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till trash do us part

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I will love you as the pesto loves the fetuccini and as the horseradish loves the miyagi, as the tempura loves the ikura and the pepperoni loves the pizza. I will love you as the manatee loves the head of lettuce and as the dark spot loves the leopard, as the leech loves the ankle of a wader and as a corpse loves the beak of the vulture. I will love you as the doctor loves his sickest patient and a lake loves its thirstiest swimmer. I will love you as the beard loves the chin, and the crumbs love the beard, and the damp napkin loves the crumbs, and the precious document loves the dampness in the napkin, and the squinting eye of the reader loves the smudged print of the document, and the tears of sadness love the squinting eye as it misreads what is written.

~Lemony Snicket, The Beatrice Letters

 

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
   Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
   And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
   Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
   Like geese about the sky.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
   For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
   And the first love of the world.'

~W. H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

 

It would be a stretch to say that Kiyoomi’s whole life flashes before his eyes when it happens, but his whole relationship? Sure.

Suddenly, it’s Atsumu wrestling him for the remote and almost knocking Kiyoomi’s teeth out with his elbow, Atsumu hanging toilet paper ‘under’ even though it’s the less hygienic way, first out of ignorance and then out of spite, Atsumu hyping himself up with cheesy motivational speeches in front of the mirror every morning, Atsumu leaving wet footsteps all over the apartment after a shower, Atsumu the blanket hogger, Atsumu the tosser and turner, and the worst offense of all, Atsumu the Swiftie, belting out the chorus of You Belong With Me at the top of his lungs, using Kiyoomi’s toothbrush (Atsumu the toothbrush thief) for a microphone every time.

But, mostly, it’s Atsumu rolling up Kiyoomi’s sleeves for him when Kiyoomi’s hands are dripping water, Atsumu skipping onion when cooking so he’d be allowed to kiss Kiyoomi after, Atsumu cooking in the first place, Atsumu putting everything Kiyoomi points at in the store inside their shopping cart, Atsumu watching documentaries on fungal infections with Kiyoomi, Atsumu building Kiyoomi a bookshelf when the IKEA ones failed to meet his standards, Atsumu finishing the bookshelf despite the wood splinters, Atsumu groggily promising that he’ll walk the dog they don’t have and water the cactus that’s already dead, Atsumu, and Atsumu, and Atsumu.

And now Kiyoomi’s gone and ruined everything. All that’s left is to sit down and have a mental breakdown smack in the middle of the park, as you do.

*

At sixteen, Kiyoomi is already damaged goods. He’s pretty sure he’s got half a heart at most — even that seems like too generous an estimate — and he’s yet to use it for loving someone he’s not related to. At this rate, it’ll probably atrophy inside his chest until his body will have no choice but to reject it — he’ll hack it up one day, oh yes, he will, gnarled and shriveled like a dried fig or like an ill-advised bite of one.

Sometimes, Kiyoomi’s fears are reasonable — he could pull a muscle, twist an ankle, break a rib — other times, they’re excusable — he could get run over by a truck carrying Hokkaidō melons, get bitten by a disease-ridden rat, get hit by a crashing airplane — but, every now and then, they run rampant until he’s scared of his teeth rotting overnight and falling out one by one, of fungus clogging his bronchi with sprouting hyphae and suffocating him to death, of something hatching in his stomach after a bee sting and oh God, what if a bee stings him?

At sixteen, Kiyoomi is prepared for every eventuality: if someone tries to spit on him, he’ll duck, if someone tries to pull him into a headlock, he’ll kick them, if someone tries to high-five him, he’ll stare them down, and if the ceiling collapses on his head—

As luck would have it, the ceiling does collapse on his head during All-Japan. It happens like this:

Miya Atsumu, the darling and boy wonder of the high school volleyball scene, is a force that Kiyoomi does not reckon with until it’s too late to mitigate the fallout. Halfway through the camp, Kiyoomi has no choice but to shine a light deep within himself and watch with terror as indifference gives way to irritation, as resentment leaves disregard in the dust. Seemingly innocuous comments and back-handed compliments turn into outright insults and demands to do better, but Kiyoomi doesn’t have a better to give, not when his shoulders are killing him, not when he has to share living quarters with a bunch of high schoolers who either drench themselves in deodorant or don’t use it at all. Kiyoomi’s got a chip on his shoulder, Atsumu is clearly itching for a fight — it’s a recipe for disaster and they’re already done with the prep, heating up the oven.

“Stop glaring at him or he’ll think you like him,” Motoya laughs halfway through breakfast on their third day there. “Trust me, I know the type.”

Kiyoomi does not like Atsumu. On Kiyoomi’s list of phobias even something as tiny as a bed bug can be a record-breaker when it comes to size — there’s simply no space for Atsumu’s larger-than-life excuse for a personality in his life, no matter how compelling a shitshow it makes for. Atsumu’s smile is an ellipsis, his hair a national tragedy, his thigh a federal offense. He comes in lethal doses, or he does not come at all, and Kiyoomi spends most of All-Japan dying of his proximity, finding comfort only in the conviction that they’re on the same page, stewing in mutual dislike and striving to out-jerk each other, with Atsumu the challenger to Kiyoomi’s titleholder for biggest asshole in the room.

And then the ceiling.

Kiyoomi is scrubbing his hands in the bathroom when Atsumu saunters in to corner him, a chaise lounge of a grin on his face as he takes his sweet time sizing Kiyoomi up.

“No,” Kiyoomi says immediately. “Leave.”

Atsumu raises his hands in a placating gesture, pretending to be the well-adjusted one, but Kiyoomi’s not fooled. Beneath all that pretty varnish, Atsumu is a walking Pandora’s box of issues — Kiyoomi heard him mumble his brother’s name in his sleep just the other day, homesickness all over him as he unrolled his futon and cracked a joke for appearances’ sake, never mind that it fell flat, with no one pity-laughing at the punchline.

“Whatever it is, save it,” Kiyoomi snaps. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Have ya considered that I might be here ta pee?” Atsumu drawls, quirking an eyebrow at him. “Take a dump? Jerk off?”

“Cry about missing home, more like,” Kiyoomi huffs. “You’re disgusting.”

