‘You know,’ Kei begins. It’s tradition. ‘You could just cut it. Just a little shorter.’
‘I could say the same to you,’ Tetsurou shoots back, like clockwork. The tradition is satisfied, and Kei, along with it. He leans his hip against the edge of the counter and watches as Tetsurou runs a gel-laden comb through the riot of his hair, eyes so bright at such a horrid hour. They soften from their glare as he catches Kei’s gaze in the mirror, then more, as Kei holds up the cologne before Tetsurou can ask for it. His hair is already starting to bend in inconvenient directions again, the gel shiny under the lights of the bathroom. Beside it Kei looks like a supermodel, though his own bedhead might give Tetsurou’s a run for its money one of these days.
On cue, Tetsurou sets the cologne back down and leans in close to run a hand through it. Kei starts to lean into it, then jerks his head away with an annoyed groan, then leans back in when Tetsurou promises it’s his clean hand. It really is; he doesn’t feel the telltale stickiness of gel that he’s often subjected to when Tetsurou’s less than awake— it’s only his fingers teasing strands apart, stroking over the back of Kei’s neck.
‘There’s lunch in the microwave,’ Tetsurou says. Then, almost formal in his firmness: ‘I love you. Safe trip back.’
‘Yes,’ Kei replies. Reaches out to tighten Tetsurou’s tie that doesn’t need tightening; tradition. ‘Yes, sir.’
On the first day of the first training camp of his second year, Kei, like a world-class idiot with complete and constant awareness of his being a world-class idiot, walks into the third gym after sunset, and then stops short in the doorway, like a world-class idiot. A few metres away from him, Akaashi, Lev, and a couple of first-years look at him as quietly as he’s looking at them, but maybe not as blankly.
He realises, then, that he’s in love with Kuroo Tetsurou. Akaashi seems to realise at the same time as him, or at least pretends to, out of politeness. It wouldn’t do to drive the final nail in the world-class idiot coffin by saying something like I thought you knew, after all.
Still, Akaashi takes his time, that first evening, before coming to sit beside Kei during a break that Hinata and Lev have never needed and never will. Kei keeps his eyes trained on how they’re jumping about and yelling, and so he hears more than sees Akaashi sliding down against the wall. The water Kei’s drinking has warmed up; it’s disgusting, but he’s so thirsty his throat is on fire.
‘They seem much larger now that they’re gone, no?’ Akaashi says, looking out at the almost-empty gym, too. The water is giving Kei trouble. ‘And yet they were just boys, like us.’
On the last night of the first training camp of his second year, Kei decides that he won’t let another third-year graduate without saying something. He sends a text, sneaks out of the sleeping quarters, and out into the terrifying open air. There is absolutely no light on this side of the building; even the coaches are asleep, gearing up for the drive back in the morning.
‘I feel like I’ve missed my chance,’ he tells Akaashi, who frowns at him. Maybe Kei should elaborate that he regrets, like a world-class idiot, having missed a typical high school romance. Sneaking around to meet up behind closed buildings after lights-out the way Kageyama and Hinata do, as if they don’t sleep beside each other every night of camp. He regrets having missed the chance to wear Nekoma’s stupid red jacket. He regrets this time last year, when he gave his number to Kuroo with strict instructions on acceptable texting hours and content, and regrets not having laughed along when Kuroo laughed and said you’re so heartless, Tsukki, you could just have told me no instead.
He regrets saying neither yes nor no, but he doesn’t elaborate, and when Akaashi realises he’s not going to elaborate, he frowns harder.
‘Whatever on earth is that supposed to mean?’ he replies. ‘Do you really think Kuroo-san put you away in a box along with the rest of his high school memories? If I were him, I’d refuse to be nostalgic about you, of all people.’
Kei doesn’t reply.
‘Tsukishima,’ Akaashi says. ‘You do know how he feels. Please don’t tell me you don’t.’
Kei doesn’t reply. If he regrets having missed a typical high school romance, it’s because he doesn’t think it would ever have gone beyond that. He might be a more digestible person one day, but it’s not today; he can’t make it happen that fast, and wouldn’t ever have expected Kuroo to be around by the time he got the hang of it, had they even— even though not a day has passed since last year without Kuroo sending him a photo, a song, a video, everything but the content Kei had approved, which had been limited to volleyball and revision tips.
‘Tsukishima,’ Akaashi says, again. The cicadas are loud. ‘I won’t tell you not to overthink, but sometimes, it’s all right to at least let the other person know that you’re thinking.’
