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Koutarou unfolded a sheet of paper, numbers scrawled and smudged and struck out, some marked red where Kuroo had made corrections; he turned it over, checked the red box and what was written inside and folded it back up to put into his pocket. It was his own personal amulet, he’d been carrying it on him for the past month exactly like one, and with each passing day the graphite and ink tried to weigh him down with their implications, which he pushed back against doubly – effortlessly – with determination.

Humming, Koutarou pulled open the brown paper bag resting on the kitchen counter, weighing exactly five kilos, and peered inside, hundreds and hundreds of little white grains staring back at him.

He picked one between thumb and finger, and lifted it level with his eyes.

“You’re going to help me win today.”

 

 

 

… 1 …

 

 

 

When Koutarou first met Akaashi, his attention went to his position first, and his name second.

“Akashi-kun,” Koutarou said, a little apprehensive, and as soon as the name was out the sound didn’t hit his ears right, but it was all his excited brain could remember.

“It’s Akaashi,” he was corrected.

Akaashi, he repeated in his head, and sounded better to hear with the extra ‘a’ – like that extra second needed between the ball lifting off a setter’s fingers and for him to get into a comfortable position, an extra second for an extra long pause, an extra second to choose where he would position the ball—

(Though it took a few more tries before his mouth caught on that there was an extra syllable.)

When they had cleared away the net, changed back into their uniforms, locked the door to the gymnasium and was out of the school gates, instead of parting there (which was what Koutarou expected) Koutarou found they took the same path to the station, and then the same train to their home station, Akaashi’s stop being five before his.

Koutarou treated him to nikuman from the convenience store on the way.

(He didn’t know then that Akaashi preferred rice, he’d just chosen what he felt like eating like any other high-school boy would, who thought they were positioned at the centre of the world.)

“Thank you,” Akaashi politely replied, blowing at the bun. Koutarou watched Akaashi patiently waiting, unlike him, already on his second bite despite his tongue burning.

“Your tosses are the best,” Koutarou said again, louder, to get his point across. The first time Akaashi had been so unresponsive, he wasn’t sure Akaashi understood the importance of what he’d said.

“Thank you,” Akaashi said again, and nibbled at his food.

They didn’t say anything else on the way to the station, not until after they’d thrown the wrappers in bins on their way to the platform. Koutarou talked for the both of them during their twenty minutes ride together.

When Akaashi stepped off onto the platform of his station, he stopped at the window to give a polite bob of his head – Koutarou waved his arm in big swipes, and he heard giggling beside him. Koutarou watched Akaashi walk towards the steps as the train pulled away—

He jumped up, pushed between the businessmen to the doors, uncaring that he would lose his seat, and watched Akaashi disappear down the stairs—

The train turned a corner, and the platform disappeared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember what he’d talked about, or what else he did that night.

He did remember thinking Akaashi’s eyes held back a well of secrets and deciding then that he would keep lowering the bucket until one day he would pull it back up to find it overfilling with Akaashi’s thoughts.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou washed the rice.

He swished the liquid around, sinking his fingers into the grains and making sure that every surface of every grain inside the bowl was clean. He lifted the bowl with his right hand while pouring water over his left, just in case a grain tried to escape – but none would, because he had to make sure not a single one would be lost in the current.

He repeated it two more times until the water was thinly cloudy and he could make out the rice, and set the pot into the rice cooker.

 

 

 

… 487 …

 

 

 

As Koutarou breathed in the sticky night air, weaving between the ambling crowds, he caught sight of Akaashi in the distance. He was about to call out his name when, through the brief gap created by people parting, he saw what Akaashi was wearing, making his feet trail to a halt.

Akaashi had come to the fireworks festival in a yukata, navy blue with stone-grey lines waving across the cloth.

Koutarou didn’t think Akaashi would come in traditional dress. He himself was wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt, and it was only because his favourite T-shirt, ‘The Wisdom of the Ace’, was in the wash that he wasn’t wearing it now.

So instead he’d picked the midnight black T-shirt, golden-brown lines looping loose into the shape of an owl looking off to the side, and though it was his second favourite, for some reason he regretted his choice.

It was too late to think about changing clothes, so he powered on; Akaashi turned in his direction, gave a bow of his head when he caught sight of him.