“Ya stare at me a lot fer someone who thinks I’m disgustin’,” Atsumu points out with a lilt to his voice as he grins at Kiyoomi in the mirror, the Kansai-ben exaggerated, almost pastoral. “It’s nothin’ ta be ashamed of, Omi-kun, I know I’m a vision—”

“What did you just call me,” Kiyoomi cuts him off, with as icy a glare as he can muster.

“Well, Sakusa is a mouthful,” Atsumu shrugs. “So’s Kiyoomi, fer that matter.”

He says it like it should be obvious, no biggie, only it very much is a biggie because Kiyoomi is used to the modest ‘Ki’ of his name — with nothing to prepare him for it, the open, untempered ‘O’ of ‘Omi-kun’ is enough to give him whiplash.

“Leave,” Kiyoomi tries again, shaking his hands over the washbasin. He’s forgotten his handkerchief and there’s no way he’s going anywhere near the paper towel dispenser.

“Yer wrists,” Atsumu ignores him, tracking the motion with hooded eyes. “I want ya ta show me.”

“Show you what,” Kiyoomi snaps.

“Everythin’,” Atsumu says with a half-shrug. “How they bend, how they work… I deserve a private show after ya wasted three perfect sets back there, dontcha think?”

“I’m not a sideshow,” Kiyoomi protests, making to leave the bathroom only for Atsumu to step sideways to block his way. “Move, Miya.”

“Never said ya were,” Atsumu grins, matching his steps. “Not movin’.”

It’s torture: Kiyoomi steps to his left, Atsumu steps to his right, Kiyoomi steps to his right, Atsumu steps to his left, and Kiyoomi is this close to kneeing the asshole in the balls—

“Another one,” Atsumu sighs out of the blue when they finally stop trying to outstep each other, staring fixedly at Kiyoomi’s jaw. “And here I thought it was chocolate.”

“Another what,” Kiyoomi sighs, tempted to slap his hand over the spot to get Atsumu to stop staring.

When Atsumu leans in, Kiyoomi, who came here prepared but not for this, does the first thing that comes to his mind and punches him square in the face.

*

Determined to make his the best and the only proposal of Kiyoomi’s life, Atsumu went above and beyond, so much so that he almost put Kiyoomi in an early grave in the process. He certainly had a vision and while his idea wasn’t bad per se, the execution left much to be desired, with ‘you overdid it’ being the consensus regardless of whether you asked Atsumu’s mother, brother, or the doctor who had to inspect Kiyoomi’s throat that fateful day.

Everyone implicated, be it directly or indirectly, in almost helping Kiyoomi shuffle off this mortal coil is fond of rehashing the story, but Osamu, the one to have told it first, also happens to be the one who continues telling it best.

It started, as these things tend to, with a panicked phone call at 3 a. m.

All right, it started with ten missed calls at 3 a. m. because there was simply no way Osamu would pick up in the middle of the night if the number of calls didn’t reach double digits.

Either someone’s dyin’ or fuck off.

Someone is dyin’, I am dyin’, I just threw up, I just threw up, Samu, I’m sittin’ here starin’ at a puddle of vomit and Kiyoomi will kill me if he finds me like this but Samu—!

Okay, take it slow, take it easy, what do ya mean yer dyin’, ya drama queen? Because so help him God, if Atsumu thought Osamu had the time to jump on a train and pop by to resurrect him on a Friday, he had another thing coming.

Predictably, Atsumu would not take it slow or easy, but here, Osamu inferred, was the gist of it:

Atsumu, just shy of twenty-six, had woken up from a nightmare in which Sakusa Kiyoomi, his boyfriend of it’s-complicated years, had never given him the time of the day, only to find said boyfriend slobbering all over his pillow one snore at a time mere inches away, very much giving Atsumu the time of the— well, night.

And it was like this epiphany, yanno? Like, in the nightmare, he wasn’t there at all, but in real life, I wanted — want — him around fer, like, always and crap. 

‘Always and crap’ being no joking matter, Atsumu resolved to be mature about the whole thing and held off on puking his guts out until he made it to the bathroom, phone in hand.

I missed the toilet, though. Did I mention that Kiyoomi’s gonna kill me? But hey, here’s a silver linin’ if there ever was one: if he kills me, at least I don’t have ta come ta terms with the fact that, apparently, I want ta stay with him fer worse, fer worser, fer poor, fer poorer, in sickness and in erectile dysfunction, and do ya reckon I should see a gastroenterologist?

Start with a psychologist, maybe. Are ya sayin’ ya wanna marry him, fuckface?

I’m sayin’ I wanna fling myself off a cliff, fuckwit. 

Are ya sayin’ ya wanna put a ring on it?

I’m sayin’ that it’s all yer fuckin’ fault fer not eatin’ me in the womb and sparin’ me the sufferin’ like ya ought ta have done! Yes, I’m sayin’ I wanna put a ring on it, what else could I possibly be sayin’?

Which was when Osamu proceeded to (gently!) remind Atsumu of all the times he’d called him (frequently!) specifically to complain (at length!) about Kiyoomi’s many (so very many!) faults.

Ya don’t get it, asshole.

Well, help me get it, then, smartass.

So Atsumu, phone on speaker as he got busy mopping up the vomit, did:

Apparently, yes, Kiyoomi had almost given Atsumu a black eye wrestling him for the remote that one time, did insist on hanging toilet paper ‘over’ even though it was clearly the stupid way, did spend ages and eons styling his hair in front of the mirror every morning, did complain about stupid shit like Atsumu leaving wet footprints ‘all over the apartment’ after getting out of the shower, did hog the blanket, kick in his sleep, and, the worst offense of all, hate Taylor Swift, but—

But — call him soft, call him sappy, call him silly — Atsumu woke up from that nightmare, looked at Kiyoomi, pillow drool and all, and decided that he wanted to spend his entire life mastering the art of loving him anyway.

Jesus wept, was Osamu’s contribution. Ya woke me up in the middle of the night fer this?

