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Metamorphosis

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“When am I going to see you again?”

Ushijima doesn’t look up from where he’s dutifully plucking a small pile of pickled vegetables off Oikawa’s untouched convenience store bento before handing over his own serving of tamagoyaki without a word of complaint.

Cheek propped up on his palm in a pretense of boredom that’s largely at odds with the tangled knot of nerves rapidly unspooling at the pit of his stomach with every soft click of Ushijima’s wrist watch, Oikawa tilts his head to the side by a fraction, sharp hazel eyes narrowed into slits as they scan Ushijima’s face for a hint of resentment, silent irritation, anything. 

It was about a week after Iwaizumi had taken off to medical school in the States that the two of them awkwardly shared lunch for the first of many times to come.

Staying behind in Sendai, Oikawa found that there was little to distract him from a heightened sense of restlessness, or the unspeakable humiliation of being caught red-handed while staking out the route his old rival would take for his daily morning run — all out of a petty bout of curiosity, Oikawa almost convinced himself.

Beat and starving after hiking up Mt. Izumigatake at the crack of dawn — an endeavor that had quickly escalated into a fairly one-sided competition with Ushijima (stoic, infuriating Ushijima) refusing to take the bait even once — Oikawa watched him split a pair of cheap wooden chopsticks into halves and go straight for his rolled omelette, only to freeze in his tracks at Oikawa’s pointed stare; shameless, dark lashes fluttering prettily in the pale sunlight.

“Tamagoyaki are my favorite,” he chirped, tone as sickeningly false and sweet as the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. The lie spilled easily from his lips as he eyed Ushijima with an air of unconcealed expectancy. 

(To test Ushijima’s reaction. 

To try and get a rise out of him.)

Today, Oikawa knows that Ushijima would have shared his entire meal and gone about his day with an empty stomach if Oikawa had only asked him to.

He knows why, more often than not, Ushijima would invite him along on his runs; why he’d pay for his food, and his movie tickets, the cups of shaved ice they’d eat at the park, sitting in the freshly cut grass, Ushijima’s track jacket spread out beneath Oikawa’s crossed legs so he wouldn’t get dirt on his pants. 

Why Ushijima would endure marathoning hours worth of recordings Oikawa had dug up online to prepare himself for his debut in the Argentinian volleyball league and spend the night on Oikawa’s bedroom floor, curled up on the least comfortable spare futon Oikawa managed to unearth from his parents’ storage cabinet, to discuss strategy.

It’s in the way Ushijima looks at him, and not just when he believes Oikawa isn’t paying attention. The almost-touches. The tentative brush of lips against Oikawa’s artfully tousled hair when Oikawa would find himself in the mood to push boundaries and nestle into the space between Ushijima’s legs, back pressed up against that broad, hard chest, eyes glued to the laptop balancing on top of his knees.

When am I going to see you again?

For a few long minutes Oikawa lets the question hang in the air between them, heavy with the weight of Ushijima’s quiet, unwavering devotion and his own lingering indecisiveness — even now at the turning point, the culmination of months of carefully dancing around each other; never more than an inch apart, never quite allowing themselves to close the distance.

Then, finally, more to himself than Ushijima and in a voice devoid of emotion (because he won’t ever let Ushijima see): 

“Does it matter?”

He will remember the subtle shift in Ushijima’s tired olive eyes, reminiscent of acceptance. Acceptance of something that reaches far beyond Oikawa’s feigned indifference, eerily calm and composed in its finality, and it feels like there is something important Oikawa is missing. 

A year will pass until he’ll come to understand why Ushijima swallows heavily, left hand flying to his throat, a strangled little noise tumbling from his lips as he rises from his seat and softly coughs into his sleeve. 

Oikawa raises an eyebrow, but says nothing until Ushijima vaguely gestures towards the bathroom sign and disappears for a good fifteen minutes, returning with traces of blood under his nails and an expression so guarded, Oikawa doesn’t know how it fits in with Ushijima’s usual bluntness and insufferable sincerity.

Conversation turns sparse and stilted when Oikawa’s flight gets called for boarding over the speaker system. 

Within the span of seconds, every cord of muscle in his body pulls taut, fingers curling stiffly around the worn edge of his plastic seat as if this hadn’t been his choice. 

As if Ushijima was going to wrestle him out of their booth and onto the plane against his will, both of their lunches left untouched and everything that matters left unsaid between them, because Oikawa had never been good at admitting that he was wrong — not about Argentina, but the way he’s been pridefully denying himself to examine his own conflicting emotions when he still had the time.

Ushijima wordlessly bends down to collect Oikawa’s carry-on bags, throws the straps over his shoulder and holds out his free hand; a silent offer. 

Not without shooting him a defiant glare in a half-hearted attempt to save face, more of a compulsion than anything, really, Oikawa accepts it, for once thankful for Ushijima’s rather impassive nature. 

He’s certain he must look like a child on the verge of a tantrum, torn and scared, at the brink of angry tears he’s holding back by the very skin of his teeth. But Ushijima doesn’t gloat, doesn’t point it out at all, just lets Oikawa slip strong, slender fingers into the gaps between his own and squeeze so hard it may have shattered bone if this was anyone else. Anyone but Ushijima.

An icy chill crawls down his spine as Oikawa leans into Ushijima’s shoulder at the departure gate, one large hand resting at the nape of Oikawa’s neck, fingertips tentatively skimming across his skin, cold as death. 

There’s a moment that has Oikawa wondering if Ushijima is going to kiss him. 

He doesn’t want him to.

He’s never wanted anything more viscerally in his life.

Nose buried in the soft fabric of Ushijima’s coat, he breathes in the scent of wildflowers he’s gotten so used to over the course of the spring, mixed with pine and the warm smell of the forest — an odd combination, but pleasant nonetheless. Soothing. Addictive.

Tinged with a new, different note that reminds Oikawa of the abandoned potted plant withering away on the window sill back in his childhood bedroom.

“Try not to be such a loser, will you? God, look at this shirt…” Oikawa drawls, casual distaste rolling off his tongue like acid before he can rein himself in, toying with the tiny sprout patch embroidered onto the front of Ushijima’s otherwise plain white t-shirt, right above his heart — an easy excuse to touch where Oikawa shouldn’t want to be touching. 

Stop talking. 

Stop saying things you won’t be able to take back. 

Stop—

“You’re so boring. No one’s going to want you around.”

Ushijima’s gaze shutters, but he never averts his eyes. Has never averted his eyes from Oikawa even at his worst, his ugliest; not even now.

Oikawa wants to strangle him. 

Wrap long, pale fingers around his neck almost as much as he wants to lick and bite his way into Ushijima’s mouth. 

He hates it, the way Ushijima gets under his skin and carves himself a space there, and for the first time in his life Oikawa feels with a frightening certainty that there’s no chance of victory in meeting Ushijima head on.

So he runs.

