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Mosquito at my ear—
does it think
I’m deaf?  

-Issa

 

--

Cigarette smoke drifted through the convenience store. Keishin was leaned back on his stool behind the counter, about halfway through the long, quiet hours between lunchtime and when school let out. He’d read this week’s Shounen Jump comics three times. The shelves were restocked, and he was halfway through dusting. He had told himself he would finish up the rest after a quick smoke.

He studied the familiar patterns of cracks and smoke stains on the wall opposite him and exhaled again. The bright colors of the snack wrappers and soft drink advertisements around him seemed washed out through the haze of smoke. He could see the clouded sky through the windows. The only sounds in the shop were his own.

He liked this, the way time dragged out as he inhaled and exhaled and everything was still.

He had about twenty minutes before his ma would be home to watch the store. He vaguely wondered if that’d be enough time to clear the smell of cigarettes out of the shop or if he’d get another lecture. But fuck it, he’d probably get lectured no matter what he did. It might as well be about this.

He took a long drag from the cigarette.

It’s not like it was a mystery why his folks had high expectations for him. He was their only child, set to inherit two family businesses and a sports legacy through his grandfather’s name. Of course they’d hoped for a son who’d match their vision of the hardworking family man.

But instead, they’d gotten Keishin: juvenile delinquent and unambitious fag.

He’d outgrown the delinquency and gotten his shit together years ago, but people in this town had long memories. He was pretty sure the Suzukis still looked at him and could only see his bike crashed in their garden and their son in tears. His ma never said anything about it, but he knew it still bothered her too.

He exhaled another long trail of smoke into the store.

People would probably see him differently once he got married. Most folks around here saw you as a kid until you were hitched. It didn’t really matter how much time had passed since your troubled school days; unless you accomplished something big or found yourself a wife (preferably both) you’d always be a loser in their eyes.

Which was too bad, since his lack of ambition and complete disinterest in women had definitely stuck around.

He snuffed out his cigarette in the ashtray he kept hidden behind the counter. Then he grabbed the shop’s duster and set back to work. He could take pride in this, at least.

The duster struck softly against the shelves, and Keishin hummed to himself, as was his habit. It didn’t make the dull interior of the shop seem any brighter, but it passed the time.

Today it was an old song, one he remembered listening to his grandfather sing when he was little. Humming the first few lines broke the silence of the shop. “Your eyes were sparkling,” he sang softly, his throat rough from the smoke, “Time has passed away, another summer's here...”

He liked this song. When his grandfather had sung it he’d seemed so wistful, like there was a lifetime of memories rolled into the notes of an overplayed 70s ballad. It was one of the few times he could recall the man seeming (almost) vulnerable.

His grandfather didn’t sing much anymore.

“The rapids seem the same as they were on that day. The stream sounds graceful in this forest town.”

Keishin had no such wistful memories of his own, no particular eyes to recall fondly. But he imagined, and the lyrics were as old and comfortably familiar to him as the rest of this town.

This town.

He could feel it sometimes, the patterns of his life slowly stretching from days to months to years. He could spend his entire life following the same routine he had now.

He probably would.

Not like that’d be the worst thing in the fucking world, right?

He had a good life, really. Good friends, a family that cared, and just enough money for a few bad habits and some savings at the end of the month.

Anything else was just extra he didn’t need.

“But I'm sad you've gone…” He was cut off at the end of the verse by his phone alarm buzzing. Time to get ready to go.

He put the duster away, half-heartedly waved some fresh air in from the window, and straightened a few items on the front shelves.

Oppressive silence returned to the shop.

His ma was late.

He shifted and glanced at the clock again.

It had only been a couple minutes.

Still.

It wasn’t like anyone was likely to come in. He ducked into the back door that led to their house, and with a quick, practiced motion he tossed his shop apron onto a hook on his way through the entryway while he kicked off his shoes. He ran upstairs, grabbed his gym clothes, and changed into them as fast as he could. He spritzed a little febreze on his jacket to dispel the stink of tobacco and took his ear piercings out.

There. Almost respectable enough to show his face at the school.

He sprinted back downstairs right as his ma opened the door.

“Keishin, you would not believe what Kinoshita-san said about—“ she started into a rant, apparently oblivious to the time.

“Sorry Ma, I gotta go,” he said as he made for the door, “I’m coaching tonight.”

“Alright, alright. But we’re not waiting for you for dinner,” she complained. “You’re always out too late. I’ll save you some leftovers.”

“Yeah okay, thanks,” he said, then jogged down the street and up the hill toward Karasuno High School.

--

The gym was bright, and the squeak of sneakers and the shouts of his team echoed through the space. Keishin felt his shoulders stretch back and relax as he walked through the doors.

“Watch the force you use to send the ball back! Make sure it doesn’t go out of bounds!” he barked as he strode up to the net. The students’ attention shifted to him for a split second then snapped back to the ball, quick to follow his orders. The team’s drive to excel was thrilling and contagious.

Keishin took his spot near the side of the court, his eyes going over the action around the net.

The students moved quickly and with varying levels of coordination. Keishin watched them, noting where an elbow needed to be shifted, a stance made wider, steps lighter. He pointed out what he could and directed them to the practice activities that he remembered helped him the most when he was in high school. Every order was followed quickly as the team scrambled from exercise to exercise, desperate to improve under his instruction.

Everything here was constant noise and motion, and his mind felt clear and sharp. The kids were irritating as hell to deal with off the court, constantly squabbling with each other and shouting with excitement.  But here…

Yamaguchi finally managed to pull off the slide-receive they were practicing. Keishin smiled.

…Here on the court the kids were focused, their energy directed into pushing themselves to master the game, to grow, to win.

Hinata blundered and took a ball to the face.

…aaaand they were still like baby chicks when it came to skill. But they were his baby chicks, and he’d raise ‘em up until they were strong enough to go beat all the other kids.

“They’re working especially hard today,” came a voice from beside him, “The upcoming inter-highs must have them really fired up!”

It was Takeda. Keishin tried not to show his startle too much. He’d been so focused on the team he hadn’t even noticed the shorter man’s approach.

“Sensei.” Keishin didn’t look at him. He kept his eyes focused on the players, their movements and the timing of their plays.

Besides, he knew damn well what Takeda looked like.

He forced his mind to focus back on the practice. He pointed out a few things here and there to Takeda, small things to help him understand the flow of the game and where they should head next. Takeda nodded along, took diligent notes, and asked questions with the sort of eager brightness that Keishin had come to expect from the man.

It was fun, talking to Takeda. And teaching the kids.

Takeda shifted, and his arm brushed Keishin’s elbow slightly as he flipped his notebook to a new page. Keishin’s voice caught mid-sentence, a brief stutter before he continued on. Still. It was fine. He knew how to keep his cool.

In a few hours the practice was over. It was time that always seemed to fly by.

The kids cleaned up with minimal complaining, though Keishin noticed that Tsukishima snuck off before any of the difficult tasks got started. Damn kid, wasn’t he a first year? He wished he’d caught the lanky asshole before he snuck off.

But still, they got everything put away in a reasonable amount of time before he shooed the kids out of the gym. He told them to go home and eat a real meal, no dawdling at the convenience store and eating junk food this time. Their practices had been running later as they got closer to the tournament, so it was well past dinnertime and close to when he knew his ma would be trying to close up the shop.

He went back inside to grab his jacket. Takeda was gathering his things and checking for lost belongings before they closed up. Once he seemed satisfied, he gave a little nod to himself and looked up at Keishin.

Keishin tried to ignore the fact that they were alone.

“Thank you for staying for clean-up, Ukai-kun.” Takeda beamed up at him, and this time Keishin had nothing to focus on but the handsome teacher’s earnest smile and bright eyes. “You really didn’t have to. I know you’re quite busy.”

“S’ nothin’.” Keishin mumbled. It was true he didn’t exactly have a lot of free time, but Takeda made it sound like was some kind of busy family man or a powerful executive managing a corporation… and not a single guy with what amounted to a few part-time jobs.

“No, no, I really appreciate everything you do for the team,” Takeda reached into his bag and pulled out a brightly-colored gift bag. “Here, this is for you!”

Keishin’s mood leapt up a few degrees higher as he took the bag and peeked inside. “Sake!”

Takeda laughed a little, “I told you I’d bring a bottle last time. It’s long overdue. I realized that I never thanked you properly for all the hard work you’ve put into the team.”

Takeda was still smiling at him. He was so damn cute. Keishin cleared his throat while his brain caught up.

“You put a lot into this yourself, Sensei. Y’know I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you,” Keishin grinned, unable to keep himself from teasing, “and your incredible persistence.”

“All the more reason I owe you!” Takeda’s shoulders squared, and Keishin realized he was about to enter the same mode of polite insistence he’d seen too many times before.

“Well, I need to get some grub, then maybe we can share it?” the words left Keishin’s mouth before he thought too hard about it, caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment with Takeda.

Takeda relaxed and grinned, “Of course! Let me lock up and then we’ll go.”

Keishin stepped outside and willed his eyes away from Takeda’s back while he locked up the gym.

Keishin didn’t know what he was doing anymore.

His initial plan had been to stay as far away from the young teacher as possible, with his voice and his cute looks and his earnest enthusiasm for a washed-up high school volleyball team. He had ignored the man’s pleas to coach for the team, had been rude to him on the phone, and had given him a massive laundry list of his own character flaws and other reasons why he shouldn’t be involved, and Takeda had countered them all. Then, the man had shown up at Keishin’s shop in a fucking suit to ask him to be coach, like it was some kinda proposal, and Keishin had felt himself simultaneously swoon at the attention and desperately want the man as far away from him as possible.

Keishin reached for his pack of cigarettes.

In the end, none of that had mattered as much as the team itself. Takeda had managed to stir up old connections, found Keishin’s high school rivals for a practice game, and before he knew it he was sucked into coaching the team. That was just a few months ago. Now he couldn’t even imagine quitting. His pride was riding on it, and it was good to be a mentor—even if he was kinda shitty at it. These kids had potential and it was worth it to help them fulfill it. It was worth the extra shifts on the farm, and the weird hours, and the headaches from all the kids shouting at each other all the time…. and the effort it took to hide his stupid little crush on their teacher.

Takeda turned to him as he flicked his lighter and the cigarette began to glow.

“Sorry,” Keishin grumbled after a quick puff, “it’s been a while since I had a smoke.”

“No worries, Ukai-kun. What would you like to eat?”

“Hmmm, okonomiyaki ok?”

Takeda nodded happily. They started walking, and the cigarette helped soothe Keishin’s nerves. Of course, he had no damn reason to be nervous in the first place. His head could play whatever games with him it liked, but he knew that this was nothing but a couple of colleagues sharing a drink.

Takeda suggested they get the food as carry-out and head to his place so they could start early on the bottle of sake. They both had work in the morning, a fact that Takeda cheerfully pointed out and Keishin tried to ignore. He wasn’t ready to think about his pre-dawn shift yet, let alone what it’d be like after the sake, even if they started early.

But fuck it. It’d been weeks since he’d really taken an evening to relax.

The okonomiyaki place turned out to be on the way to Takeda’s and the walk only took thirty minutes. While they walked they discussed the players, the nuances between different receiving and blocking techniques, and a few logistical challenges around how they’d get everyone to the next tournament. The conversation was safe and easy, and by the time they turned to walk up the steps of Takeda’s apartment building Keishin had forgotten to be nervous at all.

He’d never seen Takeda’s place before. He’d pictured it in his mind sometimes, in hazy fantasies that popped up during the long hours at his shop or in his bed just before sleep. He tried not to dwell on them. They were really stupid fantasies.

This was reality. And in reality, Takeda lived in a one-room apartment that screamed bachelorhood. They shuffled awkwardly in the entryway, not quite enough space for both of them to take their shoes off at once. Then they stepped through a tiny, cramped kitchen that seemed well-kept until Keishin realized it just hadn’t been used in a while, if the dust on the stove was any indicator. After that things opened up again to a modest room with a kotatsu table surrounded by three ratty cushions and one expensive-looking one with an ergonomic back support. All along the walls were an absurd number of bookshelves, all full. Keishin’s mind had gotten that part right, at least. The only gaps in the lines of shelves were for a storage closet and the glass doors that led out onto a small balcony. There were more books scattered around the floor, mostly teaching references and a few about volleyball.

“S-sorry about the mess,” Takeda moved a few dirty glasses off of the table and nudged some of the books out of the way, “I haven’t had the chance to clean up much lately. I promise it’s just clutter, mostly!”

Keishin set the food on the table and eyed a huge stack of papers on the floor nearby, “Been busy with work?”

“No more than usual. Please, sit!” Takeda motioned to the cushions, and Keishin sat down on one of the older-looking ones. Takeda sat across from him and began opening the carryout. “I really can’t complain. I’m the junior teacher here and I knew what I was getting myself into when I set myself on this path.”

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Keishin said. “Doesn’t mean you can’t complain about it to a friend once ‘n a while.”

Takeda’s gaze flicked down to the tabletop, his lashes catching the light for a moment with a shy smile.

Yes. Friends. Keishin let the word settle in his mind, both warm and ill-fitting. He knew most people didn’t have crushes on their friends. But maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with being the kind of person who did, provided he kept it to himself.

Takeda opened the bottle of sake with a flourish, “To hard work, and to the friends that turn burdens into blessings!”

Keishin grinned, took the bottle, and filled Takeda’s glass. He sloshed a little at the end and spilled a few drops onto his hand, but no big deal. He pushed the glass toward Takeda and licked the stray drops off his thumb.

Takeda made a noise, just on the edge of hearing. Keishin froze and cleared his throat, suddenly self-conscious of his manners.

He must think I was raised in a damn barn.

Takeda filled Keishin’s glass and set it down, apparently too polite to say anything about his inability to pour sake. “How are things with the Neighborhood Association Team?”

“Hm, they’re alright. We’ll be having our own set of matches soon, about a week or two after the Inter-High. Nothin’ big, just some of the other guys from the towns nearby. Our team’s been too busy to practice much lately, but it is how it is.” He took a drink before continuing, “In any case, I have no intention of losing.”

Takeda nodded as he finished chewing his bite of food, then his brow furrowed. “Is your time acting as coach hurting your neighborhood team?”

“Nah, everyone’s busy this time of year. I think Shimada and Takinoue and I might even have an edge over the rest of the guys, given that we help out with the Karasuno team,” Keishin took a bite and grumbled, “and none of us are married.”

“I imagine a new marriage would keep a person occupied.”

“Eh, the married guys are alright honestly. I’m just bein’ salty about it because my folks won’t get off my back since a few of them got hitched last summer. Anyway, what about you?”

“Oh, my family doesn’t really bring it up.”

“No, no, I mean… how are things? Outside of work and the team?”

“Oh, they’re good! I’ve been reading this new book, though it’s taking me quite a while to finish. It’s funny, it used to be that I could finish a novel or two in an afternoon. Now that I’m a teacher, I tell my students to read all the time, but meanwhile I can barely finish a dozen pages between coming home from work and falling asleep.”

“That’s not so bad.” Keishin hadn’t read anything but comics in over a year… but he wasn’t about to bring that up now. “Though, you’re eating in there too, right?”

Takeda held up his half-empty takeout container, “Of course!”

Keishin refilled Takeda’s glass, careful not to spill this time. “So what’s the book about?” Keishin figured it was probably some kind of historical action story, given the man’s obsession with sports and fighting spirit.

“Oh, ah. It’s a collection of poetry, actually.” Takeda reached over and topped Keishin’s glass off.

“Poetry?”

Takeda set the bottle down then rubbed the back of his head, “Yes, sorry it’s not more interesting to talk about.”

Keishin was pretty sure that he hadn’t even had a full glass yet, but he could already feel a pleasant buzz from the alcohol. “It makes sense you’re a fan. You always get so poetic when you talk to the team.”

Takeda ducked his head, “S-sorry.”

“Nah, it’s good. Somebody has to be inspiring. Do you see me sayin’ any fine words when the kids’re down?”

“I think you do very well, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin snorted and looked down at his own mostly-finished takeout. “Whatever you say, sensei.” He dragged the last bite across the bottom of the container to soak up the remaining sauces. He’d saved the most promising piece for last.

“No, I mean it. You said over and over again that you couldn’t teach, but you’ve done more for the team than I ever could on my own.”

Keishin could feel his cheeks getting hot. He told himself it was just the sake, then deflected the compliment. “Sure, when I’m not making metaphors about booze in front of minors.”

“Technically, it was a simile. And it was only once! I’ve seen the way you guide them, and unlike me, your expectations never get carried away. You keep us all stable.”

Keishin downed the rest of his sake. It was too fast and he’d probably regret it later, but it kept him from having to respond to the string of compliments. Since when was he the stability in anything?

“You really inspire me to improve as a teacher, you know?”

“Hey,” Keishin coughed at the burn of the sake, grateful for the excuse to cover his face a little, “Save that kinda talk for when you’re trying to woo yourself a wife, or somethin’.”

Takeda laughed a little, then tipped the bottle toward Keishin’s glass, “More sake?”

“Mmn, you first.” Keishin took the bottle from him and topped off Takeda’s glass, “I’m just doin’ what I can. The kids make it easier. They’re so damn noisy all the time, I figured being an instructor would be a huge pain in the ass. But luckily they’re so driven t’play that my job’s pretty easy.”

 “They can be pretty rambunctious, huh? Passionate people often are.”

“I don’t know how you deal with kids all day. I’m sure you have some problem students in your regular classes.”

“There are no problem students, only students with problems.”

“Ha! You clearly didn’t know me when I was in high school.”

“Oh, were you a hoodlum? That’s a bit hard for me to picture.”

“Have ya looked at me? But yeah, I was a little shit. I guess I just figured most kids were, that’s part of why I didn’t want t’coach.” He leaned back and savored another sip of sake. Takeda looked relaxed, happy, and flushed with alcohol. His eyes were focused on Keishin. “I’m glad you’ve proven me wrong, sensei.”

“Well, if we ever do encounter difficulties with a student on the team, we’ll handle it together.”

Keishin’s mind wrapped around the word together like a gift.

“Why’d you decide to become a teacher anyway, sensei? Did you look at a bunch of teenagers and just think ‘yeah, I wanna drag those kids into functional adulthood’?”

“Haha, you’re not too far wrong! There was a moment like that, but it was after I already decided to become a teacher. It actually started because of my interest in literature. I’m no writer, but I love discussing stories and exploring the themes and meanings behind written works.”

“Makes sense.” Keishin leaned forward and rested his head on his hand. He could listen to Takeda talk all night. “How’d you get into that? I gotta admit that lit was my worst subject, but that might’ve just been because I didn’t get along too well with the instructor back then.”

“Oh, you and Abe-sensei didn’t get along?”

“Yeah, but it’s not worth talkin’ about right now.”

Takeda shifted in his seat and tugged at his tie to loosen it, then undid the very top button of his shirt. Keishin’s eyes fell to the small space of newly exposed skin and lingered there while Takeda continued. “Well I guess I’ve always loved stories. When I was a kid it wasn’t anything serious, I just knew more about the plot of Power Rangers than most people did.”

 Keishin smiled at the thought of an elementary school-aged Takeda with a Power Rangers obsession.

Takeda continued on, “But when I was a little older, I had this moment when realized how much a few words could really mean. That it wasn’t just fun, but something that could change lives. Everything has a story to it, written or not,” he looked down at his sake cup, “It was a poem that sparked it, if you can believe it.”

“Yeah? What was the poem?”

“’Perhaps’ by Shu Ting. I have it here, actually.” Takeda stood up and stumbled to one of the shelves, nearly knocking over the pile of papers near the table. He flicked on a lamp near the shelf. “I don’t even know how I found it the first time. It wasn’t an assignment or anything. I just happened to flip through to it in one of my sister’s books, and it spoke to me.”

Takeda pulled a well-worn book off the shelf and flicked through it. “There! I… well.” Takeda shifted self-consciously where he stood. “I don’t want to bore you.”

Keishin shifted to face him. “Try me.”

Takeda nodded, his face serious. Then he turned to the book again, straightened his back, and began to read.

“Perhaps our hearts
will have no reader
Perhaps we took the wrong road
and so we end up lost”

Keishin had never really paid attention to poetry when it was being read aloud before. It had always been a dull exercise in class, droned by a burnt-out teacher or some student who got caught sleeping at his desk. Now, he was transfixed by the cadence of Takeda’s voice falling along the lines of the poem, the shifts in emotion from line to line. Keishin felt something stir in his chest. 

“Perhaps we light one lantern after another
storms blow them out one by one
Perhaps we burn the candle of our life against the dark
but no fire warms the body

Perhaps once we’re out of tears
this land will be fertilized
Perhaps while we praise the sun
we are also sung by the sun

Perhaps the heavier the monkey on our shoulders
the more we believe
Perhaps we can only protest others’ suffering
silent to our own misfortune

Perhaps
because this call is irresistible
we have no other choice”

 

There were a few times when something Keishin had heard really made sense, a word or phrase that spoke to something in his core. As Takeda finished the last line of the poem, Keishin realized this was one of those times. His mind took the memory and stored it away carefully, as though it were glass.

Takeda paused, closed the book, then glanced at Keishin, likely trying to gauge his reaction.

“S’good,” Keishin said, twinging at the inadequacy of the phrase. He felt his respect for the man in front of him swell, mixing with other emotions that he wasn’t ready to name yet. He swallowed and searched desperately for more words. “…I can see how it inspired you.”

Takeda smiled at him, and Keishin felt the world wash away, everything but Takeda falling out of his mind.

If there was a moment you fell in love with someone, this was it.

Fuck.

 “When I first read it, it meant everything to me. Of course, a few years later I learned that the poem has more to do with Chinese communism than with the worries of a Japanese teenager. But art often speaks across boundaries and differences like that.”

“Um, yeah.”

“Thank you for indulging me. Here,” Takeda kneeled down and emptied the last few drops of the sake into Keishin’s glass. “With my most sincere thanks.”

Keishin’s mind came crashing back to reality. “Ah, yeah… Thanks for having me over on a week night. I hope you weren’t supposed to grade any of those papers by tomorrow.”

“Not all, no. They’re due at the end of this week. I’ll get up early and work on a few of them in the morning.”

“I guess I shouldn’t keep you then.”

“It’s no trouble,” Takeda waved his hand reassuringly, “It’s not even midnight yet.”

Keishin took the last swallow of sake, then stood up. He pushed his thoughts back to the realities of his life, anything to keep him grounded. “Yeah well, I got a 4am shift tomorrow. I should get home.”

“Right, of course.”

 Takeda followed him to the door. As Keishin slipped his sandals on, the feeling that he should say something else pressed its way through the front of his mind.

“Sensei…  Thanks. For tonight.” It wasn’t enough, he knew. But it was what he could do right now.

Takeda was standing in his tiny kitchen, strangely at eye height with Keishin, who stood a step below in the entryway. Keishin realized how easy it would be to kiss him.

“Anytime, Ukai-kun.”

And with that, Keishin was out the door and on his way home, his mind buzzing with sake and thoughts of Takeda.

 

--

Keishin snuffed out his cigarette under his sandal before he entered the door of his family’s house. He kicked off his shoes in the entryway and mumbled a quick “I’m home” before he stepped into the hall.

He could hear a roar of laughter from the TV in the living room, probably some late-night comedy show his parents were watching. They’d started doing this ever since Keishin had taken the early morning part of his dad’s shift at the farm. Date Night, his ma had called it. Date Night usually consisted of a card game, a bad TV marathon, or sometimes they’d go out somewhere and be gone all night at a hotel—a fact Keishin was happy not to put too much thought into, thanks.

Keishin walked slowly through the house. His steps were a little less steady than he would’ve liked. The studio audience in the show burst into laughter again as he passed the living room. He could see the small TV from the hall. A comedian was on, dressed in the skimpy leather outfit of his persona “Razor Ramen Hard Gay.” Keishin’s nose wrinkled. He’d thought for sure this asshole’s show was done already. Maybe it was a re-run.

“Keishin, how was practice?” his ma asked, her voice muffling a laugh.

On the TV, the actor began rapidly gyrating his hips, to the visible discomfort of the people on the subway around him. The studio audience burst into ugly laughter as Hard Gay started humping a random signpost.

His parents laughed, too.

“Fine. I’m goin’ to bed.”

Keishin walked fast, stumbling a little as he reached the stairs. It was too late, and he’d had too much to drink, and now he was thinking too much and he just needed another smoke. He made it up to his room and fumbled to light a cigarette. The motion was familiar enough that it didn’t give him much trouble, at least.

He could still hear the muffled laughter from the tv downstairs.

Keishin breathed slow, inhaling and exhaling until his mind settled again.

An image of Takeda smiling at him from his tiny kitchen flashed through his mind.

Fuck.

He inhaled and exhaled.

It was fine.

He was fine.

After a while the cigarette burned low and threatened to singe his fingers. He snuffed it out into an overfull ashtray on the floor, then changed into a fresh t-shirt and his comfiest boxers. He pushed a few magazines on the floor out of the way and laid out his futon. He didn’t even want a bath, he just wanted sleep. Sleep solves everything.

Keishin laid down and stared at the ceiling.

His mind, his fucking eternal enemy, replayed images of the night with Takeda. The messy curl of his hair, the intense care he put into teaching, and books, and everything he did. The bare skin behind the top button of his shirt. His voice. His lips.

Keishin closed his eyes.

Sleep. Sleep.

He wondered what other books were on the shelves in Takeda’s apartment. If he could see them one day, explore the volumes and learn more about Takeda and everything that made him who he was. Maybe Takeda could take his tie all the way off then, instead of just loosening it. Or undo another button on his shirt, and another, or sit just slightly closer to Keishin, just…

Keishin pulled his pillow over his head and groaned.

He was getting hard.

He curled in on himself. His face burned at the thought of what Takeda would think of him if he knew. His mind played out all the worst possibilities: disgust, anger, fear.

Not that it did much to help him.

Keishin sighed, then uncurled and flicked on the lamp on his desk. Laying around feeling sorry himself was a bad road and he fucking knew better.

He adjusted the lamp until it was at a good angle to cast a soft light across the room. Then he grabbed his phone from the pile where he’d left his clothes earlier and laid back in his bed.

He ran a hand down below his waistline and began idly stroking himself over his boxers. Just feather-light touches until he was fully hard and the fabric tented around his erection. He pulled his shirt up to reveal his chest and stomach, flipped open his phone, and turned the camera on.

It took a few tries to get the angle and light just right, but he eventually got a photo he was happy with. Keishin stared at himself on the screen. His face wasn’t in the photo, but laying back on the bed like that he thought he looked inviting, open, and desirable. Soft light played over him in the photo, emphasizing the muscles on his chest and abs and the idle tilt of his erection through his boxers. He double-checked to make sure there wasn’t anything in the photo that could identify him, then posted it to Y-Hard, an online forum he frequented.

A few likes popped up almost immediately. Keishin smiled.

That was one problem solved. Now for the other.

He looked at the sports magazines laid out here and there around his room. A lot of them were actually about sports, but some were more about the pictures. In particular, there was Pumping Up Magazine, a publication that always had some pretty revealing photoshoots of various male athletes (and 20 easy tips on how to look just like them, according to the covers).  He flipped through the newest issue. The photos were good, but he’d gone through most of it already and the pages he hadn’t looked at yet turned out to be mostly ads and a few high-protein recipes.

He turned back to a page with a photoshoot of a swimmer, some up-and-coming star with his hair pulled back in a short ponytail. Keishin’s eyes fell to an image of the man half-way through pulling his shirt off.

That’ll do.

Keishin jerked himself off, trying to keep his mind focused on the man in the photo. It worked for a little while, then his thoughts went on to men he’d had sex with in the past, in bathrooms and love hotels and in near-strangers’ apartments around Ni-Chome. His mind stirred with the memories of breathy moans and nails on his back and clever fingers and smiles in the morning light.

Then, of course, his mind drifted back to Takeda, the thought of him naked and flushed and grinding over him.

No, he wasn’t going to think about Takeda naked; they worked together.

Instead his mind went to Takeda’s voice when he’d read to him. Right, because jerking off to the thought of someone reading poetry was totally a thing normal people did.

Finally, he gave up. He was too fucking close to orgasm to care anymore, and he let his mind do whatever it wanted. Images of sex and heat, of the stranger in the photo, and of his ex-lovers, and of Takeda, all flashed through him in disconnected waves.

His free hand brushed against his chest, and he came imagining it was Takeda’s touch.

He lay there panting for a while, his mind clouded and comfortably blank with pleasure. As it faded, he grabbed a tissue and wiped himself off, then took a quick glance at his phone before settling in for bed.

There were over a dozen responses to his photo, mostly reading “gorgeous!” and “hey there”, along with a few bolder comments about what the commenter wanted him to do to them, or what they wanted to do to him. He smiled at the attention.

He was about to set his phone down when it buzzed with a text message.

Bananakano: Nice selfie! ˚✧₊⁎(‐^▽^‐)⁎⁺˳✧༚

It was Nakano. He was always good to talk to.

Keishin typed out a reply.

SetAndReady: thanks

Bananakano: sooo… whats wrong??

SetAndReady: ??
SetAndReady: who says anythings wrong?

Bananakano: u only post selfies when ur feeling sad and lonely, dumbass (*^ω^*)

SetAndReady: … i guess.

Bananakano: did u lose a game?

SetAndReady: no it’s not our match season just yet

Keishin waited a minute before typing out his next message.

SetAndReady: …it’s a guy

Bananakano: WHAT yes gossip time hit me
Bananakano: is he tall? (((o(*゚▽゚*)o)))

SetAndReady: no
SetAndReady: short

Bananakano: cute? gay? give me something here.

Keishin took a deep breath. If he was going to talk to anyone about this, it would be Nakano. He typed everything that immediately came to mind and hit send before he could think too hard.

SetAndReady: he’s new in town and he’s a teacher nd rly smart and he convinced me to coach the vb team @ his school and he reads poetry

Bananakano: ∑(゚ロ゚〃)  !!?!?!?!
Bananakano: POETRY
Bananakano: this is serious

SetAndReady: im in deep here

Bananakano: I always figured you would hate reading <( ̄︶ ̄)>

SetAndReady: thanks asshole
SetAndReady: ill have you know i read JUMP every week ヽ(`⌒´)ノ

Bananakano: U DIDN’T ANSWER MY QUESTION
Bananakano: CUTE/GAY/BOTH??  ( •̀ω•́ )σ

SetAndReady: cute and probly not
SetAndReady: …very cute. its not fair
SetAndReady: this should be illegal

Bananakano: yes I agree let’s petition the government
Bananakano: Illegalize Straight Boys
SetAndReady: it would save me some headaches

Nakano sent him an image of a rabbit falling off a log.

Bananakano: that u
Bananakano: u need 2 go where there r cute gay boys

SetAndReady: no
SetAndReady: i can’t afford another trip to tokyo
SetAndReady: and last time i went to sendai some1 from town was there
SetAndReady: i nearly shit myself from shock & got out fast

Bananakano: wuz he cute?

SetAndReady: hell no and hes a huge asshole
SetAndReady: magazines and lotion forever

Bananakano: NO u sadsack
Bananakano: move here

SetAndReady: as if
SetAndReady: family

Bananakano: mooooooooooooooooooooove

Keishin cursed under his breath.

SetAndReady: y do you always bring this shit up?

Bananakano: bcuz this closeted country queer thing is depressing as shit to listen to
Bananakano: and and AND
Bananakano: IT WILL KILL YOU

SetAndReady: u overdramatic asshole

Nakano sent him a link to a collection of statistics on anti-gay stigma and suicide risk in rural, suburban, and urban areas of Japan. Keishin snorted. Like hell that had anything to do with him.

SetAndReady: look im fine here
SetAndReady: my folks need me
SetAndReady: im not gonna cut ties like that
SetAndReady: u dont have 2 listen 2 me if u dont want

Bananakano: nooooo I owe you
Bananakano: and ur one of my top 5 bffs

SetAndReady: haha.

Bananakano: I’m serious. You saved my life once.

Keishin started typing, but Nakano’s next few messages came in rapid fire.

Bananakano: no dont
Bananakano: u cant argue w/me
Bananakano: i will win

SetAndReady: I didnt rly

Bananakano: WRONG
Bananakano: r u sure you can’t visit soon?

SetAndReady: yea
SetAndReady: 2 jobs+coaching+my own team=no time ever \|  ̄ヘ ̄|/

Bananakano: well damn I was hoping u could help me w/something

Keishin’s brow furrowed. Nakano never asked for favors.

SetAndReady: whats up?

Bananakano: I need to get a friend away from his scary bf
Bananakano: it’s pretty bad
Bananakano: I was hoping you could come and be rdy to do your scary face thing while we move his stuff out
Bananakano: just in case asshole bf shows up

SetAndReady: what? that sucks!!
SetAndReady: what a piece of shit
SetAndReady: i wish i could

Bananakano: ooh ur mad send a pic of ur face I bet ur doin the scary thing right now
Bananakano: I could print it out and put it on a scarecrow ( ╬◣ 益◢)
Bananakano: similar effect maybe???

SetAndReady: seriously tho
SetAndReady: what r u gonna do that is a bad plan

Bananakano: idk

Keishin thought for a moment.

SetAndReady: well in VB if there’s too many tall blockers u either blast thru or the setter uses a decoy spiker
SetAndReady: u wanted me 2 be ace but maybe do a multi spiker play instead

Bananakano: im sure thats brilliant but
Bananakano: JAPANESE PLEASE!!
Bananakano: U KNOW I DONT UNDERSTAND VOLLEYBALL

SetAndReady: it means be crafty, dumbass
SetAndReady: lure bf somewhere else w/distraction
SetAndReady: get essentials out asap while hes gone
SetAndReady: have multiple plans for moving friend somewhere far
SetAndReady: then, idk, keep as far from original routine as possible afterwards?

Bananakano: we have afterwards figured out
Bananakano: distraction sounds good
Bananakano: ur so evil! (*^▽^)

SetAndReady: i try
SetAndReady: sorry i can’t be there in person to kick his ass

Bananakano: aww
Bananakano: this is y we r bffs ( •̀ω•́ )

SetAndReady:  fuck yeah (¬‿¬)

Keishin glanced at the time and groaned when he saw it was nearly 2am.

SetAndReady: got 2 go 2 bed now tho, 4am shift…

Bananakano: damn wtf go sleep
Bananakano: go dream of cute gay boys
Bananakano: GO!

Keishin checked to make sure his alarm was on then clicked his phone shut, turned the lamp off, rolled back into his bed, and finally drifted to sleep.

---

The next morning was predictably rough. Keishin was pretty sure he wasn’t the first guy to show up for the 4am shift hungover (and, if he was being honest, probably still a little drunk), but it sure wasn’t anything to be proud of. He lurched onto the field in the hopes nobody would notice.

It was still dark out, and the air felt cool and crisp against his skin. His right shoulder ached, but that wasn’t anything knew. He grabbed a bin and started his work cutting peapods from the stems in the field.

He settled into a rhythm and soon the quiet shift and shuck and plunk of his work wove a soothing pattern around him, occasionally punctuated by the call of a bird or another worker. His mind drifted between a groggy, sleep-like fog and a soft appreciation for the plants and damp earth around him.

He stopped, then looked at a peapod like he’d never seen it before. He saw the little veins that nourished the seeds, the rounded green shape of the shell that held them close. His mind reached out to make some connection, then faltered.

Yep. He was definitely still kinda drunk.

He worked along his row, and another farmhand was doing the same from the opposite end. As they got closer to each other, Keishin recognized him as Tattsuan, a man in his early thirties from the neighborhood association team.

Tattsuan gave him a small wave, “Hey there Ukai-kun. Lookin’ rough.”

“Yeah, well, it’s my own fault. How’re you?”

“M’alright. Life’s good. You excited about the games coming up?”

“Yeah, I just hope the kids are ready.”

Tattsuan let out a gentle laugh. He was like that, the kind of guy who could laugh in your face and still seem good about it. “Well, I was talking about our games, but,” he turned back to his work as he continued, “that’s how it is when you start to care about something. You’ve really taken a shine to coaching.”

Keishin flushed a little, feeling exposed. “Yeah, it’s alright. Kids sure can be annoying though.”

“Hey now, is that any way to talk to a guy who’s gonna be a dad soon?”

Keishin startled, “You’re expecting already?!” Tattsuan had been married less than a year.

“We don’t know for sure yet. But we’re hoping.” Tattsuan smiled a little, “It’ll be good, you know? I’ve wanted this for a long time.”

 “I’m happy for you,” Keishin said, and he meant it. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ll throw a party when you know for sure.”

“Right after our victory party for beating those guys from Iwadeyama, right?”

“Damn straight.” Keishin grinned despite his exhaustion, “We owe them after last time.”

Keishin liked this about Tattsuan. He knew that Keishin didn’t like to talk about his own family or relationship status. Rather than pushing the topic, Tattsuan let him be.

Comfortable silence stretched out between them as they continued to work. They met in the middle of the row, nodded to each other, then turned and walked in opposite directions, carrying their harvests to the edges of the field.

As Keishin walked, he looked up and out across the landscape in the soft light before dawn. He noticed all the little houses dotted here and there around the hills, the curving lines made by roads and walking paths and the train that came through town. He noticed the gentle shift and sway of the grass and stray weeds and wildflowers along the edges of the field.

Had they always looked like this?

The sun started to rise, spilling red and orange light over the familiar shapes of his town.

He thought about Takeda’s voice and the poem.

He took a deep breath, let go of the tension in his shoulders, and went back to work.

Chapter Text

Everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

-Neruda

--

Keishin leaned back on the porch of his parent’s house and stared at the landscape. The porch overlooked a fair part of the town and valley below—not the nicest view in town, but still really damn good. He’d grown up looking at this view. Over the years, he had studied the hills and houses below countless times, but they seemed different now. A good sort of different, but he couldn’t quite place what it was.

In his hand was a book of poetry that Takeda had lent him. It wasn’t a big deal, just a small book of haikus that Takeda apparently kept in his bag at work. Keishin had asked him if he could borrow a book and Takeda had been so excited, so relieved that he hadn’t bored Keishin that night they drank sake together, that he’d pulled out this book and handed it to Keishin on the spot.

“It’s completely different from Shu Ting’s work, obviously, but this is what I have. I’ll bring you another one next time, I promise.”

The book was different, and he actually knew a lot of the poems already. They were all short works by Issa, haikus that Keishin had read or studied before but never really taken seriously. In high school he’d been completely unmoved by all the words about flowers and sparrows and historic life in Japan that were common in this kind of writing. But now that he was older—and a little love-struck—the poems had taken on new meaning.

 Some were about a sort of quietude he understood better now than in his reckless teenage days:

The wren
Earns his living
Noiselessly.

…others were funny:

Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.

…and some he related to for strange reasons that he couldn’t quite place:

Don’t kill that fly!
Look—it’s wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.

He’d been flipping through the poems ever since he got home. It was a rare afternoon when he didn’t have to work, and practice had gotten out on time for once, and so he was here, looking at the landscape and reading poetry from a book that smelled faintly like Takeda.

He looked out across the landscape again. There were a few clouds in the sky, the kind of faint wisps that promised rain tomorrow, probably. The grasses and weeds along the edges of the fields bowed and swayed in the breeze, nimble and ready for change. And the hills were still, exactly the same as when he was small.

He realized that the view didn’t actually look that different from before. It was just that everything seemed to fit together better, somehow. It was as if what was once a series of disconnected objects and places had come together as a single painting.

What a ridiculous thing to think.

The cigarette that he’d forgotten was in his other hand burned low enough to singe his fingers. He cursed and shook his hand, the hot sting bringing him back to reality as the door behind him slid open.

“Keishin,” his ma said, “I bought some konnyaku dumplings for you. You’ve seemed a bit listless lately, I thought it’d cheer you up.”

“Oh, really?” Keishin asked, surprised at both the gift and that his distraction lately had been so obvious. He snuffed out his neglected cigarette and stood up to go inside. “Thanks, Ma. Here, lemme help with dinner.”

Keishin chopped vegetables while his mother started the rice. He liked helping his ma with the cooking. The work was familiar and easy and it was satisfying to give back to his family in such a straightforward way as feeding them.

His ma had set up her laptop in the kitchen and it was playing a talk show, just barely loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the kitchen.

She laughed at something one of the celebrities said. “Oh, I just love him. He’s just outrageous, isn’t he?”

Keishin glanced up and saw that his ma was talking about Matsuko Deluxe, a gay man and crossdresser who had made a name for himself as a TV personality.

“Mmhm,” he said, as noncommittally as he could.

He didn’t necessarily have a problem with Matsuko’s character; he just didn’t understand who it was supposed to be for. Matsuko was fat, femme, and said outlandish or even outright rude things. He should be everything society hated. Maybe loved by the queer community, but feared by everyone else. Instead, he was a mainstream hit on daytime TV. It was as if he had gone so far outside of the range of acceptability that he’d circled back and found a place at the table again.

A pang of guilt rolled through his stomach. He probably should’ve been grateful that there was at least one openly queer man out in the world that his ma respected. But Keishin couldn’t help but feel like he was still the butt of the joke. To his ma, Matsuko Deluxe was just a character on tv: an amusing face of the taboo, someone to both challenge and reinforce what she already believed… but nothing like anyone she actually knew, right? Certainly not what she’d want her son to turn out to be.

Keishin focused on slicing lotus roots and did his best to tune out the show.

Thankfully, the program ended shortly after that, and his ma closed the laptop and started frying the sliced lotus roots. The oil crackled as they went in.

Keishin took the opportunity to small talk. “I think I’m gonna order more snack bars for the store,” he said. “They’re selling out fast since tournament season started.”

“Sounds good. Be sure to ask that distributor Shimada-san’s working with now, I hear they have better rates.”

“Sure.”

His ma stirred the lotus roots. “Y’know Keishin, I hear there’s gonna be a new karaoke bar opening just a few train stops down. You should go; I think there’s gonna be a lot of young people there.” Her voice was tentative and hopeful. “You might even meet someone?”

“Uh, yeah, but… I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”

His ma sighed. “I just worry about you. Who’s gonna cook for you when I’m gone? You’ll want somebody t’support you…. and take care of my five grandkids, right?”

“I c’n cook just fine,” said Keishin. He ignored the grandkids part. She was just teasing him. Probably.

“I know, I know.” She turned off the stove and grabbed a serving plate. “It’s just that people aren’t meant to go it alone. We all need somebody.”

Keishin immediately thought of Takeda. Not because he needed him, but because he realized that Takeda was alone.

Keishin actually agreed with his ma, but he felt that ‘somebody’ could be anyone—a spouse maybe, but also your family and friends. Keishin had plenty of people in his life, and it was a good life. For someone like Takeda, a single man new to a small town where everybody already knew everybody…. it had to be a lot harder.

Keishin wondered if there was anything he could do to make that easier, somehow.

He shook his head to clear the thought. He told himself to focus on what was in front of him, and set the table for dinner.

---

Focusing on what was in front of you was critical before a big match. It was easy to get overwhelmed by the possibilities of the game before it even started.

The kids finished their round of receives and moved on to spiking practice. This was the last day before the tournament started, and everyone was pushing themselves hard. Enthusiasm was great, but they could get injured or overtired right before the game if they weren’t careful. Keishin needed to pull them back a little, so he shifted their focus to caterpillar drills instead. The continuous movement would burn off their excess energy, but it was more about finesse than power.

They wrapped up physical practice and gathered to talk strategy. Keishin flipped through the formations that he’d developed to combat the other teams. It was all review, but it was critical to remind them what to do and what to spend the night thinking about rather than have them stew on what-ifs. 

Takeda fidgeted with his clipboard while Keishin talked. He’d taken notes on all this stuff already, so Keishin chalked it up to pre-game jitters.

After they’d covered strategy, Takeda stepped forward to speak. He cleared his throat.

“The warhorse turns it head,
Unafraid and unhindered.
We turn with it,
Our sweat the fuel of our dreams.
Eyes moving always upward, upward.
The old warhorse turns its head,
And we stand ready to fight.”

Silence echoed through the gym. “T-that was a poem.” The kids stayed silent. A few faces scrunched in confusion as they tried to parse the words. Takeda coughed self-consciously. “W-well anyway, thank you for listening!” His face flushed bright red with embarrassment. “The bus will be here tomorrow morning at seven. Now, I think your manager has something to say!”

Shimizu had found their old banner, the kids roared with excitement when she rolled it out and said her few words. They cheered, and some of them cried, and Keishin figured that was as good as they could possibly hope to get. He reminded them all to eat a good dinner and breakfast before shooing them out the door.

Keishin stayed back and lit a cigarette while Takeda locked the door to the gym.

“What was that poem, sensei?”

“O-oh, I just…” Takeda sighed and ducked his head in embarrassment. “I tried to write something to inspire the kids. It was a silly idea. I should have spoken more plainly.”

“Went right over their heads, huh?”

Takeda laughed. “I’m afraid so. A better writer could’ve managed it, I’m sure.”

“Well, I liked it.” Keishin turned his head away and exhaled trail of smoke.

“You’re too kind, Ukai-kun.”

“Not really,” he said. “You nervous about tomorrow, sensei?”

“Naturally a little, but…” He looked up at Keishin, his eyes clear and steady. “I’m excited to see our team fight with everything they have.”

Keishin’s breath caught a little. "You got a spine of iron, sensei.”

“Well, it’s easy to be confident now that we have a good coach.”

Keishin snorted. “Not so sure that an amateur coach with no previous instructor experience should fill you with that much confidence, sensei.”

“Only one way to find out.” He took a deep breath. “I have faith in the team and the work we’ve put in. Whatever happens, we’re in it to win.”

“That’s the spirit. See ya tomorrow, then.”

“Heading to bed early?”

“Nah, I’ve got footage from the practice games I wanna review. Gotta focus on something.”

Takeda nodded. Keishin half expected him to tell him to get some sleep too, but he didn’t.

“I’m counting on you. Have a good night, Ukai-kun.”

--

They lost against Aoba Johsai.

Keishin did his best to take it gracefully. Losses were inevitable, after all. He kept the kids moving. He got them off the court and down to the izakaya near the gym where he’d had plenty of his own meals of loss and victory.

They’d eat, and sleep, and get better. Losses were inevitable.

But the tear-stained faces on the kids were hard to bear. He had felt himself choke up when they first collapsed in defeat on the court. The slump in Takeda’s shoulders, too, weighed on his chest like a stone.

But losses were inevitable, and this was a path Keishin knew how to walk.

Move, eat, rest. Tomorrow, they’d figure out what to do for next time.

They drove the kids back to the high school with full bellies and dried tears. Still, they all walked away from the school van with their heads low, and their shoes scuffed on the sidewalks as they trudged home.

Keishin felt the weight of his own disappointment on his shoulders as they walked away. He swallowed to clear the growing lump in his throat.

“We fought as hard as we could,” Takeda said to him, once the kids were out of earshot, “and we still lost.” He sounded tired, and hurt, like he’d been betrayed by the bite of reality.

“It happens.” Keishin cleared his throat and searched for better words of comfort, “We’ll figure out where to go from here tomorrow.”

“Are you…” Takeda trailed off, an unusual waste of words for him. “I have grading to do, but you’re welcome to come over. If you need the company.”

Of course Takeda was worried about him.

“Nah, I’ll let you work,” Keishin really was going to choke up now if he wasn’t careful, and he hated it. He hated feeling so exposed, and he hated that he had added to Takeda’s worries, even for a second. He took a deep breath and stretched to clear any uncertainty from his voice. “I’ve been on this road before. I’ll review the game footage from Takinoue and give you my thoughts on it tomorrow.”

Takeda looked up at him for a long moment. Keishin couldn’t read his expression.

“I’d really appreciate it, thank you. Have a good evening, Ukai-kun.”

“Yeah, sensei, you too.”

Keishin lit a cigarette as he turned to walk down the road towards home.

Now that he was alone, doubt came pouring into him. Had he used the right strategies? Had he put too much pressure on any one player? Yamaguchi’s face of shame and disappointment was burned into his mind.

He inhaled and exhaled.

Maybe he should have had the team practice differently, honed slightly different skills to get an edge over Aoba Johsai. Had his lack of confidence during parts of the game tipped the scales and thrown his players off their best? His insecurities as a coach had shown during the match, enough that Takeda had told him not to look so uneasy. He winced at the memory.

It was hard, leading them. He’d never realized how terrifying it was to be the one making all of these calls. Worse still was the fact that, at the end of the day, he had only himself to answer to.

They’d gotten pretty far, really, considering where the team was last year. The kids had done well.

Losses were inevitable.

Fuck.

It was a logic that was no comfort when he applied it to himself. He would rather it all be his fault; then there would at least be something he could do to keep it from happening again. Which was a stupid way to think, probably, but there it was.

His phone buzzed. It was a text from Shimada.

Drinks in half an hour?

Keishin typed out a quick response.

Sounds great.

--

Shimada and Takinoue were already at the bar when he arrived. It was Shimada’s favorite izakaya, just a few blocks from his work. Takinoue waved Keishin over with a grin.

“Hey guys,” Keishin said.

“You’re killing me. I swear, Keishin, I about had a heart attack today,” said Shimada. “Can you not pin everything on my student like that? It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to watch. I cried!”

“He did,” Takinoue cut in. “He cried. It’s on the tape.”

Keishin waved the criticism away. “Whaddya want me to do, not let ‘im try? You’d be even more pissed at me if I hadn’t let him play at all.”

Shimada sighed heavily and put his head on the table, “Fiiiine, you’re right! I’d tell you ‘Why don’t you believe in my student?’ and ‘What am I volunteering all those night lessons for if you don’t even use the pinch server I train? What are you trying to say about me?’ That’s what I’d say.” He sighed and his tone turned serious again. “It’s just really hard to watch them fail.”

“Yer tellin’ me,” said Keishin. “I got pretty choked up myself.”

Takinoue pushed a beer towards Keishin. They’d ordered a pitcher, and Keishin noticed that it was half-empty already.  

“C’mon guys, cheer up!” Takinoue slapped them both on the back. “It was a great game! I realize that’s the last thing y’wanna hear right now, but it was! We did better than we have in years, and you really made Aoba Johsai work for it.”

A server arrived with a plate of fried chicken and a bowl of edamame.

Keishin picked at the edamame. “We did, but it woulda been better t’ make ‘em lose.”

Takinoue grinned. “That’s what the Spring High is for, isn’t it?”

Shimada sat up. “Yes. We have to make them pay.” He said that right before stuffing a huge piece of chicken into this mouth.

Keishin grinned. They hadn’t been this fired up since their own school days. The neighborhood association rivalries could get rough, but the games never got the audience that the school tournaments did. Winning or losing in front of a crowd made the stakes higher, the humiliation of loss or thrill of victory more intense.

Takinoue looked around. “Say, where’s sensei? I figured he’d need some cheering up, too.”

“He said he had a buncha grading to do tonight.” Keishin fiddled with the empty edamame shell in his hand. “I decided not to bother him.”

“Really?” said Takinoue. “He’s always so into the games, I figured it’d take him a little while to bounce back. This is his first big loss, right?”

Right.

Fuck.

Keishin must’ve been making a face, because Takinoue started backpedaling. “W-well, I’m sure he’s fine! He’s a pretty tough guy, right? He’s a teacher! I bet that comes with some awesome emotional resiliency.”

Shimada snorted. “Ha, when do I get my teacher superpowers? It’d be nice to not feel like I got hit by a truck right now.”

“You’re not a teacher, man. You’re like… a tutor?”

Keishin took a swig of his beer while Shimada and Takinoue shot back and forth about the nuances been being a teacher, a coach, and a tutor.

He had really fucked up.

“…No, an instructor is like the larger category that coaches, teachers, and tutors all fit into!”

“Right okay, but then what’s a mentor?”

Why hadn’t he invited Takeda?

Because he’d been too focused on his own head, that’s why.

“A mentor is obviously a different category entirely. Almost like a godparent.”

“No, because a teacher can also be a mentor!”

“And a godparent could be a teacher. Different categories!”

“Maybe I shoulda invited sensei.” Keishin stared into his empty beer mug. 

Takinoue and Shimada looked up at him.

“It’s hard y’know. I never know what the right thing t’ do is,” Keishin said. “Do you really think we gave it our all today?”

“Definitely.” Shimada’s voice was firm. “And next time we’ll be even stronger. I’ll handle Yamaguchi. You two’ve got the rest of the team.”

“And I’ve got the video!” Takinoue held up a flash drive.

“Were you waitin’ for the most dramatic opportunity ta pull that out?”

“Ha, I’ve heard that one before!”

They all laughed at the stupid joke, and Keishin felt the weight on his shoulders lift a little.

The night went on and the conversation moved to different topics. It helped, but Keishin still had a niggling doubt at the back of his mind. He couldn’t stop wondering how Takeda was doing.

It was his first big loss. Why was Keishin such a fuck up?

Eventually they paid and went their separate ways. It wasn’t even that late, but everyone had work in the morning. Keishin thought about Takeda on his walk home.

It’s not like it was his place to worry about him or anything. Takeda was a grown man, a real adult, who knew what he was doing with his life and didn’t live with his parents and read actual books. He was probably happy that he didn’t have to take care of Keishin’s insecure ass while he was trying to work.

But Keishin still worried about him.

He clicked open his phone and typed out a quick message.

Hey sensei, I hope the grading is going ok. how’re you holding up?

He hit “send” and snapped the phone shut before he could overthink it. Then he shoved his phone back into his pocket and willed himself not to think about whether he’d get a reply or not.

He pulled out his pack of cigarettes to keep his hands busy. Before he could light one, his phone buzzed. He stopped and pulled it out.

It was from Takeda.

I just finished grading. I am still disappointed about the game today, but I’m looking forward to tomorrow. See you then ꉂꉂ ( ˆᴗˆ )

Keishin breathed a sigh of relief. Of course he was fine. And yeah, ok, there was a smiley at the end of the text. That made sense; Takeda was a friendly guy and liked to be cool, of course he’d use emoticons. There was no need to smile back at it like an idiot.

He re-read the text message three times on his walk home, like it was a poem.

--

Takeda was his usual self at practice the next day. The kids were clearly down, still bitter about their loss. Keishin did his best to get them focused on practice, on exercises, on techniques to improve.

Shimizu was quiet and closed off too, even for her. He didn’t have anything encouraging for her, but he wished he did.

Towards the end of the afternoon, everyone was tired and most of the kids were sulking. Takeda stepped forward to speak.

“Does losing mean you are weak?” he asked.

The kids didn’t answer.

“Isn’t defeat more like a trial to overcome?” he continued. “A test of whether you can stand up and walk again after falling on your knees? Every team you’ve faced in an official match has been an incredibly troublesome opponent. You can choose whether you see them as a mere enemy, or as specialists whose technique you should learn from. Being weak means you have room to grow.” He smiled. “There’s no greater joy than that.”

Keishin was moved. It felt as if some weight he hadn’t realized was there had been lifted off his chest. The kids seemed to feel it too, their expressions brighter and more focused. Keishin reminded them of the Spring High, their next chance for revenge, and set them on their training exercises again.

Takeda was so good - of course he would know exactly what to say. Keishin beamed at him. “Hey, just now you sounded like a really reliable teacher!”

Takeda’s face fell. “Um… well… I am a teacher….”

Keishin could kick himself. “Ah, yeah. You sure are.” Why was he so bad with words? What was wrong with him?

“It’s good to know I reached them this time.” Takeda flipped through his notes. “Speaking plainly was better than poetry.”

“Yeah,” Keishin agreed. He looked out at the team. “Poetry has its place, though.”

Takeda seemed to perk up a little. “Speaking of which, I brought a book, if you still wanted to borrow one.”

“Yeah? Lemme give you the other one back first.”

After practice, they traded books. The new book was thicker, and Takeda explained it was a collection of poems from the period when Japanese poets had begun to experiment with Western-style verses.

“It was a period of great growth and experimentation,” he said. “I suppose that’s why I thought of it last night.”

“Thanks,” Keishin said. The sun was just now starting to set, and the light was catching perfectly off of Takeda’s hair and face. He stared for a moment too long, transfixed by the image. Then he shifted and pulled out a cigarette for his walk home.

“You did well, Ukai-kun. I failed to mention it earlier, but your support yesterday getting everyone fed and focused was really helpful.”

Keishin lit his cigarette and took a puff, enjoying the familiar sensation. “It’s nothin’. What else do you do in that situation?”

“Someone else might have done less. You really care about the students.” He smiled. “Even when you were only the temporary coach, you put the students’ wellbeing first.”

“Huh? When was that?” Keishin remembered being pissed off at Coach Nekomata and vowing revenge, but there was hardly anything selfless about that.

“You didn’t play like it was an official match; you played so that the students would have the chance to learn and grow. You said so yourself during the game.”

“Ha, and then we didn’t win a single set. You sure you should be thanking me, sensei?” He took a long drag off his smoke.

“Absolutely.” Takeda watched him, his eyes meeting Keishin’s, then dropping down to linger on the cigarette between his lips.

“Does it bother you when I smoke, sensei?”

Takeda startled, then waved his hands reassuringly. “No, you’re always very considerate about it.”

“Glad t’hear. Have good night, sensei. Thanks for lending me this.”

--

Keishin’s da was a quiet man, broad in the shoulders with short-cropped hair. He never yelled, but there was always a certain level of intensity to him. He took any task with stone-faced determination, whether it was negotiating deals with agricultural suppliers or picking a disliked ingredient out of his meals.

He picked at his stir-fry across the table from Keishin. “I visited my father today,” he said, addressing Keishin’s ma. Keishin glanced up. His da only used the word ‘father’ when he was worried about the old man.

“Oh, how is he?” She nudged a bowl of grilled vegetables in his direction, a quiet attempt to convince him to eat his greens.

“About what you’d expect.” He pointedly ignored the vegetables. “He keeps gettin’ just well enough to overdo it. They try to keep him calm, but at this rate he’s gonna wind up hittin’ a doctor or somethin’.”

“Well, that’d be one way to get him out of the hospital.” She laughed a little. “Shows vigor.”

“He’s complainin’ that we haven’t gotten the crops rotated yet.”

Keishin’s eyebrows rose. “But it’s not even mid-June.”

His da sighed. “He needs somethin’ to focus on. He asked about you too, Keishin.” His da turned his gaze to him, a quiet burning focus. “He wanted t’know how long you’re plannin’ on stayin’ here.”

Keishin hunched his shoulders. “I can go if y’want.” He searched his parents for any sign it was time to leave.

“Not until you’re married.” His father’s gaze was steady. “No sense wastin’ money like that when you could be savin’ for the future.”

Keishin did not like where this conversation was going.

“You’re very helpful around the house!” his ma chimed in. “I don’t really see what the fuss is about that ‘parasite single’ nonsense. We’ll be hurtin’ when you go. …But it would be nice to know you were lookin’ for a wife. We know it’s hard for young people to find each other out here.”

“You’re insistin’ on doin’ it your own way,” his da said, “but it’s hard to tell if you’re really takin’ it seriously.”

His da always got like this after he visited his old man. A streak of defiance leapt into Keishin’s throat with familiar fire. He pushed it down. He wasn’t a teenager. He kept his voice as neutral as he could manage. “Didn’t realize it was such a hurry. I’m not even thirty yet.”

“Young people these days date for years before they get hitched, Keishin! Y’can’t just expect it to work out the first time, either. If you don’t at least start looking now it could get tough.”

“I’ll be fine. Y’said yourself I can cook ok, who cares if it takes me a few extra years to settle down?”

“People care.” His da’s eyes bored into him. “Marriage is a sign you’re responsible enough to start a family. That you care about your community. That you’re trustworthy.”

Keishin bit his tongue.

“We just want you to do well, and a family is a part of that. And it’s so tough out there.” She sighed. “We could try setting up some marriage interviews, if you don’t want to look yourself.”

“I’m lookin’,” he said, quick to placate them before the thought grew out of hand. “Things’ve been busy lately, is all.”

His da snorted. “Y’think it ever gets easier?”

“We’re just worried is all,” his ma repeated. “Never think you’re out of options. I don’t want you to wind up like that Shikanozuki boy, you know?”

“I am not Shikanozuki,” Keishin snapped. He never knew Shikanozuki, but the rumors painted a clear enough picture. He was the middle son of a family in the next town over, and had run off with a Canadian man just a few weeks after Japan voted to recognize foreign same-sex marriages. The grandiosity and whirlwind romance of it all was absurd.

Keishin dealt in realities.

“Good.” His da was eating now. “There’s better things for you than that.”

“Just let us know if we can help,” his ma reiterated. “We’re here for you.”

“Thanks.”

Keishin stayed silent for the rest of dinner, then excused himself to retreat to his own space.

He sank down to the floor of his bedroom and ran a hand through his hair. The image of himself as a teenager flashed through his mind: yelling, fighting, wrecking things just to feel like he was carving out a place for himself. It was stupid. He knew his parents were right about what others saw. They were always right about that.

He ran through his nightly exercises: crunches, sit-ups, push-ups, and planks. He did them twice, three times, until he was exhausted enough to sit still.

He lit a cigarette and sought distraction in the book Takeda had lent him, but the poems were all too depressing to deal with. Apparently this was also the era of experimenting with sadness, or something.

He closed the book, lit another smoke, and sat alone with his thoughts.

It’s not like this was anything new. His parents had been hounding him about marriage for over a year. It always irritated him, but never this bad.

No, the problem now was that he felt he had something to lose. Which he didn’t, not really. Takeda was a sorta-work colleague at best. Any weirdness from his family wouldn’t change that either way.

And really, Takeda didn’t need him, and he didn’t need this bullshit. Nobody needed this bullshit.

He exhaled. Smoke filled the room in grey wisps. The sound of Takeda’s voice echoed through his mind.

Fuck.

He just wanted to do right.

He opened up his laptop, logged into Y-Hard, and typed out a post in the advice subforum.

I live in a small rural town and I think I’m falling for a (straight) friend of mine. I can’t say anything because he’s a teacher and we kind of work together. He’s new in town and doesn’t have a lot of connections here yet, so I want to stay friendly and support him, but I’m worried I’ll wind up outing myself or make things weird somehow. Does anyone have any advice on hiding (or stopping) my crush on him while staying a good friend?

Responses came in.

SunsetznRoses009: Are you sure he’s straight? Tell him how you feel! You’ll feel better at least knowing. If he’s good enough to be worth hiding for, he’ll probably at least try to understand! <3 <3 <3

DIYTractrBeam: OP, your best bet is some distance. SunsetznRoses009’s idea is nice, but this isn’t a movie. You’ve already decided that pursuing something wouldn’t be worth it, and you should trust your gut. Stay professional, but give yourself some space away from this guy while you cool your head. For breaking a crush, it’s helpful to focus on a person’s less endearing qualities (everybody has them). The enemy of infatuation is reality.

FancySOX: Just don’t treat him any different from your other friends. Your crush is still a person like anybody else, after all! Accept that your feelings are what they are and let them be. Forcing the situation one way or the other is selfish. Appreciate and accept him for who he is, and remember to treat yourself well too. You can care for yourself by having good boundaries; try to avoid touching too much (he’ll think they’re just friendly touches and you won’t, which can be hard to deal with), and if he starts talking about a girlfriend or whatever politely change the subject if you feel uncomfortable. You can always change your mind later if you decide it isn’t working.

ReverseCowboy: Your real problem is living in a rural area. Get yourself to a place you can be out, at least to most of your friends. I’ve been on this road and trust me, it sucks. There’s nothing to do if you can’t even talk about the basics of the situation. Otherwise, I agree with FancySOX about avoiding getting too touchy.

BigBadBaraMouse: Introduce him to more people around town, help him build those friendships, and then find your distance. You’re not responsible for helping him settle in, but if you really want to help him out then that’s how you do it. Tbh, it sounds to me like you’re looking for excuses to hang out with him, which isn’t really going to help you get over your crush.

WishDragon: Get really drunk together and kiss him. If he kisses back, great! If not, then you can just say you were drunk and laugh it off. Worked for me!

Keishin’s text messenger went off.

Bananakano: STOP READING THOSE FORUM REPLIES RIGHT NOW ∑(゚ロ゚〃) ∑(゚ロ゚〃) ∑(゚ロ゚〃)

SetAndReady: they’re all pretty bad huh…

Bananakano: YES
Bananakano: well…. most of it.
Bananakano: it’s not exactly a healthy or sustainable situation
Bananakano: u really have it bad for this guy, huh? ( •᷄⌓•᷅ )

SetAndReady: its not like i WANT to…

Bananakano: what if u did tho?

SetAndReady: ?

Bananakano: not to get all analytical or anything, but is it rly unreasonable to think that after all this time alone u wouldn’t want somebody?

SetAndReady: i have plenty of ppl who’re there for me

Bananakano: good, yes! like me! & ur family & teams (/^▽^)/
Bananakano: but also? romantic love is good too

SetAndReady: says the guy with the boyfriend

Bananakano: exactly! I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT
Bananakano: ive had a lot of boyfriends, but that’s something you’ve always missed out on, right? being in love with someone?

SetAndReady: dont u start this 2…
SetAndReady: u don’t need romance 2 b happy

Bananakano: sure, plenty of ppl don’t. but have you considered that you, personally, might be happier with that kind of love in your life?

SetAndReady: no.
SetAndReady: im not sure i would be. my family… everything is so complicated.

Bananakano: look, I know u. you can do whatever u what, follow those ppl’s advice or not, pine after your sensei in secret or not, stay in that tiny town or move or do whatever. do what u think is best.
Bananakano: but I want u to know that u deserve that kind of love
Bananakano: even if it doesn’t seem possible, or you never pursue it. you deserve to be loved.

Keishin felt a lump in his throat.

SetAndReady: whats with u today?

He swallowed and wiped his eyes.

SetAndReady: …thx.

Bananakano: ur welcome! now cheer up, ya sap!
Bananakano: ur advice worked like a charm btw
Bananakano: my friend is safely and successfully moved faaar way from his bad ex! ~☆

SetAndReady: GOOD. I hate guys like that. glad ur friend is safe.

Bananakano: me too! he’s doing really well. and look at you, helping people near and far!
Bananakano: ☆~★ a real knight ★ ~☆

SetAndReady: oh shut up (ー_ー )

Bananakano: ╮(^▽^)╭
Bananakano: i gotta go now, but u have a good night ok?

SetAndReady: yeah, thx 4 talking 2 me

Bananakano: anytime!

Keishin clicked his laptop shut and closed his eyes. Nakano’s words had meant a lot, and it was easier to sort through his thoughts without the twinges of self-pity.

He liked being friends with Takeda. He liked coaching the team and reading poetry together and learning about how Takeda saw the world. He didn’t want to lose that, either by fucking it up with a confession or by avoiding him for his own selfish reasons.

As for love… he didn’t know.

He did know that he wasn’t ready to risk it right now, for anyone.

He did know that he wanted Takeda to be happy.

Honestly, maybe the fact that Takeda existed at all in the world was enough.

--

The Karasuno Neighborhood Association team’s uniforms were a terrible combination of pea green and high-visibility yellow. Tattsuan had found them at a discount, so they suited the team’s miniscule budget while having the added benefit of blinding their enemies through sheer awfulness.

The only good thing about them was that they were made from a pretty high-quality fabric that wicked moisture away from the skin, which was the only reason why Keishin hadn’t drowned in his own sweat by the end of their fourth game that day.

The neighborhood association league did things in a group tournament style, rather than the knockout rounds the high school and college leagues preferred. It helped even out the age disparities across the teams, but it also meant you couldn’t just kick your rivals’ asses once and be done with it. The result were low-key grudges that burned for decades without a clear winner, especially if you were in the middle of the league.

They’d beaten the Iwadeyama team in the first round and lost the next two games against other teams. Now it was Iwadeyama again, and their last shot at preserving at least the dignity of a 2-2 even streak.

Keishin glanced around the court. Iwadeyama’s blockers had been hounding Uchizawa for the whole set, and he’d been getting a 50-50 rate on breaking through. Keishin had won against them the first round by faking glances at Takinoue, as if he was going to send him a quick, then giving the ball to Uchizawa so he could spike unhindered. Iwadeyama’s blockers had caught on for a while in the second game, but they were getting tired now.

Keishin’s shoulder ached, which would make the toss he wanted to do a little tougher, but he could do it.

Keishin made a sign behind his back: his thumb hidden in his fist. The next time he set the ball, it flew into Mori’s hand and pounded into the court on the other side of the net. The blockers had Uchizawa and Takinoue marked, and the brief glimpse of their dumbfounded faces made Keishin grin like a demon.

The whistle echoed out across the community gym. They won.

The team cheered, and gathered around for the high-fives, hugs, punches, and occasional ass slaps of their victory celebrations. A few people in the meager audience cheered too. Takeda was one of them.

They bowed to the ref and the other team. Tattsuan shook hands with their captain, all smiles because they’d wagered over who would buy who drinks afterwards. Keishin helped clear the court, then grabbed a towel and walked over towards the sidelines where Takeda was waiting.

“My heart was racing at the end!” Takeda looked like he’d won the lottery. “You did it!”

Keishin grinned. “Sure did! Didjya get what you were hoping out of it?”

“Ah, yes!” Takeda said, as if he’d forgotten why he’d asked to come. “Thank you for inviting me along. It was really helpful to see all the different teams play. I think I’m starting to get more of a natural eye for things.”

“Well, anytime. It was fun t’have an extra person t’cheer us on.”

“I’m happy to!”

Keishin realized Takeda was staring at him. His eyes flicked down, then back up to meet Keishin’s eye.

“Ha, yeah, I know. The green shorts ain’t exactly high fashion.” Keishin wiped the sweat off his face with the towel, still riding high on the adrenaline. “Some a’ the guys have been pestering Tat-san t’ update the uniform, but he says we’re just teachin’ our rivals to fear the color chartreuse.”

Takeda laughed. “Well, you can’t argue with that, then!”

“Hey,” Shimada cut in. “I like the shorts!”

“Yeah well, we can’t all pull ‘em off as well as you.”

Shimada gave him a friendly shove and went past them into the changing room.

“Anyway, once we’re all changed we’re gonna go grab some drinks. Yer welcome t’ join us, sensei.”

“I’d love to.” Takeda smiled at him, and Keishin felt his mood soar a little higher.

--

Keishin loved this bar. It was filled to the brim with memories of his friends and post-game nights with the team, and they had the best food of any izakaya around. Plus, the owner didn’t care if you had a cigarette inside. He exhaled a long trail of smoke as people chattered around him.

Takeda was fitting right in. He knew he would. Takeda was good with people and never wasted an opportunity to party. It’d be nice for him to have more connections around the area, and as a bonus everyone got to see a little of how great Takeda was. He liked sitting next to him and quietly taking in the scene while Takeda talked enthusiastically about old films with Uchizawa.

“I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, sensei,” Uchizawa said, “Yojimbo is clearly the better film of the two.”

“It’s an excellent film, but it’s in Sanjuro that we see Mifune’s character at his best, when he’s acting as a mentor.”

“Yeah, I suppose. It’s just a different vision of the hero from the first. I just like that pure strength he shows in that one.”

“But isn’t true strength one that makes those around you strong as well?”

Keishin glanced around. Mori was looking pleased as punch that he’d hit the final shot in the game. Keishin was happy it’d worked out the way it did; Mori was a little insecure sometimes about his place on the team. The neighborhood association was his return to volleyball after he’d failed to get into his college’s league. His confidence had improved a lot since then, but Keishin could tell he was really shining tonight.

“Here’s to victory, at least half the time!” Shimada elbowed Mori then raised his glass to call for the third toast of the night.

“Here, here!” Tattsuan said.

They drank, and laughed, and some of them smoked while the sun set and the windows outside grew dark. Soon some of the older guys were starting to trickle out after settling the tab with the bartender.

Tattsuan stood up with them as if to go.

“Aw c’mon,” Takinoue whined at him. “The night’s still young! We should go do something fun!”

“Sorry guys, I gotta get home to the wife and all.” Tattsuan was smiling, like the best part of his night was going to be coming home to her. “You kids have fun.”

Shimada sighed as he walked away. “Fiiine, I guess that’s just more karaoke songs for us then.”

“Karaoke?” Takeda perked up at the mention of it.

“Fuck yeah! Karaoke! You got the best ideas, man!” Takinoue threw his arms around Shimada’s and Keishin’s shoulders. “We haven’t done that in forever!”

“Ooh, are we going to try out that new place?” Mori looked excited.

Takinoue balked. “Why’d we wanna go there? The old place is perfect.”

“Well… the old place has sticky floors and sometimes the sound systems crackle,” Shimada pointed out.

Takinoue waved them off. “Yeah but they have the best music.”

Keishin turned to Takeda. “He means Guitar Wolf. The owner’s band covered a bunch of karaoke versions of Guitar Wolf’s music. He just wants to scream.”

Takinoue looked betrayed. “Aww c’mon man, you love it too!”

“One!” Shimada held up his finger. “One Guitar Wolf song! Or next time we HAVE to go to the new place!”

“Yeah yeah, you’re a tyrant,” Takinoue said. “Fiiine.”

Mori shrugged. “Wherever’s fine with me.”

Takeda beamed. “Let’s do it!”

--

 They wound up in one of the better rooms at the old place. The sound system hadn’t been blown out by overzealous singers, and there were only a few cracks on the vinyl couches. They passed the song menu around while Takinoue diligently made a list.

Keishin put himself down for a few of his favorite songs, grabbed a beer, and sat back. Takeda selected a few songs as well, then joined him on the couch, drink in hand.

“I can tell this place has a lot of history to it,” Takeda said as he looked around at the dated décor.

“Ah, yeah, we’ve been comin’ here since we were kids. Y’probably noticed there’s photos and awards all along the halls, too.”

“Are there any pictures of you up there?”

“Hah, yeah, one. It’s kinda embarrassing though. You’ll hafta find that one yourself, sensei,” he teased.

“Oh, I’m sure I’m up for the challenge…” Takeda was smirking, an expression Keishin had only seen on him during a match. He couldn’t help but smile back.

The music started, only slightly tinny over the old speakers. Mori and Shimada were going first with “Song of a Small Love” by Mongol 800. It was a little sappy, but that was how they all liked it.

Takinoue liked it too, though you wouldn’t know it by the way he followed up by screaming out the lyrics to the B’z song “Bad Communication.” He really liked to ham it up, with lots of dancing and kicking while he sang. Keishin laughed, and Shimada pulled the drink table away from him, just in case he got too enthusiastic. Mori covered his ears while Takeda nodded to the beat.

Everyone cycled through their songs. Keishin did “Sukiyaki,” one of his favorites off the classics list. Takeda did a newer song: “Rainbow” by the pop artist Namie Amuro. It was about optimism and moving on from a breakup. Keishin couldn’t imagine anyone ever breaking Takeda’s heart, but who knows, people could be clueless assholes sometimes. If nothing else, the song suited his bright determination, and he sang surprisingly well. But really, of course he sang well. He had a great voice.

Soon it was over, and Shimada pulled Keishin in for Remioromen’s “Konayuki,” and then they both joined Takinoue in screaming into the mic for a Guitar Wolf song. Keishin didn’t even know the song that well anymore, but it wasn’t hard to follow along with Takinoue’s enthusiasm and the words on screen. His throat was sore at the end of it, but the laughter and round of drinks afterwards were worth it.

Mori was starting to look a little rough by that point. “Alright, I’m out. I’ve got class tomorrow, and I can’t keep up with you old farts.”

“We’re like three years older than you!” Takinoue shouted, just drunk enough to be a little too loud.

“Ha, more like five,” Mori said as he stuck out his tongue.

“Ehh? Kids today have no respect! Keishin-kun, do something!”

“Pfft, like I give a shit. Y’think I’m the kid whisperer now or somethin’?”

“Aww, c’mon. Your old man would’ve had us running laps for an hour for something like that.”

“I’m not my old man.”

“And we’re all grateful for that,” Shimada cut in.

“Especially me!” Mori cheered. “See you guys at practice next week! Goodbye, Takeda-sensei!”

Mori left and they moved on to the next song. Keishin fidgeted, more riled by Takinoue’s words than he should’ve been. It was all in good fun. He wondered if the speakers had been this loud before.

“Are you alright, Ukai-kun?” Takeda asked.

“I’m fine. I just need a smoke is all.” There was a ‘No Smoking’ sign in the room, which was new since the last time he’d been there. “I’m gonna step out fer a second.”

The night air was cool on his face as he stepped out the door. He smoked, and let himself relax a little under the awning outside the karaoke bar. A few strangers walked past, but nobody bothered him. He could feel a nice buzz from the beers, which was more pleasant in the calm and quiet. He took a few deep breaths and settled back into his own skin. After a few minutes he felt solid and like himself again, enough to deal with whatever ruckus was going on inside. He snuffed out his cigarette and went back in.

He stepped into the room in the middle of Takinoue, Shimada, and Takeda performing “Hot Girls” by Namie Amuro. Shimada was putting his heart into the words, clearly focusing on getting them all right. Takinoue was terrible at the English parts, but what he lacked in skill he was more than ready to make up for in dance moves. Meanwhile, Takeda was in the center and was the master of both. He belted it out like it was his favorite song on the radio, and his moves looked smooth and practiced.

He could have a secret life as a pop idol.

Keishin laughed, and Takinoue danced over to him and waved him in to join them. Keishin rolled his eyes and shoved him away, but his smile betrayed him. He didn’t know the song that well, and a lot of it was in English, but the beat was catchy and the enthusiasm was contagious. He glanced over at Takeda, who swung his hips and met his eyes with that familiar intensity he always had, a superstar in the form of an unassuming teacher.

The song wrapped up. Shimada cheered, declared that he needed to pee, and marched out of the room. Takinoue wiped his face, tried to take a swig of his beer and pouted that it was empty. He left after a bold declaration that he’d find them more drinks.

Keishin slumped down into the couch. Takeda sat down too, a little breathless from the song.

“Having fun, sensei?”

“Yes.” He shot Keishin a worried glance. “Are you?”

“Yeah.” Keishin smiled at him. “You can really sing, sensei.”

“Oh, not really,” Takeda said. “I ah, had a group of friends in college who did something like this all the time. I’m just glad they had this one.”

“Hm, well. We used to come here a lot too, but nothin’ like that.”

Takeda didn’t answer, just smiled to himself while he fidgeted with the song list. He had a nice smile. Keishin sunk back in the couch, the alcohol and Takeda’s face warm and fuzzy in his brain.

“Ukai-kun.” Takeda sat up suddenly and pulled out his phone. “Ukai-kun, take a selfie with me.”

“Eh? A selfie?”

“I haven’t had this much fun with a group of friends since I moved here.” Takeda’s face was serious and determined, humorously close to when he’d first walked into Keishin’s shop to ask him to coach. “Help me remember it!”

“Ha, sure.”

He scooted over and leaned into Takeda’s shoulder, the warm thrum of alcohol dulling his nervousness at being so close to him. He checked to see if he was in the frame of the shot, then winced.

The lighting was awful. They were backlit, and it was too dim for the phone’s camera to focus, and the angle was bad.

“Sensei, wait.” Keishin set a hand around Takeda’s waist and pulled him closer, towards the lamp that was on his side of the couch. With his other hand, Keishin reached out and shifted the angle of the phone a little higher. “The light’ll be better like this.”

It was just a stupid excuse to touch him, if he was sober enough to be honest with himself, and it ignored the advice he’d gotten from the forums. But it wasn’t as if it was anything he’d think twice about with his other friends.

“Ah,” Takeda looked up into the phone, “You’re right!” He leaned into Keishin, apparently unbothered by the closeness, and pressed their heads together. Keishin could smell his shampoo. It was nice. A faint, spicy, orange-y kind of smell. But that didn’t matter. He looked into Takeda’s phone and gave his best smile. It clicked a few times, then Takeda’s hand lowered so he could flip through the pictures.

Keishin was suddenly aware that his hand was still at Takeda’s waist. He removed it and scooted over a few inches, as quickly and subtly as his drunk self could manage. Takeda gave no indication that he was relieved or bothered either way, which Keishin told himself was good. Takeda just smiled at his phone, then held it up for Keishin to see.

Keishin looked at the photo. There was Takeda with his familiar beaming smile, leaning into Keishin like it was the most natural thing in the world. Keishin didn’t hate the view of himself either, even though pictures of his own face always seemed somehow off to him. They were both flushed from alcohol, which hid the blush that Keishin knew was on his face at the time. And probably now.

“S’good.”

Takeda gave him a thumbs up. “I think so, too!”

Keishin felt the world get a little brighter.

Takinoue burst through the door. “Can you believe that they’re closing soon?! This is a travesty!”

“Well, do we have time fer any more?”

“Maybe. At the very least, we gotta do our traditional sendoff!”

“No,” Keishin said. He was not doing that. Not in front of Takeda. “That was funny in high school. We’re done.”

“And it’s funny now!”

Shimada walked in. “What’s funny?”

“Mart-san!” Takinoue pointed at Keishin. “Keishin-kun says he doesn’t wanna do ‘Every Heart’ with us!”

“But that’s our traditional sendoff song! And don’t call me that.”

“That’s what I said!” Takinoue ignored the second comment.

Shimada covered his mouth with a hand and said in a mock-whisper. “Maybe he’s becoming a stick-in-the-mud.”

Keishin let out an irritated sigh. If he didn’t cave now they’d just find something even more obnoxious. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He stood up. “Sensei, I apologize for everythin’ you’re about to hear.”

Takeda waved his hands reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I love ‘Every Heart!’”

“Then I gotta apologize even more.”

“You should do it too, sensei!” Takinoue waved him up.

For years, the three of them had ended their karaoke nights with BOA’s “Every Heart,” sung as intentionally off-key and over-the-top as possible. It had started in high school, partly as joke and partly because they’d wanted to sing something sentimental without the fear of doing it poorly (or maybe that was just Keishin). Now it was a mix of nostalgia and drunk fun, and once Takinoue had said something about it being a sign that they’d all be there for each other no matter how bad they fucked up. But really, it was just bad. Keishin tried to keep as least half his notes on-key, which only made the rest sound even worse. In the end, he was just as bad and slurred as the other two. Takeda seemed willing to indulge them, and sang along with his own off-key version.