Fast-forward one week:

It ain’t a decent proposal if it doesn’t involve a plot twist or two, was Atsumu’s angle. Some good ol’ action, too — a car chase here, an explosion there…

Just to confirm, they were still talking about the proposal? Yes, they were, Samu, ya moron! Well, all right then. Fucking grand. Would Osamu help Atsumu pick the ring? Ha, good one! Would Atsumu cover a dishwasher shift or two so that Machi-san (Mochi-san? Machi-san! Ma-chi!) could have Saturday off and go see his kid? No, wait, run that by Atsumu again, a what shift? A dishwasher shift? Like, where you wash the dishes? No, Atsumu certainly would— Well, he certainly would, where’s the hairnet, where’s the sponge. ‘Till death do us part’ and what were a few dirty dishes in the face of that? Nothing whatsoever but, just for the record, Osamu would not testify against ‘Sakusa-san’ in court if the poor man ended up dissolving his brother’s body in chemicals, no sir. Cue Atsumu trying to decide if he’d want Kiyoomi to get away with murder if he was the murderee (TILL DEATH DO US PART?) and hey, hey, hey, wait a moment, wait a minute, wait a second, wait the fuck up. A sheepish smile, an awkward feet shuffle, and an Armageddon of a blush creeping up Atsumu’s neck, s-so ya think he’ll say yes, then?

And Osamu standing there, trying not to [redacted] when faced with the sudden urge to pull his brother into a [redacted], feeling his eyes fill with [redacted].

And Osamu standing there, at a loss for words.

But never fear, he did eventually find some:

Well, duh, was the verdict. The bastard had better.

No, hear me out, Atsumu would brainstorm later, gesturing so enthusiastically that he almost decapitated Suna, who was there with a metaphorical bowl of popcorn, slurping a beer through a straw. I’ll put it inside an onigiri!

The ring? confirmed Osamu.

The box, Samu! The box! Keep up, wouldja?

In short: inside an onigiri, there’d be a box, inside the box, there’d be an umeboshi, and inside the umeboshi, there’d be a ring.

Morally obliged to offer feedback but none too happy about it, Osamu went for a diplomatic that’s one hefty onigiri you’ve designed there. Also: Tsumu, no.

Tsumu, yes, Suna, ever the enabler, piped in in between slurps. It’s okay, I know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

We won’t need no hamleash maneuver!

Spoiler alert: they’d very much need the Heimlich maneuver.

Anyway, the rest, as they say, is history:

One Friday after dinner, Atsumu presented his significant other with a Godzilla of an onigiri, ‘custom-made just fer ya, all fresh and sweet— Well, all fresh and salty, but just how ya like it all the same!’.

Imagine Kiyoomi carefully biting around the onigiri with growing suspicion, imagine his teeth scraping against the side of the box for the first time — are you trying to poison me or are you trying to poison me? — imagine him crumbling the rice in his impatience, so that it fell to their kitchen table in chunks — is there a bomb inside? — imagine his eyes widen as he realized, imagine his fingers tremble, imagine his throat tighten, imagine his heart crest, imagine him fumble for the box, drop it twice, lose his breath, fail to find it, Atsumu what is this, Atsumu is this what I think it?

Imagine him finding an umeboshi inside.

Imagine our hero — utterly oblivious to the imminent risk of his becoming significant-other-less — grinning like the cat that got the cream across the table.  Imagine Kiyoomi tossing the umeboshi — and a mangled one, at that! — on the table, imagine him slamming the door on his way out, and he didn’t even take the time to put on his shoes.

But don’t look away from the sad tableau just yet. Sure, the moron staring at the umeboshi with a perplexed expression is hardly worth our time but here:

Imagine the door slamming again as Kiyoomi stormed back inside to snatch the umeboshi off the table with a deathly glare because hey, he’d get a pickled plum out of this if nothing else, there was simply no way he’d let it go to waste just because someone was in the mood for pranks—

Imagine Atsumu snapping out of it and chasing after him, out the door, down the steps, someone choking as he ran past—

Wait.

Someone choking as he ran past…?

Ham, imagine Atsumu think as he reached for his Schrödinger’s significant other, and leash, as he wrapped his arms around him from behind.

(Believe it or not, it was a ‘yes’. Reader, he wanted to marry him.)

*

Kiyoomi gets a cold drink from the vending machine and watches Atsumu wince as he presses it to his nose even though what he really wants to do is either take him to the nearest ER or leave him here to die. Atsumu sniffles to keep blood from trickling out of his nose which, Kiyoomi suspects, is the very opposite of what one should do in this situation.

This situation being Atsumu, cross-legged with his back braced against the wall, bleeding from the nose after a serving of Kiyoomi’s right hook.

“We have to find one of the coaches.”

“Are ya crazy,” Atsumu objects. “We’ll never get invited ta this thing again if they get a whiff of what happened.”

“It might be broken,” Kiyoomi argues.

“It’s not,” Atsumu chokes out, his eyes filling with panicked tears, “broken.”

“You can’t exactly sprain a nose.”

“If anythin’, yer the one who sprained it fer me.”

Well, Atsumu’s got a point there.

“You were going to hit me first,” Kiyoomi reminds him.

Hit ya?” Atsumu repeats incredulously, gawking at him. “Why the fuck would I hit ya with my mouth?”

“Oh,” Kiyoomi says stupidly. “Then what were you trying to do.”

Atsumu looks away, eyes drifting to the ground as he scratches the back of his neck, curled in on himself like a hunched crustacean. “Never mind about that,” he mumbles. “Water under the fuckin’ bridge.”

More like blood under the nose, Kiyoomi refrains from pointing out, restricting himself to a single grimace. Too confused to let it go, he ransacks his memory for a clue that would help explain Atsumu’s earlier behavior.

Another one, Atsumu said. Something that could be chocolate but isn’t.

“I have a mole here,” Kiyoomi remembers finally, pointing to the underside of his jaw.

“Ya don’t say,” Atsumu scoffs with an eyeroll. “Can ya, like, leave me alone.”

Kiyoomi considers it. “No,” he decides, approaching Atsumu to crouch in front of him and search his gaze. Atsumu refuses to meet his eyes but — it’s the strangest thing — his cheeks go redder the longer Kiyoomi tries.

Now, Kiyoomi might be a little slow on the uptake but even he’s not that dense.