“Good evening, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi said when Koutarou arrived.

“’Kaashi!” Koutarou compensated for his nerves with his voice. “You’re wearing a yukata!”

“My mother remembered I had one and wondered if it would fit…” Akaashi looked away. “I’m sorry I’m a little overdressed—”

“No way! There are loads of people wearing yukata! I don’t own one, but if I did, I totally would’ve worn it, too!”

Koutarou ran his hand through his hair, which should have been loose but felt as sticky as when he styled it up with wax. He watched under the cover of his fringe to see if Akaashi noticed the change in hairstyle and waited for him to comment.

He didn’t, so Koutarou dropped his hand; he didn’t know what he was expecting, or why he was expecting anything at all. “The colour really suits you.”

Akaashi stared, and then blinked as though the words finally registered. “Thank you.” He said it like he did when Koutarou threw him a ball, or bought him food, or lent him the week’s comic.

At the thought of food, Koutarou’s stomach growled – luckily it was drowned out by chatter and sizzling and music. “Let’s grab food first!”

Koutarou led the way through the stands, stopping at the one with yakiniku, and the next one with yakitori, and then two more stands down with yakisoba before remembering he should probably ask Akaashi what he wanted – everyone had their favourite festival food.

He should have guessed Akaashi would say ‘yakionigiri’ considering the number of onigiris he ate at school, and mentally yelled at himself for being so dumb.

Armed with food and drinks, they continued down the gravelly footpath, and found a small patch of green towards the river. It wasn’t long after they sat themselves down that the first set of explosions filled the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember any of the designs, or the finale he could usually describe.

He did remember thinking, when throwing a casual glance to the side, the splashes of reds, yellows, oranges, greens, blues and pinks reflected on his skin made out like emotions that were kept hidden, splayed bare for only Koutarou to see.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou read the first line of his instructions on the slip of paper in his hand, given to him by Myaa-Sam via Tsum-Tsum.

Wash the nanohana. Fill a pot with water, add a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil. Boil the nanohana for 1 minute, then run under cold water before draining.

“Easy!” he told the empty kitchen and started filling the empty pot with water.

 

 

 

… 649 …

 

 

 

On the night of the finals, Koutarou maundered extra slow from school. He should have felt full – he’d eaten enough for the whole team (bar Yukie), he’d come back home wreathed with the title of finalist, he’d completed three years of high school volleyball – two of them with the setter keeping pace next to him – but his energy was wrung out, he was dry.

That wasn’t true. There was one place that felt full, and that was just behind his bottom eyelids.

He didn’t feel like crying. Not yet, anyway. He’d seen the tears colour everyone else’s faces – a trickle, a bawl, a drop by drop as each blink failed to keep them from spilling, extra salty when mixed with sweat – and when they all stepped outside, the cold gust instantly dried their skin, leaving traces of white powder which they could have written off as a dusting of snow.

A drop splashed onto his cheek.

For a moment Koutarou thought he had come undone, but then he looked up to the sky, where another drop splattered on the corner of his right eye.

“Let’s go.”

They picked up their pace, and the rain kept up by releasing heavy drop after drop until they merged into lines; their strides widened, and the splashes from their feet grew bigger.

The air and water were cold, but at some point they started to feel warm on his face – Koutarou put it down to sweat, until the lights blurred further, and he realised his body had betrayed him.

It took five minutes before they were under the station roof, Koutarou hunched over with his hands on his knees as he panted out of breath, like he had finished another three-set final.

He sniffed. And then sniffed again. Blinked away the rain that didn’t seem to be stopping even when he was sheltered.

And then he saw something blue in front of his face, and with some more blinks found it to be a handkerchief.

Koutarou grabbed the handkerchief and wiped his face – wiped around his eyes extra hard – and when he felt his face was dry enough, he stood up tall to face Akaashi, not forgetting his grin.

“You get better results than I used to in my second year, for maths, and literature, and all the other subjects. So next year, you’re gonna get better results for volleyball, too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember if he spoke the secret of their run, or if he ever gave the handkerchief back.

He did remember Akaashi’s eyes welling once more, fighting not to blink as he thanked Koutarou for being his captain, and that he would do his best as captain in the coming year.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

“‘Chop the nanohana’—”

Koutarou looked down at the nanohana set along the middle, ready to be chopped.

