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Kuroo

“Sorry, sorry -- I just need to --” Kuroo knows he’s holding up the busy lunch line, but there’s no way he’s walking out of here with his shoulder bag, this huge paper bag of food, and all of those drinks without carefully arranging everything first. He’s already the youngest and newest artist at the shop. He doesn’t need to return covered in everyone’s sodas and bits of burritos.

There’s a pecking order at the tattoo shop and he’s definitely at the bottom. For now, he thinks, finally shifting everything so he’s confident he can make it back. He nods apologetically a few more times to the staff and the people behind him in line and then walks back out into the smothering humid air of a Tokyo summer.

Their creaky front door squeaks when he walks back in but it’s muffled by the metal music playing on the speakers -- softly, Kuroo notes with a chuckle. As the artist/owner of the shop always says, “it’s loud enough that people know what we’re about, but soft enough that I can focus. We’re not animals.”

“Here’s your burrito, Ibuki-san!” Kuroo singsongs to the woman behind their front desk. He fishes in the bag for her lunch and sets her drink in front of her. He quickly checks out the line of business cards on display on her desk and feels a puff of pride when he looks at his for probably the tenth time that day. The wall behind her is filled with awards won and paintings done by the other artists. Soon his stuff will be up there, too. He knows it.

“Thank you!” She sings back. “Oh and your 3:00 called.” She says, her voice returning to it’s normal tone. “They’re going to be thirty minutes late.” Ibuki is a walking package of contradictions. She’s cute and petite but covered in tattoos and will drop the filthiest jokes at the worst times. She’s silenced the entire shop on more than one occasion, cackling as she doesn’t just step over a line, but crushes it under her heavy, black boots.

Kuroo groans. “There goes my break before my 6:00. I’m never getting out of here today, am I?”

“Nope! If I leave the keys, can you lock up?” The phone rings. She scrunches up her face in annoyance but shoots him an appreciative glance before answering in her overly-cheery tone she only uses for customers.

Kuroo nods and mouths the words “I’ll lock up,” before continuing through the doorway to the studio.

Big boss isn’t there today so he struts through, waving at the other two artists before he realizes a client’s settled in. He stops several feet away, not wanting to intrude. “Whoops - hey man. You want me to --”

“Yea, just put it in the fridge.” Iwaguchi says in his rough voice. The older artist, hair peppered with hints of age, pauses for a moment to blink and wipe the client’s arm where a new tattoo is just beginning to take shape. Kuroo stops dead, a jolt of wonder flashing through his head as he looks at the client’s back. Blond hair. Tall. Black glasses.

Nah, there’s no way. Plus, this guy’s hair is shaved on the side and, let’s face it, the man’s got a sleeve of tattoos. That guy would never.

Kuroo shakes off the ridiculous thought and walks back towards the only other artist in the studio today. Nakayama’s sketching when he walks up, her newly-dyed bright, blue hair standing out even against all the art on the walls.

He holds out the last burrito that isn’t his in the bag. She looks up, excitement dawning on her face. “Food! Yes. Thank you.” She sets down her sketchbook and rolls over in her chair, away from her station. “Perfect timing. I got, like, almost an hour until my next.”

“Same. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten yet today. Got up too late.” Together they settle in to the tiny backroom with one folding table squeezed into the center.

“Did you have a show?” Nakayama asks, unwrapping her burrito like it’s a treasure, already reaching for the basket of sauce packets they keep on a shelf in the backroom.

From where he sits down, Kuroo can see the client’s back and just a little of his profile. Impossible scenarios run through his head again. There’s no way. “Yea, I didn’t get back until after three.”

“Christ. I don’t know how you stay up that late.” She mumbles through bites of her burrito. “I used to hang that hard, now I’m like, ‘it’s midnight - where’s my bed? - I want my pajamas.’”

Kuroo snorts. “It’s not that late. And like, we’re not getting the prime spots. There’s the opener, yea? Then the main act, and then, when it’s late, once everyone’s drunk and thinking about going home - bam - there we are.”

Nakayama laughs. “Which band of yours played last night?”

“Glory days.”

She sneers. “That name is still so cheesy.”

“No it isn’t! Plus, if it was - which it isn’t, mind you - but if it was, I could blame it on the fact that we started when I was a freshman in college. Freshman are fools.”

“What’s your other one?”

Kuroo snickers. He loves this one. “Late to the Party. Literally we named it that just so we could say ‘great to see you all here tonight. We are late to the party.’ It’s funny every single time.”

“I bet it is.”

The conversation lulls as they remember how hungry they both are and Kuroo finds his gaze drifting back into the studio, especially when the client stretches and Kuroo’s able to catch a little more of his face. He bites the inside of his mouth when he stares for too long and he turns away, ready to try and shake that thought once and for all. He’d never be here. The odds are impossible.

And if when lunch is over and he’s prepping his station, if he keeps glancing over it’s because he admires Iwaguchi, wants to emulate his style and learn from someone with experience, not because he’s trying to figure out if it’s really him. Kuroo drops a roll of paper towels and it rolls across the floor. He hears Nakayama chuckle behind him.

Three o’clock rolls around and Kuroo’s ready. His tablet sketch is done. He has a few variants ready just in case, plus a few color schemes to present. He’s started to figure out that a good chunk of his clients end up wanting something a little different than what they originally said. It’s awesome when he shows them what he was thinking and they light up. Kuroo likes it when something he brought to life based on their ideas ends up being on their skin forever.

Iwaguchi’s near finishing the outline and shading on the man’s arm. From the looks of it, they’ve been at it for a while. It’s a half-sleeve, working in some older pieces. Kuroo guesses the man’s going to have to come back to finish. It seems like it’s building towards full-color.

He’s tried not to stare, honestly, but he’s had nothing left to do for the past twenty minutes or so and he just can’t shake the thought. That, like, has to be Tsukishima. Kuroo feels it in his guts. If it is him, and Kuroo’s almost certain at this point, then he looks way different, but the cut of his jaw, the fluffy blond hair at the top, the way his shoulders sort of stoop from being way too tall, way too young - it all screams Tsukishima.

It’d be wild if it is him. They haven’t spoken in - what - ten years?

Iwaguchi sits up straight, stretching his back and shoulders. “You wanna go take a look?”

“Sure.” The man responds. And now Kuroo’s almost positive that’s Tsukishima. It sounds like him. Kuroo’s whole body tenses, his face surely frozen with some idiotic expression, as the man turns around to walk towards the full-length mirror in the studio.

The man looks up. Stops short. Stares back. His brows knit together. “Kuroo-san?”

Yep. Definitely, 100% Tsukishima Kei.

Kuroo lifts his hand and gives a tiny wave. “Hey. Hi. Hey, Tsukishima.”

Tsukishima keeps staring forward. Kuroo watches his eyes drift up and down his body. He’d feel weird, but he’s doing the exactly same thing. It’s amazing what ten years can do to someone.

Tsukishima’s filled out a little over the years. He’s still slender and sharp collar bones poke out from his t-shirt, but his shoulders seem broader. His face, though -- If Kuroo had just passed him on the street he’s not sure he would have recognized him. He’s grown into his features. He’s less angular, a bit softer around the edges, but with cheekbones for days. The hair on the top of his head is like he remembered, but the sides are shaved close to his head and a single black, stud earring frames the side of his face. Those glasses, though -- those glasses are shockingly exactly the same.

Suddenly very self-conscious, he wonders how he looks to Tsukishima -- what has ten years done Tsukishima’s memory of him. He’s not sure what to do with his hands. He stops waving and them awkwardly shifts them around in front of him before they come to rest stiffly on his thighs. “How are ya?”

“Good. How have you been?” Tsukishima’s voice is slow and robotic.

“Good.” A silence quickly follows and Kuroo’s aware of Nakayama’s eyes boring holes into his back. Even Iwaguchi is giving them strong side-eye while he pretends to tidy up. It feels too weird just hearing the music, the two of them staring at each other. He has to talk. “It’s been a while.”

“Yea.”

“Like ten years.”

“That seems about right.

“Yep.”

“Well I’m gonna--” Tsukishima points at the mirror across the room and turns to keep walking towards it.

Kuroo lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He spins in his chair to see Nakayama staring at him, her eyes blown wide and a mischievous grin on her face.

In a near-slient whisper she teases, “Haaaaa - what the fuck was that?”

Kuroo mouths back, his face all scrunched, “I don’t know.”

“You’re so awkward.” She tips her chin up. “I got you.”

Kuroo shakes his head in a fierce no and then spins back around. He grabs his tablet and pretends to be very busy flipping through his sketches from earlier. He keeps glancing up through his eyelashes at what Tsukishima’s doing in the mirror.

From what he can see, the piece is incredible. Kuroo wouldn't expect anything less from Iwaguchi. The man’s been tattooing for well over a decade. Tsukishima’s too far away for him to see all the finer details, but he can make out an open book at the bottom, out of which is pouring all kinds of cosmic-looking stuff. He wants to see it up close, but there is no way that’s happening.

When Tsukishima starts to walk back to the chair, Nakayama shouts, “How do you two know each other?”

Kuroo’s whole body tenses. He forces himself to sit up, tilt back his head, and paints on a practiced charming expression. “Oh, from high school. We played volleyball.” It’s clear from her expression that Nakayama finds that fact adorable.

Tsukishima starts to gather his things - a discarded hoodie, a shoulder bag. “Different high schools.”

“But we played each other.”

“Rival schools or something like that.” Tsukishima stands up straight and Iwaguchi gets up to follow him to the front desk to check out. There’s a hint of something like a smile on his face, hidden beneath layers of surprise.

Kuroo sits back, crossing his arms with a confidence he doesn’t quite feel yet. “I taught him everything he knows.”

“Well that can’t be true.” Tsukishima stands up straight, clicks his tongue, and a smirk emerges. Kuroo remembers that look with a sudden, intense fondness.

“And why’s that?”

“Because I was better than you.”

Kuroo bursts out laughing and Tsukishima’s smirk gets bigger. He takes a few steps towards the doorway. Kuroo realizes that his chance to talk to this ghost from his past is quickly disappearing and he doesn’t quite want that. Not yet. “The new ink looks good. Iwaguchi’s one of the best.”

“Thanks.” Tsukishima runs his hand up the back of his neck. He’s still inching closer to the doorway.

The rest of Kuroo’s words tumble out before he can stuff them back in. “Want to grab a beer sometime? Give us a chance to catch up?”

Tsukishima’s grin grows a little lopsided. His eyes dart around the room. “Well, I don’t know, we just--”

Kuroo doesn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. He waves a dismissive hand, smiles wide. “Ah yea, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Good seeing you, though.”

“Yea, you too. See you around.”

Then he ducks through the doorway back out to the front with Iwaguchi in tow. Kuroo grimaces, expecting the older man to have some choice comments about that exchange when he gets back. He already doesn’t want to turn around and see whatever stupid expression Nakayama’s making at the moment.

But she’s never been one to wait. “I have five minutes until my next appointment gets here and I need you to answer one simple question--” Kuroo feels her breath on his neck and he swipes her away. “--why were you being so awkward?”

He rolls his chair a few inches away and spins. “I wasn’t!”

“Oh my god, yes you were. Who is he?” She balances her elbows on her knees and holds her head in her hands like she’s expecting a story.

“Just an old friend. Not even that. Just a guy I practiced with sometimes. Our teams were, like, friendly rivals.”

Kuroo knows he’s right. Tsukishima wasn’t really ever a friend. They were friendly, as much as someone who wasn’t that freckled guy could be friendly with Tsukishima, but they were never friends. They never really talked about anything outside of volleyball or school. And once Nationals were over and Kuroo went on to college, they lost touch fairly quickly.

Nakayama looks disappointed. “That’s it? I thought with how weird you were being there was way more there.”

Kuroo shakes his head. “I was just surprised. He didn’t seem like the tattoo type back then. More like the sour but snarky, straight-laced kind of guy.”

“And that’s really all there is?”

“Yea. Knew each other, kinda. Lost touch. Then - bam - surprised.”

Nakayama rolls her eyes. “Boring.” She smirks. “I was hoping for something juicier to help the day go by faster.” She starts to roll back to her station. “I’ll just invent an interesting story in my head and tell you about it later.”

“Perfect. Then I’ll write a song about it.”

“Ooh, promise?”

“You know it.”

 

***

 

When he finally locks up and heads home that night, Kuroo’s mind keeps wandering to the last time he saw Tsukishima in person. Sure, they texted for a little while after - before that eventually stopped, too - but the last time he actually saw the blond was at Nationals in his third year. He remembers the two of them talking trash during the game and Tsukishima thanking him at some point. He knows that last bit happened because it damn well almost knocked him off his feet.

Right after the game, as Kuroo tried not to wallow in the sting of a loss, the two of them found some time to keep the provoking banter going, but both of them were already so tired and Tsukishima needed to prepare for yet another game. Kuroo promised to watch Karasuno play and come say hey to him after. Tsukishima said he didn’t care either way, but he grinned as he waved and caught up the rest of Karasuno.

After it was all said and done, Kuroo did try to talk to him. He found Tsukishima surrounded by his teammates and their families near the front lobby. They looked exhausted, but proud. Tsukishima looked like a completely different person than that apathetic teenager he remembered from the training camp.

Kuroo hovered for a while, waiting for his chance, but ultimately decided it wasn’t his place to intrude. This was their moment. He sent Tsukishima a text, found Kenma, and went home.

 

***

 

When Kuroo finally makes it to his front door, he sighs and heads straight for his couch. A quiet night to himself has been rare lately. It’s mostly for good reasons. Glory Days has been getting a bit of a following in a few neighborhoods. The bars they haunt have been booking them more regularly and word seems to be spreading.

Most of that is Kenma’s doing. Kuroo sends him a thanks once he notices all their new Twitter followers from the past few days.

Kenma’s quick to reply--
Kenma Kitty [21:42]: what? Like it’s hard? People are easy to influence once you understand what works.

Kenma still sees life like a game, one that he’s crushing, apparently. Though he’s not on stage as a part of the band, Kenma would never be in front of that many people anymore, he’s still the brain behind Kuroo’s heart and soul. Some things never change and Kuroo’s grateful for that.

So lately, more gigs has meant more practices. More practices mean less time to just zone out and exist. And when Glory Days isn’t playing, then he’s been trying to get Late to the Party into niche punk bars so they can jam some stress away. Again, good things, but sometimes Kuroo just wants to stare at his ceiling. And he does, with the beer he picked up at the convenient store on the way home, until the grime of the day and his tense shoulders beg for a shower. He takes the beer with him.

Kuroo always sings in the shower, no doubt bothering his neighbor on the other side of some very thin walls, but it’s a space where Kuroo feels like he gets some of his best creative work done. Tonight he’s singing bars from a new song into the beer can, like some awkward microphone. He sings and hums and tries to work out the kinks in the chorus. Something’s missing, but he’s not sure what yet.

He’s still humming when he goes to wipe off his mirror so he can see well enough to floss and go through his nightly moisturizing routine - his father frightened him about the horrors of tooth decay just as much as his grandmother warned him about early aging. He sets his almost empty beer beside the sink, goes to wind the floss around his fingers, but freezes when he sees the man looking back at him.

What has ten years done to him? What did Tsukishima see when he recognized him today?

He traces a single finger from the bridge of his nose, under his eye, along his cheekbones, and down to his chin. Kuroo’s still young and he looks it. Though his wild hair is wet and stuck to his forehead, his style is more or less the same - controlled chaos, like he likes it.

But maybe other things have changed? Maybe his eyes look different, like they’ve seen more now? Maybe the way he carries himself is different? He backs up, stands up straight, and puffs out his chest a little. Maybe he’s not as ripped as he was in high school, but he looks good.

He runs gentle fingers along the ink on his arms. That’s the obvious difference. Kuroo grins and snorts out a soft laugh. Sometimes it’s easy to look over the ink that stretches across his arms, his shoulders, that one piece down his ribs, because they’re just a part of him now. With each one, he felt like he became a little bit more himself.

Kuroo smirks at the man in the mirror, the same way he does before a first date, like he’s reminding himself that he likes what he’s got going on. To a certain clientele, he’s hot, right? He’s a bit of a delicious dish, if he does say so himself.

Tsukishima grew up hot.

The thought surprises him. Kuroo shakes his head, winds floss around his fingers, and shoves those words away.

 

***

 

That night in bed, the light from his phone illuminates his features in his otherwise dark room. His new black out curtains make sure none of the awful street light comes pouring in anymore. Though, staring at his phone in the pitch black probably isn’t good for him either. Kuroo just rolls over and keeps scrolling.

He chuckles at the string of trash talking between Kenma and him while they played against one another that night. Sure, they were already talking on their headsets, but some trash can only be spoken through the beautiful, wondrous language of memes.

Kuroo unlocks his phone and sends a quick text--
[00:14]: good night Kitty Cat. See ya in the morning.

He goes back to his messages and opens up the group chat between Bokuto, Akaashi, and himself.

That’s one thing that’s changed for the worse. Of course, Kuroo’s happy for them, but Kyoto’s too far. It breaks his heart that their apartment no longer is a short walk away, but he knows their opportunities were too good to pass up. Bokuto got a coaching job at a university and Akaashi decided to start law school.

Again. Happy for them. But also way too bummed to think about it for too long.

He drafts a short message about a dozen different ways before he finally sends--
[00:18]: do you guys remember Tsukishima? Also good night. Also miss you.

Kuroo would bet money on the fact that Bokuto is probably already asleep, but Akaashi’s a night owl. As he waits for a response, Kuroo starts to wonder --

He scrolls through his contacts and stops at one that’s long been forgotten. He presses his thumb against the name Tsukki and his phone asks him if he’d like to download the old messages. Kuroo stares at the question, hovers his thumb over it for longer than he can say why, then clicks yes.

It takes a minute, but then there it is -- the last time the two of them texted. The final message is from Kuroo, the end of some aimless conversation about classwork. He scrolls up and keeps reading. All of it reads like two people catching up from time to time. It’s small talk, but they didn’t seem to let too much time pass in between. Maybe a week or two - tops. And it’s kind of funny. He reads the messages in Tsukishima’s voice until he gets too far into the past for his liking.

Kuroo shuts off his screen and lets his phone fall on the bed beside him. His room is totally dark now. He replays his interaction with Tsukishima over in his head and cringes at the dumb faces he felt himself making. But he smiles. It was good to see Tsukishima, to know he’s doing well.

Maybe they were friends.

And Tsukishima has to come in sometime to get his tattoo finished.

Chapter Text

Tsukishima

See you around. See you around?! Tsukishima mentally kicks himself. It’s not going to be ‘see you around.’ It’s actually ‘see you in two weeks when I have to come back there for several hours and get my arm finished.’ Plus there’s the whole ‘wanna grab a beer sometime?’ that Tsukishima isn’t sure what to do with.

Why on Earth would he grab a beer with Kuroo Tetsurou?

Tsukishima sighs. There is something comforting in knowing that the guy is still as obnoxiously forward as he used to be. It’s like being assured that the sun will keep shining, the planets will keep revolving, and uselessly excitable people will still exist. Life goes on.

Being careful not to let anyone on the sidewalk bump into his arm, he checks the messages he got while he was being poked by a tiny needle thousands of times.

Work. Yamaguchi. Yachi. That seems about right.

He fires off a few quick messages to his team lead. Tsukishima assures him that yes, he remembered the translations were due by Wednesday, that yes, he had already started on them, and yes, he was going to make it to the not-mandatory-but-mandatory get together next Monday. Tsukishima says a silent prayer of gratitude to the universe that he works from home and only has to see his ‘co-workers’ a few times a month.

He might be halfway to being a hermit, but he’s a happy half-hermit.

Yachi’s next. He checks the time and figures he has time to run home, make his own coffee and shove some leftovers in his mouth to save money, then meet her at their makeshift office. He tells her as much and promises to make it there with his revisions no later than five.

On the train, he manages to grab a seat, thankful that it’s not yet rush hour. He cradles his sensitive upper arm near the window without touching it. He wants the safety of the plexiglass as a shield but, god forbid, if he gets jostled into it. He’d fight the tears, but the tears would come.

With his free hand, Tsukishima lazily scrolls through news headlines before he re-opens his messages. There’s a string of texts from Yamaguchi, some from yesterday, some from this afternoon. Tsukishima realizes with a pang of guilt that it’s been over twenty-four hours since he replied. At this point, he knows Yamaguchi expects it, but also he’d like to be a better friend than that. Especially to that freckled firework of a person. The problem is he reads a message from his best friend, smiles, then gets wrapped back up in whatever he was doing.

Busy. Life’s just busy right now and has been exceptionally so for the past year.

Like he usually does, Tsukishima makes up for a tardy reply to all of Yamaguchi’s short little text-thoughts by answering with one long text that covers every point he’s missed so far and then adds something new to the conversation. It’s hard typing with one hand as the train jostles and he tries to cradle his arm, but he manages--

[16:02]: I’m glad the recipe worked out. It’s one I make a lot because it’s cheap, easy, and keeps well. Yours looks better, though.
[16:02]: I did not catch the latest episode. I was out at the studio until late (again) last night and then I walked Yachi home.
[16:03]: That sucks that guy is still being so passive-aggressive at work. Do you need me to be regular aggressive and just show up and punch him for you? Say the word.

He pauses before he writes the last bit and chews on his lip. Is it important enough to include? Tsukishima figures Yamaguchi is the type who would like to hear about it--
[16:06]:Do you remember Nekoma’s captain from our first year?

Only after he hits send does he realize that the final question is absolutely jarring with no context. He shrugs and sets his phone down in his lap. Yamaguchi’s probably hustling to get out on time today and won’t be replying anytime soon.

He watches stations fly past on his express train but a thought keeps wiggling around in the back of his brain and not even the mildly painful but wholly satisfying sting of a fresh tattoo can take his mind off of it. Tsukishima picks up his phone and opens his contact list. He scrolls until, yep, there he is. Kuroo Tetsurou’s name is still there.

Tsukishima feels his stomach pinch, knows he’s playing with fire from a memory he can’t quite recall all of yet, but he clicks on his name anyway. And there, like no time had passed at all, is Kuroo’s last message--
Kuroo-san [22:07]: Ugh, be careful when you get to college - it’s all fun and games until you get super behind in your reading.

Above that message are four others, all from Kuroo and all about college life. They’re frozen in the past, forever unanswered. That familiar pang of guilt from being hard to talk to settles into his stomach.

He only has to thumb his way up a few messages before he remembers why he never answered. Tsukishima sees his last contribution to the conversation stream--
[12:29]: it’s nothing -- some overly friendly guy in my homeroom won’t leave me alone lately.

Tsukishima’s still in the train seat, but his mind takes him back to 2-A. He’s sitting at the back by the window, texting Kuroo and waiting for Yamaguchi to pop his head in for lunch. He can feel the hot breeze sweeping in through the open window and he keeps grinning at the dumb shit Kuroo keeps sending him.

Another boy props himself on the desk beside him and lifts his leg onto the top like he’s settling in. Tsukishima holds in a sigh. He can feel the other boy’s eyes staring at him even though he’s trying to ignore the attention.

“That’s a big smile, Tsukishima-kun. Who’re you flirting with?”

And even though it was years ago, even though he’s a different person now, someone who maybe even kind of likes himself now, he feels his stomach drop and his skin grows cold, just like it did then.

Those same intrusive questions swarm his mind like it was yesterday. Was that what he was doing? Was he flirting? With Kuroo?

Honestly, Tsukishima still doesn’t know if he was but the shame and confusion from that moment still hits him hard, square in the center of his chest. The awful memory grips into him and won’t let go.

Whether or not he was flirting wasn’t the point. The point was there was a part of him that maybe did want to flirt with Kuroo and that was terrifying -- the most frightening thing he could imagine back then. And it would be years - years - before Tsukishima could admit to himself everything he wished he’d been able to back then. It would have saved him so many years of trying to shove himself into what he thought he should be, not what he was, what he could be.

Ten years isn’t enough time, apparently, to dull that sting.

Tsukishima stares at the unanswered texts.

He’d always meant to message him back. Eventually.

Tsukishima comes out of the cold-sweat covered memory when he hears the conductor announce his stop. He rises on shaky feet and blames it on all the tiny needles he just endured for the last couple of hours.

 

***

 

By the time Tsukishima’s back in his neighborhood, the familiar sights and smells have grounded him again. Though he’s always listening to something in his headphones, he likes watching the people pass by on the sidewalk, or those sitting in the cafe at the end of his block. He enjoys the sweet tempting smells from that same cafe, all types sweet breads and rich, freshly ground coffee wafting through the air. It’s far lovelier than the slight hint of garbage he gets from the restaurant beside his building when he walks through the front doors into the old-fashioned looking lobby.

He climbs the stairs to the fourth floor - the elevator makes terrifying sounds and he refuses to trust it - and unlocks his door, entering with a content sigh. It’s small, but he loves this apartment. He’s been here for the last three years and has no intentions of moving anytime soon. Though it’s old, it’s quiet, gets plenty of sunshine in the mornings for all of his plants, and it’s small enough that he can keep it tidy without much hassle. He hangs up his keys on the hook by the door, his hoodie from the morning goes on a tiny coat rack, then he carefully toes off his shoes, and sets his shoulder bag down beside them.

A small chirping sound alerts him to the presence of a now-awake fluffy ball of grey and white slowly stretch-walking towards the door. “Hi, Mister. You miss me? I’m going to feed you a little early today, okay?” Tsukishima reaches down to pet his cat, taking extra time to scratch the little white spot that begins on his forehead and runs back along his head until just past his ears. Mister is all grey, except for little lines of white around his head and on his two back paws.

His name is also technically not Mister, but once his mother found the little stray outside and began to nurse him back to health, no other name would stick - and not from a lack of trying. Apparently he didn't want to be called by the same name as influential authors.

Looking into the living room, Tsukishima cringes at the messy pile of scripts on his coffee table, he diverts his path to his little kitchen and sends a silent prayer into the universe that there will something unexpired to eat in there. He’s rewarded with some leftover roasted vegetables that still smell fine and the rest of a block of tofu from the other night. Glancing at his watch, he reaches into a cabinet for instant rice, quietly apologizing to his rice cooker for never using it. If he was really responsible he’d just cook rice at night and have it ready for the next day, but that’s not going to happen. At least it stays clean. Tsukishima shrugs and does his best to cook something with Mister winding between his feet.

Back on his couch with all of his ingredients tossed together in a bowl with some haphazardly sloshed sauce on top, Tsukishima ruffles through the papers on his coffee table in between bites. His laptop is open and charging next to him, several tabs of writing open at once.

Right now he’s stuck and it has nothing to do with writer’s block and everything to do with the business of publishing. Their contract with their current publishing group is up for renewal soon, but Yachi’s been dropping major hints about wanting to pursue other options and Kei can’t blame her. They’re doing fine in their current situation, but the pair of anxious chronic worriers has been slowly gaining confidence in their work. It might be time to hold his most cherished ideas close to his chest and save them for what’s next.

But then, what does he submit now? Tsukishima’s not at all sure where the balance is. He just keeps writing, saving some, submitting the rest, and hoping his undergraduate business degree will be useful when it’s time to sell themselves to other companies soon.

 

***

 

The small studio space he and Yachi rent on a monthly basis is a few train stops away, situated right about in the middle of their two apartments. It’s in a larger office space that’s been carved up and converted into individual units. In an effort to support the arts, this particular Ward offered grants to help cover part of the rent cost to qualified applicants. Always looking for ways to save money, Tsukishima jumped on the chance immediately.

It’s perfect to have a place to work that isn’t either of their apartments, but --

Tsukishima grits his teeth until it hurts his jaw. The other tenants aren’t as quiet as they are. With only felt-covered plastic cubicle walls dividing them, their neighbor who swears he’s reinventing the way people think about ukuleles is struggling his way through the same bars of a song over and over.

Yachi pinches her lips together at the other side of the large square table where they sit, her body shaking with unreleased laughter. “You okay there?”

Tsukishima closes his eyes and takes a deep breath in and out.

She leans across the table and whispers. “You could put on your headphones.”

He plants his hands on the table and rocks back in his chair. “Yes, but we actually have to talk our way through what we’re submitting on Friday.”

“We could go to one of our apartments.”

“No.” He replies sharply. “We paid for this space. We’re using this space.”

“So stubbornly practical, Tsukishima-kun.” Laughter bubbles up in her throat as he turns back to her pages taking shape in front of her. Even though they’ve worked together for over a year now, it still looks like magic to Tsukishima, the way her sketches are cleaned up and refined until Yachi’s breathed life into the images that he does his best to paint with words.

For a moment he watches her as she carefully redraws an outline. Her blonde hair is drawn up into a messy ponytail, loose strands tucked behind her ears so she can work. She hasn’t grown a single centimeter since high school, but the once frightfully anxious first year manager has grown into a much different woman. Sure, she’s still prone to bouts of anxious spirals, but when they’re not present she’s got the calm and confident presence of someone who finds pleasure in the things they create.

Yachi holds up the scene she’s working on.

And what Yachi likes to create is gruesome crime scenes, the final scene of their next chapter.

A smile creeps its way onto the corner of Tsukishima’s mouth and Yachi smiles back.

“Alright, time to turn this puppy into something digital and useable.” She bends over to rifle through her bag and get out everything she needs.

“How come you still sketch on paper first?” Tsukishima asks, shutting his laptop screen a little so he can see better.

“I don’t know. I don’t do it for everything, but like, the big things,” she turns to face him, her eyes growing larger when she says the word ‘big,’ “I have to see it before I can see it, you know. I guess it’s like your outlines.”

The ukelele man chooses that exact moment to begin scream singing his way through a butchered chorus. Tsukishima’s whole face scrunches up.

“Alright. I’m going to disappear into my headphones.” He announces, retreating into music. Across from one another at their little folding table, they work in a companionable silence - bad ukulele man aside - like they’ve done for so many months now.

Tsukishima writes his way through several ideas and catches up on the business side of creating - emails, managing social media, more emails. When he finally looks back over at Yachi, the tip of her tongue is peeking out from her lips.

“You seem focused.” He says, slipping off his headphones.

Yachi blinks a few times, almost like she’s coming back into the present. “I always am.”

That’s true, Tsukishima thinks, but still - “More than usual.”

Yachi sets down her tablet and yanks at the band holding her ponytail back until it’s free from her blonde locks. “Well - some of the other illustrators are going out tonight and I thought if we made enough progress, felt good enough about our deadline, that, instead of working, we could --”

Ukulele man chooses that exact moment to belt out a flat note at the top of his lungs.

“Yes, oh my god, let’s go.” Tsukishima starts closing his laptop. “But only for a little bit.”

He’ll take a group of illustrators and writers over a group of junior translators trying to suck up to their boss over drinks any day.

Even if his preferred night out is actually a night in, alone, working on scripts or taking a moment to crack the spine of a brand new book and lose himself for a little while.

But he’ll go. He’ll get one drink, something with gin, and he’ll actually get into the conversation for a little while because it’s nice to bounce ideas off of other creative people If Tsukishima’s honest with himself, he considers everyone in that little group a friend, but by the time the drink’s gone, he’ll be ready to use his aloof, mysterious writer card to get himself a one-way ticket home - even though they all know him better by now.

Plus, he can always say he has to feed his cat. Mister is an excellent excuse.

 

***

 

“Hey! Our angel and our resident bad boy have arrived!”

“Still holding on to that shit, Taka?” Tsukishima greets the other man, someone who's a bit younger and so much louder than himself. He gives a small wave to the rest of the table and then to the bar owner who’s caught his eye and is giving Tsukishima the same warm, friendly welcome she always does.

“You’re not disproving the point, walking up in here with fresh ink.” Takahashi’s comment catches the ear of the rest of the table and several heads turn away from their conversations to look.

Even though he likes his tattoos and knows it garners him attention, Tsukishima still feels his muscles pulling tightly into themselves as he carefully holds out his arm. Even Yachi gets a closer glance, still standing beside him before they sit down together. He wonders if she'd waited this whole time to get a closer look, waiting for Tsukishima to invite the attention before she barged in.

“And some bad boy I’ll be, with my quiet home, quiet cat, and my need to go to bed at a reasonable hour.” Tsukishima deflects.

Takahashi leans back in his chair. “You’re a walking contradiction, Tsukishima.”

“So are you - somehow both a brilliant artist and an absolute moron.”

The other man laughs and the rest of the table chuckles at the all too familiar routine. Yachi takes a seat at the long table at the back of their usual bar. It’s a place that has good food and is run by a family who makes sure you leave both fed and a little drunk, if you want to be. The group finds themselves here at least twice a month.

“So what was the inspiration behind this one?” Takahashi asks, gesturing his chopsticks in Tsukishima’s direction.

Tsukishima tries not to notice that other people are listening to their conversation, too. He tries to find that balance between being excited and actually wanting to talk about his tattoo, and wanting to keep it all to himself because it’s something that’s meaningful to him. It sounds so much cheaper when he says it out loud. The idea is so much richer in his head, so much more a part of who he is. “It’s just more books, you know me. Different things from true crime authors and some cosmic horror books that have meant a lot to me.” He settles on vague with just enough detail to satisfy the group.

What Tsukishima doesn’t say is how, along with music, books have always been a safe haven. When he didn’t much like himself, he at least liked escaping to other places where fantastic, even if they were gruesome, things could happen. The hells of the inner-workings of his mind throughout high school and college were easier when put in the perspective of hey, at least I didn’t get murdered today.

And he could never shake how inspired he was by the detectives in these novels, real or entirely fictional. They could solve the impossible and, maybe if he consumed all these books, maybe if he put reminders of them on his skin, then maybe he could solve the wide variety impossible in his life, too. Too cheesy to ever say out loud, he thinks.

Yachi leans over towards him, a gentle smile on her face as she brings a glass of beer to her lips. “I helped with this part.” She points to the base, a veritable mountain of - soon to be - colorful books, some with pages open, others shut tight, with roots sprouting below them and a tree blooming above. A foundation. A part of everything he’d once needed when he felt like he’d lost his way.

Chapter Text

Kuroo

Kuroo’s alarm blares for the third time, just as loud an angry as the first two. With a heavy hand, he grabs for his phone and finally shuts it off. He groans awake, staring up at his ceiling in the dark. He’s pretty sure he’s still holding on to pieces of a now-forgotten dream, but he starts to roll himself to the side of his bed with his sheets still clinging around his waist. He plants both feet heavily on the floor and slumps towards his bathroom, the sheets dropping behind him on the floor as he goes. On the way he stops at his living room curtains and opens them out of habit, even though it’s still pitch black outside.

Like a zombie, he crawls into the shower where he lets the cold water hit him before it begins to grow warm. Kuroo’s not sure how other people wake up without a slap of icy cold tap water. He’s in and out quickly - just long enough to wake up - still on auto-pilot until he’s done brushing his teeth. He towels his hair with rough and wild strokes until it looks like an untamed tangled mess.

Most people think he achieves his signature bedhead look by just rolling out of bed. Fools. It takes work for my hair to look this effortless.

His routine has evolved and grown over the years. This is the point in the morning when he actually starts to feel awake. He works in a few different products with practiced hands, never tired of the way they smell great together. Next is the blow dryer on low. Followed by a different product. Finally, dryer on cool until it’s set for the day. It never looks the same two days in a row and Kuroo thinks that’s excellent.

Kuroo’s planned out his day and he knows that he’s going to have time to come back between early morning recording time and his first client at the shop, so back in his bedroom, he throws on a t-shirt and some soft, worn black jeans.

Once he’s in his kitchen, he begins his ritual. Digging into the bag of fresh coffee beans, Kuroo carefully weighs out the exact amount needed on a small kitchen scale. Then he grinds them in the grinder he spent far too much money on, and starts to heat the memorized amount of water. While he waits he shoves a protein bar into his face, finishing it in just a few bites. Breakfast isn’t he main course here and it’s too early to eat anyway. The button on his kettle pops and Kuroo carefully pours it over the freshly ground beans, watching as the very scientific-looking glass pot fills with the perfect cup of coffee.

Kuroo pours it into one of his four mugs - today it’s half of a set he and Bokuto painted together on a random pottery painting outing - and settles into the best, lumpiest spot on his couch. Typically he’ll look out towards the street from his first story apartment and watch the rest of the world wake up with him, but this morning it’s still just darkness that greets him.

