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old times' sake

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now i'm missing your smile,
hear me out–
we could just ride around,

and the road not taken
looks real good now,

and it always leads
to you in my hometown.

‘tis the damn season (taylor swift)

 

There are always things that stain.

That, Iwaizumi Hajime knows to be fact. Some things just leave stubborn marks. Permanent marker used to scrawl notes and names on a whiteboard, accompanied by shameless giggling that rings in his head long after the room has gone quiet. The blue of candy deliberately eaten last, for the way they dye the hands and tongue sticky teal. The giggling again–a bright, haunting, sort of sound. His name, spoken out of lips shaped in a childish, pleading pout. Mud on truck tires, clumsy, inexperienced hands at the wheel. Giggling. His name, falling out of lips parted in–in disbelief, hurt. Indignant anger. Red wine on white shirts.

Some things do not wash out. Some things never change. Some things stay, stay, stay. Incessant. Always.

Like scrawls in his childhood bedroom and the memory of colours on his fingertips and the ghost of young, naive love.

✧ ✧

Miyagi hasn’t changed a bit.

Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Time changes most things, and Hajime is sure his hometown will be no exception. Neither was he.

The bus ride from Sendai Airport to the quiet suburbs is spent reacquainting himself with a city he hasn’t called home in three years. Apartment complexes are renovated, restaurants are swapped out, parks are redesigned. The place is in full holiday spirit, decked with technicolour fairy lights and garish tinsel and one too many inflatable santas. The world doesn’t pause once you leave. He left in spring, when the cherry blossoms had begun to bloom, and now comes back in winter, where the first snow has long since fallen. There are a plethora of things Hajime doesn’t recognise, and just as many that reawaken repressed memories.

He gets off at a stop a few blocks from his family home, and walks the same––now repaved–roads, bags and all, that he memorised as a child. It’s almost comically so, like walking home from volleyball practice. Bags and all.

(Well, maybe not everything.)

That reality is, at once, both reassuring and discomfiting.

A strange, uncomfortable nostalgia takes over. Just this side of suffocating. Somehow, grown too big to fit in such a small town, feeling too thoroughly other; but grateful that life has at least one constant. Even if that constant is the stray cat that follows him home, and his mother’s berating tone whenever he lets her in.

“Hajime!” She calls, her hair pulled up in the way she does when she’s been cooking. He reaches the gate with a guilty smile, and opens it just enough for the calico to dart through and start terrorising his mother’s peonies. It makes Hajime laugh, a small, helplessly amused thing. As does the lecture that predictably follows. “How many times have I told you about that cat, huh?”

Hajime grins wider. “How was I supposed to know she’d still be here?”

“That thing is here every time you’ve visited. She just won’t die.” His mother tuts disapprovingly, before waving him closer impatiently. “Ah, whatever. I needed to do some replanting anyway. Come here! Let me look at you.” She calls, eyes squinting with the force of her fond smile. It makes him feel a little warm, but still awkwardly navigating how to feel about parental affection. Like he’s twelve, instead of twenty one. Mother’s have that type of power, he supposes. The one you never quite grow out of.

He ambles over to the front door, snow crunching beneath his sneakers, and she ushers him into the genkan to slip off his shoes. She’s fussing over him, grabbing his bags and unwinding his scarf like she would when he was in middle school. The house smells like agedashi tofu–because of course, the only reason his mother wouldn’t pick him up from the airport would be to make his favourite food for dinner–and he can hear some news channel running in the background. Time does not change all things.

“You’ve seen me recently.” Hajime replies belatedly, trailing behind her to his childhood bedroom, where she deposits his luggage.

That comment earns him an angry smack in the shoulder. “You haven’t come home in years!”

Hajime winces guilty. Exams and money and life have, apparently, never been an excuse for failing to be the filial son. “I call, at least?”

“Yes, yes. At least my son loves me enough to call.” She replies, patting his hair with gentle strokes that belie her exasperation. “Just get settled, okay? I’ll get you for dinner soon.”

She slips out of his room with quick steps, just as a timer in the kitchen goes off, and Hajime is left alone again.

Coming back to his childhood bedroom is a strange experience. The crisis inducing nostalgia is back, full force, and it torments him relentlessly. Hajime scrubs a hand over his face, flopping onto his bed with a loud sigh. Looking around is a trip down memory lane, that feels more like being violently hurled across a field. His belongings are almost exactly the same as he’d left them at eighteen, though he knows his mother cleans the room regularly, so all he sees are fragments of his youth. Faded photos of Seijoh jammed in the edge of a mirror frame, movie posters barely hanging by weak strips of tape, godzilla figurines on the shelf. A small whiteboard, over a decade old, words immortalised in permanent marker.

That one actually makes Hajime sit up, a soft curse on the tip of his tongue.

Some things don’t change.

Instead, they persist, stupidly stubborn. He swears he’d thrown that whiteboard out, or shoved it somewhere in the back of his closet, before he left. One last act of personal defiance, against feelings so deeply ingrained in him that they will never fade. But fuck, he really tried. Permanent marker on the whiteboard of Hajime’s life, or some bullshit like that.

The scrawl is, frankly, ugly. Almost unreadable–almost, because Hajime had spent years learning how to decode it–because for all that Oikawa Tooru is beautiful and charming, his handwriting has always been atrocious. Unless it’s changed in the last three years. Hajime doesn’t know.

✧ ✧

Hajime makes his first ever friend at five years old.

Or maybe it was earlier–or later, even. He isn’t quite sure. All he can remember from the nebulous ages of seven and under is Oikawa Tooru. His memories clarify a little bit at eight onwards, for some reason he can’t explain, though he’s sure it has to do with discovering volleyball. Tooru is there, too.

So, Hajime makes his first ever friend some time before he turns seven, and that friend is Oikawa Tooru.

They’re neighbours first, and their mothers are well acquainted. Naturally, becoming inseparable best friends is par for the course of his suburban childhood, which is exactly what happens. He and Tooru meet, half hiding behind their mothers’ legs, and within minutes are hunting bugs in Tooru’s backyard, passing around a sky blue net between them.

Their lives follow that trajectory for an incredibly long time. Hajime-and-Tooru become a unit, a ‘they come as a pair, please do not separate’ situation. Their school teachers become used to (mostly Tooru’s) pleas to let them sit together, stand in line together, and even partner together on projects later down the line. Hajime was usually fine either way, but always enjoyed that Tooru liked being his friend enough to always fight for the place beside him.

Sometime between five and eight, Tooru picks up the unfortunate–though, at times, practical–habit of writing his name on everything he owns. He claimed his sister started it, labeling all his clothes and toys so he’d never have an excuse to lose them at school. Hats, jumpers, the labels of alien plushies, all marked with a deep black Oikawa Tooru.

And, at some point, Hajime.

Or the closest thing he could get to it.

“Hey!” Hajime had called one day, frowning at Tooru perched on his bed, Hajime’s coveted mini whiteboard in his lap and a dangerous looking marker in his hand. “You gotta–gotta use the other ones!”

Even in childhood (especially in childhood) Tooru is incredibly stubborn, so naturally, he did not listen. Hajime remembers, with startling clarity, the way Tooru had stuck his tongue out, mischievous and shameless. “Nope! Then you’ll just rub it out!”

“You’re supposed to!” Hajime argued back, abandoning the tower of blocks he’d been building on the floor for Tooru’s latest stint.

Tooru looked up from his writing with a deep pout. “No way.” He’d said, in that incredibly serious way Hajime’s mom sometimes sounds when he’s said something wrong. “You can’t rub this out. It’s forever!” Then, he lifted up the whiteboard to proudly show a big, bold TOORU’S between the sticker label of Hajime’s own name and the corner where he usually tried to draw godzilla.

Hajime had blinked, offended. “Hey! You can’t steal my stuff.” He declared, almost upset that Tooru would try, though entirely unsurprised that his writing was still very ugly. As was Hajime’s, at the time, but that’s why his mom opted for sticker labels instead. “Not cool.”

“I’m not stealing the whiteboard, silly!” Tooru replied, even more offended that Hajime didn’t understand straight away. “I can't write on you, so I gotta write on this thing. Iwa-chan is Tooru’s! Forever!”

“Oh.” A pause. Hajime thought about it, but only for a moment, quickly deciding it made perfect sense. “Okay. Is Tooru mine too?”