“No way,” he gasps as a lightbulb goes off in his head. “You want to kiss me.”

“Not you,” Atsumu protests immediately, apparently mortally offended. Gone is the bravado and gone the sultriness, his accent washed clean of honey, both ramped up and toned down as the syllables tumble out of his mouth with all the grace of a derailed train.

“Just my jaw,” Kiyoomi deadpans. “A word of advice: next time you decide you want to kiss someone, ask first.”

“Gee, thanks,” Atsumu mutters with a bitter twist to his mouth. “I don’t think there’ll be a next time, but I’ll make sure ta remember.”

By now, the blush has reached Atsumu’s ears, encroached past his neckline — it’s fascinating to watch its unpredictable progress and where will he go red next? Kiyoomi places bets against himself, wins, loses, loses.

“That’s probably for the best,” he says absently, transfixed by the wine of it.

“Oi!” Atsumu croaks, finally meeting Kiyoomi’s eyes, if only to glare at him. He loses himself there for a moment, blinking at Kiyoomi damningly as the blush darkens, but he’s quick to shake out of it. “I’ll have ya know that plenty of people would kill fer a chance ta kiss me!”

“Hmm, I don’t know about that,” Kiyoomi says, tilting his head to give Atsumu an assessing look and oh, how the tables have turned, how delicious to leisurely roll his gaze over Atsumu as the other squirms under the scrutiny. “You have terrible dental hygiene.”

“I don’t,” Atsumu insists, horrified.

“Do, too,” Kiyoomi assures him. “You don’t brush the backs of your teeth or floss.”

“Been watchin’ me, have ya,” Atsumu mumbles under his breath, looking away again. “I’d floss if ya asked.”

Kiyoomi watches Atsumu’s eyes widen as he realizes what he just said, watches him slap a hand over his mouth, watches him pull the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and fumble for the drawstrings. It’s because he’s watching so carefully that Kiyoomi gets there first, curling his fingers around the aglets to prevent Atsumu from pulling a head-in-sand move.

Atsumu’s breath hitches like a door clicking shut but he opens instead: slack-mouthed and wide-eyed, he stays rooted in place despite the bruised ego and wounded pride, chinks all over his armor, and Kiyoomi, inebriated with the plethora of possibilities, trying to decide where to strike first.

“Ya really don’t like me, huh,” Atsumu sighs eventually, trying to hide his face in his shoulder, to little avail.

“I dislike you,” Kiyoomi corrects.

“Thanks,” Atsumu sighs. “I think that actually makes it slightly better fer me.”

“How,” Kiyoomi marvels.

“Fuck if I know,” Atsumu shrugs, ducking his head. “Are ya just gonna keep starin’ or…?”

From this perspective, Kiyoomi can still see the blood collecting under Atsumu’s nose. He swears there’s a bubble or two, and he wants to pop them with his fist, with his finger, with his mouth. There’s nothing hygienic about it and it doesn’t exactly make for an appealing sight either, but it’s a little like looking at a bug you’ve never seen before — if it doesn’t have wings, there’s no harm in coming close enough to inspect it and pulling out a magnifying glass.

So yes, Kiyoomi is going to keep staring or.

“Don’t let it go ta yer head,” Atsumu mumbles through another tragic sniffle. “Yer not even that pretty.”

“Says the guy who tried to kiss me,” Kiyoomi points out, giving the drawstrings a tug to see if it’ll get Atsumu to look at him.

It does and Kiyoomi’s thrush of a heart takes off at the sight.

A bubble or two, but not with his fist, no.

“Whatever,” Atsumu sighs with a pout. “So, can I have yer number?”

“No,” Kiyoomi says immediately. “Not in a million years.”

“But ya broke my nose!” Atsumu squawks indignantly.

“I thought you said it wasn’t broken,” Kiyoomi teases.

“Fine, don’t give me yer number!” Atsumu groans, looking away from Kiyoomi again. “Don’t want it anyway.”

“Sure,” Kiyoomi indulges him, giving the drawstrings another tug, and then, when Atsumu whimpers—

Whimpers?

“Miya,” Kiyoomi says with dawning horror as he glances down. “Are you—”

“I’m a sixteen-year-old boy!” Atsumu squeaks, at a dog whistle frequency. “It’s perfectly normal and nothin’ ta be ashamed of!”

Kiyoomi raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Is that what your mother told you.”

Atsumu blinks at him in terror. “Ha— How didja know?!”

Kiyoomi can’t help it: he bursts out laughing.

“Wow,” Atsumu breathes, staring at him.

“Wait here,” Kiyoomi instructs, letting go of the drawstrings. “I’ll get towels.”

But when Kiyoomi comes back from the bathroom after braving the paper towel dispenser, Atsumu is gone, presumably licking his wounds elsewhere — knowing him, literally licking his wounds elsewhere because Kiyoomi wouldn’t put it past him to try.

There’s a stray drop of blood on one of Kiyoomi’s knuckles and his stomach lurches at the sight, but he feels strangely hollow once he wipes it away. Today, they’ve gorged themselves on disaster and Kiyoomi doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll be microwaving its leftovers for months to come, one helping of memories at a time.

*

“Kiyo,” Motoya instructs over the phone. “Deep breaths.”

“I don’t have time for breathing!” Kiyoomi snaps, clutching his phone like a lifeline. “This is an emergency!”

“Is it?” Motoya hums. “Who’s dying?”

“My marriage!”

“Kiyo, you’re not married yet,” Motoya reminds him gently.

“And now I won’t be!”

“Now, now,” Motoya laughs. “What has Atsumu done this time?”

“He proposed to an utter nutcase, is what,” Kiyoomi says, tearing at his hair.

“Ah, that kind of emergency,” Motoya sighs. “Well, what have you done this time?”

Kiyoomi glances at the trash can next to which he’s set up camp and gulps.