He watches it anyway, noting the hint of light peeking over the horizon and wishing he could see stars. There’s so few of them in the city and it’s been so long since he’s carved out time to go camping. God, how long has it been? Two… three years? Since that time Bo and me nearly died in the woods. Man, there’s no way it’s been that long, he thinks, alarmed at how fast time is passing.

Kuroo sips his coffee while his phone stays happily forgotten in the kitchen. It’s the first of many doses of caffeine, but it’s the ritual that’s most important. On days when he misses this because he oversleeps or he convinces himself it’s not that important, he feels off the whole day. He needs this time to get up just a little earlier so he can ignore his phone, ignore his plans, and sit here with a cup of coffee for a few minutes - until it’s time to catch the train.

The rest of this day can be a whirlwind of unpredictability, but dammit, he’s going to have his one perfectly-made cup of coffee.

 

***

 

Kuroo has a key to Kenma’s place but he knocks out of courtsey first. He only uses his key if Kenma’s gaming or refusing to get out of bed.

A pair of half-asleep eyes peek out from a crack in his front door. He blink a few times, processing everything in front of him. Kuroo holds out a cup of cafe-bought coffee from the one place that’s open this early.

Kenma groans, but opens the door wider to hold out his hands. “The coffee’s a nice touch, but I’m still angry I’m awake this early.” Kenma turns and shuffles back into his apartment with the liquid offering held carefully between both hands.

Kuroo steps in after him, closing the front door and holding his own coffee. It’s not as good as his. Kuroo checks the kitchen to make sure there’s signs of some kind of breakfast and he’s glad when he sees a bowl by the sink with leftover milk in the bottom.

“We don’t have much of a choice, I’m afraid.” Kuroo says as Kenma steps into his bedroom to, hopefully, finish getting ready.

He hears a groan in response. “I know.”

“Don’t worry. Everyone else is complaining, too.” Kuroo’s already sent texts to his other bandmates to make sure they’re on their way to the studio. “It’s been too hard working around everyone’s work schedules and we need to get the rest of these songs recorded.”

“If you’re just recording do I really need to be there?” Kenma whines, his voice muffled through fabric but still carrying through to the living room where Kuroo waits, sipping his own coffee and rocking back and forth on his feet.

“I guess you don’t have to be, but you’re our manager.”

Kenma emerges from his room, gently rolling his eyes. “But you do all the work.”

“With your help!” Kuroo replies with a bright smile. “Plus you can upload pics from today to our twitter, maybe go live for a bit? Throw something up on youtube?”

Kenma replies with a soft grunt.

“Also I found a few more programs and grants for new artists,” Kuroo starts, heading towards the door with Kenma in tow, “and I want you to look over what I wrote so far. Oh and I’ve been in contact with those streaming sites you found and I want you to check over what I’ve proposed, too.”

Kenma sniffs out a laugh. “Anything else?”

“Nope, that about wraps it up.”

“It’s still too early for this.” Kenma blinks wearily at the sun just peeking up over the horizon. “Too early for you. You’re a lot first thing in the morning.”

Kuroo laughs hard and Kenma closes his eyes for a second as he locks his door behind them.

“Remember when I used to drag you to morning practice? Sometimes literally.”

“Often literally.” Kenma looks up at him, a small smile across his face. “Remember that time you slung me over your shoulder?”

Kuroo laughs again, deeper this time, startling some still-sleeping birds in trees outside of Kenma’s building.

Kenma bumps into him with his shoulder. “I still haven’t forgiven you for that.”

 

***

 

The room’s grown still. No one’s even playing their instruments or even talking anymore. They’re just waiting. There’s a tension that could be cut with a knife and Kuroo knows he’s the source, slowly trying to breathe and not snap at someone who isn’t Tora who’s now, he looks at his watch, twenty-two minutes late.

They’ve individually recorded what tracks they could. Alisa was able to re-record some vocals and Oyori and Soga played around with some new bass lines and found something that worked better for one of their new tracks. So the morning hasn’t been a complete waste so far. But still, Tora’s now twenty-three minutes late. It’s a respect thing, Kuroo growls inside his mind.

When Yamamoto Taketora bursts through the front doors, Kuroo eyes him from behind the glass of the sound booth. He’s sweaty and slouching. Good, Kuroo thinks, a little humble grovelling wouldn't be the worst right now.

Once he’s sure he won’t be interrupting anything, Tora walks through the door, grimacing. No one says anything, though out of the corner of his eye, Kuroo sees Alisa give him a sympathetic look.

“Well? What’s it this time?” Kuroo’s voice comes out harsher than he intended, but he doesn’t walk it back. The rest of us showed up on time. He can, too.

“I missed the bus.” Tora runs his fingers up the back of the blonde streak through his hair.

“Everyone else made it.” Kuroo stares him down and the loud and excitable man shrinks under it, just like when Kuroo had to fuss at him in high school about one thing or another.

“C’mon, Kuroo - it’s just today. I’ve made it all the other --”

“We don’t get endless studio time. You know that.”

“Of course. It was just a mistake.” He stands up a little taller, squaring his shoulders. Still stubborn until the end. “You know I’m serious about this.”

Kuroo sighs, trying hard to push out all the tension in his shoulders. He feels the room relax around him. “I know. Just get on your drums, man.” Kuroo points at him as Tora jumps to follow. “And you owe us a round of beers.”

“Done.”

“Ooooh, you made dad mad.” Oyori, their bassist, snickers from behind their long, straight black hair half-hanging over their face as Tora takes his place with the rest of them.

Soga, their rhythm guitarist, scrunches up his face. “Kuroo can’t be the dad. I’m older than him.”

“By two months. And don’t sass me,” Kuroo serves him some side-eye, “son.”

A round of laughter makes its way around the room and any remaining awkwardness dissolves. They’re back to the five of them plus their one sullen-looking sort-of-manager - five friends making music and feeding their larger than life dreams on a daily basis.

“Be careful with that analogy.” Alisa grins dangerously. “One, I’m older than you and, two, it makes our past romantic entanglement way more gross than it already was.”

Even Kenma, perched behind his laptop answering emails, chuckles at that one.

“We weren’t gross. We were cute.” Kuroo defends, a hand splayed dramatically across his chest.

“Well it’s gross now.” Alisa snickers, her silvery-blonde hair falling into her face. She blows a few stray strands away.

“And why’s that?”

Alisa makes a gagging face. “Because I’ve seen my very dear friend naked.”

“Hey, if that makes things gross, then yo!” Tora points to himself with his drumsticks “All y’all have seen me naked.”

“Don’t remind us.” Oyori chucks a guitar pick at him.

“Alright, alright, we’ve wasted enough time. Back to it. Kenma you ready to film?” Kuroo turns to make sure he can see each of his bandmates. He’s all business now, but his eyes are alight. “Another run-through of that yet-unnamed-but-super-bassy-and-excellent song?”

There’s a round of nods and “you got it” and they fall together seamlessly once Kuroo counts them down. Alisa’s voice rings out loud and clear over the loud and sometimes purposefully jarring guitars and Tora slamming on the drums. It’s Kuroo’s favorite kind of beautiful chaos. When he’s playing, it’s one of the only times Kuroo’s able to just do only one thing at a time. His busy mind is always trying to pull him in 800 different directions, but when he plays guitar, when he’s tattooing, those are the only times when it’s just him and his craft.

He hears his friends playing or singing around him and he feels awake and tingling with this unnameable feeling, one that’s only surpassed by when they play live. Sometimes he still can’t believe that all their scribbled lyrics and chords in messy notebooks come together to be -- this.

And out of all of their recent songs, this one is probably the closest to perfect that they have on this album so far. It’s why he can’t seem to name it, not that they all haven’t tried. Nothing fits it just right and it’s too good to just pick something that’s good enough.

When their recording time is up they emerge into the morning air energized and mostly - Kenma excluded - forgetting about their early alarm this morning. They start to separate to go on with the less glamorous parts of their lives - part-time jobs at cafes, full-time jobs at boring offices, or a day of appointments at the tattoo shop - but Alisa holds him back.

There’s a crooked little smile on her face when she looks up at him, anxiously twisting her fingers together. “Hey, sorry about the dating joke earlier.”

Kuroo waves it off. “It’s fine. Doesn’t bother me at all.”

Her smile perks up and she pushes her bangs out of her face. “I know, but it’s not gross we dated, and I didn’t want you to think --” she sighs dramatically, gently kicking Kuroo’s shoe with her own. “I mean, I got a friend out of it.”

Kuroo pokes her shoulder, trying to break the spell of Alisa’s consuming levels of empathy. “And a band.” He notes.

A soft laugh escapes her lips. “Yea, and a band.” She pokes him back, right between the ribs. “Better as friends.”

Kuroo yelps and swats her finger away. “Always.”

“Ooh and, I’ve got a friend who’s interested in you. She’s blonde. I know that’s one of your things.” Alisa wiggles her eyebrows. “She’s also got a brother. I don’t know how he swings but I bet he’d look at you and be like damn.”

“Your flattery and excellent wing-manning is always very welcome.” Kuroo throws an arm over her shoulders in a half-hug.

“I figure it’s time. You’re never single for long.”

“That’s not true, just last year I --”

Kenma appears at Kuroo’s side and interrupts. “He’s a serial monogamist. It’s an illness.”

“Am not.” Kuroo retorts, sounding the same as he used to when Kenma teased him when they were kids.

Apparently, Alisa agrees. “It’s been - what - three, four weeks since you broke up with that guy from the bar? The next one’s got to be right around the corner.” She starts to walk towards the station.

Kuroo takes a single big step to follow behind them. “Wrong!” He says sharply, but that’s not entirely true. “That’s just chemistry. I have it with everyone. And besides,” he stretches his arms out and over his head before letting them fall again at his sides, “no one wants to date the guy with a million projects.”

Kenma falls back to be in step right beside him. He’s still looking forward when his soft voice reaches Kuroo’s ears. “You just need to find someone that’s as nuts as you are.”

 

***

 

By the time Kuroo makes it home that evening he’s exhausted. After recording, he made it back home and rather self-indulgently decided to crash on his couch and squeeze in a nap before heading to the shop. Kuroo doesn’t take the responsibility of inking something on someone’s skin forever lightly, after all. His clients are trusting him and he’s going to deliver - after a nap and a better breakfast/lunch before he goes in.

But the nap meant he couldn’t work out until his last client left and he helped clean up the shop. He almost skipped it but his singular motivation dragged his ass to the gym - you can’t rip off your shirt during a show if you ain’t got the goods underneath. It is the only thing that keeps him going on a regular basis.

He flops onto his floor, a take out container in front of him on his coffee table. There's no room for another table in his tiny place, but that's fine. He has what he needs. He fires of a few quick texts to his dad about coming over this weekend - yea, I can pick up groceries on my way over. See you Sunday! Kuroo’s usually dead-on-his-feet after shows on Saturday, but he picks himself up (almost) every Sunday to go to his childhood home and make some food together.

That house seems so big with only his dad in it now. Kuroo wishes he’d just move already. After his grandmother passed that house stopped feeling warm and welcoming and just felt full of dark, empty corners. He kind of hates it there now, but he’s waiting to grow past it, to see warmth in all those memories, like his dad does. Not the heavy weight that stays with him until he forcefully pushes it out of his mind.

At least they always make something good and Kuroo starts the week off with a hearty helping of leftovers in his fridge.

Those leftovers are long gone now, though, and Kuroo’s just about ready to fall asleep head-first into his fried rice when he gets a call notification. Video call. Akaashi.

He swipes up to accept, picking his head up and propping his phone up against his glass of water.

Akaashi and Bokuto’s faces pop onto the screen. “Calling a little earlier tonight. Does the old, married couple need to go to bed early?”

“You’re one to talk. From the looks of it you’re already half-asleep.” Akaashi teases back.

“You look like shit.” And there’s Bo.

Kuroo grins from the warm embrace of familiarity, even if it is over a sometimes-fuzzy video connection. “And you look old as shit. Tired of your new batch of undergrads yet?”

Bokuto waves a hand. “Nah. The head coach deals with all the headaches. I’m just, like, also there to nod my head and give advice when he’s somewhere else. I’m like - uh - the team’s big brother, or -” he pinches his lips together in thought, “like the fun uncle. Yea, the team’s fun uncle.”

“Who still gets on their case.” Akaashi adds.

“Well yea! Even fun uncle wants you to get better, obviously.” Bokuto shrugs. “I like it. It’s still good.”

“How’s summer term going?” Kuroo asks, turning his attention to Akaashi.

Akaashi sits up from his slouchy position on the couch. It’s still weird for Kuroo to see that couch in their new place. His friends are always the same, that couch is still old and well-loved, but there’s new art hung around it, new curtains. “Classes are fine. Mind-numbing. My head feels like goo from trying to shove information into it most of the time.” He sighs wistfully. “Remember summer vacation? A guaranteed summer vacation?”

Kuroo sighs, slouching heavily against his arm. “One where you don’t have to stuff in extra courses to finish faster and make all that lawyer money on time?”

Akaashi snickers. “Yea, exactly. Or not going to work for two months because that’s just a thing you get to do?”

“That’d be perfect right about now.” Kuroo sits up to shovel some rice into his mouth.

“I kind of get one.” Bokuto chimes in.

“Quit bragging.” Kuroo sneers.

“It’s only for a couple of weeks! In between incoming freshman training camps. Plus, you’d go nuts with that much free time.” Bokuto points accusatorily at the phone. “You, too.” He adds, glancing over at Akaashi.

Akaashi grins and playfully shoves Bokuto out of frame. He looks at Kuroo. “He’s probably not wrong, you know.”

Kuroo chuckles and thinks of his current schedule, the one he’s been holding down since he stopped trying to force himself unhappily into the business world and threw himself into music and learning to be a tattoo artist. If he’s not working, then he’s rehearsing and recording. If he’s not rehearsing and recording, then he’s performing. And if he’s not doing any of that, he’s working on his musical side projects, or chasing grants for the band, or studying tattoo techniques to improve his craft. The noisy, vibrating hum of creation.

Bokuto pops back in, throwing an arm around Akaashi’s shoulders. “How’s work at the shop?”

It’s Kuroo’s turn to shrug. What is there to share? “Fine. Normal.”

“Has Tsukishima come back in yet?” Bokuto asks, his eyes opening wider.

Kuroo groans. He almost regrets sending them that text the day he say the blond again. Almost. Bokuto hasn’t shut up about it all week. “No, and I don’t know when he’s coming back in to get it finished. I’m not going to ask his artist. That’d be so weird.”

“Why?”

“It’s intrusive, Kou.” Akaashi steps in to help.

“But you know each other!” Bokuto says like it’s a clear-cut fact.

It’s anything but. “Barely. And it’s been a decade. We really don’t.” Plus there’s the fact that I blurted out asking to go get a beer and was immediately shot down.

“I just think it’d be cool, you know.” Bokuto stares intensely into the phone screen. “It could feel like our last year, Kuroo, if we all got together. I could even message Hinata! Oh, my son, I haven’t sent him anything in a while.” Bokuto scrambles for his phone and Akaashi sighs, letting out a soft laugh.

“I don’t think Bokuto feels crippling social rules the same way we do.” Akaashi grins at Bokuto’s back.

Kuroo laughs, too, fondness melting throughout his heart. “Nope, he just barrels right through and is either extremely happy or extremely sad with the result.”

Akaashi glances over to where Bokuto is slamming his thumbs against his phone, no doubt hammering out a typo-filled but exuberant message to Hinata. “And he just wants us all to be happy. Even long-lost Tsukishima.”

“Speaking of which,” Bokuto slides back into full-view. “Are you dating anyone yet?”

“I do not like that your brain connected those two thoughts.” Kuroo says sharply, giving Bokuto a look.

“Nah, nah,” Bokuto shakes his hands, “not like that. Well, not not like that, but like, not like that really, but maybe a little like that--”

“You’re rambling, hon.” Akaashi interjects, running his hand gently up and down Bokuto’s upper arm.

Bokuto takes a quick breath and continues before Kuroo can jump in. “No connection.”

Akaashi leans in to whisper, “He’s lying. He’s been mentioning it all week.”

“‘Kaashi!” Bokuto whines behind him. “Now Kuroo’s going to think I’m weird.”

“Too late, bro. By like, twelve years.” Kuroo laughs, happy for a chance to shift the conversation, but it’s hard to ignore the way Akaashi’s looking at him differently now.

“Yea, you’re right. Good thing we’re all weird.” Bokuto pauses and chews his bottom lip. “I do wish you could find someone as awesome as you, though.”

The shift in tone makes Kuroo feel warm and just a bit sad. This would be so much better in person. “Hard to,” Kuroo deflects with practiced ease, “too busy to date. At least that’s what they all say when I inevitably get dumped.”

And it’s true. He knows it is. He can’t even blame them all that much when they walk away and the routine of it all is making it start to hurt less, too. Kuroo doesn’t have time to invest in a relationship now. There’s too many other things he’s chasing.

“Well they’re idiots.” Akaashi adds, smiling. “I mean, you’re an idiot, too, but the good kind.”

“Thanks, guys. Now can we change the subject? I’d rather not get emotional in front of my dinner.” He casts a forlorn gaze down at his rapidly cooling fried rice.

They fall back into easy habits, talking about nothing important. What they’re watching on Netflix. Akaashi’s niece’s birthday party. Shared memories where they each jump in with the different parts they remembered. Kuroo finishes his dinner and starts to droop, his eyelids growing heavy. There’s talk of a visit soon, of Bokuto and Akaashi taking the bullet train up to see family and friends over a long weekend.

Kuroo always intends to head down there, too, but time slips away quickly and plans go unfulfilled.

At least they understand. And it’ll be nice to see them both later in the month.

By the time they hang up, Kuroo’s yawning so hard it hurts his jaw. He pulls himself into the shower. The morning shower is for a few moments of shocking cold. The evening one is to actually wipe off the filth of the day, but it’s hard to want to stand up any longer, and he does his best before collapsing into his bed on top of the covers. It’s warm tonight. I can sleep like this, he reasons. And before he even has time to change his mind and get under his sheets, he’s dead asleep.

Chapter Text

Tsukishima

“I like your new panda.” Tsukishima smiles into his video camera as his two-year old niece continues to ramble on about the small, squishy panda toy whose eyes grow bigger when she squeezes it in between her tiny hands. He nods along, showing he’s listening because, well, he actually is. Not that Emi seems to notice one way or the other unless she’s holding something up for him to see.

“Me, too!” Yamaguchi pops into the screen after setting down a bag of food on his coffee table.

His niece’s eyes grow a bit bigger and she smiles wide, going back into her pile of panda toys to show it off for her “Uncle Tadashi,” too. With how many times Emi’s seen him at family gatherings, it’s no wonder she’ll have no idea he isn’t a blood relative of the Tsukishimas until she’s much older.

Tsukishima laughs as the video camera follows her down a hallway in his brother’s home. Emi’s picking up stuffed pandas along the way, telling her uncles all about each one until she throws them on her bed.

He hears Akiteru’s voice gently remind her not to throw them and she picks one up to give it a kiss as an apology.

Tsukishima knows he must be biased, but clearly Emi is the best kid in the world.

The video flips around and Tsukishima sees his brother looking tired, but happy. “Well, it’s time for bed in this house, even though the sun’s still up.”

“I’m just about to eat dinner, you old fart.” Tsukishima snorts.

“We did that about, uh, two hours ago. Now it’s time to get this one to bed so we can have our blissful thirty, forty minutes of TV before we also fall asleep. On the couch. Like we do everyday.” Akiteru laughs. “It was good to see you, too, Tadashi. Hope we see you next time Kei comes up for a visit.”

“Plan to!” Yamaguchi replies.

The camera flips again and Emi’s haphazardly pulling her blankets up around her. “Good night, Uncle Kei. Good night, Uncle Tadashi.”

“Good night, Emi!” Yamaguchi smiles and then excuses himself to go back to the kitchen.

Tsukishima appreciates the moment to be sappy without anyone else bearing witness. “Good night, Emi. I love you.”

“How much?” She giggles, familiar with their routine, her toes wiggling under the covers.

“So much.” He answers back, the same way he does every call.

Akiteru flips the phone around again. “I love you, too. Sooooo much.” He grins and sticks his tongue out.

“It’s gross when you say it.”

“Still true. G’night, Kei.”

“Night, Aki.”

When Yamaguchi comes back, he’s juggling two bowls, spoons, and two cans of soda. He plops them on the coffee table and then grins at Tsukishima. “Being an uncle has made you so soft.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s a good look on you.”

Tsukishima clicks his tongue in feigned annoyance and they fall back into easy conversation as they dole out servings of sodium-rich, take out curry and turn on a movie neither of them are going to pay much attention to. They’re working their way through a terrible action movie franchise that Tsukishima’s never seen. Yamaguchi swears it's worth suffering through the bad writing, that it’s “the good kind of bad.”

A couple of minutes in, Yamaguchi leans over, careful not to spill his curry, and sniffs Tsukishima’s shoulder. “Did you smoke today?”

I thought I covered it up better. Guess not. Tsukishima grimaces, setting his eyes on the TV. “Just the one.” He replies casually, not actually feeling casual at all. He braces himself for another passive aggressive comment or a lecture but instead --

Yamaguchi sighs. “Kei.” His friend leaves him to stew for a minute and he does, pushing down whatever defensiveness that rises up in him like a reflex. The rules are different with Yamaguchi. They always have been. He waits for his well-deserved comment.

Instead his friend just frees up a hand and flicks him hard in the upper arm. “No one’s going to want to kiss you when you smell like the bottom of a garbage can.”

“I do not.”

Yamaguchi just raises an eyebrow.

“I do not.” He repeats, but at least Yamaguchi’s chuckling now and making him feel a little less like he just got in trouble. “I just -- happy hour with the other translators was -- my nerves were shot.”

Yamaguchi glances back at the movie, shoves a spoonful of curry into his mouth. “Why do you go to those things if they make you so anxious?”

“You know I don’t have a choice. You go to all of your school’s work-party-things.”

“That’s different. I like my coworkers - the second grade team knows how to bring it when we go out.”

He’s got me there, Kei thinks. “I have to go. It’s not like I can meet everyone in the office, sit through a two-hour meeting and then bounce. I tried once. It wasn’t worth all the questioning.”

There’s not a single one of the translators on the remote work team that he’d spend any time with outside of the work events. He tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, and maybe they’re all just introverts who chose to work from home so they could get away with as few interactions as possible, and maybe that’s why they all stick with the most basic, boring topics anyone can think of, but even with that in mind, Tsukishima’s always counting down the minutes until it’s socially acceptable to leave.

“Well, fine. Go. But quit smoking.”

“I have!”

“All the way. Like I said, no one’s gonna want to kiss your trash mouth.”

“Not looking for anyone to kiss my trash mouth right now.” Tsukishima waits for Yamaguchi to chime in with his usual agreement, their familiar salute to singlehood.

Instead Yamaguchi smirks and then buries his smile behind more curry.

Tsukishima pauses the movie and gives his friend a look. “What was that all about?”

“Nothing big, just -” the grin creeps back in place. Is he blushing? “A date. A few dates.”

“Who? Someone I’ve met?”

“Not, uh, someone, more like, a couple of someones.”

“Elaborate. Now.”

Yamaguchi sets down his food and waves his hands in an embarrassed frenzy. “Nothing scandalous! Just, I’m not looking for anything serious yet, but I wanted to try dating again. It’s been, I don’t know, fun? Yea, fun. A little fun.”

Tsukishima feels his stomach drop with - what - disappointment? Surprise? But the rest of him, the better sides of him, are happy to see his friend looking glad to be back out there again. Yamaguchi was never one to stay down for long. “I’m glad.” He says and pauses before continuing, his mouth drawn in a tight, thin line. “Just make sure they’re nice to you.”

Yamaguchi smiles. “I will.”

They eat for a few moments with the soundtrack of labored dialogue and car explosions on the TV in front of them. Tsukishima’s scraping his spoon along the edge of his bowl to get the last bits of delicious, cheap curry into his mouth when Yamaguchi speaks again.

“It just felt like it was time and, I don’t know, a coworker suggested this dumb app and instead of immediately saying ‘no’ I just tried it. It couldn’t hurt, right?”

They share a knowing look and both laugh. It’s one that bubbles up out of their chests and erupts, half-bitter, half-elated, and all friendship, that ability to know everything the other person is saying without them having to say it.

Because of course it could hurt. They’ve both been on the healing end of rough breakups for the better part of a year, even longer for Tsukishima. For so many months now it’s been just the two of them again, like it used to be. No boyfriends demanding their time. It’s been nice, but I guess it had to end some time.

“As long as you’re having fun.” It grows quiet, well, as quiet as it can be with a shoot out between car theives and police screeches out from the TV.

They’ve been a bit too sincere for a bit too long. Tsukishima searches for a way back to enjoying dinner and a dumb movie. “I’d pay money to see your profile pic on that app.”

Tsukishima smirks and lunges for his best friend’s phone. Yamaguchi cries out, “No!” His voice breaking with howling laughter. “You can’t see that side of me.” He grips his phone tightly in both hands and holds it close to his side. “You’d never be able to unsee it, Kei.”

“Come on, it can’t be anything I haven’t seen already. I’ve known you forever.”

Yamaguchi stares at him, eyes wide and dancing with mischief. “It is.” He says seriously, but there’s laughter threatening to burst through just behind it. “I’ll make a deal. You can see mine once you make a profile.”

Tsukishima sits back against the couch. “No thanks.”

“Come on. I bet you’d pull some serious interest. You could be like hey boys, I write crime stories and have hipster glasses. Check out my tattoos. I’m so-o-o-o interesting.” As he speaks, Yamaguchi does his impression of Tsukishima but he adds poses for profile pictures that Tsukishima would never, ever do in real life.

“Rude.” Tsukishima smirks.

Yamaguchi just laughs. “But really, even if you don’t want to go the app route, maybe it’s time to meet more people in general. Not like, romantically, even. Just, someone besides those translators you work with.”

“I hang out with the illustrators I met through Yachi.”

“Oh yea! See, you got this. Any of them interest you?”

“I thought you just said it didn’t have to be romantic.”

“I lied.” Yamaguchi grins. “No but really, I think it’s time we both tried some new things to get out of our comfortable ruts.”

Tsukishima dumps the rest of the curry from the container into his bowl. “I like the comfortable rut.”

“Me, too, but different can be good.” Yamaguchi turns his attention back to the movie, but Tsukishima can’t miss the grin that slides into place across his face. “You could take Kuroo up on that offer to go get a beer next time you go in for your tattoo.”

Tsukishima’s still not sure why he told his friend about that encounter. It’s come up more times over the past couple of weeks than he’s comfortable with. But for the record, he’s comfortable talking about Kuroo zero times. Exactly zero times.

“You didn’t even remember him!” Tsukishima throws back, recalling the text chain right after he left the shop lasts time.

“Only at first.” Yamaguchi defends. “I sort of remembered him. I don’t know, it could be fun, catching up with someone you used to talk to.”

“Could be fun. More than likely wouldn't be.” The potential for awkward small talk is way too high. There’s no way. I can’t imagine what we’d even talk about.

“It’d be, like, what? An hour? You could do an hour.”

Tsukishima flicks his attention towards the TV. “These movies are just over an hour long and I can barely stomach them.” As if on cue, there’s a massive explosion on screen and Yamaguchi chuckles beside him. “How many of these are left in the series?” Tsukishima asks, starting to collect dishes to bring them to Yamaguchi’s kitchen.

Yamaguchi gracefully lets go of the earlier conversation. “Six.”

Tsukishima freezes in place. “Wha - how?”

“And they get better every time. By the latest one, they don’t even pretend to have a plot. It’s fantastic.”

“I’m going to die before we get there, aren’t I?”

“Probably.”

“Can’t wait.” Tsukishima walks the dirty dishes back to the kitchen, half-listening to the terrible dialogue on-screen and Yamaguchi reciting his favorite lines, and thinks, this. This is good. I don’t need or want anything more than what I have right now.

 

***

 

The next time Tsukishima goes to the shop for his appointment, he finds his eyes wandering past the waiting room and into the studio. Yamaguchi doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s no guarantee that Kuroo’s even going to - oh - a chair swivels into view and then there’s that mop of chaotic black hair.

Kuroo’s brows are pinched together in concentration. The woman in his chair laughs like she made some short of joke, but Kuroo waits a moment, still too focused, before he looks up and responds with a laugh of his own, the bassy sound of it carrying all the way through to the waiting room.

He wipes the area on her thigh where he’s working, reaches back to where his ink is neatly arranged, and then turns back to his work, the cackle fading into an intense focus once again. Tsukishima watches him work, the careful way his hands move --

“--Tsukishima-san?”

He snaps back into himself to reply to the woman at the front desk. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“It’ll be a few minutes before he’s ready, so feel free to have a seat while you wait.”

“Yea, no problem. I’m early anyway.”

Tsukishima sits in one of the hard, plastic chairs and opens the book he brought on his lap. Last time he was here, he found it easy to be pulled back into his reading, even with the metal music playing, but today he rereads the same paragraph three times before giving up and letting his eyes wander the shop.

His eyes dart between the art hung on the walls. That one looks like a blue version of one of Yachi’s crime scenes. Weird. At least that one looks like something. Nice flowers, even if they are a bit abstract. Kuroo’s wearing a black t-shirt today. Tsukishima sharply pulls his eyes back to the walls. It works for all of five seconds before he’s inwardly remarking on the impossible tightness of the fabric around Kuroo’s upper arms.

Tsukishima groans inwardly at his own reactions until he finds the most rational explanation. It’s natural for me to be curious. He reasons. After all, I look a lot different than I did back then. It’s how the brain processes discrepant information. I have an expectation based on previous information. Current reality is different. I intake data. My brain learns new information.

He feels a bit better, relaxing a little against the back of the chair. But until he’s called back, Tsukishima holds his book up in front of his face.

 

***

 

When his artist comes to get him, Tsukishima tries hard to keep his body turned away from Kuroo and prays that the other man’s much too focused on his work to notice him walking through.

Even if Kuroo does look his way, Tsukishima won’t see it, won’t know about it, will make sure it's the furthest thing from his mind. So stop thinking about it now, he fusses at himself and small talks with his artist about how it’s healed so far.

Once he’s back in the chair, Tsukishima’s able to close his eyes and ignore the rest of the room. He’s glad his feet are pointed towards a wall and that his artist isn’t the talking type.

Except for the moments when he pauses to drink water and let the worst of the pain pass through him, Tsukishima sits back and revels in the almost meditative-like state he feels when he gets a new tattoo, listening to the hum and feeling the vibrations of the machine at work on his skin.

When it’s all said and done, he feels tired and has to finish the rest of the water bottle they gave him before he feels alert enough to stand on his own two feet. He saunters to the mirror and can’t help but smiliing at the finished piece. It’s so much better than he imagined.

The shading on the tree itself is beyond anything he could have hoped for. It looks almost real. And then the books -- their colors aren’t too loud, they somehow all fit together. And yet each one has something bright and unique about it. He turns back around. “It’s amazing. Thank you.” He says, voice a little quieter than he intended and the stoic older man just gives him a small nod of appreciation.

It’s only then that Tsukishima realizes that Kuroo’s station is empty. Something small that tastes like disappointment begins to gnaw away at the wonderful feeling he got when he looked in the mirror.

It’s fine. I didn’t want to do anything anyway. Dodged that bullet. He gathers his things, takes a second to admire the work once again in the huge mirror, and ducks back out to the waiting room.

Kuroo’s there, leaning against the front desk and chatting with the woman who greeted him earlier. Tsukishima feels his legs grow rigid as he continues walking like nothing has changed. When he stops, he makes sure his body is angled so his back is to Kuroo. He makes it look like he’s just resting his arm, which is a good excuse because it truly is tender as hell and he very much would like to rest it for a minute. Or ten.

She turns her head and looks ecstatic to see him, or more accurately, the finished tattoo. “Oh, Iwaguchi-san, you’ve done it again.” She looks Tsukishima in the eye, her grungy, goth look completely in contrast with her upbeat tone. “You’ll have to come back once it’s all healed. I have a feeling he’s going to want a picture of this.”

The older artist shrugs. “All my work is excellent.” There’s a spark of something in his eyes, but his tone remains flat. “But it’s true that this one was interesting.”

“See?” The woman at the desk points at him. “He’s over the moon. Sorry he’s got no personality.”

“I rather appreciated that part.” Tsukishima says.

Iwaguchi grins. “He understands. A good client. Come back or don’t, up to you. But do call or email me if you have questions while it heals.”

They say goodbye after Tsukishima thanks him again, but as Tsukishima settles his bill, he can feel a set of eyes on him. This whole time he’s tried to keep his body turned so he didn’t have to look directly at Kuroo, but he’s getting harder to ignore. Did he wait for me or something? Suddenly all the advice Yamaguchi gave him feels like a pack of lies. This is so much harder than he makes it sound.

“Mind if I have a look?” He hears Kuroo say behind him. “I don’t hide the fact that I’m a huge fan of Iwaguchi’s work.”

Tsukishima’s whole body feels tense again, but he tries to move like it isn’t. He holds out his left arm and both Kuroo and the woman get a closer look. Under the tight, clear bandage there’s already some plasma creating tiny colorful rivers, but Tsukishima still looks on it with pride even though he didn’t make it happen. He did create it, though. It exists in the first place because of him. The idea was something he’d thought about for some time now.

He lets them make say nice things about their coworker’s artistry while he searches for a totally normal and human thing to say after the silence goes on a bit too long. “How have you been?”

Kuroo looks up from his arm and that toothy grin of his stretches across his face. Tsukishima can imagine that same grin behind a volleyball net. “Eh, not much. Work. Playing shows.”

“You’re in a band?” Tsukishima keeps his elbow resting on the desk because it feels better than letting it hang by his side right now, but he slowly pulls it away from the other two. The woman sits back down and returns to furiously typing at her computer.

“Two actually.” And it’s clear from the way his smile grows that this is exactly where he wanted the conversation to go. That face is familiar, too familiar. The years apart haven’t changed it at all. I almost expect him to call me ‘Tsukki’ and either tease me or try to pull a compliment out of me.

Tsukishima tries to leave no room in the conversation for either. “That’s interesting.” Not ‘cool,’ he’d probably make some comment about me calling him ‘cool.’ ‘Interesting’ is fine.

“How about you?”

It’s so normal and bland, Tsukishima’s a little surprised. He recalibrates, replies with the same, boring lines he uses on everyone else. “Good, just work. Not much else.” He wills his mouth shut before he mentions his writing, not even sure why the thought came to his mind at all.

He watches Kuroo rock on his heels. At the same time Tsukishima catches himself worrying his fingers at the hem of his shirt. Tsukishima forces his hand to be still. He wants, so badly, for this interaction to be over. The forced nature of it is agonizing.

But he’s also not sure if he’ll see Kuroo again.

And he’s not sure why that bothers him.

Tsukishima looks away from where Kuroo’s biting his top lip. He didn’t even realize he was staring. Tsukishima’s eyes dart up, his eyes meeting Kuroo’s in a much-too-close stare. His mouth starts moving before his brain can put a stop to it, “If you still wanted to grab a beer and catch up sometime, that’d be okay.”

For a moment, the only thing he can hear is his stupid heartbeat, and the only thing he can feel is the bothersome flush of sheer embarrassment threatening to creep up from his chest to his neck. What a stupid thing to say. It was dumb when he said it last time and it’s even worse for me to repeat it now.

“Yea, that’d be awesome.” Kuroo stands up a little straighter, squares his shoulders. That grin stays glued in place. “Not today, though. I literally just told my last client that she’d have to turn down drinks tonight. Bad idea with all the, uh, extra blood and juice swimming around.” Kuroo motions towards Tsukishima’s arm.

Tsukishima’s thoughts are so loud he nearly forgets to listen. “Oh yea, not a good mix. So-- great, some other day--” Tsukishima reaches for his phone. That’s probably the next natural step. Pick a day? Exchange numbers? He’ll just have to make sure Kuroo doesn’t see that he still has his from years ago.

“I have a show on Saturday. You want to come to that? The cover charge is only 500 yen, but,” he clicks his tongue and winks, “I can get you in for free.”

