knows. But as much as this moment is, as large and full it is as it resides in his chest, he can’t help the part of him that wants more. To see him that closely. The features on his face he’s been too afraid to let Kei see.

It’s somewhere around there when the drowsiness Kei had been fighting off catches up with him and he drifts asleep wondering about the pattern of the freckles on Yamaguchi’s cheeks.

- - -

When Kei wakes up, Yamaguchi is shuffling slowly in his arms, and when he looks down, his eyes are wide open. The moment Yamaguchi feels his eyes on him, he turns his head to stare at the wall, but doesn’t change their position.

It’s dark now in the same way it was when Kei found himself here, lit only by the desk lamp in Yamaguchi’s room, but this time, Yamaguchi is still pressed against him. It should make him happy, but there’s something inky black inside of him now, more severe than the grogginess of sleep.

The fog of exhaustion has cleared. Kei can’t pretend to not see the truth anymore.

(Would it have been better if he disappeared?)

Yamaguchi isn’t saying anything, which is funny, maybe. Kei plays with the idea of neither of them talking, neither of them meeting each other’s eyes, just holding each other in a way they’d never be able to get away with by the light of the sun. Not without being honest about the way they feel. He imagines staying frozen like this just to see how long Yamaguchi will let them.

But he’s tired, already. Of sitting here and acting like he can’t see Yamaguchi while he’s holding him to his chest and the way Yamaguchi looks when he’s acting like he can’t see him.

Kei knows how Yamaguchi feels. He’d heard it straight from his mouth.

“Did you get your last normal day?” Kei asks, and Yamaguchi jumps when he speaks, just a little. He still doesn’t move his body from his.

“I…” Yamaguchi replies, but he’s still not fully conscious of what he’s saying to him. Kei can feel his breath on his chest. “What are you— What are you talking about?”

“With me. Before you throw all of it away,” Kei says, cold and clear, the words on his mouth tasting like iron. Yamaguchi stiffens, but when he moves, he only does it to hug Kei’s arm closer to his chest.

“Why do you have to talk about that?” he asks, voice wispy and delicate. Like the wrong word might break his heart.

Yamaguchi’s skin is soft against Kei’s, and as warm as it was the night before, but his touch feels wrong now. Still, Kei can’t bring himself to shake him off. “You’re not a coward, Yamaguchi. If our friendship is so unimportant to you that you don’t mind ending it…” No, that’s not quite right. “That you wish it never happened. Then at least have the courage to say it to my face.”

“It’s not—” Yamaguchi says, voice shaking now. “I don’t want to stop being friends with you, Tsukki! Do you really— Do you really think that I— that you—"

Kei should care about the things Yamaguchi is saying, about the quiver in his words. But he can’t bring himself to. “It’s easy, then, isn’t it?” he hears himself ask. “If you don’t want to stop being friends with me, then don’t.”

“It’s— You know it’s not easy! But it’s because you’re important to me that I— that I have to!” Yamaguchi is yelling, and there’s a fullness to his voice that Kei hasn’t heard in days, but Kei can’t bring himself to be relieved. Doesn’t care if he’s finally found access to his emotions if this is what he’s going to use it for.

“That doesn’t make sense. If I’m so important.” Kei can’t help the acid in his tone, the unadulterated hatred dripping from his words. “I want to stay friends with you, Yamaguchi. Has it not gotten through to you yet? After everything? That I don’t want you to leave?”

Suddenly, Yamaguchi’s wrenching Kei’s arm off of him and crawling away. He must have tightened his grip on him at some point, Kei thinks. “It doesn’t matter! I watched you play the match against Seijoh! I— I know what I do to you! It’s selfish— It’s selfish if I—”

Kei looks at Yamaguchi, his silhouette in the darkness of the living room. Maybe it’s for the better he can barely make out the details of his expression. But he’s not sure he could summon the sympathy anyway. “Do you really think I give a damn about that? Do you think if I was given the choice between winning a volleyball match or keeping you as a friend—”

Kei’s voice is too loud, and he can hear Yamaguchi’s uneven breathing, but he can’t bring himself to care.

“Do you really think that for a second I wouldn’t choose you?”

Yamaguchi is silent, for a long time. The quiet starts to settle over them, and just as Kei starts to believe he might have finally gotten through to Yamaguchi, Yamaguchi says, “That’s stupid.”

It’s not icy or cold or emotionless, a far cry from the way the Yamaguchi he met on the second day was, when he visited him unannounced, but it’s mean and confident and enough to tear a hole in the rage building up in Kei, even just temporarily.

“The way you were yesterday— I know you’re better than that. You know you’re better than that, Tsukki!” Yamaguchi is leaning towards him now, and he can make out his hands clenched at his sides. “You’re stupid, if you’d give all that up just to be my friend.”

Stupid. Hearing that from Yamaguchi. It’s not the kind of thing he ever says, and hearing the undercurrent of cruelty in Kei’s words makes him want to throw up.

And… he can’t stop imagining it. Yamaguchi, scared and shy for the rest of his life, thinking it was a miracle he was allowed to watch Kei play volleyball from the bleachers. Yamaguchi, scarred and angry and thinking the first friend he ever made cared so little about him he discarded him on a whim. Yamaguchi, thinking his best friend was so disgusted by the way he felt about him that he never wanted to speak to him again.

He remembers how terrible it felt, meeting all those versions of Yamaguchi, learning what all of their versions of Kei had done or hadn’t done or was about to do. The pure feeling of wrong that had struck him in his chest, that hurt him just as much every time. Because there isn’t a universe where losing Yamaguchi with him won’t feel like that, won’t hurt so much.

Because it’s Yamaguchi. Because he’s cared about him since they were younger, because there’s never been a moment he wasn’t there for him, because he’s the best of everyone he’s ever known. And Yamaguchi thinks he’s stupid for feeling like that. For not leaving every other Yamaguchi to rot.

Just like that, the anger comes roaring back up, and Kei can’t find the will to hold it back.

“That’s not fair, Yamaguchi. That’s not fair. Do you know— Do you know what happened on the second day? The universe I didn’t want to tell you about? Or— did you even realize I didn’t want to tell you about it? I’m sure you didn’t, with how self-absorbed you’ve been since I got here.”

Yamaguchi is the one taken aback now, and Kei can’t stop thinking about what a relief it is that he’s finally speechless. That he doesn’t have to deal with another asinine accusation.

“That period of time after we found out of Akiteru— I know you remember it, even if we don’t talk about it. That period of time, I—” It’s hard for the words to come out of Kei’s mouth, how he’s choking on the memory, but it’s important he says this to Yamaguchi. That Yamaguchi understands. “I stopped talking to you, completely. I thought that I— I couldn’t remember the last time I saw you smile, and I knew that was because of me. So I stopped talking to you.”

Kei swallows.

“You seemed… happier, there. More confident. Better off than you are here. But when I spoke to you… When I told you that you were better off without me, you got mad at me. And you told me you'd want to know me no matter what. And instead of arguing with you I believed you. I believed you. And I stopped leaving.” He turns his head up to look at Yamaguchi. To try to look him in the eyes, even though he can barely make them out in the darkness. “So stop leaving.”

It’s quiet for a moment, and Kei can feel the weight of his words sinking into Yamaguchi, but he isn’t naïve enough to start hoping he understands. And Yamaguchi says, “It's not my fault you were weak, Tsukki. I'm not going to be weak like you were. You know you're better without me.”

They’re just three sentences, but they cut into his heart like a knife and lodge themselves there, and then Kei sees red. “I don’t care how much you hate yourself, Yamaguchi,” he hears himself say, the words bubbling up to his mouth before he can even realize. “You're not going to convince me to hate you.”

Neither of them speak, and the silence between them stretches seconds into hours. Yamaguchi is really at a loss for words now, and Kei starts to wonder if he’s gone too far. A bitter part of him almost wants to take pleasure in it, after everything Yamaguchi’s put him through, but no matter how angry he is, it’s still impossible for him. To be happy about making him feel bad about the way he feels about himself.

And he was… too harsh. Careless. He’s still angry, but it’s stupid of him to have spoken to him like this. But just as Kei is about to get worried he’s broken Yamaguchi, who’s been delicate the entire day, Yamaguchi starts talking, voice shaky but still full with anger.

“You know, you— When you talk about all these different universes or worlds or whatever, you always talk about— about me! How I was lonelier or more confident, or whatever happened so we don't talk, but you don't— you don't talk about you!” Yamaguchi is speaking like he’s spitting fire, every word painful as it comes up his throat but deliberate and destructive as they come out. “What else was different there, Tsukki? Were you smarter? Happier? Better at volleyball? Did we even lose that game against Seijoh?”

Just as long as it takes to process the accusations Yamaguchi is hurling his way is how quickly it takes for Kei to forget the worry that almost quelled his rage. The things he’s saying. Like they’re anywhere near as important as Yamaguchi. “I didn't mention those things because they didn't matter. I don't care how much smarter or better at volleyball you think I would be if I didn't know you. I'd lose that game against Seijoh every day for the rest of my life if it meant we could stay friends.”

Kei feels his arms outstretch towards Yamaguchi before he realizes it, the way they’ve been doing over every single one of these conversations the past few days. Some desire to hold Yamaguchi’s shoulder and look him in the eye and make him understand. Everything. The way he feels. Like he’s done before.

But Kei’s arm is shaking and he’s too mad now to figure out and execute the perfect way to get through to Yamaguchi’s head. He knows he can’t grab him now. With all the control it takes, Kei moves his arm away from his best friend and towards himself, rakes it through his scalp and tries to relish the stinging of his nails instead of concentrating his anger. He looks at Yamaguchi again, who still hasn’t replied.

“I didn’t—” he starts to say, and almost chokes on the feelings he’s trying to convey. “Everything I’ve done, the past three days. I didn’t work so hard just to give up on you now.”

The words hang over them for a second, and Kei anticipates another deceptive silence, but suddenly Yamaguchi is looking at him, his gaze piercing even though neither of them can make the other out clearly in the light. “Why would you?” he asks, and his voice is more uneven than it was before. Kei can hear his sharp inhales. Like he’s sobbing. “Why would you work so hard? You should have just— You don't need to take care of me anymore, Tsukki! I'll be— I just want you to—”

“Because I’m in love with you, Yamaguchi! Because I've been in love with you since before I can remember. Sorry if that means I don't want to lose you.”

Kei’s answer comes before he can even think about it, all the anger and the disappointment about what Yamaguchi thinks he needs, what Yamaguchi thinks of himself, what Yamaguchi thinks he means to him, just welling up and overpowering any rational thought.

And even though it’s everything he never wanted to tell him, Kei still finds some satisfaction in the atmosphere after. In the way that Yamaguchi is finally speechless. That he doesn’t have some stupid remark about Kei being better or him being worthless to volley back to Kei. That the only thing he can do is sit there and stare.

