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flesh and skin and pit

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Take my hand. There are two of us in this cave.
The sound you hear is water; you will hear it forever.
The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream and to dig and to kill. Watch for the mud. 
Summer blows in....

- Liesel Mueller, "The Blind Leading the Blind"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wakatoshi trails behind his mother in the produce aisle of the grocery store. Pushing at a shopping cart half-full with bagged vegetables, his mother stops to pick out round pears wrapped in styrofoam. Wakatoshi’s eyes wander to a nearby box of mangoes, and they widen a little.

The hum of cicadas. Trees in full leaf. Near-endless daylight. These mark the border between spring and summer. But to a child wandering the produce aisle, the border between seasons looks more like a box of mangoes, suddenly there when it wasn’t there, before.

Wakatoshi looks up at his mom, still calculating the weight of different pears in her palm, then looks back at the mangoes. He considers the distance between the mangoes and his mother, turns it over in his head.

His mother rolls her cart down the aisle some more, having chosen her fill of pears. Wakatoshi follows, obedient, but his eyes flit again, just briefly, to the mangoes. He watches a small, brown hand lift a mango from the box and turn it over, searching for bruises. But it’s not just anyone’s hand. It’s—

“Iwaizumi Hajime,” Wakatoshi says with a blink, all rolling syllables and no intonation. That first year from Kitagawa Daiichi.

The boy looks up from the mango in his hand, startled. When he turns to face him, Wakatoshi can read out the kanji on his tank shirt. 頑張る. Never say die.

Iwaizumi looks like a little gremlin, really, all mussed, spiky hair and haphazard Godzilla band-aids on different parts of his body. They paste to his elbows, his knees, the back of one of his hands. There’s one on his cheek, too, which kind of softens the scowl that takes over his face when he realizes who he’s looking at.

“Ushiwaka,” Iwaizumi says back, mustering all the venom a ten-year-old can muster.

“What happened? Did something hurt you?” Wakatoshi keeps glancing at the band-aids, a little amazed at the amount of them.

“None of your business!” Iwaizumi sticks his tongue out and tries to deepen his scowl, but it looks more like a pout. He crosses his arms with a huff, mango still in hand, and turns to his side, standoffish. Neither of them say anything for a moment, until Iwaizumi finally admits, very quietly, “I fell off my bike.”

Wakatoshi frowns, sparing a quick glance to his mother. She’s looking at bananas, now. “You should be more careful,” he says, and he doesn’t mean for it to come out stern. But maybe it does, just a little.

“You think I’m dumb enough to not know that already, Ushiwaka?” Iwaizumi’s tone is challenging. Wakatoshi thinks for a moment.

“Yes.”

“Hey!”

“Hitters are supposed keep themselves in top form,” Wakatoshi goes on, undeterred. “You should take better care of yourself.”

“What’s it to you?” Iwaizumi still sounds offended, but there’s a hint of curiosity seeping into his voice now, too.

“Shiratorizawa is playing against your school next week.” Wakatoshi averts his gaze for a moment. “We cannot play if you injure yourself before then.” He looks up from his shoes. Iwaizumi isn’t glaring, anymore.

“Oh.” Iwaizumi brings a hand behind his nape and scratches. “Well, you don’t have to worry about that, ‘cos I’ve been practicing like crazy. I can make the ball go all, fwaaa, and wha-bam! And kaboom!” He opens and closes his fists in firework-like motions as he says this. “So we’re gonna crush you next week, Ushiwaka. Mark my words.”

“Okay. They have been marked.”

Iwaizumi makes an exaggerated noise of exasperation, but he doesn’t try to hide his small, amused smile. He turns to face the mangoes again and idly sifts through them. Wakatoshi thinks that’s the end of it, probably, when Iwaizumi speaks up again. “So, are you getting any of these mangoes, or just keep staring at them from over there?”

“My mom doesn’t like mangoes.” Wakatoshi shrugs. It’s not a big deal. But his words make Iwaizumi turn back to him, eyebrows raised in kid-surprise.

“She doesn’t like mangoes?” Iwaizumi repeats, disbelieving. “Everyones likes mangoes. Mangoes are the best fruit. Well, Oikawa says dragonfruit are the best, but he’s just saying that ‘cos he thinks their name’s cooler, which is a stupid reason. Stupidkawa. Mangoes are way sweeter, right?” Iwaizumi’s looking at him like he’s waiting for him to agree, but he doesn’t. Iwaizumi hums a little, frowning. “When’s the last time you had a mango?”

“I have not eaten mangoes in a long while,” Wakatoshi admits. He thinks on it. “Maybe when I was seven. Six?” Before my dad went away to California, he doesn’t say, because it’s not like Iwaizumi has to know.

“Huuuuh. That’s way too long, Ushiwaka.” Iwaizumi’s voice is earnest. “You can come over to my house, if you want. We got loooots of mangoes at my house! My mom’s the best at cutting mangoes. She knows how to cut them so they look all fancy and pretty, like a rose.”

Wakatoshi blinks at him, surprised. “What about Oikawa?”