The sun hangs high in the cloudless sky, staggeringly bright in Oikawa’s eyes as he lugs his bulging suitcase up another steep flight of stairs. There’s a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead, his damp shirt clinging to his back like a second skin.

He squints against the light and draws a deep breath, the humidity feeling suffocating, his body struggling to adjust to the heat and the disorienting concept that if he was at home in Japan, he would be curled up on his bed, fast asleep amidst stacks of pillows and soft sheets. 

As it is, Oikawa impatiently fumbles with the jammed lock on the door separating him from his new fourth-floor studio apartment, keys and bags tumbling to the ground with a weary flick of his wrist the very moment he finally stumbles inside. He doesn’t wait for his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness of the room when he blindly picks his way towards the narrow single bed tucked into the far right corner, collapses onto the mattress with a faint sigh of relief and his limbs sprawled wide, heavy as lead.

His entire body is aching after hours spent cramped into the claustrophobic confines of a plane seat that clearly wasn’t made for a man of Oikawa’s stature or height — in fact, his leg still feels a little funny, just that side of numb, toes tingling lightly as he slowly regains the feeling in his left foot.

For how long he lies there he isn’t quite sure, just that it feels like a long time until he can finally muster the energy to tug his phone from his back pocket and scroll past a handful of text notifications — his parents, his sister, Iwaizumi... 

Certainly, Ushijima must be demanding that Oikawa inform him of his safe arrival promptly upon touchdown—

But there is no message from Ushijima. 

No “I hope you had a safe trip.”  

Nothing.

Gravely offended for reasons he doesn’t have any intention of inspecting more closely, Oikawa pulls up their chatlog and starts typing out a new text, passive-aggressively assuring Ushijima that yes, he made it to Argentina in one piece and no , he didn’t have a nice flight, thanks so much for asking.

Brows drawn together into a petulant frown, his fingers hesitantly hover over the send button. 

He gives a small jump as a speech bubble appears at the bottom of the screen, indicating that Ushijima, too, is thinking of him at this very moment. And because he’s petty, because he’s stubborn and proud, because Ushijima needs him, but he doesn’t need Ushijima , Oikawa waits. Lets Ushijima take the first step the way he always does.

Surprisingly enough, the next time he looks down at his phone, his gaze is met with a photograph: gently rolling hills and acres of deep, pristine forest stretching for miles and miles towards the horizon, lush green tinged with warm shades of pink and orange. It’s a familiar view, the angle a little awkward, the picture slightly out of focus, and yet...

I did not ration my water properly. Had to manage without any the entire way down.

Oikawa huffs. He can see it before him as if it was just yesterday — the sheepish expression on Ushijima’s face the first time he tried to take a sip from his empty water bottle no more than an hour into their ascent, the way Oikawa handed over his own drink with an exasperated roll of his eyes and started slapping Ushijima’s hand away whenever he’d see it reach for his water a bit too frequently on all of their trips to follow.

You suck at hiking, Oikawa responds, ignoring the odd, unexpected tightness blooming in his chest.

He doesn’t wait for a response, suddenly feeling too high-strung to sit still, let alone attempt to deal with any of his other messages just yet. Instead, he pushes himself into an upright position and off the edge of the bed, steps in front of his suitcase and carelessly kicks it open with his foot, scouring for a pair of crumpled yoga pants before heading into his tiny bathroom for a long, much needed shower.

(Droplets of water, prettily clinging to his pale skin like a hundred shimmering pearls, conjure up unbidden images of his old rival, bare-chested and dripping sweat after a particularly punishing run, or after morning practice with his new team. Ushijima at the hot springs they discovered about a month into this new, strange chapter of their relationship; Ushijima—)

Ticked off doesn’t begin to describe the sour mood he finds himself in when he pads back into his room, his towel-dried hair a far cry from its usual pretentious glory and the scowl on his face murderous as he grabs his phone from the nightstand, jabs at the screen to select Iwaizumi’s number on speed dial and wedges it into the space between his ear and shoulder.

By the time his best friend graces him with a gruff “How did it go?” on the other end of the line, Oikawa is three t-shirts and two pairs of ripped jeans deep into the venture of neatly stowing away his belongings in his small walk-in closet.

They both know that Iwaizumi isn’t asking about his travels. That doesn’t mean Oikawa will be any less difficult about it.

“Hello to you too,” he sing-songs, voice oozing with airiness so evasive and false he knows damn well it will get Iwaizumi’s blood boiling in no time.

“Where are your manners? I was only gone for a day. Oh well, I suppose there wasn’t much for me to work with in the first place.”

“Cut the crap, Asskawa,” Iwaizumi growls, clearly unwilling to put up with Oikawa’s antics tonight. “You talked to him right? You guys are—“

“Are you my mom, Iwa-chan?

Oikawa absently tosses a pair of socks in the general direction of the open drawer at the bottom of the closet and watches it sail past its target by a hair’s breadth. His words are followed by several beats of absolute silence that, for a minute, have him wondering if this time Iwaizumi has finally had enough. 

“I’d hang up on you right here and now if that didn’t mean you’d get your damn way again,” Iwaizumi eventually murmurs into the receiver. “You can’t keep acting like this. You can’t run from this forever.”

“It’s only been a few months—”

Every day, all day, his mind provides, ever so helpfully.

“Is that so…”

Something about the blatant skepticism in Iwaizumi’s tone is irking him to the core, forcing him on the defensive. 

He doesn’t care to acknowledge the implications of such a ferocious reaction, or the nauseating feeling of his stomach turning as he lifts up a toppling pile of t-shirts from his half-empty suitcase. At the bottom he finds a white volleyball jersey, at least two sizes too large, the number eleven printed on the back in thick grey digits — stolen in a mindless haste and tucked away twice as fast.

His phone slips and tumbles to the floor from where he had it jammed between his right shoulder and cheek. Oikawa’s ears pick up on a strangled gurgling sound, distantly recognize the voice as his own. With the heel of his palm pressed into his eyes, he tries to breathe, tries to remind himself that he can’t look back, can’t look back, can’t—

“Hey,” Iwaizumi’s voice crackles through the speaker, suddenly sounding on edge, but Oikawa barely hears him through the storm clouds gathering in his own head. “Tooru?”

If he looks back now, he has already lost.

There’s flowers in his bed and flowers in his hair.

There’s flowers in his lungs.

Flower’s in his throat.

Oikawa Tooru blooms on the other side of the TV screen as Ushijima chokes on another mouthful of his own blood.

The sand feels smooth and powdery between Oikawa’s toes, surprisingly warm underneath the soles of his bare feet — even now, hours after he watched the sun set in a brilliant eruption of color and light from the confines of his small balcony, precariously perched atop the hot metal railing in a way that would have had Iwaizumi pop a blood vessel or two, had he been there to catch him.

Would have had someone else he knows get his serious pants in a twist and lift Oikawa back onto the ground in those big, strong arms of his like the fucking savior he thinks he is—

Oikawa shakes his head at the thought, irritated with himself for letting his mind wander, fill in the gaps and empty spaces, because he isn’t here.

