If there’s one thing that Tsukishima Kei ever prides himself on, it’s that he’s not stupid. He thinks fast, and acts on those thoughts just as quickly, in any situation, without fail and with grace.
Despite this, he still finds himself in his own bathroom, gaping like an idiot at his best friend who is stark naked behind a towel that is definitely not covering everything it should be as the shower continues to run behind him. Tadashi’s staring back at him in horror, face going from flushed to white and sick-looking, and Kei can’t really blame Tadashi for looking like that, because honestly, his face is probably doing the same thing.
He backs up to the door, take-out menu clutched in his hands firmly and glasses fogging from the shower’s heat. “I’ll… just,” he says slowly, thanking whatever gods that hadn’t yet abandoned him that he didn’t stammer; “Go. Order. Food… Yeah.” He steps backward out into the hallway and closes the door slowly until it clicks. He hears a thud that he’s pretty certain is the sound of Tadashi’s legs giving out on him. He hopes Tadashi isn't going to pass out or something, because he's not going back in there, sorry, there's no way in hell. He's almost certain that Tadashi feels the same way and is probably sitting and thinking 'don't come back in just do not'. So he doesn't. Definitely not.
He swallows hard and drifts, shell-shocked, down the stairs to the kitchen, where he robotically orders the food he’d gone up to ask Tadashi about. He knows Tadashi's favorites anyway, he just wanted to make sure, and...
…That idiot didn’t lock the door. Oh god. Why didn’t Tadashi lock the door if it was like that…? No, no it’s not Tadashi’s fault, he didn’t knock or give Tadashi any indication that he was coming in, he just did and—oh god. Of all the ways to… Kei wanders blankly into the living room and collapses on the couch, dropping his head into his hands as he wracks his brain for clues.
Okay, so he’d noticed that Tadashi never ever changed with the rest of the team. There was that; but Tadashi’d been bullied in elementary school, and he never had the greatest self-confidence to boot, so Kei had always assumed that Tadashi’s insistence on changing in a bathroom stall or pulling layers on and off without ever completely stripping was because of that. He also didn’t bathe with the rest of them during their training camps; he's always cited that he prefers showers, and takes them quickly behind locked stall doors. But no one's ever said anything, though, and Kei’s so used to Tadashi that he’d never noticed until he's sitting and thinking hard about it.
And there was that strange self-confidence Tadashi had when Kei was frustrated with trying to figure out what was going on with him when he’d first started to realize that, hey, no he didn’t want to be just best friends with Tadashi, he wanted to date Tadashi and wow, is that weird? Tadashi had sat down with him and his laptop when Kei had told him his revelation in that flat, detached tone he took when everything was far too overwhelming for him and guided him through the panic attack with a reassurance that was almost uncharacteristic for Tadashi.
Tadashi’d shown him different websites and spoke with a strange, soft, reassurance that had calmed Kei down and set everything into small manageable pieces. He’d held Kei’s hand once Kei had calmed down, and told him with a small, mischievous grin that he wanted to date Kei too. In the end, none of the materials Tadashi had ever sent him felt right to Kei, who was more or less just content with the fact that he could reach out and take Tadashi’s hand whenever he wanted to. In the end, it was easiest to just let Tadashi settle the issue by concluding that Kei, like himself, was simply demisexual.
Maybe that had been a clue as well. Or how after a few months of dating, they hadn’t done anything but kiss and hold hands and Tadashi had very steadfastly insisted to keeping to the guest futon when he slept over. It wasn’t like Kei wanted to jump Tadashi’s bones or anything, in fact he rarely thought about sex at all, but he liked holding Tadashi’s hand and dropping his head against his boyfriend’s shoulder, and he wanted to try cuddling because maybe that would be something they both enjoyed. He would never say that out loud, but still.
There was how he so very rarely went over to Tadashi’s house, and Tadashi was always very nervous when he was there.
All of these things pop into Kei’s mind at once, and he’s struck with just how subtle they are—in movies or fiction, the clues would be more obvious, more… sexist, he thinks suddenly. Hysterics once a month, more delicate sensibilities... those sorts of things. He groans into his hands. He has no idea how to handle this and not be an ass about it. He doesn’t even know if he can Google a crash course in handling this.
How does one even manage to put this situation into a Google search term? Or stuff all of the pertinent information into their head in the time it takes for the boyfriend in question to finish showering?
