Chapter 1: the cat is coming to crow street
On a very sunny day in Sendai, the employees of Crow Street Independent Booksellers & Café crowd around the front windows and watch a huge sign—four meters tall, at least—going up across the street.
A NEKOMA BOOKS SUPERSTORE ARRIVING SOON AT THIS LOCATION.
And beneath that a slogan, the cat is coming to Crow Street.
“Bastards,” says Nishinoya again, his nose wrinkling.
Sugawara Koushi, Owner and General Manager of Crow Street Books, is not inclined toward strong language, but as he stands there watching this enemy flag being unfurled, he finds himself agreeing with his short, outspoken café manager: anyone who would open up a big-box chain store right across the street from an independent retailer and virtual town landmark must be some kind of bastard.
Hinata, their youngest and most rambunctious clerk, presses his face to the glass door. “Is this bad, Suga-san?”
Suga smiles, mostly genuine. “I don’t think so. We’re a different sort of store than that, more personal.” But in his head are sheets of expense reports and bills nearing due—just when he’d been thinking about raising prices, too.
“You’re smudging the glass,” Tsukishima, one of their baristas, tells Hinata flatly. The redheaded boy pulls himself away from the door and starts rubbing at the oily spot, only preceding to make it bigger.
“I’ll get the window cleaner,” says Yachi cheerfully, and she bobs off to the back of the shop.
Tanaka, Noya’s assistant manager in the café, glares at the sign with enough intensity to make birds scatter. “What are we gonna do, boss?” he asks Suga, like he expects an attack order.
“Wipe that look off your face so maybe we actually get some customers in here, for once?” Tsukishima quips. Tanaka growls at him.
Suga smiles again, the kind of smile that disperses tension, he’s found. He smiles until he can piece together an actual answer for their little troupe, the right mix of nonchalance and determination to succeed. He settles on, “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. Selling people the books they love.” Hinata nods, Noya pumps a fist, Tanaka cracks his knuckles. “Which requires all of us getting back to work!” A collective groan. “Come on, cheer up. We’ve got a couple months before we’ve even got to worry about that chain store, let’s make the most of it.” Noya, Tanaka and Tsukishima retreat to the café (which does more business than the bookstore on some days, thanks to Tsukki’s latte art skills), Suga gets Yachi stocking New Arrivals and Hinata sweeping up, and takes the register himself.
That’s the last he’ll think about Nekoma Books until he has to, Suga decides; there’s no use getting bogged down by competition that doesn’t even exist yet. He has more pleasant things to think about, like checking his email at the end of the day. Small business ownership is hard: it demands fastidious organization, people skills, shrewd thinking and above all else, pragmatic, relentless optimism. Which has always made Sugawara very, very good at it. Now’s not the time to stop trusting himself.
Of course, it’s tough not to think about Nekoma Books when their rival comes knocking. The very next day, three men enter the shop, sidle up to the register, and their apparent leader – a brunette with a flashy smile and a flashier wardrobe – demands to speak to the owner.
Fortunately for him, Suga happens to be sitting at the counter, peeking at these newcomers from over a copy of Middlesex, which he’s challenged himself to read in English and not translation. “I’m the owner. Sugawara Koushi.” Aside from the flashy one, there’s a frowny guy in a suit who clutches a leather appointment book to his chest, and a dark-haired man dressed more casually than either of them. He’s the only one of the three that peeks around at the store at all, hands shoved in his pockets, until his eyes settle on Suga. It’s an intense look, but not unfriendly. He’s not scary like the appointment book guy, and he’s better looking.
“I’m Oikawa Tooru,” announces the flashy one. Suga can feel a tiny smile on his lips. “Owner of the forthcoming Nekoma Books Crow Street branch—maybe you’ve seen our sign?” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder to indicate said sign. Suga’s smile vanishes.
“I saw it.”
Oikawa smiles broadly; he’s somehow unassuming despite the threat he represents, like he couldn’t manage malice if he tried. But a part of Suga suspects that unassuming exterior is exactly how he gets what he wants. “This,” Oikawa gestures to Frowny Face, “is Iwaizumi Hajime, my personal assistant. And this,” he turns to the third man, the handsome one, “is Sawamura Daichi. He’ll be managing the new store when it opens.”
The manager. Suga feels his stomach sink with odd, misplaced disappointment. Not that he had any expectations, only… “How can I help you?” he asks, setting aside his book. He’s all about the benefit of the doubt, but why are these guys here if not to declare war?
Thanks to Nishinoya’s superhuman hearing, he has no time to contemplate the possibilities: his glaring café manager appears in the arched entrance to the café as if on cue. “Did someone say Nekoma Books?”
“Noya-san,” Suga sighs, as the little man weaves between Iwaizumi, Sawamura, and Oikawa to climb the front counter, where he sits in a predatory crouch. Noya has a bad habit of climbing counters—especially problematic given he works with food. Yachi spends a chunk of her workday running after him with a towel.
“What do these corporate bastards want?”
“Go back to the café, Nishinoya.”
“Ryuu and the tall kid have it covered!”
“They don’t need you taking orders?”
“No customers to take orders from.”
Suga winces—some stellar management he’s got here. He can see the smirk playing at Oikawa’s lips. He leans around Noya to better address their visitors.
“Was there something I could help you with, Oikawa-san?”
“Haven’t you got any sort of respect for local culture?” spits Nishinoya. He’s souring Suga’s attempts at politeness so Suga takes him by the collar and drags him down from the counter, where Noya hovers by his elbow with a scowl.
“I do,” Oikawa simpers, “We know we’re competition, but we have the utmost respect for what Crow Street Books has meant to this neighborhood. How many years has it been, Sugawara-san?”
Suga’s throat feels dry. “Twenty-two. Twenty-two years. My mother started it.”
“Bastards,” mutters Noya again. Suga kicks him gently in the shin, earning a hiss.
“That is certainly impressive,” says Oikawa with a little bow. “We would hate to see an institution like this fall prey to hard times. Which is why we have brought you an offer. Iwa-chan?” Iwaizumi draws an envelope from his appointment book and offers it to Suga; it looks like it might contain some official document. “That,” Oikawa explains, “is a contract for the purchase of this establishment. We want to buy out Crow Street—your whole inventory, the property, the name.”
There’s the sound of a gong ringing in Sugawara Koushi’s ears.
“Buy Crow Street?” echoes Noya. Suga is grateful to ear him speak, since personally he can’t feel his tongue.
“Yes,” says Oikawa, with a wary glance at Noya.
“We had our lawyers draw up that contract as a tentative proposal,” Iwaizumi adds, speaking for the first time. “The terms are negotiable, if you decide to hire your own council, which is advisable.”
“Iwa-chan is full of advisable ideas,” Oikawa chimes. The long-suffering expression on Iwaizumi’s face is unmissable.
He removes the contract from the envelope, but his head swims and he can only make out flashes of dates and legal jargon and Crow Street Independent Booksellers and Café. “The name,” he realizes, “You’ll buy the name?”
Oikawa nods. “It’s a buy-out, so we become you!” Suga suddenly finds this guy’s nonchalance very objectionable. “Instead of just another Nekoma Books, this’ll be Crow Street Booksellers and Café: A Nekoma Books Superstore—bigger location right across the street, cheaper prices, same family atmosphere.” Oikawa rubs his hands together, it sounds like he’s giving a sales pitch. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies Sawamura, the rival manager, shift uncomfortably.
Suga’s face feels hot. His eyes drift to a photograph hung above the door, in which he can recognize his own young face, about six years old, and the glowing image of his mother. They’re standing behind this very counter, beaming. Crow Street’s grand opening. He remembers there was a line out the door. She’s been gone three years now, but his mother lives on in every corner of this store. She’s in the air and the wood and every time he hands a precious book to its new owner, he can feel her smile at him. It’s miraculous—this has always been his life but everyday it changes him for the better, too. He inhales.
“No.” The word edges out of Suga without consideration, but he doesn’t need to think about this, not really. “I won’t sell.” A smile breaks out over Noya’s face. Suga sees a rustle of red hair behind one of the bookshelves and realizes Hinata has been eavesdropping, and probably Yachi with him. He slips the contract back into the envelope, and returns it to Iwazumi, whose expression has darkened. Oikawa is frowning.
“You didn’t even let me give you the offer. I was sort of looking forward to it.”
“He won’t sell, you shit,” Noya snaps. “You can get out of here.”
Oikawa watches them both for a moment: little Nishinoya with his fixed glare, red-faced Sugawara holding his chin up high. He sighs. “You’d rather run this store into the ground than surrender your pride and let it live on a little differently?”
“I won’t run it into the ground,” Suga says, though he isn’t sure he believes it.
Iwaizumi tucks the contract back into his book, and Oikawa starts for the door, with a final quip: “And you think I don’t respect this place.” He leaves followed by his assistant, the bell on the door jingles as they go, and Suga can feel his shoulders relax, until he realizes – Sawamura hasn’t moved.
Before Suga can stop him, Noya is back on the counter. “What’s with you? Are you supposed to be the strong silent type or something?”
Sawamura’s mouth opens but nothing comes out—he really is good-looking, but if this display is any indication, he’s also a bit weird or awkward or something. Suga’s not entirely recovered from the exchange with Oikawa, but he manages a little smile.
“Can I help you with anything else, Sawamura-san? I hope you’ll respect my decision.”
Sawamura still doesn’t say anything. Noya elbows Suga. “This guy’s a weirdo, huh,” he mutters, and Suga feels a rush of embarrassment. He elbows back.
“The café, Nishinoya.”
Noya throws his hands up in surrender and hops down from the counter. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
“I’ve told you three times!”
“Eh,” Noya dismisses, before he disappears.
Which leaves Sugawara with the stoic one.
A part of him believes if he waits, Sawamura will find whatever he wants to say. And if there’s one thing Suga can manage, it’s patience. He gives the other man a nod, and picks up his copy of Middlesex again.
He finishes half a page before a calm, low voice cuts the silence in the front of the store.
“I’d like to buy a book.”
Suga looks up. He can see it, that voice fitting with that face.
“Isn’t that counterproductive?”
“I don’t know,” Sawamura says, inscrutable, “Nekoma’s not open yet, and I want to get a handle on the competition.”
This is either strange or cute. Suga isn’t sure, but he’s leaning toward cute. Which is a pity, considering who this guy is.
“Okay,” says Suga slowly, “What are you into?”
Sawamura’s eyes widen for a half-second, and then he splutters, “Sorry?”
Suga is trying not to laugh. “What sort of books do you like? I was going to help you pick one.”
“All books,” Sawamura replies; he looks like he’s starting to get frustrated with his conversational impotence. Suga nods sagely.
“That makes sense, from the manager of a bookstore. You’d have to like all books.”
“Do you like all books, Sugawara-san?”
“Suga,” he corrects breezily. “And yes, I do. Believe it or not, I even love some of them.” He’s grinning, because he’s always grinning—he can’t stop himself sometimes—but right now it feels especially wide. He hopes Hinata and Yachi have abandoned their eavesdropping, for the sake of Sawamura’s dignity. His rival/customer is (and this is another weird-cute thing) still standing a solid meter and a half from the counter, stock still, as if glued to that spot. So Suga decides he’s going to come out from behind the register, maybe ease the tension a bit. For this one exchange, anyway.
When he does, however, Sawamura takes a step back. It’s a bit disconcerting, this behavior; Suga’s not used to people feeling uncomfortable around him. “I don’t bite,” he chirps. Fighting awkwardness with cheer, because… well, because he doesn’t really have another weapon in his arsenal.
Sawamura laughs. Definitely still awkward.
Suga is a good reader in several senses: firstly, he finishes two to three pages a minute in an average novel; secondly, he can look at a person’s face and gauge their feelings with a good deal of accuracy. Ninety-percent, on his sharpest days.
If it didn’t constitute a professional disaster, he would say that right now, Sawamura Daichi is feeling attracted to him.
Of course, something about Sawamura Daichi tells Suga that he’s not a lover of professional disasters, so even if his hypothesis is correct, it doesn’t mean much. Which is (he finds himself thinking yet again) a real pity, considering that Sawamura Daichi ain’t so bad himself. But they are rivals, and Suga is almost, nearly, sort of a taken man, he reminds himself.
In the interest of saying something, rather than continuing their current, increasingly intense staring contest, Suga swivels on his heel and announces, “I’m taking you to New Arrivals.” And he does.
As it turns out, their tastes run along the same lines, and Sawamura relaxes when he’s talking about literature. He lights on the name of an author he likes and rubs the back of his neck so Suga notices the way his dark hair curls against the nape, and the smoothness of his tan skin, and the bob of his Adam’s apple. He’s broad-shouldered but not burly, and his shirt is tucked in so when he moves the fabric stretches and crinkles over his hips. After a long discussion—Suga forgets manning the register entirely, but it’s not like they’ve got customers to serve—he settles Sawamura with a newer novel, one he’s been meaning to read himself. “Tell me what you think.”
“Of course, I’ll give you a full review,” says Sawamura, though it might be one of those empty promises—we should do this again soon; I’ll tell the kids you said hi; and so on.
“Good,” he says anyway, and they head back to the counter so he can start to ring up the purchase.
“I’m sorry about Oikawa.” Suga’s hands freeze over the buttons on the register. When he glances up, Sawamura’s face is serious, all the flirtatious mirth vanished. “He… he seems frivolous, but he cares about the company a lot. He’s a good boss.” Suga can hear the implication, loud and clear: you should reconsider his offer. And they’d been having such a good time.
“Then you should enjoy working for him, shouldn’t you, Sawamura-san?” Suga replies, and as he bags the book, he flashes the only fake smile he’s given all day.
Sawamura bites his lip. Lip biting is very unappealing, Suga tells himself, as earnestly as he can manage. Still, the words don’t sound very convincing, even in his head.
“Daichi is fine.”
But Suga pretends not to hear this—he isn’t curt or rude, he smiles just the same, but the switch flips and he’s dealing with a customer. “Would you like your receipt in the bag, Sawamura-san?”
“Ah… yes, I suppose so.”
He hands over the bag maybe a little too forcefully, and perhaps he can feel his smile growing manic, but it’ll all be over soon. Sawamura accepts his purchase with a nod and a frown. “Have a good afternoon,” Suga trills, and then he turns his back to do some busy work.
It takes too long for the little bell on the door tell him the day’s lone customer has left, but when it does he turns around, and the shop is empty again.
The six of them close up together and head their separate ways outside the shop. Suga and Yachi are going the same direction, so they walk part of the distance together, Suga rolling his bike alongside. Yachi gushes about a trip she’s taking with her mother soon, and Suga (horribly) thinks that at least that’s a week where he has one less paycheck to write.
He leaves Yachi at her bus stop and bikes the rest of the journey, the air whirling at him, seeping through his flannel. The cold wakes him up after a long day.
He is excited to go home.
It hasn’t always been this way. He used to leave the shop and return to the apartment and feel downtrodden by its quiet, particularly after his mother’s passing, when the silence took on a new grimness. In the shop he had his eclectic, energetic coworkers and the constant distraction of striving for success, and at home he was alone. Just himself and a standoffish cat.
My dear friend.
He curls up on the futon in his front room, buried under blankets, peering at the glowing screen of his laptop. It takes all the control he can muster not to check his personal email at work, nowadays.
My dear friend,
I think maybe you’ve swayed me. I always thought the literature of thought was above the literature of feeling, but I read your last correspondence and found myself wondering. What are you more likely to recall when you’re old, an abstract theory of morality or the time a book made you cry so hard your eyes stung for days afterwards? I suppose I am not old enough to know yet, but I could guess.
How was today? The sun’s only just risen, but by the time you read this I suspect it will have set. I hope you had a good day. Perhaps if I write that now and send it out into the ethos, it will come true. And if not, at least you’ll know I wished for you.
Suga has the silliest grin on his face.
Five months ago, the end of April, he’d replied to some post on a book lovers’ forum (“Looking for recommended translations of early 20th century Pan-American fiction anthologies”) and gotten into an exchange continued over private messages and then into emails—a discussion that traipsed from books to politics to relationships and family to philosophy and then back to books. Two or three emails every twenty-four hours from each of them, traded at the top and the bottom of the day, and sometimes instant messages into the wee hours of the morning, because there is something about this voice on the other side of the internet’s impenetrable ephemerality that winds up Suga’s heart. The way he—that’s all he knows, that the other person goes by he—strings words together and sneaks in little jokes and checks himself from straying into romantic syllogism (“Is this too sappy?”), which is somehow even more romantic than if he didn’t restrain himself.
One day, a few weeks ago, Suga wrote a very short email.
I think I like you.
Lots of like,
Sugawara Koushi is almost, nearly, sort of a taken man.
He snugs his nose against his arm, staring at the glowy letters of this latest correspondence. Then he starts to type.
You’re right that I’m right. And it’s nice to know that you’re not some old fuddy-duddy.
I wouldn’t say today was good. It was complicated. Bad, really. But I met someone. But he was bad too. I don’t know. I’m writing short sentences.
How was yours? Better, I hope.
He gets up and makes a quick dinner, and by the time he returns to the laptop with his bowl, there’s a new message.
Oh, I’m still a fuddy-duddy, just a young one.
You met someone? It’s a good thing I’m not jealous.
Suga sticks his tongue out at the screen.
There’s nothing to be jealous of. It was a fluke.
I met someone too, actually. And I made an ass of myself.
I guess we’re stuck with each other.
He hesitates with his hands over the send button, and then taps it. The next couple of minutes pass slowly. Reading the reply, Suga exhales, and his smile inches wider.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Chapter 2: the second cup
More pairings have arrived and the tags will be updated accordingly!
This update comes earlier than planned because.... I really like procrastinating.
Today I need to seem calm, dignified, wise, and strong. Can this be faked? Any tips would be welcome.
Sawamura Daichi lowers his head to rest on the keyboard. When he sits back up, he’s added hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhfjjjjwehhhheehhhhhh to the email. He punches delete until it’s gone.
The sun is just rising in Sendai. The grand opening of Nekoma Books in Crow Street, for which he’s spent three months preparing, lies a mere three hours and fourteen minutes ahead.
He showers and wishes he were dating a person and not an email address. Or rather, that the email address were a person. He spends too much time putting a face to ks87—he has to be cute. There’s no way he’s not cute, but what sort of cute is it? Could he be bashful or does he have a hard outer shell around the optimistic, compassionate, funny persona Daichi has gotten to know? What are the contours of his chest, what’s his smell? (Sometimes he assigns his friend the faces of men he sees, like playing dress-up; lately he has often been the owner of that bookstore, the one with the grey-blonde hair. Daichi notes him coming and going on his little bike, curled up in a scarf. Admittedly, owner guy is a stunner, if a stunner who probably loathes Daichi with his whole heart.)
Contemplating the possibilities satiated him for a long time, but the deeper they enter into this thing, the harder it is to scrub the details of his personal life, and to stop himself from wondering about ks87. ks87, seemingly the most random assemblage of numbers and letters. It’s a username to hide behind, though Daichi’s sendaireader1 isn’t much better.
Are they dating? Is that the word to use? They don’t go on dates, they just talk—write—constantly. About nothing.
Only, it feels like something. Maybe everything.
He’s not sure when he became this person. If you’d told him a couple of years ago he would strike up an almost-romance with a stranger over the internet, he’d have laughed. Hard. But maybe it’s all to be expected, given that he’s never been very good at this… stuff. Back when Ikejiri dumped him (first and only real relationship!), he’d said, I just wish you’d have told me what you felt—I wish you’d have told me anything.
He tells ks87 things.
Daichi shuts off the water and towels off and puts on his red button-down, the uniform of a Nekoma employee. By the time he comes back to his computer, there’s a reply.
Good morning, you,
I’m confused. If you’re not calm, dignified, wise and strong, haven’t you been faking these things all along?
You should learn to sleep in more, by the way. It’s heart-healthy.
Me. He signs his emails, me. He has to be cute. He returns, not thinking,
I wish I knew how you smell.
As he’s leaving for work he considers that maybe this was weird of him, but if Daichi has learned anything from this experience it’s that he might be a little weirder than he looks.
This red monstrosity is the most obnoxious banner to hang over Nekoma’s entrance thus far. Suga sighs and unlocks the shop, feeling the little wrinkle in his brow. His three months of staunchly ignoring the construction crews have culminated in his staunchly ignoring the large ribbon across the new store’s entrance, and the small crowd gathered in anticipation. He might spy a familiar face somewhere in there, but he turns and ducks inside before he can think too much about it. He already has plenty to think about—I wish I knew how you smell.
An hour later, Shimizu Kiyoko looks up at him over a spreadsheet. He is not sure he has ever before heard anyone say, “the financial situation of this establishment is grave,” with such eerie calm.
They sit in the cluttered privacy of Suga’s office, which is actually a converted supply closet, as Kiyoko assesses their records with her steady eyes. She’s a friend of a friend doing this accounting work pro bono, and he couldn’t be more thankful, except he probably could. For example, if she’d told him he had money in the bank. Those nine devastating words are the first to leave her lips since they sat down.
“It’s very bad?” he asks tentatively, because maybe ‘grave’ is the new slang for ‘peachy keen.’
“Very bad,” she confirms.
“And… and what do you recommend?”
Out front, there’s a flurry of voices, the loudest of which he recognizes as Yachi’s: “SUGA-SAN… I AM NOT LATE…. I have been here all along!”
And then Hinata chirps, “But you just came in now, Hitoka.”
“Shouyou! Why!” Her voice grows louder, and Suga glances nervously at the door.
“Well,” Kiyoko coughs, flipping to a new spreadsheet. “My first recommendation would be—”
The office door flies open and Yachi stands there heaving with her bag slung over her shoulder, obviously having sprinted to work, and cries, “I’m here, Suga-san!”
“… the termination of any extraneous or incompetent employees,” Kiyoko finishes, her eyes still on the spreadsheet. Suga lowers his head into his hands. Yachi is still standing with her hand on the doorknob, gaping at Kiyoko, her face going redder by the second. “If you can release 30% of your part-time staff or one of your full-time employees, you may be able to extend the store’s life.” Kiyoko looks up from her work for the first time, and sees Yachi blushing furiously at her. Her head tips to the side. She glances at Suga. “Oh.”
“We should probably wrap this up, anyway,” Suga interjects, before things can get bad, though Yachi seems to have forgotten movement so it might be too late. “You can send me your recommendations instead, maybe? I have a card. With an email. I’m a professional!” And he fumbles around the desk until he finds one, handing it to Kiyoko, whose expressionless gaze lingers on Yachi.
“Yes,” she says after a long pause, “And I’ll take the expense reports with me. Perhaps we can avoid lay-offs.”
“Scoot,” he whispers to Yachi; she leaps out of the way as Kiyoko exits, heading for the café. The older woman’s eyes are now fixed straight ahead, as though Yachi had actually melted into the door.
Suga rubs his eyes—he can’t imagine where in their budget Kiyoko will find cuts equivalent to a 30% staff reduction. Yachi slumps to the floor.
After a long silence, she says quietly, “Sugawara-san.”
He is prepared for the worst. Sugawara-san, will I lose my job? Sugawara-san, will you strip away my livelihood? Sugawara-san, are you the meanest boss ever? “Yes, Yachi?”
“Who is that woman?”
That’s… not what he expected. Suga peeks at her from around his hand. “What?”
Yachi stares at the ceiling, her face still pink, eyes moving like she’s replaying something in her imagination. “She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” Snapping out of it, she glances at Suga. “Didn’t you notice her, Suga-san?”
Suga stifles a giggle. Aw. “Her name is Shimizu Kiyoko. She’s our unofficial accountant.”
“Unofficial accountant,” Yachi echoes, with the same reverence as if Suga had said she was an idol. He can’t help but laugh, this time. Yachi’s eyes go huge. “It’s funny?”
“Ah, it’s only that I think there must be something in the water around here.”
He is very much a team player, so fifteen minutes later he herds Hinata and Yachi into the café for a staff meeting, including Kiyoko, puzzling over the papers Suga’s brought her. It’s still quite early, before open.
“We need to come up with ways to bring in customers,” Suga says, standing before the crew—Tanaka and Tsukishima still half-asleep, Noya and Hinata looking like they’ve been up for hours, Yachi trying to crochet but staring at Kiyoko instead and repeatedly stabbing herself with the needles. “Anything, really. If we don’t try to compete with Nekoma, we’ll just go down faster.”
“A bake sale,” Hinata almost shouts.
“We sell baked goods in the café,” Tsukki points out. Hinata deflates.
Tanaka scowls. “I don’t get why people wouldn’t come in here. What’ve they got that we don’t?”
“We’re great,” Noya agrees happily, and they high five.
A gear turns in Suga’s head. “What have we got that they don’t?”
“Wow,” wails Yachi, having stabbed herself particularly hard—every gaze in the room flies to her and she turns red. “I… I think it’s gonna leave a mark,” she murmurs, examining the welt on her arm. Out the corner of his eye, Suga sees Kiyoko’s pen pause over her papers.
“What do you mean, Suga-san?” asks Hinata. He sits the wrong way around on one of the chairs, chin on the backrest.
“I mean… if they’ve got something we don’t that makes people want to go there—what do we have that they don’t that could make people come here?”
A silence settles over the group as they contemplate the question. Suga wants to say things like customer service and sense of intimacy and uniqueness, but he doesn’t know for sure what the customer service is like over at Nekoma, or how to market his store’s intimate uniqueness. The phrase “intimate uniqueness” just sounds lewd, and he’s not that kind of retailer.
“Nothing,” is Tsukki’s slow, thoughtful answer.
And they all jump when Nishinoya leaps up on one of the tables. “A SCOUTING MISSION.”
“SCOUTING MISSION,” Tanaka echoes, also flying to his feet.
Hinata’s eyes light up and he tries to climb on a table too, but Suga grabs his shirt preventatively, and tosses Noya a speculative look. “What scouting mission?”
Noya bounces, the table shaking under him. “We go there and pretend to be customers, but secretly we’re there to find their weaknesses and exploit them.”
Tanaka raises his arms in praise. “You’re a genius, Noya-san.”
“You know it, Ryuu!”
“So basically,” Tsukishima translates, “we would go to Nekoma and look around.”
Nishinoya, hearing his idea described so anticlimactically, stops bouncing. “Well. Yeah, I guess.”
Suga glances from Noya to Tanaka to Tsukki to Yachi to Hinata to Kiyoko: they are all watching him, waiting for a verdict. He purses his lips—this is his least favorite bit about leadership, making decisions for the group. He’s a better decision-supporter than a decision-maker. “It’s worth a try,” he manages, not knowing if it actually is worth a try, or if the sight of the newer, bigger store will destroy their will to fight. Or his will to fight, at least. His employees have an endless supply of will to fight, it seems.
Noya descends from the table beaming at the approval and exchanges a fist bump with Tanaka.
“So who’s going to stay behind and watch the store while we’re gone?” Suga asks, scanning them.
“I’m staying here,” says Tsukki quickly, ducking behind the counter in two long strides. Hinata shoves his hand between his thighs, the opposite of volunteering.
“Yachi.” Suga turns to the silent young woman, now fretting over a dropped stitch. “Are you okay to watch the register?” Her mouth falls open.
“I can stay and help her.”
He’s caught off-guard by the sound of Kiyoko’s voice. Suga glances at her, seated away from the rest of them, and thinks maybe he spies a pink shade in her cheeks, but he could be imagining it. Then again, there’s something in the water.
“Me, Ryuu, Hinata and Suga-san,” Noya announces, stripping off his apron (black, with the Crow Street logo embroidered in white), “The fearsome foursome!” Tanaka punches the air and Hinata starts to hop. Suga wonders in passing if they ever get together to rehearse these displays.
Nekoma won’t open for another twenty minutes, which Suga spends glancing nervously out the window and considering whether or not he ought to don a disguise. It’s been months since their visit from Oikawa, Iwaizumi and Sawamura, but he doubts they’ve forgotten the cold shoulder and he doesn’t want to look foolish, creeping into their store. He has his little bit of quiet pride, Sugawara Koushi does.
Not that it’s easy to maintain said pride when you’ve got Nishinoya, Tanaka and Hinata charging ahead the moment he gives the okay. Shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket, Suga trudges across the street after them.
“We want to smile for the customers, Tobio.” Oikawa demonstrates. Kageyama, in the same red shirt as Daichi, stares Oikawa down with the slightest pink flush in his cheeks. Oikawa sighs and turns to talk over his shoulder at Iwaizumi. “Iwa-chan, he isn’t listening. What am I supposed to do?”
“Hire better employees?” Iwaizumi deadpans, and Kageyama’s flush deepens. He attempts to stretch his mouth into a smile, to terrifying results.
“Uck, no,” mutters Oikawa, recoiling. “Do any of them smile, Kuroo?” he asks Daichi’s assistant manager, currently lounging against the long front counter. He watches one of the clerks manning a register at the other end, Kozume Kenma, a kid with obvious roots who looks like he might be falling asleep.
“The two big ones do. The tall one with the bun and the Russian kid. But he’s always knocking shit over.”
“And the one with the bun looks terrifying,” Oikawa adds, making Daichi cringe. Asahi was his personal hire—an old friend who needed a leg up.
“He’s perfectly innocent,” he offers. “But the short one who’s always daydreaming, and Kageyama…” Daichi glances apologetically at the black-haired clerk. “I’m sure you’ll do great, though.”
“I will try to be more welcoming, sir!” Kageyama cries, the way one might yell ossu! Oikawa dismisses him with a wave.
“I think the daydreamer will do fine too,” Kuroo adds. He continues staring contemplatively at Kenma, who’s now whipped out a PSP.
Customers have been streaming in for the past half an hour; they’ve already got a line at the in-house café and most of the armchairs are taken. Daichi can hear kids chatting in the children’s section. The sound of people enjoying books makes his heart swell.
“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says, turning to his assistant with a grin, “We should head upstairs, now. Let our new staff handle it.” He loops an arm around Iwaizumi’s shoulders, Iwa looks annoyed and a little flushed, and Daichi finds himself thinking as they head off, what a strange relationship. But he finds himself thinking that a lot around Nekoma.
“Either they trust us or they want to be alone,” says Kuroo cheerfully. Daichi prefers the first option because he’s not the sort of person who delves much beyond what a strange relationship when it comes to thinking about the private lives of others.
“Let’s say trust. You really think you can make Kozume productive?”
Kuroo’s head careens to the side thoughtfully. His bedhead has impressive structure. “I think so. He’s smarter and better read than most of them.”
“Hm,” is Daichi’s only response. He got the impression when Kuroo hired Kozume that they knew each other, somehow, but again—not thinking about the private lives of others. Sighing, he leans against the counter beside Kuroo, and they watch the store’s traffic.
“It’s busy,” Kuroo remarks after a long pause. Daichi can’t keep a smile off his face.
“Yeah, it really is.”
“How long before that little indie place across the street folds, you think?”
His smile fades. “I don’t know.”
“It can’t be long. They probably don’t get this many customers in a week,” says Kuroo, with a broad gesture at the rest of the store. “Bet they’re regretting not taking Oikawa’s offer.”
“Maybe,” says Daichi, strangely feeling like he’s trying to keep a secret.
“You went with them to make it, right?”
“Iwaizumi made it seem like the owner had no business sense. Like he was just a softie book-loving type.” Daichi swallows; he isn’t sure he agrees with that, but Sugawara-san’s business sense definitively doesn’t resemble that of Iwaizumi or Kuroo, or even Oikawa. He couldn’t see any one of them devoting twenty minutes to helping a customer make the right selection, as Suga had done for Daichi.
“It seemed like he really does love books,” he manages.
There’s a loud achoo from behind a nearby shelf—it draws Daichi’s eye, and he sees… he sees…
“If only loving books were the same as knowing how to sell them.”
“Yeah,” he says quickly, shaking the other man's shoulder. “He’s here.”
“What?” mutters Kuroo, eyebrow quirked.
“Look.” And he points—about twenty-five feet away from them, Sugawara Koushi has just emerged from behind a shelf, and he stands scowling prettily at a display of mystery novels. “That’s him—the owner of Crow Street,” Daichi exhales, nailing his fist into Kuroo’s upper arm.
“Oh yeah?” Kuroo replies. His assistant manager’s calm and questioning glance sufficiently embarrass Daichi, and he shrinks a little, trying to compose himself.
“Yeah, it is. His name is Sugawara. I think.”
“You think.” Now Kuroo is smirking at him. Great. “What’s he doing in here?”
Long pause. Daichi keeps his eyes trained on the ceiling.
“Good-looking guy, huh?”
“I can have you fired, Tetsurou.”
Kuroo just laughs, and heads off down the counter toward Kozume. “That isn’t going to solve your problem.”
Yamaguchi Tadashi has made his decision. Today is the day.
Almost every morning for a year, he has stopped by the café at Crow Street Books on his way to work and ordered a small latte with skim milk and, in that respect, today is the same. But in other, more important respects, today will be different.
“Hi, I’m Tadashi,” he tells his mirror, “Would you like to go out sometime?”
The mirror does not respond. He sees only his own pale face (freckles standing out sharply) and it screams rejection back at him. But it’s fine, and he’s decided: today is the day.
His feet scrape the sidewalk as he drags himself down the street. The sign for Crow Street comes into focus. Across from it there seems to be some commotion at a store with a big red sign, but he can’t register anything in his periphery. He only sees Crow Street. Do it. Do it. Ask him. The chant keeps his body in motion.
He passes the main entrance (he is not sure if he has even been inside the bookstore part of Crow Street) and pushes the glass door of the café open, and then stops.
He has been here so many times he knows exactly what to expect upon entering. The café has three employees, three guys, the short one with the ostentatious hair and the loud voice, the taller bald one with the faces, and Tsukki.
It took Tadashi two months to pin down his name, but finally he heard the short guy say it. Tsukki. It must be a nickname, but he has no idea what for.
Maybe his second time in here, he was sent to get coffee for all the teachers—nine coffees for one set of arms. It became clear as he tried to leave that he’d end up dumping hot liquid all over himself, probably sooner rather than later, and then Tsukki was there holding the door.
“Let me help you get those to your car.”
“I don’t have a car,” said Yamaguchi, flushing at their height difference.
“Then where are you taking them?”
“To—I, um, work at the elementary school, it’s a block down—”
“I’ll walk with you,” said Tsukki simply. His face and demeanor were so cool and calm, Tadashi remembers thinking he must be good at poker. The short boss hollered and whistled but Tsukki ignored it.
They spent the walk in silence, Tadashi growing pinker with each step. His barista savior was tall and thin, with wavy blonde hair and glasses. They walked together all the way into the school and to the teachers’ room, where his co-workers pounced on him, excitedly retrieving their coffees. By the time Yamaguchi had turned around, Tsukki was gone.
He’d thanked him the next morning and gotten a single nod in reply. He overheard the conversation between the baristas:
“We don’t give out extra cups,” said the hair boss, “That’s what the hot sleeves are for. You give every customer two cups for one drink, you’re doubling up on cup inventory.”
“But the hot sleeves barely work,” said Tsukki, steaming the milk for Tadashi’s latte.
“You have cowardly hands!”
Yamaguchi smiled at Tsukki over the espresso machine. It wasn’t until he’d sat down at his desk that he noticed his drink was nestled in a second cup; the realization cowed him so much he had to go sit in the bathroom and do breathing exercises for fifteen minutes before he could teach.
Today, nearly a year later, he walks into the café and freezes because the only person standing behind the counter and indeed standing in the entire room is—Tsukki.
This has never happened before. He finds himself instantly missing Hair Guy and Baldie. Not that he wanted them to witness him asking Tsukki out, but… Tsukki sees him and nods and grabs a cup—straight to work on his usual order. Yamaguchi inches toward the counter, fumbling for his wallet.
“Hey,” says Tsukki. Tadashi’s throat constricts. He has never known this man to speak first.
“Good morning,” replies Tadashi, struggling not to stare too obviously at the snug fit of the barista’s shirt over his wide shoulders. Tsukki starts to pour the milk into his cup, doing that magic thing to make a flower appear in the foam. Tadashi almost hates to see him shove the to-go lid on it.
Tsukki hands over the drink. Now is the time, Tadashi thinks urgently, and he opens his mouth, hoping the words he practiced will take the opportunity to pool on his tongue. Do it. Do it. Do it do it do it.
“You still work at that elementary school, right?”
Tadashi’s mouth stays open. His jaw flaps aimlessly, groping for something, anything coherent. Tsukki is punching buttons on the cash register, ringing up the drink. “I… uh… yes.”
Tsukki takes the proffered credit card, his face typically inscrutable. “I need a favor.”
Chapter 3: behind enemy lines
Again, this is a Daisuga fic but I'm pretty intent on delivering a real arc for every tagged ship. So this chapter, we're getting beginnings for Kagehina and Asanoya. Enjoy.
The "romantic comedy" tag on this fic is NO LIE, folks.
They have been in Nekoma Books for all of three minutes and already Nishinoya is trying to climb a display table.
“Get down!” Suga whispers urgently, and turns to Tanaka for help. “What’s the matter with him?”
“Uh.” Tanaka follows Noya’s sightline—Noya’s eyes, by the way, have gone round and huge. He looks a child chasing after some precious toy. “Oh,” Tanaka smacks himself in the forehead. “Duh. He’s looking at that guy working their coffee bar.”
Suga glances over at the coffee bar—a really slick modern thing with a lot of fancy little lights, that puts the withered wooden counter in Crow Street to shame—and sees what looks like a thug, except holding a tiny espresso cup.
“Him? With the bun? Isn’t he a bit frightening?”
“He’s not frightening,” snaps Noya. “Do you have eyes, Suga-san? He’s handsome. Look at his fucking hair!” He shakes Suga’s arm, wide-eyed. “Look at it, Koushi!”
“All right, what do you want me to say? It’s luscious? Calm down.”
Noya pouts in his special, angry way. “Don’t act like it’s not luscious.”
“Would you love me more if I had hair, Yuu?”
“Nah, you’re not my type.” Tanaka throws up his hands in mock exasperation.
“Is there some rule,” Suga mutters to a grinning Tanaka, “that café staff can only be attracted to other café staff?”
“Nah, I think Noya-san just likes beefy arms.”
“You’re both cramping my style,” declares Noya, set on the bun guy. Determined to ignore them, he shrugs his shoulders, slicks his hair up, wipes the excess gel on his pants, and struts toward the café, reminiscent of a very small male peacock extending his extravagant plumes.
“Don’t forget where your loyalties lie, Nishinoya,” Suga calls after. In reply Noya makes a rude gesture over his shoulder.
He and Tanaka swing around to find Hinata standing there. Suga doesn’t know what he’s been doing while they dealt with Nishinoya, but it appears to have been—distressing. His cheeks are ruddier than usual, his little fists in balls at his sides.
“Suga-san, this store is not like Crow Street.”
Well. He’s not wrong. Suga glances around another time, at the fluorescent lights on high ceilings and the brand-new cleanliness of every aisle and the generic but attractive décor. Eight cash registers sit along a long counter at the front, with space for an enormous queue, and enough tote bag options to suit every taste. Their selection, compared to Crow Streets, is enormous—different, more commercial, but with fewer gaps.
And there are people everywhere. Granted, they’re offering some kind of sale to get them in the door, but they’re here. A portly man shoves past Suga toward the cookbooks, as if to demonstrate the store’s crowdedness.
“I know,” he tells Hinata, in his best reassuring voice. “But different doesn’t necessarily mean better.”
The redheaded boy—young man, really, Hinata is nineteen now, though you wouldn’t know it from his height—sticks his chin forward, eyes glinting with fight. “I won’t let them beat us.”