But whatever satisfaction Kei took, it’s also— it’s also that Kei voiced the feelings he’s kept guarded so long that until yesterday he didn’t even reveal them to himself, to the Yamaguchi that he knows doesn’t harbor the same feelings for him. The fact that if he stays here any longer, he’ll have to listen to Yamaguchi reject him.

For the second time since they’ve been there, Kei stands up and leaves Yamaguchi behind him, afraid to look back.

- - -

It’s ten minutes, or twenty, or an hour later when Kei is sitting at the side of Yamaguchi’s mother’s bed, the picture of the three of them in the corner of his vision, and he hears the door open.

Kei feels himself hunch forward just slightly, hand rubbing his upper arm, and he thinks to himself that maybe if he doesn’t turn around, Yamaguchi will lose heart and leave. Maybe he’ll finally take pity and decide to spare him this hard truth.

(Not that it’s true that Kei is— without Yamaguchi—)

The bed shakes just a little, and when Kei looks up, Yamaguchi is sitting next to him, face just as downturned as his until he feels Kei staring. Yamaguchi breaks into a smile, thin and fragile with more than a hint of sadness behind it, but not quite forced. Not quite pretending.

It’s hard to look at Yamaguchi now, not just because of the things he’s accidentally told him. It’s the redness of his eyes, the tear tracks Kei can make out on his cheeks, his puffy eyelids. How long it’s been since they were yelling in the living room, Kei doesn’t know, but that he still looks like this, the way he must have been crying. Kei wonders if he would have been able to yell at him the same way if it were bright enough for him to see the look on his face.

Maybe. Kei was angry.

“It’s kind of funny,” Yamaguchi says, his voice still a little gritty, “seeing you in my mom’s room. I don’t really spend that much time in here, so…”

Kei almost sighs, that they’re back to this again. But he prefers it to the other conversation they could be having. “There’s nowhere else for me to go.”

“Yeah,” Yamaguchi says, and an awkward silence almost looms until Yamaguchi reaches over Kei’s lap for the photo on his mother’s nightstand. The spot where the back of his fingers brushed Kei’s abdomen tingles. “I forgot she liked this picture so much! Because of the rat ears, I guess.”

There’s a certain way that Yamaguchi is handling the picture frame, like it’s delicate in his hands. The softness behind his eyes as he gazes down is fuller and more genuine than Kei thinks he’s seen it in ages. Kei’s chest is an unholy cocktail of emotions right now – nervous and angry and prematurely missing his best friend – but the sight of Yamaguchi, the way he is now. It’s enough to stir something else inside of him, too. Gratefulness that he hadn’t broken the frame the last time he’d been in here, and… another feeling.

Risney World. Yamaguchi hasn’t forgotten it, and he smiles when he thinks of it. Kei doesn’t know what that means to him.

Yamaguchi directs his gaze to Kei again, the curve of his lips a little more pronounced. “Do you remember this trip, Tsukki? You had an awful time.”

“Of course I remember,” Kei says, moving his head to study the cracks in the paint on the wall. For all the times Yamaguchi’s done it already, it’s somehow embarrassing, now, that he caught him staring. “And I didn’t have an awful time.”

Yamaguchi laughs when he says that, airy despite the atmosphere hanging over them. “Really? I can still remember that look you had on your face. You still get like that when I make a joke that annoys you, you know?”

It’s strange to think about, that Yamaguchi thinks about the trip like that. He’s smiling while he talks about it, so maybe he’s partly joking, but it doesn’t sit right with Kei, that he remembers it that way. “It’s true that I… don’t really enjoy things like that. Amusement parks or cartoons or fireworks. But you do, don’t you?”

Yamaguchi nods almost imperceptibly, his eyes wide as he looks at Kei. Kei tries not to notice.

“I remember the way you looked, too, then. How happy you were. So I don’t think of it as an awful time.”

The quiet between them is so large and intrusive that it takes up space, presses down on Kei’s shoulders. In the loud of the silence, the only thing Kei can hear is the repeating thought in his mind that he said too much, until Yamaguchi says, “Kei?”

Kei swallows, and it feels like he’s choking down a rock. “Mm?”

“Do you really… feel like that about me?” he asks, his voice delicate as he scoots a little bit closer. Maybe to try to touch Kei’s shoulder.

But Kei doesn’t want his pity, and rubs his shoulder with his own hands, just in case he was reaching for it. Yamaguchi exhales. Kei wishes he never brought it up.

“You shouldn’t, you know? You can… do a lot better than me. I’m not worth…”

He trails off, but Kei can imagine the rest of the sentence. Has heard this kind of thing from him too many times since he came here. “We’ve already been through this. You’re not going to change my mind.” He inhales and exhales, and then turns to look at Yamaguchi. He thinks about the things Yamaguchi has said to him, the things that he wants from him. “But I'll... If it creeps you out, that I wanted you to stay my friend with these kinds of feelings. You can... We can stop talking.”

Every word out of his mouth is its own individual struggle, and Kei thinks to himself that he feels a little bit sick. He turns to face away from Yamaguchi, even as he feels him scoot towards him on the bed.

“But,” he says, willing his voice to assert itself over the room’s awful atmosphere, “that's the only reason I'll accept. Not because you think you're dragging me down, or whatever it is.”

Yamaguchi doesn’t speak for a long time. As the silence continues, Kei feels panic prick at the back of his neck and spread throughout his body. He remembers his worst fear, the one he kept locked behind his ribcage and let weigh down the pit of his stomach. Yamaguchi is disgusted by him.

Or, another voice in his head thinks. Something somehow even worse than that. Yamaguchi isn’t disgusted by him. He isn’t disgusted by him, but Kei gave him an out, and he wants to end their friendship so badly that he’s going to take it.

Whether or not he means it, hearing those words from Yamaguchi… It might be his breaking point.

But just as Kei’s anxiety reaches its peak, a warm hand overlaps his own on his shoulder, and when he turns, Yamaguchi is smiling at him again, still sadly. “I’d never think you’re creepy, Tsukki,” he says, his words a balm over Kei’s fears. “I just… I just want you to be happy. You’re my best friend.”

Best friend. It’s funny, hearing Yamaguchi say it to him outright. The first time in Kei’s life. It’s funny because it’d always been one of those things Kei knew was understood, how so many things in their friendship have always been. If I say harsh things, I don’t mean them. If you tease me and I act annoyed, it’s not really because I dislike it. I care about you more than I’ve ever cared about anyone.

You’re my best friend.

When they were younger and Yamaguchi’s excitement and happiness were boundless, he let his affection for Kei flow freely, wrapping his arms around him or grabbing his wrist or falling asleep on his shoulder. Telling anyone who would listen about how cool and amazing Kei was. Kei remembers how much it used to annoy him. How much he took it for granted.

He still does some of those things now, when whatever’s gotten a hold on him the past few weeks isn’t affecting him. Bragging about Kei’s height like it’s something for him to be proud of, grinning at him from ear to ear whenever he says something he thinks is funny. The way he seeks him out when they aren’t next to each other.

Since they first met, every day until now, it’s been a fact in Kei’s mind that they’re best friends. He’s never questioned it, never doubted it even for a second. Even if Yamaguchi never quite said those words to him, it never mattered. Because Kei can read the words written behind Yamaguchi’s pupils when he looks at him. Scribbled in the freckles on his cheeks that dimple when he smiles. He’s always known, just like Yamaguchi has known for him.

So it doesn’t make sense, why it means so much to hear him say it. How those two words ripple through his chest out towards his entire body, exorcising every violent and awful feeling that he thought had taken up residence permanently. Until the only thing inside of him was the whisper of the word love and a small and tranquil sadness.

Because he’s important to him. Because he wants him to be happy. Yamaguchi already said these things to him, every time in the living room, but his vision was clouded with rage and frustration and he couldn’t do anything but yell and blame his best friend for not understanding him. For being deaf to every time Kei swallowed his pride and exposed the insides of his heart.

But Yamaguchi listened, when Kei told him he was in love with him. And Kei knows now he’s been deaf, too, fixating on the fact that he wanted to end their friendship while yelling over the reasons why.

He thought it’d been selfish, self-absorbed for Yamaguchi to act the way he does, to want the things he does. Unbelievably cruel, and maybe condescending. But looking at Yamaguchi now, the small and gentle smile, the tear tracks still glistening on his cheeks, and remembering the way he pronounced those words – best friend – Kei finally understands.

There’s a stray lock of hair that’s migrated over Yamaguchi’s right eye, and Kei reaches up to push it behind his ear. His pupils are wide when Kei exposes them, and as he reads what’s written behind his gaze, Kei exhales deeply. “The way you feel about me…” he starts to say, and his voice is softer now, nothing sharp or cold behind it that he needs hold back. “I feel the same way about you.”

Kei’s hand is hovering over his cheek now, and he reaches up to card his hand through his hair, that familiar shade of soft brown covering his fingers like a blanket. Yamaguchi’s eyes are huge and pitch black and bottomless, but Kei thinks they’re too much like home for him to ever get lost in.

“Let me take care of you, Yamaguchi,” he says, holding him delicately as Yamaguchi lifts his head up to keep his gaze locked on his. “You’ve been taking care of me my entire life. It’s the least I could do.”

It’s a long time before Yamaguchi replies, but Kei is far past anxiety. There’s nothing left inside of Kei to stoke the small flame left after everything, and he knows that if Yamaguchi tries to put it out, all he can do is accept it. That they’ll never understand each other, and Kei won’t ever talk to him again after they leave here.

But they’ll have here. They’ll have this moment, and every single moment before it. Every smile, every laugh, every long afternoon and night they spent tangled in each other. The way he’d felt for all of it, each second full and warm inside of his chest. He knows he’ll never be able to ask anything more from anyone.

But Yamaguchi doesn’t argue with him. Instead, tears start pouring down his cheeks again, flowing freely and easily and Kei can’t stop thinking about how pretty Yamaguchi’s eyes are when they sparkle. And then Yamaguchi is lunging for Kei’s torso, his arms so tight around him that he can barely breathe, and it’s the happiest Kei thinks he’s ever felt, this kind of pain.

“I— I love you, Tsukki! I love you so much!” he sobs into his collarbone. “You’re my best friend! I don’t— I don’t wanna never see you again! I never wanted to, I just— I just—”

Kei pulls Yamaguchi closer to his chest. “It’s okay, Yamaguchi. Don’t worry about it anymore,” he says, rubbing his back the way he used to see his mother rub Akiteru’s when he was upset. “I love you, too.”

He only cries louder at that, but sitting there, inside the vice grip of Yamaguchi’s embrace, Kei thinks to himself how for the first time in ages, maybe the first time in his life, he’s finally certain of it.