Kei doesn’t reply, but when they’ve said goodnight to each other and he’s back beside a snoring Yamaguchi, he pulls his phone out and stares at it long enough for the screen to go black thrice. The fourth time he puts his code in, he opens his favourite playlist before he can think too much, then puts a random song to play, takes a screenshot, and then opens his messages to send it.
He gets his reply at six in the morning, when they’re settling into the bus, hungry and sleepy. Somewhere in the same city Kuroo is waking up and brushing his teeth, eating an over-sweet breakfast, though Kei’s one to talk. Somewhere in the same city Kuroo is saving the song to his own library, and will listen to it on the way to class.
‘Enough,’ Akiteru wheezes, and settles heavily on the step by the back door as Tetsurou and Kei both laugh down at him. ‘I’m an old man, don’t be so cruel to me.’
‘I was going easy,’ Kei says, which is perfectly true. ‘But it isn’t your fault. Tetsurou’s just a really shitty setter.’
‘You can have instant ramen for dinner tonight,’ Tetsurou sings. ‘See if I cook anything for you.’
‘You say that but I saw my mother come in with three bags of groceries this morning, so—’
Even after Akiteru leaves to shower and collapse, they stay in the backyard, on opposite sides of the net, Tetsurou’s sleeves still rolled up as if there’s any way they can do something interesting with just the two of them. Kei takes a second to stare at him under the unbearable blue sky of spring, his crooked tie, his stupid hair, his wide smile.
‘What time does your train leave tomorrow?’ Kei asks, even though he already knows. It’s been three years of trains now, and either way, he won’t let it be three more.
Tetsurou doesn’t reply, only smirks, then nods towards the house. ‘Trying to kidnap me so I can cook for you all week? Tough luck. Instant ramen is all you’re getting, now and forever—‘ Kei walks around the net and grabs him by the lapels, starts dragging him back inside. ‘—all right, all right, Kei, Kei, I get it—’ He’s done, done, done with Tetsurou, and is going to eat his cooking for dinner, and then see him off at the station. Somewhere in the middle of all that, he’ll kiss him, too.
Right in the middle of third year, a little before winter starts to hit bitterly, Kuroo Tetsurou skips out on a free weekend to show up at Kei’s doorstep unannounced, and then proceeds to step inside the house, charm Kei’s mother with six well-placed words that Kei can’t hear past the roaring in his ears, and switches his boots for house slippers. Kei gapes at him from the foot of the stairs, then turns around to level an annihilating glare at Yamaguchi, who is not only violently red in the face but also very clearly about to leave the premises, both of which confirm his involvement in the incident.
‘What is going on,’ Kei says. His mother is already back in the kitchen, which confirms her involvement, too.
‘Yamaguchi told me you were working yourself into an absolute fit over exams,’ Kuroo answers, and Kei only notices how red his nose and cheeks are, then. He’s rubbing his gloved hands to warm them up, and the scarf around his neck is of some strange colour Kei’s never seen before. ‘I thought a mini study weekend with your beloved senior would do you some good.’
‘I should never have told you a single thing about my life,’ Kei replies. His heart is going wild in his chest.
They do study, even though Kei isn’t aiming for whatever wishy-washy sounding major Kuroo’s taking. Kuroo helps his mother cook, then brings up steaming bowls to the room so that they can watch ridiculous videos of people making mini apple pies while eating on the floor, then takes the bowls downstairs and helps with the dishes while Kei takes power naps. At midnight he excuses himself to Akiteru’s room and pesters Kei via text until they both fall asleep. Soft-voiced and straightforward, and so good at what he does that Kei feels acute shame thinking back to his attempts at tutoring his friends back in first year.
Then, on Sunday evening when Kuroo’s getting ready to take the last train back, Kei feels acute shame for everything, all at once, and doesn’t think more than a single percent of it has anything to do with Kuroo himself. He tries not to think about any of it, and realises he’s failed when there’s a pair of hands on his arms, Kuroo kneeling in front of the bed where Kei’s perched, looking up.
‘Tsukki,’ he says, and it sounds like it’s the fourth time he’s saying it, or the fifth. Kei wouldn’t know. ‘Are you all right?’ His bag is packed and ready to go beside him; he only has to switch his slippers out for boots again, and then he’ll be gone, and Kei will have to go back to being the strongest of the group by virtue of being the coldest, and now he’s missed his chance to tell Kuroo how terrified he is of everything these days. ‘Tsukki, are you having an anxiety attack?’