Still a giant dork. A live show, that's okay. Tsukishima loves music and he hasn't been to a show in a while. His tastes are particular though. And there will be a crowd. Probably drunk people. Maybe in a small room. It’s not Tsukishima’s first choice. Or his second. Or twentieth. But Yamaguchi picks that exact moment to run back through his mind - different can be good. Tsukishima inwardly groans, I’ll be sure to yell at him later when I hate this.

“Yea, why not?” Tsukishima says, even though he can think of so many reasons why not -- at least we won’t really be able to talk, not like a slow, awkward conversation at a bar. A silver lining. “I can give you my number so you can text me the details.”

Kuroo’s grin slips a little. He rocks back on his heels again, back and forth. “Weird story, I, uh, still have your number from years ago. Guess it just moved with me from phone-to-phone.”

Tsukishima’s not at all sure what to do with that information, so he quickly pushes it out of his mind. “Alright, well, just let me know and I’ll be there.” Tsukishima slowly moves his arm off the desk top and shifts his shoulder bag like he’s ready to leave.

He is ready to leave. Really ready now.

Kuroo looks excited. Too excited. “Awesome. It’s on Saturday, so I guess I’ll see you Saturday.” And then Kuroo gives him an honest-to-god thumbs up. It hovers there between them until Kuroo shoves his hand into his jeans pocket.

Suddenly Tsukishima feels better, like he can’t possibly be the most awkward person in the room. He relaxes a little. “I guess so. Good seeing you.” He makes a small wave, takes a few steps towards the door, and immediately tenses up again when Kuroo takes a step towards him.

Thankfully, he stops. That grin spreads from ear-to-ear again. “Yea, you, too. And the new tattoo really does look awesome.”

Tsukishima tries his best to make a very normal, not too weird, not too rude smile of his own. Years of Yamaguchi’s comments on his behavior are playing on a loop in his head. “Thanks. See you Saturday.” He’s almost certain he looks like an insane robot.

But Kuroo just waves before he turns to leave. “See ya!”

 

***

 

As he walks out of the shop, Tsukishima takes a deep breath and tries to relax his shoulders. It doesn’t work very well. He unlocks his phone and quickly types a message to Yamaguchi--
[17:58]: You need to get out of my head.
[17:58]: Also I’m possibly going to send Mister to murder you.

The reply is instant --
Tadashi [17:59]: He never would! He loves me.
Tadashi [18:00]: Also, haaaaa, what’d I do this time?

Tsukishima groans aloud, tilting his head back until the summer sun forces him to look back down. He types out his reply but it takes him a while to press send.
[18:03]: I’m going to see Kuroo-san’s band play show on Saturday.
[18:03]: what a ridiculous sentence that is.

Tadashi [18:03]: \(^▽^)/

 

***

 

Tsukishima’s lying on the couch with Mister purring loudly on his stomach from all the pampering and pets he’s received this evening when his phone vibrates. He picks it up, expecting it to be Yamaguchi again, but instead he sees Kuroo’s name flash across the screen--

Kuroo-san [20:08]: For Saturday, the doors open at 7. We’re the second opener. Should be on around 9.
Kuroo-san [20:08]: We’re “Glory Days.” Cheesy, I know.
Kuroo-san [20:10]: Here’s the address and a picture of what the place looks like. See you there! Happy healing!

Tsukishima throws his head back against his throw pillows. “Mister,” he whines, stroking the white spot on his cat’s head, “I’m such an idiot.”

Chapter Text

Kuroo

The moment the door closes behind Tsukishima, Ibuki’s mouth drops open in a silent elated scream and her wide eyes fall on Kuroo. “What happened to you? Did your brain stop working?”

“It wasn’t--”

“You gave him a thumbs up. You said awesome three times.”

Kuroo groans, wiping his hands down his face. “I know! I know. It’s like once I thought of the word awesome the only think I could think was awesome, awesome, awesome.

“I was literally giving Nakayama a play-by-play of your little disaster.”

“What?” Kuroo shrieks. “You didn’t.”

Ibuki flips her work laptop screen around and there’s her messaging app, documenting minute-by-minute everything that just happened. With Nakayama adding her own colorful commentary, of course.

Kuroo slumps against the counter part of her desk. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

“Not at first. First you were a human, but then--” Ibuki sits back in her chair, points with two cheesy finger-guns and recites, “but I can get you in for free.” She then winks with her whole face.

Kuroo laughs hard and stands back up. “I did not do finger guns.”

“Everything you said had the spirit of finger guns, so I added them.”

“Did I really wink?”

“You really did.” Ibuki checks her phone when it vibrates with an incoming message. “Nakayama is certain you’re in love with this guy and that you’re hiding a much more interesting backstory.”

“Tell her no, for the last time, no. I told her the whole story. There was nothing back then.”

“But now?” Ibuki leans forward on her elbows on her desktop. She wiggles her eyebrows, her piecing accentuating the movement. “He’s hot, Kuroo. You should hit that. Just get up in there and make a mess.”

She tilts her chin at the last bit, smug in her own filth. Kuroo has no idea what Ibuki’s like in her personal life. He’s curious but also does not want to know.

“I don’t want to hit that.” Kuroo says, his voice drifting off towards the end. He’s never once been the hit it and quit it guy, never had a one night stand. Well, at least not one where he knew that’s what it was. He’s always been the idiot who caught feelings fast and thought it was going somewhere. Dating’s better. Even when it always ends. But I don’t want to--

“But you do want to do something, right? You invited him to your show. While repeating the word awesome.

“I don’t know. He’s just--” Kuroo tries to place the feelings he’s been having. It’s not his normal instant attraction. And he can’t remember the last time he sounded that stupid by accident. On purpose, for laughs, sure, but not when he was trying to have a regular conversation. “He’s so much different than he used to be.”

“In a good way?”

“I guess it’s good. Like, surprised the hell out of me good. But he’s also still himself. I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“But,” she pauses, a mischievous look in her eye, “you definitely want to put your face on his face.”

“No. Plus, there’s absolutely no signs he’d even be interested.”

“You’ve got to be blind. Or an idiot. Or both.”

“Good night, Ibuki.” Kuroo rolls his eyes and grabs his bag from the floor.

“No!” She yells, throwing out both her arms. She drops back into the cute voice she only uses for customers. “Please? Stay and keep me company until I’m done.”

“You probably would be finished if you were actually working this whole time and not texting Nakayama about me.”

Ibuki switches back to her natural voice. “Yea, probably. But what’s the fun in that?”

Kuroo huffs in protest but he settles into the extra desk chair beside her. From there he can see most of what the two of them were talking about and he feels a hot flush creeping up his neck.

At least Ibuki takes mercy on him and they switch to talking about their respective creative outlets. Ibuki types away on the keyboard completing the schedule for the next two weeks as she describes some of the new pieces she’s working on. She tells him about her oil paintings that are going to be part of a show in the next few weeks. “I’m going through a floral phase, yea? But I’m working in technological elements, too. So, picture, like, a cherry blossom limb with wires running through it or a lily with gears down the stem.” She shrugs like it’s nothing, but Kuroo knows better.

He’s seen her art before -- big and bold, vibrant and colorful -- so different from her all-black outfits. Several of the pieces in the waiting room are hers, and Kuroo thinks that before he leaves this shop one day he’ll get her to design something and have Iwaguchi be the one who makes it a piece of him forever.

Ibuki asks him about the new EP, how it’s coming along. Kuroo talks about it like a proud father. In front of someone like Ibuki who also creates things and shoves them out into the world in their vulnerable state, he feels safe gushing over the parts that he’s most excited about and, probably just as importantly, venting his current frustrations. She celebrates with him, commisterates, too, until they lock up and part ways outside the shop.

Kuroo walks back towards the train station humming bars of the yet-unnamed song and overthinking the set list for Saturday a little more than he usually would.

 

***

 

The green room at Glory Days’ favorite venue is hardly that. It’s more like purgatory between the bar and the stage, a place where all the chairs are a little bit broken and there’s that one fluorescent light that’s been flickering since they began performing here over a year ago.

Kuroo’s off to himself, as much as he can be in the tiny room, leaning on his forearms in one of the broken chairs, drumming his pen again the notepad in his hands, and trying very hard not to walk back out to the bar to see if a certain blond is out in the crowd yet.

“What about if we put ‘Heart of Darkness’ right before ‘Restart?’”

Oyori and Alisa look up from where they’re hunched together on the old sofa, looking at animal videos Alisa’s stockpiled over the past few days. They’re currently replaying two otters holding hands while sleeping. Alisa’s clutching her hands against her chest like it’s causing her physical pain and Oyori has a gentle smile peeking out from behind their long, black hair - the most Oyori will ever emote.

“Why are you messing with the setlist again?” Oyori asks, annoyance in their voice.

Alisa’s kinder. “We already liked the one we had. Ran through it in practice. Flowed well.”

“I just wonder if--”

“You’re overthinking.” Tora’s stretching off in his own corner. His shirt’s already gone. Somewhere. Of course it is.

The sound of the band currently playing keeps making them raise the level of their voices, even in the tiny room. They’re loud, getting the crowd moving from the vibrations in the floor, but -- unedited, Kuroo thinks, like we used to be.

“I still think we should throw in another song from the EP.” Soga doesn’t look up from his laptop where he’s editing photos of the band to post later.

Kuroo throws up a hand, “See! I agree. We could--”

“No,” Tora throws his head back, “we’re not having that discussion again. One’s good.”

Kenma walks in through the back door carrying a box. He shoots Kuroo a look the moment the heavy metal door slams behind him. “I’m not selling merch tonight. One of you can do it.” He drops the box on the floor and slumps into the couch next to Oyori and Alisa.

“Not it!” Alisa shouts, giggling and sticking her finger on the tip of her nose.

The rest of the group follows suit and only Kuroo is too slow to the draw.

Kuroo leans back against his chair, resigned to his fate, for all of ten seconds before he remembers why he absolutely cannot sell merch tonight.

He sets his eyes on Kenma across the room and tries as hard as he can to say in a pitiful look, “please, Kenma, my best friend, light of my life, I cannot sell merch because Tsukishima might be here, no, will be here or is here already and I have to talk to him.”

Kenma stares back, eyes blank. “What?”

The rest of the band is in the dark about his current Definitely Not a Big Deal situation and he’d prefer to keep it that way as long as possible. Kuroo pulls out his phone and hammers out a message --

[20:17]: Kenmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
[20:17]: I can’t sell shit today, remember?

Kenma Kitty [20:17]: why

[20:17]: you KNOW why. Scroll up if you’ve magically forgotten

Kenma Kitty [20:18]: I remember - I just wanted you to say it
Kenma Kitty [20:18]: you’re making a really big deal out of it

[20:18]: it’s not a big deal, I just want to be polite
[20:18]: you know, ‘cause I invited him and all

Kenma Kitty [20:18]: mmhmm
Kenma Kitty [20:18]: but I’m not selling things - I did it last time and it was horrible - so many people - figure it out

Kuroo groans and melts back into his chair. A few heads turn in his direction. “Guys, can I please not sell merch tonight? I’ve got a good reason.”

Tora stretches his arms up towards the ceiling then settles his hands on his hips looking down at Kuroo. “Oh yea, like what? Is it that bartender, the uh, the one with the short hair, calls you ‘Kuroo-chan,’” he acts out flirty gestures with Soga as he talks, “and makes you better drinks than we all get? Oh wait no, that’d be two bartenders in a row, hmm, but the last one was a dude, so maybe that doesn’t count --”

“No, no, Tora it’s not the bartender. It’s an old friend. You, uh, might remember him actually. Tall, blond haired middle blocker from Karasuno the year I was captain. Tsukishima.”

Yamamoto pinches his brows together and his lip curls while he thinks. “Did he have shitty face?”

“That’s rude, man.”

“No, like, he did this a lot--” What follows is a pretty good impression of the way Tsukishima would stare at opposing players across the net. Smug, full of attitude. But Tora forgot the shrewd calculating part.

“Yea, that’s the one.”

Tora scrunches his face. “Why’s he here?”

The question is lost when a spark of recognition lights in Alisa’s eyes. “Wait, was he the one with those, like, goggle glasses? I think I remember him from the year I went to Nationals.”

And suddenly there’s a way more people talking about Tsukishima than he would have liked. Alisa and Tora keep trying to place him, but the conversation mercifully flows to just reminiscing over that year they went to Nationals together and no one remembers to ask “why’s he here?” again.

Except Kenma. He stares at Kuroo, one eyebrow ever so slightly raised, looking like he’s feeling his familiar mix of exasperation and understanding.

Kuroo looks back the notepad, mentally running through the setlist one more time and waiting for that rush of chaotic confidence that hits him like a freight train once they’re on stage.

 

***

 

Tora says the moment he walks out on stage, drum sticks in hand, shirt already off, he feels like he’s breathing in lightning, like the crowd and the lights are all some sort of power that takes over his whole body.

Alisa says that no matter how many times she’s taken the mic on stage, it still feels like the first time. She gets a rush of jitters, her heartbeat races, then her bandmates start playing and she forgets about her nerves. She falls in love with the songs all over again and sings her heart out for them.

Oyori says it’s the most calm they ever feel, that those moments right before touching the strings on their bass are when they feel the most at home.

Soga says he focuses on the audience, takes a moment to look at as many faces as he can because that’s his favorite part of this whole sometimes ridiculous, always exciting thing they do. He soaks in that anticipation, that tension, this almost spiritual link with a small sea of strangers.

For Kuroo, when he walks out he lets each step put more distance between himself and the business of running a band. His constant inner monologue over the setlist, their merch, their marketing grows quieter with each step until it’s silent. He can see the crowd, knows they’re noisy, but he doesn’t hear much of anything at all. The hum of the hustle morphs into a feeling like he’s in plane staring down at the Earth, his toes hanging off the edge, then he nods to Alisa and jumps.

Their set starts loud and heavy, dropping in hard, all guitar and drums demanding to hold the attention of the room. Alisa screams her way into the song and then it’s quiet. Alisa sings the first few bars of the verse, gentle but building to another drop.

It’s jarring, or at least Kuroo hopes it is. He likes to shove and then pull back, to be loud and then make everyone listen to the stillness that follows. Not every song is like this, but Glory Days has been opening with this one every time and he’s never been disappointed with the reaction.

Not that Kuroo would know from the audience’s faces. Kuroo never looks at individuals in the crowd. It’s too hard to focus when he’s in the flow of playing and he’s trained himself to look above them, to not hang up on any one person’s reaction. But he does feel the energy of the room. It starts low with so many new ears unsure of what they’re about to hear. He waits, impatiently, for that energy to grow, for the bodies jostling around to dive with him into the moment.

Some nights are better than others. Some crowds are better than others. Tonight’s vibe is a good one and he feels like he can ride that energy through the rest of the set and off into the rest of the night. His confidence spikes. During a speedy water break he toys with the end of t-shirt, deciding. He makes the mistake of scanning the crowd.

Off to the left, opposite the bar. By himself. Blond hair. Tall. Tough to see clearly in the crowd, but impossible not to notice tonight.

Kuroo feels another swell of of the crowd’s energy rush through him. He grabs a handful of his shirt from the back and yanks it off his head. He looks back in Tsukishima’s direction, smirks, and picks up his guitar. He closes his eyes and breathes in the moment, waiting for Tora to count them back in to the next song.

I’ll give him something to think about later.

Chapter Text

Tsukishima

Saturday morning, Tsukishima wakes up later than he would have liked. He worked late with Yachi the night before. They’ve been trying to get on the less-stressful side of some deadlines. Not to mention they’re also doubling down on their efforts to tailor their work to send off to specific publishers.

They agree that it doesn’t need to be traditional publishing. They just want something that will get them somewhere in the long-term. Somewhere that might support them past just giving them access to publish on an app and then taking a lot of money off the top like their current situation. It feels like they’ve been throwing their work out into the void for months now and he wishes he could catch some of Yachi’s optimism.

When Tsukishima turns over on his pillow, Mister is right there beside him, pressing his face against him in an urgent need for food. Mister’s a quiet cat, but he speaks volumes with his impatient shoves. Tsukishima gives him gentle morning scratches, thanking him for at least waiting until his owner started moving to begin begging. He’ll just ignore the fact that his cat was definitely staring at him while he slept.

In his kitchen, there’s coffee growing cold and sludgy in his automatic coffee maker. He was ambitious when he set the timer last night, thinking he’d get up at a reasonable hour. He dumps a hearty amount in a pale blue mug and sets it in his microwave to warm it up. After feeding Mister, he watches his mug turn on the glass plate and stops the appliance right before it hits zero because he hates the sound it makes. Grabbing a granola bar, he makes his way to his couch and picks up his laptop.

He barely manages to open it before Mister sits on his keyboard. “Okay, okay, I can take a hint.” Tsukishima lets him sit there, scratches his ears and his neck while holding his coffee in his other hand. He stares out at the late morning sun through his sliding glass door and wonders if he should move his succulents so they can get more light in the morning.

Mister abruptly leaps off his lap, apparently done with physical touch for now and saunters back towards his food bowl in the kitchen.

The email notification on his laptop sounds. His phone vibrates beside him twice in a row. He sighs. The day’s already catching up with me.

The first is a calendar reminder on his phone. Kuroo’s show. Tonight. He winces, already feeling the swell of anxiety brewing in his stomach. But the guilt he feels from cancelling plans is always worse than the knot in his guts from going. He’ll go. It’s fine.

He checks the next notification. A text from Yachi--

Yachi [11:04]: CHECK YOUR EMAIL RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!

Tsukishima sets down his phone and does what the screaming text tells him. There’s a lot of junk, but a few lines down from the top is a message from an unfamiliar sender. The name rings a bell in the back of his mind but he can’t place it. The subject says, “Request for Meeting.” Things start clicking together. Quickly, Tsukishima opens the email and his suspicions are wonderfully confirmed.

Months ago now, they’d sent off their work during a publisher’s open call for submissions. And now someone wants to meet with them. Soon. She liked the story. It has potential, but there are others in the running. Needs to meet with them first.

He presses the call button as soon as his fingers work. Yachi picks up the phone with a high-pitched yell.

“I know.” He replies.

Yachi just keeps screaming. His face breaks out in a grin and he waits for her lungs to wear out.

“Did you read it?” She gasps.

“Obviously.”

From there the conversation goes so fast, his head spins. Yachi starts. “She gave a couple days, when do we--”

“I’m fine any day, work from home, so--”

“I don’t care. Any day!”

“But you work--”

“I. Don’t. Care. I’ll take off work. Or quit. I hate it there.”

“Don’t quit.”

“I know, but --”

“What day?”

Yachi makes a sound of frustration on the other end. Tsukishima can hear paper shuffling. “Tuesday, I can do the Tuesday slot she offered.”

“Tuesday it is.”

Yachi squeaks out a little scream again. “I know it’s not certain but --”

“I was just about to say that but I didn’t want to sound like a jerk.”

She laughs until her voice levels out again. “You’re not a jerk. Just practical. But my god, it’s something. For the first time in months it’s something.”

It might not go anywhere, but she’s right. It’s something. “What are you doing for lunch? I just woke up and have an old granola bar next to me that I didn’t eat yet.”

They make plans to have a working lunch to prepare. Yachi practically vibrates through the whole thing. Tsukishima feels like he can hear her thoughts they’re so loud.

He doesn’t text anything to Yamaguchi or Aki yet, though. It’s way too soon.

 

***

 

The afternoon goes by in such a enthusiastic, chaotic blur that he almost forgets to be worried about his evening. It’s not until he’s done eating a simple dinner he made at home and getting dressed to go out that he realizes he doesn’t know what to wear.

Usually he wears a t-shirt and jeans to shows. Nothing interesting, especially since he typically goes to shows alone. It’s something for him to enjoy by himself. But now his thoughts are consumed with -- which t-shirt? Which pair of jeans? Which sneakers? Why do I care?

In his bathroom mirror he pulls at the bags under his eyes, runs his fingers through his hair. He pushes his glasses up his nose and steps back. Just a white t-shirt from some indie band he saw with Yamaguchi years ago, dark jeans. He cuffs his sleeves so more of his tattoo shows. Looks in the mirror, rolls them back down.

He gives Mister a kiss on the head when he passes the back of the couch, then throws on his favorite old sneakers and walks out into the still-warm and humid Tokyo night.

Tsukishima’s no stranger to shows in small venues, but the moment he walks in, he knows the crowd at this one is going to be different than what he’s used to. At most of his shows, the room is filled with people not-so-subtly trying to out-style one another but maintain an aura of giving fewer fucks than anyone else. The crowd sways to the chill music, some singing along in an almost trance, matching the mood on stage.

From the outfits, the hair, the tattoos, and the yelling, Tsukishima doesn’t think anyone’s going to be swaying at this show.

His strategy is the same, though. Stay off to the side. Enjoy the music. Leave quickly.

And Kuroo did, in fact, get him in for free. The bouncer had a crumpled sticky note in his pocket with ‘Tsukishima Kei’ hastily scrawled across it.

So he guesses he has to add ‘speak to Kuroo’ to that list.

He’s settling into a comfortable spot by a door on the far side of the bar, contemplating getting a cheap beer but unwilling to give up his spot, when a flash of instantly recognizable black and blond hair crosses his view.

Nekoma’s setter. Kozume, something Kozume. Formidable in Tsukishima’s first year. Downright terrifying when they crossed paths in his second.

The shorter man makes no attempts to hide the fact that he’s staring back. His eyes narrow but his gaze holds even as others pass by in between them. Tsukishima feels like he’s being assessed. He stands still but his toes move nervously in his old, black sneakers.

Then he turns his head and walks away. Tsukishima’s left with a familiar thought, though it’s been years since it’s crossed his mind. I still don’t think he likes me very much.

He’s left stewing in a weird feeling that has him shifting uncomfortably in his spot against the wall, again considering a beer to ease his nerves. He chews the inside of his lip, then pushes himself off the wall, but then the lights go down. The room gets dark. Half the crowd grows quieter, the other half keeps right on yelling and drinking. He settles back against the wall.

An odd sensation washes over him the moment Kuroo’s band walks out on stage. In every way, Kuroo’s the same as he was at the tattoo shop, the same as he was in high school, down to that ridiculous hair and his black t-shirts, but there’s something else that makes Tsukishima take a deep breath in to ground himself when he feels the rest of the room fading away.

It’s quiet in his head as Kuroo moves his hands along the neck of his guitar, his fingers gliding up and down the strings. Tsukishima hears his heartbeat growing in his ears when Kuroo nods and he waits for the sound about hit him.

Then everything’s loud. The music. His thoughts. It’s a rush of sound and a scream, and then it stills, fading back into the lead singer’s melodic voice. It’s not at all what he typically chooses, but it hits him square in the chest in a way he doesn’t hate. It’s orderly chaos. Intentional mayhem. And though there’s five people on stage, Tsukishima only sees one at the center of the storm. Kuroo looks strong. Sure of himself. Proud of his craft.

Tsukishima stares until his mouth is dry, not realizing it had been open the whole time. He feels a stirring in his stomach.

Curse the part of his brain, that instinct-driven lizard brain, that equates musicians with being attractive.

He fights it, focuses on everyone else in the band, but his eyes keep drifting until he gives up and lets them remain there. Tsukishima watches him play, sees the way he carries the energy of the music, hears his voice when he takes the mic for backup vocals. It’s all so loud and not at all what he likes, but he lets himself stare.

And then that idiot takes his shirt off.

Tsukishima’s certain those eyes find his in the crowd, but he knows it’s stupid, knows Kuroo is just performing. But he lets himself indulge in some half-concocted fantasy that he already knows he’s regret having later when he comes back into his right mind.

Kuroo’s just as fit as he’d imagined looking at how he squeezed in that black shirt at the shop. And now his ink is on display. Tsukishima can’t make out the details from this far away, but now he knows that, in addition to the ones on his arms, Kuroo has a tattoo running the length of his side, stretching down his ribs and reaching towards his chest and that’s information he’s not sure what to do with.

So he just keeps staring, surprised that the music doesn’t sound that loud anymore.

 

***

 

Kuroo finds him impossibly quickly after the show. Tsukishima’s just begun scanning the room, looking for that rooster-reminiscent hair, when he feels a hand fall over his shoulder. He spins out of the hold and turns around.

Hot. One word screams on repeat in his head. Kuroo’s dripping in sweat. Hot. His hair is falling over his forehead. Hot. He swipes it back with one hand and it stays there, slicked back. It should be gross but it’s -- hot.

“What’d ya think?” Kuroo’s smile is wide after he yells the question over the noise in the bar. Somehow that’s hot, too.

“You guys are good.” Tsukishima shouts back, instinctively leaning in to make sure he’s heard. “Not my typical thing, but good.”

“Aw Tsukki, you’ll make me blush.” Kuroo takes a step forward and claps Tsukishima on his arm, his fingers gently gripping the sleeve of Tsukishima’s t-shirt. “I’ve gotta help break down everything, but will ‘ya still be here in a few minutes?”

A few minutes is all he needs to clear his head and stop reacting this much to Kuroo’s hand being in his personal space. “Yea, I’ll be here. Outside, though.”

Kuroo raises a questioning eyebrow then leans in further so his ear isn’t far from Tsukishima’s mouth. “I’ll be outside.” He repeats.

Kuroo pulls back and nods, giving his arm another squeeze before disappearing back into the crowd.

Instantly, Tsukishima makes a mad dash towards the exit, crossing the room in big steps until he’s back out in the night air, almost choking as he takes gulps of it into his lungs.

He needs to get a hold of himself, stop letting stupid nonsense get to him this much. It was fun and indulgent, but this is real life again. Finding a place for himself at the corner of the building, he reaches into his back pocket, not the one that holds his phone but the one that holds his squished, dwindling packet of slender vices. Carefully he pulls out a cigarette and readies his lighter, feeling instant release but also a heavy weight of guilt press down on his shoulders the moment he breathes it in. He closes his eyes. The sting in his lungs grounds him again. He enjoys a blissful few moments to himself before --

“You know that’s bad for you.”

His eyes fly open and there’s Kuroo standing in front of him. He lets his hand fall to his side, the cigarette still burning. “So I’ve been told.”

Kuroo’s changed his clothes but his hair’s still slicked back more than usual. He’s wearing a shirt from some band Tsukishima’s never heard of. The street lights outside the bar are hitting his face at an odd angle, casting sharp shadows.

“So, you still want to get a beer?” His voice sounds raspier than usual, deeper. Probably from performing, Tsukishima thinks, then tries really hard not to remember Kuroo playing on stage.

He glances back towards the bar behind him. “Does it have to be here?” He grimaces.

Kuroo grins. “No.”

Tsukishima shrugs, forcing an ease that he doesn’t truly feel. “Then, sure.”

“You gonna finish that first?” Kuroo points to his hand.

Tsukishima drops the cigarette as an answer, toes the lit end with his shoe to snuff it out before he gets rid of it. “Where are we going?”

 

***

 

The bar they end up at feels more like an extension of someone’s home than a bar. The whole place is filled with dark wood, but it’s warmly lit over each of the booths, and over every few bar stools. The bartender looks only a little older than them, but next to him is a woman that is much older, looking tired but absolutely in charge.

Kuroo waves to the staff as he walks in, gets a friendly welcome in response, and falls heavily into a booth tucked towards the back corner. The backs of the booths are sturdy and high wooden barriers, giving each section the feeling that it’s almost a room by itself, except for the clear view of the bar with its plush, but worn looking bar stools.

When they sit down, Tsukishima wonders if the bar stools would be better. Being that close might be weirder, but at least he’d have somewhere else to look. Every time his eyes drift up from the table, he sees Kuroo’s expectant face trying to carry on their conversation from the walk over. It was all small talk, work and unbelievably bland talk about the weather this summer, but Kuroo bounced along, seemingly interested the whole way.

And now they’re here.

And Tsukshima has to talk.

With Kuroo right in front of him.

When in doubt, ask others about themselves. “So, how’d the band get started?”

Kuroo’s sitting up straight in his booth, the air around him still crackling as though he’d just stepped off stage. His hands drum softly on the tabletop. “I’d say it’s a good story, but it’s really not. Pretty normal. We started in college with different people that I --”

The bartender appears beside them and slides a small shot glass in front of Kuroo. He points at the glass and grins. “New whiskey, wanted to see what you thought.” He casts a side glance at Tsukishima. “Guess I should have brought two.”

Tsukishima waves a quick, dismissive hand to show it’s alright. Then Kuroo is tossing back the glass, a pensive look on his face. “It’s dry, kind of subtle, soft. Got an oaky sort of finish, doesn’t it?”

Kuroo has such a self-satisfied grin as he talks that Tsukishima wills his eyes to not roll as far back into his head as he wants them to. Who says ‘oaky’?

Kuroo waves his hand, then rests his chin on his open palm. “Ah yea, but then a better option presented itself. If you still want a beer, you can--”

“Nah, whiskey’s fine.” It’s his turn to flip on a familiar smirk of his own. “Though I’m more of a scotch person.” He mentally runs back through his wallet, counting the bills inside. After lunch today, groceries -- “How much?”

“I got it.” Kuroo interjects. “Old friends and all.”

Old friends. The moniker doesn’t feel like it fits, but the order’s in, the bartender’s walking away.

There’s a difference between a night out with beer and a night out with whiskey. Tsukishima checks the time on his phone before he tucks it away in his back pocket. Not yet eleven. Still early, still time for smart choices.

“So anyway, the band, yea?” Kuroo has both elbows on the table now, gesturing with his hands as he talks. Tsukishima sits up, folds his arms in front of him. “Started in college and I’m the only founding member left. First I had some people my classes, and Daishou. Wait,” he pauses, chewing his lip, “I don’t think you ever met him. Asshole. Played for Nohebi that year I went to Nationals. Anyway, he was in it, too, but wanted to play different music, so now we got another side thing going. But anyway, I met up with Yamamoto -- Tora -- the guy with the--” Kuroo pushes his hair up in the middle in a fake mohawk, “you remember him?”

Tsukishima nods. “Unfortunately.”

Kuroo laughs. “Ha,” he adds dryly, “he had similar memories of you. So I met up with him my second year and we started shaping how we sound now. Through him I reconnected with Alisa, our singer. She’s Lev’s older sister. The crazy tall half-Russian guy?” Kuroo motions with his hand way up the air. He’s speaking so quickly, it’s clear he’s still riding high on whatever energy he gets out of performing.

Tsukishima continues to nod along as Kuroo jumps around, telling him how members joined and left. He keeps Kuroo going by asking questions whenever he pauses for a breath.

He learns how Alisa used to play keyboard but then it didn’t really fit. How her singing was able to flourish when that’s what she was able to focus on. How Yamamoto always played drums but now he actually sounds like something instead of just noise. How he met Soga in one of his required health classes in college, “some shit where literally just walking around a track counted for credits,” and when they jammed together Kuroo figured out he brought a smoother sound they needed. How he met Oyori in his philosophy classes, had known her for three years as just another face in his cohort before he learned she played bass - “not just played it, absolutely owned it.”

At some point Tsukishima looks down and realizes his first glass of whiskey is empty and a second one has replaced its spot in his hand. And it’s nearly empty, too. How long have we--

“Holy shit, I’ve been talking a long time. Sorry.” Kuroo takes a breath, lifts his second glass to his lips.

Tsukishima swirls the amber brown liquid in his glass. “It’s fine. In line with what I remember. You never did know when to stop talking.”

“Happy to be a comforting reminder.”

“I wouldn't go that far.”

Kuroo grows still, like he's talked himself out. He settles back against the wooden barrier behind him, blinking slowly. Tsukishima doesn’t like the quiet that settles in and his need to fill it. He pulls out a detail from earlier, hoping to get him going again. “So philosophy, huh?”

Swallowing another sip, Kuroo chuckles. “Yep. I’m deep. Brooding. I have a degree in philosophy, so naturally, I’m a musician and I get paid to draw on people with needles.”

Tsukishima surprises himself when a small laugh tumbles from his lips. “Well, I got a degree in international business because my parents thought it was a solid investment, so naturally now I translate boring documents from home so I don’t have to interact with anyone. Ever.”

“Except for, I’m thinking--” Kuroo swishes the glass around in front of him, “a cat.”

Tsukishima’s eyes narrow.

“Oh man! I’m right!” Kuroo smacks his empty hand down on the table. The whiskey glass soon follows, now also empty. “You got pictures? I love cats.”

Perhaps it’s just the whiskey making him feel a bit warm. Perhaps it’s simply the draw of nostalgia, like maybe they were old friends once. Tsukishima grabs for his phone and flips through a couple pictures of Mister, trying hard not to grin at the compliments Kuroo throws his way.

And then things get a bit fuzzier around the edges.

Chapter Text

Kuroo

Leaning forward so he’s almost half-way across the table, Kuroo devours every picture of Tsukishima’s cat that he’s offered. Curled up in a sunbeam. Screaming for food. Stuck in a plant. He learns the cat’s name is Mister and Kuroo decides that’s adorable.

It doesn’t hurt that the permanent flat line of Tsukishima’s lips has now sparked into an actual smile. Small, but it’s there. And maybe that’s a little adorable, too.

Kuroo also can’t help but notice that Tsukushima’s cheeks are flushed pink and rosy from his second glass of whiskey. That’s the sort of dangerously wonderful thing he’ll file away to process later when he’s trying to reconcile the Tsukishima he thought he knew with the one sitting across from him now, smiling while he talks about his cat.

“What makes Mister extra special?” He asks, and the words feel funny on his tongue. Like maybe he needs food. Or water. Or both because it’s been hours since he’s eaten anything substantial and the whiskey’s working quicker than it normally would after he nearly sweat his body weight on stage.

“What?” Tsukishima shoots back quickly.

“You know, what does he do that makes him so much more special than other cats? I like to ask pet owners that. They always have answers.” Now that Tsukishima’s actually speaking, Kuroo doesn’t want it to stop. It feels like ten years ago, like their text conversations have spring back to life.

Tsukishima raises an eyebrow, the smile shifting into a smirk, but he does have an answer ready. “He has a stuffed carrot from when he was a baby that he carries with him from room to room. And he eats with it next to his bowl.”

“Oh,” Kuroo clenches his hands into fists and smiles the way he does when something is too cute, “that’s great. What else?”

Tsukishima’s face rotates through the same subtle reactions. There’s a slight withdrawl. His eyebrows pinch together. He bites his lip. There’s a quick puff of breath out then, “He is exceptionally clever but also prefers to sleep in my bathroom sink.” Tsukishima presents photo evidence and Kuroo presses for more.

But there’s only so much he can ask about a cat. Tsukishima’s answers grow short and staccato, his phone returns to his pocket, and the cat conversation is well and truly over.

The quiet is anything but comfortable. Kuroo feels a jolt of frustration. His shoulders slump. Why isn’t this easy? He knows quiet, more introverted people. Kenma’s his best friend, after all. And Kuroo himself used to be this way. But Kuroo always seems to know what to say to make people feel at ease. Even if he’s putting his foot in his mouth and looking like an idiot, he knows how to make people relax.

He notices that Tsukishima’s upper arm is twitching, like he’s drumming his fingers nervously or picking at his shirt or his pants under the table. The rosiness is still present on his cheeks, but Tsukishima’s eyes are darting around the room.

Kuroo sighs. He could talk more about himself or the band. Tsukishima seemed to enjoy that if his continued efforts to keep Kuroo talking were any indication, but Kuroo doesn’t want to hear himself talk. He wants Tsukishima to keep talking about his cat or tell him something, anything, about the past ten years besides the fact that he works from home now.

So, he gravitates towards the one thing he knows they have in common. “So what’s the story behind the new tattoo?” He leans back in the booth, trying to look like he’s not running constant calculations about how to keep the conversation going. “You don’t have to tell me, by the way,” he adds quickly, picking up on the way Tsukishima seems to pull further away, “because ‘none of your fucking business’ or ‘I just liked it’ are great answers.”

Tsukishima bites his lip again and Kuroo keeps right on talking. He doesn’t mean to, but Tsukishima has slowly, so slowly been relaxing and now he looks uncomfortable again and Kuroo wants to, needs to fix it.

“Like some of mine have these super meaningful stories behind them, others are like, ‘my friend painted a thing and I liked that thing, so I got that thing on my body.’” He briefly considers lifting up his shirt to show off an example of just that.

Down his side is his pride and joy. It’s so not his normal style, but that’s kind of why he loves it. An artist friend of his in college painted a series of fairies, sirens, and nymphs for a senior show, and Kuroo fell in love with this one siren, beautiful and singing sailors to their watery graves. It’s gorgeous but dark and he wants Tsukishima to see it, comment on it, but he keeps his shirt down. Barely.