No matter how hard things have been the past few days, the past few weeks. No matter how hard they get in the future.

They’re going to be okay.

- - -

Kei isn’t sure how long they stay like that, wrapped around each other while all the pain Yamaguchi kept hidden behind a forced smile cascades down his face and soaks through Kei’s collar, but he doesn’t mind it. He’d be content to hold him like this forever, he thinks.

But at some point far into it, when Yamaguchi’s sobs have quieted to occasional murmurs and the only reason they’re still clinging on to each other is that they don’t feel like letting go, the growl of Yamaguchi’s stomach rips through the quiet serenity of the air around them, and Yamaguchi starts to laugh.

It’s just light at the beginning, a handful of giggles pushing past his throat while he tries to say, “Sorry, Tsukki,” but then it’s loud and full from Yamaguchi’s belly, warm against Kei’s chest. Kei can barely remember the last time Yamaguchi laughed this much, this unabashedly, without any hint of fear or nervousness or concealed sadness. Just pure, unadulterated joy.

It’s contagious, Kei thinks, because before he realizes it, he feels the corners of his mouth turn up, stretching further than he thought they could. Kei can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that’s making Yamaguchi laugh so hard and him smile so much, just that it’s more than the simple rumbling of a stomach.

Maybe it’s everything. It’s Yamaguchi summoning all his courage to thank the boy who doesn’t remember saving him, it’s Kei letting the kid he just met talk him into having him stay over, it’s Yamaguchi by his side every day for the rest of his life after that. It’s Yamaguchi thinking he isn’t worth being friends with two years after Kei did, putting him through hell, and then being here with him and finally understanding. It’s the way Kei has to hold back the urge to kiss the tip of Yamaguchi’s nose every time he calls him Tsukki.

It’s him and Yamaguchi, and every single thing that happened to bring them to this moment, honest and together and happy.

Eventually, while Yamaguchi’s still giggling into Kei’s neck, his stomach rumbles again and Kei realizes the void in his own, not overcome with emotion for the first time since he woke up. After granting himself the indulgence of running his fingers through Yamaguchi’s hair and thinking about what it would feel like to press his lips to it, Kei pulls his best friend off of him.

The air in the room is cold against his skin, and the place where Yamaguchi was pressed against him tingles, but Kei doesn’t mind it. It’s not the last time they’ll ever be that close. He knows it.

“Come on, Yamaguchi,” Kei says, taking his wrist as he stands up. “You’re hungry, aren’t you? I’ll make something.”

“Huh?” he says as he lets himself get tugged along by Kei out of the bedroom. By the time they get to the kitchen, his eyes widen with realization. “Oh, uh! You can’t! Since I’m the host, I should—”

It’s nice, seeing Yamaguchi act like this. Half a laugh escapes Kei’s throat as he pulls out a chair by the kitchen table. “Sit down,” he says, guiding Yamaguchi towards the seat, and even though Kei didn’t take the tone he hates using, the one that can make Yamaguchi do things he doesn’t want to, Yamaguchi does as he says, even if part of his mouth is downturned in a small pout. “I asked you to let me take care of you. Anyway, the situation we’re in hardly counts as you inviting me over.”

“Oh… Okay,” Yamaguchi says. "I, uh, I guess it's fine! Especially since you've never made anything for me before!"

Maybe a little bit of the way Yamaguchi is acting now is bluster. Trying to slip into the way that they used to always be too quickly. But Kei doesn't mind it, this time. He knows that this is just the way Yamaguchi is, and he probably won't ever get better about pretending to be okay so people won't worry about him. As long as Yamaguchi understands, now, that he can cry into Kei's chest when he needs it, he knows that things won't get as bad as they did before.

Yamaguchi's shelves are a mess, instant noodle packages hastily shoved on one shelf of the cabinet, on the verge of falling over, the other half just stacks of instant curry mix and a makeshift spice rack from a cut-up cardboard box placed at the top. It's endearing in its own way; Yamaguchi's never been that organized of a person, something Kei's always reminded of when he offers to tutor him on a subject he can't get a handle on and then has to make sense of the hieroglyphics in his notebook.

"You're fine with curry?" Kei asks, and after Yamaguchi gives his assent, he carefully takes the top box out of the pile, closing the cabinet behind it and deciding not to think of its contents anymore. As he's poking through the other cabinets for the cookware, Yamaguchi speaks up.

"I can help, too!" he offers, and Kei wants to laugh again at how earnest he's being.

"It's just instant curry," Kei points out. "And I thought you were excited to try something I made for you."

Yamaguchi pouts, but he doesn't say anything more for a while, and Kei gets so caught up in squinting at the instructions on the back of the box and measuring pitchers and flavor packets that he almost forgets that he's sitting behind him. But while Kei's waiting for the water in the pot to boil, Yamaguchi says something else.

"Tsukki?" he asks, and there's no more faux-cheerfulness in his voice, even if it isn't quite sad. Just vulnerable, Kei thinks. There's something nice about the fact that Yamaguchi lets him hear him like this, when they're not in the middle of an argument or about to collapse from exhaustion.

"Mm?"

"I think I... never really got to say it, but... I'm sorry," Yamaguchi says. When Kei turns to look at Yamaguchi, he's biting too hard on the inside of his cheek, face a little bit downcast. "If that thing I wished for... If it really made you go through so much. I'm sorry I made you think you weren't important to me. I should have—"

"Yamaguchi," Kei says, making his way over to his best friend and placing his hand gently on the top of his head. "That's enough. Didn't I tell you not to worry about that anymore? It's over now. And..." He thinks about all the different versions of Yamaguchi he met that day. The way they smiled and laughed, the way their voices sounded when they said his name, however they said it. "It wasn't all bad, anyway. I'm glad it happened."

"Really?"

"Mm,” Kei says, cradling the back of his head in his palm, until Yamaguchi looks at him strangely and Kei retracts his hand like he touched a stove. Yamaguchi grins at him, just slightly. Kei resists the urge to roll his eyes and tries to remember what he was going to say, and then coughs. “Because you talked to me.”

Yamaguchi cocks his head then, and it reminds Kei so much of a puppy that he has to stop himself from patting him again. He shakes his head. He’s trying to tell Yamaguchi something important, now.

“I… know I’m not good, at things like talking about feelings or making you feel better when you’re upset. But… if you want to talk, I’ll listen to you. If you want to cry, you can have my shoulder,” Kei says slowly, his voice thin and a little bit hoarse. It’s hard to find the words now, but he knows he has to find them. For Yamaguchi. “I worry about you because I want to. So please… stop pretending to smile anymore, when it’s only me. You don’t have to. If you’re unhappy, it’s— it’s fine. Even if I can’t make you feel better, I’ll be with you. I want to be with you. Because you’re important to me.”

Yamaguchi’s eyes go wide then, so wide Kei thinks he can see his entire reflection behind his pupils, but then Yamaguchi shifts his gaze somewhere else, and he’s laughing. “I think you’re gonna burn the water.”

It’s enough to pull Kei from the depths of Yamaguchi’s eyes, and when he remembers where he is, he hears the sound of the pot cover screeching. He can feel his cheeks heat up. The first time he ever made anything for Yamaguchi, and he burned the water while trying to say something deep. Not to mention it was only instant curry.

But as Kei’s turning the heat down on the stove, Yamaguchi starts to speak.

“Tsukki? I appreciate it,” he says, and when Kei flashes him a questioning look, Yamaguchi laughs. “What you said before. I appreciate it.”

It’s not quite assent, or agreeing to never pretend to smile around him again, but seeing Yamaguchi now, the way his lips quirk as he teases him, and hearing the sound of his laugh, ringing like a bell through the apartment, Kei thinks to himself that it’s enough.

- - -

The curry turns out fine, because even Kei can’t mess up something out of a box, but there’s a kind of disgusting feeling as it slides down his throat that Kei can’t ignore, the awful one that comes with frozen meals and cup noodles.

Yamaguchi smiles as he eats, but Kei wonders if he tastes it, too. He’d never show it; Kei doesn’t think there’s any amount of times he could beg Yamaguchi to be honest that would make him tell Kei he didn’t like something he made for him, but Kei thinks he can see it in the way he brings his chopsticks to his mouth, how it seems more like a chore than anything else.

Kei took the box out of a towering stack in Yamaguchi’s cabinet, after all. He knows he’s learned to cook in all the time he spends his afternoons alone, but he doesn’t doubt he’s come home nights after training ran late and ate whatever was in his kitchen that he could eat quickly. Kei cleaned up all the empty flavor packets lying around his countertops; he knows it.

By now, Yamaguchi must be sick of it. The taste of lonely, empty, exhausted nights. Kei likes sitting here across from him, watching him grin and listening to him tease him about his cooking, but thinking about this, now. It’s only a reminder of what Kei’s known this entire time, even if he’s been pushing the thought away the past couple of hours.

They can’t stay here forever.

Whatever fresh ingredients are stocked in his refrigerator will rot or be used up sooner rather than later, and while Kei’s sure they could subsist on the instant garbage that his cabinets are overflowing with, he’s almost certain it would end up killing the both of them. Or, at least, Yamaguchi wouldn’t enjoy it. And that would be just as bad.

The thought stays in his mind as long as they eat, as he watches Yamaguchi chew his food like it’s tasteless and he returns Yamaguchi’s teasing with a few curt remarks that leave him howling with laughter. But it’s only by the time they’re doing the dishes – Yamaguchi washing and Kei drying, at Yamaguchi’s insistence – when Kei finds the courage to break their easy rapport.

“Yamaguchi,” he says, and when Yamaguchi turns to look at him, a sparkle in his eye like he thinks Kei’s about to tell him a joke, Kei inhales deeply. “We can’t spend the rest of our lives here.” Even if I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life with you. That’s too sentimental, even for now. “We need to find a way out.”

If this place were anything like the places before it, the world would have unmade itself any time they’d fallen asleep, or when Yamaguchi dove into his arms crying, but this universe, wherever it is, let Kei have those moments. And Kei needed them, and he’s happy he was allowed to have them, but that means there’s something else he has to figure out now. Or they’ll be trapped here forever.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kei looks at Yamaguchi, who stopped looking at him at some point while he was talking. He’s staring down at the pot he’s scrubbing now, biting his lip as his tongue pokes out just a little. The sight of him is enough to assault Kei with the memory of what he thought brought him here, that first night, and almost immediately, he feels his cheeks overheat.

True love’s kiss. He… It’s true Kei doesn’t know what brought him here, but he’s not yet far gone enough to genuinely believe it was that while he’s of sane mind. Anyway, this isn’t the same Yamaguchi as the one he kissed, and if those are really the conditions for leaving the space they’re in, Kei would rather try to find a way around it than force Yamaguchi to give his first kiss to someone he isn’t in love with.

