As a six year old, Akaashi struggles with plants.
It's odd, because it's something everybody else in the family takes to. The nursery is a family business. Akaashi's seen his mother's preoccupation with it over the years, phone tucked precariously between her shoulder and ear as she scrapes celery into the pan. She tips soy over silken tofu as she asks about the hybrid lemon trees.
When Akaashi is officially of age to learn about the business of flowers (his mother calls it that as a joke - they sell everything else too), his father pulls out a family photo from a vacation by the sea. He points to his uncle, then his grandfather. "And his mother ran the shop before him."
Afterwards, his father shows him how to water the tomato plants. They count together, how long to tip the watering can over the tender leaves.
The next morning, Akaashi overhears his mother's long sigh through the kitchen window. "Some yellow leaves," she laments at the dining table.
Akaashi wonders absently, did he water too little? Or too much?
Akaashi starts middle school, and his mother's tomato plants don't fail for mysterious reasons anymore. Akaashi is careful not to ascribe any particular meaning to anything. He knows that correlation doesn't equate to causation. Even though his life isn't so orderly, so structured with hypotheses or measurements, it still makes sense that this principle applies too.
Thus, the bounty of his mother's tomato harvest may have little to do with his intentional absence from their garden, just as it certainly has no connection with his grades at school or the health of the neighbour's cat. Even if those things are related, he isn't able to test for them.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. Akaashi has few concerns in life - get good grades, enjoy the company of a few good friends, and save up pocket change for sweet teas from the vending machine. The health of his mother’s garden ranks low on his list, and once he picks up volleyball, it’s bumped down the list further.
Volleyball is something he starts out of convenience rather than of his own choosing. A family friend plays and his mother thought it best that he take up a sport, so why not one where the kind obaasan can pick him up? Although, Akaashi supposes as he laces his shoes and slides on his kneepads for the third time this week, his mother likely wouldn’t have minded withdrawing him if he really refused to go.
But he never expresses any displeasure or reluctance. Instead, Akaashi remembers to pack his things on volleyball days without prompting. Week on week, the sting of the ball against his forearms dulls. It takes a few months for it to sink in - that the blunt thud of the ball against his fingers and his breathlessness after a smooth rally are more than their physical realities. Like service drills, these sensations pile up, repeated, sinking through skin and into muscle memory.
One afternoon, Akaashi notices an itch he can’t place as he slides on his outdoor shoes in front of his locker. It disappears, trodden down into nothing just as the elementary school kids beyond the fence leap and shatter parched fallen leaves.
Akaashi leaps for a block that evening - he counts the jump for the blockers, and he gets it just right. Peak of the jump right where the spiker connects with the ball. Arms up, straight up, fingers spread - but the spiker is an older kid, a little bigger and a little better. The ball finds the gap, but not before catching Akaashi’s pinky. He yelps when he lands and clutches at his hand. It’s not the first time this has happened - an awkward spin, a slightly jarred pinky.
But it’s certainly the first time Akaashi insists, without a single wasted breath, “I’m fine - I’m fine!” he calls out when the coach steps forward towards him.
The ball is passed under the net, another kid sets up for a serve.
Akaashi shakes out his hand and wrings out the pain in his pinky, all while his eyes are trained on the ball.
He shakes off a jarred finger, and with it, his indifference.
Akaashi doesn’t see it as the start of anything. He doesn’t gaze into the far horizon and wonder what high school team he’ll play for, and how far they might get in a tournament. No, Akaashi joins his middle school volleyball team late in the year after seeing the poster. It reads ‘Mori Junior High Boys Volleyball Club’ in block letters and he doesn’t read the small print.
All he’s thinking is that it doesn't matter when one starts something, so long as one starts at all. He’s not sure if it’s something he read somewhere, or if it’s something that his mother told him once.
He attends his first training session at the Mori Junior High boys’ volleyball club and plays a practice match with unfamiliar team members. The vice-captain of the team pulls him aside after for passing practice.
When they have a good rhythm going, ball flying between fingers and off outstretched arms, he asks Akaashi if he's ever thought about setting.
"I set sometimes," Akaashi says.
"Yeah, but more seriously. Becoming a setter."
“I haven’t,” he admits.
"You should think about it," his senpai says as he sends the ball back towards Akaashi.
He thinks about it, but it feels less like a decision than another step on an already-trodden path.
The coach hands him the setter bib at the next practice match without a word, and Akaashi takes it.
Akaashi is fourteen when he thinks of this venn diagram on the metro.
In one circle, things that are important generally, to others. Things his parents would like him to achieve. Things that matter because the world is the way that it is.