“Don't forget to belieeeeeeve in yourself,” they crooned, “tomorrowwww will never diee!”

The music ended, and they all laughed. Shimada and Takinoue slapped Keishin on the back.

Takinoue gave Takeda a mock salute. “Welcome to the band, sensei!”

“Happy to be here!” Takeda returned the gesture.

The bar was closing, so they grabbed their things and shuffled out. Takeda stopped in the hall.

“Ukai-kun, challenge complete.” He pointed at a photograph on the wall. In it, a younger Keishin was posing with Takinoue by a certificate that read “King Wolves.” Keishin had buzzed hair, and his face was contorted into what he’d probably thought was an intimidating punk expression at the time. His tongue was sticking out, and he and Takinoue were both giving the camera the middle finger.

“Ha, yeah. The owner had a contest for ‘Best Guitar Wolf Karaoke’ after his band made all those cover tracks. We were the loudest screamers, I guess. So we won.”

Takeda smiled at the photo and Keishin’s stupid face in it. “You remind me of one of my students.”

“Ha, I hope not, fer your sake.”

Shimada came back to find them. “Distracted by a trip down memory lane?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that!” Takinoue had followed him. “We rocked! And then when we went to the Tanabata festival the next week, a girl recognized me from the picture here!” He stroked his chin. “I guess I just have one of those faces.”

“Oh, that’s coming up soon, isn’t it?” Takeda asked. “The Tanabata festival? Are you planning on going?”

Takinoue’s face lit up. “Are we?!”

Shimada covered his face with his hand. “Well, we weren’t until now…”

“You’re thinking of the big one in Sendai, right sensei?” Keishin cut in. “It’s really, really crowded and full of tourists. It’s really not as great a thing as you might be picturin’…”

“Don’t listen to him, he’s no fun!” Takinoue shoved Keishin a little. “It’s awesome! I haven’t been in ages though, since these two,” he gestured to Keishin and Shimada, “are boring as hell.”

“Ah! What do you like about it, Takinoue-kun?” Takeda asked.  

“All the food! And the lanterns are amazing!”

“Yes! And the fireworks?”

“Some of the best around.”

“That’s fantastic! I love all the wishes people make, I’m sure it’s something to see so many people’s hopes and dreams alongside one another.”

“Yeah, yeah!”

“And of course we can’t forget the yukata…” Takeda was beaming. Keishin had a sinking feeling they were going to get roped into this.

Takinoue beamed back at him. “Hell yeah, sensei! You have good taste! Yukata are the best. Nothin’ like meeting someone by chance when you’re all dressed up. It’s like another world.”

“Yes, exactly! Like a work of fiction or a historical scene! It makes my heart race.”

Shimada leaned into Keishin and muttered, “We’re not getting out of this, are we?”

“No.” Keishin agreed. He looked at the way Takeda’s eyes were sparkling with excitement, and quietly resigned himself to tourist hell.

“It’s settled then. We have to do it. This is the year!” Takinoue turned to Shimada and Keishin. “Clothes! Festival! No complaining!”

“Fine.” Keishin huffed.

“I make no guarantees on the last one,” Shimada said. Then his expression broke into a shy smile. “But yeah, it could be fun.”

“All right! We’re doing it!”

And with that, they stumbled their separate ways into the night.

Chapter Text

Napping at midday
I hear the songs of the rice planters
and feel ashamed of myself.

-Issa

 

--

Keishin slumped in his chair behind the counter. He had the store until closing time and was resisting the urge to count down the hours until he could go take a nap.

His mind wandered instead to the upcoming festival. Takeda had been awfully excited about the yukata. Keishin wondered if he favored a particular kind. Something bold maybe, or… no, more traditional, since he’d mentioned liking historical scenes. Maybe a mix of the two. Normally Keishin would just wear his jinbei, but it was starting to show wear around the edges and, yeah, ok, maybe the way Takeda’s eyes had shone when he’d talked about the yukata had gotten to him a bit.

His shoulder ached from the kids’ practice session that morning. He craned his neck to stretch it and winced. Maybe the lack of sleep was starting to catch up with him. But it’s not like he was about to cut back on anything in his schedule. He was committed to his work and his teams, and he hated the thought of seeing his friends even less than he already did. He supposed he would just have to try to catch up on sleep after his shift was over.

The bell on the door chimed as a customer came in. Keishin sat upright and put away the pack of cigarettes he’d been fidgeting with.

It was Takeda.

“Sensei.”

“Good afternoon, Ukai-kun.” Takeda made his way to the snack and pre-made meals section. “How are you?”

“M’fine. You just get out of meetings?”

“Yes, we’re all frantic with exams coming up. I just stopped by to grab a few things before going home to grade some assignments.” Takeda set an armful of pre-made onigiri on the counter.

Keishin stared at them. There were enough riceballs to feed a man for a week. “What’s all this for?”

“Oh, um,” Takeda reddened a little. “For exam week. I don’t really have time to cook for myself, and lately I’ve been so busy making phone calls for the team that I’ve missed it when the other teachers put their lunch takeout orders together.”

“Are you tellin’ me you’re plannin’ to live off these for a week?”

“Of course not! I also have a few frozen dinners from Shimada Mart. Those are pretty healthy, right?”

“Sure, once in a while, but this is…” Keishin looked at the onigiri strewn across the counter. There was enough sodium between all of them to choke a horse. These were the cheap ones, too. Too much carbs, not enough protein. “How often d’you eat a home-cooked meal, sensei?”

Takeda fidgeted. “It’s hard to find the time to cook every day…” He trailed off. Keishin guessed that meant ‘never.’

“Cookin’s not hard. Y’just make a big batch of somethin’ during the weekend and freeze it if yer busy. Didn’t yer ma ever teach you?” His tone was getting a little flippant, but this was ridiculous. He wasn’t about to let Takeda live off of convenience store onigiri.

“N-no, my mother made every meal the day of.”

Weird. Keishin sometimes forgot that not everyone’s ma’s owned their own business.

He sighed. “Put some a’these back. My shift’s off in a few hours, I’ll make somethin’ for you.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that!”

“Yeah well you’re not settin’ this kinda example to the kids either.  It won’t be anything fancy, just curried rice or somethin’.”

Takeda put half the onigiri back, then returned to pay. “A-are you certain it’s no trouble? I know you’re busy.”

“It’s nothin’. A shipment got delayed at the farm and we can’t do anything until it arrives, so I’ve got nothing t’ do until the store opens tomorrow anyway.”

“Tell me what ingredients you need, at least. I’ll pick them up.”

Keishin waved him off. “Just go do yer work. I’ll get what I need on my way over and y’can pay me back later, or buy me a drink.”

Takeda brightened at the mention of drinks. “Of course!”

--

Keishin set the grocery bags down on Takeda’s tiny kitchen counter. The apartment was cleaner than it had been last time, though on closer inspection he could see that was a recent development. The floor was clear, the extra books placed in precarious stacks along the wall near the shelves. The drying rack in the sink was full of glasses, still dripping wet. Even the countertop was still a little damp from when it had been wiped down. The radio was on, just loud enough to hear but low enough to talk over easily.

Takeda seemed a little flustered. “Thank you again for all this. Hold on just a second and I’ll help out,” he said as he stepped into the other room. Keishin glanced over at him and saw he was taking off his tie. It swung from his hand as he rounded the corner to put it away.

Keishin swallowed and turned back to his task of starting the meal prep.

Takeda came back a moment later, his tie missing and the top button of his shirt undone. He pulled a plain apron off of a hook on the wall. “I only have one apron, but you should take it, Ukai-kun. You’re doing so much.”

“Nah, yer clothes’re nicer. Put that on and help me by startin’ the rice. I’ll chop veggies.”

Takeda pulled out a cutting board and knife (which looked dull; Keishin made a mental note to bring a knife-sharpener the next time he was over) and handed them to Keishin.

Keishin started slicing scallions while Takeda pulled a rice cooker out of one of the cabinets below the countertop. It was a nice model, with a lots of buttons and features. He measured out rice and water and hit a button to start it.

“Say, Ukai-kun. Forgive me if this is asking too much, but… is there anyone special in your life? Or maybe in your past?”

Keishin startled a little at the question. 

Takeda stuttered nervously, “I-I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry. I shouldn’t have asked.” He fidgeted with the rice cooker.

“Well, there isn’t,” Keishin said. “I dunno if you noticed, sensei, but this town ain’t exactly brimmin’ with options.”

“Even for someone like you?”

Keishin couldn’t help but snort out a laugh at that. “Especially for someone like me.” Then, to provide some kind of explanation, he added, “I’m nothin’ special. Things were a little better in college but nothin’ ever stuck, and I’m okay with that.” He cast a suspicious glance toward Takeda. “Yer not tryin’ to set me up with someone too, are you?”

“N-no, It’s just… I noticed you sing a lot of sort of sad or wistful love songs, and I just wondered… if that was from the heart. I’m sorry, it seems I always read too much into things like that.”

“Mmn.” Keishin thought about it for a moment. “I guess those songs just speak to me anyhow. Like missin’ someone, even if there wasn’t ever anything there.”

“A sort of wistful feeling. I understand.” Takeda leaned against the countertop, uncertain of how to help. “Well, if anyone ever did catch your eye, I think they’d be lucky to have someone like you.”

Keishin forgot what he was doing for a minute. His chest and shoulders felt lighter. Even if Takeda didn’t want him because of gender or whatever, that he thought he’d be good for someone made his heart skip a beat. He shook himself and went back to chopping up carrots.

“And ah…. What about you, sensei? Did you leave anyone special behind when y’moved here?”

“I had a few sweethearts in Tokyo, yes.”

Keishin’s eyebrows shot up. “You were a heartbreaker?!”

“Not all at once! But, I suppose you could say I was a heartbreaker.” Takeda’s brow furrowed as Keishin cut the carrots into smaller and smaller pieces. “I haven’t always been good at seeing the whole person. I get lost in stories, and poetry, all these idealized things. I would forget that the practical sides of life are just as important.”

“I think anyone would be lucky t’have you.”

Keishin said it without thinking. It was too much, but it was true, and he couldn’t regret it. Not when Takeda had sounded so self-depreciating.

“T-that’s kind of you to say, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin stilled the knife and glanced up at him. Takeda’s face was red.

They stood there in silence, their hands still and tasks forgotten. Keishin thought about reaching out to him, to trace his cheek, to say something kind and perfect, to kiss him, anything.

Instead, he cleared his throat and turned back to the cutting board. “I’m only statin’ the obvious. Hand me that other grocery bag, willya?”

He sliced the chicken he’d brought while the wok heated up. It sizzled and popped as it slid into the pan. When it was ready, he went to grab the rice from the rice cooker.

“Ah, sensei, didya mean t’set it on ‘warm’ instead of ‘cook?’”

Takeda startled, “Ah, um, n-no! I’m sorry, I haven’t used this one much. It was a gift before I moved, and it has so many extra buttons and features, and… s-sorry!” He pressed a few more buttons to start it again.

“That’s alright. We’ll finish up when that’s done.” Keishin set the prepared ingredients aside and wiped the wok clean. “I’m guessin’ it’ll beep when it’s ready?”

“P-probably, yes!”

“Right, well we can relax until then. No worries.”

Takeda relaxed. “Great, thank you for all of this.” He slipped off the apron. “Um, s-sorry to be such a bad host, but would you mind if I work while we wait? I need to get these assignments graded before tomorrow. It shouldn’t take too long, I promise.”

“Fine by me.” Keishin set a timer on his phone for the rice. Just in case.

Takeda started going over the papers on his table while Keishin sank down onto the floor nearby.

Keishin rubbed at his neck and shoulder. It was still pretty sore.  He wondered if he overdid it serving for the kids.

Takeda looked up from his work. “Shoulder troubles?”

“Yeah, but it’s nothin’ new. It just does this sometimes.”

Takeda stood and walked over to him. Before Keishin had time to react, Takeda kneeled down next to him and set his fingers just above his shoulder blade. “Around here?”

Keishin froze. Takeda’s touch was electrifying. “Y-yeah.”

Takeda pressed down and began moving his fingers in slow circles, up and down the muscle leading from Keishin’s shoulder to the base of his neck. Keishin leaned into the touch like a cat. He could feel his face flush.

“Is this helping, Ukai-kun?”

“Mn,” he made little noise as Takeda pressed harder, working out a knot just above his shoulder blade. “Yeah…”

This was bad. It was breaking every rule the forum members had suggested. Again. But it felt so good, far better than Takeda could know.

He should tell him to stop.

Takeda shifted his hands and started rubbing large, slow circles with his palms across Keishin’s upper back and shoulders. Keishin shifted his bad shoulder back and tilted his head. Takeda traced his fingers up Keishin’s neck, alternating between firm and light touches.

“Mmph,” Keishin whimpered.

He should really tell him to stop.

But, if there was a heaven, it was underneath Takeda’s fingertips.

Takeda brushed against the little hairs at the nape of his neck, just before his hairline. “How long have you been so tense?”

“Dunno. Usually when it hurts I just put some capsaicin cream or some heat on it.”

“Ah, I have just the thing,” Takeda said gently. He brushed another circle at the nape of Keishin’s neck. Then his hand fell, his fingertips tracing Keishin’s shoulder.

Keishin’s heart sank a little when Takeda stood up and walked away and into his kitchen. He heard the beep of a microwave.

“Would you like any tea while I’m up?” Takeda called out.

Keishin shifted and brought himself back to reality. “Uh, yeah, sure.”

Yes. Reality.

“You can lean against the shelf near the patio door if you need more back support. I do it all the time.”

Keishin adjusted himself until he was propped up against the side of the bookcase with a cushion behind him. It felt solid and safe. His face was still warm. He sighed quietly and willed it to stop. He had no right to be disappointed. This is why the folks on the forum had told him not to do this shit. He took a deep breath and fought the urge to go have a smoke.

Takeda came back a few minutes later with two cups of tea and a heating pad balanced over his shoulder. He set the cups down on the table, and then draped the pad over Keishin’s sore shoulder. The pad was warm and smelled faintly of lavender. Takeda adjusted where it rested, careful to make sure it was balanced on Keishin’s neck and shoulder. Keishin’s heart fluttered a bit as his muscles relaxed under the warmth and attention.

“Thanks, sensei.”

Takeda smiled at him, then turned to the table, and went to work.

The room was quiet except for the scratching of Takeda’s pen, the rustle of papers, and the soft music playing on the radio. Keishin could see how Takeda might forget to eat. He looked so focused, so intent on his work.

Keishin leaned his head back against the bookshelf. His own stupidity aside, he took comfort in the fact that at least he could do these things for Takeda; he could help at the gym, make a few meals, invite him out with his friends, and lift Takeda’s burdens just a little. We all need somebody, he remembered, and he would be sure to be there as Takeda’s friend.

Takeda turned another page, still intent on his work.

This was all Keishin needed right now anyway.

He let the thought sit heavy and full in his mind, and relaxed into the warmth of the heating pad and the peaceful little noises of the apartment, and fell asleep.

He woke up fifteen minutes later to the insistent beeping of his phone alarm. He groaned and pulled himself up before he was even fully awake, a skill cultivated by too many early shifts on the farm.

Takeda shifted as if to get up. “Do you want help?”

Keishin waved him off. “Nah, I just need t’check it.”

The rice was actually cooking this time. The display on the rice cooker had a countdown timer showing the last five minutes, with a little animated cartoon elephant dancing next to the numbers.

Keishin returned to his seat against the shelf. “Still needs a few minutes.”

“Ah, alright. Sorry about the rice. I appreciate your patience with me.”

“Nothin’ to apologize over.”

Takeda made a few more marks on the sheet in front of him. Then, apparently finished, he nodded to himself and stacked the graded assignments together. He turned to Keishin. “Ukai-kun, I was wondering… do you like foreign films?”

“What, like Avengers?”

“Oh, ah, sure. But I was thinking more of the sort of thing you’d see at a film festival.”

Keishin resisted the urge to smack himself in the face. Of course that’s what he meant. At least Takeda knew him well enough by now that it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

“Dunno, t’be honest. I don’t really watch a lot of movies with subtitles. I can follow it okay, but it’s just not as good of an experience.” Keishin stopped himself before he could say anything more embarrassing. “Was there somethin’ you wanted t’ see, sensei?”

“Oh, well it’s just that there’s this film festival in Tokyo that I used to go to every year. I haven’t been able to attend since I moved, but I try to watch the films on my own when I can. The next one is in about a month, and I just realized that I still haven’t watched all the films from last year….”

“We c’n watch a few together, if you want.”

Takeda waved his hands. “You really don’t have to. You already said you don’t like foreign films, I shouldn’t push.”

“Nah, yer not pushin’. Besides, it’s gotta be better than sitting through another Matsuko Deluxe marathon with my ma, right?” he joked.

Takeda’s hands fell to the table. “Oh. You’re… not a fan of Matsuko?”

Keishin faltered. He realized that they had no shared language to explain his feelings about it: the way the other celebrities talked about Matsuko, or the way his mother liked his persona but would never, ever want her son to be like him… or the way Keishin felt like the butt of every other damn joke on TV.

“It’s… just not somethin’ I wanna see.”

“…Oh.” Takeda wasn’t looking at him now.

Keishin felt tense and exposed. He wondered if he’d said the wrong thing. He hadn’t expected Takeda to be a fan of daytime TV, or maybe it was something else. Maybe he’d tell him. Were they close enough to argue yet?

A sing-song melody came from the rice cooker in the kitchen. It was done.

Takeda stood up, fast enough that he knocked the table a little as he did. “Ah, sorry, we should take care of the food!”

The next steps were pretty easy, so Takeda just wound up hovering in the kitchen while Keishin stirred eggs, veggies, spices, chicken, and the rice together in the wok.

He turned off the stove. “That’ll do it. I brought plenty of sauces, so you can spice it how y’want. It’s good t’make it taste different if you’re gonna be eating it every day.”

“Thank you for doing this, Ukai-kun.”

“Maybe thank me after y’taste it.”

Takeda brought out a bottle of sake and they settled down at the table to eat. The food was alright, though Keishin could tell the spicing was a little off.

“This is delicious!” Takeda said.

“Glad y’like it.” He grinned. “You wanna open that sake?”

Takeda did, and they filled each other’s glasses.

“So what else is coming up for exam week, besides starvin’ yourself?”

“I think I’m safe from starvation now, thanks to you.” Takeda smiled, visibly more relaxed now that he had a little food in him. “It’s going well. All my work is in order, though I’m worried about a few of my students.”

“Y’still got some slackers?”

“Not quite, no. They all work hard, but a few aren’t connecting with the material for various reasons. I understand that at a certain point I’ve done all I can and I just have to let them fail or succeed as they will, but…” He bit his lip.

“I understand. Y’don’t wanna see ‘em fail.”

Takeda nodded and took another bite of his food. He smiled at the taste, and Keishin felt warmth pool in his chest.

“But things are good, really,” Takeda continued. “We’ve found enough funding for the training camp, and most of my students are doing very well, and I think I’m finally starting to settle in here socially.”

“I’m glad. I was worried when you mentioned diggin’ into your own savings for the trip.”

“No, our new manager has been so helpful. And so have Shimada-kun and Takinoue-kun. I’m excited for the festival, too…”

Keishin leaned into the conversation, content at his happiness. They continued to eat, and chat, and drink. At one point Takeda brought out a second bottle of sake, and the conversation stretched easily into the night.

“And then,” Takeda waved his hands, “I looked down at my exam schedule, and there was this class I’d completely forgotten that I’d signed up for! I guess I’d already had all the books on the reading list, so I didn’t buy any, and then I just completely spaced it out.”

Keishin laughed, his voice rough from the sake and the cigarette he’d stepped out to take. “Yer shittin’ me. What the hell did you do?”

“There was a week before the exam, so I managed to get a copy of the syllabus from another student, and then I stayed up for three days straight studying and re-reading the books.”

Keishin smiled. “Didn’t give up, huh? Sounds like you.”

“Somehow I did well enough to pass the class, even though I’d missed every other assignment. I had the same professor again the next semester, and he said—” Takeda laughed, “—he said I was the only student he knew both foolish and determined enough to pull that off.”

They laughed together. Takeda was radiant, and at some point he’d undone another button of his shirt, revealing the white of his undershirt underneath. Keishin shouldn’t find it so fascinating. He wished that Takeda wanted more of him. He’d be good for him, he knew it. He’d be so good. Whatever he wanted.

Keishin shook his head to clear the thought and was hit with a wave of dizziness instead. How much had he had to drink? Okay, no, this was fine. He’d had this much before, plenty of times. Just maybe not this fast in a while. He glanced down at his glass, and saw it was still half full. He groaned.

“Okay, I’m beat. You’ve beaten me, sensei, I give in.” He let himself fall back onto the floor. The floor was nice. Takeda’s ceiling was nice.

Takeda laughed and crawled around the table to check on him. “Are you alright?”

Keishin felt like he could melt into a happy puddle on the floor. “Just dandy.”

Takeda chuckled. “Ukai-kun, your stomach is showing.” He reached out and grabbed the hem of Keishin’s shirt.

Keishin let out a quiet gasp at the brush of Takeda’s fingers against his skin, then the drag of them down his stomach as he pulled the shirt down.

Keishin’s breathing was rough. He realized Takeda was staring at him, and he was half-hard and Takeda could probably tell and Keishin didn’t care right now. He was so relaxed. Takeda could do whatever he wanted to him.

His hand was still on his hip.

“Sensei,” he breathed. He tilted his leg a little, so his knee brushed against Takeda’s side.

Takeda startled at the touch. “Ukai-kun.” His eyes grew wide and flicked over Keishin. He pulled away then, setting his hands carefully in his lap. “You certainly have had a lot, haven’t you?” he said gently.

Keishin rolled onto his side, still facing Takeda. He curled up, just enough to hide himself. “Sensei, will you read to me again?”

Takeda smiled at him. “Yes. Hold on a second.” He stood and searched a particular volume on the shelf, then sat down next to Keishin while he thumbed through the book. Keishin watched his face while he read.

“Soft slow song,
From where do you come,
And where, after me,
Where will you fade?

In the evening glow
That closes the day,
When the sky starts to fill
With the murmur of stars,

Like a string whose tone
Is heightened to tears,
O tender song, what lodging in me?

And how to send you back
To where you belong,
So late the hour, this lambent night?”

 

Takeda set the book down in his lap. “That was ‘Preface’ by Michizo Tachihara,” he ducked his head a little, “I-it just seemed fitting. I hope it wasn’t too dull.”

“I like it. It makes sense.”

“Does it now?”

Keishin thought of all the softness in his head lately, of all the long nights that his mind had kept him awake with thoughts of Takeda. “Yeah.”

“I’m glad.” Takeda was smiling at him.

Keishin’s brow furrowed as he thought over the last verse. “Though…that doesn’t mean yer kickin’ me out now, right?”

Takeda laughed. It was a sudden, surprised laugh that petered off into a gentle sound. “No.” He leaned against the table, his head propped up on his hand. “You said that you didn’t have to work tomorrow, right?”

“Not first thing in th’morning, no.”

“Then shall I read you another?”

“Please.”

Keishin stumbled home around 2, his head and heart full of Takeda’s voice.

--

It was the afternoon they’d agreed to go to the festival, and Shimada was waiting for him when he arrived at the train station. Shimada had purchased a new jinbei for the event. It had a modern pattern in green with hints of red and pink throughout the design.

He waved when he saw Keishin. “Hey Keishin! You’re almost as early as I am.”

“Yeah.” Keishin rubbed the back of his neck. “It didn’t take me as long t’remember how to put this thing on as I thought it would.”

In the end, Keishin had chosen a yukata with a subtle geometric pattern. It was a traditional design, though he didn’t know the history of it. The fabric itself was a sort of grey-blue, so dark it was almost black. He hadn’t worn a yukata since he was a kid, and it felt unfamiliar but not uncomfortable in the summer afternoon air.

“That’s good.” Shimada made no comment on his outfit, and Keishin didn’t expect him to. “I guess I’m just more excited about this than I thought I’d be.”

“Hey guys!!” Takinoue shouted from down the way. He was wearing a blue yukata and the biggest grin Keishin had seen on him in a while. His sandals clacked down the pavement as he walked over to the station. They waved.

Takeda wasn’t late, Keishin reminded himself. They were just all early. He resisted the urge to check his phone, and lit a cigarette instead.

“Hey man, we’re gonna be getting on the train soon,” Takinoue fussed at him over the cigarette. Keishin blew a puff of smoke in his face as protest. He sputtered and gave Keishin a quick shove. Keishin grinned and kicked back at him.

“Ah, sensei! Over here!” Shimada called.

Keishin and Takinoue stopped their scuffling. Keishin looked up to see Takeda walking down the street toward them, wearing a grey jinbei.

A jinbei.

Right.

Of course.

Takeda must have been talking about women’s yukata when he'd shown so much excitment.

Obviously.

Keishin sank into silent, horrified embarrassment.

“Hey sensei!” Takinoue waved. “Ready to go?”

Takeda grinned. “You bet!”

Well, at least Takinoue was wearing a yukata too. Keishin shelved his embarrassment as they got onto the train. He took comfort in the rhythmic movement of the train car as Takinoue, Shimada, and Takeda chatted about the festival.

“I think my favorite festival is probably New Years, but Tanabata is a close second,” Takinoue said.

“I do like the displays…” Shimada admitted.

“I like the story behind it,” Takeda said. Keishin smiled. He should have guessed.

“Ah, yeah,” Shimada said, “The two lovers and the river of stars, right?”

“It’s a parable about the balance of work and love,” Takeda said. After a polite silence, he launched into the story. “The Sky King’s daughter spent every day weaving beautiful clothes. Her work was beloved by all, especially her father. But because of all her hard work she could never meet and fall in love with anyone.”

Keishin turned his head to stare out the window. He knew this story, and he related to this part more than he would ever admit. Still, he listened, transfixed by Takeda’s voice.

“Her father grew concerned, and arranged for her to meet a young cowherd who worked on the other side of the river. When the two met, they instantly fell in love and were married by the spring. But, they were so enraptured with one another that they would no longer perform their duties. Threads remained unwoven, there were no beautiful clothes for the Sky King’s court, and the cows strayed all over Heaven. The Sky King was enraged, and separated the two lovers across the great river of stars, where they would never meet again.”

“Man, what a dick,” Takinoue said.

Takeda smiled and continued. “The daughter pleaded with her father, and he agreed that they could see each other again only if she worked hard and finished all of her weaving. She did, and on the 7th day of the 7th month they were allowed to see each other. But when the day came, she found that while they could see each other from the banks of the great river, but there was no bridge for them to cross. She cried, and her tears were so great and heartfelt that a flock of magpies came to the couple’s aid and built a bridge with their wings. It is said that if it happens to rain on the 7th day of the 7th month, the magpies won’t come and the lovers will have to wait another year before they can meet again.”

“I get that it’s a parable for not neglecting your duties,” Shimada said, “But I never understood the magpies.”

“Well, there’s some symbolism there, certainly. My take is that it’s ultimately a reminder that something as ethereal as love might be fleeting, so you should pursue it and take your chance before it’s gone. Provided you remember your duties, of course, which is what the first part of the story is about.”

The train rolled to their stop before anyone could respond. They stepped out into the streets and to the first sights of the festival.

The crowds were worse than Keishin remembered. They made their way through the streets in shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic while the heavy smell of fried food hung in the air. There were paper lanterns everywhere, along with paper folded to make purses, chains, and streamers. Sendai was famous for its Tanabata decorations and different storefronts competed with each other to have the best displays. Cameras clicked and flashed from all corners, adding to the dizzying atmosphere.

Keishin glanced down to see how Takeda was holding up. The crowd didn’t seem to bother him. If anything, he seemed even more vivacious than usual. His eyes flicked everywhere as he took it all in. Keishin slowed down so they wouldn’t lose him in the crowd.

They continued to wander through the festival until they came to an area where brightly colored slips of paper were hanging from clusters of bamboo branches. Each slip of paper had a wish written on it. A soft breeze caught them and they rustled together, flashing fragments of the hopes they carried. There was a crowd gathered around the tables nearby, full of people ready to add their own wishes to the display.

The idea was that if the two lovers met, their joy would be so great that all the wishes made that year would come true, or something. Keishin noticed some carefully placed advertisements being handed out nearby as well, and he guessed that the shopkeepers figured that if divine intervention couldn’t do it, maybe buying something from them would.

Their group split at that point, as each of them went to find his own space to write. Keishin grabbed some red slips of paper, then hesitated. He thought for a moment, then wrote out two wishes:

I hope our team goes to Nationals.

and

I hope sensei finds happiness.

He tied his first wish to the front of a cluster of bamboo. He hid the second towards the back, surrounded by other slips of paper. It was vague enough to pose some sort of plausible deniability if somebody saw it, but still. Surely whatever or whoever granted wishes would know who he meant.

Nobody asked what the others wished for, and Keishin was grateful for it.

Wishes made, they went to find some greasy fair food and then to watch fireworks.

Keishin liked fireworks, despite the noise. They weren’t the first ones there and it was crowded, so they didn’t get the best viewing spot but it didn’t matter, really. They were still beautiful.

“You look like you’re having fun, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin glanced down and saw Takeda looking up at him. “Yeah. Is it what you’d hoped for, sensei?”

“Thousands of people watching the same lights, all thinking of their dreams and hopes for the future? Yes.” Takeda said.

“Sensei,” Shimada said, “that was a beautiful way to put it.”

“Yeah, see?” Takinoue nudged him. “It was fun after all!”

Shimada stuck his tongue out. “Yeah, well, maybe I’m just looking forward to drinks after this.”

“Uh-huh, suuuure, you big romantic, you.” Takinoue grinned at him.

The festival was starting to wrap up, and they took a train to the outskirts of the city. Shimada knew a tavern there that wouldn’t be too overwhelmed to seat them.

When they entered the tavern, Keishin recognized one of Shimada’s uncles across the way, sitting with his taiko drumming group.

The uncle perked up when he saw Shimada. “Makoto-kun!” he waved.

Shimada looked surprised, and waved back. “Uncle, how are you? I guess you guys performed at the festival today, huh?”

“That’s right. Here, I’ll introduce ya!”

They went through introductions to the whole group. One of the drummers, a woman with short-ish blonde hair, brightened with recognition at Takeda’s name.

“Ah, sensei! Thank you for taking care of my little brother, Ryuu. I’m Tanaka Saeko.” She did a quick gesture of a bow, then grinned.

“A pleasure.” Takeda returned the bow. “I’m here with the coach, Ukai Keishin.” Keishin noticed Takeda’s gaze dip down when she looked away, the briefest glance at her bound chest. No one else would’ve noticed it, but it made his stomach churn.

“Nice t’meet you,” he said.

“You as well.” She looked him up and down and smiled. “Well c’mon then, let’s go drink!”

Shimada was pulled away to catch up with his uncle while the rest of them mingled with Tanaka and some of the other players. Takinoue looked pleased as punch to be there, and wasted no time in chatting up the girls. Takeda was his usual social self, and Keishin tried to focus on the conversation and not the fact that Takeda would probably make a few female friends of his own.

“I hear being a coach is a tough gig,” Tanaka said as she poured sake into Keishin's glass.

“It’s alright. It’s worth it, I guess.” Keishin drank, probably a little too fast. He got nervous talking to women, mostly because he could never quite tell if he was getting hit on or not.

“It’s always worth it to see the kids succeed, right?” she said, “I don’t really get it myself, but Ryuu’s been happier since he started playing. Why’d you start?”

Keishin had finished his sake glass already. “My old man played.”

“Saeko-chan, you sound like you’re interviewing him for a job,” said a woman across the table. Keishin hadn’t gotten her name.

“Why not?” Tanaka shot back. “It’s important for me to know who’s around my brother.” She crossed her arms. “Gotta make sure they’re good characters, right?”

“Like you’d know anything about being a good character,” her friend teased back.

“Nonsense! I know it better than anyone.”

Keishin kept drinking as the conversation went on around him. Third glass, fourth glass, and then he stopped counting. Tanaka kept asking him questions, and eventually she started to make little touches on his arm as she talked, which only made him want to drink faster. He glanced over and saw Takeda talking animatedly with another drummer, a woman with short dark hair. He bit his tongue. It shouldn’t bother him.

When he looked back to Tanaka she was grinning, and Keishin realized his glance at Takeda had been far less subtle than he’d thought. She didn’t say anything, just winked at him and turned to talk to Takinoue instead. Fuck. Keishin downed another glass of sake.

Usually he enjoyed sitting back and letting the party move around him, a part of the action but never overwhelmed by it. Tonight he just felt alone in the crowd. He wished he wasn’t so uncomfortable with getting hit on. Or watching Takeda have a good time. He should be able to just take it in stride.

No, more than that, it should be a good thing. But everything was too loud, too much, and he was too tired to deal with it. He wished he could empty himself of feeling anything at all. But he couldn’t, so instead he sat there, simmering in self-pity and more drinks than he knew he could handle.

Eventually he decided to drag his ass outside for a smoke. He was wasted, probably only a few sips away from being outright trashed. He fumbled for his cigarettes and cursed his stupid yukata for being difficult. Eventually he managed to pull one out, then was hit with a wave of dizziness and the distinct feeling that dinner was going to come back up to greet him. Which was bad. Puking is what Trashed Keishin did, not Wasted Keishin. Was there a difference? There were pillars on the porch of the tavern. He stumbled over to one to lean against it while his senses settled again.

He bumped into someone. They were leaning against the handrail of the porch and looking at the view of the city in the distance. Familiar curls turned to look up at Keishin.

“Ukai-kun!” It was Takeda. That was great. Takeda was great.

“Sensei.” Well, Takeda was usually great, but he looked overheated. Heatstroke was not great. “Are you alright? Y’look really red.”

“Oh, um, I’m fine!”

“Y’sure? I c’n get ya some water, if yer too hot.”

“No, no need!” He clung to the handrail. “I might get another drink later, but I’m fine! Please don’t worry yourself about me.”

Keishin’s eyes flicked to where he could see Takeda’s bare skin through the loose stitching on the seams of his jinbei.

If he could, he would drop to his knees right now and give Takeda the blowjob of his life.

“Ugh,” Keishin groaned and bent over to rest his forehead on the handrail. “It’s not fair.”

“Ukai-kun, are you alright?”

Keishin pulled himself up a little. “M’fine. It’s just… you’re so cool, sensei. And I’m so….” He made a vague gesture with his hand, then collapsed back down to rest his head on the railing again. “M’fuckin’ wasted.”

“It’s alright, Ukai-kun.” Takeda set a hand on his shoulder, a comforting and gentle gesture. “There’s a restroom right there if you need to puke.”

Great. This was just great.

Keishin fumbled with the unlit cigarette in his hand, then gave up on it. “I do hafta piss.” He pushed himself up again and said with far too much seriousness, “Wish me luck.”

He managed to take a piss without messing up his yukata or passing out in the urinal, which at this point in the evening was his new measure of success.

The rest of the night was a hazy blur with a lot of missing details. They went back inside, and talked to the taiko drummers, and then got in trouble for being too loud, and then the tavern closed. They must have left the tavern because now they were on the train home. It was one of those weird cars with the seats in rows instead of facing each other. Keishin had a window seat, which was great because he liked windows.

The guy in front of him turned around and leaned over the back of his seat to talk to Keishin. It was Takinoue.

“Keishin… Keishin-kun. Listen.”

“Hmm?”

“For the team. I think we should…” he trailed off, like he suddenly realized something. “Dude.” He pointed at Keishin, “Isn’t yer yukata too far open? I c’n almost see yer navel, man.”

It was true. “This fuckin’ thing…” he grumbled. How long had it been like this?  His arms felt heavy and kinda numb. He shifted his yukata, maybe not back into place but at least so it covered most of him.

Why hadn’t he just worn a jinbei? Or his normal clothes? Because he was a hopeless sap and a fuck up, that’s why. Right.

The train lurched forward, and for a split second Takinoue looked like he was about to puke, then he recovered and turned around to sit back in his seat. It was quiet for bit.

Somebody next to Keishin took the extra fabric of his sleeve into their hand.

“I like your yukata, Ukai-kun.” It was Takeda, his speech a little slurred. “I didn’t say so earlier but…” his finger traced the subtle pattern of the fabric. “It’s a nice pattern, and it looks good and it’s cool. It suits you.”

Of course Takeda would take pity on him. Or maybe it wasn’t pity. Takeda was nice. He was just… so nice.

Keishin rubbed the back of his neck and looked out the window, hiding his face from Takeda while he mumbled out a response. “If y’ say so, sensei.”

“I do.”

It was quiet again, and Keishin let his heavy head rest back against the seat and closed his eyes to the rhythmic sound and shift of the train. He realized after a while that Takeda’s shoulder was against his, a small anchor of contact. How long had they been like that? It didn’t matter.

It was good, he thought. It was good.

Then Takeda shifted, and Keishin opened his eyes to see him fumbling for something in his wallet.

“I got… I brought this,” he said as he pulled a slip of paper from his wallet. “I wrote it down for you. For today. Because it’s a festival.”

Keishin smiled, his head still back against the seat. “A poem?”

“Do you want to hear it?”

“Yeah.”

Takeda read quietly, like it was a secret for the two of them, and Keishin leaned his head towards him so he could hear it better.

“Curiously enough
I like
The aftermath of a festival.

In the midst of the festival
In the throng of people,
I seldom lose myself.
I look on
I only look on.

But when the festival is over
And the people have all dispersed,
I find myself hanging about
Where their merry-making was most extravagant,
And am always surprised
At myself . . . Again,

Curiously enough,
I like
To help prepare for a festival.”

Keishin closed his eyes and chuckled, “Does that mean we left too soon? Do y’ wanna go back?”

“No, it means… it’s by Kitagawa. In the poem, he mostly avoids talking about the festival itself. All the bright lights and fireworks and excitement. Instead, we’re asked to consider the spaces and moments in-between that excitement. And that maybe, maybe those moments are just as valuable.”

“Like ridin’ the train home with a buncha drunks?”

Takeda laughed softly. “More like being one of the drunks that’s riding the train home.” He rested his head against Keishin’s shoulder, and Keishin was very still, like he was a bird that might startle away if he moved. “I like, too, the last verse, about preparing for a festival. It comes at the end, like the author is turning to think about the next time, about how to help create all those moments again.”

“Mmm,” Keishin agreed. “Sensei, I like…” he trailed off, unsure of what he was even saying. Why was he even talking? “You have a nice voice.”

“I’m glad,” Takeda said, his voice so quiet Keishin could barely hear over the train, “you like it when I read to you.”

“Not just then,” Keishin confessed. “I…” some part of his brain, maybe the last sober brain cell he had left or something, cut the sentence off. He tried again, “I respect you, sensei. I’m glad you didn’t give up on me.”

“Mn, me too.”

They rode the rest of the way home in silence. Takeda’s head stayed on Keishin’s shoulder, where he drifted at the edge of sleep. Keishin started to drift off for a while too, then startled awake when the announcement that Takinoue’s stop was coming up went off.

“Hey… hey... Takinoue,” he whispered, trying not to wake Takeda up. He kicked the back of Takinoue’s chair, “Hey, it’s yer stop.”

It was no good. He shifted and Takeda groggily moved his head. Keishin leaned over Takinoue’s seat and poked at him. He was passed out with his head on Shimada’s lap. Shimada didn’t look so great, either.

“Hey,” he prodded. Takinoue groaned and covered his face with his arm. Shimada stirred a little. “You gotta get up… it’s yer stop.”

“I js’wanna sleep here fer’ever,” Takinoue slurred.

“No.” Keishin jabbed him again with his finger, “‘Sides, yer folks’re gonna worry aboutcha.”

“I dun wanna go home,” Shimada whined. Takinoue groaned in agreement.

“Yer gonna cause trouble fer people. Go home!” Keishin pawed at them both. Eventually the discomfort of his prodding beat out their inertia, and when the train came to a halt they stood up. Shimada had apparently kept more of his coordination, and he helped guide Takinoue out the doors with him, their arms slung casually around each other.

Keishin sighed and sat back in his seat. Shimada would probably get Takinoue to his family’s house, then he’d plod off to his own place, which was about a kilometer after that, maybe. Shimada lived on his own, like Takeda did. His parents and brother ran other Shimada-Mart locations in nearby towns. Apparently it’d been worth the cost of moving out to skip the commute, or maybe Shimada’s family wasn’t great to live with, he didn’t say.

Whatever the case, they’d probably be alright.

Takeda sat up and stretched, “Our stop next, right?”

“Yeah. Y’alright, sensei?”

“I’ll be able to get home just fine,” Takeda said, his voice clear as if he’d hardly drank at all. “What about you, Ukai-kun?”

“M’fine.”

The train lurched to a halt at their stop. Keishin stood up and stepped off the train, along with Takeda and a few other people he didn’t recognize. As people moved around him at the station, he remembered that his yukata was still disheveled. He pawed at it to fix it, at least well enough to get home. The station was empty once he finished. Except for Takeda, who had waited for him.

“Thank you for bringing me along tonight,” Takeda said. “I had a great time.”

“Ha, it’s hardly ‘bringing you along’ if yer the one that orchestrated th’whole thing.”

“Well, then thank you for coming with me. It was better with you there.”

Takeda was so good. Even drunk, and in the harsh light around the station, and even with the headache Keishin could feel already starting in his head, he was good.

“I had a good time. You’re… You should be careful, on your way home, because…” Keishin fumbled for words, wishing he’d stopped just before the ‘because,’ “…because you have a nice voice.”

“You take care too, Ukai-kun. Drink lots of water, okay?”

Keishin lit a cigarette, fumbling with the lighter only a little. “Yeah, don’t worry ‘bout me, sensei. I’ll take care of myself.” He inhaled deeply and savored the first puff he’d had since dinner. He looked at Takeda for what was probably a little too long before he said, “You have a g’night.”

“Yes, you too.” Takeda didn’t move for a few seconds, just stood there with his eyes scanning Keishin’s face. Then, after either finding whatever he was looking for or giving up, he started to turn away. “Good night, Ukai-kun. Sleep well.” He waited another second, just a second, then walked away.

Keishin exhaled a long trail of smoke as he watched him leave.

---

Keishin’s hangover lasted all through the next day. His head pounded through his shifts at work, and even as he settled in for bed he could feel a dull ache behind his temples.  He was just starting to close his eyes when his phone buzzed with a text message.

Bananakano: I have news!!!!!
Bananakano: Maeda-chan and I are moving in together~!

Nakano had been wanting to move in with his boyfriend for a while.

SetAndReady: thats great news

Bananakano: Yes! I can’t wait!!
Bananakano: the inevitable tiffs about my dirty socks on the floor will be so adorable!

SetAndReady: yeah u might wanna pick those up
SetAndReady: no sense going into a match planning to lose

Bananakano: i'll do my best!
Bananakano: so…
Bananakano: how are things with you? still pining after your ☆~★ sensei ★~☆

SetAndReady: idk
SetAndReady: i dont wanna talk about it

Bananakano: *pat pat*
Bananakano: well what about vb? any good matches?

SetAndReady: the women’s national team had a pretty good game against germany the other day, i saw it on tv
SetAndReady: my own team is on break for the next couple weeks
SetAndReady: school team is busy getting ready for this training camp next week
SetAndReady: we’re worried some of the students won’t pass their exams and won’t get 2 go

Bananakano: oooooh you’ve got some lackadaisical students on your squad, huh?

SetAndReady: school doesn’t measure everything
SetAndReady: but ive been thinking a lot lately about how sports can motivate students to do better in school
SetAndReady: or outside of it
SetAndReady: staying on the team was a big motivator for me to stay in line and actually try, but it’s weird seeing the kids go through the same thing
SetAndReady: i want them all to get 2 go 2 Tokyo with us

Bananakano: wait

Keishin closed his eyes. He hadn’t meant to say that. Here it comes.

Bananakano: TOKYO?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
Bananakano: ∑(゚ロ゚〃)
Bananakano: WHERE IN TOKYO
Bananakano: will you have any free time while ur here?
Bananakano: we should hang out!
Bananakano: i can take the train to you!

SetAndReady: sorry, no
SetAndReady: im wrangling a bunch of teenagers
SetAndReady: there wont be any time

Bananakano: well where is it?
Bananakano: OH!
Bananakano: CAN I WATCH A GAME

SetAndReady: no
SetAndReady: it’s all practice matches!
SetAndReady: theyre not open to the public

Bananakano: I’M not the public
Bananakano: it’ll be fun!
Bananakano: and and and
Bananakano: i could meet ur sensei~☆!

SetAndReady: NO. the last thing I need is your flamboyant ass outing me to everyone.

Bananakano: um

Fuck.

Bananakano: excuse YOU (; ・`д・´)
Bananakano: what r u thinking I’ll do, show up in full drag?!
Bananakano: though, now that you mention it….

SetAndReady: dont

Keishin sighed.

SetAndReady: …im sorry, that was out of line

Bananakano: i'll say.

SetAndReady: i shouldn’t have said that
SetAndReady: things r weird for me lately
SetAndReady: my heads all mixed up
SetAndReady: I’ll find a way to make a separate trip out there soon

Bananakano: fine.
Bananakano: im supposed to visit my dad in the suburbs next week anyway.

SetAndReady: ok. sorry

Bananakano: its fine.
Bananakano: just… actually get out here, okay?
Bananakano: I think ur spending too much time in ur own head
Bananakano: its no good 4 anyone

SetAndReady: yeah ok
SetAndReady: i’ll try

Bananakano: good night.

SetAndReady: night

Keishin closed his phone and lit a cigarette.

Fuck.

The last thing he needed was to fuck things up with Nakano.

He inhaled. Exhaled. He tried to get his mind to settle.

He thought of a sky princess, weaving clothes along the riverbank. He thought of Takeda, taking in all of the sights of the festival and still enjoying stupid things like the train ride home. He thought of his wish, hidden amongst brightly colored papers and bamboo.

He exhaled slowly, smoke swirling through the room like clouds.

It would pass. His head would clear.

And maybe so would his heart.

Chapter Text

Escaped the nets,
escaped the ropes—
moon on the water.

-Buson

--

Keishin tried not to flinch under the scrutinizing gaze of Nekomata.

“Well, Ukai-chan, I see your team is the weakest here.”

Keishin’s eyes dropped to the floor. He regarded Nekomata with the same wary mix of fear and respect that he held for his grandad. Sometimes silence was a better option.

“Your players have such attitude, and yet you’re so quiet. That grandfather of yours always had something to say.” Nekomata gave him a patronizing smile. “Don’t worry, my team will still benefit from pounding yours into the dust.”

“We’ll see about that,” Keishin said. It was the only safe answer, but the pride burning behind his words was real.

“Of course,” Nekomata grinned. “Just be sure you wipe the floor after your team is done doing penalty laps.”

Naoi walked over to them. “Sensei, aren’t you being a little immature again?” he said quietly.

“I can’t help it!” Nekomata snapped. “The nerve he has to wear that old geezer’s face.” He shot a glare at Keishin, then turned his head with a huff and walked away.

Naoi shook his head. “He’s really got it out for you.”

“Yer tellin’ me.

“He put you guys in charge of most of the cleanup too, didn’t he?”

“Whatever.” Keishin straightened his back. “We’re the new kids here, so it makes sense we get most of the grunt work.”

Naoi clapped him on the back. “You’ve really grown up, man!”

Keishin rolled his eyes at him and grinned. “And you haven’t?”

“Hey c’mon, I got taller!”

“I dunno, y’still look the same to me.”

“All those games we spent staring at each other from the benches, and you can’t see how I’ve grown?” Naoi shoved him playfully with his shoulder. “Maybe that ridiculous hair of yours is blinding you.”

Keishin grinned and shoved him off. “At least I try something new once in a while.”

He liked Naoi. They understood each other, and the frustrations of being a benchwarmer, and just how much to push without becoming a pain in the ass.

Naoi grinned at him. “Yeah, well at least my kids can win a game once in a while. Try to work on that, huh?” He punched his shoulder. “We’ll see you at the bar.”

Nekomata had put the Karasuno team in charge of final clean-up that day, and all the days following. Keishin wasn’t about to complain. It wouldn’t take long and the fact that they were at the training camp at all was only thanks to Takeda’s brilliant persistence.

They’d gotten all of the kids there despite the odds. Tanaka had driven their two biggest problem students all the way to Tokyo after their makeup exams. She didn’t need to, but it was thanks to her that the team was complete. He respected that. He and Takeda were going to cover her bar tab and gas money as thanks.

The team worked better as whole. Keishin knew what they could be capable of if they worked on it together, and that meant everyone needed to be here. They were the worst team there, but they’d also be the ones to grow the most because of it.

But for today training was done. Now they just had to clean up, get the kids to their makeshift beds in the school, and then they’d slip out with the other instructors for a drink. After a long day of driving and coaching, Keishin was looking forward to relaxing a little.

--

Keishin was a fool to think this would be fun.

Nekomata and Takeda and Tanaka were all monsters. They’d been at the bar for hours, and they just kept calling for round after round. He slumped forward, exhausted and dizzy under the noise and influence of beer.

“Are those two always like this?” Naoi whispered to him. Or tried to whisper. He was pretty drunk, too.

Keishin looked up, and saw Tanaka’s arms wrapped around Nekomata and Takeda’s shoulders while they all laughed. "Yer tellin’ me Nekomata-sensei isn’t the instigator here?”

Naoi rested his head on the table, like he’d just resigned himself to sleeping there for the night. “He’s always an instigator,” he mumbled, “but you guys make it worse.”

Naoi fell silent, then started to snore.

 ---

The following nights were worse. Tanaka left to do other things in Tokyo, and without her force of personality as a distraction, Nekomata’s focus shifted to Keishin more often.

“Can’t hold your liquor, eh?” He grinned. “Well, drink up, the only way to build a tolerance is to work at it!”

Keishin was exhausted. They’d been out drinking late every night, and his brain hadn’t gotten the message that he didn’t need to wake up for a 4am shift like he usually did. He’d spent his mornings lying in the pre-dawn dark, unable to go back to sleep while his head pounded with a hangover. He wasn’t even sure he was getting a break from the hangovers, really. They just lasted until it was time to drink again.

Worse still were the sleeping arrangements. The teachers and coaches were all rooming together in one of the classrooms at the school, so there was no chance of getting any sleep until everyone else quieted down for the night. They were all so loud. Between Takeyuki’s chatter and Naoi’s buzzsaw snoring, Keishin was lucky to get more than a couple of hours of sleep each night.

Rooming with Takeda was awkward too, even surrounded by other people. Keishin had thought way too hard about the t-shirts that Takeda slept in and how soft they seemed, or the way he looked without glasses, sleepy and content in the morning light. He’d even gotten a peek at a pair of his boxers once when they were left sticking out of his bag.

Nekomata laughed as Keishin downed more of his beer. He was going to survive this week. Maybe just barely, and maybe he’d lose some of his sanity along the way, but he could do it. He could party every night. He went to college, after all. And he’d even roomed with Takeda before, even though that had been back when he was just a cute annoyance and not a stupidly powerful unrequited crush.

Takeda was mingling with the other coaches like it was the easiest thing in the world. He gestured to Nekomata, then pulled him into their conversation while Keishin leaned back against the wall and tried not to pass out.

Later, Keishin let Takeda support him as they stumbled back to the school. Keishin leaned into the contact, his arm around Takeda’s shoulder. Takeda held him easily as they walked down the street. He was stronger than he looked. Like… an ant. A really hot ant.

Takeda kept him talking as they walked. “Nekomata keeps saying you look like your grandfather when he was young, Ukai-kun. Do you agree?”

“No,” Keishin said, his voice slurred. “Plenty ‘a people say that, but I dun see it.” He leaned his head into Takeda’s shoulder. He could smell his shampoo, which was nice, but it made walking hard. They stumbled a little.

“Easy there,” Takeda said softly. Keishin liked that, liked the sound of his voice when it was something only he could hear. Takeda shifted his hand on Keishin’s waist and hoisted him back upright.

Keishin liked how easily Takeda could move him around. “Like a spine ‘o iron,” he laughed. He clung to Takeda, relishing the points of contact as he patiently navigated them back.

Keishin was stupidly drunk, but not that stupid. He probably could walk by himself, maybe. He knew he was bending the rules again about touching. If he was honest with himself, he was probably just going to keep bending the rules, little by little, until either they broke or he did.

Maybe Takeda would hate him, then.

But, he didn’t right now. Right now, they were friends, and it was good.

--

The last day of the camp promised a reprieve. Training finished early, and they had a barbeque that afternoon, which left the kids feeling energized and gave the adults a much-needed break.

Better than that, the Tokyo teams were heading home that night. Karasuno would stay at the school one more night before cleaning the space and driving home the next day. Keishin relished the thought of a full night’s sleep.

Nekomata pulled Keishin and Takeda aside. “It’ll get serious from here on out. The Spring High preliminaries are coming up,” he said. “I hope you get your act together by then, Ukai-chan. It’d be a shame if I wasn’t able to call that old geezer to say that I’ve beaten you.”

“We’ll be there,” Keishin shot back. The week had left him salty enough to deal with this. “Try to put up a good fight, willya?”

“Oho, big talk!” Nekomata laughed. “We’ll be taking the kids home now. You two go get a seat at the bar and we’ll meet you there. Maybe you’ve learned how to hold your liquor by now, hm?”

“Sensei, they have to drive the next morning!” Naoi cut in. Keishin knew his plea was as much for his own sake as it was for theirs. “Maybe we’ve had enough.”

“Don’t be absurd, Naoi-kun. Go bring the van around while I gather up the kids.” He turned to Takeda and Keishin. “I’ll see you two soon.” He grinned, and Keishin felt his stomach churn as they walked away.

“This has been a good opportunity, Ukai-kun,” Takeda said. “I think I’ve made enough connections that it’ll be much easier to set up practice games from here on out.” He set a hand on Keishin’s arm. “Thanks for putting up with everything. Just one more night.”

“Yeah.” He shifted and pulled out a cigarette. “Sorry I’m not a bigger help with that kinda thing.”

“It’s what I’m good for. That’s the value of a team, isn’t it? You don’t have to do everything.”

Keishin nodded and relaxed a little. They were a team. They were friends. Keishin was glad for it. He lit his cigarette.

The walk to the izakaya that had been hosting their little parties all week was about a kilometer. It was a bit far, but Keishin guessed that Nekomata knew the owner of the place. While they walked, Keishin smoked and enjoyed the time alone and sober with Takeda. Things would return to normal soon, he thought. He was looking forward to it.

There was a shriek from the other side of the road. Keishin looked over, and all his hopes of normalcy were thrown out the window.

“Keishin-kun!!”

It was Nakano.

Keishin was going to kill him. How did the bastard even figure out where they were?

Nakano ran over to them after taking a quick glance to check for traffic. His hair was different from when Keishin had last seen it, a little longer and maybe dyed to a subtle dark-brown instead of black. He was wearing jeans and a plain v-neck with the silhouette of some kind of songbird on it.

Okay. He could get through this, he just had to play it cool.

Which would be easier if he could open his mouth and actually say anything.

“I can’t believe it!” Nakano said. “What on earth are you doing out here?”

Keishin sputtered and found his words. “Whadya mean, what are you doing out here?!”

“I told you I was visiting my dad this week!” Nakano snapped back. “He lives just a few blocks the other way! You said you were going to Tokyo. I should’ve known a hick like you would think this little suburb was part of the real city.”

“I-Itsuki-chan?” Takeda’s voice came from behind Keishin.

Nakano turned, his eyes wide. “Take-chan?” His face lit up into a smile. “It is! I can’t believe—I didn’t even recognize you!”

Oh shit.

They knew each other. Nakano was out to basically everyone he knew, so that was out of the bag. Maybe Takeda wouldn’t ask how they knew each other. Maybe. Keishin’s mind scrambled as he felt his chances of keeping a lid on things slip out of reach.

Nakano pulled Takeda into a hug. “Take-chan, where have you been? Nobody’s heard anything from you in over a year!”

“Sorry, sorry! I’ve been busy. I started this new teaching job near Sendai and I thought—“

“Wait.” Nakano pulled back and glanced between Takeda and Keishin. His expression lit up in slow realization. “You two know each other.”

Keishin needed to do damage control. “Nakano-san, maybe we can catch up later. Sensei and I really have t’ get going—“

Kei-chan.” Nakano gave him a look that could kill. “I’m talking to sensei right now.”

Keishin winced at the nickname and the inflection Nakano put on the word “sensei.” Takeda looked back and forth between them, his brows knit in confusion.

Nakano turned back to Takeda. “Look, please email me, alright? You can’t go around worrying everyone like this!”

“Oh, ah, I don’t have a personal email account anymore… I was just using my school email for everything, so when I graduated…”

“Is that what happened? Take-chan, you’re so irresponsible sometimes!” Nakano ruffled his hair. “Here, take my email address, set up a free account somehow, and actually get in touch for once! I’ll give you my number again too, just in case.”

“Yes.” Takeda smiled, and Keishin recognized the genuine joy and relief on his face. “I will. We’re on our way somewhere right now, but first thing tomorrow. It’s really good to see you again.”

“You promise?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He sighed. “I guess I’ll let you get to wherever it is you’re going. But first…” he leaned in and whispered into Takeda’s ear. Takeda turned bright red. “Have a good night!” He waved, then vanished down the street.

A long silence stretched between them. Keishin’s cigarette threatened to singe his fingers.

“Ah, sorry about him,” Keishin started. “He’s a bit much sometimes.” He dropped the cigarette butt and hurriedly snuffed it out under his foot.

Takeda stared at him. “Itsuki-chan and I have known each other a long time, actually.”

“Ah. Yeah.” Keishin should’ve known that. First name basis, and all.

This would be much easier if his brain would stop screaming.

“Well, we should get goin’ then, right?” Keishin turned and started walking. He wasn’t running away. He was just keeping them on task.

“Of course.” Takeda fell into stride alongside him. He kept glancing up at Keishin, studying him carefully. Keishin avoided his eyes and walked on.

They rounded the corner and went into the bar. Keishin stood with his arms crossed while Takeda talked to the host. They were seated at a large table a ways off from the other customers, probably because the owner knew they’d get loud later. Takeda motioned for Keishin to sit across from him while they waited for Nekomata and the others.

There was nowhere to run now. Keishin lit a cigarette.

“We met when I was in college,” Takeda began. “We went drinking together, almost every night, until I graduated and moved out of Tokyo.”

Keishin was all jittery nerves. He had to consciously work to keep himself from fidgeting. He puffed at his cigarette instead. “You and Nakano-san?”

“Yes. We… went to Shinjuku a lot.”

Keishin stared at him blankly.

Takeda’s eyes flicked down to the table then back up at Keishin. “Around Ni-chome. Do… you know the area?”

Keishin knew it. Ni-chome was Tokyo’s biggest gay neighborhood, packed to the brim with bars and clubs. A memory flashed through his mind of the first time he’d gone there, his fists clenched tight with nerves as he walked through the streets. Then by the end of the night, the overwhelming sense of relief and belonging when he realized what it felt like not to have to hide, for once.

“Y-yeah.” He swallowed. “Yeah, I know it.” He processed the implications of what Takeda was saying. “Sensei, are you…”

Takeda startled and stood up a little, looking behind Keishin’s shoulder. “Yes, Nekomata-sensei, over here!” He waved.

Nekomata and Naoi arrived. Keishin let Takeda’s “yes” hang in the air.

The drinking started. Naoi must have done something to irritate Nekomata, because he was the prime focus of his harassment that night. Keishin was only pushed into a few more drinks than he wanted.

Takeda chatted with everyone, schmoozing and leading the conversation to possible future practice matches. As the evening slowed into tired chatter, Takeda fell quiet and his eyes met Keishin’s from across the table.

“It’s sure been a bumpy road, hasn’t it?” he said.

Keishin laughed at the truth of it. “Yeah. Man, to think we’ve played over sixty sets and only won three of them. But you know, if the kids were the same as they were back against the match again Seijoh, I bet we’d have won a bit more. We saw the limitations of that strategy, though.”

“Yes. But it makes sense. Right now, it’s as though each student is creating a gear. The machine can’t run right now, but once all the gears are complete and interlock…” He smiled, a hint of his wicked determination shining through.

Keishin smiled back. Things were okay. Takeda was still the same.

“Hey now,” Nekomata slapped Takeda on the back. “Y’think you can win against Nekoma that easily?!”

“No, I wouldn’t call it easy at all!” Takeda looked Nekomata in the eye, steady and confident. “We’ll bide our time and then win.”

 “Well, look who’s talking big now, sensei!” Nekomata laughed. “Another round!”

Naoi groaned.

Thankfully it was late enough that that was the last round. The party wound down and everyone went their separate ways.

Keishin was drunk, but not nearly as bad as it had been earlier in the week. He could walk fine, at least. He glanced over at Takeda and saw he was only a little flushed from the alcohol. A marvel of alcohol tolerance, really.

They were a few blocks from the bar before Takeda spoke up.

“So Ukai-kun, how did you meet Itsuki-chan?”

“Ah, well… we met by chance, I guess. I was walkin’ around one night and I saw a couple a’ guys bothering him. It prob’ly wasn’t that big a deal, but he looked scared and guys like that really piss me off, so I walked over and asked ‘em what they thought they were doin’.” Keishin paused to take a drag from his cigarette. “The little punks just ran away. Nakano-san gave me his number and we’ve been in touch ever since.”

“Wait… you’re Itsuki’s Knight?” Takeda was staring at him, wide-eyed.

“Pardon?”

“A while ago he told us all a story about a good-looking stranger who saved him from thugs. He talked about it for ages! We were so upset he didn’t bring you to meet us that we gave you that nickname to tease him. Itsuki’s Knight.”

Keishin snorted. “That guy always makes it sound like a bigger deal than it was.”

“It may not have been an exaggeration. We were dealing with a lot of harassment from kids back then, it was pretty bad at one point.”

“I guess. Anyway, he was grateful and wanted to know where I was headed. When I said I didn’t know, he asked me what I liked.” Keishin laughed. “And I—ha, I didn’t know what he meant, so I just said ‘volleyball’.”

“Oh dear,” Takeda laughed.

“So he took me to this sports bar. We exchanged emails, and then he gave the bartender enough money to cover my drinks for the night and left me there. Said he had to meet his boyfriend or somethin’.”

“What happened then?”

Keishin grinned sheepishly. “Well, I had a good night. And I made a friend. So it all worked out.”

“I’m glad. Itsuki-chan is a good person.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“…So,” Takeda said as he started fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “What do you like?”

You.

I was too much. Keishin swallowed.

“I like… a lot of things.” He looked at Takeda, taking in the shape of his shoulders and the way the streetlights caught the curls of his hair. “I can’t say I was ever really a regular anyplace, if that’s what you’re askin’. I only made it out there maybe half-dozen times, and I was in a different place every time.”

“I see.”

Keishin’s mouth felt dry. “W-what about you, sensei?”

“Do you mean… what do I like, or where did I go?”

“Isn’t that th’ same thing?”

“Not for me, no.”

“Then… what do you like?” Keishin felt a terrible hope bubbling up in his chest. Better to have it squashed now then to draw it out any further.

“I like… people who are masculine, and people who help others, and people who follow their own paths.”

“Ah.” That was all Keishin could say. He felt stupid. This would be the perfect time to say something. Where were his words when he needed them?

They came up to the edge of the school grounds.

“We should probably change the subject from here,” Takeda said. “How are things on the farm?”

Keishin reeled a little at the shift in topic. “They’re alright I guess. We got the shipment issue sorted out for now, so it’s just back t’ business as usual.”

They chatted about work and the team, and it was all easy and most of it was stuff they’d already said before. Which was good because Keishin couldn’t stop thinking.

Takeda was queer.

What that meant, and what he should do next, he had no fucking clue. He had to say something now. What if he wanted Keishin just as badly? What if he didn’t return his feelings, but at least he’d understand? Could they still be friends?

His mind continued to buzz with What Ifs and the lingering effects of the alcohol while he took a quick shower and changed into his pajamas. He sat down on his bed and tried to come up with things to say.

So, d’ya want me, too?

Too blunt.

I’ve been in love with you for months, please date me.

Too honest. And desperate.

He was still sitting on his bed when Takeda came into the room. His hair was damp from his shower, and a towel was still around his shoulders. Keishin let his eyes linger here and there, where Takeda’s pajamas clung to his body.

Takeda stared back at him, then flicked the light off and kneeled down on his own bed. The light from outside was bright enough for Keishin to see that he was shaking a little.

The silence lasted just long enough to be awkward.

“Well, what a day.” Keishin was very aware of how close they were. It’s not like his blankets were any closer to Takeda’s than they were yesterday, he knew. But without the context of the other beds around them it felt intimately close.

“Yes,” Takeda said. “We learned a lot of new things.”

“Does… that change anythin’, for you?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation in Takeda’s answer. “But it’s not a bad change.”

Keishin swallowed. He wondered if this was his cue to make a move. “That’s good.”

Takeda took a deep, shaky breath.

“But if you’d try this,” he began, his voice steadier as he went on, “to be a hand in my hand, as in the wineglass the wine is wine.” His voice was breathier now, almost a whisper. “If you’d try this.”

“Hey,” Keishin leaned forward and set a hand on the futon just beside Takeda’s knee. His heart was pounding. “You tryin’ to seduce me?”

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Takeda started. It was probably the first line in a long explanation, and Keishin wanted to hear it, but right now just that line was enough.

He leaned forward and met Takeda’s lips with his own. It was a gentle kiss, tentative even, and gave him plenty of time to shift or pull away or pull him in closer. It was only a slight brush of contact, but Keishin felt like he was struck by lightning.

“Mmph.” Takeda set one hand on the back of Keishin’s neck and the other on front of his shirt. His fingers twisted into the fabric as he pulled Keishin deeper into the kiss, insistent and sure of himself. His lips parted, and Keishin followed his lead. Their tongues brushed softly, sending electric sparks of excitement ringing through Keishin’s whole body. His heart was pounding and singing and everything was golden with the perfect intimacy of it.

This man enraptured him, could catch him with a word, a glance, the slightest touch. If he was honest, Keishin had been helpless to all of them from the start. It was no different now, and everything slid into his awareness with perfect clarity. The taste of beer and toothpaste on Takeda’s lips, the sound of his breathing and the soft little noises he made, the heat of his body, the brush of his fingers as they played with the little hairs on the back of Keishin’s neck.

This determined, brilliant, passionate man. His Takeda.

Keishin set his free hand on Takeda’s thigh, who moaned into the kiss and shifted to find more contact.

Keishin shifted his weight and moved his other hand up to snake his fingers through Takeda’s hair. He pulled softly.

 “Ah,” Takeda’s head shifted back, breaking the kiss and exposing his neck. Keishin trailed a line of kisses down his chin and onto his neck, alternating soft and firm, then grazed his teeth along the sensitive skin.

Takeda’s noises were wonderful, breathy and barely contained. “Ah, mmmmn, Ukai-kun…” Yes, that was good. He wondered how else he could make Takeda say his name just like that, just like that.

Keishin found a particularly good spot.

“Ah!”

“Hey.” Keishin stopped and growled at him, trying to keep his voice low, “Keep it down, will ya? We don’t want the kids to hear.”

“Sorry, sorry!” Takeda whispered, shifting self-consciously. There was a moment of breathy silence. For a second, Keishin wondered if they’d lost the mood (which, given where they were, wouldn’t have been the worst thing).

Takeda’s breathing was heavy but he looked at him with the same familiar, steady gaze. “I want to feel more of you, Ukai-kun.”

Nope, the mood was definitely still on.

Takeda tugged at the front of his shirt, and Keishin leaned into him, shifting and then pressing him down onto the futon and under him.

Holy shit. Takeda was under him. And this was real life.

They kissed again, and Keishin could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He pressed closer to Takeda, feeling the warmth of his body and the shape of his torso beneath his own. When he shifted his hips forward, he could feel a firmness at Takeda’s hips grinding against his own and fuck it was so good, so good to have him like this, finally.

Takeda’s kissing had gotten more intense now, his tongue desperately searching Keishin’s mouth. It was actually getting a little annoying, and he shifted and nipped at Takeda’s lower lip for a change of pace. Takeda moaned, cutting it off into a muffled whimper as Keishin arched and thrust his hips forward again, the friction of it sending shockwaves through Keishin as Takeda shuddered and closed his eyes.

“Doin’ alright there?” he whispered.

“Yes,” Takeda breathed as he arched his back to grind against him.

Keishin kissed him again. He slid a hand under the hem of his t-shirt and let it roam across his hips and belly, enjoying the shape of him, the tactile confirmation of so many fantasies. His hand spread out across Takeda’s sternum, then shifted, fingers brushing casually against one of his nipples.

For Keishin, having his nipples touched was an underwhelming experience. It felt nice, but not particularly different than any other skin contact. But he knew some guys liked it, and he wanted to know every part of Takeda.

Takeda groaned and arched into the touch.

Keishin slowly pulled back from the kiss, watching Takeda’s face as he traced his finger in a soft, teasing circle. Takeda’s eyelashes fluttered and closed and he let out another muffled groan.

“Keep it quiet now,” Keishin said softly as his fingers traced another circle, faster this time, drinking in every detail of Takeda’s reaction.

Takeda muffled himself on the back of his hand, whimpering as Keishin leaned back and brought his other hand up under Takeda’s shirt, brushing teasingly over both nipples.

It was fun, so much fun to have him at his mercy like this. Keishin reveled in the power of it, that the slightest brush of his fingers could affect Takeda this way. Keishin’s cock was so hard it ached, urging him to move this along to other, more naked things, or at least thrust his hips to grind against Takeda again because holy fuck. But Keishin stayed still and drew each caress out, and Takeda squirmed and bit on his own fingers to try to keep control.

Finally, Keishin brought two of his fingertips together and pinched, pulling slightly.

“Mmmph, Ukai!” Takeda moaned, his body shaking, his hips thrusting up to meet Keishin’s, desperate to feel some kind of friction.

Adrenaline hit Keishin with a jolt. “Hey!” he hissed, “Would it kill ya keep yer mouth shut? We’re barely even doing anything yet and you’re so goddamn noisy!” But he was half grinning, full of pride and pent-up frustration and adrenaline. He could feel his face flush at the sound of his name in Takeda’s voice, free of any suffix.

“I’m sorry,” Takeda whispered, breathless, “it’s just been so long, and you do that so well.”

Keishin grinned and prepared to resume his teasing strokes when a loud thud came from the hall, followed by hurried footsteps.

They both froze. Keishin’s heart dropped to the pit of his stomach.

They’d gotten too carried away. He couldn’t remember if the door was locked or not. They still had clothes on, so there was some plausible deniability if he got himself off of Takeda fast enough, but then there was the problem that he was hard as a rock and explaining to a 15-year-old kid why his coach and teacher both had raging boners without it being weird was definitely gonna get difficult. He didn’t move.

The footsteps got louder and started to be accompanied by yelling. He recognized it as Hinata and Kageyama’s voices. They thundered by in the hallway, screaming the whole way.

Another set of footsteps followed them, and he recognized Sawamura’s voice: “Who’s running?! Keep it down!!”

“Sorry!” came Hinata’s voice, and a low grumble from Kageyama.

“Were you two seriously racing to see who got to the bathroom and back first in the middle of the night?!” Sawamura shot back, then shifted to his Cold Captain voice, “I guess your daytime exercises aren’t enough. I’ll double yours for tomorrow. Now go pee, go to bed, and not a single peep out of both you, got it?”

There were some muffled grumblings and then the footsteps faded away.

After a few moments of silence, Keishin whispered, “We’re lucky t’ have a captain who takes care of ‘em like that,” he let out a nervous laugh, “especially given our current position.”

“Yes,” Takeda agreed, his eyes casting downward. “I’m sorry Ukai-kun. We mustn’t do this here.”

Keishin still felt like his heart was going to leap out of his throat. “No kidding.” He sat up and pulled himself off of Takeda. He laid down on his back next to him instead and stared at the ceiling.

He took a deep breath, working to calm the adrenaline and will his aching cock to go back down.

Takeda shifted awkwardly, pulling his shirt back down and then fidgeting with his fingers. “I’m sorry. I selfishly got you so worked up and then I ruined it.”

“Pff. If that’s your idea of ruining somethin’, I’m gonna be in trouble when you decide to show me a good time.”

Takeda smiled and looked at him with those steady, gorgeous eyes. “I’ve always admired you, Ukai-kun. You’ve been so helpful with the team, and you’re generous with your time with me. But even though you already put so much of yourself into the club, and you’ve been so generous helping me, I’ve always found myself selfishly wanting even more of you.”

“There’s more of me I want t’ give you,” Keishin said, his heart warm and still beating fast, his cock still hard and aching under his pajama pants. He reached out and gently brushed Takeda’s hand with his own, intertwining their fingers. “And more things I want, too.”

Takeda smiled and squeezed his hand back, an answer to the question Keishin couldn’t quite bring himself to ask.

They laid together in the dark, holding hands and soaking in the unspoken promise between them. Keishin’s heart felt warm, and the fear from earlier was fading. It should have been the perfect moment.

But, Keishin’s cock still ached. It strained under the fabric of his pajamas, his balls tight and starting to ache too. In the absence of the fear of discovery, his mind began replaying everything that just happened, all those breathy moans and hot touches, his body begging for some kind of conclusion. He willed it away. He wasn’t about to scare Takeda off with his unquenchable thirst, not when they were finally like this.

Still, it ached.

It… probably wouldn’t hurt to go rub himself off real quick, then he could come back and sleep and maybe think of something besides Takeda’s blushing face and muffled groans. A quick trip to the bathroom could solve everything. Living with his parents meant he had plenty of practice keeping himself quiet.

….shit. They’re all shared bathrooms.

So that was out. Showers wouldn’t work either. Was there a closet somewhere…?

He sat up, growling in irritation at his own restlessness. He buried his head in his hands and ran his fingers through his hair as if that would provide any relief. “Gaaah, I’m sorry,” he hissed, “I’m just too worked up from earlier and there’s only shared bathrooms here.” He flushed with embarrassment, self-consciously rubbing at his cheek. “Don’t think less of me, but is there an empty closet or spare room with a lock here that you know about…?”

Takeda was lying on his side, wide awake and watching Keishin with that same calm, steady gaze, “You could do it here, if you wanted.”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

He smiled. “I think I might enjoy it.”

Keishin startled a little. “Ehh? So it’s a show you’re after, is it?” He was teasing, but still he leaned back, enjoying the thought of Takeda looking at his body that way.

Takeda sat up, knees tucked underneath him, and nodded, “If you’re comfortable with it, there’s nothing I’d like to see more.”

Well, then. Keishin smirked and let his hand slide down over his pants, feeling his hard cock through the fabric. Takeda’s eyes flicked over him, quivering a little. The intensity of it was a little intimidating.

Keishin realized how to make the playing field level and grinned. “Sure, but you could make it worth my while, you know,” he said quietly, hand still stroking his cock through his pants. “Take off your shirt.”

Takeda obeyed. The effect was… well. He was gorgeous. Takeda’s slender form revealed itself in the moonlight. His narrow, steady shoulders leading down to his still-flushed chest, and those nipples that were so sensitive, down to the soft of his belly and the hip bones that dipped under the waistband of his pajamas. Keishin noticed with a hint of pride that there was a noticeable tent in Takeda’s pajama bottoms, growing as he watched Keishin.

He was still kneeling, less than a meter away, eyes dark and steady on him, but like this he seemed less intimidating and more accepting, inviting.

Keishin took off his own shirt and set it aside so it would be easy to find later. He could hear Takeda’s short inhale of breath as he moved, muscles stretching and flexing in the pale light. Keishin hooked his thumbs under the waistband of his pajamas and underwear, shifted, and slid them both off at once. His cock was pulled down by the motion, caught briefly at the waistband, then sprang up as he pulled himself free. Takeda squirmed, his breathing fast and lips parted.

Keishin leaned back and wrapped a hand around his cock. He was spread out in full view of Takeda, and it was wonderful to see the delight and desire in the other man’s eyes as he looked over him. So often, Keishin had felt ashamed of this, especially when unbidden thoughts of Takeda had come to mind instead some nameless model on the cover of a magazine. To watch Takeda see this and like it, and want it, want Keishin to think of him that way… it sent shivers of pleasure down his spine and made a comfortable warmth pool in his chest.

He stroked, the familiar sensations contrasting the newness of the situation. He was good at being quiet, and he was good at getting himself off quickly, especially after so much lead-in, but this occasion called for more of a performance. He stroked himself slowly, moving up and down his shaft with one hand while lying propped up on the elbow of the other. After a dozen or so strokes he moved his hand up, palming the head of his cock and the precum that had gathered there, then dipped down low, tugging his balls down then sliding back up his shaft again.

Takeda squirmed. He was breathing faster now, flushed at the sight of Keishin.

“You just stay right there,” Keishin whispered as he started to pick up the pace of his strokes.

Takeda obeyed, his dark eyes were fixed on him, his lips were parted and he was panting, but he did not move. Keishin was starting to lose his resolve to take his time. His eyes took in the blushing sight of Takeda’s soft lips and half-naked frame. He remembered the heat of his body when he’d laid on top of him, and fuck the noises Takeda had made just at the slightest touch. Keishin let out a sharp exhale and his hips started to buck up into his hand.

What would he do with more? He pictured them naked, entangled in each other, groaning and thrusting and the sweat of Takeda’s skin and his hands on his back and Takeda would want him, oh fuck he wanted him—his mind went blank, losing the trail of the fantasy as a rush of pleasure rolled through him and then he was coming, spilling himself unto his belly and chest with a quiet grunt.

He opened his eyes after a moment, still out of breath, and looked at Takeda.

In the haze of afterglow and the moonlight coming through the window, Takeda was utterly, impossibly gorgeous. He was smiling at Keishin with equal parts fondness and pleasure.

“Thank you, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin slumped back onto the futon, still breathless, and laughed, just at the joy of everything about Takeda and of being so seen and accepted.

Silence stretched between them. Keishin cleaned himself off with a tissue and collapsed onto his back again.

Takeda squirmed.

“Oh, you can move now, if you want.”

“Oh! Thank you,” he said brightly. “But, it’s not that…” he mumbled.

Keishin sleepily reached an arm out to rest a hand on Takeda’s knee. “Hmmm?”

“I… I’m sorry. I, too, may have gotten little worked up.”

Keishin smiled and blearily looked at the ceiling. “Well what are we gonna do then, gag you?” he joked.

“No, I don’t like having things stuffed in my mouth,” Takeda said quietly. Keishin’s eyebrows shot up. Takeda flushed and sputtered, “Oh! No, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean like that! I mean if you ever wanted… no, I mean… sorry!”

What?

“Shhhhh,” Keishin stroked his knee, his post-orgasm fog starting to lift, “What did you have in mind then?”

Takeda ducked his head, “Ah, if you could just cover me, like this,” he covered his mouth with the palm of his hand, then removed it, “it’s not the same feeling as a gag, but should keep me pretty quiet.”

Keishin sat up and put his hand firmly over Takeda’s mouth, “Like this?” Takeda nodded slightly. You’ve gotta be kidding me. “Why the hell didn’t you think of that earlier?!”

Takeda moved his hand away and whispered, “I’m sorry, I was only thinking about you. I didn’t anticipate getting quite this worked up…” he stilled his panicked tone and met Keishin’s eye. His voice was calm when he spoke again. “I promise this won’t be your only opportunity to have me, if you want it.”

Keishin felt a blush run from his cheeks to his toes. He’d hoped for that, from everything they’d said already, but the firm statement was reassuring. His expression softened. “Would’ve been a shame to miss out on all those noises anyway. I like knowing what you like.”

He moved around to sit behind Takeda, running what he hoped was a reassuring hand over his stiff shoulders. “Pants off, then I want you to sit facing away from me.”

Takeda untucked his legs and leaned back against Keishin, squirming a little as he slid his pajamas and underwear off, mimicking the motion Keishin had done earlier. Keishin bit his lip at the sight of Takeda’s cock straining in the air. He vaguely wished he’d stood up to undress so he could have seen his ass too, but there’d be time for that later.

There would be a later. His mind hummed happily at the thought.

Takeda settled and Keishin adjusted so his legs were on either side of him. He wrapped one arm around Takeda’s chest and pulled him close, holding him firmly and reveling in all the skin contact. His other hand reached up and covered Takeda’s mouth.

“Can you breathe?”

Takeda gave him a cheerful thumbs up.

“Then show me,” Keishin growled into his ear, “how you like to touch yourself. I want to see it.”

Takeda was so small, it was so easy to hold him like this. He set his chin on his shoulder, inhaling the scent of him, then peered down to watch his hands work.

Takeda started with his hands on his chest, tracing light, wandering lines down to his waist. His fingers just reached the dark hair below his navel, then moved out and down to his thighs. Keeping his touch light, he dragged the backs of his nails across the insides of his thighs and down, almost to the backs of his legs. When he brought his hands back up, his fingers were pressed firm, nails dragging across his skin as he spread his own thighs apart.

Keishin let out a little noise, shuddering at the sight of it. He wished he wasn’t spent already. It’d be a while before he could go again but… damn.

He could feel Takeda moan into his hand as his hands splayed through the dark hair around his groin. One hand palmed up the shaft of his cock, circled the head, and dipped down again. The other hand dipped lower, thumb wrapping behind his balls as he tugged and massaged them.

Keishin was starting to understand why just watching had been so hard. He let out a heavy breath into Takeda ear and was rewarded with another groan into his hand.

“You look so good,” he murmured into Takeda’s ear, “I’ve wanted this for so long.”

 Takeda groaned into his hand again and shifted his head a little, exposing more of his neck to Keishin. His hand took a loose grip on his cock and began to pump in long, even strokes.

Keishin could take a hint. He put his mouth on Takeda’s neck, first as a kiss and then with a brush of teeth. “…so long,” he breathed. “Damn, the things I’d do to you if I wasn’t spent already.”

Takeda started groaning more into Keishin’s hand. He threw his head back against Keishin’s shoulder, squirming and shuddering as his strokes got faster and faster and his toes curled. Keishin grunted. It was getting a little difficult to hold onto him.  He strengthened his grip and focused on keeping his hand over Takeda’s mouth.