“Of course!” Tooru had answered easily. Like there was no other possibility. Like there was no world where Tooru was not Hajime’s, in the same way that he was his. “Forever. Pinky swear!”

Hajime would later come to realise that pinky swears did not mean shit, but at the time, it had been an unbreakable promise. One of the many permanent marks Tooru would leave on his life.

✧ ✧

Dinner begins as a quiet affair.

He’s called to eat soon after he rediscovers the whiteboard–and all associated, unwelcome feelings–which is a blessing in disguise. Hajime then immerses himself in the missed taste of home cooked agedashi tofu and his mother’s ceaseless chatter, as she updates him on all the decorations he needs to pick up for her soon (because coming home for the holidays from across the world means being relegated to errand boy, apparently).

It’s nice, and leaves him feeling comfortable and sated in that way he never gets at Irvine, because college students are loud and live off instant ramen.

It also, unfortunately, does not last very long.

“So,” His mother begins, cautious and curious, which is never a good thing. “I was just on the phone with Oikawa-san, you remember her, of course, Tooru’s mom?”

Hajime almost spits out his tofu. Barely avoids choking on it, though his mother pays that no mind as she bulldozes on.

“She told me Tooru was coming home, too! His flight lands tomorrow morning! Why didn’t you let me know? I thought you guys would’ve come together, in that case?”

What the fuck.

What the fuck, Hajime thinks, internally panicking. He processes the questions in the same way he processed his finals. Which is, to say, his fight or flight instincts immediately kick in. How is he going to survive this one?

Iwaizumi Hajime and Oikawa Tooru have been inseparable since (approximately) age five. They began officially dating some time in high school, in the ripe space between sixteen and seventeen. Both their parents are well acquainted, and quite supportive, of those two facts. In fact, his mother has always adored Tooru as if he were her own son. She was probably banking on Hajime making that legally official some time in the future.

Iwaizumi Hajime and Oikawa Tooru broke up three years ago.

Their parents do not know that.

“The, uh–the flights didn’t line up.” Hajime lies, like a fucking dumbass. “Really booked this time of year, so we decided to come separately.”

We did not decide on anything. They haven’t spoken since they both left for different countries. The last time Hajime heard Tooru’s voice was through a laptop screen, when his roommate had been watching a news segment on the Argentinian volleyball league. Trust that Hajime would get paired with someone equally as obsessed with volleyball as himself, though he hadn’t been particularly grateful about it that time.

Hajime regrets not telling her sooner. Not telling her straight away. He never kept secrets from his mom, especially since it’d been the two of them for almost his entire life, but this–this was different. She loved Tooru, loved him-and-Tooru, loved his family. At the time, it felt wrong to take that away. It hadn’t even felt like a definite break up, exactly, what had happened between him and Tooru. More like a discussion about a possible ‘break’ gone incredibly fucking wrong and then never settled, considering the moving across the world thing. Tooru had been particularly mad, too, and naturally, Hajime followed.

“Ah, I see,” comes his mother’s understanding reply. “You’ll pick him up from the airport tomorrow, then? That’s what Oikawa-san assumed.”

Never settled, and never shared with either of their families, apparently.

“You didn’t pick me up from the airport, though.” Hajime says, a feeble attempt to derail the conversation. “Maybe Tooru wants to catch the bus.”

Hajime knows that’s bullshit. His mother knows too, and laughs incredulously. “Of course he doesn’t want to catch the bus, we both know that. And you got your agedashi tofu. Be grateful.”

“I am!” Hajime replies, shoving more in his mouth in show of his boundless gratitude. That earns him an exasperated sigh and more reminders about decorations. It might be a bit of a drive, so you can use the truck. Oh, and to pick Tooru up too. I can’t wait to see him again!

They are so screwed.

✧ ✧

Calling Hanamaki to ask for Tooru’s number is one of the most uncomfortable things he’s experienced in a long time. That says a lot, considering his roommate in Irvine regularly vlogged in his vicinity. And then posted them online, with unsuspecting Hajime in the background. Often, accidentally shirtless in their dorm.

(Hajime had begun to suspect he was being caught out on purpose, but by then, his friends had already amassed a wide variety of videos with him. Apparently, he was good for their follower count, or something like that.)

“Well, if it isn’t the Iwaizumi Hajime,” is the first thing Hanamaki says to him. He regrets the call already. “Running back to me now that you’re tired of girls asking for your user?”

“No one talks like that.” Hajime replies, monotonous. He is reminded of some incredibly awkward moments involving being asked for ‘his @’ and immediately providing his school issued email address. “Don’t make me hang up.”

“Hey! You’re the one that called. And at a reasonable time, too. I’m surprised.”

Hajime sighs. A heavy, exhausted one. Flops down onto his bed again, staring up at the ceiling forlornly. He feels, at once, both too old, and entirely too young, for this. “Yeah, about that. I wanted to ask you about something.”

“You sound stressed. I’m listening.” Hanamaki sounds more entertained than he does worried. He probably should’ve called Matsukawa, but the damage is done. They share everything with each other, so Hanamaki would’ve found out and annoyed him either way.

“Has Tooru changed his number in the last three years?”

Hanamaki’s breath audibly hitches. At least he knows about their relatively messy breakup. Matsukawa, too. It had derailed a lot of their post graduation plans. “You want Oikawa’s number?” It’s a question and an accusation, which is fair enough. Hajime can't find it in him to be offended at the tone.

“I’m actually back home right now, and apparently Tooru’s coming home too. Our, um. Our parents don’t know we broke up, so.” Hajime coughs awkwardly, feeling stupid again after saying it out loud. Did they both think they could pretend their way through the rest of their lives? Evade and circle around questions forever? Never come back to Japan long enough for it to matter?

What?!” Hanamaki hisses. Hajime instinctively moves the phone away from his ear. “How do they not know?! It’s been years!”

Good fucking question.

“Good fucking question.” says Hajime. He is beyond censoring his thoughts at this point. “I don’t know. We didn’t–it wasn’t planned. I never visit, you know that, and Mom hardly asks about Tooru when she calls. I assumed she knew somehow, with her–I don’t know. Mother instincts.”

“This is the second most stupidest thing you’ve ever said or done in your life, Iwaizumi. We both know the first.”

“Yeah.” He agrees. They both know. “So, has his number changed? Both our parents expect me to pick him up from the airport tomorrow. Should give him a heads up, at least.”

“I’ll text it to you.” Hanamaki acquiesces with a sigh. He’s gotten quite a few of those today, Hajime realises. “Oikawa probably won’t see it until he lands, though. Think it’ll be okay?”

Hajime thinks about the way things ended. The complete silence between them over the last three years. How Hajime had put off coming home for so long, simply to avoid a situation like this.

“Probably not,” Hajime replies, with a nonchalance that belies his growing nausea. “But he didn’t say anything either, so. Maybe he’s got his own shit with his family to work out.”

Hanamaki hums over the line. “So, what, you guys will play pretend for the parents for Christmas? Can you even get through that? And then what?”

“No idea.” answers Hajime, to all of it. “Man, I regret so much right now.” He contemplates screaming into a pillow–you know, for the catharsis–but Hanamaki rudely interrupts that train of thought.

Ganbare, Iwa-chan.”

“Oh, fuck you.” Hajime snaps, and finally hangs up.

✧ ✧

Twenty one has been kind to Oikawa Tooru in a way that is ridiculously unfair, entirely unsurprising, and incredibly dangerous.

It’s to be expected, really. Tooru has always been a cut above the rest of them, born disarmingly beautiful and diligent enough to maintain it. Charm and charisma are packed tightly in the broad lines of his shoulders, the soft swoop of his hair (shorter, Hajime belatedly registers), and the elegant curl of his fingers, as he clutches a single suitcase. He looks a little tanner now too, warmer at the edges. Thoroughly sunkissed by Argentina's skies, donning a woolen scarf in San Juan blue.

He is, in a word, gorgeous. In a feeling, devastating.

And, as always, Hajime’s innate awareness of this fact does nothing to negate its effects on him. He’d be a fool to think that time, distance and oceans apart would ever change that. Older, wiser, and irrevocably weaker.

Wiser, his ass. This was a bad idea. Magnum opus of bad ideas–which was truly saying something, because Hajime has been through some shit at Irvine–but he’s nothing if not resilient. Diligent, according to every parent-teacher interview he’d sat through in middle school. Stubborn to a fault, according to every friend he’s ever made.

(Tooru included, though he’d always call it one of Iwa-chan’s many charms.)