Oh god, Tadashi’s going to kill him. Or he’s just going to die of a short circuit. Maybe he could crawl in front of the take-out delivery car, and just do them both a favor. That way, he doesn’t have to worry about being an ass, and Tadashi doesn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of Kei having walked in on him in the bath and seeing…
Well, seeing definitely more than Kei knows Tadashi wanted him to see, that’s for sure. Way to go Tsukishima Kei, you fucking genius, he thinks to himself. What a smart idea, to think it was okay to just stroll into the bathroom while Tadashi was in the shower to ask him what he wanted for dinner.
They don’t do that. They’ve never done that. He doesn’t even know what possessed him to do that, other than the fact that he was hungry and overly comfortable with Tadashi, and didn’t want to listen to the other boy whine and complain about what he bought for dinner. He could have waited. He could have waited: it's not like shitty Chinese take out is that important to him. He’s at least grateful his parents or his brother aren’t home to watch him blow every fuse in his head. He’s pretty sure his face is dyed red right now.
You pathetic ass, he continues in his head.
He rubs his fingers underneath his glasses and pushes them up into his hair so he can scrub at his eyes a bit more, wondering that, if he rubs hard enough at his eyes, if he can make the image of Tadashi half-covering himself with that towel, still dripping as the shower ran behind him as he reached for… something, probably extra soap, they were running low on that this morning and he couldn't be assed to put a new bar into the shower, Kei’s brain supplies him uselessly. The way Tadashi’s hair was plastered down around his face, looking longer than normal without those flyaway pieces sticking out around his ears and at the top of his head; how his face was white with shock and eyes wide with horror.
Because, oh god, peeking out from the edge of the towel was not only way more of Tadashi’s skin than Kei had ever seen before (which looked soft and very freckled against the lean lines of Tadashi’s muscles, supplies the very-much-a-teenaged-male portion of his brain, the portion that he didn’t realize existed until recently and was now wishing would just shut up thank you very much), but the very soft curve of an uncovered breast. (Also freckled. Shut the fuck up, me.)
He grabs his glasses and chunks them on the sofa, scrubbing his hands through his hair. What the hell was he supposed to even say about this?
‘I’m sorry I walked in on you showering like we’re in a bad TV drama and outed you before you were ready to tell me’?
God, even he had to admit that was an asshole thing to say. He’ll just stick with ‘sorry’ and hope that Tadashi doesn’t start purposefully serving volleyballs into the back of his head during practice. He groans in frustration, and grabs the back of his neck. And he’d been trying hard to keep their boundaries solid and well defined and respectful because he didn’t want to fuck this thing up, too, which is why he’d never pushed the cuddling thing. Ugh.
“Um, Tsukki, the doorbell is ringing,” Tadashi supplies somewhere behind him, voice quiet.
Kei breaks away from his fit of freaking out and self-loathing to blink a few times. So it is. He didn't even hear it, or Tadashi coming up behind him. He grabs his glasses and shoves them on, and pads out to the front door with the small envelope of money his parents had left him for dinner. He pays the delivery boy and takes the food, somehow managing to seem like he was a confident high-school student who wasn’t having a crisis that involved the sight of his boyfriend’s naked breasts behind a loosely draped bath towel.
No. He wasn’t going to think about that. He was going to think about what the hell he was going to say to Tadashi. Shit. Shit. Shit.
He turns and finds Tadashi hovering in the hallway, wringing the hem of his sweatshirt between his fingers. Tadashi still looks like Tadashi: sheepish and freckled and endearing with his ruffled hair and slightly overlarge hoodie and old workout shorts, bath towel draped around his neck. It’s a sight he’s seen a thousand times before and it’s so calming that his brain hasn’t somehow magically started seeing Tadashi as what he saw behind that towel. His heart slows down slightly even though he’s so nervous about the conversation that he knows is coming that he feels sick. He doesn't want to mess up. He really doesn't. He pretty much wants this to go right more than he's wanted anything. Which is saying something, because he hasn't really wanted anything since he was a kid.
“Food,” he says simply, holding the bag up. He’s not hungry, but maybe Tadashi is and food would give them a little more time for Kei to get his brain and his life together. Maybe turn to Google under the table so he doesn’t mess up.