In the other, things that matter to him. The adventures of his favourite shōnen hero. Stopping by the neighbour's fence so the cat can sniff his knuckles. Sweet tea, the kind with herbal jelly from the vending machine in the lobby of the community centre.
And where the circles overlap, volleyball.
He's not sure that the distinction really matters, but it's there.
The station indicator light blinks and the station jingle overwhelms Utada Hikaru's darenimo iwanai through his earphones. Akaashi alights and resolves to leave his newfound clarity in a rush hour train car.
After all, she promises I won't tell anyone.
The doors slide shut and Akaashi is swept up with the crowd towards the stairs. The train rolls away from the platform having swallowed a boy's thoughts for safekeeping.
Mori Junior High has a solid volleyball team, but it's not a championship team. It doesn't have a formidable reputation. It's just a good school. Parents like sending their kids to Mori because it's not too far from the station, and there's a park opposite with tall hedges. It produces a handful of kids that move on to good private schools on scholarships every year, and the rest don't end up troublemakers.
Akaashi heard a while ago that the last time their school made it beyond the first two rounds at the interhigh was four years ago. Short enough for teachers to remember, just long enough to seem like a myth to current students.
Walking into his last interhigh, Akaashi wonders if he might become a fleeting victory - a gleaming golden memory that lasts just long enough for somebody to care. It's fanciful. He almost abandons the thought as soon as he unzips his jacket at the benches before his first game.
But volleyball is a special thing. He remembers it now, the venn diagram, a small space carved out quietly in a cramped train carriage. Volleyball, where his triumphs feel the most tangible. Points are scored off his own good decisions, off his own ten fingers, stinging against his palms as he shuts down an eager opposing spiker.
There's nothing wrong with wanting a little more of a good thing.
Their coach lets them out early. There's a high school tournament - "don't tell your parents," he chuckles, "but I reckon it's worth checking out."
So Akaashi boards the bus with the handful of Mori volleyball club boys who care enough about the game to spend a free afternoon watching. It's a hot day, much too late in the year. The backs of his knees are tacky.
He follows the other boys in, holds the door with a raised elbow, and walks in to meet the squeal of sneakers against the floorboards. And Akaashi sees amongst it all, a boy with wild hair and broad shoulders.
Jersey number twelve scores with a beautiful cross. The ball is loud against the floor, a bold and bright noise that reassures that the blockers never had a hope.
It's stupid, but Akaashi gazes upon the back of the boy who wears the number twelve and is convinced that he has shoulders fit for wings.
Not that he needs them to fly.
There's a magnolia tree on the way to Fukurodani. It's impossible to miss the flowers unfolding, a blush watercolour bloom across the petals. Akaashi stops where he is across the street to look. He feels this can't be the first one he's seen. He knows what magnolia trees look like.
But gazing upon the low bend of the branches surrendering to their own weight, Akaashi doesn't mind if against all odds, this really is the first magnolia tree he has ever seen.
Once again, Akaashi is careful to recall that it doesn't have to mean anything.
He heads down the footpath towards Fukurodani, unconvinced.
Bokuto gets his name wrong and Akaashi tries to correct him. He doesn't get very far.
Bokuto asks if he'll put up tosses for him for "a bit."
"A bit" turns out to me much longer than any spiking practice Akaashi has ever helped with, but he finds that he doesn't mind so much. Even as his shoulders and arms ache from the hundreds of sets, Akaashi finds it in himself to persist just as Bokuto does.
It's odd, but Akaashi has never had working so hard come to him so easily. His body craves respite and yet it doesn't slow. The ache in his calves doesn't put a brake on his movements. Onwards, onwards he goes, in service of his chosen ace in the making.
He almost doesn't notice that they're done until Bokuto bounds over to him, sweat on his forehead and damp on his shirt, exclaiming Akaashi's tosses are "the best!"
He's beaming. He looks a little like he won a match 3-0 all by himself, emerging victorious, raring to go again. And if Akaashi didn't know better, he'd believe it too.
Instead, Akaashi stumbles into the surprising warmth of hearing Bokuto sing his praises. Bokuto with the bright eyes and beautiful spiking form - Bokuto who probably deserves a nationals-quality setter, but out of some odd misfortune, ends up with a quiet kid from Mori Junior High.
But Bokuto says he - Akaashi (pronounced with one syllable missing) - puts up the best sets, and he seems like the kind of guy who speaks from the heart. If not always, at least certainly when it comes to volleyball.