Still, Yamaguchi’s not answering him, just staring down a particularly stubborn bit of caked-on sauce. Kei knows he heard him, from the way he turned to look when he said his name. He wonders if Yamaguchi is just going to play it off like he couldn’t make out what he was saying over the water. It doesn’t really matter; Kei can just bring it up later, and he knows Yamaguchi will eventually acknowledge it, but he thinks to himself how much it annoys him, the way Yamaguchi tries to avoid things.

But while Kei’s stewing in the feelings tugging on the back of his mind and knocking on the door of full-blown irritation, he hears the clatter of Yamaguchi putting the pot in the dish rack and looks up to meet his eyes. As Yamaguchi dries his hands, he flashes Kei a sheepish smile and rubs the back of his neck.

“I, uh… Getting out of here… The truth is, I’ve known how to, this whole time. Or maybe it’s… I guess it’s more of a feeling. I don’t know why you didn’t know, actually. Maybe because it’s my apartment? But it’s… we just have to open the door.”

Yamaguchi scrubbed the pot so thoroughly that Kei can see his blurred reflection at the bottom of it as he dries its walls. He tries to think about that instead of getting annoyed by the fact that it took Yamaguchi so long to bring this up to him. Though it does make sense, now, why Yamaguchi was never worried.

 “That’s actually… why I didn’t want you to leave, that time. I wasn’t ready to, uh… to never talk to you again. It’s a little selfish now that I look back on it, but… you were right, you know? I wanted my one more day.”

Yamaguchi’s voice isn’t quite shaky, but it’s soft in a way Kei doesn’t want to hear from him, not with the things he’s saying. When Kei turns to look at him, his gaze is trained on a crack in the kitchen floor, and the corners of his mouth are turned downwards, his lower lip protruding just slightly.

Kei remembers what it was like when they just came here, the way all the truths they’ve kept hidden for so long suddenly unleashed themselves on each other and it was painful in a way they thought would never get better until it did. The way they argued, it must have been the last thing on Yamaguchi’s mind for the longest time, and then things were so delicate he didn’t want to bring it up again.

It’s that quickly, as quickly as it takes for Kei to see Yamaguchi’s expression, that the things that Yamaguchi kept and didn’t keep from him stop mattering. That look stings Kei’s chest more than any secret.

That he’s that ashamed, that he wanted to spend time with Kei before he left him. That he thought he didn’t deserve even that, if he was trying to leave him. Because he was trying to leave him.

Kei told him that he doesn’t have to apologize for those things anymore. But it hadn’t been enough, so Kei puts the pot he’s been drying down on the counter, wipes his hands on his pants, and places a palm on his shoulder. Enough to ground him. “It’s fine now, isn’t it?”

Yamaguchi’s eyes are wide when he lifts his head to Kei in the eye, and the frown on his face has thinned. He’s listening.

“Because we spoke. We’re staying together, aren’t we?” Kei asks. “So you don’t have to worry.”

For a long time, Yamaguchi doesn’t say anything, just stares at Kei the same way he did before he lunged at him in his mother’s room. But instead of wrapping his arms around him, his cheeks just flush and he looks at something by the sink. “It’s, uh… You’re right, but… You said all those things about how the world kept changing when you woke up. I don’t know if… what’ll happen when we leave. If we’ll still…”

Relief washes over Kei in spades, enough to numb the concern that’d occupied every inch of his body just a moment before. The thought repeats itself over and over in his mind: Yamaguchi wants to stay with you. Yamaguchi wants to stay with you so badly he gets that look on his face when he thinks he has to leave you. Yamaguchi wants to stay with you just as much as you want to stay with him.

After everything. Yamaguchi wants to stay with him.

Eventually, the part of Kei’s mind that had been quietly scolding the rest of him for not taking what Yamaguchi said seriously overtakes the rest of his mind, and his mouth starts to sour with something that tastes like guilt. It would be a lie to say that there aren’t still remnants of the light feeling that pervaded through his body when Yamaguchi made it so clear that he wanted to stay with him, but it’s true, too, that everything is wrong with this picture. Kei relieved and happy while Yamaguchi worries. He’d prefer it the other way around.

But it’s more than just that, Kei realizes after the weight of Yamaguchi’s words sets in. After everything, Yamaguchi finally wants to stay with him. After everything, he might lose him anyway.

Everything left in his body that had been something as warm as relief or even guilt instantly turns ice cold, and Kei thinks about throwing up. Because it’s such a disgusting thought, something so horrible and needlessly cruel, that the universe brought him here to see Yamaguchi only to take him away from him again.

He remembers the way he felt, enmeshed in Yamaguchi in his mother’s bedroom. The weight of his best friend against him, the one that had been enough to fill every void that carved inside of him to overflow. The comfort in stillness, the bliss in understanding. The overwhelming certainty that it was finally over.

Yamaguchi is only speculating, and Kei has always known that speculating on worst-case scenarios is one of the things that he’s best at, as much as he tries to hide his anxiety behind bluster. But it would be stupid to just assume that this universe, the one that was cruel enough to separate Kei from Yamaguchi in three different ways, all increasingly more painful, wouldn’t be cruel enough to separate Kei from him permanently. Like salting a slug and watching it die instead of just stepping on it.

They can’t stay here forever, but leaving is too big of a risk. He can’t lose Yamaguchi after how hard he’s fought to keep him. He can’t lose Yamaguchi because Yamaguchi finally wants to let him keep him. For a minute it, Kei plays out the idea of living the rest of his life out here with Yamaguchi; waking up every morning next to his best friend, watching movies they have memorized together, conversations that go on forever. As small as it would be, they’d have each other; Yamaguchi is the one person in the world he could never get sick of, and as long as they’ve been together, Kei thinks that maybe he’d never get sick of him, too.

After all, the rest of the universe lost its color when Kei lost Yamaguchi. Maybe Yamaguchi is enough to make up for the rest of the universe.

But they can’t stay here forever. And Kei knows even if they could, if there was a garden in the other room and all of his fantasies happened just as he imagined them, it wouldn’t be right. It isn’t the way the rest of their lives are supposed to go. Kei is supposed to keep playing volleyball with Yamaguchi and watch his float serves grow more and more flawless with every match. He’s supposed to watch Yamaguchi learn what he wants to do with his life and strive towards it in the fearless, one-minded way he always does.

He’s supposed to graduate high school next to him. To be at his wedding. To intertwine the rest of his life with his best friend’s and become more amazed by him with every day that passes. This existence, where Kei can’t tell if a moment took a second or an hour, where their entire world is a two-bedroom apartment, is far from good enough for the boy who was brave enough to walk up to Kei and introduce himself in their elementary school gymnasium.

He looks at Yamaguchi again, then, and it’s just that moment when he realizes he’s frowning up at him, all the redness from his cheeks dissipated from worry, and Kei thinks to himself how stupid it is for him to be making a habit of forgetting he’s in a room with Yamaguchi because he’s thinking so hard about him.

“Tsukki, are you okay?” Yamaguchi asks, and the concern in his voice now is different, more urgent and less defeatist. “You didn’t, uh… You didn’t answer me.”

Embarrassing. “I was thinking about something,” he says, glancing at the pot he set on the counter before he finished drying it. It’s almost dry now, even though a small puddle’s gathered around the rim.

Yamaguchi reads the question Kei doesn’t feel like asking, and his mouth quirks up, a little hesitantly. “I was saying we don’t have to worry about it now. And if you, uh— if you want, we can watch that documentary you really liked when we were younger. Because I did like it, you know? Especially after you taught me so much about killer whales! I think I appreciate it a lot more now. I even watch it sometimes! Or I think about watching it…”

Yamaguchi is cute like this, the way he’s babbling about nothing and trying to make Kei feel better. A part of Kei wants to say yes, to watch his favorite DVD from when he was younger and maybe have his best friend fall asleep in his arms, but he knows he can’t. That if he gives in to putting it off now, he might never stop. “Yamaguchi,” he says, a weight in his voice that he wishes weren’t there, “we have to leave eventually.”

“I… I know,” he replies. “I just thought… since it seemed like it upset you so much, we could watch a movie. Or do something else. I missed spending time with you like this, you know?”

The words are enough to hurt, to make something that was already hard a little harder. I did, too. But Kei doesn’t say it. “I don’t want to waste time anymore. Or be afraid. You deserve more than that.” He swallows, and then exhales deeply. “After everything, we both do.”

Yamaguchi peels off the hand Kei forgot he left on his shoulder and takes it with his, staring down like he might be able to find the future in the lines of Kei’s palm. Absentmindedly, he traces Kei’s wrist. “You know— You know, I was ready, before. To never talk to you again. Or… maybe I thought I was. But when I think about it now, I…”

Yamaguchi swallows, the hand underneath Kei’s clutching it a little tighter. He pulls it towards his chest, not enough to touch or make Kei stagger forward. Just so they’re that much closer.

“I don’t want to have to lose you again. Not after… Not after I just got you back.”

Kei takes his hand back and uses it to tilt Yamaguchi’s head up gently. His eyes are sparkling now, and Kei thinks to himself that he could dive into his gaze, get lost in it forever. But he doesn’t. Instead, he says, “Yamaguchi. Haven’t you realized, yet? I won’t let you lose me.”

A second passes and Yamaguchi doesn’t reply, and it’s enough for the words Kei said to sink in and his cheeks to flush with heat, but as his eyes drift from their locked gaze, Kei catches sight of something else: Yamaguchi’s pink lips parted, in something like surprise. He’s listening.

The things Kei wants to say. No matter how big or overly dramatic or embarrassing they are, no matter how unused to saying things like this Kei is. He has to say them. Because they’re true, and because Yamaguchi deserves it.

Kei swallows.

“Whatever happens when we walk out of that door. If the world remakes itself a thousand times. Every day for the rest of both our lives. No matter what, I’ll look for you,” he says, almost choking on the words. “I’ll find you.”

A long while passes, and Yamaguchi doesn’t speak. For the first time in a while, he doesn’t give Kei any of the things that he needs or wants

 As seconds become minutes, Kei becomes acutely aware of the dripping of the faucet and the sound of his best friend’s breathing. Composed and even, like he isn’t even bothered. Like Kei’s words didn’t even matter.

And it’s this silence, maybe, the weight of his words and the way they go unanswered, that goes straight for Kei’s chest and floods his system with fear.

Yamaguchi’s eyes are so black and so wide and so deep, but they’re alien and terrifying in this moment, like staring down the eyes of rattlesnake winding up to strike him down. Kei can feel the pounding of his own heart full and heavy in his eardrums, overwhelming dread holding his entire body still. The whispering anxiety that he thought was quashed, brought to the forefront of his mind, its words becoming as concrete as fact. Yamaguchi isn’t answering. You’re being a burden, not a comfort. He doesn’t want you to do this. It’s too much, now. Did you think big words were enough to save him?