Tadashi blinks and looks away, twisting the fabric of his hoodie between his fingers, “Um… I’m not really hungry,” he says softly.
“I’ll put it away then,” Kei says with a nod. He moves into the kitchen so he can slide the takeout into the refrigerator, overly aware of how Tadashi is following him anxiously. He leans against the kitchen counter and regards Tadashi again and bites his lip. “Um. About… just now,” he mumbles awkwardly, “Sorry.”
Tadashi flinches and turns scarlet; Kei thinks that if he wrings the sweatshirt any harder in his hands, it’ll rip. “For what exactly are you sorry about?” he says roughly, scowling up at Kei.
Kei notes the tremor in Tadashi’s voice, and the way his eyes are red and puffy and his complexion is more sickly-looking than it really should be, and he feels ten thousand times worse about his own pathetic mistake and being caught up in his own little freak out. This has to be worse for Tadashi than it is for him, because he just accidentally robbed Tadashi of every ounce of control over this situation that he had, and Kei has no clue how to give it back.
He’s reminded of a small, wounded animal that’s backed into a corner, and it makes his stomach twist. Tadashi’s afraid of him, and what he’s going to do and say. He pushes off of the counter and reaches out to gently tug on a strand of Tadashi’s hair, a fond little gesture he’d picked up from Tadashi’s mother without knowing it. “Go sit,” he says, giving Tadashi a small push forward.
He decides to treat Tadashi the way he always has and ignore the sudden urge to treat him like glass for fear of breaking him. He reminds himself that Tadashi, if he wanted to, knew enough about Kei to bring him down in an instant and break him into tiny pieces, without even lifting a finger. Tadashi has a mountain of blackmail on him, from the small things like how he happens to like mainstream music, thank you, to the Jurassic Park Incident (all caps necessary) that he’d heard about from Akiteru. Or he could just leave him; that in itself could be enough to ruin him. Kei swallows hard, realizing that he, too, now has the weapons needed to ruin Tadashi as well, and the thought makes his stomach do uncomfortable things that makes him taste bile in the back of his throat. The idea of using that information against Tadashi is repellant; it makes him even sicker to think that, yes, there are people out there who would. It makes his heart beat erratically, and not in the good way that it flutters when he and Tadashi hold hands on the way home. It thuds in the way that heralds complete shut-downs, the type he tries to head off with music and periods of just sitting in the dark. He doesn't have this option now, so he grits his teeth and bears with it, because he's messed up and he needs to own up to it.
They settle on opposite sides of the sofa, staring awkwardly at each other. Tadashi’s pulled his knees up into his hoodie, stretching it out until he looks like he’s wearing a sweatshirt tent. He looks like he wants to disappear into his clothes. Kei crosses his legs in front of him and starts picking at his sweatpants in a fit of uncharacteristic visual anxiety. “Sorry,” he says again, “I didn’t—I don’t…” He sighs and looks at the sofa cushions, mumbling quickly under his breath, “I didn’t mean to do that to you.”
Tadashi fidgets awkwardly, and clears his throat, voice wavering and cracking despite this. “You saw everything?”
Kei flushes darkly and shakes his head. “Not all of you. Just—you know, your—ugh.” He groans and drops his head back into his hands.
He wants to correct Tadashi and say it was just the one singular breast, and it wasn’t even all of it, just enough to tell that, yes, that was a breast, and oh, wow freckles. But that is probably the lamest, most pedantic, asshole-ish thing he could ever say in his entire life, and if there’s one thing Kei is not it’s uncool. “Yes,” he says instead.
It’s maddening how calm Tadashi sounds right now. Maybe he’d worked out the hysterics in the shower. Kei doesn’t know, but he feels like breaking into hysterics for Tadashi because, wow, he must be a masochist, because he really really wants Tadashi to be angry at him for this.
Tadashi sighs and wiggles his toes. He’s having a good day today, he thinks, and this is why it’s not bothering him quite as much as he’d thought it would when he thinks up ways to tell Kei when he’s lying in bed at night.
His serve was good in practice, and everyone had clapped him on the shoulder and praised him, and his chest didn’t hurt too badly when he’d done the warm up laps. His binder hadn’t bunched up his undershirt during class and he hadn’t had to sneak into the nurses’ private bathrooms to fix it, and be reminded that his body wasn’t in agreement with his mind. And Kei’s so embarrassed, like he was the one who’d been walked in on, and it’s almost cute.