His resilient, diligent, stubborn self can do this. Of course he can.

Standing awkwardly at arrivals, Hajime finally catches Tooru’s gaze, and fuck, if it isn’t as sharp and perceptive as ever. Tooru is almost right in front of him now, so it’s easy to see how his expression completely closes off. Like Hajime doesn’t deserve his honesty anymore. The thought is uncomfortable and awkward, but with it comes a sort of–acceptance, perhaps. Resignation. The way Tooru cautiously approaches him is it’s own special brand of torture, but Hajime did not expect anything else. If anything, he assumed Tooru would immediately run the other way.

Small victories.

 

“Ah, so it is you.” Tooru says once he reaches him, faux nonchalant. As if that gives him the higher ground. It’s an incredibly anticlimactic airport reunion, as far as those go, but somehow unsurprising. Almost amusing, if not for the way Hajime’s chest feels like it’s about to physically cave in. “It’s been a while, Iwa-chan.”

That one does make him physically react. Hajime flinches slightly, but enough for Tooru to catch. There’s a strange mix of victory and regret in his eyes when Hajime checks, and he knows Tooru probably did it on purpose. Used a nickname neither of them have heard in years, something Hajime doesn’t deserve to hear, just to see how he’d react.

Tooru is still undoubtedly petty, equally as pretty, and some things really don’t change.

“It–um, it really has. Been a while.” Hajime replies belatedly. He jangles a set of old car keys, ones they’re both familiar with, and gestures to the exit. “Need a ride home?”

“Giving me a choice, are you?”

“Always.” The word makes Tooru stop in his tracks, when he'd already started to walk. Hajime, for his part, still hasn’t moved an inch. “Seriously. If you’re not, fuck, I dunno, okay with this? I’m not forcing you into my truck.”

Tooru smiles blithely, head tilted, eyes boring into Hajime’s. A challenge. “I’m completely fine, Iwa-chan. Aren’t you?” He grins wider, then, just barely a smirk. Tooru appears entirely unaffected, like they hadn’t spent three years ignoring each other’s existence after a particularly messy break up, and Hajime–

Hajime had somehow forgotten, after all that time repressing his feelings and building a new life, how unashamedly annoying Tooru could be.

Rolling his eyes, he begins to head for the exit. Hajime is resilient, diligent and stubborn. He is also an unwilling, but lifelong, player of Oikawa Tooru’s games. Something of an expert. “Yeah, okay. We’ll do it your way. Wanna grab lunch, too?”

✧ ✧

Hajime instinctively drives to the ramen shop they frequented in high school. Back then, they’d memorised the route from Seijoh, often expending left over post-practice energy on racing each other to the entrance. Him, Tooru, Hanamaki and Matsukawa. It’s a small, homey place, wedged between Mattsun’s favourite comic book store and the candy shop Tooru had practically lived in at age nine. Hajime feels almost apologetic for the reminder.

Then, Tooru’s stomach grumbles.

“Someone seems hungry.” Hajime says, almost teasing, as he kills the engine and unbuckles his seatbelt. Tooru follows suit, throwing a scathing look Hajime’s way for the comment, but otherwise not responding. They slip out of the car and make their way into the familiar store, Hajime chuckling under his breath. High school Tooru would’ve definitely picked a fight or shot back with something unnecessarily dramatic, and Hajime feels almost proud for the shred of maturity Tooru shows.

“You can wait in the car if you’d like, Iwa-chan, since you’re so above natural bodily responses.”

Hajime takes that back. Maturity nowhere to be found.

“Alright, no jokes then.” Hajime relents, subconsciously leading them to their usual corner booth. Tooru picks up the menu, but they both have their orders memorised. “The usual?”

“My tastes could’ve changed in the past three years.” Tooru says flippantly, aimlessly scanning through the options.

“Has it?”

Tooru, admirably, manages to hold out for a full minute, before he suddenly sighs. “No.” He mutters, as if the very fact kills him.

Having expected this, Hajime is already flagging down a server and ordering their ramen. It’s a familiar experience, doing things in pairs, and a tough habit to shake when he moved. Accidentally ordering food for two, and other embarrassing moments like that.

The atmosphere is stifling, once the server leaves. Around them, the restaurant hums with life, a steady murmur of conversations and laughter, and Hajime feels incredibly awkward in their silence. They stew in it, for a long while as they wait for their food. Tooru is pointedly not doing anything, not even taking his phone out to pass the time. Instead, he looks at Hajime, an unreadable expression on his face.

Well, while they’re here, he might as well bite the bullet.

“Listen, Oikawa–”

“What, no Shittykawa? No Tooru? We aren't strangers, Iwa-chan.”

Aren’t we, though? Hajime thinks.

He doesn’t know a thing about who Tooru has become in the last three years. Who his teammates are, what nicknames they call him, what new food he likes to eat. Whether his smiles still mean the same things they did at six, at twelve, at sixteen. He’s a little scared to find out how much more he doesn’t know, so he won’t ask.

Instead, he says, “Right. Shittykawa,” Hajime pauses. He hasn’t said that name sober in a while. “Tooru. Are you sure this is okay?”

“It’s just lunch?” Tooru replies nonchalantly, motioning to the ramen that’s just arrived. “Let’s just eat.”

Hajime sighs, and they say a quiet itadakimasu before digging in. Tooru eats like a starved man, absolutely no regard for what he looks like to Hajime. His own mind is preoccupied, though, and it’s not long before Hajime is trying to broach the topic once more. The proverbial elephant in the room.

“It’s not just lunch,” Hajime begins. Tooru’s head lifts up slightly, an eyebrow raised judgmentally, balefully glaring at him over his ramen. It’s unfortunate that Hajime is still attracted to that. “I’m talking about–about us, you know? Our parents think we’re still together, and that I’m picking you up like the doting, devoted boyfriend I am.” His throat closes around boyfriend, and Hajime feels an acute sense of longing in that moment. Embarrassing, that he’s on the verge of collapse in front of his ex at their childhood ramen shop.

Tooru sits up straighter, quiet and contemplative for a brief moment. Then, he loudly slurps another mouthful of noodles. “What about it?”

“It’s one thing to just not tell our families, but we’re–we’re pretending. Lying.” Hajime says, near frantic, one breath away from shaking Tooru’s shoulders from across the table. He thinks it’s a little ridiculous, how seemingly well Tooru is taking this, when he hasn’t handled anything else gracefully in his entire life.

“We’ll just tell them at the end.”

Hajime blinks. “What?”

“After Christmas,” Tooru elaborates with an eyeroll. “Y’know, give them one last nice, perfect holiday, then tell them we’re breaking up, ‘cause long distance is too hard, or something.”

“I–” Hajime is at a loss for words. He looks at his own half finished bowl, then Tooru’s. Almost has another crisis, because Tooru is eating his carrots, when he used to always pass them off to Hajime. “Why are you okay with that?”

“Even if you hadn’t come back this year, I would’ve told them anyway.” Tooru says simply, though there’s a bitter twist to his smile. “I’m getting a little sick of my mom asking me questions I can’t answer anymore.”

Hajime knows the feeling all too well. Almost every call over the years with his mother has ended with a ‘oh, how’s Tooru doing, by the way? You never talk about him any more!’. Hajime always has to make up some shoddy lie based on an international sports news segment he’s watched.

“Okay.” Hajime answers, because saying no to Tooru has always been difficult. Because there are so many habits he has yet to outgrow. “One last perfect Christmas, then.”

✧ ✧

Their one last Christmas is not perfect.

It might be too soon to call it–it’s not even Christmas yet, technically–but Hajime just has this feeling.

After he dropped Tooru back home after lunch, his mother had bombarded him with questions–how did Tooru look, how was he feeling, how has Argentina been. Hajime had given her vague answers, spouting some bullshit about Tooru being too tired from his flight to talk much, but he’s great, he looks great.

(He didn’t lie that time, at least.)

That was two days ago though, and today, Hajime can’t make any more excuses. At the insistence of both their mother’s, Hajime is back to being designated errand boy, with the added addition of Tooru. Apparently, he’s no longer allowed to claim jet lag and stay in bed all day, like he’d done yesterday.

They’re picking up a Christmas tree his mother impulsively ordered, because theirs is too old, but that seems less important than the fact that Tooru is in his passenger seat. Again. The deja vu dates back much further than the airport. It goes all the way back, to learning how to drive together in this very car, spontaneous picnic dates in the cargo bed, driving up to some nameless hill and lying side by side like teenagers in a pretentious coming of age movie.