It’s for the better, he tells himself. It’s what he wanted.

Oikawa isn’t sure how far he has walked, or for how long, socks and trainers dangling from his grasp, his free hand reaching up to wipe at the sweaty strands of hair plastered to his forehead, disheveled by the mild night breeze, as he squints into the semi-darkness.

A broad, seemingly endless strip of beach lies between him and the dimly lit promenade, behind which looms the foreign cityscape — a part of town he hasn’t yet had the time or energy to explore. 

At this hour, the area is deserted, plunged into an eerie calm, save for the gentle, rhythmic rolling of the waves, a tranquil sound that Oikawa craves with an intensity that leaves him unsettled to the core, sleepless until he feels the rush of water in his ears and the world around him lapses into silence.

He knows that he should turn around, should be in bed, but it’s 2 a.m and he has to be up in a little over three hours. At this point, he doesn’t see how it matters.

So instead of doing the sensible thing, instead of slipping into his sand-filled shoes and jogging back along the coast the way he came, Oikawa strolls down towards the shore, where the ground grows damp, tufts of seafoam floating around his pale calves, glittering prettily in the moonlight that shimmers through a passing wisp of cloud.

The rumble of Ushijima’s deep baritone resonates in the dark recesses of his mind, carefully locked away, yet refusing to quit haunting him in the dead of the night, and he remembers the feeling of his socked feet resting in Ushijima’s lap, one large hand lightly curled around Oikawa’s ankle, the other holding a book Ushijima plucked from the shelf by the end of Oikawa’s bed without thinking to ask his permission.

“When anxious and uneasy and bad thoughts come,
I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its noise,
and imposes a rhythm upon
everything in me that is bewildered and confused.”*

Oikawa knows the words by heart. He’s read them a hundred times over, so often, the thin, worn page had come loose from its binding underneath Ushijima’s fingertips. They taped it back together, hands brushing clumsily, Oikawa’s heart in his throat as he could do nothing but watch this man worm his way into another one of the few remaining corners of Oikawa’s mind that he didn’t yet occupy. 

A couple of weeks later, he made Ushijima take him to the coast.

Made him buy lemonade and carry his bag while Oikawa rolled up his pant legs and waded knees-deep into the rippling water. When he closed his eyes that day, the world narrowing down to the sharp smell of salt in the air and the screech of seagulls circling overhead, he could pretend that he hadn’t been digging his own grave all along.

Not since the spring when, slowly, yet inevitably, one obsession had begun to turn into another.

Not since Aoba Johsai’s final crushing defeat, delivered by the raw, blood-curdling power of Ushijima’s cross-court shot barreling through their brittle defense, all breakneck speed and nasty spin, seemingly effortless, though deep down Oikawa had known better than to believe that.

Not since their argument afterwards, or the moment the true meaning behind Ushijima’s words, patronizing and uncalled-for as they may have been, had finally sunk in — the fact that, in all his arrogance and aloofness, Ushijima hadn’t come to him with the intention to add insult to injury, but because he’d seen something in Oikawa that’s worth pursuing, worth admiring, worth quarreling over to a man who doesn’t chase after anyone.

No, it had started sooner than that.

Sometimes, Oikawa wonders if his fate had been sealed the day he had laid eyes on Ushijima Wakatoshi across the net all the way back in middle school. 

He’s never truly been able to look away again, has he?

Allowing himself to count the shades of gold swirling in stern, guarded eyes when they glint in the sunlight, to study the unexpected gentleness of Ushijima’s touch, at odds with the massive size of rough palms and thick, calloused fingers, or to watch those same hands curl into fists, clipped nails biting into his skin whenever Oikawa can tell Ushijima is about to say something stupid… it had merely been the final nail in the coffin.

And he hates Ushijima. Detests that he’s been so clearly trying to hold his tongue, to be better, less rigid in his views, more tactful and aware in the way he speaks to Oikawa.

How could Oikawa forgive him now when granting forgiveness would be as good as to admit defeat?

How could he face Ushijima after it’s all said and done without acknowledging his own share of the blame — his raging, disproportionate hostility straight off the bat, the taunts and undeserved cruelties, his envy and outright resentment of both Ushijima’s natural gift, and his nerve to question Oikawa’s decisions?

Loathe as he is to admit it, Oikawa knew even then that Ushijima bore no ill will towards him.

But anger was easy and so was using Ushijima as a scapegoat for his own failures and shortcomings, choosing to allow his unwitting rival to fuel the flames without realizing because Ushijima never got with the program and Oikawa never bothered to help him understand the root of the issue.

As it turned out, Ushijima didn’t need his help after all.

Over the course of spring, Oikawa could sense change stirring within Ushijima, where Oikawa himself remained paralyzed. Stuck. Falling behind all over again.

There was no end to his fury then, and he stomped out of the waves, ready to break something, anything as his stormy gaze fell on Ushijima, who was crouching by the shore, picking seashells from between the rocks and rinsing them in the water.

It was Ushijima’s obliviousness that tipped him over the edge, his quiet unwillingness to turn his back on Oikawa, patiently brushing off Oikawa’s jabs as if to challenge him. 

Test me. Throw at me what you will, I am not giving up on you.

The shells toppled from Ushijima’s grasp and into the sand with a light, deliberate nudge of Oikawa’s foot. For a long moment, Ushijima went completely still. 

Barely having resisted the urge to step on them, force a reaction out of Ushijima if he had to, Oikawa couldn’t do anything but mirror Ushijima’s blank stare — annoyed, yes, but calm nonetheless.

“Do you feel better now?”

Oikawa hisses through his teeth at the memory, flushing bright red just like he’d done that day before he knelt beside Ushijima and stiffly gathered up what he’d scattered across the sand, wordlessly thrusting the shells that hadn’t been washed away by the tide back into Ushijima’s palm.

“I’ll feel better when you stop being so goddamn— You know what, nevermind. I’m going for a swim and you’re coming, so take your clothes off. God, you’re so slow.”

As if to mock him, Oikawa feels his phone vibrate in his back pocket not five minutes into his run back to his apartment. 

Something tells him that he knows exactly who is texting him.

You left your shirt at my place after our beach trip.  

Oikawa barks out a hollow laugh before he continues reading. 

The black one with the star chart printed on the front? I found it under my bed.

It’s fine. Just keep it, he types back, snorting at the idea of Ushijima trying to pull it over his stupidly broad chest. 

In a moment of weakness, insanity, whatever the hell it is that’s come over him with the sudden, unstoppable force of a tidal wave drowning out every other thought, Oikawa sends another message, hastily, not giving himself the time to change his mind.

What are you doing right now? Can you call?

He flinches as less than thirty seconds later Ushijima’s caller ID pops up on the screen and lets it ring several times because so what if he’d been the one to ask for this in the first place. Ushijima doesn’t need to know that part of Oikawa has been longing to hear his voice for the better part of the past eight weeks.