And maybe it's a little easier to accept because Bokuto got his name wrong, but Akaashi believes him for a moment. That on one spring night, his tosses are the best.
The cherry blossoms slip off their branches. The rain turns them brown, trodden over by schoolchildren and bicycle tyres. Akaashi walks home when the sun is setting, umbrella overhead, tracksuit jacket zipped up to the top. Well, he starts to. He makes it to the main quadrangle before he hears Bokuto’s voice. “Hey! Hey!”
Akaashi turns around to see him barrelling towards him. Long strides, shoes kicking up water. Bokuto slows to a walk beside Akaashi, panting a little from the effort. “Which way’re you headed?”
Akaashi doesn’t answer. Instead, he says, “where’s your umbrella?” By reflex, he repeats his mother’s words, “you’ll get cold.”
Bokuto shrugs, “I forgot.”
Akaashi thinks he must not have checked the weather forecast at all. He wonders what Bokuto’s parents are like. Do they dote? Does his mother leave an umbrella hanging on her son’s bedroom door handle? Perhaps she does, and Bokuto just barrels past, oblivious of the clouds overhead. Either way, Akaashi doesn’t have the answers, but he does have an umbrella. He offers it, tilts it a little more so it hovers over them both. His bag and shoulder will get a little wet, but that comes with the territory of sharing. As an afterthought, Akaashi explains, “I’m heading to the station.”
“Ah, thanks man - and same! I go that way too,” Bokuto continues on, says something about how Konoha and Komi take the bus.
Akaashi asks about the others. Most students have to commute in some way or another.
“Yeah,” Bokuto says, and they bump elbows as they walk, “Washio catches my train too, but he changes lines. I don’t have to.”
“That’s good,” Akaashi says, not entirely sure what he’s commenting on.
Bokuto doesn’t seem to mind. “Y’know,” he says when they’re passing by a dollar store, “this is an awesome team right?”
“Yeah,” Akaashi says without thinking, “the third-years are great.”
“All of us!”
“Hm,” Akaashi mulls it over, “I’m a first year. I’m on the bench.”
Bokuto makes a frustrated noise, “but, y’know,” he says with one finger raised, as though this is a teaching moment, “I -”
“Yeah, I guess you’re good too.”
“C’mon,” Bokuto complains, but he doesn’t sound at all bothered.
Akaashi’s smiling when they turn the corner. Bokuto’s funny. He’s an easy guy to read somehow, pure-hearted and straight forward. He has a sense of humour too. Akaashi’s not sure that he’s ever gotten on with anybody so easily before. He’s used to tagging along with somebody else’s flow. Others have said before - that he’s cool, chill. Still, Bokuto’s easy to laugh with. Bright, but he doesn’t burn. He makes you want to stick around.
Akaashi wants to stick around.
He thinks about that, knuckles cold as he balances the umbrella between them. Bokuto’s not very good at sharing the umbrella. He moves a lot. Akaashi kind of wants to grab him, make him stay still so he won’t end up with wet hair. The shoulder’s beyond saving already.
He looks over at Bokuto - Akaashi has to look up a little -
He stops walking, grip on the umbrella loose. The spokes tangle in Bokuto’s hair. He yelps, Akaashi blinks, turns, bewildered.
“Woah, dude!” Bokuto grabs the umbrella, “hey, Akashi-”
Akaashi can feel rain on his neck, another warm hand over his, catching the umbrella. “It’s Akaashi,” he murmurs as he stares across the street at magnolias in full bloom. Not a single petal dislodged by rain or wind.
The coach sits the team down a month before interhigh. Akaashi knows that he won’t get picked.
He thinks about that, bare calves against the floorboards. He can feel particles, dust and pollen and mystery fuzz blown in by the breeze. He’s not sure why he cares so much now. He didn’t care before, in junior high. He’d joined in second year back then, late to the show, and wound up as captain and setter soon after.
Maybe he’s getting caught up in the false sense of momentum. He tries to sweep away his fanciful ideas. Small fish in a pond, he tries to think, this, Fukurodani - it’s the ocean.
Akaashi looks up at the ceiling for a moment. The coach is talking about how they’ve been training hard, it’s time to focus on a winning team for this year. There’s a stray streak of sunlight, the afternoon sun slicing a wall open. Beneath it, their banner lingers. A stray breeze through the main doors picks up the edges. The corners lift, the words flutter, pour all your soul into each ball.
“Akaashi Keiji,” coach says. “Reserve setter.”
He can smell something sweet on the breeze. Perhaps it’s not so bad to care about these things. After all, he’s felt strongly before - it lingers for him, a secret in a train car, firm against his fingers, and now - written plainly on a banner.