“What about Stupidkawa?”

“Would he not mind? He doesn’t seem to like me much.”

Iwaizumi laughs, then, big and bright. “Who cares what Stupidkawa thinks? Besides, I don’t like you that much either.” Wakatoshi frowns, but Iwaizumi continues, “and I’m inviting you anyway, Ushiwaka.”

Wakatoshi stares at the little gremlin in front of him. His eyes flit to his band-aids again, and to the mango in his palm, and finally to his face. Earnest and open.

“I have to ask my mom,” Wakatoshi says simply, and he wonders at how such plain, obvious words could make this strange boy’s grin stretch out so wide.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“Whoa whoa whoa whoa. This can’t actually be happening.”

Wakatoshi blinks, then blinks again. There is no trick of light; he is looking at Iwaizumi Hajime in the flesh.

How long has it been? Two years, nearly three? The green of his eyes is the same as high school, and so is their sharp, almost cat-like shape. Wakatoshi also remembers him wearing t-shirts like the white one he wears now, which says チャンピオン. Champion.

But he’s more filled out, arms golden and full with muscle. His hair is cropped shorter, the angles of his face sharper. Most surprising are the two silver dots bracketing the end of his left eyebrow, tell-tale of the barbell resting beneath.

For a moment, Wakatoshi wonders what Iwaizumi sees when he looks at him back.

Wakatoshi is completely sincere when he says, “This is surprising.”

“Really? You don’t sound surprised.” Iwaizumi gives him a quick once-over. “What the hell are you doing here?”

 

 

 

By afternoon’s end the two of them sit beneath the long shade of a sycamore, chatting about things like Argentina and Sports Sciences and World Leagues while sipping on hot coffees they’d picked up earlier.

(After ordering his coffee, Wakatoshi turns back to Iwaizumi in line and says, very quietly, I forgot to ask for it iced. Iwaizumi laughs at him for a good minute. Really, Ushiwaka? Hot coffee in 80 degree Fahrenheit weather? Despite his teasing, he goes and orders himself a hot drink too. The two of them hold onto their coffees by cardboard sleeves, and then Wakatoshi asks why’d he laugh at him if he was going to order a hot drink, anyway. Iwaizumi just grins and says, this way, people won’t think you’re the only weirdo on campus.)

Their chance encounter in California probably would’ve ended beneath that tree, too, if Iwaizumi didn’t turn around and say, “Oh! Wait! One more thing! Lemme take a picture with you, so I can show off to Oikawa.” The grin on Iwaizumi’s face is menacing.

 

 

 

During the photo, Iwaizumi asks, “So, how long are you staying in California?”

“Just for the weekend. My flight leaves on Monday.”

“Okay, perfect. Wanna hike the Quail Hill Trail with me tomorrow?”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Thank you, a ten-year-old Wakatoshi says, using a napkin to carefully dab at the mango juice staining the side of his mouth. Iwaizumi and his mother turn to look at him. Mangoes mean something different to me, now.

 

 

 


 

 

 

They meet at the end of Sand Canyon Road, dawn making its languid ascent from behind the far mountains. Wakatoshi turns around and takes in endless grassy hills interrupted only by the highway. Its car-dotted stripe of slate grey is the only unnatural thing for miles.

“This one’s not too bad,” Iwaizumi says, bounding down the start of the dirt path. He fiddles with the buckle strap stretched over his chest. “It’s a five mile loop from here. A thousand seven hundred feet in elevation, give or take. Try to keep up, yeah?” Iwaizumi grins at him crookedly.

They follow a dirt road that cuts clean through endless stretches of grass. There are areas where the grass is tall enough for Wakatoshi to wade through like water. Each long blade of green performs a sacred dance. Somehow they’ve found themselves at the centre of a place that glows like a saint, long as the still-rising sun grants everything a haloed hue.

Including Iwaizumi, who gently elbows Wakatoshi to get him to look at certain sights and names everything they see. Views of Saddleback Valley. Its hills, its sun-dappled canyons. Beyond that, far-away outlines of a translucent city. Even farther, the Saddleback Mountains: snow-capped and pale blue and toothed like they’re bracketing the edge of the world.

“Where are we going?” Wakatoshi asks.

“The peak’s got a better view of everything I just listed. From there, we loop back. And we could go to this wilderness park, or Crystal Cove. We could see the coastal canyons.”

“You sound like a tour guide.”

Iwaizumi laughs. “Well, yeah, I guess that’s what happens when a guy stays in Irvine for a couple of years. I’ve had time to get a feel for things.”

Wakatoshi nods. He looks from the valley to Iwaizumi, who’s smiling softly, like he’s thinking of a secret. “So adjustment came easy for you, I would presume.”

“Oh.” Iwaizumi hesitates. “Hmm. I wouldn’t say that. Well, I guess it depends on your definition of adjustment.”

“Adjustment? As in, you have become used to your new surroundings.”

“Yeah, well. I guess that’s true, in some sense. But that doesn’t stop me from getting homesick from time to time, y'know? Can you really say I’ve fully adjusted to a place when I still can’t shake this stuck feeling that something’s missing?”