*

Atsumu de-seeds everything from watermelons to tomatoes for Kiyoomi — carefully, painstakingly, with the very tip of a teaspoon, or, whenever that won’t quite do the trick, with a toothpick — and the fact that Kiyoomi doesn’t actually need him to is his best-kept secret to date. Kiyoomi told Atsumu that he hated seeds — the feel of them in his mouth, the feel of them between his fingers — roughly three months after their situationship evolved into something with foundations and expansion plans. It was a blatant lie but Atsumu, pretending to be a melon connoisseur as he weighed the fruit in his hand, one wrong move from dropping it on his foot, not only swallowed it right up but took it as a challenge too. It was a sun-steeped barbecue of a day, the Osaka streets freckling as concrete baked underfoot, and Kiyoomi remembers everything about it: the Tōhoku car pile-up they heard about on the radio while frying eggs for breakfast, the stray cat they didn’t stop to pet on their way to the grocery store, the eggplant-wielding Atsumu that Kiyoomi decided he would do his very utmost to love not only intensely but properly. Since Kiyoomi is yet to figure out how to disinfect receipts, instead, he saved their shopping list — one of those vagrant papers squatting unlawfully in Atsumu’s Wunderkammer pockets despite Kiyoomi’s best efforts — as a sappy memento. Saved it even though the paper was stained with two interlinked coffee rings — because the paper was stained with two interlinked coffee rings? — and even though Atsumu had drawn dicks all over it or were those supposed to be cucumbers? Zucchinis? Ears of corn?

And Atsumu big hands, Atsumu callused hands, sitting across the table from him, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth as he de-seeds everything for him, Kiyoomi watching every time because he wouldn’t miss it for the world. The smaller the seeds, the better, and — ridiculous, mortifying, something to bring up in therapy, maybe — it never fails to make Kiyoomi hard; not the act, not the procedure, but the gesture. Atsumu disrobes grapefruits and oranges for Kiyoomi too, peeling off the individual segment membranes inch by inch and popping them in his mouth. He’ll curse under his breath if they have the audacity to rip before he's done tearing them all the way off, but he’ll laugh if the juice squirts in his eye. Sometimes, it'll run between Atsumu’s fingers and Kiyoomi is yet to work up the nerve to kiss it off his skin but wanting to— wanting to is more than enough. On those afternoons — Atsumu’s cuticles stained orange, the sun’s kaleidoscopes spinning all over the kitchen floor in a folk dance — blood flows through Kiyoomi’s half fig of a heart freely, its currents swift and its destinations true. Would it be too much to spend a lifetime like this, inventing tasks for someone who’s so eager to perform them? Sometimes Atsumu, only human, will miss a seed or two, and Kiyoomi never tells him, loves him all the more for it, because it is love, and Kiyoomi, a reformed nonbeliever, marveling at his adolescent cynicism.

Atsumu cactus murderer, Atsumu hay fever sufferer, and he might not be lovely, but by God, is he loved.

Kiyoomi’s no poet but, even so, maybe there is something not unlike a metaphor here somewhere. They’ve been each other’s vade mecum on affection and Kiyoomi knows it’d make perfect sense to treat this first of loves as a springboard and reference book, to learn from it and apply the knowledge elsewhere, in future entanglements, but he doesn’t want that: this is his private backyard tree, grown from the seed and nurtured through droughts and floods. Its fruits are not for export, its flowers not for sale — even if, one day, lightning will strike it or a government official will insist that they fell it, it is theirs and theirs alone. Kiyoomi might press its leaves between book pages just in case but he’s not letting it go.

*

“You were looking for a trash can to throw your gloves in because you’d been shopping,” Motoya repeats slowly.

“Correct.”

“And your hands got sweaty because the gloves were latex.”

“Correct.”

“And you found the trash can.”

“Correct.”

“And threw the gloves away.”

“Correct.”

“Together with your ring.”

“Correct.”

“Because you didn’t notice that it’d slid off your finger.”

“Correct.”

“And now you’re sitting next to the trash can, panicking about it.”

“Correct.”

“Because the gloves landed inside a half-empty yogurt cup and who even eats yogurt in the park, what the fuck.”

“Correct.”

“And there’s a banana peel, too.”

“Correct.”

“And an apple core.”

“Correct.”

“And a diaper.”

“Correct.”

“And you love Atsumu, you do, but not that much.”

“…”

“Don’t you go quiet on me! Your words, Kiyo!”

Kiyoomi hangs up.

*

But Kiyoomi does love Atsumu that much, and then some. It took them a while to get there — the road had been more than a little bumpy and pothole-ridden, to say nothing of the collapsed bridges or under-construction tunnels — and then an arguably longer while to realize that they’d arrived somewhere but arrive they had, no matter for how brief a stay.

To Kiyoomi’s dismay, Atsumu was the first to catch on. They’d been together-together for hard-to-say going on wow-has-it-really-been-this-long months and Kiyoomi heard him practice it in front of the mirror: how he choked on the ‘lo’ of it and couldn’t go on until he tried swapping the word for a different one. I love you became I loan you became I loaf of bread you. I lousy you and I loony you but I loyal you. I loud you but I don’t want to lose you and I don’t loathe you, not even a bit, not at all alone all alone and then you, my lollipop you.

You idiot, Kiyoomi thought as he eavesdropped away. Why would you do this when you know I’m in the apartment?

You absolute idiot, he cried into the crook of his elbow, trying to muffle the sound.

Don’t just loan me, or something. Fucking keep me.

And later, when they curled up on the couch, going through the motions of slotting their bones together like a pair of well-oiled door hinges:

“You idiot,” Kiyoomi said, already taking a deep breath to tell Atsumu that they were not watching The Brave Little Toaster for the third time that month, only, lo and behold, what came out instead was we’re not watching The Brave Little Lobster, and Atsumu said what, and Kiyoomi said what, and Atsumu said what what, and Kiyoomi said I love you because to say it was the only thing he wanted more than he wanted to hear it and God, he needed a lobotomy but Atsumu— Atsumu, who’d been unlonelifying him for months, gasped and said,

YAFUCKERYAHEARDMEYASNEAKYLITTLE—

And then he said,

WHATDOYAMEANYALOVEME?

and then said,

ILOVEDYAFIRSTYANNO

and then,

ILOVEYAMORE

and,

LOVEYATOO

,

love ya

.

No, scratch the period, keep the cursor there, don’t end the sentence just yet — not the sentence, not the paragraph, and certainly not the chapter.