Takeda let out a long, muffled sound into Keishin’s hand, his hips bucked, and he shuddered as an orgasm rocked his whole body. He came in a messy rush, spilling over his own chest and across Keishin’s arm.

They sat silent and out of breath for a moment. Takeda’s body had gone limp with relaxation, just trusting Keishin to support him. Keishin removed his hand from Takeda’s mouth and ran it in a gentle caress though his hair. Takeda let out a happy sigh.

Thankfully the tissues were in reach, and Keishin grabbed one and mopped them up. Takeda watched him, still flush and limp with the afterglow.

Keishin tossed the tissue away into the dark, vowing to make sure it got disposed of properly later. Takeda shifted his head a little, then smiled up at him. “Thank you, Ukai-kun. I’ve wanted this for a long time, too.”

Keishin had no answer he could put into words. Instead, he leaned down and kissed him, gentle and soft. “We prob’bly should get some rest now,” he whispered.

Takeda nodded, then sat up and slid himself down into his futon. He beckoned Keishin to follow him.

“And if someone walks in…?”

“I locked the door earlier,” said Takeda, laughing a little. “Though we should probably put our clothes back on, just in case there’s some kind of emergency.”

“Mmm.” Keishin could only imagine the problems if they had to get dressed in a hurry and he ran out wearing Takeda’s shirt, or something.

They dressed and snuggled down into the futon together. Takeda laid his head on his shoulder and Keishin curled into him, the alcohol still warm and thrumming in his head.

As they lay there together, Keishin felt a wave of emotion go through him, nearly tearing up at the intensity of it. Then it stilled, the world peaceful and silent and right again, and he fell asleep.

---

The next morning Keishin woke up alone in the bed. His head pounded and his mouth felt dry. He sat up and groggily wondered if last night had actually happened or if it had been a cruel dream.

Okay. He was sleeping in Takeda’s futon. So, not a dream.

Holy shit.

That was all his hungover brain could come up with as he stood up, dressed, and packed up his things. Takeda’s belongings were already put away, and it was just before breakfast was supposed to be served. Keishin wondered how he’d slept in so late.

He made his way down to the kitchens and found Takeda and Shimizu. They were busy putting the finishing touches on breakfast.

“Mornin’,” Keishin said.

“Good morning, Ukai-kun,” Takeda greeted him with the same enthusiasm as usual. The man was definitely immune to hangovers. “Sorry I didn’t wake you, I figured you could use the rest. Could you go gather everyone for breakfast? We’re almost done here.”

Keishin did. The kids were as rambunctious as ever, apparently unaffected by Hinata and Kageyama’s late-night screaming match (and, Keishin breathed a sigh of relief into his morning tea, completely unaware of what their mentors had been up to.) Still, Sawamura gave the two troublemakers another lecture over breakfast, and Hinata pouted and responded that that had been his inside screaming voice. Then he and Kageyama argued over whose shouting was the quietest until Takeda stepped in, smoothly pointing out that it was time to go to the gym and finish cleaning up.

He makes dealing with them so easy.

The rest of the day was about as uneventful as it could have been. No injuries, no fights, and even getting the kids to clean up the school without breaking anything went smoothly (maybe, he thought, it was the way Takeda’s smile seemed to be a little brighter than usual).

---

The drive home was quiet. Most of the kids passed out in their seats as soon as the van started moving. Takeda didn’t speak much, just watched the road ahead of him. Keishin would worry about it, but what would they say in front of the kids anyway?

He put the radio on low and watched the landscape out the window, slowly shifting from Tokyo’s suburbs to the green mountains and winding roads of home.

A memory came to him from the last time he’d gone home after a dream-like night in Tokyo. It had been right after he graduated college. He’d gone out to Tokyo for a few days of celebratory fun with Shimada and their little group of college friends (Damn, had he even tried to reach out to any of them lately?).  He’d ditched everyone on the last night, just made up some bullshit excuse about needing to get home early, and took the train over to Ni-chome.

It had been a fun night, starting with the awkward feeling of being the lone outsider at a bar full of regulars and ending in a haze of pleasure and sweat with a guy who picked him out. Ota-kun, he remembered. He smiled a little at the memory. Another person he hadn’t reached out to in a while. He’d wound up staying overnight, and the next day Ota had gone shopping with him, and helped pick out the little looped earrings Keishin still wore.

Something to remember this by.

The trip home afterwards had been on a bright and beautiful day just like this. But on that day he had felt numb and sick to his stomach, like some part of him was dying. Not the kind of sudden, accidental death that brought you to ugly tears, but more like a death that came after a decade of bad prognoses and painful hospital stays. An inevitable, dreadful thing tinged with sick relief when it finally happened. He’d felt his life stretched out before him, planned out in detail by his family: two businesses to look after, an eventual marriage he didn’t want, and then he’d follow the same routine until his hair had all gone white. Nothing to complain about, really.

Keishin fiddled with the piercings in his ears. He’d forgotten to take them out this morning, and then justified keeping them in with the thought that the kids were probably too tired to notice. Right now they were a comfort, a reminder of who he was. After all, he hadn’t died. No part of him had, he’d just pretended for a while.

He snuck a glance at Takeda, who was still calm and collected at the wheel. Somewhere in the back of the bus, one of the kids began to snore.

Maybe everything hadn’t been decided just yet.

Chapter Text

Cats making love—
when it’s over, hazy moonlight
in the bedroom.

-Basho

--

They arrived at the school grounds and got the kids unloaded from the van. Keishin made sure everyone had their bags and gave them instructions to eat real food that night. Takeda reminded them about their summer assignments, which elicited a massive groan from them all.

After everyone had left and the van was cleaned up and put away, Keishin found himself standing awkwardly at the edge of the school grounds with Takeda.

“Listen,” he started, rubbing the back of his neck, “I’ve got work in the morning… but we should probably go over those notes you took at the training camp while they’re still fresh in our heads.”

Takeda nodded, “Yes! That’s a good idea. There are some things about our current rotation in particular that I wanted to ask you about.”

The walk to Takeda’s place was about twenty minutes, during which they talked about the game, who they set up to practice together, and what training exercises to try next. They walked with more than a meter of space between them, and Takeda kept his gaze focused ahead. Distant. Polite. Professional.

Keishin wondered if Takeda was a really smooth actor or if they hadn’t been talking about the same thing after all. The conversation was good; it was all stuff that mattered, but there was something in the way Takeda avoided his eye that made Keishin’s stomach churn with nerves. Now that he thought of it, Takeda had been a little distant all day.

Maybe last night had been a mistake.

They had been pretty drunk.

Or maybe it was the town. It was one thing to do what you liked in Tokyo, but here… Here were all the little reminders of Takeda’s position as a teacher, of the way rumors here spread faster than a cold virus, and of Keishin’s pathetic fucking life. By the time they got to Takeda’s door he could barely focus on the conversation.

“Sorry about all the trouble this is. I owe you another bottle of sake.” Takeda said coolly as he opened the door and waved him inside.

“It’s nothin’.”

Keishin stepped inside and Takeda clicked the door shut behind him and locked it. Then, before Keishin could even kick his sandals off, Takeda pulled him into a deep kiss.

Okay, they had been talking about the same thing.

Keishin’s hands went to Takeda’s waist, then his back, pulling him closer as Takeda kissed him again and again. Keishin’s body surged with relief and excitement.

“I’m sorry,” Takeda breathed between kisses, “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”

Keishin wanted to say something smart—that he was glad he wasn’t the only one, that he’d wanted this since forever, that there was so much he could do and so much he wanted—but none of it was as easy or satisfying as pressing Takeda into the closed door and kissing him.

Takeda’s hands roamed down Keishin’s sides, then his fingers slipped under the hem of his t-shirt and around his waist. Keishin grazed his teeth along his neck, enjoying each groan and gasp he could elicit as Takeda shifted under him.

“Please,” Takeda whispered, “I know you have to work in the morning but,” he stifled a moan as Keishin moved his hand across his hip and traced the line of his waist. “Oh, please stay, please,” his voice was high and desperate, “please.”

What a stupid question.

“I’m not,” Keishin was interrupted with another kiss, “I’m not goin’ anywhere.” He unfastened Takeda’s jeans and slid a hand into them to stroke his erection through the thin fabric of his boxers. Takeda groaned. Keishin brushed his ear with his lips. “Will your neighbors hear us?”

“Maybe,” Takeda whined a little, “I only share a wall with one unit but I, ah.” Keishin was still stroking him. “I can turn the radio on to help block the sound.”

“Then y’should do that.”

Takeda kicked his shoes off and rushed over to the little radio alarm clock he kept on a bookshelf, Keishin not far behind. The radio flicked on to some sports announcer’s voice going through the basketball league’s latest drama. Who even fucking cares.

Keishin pressed against him from behind. He wrapped an arm around Takeda’s chest and pulled him in close, letting his teeth and breath play across his neck. Takeda pressed back into him, grinding his hips against the hardness in Keishin’s jeans. Keishin slipped his free hand down into Takeda’s boxers and wrapped his fingers around his cock.

“Ah, fuck!” Takeda squirmed and bucked his hips into the touch.

Keishin grinned. “Got a bit of a mouth on you, sensei?” he breathed into Takeda’s ear, “I wonder what else I can make you say…”

He got a series of incoherent, breathy noises in response. And hip grinding.

Ah, fuck, was right.

Keishin shifted back and spun Takeda around, a little rougher than he meant to. Takeda’s face was flush and his eyes were wide and dark. He grabbed the hem of Keishin’s shirt and tugged it up a little. Keishin obliged him and pulled his shirt up over his head. Then Takeda’s hands where on his chest, feeling the curvature of each muscle, fingertips tracing lines down his abdomen. Keishin was glad he still had a hint of a six pack, and smirked when he noticed Takeda’s breathing was heavier at the touch.

He pulled off Takeda’s shirt and indulged his own need for touch, feeling the softness of Takeda’s skin, the traces of hair here and there, his stupidly sensitive nipples, the slight curve of his belly as it dipped down to his pelvis. Takeda shuddered and leaned into his every touch, full of want for him, and Keishin relished in that want.

Keishin dropped to his knees in front of Takeda, trailing a line of kisses and grazing teeth on the way down.  He hooked his fingers into the waist of Takeda’s pants and slid them down, going as slowly as he could make himself, which wasn’t very slow at all because fuck he wanted him, wanted to see and feel and hear how much he was wanted in turn by this gorgeous, brilliant man.

Takeda’s cock bobbed free in front of him. He traced a line with his thumb from the base of it to the tip, then wrapped his fingers loosely around it. He remembered how Takeda touched himself, what he liked.

“I wanna suck you off,” Keishin said, his voice rough. His tongue followed the line his thumb traced moments before, then he pulled away just enough to look up into Takeda’s eyes. “Do you want this?”

Takeda was naked and flushed and looking down at him with the best possible kind of disbelief and then his hand was in Keishin’s hair and he said, “Please, yes, please…” and Keishin took him fully into his mouth. Takeda’s second “yes-!” was cut off by a moan.

Keishin worked his tongue over his cock and relished the taste of him and the sound of his voice and the feel of his fingers in his hair. He tried to remember all the details of how Takeda had touched himself, where he had focused his fingertips, the firmness and gentleness of the strokes. He mimicked what he remembered with his tongue, working up and down the shaft, repeating what sparked the best reactions.

Keishin slipped Takeda’s cock out of his mouth and let his fingers take over the stroking. He ran his tongue and lips down the underside of his cock and worked his way to his balls and sucked. Takeda leaned into him, his fingers tight in his hair. Keishin’s hairband was out now, somewhere on the floor behind him and it didn’t matter because Takeda’s moans and muffled “fuck, fuck, fuck…” were too good and the scent and taste of him now was too perfect.

His own erection was starting to ache. With his free hand, he undid his fly and took his cock out and started to stroke himself off to the taste and scent and sounds and desperate touches of Takeda above him.

It took him a moment to realize Takeda was trying to say something.

“Wai… wait,” Takeda breathed. “I’m too close, I want—wait,” he pleaded. Keishin slowed down a little. “I want to feel you. I want to feel more of you.”

Keishin pulled away and Takeda knelt down in front of him. He tugged at Keishin’s jeans and Keishin shifted to help work them off. They were naked together now, in this space meant just for them. Takeda climbed into his lap, his chest against Keishin’s, and took both their cocks into his hand and stroked them together.

Keishin groaned, “Yeah...” He shifted his hands to Takeda’s ass to rock him up and down, increasing the friction, “Mmph, yes.”

They rocked back and forth, the angle not quite right but the skin contact was better and Takeda’s lips on his ear and fingernails in his back were great, too, and fuck he could do this all night.

“I really like,” Takeda said, his breath hot on Keishin’s neck, “I really like the feeling of being held down.”

Is that so.

Keishin lifted him up—he was so fucking light—and pressed him onto the tatami floor. He kept their bodies close, letting his weight hold Takeda down as he tugged his hair back and ran his teeth along his neck. Takeda’s face was washed in pleasure and Keishin could feel his mind cataloguing every detail of this to memory. He pressed their cocks together again and began to thrust.

He was so worked up, and Takeda’s breathing was fast and he was groaning and it was impossible to go slow.

“Ukai,” Takeda said in-between fast breaths and high-pitched moans, “Do you want to fuck me?”

“Yes, yes….” Keishin breathed, thrusting faster, “yes, I want you. Yes.”

“Fuck… I…!” Takeda shuddered and he was coming, spilling in-between them, his eyes squeezed shut, his nails drawing across Keishin’s back.

Perfect.

When he’d finished, Keishin shifted so he was on his hands and knees over Takeda and stroked himself off. Everything had been so much; his mind was hazy and Takeda was so good and the familiar touch of his own hand was a relief. It wasn’t long before his mind went bright and blank and he was done, spent across Takeda’s chest.

Keishin’s mind came back to him and he foggily opened his eyes. Takeda was looking up at him.

“Gorgeous,” he whispered.

Keishin was surprised that he could say that when damn, just look at him.

Takeda startled and looked away self-consciously. “Sorry. Ah, you still could have fucked me if you wanted. I didn’t mean to finish so quickly. It’s a little embarrassing how long it’s—”

Keishin cupped his chin and kissed him, gently. When he pulled away Takeda’s eyes were on him again, and they stayed that way for a few seconds before Keishin sighed and touched their foreheads together. They panted, trying to catch their breath.

After a moment, Keishin sat back and looked at their flushed and sticky aftermath. He ran a hand up Takeda’s side before it could spill onto the tatami floor. “Y’got any tissues?”

“Oh,” Takeda breathed. He glanced across the room, sighed, then reached for his shirt they’d left on the floor. “You can just use this. I need to wash this shirt anyway.”

Keishin was never going to be able to look at Takeda’s green polo shirt the same way again. He wiped them both off, then sat back and pushed his hair out of his face, his mind clouded with happiness and sated lust.

“Wow.” Takeda was sitting on the floor, his knees hugged to his chest. He was staring.

“Hm?”

“If someone had told me last week that this is how today would go, I’m not sure I would have believed it.”

“Hah, is that so?” Keishin wasn’t sure he could believe it now.

“Yes. I don’t know if you know this, Ukai-kun, but you’re very attractive.”

“Y’got weird taste, sensei.” Keishin grinned, pride bubbling in his chest.

“I’ve heard that before.” Takeda smiled fondly at him. They were interrupted by a loud grumble from his stomach. “Ah, um, I should feed us. And, do you want a bath? I can run a bath.” He stood up and looked around for something to put on.

Keishin grabbed his boxers and stood up. “Yeah, sure, I’ll help.”

“It’s alright.” Takeda went to grab something out of his closet. There was a small crash. A few things fell down as he pulled out an old t-shirt. “I can handle frozen food.” He pulled the shirt on, slipped into his boxers from earlier, then ran to the kitchen to turn on the hot water heater.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t help.”

“No, I can be a good host for once. You can take a bath while I make dinner.” His brow furrowed. “The water takes a little while to heat up, though.”

“So we’ll eat first.”

“Right.” Takeda sighed. “Sorry, everything’s all out of order today.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Keishin. Takeda wasn’t making any sense. Then Keishin realized that Takeda hadn’t eaten much during lunch, and now it was well past dinner time. “C’mon, let’s eat.”

They prepared some frozen potstickers and sat down together to eat. After his first few pieces, Takeda seemed less frenetic.

“Sorry about earlier,” he said. “I had a lot of ideas about how this could go, if it ever happened.”

“Yeah?” Keishin swallowed the potsticker in his mouth. He’d forgotten how bad-for-you delicious this brand was. “Didya have a plan to woo me into your bed, sensei?”

“I… had fantasies,” Takeda said. He paused, his chopsticks hovering over his plate. “But, I was aware of the delicacies of the situation here, and I didn’t know if you were interested or not.”

“Ha. Guess I was subtler than I thought. I was sure I’d accidentally outed myself a few times.”

“There were hints,” Takeda agreed, “but, I’m aware that wishful thinking can be a powerful thing. I felt that it was entirely possible I was imagining it.”

“Sounds familiar.” Keishin dipped his last and most promising-looking potsticker in the soy sauce, then took a bite. “Were you ever gonna ask?”

“I’m not sure I would have.” Takeda’s brows knit together. “I had this… image pop into my head. A corrupt older man, plying his junior with alcohol and kind words.”

Keishin set his chopsticks down. “That’s not you, sensei.”

“No. But the thought of you seeing me that way, if I ever said anything… I couldn’t stand it.”

“Yeah, I get it.” Keishin knew that feeling. He suddenly wanted a smoke.

“More than that, I couldn’t see how it would have been fair to you. My position as a teacher means I have to be discreet. Even if you were curious about me, I would have had to ask you not to speak of it to anyone. It wouldn’t have been healthy, especially if something ever went wrong or it didn’t work out between us. When things like that happen, we rely on others for support. If you didn’t have anyone to talk to, there was the potential to do you great harm, even without meaning to.”

If there was a thing Keishin liked about Takeda above all else, it was that he cared. Where Keishin had selfishly worried about losing his friendship, Takeda had worked out an entire scenario and considered how to keep them both safe.

“That was real thoughtful of you, sensei. But I’m not that delicate.” There was always the internet for support, anyway.

Takeda laughed softly. “Then, I had vaguely hoped that one day you’d just forget yourself and kiss me, or something.” He bit his lip. “But, I didn’t really want that either.”

“What did you want?”

“I wanted you, knowing yourself and knowing me, to desire me fully and without doubt.” He shook himself. “But I realize that’s not realistic. There are always doubts, and that’s fine.”

Keishin got up and moved to the other side of the table. The response was so clear and obvious, even he could voice it. “I want you.” He cupped Takeda’s cheek in his hand. “I know myself well enough, and I know you and our situation in this town and I want you.”

Takeda kissed him then, and Keishin melted into the feel of it. The brush of his tongue against Keishin’s, his breath against his skin. After a moment Takeda pulled away slightly.

“Awake,
Totally aware,
My knees turn weak
From God’s long, open-mouthed kiss.”

“Hm?” Keishin smiled. Of course it was poetry.

“It’s from this book I’m rereading.” He kissed Keishin again. “I can tell you more about it next time.”

“Sounds good.” Keishin set a hand on his knee. “D’you want a round two?”

“Yes. But it’s getting late,” he said. “The day after tomorrow, will you come here again? We can have dinner, and I’ll be a better host. I promise.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll make us something. What’s your favorite meal?” Keishin felt bold, like he could do anything.

“Nikujaga. It reminds me of home.”

Takeda was too cute. “Ha, well I can make that. It prob’ly won’t taste like your ma’s though, fair warning.” Nikujaga was easy to make, hard to make well, and everyone made it a little differently.

“It’ll be delicious, I know it. Do you still want that bath?”

Keishin thought of his early morning shift. “It’s yours. I should get home.”

“Alright.” He kissed him again.

Keishin gathered his things. Occasionally he’d stop what he was doing and they’d kiss again, so it took him a while to get out the door. They said goodnight, and then Keishin was back out into the summer night air.

The walk home was peaceful and surreal. The familiar streets and buildings seemed absurd under his dazzling new reality. He hummed to himself, and smoked, and thought of wanting and being wanted.

--

The next day, Keishin went through his daily tasks as if in a dream. The morning shift on the farm was hard work as they repaired an irrigation ditch, but he hardly noticed the labor. Instead, he was preoccupied by the hazy morning light and the birdsong that echoed over the fields. Even the work and sweat of his own body was a distraction, leading his mind to thoughts of sex and the heat of Takeda’s body.

In the afternoon he was energetic. The dull interior of the shop seemed to drip with significance. He unpacked new inventory and updated their displays for the upcoming school rush. When customers came in, he greeted each with a smile. Most smiled back, though a few seemed unnerved by his cheerful demeanor.

He even forgot to smoke a few times, and was surprised to find he still had most of that day’s pack of cigarettes left at the end of his shift.

He was just closing up shop when his phone buzzed with a text message. It was from Takeda.

I’m going to the store today. What ingredients should I pick up for tomorrow? I’m looking forward to it! ꉂꉂ ( ˆᴗˆ )

Keishin typed out his response, hesitated over whether to include an emoticon or not, then hit send.

onion, carrot, potatoes, shirataki noodles, dashi stock, peas, your choice of beef or pork… sake

His phone buzzed almost instantly with a response.

Got it! (•̀ᴗ•́)

He smiled at his phone like it was the most profound thing he’d heard all day.

--

There was no practice that day due to renovations at the gym. Keishin found it was strange to go a full day without seeing Takeda. Their daily practice sessions and time at the camp had spoiled him.

Still, the timing meant he could go help his parents with his grandad’s house. The old man was getting out of the hospital the next day, and Keishin’s parents were tasked with cleaning the place and making sure it was ready for him.

His grandfather’s house was massive. At one time, it had housed the entire extended family: his great-grandparents, his grandad and grandma, his da and his uncle and his uncle’s family. He remembered visiting as a boy and exploring the seemingly endless rooms and curious belongings in each. Now it stood empty, save for some mementos and the sparse signs of his grandad’s presence.

When Keishin’s parents had married, they’d chosen to live in his ma’s house attached to the shop. A practical choice, given her determination to hold onto the place. Keishin’s uncle had moved his family out of town years ago, following a promising job down south, apparently. His da didn’t talk about it much.

After Keishin’s grandma passed away, his ma suggested that the old man come live with them. He’d refused. Keishin’s da always said it was just as well. Sometimes you like someone more with a little distance.

They opened the windows to air the place out, then Keishin set to dusting and scrubbing the floors. He checked through the closets and storage rooms for signs of mold, and cleaned the few spots he could find.  

He glanced around the place as he worked. There were old photos here and there, of his da and uncle as children, of his grandma and that clever smile she’d always had. There were also photos of people he didn’t know or never met, dressed in formal clothes and posing stiffly for the camera, back when exposure times were long.

He could only find one photo of his grandfather in his youth, and it was his wedding portrait. He stared into the camera, the proud angle of his head hinting at the personality below the stiff pose and formalwear. Keishin had always found this photograph unsettling. He recognized his own features in the man who stared back at him. It wasn’t just that he resembled his grandfather; it was like looking into a mirror. He dusted the frame and turned away.

The rest of the cleaning was smooth, and any lingering ill feelings from the house were washed away when he stepped outside.

It was dusk, and the moon had just slipped over the horizon to cast an orange glow on the town below. A nightjar was perched on a fence post overlooking one of the fields, diligently searching for beetles and other pests to eat. Keishin wondered vaguely if he should thank it, or if it was oblivious to the fact that it was helping his family.

He wished he knew a poem to suit the moment.

--

He ate his dinner slowly that night. All the food seemed flavorless compared to the sweetness of his own imaginings and memories of Takeda. Still, he made sure he ate enough to have fuel for tomorrow.  When he was done, he stood and helped his ma put away the leftovers, then excused himself to the quiet safety of his room.

As soon as he got upstairs, he lit a cigarette and typed out a message to Nakano.

SetAndReady: I owe you

Bananakano: ˚✧₊(‐^▽^‐)⁺˳✧༚

Bananakano: I CAN’T BELIEVE IT
Bananakano: okay okay okay
Bananakano: first of all
Bananakano: WHAT IS LIFE EVEN I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS HAS HAPPENED
Bananakano:  I COULD WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT THIS
Bananakano: AND THEN SELL THE MOVIE RIGHTS TO A BIG STUDIO
Bananakano: AND THEN BECOME A MILLIONARE AND I’LL OWE YOU ALL OVER AGAIN

SetAndReady: …lol ok

Bananakano: secondly
Bananakano: please tell me you’re actually together now
Bananakano: and the pathetic pining is over
Bananakano: and more ✧exciting✧ things are happening?

SetAndReady: lol yes we had a good night and i'm going over again tomorrow

Bananakano: THANK YOU UNIVERSE ♡✧。(◍>◡<◍)。✧♡
Bananakano: oh my goodness
Bananakano: I can’t believe that * ༚✧sensei✧༚ * was Take-chan
Bananakano: I’m so relieved he’s okay
Bananakano: and that you’re not stuck pining for a straight boy or some random asshole, of course.

SetAndReady: what happened that had you worried?

Bananakano: with take-chan?
Bananakano: he graduated
Bananakano: and got this new job
Bananakano: and we had a big going away party for him
Bananakano: and then he just… vanished! nobody's heard from him in over a year
Bananakano: he didn’t even say where exactly he was going
Bananakano: I’m just glad he’s okay and isn’t alone out there.
Bananakano: it’s hard enough to picture him as a teacher, let alone happy out in the middle of nowhere
Bananakano: our little party animal

SetAndReady: ha, he is
SetAndReady: how did you meet sensei, anyway?

Bananakano: well I guess you could say he’s like my little sister

There was a pause before the next message came in.

Bananakano: WAIT SHIT NO HOLD ON
Bananakano: that sounds incestuous

SetAndReady: …what the hell are you trying to say??

Bananakano: we know each other from Chiyoko’s
Bananakano: he started coming pretty regularly, the little baby bird
Bananakano: I took him under my wing, and we hit it off from there.

SetAndReady: Chiyoko’s?
SetAndReady: …isn’t that the drag bar you go to?

Bananakano: Sure is! I’m performing next week and I’m so excited~✧!
Bananakano: I was thinking I’d dedicate it to you two lovebirds
Bananakano: if you don’t mind

SetAndReady: yeah sure, if that’s a thing

Bananakano: of course it’s a thing!
Bananakano: anyway if you’ll excuse me, Maeda-chan just got home and I have to tell him the great news about how I’m going to become an author and sell your story and then we’ll be rich!

SetAndReady: ha, alright. thanks for everything

Bananakano: sure
Bananakano: thanks for getting me back in touch with Take-chan
Bananakano: talk to you soon! (‐^▽^‐)

Keishin snuffed out his cigarette, laid out his bed, and settled in to sleep.

--

He woke slowly the next morning, his mind a haze of memories and tempting possibilities. He rolled his blankets into a bundle at his side and threw an arm around it. He had dreamed something about Takeda, though the plot seemed to escape him now. All he could remember was his voice, and the feeling of warmth and safety followed by hot, desperate desire.

Ukai..!

Keishin nuzzled into the blankets, his morning wood just on the edge of discomfort. He had the rare luxury of sleeping until dawn today, and light hadn’t yet begun to creep in through the window. There was time for this.

He slid his hand down and under the waistband of his boxers and slowly jerked himself off, indulging in every fantasy and memory that rolled through him. He bit his lip and groaned into the covers at the thought of Takeda’s voice and his fingers roaming here and there on his body.  He finished with a shudder and a sigh.

He found that his usual wave of guilt afterwards was absent. Instead, a warm sense of peacefulness filled the room. He smiled in the pre-dawn haze, then drifted back to sleep.

His alarm went off half an hour later, and he rose and cleaned himself up and got dressed. There was no shift on the farm for him this morning; he’d taken the time off to help his ma bring his grandad home. The old man could be a handful, but it would be a relief to have him near family again.

We all need somebody, after all.

--

His grandad was in a mood when they arrived at the hospital, and immediately gave Keishin a rant about how long he’d had to wait for them. Keishin nodded in polite agreement while he loaded his things in the car. His ma was handed a package of medications and instructions on when he should take them.

His grandad complained when his ma wouldn’t let him drive, then spent the car ride giving a long list of ways the hospital could be improved, staring with better food and a volleyball court. Occasionally he’d pause and look out the window, noting the fields and condition of the crops.

Once they pulled up to his house, the old man couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. He stood still for a moment in the driveway, just to take in the sight of his home and the farm surrounding it. Even after his long hospital stay, he was an intimidating figure: square-shouldered, upright, with sharp and scrutinizing eyes. He took a deep breath, and Keishin could see the relief on his face. Then the moment was gone, and he stormed inside.

“I see someone’s been busy,” he said as he glared around the entryway.

“Yes Father, we cleaned it for you,” his ma said.

“You were always a good girl, Fumiko-chan.” He threw his shoes off. “I wish my boy’d gotten some of your sense. You’d think it would’ve rubbed off on him by now.”

“Shoji and Keishin were both very helpful, Father.”

His head snapped around to look at Keishin. “Is that so, boy? Makin’ yourself useful for once?”

Keishin dropped his gaze to the floor and nodded. “Of course.”

The old man went into the kitchen and looked around. Keishin realized he was making the rounds, inspecting everything. Things that met with his approval elicited a short grunt. A few things he rearranged while muttering under this breath.

“Why aren’t you at work, boy?” he said as he rearranged the utensils in the kitchen.

“Keishin took the morning off t’ help me, Father.”

“That so.” He closed the drawer, then stalked into his bedroom. “Well that’s nice and all but I don’t like it when people mess with my things! You all think I’m so weak I can’t even take care of myself.”

“Of course not,” Keishin said. “We just wanted t’ help you out a little, Grandad.”

“Well I don’t need it.” He went around opening and closing closet doors. “If you wanna make yourself useful, go work. Better yet, find a wife so someone will be able to take care of that son of mine when he’s old. We all know he’ll need it.”

Keishin’s da was the one who signed the paperwork to extend his grandad’s hospital stay. He was a bit salty about it, apparently.

“Do you need anything else, Father?”

“Just time t’get things back in order around here.”

“Alright, Father. Call me if you need anything. I’ll stop by this afternoon with some groceries for you.”

The old man grunted and went back to his fussing around the house. Keishin followed his ma out.

She started speaking as soon as they closed the car doors. “Don’t mind him, Keishin. He’s just cranky because he hasn’t had much control over anythin’ lately.”

“It’s fine. I’ve dealt with worse.”

Keishin stared out the window and watched the house get smaller in the distance. He remembered the immense fear he’d felt when the old man had first collapsed, like realizing the ground under him was about to crumble down a mountainside. He still shuddered to think that someone of such strength could fall like that, betrayed by his own body.

Keishin felt a little guilty now, when all he could think of was how relieved he was to get away.

--

The familiar routine of the shop was a comfort after the morning’s encounter with his grandad. Keishin organized and dusted the shelves, even the ones that didn’t really need it.

While he worked, he went over the nikujaga recipe in his head. He rehearsed the tricks his ma had taught him: soak the potatoes before cooking them, put the beef in last, don’t let it scum. Add sugar, maybe, unless it was pork. Did Takeda have sugar?

He jumped at the buzz of his phone. The alarm to get ready for practice was going off. He leapt up, threw his shop apron on the hook, and ran upstairs. He changed, made sure the book Takeda had lent him was in his bag, checked for his cigarettes and lighter, and then sprayed everything with copious amounts of febreze. His ma barely opened the door before he was out and on his way up the hill.

Keishin deflated slightly when he arrived at the gym. Takeda wasn’t there yet.

Still, the kids were there, and they were rested and excited to put what they’d learned from the training camp into practice. Keishin shook himself and grinned, then directed them to passing and receiving drills, spiking practice, and combos. The squeaking of shoes and the thud of the ball echoed in a productive rhythm.

Shimizu and their new manager Yachi watched together from the sidelines. Shimizu was smiling and laughing, and Keishin was happy she’d taken to training her replacement so well.

“Ukai-kun, sorry I’m late.”

“Ah!” Keishin startled. “Sensei,” he recovered and tried to sound calm. “How’s it goin’?”

“Very well, Ukai-kun.” Takeda adjusted his glasses, then ran a hand through his hair. Keishin tried not to think about how soft it probably felt. “Although, I am ashamed to say I’ve been a bit distracted the last few days.”

Oh. Keishin told himself that he was definitely not blushing. It was just hot out.

Takeda glanced over at the practice drills. “Anyway, what is the team working on today?” Takeda stepped up next to him, leaving just a little bit more space between them than usual.

“Spiking combinations. Their challenge is t’ get good enough at feints that I can’t tell who’s going to spike the ball. I know all their tells, so it’s pretty tough for ‘em.”

“Ah, that makes sense!” Takeda looked over the court. “I see that Kageyama and Hinata aren’t working together?”

“No, they’re still not gettin’ along. I want to use ‘em in the Spring High, but until they’re more secure with their own skills they’ll just keep takin’ it out on each other.”

“Is there anything we can do to move that along?”

“I got a few ideas.” Keishin thought of his grandfather. “But it’ll be a challenge. If we’re lucky, the team’ll be stronger by the end of it.” Hinata moved to spike the ball and wound up head-butting it instead. “But’s awkward right now.”

“Growth is often a little awkward,” Takeda said.

“Ha, y’got that right,” Keishin grinned.

It was as natural as it ever was to lead the team alongside Takeda. Whatever this new thing was between them, it hadn’t interfered with this. Relief flowed through him, and he set his mind back to guiding the team.

After practice wrapped up, Keishin sent the kids home and helped Takeda lock up the gym. There were the faint remnants of a sunset, bits of red and purple along the horizon.  As he fell into step alongside Takeda, Keishin could feel some part of himself uncoiling. He laughed at the feeling, a little snicker for the image of himself as an overwound clock.

“What’s that for?” Takeda asked.

“Nothin’. I’m just looking forward to tonight.”

Takeda looked up at him in the lingering light, his eyes soft and accepting, and Keishin felt a million humble little dreams try to blossom in his chest.

For the first time in years, he decided to let them to bloom, for now.

--

Chapter Text

Climb Mount Fuji,
oh snail,
but slowly, slowly

-Issa

--

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Sweat rolled down Keishin’s brow as he stirred the nikujaga. The kitchen was scorching hot from the summer air and the heat of the stove. Takeda had set up a fan for him, but it didn’t seem to be accomplishing much.

More importantly, his recipe was a disaster.

He’d failed to round off the edges of the potatoes, so they were starting to crumble in the pot. He’d also forgotten to put the peas in ice water after cooking them, so they’d lost their bright green color, which was the whole damn reason you included them in the first place.

To make matters worse, everything was too sweet. He’d sworn he hadn’t added that much sugar, but there it was. There were some things you couldn’t take back after they were done.

He cursed under his breath as he stirred again.

“Is there anything I can do to help, Ukai-kun?”

“Nah,” he sighed. “It is what it is at this point. Almost done.”

“I’ll get the bowls out, then.” Takeda brushed past him, his hand sliding against Keishin’s back. The touch was intentional, and Takeda had been doing little things like that since Keishin had arrived. Which was nice. And incredibly distracting.

Keishin glanced over at him. Takeda was smiling, his eyes crinkled at the corners. He winked, then turned to pull two bowls out of the cabinet. Distracted, Keishin’s hand brushed the edge of the pot.

Shit,” he hissed, his attention snapping back to the stove. He nursed his burned thumb in his mouth and poked at the nikujaga again.

Takeda set the bowls on the countertop. Keishin looked at the pot and sighed. It would have to do. He filled the bowls, set the sad overcooked peas on top, and hoped for the best.

“Thank you for cooking,” Takeda said as he set the table. “Would you like some sake to go with the meal?”

“Sure.” Keishin noticed the sake was a more expensive brand than what they normally shared. “Broke out the good stuff, huh?”

“It seemed like a worthy occasion.” Takeda poured his glass and Keishin returned the favor.

They started to eat and yeah, the nikujaga was too sweet and kind of mealy. Still, it’s wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever made. He thanked whatever fates of cooking for that small blessing, at least.

Takeda took his first bite. His eyes closed and he smiled, savoring the piece. “This is really delicious, Ukai-kun.”

Flatterer.

“It’s alright.”

“I mean it. I feel at home.” Takeda finally opened his eyes. “Is this how your mother makes it?”

Keishin’s chest felt tight at Takeda’s words about home. He hid his flush behind another bite before answering. “Nah, my ma’d kill me if she knew I’d made it this sweet. What about yours?”

“She makes it differently, more carrots and no peas… I think? They’re a nice addition. I like the sweetness.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

Takeda smiled at the words ‘next time,’ and Keishin could feel himself melting into putty at the sight.

Keishin sipped at his drink. “Say, what’re your folks like, anyway?”

“They’re all good people. My parents live just outside of Tokyo. My older sister lives in the city with her husband. My father is an accountant and keeps busy with his job. My mother is a homemaker and does a lot of volunteer work. Most of her volunteering focuses on addressing homelessness, though when I came out she started doing some LGBT advocacy as well.”

“You’re out to your folks?” Keishin couldn’t hide his surprise.

“Yes, I told them when I was a teenager. It was never really a problem, though some of my extended relatives took more convincing to be accepting of me.”

“Your whole family knows?”

“Yes?” Takeda swallowed his bite. “It is a bit unusual, I guess. My parents had more problems with me moving out here than they ever did with me being queer, actually.” He poured more sake into Keishin’s glass. “But I’ve always been a man to follow my passions.”

Keishin filled his glass for him. “Teaching, huh?”

“And poetry,” Takeda raised his glass, a gesture to Keishin, “and fine company.”

Keishin felt his ears turn red. It wasn’t fair how charming Takeda could be without even trying. He raised his glass in response. “T’ fine company.”

Takeda took a drink, then set his glass on the table. “…And what are your passions, Ukai-kun?”

Keishin swallowed, forgetting to savor the expensive sake. “Well…” he trailed off, uncertain of what to say and whether the question was meant to be as seductive as he’d heard it.

“Is it volleyball? Or maybe the store?” Takeda traced a line along the side of his glass with his finger. “Something else?”

“I mean, I like all those things, sure. I like playing volleyball. I was the one that organized the neighborhood team with Tat-san and the others. But, I’m not like you,” he shook his head, “I can’t say I’ve got this big vision or anything. I just try t’ do right by my friends and family.”

Takeda smiled. “That’s more admirable, in a way.”

Keishin snorted. “You don’t hafta flatter me, y’know.”

“It’s not flattery,” Takeda said. Determination flashed in his eyes, and Keishin was reminded of when he’d first asked him to coach. “I’ve always been one to run around, chasing after stories and my own whims. You, on the other hand, see what the people around you need and you give it to them, without any pretense. I admire that.”

“Well yeah, what else would I do?” Keishin waved it off. He was too much. “You’re startin’ to sound like Nakano-san.”

“Ha, Itsuki-chan would never let me hear the end of it if he heard you say that.”

“It’ll be our secret, then.” Keishin smiled. “You’ve known each other a long time, right? He said you met at Chiyoko’s.”

“Yes, he’s an old friend. I was worried I didn’t fit in at first, but he and a few others really looked out for me.”

“Sounds like him. Didya ever perform together?”

“Um, well,” Takeda stiffened. “Y-yes, I did...”

Keishin waited for him to elaborate.

Takeda’s brow furrowed. “…Does that bother you?”

“What?”

“That I’ve done drag. You said once that it was… something you didn’t want to see?”

“What?” Keishin searched his memory for when the hell that happened. “Are you talkin’ about what I said about Matsuko Deluxe?” Keishin filled his glass. “I just don’t wanna listen t’ housewives and celebrities talk about how scandalous bein’ gay is or whatever. Drag itself is fine. Besides, y’can’t be friends with Nakano-san and have a problem with somethin’ like that.”

“He’s never been one for subtlety, that’s true.” Takeda laughed. He relaxed and topped Keishin’s glass off.

“Speaking of… what’d that guy say you t’ you anyway? You were bright red when he walked away.”

“Oh, ah, he told me that he knew you the same way he knew me…. and then...” Takeda smirked. “I think his exact words were that I ‘should ride that boy off into the sunset’.”

Keishin almost spat out his drink. He swallowed, shoulders shaking with laughter. He met Takeda’s eyes and his laughing tapered off, and he flushed under the heat of Takeda’ steady gaze. “And, ah... is that what you plan t’do?”

“Not exactly,” Takeda reached across the table and covered Keishin’s hand with his own, “but I do plan to ask you to stay here with me, for the night.” He traced a small circle over Keishin’s thumb. “And to give you my best drink, and a bath, and tell you a little of what I thought about during those days I wondered if you could want me the way I wanted you.”

Keishin’s heart was racing. He shifted his thumb over Takeda’s and held in there, a gentle anchor of contact. “What did you think about?”

Takeda laughed, soft and embarrassed. “A poem, if you could indulge me.”

Keishin would indulge him in anything. He shifted so he was sitting next to Takeda and leaned in to listen.

Takeda must have memorized the poem because he began to speak immediately, his eyes on the table in front on him.

“In my office library, the morning cold,
I suddenly think of a mountain guest

searching creeks for bramble kindling
and returning to cook white-stone soup.

I long to bring you a gourd full of wine,
soften endless nights of wind and rain,

but fallen leaves fill empty mountains:
all trace of your coming and going gone.”

Keishin tilted his head, trying to read Takeda’s expression. “But I’m right here.”

Takeda looked up at him. “And I’m glad for it.” He brushed a stray hair off Keishin’s forehead, then his hand traced down, around the shell of his ear and to his jaw before he leaned in and kissed him. “Now, let me take care of you. There’s water for a bath, and a bed for you to stay in, and these hands of mine that long to touch you.”

Keishin felt a shiver roll down his spine at the last line. He felt like a character in a play, courted and doted on by the hero. He cupped Takeda’s cheek and kissed him, savoring the hint of sake on his tongue as it teased Keishin’s mouth.

“Mmhmn. You’re really not sellin’ the idea of gettin’ up here.” Keishin leaned in to kiss him again and Takeda laughed and turned his head. “Alright, alright, y’want me clean. Fine.” He nudged him with his shoulder. “But it’ll be quick.”

“There should be everything you need in there. Um, I set aside some clothes you can borrow too, if you like.” He handed Keishin a t-shirt and pajama pants. “These are pretty big on me, so they might fit you…”

Keishin recognized the shirt as one of the ones Takeda had slept in during the training camp and felt that yes, it was just as soft as it had looked. He flushed and turned to go to the bathroom.

Takeda’s shower and bath were tiny. He undressed, then sat down and turned the faucet on. The water pressure was surprisingly decent.

Keishin poured lukewarm water over his face and shoulders. He was determined not to use all the hot water from the modest heater before Takeda had the chance to bathe too. Meanwhile, Keishin filled the bath to be near-scalding, with the hope it’d still be warm when Takeda took his turn. Steam filled the little room in a haze.

He worked Takeda’s shampoo into his hair and relished in the orange-y spicy scent of it. There wasn’t any conditioner, which was too bad for Keishin’s dry, bleached hair. Maybe he could bring some next time. He scrubbed himself with Takeda’s soap (which he noticed had a faint vanilla scent), then rinsed off and stepped into the bath.

Being in the bathtub was similar to sitting in a barrel. It was small, even for someone Takeda’s size, and Keishin had to fold his legs to his chest in order to fit. Still, the heat was nice. He relaxed into the water and the scent of Takeda’s soaps.

Keishin’s gaze fell to his own body. Through the steamy haze, he studied his calloused and nicotine-stained hands, the sharp tan lines on his upper arms from work under the sun, the scars here and there from scrapes during a fall or from work. He could feel a little stubble on his chin, too, and wished he’d had the time to shave before he’d left home.

Still, here he was.

It still seemed like a dream that Takeda wanted him there. He covered his face with his hands, then ran his fingers back through his hair. He told himself this was exactly where he needed to be.

He got out of the bath and toweled himself off. The clothes Takeda gave him fit ok, though the pants were a little short. He shifted them to rest shamelessly low on his hips, both to minimize the gap between the hem and his ankle and because if Takeda was going to charm him with everything he had, then Keishin might as well try to do the same. He ran a hand through his hair, then stepped out of the bathroom.

“Your turn, sensei.”

Takeda bit his lip, his eyes darting over Keishin’s frame. Keishin smirked when he realized Takeda probably had a thing for seeing him in his clothes.

He stepped in front of Takeda and tugged at his button-down shirt. “...Unless you wanna skip that part?”

“No, I,” Takeda’s hands slid up Keishin’s chest, feeling the muscles under the soft fabric. “I won’t be long.”

Keishin glanced behind Takeda’s shoulder and saw that he’d already laid out his futon. “You sure? Y’got the bed laid out and everything.”

“I hope that wasn’t too presumptuous of me,” Takeda teased, his hands roaming up to Keishin’s shoulders.

“I ain’t complainin’.” Keishin started undoing the buttons of Takeda’s shirt. “But if you’re gonna take a bath, y’should do that now,” he brushed Takeda’s undershirt with his thumb as he worked his way down the line of buttons, “before we get too distracted.”

“I won’t be long,” Takeda repeated. “Make yourself at home, there’s books, and ah…” He trailed off as Keishin started unbuckling his belt. “Um.” Keishin slid his belt out of the loops, the leather snapping as he tugged it free. Takeda’s face flushed and he stepped away. “I won’t be long!” he repeated as he dashed into the bathroom.

Keishin grinned to himself as he heard the water turn on in the bathroom. It was good to know he wasn’t the only one who could get overwhelmed in this situation.

He glanced around the room. Takeda had moved the fan so it was blowing over the bed, and Keishin knelt down on the covers to let himself cool off from the bath while he looked around.

The closet door had been left partially open, and he could see Takeda’s modest wardrobe hanging inside: sets of plain work shirts, slacks, and khaki shorts. There was nothing to indicate he’d ever worn anything different.

There was a photo stuck to the drawers in the closet. In it, a younger Takeda posed in a booth with three other people. Keishin recognized Nakano, and then there was a plain-looking man who looked to be in his 50’s smiling between them. On the far left there was a fourth person who had makeup on and was giving Nakano bunny ears.

He glanced around the rest of the room. The place was the cleanest he’d ever seen it, though the bookshelves were still overflowing. There was one book lying on the floor near the bed, a tissue sticking out of it as a bookmark. Keishin picked it up and read Between Two Worlds on the cover. He opened it and found a poem on one of the bookmarked pages.

Oh that my monk’s robe were wide enough
to embrace the suffering of the world.

-Ryokan

He set the book down when he heard the bathroom door slide open. Takeda stepped out, wearing plain pajamas and a blue t-shirt, his towel still over his shoulders. He was flushed from the hot water, and his hair was mussed from when he’d toweled it off. He adjusted his glasses and looked over at Keishin.

“Thank you for waiting.” He walked over to the bed, his eyes still roaming over Keishin’s body.

“Sure,” Keishin leaned back, enjoying the attention. There was a beat of silence. “You just gonna look, or what?” he teased.

Takeda dropped to his knees, then straddled Keishin and pulled him into a kiss. However coy Takeda might have played earlier, his actions now were shameless and insistent.  The kiss was deep, a fraction deeper than Keishin had been prepared for, and his hands were already roaming down his body, tugging at Keishin’s shirt.

Keishin cupped his cheek and pulled back on the kiss until it was a more comfortable amount of tongue. Then he shifted himself up a little so Takeda could pull his shirt over his head.

Keishin smirked. “Now, what was the point of givin’ me clothes if you were just gonna rip ‘em off me right away?”

Takeda ran his hands over Keishin’s bare chest, a whisper of a touch. “Revealing you is a joy all its own.”

Keishin was never going to recover from that line. He pulled Takeda back into a kiss, his turn to be insistent. He slid his hands under Takeda’s shirt, desperate for more skin contact. Takeda pressed into him, and they fell back in a tangle of limbs and roaming hands.

They broke the kiss just long enough for Keishin to pull Takeda’s shirt off, and then Takeda was on him again, his mouth trailing open kisses down Keishin’s neck and yes, okay, that was his hand wrapped around Keishin’s cock. He squirmed to get his pajamas off, because fuck he wasn’t about to ruin Takeda’s clothes when he’d been wearing them for less than an hour.

Takeda’s hand began to stroke, and a strained “Sensei...” was all Keishin could manage. He pressed his fingers into Takeda’s thighs, resisting the urge to buck up shamelessly into his hand.

“You feel so good under my fingers,” Takeda said, “I want to feel you fuck me.”

Keishin bit back a groan at his brazen words. He was never going to recover from Takeda, period.

He pulled Takeda’s hips closer to his own, then shifted them so he was on top. He slid Takeda’s pajama bottoms off, then pressed down onto him, relishing in the skin contact and Takeda’s happy moans at being held down. They grinded against each other, Takeda’s cock hard and weeping against Keishin’s hip. Keishin kissed and sucked little marks here and there where they wouldn’t show under Takeda’s work clothes, relishing every noise and desperate thrust he could elicit.  When he was satisfied, Keishin sat back and started to spread Takeda’s thighs open with his hands.

“Hold on, hold on,” Takeda said. Keishin let go of him and he twisted around to grab something from just inside the closet. He pressed a small bottle of lube and something in a crinkly wrapper into Keishin’s hand. Keishin stared down at it.

It was a condom.

Oh.

“Is something wrong?” Takeda asked, after what was surely too long of a silence.

It’s not like Keishin didn’t know what a condom was. He’d just always figured they weren’t really relevant to him. It’s not like he had to worry about getting anybody pregnant, and he’d figured nobody actually listened to those flyers about safe sex anyway. It’s not like it had mattered to any of his one-night-stands.

Keishin was realizing, suddenly, how stupid that had been.

“Ah, you’re used to this...?” he said. Of course Takeda was used to this. Keishin was the idiot who had no idea what he was actually doing.

“I probably didn’t use them as often as I should have, to be honest. But there was an HIV scare at Chiyoko’s a few years ago and I started taking it more seriously after that.”

“Oh.” Some part of Keishin’s brain began silently screaming.

Takeda was getting flustered. “I was last tested just before I moved here. Everything was negative. Ah… if you don’t want to use that, can I ask when you were last tested and for what?”

“Never.” Keishin couldn’t change the facts now. There was nothing to do but own up to it. “I just avoided thinking about it, t’ be honest. It always seemed like it was just another thing people said t’ make me regret the way I am. I’ve never even used one of these.” He hung his head. “Stupid, I know.”

His face burned with shame. What if he had picked something up before? It’s not like they’d been that careful until now.

What was wrong with him?

“I would recommend you get tested,” Takeda said, “The peace of mind is worth it, if nothing else. I can do it too, so you’re not alone. I was really nervous my first time!”

“Not sure I’m up for explaining to the local doc why I think it’s necessary.” Keishin rubbed his forehead. “You realize patient confidentiality is a joke in this town, right?” It was true. Heart problems, pregnancies… everyone knew fucking everything here.

“Then we’ll go somewhere else. There are lots of options, even tests you can take at home now.” Takeda set a hand on Keishin’s knee, “…and in the meantime, there’s plenty we can do. I still want to have sex with you. If you’re not comfortable using a condom, we can do less risky activities for now.”

Keishin glanced up at Takeda. His face was relaxed and nonjudgmental, only the slightest crease of concern on his brow.

Keishin nodded. He had gone soft during their conversation, but he still wanted… something. He ran his hands up Takeda’s arms, then down his sides, easing back into the contact. “It’d probably be good to start with fingers anyway, right?”

“That sounds nice.” Takeda kissed him, as sure as he ever was, and Keishin felt some of his confidence return.

Takeda shifted so he was straddling Keishin’s leg, still half-hard from earlier. Keishin stroked light touches up and down his shaft. He relished the feeling of it slowly swelling in his hand until it was fully hard and wet at the tip again. His other hand worked downward, tracing small circles around Takeda’s ass.

“That feels great,” Takeda breathed into his ear, the sensation sending shivers down Keishin’s spine. “You can press harder, if you want.” He offered Keishin the bottle of lube again.

Keishin dabbed some lube onto his fingers and returned to playing with Takeda’s ass. He teased the entrance, then slid a finger in easily. Takeda gave an appreciative sigh. Keishin made sure to keep his other hand steadily stroking his cock.

“Yes, that’s good. Is it alright if I touch you too?”

Keishin’s neglected cock had started to rise again. “Yeah.”

Takeda’s touch was soft as he stroked careful lines up and down Keishin’ shaft, occasionally circling the head before dipping down again as he grew harder. Keishin slid his finger out, then in again, feeling the tight heat and slickness of him. Takeda seemed comfortable, so he tried sliding another finger inside.

Takeda responded by pushing himself down and sinking over Keishin’s fingers, then coming up again. His cock was hard and slick against Keishin’s other hand. Meanwhile, his fingers played over Keishin, each stroke drawing more want from him.

Keishin curved his fingers, trying to find the right spot while Takeda rode him. When he found it, Takeda groaned and buried his head in his shoulder, his breath hot on Keishin’s skin as he kept stroking him with those stupidly light touches. Keishin was hot and painfully hard now, helpless under Takeda’s fingertips as they traced the head of his cock before dipping back down again.

“Okay, yeah, can we,” he breathed, struggling for coherency. It all came out in a rough and breathy rush. “I wanna feel you, to fuck you. I’ll wear it. I want to.” He groped blindly for the condom.

“Yes, okay,” Takeda breathed. He pulled himself off of Keishin’s fingers and shifted so he was between his legs. “May I do the honors?”

Keishin nodded, and Takeda took the wrapper from him and tore it open. Keishin was fascinated by the cream-colored circlet that slid out of the package. Takeda dabbed a small drop of lube into the center. Then he shifted, set it between his lips, and bent down.

Keishin moaned at the sight of Takeda’s lips wrapped around his cock. “Sensei..!” Takeda took more of him into his mouth, rolling the condom down with his lips as he went. Even through the latex, Keishin could feel the heat of him sinking down over his cock.

Takeda stopped about halfway and pulled up. He unrolled the condom the rest of the way down with his hand, then looked up at Keishin. “Are you ready?”

Keishin was hard and aching and desperate to feel more of that heat. “Yes,” he breathed.

He sat up, and Takeda turned around and got on his hands and knees. Keishin slicked himself with more lube, then eased his way into Takeda.

Takeda buried his face in the covers and groaned.

Keishin bit his lip at the hot tightness of him. “You alright, sensei?”

Takeda turned his head to the side, and Keishin could see a ridiculously broad smile on his face. The tightness around Keishin’s cock relaxed slightly. “Fantastic.”

“I guess you’ll want me to move, then?” Keishin teased.

“Yes, please,” Takeda said, not even hesitating to beg. “Please, please fuck me, please…!” he cut out into a groan as Keishin began to thrust.

Sex with a condom felt different. Not worse or better, but there was a newness to the sensation that was surprisingly intimate. He felt safe, and Takeda was safe with him, and he wanted Takeda to feel that, to know it with every action they took together.

He reached around and wrapped his hand around Takeda’s cock. He thrusted and stroked at a slow, steady pace to Takeda’s muffled pleas for more.

“...please, please, I need you, I need-ah, please…”

At one point, Takeda set his hand over Keishin’s and adjusted the angle of his fingers on his cock. Keishin moaned at the overwhelming intimacy of it, to know exactly how Takeda wanted to be touched, to be held between his cock and his hand.

“Don’t stop, please don’t stop, I’m so close,” Takeda pushed back against him to meet his thrusts, “I, fuck, fuck fuck fuck please…!” and Takeda was coming, hot and wet into Keishin’s hand, his ass tightening as the wave of pleasure rolled through him.

“Is,” Keishin struggled for words through the overwhelming sensations, “is it alright if I keep going?”

“Yes,” panted Takeda, “please.”

Keishin kept moving, working himself inside of Takeda. He felt loose and open to him, and it felt so good, so good to have him like this. He teetered of the edge of orgasm for a few more delicious thrusts before his mind went blank and he spent himself in a rush.

They stayed still for a moment, soaked with sweat and trying to catch their breath.

“Remember,” Takeda panted, “to hold the base when you pull out.”

Keishin held the base of the condom and they both shivered as he slid himself out. He looked down at his softening cock and slipped the condom off of it, careful not to spill the contents. Takeda took it from him and set it in the little trashcan near his bed.

Takeda turned back to him. “That was,” he sighed, “exactly what I needed. Thank you.”

Keishin smiled and fell back onto the bed, still catching his breath. He didn’t have the space for words yet, so he just pulled Takeda into his arms and rested his head on his shoulder. He could hear Takeda’s heartbeat, still racing.

Takeda ran his hand through Keishin’s hair. “I think I owe Itsuki-chan the nicest gift basket I can afford.”

Keishin laughed softly. “Me too.” He glanced up at Takeda. “You mentioned it’d been a while?”

“Yes,” Takeda said. “Over a year.”

“Ha,” Keishin smiled and tapped a finger on Takeda’s chest, “How’d you ever survive?”

“Erotica and a good imagination.”

Shameless. Keishin snickered.

“What about you, Ukai-kun? Had it been a while?”

“Two years, I guess. I don’t really make it out to Ni-chome that often.”

“You never found anything closer?”

“Not really. Nothin’ I wanted t’ chance, anyway.”

“Hmm.” Takeda said nothing else, just kept running his fingers through Keishin’s hair.

Silence stretched out between them. Keishin wondered what Takeda must think of him, if there was any judgement at all. Probably not. Takeda knew a lot of queers, apparently. Surely Keishin wasn’t the only guy out there who never hooked up too close to home.

…Not that he could really say that about himself now, laying in a pile of sweat and sex just a short walk from his family’s store.

He wondered if it’d ever been like that for Takeda. He wondered where he’d gone, what kind of person had usually caught his eye. He wondered about his exes, too. Who could be charming enough to grab Takeda’s interest, when he didn’t have the benefit of being the only option in town?

“Say, were you and Nakano-san ever… together?” Keishin asked.

“Not really.” Takeda ran his hand through Keishin’s hair again. “We did hook up a few times, but we were just blowing off steam.”

“Mn.” Keishin felt doubt start to pour back into him, cold water creeping at the edges of this bubble of sex and safety. “Is that… what this is?”

Takeda shifted a little, a short intake of breath as his hand stilled. “Oh. Um. I suppose that depends on what you want.”

I’ll take whatever I can get.

It wasn’t a fair answer, and he knew it. He searched for the right words, but found his tongue heavy and useless in his mouth. He wanted… everything.

“To be honest,” Takeda continued, “I had hoped that this might become something more than that.”

Keishin leapt at the chance. “I… could see this becomin’ more.”

Takeda started to run his fingers through Keishin’s hair again, and the sense of warmth and safety returned to the room.  “Well, there’s no need to rush. We can enjoy ourselves and take things as they come.”

“Mmmhm,” Keishin agreed, then sat up a little and smirked up at him. “Speaking of, you wanna come again?”

Takeda’s eyes widened, then he laughed. “Maybe in the morning. What’s your alarm set to?”

“Three thirty.”

Takeda threw his head back on the pillow. “Ah. Okay, maybe tomorrow night.”

Keishin grinned. “It’s a date.”

--

The bell on the shop door rang as Takinoue waltzed inside.

“Guess who went on a date last night!”

Keishin yelped and dropped the box of produce he was carrying on his foot.

“I’ll give you three guesses and a hint: it’s me!” Takinoue sang, his chest puffed out in pride.

Keishin slid his foot out from under the box, hissing at the pain. “That’s…that’s great, man.” He moved his toes a little. Nothing seemed broken, but it hurt like a bitch.

“Yeah, remember those taiko drummers at the Tanabata festival? I scored a number, and yesterday we went out for udon, and I think it went really well!” Takinoue paused in his bragging to check on Keishin. “Y’alright, man?”

“Yeah,” Keishin stood up, a hand on his lower back as he straightened. He felt like an old man, but the night sleeping in an unfamiliar position had taken its toll. “Who’s the lucky lady?”

“Tanaka Saeko. She took her kid brother to the Tokyo training camp, right? You probably met her.”

Keishin winced when he imagined the trouble those two could get up to. “Yeah, she saved us from complete humiliation by driving Hinata and Kageyama over. Her brother passed his exams though, so he was on the bus with sensei and me.”

“Yeah yeah, that’s right.” Takinoue nodded. “How’d the camp go, anyway?”

Keishin’s mind leapt to Takeda, and he hid the flush on his face by turning away to start unpacking produce. “Good.”

“Yeah? Did’ya teach that bastard Naoi what’s what?”

“Hardly. We lost almost every set!” Keishin sighed.

“Wow. That bad, huh?”

“Yeah, but we learned a lot. I think the team has a lot of growing t’do, and that’s painful. But we’ll get there.”

“It’s the real match that counts, right?”

“Yeah.” Keishin’s nose crinkled at the thought of Nekomata and Naoi’s bragging. “We’ll get our revenge.”

Takinoue slapped him on the back. “That’s the spirit! We’ll work hard and get it done.”

--

The high school team did work hard. When Keishin arrived at the gym, everyone had already been practicing for at least half an hour, drenched in sweat from the summer air. Keishin stepped in and directed their focus, guiding their energy to productive practice rather than the self-destructive determination the kids relied on when left to their own devices.

Takeda helped as much as he could, but had to leave early for a meeting about curriculum plans and development with the other teachers and his bosses.

“I’ll text you when I’m done?” he said, the last note rising into a question.

“Yeah,” Keishin nodded, doing his best to keep his eyes on the kids. “That’d be good.”

After practice wrapped up, Keishin found himself alone and with time to kill. He hadn’t heard from Takeda yet and he didn’t want to go home and run into the tail-end of dinner with his grandad. He sent a text to Shimada.

been a while. anything going on?

His phone buzzed with a reply.

I just got off work. We’re at the bar and Takinoue-kun is a JERK ( Д ≦)

Keishin snorted.

I’ll be right there.

Keishin arrived at the bar to find Shimada and Takinoue sitting with some of the other guys from the neighborhood team. He settled into his seat and ordered a beer.

“I still can’t believe you got a date from all that and I didn’t!” Shimada pouted.

“Gotta spend less time talking with your uncle and more time with the girls if that’s what you want,” Takinoue teased.

“I did talk to the girls!” Shimada stuck out his tongue at Takinoue, then sat up and attempted to regain some of his dignity. “They were all too wild for me anyway,” he said. “I prefer more refined women.”

“Yeah see, this is why you can’t get a date,” Takinoue said. “You’re so immature.”

“Your face is immature.”

Tattsuan laughed and brought the conversation back to focus, “So how did the date go?”

Takinoue snapped his attention away from Shimada. “It was really fun! She’s so beautiful, obviously, but pretty easy to talk to and she knows a lot of good stories.”

“Sounds like y’had a good time,” Keishin said. He hadn’t seen him so happy in a while.

“Yeah, but it’s not just that,” Takinoue waved it off, “at the end of the night, she started talking about drumming, and her brother, and y’know… she really cares.” He sighed happily into his beer. “I think this might be it.”

“No, no,” Shimada cut in, “you say that about every other girl you date and you’ve eaten noodles once you can’t—”

“Let the man talk,” Uchizawa interrupted, his arms crossed. “You’re all at an age that kinda thing isn’t unheard of anymore.”

Or he’s devolved into high school level dramatics,” Shimada waved him off then turned to Takinoue. “I can’t believe you call me immature.”

“Meanie,” Takinoue stuck his tongue out. “You’d understand if you met her properly.”

“Keishin-kun met her, right?” Mori spoke up, “What did you think?”

Everyone looked at Keishin.

“She…seemed alright.”

There was a beat of silence, followed by an eruption of laughter.

“Holy shit dude!” Takinoue clapped him on the back. “From you that’s a glowing letter of recommendation!”

“That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard you say about a girl,” Shimada said between laughs. He cleared his throat and hit Takinoue on the shoulder, “Oh man, remember what he said in high school, after that date with that girl from the basketball team?” Shimada shifted his hair back in a crude imitation of Keishin’s hairstyle and dropped his voice a notch. “I ain’t got an opinion about ’er either way.”

“Oh man, I almost forgot about that!” Takinoue wiped tears from his eyes. “Holy shit, I better marry this girl.”

Keishin glared at them, then took a gulp of beer.

“Well if you are serious about this,” Uchizawa said, “It’s important to treat her right from the start. Y’gotta make it clear that you’re taking things seriously. Pay for everything if you can, be romantic and bring her little gifts and things like that. The first few dates can really set the tone for a whole relationship, so don’t be a slouch.”

Takinoue nodded attentively.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about stuff like that,” Tattsuan cut in, “just be genuine and fun and supportive. You don’t wanna scare her off by coming on too strong at first.”

Takinoue gulped.

“Depends on the lady, maybe,” Uchizawa said. “Oh, but definitely be sure to write down the date, place, and any details of all your ‘firsts’,” he continued.  “Women really love it when you remember stuff like that for anniversaries.”

“Pffft, my wife and I both can’t remember our first date at all,” Tattsuan waved his hand dismissively.

“Maybe that’s because you were both too drunk at the time?” Uchizawa countered.

“Is this conversation really happening?” Mori asked. “Is this seriously what we’re talking about right now? Hypothetical anniversaries?”

“Hey, it’s hard out here!” Takinoue said, “It was easy to fool around in high school, and college was okay for finding girls, but out here… there’s nothin’ out here, man. Most of the eligible women out here have either moved away, gotten hitched already, or they’re my exes or my friend’s exes and that’s just too much to deal with.” He shook his head. “You can’t blame me for getting excited, y’know?”

“There’s always the internet. Or a matchmaker, if you wanna go that route,” Uchizawa said.

“No man,” Takinoue snorted, “Where’s the romance in that!”

Keishin’s phone buzzed, and he was grateful for the distraction. He pulled his phone out. It was a text message from Takeda.

I just got home, and my next-door neighbor Hayami-san brought me a gift… a pair of headphones. She asked me to use them if I was going to stay up late watching “action” movies again….

Keishin nearly dropped his phone. The conversation carried on around him as he typed out a response.

you're shitting me

Takeda’s next message came in fast.

I apologized profusely. Hayami-san is partially deaf, so I’m not sure if she really thought it was an action film or if she was just being polite and thought I was blasting a porn video…. (− _− ;)

Keishin tensed, panic rising up to his throat. He’d left well before dawn, and he was pretty sure nobody had seen him go. He swallowed, then sent a reply with his thoughts on the matter:

fuck

He set his phone face-down on the table and fumbled to light a cigarette.

Takinoue glanced over at him, “Everything alright man?”

“I’m fine. Just… drama with the team.”

Takinoue laughed. “They all feel pretty strongly about things, huh? Remember all the trouble we used to get up to? Thinking back on it, I almost feel sorry for your old man while he was coaching.”

Keishin did not want to think about his asshole teenager days right now. Or his grandad.

His phone buzzed with a new message.

Are you alright? I’m really sorry!! I’m such a problem. I’m sure she thought it was a video. I can be quiet in the future, I promise. I’m so sorry!! Please tell me you’re alright.

Keishin sighed and stood up. “I gotta deal with this,” he mumbled to the group as he walked away from the table.

Keishin stepped outside, then into the little alley between the bar and the building next door. The alley smelled like piss. Keishin wrinkled his nose, then took a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke swirl around his head before he called Takeda.

Takeda picked up almost immediately. “I’m sorry!!”

“Calm down,” Keishin said, as much to himself as to Takeda.

He heard shaky sigh on the other side of the line. “Okay, sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Keishin said, “You said yourself that it wasn’t a big deal, right?”

“I don’t think so,” Takeda replied, “but we’ll need to be careful in the future. I will. I’ll need to do better. I’m so sorry, Ukai-kun.”

“No, it’s not a sorry. And don’t go thinkin’ you’re alone in this.” Keishin paused to take a drag off his cigarette. He tried to relax the tension in his shoulders. “I got pretty worked up too. We’ll do better.” He dropped his voice lower, “But hey, we’ve solved this problem before, haven’t we?”

“Ah, that’s true…” Takeda said, the panicked edge fading from his voice. “It’s just… a bit of a scare, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” Keishin agreed. “You’re worried about your job, right?”

“Yes. But also…” Takeda’s voice softened, “I don’t want this to hurt you.”

“Sensei,” Keishin said, “You’re not… this is a good thing for me, ok?”

“Alright. I just want you to know that I never want to ask more from you than you can give.”

“It’s fine.” A shadow passed over Keishin in the alley as some people walked by. “Look, do you wanna come out and meet me here? A couple a’ the guys from the neighborhood team are at the bar. It might be good t’ get out.”

“Yes,” Takeda said, his voice perking up a little. “Yes, that sounds good. I’ll be there soon.”

Keishin walked back inside and sat back down at the low table with his friends. The conversation had thankfully moved on from Takinoue’s love life and to their upcoming practice matches. Takeda arrived a short time later, and took the empty seat next to Tattsuan.

“Hey sensei, we were just discussing our upcoming games,” Tattsuan said. “You gonna come watch again? It was nice to have an extra person in the stands.”

“Of course!” Takeda answered immediately. It was a relief to hear him so certain. Keishin had been afraid to ask him to come.

“That’s good, you should get in to see us while tickets are cheap!” Mori said.

“You mean free,” Uchizawa cut in.

“Tat-san is planning to push us out of the amateur leagues,” Shimada explained. He grinned. “I can’t wait to watch those tough-guy players in the semis fumble for my jump-float serves.”

“One step at a time,” Tattsuan said.

Takeda gave Keishin a questioning look.

“Yeah,” Keishin said, “we’ve been tryin’ t’ work our way out to the semi-pro leagues for a while. This year is our first real push.”

“Will it mean we get new uniforms?” Mori asked.

“No,” Shimada said, “and why does everyone hate fun colors!”

Takinoue patted him on the back, “You’re a fashion god among swine, friend. We just can’t appreciate your brilliance.”

Everyone laughed, and Shimada stuck his tongue out at him again.

“There are pro tournaments for municipal athletes?” Takeda asked.

“Nothin’ big unless you get recruited by a major league team,” Keishin said, “and even then, they usually pull from high school and college athletes, not old guys like us.”

“Speak for yourself!” Mori said.

“Shush and finish your beer, baby junior.” Shimada pushed Mori’s glass towards him.

Keishin continued, “But there are tournaments that offer cash prizes, assuming you qualify. The qualifiers are in the fall, so we’re tryin’ t’ strategize now.”

“Oh, well I’m happy to help in any way that I can,” Takeda said. He was smiling, and Keishin felt a familiar warmth in his chest at the sight.

The evening stretched on, the guys heading home one by one until it was just Takinoue, Shimada, Takeda, and Keishin left at the bar. Takeda was sitting next to him now, and Takinoue and Shimada were drunkenly bickering about some pop idol or another. Keishin brushed Takeda’s knee with his own, and Takeda pressed back. He smiled at him, and fully relaxed into the safety of his friends and the warm thrum of the beer.

Later, as the bar was getting ready to close, they paid their tabs and he walked Takeda home. Keishin followed him inside, and told himself it was just for a quick goodbye when he kissed Takeda in the little entryway of his apartment. But when Takeda kissed him back, and hooked his fingers in the belt loops of Keishin’s jeans to pull him closer, all thoughts of leaving early melted away.

--

Keishin adjusted his jeans as he stepped out into the waiting room of the clinic. The exam wasn’t the worst experience he’d ever gone through, but having his blood drawn and a q-tip shoved up his dick still wasn’t an experience he could describe as fun. He’d get his test results in a week or two. With luck, everything’d be negative and the worst of it was over.

Takeda was waiting for him, and he stood up as Keishin made for the door. They left together, a fact that was surely obvious to the nurses and reception staff. Nobody seemed to care, but Keishin’s stomach churned at the feeling of exposure.

He lit a cigarette as soon as they were outside.

Takeda looked him over, his brow furrowed in concern or confusion. “Did everything go alright, Ukai-kun?”

“Yeah,” Keishin puffed at the cigarette, “I just don’t like bein’ prodded like that.” He turned his head away from Takeda and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “At least it’s done now.”

“We’ll get our results in a few weeks,” Takeda said. He shifted a little, in that tentative way Keishin recognized meant he was offering an idea he wasn’t sure about. “In the meantime, I was thinking we could do something fun while we’re here.”

“Might as well, I took the whole afternoon off.” It’d been an hour train ride there, and they hadn’t been sure how long the wait would be at the little queer-friendly clinic Takeda had found in Sendai.

“Well, I haven’t seen much of Sendai yet since I’ve been pretty busy with moving and then with my job. I did find some bars and a queer independent bookstore nearby. Would you like to go see some of those with me? That way it’ll be something fun and new for both of us.” Takeda looked up at him, his eyes curious and hopeful and worse than a damn puppy.

“We… could,” Keishin admitted, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. “But ah, there’s other things t’do too. There’s the castle, or the museum folklore and history...” He’d put some thought into this, what Takeda might enjoy doing here. “I don’t mind seeing that stuff again if it’s with you, sensei.”

Takeda looked him over, in that gentle but scrutinizing way of his that told Keishin he wasn’t being as subtle as he thought. Still, Takeda was gracious. “The folklore museum,” he said, “and would it be possible to visit Daikanmitsuji Temple?”

“Yeah, of course. Ah, this way t’ the station…” Keishin started walking, eager to get away from the clinic. Takeda kept pace alongside him.

Guilt settled into Keishin’s stomach. He probably should’ve just gone with Takeda’s ideas and let him lead. After all, Takeda was brilliant and would probably be bored with the touristy sight-seeing he had planned. But Keishin could feel all his old fears boiling inside of him, spilling up around the lid he’d shoved them under years ago.

It was just… too close to home.

The train ride to the Museum of History and Folklore was packed with families and screaming toddlers. Keishin and Takeda wound up pressed close together, not that it counted much when everyone was crowded in like sardines, faces shoved into the armpits of strangers. Keishin wrinkled his nose and wished for a cigarette. And maybe some earplugs.

There was no break from the crowds inside the museum. By chance, their visit coincided with some elementary school group (or maybe middle school, given the lack of hats- kids all looked so young these days) and the building was packed with children. The kids were behaving well, honestly, but his already frayed nerves found the crowds and sound of so many voices overwhelming.

Thankfully, the school group moved ahead of them while he and Takeda lingered over each display. They’d been there for twenty minutes and had only made it to the second room of the museum. Takeda was reading every plaque at each exhibit, then regarding the objects carefully. Keishin shifted and looked around, restless but unwilling to hurry him or risk catching up to the school group.

The exhibits in this room were about old farm tools and equipment. Keishin recognized a lot of it from the antiques his grandad kept in his house, or from the tool shed where they were sometimes still used. The arc of a sickle caught his eye in particular for some reason, the curve of it familiar but distinct from the ones he knew, a few degrees of change made in a hundred years.

“This area was bombed pretty heavily in World War II,” Takeda said. He had moved next to Keishin, their shoulders just short of touching. “I’m glad to see a place like this, holding onto the threads of history that weren’t destroyed during that time.”

Keishin smiled at him. “Glad you’re not bored, sensei.”

“Of course not,” Takeda said, and he leaned in a little so their shoulders touched.

Keishin flinched away. He regretted it immediately, the flicker of concern on Takeda’s face and the tightness in his own throat. Takeda coughed and stepped away to look at the next exhibit.

Keishin was being stupid, and he knew it. Nobody was looking at them. Even if they were, the chances of it being someone who could recognize either of them were minuscule.

Still, he felt watched and scrutinized, as if the old posters and farm antiques themselves could see him.

They moved on to other parts of the museum, the sound of the school group echoing just ahead. As they looked over old military equipment and children’s toys, Keishin’s mind churned out endless scenarios of discovery or accidental hurt. He thought back to Uchizawa’s words and wondered what kind of tone this outing—no, this date—was setting for their relationship.

Probably a shitty one.

His jumpiness aside, there was a part of him that wanted to touch Takeda, to hold his hand or kiss his cheek, to be that gross PDA couple and then pummel anyone who took an issue with it into the ground. Keishin wondered about that side of himself sometimes, who he would be if he had only himself to worry about.

Still, that wasn’t him. Takeda needed discretion, and Keishin didn’t need any more bullshit to deal with at home.

He thought instead about the structure of the date, such as it was. The locations Keishin had suggested were hardly romantic, and he’d completely steamrolled over Takeda’s suggestions for how to spend the day, which in hindsight was a real dick move.

On top of that, Takeda kept paying for things when he wasn’t looking, even when Keishin already had his wallet out and ready to go. Which shouldn’t bother him either, probably, but it did. Guilt bubbled up to his shoulders and throat, and he bit his lip to distract from the sensation.

“You’re worried about being seen together, right?” Takeda asked, his voice soft and low.

Bullseye. They were in a quieter corner of the museum, surrounded by sets of post-war propaganda posters.

“Sorry,” was all Keishin could manage.

“No, it’s important to me that you feel safe, Ukai-kun,” Takeda said. “When we’re out here, we’re just friends.”

The words stung.

Still, there was a truth to them that Keishin could work with.

“Yeah, okay,” he sighed. “Prob’ly for the best, huh?”

“For now,” Takeda said.

For now, however long that would turn out to be, they walked through the rest of the museum, quietly taking in the history and context of the city.

When they were done, they got an another train to head to Daikanmitsuji Temple. The ride was quieter this time, and Keishin found himself in a seat next to Takeda. Keishin pointed out this and that about the city as they passed by parks and shopping centers he recognized.

Daikanmitsuji Temple was a massive statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy and compassion. It stood in contrast to everything around it, like the divine being herself had stepped out from the heavens and settled in among telephone wires and high-rise apartments. It was a hundred meters of flowing white stone, apparently one of the largest statues in the world. Keishin knew you could go inside it, though he’d never been.

The entrance at the foot of the statue was shaped like a dragon’s mouth. They stepped inside, the relative darkness swallowing them both before Keishin’s eyes adjusted.

There was an ¥1,000 entry fee for the two of them. Takeda moved to pay it, but Keishin stopped him.

“Take it easy on my pride, willya?” he said as he pulled out his wallet.

“Ah, sorry,” Takeda put his money away. “Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He could pay for this. It’s not like he had rent to worry about, not like Takeda did.

They got on an elevator that would take them to the top of the statue. It was oddly quiet, the only other people around were a few foreign tourists and an old woman there to pay her respects.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a long ramp that spiraled down to the ground floor. In the center were countless Buddhist statues set in circles that formed the spine of the temple.

The view from the overlook at the elevator doors was a little dizzying as he realized how high up they were. There were windows to see the skyline outside too, bright points of light showing blue sky and the buildings and roads of the city. Still, it was beautiful in its way. Keishin found himself calmer, looking outwards and inwards as they followed the ramp down.

As they walked, Takeda told him stories of Kannon. First, there was the legend of when she’d been born on earth as a princess. When told to marry a wealthy man she had asked ‘Will this marriage ease the suffering people endure as they age? Will it ease the suffering people endure when they fall ill? Will it ease the suffering caused by death?’ When her father could not answer, she refused to marry and was punished. She eventually escaped to a nunnery, then was found and executed, but the execution failed and she ascended to become a divine being. Later, when her father fell ill and needed ‘the eyes and hands of someone who did not know anger’ to be cured, she’d given her eyes and hands to him as a gift of compassion and forgiveness.

Keishin looked at the statues. He wondered who could really be empty of anger after enduring so much.

Then there was the story of Kannon who, after trying so hard to ease the suffering of all the creatures in the world, wound up splitting herself into pieces from the strain. In the end, another divine being gifted her with a thousand arms and a thousand hands, so that she could help all the beings of the world.

There was something in his voice that told Keishin Takeda had thought a lot of these stories, as usual.

“Sensei, are you very religious?” he asked.

“Not really, no.” Takeda looked back to the statue in front of him. “To be honest, it’s hard for me to take such things literally. But, religions are often about stories, and stories have power to change people, to right wrongs or to guide people’s idea of what is acceptable and what isn’t. I can’t help but find it fascinating.”

They were stopped in front of a particularly androgynous statue. Keishin didn’t recognize the figure.

Takeda continued, “Sometimes Kannon is depicted as male instead of female, and sometimes as androgynous. The idea is that her essence, the ideals of compassionate love and mercy, transcend gender and can be embodied by all beings. I like that best of all about her history.”

Keishin looked at Takeda, this man who could see things so complexly, who could spend the afternoon dealing with Keishin’s idiocy and still find something beautiful like that to say.

He could see a little mark on Takeda’s arm from the other day, where he’d bitten it in an attempt to keep himself quiet when Keishin had fucked him for the second time. There were other things too, like the little callouses on his right hand from grading student assignments, or the faint circles under his eyes from too little sleep, hidden behind his glasses. He wanted Takeda to know that he saw him, that he appreciated all these little things about what he said and did.

They were hidden from the overlook in this bend of the temple, and had long since outpaced the old woman and been left behind by the foreign tourists. He reached out and set his hand on Takeda’s back between his shoulders, then gently slid down his spine to rest just above his belt, a soft point of contact and connection.

Takeda looked up at him, surprised at the touch.

“Thanks sensei, for today.”

Takeda started and his cheeks turned pink. “What? But I haven’t…” He glanced to the floor then up again, his lips curled into a wry smile. “If you really want to have something to thank me for, you should come home with me tonight.”

Keishin smiled broadly as he looked away, his cheeks warm. They stepped apart, as if on a cue, and then continued their spiral down the walkway, under the watchful eyes of a hundred bodhisattvas.

The afternoon sun was blinding when they stepped outside. Still, the feeling of calm from the temple stayed with Keishin, even in the bustle of the crowds and the train ride out of the city.

They had one more stop on the way home: a sporting goods store in the suburbs. Keishin’s old kneepads were finally starting to wear though, and he’d need an upgrade if Tattsuan was serious about amping up the neighborhood team. Takeda was excited when he realized they had books and magazines to browse through.

Keishin grabbed the kneepads (black, breathable, size large) and headed over to see what Takeda was looking at. There were books on strategy, inspirational stories of success, and biographies of famous athletes. The magazine section was the usual mix of workout tips and questionable relationship advice. Keishin stopped when he saw the newest issue of Pumping Up Magazine.