Kuroo watches Tsukishima’s face run through the same subtle expressions. Retreat into himself. Eyebrows pinch. Kuroo waits for the quick, small sigh.

Tsukishima leans back and crosses his arms in front of him. “I don’t just translate. I kind of have a side project and the tattoo’s connected to that.” One of Tsukishima’s fingers worries at the rim of his empty whiskey glass, his eyes staring at a space just past Kuroo’s shoulder, but a smirk appears at the corner of his mouth. “Nothing big, I just write a serialized crime story with a friend of mine who does the illustrations.”

Kuroo’s gaze lands on Tsukishima’s arm, the fresh colors of the books and the tree suddenly popping to life with new vigor. He searches for a reply, a follow-up question, but he’s stunned. Tsukishima’s a writer? Didn’t see that coming.

Tsukishima’s finger stops trailing the edge of the glass. He pulls it back to his lap with his other hand. The smirk on his face grows and Kuroo wonders if his own surprise is written clear across his face.

Kuroo sits up straighter, gestures towards Tsukishima’s arm. “So, the books are--”

Tsukishima’s finger traces a line down his upper arm, over the spines of the books. “They’re all from my favorite authors. Crime, detective stuff. Some cosmic horror.

“And you write the grizzly, crime-filled, cool detective stuff?” Kuroo asks, leaning forward on the table again.

“Yea,” the corners of Tsukishima’s lips twitch upwards, “something like that.”

“That’s so cool,” Kuroo says, and he means it. He feels his shoulders relaxing again. “Can you tell me more about it?”

That simple question makes Tsukishima’s tiny grin stretch just a bit wider. His eyes glint with something Kuroo can’t quite name, but it stirs up a warm tingle in his chest. When the bartender returns, Kuroo orders another whiskey and a few of his greasy favorites to eat. Tsukishima orders a scotch he likes.

This time, when Tsukishima speaks, it’s like the gradual breaking of a dam. At first his responses to Kuroo’s questions are careful, slow. Only little bits of information peek through before his lips close up tight once again.

But Kuroo dives a little deeper, asks more questions, and the cracks in the dam start to show before it all bursts forth. It’s a rush for Kuroo, watching the way someone else lights up when they talk about the things they create, watching Tsukshima of all people talk about the things he’s brought to life.

Tsukishima’s every bit as clever and calculating as he used to be, but he’s-- Kuroo’s suddenly reminded of what he told Ibuki. He’s so much different than he used to be.

“And then what happens?” Kuroo asks, wide-eyed.

“Well, I can’t tell you everything, but--” Tsukishima steals a fry and keeps sharing.

Kuroo listens with rapt attention, except for when his eyes track the motion of Tsukishima swirling his glass and lifting it to his lips with a graceful ease.

He learns that the story follows a young detective. Though she’s inexperienced, being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands her a case that is far outside of what she was ready for. She works the case while working through her own personal demons. But it’s not all gloom and doom. She has friends, on the force and outside of it. She’s learning how to balance being a detective but still living a normal life outside of it.

Kuroo’s more than satisfied with listening to the way Tsukishima’s voice picks up a lighter tone, a quicker pace when he talks about his writing, but the dam keeps bursting and Kuroo loves every second of it.

“So far, that’s the only story we’ve published, but we have another one, the more important one, that we’ve been holding onto.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because it was the story we first thought of when we lived together. It brings in a childhood friend and a bunch of,” he chuckles, “dark, messy shit that we love. I guess we knew this first opportunity wouldn't be the big one. We wanted to save it.”

Tsukishima eats the last fry in the basket. There’s a glassy sheen to his eyes that Kuroo can almost guarantee is reflected in his own, though the food and round of water has helped somewhat. He feels an electric warmth in his skin while he listens to Tsukishima string together more sentences in a row than Kuroo ever remembers hearing from him before.

His voice sounds so nice. And his smile is nice. His hair is nice -- Kuroo feels a warmth spreading over his skin and he blames the whiskey. He takes another big gulp of water and then it hits him. He finds the word he’s been searching for all night, the one word that describes how Tsukishima is different now-- brighter.

Kuroo smiles warmly. “I get that.” He also has notebooks of song lyrics and sheet music that he guards preciously, waiting for the right time. “What’s your writing partner like?”

Tsukishima’s eyebrows shoot up and he sits up in the booth. “Oh, you might actually remember her. Yachi was Karasuno’s manager, the shorter, blonde one.”

“I actually do!” Kuroo claps his hands together at the memory. “Really enthusiastic, but jumpy. I remember her being jumpy.”

“She’s still that way,” Tsukishima laughs. He covers his mouth, but his eyes crinkle in the corners in a honest, full-blown laugh.

And Kuroo crumbles. With that sound, all the little things he’s noticed about Tsukishima throughout the night crash together in his brain. He feels his heart pitching forward into an all-out sprint, dashing as hard as it can towards a sudden, intense burst of scenes from an imaginary future where he and Tsukishima are dating and Kuroo can kiss the spot where he pinches his brows together, where he can look over Tsukishima’s shoulder while he writes before he’s shooed away, where Tsukishima comes to all of his shows and gets to know every member of his band family.

Oh fuck, I have a crush on Tsukishima. He’s doomed. Like all the times before, there’s no brakes on this feeling once it begins. He can try to reel it back it, but it will win. For better or for worse.

Kuroo tries to steady his expression into something that doesn’t look like he’s just been struck by a lightning bolt of sappy emotions. “And she’s the illustrator? From what I remember, she seemed too precious for bloody crime scenes.”

“The woman’s got a dark side,” Tsukishima says, and there’s a fondness in his voice that Kuroo adds to the rapidly growing mental list of things he now adores about the blond in front of him.

By some grace of the universe, Tsukishima chooses that moment to excuse himself to go to the restroom. Kuroo swings his whiskey glass back against his lips to force the last few drops into his mouth to steady himself. He loves this rush, loves the way it hits him all at once and makes him feel like his insides are on fire, but he’s failed enough times now that he tries, however uselessly, to tame it.

He puts his head in his hands, slides them up his face until they’re tangled into the dirty mess that is his hair. He stares at the table top until he hears Tsukishima return. He doesn’t sit back down. Kuroo watches his sneakers shift beside the table and he looks back up.

Tsukishima’s mouth is a tight, neat line. “So, it’s nearly 1am and I have to leave if I’m going to catch my last train.”

Kuroo checks his phone, his eyes widen. “Oh shit, you’re right. I forget ‘cause I can walk home from here.”

Tsukishima opens his mouth like he’s going to say something. He rocks on his heels, exhales a long breath and glances at the door.

A rush of panic swells in Kuroo’s chest. When are we going to see each other next? What if this is a one-time thing? Wasn’t it always a one-time thing? He’s probably not coming back to the shop anytime soon and my music isn’t his taste, he said so.

All the corny lines he uses on other people to be funny and charming don’t feel right. Tsukishima wouldn't find them charming. He’d see right through them. It’s not like he’s been putting out any flirtatious vibes, he thinks, wracking his brain for some reason for them to hang out again.

“Can I text you?” Kuroo blurts, remembering he has Tsukishima’s number.

“Like in general, or--?” That haughty tone will be Kuroo’s undoing. He adds it to his mental Tsukishima List.

“Just to say hey or whatever. Send you weird memes I find?”

Tsukishima looks down at him, their eyes meeting, and Kuroo recalls seeing that same provoking glare from across a volleyball net. “Don’t see how I could stop you.”

At this point, Kuroo’s sure he couldn’t stop himself either. After he gets home, he’s going to need to talk to his notebook of in-progress lyrics about all this.

 

***

 

That night Kuroo stays up far too late reading issues of Tsukishima’s story. It wasn’t hard to find. He doesn’t use a pen name. It was right there in one the first page of search results, under a few articles about Tsukishima in college. That he didn’t read. Okay, maybe a little. Maybe he skimmed them, stared at the pictures, and then only read the sentences that directly talked about him. And then he got to the story.

It’s good. Like, Kuroo keeps clicking next chapter even as the alarm clock next to his bed reminds him that it’s past 3am and he should be asleep - that kind of good.

The protagonist is truly unlikable at first. She spends the first few pages posturing at the police station, carrying herself like she’s on par with the more seasoned detectives, but it’s all a clever game. She’s already spent years as a petite beat cop, as a woman on the force, and now that she’s made detective it’s her new start.

Then it all goes to shit. She’s out celebrating with friends from her former precinct when the sleepy bar they frequent becomes the site of the first of a string of grisly murders.

Kuroo wants to text Tsukishima his reactions every few pages, to gush over the story building, to compliment Yachi’s attention to detail. But it’s the middle of the night. And even for him that feels obsessive and decidedly too soon.

Instead he saves a couple of cat gifs to send in the morning.

He thinks about Tsukishima’s laugh as he falls asleep.

 

***

 

Kuroo wakes up early to rerecord bits of the EP so Glory Days can get it ready for Soga to edit. They’re all getting over the hump in the creation process where they absolutely hate big chunks of everything they make. Now they’re in that most excellent place where the songs start to come together, to actually sound good -- and they hate fewer things.

Riding high on the positive feelings, he sends the cat gifs. All five of them. In a row. Like a psycho, he thinks to himself. Smooth move, Tetsurou. He tries very hard to not keep checking his phone for a reply all morning, but fails miserably. There’s no response.

By the time Kuroo makes it to his dad’s house with Kenma in the late afternoon, he’s got his hands wrapped around a huge energy drink to stay awake.

He’s standing at the kitchen counter slicing pork so it can marinate before his dad grills it. Kenma’s beside him cutting vegetables.

Kuroo takes another long sip from his gigantic source of sugary caffeine and Kenma’s whole face scrunches in mock horror. “I can’t believe you willingly ingest something with a flavor named Brutal Assault. I can smell it from here.” Kenma picks up the knife he was slicing eggplant with and points it accusingly. “How much did you sleep last night?”

“Maybe four hours.”

Kenma sighs and goes back to cutting. “We’ve switched places. Does that mean I’m supposed to barge into your house and make sure you’re taking care of yourself?”

“How can you do that when I’ll already be at your place making sure you’ve eaten breakfast?”

“Did you eat breakfast?” Kenma shoots back.

“No,” Kuroo replies quietly.

“You’re the worst.” For a moment there’s only the rhythmic sound of knives hitting wooden cutting boards until, “I posted the video you sent me from today’s recording. People seem to like Tora’s weird shit.”

“I swear he doesn’t really know how to keep a shirt on.”

“Well, it’s working. Your subscriber count is up. Growing steadily for the past month or so.”

Our subscriber count,” Kuroo corrects.

Kenma’s quick to retort, “I’m not in the band.”

“Aren’t you, though?” Kuroo gently bumps Kenma with his elbow.

Kenma replies with a dismissive grunt. Though his face is turned towards the counter, from years of friendship Kuroo can imagine the tiny smile at the corner of his mouth right now.

Once everything is prepared, the three of them sit together outside near his dad’s grill, the sizzling serving as the most delicious kind of white noise behind their conversation. It’s hot and humid, and the sun’s only just beginning to set. Kuroo and his dad are steadily working their way through a six-pack of cheap, light beer, and taking turns getting out of their lounge chairs to flip the skewers.

Kuroo’s phone buzzes beside him. He snatches it from the arm of the chair. Across his lockscreen is a blessed announcement: Tsukishima (2)--

Immediately, he swipes his thumb along the screen to open his messages. He feels his face stretch into a smile.

Tsukishima [19:56]: Mister’s cuter

Next is a picture of Mister asleep in a bathroom sink with a ragged looking plush carrot tucked against his stomach.

Out of all the replies Kuroo imagined, the real one is far better.

“--know the rules.”

“What?” Kuroo’s head snaps back up. His dad is talking to him.

“No phones. Come on.” He holds out his hand.

Kuroo laughs, “Are you confiscating my phone? Aren’t I a little old for that?”

“I’ll do it if I need to.”

Kenma snorts beside him.

“Nah, it’s gone. It’s gone.” Kuroo locks the screen and flips it over. Definitely don’t need to reply right away, Kuroo assures himself, but he’s already running scenarios of what he might text, how Tsukishima might reply, and drafting the message he’ll send later. Filled with nervous energy, he gets up to do his turn at the grill.

His dad leans back in his chair, arms behind his head. “Though, I am really curious about who made you smile like that.”

Kenma’s grin turns wicked. “Yea, Kuro. Who is it?”

Traitor.

There’s no way he’s talking about any of that tonight. This runaway crush is at its most fragile stage. Share too much and it’s doomed from the start. Kuroo's clever, but he's superstitious with matters of the heart. He throws a piece of red pepper that never made it onto the grill at Kenma’s chair and quickly chucks a second at his dad. “None of your business. Neither of yours. That’s who.”

Chapter Text

Tsukishima hates catching the last train. The normally pristine train cars have a stench of sweat and desperation lurking in the thick, humid summer air. The fluorescent lights rip away any magic the late hour of the night may have cast upon the creatures now making their way home, himself included.

The show, the bar, their conversation -- it all feels miles away as Tsukishima slouches against the wall, the contented haze of the evening slipping away with every clack of the train on the tracks.

A few stops back, he’d given up his seat to someone who’d definitely had more to drink than him, and now he’s staring at his blank lockscreen, his reflection staring back between all the fingerprints, and thinking. From the moment the anxiety of missing his train left, a fresh new mountain of thoughts to brood over settled in. He feels a headache pulling at his temples and the music in his headphones isn’t helping, but he’s not about to turn it off now.

Text me when you get home!

Kuroo’s last words to him that night were something Yamaguchi tells him, something that he tells Yachi when they separate on the platform to get on different lines. It’s not something he’d expect from an acquaintance from ten years ago. That I somehow spent almost three hours with.

He looks at his reflection in his black screen and pushes up his glasses to wipe a sheen of sweat from the bridge of his nose. Just how drunk was I? Tsukishima pinches that spot on his nose, sighs, and lets his glasses fall back into place.

He shifts from one foot to the other, checking how steady he feels on his feet. I can’t have been that drunk. I don’t feel bad. He adds to his mounting pile of evidence that he walked to the train just fine and that he’s definitely not as bad off as some other passengers. But he does feel just a bit warmer than the weather alone would permit and he has the unsettling feeling of someone gradually becoming less mellow than they were before. Grounded again but untethered from all of reality just yet.

So if dark liquor wasn’t entirely to blame, how did I just spend three hours with Kuroo?

Bits of the evening pop into his head, uninvited and in a chaotic order. Flashes of Kuroo leaning forward and asking about his tattoo. Sitting down at the bar and Kuroo paying for his drink. Talking about Mister. Learning about the band. And talking, talking, talking about his story. I talked for way too long. How -- why? He was just being polite and I -- did I eat some of his fries?

The evening keeps replaying in small flashes and somewhere between stops, Tsukishima decides that the whole night was bewilderingly nice and that fact has him reeling.

He’d expected to catch up by talking about high school, the same thing he does when he goes back home and runs into classmates from Karasuno in the grocery store or in a restaurant. He’d been prepared for volleyball, for talking about old teammates, past games and training camps. The whole night he was prepared to share some anecdotes about Hinata and Kageyama from the last time the three of them spoke.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Kuroo talked about now. He’d asked Tsukishima about who he was now. For three hours, Tsukishima keeps reminding himself.

He nearly misses his stop being announced and has to jump out at the last moment. The sound of cicadas and the wall of humidity smacks him the instant he’s on the platform. It halts his thoughts and forcefully presses him into the moment like a heavy but welcome weight on his shoulders.

Switching his music to something slower in anticipation of hopefully, maybe sleeping tonight, Tsukishima walks the short distance to his apartment. The same sleepy, shuttered shops greet him like they do every late evening. The park across the street from his place is still quiet and dimly lit. But each step on the sidewalk shudders up through him making him feel decidedly too awake and alive and more than a little bit confused.

Once he’s outside his door he types out a quick message to Kuroo. Home.

He shuts off his screen, leaves the text unsent, opens his front door, and has just enough time to remove his shoes before a sluggish fluffy, grey cat winds his way between his legs.

He doesn’t send the text.

Despite the whiskey and the late hour, sleep doesn’t come easy that night. He keeps trying to tie together the Kuroo he remembers, the Kuroo he saw on stage, and the Kuroo who leaned forward on his arms to ask Tsukishima more questions about his story.

All while berating himself for thinking about it at all.

Because it’s not like they’re going to hang out again.

 

***

 

Sunday morning, he wakes up and forcibly shoves Saturday into the back of his mind. He makes coffee, catches up on some translating work from the previous week, and gets ready for the publisher meeting once a string of anxious texts from Yachi stirs up potentially reckless optimism in his guts again.

A text from Kuroo breaks his work flow.

Correction - five texts from Kuroo breaks his work flow. They’re gifs of cats. That’s it. No message, just five cats doing silly cat things that make him think of Mister. A smile sneaks out before he can stuff it back in, before he can reasonably process that Kuroo has texted him not even twelve hours after they hung out and there’s absolutely no context, just -- cats.

He flips his phone over so the screen is face-down on the couch beside him and continues working. Or tries to. His mind keeps wandering.

Frustrated, he shuts his laptop and starts a load of laundry. Tsukishima cleans his kitchen, the bathroom, his bedroom. He cleans Mister’s litter box and wonders why the cat insists on staring at him while he does it. A power move, he thinks. Once his mind is clear again, he gets back to work on their current storyline and prepping materials to sell their idea on Tuesday.

By lunch time, he’s ready to take a break and meet up with Yamaguchi for lunch. Even if it’s hard to find times when they’re awake enough to hang out during the week after work, they try to find time to catch up in person on the weekends.

There’s a Italian place near Yamaguchi’s apartment they’ll often go to. Yamaguchi swears Tsukishima is the only person who can go there with him because they have squid ink pasta dish that he loves but, “you’re the only one who can see me with squid ink mouth.”

And that’s the version of his best friend currently sitting across from him, halfway through a plate of his favorite pasta with lips, teeth, and tongue temporarily stained a shade of purple.

They’ve caught up on work and family. Yamaguchi’s father is recovering well from some minor surgery and he sends his continued thanks to the Tsukishimas for all the food they’ve sent over to the house. Tsukishima shares new pictures of his niece, feeling that different kind of pride he’s discovered since Emi joined the family.

He sits on the news about the meet up with the publisher, bur promises himself that if Yamaguchi asks, he’ll tell him. But only if he asks.

“The last chapter was so good.” Yamaguchi grins wide and puts his fork down just long enough to dramatically gesture with his hands. “I didn’t see that coming at all. And that cliffhanger? You’re so cruel.” He slumps back against his chair. “Can you just tell me the next part? Like just a little bit?” Yamaguchi holds up two fingers and peers through the small gap in between.

Tsukishima chuckles, swirling his pasta on his fork. “You have to wait like everyone else.”

“What is even the point of friendship, then?” Yamaguchi laughs. “But seriously, though, with everything that’s happening it feels like you two are ramping up for the end of the current story arc. Are you?”

Tsukishima nods gently. “There’s more to go, but you’re right, not much more. We’re only contracted through thirty chapters, so that makes for eight more.”

“Whoa that feels so soon,” Yamaguchi replies. “What are you going to do after that? Keep it going or--”

Tsukishima has no idea idea why he finds it so hard to talk to Yamaguchi about his plans for his writing. After all, they’ve shared so much over the years. But there’s something about actually talking about his dreams for his writing out loud that makes him feel squirmy and uncomfortable. It’s one thing to talk about the plot lines. That’s simple. It’s exciting in its own way. It’s another thing entirely to be vulnerable about the fact that he’d like it to grow into something more than a hobby.

He takes a moment to swipe a piece of toasted bread in the sauce on his plate and savor the taste before he responds.

“Yachi and I have been seriously talking about not renewing with them. We’re looking at some other options.”

“Oh? That’s a big step,” Yamaguchi smiles. “A good one! I think. Maybe. Yea? It’s a good step?”

Tsukishima watches the way his friend’s face shifts through a series of conflicting emotions before that smile settles on his lips again.

“I hope it is. We’d like to work with someone that doesn’t take quite so much off the top. That way we could maybe--” he falters because the following thought feels foolish in his own head, let alone out loud, “--make something out of it. For real.”

A satisfied grin stretches across Yamaguchi’s face. “You already know how much I’ve wanted you both to do that for years.”

Tsukishima doesn’t reply. He clicks his tongue and shifts his glance towards the windows, but he knows his friend can see right through him. This level of unwavering support will forever make Tsukishima feel uncomfortable, but Yamaguchi would never be anything less than all-in when it comes to supporting his friends. Whether it comes in the form of a hug or an all-out shout to light a fire under his ass, Yamaguchi’s always been in his corner, rooting for him the whole time. He’s believed in Yachi and his work for longer than even the two of them have. He saw the value when it was just sketches and ideas in a frayed notebook.

So he tells him about the meeting on Tuesday, all the while insisting that it’s just a meeting, that there’s no guarantee. Yamaguchi’s excited anyway, his purple-tinted smile bobbing up and down as he nods along enthusiastically while he listens.

“That’s officially enough about that. Now you have to tell me something about your life to make it even,” Tsukishima says.

“Not much to report. Second graders continue to be both adorable angels and horrifying little monsters. It’s hot and I can’t wait for fall so we can stop sweating to death in our barely air conditioned room. You remember what it’s like -- the whole ‘let’s open the windows because that totally cools down the classroom’ nonsense.”

“I would just zone out and try to leave my body,” Tsukishima recalls, thinking back to days spent in different classrooms, suffering through late summer before September brought with it the promise of better weather.

“Well, you can’t zone out when you’re the teacher,” Yamaguchi sighs. “It’s like I’m expected to be a responsible adult or something,” he snickers.

“Who would ever think we’re adults?”

“I know!”

“Either way,” Tsukishima rests on his open palm, elbows on the table, “that’s still not embarrassing enough. I had to talk about my writing, so I need you to offer something just as cringey.”

“Your writing isn’t cringey.”

“It is when I have to make words about gross stuff like hopes and dreams with my mouth. Out loud. In front of someone.”

“Fine. Let’s see,” Yamaguchi starts, but it’s clear from the look on his face he’s already thinking of something. “Internet dating is weird. Like you might get someone who can hold a halfway decent conversation or you might get someone who pulls out a homemade finger puppet from a fanny pack while you’re still on your first drink.”

Tsukishima grimaces. “That’s too specific not to have happened.”

“He looked normal in his pictures! Obviously, no second date.”

Yamaguchi runs through a couple of the latest dating disasters. Tsukishima listens hard for any hints that his friend is hiding some less lighthearted feelings below the surface, but Yamaguchi genuinely seems fine with the whole situation.

And truly, he’s happy for his friend, but Tsukishima’s still skeptical, if only because there’s an ugly part of his brain that keeps thinking, how is he so much more… fine than I am?

"I'm glad you're having a good time," he says, pushing the other thoughts from his mind. "You deserve some fun."

Yamaguchi pauses his recollection of weird dates to smile warmly, the freckles on his cheeks stretching up towards the happy look in his eyes. "Thanks, Tsukki. It's been a weird year, hasn't it?"

They’ve both been recovering from nasty breakups at their own pace, but for so long, Tsukishima felt like they were in it together. They’d sit around watching movies and stay over at each other’s apartments, offering late night promises to never date again that they knew they’d never keep… eventually. Eventually just came sooner for his best friend.

If he’s honest with himself, Tsukishima’s not even sure why he’s been taking so long. Unlike Yamaguchi, his breakup was ultimately his choice, though at the time Tsukishima was confident he had no other options. Long-distance was never going to work out, not when they already had deeply rooted communication problems in the first place. Over a year has passed, but the decision still sits in guts, like he’s unable to convince himself it was the right thing to do, like he’s sure that in the narrative of that relationship, he’s the bad guy.

The table grows quiet and Tsukishima realizes he’s been stuck inside his head long enough for his friend to notice. He’s on the receiving end of a intense stare.

Yamaguchi raises an eyebrow and those freckles quirk up into a grin, “what are you overthinking right now?”

“Just how much dating is a horrible nightmare,” he deflects.

“So it didn’t go well with Kuroo-san last night?” Yamaguchi asks casually, swiping a piece of bread through the last remnants of the sauce on his plate.

“That wasn’t a date,” Tsukishima shoots back, caught off-guard. A self-satisfied smirk grows on his friend’s face. Tsukishima sighs, “honestly, I swear it wasn’t.”

"Did he pay for you?"

"Just the first drink."

“Let’s say, for a moment, that I believe you,” Yamaguchi looks pleased with himself as Tsukishima rolls his eyes. “How’d it go? What’s he like now?”

Tsukishima shrugs. “Not much to say. He’s the same, I guess.”

“Meaning what exactly?”

Yamaguchi isn’t going to let this go. People always thought Tsukishima was the stubborn one. They didn’t realize that, especially when it came to their friendship, Yamaguchi was just as bad in the best kind of way.

“He’s still loud. Hair is still terrible.”

Yamaguchi playfully waves a dismissive hand. “I already knew that from the tattoo run-in. I need more. You went to his show.”

“And?”

“And I know that’s not it because there was a huge gap of time between your replies to my messages. you’re terrible at texting, I’ve accepted that fact, but you always get back to me before bed and apparently before bed was at just past 2am yesterday.”

“I stay up late. You know that.”

Yamaguchi pinches his lips together and gives a knowing glare. It’d be annoying if it weren’t Yamaguchi and his somehow still adorable freckles and that one stubborn tuft of hair weren’t on display. I’ve already lost, haven’t I?”

“So, how was his band, then?”

“They’re good. Not my taste, but they have talent. Good for days when you need to scream.”

“What does he play?”

“Guitar,” Tsukishima answers quickly, acutely aware of the scheming look on his friend’s face.

“Was he good?”

“He was fine. Actually the drummer is--”

“Like fine fine?” Yamaguchi makes himself laugh.

“No.”

“Sure, alright.” Yamaguchi replies and the conversation briefly grows quiet, spare the noise of the restaurant around them and Yamaguchi lazily swirling his fork in the last of his pasta.

Looking at his friend, a smile tugs at Tsukishima’s lips. He puffs out a soft laugh. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Absolutely not. I’m prepared to stay here all night. They’ve got tiramisu and my body is ready to eat as much of that as I need to keep me going until you spill some details.”

Tsukishima lets out an exasperated sigh but there’s no venom, no bite to it. Like hundreds of times before, he’s resigned to his fate. There’s only one human who knows all of his business and he’s sitting across the table with purple lips and a knowing grin.

Yamaguchi points his fork across the table. “I only push because you’re clearly processing something and I’m here to help. That and,” he chuckles softly, “I really want to know what is. It feels like it’s going to be good.”

Tsukishima shakes his head. “Sorry to disappoint. Not much to share. I watched the show from a spot against the wall. We went to a bar to catch up, quickly catch up later.” Tsukishima tries and fails to push away the vivid memory of Kuroo on stage. He thinks about the unanswered texts on his phone.

“What’d you talk about?”

“The band,” he shrugs then adds a little more softly, “and the story. It came up towards the end.” Bits of the conversation pop into his head, fuzzy memories of Kuroo leaning in, interested and asking questions. Tsukishima shifts in his chair.

He expects the playful teasing to continue, but instead a warm smile falls into place across his friend’s face. “Well that sounds like a nice evening.”

Tsukishima shrugs again and knows that he’s shrugged too many times by now, that Yamaguchi is counting them and somehow piecing together what’s in his mind. “It wasn’t bad.”

“Oh? Not bad? That’s high praise from Tsukki. So, you going to see him again? For another not date?”

“Probably not.” Saying it out loud sounds far harsher than he intends. Harsher than he actually feels. There’s a tiny knot growing in his stomach that has nothing to do with the amount of pasta he just ate. The cat texts. What am I going to do with those stupid cat gifs?

“No way, see - it’s all over your face. What’d you just think about?”

Tsukishima leans back hard in his chair. “He texted me this morning.”

Yamaguchi’s smile grows. “And what’d you say back?”

Tsukishima twists his face into a scowl. “Nothing. Why would I?”

A hand flies out. “Tsukishima Kei. Hand me your phone right now. We’re going to reply.”

“Since when are you a part of this?”

Yamaguchi laughs. “Since I caught that blush creeping up your neck when you talked about the show.”

Tsukshima instinctively clasps a hand to his neck and curses his pale skin.

 

***

 

[19:56]: Mister’s cuter

He attaches a recent photo of Mister from his camera roll that is, honestly, mostly just pictures of Mister. In it, the cat’s curled up in the sink with his carrot resting on the soft white fur of his belly.

He never would have sent it all if Yamaguchi hadn’t insisted. I would have sent something. Eventually, he reasons, but he’s not certain. He doesn’t like to think about the side of him that would have left those texts read and unreplied to for another decade.

After dinner he actually manages to push it from his mind while he prepares for the start of the week - finishing laundry, taking stock of what groceries he should have bought over the weekend but didn’t - until his phone vibrates on the counter.

Kuroo [21:18]: Accurate. Oh my god, he’s so fluffy.
Kuroo [21:18]: I wish I had a cat.

Tsukishima’s thumbs hover over the keyboard while he stares at the messages. What am I supposed to say back?

[21:20]: You could… get one?

Kuroo [21:20]: I wish, but pets aren’t allowed at my place.

Tsukishima blinks his eyes and stares up at the ceiling. When he looks back down the text is still there and he has even less of an idea of how to keep this going. Do I even want to? He’s obviously looking at his phone right now and he knows I’m here with mine. I guess it’d be rude not to. He groans in his quiet kitchen.

[21:21]: That sucks.

He hits send and immediately regrets how stupid it sounds.

Kuroo [21:21]: It does, but at least I can visit cats. And I have a cat cafe near my apartment soooooo--
Kuroo [21:21]: not that I make it there much. Too busy with the band and work at the shop.
Kuroo [21:22]: speaking of which, the tattoo looked good. Iwaguchi would definitely take photos for his portfolio if you stopped by again. No pressure, of course. He just mentioned it yesterday.

Tsukishima stares at the words. His brows pinch together. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth. He remembers the look on Yamaguchi’s face when he announced that Tsukishima had blushed -- of all the possible horrible things -- when he thought about the show.

[21:24]: I’ll see if it fits into my schedule.

Kuroo [21:24]: Great - and again, no pressure. I have appointments every afternoon this week except for Wednesday. And Iwaguchi’s usually booked most days, so he’s here.

What is the appropriate way to end this conversation? Tsukishima wracks his brain for ideas. With family, with good friends, he’ll say good night or something like it out of habit. With work texts, he’ll just stop texting. Neither feel right for this situation and he can’t remember the last time he wasn’t texting someone that didn’t fit into one of those two categories.

[21:27]: Alright, well, I’m going to finish getting ready for the week.
[21:27]: Hope you had a good Sunday.

He adds the second text in a brief moment of reflection, worrying that maybe he sounded too unjustifiably short and rude, but the words stare back at him, taunting him with how stale and dumb they sound.

Kuroo [21:28]: I did, thanks. Hung out with my dad and Kenma - you remember Kenma? Our setter - a year above you? Anyway, have a good one.

Flashes of Kenma glaring at him in the bar run through his mind. That makes him remember the show again, how Kuroo looked on stage, and he rushes to send his final message.

[21:28]: Thanks. You, too.

Tsukishima heads towards his living room, chucking his phone on the couch cushions before he sits down. He slumps against the comforting lumps of his old couch and runs his fingers roughly up and down the short hairs along the sides and back of his head, thinking.

Chapter Text

Tsukishima

The meeting with the publisher does not go well.

In a matter of minutes it’s obvious that the group the woman represents is even more predatory than their current arrangement, bent on sucking the life out of creators to grow their bottom line. The woman’s fine enough company, and Tsukishima enjoys the free meal, but the disappointment hits him like a punch in the stomach once he sees Yachi’s face crumble as soon as they leave the restaurant.

She insists she’s fine, but she’s quiet beside him on their walk back to the station.

“Do you really have to go back to work?” He asks.

“Yea,” she nods softly.

Tsukishima watches her blonde hair fall forward as he gaze drops to the sidewalk. Her bag slips off her shoulder and hangs on her elbow.

He shuffles along beside her, shortening his steps like he often does when they walk together so she doesn’t have to speedwalk to match his gait. “How about instead of working at the studio tonight, you come over? Mister misses you.” He hopes he doesn’t sound like he’s pitying her. Yachi hates that.

“Sure,” she replies, still watching her shoes on the sidewalk, “want me to pick up dinner?”

“Nah, we can order something once you get there.”

As they shuffle along together, Tsukishima pinches his lips together in thought, forming a plan that he knows he’ll like in the end but he’ll absolutely hate at first.

Once they’ve separated and Tsukishima’s on the platform for his train line, he texts Yamaguchi just to make sure he’s not reading everything about the situation incorrectly.

Tadashi [13:11]: Ohhh, don’t worry! That’s an excellent idea. Really sweet, in fact.

[13:11]: It’s not that big of a deal.

Tadashi [13:12]: I know, but it’s thoughtful. You’re losing your edge, Tsukki. HA. I’m gonna have to tell everyone about all those times you showed up with armfulls of food and movies when I was at my most pitiful.

[13:12]: Please don’t.

Tadashi [13:12]: if you keep doing this, I won’t need to. Everyone will know how sweet you are.

[13:13]: I’m turning my phone off.

Moving to pocket his phone, another notification catches his eye. Kuroo (1). He doesn’t even have time to open it before his phone vibrates in his hand again.

Kuroo [13:14]: I just almost choked on my burrito.
Kuroo [13:14]: I hope your day is going better.

It isn’t, but he chuckles when the image of Kuroo still being the idiot he remembers pops into his mind’s eye.

For the past couple of days, Kuroo’s messaged him throughout the day with a random passing thought or something from his day. It’s getting easier to reply. When all of the messages are so trivial there’s, apparently, nothing to overthink.

[13:14]: Comparatively, yes, because I managed to eat my lunch with tasting death. You should learn to chew.

Kuroo [13:15]: Solid advice. I’ll try to remember that next time.

Then he sends a gif of someone rolling their eyes as hard as they can.

Tsukishima laughs out loud, short and abrupt, and it makes the man standing next to him glance over. He softly clicks his tongue at being noticed and types out a fast reply.

[13:15]: Here to help.

 

***

 

Tsukishima scrunches up his nose and pulls his mouth into a tight grimace when yet another glass is placed on his coffee table without a coaster. Despite the fact that there’s more than enough stacked in the middle. Despite the fact that he’s quietly placed every stray glass on top of a coaster for the past half hour as they wait for Yachi to arrive. Despite the fact that everyone here has known Tsukishima for a year or more and they know how particular he can be.

Across the table, he catches the eye of younger illustrator and author named Kawase who reminded him of Kiyoko when they first met and she grins sympathetically. She sets her own beer down on a coaster, then she shrugs as if to say, what can you do?

Creative types, he groans inwardly, ignoring the fact that he looks like, lives like, and keeps the same strange sleep schedules as the people around him.

When Yachi texts that’s she close and needs to be let into the building, Tsukishima leaves their friend group in his apartment to give Mister more attention then he probably deserves.

In the dim, old-smelling lobby of his building, his first thought is that Yachi looks as though she’s been up all night despite the fact that only a few hours have passed. His next thought is that perhaps he miscalculated and a room full of people is not what Yachi needs right now.

The whole way up he asks about the rest of her day while his inner monologue berates himself for not being able to read people right, to now know exactly what they need. Right outside his door Yachi gives him a questioning look, no doubt hearing the voices inside. He stands still and stiff, hands by his side as he cracks a small, unsure smile. Ugh, I tried, he thinks as he unlocks the door.

But the moment she catches sight of the people inside, her whole demeanor shifts. Yachi’s tired, worried eyes open wide and her mouth drops open in surprise until her lips come together to form a smile that stretches across her face. In a flash, her shoes are off and she’s sliding her way into the living room to give short little side-hugs and catch up on the current conversation.

Tsukishima’s slow to follow, taking his time with his own shoes and bending down to pet Mister when he pulls himself away from the group to show a little bit of loyalty. When he looks back up, Yachi’s eyes are on him. Her mouth silently forms the words “thank you” before she turns back to the group, finding a comfortable spot on the floor with their eclectic group around her.