Tanaka steps forward to clap Hinata on the shoulder, but Suga gives him a quick frown, and his face grows serious. “Don’t, uh—get too excited now, I guess,” mutters Tanaka, looking like he was very much ready to be excited alongside the young clerk.
“It’s a good sentiment, Shouyou,” says Suga firmly, “But there’s no way we can take down Nekoma Books. They’re playing in a different league. The best we can do is find a way to coexist.” Maybe they ought to up their stock of rare and used books, corner some kind of market that Nekoma can’t—of course, new stock demands capital, and that’s the one thing Suga doesn’t have. Well, that and customers. But the two are directly related.
Hinata shakes under Tanaka’s hand, glancing between his two superiors that piercingly energetic gaze. “A different league?” he echoes, and then continues louder, “Just because they’re stronger than us doesn’t mean we should just give up, Suga-san.”
“I am not giving up.” Not yet, anyway.
“We can beat them,” Hinata swears, and Suga sighs, rubbing his eyes. “We can, we can try, and we can work hard and—and I promise, Suga-san.” When Suga drops his hands from his face Hinata has stepped toward him, flushed in fierceness. “We have to save Crow Street.”
“There’s nothing to save it from,” says Suga, with an air of finality that makes Hinata droop. “Why don’t we,” he continues in a diplomatically measured tone, “all go poke around the store on our own, and see what we can learn? We’ll draw less suspicion as a group.”
“Suspicion?” repeats Tanaka, but Suga is already ushering them both down the aisle, and he shoves each of his employees (perhaps a little too hard) in either direction at the end.
“There! Go! This is a scouting mission, so scout!”
“I wonder what Noya’s scouting,” Tanaka snorts as he goes; Hinata stomps off in consternated silence, or tries to stomp, it’s not very successful because he doesn’t weigh enough for the desired effect. But it’s a good effort—Suga would expect nothing less from him.
Azumane Asahi, maker of espresso, bagger of tasty if slightly overpriced muffins, has burned himself three times today on the big scary coffee machine, and they’ve only been open half an hour.
They serve in the last in a long line of customers. Asahi suckles his red, stinging knuckle; he didn’t exactly expect this job to be fun, but he didn’t expect it to be quite so difficult, either. Not that he’s ungrateful—no, no, never ungrateful, Daichi could’ve hired anybody and he’d thrown Asahi a lifeline because he’s a good friend. Either that, or he got tired of watching Asahi shed public tears over the degree of competence a person must lack to get laid off from four different jobs in the span of six years.
“Ennoshita,” he calls to his manager, who is arranging cartons of mints by the register. “I’m going to take my break.”
“You’re going to take a break thirty minutes into your first shift on your first day?”
Asahi stares at his feet. “Oh—uh, no, I guess if—”
“It’s fine,” Ennoshita says, shaking his head. He might be smiling a little, Asahi can’t quite tell. “Take fifteen, Azumane. Narita and I have things covered.”
Trying not to drag his feet—which is difficult because they are terribly heavy, making him always wish he had been born smaller—Asahi slips out from behind the coffee bar and slumps into a seat at a corner table, where huge windows look out on to the street. He rests his arms on the table and his cheek on his arms, watching people go by, peeking at the storefronts across from them. A tiny grocery. A stand with flowers. A fishmonger. Another bookstore-café.
“What did you do before coffee?”
Asahi sits up so fast the table shakes. There is a boy—no, a man, just a short one—standing there, smiling at him. “Huh?”
“I overheard you talking to your boss,” he says. Asahi has a moment to look at him: big golden-brown eyes, a vertical hairstyle fronted by a tuft of blonde, his build small and wiry. He wears a t-shirt reading Learn To Trust Oneself with red high-top sneakers; a complicated tattoo runs from his right wrist up his arm and disappears under his sleeve—it looks like the stormy sea scene from a woodblock painting. “You’ve never been a barista before, right? What did you do before that?” asks this happy, eye-catching stranger—he reminds Asahi of a striking ornament or figurine someone might display in a shop window, because he demands your attention with all his tiny fine details.
“I… a lot of things.”
“What things?” asks the man, hopping into the chair across from him. Asahi glances around, unsure of what is happening, if maybe the stranger has him confused with someone else.
“I—worked in a garage, and a pawn shop, and I did… I did a couple of call centers.”
“That’s very diverse,” says the stranger, sharp chin on his fist, smiling.
“Did you think being a barista was going to be easy?”
“No… I don’t know, maybe.”
He laughs a tiny, hoarse laugh. “Shit, you’re only thirty minutes into it. Wait until you’ve got to take out the garbage and it’s leaking all over the place because people pour out their drinks in there.” He leans across the table, grinning hugely. “What’s your name?”
Asahi feels strangely paralyzed. The big golden-brown eyes flicker curiously over him, full of light and interest, but he can’t open his mouth to answer the question. His face starts to feel hot: maybe embarrassment at his own impotent silence, maybe a little of… something else.
The smile slides off the man’s face—it is truly painful to watch and thinking that only makes Asahi’s face grow warmer. “I’m sorry,” he says seriously, “It’s your break. Do you want me to stop talking to you?”
“Azumane,” Asahi blurts, the word pushing out of him like a gasp with its suddenness, “I’m Azumane Asahi.” There. You did it. You told him! Wait until Mom hears!
“Asahi,” the stranger repeats, brightening at once, delighted to have received the gift of a name. He sticks his thumb to his chest: “Nishinoya Yuu.”
“Hello,” Asahi mutters breathily. He stares at the napkin rack on the table but allows himself to steal the occasional glance at Nishinoya. “Why do you so know much about working in a coffee shop?”
“Ha, ‘cause I work in one too.”
“Yup. For eight years now.” He leans back in his chair, arm hanging lazily off the back. The antithesis of Asahi’s hunched posture.
“Yeah. I guess it’s my career, maybe. Dunno. Don’t think so.” Nishinoya beams and points at Asahi. “A person shouldn’t have a career before they’re thirty, Asahi-san. Otherwise you’re just wasting your youth. How old are you, Asahi-san?”
“Oh, you look thirty-three.”
Asahi ducks his head. He’s heard this before: it’s his facial hair and the worry lines around his mouth. “How… how old are you?” Such a small guy, but Asahi prays that’s just genetic, so he doesn’t feel like some perv.
“Hey,” Nishinoya snorts, “It’s impolite to ask somebody’s age.”
The blood drains from Asahi’s hands and rushes to his face. “I’m—I’m so sorry, I didn’t…” But Nishinoya is… laughing?
“I’m kidding. I just asked you your age, remember? Though I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be polite if I tried. That blushing thing you do is pretty cute, you know,” and in response Asahi blushes harder, because he isn’t sure… what is going on right now, exactly? “I hope you’re not always this meek though,” Nishinoya chuckles, and slaps Asahi’s upper arm—friendly-like, but it sets every nerve in his body on edge. “That won’t be any fun at all.” That won’t be any fun at all?
He opens his mouth and swallows. It would be a good time to say something, but he is so fundamentally flustered he can only sense his thoughts blustering around, just out of reach.
Nishinoya sits forward, intensifying his look. “I’m twenty-six.”
“That’s age-appropriate,” he chokes out, and his companion grins.
He really wants to say something clever or funny or sweet or sexy or—anything, really, and his tongue keeps flopping around like a car spinning its wheels, nowhere to go—but when words finally do come out, he isn’t sure he’s so pleased about it: “Are you flirting with me?”
Nishinoya’s small, exact mouth curls into a circle. “Of course, Asahi-san.”
“Oh,” he exhales. Oh. Oh. (There are long periods in Asahi’s life when this information is never important, never relevant, and then shocking moments arrive wherein he’s called to remember, “Yes, that’s right, I am gay.”)
“No, no, no. No. No. No—no.” Nishinoya starts to laugh.
“Here,” he says, tugging a napkin from the dispenser. He pulls a marker from behind his ear that Asahi hadn’t even noticed was there. “My number.”
“Yeah. Telephone, not credit card.”
“Yeah, no, I—”
“Jokes, Asahi-san,” Nishinoya laughs again, and before he hands over the napkin, he pauses with a thoughtful look at Asahi. “You really are cute. Wasn’t expecting that.”
“What were you expecting?” he asks as he takes the makeshift paper.
“Dunno. Saw a big guy and assumed you’d be a thug. Like a hot thug, but still.”
“I’m not a thug,” he chimes, disgruntled but not all that surprised, since he’s been dealing with this misinterpretation most of his adult life. He almost misses the word ‘hot’ and has to double back, reconsidering.
“I can see that now, yeah,” says Nishinoya, getting up. “I gotta go, okay, but I didn’t give you that napkin so you could wipe your fingers after dinner, you know?”
“No, you gave me it because it has your number and you want me to call you. Wait, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s right!”
“Yes,” Asahi murmurs, and he folds the napkin carefully and slips it into the pocket of his shirt. A thought strikes him. “Nishinoya-san, what coffee shop do you work at?” he asks quickly, as the other man is starting to go.
It’s funny, because he says it loud enough and Nishinoya is still close, so he must hear, but the question seems to roll off him as though Asahi had merely waved goodbye. He returns a wave, too.
“Bye, Asahi-san! Don’t be a stranger.”
Kageyama slaps a price sticker on a book about astrology. He is thinking about smiling.
He doesn’t see why it’s such a big deal, smiling. People are going to buy the books they want to buy, regardless of whether or not he pulls his lips up to show them his teeth in the correct formation. Smiling should be a somatic reaction for when Oikawa-san says something idiotic, or he reads a funny line in a manga. As a physical mechanism forced in order to make others feel comfortable, it’s simply useless. Kageyama Tobio hates useless.
He slaps a sticker on a second book. This one is also about astrology. It’s pathetic what some people will spend money on.
And then he feels something weird. Like a creepy nothingness on the back of his neck—a gaze. A person watching him.
His head snaps up and a colorful blur vacates the end of the aisle. He can still see a wisp of orange peeking out, so he knows the voyeur hasn’t left.
“What do you—?” he starts, then catches himself in gruffness, and corrects himself to a very stiff, “May I help you with something?”
Slowly, intensely, the wisp of orange expands into a head full of bright red hair, and a single, wide eye appears to peer at him around the corner of the shelf. It’s a guy, Tobio thinks, some weirdo guy.
“What?” he grunts, losing the patience for professionalism.
The guy steps out, and he is short with hair like someone tried to mop up a yam, and he glares at Kageyama, in such a way that Kageyama’s best and only response is to glare back.
His random not-a-fan mutters something, but it’s too soft for Tobio to hear.
“What was that?”
“I SAID, I’M GOING TO BEAT YOU,” roars the little guy, turning the head of a passing customer—the woman darts away as though avoiding liability.
“Beat me at what? I don’t even know you!”
“I work at Crow Street Books!”
“Where?” snorts Kageyama, in genuine bewilderment and, predictably, annoyance.
“Crow Street Books,” gasps Orange, clearly even further offended by Kageyama’s ignorance, “We’re right across the street, we’ve been there for twenty years—”
“You haven’t even been alive for twenty years.”
“You don’t know that—I mean, I haven’t, but you couldn’t know that for sure.”
“You look like you’re in junior high.”
“Hey,” says Orange sharply, stepping toward him. Kageyama just scoffs and turns back to his price stickers.
“Listen, I just work here, so maybe go yell at someone who actually cares.”
“It’s your job or mine, and I’m not going to let it be mine.”
Kageyama’s eyes focus on the sticker’s clear, plain yen symbol. A recollection fires up in the back of his head, yes, he has heard the name Crow Street Books before—overheard Oikawa and Sawamura-san talking about it. How they offered a buy-out. How the owner refused, and the store wouldn’t be able to last a year in competition with Nekoma. They had sounded confident when they discussed it, and Oikawa for all his dumbassery and showboating is a good businessman.
He turns to Orange, scowling. “Crow Street Books is going to close, whether you like it or not.”
Orange has started to tremble. He’s so mad, and it makes Kageyama’s stomach twist, like this small person radiates an aura of pure energy and the heat waves are slamming into Kageyama’s own body. “It will not,” says Orange, words murmured with such intensity they slide over his ever exhale, riding each shuddering rise and fall of his narrow chest.
“Yeah, it will,” says Kageyama, that convection intensity heating the tenor of his words. He steps toward the shorter man, jaw clenched.
Orange shakes his head, throat bobbing with a determined gulp.
“Who the fuck are you, anyway?” Tobio demands, almost out of breath and feeling his pulse oddly quicken, whatever that’s about.
“I’m Hinata Shouyou,” and he inhales deeply, “And I’m going to beat you!”
“I’m Kageyama Tobio, and I’m going to beat you, dumbass!” shouts Kageyama, throwing Your Life with Astrology to the ground and stepping into Hinata again, so he’s quite towering over the redhead. He sees Hinata’s fist flinch and rise slightly as if preparing to strike.
“Hinata, what the fuck are you doing?” comes a third, unknown voice; both Kageyama and Hinata lurch to look at a guy with a shaved head storming toward them. He quickly grabs Hinata’s swinging arm. “Are you going around picking fights with random Nekoma employees? You know they don’t have any power at all, right?”
Kageyama’s brow furrows. Whatever.
“I’m sorry, Tanaka-san,” whines Hinata. “I wouldn’t have hit him for real!” This Tanaka-san person gives Tobio a quick nod.
“Sorry about him. We’ll get out of here.”
“It’s fine,” Kageyama replies, too quietly to be heard, as the skinhead drags Hinata down the aisle.
“I meant it, Kageyama!” is the orange-haired boy’s final cry before he and his keeper disappear.
Why the fuck would someone even care about a dingy retail job that much? Kageyama certainly doesn’t. He feels no attachment to Nekoma, to books, to any of this.
He does feel a twinge competitive, though. It’s dumbass Hinata and his little dumbass self and the energy pinging out of his every pore—it makes Kageyama want to—to—to do something! Fight him! Or… he can’t quite put his finger on it.
Tobio retrieves the idiotic astrology book from the floor. Its pages are slightly bent. He pries the shape of the paperback into its original form, but it only looks dinkier. Finished, he shoves it on to the shelf with the others. How stupid.
“Isn’t that a bit counterproductive?”
It frustrates Suga that it has been months since he spoke to this man, but he still recognizes Sawamura Daichi’s voice from the one conversation they had. He shuts his eyes for a second before turning around with a neat smile.
“Sawamura-san. How are you?” In his red button-up with Nekoma’s curled white cat on the breast pocket, he is looking particularly fresh-faced and clean-shaven today—not that Sugawara knows what he looks like on an average day, having only seen him the one time, and of course every so often coming and going from the store site during construction, not that he spends that much time staring out the window—but anyway. Sawamura-san looks all right.
“I’m well. Yourself?”
“Counterproductive?” Suga echoes his first question, absently dragging a hand over the display counter he was examining. Local Authors. He kept trying to figure out if they’d missed anyone.
“Oh, yeah,” says Sawamura, eye going a little wide and innocent and sheepish. “That’s… you said that to me. When I came to buy a book from you. That time…”
“Oh.” Sawamura’s memory is certainly sharp, maybe too sharp, as Suga can see the embarrassment edging into his expression. It’s kind of sweet. Almost. Maybe. “Well,” Suga announces, lifting his hands from the display. “I’m not going to buy anything. This is purely a scouting mission.”
“A scouting mission?”
“Yes, we’re just figuring out how to defeat you.”
“Uh, yes.” He glances around; Hinata and Tanaka and Nishinoya are nowhere in sight. “I brought some employees with me. Here’s hoping they make it back with all their limbs.”
“Well,” says Sawamura, the corners of his mouth turning up, “Mine don’t bite unless provoked.”
Suga grins at him. “Too bad mine like provoking then, huh?”
They laugh, a quiet moment of shared mirth. It dies away and they are left staring at one another with smiles on. Suga is the first to break the eye contact, passing it off as another searching glance around the store.
“Sugawara-san,” says Sawamura. His tone feels heavier and when Suga turns back to him, his mouth is a firm line. “I want you to know that I think you’re good at what you do, and I would hire you in a moment.”
Suga stiffens. Yet again, this is implication cloaked by an offer: Crow Street will go under, you will need work, I will provide that work. It’s generous and cruel.
At least he’s smart enough to sense the indignation in Suga’s countenance: “I apologize if I’ve offended you, Sugawara. I only…”
Suga glances up and understands the severity of Sawamura’s look, but also spies the same crack in his exterior that earlier revealed embarrassment. Now Suga can peek through see the other manager’s indecision and respect for him, but somehow the knowledge that Daichi truly does respect him is more infuriating than the reverse—as though this weren’t a bit personal.
“You only want to put me out of business, not ruin my life?”
“I’m sorry, Sugawara-san, I didn’t—”
“Crow Street is not like this,” Suga intones, as harshly as he can manage, which is not very, but he tries. “It’s not a big-box store, it’s not some anonymous corporation that we just work for. You can’t ruin my business and not ruin my life—Crow Street is my life, Sawamura-san. So please don’t condescend me, as though I simply cared about losing my job.”
Sawamura gapes at him. The lecture exhausts Suga, and he sighs in relief when he hears Nishinoya’s voice floating over the aisle: “Ay, Suga-san, there you are!” He’s trailed by Hinata and Tanaka; they pause near the store’s main aisle and wave him over.
“Suga, I really am sorry,” says Sawamura quickly, sensing their time together is dwindling, “I don’t want to make this a problem between us. Please forget it.”
Suga’s mouth feels odd when it’s not smiling. “It’s already a problem between us.” Underneath all this is disappointment; he wanted to like Sawamura, he really did. In another universe, they could’ve gotten along, been friends, been… and this disappointment only upsets him further. “Good luck with your business, Sawamura-san.” He turns away from Daichi, and marches to meet his employees.
Chapter 4: cosmic jokes
Bokuto and Akaashi? Bokuto and Akaashi.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Yachi’s hands are sweating. I wonder if she can see. Can she see my hands are sweating. I wonder what her glasses prescription is. I hope she’s okay. I hope it isn’t bad. I hope it doesn’t hurt.
Shimizu-san, seated at the front counter, removes her glasses to clean them on her shirt, and seized with concern, Yachi drops the large stack of paperbacks she was meant to be transferring to the sale section. The two women look at each other. “Sorry!” squeaks Yachi, blushing, but she has been blushing consistently for the past hour—oh, what if this disrupts the circulation to her limbs? What if they have to amputate?
“It’s alright,” says Shimizu-san in her soft, sweet, angelic voice. “Let me help you.”
She starts to come out from behind the counter but Yachi squeals, “NO!” Shimizu-san stops. She has a funny expression on her face that makes Yachi want to look away.
“Okay. If you need any help, just ask.”
“I will!” replies Yachi. She doesn’t remember how to talk like a normal person so she keeps shouting her answers, like she’s in the military. (She would be terrible at being in the military, surely, she would be one of those people who drown in puddles in the trenches, or—or by friendly fire—)
She’s so much older. You’re a little baby. She probably looks at you and thinks, “What a cute little girl, where are her parents?”
Yachi has recovered half the books from the floor when the shop door flies open and the fearsome foursome returns in a flurry of noisy maleness.
“I swear,” Tanaka-san is saying, “Hinata was going to deck one of their stock guys!”
“I was not,” Shouyou cries, stomping his feet.
“I didn’t even think about hitting anyone, Suga-san,” says Tanaka, looking to get a gold star, having been the non-aggressor for the first time in his life. He winks at Kiyoko.
“Hitting is bad, Hinata,” Suga tells the pouting clerk, though he is almost laughing. Wordlessly, Yachi’s boss bends down and starts to help her clean up.
“Hitting Nekoma employees would be bad, but hitting on them—”
“Oh, shut up, Nishinoya-san.” Suga throws a book at him; he catches it in the air, with one hand.
“Noya, did the bun guy talk to you?”
“He’s smitten! I gave him my number.”
Yachi and Suga have recovered all the fallen books and Suga carefully reloads them into Yachi’s arms, then turns to Noya with a frown. “Are you really going to date someone who works for our biggest competitor? You see how that could get uncomfortable, don’t you?”
Noya beams. “Who said anything about dating? I just want to sow my oats.”
“You’re disgusting!” Suga snorts. Tanaka delivers a high-five.
“Say, Suga-san, when was the last time you sowed your—”
“BACK TO WORK,” cries Suga, suddenly addressing the entire room. The employees start to scatter, dragging their feet. “Books to sell! Money to make! We’re taking down Nekoma, we’ll meet after close to brainstorm again. Hinata, as punishment for hitting—”
“I didn’t even hit him!”
“—you can take out the café trash. Have fun. Look alive, everyone.”
Suga claps Yachi on the back, and once again the books tumble to the floor.
“He’s not normal.”
Kuroo snorts. “I think you might be right, Kenma.”
The two of them, stationed at the registers (a safe distance away), watch Kageyama Tobio losing his mind.
Tasked with stocking a display of orange plush chicks—the mascot for some series Nekoma is pushing—Kageyama, overwhelmed by the number of toys, has started shoving them on to the cardboard shelves two at a time, inevitably causing the plushies to pop back out as he grunts with frustration, defeating the original purpose in a pitiable spectacle.
“Poor guy,” murmurs Kuroo. “It’s like he’s got no sense of himself.”
Kenma only goes, “Hm.” He itches to grab the PSP tucked into his back pocket, but keeps his hands still: Kuroo is his boss now. Kenma finds this fact cumbersome.
He pulls out the game anyway.
Kuroo gives him a sideways look but doesn’t say anything. A companionable silence falls between them, the kind of easy togetherness that you only get between people who have known each other for years. It’s been a few since he was really spending time with Kuroo everyday (high school friends, different universities), but they’ve settled back into their rapport now that Kenma’s returned to Sendai. The first phone call he got was from Kuroo, with a job offer, before he’d even finished unpacking.
Of course, Kageyama interrupts the quiet; having gotten most of the plushies in the display and arranged the rest on top, he comes over to them in a twitchy rage. “Did you see that orange kid?”
“What, like a guy with carrot skin?” asks Kuroo.
“No, he had freaking—orange hair!”
“You mean red hair?”
“No, it was orange.”
“What’s your obsession with the orange kid? Was he cute, Kageyama?”
“No!” cries Kageyama and turns pink, his indignation fairly incriminating. Kuroo grins; Kenma notes that Tobio has yet to notice Kuroo enjoys winding people up. He could stand to be more observant. “He was some guy from the place across the street. He came in here and yelled at me and then left.” Caught between his anger at the orange kid and his anger at Kuroo for insinuating what his anger at the orange kid might suggest, Kageyama puts his head against the counter and doesn’t move for the next five minutes.
“Ah,” mutters Kuroo, with fake sympathy. Kenma beats a level.
Just then Haiba Lev appears in a whirl of limbs and excitement. “Kuroo-san! I have Oikawa and Iwaizumi-san’s lunch orders! Should I go to pick them up?”
“No,” says Kuroo flatly. Amusement tugs at the corner of Kenma’s mouth—his friend is very good at risk management, and can imagine the destruction Lev might wreak on their city should he step outside unsupervised. “Kenma.” Kenma’s head lifts. “You go.”
“I get to leave?”
“Yeah.” Kuroo snatches the lunch order from a deflated Lev’s fingers and hands it over. “The address of the place is on there. Be back in half an hour.”
“Cool,” says Kenma, and he stuffs his game back in his pocket, pulling on a jacket to disguise his dorky Nekoma shirt before heading for the door.
“Half an hour,” Kuroo reminds him as he goes.
He checks the address once he’s outside. The takeaway is a short stroll down the block. Kuroo has (purposefully, he guesses) given him a twenty-minute break.
He crosses the street and walks until he comes to a little garden settled between two buildings, where no one can see him from inside Nekoma, and plunks down on to a bench. He is halfway through a level when he hears huffs: the sound of a small but fierce struggle.
In the alley that shoots from the garden, a boy emerges from the back of one of the shops, struggling with two very full garbage bags. He looks to be trying to get them to the dumpster further down the alley. One of the bags nearly bowls him over, and he pauses, catching his breath. Which is when he notices Kenma staring at him.
He really does have orange hair.
Shittiest week ever, pardon the language. It’s one of those problems blacklisted by the no-personal-details policy, but I don’t even want to recount most of it. It would give me no relief. Has yours faired any better?
I’m afraid not. The universe had it out for the both of us, I guess.
I’m doing something fun tonight. Maybe. At least, it’s supposed to be fun. I’d like it to be fun. You ought to do the same.
Same—I’m planning to give fun a try. Will fun like me back? Who knows. If it doesn’t, at least I have you.
Suga doesn’t exactly know what it means, that he has this online stalwart even if there’s nothing else, but the thought reassures him nonetheless. He’s so determined not to let Nekoma’s hugely successful first week get to him, almost any thought is reassuring for a moment, until he’s bounced back into dread by the sight of his wallet or checkbook or someone putting coins in a vending machine.
Suga needs this party. Lots of singles, Akaashi had texted him, and it’s hard to admit that the prospect excites him. Only, he misses flirting face to face and being looked at and drumming up possibilities—he doesn’t expect anything to come of the night, it’ll just be nice to know when he returns home to his email that he hasn’t lost his touch; and should he and sendaireader1 (such a silly handle, he thinks about it often) meet in person one day, Suga will be ready to give him the wooing of his life.
He looks at himself in the mirror for a long time before he leaves, checking for wrinkles, twirling fingers around the most significant waves in his hair. When he changes from his work clothes it’s into much the same outfit but slightly different shades: plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up, tucked into brownish-grey corduroys. Comfortable enough to nap in, and he sometimes does.
Suga shows up at his friends’ apartment with a bottle of wine, though it’s just out of politeness. The wine is worse than what they purchase for themselves, and one of dozens of similar quality that will arrive with guests tonight.
Suga met Akaashi at university, where they’d become friends and then roomed together. When Akaashi tied the knot with Bokuto a few years back, Suga was sitting second row at the ceremony. Bokuto’s zeal (for every single aspect of life, Akaashi has told Suga) led him to found a successful software company, and the couple had been raking in obscene amounts of money ever since. Bokuto was the one who connected Suga to Kiyoko, after he’d mentioned financial difficulties at the store over dinner one night. She may well be at this party; he isn’t sure he can look at her and not think about expense reports.
Raising his hand to the bell, he can hear a din of voices from behind the apartment door. That door flies open and the sound and the warmth of bodies wash over him in pleasing discord.
“KOOOOOUSHI-SAN!” roars Bokuto, and he draws Suga into a hug. He would suspect that their host has already had a few drinks, but this typifies Bokuto’s greetings. Bokuto releases him but keeps an arm slung around his shoulders. “Koushi-san, Keiji wants to set you up with a guy here. He’s been talking about it all night.”
“I have not,” comes his friend’s familiar voice. Suga strains under Bokuto until he meets Akaashi’s tepid gaze. “I don’t know him, he came in with one of our other friends. I only said he was your type.” In school Akaashi had made a habit of identifying Suga’s type, as he saw it—they’d be walking across campus and he would point and say in an even, almost disinterested voice, Your type, Koushi. He was a shrewd matchmaker, but a matchmaker nonetheless.
“You think he’s cute?” Bokuto asks, drooping enough that Suga can wiggle out from under his arm.
“He’s dark-haired and kind of stoic-like.” Akaashi grabs Bokuto’s chin. “Does that sound like my type?”
“If you don’t know him, how are you sure he’s gay?” asks Suga, slipping off his jacket. Beyond the foyer he can see the couple’s well-dressed guests filling their apartment, mingling and sipping drinks.
“Everyone here is gay,” declares Bokuto proudly.
“He’s not with the guy he came in with?”
Akaashi accepts Suga’s wine and jacket. “With Kuroo? No.”
“Kuroo’s in looooove,” snorts Bokuto, shoving his hands in his pockets. “With some mysterious guy. He won’t tell us any more about it.”
Suga doesn’t know this Kuroo character (one of Bokuto’s friends, most likely) but he feels the need to deflect questions about mysterious love interests. “Why should he?”
“Go get yourself a drink, Koushi, and I’ll point the guy out to you,” says Akaashi, and Suga heads for the kitchen with a nod.
This is far and away the nicest apartment he’s ever been in. It’s all lovely mahogany furniture and big canvases of modern art. The kitchen where he pours himself a glass of white is a chef’s kitchen, black granite slicked alongside stainless steel, the lighting dim and angular. He’s alone in the room but still feels conspicuously underdressed; he always does when he visits this world of custom tailoring and imported fineries.
He slips back out into the front room, ducking between chatty groups of two or three, wishing he had dragged along Nishinoya or someone as his plus one. He gives a few tentative smiles to the other guests, but everyone is absorbed in their own conversations, so he sidles up to the buffet, old friend of the loner at a party. He’s squinting at the nigiri when he feels the gentle weight of a hand on his shoulder: Akaashi.
“Are you ready?”
“You’re really building this one up. What if I don’t like him?”
Akaashi doesn’t even flinch. “I have no doubt that you’ll like him.”
“I will always admire your confidence, Keiji,” says Suga brightly, as he’s poked to turn around, and Akaashi raises a hand to point across the room.
Suga feels the blood rush to his face, like someone dragging a hot water bottle up his neck.
“Kuroo,” Akaashi calls, “Bring Sawamura over here.”
There’s a split second where maybe, just maybe, Suga can make an escape, before Daichi notices toward whom his laughing friend is dragging him. Unfortunately, Suga wastes that second downing the rest of his wine and starting to sweat; Akaashi frowns at him.
“What’s the matter with you? Are you going to be sick?”
Suga can only make a small choking noise and swing in a circle, looking for the best route out of here, but it seems like there’s a partygoer blocking his way at every turn. Sawamura throws off Kuroo’s iron grip and shakes his shoulders, settling himself, while Kuroo strides ahead, locked on to Suga like a panther to its prey.
“Hello there,” he simpers—he’s a tall guy, smug, talks as if he knows something you don’t.
“Have you two met?” asks Akaashi, with an eyebrow quirked up neatly.
Suga can’t take his eyes off of Sawamura, his skin a shade darker under the intimate low light, dapper in a black shirt that fits him all too well, making a sweet funny expression at his friend’s back and recovering to follow him; he is, Koushi, he realizes, he’s absolutely your type, you stupid. He watches the other man’s steps in slow motion, watches the line of his gaze on his feet, watches it lift slowly to settle on his destination—to settle on Suga.
Sawamura stops short. His mouth falls open. The realization breaks over his face and breaks into Suga’s stomach, a sudden bout of nausea. I know! I know! Suga wants to scream. Ironically Sawamura might be the only person who could understand what is so horrible about this development—something about the cruelty of fate, the cosmic joke of missed connections. The universe keeps making the same typo over and over, linking them together in some bad simile.
The clump of people to Suga’s right parts: he shoves his empty wine glass into Akaashi’s hands and high tails it through the opening and down the hall, ignoring the sound of his name echoing after him.
He locks himself in the bathroom and slumps against the back of the door. It’s fine. He’s fine.
Why did he run? It could have been a little weird and awkward, and now it’ll inevitably be… the most weird and awkward. Suga hugs his legs to his chest and smashes his forehead against his knee. You are an adult man who just ran away from another adult man with fifty other adult humans watching. He whimpers.
Outside the bathroom door there’s the sound of stomping feet and voices. He recognizes Akaashi’s but the background noise from the party and the thick walls make it impossible to distinguish his words. The conversation goes on for the next minute, surging and dwindling in volume. Suga scrunches and un-scrunches his face, rubs his eyes roughly. It’s fine. He’s fine.
Someone knocks. Suga swallows, scoots away from the door, and clamors to his feet. What’s he going to do? What’s he going to do?
This is when he has a very bright idea.
He throws open the bathroom door—the entire width, one motion—and speaks before any of them can get a word in edge-wise: “Sorry about that, I felt a stomach ache coming on! I hope I didn’t hold up the bathroom for anyone else. I’m fine now—Akaashi-san, thank you for holding my glass,” he chirps, snatching it back from his friend’s hands, and then sliding past the gaping trio of Akaashi, Kuroo and Sawamura, back into the main room.
They don’t give chase, or he successfully ignores any possible chase given, so he gets more wine and a few minutes later finds himself staring at the buffet again. The circle of life.
He pours effort into making no eye contact, not with anyone, no, eye contact is just trouble waiting to happen. But he can’t close his ears.
Suga screws his eyes shut. He pretends not to hear. He really tries. He can feel the space beside him fill with the heat of another body, the gentle breathing sounds, and from the voice he knows it’s Sawamura. He smells good, like soap and new paper.
He summons the courage to raise his chin and open his eyes. Sawamura looks tired, above it, and Suga feels particularly immature. Perhaps he has been, a little… but not all of what he’s feeling is unjustified, he’s sure.
“This is unnecessary,” says Sawamura, simply. Suga goes red again. Condescending.
“I don’t know what ‘this’ is.”
“The way you’re acting. I’ve only been trying to help you.”
“Personal? Is that what you were going to say?” Suga ducks his head. It was. Sawamura’s tone is edged with increasingly salient frustration, “You know what I’m really lost on, Sugawara?”
“What?” replies Suga, too quickly, too eager in their argument. Enjoying it somewhere in the pit of his stomach, drawn to the dark energy that pours from Daichi as he winds himself up.
“What you think I should do,” he says quietly, but intently, too intent to be a murmur—Suga notices that they’ve gotten close somehow, Sawamura’s face poking toward his own. “What do you expect from me? Your store is your life, okay. I’ve got a life too. I’ve got a job that pays my bills and I get pleasure from doing it well.” Sawamura starts piling nigiri on a tiny plate.
At a loss, Suga channels his desire to protest into, “Don’t take all the shrimp!”
“I like the shrimp.”
“You’ve got to share! It’s not all your shrimp!” Suga grabs one and throws it back on the buffet table—Daichi promptly retrieves it, eyes huge in a manic challenge—Suga grabs it back and does the first thing that pops into his head, which means shoving the nigiri into Sawamura’s face.
The shrimp and rice fall stupidly to the floor, leaving a couple grains stuck to Daichi’s reddening cheeks. Suga regrets it, he regrets everything.
“You just,” says Sawamura slowly, “threw a piece of sushi at me.”
Suga gulps. “It wasn’t really a throw—”
“You’re a child!” snaps Sawamura, and if people weren’t staring at them before, they are now. “I don’t understand how you expect me to take you seriously as a competitor when you’re the least professional person—in existence.” Sawamura exhales as though breathing out all his anger; Suga winces. It’s awful. He feels awful. Sawamura gathers up his sushi, turns on his heel, and stalks off—this might be the last conversation they ever have, and Suga—Suga!—comes out looking like a jerk.
He turns his head and sees Akaashi and Bokuto standing nearby, watching him, Bokuto’s face twisted in secondhand embarrassment, Akaashi hanging his head.
He claims stomach pains when he tells them he’s leaving early, and though it’s an obvious excuse, he does start to feel sick on the way home. The subway is somehow white and dirty, silent and alive. He puzzles over this through a long shower, and then curls up on his futon.
Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway.
Tonight I was on the train home and I realized, I’ve got no idea what that story was about. It’s a pretty image but what does it mean? Do you know? Should I stop coming to you for answers to everything?
I have this problem. I’m faced with a challenge. Actually, more of an impossibility than a challenge—am I doing okay avoiding personal details? No, I said I’d stop asking you for answers. It’s only that you’re this constant source of comfort in my life when I don’t have many.
Anyway, it’s a choice between making the impossible, possible, or letting go of my livelihood. I think I am going to lose something I treasure very much… I’ve always thought change is good, but this change doesn’t sit right with me. If I fight it, victory is a long shot. I don’t know. People depend on me and I could let them all down.
This email reads sadder than I would like. Here is a haiku to brighten your day:
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
I would ask one more answer from you. Last one, I promise.
My dear friend,
Fight. Always fight.
The haiku is from Kobayashi Issa, a 18th/19th century poet who liked snails.
Chapter 5: frog and toad together
So, FYI, I'm considering writing a one-shot in this universe for every pairing other than Daisuga once the main fic is done... I want to make sure everyone gets their day, you know. They'd all be posted as another multichapter. And if I don't do it for all of them, I'm definitely going to do it for Iwaoi, so there's that!
“Tsukishima-san, I didn’t know you had it in you.”
To Tsukishima Kei, being punched in the shoulder by the grinning owner of Crow Street is no less condescending than being patted on the head as though he were a child. But he doesn’t say this; he shoves his hands in the pockets of his apron and shrugs. “It was obvious, really.”
Here is what struck Tsukishima Kei so obviously:
Crow Street Bookstore & Café needs customers.
Crow Street Bookstore & Café sits down the street from a large public elementary school.
A teacher from said school frequents the café portion of Crow Street Bookstore & Café. Tsukishima learned this of his own accord some time ago.
Every child at that school has one to two parents, and some siblings, and grandparents, and acquaintances.
“A storytime,” Suga sighs happily, chin on his fist, “It wasn’t obvious to me, but it’s perfect. It’s just how Crow Street is, isn’t it? Fun and personal. It’s very us.” It’s very you, thinks Tsukki, but he is perfectly aware that Sugawara Koushi is this bookstore, for all intents and purposes. These walls and shelves are his second living body, his outer shell. He looks like a fixture of the furniture right now, standing behind the counter and watching the families milling around the displays, and the seating area they’ve cobbled together with extra chairs from the café and the storeroom. It is the most people Tsukki can remember ever seeing in the store, and certainly more than they’ve had in the past, markedly difficult six months.
“I’m going back to the café,” says Tsukki plainly.
“You don’t want to stay for the reading? You put all this together.” Suga addresses him with such easy hopefulness—Tsukki finds it disconcerting. No one should be so earnestly interested in others for such innocent reasons. He’ll never be used to that.
“Noya-san isn’t here and Tanaka wants to hear the reading.” Indeed, Tanaka hasn’t stopped talking to the kids since they began to arrive. He’s currently battling a small girl in rock-paper-scissors.
“Noya-san isn’t here?” Suga repeats, brow furrowing. It’s not like Nishinoya to be late, but Tsukki also doesn’t want to be held responsible for someone else’s incompetence, so he ducks out for the café before the conversation has a chance to progress.
It’s empty as the reading approaches and people have migrated to the other part of the store. Tsukki gets his headphones from behind the counter and sits at a corner table close to the register.
He is halfway through a track when half a smallish figure appears in the entrance to the café—half because he seems to be leaning around the corner, eyeing Tsukki, who pauses the music and slides off his headphones.
The freckled man steps into the room with a short nod. Tsukki adjusts his glasses.
“Can I help you?”
Yamaguchi scuffs his shoe on the floor. He is so quiet, not like how Tsukki himself is quiet. It’s puzzling but when their eyes meet he feels comfortable and knowing, as though they are both in on the joke even if they aren’t laughing. Yamaguchi does not quite feel like a stranger—he feels even less like a stranger than some of Tsukki’s coworkers, the blonde girl, the baffling Tanaka.
“Thank you,” blurts Yamaguchi. He seems nervous.
“What are you thanking me for?”
“For setting up this,” Yamaguchi flaps a hand toward the bookstore, “For the kids. It’s really great.”
“There’s no need to thank me when it helps both of us. And you were the one who invited these people.”
Yamaguchi opens his mouth, hesitates. He is making Tsukki curious—he has something more to say, it’s clear. Tsukki decides in that moment that he likes Yamaguchi, maybe because he is so quiet, but he would prefer if he spoke his mind on occasion.
“Tsukishima-san, would you like to have coffee with me sometime?”
Yamaguchi grips the doorjamb, trembles. Tsukki lifts his chin, and glances sidelong at their surroundings.
“We’re in a coffee shop.”
Yamaguchi goes red. “Not that—not here, I’m not asking you to make us both coffee so we can… drink it…” He inhales deeply, still steadying himself on the wall. “I was just asking if you would like to ha—hang out sometime.”