Wakatoshi stays quiet, looking at Iwaizumi with patient assurance to go on. Something in his expression must have soothed Iwaizumi somewhat, because he relaxes his posture a little and takes a breath.

Iwaizumi shakes his head to himself, tugging again at his backpack straps. “But what if I don’t wanna shake it. Sometimes I get scared that if I stop missing home, I’ll lose home altogether. Kind of like how you lose a person, in a way, when you stop missing them. When you stop thinking about them.”

Wakatoshi frowns. He turns the words over in his head. “Yes, I suppose.” And then, “Do you miss anyone, back in Japan?”

“Of course. Every day.” Iwaizumi sighs a little. “I even miss someone who’s not in Japan.”

“Oikawa?”

“Yeah.” Iwaizumi looks at him with a small, rueful smile. “He’s got a shitty personality, but I miss him anyway. Sometimes when I do something cool here—which is all the time, by the way—I wonder what Oikawa would say if he saw me do it, or did it with me.”

Iwaizumi’s eyes fall away from Wakatoshi’s for a moment, looking beyond the endless grass. “But listen, I don’t get mopey for longer than half a minute. I wouldn’t trade being here right now for anything, okay? Still, in that half-minute I do get kind of sad and end up thinking, y'know, if only he was here.”

Wakatoshi is silent for a moment. “Are you thinking that right now?”

Iwaizumi turns his head and looks at him a long moment, and Wakatoshi thinks, ah.

But Iwaizumi says, “Nah.” He turns back to face the mountains ahead. “This can be just an us thing, if you want, Ushiwaka. We can keep this place, at least for a while.” Then Iwaizumi’s expression shifts to something devious, almost child-like. “Also, pissing Oikawa off like this is too much fun.”

Wakatoshi chuckles a little. Iwaizumi grins wide in turn.

After a few moments, Iwaizumi turns to hold Wakatoshi’s gaze, suddenly serious. “Ushiwaka, I wasn’t gonna tell you yesterday, but I feel kind of lucky to find you here. It feels good to be speaking Japanese again and to hear Japanese spoken back, and not just through a phone. You’re the only fixed point in this whole country that feels familiar.”

“Oh.” Unbidden warmth rushes up Wakatoshi’s face. “I feel lucky to have met you here, too, Iwaizumi.” He breaks away from Iwaizumi’s gaze to look out at the far-away mountains, like they might soothe his sudden burning.

Iwaizumi laughs a little, like he knows. “Yeah, you’ve said that.”

“And not only for the motivation, or volleyball advice. I am very glad to see you here.”

“I know. You do have your dad, too. That’s why you’re here, right?”

“Yes. He is one fixed point for me, here. But now I have two.”

Iwaizumi looks up at him, face surprised for the first time all morning.

 

 

 

When they get to the summit, Iwaizumi sinks to the grass with a hand on Wakatoshi’s elbow, dragging him down to kneel with him. Silent, they take in the expanse of sun-dappled coastal canyons in the distance.

There’s a long-stemmed flower growing from the soil near them. Its shape kind of resembles a dandelion, but bright pink beneath the early light. It is probably a weed. A pretty weed, but still a weed. Wakatoshi looks at it, and Iwaizumi looks at him looking.

Eyes narrowing a little, Iwaizumi reaches out to take the stem between a thumb and forefinger. It’s uprooted easily, brown strands dangling from the bottom like old hair.

Iwaizumi turns to Wakatoshi and leans in to tuck the flower behind his ear, fingertips ghosting at the shell.

“Now it’s like you grew from this spot,” says Iwaizumi, smiling like he’s keeping a secret behind his mouth. “They suit you, these fields and canyons.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

When Wakatoshi tastes his first mango, he’s four years old and sitting cross-legged on an island of red gingham cloth with his family. They’re tucked away into a grassy corner of Michinoku Park. It’s June and everywhere is colourful with flowers.

His father holds out a half-mango for Wakatoshi the way he would an orange blossom, its flesh cut into cubes. Wakatoshi holds it by the underside of the rind, trying to gauge its sweetness by sight. He reaches out for a spoon with his right arm, and his father stops him with a light hand to his wrist. Wakatoshi looks up into kind, hazel eyes and retracts.

Here, his father says, taking the spoon himself and pressing it, gentle, to Wakatoshi’s left hand. His mother’s gaze is elsewhere, fixed on the bursting fountain and the sprawling purple near it.

Wakatoshi takes the spoon. With his left hand, he digs out a pre-cut orange cube from the mango’s flesh. When he brings it to his mouth, his eyes widen.

Is the sun in my mouth? he asks his father, four years old and still learning the difference between things that stay in the sky and things that don’t.

His father laughs, but it’s not unkind. Mangoes aren’t the sun, Toshi, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got to it.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Wakatoshi watches Iwaizumi Hajime cut the sun clean in half atop a wooden cutting board. He sits on one of two rotating stools installed in front of the kitchen counter.

“I have not eaten mangoes in a long while,” Wakatoshi remarks.