The third year setter has a bad fall. Akaashi gets subbed on.
The opponent launches a savage serve. They’re aiming for him. What a welcome, he has enough time to think, before taking a step back, knees bent, arms extended. The ball impacts, he holds his form, bent knees for stable form. He rises to send the ball up high. It’s fitting somehow, to be a boy plucked from a just-alright kind of school, to be shunted into the light, to be picked as a setter and to be denied the chance to put up a perfect toss the first time on the court.
Well, Akaashi isn’t on the court in service of his own agenda. He races, eyes skyward, following the trajectory of the ball. The ball goes up, the Fukurodani front row gathers. Akaashi has barely a moment - some fraction of a second, he covers the line shot.
Bokuto shuts it down well before it crosses into their side of the net.
Konoha’s serve. The other side sets up for a spike.
Komi’s receive. It goes up, Akaashi watches it, finds the spot on the floor, arms up and palms waiting.
When he leaps, Akaashi aches to send it Bokuto’s way. He chooses Konoha, who is met by one and barely half a blocker.
His feet touch the ground, his palms sting with the warm clap of high-fives.
“Me next,” Bokuto calls out, and Akaashi doesn’t need to look to know he’s grinning.
He sits with the other two first years on the team. They're bench players, and Akaashi wonders if they feel the difference like he does. He's unpeeling a banana, digging a nail just below the stem, as he wonders if they're going to be teammates one day. And if so, shouldn't they practice together more?
Maybe it's too obvious what he's thinking, because one of them asks him how it is to be playing. Is he nervous?
"No," he says simply. It's more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn't. He's never really had that feeling - an unsettled gut, the shakes in all the wrong places. No, those are foreign sensations. "Do you? In practice?"
The guys shrug. Practice isn't the same.
Akaashi thinks about practice. About how yeah, it's not the same mostly. Sometimes there's fewer people on one side of the net. When he serves, it's mostly to an empty court. The ball bounds off the floor, untouched. They wear bibs instead of numbered jerseys.
But he goes through the same motions. He holds up his hands to set the same, he bounces the ball before a serve, the same way he does at tournaments. He summons all his power to meet the ball, and he offers nothing less than his maximum in practice. Because if he doesn't serve in practice the way he intends to play, how will he ever know when it's a good serve?
If he doesn't dive for a receive in practice, what hope does he have of saving it in a tournament?
Besides, Bokuto spikes every ball like it's the winning point of nationals. How could he set with only half such spirit?
Akaashi eats his banana, and supposes it's just not as satisfying to set for guys who think practice is different.
Bokuto has a bad match.
Akaashi watches it unfold like an ugly secret spilling over. A stray cloud sliding across the sun. He sends Bokuto good sets, he knows they are, but he makes bad choices one time too many.
The ball gets set up for a serve. They find their positions, and Akaashi reaches out to clap him on the shoulder. “Bokuto-san,” he says, “please think about it a little more.”
Bokuto nods, but his eyes are far away.
Later, when the visiting team clears out and the rest of them grab mops and washcloths, Bokuto goes missing. Akaashi keeps looking for him as he mops. He walks one width of the court and looks up, looks around and over his shoulder. Suzumeda is folding up the coach's desk, clipboards under her arm. Shirofuku is also absent.
Akaashi finds her later on the way to the club room. She's leaned against the door, hands clasping hands. "Ah - Akaashi," she says quietly, voice hushed, "Bokuto's -"
Then silence, the words don't come.
It seems to him that this is more than Bokuto’s burden. That when their ace falters, when he stumbles at the face of a stronger wall, the rest of the team wilts too. Managers hover around a once bright boy, close but not too close. The other second year boys scrub the floor and wipe down balls, they look deep into the storage room, seeking out their ace and his guiding laugh, but find nothing.
And Akaashi is here, wandering too, in search of a once brave bird that has hidden itself away. It disturbs him, that his mind wanders to the stray thought that animals hide, burrow deep into the woods to die. But Bokuto is not some woodland creature, not a great bird shot out of the sky. No, Akaashi is sure as he turns the handle and steps into the club room, Bokuto is better than that, even if he finds a stool wedged between the cupboard and the manager’s desk on which to hide. “Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says.
Bokuto looks up, and this time he sees what is in front of him. “Akaashi,” he says, voice low but steady, “come practice some spikes with me.”
The week before Christmas, they get a break from training. Their coach tells them to rest. Rest too, is a part of volleyball. Go for a run around your own neighbourhoods. Eat some good food at home. Come back with renewed vigour. “Ah,” he says almost as an afterthought, “bring me your choices for captain and vice captain next year.”