 

***

 

It takes some pizza and a few more beers before either of them want to divulge why there was a need for a midweek pick-me-up. But once Yachi and Tsukishima share about the meeting, the rest of the group has more than enough experiences to commiserate and Tsukishima sees other sides of the people he’s come to admire.

Everyone around his living room has had setbacks that they’ve crawled, or are still crawling, their way through.

There’s Takahashi, the guy that’s always teasing him for looking like a “cool guy,” but whose illustrative talent grabbed Tsukishima’s attention from the start. He talks about deals gone sour, days when he’s thought about getting legal counsel to get what he was promised, what he was owed from companies, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the time and extra cost.

Even Kawase, who has a handful graphic novels bearing her pen name on shelves has more than enough failures to recount. She started young and signed contracts that seemed like a great opportunity at the time but turned out to be anything but.

“Things really changed when I found the agent I’m with now.”

“An agent?” Yachi’s head spins towards Tsukishima from the comfy spot she’s made for herself on the floor, a blanket tucked around her legs. Her eyes grow big and her eyebrows tilt in a silent question.

He stares back, trying not to notice that the conversation has stilled and the eyes around the room are glued on him now.

“Should we…” She starts.

An agent, his mind reels. There’s a gigantic chasm between what they’ve been doing and what something like an agent will mean. It’s not just putting together their best work and submitting it for open calls, hoping for the best. It’s not just the two of them believing in their work. It’s having the audacity to think someone else might believe in it enough to fight for it, too. And honestly, that doesn’t seem possible.

But he nods. It’s what I want, isn’t it? It’s what we’ve been working towards all this time… right? Instead of shouting into the void with our work, we could make a go of it for real, with purpose.

Frightening purpose.

Her eyes open wider and she sits up on her knees, the blanket thrown from her lap. “You mean it? Tsukishima, do you want to try to find an agent for our book?”

He’s acutely aware of everyone’s attention now, even more than before and chews on his upper lip before he answers with a simple, “Yea. Yea, why not?”

Failure seems inevitable, but his life is now filled with too many examples of times when he attempted to shut off that fear and try, really try, for him to not want to try again.

Especially when Yachi is barrelling towards him, a grin across her face. He feels his back slam into the his couch as she clumsily throws her arms around him. He’s pushed into Takahashi beside him, and the man laughs hard at the sight. Yachi’s face is buried in his chest, stray stands of her hair tickling his nose and he awkwardly hugs her back in the strange position in which they find themselves.

 

***

 

Kuroo texts him again while he’s getting ready for bed. He sees the initial notification but ignores it as he brushes his teeth, wipes the day from his face, and puts away all of Mister’s toys, knowing they’ll be scattered around the house come morning. All the while, he hears the sound of his phone vibrating on his coffee table.

He finally reads the first few messages and feels a heat rising quickly from his chest, up his neck, and to his cheeks.

Kuroo [12:57]: In the past few days I have read EVERY SINGLE ISSUE of your story and Tsukki--
Kuroo [12:57]: TSUKIIIIIIIIIIIII
Kuroo [12:57]: it’s incredible, really. I only put it down when I had to do other things like, you know, work and eat. But oh my god
Kuroo [12:58]: it’s so good. So the art is awesome. It’s like… simple but the simplicity makes your eyes drawn to the little details that make every scene stand out
Kuroo [12:58]: and your writing? Holy shit - I’ve missed more sleep than usual lately because I kept clicking READ NEXT CHAPTER instead of going to bed
Kuroo [12:59]: And maybe you’ve already gone to bed, so I hope this doesn’t wake you up or anything, or you know, that it’s weird to wake up to, but I just caught up and that cliffhanger had me dying to see what’s next
Kuroo [1:00]: So I just wanted to tell you that.

By the time he’s reached the final message, he’s surprised to find that his heart is beating faster. He chalks it up to embarrassment. It is, naturally, mortifying to be on the receiving end of so many compliments at once.

But in light of the day he’s had, that he and Yachi have had, it feels good. His chest swells with a pride that he suddenly realizes he hasn’t felt in weeks, maybe months. They’d been moving forward with the current story line like clockwork while trying to get someone to notice them elsewhere. And somewhere along the line he’d stopped remembering how lucky he was to have this chance to work with Yachi, to create something real from all the ideas swirling in his head.

His fingers trace along the new ink on his arm. He smiles, small and to himself.

He decides to let Kuroo think he’s asleep and not reply. Yet, he tells himself, I’ll reply in the morning.

That night as he falls asleep, his mind drifts back to a hot summer in Tokyo filled with the smell of sweat, the frustration of constant defeat, and the sounds of volleyballs smacking the floor with Kuroo’s wild cackle in his ears.

Chapter Text

Somehow, Kuroo manages to peel his eyes open and make one foot go in front of the other long enough to fumble into his kitchen to grind coffee. He pours a bit too much from the bag and beans spill onto the floor. He stares at them, sighs, then kicks them under the cabinet to sweep up later. Much later. For now they’ll live next to all the other bits of food he’s dropped and kicked aside.

The scent of freshly ground coffee raises his spirits but he’s still dragging behind the weight of a nearly sleepless night. His last appointment ran late at the shop. Then he made the ridiculous choice to go work out before rehearsal, like he had energy to spare. By the time he finally crawled home he was exhausted so, naturally, inspiration struck as he tried to fall asleep and he ended up bent over a notebook, tapping out beats, sketching out lyrics with accompanying rhythms.

At least there will be time for a nap in between the studio this morning and his first appointment this afternoon. Hopefully. If everything goes okay. He doesn’t even technically need to be in the studio this morning, it’s all vocal work with Alisa, but he wouldn't feel right if he wasn’t there, too.

The button pops on his kettle and he pours the hot water over the ground coffee. It smells like morning, but his bed, mere feet away from him, calls with a powerful song.

On the counter beside him, his lock screen lights up with an incoming message. Tsukishima (1).

Alone in his kitchen, he smiles, feeling a bit more awake.

Tsukishima [08:03]: There’s cat hair in my mug. This is my life.

An image slowly loads over his terrible wifi, and then he sees a simple white mug with, indeed, grey cat hair stuck to the sides. From the angle, he can see the tips of Tsukishima’s feet, wrapped in - god, he’s trying to kill me - fluffy, blue and white striped socks.

He lines up his phone to take a shot of his current coffee situation when another message interrupts him.

Tsukishima [8:04]: And -- thanks for your messages last night.
Tsukishima [8:04]: I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it so far.

Kuroo pinches his brows together before he remembers. Oh yea, I got home and sent him, like, eighty texts after that last chapter. He scrolls up, realizes it was far fewer than eighty and relaxes.

He stares at the thanks, the I’m glad, then closes his eyes and lets reckless optimism wash over him. He imagines Tsukishima in his own kitchen, maybe in soft pajama pants that match those fluffy socks, and maybe he’s smiling while he sent those two messages. Maybe he really is glad.

A burst of energy washes over him and Kuroo pours his coffee with too much enthusiasm and it sloshes over the sides of his mug. He looks at the small mess and decides later-him can deal with it. Current-him is going to look at those text messages and dream about mornings where he makes two cups of a coffee and has someone to share it with.

 

***

 

“What’cha reading?” Alisa’s voice sing-songs over Kuroo’s shoulder. He jumps a little, startled. He figured she’d be in the booth a bit longer.

He’d just finished replying to a couple of emails, checking out a video Kenma planned to post later, and was going back to reread the previous few chapters of Tsukishima’s story to see if his hunch about the next chapter could really be true.

“Working my way through a series.” He thumbs past a few scenes then drops his phone beside him on the stiff couch in the studio waiting room.

She swings around to the front and plops down next to him, leaning in to his space and checking out what’s on the screen. Stray strands of her hair tickle his cheek. “Fiction? Been a while since I’ve seen you pick up something that’s not about the music industry or is brandishing an impossible title like A Quick History of Humans.

Her shoulder playfully bumps into him and he pushes back with a grin. “I’ll have you know that book was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” he corrects, “but you know, I have to take a break from being brilliant every now and then. Fiction’s good for that.”

“You? Take a break? When’s the last time you actually did that? Like, for more than one evening?” She turns her head and Kuroo shifts so he can look back, defiant, his face close to her bubbly smile and bits of her ponytail refusing to be pulled back.

“I rest!” He pouts. “I go to dinner at my dad’s and I don’t even fall asleep at rehearsal anymore.”

“Anymore,” she repeats, raising an eyebrow, but she lets it go. “So, what made you pick this up?” She scoops up Kuroo’s phone from the couch and scans the screen, fingers scrolling up and down.

His tone turns coy. “A guy I’m talking to wrote it.”

“Oh?” Her smile grows and there’s a curious sparkle in her eyes. “Tell me about him.”

“You know I won’t.”

“A stupid rule,” she shoots back. “Half the time we don’t even know about who you’re seeing until it’s already over.”

“That’s by design.”

“Kenma probably knows!”

“That’s because he’s--”

“I know, I know,” she waves her hand dismissively. “Still, I want to be nosy. Indulge me for once.”

“Nope, can’t jinx it. I’ve got enough bad luck as it is.”

Her face softens. “That’s not true.”

Kuroo raises a challenging eyebrow. The past year is littered with breakups and Alisa knows that. Most of them were inevitable. They began as something fun, born out of wanting to know someone a bit better. But even when he wasn’t that invested, the end still stung.

And so began The Rule - no discussing potential partners in detail until it’s safe to do so. If it slips it out, fine, but Kuroo’s being more careful about the details he tells anyone - well, besides Kenma.

And maybe also Bokuto. And Akaashi. But that would be different. I should call them tonight.

“Fine,” she sighs. “What can you tell me about him?”

Kuroo fills her in on a few vague details, careful to leave out anything that could connect to the night Tsukishima came to their show. Alisa’s smart. She’d figure it out. He says they’ve gone out only once - as friends. She seems most interested in the fact that his “mysterious” interest is a writer and thinks that might make the two of them a good match.

Kuroo likes hearing that, even if he knows it’s a baseless opinion from a close friend who knows nothing about the situation.

“You’re moving pretty slowly with this one. Usually you’re--” Alisa makes a quick motion with her hands, both of them surging forwards, “off like a rocket.”

“Usually I have more to work with. I flirt, they flirt back, we go out -- Honestly, I don’t even know if he likes me like that. Like at all, Alisa.”

“But you’re still stuck on him?”

He thinks back to the way Tsukishima looked at the bar, rosy cheeked and talking about his work. Kuroo feels a smile forming. “Yea,” he replies softly.

“Well, I hope it works out.” She gives him another push with her shoulder before stretching her arms and standing back up, holding out her hand to help Kuroo up. “Let’s get you home. I order you to take a nap. You look like hell.”

He takes her offered hand but pushes himself up. Once he’s standing, he runs a hand through her hair, gently messing up the already messy ponytail. “I look amazing, thank you very much.”

“You look exhausted,” she replies, flattening strands of silvery blonde hair. They turn and fall in step together on their way back out of the studio. “Really, though, it worries me.” She adds quietly just before they step outside.

Kuroo looks down, a sideways grin on his face. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“And you don’t have to do so much by yourself.” She looks up and locks eyes with him, her demeanor and tone determined to be heard. “We don’t hear about so much of what you’re doing for the band until you’ve already done them. Let us be there for you, too.”

In that moment, he sees more than just Alisa in front of him. He sees all the caring faces in his life who’ve told him the same thing time and time again. As a captain of a team, as a kid whose dad needed him to be more responsible and independent than other kids -- I’m used to running things on my own. But he already knows the folly of that thought, even if the habit is still hard to break.

“Alright, alright. I’ll do better.”

She rolls her eyes gently, a small laugh escapes her lips, like she knows it’s not quite a promise. Kuroo replies with a bashful smile. She’s not wrong.

Alisa pushes on the door leading outside slowly, her face lost in thought. As the sunlight from the morning sun pours in, she turns with one final thought. “I know we all have our own busy schedules and lives, but we want this to work as much as you do. We’re all doing out parts, but we should do more together. All of us.”

 

***

 

[19:34]: Ok you hate all my music recommendations - what DO you like???

Tsukishima [19:42]: I don’t hate them. They’re just not my thing. I like it when the voices are another instrument, where everything flows together seamlessly.

[19:47]: Like this? [youtu.be/LHGYSAH] LIVE STREAM OCT 2017

Tsukishima [20:01]: Alright, that wasn’t terrible. But here’s something better.
Tsukishima [20:02]: [youtu.be/HUYASH] PV - MELODY

[20:06]: I can dig it. Buuuut I see that and raise you this --

 

***

 

“So, not this weekend, but the next one?” Kuroo yawns and Bokuto catches it on the other side of the video chat. He’s just finished eating a very late dinner and he already slumped against the side of his couch, upright still but only just.

Bokuto looks tired, too, but Akaashi’s eyes are wide and wired, a still steaming cup of coffee in his hands and a plan to study for most of the night in his future.

At the tail end of his yawn, Bokuto replies, “Yep, we’re coming in for my sister’s birthday but we’ll have plenty of time to hang out.”

“You wanna come to a show? We’re playing that Friday at that little venue that Akaashi says smells weird.”

“It does,” Akaashi interjects. “You can’t tell me that place doesn’t constantly reek of corn chips. It’s such a specific smell.”

Beside him, Bokuto laughs. “We’ll be there, of course. And hang out after?”

“You know it. Gotta burn off all that post-show energy somehow.”

“Anything else new?” Akaashi asks as Bokuto yawns again and leans on his shoulder and Akaashi starts absentmindedly running his fingers through Bokuto’s slowly deflating locks of hair.

The sight makes Kuroo feel all gooey and sentimental. He’d continue to put up with his friends’ endless PDA if it meant having them nearby again. Being Akaashi’s roomate in college hadn’t always been the best. For those few years, Kuroo alternated between watching Akaashi mope because he missed Bokuto and having them loudly reconnect every other weekend just a wall away. But he did get to keep two of his best friends close.

And living with both of them after Kuroo and Bokuto graduated until the two of them made their way down to Kyoto permanently had been just about perfect, disgusting PDA and all.

Now the visits were few and far between, their lives busy and taking off in different directions -- it’ll be nice to see them soon.

“Nothing really.” Kuroo stretches his legs and then spawls out on his couch, giving up on even trying to sit up anymore. “Been recording with Glory Days, picking up clients at the shop--”

“Nothing with Late to the Party?” Bokuto asks. “Daishou too busy with married life?”

Kuroo laughs, “Something like that. We’ve been in touch about band stuff, but in between moving with Mika and everything else - plus you know how he is.”

“An asshole.” Akaashi adds with a grin.

“Yeah, but like, a fun asshole.” Kuroo grins back. “And honestly, I’ve been too busy trying to get this new EP out that if it’s music, it’s all been Glory Days for months now. The other band is for fun, this one is--”

“Gonna happen, man.” Bokuto sits up and points at the video camera. “Y’all are gonna be huge.”

Even with the distance between them, he swears he can feel the hearty, encouraging slap on the back he’d be getting if Bokuto was in the room with him now. “Thanks, Bo.”

Eventually, the conversation rolls back towards plans for when they visit - their tentative travel schedule, the times they can possibly grab food together, which bar they should go to after the show. Kuroo sleepily follows along until a notification crosses the top of the video call. He feels his cheeks stretch into a smile.

Tsukishima [23:21]: Did you say you were in more than one band?

The question catches him off-guard. He’s still following along with Bokuto and Akaashi, but he minimizes the video and opens his text messages.

He thinks back and can’t quite remember if he told Tsukishima he was in two bands or not.

[23:21]: Yea, but Glory Days is my focus.

He types why? but erases it and presses send.

Where did that come from? He thinks back to the night after the bar when he went home and searched for Tsukishima’s comic and read everything else about him he could find first. Oh, did he --

“Kuroo - yo, Kuroo! What gives, bro? You asleep already?” Bokuto’s voice breaks his train of thought.

“No way, look at his face,” Akaashi smirks, “something good just happened. What could possibly pull you away from riveting conversation with us besides a new lover?” He winks dramatically and Bokuto stifles a laugh beside him.

“You know I hate that word,” Kuroo groans.

“That’s why I used it. Anyone we know?” There’s a teasing tone in Akaashi’s voice.

“You ask that like you already know the answer,” Kuroo replies.

Recognition dawns on Bokuto’s face. “Is it--” He glances between Akaashi and Kuroo, “--are you two talking about Tsukishima?” His face comes right up to the camera lens. “Kuroo, man, is it Tsukishima?”

Kuroo turns his face so it melts into the arm of his couch, his cheek pressing into his nose and mouth and distorting his voice. “Yes - but nothing’s going to happen probably.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Akaashi’s voice is suddenly a lot softer.

Bokuto, on the other hand, turns up the intensity. His face now takes up the entirety of the video screen. “Kuroo, are you listening? You never, bro, you never know. Nothing’s impossible.”

For the second time that night he finds himself saying, “Thanks, Bo.”

 

***

 

Kuroo startles awake on his couch. His neck is horrendously stiff from the weird position he fell asleep in and he’s vaguely aware of the fact that his phone is about to vibrate off of the coffee table. Angrily, he scoops it off, ready to tell-off whoever is texting him this late.

It’s the band group chat.

He scrolls past a flurry of messages, worry starting to build in his chest, until his eyes catch on a message from Tora in all-caps--

Tora [1:43]: KUROO YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE NOT LISTENING YET
Tora [1:43]: GET UP GET UP GET UP YOU OLD MAN AND GO TO 95.7
Tora [1:43]: WE’RE ON THE FUCKING RADIO

It takes a moment for his sleep-ridden brain to make sense of the words, but then he springs into action. Radio, radio, how can I listen to the radio without being in a car? How do people -- he slaps open his laptop and hammers on the keys until he’s at the website for the radio station Tora mentioned. A live stream. He clicks it in time to hear the last thirty seconds of one of their songs.

Restart, a song from their first EP that they released last year. One of the band’s favorites. And it’s on the fucking radio.

We’re on the fucking radio.

True, it’s the middle of the night, and at this end of the radio dial, it’s all less popular stations and news, but someone heard them and decided that it deserved some airtime.

Long after their song is done and the next band is playing, Kuroo sits, staring at his laptop, eyes wide with emotion. His jaw is clenched, holding back the release he feels building in his chest. He sniffs, a jagged breath shakes through him, then he swallows hard right before the dam bursts.

It’s nothing like a show, like people paying money to listen to them. And it’s just some late-night DJ, but it’s another first, and he stores it in his heart along with the others as a steady stream of happy tears roll down his face.

He swipes them away and picks up his phone. He has to scroll past more of Tora’s all-caps messages before he replies.

[1:47]: Well, that was... holy shit. How -- why did this totally excellent thing happen?

Tora [1:47]: CAN’T YOU READ? I ALREADY SAID

Oyori [1:47]: Turn. Off. The. All. Caps. Now. Please.

Tora [1:48]: WHATEVER. When I’m not at that shitty restaurant for work, I’ve been following up at all the stations we sent tracks to and, I guess they liked us

Soga [1:48]: the DJ introduced us by saying he’d been to a show

Alisa [1:48]: I just tagged them in a tweet thanking theeeeem

Oyori [1:48]: ugh, that’s kind of dorky

The conversation goes faster than Kuroo can respond. He’s still stuck on the fact that Tora did all that. Kuroo always meant to get around to it, but--

We’re all doing out parts, but we should do more together. All of us.

Alisa’s words from the morning hit him hard. They carry more weight now. He starts to feel the ragged breathing again and he blames his emotional state on being exhausted. He skims the messages he’s missed and he laughs, watery but full of joy.

[1:50]: You’re all idiots. And I love you. Let’s keep this momentum going.
[1:50]: Tomorrow. Right now I’m going back to bed.

 

***

 

Kuroo’s still buzzing when he walks into the shop the next day, but he has himself convinced it’s not interesting enough to share. Everyone picks up on his peppy mood, though, and by late afternoon, Nakayama has him cornered in his chair, grilling him over news that “must be connected to that hot little blond thing that came in here.”

He’s smug when he proves her wrong, but she chuckles, genuinely glad at the news. Ibuki’s voice carries in front the front desk, “don’t forget us when you’re famous!”

The day goes by quickly. His good spirits have him chatting and laughing while he works on a client’s on-going sleeve, a quick refresh of an old tattoo, and a new piece down a customer’s leg that challenges him with the tightness of the text, but he’s proud of it when it’s done.

Tattooing brings him a different kind of focus than performing. With both, he’s wholly present in the moment, but on stage he’s a different version of himself, someone who doesn’t just enjoy the attention, but absolutely welcomes drowning in it. At the shop, he’s just Kuroo. He’s the same charismatic, easy to talk to guy he’s always been, but when he needs to focus, he can still tap into that sharp attention he used during high-pressure games in high school and college.

It’s the reason why he forgets to check his phone until it’s nearly closing time. With his last client out the door, he unlocks his screen to go through the backlog of messages from the past few hours.

Kenma, Bokuto, Dad -- then he grins, warmth spreading through his chest -- Tsukishima. He reads his message first.

Tsukishima [19:03]: I have some time tomorrow if you all still wanted me to come by the shop. Does Iwaguchi-san have a break in his appointments tomorrow?

Kuroo’s feet carry him quickly back into the studio. He stops short right behind the older man’s back and blurts out, “what’s your schedule look like tomorrow?”

Iwaguchi visibly bristles, his shoulders tense and a gruff sigh escapes his lips. He doesn’t turn around. “Fully booked, why?”

Kuroo takes a step back, remembering himself. Iwaguchi’s never unkind, but he’s far from friendly. The experienced artist is all business with only brief moments of humanity poking through. “Uh, I just -- the guy you did the tree of books for? He has time to come by tomorrow if you still want to photograph it for your portfolio.”

Iwaguchi slowly and methodically sets the tools he was holding down on his work bench before he turns in his chair and looks up at Kuroo. “Between 1:45 and 2, or between 4:15 and 4:30.”

“Yes! Great, thank you. I’ll tell him right away.” Kuroo spins to leave, but Iwaguchi softly calls out after him.

“Tell him thanks.”

“I will. Definitely.”

Kuroo wants to shout his own thanks for the excuse to see Tsukishima again, but all that mess is best left inside his own brain. Plus, from the look that Nakayama is giving him from between strands of her bright blue hair as she cleans her work area, he’s already too obvious as it is.

 

***

 

Tsukishima plans to come in between 4:15 and 4:30 and Kuroo’s both anxious and angry because he’ll be with a client then and, as much as he wants to run over and talk to Tsukishima in person, there’s no way he’s going to sacrifice doing his best for someone who trusts him to mark their skin forever. He resigns himself to the fact that, at best, he’s going to be able to glance up, say a quick hello, and try really hard to look effortlessly attractive while he works.

And that’s pretty much exactly what happens. At 4:15, on the dot, he hears the door to the shop open and Ibuki pops into the entryway between the lobby and the studio to call for Iwaguchi. The older man gets up with a grunt, his hi-tech digital camera in hand, and disappears into the lobby.

Kuroo focuses hards on the blues and purples he’s bringing to life in the night sky on his client’s shoulder, but he can feel when Tsukishima walks back into the studio. His skin gets prickly and tense. He takes a short, deep breath and keeps working, trying not to listen to their exchange so he can throw himself fully into the task before him.

When he lifts the machine to stretch his back and re-ink the needle, Tsukishima’s looking at him. He’s posing in front of a stream of natural light as Iwaguchi takes photos from different angles. Kuroo steadies his hand as his heartbeat starts to race. “Hey,” he says, tilting his chin and pulling his face into a practiced look of cool nonchalance.

He bends back towards his client’s shoulder, pressing the needle to skin once again and thinks, totally nailed it. Cool. Aloof. Not at all desperate for attention from Tsukishima Kei.

I can follow up in the chat later, he tries his best to apply logic to his erratically beating heart. I can keep talking about music like we were doing yesterday. Send a video or something.

When he looks back up, rolling his shoulders in another light stretch, Tsukishima’s no longer there and Iwaguchi’s back at work at his bench.

As he turns to re-ink the needle, he feels his body being pulled towards the floor. Disappointment quickly sweeps in and wipes away whatever he was feeling before. He cracks a joke and the man in his chair laughs. The comfortable routine of faking it until he makes it.

It’s fine, he tells himself over and over, I wasn’t expecting anything more anyway. But for Kuroo and his crushes, there’s a wide gap between what he expects and what he wants, and he’s always, always hoping for what he wants.

And what he wanted was a chance to talk to Tsukishima today.

He chimes in at the end of his client’s story about their camping trips, the inspiration for this new tattoo and gradually grounds himself in the current moment again. There’s other days, other chances.

At 4:40, he’s done and gently, but firmly, wiping the pink-red skin before he carefully applies the clear bandage. He watches the man stare at the new ink in the mirror, his smile reaching his eyes and pride swells in his chest. It wasn’t his normal style, but as a beginner he can’t be choosy with his clientele. But even he has to admit it looks good. He’s glad. It’s one thing to help write a song that people enjoy. It’s another thing entirely to be trusted with something this permanent in someone’s life.

With a grin of his own, he walks the man over to the counter to say his normal goodbyes, give the man his card, and give some last minute healing tips --

He freezes in the doorway. His mind empties.

Tsukishima’s sitting in the small waiting area, typing on his laptop.

Panic and elatation flood his body in equal parts ands he paints on a normal face with a winning smile as he sends his client out the door. Tsukishima still hasn’t looked up. Kuroo plants his forearms on Ibuki’s desk, opens his eyes wide, and silently mouths -- what the--?

Ibuki sets her jaw tight with determination, her eyebrows severe when he silently replies, her black lipstick framing the words -- go talk to him.

He knows in that moment, looking at her face, that she had something to do with this. What did she say to him? What is he -- later. He slowly spins on his heel, carves the same grin back onto his face from before. His voice is low when it leaves, “Didn’t expect to see you here still.”

Tsukishima taps hard at his keyboard, then calmly closes the lid. He glances up over the top of his glasses. “I had a few emails I needed to quickly reply to. Seemed as good a place as any.”

Always prepared to save face . Kuroo’s reminded of all the times Tsukishima acted like he hated extra practice at the training camp, even when he stayed for all those hours. Then there’s that one magnificent memory of Tsukishima catching his breath, grinning from across the net, and admitting that sometimes volleyball is fun. There’s always more below the surface with this one.

“Well, if you’re done with your emails,” he taunts with a raised eyebrow knowing that can't be the only reason Tsukishima stayed behind, “there’s a cafe around the corner and I’m in desperate need of some afternoon caffeine before my next appointment.”

It's a gamble.

It pays off.

 

***

 

On the short walk over, conversation stalls. They fall in step together, but it’s robotic, unnatural. He keeps tripping over his feet as he changes his gait to try and match Tsukishima’s. Kuroo is again left wondering why it’s so hard. He mentally runs through their texts, thinking about topics where Tsukishima was more likely to respond -- Mister, music, making fun of me .

He dives back into their earlier texts about music, asking if Tsukishima listened to the song he sent this morning.

He hasn’t, but that’s fine. It opens the door for more.

The flat line of Tsukishima’s mouth quirks upwards as he talks about his latest music discoveries, how his taste in music is clearly more refined, more cultured.

Kuroo snort laughs.

Tsukishima looks smug, like Kuroo’s just proven his point for him.

And Tsukishima’s mountain of evidence grows when Kuroo orders an icy, sugar-filled, chocolate and caramel flavored coffee treat. He sneers the moment Kuroo’s done ordering.

“What?” Kuroo shoots back.

“That’s disgusting.” Tsukishima’s face is still twisted together, judgement written across his face.

“Like yours is better? Black coffee? You know they can do good things with coffee, right?”

“At least it’s an adult’s beverage. Not--” Tsukishima motions towards a group of high schoolers, a few of whom are sipping on drinks that look just like the one Kuroo will be drinking soon.

Kuroo shrugs, stepping closer to the register. “I like what I like.”

Tsukishima rolls his eyes, but he gently slips past, putting money down on the counter before Kuroo can even reach for his wallet. “A drink for a drink - now we’re even.”

Kuroo searches Tsukishima’s face for the meaning behind the gesture, any sign if he should take it at face value or dive deep below the surface and find what he’s hoping for. There’s not enough time for either. He’s caught staring and Tsukishima looks away towards the windows and moves to the side so he’s closer to the counter while they wait for their drinks - and a bit farther away from Kuroo.

There’s more stiff conversation and a lot of awkwardly shifting weight from foot to foot while they wait in the busy cafe, dodging other customers when they need to, before Tsukishima picks a spot in the corner.

Picking sounds like there was some discussion. Rather, Tsukishima grabbed his drink as soon as it hit the counter and walked with a steady determination to a quiet corner and didn’t look back to see if Kuroo followed.

In two squeaky chairs, they settle in with only a tiny cafe table between them. Kuroo thinks about how their knees briefly touch. He gathers himself. He starts with a simple, “How’s work today?”

Tsukishima shrugs, “Same as always.” He takes a sip of his coffee and, judging by his reaction, it must be way too hot still. “I translate. My boss who knows barely any English tells me it’s garbage. I try very hard not to pitch my laptop across my living room. I try again.”

“And the comic? Novel… thing?”

One of Tsukishima’s hands drops below the table and his arm subtly vibrates like he’s drumming his fingers on his leg. “Webcomic. And it’s good. Fine. It’s a lot of work, but better work.” He opens his mouth again, lips shaping the sound of some syllable before they shut again. Tsukishima takes another sip of too-hot coffee.

It gets quiet. Kuroo fills it. “I get that. I definitely work longer hours at the shop, especially when I add in all my recording and rehearsal time, but it’s way better than any of the office temp work I did right after graduating.”

Tsukishima nods softly, now wrapping both hands around the paper coffee cup.

Quiet. Again.

Kuroo takes his first sip of his sugary monstrosity, careful to not get any of the copious amounts of whip cream on his nose. It coats his throat on the way down in the best kind of way and he savors it, letting the quiet just be okay for a little while.

Tsukishima drums his fingers on the side of his cup. “Do you like working at the shop?”

Kuroo looks up, his heart full from the simple gesture of Tsukishima asking him a question, too. “Yea, I love it. Everyone there is great and, like, it’s my favorite art form - I mean, besides music.” As he talks, Tsukishima gets a sort of sideways, funny grin on his face.

Kuroo raises an eyebrow.

“You’ve got --” Tsukishima places one slender finger along the side of his nose “--whip cream.”

Kuroo’s hand flies up to his nose, squshing against a dollop of whip cream. Swiping it off with his finger, he slips it into his mouth and licks it off.

“So what are--” He cuts himself off. Tsukishima’s face has changed. The casually apathetic veneer is gone and in its place is an intense gaze that Kuroo feels from his fingertips to his toes. Tsukishima’s lips are parted on some unsaid word and he's staring, thoughts swirling behind his eyes.

It’s a look that gives Kuroo wild, unchained hopes.

Maybe.

Maybe Tsukishima likes me, too.

Chapter Text

It’s not that Tsukishima doesn’t fall in love, it’s that he never wants to fall in love.

When it happens, it’s against his will. Love happens because some tiny yet powerful, impulsive part of himself finally manages to override his much more powerful rational mind. Chemistry is a bitch, even inside Tsukishima’s well-organized mind.

And there’s some kind of chemical reaction happening with Kuroo.

That much is obvious, as much as he’d like to ignore it. There’s no other explanation for how quickly he’s let Kuroo into his daily routine while he keeps people he’s known for months, years at an arm’s length away.

Outside on his balcony, Tsukishima succumbs to his favorite worst vice and lights one of the few cigarettes left in the pack he bought several weeks ago. At least they’re few and far between now.

The early evening is cloudy and there’s a breeze, especially from up on the fourth floor. The wind carries each puff quickly away from his lips and out into the almost autumn air. It’s still warm and humid during the day, but the evenings are so much better already. He’s looking forward to welcoming the change.

He feels his phone vibrate in his back pocket. It could be Yamaguchi, maybe Akiteru sending pictures of Emi, or one of the illustrators spamming the group chat in need of encouragement or a kick in the ass -- but it’s probably Kuroo.

Every couple of hours, Kuroo sends him a song he thinks Tsukishima might like, some cat pictures, or some random comment about his day. There’s nothing really substantive to the conversations which, in retrospect, is probably why they’ve been so easy to respond to -- why it’s been so easy to want to reply. It’s light. It’s fun. It’s a break in his day. It reminds him of the weird maybe-almost-kind of friendship they had before.

The phone vibrates again. Tsukishima sighs and hangs his head from where’s he’s standing, forearms resting on the railing.

Oh, are you leaving? I think Kuroo would love to say “hi” to you. He should be done in, like, ten minutes if you want to hang around.

Truthfully, while Iwaguchi was taking pictures of his arm, Tsukishima had considered finding some reason to stay behind at the shop or, at the very least, ask when Kuroo might be done. But the receptionist had beaten him to it. Her black lipstick had curled into a sharp grin, her voiced dropped from it’s usual cheery tone to a much lower register, and she casually mentioned that he should stay.

Tsukishima’s not particularly good at reading expressions, but he could read hers. She clearly remembered him as more than just Iwaguchi’s client.

So, he stayed - out of curiosity, he tells himself. Then he’d gone for coffee, for reasons he’d rather not think about for too long. And then the idiot had the audacity to lick his fingers like that in the middle of a public place.

His foolish brain had leapt at the opportunity to remind him of how he’d felt when he watched Kuroo on stage, when the shirt was gone and the noisy concert venue got inexplicably quiet.

Tsukishima lifts his head and takes a long drag from his cigarette.

It’s not love, but it is annoying.

He sulks through the last bit of his cigarette, trying hard to ignore the prickle of excitement he gets whenever his brain traitorously wanders towards the last text Kuroo sent or the way he looked when he laughed to break the tension after the whip cream incident .

His phone rings and there’s only two people it could be - Akiteru or his mother. Everyone else in the world is on vibrate at best, even Yamaguchi. He puts out the end of cigarette, reaches for his phone in his back pocket, and answers the video call.

“Uncle Kei!” Emi screeches, bouncing and shaking the phone with her.

Tsukishima laughs, his face stretching into a wide smile. “Hi there, Emi. How are you?”

“So super, duper good! Today I watch a show - dinosaurs!” She mispronounces the word and keeps right on going. “T-Rex is so big. And he eats other ones. But then, then some eat the trees --” Tsukishima walks back inside his apartment, listening intently as his niece rambles her way through the dinosaur DVD he bought her a few months ago. He nods along, adding his own facts along the way that he knows Emi’s not really listening to. Her brain is too busy spitting out every single thing she remembers.

Something catches her eye and she turns, dropping the phone.

Akiteru picks it up, winks in the camera, and then focuses it back on his daughter. Tsukishima hears his voice as Emi turns back around, “Didn’t you have something you wanted to ask your uncle?”

“Oh yea!” Her eyes grow big and she scoots right up to the camera until her face is blurry and out of focus. “Show me your kitty!”

“Emi--” Akiteru says.

“Please,” she adds quickly.

Tsukishima chuckles, “Sure, but I have to find him first.”

He carries the phone with him throughout his apartment checking Mister’s favorite spots. To her credit, Emi waits patiently, looking along with her uncle as Tsukishima points the camera so she can see, too.

When she spots him under the bed, she yells “Kitty!” so loud that Mister’s ears immediately point away from them and he turns his face to look at the wall.

“Get him out? Please?” She adds the last word immediately, remembering her manners.

With the camera still facing Mister, he replies, “I’ll try, but he doesn’t really like it.” Tsukishima reaches under his bed and places a gentle hand on the part of Mister he can reach. The cat responds by folding his front paws under himself and scrunching up his body so he’s impossibly small and also just beyond Tsukishima’s reach. He tries coaxing him out a few more times, it’s for Emi after all, but ultimately he gives up.

Emi pouts on the other end. “Try again after my supper?”

“I can do that.”

“Okay!” She replies and drops the phone again and, from the sounds he can hear, wanders off somewhere else. Tsukishima stares up at his brother’s ceiling for a few moments before Akiteru comes into view.

“Sorry about that. Still working on the whole ‘how to politely end a conversation’ thing.”

“You know I don’t care.”

They share the usual back and forth while Akiteru finishes making dinner - their days, the weather, whatever cute thing Emi did that day. As they talk, Tsukishima feels an itch on his tongue, the desire to blurt out that he’s looking into getting a literary agent with Yachi. But in the end, Akiteru goes to eat dinner with his family before Tsukishima works up the nerve. Telling Akiteru would mean his parents would know. Then it would be a thing, a really, real thing, and he’s just not ready for that yet.