“Didn’t realize there was a new one out already,” he mumbled as he picked it up. Either his copy hadn’t arrived yet or he’d been less on top of sorting through his mail than he’d thought.

“Oh, is that a good one?” Takeda peered over at it.

Keishin startled, having forgotten where he was and who he was with. “Ah, it’s… okay.”

“Oh, they have an interview with someone on the national volleyball team!” Takeda pointed to headline on the cover that read ‘Volleyball’s cocky new blocker to watch this season’. “I bet there’s some really insightful perspectives.”

“Ah, maybe, but this magazine, they’re really more for…” Pumping Up Magazine’s ‘interviews’ were more like semi-nude photoshoots with a few personality-focused questions for the athletes. “Recipes,” he said, “they’ve got good recipes in there if you’re looking to bulk up, but that’s all really.”

“Well then, I may need a copy,” Takeda took one off the shelf. “I can’t let you cook all the time.”

“I like cookin’,” Keishin said, but didn’t press further. It seemed a little early to be sharing not-quite-dirty magazines with each other, but Takeda’d probably enjoy the surprise.

On the train ride home, Takeda tapped him on the knee.

“Ukai-kun, would you be willing to look over some game footage with me? I noticed some new moves in the inter-high tournament in Tokyo that I wanted to ask you about.”

“Sure,” Keishin was leaned back, relaxed at the end of the day. “You said you had somethin’ special to show me, after all.” He grinned at the entendre, and Takeda smiled back.

He followed Takeda home, their shopping bags in tow as a cool breeze washed away the heat of the afternoon.

Keishin made them gyudon, and they ate, then kissed, and then hands began to wander as the cool of the evening turned to the heat of night.

Takeda ran a line of open-kisses down his throat, his hands warm against Keishin’s hips. When he hit just the right spot, Keishin made a little noise, leaning into the contact. Takeda pulled away then, half-undressed and breathless, and pulled something out of the closet to hold out to Keishin.

“Have you ever used something like this?”

The object was dark blue, smooth and slightly curved. It was a little wider then a finger, with swirling hard plastic that formed what must be a handle on one end. Keishin could guess what it was for.

“No,” he said, “but I’ve been finger-fucked before.”

Takeda’s eyes widened, a split-second of surprise that made Keishin wonder if he’d misunderstood the question. Then Takeda smiled, a glint of excitement in his eyes. “Did you like it?” he asked.

“Yeah.” He had.

“Then I think you might really enjoy this, if you’d like to try.”

“Yeah,” Keishin said, then pulled Takeda into another kiss.

Takeda finished undressing him, alternating between rushed excitement and a slow, steady pace that was maddening. Keishin shifted and kicked his boxers off while Takeda’s mouth worked its way down past his navel, urging the process along.

Takeda spread Keishin’s legs apart and kissed his inner thigh. He looked up at Keishin, his lips only a few centimeters from his cock. “Is this alright?” Keishin could feel his breath brush across the tip of him.

Yes. Goddamnit, yes.

“D’ya want ah, a condom?” Keishin breathed, trying to focus.

“I’m comfortable with this level of risk,” Takeda replied. “But I’m happy to use one if you’d feel safer that way.”

“This is fine,” he said, “I want to—nnnh” he cut himself off as Takeda’s lips met his cock, biting back a moan so Takeda’s neighbors wouldn’t hear.

Takeda was good at this. His tongue flicked expertly across the head of Keishin’s cock, dipping down to play at the sensitive spot at the underside of his shaft, then back around again while his hand stroked below his mouth. It was consistent enough to not be teasing, but with enough surprises to keep Keishin on edge. He whimpered and thrust his fingers into Takeda’s hair, holding him in place.

Takeda pushed back against his hand until his cock popped free of his mouth. “Is this too much, Ukai-kun?”

“Hardly,” he said. He tugged on Takeda’s hair to guide his mouth back down, but found him resistant.

“Um,” Takeda said, “It’s okay to have your hands in my hair, but please don’t push. I can only do this if I’m the one controlling the depth.”

Keishin relaxed his grip. “Yeah, sorry,” he said. “You just… do your thing.”

Takeda did, and by the second or third stroke of his tongue Keishin had relaxed his head back on the pillow, his eyes closed in surrender to Takeda’s expertise. Takeda’s hand worked downwards, massaging his balls before moving down towards his ass.

“Fuck,” Keishin whispered, incoherent and barely audible, “sensei, you’re so good at this, I can’t, ah, yeah, like that.”

Takeda’s thumb was working in steady, firm circles around his ass. Keishin relaxed, easing into the sensation of being touched there. Takeda was taking his time with him, pressing and pushing just a little, then backing off so he had time to adapt. Soon Keishin could feel the tip of his thumb slipping just inside of him, then back out.

“You c’n…” Keishin breathed, “the thing…”

Takeda sat up, pulling away just long enough to dab lube onto the toy before he bent back down. He took Keishin into this mouth again, but only the tip so he could look up into Keishin’s face and read his reactions better.

The toy was cold, but not uncomfortably so. It slid into him, slowly at first before gliding into place. It was unlike anything Keishin had experienced before, perfectly smooth and unyieldingly hard.

“Oh, fuck,” Keishin shifted his hips. It was hitting just the right spot, probably by design, and Keishin wanted to personally thank whoever had engineered this thing. He wanted to thank Takeda too, who was humming happily while he continued to work Keishin’s cock in his mouth, but the words wouldn’t come.

He panted, rocking his hips so the toy would just keep hitting that one spot, over and over again. Takeda picked up the pace on his cock, and soon Keishin was bucking his hips up, riding the toy and aching to feel more of his mouth.

Takeda pulled his head up, Keishin’s cock sliding out of his mouth, “Ukai-kun, please don’t do that.” His voice was wavering a little.

“Sorry,” Keishin reached down to cup his cheek. Takeda’s brow was furrowed, a small wrinkle showing on his forehead. “D’you wanna do somethin’ else for a bit?”

“No,” Takeda met his eyes, “just keep your hips still.” He emphasized the word by pressing a firm hand onto Keishin’s hipbone.

“Yeah, alright,” Keishin leaned back until his head was resting against the pillow again. “I’ll be good.”

Takeda smiled and went back to work. Keishin immediately wanted to move his hips again. He bit his lip, working to keep himself quiet and still under Takeda’s tongue at the perfect curve of the toy as Takeda moved it in soft, gentle rhythms.

His breathing grew rough, and he struggled to find coherent words. “Fuck me,” he managed to choke out, “faster.”

Takeda obeyed immediately, and the sensations were overwhelming and perfect and exactly what Keishin needed. He pressed his head back into the pillow, pinned down by Takeda’s words and surrendering himself to each brush of tongue and shift of the toy. One of Takeda’s hands reached up to rest by his navel, a physical reminder of his promise to be still. Keishin felt his mind go empty: not the bright rush of orgasm, but a longer, subdued sensation like fog or falling, but safer, safe under Takeda’s touch.

Then the feeling changed, growing hot and white, and he was making a sound somewhere between a groan and a whine. Takeda’s fingers tensed, nails digging into his skin then dragging down, and then he was coming, unable to stop himself or speak out to warn him. Takeda must have realized what was happening, shifting his mouth away as Keishin spent himself in a rush. He opened his eyes and watched as he finished, spilling into Takeda’s hand and onto his own belly, covering the faint red marks Takeda had left there.

“Fuck,” he threw his head back into the pillow. “Sensei.”

Takeda kissed the inside of his thigh, then sat up and stretched his neck. “Well, hopefully that’s something worth thanking me for.”

Keishin smiled crookedly at him, his mind still foggy and breath ragged. He tilted his head and reached down to brush Takeda’s hand with his own. “How’d you like me to thank you?” he asked.

Takeda smiled at him, soft and surprisingly vulnerable. “Spoon me?” he asked.

Keishin nodded. He shuddered as Takeda slid the toy out of him and set it aside, then made a half-hearted attempt to wipe himself off while Takeda slipped out of his boxers, revealing his cock which was so hard it must ache. He kicked his boxers aside and settled in next to Keishin.

Keishin put at arm around him and snuggled in closer, until their bodies were flush. Takeda set one hand on Keishin’s arm while the other slid down to stroke himself.

“What a hand with that?’ Keishin snickered and began to follow his touch downwards.

“No, just hold me,” Takeda said. “Please.”

Keishin’s brow furrowed, but he moved his arm up and wrapped it around Takeda, holding him close while he jerked himself off. Takeda groaned, then set his free hand over his mouth to muffle the sound. Keishin held him tighter and let his fingers brush against his nipples while Takeda pressed back into him, his body tensing as he stroked.

It wasn’t long before Takeda shuddered and was done, spending himself in the sheets. They lay still for a moment, until Takeda’s breathing began to even out again.

“Thanks, sensei,” Keishin said softly, just on the edge of hearing.

Takeda sighed happily and relaxed back into him. Keishin felt a wave of emotion swell in his chest, affection and longing and, lurking underneath all of that, a quiet fear.

He didn’t know how to handle this, how to date or what they needed to be safe or what any of this meant really.

But he did know that he wanted this. He wanted to feel the little tickle of Takeda’s breath on his arm, and his heartbeat, and the press of their skin together, hot and sticky from sex and sweat.

Keishin said nothing, just planted a kiss on the curve of Takeda’s neck. Takeda squeezed his hand in response and Keishin smiled, lips still pressed to his skin.

--

Keishin padded quietly through the hallway of his parents’ house. His parents had just wrapped up their nightly tv marathon when he’d arrived, and he’d given them both a quick greeting before excusing himself to bed. The way the bedroom door shifted as he opened it was comfortably familiar, and so were the magazines and dvds scattered around the floor. He lit a cigarette and puffed at it while he laid out his futon.

His bed felt comfortable but cold, and he wished he had stayed with Takeda a little longer before going home. Still, he needed to spend at least one night at home that week before his ma started to ask questions. Hell, maybe it was already too late for that.

He let out a long exhale of smoke and stared at the ceiling.

He felt a pressure in his chest: an expansive, rising feeling, like the whole of a blue summer sky was filling his ribs. Maybe this was what happiness was supposed to feel like.

He thought of the day in Sendai, of both wanting and being afraid of being seen together, of his doubt and whether he should’ve insisted on paying for more things and what this new thing between them even was. Guilt pooled in his stomach, and he sat up and flicked the lamp on before the feeling could overtake him.

He snuffed the cigarette out and adjusted the light until it was a soft glow. Then he pulled off his t-shirt and laid back on his bed, his hands lightly touching his chest and his cock through his boxers. He closed his eyes and thought of the way Takeda liked to touch him, the places his fingers tended to linger, the heat of his mouth across his skin.

He grabbed his phone and turned the camera on. He adjusted himself, shifting the way his boxers rested on his hips and angling the light until it played across his chest invitingly. He squinted at the camera, then reached down and dragged his nails up his belly, just to the left of his navel, mimicking the slight red marks Takeda had left there just hours before.

The camera clicked a few times. He picked out his favorite shots, the ones where he looked freshly fucked or about to be. He posted them on YHard, then refreshed the page until a few comments appeared. One was a picture of a heart on fire, the other was a surprisingly vivid description of how the commenter thought he’d gotten those marks. He laughed a little.

His phone buzzed with a message from Nakano, who must get notifications for whenever Keishin posted something. He sighed, then looked at the message.

Bananakano: how are things with my two favorite new lovebirds? ˚✧₊(‐^▽^‐)⁺˳✧༚
Bananakano: you’re not fucking it up right? ˚✧₊(‐ ಠ▽ಠ‐)⁺˳✧༚

SetAndReady: its… no
SetAndReady:  things r good
SetAndReady: Im just trying to figure out whats going on with us, I guess
SetAndReady: whether I should take it that seriously or not

Bananakano: ok, well…
Bananakano: if you hurt take-chan ill never forgive you, just FYI
Bananakano: but if you’re asking for my advice
Bananakano: then i need you to know that the last time i gave a friend relationship advice he wound up biting his boyfriend’s dick

SetAndReady: ?!?!?!

Bananakano: YES
Bananakano: I REPEAT
Bananakano: HE BIT HIS BOYFRIEND’S DICK

SetAndReady: why the hell did you tell someone to bite a dick?!?

Bananakano: I DIDN’T   (°Д°)
Bananakano: IT WAS A MISUNDERSTANDING
Bananakano: MY POINT IS THAT I AM BAD AT ADVICE OKAY

SetAndReady: how did you… what the fuck did you say???

Bananakano: I was trying to explain how everyone likes different things
Bananakano: and it’s like how when ur blowing a guy
Bananakano: sometimes a little tooth is fine and for other people it’s a big hell no and some people practically want bite marks down there

SetAndReady: who the hell wants bite marks down there?!

Bananakano: CLEARLY you don’t hang out with the kinky crowd
Bananakano: I’ll have to find some educational gifs on CBT for you

Keishin didn’t know what CBT was and was quickly deciding that he didn’t want to.

SetAndReady: im never opening an image attachment from you again

Bananakano: fair
Bananakano: ANYWAY
Bananakano: everything ur worried about is stuff u need to be asking take-chan about
Bananakano: because I don’t know
Bananakano: and nobody knows
Bananakano: except you two
Bananakano: besides, take-chan is my friend and I cant rly be an unbiased party here
Bananakano: u need more gay friends
Bananakano: but mostly just talk to take-chan ok?

SetAndReady: im not asking for anything specific
SetAndReady: I just… idk how to actually date, ok?
SetAndReady: i dont wanna fuck it up

Bananakano: you hold hands and fuck or don’t fuck and hang out together and maybe say gross romantic shit to each other sometimes
Bananakano: what else is there to it?

SetAndReady: ok I mean…

Keishin wracked his brain for a specific example.

SetAndReady: who gives who chocolates on valentines day? both of us? or do we just both wait until white day?

Bananakano: ಠ_ಠ
Bananakano: IT’S JULY
Bananakano: ur cute but
Bananakano: r u seriously worried about this rn?

SetAndReady: …no

Keishin fidgeted with a cigarette, trying to place what his worry was. Nakano’s next message came in before he could piece it together.

Bananakano: ok
Bananakano: look, i think i get it
Bananakano: its serious answer time, so listen up! ( ・`_・´)
Bananakano: one of the benefits of being queer is that you dont have to follow a script
Bananakano: straight people have everything laid out for them
Bananakano: in books and movies and tv commercials
Bananakano: constantly telling them what to do and expect and what every little thing means
Bananakano: we don’t get that
Bananakano: which u can tell urself sucks but honestly its one of the best things about being gay 4 me
Bananakano: u HAVE to talk to each other to figure out what your relationship looks like and what it means
Bananakano: pick what’s important to u both then build your relationship to be whatever you want
Bananakano: u cant be the nail that sticks out when all the nails around u r equally fucked up or missing
Bananakano: so do what u want
Bananakano: if u rly like chocolate, both of you can get chocolate
Bananakano: or screw v day entirely and buy chocolate whenever u feel like
Bananakano: or ignore it entirely
Bananakano: …got it?

SetAndReady: yeah ok
SetAndReady: …ur saying I should bite his dick, right?

Bananakano: Σ(・Д・)!?

SetAndReady: (ᐛ )

Bananakano: DON’T U DARE
Bananakano: …unless he asks rly nicely, I guess

SetAndReady: ha
SetAndReady: yeah ok
SetAndReady: I get it
SetAndReady: thanks

Bananakano: ur welcome
Bananakano:  goodnight, asshole ヾ(^∇^)

SetAndReady: yeah yeah, good night

--

“Good afternoon, Coach!” Tanaka waved at him as Keishin stepped into the gym. Keishin reflected that he really did look a lot like his older sister. Nervousness flicked across Tanaka’s brow. “We uh, we got a bit of a problem…”

“What’s goin’ on?” Keishin said. “Someone injured?”

Tanaka stepped aside, revealing Kageyama and Hinata. There were bandages on their faces and hands, and Keishin recognized the pattern of a fistfight.

He narrowed his eyes. “Are you kiddin’ me?”

“1… 2… SORRY COACH!” they both shouted and bowed.

“The hell do you think you’re doin’!” he shouted back. “Don’t fight at school!” Or anywhere, really, but Keishin wasn’t going to set his hopes too high on that one.

They both flinched and fell into silence. Keishin cursed under his breath, and hopefully none of the kids heard but fuck, he’d really thought they were doing better than this.

Yachi came over and gave him the full story. Apparently they’d tried to practice together, then gotten into a disagreement about how to handle the freak quick and things had just escalated from there. She skittered nervously, and Keishin realized his face was probably looking a little too harsh at her words.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He sighed, “This happens sometimes. Y’did the right thing getting’ an upperclassman in here t’deal with it.”

Yachi nodded, still tense. “I-I-I tried,” she said.

Yachi was a nervous kid, but Keishin thought that she’d handled the tense and potentially dangerous situation in a pretty smart way. “You did good, kid. I think we’ll be in good hands next year if y’stay as manager. Now go an’ help Shimizu-chan with the chairs.”

“Y-yes!” she said, her face beet red. She ran over to Shimizu, who set a hand on her shoulder and said something too quiet for Keishin to hear.

Keishin barked orders for the kids to work on digging drills. It was something almost everyone was bad at and required enough focus and physical exertion that it would hopefully distract Kageyama and Hinata from their undying hatred for each other, or whatever the hell was going on.

Takeda arrived half an hour after practice started, and this time Keishin saw him come into the gym.

“Sensei, how are ya?” he asked.

“I’m doing well, Ukai-kun,” he smiled innocently up at him, “though I think I should’ve asked you for magazine recommendations sooner. That interview was very insightful!”

“Ha!” Keishin grinned. “Glad y’liked it, sensei.”

Takeda looked out across the court. “How’s the team?”

Keishin sighed and told him what had happened with Hinata and Kageyama. “Don’t give ‘em more punishment than y’need too, alright?”

“It sounds like it’s already been dealt with,” Takeda said, his face serious. “And you said you had a plan to remedy the underlying issue?”

“Hopefully. If they’re smart, it won’t happen again.”

Takeda sighed, “Well, we’ll see.”

After practice wrapped up, Keishin pulled Hinata aside. He stood attentively to listen to Keishin, his movements wildly exaggerated and awkward even when he was trying to be still.

“Yes, Coach!” The little guy looked up at him, determination etched in his face.

“Tomorrow morning, meet me at the store,” he said, “I’ll take you t’ someone who can help you work on that quick of yours.”

Hinata’s face lit up like Keishin had just promised to take him to Disneyland. “Yessir, I won’t be late!!” He jumped in the air excitedly, sailing up past eye-level with Keishin.

Keishin sighed, realizing that Hinata’s version of ‘not being late’ meant he’d be there at least fifteen minutes early. “Eat before you get there!” he snapped, “Something with protein, but not too heavy.” He didn’t want to deal with Hinata puking again.

“Yessir!!” Hinata bowed, then skipped out the door, bubbling with excitement.

Keishin’s legs felt heavy at the thought of seeing his grandad tomorrow. Going to the old man for help was a coin toss as to whether he'd get laughed at, thrown to the ground, or lectured. At best, he was never going to let Keishin hear the end of it. But Hinata needed help and the team was worth it, damnit.

Takeda came up next to him in the empty gym, and set his hand lightly on his elbow. “Everything alright, Ukai-kun?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

Chapter Text

--

I have let myriad things disturb me—
a lust for books, for enlightenment
For love to overtake me.

Like particles of sand
They cloud the water
Before settling to the bottom.
How I desire to be a clear
vessel of water

But not enough.

-Mary Lou Kownacki

--

Keishin stared up at the ceiling of Takeda’s apartment. He wondered why the landlord had chosen such a stark, shockingly white shade of paint.

The scratch of Takeda’s pen was the only sound in the room.

Takeda had barely said a word since Keishin had shown up, uninvited, and asked if he could just stay here for a while, just a little while. Takeda hadn’t asked him questions, just let him lie there quietly while he worked at the low table next to him.

He had brought Keishin some tea, but the mug sat cold and untouched on the table.

Keishin squinted at the ceiling again. He realized then that it was a normal color; it just lacked the yellow nicotine stains of the shop and his family home.

He inhaled deeply, as if the scent of Takeda’s books and teas could replace his lingering desire for a cigarette. He concentrated on keeping the exhale steady.

Takeda apparently took that as his cue. He set his pen down on the table and, still quiet, moved to sit cross-legged next to him. He set a hand on Keishin’s forehead, and when Keishin leaned into the touch he started to run his fingers through his hair. Keishin closed his eyes and focused on the sensation, slowly coming back into himself.

“Did Hinata-kun get what he needed?” Takeda asked.

Keishin’s back ached. He could feel a bruise forming near the low-left of his spine, where he must have landed on a rock when he was thrown.

“Yeah,” he said, “he’s in good hands.” The old man was a lot of things, but once he agreed to do something he’d damn well do it.

He was only like this to weaklings like Keishin, after all.

“Well done,” Takeda said, his fingers still stroking Keishin’s hair.

The sentiment was startling. Keishin laughed. Then he stopped, feeling exposed. He covered his face with his hands and tried to laugh again.

“Ukai-kun, are you alright?”

Keishin didn’t want this conversation. He didn’t want to speak badly about anyone in his family, least of all his grandfather. Which only left him one person to speak poorly of.

“Hey,” Takeda ran his fingers through Keishin’s hair again. “You can talk to me.”

Keishin looked away, still trying to laugh. “Ha, shit, it’s pretty pathetic, huh?”

“No,” Takeda’s voice was soft. “What happened?”

“He threw me.” Keishin thought his own voice sounded flat and distant.

“What?” Takeda was shocked. “…Your grandfather?”

Keishin let out a long sigh and dropped his hands, turning his head away from Takeda. “Yeah, I know. I’m a grown man, and he can still throw me like the shitty, scrawny kid I was years ago.”

Takeda froze.

“Three times,” Keishin said, to fill the silence. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, really. I guess his hospital stay just made him want to prove… or hell, who am I kiddin’. I probably shoulda just figured things out on my own anyway.”

Weakling.

Keishin sighed and turned away from the thought, staring back up at the ceiling instead. “I just… I thought I was doing okay lately, you know?”

“You are! You didn’t…” Takeda started, finding his words. “That was wrong. That’s always wrong.”

“Mmm, maybe. I mean, sometimes I prob’ly did earn it. I used to pick on other kids, you know.” Keishin looked up at him. “Kids like you, probably.”

“It doesn’t matter.” There was anger in Takeda’s voice, a quiet rage bubbling under his usual calm and easy demeanor. “You didn’t…” He took a deep breath and shifted into lecture mode. “Students who receive physical punishment develop more behavior problems, emotional instability, and authority issues. There is no justification for the corporal punishment of a minor. …Or for an adult looking out for his team.”

Keishin looked away. He ran his fingers over the surface of the tatami floor, focusing on the sensation. “Y’know, I had this moment, back then. The old man had been gettin’ on my case pretty bad about one thing or another, I don’t even remember what now. I just remember looking at him and I thought… I thought ‘If being strong means being like you, I’d rather be a weakling.’” Keishin sighed.I regretted the thought instantly, but I’ll never forget that moment. And I dunno what scares me more… the thought that I might’ve gotten my wish, or the thought that I didn’t.”

“You’re not weak,” Takeda said, “and you’re not your grandfather.”

“Mmm, not yet. I never thought I’d be a coach, either. But here I am. And I do yell at the kids, sometimes.”

“Ukai-kun,” Takeda said. “I know you. I have never seen you take things too far with the kids or anyone else. Even when a student does something dangerous, you always back off as soon as you see that they understand what they did wrong, and then you show them something positive to do instead. You see the students’ needs more than you see yourself, which I’ve noticed from the very beginning. As long as you continue to approach your students with compassion, you’ll be fine.” Gently, he turned Keishin’s head so he could meet his eyes. “And I promise I will tell you if I ever see you start to go in that direction. But I know you. You’re okay.”

Keishin felt a lump rise in his throat. He rolled over, pressing his face awkwardly into Takeda’s shins. For contact, and to hide his face.

Coward.

Takeda went back to running his hand through his hair. “Besides, even if you were all of those things,” he said quietly, “you still wouldn’t deserve this.”

There was no helping it now. Tears welled up out of him. He felt like an egg that had been dropped, cracked and leaking disgustingly on the floor. Fighting it now would only make it worse, so he just stayed like that for a while. Takeda kept quietly stroking his hair, and Keishin focused on keeping his breathing soft and steady, ignoring the tears trickling down his face.

Inhale.

Pause.

Exhale.

Pause.

After a few moments he was calm enough to think again. He shifted, just enough to wipe his face, then closed his eyes. He pictured a pinhole of light and focused on it for a moment. It was a trick he used on the court to settle himself before a complex play. It worked just as well here, now that he was calm enough to try it. He opened his eyes.

Takeda was looking down at him, a small wrinkle of concern on his brow.

“It’s not like things’re all bad,” Keishin said. “He’s family. And he really was a good coach. Is a good coach. It’s… complicated with him. He’s always looked out for me, in his own way. And he’s the reason I picked up volleyball at all, which prob’ly did me more favors than anything else could’ve. Before then I really was a little shit, y’know?”

“I’m glad it helped you,” Takeda said. “Your grandfather has a fantastic reputation as a coach. But it’s good to remember that people are complicated. We can respect some of what a person does without condoning all of their behavior.”

“No kiddin’,” Keishin said. Takeda really did sound like a teacher sometimes. Maybe the kind of teacher he wished he’d had growing up. He closed his eyes again and focused on Takeda’s fingers in his hair. Knowing him now was better, in its way. “That reminds me sensei, I was meanin’ to ask… why’d you get into volleyball?”

“Well, like I told you, the senior teachers were all busy and they needed someone to step up for advising the team.”

“You sure as hell don’t act like it’s a chore shoved on the new guy’s desk. What got you so into it?”

“The students. Well, and in general I don’t really believe in doing anything halfway,” Takeda said. “I liked the story of the team, the history of it and what it could mean to the students and their potential.” He paused before sheepishly admitting, “…and all the times I watched Iron Ladies in high school may have made me more curious about volleyball than I might have otherwise been.”

Keishin raised an eyebrow. “Iron Ladies?”

“It’s a film about a volleyball team in Thailand that was mainly composed of gay and transgender athletes. It’s based off of a true story. I watched it over and over again right around the time I came out. If you’re interested, I’m sure I have a copy on my laptop somewhere.”

“A true story about gay volleyball players huh?” Keishin grinned at him, eager for the distraction. “Sign me up.”

“Right now?”

“If y’can, sure.”

Takeda smiled, “A movie date sounds good. Wait here, I’ll go get us some takeout and then we’ll do it.”

By the time Takeda returned with the food, it was clear he’d had time to worry about every aspect of the movie.

“Ah, just so you know…” he said as he fidgeted with the takeout bag. “It’s a Thai film, so there will be subtitles. But I promise it’s worth watching! Well, the last time I saw it I enjoyed it, anyway, though maybe my tastes have shifted since then. It’s kind of old-looking. There’s a newer version, but that one laughs at the queer characters more than it’s sympathetic towards them. This version is much better, I promise. Oh, and I should warn you that there’s a moment of biphobia in it, but it’s brief, and the ending is—”

Keishin took the bag from him. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. C’mon, eat.” He opened the takeout containers, and smiled a little when he realized Takeda remembered his favorite okonomiyaki order. They opened a bottle of sake and set the movie on Takeda’s laptop.

The movie wasn’t a top-tier production, but the story was fun. The characters were bombastic, larger-than-life, and shameless about who and what they were. They were sympathetic and treated well by the story, even as they each dealt with their own moments of vulnerability.

The volleyball itself was ridiculous. One character’s spikes were so powerful that the ball went flat. Keishin laughed at that, and again when he realized the rag-tag team immediately went on to win the national tournament. By the time the film ended he felt relaxed and warm, both from the sake and Takeda’s body pressed next to his own.

“Well, the volleyball scenes certainly seem different now that I’m more familiar with the sport,” Takeda laughed self-consciously. “Did you enjoy it?”

“Ha, yeah, I did.” Keishin poked his shoulder. “It certainly explains where you get your ideas about winnin’ all the time. I thought you said this was based on a true story,” he teased.

“Yes, based on. The truth gets exaggerated to better fit the narrative arc. The underdogs have to win. The respect of both the other characters and the audience hinges on their success.”

“That’s true. That’s pretty common in stories,” Keishin said.

“Yes, it plays into the audience’s desire for a sense of justice, the idea that good things will happen to good characters.” Takeda paused and finished the sake in his glass. It was his fourth cup that evening. “But of course, the inverse of that is if a good thing happens to a character, it must be because they are good.”

“So if something bad happens, it’s because they had it comin’, right?”

“Right, exactly!” Takeda set his glass down. “By tying respect to a show of strength, the narrative side-steps directly confronting the audience with their own prejudices. It’s effective, although… I do sometimes long for a narrative in which the queer characters lose the contest of strength, but are still shown to deserve respect for who they are.”

“Mm,” Keishin thought it over. “Seems a little bittersweet.”

“I suppose,” Takeda said rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe it depends on what you value.”

 …and Takeda valued people first.

Keishin wanted to kiss him for that, and he did. Not because Takeda was the balm to his wounds or the answer to any problem, but because this is what he valued. Keishin adored that such compassion and ambition and thoughtful rebellion could sit inside the same man.

Takeda parted his lips and Keishin brushed his teeth with his tongue before pushing him back onto the floor. Takeda looked up at him, his eyes wide in surprise and anticipation, and Keishin realized this was the first time he’d been the one to clearly initiate intimacy. He smiled at that, then relished in the heat of Takeda’s body and the warm buzz of the sake as he kissed him again and again.

Takeda laughed a little as Keishin brushed his lips against his ear. “Perhaps I should show you movies more often.”

“Yeah,” Keishin said as he slid his hand up and under Takeda’s shirt. “Y’should. Whatever happened to that film festival you were tellin’ me about?”

“The —ah—Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.”

Keishin pressed his mouth to Takeda’s neck, laughing at the thought of Takeda trying to feel him out on queer stuff through a film festival, of all things.

Takeda squirmed under him. “W-what’s so funny?”

“You’re too damn smart for me, sensei.” Keishin slid his hand further up his shirt.

“I’m not, I—”

Keishin kissed him again, and this time Takeda dropped whatever he was going to say in favor of pulling Keishin closer, his fingers insistent against his back. Keishin fumbled with his belt, then worked his way down, trailing open and desperate kisses across his skin.

He tugged at Takeda’s jeans, then paused at the waistband of his underwear. He looked up at Takeda’s face, tilting his head so his intentions were clear. Takeda shifted and pushed at the waistband, eager to move things along. Keishin obliged him, then set to work.

“Yes,” Takeda muttered, trying to keep his voice low as Keishin slid his tongue over the tip of his cock. “Ke—” Takeda cut himself off with a hand over his mouth and let out a muffled groan.

Keishin looked up at him, the first syllable of his name ringing through his ears. “Hmm?”

“Ke…keep going, please.” Takeda whined through his fingers.

That was enough.

Keishin slid his cock into his mouth, content in the feeling of Takeda’s fingers in his hair, of those soft muffled groans, and the taste of him.

Cocksucker, he remembered, was an insult that used to get thrown around the school. He had no idea if the kids still used it. Why anyone thought this was an insult was beyond him, but then a lot of things about people were.

Takeda shifted his hips upwards to meet him, and Keishin took him in, as deep as he could go, to the back of his throat. Takeda whimpered, his grip tightening on Keishin’s hair.

Keishin loved this. This is what he was. Obscene, and desperate, and hopelessly lost in Takeda’s voice and body. He moaned around Takeda’s cock and cupped his balls with his hand, picking up the pace of his movements until they were both lost in the moment. Takeda squirmed under him, matching his motions until they found a good rhythm.

“I can’t… I’m close I—” was all the warning Takeda could manage before he finished, hot and wet in Keishin’s mouth.

Keishin repressed a sputter, then swallowed down every last drop of him. He glanced up and saw Takeda looking down at him, panting and out of breath.

“You’re incredible.” Takeda ran a hand through Keishin’s hair. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Sure,” Keishin grinned. “I was wonderin’ what your hands can do.”

---

The clay tiles were rough against Keishin’s fingers as he laid them down on the wooden support of the roof. He wiped the sweat from his brow, then knelt down and began placing them. The identical, factory-produced curves fit together perfectly, lying in uniform waves on the sloped surface of the roof.

Takinoue was working a little way ahead of him. “Hey, pass me those nails?”

Uchizawa handed him the box. “Sure thing, just pass ‘em back so I can work on this eave.” He unfurled a length of spiked black plastic, designed to keep birds from nesting inside the tile roof.

Uchizawa’s family had lived in their house for over a hundred years, and when it had finally come time to replace the roof, they’d asked their only son to deal with it. So Uchizawa had called over the team and led them in replacing the tiles. It was easy work, when done together.

Tattsuan pulled up on his bike as they were laying the last row. “Hey, sorry I’m late!”

Uchizawa smiled and waved at him, “Hey, way to be the guy who shows up after all the hard work’s done!”

“Aww don’t be harsh on him,” Takinoue said, “he’s buying us drinks later. Right Tat-san?”

“Yeah, yeah. Remember the party tonight?”

“You’re announcing your wife’s pregnancy, right?” Takinoue beamed.

“About time!” Uchizawa grinned, “I was starting to worry that you two hadn’t figured out what went where.”

Tattsuan laughed. “We just wanted to make sure this’d be fun for everyone else too. Besides, it’s all unofficial until the baby is born, okay? This is just a night we’re celebrating our friends.

Keishin knew that they’d had more trouble getting pregnant than they wanted. The decision to switch from a baby shower to the more traditional “wait until the baby is a few months old before officially celebrating” reflected their nerves. He was glad they felt comfortable enough to even try an unofficial party.

Tattsuan helped them clean up from the repairs, then they all left to change clothes before heading to the bar.

Keishin pulled on one of his favorite old t-shirts and jeans that were comfortable, but just starting to form a hole in the left knee. He wasn’t sure exactly what this party was supposed to be, but he figured it’d work just fine.

--

The party turned out to be a lot of things. It was a chance for Tattsuan and his wife Fumiko to announce that they were a few months away from parenthood. Takinoue took the opportunity to introduce Tanaka as his girlfriend to the team and his friends. Uchizawa bragged about his fiancé.

It also turned out to be a surprise singles mixer for all the third wheels. Keishin found himself stuffed between Mori and Shimada at the singles table, making forced conversation with the women across from them.

Mori was wearing one of his nicer button-ups and Shimada had on his horrible orange polo shirt, which told Keishin that they’d both expected this. He sighed.

Yoshida, a woman in her late 20s, fidgeted with her drink. “So, what do you all do for fun?”

“Volleyball,” they all said in unison.

Mori and Shimada were quick to differentiate themselves.

“I also paint,” Mori said.

“I’m ah, really into films,” Shimada said.

Keishin said nothing. The conversation flowed around him, and he kept his responses frequent enough to be polite and brief enough to seem disinterested. He glanced over at the other table, where Tattsuan and Fumiko were with their couples friends. Uchizawa and his fiancé were in the middle of telling a story. Takinoue was trying not to laugh, and Tanaka appeared to be chugging her beer.

“You’re pretty quiet, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin startled at the name. He looked over at the woman who’d spoken: Minami. She had her hair in a loose braid over one shoulder, and she had been trying to get him to talk more all night.

“Guess so,” he said.

“What’s it take to get a guy like you to open up, huh?” Keishin knew she was teasing him. “Is the presence of too many beautiful women overwhelming you?”

“Uh, not at all,” he said. He tried to be casual, though she still grinned at something in his expression.

“Don’t worry, I don’t bite,” she giggled.

Over time, Keishin had found that there were two types of women who tended to hit on him. The first was the type who saw his indifference as a challenge. Whatever the reason, some people seemed to really want partners who didn’t want them back. It was a self-destructiveness he’d prefer not to be around.

The second was a more rebellious type. A woman who wanted to do what she pleased—and ideally have a bad boy to match. And yeah, okay, he looked like a bit of a lowlife punk. That one made sense, at least. 

Looking closer at Minami, he could see little holes in her ear where she usually wore multiple piercings, but must have taken them out for the party. She had also mentioned something about a new office job. He figured she must miss her more individualistic days.

Which was great to know, even if it didn’t help him at all at the moment.

“So,” he searched for a safe topic, “I think the rainy season this year was unusually mild.”

The conversation dragged on, painfully awkward as he straddled the line between disinterest and outright rudeness. Eventually she got bored and let her attention be stolen by the others at the table. Keishin waited until everyone was absorbed in their new conversations, then excused himself.

He stepped outside and lit a smoke. As he inhaled, he tried to relax the tension between his shoulders. He hated events like these. It’s not like anyone was doing anything they shouldn’t. It was just exhausting to pretend.

In hindsight, he should have known it would turn out like this. Tattsuan never pressured him directly, but he was still a damn meddler. He closed his eyes and let the quiet and the night air settle into him.

His phone buzzed with a single message from Nakano:

Can I rant? Ok great: FUCK CORPORATE DRESS CODE POLICIES!!! ( ╬ʘ 益ʘ ╬) more later.

Keishin was about to text a response when the door clicked behind him. He turned around and saw Tanaka stepping out of the bar.

“Hey,” he said, since it seemed impolite not to. He shoved his phone back in his pocket.

“You needed a break too, huh?” she leaned against the telephone poll near the door.

“I just get tired of so many people, is all,” he said. He noticed the way she was eyeing his cigarette. “Wanna smoke?” He offered her the box.

She turned her nose up at it. “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”

“Sure,” he said. “Sorry you’ll get it secondhand.”

“Whatever,” she said. “I still needed to step out. That’s the rule I have for myself. If I wanna take a break, I take a break. If I want a walk, I take a walk. If I need to take a deep breath, I take a deep breath,” she sighed to emphasize her point, “…and if I just need to feel something in my mouth, that’s what these are for.” She pulled a lollipop out of her pocket, the cheap kind they sold in big bags at Shimada Mart.

Keishin raised an eyebrow. “And what if you just really wanna smoke?”

Then I’ll smoke. But it’s been three months since my last one, and I’m not about to break it now. Not even for a surprise baby shower. Yuusuke didn’t give me all the facts before we came.”

“He might not’ve had them, it’s all unofficial y’know?” Keishin said, surprised she was calling Takinoue that already. “I didn’t realize I’d signed up for a singles mixer, but I guess Tat-san had other plans.”

“Everyone’s nice, you know. I can see why you’re all friends outside the whole teammates thing,” she sighed. “It’s just tiring when everyone else has their whole life planned out already, you know?”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “I keep thinkin’ I’ll be ready to join ‘em soon, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

“Mmm, it’s not just that.” She unwrapped the candy and popped it into her mouth. “It’s this whole idea that you can plan it. My folks passed away a month before I graduated high school. I never could’ve planned for that, and they sure as hell didn’t plan for it either. My point is, you can try to plan everything out ahead of time and it still might not work out the way you thought, at all. So, fuck the script, you might as well do what you want while you can.”

Keishin took a drag off his cigarette while he tried to come up with a good response.

Before he could answer, Tanaka shrugged and waved her hand at him. “Sorry that got too heavy. I’m just wound up. You can just say ‘whatever’ and not worry about it.”

“Nah,” Keishin watched the smoke swirl in a cloud before dissipating. “I get it.”

-----

A toddler pulled at her mother’s arm and whined, “Can we get it? I waaaaaaaaant it!” She pointed to a package of strawberry gummy candies.

Keishin rubbed at his forehead. He was hungover at work. Again.

“No, Rii-chan, we just came here for bread,” her mother replied, equal parts patience and exhaustion.

Keishin wondered if the woman ever regretted her choices. Had she anticipated whiny store visits when she’d planned out her life?

The child screeched, and Keishin hid his face behind his copy of Shonen Jump and tried to think of happier places.

“Excuse me, young man. Keishin-kun?”

Keishin peered around his magazine and at the woman speaking to him. He recognized Hayami, a woman in her late 60’s. She’d been friends with his grandmother before she’d passed.

He set the magazine down. “Yes, ma’am?”

She grinned at him. “Bet you wish you could turn your ears off sometimes, right?” She gestured to her hearing aid. “Well, I guess you couldn’t do that while you’re here. Who would help me with my shopping? You keep putting my favorite liquors on the top shelf, young man!”

“Ah, sorry,” he said. “I’ll get that for you.” Hayami liked the top shelf plum wine they carried. Keishin stood up and walked around the corner to get the bottle.

“Thank you, my dear!” her eyes lit up when he handed her the bottle. “I’m going to a party later, and we’d be lost without our wine!”

“A party, huh?” He said politely as he walked back around the counter to check her out.

“Yes, nothing big, just a few friends.” She grinned at him in a way that was disconcertingly similar to Nekomata. “We’re playing mahjong.”

Keishin wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be scandalized or not. Was that code for something? He made a noncommittal noise, handed back her change, then moved on to the frazzled mother. She’d compromised on the candy with a small toy.

As they left the store, the mother reached for her child’s hand. There was a moment when the toddler squeezed her hand back and the mother’s expression softened, peace washing over her face. She smiled, and they set off across the street together.

Keishin suddenly wanted a smoke. He lit one, and was just taking the first puff when the door chimed again. A few of the kids from the volleyball team paraded in. He sighed. The shop had no business being this busy on a weekday afternoon.

“Don’t you kids have summer homework to do?” he grumbled.

“It’s a study break,” came Nishinoya’s chipper reply, “I need a popsicle for brain food!”

“It’s so hot we’re gonna melllllt~!” Kinoshita moaned. “I can’t possibly work when it’s so humid!”

“Whatever, we can handle the heat. We just need fuel!” Tanaka flexed.

“Easy for you to say with that bald head of yours,” Ennoshita said.

Keishin rubbed at his forehead. The kids chattered for what felt like hours before choosing their treats and coming up to pay.

“Make sure you eat somethin’ besides this crap,” Keishin chided, looking at the sugary frozen treats. “You need protein to build muscles and get stronger, got it?”

“Don’t worry, my mom’s feeding us all pork cutlets for dinner!” Nishinoya jumped up in excitement.

This prompted them all to break out into their improvised meat dance. “Meat meat meat meat meat!” they sang.

Keishin really wished for earplugs. “Fine! Go home and eat!” He huffed, but couldn’t hold back a fond smile as they bounded out the door.

The door was just swinging shut when his cellphone began to ring with the jarring tone he used for unfamiliar numbers. He jumped and pulled it out of his pocket, cigarette still burning in his other hand.

“Yeah, hello?”

A professional voice came through the line, “Hello, am I speaking with Ukai Keishin?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m calling from the Sendai Family Planning Clinic. We have the test results from your last visit.”

“Mm,” Keishin felt his throat tighten. “And?”

“Everything was negative. Please let us know if you have any follow-up questions or concerns.”

“Right. Ah, thanks.”

The phone clicked. Keishin took a long drag off his cigarette, then slumped back in his chair, his head heavy. Tension he hadn’t even known was in him relaxed, and he felt a little like a puppet with the strings cut. He stared at the stains on the ceiling, then laughed and sent a quick text to Takeda.

Just got a call from Sendai. All clear.

He put his phone away as the bell on the door rang. This time it was Shimizu and Yachi. They wouldn’t cause any problems. He relaxed again and opened up Shonen Jump to where he’d left off, humming to himself.

Shimizu and Yachi talked softly to each other while they looked around the store. Occasionally Keishin could hear one of them giggle, but it was peaceful enough for him to focus on his magazine.

Shimizu bought them some pocky and green tea cookies to share, like a good senpai would. They left holding hands, and Keishin reflected that it was good they’d become friends. They were both so shy, after all. Then he turned back to his comics magazine, eager to finish the next chapter.

--

The kids lined up on either side of the net, a few of them bouncing on their toes, eager to start the 3-on-3 practice match. Keishin blew the whistle, and with the first touch of the ball a flurry of activity began.

Hinata and Kageyama were on opposite sides of the net. They had been pointedly ignoring each other for a few weeks now. The silent tension worried some of the players, but Keishin preferred it over the fighting. Besides, they were both honing their skills, and when they did regroup the freak duo would be stronger than ever.

All of the kids were working to become better. Nishinoya had doubled his training outside of receives. Sugawara was constantly coming up with new strategies. Azumane was practicing his serves every chance he had, often to the point of frustration. Even the second-year benchwarmers had upped their game, though they tried to avoid drawing attention to themselves. It was work to get the kids to stop practicing and go home at the end of each session.

The only exception was Tsukishima, who seemed to be just as detached and lazy as ever. Even in the practice match, his blocks were lower than they could be and his face seemed to say he wanted to be anywhere but there. Keishin had no idea how to reach him.

Takeda had told him that since Tsukishima kept showing up, there had to be something that he was getting out of volleyball. They just had to figure out how tap into it. Keishin knew pushing too hard wouldn’t work, and neither would apathy. His grandfather would probably have suggestions, but there was no way in hell he’d be going back there for a while.

Just then, Takeda opened the door to the gym and slipped inside. Keishin felt his chest flutter.

The ball ricocheted off of Kinoshita’s bad receive and across the court, where it smacked into the wall a few feet away from Takeda. Takeda ran over to grab it and tossed it back to the players on the court.

“Thanks, Take-chan!” Sugawara shouted.  

Takeda waved back, smiling wide.

Take-chan. That’s what the kids called him, the cheekier ones at least. Keishin thought it was weird that his students were so informal, but Takeda seemed to enjoy it. Take-chan. It suited him somehow. It was what Nakano called him, too.

Meanwhile, Keishin still couldn’t bring himself to say anything but sensei.

Which was ridiculous. They were dating, right? Saeko and Takinoue were already on a first name basis and it’d been what? A few weeks?

At this rate, Takeda was going to think he had a kink. Hell, maybe he already thought that.

Is it a kink? Have any other teachers ever been this hot?

He was startled out of his thoughts by the ball crashing into the net. Azumane’s face went pale with frustration and panic.

“Hey, you’re fine! You just need t’ breathe and keep your elbows a little straighter!” Keishin shouted.

Azumane shook his head, re-centered himself, and moved back onto the court.

After the practice match, Keishin made them all take a break. They needed to calm down before drills or they’d risk an injury. He took the opportunity to stretch his shoulders, feeling the tension and dull ache on the side that usually gave him trouble. He wanted to spike for the receive drills today, and it felt like he’d be alright as long as he didn’t do it for too long.

Tsukishima came up to him, his eyes downcast. “I was wondering…”

Keishin turned to him, vaguely concerned this was the moment when he’d quit altogether.

Tsukishima fidgeted with the hem of his jersey. “Is… there a way to block spikers that are much taller than you?”

Keishin wanted to hug him. Yes, buddy! It starts with caring and you did it that’s the first step you’re on your way! I even know the answer to this one!

“Yes, it’s all about timing…” Keishin launched into his explanation, and Tsukishima paid attention and didn’t interrupt with a snarky comment even once. He listened, nodded, and went back to practice.

Keishin watched him a little more closely this time, and could see the subtle differences in how he engaged with the blocking drills.

He grinned, and glanced over at Takeda. Takeda was smiling, eyes crinkled at the corners.

Later, as practice wrapped up and the kids set to cleaning up the gym, Takeda tugged at his elbow.

“I saw your text earlier,” he said. “It’s been a good day. Shall we celebrate tonight?”

--

Takeda had broken out the good sake again. It was light and fruity, and while Keishin had always preferred beers, he was coming around to this stuff pretty quick.

“All my test results were negative, too,” Takeda said, setting his glass down on the table. “Thank you for humoring me.”

“No, not at all,” Keishin shook his head, “It feels better, just knowing. Before, I don’t even know what I would’ve done if I’d caught something, so I just tried not t’ think about it. Having a plan is good, not having t’use it is even better.”

Takeda sipped at his glass. “I did get a positive result once, a few years ago. It wasn’t anything a round of antibiotics couldn’t fix, but it certainly was a wake-up call.”

“I’ll bet,” Keishin said. “Thanks for draggin’ me out there, sensei.”

Takeda smiled, and Keishin silently chided himself for calling him sensei again.

Keishin cleared his throat, “Thanks for that movie earlier, too. I’ve been thinkin’ about it.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I was wondering… was that what drag was like, for you?” Keishin fumbled awkwardly for the words. “Back when you did it?”

Takeda thought for a moment. “Well, each character in the film is unique, and not all of them are what we would call drag performers. The reasons for performing drag are as diverse as the people doing it. Transgender people sometimes find themselves through performance. For some people it’s just a job, or an extravagant hobby. For some people it’s an art form with a rich history. For me, it’s more like… a break.”

“Hm?” Keishin finished his glass. “A break from what?”

“We all have expectations placed on us by society. Those expectations can be useful on the whole, but… It can chafe, sometimes, when you don’t quite fit what you’re supposed to be.” Takeda’s eyes lit up as he went on, “Drag can feel like bending reality. With just a few changes I can become someone else for a few hours. I can be loud, and crass, and the center of attention. But I don’t want to be that way all the time. I like my life, but I think I’m a better man when I remember that things are not set in stone.”

Keishin smiled at him. “D’you miss it?”

“Sometimes,” Takeda admitted, “but I think it would be more accurate to say that I miss the people.”

“Like Nakano.”

“Yes, and everyone else too. When I left Tokyo, I left a lot of things with my parents. I only wanted to bring the essentials with me. Some work clothes and a few books,” he gestured to the bookshelves that filled the room and laughed self-consciously. “I didn’t even bring any makeup with me. I guess I didn’t want to think about what I had left behind.”

Keishin refilled Takeda’s glass. “You still could, if it means something to you. The makeup, I mean.”

“Ah, no, where would I go?” Takeda shook his head and leaned over to fill Keishin’s glass for him. “It’s hardly a performance without an audience.”

“Y’got me,” Keishin blurted out.

Takeda hesitated, bottle hovering over the glass.

“Only if you want,” Keishin said quickly. “It just seemed important t’you.”

Takeda glanced over to him before a smile crept across his face. “But when I’m with you, I’m already the center of attention.”

Keishin’s cheeks went hot. How was he supposed to respond to that? As if he could pay attention to anything else when Takeda was around.

And why not? In this town where everyone was obsessed with matchmaking, and his parents had his life planned out for him, and there were all of three or four people in the world who knew he was gay… this was a miracle. He’d never thought he’d be able to fall in love like this, not with someone who could return his desire, not with someone so brilliant, who always saw the path forward and fearlessly tread it. Not with someone who made Keishin feel like maybe he could do the same.

One in a million chance, Keishin thought. That’s how incredible it is that I got to meet a person like you.

Takeda opened another bottle of sake, oblivious to how perfect he was.

“…the hell are you doing out here?” Keishin breathed.

Takeda looked up at him curiously, “I came here to teach.”

Keishin laughed. “Yeah but why here. How’d a guy like you look at this little backwater town and think ‘yeah, nothing to do and everyone’s obsessed with marriage, sounds great!’”

How are you in my life?

“Well, when I first started applying for jobs I was thinking more about where I might want to live. Somewhere close to my friends, or somewhere with a vibrant arts community.”

Takeda stood up and picked up a book. Between Two Souls was written on the over.

“Then I was reading this book, which is a compilation of poems by the Buddhist monk Ryokan, and a Benedictine monk living in modern America named Mary Lou Kownacki. In it, Kownacki shows us a work by Ryokan, then her response on the opposing page. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of similar but differing viewpoints, a conversation across time and culture. Anyway, I found this poem…” He cleared his throat.

“If someone asks
Me where I live
I answer
“Does a monk
Own a key?”

If I hear
A child cry
There is
My home.”

Takeda closed the book, then set it down on the table a safe distance from the sake.

“After I read that, I stopped thinking ‘Where do I want to live?’ and started to wonder ‘Where am I most needed?’ Looking again at the map of my options, I considered the national population decline in rural areas. Many communities losing their people, and with it their history and traditions. Maybe it’s selfish, but I thought I could help with that, by teaching and by encouraging students to find beauty and pride in where they live.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “Though, when I say it out loud, it sounds absurd, doesn’t it? That someone like me, who has always lived in the city, could do such a thing. But we need to believe in our rural areas. We need to believe that there’s goodness there.” He looked at Keishin, “and there is. Everyone has greeted me with open arms. I don’t regret my decision.”

“You really didn’t think it’d be a problem? That you’d miss being out?”

“I knew that there would be challenges. I just trusted myself to rise above them when they came.”

A spine of iron. Keishin smiled fondly at him. “You say that now, sensei,” he teased. “Just wait until all the invitations for marriage interviews start pourin’ in.”

“Ha, I doubt that would be the case for me!” Takeda waved him off. “But I can’t blame people for finding you so desirable.”

Keishin snorted at the flattery. “Nah, people here just really care about marriage. It’s actually a real pain.” He remembered the surprise matchmaking party the other day. “It’s part of that whole ‘declining rural population’ thing. Not that I can complain about the outcome, but you should’ve thought about that one more, sensei.”

“Well, moving to a small town didn’t seem completely irrational. I like women too, after all. I figured it would all work out.”

Keishin’s stomach dropped. “You what?”

“I’m bisexual,” Takeda clarified. Then he smiled coyly, nudging Keishin with his knee. “And I met a handsome man.”

Keishin stiffened. He’d just assumed that Takeda was like him, stuck in a small town without a lot of options. But Takeda did have options. He could have anyone, any of the girls that people kept insisting on introducing to Keishin. And he should, Takeda should have a normal life. What the hell was he doing—

Takeda’s brow wrinkled. “Is… this a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” Keishin felt his future snap back to a single line, a narrow road carved out for him before he was even born. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “Just give me plenty of warnin’ before you get married, alright?”

Silence.

“I’m…. not sure I ever will get married,” Takeda’s voice was even.

Keishin glanced up at him warily.

If I find a person I want to share my life with,” Takeda continued, “I would approach that relationship with absolute seriousness. But there is no guarantee that the necessary laws will have been passed for that relationship to be legally recognized, depending on that person’s gender. Even if it was legally possible, marriage may not be what’s best for me or that person. In the end, it seems better to keep the affairs of the heart and state separate.”

Until people come around to ask why you’re still a bachelor. Until they whisper behind their hands, ‘how could you still be so irresponsible at your age?’ Until there’s no one to share a home with. Until there’s no one to visit you in the hospital.

“You’re not stupid, sensei. You’re talkin’ like it’s just a word, a sheet of paper somewhere. People build their lives around this. Families. Legacies.” The last word stung on its way out. “It’s what you mean t’people. It matters.”

“I’m not saying that marriage doesn’t matter,” Takeda said, his hands folded neatly in his lap. “Just that there are many paths in life to take. Marriage may be a common path, but one can choose a different road if one wishes.”

“Yeah, I just don’t know why y’ would, given the option.” The words came out more bitter than Keishin meant them to. Jealousy welled up in him, not for what Takeda might do, but for what Keishin could never happily be.

Takeda was quiet for a moment, his gaze fixed on his own hands. “Ukai-kun, are you going to get married someday?”

“My folks want me to.”

“Do you?”

“It’s… not just about what I want,” he said. “We’re a family, and I wanna respect the work that they’ve put into things, into what they’ve built. I’m just… not lookin’ forward to it, is all.”

“I see.”

There was something final about the way Takeda said those two words. Keishin cleared his throat. He didn’t know how the conversation had turned into this. There had to be a way out.

“Listen,” he started, “If I get my way that won’t happen for a long while. You don’t need t’ worry about it, alright?”

“Of course.” Takeda smiled at him, but something about it seemed strange. “You’re right to think about your family. I won’t trouble you about it. Ah, here, would you like some more sake?” Takeda grabbed the bottle and held it up to his glass.

Keishin nodded, eager for the conversation to move on.

They drank, and talked about safer topics: the team, and the upcoming prelims, and the start of the school year. When the conversation began to lull, Takeda leaned in towards him, and Keishin met his mouth with a deep kiss.

Under the buzz of alcohol, Takeda’s touches were hot and desperate, and he pressed himself against Keishin like he was drowning. Keishin returned every hungry touch, aching to feel more of this while he could, because Takeda could have anyone and for some stupid reason he’d decided that he wanted Keishin.

And Keishin would take it, savoring every second before Takeda woke up and realized he could do better.

Takeda pulled Keishin down on top of him, arching his back to maximize the skin contact between them. Keishin kissed him again and again, praying that through the taste of sake and sweat Takeda would realize how much he meant to him.

He’d take it. Every last moment stolen until the real world caught up with them.

He’d take it.

Chapter Text

I spent the morning digging out orchids,
afraid the frost would soon leave them dead

-Hsieh Ling-Yun

---

Keishin smothered his cigarette in the ashtray behind the counter. The orange glow greyed, the heat threatening to singe his fingers before it died.  

He stretched, then looked over the store’s order sheet. School had started a week ago, and their stock of snacks and candies had gone down fast. The volleyball team alone bought enough meat buns and protein bars for a small village. He tapped his pencil on the counter, wondering if he should stop ordering some of the less healthy, sugary protein bars or if that would just make the kids switch to candy instead.

He marked down for more of the sweet protein bars. Better safe than sorry. They’d need the muscle, especially since they’d made it past the first round of prelims.

The bell on the shop’s door rang. Keishin looked up, expecting an old woman doing her early Sunday morning rounds or some hungover soul looking for an emergency breakfast.

Instead, Sawamura came into the shop. He took a deep breath, then went straight up the counter. “Coach, I…” He hesitated. “I was wondering if I could ask you for some advice?”

Keishin set his pencil down on the counter, “Sure, kid.” He stood up and went to sit at one of the little card tables in the shop, gesturing for Sawamura to sit across from him. His whiteboard was nearby, ready to help with whatever volleyball tactics the kid needed help understanding. “What’s goin’ on?”

Sawamura sat down across him. “There’s this girl,” he began.

Keishin tried to keep his face still. He hadn’t been prepared for one of those talks.

Sawamura continued, “When I decided to stay on the volleyball team for my senior year, everyone wanted to make sure I knew how much work it would be to keep up with both the team and my studies. I have no regrets.” He cleared his throat. “There are also a lot of expectations placed on what it means to date someone. Caring for another person’s heart is a big responsibility, and I don’t want to take that lightly either. So, I was wondering… if there’s someone I like, is it selfish to ask her to go out with me, even though I may not have the time to pursue the relationship the way I might want?”

Okay, no, Keishin definitely wasn’t ready for this talk. Sorry kid, I don’t know how to run my own life, let alone give you advice on yours.

Keishin must have let something show on his expression, because Sawamura began backpedaling. “I’m not thinking about cutting back on volleyball!” he said, “or my studies! I promise I’m not taking any of this lightly! That’s why I wanted your advice.”

Keishin shook his head. “It’s a tough one.”

Sawamura nodded solemnly. Keishin wondered if teenagers had always been this thoughtful. Maybe they had, and he’d just been too busy with his own shit back then to notice.

Keishin sighed and leaned back in his chair, scouring his mind for anything useful. “Look kid, I’m not exactly an expert here. If she knows what you’re doin’ and you’re honest about your concerns, then let the girl decide what she is and isn’t up for. Just make sure you’re alright with having a girlfriend you don’t see much.”

Sawamura seemed to mull this over, then nodded. “Right.” He straightened. “I won’t let the team down!”

“Good. Dunno what I’d do if the captain started slackin’ off.” Keishin gave him a pointed look, “Did ya eat breakfast?”

“Ah, well…” Sawamura looked away.

Keishin stood up and tossed him a meat bun. “Here, now go study or whatever.”

Sawamura gave him a sheepish smile and walked out the door, biting into the bun as soon as he was outside.

Keishin shook his head. He made a few more notes on the store order, then set it aside for his ma to find after he left for his shift on the farm.

--

Keishin biked to work at his family’s farm, rain or shine. It was a pleasant distance: long enough to think but not so long as to be exhausting.

The late morning sun was hot, and a humid haze had turned the mountains in the distance a dull blue, fading into the lush green of the landscape around him. Keishin had always thought the hills surrounding the town looked like a family, crowded close around their children of brick and metal.

Above him, a flock of magpies had landed on the telephone wires. They called and fussed at their neighbors, vying for space and who knew what else. There was a pair a little way away from the rest of the flock that seemed enamored with each other, preening one another and perching close despite the late summer heat.

He and Takeda hadn’t spoken about marriage again. It wasn’t worth fighting about, not since their awkward conversation the other week. Instead, Keishin had been trying to focus on the positive.

Right. The positive.

His bike shuddered as the pavement became less even along the curving road.

Everything that was important about Keishin was right here. The mountains that cradled his home, the farmland tended by generations of calloused hands, and his family and friends in town. He did tend to feel like a bit of an outsider here, but the truth was that he felt like an outsider anywhere he went.

Keishin didn’t know what exactly he’d been hoping for anyway. Maybe just that they could’ve both put off the inevitable through sheer stubbornness alone. Or maybe he was picturing something out of a children’s story, and had thought Takeda was going to whisk him away on a white horse or some stupid shit like that.

Real life didn’t work that way.

He had a good life. Full of work and volleyball, surrounded by family and friends and, at least for now, Takeda’s company. Sure, it would hurt like hell when the thing with Takeda ended, but it was always going to hurt. It had hurt, all that longing before they’d stumbled into Nakano. Better to have it this way than not at all.

And there were things Keishin could offer Takeda, in his own way. Maybe it wasn’t a home, but he could still offer a warm meal. Help with the team. Company while Takeda graded papers. Sex.

Maybe that was enough.

Keishin parked his bike by the toolshed and walked the rest of the way up the drive. His da’s office was a tiny old farmhouse that had been converted into an office space when his da took over most of the farm management. A place to think, his da had called it, back when Keishin was still a problem kid and his ma and da had argued more often.

As he walked, Keishin glanced to the side of the office building and saw his grandad’s yellow SUV parked in the drive. His feet froze for a moment, impossibly heavy on the pavement. Keishin took a deep breath to shake the feeling, then marched up to the door.

Muffled voices were shouting from inside the office. The voices grew louder.

“Da, I know you haven’t been around much lately, but I promise it’s been under control—!”

“Don’t try to change the subject on me, boy! What I wanna know is why the hell he wasn’t doin’ that already!”

“This isn’t the only place he has t’ worry about! We’ve had plenty of help!”

“Y’can’t even keep your people safe! Do you think this is a game?”

“I’m tellin’ you we’re fine! Why can’t y’just trust me?!”

“You want me to trust you, then earn it!

Furious footsteps thundered towards the door. Keishin stepped aside right as his grandad threw the door open and stormed out onto the porch. He paused and glanced at Keishin. His eyes were sharp and narrow, a crow deciding if a particular garbage scrap was worth the trouble.

“I heard you made it past the first step,” he said. “Try not to stumble on the second.”

Keishin nodded. Of course his grandad had heard about the prelims.

He stared at the ground in front of him as his grandad’s footsteps crunched on the drive. There was the slam of a car door. Then Keishin straightened himself, took a deep breath, and stepped inside the office.

“Da?”

His da was rubbing his forehead, shoulders slumped slightly at his desk. His expression softened when he saw Keishin. “Keishin, hey. I’m glad yer here. I need t’ask you a favor.”

“Yeah, ‘course.” Keishin sat down across from him.

“Matsuda-san got hurt the other day. It’s nothin’ huge, but he strained his back and won’t be able to work for a few weeks.” His da ran his hand through his short-cropped hair. “I don’t wanna cut his pay for that, and I don’t think it’ll be possible t’ hire someone else in time for the harvest. I’m gonna need you t’ cover some of his shifts.”

Keishin nodded. “Of course.”

“I’ve already talked with yer ma. She’ll cover mornings at the shop, assumin’ you’ll do the closing time shift again. You’ll work here until school time, then y’can do your thing for the kids’ team and go t’ the store ‘til closing.”

Keishin could outline what the kids needed to do during morning practice for a few weeks and trust Sawamura and Shimizu to see it done. The neighborhood team and his time with Takeda would take the biggest hits, but… it had to be done.  He nodded at his da. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Great. Talk to yer ma if you need any evenin’ shifts covered, but try t’ go easy on her, alright? She’s been helpin’ yer grandad out a lot lately.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Keishin said. “I won’t be a burden.”

His da smiled at him. “Never.”

--

Work schedule’s getting changed up a bit. Evenings will be hard to swing for a while, sorry.

Keishin hit send before he could overthink the text. Things were what they were, and no amount of mincing his words would change it. His phone buzzed a few seconds later with Takeda’s response.

No problem! Is your family alright?

Keishin felt his shoulders relax. Of course Takeda wouldn’t take it personally.

Yeah we’re fine. A guy got hurt at the farm and I need to cover for him while he heals.

“Keishin, could you help me with these dishes?” his ma called from the other room.

“Be right there!” He stood up right as his phone buzzed again.

Is there anything I can do to help? (•ᴗ•)

Keishin typed out his response as he walked towards the kitchen.

Can I still see you later this week? Late-ish. After the store closes.

He couldn’t repress a smile when his phone buzzed almost immediately.

Of course! I’ll buy some sake! ♪(๑ᴖ◡ᴖ๑)♪

He shoved his phone into his pocket as he entered the kitchen, then set to work on the dishes.

His ma was silent for a while, smiling as she handed him each dish to dry and put away.

“So,” she said, “what’s her name?”

Keishin almost dropped the plate he was holding. “What?”

“You’ve been seein’ someone.” It wasn’t a question. “Smilin’ at everything, checkin’ your phone, not comin’ home a lot of nights. I was just wondering when you were gonna tell me about her.” There was no cruelty in her voice, just amusement.

“There’s nothin’ t’ tell.” The ground could just swallow him up now. Anytime really. That’d be great.

“Oh, I see.” She laughed. “My mistake then.”

Keishin made a noncommittal noise, hoping that was the end of it.

His ma laughed softly. “Connecting hearts,” she said. “That’s what we named you.”

“Sure did.” Keishin still blushed whenever someone pointed out the meaning behind the kanji of his first name.

“Your da and grandad were fightin’ so much back then, even worse than now, if you c’n believe it. But everyone was so happy when we found out I was pregnant with you. We chose that name because you’re someone who brings people together.” She ran the dish cloth over a plate, gently working out some stuck-on grime. “But I worry that might’ve put too much pressure on you. None of this is yours t’deal with, alright? Let your da and grandad work out their problems. You just worry about connectin’ other hearts to us, hm? Like that girl of yours.”

Keishin’s brow furrowed. Half of what she was saying didn’t even make sense, and the parts that did weren’t true. “It’s not… like that.”

His ma was silent for a long time, waiting for him to say more.

“You always were such a quiet child,” she finally said. “Even when you’d make such a fuss in those harder days, you were always quiet about the things that mattered.” She handed him another plate. “You can talk t’me. You know that, right?”

Guilt panged at Keishin’s stomach.

“Yeah, I know.” He set the plate down on top of the others, a fragile tower of china on the shelf. “I’ll tell you when there’s somethin’ worth tellin’. I promise.”

“Mmmhm.” She shook the water off her hands and grabbed the hand towel, smiling in amusement. “Just don’t keep me waitin’ too long now, alright?”

Keishin put the last plate away, then quietly shut the cabinet door.

“Right.”

--

That night, Keishin couldn’t fall asleep. His usual workout routine hadn’t helped him settle down, and he fidgeted, staring up at his ceiling while his mind played endless and exhausting scenarios of guilt and anxiety. After lying there for what felt like hours, he sat up and grabbed his phone.

SetAndReady: so… anything more on those dress codes?

Bananakano: dON’T GET ME STARTED
Bananakano: actually please do I’m freaking out a little

Keishin’s brow furrowed.

SetAndReady: what’s going on? last we talked you just said it was just annoying

Bananakano: yeah well that was just building the report
Bananakano a report of how a certain company, which I’m tempted to break my fucking NDA for I hate them so much, could be a more inclusive workplace.

SetAndReady: yeah, “the most restrictive straight bullshit ever” I remember

Nakano’s next few texts came in rapid fire.

Bananakano: okay so we made our inclusivity and safety report
Bananakano: and guess how many of our non-mandatory recommendations they’re following?
Bananakano: ZERO THAT’S HOW MANY
Bananakano: ლ(ಠ益ಠ)ლ ლ(ಠ益ಠ)ლ ლ(ಠ益ಠ)ლ
Bananakano: it’s so obvious they were just using us to cover their asses in some HR dispute
Bananakano: i even sent an email to their CEO explaining my concerns over how their policies affect LGBT worker safety and that even the slightest change to their policy would be a huge improvement
Bananakano: (an email which I am now in trouble for with my boss btw)
Bananakano: and all the ceo came back with was that it didn’t matter because they ‘don’t hire gays’
Bananakano: so now I’m in hot water at work AND I want to throw my desk out the window
Bananakano: my boss has done this before where he’ll just roll over for shitty CEOs like this
Bananakano: and I keep fighting it and he says he doesn’t want to deal with it anymore
Bananakano: I’m scared to lose my job and even more scared of becoming a coward
Bananakano: that company hires ~14,000 people Keishin!
Bananakano: oh AND the ceo threw in an thinly-veiled insult about my clear nail polish just for added fun
Bananakano: I just… ლ(ಠ益ಠ)ლ
Bananakano: i feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over and things just get worse instead of better

SetAndReady: that’s utter shit.
SetAndReady: why are people like that?

Bananakano: I even thought about quitting this week, but Maeda pointed out that there’s enough times people do listen to my recommendations that maybe it’s worth staying on.
Bananakano: plus we need the money

SetAndReady: it’s pretty crushing when you feel like ur not getting anywhere.
SetAndReady: like when spikers keep getting shut out by blocks

Bananakano: oh man here we go with the volleyball

SetAndReady: if you don’t find a way through the players spirits get crushed and ur bound 2 lose
SetAndReady: is there any way you can change your tactics?

Bananakano: what else am I supposed to do if my boss won’t back me up!

SetAndReady: right well what’s his problem
SetAndReady: have you asked him what the deal is?
SetAndReady: it’s hard to plan a new strategy if you dont know ur opponent

Bananakano: that… almost makes sense actually!
Bananakano: Keishin u volleyball-obsessed nerd
Bananakano: new plan: storm the bosses office and demand answers!

SetAndReady: that’s…not exactly what I said but im glad you feel better

Bananakano: fiiiiine NEW new plan use subtly and espionage to find out what my bosses deal is

SetAndReady: don’t get arrested

Bananakano: no promises.
Bananakano: though I suppose I am ur only gay friend maybe i should stick around
Bananakano:  how’s things there btw?

SetAndReady: it’s fine.

Bananakano: well THAT’S convincing

SetAndReady: no just busy with work.
SetAndReady: i should probably sleep actually…

Bananakano: alright, text me whenever tho k?
Bananakano: good night kei-chan~!

SetAndReady: good night, asshole

Keishin closed his phone, then stared up at the ceiling and traced the edges of the smoke stains with his eyes until, finally, he fell asleep.

--

Keishin sat on the stoop outside the gym, relatively hidden from view and close to the edge of the school grounds. The kids were on break and he had taken the opportunity to sneak a smoke, as was his habit.

In his free hand, he thumbed through the pages of Between Two Souls. Takeda had lent it to him. There was a bookmark to a particular page he’d wanted Keishin to read, because ‘it reminds me of the two of us’. Keishin was a little scared to find out exactly what that meant. He took a deep breath, reminded himself that things were what they were, and began to read.

 

My daily fare: playing with the village children.
I’ve always got a few cloth balls tucked in my sleeves:
Not good for much else,
I do know how to enjoy the tranquility of spring!

This cloth ball in my sleeve is more valuable than a thousand pieces of gold;
I’m quite skillful at ball playing, you know.
If someone wants to learn my secret, here it is:
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!”

-Ryokan

 

Keishin cracked a smile at the author’s humility, then looked to the page facing it.

 

My weekly fare: teaching poetry to children.
I carry a bag filled with alphabet magic
That I pour on pencils, paper and “what if.”
Soon the children are writing poems
On mirrors, balloons, rocks, kites…
Soon the room smells
Of fresh words and ideas.
A bold phrase or image
Pops out of a child’s hand and struts across the page,
So free and alive
That I feel the movement of a tickle inside of me.
Do you want to know the secret of life?
Listen, a child is reading a new poem.

-Mary Lou Kownacki

 

A strange squeak came from off to his right. “P-p-poetry?!?!!”

Keishin jumped, nearly dropping his cigarette. He looked over and saw Yachi, staring at him with wide eyes.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” She dove to the ground. “I JUDGED SOMEONE BY THEIR APPEARANCE AGAIN!! OF COURSE YOU READ POETRY!!! I’M SORRY!!”

“That’s—kid, look, I just—you’re fine!” he stammered, closing the book and snuffing out his cigarette.

“I’M SO SORRY!!”

“C-calm down!” His cheeks were hot. The ground really could swallow him up anytime. Yachi looked like she felt the same way. He sighed and tried to bring them back to focus. “Yachi-chan, was there somethin’ you wanted to talk t’me about or..?”

“Oh, right!” She sat up, suddenly determined. “I was wondering… we always write down the player’s scores and how well they do with certain techniques, right?”

“Right.” Keishin wondered where this was going.

“Well, it’s fine to take paper notes during practice, but I was thinking that if we made a digital record of everything, it would be easier to track changes over time and share the information with each other. If I made spreadsheets, I could even set it up so it calculated success percentages really easily!”

“Yeah, actually, that’s a great idea,” Keishin said. “Y’should do that! Ask Shimizu-chan to help you, she knows all the metrics that are important to track.”

Yachi’s cheeks turned pink. “R-right! I’m on it! I mean, I’ll do it! Okay!” She straightened up to her full, tiny height and marched away.

Keishin put the book and his cigarettes away and went back into the gym.

Takeda came in halfway through practice, looking frazzled but glad to be there. He cheered the kids on, and talked excitedly with Shimizu and Yachi about her new idea for digital records.

Around Keishin, though, he seemed a little distant. He kept a meter of space between them, and Keishin noticed he was avoiding making eye contact.

Worry churned in Keishin’s gut, but he pushed it down.

Focus on the positive.

“Sensei,” Keishin said. He didn’t worry about calling Takeda that anymore, not since their last conversation. “I’m thinkin’ we’ll need t’get another practice game soon. Is there anyone you could set us up with?”

“Of course! There are a few local schools that reached out recently.” Takeda fumbled for his notes. “Wakutani High seemed especially interested. I’ll work on setting something up.”

“Great, thanks.”

“It’s no trouble.”

There was an awkward moment of silence. Takeda kept his eyes locked on the players on the court, focused on the new play they were practicing. Keishin decided to stop fussing and do the same. That’s why they were there, after all.

Practice finished without incident, and the kids cleaned up the gym and got ready to change and head home. They all vowed, almost convincingly, that they’d all go straight home and eat dinner, then scurried off their own ways.

Keishin was just about to slip out of his gym shoes himself when Takeda stopped him.

“Ukai-kun, I know you have to go soon, but would you mind helping me with something before you leave?”

“Hm? Of course.” Keishin followed Takeda back inside the gym. The kids had already put away the volleyball equipment, but things always needed updating or repairs, or maybe it was a question about their next practice game.

Takeda stepped inside the supply closet and to the right, near where the nets were stored. Keishin followed him, and just as he was behind the door Takeda pulled him into a kiss.

Oh.

Keishin pulled away, then reached over and slid the closet door shut. There were no windows in here, and they could steal a moment or two. He bent down and kissed Takeda again.

They’d gotten better at this. Takeda had shifted his approach to kissing, feeling out how little it took to elicit a reaction. The faint brushes of his lips, the slightest tease of his tongue, and a hand on his back were all invitations, tests to see how Keishin would respond.

He melted into all of it, his chest warm and his hands moving up Takeda’s sides to pull him closer. He was starting to figure out how to use his tongue in ways Takeda liked without it being overwhelming for him, and Takeda moaned into the kiss.

Soon they’d gone from stealing quick kiss in the dark to making out like randy teenagers after school, with Keishin pressed against the wall of the closet. Takeda’s hands roamed over his chest, then slipped to his hips and tugged at the elastic waist of his gym pants.

“Sensei,” Keishin breathed.

Fuck.

Takeda’s hand slipped down and up, stroking where he was half-hard already.

Not here.

Panic started to rise in Keishin. “Sensei, wait… no…”

Takeda froze, then shifted back. He searched Keishin’s face in questioning concern.

“Not…not here.” Keishin breathed.

“Oh.” Takeda stepped back. His hands hovered in the air between them. “Of course. I… I’m sorry.”

Keishin relaxed away from the wall. “It’s fine, I just… we’re already pushin’ our luck here, y’know?”

Takeda reflexively went into a small bow. “I’m sorry! I got carried away. It’s just...” He paused, his head still down. “It’s been a hard day. The vice-principal has been…” he trailed off, apparently unwilling to finish the sentence.

Keishin stepped forward and set his hands on Takeda’s sides. “What’s goin’ on?”

Takeda set his forehead against his shoulder. “It’s just work stress.”

“Mmn.” Keishin slid his arms around him in what he hoped was a comforting embrace. He kept his voice low. “Well if it’s stress relief y’want, that’s fine. Y’just gotta take me home first.”

Takeda looked up. “Come home with me. After your shift. I’ll meet you.”

Keishin grinned. “Yessir. After my shift.”

--

Takeda waited patiently while Keishin locked up the store for the night. It was a tricky lock—Keishin really needed to get around to replacing it—and things were complicated by the grocery bag he was carrying.

“Are you sure I can’t take that for you?” Takeda asked.

“No, no,” Keishin fumbled with the lock, flustered further by his embarrassment. “I’ve got it.”

The bag was full of groceries he’d scrounged up for Takeda. He’d been thinking a lot about what to make for him, things that would be fast and easy to make and healthier than the takeout the man seemed to live off of. He knew his cooking wasn’t much, but it was something he could do.

Finally, the locked clicked into place. Keishin breathed a sigh of relief and they started their walk to Takeda’s.

“So, what’s goin’ on with work?” Keishin asked.

“It’s nothing, really. We’re dealing with some cuts to our budget since the number of students enrolled at the school drops each year from population declines.” Takeda huffed, almost pouty, “The vice principal and I disagree on the rate the budget should be constrained. I don’t have any direct control over anything, and very little weight as the most junior teacher. It’s frustrating.” Takeda’s gaze dropped to the ground. Looking closer, Keishin could see the dark circles under his eyes behind his glasses. “I feel like I’m being asked to do more and more, with fewer and fewer resources.”

“That’s rough,” Keishin said, as if his saying that would do anything.

Takeda straightened himself, looking ahead. “Well, I’ll manage. It’s not as if I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

The moon was rising off to their left, waxing and over half full, peering out between clouds. Keishin stopped and tugged at Takeda’s elbow.

“Look,” he said.

The clouds shifted, the moon revealing itself for a few seconds before it was covered again, a flash of brilliance before grey.

“Beautiful,” Takeda said. “I do love how much I can see out here at night. The first night I stayed here, there were so many stars I almost cried.”

Keishin couldn’t imagine never seeing the stars. “Hey,” he said, “I’m sure you can handle this. And I if I c’n help you, I will.”

Something in Takeda’s expression slipped, a flicker of longing or sadness or something else before he smiled at him. They finished the walk in silence.

When they got up to Takeda’s apartment, Keishin started unpacking the grocery bag. Noodles, onions, mushrooms, a block of tofu.

“What’s all that for?” Takeda asked.

“I was gonna make us somethin’.”

“Oh, ah,” Takeda went red. “I’m sorry, I already ate. I wasn’t sure…”

Well, it made sense. It was far past dinner time.

“That’s fine, there’ll be leftovers. I bet you started eatin’ those prepackaged lunches again, right? This’ll be better, especially if yer stressed.”

“Ukai-kun,” Takeda said. Keishin froze, still helpless when Takeda said his name. “Did you eat dinner?”

“Yeah, my ma brought me somethin’ during my shift,” he said, “but I can still…”

Takeda tugged at the front of Keishin’s shirt. It was a gentle motion, just enough to send a shiver up Keishin’s spine. “There are other things I want right now,” he said.

Keishin felt his whole body flush. Takeda’s grip was soft, ready to let go at the slightest resistance. His eyes were focused, bold and shining with desire for Keishin.

Keishin dropped the noodles on the counter and pulled Takeda into a kiss. It was scorching hot in the upstairs apartment, and Keishin couldn’t stop himself thinking about those two birds on the telephone wire, helplessly enraptured despite the summer heat.

Takeda’s touches were more insistent this time, pulling Keishin closer, teasing at the hem of his shirt and the button of his jeans. Keishin pushed back, eager to get him out of his clothes. He’d been thinking about that kiss in the gym for the whole of his shift at the store, in-between his worries and coming up with recipes.

Takeda pulled them out of the kitchen and into his room. He’d already made space for the futon, and Keishin helped him lay it out.  Then he pressed Takeda down onto the bed and kissed him, again and again. Takeda complied at first, then squirmed and pushed him off. Keishin hesitated, uncertain of what that meant. Takeda stood up and went over to the shelf with his alarm clock. He threw his little bottle of lube onto the bed, then flipped the stereo on. Keishin jumped as rock music blasted into the room.

“Sensei, your neighbors—!”

“Exactly,” he knelt back down on the bed. “I don’t feel like being quiet tonight.”

“We could, ah,” Keishin’s focus broke as Takeda tugged his jeans down, revealing Keishin’s briefs. “We should go to a love hotel if y’ really wanna be loud.”

“I looked it up, and the closet one that accepts queer men is a forty-minute train ride away.” Takeda trailed his mouth down Keishin’s waist and over the thin fabric of his briefs. “I’d prefer not to wait. Do you want to use condoms tonight?” After they’d gotten their test results back, they’d agreed to ask about condoms each time.

“I’m fine without ‘em if you are,” Keishin said. Takeda ran his mouth over Keishin’s briefs again. “Fuck,” Keishin squirmed and struggled to get his pants off the rest of the way. “…hotel’s for special occasions, I guess.”

“Yes. In the meantime, the radio will have to do. I don’t like being quiet all the time.” He slipped Keishin’s briefs off, his mouth so close to Keishin’s cock he could feel his breath when he spoke. “And I like hearing the noises you make too, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin held back a whimper at the way Takeda said his name, and was about to insist that actually he didn’t make much noise at all, certainly not enough to be heard over the radio, but when Takeda took the head of his cock into his mouth his words came out as a low groan. 