Hajime is an uncomfortable mix of nostalgic and apologetic the entire trip, but it’s not until they’ve arrived at the mall that one of them speaks up.

“Before you say anything,” Tooru begins, as if he’s read Hajime’s mind, “It’s fine.”

Hajime swallows, dumbstruck. “O-okay?”

“Okay.” Tooru reiterates firmly. He catches Hajime’s gaze from across the console, knowing and determined. Hajime has never been able to lie to Tooru. Even when his mouth said one thing, his eyes would always betray him. He wonders what Tooru sees in them, for him to say, “Stop feeling sorry for everything we do together. We both agreed, right? One last Christmas.”

“Right.” Hajime agrees. He feels strange, to be on the receiving end of the ‘snap out of it’ tone he’d always used with Tooru when they were younger. “You can wait here while I get the tree. If you want.”

Tooru hums a quiet affirmative, shooing him away with a flippant hand. Three years ago, Hajime might have retaliated by grabbing said hand, and teasingly kissing it as if Tooru was a fairytale princess. Three years ago, Tooru may have let him, dramatically fanning his blushing face and giggling like a child, charmed.

For obvious reasons, that does not happen, and Hajime leaves for the stupid tree.

After about ten minutes, he makes his way back to the truck and loads the boxed, artificial tree in the back. He’s contemplating how to kill time for the day–since his mother warned him that he better not be home any time before dinner–when Tooru sticks his head out the window.

“Hey, Iwa-chan!” Tooru calls, hair slightly ruffled by the cool wind, slight grin on his face. Real. Hajime can’t help the way he instantly mirrors it, immeasurable fondness creeping up on him like the winter chill does. Slowly, with no warning, until his fingers turn numb and it’s already too late. “Fancy an ice skating date?”

If Hajime had still been carrying the box, he definitely would’ve dropped it on his feet.

“A what?

Tooru wrinkles his nose cutely, like Hajime is being unreasonable, when he just asked his ex boyfriend on an ice skating date. And isn’t taking it back. “There’s a rink, right there! It looks fun, doesn’t it?”

He points to the front of the mall, where a sizable outdoor rink is set up, decorated with Christmas lights and tinsel. There’s a good amount of people there–couples and families, mostly–skating to the melody of All I Want For Christmas. Hajime had walked past it earlier, of course, but was a little too preoccupied to register it fully.

“I mean, I guess–”

Tooru doesn’t let him finish, before he’s jumping out of the car and pulling Hajime towards the crowds by the wrist. “My mom wants pictures of us, too, so don’t feel too awkward, okay?”

Ah. Of course, it’s for the performance. For their parents.

“Can you even skate?” Hajime finally asks, once they’ve arrived at the rink, donning their rental skates. He can skate, albeit not amazingly, but his friends back at Irvine liked going the whole nine yards whenever they spent Christmas together. By that, he meant a crappily decorated tree in their dorm, group ice skating, and getting drunk on Christmas eve. The works.

Suddenly, the song on the speakers changes. They’ve moved on from Mariah Carey, and now play Last Christmas. The irony is not lost on Hajime by any means.

“How hard could it be?” Tooru replies flippantly, tying his skates with a flourish. He’s slightly shaky when he stands, quickly entering the ice and grabbing the rails for balance. Hajime instinctively snorts, which earns him a small, but no less dramatic, pout. As expected, from Tooru.

He looks soft like this, Hajime quietly muses, as he joins him, not as off balance. Tooru is beautiful like this, too, bathed in the red-green of neon Christmas lights, buried in a knitted white sweater and the blue scarf he wore yesterday. Awkwardly finding his footing, cheering quietly when he can finally stand on his own, immediately shooting Hajime a triumphant smile.

“Told you.” says Tooru, gliding back a few steps. “Easy.”

He skates back a few more, a challenge in his gaze, when he suddenly loses balance, dangerously close to falling.

It’s like a scene out of a low budget romcom. Hajime’s body reacts before his mind does, quickly shooting forward and grabbing Tooru by the waist. Tooru is clutching onto his arms, eyes widening in surprise, mouth agape. Their faces are torturously close together, cold breath mingling, gazes locked. Tooru smells like candy canes and that distinct Tooru scent that, at six, he’d decided was his favourite in the world. Warm and familiar.

“Easy, huh?” Hajime murmurs, lost in the moment and the closeness and Tooru’s stupid, stupid eyes. They’ve only spent a day and a half together, at most. He absolutely will not last even a week like this, without doing something incredibly stupid. Loving Tooru is too easy.

Tooru blinks rapidly, breaking the atmosphere with a derisive laugh. He straightens up, letting his hands slip away from Hajime and moving back a step. Not falling, this time. “Classic Iwa-chan,” He says, too strained to pass as casual. “Always there to catch me when I fall.”

Not fair.

That was unfair, and they both knew it. Tooru instantly presses his lips together, looking almost regretful for the first time since they’d met again. Hajime could call him out easily, draw lines and boundaries where they should’ve been drawn days ago, but he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t, because loving Tooru is too fucking easy, and Hajime has one Christmas left, and old habits never really die.

“If you were good at this, I wouldn’t have to.” Hajime says with a teasing grin. Tooru watches cautiously, quietly. Hajime responds to the unspoken question by skating further out and offering a tentative hand. No more apologies. “I won’t let you fall again.”

Tooru studies Hajime, and the hand he’s held probably more than his own mother’s, with sharp eyes. Then, makes some sort of internal decision, because he reaches out and grabs Hajime’s hand.

“I’m good at everything.” He retorts, pointedly not addressing their interlocked fingers. Then, Tooru smiles, something cheeky and excited. “Now hurry up and teach me, so I can race you around the rink and beat you.”

Hajime laughs, disbelieving. A little giddy, maybe. He skates forward, pulling Tooru with him slowly. “That’s not a very good incentive.”

“You’ll agree anyway, though.”

And he does, obviously. Top of the list of habits he can’t outgrow is make Tooru happy. Ironic, all things considered, but he can’t help but try anyway.

The majority of their day is spent like that–skating around the rink, hand in hand. Tooru occasionally has his own impromptu karaoke session with whatever Christmas song is playing, and Hajime tries desperately not to be endeared by that.

(He fails, of course.)

At one point, Hajime accidentally lets it slip that ice skating was a friend-mas tradition back at Irvine. He doesn’t know what compels him to share that, awkward as they still are about the lives they lived apart, but he can’t take it back.

Tooru, who never fails to surprise him, simply replies with, “Tell me about it.”

Hajime stops in surprise, accidentally making Tooru bump into his back. “Huh?”

“Don’t make it weird, Iwa-chan.” Tooru says, attempting to play it cool, but there’s a light dusting of pink on his cheeks. Hopefully not just from the cold. Tooru won’t look him in the eyes. “Tell me about your stupid friend-mas traditions. And–and the friends you have there. And whatever else. Everything.”

“I–”

“Just in case my mom asks, y’know. Keep up the act and all.” Tooru quickly adds, before Hajime can interject. Something in him wilts, disappointed, and he’s too busy berating himself for even hoping to catch the regretful look in Tooru’s eyes.

“Of course.” Hajime replies, nodding to himself, before he continues to pull them along. It’s only logical, after all, if Tooru is to be his boyfriend while they’re with their families, he should know about Hajime’s life. And visa versa. “Only if you tell me about Argentina, too. In case my mom asks.”

“That’s only fair.”

So, Hajime tells him. About Irvine, and sports science, and almost failing his finals. About graduating soon, and possibly interning under Takashi Utsui, who was Ushijima Wakatoshi’s dad–and hey, I actually ran into Ushiwaka a couple years back, if you can believe it. That one gets a reaction out of Tooru more so than anything else he’s said today, which is amusing as it is entirely unsurprising.

He talks about his ridiculous roommates, too, and the scraggly mini-tree they bring out to decorate their dorm every year. About learning how to skate–ice skating and regular skating–because skateboarding is a lot more fun than walking around campus. He doesn’t tell Tooru about the time he accidentally gave a girl his email instead of a social media handle, because that’s embarrassing, and he has his dignity.

Hajime also neglects to mention the countless drunk Christmases, also because it’s embarrassing, but mostly because a lot of those nights led to him drunkenly lamenting their breakup.