Part of him that makes his heart leap into his throat with relief when he slams down his thumb to accept the call.

“Ushijima-san, where do you see yourself in five years?”

Ushijima blinks. He tries to keep himself upright, all sore muscles and dripping sweat, head spinning from the bright gymnasium lights and near-constant lack of oxygen. 

It’s oddly grounding, the sharp sting in his left hand, where he can still feel the phantom sensation of his palm connecting with the ball one final time, deciding the match in the Adlers’ favor at the end of a comparatively short third set.

Five years.

He doesn’t know how to answer.

How do you tell someone that some things aren’t meant to be? That you don’t think about it, really. That it’s easier this way because there’s flower petals floating inside your blood-filled lungs and the tide is rising, rising, rising.

That you’re a dead man walking.

There’s always been something surreal about the concept of time. 

Looking back, his memories scattered into fragments like he’s peering down at a stack of faded photographs through the cracks of a broken lens — the deafening quiet of a house too large and cold months after his father had left, the way he would watch the neighbors’ kids play on the other side of the fence and the fond expressions in their parents’ eyes, so unlike his own mother’s because loving him has always been harder — Ushijima realizes that he spent it all chasing after one thing or another without a second thought.

The true meaning of strength, his father’s recognition, and a boy that one moment will look at him like everything about Ushijima was offensive and appalling, then doze off against his shoulder the next, ice cold fingers shoved inside the front pocket of Ushijima’s sweater.

At age fourteen, he felt on top of the world, all the answers within his grasp, or so he thought.

Five years later, he can’t help but feel that he barely has anything to show for it.

“I’m not sure,” he lies warily, eager to wrap up the interview as he’s overcome by the sudden, overwhelming urge to escape the reporter’s piercing gaze, searching, surprised by the uncharacteristic evasiveness of Ushijima’s words, if not by their scarcity.

There’s a metallic taste at the back of his tongue.

The flowers are stirring impatiently, hidden within the narrow spaces between his ribs; leaves quivering, tendrils pulling taut around his bones, crawling up his airways to steal his breath away and demand their tribute.

Six months into his flourishing career as Club Atlético San Juan’s promising up-and-coming setter, Oikawa sees Ushijima in everything.

He’s in the quiet of Oikawa’s solitary morning runs and in the young couples awkwardly sharing ice cream outside the tiny cafés lining the city streets, in the emptiness he feels when he stands in line at the local bakery after practice to buy milk bread for himself.

He’s in the absence of the large, familiar hand resting at the small of Oikawa’s back during his commute, steadying him, its solid weight a constant reminder that if he asked, if only he allowed Ushijima close, Ushijima would catch his falls and never let him stumble.

Oikawa can taste him in the genmaicha that he doesn’t even like, that he pretends he doesn’t know why he has bothered preparing in the first place. Eyebrows quirked up knowingly, Iwaizumi’s been side-eyeing the pitcher through Oikawa’s laptop screen for the past one and a half hours, a silent, separate conversation taking place between them as Oikawa is grimacing around another sip and Iwaizumi’s pointed stare dares him to lie, to tell Iwaizumi that he isn’t clinging in his own roundabout way

“Clearly, I’m not the expert here, but didn’t Ushijima seem a little...” His best friend gestures vaguely, struggling for the right words to share his observation. “There was something off about him, don’t you think?”

Before he knows it, Oikawa’s eyes have narrowed into slits.

“Off how?” he probes, fingers picking at an old sticker where it’s beginning to peel off his laptop outside of Iwaizumi’s field of vision, as if he hadn’t noticed halfway into the game’s second set that Ushijima was rationing his power in a way so utterly contrary to his regular playstyle and infuriating overabundance of stamina. It has the hairs on the back of Oikawa’s neck standing on end.

Ushijima didn’t mention anything about a cold or an injury the last time they spoke.

“I may be wrong, but it looked like he was letting up during that last set. It’s not like him to make random mistakes. That flubbed spike…”

“A set more tailored to Wakato— Ushijima’s circumstances, whatever those may have been, could have saved even a spike that tragic,” Oikawa grits out through clenched teeth, still bitter about the fact that Ushijima could find the time to send him blurry photos of another new batch of miniature cacti or pester him about his atrocious sleep schedule, but didn’t deem it necessary to admit that apparently something was wrong.

I could have saved that spike, he thinks.

“It’s Wakatoshi now, huh?”

Fittingly enough, a close-up of Ushijima’s face pops up on the screen, chest heaving, drenched red and white jersey clinging tightly to his chiseled torso, disappointment and frustration written all over those handsome features, and Oikawa isn’t sure who he flips off as he slams his laptop shut in a fit of childish rage.

He kicks at the battered, oversized alien plush that must have tumbled to the ground in his rush to get up and going earlier that morning. It was a gift from Iwaizumi for his eighth birthday, Oikawa recalls sourly, watching it skid across the floor with a petty kind of satisfaction just to scrunch up his face a second later when his foot collides with the corner of his suitcase sticking out from underneath the bed. 

“Goddamnit—” he hisses, plopping down onto the mattress with a soft yelp, fingers curled around his pulsing big toe.

His glare borders on murderous as it falls onto the newest object of his resentment. After a few long minutes of contemplation, he hesitantly reaches down to grab the handle, pull it forward and nudge open the lid to look inside.

And there it is, the accursed jersey that has no business being in his possession, staring right back at him. 

He should have thrown it out that first day, should have done a lot of things, yet he’s been spending hours and hours curled up at the foot of his bed by the open window, groggily hitting replay on the short clips and interviews that he shouldn’t have taped because he can’t sleep at night and he can’t call Ushijima, not too often. 

(“Remember that poem? The one from the book in my room?”

“Yes. What about it?”

“Can you go find it for me? Look it up on your phone.”

“Okay.”

“Now read it. Slowly. Try not to mess this up, will you?”)

What difference does it make, Oikawa thinks. 

A wry, little smile plays on his lips and he plucks the shirt from the bottom of the suitcase, where he’d meant to keep it buried until the last lingering traces of pine and fresh citrus would have faded and the storm in his heart would have mellowed out into tender squalls, ripples on the water like a distant memory. 

Out of sight, out of mind, they say. 

Not that it’s been doing him any good.

So he slips it over his head and lets the smooth fabric pool in his lap, the loose hem nearly swallowing up his gym shorts — stark white against the milky skin of his thighs (and he knows that Iwaizumi would burst out laughing if he could get a good look at him right now, still pale as a ghost under the bright skies of San Juan, his friend’s incredulous expression a mirror image of the little boy that dabbed at Oikawa’s tear-stained face with a tissue and rubbed lotion into his sunburnt shoulders back when they were kids, telling Oikawa to stop being such a crybaby.)

As he drifts off into a fitful sleep atop the covers, drops of sweat beading at his temples, he imagines the feel of olive skin against his greedy lips, warm and forbidden under the tip of his tongue, and wonders if he’d taste the sun there, in the dip of Ushijima’s collarbones.