“Oh.” Tsukki hesitates a second, just a second, thinking how no one has asked him this since he was sixteen, but the delay is long enough for Yamaguchi to jump back in, insecurity bleeding through his stab at nonchalance.
“We don’t have to, it’s fine if not, I was just thinking—”
“It’s all right.”
Yamaguchi stares at him, open-mouthed, and then nods slowly. He seems to shrink four centimeters, and he starts to turn to go back into the bookstore.
“We should get ice cream instead of coffee.” Yamaguchi freezes. Tsukki thinks he’s sort of bizarre, it is as if they are having two different conversations right now, and he sort of wants to take the smaller man by the shoulders and tell him to chill out, but possibly that will go away with time. Otherwise he’ll be annoyed, and for whatever reason Tsukki doesn’t want to feel annoyed by Yamaguchi. Like it would be a waste. “I don’t actually like coffee,” he explains. “I smell like it all the time. It’s disgusting.”
An awkward laugh forces its way out of Yamaguchi like a tiny unwelcome explosion. He has started to smile, but strangely, as though he can’t quite control the machinations of his own face. “That’s good. I like ice cream too.” His eye line strays back into the bookstore. “I think I need to…”
“Yes. Go ahead.”
“But I’ll—I’ll come back after and… and give you my number.”
Tsukki raises an eyebrow. Now he really feels like he is missing something, just in the way Yamaguchi inflects this statement. But factually, it strikes him as solid, so he nods. Yamaguchi bounces in place and then stumbles from the café, leaving Tsukki alone again.
He slips his headphones back over his ears, turning the word friend over in his head.
“I can’t believe you’re letting this happen,” says Kuroo, “It’s like the kind of thing I would do for fun if I were manager.”
Daichi wills his ears deaf to this comment, pulling on a jacket to disguise the ostentatious red of his uniform. “That’s the most people I’ve ever seen at Crow Street. It’s in our best interest to know what’s going on.”
“Nevertheless, I think Kageyama is taking it a little too far.”
“It’s discreet,” hisses the clerk, shoving a pair of sunglasses over his glaring blue eyes. He further tugs a HOLLYWOOD cap over his head and drags up the hood of his sweatshirt. “I don’t want to be recognized.”
“Ah, right,” Kuroo smirks, “You’re going to see the redhead.”
“I said it was orange!”
Kenma, who has been watching a register (playing his PSP) while Daichi and Kageyama prepare for their mission, lifts his head. “You’re going to see Shouyou?”
Daichi has known Kuroo long enough to notice the way he tenses and looks at Kozume, eyes narrowing; it’s a small shift but significant for the unflappable Kuroo. “You know him?” he asks lightly.
“You know him?” asks Kageyama, less lightly.
“Yes,” is Kenma’s only answer. Flinching under their three gazes, he turns back to his game.
Daichi reminds himself that private lives stay out of the workplace, but if he were really committed to that, he wouldn’t have hired a friend. He has to stuff away the concern born from the look on Kuroo’s face just then. Perhaps they can address it later—he wouldn’t be surprised to learn there is something his friend hasn’t told him.
“Kageyama,” he says, starting to usher his employee toward the exit, “Let’s go, I want to make this quick.” Or, needs to make it quick, since he has no idea what he’ll do if Sugawara spots him.
He has been revisiting their last conversation too much. Thinking he was cruel, or too short-tempered, or unfair. Thinking his desperation for Suga not to hate him completely only secured that very hatred. On the other hand, he could dump a bucket of cold water on his rival, to wake him up: Crow Street’s lack of action is a white flag waved, whether or not Sugawara has realized this. Daichi wants to win, of course (of course), but he won’t enjoy it if the other guy refuses to throw punches. He wants a fight, not an assault. He likes to play the game.
He and Kageyama cross the street with their shoulders hunched, as though that might render them anonymous, and when they slip through the front entrance he considers that maybe Kageyama’s disguise wasn’t so stupid after all—he certainly feels exposed.
They meet a wall of people just inside the bookstore, all with their backs turned to the front, watching something in relative silence, and someone whispers, “Shh, it’s starting,” to smother what noise is left, and over their heads Daichi hears a soft voice speaking, one he recognizes.
“One morning Toad sat in bed. ‘I have many things to do,’ he said. I will write them all down on a list so that I can remember them.”
Forgetting Kageyama (who seems preoccupied, anyway), Daichi maneuvers around and starts to wiggle through the crowd, compelled to see this for himself.
“Toad wrote on a piece of paper: ‘Things to do today.’ And then he wrote ‘wake up.’ ‘I have done that,’ said Toad, and he crossed out ‘wake up.’”
He manages to break through to the edge of the standing crowd, to the inner audience of seated parents and children. Before all of them sits Suga on a chair meant for a child, his knees tucked toward his chest, showing an illustration to a boy in the front row before turning the page. He smiles, because he is a person made of sunshine, or something like that, and Daichi smiles too, because this sunshine person has finally made a business move.
Today is one of the best days of Hinata Shouyou’s life.
But then again, he has this thought weekly. He had it when he thought he’d grown a centimeter since last year (he had not) and when Tanaka convinced him that the dance move he’d invented was catching on (it was not) and last Sunday when his mother made pork for dinner (she does this, coincidentally, about once a week).
But today—really—he’s sure—might be the one.
It started about a week ago, on a morning when Sugawara-san busted in fifteen minutes late and shouted, “I demand to be taken seriously! We’re going to fight!”
And he’d made them all stand in a line and repeat after him, “WE DEMAND TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY!” as loud as they could. Hinata aced that exercise.
And the rest of that day turned into a volley of ideas and poster designs and phone calls being put in to friends, former coworkers, family. “We’re going to make Crow Street a movement,” Suga-san told them. He said it with such confidence and energy and brightness that Hinata probably would have followed him off a cliff in the moment.
Around this time Tsukishima’s big idea came to light, and they decided story time would be the first in a series of moves to publicize Crow Street. Hinata was—continues to be—thrilled. Remembering back to Suga’s gentle warning when they scouted Nekoma, how there was no real contest, how he ought to lower his expectations, this offensive effort rekindles all the enthusiasm that Hinata has been trying to put out for the past couple of weeks. It’s a relief and blessing to stop pretending he has any kind of self-control about this—he has really been missing team sports since he graduated high school, and this is just the thing. Suddenly work is the most exciting it’s ever been.
He’s supposed to be working the register during the event and he does for a while, but no one wants to get rung up while Suga-san is doing his reading, so Hinata sneaks out from behind the counter and starts creeping around the crowd, trying to get a look at his boss, and then giving up and peering out the window to see if anyone at Nekoma noticed the steady flow of people coming into Crow Street.
As he’s glaring out the window (not seeing anyone, not yet) someone’s chest makes contact with his shoulder—a tall customer shoving through, he guesses, looking up to see a guy in sunglasses and a hat and a hoodie and—
“HEY,” he says loud enough to turn some heads at the back of the crowd, “You’re that guy from Nekoma! With the mean look!”
“The mean look?” echoes the tall guy indignantly—Kageyama! Hinata remembers! He rocks up on his toes, filled with ecstatic fury.
“What’re you doing in Crow Street!”
“Lower your voice, dumbass, you’re gonna ruin your own stupid event.”
Glaring, Hinata drops back on to his heels. He speaks as quietly as he can manage with the degree of excitement Kageyama’s arrival has brought him: “Are you trying to spy on us? Do you want to pick up on our secrets? Because I’ll never tell.”
“There’s no secret, this is all totally public,” whispers Kageyama fiercely. He has weird red patches on his cheeks.
“It’s public to everyone except you,” and Hinata starts trying to drag him toward the door, making at least two mothers throw them dirty looks, but they can’t understand the urgency of Nekoma’s infiltration.
“Take your hands off me!” Kageyama sounds more panicked than he does offended. Hinata decides he’s kind of an odd dude, but in a fun way.
He’s also very good to wrestle with, and Kageyama struggles against his grip, and he does it effectively, since Hinata trying to drag him is sort of like Hinata trying to drag a slab of stone. He wiggles that slab, though, and Kageyama stumbles into him, giving Hinata (who’s fast, always fast) the critical moment of vulnerability to lock an arm around the intruder’s waist and bodily—as in, with his whole body—wrestle him out the front door of Crow Street. Kageyama roars—argghhhHHHHHH—this is very satisfying to Hinata, who lets out a similar war cry, their torsos slamming together as they struggle to get on top of one another in the sidewalk just outside the bookshop.
“GET OFF ME, DUMBASS!”
“NEVER, YOU’RE MY NEMESIS!”
“You can’t just say I’m your fucking nemesis! That’s not how nemeses work—”
“It’s probably an important step!”
They aren’t even throwing punches, they’re just sort of wrapped around one another and shouting and writhing and scaring passersby, and they’d go on like that forever, until Hinata feels a new presence tearing him away from Kageyama.
“Shouyou-san, what the fuck are you doing?”
“You’re sure you haven’t got any gel?” Noya pokes his head deeper into the medicine cabinet, as if the gel might appear. Aspirin, deodorant, first aid stuff. He ties up the towel around his hips and nudges aside antiseptic spray.
Asahi’s voice drifts into the bathroom from where he stands rifling through his dresser. “I don’t really use hair gel.”
Right. That makes sense. “I’m late,” Noya mutters, not checking a clock or anything because he knows he got in the shower ten minutes before his shift was supposed to start, and he has decided because he’s nearly his own boss, it doesn’t really matter how late he is once he’s already late. This was a decision he made upon waking up next to Asahi an hour ago and realizing he hadn’t finished with this particular conquest—even now, spying Asahi pull a t-shirt over the curvature of his muscled back, he doesn’t feel done. Just like he didn’t feel done last night, or the night before.
“I’m late for work. I don’t have time to go back to my place, I’ll just have to wear it down today.”
Asahi appears in the door, smiling. “I think it looks cute. You’re welcome to bring an overnight bag here next time, though.”
Noya stares at him.
Asahi’s smile dwindles. Noya is trying to wrap his head around I think it looks cute. Normally he’d object to such a diminutive adjective but somehow he feels—he feels—what does he feel? And then there is the other thing, the…
Asahi’s eyes scrape over the tiles of the bathroom floor. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—I only meant for convenience, not like we’re…”
Noya lacks skill at deception of any kind (making this fling with Asahi very dangerous, but he doesn’t mind), and thus he can’t really trick himself into not knowing what Asahi was going to say next. Nor can he hold his tongue.
“It’s been a week, Asahi.” Granted, a week where they’ve fucked every night—the first time they went to dinner first, like a date, but after that Noya just started showing up and taking what he wanted. Wants. Asahi’s shirt stretches over his torso so elegantly; he starts to nod a lot, nervous deflection.
“Right, yeah, of course, of course. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” says Noya simply, trying to push some hair off his face.
“Okay, sorry.” Noya glares. “Right, yes, I’m—I got it.” Asahi gives him a genuine thumbs up, which is a thing Noya didn’t even know people still did genuinely. He reaches over Noya into the cabinet and takes a cloth-covered rubber band, a hair tie, he remembers his sisters used to use them. Asahi starts tugging his mane back into the signature bun; Noya observes and then takes one of the hair ties from the cabinet.
“I could use this.” A grin splits Asahi’s face as he gathers his hair in a tiny ponytail at the very top of his head and ties it. They both look in the mirror and start to laugh, and Asahi swoops down to kiss him, nicely until Noya slings his arms around his neck and forces tongue and the movements get sloppier and harder. The towel at Noya’s waist starts to come loose and it takes a lot—a lot—of willpower for him to pull away, but he knows what’s going to happen if the towel falls, and an hour late for work might be pushing it.
“I gotta go, I really—ufh.” Asahi kisses the back of his neck when they part and the sensation races down his spine.
“I have work too,” says Asahi, in between feathery kisses, “Maybe we can go part of the way together?”
At this point Noya is standing over the sink, principally naked, staring at himself in the mirror as Asahi lathers attention on his neck, and he can see the color drain from his own face when this question finds his ear. His hands tighten around the sides of the porcelain basin. “Uh…”
“Where do you work again, Noya-san?” Asahi’s breath is so warm, so warm, the towel is going slip down any second now, fuck—Noya presses his chin away.
“Stop doing that, you’re making me hard.”
Asahi curls away from him, blushing. “Oh, sor—I’ll stop.” The blush is no less invigorating than the kisses, but the somatic response—a tiny stir in Noya’s chest—is more convenient, with the timing. “Do you want me to hand you your clothes?”
“Sure. Thanks.” Asahi disappears into the bedroom, which gives Noya a precious moment to roll his neck (he can still feel a dozen little pressures on the skin there, like a phantom tickle) and stick his hands through his disappointingly flat hair, removing the hair tie and slinking it around his wrist. Asahi comes back with his shirt and underwear and shorts from yesterday and Noya drops the towel unabashedly now—of course, Asahi is abashed for him, and turns his back, even though he’s seen all there is to see.
“So—so did you want to ride the subway together, maybe?” Asahi manages as Noya is pulling on his shirt and trying to stifle his gut instinct for honesty in its bluntest form.
“Yeah, all right,” and he’s about to just come out and say where he works because it’s not a big deal, and it would be weird to make it a big deal, because they are just two guys who have sex and happen to work at rival bookstore-cafés. It’s the definition of no biggie. So he’s going to say it—but Asahi speaks first.
“I can’t believe you’ve been at the same coffeehouse for eight years, Noya-san, that’s real loyalty.” Noya’s hands pause over the button of his shorts. “It must be a very special place for you. I’d like to have a job like that, someday.” There’s such wistfulness in his voice, it stalls the confession on Noya’s tongue, he can’t bear to shatter Asahi’s mood—he can’t bear to shatter Asahi, which is going to make this whole thing even harder than he anticipated.
“Yeah,” says Noya, swallowing hard. A small voice in the back of his head asks, what is happening to me? Dressed, he shoves his hands in his pockets and elbows Asahi in the back. “Let’s go then, now I’m really fuckin’ late.”
Suga hugs Frog and Toad Together to his chest, grinning as the crowd from the reading dissipates—the majority of them are staying to browse, he notes. Yachi dives behind the counter to serve the first in a developing line of customers (weird, he thought he’d put Hinata on the register), Tanaka jogs back to the café to help Tsukishima with the group of parents heading to order coffee. The whole store is alive, colorful and moving. It reminds him of how things used to be, when he was a little boy and his mother was just starting out. He didn’t know then how brave she was, a single mom opening a business ten months after a messy divorce.
He can’t wait to get home and write the email, you were right. His mother would have said the same thing as his friend, his mother would have told him to fight. He wonders if his friend will ever remark on the fact that they’ve started signing their notes with love.
Suga turns: there are three figures marching toward him, or rather, one tiny figure towing two others. It takes him a moment to recognize the little leader.
“Doesn’t Nishinoya-san look like a little kid with his hair down, Suga-san?” asks Hinata, hyper, apparently unaffected by Noya’s iron grip on his collar. The third person isn’t someone Suga recognizes, but he wears a rather ridiculous hat and his sunglasses are askew.
“Shut up,” Noya snaps, and he addresses Suga. “Hinata was wrestling this kid on the sidewalk, I figure that’s pretty bad for business.”
“He works at Nekoma, he’s a spy!”
“I’m not a spy!” roars the black-haired kid, and he shakes off Noya’s hold, eyeing Suga bashfully. “I just wanted to know what your event was, sir.”
“Sugawara,” he introduces himself, trying not to laugh. “Are you the one Hinata almost socked during our scouting mission?”
“Uh—yeah, I—listen, I’ll leave, I’m sorry for disturbing you. I just need to find my boss.”
Suga’s stomach flips. “Sawamura-san is here?” He can’t help glancing around, immediately feeling he’s on display—Sawamura can see him and he can’t see Sawamura, he doesn’t like that, not after the party. Unfortunately, Nishinoya wears his thoughts on his face, and his face as he stares at Suga says, wow, Sugawara-san sure did have a weird reaction to the mention of Sawamura just now. Inevitably this won’t be fun to deal with, but Suga composes himself. “Hinata, apologize to…”
“Kageyama Tobio, sir,” says the Nekoma kid with a bow.
“Apologize to Kageyama, Shouyou. We’re rivals, not animals.” Noya snorts.
Hinata’s eyes light up. “If I were an animal, would I be a lion?”
“Obviously you’re a crow, dumbass.”
“Stop calling me dumbass!”
“Okay, I apologize on Hinata’s behalf,” Suga says quickly, sticking Frog and Toad Together between their arguing faces. “Kageyama, why don’t you go find Sawamura and be on your way?”
Kageyama deflates and marches off. Hinata calls after him, with a bizarrely cheerful glare, “Bye, Kageyama! Next time I’ll destroy you for real!”
“Trash duty, Hinata.”
Hinata doesn’t look the slightest bit put out when he says, “Sure, Suga-san.”
“What’s the matter with you? Why are you so happy?”
“I don’t know!” chirps Hinata, grinning at the spot where Kageyama disappeared, and he trots off to the café without a single complaint. Of course, Suga remembers his first crush on a boy being no less strange, so he’s in no position to judge.
Nishinoya has been watching everything with his arms across his chest, uncharacteristically quiet. His eyes narrow, and Suga’s eyes narrow in reply.
Until his gaze is caught by the appearance of Kageyama near the door, with Sawamura on his heels. The other manager pauses in the exit; he must feel Suga’s gaze on them. He turns and they see each other and the color rises in Suga’s face. Wanting the edge, he presses his palm to his lips, then pulls it away and blows lightly. Sawamura’s expression of horror is priceless, and he shoves his way out of the store.
He turns back to Noya, who is laughing his ass off.
“So are we not going to talk about you and Sawamura-san?”
“So are we not going to talk about the fact that you’re an hour and a half late?”
The laughter dies on Noya’s face. “I had to take an alternate route to get here.”
“Oh yeah? What was wrong with the normal way from your apartment?”
“I wasn’t at my apartment.”
“I know,” Suga lifts his arm by the elbow, “These are the same clothes as yesterday, and you didn’t do your stupid hair thing.” Noya scowls as Suga notices something else: “And this is a woman’s hair tie?” he asks, indicating the band on Noya’s wrist.
“They’re unisex! Lots of—”
“It was the bun guy?”
Noya jerks his arm away. “You’re sharp as always, Detective Sugawara.” Suga preens at the nickname.
“So what, he lives in France or something?”
Noya’s face scrunches up, contorting with the effort of a lie, even one as obvious as, “Yes. He lives far out of town.”
It takes Suga a longer second to put this one together. “You had to circle the block a few times to make sure he didn’t see you come into Crow Street, because you haven’t told him you work here.”
The exertion melts from the little barista’s expression, replaced with tightness. “I hate you, you know.”
“Nah. Why don’t you tell him? I thought this was just a fling,” Suga says, watching a family walk by, two men holding either of a little girl’s hands.
“I didn’t tell him ‘cause it’s not a big deal!”
“If it’s not a big deal then why are you going to all this effort to keep it a secret?”
“Hey,” Noya pokes a finger into his chest, “We just make coffee—you’re the one who wants to screw the Nekoma manager, that’s way worse.”
“I do not want to screw him,” Suga gasps, as if some fragile sensibility has been offended, when really it hasn’t been ten hours since he last considered if seducing Sawamura might help him defeat Nekoma in some way. Alas, he had failed to find a strategy where his body served as an effect weapon.
“Oh, fine, whatever the Suga version of screwing him is,” Noya clasps his hands together and sways from side-to-side, “Cradling his head in your lap and whispering sweet nothings, idiot stuff like that!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Suga lies blithely, adjusting a couple of books on a display. “And anyway, I didn’t actually do anything with him, so yours is already worse.”
Noya only frowns at him. His eyes swivel out over the store, and to the large front window, through which the other bookstore’s entrance is just visible. “Fuckin’ Nekoma,” he mumbles.
Noya’s quietness always strikes Suga—silence from him is like screaming from other people, it grabs your attention. “Is it a fling, Nishinoya? Or—”
“I have no idea what it is, Koushi,” Noya replies, too softly.
Suga lowers his head. “All right. Just be careful.”
“Careful,” Noya repeats, as though this were the heaviest word in the world. He jerks a hand toward the register. “Yachi-san looks like she’s about to burst into tears over there, you better go help her out with that line.”
“Ah, right. I will.”
“You be careful too, Suga-san,” Noya says as he heads for the café.
Suga gives him a wave, summoning up some brightness. “I’m always careful.”
Kageyama turns to his boss with a frown when they’re in the street. “Did the owner of Crow Street just blow you a kiss?”
“Be quiet or I’ll write you up for insubordination,” Daichi snaps, and marches past him. “Come on, we’ve got work to do.”
Chapter 6: stratagems
Lotta Daichi POV in this one, enjoy it.
I’ve been taking your advice, by the way. About fighting back. It’s working, I think. I won’t know for a while, I suppose, but I’m trying. Which is more than I was doing before.
I’m a bit weak-willed, maybe. I don’t think you are, so that makes us a good match, right? I wish you were here to make me stand up to the guy at the falafel place who always skimps on the sweet chili sauce.
It’s Daichi’s day off, and he has already spent the first hour of it lying in bed, peering at the text of this email on his phone, burying his face in his pillow, groaning, and repeating the process. He tries to compose a reply, I wish I were there too, but he isn’t sure he wants that particular message delivered in subtext. It would be better to come out and say, I agree. We should meet. Japan’s not a huge country, and it wouldn’t be too hard to explain that Daichi will go wherever his friend is, he’ll take days off from work, buy a train ticket, rent a car. Whatever he has to do.
It’s starting to feel urgent, his need to meet this person. He’s… lonely? No, not quite lonely—lonely implies that any individual could fill the vacancy of his bed, the cold seat opposite him at meals, the absence he feels over his skin insinuating a desire to be touched and to touch. But it’s not just anyone, he knows. He knows because sometimes he rolls over in the morning and reaches out expecting to find a body there that fits against his own, and to hold that body and sigh and smile, and his readiness for that intimacy is love. He forgets they haven’t met, that he can’t really miss a presence he’s never felt. He’s not lonely—he’s in love with someone who isn’t there.
And it hurts, like nails scratching the inside of his chest. He’s never hurt this way before, not when Ike left, not when he first confessed to a guy and got punched in the face for it.
He crawls out of bed, because it’s stupid and sad to lie there feeling sorry for himself. He’s not so pitiful as that.
When he flips on the local news during breakfast, he nearly dumps the meal all over himself—there on the screen is Sugawara Koushi, in the midst of an interview. The line beneath him reads, Historic Neighborhood Bookstore In Danger of Closing. He is wearing the same pink plaid shirt he had on during the reading a few weeks ago; it flatters him, really brings out the pink tones in his cheeks; Daichi hates this.
“Crow Street Books is at the heart of Sendai,” Suga tells a light-haired, plastic-y reporter, “It would be a shame to let an institution fall prey to a corporation like Nekoma Books. It’s a part of my heritage, because my mother started this store twenty years ago, and it’s a part of Sendai’s heritage, too.”
Daichi can see the front of his own store in the frame behind Suga—currently surrounded by a bunch of picketers. They’re chanting something about big boxes and… and he can’t quite make it out over the interview, but it sounds plenty insulting. Daichi shoves away his breakfast and puts his head in his hands.
“What would you say is the biggest difference between Crow Street and Nekoma?” asks the reporter.
“Well, it’s the people, really.” Suga smiles, right into the camera. “I’ve gotten to know some of the staff at Nekoma, and at the crux of it, they’re a business—at Crow Street, we’re a family.”
Daichi gives the television a strained grin, kneading his fist into the countertop. “That’s pretty good, Sugawara!”
“Thank you,” Suga tells the reporter, as the interview ends.
Fifteen minutes later, Daichi shoves his arms into the sleeves of his coat and heads for Nekoma.
Outside the store, he has to weave through the picketers, with signs reading SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESS and INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. He recognizes the orange-haired kid among them, but the news crew is packing away their equipment into a van, so Suga must have gone inside. Stop looking for him, snaps the voice in his head that knows better. You’re hopelessly in love, remember?
Kuroo and the majority of their staff—Kageyama, Kenma, Haiba, Asahi, Yaku and Inuoka from the music section—are crowded around the entrance, watching the protestors.
Kuroo opens his arms when he sees Daichi. “But boss, it’s your day off.”
“Why aren’t you guys working?”
“The people with the signs scared off all the customers,” Asahi explains. Daichi glances at the coffee bar, and sees Ennoshita and Narita playing a card game at the counter.
“So what,” says Daichi, turning on them, “You’re all just going to lie down and take this?”
The puzzled glance circles the group. “We never really needed to try before,” shrugs Inuoka.
“We’ve got the selection, and the prices—they can’t compete with us. We’re the superior store, you know this.” Daichi can feel his voice growing louder, but if his employees need to be spoken to like children, he’ll do it.
“But they’re personal!” cries Lev, pointing out the window at a sign that reads PEOPLE NOT PRICETAGS.
Daichi is nearly shouting now. “Don’t you see, they made that up! It’s called advertising! They’re no more personal than us, you’re all—human beings who sell books, just like the people at Crow Street. The only difference is job security, because we’re not going to go under in a month!”
“You’re in a mood,” says Kuroo, smiling. Daichi is about to snap—yes, he’s in a fucking mood, and he doesn’t have the energy for Kuroo’s idiotic coy act right now—
“Don’t berate him.”
Every eye flies to Kenma—probably because no one has ever, ever heard Kenma scold Kuroo. Daichi feels his own mouth fall open, anger giving way to surprise. Tetsurou’s face darkens.
“Clearly he’s the only one of us who cares,” (Daichi raises his hands, why me), “But that only means he’s putting in all the effort of caring about Nekoma so we don’t have to. We should be grateful.”
The employees of Nekoma Books look around at one another, and then at their boss. Feeling a little strange and exposed after his outburst (and Kenma’s subsequent outburst, if you could call that an outburst), Daichi crosses his arms and shifts his weight awkwardly. “Sort of a strange logic,” he mumbles. There are many red faces and sheepish frowns.
“I was thinking it would be kind of sad if Crow Street closes,” Asahi admits, wringing his hands, “I guess I should’ve been more loyal to Nekoma. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” says Yaku, stepping forward. “What do you want us to do, Sawamura-san?”
He sighs, and glances back over his shoulder at the crowd. “I’m not sure, honestly. It’s not like we’ll take a huge hit, missing a day of business, but…”
“Excuse me,” rings a familiar, heartily unwelcome voice from behind Daichi. “Why are there all these hooligans outside my store, and where are all the customers—and why are you all just standing around?”
“Oikawa-san,” says Daichi through a grimace. “You picked a great time to stop by.”
“Well, I saw that we were on the news,” Oikawa sniffs. He’s wearing a lavender sweater vest and, as per usual, Iwaizumi trails him, with the same leather folder tucked under his arm.
“Sawamura,” says Iwa, utterly serious. “We should talk.”
“It’s his day off,” Kuroo points out, maybe trying to compensate for earlier, but despite a sidelong glance from Oikawa, Iwaizumi appears unmoved.
“The manager’s position is salaried, he doesn’t work by the hour.”
“It’s fine, Kuroo,” says Daichi. “I’ll be back, and we’ll have a way to fix this,” he tells them, and heads upstairs.
Some minutes later Daichi slumps in an armchair, scowling at the ridiculous décor of Oikawa’s top-floor office—the floor lamps look like UFOs—while Iwaizumi paces and Oikawa’s long limbs stretch over a red velvet settee. A red velvet settee.
“I suppose it’s not worth being very worried about,” sighs Oikawa, eyes closed, “But it’s certainly annoying, isn’t it?”
Iwaizumi shakes his head. “I really thought that guy had no business sense at all.”
“I wonder what made him change his strategy. Or develop one, it’s not as if he had a strategy before.”
Can we not discuss Sugawara? Daichi wants to demand, but instead he just pinches the bridge of his nose. It’s petty of him not to want to hear this, anyway, he’s a professional, he can deal.
“We should hope he doesn’t keep this up.” Iwa reaches the large window and stands, looking out and down at Crow Street.
“Would you be nervous then, Iwa-chan?” asks Oikawa, sounding a little too playful about the financial viability of his operation. It’s hard to tell who is the owner and who is the assistant.
“No. I’m never nervous. But I’d be concerned.”
Watching Oikawa smirk at Iwaizumi’s back, Daichi’s stomach twists uncomfortably, and he decides he needs to speak if only to remind them that he’s here in the room, too. “Sugawara can’t sustain the energy around the store.” Oikawa’s head snaps to look at him. “The whole ‘Save Crow Street’ campaign—it doesn’t have an end goal of any kind, except to keep the store open indefinitely. People are going to lose the interest once Nekoma doesn’t close, and Nekoma’s not going to close. Worst that happens is a marginal decrease in profits for a couple of weeks.”
Iwa exchanges a look with Oikawa over his shoulder, and the boss turns to grin at Daichi. “You’re shrewd, Sawamura. I’m pleased we hired you.”
“Thanks, but I still think we need a way to stop what’s going on outside right now. It looks horrible, we need to control the press around Nekoma.” He can hear the chants of the protestors drifting up from the street.
“Oh,” says Oikawa, with a wave of his hand. “Iwa and I figured that out on the way over here.”
Iwaizumi grins, in that very special, determined way of his. “Right. We’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
Oikawa sits up with a gasp. “Iwa-chan, that’s from The Godfather! How clever of you.” Iwa throws a pen at him; Daichi leaves them alone.
Suga can’t stop smiling. Rarely does he stop smiling, but even less frequently do these moments occur when he couldn’t stop smiling if he wanted to. This is one such moment—it’s the beautiful day, the busy aisles of his beloved store, the group of people across the street heckling his rival. You’d smile too.
“You looked so lovely on the television today,” a middle-aged woman tells him as he rings up her three poetry anthologies. 円7230, reads the register. Suga beams.
“Thank you, ma’am!”
Yachi, working at the second register beside him—they are using both checkouts at the same time, a true miracle—leans over with a big grin of her own. “Suga-san, I love having customers.”
“Me too, Yacchan.”
The smile slides from her face. “I worry we might be crushed due to overcrowding, though.”
“I will keep an eye out for you,” Suga says, biting back a laugh.
“Suga-san!” Hinata, panting, appears beside the elderly man currently being rung up by Suga; his face is flushed. “Suga-san, did you see it?”
“See what?” asks Suga. He accepts the man’s credit card with a cheerful nod.
“Across the street! The Nekoma people…”
“Oh? Did they finally come outside?”
“Uh, yes, and they’re—Suga-san!” Hinata cries, and Suga can feel the irrepressible smile fading from his face. He hands the man his bag and slips out from behind the counter, with a reassuring ruffle to Yachi’s hair.
“Show me, Shouyou.”
Hinata scurries across the floor and throws open the front door for Suga. They step out together and for the first time Suga notices that the chanting which ran through the morning has ceased—probably because the protestors have lowered their pickets and are gathering around a spot on the sidewalk. It takes a moment for him to see what’s drawing them, and then he feels a rush of cold.
Several Nekoma staffers (including Nishinoya’s beefy bun-wearing hook-up, and of course, Sawamura) are working a table with a big carafe and some fliers.
“Free coffee!” cries the hook-up, smiling nervously at the protestors, “And buy-one-get-one-free coupons for all of you! Thank you for visiting Nekoma!” The protestors look so frightened they’ve fallen silent, and then they seem to soften once the big guy’s true, gentle nature as a bearer of discounts and caffeine is revealed. Imagining him and Noya would be comical if he weren’t in the midst of destroying Suga’s entire strategy. Personal was supposed to be Crow Street’s angle—this free coffee thing infringes on their territory.
Kageyama emerges from the store, helping a gangly grey-haired boy roll out a large sign that reads SPECIAL OFFER: FORTY PERCENT OFF, TODAY ONLY.
“Suga-san,” Hinata whispers, fretfully sticking his hands in his hair. “They’re winning again!”
“It’s fine, Shouyou,” he manages, grabbing Hinata’s arm protectively, but squeezing maybe a little too hard, because it seems like the kid is right. “Let’s just… go back inside, there’s no use complaining about it. We have plenty of customers right now.”
“But Suga-san,” whines Hinata. Across the street, Kageyama pauses to look at Hinata. He raises a hand, stiff, like the gesture doesn’t quite come naturally, and waves. Hinata leaps at him but is held back by Suga, and even from thirty feet away Suga can see Kageyama’s face turn red before he stalks back into Nekoma.
“Shouyou,” Suga asks gently, as Hinata starts to simmer down and wiggles free of his grasp, “Have you ever just talked to Tobio?”
“Why would I talk to him, he’s my nemesis,” pants Hinata. He’s still scowling at the exterior of Nekoma.
“He’s not really… you know, when I was in middle school, this boy always used to pick on me.” The apparent digression catches Hinata’s interest and he looks up at his boss. “He would call me names and pinch me in class, things like that. And a few years later I ran into him, and he told me that he’d had a crush on me the entire time. He just didn’t know how to say it because he’d never felt something like that before.” (So maybe this story isn’t completely true, maybe the truth is that Suga had known exactly what was going on when this boy bullied him, maybe he had confronted the boy about it, maybe they had kissed behind the school and he had gotten his first boyfriend—it’s only that Suga senses this version of the story might frighten Hinata, and thus the modified one is born.)
Hinata squints at him. “What does that have to do with me and Kageyama, Suga-san?”
Suga purses his lips, and says slowly, “I don’t think Kageyama wants to be your nemesis, Shouyou.”
Hinata’s face stays pinched for a moment, and then melts into astonishment. His mouth falls open, his eyes go wide. He looks at Nekoma, then at Suga, then at Nekoma again. A little color rises in his cheeks.
And then he turns and floats back into Crow Street, like a little orange apparition.
Suga rubs his chin. “Oh boy. I hope that one works out all right.”
He’s about to follow Hinata back inside when he glances over at the protestors and their impromptu coffee shop on the opposing sidewalk, and finds Sawamura staring at him—not grinning, not even smiling, just staring. There’s something terrifically penetrating about the gaze, too, as though concern had infiltrated the competition layered over their initial, undeniable attraction to one another. Suga has finished trying to categorize the thing with Sawamura, he’s settled on it’s complicated, he’ll never get any further than that.
Sawamura raises a hand to his mouth and blows Suga a kiss.
“Oh boy,” repeats Suga under his breath, and he scurries after Shouyou.
Local watering hole, Sendai, 11 PM.
It begins with Kuroo saying, “All right, time to start talking,” and shoving a drink down the bar in Daichi’s direction.
It continues with an epic rant on Daichi’s part. He is not much of a talker, for the most part, and on a typical day Kuroo would have been hard pressed to get two sentences out of him about any problem. But today isn’t a typical today—today started badly and got far worse before it got better, and the struggle of the past ten hours coupled with the struggle of the past ten months whittled the thick wall Daichi builds around his problems (for the sake of privacy, his status as a leader, and some buried insecurities) down to a skinny fence. Kuroo hops it easily, all he has to do is ask.
Daichi mentions Sugawara a total of six times throughout this rant, often as though he is some cipher for the Crow Street conflict and there’s nothing personal about Daichi’s frustration with him. Or his frustration with the situation—or his frustration with Sugawara, he doesn’t know, his wires have gone crossed and he can’t keep straight what he feels about these people and places, and it’s confusing because he shouldn’t feel anything at all when he’s a fucking professional and already in love with someone else.
Kuroo sits up. “Wait, you’re—did you say you’re in love with someone?”
Daichi had been about to take a sip of beer, and lowers the glass from his mouth. Shit.
“Hold on, I’m…” Kuroo leans forward—where until now he’s been a passive listener, he’s suddenly grinning. “Are you saying—Sugawara?”
“No!” Daichi snaps, “Not Sugawara, I’m not in love with Sugawara that’s—ridiculous!”
“No one you know.”
Kuroo raises an eyebrow. Daichi glares at his glass—he spoke too quickly, it’s obvious there’s more he’s not telling. He fiddles with a coaster.
“Have you ever tried online dating, Tetsurou?”
“You’re embarrassed of that?” mutters Kuroo flatly. Such an empathetic best friend. “You know what year it is, right, it’s not strange to meet someone—”
“We haven’t met.”
This changes Kuroo’s tune.
Daichi rubs his temples, elbows on the bar, gradually sliding away from him so his chin droops lower and lower. “We made contact on this forum and started emailing. That was ten months ago, and a while back, there was—a confession, of sorts.”
“But—it’s anonymous? Are you—it’s a man, right?”
“Yes, I know he’s a man.” The accidental seduction of the opposite gender has plagued Daichi enough that he was careful to learn this early on. “But that’s really all I know.”
Kuroo snorts and waves to the bartender, indicating his empty glass. “So what, you’re writing each other fuckin’ love letters?”
“We talk,” Daichi replies, “We talk about books, what we’ve seen on television, the news, things we want from life. Where we’re going to travel to.”
“Sounds gay as hell.”
“It’s been a year and a half since I was with anyone. A year and eight months,” he corrects quietly.
Kuroo says, “Not even a handjob?” just as the (female) bartender arrives with his second drink, earning them both a dirty glance. “Don’t worry, we’re homosexuals,” he informs her. “He hasn’t gotten laid in two years.”
Daichi shoves him so hard he nearly falls off the barstool, laughing all the while. “A year and eight months is not two years!”
“Sorry, sorry,” Kuroo cries, wiping tears from his eyes as Daichi apologizes profusely to the bartender, who leaves them be. “That’s just—that’s very sad, you know.”
“It’s not like you’ve got any right to laugh at me for silent pining.”
The comment feels strange out of Daichi’s mouth, but it shuts Kuroo up.
“So you love this internet guy, huh?” he asks softly, after they’ve stared at their drinks for a long moment. Daichi pities himself that the glass is too small to drown in.
“I do, yeah.”
“But he could be hideous.” Daichi cringes, thinking he wished he weren’t afraid of this possibility. “Maybe you’re not sexually compatible.”
Daichi’s shaking his head before Kuroo even finishes the sentence. “I don’t think—”
“Have you done any of that cyber shit?”
“No,” says Daichi, harsh to conceal the redness of his face.
“Then you can’t know for sure. Be reasonable.”
“I’m reasonable,” is Daichi’s indignant response.
“So do you think his physical appearance would have nothing to do with how you feel about him?”
“No, I guess…”
“What’s your plan, to settle down with a username?”
“Because you are thinking long-term if you’re talking about love, aren’t you?”
He feels like he’s being led around on some rhetorical leash, as Kuroo leans toward him, face intent but inscrutable. “What are you doing?” Daichi finally blurts, glaring.
Kuroo sits back, takes a long sip (this manipulative ass, thinks Daichi affectionately), and says, “It’s time to ask him to meet.”
Daichi’s eyes fall to his lap. There’s no way Kuroo could know he was considering the request this very morning. He doesn’t believe in signs or fate or any of that, because he is just so reasonable, but right now—partly through the mechanics of his friend’s argument—asking seems like the most reasonable thing to do. It doesn’t sound like the pipe dream it did when he woke up. Now it’s only logical. After all, what other conclusion could this come to? They have to meet. And they have to meet soon, or he’s going to lose his head.
He keeps the email short, to the point.
My dear friend,
I have had a very long day. Hope you’re sleeping soundly.
I think I am in love with you.
I would like to meet you, in person.
Asahi wakes up snug under a duvet, every inch of him warm but not too warm, delectably comfortable as though he’s melting into the bed. It is a Saturday morning, and his apartment smells like chocolate. He opens his eyes.
In his kitchen Asahi is unsurprised to find Nishinoya—what’s surprising is the open cabinets, dirty pots and pans, and the smudge of flour on the end of his nose.