Keishin squirmed, caught between thinking about the neighbors and oh, Takeda wanted to hear him. He wondered if he would ever figure out what he was doing, how to ride the edge between what he seemed to need and what he wanted.

Takeda set a hand on Keishin’s hip. “Be still.”

The words sent another wave of pleasure over him. He stilled, relieved at the instruction. He tugged at the sheets and focused on Takeda’s hand and his lips, pinned and open to everything, and he wanted, he wanted…

“I wanna touch you,” he said, the words coming out as soon as he thought them.

Takeda looked up, then made a happy little noise and swung his legs around to straddle Keishin’s face. “Is this alright?”

Keishin reached up and pulled him down until he could reach his cock, letting actions be his answer. Takeda groaned as he took him into his mouth, as far as it would go. When he took Keishin back into his mouth he could feel him moaning around his cock and they were a circuit of pleasure, their own delicious feedback loop.

Keishin grabbed the lube, then started playing with his ass, his thumb sliding in and out. Takeda’s focus kept flickering, his mouth breaking contact with Keishin so he could push back. Finally, he sat up and shifted around. He grabbed the lube.

“I want to ride you,” he said. “Are you still okay without a condom?”

“Yes,” Keishin stared up at him in awe and desire. Takeda poured generous amounts of lube on them both, then sank down over him, enveloping Keishin in slick, tight, heat. Keishin set his hands around Takeda’s cock so he’d have something to thrust into while he worked.

He was so gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Keishin was making some kind of noise, and he couldn’t tell what he was just thinking and what he was saying out loud, but it didn’t matter because Takeda was moaning incoherent syllables of words or his name or who knew what else, and occasionally he’d cover his mouth or just shout and it was so hot, so, so perfect.

Keishin could feel himself getting close, but he didn’t want to be done yet so he shut his eyes tight and bit his lip, desperately trying to think of anything other than this perfect man on top of him, or it’d be over and he’d be gone and he just wanted to keep things right like this.

He was brought back to reality by Takeda’s nails dragging up his sides. Maybe he had a thing for pain, or just for Takeda’s fingertips, but that’s when he fell over the edge, whimpering and shuddering as his mind melted into white hot nothing.

Takeda was still moving, guiding Keishin’s hands around his cock, and Keishin let him set the pace, pumping until there was a short exhale of breath and Takeda was splashing over him, hot and wet and Keishin was so lucky.

Takeda slid himself off Keishin’s cock and collapsed down onto him, slick with sweat and out of breath. Then, he reached up and flicked the radio off.

Silence fell heavy over the room.  As if a spell had been cast or broken, Keishin became immensely aware of the reality of Takeda’s breathing and the rustle of the cloth he handed Keishin to wipe himself off with.

 He couldn’t stop staring at Takeda as he laid down next to him, a space between them for the heat. He studied way the lingering light of the room caught this and that of him, the strangeness that he was actually here.

Takeda smiled blearily at the ceiling. “Thanks.”

Something about that brought Keishin back to himself. He smiled, then brushed Takeda’s side with the back of his fingers.

“Yeah,” he said. He let a long quiet moment pass between them, their breathing slowing back to normal.

“I wanna ask an inappropriate question.”

Takeda laughed a little, “Alright.”

“Y’ really like dick.” Keishin said, “How’s that worked out when you’ve had, um… girlfriends?”

Takeda laughed earnestly now. “It’s… I mean. Yes.” He shook his head. “Some women have dicks. And some men don’t. Add to that the fact that everyone likes different things, and each partnership is unique. It’s not like the gender of your partner means you have to have a certain kind of sex.”

“Right, I just mean…” Keishin trailed off, deflating a little.

“Toys,” Takeda smiled, answering his question before he could ask it. “With a little creativity, there’s no limitations.”

Keishin could feel his cheeks get hot. “Yeah, uh…” he ran the sheets between his thumb and forefinger. “Are we… creative enough?”

Takeda searched his face before answering. “I’m happy with everything we’ve done so far. Was there something you wanted to try?”

“No, I just wanna make sure you’re happy with me.”

“You’re fine. I worry a lot more about what I can do for you, actually. I… can’t go down as deeply as you can. I had a bad experience once, and I’ve come a long way with it but it’s easy to push too far if I’m not careful.”

A bad experience...?

That means hurt. Keishin’s grip on the sheets tightened. “What’s his name?”

“What? No!” Takeda pressed Keishin’s cheeks between his hands. “Don’t make such a scary face! That happened over a decade ago. I’ve moved on, and it isn’t something that defines me anymore. I’ll probably always have an aversion to deep throating, but so do plenty of other people for lots of reasons. That won’t help.”

“Sorry,” Keishin said. His expression softened as Takeda lowered his hands. “I don’t mind it. I actually um, kinda like the challenge of bein’ still for you.” Maybe more like really, really like it, if he was honest. “And even if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be a problem.” He sighed. “Sorry about that. I just… When you’re naked with someone, it’s like you’re saying ‘I trust you not to hurt me.’ So, when someone breaks that trust… I just really hate guys like that.”

Takeda’s brow furrowed, a flash of concern or confusion or something else. He reached out and stroked Keishin’s cheek. “Thank you for trusting me.”

Keishin closed his eyes and turned his head to plant kisses on Takeda’s palm. “Sensei,” he sighed. Because of course he trusted him, and of course Takeda thought of others leagues ahead of himself.

--

Keishin had less than a second to set the ball on the right course. As soon as he felt it make contact with his palm he moved, and with a subtle shift of his fingers, sent it flying towards Uchizawa.

The toss was too high, too close to the net, too slow. Uchizawa compensated, but it wasn’t enough to get around the opponent’s blocks. The ball slammed to the ground on his team’s side of the net, and the whistle blew.

They’d lost the game.

The municipal tournaments weren’t like the knock-out rounds in high school. To qualify for the main rounds, you had to have a certain average score and win-loss ratio at the end of the season.

The good news was that they weren’t out of the tournament yet.

The bad news was cumulative losses made gaining any momentum harder. There was always the chance of a lucky break, of doing so well in your final few matches that your failures to that point wouldn’t matter. The soothing, siren call of ‘we’ll just do better next time’.

The line between pushing to regain momentum and breaking the team’s spirits was a rough one to walk, and Tattsuan struggled.

“We’ll get it back,” Tattsuan said as the team packed up their gear. “We just have to be focused.”

“It was a bad toss, sorry.” Keishin wracked his brain for ways to fix it. They just hadn’t had enough time to practice. “Uchizawa-san, can we work together more this week? My set timing’s all off.”

“What you need is sleep,” Tattsuan cut in. “When was the last time you got eight hours?”

Keishin couldn’t even remember. It didn’t matter, though. Sleep just wasn’t happening. There was a lot going on, and even on days when he tried to go to bed early he would wind up tossing and turning for hours before waking up tired anyway. He might as well be useful.

“I could do Thursdays,” Uchizawa said. “Maybe Wednesday and Tuesday this week too, just to get us back on track.”

“What you need is rest,” Tattsuan repeated.

“I’ll be fine,” Keishin said. He said it with enough conviction that Tattsuan dropped the question, either convinced or too exasperated to continue the conversation.

The group’s focus moved on to their practice sessions, to the weather and the coming end of summer, and a general agreement that a lot of beers were in order soon.

--

Tattsuan was clever and stubborn about what he wanted. Less than a week after their failed game, he organized an outing to the creek instead of their usual extra practice time. It was a good spot in the woods, where Shimada and Takinoue and Keishin had spent plenty of time as teenagers. The water was deep enough to swim in and there was plenty of shade and smooth rocks. Despite his grumbling, Keishin was relieved to have the time to rest.

Sunlight filtered down through the trees, shifting as the wind shook the branches above. The air stank of mosquito repellant and wet stone. Keishin sank down into the water, enjoying the cool relief from the heat.

Tattsuan had invited friends and supporters of the team to ensure it wouldn’t just turn into practice time anyway. Takinoue had brought Tanaka with him, and she was floating on an innertube in the water. Off on the shore, Uchizawa and his fiancé Akari were moving a cooler full of beer. Takeda was chatting with Tattsuan and Fumiko and a few of their friends. Mori was sitting on the edge of the water, feet dangling off the rocky ledge.

Shimada edged into the water. “It’s cold!” he complained. Finally, he took a deep breath and pushed himself the rest of the way in.

Takinoue dove off the little ledge. Water splashed everywhere as he cannonballed into the creek.

“Hey, jerk!” Shimada laughed. “Let us enjoy a peaceful afternoon!” He grabbed Takinoue’s shoulders and dunked him into the water, apparently forgetting about his chill.

“Ha!” Takinoue sputtered, “Who’s the jerk?” He let himself be dunked again, then sprayed water at Shimada’s face when he came back up.

Keishin grinned to himself and swam around them. He spread his arms wide, then leapt up and came crashing down, sending a tidal wave over them both. They shrieked and splashed back at him. Then Shimada was climbing on Keishin’s shoulders, kicking as Keishin tried to keep his balance in the deeper water.

“I’m gonna be king of the rock!” Shimada shouted. It was right in Keishin’s ear, too loud and too close, and Keishin retaliated by shifting and dumping him back into the water.

“Oh, sorry, did you mean me?” Takinoue teased, perched proudly on a boulder. 

Shimada splashed at him, then grabbed his ankles to try to pull him off. They wrestled in an undignified tangle of limbs and curses and laughter. Keishin swam away a little, their competitive edge finally exceeding the amount of effort he was willing to spend on it.

Tanaka was laying back on her red and white innertube, anchored from floating away by a rope tied to shore. She seemed blissfully at peace, like she was born to be right here, with a beer in her hand and nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the sun. Keishin swam over to her.

“You seem happy,” he said.

“You got that right,” she said, her eyes still closed. “Warm sun, cold beers, nobody trying to plan my future…. This is my kinda party.”

“We get it right sometimes,” Keishin said.

She opened one eye. “You seem pretty happy too, y’know. If you’re not careful, you’re gonna lose your reputation for most uptight player.”

Takinoue must have been complaining about him. Or the whole team, honestly.

“Well, I’d be happy t’ give the title up,” he said. “Don’t wanna hog the spotlight.”

She snorted. “Mmmmhm.” She leaned back and closed her eyes again, a picture of catlike contentment in the sun.

Keishin swam back to shore and went to grab his towel. Takeda was still talking animatedly with Uchizawa and Fumiko. Takinoue and Shimada were still trying to throw each other off the rocks.

“Hey!” Keishin called out to them. “Quit actin’ like a buncha kids before y’get hurt!”

“I’m not the one that doesn’t know when to quit!” Takinoue yelled back. Shimada took advantage of his distraction and pulled him off his footing. They both yelped and fell into the water again.

Keishin shook his head, then toweled himself off and went to lie down on a smooth patch of stone a little way apart from everyone else. He had brought his baseball cap with him, and he pulled it down over his face to block the sun. He relaxed there for a while, and listened to the sounds of his friends and the forest birds, then fell asleep in the dappled light.

Ukai-kun.

Keishin groaned.

“Ukai-kun, hey. You’ll burn.” Takeda was prodding him awake. Keishin had slept long enough that the shade had moved, and a patch of direct sun had crept onto his chest.

He shifted over and back into the shade, then looked up at Takeda, still bleary with sleep.

“I brought a beer for you,” Takeda said. The light was catching in his eyes and the curls of his hair, a beautiful sight in the summer sun. Keishin smiled at him, wishing he always woke up to a sight like this.

“Thanks,” Keishin took it, his eyes lingering on Takeda’s a fraction too long.

Just ten meters away, the party was still going on. Fumiko started laughing about something Uchizawa said.

Keishin averted his eyes and sat up, curling in on himself.

Takeda sat next to him, as if there was nothing unnatural in the world. He was wearing that green polo shirt of his, which was distracting. Keishin was starting to understand why he acted so formal when they were in public sometimes.

“Did you have a good nap? I’m sorry I woke you.”

“Nah, it’ll be a pain if I burn. Besides, I need t’ make sure I sleep tonight.”

Shimada and Takinoue were finally out of the water. Shimada was shaking out the water from his bright green and orange swim trunks.

“Say, Ukai-kun, I’ve been wondering… is Shimada-kun color blind?”

“No, why?”

“No reason!”

Keishin laughed softly. It occurred to him that Takeda had probably needed the afternoon off as much as he had.

Takeda’s shoulders were relaxed now, and he was smiling at nothing in particular. Then again, he was almost always smiling, whenever Keishin saw him.

They sat in silence for a while, then Takeda looked up at the swaying tree branches and sighed,

“There’s a kind of white moth, I don’t know
what kind, that glimmers
by mid-May
in the forest…”

Takeda’s brow furrowed, like he was trying to remember the words, but he pressed on.

“If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
more
and more.”

Takeda’s brow furrowed again. “I can’t recall the rest exactly off of the top of my head. But, it’s a good poem. I was thinking about the way the light looks through the leaves, and the little insects that are here and there. And…” Takeda looked back at him. “This has been nice,” he said.

“Mmn.” It had been nice. The whole thing they’d had together. Keishin wanted more, to touch him now, or to shout to all his friends Listen, look, this man is so brilliant and for some reason he’s dating me, can you believe it? Can you believe it?

But he couldn’t. And he didn’t need to do that, not really. The sun could kiss Takeda’s cheeks for him, and he was liked by everyone already, and all the good between them now wasn’t changed by anything that would or wouldn’t happen in the future.

His stomach churned at the thought of the future.

Takeda looked down and away. “Cute,” he said. It was a single word, and Keishin wasn’t even sure he’d been meant to hear it. Still, he could feel his face flush, and he pulled his cap down over his face to hide it. Takeda chuckled, then stood up and walked back over to the party.

Keishin lay back down and listened to his footsteps fade.

This was stupid. Keishin felt a little like he was unraveling, as if he’d failed to hem the edges of himself and was slowly coming undone every time Takeda came near him.

He peered out from under his hat. Not towards the people gathered around the cooler, but up to the sunlight playing through the leaves above.

It hurt.

He wished he knew how to repair the threads. How to bring things back to when he didn’t have this stupid ache for his life to be different than it was.

Shimada came and sat down beside him. “Hey Keishin, you alright?”

“M’fine, why?”

“Well, you haven’t touched your beer,” he said. “Besides, can’t I just worry about you a little? You’re not the only one who gets to fuss.”

“Yeah, alright.” Keishin sat up and pressed on the tab of his beer can. It opened with a satisfying hiss. “Consider me fussed.”

“Ass.” Shimada laughed. “How’s your grandad?”

“Healthy, and as terrifying as ever.” Keishin felt at ease talking with Shimada about this. Everyone who’d been coached by his grandad viewed him with the same mix of respect and fear that Keishin did.

“I’ll bet.” He took a sip of his beer. “You know, if you ever need to get away from family drama for a bit, you can stay over at my place for a night or two, like when we were kids.”

Keishin grinned. “I’ve seen yer place. Where’re you gonna put me, the kitchen?”

“Nah, you would sleep in the bathtub,” he teased. “Obviously.”

Keishin took a swig of beer. He’d missed this, a simple cold beer with a friend. “Nah, family stuff’s alright. No more trouble than usual.”

“Good, good,” Shimada said. He looked over towards the main group, where Uchizawa was cutting a watermelon. Takeda and the others looked on with interest. “Is there… anything else going on?”

“What’s with you today?” Keishin poked him in the ribs. “I’m fine.”

Shimada swatted his hand away. “Keishin, I’ve known you my whole life. Whenever something’s annoying you, you make a big dramatic fuss, yelling and shit.” He poked Keishin back, jabbing right between two ribs. Keishin yelped and cussed. “But when something’s actually wrong, you just pretend everything’s fine and try to deal with it on your own. It’d be easier if you just let your friends help you out.” He pouted. “Especially your best friends.”

Keishin rubbed at his side. He briefly considered what it would be like to tell Shimada what was bothering him. He had tried to come out to Shimada once, in college. It had been an absolute disaster. They’d been so drunk that Keishin’s words were an incoherent mess and Shimada had laughed because he thought he was making a dumb joke, and then Shimada had puked all over the floor. He hadn’t remembered anything about it the next day, and Keishin had quietly decided it was all for the best.

He shook his head. “Look, I know you guys’re here. That’s enough. I’m just tired from the extra shifts at work. Things’ll be better soon.”

Shimada nodded.

Keishin looked back over to the party. Everyone was laughing, carefree in the sun and oblivious to things like how to live when you couldn’t fit your role. They all seemed so perfect.

Nakano was right, he realized.

He needed more gay friends.

--

Keishin stared at his email. He didn’t actually know that many queers. There was Nakano, who was too close to Takeda to be a good sounding board. He didn’t really make conversation on the forums, and the last time he’d asked for advice there the responses had been mixed and somewhat questionable. Ota was the natural choice, but emailing an old hookup to ask for relationship advice seemed… weird.

Don’t make this harder than it is, he thought to himself. Yeah, it’d been over a year since he’d reached out to Ota, but they were both busy people. Ota was a good person, kind and reflective and just the right amount of reckless for them to meet. He would understand.

He ran his fingers over his earrings, then began to write.

 

Hey Ota,

It’s been a while. Sorry about that. How are things going for you? Is Tokyo still treating you well?

I’m still working at my family’s shop out in the sticks. Not much has changed, although I did manage to find a boyfriend, if you can believe it.

 

Keishin typed out a paragraph gushing about Takeda and worrying over what things between them meant. Then he deleted it.

 

It’s nice to find a little happiness when you can. You said something like that that to me once, didn’t you?

I still wear those earrings you gave me. I hope you’re doing well.

-Keishin

 

He hit ‘send’, then flicked the lights off and went to bed. He laid in the dark, his mind buzzing with thoughts until morning.

Chapter Text

My mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never ever open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
‘cause I can never keep anything frozen.

-Andrea Gibson

---

A week after the day at the creek, Keishin’s phone buzzed with a text from Shimada.

Come over to my place ASAP. Emergency level: Godzilla

The text came with no further explanation. Keishin was pretty sure Shimada had used the ‘godzilla’ emergency level only once before, when Takinoue had gotten rejected from all his top college choices and had spent a week shut inside his room.

Keishin locked up at the end of his shift, sent Takeda an apologetic text, and headed over to Shimada’s.

Shimada’s apartment was always disconcertingly neat. It wasn’t as if he was the most fastidious person; Keishin could see rings of dust on some of the shelves and stains in the sink. It was just completely free of clutter. If it weren’t for the brightly patterned curtains and clashing floor cushions, Keishin would think he didn’t live there at all.

Takinoue sat hunched over the low table. The crumpled snack bags and takeout containers around him were a contrast to the rest of Shimada’s stark apartment. He sniffed and wiped at his eyes as Keishin stepped into the room.

“He was dumped,” Shimada explained, blunt as always.

Takinoue didn’t say anything. Shimada’s brow furrowed, like he was expecting a reaction. He went into the kitchen and came back with a few beers.

Keishin sat down across from Takinoue and tried to think of something useful and insightful to say. He decided to start with, “That sucks.”

“I fucked it up,” Takinoue said. “I can’t believe I messed this one up. I thought…” he trailed off.

“Y’thought this was it,” Keishin said after a moment, “so what happened?”

“Keishin, be gentle with him!” Shimada fussed. Like he was the only one who got to be blunt.

“She said we wanted different things,” Takinoue ran his hand through his hair. “She said that I didn’t really get her. That it just wasn’t going to work out. But I did! I swear I thought… I just messed it up. If I’d explained myself better….”

“It’s her loss,” Shimada said. “You can’t make somebody like you.”

“I just thought I’d gotten better!” Takinoue said, frustration rising in his voice. “I’m always the one fucking things up! I’m always too loud, or too much, or not enough…” He covered his face with his hands. “Ever since Kaori I’ve been a mess.”

Oh, boy. Keishin knew it was bad if she was getting brought up. “Tanaka’s not Kaori,” he said.

“Yeah, leave your college ex out of this,” Shimada said. “You know who was a mess? Kaori was a mess. You’ve always deserved better.”

Takinoue hung his head. “But how am I gonna do better? I’m never gonna meet anyone else out here. Saeko’s amazing, and she wants nothing to do with me because I’m a big giant loser who wants too much

“No, knock it off with the self-pity,” Keishin said. “You’re a good guy. If she disagrees, that’s not yer problem.”

“But that’s not the problem,” Takinoue said, “She said I was a good guy. Maybe if I just explained to her what I really wanted…”

“You already told her you wanted to get married before you were thirty,” Shimada cut in. “That’s still true, isn’t it? That you want a wife?”

“Well, yeah, but maybe if I convinced her I’d be good enough, she’d change her mind—”

“Doesn’t work like that,” Shimada said. “You told me that she doesn’t want marriage any time soon, maybe not ever. That’s not about you.”

Keishin had missed that. Funny how people’s lives keep going even when you’re not paying attention.

“She’s not exactly the kinda person t’change her mind once it’s made up,” Keishin said.

“That’s true,” Takinoue looked at him, his expression flickering from sadness to confusion and something else. Then, his face dropped again and Keishin saw tears fall down onto the table. Shimada patted his shoulder while he cried, shaking and sniffling. “I’m gonna die alone,” he whimpered.

Keishin poked him. “That’s impossible. To do that you’d hafta not have any friends, either.”

“Yeah, cheer up!” Shimada rubbed at his shoulder. “You’re always saying we’re here for each other. No matter what.”

Takinoue stilled, his breathing slowing down to normal, but he kept his head lowered.

Shimada squeezed his shoulder. “Do you wanna watch Godzilla?”

Takinoue sniffed again, then sat up a little. “…yes.”

They spent the rest of the night drinking and watching old movies, pretending that life’s problems were as straightforward as the giant monsters on the screen. Takinoue cried a few more times, mostly slow sniffles and a few hoarse sobs. When he did, Keishin and Shimada would pat him on the back, letting him shake until he settled again.

At the end of the night, Keishin walked Takinoue home. He was stumbling a little, and telling Keishin about how Mothra was really the best possible kaiju character, both for her mix of real-life moth traits and her desire to protect the earth.

“She just… she’s not gonna let anything bad happen, right?”

“Right,” Keishin said. “Those little fairies c’n always call on her t’help.”

“Yeah.” Takinoue stopped walking. Keishin stopped and turned to look at him. “Keishin, you’re gonna stay here, aren’t you? In this town?”

“Sure,” Keishin said. “I’ve got more reason t’stay than you do.”  …and maybe more reasons not to stay, but he wasn’t going to tell him that. His life was pretty well anchored here.

“That’s good. Sometimes I feel… like time isn’t moving at all, but it is, you know? We’ve been friends since we were kids, but we’re not the same now. I just… I wanna know what it’s like, bein’ friends with you both when we’re old. Older.”

“We will. I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Keishin said.

Takinoue nodded slowly. “Okay. But even if we moved far away, or when we’re married, we can still watch movies together and drink beer like tonight?”

“You plannin’ on goin’ somewhere?”

“No,” Takinoue sniffed, “I like it here.”

Keishin threw an arm over Takinoue’s shoulders. “Me too. Now c’mon, let’s get you home.”

Takinoue leaned into him, sniffing again. “Okay.”

--

Keishin got home well after midnight. He went through his usual exercises to settle his mind, then checked his email before bed. He had a reply from Ota.

Keishin,

I’m glad you’re doing well. I think about you every now and then and wonder how you’re doing. I appreciate getting updates! Sorry it takes me a while to respond, things have been busy and I get overwhelmed by a lot of emails.

As for how I’m doing… things are okay. I moved to Nagoya for work a few months ago, and it’s been pretty lonely out here so far. I stopped drinking recently (long story), so the gay bars aren’t a good idea for me right now. I tried going to a queer guys’ support group meeting, but it was kind of awkward. I’m not sure how much I have in common with everyone. Still, I think I’ll keep trying.

Sorry, that got a little depressing! I really appreciate your email. How’d you manage to meet someone way out there?

-Ota

Keishin let out a sigh, relieved that they could pick up the natural pace of their conversations where they’d left things over a year ago. He started to type a reply, deleted it, tried again, then decided he was too exhausted to be coherent. He resolved to answer it later, then tried to catch a couple hours of sleep before his four o’clock shift.

--

Being exhausted and hungover at work should not be this normal.

Keishin stretched behind the counter at the store. He felt… terrible, honestly. But his hangover was relatively merciful. Drinking with Takinoue and Shimada was easier on his system than trying to keep up with Takeda during those sake-filled nights of theirs.

He wondered how long he could keep it up: the drinking, the sleepless nights, the early shifts, increased practice for the neighborhood team, not to mention coaching the kids. Cold and flu season would arrive in a month or so, and he always managed to catch every damn cough and runny nose that came through town. He knew it would only be worse this time around.

Still, for now… the shop was quiet. It was a Sunday, in the mid-morning lull between early shoppers and kids looking for lunch. He yawned, and was just contemplating whether he could get away with a brief cat nap when the bell on the shop door rang.

Azumane walked in, his large frame curled into his usual shy posture. He looked at Keishin like a nervous puppy.

“Mornin’,” Keishin nodded at him.

“Good morning,” Azumane said. He made his way to the tables and chairs. “I was wondering if I could, um, ask you… if you’re not too busy…”

Keishin hauled himself up and walked around the counter. He sat down across from the boy and tried to look more awake than he felt.

“Coach, do people ever… misunderstand you?”

Keishin stared at him, repressing the sudden panic that lurched in his stomach. “Sure…” he said, “…why?”

“How do you…” Azumane bit his lip. “I mean, is there a way I can make people like me more? Everyone thinks I’m scary, and then they’re disappointed when I’m not. They seem to like it okay when it’s the other way around, like with Daichi, but then I don’t know if I want to be scary like that. What if dogs were afraid of me? Not that they’re afraid of Daichi! I just wanted to seem a little cool. But I’m also worried that maybe people think I’m a pushover. And maybe I am, but I don’t want to be when I’m on the court! Although, my serves are still weak…”

“Stop, stop!” Keishin waved at him. “D’you actually wanna address any of this, or are you just here to vent?”

Azumane jumped. “Sorry! I want to address things! I’m not just wasting your time, I promise!”

“Y’can’t deal with everything in one bite. Instead of listing all your worries, take ‘em one at a time.”

“Okay. Um,” Azumane fidgeted, as if he wasn’t certain what to do with his hands. “Sometimes people don’t believe me when I say I’m still in high school.”

“In less than a year y’won’t be in school anymore. Problem will solve itself.”

“But,” Azumane protested, “people think I’m scary.”

“You can change your image if y’really want,” Keishin said. He really wanted to be done with this conversation. “Though in my experience people who’re gonna judge you because of a rough appearance aren’t really worth talkin’ to anyway.”

“But… what if they want me to be something I’m not? Am I disappointing? I’m not cool like you, and even though I look older, I feel like I’m less mature than my friends…”

Keishin sighed. He wasn’t cool, and all this was doing was reminding him of his own burning insecurities as a teenager. “Look, you’re eighteen. You don’t have t’ be grown up all of a sudden or do things you’re not ready for yet. The best y’can do is be honest about what you do and don’t want. What you need and what you don’t.”

“Okay. Um, and my serves…”

“Consistency in your form will help the most. For that you just need t’practice.”

“And my future plans, after high school I—”

Keishin was saved from the conversation by the bell on the shop door. Takeda stepped inside and gave them both a little wave.

“O-okay, thanks coach! I have to go now!!” Azumane stood up. He bowed, and, as quickly and politely as he could, stepped around Takeda and out of the shop.

“Was Azumane-kun getting some extra volleyball tutoring?” Takeda asked.

“Yeah, but mostly just worrying.” Keishin shook his head “…Some of the kids have started asking me for advice,” he admitted. “Dunno why. You’d think it’d be obvious I don’t have my shit together.”

Takeda smiled. “But you do, especially in their eyes. They don’t see how messy adulthood actually is, but we still have things we can offer them.”

“Mmm, I guess. You more than me.

“They trust you. You’re an authority figure, but not as stuffy as a lot of other adults around. Plus, unlike, say, a parent or a teacher,” Takeda gestured to himself, “You’re not grading their papers or guiding their larger life decisions at all, so they can take more risks with you. They can ask different questions.”

“I guess.” Keishin walked back behind the counter and lit a cigarette. “Just feels a little deceptive. They act like I got everything figured out.”

“They look at you and see everything you’ve accomplished and learned already. When you look at yourself, you only see what you have yet to learn and accomplish.” Takeda was leaning against the counter, smiling at him fondly.

“Hmm.” Keishin met his eyes, then looked Takeda over and grinned. “Didya need somethin’ today, sensei? Or are y’just here t’ distract me from work?”

Takeda’s smile turned flirtatious. “I can multitask.”

They were interrupted by the bell on the shop door. Hayami walked in. Her silver hair was up in a bun, and her face lit up when she saw Takeda.

“Oh, the young sensei!” she cooed.

Keishin rushed to smother his cigarette behind the counter.

“Hayami-san, good afternoon!” Takeda gave her a million-watt smile.

“Oh, aren’t you just the sweetest neighbor,” she smiled at him, in her way that was eerily similar to Nekomata. “Say, did I hear you playing Japan X the other night? The rock band?”

Keishin could feel himself starting to turn bright red. Of course this Hayami was Takeda’s neighbor. Of course she’d heard the music they’d used to drown out the noise from… things. He buried his nose in the newest copy of Shonen Jump to hide the sudden burning on his cheeks.

“Oh, I’m so sorry about that!” Takeda said. Keishin could imagine him bowing. “I’ve started to get into rock music lately. I find it helps me relax. I hope I didn’t disturb you!”

“You too, huh?!” She sounded delighted. “There’s nothing like it to unwind, right? Gets your blood pumping, and yet it’s soothing too.”

Keishin wanted to die.

“Oh, yes! And there’s so much nuance to it I never thought to pay attention to until now!” Takeda said.

“Well if you like that, you should try some other bands as well. Loudness, maybe… or Abigal if you’re feeling adventurous! I have some CDs I could lend you, if you’d like.”

“Only if it’s no trouble! I’ll try to use those headphones you gave me if it’s too late at night. I am sorry about that.”

“Oh no, don’t worry about it. I understand that sometimes you just need to rock out, right? It never sounds the same over headphones.”

“As long as I don’t disturb you—”

“Now, now, I told you not to worry. We metalheads need to stick together!” she made a weird gesture with her hand. “Now, Keishin, be a dear and help me get my liquor.”

Keishin put on his best customer service face and set the magazine down. He walked around the counter and grabbed the bottle from the top shelf while Hayami hummed happily to herself. She paid and went on her way.

He managed to keep himself together until she left the shop and rounded the corner.

“Sensei,” he buried his face in his hands. “Did y’know Hayami-san was into rock music?”

Takeda grinned. “She subscribes to a few metalhead magazines. I’ve seen them in her mailbox.”

“You’re a menace,” Keishin said.

Persistent,” Takeda shot back. “I knew this could solve our noise problem.”

“Y’sure do know how t’get what y’want.” He couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “Hayami-san’s a sharp one. I’m impressed.”

“It’s nothing. I like her, you know.” He grinned at Keishin. “Even if she does make you get the top-shelf liquor just so that she can check out your ass.”

“She what??”

“Don’t worry about it!” Takeda laughed. “She has good taste. I’ll see you at practice?”

Keishin wondered if his face was ever going to stop burning. “Yeah. …and after my shift?”

Takeda waved as he stepped out the door. “Of course, I’m looking forward to it!”

--

Their date that night was watching one of the movies from the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. This one was called The Weekend, and was from the UK. It started out with a hookup in a gay bar. Familiar enough territory. Keishin hoped it would have a happy ending.

“Wait,” he said, squinting at the screen. “That… doesn’t look like a normal cigarette.”

“Oh,” Takeda said, as if he was commenting on the weather. “It’s probably marijuana.”

Keishin squirmed in his seat.  Were they seriously acting like this was no big deal?

The movie went on, with more smoking and sex and arguing about various aspects of queer identity. During the character’s last night together, they brought out some kind of white substance.

“Is that... what is that?!” Keishin gaped at it.

“Hm? It’s cocaine,” Takeda answered.

Keishin gaped at him. Then, another argument broke out between the characters on screen and his attention snapped back to the movie.

When the film ended, Takeda leaned back and stretched.

“Thank you,” Takeda said, “I enjoyed that. It was an interesting take on a love story. A little self-conscious, but that suited the character’s struggles. What did you think?”

“I…” Keishin struggled to come up with something smart, then decided to go with honest instead. “There were a lot of drugs. But it seemed like we were supposed to see them as normal people… were we?”

“Yes,” Takeda said. “My understanding is that it’s not as taboo over there.”

“But it’s still illegal, isn’t it?”

“Sure, but lots of things are illegal that people do anyway. If homosexuality was illegal here, it’d still be practiced.”

Keishin squirmed again. “Sensei… have you ever…” He trailed off when Takeda met his eye.

“Have I ever… what?” he gave Keishin his most innocent look. “Broken the law? But Ukai-kun, I’m a teacher!

…Of course.

Keishin sighed. “Just tell me you’ve never been arrested.”

Takeda laughed, “No, never anything that exciting. Did you like the movie?”

Keishin desperately wanted to say yes. “I’ve never seen anythin’ like it. They argued a lot.”

“Yes. I appreciated that it allowed the two characters to discuss issues affecting their queer identity from very different perspectives. Some of it was a little hard to relate to,” Takeda admitted, “but that’s a good reminder that things are different in other places. And that LGBT people are everywhere.”

“Mmn.” Keishin realized he should say more, but he just didn’t have it. The movie had been an alienating, and at times overwhelming, experience. He’d need to think on it for a while at the very least. Meanwhile, Takeda had taken everything in stride and was able to say smart things about it afterwards. Keishin felt the difference between the two of them, sometimes, as a broad and deep chasm that he could barely shout across.

Keishin pushed himself to think back on what he knew for sure. “Thanks for watching it with me. I like the way you talk about this stuff.”

Takeda beamed at him, and Keishin’s doubts faded back to the darker corners of his mind.

--

Later in the week, Keishin sat exhausted and vaguely hungover behind the counter at the shop. His phone buzzed, grating against a headache that had been growing for weeks. It was a text from Takeda.

Is there any chance you can get off work tonight? There’s something I need to talk to you about after practice.

Takeda rarely texted during a work day. Keishin checked in with his ma, who was disconcertingly delighted to cover the evening shift for him, then sent Takeda a reply.

yeah, my ma will cover the store. looking forward to it.

That afternoon, Yachi and Kiyoko didn’t come to practice.

Keishin figured they must be sick, or doing some task Takeda had given them that required being out of the gym.

Practice itself went on as usual, although Tanaka’s bickering and Nishinoya’s roughhousing were a little subdued without the girls around.

Keishin yawned and led the team to practice receives. The first years seemed to have plenty of energy. Hinata bounced on his toes between each drill and Kageyama dove for ball after ball without slowing down. Keishin wondered where they got all that energy, and if he could have some of it for himself.

When Takeda arrived, he greeted Keishin with a slight nod. He seemed distracted, and kept at least a meter of space between them throughout the rest of practice. It worried him, but by now Keishin had figured out that it could mean anything, usually that Takeda was hungry or wanted physical touch.

They could take care of that later.

For now, the team was practicing their defense. It was painful and exhausting to watch the kids dive over and over, flubbing at least a quarter of receives. Takeda seemed to feel it too, his brow furrowing whenever he thought Keishin wasn’t looking.

“It’ll be alright,” Keishin said. “They’re improving every day.”

“Oh!” Takeda replied, startled out of his state. “Yes! They’re doing well,” he said. He looked away, his brow furrowing again as soon as he thought Keishin’s attention was off him.

…Right.

Keishin gave up on the small talk for now.

After practice, they locked up the gym and walked to Takeda’s. Keishin smoked and waited for him to start a conversation, make an observation about the team, or just say anything at all. Instead, Takeda kept fidgeting with the strap of his bag, and he wouldn’t meet Keishin’s eye.

Keishin bit down his nerves. This should be a familiar dance. They’d get somewhere private and he’d see that Takeda got fed or fucked or whatever else he needed, and everything would be right again.

Takeda’s tension didn’t fade when they got into his apartment. He didn’t turn to kiss Keishin, or flick the stereo on, or offer to help with meal prep. Instead, he went and sat down at the low table, his face solemn.

Keishin sat across from him. Dread swelled up from his gut.

“Thank you for coming here,” Takeda said, as if it was the start of a meeting at work. “I’ll get right to the point, if you don’t mind.”

Keishin nodded.

“I was called into my boss’ office earlier today. Shimizu-chan’s parents have approached the school with some concerns.” Takeda took in a shaky breath. “Apparently, they found Shimizu-chan and Yachi-chan kissing.”

“What?” Keishin startled. “Like, for practice? Or…. like us?”

Takeda gave him a sad smile. “Like us, it appears.”

Keishin thought back to all the times he’d seem them together, little touches and smiles he’d misinterpreted as some unique property of female friendship rather than what they were.

“…Shit.” Keishin knew it was hard enough being a queer kid in this town. Being caught by the type of assholes who brought it to the school had always been his worst nightmare.

“They want me to talk to them,” Takeda said. “I’m supposed to meet with the parents to hear their concerns… and then talk to Shimizu and Yachi. Remind them of their futures. Encourage them to take another path.” His expression soured. “Tell them to ‘do right’.”  

Takeda took his glasses off and hid his face with his hand. “They want you to be at the meeting, too.” He sighed. “I’m so sorry. I tried to get you out of it.”

“It’s alright,” Keishin said. “I’ll be there.”

“Thank you.” Takeda lowered his hand, though his gaze stayed fixed on the table. Dark circles were under his eyes, and Keishin thought he looked sad, or homesick. “I knew this would be hard. I’m just… tired.”

Keishin stood up. At this rate Takeda might cry, or he would cry. He sat down behind Takeda and put his arms around him. “It’s alright. I’m here.”

As if that would do anything. As if Keishin could do anything to help this situation at all.

Still, Takeda leaned back into him. Keishin listened to the sound of his breathing, which was slow and deliberately steady. He held him for a while, just letting the silence stretch out and back into something like comfort.

Keishin kissed the top of his head, then made them dinner. It was a simple dish of curried rice, improvised from takeout leftovers Takeda had in his fridge, but it would do.

“Here.” Keishin set two bowls on the table, one in front of Takeda. “Eat.”

After a few bites, Takeda seemed to perk up enough to talk again, at least.

“So, what’s our strategy for this?” Keishin asked.

“Protecting the students is our top priority,” Takeda said. “If we don’t make it clear that we understand their fears, the parents may feel the need to take matters into their own hands, which we don’t want. At the same time, if we seem overly concerned it will only escalate the situation. I will put as much emphasis as I can on my future one-on-one conversations with the students, and on the importance of handling the situation discreetly and without interrupting their studies or extracurricular activities.”

“Makes sense. What do you need me to do?”

“This is my job and my responsibility, so allow me to do as much of the talking as possible. They may ask you if you knew, or if you noticed anything between them that seemed suspicious, or they might ask how they spend time at practice. You are free to answer however you wish, but I feel that emphasizing the positive impacts club participation has brought them would be helpful.”

“Got it.” Keishin set his chopsticks down on top of his empty bowl. After a moment he let out a heavy sigh. “…this sucks.”

“It is certainly not ideal,” Takeda agreed. “But, we can do what we can. Those girls have allies in both of us.”

“Right.”

--

Keishin set another bundle of freshly cut rice by the thresher. Then he walked down the field, squatted, cut another bundle, and walked back. He was nearly done with the row.

His shoulder ached, and was making little crunching noises whenever he moved. He shrugged, as if he could just pop it back into the right place, then walked down the field again.

He was trying, unsuccessfully, not to think about the meeting later at the school. He’d already asked his ma to cover his shift at the store, and had rehearsed everything he could say to the parents in his head. All that was left now was useless worry.

He hated that things had come to this, and hated himself for being in a position where he was expected to be any kind of example, let alone be the asshole adult who told kids they were in the wrong. He wondered what had happened to lead him here, then remembered Takeda, and his own stupid pride.

Bird song was echoing throughout the valley, too peaceful for his mood. He turned the rice thresher on, the engine drowning out all other sounds. He fed bundles of rice into the machine, which shook and shuddered and threw straw out one way while it poured grains of rice into a bag. Once in a while he’d stop, carry the full bag to the truck down the hill, and start again. It was a soothing sort of rhythm.

Just as he was nearly finished, he saw his da making his way up the hill. Wordlessly, he helped Keishin move the last few bags.

“Don’t suppose I can catch a ride back with you?” his da asked as they loaded the last bag into the back.

Keishin nodded, and they both hopped into the truck to transport the rice back to be processed. Once they were inside, his da kept looking him over thoughtfully. Keishin knew he must want something. The field he’d been working that morning was the biggest pain in the ass to get to without a truck, the highest up that they actually farmed. He just needed to wait for his da to decide to talk.

Halfway down the road, his da cleared his throat. “Keishin, I got a letter today.”

Keishin swallowed, unsure if he could handle more bad news. “Yeah?”

“From our distributor. They’re changing the terms of their contracts with all their smaller farms, includin’ us. Looks like they wanna have us deliver to their central site, rather than the little regional places we were goin’ before. Dunno why, but we c’n set our price for the longer trip or work with someone else.”

“Hmm,” Keishin thought it over. “What about that new place? That Shimada’s been workin’ with?”

“That’s what I was thinkin’,” his da nodded. “They’ll still do things by region.”

Keishin bit his lip. “What’s the mileage on all those small trips, though?”

“Hm?”

“Well, if it’s the same or more than the total distance of going to the central site, we might actually be better off.”

His da nodded slowly. “We’d need a bigger truck.”

“I can run the numbers, if you wanna be sure.”

His da nodded, smiling in a way that told Keishin he’d passed whatever test that had been. “Yeah, I’d appreciate it. I’ll give you the keys to my office so you c’n do that before you go to the store.”

And so Keishin spent the rest of his shift typing numbers into his da’s ancient computer. The damn thing was so slow he wound up doing a lot of the calculating by hand. He was just adding up some final figures and cussing under his breath when the door to the office opened.

His grandad walked in. He seemed brighter than the last time Keishin had seem him, though just as sharp and imposing. Keishin nodded to him, a little afraid to do anything else.

His grandad walked up to the desk where he was working, and began to scrutinize the numbers and ledgers he’d spread out everywhere. After a while, he seemed satisfied and he nodded, then turned to go out the door again.

“Harvest’s goin’ well this year,” he said after he opened the door. “Y’should guess your da’s numbers are off by at least five percent.”

“Okay,” Keishin said.

His grandad walked out.

Keishin breathed a sigh of relief. The jab at his da’s managing skills had been a little unnecessary. Still, he adjusted his numbers and started again.

--

“This is absolutely ridiculous.” Yachi Madoka set her pen down on the table. It wasn’t hard, but something in her demeaner made it seem like a judge’s pommel. “What on earth made you think this was necessary?”

“We have our daughter’s future to consider. If you would consider yours—”

“Consider her future? I do, and it’s not one where this kind of bigoted behavior is tolerated—”

“Everyone, please, calm down. I hear your concerns.” The vice principal cleared his throat. The three parents, and Keishin and Takeda, stopped to look at him. “I can assure you, Karasuno is focused on helping all of its students succeed. This incident is unfortunate, but—”

“No, the only thing unfortunate here is the absolute ignorance you people have shown.” Yachi-san’s patience was thinning by the minute. “My daughter is convinced that something is wrong with her because you’ve decided to make a fuss over nothing.”

“Yachi-san, I apologize for the hassle,” Shimizu Miho said, bowing her head slightly. “But you must try to understand. Your daughter is still a first year. Kiyoko is about to graduate and she needs to be thinking about her future. She’s too old to play these kinds of games.”

Games are exactly why I asked you all here,” Shimizu Hiroji cleared his throat. “What exactly did the school know about all of this? They met through the volleyball team, correct?”

“Yes,” Takeda said. “That is correct.”

Hiroji gave Takeda look of disdain that made Keishin’s blood boil. “And did you not realize they were becoming… distracted?”

“No,” Takeda stood his ground. “Both students have only shown an increase in their focus on the club activities and improvements in their academic achievements since starting the club.”

Hiroji turned to Keishin, as if waiting for him to chime in.

“They’re good kids,” Keishin said, because that couldn’t be argued. “Driven. Done more for the club than anyone could ask and kept their grades top notch.”

“And you hadn’t noticed Kiyoko’s behavior?” Miho cut in. “She’s always struggled to fit in. Things like this can only hurt her chances even more. I’ve always warned her that people won’t put up with this sort of thing for long.”

Her words were like little barbs that dug their way into Keishin’s heart, and he could feel his temper start to boil over. He pressed the feeling down, down, down.

She was just worried.

Still, his jaw was clenched so tight that it began to ache.

“The only changes I’ve noticed in her have been positive ones.” Takeda pulled out his teacher’s notes. “Increased sociability, confidence, and more positive interactions with classmates. Improved grades. She’s been doing incredibly well.”

Hiroji looked at Keishin again.

“It’s exactly as sensei says,” he said, working hard to keep his voice level. He could only guess why Hiroji thought Keishin’s word counted over Takeda’s. Maybe because Takeda looked younger than he was, or because he was from out of town. Or maybe it was because of Keishin’s grandad.

Keishin felt sick.

“I’m relieved,” Miho said. “Now, we just need to make sure she doesn’t lose that progress.”

“I agree completely,” Takeda said. “We should consider what to do next very carefully, so as not to interrupt her studies.”

“I’m more concerned about this interrupting their studies, especially for Hitoka!” Yachi-san said. “I’ll make sure she’s strong enough to deal with all of… this,” she waved at everyone in the room. “But you should know that if I catch one word of rumors about her or any bullying as a result of this meeting, I will make a formal complaint to the school’s funding board and pursue the consequences to their fullest.”

“I assure you, this will be handled with as much discretion as possible!” the vice principal said, eager to soothe her.

“Yes, I’ll be meeting with each of them individually. It will look like nothing more than an additional career counseling session to others, and should help them each focus on their most important priorities.” Takeda agreed.

Yachi-san turned to Keishin, her sharp eyes boring into him. He nodded and tried not to visibly shrink in his chair.

“It’s not as though we want Kiyoko to quit her extracurriculars,” Hiroji said. “Just to consider the appearance of things.”

“We were so excited when she wanted to manage the boys’ team,” Miho sighed. “Maybe encourage her in that direction, hm?”

“I’ll keep ‘em focused on volleyball,” Keishin said dryly.

“Very well then,” the vice principal cleared his throat. “With that settled, I believe we should move on to their studies. Does that agree with everyone?”

There was general nodding from the Shimizus and from Yachi-san, though she still looked like she wanted to set the room on fire.

“Very well,” the vice principal said again. “Ukai-san, you can go. Takeda-sensei and I need to discuss this further.”

Keishin stepped outside the room, his head buzzing with anger and frustration. He wanted a smoke, and a nap, and maybe a case of beer to wash himself free of this damn mess. He pulled the exit door open and stepped out into the sunlight.

He was already reaching for his cigarettes when he noticed Yachi curled up on the step just outside the exit, her face buried in her hands. He paused for a moment and briefly considered whether or not to go back inside and give her some privacy. He decided loneliness would probably be the worse option.

“Hey, kid.” He closed the door and stepped down to stand a few feet away from her.

She whimpered, acknowledging him without looking up. She was shaking, a wet handkerchief clutched in one hand.

Keishin stood there with her for a while, silent while she cried it out. He checked to see if he was downwind, then lit a cigarette. He knew he shouldn’t smoke on school grounds but at this point, fuck this place. He exhaled a cloud of smoke and watched it drift up and disperse into the air.

After a while, Yachi began to quiet down. She lifted her head and stared at the ground in front of her. She seemed placid for a moment, then her face scrunched and she curled in on herself again. When she spoke, it was just on the edge of hearing.

“It was my first kiss.” She choked out half a sob.

Keishin felt his chest tighten.

“Your first kiss, huh?” He turned his head and exhaled again. Smoke curled and blew away. “That’s pretty lucky, t’ have your first kiss with a beautiful senpai.”

Yachi sniffed and was still for a moment. “But I messed it up. Everything is ruined now and it’s all my fault!” She buried her face in her hands again.

“No,” Keishin said. “It’s their fault, every damn bit of it.”

He snuffed the cigarette out and sat down on the stoop beside her.

“I dunno what the best course of action is from here,” he said. “That’s somethin’ only you and Shimizu-chan can figure out. But there’s no shame in anythin’ you’ve done. Just because other people have decided to be shitholes doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong.” Keishin winced at his own language. He should probably at least try to sound like a good mentor. “Be proud that you were honest with your feelings. That’s something you can both treasure.”

She sniffed again. “Can I still come to practice tomorrow?”

“Of course,” he said. “We’d be lost without our new manager.”

“Okay. I’ll… try to bring that stuff I found about the other teams in the prelims. I haven’t had time to organize it yet though.” New tears fell down her face. “I’m sorry I’m such a disaster.”

“It’ll be alright,” he said. “We c’n do it together. We’re a team, which means you’re not alone in this. Any of this, alright?”

“Okay.” Yachi buried her face in her handkerchief and then blew her nose with a loud honk. “I wish…” She uncurled and glanced up at the sky, white clouds drifting across the bright blue. “…I keep imagining somebody who can deal with all this. Someone much stronger than me. Who can be there for everyone. And for her, if she wants it. I want to be that strong, someday.”

Keishin looked up at the sky with her. “You’re closer than you think, kid.”

--

Keishin’s phone buzzed when Takeda was done with the meeting.

meeting's done. my place?

Keishin waited by the store for him, smoking and trying to keep his nervous fidgeting to a minimum. He perked up when he saw Takeda walking down the hill.

“Hey,” Keishin said, “How’d it go?”

“It was…” Takeda sighed. “About as well as you’d expect. I’m meeting with the students tomorrow.”

“I talked with Yachi-chan a little,” Keishin said. “I think she’ll be okay, since she has you and her mom. I haven’t seen Shimizu-chan at all. Have you?”

“No, not yet. I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

The walked the rest of the way in silence. Takeda’s brow kept furrowing, or he’d stare off at nothing in the distance. It hurt to see him like this, and Keishin started listing the ways he could help in his head.

When they got inside, Takeda was still a shadow of his usual vibrant self.

Keishin put a hand on his shoulder. “You doin’ alright?”

“Yeah,” Takeda hesitated. “I’ll be fine.”

“Y’did a hard thing today.” Keishin went to put his arms around him, to offer what comfort he could.

Takeda flinched away.

Keishin froze.

“I’m sorry,” Takeda said. “I just… this is too much.”

Oh, Keishin thought. Here it is.

“I told myself I could handle this. But hearing my boss today, seeing how he handled things, I just—” Takeda stopped himself to look up into Keishin’s face. Then he looked down again. “What on earth am I doing?” he said quietly.

Keishin didn’t say anything. He felt rooted to the spot, as if as long as he didn’t move or speak, whatever was happening would stop.

Takeda continued, “I’m sorry. It just never really seemed real to me, what it could actually be like out here. Not until today.” Takeda reached out, as if to touch Keishin, then his hands stopped and hovered awkwardly between them before they fell back to his sides. “Could you just… let me think for a little while? I need to be alone.”

Keishin swallowed. “Yeah. Okay.” He turned back to the entryway. He felt like a robot as he slipped his sandals on and reached for the door.

“Ukai-kun,” Takeda said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Keishin nodded, because talking was too hard. He just wanted to leave and get home and get away from this and whatever Takeda was thinking.

Even though he already knew what he was thinking.

--

When Keishin got home, he quietly shut himself in his room. The place was a mess: scattered magazines and full ashtrays and dirty clothes. It had gotten worse since his new schedule left him with no time to clean up.

He forced himself to take a deep breath. Emotions railed in him, too many and too strong to deal with right now.

He pulled out his phone and typed out a quick message to Nakano.

SetAndReady: you know that thing you do where you message me when I’m feeling down?
SetAndReady: you should do that for sensei now

Bananakano: take-chan?
Bananakano: are you two okay??!?

SetAndReady: just a hard day. I’m going to bed.

Keishin shut his phone off before any more messages could come in.

He spread out his futon and stared at the ceiling, still focused on keeping his breathing steady. He could hear the usual little noises of the house: the muffled sound of voices from downstairs, the hum of his electric fan, the insects outside. It was deafening, overwhelming, and distant.

Takeda was center in his mind, but the thoughts around him were too painful to touch. He bit his lip, lit a cigarette, and opened his laptop in search of some distraction.

Ota’s email was still open on the screen. This time, Keishin sent a reply.

Ota,

Things sound tough out there. Trust me, I get it.

The support group thing makes sense. Just because someone is queer doesn’t mean you have anything in common with them. You can like the same thing but still have completely different viewpoints. I’ve never really understood why people have this expectation that being gay is enough for a friendship or a relationship.

Maybe we just really are that lonely.

-Keishin

Chapter Text

I plant my fear in the raised bed
in your bedroom.
Pansies bloom all night.

-Andrea Gibson

--

It rained all morning. The kind of heavy downpour that kept even the most industrious of creatures hidden in what shelter they could find. Keishin tromped down the path from the far field, his boots caked heavy with mud. The rain sounded thunderous on the hood of his poncho, and the slick plastic shifted uncomfortably as he walked.

He had adjusted the drainage pipes around the most at-risk fields for flooding. Now all they could do was pray it dried out fast enough to finish the harvest. He scraped the mud off his boots as best he could, then stepped inside the office to finish cleaning up.

It was nonsense to get weather like this during this time of year. You heard stories about it: weird weather as the climate kept shifting. He snorted and shook out the water from inside his boots. Global phenomenon, sure. Didn’t give it any right to come here.

He bit his lip as the realities of the last few days started to creep into his thoughts.

Yachi’s tears.

The judgement in Shimizu-san’s eyes.

He glanced around the office, desperately trying to find something to do. Accounts were settled. Machines tended. Everyone else had gone home already, their usefulness limited by the storm.

The way Takeda had flinched away from him.

He cursed under his breath and grabbed his things. If he couldn’t be helpful here, he’d just go home.

The bike ride home was miserable, suffocatingly humid, and the rain made a curtain of grey he could barely see through. He arrived soaking wet and mud-stained, and parked his bike on the non-store side of the house. He stepped inside, kicked off his shoes, then picked his way quietly towards the bath.

“I just don’t understand it. Can’t he see how hard we’ve worked?” his da’s voice echoed from the store side of the house. Louder than he likely meant it. Angry.

Keishin froze.

“Nobody’s doubtin’ your work, Shoji,” his ma said. “He just hasn’t seen how Keishin’s grown.”

Keishin startled, suddenly aware he was eavesdropping. He wondered how quietly he could dash upstairs. It wasn’t far. He probably wouldn’t even be noticed.

His legs refused to move, held in place by morbid fascination.

“What’s it gonna take, then? He keeps draggin’ his feet on the decisions that matter, and Da’s not gonna wait that long.” His da sighed. “I keep tellin’ him we just need time.

“He’s afraid, dear. Afraid of losin’ power. Afraid that what he’s built won’t get taken care of right.”

“Doesn’t mean he needs t’ incorporate and give everything to a board instead of his own family! I stayed. I’ve worked hard on the place. He should be happy I wanna pass it to my own son instead of some stranger—”

That was enough. Keishin tore himself away. He didn’t need to know. He walked down the hall, dripping a trail of rainwater behind him, then closed himself off in the bath.

He didn’t want to know.

He set the shower to be near-scalding and poured the water over himself, scrubbing furiously at the mud and sweat that clung to his skin. He imagined each spot as a memory.

Takeda’s flinch.

Scrubbed away.

His parents’ disappointed voices.

Scrubbed away.

His grandad’s judgement that yes, leaving the farm to the unambitious family fuckup was a bad plan.

Scrubbed away.

The knowledge that he was probably right.

Keishin winced as he poured hot water over his face. He let himself wallow for a moment, feeling all the frustration and self-loathing his mind could throw at him. A torrent of emotion.

Then, he turned off the faucet and took a breath.

Okay, he told himself. It sucks.

It really sucks.

But there’s work to do.

He toweled off and got dressed. It always seemed weird to him to shower in the middle of the day, but at least he felt a little better.

He spent the rest of the morning unpacking and moving inventory for the store. He checked his phone a few times, worried about Takeda, but no message came. There were about twenty unread messages from Nakano, but he hadn’t looked at them yet. He’d deal with that later, when things felt less cramped and grey.

The afternoon hours crawled by until it was finally time to leave for the gym. By then the rain had settled into a grey smattering, the midday heat turning the puddles on the road into an oppressive haze. He made the trek up the hill in equal parts hurry and trepidation.

The kids were already hard at work by the time he arrived, and the gym stank of sweat. Shimizu and Yachi were on the sidelines, standing together yet apart, their posture stiff and awkward. Yachi perked up when she saw him. Shimizu flinched and lowered her head.

Right.

Keishin barked a few orders at the kids on the court. “Keep those blocks strong! Remember your positioning! Clean that sweat off the floor!”

Pleased that his orders were being followed, he made his way over to Shimizu and Yachi. Shimizu’s expression tightened a little as he approached.

He stood in front of them and cleared his throat. They looked up, as if expecting him to make a speech. “You said you had info on the other teams at the prelims,” he prompted.

“Yes!” Yachi grabbed her notebook and presented it to him.

Her notes were easy-to-read and organized. He hummed and nodded as he looked it over, fascinated by the way each school had evolved since his own high school days.

“This is good,” he said. “Shimizu-chan, you have that data from the inter-high?”

Shimizu nodded, her face a placid mask.

“Great, you two can organize this by teams that may prove the most troublesome for us. Teams that take a systematic and calm approach tend to be our weakness, but anything else that stands out to you would be helpful. There’s always a few surprises, but the more we know going in, the better.”

Yachi nodded, then glanced nervously at Shimizu. Shimizu kept her face neutral, her eyes cast down.

Keishin tried to give them what he hoped was his best Reassuring Mentor Smile, “Thanks! We’re counting on you.”

They nodded awkwardly. Keishin walked away, feeling about as graceful and eloquent as a flamingo in socks.

Still, he felt better having done it. Anything to make things seem normal again. He turned his attention to the practice, guiding the kids into various formation drills.

They were a good team. The summer of hard training and trips to Tokyo had paid off, and the flow of the team was only getting stronger by the day. They could get their revenge on Seijoh, maybe even clear Shiratorizawa if they played their cards right. He thought of Naoi and Nekomata, and his lips curled into a smile at the thought of humiliating them on the national stage. It was a sharp dream, tinged with the comfortable familiarity of rivalry.

He was interrupted from his thoughts with a tug on his sleeve.

“It’s good to see you, Ukai-kun,” Takeda’s voice stole his attention.

“Sensei! Uh, yeah,” he said, unable to hide his surprise and relief that Takeda had gone out of his way to touch him. “How did… how are you doing?”

“As well as can be expected, given the circumstances. I’ll tell you more tonight after your shift.”

“I can get off early, if y’want,” Keishin said, a little too quickly.

“Only if it’s no trouble.” Takeda smiled, emphasizing the tired bags under his eyes. “I know your family needs you.”

“It’ll be fine,” Keishin said. His ma was delighted to cover what she assumed were after-practice dates. Which they were, technically. “I’ll make us somethin’, or we can get a drink or whatever.”

Takeda laughed, sounding as tired as he looked. “I could definitely use a drink.”

The ball ricocheted off a bad receive and came flying between the two of them. Keishin jumped. “Watch it!” he barked.

Tanaka came running up to fetch it the ball. “Sorry coach! ‘scuse me, Take-chan!” He grinned sheepishly as he took the ball back to the court.

They turned their attention back to practice, Keishin leading the team while Takeda took notes.

Later, they left Sawamura to lock up and walked to Takeda’s place. The silence on the walk seemed to sway between tension and comfort as Keishin tried to anticipate their conversation.

When they got inside, Keishin set his gym bag on the floor next to one of Takeda’s bookshelves. He was starting to realize how exhausted he was, the stress of the last few days finally catching up with him.

Takeda seemed tired, too. He regarded Keishin carefully, then stepped forward and leaned into him, his hands on Keishin’s sides. “I’m sorry this is late,” he said.

Keishin set his hands on Takeda’s shoulder blades, relaxing into the embrace. He took in all the details of it: the feel of Takeda’s fingertips at his waist, the orangey scent of his shampoo, the way their bodies fit together. “It’s alright. You never have to… it’s alright.”

“I’m in a better space now. Thank you for your patience,” Takeda said. He pulled back, then went to sit at the table, gesturing for Keishin to join him.

Keishin settled in across from him. “So, uh. How’d it go this morning?”

“Both girls are shaken, obviously. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through something like this.” Takeda sighed, then squared his shoulders, as if reminding himself to continue on. “Yachi is more resilient than she first appears. She’s unhappy, but I think she can shake this. Her mom is an incredible woman, and that softens the blow. We’ll still want to watch out for her, especially in the coming months or years. She’ll have a lot to face, but I’m glad she has the people in her life that she does. Including us.”

“Yeah,” Keishin agreed. “She’s tougher than she seems. I’m glad… it was you that talked to them.” Keishin could only imagine what bullshit any of the teachers from his day would have said.

“It’s… I did what I could.” Takeda glanced away. “I’m still worried about Shimizu. She’s graduating soon and under a lot of pressure. Apparently, she’s clashed with her parents over this before. I encouraged her to pursue the path closest to her heart, but with so much coming from her family, I’m not sure what good it will do. I can only hope she finds more support in college.”

“I’m sure what you said meant a lot. Is there anything we can do t’help support her before she graduates?”

“I’ll do everything in my power. You do a good job with the team, continuing to treat her as part of it will help. I know you talked to Yachi directly… do you think you could have a similar conversation with Shimizu?”

“I’ll do what I can,” Keishin hummed thoughtfully. “She doesn’t really open up as easy, though.”

“She is quite guarded, especially around men,” Takeda agreed. “A female teacher may have a better chance. But, if you happen to notice a good opportunity…”

“Yeah, I’ll be there for her,” Keishin said.

“Thank you.” Takeda glanced down to the table, then took a deep breath. “Speaking of support… I’ve been thinking about what I need, in order to stay here and do my job well.”

Keishin tensed. He had been thinking about this, trying to ready himself for the inevitable. “Yeah?”

“This morning, before I could meet with the students, my coworker Hisakawa-sensei pulled me aside. She was concerned that I’d be too harsh with the girls. She gave me some information about LGBT youth, and encouraged me to point the girls towards the art club if we didn’t want them on the team anymore.” Takeda shook his head. “It was strange, realizing what things looked like from the outside.”

Hisakawa was one of the newer teachers at the school. She was slightly older than Takeda, and Keishin’s parents had brought her name up a few times in their lists of single women around the town, mostly because they were friends with her parents. Keishin had done his best to keep his distance.

“I reassured her as best I could,” Takeda said. “But it was good to hear her speak up. It allowed me to realize what I need.” He took a deep breath. “I recognize that I’m not alone here,” he said carefully, “but I need more support. Ideally, a network of people who could support me here, if I’m ever outed or run into trouble. I don’t expect to know for sure, with most people. But having a sense of who I might be able to trust would help.”

“Do you wanna come out to anyone around town?” Keishin asked. “Y’should know people here love to talk.”

“Not right now,” Takeda said. “In fact, I would prefer not to. I just want to know… are you out to anyone around here?” he asked. “Or know of people I could go to? Or who I should avoid?”

Keishin bit his lip. Years of compartmentalizing his life had come around to bite him in the ass. “I’m not really out to anyone, no. Not here.”

Takeda’s brow furrowed. “I thought surely your friends…”

Keishin shook his head. “No, it… never seemed worth it.” Though now that someone else’s wellbeing was on the line, Keishin wondered if it would have been better to take that risk after all. “I did try to come out to Shimada once, in college,” he admitted.

Takeda leaned forward. “What happened?”

Keishin sighed. “It was a disaster. At first, he thought I was joking. Then, when I finally got him t’ take me seriously, he thought I was hitting on him.”

“Were you?” Takeda asked.

“Nah,” Keishin said, waving his hand dismissively. “I had the briefest of crushes on him way back in middle school, but not then. Not now.” His throat tightened a little as he went on. “I just kept tellin’ him, over and over again, that I just wanted someone from this town to know, y’know?”

Takeda nodded.

“Anyway, we were pretty drunk at the time. Trashed, t’be honest. He threw up, and didn’t remember anything about it the next day. I kinda decided it wasn’t worth tryin’ after that. I’m sorry I can’t give you better.”

“That’s alright,” Takeda reached out across the table and set his hand over Keishin’s. “I’m learning how to do this. What else do you know?”

Keishin cleared his throat. “Y’should probably avoid my parents. Kinoshita-san, maybe, obviously the Shimizu’s…” Keishin thought about it, then listed a few other names, folks he’d heard saying things about ‘people like that’.

As Keishin talked, Takeda’s face fell into a soft, resigned sadness.

“There’s one more,” Keishin said. He’d been hoping to avoid bringing it up, since he hated the thought of outing anyone. “Your boss… the principal, Inoue-san. I did try to go to Sendai’s gay scene once, but I saw him there and I left before he could spot me.”

Takeda’s eyes widened. “But… Every time he’s spoken on an issue relevant to queer students, he’s been decidedly conservative.” His expression hardened. “Is he one of those types?”

“Looks like it. He was a real asshole back when I was a student and he was the vice principal, too. I’d kinda hoped he’d gotten better, but…” Keishin trailed off. He tried not to think about hypocrites like that. He’d come too close to becoming one himself.

Takeda sighed. “I see.”

Keishin shifted his hand, tracing a circle with his thumb over Takeda’s knuckle. “What else do you need?”

“There are other things I can do,” Takeda said. “There are very few books in the school library with accurate information about LGBT topics, and I can fix that at least. And I want to coordinate with Hisakawa about the queer students she knows about, and how to work with what’s already in place here. More social clout at work would also be helpful. I should probably be going drinking a few nights a week with my coworkers. That’s where a lot of those connections are solidified.”

Keishin nodded. “Makes sense. Do what you need to do.” He swallowed, wishing he had more to offer.

Takeda’s eyes dropped to the table. “You’ve said that people here like to talk. I have no intention of coming out right now, but it is possible people will start rumors anyway based on what I do next. Will that hurt you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Keishin said. Takeda needed this. “I’m here.” He covered Takeda’s hand with his own for emphasis.

“It does matter,” Takeda said.

“Then I’ll deal with it. I trust you, sensei. Do whatever you gotta do. I’ll be alright.”

“Then…” Takeda squeezed his hand. “I know you’ve said you have your own path to walk, but…” he hesitated. “Would you continue to take care of me, just for a little while longer?” He sounded hesitant, Not at all like the iron-willed man Keishin knew.

“Of course,” Keishin answered. “I’m here for as long as you want me.”

Takeda smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “There’s one more thing,” he said. “I …want to show you my face when I’m in drag. The makeup. You’ve asked about it before, but... there are certain experiences that have been difficult to get out of my head. I think I’ll feel better if you just see it.”

“Alright,” Keishin nodded. He wondered about the experiences Takeda mentioned. Maybe it was that stupid comment about Matsuko Deluxe he’d made months ago, or maybe it was something else. He cleared his throat. “Thanks. For trusting me with all this stuff, I mean. I know it’s not easy.”

Takeda tried to smile again, then his face fell. His gaze dropped to the table, exhaustion and strain creeping back into his expression. Keishin figured that, having said everything he had to say, Takeda was left with nothing to do but really feel the stress of the situation.

Keishin searched himself for anything else to say, some magic that would turn things around, make the town something other than what it was. He longed to press a button and wake people up from the bullshit ignorance that made them this way. Maybe then Takeda would look up, like he usually did, and smile with that beaming confidence that had first caught Keishin’s attention.

An idea struck him, a memory from reading a few sleepless nights ago. Keishin got up and grabbed the latest collection of poetry that Takeda had lent him out of his bag. It took a while to find the right page, and he wound up flipping through the pages for a moment or two longer than was smooth. Finally, he cleared his throat.

It was awkward and embarrassing to try and read aloud. His voice was rough and lacked the practiced cadence of Takeda’s reading. Still, the words flowed easily enough once he got past the first few lines.

“In the stove the fire has fallen.
We have already talked about
Whatever is to be talked about
Talked, and left nothing to be said,
Left not a question to be settled.

And yet—
How dissatisfied these hearts of ours remain!
Friend—with your head drooping in the up-turned coat-collar
Do you know
How languid the truth is that is only proved by words?”

Silence filled the room, and Keishin felt his cheeks turn red with embarrassment. Maybe it had been a dumb idea to read Takeda a poem from one of his own books, or maybe the poem meant something different from what he thought it did.

Still, he’d had to do something.

Takeda’s eyes were on him. Slowly, they lit up with their usual fire. “Winter, by Tosaburo Ono,” he said quietly. He smiled, warm and genuine.

There was a feeling when the ball connected on the court, when the toss went to an uncertain position but was miraculously saved. Keishin felt that emotion swell within him now. “Y’know what you need to do,” Keishin said. “You’ll feel better once you start doin’ it.”

“That’s right,” Takeda said. “I’ll fight with everything I have. We will.”

Keishin grinned. “But maybe not on an empty stomach. What do you wanna eat?”

Takeda chuckled, soft and low in the back of his throat. “There’s some dumplings in the freezer. I’ll open the sake.”

They spent the rest of the evening drinking and swapping stories, reminding each other of the good things. Sometime after the second bottle, Takeda climbed into Keishin’s lap, laughing as Keishin told him about the stupid shit he and his friends got up to in high school.

“Right, so then it turned out that Shimada forgot something in the club room, and he comes back to find Takinoue and I with all of these airhorns…”

Takeda laughed, his eyes sparkling. “Did he join you in your delinquent activities?”

“No, but probably ‘cause it was his stuff we were messing with. He gave us this long-ass lecture about growing up and being responsible… then, when we came back to school the next day, he’d taken all the airhorns and hid them around our stuff at school. I jumped out of my skin at least thirty times. I swear the vice principal was gonna expel us all.”

“Did you get him back?” Takeda asked. His face was flushed from the alcohol.

Keishin grinned. “Yeah, we spent the rest of the year randomly putting hot sauce in his drinks. Not every day, just often enough to keep him on his toes. From then on, though, we tried to include him in all our pranks.” Keishin smiled at the nostalgia.

“You’ve been good friends for a long time,” Takeda said. He put his arms around Keishin’s neck and leaned back, his face twisting into a pout. “I’m a little jealous, I was never that close to anyone in high school.”

“Ah, we were just a bunch of stupid kids. Dunno if y’should be jealous over some airhorns. But why weren’t you close to anyone in high school? You’re way better at social stuff than me.”

Takeda rested his head on Keishin’s shoulder, nuzzling into him like an intoxicated cat. “I was a shy kid. I never wanted to talk to anyone. Everyone else just seemed so alien, or like I was an alien. It wasn’t until I figured myself out in college that I really blossomed.” He made a gesture with his hand, like a flower bloom or fireworks.

“Like Shimizu,” Keishin said.

“Yeah. Maybe. I hope so. I think I turned out okay.”

“Better than okay,” Keishin slid his hands around Takeda’s waist.

Takeda made a little noise in the back of his throat. He shifted, his eyes flicking over Keishin’s face as if searching for something. Then he laughed, a soft giggle at nothing, before he leaned in and kissed him, soft and full on the mouth.

Keishin returned the kiss. The buzz of alcohol and peace of the little room and Takeda’s touch filled him with a steady warmth. He shifted his hands, fingers brushing against the soft skin on Takeda’s lower back, just below the hem of his shirt.

There were a lot of things in the world that he couldn’t fix. But this, their little space that smelled like old books and sex and Keishin’s cooking and the stale smoke that lingered on his clothes… this he could handle.

--

Keishin’s fingers hesitated over the keyboard. Two days after the incident at the school, he had finally brought himself to look at Nakano’s messages. They were predictable: questions about if everything was okay, admonitions for not replying, curses, and a rant about LGBT issues in schools. Keishin didn’t really know where to start.

SetAndReady: hey
SetAndReady: sorry i didn’t respond earlier. I’m alright.
SetAndReady: sensei too, I think

Bananakano: WELL GOOD THAT MEANS I CAN CHEW YOU OUT FOR NOT RESPONDING WITHOUT GUILT ˚✧₊(‐ ಠ▽ಠ‐)⁺˳✧

SetAndReady: things were just busy

Bananakano: yeah yeah take-chan told me already
Bananakano: …u sure ur feeling alright? ( •᷄⌓•᷅ )

SetAndReady: no. not 100% sure
SetAndReady: its 1 thing to go thru this yourself
SetAndReady:  another thing to watch it happen to someone else
SetAndReady: i’m frustrated I can’t do more

Bananakano: I hear you
Bananakano: how r the girls taking it?

SetAndReady: they’ll be okay. I hope.
SetAndReady: ...is it weird that i kinda want to punch all the adults being assholes about it?

Bananakano: with u I’d be more worried if u didn’t wanna destroy any and all threats to you and take-chan’s volleyball children

SetAndReady: they’re not our kids
SetAndReady: not like that

Bananaknao: a likely story
Bananakano: I bet take-chan was like ‘ooh keishin! ur hot, let’s adopt 20 teenagers together! Plz plz plz!” (♥ω♥ ) ~♪
Bananakano: and u were like ‘well okay i guess. not that i want to or anything but lemme just dedicate all my free time to our new family while pretending i don’t care in the most unconvincing ways possible!’ ˚✧₊ ( ̄ヘ ̄ メ)
Bananakano: and 6 mo later you two were like ‘oh shit wait maybe we should date!’

Keishin laughed.

SetAndReady: u know that’s not what happened

Bananakano: take-chan always did like to put the cart before the horse
Bananakano: yeah i know
Bananakano: r ur daughters okay?

SetAndReady: they’re not… my students are doing okay, yeah.
SetAndReady: its hard. but sensei has a plan. I’ll be there how i can.
SetAndReady: they’re a lot smarter than i was at their age so I think they’ll be ok

Bananakano: mmm, well
Bananakano: best to keep an eye on things
Bananakano: shit like this can sneak up on you, even after u deal with it
Bananakano: goes 4 both u and the kids

SetAndReady: true

Bananakano: thanks for telling me to call take-chan the other day btw
Bananakano: he needed it

SetAndReady: im glad

Bananakano: the offer goes for you too, you know
Bananakano: any time you need to talk, im here

SetAndReady: u don’t need to do that for me
SetAndReady: i'll be okay
SetAndReady: half the time im freaking out it’s about sensei anyway and you don’t wanna know

Bananakano: no no hit me with the juicy gossip ∠( ᐛ 」∠)_
Bananakano: it’ll help me write that screenplay
Bananakano: besides, on a more serious note... you guys r family
Bananakano: both of you
Bananakano: dont doubt that

SetAndReady: you’re too much
SetAndReady: but…you too, ok?
SetAndReady: though speaking of family I should go to bed
SetAndReady: my folks need me to cover another early shift tomorrow

Bananakano: alrighty thanks 4 checking in
Bananakano: glad ur not dead, etc etc.
Bananakano: ‘night!

Keishin leaned back on his futon and stared at the ceiling. He thought of what Takeda said he needed. A network. Little threads of connection here and there. Maybe one wasn’t enough to hold a person up, but together they made a net that could catch them if they fell. Or catch someone else, if they needed it.

Hisakawa was a new addition to the equation. He’d met her once, at a gathering with their parents that turned into an unofficial marriage interview. It had been terribly uncomfortable, mostly due to Keishin’s silent fuming and attempts to get out of it.

He sighed, realizing now that he’d probably made a real ass of himself.

Though, it was possible she’d been just as uncomfortable as him. Maybe they had more in common than he’d thought. Or maybe she was like Takeda and swung both ways. Or all the ways. Or whatever. Or maybe she’d just been distant because he wasn’t exactly a prize catch.

He bit his lip, his mind playing through a few different scenarios. If she was as okay with queer stuff as Takeda had made her sound, it was a good connection to foster no matter what, for a lot of reasons. And, if she was interested in men and still single, she’d probably be a great match for Takeda.

He hated himself for the thought.

He wracked his mind for memories of his impression of her. Polite. Quiet. Her ma had bragged about her cooking, maybe?

It didn’t matter. Keishin was where he was for now. When Takeda decided to end it, or when Keishin lost the stubbornness to push back against his family, then he’d deal with this shit. They had the present. They could build their little space together, and that would be enough.

He set his hand over his heart, his t-shirt coarse under his fingertips, and counted the beats until he fell asleep.

--

Keishin slipped the old t-shirt over his head. It was a ratty thing, frayed at the edges and bleached around the shoulders. The insignia on it was from a concert he’d gone to with Shimada and Takinoue just after they’d graduated high school. It had been his favorite shirt, up until he ruined it the first time he and Takinoue decided to bleach their hair.

Now it was The Bleach Shirt. He settled into the chair in the bathroom at Takinoue’s house, realizing that they’d been doing this little ritual every month or so for the last eight years.

Takinoue sighed, the dark circles under his eyes the only remaining sign of his break up. He ran his hand through Keishin’s hair. “You’ve let it grow out a lot,” he said. “It suits you.”

“Thanks,” Keishin said. Takinoue was taking his time with this. “…What’s gotten into you today?”

“I was just remembering how short it was when we first started doing this,” Takinoue said, tugging at his hair. “You barely had enough to be worth messing with.”

“You weren’t much better,” Keishin said. He looked up at him. “Still aren’t,” he teased.

“Pssh, mine’s the perfect length,” he shot back. Then he combed through Keishin’s hair again. “For me, anyway.”

With that, Takinoue pulled his gloves on. He picked up the brush with more flourish than usual, then began dabbing the bleach mixture into the roots of Keishin’s hair.

It felt cold at first, and it stank, and Keishin knew his scalp would start to itch soon. Still, the movement was familiar, a comforting ritual that they had built up over years. Keishin closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, content to focus on the sensation as Takinoue did row after row.

“…Say, Keishin,” Takinoue said after a while. “Are you still single?”

Keishin jolted out of his peaceful state of mind. “Not you, too,” he complained.

“Hey, I think you should do whatever you want, y’know?” Takinoue said. “I just think, you know, you’re a good guy. You deserve good things. Relationships have a lot of good things in them.” He dabbed along the last row, then checked for any spots he may have missed. He nodded, glanced at the clock, and took his gloves off.

“Y’realize you’re not exactly the best example of ‘relationships bring happiness’ right now?” Keishin asked as he stood up and Takinoue took his place in the chair. It was probably a low blow, but he didn’t need Takinoue trying to set him up with dates, too.

Takinoue laughed quietly. “Yeah, I can be a mess sometimes. But, it’s not all bad. Things just didn’t work out this time. That’s not anyone’s fault.”

This was an unusually quick recovery for him. “Y’sure you’re feelin’ alright?” Keishin asked.

“I’m just saying that there’s, y’know, lots of good things. That’s why it’s worth being sad about it when it goes away.”

“Mmmm,” Keishin started to dab the mixture into Takinoue’s hair. “Most of yours have been alright.”

“Except Kaori,” Takinoue said. Keishin recognized it as a prompt, a signal it was okay to talk about it.

“Yeah, dunno what was goin’ on with her. M’glad you got out of it when you did.” Keishin’s scalp began to itch. He ignored it.

“In my defense, I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Also, the sex was really good.”

Keishin look at him skeptically. “…Worth five years of moping good?”

“Hey, at least four of those years have only been occasional moping.”

“That’s true. Y’did a good job getting yourself together.” Keishin finished the last row. “Still do,” he added.

“Quick to fall, quick to get back up again,” Takinoue said. “Saeko and I weren’t together that long anyway. And, she wasn’t like that. Not like Kaori, I mean. She’s good.”

Keishin caught a missed spot on Takinoue’s hair and went back to fix it. “M’glad you’re feeling better.”

“Yeah,” Takinoue said. “So… you should do whatever you want, okay? I’ll support you.”

“Okay?” Keishin felt an edge of panic rise in his throat. “What are you on about?”

“I just… it’s like I always tell you, we’re here for each other no matter what.”

“Yeah, and how we always tell you,” Keishin said. His gut twisted with nerves. He reflected back on everything he’d said or done in the last few weeks, searching for what could have given him away. “The hell is this about?”

“I dunno, nothing,” Takinoue said. “I just… want you to know you can say or do anything and I won’t take it personally, especially if it makes you happy.”

Keishin stared at him. “…And how about I tell you t’shut up?”

“Ass,” Takinoue said. “Though I support you being an ass, if it makes you happy.”

Keishin grinned. “Thanks, it does.”

“Sadist!” Takinoue pretended to be shocked. “Should I be worried about this? Are you going to ruin my hair just to watch me cry?”

“Nah, I take too much pride in my work,” Keishin said. “Besides, there’s easier ways to make you cry. I could just show you that one clip from The Rebirth of Mothra.”

“Ouch, dude. Mothra’s sacrifice was serious business, okay?”

“Mmmhm, you told me a dozen times already.” Keishin checked the time, then pulled his gloves off. His scalp was itching, and Takinoue was acting weird. He needed a distraction, something to stop this conversation and pass the time. “Say, do you still have that Guitar Wolf mixtape?”

Takinoue’s eyes lit up. “From senior year? You bet your ass I do!”

Guitar riffs rattled out of the little speakers on Takinoue’s stereo. The sound took Keishin back to the heady mix of insecurity and brotherhood he’d lived on through high school. Takinoue had his eyes closed and was moving his head to the beat.

Keishin liked to tell himself he was completely different from his teenage self. Settled, grown, mature. But as he watched Takinoue bob his head, Keishin felt his old fears and frustrations rising up in him.

It was strange, he thought, how little had actually changed.

--

Keishin adjusted his hairband as he sat behind the counter at the shop. He normally felt more confident with his hair freshly bleached, but today his mind was distracted by the strange talk with Takinoue.

It was unsettling. The whole thing had sounded as close to ‘I know you’re a fag but let’s stay friends anyway’ as anything he was likely to get from the guy. A half-hearted, indirect conversation when Keishin hadn’t fucking asked.

At least say it out loud, he thought bitterly.