But of course he’s upset about this, because this was not how he wanted this conversation to go, with Kei having gotten an eyeful of him naked without warning. He thinks over his options: He had managed to over the initial crippling wave of panic and anxiety in the shower, crouching under the spray until it turned so cold he couldn’t feel his fingers.
He breathes in through his nose and exhales through his mouth like he does when he's about to step up to serve, setting the remaining jitters aside and acknowledging them so he could focus. He's got to think of this like it's a volleyball game: what are the options, and what are their consequences?
He doesn't feel horribly nervous now that they've sat down; the urge to vomit's passed, and his heartbeat has finally settled down. He wants to get this over with before it comes back and it decidedly becomes a not-good day and bites him in the ass and these feelings return and he gets too nervous to do anything worthwhile. He knows he will probably have fits and nightmares about this later, and those will keep him from being able to function if he lets the issue sit. There’s also the real threat that Kei’ll shut down about it too, because Kei’s never been good with surprises and big revelations and gets easily overwhelmed if he's shocked too badly, and Tadashi doesn’t want to have to spend the foreseeable future cracking open the heavy shells of anxiety Kei tends to build up around himself while dealing with his own panic attacks.
He bites his lip and thinks of how utterly clueless Kei is about these things and how uninterested Kei is in everything that’s not Tadashi. It gives him some courage. “You know,” he murmurs as he pulls his knees closer to his chest, the material of the tight sports bra he sleeps in at Kei’s house pulling against his shoulders as he curls up; “I honestly think it’s a miracle something like this hasn’t happened already.”
Kei splutters and it’s all Tadashi can do to not laugh at him. “Between you and volleyball, you know? I mean, Takeda-sensei’s done his best to make accommodations for me and all, but I really have been expecting something like this to happen. Having nightmares, really. Not… not that I was expecting anything as dramatic as seeing me naked,” he adds, wincing as he realizes that it sounds like he’s expected the team to stroll in on him like Kei just did. Because even though he’s an anxious person by nature, he’s not that ridiculous— though… maybe he should have been. “But like… something like seeing my binder from under my uniform or my shirt rides up in the wrong way or something like that.”
“Wait, Takeda knows?”
Tadashi looks at Kei like he’s stupid. “I thought you knew, too,” he points out.
Kei scoffs in surprise, “How was I supposed to know?”
“That’s what the kids were teasing me about in elementary school, Tsukki,” Tadashi says gently, shuddering at the memory. He still hates thinking about that time in his life—he probably always will. The feeling of not being comfortable with who he was still lingers under his skin like toxic sludge; some days he wakes up enveloped in the feeling, and those days he knows that no matter how tightly he presses down on his breasts, no matter how many times he refers to himself with male pronouns, he’ll still look in the mirror and see his eight-year-old self with pigtails held up with pink barrettes that match his skirt that his mother laid out for him to wear, and he hates it. Those stupid pigtails and sparkling hair clips and his classmates' bullying haunt him and he hates it, and he hates how the world screams back at him girl girl girl on those days when he remembers them, because he's not, he's not, but it sticks to him like thick mud, and sinks under his skin.
Other days, those pigtails and skirts are just a passing memory and he can brush that sticky feeling off.
He thanks whichever god looks after his anxious train-wreck of a life again that today is one of the days he can look in the mirror and see himself as he is now, because he wants Kei to have a calm, thoughtful explanation. He thanks that same god that he's learned how to deal with his panic so he's not fumbling over his words like he fumbled over the ball in his first few matches.
“Sometimes when someone you knew as a girl suddenly shows up for the new term with their hair cut short, saying they’re really a boy and have been all along, other people don’t understand,” he continues carefully, remembering how his mother cried when she found out that the other students were picking on her child and the teachers weren’t doing anything about it. He remembers all the paperwork she did to find a school that he could transfer to, and begging her to let him stay after he'd befriended Kei. “That’s what they were picking on me about when you saved me. That’s why I joined an after-school volleyball club not affiliated with the school, since their paperwork process wasn’t as vigorous and we didn’t have to tell them.”
“I… I didn’t know that's what it was about,” Kei says quietly. “I just… I just broke it up because it was irritating.”