Iwaizumi glances up for a moment. He smiles a little. “That’s what you said last time, too.”

Wakatoshi doesn’t respond, but the memory from years ago curls between them like old air. Wakatoshi feels compelled, almost, to slow his breathing here. As if a rough exhale could blow the memory away.

Iwaizumi’s attention returns to the mango. Careful hands hold still the rind, carving two parts from the pit at the centre. The sleeves of Iwaizumi’s light button-down roll above a shadowed line falling from his elbow, and down the muscled curve of his forearm.

Under the paring knife, the mango unbecomes itself. Now it is only: flesh, skin, pit. Core, flare, chromosphere. Sticky nectar rivering down: wrist and palm and knuckle. Wakatoshi watches Iwaizumi like he’s seated at another game, another ritual.

And then Iwaizumi’s in front of Wakatoshi, casually offering one half of the sun.

“Ah, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve cut it like this for you,” Iwaizumi says, moving around the counter to take a seat beside Wakatoshi. They sit close together. One bend of a knee would cause their thighs to brush.

Iwaizumi’s glance darts away with unexpected shyness. “It’s kind of a habit, now.”

Wakatoshi looks from Iwaizumi’s face to the mango’s ripe weight in his palm, its flesh neatly sliced into golden cubes. The sight of it puts something unnamable in his stomach.

“Thank you,” Wakatoshi says. He scoops the mango from Iwaizumi’s hand, fingertips dusting light against his palm. “My dad used to cut mangoes like this for me, too.”

“Is that so?” Iwaizumi takes the other half-mango and two forks from the counter. He passes one to Wakatoshi.

“Yes. Into bites suitable for children.”

Iwaizumi laughs. “Cut fruit is a love language, y’know. At least, that’s what my mom tells me.”

“Oh.” Wakatoshi looks from the mango in his hand and back to Iwaizumi, who’s already digging a cube out with his fork. Iwaizumi’s eyes are away from him now, fixed only to the orange fruit.

Wakatoshi takes a bite from his own, and its taste is bright and sweeter than any mouthful of fruit from his memory. Including other mangoes, probably. He wonders for a moment if any difference in sweetness is made by its cubed shape, or by the person who held and cut it.

Wakatoshi’s fork slips from his grip. A clink rings throughout the apartment when it touches the ground. Wakatoshi starts to apologize, but Iwaizumi interrupts him with a shake of his head and an insistent no, no need.

“My fork’s still perfectly clean anyway, Ushiwaka,” Iwaizumi says, grinning up at Wakatoshi. He draws a little circle with his fork in the air, a fresh cube still attached to the top.

Then the fork draws closer to him, and Wakatoshi realizes, belatedly, what’s about to happen. He meets Iwaizumi’s amused eyes. He opens his mouth slowly.

Wakatoshi’s teeth close around the fork. Iwaizumi doesn’t say anything, just pulls the fork—now empty—toward himself again.

They still don’t say anything after the second cube, and the third. By the fourth, Iwaizumi playfully hovers the fork around in the air for Wakatoshi to chase with tilts of his head. By the fifth, there’s laughter. Iwaizumi dangles the seventh one closer to himself. Wakatoshi leans forward as if tied to the fork by invisible string.

And then Iwaizumi presses the cube flush against his own lips, a small burst of orange against chapped, muted pink. Eyes sharp but unreadable, Iwaizumi closes his mouth around the fruit and drops the fork unceremoniously on the counter. Wakatoshi stares for a second, a little bewildered, trying to be certain of what Iwaizumi wants from him.

But Wakatoshi knows, by now, what he himself wants. And so he draws forward. His hand hovers for only a moment before gathering Iwaizumi’s jaw in its palm.

Wakatoshi kisses the boy on the mouth. His free hand curls behind Iwaizumi and drops to press at the small of his back, pushing him closer. There’s sticky mango nectar on his fingers, probably, but Iwaizumi doesn’t seem to mind. He leans into Wakatoshi’s steady palm and sighs against his mouth.

It’s Wakatoshi, now, who cuts open Iwaizumi’s lips with a tongue, a softer paring knife. He chases the taste of mango still, but there is no fork. There is only the floor of his mouth. And the seam of his lips. And the back of his teeth. Iwaizumi tastes sweeter than any mouthful of fruit from his memory.

This is how Wakatoshi unbecomes himself in the kitchen of Iwaizumi’s apartment. Now, he is only: lips, teeth, tongue. Running blood, nerve fibre, pulse. Breath and sugar and desire.

 

 

 


 

 

 

For a long time, Wakatoshi couldn’t dislodge California from the feeling of something lost.

It’s inconvenient, then, the growing pile of California postcards he keeps at the top of the dresser in his Shiratorizawa dorm. They’re all from his father, complete with glossy photographs of the Hollywood sign, and Venice Beach, and the Golden Gate Bridge, and oak trees, and Disneyland. It’s inconvenient, seeing the same blue-inked return address on the corner of all these postcards, still wrestling with the fact that he will not return.