“Mince? Slice? Dice?” He tried to remember if there were any other chopping techniques he’d missed.

“Probably not too big,” he muttered to himself as he picked up the knife. “Keiji always says I chop things too big.”

Koutarou took a deep breath and, holding down the stalks, began a slow, rhythmical knocking of metal on wood that filled their apartment.

 

 

 

… 879 …

 

 

 

On the last day of Akaashi’s summer holiday, Koutarou met him at a coffee shop in central Tokyo.

Koutarou could tell from the way Akaashi bowed his head sharply and averted his gaze as he said hello that there was something on his mind – that, and the way Akaashi was wringing his right hand as if he could squeeze out all his insecurities.

Koutarou knew what he wanted to talk about; he was on the fence about whether he’d receive a question or an answer.

He filled the silence with small talk – about his recent escapade with Kuroo of walking the circuit around the loop line one evening, both now free to roam the Tokyo streets like the night cat and owl they were – and Akaashi, he bobbed his head occasionally to signal he was listening, though maybe he was letting Koutarou’s words fill his head in a jumble so he wouldn’t have to think of his own.

Koutarou waited until they’d sat down, at a table by the window, and he was sucking hard through the straw to fill his mouth with frappuccino. Akaashi stirred the straw of his iced mocha.

Koutarou swallowed. “I watched the match on TV.” Brain freeze kicked in, warning him to take it slow.

“I thought you might.” Akaashi stirred faster, ice clattering against the plastic cup.

“You played really well,” Koutarou complimented, speaking each word deliberately slow and clear like the drink had told him. “You made good choices.”

“Thank you.” Akaashi’s voice shirked away, distant.

“The other team were stronger,” Koutarou also said, because he knew he didn’t have to mince his words, that Akaashi could cope with the bitesize comments.

“Yes, they were.”

Koutarou started stabbing at the chocolate shavings. “What did you decide?”

The clattering stopped, and he glanced up to see Akaashi looking out of the window. “I decided to focus on my studies and passed the title onto Onaga.”

The words pinched and twisted, even though he’d guessed those words, and said them repeatedly to himself in preparation.

Akaashi glanced back. “Have I disappointed you?”

Koutarou frowned at him, then into his drink, stabbing the chocolate harder. “Do you regret your decision?”

He heard Akaashi inhale slowly and release his breath controlled and careful.

“No.”

Koutarou looked back at him and smiled. It was weak, he knew it, hurting to tug it and hold it in place when it didn’t reach his eyes, but Akaashi wasn’t looking at his mouth, so it didn’t matter how his face contorted, so long as his eyes reflected back what was true.

“Then I’m not disappointed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember the flavour of his frappuccino, or the feel of air-conditioned breeze on his skin.

He did remember the twitch at the corner of Akaashi’s mouth before he lifted the cup closer to his body and took a long sip of his drink.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou pressed his nose against the counter, squinting at the green mound.

He didn’t think the chunks – about the size of his nails – were too big. He could make them smaller, but he knew Akaashi liked the crunch to his stalks.

So he stood up and heaped them into a bowl, and looked to the rice cooker—

Nine minutes.

Koutarou thought about picking up his phone and asking Keiji where he was, even though Keiji had already said he’d be back around eight. He then resisted the urge to distract himself from his task, and leaned back against the fridge, to steady his nerves, and to wait.

 

 

 

… 1340 …

 

 

 

Koutarou planned to confess the night he invited Akaashi round to his apartment (the layout a replica of Akaashi’s because they were neighbours) (only his place was messier, except on that date of December 5th, where it was the tidiest it had ever been since seeing it empty).

He made hot pot; he used the word ‘made’ like the steps had been complicated, when all he did was chop ingredients up into chunks, take the lids off the plastic packs, pour liquid from the bag into the pot placed on top of the portable gas stove, and put the drinks out – juice, because even though Koutarou could drink alcohol, he didn’t want to rub that fact into Akaashi’s face. The meal was what Akaashi wanted, and what Akaashi wanted, Koutarou did his best to give.

They were snuggled under the thick blanket of his kotatsu, the TV on in the background. Kuroo and Kenma were supposed to be with them, but weren’t, and Koutarou had a suspicion they’d made it so deliberately.