Tadashi laughs, “I know that’s why you did. But I thought you’d know, since everyone at school knew. It wasn’t exactly a secret that year.”
Kei shakes his head, “I didn’t ever pay attention to that stuff. I didn’t talk to anyone.” He doesn’t much like admitting that both of them were friendless until they started hanging out together.
Tadashi shrugs, wiggling his toes absently again. “Well, I have been trying to figure out how to tell you officially,” he says quietly, “Since we’re dating now. Honestly, I’ve been dreading it.”
“…sorry,” Kei mutters, staring at the sofa cushions like they're the most riveting thing in the world. He swallows again, still feeling nauseous at the idea that this has hurt Tadashi, just because he didn’t think or knock before waltzing into the bathroom. Being friends for years doesn’t give you that sort of right; neither does dating, he thinks, wishing that Tadashi would put his foot down about this.
“I think that’s more ‘I’m sorry’s in one conversation than I’ve heard our entire friendship,” Tadashi points out, sticking out a leg to kick Kei. “I get it, you’re sorry. Don’t walk into the bathroom again unless I’ve invited you in, doofus.”
Tadashi regards Kei carefully; his entire body language screams contrite and nervous, and it’s kind of surprising, because Tsukishima Kei is not easily humbled, and definitely does not apologize for the damage he leaves in his wake. It's just wrong to see him like this. “Look, you know you hecked up big time, I can tell. Now stop being pathetic about this,” he says after a minute. “Let’s just work on this together; otherwise I know you’ll shut down about it like you did about us dating or your brother.” He scoots forward until he can grab one of Kei’s hands in his own, smoothing his thumb against the center of the blond’s palm, working to calm his boyfriend down.
Honestly, sometimes being Kei’s friend and boyfriend is like being a wild animal trainer. The boy was dense, awkward, and prone to lashing out when he’s backed into a corner. Never one to offer comfort, but almost endlessly comforted. Joke’s on him, Tadashi figures, for loving someone like Kei, because he can't bring himself to resent the fact that he's trying to calm Kei down, when it should be the other way around. He spoils Kei far too much, and he loves every second of it. “Are you upset with me for not telling you before?” Tadashi asks first.
Kei shakes his head.
“Good,” he answers. “I’m not angry with you anymore, either.” Tadashi squeezes Kei’s hand and swallows, choosing to look at Kei’s hand for this next question. “Does it gross you out?”
“No,” Kei says, shaking his head. This was so much like their first conversation as a tentative couple, only the roles were reversed. He remembers asking Tadashi if it bothered him that another boy liked him, and Tadashi had given him such a clear smile that it made his heart skip a beat. He hopes his answers can give Tadashi the peace that Tadashi’s smile had given him back then. “Not at all.”
“Does it change the way you think about me?” This is the question that gives him nightmares and panic attacks:
He remembers how everyone in elementary school, even the other boys who had been just fine with him when he hadn’t told them yet that he wasn’t a girl had turned on him when he came back for the new term finally comfortable and happy. He dreads Kei doing the same thing. He doesn’t think Kei’s that fickle, no, but he remembers how flippant the blond had been about defining his sexuality, and he doesn’t want to have the teeth-pulling argument about pronouns and gender and all of the things that still make his head swim even though it’s the life he’s living, that he has to have with his grandparents every few years his mother takes them to visit. It fills him with a cold terror that this is the thing that finally parts him and Kei, because as much as he loves Kei, he’ll get up and leave the second Kei is anything but open and respectful about this. He’ll do it. He will, he tells himself, over and over again. It’ll hurt, but it can’t hurt more than being treated like something that doesn’t matter.
This takes a little longer for Kei to answer, but his fingers are tight around Tadashi’s. “A little,” he answers honestly, clinging onto Tadashi even as the freckled boy flinches at the answer. “Don’t be stupid!” he says roughly, knowing that Tadashi has immediately assumed the worst. “It’s just… I can’t imagine how it is, and… is it hard for you?”