California used to have more meaning to Wakatoshi, but maybe the meanings were impersonal. He knew from his father that its geography marks the meeting place of ocean and canyon alike. The people there do not bend at the waist in greeting. Glimpses of it appear in the background of his father’s favourite Audrey Hepburn films, Funny Face and Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wakatoshi thinks of California and recalls, at the same time, his father singing under his breath in English.

Moon river, wider than a mile. I’m crossing you in style, some day.

And then, one day, everything in Wakatoshi’s life shifts in meaning. California shifts, too. Everything that once reminded him of California, too.

Airplanes painting white lines above Miyagi used to be stand-ins for comets. Within a day they turn into stand-ins for distance. A calendar becomes a reminder of timezones, of the way an ocean can sever a day in two. A map becomes a eulogy. Wakatoshi sits up straight in 1st period English and takes diligent notes on a language which steals, has stolen from him.

The clock loses its meaning. How could the slow rotation of the minute hand mean anything when he’s no longer there to come home to? 9 am: he won’t be there. Same as 11:54 am. 5:15 pm. 9:32 pm.

Midnight: the Ushijima household stays silent during an hour once reserved for Chu Kosaka records and the clumsy waltz of footsteps over hardwood flooring.

At seven years old, Wakatoshi learns that nothing is sacred. Not the familiar safety of calloused hands covering the smallness of his own, pressing the proper stance of a receive to his thumbs until it is phantom knowledge. Not the memory of an afternoon spent eating mangoes beside a spiral of violet flowers. Wakatoshi sometimes catches his mother dabbing at the corner of her eye and thinks, absently: not love, either.

Wakatoshi, with all his years-learnt rigour and straightforward calculation, cannot understand how all this can be. How on earth can a clock, an ancient thing with ancient meaning, suddenly weigh with so much grief?

At eight years old, Wakatoshi learns there is no physics to missing someone. There is no formula.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“My friends in Irvine keep sending me American artists and albums to listen to. There’s this one artist who’s really popular in Japan, too, so maybe you’ve heard some of his songs already. He’s really good. His voice sounds amazing.”

Wakatoshi watches Iwaizumi’s green eyes fill with something vibrant and sincere. Iwaizumi goes on about this American artist and some record called Channel Orange, then another called Blonde. Then he asks, a little sheepish, if Wakatoshi would like to hear it.

“Yes,” says Wakatoshi. “Show me.”

Iwaizumi’s grin widens, and the sight of it makes something in Wakatoshi’s chest twist. Without saying anything else, Iwaizumi reaches for his phone and a small portable speaker on the coffee table. Wakatoshi notes, a little endeared, a small, foil Godzilla sticker pasted to the side of the speaker. Music starts to play and Wakatoshi sinks back onto the couch.

“I have an idea,” Iwaizumi says, suddenly. There’s something mischievous glinting off his eye. “But I need to know if you’re cool with it, first.”

“What is it?” Wakatoshi looks at him, curious.

Iwaizumi’s grin is boyish. His voice goes low when he asks, “Can I smoke you out?”

Wakatoshi frowns. “Americans do not seem like good influences.”

Iwaizumi laughs. “Probably not. Guess I’m sorta American now. That’d make me a bad influence too, huh?”

“A terrible influence.”

“You should probably get outta here, Ushiwaka. Before I infect you, too. With my terrible American influence.”

“I want to stay,” Wakatoshi says, and Iwaizumi’s joking, he knows, but he means it all the same.

“Well, if you insist.” Iwaizumi smiles, and it’s so, so charming. “But really. Can I? Ah, no pressure. We don’t have to. Not if you don’t want to.”

Wakatoshi’s quiet for a moment, considering. “I have not tried, before.”

Iwaizumi hums, thoughtful. “The first time’s best with someone you like and trust. That’s very important.” He traps Wakatoshi’s gaze inside the green of his, serious. His voice goes quiet, almost shy, when he asks, “Do you trust me, Ushijima?”

He somehow doesn’t even blink before saying, “Yes.”

Iwaizumi’s face splits into another grin, full of mischief again. “Wait here.” He gets up from the couch and makes a line toward the bedroom, disappearing for a moment behind its door. Music keeps playing from Iwaizumi’s speaker.

Iwaizumi comes back with hands full and sinks to the floor in front of the coffee table. Wakatoshi watches him quietly grind and lay out flower down the centre of a sheet of rolling paper. Iwaizumi rolls with delicate hands, concentration written in the crease between his brows.

He lifts up the joint and locks eyes with Wakatoshi’s, then licks the edge of the paper to seal it. Something like low fire makes a home out of Wakatoshi’s stomach.

Iwaizumi gets up from his spot on the floor. He takes the portable speaker from the table and tilts his head in the direction of the balcony. Wakatoshi gets up from the couch and follows.

There’s enough space on the balcony, fenced in by white bars, for the two of them to lean comfortably against the handrails. The sky’s at the tail end of golden hour. American music keeps playing from the speaker.

“Shit. I forgot to ask another thing,” Iwaizumi tells him, voice gone quiet again. “I—wanna kiss you again, later. Nothing else. Just.” Wakatoshi watches the blush bloom across Iwaizumi’s face. His heartbeat is fast and loud in his ears. “But only if it’s okay with you.”