Yamaguchi was the one who wished for it, for them to be torn apart. And it wouldn’t hurt him, not if he didn’t know what he lost. All Kei really did was talk to him and hug him and make curry. Instant curry. Whatever is holding down Yamaguchi… Kei’s always known it was heavy and difficult to solve, more difficult than a couple of hours in his apartment.

Kei looks Yamaguchi dead in the eyes again, the bottomless pit, and tries with just a look to communicate the desperate thoughts pouring out of his chest: Please. Please don’t ask me to stop looking for you. To stop wanting you—

But Yamaguchi does something then, something other than voice Kei’s deepest fears. Instead, Yamaguchi fixes his arms around Kei’s neck, and the weight of him is enough to banish the irrational thoughts that had consumed Kei’s brain. Kei thinks of it, again.

Everything always disappears when he sees Yamaguchi.

(The way he is. Not the way Kei is afraid of.)

They stay like that for too long, staring at each other in an empty apartment and basking in a silence that feels like sunlight. His pupils that had been dark enough to overwhelm him have become cozy again, and the pattern of freckles along Yamaguchi’s upper arm are as warm as going home. There’s a look in his eyes then, something strange and earnest that reminds Kei of the time he lunged for his chest, and just as he wonders if he’s going to do that again, Yamaguchi tugs his neck down and stands on his toes.

It’s only a peck on the lips, a drop of water for a man in the desert, but it doesn’t matter. Kei thought he would never drink again. When Yamaguchi takes back his arms, Kei doesn’t even miss the contact, can’t bring himself to think about anything other than the fact that Kei found the courage to say the things he did it made Yamaguchi decide to press his mouth against his.

“Yamaguchi, you…?” Kei asks, and he can’t bring himself to ask the entire question, for how delicate the rising in his chest is and quickly he knows he’ll crash to the ground if the answer isn’t what he wants.

But Yamaguchi doesn’t answer, just turns his head towards the sink again and rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry if it was… That was my first kiss,” he says, not meeting Kei’s eyes. “I just wanted to… before we leave.”

He’s so cute in that moment, so embarrassed over a moment of contact, that Kei moves without thinking.

He cups Yamaguchi’s cheek in his hand, feels the warmth in it, and Yamaguchi leans into the movement, looking at Kei again. He almost loses himself in Yamaguchi’s eyes and it becomes so apparent then that this is real, that this is the boy he grew up with, the one he’s spent so much of his life in love with that he’s already forgotten what it feels like for his chest not to ache every time they’re in the same room. And he likes him. And he wants to kiss him.

It’s enough, then, and Kei leans forward to press his mouth against his, tangles his fingers in soft brown hair, and it’s the kind of kiss that Kei can taste Yamaguchi in, something bright and warm with a hint of curry. Some the feeling is familiar as a couple of days ago, but the overwhelming rest of it is completely different, the culmination of every night he spent entangled with Yamaguchi, every afternoon they wandered the streets of Miyagi because Yamaguchi didn’t feel like going home and Kei had never been good at saying no to him. Every time Yamaguchi smiled at him too widely and Kei had to hold back his desire to take him in his arms.

Paranoia threatens to tug at Kei, to hold him back and whisper everything that happened the last time they kissed into his ear, but Kei doesn’t mind it, anymore. He’s kissing Yamaguchi and Yamaguchi is kissing him back, ardent and ferocious and a little sloppy, and how desperately Yamaguchi wants to be doing this, how desperately he is doing this is filling a void in Kei’s chest. Whatever happens doesn’t matter; Yamaguchi likes him back and if he disappears Kei will just look for him until he finds him because this is the most he’s ever cared about anything.

Eventually, they have to stop for air, and there’s a tinge of loneliness when they part, but suddenly it’s enough to just see him, still standing there underneath the too-yellow kitchen lights, skin warm underneath his palms, and it’s like that for a long time, and then Yamaguchi pulls away from Kei completely.

“Tsukki!” he says, fist clenched by his chest in determination, the grin on his face so wide it takes everything for Kei not to take his face and press his lips to it again.

“Mm?”

“When I see you again, after we leave! I’m gonna— I’m gonna tell you how I feel about you!”

After they leave. With everything that happened after he made his emotional declaration, Kei had forgotten about the reason he’d made it. It’s funny; he remembers being so afraid of it, before, the unsteadiness of a universe they have no control over, but he can’t imagine being afraid of anything now. Not with the way Yamaguchi looks now, cheeks flushed pink and a fire behind his eyes, or the way he pressed his mouth against his.

Like he said before. If he loses Yamaguchi, he’ll just find him again. Because he loves him, and he has to.

“Really?” Kei asks, taking Yamaguchi’s fist with his hand and opening it by entwining their fingers.

It’s not what Yamaguchi expected, and he flushes a deeper shade of pink as they touch. “Y-Yeah…”

“Well,” Kei says, tugging Yamaguchi towards the door, “we better hurry up, then.”

Yamaguchi is still too embarrassed to do anything other than nod, and Kei does his best to hide his laugh. But just as Kei wraps his hand around the doorknob, Yamaguchi stops. “I’ll see you soon, Tsukki!” he says, smile so wide that Kei can’t bring himself to care about the anxiety that must be behind it. Can only be captivated by the curve of Yamaguchi’s mouth.

“Yeah, Yamaguchi. I’ll see you soon.”

As Kei opens the door, he thinks about the person next to him, and everything it took to bring him here. The different versions of Yamaguchi he’s met, the conversations they had, the way they formed Kei’s name around their lips. How kind and beautiful and so deeply Yamaguchi they were, no matter what happened, but how terrifying that had been, too. How vividly Kei was allowed to see all the different ways he could have lost his best friend.

But Yamaguchi is still here, the rough skin of his palm flush against Kei’s own, and when Kei looks at him, he smiles in a way that’s different than before, smaller and more hesitant but doubtlessly him. And in that moment, it’s enough.

Hand in hand, fingers intertwined, Kei and Yamaguchi step outside.

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After morning practice ends, Daichi pulls Kei aside.

It’s annoying, because Kei knows he’s in the correct universe now, has known ever since he came into practice late after oversleeping and saw Yamaguchi grin at him so wide it was like his face split open, but he still hasn’t gotten a chance to talk to him alone. To let him make good on his promise. And Daichi is taking away one more chance.

For a moment, Kei thinks that Daichi is going to scold him for coming to practice late, that maybe it’s an unforgivable slight the day after singlehandedly losing their match against Seijoh, but Daichi flashes him an oddly warm smile and pats him on the back and he realizes the conversation is about something else.

Annoying, even though Kei knows he should appreciate the gesture. And maybe he does, just a little, but he remembers how it felt when Ukai stopped him before he left, even though it’s like it happened ages ago now.

“You played well today,” Daichi says after he withdraws his hand, and the compliment is awkward and generic in his voice, but Kei can appreciate how hard it must for him to say, judging from the way he speaks. Even though it’s hard for Kei to get past how much it sounds like pity.

“Thank you.” For second, Kei thinks the exchange is enough for him to leave, but there’s a look in Daichi’s eyes like he has more to say and Kei is too polite to ditch his captain in the middle of a conversation after losing a match for his team. But he isn’t too polite to say, “Better than yesterday, I assume?” Just to make the conversation go a little bit faster.

Daichi exhales after Kei speaks, something half relief from the fact that Kei was the one who brought it up and half the weary wisdom of a high schooler two years older than him. “You know, I could tell how bad you felt about it,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “But it was only an off day. Not to mention, it was a practice match.”

Ah, Kei’s heard something like this before. He nods. Daichi seems to see a lot in the gesture.

“It’s one of those choices we all make in life. After the world sets you back, do you give up? Go home? Or do you stand up and try again?”

It’s equal parts cliched and cheesy, but it’s also overwhelmingly genuine, the way Daichi is trying to make him feel better about a volleyball game that feels like years ago now. It’s funny, because Yamaguchi was at the forefront of Kei’s mind all of practice, but it’s true, too, there were times he’d block a spike and be haunted by a memory of one just like it that he missed, during that game. He wonders how Daichi picked up on it. Duties of the team captain, maybe.

“Well, you came to practice and you played well today,” Daichi says, patting him on the back again. “Just wanted to tell you that I’m glad you didn’t give up. I’ll see you later, Tsukishima.”

“Thank you, Daichi-san,” Kei says, and Daichi laughs.

“Don’t mention it. Now, why don’t you go wherever it is you’re so eager to be?”

♚ - ♚ - ♚

Kei almost runs to the classroom, sliding into his seat a mere five minutes before the bell rings, and Yamaguchi is already waiting to talk to him in the empty seat by his desk.

“Hi, Tsukki!” Yamaguchi turns around in his seat to watch Kei unpack his bag, and his smile is big and genuine and Kei can’t believe he’s allowed to see it again. But before Kei can say anything, Yamaguchi says, “You played really well today!”

It takes Kei off guard, that Yamaguchi is talking about practice instead of everything that’s happened the last few days. The thought that all of it had been a dream is almost scary as it strikes his chest, but he knows that can’t be true, either. If none of it happened, and all that was real was the fight they had at the schoolyard, Yamaguchi wouldn’t be able to smile the way he is now. To talk to him like this.

Whatever happened, Kei will figure it out later. Yamaguchi is happy and it’s the first time they’ve had a conversation like this in this universe in ages, and he might as well enjoy it.

“I’ve heard that already,” Kei says, and Yamaguchi laughs.

“That’s why Daichi called you out?” Yamaguchi asks with a tilt of his head. He bites the inside of his mouth, like he’s thinking about something, and then grins again. “He’s a really good captain, isn’t he?”

It’s plain by the tone of his voice and the embarrassing sincerity in his smile that Yamaguchi’s figured out the implications of Daichi taking Kei aside to tell him he’s good at volleyball the day after they played Seijoh, but Kei doesn’t mind it. It feels like ages ago now, and after talking to Ukai and Daichi he knows he’s better off not worrying about it anymore. “He’s fine,” Kei says, and the way Yamaguchi smiles reminds him that he knows him better than his words.

Yamaguchi opens his mouth then like he’s about to reply, but the bell ringing cuts him off. As he scrambles back to the correct seat, Kei watches his back, the liveliness of his gait and the genuine emotion that plays upon his face when their teacher flashes him a look.

As he plays with the mechanical pencil in his hand, Kei wonders what, exactly, he’s missing.

♚ - ♚ - ♚

Eventually, Kei realizes that Yamaguchi doesn’t remember any of it. It definitely wasn’t a dream, Kei decides; he can recall every memory from the past few days far too well for them to be anything but real. He can count on his hand the amount of dreams he’s had that he can remember even vaguely.