“We should’ve gone out,” Koutarou said as he swirled the liquid with the ladle before fishing out food and lowering them into Akaashi’s bowl.

“I asked for a quiet evening in,” Akaashi replied, watching Koutarou’s ‘cooking’. “And I have an early morning class tomorrow.”

Koutarou grimaced. “I can’t believe you have to go in on Saturdays this term – at nine o’clock as well!”

“It’s not so bad.” Akaashi turned to the television. “The trains are less packed in the morning and I prefer having Mondays off.”

Koutarou placed Akaashi’s bowl in front of him, and he received an absentminded ‘thank you’.

“Last year before you’re an adult,” Koutarou said, “is there anything you want to do?”

“Does it matter?”

“Sure it does! Like – uh—” Koutarou tried to remember the list he looked up on things to accomplish before hitting 20. “Study more—”

“I already study enough.”

“Think about your future—”

“I do enough of that, too.”

“Eat healthier—”

Akaashi glanced to him. “I’m not going to defend my onigiri-eating habits when you can’t even defend your meat-eating habits.” With that, he picked up his bowl and chopsticks, and started to eat.

Koutarou wanted to add ‘fall in love’ because that had also been on the list. He remembered thinking, ‘I already have’ – and then left it. Back then, Akaashi was busy studying for his end-of-year exams, and Koutarou knew how important that was to him. And then Akaashi started university and Koutarou wanted him to experience student life to the fullest.

And on that reminder, Koutarou scrapped the idea of confessing on his birthday. It wasn’t supposed to be about them, it was supposed to be about him.

So he picked up the package he’d set under the blanket and thrust it under Akaashi’s nose instead.

Akaashi blinked and lowered his bowl. “What’s this?”

Koutarou didn’t answer, just waited for Akaashi to take the gift from his hands and start unwrapping the paper – a royal blue decorated with a gold ribbon, because that was what the shop had offered as part of their gift-wrapping services.

Akaashi pushed aside the paper, lifted up the box—

“…A planner?”

“A journal,” Koutarou corrected; it was what had been written on the label, and it was more expensive than the brightly coloured rows of diaries and planners displayed at the front of the stationery section. “That was on the list of things to do before you’re twenty, journalling, to help you clear your thoughts on what you want to do, and to face up to yourself. You’ve probably got one already, but I thought—”

“I don’t.”

A part of Koutarou was surprised – Akaashi seemed like the kind of person to diligently note down all his happenings and thoughts. But a part of him already knew Akaashi didn’t, from his tendency to drown himself in those thoughts.

“Thank you. This will be extremely helpful.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember the hot pot’s taste, or whether he’d chosen meat or fish.

He did remember the way Akaashi ran his fingers over the leather to greet the new companion into his life, which Koutarou easily accepted as who Akaashi needed most at his side – for now, at least – and silently, he took a step back.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou heaped the rice over the nanohana and added umeboshi on top, then sprinkled some salt.

He then started to mix with his wooden rice paddle, folding each layer gently, so as not to squash the grains he had painstakingly fluffed, and a pink blush gradually coloured the rice, flecked with bright green.

 

 

 

… 1596 …

 

 

 

They missed all the fireworks during the following summer, so Koutarou booked a ryokan and drove Akaashi to the mountainous coast a couple of hours away. The first day was spent at the beach, Akaashi walking with sand between his toes while Koutarou kicked the waves, and they had lunch on the deck of a small cafe. In the evening they soaked in the onsen and managed to polish off all ten courses of the freshest fish and meat and vegetables their place of stay had to offer.

Both were knocked out when they lay down on their futons to rest, “Just for five minutes.”

The following day they went mountainside, to a shrine buried in the forest with an ancient tree rumoured to have been alive for two millennia. Koutarou stared at the tree in awe as they walked the path around, and still felt in awe when they left to make their way back down the small path between the trees.

Koutarou lifted his bottle of lukewarm water and just before taking a sip, he mused— “I wonder what it’d be like to live that long.”

“Lonely, perhaps.” Koutarou looked to Akaashi, who was wiping his face with a towel. “I doubt the surrounding trees and bushes are that old.”

Koutarou was about to reply that the tree can’t be lonely if it’s surrounded by other trees and bushes, but then thought back to junior high school and how alone he’d felt even when he’d been surrounded by his teammates.