At least when he hangs up his head feels a bit more clear, less foggy and frustrating. Emi’s good at that.

He starts walking towards his kitchen to see what there is for his own dinner, and Mister comes strolling out of his bedroom.

Tsukshima rolls his eyes. “You’re very rude, you know that, right?”

 

***

 

Kuroo [18:34]: Do you still talk to shrimpy and sour face from Karasuno?

[19:03]: Not often, but I did enjoy your use of the phrase “sour face.” Why?

Kuroo [19:05]: I was talking to Bokuto and he mentioned something Hinata said and I was like
Kuroo [19:05]: whoa, blast from the past there.
Kuroo [19:05]: Apparently they still talk.

[19:05]: Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.

Kuroo [19:06]: But you remember him?
Kuroo [19:06]: Bokuto?

[19:06]: Loud people are hard to forget.

Kuroo [19:07]: That must be why you remembered meeeeeeee

[19:08]: Too obnoxious to be forgotten?

Kuroo [19:08]: More like too excellent to be lost to the passage of time.

[19:09]: mmm. sure.

 

Kuroo [19:45]: Send me cat pics.

[19:47]: What?

Kuroo [19:48]: Rough day. Cat pics? Pleassseeeeee.
Kuroo [19:48]: Here’s a gif as payment---

 

***

 

“This is like writing cover letters for a job but, like, eight hundred times harder.”

Across from one another in their tiny studio-like cubicle, Tsukishima and Yachi are hunched over their laptops, mutually crafting and editing their third query letter of the evening.

It’s blissfully quiet. Ukulele man isn’t next door trying to make Tsukishima’s brain bleed out of his ears, but his brain is doing a good enough job of making loud static noises in his mind as he reads the same sentence over and over.

“Why is it so hard to convince people to like us?”

“Right? Why can’t we just write --” Yachi raises her voice, “our book is good and we are good people so please help us, pretty please, because we hate our jobs and just want to work really hard to make nice books. About murder. Okay, thanks.”

A snort laugh catches in Tsukishima’s throat. “Exactly. Just type that.”

“I wish I could,” Yachi groans. She pushes her laptop away from her. “Can we take a break? I need to look at something else before all of the words stop looking like words.”

Tsukishima shuts his laptop in reply and Yachi breathes a sigh of relief, sliding against the back of her chair until he’s half off of it, her blonde hair sticking to the back and poking out in crazy directions. He stares and blinks back, raising an eyebrow and cracking his knuckles before leaning to rest his head on his palm.

“Fine,” she sighs and she pops back upright. “Guess what I brought?” She changes the subject.

Tsukishima shrugs.

She hums a little tune as she reaches into her bag, a little melodic drumming sound that builds as she pulls out a stack of notebooks. It takes him a second, but warmth floods his chest as soon as he recognizes them.

“It’s all of our originals!” She places them gently on the table between them.

He cracks a smile. “Been a while since I’ve seen those.”

“I know, right? I was going through some boxes in an effort to get my life together for the eightieth time this year and I found all of them.”

Still resting his head on one arm, he reaches the other lazily across the tabletop to trace a finger along the slightly bent metal wiring of the frayed green notebook at the top of the stack. That one was the first.

That night they started to fill that notebook was a fun one. The night they transitioned from friends to a little more like family.

Their initial friendship was born out of proximity and a shared sense of duty to the team. If he’s honest, Tsukishima also enjoyed Yachi’s proclivity to catastrophizing. It was amusing, plus he felt a connection to her because of it. He just kept all his anxiety below the surface, so perhaps it was cathartic to see someone who let it all hang out in the open.

They kept in touch in college, but he only saw her about as often as Hinata - several months in between short catchups in Miyagi when he went home for major holidays.

And then - graduation. Tsukishima had a job lined up in Tokyo for a place he interned with. Then - no apartment. The lease fell through. Legal issues with the landlord. No place to stay and a job starting in only a few days.

He made a quick comment in a text. Yachi called him immediately after with a sincere invitation.

“That was such a weird night,” he remarks, remembering the drunken night where they realized they both read the same crime series, both listened to the same nerdy podcasts, both watched the same true crime documentaries over and over.

Yachi smiles wide, stretches, and rests her head on two folded arms while she looks up at him from just beyond the notebooks. “The whole situation was so weird then. I had no idea how to act with anyone, let alone you, in my house. But you can’t leave a friend to fend for themselves.”

“Still - thank you for that.”

“Still - a thanks was never required, never will be,” she replies with practiced ease.

As an overwhelming fondness overtakes him, Tsukishima changes the subject. “I can’t believe we knew each other for that many years without knowing we were into the same stuff.”

“I should have guessed it,” she starts. “Aloof, tall, standoffish dude - a murderino? Yea, I should have known.”

“And it’s always the small, happy ones who have a hunger for the macabre.”

“Can’t argue with that,” she winks and sits upright again, starting to thumb through the small stack of notebooks marked throughout with sketches, outlines, and rough - really rough - drafts of the story that would become the book they’re pitching now.

It’s finished - sort of. It’s definitely in need of major revising and editing with the sharp eye of a trained professional. Tsukishima knows there’s good in there, but it’s sat dormant for so long. He knows they’ve both grown as creators and that their original draft of that story needs a lot of help before it can grow into something better.

But it can get there . He actually lets the thought sit in his mind for a while before shoving it away like he usually does. Something about being in the presence of Yachi makes him feel a little lighter, a little more hopeful. The woman’s a mess, but she a mess that gets things done.

We get things done, he adds.

That night they do exactly that - get things done. They stay at the studio until it gets too late and they end up at Yachi’s apartment, shoveling take-out into their faces while they switch between meeting the current week’s publishing deadline and continuing to churn out targeted query letters to their short list of agents.

When he leaves to catch a late train, Tsukishima feels tired in his bones, but he feels a satisfaction that he can only find in this kind of work. His neck is sore from typing. His hands are stiff from writing - he always has gripped his pencil too hard. There’s a kink in his back that he’ll have to work out when he gets home - after he feeds a probably grumpy cat. But he’s content.

The night air ushers in reality again. He starts to remind himself that it’s all a longshot at best. There’s no guarantee of success with any of this, no matter how much effort and time they spend on trying to make it become something real. That little voice in his head that tries to tell him it’s all quite stupid, that his efforts would be better spent in building his translating career starts to get louder.

He shuts it off. Or at least muffles it the best he can.

He takes out his phone to text Akiteru--

[23:47]: I know you’re asleep, have been for hours, but I’ll probably never tell you otherwise -- Yachi and I are working on getting a literary agent for our book. Don’t tell mom. Or dad. Or talk to me about it ever unless I bring it up.

A few minutes later, his phone vibrates. He’s surprised when he thinks it’s a reply from Akiteru. Maybe Emi can’t sleep .But it’s Kuroo.

Kuroo [23:52]: You ever think about how sea lions don’t look like lions at all?

[23:52]: No.

He turns off the vibration and pockets his phone as soon as he steps onto the platform at his station, ready to walk home. He blames the perk in his step that gets him home much faster than usual on the success of the evening’s work. Nothing else.

 

***

 

The moment Tsukishima opens the bathroom door after his shower, Mister rushes in like he does every night, like he cannot possibly believe he’s been locked out of a room, like he deserves free reign of the apartment at every moment. Towel around his waist, he steps around his cat and shuffles his feet along the fake-wood flooring. He slides past his couch and realizes his phone is lit up from a recent message.

He almost keeps walking.

Almost.

Kuroo [22:29]: Is the tree your only tattoo?

Tsukishima thinks back to all the times he’s seen Kuroo, especially at the shop. Surely, Kuroo would have seen bits of the others. They’re not as large and parts of the one on his back is hidden unless his sleeves are pushed up high, but --

[22:30]: No. Have a few others. Smaller, though.

Kuroo [22:30]: Cool. Was just curious.

He waits for another reply, for the steady string of messages as Kuroo records his stream of consciousness while pressing send before his thoughts are finished. But nothing comes. The message sits there without any follow up.

Mister rubs up against one of his legs and the way the fur sticks to him reminds him that he’s standing in his living room in a towel and letting little droplets of water pool at his feet.

He gives the message one, two moments more before he drops it back down on his couch and goes to his bedroom. On the edge of his bed he’s laid out his sweatpants for the evening, freshly washed and dried. So, naturally, they’re covered in cat hair in a neat little circle near the knees.

On the walk back to the bathroom to hang up the towel, he tries and fails to not look at his phone. No new messages.

For a while he paces between the few rooms of his apartment. Bathroom to tidy up after the shower. Kitchen to start boiling water for tea. Living room to not look at his phone but move his laptop so Mister doesn’t sit on it. Kitchen to make tea. Bedroom to grab a shirt in case he gets cold. Living room to work on the script for next week’s comic after pushing Mister off the keyboard because he found it anyway.

The phone sits next to him, face up. No new messages.

I have better willpower than this .

He takes a sip of his usual nighttime herbal tea, a remedy that should make him sleepy but hardly ever does, and hammers on the keys with a little extra force.

Tsukishima makes it a whopping three minutes before he dumps the laptop beside him and picks up his phone.

[22:41]: I have a smaller one on the inside of my arm, then another along my back. Surprised you didn’t see them at the shop.

He debates erasing the second sentence but ultimately leaves it in and slams his finger on the send key.

Done. It was just a weird way to end a conversation before.

Kuroo [22:42]: Guess I wasn’t looking that closely
Kuroo [22:42]: at your arm

The first text is an expected part of a rather plain conversation. The second, though? Why even add that? Why point out that he was specifically not looking at my arm?

Tsukishima groans at the millions of unspoken rules of human communication and turns his phone screen-side down on the couch. He pushes past the wandering thoughts in his mind and focuses on work again.

But he quickly finds that, as annoying as all this lack of clarity is, it’s a kind of challenge if he looks at it in a different light. If there’s something to win, a way to seem more bitingly clever than someone else, then he might be interested.

[22:48]: Don’t know what else you were looking at, but okay.

He feels pleased, like he can picture the look on Kuroo’s face when he reads it, pulling from memories from a decade ago.

Kuroo [22:49]: Typically in a conversation, you look at someone’s face…
Kuroo [22:49]: But maybe my social skills are just far more respectable than yours.

A grin peeks out of the corner of his mouth.

[22:49]: Some faces are particularly unpleasant to look at.

Kuroo [22:50]: It’s a good thing that doesn’t apply to either of us.

The either of us rattles him for a beat before he gets his bearings again.

[22:51]: You sure about that?

Kuroo [22:51]: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Kuroo [22:51]: So what are the other tats?

Tsukishima subconsciously picks at his elbow as he considers how to answer. He decides on facts. They’re both interested in tattoos, after all. This is similar to any conversation he might have with any of the people in the illustrators group.

[22:52]: I have one on the inside of my arm, just above the elbow. The tree is all around it now, but it was my first.

For a second he feels the somewhat familiar sting of happy embarrassment that comes from a first tattoo. It’s a little too big, a little too much, but at that time and place in his life, it was exactly what he wanted. And he still loves it now.

He starts typing a description -- it’s a skull with vines and-- decides a picture is easier and makes it sound less stupid. He turns his arm out so the inside catches the light and snaps a picture. He sends the first one, deciding it’s good enough. It’s only after he hits send that he realizes the side of his ribcage is also clearly evident in the picture, too. He shrugs it off externally, but the stressful static that comes from imperfect interactions starts to sound louder in the back of his mind.

Kuroo [22:53]: That was your FIRST?
Kuroo [22:53]: awesome
Kuroo [22:53]: my first was way less cool

He receives a shot of Kuroo’s upper chest. At the center of it is an abstract guitar with tribal-like lines running throughout. Somewhere in his mind, Tsukishima is crafting a remark about the absolute tackiness of the fake tribal style, but the rest of him is currently far too occupied with checking out everything else in the photo. It’s far less than he saw at the show, but it’s so much closer.

[22:54]: You’re right. Mine is cooler.

Kuroo [10:54]: It’s alright. I’ll win in the end.

[22:55]: With quantity?

Kuroo [22:55]: With quantity AND quality. Check it.

What follows can only be described as close-ups of Kuroo’s body thinly disguised as an opportunity to show off tattoos. Sure, Tsukishima can see the vividly colored mythological creatures on his ribs, but there’s rather nice abs right next to them. And yes, he can appreciate the artistic rendition of sheet music, but the bicep underneath it is nice, too. Kuroo’s face isn’t even in any of them, so what’s the harm? I’m just a human. It’s allowed sometimes.

Maybe Kuroo had an innocent intent originally, but as the angles and the lighting change and the time between shots grows larger, Tsukishima knows he’s not just firing off whatever picture he gets first. Kuroo is carefully picking each one.

Now Tsukishima’s glad he didn’t bother with a shirt. The room’s a bit too warm.

But he’s not one to be out-done. Before the idea that this is all positively ridiculous can change his mind, he sprints back to the bathroom and takes several over-the-shoulder pictures of the crows along his upper back, pleased at the way his sweatpants hang low on his hips towards the bottom of the shot.

He hits send on the best one, feeling triumphant.

He doesn’t want to name the game they’re playing. It’s somewhere past the realm of a normal conversation, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to admit to flirting. It’s talking. With a bonus. That he can deal with later when he overthinks himself to death.

The reply is quick.

Kuroo [23:01]: Nice. Are those crows?
Kuroo [23:01]: Freaking Karasuno.
Kuroo [23:01]: that’s deeply more sentimental than I’d expect from someone like you

Tsukishima begins working his way through a snappy reply when he’s interrupted--

Kuroo [23:01]: I like it, though.
Kuroo [23:01]: All of it.

And then the constant, low-level anxious static at the back of his mind starts to sound like a high-pitched whine.

He types a quick, meaningless reply so he can walk away from this conversation--

[23:02]: Thanks

Then he drops the phone on the couch and decides it’s time to clean Mister’s litter box, maybe go ahead and clean the dishes from dinner. Actually just all the dishes. He has a lot of energy all of a sudden.

It’s not until later, when he’s left the phone in the living room and thrown himself onto his bed, that he realizes just how long it took for his heat rate to slow back down.

Chapter Text

Kuroo is sprawled upside-down on his couch, his head hanging off the side and his legs strewn across the back.

And there are feelings.

For every text he gets from Tsukishima, Kenma receives plenty more.

[22:53]: Kenmaaaaaaaaa Kenmakenmakenmakenmaaaa
[22:53]: I think we’re flirting
[22:53]: Me and tsukishima
[22:53]: Like I think this is flirting
[22:53]: I need you to assess the situation with your little robot brain

He gets up and walks the short distance between his living room and his bathroom over and over as they text back and forth.

Then abruptly, he stops mid-stride, turns back to his living room and turns on all of his lamps, shutting off the bright overhead light. He sets the timer and takes one, two, three selfies of the tattoo along his ribs, moving around the room so the light hits him in different ways. He picks the best and sends it.

All around his house, he shuts on and off different lights until he likes how each of his tattoos look in the light. And his muscles. They need to catch the light right, too.

But effortlessly. It needs to look like he’s not trying at all. Satisfied with the results, he keeps choosing from the tens of photos and sending his favorites.

Then panic. He stops dead in the doorway between his bedroom and his living room.

He can see Tsukishima in his bathroom, his whole back on display. The audacity that man has to let his pants hang that low.

His thumbs keep misfiring as he tries to reply, but eventually he sends a message back - after all that.

Kenma’s next--

[23:01]: where are yooooouuuu
[23:01]: This is an emergency
[23:01]: He sent me a picture of his BODY

Stupidly emboldened by the notion that -- we are probably flirting, definitely, maybe, yes -- Kuroo tries to push them forward. Just a bit. This is still Tsukishima

More panic--

[23:03]: oh crap, crapppppppp he hasn’t replied
[23:03]: I weirded him out
[23:03]: I said something I shouldn’t have and now he’s gone

Kenma Kitty [23:04]: you are so obnoxious - he probably just went to sleep

Kuroo collapses back on his couch, legs flopping wherever they fall. He sinks into the old cushions, his hair falling into his eyes.

[23:04]: FINALLY. I needed you. He still hasn’t replied.

Kenma Kitty [23:05]: you’re overthinking things - private things - that I don’t really want to know about anyway but you’re going to tell me so why am I even typing this right now

[23:05]: exactly, you get me, I love you, now listen
[23:05]: he sent me pics of his tattoos, I was sending him mine, whatever, it was a thing. a nice conversation thing, and then I said “I liked it. All of it.” and I meant his tattoos but I also meant more than his tattoos because I was trying to flirt back but maybe I did too much
[23:06]: usually I’d just be like, bam hot selfie, bam let’s hang out, you know? but this whole time I had no idea if he was interested so I didn’t do any of my usual moves, be respectful and all that cause being friends would be cool too, but I like him, like really like him
[23:06]: *inhales deeply* help meeeeeeeeee

Kuroo’s phone starts to vibrate in his hands. Kenma’s name and the photo he took of him one morning when his hair was sticking up in a hundred different directions flashes across his screen.

“Kitty cat?”

There’s a long sigh on the other end and the sounds of an action game in the background. “I’m in the middle of a fight. This is easier than trying to type.”

Kuroo’s used to this. He closes his eyes and wishes Kenma was still just a few doors away. Then he could run over there and panic in person like the good ol’ days. But for now he can just listen and pretend he’s stuffing chips in his face and cheering for Kenma in between rounds of pouring out his chaotic little soul to his best friend.

“Okay so first I need you to run your calculations and tell me if you think he was flirting or not.”

“Why the hell do you think I would know?”

“Because you just know . You listen to my nonsense and then you make it all rational, or whatever.”

“Fine. So you sent each other pictures of your tattoos?”

“Yes.”

“And the pictures showed more than just the tattoo?”

“Yes. Especially mine. But also his. His last one Kenma, I--”

“That’s flirting.”

“How can you be sure? What if--”

“That’s. Flirting.”

Kuroo starts to chuckle at his friend’s overly serious tone, but then he hears something unexpected on the other end - silence. From what he can hear it sounds like Kenma’s paused his game or, the unthinkable, turned it off. “Kitty cat?”

A sigh. “I’m only saying this because I’ve known you a long time, alright?”

Kuroo starts to feel a worried pinch in his stomach. “Okay.”

“Like too long,” Kenma laughs quietly, but it sounds forced. His tone is soft but there’s a layer to it that adds to the tension building in Kuroo’s body.

On the other end, he hears his best friend take a few breaths. He waits. Nothing happens. “Kenma, you’re killing me - what do you want to say?”

“Be patient. I’m planning,” Kenma replies. This time Kuroo waits like he’s been asked to. Typically Kenma shuts his rambling off with a few sharp words. He saves his quiet talks for when he thinks Kuroo needs it. Like right before their last game together at Nationals. Right before Kuroo graduated. Oh, and every time Kenma thought Kuroo was about to self-implode - again - and he tried to step in before disaster struck.

He hears Kenma take another deep breath before he speaks again. “If this one really matters to you, is now the best time? I’ve watched the last few attempts mess you up when they--”

“I wasn’t messed--”

“You were, okay? Just-- I want you to remember why your last few breakups happened.”

For a few weeks now, Kuroo’s been brushing off the last one - a man who’d seen him play at a few shows. They hit it off. A few dates. Then he was inevitably dumped because, “you don’t have any time for me.”

Of course, that happened right after that woman he saw - a bartender at a venue he feels weird playing at now if she’s working. Same story. They flirted. Had fun. But Kuroo couldn’t sustain it. He was dumped for “not having time for anything but work.”

Over and over again. The pattern sucks to see, but it’s too obvious for even Kuroo to ignore, as much as he tries to. He always sets out just to have fun.

Fun. He knows the exact moment that became his relationship goal. The exact moment he watched his last long-term relationship fall apart two years ago. There were a lot of problems, but he knows the guilt fell on both sides. And it was the same then - “I always come last in your life.”

Damnit, maybe Kenma has a point .

“You’ve been quiet for a long time. Alarmingly quiet for you. Are you broken?” Kenma asks.

Kuroo laughs weakly, “Nah, still here. Just thinking.”

“I can be wrong.”

“No, you’re my little brain for a reason.” As he says it, he can imagine the look Kenma gives in response, his nose scrunching up, eyebrows pinching in disdain at the nickname. “Thanks, Kitty Cat. I’ll think about it.”

“You should talk to your dad.”

Now it’s Kuroo’s turn to scrunch up his face. “No, no no no. That’s so uncomfortable.”

“Come on, he’s so much better with feelings.”

The way Kenma says the word “feelings” makes Kuroo laugh, for real this time. “Fine, fine. More to think about. But any more thinking and I might actually break my brain. You wanna play Smash now? I can open a match for us.”

“Same rules?”

“You know it.”

 


***

 

Contrary to his panic-induced thoughts, Tsukishima does not, in fact, stop texting him. True, Kuroo spends an entire text-less day rereading his last message and profusely sweating, but the next day he gathers his courage and sends a quick note.

In the morning, he lines up a shot of his coffee table with a well-made cup of coffee still steaming front of center in the stream of sunlight peeking through his front windows. Behind it, his couch is visible, though a little out of focus. He types out a message to include with the picture.

[8:45]: I could use some morning company. A cat would be perfect right about now.

He presses send and metaphorically pats himself on the back. While there’s always some secret, inner panic when it comes to flirting, this stuff with Tsukishima has bordered on his high school levels of indecision. I don’t want to scare him away, but my god, let’s go somewhere. The message hints at more, but leaves it open for, well, nothing.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Kenma’s voice pokes at him. He pushes it away. Let fate decide.

While working at the shop, he hardly ever checks his phone, but after sending the text, Kuroo makes sure not to check it by keeping it tucked away in the back room until he has a longer break between clients.

Tsukishima [11:21]: Are you sure about that? Look at what my little monster did while I was out.

The text precedes a picture of Mister with the remnants of a cardboard box and its paper contents ripped and strewn across Tsukishima’s living room floor.

Kuroo smiles at his screen. It’s not exactly what he wants but it does brighten his day.

[13:33]: a small price to pay for living with such a majestic creature

Chapter Text

Ever since being on the radio, every member of Glory Days has been able to tap into some newfound creative energy. It helps that the station that shared their song the first time keeps the song in a regular rotation for the next few days during their late night time slots. Everyone’s confidence receives a healthy boost and Kuroo wants to ride it for as long as they can.

When he’s not at the shop, Kuroo’s in the recording studio when they can get time and in their practice space every other moment of the day. He shovels convenience store food into his face as he walks from one train line to another and sleeps like a rock every night - well, once his brain decides to stop thinking of new ideas in the shower that he has to write down before he forgets them - then he sleeps like a rock. For a few hours.

Kuroo knows how he gets sometimes, how he can turn into an uncontrollable people-loving, creative, energetic speeding train with no stops. It’s exciting, but it’s a lot. Even for himself. He can sometimes feel the draw of slowing down, can see how it would be nice, but he just barrels through, knowing that the train will stop eventually. For now, though, there’s a buzzing throughout his whole body and he’ll harness it the best he can.

It’s how he ends up agreeing to play with Daishou and Late to the Party that Friday. Of course he agrees. Because it’s not like he’s not already doing too much.

Just keep going until we’re there.

Kuroo’s on the floor next to Oyori in their rehearsal space, running through the baseline of one of Glory Days’ songs on the new EP to see if they want to tweak it before Soga finalizes the editing process. The rest of the band is perched around Soga’s shoulders, Alisa on the left and Tora on the right, listening to the same parts of songs over and over again to give their feedback.

“Nah, I liked how it was before,” Tora says, getting too close to Soga’s screen as he points. Soga swipes his hand away, but Kuroo hears the original arrangement play again.

Alisa nods excitedly beside them, “definitely. It’s like, less polished but it feels more… present. Does that make sense?”

With a focused stare and lips pulled tight in a thin line, Soga subtly nods in agreement.

Tora points at the screen again before his hand is smacked away. “You know this third song still doesn’t have a title.”

Kuroo looks up from where he’s working with Oyori and groans. “Don’t remind me.” He runs a hand through his messy hair. “I don’t know why nothing works.”

"You know my method," Oyori looks up from their bass to chime in, "pick one word from the chorus and call it a title."

"No, no, it has to mean something," Kuroo replies and Oyori subtly rolls their eyes.

"I agree with Kuroo. It has to be just right," Alisa nods.

"Thank you!" Kuroo gestures with his hands.

Soga doesn't look up from his screen, "Fair, but at this rate, it's going on the EP as Song 3."

"Oh! Like Blur's Song 2! Now I like it," Tora laughs.

"No, that's horrible," Kuroo whines. "Alright, what have we tried so far?"

The band runs through the last several titles, none of them agreed on by everyone. It's a bittersweet song about missing someone the speaker knows they shouldn't miss, about carrying regret and hating it. But for all its melancholy, it ends on a powerful note. The speaker learns to let go and Alisa gets to triumphantly scream the chorus one last time as the previously sad lyrics take on a new shape when the mood changes.

Every person in the band has a part of it they connect to the most. Even if the lyrics begin with Oyori and Kuroo, everyone has a hand in the final version. So, they each have a part they think best captures the mood of the song and should be the title.

For as much as they care about the initial process, Oyori's the first to drop out of the conversation, claiming that at this point they "think anything's fine, honestly." Soga follows suit, choosing to focus on sound mixing instead of titling songs. That leaves Kuroo, Alisa, and Tora - the three parts of the energetic, headstrong Nekoma-core of the band.

Their spirited debate ends up sounding more like bickering siblings than three adults having a rational discussion. More than once Oyori snickers from their spot on the floor. But they get there.

"I agree. Moving On is a little too on the nose,” Alisa says.

"So we got it?" Tora claps them both on the back, knocking them both forward.

"Yea, Closing the Wounds,” Kuroo agrees with a grin.

Tora pumps his fist. "I like it. Still sounds gross and metal, but also, like, hopeful, you know?"

“I liked that line when we wrote it,” Oyori chimes in.

The final seal of approval. In a sleepy, delighted haze, Kuroo points with both hands over towards Soga. “Decided, then! Soga, put it in!”

“Already done.”

That night they end up back at Tora’s place, sprawled across his living room and listening to the EP from start to finish for the first time. There’s still minor changes to make, but it’s pretty much there. This EP is easily the best they’ve ever sounded.

After the last song plays, the room is quiet. Kuroo looks around at his friends’ faces, reading them for some sort of reaction. In their faces he sees his own thoughts reflecting back at him. They all know it. This one feels big.

 

***

 

All the ramp up in work means Kuroo texts Tsukishima less often now, but he sends a quick text when he can. The replies have been minimal, but encouraging.

[20:35]: making music

Kuroo sends a picture of himself in Glory Days’ rehearsal space. He initially takes three, then sends the one where both himself and his guitars look their best.

He’s about to pocket his phone and get back to work when a message stops him.

Tsukishima [20:36]: Making murder.

Kuroo puffs out a soft laugh.

Tsukishima’s not in the photo he sends, but he can see his table, notebooks and laptop organized neatly on top. Beside it lies a cup of tea. For a moment, Kuroo imagines being there, being the one who made him that cup of tea before kissing him on the top of the head and wishing him good luck with his writing.

[20:36]: I’d say good luck but that seems grim.

Tsukishima [20:36]: Grim is good.

The warm feelings in his gut give Kuroo a little more courage.

“Kenma--,” he calls from the squishy, old sofa he’s sitting on, “take my picture.”

“No,” comes the quick reply.

“Alisa--” he whines, jutting out his lower lip to look pitiful. “Please? It’s for love.”

“Why does she get a ‘please?’” Kenma asks, but the reply is lost once Alisa strolls over, laughing.

She positions the phone and Kuroo appreciates the way she seems to step back and forth, moving the phone up and down to get the best angle.

He poses with his guitar, an overly dramatic smirk on his lips.

Alisa laughs harder, but says nothing. She takes several and then passes the phone back. Kuroo ignores the snide comments of his bandmates as he picks one to send.

[20:37]: Nah, *this* is good.

Tsukishima [20:38]: eh, it’s alright

Kuroo snorts, hunched over his phone like the lovestruck fool he is.

[20:38]: you can’t show me anything better, so…

It takes a few minutes, but the reply he gets makes him laugh so hard it startles everyone in the room - except Kenma.

Tsukishima [20:41]: Nailed it.

What follows is a picture of Tsukishima with his blond hair messily raked forward, the tips of his bangs covering his forehead and the top of it pointing out at odd angles. His glasses are crooked and he’s resting one hand with an exhausted look in his eyes.

Kuroo stares at the image as he types, erases, and retypes several different replies.

“Hey loverboy,” Tora calls out, “hate to interrupt, but we’ve only got, like, an hour left.”

“Alright, alright,” Kuroo waves a quick hand and his heart beats faster as he tries to think of a way to wrap things up - for now.

[20:41]: HA. perfection.
[20:41]: Alright, really quick before I gotta go - I know you like nooooone of the same music as me—

Tsukishima [20:41]: I wouldn't say that

[20:42]: it’s true, tho

Tsukishima [20:42]: precisely, but I wouldn't say it.

[20:42]: either way my other band is playing on Friday if you wanted to come

Kuroo manages to peel himself away from his phone. He drops it on the old sofa, face down this time, so he’s not tempted.

He doesn’t see the reply until Glory Days’ is headed out to eat or drink or do whatever each of them need to do to wind down for the evening.

Tsukishima [21:02]: what time?

Another hour passes before he’s able to reply. Glory Days is packing up for the night and Kuroo moves quickly so he has enough time to check his phone before everyone is ready to leave.

[22:03]: like 10ish? It’s more of a jam venue, so the bands just sort of play until they’re done

Tsukishima [22:03]: sounds wonderfully… unorganized

[22:04]: That’s what’s so great! Just drop in
[22:04]: I’ll be free to hang before and after

Tsukishima [22:04]: I still haven’t agreed to go

[22:04]: minor detail
[22:04]: I’ll see you there (๑˃ᴗ˂)ﻭ

Tsukishima [22:56]: sure

 

***

 

At the venue, Kuroo sees Daishou first. His back is turned and next to him is, naturally, the shorter but somehow more powerful frame of Mika. Kuroo slinks closer, moving swiftly through the noisy, packed room. Daishou’s head spins a split second before Kuroo claps both of his hands hard on his shoulders. “How are the newlyweds this evening?” He asks loudly over the music.

Mika’s grin stretches wide. “Can you even call us that? It’s almost been a year now.”

Daishou twists out of Kuroo’s hold and turns so he can scowl at his bandmate.

“I’ll stop when this guy stops posting pictures of you two constantly,” Kuroo smirks.

“Can’t help that my life is better than yours.”

“Can’t help that my band is better than yours.”

“You’re in my band! If Late to the Party sucks more than Glory Days it’s ‘cause of you.”

“Debatable.”

“Hardly.”

The two of them slip into their comfortably combative patterns easily. It doesn’t matter how much time passes in between chances to see one another. They’ll exchange jabs, rile each other up. Then Kuroo will catch the way Daishou’s face instantly grows softer around the edges every time he talks to Mika. Like no time has passed at all, it’s like they’re back in their freshman year, tossed together again by proximity and circumstance. It’s a weird kind of release, being around a perfectly wonderful asshole like Daishou.

There’s no real “green room” for performers in the venue. What they do have is more like a wide hallway that goes from the bar and main floor back to behind the stage. There’s no where to sit and beneath him, Kuroo’s shoes stick to the floor. The whole place is a bit grungy, but that’s part of the appeal. The rest of Tokyo can be so clean and sterile, and then there’s pockets like this. It’s loud. It’s unorganized. It’s fun.

The band and Mika are throwing back a few pre-show beers, plus a shot of whiskey - or two, when Alisa stops by, shoving herself and her friends through the crowd like a one-woman snowplow. When she gets to Kuroo, she throws her arms around his middle, hugging him tight before backing up with a cringe across her face.

“How are you so sweaty already?” She asks.

“Should I lose the shirt?” He asks back over the sound of the band currently on stage.

“No!” Daishou shouts. He’s a few people away but he’s close enough to hear. “Leave that fucking shirt on tonight or so help me god, Kuroo. I will ruin you.”

Kuroo throws back his head and laughs as Daishou flips him off. Spurred on, he swings his arms behind him to reach for the back of his shirt and he feels one of his arms hit someone behind him. He spins, ready to apologize--

It’s Tsukishima, hand poised as though he was about to poke Kuroo’s shoulder. His lips are parted and his eyes seemed surprised.

“You made it!” Kuroo yells. It’s the first thing that comes to his mind, so it’s the first thing he says. He holds up his beer by the neck in celebration, bits of it sloshing onto his hand.

Tsukishima’s hair looks freshly trimmed and the neck of his shirt is looser than normal so Kuroo can see a part of the crows along his upper back. He remembers that text message, that text message, and feels an excited shiver down his spine.

A smirk crosses Tsukishima’s face, then his lips move forming a reply, but Kuroo can’t hear. He leans in closer, careful to hold his beer away from his body so he doesn’t spill it, and fully welcomes the little jump his heart makes when he thinks about being this close to Tsukishima again.

“I said, obviously I did.” Tsukishima repeats.

“What?”

Tsukishima pushes himself closer and lets out a sigh that Kuroo feels pass over his skin. “You said, ‘you made it,’ and I said, ‘obviously I did’ because I’m standing right here.”

“Oh! Well,” Kuroo turns his head so this time his lips are pressed near Tsukishima’s ear, “I’m glad you’re here.” He lets the honesty pour out unfiltered. It’s so much easier to do when it’s loud and he’s feeling more amped up than usual. He pulls back, standing upright, and flashes a smirk before finishing it off with a dramatic wink.

Tsukishima rolls his eyes.

Someone bumps into his shoulder and lingers, and Kuroo looks over to see Alisa right beside him. Her eyes are wide and her smile is sharp, knowing. Her eyes dart between the two of them and, if possible, her grin grows wider. “You came to watch him play?” She asks over the sound of the crowd.

“Something like that,” Tsukishima shouts back, his gaze on neither Alisa or Kuroo, but wandering in the space just past Kuroo’s shoulder.

But Kuroo stares. And he hopes Tsukishima can’t feel it, that it won’t make him feel awkward, but he can’t help it. Because Tsukishima is here. They talk everyday and even though Tsukishima’s music tastes clearly, very clearly, are far away from what’s currently screaming on stage, he’s here. Tsukishima’s here with a fresh haircut, a shirt that threatens to slip off his shoulder, and some tight jeans that Kuroo can’t look at for too long without his throat getting dry.

He’s going to play his heart out tonight.

 

***

 

The shirt doesn’t stay on. Daishou makes a threatening gesture between songs and Kuroo throws his head back and laughs. The definitely drunk crowd loves it.

Playing with Late to the Party is different. They don’t practice much. It’s not going anywhere big. It’s a time set aside so Daishou can scream and Kuroo can mess around with new sounds that don’t fit with Glory Days’ whole image.

So even with Daishou punching him hard in the shoulder as they walk off, he’s still talking louder, laughing harder, and feeling better than he has in days.

Mika grabs Daishou the moment his feet get off the stairs and she excitedly points out the things she noticed he changed this time while he was playing - knowledgeable and proud. Kuroo side-steps the two of them, slips his t-shirt back over his head, and looks around. There’s no Alisa anymore, but towards the end of the wide hallway near the entrance to the rest of the bar is Tsukishima. He’s leaning against a wall and his attention seems to be darting between the backroom and the bar.

For a second those eyes land on Kuroo. He looks away quickly, back towards the bar and the stage, suddenly far more interested in the band playing now.

Kuroo sets his guitar down near his other bandmates and takes the biggest steps he can manage in between the people scattered around backstage.

He plants himself in front of Tsukishima, hands on his hips. “What’d ya think?”

He has to bite back a grin at the way Tsukishima turns his head slowly, like he’s not all that interested, like he’s definitely not standing here to talk to Kuroo. Amped up on post-show energy, this is a game he’s ready to play.

“Loud,” is Tsukishima’s only reply.

Kuroo uses the opportunity of someone walking behind him to get closer. “And?”

Tsukishima subtly raises an eyebrow. “Interesting.”