 —

The first time Ushijima spots Iwaizumi Hajime sitting cross-legged in the dry grass outside one of the training facilities currently hosting the volleyball team his father instructs for a living, he finds himself struggling to wrap his head around the near-uncanny succession of strange coincidences it must have taken to lead up to this moment.

Iwaizumi’s easy forgiveness washes over him like sheets of soft summer rain, lifting a weight off his shoulders that he didn’t realize he had been carrying.

Gruff exterior aside, there’s a warmth to Iwaizumi’s presence that clashes with Oikawa’s cutting edges and the vitriol on his tongue, sharp eyes and sharper mind, always calculating, scanning for a chink in Ushijima’s armor and driving in the dagger only to watch him squirm.

If Iwaizumi is delphinium, built on fierce loyalty and an open heart, Oikawa is a rose, an alluring, prickly little thing that will cut into Ushijima’s palms and leave him bleeding, no matter what he does, or what he says, then lure him back in for more.

Maybe, if he hadn’t been so foolish, blinded by his own inflated ego and a false, single-minded concept of strength, if he had bothered looking at Iwaizumi, really looking at him, they could have been friends.

“Hey, Ushiwaka,” Iwaizumi interrupts his train of thought, catching Ushijima off-guard as he emerges from the crowded coffee shop across the street on Ushijima’s seventh and last day in Irvine, California. There’s one large iced latte in each one of his hands, and Iwaizumi nudges him in the forehead with the icy bottom of his plastic cup.

The gesture is casual, affectionate; makes something churn inside the hollow of Ushijima’s chest.

And it could be perceptiveness, could be intuition, but the bright grin slips from Iwaizumi’s face, replaced by a sympathetic frown that has Ushijima clenching his fingers with a feeling akin to shame.

“About Oikawa…”

Ushijima rises from the bench. Turns away, so Iwaizumi won’t see him pressing the heel of his hand to his mouth to stuff the flowers back inside, won’t catch him gagging when he forces himself to swallow.

“Does he talk about me?” he manages, a little croaky.

He feels Iwaizumi’s knowing stare boring into his back.

“He’s prideful — you know that better than anyone. He won’t do anything that could be perceived as a sign of weakness, or worse make him feel vulnerable.” 

At those last words, Iwaizumi lets out a clipped laugh, but there’s no mirth to it.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know if he’ll ever come around.”

“I never deluded myself into expecting anything,” Ushijima says mechanically. He suddenly feels unbearably tired. 

It takes him a tremendous amount of energy just to keep himself upright, keep his composure for another thirty minutes or so, before he’ll find an opportunity to politely excuse himself from the conversation.

“Iwaizumi?”

“What’s up?”

“Thank you. For giving me the benefit of the doubt.”

“Relax, man, and take care. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

Ushijima lowers his eyes. He doesn’t have the heart to tell Iwaizumi otherwise.

“Why were you touching him like that?”

Oikawa’s voice cuts through the air like the slash of a whip, slender fingers trembling violently around the edges of his phone, knuckles turning white with the liquid fury simmering underneath his skin.

“Oh, now that’s rich, isn’t it?” Iwaizumi retorts, audibly fed-up barely thirty seconds into their call. There’s impatience in his tone, and not the usual  fond, half-hearted kind.

“I suppose it didn’t cross your mind to mention that Ushijima was going to come to Irvine to see his dad? And don’t fucking tell me that you didn’t know.”

Not deigning to grace Iwaizumi with a response neither of them really needs to hear spoken out loud, Oikawa clenches his jaw, gaze cold as steel as he stares him down through the front camera of his phone.

He’s still waiting for an answer to the first in a series of his own exasperated questions burning at the tip of his tongue.

He’ll get it, too, sooner or later.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Tooru,” Iwaizumi sighs and looks Oikawa straight in the eye, unimpressed, refusing to be intimidated because it’s all a farce, designed to protect the remnants of the fragile little boy Oikawa has never truly outgrown, always on the verge of a meltdown, jealous and clingy and scared.

“I asked him for a picture. He seemed lonely, more so than usual. I didn’t realize I had to ask your permission to put my arm around his shoulders.”

“You know that I—“

Oikawa falls silent.

He can’t finish that sentence, not even in his own head.

“Say it, then”

“There’s nothing to say.”

“Fine, have it your way,” Iwaizumi concedes, but Oikawa knows better than to believe that they’re done here. That he’ll be let off the hook when his best friend is glaring at him with the same flicker of disappointment Oikawa remembers seeing there all the way back in ninth grade after he’d caught Oikawa fluttering his pretty lashes at the boy he knew Iwaizumi liked — just for the hell of it. 

Seconds before Iwaizumi opens his mouth to deliver the final blow, Oikawa senses that for the first time in his life, he’s about to get a taste of his own medicine.

“I’m going to give you a scenario and I want you to think long and hard about it. If I had a single selfish bone in my body, I could have made a move. I could have kissed him on the mouth — granted, he’d have rejected me in that blunt, awkward way of his, and you know that, don’t you? You’re going to keep stringing him along as long as you damn well please with no regard for—“

“Shut up,” Oikawa seethes, hot tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. “Shut up, you don’t know anything.”

The sadness hidden behind the thin line of Iwaizumi’s smile tells him otherwise.

I’m sorry, Tooru, it says. I’m sorry that you are this way.

Oikawa doesn’t speak to Iwaizumi for a week.

Fifteen minutes past midnight, sweltering in the unforgiving heat of Argentinian summer nights, Oikawa realizes that he is in love with Ushijima Wakatoshi.

The truth comes crashing down over his head with the abruptness of an ancient structure’s slow, inevitable collapse and maybe, he thinks, he has known all along.

Maybe that’s why 18.000 kilometers from home, crammed into a tiny apartment with a stolen, oversized Adlers jersey sliding off his shoulders and a head full of memories, Oikawa finds it difficult to breathe.

It’s 2 a.m and the guy I spread my legs for twice tonight kicked me to the curb half-dressed. 

You wouldn’t have done that, would you? You’d have been sweet and gentle and fucking perfect . I wish you’d just disappear.

Rays of pale sunlight filter through the narrow gaps in the blinds, reflecting off the molten gold of Ushijima’s irises. Unblinking. Unseeing. 

He doesn’t flinch when his thumb and pointer finger close around a single yellow petal, slowly pulling it from between the sickly blue of his lips and setting it down into the bowl of water on his nightstand.

Ushijima feels nothing and everything at once.

Heads turn at the sight of him and Oikawa can only imagine what he must look like — shirtless, neck and chest littered with nasty bite marks in all shades of red and purple, black skinny jeans hanging low on bruised hips, bloodshot eyes and tear-streaked cheeks.

He drops his phone as he drunk-dials Ushijima’s number for the sixteenth time in a row, scrambles to his knees to pick it up from where the corner of his screen has shattered on the asphalt. 

No one’s answering.

No one’s answering and Oikawa feels his agitation spike with the monotonous sound of every ring. 