True to his word, Tooru also tells him all about Argentina. Playing for San Juan, and how hard it was to learn Spanish, and all his national level teammates. About buying an electric scooter, because he didn’t have the money for a car, but he liked the independence of driving himself around. Hajime could picture it–Tooru in some loose white blouse, sunkissed, riding along beach side roads on his Vespa, like the protagonist of a Netflix romcom vaguely set somewhere in South America.

The image was enough to make anybody swoon, let alone someone who was already stupidly attracted to Tooru.

Tooru also mentions how he briefly met Shou-chan in Brazil earlier this year, and Hajime reacts similarly to how Tooru did with Ushijima–unabashed shock and poorly concealed jealousy. Hajime lets him tell the story, though, about Hinata Shouyou and Rio and beach volleyball, because he is nothing if not weak to the way Tooru looks when he’s excited.

They share all this as they idly skate around the rink, hum of the crowd and the incessant Christmas songs fading into the background as they lose themselves in playing catch up. There is no one to watch this act, but their hands stay intertwined all the same. As if three years apart could break old, bone deep habits.

Ironically, Tooru forgets all about the race. And taking pictures.

✧ ✧

Loving Tooru has always been easy. Like breathing–steady and subconscious.

It didn’t even register, for a long time, that the feeling was love. It was just, knowing all of Tooru’s favourite and least favourite foods, ranked. Knowing his mood based on what drink he ordered from the vending machine in the morning, or how he sighed, or the way his smile curled. It was always eating the things Tooru left for last, like carrots in his ramen and blue candy from the shop next door.

It was never leaving Tooru to his own devices, lest he run himself into the ground. It was always being there, with the right words or the first aid kit, in the cases he did anyway.

Hajime has spent almost his whole life caring for Tooru, because he never could do it himself. Loving Tooru, because it was simple and easy.

They begin dating in the same way–simple and easy.

It happens some time after their second year of high school, ironically, just before the Christmas holidays. They’re walking home from their last practice of the year, hands swinging between them, almost touching. Practice had been particularly meaningful, since Tooru (unsurprisingly) was named captain for next year. The #1 jersey is meticulously folded into his bag, Hajime knows, and the thought of Tooru wearing that next year fills him with an immeasurable amount of pride.

Aside from that, Hajime ponders over what to do for break, and how he kind of misses holding Tooru’s hand. They haven’t walked home hand in hand since they were kids, but the sidewalk is pretty narrow and his hands feel pretty cold.

“Hey,” Hajime says, snapping Tooru out of whatever volleyball induced haze he’s still in. Probably planning on how to run the team next year and whip them into shape to beat Shiratorizawa. “Can I hold your hand?”

Tooru freezes. “What?

Hajime blinks. “What?” He parrots, a little confused. “Is that a weird thing to ask? I mean, it’s cold, and we’ve held hands before…”

“When we were like, six!”

There’s a strange silence, for a moment, before Hajime breaks and says, “So, you don’t want to hold my hand, then?”

The tips of Tooru’s ears are a bright, endearing red. He sighs dramatically, before reaching out to interlock their hands. “I didn’t say that.” He mumbles, embarrassed, before pulling them along the sidewalk.

Hajime stumbles after him, and his heart beats in double time. It’s a familiar sensation, something he always experiences around Tooru, so he doesn’t question it. Instead, he admires Tooru’s hands. They’ve always been beautiful to Hajime, and he hopes that’s not weird, or anything. Because they are beautiful, really–slim, elegant, well kept. Hardworking and strong. Setter’s hands. Tooru’s hands.

Hajime also wonders what else Tooru would grant, if only he asked. In most things, Tooru was annoyingly stubborn and childishly contrary, but maybe

“Hey,” Hajime says again, after they’ve been walking for a while. They’re almost home.

Tooru turns to him, glaring, but the red has travelled from his ears, down to his cheeks. It’s incredibly adorable. “What now, Iwa-chan?” He snipes petulantly, but it’s all for show. Always is, with Tooru.

“If I asked you, can I kiss you, what would you do?”

“Iwa-chan!” Tooru cries, stopping again. Because of their hands, Hajime has to stop too. Tooru looks almost upset, which wasn’t the intended effect at all. “Don’t make jokes like that.”

“I wasn’t joking.” Hajime says instantly. Easily.

He’s distantly aware that it should definitely be more awkward, probably. The general consensus around romance and relationships and love–according to miscellaneous things heard in classrooms and locker rooms–is that it’s awkward. Uncomfortable. To be avoided at all costs, unless the cute girl who sits at the back confesses first, then hey, maybe relationships aren’t so bad!

Hajime has never felt like that. Both about the girl that sits at the back (she’s nice, he guesses, but he doesn’t even know her name, and only vaguely knows what she looks like), and love.

All the things people said about love and relationships, he mostly had with Tooru already. Everything other guys felt about pretty girls in their class, he felt about Tooru already. The realisation should be more stressful–awkward and uncomfortable, like most people say–but it isn’t. It’s comforting, in a way. Almost logical even. Of course, Hajime is in love with Tooru. How could he not be, when they’ve spent most of their lives glued together? It just seems like one less thing to worry about.

Tooru stares at him, speechless, and for the first time in Hajime’s life, he can’t read his expression.

“I wasn’t joking. About wanting to kiss you.” Hajime repeats. The afternoon sun is setting, casting a warm glow on Tooru’s face. His pretty face, with it’s high, defined cheekbones. Long lashes that frame expressive, honest eyes. Pretty pink lips, usually pulled into an insufferable smirk that Hajime has no trouble throwing a volleyball at. He’ll let himself just look, today. No projectile or lectures.

Tooru swallows. Scans his face, perceptive and knowing. Makes some sort of internal decision, because he says, “Is this a confession, Iwa-chan?”

“Do you need one of those, to know that I love you?”

Love is a big word, for two sixteen year olds. Love is a big word for anyone. It’s an even bigger feeling, surely, but it has always come easy to Hajime. At least, when it came to Tooru.

Tooru’s face splits into a bright grin. He laughs at Hajime’s unabashed sincerity, which would be offensive, if not for the way Hajime’s love grows with the sound of Tooru’s joy.

Then, he pulls Hajime closer, eyes dancing with mirth, and whines, “How can you be the most romantically unromantic person ever?”

Then, Tooru kisses Hajime.

On the sidewalk, halfway between Seijoh and home, they share their first kiss. It’s soft, almost chaste, as far as kisses go, but Hajime is completely charmed. By everything. The way Tooru smiles into the kiss, unashamedly happy. The way Tooru gently places his free hand on Hajime’s jaw, cradling it softly. Marvelling at the touch.

Hajime easily sees himself chasing that feeling forever, which should be scary. It will be, in a year's time, but for now it isn’t, so they kiss a little more until they’re parting for breath, giggly and giddy. Tooru’s eyes are wide, god damn sparkling, and he cannot be real. Hajime is enamoured.

“So, you did want to kiss me, then?”

“Shut up, Iwa-chan.”

✧ ✧

Their one last Christmas is still not perfect.

But it’s not completely, heartbreakingly terrible.

Again, it’s not Christmas yet–though it will be in a couple of days–so Hajime might be prematurely jumping the gun. But, again, he has a feeling. Maybe he’s still on a proverbial high after the Ice Skating Incident yesterday, but it seems like he and Tooru can get along relatively well, whether or not their parents are present. Of course, they have to play it up when they’re home, which still feels a little awkward.

Like now, decorating the newly assembled tree in Hajime’s living room, with his mother watching over them like an overly invested hawk. He doesn’t understand why they even have to do it, considering the tree will be packed away in less than a week's time, but he assumes it has something to do with all the things Hajime’s mother missed him doing.

Iwa-chan, you’re not doing it right.”

Hajime jumps, nearly dropping the garish red bauble he’d been about to hang.

Beside him, Tooru is glaring at him judgmentally, which looks ridiculous, given that he’s wearing an atrocious reindeer print sweater. Hajime has half a mind to point out just how stupid he looks–not that he’s any better, in his worn out UCI sweatshirt–but there are more pressing matters. “How can you do it wrong?!”

Tooru almost sneers, and if their relationship wasn’t in that nebulous space between exes and acting, Hajime would launch a volleyball at him. As it happens, they are in that space, and there are no volleyballs lying around.

“You have to follow the pattern!” Tooru replies haughtily. Surely, there must be a spare volleyball somewhere.

“There's a pattern?”