Backtrack a few pages, find the dog-eared one, and yes, here:

For Kiyoomi, it’s hate at first sight with Osaka. The wheel of his suitcase gets stuck as soon as he gets off the train, the sweltering heat wastes no time roosting in his lungs, and the aromas of street food overwhelm him as he stands on the curb and waits for his outdated phone’s Google Maps to catch up. Kiyoomi is learning that he must be a sentimental guy because he’s certainly not here for the sights: home is where the heart is and Kiyoomi’s, plagued and puny though it might be, has been marauding for the past few years, tired of surviving on email threads and phone calls, spitting out the same coordinates like a broken record time after time. It takes some nerve to be this fussy when begging for nourishment but never let it be said that Kiyoomi can’t be benevolent: he’s here to feed his heart quiet, tired of its staccato beseeching.

Before signing his contract, he hesitates only once: he’s supposed to be a surprise but what if he’s a bad one?

Atsumu, who wheedled Kiyoomi’s number out of Motoya years ago now, Kiyoomi, who’d been hoping that he would — Kiyoomi, who’s been screenshotting all their messages and uploading them to a password-protected external hard drive like the most diligent of archivists, assembling a mortifying chronicle of abbreviations, typos, and grammatical errors.  

It’s too late for second-guessing. The train ticket cost too much, back in Tokyo, Kiyoomi’s frugal youth has been packed into cardboard boxes, and Kiyoomi already died of Atsumu’s proximity — now, it’s time to live in it, for worse or for worser.

And Atsumu’s smile coming off its hinges as he walks into the room and sees him, Atsumu’s eyes filling with tears as he insists it was a fly, a fly, I swear, swatting at imaginary insects and Omi, are ya really here or has Samu fed me somethin’ weird again?.

Kiyoomi so there that he can’t take it, back in Tokyo, FRAGILE on all his boxes even though only some of them contain breakables.

I’m shipping my life to your address, Kiyoomi thinks aggressively as he basks in Atsumu’s presence. What are you going to do about it?

Atsumu, popping bubble wrap one week later, Atsumu, wearing it like a cape.

“If ya’ll have me—”

To have, yes, but to hold?

“It’s just that,” Kiyoomi tries to explain, “there was a fly in my eye just now.”

Here’s how it was supposed to go:

Atsumu was supposed to chomp on Kiyoomi’s fossilized heart, spit it out after one bite, and stomp all over it, too.

Here’s how it’s going:

Atsumu’s smile is an ellipsis and, every day without fail, he hands Kiyoomi a pen so that Kiyoomi can start the new sentence, each conversation a collaborative effort instead of two soliloquies that exist simultaneously, each moment like a document they’re drafting together instead of a file passed back and forth and marked up in red.

“This is Omi, but you’re not allowed ta call him that,” is what Atsumu opens with when he introduces him to Osamu. “He sprained my nose once, remember?”

This is Atsumu, Kiyoomi reminds himself every day, just in case. He sprained your heart once, remember?

Atsumu loves Osaka so much that, by the time fall rolls around, leaves kindling on tree branches, Kiyoomi has let the resentment go and accepted the city for an ally: every now and then, he and its streets conspire to bring Atsumu to his favorite eateries and, eventually, Kiyoomi takes to some himself, develops a fondness for the seafood specials and for the configurations of burn scars on the chattier chefs’ hands, Osamu the chattiest of them all. Kiyoomi’s got a few stunted childhoods under his belt, but they don’t look half bad taken out of their boxes and nudged into interactions with Atsumu’s own all over the fast-shrinking shelf space: home is where the heart is and Kiyoomi’s has been building its nest down South for a while now.

“Let’s get a plant,” Atsumu mumbles sleepily into the crook of Kiyoomi’s shoulder after their win against the Adlers.

“A plant,” Kiyoomi repeats dubiously. “We’ll kill it.”

“Collateral damage,” Atsumu sighs. “I like ya so much, but I have ta ration it a little so as not ta freak ya out, yanno? Need somethin’ ta take out all this affection on.”

So they get a plant and, true to his word, Atsumu overwaters it to death. Perhaps it was to be expected with a cactus, but Kiyoomi still indulges in a smile upon the sight of its rotting remains.

To have, he decides when he deposits it in the wastebin, and to hold.

To have and to keep.

*

In the end, Kiyoomi calls the only person he can realistically call, stranded next to a thief of an Osaka trash can as he is.

“Omi?” Atsumu says, picking up on the third ring. “Ya good?”

“No,” Kiyoomi reports shakily. “Not good at all.”

*

Atsumu getting distracted with a peck on the cheek and letting Kiyoomi snatch the remote. Atsumu ransacking Osaka for Kiyoomi’s favorite brand of toilet paper. Atsumu brushing his teeth after every meal for three minutes rather than the recommended two. Atsumu sticking ‘I LOVE YOU’ Post-Its on the mirror. Atsumu leaving a trail of wet footsteps all over the apartment for Kiyoomi to follow. Atsumu the weighted blanket, Atsumu the versatile cuddler, fond of being both the little and the bigger spoon, Atsumu the thorough toothbrush rinser, and, best of all, Atsumu the amateur singer, crooning a nursery rhyme right in Kiyoomi’s ear.

They messed up a few times, of course they did. Sixteen, eighteen, twenty: there was that time Kiyoomi almost decided that picking the lock to Atsumu’s heart wasn’t worth the effort without realizing that the door was unlatched, and that time Atsumu almost blew up the bunker of Kiyoomi’s own heart, tired of waiting for Kiyoomi to let him in, but now— now they’ve got this garden of theirs and sure, it needs regular weeding out, but it's nothing to scoff at. So yeah, they’ve made some mistakes — who hasn’t? — but, for every bad call, how many good ones and what wealth of effort for fertilizer besides.

Atsumu, who deseeds everything for Kiyoomi, and if they were to break up, Kiyoomi would die of scurvy: he simply wouldn’t be able to stomach any vegetable, any fruit.

*

“Omi, sweetheart,” Atsumu gasps, red and out of breath as he surveys him with a worried frown. “What the everlovin’ fuck?”

Kiyoomi can’t help it: he bursts into tears.