“I’m making you chocolate scones, Asachan,” he declares, waving a big spoon covered in batter.
“You bake, Noya?” He is wearing one of Asahi’s shirts, the sleeves rolled and the hem hitting not far above his knee, his own boxers just peeking out from beneath; he has started regularly pulling the front of his hair up with Asahi’s ties when it’s not styled. Seeing this gives Asahi a nice squirmy feeling.
“I do all the baking at work,” Noya almost sings. “I like baked things. Sweets and ice cream and cakes. Life is short, you know.” He flicks a little batter at Asahi, who would like nothing more in the world than to kiss him, but resists the urge because Noya opens the oven to slide in his scones and Asahi doesn’t want to horribly injure him, or anything.
What he does want is for things to stay exactly as they are. Last night they cooked together and Noya spent two hours trying to teach him how to play a video game about zombies, but it was far too realistic and they abandoned the endeavor to watch Asahi’s favorite comedy in the hopes he might not have nightmares. Noya paid more attention to Asahi’s hair than he did to the movie—he got to googling videos about braiding, and managed a very sloppy milkmaid braid around Asahi’s head, then dared him to go for late-night froyo without taking it out. Which Asahi agreed to at once, thinking that the braid made him look a little less intimidating than usual, and it might make for a nice change. And they sat in the frozen yogurt place and shared their flavors—grape for Noya, French vanilla for Asahi—Asahi announced that Noya’s tasted like cough medicine and Noya demanded to know what he had against cough medicine. By the time they arrived home, it was one o’clock, and they lay in bed for another hour talking before… Asahi didn’t have a single nightmare about zombies.
There was something different about yesterday. As they are scrubbing the dishes and enjoying the scent of Noya’s baking, Asahi pauses with a sponge in his fist. “Nishinoya, did we sleep together last night?”
Noya keeps at the dishes, puffing some stray hair out of his eyes. “What? We slept in your bed, you don’t remember?”
“No, I mean, did we… did we sleep together?”
“Oh,” Noya’s nose wrinkles sweetly, “I… We did a lot of things.”
“We did! I remember that.”
“But I guess…”
“I guess—we forgot. To have sex. Huh,” he says, squinting at a soapy pot.
“Huh,” Asahi echoes.
“Why, do you wanna?” Noya glances at the timer on the stove, then starts assessing the counter. “The scones won’t be finished for twenty minutes, we need to go to the bed ‘cause if I get on my knees here I don’t think I can reach—”
“No, no, it’s not like that.” Asahi can feel himself starting to smile. Noya’s not smiling, but he does look at Asahi with his big gold eyes, curious. Asahi gets the squirmy feeling again. “It’s just that… a few months ago I was having the worst time ever and—and it’s amazing how fast things can change. You get a new job, and you meet somebody special. It all happens at once.” His chest swells, and the next delighted burst flies from his tongue, “I’m happy, Yuu.”
Noya peeks up at him, sucking his lip. Asahi really wants to kiss him, now. “Good,” says Noya finally, exhaling and turning back to the sink. “I want you to be happy, Asachan.”
Asahi knows, he knows, he can be self-conscious, and overly anxious, and that sometimes he reads too much into things and gets himself upset over nothing—but he can’t help feeling a pang of worry at Nishinoya’s response, which doesn’t smack of enthusiasm in the way Asahi has grown fond of. “You’re happy too, right?”
Asahi is almost ready for him to say, It’s been a month, Asahi, in the same way he once said, It’s been a week, Asahi. He’s replayed that line so many times, the exact cadence of it, used it to weigh down his expectations. Was it too dangerous to call Noya someone special? Is it too dangerous to hope that he can worry in the future about Noya saying, It’s been a year, Asahi—it’s been a decade, Asahi—it’s been forever, Asahi. Asahi loves the word forever, and he loves the sound of it tangling with Nishinoya’s name in his head.
It’s impossible to tell if the grin that breaks out over Noya’s face is genuine, or an antidote to Asahi’s nervous gaze—so Asahi decides to let himself be totally reassured, because he is in like, so very in like, so in like that he starts to giggle. “Of course I’m happy. Giant idiot,” says Noya, and then he dribbles some suds down Asahi’s neck and Asahi screeches and they’re playing again, not thinking about big questions like happiness or forever.
And the scones are very good.
The laptop is taunting Suga.
He left it open and went to sit on the other side of the room, just staring at it, sitting in a chair with his legs tucked to his chest and his chin pressing his knee. Since then the screen has gone to sleep but he knows if he walks back over and brushes the trackpad again it’ll spring to life, and the email will still be there.
“Meet me,” he scoffs, turning to his empty living room, as though it might nod in shared derision. “Meet me in person. I’ll… meet…”
Suga laughs to himself and it turns into a nervous hiccup. He glares at the computer, and then lets out a single distressed wail.
He has to go, he has work, so he heaves himself out of the chair. He doesn’t look at the laptop again until he’s heading out, and then he shuts the door, blocking it from his vision. And he doesn’t think about it ever again! Not once! At all!
Except that it’s all he thinks about.
He wants to meet me in person. Why, so he can murder me? Now he is starting to sound like Yacchan.
He catches a glimpse of himself in the glass door of his apartment building. His hair is really sticking up—did he forget to brush it?—maybe so. What if he doesn’t find me attractive? No. Suga knows he’s freakin’ adorable, like striking gay gold. What if I don’t find him attractive?
He unlocks his bike and rides to work shivering at the wind, playing through scenarios—yes, I will; no, I won’t; maybe, I don’t know; it’s strange because normally if he had a dilemma like this, he would ask his penpal for advice. Now his penpal is… Ugh. Well.
Nishinoya, Tanaka and Hinata are all sitting on the sidewalk outside Crow Street, waiting for him to open up. They clamor to their feet when they see him.
“Hi,” he says. “Hello everyone. Hi. Good morning.” He feels like he is squealing, choking on nothing. Tanaka squints at him.
“What’s the matter with you, Suga-san?”
“I don’t know. Everything is weird!”
Hinata nods sadly. “Everything is weird.”
“So weird,” groans Noya.
Now Tanaka squints at all three of them. “What the fuck is going on with everyone lately?”
There are customers again today, but not as many as there were last week. That doesn’t even get to Suga—he serves them with the usual smile, and catalogues his employees by their advice-giving potential.
Hinata? A nineteen-year-old who can’t even figure out his own love life. No.
Yachi? Essentially the same issue.
Tanaka? Not really versed in emotional nuance, though maybe he’d be surprising.
Tsukishima? Har har.
Nishinoya? Well, they’ve been friends for years, and though Noya’s way of dispensing advice is notoriously blunt, the advice itself often hits home. Then again, his romantic decisions lately have been… questionable.
Suga should really call Akaashi. He should really just, call Akaashi.
“Keiji, what are you doing right now?”
“I’m playing tennis.”
“You’re a house husband, Keiji.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Can you come down to the shop soon?”
“Because we’re friends, Keiji?”
“Yes, and you’re a friend who wants something.”
“I need to talk to someone rational.” There’s a crash as Yachi knocks over the display she’s stocking, and Suga grimaces. “I need advice.” Akaashi makes a small interested noise on the other end of the line.
Forty-five minutes later, he shows up at Crow Street in a pristine white tracksuit, duffel and racket swung over his shoulder. Suga insists that Tsukki fix a drink for “Keiji-kun” (Akaashi sighs when Suga introduces him this way) and Suga leaves the register to Hinata. He sits in a corner of the café with his friend, where a partition hides them from the bar and the eyes of the staff.
“So what is it?” Akaashi asks, working around the foam of his cappuccino with a surgeon’s precision.
Suga leans on the table between them, cheek against his forearm, slightly garbling his words. “There’s something I haven’t told you. Or anyone.”
“And you’re going to tell me now?”
“Yes, because something happened and I don’t—okay.” He inhales. He almost wants to preface with please don’t judge me, but he feels the comfort of having been through everything with Akaashi in the way that all roommates, even former ones, do. “I have… entered into a relationship with someone on the internet. Ten months ago. It’s serious and he asked me to meet him in person.”
Akaashi doesn’t even raise an eyebrow; blank-faced, he stirs his coffee and neatly taps the spoon over the rim before lowering it to the saucer, and then he raises the cup to his mouth and sips. And sips. Suga thinks he’s aged ten years by the time his friend speaks. “Is it safe?”
“He’s who he says he is?”
“He hasn’t really said who he is,” Suga admits. He doesn’t add that though he may not know who this person is, he most certainly knows what he is: kind and smart and self-assured and witty. Charming. Well-read. “But I have a good feeling about him, I trust him.”
“So why are you worried about meeting him?” asks Akaashi. He makes it sound so simple, because that’s Akaashi, expert assessor of pros-and-cons, solving problems that would take an hour or a year in three seconds. It’s why Suga turned to him for help, but he also misses wallowing in indecision, a bit—with Akaashi’s advice, there’s no room for him to ignore that the real problem lies in his own insecurities.
“Koushi,” says Akaashi firmly.
“You aren’t even going to ask me about him? Ask me if I’m sure it’s real, or… you’re just going to ask if it’s safe?”
“If it weren’t real, you wouldn’t have asked me about it. You called me in the middle of your workday at the most crucial time this shop has seen in years, to insist I come here and give you advice.” Suga lifts himself up off the table. There’s a fond twist to Akaashi’s mouth. “This is important to you. It’s not hard to see.”
Oddly, Suga’s first reaction is to laugh.
“What?” demands Akaashi, eyes narrowing.
“It’s just, that’s exactly what I would say if you came to me with this problem.”
“Well, you give good advice. I wouldn’t be where I am if it hadn’t been for your advice.” Akaashi taps his wedding ring on the side of his cup, thoughtful. Suga beams at him, and then remembers what they’re talking about. Suddenly he feels his chin sliding back down toward the table.
“And what if it goes poorly? And I lose him?”
“Then you move on to something new. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the way all things go, eventually.” Suga nods. There’s a buzz from the pocket of Akaashi’s jacket, and he pulls out his phone. “Hm. Koutarou is home in the middle of the day.”
“What’s he up to?”
“Nothing good, probably,” says Akaashi, grinning down at the message. “He’s using a lot of emojis and asking where I am. I suppose that means I should go.”
“I suppose it does.”
“You’ll let me know how it goes,” his friend says as he gathers his belongings—not a request as much as a statement of fact.
Akaashi gives him a rare shoulder pat on his way out. “Good luck, Koushi.”
It’s been weeks and Hinata still hasn’t asked where Kenma works.
Maybe he’ll wonder eventually. It’s not as though Kenma cares a whole lot, nor is he doing considerable work to hide his true identity. He just keeps the logo on his work shirt covered when they’re together—a jacket or a sweater does the trick.
He wouldn’t care at all, except he remembers how Hinata treats Kageyama, and only because he works at Nekoma. Kenma is smart, he hears things, he adapts.
He wouldn’t care at all, except there’s something about Shouyou that makes Kenma fear his disdain.
He wants Shouyou to like him.
“I keep dying!”
“You need to stop just pressing all the controls at once.”
“No, I want to stop,” grumbles Hinata, shoving the controller at Kenma. They’re sitting on the carpet in the front room of Kenma’s apartment, and it’s getting late, the sky darkening outside. Kenma wouldn’t be surprised if Hinata ends up sleeping on his couch for the night, as he’s done three times in the past two weeks. After two decades, Hinata has explained, he is exhausted of his mother’s house, but doesn’t have the resources to move out just yet. Kenma is fine with this—a little confused, but fine. Hinata, like Kuroo, is a friend who does all the friendship work for him; Hinata just shows up, talks to Kenma like they’ve known each other their whole lives.
Hinata flops back on the carpet, as Kenma shuts down the console. “Kenma, can I ask you something?”
“If you want.”
“Have you ever had a guy like you?” Kenma’s fingers stiffen around the controller. “I mean,” Shouyou quickly elaborates, red-faced, “Have a crush on you. Be into you.”
Kenma feels weird. He doesn’t have a word for it other than that. This is a strange conversation to be having, and with Hinata of all people, who he has known for a few weeks and who he sort of—he feels weird.
“You have?” Hinata sits up, twisting to look at him. “What did you do?”
Hinata can be sort of stupid, sometimes, Kenma realizes. Clueless. It’s endearing. “Shouyou, do you like guys?”
Hinata’s mouth pops open—has he never asked himself this? He is turning twenty in a week. But, Kenma remembers being even older than that, and not knowing everything for sure. He still has questions about himself; he’s been toying with the term asexual.
“I definitely like girls,” says Hinata slowly.
“That doesn’t preclude the possibility of liking guys.”
“I don’t know,” cries Hinata, rather dramatically, stuffing his face into the crook of his elbow. “I think I might, okay, yeah!” Kenma’s stomach twists. Hopeful.
“Did someone say they liked you?” For some reason Kenma is concerned that Shouyou will look at him and say, I’m talking about you, Kenma-kun, and that Kenma’s life will end right there. He’s not even sure he does—they barely know each other—it’s just a tickle in the back of his mind, a what if, a possible route.
“Not exactly, more like—I’m not sure. I thought he hated me, and I thought I hated him, and now I think he likes me, and I think that I…” Kageyama, Kenma realizes.
Maybe it’s not such a possible route after all.
“Ask him,” says Kenma flatly, getting to his feet. Hinata starts to climb up after him.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m hungry. I’m going out.”
“Can I come?” asks Hinata. He’s on his feet in a single motion, like a wild animal.
“If you want,” says Kenma, terser than how he said it before, but it’s not as though Hinata has an ear for an anger as subtle as Kenma’s. And he is angry. Quietly, in the recesses of his brain. Stupid.
Perhaps Hinata does sense that something has happened, changed in his friend, because his face seems to open curiously, and his head careens to the side. “Are you okay?” he asks. Are you okay. Kenma feels weird.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Let’s just go.”
Daichi thinks he might pass out.
“So what’s happening?” asks Kuroo, hands in his pockets as they make the slow (grudging, merciless) journey to the café where the entire course of Daichi’s romantic future will be determined.
Maybe he is being a little hyberbolic about the whole thing.
“I show up, and…”
“Christ,” snorts Kuroo, “Don’t tell me—you arrive, you know him at first sight, because he’s sitting alone with a rose in a copy of… Shakespeare? Milton?” The color would have drained from Daichi’s face, only he’s already as pale as he’s going to get.
“Neruda,” he coughs. Kuroo chuckles under his breath.
“Ah, of course, Neruda.” He claps Daichi on the shoulder, which was probably intended as a confidence boost, but it only sends a shudder through his torso. “You nervous?”
Daichi gives him a sideways glare. “I know you can tell.”
“Yeah, I just wanted you to admit it. The good news is, though,” his friend adds, “You’re a hard read. He might not even know that you’re on the verge of fainting.”
“So it’ll be a surprise when I collapse right in front of him, that’s reassuring,” Daichi deadpans.
“It’s good when you’re funny. More of that tonight.” Kuroo peeks ahead of them. “Where is this place?”
“Up on the corner there,” Daichi sighs, shoving his hands under his arms. His extremities are going numb; ever since he got the reply, the yes, I would like that very much, he’s been locked in this constant failure of organs, lightness of head, dryness of throat. He forgot and remembered and forgot again and every time it came back to him like an epidemic, the disease born from implacable uncertainty and voided control. They are going to meet. Two weeks from now, a week, three days, tonight; tonight at eight.
He checks his watch. Three minutes to. He forces himself to move his feet a little faster.
“Here we are,” says Kuroo. They stop in front of the café. “Did you pick this place?” he inquires, brow quirked.
“No, I figured he’d pick. I wanted him to be comfortable. I was happy just to find out he’s in Sendai.” Learning this had set him on fire anew—they could’ve passed in the street countless times, and never known. He had been losing sleep. Kuroo gives the restaurant sign a sidelong glance (Chez Francois—what country are they even in?) and shrugs. “All right,” Daichi grunts, “Enough judging my future… whatever—just, enough judging.”
“All right, enough judging! I’ve done my duty, holding your hand to get you here.”
Daichi nods and swallows, staring at the door to the café, but he doesn’t move. Moving seems like a bad idea. He sees someone pass by one of the windows, an older man, balding—oh no—but no book, no rose, okay. Okay. Daichi looks back to his friend, fists clenching and unclenching. They exchange a series of loaded expressions.
Kuroo groans. “You want me to go see if he’s hot, don’t you?”
“I don’t think I could look if I tried.”
“You owe me,” Kuroo informs him, scooting around so he can peek into the restaurant.
“I got you a job.”
“You make… a point.” Waiting with his back to the restaurant, Daichi nods and smiles at a few people passing them on the street. “Hmmm,” says Kuroo, after a minute.
“Do you see him?”
“Guy with a rose in a book?”
“Yeah, I see him.”
“And what’s…” I’m not shallow, he tells himself resolutely. I’m really not. I’ve just spent so long imagining him, it’s strange to be finding out what he actually looks like.
Kuroo steps away from the door, slipping his hands back into his pockets and standing in front of Daichi again. He has a strange look on his face, contorted, mouth half-open, and he scuffs his shoe on the pavement for a second. “So,” he begins, “You’re attracted to Sugawara Koushi, right?”
Relief washes over Daichi. “He looks like Sugawara?” Perfect. He can finally scratch that itch—
“Oh yes,” Kuroo nods, grimacing, “He looks like Sugawara. In fact, he is Sugawara.”
Daichi’s whole body contracts before he realizes what’s going on, and punches Kuroo in the shoulder. “That isn’t fucking funny, all right?”
But Kuroo’s face… it doesn’t budge. He doesn’t crack a smile.
“Daichi,” he murmurs, with a gentle hand on his arm, turning him toward the café so he can see. “It’s Sugawara.”
Something pops in his brain and his ears start to ring, a deafening sound raining down, and if Kuroo says anything else he can’t hear it.
Sitting alone a table by the window is Sugawara Koushi, book open, a fresh rose tucked between the pages. He wears another one of his plaid shirts, and his hair looks gold in the low light of the restaurant. His eyes flicker between the page and his surroundings, like he’s waiting for something—someone—but trying to seem interested in the reading. The gesture is sweet, likable, charmingly genuine.
Daichi’s knees give out and Kuroo has to hook an arm around him so he doesn’t plummet face-first on to the sidewalk.
Dear you. I think I like you. You should learn to sleep in more, by the way. It’s heart healthy. At least I have you. Here is a haiku to brighten your day. Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway. It’s a pretty image, but what does it mean? Do you know? I wish you were here. That makes us a good match, right?
“It’s Sugawara,” he wheezes, using Kuroo to steady himself. “It’s Sugawara. Sugawara is…” Pushing off from Kuroo, he starts down the sidewalk, away from the restaurant, but his friend grabs the back of his jacket.
“Where the hell are you going? Two weeks ago you told me you were in love with this guy.”
“It’s Sugawara,” Daichi barks, violently shaking off Kuroo’s grasp—this isn’t fair, not fucking fair, he had this one really good thing and—it was Sugawara, the whole time, writing those emails, making him feel and think and say things he’d never done before in his life. “Sugawara Koushi—Sugawara Koushi shoved a piece of sushi in my face. He’s a brat! I’m not in love with him, I’m not—fuck!” he cries, turning in place, he’s so fucking angry he could kick something. Kuroo winces.
“Calm your shit, okay?”
“How am I supposed to calm my shit, are you fucking kidding?”
“God, you’re scary when you’re angry.”
That’s a good answer to Daichi’s question, because all it takes is a finger pointed at his temper to settle him down. He draws a couple of breaths, runs a hand through his hair.
“It’s Sugawara,” he says again, but carefully this time, really trying to wrap his head around the situation. It’s Sugawara that he’s shared with and missed and pined for. I knew he was cute, he thinks blearily.
“Look, you can’t leave,” says Kuroo quietly. “You can’t just leave him hanging there like that.”
“I’m not leaving.” He stares over Kuroo’s shoulder. Suga toys with the rose, tugging off one of the petals. Daichi feels a pang of something that’s the furthest thing from anger. It’s Sugawara. He marches by Kuroo, pushing open the café door.
God, I'm so sorry about that one-sided Kenhina. It just kinda happened and it's sad but I'm gonna make Kuroken and Kagehina happen and Kenma will be fine and happy because he is My Son.
It’s only ten minutes past. He could just be running late.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Suga’s chin falls toward his chest. It’s only ten minutes past, he could just be running late!
His head snaps up.
And dread fills the pit of his stomach.
“Sawamura-san!” he manages, half a polite-ish greeting, half an exclamation of dismay. Why.
There he is, Sawamura Daichi, looking like an advertisement for cologne in tight (tight) slacks and a sport coat that fits him—well, he’s athletic, Suga’s noticed, he must work out or play sports or something—and the restaurant’s mood lighting throws his strong, classic features into greater relief. Suga can feel his cheeks growing warm, his arms curl protectively over his stomach. Not this.
“Is someone sitting here?” Sawamura asks, his voice sounding unusually flat, not even waiting for a reply before he starts pulling out the chair across from Suga.
“I’m meeting someone, actually!” Suga tries to wave Sawamura away from the seat, to no avail.
“Then I’ll just keep it warm until that someone arrives.”
Suga sinks back in his own chair, defeated. Why. Why why. Of all the cafes in Sendai… Sawamura has a strange expression on his face, unsmiling eyes glued to Suga, making him more than a little self-conscious. He glances at the door. Please walk in now, friend. Please show up.
“Sawamura,” he attempts, “I ought to be sitting alone—”
“Oh, you don’t think he’ll know it’s you from the rose in the book?”
Suga sits up so fast the chair rattles under him and he has to grab the table for support. If his face wasn’t red before, it’s burning now, his heart pounding against his ribcage. He feels lightheaded, ready to keel over. “How—what do you…” Is Sawamura psychic?
“You’re obviously meeting a lover,” says the other man in that same monotone, with that same strange intense gaze, speaking too fast. “Rose in the book means you’ve never met him before, if he doesn’t know you by sight.” Suga might faint, he really might faint. “So it’s the internet, right? Lonely Hearts club or some such? Emails?” How. “Of course, you were supposed to meet on the hour, which makes him nearly fifteen minutes late. Not a good sign.”
“You don’t know that,” Suga snaps, though his indignation must lose some edge when his eyes are huge. He wants to shove his head under the table.
Sawamura-san ruins everything. EVERYTHING!
Sawamura, still frighteningly blank-faced, reaches a single finger out to rest on the open page of Suga’s book. He doesn’t come an inch closer than that, but Suga leans away regardless. “I do not love you except because I love you.” Daichi’s voice isn’t smooth but pleasantly rough around the edges, hitching on the occasional word, affected. “I love you only because it’s you the one I love; I hate you deeply and hating you bend to you, and the measure of my changing love for you is that I do not see you but love you blindly.”
Sawamura’s gaze drifts up from the book to meet Suga’s eye.
What the fuck.
Water. Water he needs water he’s thirsty his throat is dry he needs—
“Y—you know your Neruda,” Suga chokes, raising his glass to his lips and gulp gulp gulp. Gulp.
Daichi—no, Sawamura—leans on his elbows, weight of his broad torso making the table squeak. “He’s a genius.”
“He is, but I’m not sure I like that translation,” Suga manages. His own voice sounds high-pitched, ringing in his ears, he wonders if Sawamura can sense how flustered he is. Probably, he thinks dryly, you’re not exactly suave. “It’s a bit convoluted.”
“But love is convoluted, and confusing and nonsensical. The form only reflects the content,” says Sawamura evenly, moving to pour himself a water from the carafe on the table. Suga waves him away.
“That glass is for—”
“We’ll ask the waiter for another glass if he shows up.” And Sawamura puts his stupid dirty wet pink mouth on the glass that belongs to Suga’s friend, and suddenly the flush in Suga’s face is as much anger as embarrassment.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Sawamura-san?”
“No, I’m free to spend my whole night making it look like you didn’t get stood up.”
Suga snaps his copy of Neruda shut with as much force as he can manage. He tries to look scary, but Sawamura’s expression remains unfazed, maybe even a little—smug. Perhaps Suga needs to hurl the book at him instead.
“Please leave me alone.”
“You’re still going to hold out for this guy? Who’s twenty minutes late?”
“I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for why he isn’t here yet.” There has to be. He wouldn’t do this. “Unlike you, he’s not a—” He gestures at Daichi, who snorts and rolls his head back thoughtfully, exposing the taught musculature of his neck. Jerk.
“What is so great about this guy that you’ve never met, that you’re coming to his defense when so far he’s only disappointed you?”
“Maybe it’s because I’m not a terrible cynic who believes in the capitalist machine more than he believes in actual human beings!” Suga is not sure when he became an embittered political radical, but maybe Sawamura just brings out the side of him that kicks and screams. That would make sense.
At this, Daichi laughs, the pinnacle of infuriating. “As if you, a business owner, aren’t as much of a believer in the capitalist machine.”
“Well—well he isn’t like that, even if I have to be,” Suga declares. No matter how hard he wishes, the café door refuses to swing open, and a man refuses to walk in who’s even better looking than Sawamura. Reality refuses Suga’s pleas. He’s stuck with the one sitting across from him, whose dark brown eyes seem all knowing. There’s nothing you know that I don’t, Suga wants to scream.
His unwelcome companion leans back, eyes narrowed. “You think you know what he’s like?”
“Of course I know what he’s like.”
“Yeah? Tell me everything you know about this guy.”
Suga rises to the challenge in Daichi’s voice, if hesitantly, his hands shaking as he fingers the cover of his Neruda. “I know that he’s smart and funny and has great taste in literature. And he’s brave, and kind. And that he’s not a smug… loser,” he finishes curtly, privately lamenting that ‘loser’ is the best insult he can conjure.
Daichi has a hand over his mouth, his brow is furrowed, he might be—smiling or chuckling, and Suga is blushing hard again, embarrassed to be laughed at by his rival.
“And you’re sure,” says Daichi around a smile that looks like it might even be painful, “that he’s not some sociopath who’s tricked you into believing all those things?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Because you’ve been totally honest about who you are, too?” This question is an unexpected turn. Suga’s mouth opens as he considers. “You haven’t sugarcoated a single thing?” The weird smile slides from Daichi’s face. He’s serious like this is the question he’s been waiting to ask since he forced Suga to entertain his company.
But it’s not a question that makes Suga nervous, nor one he even needs to ponder for very long. “No. I’ve been truthful about who I am with him. What he—reads, is what he gets.”
Daichi stares at him, running his tongue over his bottom lip and then biting it, the attention intense enough that Suga glances to the side. He can feel the other man’s gaze cataloguing him: the way he scratches his ear, and pulls his hands into his lap, and shifts his seat. Like Daichi is taking notes, or when he returns home tonight he plans on committing the image of Suga to a sketch. It’s strange and makes Suga feel as though he’s performing in some warped little play, every inch of him ready for the audience’s inspection, only the audience is an audience of one.
“How considerate of you,” says Daichi quietly. With a cough, he sits back, eyes leaving Suga and falling to the napkin at his place setting.
Suga takes a deep breath. “I’m going to ask you to leave my table one more time, Sawamura-san.”
Daichi peeks at him, then raises his hands in defeat and stands.
And he moves to the table directly behind Suga’s, so they’re sitting back-to-back.
“I cannot believe you,” Suga exhales.
“I just want to talk, Suga-san.”
“I don’t want to talk to you!”
“What if I pay you a compliment? That campaign you came up with, the whole beloved-bookstore-with-family-atmosphere business, that was very clever.”
Suga’s jaw drops. “I… thank you.”
“That means a lot coming from a capitalist such as myself.”
“Okay,” Suga groans, head in his hands, “I know we’re all capitalists, please stop teasing me.”
Daichi’s low chuckle floats over his shoulder. “Ah, but that wouldn’t be any fun.”
“Good thing we’re rivals and not playmates, then.”
“Suga-san.” Sawamura heaves a sigh. I don’t want to hear it, Suga thinks, and listens closely. “I think you’ve misinterpreted me. Or misinterpreted that our… divergent business interests, I guess, have anything to do with my personal feelings toward you. I know you take them personally, but I’m certain you’re delightful outside the commercial arena. You could try to give me the benefit of the doubt, too.”
I’m certain you’re delightful.
Is it unhealthy for one person to blush as much as Suga has in the past ten minutes? It must be. He’s going to pop a blood vessel or something. It’s a good thing Sawamura can’t see his face anymore.
“So what, ‘we’re not so different, you and I?’ Is that your meaning?”
“I guess it is. Mainly.”
“How do I know this isn’t just a strategy to win my trust?”
A long pause. Despite his best effort to resist the temptation, Suga turns to glance over his shoulder. He can’t see Daichi’s expression but his head quirks to the side.
“I suppose you can’t know that for sure,” he admits.
“Good, because I don’t want to trust you,” Suga declares, feeling proud of himself—he’s as hard-hearted and implacable to this man as he’s always wanted to be, he’s standing up for himself, not letting himself be wooed by the false impression of kindness. No more Mr. Nice Suga! He’s stubborn, a fighter, a real opponent for the stoic, savvy Sawamura.
There’s a loud groan from the other table and the scrape of a chair and Sawamura lands back at across from Suga in a blur of sport coat and smooth tan skin. The navy of the wool jacket makes his complexion glow. “Listen,” he rumbles, leaning far enough forward that Suga pulls back nervously, “I’m just trying to be civil. You seem like a civil guy, Suga, I don’t know what’s wrong with you that you just refuse to give me the same courtesy you give other people.”
Suga’s mouth falls open for a moment, and he thinks maybe he’ll sit there staring blankly at Daichi for the rest of the night, debilitated—until his tongue lashes of its own accord: “Perhaps I’d be courteous to you if I thought you were deserving of courtesy, Sawamura-san, but as I see it you’re an uncompassionate prick whose greatest aspiration in life is to put a lot of ill-gotten money in someone else’s pocket.”
Suga inhales a great gust of breath. This insult truly flew out of him, and it felt amazing, not to be tongue-tied, to release the venomous feelings he’s harbored for this man in a sharp volley of words.
By the looks of it, he hit his target: Sawamura bows his head, eyes on his lap.
“Was that good for you, Suga-san?” he asks in a low voice. Suga stuffs away the sexual connotation that instantly pops into his head.
“It’s the truth!”
“And nothing could ever change the way you feel about me?”
“No,” he says automatically, and then wonders: why would you want it to? But it’s too late to elaborate, since Daichi starts to get up.
“All right then. I think it’s time for me to go.”
“Oh… okay,” Suga manages. “Good. Thank you.” Sawamura whips out his wallet and tosses some cash on to the table.
“Buy your friend a drink on me.” And he marches out of the café before Suga can say another word.
“Look at this one, Neesan.”
“You know, Noya, she’s my sister, not yours.”
“Shut up, Ryuu. Neesan, are you looking?”
“Yuu,” says a grinning Saeko, “I haven’t seen you in a month and now you’re here at my place for a nice dinner and all you wanna do is show us pictures of the guy you’re screwing. Creepy pictures,” she adds, squinting at the phone Noya is currently shoving in her face, “Is he sleeping in that one?”
“He looks cute when he sleeps,” Noya shoots back, jerking his phone away—she doesn’t deserve to see his Asahi Collection, obviously. He flops back into a comfy chair, and Saeko shoves a hardboiled egg in her mouth.
“It’s all he talks about at work, too,” Tanaka—the younger and maler—supplies, slurping his own ramen.
“You sure you don’t want any, Yuu?”
“No, I’m not really hungry,” Noya replies, scrolling through his phone. He smiles broadly at a picture of Asahi petting a dog they met in the park.
Noya doesn’t catch it, but the Tanaka siblings exchange a worried glance: Nishinoya Yuu, refusing free food?
Ryuu pokes his chopsticks in Noya’s direction. “I thought you said you weren’t gonna date this guy.”
“We’re not dating,” is Noya’s automated response. When he looks up, Saeko and Ryuu have on the exact same expression—and it really is exactly the same, because they look so much alike—of disbelief. “What?” he says, glaring at them.
“If you’re not dating, then what are you calling it? It’s been weeks of this.”
“Dunno,” says Noya cheerfully; it doesn’t matter, all that relationship-labeling business. Not in the way that everyone thinks it does. He likes being around Asahi: he likes Asahi’s scent, he likes getting him to make the little jokes he won’t bust out until he knows a person well, he likes that Asahi will follow him on any conversational tangent and enjoy it as much as Noya does. He likes their size difference in a way that might almost be some kind of fetish and he likes that Asahi can be groggy an hour after he’s woken up. He likes Asahi’s sex noises and the damn-that’s-good noise he makes after his first sip of matcha tea.
He just, likes Asahi.
So he seeks out Asahi, wants to see him and does; he acts on impulse and his impulses have spent the past month screaming Asahi’s name. He doesn’t think thoughts like, “We’re spending so much time together, it must be getting serious.” He doesn’t really think anything at all—only acts. Stuffs his face full of this big, glass-hearted man (literally, figuratively).
Be careful, Suga said. Noya occasionally remembers this and then wills himself to forget again. He can will himself to forget almost anything, one of his many talents!
“Poor guy,” mutters Ryuu.
“Why are you saying that?” Noya exclaims. “He’s with me, everything is great. He’s happy, he told me himself.”
“Oh no,” groans Saeko, and she throws a pillow at him.
“’Cause I bet he’s a real sweet guy, and you’re going to shatter him into a million pieces when you get bored of him.”
“I don’t do that, I’m a very considerate person,” Noya says, loudly enough that Ryuu winces.
“Actually,” Saeko snorts, “You’re a serial heartbreaker.”
“No!” Noya pops his legs up to crouch in the seat of Saeko’s comfy chair.
“Remember the yoga instructor?” says Ryuu.
“And the cute girl from the post office,” offers Saeko.
“The French guy you met on the metro!”
“The waitress at my favorite ramen place, so now I gotta make my own.”
“Oooh, and the city councilman.”
“My neighbor.” Saeko shakes her head. “He still glares at me sometimes, even though I’m not the one who stopped calling after three weeks.”
“I can’t believe bun guy has lasted over a month,” Ryuu adds. “But the higher they get, the harder they fall.”
Noya is not unnerved by any of this. Not in the slightest. Not even a smidge. He had nice, fleeting, enjoyable times with all of those people and everyone came out of it a happier person. “You’re both full of it,” he informs them. I’m not a heartbreaker. I’m cool. Everyone’s happy enough to have been with me for a little while. And Asahi will be happy too—yes, he’ll be as happy as he is right now when it ends, because it won’t happen a moment sooner or a moment later than it should. It’s all in the sands of time, or whatever.
Ryuu turns to his sister, and says through a mouthful, “Did you know he works at the store that’s trying to put us out of business? Noya’s a full-on Romeo.” Saeko whistles.
“Eh, he still doesn’t totally know about that,” says Noya lightly. Ryuu drops a chopstick and it flips away from him, landing on the carpet. He swears.
“So you’ve been lying to him too?” Saeko frowns—she’s not really a frowner, and Noya senses that her disappointment in him is genuine. “Jesus Christ, Yuu.” He feels his face scrunch up.
“Not lying, more like…”
“Lying,” says Saeko flatly.
“All right, hey, Nekoma’s got like a shit ton of employees. It’s not like he’d dump me if he knew.”
“Dump you?” echoes Ryuu smugly. “I thought you weren’t dating.”
“What, did you want me to be precise? ‘It’s not like he’d stop letting me suck his dick’?”
“Aw no,” groans Ryuu, annoyed at the mental image, like Noya has just spilled something all over him because he hadn’t leapt out of the way in time.
“You’re an idiot,” Saeko explains to Noya, her delivery efficient.
“Well! Then you’re both idiots.” Noya climbs from the chair and grabs his coat. “Family of idiots. A shame on the Tanaka legacy! I’m going to see Asahi.” They wave him out—he’s not really mad, nor does the insult carry much weight when Noya is as much a part of the Tanaka family as Ryuu or Saeko. Their mother still calls the study “Yuuchan’s room” because of how often he slept there in high school.
On the way out of Saeko’s building, he pulls out his phone again. He can’t even remember what the French guy from the metro looked like, so he tries to find a photograph somewhere. There isn’t one—he does have a single snap of the post office girl, a selfie she took when he wasn’t paying attention. And one he took of the city councilman, just to prove to people he was really sleeping with the city councilman, and also that the city councilman totally loved dick.
And then, of course, there are almost three hundred photos of Asahi. He passes most of the train ride flipping through them, grinning again at his phone, thinking how they ought to go to the beach in a couple of weeks before the weather gets too cold.
Every time Shimizu Kiyoko walks into Crow Street Books, it is like the heavens part and the loveliest April shower flutters down, watering Yachi’s dry skin, alleviating the stuffiness and humidity of perpetual human existence.
Today when this happens, Hinata is in the back helping unload a shipment, and Suga is in the café getting Nishinoya’s latest numbers, so Yachi gets rained on alone.
“Shimizu-san,” she gasps, feelings like she ought to roll out the red carpet, “Can I help you?”
“I have a meeting with Suga-san about the finances. Where is he?” Now, Yachi is perhaps not the most perceptive person on the planet, but if there’s someone she pays attention to, it’s Kiyoko. And she catches something strange about Kiyoko’s tone today, a little lilt to it, almost… sad.
“He’s just talking to Noya-san, he’ll be right back.” Kiyoko nods and stands by the counter, staring toward the office. Her hands stay wrapped around the strap of her messenger bag. “Shimizu-san,” says Yachi gently, peeking at her, concern overwhelming her nerves at speaking so boldly to such a pretty lady, “Is everything all right?”
Kiyoko glances sideways at her, eyes going the tiniest bit wide, surprised that Yachi noticed. Or annoyed that Yachi noticed? Oh no— “It’s okay, Hitoka-san.” Yachi feels a sudden fever at the sound of her first name leaving Kiyoko’s lips. Kiyoko assesses her for a moment, then turns away. “Hitoka-san, have you had jobs other than this?”
“Oh… oh yes, I have.” Why, do I seem unprofessional!
“Have you ever worked in an office? Done filing and paperwork.”
“Um, one summer I worked as a receptionist at my mother’s firm.”
Kiyoko nods, and pulls something out of her bag—a business card. “Take this. I think we may have some space for you at my office, if you need it any time soon.” Yachi accepts the card. The paper is grey and stiff and the lettering plain. Yachi wonders if it might smell nice. She doesn’t want to smell the card in front of Kiyoko, though—that would be weird. Yachi’s not weird. She just wants a business card that smells like the most beautiful woman ever born unto this earth, that’s it.
“I do like working at the bookstore, Shimizu-san,” she says, peeking up at the accountant.
“I know,” replies Kiyoko plainly. Suga-san appears at the archway between the café and the bookstore, waving. “But just hold on to it. You never know,” she tells Yachi in a low voice, then she greets Suga-san and the two of them vanish into the office with weak smiles.
When they emerge two hours later, Yachi scans their faces again. She doesn’t know if she has ever seen Suga-san looking so tumultuously grim.
The aftermath of that Daisuga scene will be fully addressed in the next chapter. Promise.
Chapter 9: world war III
Or, Everybody's Upset.
This is the saddest chapter in the whole thing. It gets better after this, mostly. It's also very long, so enjoy.
Suga doesn’t check his inbox this morning. It would be pointless—two days and no email from his friend, and he’s too afraid to send one himself.
He can’t get out of bed. Can’t remember how to work his arms or legs. Sadness is strange, not something he’s used to. It grips him like a bad head cold, nagging, catching him in quiet moments. He is losing his mother all over again.
“It’s not better at all?” he had asked Kiyoko, his throat tight.
“We’re down again. Less down than before, but still too much.” She looked at him sadly over her glasses. “You’ll have to close eventually. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can stop throwing all your savings away.”