Tadashi blinks quickly to ward off tears, heart hammering wildly. He clenches his fingers against Kei’s hand to hide how he was starting to shake from the sudden dump of adrenaline into his system. “Sometimes,” he answers, thinking of the days he avoids mirrors, and how hard it is to push himself to keep up with the team on the days when his binder feels like it’s crushing all the air out of him instead of just pressing on him; of how it doesn’t matter how much he trains, his body won’t do the things he wants it to sometimes because it can’t, of how much he wanted to tell Kei but ended up sick every time he tried to think of how to bring it up, and how he’d wake up in anxious terrors from dreams of Kei, the team, everyone finding out and walking away from him. How scared he is now, even though Kei’s holding his hand like he never wants to let it go, and how he has a wry idea that Kei’s going to be trying to make this up to him for months to come.
It's not all scary or hard; sometimes it's brilliant. He'd never get to walk out on the court with his teammates if he wasn't who he was. He'd never get to know the feeling of a successful serve, of coming together with his teammates in victory and in defeat, of suffering through laps and flying falls and getting so sore he wasn't even sure if he could move anymore. His friendships with the entire team, and the trust he has in them despite his nightmares. The enjoyment he gets from talking with Yachi. His begrudging respect for Kageyama and Hinata, no matter how much he teases them with Kei. His friendship with Kei. Their relationship. Being comfortable in his uniform. The soft material of their warm-up jackets. All of this makes all of the hardships worth it. "Not always, but sometimes, yeah, it's hard. That's just how it is for me."
“…you’re much cooler than I gave you credit for before,” Kei says with a shrug, looking away. “You’re strong. I’ve been underestimating you. For a long time,” he mumbles, cheeks coloring. Because he sure as hell doesn’t have the strength to go out and get what he wants from life; they’ve proven that point well, and it’s only been until recently that he feels like it’s even worth it to try for things he feels even the slightest passing want for. To imagine that Tadashi’s been doing it all these years without a word or complaint, well… he feels stupid and small and very, very weak willed.
Tadashi finally does cry at this, because that’s not fair and Kei knows it. Kei knows that being called cool is just a straight shot into his heart and ego, and god, he’s always wanted to be someone cool just like Kei, and now Kei knows all of it, he must know that he didn’t just idolize his friend because he was someone Tadashi wanted to be like, but also because Kei was just the sort of boy Tadashi wanted to be. “Sorry, Tsukki,” he mumbles, wiping his eyes off with the cuff of his sweatshirt, “Ugh. I didn’t want to cry about this.”
“ 'S all right,” Kei replies, reaching out to brush his thumb underneath Tadashi’s eye. “It’s a big deal... and, I did sort of ...invade your privacy and you know. All that,” he mutters awkwardly, turning pink. “It’s okay to cry about it.”
“Tsukki, you still like me, right?” Tadashi whispers, voice trembling. He reaches up and lays his hand over the one on his cheek, still clinging to the other one.
“Shut up, Yamaguchi,” Kei mutters, flushing darkly.
“That’s not an answer, Tsukki,” Tadashi murmurs as Kei wipes another tear away. “Do you like me? Now that you know?”
Kei makes a noise in the back of his throat before leaning forward to press his forehead to Tadashi’s. “Yes, you colossal moron. I still like you and your stupid face and dumb voice and the fact you don’t know how to leave me the hell alone,” he mumbles, feeling the back of his neck burn with embarrassment. “I like your dumb hair and how it doesn’t stay down and I even liked your horrible haircut back in junior high and your freckles and how your face scrunches up when you laugh and your sarcastic streak and how hard you work at everything, even small things like helping get water for the bottles at practice,” he continues, words pouring out of him even though he wishes he could just shut up, because this is really embarrassing, but he just can't. “I like how you’re nice to even stupid Kageyama, and how I can always hear you even during tournaments and how hard you concentrate before serving, how you can’t stop apologizing for even the stupidest shit and how you’ve put up with me for so damn long. I thought we worked this out already, it’s you I like. It’s kind of pathetic how much I like you, okay?”
Tadashi unclamps his fingers from Kei’s so he can wrap his arms around the blonde’s shoulders. He shifts his weight onto his knees and leans into Kei, shivering in joy when Kei slides his arms tentatively around his waist. “I’m scared you’ll change your mind,” he whispers. “That it’ll be too much for you, to date someone like me… that you’ll stop seeing me as a boy. That you won’t want to learn about it, that you won't listen.”