“But it has roots,” Koutarou pushed on, arguing a point without knowing why it felt so important. “So it could reach another tree or plant maybe, that had lived just as long.”

“Only if the tree’s roots could extend so far, and there were other plants of the same age within its proximity. Though if that were the case, the whole country would be covered with tourist spots.”

Koutarou stopped his feet. “You haven’t measured the longest roots, and you haven’t examined every single tree – for all we know, there could be loads hidden that had lived for just as long – or longer. And I didn’t mean by its own roots – they’d connect to the roots of the surrounding plants, which would then connect with other roots, which would eventually connect with another tree that had lived just as long.”

Akaashi stopped as well, turning round to him; his face already had another layer of sheen. “Perhaps you’re right about the former. As for the latter, it wouldn’t be the same as connecting with one directly. I could hold someone else’s hand and they could hold someone else’s hand, all the way across the whole population of the earth before reaching you, but it wouldn’t be the same as holding yours.”

Koutarou thought about Akaashi holding a hand that didn’t belong to him—

Two strides, and he reached out to grab Akaashi’s hand.

“We’re not trees,” Koutarou said.

Akaashi looked down at their hands; the sheen became tinted pink. “That’s… not the point you were making—”

“I don’t want you holding anyone else’s hand.”

“That’s an entirely different point you’re making—”

“Akaashi – be with me. Hold my hand – only mine – like I want to hold only yours.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember who won the argument, or if they even picked it up again.

He did remember feeling like someone had knocked a vat of sunlight to spill through him, yet when it tried to seep and spread into his actions, it had been filtered by the gentle touch of lips on lips, and the flickering pulse in his neck playing underneath Akaashi’s fingertips.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou heaped the mixture onto his hand until the bowl had been completely cleaned with not a single grain in sight.

As he started to pack the rice, he thought about how, during class one day, he was explained that the ‘palm’ used to be called the ‘hand’s heart’, and it was with these palms that he applied gentle pressure after pressure, rotating the ball, counting under his breath as he packed the rice – along with his heart.

 

 

 

… 1830 …

 

 

 

One spring evening, shortly after the school year started, Koutarou sat at home and watched Akaashi sitting opposite typing away on his laptop while occasionally glancing at the open notebook next to him.

“I can’t believe you made a spreadsheet of all the workplaces you’re thinking of applying to,” Koutarou said, his voice as squashed as his face as the balls of his hands dug into his cheeks.

“I need to be organised,” Akaashi said without looking up. “And I have to start making applications within the next couple of months. It helps if all the necessary information is stored in one place.”

“Are you still applying to publishing companies?”

Akaashi released a heavy sigh; Koutarou knew it was because he was reminded of all the research he’d done. “That is the plan, yes. I have a few big names in mind, along with those smaller. I decided to stick mainly to Tokyo, or at the very least Kanto.” He glanced at him; a cue.

Koutarou hummed in understanding. “Probably easiest,” he agreed, and Akaashi pushed his glasses up on his face and resumed staring at his screen.

Koutarou glanced down at his phone, and the chat screen with Kuroo. He flicked up past the stamps they had been exchanging, all the way to the conversation three days ago of large speech bubbles packed with rows of words. He then glanced at Akaashi’s room that contained half his things – his jacket folded in the corner, his clothes hanging on the laundry line—

His goldfish.

“Do you think it’d be easier if we had everything in one place?”

The clacking from the keyboard stopped. Koutarou didn’t look at Akaashi, because he could already feel the invisible weight of his gaze.

“What are you suggesting?”

“It wouldn’t be that hard to move seeing as we live right next to each other. We’d just pack things into boxes and bin bags and shift them one door over.”

There was a rustle from his clothes, and then a small clack of Akaashi’s glasses being placed onto the table.

“Bokuto-san—”

“Koutarou.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Koutarou. You should call me Koutarou if we live together.”

Koutarou slid his gaze along the grains of the table back onto his phone, which he ran his finger along – scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to the end of Kuroo’s conversation; he flicked through his collection of stamps and found a flustered-looking owl flapping its wings with sweat marks spraying out and chose it, hit ‘send’—

“Koutarou-san.”

Koutarou immediately latched his gaze onto Akaashi—

The corners of Akaashi’s – Keiji’s – lips were twitching.