Training ends, and in the changerooms, Bokuto graciously agrees to captaincy on the condition that Akaashi becomes his vice. Konoha laughs and tells Akaashi not to agree. "He's using you!" he cackles like a villain during a grand reveal.
Akaashi has a vague sense of the administrative work that Bokuto is probably trying to avoid. Writing the volleyball recap for the school newspaper every semester. The end of semester stocktake. He's sat with Shirofuku before, counting volleyballs and jerseys and water bottles. Running practices.
If it were up to Bokuto, practices would devolve into high tension 3 on 3s where they'd never spend enough time refining a single play. Or some days they'd just keep running and running, three laps of the Fukurodani neighbourhood becoming five.
Akaashi doesn't think he'll mind being vice captain. He might get a little too busy for his liking, but it just means he'll have to be a little better at telling Bokuto no, he can't practice for another thirty minutes.
So Akaashi says it's fine, he's alright with being vice captain if his senpai will have him.
On the way out, Washio says, "you've got your work cut out for you."
Akaashi supposes that when it comes to Bokuto, he doesn't mind. He likes it actually, being able to clear away the distractions, find an opening for Bokuto to blast through. He wants to be there to see it - Bokuto running onto court, waving, wild, his booming “hey hey hey!” for all the stands to hear.
Two days before the new year, Bokuto calls up Akaashi. His voice blares through the tinny speakers as soon as Akaashi picks up, “come to Tokyo Tower!”
Akaashi asks, “why. It’s halfway across the city.” But he doesn’t say no.
“We’re going to yell our stress away!”
“I’m not stressed, Bokuto-san.”
Akaashi considers the homework spread out across his desk. He probably doesn’t have time. He really shouldn’t. But he itches to pretend - it’s a vice captain’s duty. If not to keep your captain and ace in check, then to play his part in ensuring the team is in high spirits. “Who's with you?”
"Nobody," he says.
"You said 'we' before."
"Oh, well my bad. It's just me - please Akaashi, it'll be good! You should come yell too!"
Bokuto, alone, probably underdressed for a winter evening. Akaashi wonders if he can categorise this under vice captain's duties. Ace-wrangling. “Okay, I guess.”
At the top of Tokyo Tower, Bokuto yells that he’s going to be the greatest ace, he’s going to spike them all, and win them all.
Akaashi doesn’t quite have the heart to tell him that it’s impossible.
After all, he wants it to be true too.
The magnolia tree is washed clean of all its flowers with one spring storm. The cherry blossoms bloom late.
Akaashi thinks again about how correlation doesn't equal causation, about statistics and his physics assignment. None of his classes account for the timing of flowering trees. Perhaps if he paid more attention to biology, he would have more answers.
But it doesn't matter.
Akaashi's focus for the first few months of the year is devoted to volleyball. Stronger serves and more accurate tosses. Better decision making under pressure. Akaashi hits a rebound, and instead of being slammed down by Washio, it springs back, arcs back into his side of the court.
Bokuto woops as he heads into his run-up, and Akaashi sends it his way. Again and again, Akaashi is reminded that there is nothing more satisfying than seeing Bokuto in top form.
The blockers leap in time, a tall wall looming. Bokuto finds the gap, and slams down a beautiful line shot.
It's just practice, but it feels the same as a tournament game. It's a spike they've spent hours upon hours honing. A culmination of months and months of constant effort. Of late nights in which Akaashi sets beautifully, both fast sets and not. Over and over, Akaashi practices - but it's always felt like giving in, surrendering to the gravity of Bokuto Koutarou. Setting for Bokuto feels like reaching for the light. A tender seedling orients its leaves to catch the sun.
And here, it bears fruit. The ball hits the ground, precisely on the line. Bokuto whirls around, eyes wide, almost in shock.
Then he beams, he yells out, victorious, "I mastered the bastard straight spike!" He bounds over towards Akaashi and barrels into him. Bokuto knocks the breath out of him, arms wrapping round tight as he yells next to his ear, "I did it, I did it!"
Akaashi stumbles back, and he laughs. Whoever thought practice was different from tournaments is certainly wrong.
Bokuto masters his straight spike in practice, and Akaashi almost feels as though they've won nationals, just the two of them.
The lights turn off automatically at ten. Akaashi is positioned under Komi's beautiful A-pass when it happens. One moment the ball is falling, rotating yellow and blue, stripes spinning and spinning. The next moment, Akaashi can't see a thing, the ball flickers out of existence. It hits his slack hands, and then the back of his head.