He pulls the sheets over his head. Kiyoko is the only one who knows he hasn’t cut himself a paycheck in two years—that he’s been living off a small inheritance and it’s dwindled to nothing, now.
His phone buzzes: three missed calls from Akaashi. Suga pulls back the sheet, manages to drag his feet to the floor. He brews tea in the kitchen and forgets to drink it.
Two days. He can’t tell which is the real burden—the static waiting for an email, or the massive indecision created by Kiyoko’s assessment. He waits for his friend and Crow Street waits for him. He has nothing to do, he has to do everything. To decide. Both options suffocate him, leave him choking on his tongue.
My dear friend,
Allow me to give you my sincerest apologies for standing you up two nights ago. I was
Okay. Attempt number twenty. He’s got it this time—the perfect excuse is…
He squints at the screen.
Vancouver, why Vancouver, why would you be on the other side of the world? He’s going to find out you manage a bookstore and—well, at that point he’ll already know it’s a lie. Delete. Delete delete. All right, attempt number twenty-one. The perfect excuse is…
Fuck it. What’s the point of an excuse when he knows the outcome of all this? He heard it from the very lips of the man: nothing is ever going to change the way that Sugawara Koushi feels about Sawamura Daichi. Not in a million billion trillion years, never never never ever.
(Okay, perhaps Suga hadn’t said that last part, but it was in his tone.)
For the first twenty-four hours after departing that café, Daichi couldn’t decide if he even wanted Suga to change his mind. He struggled to attach the words he’d read to the man he knew, and making those connections made him feel oddly vulnerable, like either something had to be wrong with Suga for not making it obvious or something had to be wrong with Daichi for not figuring it out sooner.
And then he thought about the butterfly in the subway.
It was the image of Suga pondering the butterfly and trying to pin meaning on it that clarified the correlation. Made it click, made it slot into place. He could see Suga reading the story, lingering over the metaphor, coming back to it one night as he tries to fall asleep. Noticing a butterfly and trying to make a little joke to his companions, but no one understands, because he’s the only one who read the story. It fit—this person was that. All along, he had been writing to Sugawara.
It is Sugawara, not a combination of symbols on a screen, that Daichi loves. He got there—it took a day—but he arrived.
After that drawn-out process of reconciliation, his subsequent realization that Sugawara would never in a million billion trillion years accept him as the penpal took only a minute. As soon as he understood it to be Sugawara, he understood that he was fucked. That he continues to be merrily, hopelessly fucked.
So what’s the point of an email, really, to keep their relationship alive? He ought to just let it die. He’s got a face for the fantasies, now; that should be enough. He could become a monk or something.
Yeah, yeah. He’s considered abandonment so many times, but he returns to the email still, and he can’t fall asleep for tossing and turning, and he spills coffee on himself twice a day and yesterday he spent ten minutes trying to get his apartment open with the key for his mailbox.
As the old saying goes, something’s gotta give.
“Dai-san? I’ve never seen you on your computer at work before.”
He looks up from the half-written email—Asahi is lowering himself into the seat opposite him at the break room table. He cradles a small bento box in his large hands.
“Are you calling me out, Azumane?”
“No,” blusters Asahi, eyes widening.
“Relax. I was sort of kidding.” Asahi gulps and peels the cover off his box. Daichi puts his head in his hands and groans.
“Are you okay, Dai-san?”
“What do you think?”
“What’s the matter? Oh!” Grinning, Asahi lifts a sweet from his box. “He packed me one of the candies he made.”
Daichi sighs, snapping his computer shut and sliding back into his bag. Asahi’s right, it’s not like him to let his personal life eat into the workday. “Who’s ‘he’?”
Ah, he’s heard that name somewhere. From Asahi, most likely. “Who’s that, again?”
“My…” Asahi blushes, but Asahi blushes a lot, so that’s nothing to go by. “Someone I’m seeing.”
Daichi nods and feels like maybe he ought to ask more—is it serious? Do you like him? I’m happy for you if you do—but he can’t unwrap his brain from the email. He can feel his fingers ghosting over the table like a keyboard, wanting to type. So he’s a bad friend on top of being a bad lover/rival, big surprise.
“You didn’t say what the matter is, Dai-san,” Asahi points out, around the piece of candy in his mouth.
“It’s nothing.” Asahi frowns, still chewing. Daichi assesses him: his open, readable face, the little smile as he selects the next bite prepared by ‘someone he’s been seeing.’ Daichi can recall one too many conversations about love with Kuroo ending in smirks—but in good, realistic solutions, too. Kuroo weighs the negatives and the positives and dwells on the negatives. He gives the strongest strategy for the desired outcome, and if the desired outcome is impossible? He’ll say that, too. He’ll tell you to cut your losses.
If the twenty attempts at an apologetic email are any indication, Daichi isn’t quite ready to cut this loss. Not yet.
Perhaps Asahi—Asahi who is shy and impressionable and extremely gay, who will fall in love at the drop of a hat if you hold his glass heart gently enough, who has confessed on multiple occasions that he believes in soulmates, and that certain kisses can change one’s life forever—is the perfect person to tell Daichi what he wants to hear.
“I’m in love with someone.”
A little bit of rice plops out of Asahi’s mouth. “What?” he says mushily. “C—congrats, Daichi, that’s—”
“He’s convinced he hates me. But he doesn’t know how I feel about him.” Daichi leans forward, eyeing a gaping Asahi like he’s feeding coins to a fortunetelling machine. “What should I do?”
Asahi sticks his chin forward and points to himself with his chopsticks. “You’re asking me?”
“Yeah, Azumane, I’m asking you. How do I get him to make me a bento box with homemade sweets?” Asahi turns pink, glancing down at his lunch.
“Well… why’s he so convinced he hates you? If he’s so convinced, how do you know he doesn’t actually hate you?”
“He sort of… has the wrong idea about me.”
“How’d that happen?” asks Asahi lightly, because he has no idea. Which isn’t his fault, but the dissonance still makes Daichi want to sink into the floor.
“Bad luck. And,” he grudges, “because I didn’t tell him otherwise.” Like it would’ve been any better if he’d been honest in the café—like that’d have improved his chances!
Asahi’s face darkens, and he lowers his chopsticks severely; it’s good that Daichi has known him long enough not to be frightened. “Daichi, you shouldn’t lie to the people you care about. They’re the ones who stand by you no matter what the truth is.”
Christ, thinks Daichi. A lot of people give him shit for moralizing, but only people who haven’t met Asahi. “It wasn’t a lie, exactly. More like… an omission.”
Asahi picks up his chopsticks again, shoving some food in his mouth. “And now he’s got the wrong idea, so.”
“He does,” Daichi sighs, massaging his temples.
“You should give him the right idea!”
“Give him the right idea.” He sits up. Was this the answer he was looking for? Asahi waits for his approval with a hopeful smile. “Okay, yeah.”
“Did I do well?”
“You did great.” Daichi gets to his feet, and Asahi beams. “I’ll give him the right idea.” Whatever that means—he figures he’ll start with a trip to Crow Street. Could be he just wants to see Suga, but he can’t blame himself, who wouldn’t?
In the midst of standing around not really doing any work at all, Kuroo spies Daichi barreling toward Nekoma’s front doors.
“Where you headed, boss?”
“None of your business. And stop ironically calling me boss.”
Kuroo throws up his hands, surrendering, and watches Sawamura exit the store. He crosses the street, barely checking for traffic, heading toward— “Shit,” mutters Kuroo, rubbing his eyes. Maybe he ought to chase after, try to prevent World War III from breaking out. Crow Street looks like it’d collapse on itself at the first sign of trouble.
And maybe he would’ve gone, maybe disaster could’ve been prevented, but he’s called to prevent a different disaster when he hears a familiar voice raised unusually high, coming from a few aisles away.
“You’re doing it wrong, Kageyama.”
Kuroo, long-legged and well-attuned to Kenma, is rounding the corner in a couple of strides, where he finds Kageyama shelving books, and Kenma frowning at him.
“It’s not wrong, stop fuckin’ harassing me!”
“Your presentation is off. It looks bad.”
Kageyama turns away, slamming a couple of volumes on to a shelf. “Why don’t you go back to the register and stick books in plastic bags and let me do my job.”
“What’s up,” asks Kuroo. He looks down slightly on both of them, as he does with almost all the employees, which is a managerial advantage. Kageyama shifts awkwardly at the arrival of a superior to their spat, but Kenma doesn’t blink an eye.
“Kageyama’s arranged the shelves wrong.” He talks like he’s explaining a math problem, “He’s got the covers facing out on the right number of books, but the covers ought to line up from shelf to shelf, not be in thrown off center like this.”
“I’m just doing it like Sawamura-san showed me,” Kageyama protests, brows knit.
Kuroo hesitates before he says what he has to say, but only because it’s Kenma, and it’s strange enough that Kenma has taken a moment out of his day to come over here and correct Kageyama, though any mistake Kageyama had made wouldn’t affect him. Something must be up—and he’ll find out what it is, because he always does, with Kenma. He has the privilege of being the only one who can. “Kenma,” he says, “Kageyama’s right. Daichi changed the shelving layout. He thinks having them be off center looks more organic or something.”
The expression on Kenma’s face goes unchanged for a long second as he stares up at Kuroo, and then his gaze falls to Tobio. And he glares—not like the glare you’d get from anybody, more like a tiny narrowing of the eyes and a little huff, but from Kenma, that look is death. Even Tobio has spent enough time around him to know: he dumps the rest of the books he’s holding back in their box, and hightails it down the aisle, annoyed and rattled. “I’m gonna take a break or something!”
Kuroo turns back to Kenma, whose murderous glare stays trained on the spot Kageyama has just vacated. Something about the look feels personal, like this isn’t a bad mood. Kageyama is no collateral damage: he’s a target.
“Did Kageyama shit in your bed this morning or something?”
“Shut up,” says Kenma, relaxing to his typical half-lidded expression of pronounced disinterest. The clerk shuffles back toward the check-out, with Kuroo on his heels.
“You know I can’t do that. I gotta mediate employee conflicts.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
“Yeah, so? I do my job.”
“M’kay.” Kenma, now back behind the register, pulls out his PSP to indicate his boredom with the conversation. It’s a trick Kuroo knows well, and not one he’s ever fallen for. He stands across from Kenma, bracing himself on the counter.
“Did you see Kageyama while you were working here, think he was doing something wrong, and walk all the way over there to correct him?”
Sound effects from Kenma’s game punctuate the silence before he says, “Yes.”
Kuroo sticks a hand through his hair. “What’s your problem with Kageyama?”
“Have you met Kageyama?”
“All right, but it’s never been a problem before.”
Kenma shrugs, though like his glare it’s more of a half-shrug, a lift in his shoulders you might miss if you hadn’t spent fifteen years or so observing his mannerisms. Kuroo watches him closely—the flicker of his cat eyes over the screen and the fine black hair curling at the base of his ear, where he can’t bleach it. Perhaps it’s slightly creepy how much time he spends watching his friend, but it’s only the time others might spend talking. And he’s a fascinating study—it takes a good, careful eye to really see Kenma. He’s a creature of subtlety, not monochromatic as the unobservant might claim but painted in miniature strokes; as expressive as the next person if you know where to look; his beauty is in his details. If he’d had a Blue Period, Kuroo would be the world’s leading expert.
This is because Kuroo considers himself something of a Kenma aficionado.
He also considers himself something of a Feelings Robot. Does not compute, and all that shit.
It’s tough because he’s not one of those perceptive people whose perceptiveness doesn’t extend to themselves—he knows exactly what’s going on with the way he looks at Kenma. What he doesn’t know is how to approach it. The childhood friend thing, the slowness of it, building over years. Kuroo has had relationships in his life and none of them were like that, never so… storybook.
He isn’t someone who really buys into storybook romance. He knows himself well and knows he’s drawn differently than those characters, and Kenma too. They will never be that, but with their history they can never be the way that Kuroo knows how to do relationships (sex, brevity, mind games), and so the two of them get caught in between, on the slippery middle ground where Kuroo stares and composes elaborate metaphors for his veritable obsession with his old friend, and Kenma has no fucking clue about anything because he won’t stop with that stupid fucking PSP.
Sometimes Kuroo thinks about smashing the PSP. He really does. Could he get Kenma to cry? To yell at him? A response that’s more than one of his little half-gestures or a shut up? Perhaps it would be better to be hated, then at least Kenma might feel something toward him, something living and active and something he could brim with, like the way Kuroo feels now. Brimming.
He puts a hand over Kenma’s screen and Kenma jerks it away.
“If you won’t tell me as your boss, tell me as your friend.”
“I said it’s nothing,” says Kenma flatly.
“You drive me fucking crazy, you know that?”
Kenma looks up. It’s something. Even though Kuroo hadn’t meant to provoke him, even though it had just slipped out, it’s something.
“It really is nothing, with Kageyama,” Kenma’s voice softens, “I’ll get over it. Sorry.”
Kuroo wonders about the look on his own face, what Kenma is seeing, because his muscles are contorted and he can’t sense what he looks like. Whatever it is, it affects Kenma, at least for the moment before his eyes fall back to his game.
“Great,” says Kuroo, and he stalks off to find an activity that’s not reminiscent of running into a brick wall over and over again.
Kageyama goes outside. Not because he particularly loves being outside or anything—more like, anywhere improves on Nekoma.
Take the mediocre bookstore job, he’d told himself, it’ll keep you busy until you figure out what you want to do. He’s starting to think he should’ve just gotten some office grind, gotten stuck in a career he didn’t care about, rather than stumbling around in retail until his desires materialized. Nekoma was supposed to be easy and instead he’s got orange-headed kids attacking him in the street and coworkers going out of their way to harass him. He deserves a bigger paycheck.
He’s headed for one of the side doors when he hears a small voice calling to him.
He stops short, peeks over.
Hinata’s face emerges from behind a display of harlequin romance novels, and then the rest of him emerges too.
Kageyama’s first instinct—which he follows—is to turn and run for the door, double-time.
“Kageyama-kun! I’m sorry! Come back, please!”
He freezes with his hand on the exit. So close, but something in Hinata’s tone makes him… go a little red. It’s earnest and glaringly sincere as usual but it’s also softer, and uncertain, as though the apology has… meaning? In their limited number of encounters, Kageyama has never heard Hinata speak so non-confrontationally.
Kageyama turns back around. Hinata is standing a few feet from him, hands behind his back, chin low, peeking up in curiosity and—fear?
Kageyama goes redder. He is always so fucking red around this kid, it’s embarrassing.
“What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Kageyama glances around, concerned one of the other employees might catch them, even though objectively nothing illicit is going on. It only feels that way, because he’s supposed to be Hinata’s nemesis or something stupid like that, and if someone should see them talking civilly maybe they’d start to suspect what’s really going on, which is… which is not something Kageyama cares to think about, right now.
“What is it?” he asks, just above a whisper.
Hinata crosses his skinny arms over his skinny chest, and his little mouth falls open hesitantly. Fucking adorable. Kageyama stabs the thought. “Kageyama.”
“Yeah?” His throat itches. Hinata takes a step toward him, and then another, so that he’s staring right up at Tobio. The fluorescent lights flash in his big brown eyes as he blinks once, twice, slowly.
“Kageyama, do you…”
And Hinata pokes his face upward, close to Kageyama’s, too close (a driblet of saliva on his lower lip)—and closer—
Heart pounding, Kageyama swears and lurches away from him, then trips over his own foot and falls face first into the cardboard display of harlequin romance novels.
It kind of hurts—from the spines of the books and the sharp edges of the display jutting into his torso and forehead and legs, and his pride squeals in agony, too.
“Kageyama-kun, you’re so stupid!” wails Hinata, trying in vain to pull him back on his feet. At first he flinches at the touch of Hinata’s fingers on his arm, but Hinata doesn’t let go, and finally through their combined efforts Kageyama extracts himself from the pile of books and dented cardboard. Several customers are eyeing them; it’s lucky none of his coworkers heard the crash. He quickly shakes off Hinata’s grasp.
“Don’t call me stupid. You’re fucking awful at this.”
“At this?” Hinata echoes suspiciously. “You mean—what do you mean? What’s ‘this’?” The smear of heat on Kageyama’s cheeks seems to be a given for Hinata-related interactions.
“Nothing,” he grunts. He tries to focus his attention on cleaning up the display he destroyed. “I thought you were going to talk to me about something.”
Hinata bites his lip and starts helping him with the display. “I mean… I guess I thought we could try just talking like, normally.”
Talking normally—he grits his teeth. The guy on the cover of the romance novel Kageyama is holding has his shirt busted open; he’s too muscular, like he’s made of rocks. Tobio doesn’t like it. “What?” he manages, still somewhat winded from his fall. “Are you done screaming and calling me names?”
“You’re the one that calls me names!” Hinata shoots back, shoving the display toward him.
“I only called you a dumbass ‘cause that’s what you are.”
Hinata freezes, and then makes a strangled noise—a groan-scream, loud enough that Kageyama jumps. His fists are balled at his sides and he mashes a foot into the floor. “Screw you!”
“Screw you more,” Kageyama retorts, thrusting a novel into Hinata’s face like a weapon—Hinata rips it from his hands and tosses it away, before turning back to him, spitting angry.
“I knew you didn’t like me!”
For a half-second he can hear the vents hum and his own blood rushing through the arteries in his chest, can sense every step those words took before they filled him, from the neurons firing in Hinata’s nerves to the movement of his lips and tongue to make the sound waves that vibrated Kageayama’s eardrums and sent the signal to his brain. I knew you didn’t like me. It echoes: like me. Like me. Like me.
Hinata’s eyes are scrunched closed but when he opens them to glare Kageyama can see they’re glossy with… water. Eye water. TEARS? He’s fucking crying?
“Go to hell, Kageyama,” he splutters, then turns and sprints away. He’s the fastest human being Kageyama has ever seen, he takes two steps to try and keep up but Hinata is already gone.
Which leaves Kageyama standing there beside a totaled book display, holding his hands out stupidly and gaping. He feels like he just got hit by a train, or maybe a gust of wind came and blew off all this clothes—naked. Exposed. He swallows, swallows nothing because there are no words on his tongue.
Hinata attacked him. Swore to defeat him. Promised he’d never stop trying to crush him, like that was his mission. But now—what was that? Did Hinata—when had he figured out that the intensity between them wasn’t hate? And when had Hinata figured out that he, Hinata Shouyou, reciprocated the not-hate that Kageyama Tobio harbored toward him? Did he reciprocate?—no, he had to, it’s the only reason he would come here trying to be normal, and get so upset when Kageyama refused.
I knew you didn’t like me. Implicit statements: I like you, I hoped you might like me back but wasn’t sure, I decided to find out, my worst fears were confirmed.
Kageyama heard his own words again, crueler upon reviewing the context: I only called you a dumbass ‘cause that’s what you are. And Hinata cried! And he ran away! “Aw, shit,” he mumbles, slapping himself with the novel in his hands, “Who’s the dumbass now, dumbass?”
Sugawara Koushi is going to close Crow Street Books.
He is. It’s inevitable.
He could close in three weeks after an extended everything-must-go sale and save himself a lot of money, or he could close in six months when someone arrives to foreclose on the property. He knows which option wins out, but three weeks feels like nothing. Like being told you have three weeks to live—what now?
He wonders if the deadline would feel so claustrophobic, were his mother still alive. He has failed to protect her legacy in this world and he can’t even apologize. He keeps sending little thoughts of sorry sorry upward but he can’t see the smile on her face and know she forgives him.
As he stands there restocking Austen translations, he slides a hand over the dark wood of the shelf. It is a little dusty here, in the back recesses of the store, but he assigned himself the work intentionally. Today doesn’t feel like the right day for him to be interacting with customers, since he might start giving out hugs and begging them to buy one more book, for the sake of his dear departed mother and her dream. No, he left all that to Yachi and Hinata and slunk back here to do boring, tedious work and wallow in the prospects of his boring, tedious future. He feels grumpy. He wants to curl up in a ball and sit on the floor and whine for the rest of the day, a childish reaction to a grown-up problem.
Sawamura pops into his head. You’re a child.
Suga blows a raspberry. Fine, he’s a big baby! Sawamura is a big… grandpa. Twenty-eight going on eighty-two.
Distantly, the bell on the front door chimes, the arrival of a new customer. He can just make out the sound of Yachi’s voice, though her words are indistinguishable. Suga arranges a copy of Emma on the shelf. He considers the heroine: handsome, clever, rich. He himself is two out of the three, but that third one is so vital, isn’t it? The floorboard creaks nearby. Someone browsing toward the rear of the store, they must be a serious reader. Suga sees movement, a person coming around the corner, and looks up.
His mouth falls open. Leave, he would say, but he is too surprised to make sounds with his tongue. He can’t even remember if he has atongue.
“Sugawara,” Sawamura says, walking toward him with such purpose you might even call the movement bold. Suga looks away, shrinking, but there isn’t anywhere to go in the tight back aisle. “Suga,” he says again, intensely. He is willing Suga to look at him, acknowledge him.
Suga doesn’t oblige. He keeps his eyes trained on his work. “What do you want?” Sawamura might be the most inconvenient person on the planet, sweeping into the café that night, sweeping into the bookstore on a day where Suga feels he could break in two. He doesn’t need this, to be poked and prodded and told he’s doing it wrong.
“I know the last thing you want is to listen to me, but—”
“So save yourself the trouble and go.” One day he’s not determined and the next day he’s not courteous, so what does Sawamura even want from him? Tomorrow he’ll be doing everything Sawamura wants, and Sawamura will say he’s just a little too accomplished and it makes him seem unsympathetic. Suga can’t muster up any argument, not today.
Daichi presses on, “This is important, like really—”
“I don’t care.”
“Suga, you don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Suga snaps, a terrible weepy monster clawing at his chest and throat. Sawamura steps into him, holding up his hands in a plea.
“Suga, please, just—”
“This is my property, show yourself out.”
Suga keeps it together, he won’t cry in front of Sawamura, even if it means he has to turn away from the other man’s gaze and screw his eyes shut tight. One of Sawamura’s hands finds his upper arm, and the palm of it feels big and warm, the sensation not distracting him from his discomfort but throwing him deeper into confusion.
“Sugawara,” he says, low and fast, why is he so close now, while Suga keeps trying to turn away or shut him out. “There’s something I need to tell you, because you deserve to know, and I—Suga, can you just—” He reaches his free hand out to Suga’s face, to move his head and make him look, but Suga turns without the encouragement and Daichi’s fingers brush his jaw, and the next thing that happens—a very strange thing that occurs, almost of its own accord, as though magnets or magic were involved—involves heat on Suga’s lips as the weight of Daichi’s mouth presses against them.
The worst part about it is that he kisses back. Why, why does he do that? Because Sawamura is handsome and it’s been a long time since anyone kissed him and it feels nice to be wanted on a day like today, but really, why?
The kiss-back is not immediate because at first they are both so shocked to find themselves locked like this, they don’t do more than gasp against each other. But then his mouth opens under Daichi’s and suddenly it is all desperation, he’s being pulled against this man and letting himself be pulled against this man, the books in his arms clattering to the floor as he digs his fingers into the firm expanse of Daichi’s shoulders and licks at his lips. They kiss until their lungs are out of air and when they break apart Daichi slips away. His chest heaves, his pupils are huge, the skin around his mouth reddened from the pressure.
“Sorry,” he says, panting, “I’m so—Suga, I’m sorry.”
At first, dizzy, he doesn’t understand why Sawamura apologizes, and then he remembers: this is the man who put him out of business.
He kissed the man who put him out of business.
His mother’s business. Just when he had been so worried if she could ever forgive him for not taking good care of her dream, he goes and…
He starts crying, then. Noiselessly, just the tears spilling from his eyes and down his cheeks like a little kid stung by a bee. He wipes them on his sleeve and a single sob escapes him, shaking his whole body.
Sawamura moves in with an arm extended in comfort and Suga slaps it away.
“Leave!” Finally, what he meant to say the whole time.
“I—I’m going to leave,” he announces shakily, backing off, and Suga hopes he feels bad, he should feel bad, because what kind of person thinks ‘this is my property, show yourself out’ means ‘plant one on me hard’? “I’m sorry, Sugawara-san, that was—totally inappropriate, and—and shit,” swears Sawamura, to himself. He bows and disappears around the end of the aisle.
Suga, literally weak in the knees, buckles to sit on the floor. For a second he tries to suck in the tears but he fails, of course he fails, he always fails, and he can’t fix it. So the weeping isn’t just for his mother but for Akaashi and Hinata and Yachi and Nishinoya and Tanaka and Tsukishima and Kiyoko and even for Sawamura, because Suga was the one who kissed back. He let them down, everyone, and what’s worse, all he can do now is sit on the floor and cry about it until his head throbs and he has to leave work early.
Daichi spends his evening pacing the apartment with his laptop on the table, muttering “you fucking idiot” and “you goddamn bastard” and variations on that theme.
He’s been wrong. He was wrong about what he had to do, he was wrong about what he actually ended up doing, so very wrong.
The one thing he got right—amongst a lot of shit, he’d be the first to acknowledge—is that he loves Suga. When he kissed Suga he felt such a breadth of want, utterly singular but multifaceted too, as he had never felt for another person, all its varieties in an instant: the desire sexual and romantic and spiritual and familial and intellectual. So maybe Asahi was right about kisses changing lives and maybe Daichi’s a closet romantic, but Suga deserves nothing less than romance.
And that’s the trick. He has to make Suga fall in love with him.
Of course, Suga is already in love with him—otherwise he wouldn’t think it possible, but the truth is not good enough, not in this case. The trouble lies in convincing him that one Daichi is the same as the other, and it’s a daunting task, but if anyone has ever been worth the effort, that person is Sugawara Koushi. And Daichi made him cry, so he has a debt to pay.
He manages to calm himself enough to open his computer. The draft from earlier sits open.
My dear friend,
Allow me to give you my sincerest apologies for standing you up two nights ago. I was
He deletes the unfinished sentence, inhales, and begins again.
My dear friend,
Allow me to give you my sincerest apologies for standing you up two nights ago. To tell you the truth, I was in the café that night. I wanted to approach you but I was afraid you would reject me. You might be the most beautiful person I’ve ever met, and for the past few days I’ve thought maybe I could be content knowing that such a beautiful person loved me for a little while.
But now I don’t think it’s possible. I’m not asking to meet again, only if you can find it in your heart to forgive me for what I did. I was weak and you deserve better. I’ve learned my lesson, let’s start over. I’m going to say hello, all I want is for you to say hello back.
Your dear friend.
Chapter 10: suga, we're going down swinging
Two-thirds of the way through, now...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Nishinoya Yuu has an unusually low resting heart rate for someone so… you know. Asahi listens and counts the beats: ba-dum… ba-dum… ba-dum. A very reliable heartbeat. Asahi supposes for all Noya’s enthusiasm, he isn’t really excitable—doesn’t get nervous or lose his cool, even when he’s shouting at the top of his lungs and jumping all over the place. Asahi envies him for that; his own pulse quickens when he so much as makes eye contact with another person on the street.
He feels thin, precise fingers tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. “Asachan.”
Asahi twists his head to look up, keeping his ear against the pale expanse of Noya’s bare chest. Ba-dum… ba-dum. There’s not a hint of sleep in the sharp golden brown eyes staring down at him. Noya’s hair sticks out in all directions, having been crushed into the pillows and mussed by Asahi’s own fingers, stiff from yesterday’s gel. “Do you wanna get up?” Asahi asks groggily. “Shower?” This means he will have to remove himself from Noya’s chest, he notes sadly, but he knows he and Noya don’t share a love of lazy mornings.
“No, I’m good. That’s not it.” Asahi would be relieved, only there’s still an it, some problem.
“What’s the matter?” Noya sighs and tilts his head back, exposing the sharpness of his Adam’s apple and the flexing muscles in his neck. There’s a faint bruise several inches above his collarbone—Asahi blushes. He hadn’t realized he was going to leave a mark. He knows Noya leaves them on him, but he didn’t think he was as good at the bitey thing. Ba-dum… ba-dum.
“I’m going to lose my job, Asachan.”
Asahi sits up so fast that the air rushing over his naked shoulders makes him shiver. “What? Did you—they aren’t going to fire you, are they? Did you do something? Not that I think that you get in trouble at work—”
“No, I’m not—” Noya makes a frustrated noise and tugs Asahi back down, looping an arm around him so Asahi’s head slots into the crook of his neck. “It’s more like a lay-off. Where I work, it’s… the store is closing.”
“Closing?” Asahi echoes. The word rings familiar—he had just heard Daichi talking about it the other day. “You know, the economy must be terrible. The store across from Nekoma is closing too.” He slides down a little so his ear is back on Noya’s chest. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. A little faster now, he hopes he isn’t causing any undue stress.
“You don’t say?” mutters Noya. The speech vibrations start in his ribcage, a low rattle.
“I’m so sorry,” he lifts himself up on his elbows to kiss Noya’s stomach, “Yuu.”
“Why are you apologizing? It’s got nothing to do with you.” He’s looking down at Asahi again, a furrow between his brows.
“I can ask Daichi if we can make another hire in the café,” Asahi realizes. “You could come work with me—Nekoma’s doing really well, and you’ve got more experience than Ennoshita even so I bet he’d say yes. Daichi is practical like that.”
Noya just stares at him.
Asahi starts to turn red.
He’s not even your boyfriend. But wouldn’t it be great if he were? And wouldn’t it be great if they could see each other everyday, work their silly coffee jobs together, complain about the worst customers and concoct new drinks when it’s slow?
Maybe Asahi is the only one who feels this way. It’s hard to believe—when he’s with Noya he has a sense of being liked and wanted and Asahi gets the idea that Noya is just as obsessed with him as he is with Noya, and that’s amazing, he never wants that to go away. But of course, he doesn’t want to say any of that, doesn’t want to jinx it, because what if Noya is as fleeting as all the other good things in his life? He presses another kiss to Noya’s belly, like a silent apology for even suggesting it, a frightened little kiss that begs stay.
Noya clears his throat. “I can’t work at Nekoma.”
“I understand,” Asahi mumbles, shoving his cheek against Noya’s skin. Stupid stupid!
“Not because of you.”
Oh. Asahi glances up curiously, but Noya’s expression is indiscernible. “Then…”
“I’m thinking I might get out of coffee for a while,” Noya interrupts, loud. “Maybe I could work in an office.” He grins at Asahi. “That’d be funny, right? Me in a tie or something?” Asahi considers, and laugh-kisses Noya’s stomach again, because the image in his head is more hot than amusing and he doesn’t want Noya to know what a goner he really is. Such a goner. He inhales the scent of the soft skin by Noya’s bellybutton, musky with last night’s sweat and the last desperate cling of deodorant or body wash, something piney. It is nice. He responds to it like an animal responds to the smell of its mate in heat—that’s another thought he wants to keep to himself.
Noya reaches down to touch his hair, the sweetness of the gesture clashing with the depravity of his grin. “So, Asachan, are you gonna go any lower than that?”
“Suga-san, a man on the phone is asking what we have left in terms of cookbooks.”
“Suga-san, the caterer for the farewell party wants to know if anyone has a peanut allergy.”
“Suga-san, Yachi got herself stuck when she was cleaning the bathroom.”
At least he is too busy to be devastated. The shelves of Crow Street Independent Booksellers & Café sit half-empty, some of them totally cleared by the offers of forty and fifty and seventy percent off. Suga will make a good bit on the inventory, though everything from here on out is a consolation prize.
Suga said hello back (resolving not to dwell too much on the reasons why his friend would fear rejection, like if he were old or didn’t have hair or—you know, he’s not dwelling! He’s not) and he has his penpal again, and the email he wrote this morning was cathartic:
Today my shop closes. I shouldn’t be telling you that, me owning a shop, but soon I won’t anymore. It was my mother’s place, the dream she realized and all that. It’s been my life for as long as I can remember… when I close up tonight for the last time, I’ll be starting on a new chapter. Maybe a new volume. I intend to go on an adventure of some kind. Wanna come? I have no clue what’s going to happen.
When it’s time, Noya, Tanaka and Tsukishima come in from the café and stand with Hinata and Yachi and Kiyoko, and when Suga flips the sign from OPEN to CLOSED, they applaud for the end of a great era.
They box up the remainder of the inventory and take down the posters and carry out the file cabinets. Everything gets loaded on a truck Tanaka parked in the alley.
Then, in the gutted interior of the store, Tsukishima sets up the speaker system and Nishinoya totes in a truly obscene amount of alcohol. Akaashi and Bokuto arrive, and Tsukki’s teacher friend too—he sits with a beer between his knees laughing nervously at everyone else’s jokes. Tanaka and Noya challenge Tsukki to poker and he accepts and Bokuto shoulders his way into the game. Hinata makes Yachi dance with him, and then Yachi and Kiyoko stand by one another in blushing silence until Kiyoko asks a quiet question, and listens with a smile to Yachi’s answer. Suga talks to Akaashi for a while, filling him in on everything that’s happened since the café, and then when Akaashi leaves to convince Bokuto he shouldn’t bet real money, Suga drifts around the edges of the party watching his staff—now his friends, really—enjoying their last evening in the store.
“Suga-san,” comes Hinata’s voice, small at his side.
“I’m sorry about Crow Street, Suga-san,” he sighs, staring at the bare shelf behind them.
Bokuto is trying to persuade Noya that his meaningless assortment of cards beats a flush. Suga smiles absently at the sight of it. “What do you think they’re going to turn it into? A dry cleaners, maybe?” He tries to keep smiling but can feel his mouth twisting into a grimace instead. “People might forget this store ever existed. I never realized how temporary it would be, even after twenty years.”
“Suga-san,” says Hinata, a note of surprise in his voice that makes Suga glance at him. There’s a frown on his wide mouth. “Do you remember when I was in high school and you used to tutor me when we didn’t have any customers?” He points to the counter, and indeed Suga can remember sitting there over a textbook with him, a couple of years ago when Hinata worked at Crow Street as his after-school job. “That was the only reason I even passed my exams.”
“Oh, you would’ve passed.” Suga ruffles his hair. Hinata’s expression, very serious, doesn’t change.
“I wish I could have done something to stop this from happening.”
Suga’s smile saddens. He drops his hand to Hinata’s shoulder. “Me too, Shouyou. But it’s out of our hands now.” The funny thing about comforting others—he ends up comforting himself inadvertently. He’ll have to find a way to let go of this place, of his mom.
“I won’t forget Crow Street,” Hinata swears, eyes flashing, “Even if it’s a dry cleaners, or—or anything, I just won’t. And neither will anybody else. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you all. Especially right now.”
Suga stares at him for a moment—he looks so genuinely broken up about it, the sight nudges something powerful in Suga’s chest. The especially right now rings true to him; it seems like the worst possible timing. Everything is changing at once. Plus, he’s had two or three drinks at this point and feels particularly gooey about everyone. He swallows, and then pulls Hinata into a suffocating hug.
“Suga-san! That’s too tight!”
“Hold your breath!”
“Hey!” shouts Noya from across the room, “Where’s my Suga hug?”
“You can have one when you’re as cute as Shouyou.”
“Am I not cute?” Noya demands of Tanaka, who shrugs.
“I dunno, I think you’re adorable.”
“Thank you, Ryuu! Where’s Neesan, by the way?”
“Eh, she’s working, she said she might come by later.”
And then the two of them get into an argument with Tsukishima over the music that’s playing, which results in Tsukki surrendering out of annoyance. So the laidback pretentious party playlist morphs into a series of rollicking American pop songs, and Tanaka sings along in heavily accented English, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Stand a little taller!
Tsukki collapses into the seat beside Tadashi with a little snort of distain.
“Your coworkers are kind of idiots, huh?” Tadashi jokes. The condensation from his third cold beer is making his hands clammy. Or, he wants to believe it’s the beer.
“Soon they won’t be my coworkers anymore,” says Tsukki thoughtfully. Yamaguchi smiles sideways at him, but Tsukki’s glaring eyes are trained on Tanaka. So Tadashi downs another gulp of his drink, and then a few more.
It became evident during his first date with Tsukki that there had never been a date, nor an awareness of the miscommunication on Tsukki’s part. Somewhere around the third time he declined to share food, the second time he shifted his thigh so it wouldn’t touch Tadashi’s, the fifth time he asked “what?” after catching a stare, it dawned on Yamaguchi that Tsukki had no idea. And Tadashi thought some combination of shit and fuck me and of fuckin’ course. He wanted to kick over a trashcan for his own stupidity and never call Tsukki again, he was so damn embarrassed, like a high schooler whose confession had been misheard.
And maybe he wouldn’t have called, maybe he would have shut it down and never returned to Crow Street for the shame—only he realized something else, which was that Tsukki really enjoyed being his friend. Like, a lot? Like Tsukki would text him during a shift, and insist on him watching some intense science fiction film so they could swap theories. He stopped charging for coffee, though that was partly because the store was closing and “it doesn’t even matter anymore.” He had even helped Tadashi rearrange some furniture in his apartment, without complaint.
After a few veiled questions, the reason for Tsukki’s strangely earnest, sweet behavior became evident: Tsukishima Kei had no friends. Not one.
It seemed that upon moving to Sendai a couple years ago, after his graduation from university, Tsukki hadn’t managed to find his foothold with anyone and thus did not develop a social life. He spent most evenings he wasn’t working in his apartment, listening to music or watching television on his computer. He seemed starved for conversation with someone who didn’t get paid to be in the same room with him. And Tadashi, you know, was happy to oblige.
After all, it’s not as though them being friends invalidated the possibility of them being more than friends! No, he still had a chance. A good chance, even, since Tsukki seemed to like him so much. Or… need him so much.
He took another long gulp of beer. And another. Still a chance. All all it would take is… a little courage. Liquid courage, maybe.
“Have you started looking for other work yet?”
“Yeah. Unfortunately my résumé is limited to caffeine-related accomplishments.”
A little laugh bubbles out of Yamaguchi. His stomach has started to get that nice, sloshy warmth. Tsukki’s hair looks fluffy tonight, like tufted golden marshmallows all melted together. “That’s not a very good reflection of your talents.”
“Shut up,” scoffs Tsukki, a smile tipping up the corners of his mouth. “I’m going to get another beer. Do you want one?”
Tadashi examines the bottle in his hand, still a third full, and nods quickly. He finishes the drink when Tsukki turns his back, heading for the cooler. The loud guy with the round eyes and spikey hair is yelling at Tsukki’s silver-haired boss, asking whether he’d mind if a few more people joined them. A new song comes on and Baldie gets very excited, he starts singing, I’m Miss Bad Media Karma, another day another drama. Yamaguchi inhales deeply. Liquid courage. Maybe tonight’s the night.
“Hitoka-san. Here’s your soda.”
Yachi looks up. Angel. A real angel. She thinks this every time they talk again, and Kiyoko had only been gone for a few minutes. Yachi sets her untouched sake aside and accepts the soft drink. “Thank you so much.”
Shimizu perches on the box of books beside Yachi. She moves with such delicacy and grace, precision like you can’t learn. Every movement is just so pretty. “My pleasure. I don’t much like sake either. Are you enjoying the party?”
Aside from being made to dance with Hinata (terrifying and she’s still winded) and the looming threat of someone dying from alcohol poisoning (hence the soda), the party isn’t bad. “I am, yes,” she says, trying to sound bright, like the kind of person Shimizu-san would want to be around.
“That’s good.” Kiyoko sips her glass of wine. It is red wine and when Yachi notes that it’s stained her lips a light purple, she has to cover her own mouth in flushed surprise. “I was wondering if you had given any more thought to the offer I made you a few weeks ago.”
Oh. That. Yachi scratches at the rim of the soda can. “Um. Yes, I guess I have.”