Tooru scoffs. “You’re hopeless.” He says, and then has the audacity to shoo Hajime away from the tree. Stubbornly, he doesn’t move, which makes Tooru even more annoyed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if your dorm tree looked like uncoordinated garbage.”

“You are the last person I want to hear that from, considering the outfits you wore in high school–”

“Hey! You promised never to bring that up again–”

Click.

The both of them immediately freeze at the sound of a camera shutter. Hajime turns to see his mother with her phone raised, grinning guiltily.

Tooru blinks rapidly, expression closing off for a split second before he smiles charmingly. “No fair! I wasn’t ready.”

“Ah, but you two just looked so cute bickering! Like a married couple.”

Hajime chokes. “Mom.”

Tooru, for his part, is incredibly quick on his feet. He hums, appraising Hajime seriously, making him feel fidgety under the scruinity. “I think I’d want to marry someone a little more handsome than Iwa-chan.” Tooru muses teasingly, nudging him for effect. Hajime feels like dying. “Maybe if he stopped wearing old college sweaters, I’d consider him.”

“Well, habits can change!” His mother replies empathically, equally as serious. Like the only thing standing in the way of the son-in-law she’s always wanted was Hajime’s old clothes. He feels almost apologetic.

“Please stop.” Hajime interjects tiredly, before they can continue to tease him, hands clasped together. His mother shakes her head exasperatedly, but retreats back to the kitchen regardless.

She must still be in earshot, because Tooru giggles, linking their arms together and cuddling close to him the way he always used to. “You’re no fun, Iwa-chan.”

“Shut up, Shittykawa.” Hajime instinctively retorts, but his traitorous heart begins to beat faster. Twenty one and sixteen feel the same, somehow, which makes Hajime feel worse than anything.

Tooru pauses for a beat, then slips away from him, going back to the decorations as if nothing had happened. Before Hajime can even speak, he says, “Haven't heard that one in a while. Makes me nostalgic.”

There’s a bitter smile on Tooru’s face again, and Hajime feels his own mirroring it. “Doesn't everything?”

“Maybe you’re right.” Tooru replies, placing a green bauble where Hajime had almost placed the red. “We started dating this time of year, didn’t we?”

Hajime, again, chokes.

He recovers quickly though, clearing his throat and averting Tooru’s perceptive gaze. “Yeah, I–I remember. After practice”

God, does Hajime remember. He often looks back on that afternoon–usually when he’s drunk–with equal parts awe and embarrassment. The way sixteen-year-old-Hajime was brave (or stupid) enough to outright ask Tooru if they could kiss. On the way home from school. The way Tooru–who was dramatic and overly romantic, and certainly deserved a confession befitting that disposition–had simply kissed him.

“You were horribly unromantic.” Tooru comments mildly, as if they’re talking about the weather, and not the beginnings of a relationship that ultimately failed. He almost looks endeared, remembering it, before the bitter smile comes back tenfold. “You were a little charming, though. In a way.”

Hajime feels his chest constrict. “Hey, I’m–” sorry? Regretful?

“Oh!” Tooru interrupts, looking out the window. “Snow!”

Hajime blinks, following his gaze. True to his word, there is snow (though it had already been snowing on and off for a while now), and a few of the neighbours kids are in their front yards, building snowmen. He chances a glance at Tooru, who looks significantly more excited than he had about the direction of their conversation, and makes a decision.

“Do you, um, wanna build a snowman?”

Tooru laughs.

It’s loud and bright, surprising the both of them. He tries to cover his mouth, but it doesn’t work, and his shoulders shake with the force of it. Hajime blinks, confused, but he watches as Tooru attempts to calm himself down, only to burst into a fit of giggles again. Fondness, warm and immeasurable, wells up in his chest.

Like love, growing with the sound of joy.

Tooru breathes deeply, pressing his lips together and shaking his head. Finally, he calms down, clearing his throat. He can’t meet Hajime’s eyes, but he does ask, amused, “Did you just make a Frozen reference?”

“Not intentionally.”

“Fine,” replies Tooru, still smiling slightly. Hajime feels himself blushing fiercely, though he’s unsure if it’s from the embarrassment of making a Frozen reference, or Tooru genuinely smiling at him. “We’ll build Iwa-chan a snowman.”

(They do not build a snowman. Tooru builds one, because three years is not enough time for him to outgrow how much of a control freak he is. Hajime is used to it, so he simply lets him, far too used to folding to Tooru’s pout. Eventually, his mother comes outside, passing them warm drinks and fondly commenting about how Christmas truly is for lovers, hm, Hajime?

He nods absently, and watches as Tooru–bundled in one of Hajime’s winter coats, looking distinctly marshmallow-like–happily plays in the snow. At some point, the neighbourhood cat comes darting through Hajime’s open gates again. Tooru, unfairly, unabashedly delighted, makes those stupid cat noises and pets her gently. Like this, he suddenly looks twelve, not twenty one.

Hajime watches, and fucking aches.)

✧ ✧

Christmas Eve comes with a decent amount of fanfare, befitting of the return of the prodigal son.

Tooru, obviously, is the prodigal son.

Only twenty one, living independently in Argentina, and a professional volleyball player for San Juan. Tooru has always had prodigal son written all over him, and after three years, he finally returns to his boisterous family (immediate, extended, and miscellaneous neighbours) for the holidays.

It’s the only conversation topic allowed, apparently. Which, fair enough, Hajime supposes.

They sit through an entire dinner's worth of it, after vaguely awkward reintroductions, where Tooru and Hajime pretend they’ve been madly in love for the past three years. He isn’t sure how convincing they are, but he hopes their complementary white and red button downs make them look enough like a picture perfect Christmas couple. Hajime had even been wrangled into a red Santa hat, to match Tooru’s shirt.

It’s silent torture, but at least he hasn’t been asked to retell the same match over fried chicken five different times, like Tooru has, so maybe he should be grateful. It becomes clear over dinner, and even afterwards, that they’re celebrating Tooru, just as much as Christmas. Hajime is just glad he hadn’t failed any classes this year, unlike freshman year, which he refuses to talk about. His mother is much the same.

Tooru’s mother is not.

“Tooru, come here for a second!” Oikawa-san calls after dinner, no doubt ready to boast about Tooru in a different setting. It’s kind of cute, in a way, though Tooru doesn’t think so.

Hajime laughs softly as he hears a grumble beside him. “Why is she doing this to me?” Tooru whines, only half for show. Hajime knows he thrives under the attention. “Christmas isn’t even a family holiday here.”

“She hasn’t seen you in three years,” Hajime replies, amused. “Let her have this.”

Tooru pouts, pulling Hajime along to the living room, where his mother is holding court. “That’s what New Years is for!”

“Are you staying as long as New Years?”

He doesn’t get an answer.

“Tooru, Hajime!” Oikawa-san waves, once they’re within eyesight. Tooru’s sister is there too, with Takeru wedged into the corner of the couch, fiddling with a Nintendo Switch. Hajime longs for that life, but instead, prepares to smile charmingly at Tooru’s family. They love him just as much as Hajime’s mother loves Tooru, which makes him feel immensely guilty.

Before they can get to that, though, someone suddenly yells, “Stop!”

He and Tooru instantly freeze under the doorway, and the voice, belonging to Tooru’s sister, turns amused. “Look up.”

Hajime does not want to look up.

“Mistletoe!”

He does not need to look up.

“I’m going to kill her.” Tooru quietly mutters under her breath, making Hajime turn to him, severely alarmed. He won’t look him in the eye, though, and instead grins at his sister, fire in his eyes. “Nee-san, that’s not very family friendly.” Tooru replies, voice saccharine and sweet. He looks a breath away from homicide, though, so Hajime keeps a firm grip on his arm just in case.

Tooru’s older sister giggles, twirling a glass of red wine mockingly. “C’mon, Tooru! Just a peck. Mom and dad kissed under a mistletoe earlier, too!”

(They had, and Tooru, even at twenty one, covered his eyes. Hajime found it very endearing.)

Only a handful of the guests are currently invested in Hajime and Tooru’s dilemma, too busy drinking their wine and fawning over someone’s toddler to care. Hajime thinks it’s probably best to get it over with, before the audience grows. He relays as much to Tooru, tugging his hand gently and quietly whispering, “It’ll be quick, okay? Sorry, Tooru.”

Then, Hajime kisses Tooru.