He groans, "ow" as the other boys get their senses in the dark, laughing.
Beside him, Bokuto's voice cuts through the darkness. "Hey Akaashi, you okay?"
Light from outside seeps in through the door, and Akaashi gives his eyes the time to adjust. Slowly, he finds the fuzzy outline of his captain in the dark. "Yeah," he says, "it's nothing."
"Let's get out of here."
Akaashi hesitates to follow, "the ball," he says lamely.
Outlined by a secondhand glow, Akaashi sees Bokuto reach out. And perhaps it's the dark, maybe Bokuto can't see as much as Akaashi can, but he finds Akaashi's fingers, his palm. His hand, not his wrist or elbow. Bokuto takes his hand and holds it.
Bokuto pulls and Akaashi follows. He almost stumbles, and maybe he's trying to catch himself, maybe not at all.
He holds Bokuto's hand too.
The next day, at dinner, Kuroo hypothesises that setters probably have bigger hands. Akaashi wonders if he missed some context, perhaps it's some attempt at a distasteful joke. Kenma doesn't look up from his DS propped up in front of his dinner. Bokuto asks why and Kuroo supposes bigger hands might mean better control of the ball. It's not direct causation, but perhaps there's enough of a tendency.
Akaashi almost tunes out entirely then, having established that it's not a conversation he has anything to contribute to. He turns back to the remains of his salmon and rice.
"But Kenma's hands are tiny!"
"They're not tiny." Kenma interjects.
"Okay, okay," Kuroo says, "but what about Akaashi."
Akaashi looks up in time for Bokuto to drop his chopsticks and hold up his hand. "Oh yeah, what about your hands?"
This is so stupid, Akaashi doesn't know why he's going along with this. He sets down his chopsticks and offers his right hand, palm facing Bokuto.
Bokuto lifts his own hand to meet his.
They've done this before, high-fives after rock-solid blocks and earth-shattering spikes. Cheers and whoops and hey hey heys ring out across the court. But this, Bokuto brings his palm to meet his, and there are no cheers, no Fukurodani team chants. Instead, here they are, palm to palm, remnants of dinner cooling on melamine plates.
"Oh," Bokuto says, "you're right, Kuroo."
Akaashi looks too, at their hands. He curls the tips of his fingers, almost one joint longer. He feels the blunt of Bokuto's nails against his fingertips. "Ah," he says.
He should pull away. He should drop his hand and pick up his chopsticks and gather up the last stray grains of rice. He should, he should.
He does finally, like a gasp of air after a long-held breath.
Akaashi supposes that it's a good thing that he picked an indoor sport. He gets a glimpse of a local football team in the area when he runs, and some days he wonders what the field would look like if he played. Perhaps more or less the same - exposed dirt where the grass is worn down with repetition. The same places where the ball is in contention, trodden dark and bare. Perhaps not.
They pass the end of the block, and a dark wood fence slides in place. The field disappears, and Akaashi keeps running. Bokuto keeps talking, half pant, half talk, punctured by stretches of silence as they pound the pavement and climb suburban hills. Today, Bokuto is contemplating sports psychology. "Akaashi," he says, except it sounds more like A-ka-a-shi, syllables punched out to the dull thud of his footsteps. "Akaashi," Bokuto repeats for emphasis, "you're not listening!"
"I was," Akaashi defends as he draws on his faint recollection of Bokuto's latest take on his on court troubles. "I think it's unlike you to dwell on these things."
Bokuto contemplates it as they round the corner and duck beneath the crooked branches of a magnolia tree. Akaashi feels a flicker of cool shade on his neck as he goes.
He presses on, one foot after the other. Steadfast and onwards. Because Akaashi has never doubted Bokuto's ability or potential. He knows it as a truth, or as close to it - just as the sun rises and that hot tea soothes all aches - that Bokuto wants so much more than he doubts, and that will be enough.
They go a heavy-footed, stuttering pace downhill. Akaashi feels it in his knees. He keeps running, makes it two paces - a halting third -
Bokuto isn't running.
Akaashi stops running too. He looks back.
Bokuto isn't running, but he stands with his chest puffed out, heaving still with effort. His hair is dark in the empty evening. Akaashi watches as Bokuto yells, not a word, just a sound. Maybe it sounds like a whoop, a howl, but it doesn't matter because there it is, the Bokuto grin, eyes bright, all the strength of an ace in his shoulders.
He's back, and Akaashi never believed for a second he wouldn't be.