“It is.” More than okay. Iwaizumi gives an almost bashful smile, and then he’s tucking the joint between his lips and procuring a lighter from his back pocket.

“Good,” Iwaizumi says, flicking the lighter to life at the end of the joint. Wakatoshi feels a little like he’s under a spell, watching Iwaizumi keep the flame on until it catches. The tip glows red as Iwaizumi inhales, a thin smoke tendril escaping the seam of his mouth. He takes the joint between a thumb and forefinger, turning his face to the dark beyond the railing.

Wakatoshi watches a cloud of smoke escape Iwaizumi’s lips as he exhales.

Iwaizumi turns back to him and smiles. “Your turn, Ushiwaka,” he says, quiet, holding it out in his direction.

Wakatoshi takes it. He watches smoke seep from the tip and into the cool air. It doesn’t smell great, but he lifts it to it his mouth anyway and drags in hot smoke.

He starts coughing almost immediately, but Iwaizumi’s already there beside him, plucking the joint from his hand and stroking gentle lines down his back. Wakatoshi can’t tell if he feels hot all over because of the smoke, or because of Iwaizumi’s touch tracing thin flames down his spine.

“There, there,” Iwaizumi says, voice almost a whisper. He’s near enough for Wakatoshi to feel the warmth of his breath against his ear. “Let it all out, Ushiwaka.”

Wakatoshi turns to glare at him after his coughing subsides, but Iwaizumi just grins and takes another drag. He flicks ash against the railing.

They stay like that a while, watching the sky go black as they take turns inhaling, exhaling. There’s no speaking between them, the sparse July air punctuated only by the honey of that American voice coming from the speaker. Their fingers brush as the joint passes between the two of them, and each time feels like Wakatoshi’s pressed a thumb to the burn of its charred end by accident.

The joint’s between Wakatoshi’s fingers, burnt almost to the filter, when Iwaizumi puts a hand on his shoulder and dips his head closer. Iwaizumi’s gaze is intense on Wakatoshi lips, closed around the filter. Then Iwaizumi asks, very softly, “mind sharing that smoke?”

Somehow the words make the smoke cut sharper, hotter in their long drag down his lungs. Wakatoshi’s eyes haven’t left Iwaizumi’s mouth all night. He draws toward it almost without thinking, smoke still trapped in his throat, in his mouth.

Iwaizumi’s pulls all the smoke from Wakatoshi’s lungs and smiles, a little, into the gentle kiss. His lips still taste sweet from the mangoes they shared, earlier. He pulls back only to turn his head and exhale stolen smoke into the night.

Wakatoshi only notices he’s started feeling any different, probably, when Iwaizumi faces him again, eyes greener than he remembers. They look like emeralds, kind of, and he tells Iwaizumi as much. Iwaizumi only laughs and plucks the filter from his fingers. There’s an ash tray sitting on a low table by the railing, which he approaches to snuff out the flame.

The music coming from the speaker is so much clearer, now. There’s a man’s voice wafting atop a slow, seductive beat, and it’s the prettiest song Wakatoshi’s ever heard. But he feels barred from appreciating it properly, too distracted by Iwaizumi’s eyes.

And his lips. He wants to taste them again.

“I like this song,” Wakatoshi says.

“It’s good, right?” Iwaizumi grins at him.

“What is it called?”

In English, Iwaizumi answers, “Pink Matter, baby.”

“Oh,” says Wakatoshi. And then, “Can I kiss you, now?”

Then Iwaizumi is laughing more, and Wakatoshi takes his previous thought back because his laughter is definitely the prettiest song he’s ever heard. Wakatoshi tells him as much. Iwaizumi just laughs some more, but he’s blushing now too, and its pinkness is bright against sun-kissed skin.

Everything’s gone saturated, even in the dark. But nothing’s so vibrant as the moonlight glancing off the planes of Iwaizumi’s face, and the wet pink of his bottom lip, and the endless field of his eyes.

It’s uncertain who leans in first, but the way time warps around them seems to rob the kiss of a starting point. It feels endless, and Wakatoshi wants it to be endless, because somehow the sweetness of Iwaizumi’s mouth has multiplied from before. The softness of it, too, feels increased tenfold.

“You taste good,” Wakatoshi whispers against his mouth, and Iwaizumi’s responding exhale is shaky.

Wakatoshi licks past his teeth to taste more of him. They remain on the balcony awhile, mouths locked, hands wandering. Time meaningless.

In the momentary field of their shared breathing, they tear down the public names of Iwaizumi-and-Ushijima. They trade it for something secret, a title only they can know. Just two, familiar boys kissing sweetly in the California dark.

 

 

 

Later into the night, Wakatoshi feels the world close in too fast around him. He digs his fingers into the corner of Iwaizumi’s shirt and tugs wordlessly. Iwaizumi notices and understands. He gently unclasps Wakatoshi’s fingers from the fabric of his shirt, lets them thread through the gaps between his own.