Frantically, he swipes through his most recent messages, scouring for an explanation — any explanation other than the looming possibility that he has finally, finally crossed the line.

“Wakatoshi,” the echo of his own cries, needy and breathless, reverberates in his ears, his lower back lifting off the mattress in a desperate arch, slender legs wrapping tightly around the handsome stranger’s waist, forcing him deeper.

After that, everything becomes a blur.

Your big game is tomorrow, right? Oikawa reads the beginning of their last exchange under his breath. The dazzling brightness of the screen sends a sharp stab of pain through his pounding head, but he forces himself to focus.

Yes. We may have to postpone our call until after the match tomorrow night. I am planning on staying behind after practice today. Make sure I get the hang of that new technique.

Your technique isn’t the problem, Ushiwaka-chan. I happen to have watched a few tapes of their most recent victories and I hate to break it to you, but you may want to put some knee pads on. If you want to crack down on their offense, you can’t keep sitting pretty and expecting everyone else to do the digging for you.

Ushijima’s game. He forgot about the fucking game.

Breaking into a run, Oikawa sprints the rest of the short distance between the train station and his apartment as fast as his wobbly feet will carry him. 

It’s hard to think. His mind feels sluggish from the after effects of sex and cheap alcohol, his vision still a bit fuzzy around the edges, but he doesn’t allow himself to slow down until he’s up the final flight of stairs and barreling through his door without bothering to take his shoes off.

Booting up his old computer seems to take a small eternity, so he makes another two attempts at reaching Ushijima, just in case, before he realizes that he hasn’t even thought to check the time.

5:33 a.m. With San Juan being exactly twelve hours ahead of Tokyo and the match having started at 5 p.m Ushijima’s time, he can’t have missed anything all too groundbreaking. On the other hand, having to sit through at least another two hours of volleyball and post-game press conferences makes Oikawa’s stomach twist into a web of tangled knots, his flushed skin prickling with nerves and an ominous sense of foreboding.

I see that your highness is heeding my advice, he types out the moment his eyes find Ushijima on the court, a fleeting smirk playing on his lips when he notices the black guards wrapped around Ushijima’s knees.

Then, guiltily: What I said about you earlier… you know I didn’t mean that, right? I was angry at myself for—

For what? Letting some nameless hunk of a guy take him home to make him forget? Closing his eyes and thinking about Ushijima’s large hands running down his sides, about the way Ushijima’s lips would look, red and swollen, after Oikawa kissed every last shaky moan out of that soft, warm mouth? Squirming and keening and coming apart in a stranger’s bed, chanting Ushijima’s name like a prayer?

It doesn’t matter— I’m sorry. Is our call still on? 

On the court, Ushijima launches himself into a back row attack, scoring the fifth point of the second set with the sort of innate grace that a man of his enormous stature shouldn’t possess.

You’re doing well, Oikawa tries, fighting the instinct to play it safe and dish out a snippy, backhanded compliment instead. 

Immediately, he feels exposed. Defenseless, though what he’s defending himself against, he cannot say. Not anymore.

The game ends with a victory for the Schweiden Adlers, a little too close for comfort, but a victory nonetheless.

Oikawa watches with a thin-lipped smile as Nicollas Romero disappears underneath the weight of four of his teammates piling on top of him in a chaotic jumble of limbs, wide-eyed and laughing, cheering despite the exhaustion written all over their flushed faces. It’s no wonder, considering the intensity of that last, long rally that would have been enough to keep even a level-headed setter like Oikawa on his toes until the very last second.

At the far end of the court, near one of the net poles, Ushijima stands by himself. 

Although not usually one for excessive displays of excitement, something about the stillness of him, something about the subtle tension in his posture fills Oikawa with a vague sense of unease that he can’t shake. Maybe he’s just imagining things — it’s quite difficult to tell much from the crappy, lagging image of the livestream after all — and yet... it’s like Ushijima’s body is there, suspended in time under the bright lights at the center of the arena, but his mind is somewhere else entirely. 

Leaning in closer, Oikawa’s wary gaze flickers across the screen and lands on the Adlers’ team captain, Hirugami’s towering form detaching itself from where the rest of his players are still huddled to sweep the room with his eyes, wave Ushijima over once he spots him lingering all the way over by the net.

The triumphant grin cracks off his face like flakes of old paint.

Drowning, Ushijima thinks to himself, mind in a haze, calloused fingers weakly clawing at a fresh surge of soft yellow petals bursting forth from his burning lungs, is a merciless way to go.

They rip and tear their way up his throat like a flurry of blades, another mouthful of blood splattering across the gymnasium floor where he lies, where he fades, slowly, the cruel, yet inevitable conclusion to half a lifetime spent yearning, chasing , always chasing, always just one step behind.

Drowning is quiet. It gives him time to reflect while the light drains from hollow golden eyes, a dwindling stream of what ifs and could have beens trickling from his mouth with every shallow breath like the final grains of sand through an hourglass.

Deep down he’s always known he would die the way he lived; alone. 

He doesn’t mind all that much. 

He remembers; remembers the deep hazel of Tooru’s eyes melting into gentle swirls of honey and caramel in the soft afternoon sunlight, the ghost of Tooru’s breath, warm against his lips, so close, just barely out of reach, and the graze of his fingertips against the hand he isn’t meant to hold, skin so pale and smooth he wants to bring each knuckle to his lips in quiet reverence.

You’re the only one, the flowers mock when he numbly hacks up another batch — daffodils, bright yellow soaked in dark specks of scarlet and the sweet, familiar scent of decay.

The sun is always shining when I’m with you.

He doesn’t regret a thing.

The back of his chair has barely touched the ground by the time Oikawa is out of the front door, keys and wallet jammed into the back pocket of his jeans, carrying nothing but the rumpled clothes on his body and a mounting feeling of ice-cold dread in his gut.

He takes the stairs two steps at a time, phone pressed to his ear, his free hand sliding down the railing as his feet hit the pavement and he topples over, picks himself back up like in trance. 

Even when he closes his eyes, he can’t escape the flowers — a sea of petals with no end to them, orange and yellow and white, burned into the backs of his eyelids — or the quietude settling upon that heavy-lidded golden gaze a heartbeat before the entire stadium descended into chaos.

It was the same expression Oikawa had seen there a summer ago — the day he’d told himself as much as he’d told Ushijima that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether he would ever see him again.

(Whether he wanted to tear the clothes off his chest and dig his nails into warm, bronzed skin until they’d draw blood, climb inside and carve his name into Ushijima’s bones and never leave, because he’d rather have died than allowed himself to surrender.)

Distantly, Oikawa hears the phone line crackle to life. 

He tries to find his voice, fails, and tries again, tries to stop his breath from hitching and his damned knees from shaking.

(Wonders why he can’t remember the last words Ushijima said to him, and if he is going to die from regret.)

“Hajime—“ he rasps into the receiver, nearly letting the phone slip from his shivery grasp.