Akaashi is first at the gym the morning of the first tournament of the year. He's punctual usually. Fifteen minutes early at the most, five every other day.
Today, he's at the gym when the sun's barely risen - still yet to peer past residential towers and the gaps between the trees. When Shirofuku turns up to collect the team jerseys and water bottles, Akaashi will tell her that he felt like fitting in a warm up. She might scold him. You should know better, he imagines her saying.
She'd be right too.
He does know better.
Akaashi finds a volleyball in the storeroom, bounces it twice on the spot. He carries it with him outside beside the court, sheds his jacket and starts to set the ball against the wall. Over and over, just like the first time at the community centre, a elementary school kid with unruly hair stumbling is way into something he didn’t mind so much. One and two and three, he counts, until he finds his way into the tens, then the twenties, and then he loses track. So he just counts in tens - one, two, three, just as he had done as a second year in middle school, late to the volleyball club, stumbling into the role of setter. He pushes, elbows up, shoulders warm with effort, the ball goes and goes, up and down, just as it always has all these years.
Akaashi doesn’t really do this drill very much anymore.
It’s something he did a lot in middle school, the repetitive motion, finding familiarity in the momentary brush of his fingers against the ball. To find purchase, certainty, control in something so fleeting. At Fukurodani, he sets often, constantly. He joined Fukurodani as a setter. A fate chosen for him perhaps, but he never said no.
At Fukurodani, he sets for a line-up of stellar spikers. He sets for senpai who clap him on the back, who yell for the ball constantly. Spikers and blockers all the same with wild leaps and powerful swings who demand more and more of his tosses. Fukurodani demands he set for them, and Akaashi has obliged all year.
Akaashi puts the ball up over and over for nobody as the sun rises outside, and he is reminded, with every eight, nine and ten, how blessed he is to be a setter at Fukurodani.
And to top it all off, he’ll get on the bus to the first tournament of the year - his first time as Fukurodani’s setter, in the starting line-up. The first tournament of the year, and hopefully a long year of winning. Akaashi puts the ball up again against the wall, and he wonders how immense it may feel to win games as Fukurodani’s main setter, how delightful it will be to put up well-timed, beautiful sets for his team.
How satisfying it will be when he puts up a set for their ace against a triple block, and Bokuto blasts them away.
It’ll be a winning point, the Fukurodani cheer team will forget their chants and just yell. And Bokuto will land with bent knees and a huge smile. He’ll yell too, fist in the air. And perhaps, a great perhaps - Bokuto will turn around and say again -
Akaashi! Your tosses are the best!
Akaashi puts up the ball for nobody one last time, fetches his jacket, and walks out to meet his team.
In games, Akaashi doesn’t have time to think too much.
He’s thinking of course - constantly. There’s a lot to keep track of - where he is on the court, where his spikers are, the trajectory of their run-up, the blockers’ positioning. And always, the fleeting moment before the ball reaches his hands, Akaashi is making a critical decision.
Most days, he is confident that he’s making well-balanced choices. They don’t always work out - sometimes he hopes for more than what his spikers can achieve. Sometimes, wishful thinking gets in the way of his evaluation of reality.
And then there are a few days - well, actually - Akaashi thinks as the ball spins on its downward arc - maybe there’s never been a moment until now.
Akaashi tracks the ball, and he knows already, clearly, certainly that he’ll put up the ball for Bokuto.
It isn’t a decision, he knows that much. Decisions are born out of a sequence. He considers a number of factors, he weighs his options, and then, like following a flow chart, he makes a choice, and then he executes. This feels like so much less.
There’s a weightlessness to it. A sense that this is beyond him, that he doesn’t know himself where it comes from. But there it is, a quiet ache in his wrists as he skims the court and glimpses Bokuto’s wild hair and pounding steps.
The ball falls, he calls out, “Bokuto-san” and he performs an inevitability.
He doesn’t know when he sets the ball that Bokuto will score the winning point. He can’t know that Bokuto will blast past a formidable wall. Akaashi cannot know these things, because as much as sports can be understood as repetition and probability, it is also chaos and unknowability. All he knows is that here it is, distilled in the push and pull of his tendons, in the muscle memory in the palms and fingers, in the tilt of his wrists - there it all is, manifested suddenly and brilliantly, how badly he yearns to deliver victory to Bokuto Koutarou.
The ball flies towards the end of the next, Bokuto strikes, soundly and surely and swiftly.
The blockers don’t lay a finger on it, and Akaashi abandons forevermore the idea that he has any control over what his experiences mean.