*

Two roads diverged in Osaka and here’s the one they didn’t take:

Atsumu hiccupping I promise I didn’t pop all the bubble wrap ta keep ya from leavin’ through tears as Kiyoomi rocked back and forth because he’d almost gotten it all wrong: for a moment there, he believed that he was strapped in the backseat of a car, Atsumu behind the wheel, about to drive them off a bridge — for a moment there, he was dead serious about emptying the shelves — that’s including the one that Atsumu had made for him — of his belongings.

And then Atsumu came back from Onigiri Miya, pushing a cart loaded with cardboard boxes, and announced that he’d help him pack one sniffle at a time, resolved to let Kiyoomi drop that soft-boiled heart of his — the one he’d handed over just like that, no questions asked. “I brought duct tape,” he added miserably after a pause, and, as Kiyoomi took it from him, he realized that their relationship was no car and that Atsumu was no drunk driver.

No, rather, he was the seatbelt and the neck pillow, the road atlas and the road.

*

“…And I wanted to buy a new pair of gloves and try to reach it — I did buy a new pair of gloves — but I couldn’t because the yogurt cup and the banana peel and the apple core and the— the— the—”

“The diaper?” Atsumu suggests gently, crouched in front of him with a sympathetic half-smile.

“The diaper,” Kiyoomi confirms. “I was so scared that someone would come and empty the trash can while I was buying the gloves, but it doesn’t matter since I’m clearly too selfish to retrieve the ring anyway.”

“Selfish?” Atsumu repeats, with an expression so sad that Kiyoomi wants to punch himself for putting it on his face. “Don’t talk like that about yerself, Omi.”

“But I am,” Kiyoomi insists. “I can’t even get my hands — my gloves — dirty for you.”

“So?” Atsumu shrugs, frowning at him.

So?” Kiyoomi hiccups, incredulous. “How am I supposed to marry you if I can’t even do this?”

All this talk of marrying but it’s not like they’re in a hurry. There’s the (il)legality of it all on one hand and the fact that Kiyoomi likes to think they’ve already tied the proverbial knot in all the ways that count on the other. Even the ring was — is — more of a wedding band and Kiyoomi got Atsumu a matching one ages ago, after a number of afternoons spent agonizing over it with Osamu rolling his eyes at every option because they all look the fuckin’ same, Sakusa-san, and why am I helpin’ ya pick one when I already helped Tsumu, anyway, huh?. Really, the fact that Kiyoomi has gotten so used to wearing the simple band — used to slipping it off before every practice — is probably why he didn’t realize he accidentally threw it away until it was too late.

Still: Atsumu’s mother, cooing over the bands, all boys, wouldn’t it be lovely if we held the ceremony here, in the garden? I’m not great with heels but even I shouldn’t trip leadin’ this one ta the altar if it’s in my own backyard.

Still: Kiyoomi doesn’t tan easily but there’s a pale ring of skin on his finger and he’d probably feel less naked if he didn’t have any pants on.

“Woah,” Atsumu says, eyes widening in panic. “Now ya suddenly don’t wanna marry me anymore?”

“I do want to,” Kiyoomi assures him. “I just don’t see how I can, after dropping my ring in the trash.”

“Jeez, babe, it’s nothin’ ta cry about,” Atsumu sighs, sagging with relief. “I’ll just get ya a new one.”

“I don’t want a new one,” Kiyoomi insists, and he knows that he must sound like a little kid objecting to eating his greens, but this is the ring that Atsumu put inside an umeboshi inside a box inside an onigiri — this is the ring that almost killed Kiyoomi and Kiyoomi, who’d been born scared of dying but wouldn’t have had it any other way. “I want this one.”

Atsumu’s eyes — already soft — soften as he scratches the back of his neck. “All right, love, I hear ya,” he sighs. “So, ya still got those gloves?”

*

When they left the hospital, Atsumu wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“It’s a yes,” Kiyoomi repeated for the umpteenth time. “But Tsumu, whatever were you thinking.”

The moon was lounging overhead, bloated like it’d spent the evening snacking on stars, and Kiyoomi memorized this too: Atsumu drenched in its secondhand light after clumsy promises of commitment and the hoarseness of Kiyoomi’s throat, not to be blamed on the ring at all.

“I was thinkin’ of how ya used to walk around lookin’ all dazed, like ya couldn’t believe that I loved you,” Atsumu shrugged. “I was thinkin’, and if I did ya one better and loved ya forever? What would ya do about it?”

Atsumu hadn’t been Kiyoomi’s first kiss, his first crush, or his first wet dream, but he was his first I want to keep you, his first I want to give you flowers, his first so I will.

“I suppose I’d let you,” Kiyoomi said truthfully, reaching for Atsumu’s shaky hand. “I suppose I’d do my best to handle it better than our cactus did.”

And sure, it wasn’t legal, but Kiyoomi didn’t care — he started composing vows in his head anyway:

Life is a lottery and I spent years losing but if you’re my consolation prize, then consider me more than consoled.

Speaking of stories, I’ve got a good one, too: how do you win a lottery without ever playing? Well:

*

“There!” Atsumu says triumphantly, winking at Kiyoomi through the freshly disinfected ring as he holds it up to his eye. “Don’t cry anymore, okay, babe?”

But that, predictably, only makes Kiyoomi cry all the harder.

“Hey now,” Atsumu says softly, crouching in front of him again. “What’s up, Omi.”

It’s a Tuesday. In the morning, Kiyoomi was woken up with a kiss and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, at night, he’s not going to fall asleep on one of his teammates’ couches after all. Above them, the stubbed-out cigarette of the sun is sluggish in its descent as if it, too, wants to see this resolved, and a cup of tea would be nice, sure, but a time machine would be even nicer, and perhaps if Tesla had lived a little longer…

I’ve only got this one life is such a commonplace sentiment but what if every day Atsumu has given Kiyoomi so far was nothing more than a bad investment?

“Sometimes, I just don’t get it,” Kiyoomi shrugs awkwardly. “Why you put up with me, I mean.”