“And what do you think?”
“Well, it’s—it’s a very nice offer, Shimizu-san!”
“But you’re not going to take it?” asks Kiyoko, knowingly. When Yachi looks at her, she’s smiling.
“I’m not sure! I’m not… it’s a big decision. Even now that the store is closing.”
Kiyoko takes another careful sip. “What’s stopping you?”
“I…” Yachi can feel the blush spreading over her cheeks. She can’t say, she shouldn’t say it, there’s a whole host of problems presented if she— “I like you so much, Shimizu-san, and I don’t want you to be my boss.” Oh God. Oh no. Yachi wishes there were a convenient pit of mud for her to sink into.
See, she had thought a lot about working for Kiyoko, a woman she could hardly speak Japanese around, and it’s not as if she has any illusions about Kiyoko liking her back, of course not she’s a very reasonable person that Yachi Hitoka she sees it all no unrealistic expectations here!, but in the teensiest off-chance that something could maybe possibly happen in the far far distant future involving their faces mushing together, she doesn’t want the beautiful prospect dampened by terrible office ethics.
“Ah,” says Shimizu-san softly. Yachi tries to formulate some kind of apology in the silence that follows. Shimizu, expressionless, gazes at the drinking game started up, shockingly, by Suga-san’s sleepy-eyed friend Akaashi-san. “Hitoka.” Yachi feels a hand on her shoulder. “How old are you?”
She peers up into Kiyoko’s eyes. They are the nicest eyes ever—like ever. Holy wow. “I’m twenty-two, Shimizu-san,” she replies miserably.
“Do you know how old I am?”
Yachi shakes her head.
“I’m 27.” Five years, that felt like so many. Shimizu-san would have been already halfway through high school when Yachi was a first-year in junior high! “I’m only telling you that because I want you to take the advice I’m about to give you very seriously.” Kiyoko waited for the younger woman to nod before proceeding. Somehow, her total confidence put Yachi at ease. “When you’re twenty-two and you’re out of a job, and an excellent offer like this one comes along, you never give it up for anybody. Not a boy or a girl, not your parents. Twenty-two is an age where you should be worrying about yourself, and your future.”
Yachi’s ducks her head, examining the floorboards. This is her gentle way of turning me down.
“You should take the job, because it’s my firm and I make the rules, anyway.”
Almost as quickly as she drooped, Yachi sits up, staring at Kiyoko. There’s openness in her smile that Yachi has never noticed before, and she’s noticed every smile Shimizu-san has given her.
“I’ll take the job,” she blurts, not wasting another second on any stupid consideration—the flicker of a maybe is enough for right now.
“Good,” says Kiyoko. Tsukishima comes over to introduce them to his friend, and Kiyoko leaves her hand on Yachi’s shoulder.
(21:45) I am across the street. come say hi!
Kuroo grins down at the texts from Bokuto. They (himself, Kageyama, Haiba, and Azumane in the café) are getting ready for close, the last men standing of the late shift, with Haiba and Kageyama ringing up the last three or four customers and Kuroo standing by the door, toying with the key. Azumane already has his coat on, but seems too anxious to leave before everyone else. Out the window, Kuroo can see that Crow Street is indeed awake, looking lit and full and cozy, the sounds of fun cheesy music escaping into the sidewalk. Azumane is watching too, and Kuroo eyes him.
“Wanna go, Azumane?”
His eyebrows fly up. “Me?”
“Yeah, sure.” Kuroo glances over to where Kageyama wishes their last customer goodnight. “I’m invited. It’s my treat for you all working this god-awful shift.” He feels weirdly responsible for Kenma’s behavior, and if inviting Kageyama means inviting Azumane and Haiba, he’ll take the hit. They aren’t bad guys. Maybe a little too innocent for Kuroo’s tastes, but not bad.
“Would it be weird for us to go to their closing night party, seeing that it’s our fault that they’re closing in the first place?”
Kuroo shrugs. “We can call it a peace offering. Maybe a few of them are worth hiring.”
Asahi considers this for a moment, then nods. “Okay. It sounds fun.”
Kuroo taps out a quick reply to Bokuto, yeah, and I’m bringing people.
(21:53) it’ll be a hoot
The customers leave and Haiba and Kageyama come to the door with their stuff. Kuroo makes his offer as they step outside and he goes about locking up.
“I can’t,” announces Lev, looking around at them happily, “I’m meeting Yaku-san at a bar. He invited me.” He says this as though it is the greatest privilege in the world, and he expects to be the envy of all. Kuroo smirks at him and turns to the other clerk.
Kageyama frowns out, staring out at Crow Street. “I don’t know.”
“Are you sure there’s no one over there you want to talk to?” Kuroo asks. Asshole, he thinks quietly to himself, but at least you’re using your powers for good this time.
“Fine,” coughs Kageyama, turning up his the collar of his jacket like it might disguise the blush on his face.
They say their goodbyes to Lev, who lopes off in the direction of what Kuroo guesses is a gay bar. He’ll have to harass Yaku about that tomorrow. “Who do you know at Crow Street, Kuroo-san?” Asahi asks politely.
“Uh. An old buddy of mine is married to a guy who has an old buddy who runs it. Or who used to run it.” The three of them cross the street, Kageyama glaring, Asahi smiling with tentative excitement, Kuroo leading the pack. There had better be booze, weeks have passed since he last coerced Sawamura into buying him drinks and he hates paying to get wasted. It’s been a rough haul since the café debacle; Daichi strikes him as constantly preoccupied. “It’s weird, I didn’t even know about the connection until we all ran into each other a party.”
“Huh,” says Asahi brightly, “I guess you never know what you could be missing.”
Aside from the delicate crooning of the speakers, all falls silent when the door to Crow Street Books squeaks open.
Now, it should be noted that everyone sees something different in the three men standing at the shop entrance.
Bokuto sees his old friend and a couple of guys Kuroo works with, since they were all in the same uniform. Akaashi sees essentially the same thing, but with the understanding that these men come from the store that rivaled Koushi’s.
The employees and associates of Crow Street without other attachments to Nekoma—Yachi, Tsukishima, Kiyoko, and even Yamaguchi—see the red shirts peaking from beneath jackets, the color of the enemy, the murderers returning to the scene of the crime. Their ill will toward the intruders is palpable.
Suga and Tanaka see Kageyama and Kuroo and Asahi, and trouble. Written all over their faces. Suga looks faint. Tanaka shifts to stare at Nishinoya.
Nishinoya sees Asahi. Asahi sees Nishinoya.
Hinata sees Kageyama, and turns like he’s going to run away.
“Hinata, no!” roars Kageyama, the first person to break the heavy silence. Hinata sprints away, disappearing in the direction of the back door, and Kageyama thunders after him. Their footsteps slam away over the wooden floorboards and then there’s the sound of a smash, hollering, and a slam. They’ve made it to the back alley, where something will probably happen.
Quiet again. Bokuto turns to Kuroo. “I didn’t know there was cross-store interaction like that!”
Asahi interrupts their moment, stepping forward to peer at Noya. “Noya-san? What are you doing here?”
Noya becomes aware that every eye in the room is on him. The longer he stands there, silently staring at Asahi with his mouth curled into a tiny frown and his brows down and sharp, the more curious their gazes become. He can feel his pulse, the same pulse that Asahi had charted just that morning, speeding up. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Badum badum.
Well. This is it.
He throws his arms out and shouts, “This is where I work, Asahi-san! Or I used to! Before you guys put us out of business.” And he throws back his head and laughs—he’s kind of drunk. He’s the only person who laughs, unsurprisingly, except for Kuroo, who lets out the smallest chuckle of suspicion as glances between Asahi and Nishinoya. Noya catches Tanaka’s eye; his friend has a hand across his mouth, his eyes stricken. He looks at Suga, too, who stares at the floor with the frown of a disappointed parent. Noya is trying not to look at Asahi, but these people, supposedly his friends, aren’t making anything easier. He finally does it, tears away his gaze from avoidance and plants it on the man who has been his friend and partner for over two months now.
Asahi certainly isn’t laughing.
Ah. Fuck. Distantly, glass shatters, Noya is sure he hears it coming from somewhere. He can’t have imagined that. Must be Shouyou and the scary kid roughhousing out back, or…
The expression on Asahi’s face isn’t quite angry, nor quite hurt, nor shocked nor confused nor heartbroken. It toes the axis of all those things, takes every possible negative reaction and layers them over one another until there’s only an opaque mass of bad. He’s clearly doing the mental math and counting up each blatant lie, and each calculated deception, and each tiptoe around the truth. It is the worst look you could imagine on a person amplified tenfold by the fact that, at some point, Noya stumbled into caring about Asahi like he’s never cared for another person in his life. Look at him, wearing all that emotion on his face, so fucking honest it stings—how could Noya not?
Asahi turns to Kuroo and says quietly, “Sorry, Kuroo-san, I’ll see you tomorrow,” and slips out the front door.
“Asahi!” Noya cries, climbing over Yachi to chase him. They both disappear into the darkness, strained voices echoing in the street outside, barely covered by the music.
“Well,” Kuroo coughs, clapping Bokuto on the shoulder, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come?”
I know that 'hoot' pun probably doesn't work in Japanese. I still made it.
Chapter 11: tanaka saves the party
A quick warning for intoxication and for emetophobia on this chapter, but the latter is really just one line. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Hinata, stop being a dumbass, come back here—”
“Stop chasing me, you’re too slow anyway,” he shouts, swinging around to face Kageyama.
They’ve made it to the alley behind the store. It rained earlier, the pavement and puddles catch the shimmery blue light from the streetlamps. Hinata never intended (as much as he ever works with ‘intention’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘reasoning’) to depart the store, he wanted only to avoid Kageyama, and he had failed at that. Now his sole option is to leave Crow Street in the middle of the party or face this giant mean man, and he doesn’t want to leave the party. But it’s fine, because he’s definitely not scared of facing Kageyama. No, of course not.
… So, he’s a tiny bit scared of facing Kageyama.
It’s only because—well, because he’d stuck his neck out when Kageyama happened to be swinging an axe in his direction and he felt dumb about the whole thing still, and more importantly, he felt angry. Not at Suga-san for misleading him, because Suga-san had been hopeful, just like Hinata himself—only at Kageyama. Kageyama hurt him. After their encounter he’d gone home and wailed into his pillow.
Subsequently, he told himself that the entire debacle, from his thinking he liked boys to his thinking Kageyama liked him to the crumpled display of harlequin romance novels, had been a mistake, and not one he’d make again. From here on out he would only have crushes on girls and everything would be fine and dandy, like it’s always been. What with losing his job, it’s probably better to have a little consistency. Right. Right.
And then he swings around to face Kageyama one-on-one and the tint of the light makes his eyes look cobalt as he bears down on Hinata, a figure of towering intensity. His bangs stick to the sheen on his forehead and he inhales catching his breath, hot air billowing from the shaky rise and fall of his chest. He looks scary but also pleading, and his hand touches—not grips or squeezes or wrenches, but touches with the rough pads of his fingers—Hinata’s arm, and he says, low and winded, “Wait.”
So maybe Shouyou likes boys! Fine.
“What’s your problem? Leave me alone!” he cries, right up into Kageyama’s stupid beautiful angular face.
Has the problem ever really been that he likes boys, or is it that he likes Kageyama? This boy is no friend to him, and not to Crow Street, his second home now lost.
But months ago, when they snuck into Nekoma and he first saw Kageyama, his impression wasn’t important enemy but simply, important. An invisible string ran from his chest to Kageyama’s and he didn’t know what to call it, that sense of fated consequence, so he tucked it under the guise of hate and claimed to understand it. After all, he had never liked a boy before; he assigned that burst of adrenaline the only association he could fathom. It was like some riddle Tsukishima might tell to mess with his head: you are going to meet someone who will shape the course of your life. When you see him you will feel something strong and he will reciprocate just as instantly. You’ll play upon one another’s strengths and weaknesses, though you’re ultimately equals. And Hinata would cry that this person had to be his nemesis, and Tsukishima would snort and say, no, that’s your soul mate. Have fun dying alone.
“You’re wrong, you know,” says Kageyama, as if to underscore Tsukki’s hypothetical point.
“Am not,” Hinata shoots back. It’s an instinctive reply—you’re wrong—am not! Like something he would say to Natsu. But he doesn’t care, he’s a regressive arguer, he’ll resort to wet willies if that’s what it takes to come out on top.
“But you are—”
“Shut up, Hinata, I’m trying to—”
“I don’t care what you’re trying to do,” Hinata wails, clenching up, even his eyes squeezed shut, “I was stupid to ever go and talk to you and if you’re not gonna say you’re sorry or something, then why are you here? Do you wanna fight me, because I didn’t think you were that kind of guy—like, have some compassion, Kageyama-kun, please.”
Long pause. Hinata pries one eye open to look at the other boy, but Kageyama’s head hangs, face in shadow.
“I’ve never wanted to fight you,” he says.
Hinata swallows, trying to keep his chin up. “Then why don’t you get out of here?”
“I don’t want to do that, either.”
“Okay,” says Hinata, hands on his hips, “Now you’re just being dumb—”
Kageyama leans down and kisses him.
It’s a pretty stupid kiss. Kageyama is pretty stupid, and he’s not good at it, their noses bump painfully and he stands there pressing his closed lips to Hinata’s, unmoving at an awkward, stooped angle. Yes, it’s bad. Just a really stupid, lame, awful kiss that Shouyou will remember the rest of his life.
His chest feels like it’s on fire, or maybe like he is made of fire, like Kageyama touched him and he went up in flames. Or—or maybe he feels like a science class experiment, all the little particles in his lungs moving faster and faster and hitting the walls and the walls heat up and they heat his chest and the heat expands and he’s hot all over. Or instead of heat it could be bubbles, a thousand little bubbles popping across the surface of his skin, tickling him and making him itch for more kisses.
Kageyama pulls away. It doesn’t make a sound when his lips vacate Hinata’s because the kiss was nothing, excluding the fact that it was everything.
His face has these sweet little red splashes, just at the tops of his cheeks and ears—even Kageyama’s blushes are incredibly focused. Hinata can feel his mouth creep—nay, crack into a grin, a big shiny toothy grin. His face could cook an egg.
“You’re a terrible kisser, Kageyama-kun. Have you ever even kissed anybody before?”
Kageyama’s mouth falls open, in confusion and disdain. He’s probably thinking, why is this stupid chibi smiling and insulting my fucking kisses, because he’s a big jerk baby like that.
“How come you don’t wanna win at kissing like you wanna at everything else?”
“You can’t win at kissing, dumbass!”
“I bet I could beat you at kiss—”
This time around Tobio twists a hand into the front of Shouyou’s shirt and pulls him beneath his open mouth. For the way their teeth bump in that first movement, the gesture itself is tender and delicate; Shouyou feels his chin drop instinctively, parting his lips to lock the warmth of his mouth against Kageyama’s. It’s nice enough but Shouyou—jumpy, speedy Shouyou who could never stop his knees banging the underside of his school desk—needs less tenderness and more excitement, so he licks into Kageyama’s mouth. Fun, fun, kissing is fun and cool and awesome and he’s thrilled about it, even kissing stupid silly Kageyama-kun who makes a stupid silly cute noise when tongues are introduced. And who’s so tall, it’s annoying, he can’t quite figure out to negotiate the inside of Hinata’s mouth at the angle.
Hinata pulls away and there’s a nice sssllluch sound made by the tug of wet leaving wet. He throws his arms around Kageyama’s neck and tries to tug himself up.
“Pick me up!”
“What?” Hinata attempts to hook a leg over Kageyama’s hip.
“Yeah, I don’t like you kissing down like that, so pick me up.”
“And what, like, hold you?” Hinata nods vigorously and Kageyama makes a frustrated noise, glancing around the alley before he stoops and wraps his hands around Hinata’s thighs, too slow and careful, and then lifts him, Hinata clinging to his neck and locking his skinny little legs at Kageyama’s waist in an effort to help. Kageyama loses his balance with the new weight and stumbles forward, until Hinata feels his back thunk against the wall of the alley. Kageyama falls into him and their cheeks brush; it’s as though the air of sweet grudging affection is sucked out from between them, replaced by vacuous intensity. This kiss is deeper and hard, Kageyama’s initial awkwardness giving way to serious enthusiasm (the only kind of enthusiasm he knows) as he swipes his tongue into Hinata’s mouth.
“Asahi-san, stop running away!”
Their foreheads knock together and Hinata slips a little in Kageyama’s grasp—they both stare down at the end of the alley, where the street and sidewalk are visible; the figure of that muscular guy with the long hair skitters by, not noticing them, and then Hinata sees Noya-san’s red tee shirt and characteristically tall hair. Noya pauses and they catch his eye—Kageyama swears under his breath and hides his face in Hinata’s neck, embarrassed—Noya flashes a knowing grin, but his eyes are too wild for Hinata to really smile back.
“Shouyou! Way to go!” he cries, before his gaze trails off in the direction of the long hair guy, and he breaks into a jog. Though the two of them are disappeared, their voices echo in the quiet street.
“I just want to talk, c’mon, Asahi.”
“I can’t right now, I’m going home!”
“Talk to me!”
Kageyama pulls his face back up, so they’re nose-to-nose. They exhale in tandem. It’s chilly, Hinata suddenly realizes—there are goosebumps on his bare arms.
“Moodkiller,” Kageyama grunts.
“Hey! Don’t speak ill of Noya-san!”
“Whatever, he interrupted us.”
Hinata whacks him on the shoulder. “Then kiss me again, stupid.”
“Asahi, I swear, you gotta talk to me—stop with those big strides!”
“This is just how I walk,” cries Asahi; he keeps barreling down the sidewalk like the big steamroller of a man he is, except somehow his pronounced slouch doesn’t made him seem quite as large as he could be.
Noya has chased him almost to the end of the block—struggling to keep up, feeling lightheaded from the combination of booze and exercise. “Asahi,” he wheezes, “Asachan—”
Asahi stops short, turning so fast Noya nearly runs into him. “Don’t call me that, please, that’s—that’s too familiar.” He’s clinging to the strap of his bag, holding it forward like a shield. His brows are knit together and a few strands of long brown hair dangle into his face.
Noya’s hands drop to his knees as he catches his breath. “Ah, good, we’re gonna talk.”
“No,” says Asahi quickly, turning away again, but Noya leaps to catch his arm.
“What do you even want to talk about, Noya?” he snaps, and shakes off the grasp with such violence that Noya actually takes a step back. He can feel how huge his own eyes have gone. “Do you have something you want to say to me? Is there some conversation we need to have? What would be the point of that?”
“You’re upset with me!” he says, determined: all will out and he’ll recover, he can feel it. He hasn’t lost Asahi yet.
“I’m upset with me,” Asahi replies, voice rising. “I’m upset with—I mean, clearly you’ve always known what I was going to be to you, which is—”
“What, because I didn’t tell you which fucking coffee shop I work at?”
“I’m not an idiot, Noya,” he roars. Noya has never heard him like that, seen him like this. Precious Asahi, the gentle giant, screaming at him in the street. “It’s not that you didn’t tell me, you lied, you went out of your way to… so many times you could have said.” And Noya can feel the non-existence of those missed opportunities nipping at his memory. Asahi rocks back on his heels, eyes screwed shut. “And you didn’t all that because you knew you weren’t going to… you never expected us to last, did you?” Asahi heaves a giant breath, and Noya stands staring up at him in affected silence. Asahi almost meets his gaze but quickly looks away.
“I didn’t want you to feel like a traitor,” Noya explains, with unusual quiet to counter Asahi’s unusual anger.
His voice cracks. “So instead you made me feel like just another person you—that you fucked?”
That one slams right into Noya’s chest and his first reaction is to rip the arrow out and hurl it back where it came from. “Oh, don’t fucking tell me that after all that stuff about how Nekoma’s changed your life and you owe fucking Dai-san everything—”
“Don’t talk about Daichi like that,” says Asahi, stepping toward him.
Noya draws up every inch of height he’s got to return the glare. “What, the guy who put me out of a job? You wanna defend the guy who fucked over the guy you’re fucking?”
“I didn’t know—”
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have found some stupid way to make it all your fault, Asahi,” he spits, “You’d twist it until it looked just how you wanted to see it—that’s what you do!”
The knit in Asahi’s brow has melted away. His expression is open and clean and vulnerable. “Did I do that with us?”
The question catches Noya off-guard, he doesn’t understand what Asahi means right away, and the two seconds he stands there gaping are the two seconds when the last threads of composure snap.
Asahi starts to cry. He looks smaller when he cries, sapped of his core strength. “No,” Noya manages, finally comprehending, but it’s too late. Asahi is sweeping away, wiping his face on the back of his sleeve, toward the metro entrance. Noya chases him. “No, you didn’t—oh, fuck, Asahi, I’m sorry—I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know why I lied, I’m sorry—”
“So you lied for no reason. Great.” They are pounding down the stairs into the station, Noya feeling like a bothersome bird flitting around Asahi’s head. There are some strangers passing by, looking at them, but he doesn’t give a single fuck.
“I like you, Asahi, I seriously like you!”
Asahi lets out a sob, his hands shaking around his metro pass. “Can you not call me anymore?”
“Don’t say that, okay, maybe just—wait until you’re not so mad at me, and—”
“No, no,” Asahi swipes through the turnstile, his face totally wet now. People are really staring. “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t. I’m sorry, Noya.” He starts for the platform, where a train is arriving—Noya swears, his fucking metro pass is in his coat and his coat is back at Crow Street—he makes eye contact with a frowning attendant in the ticket booth, whose look says don’t even think about. Noya narrows his eyes, and checks on Asahi. About to board. Fuck.
He jumps the turnstile.
Instantly there’s a shout from the attendant and an alarm blares, but he doesn’t register the noise, he’s too busy sprinting after Asahi, who’s getting on the train.
Noya’s feet don’t carry him fast enough—he hates how short these legs are, sometimes, if he’d had three more inches he could’ve made it. But the train doors shut with Asahi on one side and Noya on the other; through the windows he can see Asahi turn his back, eyes on the floor, still crying. Noya pounds on the glass, screaming his name and—I’m sorry, Asahi, I’m really sorry, please give me another shot, Asahi—the train starts to roll away and he chases it, slamming his palms against the door until he can’t for fear of hurting himself, and even then he lets the chase go on a little too long. Then the train’s a bullet and it vanishes down a tunnel and he stands there with his heart thumping out of his chest. There are voices behind him, shouting, footsteps coming to take him away, but all he can hear is the break in Asahi’s voice, just another person that you fucked.
Back at Crow Street, things are awkward.
Tanaka paces the front of the shop, chewing his lip. He can’t hear Noya and Asahi screaming anymore, but they’ve probably just moved their argument. This concerns Tanaka, and Saeko isn’t answering his texts.
The guy with the messy black hair never left (he should’ve, in Tanaka’s humble opinion, being Nekoma scum and all that), but he’s hanging out with Bokuto. The two of them make an obvious effort not to seem like they’re enjoying themselves, because it would be out of place here right now, but the occasional high-pitched giggle from their hushed conversation tells a different story. Akaashi-san sits on Bokuto’s other side and occasionally shushes him, with a concerned glance toward Suga-san.
The freckled teacher kid is drunk. He’s drunk and sleeping on Tsukishima’s shoulder, to be more precise, mouth hanging open with a dribble of saliva down his chin. Tsukishima, weirdly, looks on with curiosity and—get this—fondness, and Tanaka sort of wants to tease him about it, but he’s a nice guy and he’s never seen Tsukki look at anybody like that. Feels like teasing might set them back, or something.
Yachi and Kiyoko and Suga sit together in profound silence, like they are in the waiting room of a hospital.
All in all, the party is very, very dead.
Fuck, man, thinks Tanaka. He glances out the darkened window one more time, hoping to see the shape of Noya returning, but no such luck. Their last night can’t end like this. It can’t.
“Okay, people,” he shouts, planting himself. They all look at him, dopey. “Let’s save this fucking party. Suga, help me move the boxes out of the middle of the room.”
“But where will we sit?” asks Suga weakly, standing anyway.
“We aren’t gonna sit!” Tanaka points at Bokuto, who has already perked up at the suggestion of a new activity. “We’re gonna dance!”
“Oh ho ho?” goes Kuroo.
Bokuto echoes happily, “Oh ho ho ho!”
Tanaka frowns at both of them but continues his rally: “This is our last night here, and Crow Street’s not going out with a whimper.” He nods resolutely at Suga, who looks like he might cry at any moment, but he is smiling. “So,” Tanaka tells the others, “Let’s make a friggin’ dance floor, okay!”
They go about clearing the center of the room and Tanaka selects the music, which means it’s the good stuff, songs that anybody can dance to. Hinata and Kageyama reappear from the back, both looking red-faced, though Kageyama’s embarrassment is obvious next to Hinata’s unabashed elation with whatever went on in the alley.
The timing is lucky because Hinata’s the first person to start dancing, and he pulls Kageyama along with him—teaching the tall, awkward boy a series of goofy contemporary dance moves, making him pronounce “dougie” over and over and laughing hysterically as he stumbles over the English slang.
Soon Hinata recruits Kiyoko and Yachi too, intending to teach them, Yachi remembering some of the dances from earlier and Kiyoko encouraging her with a smile. Bokuto sweeps Akaashi (who is skeptical) on to the floor, trying to take Kuroo with them, but he fails in his persuasion. Tsukishima nudges his friend awake, and explains that they can go, but Yamaguchi shakes his head, and pulls him by the wrist to dance. Which for Tsukki mainly entails swaying a few inches from side-to-side and snorting while Yamaguchi twirls and tries to sing along.
Suga is last to join, mostly because he’s standing off to the side with pursed lips, watching his friends have fun and trying not to cry because this is it, the last time they get to be together like this in this very special place. That’s how Tanaka finds him. For a minute he stands there and watches with him, and doesn’t say a word. Suga mouths thank you—probably because the music is loud and he can’t speak over it without bursting into tears.
Finally, because Suga is the most depressing person in the room, Tanaka claps him on the shoulder and manhandles him out on to the dance floor.
“Okay, we’re gonna sing!”
Suga shakes his head, he has started to dance weakly, smiling at the others.
“No—” Tanaka dashes to change the song. “You like the ‘80s, right?” he yells, over the thump of the current bass line. “Here, you’re gonna sing along with me, okay, Suga-san?”
Suga opens his arms as if to say, do I have a choice?, but when he hears the first notes of the song he throws his head back and shrieks with laughter. It’s the kind of music Tanaka doesn’t himself love but he knows Suga’s tastes are charmingly dated, and indeed as the song bops along it appears he knows every word.
If you be my bodyguard,
I can be your long-lost pal!
Kuroo watches all of this go down, but he’s not a dancer, and Kenma hasn’t responded to the vaguely suggestive text he sent after a couple of shots, which sunk his desire to move or exist. He keeps flipping his phone over in his hands, watching Bokuto press eager kisses to Keiji’s cheek and wondering who will discover his rotting body in his apartment sixty or so years from now.
Sugawara looks like he’s having fun. This tickles Kuroo—Daichi’s got no idea Kuroo is hanging out with the love of his life, and the love of Daichi’s life has no idea he’s just that. Smirking, Kuroo swipes his phone, opening the camera.
Tsukki will have to help him home, he realizes, as he watches Yamaguchi throwing up into a trashcan on the sidewalk.
Yamaguchi coughs and spits, and straightens up unsteadily. He looks green.
“You okay?” Tadashi stares at him sadly. “Stupid question, I guess.”
Behind him there’s the sound of his coworkers, now officially just acquaintances, emptying the store. He was sort of hoping to make it more than a hundred feet from Crow Street before Yamaguchi barfed, but apparently, wishful thinking.
“YO,” shouts Tanaka, and Tsukki glances over his shoulder to see his former boss on the phone, rubbing his bald head excitedly, “NOYA’S IN JAIL. Ah, shit!” Quite a commotion erupts among the remaining members of the Crow Street party at this announcement, and Tsukki quickly ushers Yama along, pretending not to hear. He wants that part to be over, and whatever Nishinoya did is probably deserving of jail time.
They make their way down the sidewalk, Tsukki’s arm around Tadashi’s shoulders. “Tsukki,” Tadashi whines, his complaint unspecific.
“You can sleep at my place tonight.” Tsukki’s apartment is a short walk from his one-time place of work—this was why he had taken the job in the first place.
Yamaguchi gasps, as though this were an astonishing offer. He progressively relaxes into Tsukki, which leaves the taller man supporting his weight. They don’t move so fast after this development, but Tsukki thinks they’ve outrun the potential attention of Sugawara or Tanaka, and he’s content enough to mosey along.
“Tsukki,” whines Yamaguchi again.
“What is it?”
“Damn, you’re drunk.”
“I don’t drink,” Yamaguchi says, as emphatically as one can with a slur. “I was only drinking so I wouldn’t be so nervous.”
“Nervous? About what?” snorts Tsukki. They pass a middle-aged woman who glares disapprovingly at Yamaguchi’s intoxication.
“I wanted to ask you to get tacos with me.”
Tsukki frowns. Sometimes when he frowns, it precedes a smile—an actual, rarified smile, not a smirk—this is one of those times. “Sure. Let’s get tacos tomorrow. Could be good hung-over food.”
“No, Tsukki,” cries Yamaguchi suddenly, his weight going dead, forcing them to stop. He grabs the bottom of Tsukki’s shirt, using it to hold himself up, and he stares into Tsukki’s face with weird certain intensity. “Romantic tacos. Non-platonic tacos. Love tacos, Tsukki!”
Tsukishima Kei, smooth operator, almost drops his friend on to the sidewalk.
“Tsukki,” cries Yamaguchi, more emotionally injured than physically. “Tsukki, you dropped me!” Ah shit. Ah shit. Yamaguchi… was that a fucking confession? He—shit.
“Shit! Sorry.” He starts pulling Yamaguchi up, their arms and chests knocking awkwardly, and Tsukki more conscious of Yamaguchi’s nearness than he’s ever been. The light has gone out in his friend’s eyes and he needs to get them back to the apartment before he can’t do any walking at all. And anyway, Tsukki reminds himself, “You’re fucking drunk, Yamaguchi, shit.” He’s drunk. Drunk confessions don’t count, they’re meaningless. It could be a fucking joke, for all he knows. Yeah.
Yeah, it was probably a joke. Tsukki swallows hard at the way their skin sticks together as he hauls his friend along.
Later that night he can’t help pausing to watch Tadashi snoozing on his sofa, the pillow he hugs capturing the line of drool from his mouth, which is surprisingly endearing as bodily secretions go.
Daichi wakes up the next morning to a new video message on his phone. Forty seconds of Sugawara singing along enthusiastically to some Paul Simon song in the emptied interior of Crow Street Books. He spends the entire thing moaning into his hand, and then watches it a second time before sending Kuroo a string of angry texts. When he gets out of the shower, his so-called friend has replied with a single message.
(07:32)=＾● ⋏ ●＾=
I just want to quickly thank everyone who has commented on, or kudos'd, or just read the fic. I especially want to thank the people reaching out to me on twitter and tumblr... that's my favorite thing in the world, honestly. Y'ALL SHOULD DO IT. COME TALK TO ME.
Chapter 12: opening doors
Why am I updating so fast? Why don't I love myself? That said, this is it for at least a week. Finals, man. I expect the main story to wrap up in late May.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Noya better hope we made it here before Saeko,” Tanaka tells Suga, as they take the front steps of the police station two at a time.
Bad luck for Noya, they don’t beat Saeko; when they enter the lobby, she’s standing at the front desk filling out a form with a glare.
“He owes me for the bail, job or no,” she announces, not even looking up to acknowledge their arrival. “Hey, little brother. Hey, bossman.” Saeko slides the clipboard back to the receptionist. “Now, please bring back my short, loud friend.” The receptionist nods and waves over an officer, so the three of them sit down to wait for Noya’s release, Saeko across from Suga and her brother. The waiting area is fairly full, considering what time it is, and Suga has to sit next to a large coughing, sneezing man. He cringes and scoots closer to Tanaka, addressing Saeko to distract himself.
“What were the charges?”
Saeko snorts, chin on her fist. “Apparently he jumped a turnstile in the subway, but also extra helpings of resisting arrest and public intoxication.” Tanaka (Suga can’t train himself to call the man by his first name, even in the presence of his family member) groans and slides down in his seat.
Suga tries not to laugh, but the image of Noya flinging himself over a turnstile and then attempting to shake off a bunch of cops while also drunk is… well, you can imagine. “So he gets out on bail and there’s a court date?”
“Yeah. I considered not paying up so he would have to spend the night in jail, but I’m afraid he’d find some way to make it fun.” She rubs her hands together. “I left work early, which means missing out on the good tips. I want to yell at him.”
Tanaka leans across the aisle toward Saeko. “Say, did he get arrested with anybody else? Like a big guy with a bun?”
“Not that I know of.” Saeko’s eyes narrow. Tanaka throws Suga a concerned glance and Suga gets his meaning, but he can’t for the life of him divine what became of Asahi-san and how it might relate to Noya’s arrest. In fact, he sort of hopes it doesn’t relate to the arrest. “Wait,” says Saeko, her eyes widening. “Bun guy—wasn’t that the one he was sleeping with before?”
“Yeah,” sighs Tanaka. “He showed up at our closing night party and Noya still hadn’t told him where he worked, apparently.”
The look of anger melts from Saeko’s face in an instant, her jaw slack. The resemblance to Tanaka is seriously uncanny. “No!”
“He left as soon as he realized and Noya ran after him,” Suga explains, with a sigh of his own. “That’s the last we saw of him before he called from here.”
Saeko sits back, her gaze roaming the floor thoughtfully. She swipes her bangs off her forehead with fingertips—black polish in April. “So we’ve gotta be prepared for some dramatic emotional fallout too?”
“It seems that way.”
“Maybe I won’t yell at him, then,” Saeko grudges, scuffing her boot on the floor. The coughing man sneezes especially hard and Suga can feel some of it spray him. He could almost cry again.
The three of them stand together when they hear a guard’s voice approaching from the back of the station, and Noya emerges in handcuffs. He has on that inscrutable expression he sometimes gets when he’s thinking or observing, an expression that might be more readable if not for the distracting intensity of his large golden eyes. He watches the cuffs being removed, unflinching, and Suga can’t help thinking, oh, this is going to be terrible. Then he looks up and sees his friends and a huge smile breaks out over his face, one of those classic Noya grins that seems to give off its own light.
A puzzled gaze circles Noya’s friends as he bounds toward them.
“RYUU! Neesan! Koushi-kun!”
“Koushi-kun?” repeats Suga under his breath, squinting. Noya starts trying to hug all three of them at once.
“What the hell is going on?” whispers Tanaka urgently, but Noya’s loud posturing drowns out his voice, as the noisy ex-con relaxes his awkward embrace into a huddle.
“Thank you all for coming to rescue me!”
Suga prods him with an elbow. “What happened to you and Asahi?”
Noya’s voice doesn’t crack or soften or deflate a bit; it buoys on through the entire explanation. “He dumped me publicly and emphatically and I chased him into the metro and got arrested! But never fear, I’ve already figured out how to get him back.”
“Get him back?” echoes Suga, who meets Saeko’s concerned gaze across their huddle.
“Yep,” Noya beams, “My experience with incarceration gave me the clarity to see the situation for what it is.”
“You were in there for two hours,” Tanaka deadpans. Suga giggles despite himself.
“Two hours was all I needed!”
“Yuu,” says Saeko delicately, “Have you considered maybe it would be better to—”
Abrupt, Noya pulls out of the huddle. His grin has vanished, replaced with the intense look from earlier, and he stares at Saeko—who’s too surprised by the change to finish her question.
“This is the only option,” says Noya flatly. Tanaka stuffs his hands in his pockets, looking uncomfortable, and Suga sympathizes even though he manages to maintain a little smile.
Saeko eyes Noya. “Dunno, if he really dumped you ‘emphatically’—”
“No,” says Noya, even louder than usual, Suga wincing as the receptionist glances at them. “He only said I shouldn’t call him. He doesn’t understand how I feel, and I’ve found another way to show him.”
Saeko gestures at Tanaka with an urgent glare but he’s got nothing, and neither has Suga, even though normally he would say Noya coming out of two hours in lock-up with a plan screams train wreck. Yeah, normally he’d say that, but it feels as though there might be something different in this particular declaration—maybe it’s because Noya clearly notices the looks of doubt and concern bouncing between his friends, and chooses to cross his arms and stay silent rather than protest. Defensiveness is second nature to Nishinoya, but now he seems certain enough to keep his mouth shut. It’s uncanny.
He's silent, that is, until he brightens again and ends the conversation by starting for the door. “It’s two o’clock! How about a night cap?”
“We are now the only retailer of books in a five kilometer radius! That puts us in an extremely good spot for the future.” Oikawa slaps the latest financial report down on his desk, looking shiny-faced. “You’ve done well, Sawamura.”
Daichi nods and bows, trying not to think too hard about how weird it is he’s been called into a meeting with Oikawa, and Iwaizumi isn’t present.
Oikawa is toying with end of his tie, bobbing energetically in his imposing leather desk chair. “I think from now on we probably want to focus on community outreach. Maybe have some sponsored book clubs or something. We could put on a festival! So no one feels bitter about us running the family store out of town, you know.”
“That seems smart,” Daichi agrees, and then clears his throat. Hearing Oikawa’s ideas without Iwaizumi present as a buffer strikes him as wrong. He isn’t sure he’s equipped to filter Oikawa’s thoughts through his exuberant personality and produce a pragmatic strategy. That’s Iwa’s job. “I’m sorry, Oikawa-san—will Iwaizumi-san be joining us today?”
Oikawa doesn’t stop smiling, but his eyes flash strangely, and he tilts his head just a few degrees to the side, which raises the hair on Daichi’s neck. “Iwaizumi-san,” Oikawa says, his tinny voice wrapping uncomfortably around Iwa’s full name and honorific, “will not be joining us. He has left his position at Nekoma.”
Daichi bites his lip in order to keep from gaping. “Are you serious?”
“I’m utterly serious,” Oikawa snaps, but he hears his own slip in composure and addresses Daichi again with a smile. “On an unrelated note, the people at corporate—my bosses, you know—have asked that we conduct a seminar for our employees on appropriate workplace relationships.”
Somehow Daichi feels the worst thing he could possibly ask right now is ‘and what brought that about?’, so he simply nods.
“So schedule that, Sawamura, and keep brainstorming next steps for the branch.” His boss turns away with an air of finality. “That will be all, Sawamura-san.”
Daichi leaves Oikawa’s office feeling weird, and with that strange sense of heaviness on his shoulders he hasn’t been able to shake for the past few weeks—a sense of dissatisfaction that catches up with him whenever he’s not immediately occupied elsewhere. The good news is, pining over Sugawara has made him very productive. He’ll do any busy work if it means forgetting how damn lonely it is being in love with someone who hates you.
He encounters Kuroo at the bottom of the stairs. His friend is leaning on the wall, like he’d been waiting for Daichi to return.
“So how’s he holding up?” demands Kuroo, and his look is expectant—he knows, Daichi realizes.
“Are you talking about Iwaizumi leaving?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Daichi throws up his hands, frowning. “I outrank you, how is it that you know and I don’t?”
Kuroo shrugs. “You’ve got no ear for gossip.”
“I never thought I’d regret that,” Daichi grunts. The two of them start to cross the store, patrolling. “I always did feel like Oikawa might be harassing Iwaizumi, though.”
Kuroo stops, looks at him—trying to decide if he’s serious—and then bursts out laughing. “Harassment? That’s what you think happened?”