The timing of it was the biggest concern. Takinoue was not a particularly subtle or observant person.  Keishin couldn’t remember saying or doing anything around him to raise suspicion. Nothing new, anyway.

Which left the very unappealing thought that Takinoue had heard from someone else. Rumors in this town had a way of traveling fast, and to everyone except the person they were about.

There was no way to ask. Everyone would be polite and pretend not to have heard anything if he took a direct approach. He’d have to watch how other people treated him in order to get a sense of it.

He was so tired.

The bell on the door rang as a customer walked in. It was Shimizu, and she was alone.

Keishin tensed. This could be his chance to talk to her.

She gave him a wary look and made her way to the snack aisle. Keishin searched his brain for things to say. Good, reassuring, mentor-y things.

Shimizu was different from Yachi. She took every word and action and quietly internalized it, weighing everything more seriously than her aloof aura might let on. He’d need to be careful.

She glanced at him again from the Toppo display stand. Her brow furrowed and she looked down immediately.

Shit.

He was probably staring.

He cleared his throat and tried to look casual behind his magazine. Shimizu picked out a few things, then brought them to the counter. He set down the magazine as nonchalantly as he could manage, then started to ring her up.

“So,” he said, “tough parents, huh?”

She looked down, clearly uncomfortable. Keishin winced.

“Listen, y’don’t gotta worry about it, alright?” he said.

“Please, I would appreciate it if I could just pay and leave,” she said quickly. “If that’s alright.”

“Yeah, alright.” Keishin grabbed a couple of fugashi snacks from behind the counter and gave them to her. “Here, for the road.”

Her face scrunched slightly. “Thank you, but I don’t need you to feel sorry for me,” she said, in as polite a tone as she could manage.

“Well, good,” he huffed. “’Cause I don’t. Do whatever y’want with those. Eat ‘em or share ‘em with your junior manager or whatever you wanna do. It’s all the same t’ me. Got it?”

She stared at him for a moment, as if trying to ascertain his motives. Then she nodded, took her purchases and the extra snacks, and left.

Keishin waited until she was gone before he lit a cigarette. He smoked it and cursed his lack of eloquence. When he was finished, he smothered the cigarette in the ashtray behind the counter, then lit another.

He thought of a dozen better lines an hour later, all of them more inspirational, more thoughtful, more like something Takeda would say instead of Keishin’s cranky asshole self. He puffed a cloud of smoke into the shop.

He sighed and cursed under this breath.

Maybe there’d be another chance later. Maybe not.

--

Everything moved in useless slow motion. The ball ricocheted off of Takinoue’s block and out of bounds. It landed with a disappointing thump on the wooden floor.

The whistle blew. The game ended, and so did their chances at progressing to the semi-pro tournament.

Keishin dug his nails into his palm. He turned away from the stands, sound rushing back to him as the opponent team’s supporters cheered. Tattsuan hit him on the shoulder, a cue to line up and bow to the ref and opposing team.

He kept his focus in front of him as he stepped off the court. Everything felt on edge, weeks of stress and frustration and exhaustion culminated into this.

He just needed to keep moving.

He threw off his uniform jersey as soon as they were in the changing room. He wanted to get back into his normal clothes and away from the gym. Skip the sad speech from Tattsuan, the disappointed beers afterwards, just fast forward through the next few weeks until it didn’t hurt anymore.

“Ah, shit, guys. I should have had that one,” Takinoue sank down on the bench.

“Don’t mind it,” Tattsuan said through false cheer. “One point didn’t lose the game.”

“Nah, my serves and spikes were off all game. They wouldn’t have gotten so many follow-ups if not for that,” Uchizawa said. He sighed and tossed his empty water bottle in his bag.

“Y’did fine,” Keishin rummaged for his clean shirt. “My tosses sucked. You all compensated.” His own voice sounded tired and far away.

 “Look,” Tattsuan said. “We’re all upset about this. We reached for a goal we weren’t sure we could pull off, and we came up short. But I know all of you. You’re going to take what you’re feeling now and use it to fuel your next move. We’re not going to waste time figuring out who to blame or trying to hog all the self-pity.” He gave Keishin, Uchizawa, and Takinoue a pointed look. “If there’s something you think you could do better, then just do it. Trust us to have your back in the meantime.”

Keishin nodded, then hung his head in shame. He gave advice like that to the kids all the time; you’d think he’d remember it himself. Some mentor he was.

Shimada clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t make it harder than it is,” he said.

They finished getting changed and stepped out of the gym. Some friends of the team were waiting for them by the door, along with Fumiko and Akari.

And there was Takeda.

Keishin felt a lump rise in his throat. His eyes watered, and he found himself blinking back tears.

Damnit. He coughed for an excuse to turn his head.

“So, usual izakaya or do we wanna go somewhere closer?” Mori asked.

Keishin swallowed his emotions. “Usual,” he said.

“Yeah, only Saito-san’s chicken wings can possibly cheer me up,” Shimada whined.

They started walking, the early evening air pleasantly cool. The more outgoing members of the team chatted, trying to banter everyone back into good spirits. Keishin made a few tepid attempts to join in, then fell silent. Takeda walked beside him, not saying anything.

The plan was to drown their troubles in beer and chicken wings. Keishin didn’t really feel like eating, but he made himself take the first few bites until his body remembered that it needed fuel. He chewed slowly, his sense of taste slowly returning. When it did, hunger rose in him like a bonfire.

He ate voraciously, and with each bite he felt himself relax. The beer was good too, and his first glass left him feeling warm and more at ease. Takeda laughed next to him, probably at something Uchizawa had said.

It felt good, just being near him.

As if sensing Keishin’s gaze on him, Takeda turned back to him and smiled before Uchizawa caught his focus again.

Takinoue threw an arm over Keishin’s shoulder. “Man, what a day. Can you believe that blocker on the Kamiayashi team? I swear half the girls in the audience were swooning over him. I figured we’d be done with swooning by now. Why don’t they ever swoon over me?”

“Y’just need to grow your hair out,” Keishin teased.

Takinoue hummed thoughtfully. “I guess he did have one of those floofy playboy haircuts.”

“Please grow your hair out like that,” Shimada snickered. “I’d love to see how dorky you’d look with long hair.”

“Aww, what? Your hair is about the same length as his!” Takinoue whined.

“Yeah, but I can pull it off. I know what a comb is.” Shimada flipped one of his perfectly straight bangs for emphasis.

“Nerd,” Takinoue stuck his tongue out. “Keishin likes my hair the way it is. Don’t ya, buddy?”

“Hey, I like it too,” Shimada said, cutting Keishin off before he could respond. “I’m just saying that if you ever do get a floofy playboy cut I need photographic evidence.”

Takinoue laughed, warm and relaxed by Keishin’s side. Keishin felt some of the tension in his shoulders melt. Whatever their conversation from the other day had been about, Takinoue’s acceptance appeared to be genuine.

In fact, no one on the team was treating him differently from normal. No customers had given him strange looks lately, nor had any regulars failed to stop by the shop.

Keishin figured he must have misunderstood what Takinoue had been on about.

Takeda was in the middle of another movie debate with Uchizawa, this time about some old animated scifi film or something. Takeda really could make friends with anyone. Keishin smiled fondly, then lit a cigarette and waved for another drink.

His second beer left him feeling less great. The conversation was getting harder to track, and the wings had settled uncomfortably in his stomach. Takeda laughed again. They were so close to each other, but Keishin felt far away from him surrounded by other people like this. He wanted to find some kind of comfort in touching him, the feeling of their hands together.

By the third round, self-pity had found a firm hold in his mind once again.

What the hell am I doing with my life, he thought as he stared at his empty beer glass.

Keishin knew from experience that asking himself existential questions with a belly full of alcohol was a bad road. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a plan or any clue what he was doing in life. It didn’t matter that everything was either coming undone or would be soon. It didn’t matter.

Except it did matter.

Goddamnit, he couldn’t even get drunk right.

“Ukai-kun?” Takeda’s voice cut through his thoughts. “Are you alright?” He felt the press of Takeda’s knee against his own under the table.

“I’m fine. I just keep thinkin’ there’s a limit to how many things I can fuck up,” he sighed. “But I’m just full of surprises.”

“That’s not true, Ukai-kun. The game… it was really fun to watch. The opponent’s faces whenever you all did an unexpected play were priceless.” Takeda grinned, and Keishin could see a little flush in his cheeks from the beer.

“Well I couldn’t keep it up,” Keishin said. “By the fifth set I was spent. Dunno why the team keeps putting a chain smokin’ good-for-nothing as a starter. I guess that’s what you get when you’re an Ukai.”

There was a sudden silence around the table that told him his voice had been louder than he’d thought. Everyone’s eyes were on him.

Shimada set a hand on Keishin’s shoulder. Then, with all the dignity and grace one would expect from their friendship, he pulled Keishin into a headlock and started digging his knuckles into his scalp.

“What are you trying to say, that my missed serves are just something to expect? You think you carry the team by yourself? Huh? ‘Ukai’ my ass!” Shimada said, ignoring Keishin’s swearing.

“Yeah, Keishin, what the hell! Give us some credit.” Takinoue said. “Let’s be real. I’ve been distracted and broken up about things lately, Tattsuan’s been busy with nursery stuff, and Mori’s wild college party lifestyle has thrown him off his game—“

“Hey!” Mori said from across the room.

“—and Uchizawa’s been planning a wedding and yeah, we’re all pretty sure you haven’t slept in like a month. We’re all off! We’re all fuckups! But we’re who we’ve got. Got it?” Takinoue waved his hands, as if that would convey some extra meaning. There were several empty beer glasses in front of him.

“He’s saying that we’re tough guys!” Shimada finally let Keishin go, punching his chest as a final admonishment. “Give us a little trouble! We’re not gonna dump one of our best players that easily. If you wanna get kicked off the team you gotta earn it. Like, like… rob a bank or somethin’!” Shimada’s face was flushed bright red from alcohol. He grinned at Keishin, wide and unguarded. Keishin was reminded of the face he made in college whenever he was about to suggest a particularly ambitious prank.

“Now now, let’s not get anyone arrested,” Takeda said gently.

Shimada and Takinoue both startled. “Sorry sensei,” Takinoue said automatically. “We’ll be good.” He grinned sheepishly.

Keishin failed to hide his smile at Takinoue’s reversion to a guilty schoolboy.

“Don’t worry sensei,” Shimada said, his words slurring a little. “We’re good guys. Our bark’s always been worse than our bite.”

“Ah, is that so?” Takeda grinned up at Keishin. There was a glint in his eye, equal parts teasing and flirtatious. Keishin felt his cheeks go hot.

Shimada pointed at him. “Anyway Keishin, since when has your name meant shit?”  After enough beer, Sad Shimada tended to turn into Combative Shimada. “Your grandad’d kick our asses if he caught wind of us going easy on you. I’d rather fight you right now than face him!”

“Aaaand that’s a sign we’ve all had enough,” Tattsuan gently pushed Shimada’s hand down, looking at Saito, the owner of the izakaya, apologetically.

“No no, it would be a friendly fight! Like with those foam swords,” Shimada protested.

“Yeah yeah, I know buddy.” Takinoue helped Shimada up. “But no swords tonight. C’mon, let’s get you home.”

“You’re just as drunk as me!” Shimada shouted.

“Yeah, but I’m not tryin’ to pick a fight, friendly or otherwise. Besides, you don’t wanna walk home alone, do you?” Takinoue guided him towards the door.

“…No,” Shimada admitted.

Takeda shifted, brushing against Keishin as he pulled out his wallet. “I suppose we should get going, too.”

There was some fussing while Takeda tried to pay for his part of the meal and Tattsuan waved him off. Tattsuan eventually relented under Takeda’s polite persistence.

After the bill was settled, Tattsuan gave Keishin a concerned look. “Can you get home okay?”

“I’ll see him home,” Takeda said quickly.

“Are you sure, sensei? I don’t wanna trouble you,” Tattsuan said.

Keishin stood up, intentionally making himself stand as straight and still as he could. “I’m fine. I’m just tired is all. I didn’t have that much anyway.”

Tattsuan looked ready to argue, but Takeda chimed in again. “I need to borrow something for the Karasuno team from Ukai-kun anyway. It’s no trouble.”

Tattsuan nodded, apparently satisfied that someone was going to keep an eye on Keishin. Like he needed a damn babysitter.

Keishin reached for his pack of cigarettes, and already had one out by the time they stepped out the door.

Takeda waited while he lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. The familiar sting on his sinuses soothed as the smoke filled his lungs. He held it a moment, then tilted his head back and exhaled. The smoke caught in the light of a streetlamp before fading into the dark.

Keishin glanced over at Takeda. He was watching Keishin carefully, his expression unreadable.

Keishin hated this. He wanted to take the day’s loss in stride, to turn the disappointment into focus, to be the kind of person he told the kids to be. Hell, even crying about it would be kind of cool, in its own way.

Instead, he just felt tired.

“Let’s go,” he said, and set off in the direction of Takeda’s apartment.

Takeda walked quietly alongside him. The night air was cool and crisp, and the streets were emptying out with the late hour.

“Ukai-kun,” he said after a while. “I’m looking forward to your next game.”

A lump rose up in Keishin’s throat.

Of course there would be a next time.

And Takeda wanted to be there.

Keishin’s legs ached as they made their way up the stairs of the apartment building. Insects buzzed around the fluorescent light over the door as Takeda unlocked it.

They stepped inside, and the door closed behind them with a soft click. Takeda turned to him and slid his hands up Keishin’s arms, starting at his wrists and going up to this shoulders, then back down again.

Keishin felt wrung out, like all emotion and energy had been squeezed from him after the long night. “I’m sorry, sensei. I don’t really feel up for anythin’ tonight.” Guilt panged at him. “I, uh. I can go, if you want me out of your hair.”

“No, we don’t need to do anything.” Takeda let his hands drop, squeezing Keishin’s palms instead. “You never have to do anything you don’t want. You’re always welcome here.”

Keishin was sure that couldn’t be true. Not always.

Still, he let his head lean forward until their foreheads rested together. “This is shit,” he breathed. He felt so stupid, so greedy for thinking he could do everything and still do well on the team.

“It’s not ideal,” Takeda acknowledged. “I noticed your shoulder seemed stiff after practice. Could I massage it for you?”

Keishin didn’t deserve it. “If you want,” he said.

“I do,” Takeda said softly. “…and I can massage more than that.”

There was a pause, then Takeda stiffened. “N-not like that! I mean, I could but I just meant your back and ah, that came out wrong. I’m not trying to pressure you, I just… ugh, I can’t say anything right sometimes.” He covered his face with his hands.

Keishin laughed, startled out of his self-pity. “The hell’re you saying? You’re good with words, sensei. Better than me.” He shook his head in amusement. Takeda was trying so hard to be supportive, and something in that realization warmed his heart.

“You’re sweet,” Takeda smiled. “Come on, let me take care of you, for once?”

Keishin stretched, wincing at the twinges in his shoulder and low back. “I definitely won’t say no to a massage.”

Takeda led him to his bed. He had massaged Keishin in the past, before they’d started dating. It had been awkward then, too uncertain and too brief as they straddled the line between professionalism and intimacy. This time, Takeda took his time caressing Keishin’s shoulders, firm touches tracing the edge of his shoulder blades, then working out to his sides. His hands slid up to his neck, rubbing little circles up to his hairline.

“Would you be comfortable taking off your shirt?” Takeda asked.

Keishin answered by slipping his t-shirt up and over his head. He was too tired to talk much. Also, pants. He was too tired for pants. He unbuttoned his jeans and slid out of those too, then plopped unceremoniously down on Takeda’s bed in just his boxers.

Takeda chuckled, then stripped down as well. He reached into his closet and pulled out a small bottle. Keishin eyed it carefully as Takeda opened it and held it out to him.

“This is massage oil. Does it smell okay to you?” he asked.

Keishin inhaled. The scent of orange and spices filled his senses, a hint of lavender under it all. “S’good,” he said.

Takeda smiled. “Good. Lie on your stomach for me.”

Keishin complied and buried his face in Takeda’s pillow. The smell of the oil filled the room, mixing with the scent of books and Takeda’s laundry detergent and shampoo.

Takeda straddled him, the warmth of his thighs pressed against Keishin’s sides as he settled to rest on his ass. Keishin felt himself flush at the contact, and made a mental note to explore that thought later, when he felt more like himself.

Takeda pressed into his back, tracing smooth and gentle circles from his spine and out across his shoulder blades, slowly working his way down. Keishin’s muscles sang in relief, occasionally catching under the pressure before relaxing.

The massage was gentle, slowly working into firmer touches as Takeda worked out a knot here and there. Then he’d pause to run his hands across Keishin’s back with a lighter touch, making Keishin sigh from the simple pleasure of skin on skin.

Keishin reflected back to something Takeda had said a while ago, about losing and still deserving respect. He wondered too, about the things that could be communicated through touch alone. That maybe each brush of contact and firm press Takeda gave him could have the same nuance and cadence of a poem, each line reading ‘It’s alright.’

Takeda’s palms brushed upwards again, slowly circling his shoulders before tracing back down.

It’s alright.

Keishin closed his eyes, and felt himself slowly drift off to sleep.

It’s alright.

--

It was late in the week before Keishin got a reply from Ota. He’d gone home right after the Karasuno team’s evening practice, and to bed as soon as the shop closed. Takeda was meeting Hisakawa for drinks, and it gave Keishin the opportunity to catch up on sleep like a responsible adult.

An opportunity he was squandering by checking the internet. He took a drag off his cigarette and opened Ota’s reply.

Keishin,

Are you doing okay? Your last email sounded a little down.

I think of queerness as more like a family, or a big village. We don’t always have a lot in common, and it’s easy to fight or for someone to get left behind if we’re not careful… but the common experience of living outside society’s expectations is something we all share. No one else really understands what that experience is like. That company and understanding is what I crave when I seek these groups out. The way I see it, we have a duty to look out for each other.

And maybe that’s what you wanted when you emailed me, too? I hope it’s not overreaching to say that.

In any case, it’s nice to talk with you, especially while things have been weird here. Please keep in touch, I want to know how things go for you. What’s your boyfriend like?  Please visit if you’re ever in Nagoya!

Oh, and I did start talking more with some of the guys at the group and they’re actually pretty cool. I’ll introduce you if you visit.

-Ota

Keishin hummed thoughtfully. Then he smothered the cigarette and tapped out a reply.

I’m glad things are working out for you now. You’re right that we all need to look out for each other. Sorry about the downer message earlier.

I’m okay. I’ve been coaching the kids on the local high school volleyball team and two of them were outed recently. Their parents wanted me to talk to them. It’s awful, to be honest. I’m doing my best for them but I don’t exactly have everything figured out either.

My boyfriend is incredible. Too smart for me. Really hot. Cute. …everything. Way better at talking to the kids than I am (he’s a teacher.)

I don’t know what he sees in a guy like me, but here we are.

-Keishin

--

“Here goes nothin’!” Nishinoya shouted. He was holding five popsicles in his hands. The other second years had pitched in to get them for him.

Keishin eyed them carefully through the shop window. He knew they were up to trouble, but whether it was the sort he needed to bother interfering with or not remained to be seen.

“No way is this gonna work,” Narita shook his head.

“Never underestimate Nishinoya’s big mouth,” Tanaka said.

 “Ready, set, go!” Kinoshita shouted, staring at his phone.

Nishinoya tore open the packages and began eating the popsicles as fast as he could, taking big bites of two at a time. After the first few bites his expression twisted, like he was ignoring what had to be intense brain freeze.

Halfway through the popsicles he began to choke. Keishin startled and stood up from his chair, making a beeline for the door.

Nishinoya, still sputtering, shoved the rest of the popsicles into his mouth and posed in victory as Keishin opened the door.

“Told you!” Kinoshita shouted as Nishinoya held up the empty popsicle sticks and swallowed.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!!” Nishinoya shouted, though Keishin couldn’t tell if it was from the thrill of victory or brain freeze.

“The hell’re you doing?! Go home!!” Keishin barked. “Don’t choke and die in front of my store, damnit!”

The gaggle of second years startled and grabbed their things.

“Sorry, coach!” Ennoshita said.

“Go eat real food!” Keishin shouted as they scurried down the street.

He sighed and glanced at his phone. It was five minutes until closing time. He may as well start locking up before Takeda got there.

“Are they always so lively after practice?”

Keishin whirled around to see Takeda standing a few meters away, apparently just walking up.

He smiled sheepishly at Keishin. “I know I’m here early. I can help lock up, if you like.”

Warmth bubbled through Keishin’s chest. Takeda looked like he was doing well.

“I got it,” he said. “Just give me a minute.”

Keishin locked up for the night, then they headed over to Takeda’s apartment. Keishin took the opportunity to smoke and relax in the cool night air.

“How’s work goin’?” Keishin said. “Better than last week?”

“Yes. Hisakawa-sensei is a really kind person,” Takeda said. “It’s been good.”

Keishin was surprised that he felt relief more than jealousy. “That’s good.”

“I ah, got a package today too,” Takeda said, fidgeting a little.

“Yeah? What is it?”

“It’s—well, I’ll show you when we get there.”

When they got up to Takeda’s apartment, Keishin saw an assortment of small boxes and brushes set out on the table.

“Makeup?” he asked. He picked up an item, a little clamshell piece of plastic with different colors inside.

“Yes,” Takeda said. “I hadn’t realized how much I missed having it.”

Keishin tilted the clamshell in his hands. Inside, a cascade of glitter caught the light. “Are you gonna wear it?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’m really out of practice. You didn’t come here to watch me fumble around with this stuff.” Takeda said. His eyes lingered on the brushes and powders on the table.

“I don’t mind fumblin’,” Keishin said. “You said this was stress relief for you, right? You’ve more than earned a little of that.” Besides, it was hard to imagine when Takeda would find the time to practice on his own given their schedules.

“Well yeah, sure, but I…” Takeda bit his lip, his eyes downcast. “We don’t have to.”

“No. Only if you want,” Keishin agreed.

There was an awkward silence. It made sense, in a way. Takeda had run into jerks before, and Keishin had made a bit of an ass of himself in the past. He knew from his own experiences that one shitty comment was enough to create a sense of distrust.

“…though, if all you’re worried about is being out of practice, why not try a little on me first?” Keishin said.

“What?” Takeda’s eyes were wide.

Keishin grinned. “I’ve been curious about it before. People certainly put a lot of effort into this stuff; it’s gotta be worth something. I’ve never wanted t’buy my own, but it’s here and you’re here so why not? You don’t even gotta show me the results if you don’t like how it turns out,” he added.

Takeda scanned his face. His expression slowly shifted from unsteady nervousness to the focused  certainty Keishin was more familiar with. He smiled. “Alright. But no guarantees on the result.”

“I assume all risk and responsibility,” Keishin said solemnly, before grinning again.

Takeda brought one of his lamps closer to the table to make it easier to see. They settled into place, Keishin sitting on the floor and Takeda kneeling over him. Takeda tilted Keishin’s head up and set to work.

Keishin kind of liked the process of having the makeup applied. Takeda’s intent focus on him, his hand gently cupped under Keishin’s chin, and the soft caress of the brush all made him feel seen and cared for. The room was quiet save for the brushes and the rustle of fabric as Takeda shifted occasionally to get a better angle.

“Okay, I need you to open your eyes now and look up,” said Takeda, with some kind of pencil in his hand.

Keishin complied.

“Ow! Fuck! You’re gonna jab my damn eye out!” he complained as the sharp of the eyeliner pencil dragged across the corner of his eye.

“Sorry!” Takeda said. He brushed away the mark he’d left under Keishin’s eye, “This part is uncomfortable, but I promise you’re safe. Now please be still, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin grumbled and stilled. His pride was reason enough to endure having his eye gouged out with a fucking makeup pencil. Plus, he trusted Takeda and would show it, damnit.

When that was done, finally, Takeda’s attention moved to his lips, “Open your mouth, please.”

Keishin complied, his mind briefly flickering with dirtier fantasies. The drag of the lipstick was waxy and alien. He followed Takeda’s instructions and pressed his lips together.

Takeda stared at him, then brushed here and there a few more times. Finally, he sat back and smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

Keishin couldn’t help but smile back.

“Well done,” Takeda said. “Would you like to see?”

“Yeah,” Keishin said.

Takeda pulled out a mirror and held it up for him to see.

Keishin gaped. He couldn’t recognize himself at all. Like a femme princess had taken his place in life.

He burst into laughter. It was too weird. Who the hell was that, and how did she get his favorite t-shirt? He couldn’t stop laughing at the absurd thought.

Takeda sat in stunned silence.

Keishin tried to compose himself and looked in the mirror again, “I look… bwahahaha-!” he broke out into laughter again when the image of a particularly glamorous Warrior Princess Tanaka Saeko crossed his mind.

“I take it you don’t like it,” Takeda said.

“No, I just.. I don’t even know who the hell this is,” Keishin pointed at the mirror. Then, sensing Takeda’s discomfort, he added, “Y’did a good job, sensei.” He took a breath and looked at himself in the mirror again. “I don’t even recognize myself. You’ve got a talent.”

“I see.”

Keishin tilted his head in the mirror, fascinated by the eyeliner, “I think this just isn’t for me.” He reached up and hid the reflection of his cheeks and mouth with his hand. “I do sorta like the eyes, though.”

Takeda laughed nervously, “Well I’m glad that was worth it, at least.”

Keishin felt a pang of guilt. “Sorry to waste your effort, sensei. It takes a lot of artistry t’ make me look this good. It just isn’t me.”

Takeda gave him a small smile, “Sometimes it’s good to try something, even if it fails.” He reached for a wipe from a container, “Fortunately, this brand comes off really easily.” He started wiping the makeup off, his touch firm but careful on Keishin’s skin. The wipe left a strange taste on his lips where the lipstick was removed. A moment of silence spread between them.

“Thanks for humoring me,” Keishin said as Takeda wiped off his cheek, “I feel safe takin’ risks like this with you. I’ve never had that with someone before. Not… like this.”

Takeda’s small smile got a little wider. “I’m glad we can share these things, Ukai-kun.” He reached up to wipe the makeup from Keishin’s eyes.

“You can leave that, for now,” he set a hand on Takeda’s wrist, “I meant it when I said I kinda liked that part.”

“Oh,” Takeda said. His gaze flickered, searching Keishin’s face.

Keishin leaned forward and touched their foreheads together, staying there for a breath.

Takeda set a hand on his knee. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Keishin tilted his head and brushed their noses together, enjoying the breathy intimacy of it. “I’m sure it looks much better on you, sensei,” he said.

Takeda pulled back as if startled, though Keishin couldn’t say by what.

“It, ah, takes a long time to do my face the way I like it,” he said. “You’ll be bored.”

Keishin tilted his head. He’d never really thought of Takeda as shy. It was kind of cute, in a way. “I won’t be bored. But it’s up to you”

Takeda’s expression flickered with uncertainty, then he stilled. He seemed to think it over for a moment.

“I want to,” he said. “Thank you for your patience. You can make yourself comfortable, you know the kitchen pretty well by now… and ah… be kind about the result, if you can.”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Keishin said. “I’m sorry I laughed earlier. It was weird on my face, but I’m fine with it on other people. Yer safe with me.”

“Right,” Takeda said. He took a deep breath and adjusted the mirror. Then, with one last glance at the makeup around Keishin’s eyes, he smiled, took off his glasses, and leaned in to work.

 Keishin lounged on a cushion while Takeda pinned back his hair and applied his makeup. Keishin watched him work with growing fondness for the intent focus and gentle artistry of his movements. Being like this together had its own kind of intimacy. When he remembered the makeup around his own eyes Keishin felt more naked than he had the first night they’d spent together, just as audacious and open and accepted. Takeda was smiling in the mirror now, and Keishin felt a comfortable warmth in his chest spread out and settle through his whole body.

After a while, Takeda finally set his makeup brush down and turned to face him.

It was much heavier and elaborate than what he’d put on Keishin. Gorgeous exaggerated eyes, bright lips, and soft color blended into light and shadow. He was different from the Takeda that Keishin was used to, a little strange even. But he was beautiful, in the same way a perfectly executed spike was beautiful. Keishin sat up and leaned in closer, fascinated.

“Wow.” he said.

Takeda tilted his head, a proud angle to his chin. “Well, this is me,” he said. Then the character broke and he looked down, suddenly embarrassed. “Sometimes, anyway.”

Keishin had seen drag before, and it was easy to picture Takeda performing now.  He’d need a wig and some clothes, obviously. But he had the look, and Keishin could tell from the way he held himself that he had the presence too. It was like some part of him that most people didn’t see, that inner fire that Keishin admired, was brought to the surface by glitter and false eyelashes.

Keishin realized then that Takeda was shaking.

Of course we has scared. Keishin couldn’t imagine leaving the safety and acceptance that Takeda used to have in Tokyo. To go from that to this town, this isolation, and then to risk losing the one person he felt he could trust… that took more courage than Keishin felt he could really know.

But what else would Takeda do? He was the sort of person who would show up, again and again, even when he was shaking and uncertain, and chase after the things he wanted.

“You’re amazing,” Keishin said. “And y’look good. I mean it.” Keishin smiled at him, fondness swelling up in his chest. “In fact, I think you’re pretty damn cute, Take-chan.”

He heard a sharp intake of breath from Takeda. Something flickered in his expression again, and before Keishin knew what was happening, there were tears welling up in Takeda’s eyes.

Oh shit.

Takeda ducked his head, and Keishin saw a tear streak down his cheek, trailing dark makeup with it. “Damnit,” Takeda muttered, “This stuff isn’t waterproof.” He sniffed and grabbed for a tissue.

Keishin had said the wrong thing. Of course he had. It was too far and too sudden and him saying Take-chan was a thousand times different from the kids saying it, especially right now and fuck why had he laughed like that earlier? He was a fuckup and now Takeda’s makeup was running and he needed to do something.

He reached out to put a hand on Takeda’s shoulder, to reassure him, to pull him into a hug, or something. He hesitated, fingers hovering awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” Takeda began.

Keishin’s mouth hardened, ready to be told how he’d the crossed the line.

Takeda continued, “I misjudged you. There are a lot of gay men who look at stuff like this and only see what others mistake them for. I shouldn’t have assumed that about you. I just thought… this part of my life was over. To be reminded that I can be accepted so easily is really…” More tears streaked down his face.

Keishin pulled him into his chest and held him tight, “Give a guy a little warning, would ya? I thought you were you gonna tell me to get lost.”

“No,” Takeda laughed then cried into his shoulder, his makeup running onto his shirt. He wrapped his arms around Keishin.

“You shouldn’t feel bad about worrying. I’ve said some fucked up things before.” Keishin’s mind raced through everything he’d said and done wrong in the last few months. “But that’s on me, not you. You’re amazing. And I don’t want…” He ran his hand through Takeda’s hair. “Don’t ever think you’re alone out here, alright?”

Takeda took a deep breath and leaned back, “How’s my face?”

“A fucking mess,” Keishin let out a shaky laugh, adrenaline still running high.

Takeda laughed and wiped his face with a cloth, clearing away the tears and smudged makeup. “I am a mess.”

Keishin stroked his cheek, “Wouldn’t go that far,” he hesitated, “Take-chan.”

Takeda ducked his head and laughed again, full of relief. Keishin laughed too.

“I like it when you call me that,” Takeda said. “I think we’re okay around the gym. Sports culture can be pretty casual in general, but… we should still be careful not to sound too familiar when we’re in public, especially around any parents or my bosses.”

“Of course, yeah. Maybe just when we’re alone?”

“Yes,” Takeda agreed. His face lit up, his eyes sparkling behind the smeared remains of his makeup. “Thank you. I’m glad I met you.”

“That’s my line,” Keishin said. He leaned forward until their lips were only a few centimeters apart. “Take-chan.”

Takeda hummed happily and pulled Keishin into a kiss.

Keishin was a little disappointed that they hadn’t talked about his name too. But he could bring it up later. Right now, kissing felt great and Takeda was fine and better than fine. His hands were roaming Keishin’s sides, tugging at his clothes. He pressed into Keishin, heat rising between them.

A few minutes later they were sprawled on the bed, their clothes scattered everywhere. Takeda’s little stereo was on, pointed towards the neighbor’s wall and blasting some rock band or another.

Takeda’s mouth roamed over Keishin’s body, teeth dragging here and there. Sometimes he’d sigh or moan and Keishin felt the world overturning, everything spinning and centered on Takeda.

Keishin returned each touch, desperate for more contact, to convey a little of what he felt though the press of his hips, the delicate brush of his lips, the crook of a slick finger. Takeda set the pace, guiding Keishin to where and what he wanted. When he was ready, he turned and pressed back into Keishin.

“Easy, easy,” Keishin breathed. He pressed Takeda forward onto his hands and knees, then poured a generous amount of lube on his cock. “I’ve got you. Do you want a condom?”

“Not tonight,” Takeda said, his breathing ragged. “Just you.”

“Yeah, you’ve got me,” said Keishin. He leaned forward and eased the tip of his cock into Takeda. “You’ve—ah, always got me.”

Takeda pressed back against him, slowly, and let out a long soft moan as he enveloped Keishin. Keishin bit his lip at the tight heat. He shifted slightly, then slowly pulled himself out until just the tip of his cock was in him. Then he eased forward again, drawing out another muffled groan.

Keishin worked slowly, gently fucking him in those long, soft strokes. Takeda was touching himself, pumping his cock to match the pace of his thrusts.

“You can—mph—fuck me harder, please,” he panted, “Keishin.”

The world overturned itself again. He did not just say that, not right now when Keishin’s brain was too overrun with the want and immediacy of sex. It was simultaneously the sexiest, dirtiest, most romantic, and most irritating timing possible.

“Fuck,” Keishin picked up the pace of his thrusts, moving deeper into him, “you have no fuckin’ idea what you do to me, do you?”

Takeda moaned and titled himself for a slightly better angle.

He really has no idea, he thought, not a clue how much he had Keishin wrapped around his adorable fucking little fingers. Keishin didn’t have the words to explain it to him because he wasn’t a poet and couldn’t write for shit and so he just fucked him, willing with each desperate thrust that Takeda would feel how stupid he was over him, how he hung on his every word, how much each of those groans and little noises electrified every part of him and fuck he felt so good, so good.

He was vaguely aware that he was groaning now, probably too loud, and Takeda was still saying his name between hot, breathy moans; Keishin, Keishin.

The world turned into a surge of pleasure as Keishin shuddered and finished, spilling himself inside Takeda. He gave a few more short thrusts, then stopped to rest balls-deep while Takeda finished stroking himself off. Keishin watched foggily as Takeda’s idle fist twisted in the blankets, then with another drawn-out moan and a grunt he was spent.

They stayed like that for a moment, cocks twitching and slowing going soft while Keishin took in every detail: the lingering sensations around his cock, the sweat that ran down the back of Takeda’s neck, the sound of their heavy breathing and the pounding of his own heart. Keishin vaguely wondered if it was possible to stop time right then, to just drag this moment out forever and say ‘fuck it’ to the outside world.

It wasn’t. Takeda shifted forward and Keishin slid out of him. They made a few clumsy attempts to clean up before Keishin collapsed back onto the futon.

Takeda curled up against Keishin’s chest and set his head on his shoulder. Keishin ran a clumsy hand through his hair, his mind still fogged in the afterglow. A wave of emotion rose up in him. He felt almost as if he was falling, and that Takeda’s loose hold on him wasn’t going to be enough to keep him there in the safety of this place.

“Say it again?” he said.

Takeda reached up and pushed a stray lock of hair off of Keishin’s forehead. “Keishin.”

Keishin wrapped both his arms around Takeda and held tight.

Chapter Text

All this foolishness
about moons and blossoms
pricked by the cold’s needle.

-Basho

 

Keishin woke up to the blare of his phone alarm. He grabbed it, his muscle memory awake before the rest of him, and checked the time.

3AM

He sat up and blearily looked around the dark apartment. Takeda stirred next to him, then settled. Careful not to wake him, Keishin hauled himself up and lurched into the bathroom. He closed the bathroom door before he flicked on the light.

His reflection stared back at him with dark, smeared circles around his eyes. Glitter was smudged off to his left side, nearly reaching his ear. He washed his face with cold water. He scrubbed hard at the lingering makeup, but it still took three washes before the dark smears faded. He picked at a few stray flecks of glitter on his cheek.

Takeda had been nice enough to let him keep some of his own stuff there in the bathroom: a razor, a toothbrush, some hair gel. Keishin shaved and brushed his teeth. His reflection stared back at him, a stark return to his ordinary self.

He pulled his hair back and left the bathroom to find his scattered clothes. He’d failed to bring a clean change of clothes with him, so he pulled yesterday’s outfit on piece by piece as he found them in the dimly lit room.

His left sock was the last thing. He found it by the bed, crumpled against the closet door. He was just sliding it on when Takeda stirred again.

“Shhh, it’s alright,” Keishin whispered. “I’m just goin’ to work.”

Takeda wiggled to untangle himself from the sheets. His hair was even messier than usual, and there were smudges of leftover makeup and creases from the bed on his face.

He was perfect.

Takeda flopped his arm out to where he was kneeling by the bed. “Keishin…” he sighed.

Keishin’s breath caught.

Hearing Takeda say his first name in the chilly air of morning was more real than in the passion of sex or the haze of afterglow. He felt a swelling in his chest - not a wave of emotion but some powerful tide rushing past the shoreline.

Keishin wanted to keep him safe. Shield him from the town, from ever feeling alone or helpless or hurt.

But he was broken. He was weak, the holes in himself inadequate to protect anything.

Takeda deserved the best. Every damn good thing this town had to offer.

If only that was him.

Keishin swallowed, the reality of things catching up with him.

“I’ll ah, see you at practice… Take-chan.” He almost choked on the name.

Keishin slipped out the door, then locked it with the key Takeda had given him. A key. For fuck’s sake, he’d given him a key to his place.

He lit a cigarette with shaking hands, then walked quickly to his shift on the farm.

This was real. Holy shit.

It was real.

--

“No, that can’t be true!” Shimizu Miho whispered. It was a stage whisper, the kind people around town reserved for particularly juicy gossip. “I saw her just last week and she was drinking. She can’t be that irresponsible.

“I’m telling you, it is! They say she’s showing already,” Kinoshita-san clucked her tongue. “I can only hope the family’s going to be alright. They don’t have much money these days, you know.”

“Oh, the poor dears,” Miho fussed. “We’ll have to organize something for them.”

Keishin wrinkled his nose behind his magazine. He hated it when people used the shop as a gossip hub.

At the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder who they were talking about.

“Oh, you’ve always had such a good heart,” Kinoshita-san said. “You know they won’t accept pity. Saito-san would disown them if he heard!”

There were a few people around town with that name. Only a two had unmarried relatives in the right age range, neither of which Keishin knew well enough to want this amount of detail about their personal lives.

“I suppose you’re right. Do you suppose they’ll get married, at least?”

“Oh, I would hope so!” Kinoshita-san huffed. “But you know kids these days, they won’t marry for anything. I suppose we should be happy she’s having children at all. I always did wonder about her a little, you know.”

Keishin’s jaw clenched.

“Oh goodness, me too,” Miho sighed. “But you know, I do hope things turn out well for her. Maybe we could leave some bridal catalogues around? Inspire them a little.”

“Assuming the baby’s even his,” Kinoshita-san giggled.

“You’re terrible!” Miho said, though that didn’t stop her from laughing behind her hand.

They came up to pay, and Keishin put on his best customer service face before he set his copy of Shonen Jump down to check them out.

Kinoshita-san eyed him carefully. “And how are you, Keishin-kun? Any wedding bells in your future yet?”

“Ah, you know how it is, gotta look out for my folks first” he said.

“And how is your grandfather?” Miho cut in. “Do tell him happy birthday for us.”

“Ah, that’s right! Time flies, doesn’t it?” Kinoshita-san smiled.

“I know, I can’t believe he’s turning 70 already,” Miho said.

“Well, he wears his age pretty well…” Kinoshita-san giggled.

“Uh, here’s your receipt.” Keishin wondered where the nearest hole he could bury himself was.

“Thank you dear. Give your family our best!”

The pair left the shop, their conversation moving on to other residents of the town. Keishin sighed and leaned back in his seat. The silence in the shop was a welcome break.

He stared at the clock. He’d get off work soon to go to the kids’ practice. Where things were loud, but at least the loudness made sense.

He felt his cheeks heat at the thought of seeing Takeda again.

Ridiculous, he chided himself. It had only been 10 hours since they’d last seen each other.

Take-chan, he thought. His mind repeated it again and again in a happy little song.

Takeda’s sleepy ‘Keishin’ echoed in his head too, and he swore he could feel the ground move under the shop.

Anxiety pricked at his throat. He thought of Kinoshita-san’s judgmental eyes, and the gossip mill of this town.

He buried his head in his hands.

He was so fucked.

--

“Yeaaaaah!! Get wrecked!” Tanaka yelled across the court. His spike boomed into the wooden floor, then bounced so high it threatened the rafters.

“That’s not what that means, Tanaka!” Ennoshita yelled from the sidelines.

Shoes squeaked on the floor as they changed rotations. The kids were working hard, their focus laser-sharp as the final stage of the Inter-High tournament drew closer.

Kageyama set a lightning fast toss to Hinata. It arced, following the exact curve Keishin had taught him, until it connected with Hinata’s palm and slammed into the court on the other side of the net. Kageyama grinned and Hinata leapt in the air for joy. Shimizu and Yachi noted the success on their spreadsheet.

“It’s even better than when I first saw it!” Takeda’s voice echoed behind him.

Keishin startled, his heart thumping in his chest. “Things are goin’ well,” he said. He couldn’t hide his smile. “We’ll have to take a look at Yachi-chan and Shimizu-chan’s notes to be sure, but I think they’ve got over a seventy-five percent success rate with that freak quick now.”

Takeda opened his notebook and stepped up next to Keishin, facing the court together. “If that’s true, we may have a chance for an upset!”

“We’ll see,” Keishin turned his head and tried to ignore the heat on his cheeks. “Optimism’s good, but it’ll take hard work and some cleverness to tip the scale.” He could feel the heat of Takeda’s body at his side.

“Ah, of course! That’s what we have you for,” Takeda said. His voice was casual, as if he was commenting on the weather and not releasing floods of butterflies into Keishin’s stomach.

Keishin cleared his throat and shook his head. Then he shifted his weight so that their elbows touched. The tiny anchor of contact calmed him enough that he could bring his focus back to the practice.

Azumane’s face was calm and focused. His serve was improving by leaps and bounds lately, driven by the pressure of the upcoming tournament. The ball hit just inside the line of the court.

Yachi made a note of the success. Then her eyes lit up and she turned to show Shimizu the numbers. Shimizu smiled, though whether it was for the team’s success or Yachi’s enthusiasm, Keishin couldn’t say.

All of the kids were doing well—Hinata and Kageyama’s quick, Azumane’s serve, Tanaka’s spikes, Tsukishima’s blocks.

Yamaguchi stepped up for his turn to serve. He took a deep breath, then sent the ball floating over the net. It wavered, then veered to the right and landed with a precise thud just inside the line. He grinned, and the team cheered.

They just might have a chance.

--

“I think Tadashi has a crush on someone.” Shimada said as he set his glass down on the table at the bar. He smiled, in that boastful way he saved for talking about Yamaguchi. “He was asking me about things, but it was all ‘for a friend’, you know? ‘A friend of mine wants to know how to tell if somebody likes him or not, but my friend is a little shy, what should I tell my friend…’ It was so cute.”

“Ohhh man, I remember doing that,” Takinoue grinned. “We thought we were so subtle and sly back then, didn’t we? Remember how you thought nobody could tell you had a massive crush on that girl from class 1-A?” He elbowed Shimada in the ribs.

“Yeah, I must’ve been pretty bad if even you noticed,” Shimada shot back.

“Oof, ouch!” Takinoue laughed. “But to be fair, none of us were that smooth… right Keishin?”

Keishin choked on his beer. “Dunno what you mean,” he said between sputters.

Shimada grinned. “Remember that one training camp? We caught you picking flower petals in the field at night?”

Takinoue mimed dramatically plucking petals off of a flower. “She loves me…. She loves me not! She loves me… oh, no, I’m just pickin’ at the grass, I’m not lovesick or anythin’! What’re you guys doing out here anyway?! Go to bed!” he said in a rough mockery of Keishin’s voice. He laughed and settled back in his seat. “We never could get you tell us who it was about. Was it Nekoma’s manager girl… what was her name? I always got kind of a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ vibe from you two.”

Keishin buried his head in his hands. He’d hoped they’d forgotten about that. It had been one of his more embarrassing moments, especially because it’d been Naoi he’d been fawning over, not Nekoma’s manager.

“Don’t project your own weirdness onto Keishin,” Shimada prodded Takinoue with his foot. “You’re the one who goes for that sort of thing.”

“What can I say? My sense of romance was twisted by watching too many dramas with my mom when I was a kid,” Takinoue shrugged. “Anyway, it’s a little fucked up that kids are asking us for advice now, isn’t it? No offense or anything, but when was the last time you had a girlfriend?”

“Not that long ago!” Shimada flushed. “But yeah… he thinks I’m a real adult, poor kid. Why didn’t you tell me what I was signing up for, Keishin?”

Keishin gave him a pointed look. “Wouldya have changed your mind if I had? Didn’t you say somethin’ like ‘If Keishin can do it, I can do it too!’?”

Takinoue laughed. “You did say that!” He turned to Keishin. “Does that mean the kids ask you for advice, too?”

“Sometimes, yeah. Not that I always know what to say.” Keishin mopped up some of his spilled beer with a napkin.

“How do you manage it with a whole team of them?” Shimada asked. “I’m so afraid I’m gonna tell Tadashi the wrong thing and ruin his life.”

Keishin thought back on something Takeda had said to him. “Well,” he said, remembering the words, “the kids see what we’ve already accomplished. We only see what we have yet to accomplish. In the end, they take what we know and make somethin’ even better out of it. Whether or not we’re perfect.”

“That’s true,” Shimada smiled fondly at him. “Look at you, bein’ a real coach and everything. When the hell did we grow up?” He flicked Keishin’s arm, grinned, then waved for another round of drinks.

--

Yachi was staring at the rows of sodas and milk teas in the shop. She’d been standing there for at least five minutes, fidgeting occasionally. Keishin was starting to get worried. Surely it didn’t take that long to pick a flavor.

The bell on the door rang as another customer left the store. Yachi jumped at the sound and whirled around, her eyes wide. The shop was empty now, save for the two of them. She marched up to the counter, full of determination.

“Can I…” she stammered, “talk to… ….CanItalktoyouaboutsomething?!”

Keishin stared at her. “Sure..?”

She was shaking a little. Keishin stood up from behind the counter, grabbed a few meat buns from the shelf, and set them down on one of the tables in the shop. He gestured for her to sit across from him. “Eat,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

She pulled the buns closer to her and shifted the wrapper so it was square with the table’s edge, but didn’t eat. “I ah… have been thinking about something. I was wondering, hypothetically, if you um...” She trailed off.

Keishin leaned back in his chair and waited for her to find the words.

She took a deep breath. “What would you think… if a person you knew came out to you? As um. As gay.”

Keishin tilted his head. He’d never actually imagined himself on that side of the coming out equation. “Well… it’d be fine. I mean, they were gay before they told me, and I liked ‘em then. It shouldn’t matter, is what I’m saying.”

“Would you have felt that way in high school? Or, um, did you know anyone who was gay in high school?” She fidgeted with the wrapper.

Keishin pulled out a cigarette and twirled it between his fingers. “Not really,” he said. There’d been guys he’d wondered about back then, and a few guys he’d had crushes on, but he’d tended to pick on both. His nose crinkled at the memory, then he said, “I think it would’ve depended on whether I was friends with ‘em or not. If it’d been a friend, I’d have listened okay I think. But if it was just a regular classmate I might’ve had a harder time accepting it.”

“I see…” she poked at the meat bun.

He frowned. “Are you thinkin’ about tellin’ somebody?”

She nodded. “I just think… it would be nice, to be able to talk to somebody about it besides my mom and Kiyoko-senpai. I want to tell my friends, or maybe somebody on the team, but I’m not even sure how to bring it up.”

Keishin lit his cigarette, an excuse to drag out the silence while he thought about the situation. “Well, y’don’t have to tell everyone at once.” He puffed at the cigarette again. “…what about teachers? Like Take—Takeda-sensei and Hisakawa-sensei.”

“I-I guess Takeda-sensei already knows, but… I’ll think about it. Talking to a teacher is scarier. What if they fail me because I offend them somehow?”

“That’s not gonna happen with those two. I promise,” Keishin said.

She broke off a tiny piece of the bun. “Okay. I’ll try it...”

“Maybe start with your safest bet and go from there. People might talk, but we’ll look out for you however we can. Your teachers and me both,” Keishin said. He smiled as she finally took a bite out of the bun. “You’re the only one that can decide what’s most important for you, okay? You’re not obligated t’tell anyone, and you’re not obligated to pretend not t’be either. Do what’s best for you.”

Yachi chewed and swallowed, then set what was left of the bun down. “Okay,” she said. She straightened up in her chair and looked him in the eye. “I want you to know that I’m a lesbian,” she hesitated slightly over the word, unfamiliar with saying it out loud. “I think so, anyway. Please don’t treat me any differently. I just wanted you to know.”

Keishin felt a wave of pride roll through him. This was his student, doing something with boldness that he’d only dreamed about. He grinned. “Got it,” he said. He pushed the other bun towards her. “Now eat up.”

--

Keishin pulled a sack of groceries from the car. The late afternoon sun reflected off the windows, and the sky was beautifully clear except for a few birds flying overhead. It was his grandad’s birthday, and he and his ma had taken time off work to make him his favorite meal. Keishin hefted the heavier bags up and followed his ma to the door. She had a key to his grandad’s house, but still made a point of knocking.

His grandad opened the door, dressed in a plain t-shirt and jeans. His phone was in his hand, pressed close to his ear. “Yeah, yeah, you’re always sayin’ that. When are you gonna put your money where your mouth is, y’ old geezer?” he said into the phone. He stepped aside and let them in with nothing more than a nod of his head as greeting.

Keishin set the grocery bags on the floor and flipped off his sandals, then set them and his ma’s shoes in the cabinet in the entry way. Keishin could hear the garbled voice on the other end of the phone, but couldn’t make out the words.

Keishin’s grandad turned away from them. “Hm? Nah, Fumiko’s here,” he said.

There were some more muffled sounds on the other end of the line. His grandad turned and looked at Keishin. “Ha, you blind?” he said into the phone. He laughed like gravel.

Keishin followed his ma into the kitchen. She pulled out the cutting board and knives while he unpacked the ingredients: a sack of potatoes, onion, beef, mushrooms, and some bread crumbs. Fried potato cakes were hardly in line with the strict diet his grandad’s doctors had laid out for him, but everyone agreed that it’d be fine as a once-a-year birthday treat.

His grandad stepped into the kitchen to join them, smiling and humming to himself, his phone call apparently over.

Keishin’s ma quirked an eyebrow at him, smiling a little. “Was that Kenichi?” she asked.

“Nah, that son of mine called this morning. This was that old fart in Tokyo.” He grabbed the sack of potatoes from Keishin’s ma as she picked it up off the counter.

She frowned at him. “Father, we can surely get it,” she said. “Y’should rest; it’s your birthday.”

He snorted at her. “Y’gonna tell an old man what he can do on his birthday?” He swung the sack over his shoulder and stood up tall and straight. He continued to hum to himself as he grabbed a small knife out of the drawer.

His ma sighed quietly. “Keishin, help your grandad peel those, would you?”

Keishin grabbed a bowl, another knife, and a scrap bucket, then followed his grandad onto the porch. A folding table and a few chairs had been set out. They had been his ma’s idea, an attempt to spare his grandad’s knees from too much kneeling. Going by the ashtray and condensation rings on the table, her gifts had been accepted.

Keishin set the bucket on the floor and the bowl on the table, and then they set to work. His grandad hummed to himself, lost in whatever memories had caught his mind. The sun was edging towards the horizon, drifting low into the sparse clouds and casting an orange light over the town below. A lone nightjar flew over the fields, it’s call mixing with the sound of the wind in the gardens as his grandad began to sing.

“Your eyes were sparkling,” he sang softly, still half humming. “Time has passed away. Another summer's here...

It had been ages since Keishin had heard his grandad sing. He settled into the rhythm of their work and the song, gradually peeling skin after skin. There had to be a word for this kind of moment. Takeda would probably know it.

“The rapids seem the same as they were on that day, the stream sounds gracefully in this forest town… but I'm sad you've gone” his grandad sang, the words slowly fading back into humming. It was a sad song, but his grandad’s eyes were smiling.

Keishin pulled the last bit of skin off a potato, then set it in the bowl to keep.

“Keishin.”

Keishin looked up, startled to hear his name in his grandad’s rough voice.

His grandad’s face was relaxed, almost meditative. “In five years’ time… what do you see yourself doin’?”

Keishin blinked at him, then grabbed another potato. “Workin’ here, of course.”

“Don’t give me that shit,” his grandad gestured with the knife. “How long’re you plannin’ to let other people make your decisions?”

Keishin looked away. “That is my decision,” he said.

“Mmmhm.” His grandad peeled the skin off of another potato. “And who’re you with? What’ve you gotten done? You got a wife? Kids?”

Keishin searched his mind for an answer. He cursed himself when all he could think of was Takeda.

His grandad snorted at his silence. “That’s what I thought.” He tossed the skin in the bucket and set the freshly peeled potato in the bowl. “It’s a good day today, so I’ll spell this out nice and easy for you. Nobody gets anything good in this world unless they carve it out for themselves. You keep movin’ forward without a plan and one day, maybe in ten, twenty, thirty years, you’ll look up and it’ll all have slipped you by.”

Keishin frowned as he tried to imagine his future. All that came was an older version of himself, doing exactly as he did now. Maybe worse.

The future his parents saw for him at least made sense.

“Nothin’ wrong with workin’ to make your folks happy,” Keishin said.

His grandad kicked the leg of Keishin’s chair, hard. “Ain’t I one of yer folks?!” he snapped.

Keishin flinched. “Of course—”

“Then use that fool head of yours,” his grandad put the last potato in the bowl then settled back into his chair. “You decide what you wanna do, then do it.”

….as long as it’s whatever you think I should be doing, Keishin thought. He was smart enough not to say it. Instead, he picked up the bowl and the bucket and took them to the kitchen to help his ma finish the meal prep.

A few of his grandad’s old friends stopped by just before meal time. Each of them had a granddaughter or niece that they had to tell Keishin about, and they all appraised him with the same lack of subtlety that Kinoshita-san had at the store. Thankfully the conversation shifted when his da arrived, settling instead on talk of business and transportation costs in the shifting market. Keishin helped his ma set the table, and the rest of the evening was spent reminiscing over food and too much beer.

His grandad and his friends got louder as the night went on. The conversation gradually shifted from their reminiscing about their glory days to rants about younger generations. Keishin cleared the plates, then stepped outside for a smoke break, grateful for the excuse to get away from the noise and casual judgement of the party.

The night air was cool on his skin and carried the crisp scent of approaching fall. He leaned back and let his head rest against the wall of the house. His grandad’s gardens and home stood all around him, the product of decades of work. He pictured his granddad as a young man, standing in the same spot, imagining all of it for the first time.

He exhaled. The smoke spread out, then vanished in the moonlight.

He tried to picture himself in five years. In ten. In twenty. Fifty, if he lived as long as his grandad had so far.

He couldn’t do it. He had no vision of what he could be, what he wanted in life. If his grandad’s ambition was all around him, real and solid, then all thoughts of himself were as fleeting and nebulous as smoke.

He snorted. It was a stupid thought, anyway. He smothered his cigarette under his foot, then went back inside.

--

“There’s lots of ways to do it,” Takeda said. “Some forms of poetry are really structured. You’re familiar with haikus and tankas, for example. In western styles, there’s sonnets, villanelles, odes… and of course there’s looser forms, like free verse.”

Keishin leaned on his hand, transfixed by the cadence of Takeda’s voice. “Yeah, free verse started out as a western thing, right?”

“Yes! In the 20th century more poets here started to use it, combining western styles with more traditional forms to make something entirely new. Some of my favorite poetry is a direct result of those experiments in form.” He took a sip of his drink. “Of course, the thing about free verse is that it often assumes the reader is familiar with more structured forms. Knowing the rules makes breaking them more interesting, and more meaningful.”

Keishin smiled, warm and content in the company. Takeda’s eyes were bright as he spoke, emphasized further by the eyeliner he’d applied while Keishin had been in the kitchen.

Keishin’s reverie was broken by the ding of the kitchen timer. He stood up and went to check the food.

Steam rose up in a cloud as he took the lid off the pot. It was just a simple beef stew, but it’d keep well and give Takeda something to eat during the week besides convenience store lunches. He tested it with a spoon and saw it had simmered to the perfect thickness.

He turned the burner off and poured them each a bowl. He seasoned each one, then took the bowls over to the table. He set the better-looking one in front of Takeda.

“This looks wonderful, thank you,” Takeda said, as gracious as ever.

“It’s nothin’ special,” Keishin grinned, “But I hope you like it okay, ‘cause I made a lot.”

Takeda smiled at him, and Keishin felt his chest flutter. Takeda leaned forward and took a sip of the stew. “It’s delicious. Thank you, Keishin.” He emphasized the last two syllables, as if he was savoring the shape of Keishin’s name on his tongue.

Keishin turned his head, his cheeks hot. “So uh, how’s work?”

“It’s going well. I’m really glad I’ve connected with Hisakawa-sensei. Did you know she’s partly responsible for Karasuno’s relative lack of gender-specific education? She convinced funders and parents to encourage the school to drop curriculum encouraging manliness in boys and femininity in girls a few years ago. Some teachers still push it, of course, but it’s no longer required.”

“That’s great,” Keishin said. “I guess I got enough of that at home that I never really thought about it being in the school too, but you’re right.” He took a sip of his stew. It had turned out well. “I’m glad you’re not alone in lookin’ out for the queer kids at the school.”

Takeda smiled fondly at him. “Me too. Yachi-san’s been putting a lot of pressure on my boss, as well. We’re already tight for funding so her threats hold a lot of weight. I don’t think he’ll cause any more problems unless the Shimizus make a fuss again. Ah, and Shimizu-chan has had a few small talks with Hisakawa-sensei, so that’s encouraging as well.”

“That’s good. I… didn’t really have a lot of luck reachin’ out to her,” Keishin winced at the memory of his awkward attempts at mentorship.

“Thank you for making the effort. I know it may not seem like much, but I’m sure it meant something to her.” He squeezed Keishin’s arm. “Speaking of which, Yachi-chan came out to me earlier today. I think talking with you has really made a difference for her. I’m glad you’re here.”

“And uh… how are doing? I know you were pretty shaken too, after all of that.”

Takeda’s eyes fell to the table. “It’s a process. It has been stressful, but it’s also useful to be more aware of where I am and how it affects me.” He lifted his head to meet Keishin’s gaze, eyes flashing with determination. “I would rather face reality and fight for my principles than pretend everything is fine.”

Keishin’s heart skipped a beat. He didn’t even know hearts could actually do that. “You sure are something,” he breathed.

“I’m nothing special.” Takeda poured more sake into Keishin’s cup. “How are things with you?”

“It’s alright, nothin’ too unusual now that we’ve had a break from the rain. The harvest’ll be finishin’ up soon, and I’ll have fewer shifts on the farm after that. It’ll be good to see the kids at morning practice, and have more evenings free.”

“I certainly won’t be complaining about that, especially if you’d like to spend more time with me?” Takeda gave him a look, practically fluttering his damn eyelashes.

“Yeah, of course,” Keishin said quickly. His heart was pounding now. It was ridiculous. Time to turn the tables. “I’ll be a lucky man to see more of you, Take-chan.” He hoped his voice was smooth and alluring.

Takeda smiled at him, his face bright and open like he’d just been given a gift. He crawled around the table to sit next to Keishin. He set his hands on Keishin’s shoulders and leaned in to touch their foreheads together. “You’re always doing such nice things for me, Keishin. I’d like to do something nice for you.” Takeda kissed him, soft and almost chaste, then leaned back. “What can I do?”

“Whatever you want,” Keishin breathed. So much for turning the tables.

“I want to make you feel good,” Takeda said. He kissed Keishin on the mouth again, then traced kisses down and up his neck. “As good as you make me feel, Keishin,” he whispered into his ear, “How can I do that tonight?”

Keishin was melting already. In lieu of an answer, he pulled Takeda into another kiss, firm and insistent. Takeda slipped a hand under the hem of his shirt, then pulled it up and over his head. Keishin was happy to let him take the lead. They followed a certain push and pull, kissing and undressing each other, until Keishin was laid bare and Takeda was trailing his mouth down his body.

Keishin shuddered under his lips and the little breathy whispers of his name that Takeda left on his skin. Takeda trailed kisses to Keishin’s inner thigh, then sighed, his eyes tracing up to meet Keishin’s gaze. “You’re gorgeous,” he said. His hands traced up Keishin’s thighs, fingertips teasing at his hips. “Absolutely gorgeous.”

Keishin looked away. The words were too pretty to be real. “You’re too much,” he said.

Takeda titled his head to rest his cheek against Keishin’s thigh. “Do you want me to stop?”

“…no,” Keishin admitted.

“I’m glad.” Takeda smiled. “Because you really are…” He planted another row of kisses up Keishin’s thigh, wandering this way and that. “…just lovely,” he breathed between kisses, “Keishin, how did I find someone like you?”

Keishin shuddered as Takeda took his still-soft cock into his mouth. “If I recall you, ah,” Keishin’s voice cut out as Takeda began to suck. “—You looked me up in the alumni directory—” he choked out. It wasn’t at all how he wanted to sound, all desperate and breathless instead of confident and teasing. He bit his lip, then tried again. “…somethin’ about the name Ukai…”

Takeda hummed, sending a shiver of sensation over Keishin’s cock. Keishin was fully hard now, and he struggled to keep still as Takeda’s tongue flicked over the head of him. Then, mercifully, Takeda lifted his mouth from his cock and kissed his way down the shaft instead.

“I didn’t think you’d be like this,” Takeda gave him a few gentle strokes, his hand wrapped loose around his cock. “If I’d known, I’d have been even more persistent when I asked you to coach, Keishin.

Keishin covered his face with his hands, at first in embarrassment and then to muffle the groan he made when Takeda’s mouth opened and began to suck on his balls. His hand was still moving, working Keishin’s shaft in soft, lazy strokes.

“Take-c—ah…” he whispered. The radio wasn’t on, and he felt keenly aware of all the little noises of the room, of his own breathing, of the soft wet sounds of Takeda working him, and Takeda’s voice when he spoke, whispering stupidly romantic things into Keishin’s ballsack. Life was ridiculous and obscene and perfect and he didn’t want it to end.

Takeda’s free hand moved inward. His thumb brushed near Keishin’s ass, bringing with it the realization that things could get even better. Keishin spread his legs wider and tilted his hips a little, an unspoken invitation.

Takeda pressed his thumb closer to Keishin’s ass and traced a tiny, teasing circle. “Would you like me to get the lube?” he asked.

Keishin nodded. Takeda sat up and turned around to grab his little bottle of lube from the shelf. As Takeda fumbled with the bottle, Keishin realized that this is what he wanted. This little room of heat and kind words, of feeding Takeda the best he could, of being loved and fucked and surrounded by books full of dreamlike possibilities.

Takeda squeezed a dab of lube onto his fingers. “Still comfortable?” he asked.

Keishin nodded and sat up a little to watch as Takeda knelt down between his legs. Takeda looked up, checking in with Keishin as he began to tease gentle circles around his asshole.

“Fuck.. yes,” Keishin sighed and leaned back as Takeda slid a tentative finger inside him.

 Takeda pressed in slowly, then crooked his finger up to find just the right spot.

Keishin shut his eyes and relaxed into the sensation. Takeda moved expertly, responding to each of Keishin’s shudders and soft groans with more or less pressure.

Keishin, you look so good like this.” Takeda slid his finger out then in with more of a rhythm. “Do you want more?”

He nodded and spread his legs wider as an invitation. Takeda slid another finger in.

Keishin wondered what it would be like to be fucked by his cock.

He threw his head back and let out another muffled groan.

“That’s it, Keishin, just look at you.” Takeda’s breathing was rougher now. His free hand began to work Keishin’s shaft, matching the rhythm of his other hand. Keishin rocked back, overwhelmed by the sensation and the thought of Takeda fucking him.

Takeda spoke again, his voice lilting with the soft and practiced cadence he used for poetry:

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh ... And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new.

Fuck,” Keishin swore he didn’t have a literary kink, but Takeda was trying damn hard to give him one. “Fuck, Take-chan, I… you—“

Takeda curled his fingers, and Keishin shuddered. He rode out his orgasm for a few seconds, then stilled.

Takeda was still panting over him. He pulled his underwear down with an air of desperation and started to stroke himself off. “Keishin… Keishin,” he whispered.

Keishin lifted his head and stared at him through the haze of afterglow. Takeda was perfect, the light somehow emphasizing heat on his cheeks and the softness and firmness of his body and his eyes dark with desire as he stroked himself off above him.

Takeda bit his lip to attempt to muffle his groan, then spilled himself over Keishin’s chest and stomach, to mix with Keishin’s mess from earlier.

Damn.” Keishin collapsed back on the floor. He was still trying to catch his breath.

Takeda hummed approvingly. He planted a kiss on Keishin’s knee, then grabbed some tissues and wiped him off. He kept smiling at Keishin, as if he was looking at something beautiful. Keishin wanted to tell him how perfect he was, how unevenly matched they were. How he never wanted to leave.

He turned over a dozen metaphors in his head. Tired ones, about the moon or the stars or other pretty things. They were all useless.

Nothing was as perfect as this little room and Takeda’s body pressed up against his own. The best Keishin could do was simply let him rest.

--

“It’s a sad sight when a man can’t own up to something like that,” Matsuda shook his head. He’d been back at work for a few weeks, though Keishin’s da was still restricting him to light labor. He wasn’t working at all at the moment. Instead, he was leaning against the farm truck to gossip.

“Saito-san’s gonna murder him, you know.” Nakamura threw a bag of unrefined rice on the truck. “You don’t just leave a girl like that.”

Keishin wiped the sweat off his brow and focused on loading the truck. Nakamura was the worst gossiper, but all the guys were bad if given the chance.

“Nah, I heard she left him.” Matsuda shook his head. “I’m just pissed he’s actin’ like nothing happened. How’s she supposed to raise a kid alone?”

Nakamura shrugged. “Hard to say. Think we should do anything?”

“Would you two leave off?” Tattsuan stepped up to the truck and brushed the dust off his hands. “At least wait until you know more. Remember that time you guys thought Fumiko’s sister was engaged to a foreigner?”

“Hey, you bought into that one too!” Nakamura crossed his arms.

“Only because I was afraid you were talking about Fumiko!”

“Sure lit a fire under you to actually ask her out though,” Matsuda grinned.

Keishin slammed the truck bed door closed. “Alright, you guys takin’ all this back, or are y’ gonna yap all day?”

Matsuda and Nakamura grumbled, but their smiles didn’t fade. They hopped in the front of the truck.

Tattsuan shook his head and turned to Keishin. “You sure you don’t want help hauling that equipment back?”

“It all fits in the tractor trailer. I’ll be fine. You can handle those two. Y’deal just fine with the guys on the team after all.”

“Not well enough,” Tattsuan shoved his shoulder playfully. “How’s your head? You got hit pretty hard by the ball the other day.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”

“Course you are, but nothing wrong with letting people fuss sometimes.” Tattsuan got in the truck and they drove away, leaving a faint dust trail in their wake as they rolled down the hill.

Keishin rubbed the side of his head. His timing had been off during the neighborhood team’s practice, and he’d ended up taking a ball to the face. He hadn’t fucked up that bad in a while, but between the drinking and the lack of sleep it was no surprise that his reflexes had dulled. It was frustrating, knowing what he needed to do and not being able to make it happen.

He loaded the thresher onto the tractor trailer and checked the field carefully. There was one more field to harvest on the far side of the farm that afternoon, then they’d be done. The tractor crawled slowly down the hill, and he took the time to admire the view of late morning countryside. A harrier hawk flew overhead, possibly making an early migration south and away from this place.

He pulled up to the farm office to find his da waiting for him.

“Keishin, you got some time before you go help yer ma, right? Come in here.” His da waved him into the office. Keishin followed. His da opened the minifridge behind his desk and pulled out a couple of beers. “Here’s to the harvest.”

“There’s still one field left,” Keishin said. Still, he opened the beer.

“Yeah, but this is it for you.” His da cracked the beer open and leaned back with a smile. “On time despite complications. Y’really came through for us. Cheers.”

They drank, and Keishin savored the bitter fizz. “Was the least I could do, Da.” He thought back to the discussion he’d overheard between his parents. Whether his grandad would keep the farm in the family or not. “Your patience with me has meant a lot.”

His da was quiet for a moment. “I was worried for a while, when you were younger. But I don’t think I needed t’ be.” He looked at Keishin fondly. “I’m proud of you, son. I’m proud of who you’ve become.”

Keishin swallowed and blinked quickly. His da had never said that so plainly before.

His da smiled.  “And I’m looking forward to watchin’ you grow the rest of the way up.” He took another swig of his beer.

Keishin’s stomach dropped. It’s not like the sentiment was unexpected, but it still felt like being dunked into cold water. He lit a cigarette and forced himself to appear calm. He sipped at his beer, and leaned back in his chair to mirror his father. “So uh, what’s next around here?”

--

Keishin stared at his laptop screen. Footage from Japan’s national volleyball tournament last year was playing, but his eyes were unfocused. He couldn’t help but think of those career goal forms they gave him to fill out in high school. ‘What do you want to be in the future?’ followed by a big, terrifying blank.

He was interrupted from his thoughts by the blip of his messenger app.

Bananakano: hey asshole! ˚✧₊(‐^▽^‐)⁺˳✧༚
Bananakano: hows it going?

SetAndReady: ok

Keishin hesitated over the keyboard.

SetAndReady: sensei started calling me by my first name

Bananakano: !!!
Bananakano: you 2 are sooo cute damnit
Bananakano: congratulations ♡✧。(◍>◡<◍)。✧♡

SetAndReady: im not great actually

Bananakano: ???
Bananakano: because..?

SetAndReady: it’s real.
SetAndReady: he’s really dating me

Bananakano: …oh keishin
Bananakano: of course its real

Keishin stared at the screen. There must be words for what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find them.

Bananakano: tell me what ur thinking rn

SetAndReady: that I’m an idiot
SetAndReady: everything is going pretty well and i cant just fucking feel happy about it
SetAndReady: he could have anyone and I’m..
SetAndReady: me

There was no response. Instead, Keishin’s phone began to blare out the annoying pop jingle he’d set as Nakano’s ringtone. He jumped, wiped his eyes, and grabbed for it.

 “Hello?” he answered.

“Keishin, put the bottle of self-pity down right this instant!” Nakano’s voice snapped from the other side of the line. Keishin jumped and held the phone away from his ear a little. “I can’t stand it when anyone insults my friends, and that includes my friends insulting themselves.”

“I know, I know,” Keishin rubbed at his forehead. “It’s stupid.”

“It is not. Look, this is shit you’ve been dealing with for years, alright? It’s just at the surface now that you’re in a relationship. This impossibly low self-image thing is hardly new.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Let me finish!” Nakano chided. “It’s not new, but it’s not all that you are, either. You’re smart, and you always do the right thing, and we’re all better for knowing you.”

“Mm,” Keishin hummed noncommittally. He must sound pretty pathetic if Nakano felt the need to lie to him like this. He briefly contemplated hanging up the phone.

“I also have it on good authority that you’ve got a fantastic dick,” Nakano announced.

Keishin groaned. “Oh no.”

“Oh yes. Take-chan’s been quite talkative. I’ve never heard him sound so dreamy…!”

“You’re making fun of me,” Keishin said.

“A little,” Nakano admitted. “But it’s true. You obviously make each other happy.”

“He does make me happy,” Keishin said. “I just… things are fucked up over here.”

“They’re fucked up everywhere, Kei-chan,” Nakano sighed. “Some places are better than others, but there’s always going to be a little bullshit. Not that I’m arguing against you moving here, if that’s what you’re getting at. I’ve seen the research—”

“I know about the fuckin’ research,” Keishin snapped. Nakano linked him those damn mental health statistics every few months. “I know about it, okay? But this is my life.”

There was a pause over the phone. Keishin heard Nakano take a little breath. When he spoke again, his voice was even.

“You’re not stupid, Keishin,” he said. “You give me great advice all the time. Now apply it to yourself. What would you say to one of your students if they were going through something like this? If it was one of your games?”

“My life’s not a game,” Keishin said.

“I know. But put that jock brain of yours to work. A student doesn’t think they’re good enough to be a starter on the team or something. Or, um, a really tough opponent is coming up in a tournament and they’re freaking out. What do you tell them?”

“If they don’t think they’re good enough at something, then work on it,” Keishin answered immediately, “and if it’s somethin’ they can’t fix, focus on the things they can improve on instead.”

“Right, great! Okay, so do that,” Nakano said. “If there’s something you’re unhappy with about yourself, then work on improving that thing. Just labeling yourself as bad and calling it a day is no good!”

“Right.” Keishin rubbed the back of his neck. “…Okay.”

“You’re not stuck. And if you need help, Maeda and I are here for you—” There was a muffled sound on the other end of the phone. “What? Nothing dear, just promising Keishin our first-born child,” Nakano quipped. He held the phone up to his face again. “We’re here for you. And Take-chan is too, I’m sure of it.”

“Yeah, I know,” Keishin said. He glanced at his laptop to check the time. “I appreciate it. I really do. Sorry I’ve been weird lately.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re always weird,” Nakano said softly, “It’s part of your charm.”

“If you say so. Thanks for the call, but I should prob’ly go to bed now,” Keishin said.

“Alright, just keep the self-depreciative wanking to a minimum, okay? Unless you’re into that sort of thing.”

“Ass,” Keishin couldn’t help a laugh. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

Keishin slumped back onto his bed. He felt a bit better, but the list of things to change about himself seemed overwhelming.

He wondered what kind of man would be good enough to navigate all of this bullshit.

Someone much stronger than him, surely. With a more accepting family, or no family at all. Someone with a future.

Someone worth Takeda.

--

“Oh man, would you look at that guy?” Takinoue leaned back in his seat and glanced towards the door of the bar. “He is ripped. Who is that?”

Keishin peered around the corner so he could see the door. The man talking to the host was ripped. His jeans and shirt skimmed the curves of his broad frame nicely. The man laughed and ran a hand through his hair at some joke the host made, his bicep catching the light with the motion. Then he grinned, boyish and open, and Keishin’s mind flashed with recognition. He leaned back before he could be seen.

“That’s Suzuki Touma. We went t’ school with him, remember?” Keishin hissed.

That’s Suzuki?” Takinoue continued to stare. “What the hell do they feed ‘em in Hokkaido? He looks great!”

“You’re being rude,” Shimada hit his shoulder lightly. “Let me see!” he pushed Takinoue out of the way so he could get a look.

“Give the guy a break,” Keishin said. “I doubt he wants t’see the three of us.”

“Aw c’mon, I don’t think he cares about that anymore,” Takinoue shrugged.

Keishin wrinkled his nose. “His folks sure care, they still give me dirty looks whenever they see me. Now sit down.” He kicked at Shimada under the table.

“Yeah, yeah, you old stick-in-the-mud,” Shimada sat back and turned away from the door. “It doesn’t really matter anyway. Looks like he’s meeting some people here.”

Takinoue hummed thoughtfully and took a sip of his beer, then remembered what he was talking about. “Right so anyway the store is having a sale on record players, and I was thinking about replacing mine with a better one, but my folks are worried about the noise. Do either of you have any packing foam or anything from deliveries I could have?”

“What, for sound-proofing?” Keishin asked.

“Yeah, I’m thinking that if I muffle the sound it’d be no problem.”

“I have some foam from our produce deliveries,” Shimada said. “But it might be a bit of a fire hazard? I’m not sure. Check with your folks first.”

“Hmmmm, fair point…” Takinoue rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

The conversation went on, and Keishin tried to relax into the warm feeling of his beer. He wondered if Suzuki would be surprised at how much calmer they were now. Then again, maybe he’d be surprised at how little had really changed for any of them.

A sudden loneliness blanketed him. He glanced at the empty space on his side of the table. Takeda was out with Hisakawa again tonight.

Takinoue and Shimada were bickering over the last edamame.

Keishin cleared his throat. “D’you guys ever think about the future?” he asked quietly.

Takinoue and Shimada looked up at him, the edamame forgotten.

“Well yeah dude,” Takinoue said. “I don’t wanna live at my parents’ house forever, y’know?”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” Shimada said, his expression serious. “Are we talking about ‘what will I have for lunch next week?’ future, or ‘our own inevitable mortality’ future?”

“Woah that’s dark, dude. You okay?” Takinoue’s brow furrowed.

“I’m fine! I’m just trying to figure out where Keishin is with things,” Shimada fussed.

“Well I was thinkin’ about marriage and family shit, but if you’d rather talk about lunch and death then that’s fine too,” Keishin said.

Shimada relaxed slightly, then stuck his tongue out at him.

“Your folks are still on your case, huh?” Takinoue said. “I dunno, I’ve always wanted that stuff… but lately I’m not so sure.”

“It’s just the breakup. You’ll bounce back,” Shimada assured him.

“Well, yeah, but… maybe it’s because I was too focused on that goal that I lost it, right? What else am I missing out on because I’m so focused? Maybe I just need to relax a little.”

Keishin hummed thoughtfully. “You got a point. But, it’s still nice to know what direction you’re goin’ in.”

“Yeah, right? I’ll get there. Eventually,” Takinoue said.

“You will,” Shimada agreed. He stared into his beer glass for a moment. “I’ve… been thinking about that stuff too lately. I don’t get pressure from my parents like you guys, not since my brother got married.” He sighed. “There’s just… some things I want to figure out about myself first, before I try to seriously date anybody. But I still think about it…” he trailed off, tracing the condensation on the table with his finger.

“You’ll get there,” Takinoue said. “You’re awesome and you deserve it. You too, Keishin! You deserve to be happy, and have a good future! The best!”

“If y’say so, sure,” Keishin said. He still wondered what a good future meant, exactly.

“Oh, that reminds me! I have something for you,” Takinoue reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He slid a small card out of it. “This is a coupon for that ramen place Saeko works at. I think it’d be a little awkward for me to use it, but you should take it! It’s good ramen.”

Keishin took the card. “Uh, thanks.”

“No problem! She works Tuesday and Thursday nights, and most lunch shifts.”

Keishin shot him a skeptical look. “If y’know that, why not just go when she’s not there?”

“Are you kidding? What if she traded shifts with somebody?” Takinoue shook his head. “No, man. Just take it.”

“Alright. Twisting my arm about eatin’ ramen now, huh? Have it your way.” Keishin put the card in his wallet and then put it away.

Takinoue smiled at him, his cheeks flushed from the beer. “Yeah, good. You deserve to be happy.”

“Ha. You too, alright? Both of you,” Keishin said. His words were tinted by the smothering realization that they’d both have a better shot at it than he did.

Which was good, honestly. They both deserved it.

When they went to part ways that night, Shimada stopped him outside of the bar.

“Keishin, I don’t think I said it enough earlier, but... You really do deserve it. A happy future. Just tell us how to make it happen.” He squeezed Keishin’s arm. For a moment, it seemed like he wanted to say more. Then he let go and stepped back.

Keishin swallowed. There was nothing to be done, no path that would take him to the happy family future Shimada no doubt imagined. “…I think you might’ve had a little too much t’drink,” he finally said. He turned his head and lit a cigarette to distract himself. “Be safe gettin’ home, alright?”

Shimada sighed and flicked his arm. “Be safe yourself, asshole. See you at practice tomorrow?”

Keishin nodded, then they turned and walked their separate ways.

He got home to find his parents curled up on the couch together. On the TV, a rerun of Razor Ramen Hard Gay was playing, the volume low. His da was drifting in and out of sleep, and his ma was quiet next to him. She smiled at Keishin when she heard him come in.

“Hey sweetheart, did you have a good day?” Her voice was quiet, likely to avoid waking up his da.

Keishin tried to avoid looking at the TV screen. “Yeah. I’m goin’ to bed.”

“Alright, sleep well.”

Keishin dragged himself upstairs, then slumped onto the floor of his room. The place was a mess, and the sight of it only made him feel worse. He threw a dirty shirt into the laundry hamper in the name of tidying up, then pushed the rest of the mess aside to make room for his futon.

His head was buzzing with doubt, thoughts of fear and self-loathing that pulled him away from sleep. He adjusted his lamp so it cast a soft light across the room, then stripped to his boxers.

It took a few tries to get a picture he was happy with. He eventually settled on one, the angle of the camera perfectly poised to emphasize his shape and hide his face and the mess of the room around him. Framed by his torso and a hint of his thighs were his boxers, boasting a proud tent emphasized by the wrinkle of the fabric. The lighting was warm and flattering, casting across his muscles to give him the look of some wannabe Olympian. He remembered reading an article about before-and-after pictures of workout routines, how the lighting made more difference than the activity. An illusion of progress.

His thumb hovered over the share button.

It was a good photo. And he felt nothing when he looked at it.

He hit delete. Then flicked off the lamp, and curled in on himself in the dark.

--

The light in Takeda’s apartment was bright and cheery. Takeda had insisted they share a meal that night, even though it was late. Keishin picked at his food and watched him as he went to the kitchen and came back, smiling all the while.

“Ah, so… I have news!”  Takeda set that night’s bottle of sake on the table. “It turns out that Hisakawa-sensei is bi, too.”

Keishin nearly dropped his chopsticks “What, really?” His chest felt strange. “That’s great.”

“Yes, and she has a partner just outside of Sendai! Her face lit up when we started talking about them. It was quite sweet.”

“Hmm.” Keishin felt oddly disappointed. He poured sake into Takeda’s glass and tried to keep his face neutral.

