Wakatoshi opens his eyes to darkness.
There’s someone sleeping beside him, keeping him warm. He lets his vision adjust until he can see Hajime’s features, face pressed against his chest as he clings to him—one arm on his waist and a leg over his own. Wakatoshi feels a smile tugging at his lips as he cards a hand through Hajime’s hair. Soft, he thinks. Hajime’s hair slips through his fingers like silk, despite how spiky it typically looks in the morning.
He kisses his forehead and slowly untangles them. There are aches in his body now that tend to last longer, even for Hajime’s liking. But Wakatoshi can’t feel them on the court, can’t feel them when he’s high in adrenaline—palms red and sweaty from each spike and block, arms tingling from each receive and dig, thighs and knees trembling ever so slightly from the impact of his plays, of that one, two, sometimes even three dives he had to do.
He feels them now though, and Wakatoshi wonders if he’s getting too old to play volleyball. There are articles sometimes, in sports magazines he tends to pick up out of nowhere when he goes to the grocery store after his morning run, of athletes retiring at a tender age of thirty. Wakatoshi wonders how their bodies ache at night, if they also can’t hold their lover for too long without hurting during long, winter nights or sweaty, summer days. It makes him think if, at thirty-five, he should retire too.
Mumbling, Hajime follows his touches and moves to lie on his other side. Wakatoshi smiles, then places a kiss on his shoulder before moving to stand. The digital clock on Hajime’s bedside reads 3:57 in the morning, and it’s much too early for a run or a couple of stretches that Wakatoshi is tempted to pull the covers back up to both his and Hajime’s bodies, to hold Hajime close even if his body will inevitably ache.
He trudges to the windows, pulls the curtain aside to take a peek in the quiet streets below. The sky is devoid of stars, but the horizon is bright with nightlights. His aches seem infinitesimal now, when faced with the vast blanket of the night and the bright city lights of Japan. Hajime continues to breathe calmly behind him, slow and deep. A sound that he longs to hear every night whenever he goes to play in Poland.
And then Wakatoshi shakes his head, smiling to himself in the darkness of the bedroom they have shared for over a decade now. He pulls the curtains closed, ensures that they wouldn’t let the harsh Sunday morning light in too easily, checks the timer on the air-conditioner then sets it for another three hours. Hajime would frown at him in the morning for it, but sweating while cuddling his love in the middle of a hot summer night is not as fun as kissing Hajime’s frown away, morning breaths and all.
Wakatoshi goes back to bed, pulls Hajime close to him, and revels at the feeling of holding his love against his chest. When Hajime stirs, Wakatoshi presses a soft kiss to his neck and lets him pull him closer, lets Hajime hold his hand and place it over his heart.
Sleep comes easily, and all pains are ignored as his eyes drift closed, his breaths slowing in time with Hajime’s.
The late morning sun hits him when he opens his eyes again. Wakatoshi moves to lie on his left, burying his face to his pillow as his arm finds Hajime’s waist.
Slowly, he opens his eyes to take a peek. The curtains are being blown by the electric fan he assumes Hajime has turned on earlier. Rays of moted dust light enter the room, and Wakatoshi shifts to stare at the clear skies outside every time the curtain rises.
It must be late. Definitely later than the time both of them typically wake up. But Hajime is still sleeping soundly beside him, body lax and free of tension, head turned to the windows like a flower seeking sunlight.
Wakatoshi raises himself to his elbows and stares. He stares at the way Hajime’s chest rises and falls, stares at the way his lips sometimes twitch, his brows furrowing before smoothing out while he dreams. He stares, because Hajime looks so beautiful before him, so peaceful. He stares because what else is there to do when his love is beside him, sleeping like he’s always been there all his life, like there’s no other place in the world more comfortable than Wakatoshi’s side.
Gently, he cradles Hajime’s right hand. He turns it palm up to face him, skims the new calluses that formed in Hajime’s fingers and palm with his thumb. Hajime has such strong hands. Long, thick fingers that Wakatoshi can slip his own in between so naturally, hands that fit in his hold like a perfect mold—two halves of a whole, the one Plato wrote in his books, the one that Zeus broke apart in the beginning, now finding each other once again.
He presses a kiss on the center of Hajime’s palm, then on each of his fingers, and wrist. The billowing curtains let the sun enter the room again, and Wakatoshi spies the book Hajime has been reading last night before sleeping. He moves to stand, lets the blanket fall over Hajime’s waist, and fixes the electric fan to face the bed.
The book is lying face down, and Wakatoshi picks it up out of curiosity. Hajime talks about the books he read sometimes, and while Wakatoshi knows he picks up the habit to help with his sleeping schedule, it is a joy to see him be so moved by a story it’s all he talks about at the dinner table.
“In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.”
Wakatoshi places the bookmark back to the last pages. He wonders if Hajime will tell him all about this book later tonight.
He leaves their room after a quick wash-up from the adjoining bathroom, picking up his phone on the way out. He was planning for a light breakfast before taking Hajime out for a lunch date, but brunch seems like a better option given the time. Sighing, he puts on an apron and sets to work.