The sad truth is that, after years of abstinence and hunger strikes, Kiyoomi latched onto Atsumu with the gluttony of a leech and he’s nowhere near done sucking him dry: he turns down the heating in winter, not to save energy but so that Atsumu will cuddle him under a blanket, he steps out onto their balcony when it rains, not because he likes being wet but so that Atsumu will tut and dry his hair with a towel for him, he makes up aches and ailments, not because he’s in pain but so that Atsumu will kiss, massage, adore them better. Love is a buffet and Kiyoomi, plate always laden with food, has developed this nasty habit of coming for seconds before he’s done with his firsts.

But, “Ya goof,” Atsumu laughs. “I don’t ‘put up’ with ya.”

“Then?” Kiyoomi croaks.

Atsumu smiles and winks at him through the ring again. He can’t even wink with one eye, so it comes off as aggressive blinking, and Kiyoomi used to feel so barren but God, how he longs to reciprocate — how he longs to be a granary of love for him.  

“Half the time, ya let me win when we wrestle fer the remote,” Atsumu says, ticking it off on his fingers.

“I do— I do not,” Kiyoomi protests horrified.

“Do too,” Atsumu laughs, seeing right through him. “Normally, yer a pain in the ass about hangin’ toilet paper ‘over’ but ya never mention it when ya know my head’s been all over the place.”

“I’m not a pain in the ass,” Kiyoomi glares at him. “It’s the hygienic way.”

“Ya let me use the bathroom first if I need it even though I always make a mess,” Atsumu goes on. “Hell, ya share a bathroom with me in the first place.”

“I can’t believe it, either,” Kiyoomi sighs.

“And — I’m particularly fond of this one — ya always follow the trail of wet footprints I leave all over the apartment after a shower just ta give me a kiss.”

“You smell nice after a shower,” Kiyoomi shrugs self-consciously.

“Ya never wake me up when yer the bigger spoon, not even when it gives ya a dead arm.”

Kiyoomi looks away, fiddling with the hem of his sleeve.

“Ya almost tore our neighbor a new one when he insulted my singin’ even though ya hate it yerself,” Atsumu concludes softly, cocking his head at Kiyoomi.

“I don’t hate it,” Kiyoomi protests automatically, and then, when Atsumu gives him a look, “but I suppose I’m missing the point.”

“Yeah, I say,” Atsumu laughs. “Get it now?”

Kiyoomi has been sitting here for hours, dozens of passersby have given him odd looks, and he’s all itchy after his fiasco of a day, but—

But here’s Atsumu, braving dirty diapers and freckled banana peels for him and all it took was one phone call.

Does Kiyoomi get it?

And then Atsumu gently grabs him by the wrist. “But my favorite thing,” he says as he slides the band on the ring finger of Kiyoomi’s left hand, “is how ya don’t actually hate seeds.”

Kiyoomi, all cried out, closes his eyes and smiles.

*

Kiyoomi’s phone is outdated because of a single voicemail left by a nineteen-years-old Atsumu that he can’t quite bring himself to part with:

Omi, no offense, but yer a little like the flu and calculus and constipation. Sometimes ya make sense but sometimes ya don’t: sometimes I make sense but sometimes I don’t. I think of ya when I eat plums — so far so good — but then I think of ya when I eat fatty tuna, too, and how do ya explain that? It’s like bein’ abducted by aliens, except yer an earthlin’ and ya refuse ta kidnap me even though I’ve volunteered so many times. I mean, this fuckin’ sucks. Yer off in college, within a five-mile radius of fuckin’ Ushiwaka and I’m stuck here, warmin’ the bench and thinkin’ of ya as I change my socks, order coffee, pretend ta clean the apartment, actually clean the apartment, serve, receive, sleep, wake, floss — I do, too, shut up! — get dressed, get undressed, mast— icate while eatin’ my greens, bye now!

Oh, no, wait, one more thing!

Sometimes, I don’t think of ya. Sometimes, I forget ta. But that’s the best thing, yanno? Because whenever I forget, it just means that, soon, I’ll get ta remember.

For Kiyoomi, the voicemail marked a tipping point: back then, he still owed Atsumu a proper yes, but that did it. He didn’t even have to replay it — though he would, over and over again — to realize that he, too, lived for the joy of remembering Atsumu, for the ‘oh’ over a bite of tuna and for the gasp over the chime of spare change, for that beautiful, random ‘fuck, he exists’.

There are countless ways to love a person: you can love someone like cherry trees love loam soil and like photographers love sunsets, like compasses love North and like hummingbirds love nectar, like teeth love dental floss and like sails love wind, like students love chai lattes and like flames love petrol, like fathers love GPS and like monarch caterpillars love milkweed, like plates love breaking and like doorstops love stubbing toes, like tea leaves love steeping and like customers love complaining, like ovens love dough and like doves love other doves, like mouths love rice and like spikers love their setters.

But here’s a thought: his finger is still getting used to the weight, the feel of the ring when it occurs to Kiyoomi that he ought to love Atsumu like Atsumu loves him.

*

But enough of this guerilla lovefare — enough of overwatered cactuses and deseeded tomatoes because even Kiyoomi’s fig of a heart is empty of seeds now: all that cleared-up space and what now?

“Tsumu,” Kiyoomi says as they stop for a red light on their way home. “Marry me.”

Atsumu coughs and then slowly rotates his head to look at him. “What do ya mean, marry me?” he squeaks, already panicking. “We’ve already got the proposal covered, Omi, remember? Ya said yes, too! No take backsies! I mean, I won’t chain ya in the basement but—”

“We don’t have a basement,” Kiyoomi reminds him. “Atsumu, I mean it.”

The light blue now, and neither of them moving.

“But—”

“I know,” Kiyoomi cuts Atsumu off. “I just think it’s unfair you’re the only one who got to ask, is all.”

Kiyoomi’s heart that, exercised through all that loving, developed into something worthy of being called a muscle — Kiyoomi’s heart like a seedling that outgrew its pot and Atsumu both the road atlas and the road — after all their travels, Kiyoomi’s heart finally the capital city of the country of him.

“Ah,” Atsumu sniffles, eyes already filling with tears. “In that case, yeah, I guess I will marry ya, Omi.”

That open, gateway ‘O’ of it and now everything, everything.