When he drags his free hand across the stinging corners of his eyes, his knuckles come away shiny and damp.

He’s crying , Oikawa realizes.

Ushijima awakens surrounded by darkness, the periodic beeping of a heart monitor the only sound to break the oppressive quiet of the hospital room. 

The bright, colorful lights flashing on the monitors by his bedside, attached to a tangle of cables dangling from his chest, are blinding to his sensitive eyes, and he groggily wonders for just how long he’s been lying here, unconscious.

He wonders for how much longer he will have to endure this; if it still hasn’t been enough.

Breathing appears to be marginally easier now, having a steady amount of oxygen fed into his collapsing lungs through a small breathing tube. He gives the cool plastic an inquisitive prod with his pointer finger, doesn’t remember his own hand feeling so heavy as he drops it back onto the mattress with a tired wince.

It’s difficult to muster the strength to turn his head to the side and scan the table to his left for his belongings, find his phone to check the date and time (and his messages, despite himself, though he knows better than to expect much). 

There’s a generous collection of cards displayed on his nightstand, the one in the front covered in his teammates’ signatures and get-well wishes; no flowers (and he’s grateful for the sentiment), but a stuffed Adlers mascot perched on top of a small stack of books — mostly poetry, he notes. Hirugami must have found the copy of Rilke’s poems Ushijima’s been keeping in his gym bag ever since he saw the shuttered look on Oikawa Tooru’s face melt into something softer, and drawn his conclusions, however misguided they may have been.

About to pull open and sift through the drawer below, Ushijima’s fingers freeze around the handle when he picks up on the muffled sound of voices spilling into the room from the hallway through the narrow crack in the door. 

Where he hadn’t paid particularly much attention to Iwaizumi a year ago, many lazy afternoons spent lazing around at Newport beach or tasting their way through restaurant after seafood restaurant at Balboa Pier have taught him to recognize that rough, yet grudgingly caring tone anywhere. And where there’s Iwaizumi, usually Oikawa isn’t far.

Oikawa, who should be in San Juan, Argentina.

Oikawa, who wished he would just disappear.

“Hey, where do you think you’re going, Shittykawa?” Iwaizumi cracks through the silence like thunder, immediately followed by the sound of what Ushijima can only assume is Oikawa’s skull connecting with the thin hospital wall.

“I can’t—”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind? I know that you’re scared. All of this—” 

A short pause. Iwaizumi heaves in a deep breath before finding his voice again.

“It’s fucking scary, okay? But this isn’t the time to choke up on your guilt or allow yourself to fall apart like this. God knows, you screwed this one up big time, but you’re lucky, Tooru. You can still fix this. I don’t care about your pride or that damned paranoia of yours, and you won’t either if you wake up tomorrow and realize that he slipped through your fingers.”

“Let go of me,” Oikawa hisses, sounding shaky and prickly and just this side of lashing out the way he does when he feels driven into a corner.

The next thing Ushijima knows, there’s a pale hand curling tightly around the doorknob. 

Oikawa looks smaller than he sounded when he steps inside, carefully pulling the door shut behind himself, lingering in the shadows.

His entrance seems tense, muted, lacking its usual air of regality. Hardly ever one to struggle for words, it takes Oikawa a long minute to bring himself to speak. 

It’s not that Ushijima blames him. Now that they’re here at the crossroads, he finds that he has nothing left to say to Oikawa — nothing that Oikawa would like to hear, anyway. He’s barely even processed Oikawa’s presence.

“You never said a word,” Oikawa predictably goes for an accusation, although there’s no real bite to it. 

Ushijima’s mind feels foggy, his vision blurring in and out of focus. He loves Oikawa, deeply, irrevocably. But he’s dying, they both know he is, and he doesn’t have the energy for Oikawa’s games tonight.

“Would it have changed anything?”

“I—”

Stormy hazel eyes snap up from where Oikawa had been staring at his fingers. His right pinky is bandaged, Ushijima observes absently.

“You already know, don’t you? You know that I—”

“You can’t bring yourself to say it, can you? Even now,” Ushijima spares him the trouble of dancing around the elephant in the room for another dreadful moment.

“The day you left for Argentina, you told me that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter when I would see you again and it didn’t matter what you may have felt for me when you had already decided that you didn’t want me. I’m sorry, but I can’t understand what difference it makes to you now.”

“You’re the most obstinate—”

“Isn’t this what you wanted, Tooru?” he adds, fully aware that it will hurt Oikawa, but he is hurting too. After more than twelve months of Oikawa’s absence, every second around him feels suffocating. He feels himself breathing heavier.  “Maybe it would be best if you left.”

“Like hell am I going to leave.” 

Oikawa’s outburst, combined with the sudden harsh shift in the atmosphere has Ushijima sitting up straight before he knows it, bracing himself for Oikawa to shout at him, slap him, anything — anything but the violent crash of Oikawa’s warm, soft mouth onto his own, or the salt of Oikawa’s tears on his lips.

It’s gone as fast as it overcame him, and with it the familiar, overbearing tightness in his chest.

“You’re infuriating,” Oikawa does scold him then. “You’re insufferable and dense and arrogant. You think you know it all. You think the world revolves around you because your stupid coach told you so and you could blast someone’s arm off with that brutish spike of yours.”

“I don’t think that the world—”

“Shut up, Ushiwaka, I’m talking.”

Ushijima simply stares, jaw slack, air freely rushing into his greedy lungs for the first time since the beginning of his second year of high school.

“You don’t mean to be like this and maybe that’s the worst part. God, I’m not even sure that you realized how you used to talk, but it needs to stop. I know that you’ve been trying and I hope…”

I hope that you will be more patient with me than I was with you.

“Come here?” Ushijima asks, cautious not to make it sound so it could be perceived as him telling Oikawa what to do. He can be patient. He’s been patient for so long. 

When Oikawa leans back into him, hip pressed up against Ushijima’s thigh through his blanket, one hand fisted around the collar of his shirt to hold him in place as if he was going to go anywhere, Ushijima lets his eyes draw shut in silent anticipation, still half-certain that this may be nothing but a figment of his imagination, or that maybe he did die that day out on the volleyball court.

He isn’t prepared for Oikawa to forego nipping at his parted lips in favor of breathing a quick peck to the shell of his ear, or for the three hushed words Oikawa whispers against his temple in a nervous jumble, hot breath ghosting over Ushijima’s lashes and another featherlight kiss tingling on his eyelids long after Oikawa has moved on to shove his face into the space between Ushijima’s collarbones.

Don’t make me regret this, Oikawa’s glare says, tentatively playful where it had been all but shining daggers for as long as Ushijima remembers, before he straightens himself up and tugs a book from the pile sitting on Ushijima’s bedside table.

“All the poems I’ve made you read to me, and this is what you pick out for yourself? Well, I suppose it will have to do.”

Ushijima doesn’t bother correcting him; lets him have this, too distracted by the faint dusting of pink high on Oikawa’s cheekbones as he flips to a random page, places one slender hand flat on Ushijima’s chest and sternly pushes him back against his pillow.