When they left, whatever force that kept changing the world was kind enough to bring them to the universe that they came from, but the price they had to pay was Yamaguchi’s memories. Kei shouldn’t be so surprised, that the same thing that had no problem putting Kei through his personal hell three times over would put in a catch after finally letting them go home.

But it’s true, too, that Kei should be more upset than he is. Yamaguchi doesn’t remember any of the things that it almost killed Kei to confess to him, doesn’t know the things that Kei yelled at him about how important he is to him. Doesn’t remember the first time he kissed him, or the promise he made. In a different situation, Kei knows that would twist like a knife in his chest. Something that important to him.

But Yamaguchi has smiled so widely all day, ecstatic again at things that are as simple as a snide joke from Kei or a small compliment from Hinata. He’s been saying so much, too, nonchalant but endless rambling over how hard class was or how much fun he had at practice. Whatever Kei could possibly lose, he thinks it would always be a worthwhile trade, if it meant he was allowed to see Yamaguchi like this.

Still, it’s strange, how set this universe is on never letting Kei forget anything. It feels something like a punishment, but it must be more than that, Kei knows. Lenience, maybe. In all those other universes, Kei’s memories let him know he had to run after Yamaguchi. In this one…

Kei turns to look at Yamaguchi, the way he’s smiling as they walk to the station, the way his face looks illuminated by the colors of sunset.

Beautiful, Kei’s always known. But it’s such a contrast, Kei remembers, to the last time they’d been here. Yamaguchi had cried as he ran away from him, thinking to himself how much better off Kei would be if they never met.

There’s something else he can do for Yamaguchi now, with everything he remembers. To make the past few days not have gone to waste.

Kei glances over at Yamaguchi, who’s rambling on about a particularly uneventful conversation between Ennoshita, Narita, and Kinoshita that he overheard, something something making fun of Tanaka and something something making fun of Nishinoya, and he swallows. Thinks about the words he has to say. The ones he’s said already.

“Yamaguchi,” he says, and the seriousness in his voice is enough to make Yamaguchi stop in his tracks, just look at him as they stand across from each other on the path, “you’re my best friend. You know that, don’t you?”

There’s a second where Yamaguchi looks at him, mouth just slightly open at the uncommon warmth in his words, but it widens into another smile, the kind so bright it reminds Kei of the sun. “Of course I do, Tsukki! You’re my best friend, too.”

The words come off so easily off Yamaguchi’s tongue, even though it’s the first time he remembers ever calling Kei that, and Kei is almost surprised until he remembers it’s Yamaguchi. He’s always been better at this kind of thing, to make up for him when he wasn’t able to do enough.

The thought flutters in Kei’s chest, but he wills himself to calm down. There’s something Kei has to say to him now, and Yamaguchi can’t make up for him.

“Since we’re best friends, I…” Kei begins, and he wracks his mind for the words he said in the kitchen. “I know I’m not good, at things like this. But if you ever… when you get in a mood, if you’re sad or you’re angry and you want someone to talk with, I… I want to be that person, for you. If you ever need to cry—”

“Haven’t you told me this already?” Yamaguchi interrupts him, eyebrows knit together in a way Kei suddenly thinks to himself he could smooth with a press of his lips, and Kei almost freezes.

“What are you—” He takes a step forward, his stride too long and his feet too close to Yamaguchi, and then forces his body to stop where it is before he does something he’ll regret. In case what he so delicately is allowing himself to believe is true isn’t. “You remember?”

Yamaguchi is dumbstruck for a while, just staring, and Kei watches the evolution of expressions on his face, the way the edges of his mouth turn downwards in a little pout, as he runs through everything that happened that day.

Realization paints his face as his eyes widen and his mouth gapes in surprise.

“I— I thought you knew!” Yamaguchi finally says, and his cheeks are flushing pink, a pleasant shade against the light of sunset. “I thought since— since I said all those things, last time. That promise. I thought you weren’t bringing it up because you didn’t want me to get embarrassed!”

It rushes over Kei then, everything that made him sprint to his classroom to see Yamaguchi before. The weight over Kei that returned when everything said became unsaid again disappears, and all that he can think about is the shape of Yamaguchi’s lips. The promise that he’d been so embarrassed about.

There are a thousand things Kei can say now, a thousand words in his chest pushing for his mouth, something like Of course I didn’t know or I love you I love you I love you and I’ve never felt this way in my life, but when Kei looks at Yamaguchi again, the way he won’t meet his eyes, the way his cheeks remind him of strawberries, there’s suddenly only one thing he can say.

“But you’re cute when you’re embarrassed,” Kei points out, his voice not playful enough for his words, something closer to awestruck, as he takes his hand and cups Yamaguchi’s cheek and moves his hand upwards to card through his hair.

“Tsukki!” Yamaguchi scolds him, his cheeks flushed a deeper shade of red, and Kei can’t help the airy laugh that escapes his lips.

“You promised me something, didn’t you?” Kei asks, and it takes everything in him not to press his mouth to Yamaguchi’s as he huffs melodramatically.

“I was going to— I was going to tell you tomorrow! Or the day after… I… Fine!”

Yamaguchi backs out of Kei’s grasp and fixes his fists by his chest the same way he did that time in the kitchen, when he declared he was going to make a declaration.

“Tsukki! I really— I really like you!”

Yamaguchi looks so funny like this, so cute, Kei thinks to himself, his voice too loud and his cheeks too red and the colors of sunset reflected in his pupils. It’s amazing, somehow; for as long as he’s known Yamaguchi, for as many versions of him he’s met, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen him the way he looks now.

It’s enough to make Kei’s chest soar.

Chapter Text

--

It’s the first time Tadashi has ever been on a volleyball court, and his legs almost turn to jelly. He thinks about what Yachi told him, and breathes in.

The Karasuno volleyball club is standing in a messy, dissipating clump on Yamaguchi’s left, handfuls of team members yelling excitedly at each other about the game that just finished, some of them grabbing their water bottles or leaving to shake the hands of the team members they just defeated.

Tsukishima is standing alone in a corner with a bottle of water, retreated after Daichi patted him on the back too hard when the game ended.

It’s too close to Tadashi. He closes his eyes, and opens them again.

Hinata, Yachi, and Kageyama are arguing about something by the net, the meaningless kind of argument that gets forgotten the day after. For a moment, Tadashi plays with the idea of going over and playing peacemaker.

He could. Yachi is Tadashi’s friend, and Hinata knows him, from the time he’s dropped by their classroom during lunch for tutoring. Tadashi even helped a little. He could handle it, going over to talk to them right now.

But… it’s not the reason he came down here.

Tadashi wills his bones to turn to iron, and then walks to the corner of the gym.

“Tsu-Tsukishima-kun! You, uh, played really well today!” he says. “That was a close game! I could feel the whole room get nervous when it got to deuces, but I, uh— I knew you guys were going to win! Well, I guess I was still a little scared, but then you pulled off that block and—"

“Huh? It’s you,” Tsukishima says, turning around, and Tadashi’s heart almost stops.

Tsukishima looks different from this close. It’s kind of like the first time he’s ever seen him, even though he’s been watching him play volleyball for what feels like his entire life, at this point. His hair is… blonder somehow, his face a little rounder (which is kind of cute, like a hamster, but in a flattering way and not an insulting one), and his eyes—

“Oh, and thank you. I forgot to say it,” Tsukishima says, and Tadashi remembers that Tsukishima can see him, too. For the first time. He looks at his feet.

“Ah, um, no problem,” he replies, rubbing the back of his neck. He takes a deep breath and looks up again. “Did you, uh… Did you say it’s ‘me’?”

Tsukishima’s eyes narrow, just slightly, in something like confusion. “I did.”

“What did you… mean by that?” Tadashi asks, forcing a nonchalant smile and trying to hear his own voice over his heartbeat.

“You’re Yamaguchi-kun, aren’t you? This isn’t the first time you’ve come to a game,” Tsukishima points out, twisting the cap of his water bottle closed. “Though you usually just go home when it’s over.”

“Eh? You noticed?” Tadashi says, maybe too loudly. “You know my name?”

“We’ve been in the same school since elementary. Though Yachi did tell me your name when I mentioned you earlier this year. You’re in the same homeroom? Not that it matters.” Tsukishima rubs the back of his neck, out of exhaustion more than nervousness. “Anyway, you’ve been to almost every game I’ve played in since I started. It would be stranger if I didn’t know who you were.”

Tadashi’s cheeks heat up, but he can’t help the way the edges of his mouth start to turn upwards. “Oh, I, uh— I really like volleyball!” he says, and it’s far enough from a lie that he doesn’t feel bad about it.

“I thought so. Since it didn’t seem like you were there for anyone on the team.” Tsukishima puts his water bottle down. “Actually, why did you come down here today? We didn’t play so differently as we did any other time. Are you looking for Yachi-chan?”

Tsukishima turns away from Tadashi then, and he finds a second to catch his breath.

“It looks like all the other first years are yelling at each other about nothing. But I don’t think she would mind if you interrupted them. Honestly, that might be better for all of us.”

Tadashi catches his breath, and remembers why he went down to the court after the game instead of going home.

“Actually, um—”

“Hm?” Tsukishima says, and he’s looking at Tadashi now, in a way that feels more severe than before. Tadashi tries not to think about it.

“Your playing was really great today! Though, I guess, um, you’re right, since your playing is really great every time. Actually, I know that really well since I’ve been watching you play since we were kids! And, uh…”

Tadashi glances at Tsukishima – furrowing his eyebrows now, confusion plain across his face –and he swallows.

“I didn’t come down here because I wanted to see Yachi. The reason I’m here is because, uh— because I wanted to talk to you!”

The strength Yamaguchi has to summon for him to say that is so much he can feel it vibrating in his arms, that he has to take a second and focus straight ahead because if he did before he wouldn’t have spoken, and when he does—

He finds out that Tsukishima blushes scarlet.

Cute, Tadashi thinks.

- -

Kei can hear footsteps on the other side of the hallway, and he squeezes the toy underneath his fist. Just gently, and until he realizes what he’s doing and stops. It isn’t even his. He shouldn’t be messing it up.

He wonders if it’s too simple, the way he’s holding the charm just by the strap, price tag hastily blacked out with a permanent marker. But a gift bag or wrapping paper would be too much over nothing, and it isn’t like Kei got a card. Like he’d ever get Yamaguchi a card.

Kei shakes his head. Too late now, anyway. Kei peers his head over the corner of the hallway to find the source of the footsteps, and catches sight of the small blonde girl he’d spoken to last time exiting the restroom.

She’s probably heading back to the court, where the players are still scattered, yelling and drinking water. Kei’d scrambled straight down the stairs while they were still there hoping he’d be able to avoid Yamaguchi.