It’s not quite loud enough to warrant how closer Kuroo gets to Tsukishima’s ear, but he does it anyway. He places a firm hand on Tsukishima’s shoulder as he leans in and says, “I’ll take it.” With a grin, he stands upright again and lets his hand linger before it falls back to his side.

Tsukishima’s eye focus on his, brows slightly knitted together, and Kuroo gets the feeling he’s being analyzed under that stare. A beat passes with no words, no change in the blond’s expression. Then he picks himself up off the wall, placing himself in Kuroo’s space. Another band starts playing. Tsukishima leans in to say, “You used a different guitar tonight.”

Kuroo feels the tips of Tsukishima’s fingers dance along his forearm. “Surprised you noticed.”

“They’re different colors and I’m not an idiot, so-- “

Another person walks behind Kuroo in the tight space, pushing him against Tsukishima for a moment. It’s just a bit too abrupt to be flirtatious. Almost tripping over his own feet isn’t a good look, but he sees a chance and takes it, steadies himself unnecessarily with Tsukishima’s upper arm.

Tsukishima’s lips are so close now, and his heartbeat urges him on, just a little bit further.

“You want to go outside?”

It takes Kuroo a moment to focus and process the question he's asked. Then he lets his tongue run quickly over his bottom lip before his smirk stretches something into a bit more delightfully wicked. He turns towards the battered back door covered in stickers and hastily scrawled notes from other bands. Tsukishima falls in step beside him and Kuroo gets a rush of nerves when he feels a hand settle on the small of his back through his thin t-shirt.

The moment the door shuts behind them, it’s quieter, leaving a ringing in Kuroo’s ears. He settles his back on the wall in the neon-lit narrow alley between the building and the karaoke place next to it. He stares at the cement wall, watching the different colors from the karaoke sign flash and fade as Tsukishima settles in next to him, their shoulders touching.

He hears Tsukishima yawn.

“Out past your bedtime, old man?” He laughs.

Tsukishima’s voice is low. “Nothing good happens late at night.” Kuroo notices a change in his words. A sharpness has left and he likes the soft cadence that’s present now.

“Maybe you’re just missing all the good stuff.”

“Like what?”

Kuroo searches his mind for some good evidence while he forces his arm to relax, letting it bump against Tsukishima’s. “Like late-night takoyaki.”

Tsukishima puffs out an almost-laugh. “That the best you got?”

“They’re pretty perfect after exactly four to six beers.” He’s still staring forward, watching the neon lights change in a predictable pattern. He feels fingers brush against his.

“Pass.”

“Oh yea? Well what would you normally be doing right now? Asleep already?”

“No,” some of Tsukishima’s familiar bite returns. “I’d just be inside. Alone and not rupturing my eardrums.”

“Well, this is better.”

“And why’s that?”

Kuroo pushes himself off the wall and runs his fingers through his hair as he turns. “”Cause I’m excellent company.”

Kuroo watches a smirk grow on Tsukishima’s lips. There’s a spark in his eye when he says, “Pass.”

“The door’s right there. Don’t let me stop you.”

“No, I’m pretty sure we’re locked out. There’s no handle on this side.”

Kuroo’s eyes snap to the door and, sure enough, Tsukishima’s right. He chuckles. “Well shit, I’ll go around and let you back in when—”

“Or--”

The tone of Tsukishima’s voice makes his breath catch in his throat. Their eyes meet again and Tsukishima looks back, unblinking.

“Or what?” He asks in the suddenly very small space between them, his stomach twisting together, excited and impatient as he feels the pull between them as they hold one another in an intense stare. It’s like water rushing towards a fall now -- forceful, inevitable.

Tsukishima moves first, wrapping his slender fingers around Kuroo’s waist and pulling him in. Their lips crash together and there’s no rhythm, no finesse yet but — god he tastes good. Kuroo angles his head and kisses back with purpose, his own hands responding to the ones digging into his sides. One slides along Tsukishima’s waist while the other reaches for his hair, gently running through the soft, short hairs of his undercut.

He parts his lips on a sigh and Tsukishima rushes in and pulls Kuroo tighter against him. For all the years that have passed between him being on the National stage and now, Tsukishima’s body is still strong with tightly corded muscle that Kuroo can feel as he slips underneath the hem of his shirt.

Kuroo breaks the kiss long enough to let his lips wander along Tsukishima’s chin and down his neck, pressing sloppy kisses along the way. He drinks in the sound of Tsukishima’s soft panting breaths in the night air. When he captures those lips again it’s with a renewed ferocity, a desire to make sure Tsukishima thinks about this later.

Tsukishima’s hands slide underneath his shirt and up his lower back and they tumble against the wall behind them, now tangled together in a way that has Kuroo’s head spinning. A moan builds in Tsukishima’s throat but doesn’t escape, not yet, and Kuroo imagines what sweet sounds he could make spill from Tsukishima’s lips if given the chance.

The door next to them opens.

Tsukishima freezes, his hands still twisted in Kuroo’s shirt, his chest still pounding against Kuroo’s. His head spins. Kuroo follows.

Daishou. Eyes wide. The door starts to close again, but it’s slow. The three of them are awkwardly trapped in a moment together until it’s shut.

Kuroo looks back at Tsukishima. The passion has passed. There’s a cold rationality back in place behind those eyes. Tsukishima starts to twist free and Kuroo lets him go, but there’s no denying two things -- one, that just happened, and two, they’re both similarly affected and breathing hard.

“I told you good things happen.” The phrase sounds perfect in his mind, but the second he says it, it feels like the just wrong thing to say.

Tsukishima’s face is unreadable, locked in an expressionless gaze. Kuroo takes a step back. Tsukishima straightens his shirt.

The colors from the sign flash across Tsukishima’s face as he seems to search Kuroo’s face for something, saying nothing.

He opens his mouth to speak, pauses before he lets the words leave. “I’m going to head out.”

“You sure?” Kuroo stuffs his hands in his pockets.

“Yea.”

“You need me to let you back in?”

“No, I have everything I brought.”

He only has a few moments left to end this better. Kuroo runs through so many prepared lines that he’s used before but they don’t fit. He lands on, “Thanks for coming tonight.”

“No problem.” Tsukishima pushes up from the wall and Kuroo backs up another step to give him space. Tsukishima’s still standing in front of him, but from the tone of his voice, his thoughts have already taken him miles away. He turns to exit the alley.

“See you soon, Tsukishima.”

He looks to the side, a weak smile on his lips. “Yea, see you soon.”

Kuroo waits a few minutes before he walks back to the front of the venue to get back inside, processing and stewing in everything that just happened. He must be wearing his thoughts clear as day on his face because the moment Daishou sees him again he claps a hand on Kuroo’s shoulder.

“Sorry, man. I hate your guts but I still never want to come between you and getting some.”

“It’s alright. I don’t think that’s where it was headed. I can't seem to figure out that one."

"Well," Daishou says, squeezing his shoulder, "you always were really stupid."

"Thanks, man."

Chapter Text

In the harsh light of morning, Tsukishima very much wishes he could throw himself into the sea.

He shuts off his alarm, grateful it’s a Saturday, and shoves his phone off the bed. He glares at the now empty pack of cigarettes on his bedside table. Sighing, he chooses to put another pillow on top of his head instead of getting up and facing his day.

From the sound of the cries coming from his bedside, Mister’s not pleased. Mister can wait. He deserves to simmer in the shame of his impulses for a little while longer.

This isn’t even the first time, Tsukishima curls into a ball at the center of his mattress, bringing his pillow-tent with him and crawling deeper under his blankets. Tsukishima never seeks out dating, it just happens when he can’t hold back anymore.

His past few relationships have started in a similar way. It begins with a lot of slow-moving flirtatious conversations. Then, eventually, his body remembers it’s just a skin vessel for chemicals and animal urges so he’s showing skin and pulling secretly clever, very handsome idiots on top of him outside of concert venues or any number of embarrassing things past-Tsukishima has done.

And worst of all, I liked it.

Mister yowls from the floor right near his bed.

“Go back to sleep. I’m wallowing.” He replies, muffled behind the blankets and pillows.

Mister yowls again, louder. He repeats the sound a few times until it grows into a long, drawn out scream for food.

“Oh my god,” Tsukishima flips the top pillow off of his head. “Fine, I’ll feed you.” He starts to pull himself out of the blankets, untangling his limbs as he goes. He missteps as he tries to step on the floor, his ankle still tied up in his sheet.

Out in his kitchen, he looks down at his companion, his tormentor. “I’ll be an adult for five minutes, tops, then I’m going back to bed.” Mister curls between his legs, making the journey between the cupboard and Mister’s bowl as treacherous as ever.

In just his briefs, there’s a chill throughout the rest of his apartment. The mornings are growing cooler, so it’s easy to keep his earlier promise to himself to forget about adulting this morning. After brushing his teeth to get rid of the remainder of last night’s shame cigarettes, he winds up back in bed, tangled up in a mess of sheets and blankets.

He sighs, long and loud until all the air is out of his lungs.

I’m going to have to deal with this. A decades-old guilt sinks into his bones. He sighs again, the sound morphing into a whine. I’m not going to disappear from sheer mortification. Not again. But for now, he sits with it. And if inklings of desire manage to creep back in, he’ll quickly snuff them out with a dose of more self-serving misery.

 

***

 

“Do something cute,” Tsukishima orders, his phone trained on Mister as the cat saunters through the living room.

Earlier, in bed, he devised a plan - go against all his instincts and text Kuroo something innocuous, innocent, totally sterile. That way he can minimize damage, but not ghost Kuroo like he, well, so often has done in the past. Do better, he tells himself.

He types several good morning messages, but with the memory of how soft Kuroo’s lips actually felt still burned into his skin, even a generic have a good saturday feels too sincere.

Mister is the only solution. He’s shared enough cat pictures over their short, renewed friendship that it won’t be out of place and there’s absolutely no way to misconstrue a cat picture as anything linked to the previous night’s escapades.

“Will you at least sit down and curl up or something?” Tsukishima pleads with his fluffy overlord, face pinched in a scowl. “I do everything for you. Please give me this one thing.”

Mister turns and flicks his tail in the air to punctuate his departure from the conversation.

Tsukishima follows, acutely aware of the embarrassing pit his life has momentarily become as he chases his cat into his bedroom.

His phone vibrates in his hand and his stomach drops.

Kuroo [10:01]: here’s hoping the old man didn’t stay out too late last night

Tsukishima groans out loud. Why aren’t there pause buttons on human interaction? Now Kuroo’s the first to say something after all that. Which means he gets to set the tone and Tsukishima’s left just responding and looking like he — did Kuroo think I’d bail?

No, he tells himself, I’m reading way too far into this. He squeezes his whole face together, his glasses sliding down his nose, and exhales sharply, like a reset.

Mister flops onto his back, front paws curled. Tsukishima snaps the photo and stares at it, wondering how to respond now.

He doesn’t manage to until later, but he settles on something he deems acceptable. His stomach is still churning as his brain refuses to process the night before, but he manages to send --

[12:31]: I survived. Mister’s sleepy, though.

He doesn’t open the replies he gets later in the day and doesn’t respond until the next morning.

 

***

 

For the rest of the week, Tsukishima keeps his distance. There’s a delicate balance in play here. He doesn’t want to completely disappear but he also doesn’t want to acknowledge the events.

He uses work as an excuse and it’s only a little bit of a lie. When he’s not working with Yachi, he actually is having to work more at home. One of his co-workers quit and with no plans to hire anyone else to fill the position, everyone else on the team picked up extra work. It keeps him busy and, truthfully, he’s thankful for the distraction.

“I can’t believe how close we are to the end,” Yachi says, her voice soft. Neither of them have spoken in a while. Tsukishima’s focus has been on editing while Yachi draws. They both had headphones on because the ukelele man was playing and singing from his soul, but now they’re free to have ears again.

“It feels equally too soon and not soon enough,” Tsukishima replies, tapping on his keyboard.

Yachi snickers, “Right? On the one hand, I am so ready to see the end of this insane workload, relax, and maybe even have the headspace leftover to think of something new, but I’m also so not ready to let go of this yet.”

Tsukishima understands. These characters have lived with them in some iteration since he and Yachi lived together. And while some of them, the main characters, will live on in future projects, “it won’t be the same.”

She returns to cleaning up her illustrations, her hand moving slowly over her tablet. Then she lets out a quick puff of a sigh and sets her pen on the table. At the sound Tsukishima looks up and find her eyes watching his. She chews her lips for a moment before she finally says, “Do you think we’re going to find an agent?”

Tsukishima keeps telling himself that they’ve done what they can. They did their research, found agents open to new clients in their genre. They’ve followed up an appropriate number of times, though he did have to stop Yachi from emailing again “just in case.”

But he can’t bring himself to say ‘yes.’ “We’ve done our best,” he offers.

The look on Yachi’s face he gets in response makes his heart pinch. What’s left of her smile slips off her face and her eyes drift down to the table between them. “You can do all this work and still nothing might happen at all.”

Tsukishima’s mind races through potential replies and the consequences of each. They all seem to harsh. He tries, “True, but it only takes one.”

He watches as her forehead scrunches together. Her eyes dart up from the table, she takes a quick breath in, and he knows this look. He can feel the force and speed of her speech before it even begins.

“I just can’t imagine going back to doing nothing at all. I hate work so much sometimes, not the creative part, obviously, but the stupid games I have to play to keep my ten thousand different middle-management bosses happy, but I go because it helps fund this and, honestly, working on our story keeps me going and it makes me excited to get up in the morning and the thought of this story ending makes me sad -- especially when we don’t know what’s next.

"What if nothing happens and we’ve thrown away this deal that we kind of, sort of, maybe are okay with our current platform and then no one picks us up because we seem, I don’t know, snobby or somethin? And what if we can’t work together and so we lose touch because I know how I can be with replying to texts, like you, and I really want to tell our story because I know it’s good, but no one might care, and we’ve gotten some weird feedback on the last few chapters so I know not everyone likes it all the time, and--”

Tsukishima grabs her attention, a soft smile on his lips. He says nothing but he visibly breathes in deep, nodding as she interrupts herself to mirror the gesture. She lets out the breath too quickly and he raises an eyebrow. This time she closes her eyes and breathes again. When she opens her eyes, there’s a hint of a grin on her lips and she lightly kicks him under the table. Probably for knowing better.

“We’ve done the impossible before,” he smirks. “You somehow managed our unruly asses for three consecutive years of strong teamwork, so--”

“I know.”

He draws his lips tightly together. There are words dancing around in his brain that he wants to say, but it’s hard. Things like those words feel so foreign and strange when he says them out loud -- “We’d never lose touch.”

It’s the tip of the iceberg of what he wants to say, but the rest won’t come. It’s too much like cutting himself open for the world to see to say things like whatever happens, happens, but I’m not as scared because at least I’m doing them with you.

Yachi’s smile grows and he’s glad she understands the rest of what he won’t say. Over a decade of friendship will do that.

“And those negative comments?” He starts.

“Yea?”

“Fuck them.”

“I know,” she groans, melting back against her chair and slipping down the seat, “but I just care so much!”

“Honestly, I do, too. And those are the comments that stick with me for hours and hours after I read them, but they’re our characters. We brought them to life. We know where it’s going.”

The melted puddle of Yachi looks at him from just over the edge of the table. “Thanks, Tsukki— er, Tsukishima.”

He clicks his tongue, looks away. “I’ve known you how many years now? You can call me that. It’s fine.”

Yachi sits back up and leans forward on the table, cradling her head in her open palms and staring back at him. “Good, ‘cause it’s what I call you in my head everyday anyway.”

 

***

 

On Friday night Tsukishima readily agrees to go out to dinner with Yachi and all the other illustrators. They tend to get together at week’s end to blow off steam, and Tsukishima could definitely stand a chance to eat his pent up feelings.

Work has been beyond frustrating. Doing the same amount of work with one fewer person on the team was, of course, going to cause some issues, but Tsukishima could have dealt with everything if only everyone else hadn’t been so whiny.

I know it’s annoying. We all know it’s annoying, he would grit his teeth to hold back spiteful comments during video meetings, but making this meeting last twenty minutes longer so you can complain isn’t helping.

He ends up talking to some spring rolls about that.

Writing has been downright frightening, too. He won’t admit it out loud to Yachi, but he assumes she’s caught on. She’s known him long enough by now that she can read him almost as well as Yamaguchi. He’d be unnerved were it not so nice to have another person he doesn’t have to speak his feelings to for them to understand.

The end of the webcomic has him second-guessing everything. Alone in his apartment, he’s been obsessing over previous chapters, wishing he had written this sentence differently, dropped this plot detail sooner, picked a different word for this reaction - over and over again because now they all start to feel like tiny errors that make the ending far more difficult to compose correctly. He has drafts, of course, and they’re fairly polished at this point, but he can’t stand the idea of looking back at that final chapter after it’s out and wishing he could just erase it from the earth. He loves these characters. He wants to do it right.

He talks to a large bowl of pho about that.

Then there’s everything with Kuroo. The former river of texts has decreased to a trickle. His phone is no longer buzzing every few hours with a random thought or a quick hello. He tries not to feel like something’s missing, but it’s hard when he keeps habitually checking his phone. It’s his fault. He purposefully waited longer and longer to reply in between texts. He created the distance.

He’s frustrated. With himself.

Tsukishima understands that he might be marginally less clever where emotions are concerned, but he’s no idiot. He knows he’s attracted to Kuroo, but attraction doesn’t necessarily equal a relationship, he reminds himself throughout the week.

Because there’s another side to his proclivity to finally give in and make-out with the object of his chemical attraction. A darker side. A potentially meaner side. After that initial rush, he fights it. Once he gets past the extreme embarrassment, which does take a few days, Tsukishima likes to strategize, likes to read the situation. He needs time to step back, reorganize. And he refuses to string someone along if he’s not sure where he stands. But he knows how he comes across. Flaky. Impulsive. Callous.

His last few relationships have only started because the other person decided to build that bridge while he sat and stewed inside his own brain.

But it always ends in such a mess, his brain keeps reminding him. His last break up was anything but mutual. It was a painful mess, a harsh separation once Tsukishima decided permanent long distance could not, would not be the way he lived life. It still stings and sits there in the back of his mind.

But he’s growing, he tells himself, he’s trying to do better. The past doesn't decide everything. Nothing is set in stone and this thing with Kuroo isn't even properly a thing yet so it's fine.

So he tries. Even if it takes him hours, even if he waits until the next day, he texts Kuroo back. He attempts to make up for the lack of responses by making the texts he does send a bit longer. He puts in thought, he really does.

And this is what leaves him feeling the most drained at the end of the week.

To address these feelings, he gets the group to go to the ice cream place down the street so he can talk to three scoops of rich, creamy ice cream and a slice of cake about all that.

He buys a pint to take home, too.

Which is how he winds up back at his place with Yachi and Yamaguchi in tow, sharing a pint of white chocolate strawberry rose ice cream. He knows it’s overpriced, hipster nonsense. He doesn’t care. It’s delicious.

The three of them squeeze together on fold-out chairs on his tiny balcony. It’s narrow and Tsukishima’s knees press against the railing. He only ever comes out here for occasional smoke breaks. It’s not exactly meant for entertaining.

Also it’s getting cold. Yachi’s in the middle, but the other half of Tsukishima’s body is left unguarded to suffer the elements.

“Why are we outside again?” He scrunches up his face as another chilly breeze rushes past them.

“Because the sky is super clear tonight and I thought it looked nice,” Yamaguchi replies from the other side of Yachi, spooning more ice cream into his mouth.

She nods, “you can actually see some stars. When’s the last time you remember being able to do that in Tokyo?” Her eyes are drawn to the space above the skyline, her ice cream all but forgotten as she smiles softly and takes it in.

“Exactly,” Yamaguchi replies. “I definitely miss that about Miyagi.”

“Yea, it wasn’t the worst.” Tsukishima’s eyes drift up to the night sky. He’s out in the suburbs, but Tokyo is still Tokyo. Sometimes he misses the stillness of home. The quiet never did seem to abandon him with his thoughts like the constant din of city noise does. No, the quiet was a comfort.

The three of them catch up on their weeks, laughing through Yamaguchi’s stories about second graders. They linger on the tiny balcony even once the ice cream is done. Tsukishima goes back inside to grab blankets, resigned to the fact that they’re apparently spending their evening outside on hard plastic chairs with a brisk, autumn breeze instead of warm and sitting on a comfy, albeit old, couch.

Even though he hates feeling any sort of cold, Tsukishima has to admit there’s something pleasant about being smooshed together and talking as they look out over the lights. It helps that he’s made passable cocktails from the gin he can afford and the flat tonic water he had in his fridge. He did have a fresh lemon, though. The drink doesn’t fit the weather at all, but it tastes good, and the three of them nurse their drinks as time comfortably passes.

“I can’t wait to see how you two tie everything up. I mean, after that last chapter I--” Yamaguchi dips his head back against the edge of his plastic chair and sighs, “it was so good. Just -- just how much she’s grown since the beginning. I’m in love.”

Tsukishima feels heat creeping up his neck and he’s glad no one can see his blush. Though, knowing Yamaguchi, his best friend is already aware it’s there. Tsukishima’s never been one to accept sincere compliments easily.

“I’m so glad.” Yachi says, and Tsukishima feels her shift beside him, then her head is resting against his upper arm. “We’re at such a weird point and, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that we’re overthinking all the little details now.”

Tsukishima responds with a grunt.

“See? Exactly. It’s good to know we’re, I don’t know, telling some cohesive story that pulls the reader along. Knowing you like the characters?” Yachi happily sighs, “That’s, like, everything.”

“Yamaguchi’s biased,” Tsukishima adds, grinning.

“Obviously I am,” his friend retorts, “but even if I didn’t love you both I’d still enjoy the story. It’s that good.”

Tsukishima groans through his smile.

“Whine all you want,” Yamaguchi says, “I will always know you as that sour-faced, sweet little boy that saved me from bullies and had notebooks filled with stories about dragons.”

“Dragons?” Yachi spits, her body lurching forward. Her head spins to face Tsukishima in the dim lighting. “You? Little you wrote about dragons?”

Tsukishima clicks his tongue. “They’re basically dinosaurs. It’s not that big of a deal.”

Yachi smiles wide and settles back into her spot. “Oh. Yea. It’s a big deal. Imagining a tiny Tsukki writing fantasy stories is giving me life right now.”

“I didn’t write about them forever.” Tsukishima tries to save face.

“No, you later moved on, but you were always writing something, even if it was short.” Yamaguchi adds.

“Salty Tsukki. Secretly a sensitive writer all along.”

“Don’t push your luck,” he says when they both start giggling. “I’ll lock you both out here.”

Mercifully the conversation steers away from Tsukishima’s writing past and circles back to their current lives. Yachi whines her way through a story about visiting home and her mother hounding her over needing to either have a higher paying job or “just get married already and be done with it if you’re fine with mediocrity.”

Tsukishima’s blood boils as he hears that final comment and he wonders if it’s too late to write another murder into the story. He’ll save it. They can metaphorically stab Yachi’s mother later over that. Yachi is anything but mediocre.

Yamaguchi reads the mood, like he always can, and takes the conversation back to lighter territory. He has a few new dating stories, though none as ridiculous as the now-infamous puppet guy. “Joke’s on us, I guess,” Yamaguchi says, “because we’re still talking about him.”

“So Tadashi-kun,” Yachi sing-songs, her tone teasing, “still single like the rest of us or--?”

Tsukishima feels himself tense.

Yamaguchi chuckles, “still decidedly unattached. Unless that 2nd grader I told you about -- the one that keeps drawing pictures of me - unless she’s got other ideas for when she’s grown up, as far as I know I’m single.”

“She’s got a big ol’ crush on her Yamaguchi-sensei,” Tsukishima teases.

“Not the first time.” Tsukishima can hear the smile in Yamaguchi’s voice even if he can’t see it. “I’m very adorable.”

Yachi slides down into her chair, pulling the blanket down with her. “I kind of wish I could just figure something out with someone I already know. Like maybe I could flip a switch on friend or someone from back home and then, poof!” She shoots her hands forward, rocking her chair. “All settled down with a puppy and a good apartment and no one’s trying any funny business.”

“Someone you already knew, huh?” Yamaguchi smirks from the other side of the friend-pile and Tsukishima wants to flick him with his sharp, bony fingers like he used to when they were kids. “What do you think about that idea, Tsukki?”

Yachi must sense the change in tone, because her head turns, glancing between them. “What am I missing?”

Tsukishima simply replies, “It’s not that much better.”

“Oh,” Yachi sounds excited, “now I know I’m missing something good. By the laws of friendship, you have to tell me.”

 

Tsukishima stares down into the bottom of his now empty glass. He lets go of a grumbling sort of whine and sits up in his chair, then leans forward so his forearms are on his thighs and he can’t see his friends, just the bright expanse of the city beyond his balcony.

Starting at the tattoo shop, he tells Yachi everything.

Meeting again at the shop. Going to that first show and getting drinks after. Learning about Kuroo now and talking, talking, so much sharing about their story.

As he gets lost in his train of thought, he can picture that night so clearly - exactly how Kuroo looked, the dark warmth of the whiskey, the quiet din of the other voices in the bar, and his own heartbeat deciding to race anytime Kuroo looked him right in the eyes.

Yachi stirs beside him and he remembers himself, where he is, and continues. From there it’s just texts and that little cafe jaunt, so it’s decidedly less salacious. Until --

“And you can wipe that smug grin off your face, Yamaguchi, because you don’t know what happened last night.”

Then he shares that, too, his chest and cheeks warming with more than just embarrassment this time.

 

***

 

It’s getting late. Yachi and Yamaguchi both went home a while ago and Tsukishima wants to be in bed asleep. Instead he’s back on his couch re-reading previously published chapters of their story so he can be double, triple sure that they haven’t left any loose ends that need tying up before the final chapter.

He’s so engrossed in reading on his phone that when it vibrates in his hand with an incoming message he’s startled and drops it on his chest.

Swearing at himself, he picks it up and his breath catches when he sees the same: Kuroo (1).

He doesn’t even have time to unlock his phone before the messages keep pouring in.

Kuroo (2)
Kuroo (3)
Kuroo (4)

His lips stretch into a small grin, remembering Kuroo’s ludacris stream of consciousness texts about whatever. Tsukishima hasn’t gotten one all week.

He opens the text and his whole body tenses the moment he starts reading.

Kuroo [1:48]: I hop i didnt make you mad or something this week and that youd tell me if i did but i just want you to know that sometimes friends can make out with other friends and it is OKAAAAYYYYY
Kuroo [1:48]: cause i wonder if that is why we didnt wtalk much this week you know caus we had A MOMENT last weekend but its ALL GOOOOOD on my end so
Kuroo [1:48]: also hi hello hooooooooopeeeee you haf a gooood daaaayyyy
Kuroo [1:48]: I did. Bokuto and Akaashi are HEREEEEE they came to my show s did some peple from the shop too so its a party but itd be more fun withh you here too

The man is cleary drunk, or well on his way towards becoming drunk.

So much for ignoring what happened. Tsukishima stares at the words on his screen. He cringes from the aftershocks of last weekend’s embarrassment, but also from the way he can so clearly imagine Kuroo’s booming yell, even a cackle or two.

But not in those last few words. In his mind those sound soft, just like in the noisy club when Kuroo would lean in and whisper words against his ear.

He reads that phrase over and over.

He finds that despite his tense shoulders and his scrunched up face, beneath all that, he’s relieved.

And then his phone rings.

Chapter Text

At the end of a long day full of clients at the shop, Kuroo takes his time methodically cleaning his station. Work with the band is picking up exponentially after releasing their EP on a few steaming apps and ever since their little mouth-on-mouth alley action three days ago, Tsukishima’s been backing away from their usual text chats. He hasn’t disappeared but it’s definitely different. And confusing.

So he’s thankful for the comfort in the ritual of cleaning his tools and setting everything exactly in its place. He gets into a different headspace when he’s been tattooing all day. He likens it to what some clients talk about, the “zone” they get into when they’re sitting in his chair. It’s like a kind of meditation. He’s so solely focused on his work that, by the end of the day, he feels tired, absolutely mentally exhausted from focusing, but calm. It’s a wholly different feeling than the satisfaction he gets from playing shows, but it’s satisfying in its own right. Everything back in its perfect place.

“You got any shows coming up?” Ibuki’s voice calls from the doorway in between the studio and the front room.

Kuroo startles. He forgot she was still here. “Always,” he replies.

She pauses for a moment, expectant, before adding, “want to tell me when or just be weird about it?”

Kuroo laughs and closes the top drawer of his work station. “Got one on Friday at a good venue. You know that big basement place where you saw me play this summer?” He looks up to find her leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. Her outfit that day is less intimidating than most. Far less metal than usual, but even with her tiny frame Kuroo’s fairly sure she could still kick his ass. He’s never tried. He never will.

“That bar with bad beer but good cocktails?”

“Yep, that’s the one. Starts at 8. I’ll be on around 9.”

“Cover charge?”

“Nah,” he waves a dismissive hand, “this is just one of our more regular gigs. It’s a bar that happens to have bands, like most of our shows, not like a proper headlining show or anything.

“Cool. I might come by.”

“No art shows this weekend?”

“No,” she sighs heavily, “my little fifteen minutes of can-I-even-call-it-that fame on the Tokyo art scene seems to have disappeared.”

“It’ll pick up again.”

“Oh yea, and how would you know that?”

“Because you’re good. And you make cool shit.”

“Shut up,” she sneers, but he can’t miss the way her cheeks betray the fact that she’s holding back a smile. “I don’t have anything better to do, so I might as well make some cool shit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Yours will pick up, too,” she adds. Kuroo watches her arms uncross and dangle loose by her sides. She’s staring past Kuroo to the art on the wall above him. “Glory Days will have a headline show.” She clicks her tongue like she’s annoyed herself with her own level of sincerity. “Your band’s not bad at all, even if the guitarist is tough to look at.”

Kuroo throws a wadded up paper towel at her.

“Rude. But thanks. You’re lucky I’m used to your particular brand of compliments.” He closes his last drawer and stretches his arms high when he finally stands up for the first time in a while.

“You’re welcome. But really, though, didn’t you say shit was picking up?”

“You remember my friend Kenma? He’s been playing parts of our new EP during his streams. Combine that with the fact that he’s our social media manager and, yea, things are picking up steam, it looks like.”

“Plus the radio,” Ibuki adds.

Kuroo smiles softly, feeling a warmth in his chest. “Plus the radio,” he repeats. It might only be a weekly feature on Sunday evenings, but the same station that played them in the middle of the night is now regularly including Glory Days in their local artist showcase.

Ibuki’s tone shifts. “Is blondie going to be there?”

“Who?” he asks, suddenly very interested in his work bench again. He knows exactly who she means. Nakayama and Ibuki won’t let more than a few days go by before they ask Kuroo how he’s progressing with the man that made him stutter the word awesome like a broken robot. They’ve got practiced impressions of the whole scene. Kuroo often wonders how he ended up gaining two work-sisters later in life who bond over tormenting him and never letting him forget how painstakingly slowly things are going with Tsukishima.

“You know, the one that made you,” she rocks awkwardly on her feet, stuttering out nonsense words with a dumb grin on her face.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he stares back, a grin of his own challenging hers.

She takes a few steps closer, her heavy boots landing with a thud each time. She wiggles the fingers on one hand, reaching out towards him. “Fine, but when I steal your phone when you’re not looking I’ll get the full story.”

He snatches his phone from his work station and pockets it. “You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

A deadly smirk crosses her lips, made more intense by the dark-red lipstick she’s wearing. “That can be arranged.”

 

***

 

Tsukishima [19:09]: Thanks for sending all those tattoo portfolios you saw yesterday. It’s always so impressive to see what people can accomplish. Makes me think about my next one. Were you at some sort of meet-up? How’d you get to see so many people’s work?

[19:43]: Yea, I went with the other junior artist on staff to a seminar-type thing that the shop helped pay for. Learned some updates to some techniques, some new tools
[19:43]: Mostly it was just wicked to see other people’s art
[19:43]: I got some kind feedback, but mostly I was just like fuuuuuuuuuu- everyone’s so much better than meeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Tsukishima [22:13]: I’d like to see your portfolio sometime.

Kuroo reads the text the moment it arrives. He’s draped on his couch, collapsed after another long day, his head hanging off the cushions, and smiling so hard it hurts his cheeks.

I was worried for nothing, he tells himself over and over while he thinks about what to write back, he’s just busy.

 

***

 

“Oh my god, everything still tastes exactly the same,” Bokuto sighs happily, throwing his head back before sitting back up with a huge grin etched on his face. “This place hasn’t changed at all.”

“It hasn’t been that long since you two moved.” Kuroo shoots him a look, throwing a rolled-up ball of straw paper at him.

Bokuto flicks it away before it can hit his face, laughing much louder than anyone, truly anyone, else in the bar. It’s a good thing the staff remembers them. Bokuto’s hard to forget.

Akaashi smiles softly as his head comes to rest on Bokuto’s shoulder, his eyes closing just for a moment. Even in the dim lighting, Kuroo can see the faint red blush on his cheeks and he knows his own face can’t look all that much different right now. He has no idea what time it is, just that the show ended a while ago and they’ve been eating and drinking their way through this part of the city until they ended up at the old bar they basically lived at while he and Akaashi were at the same college.

Bokuto moves his head and snuggles into Akaashi’s hair before placing a kiss on the top of his head.

Kuroo fake gags. “Stop it, you two. Right in front of my beer?” It’s nothing new and, honestly, he thinks it's sweet but he’s been complaining about it out loud for so long, he’s not about to stop the game now.

He’s been subjected to Bokuto and Akaashi’s particular brand of constant displays of affection since they started dating years ago. Oh, they’ll keep it together out on sidewalks or at a busy train station, but the moment they’re somewhere where they feel comfortable? All touching, all the time, like they’re glued together the same way they were back in high school.

“You know we’re adorable,” Akaashi smirks, sliding his shoulder down so he can rest more comfortably against Bokuto.

“A proven fact,” Bokuto lifts his hand and points authoritatively, “scientifically proven that Keiji and I are the cutest couple.”

Sitting up again, Bokuto reaches to ruffle Akaahi’s perfect hair, making it stick up at odd angles before Akaashi smooths it back down, scrunching his face up at Bokuto in mock annoyance.

The three of them laugh, just like they’ve been doing all evening, and Kuroo can’t help but feel overjoyed and incredibly sad at the same time. With these two, it’s so easy to slip back into old comfortable habits, like they still live in that small, old apartment down the street from Kuroo’s equally small, old apartment. But they don’t. And even though they’re here in front of him now, his heart already aches at the thought of them leaving again.

It’s so selfish, he knows, but if he could pick he’d make sure all his favorite people could be around him all the time.

“I think you’re confusing cute with obnoxious,” he gestures towards Bokuto, “at least for half of you.”

“No way. ‘Kaashi, I’m cute right?”

Akaashi nods, now leaning sleepily on his hand with his elbow propped up on the table.

“See!”

“Biased source. He’s always thought you were cute.”

Akaashi’s smile grows and he turns to look at Bokuto, “since the first day I saw him.”

Bokuto’s grin grows wide and he looks back at Akaashi, face all dopey and soft. Kuroo rolls his eyes and sighs.

Then Bokuto freezes, his eyes stare off into the distance, and his mouth hangs open just a little. Well, Bokuto has a thought, Kuroo chuckles to himself.

Slowly Bokuto turns to look at Kuroo, his eyes meeting his in a suddenly intense stare. He says nothing.

After a few moments, Kuroo laughs louder, “Bo, what gives? Did you get stuck?”

Bokuto’s mouth opens, then shuts again. His eyes widen and he turns to give a questioning glance to Akaashi.

Staring back, Akaashi slowly shakes his head ‘no’ and Bokuto’s expression changes in a silent protest. Back and forth, they share two sides of a soundless conversation until Kuroo can’t take it anymore.

“What is it?”

“Okay, two things--” Bokuto starts.

“But one is going to wait until later and the other, for the record, I don’t think now is the time either but--”

“But I gotta know.” Bokuto returns to staring at Kuroo. “You still talking to Tsukishima?”

Bokuto looks so hopeful. Akaashi’s face slips into a worried, sympathetic half-smile.

“Yea, I am,” Kuroo answers simply, even though the reality is a little less simple to figure out.

“I told you it would be okay,” Boktuo tells Akaashi before turning his attention back to Kuroo. “So, any updates? The last thing you told us was about that hot alley action after your show.”