The rice is set to cook first, and Wakatoshi frowns at the incessant pinging of his phone while he works on the rest of their meal. Knowing Hajime, he might hear them from across the apartment and wake up from the noise.
A quick glance shows the National Team’s group chat.
Bokuto Koutaro: Is Aran-kun really going to retire soon?!!?!?!!?!!???!
Wakatoshi stops, staring at the messages popping up on his phone as the rest of the team chats. He stares, but he does not comprehend; mind still reeling at the word ‘retire’. They all seem so young, still have so much potential, and a lot of room to grow. Wakatoshi always thought that the 2021 Olympics Japan National Team was the best team he had the privilege to play with in almost two decades of his volleyball career. And yet—
And yet everyone seems ready to move on. To grow in places outside of the volleyball court, to make use of their hands without the ball turning them red.
He mutes his phone and returns to making brunch. He tries his best not to think about it, to focus on the task at hand and ignore everything else.
But retirement used to be just a page on a magazine for him, a fleeting thought, something he never really made the time to consider. Retirement was just something he couldn’t find the courage to process yet, something he allows to flow around him, to exist beside him but never touching.
This close to him though, even if it’s not directly him, feels much too real.
Phantom pains dance along his skin, and Wakatoshi sets down the plate full of bacon and eggs on the counter, wary of the way it trembles in his hand. It would be a waste, should his hands mess up and ruin the food.
Wakatoshi stares absently at the plate. He’s only thirty-five. Some players go past the age of forty and still be on the court. And maybe they don’t play as long as they would want, but they’re still there, their shoes still hit the polished floor with a resounding thump after a powerful jump, their arms and hands still meet the ball in that quick, fleeting way volleyball does.
He always thought he’d be able to play as long as he could, as long as his body would let him, as long as he would want. But retirement lingers around players their age, the question on the tip of the tongue of each interviewer. Not yet asked, but already there, waiting like a beast in the night.
And Wakatoshi wonders how his father felt back then when he had to retire. He wonders if the pain keeps him up at night too. He wonders if retirement was an easy decision for him.
Because it's not to him. Things rarely come easily to Wakatoshi outside of volleyball. Always a touch too difficult, a little harder than expected, which makes him take a little longer than he thinks he should. Volleyball wasn’t easy either. But Wakatoshi loves volleyball, can feel the sport coursing through his veins and burns itself into his muscles. And maybe... maybe that’s why volleyball will not be easy to let go either.
The stove is switched off, and Wakatoshi turns to see Hajime checking the rice. He recognizes the act as Hajime giving him the time to compose himself, a little moment to collect the pieces spilled, and choose what he’s comfortable to share. For now, at least.
“It’s well-cooked,” Hajime says, staring up at him through his lashes. He’s wearing one of Wakatoshi’s clothes— an old white, v-neck shirt that’s just a little wider on the shoulders, but fits his chest just as well. Wakatoshi smiles.
The rice is a little burnt, he can tell from the smell.
“I got lost in thought for a moment. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Hajime steps closer, wounding his arms around his waist and Wakatoshi lets him. He lets Hajime hold him even when his heart pounds and his mind starts to race again.
What would he do, outside of volleyball? His friends have told him over and over before that of course there are things he can do outside of volleyball, their own lives being proof enough of those things. But Wakatoshi fears he will not be enough, fears the change that will undoubtedly come.
A life well-lived is full of tiny changes in between. He picks up little things from all the people he had loved, even when all the love he could give was quiet and reserved. The heartbreak that inevitably followed was nothing short of quiet, but an explosion of a thousand stars within him turning into a crunching supernova. Wakatoshi wonders if it would be the same when he finally gets his heart broken by volleyball, when it's finally the time to walk away from the court.
Hajime seems to be the only one—the only one out of all the choices he has made—that hasn’t broken Wakatoshi’s heart. And oh, how wonderful and fitting, to slowly break in the same man’s hold.
“Hey,” Hajime raises a hand to his cheeks, and Wakatoshi leans to the touch. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“It’s—” he swallows down the lump suddenly stuck in his throat and closes his eyes. He feels Hajime deliberately controlling his breaths against him, their chests pressed against each other, breaths slowly syncing.
“Wakatoshi, it’s fine.” Hajime whispers, resting a hand on the small of his back. He shivers at the touch, at Hajime’s words spilled like molten comfort into the empty spaces in his heart. “Let’s take things slowly. We can also talk in another, much better time if you want.”
“No, I— I was thinking of retirement,” Wakatoshi says, slowly, as if pulling the words out from a deep well. “The National Team are chatting about it.”
“Aran, yes. I saw.”
He releases a shivering breath. He should’ve realized that with Hajime still in the National Team, his beloved would know about Aran’s retirement. They keep close tabs on all possible players who could join the team, even those who are planning or have already decided to leave the court. Wakatoshi opens his eyes, stares emptily at the dip between Hajime’s collarbones. “How was it?”
Hajime smiles—a soft curve of lips that steals Wakatoshi’s gaze. “It was good. Aran is about to enjoy a ball-free life, I heard he’s planning to join Kita on the farm.”