“Manager-san!” Kei calls, because he doesn’t think she told him her name the last time they spoke, or if she did, he’s already forgotten it. She stops walking and looks over her shoulder, like maybe she heard a ghost. “I don’t know if you remember—”

“Ah! It’s you!” the girl says, jumping at the sight of him and backing up just slightly as he walks towards her. Like they aren’t miles away from a wall. She bites her lip. “Just Yachi is fine.”

So she does remember. Strange the way she’s reacting, like he’d been harsh to her last time or she’d been afraid of him. It was true she was skittish at the beginning, but it’d been no more than a fifteen-minute interaction. He asked about Yamaguchi, requested she give something to him for him – “from a fan” – and they parted ways and it’d been done.

Well. Not that it matters.

“Yachi-san. I’m glad you remember. If you could give this to Yamaguchi again,” Kei says, holding out what’s in his hands towards her. “From a fan. Because he… played so well.”

Yachi’s eyes widen and she waves her hands in front of her chest in some too-anxious refusal. “I, uh— I really think it’d be better for you to give it to him yourself! He’s, ah— He’s friendly! So it wouldn’t be that hard! I can introduce you two now, if you want!”

Something swirls in Kei’s chest, not like being tempted but more like his heart being swallowed by his lungs. There’s probably a universe where it’d be okay to take her up on her offer. What he wouldn’t give to be there instead of here. “I… can’t,” he says, and it’s not enough for the girl in front of him. “I have somewhere… to be. But this is for him, and I’d appreciate it if—”

“I— uh! I didn’t want to, uh, tell you, but I… gave him that weird thing you asked me to last time, and he wasn’t— he’s not mean, usually, and he wasn’t then! But he got… strange, and irritated, I think? And I don’t want to— if he’s like that again, I don’t—”

Something tears inside of Kei, just a little. Like a paper cut. “He didn’t like it?”

Yachi’s eyes get big again, and she waves her arms. “No, he, ah... He took it! I think he still has it now. Well, I… wouldn’t know. Uh, he liked it at first, but he started asking who it was from, and I told him about you, and suddenly he— he started saying things like you should have given it to him yourself and, uh. It wasn’t so mean, but I don’t want to— repeat it.”

That was… probably an oversight on Kei’s part, that he didn’t do anything to make sure Yamaguchi never found out it was him. Asked Yachi not to say who it was from. He shouldn’t have put Yamaguchi through that, and it’s his own fault.

And that kind of reaction… Kind of this person to try to shield him, but Kei probably could imagine the things Yamaguchi thought. He can remember them, from the lengthy text messages he never responded to and never deleted. Years old now, but etched into the inside of his chest.

Still, Yamaguchi had played so well on the court, had smiled so brightly and fit into his team like a puzzle piece. He’s happy, and… Kei got this for him. The kind of goofy thing that used to make him laugh. To make him a little happier.

(Make up for what he did before. Like it could come anywhere close.)

Kei closes his eyes and exhales. “I understand,” he says. “Thank you. But I… want him to have this. As long as he doesn’t know it’s from me, it should be fine. Say it’s from a girl.”

Yachi frowns, the hard and hesitant kind. She scratches the back of his neck and avoids his eyes. “I don’t think he’ll believe me,” she says gently.

“Say it’s from you,” Kei tries. “Since you’re their manager, and he… played so well.”

Yachi’s eyes widen. “I, um! I can’t since— I didn’t get something for everyone, and I— I’m not even sure what, uh… what that is, and—”

“Tsukki!” Kei hears from behind him, the nickname for once steeped in adrenaline and vitriol, and it takes everything for Kei not to drop the toy on the ground. To not instinctively turn tail and run. “I knew you’d be here! Yachi-chan wasn’t coming back, and— leave her alone!”

Kei turns around and he sees Yamaguchi – twenty feet away from him, and then ten, and then five – and it’s so much, so big and overwhelming, to have Yamaguchi so close to him. Face contorted with rage, shining with sweat, hair pulled back in a ponytail. Like he’s looking at the sun.

When was the last time Kei saw eyes that exact shade of brown?

“You should go back, Yachi-chan,” Yamaguchi says, cutting in front of her and gently nudging her away. Somewhere peripherally, Kei hears the sound of footsteps. “Why are you here?”

Kei swallows. It’s been a long time since he had to pretend not to care. “I…” He looks at the toy in his hands. “I got this for you. Because… Because you…”

Because you played so well. Kei can’t bring himself to say the words. Knows they shouldn’t come from him.

Yamaguchi takes the charm from him, roughly. Kei can feel his nails graze the inside of his palm.

“What is this? A… dog inside of a hot dog bun? Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says, and his voice is strained now, all of the euphoria of winning sent in a different direction. That’s Kei’s fault. “Tsukki, what does this even mean?”

It’s something I thought you’d like. I saw it and it reminded me of you. It’s soft, and you like dogs, and I haven’t forgotten. “Someone gave it to me and I didn’t want it,” Kei lies, and it’s coming back naturally to him now. Like riding a bike.

“That’s… That’s bullshit! You’re lying to me!” Yamaguchi’s eyes are shining. He wipes his face with his wristband, like what’s on his face is just sweat. “I’m sick of you lying to me! You lied to me about being my— my friend, and now you’re— I don’t even know what you’re doing, I just—”

“I’m sorry,” Kei says, the words ripping themselves from his chest. Before he can stop himself, he wipes a tear from Yamaguchi’s cheek with his thumb, and then pulls his hand back like he touched a stovetop. “I shouldn’t have— I didn’t want you to see me. I’ll go. Just forgot you saw me. You’re happier now, aren’t you? Just focus on that.”

He turns around and starts to walk away but a thought comes to his mind and he stops walking.

“If you don’t want… the dog anymore. I won’t hold it against you if you throw it out.”

“You’re— I don’t care about the dog! I’m not upset because you’re talking to me! Just— Just stop leaving! It won’t make me happy!” Yamaguchi yells, and Kei stops. Turns around.

A million things flit through his mind, Yamaguchi not knowing better, Yamaguchi thinking this will help him even though it will only hurt, but… “What do you want, Yamaguchi,” Kei says, and it isn’t a question more than a plea.

“I want you to talk to me! To tell me the truth!”

The truth.

I miss you. I miss you, but I hurt you, and I hurt you so you could be happier now, and I’m not selfish enough to take that decision back. To ask you to forgive me.

I want you to be happy. So just be happy.

But Kei can’t say that— Kei can’t say that, but there’s understanding twinkling behind Yamaguchi’s eyes, and it’s been so long since Kei had to pretend not to care, and—

And Yamaguchi heard him. He spoke out loud.

The slip of the tongue is ridiculous, unbelievable, and maybe… Maybe he wanted it to happen.

“Tsukki,” Yamaguchi says, and his voice is still fragile, and he moves forward and clasps Kei’s wrist, nails digging in too deep. “If you want me to be happy, stop— stop running away! Just talk to me. That’s all I wanted, the last two years. Just talk to me.”

Kei swallows. “Okay,” he says. He looks at Yamaguchi, the twinkling in his eyes, the freckles scattered across his face. “Okay.”

- -

The last time Tadashi went to Tsukishima’s house, it’d been Tsukishima’s suggestion. Tadashi can remember it like it happened yesterday, even though it feels like ages ago now.

It was a Saturday, and they were supposed to watch a movie. Tadashi suggested it the week earlier; it was a reboot of an old movie series they’d watched together when they were kids, and Tadashi thought it would be fun to see the new one with Tsukishima again, too, and Tsukishima didn’t say no when he mentioned it.

When Friday came around, though, Tsukishima was exhausted. He pushed himself too hard in morning practice, and Tadashi remembers pretty well how he’d felt like lessons had gone on for ages that day. It was proofs, he thinks. That’d been nearly impossible for Tadashi to wrap his head around.

So of course Tadashi understood when Tsukishima said he didn’t want to go anymore. He’s always known the kind of disaster Tsukishima is when he’s cranky, and however used to it Tadashi is, he stopped dragging Tsukishima out against his will when they stopped being kids. It’s kind of embarrassing now to remember how overbearing he used to be.

(Though… It’s true Tsukishima always humored him. But that hurts a little to think about now.)

But Tsukishima picked up on something that day. Tadashi’s disappointment. That was embarrassing, too, because he’d been trying to hide it, but that’s the kind of thing Tsukishima’s always been good at, Tadashi knows. Seeing through people. Seeing through him.

It’d worked out, though, that weird feeling, because Tsukishima asked him to come to his house instead, which Tadashi liked the idea of but maybe was— too much. It was ages since the last time Tadashi went over, and Tsukishima was already tired, he should just rest, but when he told Tsukishima as much, he sighed, the way he only started sighing at Tadashi when he got older.

And he said, What are you talking about, Yamaguchi? Just come.

So he did.

Tsukishima left him alone in the kitchen with his mother while he changed, and that’d actually been one of the things Tadashi had been most nervous about. That as many times as he called her Mom by accident when they were kids, it’d been a while. Maybe it’d be awkward, or he’d let her down with how little he’s grown since the last time she saw him.

In retrospect, Tadashi was dumb to still be afraid of that. Every time he visited the Tsukishima household after a while he’d be scared of that, and every time it would never happen. Instead, Tsukishima’s mom would greet him with an easy smile, tell him how she hoped her son wasn’t giving him grief, and he’d always say, I think it’s the other way around, actually! while rubbing the back of his neck, and she would laugh.

She’d been especially nice, that time. Telling him Akiteru was wondering how he’s been, complimenting on how tall he’s gotten. How she can remember when he was a little boy running after Tsukishima.

That’s what it is about the Tsukishima house, really. The reason he’d tried to live there – and almost did – when he was younger. Every time he walks through their doorway, whether it’s been months or days or weeks, that strange warm feeling envelops Tadashi.

The one that curls around Tadashi’s heart and tells him that if he says, I’m home, he’ll hear a Welcome home back. The way Akiteru ruffles his hair when he sees him, the smile on Tsukishima’s mother’s face. Something like… family. The kind Tadashi’s never had.

(Not that Tadashi doesn’t love his mom, or appreciate what she’s done for him. It’s just… different. The kind of family Tsukishima has.)

The rest of the day passed the way their visits always used to. Tadashi accidentally let slip that he didn’t get their lessons and Tsukishima made a point of going over them with him while Tadashi pretended to understand, Tsukishima’s mother insisted Tadashi stay over for dinner and after, Tadashi and Tsukishima took turns picking what they’d watch on the television. And…

That night, Tadashi fell asleep during Tsukishima’s pick – which was sad, because it’d been a thriller about sharks Tadashi knows he only picked for his benefit – and woke up with his cheek buried in Tsukishima’s bony arm.

And it’d been warm, and soft, and for a little bit Tadashi didn’t want to wake up, but he had to, and when he did the feeling, the realization twisted itself around his chest, consumed everything else.