Koutarou started grinning, which broke Keiji’s resolve, and he smiled back at him.

“…Keiji?”

The word lit a flame under his skin and he buried his face in his arms. He was supposed to be the cool sempai, the older, the wiser, the collected, the—

“Wait” – he straightened his back – “which one of us is going to move?”

“That would be you,” Keiji said, picking up his glasses and returning to his screen. “Bubble-chan won’t take too kindly to being moved for the twentieth time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember what stamp Kuroo responded with, or how he’d broken the news to him.

He did remember feeling like he had taken a giant leap in their relationship, bigger than any he had ever taken to slam a ball, and becoming one step closer to spending his whole life with the one man who meant everything to him.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou took the square sheet of seaweed, about to fold it in half and tear along the line to split it into two—

He paused.

It was traditional to have a rectangular strip of seaweed to wrap around the bottom. That was how many people made theirs, that was how Keiji made his.

Koutarou, he liked having as much of everything as he could. So if he had a big square of seaweed, he would use it to wrap as much of the rice as he could.

He’d made onigiri for Keiji many times before. Keiji always said he liked the way Koutarou made his because it was so like him.

To make it as Keiji always made it, or to make it as he always did…

Koutarou stared down at the sheet of seaweed.

 

 

 

… 2360 …

 

 

 

Koutarou hadn’t been so close to being as temperamental as he used to be in high school since – well, high school.

He ignored Kuroo’s chuckles to lighten the mood, Konoha’s jibes that he was acting like a baby, and stormed past Kenma stepping aside to clear a path to the door which Koutarou opened, deliberately controlled so he didn’t unleash his power and slam it open; he marched out into the corridor with heavy, even steps, out of the building into the street, out of the street into the park five minutes away where he sat on a bench tucked furthest away from the entrance and just out of reach of the lamplight.

At the vibrating in his pocket, he pulled his phone out to cancel the call, pushed the buttons down, waited to shut the screen permanently down before shoving it back into his pocket.

It had started as an innocent joke. Kuroo was the one who’d teased him that he was still living in an apartment full of students even though he was pro – and then Koutarou joked the same to Keiji, and Keiji being Keiji had taken it seriously and started to give him all the reasons on why it wouldn’t be ‘practical’ to move now.

Koutarou left before he snapped. He hadn’t drunk so much for his memories to be drowned, but he’d had enough for him to slip and bruise his ego.

It wasn’t long before slow footsteps crunched along the sand, approaching, and stopping before him.

“I’m not sorry,” Koutarou said.

He received silence, which was Keiji’s way of saying he wasn’t either.

“I don’t see why you’re so against it,” he continued on, “it’s not like I’m asking you to buy a house. What’s wrong with moving to somewhere nicer?”

“I’m being realistic. I still have exams to prepare for, a dissertation to write, and once they’re done, it’ll be the spring holidays, which is the most expensive time for moving—”

“We can rent a van ourselves to move our stuff out, and maybe they’ll raise the prices of rent a little, but it won’t be by much—”

“I’d rather graduate before having to think about this—”

Koutarou clenched his hands into fists. “Why would you have to wait to think about us? How long for – until you’ve settled down in your work? Until you’re promoted? You’re clinging to that ratty apartment like you don’t want to move ahead.”

“That has nothing to do with it—”

But Koutarou heard the tremor in his voice.

“You cut off volleyball in your third year, and I’m the last tie. How long will it be before you cut me off, too? I’m already being recognised – you keep mentioning it, all the time, that I need to tone down, that you can’t be seen with me, that someone will notice – soon you’ll start saying the world can’t handle us. It’s easier in our apartment now than somewhere more permanent – to break up with me when you think it’s too much, right?”

He was startled by the words that smashed into his head, and he knew he was in the wrong.

“Sorry," he mumbled. “That was too far.”

Imagining Keiji to be staring at him dumbfounded, Koutarou looked up—

Keiji’s eyes were glistening, tears were streaming down his face.

“Keiji” – he jumped up – “Keiji, I—”

He rushed to wrap his arms around Keiji, who stood unspeaking – yet his tears did all the speaking – who stood unmoving – yet his trembling did all the moving – quiet sniffs between sharp gasps filling the night air.