Kei squeezes Tadashi gently, shaking his head in reply. He hates hearing the self-depreciation in Tadashi’s voice, and hates that Tadashi’s been without his support for so long. He feels the same sort of shame he felt during the summer training camp and Tadashi yelled at him, and he realized that Tadashi still supported him with one-hundred percent of his being even, though he’d walked off and left Tadashi to grow on his own. “You are a boy: You’re Tadashi, like you’ve always been,” Kei mumbles against Tadashi’s hair. He doesn’t know the etiquette for this, how to tell Tadashi that he doesn’t actually care, because it’s Tadashi, without knowing if it’ll hurt him in the long run, so Kei settles for that simple assurance. “I always listen to you; even the stupid stuff you say. You talked about having hashbrowns for breakfast this morning for some weird reason.”
Tadashi squeezes so hard that Kei thinks the shorter boy is going to choke him with his affection, but he doesn’t say anything. He just leans back into the sofa and lets Tadashi fall against him and settle on his knees against his lap. He moves one hand to the center of Tadashi’s back, fingers spreading out between the other boy’s shoulders.
Kei’s hand is firm and warm against Tadashi's back, and his fingers are rolling slow, lazy circles right where his muscles are the tightest from the unnatural way he holds his back when he sits and how his binder pushes his muscles in ways they’re not supposed to go and it feels delightful.
He’s not sold completely on full-on snuggling, though. Not until Kei drops his head slightly and presses his nose into Tadashi’s damp hair, making a very quiet, indiscernible noise in the back of his throat. The action goes straight to Tadashi’s heart like it’s an arrow, because oh, crap he’s absolutely fucked because Kei’s cuddly as hell and he didn’t expect that at all.
Tadashi nestles up against Kei, slinging his legs to either side of the blond so he can press as close as he can into Kei’s embrace. He’s wanted to hold onto Kei like this for a while now anyway, so it’s nice that he can do it without worrying that they’re so close that he’ll be given away by the feel of layered up fabric at his waist or the way that, no matter how much he works out, his waist and stomach still curves in soft ways that a boy’s doesn’t over his muscles. That even though he’s lucked out and inherited his father’s height, he’s still managed to inherit his mother’s hips and no amount of baggy clothing can hide it when there’s hands against them. Or about how his breasts aren’t perfectly flat in this sports bra and with the way they’re pressed up against each other Kei can more than likely feel them and how he didn’t bother with packing since these clothes are baggy and it’s not like Kei ever looks, but still.
All of that background whine of anxiety has slipped away to a dull rustle in the back of his mind, and it’s so relaxing. He knows it’s not always going to be that way, but damn it if it’s not amazing right now.
Kei closes his eyes and nuzzles the brunet’s ear as he feels Tadashi slowly relax into him. His glasses push up against his skin with the action but he can’t be bothered to reach up and take them off, and Tadashi doesn’t complain either. They sit like that for a long time until Tadashi’s stomach finally growls.
Kei can’t help but laugh derisively at this as Tadashi scrambles back, red as a tomato. “Hungry, are we?” he leers, which earns him a pillow in the face, but it’s worth it to tease Tadashi like he normally does. He gets to his feet and holds his hand out for Tadashi. “Let’s eat, then.”
Tadashi takes his hand and stubbornly doesn’t let go of it, even when Kei’s struggling to one-handedly put their food into the microwave to warm back up and shooting him glances that clearly say ‘really are you serious right now?’ . He laughs and scrunches his nose up and blithely chimes, “Sorry, Tsukki!” and Kei huffs a sigh. They both know Tadashi's not the least bit sorry (he almost never is) and that Kei's not really angry with him (again, he almost never is), but it's their familiar run-around and it's comforting and fun.
He lets go only when they sit to eat and Kei allows Tadashi the luxury of the extra dumpling (why the place packs in odd numbers they’ll never understand) as Tadashi slowly tells him the story of how he transitioned into the life he lives now, and what he has to do and why. They hook their ankles under the kitchen table as Kei listens intently, and lets Tadashi tell him the details that Google couldn’t probably give him even if he had worked up the nerve to search it in his panic earlier. Things that are personal and private, that only Tadashi could tell him.
Tadashi warns him that night that it’s not always easy, and tells him, with the same sort of stern, no-pulled-punches tone that he used back at the summer training camp, that if Kei’s not willing to work with him and try his best at this, he’ll end their relationship—both as friends and as boyfriends, if the need arises. “I spend my whole life worrying about this,” he says quietly in the darkness of Kei’s bedroom, where they’ve moved now that Kei’s parents are supposed to be coming home soon, pretending to be asleep so they won't be bothered. “If you can’t handle it, I need to know, Kei.”