Farming. A good endeavor, and Aran would be good in it too. Wakatoshi nods, not knowing what to say next.
“What do you need, Wakatoshi?”
He sucks in a deep breath, hoping to calm himself some more. They have taken to asking that question early in their relationship. And Wakatoshi has always been grateful for it. He has never been good with words, and Hajime has admitted he can have trouble with it too. Asking what the other needs allows them to help as much as they can, to offer comfort when needed, and a listening ear when that is all they need or could give.
“Insight,” He whispers, trying to form a coherent thought to explain. “I’m worried about retirement.”
“Oh.” Hajime sighs, pulling him closer with a hand on the back of his neck. He follows the movement, burying his face on the crook of Hajime’s neck and shoulders.
Wakatoshi nods—to what, he doesn’t know. But it’s better than shaking his head and showing a physical resistance to the thought he just gave more life to by speaking it out loud; and right now, it also feels much better than crying.
Crying makes everything feel more imminent, final, and Wakatoshi fears he wouldn’t know what to do when the time to step out of the court arrives.
“For what it’s worth, retirement is still far. You still have more than a handful of seasons ahead of you,” the arm around him tightens, and Wakatoshi hears nothing but Hajime’s voice, basks in nothing else but Hajime’s words, his warmth, his strong body holding him up. “And even if you retire, you can still keep volleyball close to you.”
“I don’t want to live in memories.”
“You won’t,” Hajime presses a kiss to his hair and starts to sway them to music only he could hear. “Keep living in moments, Wakatoshi, on and off the court.”
Slowly, he pulls away, blinking tears away. “I’ll stay in the court.” Hajime nods at his words, a gleam of understanding shining in his eyes. “For as long as I can, in any way that I can.”
Breakfast that morning is a soft, quiet moment. Another addition to the little moments that make up his life with Hajime. They spend the rest of the day going through the different courts they had played on, and an idea starts to grow in the back of Wakatoshi’s mind.
Their day ended with a kiss, shared in the darkness of their room, and finally, Wakatoshi’s racing mind slows. Their hands meet in the darkness of their room and finally, Wakatoshi’s heart calms and beats in time with Hajime’s.
Five years later, Wakatoshi announces his retirement.
The Adlers management congratulates him on his decision, thanking him for spending the last two years of his career with them; they respect his decision not to say anything until the last game of the current V.League season, offering him as much time as he needs.
And then the day finally comes.
The umpire’s whistle on his last game is loud and shrill; fading to nothing like the view from the top, from the tall, tall wall he has worked hard to climb since middle school. There are tears in his eyes, mixing with sweat rolling down his cheeks, and Kageyama is hugging him tightly— like he understands, like he can feel his decision from the way he spiked each ball he sets without Wakatoshi saying the exact words to him. No words were exchanged between them, but Kageyama stands close to him the whole time, for the last time in a long, long while.
He made his announcement shortly, during the team’s interview for the recently closed V.League season. Hajime is watching him from the sidelines, patiently waiting and encouraging him with a smile. Wakatoshi wonders if his father is watching too, from miles away, longs to ask if this is how it usually feels—to let go of something one has learned to love so much a chamber is emptied in his heart when everything has finally been said and done.
Following his announcement was a bunch of magazine interviews, photoshoots, and sports columns to give a statement to. Wakatoshi still feels the apprehension at every question of ‘why?’ and ‘what would you do now?’ but he rides them out, feels the emotion course through his system before releasing them. He made the right decision, and he’s confident in that.
It was a whirlwind, and he savors each moment with the same passion he had given each and every game he played.
Wakatoshi grants one last interview before leaving for a short vacation with Tendou after they both pay a visit to his father, and finds that he gave it to the right interviewer.
“What would life be now, without volleyball?” Enaga Fumi asks, hands perched over her notebook.
What would life be now, without volleyball?
He runs a hand through his hair as he mulls over the question; there are more grays in his hair now, from the temples to those sprinkled at the top and back. The aches in his body still linger, and phantom pains still shoot up his left arm sometimes. But he has plenty of days for himself now. Plenty of days to rest, to recuperate, to love someone even more deeply.
He has all the time now, to learn to love something outside of volleyball, like a leaf finally leaving the tree, like a bird taking a rest after a long, fulfilling flight.
“Just as hectic, I imagine.” Wakatoshi smiles, settling his left hand back to his crossed thighs, ring glinting against the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the windows, “I’m getting married, and I’m going to start coaching.”
Enaga Fumi nods, returning his smile. “Congratulations!”
“A lot of aspiring players are bound to wonder,” she says, gesturing towards him. And Wakatoshi scrambles to think if Hajime would like for the engagement to be announced so publicly, only to come up with a solid no. Their marriage is set to be a private affair, and Hajime has reiterated that over and over immediately after the engagement. Wakatoshi stifles a laugh at the memory.
“Which team are you going to coach?”
A sigh escapes him, and Wakatoshi relaxes. Fitting, how he’s wearing a purple dress shirt for today.
“The Shiratorizawa Academy’s Volleyball Team. I look forward to being home once again.”