“All right, shut up,” mutters Daichi, managing to nod politely at a passing customer. “So what, did Iwaizumi leave for another job?”
“You are thick,” Kuroo informs him, making Daichi clench his jaw, even though he has Kuroo telling him this at least once a week. “Iwaizumi and Oikawa were fucking and the CEO found out.” Nekoma is a big enough company that Daichi has never actually met the CEO, only seen him in photographs: a gruff guy in his mid-40s with longish bleached hair. Made his fortune in tech or something. Now, with the way Kuroo phrases it, Daichi imagines him busting in on Iwa and Oikawa with their pants down. “It sounds like a lot of legal threatening went down, so Iwa got the boot.” Holy shit. Iwaizumi—stony-faced, perpetually annoyed Iwaizumi had been… Kuroo really has a point about him being thick, because he can’t even begin to imagine someone like Iwa risking his job on someone like Oikawa. Daichi had thought it was one-sided, for sure.
“I didn’t even know Iwaizumi liked men,” Daichi admits. He feels glossy, unfocused.
“Oh, are you having regrets?”
“Eh, I know how you like us sultry dark-haired types.”
“Shut up,” Daichi repeats, pulse quickening. Fucking Kuroo, laughing to himself. “We’ve got to do a seminar now on appropriate workplace relationships, which is relevant to your interests, just so you know.” Kuroo stops laughing.
“Deserved.” Daichi pauses to straighten a display. “It’s kind of bullshit that Iwaizumi left and Oikawa stayed, isn’t it?”
“What do you expect?” Kuroo flaps a hand dismissively. “Oikawa owns three Nekoma stores. Iwaizumi is a personal assistant.” Daichi nods, it does make sense. Weird to think of how impermanent anyone of their jobs could be—it’s a relief to remember that he can’t get fired for being in love with Sugawara. “So,” says Kuroo, like a fucking mind reader, “How was that video for you? Did you get off?” Daichi’s stomach drops.
Flushing angrily, he grabs Kuroo’s arm and drags him into an aisle, where they’re hidden from the eyes of their employees. “Okay, first of all, stop with the sex jokes.”
“I wasn’t kidding, I know you think about Sugawara—”
“You’re just doing this because you’re frustrated as hell.” The smirk slides from Kuroo’s face. The sight is satisfying to Daichi, who feels sober despite his embarrassment. “I get that. Go have a one-night stand and cool it while we’re working.” Kuroo’s mouth twists, annoyed, but after a moment he shrugs in concession. “Second,” Daichi continues, lowering his voice, “Help me with Sugawara.”
Kuroo’s grin returns with a vengeance. “Oh ho ho! Now you need me.”
“Don’t gloat. I know your secrets.”
“That you do. How’m I supposed to be helping, exactly?”
“Now that Crow Street’s gone, I… I have no idea how to get in touch with him.” No phone number, no address. Daichi doesn’t even know his favorite place to get lunch. “I need to see him.”
“Well.” Kuroo glances upward, considering. “I was over at Bokuto’s last night, and I did overhear Akaashi chatting with Sugawara on the phone.” Daichi shoves him, maybe a little too hard, but Kuroo looks thrilled to have excited him. “All right, all right! Here’s what I heard.”
Suga is dying.
“I’m dying,” he moans to the empty hum of his bedroom. He has been trying to lift himself from the bed for the better part of an hour, to no avail.
Last night during their phone call, Akaashi asked him what he had and his best response had been the plague, because it certainly does feel like this illness could wipe out a third of Europe’s population. He cannot remember the last time he breathed through his nose—it seems like a fond, distant memory of a state to which he can never return. Today his fever has broken, but that leaves him exhausted, having been ravaged by the high temperatures for a day and a half, since the morning after the party at Crow Street.
The apartment is littered with used tissues and cough drop wrappers, and he’s been living off crackers and canned soup for days, too weak to properly cook or go out and buy something. Akaashi had offered to bring him food but Suga worried about infecting him and declined—so he tottered on in misery.
Tea. He needs to get up and make tea and drink it. He takes a few deep breaths, then hoists himself to sit upright. The room spins. He groans. Another couple of minutes pass where he summons the motivation to complete the next step, standing up.
Then a very surprising, upsetting thing happens. The buzzer for the front door goes off. He has a visitor.
Suga makes a series of pathetic whale noises as he clamors to his feet and into the hall, and then to the intercom by the front door, where he weakly presses the talk button.
“Who is it?”
“Sugawara-san, it’s Sawamura Daichi—”
Suga gasps into the intercom. Oh no. No, no. “I’m sick,” he blurts. “Now is not—”
“No, I know you’re sick. I brought you some shoyu ramen and chocolates and uh, medicines.”
“I’m—I’ll get you sick if you come up here.” What is happening, Suga mouths at the cat, who has made a rare appearance to watch him panic.
There’s a pause on Sawamura’s end. “Just let me bring you the medicine. What am I going to do with a lot of cold medicine?”
Suga bounces in place, gently smacks his head against the wall, then whines into the microphone, “Okay, come on up.” He hits the buzzer to unlock the front door.
Which gives him about thirty seconds to clean up every stray tissue and cold cup of tea crowding the apartment. He fails spectacularly. When Sawamura knocks, he has the misfortune of glimpsing himself in the hallway mirror: dark circles under his eyes, the end of his nose worn red by constant wiping, his skin even paler than usual. He’s wearing his comfiest matching flannel pajama set, patterned with little chicks, which he would normally never admit to owning. At least Daichi won’t be attempting to kiss him. The one positive is clean hair—the steam from the shower has been good for his sinuses. And he thinks he probably smells like eucalyptus.
He throws open the front door. Sawamura wears his Nekoma button-down tucked into jeans. His toned forearms are bare and wrapped around a paper bag. He smiles at Suga, who already feels his face burning, and not from the fever this time.
“Come in,” he manages, hearing how stuffed and scratchy he sounds, and wanting desperately to return to bed.
“You weren’t kidding,” says Sawamura, referring to his voice. He glances down at Suga’s pajamas and Suga sees him biting back a grin. “I like your—”
“Don’t make fun of me!” Suga whines, but Sawamura just grins at him outright now.
“Not making fun. It’s cute.” It’s cute? Well, it is cute, but that doesn’t mean Sawamura gets to think it’s cute. “Which way is the kitchen?” asks his visitor, indicating the bag in his arms.
Suga trails Sawamura into the kitchen, hugging himself. Sawamura efficiently goes about storing the food he brought and setting out the medicine.
“How did you know I was sick?” Suga asks suspiciously, fishing through his pocket for a tissue.
“Ah, well, I asked Kuroo if he could help me get in touch with you.” Sawamura is going around asking how to get in touch with him? The thought is almost too much for his feeble mind to process. “I suppose I just… heard it through the grapevine. The truth is,” Sawamura says, turning to face him—which makes Suga realize he’s been inadvertently staring at the other man’s ass this entire time, “I wanted to apologize again for what happened a few weeks ago. It was totally out of line.” The look on Sawamura’s face is very serious and grave and all that, but Suga still giggles uncomfortably. He doesn’t want to think about that afternoon. It was not the peak of his emotional health.
So he jokes lightly instead, “You’re making up for it with chocolate and ramen, then?”
Sawamura nods, and coughs.
“Well,” Suga lifts his chin proudly, “I’m afraid you still put me out of business.” That’s right! Sick ‘em!
“You’re not wrong,” Daichi sighs.
“And I don’t want to hear any gloating about it. And you better not offer me a job.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
The eye contact they’re making becomes too much, and Suga has to look away.
“There’s one more thing I brought you,” Sawamura says, and Suga glances back to him. He’s pulling something small out of the paper bag—a thin hardcover book.
Suga accepts it carefully. The edges are fraying and the spine is creased. He opens it to read, in English, The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda.
“I know you like to read in English.”
“Eugenides. Middlesex,” Daichi says, like a recitation. “You were reading it the first day we met.” Apparently Sawamura has quite the memory, though Suga doesn’t know how he guessed an active interest in English translation from just one book, as true as it is. “It’s a first edition,” Daichi adds, maybe sounding awkward but Suga doesn’t even care because the book in his hands is so precious.
“Where on earth did you find a first edition English-translation Neruda compilation in Sendai, out of the blue?” A first edition English-translation Neruda compliation (mouthful) sounds oddly familiar to Suga—he thinks maybe he remembers his penpal mentioning one. They had discussed their interest in reading out of Japanese. Suga thumbs the pages gently, seeing his favorite titles, feeling himself start to smile. It’s a beautiful book, yellowed and delicate. Lots of character.
“It’s, uh, from my collection. My personal collection, I mean.”
Suga looks up at him, awestruck. He knew Sawamura liked Neruda, but it’s still… “This is very valuable!”
“Consider it a peace offering, then.”
Suga’s jaw drops. “Wait, you’re giving it to me? Oh, no,” he says, shaking his head and trying to slip the book back into Sawamura’s hands. “No, no, I can’t accept this.”
“But I owe you,” says Sawamura, grinning and laughing handsomely, so handsomely, argh. “At least borrow it! I can take it back whenever you’re finished. You should sit, by the way.” He starts gently guiding Suga (clutching the Neruda) for one of the stools at the kitchen island, and helps him into it. “You’re sick.”
“I am. I’m sick,” Suga remembers. He sounds like his head is full of cotton balls.
“You really are.” Sawamura gives him a sympathetic smile. Suga smiles back, unsteadily. Sawamura lights on the sink full of dirty dishes and announces, “I’ll take care of these.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about—”
“No. Let me.” He already has the sink on and is squirting washing liquid on to a sponge. With the arrangement of the sink on the island, he’s directly opposite Suga as he works, which gives Suga the sense that he’s watching a performance. “I owe you,” Sawamura continues. His voice softens, his eyes on the faucet. “I’ve been—I was not great to you. I know me saying it was just business isn’t any excuse, I know that doesn’t… change what you’ve been through.” He pauses with his hands around a sudsy teacup, and his gaze lifts to settle on Suga, who feels chilly all of a sudden. “But really, you’re the last person I would have wanted to hurt. And I’ve never been more sorry about—anything, honestly.”
“You don’t know me,” Suga points out hollowly. Sawamura’s mouth opens and he looks like he’s struggling with whatever it is he wants to say. Finally he winces.
“I’d like to get to know you.” What does that mean? Suga doesn’t know, and he’s starting to feel confused, and with his head stuffy the confusion quickly turns to annoyance.
“You’re sorry, but you don’t regret it, do you?” Sawamura averts his gaze again. He rinses off a dish.
“I guess I was stupidly hoping you could forgive me.”
“That was stupid,” snaps Suga. He sees Sawamura flinch and instantly feels bad. “And that was rude of me. I’m sorry.” He sets the Neruda down on the counter and pushes it away. “I’m sorry for being so rude all the time to you, I don’t intend it—like at the café, I was so mean—”
“I was rude then too,” says Daichi with a smile. “You don’t need to apologize. I’ve deserved everything you’ve said to me.” He rinses the last teacup, and shuts off the water. Suga doesn’t know how to reply, but he figures the way he’s staring at his hands with pursed lips signals his agreement. Sawamura may be cute and handsome and the kind of person who remembers what book Suga happened to be reading the first day they met, but he is also the person who put Suga out of business. Suga may have forgotten it long enough to let himself kiss back but he won’t forget it now.
“My head feels funny,” Suga says, to break the silence. “I should… take a nap, I think.”
Daichi quickly nods and takes a few steps back, taking the hint. “Right, yeah.”
Suga gets up, hugging the Neruda to his chest. “Thanks for the food and the medicine and the book and…” He’s definitely feeling sick, but he’s not sure it’s the flu. “And for whatever other reason you came here?” Oh, gosh. He starts stumbling toward the bedroom, and can sense Sawamura following him with concern, as though to prevent him from falling over.
“To be your friend,” says Daichi. Suga pauses and glances at him for half a second; the look that passes between them makes his head hurt. Sawamura nudges him along. “Wishful thinking, I suppose.”
“Mmmm,” Suga manages, eloquent. He flops into bed. Daichi disappears for a second and returns with the medicine he bought, setting it on the bedside table with a glass of water. He moves so fast when he is helping people.
“Say,” he says stiffly, as Suga pours a teaspoon of the blueish liquid and chokes it down. “Whatever happened to the guy you were meeting at the café that night? Did he show?”
Daichi is now sitting on the edge of his bed. That is sort of like having Daichi in his bed. Suga briefly buries his face in his pillow, mind still fuzzy. He pulls the pillow away just enough to speak. “He never did show, no. Does that make you happy?”
“No, it certainly does not make me happy. It seemed like you were crazy about him.”
Suga sits up. “I was. I am!”
“So you’re still talking? Did he explain?”
Suga’s eyes fall to the blankets, and he kneads his hands into them. Somehow he suspects Sawamura will find some hole in his penpal’s explanation, and he weirdly wants this man’s approval, so he simply replies, “Yes, and I was very satisfied with it.”
A tiny smile finds the corners of Daichi’s mouth. “Good. I’m happy to hear it worked out. He’s a lucky guy.” Daichi pats his knee through the covers and Suga thinks about kissing him, and feels himself pout a little. “You know what I think?”
“I’m not psychic.”
Daichi chuckles, and shakes his head. “I think you should meet him. Really meet him, this time. Or wait—are you done being feisty now that we’re not competing anymore?”
“Hey,” says Suga, suddenly indignant, “Who are you to—” He feels fingers on his lips. His eyes go huge: Daichi has leaned in, shushing Suga. His face is close, his gaze half-lidded.
“You’re about say something mean and rude, and I know you’ll just feel bad about it, so let me stop you.” He pulls his fingers away and Suga, blushing, immediately replaces them with his own so as not to feel the vacancy on his lips. His heart is racing, his—his eyelashes are tingling, he thinks, like his whole body hums. “I think we can be good to each other, Suga-san,” says Daichi, and he gives a crooked smile, like an old-time film star. “I think we should be good to each other. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s heard that somewhere before, it’s meant something to him. Suga has a thought—the world isn’t such a big place, maybe? Sawamura could be—no. No, of course not. “Do get better, Suga,” Daichi tells him, with another lingering rub to his knee before he stands.
“Thank you for sharing the Neruda with me,” he squeaks. Oh, is he losing his voice now, too?
Daichi bows. “You’re probably the only person who could really appreciate it. I’ll see you around, then.”
“Yes, I’ll be seeing you.”
“You too… take care.”
Daichi is standing in the door to the bedroom, and he laughs at the way the conversation has managed to prolong itself. There’s a pang in Suga’s chest, but a sweet kind of pang, of something other than guilt or sorrow.
“Sleep well, Suga-san,” says Daichi, and Suga listens for the sound of the front door closing behind him.
There is no response from the interior of Kuroo’s apartment. Gritting his teeth, Kenma kicks the front door closed behind him.
He knows this place well—well enough to carry Kuroo’s spare key, and march into his kitchen uninvited. He starts fiddling with the electric kettle, then gets out two mugs and a jar of instant coffee. He was out at his own place and too lazy to stop and get some on the way here, and Kuroo never runs out. He’ll have another at work, probably, but even the smell of the grounds is soothing in this moment.
“Oh my god, he didn’t say he had a boyfriend. Shit!”
Kenma looks up to see a skinny guy standing in Kuroo’s living room. He looks like he pulled his clothes on in the dark, the shirt half-unbuttoned, hair a mess. He also looks like he’s afraid Kenma might hit him, which is just sad.
“I’m not his boyfriend,” Kenma says flatly. This is not the first time he’s had to clarify. Much to his annoyance, the stranger—who is just the kind of nondescript bottom Kuroo would pick up at a bar—relaxes.
“Oh. Good,” he sighs, then makes a run for the door. Kenma sighs, mentally shoving away the experience. He hopes Kuroo will emerge from the bedroom fully clothed and not mention it and they’ll walk to work together like he planned.
Kuroo does emerge, but unfortunately, it’s wearing only boxers, and they are too small for him at that. Kenma’s annoyance builds: he doesn’t like having his friend’s laissez-faire attitude toward sexual relationships shoved in his face. It’s bad enough to get texts like the one he got a few nights ago. “Can you put some clothes on?” he demands, pouring hot water into their coffees.
“It’s my apartment,” Kuroo points out. He comes to lean on the counter near Kenma. “I like waking up to you here. It’s very domestic.” The way he’s standing juts his hips forward distractingly. Kenma stirs his coffee, spoon rattling the mug.
“Less domestic is watching your one-night stand leave in a hurry.”
“You saw him?” Kuroo seems interested in his reaction, so he doesn’t give one. “What’re you doing here?”
“I thought we were walking to work together.”
“Oh.” Kenma hands him the coffee. Kuroo’s eyes are narrowed. “I’m not working today.”
Kenma blinks. They’ve worked everyday together since Nekoma opened; it was Kuroo’s specific doing. “You changed the schedules?”
“I did, yeah,” he says, hiding his expression behind the coffee mug, “I don’t see why we need to keep working together all the time. It’s not as if we don’t see each other outside of the store.”
Kenma blinks again. His mug is warm in his hands. He’s angry but you can’t hear it in his voice. “Is this because I don’t want to sleep with you?”
Kuroo lowers the mug from his lips. Because he’s mostly naked, Kenma can see his chest shake. “Kenma.”
Kenma turns away from him, making to put the coffee things back in the cupboard. “I know you like to fuck your friends.” He speaks still in that level voice, as if unharmed, when really he feels that same weird sense of pain he last felt when Shouyou… he’s had it bad, lately. Everyone who wants him in any sense wants him in the wrong sense. “But I’m not like that.”
“I know you’re not,” says Kuroo quickly, straightening. “I, uh—I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this—” Kenma steps away from him.
“Well, I have to go to work now. Maybe some other time. Or not.” Kenma starts for the door. “I’m taking your mug.”
“Kenma!” Kuroo doesn’t try to chase him, just calls after him several times before he’s gone. “Kenma.” The last thing Kenma hears him say before the door slams shut is, “Jesus fucking—”
Kenma stops in a park on the walk to Nekoma and drinks his coffee too fast, then arrives at work ten minutes late with his hands shaking.
No, like, I really /am/ going to make Kenma happy.
Chapter 13: firsts
All ships except Iwaoi will get a resolution before the fic ends. And Iwaoi will get a very elegant turn in my sequel of one-shots, I promise.
I haven't had time to respond to comments lately but I appreciate them all, 100%, always. Thank you.
My turn: I think we should meet.
My dear friend,
I agree. But first, I’ve got a project I’m working on. Give me some time.
Azumane Asahi, maker of espresso, bagger of tasty if slightly overpriced muffins, shedder of tears in a bathroom stall on his break, victim of tough love (“You need to get over him!” Daichi cries, dragging him from the restroom, “that relationship was not height-appropriate and you know it!”), returns to his work with heavy steps.
He is notoriously awful with break-ups—so awful with break-ups that he has avoided dating in the past, because one way to ensure you never suffer through a messy break-up is to not date. But there’s no avoiding Nishinoya Yuu—you can’t avoid a tsunami as it’s crashing toward you, no matter how fast you run. The metaphor is so obvious it’s tattooed all up Noya’s arm.
So, devastated by the natural disaster, Asahi has… moved away from the ocean.
Unfortunately, the ocean sees fit to come to him.
He gets back to the coffee bar and appreciates that Ennoshita, who is working the register, turns away without mentioning the redness around his eyes. Ennoshita is good like that, Asahi didn’t have to say a word when he came in this Monday after the party—their gazes met and Ennoshita nodded and didn’t scold him, even after he took an extra five minutes for lunch and then spilled iced tea everywhere.
With the lunchtime rush over, the place is quiet; he makes a couple lattes in the span of twenty minutes, and then stares at the woefully empty tip jar sitting out by the sugar packets. His unsmiling week has affected the flow of tips, probably. When he doesn’t smile, he’s just scary, but the pressure to smile stresses him out, like a vicious circle of anxiety. The past few days have made this problem impossible to overcome. Thinking about that washes him with anxiety and grief anew, and he sighs and shuts his eyes, rubbing them briskly to ward off another spell of tears.
A familiar voice catches his ear: “A small cappuccino, please.” At first he’s pleased, soothed, because Nishinoya is here and he cares for Nishinoya. Nishinoya makes him happy.
And then he’s very much not pleased, and very much not soothed, because Nishinoya is here. He forgot for one blissful second that Noya doesn’t make him happy anymore.
Reluctantly, struggling to inhale, he opens his eyes.
The thing about Nishinoya is that he’s not handsome—he has never been handsome—Asahi has known handsome men, Nishinoya is not that.
No, Noya isn’t handsome: he’s good-looking. Beautiful. Asahi hasn’t seen him in days and he swallows hard as Noya’s magnetic gaze sweeps over the espresso machine to meet his own. A credit card dangles from his hand as he waits for Ennoshita to scribble his order on a cup.
Ennoshita moves to pass the cup to Asahi, pausing mid-motion when he catches his barista’s expression of absolute horror. He seems to intuit the conflict almost immediately, and steps into recovery mode, slipping the cup into Asahi’s hand.
Asahi croaks, “I don’t want—”
“Make the cappuccino,” says Ennoshita in a low voice.
“I’m not serving you,” Asahi tells Noya, who has been watching them interact with his arms across his chest.
“I just want a coffee,” he says with a shrug, “Can’t get one across the street anymore.”
Asahi’s voice comes out high and strained, his panic swelling. “Call security,” he pleads with his manager, but Ennoshita shakes his head.
“He’s not doing anything wrong, Azumane-san. Make the cappuccino.” Now Asahi can hear what he’s really saying, do this and it will be over. Noya’s head careens to the side, in the manner of a bird considering a worm. Asahi inhales. He’s started sweating. He nods, and steps over to the espresso machine.
Noya pays for his drink and catalogues every gesture of Asahi’s work. His expression is unreadable until he opens his mouth, frowning.
“Please don’t talk to me.”
Noya licks his lips. “I figured as much.”
Asahi can feel Ennoshita watching them from the register. Noya taps the counter rhythmically, then starts examining the tip jar. Asahi makes that fucking cappuccino as fast as he can manage. It only makes him sweat more to think that Noya can just come in here as he pleases—maybe he ought to petition Daichi to have him banned from the store. There will be no getting over Nishinoya if Nishinoya refuses to be gotten over.
He becomes so absorbed in plotting for this never to happen again, Asahi almost misses Noya pulling out his wallet. He removes three thousand yen—as much as they get in that tip jar in a day—and a slip of paper folded in half. Asahi snaps the lid on his drink and hastily hands it over, and Noya stuffs the money and the note in the tip jar before accepting. Asahi makes sure not to let their fingers touch; he’s done with Nishinoya’s fingers, he thinks. His emotionally withholding, shortish, boney fingers, on his small, clever, fearless hands. Yes, totally done.
Noya takes a sip of his drink and hums appreciatively and Asahi waits in premeditated frustration for his ex-something to violate the one request he made. They’ll argue, it’ll get out of hand, Asahi will start sobbing again, and Ennoshita will finally have an excuse to call security. But Noya doesn’t speak, not to him—he turns and leaves, telling Ennoshita to have a good day on the way out.
It’s lucky that, right as Nishinoya disappears, a team of elementary school volleyball players and their parents arrive for a post-victory celebration—Asahi gets so swept up making hot chocolates there’s no time for another bathroom stall weeping session. After the volleyballers are served business picks up for the rest of the day and his distress at seeing Noya fades into the background, a low hum of discomfort under his pressing concern about whether or not they have enough milk to get through the day.
Ennoshita stays even as things start dying down, though normally Asahi would close on his own. He can’t figure out why until he’s putting up the chairs, and Ennoshita pours the tip jar out on the counter.
“Keep his money, I don’t want it,” Asahi says quickly, remembering. He dives behind the counter to grab his bag so he won’t have to meet the boss’s eye.
“And what about…” Asahi straightens up and sees the white slip of paper Noya left with the money. A note. He feels that odd feeling of wanting more than anything to have a little affection from the person who hurt him, despite the pain. He could just take a quick peek… No. No, he’s better than that.
“Just throw it out.”
Ennoshita stares at him, then nods and sets the note aside while he finishes with the money. Asahi leaves that night feeling proud, and missing Noya’s laugh to the point of nausea.
The next day it happens in the midst of their morning rush, so that Asahi doesn’t even notice until he finishes a cappuccino and glances up and there is Nishinoya, taking it with a smile.
Noya, smiling, stuffs another bill and a slip of white paper into the tip jar. Disarming is the word, when he smiles like that. Asahi’s mouth hangs open; it stays open as Noya gives Ennoshita a nod and traipses out of the store. Asahi stares at the next customer in line like he’s owed an explanation, and Ennoshita has to say his name four times before he snaps out of it.
The same problem that night: this time it’s Narita who empties the tip jar while Ennoshita looks on, puzzling over what to do with today’s note; Asahi says he doesn’t want it, and ignores the urgent whispers Narita and the manager exchange as he leaves for the night.
Day three and this time he’s somewhat prepared—just a feeling he has when he gets in for his shift, that there must be a method to Nishinoya’s madness. He’s planned this thing, waiting for Asahi to bite. Once Asahi takes the bait he’ll be reeled back in.
On day three he doesn’t say a word, doesn’t look Noya in the eye, turns away before he can watch the money and the note placed in the jar. How much is Noya going to spend on tips and coffee when he hasn’t got a job, it’s irresponsible, he should be saving—but Asahi doesn’t worry about him like that anymore. He’s done caring, just finished, so finished he witnesses his ex-nothing come into his workplace almost everyday for the next three weeks and only cries in the bathroom twice.
“He said he wanted ‘some time’?” Daichi asks skeptically, before shoveling a bite of ramen into his mouth.
Suga pokes at his own food, thoughtful. “Yes. Some time. I don’t know what for.” The doubt in Daichi’s voice matches his own private uncertainty about his penpal’s response—it felt vague in a different way than their usual tiptoeing around personal information. Like his friend had something to hide beyond their pact of anonymity.
“Mmff,” Daichi manages around another truly astonishing intake of ramen. Suga squints at him, smiling.
“What is with you and shoyu ramen?”
Daichi stops for a moment, noodles hanging from his mouth, then hastily hurries along the bite. It takes him an embarrassing amount of time before he can get out, sounding scandalized, “Do you not like shoyu ramen?”
“I like it fine. Why, is that a dealbreaker?” Suga giggles, and Daichi ducks his head bashfully.
“Shoyu ramen is very important to me!”
“You sound about six years old right now.”
“Well, you sound…” Daichi squares his shoulders. “What if he’s married?”
Suga’s stomach drops. “Married? To a woman?”
“Maybe he’s in the closet! You’re his secret gay lover.”
No! No. “No, no. He wouldn’t lie about that.” He lifts his chin. Daichi grins, a sort of dark, knowing grin, but somehow still charming.
“If he’s the kind of guy who would write love letters to a stranger on the internet while he’s married, what makes you think he isn’t also the kind of guy who could make himself seem trustworthy?”
It takes Suga a moment to regain control of his jaw. “He wouldn’t. It’s not that.” He sounds more panicked than he would’ve liked. It really is impossible—not his penpal, he’s sure of it.
Sawamura waves his chopsticks at Suga. “I think you should check. Ask if he isn’t married.”
“I’m not doing that! I trust him.” Don’t overthink it, he self-instructs.
Daichi shrugs, pushing away his clean bowl with a satisfied sigh. “Suit yourself.”
They pay for their meals separately and go out into the street. “It’s funny to run into you—I didn’t know you lived around here, Sawamura-san.”
“And right at lunchtime, too,” says Daichi, beaming. “Serendipity, right?”
“It is, I suppose.” They linger on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, just looking at each other. It strikes Suga that he could waste many hours just looking at Sawamura—at the jagged fringe of his dark hair, the strength of his jawline, the way his clothes fit him a little too tightly and how he laughs with his entire body.
At the big, boyish smile on his face when he asks, “Do you want to run into me again? Maybe for coffee tomorrow morning?”
The words are in Suga’s mouth before he can reconsider them: “I’d like that very much.” Embarrassed by his own enthusiasm—and how ‘very much’ isn’t even an exaggeration, he really is dying to have another chat with Sawamura—Suga’s eyes drop to the concrete at their feet.
“All right!” Sawamura replies. It sounds as if Suga’s shyness has only fueled him. “Does ten o’clock sound good?”
“Haven’t you got work?”
“I’m trying to be less slavish to my work. I’ve started to remember, there are more important things in life than business.” The softness of his expression cows Suga, as does the intensity of his gaze, and the tone in his voice that’s almost… grateful. It makes Suga warm and fuzzy—he wants to wrap himself up in that look and those words and fall asleep happily.
Which is a strange, intimate thought to have about someone you swore you would never forgive.
“I’m finding that’s especially true when you don’t have a job,” he jokes half-heartedly. He’s winded by the end of the sentence. Sawamura does one of his full-bodied laughs as they start to part ways.
“Have a good afternoon, Suga-san.”
He walks backward like he isn’t ready to tear his eyes away, even though it’s time to go. “Don’t worry about what I said, with the guy being married. Even if he is, he’s probably only got one kid—it could be worse.” Suga chuckles in spite of himself. Sawamura gives him a wave, drawing out every last second of their encounter, and finally turns, striding down the sidewalk. The breadth of his shoulders stands out among the other pedestrians. Suga forgets why he left the apartment in the first place.
This may seem like a strange question, but I realized I never asked… are you married?
Are you kidding? It’s been almost a year, is that what you think of me? That I might be MARRIED! This is a joke, right…
Over their coffee the next morning, Daichi gasps. “So he didn’t answer the question!”
“He did too answer the question,” Suga retorts. “He’s not!”
“He totally didn’t answer the question.”
Suga pauses, running through the email in his head. Are you kidding… it’s been almost a year… is that what you—oh. He didn’t answer the question. “Regardless,” Suga says weakly. He believes it, he does, Sawamura is probably just jealous.
Not that Sawamura being jealous… makes any sort of sense… not… oh, what’s going on with Suga lately? Is he ever going to figure out how to be a person without Crow Street Books? He feels so utterly adrift.
“Ah, so if it’s not that,” says Daichi, “Then why is he avoiding the meeting? He’s ugly, maybe? Ashamed, afraid you won’t want him.” He doesn’t attempt to hide how much he’s enjoying this conversation.
“He knows I’m not shallow like that,” Suga declares. Even though he’s sort of shallow, and has been picturing the least attractive person he can imagine for weeks in grueling pseudo-preparation.
Daichi takes a sip, bright-eyed. “Good to hear. We can’t all look like you.” Almost immediately his eyes go to his drink, which leaves Suga out to drift with this comment. Has Sawamura just said… but he knew Sawamura finds him attractive, he’s known from the day they met and that kiss in the back of the store confirmed it—but this, such a frank statement, it makes Suga’s face warm. Letting go of his coffee, he pulls his hands into his lap self-consciously.
“Well, now he’s upset with me for doubting him.”
Daichi smiles. There’s a bit of foam on his upper lip, and he licks it off. “Something tells me he’ll forgive you.”
Suga walks Sawamura to the subway, where he’ll take the train to Nekoma. When they reach the entrance, the other man pauses. “So, I say we continue running into each other. What do you think?”
“Yes,” Suga almost squeals, and then flushes, making Sawamura laugh. I’m in love with someone, he reminds himself; funny how he had to remind himself of this when he first met Sawamura, too. They’ve come full circle.
“Good, okay.” Daichi starts to get what looks like a business card from his wallet, but he takes a look at it and seems to reconsider. “Give me your hand,” he declares, stuffing the wallet back in his pocket, and pulling out a pen.
“What?” asks Suga, instinctively putting his hands behind his back. Sawamura laughs again. A few weeks ago Suga would have felt humiliated by that, would’ve felt laughed at, but now—now something has changed. Inexplicably, improbably. He feels his cheeks dimple when he smiles and, inhaling, offers Daichi his palm.
“Oh, but it’s going to rub off there,” Daichi decides, and with an artist’s delicacy, he takes Suga’s wrist and slides up the cuff of his sleeve.
A film of sweat materializes on his skin; Suga hopes desperately that Sawamura can’t feel it, or that he won’t brush a pulse point and realize how fast his heart is beating. Sawamura writes the number on the inner edge of Suga’s forearm in tiny print, then blows on it gently to dry the ink. He’s close enough he could move an inch and be kissing the sensitive skin of the inner wrist. His breath is hot where his fingertips are rough and cool, and his lips—chapped lips, untended. The moment he lets go, Suga shivers and hugs his arm to his chest.
Daichi clicks the pen, tucking it into his shirt pocket with a contented nod at his handiwork; Suga swallows fast and hard. Fingers, breath, lips, mouth, tongue, warm, shivering, sex—wait, what?
Caught up in the dizzying strength of his own blush, it takes him a moment to realize Sawamura is speaking.
“…do hope I can see you again,” he says. His voice is so deep and… and Suga is in love with someone. Someone else.
“You can, of course,” Suga says, waving goodbye as Sawamura descends into the subway. On his walk home, Suga wonders if the number will ever wash off.
Daichi comes into work at noon with a shit-eating grin; between him and the tiny tattooed grinner with the big hair who keeps showing up for coffee, Kuroo feels his role as Nekoma’s Official Shit Eater might be in danger.
“What’s with you?” Kuroo asks, but Daichi strides by with a shrug.
“Having a good day!”
He disappears into the manager’s office. After all the conversations they’ve had in shared misery, Kuroo feels screwed over being left like this. Life’s been hard, lately. Yeah, really fucking hard.
“Hey, have you seen Kageyama-kun?”
Kuroo turns around to find, of all people, the orange shorty staring up at him.
“Kageyama.” The shorty strains to look around. “I’m meeting him.” He’s holding an enormous soft drink, which appears only more enormous in his tiny hands, and he slurps loudly from the straw.
Right. So Kageyama is with the shorty now. Makes sense. “He’s in the back getting his stuff, he’ll be out in a minute.”
“M’kay,” says the shorty, and he’s about to skip off, but Kuroo—Kuroo looks at him and thinks about Kageyama (a real idiot) and he figures, he reasons: if Kageyama can date this clueless shorty he got to know through shouting matches, why can’t Kuroo date Kenma, his best friend of fifteen years?
“Hey, you and Kageyama.”
The shorty steps back toward him, removing his mouth from the straw curiously. “Yeah?”
“You guys a thing now?”
The orange of his hair brings out the red in his cheeks. “We’re… we’re hanging out.”
Kuroo lowers his voice, because he doesn’t want anyone to overhear this conversation and realize he’s asking a kid for advice, if indirectly. He’s less concerned about the shorty realizing, for obvious reasons (idiots date idiots). “How’d you do that?”
“How do we hang out?” squeaks the shorty, getting redder. “Um, it—it’s nothing bad—”
“No, not—” Kuroo makes a frustrated noise. “You two used to scream at each other and now… I mean maybe there’s still screaming—ah, wait, you’re about eight years old, aren’t you?”
“Fuck, I’m glad Daichi didn’t hear that joke—anyway, I’m asking how you got to be together. With Kageyama.”
“Oh,” says the shorty softly. A tiny smile finds his mouth; absently, he wipes some condensation from the drink on his shorts. “I guess… we just told each other what we were actually feeling. And uh, also there was kissing,” he adds, as though this might be helpful.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” sighs Kuroo. Told each other what they were actually feeling—it sounds idiotically simple. Maybe idiotically brilliant?
“Shouyou,” comes Kageyama’s voice, with a hint of concern, probably at seeing his ‘hang out buddy’ talking to his boss. They leave together, their hands bumping awkwardly before Kageyama puts a stop to it and grabs the shorty’s. Kuroo slaps a hand to his cheek.
They’d done it.
Those bumbling, noisy, virginal little gays out-romanced Kuroo Tetsurou.
He stands there rubbing his face and gritting his teeth and generally bemoaning whichever genetic domino denied him the love gene. Or the gene that goes with the love gene, that makes it possible to express what the love gene feels.
We just told each other what we were actually feeling. He knows what he feels and never once in his life has he hesitated to tell Kenma anything—so why should this be any different?
Because he knows what he feels. And because never once in his life has he hesitated to tell Kenma anything. Because he could get his heart smashed to pieces, and in the process lose the most precious relationship he’s ever had.
Kenma never gives more than he wants to give, and Kuroo loves this about him. And hates it, and fears it. But supposing he wanted to give—supposing beneath his misinterpretation of Kuroo’s motives, he feels the same. The thought fills Kuroo with a want distant from any sexual need, a pitiful desire he can’t even put his finger on because it’s so new to him. He won’t be able to stand this much longer.
He takes a couple deep breaths, and then wanders off. Maybe he’ll do some work, or something. It feels like a day for firsts.
Funnily enough, after three weeks of cappuccinos and little slips of paper, Noya becomes just another regular.
He learns Ennoshita and Narita’s names and greets them brightly each morning—he only ever nods at Asahi, never speaks. Gets his cappuccino, puts his note in the jar, moves on in cheered silence. Asahi doesn’t flinch when he sees him, just sighs and nods back. His coworkers stop asking if he wants to keep the notes, and he forgets they don’t vanish on their own.
Then he’s eating a croissant on break one day and Ennoshita appears, standing over his table. “Listen,” he says, holding up what looks like a weird little flip book, “It’s getting to the point where there are too many for me to pretend like I’m not saving them.” Not a flip book, Asahi realizes, going stiff.
“No, Ennoshita-san, I don’t—”
“All right,” says Ennoshita, with an unusual edge to his voice, “But if you want them thrown out or burned, you do it.” He drops the stack on the table in front of Asahi, next to his croissant. “I only read the first few before they got… it’s only that he clearly put a lot of time and effort into them and I don’t feel comfortable getting rid of them for you. Sorry, Azumane-san.”
The note on the top of the stack—bound together by a thick binder clip—is still folded, so the words aren’t visible, and Asahi has no idea what to make of ‘a lot of time and effort.’ He had just assumed each one said some variation on please, Asachan, don’t be mad. Maybe some come-ons. He’d assumed Noya wanted things back to the noncommittal way they’d been—that he wanted sex, and fun, and nothing else, because that was what he’d always wanted. And maybe that’s exactly how it is, but the mystery of the notes shakes his confidence.
“I’m sorry, Ennoshita-san.” He ducks his head in humility. “You’re right. I didn’t mean to put you out like that.”
Ennoshita waves off the apology. “I do get it. If I knew you better, maybe I’d be willing to do the dirty work for you, but I’m your boss. By the way,” he adds, quieter, less scolding, “If you did decide to read them, the most recent ones are on the top.” His manager heads back to work, wiping his hands on his red Nekoma apron.
Asahi nods once. Alone again, he wraps the notes in a napkin so he doesn’t have to look at them, and then slips them into his bag at the end of the break.
Noya shows up for his daily cappuccino a couple of hours later. They haven’t had a real exchange since his first visit, weeks earlier, but Asahi’s tongue feels restless in his mouth, ready to speak. He’s passed a chunk of his day contemplating what the notes say and Noya is at the front of his mind—Noya who he could swear has dark circles under his eyes today. It dawns on Asahi that these circles have been there for a while now, and he’s been so determined not to give Nishinoya a scrap of attention, he didn’t notice. After all, a person doesn’t need to look at Noya to register his presence; the flash of a bleached tuft in one’s periphery is all it takes.
“Ah—Asahi-san, my coffee?”
Asahi blinks. In the rapture of properly seeing Noya again, he has forgotten to hand him his drink. He transfers the cappuccino to Noya’s outstretched hand. Noya nods and smiles like always, and he probably would’ve walked away if Asahi had been able to hold that restless tongue another second.
“The notes aren’t begging.”
Noya pauses. He does the bird-worm look: head careening to the side, expression clean and observant. “I guess not.”