Hands clasped, Iwaizumi leads Wakatoshi to the bedroom and lays him down gently. Wakatoshi’s heavy eyelids flutter closed. Iwaizumi sweeps a light blanket over his still form and stands to leave, but Wakatoshi’s hand comes up to cover the pulse in Iwaizumi’s wrist, grip tight.

“Do not leave,” Wakatoshi half-mumbles, and Iwaizumi stills. Iwaizumi looks down at the hand around his wrist and sighs.

“Okay.” Iwaizumi’s voice is soft in turn. He lets himself get pulled by Wakatoshi into bed, folding into the space beside him. When they fall asleep, it’s with hands pressed warm together like much younger children.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The night before his father’s flight, Wakatoshi helps his mother prepare a dinner of Hayashi Rice for three. His mother pours beef into a bowl and mixes with wine, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper. Wakatoshi separates the ivory ends of shimeji mushrooms, cuts masshurūmu into thin slices.

They will have mangoes for dessert. His father’s looked up internet tutorials on how to cut them so they look like orange roses.

They don’t end up looking like roses.

In volleyball, so much meaning’s determined by whether the ball lands in-bounds or out. The distinction is simple as a dark line painted onto a canvas of polished linoleum. Wakatoshi spikes a volleyball and watches it slam clean, untouched, onto the other side of the net. In. Wakatoshi performs a serve that bounces off the forearms of the opposite libero. Out.

But life’s not shaped like a volleyball court. Now, Wakatoshi spikes a volleyball only to watch it disappear, a head of dandelion seeds after wind. No painted line, no net, no linoleum. No resolution.

Wakatoshi’s mother rolls her shopping cart clean past the mangoes. The idea of California starts to hang over his head like a ghost. It’s strange, how a place he’s never been to can suddenly signify so much absence, carving a state-shaped outline in Wakatoshi’s chest where there wasn’t an outline, before.

 

 

 


 

 

 

On the day before Wakatoshi leaves for Japan, Iwaizumi offers to drive him to Laguna beach. In the passenger seat, Wakatoshi has one elbow resting on the ledge of his rolled down window, his other hand light on Iwaizumi’s thigh. Iwaizumi lets the records from last night play loud from his car speakers the entire ride.

The beach is packed with people, sunbathing and running and swimming under the summer heat. Iwaizumi notices Wakatoshi looking around and brushes a hand along his knuckles, saying, “don’t worry, I know a spot that’s less crowded.”

Iwaizumi takes Wakatoshi to a small opening by a fence tucked away from all the tourists. From there descends a long flight of stairs bordered by foliage. This leads to Thousand Steps beach, but there’s actually only around two hundred steps, Iwaizumi tells him with a furtive smile, already starting his descent. Wakatoshi doesn’t stray too far behind him.

At the bottom of the stairs is four hundred yards of pristine sand and endless saltwater. There are people here too, but much less than before. This beach feels secluded, and quieter, too, save for the sound of wind and crashing waves. Laughing, Iwaizumi makes a run for the ocean, kicking off his shoes and pulling his shirt over his head. Wakatoshi stops to watch Iwaizumi’s back run away before following, its expanse broad and golden beneath the sun.

Wakatoshi looks around and notes he’s not the only one staring. He tells Iwaizumi this after catching up to him at the water’s edge. Iwaizumi’s responding smile is crooked. But I’m staring only at you.

They swim, for a while, in the ocean. They put on sunglasses and talk about America and Japan and college and volleyball with their faces to the sky, backs pressed against warm sand. At one point Iwaizumi finds stray plastic buckets and lights up, holding one of them out for Wakatoshi to hold.

“We can make fucking sandcastles with these,” Iwaizumi explains with all the enthusiasm of a kid, laughing at Wakatoshi’s dumbfounded expression. He takes Wakatoshi’s hand and leads him to an area near the ocean, already crouching to fill his bucket with sand. Wakatoshi takes a moment to watch before following his lead, filling his own bucket to the brim in turn.

Once they’ve built the base of the castle and added walls and towers, the two of them scour the shoreline for things to decorate with. Shore-bound strands of seaweed. Smooth, grey stones. Thin, striped seashells. Iwaizumi presses these things, seemingly at random, to parts of the sandcastle walls, and tells Wakatoshi to do the same.

Wakatoshi’s a little worried about ruining the look of this castle Iwaizumi’s so enthusiastic about. Iwaizumi barks out a laugh and says, don’t worry, it’s already ugly as shit. Its ugliness is what gives the castle its charm. Reluctantly, Wakatoshi lines small, cracked shell pieces along the castle’s toothed walls.

Iwaizumi takes photos of the finished sandcastle from endless angles, beaming. Mid-shoot, Wakatoshi hears him swear under his breath about how, shit, he should’ve brought Godzilla figurines to make it look like they’re storming the castle. That would’ve made for such cool pictures.

Then he tells Wakatoshi to get in the picture and pose beside it.

“Make a peace sign with your fingers,” Iwaizumi instructs him, grinning as he captures the scene with his phone camera. “Just letting Oikawa know that you’re still around. He’s gonna be so pissed when I send him these.”