Takeda rubbed the back of his neck. “It is a bit embarrassing though, how it came up…”

Keishin quirked an eyebrow at him. “How’s that?”

“I ah… well, we had a lot to drink and the topic of exes came up… and I mentioned one of mine by his first name. I’m lucky we were alone, it would have been hard to play off if we’d been with other coworkers.” Takeda let out a nervous laugh. “That would have been such a foolish way to lose my job.”

Keishin frowned. “It’s not like you to get that drunk. How much did you have?”

Takeda rubbed the back of his neck. “Too much, honestly. I’ll be more careful in the future, and we’ll steer clear of topics like that around other coworkers. Obviously.”

Obviously.

Even though it should have been obvious not to talk about things like that with a coworker in the first place, or to drink so damn much. “You’re really not used to being closeted, are you?” Keishin sighed.

“I didn’t mention you.” Takeda folded his hands neatly on the table in front of him. “I told her I had a boyfriend, but I didn’t mention your name or any details. You’re safe.”

“That’s not…” Keishin faltered, not even sure what the hell the issue actually was. “That’s good. Just… be careful for yourself, too.”

“Hisakawa would never out me. She understands the weight of something like that. She’s queer too, remember?”

“Yeah, no… I’m glad that you’ve found each other. There’s a lot I don’t get and a lot I can’t help you with as much as you need. I’m glad you’ve found a friend out here. A queer friend. It’s just… fast, is all”

“Perhaps pacing is relative to what you’re used to,” Takeda said with an air of diplomacy. He gestured to his laptop. “Shall we watch the movie?”

Keishin welcomed the change in topic. The plan for that date night was to watch Hawaii, another film from the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival that Takeda had missed.

The movie was slow in the beginning, with lots of footage of plants that seemed a little unnecessary. Maybe they were relevant later, but he drifted to sleep before the characters did anything more than make prolonged eye contact with each other.

He woke up when Takeda leaned forward to turn off his laptop. The movie credits were rolling.

Keishin groaned.

Takeda smiled at him. “Have a nice nap?”

“Fuck, ’m sorry.” Keishin rubbed at his eyes.

“It’s alright. The film was good, but it had a pretty slow pace… and you needed the rest.”

“Did you enjoy it, at least?” Keishin desperately hoped he hadn’t snored.

“I enjoy any time I get to spend with you, Keishin.”

Keishin looked away. Those words were too pretty to be real, especially after he’d just fallen asleep during an art film or whatever like an uncultured shit. “Bet you’d say that to anyone,” he mumbled.

“I would not.”

Keishin looked up to see Takeda’s mouth twisted into something between a scowl and a pout. His arms were crossed.

“Sorry,” Keishin sat up. “I just feel bad, is all.”

“There will be other films.” After a moment, Takeda’s expression softened. “Get some more rest tonight, if you can. You’ve been working pretty long hours lately.”

Keishin startled at the sentiment. Everyone was always on his case about taking care of himself, but Takeda usually let him be about it.

“I’ll be okay. There’s just a lot to do right now.”

--

“Pick up the pace! There’s a lot to do before the end of practice!’ Keishin shouted across the gym.

The kids were doing well. The tournament was in two weeks, and the team was riding on the perfect mix of stress and focus.

Stress was a good thing, if it had the right outlet. Keishin directed the kids to work, alternating between physically and mentally challenging tasks, with enough time to let them hone their own skills as they chose to. Inaction was their enemy, the thing that turned useful stress into anxiety and panic.

He tried not to think about how that might apply to his own life.

The practice wrapped up a mere hour after their intended end time. The team put the net away and cleaned up the floors.

Takeda waved Yachi over to talk to them. “That poster you put together has gotten a really great response! We were actually hoping to use it again, but at a small size we could give to a few specific individuals to ask for more funding.”

Panic flashed through Yachi’s face. “O-oh, are we still low on funds? I’m sorry!”

“You’re fine, we were just wondering if you could give us a postcard size version of the image. I can print it here at the school.” Takeda smiled at her. “The posters have been a huge help.”

“R-right! I’ll take care of it as soon as I get home! You won’t have to dip into your savings, I promise! I’ll do it right away!”

Shimizu walked up to where they were talking. “Hitoka-chan?”

Yachi jumped and spun around to face her.

Shimizu’s face was placid, but her grip on her clipboard was white-knuckle tight. “Do you…” She paused. Silence stretched out between them.

Takeda tugged at Keishin’s elbow, a cue it was time for them to leave.

Yachi seemed to be floundering in the silence. “Do you want to study together?!” she blurted out, before Shimizu could say anything else and Takeda and Keishin could step away.

Shimizu’s expression faltered. “I… have to go home.”

“O-of course.” Yachi seemed to get a little smaller, if that were possible.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Shimizu’s calm façade returned to her face. “I’ll have those calculations ready.”

She strode out of the gym, leaving Yachi standing there.

Keishin cleared his throat to break the silence. “Uh, don’t worry about it if you can’t get those print files ready tonight.”

Yachi turned to him. “No no, I can handle it!”  She smiled a little too tightly.

“Thanks for your hard work,” Takeda said. “Ukai-kun, we should lock up the gym now.” He pulled Keishin away.

Yachi grabbed her things and rushed out the door.

“You’re worried about them, right?” Takeda said, after she was out of earshot.

Keishin stepped out of the gym and pulled out a cigarette. “Yeah…”

“It’s tempting to try to fix things for our students. It’s good to be there when we can, but we also have to trust them to lead the way. They both need to find their own answers.” The keys jangled as he locked the door to the gym.

Keishin frowned. “Yeah. It just… doesn’t feel like enough.”

“Giving the students space to grow is part of our jobs. We’ll be there for them if they fall… but sometimes we all have to take a leap just to see if we can fly.” Takeda smiled and shook in head in embarrassment. “Something like that, anyway.”

“Yeah, I get it.” Keishin smiled and nudged him gently with his shoulder.  “You know, you sounded like a real reliable teacher just now.”

“Tease.” Takeda laughed. “Can I walk you to the store?”

“ ’Course.”

They walked down the hill together towards the shop. The sun had just set, and the crickets sang in the grasses that had pushed their way up along the edges of the road. The air was cool, and Keishin zipped up his track jacket to keep the chill away. The collar smelled faintly of Takeda’s apartment, that mix of his orangey shampoo and fresh laundry.

Keishin glanced over at Takeda, suddenly overwhelmingly grateful he was there. For him, and for the girls, and the team, and everyone else who’s lives he seemed to effortlessly improve.

But it only seemed effortless, he reminded himself.

“You hungry? We’ve got some extra curry buns at the shop if y’want ‘em.”

“Ah, thank you. But I have some leftovers at home, and grading to finish before your shift’s over. I’ll see you in a few hours?”

“Yeah, I’ll bring some sake if y’want.”

“Always.” Takeda stopped just short of the shop. “I’ll let you get to it then. Wish me luck with those papers!”

Keishin grinned. “You got this. See you in a bit, sensei.”

The evening hours at the shop crawled by as kids came in and out to get after-practice snacks. The soccer team was in full gear preparing for a tournament, and they were almost as loud and energetic as his kids on the volleyball team.

His kids. He shook his head.

Half an hour from closing time, the bell on the shop door rang. Keishin looked up, half-hoping to see Yachi or Shimizu.

Instead, he was greeted with muscled arms, short-cropped hair, and Suzuki’s handsome eyes.

Keishin’s heart sank to the floor.

Suzuki strode in with a practiced nonchalance. He looked around the shop, likely noting what had changed and what hadn’t. He hummed a little to himself, then made a point of examining the protein bars in the snack aisle.

Keishin shifted awkwardly behind the counter. There was nothing to do, and nowhere to run. He reached towards his copy of Shonen Jump on the counter, but didn’t pick it up.

“Funny how small the place seems now,” Suzuki said. His voice seemed deeper, more confident than Keishin remembered it from high school. “When I was a kid, this town seemed to go on forever.” He turned to Keishin and grinned. “Guess you’re in charge of the shop now, huh?”

“I’m just watchin’ things for my ma.”

Keishin remembered a younger Suzuki, still in his school uniform. Carrying too many books. Keishin steps around a corner and smashes right into him, books and papers flying everywhere. Keishin says something obnoxious, because he could never just fucking keep his mouth shut. Takinoue and Shimada snicker just down the hall. Suzuki stares at him, eyes wide and a little hurt. Then the staccato of shoes as Keishin storms away, leaving him there to clean up the mess.

Suzuki casually examined the nutritional information on the back of a protein bar. “Still helping out your folks, huh? Well, I guess it’s pretty hard to turn down a part time job when it just falls in your lap like that, isn’t it?”

The words were meant to sting. Keishin let them. “Y’seem like you’re doin’ well,” he said.

Suzuki looked at another bar. “Yeah, Sapporo’s been good to me. I’m in the ski championships next month, believe it or not. Had a talent for it, I guess.” He grabbed a couple of protein bars and sauntered over to the counter. “Though it’s a bit hard finding time to practice with the bar exam coming up. I’m down here for a week to help my family with some things, then it’s nose to the grindstone again.”

The middle of high school volleyball practice. Suzuki walks by the school gym. Keishin catches the movement out of the corner of his eye and he shifts to see better. It’s enough to throw his form off and the ball goes flying out of bounds. His grandad is yelling at him already. He bites back a curse before it lands him in more trouble.

Later he’s running penalty laps around the school when he sees Suzuki again. He’s with the soccer team, and they’re laughing and putting away their things, and Suzuki’s smile is perfect. Keishin can’t help but think ‘look at me, please look at me,’ as he watches them. He’s about to go around the corner when, by some miracle, Suzuki’s head turns towards him. Then that bright smile drops away, wilting into a glare. Keishin twists his face into a scowl and sprints away.

Suzuki set the protein bars on the counter by the register. “I almost envy you, reading comics in your parent’s shop.” Suzuki smiled and sighed, like he’d just told a joke. “But I guess the grass is always greener…”

Keishin rang up the bars. “Seems like it.”

The Suzuki family always had a beautiful garden. Lush green grasses and carefully tended hedges surrounded by little flowers. Suzuki’s walking, almost home, when Keishin shouts at him from his bike. It’s something obnoxious, again, and then he tries to do some shitty trick on his bike. ‘Look at me, look at me,’ he thinks. The trick fails, because of course it does, and Keishin goes careening into the Suzuki’s garden. Keishin’s bike goes flying out from under him and crashes into Suzuki. They’re both scraped and bruised, but nothing that won’t heal. The flowers are wrecked, petals strewn everywhere and dirt sprayed across the immaculate walkway. Keishin pulls himself out of the bushes to see Suzuki’s face, red from anger and pain. ‘What is wrong with you?!’ Suzuki shouts, and something inside Keishin shatters.

Keishin cleared his throat. “You’re doing well,” he repeated. “It’s… good to see. Give your folks my best.” He handed Suzuki the receipt.

Suzuki looked startled, like he was expecting something else. “Yours as well.” He coughed, then his face smoothed back into a false smile and he turned for the door. “Take care now. Cold and flu season’s coming up, and I hear it always hits smokers the hardest!” Suzuki waved as he stepped out the door and into the night.

Keishin reached for a cigarette the instant the door swung shut. He pulled out his lighter, then paused.

He twirled the cigarette between his fingers, wondering whether or not to light it.

Fuck it, he thought. He lit it the damn thing and inhaled deeply.

--

The chill in the air had worsened by the time Keishin stepped into Takeda’s apartment. He clenched his jaw and tried to repress a shiver. He felt ridiculous. October had barely started.

Takeda greeted him at the door with a warm embrace. “I missed you.”

It had been less than three hours. Keishin cleared his throat, his cheeks hot despite the chill. “I uh, brought sake.” He hefted the grocery bag in his hand.

“You’re shaking,” Takeda pulled back and looked at him with concern. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, just cold is all.” Keishin suppressed another shiver.

Takeda took the bag from him. “I’ll go heat this up. You can pull the kotatsu blanket down from the closet, and we’ll get you warmed up in no time.”

Takeda busied himself with the sake and a decanter. Keishin opened the closet and stared at the clothes and storage tubs inside. There were Takeda’s work clothes, and the drawers with a photo of him with his friends in Tokyo taped to the outside. The top shelves were empty save for a few clean towels. Finally, he saw the kotatsu blanket peeking out from behind a plastic storage box.

As he pulled it down, it caught on the box and brought the whole thing crashing down to the floor. The box burst open, scattering its contents everywhere.

Contents that included the biggest damn dildo Keishin had ever seen. It was covered in ridges and had a soft gradient from its pink tip to bright blue base. It wobbled obscenely on the tatami floor.

“What the hell is that?!!!” he sprang away from it like it was a snake.

“Oh, ah….” Takeda laughed nervously, “You found my toy box.”

Keishin gaped at the toy. “That thing is enormous! …Is that what I’m competing against? It’s the size of your goddamn forearm!”

“It’s not, and you’re not competing against anything!” Takeda moved to start picking up the mess, “That feels completely different from you.”

“I’ll bet!” Keishin’s eyes darted around at the rest of the box’s contents. “What the hell is any of that stuff? No, don’t answer,” He slumped against the wall and slid down to the floor, “I’m not ready to know.”

Takeda shoved everything into the box and slid it into the closet. Keishin rubbed his face with his hand.

Having a meltdown over a box of sex toys was possibly the most goddamn embarrassing thing he could think of. He swallowed and tried to stop the wave of emotion, but he could feel his insecurities bubbling over, churning in his stomach and tangling into knots around his throat. He hated every sensation, and hated himself even more for feeling it.

He took a deep breath and wished the exhale was steadier.

“None of those things have any effect on you or what I like doing with you. I’m very happy with everything we’ve done so far,” Takeda fidgeted at the fabric of his jeans, “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought you liked some of them…”

“Yeah, sorry. I know this is stupid.” Keishin exhaled again and ran a hand through his hair, “I just… I can’t figure out how you can seem happy with me. Surely you’d have been happy with any of the other young guys around here if they’d turned out to be queer.” He made a vague gesture to himself and tried to laugh, “But you wound up with this mess.”

Takeda straightened and looked him dead in the eye. Keishin felt himself wither further under the scrutiny.

“Do you really think that of me?”

Keishin stared at him, not sure how to respond.

“Do you consider my taste so low, or consider me so oblivious, that I can’t tell who I’m spending time with? That I wouldn’t care if it was you or someone else? Am I that base to you?” Takeda’s voice was steady but Keishin curled under the words.

“No, I just… fuck.” Keishin was fucking this up. “Look, what do I have to offer you? You deserve everything, and I’ve got nothing for you except a scandal waiting to happen.” He wished he could stop talking, stop the words before they fell out, but the insecurities were spilling up from his belly and out his throat. “No future, no ambition, just a collection of bad habits and fucked up family. The only good thing about me has always been the name Ukai.”

Takeda’s mouth tightened. “That’s not true. Listen, hypothetically, what if there were someone else? Do you really think that would erase what we’ve built together? The support you’ve given me, and allowed me to give you in turn? What we’ve done for the team? All these nights and conversations we’ve shared? I wouldn’t just throw that away, Keishin. Relationships are about what you build, not who you are.”

“Well, y’could build with better materials! You’re always talking about how dangerous this is for your job. Why don’t you just get a wife? Why are you bothering with this?!” Keishin felt his voice rising. His heart pounded at the fact that the neighbors could probably hear him now, and pounded harder at the realization that, right now, he didn’t really give a shit.

“Because I care!” Takeda was angry now. He stood up and turned away from Keishin. When he spoke again his voice was quiet, “Tell me, if you met a woman you were attracted to tomorrow, would you throw all this away? Are you certain you’re not the one doing this out of convenience?”

“That’s not gonna fuckin’ happen and you know it!”

Takeda walked away and sat down at the kotatsu table, staring at the surface of it and pointedly avoiding his eye. “I’ve found myself feeling strongly about you lately,” Takeda said, his voice cold and steady. “Until you’ve seriously considered those questions and can give me a genuine answer, please don’t come here again.”

Keishin could feel the world crashing down around him.

“I don’t have to consider anything, I already-!” he started, and Takeda turned further away from him, still staring at the tabletop.

Keishin let silence stretch between them and willed himself to just think. His breathing was too fast and it didn’t look like Takeda was breathing at all. If he had any chance at all to save this, his next words had to be just right.

Think, just think.

“I need a smoke.”

He stepped out onto the patio and slid the glass door shut behind him, unable to bring himself to look at Takeda.

Coward.

The word echoed through his mind, over and over again. He took out a cigarette and lit it, finding what comfort he could in the familiar motion. He inhaled deeply, and waited for his nerves to still. Despite the chill, the evening was beautiful. Faint purples from the sunset still lingered near the horizon, and he could see a few birds seeking their shelter for the night.

He exhaled and felt tears well up in his eyes.

Fuck.

He wiped his eyes with his free hand.

It felt like everything was falling apart.

“If this was one of your games, what would you do?”

Nakano’s words echoed through his mind. He knew that answer easily enough. If there was any chance to win, you fought. And there was always a chance. It didn’t matter what the opposition was like, or who the crowd was cheering for. You either kept the ball in the air or you didn’t.

At the time, he’d scoffed at the comparison, but now his mind gnawed at it like a hungry dog.  Had he really been giving it his all? He thought about all the times he’d let moments pass by with Takeda, leaving things unsaid, trying to strangle his own hope before he could get disappointed. And for what? He’d already decided he wasn’t worth any of this shit.

Coward.

Keishin’s thoughts were interrupted by a tinny sound coming from the patio nearby. Hayami from next door had opened the door to her balcony and started to hang up her laundry. Music was blasting from the headphones in her ears. She stopped when the cigarette smoke drifted over to her. She waved a hand in front of her nose, gave Keishin a look that could kill, then took her laundry back inside.

Keishin snorted and took another drag from his cigarette. Plenty of ways to piss off the neighbors, it seemed.

The worst thing you could do is not even try.

He exhaled another long trail of smoke.

Think.

Okay, option 1: all of his worst fears had come true. Takeda was done with him, and he was about to get dumped without Takeda ever really knowing how he felt. Life would get really awkward, and it would probably affect the team. Maybe he’d get over Takeda eventually, or maybe he’d wind up sobbing at his wedding one day. Knowing his luck, it would probably be both.

Option 2: there was a chance to save this. Some kind of future. What that looked like and how to navigate it in this town and with his family and with Takeda’s bosses, he didn’t know. Maybe it meant moving, like Nakano was always on him about. Maybe it meant just accepting being the local pariah, sacrificing the tiny scraps of respect he’d built up here since high school and scraping by with some new line of work. Or maybe it meant things staying just as they were, and he’d just have to get over whatever restless feelings that were pressing him to fuck it all up. Whatever it was, they’d find it by some miracle and live happily ever after.

Then of course there was option 3: they would try for option 2 and get caught. Takeda would lose his job, Keishin’s family would disown him (probably right after his grandfather was done killing him and using his body for fertilizer), those dumb volleyball kids would wind up abandoned, and he would lose Takeda. Everything worth living for, down the drain.

He remembered Nakano’s constantly repeated suicide statistics.

Fuck that.

He’d at least go to Shibuya first, even if it was by himself.

The tension in his shoulders began to settle.

Alright. Option 3 sucked. Option 1 sucked. Option 2 was dizzying and surreal and full of unknown factors. He closed his eyes and tried to let himself imagine it. Happiness, warmth, a future. The sound of Takeda’s voice every day. Warm fingers through his hair. Someone to eat his weird cooking, always. It was a vague fantasy, but he longed for it, every part of him aching at the thought.

Takeda didn’t deserve what would happen if they were caught.

But he knew Takeda, and he knew how much he would hate it if Keishin made his choices for him.

He went back to option 1. Getting dumped was the most likely scenario for the moment, and ultimately Takeda’s decision. Maybe even the best option, given the bigger picture.

Even so… Keishin couldn’t let it rest like this. Takeda didn’t deserve to think that Keishin had rejected him, that he wasn’t worth fighting for.

His heart was still beating fast, but it had gone from reckless pounding panic to a level of stress he could handle.

He smothered his cigarette, took another deep breath, and went back inside.

Takeda was still kneeling at the table. He looked drained, uncertain, his anger form earlier replaced by exhaustion and stress. His expression shifted when Keishin slid the glass door open, smoothing into something close to neutral. It reminded Keishin of the face he wore during the kids’ games, when the odds seemed against them but he wanted to appear calm. Keishin would probably find the comparison amusing in any other circumstance.

He still wouldn’t look directly at Keishin.

Icy silence filled the room. Keishin sat in front of him. Keishin kept his back straight, and tightened his hands into fists to hide the fact that they were shaking.

“I love you.”

Takeda’s eyes widened, and he finally turned to look at Keishin.

Keishin went on, “I know that we haven’t known each other that long. You probably think I’m a fool for sayin’ it. But it’s true. Whatever happens with us, I just want you to know that you deserve the best. Every good thing this world can give you.”

Takeda’s expression shifted, apprehension clouding his brow.

“I want…” Keishin faltered. “Fuck, I want so many things. I want to help you, I want to give you a future, but I can’t see it. I keep tryin’, but I can’t.” His voice cracked, and he had to pause for a moment while the lump in his throat settled.

Takeda leaned forward as if he was about to say something. Keishin shook his head. He needed to finish this on his own.

“I can’t see it, but I do trust your judgement. If you can see a way—even if it’s just a one percent chance, or a half a percent…” He took a deep breath. “If you can see a happy future with me, I’ll fight for that chance with everything I have. I’ll deal with my family, my friends, whatever I have to do. I don’t care.” He bowed his head. “But, if you can’t see a future for us… would you please do me a favor and break my heart now?”

Takeda sighed, the tension slipping from his shoulders. “Keishin,” he said quietly. He took Keishin’s hands in his own. “I can see a hundred paths to walk with you, many of them happy. Is that what all of this has been about?” He squeezed Keishin’ palms. “I don’t know which way is best, but we don’t need to have every step figured out in order to move forward.”

Keishin’s throat still felt tight. “I don’t know how.”

Takeda closed his eyes for a moment. “I’ve always imagined this thing between us as a flower, growing up between cracks in the concrete, the result of some beautiful and undeterred eagerness. It started out small, just a quiet seed of longing, but we’ve grown it together. I want to see how much we can grow this love, how strong and vibrant it could become.”

Keishin nodded. His throat tightened, his chest as delicate and determined as the weeds that grew on the roadsides.

“Our individual health and happiness are the roots that nourish that flower. You said that you’d ‘deal’ with your friends and your family, but they’re a part of you too. Just like a flower would eventually die if it was cut and put into a vase, you can’t sacrifice your own happiness for what we have and expect it to go well. For this to work, you need to do what is good for you, not what you think might be good for us.”

Keishin mulled that over, then frowned. “But what I do affects you too. …Doesn’t it?”

“Yes. I have needs and wants of my own. I don’t think I could keep seeing you if you were married, for example. Not unless your wife knew beforehand and was comfortable with the arrangement, and even then—”

“Then I won’t get married,” Keishin declared.

Takeda’s breath caught in surprise. His expression softened, then faded to wariness again. “There is something else I need to ask of you,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Do you consider heterosexual relationships to be more valuable than queer relationships?”

“I mean… I guess. You can’t deny it’d be better if we were a straight couple.”

“I can deny that, actually, and I do. First of all, I will never be in a straight relationship, because I am not straight. Regardless of the gender of my partner, I am always bisexual. Do you understand?”

“I’m trying to,” Keishin said. “You’ll always be you, is what you’re saying. And you are queer.”

“Yes. And… I believe that our lives would be better without homophobia, not if we were straight. At least this way we have the opportunity to look behind what’s expected of us in relationships and wonder if we can do better. We’re not stuck.”

Keishin looked away. “That’s a real optimistic way to look at it.”

“You don’t have to see things the way I do. I’m not asking that. But as long as you see our relationship as less valuable than a straight relationship, it won’t matter what I say or how many times I reassure you, your doubt will eat us alive.”

The image of a flower wilting to rot filled Keishin’s mind.

“I want you to believe me when I say that I care about you. You don’t have to like yourself all of the time, or see things the way I do, but you do need to accept that there’s real value in what we have and in relationships like ours. It will be hard work, and I can’t do that work for you. But if you’re serious about this, then… that’s what I need.”

“Right,” Determination rose up in Keishin’s chest, ready to take on the challenge like he would if it was a new strategy on the volleyball court. “I’ll do my best.”

Takeda pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “So, that’s me.” He put his glasses back on and gave Keishin his full attention again. “Is there anything we can do to make this work better for you? I’ve been worried about you lately.”

Keishin suppressed the automatic I’m fine that his mind brought up on reflex.  He thought it over. “I need t’sleep more,” he confessed. “…and drink less. I’ve been tryin’ to keep up with you, but y’make me feel old.”

“Okay. It… honestly would be better for me to cut back on my drinking anyway,” Takeda ran a hand through his hair.  “And we can try to go to bed a little earlier, or you can always go to bed before I do.”

“I like fallin’ asleep with you,” Keishin complained. “But yeah, sometimes that’d be good. Maybe some nights I can take a nap here instead of cookin’, then I can stay up later with you? I can pay for takeout sometimes if that’s too much.”

“I’ll get it. And I can cook sometimes, too! I do know how, I just need the incentive of having another person to take care of before I’ll actually do it. I’m sorry I didn’t step up more earlier; I was just letting you cook because you seemed to enjoy it. I should have asked instead of assuming.”

“Nah, I do like it. I’d feed you every meal if I could. Save for maybe a few nights out.”

Takeda smiled. “You’re too much.”

Keishin sighed. “Too much of something, anyway. I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I was actin’ like an asshole.”

“Yes,” Takeda agreed. “Just don’t do it again.” He traced this thumb over Keishin’s palm. “I’m sorry too. I let my insecurities get the better of me. I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately, but that’s no excuse to take it out on you.”

“That’s my line.” Keishin shifted closer to him and pressed their foreheads together. After a breath, he studied Takeda’s face. “Are we okay?”

“I think so. We will be.” He flicked Keishin’s knee. “Just try to talk to me sooner next time, before things get this bad?”

“Communicate, huh?”

Takeda nodded, matter-of-fact. “Yes. It’s important to vocalize during a play on the court.”

Keishin laughed. “I think I’m rubbin’ off on you, Take-chan.”

Takeda hummed and pressed closer to him. “You could, if you wanted.”

Heat spread from Keishin’s cheeks to the tips of his ears. He laughed, a giggle of tension melting into joyful embarrassment.

Takeda kissed him mid laugh, and Keishin kissed him back, still smiling. Takeda ran his hands over Keishin’s shoulders, then down his back to slip under the hem of his jacket.

“Shit, your hands are ice cold.” Keishin pressed closer to him.

“I promise the rest of me is warmer.”

Keishin laughed again and pulled Takeda’s shirt up and over his head. Takeda moved gently, undressing and kissing him by turns. He pressed Keishin back onto the floor and moved to unbutton his jeans. “Is this alright?”

Keishin hummed approvingly and lifted his hips so Takeda could slide his jeans off.

“And… is this alright?” Takeda lay on top of him so their legs intertwined, and pressed their cocks together.

“Yes,” Keishin breathed. Takeda began to move. “Take-chan, yes.”

They moved back and forth, enjoying the pleasure of skin contact. Takeda’s quiet groans pressed into Keishin’s neck as Keishin whispered Take-chan like it was some sweet forgotten verse.

When they’d finished, they lay still and quiet, blissful in each other’s company. Before either of them could drift off to sleep, Keishin sighed and sat up.

“Okay, lemme see that dick. I wanna look at it again before this becomes a complex.”

Keishin sat cross-legged while Takeda pulled out the box of toys. He pulled out the offending member and handed it to Keishin. There was a surprising heft to it, and the ridges were soft under his fingers. The shape of it was unreal: a fantasy designed to please.

“…Alright, this thing is pretty awesome,” Keishin admitted.

Takeda relaxed. “It is, actually.”

Keishin set it down in front of him, where it stood with a proud curve towards the ceiling. “Do you use it often?”

Takeda looked sheepish. “It’s my favorite, when I’m by myself.”

“Well, then I’m glad you have it,” Keishin declared. “You deserve to feel good.”

Takeda smiled in a way that would seem incredibly innocent, if they weren’t talking about a giant dildo, and pressed closer to him. “I agree. You too, y’know.”

Keishin hummed and snuggled closer.

Takeda rested his head on Keishin’s shoulder.

“And Keishin?”

“Hm?”

“I love you too.”

Chapter Text

Deer licking
first frost
from each other’s coats.

-Issa

--

 

Ota,

Have you ever felt ashamed of being queer? I know this seems out of nowhere but I’ve been trying to unpack some shit and figured you’d be a good guy to ask. You always seemed to have things figured out.

If that’s too heavy for you right now then don’t worry about it. How’s it going with your new friends in Nagoya?

-Keishin

Ps. I’m doing ok, just trying to be better.

 

Keishin reread the email a few times. He edited the subject line with a warning that the message was a little heavy but not urgent, then hit send. He leaned back and stared up at the ceiling of his room.

The preliminaries for the Spring Tournament were in four days.

He’d done everything he could to get the kids ready. The packet of information that Yachi and Shimizu had helped him put together about each team was on the table, full of his own notes. They’d gone over endless strategies and drills. The kids had been training hard.

Now it was just a matter of keeping everyone’s nerves in check, including his own.

Practice, study, rest. If he kept them in the right balance, the pieces would have the chance to come together. That’s all the kids needed: the best chance he could give them.

He inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh.

Practice, study, rest.

He wondered if it would take a similar balance for him to be a better partner, to give his relationship withTakeda the best chance he could. The same effort, the same stress, the same potential to lose it all.

The same potential to win.

It was worth it, when he thought of Takeda.

He turned out the light and went to bed, nervous apprehension and little hopes of victory both bubbling in his chest.

--

They won against Shiratorizawa.

The whistle was still ringing in his ears as the crowd roared around them.

The kids erupted into happy tears and hugs, a few awkwardly hobbling as their legs finally began to give out. Takeda was shaking beside him.

The last match of the prelims, and they fucking won.

They were going to Nationals.

The awards ceremony went by in a blur. Keishin watched from the sidelines, choked up and speechless as the kids took their bows. The announcer acknowledged Coach Takeda, and Takeda bowed, still flustered at the title.

Keishin was beaming by the time the kids stepped off the court. He praised a few key players especially, clapping their shoulders a bit firmer than he meant to. Then he shoo’d them off the gym floor and into the excited crowd of friends and family that had come to greet them.

“Ryuuuuuuuuuu! I love you so much! You really showed ‘em! You did!” Tanaka Saeko pulled her little brother into a headlock and began ruffling his buzzed hair. Then she hugged him, wiping his sweat off her hand onto the back of his shirt.

Some absurdly tall blond guy was crying in front of Tsukishima, who looked ready to die of embarrassment at the display. Keishin figured they must be brothers.

Shimada was beaming at Yamaguchi like he’d sprouted wings and brought home a doctorate degree.

Keishin glanced over to see how Takeda was doing and their eyes met. The raucousness of the gym melted into a warm background hum while they stood in their own world, still and perfect.

“Holllly shit!” Takinoue threw his arms around Keishin. “You did it! I can’t believe you did it! I’ve never been so proud of our little underclassmen! And you!” He punched Keishin in the stomach. “You really came through!”

“Your help with funding and cheering us on made it possible too, Takinoue-kun,” Takeda said.

Takinoue grinned, an arm still around Keishin’s shoulders. “Not as much as you, right Coach Takeda?”

Takeda startled. “Hardly-! I really didn’t do anything at all. Ukai-kun was—“

Keishin laughed. “Yer too modest, sensei. Now where’re we going to celebrate?”

“Ah, why don’t you guys take Saeko and the others from the cheer squad out to our usual spot? It’ll be fun, and I can bow out early so it won’t be awkward.” Takinoue gave Keishin a pat on the back before he let go.

“We’re not going without you!” Shimada had found his way over to them. He looked incredulous that Takinoue was even suggesting bowing out of the post-game celebration.

“Eh, I gotta work early tomorrow anyway.”

Shimada crossed his arms. “So do the rest of us! That’s no excuse!”

Keishin interrupted their bickering. “By the look of things, I think Tanaka’s gonna be busy celebrating with her little brother. Why don’t you two go get changed and settled at the place while sensei and I wrap things up here and get the kids home? We’ll see you in a couple hours.”

As if to confirm Keishin’s words, Tanaka said something to her brother that prompted him and Nishinoya to break out into their meat dance.

“Fine, alright.” Takinoue grinned, obviously relieved to be joining in the fun. “Hey Shimada, you mentioned you had those limited-edition beers from your store? We could celebrate at your place.”

Shimada startled. “No! No. My place is a dump right now. Besides, we gotta eat, too.”

Takinoue grinned, “Good point, good point. Alright!” He turned back to Keishin and Takeda. “You two take care of the kids, we’ll grab a spot at the bar!”

The kids were quiet on the ride home. Most slept, or stared out the window in satisfied exhaustion. When they got to the school, the kids walked home, some of them on still-shaky legs and all of them with smiles on their faces.

Takeda and Keishin parked the school van in its usual spot, then set about cleaning it and checking for lost items. The sun was just starting to dip towards the horizon, casting everything in a brilliant orange light.

“You listed me as the coach.” Takeda’s voice was quiet, a small ripple on the water’s surface where something bigger swam beneath.

“Yeah, well, it didn’t seem right to have the Ukai name still tied to things. Karasuno’s legacy is its own.” He turned to Takeda and smiled, warmth filling his chest at the miracle this man had pulled together. It had been an easy thing to list his name on the registration forms. It had been obvious. “It’s thanks to you that we have the chance to keep that legacy, Take-chan.”

Takeda looked down, a shy smile tugging at the corners of his lips. He stepped closer to Keishin. “Do you remember what I told you yesterday? That if we won today, you could praise me all you like?”

“Yeah...” Keishin glanced out the window of the bus to make sure no one was coming.

“We have time,” he set his hand on Keishin’s chest, fingers brushing the zipper near his throat. “I want you to come back to my place and fuck me senseless.”

Keishin felt a shiver roll through him. His cheeks were burning. “Y’realize we’re goin’ somewhere after this, right?”

“That’s what condoms are for.” Takeda stepped away with a satisfied smile and stepped out of the bus.

Keishin glanced down, then desperately thought of the least sexy thing he could imagine before following Takeda outside.

--

They arrived at the bar slightly disheveled and more than a little late. Takinoue waved them over to their table.

“About time, you two! We were about to order food without you.” Shimada grinned, a half-empty beer glass in front of him.

“Sorry about that, we had some things to take care of after we got the kids home,” Takeda said smoothly.

“Mmn,” Keishin grunted in agreement as he took his seat at the table. His friends knew him too well for him to risk saying anything more.

“I was just looking over some of the footage from the match,” Takinoue flipped open the screen on his handheld camera. “I set it up on the end of the court. Look at Azumane’s form for this spike!”

“And Tadashi’s float serve, about fifty three minutes in.” Shimada grinned, bubbling over with pride.

“I’m so happy,” Takeda sighed. “Thank you both for being there to support the students, and for all your help with everything beforehand, too. It really made a difference.”

“We all made it happen.” Keishin filled Takeda’s glass, then held his own up in a toast. “Damn, what a day!”

They cheered, and drank, and ate their weight in chicken wings and edamame. Keishin and Takeda had agreed to drink at different paces, which was proving to be a lot more enjoyable than Keishin’s past attempts to keep up. He savored each sip of his beer while the others poured glass after glass. He chortled at Shimada’s face, already flushed and his glasses askew. Takinoue was giggling to himself occasionally.

“Another round!” Takinoue waved to the server.

“Hey, don’t try t’keep up with sensei, you’re just askin’ for trouble. Here, eat your edamame.” Keishin shoved the bowl towards Takinoue and a glass of water towards Shimada.

“Y’know in hindsight, I dunno why I was so surprised you’d be good with kids. Y’sound like my mom.” Shimada stuck his tongue out at him, then took a swig of the water.

“Ukai-kun, I’m just so happy!” Takeda grinned. “So happy!”

Keishin smiled back at him. “So y’ told me before.”

“So I’ve been thinkin’,” Takinoue pulled out his video camera again. “We can use videos for more than just reviewing game strategies. It might be fun to make something to encourage the kids before the Nationals.”

“Yeah! Something real dramatic to inspire them!” Shimada struck a weird pose. “…Can I play the villain?”

Takinoue snort-laughed. “I was thinking of something more realistic, like a documentary about how awesome they are? Keep ‘em grounded!”

“Ah screw you, I’d play a fantastic villain,” Shimada tented his fingers in front of his face in an attempt to impersonate a super villain.

“Pffft, yeah yeah tough guy. Wouldn’t you rather brag about your excellent teaching skills?”

“I wanna brag about Ukai-kun’s teaching skills,” Takeda said, his face finally starting to flush from the alcohol.

“That—no,” Keishin said, his own cheeks growing hot. He turned back to Takinoue. “That’s a great idea though. We can use footage from big moments in their past games, interview their friends. Make ‘em feel like champions.” Keishin’s mind buzzed with possibilities and things to do to prepare for the January tournament. “I’ll see if we can get some donations to help.” He pulled out his phone and sent out a few texts to alumni.

“Ah, put that away Keishin. Work tomorrow, we’re celebrating tonight.” Takinoue chuckled. “Man, who would’ve thought it’d turn out like this.”

Keishin kept texting. “The kids really came through. Now it’s our turn to come through for them. It’s gonna be a busy few months.”

“Yes, but for tonight we celebrate!” Shimada cheered, and ordered them yet another round.

The night wore on, and Takeda’s flush grew brighter as empty glasses collected on the table.

“It really means so much that you guys have been there for the team,” Takeda said. “I get these big dreams in my head, and this one actually came true because you all worked so hard.” He sniffed. “It really means so much. I’m so happy.” Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Sensei, it’s because of you that we did all this!” Shimada banged his fist on the table. “I never woulda thought I could help somebody, but you an’ Keishin believe in me! We can do anything!”

“Here,” Keishin handed Takeda his handkerchief. Takeda pushed his glasses to the top of his head, wiped his face, then blew his nose with a loud honk.

“Takinoue!” Shimada pointed at him. “Takinoue. We gotta make the best video, okay? I swear if it’s not the best I’ll fuckin’ fight you. We gotta show the kids this feeling.”

Takinoue laughed, louder than usual after the beers. “Combative Shimada’s out to play now, huh? We’ll do it. But y’ can still fight me if you want.” He grinned at Shimada’s flushed face.

“Bopper swords!” Shimada declared.

“Bopper swords, Turkish wrestling, whatever you want.” Takinoue smiled fondly. “I’m so proud of everybody.” He glanced at his phone. “Ah, shit. I wasn’t lying about work tomorrow. I should head out.”

“Noooo,” Shimada whined.

“Hey, I’m supposed to finish doin’ inventory before we open tomorrow.” He yawned. “I’ll see you tomorrow after work though?”

“Fine fine, yes.” Shimada sighed.

“You gonna be okay gettin’ home?” Keishin asked.

“I’ve been drunker,” Takinoue said. “You guys think about what would be good for the video, okay?” 

“You got it.”

Takinoue put a few bills on the table to cover his part of the tab, then walked out the door.

“Hey sensei, wan’ another round? Or are you done fer th’night?” Shimada slurred.

Takeda grinned. “You’re on.”

“Just drink water between each beer, alright?” Keishin chuckled. “I’m gonna need you both functional this week.” He pulled what was left of their plate of chicken wings towards him and picked the most promising one.

Shimada lost the contest, eventually curling up partway under the table to ‘take a short break before rising to victory.’ He snored peacefully on the floor.

“Keishin, I’m shoooooo happy!” Smeared tears and snot covered Takeda’s face, which was scrunched up like an emotional raisin.

“Your face is a mess, sensei.” Keishin couldn’t help but smile. “Y’ told me that at least eight times already.”

“ ‘Cause it’s true!” Takeda declared, the same response he’d given the last three times. “ ‘M sho lucky, Keishinnn. Ish all sho real, it’s really happenin’!”

Keishin laughed. “Y’know, you’re pretty cute when you’re drunk, sensei.” Keishin had only just finished his second beer. It felt good to take things at his own pace.

“ ‘M always cute.” Takeda pouted.

“Mmmhm.” Keishin glanced at where Shimada was sleeping. The izakaya had pretty much emptied out, only the occasional server coming to check on their corner of the place.

Takeda nuzzled against Keishin’s shoulder. “Yer always cute too, Keishinnn. I’m shooo happy!”

Keishin chuckled. “An’ yer sooo drunk, sensei. C’mon, we should probably pack up after this one.”

“’Kay…” Takeda pulled away from him and began chugging what was left of his drink. He set it down, then looked at Shimada. “Y’gotta get him home safe, Keishin.”

“I gotta get you both home safe,” Keishin said. He waved a server over to settle the bill.

“I c’n get home okay.”

“I’ll feel better if y’ let me walk you home.” Keishin looked at the bill and pulled out his wallet.

“I got id!” Takeda waved at the bill and fumbled for his own wallet.

“Next time,” Keishin said.

“Noooo, Keishinnnn,” Takeda whined at him.

“Fine. Put a bill in, but let me get most of it.”

Takeda shoved a 10,000 yen bill at him. Keishin squinted at it, then shoved it into his wallet with the mental note to use it to do something nice for Takeda later.

“ ‘M glad you wanna walk me home. I bet there’ll be stars..!” Takeda looked up, like he was imagining them through the ceiling.

Keishin set the paid bill aside and prodded at Shimada. “C’mon buddy, time to go home.”

Shimada groaned. Keishin helped him up, hooked at arm around him, then grabbed Takeda’s wrist and guided them both out of the bar.

It was normally only a twenty-minute walk from the bar to Takeda’s place. But between the stumbling and Keishin’s frequent reminders for Takeda and Shimada to keep their voices down, it was an hour before they finally reached Takeda’s apartment building. Keishin let Shimada stand on his own, shivering a little at the loss of contact. He turned to Takeda to say goodbye.

“Keishin, I’m shooooo happy,” Takeda tried to whisper and failed.

Keishin sighed, but didn’t hide his own smile. “Yeah, I know already. Me too.”

Takeda looked at the stairs to his apartment door, then back to Keishin. “I wish you c’d come upstairs,” he pouted.

Keishin coughed and laughed nervously. Shimada was leaning up against a streetlamp just a few meters away. “Y’sure have had a lot, sensei. Drink some water tonight, okay?”

Takeda’s expression softened. “Y’take such good care of me an’ everyone, Keishin. You just… care so much…” He nuzzled his face into Keishin’s shoulder. He sighed, and this time succeeded at a whispering, “I’m so happy.”

Keishin gently pushed him to arm’s length and squeezed his shoulders. “Hey. Don’t think for an instant you’re not the one who made all of this possible, Coach.”

Coach…” Takeda’s face was still a mess of dried tears and snot. His eyes started to water again.

Keishin let go. “I’m happy, too. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright?”

“Tomorrow,” Takeda repeated. He finally turned around and began to make his way up the stairs.

Keishin waited until he heard the click of his apartment door shut, then turned to Shimada.

Shimada seemed to have regained some of his balance. He was leaning against the street lamp instead of clinging to it, at the very least. He had a strange expression, like he couldn’t decide whether to puke or not.

Keishin looped an arm around his shoulders. “C’mon, let’s get you home.”

“Takinoue isho dumb,” Shimada slurred.

Keishin snorted. “Sometimes. We all are. He didn’t mean anything by offerin’ not to come tonight. His heart’s just broken, still.” He guided them down the road and towards Shimada’s place.

Shimada shook his head, but didn’t voice whatever objection he had. They walked together in silence for a while, the empty streets full of that quiet quality they only had when most sensible souls had gone to bed.  The moon was overhead, a brilliant crescent waxing towards half full. Keishin smiled. The peace of the evening was the perfect end to the exhausting and exhilarating weekend.

Shimada’s voice cut through the silence.

“Are you an’ sensei dating?”

Keishin stopped. Shimada stared at him, his eyes focused for the first time since they’d left the bar. The moment balanced on a knife’s edge.

Keishin feigned a laugh and shook his head, “Who the hell toldya a thing like that?” He started walking again.

Shimada wasn’t having it. He grabbed the front of Keishin’s shirt and pulled him to a halt. “Goddamnit, Keishin! You’re so full of shit!”

Shimada’s drunken combativeness came out sometimes, but never over something this serious. The world was too sharp all of a sudden, the light of the streetlamps and quiet of the neighborhood harsh in the cold October air. Keishin counted his breaths, letting the silence drag on while his mind cleared enough to speak. He focused on keeping his voice steady. “What do you expect me to say? In this town…”

Shimada shoved him. “Just treat me like I’m on your side, for once!” He turned his head, like he was choking up or trying not to puke. “I fucked up, alright? You tried to tell me once an’ I was too busy figuring out my own shit to be anythin’ but an asshole. I’m sorry.”

Keishin stared at him. Anger was rising in his chest now, old hurts bubbling up from alcohol and exhaustion. “I thought you forgot.”

Shimada shook his head. “No, and then I kept waiting for you to try again, and you never did. Fuck, once you’d said it, it was so obvious, Keishin!”

“Who else knows?” Keishin was surprised by how far away his own voice sounded, like his ears were full of cotton.

“I dunno, nobody.” Shimada sighed. “I know what it’s like to hide yourself. It sucks ass. But I wouldn’t… I wanted you to choose to try again, to tell somebody, but instead you just kept walkin’ around with that kicked puppy look on your face.” Shimada twisted his face into exaggerated agony.

Keishin snapped. “So, what, y’wanted me to be all ‘out and proud’ after that conversation? After every damn thing anyone can ever say about it is that it’s the worst thing t’happen to a guy? Or that it’s a fucking joke?! That’s bullshit. You’re the only friend I ever tried t’tell, and look how that went!”

I know what I said, okay? I was there!” Shimada’s hands were clenched into fists. “You’re not the only one who’s grown up a little, alright?”

Keishin stared at him. Shimada had a desperate look about him, as if he was the one put on the spot by all this.

Breathe.

College was years ago.

“Alright,” Keishin sighed. “You’re right. What happens now?”

“Nothing. Except… maybe we can talk. Sometimes. I worry about you. And I worry about me, too.” Shimada wiped his face with his sleeve, sending his glasses askew.

Too..? Several pieces of their earlier conversation began to fall into place. Keishin took a step towards him. “Shimada, are you…”

Shimada shook his head. “Sometimes… I think about wanting to be a girl,” he said quietly, just on the edge of hearing. “But I’m not like you, I’m not into guys. Men are gross. I feel gross.” He swayed and his face fell.

“Okay,” Keishin moved to help steady him. “That’s okay.”

Shimada sniffed. “You’re damn right it’s okay.”

“Do you want me to help find you some people t’ talk to? I might know a few.” Between Nakano, Takeda, and Hisakawa, he was sure they could find somebody.

Shimada shook his head. “No, I’ve got people. I just… shit, what was it you said that time? I just wanted someone from this town to know. You know?”

“Okay, yeah.” Keishin put his arm around him and started guiding him down the street. “I know.”

Shimada was shaking. “I didn’t wanna do it like this,” he muttered.

“Yeah, I know.” Keishin squeezed his shoulder and walked him the rest of the way home.

They were quiet for the rest of the walk, and Shimada seemed to have calmed down a little by the time they reached his building. When they got to his door, Shimada started fumbling with his keys.

“Y’want me to get it?”

“No, I’m not… that drunk…” Shimada squinted at his keys, then slid the correct one into the lock. “You gotta come in, though.”

“Nah, I know you don’t like people stoppin’ by your place unexpectedly,” Keishin said.

“Did I fuckin’ stutter?” Shimada glared at him. “C’mon. I got something for you. Apology gift.”

Drunk Shimada was a pain in the ass. Keishin followed him inside. The place wasn’t as stark as it usually was when he and Takinoue visited, but it was clean enough. There were a few dishes in the kitchen sink and the entryway was a little dirty, but nothing terrible.

Shimada pulled his shoes off and went straight to the dresser in his one-room apartment. While he rummaged for something in a drawer, Keishin noticed things about his apartment that were different from times he’d been there before: a heart-shaped makeup box on the dresser, pink and white frilled pillow cases on the floor, a stuffed bear wearing a dress next to a long wig on a stand near the closet. Shimada’s apartment, for once, seemed lived-in. Keishin smiled fondly when he realized it was all paired with the same blithe disregard for color that Shimada had always had.

“Ha, there it is!” Shimada turned triumphantly to Keishin and held out a small button.

It was a rainbow pride pin, no bigger than a one-yen coin. It was scuffed and dented, as if it had been stepped on or lost more than once.

“I went to the LGBT center, senior year in college. It… wasn’t for me. I felt so out of place, like I needed t’know myself already and I just didn’t… I don’t…” Shimada shook himself to refocus. He was still flushed from the alcohol. “Anyway, they had these as little freebies. I never went back there, but I kept this. I lost it for a while, then found it when I moved here. It just… seemed like a sign it was time to try again. So I did. And, it’s been better.” He pressed it into Keishin’s palm. “Anyway, to me this has been a reminder that even if you’re not ready, even if you’re never ready, people are still there.”

Keishin stared at the button. Shimada’s words had turned it from a cheap freebie to a rare talisman. “You’re giving this to me?”

“The last time we talked like this, we both tried to forget it,” Shimada smiled sadly. “This way you know I mean it. Even if you wanna pretend I never said anything, I want you to know that I… we’re here.”

“I’m not gonna do that to ya.” Keishin blinked quickly, then cleared his throat and put the little button in his pocket. “Thanks.”

“Ha, what a day for victories then, huh?” Shimada smiled. “Now get out before I literally start puking.”

Keishin grinned. “Toldya y’shouldn’t have tried to keep up with sensei’s drinking.”

“Yeah yeah, go brag about your boyfriend somewhere else,” Shimada prodded him towards the door. “You’re cute, I’m so jealous, etcetera etcetera.”

Keishin laughed. “Y’don’t know the half of it. You ever see that man smile?”

Gross. God, Keishin. First you have me start mentoring kids, then I’m comin’ out because of your gay ass, next thing you know I’ll be telling you all about my awesome dyke girlfriend and we’ll be so fucking cute your eyes will roll right out of your head. Then you’ll be sorry!” He gave Keishin a drunken smile, ear to ear.

“I’ll hold ya to that.” Keishin slipped his shoes on. “You uh, just let me know if you want me to treat you any different, okay? Or call you different?”

“Just… refrain from complimenting my incredibly manly physique and that’s good for now.”

Keishin snorted. “Like I’ve ever done that.”

“Well now’s not the time t’start, asshole.”

“Fine, fine.” Keishin opened the door and stepped outside. “Good night. Remember t’ drink some water before bed.”

“Yes, Mom.” Shimada stuck his tongue out at him, then the door closed with a soft click.

--                    

Keishin had just clicked the receiver down when the phone rang again.

“Yeah, hello?” he answered. “I’m doin’ well. Really? Yes, including us in your seasonal donation drive’d help the team out a lot! Ah, no I’m not seein’ anyone. Well…. the timin’ on that might be bad, we’ve got practice and all. Yes, no, I’m sure she’s very nice! Okay, I’ll try to make it, but—right, okay. Maybe next time. Thanks. Goodbye.”

He set the phone down again and lit a cigarette, inhaling and exhaling deeply. The phone had been ringing constantly with calls about Karasuno’s success. Congratulations, offers for help, questions about donations, and invitations to meet female relatives came one after another.

Smoke drifted through the shop, and he savored the moment of quiet while he had it.

It didn’t last long. The bell on the door chimed as a customer walked in. Keishin looked up to see Shimizu Hiroji.

Keishin smothered his cigarette. “Good afternoon, Shimizu-san.”

”Hello, Ukai-kun.” Shimizu-san strode over to the snack aisle, grabbed a package of squid jerky, then stepped up to the counter. “Don’t tell my wife I’m gettin’ these, she wants me to cut back on the salt.” He laughed, a short bark of a ha, then pulled out his wallet. “Things’ve been going well, haven’t they? Kiyoko’s been beside herself since the weekend.”

Keishin rang up the jerky. “All the kids really came through. You should be proud of her.”

“I am! Y’know, I saw the footage. She took some guy’s hand during the match,” He beamed. “She’s still always quiet at home, but that suits a girl. I dunno what you did, but keep it up!”

Keishin stared at him. How could someone so completely fail to see their own child? “Didn’t have t’say nothin’… Just focused on the things that matter and let ‘em find their own way past that,” he said carefully.

“Ha, well maybe I should take a page outta your book. How’s your grandad? He must be thrilled.”

“Eh, he stopped by Monday with a box of vegetables and a lecture that I better not let this chance to take on his rivals in Tokyo go t’ waste.”

His grandad had also invited Keishin to eat with him later in the week, but told him that for now his energy ‘better be spent whipping up as much support from the town as possible while the excitement was fresh.’

“Yeah, those Tokyo rivalries can get intense, huh? He was always on about that Nekoma guy.”

Keishin cleared his throat. “Speakin’ of, if you have any ideas for fundraising or can help the team out, I’d sure appreciate it. Gettin' there will be expensive.”

“Yeah, I think we have something we can spare. Ah, I also know a guy who runs an inn in Tokyo. If you want I can ask if he’d give y’all a discount.”

“That’d be perfect, if it’s no trouble!” Housing the team would be one of their biggest expenses.

“No trouble at all. I’ll call you with what he says. Take care now!” Shimizu-san waved and walked out the door.

Keishin’s good feelings about the support evaporated as he watched the man disappear down the street.

He picked up his pack of cigarettes. He felt numb and aggravated at the same time, like he hadn’t had a smoke all day.

Keishin thought back to Ota’s latest email. He could picture it in his mind.

Keishin,

Your message wasn’t too heavy at all. I wish I’d asked myself those same questions sooner. Maybe it would’ve saved me some trouble.

I will say that naming and examining my feelings as they come up helps a lot. It’s easy for me to try not to feel anything, but then I just wind up ignoring things until they’re really bad. I find that the sooner I let myself feel, even if all I do is sit with those emotions, the easier it is to remember that it’s not my fault some people are homophobes.

I’ll share anything else as I think of it. You ever need to talk or rant, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Things here are good. I’ve got a date Sunday; wish me luck!

-Ota

Keishin set the cigarettes down. He took a breath, then let his emotions rise up in his chest to be examined, one by one.

Anger, that Kiyoko’s parents were still assholes about her maybe being queer.

Frustration, that parents could be so oblivious to their own child’s needs.

Fear, that maybe someday his own dad would talk about him like that.

Shame, that if Kiyoko’s dad was right then Keishin had said or done something to make her feel like she couldn’t be herself.

He picked up the pack of smokes again. He didn’t need to change anything right now. Just sit with it.

He lit a cigarette, breathed deeply, and thought of what to do next.

--

Hinata and Kageyama were out of breath and sweating despite the cool fall air. They had turned up early that morning for extra practice, and were finally starting to show signs of exhaustion.

“C’mon, we gotta push it if we’re going to Nationals!” Sawamura barked. “I don’t care that you two wore yourself out with extra practice already, we gotta nail down these formations.”

Tsukishima sighed heavily. “We just got out of the prelims; a little rest won’t kill us. Pushing all the time will just get us hurt.”

Sugawara turned and flashed him a brilliant smile. “You say that now, but if you want to stuff top-tier players like Ushiwaka again, it’ll be best if you can keep up with the rest of us.”

Tsukishima wrinkled his nose in Hinata and Kageyama’s direction. “Do you honestly expect me to keep up with them?

“No, but you should at least be able to keep up with us third years!” Sugawara grinned and tossed him a ball.

Azumane and Nishinoya were busy practicing their toss-spike combo. Kinoshita and Yamaguchi were practicing serves, and the others were working on their combination drills.

Yachi and Shimizu were going over notes, talking excitedly about what would happen next, their past awkwardness apparently forgotten. Shimizu was smiling at the sketches Yachi had made for their new poster. Occasionally one of them would blush faintly, though Keishin supposed it could just as easily be from the cold. Whatever was going on, they seemed alright for now.

He sighed in relief, then turned his attention back to the players on the court. He had around two months to get each of them into the best shape he could, to hone the team itself into a weapon strong enough to face the best schools in the country. He wracked his brain for things that had made a difference for him as a player: revelations of proper form, inspiring stories, and of course the right mix of practice, rest, and diet.

Azumane needed to polish the steps up to his serve. Videos of that were hard to find, but would probably help the most.

Sugawara could use more inspiration for his already creative, outside-the-box style of thinking. There were some interesting strategies to glean from Thailand’s national tournament. He’d send him a link.

Tsukishima liked to play smart. Getting him to hone his shut-out strategies even further would be ideal. Keishin made a mental note to ask Mori if he had any tips.

Nishinoya needed to pace his training properly, and maybe eat less junk food. Keishin counted his blessings that at least none of his students were smokers.

“You’re so focused, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin startled out of his thoughts. Takeda was standing beside him. “Yeah, I’m just thinkin’ through everything the kids need to be their best for Nationals.”

“I’ve been thinking of that too! Here, I’ve made notes on all the players’ friends and families, people who would be good to interview for that video Takinoue mentioned.” Takeda showed him his notebook. The information was neatly organized in Takeda’s steady handwriting.

“That’s perfect, yeah! You’ll have to send that to him.”

“Definitely.” He looked up at Keishin. “Still up for a drink after Saturday’s practice?”

“Yeah, I don’t hafta cover the closing shift all the time now that the harvest is done, so I’m good for it. We gotta go over training plans! And schedule practice matches!” Keishin bounced on his toes, excited to for the weeks to come.

“Of course! I’ve made a few calls already. It’s so much easier to get people’s attention now than it was in the beginning!” Takeda closed his notebook. “By the way, what would you like to eat that night? I’ve been going over recipes…”

“Whatever you feel like makin’ is fine with me,” Keishin said. Excitement bubbled in his chest at the thought of Takeda making food just for him.

“Well then, I’ll do my best. By the way… that dinner with your grandfather is coming up tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Uh, yeah, but it’ll be alright. I think. We did well, after all.” Keishin’s excitement transformed into a mix of pride and dread at the thought of his grandad’s invitation.

“Well if you need anything, just let me know,” Takeda said. “But I’m sure you’ve got this.”

“Excuse me,” Kiyoko’s even voice cut through their conversation.

Keishin and Takeda both startled, then turned to look at her.

“Yachi-chan and I have narrowed the new poster down to these three designs,” she said evenly. She presented them with several of Yachi’s sketches. “Any feedback would be appreciated.”

Yachi stood a little way off, trembling while she waited to hear.

Keishin looked them over. “Hmmm, they’re all strong…”

“That one.” Takeda pointed to the design on the left. It was a dynamic image, with three spikers in mid jump, surrounded by teammates.

Kiyoko nodded slightly.

Yachi made a small noise from where she was standing behind her. Kiyoko noticed, then spoke again. “It’s not too unusual?”

“It’s not a play you see often, but it’s one of our signature moves. The design looks good and it’ll stand out,” Keishin said. He cleared his throat. “There’s nothin’ wrong with being different from what others expect. You should be proud!”

Kiyoko squinted at him a little, like Keishin had just said the least subtle thing imaginable. Then she bowed slightly. “Thank you.” She turned and walked back to Yachi, who was quivering at the praise.

Takeda beamed at Keishin.

Keishin stared back at him. “…What?”

“Nothing,” Takeda opened his notebook and resumed taking notes on the team. “You’re just cute is all,” he said quietly.

--

Keishin almost didn’t hear the buzz of his phone.

He’d been sleeping better now that his work load was lighter. He’d fall asleep faster in the evenings, then sleep in until the luxurious hour of six each morning. Some nights, after a particularly good practice, and when his mind didn’t replay too many distracting fantasies of Takeda fucking him, he got in a full eight hours of rest.

He was just drifting to sleep when the light and faint vibration of his phone stirred him. He picked it up and gave a bleary, “Hello?”

“Kei-chan~! You did it!” Nakano’s sing-song voice blared through the phone. Keishin could practically hear the emoticons.

Keishin rubbed at his eye. “Did what now?”

“Won the tournament… thing. The prelims! Take-chan told me. In about thirteen thousand drunk text messages on Sunday night. You’re coming to Tokyo!” Nakano made a triumphant noise.

“Ah, yeah, the kids did well.”

“You must be very proud,” Nakano said. “I wish I could see it.”

“Well, if we do alright, some of the matches might be on TV…”

“Oh, I’ll have to figure out how to stream it, then!”

Pride puffed up in Keishin’s chest. “I can send you a video a friend of mine and I are working on when it’s done too, if y’want. We’re tryin’ to inspire the kids by makin’ a little documentary about ‘em.”

“I’d love to see it,” Nakano said. “I’d love to see you and Take-chan, too. How have things been going? I know you said you were fine after that incident with those awful homophobic excuses for parents. And the principal—!”

Keishin cut off the rant before it could get started. “We’re alright, for now. Not all the parents were bein’ weird about it, either. One of the moms is ready to tear the school apart if it becomes any more of a thing.”

“Good for her! I can bring my sledgehammer if she needs the help,” Nakano quipped.

“Mmmn… Y’know, I’m glad you called. There’s something I’ve been meanin’ to ask you.”

“Oh? Are you finally ready to learn what CBT means?”

Keishin snorted out a laugh. “No, you ass. I just uh… I’ve been thinking a lot about shame, lately.”

Nakano made a thoughtful hum for him to continue.

“Sensei said that I value straight relationships more than queer ones, and I think he’s right. I wanna be a better man, a better partner. I want this to work. Have you dealt with this? Feeling ashamed of who you are, I mean.”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. Nakano’s voice was uncharacteristically quiet when he spoke. “Still do, sometimes.”

“You’re kidding. You’re the most confident guy I know,” Keishin said.

“Yeah well, that’s been hard-earned! Other people help. Surrounding yourself with as many queers as possible helps. We’re all different. Some of us are boring, some of us are freaks, we’re all pretty awesome. Well, except the jerks. But the more queers you know the less big of a deal it is when somebody turns out to be an asshole.”

“That’s why you’re always tryin’ to get me to Tokyo,” Keishin realized.

“Well yeah, obviously! I worry about you out there all alone.”

“I’m not alone. I’ve got you, and Take-chan. And ah, I came out to a friend of mine the other day…”

“A straight friend?!” Nakano’s voice was loud enough that Keishin moved the phone away from his ear for a second.

Keishin chuckled, “Well, I thought he was straight. Gender and everything is complicated, it turns out.”

“Well that’s the understatement of the year. That’s great! I’m proud of you. Does your friend have people?”

“Yeah. He’s… My friend’s got people. And me too, if I can.”

“You will. And that’s the other thing I wanted to mention. You get to create the community you want. I work hard to make things as open and welcoming for others as I can, and usually that tricks my head into being open and welcoming to myself, too.”

“And others accept you in return, right?” Keishin asked.

“The good ones, yes. You hold onto those as long as you can. You take care of them. You take care of those kids. You take care of yourself. We need each other.” Nakano’s voice was softer now, more serious than Keishin had heard it before.

“Yeah, we do,” Keishin said. “Speaking of… Uh, thanks for stickin’ with me.”

“Likewise. Anything else you need?”

“Nah. Unless you know a surefire way to familial approval, I should probably go rest before my grandad grills me tomorrow.”

“What’s going on?” Nakano sounded concerned.

“Oh, nothin’ really. He invited me to eat with him to celebrate gettin’ the high school team to Nationals. We… don’t really do well one-on-one. I can deal with it, I’m just not excited.”

“Walk out if you need to,” Nakano said.

Keishin let out a cold laugh. “If I disrespect him like that I’m pretty sure I’d just be walkin’ straight into my grave.”

“Take-chan will protect you,” Nakano said. “But I’m serious, take care of yourself, alright?”

“I’ll be careful.”

“Alright, I’ll let you go to bed then. Good night, Kei-chan. Remember, you deserve to be treated well.”

“G’night… and thanks. I mean it.”

Keishin set the phone down next to his bed, and curled up in the warmth of his comforter and Nakano’s words.

--

Keishin shivered as he stepped through the door of his grandad’s favorite restaurant. It was a traditional-style place, nothing too fancy, but his grandad went way back with Narita, the restaurant’s owner and grandparent to one of the kids on the team.

Narita greeted Keishin at the door and ushered him to the space his grandad had reserved for the meal. Keishin was expecting to be seated at their usual table in the corner, but instead Narita turned and Keishin was ushered into one of their private back rooms.

The table was set up for a multi-course meal. Keishin had the sinking feeling he’d stumbled into dinner with a crime boss. He took off his shoes and kneeled near the entrance, unwilling to sit down before his grandad arrived.

He could hear his grandad talking with Narita on his way towards the door. Keishin looked around the room, swallowed, and took a deep breath.

The door slammed open. “Ah, there you are!” His grandad slipped off his shoes and strode over to the table, gesturing for Keishin to sit. “Glad this could work out. Now, you know t’keep your mouth shut if I bend the rules around my diet today, doncha?”

His grandad laughed and a server brought them a pitcher of sake.

“’Not my place to tell you what to do,” Keishin said as he filled their glasses.

The door slid shut behind Keishin with a quiet click.

“Mmmhm, sure as hell’s not,” his grandad said. He leaned back and examined Keishin. “So tell me, how do you feel? Gettin’ the kids this far isn’t something to sneeze at.”

“I hardly did it alone,” Keishin said.

“Yeah, seems like a good bunch this year. But even a good bunch is wasted without guidance.”

“Sensei helps a lot too. I’m the technical instructor, that’s all.”

The first course was brought out: a small plate of sea urchin garnished with red maple leaves. The pleasant fragrance of the sea and fall air filled the room.

His grandad picked up his chopsticks. “I’m impressed Takeda-sensei got you off your ass t’ coach in the first place. Figured you were content to rot behind that cash register. That old geezer in Tokyo was tellin’ me he was pretty persistent with his calls for a practice match, too.” He took a piece of the urchin, his eyes closing in satisfaction as he took a bite.

“He’s got a spine of iron,” Keishin said. It was rare for his grandad to praise anyone, and it was satisfying to know Takeda’s efforts were appreciated. He picked at the sea urchin, noting the most promising section and saving it for last.

“Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.” His grandad snatched the piece Keishin had mentally set aside and ate it. He hummed appreciatively. “Have you thought any more about what I asked you last time?”

“Uh…” Keishin faltered. He was no closer to seeing a future for himself beyond vague imaginings, and certainly nothing his grandad wanted to hear.

His grandad leaned back and crossed his arms, his eyes like steel. “Have you even thought about it?”

“I have,” Keishin said quickly. “Still am.”

“Well speak up once you get it figured out!” His grandad snapped. “For now, what are you doin’ to get ready for Nationals?”

Keishin seized the change in topic, desperate to get away from the personal scrutiny. Besides, this was what his grandad was good at. He went over his strategies, plans for each player, logistics and training regimens. His grandad was quiet about most of it, occasionally giving an approving nod or word of advice. The conversation shifted to his grandad’s reminiscing about how all the teams had evolved. They ate and talked as more courses were brought out, and by the third course, Keishin found himself starting to relax a little.

“I gotta say, I’m lookin’ forward to putting Nekoma in their place.” Keishin set his empty bowl down, savoring the aftertaste of the soup. The flavors had been perfectly balanced. He grinned at the thought of Naoi and Nekomata’s faces when they saw how much stronger his team had gotten.

A shadow fell over his grandad’s face. “The final ‘Battle of the Trash Heap’, huh.” He grandad took a swig of his beer and set it down. They’d switched to his grandad’s favorite beer halfway into the evening. The quiet drew out between them before he spoke again. “...A while after I started joking that beating that old geezer was some kinda fated thing, I started expecting the players to just do exactly what I would do, or what I wanted to do but couldn’t anymore.”

Keishin was still soaked in the warm headiness of the alcohol and good food. His grandad seemed the opposite, wistfulness gathering around him the longer the night went on.

His grandad stared into the condensation on the side of his glass as he continued. “But I wonder how they actually felt about that. They were each their own person. They weren’t like me.” He eyed Keishin. “They weren’t like me in the slightest.”

Usually his grandad’s eyes seemed piercing and harsh, but now they seemed softer, like his grandad was actually looking at him and not just what he wanted Keishin to be. In some ways, the softness was more uncomfortable.

His grandad broke the tension. “Well, you’ve done pretty well in that regard so far. Your only downside is that you’re a horrific volleyball player!” He slapped the table and laughed.

Keishin nearly spat out his drink. “Excuse me?!”

His grandad howled with laughter. He shoved Keishin’s beer glass a little closer to him.

Keishin felt a recklessness rolled through his chest and out his mouth, the same feeling that always landed him in trouble as a teenager.

“Do y’think I was doing all of this to please my grandad? Filial piety and all that.” He leaned across the table. “The ones who wanna defeat Nekoma more than anyone are my lot of little rascals, because they got their asses handed to them last time. We’re already long past the point of just being ‘fated old rivals’. So just sit tight and wait for it!” Keishin leaned back, his chin up in pride.

His grandad stared at him in shock. Keishin was probably going to get his ass kicked for this, but he didn’t care. He’d worked hard, and coaching the team had been something he’d done for Takeda and the kids and his own stupid sense of rivalry. His grandad didn’t get to make this about him, or look at him like he knew more than he did, or any bullshit like that.

To Keishin’s surprise, his grandad smiled.

“I see!” The old man leaned back and took a sip of his beer. “Doin’ something for yourself after all, huh?” His expression softened again. “That’s good.”

Keishin’s anger crumbled, leaving only the uncomfortable realization that it was a damn lie.

He did want to show his grandad that match against Nekoma. To carry the team to that final victory. To be worth his grandfather’s name.

What the hell was so bad about that?

Keishin swallowed the last of his beer and reached for the next course of grilled mackerel.

He chewed slowly, and sat with the knowledge that as much as he wanted the man across from him to fully know him and be proud, the two would likely never come together.

-

Keishin and Takeda walked side-by-side on their way to Takeda’s apartment. The team had done well over practice, then had refused to quit when it was time to leave. Sawamura promised he would lock up the gym when they were done. Keishin gave him a few stern warnings about keeping the more rambunctious students from overtraining, then he and Takeda were free to go about their evening.

They were on their way up the stairs to the apartments when Takeda’s neighbor opened her door. She strode out, laughing with a friend of hers. They were each carrying a few grocery bags, and Keishin recognized what was probably a liquor bottle in a brown paper sack sticking out of one.

Hayami’s face brightened at the sight of them. “Ah, my favorite neighbor! And the young Ukai-kun! Look, Hidaka, it’s the men of the hour.”

Hidaka smiled sweetly. “Ah, is that Keishin-kun? Come here, I haven’t gotten a good look at you in ages. How are you?”

“Doin’ alright. Things are going well with my folks. How are you?” Keishin knew Hidaka only vaguely, she had been a friend of his grandma, but fell out of touch with his family after she passed away.

“Doing well, thank you!” Hidaka looked surprised, like she hadn’t expected him to be polite.

Hayami smiled like she had a great secret. “We’re just on our way to mahjong at Ito’s place. Her husband’s out of town.” Hayami leaned in to Hidaka. “Doesn’t he look just like his grandfather?”

The two women burst into giggles behind their hands.

“It’s good to see you’re doin’ well,” Hidaka said to Keishin. “Your girlfriend must feel so lucky right now.”

“Oh, uh, I don’t have a girlfriend. But that’s kind of you to say.” Keishin searched for a change of topic. “How are things with your family?”

“Oh, my granddaughter’s already married, but it’s sweet of you to ask,” said Hidaka. “You know Saito’s daughter is about your age, and a very fine young lady. Have you talked with her lately? I can arrange a party if you want help.”

“I thought Saito was…” Hayami gestured over her belly.

“No! This is why you don’t listen to rumors, Kazuko!” Hidaka chided her. “She just had a touch of food poisoning and somehow that got twisted into morning sickness. You know better than to believe those wild tales. Anyway, Keishin-kun, she’s single, or I can drum up some other names for you if you prefer.”

“Thanks, but uh, we’re going to pretty busy with the team for a while. Gotta take our shot at Nationals seriously,” Keishin said.

“Ukai-kun’s been working hard,” Takeda cut in. “We’re going over some strategies for the team tonight in fact. He’s the only reason someone like me with no volleyball knowledge to start with could get the team this far. It’s incredible!”

“Y’don’t give yourself enough credit,” Keishin said.

“Alright, we’ll let you get to work then. Just remember to take time for other things in life, alright?” Hidaka shook her head. “Kids these days are all work, work, work.”

“Ah, don’t worry. We’ll take some time to enjoy ourselves tonight too.” Takeda beamed at her, his expression a picture of innocence.

Keishin focused on keeping his face smooth.

Hayami and Hidaka said their goodbyes and left for their mahjong game. Keishin sighed and shook his head once they were safely inside Takeda’s apartment.

“Is it like that all the time for you?” Takeda asked.

“Lately, yeah. What about you?”

“Occasionally someone asks, but I think having fewer social ties here may be working in my favor on that front.” Takeda washed his hands, then set out a cutting board and some vegetables. “Mostly my week has been spent making phone calls for practice matches with other schools.”

Keishin stepped up to the kitchen counter. “How can I help?” He still didn’t know what Takeda was making.

“I’ve got it, Keishin. You go rest. You’ve been working hard lately. You’ve earned it.”

Keishin nuzzled into him from behind. “You’ve been working hard too.”

“Not so much that I can’t do this.” Takeda turned and kissed him on the cheek. “Go sit down at least, we can keep talking while I work if you want the company.”

Keishin went into the other room and lay down on the floor near Takeda’s space heater. He stretched, a few vertebrae popping into place as he did. He turned his head and watched Takeda work in the kitchen.

“So, I walked Shimada home the other night. After the game,” he said.

“Yeah? Did you get him home safely? He was pretty drunk.” Takeda began chopping the vegetables, the sound casting a pleasing rhythm through the apartment.

“He wasn’t the only drunk one,” Keishin teased. “I got him home ok. But uh, he asked me if we were dating.”

The chopping paused.

“I tried to laugh it off, but he knows. He also uh… might be queer himself? Like some gender stuff is going on maybe? We had a good talk.”

Takeda’s head popped out of the kitchen. “What, really?”

“Yeah. I feel a little bad about it though. Drunk and at one in the mornin’ is hardly the best time to talk about these things. Y’think we would’ve learned that from the first time.”

Takeda went back into the kitchen and the chopping resumed. “I was wondering if he remembered that conversation. He pulled me aside a few months ago, you know. I think he was trying to tell me to treat you well, but it was a really confusing conversation. Especially because we weren’t even out to each other yet.”

Keishin chuckled and stretched again. The tatami floor felt good on his back. He stared up at the bright white of the ceiling. The subtle scents of Takeda’s apartment filled his senses, now mixing with smells from the kitchen as something began to sizzle.

“Does Shimada have any support systems to talk to, about gender stuff or whatever else is going on?” Takeda asked.

“Apparently, yeah. I wanna be supportive too, but I feel like I need to learn more.”

“I can send you some links if you’d like.”

“Yeah, that’d be good.”

There was a bang in the kitchen, like something had gotten knocked off the counter. Keishin moved to get up, then was stilled by Takeda’s call of “I’m fine! Don’t get up!” The sounds in the kitchen returned to normal. Keishin lay back down into the comfort of the space heater and the smells of the apartment.

Keishin dozed while Takeda finished dinner. He awoke to find Takeda setting the table. Two bowls of chicken yakisoba were waiting for them.

“This looks great,” Keishin said. The vegetables were well cooked, the onions caramelized without being burned. It smelled great, too.

“Ha, welcome to the only thing I can cook reliably without a recipe in front of me. It’s my father’s favorite dish, so I used to cook it whenever my mom couldn’t due to her volunteer work or getting sick. It wasn’t often, and he’d always seem a little disappointed whenever I took over the cooking, but I think it’s alright.”

Keishin took a bite. It was savory, sweet, and the vegetables were fresh and flavorful. “It’s good. I really appreciate you doin’ this for me.”

“It’s nothing. You’ve done more.” Takeda poured him a glass of water. As an additional experiment of the night, they were going without alcohol. “Besides, I enjoyed it. Cooking for a person I care about is fun.”

Keishin smiled and looked away. They took a few more bites with the quiet reverence of a delicious meal.

“So, I’ve been thinkin’ it might be good to meet Hisakawa-sensei,” Keishin said after a while. “Get to know more queer folks in the area. Nakano said it’d help me, and I think he’s right.”

“That’s a great idea! She’d love to meet you, too.” Takeda hesitated, like he was trying to contain his excitement. “How uh, do you want me to introduce you to her? As… a coach, or as my boyfriend?”

Nervous excitement fluttered in Keishin’s stomach. “Uh… boyfriend… I dunno if I’m ready to talk openly about it in public yet, but yeah. I think I’m ok with her knowin’. Maybe we could invite her partner, too?”

Takeda’s face lit up. “Yes! That’s perfect! Um… where should we meet them? Is around here okay, or a little further out..?”

“Around here’s alright, assumin’ it works for them. It’s not like I wanna plan the queer revolution or whatever, just have dinner and get to know folks. Takinoue gave me a coupon to the ramen place Tanaka works at, so maybe there?”

“I’ll ask.” Takeda pulled out his phone and started typing. When he was finished, he set it down and smiled fondly at Keishin. “I really appreciate how communicative you’ve been lately. It really helps me.”

“It’s no problem.” Keishin set his empty bowl down, then drummed his fingers on the table. There was another thing on his mind.

Takeda, of course, read him like book. “Was there something else you wanted to talk about?”

It was an embarrassing shift of topics, but going off of Takeda’s request for clear communication, the direct approach seemed best. Keishin cleared his throat. “Yeah, actually… Uh. How d’you feel about topping?”

Takeda raised his eyebrows, still smiling. “I enjoy topping you.”

Keishin’s cheeks went hot. “Well, uh, yeah… but I mean…. Have you ever…” He faltered, unsure how to proceed.

Takeda gave him an innocent look. “Have I ever…?”

Have you ever fucked a guy?  The question felt wrong, like there was some obvious thing about sex or gender Keishin wasn’t worldly enough to get. He snorted in frustration. It was time to change tactics. He crawled around the table and leaned in close to Takeda’s ear. “Haven’t you ever thought about fuckin’ me?” he growled.

Takeda shivered, then blinked up at Keishin. “Of course. I have fucked you, after all.” A coy smile curved his lips, growing broader as Keishin flustered. “Or is that not what you mean?”

“Yeah, c’mon, y’know what I mean,” Keishin pleaded. “With your…” he trailed off again.

“I’m not sure I do know. You’ll have to be more specific.” Takeda grinned, a crack in his coy façade.

“You’re such a fuckin’ brat.” Keishin pushed him to the floor. Takeda laughed, and Keishin interrupted him with a string of kisses, his own laughter bubbling out between each one. He pinned Takeda’s wrists to the floor and straddled him, his tongue teasing into his mouth as the kiss became more intimate. Takeda moaned softly.

“Y’make such nice noises, Take-chan.” Keishin pulled back and savored the flush on Takeda’s cheeks. “I wanna know what you sound like when you’re balls-deep inside of me.”

Takeda’s face turned bright red. Keishin could feel his own cheeks heat as embarrassment began to catch up with him again, but Takeda leaned up and met Keishin’s lips with his own before he could overthink it. Takeda pressed up against his hold on his wrists, squirming under his hips with a new sense of urgency. Keishin melted into the attention and the heat of Takeda’s insistent body under his. Takeda pulled him closer, his hands roaming over Keishin’s ass and up under the hem of his shirt.

It wasn’t until they were unbuttoning each other’s jeans that Keishin realized how fast this was going, faster than he’d had in mind. Still, it would seem weird to stop now, especially after all of that. His movements slowed as indecision caught up with him.

“Are you alright?” Takeda stopped and pulled back slightly, his hand still on the waistband of Keishin’s briefs.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Keishin answered automatically. Takeda didn’t move, waiting for him to say more. Keishin swallowed. “Just didn’t think we’d get right to it.”

Takeda moved his hand up from Keishin’s waist to rest on his chest instead. “We don’t have to do it tonight. Or ever, if you don’t want to.”

“No, I want to. I just... I’ve never done this before,” he admitted. “I mean, obviously we have, but gettin’ fucked by your cock is different. …to me, anyway.” Heat spread to Keishin ears. He tried to tell himself Takeda wouldn’t judge him for being so cagey on something that was his own fucking idea in the first place.

Takeda shifted so they were sitting side by side. “That’s fair. You… see yourself as a top, is that it? It’s a role reversal thing?”

“Not really. More a lack of opportunity, I guess. For whatever reason, guys who picked me up never had that on their minds.”

“Ah, the ‘you look like a top’ sort of thing?”

“Mm, yeah, whatever that means.”

“I’m sorry if I gave you the impression I was doing the same to you!” Takeda bowed his head. “It’s easy for me to get carried away with my own wants.”

“Oh. Nah, you’re fine. I can’t really say I have a preference, since I’ve never tried it the other way. It’s never bothered me. Really. But I am a little out of my depth, here.”

Takeda nodded, his expression thoughtful. “What makes you want to try it now, all of a sudden?”

“I can’t stop thinkin’ about it.” Keishin ran his hand through his hair. “The thought of you… it’s kept me up more than a few nights. And I love it when you fuck me other ways, so I wanna give it a shot.”

Takeda’s cheeks turned pink. “Yeah, we will. Is there anything specific you’re unsure about with it?”

“You’re… a bit bigger than me…”

“We’ll take our time then. If it hurts or you change your mind, we can always stop and do something else.”

“I was thinkin’ we could work our way up to it,” Keishin said. He swallowed. “Tonight, if you’re ok takin’ it slow.”

“Certainly.”  A smile spread across Takeda’s face, more lewd than Keishin had seen on him before. “I think I’ll enjoy opening you up.”

“I, uh, ahaha..!” Keishin’s brain short circuited.

Takeda kissed him before he could say anything else, first on the lips, then on the forehead, then he stood up and laid out the bed.

Takeda was true to his word. He took his time with Keishin, making sure he was comfortable on the bed before slowly teasing him with one finger, then two. Familiar and exciting sensations, electric nerve endings shifting between a gentle stretch and an ache for more.