‘A what?’ Kei snaps. ‘I don’t get anxiety attacks.’ His voice sounds like it’s coming from somewhere else.
‘Okay,’ Kuroo says, but then he settles on the floor, cross-legged, and doesn’t take his hands off Kei’s arms. ‘I’m having one right now, though. I don’t want to leave your pretty house and perfect mom and go back to Tokyo.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ From downstairs, his perfect mom calls to them; she’s about to get the car. ‘You have to go.’
‘You know, once you graduate from university, you could just move to Tokyo and we could try to find a place to live together. Wouldn’t you like that? Imagine having easy murder access twenty-four-seven.’
‘Tempting as that sounds,’ Kei starts, then stops. Is it ironic that he stopped saying things like I’ll never even make it after meeting Kuroo, and now that he so desperately wants to say something stupid and childish like that, he can’t? ‘Yeah, sure. Why not. I’ll just move to Tokyo.’
‘Fantastic,’ Kuroo says. Then he straightens up and shifts his hands; they’re on either side of Kei’s face now, warm and steady, and then they’re in his hair, soothing. ‘I’ll be back in a second, okay?’
He takes more than a second. Comes back upstairs with two mugs of over-sweet tea, drags Kei’s laptop over to himself like he owns it, and puts on Kei’s favourite playlist, and settles into the bed like he owns it too, like he hasn’t decided to skip a Monday of classes just because.
‘No thinking,’ he says, and he doesn’t have his coat or scarf on anymore, and Kei wonders what it would be like to just have this every day, in whatever capacity. ‘I know, easier said than done, but still. Tea and terrible Woodstock era music only. Pyjama party.’
Kei thinks of a thousand rude things to say, then swallows them along with his tea, and smiles. ‘Yes, sir.’
Tetsurou is standing in the doorway, the yellow-white lights of the bathroom bright against his dark suit, dark hair, and the single lamp on Kei’s side of the bed perfect on his handsome face. He doesn’t start at his new position for a week still, but he’s been shaking for days now, and it shows in his eyes as he steps forward, all the way to the foot of the bed, where Kei’s sitting cross-legged, chin in his hands.
Tetsurou is shaking. Kei, to dispel it, says, ‘Well, with that hair?’
It’s the wrong thing to say. The laugh is a beat late, and sounds a little bitter, and in a second Kei’s straightening up to drag Tetsurou down onto the bed, pushing him back against the mattress, straddling him.
‘Hey,’ Kei says. ‘No. I’m sorry.’
‘You’re probably right, though,’ Tetsurou says, which is uncharacteristic. His next laugh sounds— wet. Kei cups his face in both hands and stares down at him. ‘I mean, the hair’s the least of it, right?’
‘No, not right,’ Kei replies. ‘First of all, they interviewed you with this hair and still let you in—’ Tetsurou laughs again, closes his eyes against the motion of Kei’s thumbs on his cheekbones. ‘—second of all, I can’t think of a single other person in this entire country who can do this job better than you.’
‘You really believe that?’
‘Trust me, I’d know,’ he says, smiles, even though Tetsurou can’t see it. ‘Besides, when have I ever lied to be nice to you?’
‘Last week when I fucked up the broccoli.’
‘You did not fuck up the broccoli. It was very good broccoli.’
‘I did so fuck up the broccoli.’ Tetsurou turns his head, takes Kei’s right hand in his own, kisses the centre of his palm. His eyes are still closed, but he isn’t shaking anymore. ‘Thanks for eating it anyway.’
At the end of their last match as Karasuno, Kei clutches Yamaguchi back as hard as he’s being clutched. Then Kageyama and Hinata, too, hands tight on wrists like brands, don’t you ever forget this. The juniors, in tears of both disappointment and relief, finally free of the uncertain hunger that standing on the court brings, if only until the next time.
Until next time.
It doesn’t surprise him to find Kuroo waiting outside their locker room when they’ve changed; he hasn’t missed a single match of Kei’s in Tokyo since he graduated— he’d never miss the very last one, the one where they made it the furthest.
Kei lets the others speak to him first, Yamaguchi finally tearing up in the presence of another ex-captain, before it’s just the two of them in the hallway, faraway sounds of squeaks and thumps filling the air.
‘Are you going to cry, too?’ Kuroo asks, and Kei scoffs.