In the doorway of Tooru’s living room, under a mistletoe, they share their first kiss in three years. It’s soft, almost chaste, and Hajime wants to drown in it. Tooru, lips soft, somehow strong and soft and pliant under his hands all at once. Tapered waist beneath splayed palms, pulling him close, close, close. Tooru, who tastes like Merlot and peppermint candy and something addictive.

Tooru, who breaks away first, eyes wide. Fingers brushing against his lips, disbelieving. A little terrified.

Hajime blanches. Apologetic and confused, and, “Tooru, I–”

Suddenly, in an incredibly unfortunate turn of events, someone trips over a stray bauble on the floor, and bumps into Hajime, spilling wine all over his shirt. He jumps back as the culprit–one of Tooru and Hajime’s neighbours, who was actually quite nice–apologises profusely, hands waving about.

“Oh, Iwaizumi, I’m so sorry!” She says, setting her empty glass down on a nearby table and scouring the room for a cloth. A couple of other guests turn at the commotion, their parents included. “Are you alright?”

Still dumbstruck from kissing his ex boyfriend for the first time in three years, Hajime nods slowly, blinking at the mess on his shirt. “Ah, it’s–it’s fine.” He stutters, his gaze glued to Tooru’s stricken expression. “I’ll go upstairs and change.” Hajime punctates it with an easy smile, hoping to assuage everybody’s worries.

“I’ll help.” Tooru says, voice strained and small. He seems to realise, because he clears his throat and quickly adds, “Can’t have our clumsy Iwa-chan getting into another accident on his own.” Tooru jokes, a teasing grin on his face. It earns him a few surprised laughs, and smoothly gets things back in motion. The chatter resumes, someone fetches a mop from the closet to clean up, and Tooru’s mother quickly shoos them upstairs before it sets, Tooru, hurry!

Tooru gently nudges him towards the staircase, and they swiftly make their way up, tense and quiet. Hajime doesn’t even need any direction, intimately familiar with Tooru’s home as he is. He’s been up these steps countless times, even knows Tooru’s childhood room as well as his own. For some reason, right now, that thought hurts a ridiculous amount.

“You can wash up in the bathroom, if you want.” Tooru mumbles, “I’ll find a clean shirt.”

He disappears, leaving Hajime alone in the bathroom, staring at his wine stained reflection. Hajime wants to laugh at the irony of it all, but he is too emotionally exhausted to muster up the sounds. Instead, he makes quick work of his shirt, ripping off the stupid Santa hat too, tossing both in the sink.

Tooru eventually returns to Hajime, dabbing wine off his chest with a damp washcloth, and quickly averts his eyes. He clears his throat awkwardly, leaning against the doorway, and hands him a plain black shirt. “Consider it your Christmas present.” Tooru attempts to joke, but the strain in his voice means it doesn’t quite land.

Hajime quickly pulls it over his head, watching Tooru with concern.

“Are you okay?” He asks softly.

Tooru’s entire body shakes, and for the first time this entire week, he looks affected. Despite everything, Hajime can’t find it in himself to be anything except worried. He’d imagined, briefly, that getting a genuine reaction out of Tooru might make him feel vindicated, or satisfied, even, but all he feels is sick.

Tooru scoffs, closing his eyes for a long moment. When he opens them, they’re tired, watery, hurt, so fucking hurt, and Hajime wants nothing more than to hold him close. It’s okay, it’s fine, we’re fine–

No,” Tooru replies, a quiet tremor in his voice. He won’t look Hajime in the eyes, but Hajime can see it.

The raw ache on his face is plain and visible for Hajime to see, and it’s heartbreaking and terrifying, in all the ways their breakup had been. Hajime feels, physically, the way his chest cracks right in the middle. But he waits for Tooru to speak first, finally draw the lines and boundaries they should’ve done days ago, years ago, because he deserves that much.

Tooru breathes deeply, hands shaking. “No, it’s not okay, Hajime–this isn’t okay. I’m–”

✧ ✧

I’m sorry, Hajime. Shit–”

Tooru’s hands shake, the glass of wine half upended on Hajime’s shirt, half on the picnic mat beneath them. For his part, Hajime can barely feel it, despite the way the cool night breeze threatens to dry the stain before they can get it out. He’s too busy trying to calm Tooru down, hands held in his, rubbing his thumb in soothing circles.

“It’s okay.” Hajime says instantly, frowning at the way Tooru shakes his head. He tries again. “It's fine, Tooru. Just–just relax, please? It’ll come out.”

“Red, out of a white shirt?” Tooru asks, still as sarcastic and pouty at seventeen as he was at seven. It makes Hajime smile, just a little, despite the decidedly unamusing turn their date has taken.

“Fine.” Hajime acquiesces easily, as he almost always did with Tooru. “But even if it doesn’t, it’s just a shirt.”

That was probably the wrong thing to say. Hajime knows it’s not just the shirt making Tooru upset–of course it’s not, when Hajime had just broached the topic of possibly breaking up. Fuck, of course, it’s not the stupid shirt and the wine neither of them were allowed to drink, but Tooru had snuck out of his kitchen, brought it all the way to Hajime’s place for the occasion.

Their last date, before both of them flew to different countries for the indeterminable future. The distance between Argentina and America, in Hajime’s mind, did not bode well for their relationship. The very thought kept him up at night for months, after realising that he and Tooru’s paths were beginning to diverge. Their final loss to Karasuno had only exacerbated that, when some sick, traitorous part of his mind wondered how far Tooru might’ve made it without Hajime dragging him down.

“It’s not–it’s not just about the shirt, Hajime.” Tooru snaps, upset. “It’s–do you not trust me? Us?”

There is not a world where Hajime does not implicitly, impossibly, trust Tooru. Like loving him, trusting him is as simple and easy as breathing. They both know that, both feel that, but oceans are so goddamn big, and to Hajime, it’s less about trusting him and more about loving him too much for their own good.

“We’ll both be busy–” Hajime says, again. They’ve had this discussion before, on walks home from practice and after naps on Hajime’s bed, but this time feels more definitive. Make or break. Tooru has never seemed to waver, on his end, maintaining that they can make it work. Hajime, though, can only think of nipping it in the bud. As if Tooru has not already planted roots that run deep within the crevices of his chest and mind and life.

Still, he tries, he tries, he tries. Because it feels like a crime to keep Tooru rooted in place. He feels entirely undeserving.

“–And far.” Hajime continues, to the deepening of Tooru’s frown. “And, time zones, you know? We want different things. We’re going for different things. I don’t want this to be a burden on you.”

“A burden?!” Tooru, incredulous, hurt, snatches his hands away. “Do you–do you think this would ever be a burden on you?

Never.

“I don’t know.” The lie tastes bitter on his tongue, mingling with the notes of red wine. “Maybe.”

Hajime has been there for every major high and low of Tooru’s life. Every hard earned win, every crippling loss, and all the moments in between. He knows Tooru’s reactions and emotions as if they were his own. Perhaps even better than his own. This one–the way he flinches back, physically hurt; the palpable, visceral ache in his eyes–is by far the worst one Hajime’s had to witness.

And it’s his fault.

Maybe?” Tooru says, voice cold and quiet in that way he gets when he’s serious. “Cut the bullshit, Hajime. You don’t really think that. We can make it work–”

“And if we don’t?”

Tooru freezes. Hajime, cruel and kind and stupidly self-sacrificing Hajime, continues.

“If life gets too busy, or one of us gets too tired, and we stop calling or talking or–or whatever happens, to make us slowly fall apart. Could you handle that?” Hajime shuts his eyes, the pain in his chest white hot and burning.

Tooru won’t answer him, so he does instead. “I couldn’t. I–” Hajime swallows thickly, voice rough and strained. He feels too young to feel this much. “Fuck, Tooru, I love you so much, and the idea of watching you fall out of love with me is terrifying.”

Iwaizumi Hajime is not yet the brave, fearless, steadfast pillar that Tooru believes and wants and needs. He is selfish, and irrational, and a coward. He can’t live up to all of Tooru’s expectations on and off court. Some ace.

But still, Iwaizumi Hajime is only seventeen, and life makes him a little scared, and he’s even more scared that Tooru isn’t.

Tooru finally looks him in the eye, and he is everything Hajime has ever wanted. All he’s ever cared about, beyond volleyball and victory and a nebulous, terrifying future alone in a foreign country. How anybody can be brave in the face of such overwhelming feeling is beyond him.