Tsukishima hadn’t thought anything of it (which he shouldn’t have, he should have shoved Tadashi off the second their skin touched) and he’d gone home like nothing happened, but Tadashi knew even then that that wasn’t true. That something had started growing on the inside of his chest and multiplied like a virus.

The way Tadashi felt his heart twist every time Tsukishima pouted that way he always did, the way he thought was ice cold and cruel but was just cute, how Tsukishima’s smile could send Tadashi’s mind into a frenzy of I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you. Seeing Tsukishima eat cake and get whipped cream on his face like a little kid and being so consumed by the desire to taste it for himself (Tadashi’s never liked whipped cream, it doesn’t matter—) that he…. does it.

And that’s the payoff, Tadashi learned. Like making a wish on a genie. He gets to finally know what it feels like, Tsukishima’s lips against his, and it really was— everything he wanted then. Tadashi remembers how it felt when Tsukishima kissed back before Tadashi ran away, the euphoria in his chest that eventually dissipated and gave way to worry.

But in exchange, Tsukishima comes in the next day and says that nothing has to change and Tadashi has trouble looking at him without feeling like he’s being torn in half. In exchange, Tadashi can barely remember the last time they had a real conversation because at first he couldn’t have one, and then things changed so much it was abnormal to talk to him about anything deeper than their last homework assignment.

In exchange, Tadashi never gets to enter the Tsukishima household and feel that warm feeling again. Like losing half of his life.

It’s… a stupid train of thought to have now, though. In the bathroom of a tournament gymnasium. And maybe the kind he shouldn’t ever have.

Tadashi exhales, cups his hands under the faucet, and washes his face. Tries not to think about the last time they played against Shiratorizawa and won, how maybe if things turned out differently he’d be at Tsukishima’s side right now, telling him how cool he was.

Tadashi shakes his head. Pathetic, Tsukishima had said before. Tadashi remembers it.

“Hey, Yamaguchi! What are you still doing here? We’re getting on the bus already!”

There’s an empty seat next to Yachi at the back of the bus, and Yamaguchi thinks that he can’t stand to look at Tsukishima now, with all the things he’s been thinking, and Yachi would understand. He’s about to head towards the seat, and then—

“Yamaguchi,” Tsukishima says as he walks past him, in that voice he rarely uses, when he wants Tadashi to take him seriously, “sit next to me.”

“Ah, um,” Tadashi says, and he wants to say no, but there’s something in Tsukishima’s eyes that renders him incapable. “Okay.”

They’re silent for a minute. Tadashi is stock-still, stricken with fear that Tsukishima might— scold him, or something, but that doesn’t make sense because what would Tsukishima scold him for, and then he says, “Akiteru was in the stands with Yachi-san. Did she tell you?”

Tadashi went straight to the restroom after the game, but he didn’t need to talk to her, to know about Akiteru. When the game ended, he’d seen him cheering in the stands, alongside Shimada and Tanaka’s older sister.

Tsukishima lets out a short exhale, something part of the way towards a laugh. “It doesn’t matter. He wanted me to tell you that you played well.”

It’s nice of Tsukishima to pull Tadashi aside to tell him this. It’s… nice of Akiteru to say that, even though he’ll probably never have dinner with him again. Tadashi swallows. “You should— Thank you. Tell him I said thank you.”

Tsukishima is silent, like he’s not satisfied with Tadashi’s answer. He wonders what he said wrong. Everything feels wrong with Tsukishima, these days. But then Tsukishima says, “You should tell him yourself. Come over for dinner. It’s been a long time.”

Vulnerability. There’s a quiver in Tsukishima’s voice, like plucking the string of a harp. Some kind of disbelieving awe keeps Tadashi’s mouth shut.

“They miss you,” Tsukishima says, and there’s a pause, where he’s waiting for him to talk. Tadashi still can’t find words. “We miss you.”

That moment. It’s something like Tadashi’s heart about to burst from his chest mixed with the serenity of a waterfall. Beauty. Tadashi can feel something well up in his eyes, but what he says is, “Okay, Tsukki. I will.”

The ride is too long or Tadashi is too tired, and he wakes up on Tsukishima’s shoulder. But there’s nothing else to realize.

Except – there’s something indecipherable on Tsukishima’s face when Tadashi turns to look, and then he asks, “Yamaguchi, do you… still feel the same way? About me.”

Ah. Tadashi squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again. Maybe he gave something away, after all. Maybe Tsukishima will tell him they can’t do things like this anymore. Tadashi understands, but… “I do. Sorry.”

“No, that’s… good,” Tsukishima says, but the look that overtakes his expression the second the words escape his lips tells Tadashi that’s not what he meant to say, and he hides his face.

There’s… something cute about the way Tsukishima won’t meet his eyes. Tadashi tries to shake the thought, but suddenly, Tadashi becomes hyper-aware of how close their fingers are to interlocking, adjacent on the bus seat.

Tadashi swallows. This moment, this bus ride, this conversation. The inside of his chest feels stronger than it ever has, like it’s cast in iron. “I hope I’m not— I’m not assuming too much! But if you ever have something to tell me, Tsukki, I’ll be waiting!”

“I’ll—” Tsukishima starts to say, and his voice is strange, like he’s had the wind knocked out of him. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

- -

The third set in their match against Shiratorizawa goes to deuces, and Kei’s heart crashes in sync with the volleyball that bounces off the floor on their side of the court.

It’s not really a loss. It’s just an uncomfortable hollow feeling left after their momentum disintegrated in seconds, and they should have known they weren’t going to beat Shiratorizawa in three straight sets, and thinking of it like a loss is exactly what will lose them the entire match, but Kei can’t help the violent echoing in his chest.

Takeda is giving a speech now that Kei can’t quite hear, but it doesn’t matter because they’ve never done much for him anyway, and he takes the moment to ground himself. A deep breath in, a deep breath out, get yourself ready to go out, to win

And then there’s a light tug on the back of his sleeve, and when he turns, Yamaguchi is standing behind him, smiling smaller than he usually does.

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom, Tsukki,” he says, voice weak, and there’s a note of forced nonchalance that instantly clears Kei’s mind of the set that ended just a couple of minutes ago.

It’s strangely childish, that Yamaguchi would take the time to get his attention just to report his comings and goings to Kei like he needs permission, and it’s the kind of thing that would make Kei roll his eyes or smile if he didn’t remember the last time Yamaguchi went off to the bathroom alone after they played volleyball.

It’s the reason he told him, Kei thinks. Seijoh and the way they yelled and everything that came after that, but all Kei can think about is what came before. Yamaguchi, holding everything back until it poisoned his insides and made him spit fire.

Just like that, the rest of the volleyball court falls away around them, and suddenly the only things in Kei’s perception are himself, Yamaguchi’s retreating back, and the faint feeling that he should be following after him.

He doesn’t know what he meant, tugging on his sleeve and telling him where he was going. If it was him just making sure Kei knew he was okay, or an invitation to follow after. He wants to follow after.

He wants to follow after.

Yamaguchi is already far out of his line of vision, probably at the restroom already, when Kei feels himself start to move, step by step, nowhere close to the sprint he wants to be at but too quickly to just be walking. An uneven, too-stiff stride, just slow enough to not be conspicuous.

When Kei gets to the restroom, the only person there is Yamaguchi, staring hard into the mirror like there’s an answer to a secret there, face shining from water from the sink, the edges of his bangs damp. Kei feels his blood run a little bit colder.

They just played a long set, walked out of a gym that started feeling like a sauna. Kei knows why he washed his face.

But Yamaguchi washes his face after he cries, too, and even though Kei knows he hasn’t cried, he can’t stop thinking about it. Yamaguchi’s expression as he looked at himself in the mirror.

“Tsukki? You didn’t tell me you were coming, too.” Yamaguchi interrupts Kei’s train of thought, and it’s a delayed reaction. He would have known the second Kei stepped into the restroom, if he were normal. But if he isn’t normal—

“Are you—” Kei’s tongue trips over the words, foreign from his mouth. “How are you?”

“Huh?” Yamaguchi cocks his head to the side, genuine confusion playing upon the small wrinkle in his brow, but as their eyes meet, Kei sees realization set in his pupils. Just as soon as Kei recognizes it, Yamaguchi looks down. “Ah, you… noticed. I shouldn’t be surprised. You always do, right?”

“I told you, already. You don’t need to pretend to be okay if you aren’t. Especially— Not for me.”

They’re still difficult to say, the words Kei’s trying to communicate to Yamaguchi, and it’s not the first time he’s gotten worried over him since everything, but it is the first time it’s been this big. This important.

Kei knows the kind of person Yamaguchi is when he’s not doing well. Blaming himself for everything, magnifying mistakes and ignoring the things he did right. That he scored twice and then fumbled the third one; Yamaguchi must be thinking of that as their death sentence.

When a game gets to deuces, every point scored and every point lost is crucially important. Fumbling a single serve becomes that much worse. But it’s true, too, that that makes those two points he scored leagues more important than he thinks. They could have lost sooner.

Still, it’s only a game of maybe. Maybe they could have lost sooner, or maybe Yamaguchi could have gone on a streak after the third serve and they would have won the set. Maybe Yamaguchi lost more than a single point, or more than the two he scored. Kei doesn’t know what to do to stop Yamaguchi feeling bad about this, not when his mind can’t stop replaying every single block he missed after a match. Not when he still feels bad about it now, somewhere behind the worry he’s feeling over Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi notices how Kei is feeling, Kei thinks, which is ironic, maybe, but he smiles at him then, not forced if still a little bit sad, and he says, “Thanks, Tsukki. But— I’m not… happy, how things turned out. I know that I’m better, than the way I played just now. It was…”

There’s nothing Kei likes, in the way that Yamaguchi is too embarrassed to meet his eyes, the way his too-thin voice echoes in the empty restroom. But it’s honest, Kei knows. He isn’t lying. Yamaguchi trusts him.

“But it also isn’t really— that I’m not okay, you know? There’s still another set, at least one, and I’m gonna make up for all the points I lost, and…” Yamaguchi rubs the back of his neck. “Whatever happens, after we go out there or… maybe ever, I think. I don’t think I’m not gonna be okay. Or, at least, not like I was before. Because…”

Yamaguchi lifts his head to look at Kei straight on then, eyes clear even as Kei can see his cheeks start to flush, strange and seemingly inappropriate in the bathroom light. But… cute, too. It’s the kind of thought Kei can’t shake, when Yamaguchi looks at him like this. Cute.

“Because you’re with me, right?”

It’s funny, then, how quickly everything swirling through Kei’s mind – worry over Yamaguchi, regret over volleyball, fear that things might get worse – conglomerates then and steels itself into determination and something a little softer, too. Love, maybe.

(Love, definitely.)

Smiling then, gentler than he thinks he ever has, Kei reaches out to take Yamaguchi’s hand and says, “Yeah. I am.”