Kuroo folds his elbows onto the table and slouches forward, running a hand through his messy hair. “That’s kind of it. Not a whole lot since then.” He sees Bokuto’s smile falter and he wants so badly for this to work out, if only because it’s clear Bokuto has been so invested in this whole ‘high school sweetheart’ thing working out for Kuroo, too. “He’s just been busy. It’s fine,” he reassures.

Bokuto’s smile still slips sideways. “Aw, well okay. I was just hoping--”

“We both are,” Akaashi adds, placing his hand on top of Bokuto’s on the table and lacing their fingers together, “but whatever happens is fine. Only you know what’s best for you. Right, Kou?”

Bokuto nods quickly, but it’s clear he’s still holding on to his optimistic vision of Kuroo’s future.

“He texted me earlier. We’re still talking. It’s just--” Kuroo pinches his lips together, trying to best summarize his weird mixture of feelings, “taking shape slowly. Like, really slowly. And I don’t know if it’s turning into just a friendship again or something else.”

“Dude, you kissed!”

Kuroo laughs softly, wishing he could run head first into love and take things at face value like Bokuto. “And then he kind of backed off a bit since then, so,” he sits back against the booth, “I don’t know.”

“Good things can take time,” Akaashi says.

Kuroo grins. “You two sure did.”

Akaashi’s eyes widen and one eyebrow raises on his forehead. His soft and slurred speech turns sharp and clear as he sits upright. “It did not. Once I overcame my hero worship and realized I had a crush on my star of an ace, it was only three days before I confessed and immediately put my mouth on his mouth.”

Bokuto nods enthusiastically. “I don’t know about the first part of that, but he’s right. There was, like, two minutes between Akaashi telling me how he feels and us kissin’ behind a tree on our walk home.”

“So I should just tell Tsukishima how I feel and then kiss him behind a tree?”

“Worked for us,” Akaashi smirks.

Kuroo whines, slipping down until his head hovers just above the table while his hands grip into his hair. “What if I don’t know exactly how I feel?”

“Kuroo, man, and I mean this with all due respect,” he feels Bokuto’s heavy hand come down on his shoulder, “that is some bullshit.”

The laughter returns, bringing a tear to Kuroo’s eyes as he laughs hard enough to release whatever leftover pent-up tension he had about the whole situation. Maybe it is just that simple. He can dream.

They order more of Bokuto’s favorite fried chicken to continuously soak up the booze they’re still steadily pouring into their systems, and the laughter gets louder, the conversations more ridiculous as time passes.

“--don’t you remember the fun we had? We should definitely go camping again. Like soon!” Bokuto yells, slapping his hand on the wood table.

“Absolutely not,” Akaashi raises an eyebrow, “I don’t need another phone call at four in the morning to come and find you two because you’re lost and, I quote, ‘there’s a monster in the woods.’”

Kuroo’s face turns serious but he’s choking back a laugh, “We were being hunted.”

Bokuto’s expression turns serious to match Kuroo’s, but he doesn’t seem like he’s laughing. “You weren’t there, babe. There was somethin’ in those woods.”

“Even more reason to not go back then. I don’t need a Big Foot taking out my fia--” Akaashi’s lips draw up into a tight line and he jerks his head to stare at Bokuto. Kuroo watches the two of them cycle through another silent conversation. After a lot of eyebrow raising, motioning at Kuroo, and checking the time, Akaashi speaks again. “We didn’t want to tell you at the start because we just wanted to hang out and not have it be all about -- this -- but--”

“We’re gonna get married!” Bokuto yells, and this time Kuroo doesn’t care at all about how much louder his friend is than the rest of the bar.

He feels warmth exploding in his chest. He stutters, “When? I mean, what-- yea, of course, you already are, but - yay, I’m so glad, I--” he starts to stand to reach across the table to hug them like his arms want to do immediately, but all he manages to do is jostle the table and everything on it. The three of them chuckle through saving all their drinks with huge smiles on their faces.

Akaashi’s voice is light, happy, once things settle again. “It’s not anytime soon but--”

Kuroo sits back down, saving his hugs for the moment, the literal moment, they all stand back up. I’m gonna hug them so hard.

“I took Keiji on a little day trip, you know, ‘cause we’ve both been so busy--” Bokuto launches right into the story, “--just up into the mountains because some of the leaves were starting to change and I know he likes to get the good apples, maybe some apple butter and cider and--”

“So we stopped the car on one of those little lookout spots,” Akaashi guides the story to the next step, his smile soft but reaching all the way up to make his eyes glisten just a little.

“Yea and there was a trail, so I grabbed his hand and we started walking up and, Kuroo, bro, man, it was freaking gorgeous,” Bokuto says excitedly, his hands moving to bring parts of the story to life. “All of a sudden the trees opened and you could see everything. So I turn to say something awesome to Keiji but I’m lookin’ at him, and he’s just staring off into the distance, lookin’ at the view, and I’m like -- damn--”

Akaashi’s eyes are glued on Bokuto’s and Kuroo’s listening to every word but he’s also taking in the sight of two of his best friends being this happy. His chest feels like it’s going to burst and right here, in this smoky little bar where so many of their dumbest and best conversations happened in the past, everything is perfectly wonderful in the world.

“And I don’t have a ring or a plan or nothing, but I take both his hands and I get down on one knee even though it’s all rocky and stuff and I ask him--”

Akaashi interrupts, his voice dreamy and soft, “Do you want to be with me forever?”

“Yep, just like that,” Bokuto beams.

“So, of course I said ‘yes,’ because,” Akaashi slides in the booth so his shoulder bumps Bokuto’s, “how could I not?”

Kuroo listens as two of his favorite people go back and forth, sharing their own memories of the day, from the happy tears to the celebratory cider later on. Bokuto shares that he wishes they had rings. Akaashi reminds him that it’s not important, that they know what they mean to one another. That doesn’t stop Bokuto from insisting that he’s going to save up enough to get them both something nice for the actual day.

“It’s just a small ceremony at my aunt’s home down in Kyoto. They have a beautiful backyard--”

“And they’re rich and super nice.”

Akaashi laughs softly, “yes, they certainly own a nicer home than our apartment and they love Kou, too, so--”

“We don’t know when it’ll be yet, but,” Bokuto’s drumming his hands on the table, shifting in his seat, “will you be my best man? Be up there with me and make all the good speeches?”

While Kuroo’s heart both melts and explodes at the same time, Akaashi adds with a grin, “we might have bickered over who got you as their ‘best man,’ but Kou quickly won that argument.”

When he finally finds the words to respond to Bokuto’s huge smile, Kuroo simply says, “I’d be so freaking honored. You have no idea.”

Another round of drinks is ordered, another round of Bokuto’s favorite bar foods. The owner sneaked a peek of the whole thing while she bustled around, busy as ever, and slips them some of her homemade off-the-menu favorites to celebrate.

It gets late and no one cares. Kuroo feels warm and wonderful from his fingers to his toes and he knows that only a small percentage of that is to be blamed on the alcohol. He feels like he’s buzzing, but it’s not that busy sort of feeling that compels him to take on new projects and do way too much. He can’t find the right word, but looking at Bokuto and Akaashi, everything just suddenly feels so much more promising and possible.

“I gotta make a call,” he slurs through his words, slowly standing. He moves to go outside, but not before remembering to make good on his hugs from earlier, awkwardly squeezing them both way too hard around whatever body parts he can reach by leaning in to their side of the booth.

No plan or nothing, just like Bokuto. Stop making it hard, he tells himself when the cool night air fills his lungs, it’s simple.

 

***

 

“Hi Tsukki!” He shouts into his phone, breaking the relative quiet around him in the night air. There’s only a few other people sauntering down the street this late, people dipping in and out of other bars in this tucked away corner of the city.

“Hey,” comes a hesitant reply on the other end.

Already prepared, Kuroo barrells forward with what he called to say, his words slurring even as he tries very, very hard to sound not drunk. “So, sometimes things seem confusing but they’re actually not. So, okay, so,” he shakes his head, gathering the words that seem to be flying away from him.

He remembers what he wants to say and speaks as fast as he can, worried that he’ll lose them again. “Sometimes friends just make out, yea? And it’s like totally okay. They can still be friends. Or more than that. Or not. Because, like, so I need to tell you about this one time. Can I tell you about this one time?” He remembers to ask first because it sounds polite. He mentally pats himself on the back for doing such a good job even while wildly drunk.

“Sure?”

“Okay, okay, so back in high school, right? My third year, Kenma’s second. We’re hanging out at his house playing Smash Brothers, I remember because I picked Kirby and I was really mad that Kenma was beating me even though I was doing a good job with Kirby. Anyway, I’m right in the zone, right? And Kenma pauses the game, which is, like, not a thing Kenma does. So I’m stunned and then he has the audacity, the audacity,” he says louder, proud of his use of a large word in this moment, “to lean over and kiss me. It was all dry and weird and then he darts out his tongue and I’m just sitting there, confused as fuck because, what is even happening and also where did he learn that?”

Kuroo takes a deep breath, wondering why he’s breathing so hard right now. “Then he sits back in his spot, just says, ‘nah,’ and then unpauses the game. So naturally I’m like, no way, pause the game. What the hell just happened? Turns out he needed to figure out some things with himself and with our relationship and the best way he thought of to do that was to just smash our faces together. Which, whatever, clearly we’re best friends and that’s it, but like, why’d he have to say, ‘nah?’ That shit still stings,” he cackles loudly and catches his breath again.

“So I needed to tell you that so you knew everything was okay and we can still be friends or whatever because I like talking to you.”

When he finally stops, he’s puzzled by the sound he hears on the other end. It sounds like Tsukishima’s out of breath, too, but it’s because he’s -- laughing? Sure enough, the wheezing on the other end sounds like a laugh that he tried to contain but it burst out anyway. “Thanks, I guess?” Tsukishima manages to say though his laughter. As it winds downs, he says, “What an interesting story. I’m so glad you shared.” There’s a sarcastic tone that Kuroo chooses to ignore.

“So do you like talking to me, too?” He blurts, his fuzzy brain elated from hearing the sound of Tsukishima laugh.

“Yea, Kuroo,” Tsukishima says. His tone is sharp and clear, but the sarcasm is gone. “I like talking to you, too, especially when you’re drunk, it seems.”

“I’m not that drunk,” Kuroo replies, turning his head quickly from side to side to check. “Oh wait,” he clarifies when his eyes keep moving after his head stops, “nevermind. I’m pretty drunk.” For as thick as his tongue feels inside his mouth, he still thinks he’s doing a great job.

“So you’ll text me tomorrow?”

“Sure, Kuroo. Why not?”

“Good. I like that,” he says quickly, his words blurring together.

There’s another chuckle on the other end, “you feeling okay?”

“I’m feeling fucking fantastic,” Kuroo replies. And he means it.

Chapter Text

Tsukishima’s in bed, but all the lights are still on and he’s still far from sleep. The whole apartment is cold since the sun chose to hide away for an entire day, but Tsukishima refuses to pay for heat until he absolutely has to. So, hanging around in bed in lazy sleep clothes and covered in every blanket he owns seems like the thing to do. Mister agrees. He’s currently also under the blankets curled up in the curve of Tsukishima’s stomach.

It’s getting late and he should probably be asleep after spending his day working and then obsessively revising the last few chapters of their story, but Kuroo is in the middle of texting him a full summary of his day - like he’s done every single day since the drunken phone call because “you said you like talking to me.”

After several days, Tsukishima can finally admit to himself that he looks forward to it.

Kuroo [00:41]: so I was still starving, right? The whole day was a conspiracy orchestrated to make sure I couldn’t eat
Kuroo [00:41]: and I make it to Kenma’s, grouchy and hungry, and bless my little angry savior, because he still had leftovers from my dad’s on sunday and he let me devour all of it. didn’t even heat it up. no time. I was dyyyyyyyyingggggg
Kuroo [00:42]: we worked on video editing with Soga for a while
Kuroo [00:42]: which reminds me
Kuroo [00:43]: youtu.be/LKJ87S7
Kuroo [00:43]: LOOK AT IT. IT’S SO GOOD. I’m not even gonna try to be humble or anything.

Tsukishima snorts at the last message.

[00:43]: humble is not a word I’d use to describe you under any circumstances

Kuroo [00:44]: puh-lease - I am a mountain of humility
Kuroo [00:44]: when you’re working with what I got, it’s tough not to flaunt it

[00:44]: *gagging noises*

The back and forth mirrors what’s happened every night lately. Kuroo tells him every minute detail of his day and Tsukishima makes comments along the way. Tsukishima felt weird about it the first night, but Kuroo has a talent for diving headfirst into awkward situations to the point that all he can do is go along for the ride. His recklessly bold nature is still as frustratingly charming as Tsukishima found it years ago.

It helps that Kuroo continues to willingly embarrass himself daily in their nightly messages.

And every night, Tsukishima gets closer to offering his own little bits of his day.

But not yet.

My days are too boring. I was in a video meeting that lasted two hours. I worked. After sitting at a computer and working all day I sat at a different computer and worked on revisions. Then you started texting me about why your stomach hurt.

He laughs softly under his mountain of blankets, remembering Kuroo’s first message that night and how it made him laugh just before he decided to become one with his bed.

No, he didn’t ask for any of this. No, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. No, it doesn’t feel quite right yet and it still makes his stomach twist into knots if he thinks about all this for too long.

But Tsukishima can think of worse reasons to stay awake.

 

***

 

“I have to admit, I miss free Uncle Kei babysitting,” Akiteru’s voice sounds tired as he swaps back to voice chat after Emi’s had enough time to say good night to her uncle. Tsukishima can still hear her voice in the background even though she’s supposed to be staying under the covers, not constantly getting up to tell her uncle some things she forgot.

“I bet,” Tsukishima replies, just before he hears the phone jostle around in someone’s hands and Emi’s voice comes through the speaker.

“And also it was too rainy to play outside today.”

“That’s too bad, Emi-chan. It was rainy here, too.”

“Really? Did you get to go outside and play?”

“No,” Tsukishima chuckles, “I did not get to play outside,” he’s about to add another comment, but he can practically feel Akiteru’s silent desperation over the phone, “but you need to go to bed, right?”

Emi’s reply is instant. “I’m not sleepy.”

“But it’s soft under your blankets, right?”

“No.”

“Sure it is. Soft and warm and that’s where all your stuffed animals go to sleep, too.”

“They’re sleepy. I’m not.”

“Hmmm,” Tsukishima hums, sounding thoughtful, “but I wonder if they need you there to help them feel safe so they can fall asleep. You might need to go help them out.”

There’s a little more back and forth, but Tsukishima can hear the way his niece’s voice grows lower and slower as she finally begins to wind down for the night. He can hear her little feet pitter patter all the way back to her room.

Akiteru says, “finally. Bless you. I don’t know how much more of this I hate sleeping I can take from her. Remember when she was a baby? Good god, she slept so hard.”

“You used up all your good will then.”

“The universe is punishing me now,” Akiteru laughs and even with the video chat off, Tsukishima can imagine exactly the way his brother looks right now - exhausted, but happy.

They small talk about the day, but with how often Emi calls him now, there’s little to actually discuss. So he’s more than content to eat his dinner on the couch while Akiteru fills him in on whatever cute or horrible but hilarious things his niece did that day.

But Akiteru won’t let the focus stay off him for too long. “Any news on finding an agent?”

Tsukishima clicks his tongue, “I would have told you, wouldn’t I?”

“Maybe? Probably not,” Akiteru laughs, “I’ve got decades of practice working very hard to pull tiny details about your life out of your vice-like grip.”

“Fair. But no. Several outright rejections behind us. A couple of ‘yes I’ll consider your work, but in three to six months,” he lets his voice trail off.

“Something will work out. I’m sure of it.”

Tsukishima rolls his eyes, the ‘little brother’ habit he’ll never get rid of. “And how would you know?”

“I don’t, but you don’t tend to give up on the things you care about, so I’m betting on it.”

Scrunching up his face, Tsukishima replies, “gross. That’s way too sincere for my stomach to handle when I’m trying to eat.”

“Whatever, my sweet, little Kei-chan,” Akiteru cackles on the other end. “Fine - so what’s Yamaguchi up to?”

By the time he’s through eating, he and Akiteru are wrapping up their conversation and Tsukishima can’t believe how often the two of them talk now. Sure, they lived in the same house for years, but they hardly ever talked . Now, a few nights a week, he gets his fix of adorable Emi time and the conversations with Akiteru flow naturally afterwards.

Talking with Emi, seeing her face even when she’s miles away, always improves his mood. Talking with Aki isn’t all that bad either. Between the two of them it certainly makes doing the small mountain of dishes in his sink and going back to his current story revisions prison a bit less overwhelming.

And if he keeps checking the time while he works, it’s definitely not because he’s wondering when Kuroo will text him that night.

Tsukishima is fully aware that he could text first, that perhaps it might even be a kind thing to do this many days into their new routine, but he just can’t bring himself to do it.

He falls into a productive, fairly decent work flow and gets a lot checked off his to-do list until he gets lost in a thesaurus trying to remember the right verb to describe the thing, you know the thing when you -- he grunts, frustrated with himself and his inability to grab the perfect word on command.

Somewhere in the let’s please stay alive part of his brain, he remembers he needs to drink water, maybe stand up and stop stooping over his desk like some kind of writing gremlin.

Checking his phone out of habit, he sees a text from Yamaguchi in their group chat.

Yamaguchi [21:52]: oh my god it’s so late for someone whose alarm goes off at 5 but I have all this work to check so it can go home in the kids’ “home folders” tomorrow
Yamaguchi [21:52]: because a parent asked about seeing their kid’s work and I haven’t sent anything home in, like, two weeks and I just want to put it all in the trash but I can’t now
Yamaguchi [21:52]: I’m so good at drawing hanamarus because I’ve probably done 300+ tonight.
Yamaguchi [21:52]: I regret the choices that have led me to this moment.

Below the two messages is a picture of Yamaguchi, stacks of papers surrounding him on the floor. On top of his face, he’s put a sobbing emoji.

Tsukishima grins and opens his keyboard to reply, but Yachi beats him to it first.

Yachi [22:16]: SAME.

She attaches a photo of her hand, dramatically curled up like it’s shrivelling after working on the drawings scattered below it. She’s added text that reads “why god why?”

Tsukishima ends up taking a picture of his desktop, the open notebooks, the numerous tabs open on his screen.

[22:16]: No rest for the weary.

Yamaguchi [22:17]: MOOD
Yamaguchi [22:17]: I’m glad I can count on the both of you to be equally irresponsibly responsible with me.
Yamaguchi [22:18]: ooooh, I can almost ALMOST make out some of the words on your screen Tsukki - SPOILERS

[22:18]: no one’s forcing you to read them

Tsukishima walks into his kitchen and grabs the glass still on the counter from earlier. He’s staring at the chat, watching the “...” to see who will reply first, when another notification flashes across the top of his screen.

Kuroo [22:18]: do you want to get lunch

Tsukishima’s brain has only a handful of seconds to begin to process the request when another text flashes.

Kuroo [22:18]: together?

He receives another text from Yachi but Tsukishima switches to his chat with Kuroo. There on the screen he sees last night’s chat, including the string of probably too many good nights at the end, and then those two messages. 

It’s been so much easier talking through text messages. Since that one drunken phone call, their chats have been nice, even comfortable again. In-person is an entirely different beast. And I am definitely not in control of myself the same way without that distance . He stares at the message. I like having the chance to think. But--

Realizing he’d been chewing on his upper lip, he lets it go and sends--

[23:19]: like tomorrow?

The reply from Kuroo is quick. Above the chat, Tsukishima can see that Yamaguchi and Yachi are continuing their own conversation, but he keeps swiping them away.

Kuroo [23:14]: doesn’t have to be tomorrow
Kuroo [23:14]: just sometime
Kuroo [23:14]: in the near future

Tsukishima knows his workload tomorrow includes more meetings than is necessary and, additionally, that’s too soon. He bites his lip again and thinks.

Kuroo seems to have no such hang-ups.

Kuroo [23:14]: I mean, I’m free tomorrow - until about 2. First appointment is at 2
Kuroo [23:14]: Slow day tomorrow
Kuroo [23:14]: oh noooooooo, moneyyyyyyy, I can feel my wallet crying

Alone in his kitchen, Tsukishima snickers. He leans back against his counter, weighing his options.

[23:15]: I can’t do tomorrow.

His fingers feel twitchy as he quickly adds another reply.

[23:15]: What about the next day? I’m free around 1 for a little while.

Kuroo [23:15]: crap, yea no good that day
Kuroo [23:15]: it’s feast or famine at the shop
Kuroo [23:15]: Thursday?

Thursday is going to have a lot of social interaction already. The illustrators are hanging out, and he’ll probably join them for a drink or two after work. But maybe it’ll be like ripping off a bandage - get all of his socializing done in one day and then crawl back into his cave once it’s done.

Plus there’s two things that are undeniably true right now. First, his smile has grown since this conversation began. And second, I want to say yes.

[23:16]: Thursday’s good.

Kuroo [23:16]: mind if I get back to you about time?
Kuroo [23:16]: around 1 or 2 should be good but I gotta check on some band stuff first

Tsukishima stares down at the messages in his hand before realizing suddenly that he’s still in his kitchen, that he hasn’t even managed to get a glass of water yet. He fills his glass and takes his time drinking, scanning the messages between his two friends that he’d missed. They’re both sending one another increasingly weird selfies of their current work, the adjectives to describe said working growing more melodramatic with each text.

He swipes back to Kuroo.

[23:17]: that’s fine. Just let me know.

So, Thursday.

He feels his face smiling wider on its own and he’s glad only Mister is around to witness it.

Back in the group chat, he snaps a quick picture of Mister curled around his feet and looking up at him.

[23:17]: Mister says you two are being ridiculous.

 

***

 

Mid-morning on Thursday, Kuroo texts Tsukishima to tell him to “wear comfortable clothes.”

Tsukishima continues working, determined to finish what he needs to before lunch, but he can’t stop obsessively wondering why, oh god why, do I need to be comfortable for lunch?  

At 12:30 there’s a pile of clothes on Tsukishima’s bed that Mister will no doubt cover in fur while he’s gone, but Tsukishima’s managed to make a somewhat acceptable outfit that balances comfortable with something acceptable to wear around someone I, due to a lack of better judgement, find attractive .

He’s settled on a pair of black joggers, a decent t-shirt - nice but not too nice, fits him well, and a track jacket that Yachi once told him make him look “rather handsome.” He thinks it’s the color because when he takes one final look in his mirror, he notes that the whole outfit looks remarkably similar to what he wore in his Karasuno days.

And his hair is fine. It’s fine, he barks at himself as he runs his fingers through the soft tips on top one more time.

He has one final moment of panic where he can’t decide if harkening back to high school is the correct move to make in hanging out with Kuroo, but as he grabs his keys and heads out, he decides it’s fine. Maybe even good. And he is absolutely not changing clothes any more times than he already has.

 

***

 

Tsukishima scans the crowd at the train station where Kuroo said he’d meet him. As soon as he catches a glimpse of that messy black hair, his stomach starts to twist in a not entirely awful way. He weaves through the small group of people, finds a break in between, and --

“You have got to be kidding me.”

Under one arm, held against his side, Kuroo’s got a volleyball.

Kuroo shrugs, a grin on his face. “You can call me an old fart, but--”

“Old fart.” Tsukishima stands in front of him, eyebrow raised.

“But,” Kuroo says louder, “I woke up feeling nostalgic. Now come on, the net at the park was open five minutes ago and I don’t want anyone to take it.”

And just like that, Tsukishima’s quickly falling in step behind Kuroo, caught in the mental whiplash of going from getting lunch to playing volleyball. There’s something about the way Kuroo carries himself that, once in a while, makes Tsukishima’s overthinking brain malfunction and he’s left to enjoy the moment.

He tries to put his finger on what it is as Kuroo chats about his morning, sounding like his late-night day summaries. There’s something in the way that he just admits to being nostalgic. Tells Tsukishima to wear comfortable clothes and makes something like this happen.

It’s like, I know he has embarrassing or unsure moments, I’ve seen them, but I don’t know, it’s as though he simply chooses not to think about them and just runs right through to the other side .

“--and anyway, I woke up stiff and was about to go work out this morning to get out all the kinks when I thought, wait, hold up, I’m going to lunch with a former athlete. We can have some fun.”

“Who says I’m a former athlete?” Tsukshima smirks.

Kuroo turns his head, slows his pace. “What? You still play?”

“Sometimes,” Tsukishima says, losing some of the bite in his voice when he meets Kuroo’s eyes directly for the first time in a while.

“I didn’t expect that from you,” Kuroo gives a lopsided, surprised smile, “even better, then.”

Tsukishima looks forward again, taking bigger steps, “Yea, sometimes I go play with Yamaguchi. He’s on a neighborhood team with some of the teachers at his school.”

“That’s awesome. I haven’t played regularly since my college team.”

“Same, except,” and Tsukishima feels his anticipation building before he adds, “I didn’t play on my college team. I played semi-pro.”

Kuroo stops mid-stride, “ah shit, really? Look at you.”

Tsukishima’s smirk is firmly painted on his face now, proud to have done better. In a day of nostalgia, apparently, he enjoys the once-familiar game of middle blocker one upmanship. “For a couple of years when I was still in school and one year after. Up in Sendai.”

He relishes in the surprised gawk on Kuroo’s face, but watches it twist back into a self-satisfied smirk. “Ah, well,” Kuroo stretches, tossing the ball up in the air and catching it, “must’ve been all that excellent training from your senpai.”

“Oh, you mean Daichi? Yea, he did help all of us.”

“No, not Sa’amura,” Kuroo drawls with a sneer.

“Bokuto, then. You’re right. He did teach me a lot at that first training camp.”

Kuroo chuckles and starts walking again, occasionally tossing the ball in the air again. “Sometimes I forget how rude you are.”

“Why? Because I refuse to give the compliment you’re so clearly reaching for?”

“Exactly! You know what I want, so just give it to me!”

There’s no missing the blank look that hits Kuroo’s face the moment he seems to replay those words in his head. Just like there’s no missing the way Tsukishima’s own heartbeat picks up a few paces. But, true to form, Kuroo keeps right on going.

“I’ll just know, in my heart, that I was indispensable in molding you into a powerful volleyball player.”

“How can that be possible when I’m still so much better than you?”

“You have about three minutes until you have to put some muscle behind those words. Want to walk back on any of that?”

“Never.”

The court is sand, mixed with twigs and leaves from the nearby trees. Tsukishima makes a comment about how playing on sand is different, but once Kuroo accuses him of trying to make excuses, Tsukishima knows he’s been goaded into actually trying and he can’t even care. I’ll show him.

It takes him a few minutes to get his bearings on the sand, but then he’s back to smacking down Kuroo’s shots and it feels good on his fingers. It’s clear from their playing styles that neither of them ever wandered far from their roots on their teams. They both try to score through blocking and more often than not they meet in the middle above the net, each shoving at the ball with a controlled power, trying to force the other one to yield. Kuroo gets him several times, but Tsukishima wins out in the end, but that’s partly due to the fact that Kuroo is laughing so hard that he calls for a break.

“Oh my god, the look on your face is priceless. Been a while since I’ve seen that one.” Kuroo slips under the net and throws the ball at Tsukishima. “Like I’ve clearly never had a hit man out for me, but I’d assume your face looks something like that.”

“Only because I’m still a better player than you.”

Kuroo steps closer. “Only because you’re younger.”

“By two years.”

“That’s not nothing.” Kuroo takes the ball back, his face even closer now, and even though the physical exertion and competition momentarily made him forget, all Tsukishima can do now is remember. The last time he saw Kuroo, the last time they were that close-- “you hungry?”

“What?” Tsukishima knows his eyes are on the soft lines of Kuroo’s lips, knows this, but he can’t look away.

“You hungry, Tsukki?” Kuroo hangs on the final sound of the nickname, drawing it out.

Tsukishima snaps out of his temporary lip hypnosis, “yeah of course. We were supposed to be going to lunch before you had this dumb idea.”

Kuroo’s still in his space and Tsukishima knows his words lack any of the snap he intends for them to have. “You seemed to like it.”

“Fine,” he sighs softly, “it wasn’t completely the worst. Now, can we eat?”

There’s a breathless moment where Kuroo closes his eyes for just a bit longer than a blink and Tsukishima’s eyes quickly dart around to see if there’s anyone because he thinks maybe -- no, Kuroo takes a step back.

“You in the mood for curry? My favorite place is around the corner.”

 

***

 

The restaurant is small and tucked between a convenient store and an udon shop on the bottom floor of an office building. It’s clearly a no frills, only focused on the food sort of place and, for that, Tsukishima’s thankful. He put in more effort than expected at the park and has shed his track jacket, even though it’s chilly outdoors, so he knows how he must look right now. Also there’s the fact that his heart is still thudding around in his chest, so something with no obvious romantic context is perfect right now.

Outside the shop is a ticket machine for ordering. Kuroo makes his selection first, putting in his coins and smashing a button with practiced ease. “I know what it looks like, but I come here all the time ‘cause it’s close to our practice studio. It’s so delicious. Best curry I’ve found on this side of town, hands down.”

Kuroo stands to the side, motioning with his arms to Tsukishima like he’s a butler welcoming a guest to a mansion. “Make your choice, everything’s good.” He leans back towards the machine, “my favorite is,” he taps a button with his finger, “the katsu curry, can’t go wrong, but when it’s cold their baked stuff hits the spot.” As he stands back up, Tsukishima hears coins dropping in the machine.

It takes him a beat to realize Kuroo’s just paid for his lunch. His heart is doing very dumb things inside his chest right now as lunch starts to feel more like date with that one small action.

He quirks an eyebrow in silent question.

“Consider it a thanks for humoring me earlier.”

Tsukishima floats several comments through his brain before saying, “I accept your payment for making me exercise.”

It seems to be a good one. Kuroo smiles. His heart continues forgetting what a normal beat should feel like.

With food ordered, they find a spot for two in the busy restaurant in the middle of a busy lunch. It’s two heavy, wooden barstools next to one another at the counter, tucked back along the wall. Tsukishima pulls his chair and sits first, acutely aware of everything the moment Kuroo sits down and his arm brushes along Tsukishima’s. Even once they’re both seated, the tight seating arrangement means their knees, their elbows, their forearms keep brushing against one another as they settle in.

Tsukishima keeps his eyes forward, glued on the cooks at work on the other side of the counter.

“So you said this place is close to your practice studio?” Tsukishima asks, desperate to ask a question and get Kuroo talking again and cut the tension he feels in the silence between them. He knows the restaurant is noisy, he definitely heard it when they first arrived, but now everything is muffled in his mind.

“Yeah, and our recording spot isn’t far from here, either. For all the office buildings around, the area’s got a cool, little creative scene, too-”

He lets Kuroo keep talking, more than content to just listen and get a handle on his nerves again. Sitting is helping. Watching the people at work in front of him is helping, too. He works to slow down his breathing, reminding himself that it’s lunch, just lunch, that he doesn’t need to light up like fireworks every time Kuroo’s hand brushes his. He folds his hands together in his lap.

“How’s the story coming along? I noticed the message at the end of last week’s update - a one week break. Gearing up for something big?”

Tsukishima nods, still looking forward. “The ending,” he replies simply, not sure what else to say.

“I thought as much. Certainly feels like we have one more big twist coming, though.”

It does something to his insides, knowing Kuroo’s been keeping up with their comic. “You’re right about that. I’ve been furiously re-writing certain parts lately, so I’ve been glad for the one-week reprieve we were granted.”

“You don’t get to choose?”

“No, the platform decides our schedule,” he wipes the condensation off his water glass.

“That kind of sucks, but it’s cool you got what you needed this time. I’m looking forward to reading what’s next.”

Tsukishima has to briefly shut his eyes tight to ground himself again. A question. Those move the focus. “What’s the band working on right now?”

“You know our EP came out a few weeks ago ‘cause I keep sending you videos, so we’ve mostly been trying to get that out there and -- yes!” Kuroo says triumphantly as two plates of curry land in front of them. “My stomach is so ready but I know from experience that if I touch it now, I’m gonna burn off the roof of my mouth. Anyway,” he continues, talking quickly, and Tsukishima turns his head so he can hear better.

It’s a wonderful mistake. At this close range, he can all too clearly see the way Kuroo’s face has lit up from talking about his band.

“We’ve been getting some radio play, which is huge, and now some venues are reaching out to us instead of the other way around, which means that somebody, somewhere is talking about us and that is, like, the best because we survive on word-of-mouth at this level.”

Kuroo’s smile stretches across his face, his eyes centered on Tsukishima. He opens his mouth, then shuts it again, then turns to look at his food. Spoon in hand, he dives in, apparently ready to brave the burn.

“I’m glad things are going well for you all,” Tsukishima says, shoving the annoying reminder of all of those agent rejections out of his mind. “I hope you’ll remember me when you’re famous.”

Kuroo glances over, curry at the corner of his mouth. “Ah Tsukki, I could never forget you.”

By the end of their meal, Kuroo’s plate has been wiped clean, either by his spoon or, horrifyingly, with his tongue as he lits his plate to his mouth like some kind of barbarian. Tsukishima has a little bit left on his and he knows Kuroo’s been staring at it.

“Go ahead, I can feel your desperation,” he says, pushing his plate towards Kuroo.

“Really? Won’t be weird?” Kuroo tilts his head, giving Tsukishima a questioning look.

“I’ve just watched you lick a plate clean, so if things were going to get weird, we’re already there.”

Kuroo cackles, seemingly proud of himself for that move. “Excellent.”

Tsukishima’s glad when he uses a spoon, not his whole face, to eat his leftovers. He tries, and fails, to not think of the strange intimacy involved in finishing someone else’s food.



***

 

Outside the restaurant, Kuroo checks the time on his phone. “Ugh, I gotta go. My first appointment is coming up and I got to change clothes and prep everything. You headed back to the station?”

Tsukishima nods, taking careful note of the way Kuroo shoves his hands in his pockets, shifts his weight from one foot to the other, back and forth. Is he nervous, Tsukishima wonders, the idea seemingly impossible after Kuroo just ate like a ravenous beast in front of him.

A silence settles in as they fall in step beside one another. Tsukishima waits for his heart to go nuts from nerves again, but it remains steady, taking in the sounds of life going on around them. His stomach is gently twisting, though, thinking of what he can say because, well, this was enjoyable and I’d like to do it again . Again, he waits for his heart to flip around at the new realization, the new certainty, but it keeps on, steady and sure.

Tsukishima knows that the walk ahead of them is short, that time and steps are already behind them, that his time is limited. Kuroo’s made so many of the steps forward on his own. It’s his turn, he feels it.

He stares ahead and asks, “Would you like to do lunch again?” He wanted to say dinner, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Lunch is a solid compromise.

“Sure, yea, like this weekend?”

Tsukishima feels his cheeks growing warm from more than the gentle sunlight on his face. “That works for me.”

“Or maybe, if you want to, this weekend is kind of crazy busy, like most of my weekends, but I have time for a dinner, like, a late dinner, tomorrow, if you want?”

Tsukishima hasn’t turned his head, but he can feel Kuroo looking at him, can feel the pleasant tingle on one side of his face. He nods. So soon. “Friday’s fine.”

He finds his pace has slowed and that Kuroo has slowed with him. He’s closer now and Tsukishima can feel the warmth of his body near his. He pinches his lips together, suddenly so aware of everything his body is doing as it tries to continue walking even though it’s forgotten what walking is.

He feels a hand against the back of his, a pinky finger reaching out, holding on, then Kuroo’s entire hand slipping into his. Tsukishima stops breathing. He feels a a squeeze. Squeezes back, glad his track jacket is covering most of his hand from anyone else walking by. He doesn’t let go.

And neither does Kuroo until the station is in sight.

Kuroo motions with his head, his cheeks round from the smile on his face. “I’m going this way. I’ll see you tomorrow night, Tsukki.”

Tsukishima nods again, wishing he could remember other ways to respond to the things people say with their handsome faces. He searches, finally finding his voice. “See you tomorrow.” He smiles, too, and he can feel that it looks almost right, almost like a normal smile, but in that moment he doesn’t even bother wasting any thoughts on considering how dumb he must look because Kuroo looks a little dopey, too, and that’s perfect.