“I love you,” Hajime says again. Because it’s easy and simple and true. “I don’t want to be the thing dragging you down.” Again.

Tooru pulls further away, eyes wide and watery, and whispers, “How can you be the most selflessly selfish person ever?”

Then, Tooru leaves Hajime.

✧ ✧

By the time they come back downstairs, the Christmas party is reaching its natural conclusion. Most of the guests are far beyond forty, and physically cannot stay awake past 11 PM.

All that’s really left are Tooru and Hajime’s mothers, who are busy cleaning up stray cups and washing dishes. Tooru’s father is outside, packing away chairs, and Tooru immediately goes to help without a word to Hajime.

“There you are!” Hajime’s mother calls, wielding a soapy sponge from the kitchen sink. “Everything okay?”

“It’s–” Hajime pauses, gently nudging his mother over to help with the last few dishes. She passes him a dishtowel, patiently waiting for him to elaborate. He feels a little choked up. “It’s okay, mostly. Tooru was just tired, I think, so we stayed up there a little longer.”

No, it’s not okay, Hajime–this isn’t okay. I’m so fucking exhausted and confused and looking at you for too long hurts. Does that sound okay to you?

“He’s fine now, right?” She replies worriedly, handing him a plate. “We did put him through quite a bit.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Hajime lies with a shrug, placing the dry plate on the rack. “He liked the attention, anyway. Tooru has a lot to be proud of.” That wasn’t a lie, at least.

“You both do, Hajime. Don’t sell yourself short.”

He doesn’t agree, though he does drop a chaste, grateful kiss to his mother’s cheek. “Alright, mom. You can spare me the pep talk.” Hajime replies, a little fondly, and lets himself be lightly smacked in the shoulder. He deserves that, probably.

“I’ll go home first, okay?” She suddenly suggests, her tone serious, “Stay a while. Make sure Tooru really feels okay.”

Hajime, the doting, devoted boyfriend, cannot say no. Instead, he says, of course, I was planning to, and continues to dry dishes, until his mother is long gone and Tooru’s family have bade him a cheerful goodnight.

Tooru is still outside when Hajime finds him, red shirt buttoned down a little more than before, aimlessly laying on the grass. He stares quietly at a starless, light polluted sky, and though he hears Hajime close the door, he doesn’t so much as acknowledge him.

It’s not an invitation, but it’s not a rejection either.

Hajime quietly lays beside him, gaze turned to the same sky. They used to do this a lot, back when they were kids. They’d flop down on the grass, side by side, and Tooru would point at random clusters of light in the sky and call it a constellation. Even though Tooru knew real constellations, because he was a space nerd, he was also full of shit, so most of the things he told Hajime were made up.

Of course, Hajime had known, but he’d humoured Tooru anyway. Like always.

They lay in silence, for a long while. Hajime breaks it first.

“We were both–” He begins, voice carrying in the cool night air. “We were better off for it, Tooru.” Hajime says, and he’s been saying it to himself for years. They were better off apart back then, and maybe they’re not always okay, and maybe they were stupid to do this pretending thing themselves, but still. Still–

“I’ve never been better off without you, Iwa-chan.” Tooru says quietly. Bravely, because out of the two of them, he’d always selfishly monopolised all the courage. “Never. And maybe– Maybe I turned out to be the prodigal son everyone wanted to welcome home, but–”

When Hajime finally looks at him, Tooru is crying. Eyes wide and watery, like they had been when Hajime broke up with him in his backyard, three years ago. Instinctively, Hajime wipes a tear away, the touch soft and reverent. It makes Tooru sadder, somehow, and he closes his eyes at the brush of skin. “–does it even matter, if I wasn’t coming home to you?”

Tooru,” Hajime replies, devastated. “Fuck, of course it matters. Everything you’ve accomplished, with or without me, it always matters.” He brushes away more of Tooru’s tears, and then gently cradles his jaw. Tentative. Apologetic, always. Loving, always. “And I am always going to be proud of you. I told you, didn’t I? That will never change.”

“You’re the worst.” Tooru opens his eyes, a whirlwind of emotion in them, but he doesn’t push Hajime away. Pulls him closer instead, so Tooru’s hands are on his waist, and Hajime is hovering above him. “I hate that you were right. That– Fuck, that life was busy, and I got tired, and I never once wanted to watch you fall out of love with me either. That I could do things without you.”

“I’m sorry.” says Hajime. For everything. For not trying hard enough. For not being enough. That I could do things without you, too.

“I know.”

Hajime swallows thickly. Makes a decision. “I love you. Still. I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”

“I know.” Tooru repeats, a watery, half laugh punctuating his words. Pulls him closer, again. “I love you too. I didn’t even try to stop. Like a fucking idiot.”

“We’re both pretty stupid.” Hajime agrees, letting himself be pulled. Resting his forehead on Tooru’s, until his vision is swimming with those pretty, brown eyes, and lips he could drown in. Until Tooru is all he can see. “I won’t stop being sorry.”

Tooru cards a hand through Hajime’s hair softly, intimately. Setter’s hands, elegant and capable and strong. Hajime’s favourite hands. “Of course you won’t.” says Tooru with a small, genuine smile. Hajime loves him so much. “You can spend the rest of our lives making it up to me.”

It’s forgiveness. A second chance, that Hajime would be an even bigger idiot not to take. “It’s not going to be any easier.” He replies, but it’s not a no. The furthest thing from it, really. “Nothing’s really changed, has it?”

“Nothing could be harder than living without you.” Tooru says, stupid and honest and gorgeous and–

And when Hajime and Tooru kiss, they meet in the middle.

Again, but this time, without an audience, though it feels monumental all the same. 12 AM Christmas day, their hometown, Tooru in his arms and beneath his fingertips. Strong and soft and pliant, always so pliant, under Hajime’s touch. The kiss isn’t soft or chaste, like before, but hungry. Desperate. Teeth and tongue and deeply, wholeheartedly, ridiculously in love. Terrified of the enormity of it, but even more terrified of losing it.

Hajime could spend forever, like this. Taking Tooru apart, holding him together. Holding him, the way he deserves. Trusting him, the way he should have. Telling him, between soft kisses and breathy giggles and shared breaths, I love you, I love you, I love you.

Loving him, the way Hajime always has.

✧ ✧

There are always things that stain.

That, Hajime knows, is fact. Some things never change. Permanent ink on whiteboards, blue stains on fingertips, red wine on white shirts. The feeling of sitting in the truck you learnt how to drive in, with the boy you never learnt how to unlove.

(Some habits cannot be outgrown.)

Tooru’s thigh is warm under Hajime’s palm. Solid and real. One hand on the wheel, the other reaching across the centre console. Driving with the windows down, Tooru humming to whatever song plays on the radio. He’s not a particularly good singer–never has been, and anyone who’s been karaoke with him can attest to that–though he refuses to admit it. For once, it doesn’t matter. Hajime feels particularly indulgent today.

He drives them along a road he still has memorised; one that winds past suburbia and into Miyagi’s expansive hillside. The sun slowly dips low into the horizon, and Hajime pulls up to one last stop on nostalgia express. Their lookout spot, just for old times sake.

It had been Tooru’s favourite thing to do back in high school. Lie down in the back of Hajime’s truck and look at the sky and the view below, like he was the protagonist of a pretentious coming of age movie.

“This takes me back.” Tooru sighs, stretching out on the cargo bed, blanket beneath him. He looks ridiculous, like this, in one of Hajime’s UCI sweatshirts and a coat over top. Hair unstyled, ruffling in the breeze. He looks in no part the professional, international volleyball player that he is, and every bit the boy Hajime loves.

“Stop making it sound like we’re old, stupid.” Hajime replies, pulling Tooru closer, so he’s settled comfortably in his arms. “We’re only twenty one. Back then was only a few years ago.”

Tooru huffs, and Hajime doesn’t need to see him to know that he’s pouting. “You're no fun, but whatever–” He suddenly sits up determinedly, jostling Hajime with no remorse. Hajime looks up, fond and amused, as Tooru leans over him and declares, “I’ll say the exact same thing when we’re old and wrinkly, and you can’t complain then.”

Hajime could spend forever, like this. Looking up at Oikawa Tooru with all the love and devotion and fondness he deserves. Humouring him, teasing him, loving him. Imagining a future with him–growing old, and all the things that come before that–nebulous and terrifying and perfect.

Hajime smiles, and leans up to kiss him.

“I’m looking forward to it.”