Koutarou leaned back to pull off Keiji’s glasses and ran his right thumb over Keiji’s left eye, and then his left thumb over his right eye, like it would magically soothe everything away, but he couldn’t – the words had been said.

“I’m sorry, Keiji. I’m sorry—”

He repeated them as a plea for Keiji to forgive him for being so weak—

A loud sniff, and Keiji shot up straight to look past Koutarou, like he’d been struck by a thought.

“We’re both falling into old habits. Something has to change.”

Koutarou shivered, and not from the night air. As much as he wanted to believe Keiji meant moving out of their apartment, he could easily have meant moving out – by himself—

“I’m annoyed you stormed out just as we were readying the cake.”

Koutarou opened his mouth – to protest, or he was going to, but his mouth hung open.

“I’m embarrassed we had the beginning of this conversation in front of everyone and ashamed to be such a terrible host—”

Koutarou could almost feel a syllable at the back of his throat.

“—I’m angry to have marred the one day of the year that should only be filled with celebration—”

“Keiji—”

“—I’m proud to have you standing next to me, I’m worried I will never be a match to you – I’m enraptured by everything you’ve ever achieved, I’m terrified of what will happen to you – and us – when everything is revealed. And it will be revealed, eventually.”

Keiji looked him in the eyes then, and for once Koutarou knew exactly what was locked away behind them.

“I’m happiest when you solve the day’s Sudoku while I make breakfast, and when you give me burnt food after you insisting to take over the cooking, and when you end up snoring on my shoulder every time we watch a film of my choosing. When you take my hand to stop me from taking it myself. When you murmur about nothing in particular to calm my thoughts. When you accommodate to my needs knowing the exact timing to step in and the exact timing to give me space.

“I’m happiest when you’re with me – when I’m in your arms, and you’re in mine, and you make the impossible happen – because you turn me into the sun of your system, and you merge our systems into one, and we’re two suns revolving around each other dancing in perfect unison at the fringe of the universe—”

“That should be the centre of the universe,” Koutarou challenged, finally finding something he can protest to.

Keiji looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be confused at the interruption. “I’m not so egotistical as to think we’re at the centre of something so vast.”

Koutarou rested his forehead against Keiji’s, and exchanged with him the essence that had travelled around his being to keep him alive, so it would also keep him alive.

“Tell me what else about us makes you happy, Keiji.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember a fraction of Keiji’s list, or how long Keiji talked and he listened.

He did remember keeping his arms wrapped around him – loosening as Keiji relaxed, tightening as Keiji tensed – thinking he had never been so glad to have been born.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Koutarou displayed his handiwork on a white plate with the rim decorated with rolling onigiri. It had cost one hundred and eight yen and he’d added it to his basket of cleaning goods Keiji had asked him to buy.

He set the plate centrally on the dining table, dimmed the lights, lit the two candles set on either side and took his seat – ready.

 

 

 

… 2545 …

 

 

 

Koutarou scanned printouts of apartments they planned to view later on in the week (his favourite on the twentieth floor with a view of both towers versus a modest apartment on the fifth closer to Keiji’s workplace) when he heard the click of the front door opening that rattled the whole apartment. He quickly dropped the papers to underneath his chair and waited for Keiji to walk through.

“I’m sorry I’m late, the trains stopped—”

Keiji appeared from the corridor, bags of shopping in his hands; Koutarou recognised the yellow plastic bags from their local supermarket, and the white paper bags from the department store Keiji said he’d buy his work clothes from, clothes he’d be wearing in just over a week.

Keiji blinked up, glancing around at the dimmed room. “Why is it so dark in here?” His gaze settled onto Koutarou before sliding onto the table. “Is that onigiri?”

“Sit down, Keiji,” Koutarou said, and he was surprised he managed to close his mouth to keep his plans for the night from spilling out.

Keiji put his bags onto the floor, pushed his glasses up onto his face before taking the seat opposite. “What’s going on?”

Koutarou took a deep breath. “I made you onigiri for dinner.”

Keiji glanced down at the onigiri, then back at Koutarou. “I can see that. I’m not sure it’s going to be very filling.”

“It’s okay, we’re going out afterwards.”

“We are? But you told me to drop by the supermarket—”

“Two thousand five hundred and forty-five.”

Koutarou could see the wheels working behind Keiji’s eyes, trying to match the number with one he already knew.