Kei makes a noise in the back of his throat that sounds like a cross between a sigh and a choked-off sob, and he reaches up in the dark to pull gently at Tadashi’s hair before letting his hand fall to the other boy’s face. “I’ll try,” he says.
And if it were anybody but Kei saying that, Tadashi’s pretty sure he’d get angry—he’s so used to people (mostly distant relations that his mother tries to shield him from) brushing him off once they find out by saying ‘oh, I’ll try’ when asked to remember something simple, like he’s a boy and his name is Tadashi, that there’s no other option but weary indignation at this point. But it is Kei, and Kei saying he’ll try is tantamount to a promise that he’ll do everything Tadashi wants and needs him to, because Kei always skirts around everything with the barest minimum of effort and in this situation the minimum is those things that the ‘oh, I’ll try’ entails for the others.
Tadashi nuzzles against Kei’s hand and leans into him. “Okay,” he murmurs. “I’ll hold you to that.”
And Kei does try: He learns to read Tadashi’s face the same way Tadashi had learned to read his when they were kids, and learns how to discern which days are bad days and which days are good days from the way Tadashi holds himself and smiles. When it’s okay to rub Tadashi’s back and help him out of his binder when they get home; when he needs to stow away Tadashi’s favorite snacks into his bag and coax him into eating because he discovers that when Tadashi doesn’t eat, his anxiety gets worse; when to lag behind in practice so Tadashi doesn’t finish laps last and alone. He learns how to tell if it’s a day where Tadashi shouldn’t be touched unless Tadashi initiates it himself; in return he lets Tadashi know if it’s a day he doesn’t want to be smothered in affection so neither of their feelings get hurt. He learns when to be soft and patient when Tadashi’s grumpy because his binder won’t stay in one spot or because it hurts to breathe with it on, but he can't take it off. Tadashi treats Kei with the same reverent affection he always has, always attuned to Kei's moods and whims and the first to notice an impending panic attack, like Kei's own personal early warning system.
Kei learns to ask for everything, almost to the point of flustering Tadashi with his blunt questionings, but it’s the best method because they both have things they don’t want to do when it comes to intimacy. It’s embarrassing for both of them, really, but it ends up making them both more happy and comfortable with each other, so it stays and Tadashi adopts it too. They’re not really sure why their relationship wasn’t like this before, even when they were just friends; it could have saved them a lot of dancing around each other.
He learns more technical details as they get closer to the beginning of their third year, like the accommodations that are made to allow Tadashi to be on the team and how Takeda and Ukai bend backwards to make sure those rules are met, and how careful they are when the topic comes up with other schools and tournament officials. Tadashi teaches him about the things he has to do to get ready in the mornings, and how hard it was to find a doctor in Miyagi that didn’t say that he’d grow out of it or treated him like there was something horribly wrong with him. They talk about what they want out of their futures, college, everything.
Kei absorbs all this information like he did when he was a kid and was learning about dinosaurs and volleyball from Akiteru.
He learns slowly and stumbles because he’s out of his element, but Tadashi’s unfailingly patient with him like he always has been, because stumbling for Kei isn’t calling him a girl or by the wrong name, it’s forgetting to hold his tongue when a classmate is a little meaner to Tadashi than Kei would like and making the other student cry rather than letting Tadashi snark back or ignore it (“Tsukki, don’t be pathetic; it’s not our fault they don’t understand what a pinch server is”, Tadashi says afterwards, rolling his eyes and Kei knows he’s pissed off). It’s being unduly possessive of Tadashi when they visit other schools for practice matches (this earns Kei a punch on the arm for ‘being a shitty boyfriend’). It’s things that Kei would do anyway because he’s just kind of an asshole (he admits this), and he’s not used to the overwhelming desire to see Tadashi always smiling that grows in him each day they’re together.
Tadashi doesn’t always smile, because not all of Kei’s efforts can spare Tadashi from bad grades and poorly executed serves and cutting remarks from estranged relatives. And Kei’s not always happy either, because that’s just how it is. But they’ve always been good for each other when they try to be, so they keep that up and work with each other.
And Kei never, ever, again walks into the bathroom without knocking first.