No, no, no. This. This moment - the thunder of the crowd, the piercing whistle, Bokuto’s clenched fist and hoarse yell - this is everything, and he is helpless to it.
Akaashi delivers victory, and for once, he is not a background player. Suddenly, Akaashi is not a boy who fell into volleyball and just never found a way out. Instead, he knows he has found a precious thing - a game, a story, a boy he loves - and together, they conquer.
It doesn’t scare him, the discovery of a boy he loves.
There’s a part of him who wants to know, who wants to test for it - even though it’s not a thing that could possibly be examined like that. Akaashi has read enough short stories and fantasy novels to know that it doesn’t work that way. That love is devotion, that it is tenderness. That it is constantly circling back to this one person, this one point in the universe which feels like home and like a whole new universe all at once. These are not things that can be measured on any scale. There is no instrument and no algorithm with which to understand these things.
Equally, there is no rulebook, no guide on ten (or fifty, or even a hundred) things to do to get it right.
Does Akaashi want to date Bokuto? He supposes he does, but he doesn’t know what that looks like. Mostly, he fears - not so greatly, or so deeply - no, just a shiver, that if they did, he might not like Bokuto the same. That if things changed between them, it’ll be cracking open a box of too many unknowns.
And of the things that Akaashi knows for sure - here they are:
He likes how Bokuto remembers his favourites. Nanohana, and sweet tea, with herbal jelly.
He likes how when he runs with Bokuto, three laps feel like nothing, five is just a long afternoon, and when they lose count, they sit cross-legged at the doorstep of the gym, panting into the air, saying nothing.
He is a good setter, but when Bokuto tells him he’s the best, Akaashi believes it completely.
He likes how Bokuto texts like he talks. With a lot of exclamation marks. In short bursts. And then he gives up and calls, because typing is such a bother, and I want to talk to you! Like, hear you!
He likes how Bokuto yells promises off of Tokyo Tower, shameless, and he makes good on them. (They don’t win them all, but there are moments when it feels like they have, so it’s good enough.)
Most of all, Akaashi likes how Bokuto loves volleyball. A boy who plunges so eagerly into hard work in service of what he loves - no, because it is what he loves - all of it.
Akaashi likes how Bokuto knows how to love.
Akaashi doesn't see it in slow motion. That's something that only happens in sports films and shōnen anime.
Bokuto spikes the ball, and it's just a blur after that, one clap of a palm against the ball, a second dull sound that comes too soon, and then Akaashi is scrambling, arm outstretched, already too late.
He barely sees it happen, when they lose.
The buzzer goes, a whistle blows, Akaashi picks himself up and finds his lungs locking up, a giant's fist crumpling them up like scrap paper.
Bokuto apologises, and Akaashi lets him.
Akaashi cries first, ivy clawing up his throat as he heaves for breath. His hands are shaking. It's still so loud, the Ichibayashi team celebrates, their reserves run up onto the court. Through the net, it's a blurry glimpse of what they could've been.
But Konoha's right, that Bokuto brought them this close, that without him, they would never have gotten this view from center court.
And Akaashi is grateful. He's fully aware of the bounty of the blessing it is to have played alongside Bokuto.
He just wishes he was better. A better vice captain. A stronger setter. Somebody who could set pace for Bokuto on his long run up to higher places.
Bokuto Koutarou graduates along with the rest of the third years, accepts a volleyball scholarship, and asks Akaashi to set for him one more time.
The ball pounds into the floor on the opposite side of the net, and Akaashi tries to accept that the shadow of a feeling in his palms is his last time setting for Bokuto. He tries, meaning he struggles, so he asks Bokuto, “when you said one more time, did you mean one last time?”
Bokuto looks at him, frowning slightly as he ponders it. “Why would it be the last time?”
Akaashi can think of a million reasons, starting with: he’s good at volleyball, but he’s not that good, professional volleyball is not top of his list of things to do, and he fears that he’ll be less of a player without Bokuto. But the more he thinks about it, the clearer it is, how he’s been focusing on the wrong thing. It’s simple really.
It’s okay to want a little more of a good thing.
As a twenty-five year old, Akaashi is better with plants.
His mother gives him a mint plant when he moves into his new apartment. “It’s unkillable,” she reassures him. Akaashi leaves it on the balcony and forgets that it exists. Months go by. Spring storms and winter snows descend upon the city and his balcony. As does a pandemic.
Bokuto asks one day. “Are you going to prune that thing?”
Akaashi wanders out to join him in inspecting the mint plant and its wild growth through the gaps in the railings. The pot seems to be at its tipping point. Akaashi laughs a little before he decides, “probably not.”