“It’s a good thing you have better taste in men, than you do in poetry.”

At the end of Golden Week, eight months following Ushijima’s release from the hospital and exactly two weeks after Oikawa’s eagerly anticipated return to Japan, Ushijima whisks him away on a weekend trip to Fukuoka to see the Kawachi Fujien wisteria gardens.

Tucked away in the hills South of Kitakyushu, their destination awaits about five hours from Tokyo on the Nozomi high-speed train — five hours that Oikawa spends contentedly snoozing with his cheek smushed into the cool glass of his window seat, long, elegant fingers loosely woven between Ushijima’s larger ones. 

Drowsily, Oikawa grumbles under his breath as, about fifteen minutes into their journey, his light sleep is disturbed by a persistent arm curling around his shoulders, steadying him, and he shoves his nose into the soft cotton of his boyfriend’s zip-up hoodie instead.

“Shhh, I’ll wake you when we get there,” Ushijima rumbles softly before leaning down to meet Oikawa halfway in a fleeting brush of lips. 

And so he does. 

They arrive at their destination a little over an hour past noon, drop off their bags at the hotel and grab a quick bite to eat at a cozy restaurant across the street, where Oikawa wins their quiet argument over who will get to take care of the bill through sheer willfulness alone (well, that and the way he slowly slides his foot up Ushijima’s calf under the table, eyeing him with a roguish smile that’s equal parts promise and threat).

Ushijima’s hand is cradled in his palm on the short bus ride to the station closest to the gardens and remains there for the rest of the walk, warm and heavy, its weight a comforting reminder that Ushijima is here, alive , and that in the sobering light of day those dreams are just that — dreams.

(Sprawling fields of daffodils swaying in a gust of crisp night air. Cold lips, and skin like cracked porcelain. His own hands dripping scarlet; too little, too late.)

Oikawa lightly tugs on Ushijima’s fingers all the way up the winding staircase, past blooming bushes and supple foliage clinging to the steep side of the mountain on both sides of the railing, tugs him into a chaste, lingering kiss at the top, soaking up the breathy sighs he coaxes from Ushijima’s pliant mouth.

The curve of Ushijima’s smile slides into place where it fits against his own, thrumming with the same easy affection that trickles through Oikawa’s veins like warm honey — the kind Ushijima gives so freely, without inhibition or pride. It’s that look in Ushijima’s half-lidded eyes a split second before the tip of Oikawa’s tongue caresses him into submission, as if there was nobody else in the world, that allows Oikawa to finally let himself fall.

From the vantage point at the ledge of the plateau overlooking the hillside gardens, they look out across the valley, dipped in the pastels of wisteria season, purples and whites flecked with soft patches of pink and blue, and the bamboo groves’ emerald canopies beyond. Down below, not all too far from where they’re standing, Oikawa spots a tight cluster of wisteria trees, ropes upon delicate ropes of flowers raining down from above to build a dome so lush and enormous in size, it makes the people strolling beneath its branches appear to be no larger than ants.

“Do you see that?” Oikawa shouts over his shoulder, too enthralled with the surreal beauty of the view in front of him to avert his gaze until he hears the shutter of a camera going off to his left. 

He whirls around in surprise, one hand instinctively flying up to smooth down his wind-tousled hair, teeth sinking into his bottom lip, hazel eyes lowered behind a veil of fluttering lashes.

There’s something intimate about a candid photograph, about being caught off-guard, raw and real, no plastic smile or peace sign to hide behind. 

Living with Ushijima feels much the same — really living with him after months of decreasingly awkward video calls and texting back and forth into the early hours of morning, phone cradled to his chest as, slowly, his eyes would draw shut against his will. 

It’s terrifying, allowing another person to see him at his most vulnerable. For Ushijima to wake up to his unruly bed hair tickling his chin and one side of Oikawa’s sleeping face gracelessly smushed into his pillow, to watch him dab concealer onto the dark circles under his eyes after a bad night, to catch him choking on a mouthful of lemon cake in the dark of Ushijima’s kitchen an hour past midnight and trip over another pile of dirty laundry Oikawa had shed onto the bedroom floor and never looked back. 

It’s terrifying, letting Ushijima do all of these things and trusting him to still love him by the end of the day, still feel a sliver of the attraction he felt when Oikawa first caught his attention, dazzling and confident, in his element on the other side of a volleyball court.

But then, Ushijima had already seen his flaws — the worst of them at that — and, to Oikawa’s wild, confused anger, decided to love those too.

Ushijima takes another picture as Oikawa approaches him in long, determined strides, a couple seconds before Oikawa’s hand reaches out to close over the lens, laughing breathily. He ducks his head to slip inside the circle of Ushijima’s arms, drops it back against the strong line of his shoulder and peers up at him searchingly.

“Do I see what?” Ushijima murmurs against his jaw, lowering the camera for Oikawa’s inspection. ”I’m afraid I may have been distracted.”

Heat rises to Oikawa’s cheeks and higher, ever higher, up into the very tips of his ears. Like so often, Ushijima’s straightforwardness, the blatant fondness rolling off his every word, leaves him at a loss for what to say or do, so he swallows down the haughty remark tingling at the tip of his tongue and says nothing, rubs his nose against Ushijima’s cheek instead and smiles.

He’s hyper aware of every point of contact between them.

“I want to walk under the roof of flowers. Take me there.”

“Of course,” Ushijima promises. “Let’s get going then before it gets too crowded.”

For a moment, Oikawa stares at the broad expanse of his back, the play of hard muscle and the outline of sharp shoulder blades under the thin fabric of his shirt, as Ushijima starts making his way over towards a second set of stairs at the opposite end of the platform, leading down to another winding path overgrown by tall, looming arches of wisteria that they have yet to explore.

“Wakatoshi?” he calls out, tensing up at the sound of his own voice, sheepish and small.

“Yes?”

Ushijima doesn’t turn around.

He knows, Oikawa thinks dryly. He can sense it. He’s trying to make this easier on me.

“I’m glad you brought me here today,” he blurts out hastily before he can get cold feet and change his mind again. He takes a deep breath, then another. “I’m glad you’re here. You know that, don’t you?”

“Excuse me, what was that?”

Oikawa’s head snaps up at that, at the hint of a smile in Ushijima’s voice and the rare glint of mischief in those deep olive eyes flashing at him over Ushijima’s shoulder — affectionate, and yet...

“Oh, I’m gonna murder you, you bastard,” Oikawa growls warningly, grabs Ushijima by the belt loops of his jeans and yanks him closer, crowds him against the metal railing until it pokes into the small of Ushijima’s back. And he kisses him, more tenderly than he had meant to, hands slipping into Ushijima’s back pockets, tugging and pulling although there isn’t a single inch of space left between them.

Ushijima tastes like summer rain rippling across the surface of still waters, and Oikawa doesn’t question it, doesn’t think about it.

He takes the leap.