 

 

 

In the middle of the ocean, Wakatoshi tells Iwaizumi, “Thank you. California means something else, now.”

“What did it mean before?”

“Nothing.”

“Hah? Okay. What does it mean now?”

Hot coffee in hot weather. Coastal canyons. The taste of mangoes. Your apartment. Smoke curling into the night. Sandcastles. The way nothing but saltwater separates our bodies, here, right now.

“You.”

 

 

 

The sun begins its slow descent when Iwaizumi drags him to the south end of the beach. While the tide is still low, they wander through the entrance of a large sea cave near the water’s edge. There’s a thin film of saltwater blanketing the cave’s sandy floor, casting a long mirror to reflect the cave’s mossy rock walls. They walk across the mirror to go deeper in.

It’s only the two of them there. Honeyed sun rays make their way in from the entrance, filling the cave with an air of saturated gold. Iwaizumi looks like a gold thing here, too, face handsome in the shifting light.

There are no words exchanged between them, here. Only glances. Then touch, when Wakatoshi presses a palm to Iwaizumi’s bare sternum and pushes gently. Iwaizumi lets himself get pushed, keeping eye contact as he reels backwards. When Iwaizumi’s back is pressed flush against the stone wall, Wakatoshi leans forward to kiss him.

Iwaizumi kisses back, hands passing over Wakatoshi’s shoulders to loop around his neck. Wakatoshi has one hand pressed against the rock wall beside Iwaizumi’s head, his other hand ghosting the planes of his chest.

Low tide shifts to high tide as more water pushes into the sea cave, the last half-hour of sunset saturating the sky beyond the entrance. They don’t stray from their spot or break away from the kiss, even when the mirror at their feet starts to rise.

The water’s to their ankles when Iwaizumi tugs the back of Wakatoshi’s hair. It’s to their knees when Wakatoshi sweeps his mouth down the side Iwaizumi’s neck, teeth closing around the rapid-fire beat of Iwaizumi’s pulse. The waves brush half-way up their thighs when Wakatoshi kisses a smoke-like trail down Iwaizumi’s collarbone and chest and up the line of his throat. To their waists, when Iwaizumi mouths bruises into the juncture between Wakatoshi’s neck and shoulder.

They peel away from each other after one long, last kiss on the mouth, breathless and laughing, to wade through the mounting tide and toward the cave’s entrance. There’s enough water in the cave to swim through, and so they do, making their way out to the waiting ocean and its reflected, darkening sky.

From there, the two of them swim back to the shoreline, running to pick up their shed clothes and towels before the tide could sweep them away. The castle they’d made earlier has already been swallowed up by saltwater.

“It is a good thing you took so many pictures, earlier,” Wakatoshi says plainly, eyes on the patch of water where the castle once stood. Iwaizumi follows the line of his gaze and smiles, sighing softly.

The moon is high in the air. The rising of the tides means it’s closer to the earth. Wakatoshi runs with Iwaizumi up the long, concrete staircase, himself a mindless body of water compelled by Iwaizumi’s lunar pull.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Wakatoshi wakes up engulfed in warm arms and steady breathing, just as he did the morning before. When he shifts to sit up, Iwaizumi subtly tightens the grip he keeps around his waist.

A quiet plea. A quiet stay just a little longer. 

Wakatoshi untangles himself anyway, but not without kissing him, soft, on the temple. The furrow between Iwaizumi’s brows disappears in his sleep.

He re-examines the quick checklist he keeps inside his head. His flight leaves late afternoon. Before then, he has to take a shower, and eat breakfast, and return to the hotel room he’d booked but hardly used. He has to fold his clothes into his suitcase and take a taxicab to the airport. Then he must fish out his passport, and the ticket to Japan he’s kept in his wallet, and take slow strides through security, and walk down a long, transparent hallway with a plane waiting at the mouth of it. He must stuff his carry-on into the overhead compartments. Try and fail to get comfortable in his seat with the limited legroom he's given. Look out the round window to watch the rust-coloured state of California grow smaller, and smaller, and smaller beneath him. Wonder what Iwaizumi’s thinking about, too small to see beneath the thin film of clouds.

This is how he must go through the motions of leaving Iwaizumi. He’d already checked off the first and most important thing in his list, which was to untangle from him upon waking.

Soon he’ll be in Tokyo again. Soon he’ll have another person in California to miss.

Wakatoshi turns and takes another glance at Iwaizumi, who looks like a god asleep beneath the blankets. Maybe if he was a god of death. Maybe if he’d fed Wakatoshi pomegranates instead of mangoes. Maybe then could Wakatoshi scrap the list and return to bed, and let Iwaizumi’s arms wrap secure around his waist, and fall asleep again to dream about whichever part of California Iwaizumi might want to show him tomorrow. For a moment, Wakatoshi thinks he’d allow the cold to unhinge its jaws and chew a thousand crops and fields and gardens, if it only meant he could go back to dreaming beside him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

....Something with wings went crazy against my chest once. 
There are two of us here. Touch me. 

- Liesel Mueller, "The Blind Leading the Blind"