‘I’m not disappointed,’ he says. ‘We did our best. There’s still more volleyball to be played.’
‘People don’t only cry when they’re sad.’
‘Well, I’m not overwhelmingly happy, either. Did you expect me to be so glad to be done?’
Kuroo smiles. His scarf is gorgeous around his throat; before him, Kei feels, suddenly, too big and too small all at once. Kei feels there’s still more volleyball to be played, but differently, like Akaashi’s bewildered frown at the concept of Kei having missed his chance at anything, but especially Kuroo.
’Whatever it is, it’s the end of an era,’ Kuroo says, then. ‘Nostalgia hurts the heart as much as happiness or sadness.’
‘Well,’ Kei replies, ‘I don’t have time for nostalgia just yet, so you’d better start looking for apartments. I’m on my way.’
Kei sniffles again, then sighs, presses his sleeve to his eyes again. It doesn’t stop them from overflowing again, and closing them makes the burn worse. He’s only on his third onion while Akaashi’s already moved on to the meat, the soft knocking of his knife against the wood the only sound in the kitchen apart from the din of the new John Wick coming in from the living room.
‘I can take over,’ Akaashi says, but Kei shakes his head; it’s too late, anyway. He puts his glasses back on and squints down at the offender before starting to slice it.
‘Babe, come see this,’ Bokuto calls. Akaashi puts his knife down and rolls his eyes almost audibly; Kei snorts. ‘Babe!’
A minute later, it’s Tetsurou who enters the kitchen, two empty cans of beer ready for the trash, and a frown on his face as he takes in Kei’s. ‘Go wash your face.’
‘I’m almost done, anyway,’ Kei replies. ‘Is Akaashi being held hostage?’
‘Yeah, he’s not coming back anytime soon,’ Tetsurou says. Comes to lean against the counter, crosses his arms over his chest, smiles. ‘I could get used to this sight.’
‘Of my eyes and nose running like waterfalls while I try to slice a single onion?’ Kei raises his eyebrows. ‘I know you’re a freak, but seriously.’
‘Shut up. I meant you cooking. You know, like, I come home from a hard day of making great things happen and there you are, my trophy husband, whipping up a shrimp risotto or something—’
‘Trophy husband,’ Kei repeats flatly. ‘I’m a professional volleyball player.’
‘Who can also make shrimp risotto! Trophy husband, head to toe.’
He only gets out of Kei’s hair once Akaashi is back, looking as jaded as John Wick himself, and ready to set some meat on fire. Kei watches as Tetsurou leaves, and is just about to turn back to his stupid onion when suddenly, he’s back in the doorway, narrowing his eyes at Kei.
Kei raises an eyebrow.
‘I am going to marry you one day,’ Tetsurou threatens. Then he’s gone again, yelling at Bokuto to rewind the movie.
Kei turns back to his onion, starts slicing, then, two strokes in, puts the knife away and groans out loud.
‘Yes,’ Akaashi says darkly. ‘Yes, absolutely.’
The day Kei joins the Sendai Frogs, Kuroo calls him up and yells an entire storm down the line, then hangs up mid-sentence to video call him instead. Kei’s eyebrow stays raised for so long that Kuroo stops mid-sentence again, to ask if his video is working. It is, and all too well; Kei can see every single pixel of pure joy and pride on Kuroo’s face, and remembers thinking, saying, thanks to you.
He doesn’t say it again. Instead, he says, ‘I’m coming down to Tokyo.’
Then, on the very first morning of the end of his very first weekend down in Tokyo, Kei walks into the bathroom because Kuroo left the door open, and watches him pat his face dry, then glare at himself in the mirror.
It’s six in the morning. Kei is barely awake. He has no idea why he came down to Tokyo.
‘I’m in love with you,’ he says. They won’t be able to sneak around and meet up behind buildings because they’re adults who live together, and he won’t be able to wear Kuroo’s Nekoma jacket unless it’s to make fun of how small it is now. Instead, Kuroo could wear his new green jersey. Instead, he could come home to the smell of the food Kuroo always has the energy to cook, and wake up two hours earlier than needed just because. Instead, he could take boring train trips from Sendai to Tokyo and back to Sendai until he’s done with university, and then he can come down to Tokyo one last time.
Kuroo is staring at him through the mirror, face unreadable. Then he points to his completely unreasonable hair, and says, ‘It looks like this in the morning. Is that all right with you?’
‘What,’ Kei says through his equally unreasonable smile, ‘because you think it gets better over the day?’