“They aren’t just more apologies—not just ‘sorry’ over and over?”
Noya’s lips twitch. “You haven’t read a single one?” He immediately smiles, but Asahi catches the hurt in his voice. “Not apologies.”
“An apology wouldn’t be good enough,” says Noya more loudly. He’s right, no amount of sorry would do the trick, so what’s his alternative? “I’m trying to show you something.”
“Show me?” Show him… are there pictures? He can’t understand this—usually Nishinoya is so upfront about everything.
Noya straightens his shoulders. “Yeah. That’s right. If you wanna know what’s in the notes, Asahi-san, you can read them.”
Right. Of course. Noya’s not going to explain this, he wants his scheme to work, he wants his notes read and he wants Asahi to fall for whatever trap he’s laid. But Asahi won’t—he’ll resist the temptation, because Nishinoya has no hold over him, and not even the tiniest part of him wants to know what this man would do to get him back.
About three hours later he is prying the binder clip off the notes at his living room table.
He promises himself right before he unfolds the first one that he won’t cry. Nishinoya’s handwriting is small and angular, much like the man himself.
When I was fifteen I told my eight-year-old sister to go to hell.
Asahi stares at the note. He reads it again—maybe he missed a word?
When I was fifteen I told my eight-year-old sister to go to hell.
No, that’s definitely what it says. No apology, no poetry, no begging. Baffled, he checks the next one.
I hate being short.
The… what? His confusion starts to bleed into frustration as he filters through more of them, in order:
I’ve NEVER VOTED!!!
I like getting roughed up.
I’ve blown a guy for drugs. Two times. Same guy, different drug.
Also scared of bumblebees. Not as innocent as they look!!!!!
I’m REALLY FUCKING CLAUSTROPHOBIC!!
He remembers what Ennoshita said, they’re in order from newest to oldest, so then—he quickly shuffles to the bottom of the pile, and finds the first and longest note.
I’m sorry I lied to you.
I wanted to tell you a truth for every lie I ever told, but I don’t know how many lies it was to keep one secret.
So here’s a secret a day until you know everything there is to know about me. Maybe then we can be even?
I’ve never admitted any of this before. Don’t rat me out.
Asahi’s hands tremble so violently he gives himself a paper cut, and sucks the inside of his thumb, wincing. He tries to measure his breathing, setting aside the note and staring at the secrets scattered over his table. Imagining Noya running from a bumblebee and letting out a laugh that turns into a shaky sob. He can almost see this man sitting across from him, scratching out the most private corners of his life to stuff into a tip jar, praying they’ll get read. Is it as moving as it feels? And what does it even mean, for the two of them?
Asahi thinks he might keep it together, if barely, and then his eyes come to rest on the scrap of paper that once sat on top of Noya’s explanation. The second note he wrote. And the tears come, unrelenting.
I love you.
I’m sorry I asked—I didn’t mean to offend you. I do trust you. Forgive the moment of doubt.
Hey, you’ll like this…today I watched a friend of mine go into the metro, and I figured it out. The butterfly in the subway, what it means. It’s when you find something beautiful in a place you never thought to look. It’s frail and rare and glorious! And fleeting, if you don’t stop to remember it, to kind of seize the moment. Can you imagine that? The tentatively wonderful. The marvelous unexpected.
All my love, and as always, thinking of only you,
Chapter 14: i do not love you except because i love you
1. This is the last chapter of the main fic! Chapter 15 was always going to be an epilogue, and I've decided to just weave all that epilogue into the sequel.
2. The sequel is off, as of the moment. I just don't have time for it, I'm sorry.
3. This chapter is super fucking long! I hope you enjoy the conclusion of my little story.
This was my first real HQ fic and I appreciate your reading. I hope you will recommend it to your friends if you liked it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tsukishima Kei has made his decision. Today is the day.
It’s been weeks since Yamaguchi Tadashi woke up on his couch and moaned, “Oh, God, I’m so sorry—did I say anything stupid?” And it’s been weeks since Tsukki replied simply, “No, you were fine.” No love tacos—no confession at all. And Tsukki had thought, great, cool, I’ll ignore this; we’ll go back to being friends.
Which was a great plan, except that it didn’t work.
Tsukki has been finding that you can’t unsee love tacos. Once you go love taco, you never go back, and other shit like that. He’s started to notice things, like the way Tadashi lights up when he sees Tsukki arrive, and the painstaking attention he pays to any statement Tsukki makes. Tsukki has also started to notice things about Yamaguchi, which had always sort of occurred to him, on some basic visual level: freckles, the dramatic scrunch of his nose when dealing with an especially frustrating problem, his tendency to knock things over when he gets too excited. He eats meals one food at a time; once he got a splinter from a cheap chopstick and spent ten minutes sucking on his finger and whimpering about it, which was really… uh, well. You can’t unsee love tacos.
That’s why today is the day.
He does a few errands first, drops off his résumé at a couple of shops near his apartment, including (grudgingly) Nekoma Books. It’s not like he’s actually got any loyalty to Crow Street—of course not—but losing one’s job is annoying and so Nekoma annoys him. But it’s the same distance from Tadashi’s school as Crow Street was, which works well today. He leaves the store and walks three minutes to the elementary school; there are kids hollering in the yard.
He’s been here a couple of times before to see Yamaguchi, so the security guard just points him in the direction of the teachers’ offices.
The room is empty, but it’s nearly lunchtime, so Tsukki makes himself comfortable at Yama’s desk and slips on his headphones, ready to wait. Only the bell rings a second later, the sound overwhelming his music, and he slips his MP3 player away again as a din of children’s voices floods the hallway outside. Soon there are teachers returning to their desks. Some nod at him, others don’t, he ignores them all.
When Yamaguchi finally arrives—Tsukki feels he has aged several years—he’s holding a water gun and has a giant smear of red paint down the front of his shirt, and doesn’t even say hello.
“I cannot believe that kid,” he spits, slamming the water gun on the desk in front of Tsukki. “He squirted me with this during math. Just out of nowhere! I was trying to teach multiplication tables!”
“Where’d he get it?” asks Tsukki. He picks up the gun, made of transparent green plastic.
“No idea. And then, as you can see,” Yamaguchi indicates his ruined shirt, “art class happened.”
“This kid sounds like a nightmare.”
“He is! A nightmare.” Sighing heavily, he leans against the desk. “I need to run home and get a new shirt or they won’t learn anything this afternoon, they’ll just be—giggling at me.” Tsukki nods. “Do you want to come? I can make us lunch.”
“My place is closer. I’ll lend you a shirt.”
Yamaguchi agrees to this plan happily, and they leave together, walking the short distance to Tsukki’s. He makes noodles while his friend changes, emerging in one of the nice dress shirts Tsukki has never really worn, given that you had to bum around in a t-shirt if you wanted to work in the Crow Street café. “Keep it,” Tsukki tells him, and they watch television while they eat, mostly talking over the program. He gets a full laundry list of water gun boy’s evil deeds, including the possibility that this demon child murdered the class hamster, an accusation demanding the lengthy explanation of Yamaguchi’s suspicions. After a while the conversation turns to Tsukki’s job search. They take their dishes to the sink, shut off the television, leave the apartment and head back to school.
Tsukki walks him up to the teachers’ offices and says a quick goodbye, since the bell is about to ring.
He’s halfway down the stairs when he remembers, and turns around, taking the stairs two at a time.
When Tsukki returns, his friend, his only one, stands over his desk, green water gun in hand. “Yamaguchi.” Tadashi looks up, frowns.
“Did you forget something?”
“Yes. Why I came to the school this afternoon.” He’s out of breath from the stairs, and has to inhale before he can continue. “I was going to ask—do you want to go out on a date with me?” He’d almost forgotten they weren’t already dating.
Making a noise that’s half-gasp half-shriek, Yamaguchi shoots him square in the chest with the water gun. Tsukki looks down, where the liquid has darkened a huge wet spot on his shirt, and then back up at Yamaguchi.
“Is that a no?”
“Sorry, Tsukki!” he squeals, and starts grabbing tissues to wipe at the wet spot. “Oh, no, I’m really sorry.”
“No, it—you asked me out and I shot you, so it’s really not fine.”
Tsukki gets an unusual feeling around his mouth—a smile, he realizes. “It’s fine if you say yes.”
Yamaguchi’s hands pause, clamped around the damp tissues. In the midst of a crouch, he peeks up at Tsukki. “Of course yes,” he says, just as the bell rings.
It is strangely difficult to speak, but he manages to get out, “Cool.” Which sounds dumb and he feels kind of dumb, watching the beaming Yamaguchi straighten up. He’s embarrassed. First he’s smiling, now he’s… blushing. “I have to go change my shirt,” he blurts, and Yamaguchi takes one look at his face before bursting into laughter. Tsukki escapes, leaving his friend to work, but the sound of delighted laughter stays with him for the rest of the day.
Another day, another spectacularly failed job interview.
And Noya had managed to keep his tie on the entire time for this one, but no, it wasn’t meant to be, none of them were—either he’d answer some question too frankly (why did he want this job? Because he’s “fucking poor, that’s why”) or delve into an eager interrogation of the interviewer (did they have a significant other, and if so, how had they wooed said significant other? Had they ever been married, or permanently long-term, and how had that even happened? Did they have any tips?) or let it slip that he thought the offices seemed “soul-sucking” and found the other employees “depressing.” How is it that so many truly ordinary, boring people all across Japan go to jobs like this everyday, and he (an extraordinary, opposite-of-boring person) can’t even get himself hired?
This particular interview had been at a marketing company, and he’s unbuttoning the collar of his stupid shirt the second he’s out of the building. They had told him there were no more available openings at that time and he had told them to go fuck themselves, and so his exit is a speedy one.
He stops on the sidewalk to roll up his sleeves, and is reunited with the intricate glory of his tattoo. It’s a bummer to think that soon he might have to cover it up everyday. People are so strange, the way they make up rules like no tattoos in the office and use your inside voice and don’t jump on shit. Like it’s hurting somebody and not just making life more interesting.
He’s starting to forget why he even wanted one of these terrible bland jobs in the first place, except that the thought of working in another coffee shop makes him nauseous. Working in a coffee shop sort of ruined his life—personal, professional. He’s developing an aversion.
Thinking of coffee shops, he spies his watch, and curses under his breath—it’s Thursday and Asahi finishes at five on Thursdays, which means he needs to make it to Nekoma in half an hour to leave the day’s note.
He writes it in the subway, rattling toward the bookstore, having to pause with the gyrations of the train or else decimate his handwriting. He shields the note from the woman sitting opposite him—she has prying eyes.
I quit smoking five years ago but I still think about it all the time.
Even writing this makes his fingers itch for a cigarette. Lately, he’s been feeling something that’s like sadness and like stress—but he doesn’t get sad, not him, never. Not within his emotional vocabulary. But this thing that’s like sadness… he buys a carton of cigarettes and sits on the front stoop of his building, just holding one between his fingers for a few minutes. Sometimes he sucks on it, unlit, then throws it away and gives the rest of them to a homeless guy he’s befriended. But he’s not like, depressed or anything, because that would be weird. Noya folds the note and sticks it in the front pocket of his shirt.
A few minutes later he’s entering Nekoma—miraculously, even after weeks of doing this, he still feels that strange flutter in his stomach when he turns into the café and sees Asahi behind the counter. It’s ten minutes to five, just in time to be his last customer of the day. He spots Noya coming in and ducks his head right away, typical. Noya has learned to steel himself; it’s okay that he doesn’t want to see me. I can make him understand. I can make him understand. Over and over. He’s unsinkable.
Oddly enough, Asahi seems to be the only one working. None of the other employees with whom he’s become acquainted are lurking behind the counter. That might make him nervous, not having a buffer, if he weren’t immune to nerves. Instead he bounces right up to the register and gives the same order he always gives, “A small cappuccino, please!”
Asahi’s face is redder than usual, and he almost knocks over a stack of cups trying to remove one from the top. Having successfully freed it, he writes in permanent marker on the side, hands shaking. It’s a routine Noya has witnessed and performed thousands of times, but somehow watching a flustered Asahi stumble through the rite gives the whole dance a lovable fresh spin. It’s cute. He’s cute, and also giant and handsome and hot. Noya finds himself grinning painfully.
Asahi makes the cappuccino in a series of familiar motions; Noya stands with his arms on the counter watching like he always does, trying not to admire Asahi too openly, instead focusing on the careful contours of his hands as he works. Nice hands, he has some pretty good memories of them, and the thing that’s like sadness nips at him.
Asahi finishes up the drink and Noya pulls the note from his pocket, to tuck it into the tip jar—Ennoshita demanded he stop leaving cash after the second week.
And he’s about to stuff it in when Asahi’s hand appears over the opening, blocking him.
He looks up. Asahi stares at him, pink, preventing him from doing what he’s done everyday for weeks.
This is it, thinks Noya. He may never see Asahi again and he makes a quick careful study of his face—smoothness of the brown cheeks clouded with stubble, the downward sweep of the nose. Noya has mentally rehearsed being kicked out a dozen times, and he knows he wants the last image of his first love to be a vivid one.
In a weird twist, Asahi doesn’t move his hand, but he does hand Noya the cappuccino. Which he doesn’t accept, not at first.
“You don’t want the note?” he asks. Asahi just thrusts the coffee at him, his hand shaking hard enough that some liquid splashes past the lid.
“Please take it.”
Swallowing the scream of agony that wants to tear from his lungs—a scream for Asahi, for the two of them, a scream at himself for fucking up the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him—Noya slides the note back into his pocket. He takes the cappuccino, and then he sees it.
What Asahi wrote. It’s not SWC—small whole cappuccino. It’s not an order, it has no lingo at all.
It says, I miss you.
He lifts his chin to look at Asahi over the counter between them. The big guy sucks in deep breath after deep breath, his shoulders trembling and his eyes round, afraid. It’s incredible how he can look like he’d easily throw you a hundred meters but also vulnerable to a point where you feel it is your one dearest responsibility to protect him from the world, from any sort of harm—but that’s Asahi. He’s special, and the dopey way his mouth falls open is the most attractive thing Noya has ever seen.
“Nishinoya…” he blurts, “I read the—”
But Noya has already started climbing the counter and is wrapping himself around Asahi’s neck, cackling, ecstatic in the way that makes him seem like the biggest person in the room despite his stature.
“You are violating somany health codesright now,” is what Asahi would have shrieked, if Noya hadn’t swallowed those words by shoving their mouths together. It’s a desperate thing, it’s been too long since they kissed, and Noya happens to think that this corporate bastard bookstore-café is blessed that they’ve deigned to make out all over it, because it’s a real honor, what with them being the most beautiful couple in existence.
Noya sits his ass down on the counter while they’re at it, until Asahi breaks them apart, gasping. “Don’t do that again, don’t—”
“No lying, never, I won’t—” He brushes his lips against Asahi’s cheek, and then his ear. “I was so… sad.”
“You were sad,” echoes Asahi, puzzled.
Noya nods. It’s strange to say that, to feel that sentence on his tongue, but it’s—true? The like sadness, he’d been afraid to call it what it was, before—but Asahi should know. With Asahi sad is sad and happy is happy and Nishinoya doesn’t coat it in his defiant philosophy, or any of that.
“Don’t be sad,” Asahi mutters. This is the most inappropriate place to be having this conversation and Noya loves it.
“I deserved to be sad,” he insists, shaking his head, and then he takes Asahi’s face in his hands. “I deserved it for making you feel sad—but never again, never never, I swear to fucking—”
Asahi lifts him up by the waist and he cries out in strangled surprised, clinging to Asahi’s neck for support. “No more swearing,” Asahi declares, and thanks to the authority in his voice Noya feels himself nodding along without a second thought.
“Whatever you want,” he agrees, as the realization strikes him that he is going to get to be with Asahi for-fucking-ever.
Asahi giggles. It’s great, a beautiful beautiful noise. Have you ever met anyone as perfect as Asahi? No, you fucking haven’t, because there isn’t anyone else like that. “I like your tie,” Asahi says, “I know you thought it was going to look funny, you in a tie, but it doesn’t, it looks really good.” Noya grips Asahi’s upper arms, where there’s actually more muscle than his hands can hold. They need to get home, or into a broom closet or something.
“Where are the people taking over for you?”
Asahi lowers him to stand on his own two feet, but they don’t let go of one another. “Oh, I… I kind of sent them to the back when I saw that you were coming in. I had a feeling you were going to ambush me.”
“A love ambush!”
“A love ambush,” Asahi concedes, and he covers the grin on Noya’s face with a kiss.
“Tsukishima, of all people,” says Suga, shaking his head.
“He’s good at doing those little flowers on top of the drinks,” Daichi explains, and he lifts his coffee toward Suga. “Personally I think this would taste a lot better if it had a little flower on top of it.”
Sighing, Suga throws back his head, letting the sun hit his face. It’s beautiful today and so they took their drinks outside, walking a couple of blocks to a park bench—a park bench they’ve frequented over the past three weeks, for early morning coffees and conversation. “I didn’t even think Tsukishima liked making coffee.”
Daichi shrugs. “When Ennoshita asked him why he wanted to work for us, he said, ‘the location is convenient.’”
“I suppose he does live near there.”
“And he does seem to take long lunches,” Daichi laughs. Suga can feel the other man’s eyes on his neck, and he smiles to himself. “How are your other ex-employees fairing?”
“Well.” He sits up and starts to list, clawing his memory. “Tanaka’s sister got him hired at the bar where she works. Hinata is applying to universities.”
“We see a lot of Hinata at Nekoma.”
Suga snorts. “That’s not surprising.” It’s nice to know he didn’t tank Kageyama and Hinata’s fledging relationship; they’re just the right amount of clueless for one another. “Yachi started her new office job a few weeks ago, and she texts me everyday.”
“Do you text back?”
“Of course!” Daichi raises an eyebrow. Suga glares. “Sometimes. I’m busy.” There are only so many ways to agree that Kiyoko is beautiful.
“Yes, you seem busy.”
Suga shoves his shoulder gently. “Shut up, you’re supposed to be listening. You lost these people their jobs, remember?”
“Yes, go on,” Daichi replies, clearly biting back a grin. He’s sitting with one arm over the back of the bench, facing Suga, while Suga looks out at the park. There’s a noisy playground, a large lawn suitable for picnics, and a fenced garden a little ways along. The people watching and the weather are exceptional.
“So—Tanaka, Yachi, Hinata. Oh, Nishinoya.” Out the corner of his eye, he sees Daichi smirk. “He’s interviewing. I think the job hunt may have lost some steam, though, since…”
“He’s distracted,” Daichi snorts. “So is Asahi.” Suga nods, lowering his voice.
“They’re like rabbits, aren’t they?”
“I would never overindulge like that,” Suga declares. He makes sure to look out at the park when he says this, otherwise it would be too tempting to stare at Sawamura’s crotch, which has been happening… too frequently, of late. He likes to tell himself it’s just physical, and then to pray his friend’s “project” will be over soon so he can get laid and stop with… whatever this is.
He hears Daichi laugh and glares at him sideways, suppressing the urge to smile. Daichi’s moods are infectious—he’s probably a good boss. Not that Suga knows, it’s just a feeling he has. “Sure,” says Daichi, shaking his head. “I bet you’ve never even had sex.”
And then they both laugh, a laugh that starts quietly and then grows when they lock eyes. It’s nice, Suga feels the hilarity bubbling out of him. They have to stop for breath.
“And what about you? What’s next for you?” Daichi asks, his face still glowing.
“I’m… I don’t know.” Suga fiddles with the hot sleeve on his drink, suddenly embarrassed and not wanting to meet Daichi’s eye. Truthfully he’d been spending his days in front of a word processor, but he would need to do something for money, sooner rather than later. It’s hard to think about work when he hasn’t entirely accepted that Crow Street isn’t just on hiatus, but gone forever.
When he finally glances up, Daichi greets him with a smile, and nods. “Not knowing is good too.” Suga blushes.
“I’m writing,” he admits.
Daichi brightens. “Seriously? I didn’t know you wrote.”
“Always a little. But you know who got me started thinking about trying for real, it was—”
“Sendaireader1?” Daichi asks. He is not quite smiling, but looks riveted nonetheless. Suga pulls a face at him.
“Yes. How do you always know?”
Daichi shrugs, and he leans away from Suga. “You like the guy. It’s not hard to guess.”
A little while later he walks Sawamura to the subway, like has become their routine, talking about their most recent favorite books—they talk about books an almost comical amount. If Suga went on about books with anyone like he does with Sawamura, he’d have no friends, but Sawamura matches him at every intellectual stride and even extends their conversations. So it’s good he usually has to go to work, otherwise they’d talk until their voices gave out.
Sawamura descends into the metro, turning back to give Suga a last wave at the foot of the stairs. Suga waves back, and his new companion vanishes into the underground station. Suga wonders what he’s gotten himself into.
He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, so he takes a long stroll back to his apartment. He cleans for a little then settles down with his laptop, stiffening when he spies a new message from sendaireader1. The feeling that seizes him isn’t the opposite of the delight he used to get, seeing Inbox (1), but it’s that delight now mixed with confusion and uncertainty. Nothing has changed within their interactions, objectively speaking, but Suga is being… pulled in a different direction.
I think I’m ready… it’s time for us to meet. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. What are you doing Friday morning? There’s a garden in a park I know. We can meet by the daisies—huge patch, can’t miss it. It’ll be perfect.
He is having a dream he’s in one of his games—not a game he recognizes, but in the weird logical certainty of dreams he knows he’s played this dozens of times. Except now the enemy is Shouyou for some reason, and Kuroo is there too, but on his side, like a companion character. Shouyou keeps screaming about not being called short and grows into a sword-wielding giant, twenty meters tall. Kuroo yells over and over again, the throwaway line demanding a player’s action, “Kenma, Kenma, what do you want to do? Kenma! What do you want?”
And he opens his mouth and no sound comes out. He has a sudden sense of being nothing, of missing some essential piece, like he is attempting this game with no controller. Kuroo’s voice comes louder, and closer.
That—that voice isn’t in the dream, and Kenma stirs, eyes sticky with sleep. The light is on in the living room, and Kuroo casts a long shadow from the bedroom doorway. Just Kuroo, not a home invader. Kenma inhales and lets his head fall back to his pillow. Rain pounds against the darkened windows.
“It’s the middle of the night, Kuro.”
“It’s eleven-thirty,” says Kuroo, sounding… unusual. Kenma squints at him, trying to make out his expression in the darkness.
“What are you doing here?” Their last encounter left Kenma feeling sour and he hasn’t forgotten that frustration; there’s an edge of it in his tone, but mostly he’s too sleepy to act defensive.
“I needed to talk to you.”
Kuroo’s voice is heavy and hoarse, disconcertingly so, he doesn’t sound himself. Kenma didn’t work that day—had something happened at Nekoma? He struggles through the grogginess to sit up in bed. “What’s up?”
“May I come into your room?”
Kenma considers that he might still be dreaming, with how his friend is acting. Kuroo respecting boundaries—you can’t make that shit up. He doesn’t know what to say.
“Are… are you joking?”
“No,” Kuroo coughs, leaning on the doorframe. Kenma considers him for a moment, has an unsettling thought.
“Are you drunk?”
Kuroo takes a solid step into the room, and then another, and another. “I’m not drunk, Kenma.” At the edge of Kenma’s bed, he towers for a moment, his face a black blur, and then falls to his knees. Head down, he inhales deeply and lets out the breath with a shudder.
Kenma feels his heart stall in his chest—something about the sight of smug, solid Kuroo kneeling and hunched before him. Kenma can see the kid who used to drag him outside to play when they were seven or eight, the twelve-year-old who hung out behind the grocery on Saturday nights just so some high school first years would think he was cool, the teenager who earned himself twenty stitches through a failed skateboard trick. The twentysomething who would ruin all those moments they’d shared over the years to… to get off, Kenma remembers; he has to swallow his disappointment. Maybe in a secluded part of his mind, he’d thrived on the notion that the two of them had something special. A connection, a privileged bond. He concedes that he wants one of these, has for a long time—that’s why it hurt like hell to watch Shouyou find his so easily.
“Kenma,” Kuroo breathes, for what feels like the hundredth time in two minutes. An inkling of what might be nervousness crawls over Kenma, as he twists to face his friend, one leg dangling off the side of his bed and the other tucked beneath him. On his knees, Kuroo is shorter than him, smaller, for once.
“What’s with you?”
Kuroo turns his head and Kenma sees his face for the first time, caught in the beam of light from the doorway. He’s wet, his messy hair flattened and smooth and sticking to his forehead. He looks young and plain and completely vulnerable; he swallows and his Adam’s apple bobs. “I think you’ve got the wrong impression about how I… about what’s been going on.”
Kenma narrows his eyes. The wrong impression. “You’re saying you don’t want to sleep with me.”
“I…” A muscle in Kuroo’s jaw twitches. His eyes have gone glassy with stress. “I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think you’re…” Instinctively, Kenma recoils a little—he doesn’t want to talk about this while he’s sitting in bed and Kuroo is there on his fucking knees and starting to shiver from the damp. His friend senses his discomfort and tenses, reaching out to say don’t worry. “It’s not just that, it’s not—” He sighs and starts to run a hand through his wet hair, over and over, the gesture sort of manic as his gaze roams the floor. “I think everyone thinks all I do is eat and drink and fuck, like I’ve never read a fucking poem or—or cared about another human being before. But you, you’ve known me my whole life, you’re not supposed to think that.”
With the growing suspicion that something is coming, Kenma swallows and wraps his arms around his own torso protectively. “I don’t think that.”
“So what do you think of me, Kenma?” Kuroo asks, looking up at him.
“You’re my… friend,” he replies slowly.
“You think of me as a friend? Just a friend?”
His pulse has started throbbing at his wrists, and he curls his arms tighter around himself. “What are you trying to ask me?”
Reading Kuroo’s expressions comes easy for Kenma—he’s not a particularly fluent study when it comes to expressions, nor is Kuroo an easy nut to crack, but after so many years of getting along (and sometimes not), he barely sees the veneer of his friend’s toothy grins and smugly squinting eyes. Instead there’s just Kuroo, and Kuroo is plain as day—and the day on Kuroo’s face now is a day that dawns after a long rainy night. Clean and smacking of insight, of clarity. He reaches out a large hand; without a thought, Kenma offers his own hand, smaller in the pale clammy palm of Kuroo’s.
Kuroo smiles a rare one, a smile without pretense, a smile that billows around the curve of his lips and settles there, genuine and sad for being so genuine like he expects the honesty to be his downfall but can’t help being happy. He speaks, sounding ever more like himself even as he recites old words, “I do love nothing in the world so much as you. Is not that strange?”
“That’s Shakespeare,” mutters Kenma, narrowing his eyes, wishing he could see better. “You’re just going to quote Shakespeare at me? You’re supposed to be witty, can’t you—”
“I don’t know how to make it sound like I mean it.”
“Mean what? Kuro—”
“I want you to believe me. I don’t want it to be cliche, or stupid, or...” Kuroo shakes Kenma’s hand, curled into his own. “I want it to sound like the greatest fucking thing anyone’s ever said when I tell you that I love you, because I do, I love you, I’m in love with you.”
Funnily, Kenma’s first thought is, it’s about time.
He might be smiling. Something is happening around his mouth and cheeks, a tingling, that’s all he knows. His heart thuds against his ribcage and harder, faster, as Kuroo rocks up and forward on his knees and takes him by the elbows and their foreheads meet; the wetness of his old friend’s skin against his own burning face feels cool and good, and he smells faintly of the cologne Kenma has always liked. It’s heady and delightful. The intimacy makes him woozy, the calm euphoria of adrenaline makes him sigh.
“I don’t want to…” he manages, and he can’t bring himself to say the words—sleep with you—but he doesn’t need to. It’s evident that words aren’t their medium. Kuroo laughs, nudging against him in the motion, Kenma’s knees knocking at his chest.
“I don’t care about that, it’s…”
“I can manage.”
“I don’t want you to manage, I want—”
“I don’t care, Kenma.” Kuroo exhales noisily and Kenma feels the grip on his elbows tighten. “Don’t want you to worry about me, just—it’s worth it, okay?”
Kenma pulls away—Kuroo makes a tiny disappointed whine, Kenma could tell him he’s an idiot but he smiles instead and cups Kuroo’s face, running the pad of his thumb over the cheek, pushing back the messy swaths of black hair. It’s a good face, handsome, glowing earnestly in the yellow backlight. Kenma loses himself somewhere between why didn’t I think of this before and I’ve been thinking of this forever, and bends down to kiss his friend lightly.
Kuroo either chuckles or sobs against him, Kenma isn’t sure, the way his cold lips open to the warmth of his mouth is distracting. He’s pulled down, taking half the sheets with him when he slides into Kuroo’s lap. Long arms snake around him and he shivers, at first he thinks from the kisses being frantically peppered along his jaw, but then he feels dampness seeping through the fabric of his shirt when Kuroo hugs him tightly and presses their chests together.
Kenma whimpers and struggles against the embrace a little, having been so nice and warm and dry a second ago. “You’re soaking wet!”
Kuroo keeps clinging to him, mumbling into his neck. “I love you.”
“I’m sure I have a shirt of yours in a drawer somewhere...”
“I love you.”
“If you change you can stay in my bed tonight.”
“I love you.”
“If you don’t change I’ll put you out in the rain.”
“I love you, Kenma.”
“I love you too,” he mutters, and stops struggling, letting himself melt back into the hug and feeling Kuroo sigh happily under him. “Now, please change your clothes.”
Kenma has to haul him off the floor in order for this process to begin, and even then it’s a sloppy dance between the two of them, Kenma dodging giggly kisses to peel off Kuroo’s shirt, Kuroo toweling off and then stuffing the wet cloth in his face, Kenma letting out a yell, Kuroo grabbing him around the waist and twirling him, nearly knocking over the dresser. Kenma ceasing to dodge the kisses. By the time they fall into bed together they are dry and snug and the softness of the pillows and blankets feels especially decadent when they’re wrapping around one another, too.
Kenma finds that he fits perfectly in the curve from Kuroo’s elbow to his shoulder, and that an old t-shirt with the heat of a chest beneath it feels incredible against his cheek. With each of Kuroo’s inhales and exhales he’s lifted up and then sinks down a little, like he’s floating. He’s about to say something, maybe mention how nice that feels, to be floating, but when he glances up Kuroo’s eyes are closed—fast asleep. He remembers how they used to have sleepovers and Kuroo would talk a big game about staying up all night, then pass out at nine-thirty.
Shaking with silent laughter, Kenma lowers his head and snugs tighter against Kuroo’s side. “Goodnight, I guess,” he murmurs. He takes a moment to slide the flat of his palm from Kuroo’s sternum to his stomach, feeling the definition in spots and the softness in others, unable to stop himself from smiling. He’s still smiling when he shuts his eyes for the night, and a quiet moment passes where he begins to doze, before he hears a little laugh from over his head, and lips brush his forehead.
Daichi whistles. “Today?”
“Right after you leave me, you’ll...”
Suga nods. “Go home and change, and then I’m meeting him. Finally.” He squirms in his seat on their bench just thinking of it. He can see the very garden, not too from them, all in bloom on what’s turned into a glorious summer day.
“It’s really happening,” says Daichi, grinning. Suga scans him for a hint of jealousy, but he seems resolute in amusement, at least for the time being.
They toss out their empty coffee cups and begin the walk to the subway, along tree-lined paths and sidewalks.
Daichi meditates for a moment, and then declares, “What a clever guy.”
“What do you mean, what a clever guy?”
“Well, he’s got you right where he wants you, doesn’t he?” Suga scoffs, but Daichi shakes his head, explaining, “No, really. He’s worked you into this place where you believe he’s the only man you could ever possibly be with, right?” The look that Daichi gives him when asking this question—well, it’s not quite jealousy, not like Suga knows jealousy. No, this is sadder, and darker, and it makes Suga turn away, staring up the street instead.
“I don’t understand!”
“I love when you get all upset and pretend not to understand something.” Suga blushes, now refusing to meet his eye. “So endearingly stubborn, Suga-san.”
“You too, but it’s not so endearing.”
With Daichi laughing, they come to an intersection where normally they’d turn for the metro—but Daichi makes to cross the street, and stopping only when Suga tugs his arm. “Oh,” he says, smiling even as the laughter’s died down, “No, I’m not going into work until later. Let me walk you to your apartment.”
So they move down the block together; it’s quieter here, a calm little residental corner of the neighborhood. Suga has always appreciated the still street on these hot afternoons—he leaves his windows open, lets the breeze filter through the place.
“Suga,” says Daichi, as they near the end of the block.
“Do you ever wonder,” and they pause at the front steps of his building, “what would’ve happened, if—you and me.” Suga’s gaze drifts from his door to Daichi, whose smile has changed, grown wistful. “If I didn’t have Nekoma, and you didn’t have Crow Street.” Embarrassment swells in Suga’s throat, sympathy for Sawamura, longing for himself. “If I’d run into you at a cafe or a bar or... or a bookshop that wasn’t important to either of us.”
“I know,” he exhales, eyes fluttering shut, relieved that they’ve acknowledged this tension. The probability of another universe, where they started out right.
“I would have begged you to go out with me.” Suga opens his eyes in time to watch Daichi swallow hard, and slide his hands into his pockets. “I wouldn’t—I mean, I’d never stop thinking about you. I’d make an idiot out of myself to win you over.”
“Daichi,” he cautions, trying to say, don’t do this to yourself. But Daichi shakes his head, barrels on.
“I’d write you really... really shitty poems, and bring you breakfast in bed, and there wouldn’t be any fighting. No competition.” He breathes out slowly, the hesitant smile, the one that wants to imagine, tugs at his lips. “The only thing we’d argue about would be where to get dinner. Once you’re sick of my shoyu ramen.”
Suga laughs in surprise, hardly expecting a joke. “What a silly thing to argue about.”
“You’re right. Who could ever get sick of shoyu ramen?” Daichi steps toward him, inhaling sharply. “And the only thing I’d ever want would be to spend the rest of my life making you happy.”
Oh. Well. There’s... that.
“Daichi...” Suga ducks his head, turning toward the door. He wobbles, needing something to lean on, to catch his breath. “I have to...”
“Right, your friend,” mutters Daichi, moving away. Yes, his friend, his friend is waiting and here’s Suga on the sidewalk with Sawamura doing whatever—whatever Sawamura is doing with his dark eyes so intent and serious and his mouth smiling softly. “It seems... I don’t know. You forgave him for standing you up, almost breaking your heart, and you can’t forgive me for that—little thing. Putting you out of business.”
Suga opens his mouth to say goodbye but nothing comes out. Is he a fool? Is he the world’s biggest fool?
Daichi blinks a few times, then lowers his gaze, and turns to go. “I’ll see you later, Suga-san.”
So he watches Daichi walk away, a spring in his step that wasn’t there before. It’s strange, and he doesn’t know what’s just happened, he only knows... he only knows that Sawamura Daichi is a good man. That you don’t meet men like that very often, who are truly good. Suga’s heart hurts. He drags himself up the front steps and into his building.
The nervous rush of energy kicks in once he starts to get ready for his meeting, and he recovers from the emotional paralysis caused Sawamura’s almost-confession. By the time he leaves the apartment again, his eagerness is such that he has to stop himself from breaking into a run on the way to the garden. He’s changed into a billowy shirt of white linen, cooler than the one he wore earlier; he fiddles with the buttons while he walks, and with the strap of the messenger bag he threw together hastily, containing a few necessities. His feet don’t seem to touch the concrete beneath them.
So, on a very sunny day in Sendai, he arrives at the park he’d left only an hour ago. Avoids some cyclists. Throws a stray ball to kids playing catch.
The garden smells incredible, everything blooming as far as the eye can see. The heat of the sun on his head and neck distracts him from the blood rushing to his face, as he starts to open and close his fists reflexively around the strap of his bag. He’s walked by this garden enough but never stepped inside. It’s lovely, truly. He passes a family of three, with a little girl who points and smiles at him, and he mimics the gesture to her great amusement. The moment at least helps to steady his hands, but it is still with a churning stomach that he finds himself tiptoeing along the gravel paths, breath shallow, eyes roaming the flowers, looking for...
Like the one in Sawamura’s hand, where he stands with a sea of yellow-dotted white blossoms at his back, staring at Suga, who stops short.
Daichi lifts his shoulders and, with the softest look in his eyes, smiles a greeting.
There are those moments in a person’s life that are memorable, significant enough to stick with you—and then there are those moments in a person’s life that are unforgettable, that expand the very definition of memory, into a picture so perfectly vivid it rewrites you—so that whoever you are and whatever becomes of you, you can’t forget that moment, because it changed you forever. Who you are, what your time on earth means. Lifechanging, but it never feels like one word is enough for something that monumental.
Suga’s monumental, lifechanging picture is Daichi standing by the daisies in a quiet corner of a garden in Sendai, waiting for him with a single flower in hand.
There ought to be music playing, there ought to be planets aligning, fireworks going off; Suga thinks maybe he has never truly understood poetry until right now.
He doesn’t register that his feet have begun to move, but he drifts toward Daichi, and Daichi toward him, and they meet in the middle of the path.
Suga is choking back tears, and Daichi, gentle, puts a warm palm to his cheek. “Please don’t cry. I hate making you cry.”
“You...” Around a shaking sob, Suga reaches into his bag, and pulls out—he had only thought, maybe— “I brought you this.” The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. Daichi’s mouth falls open.
“Did you know?” he asks, Suga sliding the book into his hands.
“No, I... I didn’t know.” Suga breaths in, bites his lip. Tears wet his face. “I hoped.” Daichi’s eyes are wet too, he grins a grin so wide it barely fits his face, and he steps closer to Suga. “I wanted it to be you,” Suga blurts, winded. “I want it to be you so badly.” Daichi slips the Neruda back into his bag, and tucks the single daisy behind Suga’s ear, then wraps them together.
But it’s Suga who pulls him into the kiss this time, clinging to Daichi’s collar. Daichi responds with a satisfied sigh against him, sliding his tongue over Suga’s bottom lip, and it feels good, the wet and the warm and the sun on them, and the understanding that what Suga feels for this man is so deep and true and fated that he fell in love with him twice. Their noses smash sloppily, and he can’t tell if it’s his or Daichi’s tears when he tastes salt, nor does he much care. They must be quite the sight, two grown men kissing and crying in a public garden, and the thought only makes Suga cry harder. He cried at their last kiss, too, how funny—and he laughs into Daichi’s mouth.
They part lips but Suga doesn’t let another inch come between them, Daichi hovering near his mouth. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, I’m just—” Suga tugs at his sleeve. “Let’s go be alone somewhere. My apartment.”
“I have to go to work, I’m already late.”
“No, what about not putting business first! You said!”
Daichi starts to pull away, shaking his head, but Suga clings to him greedily. “Suga—Koushi—it’s the middle of the afternoon—”
“You’re too modest.” They’re both grinning, as they start to leave the garden, Suga still pulling at his arm. “Don’t you want to be alone with me?” he says, lowering his voice.
Daichi attempts to glare; it doesn’t quite land. “Okay, obviously I do, it’s just...” Suga raises a suggestive eyebrow, touching the daisy tucked behind his ear. “It’s just, shut up.”
“You love me!”
“I do,” says Daichi, and the humor dies from both their faces. He halts in the path, and Suga with him, as they stare at each other. How many letters had they signed with love, how many times had he considered himself to be in love, and here they were. Saying it outloud. And Daichi does say it, slowly, as though everything is slotting into place. “I do love you.” He offers Suga his hand, and Suga regards it for a moment.
“Then... we have plenty of time.” And they walk to the subway with their fingers wound together.
Thank you for reading.