“What does that mean?”

“The number of grains in this onigiri here.”

There was a moment of blank, and then Keiji chuckled. “That’s a very good estimate. There was a programme once that counted and compared the number of grains in onigiri from different convenience stores, which varied between two thousand three hundred to two thousand—”

“I counted them.”

The chuckles weakened, but didn’t quite subside, though a disbelieving look crept onto Keiji’s face. “Do you mean to say you counted all the grains of this onigiri and then re-packed—”

“It’s also the exact number of days since we exchanged names at your first volleyball practice.”

The chuckles disappeared. Keiji gave a quiet snort that sounded uncertain. “That’s… a coincidence—”

“I counted them all out before I cooked them.”

Koutarou could see the questions popping into Keiji’s head until he reached—

“Why?”

Koutarou reached into his pocket and pulled out a small plastic case, placing it beside the plate.

Keiji stared down at it.

“Bokuto-san. Is that onigiri casing for a gacha onigiri ring.”

Koutarou expected Keiji to switch to his surname, a mode he slipped into when he was about to correct Koutarou on something, or was displeased about something, or was some variation of the two.

“Open it.”

Keiji slowly reached out – his hands were trembling, and it made Koutarou clasp his own hands tighter, kneading his fingers and knuckles as his heart beat harder than the thuds of his ace bouncing off the court – and Keiji held it lightly between his fingertips, pushing at the opening to release it with a small click—

There was a sharp intake of breath, which Koutarou would have missed if they weren’t sitting in a silent room.

“Yours is gold, see,” Koutarou blurted, “on the outside – like the colour of my eyes, I got it close as I could to it ’cause you always say you love the colour of my eyes – and then the inside is this metal – black tungsten – gunmetal like yours – and then my ring—”

Koutarou dug into his pocket, pushed past the folded paper to touch cool metal and pulled it out; his own hand was shaking.

“It’s the opposite, so it’s black on the outside and gold in – and I know you probably wanted to pick it together, but I had this idea, and you know how I get when I get an idea—”

“Bokuto-san—”

“If you don’t like it, we can take it back! Or maybe we can’t, but – you don’t have to have this! It’s more like a sample really, to see if you’ll like it—”

“Koutarou-san—”

“I can get you anything you want, Keiji, anything—”

“Koutarou.”

Keiji raised his head to meet Koutarou’s gaze, and Koutarou clamped his jaws shut, ground his teeth, because if he didn’t, he would find them chattering.

“I love our rings.”

Koutarou nodded hard.

“I love the onigiri you made for me.”

Koutarou nodded harder, trying to pull his mouth into a smile—

“I—”

Keiji broke then – broke out in chuckles, broke out in tears, choking on unspoken words which made him chuckle harder.

“I love you, Koutarou.”

Koutarou opened his mouth—

“And I love you, Keiji,” he whispered, his words cracked from all that nodding.

Keiji pulled out the ring and held it to him. “Could you?”

Koutarou slipped the band out of Keiji’s grip, held the band between his thumb and forefinger and taking Keiji’s hand – which was cold, and he ran his thumb over the back a few times – slowly slipped it over Keiji’s ring finger, all the way until it was settled at the base, fitting him perfectly.

“Can you do mine?”

One of those cold hands held Koutarou’s while the other pried the ring out of his tight grip, and the cool metal settled around the base of his own ring finger; it wouldn’t be long before it warmed to its new home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koutarou didn’t remember how many times they kissed, or how many more times he said ‘I love you’.

He did remember Keiji lifting the onigiri to his lips, nibbling off the top, and laughing at how he couldn’t taste anything but salt, despite it being the sweetest bite he had ever taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“How many grains do you think were in your bite?”

“I’d like to think… eighty-eight.”

“Why eighty-eight?”

“Because the character for ‘rice’ is written with the characters for eight and ten and eight, making it eighty-eight. That’s why a person’s eighty-eighth birthday is written as an anniversary with ‘rice’, and is supposed to be celebrated with a feast.”

“That’s really cool! I better up my onigiri-making skills if I’m gonna make you an onigiri feast for your eighty-eighth birthday!”

“…”

“?”

“…Will you be counting out grains for each onigiri?”

“…How many grains would I need?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

… 26542 …