Occasionally, Takeda whispered a line or two of poetry off the top of his head, too quiet for Keishin to really understand. It felt luxurious, like time had stopped and the only thing Takeda cared about was Keishin. He wondered if this was how Takeda felt when their roles were reversed.

“Do you uh, ah-!” Keishin cut out as Takeda’s fingertips brushed a deliciously perfect spot.

Takeda slowed his movements. “Do I..?”

“Do you… see yourself as a bottom?” Keishin asked.

Takeda hummed thoughtfully. “No, it’s not as though it’s intrinsic to who I am. For me, it’s all about sensations.” He curled his fingers up, and Keishin found himself pushing back against him. “I like the way it feels, how deep it can go, how much of you I can take.”

He eased a third finger in. Keishin sighed in relief and pleasure, surprised at how easy it felt.

Takeda hummed approvingly, then slid his free hand up to Keishin’s wrists. “As for other things… When you pin me like this,” he held Keishin’s wrists tight, pressing them into the bed, “I feel how much you want me.” He started fucking him again in slow, teasing movement. “But I get the same feeling by how you’re looking at me right now.”

Oh, fuck. Can we do this? I wanna do this,” Keishin pleaded.

“Yeah, we can, let me just…” Takeda sat up and eased his fingers out. He wiped his hand on a tissue, then reached for his box of condoms.

“Y’don’t need to use that,” Keishin said. “I’m fine without it.”

Takeda slid one out of the box, then pulled his underwear down and off. His cock was enticingly half hard already. “I’ll enjoy myself more if I don’t have to worry about where I finish.”

“Who says you gotta worry about that?” Keishin could feel his face burning already, but took pride in how smooth his voice sounded. Especially as he watched Takeda give his cock a few strokes until he was hard. It was a delicious sight. Once erect, his cock was larger than Keishin’s, and Keishin had memorized its curve and the way it felt in his mouth.

“That can be a bit much to deal with if you’re not used to it,” Takeda said. “Maybe next time..?”

“Yeah, okay. How do you, uh…”

“I think you’ll be most comfortable on your hands and knees,” Takeda said.

Keishin shifted and turned around. “Like this?”

“Yes. Are you comfortable?”

“Yeah.” He could hear the wrinkle of the condom wrapper, then felt Takeda’s hand sliding up his inner thigh. He traced up his balls, then teased a finger around his ass, sending pleasant sensations through him before sliding the finger in, then out. Keishin curled his toes impatiently.

Then, there it was, the slide of Takeda’s cock against him, teasing in little circles without pressing in.

Keishin dug his fingers into the sheets. Oh fuck, it’s really happening.

Takeda pressed, finally sliding inside of him.

It burned.

Even after all of their time prepping and how perfect Takeda was and how badly he wanted this, it hurt. Keishin muffled a frustrated groan into the pillow.

“Are you alright?” Takeda had stopped moving. Barely inside of him, and already he had to stop.

Keishin buried his face further into the pillow while he waited for his no to become a yes.

“Keishin, this shouldn’t hurt you. Do you want me to stop?” Takeda started to pull out.

“No, I wanna do this!” Keishin growled.

Takeda stilled. “I know you do,” he said. He began stroking gentle circles over Keishin’s back. “We can do something else and try again in a bit. There’s no need to rush. Not for this.”

Keishin relaxed into Takeda’s touch. He was right. They had time. He closed his eyes. “Ok, but first just… give me a minute.” He shifted slightly, slowly adjusting to the new sensations.

There was a lot. Mostly a general pressure, right on the edge between pleasure and pain. Still, it felt plush compared to fingers or the toys he’d tried, yielding to his body even as his body yielded to it. Now that he was starting to relax, it felt more manageable. He tried pushing back slightly, easing himself towards the same depth he liked for other things.

Oh,” Takeda sighed.

Oh, Keishin agreed.

He brought himself forward then pushed back again. Little sparks of pleasure waved through him, and it felt as though some desperate part of him was finally being touched.

Takeda took over the movement, setting a soft and steady pace. He shifted the angle, and Keishin buried his face in the pillow again.

Fuck, okay, yeah. That feels great,” he said into the pillow.

His words must have been coherent enough even through the fabric because Takeda kept moving, the pressure and friction easing into a decadent fullness. Keishin’s own cock twitched, desperate for more attention. He shifted so he could stroke himself off as Takeda steadily picked up the pace.

“Keishin,” Takeda moaned. He repeated his name a few more times, like some lewd incantation.

There were only a few times Keishin had felt this good during sex. A mix of carnal gratification and affection and peace because the neighbors were out so the weird half-whine half-groan sound he was making couldn’t be overheard.

Keishin,” Takeda repeated, “I’m close, I—”

“Just a bit more. Don’t stop.” Keishin was still stroking himself off, praying that the moment wouldn’t end.

Takeda started thrusting deeper, shifting the angle again to be even more satisfying. Between that and the strokes of his hand, Keishin was sent tumbling over the edge of orgasm with a quiet shudder.

Takeda kept moving, his movements becoming more uneven until he groaned and pressed himself in deep, his cock twitching as he finished.

The sheets were a mess. Keishin was out of breath, sated, wrecked in the best way. Takeda slid out of him, his own breathing still ragged. He set the condom in the trash, then rolled back onto the bed.

“Was that.. okay?” Takeda asked.

Keishin pulled him in close and nuzzled into his shoulder. “Mmmhm. That was great.”

Takeda ran his fingers through Keishin’s hair. “We can do it more often, if you like.”

Keishin glanced at the clock and groaned. “Takes a lot of work. It was like, birthday fuckin’.”

“Well, you were born in April, so…. again, six months from now?”

“A little sooner than that!” Keishin huffed. “Special occasions. Or just because. Or every day if we figure out how to not hafta go to work ever.” He chuckled and settled back down against Takeda’s shoulder.

“Tempting. But I think you’d miss your work.” Takeda kissed the top of his head.

“Maybe.” Keishin closed his eyes, content in the moment. “Thanks. That was… thanks.”

Takeda ran his fingers through Keishin’s hair, clumsy from sleepiness. “Thank you.”

--

An angry voice roiled through the Ukai home.

“It’s nothing!”

Keishin startled. He had just changed out of his work clothes and was finally clearing some of the trash out of his room. He was taking the little bin of old issues, cigarette butts, and protein bar wrappers down to the garbage bins when his da came home in a huff. Now Keishin stood frozen in the hallway, uncertain whether to go downstairs or just take the garbage back into his room.

His ma’s voice echoed up the stairs. “Shoji, that’s hardly your ‘it’s nothing’ voice. If you don’t feel like talkin’ then that’s fine, but don’t try t’ fool me.”

“It’s nothing new,” his da spat. “My father is still stubborn as a damn mule. We went over the will again today.”

“No changes at all? Even after the tournament?”

“If anythin’ he seems more determined not to keep the farm in the family.” His da sighed, and there was a thump Keishin knew meant he had sat down on the couch. “I dunno what’s goin’ on in that head of his. We’ve worked so hard.” He sighed.

Keishin shook himself, then headed down the stairs. He couldn’t eavesdrop forever. He set the bin in the hall towards the door, then stepped into the living room. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked.

“Oh, Keishin!” His ma startled. “Nothin’ to worry yourself about, just your da and grandad being themselves.”

I’m not the one who’s bein’ a problem,” his da grumbled.

“Grandad doesn’t want to give me the farm.” Keishin sat down in a chair across from the couch. He’d said it plainly, with as little inflection or emotion as he could manage. Still, a tense silence filled the room.

“…Keishin, your grandad’s a very complicated person,” his ma said. “It’s best if you don’t take it personal.”

“He doesn’t think you’re grown enough,” his da cut in. “I’ve been workin’ t’buy you time, but you know him as well as I do.”

Keishin wrinkled his nose. Grown enough. He knew what that meant.

His ma shot a warning look at his da. “Don’t rush him.”

He da went on anyway. “Keishin. I know you’ve always had t’ do things at your own pace, but you gotta show people you’re serious about things, too. Did your grandad talk to you about any of this stuff when you ate with him?”

Keishin’s gaze fell to the floor. The pattern on the rug was worn, where people had tread the same path over and over again. “He did.”

“And?”

“And what?” Keishin tried to keep his voice level, despite the anger rising in his throat. “I know you’re frustrated. But I’m not gonna jump into somethin’ just because you think it’s what Grandad wants t’ hear.”

“Of course you won’t.” His da rubbed his forehead. “You two are just alike! Too stubborn for your own damn good.”

Keishin bit his tongue.

His da shifted, crossing his arms and assuming his calm-but-actually-furious face. “So what’s the timeline here, Keishin? Ten years? Twenty years? How long do you plan t’ stay here?”

“I can leave any time you want,” Keishin said. “But I’m not gonna get married. You know Grandad. You really think he won’t see through it if you push me into somethin’? Y’think he’d be satisfied with that?”

That was not the right answer. His da leaned back in his seat and tilted his chin back at a proud angle. There was a quiet fury in his voice that Keishin knew all too well from his rougher days. “Oh, like I could push you to do anythin’. When have you ever done somethin’ you were told to do? Even if it was for your own good.”

“More than you think,” Keishin said quietly.

His da stood up. “I’m goin’ to check on some things at the farm. I’ve had my fill of arguing with fools today.”

His footsteps stomped down the hall. The front door creaked open, then slammed shut.

His ma sighed. Then she looked at Keishin, concern creasing her eyes. “Is everything alright?”

“It’s fine,” Keishin lied.

Silence drew out between them.

“…You didn’t really mean it,” she said.

Keishin frowned, uncertain which part of the conversation she meant.

“That you won’t get married,” she clarified. “You still have that girl of yours, don’t you?”

She looked so worried for him. Keishin’s mouth felt dry.

“No,” he said. “That’s not it.”

His ma stood up and squeezed his shoulders. “Keishin, if anyone breaks your heart then she didn’t deserve it in the first place. You’ll find the right woman. Someone who makes everything else worth fightin’ for. I promise.”

“I’m not… no, Ma,” he shook his head. “Nothin’ like that happened.”

She didn’t move. “Then what’s wrong?”

Keishin looked up at her. “I need to do things my own way,” he said. “I promise I’m takin’ my future seriously. I am. But it might take a while, and I might not ever walk the roads you want for me.” His voice finally betrayed him in the way that it wavered. “Do you think you could still love me, if I never wind up bein’ the successful son you wanted?”

His ma’s face fell. She let go of his shoulders and drew herself up to her full height. “Stand up.” When Keishin hesitated, she started batting gently but insistently at his arms. “Come on, up! Up!”

Keishin hauled himself up out of the chair and stood awkwardly in front of her.

“There.” She gestured at him. “This is my son. No changin’ it, no doubt.” She brushed a bit of lint off of his shoulder. “Now, your da thinks you got your stubbornness from his side of the family. I’m not about to argue that he and your grandad aren’t damn near impossible sometimes. But this,” she tapped on his chest, right over his heart. “This you got from me. I’ve always followed my heart and done things my own way. Why do y’think I still have this place?” She gestured to the house. “I wouldn’t let it go. Not where I grew up. Not the shop. I love it too much. Your grandad hated it at first, me draggin’ his son to the other side of town, but he came around once he saw what I was about.” She grinned at the memory.

“Now, you’ve got the same bug, little one,” she continued, ignoring that he was a head taller than her. “Ain’t nothin’ on earth can sway you from what you think is right, not once you’ve made your mind up. So, tell me this….”

Keishin swallowed, wondering what her question was.

“In this future of yours, do you see yourself bein’ happy?”

 “Yeah, I hope so.” Keishin became aware that he was shaking.

“Do you have people with you, that love you and will be there when you need ‘em?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Then that’s good enough for me,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Keishin broke. He buried his head into her shoulder, still shaking. She hugged him, a big squeeze that was slightly too tight for comfort.

“You just let us know how to help you, alright? If you need help findin’ someone, or time off, or money, we’ll do what we can. Just let us help.”

Keishin nodded, his face wet against her shoulder. “I don’t need anything,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” she said, clearly indulging him. She pushed him away and handed him a handkerchief. “Blow your nose, dear.”

Keishin sniffed and wiped his face. “Thanks,” he said.

“Now, I gotta warn you that if y’ want the same from your da and grandad, you’re gonna have to take it up with them.  I know all of you too well to get caught up in that fight.” She squeezed his shoulders again. “Now, come and help me with dinner. You’re in charge of the soup.” 

Chapter Text

A traveler’s
sleeves flutter
in the autumn wind;
How lonely is the evening sun,
a brief bridge between the mountains.

-Teika

 

The warm scent of broth and beer filled Keishin’s senses as he stepped through the door of the restaurant. The smell was pleasant, as was the way Takeda brushed his hand against Keishin’s as they walked in.

Still, his stomach churned with nerves.

It was his first time meeting Takeda’s friends, and his first time meeting anyone as Takeda’s boyfriend. He desperately wanted to make a good impression.

Takeda perked up and waved to the two women meeting them there.

Keishin vaguely recognized Hisakawa. She still wore her hair in a chin-length bob, and was dressed in a plain button-up shirt and slacks. Her smile seemed different, warm and bright as she waved them over.

“Take-sensei, good to see you!” She eyed Keishin, recognition and amusement flickering across her face. “It’s nice to see you as well, Ukai-kun.”

Of course she remembered the first time they’d met, when Keishin had been too furious with his parents for setting up a surprise marriage interview to bother making conversation. She seemed more relaxed now, happier to meet on a double date with their respective partners. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, uh, good to see you too.”

The woman next to her stepped forward. Her hair was in loose, carefully shaped waves that complimented the lines of her blouse and straight skirt. Even in heels she was only as tall as her partner, but her proud demeanor made her seem like an Olympian.

Hisakawa beamed. “This is Kuroki. Kuroki, this is my coworker Takeda and his friend and fellow coach Ukai.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Kuroki looked at Takeda and a small smile spread across her perfectly painted lips. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Takeda-sensei. I am glad Hisakawa-san has such a reliable coworker.”

“I can only try to match what she does for the school-!” Takeda bowed, flustered and startled at the praise. “Ah, let’s sit. I’m sure you two must be starving. I hope we weren’t too late!”

“Not at all! I’m excited you invited us out.” Hisakawa said. “I love ramen, but I’ve never been here before. It’s good to get Kuroki out of the city once in a while, too.” She winked at her partner.

“There’s more to do in Sendai,” Kuroki said quietly. She glanced around the bar, as if uncertain of her surroundings.

Hisakawa and Takeda led the group to a table, catching up on work gossip along the way. Now that Keishin saw them together, he realized Hisakawa stood a few centimeters taller than Takeda. They both seemed at ease, and it was good to see him with friends of his own.

A safety net.

As soon as they sat down, Hisakawa turned her attention to Keishin. “So, you’re the man everyone’s been talking about lately.”

Keishin stared at her, apprehension rising in his chest. “Uh…”

She raised her eyebrows. “You got Karasuno back to Nationals! You turned our vice principal into a volleyball fan! That’s quite a feat. He’s not much for sports.”

“If you want to thank the man responsible for gettin’ us to Nationals, then he’s sitting right next to me,” Keishin said.

Takeda opened his mouth to protest right as their server came to the table.

“Well if it isn’t the guys who’ve gotten my brother to Tokyo!” Tanaka grinned.

Keishin almost hadn’t recognized Tanaka in her work uniform. Her piercings were removed, her hair was tied back with a bandana, and an apron covered her long-sleeved shirt and jeans. She let out a surprised shout when she saw Hisakawa and Kuroki. “Woah! Kuroki-san and Hisa-san! Didn’t think I’d ever see you two in here!”

Kuroki’s eyes went wide. “Saeko-chan?”

“It’s been too long!” Hisakawa said. “I didn’t know you worked here. Will you be at the book discussion next week?”

“Nah, not my bag. But next time folks are meeting to do something fun I’ll see you there.” Tanaka winked at her. “For now, what can I get ya? We’ve got a few specials if you’d like to support my brother’s team!”

“Oh, your brother is on the volleyball team?” Kuroki asked.

“Sure is!” Tanaka beamed. “He’s the handsome ace!”

Another customer snorted from across the room. “More like a hoodlum!” he shouted.

Handsome ace, I told ya already!” Tanaka shot back. “Don’t mind him,” she leaned in closer to them and whispered “He’s an asshole.”

They ordered some beer and four of the ‘Nice Kill!’ ramen specials. Tanaka went back to work, handling the pushier customers with apparently effortless grace. Kuroki seemed more relaxed after having seen her, some of the stiffness easing from her shoulders. She settled into her seat and turned her attention back to them.

“Kuroki-san, I understand you work as an engineer? I bet that’s really satisfying work!” Takeda said.

Kuroki hummed in an affirmative. “My team manages traffic flow in the west sector of the city,” she explained. “I spend most of my time running calculations and analyzing data.”

Hisakawa nudged her shoulder. “Don’t be modest, you help keep things smooth so people can get to work on time and ambulances can get patients to the hospital!”

Kuroki smiled. “It was a simple statement of fact. The rest could be inferred.”

“Mmmhm. Modest.” Hisakawa shook her head. “So, Ukai-kun, what do you do these days, when you’re not coaching with Take-sensei?”

Nerves edged in Keishin’s stomach again. “Ah, not much, to be honest. I still work at my folks’ store, and help out with the farm when I can. I play on the Neighborhood Association team, but we’re nothin’ to write home about.”

Hisakawa smiled, no trace of judgement in her face. “Work, play, and helping others? Sounds like a good life to me.”

She meant it.

Keishin paused, unsure of what to say. He usually kept his conversations with women polite but stunted, careful to avoid the impression he was flirting. With that possibility taken off the table, he realized he could speak freely.

“It is.” He brightened. “I understand you do a lot t’ help others too, especially some of our students. Thank you for that.”

Hisakawa smiled warmly, then raised her glass for everyone to cheer.

The conversation flowed smoothly as the night went on, everyone swapping stories from work and little details of their own lives. The “Nice Kill!” ramen bowls turned out to be pretty good, and everything just felt… normal. The fact that everyone at their table was queer wasn’t a thing at all, they were all just people out to eat dinner. Keishin wondered how many queer folks he might’ve met in the past and not even realized it.

He shook his head. Of course it wasn’t different. He was a fool.

Takeda’s knee pressed against his own under the table. “Doing alright?”

“Yeah. Just… laughing at myself for being nervous earlier.”

“You were nervous too, huh?” Kuroki asked. She was more talkative now, the ice long broken and her second glass of beer mostly empty.

“I told you there was no need to be,” Hisakawa said. She turned back to Keishin and Takeda. “She thinks that just because we spend all day with kids, we’ll think her day-to-day is boring.”

“You’re teaching future generations,” Kuroki said. “I have a lot of respect for that, especially because I’m not well suited for that particular task. I just try to make things better in my own way.”

“And you do,” Hisakawa replied.

Kuroki smiled again and turned her head slightly.

“I think you can make any job sound boring or exciting depending on how you frame it,” Takeda said. “For example, you could say that Hisakawa and I spend a bit too much time having to argue for our students at staff meetings.”

Hisakawa’s bubbly demeanor flickered. “Those meetings sure are something,” she said.

“That’s because your boss is a stuffy, homophobic jerk who’s more worried about his reputation than his students,” Kuroki said, quiet but matter-of-fact.

“Kuroki, shhh!” Hisakawa nudged her. “That’s the principal you’re talking about, and we’re not that far away from the school,” she whispered.

“You can’t be the first people to complain, but alright,” Kuroki said. “I just still can’t forgive him for the way he treats you and your students.”

“Nobody gets angrier about it than me.”

“I know, I’ve heard you rant about it in the shower,” Kuroki said dryly.

“You can hear me in there??”

“Sometimes.” Kuroki’s demeanor softened. “It’s never too bad. But you’re right, I shouldn’t speak too loudly about it. I don’t want you to have to deal with what Saito’s been through.”

“Thrown into the local gossip mill for breaking up with a man and then getting food poisoning. That’s hardly her fault,” Hisakawa huffed. “At least things have settled down now.”

“Good to hear,” Keishin said. “Everyone loves to exaggerate a little when they tell a story, and next thing you know it gets out of hand. Nobody means any harm, but that doesn’t really make it better.”

 “And it makes sense that everyone would be obsessed with the idea of a new pregnancy out here, given the population decline,” Kuroki allowed. “Still, I’m happy to stay where I am.”

“And I’m happy to visit you,” Hisakawa said. “Thank you for coming out tonight.”

“It’s been fun. I’m glad I got to meet you both,” she said, nodding to Keishin and Takeda.

“It’s been a pleasure,” Keishin agreed.

“It really has. Maybe next time we can meet somewhere closer to you, Kuroki-san? Share the commute,” Takeda suggested.

“That would be easier for me, yes. Maybe we could alternate? We’ll certainly have to come here again sometime. I don’t think Saeko-chan would forgive us if we didn’t.”

“You’re damn right I wouldn’t!” Tanaka appeared with the bill.

“Believe me, she won’t!” the customer in the back shouted again.

Tanaka acted as if he wasn’t even there and flashed a smile. “How was the meal?”

“Delicious. Here, I’ll take that.” Keishin reached for the bill.

“Oh no, I have some cash,” Kuroki reached for her purse.

“Nah, let the guy that made you come all the way out here get it this time. Someone else can get the next one.” It was the least Keishin could do. The evening had been good, and he felt lighter than he had in a while.

“Thank you, Ukai-kun. Our treat next time,” said Hisakawa.

Tanaka took the bill and the cash from Keishin. “Glad to see everyone’s becoming friends. Thanks for supporting the team! Stop in again soon!”

“Of course,” Hisakawa said.

They all stood up, stretched, and headed out the door. Takeda and Keishin held back near the entrance of the restaurant so Keishin could have a smoke, while Hisakawa accompanied Kuroki down the street to the train station. Keishin watched them go, warmth in his chest despite the late November night.

In his weaker moments, he’d wondered if Takeda would be happier dating Hisakawa. Now, having seen the dynamic and supportive relationship she shared with Kuroki, he couldn’t imagine her with anyone else. Everything was as it should be, simple as that. He wondered if anyone would ever feel the same way about him and Takeda as a couple.

“Did you have fun?” Takeda asked.

“I did, yeah. They seem like good people,” he said. “Thanks for making it happen.”

“It was good for me too,” Takeda said. He stretched, relaxed and happy.

Another group of customers left the restaurant. One of them was the guy that had been harassing Tanaka all evening. The group talked and bickered amongst themselves, too indistinct to really pick out. Until one exchange, ringing clear through the chilly air.

“Maybe you’d be more popular if you got with the fashions these days. How about a v-neck?” one of the men joked as he nudged the guy who’d been rude in the restaurant.

“What, you think I want people thinkin’ I’m some kinda fag?” he scoffed.

Keishin froze.

His friend laughed and teased again, “Better than them knowin’ you’re an asshole!”

“I’m not so sure,” the man grumbled.

The group stumbled their way down the hill and out of sight. Keishin felt numb, his mind putting an automatic override to contain the old, angry fire that smoldered in his gut.  He glanced at Takeda.

Takeda’s face was tight, his expression frozen in a parody of the ease he’d displayed earlier.

 Keishin sighed, exhaling the smoke he’d been holding in his lungs. “Well, that was bullshit,” he said.

“Yeah.” Takeda shook himself and let out a nervous laugh. His expression was still strained at the edges. “Shall we go?”

Keishin snuffed out his cigarette and they walked, purposefully taking a longer route to avoid the crowd ahead. Keishin shoved his hands in his pockets and suppressed a shiver at the chilly air and cold dread that was creeping up his throat at the reminder of how some folks thought.

Breathe, he thought. Pretend it was just a setback on the court.

Let yourself feel it.

Resist the urge to make other people’s bullshit your own.

Remember who you’re with.

He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Takeda shook his head. “It’s. Well, I’ll be fine. I’m just… not used to hearing stuff like that yet.”

They kept walking at a casual pace. The moon was high and full above them, spilling cool light to mix with the yellow of the streetlamps.

“Maybe… Maybe gettin’ used to it shouldn’t be the point. Not to that,” Keishin said. He turned to Takeda. “What are you feeling right now?”

Takeda stopped and looked at him, the moonlight and streetlights casting a range of soft, subtle hues over them both, all these colors and details Keishin could see so clearly since they’d met.

Takeda smiled, a warm candle against the night. “I feel relieved, that you’re by my side.”

--

Keishin pushed the rice thresher back against the side of the shed. After a solid hour of cursing it was finally clean for the winter. The work was satisfying and straightforward compared to his frustrations with the kids lately. They’d been especially rowdy since they’d found out some of them would be going to the regional and national special training camps.

He brushed himself off, coughed at the dust, then locked up the shed and walked back into the farm office.

He found his da at his desk, standing over an array of papers. They hadn’t been the tidiest with their paperwork this year, but it shouldn’t be this bad. It was as if the entire filing cabinet had been emptied in a fit of frustration.  The desk chair had been pulled to the other side of the room, where Keishin’s grandad sat. He was tinkering with the brake mechanism for a tractor, working the rust out enough for it to move smoothly again.

There was a tense silence in the room.

His da looked up at him. “All good?”

“Yeah. Can I help with that?” Keishin stepped up to the desk. It stood between him and his father, strewn with disorganized invoices and receipts from the last year.

His da sighed. “Yeah, it’s nothin’ that can’t be done. Just would’ve been easier to do it sooner. Lots of things are like that in life.” He bit out a humorless laugh, keeping his eyes on the desk.

Keishin’s grandad was quiet.

Keishin grabbed a stack and started sorting them by date and type. Something Takeda said to him the other day came back to him, and Keishin couldn’t help but smile at the memory. “We are where we are. Only thing to do is decide what’s best from here,” he said.

His da pulled an empty folder out of the cabinet and began putting contract agreements and employee files back where they belonged. “And what d’ya think is best from here?” he grumbled. It was clearly about more than the paperwork.

Keishin avoided his eye. “What’s best is gettin’ these receipts in order. If you mean elsewhere, then getting the kids to Nationals, rotating the inventory at the shop...”

His da sighed. “Is that all?”

“Why not?” Keishin set his sorted stacks aside and grabbed another handful of papers.

“You know why. I didn’t raise a fool.” His da’s voice was steady, but Keishin could hear the tinge of a scolding at the edges.

“I’m doin’ everything that needs to be done right now,” Keishin said. He glanced at his grandad, who was still working in the corner. He hadn’t looked up, but a tiny smile was pulling at the edge of his mouth.

His da set the papers down and rested his hands on the desk. “Keishin, why are you afraid?”

Keishin looked up, startled at the shift in tone.

His da held his gaze. “Let your ma and me help you. It’s what family’s for.”

Keishin went back to sorting papers, willing the conversation to stop. “I… don’t need help.”

His da crossed his arms. “You’re just too damn proud. Your future’s coming, whether you want it or not. Either make things right with that girl of yours or let her go and move on. The time for playing around is over.”

“Girl...?” Keishin stared at him.

His da raised his eyebrows. “You think I don’t know about that? People like to talk, son.” His da reached behind himself for his chair. When his hand met only empty air he shot an annoyed glance at Keishin’s grandad across the room.

Keishin worked to keep his voice steady. “Why’s it matter that people talk? They don’t know what’s going on, and they don’t know what’s best for me.” Keishin set the next stack of papers back down on the desk, harder than he meant to. “I’m here, aren’t I? I do my duty. I’m here when you need me. I will be here. Let that be enough.”

His da closed his eyes and took a deep breath, just like he’d always done when Keishin was a teenager. “I just want what’s best for you…”

“Then let me do this!” Keishin snapped. “Please,” he added.

His da threw the folder on the desk. “Do what, exactly? Whittle your time away because you refuse to grow up?”

Across the room, his grandad began to laugh.

Keishin and his da stared as the laugh grew from a chuckle to a full belly-laugh. He trailed off into a snicker. “You’re both damn fools,” he said. “Shoji, you remember all those times I wished you’d have a son just as stubborn as you one day? How’s it feel?” He grinned.

“Da, this is serious!”

“I know, that’s why I’m laughin’ at ya. You wouldn’t listen to my other advice anyway. And you,” he turned his eyes on Keishin, his expression serious. “You’re every bit as much of a stubborn fool as your da. You think standing still’s the way forward? You want people to take you seriously, but you don’t even have a plan, do you?”

Keishin flinched. “I have enough.”

His grandad stood up, setting the tractor part aside. He stepped into the patch of light cast by the window, his shadow just reaching Keishin. “You do, huh? Then pick a direction. You know who and where you are by now. You keep runnin’ the clock without looking up, and the world will make you regret it…” he trailed off, pausing to catch his breath.

His da turned back to Keishin. “That’s what I’ve been saying! If you know this isn’t the girl you wanna marry, move on! If you think she is, or might be, just talk to me so your grandad can be satisfied!”

His grandad laughed again, still short of breath.

Keishin hung his head, his hands clenched into fists. “I’m trying, I promise. Just—”

“Da, are you alright?!”

Keishin looked up. His da had crossed the room towards his grandad, who seemed to be struggling more than usual to breathe.

“I’m fine! It’s just, the cold air today,” his grandad complained. He tried to hide his breathing.

“The doctor said you should come in for some tests if something like this happened. It wouldn’t hurt to check…” Keishin’s da had a strange expression on his face. Desperate.  Keishin hung back, unsure of what to do.

“Like hell I’m goin’ back there! I’m fine,” his grandad huffed.

“Father, please!” Keishin’s da bowed low to the ground. “I’m not ready to lose you yet. Please. For me.”

His grandad’s expression softened. Then he huffed and looked away. “Worrywart. Fine. Get the car.” He took a few more short breaths, then walked towards the door.

“Right.” His da grabbed his keys off the desk. “Keishin, lock up behind us. I’ll take care of this.”

“Of course,” Keishin said. “I’ve got it.”

His da paused at the door, then smiled sadly at him. “I know. I know you’ve got it. Thank you.”

They went out the door in a hurried whirl of grumbling and bickering. The door clicked behind them. Keishin slumped down into the chair and fumbled for a cigarette.

It’ll be alright, he told himself. He puffed at it, then coughed as the sound of freezing rain began to drum on the roof outside.

--

Keishin drummed his fingers on the counter. His phone was next to him, and a message from his da was still up on the screen:

Everything seems alright for now. They’ll do some more tests, just in case.

He’d gotten that message days ago, but he still looked at it every few hours to reassure himself it was real.

Shimada was leaning up against the wall near him. He’d taken to spending his lunch breaks at Keishin’s shop as they readied for Nationals.

“I can’t believe Hinata just showed up at that training camp!” Shimada snickered. “Talk about guts.”

“That damn kid!” Keishin slapped his hand on the table, days of stress focusing on a single point. “I still can’t believe it. What is he doing?” Keishin buried his head in his hands. He’d been dealing with phone calls and visits to Shiratorizawa ever since Hinata showed up at the regional elite training camp uninvited. They’d managed to get him a place as a ball boy, but the sheer gall of it made his head ache. The week couldn’t end soon enough.

“Giving his all. It’s admirable in one way, and incredibly foolish in another.” Shimada grinned and took another bite of his curry bread. “You’ve got your hands full. What are you gonna do with him?”

Keishin coughed. “I’ve already lectured him, and I’m sure he’ll find out bein’ ball boy’s a tougher job than he thinks.” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Sensei says the best thing we can do is consider where he is now, not what he should’ve done a week ago. Ideally, we’d always be able to direct the students down the most ‘correct’ path, but real life’s never that convenient. We all have to make the best out of the choices we’re given, and teachin’ them how to do that is what our job as mentors really boils down to.”

Shimada chewed and swallowed another bite of curry bread before saying, “You know, you get this look in your eye whenever you talk about sensei.”

Keishin’s cheeks went hot. “I’m just tellin’ you what he said!”

“Touchy, touchy! Didn’t say it was a bad thing. And he’s got a point. I don’t think any of us would be satisfied if we only did exactly what was expected of us. We wouldn’t, anyway.”

“True…” Keishin traced a scratch in the counter top, an artifact from some careless scrape years ago. He and Shimada hadn’t talked about their drunken night of confessions after regionals. Shimada just started taking his lunch breaks in the shop, and Keishin had started setting aside extra curry and meat buns for him. This seemed as much an invitation to talk about it as he’d get. He coughed, then cleared his throat. “…I still have that button you gave me,” he said.

“Good,” Shimada said. He paused in his meal and studied Keishin’s expression, his face serious. “I meant it, you know.”

“I know. It means a lot.”

It did mean a lot, both that Shimada had been looking out for him and that he trusted Keishin enough to share what he was going through. Keishin had been pouring over articles about trans stuff ever since, trying to get himself up to speed on how to best support his friend, or at least avoid fucking it up too badly.

Keishin looked up at him. “You uh, sure you don’t want me to call you any different? I’m game for it, you know.”

“No,” Shimada said. “Not yet, anyway. Right now I just wanna figure some things out. It’s complicated, you know? It’s not like they taught us this stuff in school.”

Keishin reflected on the hours he’d spent reading articles that Takeda and Nakano had sent him. “No kiddin’.”

Shimada stared down at his feet, scuffing one shoe against the tile floor. “…Is it weird that I’m a volleyball player who feels self-conscious about being tall?”

Keishin considered it. “I mean… it’s a little weird. Aren’t you like, the same height as Haruka Miyashita?”

Shimada froze for a moment, then whipped around to face Keishin. “Did you seriously just compare me to national women’s volleyball star and Olympian athlete Haruka Miyashita? Are you fucking joking?”

Keishin faltered. Maybe he’d misunderstood. “You’re, uh, around 177 centimeters... right?”

Shimada shoved Keishin’s arm. “You’re too good. Quit it already, before you make me cry in your store.” He turned away again and crossed his arms, a smile tugging at the edge of his lips and betraying his bluster for what it was.

“Alright alright, I’ll save it.” Keishin reached for a safer topic. “Did Takinoue talk to you about that video yet?”

“Yeah, we’re gonna record my interview for it tomorrow. He’s all fired up about it, it’s really good to see.”

Keishin smiled. “He’s back on his feet.”

“Yeah, he’s a good guy.”

“Yeah.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Have you talked to him about...?” Keishin asked.

“No. Have you told him about…?”

“No.” Keishin sighed. “Dunno if I should.”

“He’s hard to figure out sometimes,” Shimada said. “Kinda oblivious to anything that’s not on a volleyball court or doesn’t have circuit boards. But I know he cares about you, and it might help clear up some confusion.”

“I wanna get there,” Keishin admitted. He hung his head at the memory of the argument with his da. “I want to get to a point where I can just proudly say who I am, when and if someone needs to know. But… not yet.”

“Nothing wrong with not being there yet.”

“Yeah,” Keishin lit a cigarette and puffed at it. “He cares about you too, you know.”

“Good, ‘cause he owes me a beer.” Shimada grinned and stretched. “Alright, my lunch break’s over. I’ll see you at practice later?”

“Yeah, see you then.”

The door closed behind Shimada. Keishin drummed his fingers on the countertop again. Then he took another drag off his cigarette and coughed. And coughed.

And coughed.

Ah, fuck.

He could feel a heaviness in his sinuses and a soreness in the back of this throat that was different from the usual smoky burn. It was the beginnings of a cold.

He groaned and glared at the cigarette. Finishing it would make the cold worse, but nicotine withdrawal would make him feel like death warmed over.

He put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply. Just one more, he thought.

--

There was one more cough drop in the bag. Keishin had gone through them in less than a week while his sinuses dripped and his body ached. They kept him functional enough to work and coach, at least, though Tattsuan had banished him from the neighborhood team practices until he could jog without coughing up a lung.

He shivered and bounced one leg under the counter, irritation and exhaustion from a nicotine craving roiling inside his chest. He’d tried to make the cold easier to bear by smoking only half a pack a day this week. It was a bar set pitifully low, and one that he’d mostly failed to clear anyway. Even still, it had left him irritated and coughing for most of the week.

The bell on the shop door rang. He glared at it.

Tattsuan stepped into the shop. “Feeling any better?”

“I’ll live,” Keishin grumbled.

“I should hope so!” Tattsuan set a small bag on the counter. “Here, I brought you some ginger roots from my parent’s house. My mom always insists they have more healing properties than the store-bought ones, so make yourself some tea later, alright? We miss having our setter around.”

Keishin took the bag and set it in a safe spot behind the counter. “Thanks. I’m hoping I’ll be good to join you guys again next week.”

“Good! That’d be great timing for something else, too...”

Keishin stared at him. His head ached.

“Fumiko and I are hosting another singles party. Just before Christmas, you know? Oh, don’t give me that look. You should come, assuming you’re feeling better. It’ll be fun!”

“I appreciate it, there’s just a lot goin’ on…” Keishin said carefully. Tattsuan had been getting progressively pushier about this. Keishin wished he’d go back to not caring.

“Not so much you don’t deserve a little fun once in a while. Besides, it’ll be weird if there’s not an even number of people. Plus, one of Fumiko’s friends specifically asked about you! You remember Minami, right?”

He didn’t.

Keishin grabbed his copy of Shonen Jump behind the counter, just to have something to do with his hands. “I don’t have time. Besides, shouldn’t you two be gettin’ a nursery ready or something?”

“We’re due in January, and organizing anything after the baby comes will be a lot harder. Fumiko just wants to do this for her friends before that happens and things get hectic. You don’t have to do anything other than show up and make small talk, I promise.”

Guilt won out. Keishin sighed. “I’ll see if I can make it.”

“Great! I’ll text you the details later. It’ll be good for people to see you there. Might clear up some confusion, you know?”

Keishin startled, then broke out into another coughing fit.

“Woah, easy there.” Tattsuan stepped back and waited until the coughing subsided. “Drink that tea and get some rest alright? I’ll leave you be.” He waved at him as he stepped out the door.

Keishin buried his head in his hands, his headache worsening. He forced himself to take a few deep breathes.

Confusion.

“Fuuuuuuck,” he sighed and rubbed at his eyes.

It didn’t matter. If rumors were trying to get going, there was nothing he could do about it. Not now, anyway.

He shivered again and reached behind the counter for a package of disposable heating pads. It would be time for the kid’s practice soon, and freezing his ass off in the gym wouldn’t help his health or his mood.

He stuck the pad to his shoulder, where it tended to ache after a long shift at work anyway. Heat radiated out from it, quieting some of his nerves. He grabbed the last cough drop—and his pack of cigarettes—and headed into the house to get ready to go coach.

He’d preferred it when Tattsuan hadn’t cared about his love life.

--

“I just don’t understand why he’s makin’ a big thing of it now,” Keishin complained. He’d given in to another smoke as he and Takeda walked from the school to Takeda’s apartment. His throat still felt like hell, but he’d been too twitchy after practice to ignore the cravings any longer.

“Tattsuan’s probably just worried about you,” Takeda said. “Can you talk to him about it?”

“Maybe, dunno what I’d say—” Keishin was cut off by another coughing fit, his whole body shaking with each cough.

“Are you alright?” Takeda stopped, reaching out to touch his back.

The coughing subsided with a shiver. The heating pad on Keishin’s shoulder was long since spent. “I’m fine, just not feeling well. I usually get a cold like this at the start of winter. I’ll be fine.” He had his cigarette halfway to his mouth before he stopped and glared at it. “These damn things probably don’t help,” he admitted. He knew his physiology. He knew they were awful.

“Do you ever think about quitting?” Takeda asked.

“Sometimes, yeah.” He compromised with himself and took another quick puff. “It’s just, I started when I was fourteen. When it’s been goin’ on that long, it’s hard to picture just quittin’.”

“That would be hard,” Takeda said.

Keishin snuffed out the cigarette. “Try damn near impossible.”

Takeda looked ahead, toward the horizon. “I trust you to do what’s best for you. I will say I know you’re capable of doing a lot of nearly impossible things… like getting a team to Nationals.” He smiled and glanced at Keishin through the corner of his eye.

Keishin felt a warmth on his cheeks despite the cold. He turned and walked ahead. “Come on, let’s get to your place.”

When they arrived at Takeda’s apartment, Keishin found himself shooed out of the kitchen.

“Let me cook tonight. You should rest and stay warm,” Takeda insisted.

“But I said I’d make you nikujaga,” Keishin complained, but let himself be led to the kotatsu table.

“And instead I’ll make you my mother’s rice porridge. It always helped me when I didn’t feel well. Now sit.” Takeda reached under the table and turned the heater on. “Let me take care of you.” He pulled the blanket over Keishin’s lap.

Keishin leaned into him, resting his head on his shoulder. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Takeda said softly. He stroked Keishin’s hair, then kissed him on top of his head. “Rest up. I’ll try not to mess this up too badly.”

Takeda went back into the kitchen. Keishin closed his eyes and relaxed into the warm comfort of the kotatsu. His sinuses were dripping now, and he dabbed at his nose with a tissue and suppressed the urge to cough again.

The semester was in full swing and Takeda’s apartment was showing signs of neglect. A mug from the day before was still on the table, along with stacks of half-graded papers, notes on volleyball strategies, and a book of poetry. Keishin reached for the book.

“An anthology of court poetry?” he asked, looking at the cover.

“Oh? Yeah,” Takeda laughed self-consciously from the kitchen. “The transition from fall to winter makes me feel sort of wistful, and a lot of those poems have a similar feeling. Feel free to flip through it, if you like.”

Keishin flipped through the pages, taking in verses here and there of pining lovers, fleeting beauty, and shifts in seasons. Partway through the back he noticed a small sheet of paper stuck between the pages. He paused and pulled it out. It was notebook paper, and in Takeda’s neat handwriting was this:

Alone at end of day, my mind turns loose
to thoughts of you, your heat a hopeless dream.
Your hands and voice unthinkingly seduce,
then leave me longing for your eyes to gleam.
One day, you’ll pin me in some lurid pose,
for I’ll say words that will your lust unlock
and then we’ll tread this obscene path I chose,
this prayer with hands wrapped rough around my cock.
I am an animal like any other,
clandestine dreaming of your smoky mouth,
I’m thrusting helpless wanting spilling over,
imagining monsoons during a drought.
When dreams lie spent it’s memories that stay
of friendship that not lust, nor fear, outweigh.

“Take-chan… what’s this?” Keishin called into the kitchen.

“What’s what now?” Takeda called back.

Keishin started reading the poem aloud. Before he could get through the second line there was a clatter from the kitchen and Takeda rushed into the room. “Don’t! Don’t read that!” He made to snatch the paper from him.

Keishin held the paper at up at arm’s length, away from Takeda’s reach. “Why not? What is it?”

“It’s an embarrassment!” Takeda reached for it again. “I thought I got rid of all of those! Keishin… please.”

Keishin relented and gave him the sheet of paper. “How’s it an embarrassment? What is it?”

Takeda took the paper, folded it, and set it on the table. He sat in front of Keishin, his eyes averted. “I… sometimes write poetry. That’s one I wrote… about you. Before we were together. I’m sorry.”

Something fluttered in Keishin’s chest. “You wrote a poem about me?”

“Most of them weren’t that bad!” Takeda bowed. “You really found the most embarrassing one. I’m sorry. It’s before I knew you well enough to have any right to do such a thing.”

“You wrote more than one about me?!” Keishin ran his hand through his hair, mussing the band that held it in place, too shocked to care about his appearance at that moment. “Can I read any more?”

Takeda’s face went pale. “No! They’re all terrible!”

“I don’t care. You wrote poetry about me,” Keishin said again, delight bubbling up in his chest. “Really?!”

“Well, yes. I told you I’d been thinking about you before we got together…” Takeda trailed off, his hands clenching and unclenching.

“I guess I just didn’t really believe it. All that time I figured it was just me. Poetry!” Keishin laughed. “Damn, how’d I get so lucky. You sure I can’t read more?”

Takeda bit his lip. “It’s just… I wrote those before I knew you as well as I know you now. It’s embarrassing, and not just because of my predictable word choices and weak poetic structure.” He rubbed the back of his neck.

Keishin leaned back. “Ah, I see. Y’had a picture of this cool guy, but now you hafta deal with the reality of me fillin’ your apartment with snotty tissues,” he teased.

“I prefer this version.” Takeda reached out and squeezed his hand. “I promise I’ll write you something new someday, something that captures the depth of my feelings now. Then you can look at this drivel and laugh,” Takeda gestured to the paper on the table. “In the meantime, can you be patient with me? This is something I’d like to do right.”

Keishin sniffed and squeeze his hand back. “It’s somethin’ I wanna do right, too.”

The smell of burning wafted in from the kitchen.

“Shit,” Takeda hissed. He stood up and ran back to the kitchen. “Just stay there! I got it!”

“You want any help?” Keishin called.

“No, it’s fine. I just, uh… I’ll take the crispy parts, don’t worry!”

The rice was burnt. Takeda had given Keishin the best parts. His porridge was soft, and the nutty, bitter burnt taste was present but not overpowering. It was a little oddly textured from where Takeda had added more water after it burnt, but it wasn’t bad.

Takeda’s had black chunks sticking out of it.

“You sure you don’t wanna eat something else?” Keishin asked. “I’m not gonna judge you for it.”

“I’ll feel bad wasting it.” Takeda took another bite. It crunched between his teeth.

Keishin winced at the sound. “Mmhmm. You still have some leftover chicken from the other night in the fridge. Why don’t you eat some of that too, so I won’t feel guilty you’re missing out on a full meal ‘cause of me?”

Takeda sighed and relented. “I suppose that wouldn’t be the worst. I’ll be right back.”

There was the beep of the microwave, and Takeda returned a few minutes later with a small plate of leftovers.

“Y’know… I had a certain picture of you too, before we got together,” Keishin said. “But I also prefer what we have now, to anything I imagined back then.” He took another bite, this one perfectly soft and soothing on his throat. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

Takeda smiled at him, sending warmth from Keishin’s stomach up to his chest. “Likewise.”

--

“When my students put everything they have into their training, how could I not do the same?” Takeda’s voice over the video was brimming with pride. He smiled at the camera. “I always felt there was something special in our team, yet Karasuno’s players have grown beyond what I ever imagined. They’re ready to show our opponents at Nationals what we’re worth.”

Keishin paused the video, accidentally catching Takeda mid-blink. He snorted, trailing off into a warm chuckle at the earnest and determined energy Takeda radiated in his interview.

He was finally feeling better, and Takinoue had asked Keishin to review the final footage for the kids. Keishin couldn’t find much fault in it; Takinoue was a good interviewer and his genial and relaxed attitude was contagious. Even Keishin had found himself talking into the camera with enthusiasm, bolstered further by the feeling of clear sinuses. Once Takinoue finished editing in the title cards, they’d be good to go.

Keishin stared at the screen. Even in the ridiculous freeze frame, there were the little crinkles at the corners of Takeda’s eyes that he got when he smiled. Keishin smiled back at the image.

Takeda had worked hard over the last year, harder than anyone could have asked him to. He deserved something in return, something to make him understand his efforts were noticed.

Keishin jolted, struck by an idea. He pulled out his phone and typed a message to Nakano.

SetAndReady: hey, hows it going?

Bananakano: not great, tbh

SetAndReady: what’s going on?

Bananakano: i dont really want to talk about it.
Bananakano: whats up with you?

SetAndReady: well, it’s a little early, but…
SetAndReady: I have an idea for sensei’s birthday

Keishin outlined the basics of his plan and hit send. Before Nakano could respond, the bell on the shop door rang. Keishin shoved his phone back into his pocket as Kinoshita stepped into the shop.

Keishin could immediately tell something was up. It was rare to see Kinoshita without the other second years, and he was slouched and looking around in the way that people do when they’re trying to appear more casual than they feel. Keishin pretended to read his magazine while the boy made a show of browsing the shelves.

He spent a lot of time looking at their seasonal Christmas candies. Maybe that’s why he’d come alone, to avoid any teasing from his friends. It was sweet, in a way.

With Christmas coming up soon, everyone seemed to be pairing off. He’d seen Sawamura and the captain of the girls’ volleyball team holding hands the other day, and Shimizu had been extra nervous around Yachi lately, like she was constantly on the verge of saying something before backing down.

Christmas romance was cute, he decided. At least when it didn’t bring people trying to shove every single woman they knew on him. He wrinkled his nose at the thought of Tattsuan’s party tomorrow.

Kinoshita coughed. He was lingering awkwardly between the counter and the shop’s dine-in tables. “Um… Coach?”

Keishin shook himself to clear his thoughts, then stood up. “Y’need help with somethin’?”

Kinoshita nodded. He swallowed. “I uh. I know some of the other guys have been coming to you for advice….”

“Yep.” Keishin sat down and gestured to the chair across from him. “What’s goin’ on?”

Kinoshita sat down and stared at the table, avoiding Keishin’s eye as his face started to turn red. “Well, the team’s been more popular since we found out we’re goin’ to Nationals. And ah,” he started mumbling, “I think I got a… date.”

Keishin grinned, charmed that the guy was stammering over the possibility of a girlfriend. “A date just in time for Christmas, huh?”

Kinoshita nodded, eyes still fixed on the table in front of him. “Yeah! I just ah… she seems kinda… I was wondering, I was wondering how you, ah…. I mean I know how it… Um.”

Keishin smiled and waited for him to find his words.

“I’m just thinkin’ if she wanted to… you know.” Kinoshita looked up at him, then back down again.

Oh. Keishin’s stomach dropped. This was not a conversation he had been prepared for.

“I just wanna do it right, you know?” Kinoshita was still bright red. “So ah… how do I… do it?”

Kinoshita looked like he was ready for the ground to swallow him up right then and there. Keishin felt the same.

“Uh,” he started. Shit kid, I don’t know a thing about women. And you’re like ten years too young to be doing anything! Twenty years too young!

Kinoshita fidgeted, picking at a spot on the table where the lining was cracked. It occurred to Keishin that Kinoshita’s parents were a bit controlling, so he probably didn’t have any adults in his life that he felt comfortable asking about this. Who knows what his internet situation was like at home.

Keishin took a deep breath. He could do this. Probably.

“Okay, look,” Keishin said. “It’s not like there’s some magic formula. The first thing is to make sure that you actually wanna do it.  There’s prob’ly gonna be a big difference between the fantasy in your head and what it’s actually like the first time. If you realize you’re not ready, then stop. Likewise, she’s gotta do the same. You can both change your minds at any time, no matter how far you get inta things or what all has happened before then, alright?” Keishin emphasized his next words, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else says, a real man observes the situation at hand and stops as soon as he notices something ain’t right. Got it?” Keishin looked him over, checking to see if the plea towards his masculinity had worked.

Kinoshita eyes were wide, but he was giving him his full attention. He nodded slowly. Good.

“As for… the logistics…” Keishin faltered. “Just take your time. No matter how horny you are, it’s not a race. And um.” Keishin reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of condoms. “Use these. Doesn’t matter what you’re doin’. If your dick is out, it’s wrapped. Got it?”

Kinoshita stared at the condoms like they were going to bite him. He nodded. Then, tentatively, reached out and plucked them from Keishin’s hand. He stared at them for a moment, a holy relic in his palms, then tucked them into his pocket.

“Anythin’ else?” Keishin said, eager to end the conversation.

“Yeah, um. Is the clit as hard to find as they say it is?”

A string of curses ran through Keishin’s mind. He waved his hands vaguely, “It’s… like when you’re looking for an opening on the court. Y’just gotta read the lay of the land.”

Kinoshita stared at him blankly.

Keishin decided to drop the volleyball metaphors. “Just… look at an anatomy textbook or somethin’, alright?”

Kinoshita gave him a solemn nod. “Right. Best not to leave it to chance.” He stood up, then bowed. “Thanks, Coach!”

Keishin cleared his throat and awkwardly went back to sit behind the counter. Kinoshita marched out the door. As soon as he was gone, Keishin lit a cigarette and puffed at it until his heartrate went back to normal.

--

Shimada’s apartment was back to its usual stark façade.

Takinoue shuffled inside, his arms full of grocery bags filled with individual cans of beer. “Keishin, give me a hand with the fridge door, will ya?”

“Careful you don’t shake them too much!” Shimada fussed. The limited-edition beers were the last of the order from Shimada Mart. It was a ‘Love Holiday Special!’ beer infused with yuzu. They hadn’t sold out, which was ridiculous because they were delicious.

Soon they were settled around Shimada’s room, each with a beer in hand. It was a comfortable retreat after the awkwardness of Tattsuan and Fumiko’s singles party.

Takinoue smiled despite the chilly air of the apartment. “Man, I can’t believe we all struck out again.” He opened his beer with a hiss. It bubbled up dangerously, but didn’t spill over.

“It’s alright, there’s always next year.” Shimada stretched and settled into his seat. “That Minami girl seemed pretty into you.”

“Only after Keishin messed up his game.” Takinoue nudged Keishin with his shoulder. “You almost seemed into it this time, man. Then halfway through you’re back to the one-word answers and talkin’ about the weather. We gotta work on that. You need practice? Pretend I’m a pretty girl.”

Keishin shoved him and rolled his eyes. He’d given the party his best shot. He’d tried to seem interested and flirtatious. But in the end, the whole thing had just felt too fake. Besides, what would he have done if anything had actually come of it? He took a swig of beer and savored the tangy citrus flavor of it.

“We’ll see if there is a next time,” Shimada said. “I can’t believe Tattsuan’s gonna be a dad soon.”

“He’s been wantin’ it for a long time. I’m glad it’s happening,” Keishin said. He shifted; his pack of cigarettes was still a third full and uncomfortable in his back pocket. He took them out and set them on the table.

Takinoue glanced at them. “Hey, have you been trying to cut back? That looks a little full for this time of day.”

“Eh. Trying and mostly failing,” Keishin sighed.

Takinoue stared at the pack of cigarettes, then hummed to himself and leaned back to take another drink. “Say, you ever use that ramen coupon I gave you?”

“Oh yeah, I keep meanin’ to thank you for that,” Keishin said. Takinoue perked up. “Sensei and I went with some of his co-workers. It was really great ramen, and it was nice to do somethin’ good for him. I owe ya.”

Takinoue’s expression fell. “Oh. Well, you’re welcome,” he said.

“So Takinoue! How’s that video coming?” Shimada said, steering the conversation to a more comfortable space.

Takinoue lit up again, and the evening rolled into the easy rapport the three had built over the years. They talked about Tokyo and the neighborhood team, about movies, and about the town’s current gossip.

By the time they were mostly through their second drink, Takinoue had gone strangely quiet again, summoning only a chuckle as Keishin and Shimada traded giant monster puns.

“What do you call a rowdy group of Mothras?” Shimada asked.

Keishin groaned. “Let me guess, a moth pit?”

Shimada laughed. “Spoilsport.  I’ll go get us some more beers.” He stood and walked over to the kitchen.

Takinoue watched him go, then sat up straight. “Keishin… listen,” he started. “I’m being absolutely serious about this, so I need you to hear me out, okay?”

Keishin blinked at him. “What’s gotten into you all of a sudden?”

“I think you should date Saeko.”

“The fuck?!” Keishin sputtered, spilling the last of his beer down the front of his shirt.

Takinoue’s face was serious, and he met Keishin’s eye without wavering. “I mean it,” he said, “I’ve put a lot of thought into it and… you’ve never even looked at a girl twice before her. But, you did. With her. I even got a little jealous about it a few times—”

Keishin set his empty beer can down on the table. “The hell are you on about? I’m not datin’ your ex.”

Takinoue pressed on. “I think you should at least ask her out, maybe not spend Christmas alone for once. I tried to be subtle before but it wasn’t working, so why don’t you just try to let yourself be happy—”

“I told you, I’m not gonna date your—”

“How long are you just gonna let things slip away from you like this!” Takinoue snapped.

Keishin stared at him. Shimada froze awkwardly by the fridge, beers still in hand.

“Is it because of me?” Takinoue pressed on. “Yeah, we broke up, and yeah it was sad, but that doesn’t mean you should hold back your own happiness for my sake. I’m not that fuckin’ weak, man.”

“I’m not holdin’ back on anything,” Keishin said.

“I think you are. You always have been. You act like nobody can tell when you’re feeling off, but I noticed it when she and I were together and now I just—”

“I was workin’ three shifts every day! Of course I seemed off!”

Takinoue’s gaze flicked down to the table. He took a deep breath, and when he spoke again his voice was soft and steady. “Look, I care about both of you and I want some kind of good ending to this. She’s not interested in settling down any time soon, and neither are you, so why not at least give it a shot and see? I think you’d be better for her than I was.”

Keishin reached for his pack of cigarettes, just to hold the familiar shape. “I’m not gonna date Saeko. Or any other girl you drag in front of me.”

Takinoue let out a frustrated groan. “Well why the hell not?

Keishin tapped the pack of cigarettes on the table. He took a deep breath, then set them down.

“Because I’m gay.” His voice was quiet and even.

The room was silent save for Takinoue’s whispered, “What?”

There was a crash as Shimada stood up too fast, the task of getting beers suddenly shifting from politely taking too long to a hurried rush to get back to the table.

“I’m gay,” Keishin repeated, louder this time.

Takinoue stared at him. “But you’re…” his brow furrowed. “You’re kidding, right?” He let out a nervous laugh. “I mean, look, I’m sure we’ve all looked at a guy in the locker room and thought about it, but that doesn’t mean—”

“I’ve never done that,” Shimada interrupted him as he settled back into his seat.

Takinoue titled his head. “You… haven’t?”

“No!” Shimada’s expression soured. “Men are disgusting.”

“Speak for yourself!” Takinoue puffed out his chest in mock pride. Then his expression flickered, like he was setting some thought aside to process later. He turned back to Keishin. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” Keishin kept his head raised high. He wasn’t going to apologize for this. He wasn’t. “That’s how it’s always been. Doesn’t change nothin’, alright?”

“Yeah, okay. Um. Are you, like…” Takinoue fidgeted. “Ah, fuck… what’s the kind where you wanna be a girl and stuff?”

Keishin sighed. “No. That’s something different. There’s a lot more nuance to queer stuff than what you see on TV.”

“Oh.” Takinoue stared at the table. Shimada was next to him, looking uncomfortable.

“…Would ya have a problem if I was though? If I was trans?” Keishin asked.

“What? No. You can, you can do whatever you want. I’m not against any of it, I just didn’t know…” He trailed off.

Shimada visibly relaxed.

Takinoue continued, awkwardly feeling his way through the new territory. “I thought…” He ran a hand through his hair. “Shit, was that a really stupid thing to ask?”

“Yes, but it’s what you’re used to seeing,” Shimada answered.

Takinoue nodded, then squinted at him. “Wait a minute,” he said, “Did you know about this already?!”

“Yep, because I’m the Most Trustworthy Friend,” Shimada grinned at him.

Takinoue turned to Keishin, “What the fuck, man!”

“Don’t give me that. He happened to guess at it and I told him. You’re not that far apart in findin’ out.”

“It’s true,” Shimada said, “Which also means I’m the Most Observant Friend.”

“Jerk,” Takinoue elbowed him. Then he stilled, looking thoughtful. “Well… this explains a lot.”

Keishin swallowed.

Takinoue drummed his fingers on the table. “…And you don’t want me to introduce you to any girls?”

“Not really, no.”

Takinoue looked up at him. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“I… kept thinking it wouldn’t matter, or that it’d matter too much. I wasn’t about t’ lose one of my best friends if I could help it.” Keishin swallowed, realizing that was now a very real possibility.

“It’s a part of who you are, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “No changing it.”

“Then it matters,” Takinoue said, as if it were obvious. “Because you matter. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I’m really sorry if I ever… if I ever said anything dumb about this stuff. I’ll work on that. But you can always trust me to have your back, man.” He grinned. “We always said no matter what, right?”

Keishin felt himself choke up at that, at the memory of the three of them on the high school court, drenched in sweat at the start of their senior year. No matter where we go or what happens, we’re a team. No matter what. It was a moment that held that little high school gym in his mind for years after, the reason he’d hesitated to return and risk tarnishing the memory.

Shimada sniffed and wiped at his eyes.

Takinoue tapped his chin in thought. “You know... I think I have a cousin who’s gay,” he said. “He lives in Sendai, and I can ask if he’s single. I bet you’d get along, too!”

Keishin laughed, relief and exasperation cutting through the silence. “I don’t,” he muffled another laugh, “I don’t need you t’set me up with guys either.” He wiped his eyes. “But thanks.”

“What, you don’t trust my taste in guys either? I’m hurt!” Takinoue said, clutching his chest in mock-offense.

Keishin laughed again. “I’m good, really.”

Takinoue’s eyes lit up. “Wait, does this mean you already have a boyfriend? Who is it? Do I know—”

Keishin grew serious. “Yeah, I got a boyfriend, and he’s not out so you can quit your speculations right there.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Takinoue deflated. “That’s a big deal, isn’t it? Not being outed?”

“Yeah, it is,” Shimada said.

“It really is. I need this to stay with you two, got it? Really stay with you two. Let me decide who needs to know and who doesn’t. Go it?”

“Got it.” Takinoue squeezed his forearm. “You can count on me.”

“And me,” Shimada said.

Takinoue grinned and raised his beer. “To my best friends, and to Keishin’s happiness!”

And they cheered, and drank, and the night rolled on into their usual comforting shenanigans. There was a moment, when Takinoue squeezed both their shoulders, that Keishin realized that he had a new perfect memory, just as radiant as anything from that little high school gym. He laughed, and wondered how many more radiant memories lay ahead.

--

The sun had just vanished behind the horizon, casting the high school gym in a lingering orange light after practice. Keishin was about to leave for the night, but he paused at the door.

Shimizu was standing just outside the gym, shaking slightly in the December cold. She had something in her right hand, a little gift bag with a single ribbon tried around the handle.

Yachi came around the corner, her things gathered and ready to go home.

Shimizu stiffened when she saw her. “Hitoka-chan? Can… I talk to you?”

Yachi froze, a deer in the headlights. “Yes!” she blurted out.

Shimizu gave Keishin a worried glance. Keishin took it as his cue to leave.

He turned around and walked back into the gym, catching Takeda on his way.

“What are we…?” Takeda questioned as Keishin turned him around and towards the back of the gym.

“Shhh,” Keishin hushed. He nodded his head to the door, where they could just see Shimizu fidgeting with the gift bag. Keishin cleared his throat and said loudly “Sensei, we have to check all the equipment in the closet today, remember? It’ll take forever, so we should go get started on it now!”

“Oh! Uh, right! It’ll be a while!” Takeda said, loud enough to be heard from the outside.

They ducked into the supply closet and the door clicked behind them. Keishin sighed in relief, then realized his plan was not as well thought out as he’d imagined.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “The girls have been so skittish lately I didn’t wanna mess it up for ‘em. Didn’t really think about what we’d do from here.”

“No, no, this is fine.” Takeda said. “We… probably should do an equipment check, actually. It’ll help convince the school president to grant us more funds if there’s anything that needs replacing, and it’ll give those two plenty of time to talk if that’s what they need.” He pulled out a pen and opened his notebook to a blank page.

“Right.” Keishin pulled a few dig drill boards that he remembered were showing signs of wear. Considering their spartan training schedule lately, it was a wonder that they didn’t have more repairs to make.

Takeda sat on the floor and made notes. “I’ve been meaning to ask… how is your grandfather doing?” He jotted down a note that one of boards had a cracked handle.

“They adjusted his meds, but he’s been put on bed rest again. Dunno if he listens.” Keishin sighed.

“I know it’s been a stressful year,” Takeda said.

“Stressful, aggravating, and downright scary.” Keishin forced a laugh. “Kinda like the man himself. It’s complicated, like I’ve told you.” He pushed the ball cart back and forth slightly, checking that all the wheels were spinning. “I want him to be alright, for everything to just be okay between everyone. But I know better than t’ hold my breath for that last part.” He sighed. “I’m tryin’ to focus on what I can control and let the other stuff go. I’ll let you know when it starts working.”

“Well I’m here if you need anything, alright?”

Keishin gave him a sheepish grin. “Like doing an impromptu equipment check when I can’t think of a better excuse to hide in the closet?”

“Ha, exactly! I’m here for all your impromptu supply closet needs!” Takeda pumped his fist from his spot on the floor. “In all seriousness though… It’s sweet, the way you look out for Yachi and Shimizu.” He made a note about the frayed edge of a net.

“I just know how hard it can be out here,” Keishin said. “If giving ‘em a little space makes a difference, then that’s what I wanna do.”

Takeda hummed in agreement. They worked in silence while Keishin checked the air pumps for leaks.

“…Does it ever feel like fate to you?” Takeda asked after a while. “That we know each other, that we’re here now for those girls? I wonder sometimes, how hard things would be if I didn’t have you here with me.”

Keishin shook his head. It was a poetic thought, but it didn’t fit right. “You’d figure it out. If anyone could go to war for those kids, it’d be you. You’ve done it plenty already for the team.”

Takeda laughed self-consciously. “I just do what I think needs to be done.”

“That’s the magic of you.” Keishin brushed the dust off of a box of old cleaning supplies. “Maybe I think of it less as fate and more as choice,” he said, surprised at his own words. “We choose to look out for each other, for those kids. I didn’t used to think that way but… since I met you, I can see the choices I make every day, and it makes me want to choose better.”  

“Keishin….” Takeda’s expression grew impossibly soft.

There was a moment of silence and Keishin turned away a little, his cheeks hot.

“Keishin, do you want to spend Christmas Eve with me?” Takeda asked.

“Yeah!” Keishin said, perking up at the thought. “What are we doing for it? You wanna go somewhere?” Keishin looked in the box at the half-empty cleaning bottles. “We really should clean these out,” he muttered.

Takeda made a note about the box. “I want to make a meal for you. A good one.”

Keishin put the box back on the shelf. There wasn’t much else to do, so he sat down on the floor next to Takeda. Their shoulders pressed together, a comforting point of contact. “Yeah? Am I allowed to help with this one?”

Takeda tapped his chin with the pen. “Hm, I suppose I’ll allow it. Let me handle the cake, though.”

“Cake? You’re gonna spoil me,” Keishin teased.

Takeda leaned his head against Keishin’s shoulder. “That’s the idea. Do you like chocolate?”

“Sure,” Keishin said. He let his head rest against Takeda’s. They slipped into a comfortable silence, the supplies around them forming a little cove of safety.

“I came out to Takinoue yesterday,” Keishin said.

Takeda shifted slightly. “Oh? How did that go?”

Keishin nuzzled closer to him, unwilling to give up the comforting touch. “It was terrifying. But, we’re good. He knows I’m gay, he knows I have a boyfriend, and I told him not to ask who. He was so good about it. I’m just… so relieved.” He closed his eyes and sighed, taking in the scent of Takeda’s shampoo.

Takeda slid his hand over Keishin’s, entwining their fingers. “I’m glad. I’m sure that took courage.”

Guilt bubbled up in Keishin’s gut. “Yeah. But, it made me realize something. When you first told me that you’re bi… that must’ve been just as scary, maybe more. And I was such an ass about it…”

Takeda squeezed his hand. “It’s in the past.”

“Yeah, and I wanna make sure it stays there. It was all my own bullshit, but that’s no excuse for putting it on you. You deserved better than that, and… I’m sorry. I promise I’m gonna keep learning, without giving you that kind of trouble.”

“Mmn,” Takeda hummed. “I appreciate your acknowledgment of that. Apology accepted.” He stood up and stretched, his spine cracking as he did so. “Now, shall we get out of here?” He offered Keishin a hand up.

“What, closets aren’t where you like to hang out?” Keishin said as he took his hand.

Takeda laughed. “Not all the time, no.”

Keishin stood up, stretched, and they went out the door together.

 

Chapter Text

I’ve lived in the country long enough to know its many joys.
I was starting to feel like a child back in my old village again,

and suddenly, leaving the city today, I leave all that dust behind:
turning to mountains and valleys, I feel them enter my eyes.

-Wang An-shih

 

Takeda’s apartment was decorated for Christmas. Tinsel was set along the bookshelves, and LED candles glowed throughout the room. The table was set with a seasonal white paper tablecloth depicting what Keishin was pretty sure were supposed to be a herd of reindeer playing in a field. Candles were set between their nearly-empty plates. Towards the side of the table, a beautifully decorated cake waited for them to finish their meal.

Takeda set down his chopsticks and sighed happily. “That was delicious.”

The candlelight cast Takeda’s face in a warm glow. Keishin smiled. “Tonkatsu was your idea. I just brought the meat.”

“And made sure it was cooked well.” Takeda stood up and took their plates to the kitchen. He returned with clean ones. “Shall I cut the cake?”

“Yeah, it looks great.” The cake was decorated with little icing swirls and strawberry slices in a checkerboard pattern. “I bet you could have a second career as a baker, if y’wanted.”

“If professional bakers spent all afternoon on a simple set of decorations, maybe.” Takeda frowned as he cut into the cake. Keishin couldn’t see why. The cake seemed to be holding together well, and he had no trouble getting two picture-perfect slices onto their plates.

Keishin took a bite. It was pleasantly sweet, but as he chewed it became clear something was amiss. The cake was tough. Very tough. Almost… rubbery?

Takeda chewed for a long time, too. He set his fork down. “I… may have messed up the recipe.” He winced. “Does your piece feel like chewing on a tire?”

Keishin swallowed quickly. “No, no. It’s not that bad.” He took another bite and chewed “I uh, kinda like that jelly-like texture.”

Takeda frowned. “I wonder if the xanthan gum was a mistake…”

“You added xanthan gum? Why?” Keishin started chewing his way through a third bite.

“I heard it could make cakes sturdier and easy to decorate. I guess that’s true, but…” he sighed. “I may have overdone it. Either that or my rice cooker has betrayed me again…”

“Hey, the flavor’s still nice. And it looks great.”

“I suppose too much effort can be a bad thing.” Takeda poked at his slice with his fork. The cake certainly did seem to have a lot of bounce to it. Disappointment clouded Takeda’s features as he watched the cake wobble.

Keishin swallowed his bite and set the fork down. “It’s not the worst, but maybe we can make another cake together sometime? My parent’s place has a real oven, which might help. Plus, if it doesn’t turn out it’ll be at least half my fault.”

Takeda seem to perk up at the thought. “Ah, wouldn’t your parents mind, though?”

Keishin shrugged. “They’ve started talkin’ about going somewhere in February together. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll have the place to ourselves for Valentine’s Day.”

Takeda smiled, and the room seemed brighter. “I guess that answers my question about what you want to do for Valentine’s. That’ll be fun. I’m sorry it wasn’t better tonight though.”

Keishin shook his head. “It’s still good, and the next one will be even better. You really have spoiled me. Do you wanna open your present now?” Keishin nodded towards the wrapped packages on the side of the room.

“Yes! But, ah, would you mind opening my gift last? I’m feeling a bit embarrassed about it, and I don’t want to give you two disappointments in a row.”

“Don’t mind,” Keishin grabbed the gifts and brought them to the table. He set Takeda’s gift to him on the table. It felt like a book, and it was wrapped in crisp, shiny paper.

Keishin handed his somewhat misshapen gift to Takeda. The gift was wrapped as beautifully as he could manage it in red paper, with an unfortunately lopsided bow on the top. The store clerks probably could have wrapped it better if he’d asked, but he’d wanted to do it himself.

Takeda opened the gift, careful not to rip the paper.

It was a winter coat.

“I noticed before you didn’t really have a jacket warm enough for up here. It’s a newer version of mine. I think it’ll help keep you warm in the gym,” Keishin said.

Takeda stood up and tried it on. “It’s so light! But it’s definitely warmer than my other jackets. This is so thoughtful, thank you!”

Keishin smiled. It looked like he’d chosen the size pretty well, though the coat was perhaps cut for someone with broader shoulders. It was a practical and sporty design, with enough collar that a scarf was optional even in the colder months.

“And it has so many pockets!” Takeda said, patting the pockets of the coat. He paused at one, his expression shifting as he realized something was inside. Keishin tried to keep his face neutral as Takeda pulled out a folded slip of paper.

Keishin bit his lip. He’d agonized over the phrasing of the letter for days, and now that Takeda was actually reading it he felt the words flying away from him, given some life of their own by the act of being read. He swallowed down his nerves and watched Takeda’s eyes scan the page.

Take-chan,

I was going to write you a poem, but nothing ever sounds right. I just have to say it plain.

I am a different person because I fell in love with you.

The things you’ve done for the team, and this town, and for me are all incredible. You make the world a better place.

I want the world to be a better place for you. You deserve happiness, and as long as I can be a part of that happiness, whether by helping you with your work or by keeping you warm when the world gets cold, let me be here for you.

And if and when I can’t be there, maybe this coat will help.

-Keishin

Takeda stood there motionless, staring at the paper in his hands. After an agonizing silence he said, “Nobody’s ever written me a love letter before.”

“What, really?” Keishin startled. “That can’t be right. You’re the most poetic and romantic person I’ve ever met.”

“I mean, I’ve written them before, yes.” Takeda knelt down next to Keishin and set the letter on the table with reverence. “But no one’s ever…” He turned to Keishin, his eyes bright. “I want you and the coat.” He threw his arms around Keishin and nuzzled into him, the new fabric of his coat soft against Keishin’s cheek.

“You got it.” Keishin laughed and kissed him. “Does this mean I get t’ open my present now?”

Takeda nodded, then knelt back to give Keishin space. There was a little stiffness in his posture, like he was trying not to seem embarrassed.

Keishin tore open the paper wrapping on his gift. It was a small book, a well-worn paperback copy of Poetry and Thought: An anthology of contemporary Japanese poems. Keishin opened it and found it full of notes in Takeda’s handwriting.

Takeda ducked his head self-consciously. “Sorry about the rough appearance of it. Each poem in this anthology helped shape my transition from Tokyo to here, from a selfish kind of love to a more supportive one. The notes in blue ink I made in the moment, and the black ink are notes I added later, for you. You can think of it as a document of what brought me here, a catalogue of all my contradictions and flaws and evolutions. I… wanted to give all of that to you.”

Keishin flipped to a random page and traced the notes with his finger. The poem for this page was Mt Yokei by Shuntaro Tanikawa:

When I try to divide into lines words that keep on flowing like blood
    through my body
I can feel the words grow rigid
As if the words resented being touched by my mind

Opening the window, I can see the mountain I’ve been looking at for
   sixty years
The afternoon sun is falling on its ridgeline
As for the way to read its name
Whether I call it Takatsunagi-yama
Or Yokei-zan
The mountain doesn’t give a damn

But the words themselves seem ill at ease
That’s because I know nothing about the mountain
Never been enveloped in mists there, never bitten by a snake
Always just gazing at it

I’ve never hated words but
Neither have I loved them
There are words that make me shudder with embarrassment
And words that, transparent, make me forget they are words
And it can happen, too, that words carefully thought through
End in genocide

Our vanity powders over words
I want to see words’ faces as they are
Their archaic smiles

 

A note in blue was scrawled next to the lines “That’s because I know nothing about the mountain| Never been enveloped in mists there, never bitten by a snake | Always just gazing at it”:

Removed from experience, from life and hardships. Gazing and naming without living. Time to wander the mountain.

Further down a note in black, next to the lines “I want to see words’ faces as they are | Their archaic smiles”:

Can I tell you the words that capture what we have? Or is the thought that I could know them vanity? Are the bare faces of words a moment on the court, a meal set on the table, or the dark around a candle’s flame?

The words brushed against what Keishin wanted to know in a delightful tease. He would need time to understand it all. It was a precious gift.

“I’m gonna be looking at this one for a while. Thank you,” Keishin said.

Takeda laughed self-consciously. “It’s not too dull?”

“No, it’s very you.” Keishin set the book down and turned to Takeda, basking in the warm glow of his presence and the nuanced shadows cast by the little lights around the room. “I love it.”

--

The fluorescent lights of the shop seemed stark now that Keishin had taken down their modest Christmas decorations. It was the odd few days before they’d put their New Year’s decorations up, a visual break between the two holidays.

Keishin drummed his fingers on the counter. He’d been trying to cut back on smoking and it was torture. He just wanted to make it another ten minutes, at least, before he lit one.  He glanced at the clock.

Nine. Minutes.

Ota had given him advice on how to quit. Set a date when you quit for good, then start out by cutting back, even if it was just a little at first. Keishin had picked his birthday, April 5th, as the day he’d put the cigarettes down for good. Maybe he’d spend the rest of his 20s in smoke-free bliss.

Maybe.

He drummed his fingers on the counter. If only time would move a little faster.

The bell on the shop door rang as a few customers came in. Keishin shot a glare at his pack of cigarettes, then looked at the door.

Yachi and Shimizu stepped into the shop wearing matching mittens. Yachi was beaming, and she kept glancing up at Shimizu as they walked through the store.

Shimizu smiled back at her, then gave Keishin a self-conscious glance. He shrugged and grabbed a magazine off the counter, trying to project ‘It’s none of my business’ with every fiber of his being while hiding his smile. He put his feet on the counter for good measure.

In his periphery vision, Shimizu seemed to relax. The girls picked out some snacks, giggling to each other occasionally. Yachi got them some hot chocolate out of the machine Keishin had set up for the winter. When she went to the counter to pay (though Shimizu insisted on giving her money for it), Yachi raised her eyebrows at Keishin and bit her lip as if to say ‘Can you believe it?!’ 

Their matching mittens had little hearts sewn on the sides.

Shimizu and Yachi sat down at one of the store’s modest tables and chatted quietly about the team, about Yachi’s artwork and Shimizu’s studies. When Keishin stole a peek at them over the top of his magazine, they were looking sweetly into each other’s eyes and were so distracted by each other that they didn’t even notice him peek. Shimizu looked so unguarded with Yachi, and Keishin was reminded of the way he’d felt himself uncoil when he and Takeda had finally gotten together.

He smiled and hid behind his magazine again.

The girls finished their chocolate and headed out the door. As they walked out, Shimizu looked back at Keishin. She bowed her head slightly, as if in thanks.

Keishin gave in to a cigarette after the girls left. It helped soothe his cravings, but it wasn’t long before the feeling crept back. As the afternoon wore on, little things began to grate on his nerves. The chatter of customers and the buzz of the refrigerator fans seemed to ever increase in volume.

He was just about to give in again when the bell on the door rang and Tattsuan stepped in.

Tattsuan looked around the shop then walked up to the counter. “Hey Keishin, you got a minute? There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

Keishin had let his coaching take away from his time with the neighborhood team. “Yeah, sorry I’ve been missin’ so many practices. The kids have been working even harder lately.”

Tattsuan hesitated. “No, it’s not that. I just wanted to let you know that ah, I keep hearin’ things about you.”

Keishin raised his eyebrows. “Things,” he repeated.

Tattsuan sighed. “This is awkward. Some of Fumiko’s friends are wondering if there’s a reason you never seem interested in any of ‘em. They’ve started this thing that, that, uh. That you might be gay?”

Keishin wrinkled his nose and grabbed a cigarette. “Huh.”

Tattsuan laughed. “I know, I know. I just wanted to nip it in the bud. There was talk going around not long ago that you had a girlfriend, so I figured it might be that. If you like, I can set ‘em straight, so to speak. Just give me something to tell ‘em.”

Keishin lit the cigarette and puffed at it desperately. It felt good, but not good enough.

He weighed his options. People thinking he had a secret girlfriend somewhere would only draw more speculation. The gay thing was an obvious problem, but he felt like confirming or denying it would only fuel the fire. He wrinkled his nose and inhaled.

It’s not like it was anyone’s business.

He sighed, smoke curling in chaotic spirals in the air in front of him.

…it’s not like it was his shame.

Keishin watched the red-hot tip of the cigarette. “Dunno what to tell you. They know I’m coachin’ the high school team, right? Why don’t y’just talk about that. Do they think those kids are gonna get themselves to Nationals without help?”

Tattsuan chuckled. “There’s the Keishin I know.” His shoulders relaxed. “How’s the team doing?”

Keishin seized the change in topic. “They’ve been putting everything they have into it.” He grabbed a handful of postcards Yachi had made about the team. “Here, you can pass these around t’ see if anyone wants to chip in to our travel fund.”

“Gotcha. Turn the buzz to your advantage.” Tattsuan took the postcards, then grabbed a can of coffee and set a bill on the counter. “You’re a… you’re a smart guy,” he said.

Keishin gave him his change. The coins felt heavy as they left his hand. “I guess.”

“Hey. I mean it.” He gave Keishin a grin and a wave as he headed out the door. “See you next year, yeah?”

--

On New Year’s day, during a break from the celebrations with his family, Keishin led Takeda up a mountain path towards one of his favorite spots in the area.

It wasn’t a long hike, just a wandering little footpath to a forgotten shrine. They walked in silence sometimes broken by Takeda’s observations of the world around them.

“Look at the spaces between the branches there, it’s lovely,” Takeda said.

It was. Dark bare branches curved to frame the sky, holding a soft space of cloud.

Keishin thought about his fortunes for the New Year. A mix of good and bad, like he’d always tended to get. It was the first year he felt the urge to focus on the good more than the bad.

Still, Tattsuan’s words weighed heavy on his mind.

They reached the right spot, and Keishin led them just off of the path to a break in the trees. The spot overlooked the valley, and the afternoon sun kept it warm enough that Keishin could fight back his shiver.

The valley was beautiful even in winter, when the plants lay dormant and spots of snow clung to the shadows here and there. The town wound through the valley below, starting as a smattering of houses around the edges, getting denser closer to the train station, before fading into fields again. He had memories for each twist of road and field below.

It was home.

“It’s beautiful,” Takeda said, his breath fogging the air in front of him.

“Yeah.” Keishin sat down near the edge of the cliff, the cold from the ground already starting to creep through his coat. “….just wished it worked a bit different,” he sighed.

Takeda knelt down next to him. “What’s on your mind?”

Keishin rested his chin in his hand and sighed. “Looks like I’m the newest focus of the rumor mill. With luck, people’ll get distracted when we bring ‘em back good news from Nationals.”

“Nothing lucky about it,” Takeda said. “We’ve worked hard, and we’ll give ‘em hell.”

Keishin grinned, his heart rising at the thought of the upcoming tournament. “Damn straight.”

Takeda’s cellphone rang, buzzing out a little tune that Keishin didn’t recognize. He was surprised there was cell signal out here now.

Takeda glanced at the screen. “Sorry, I should take this.” He stood up and held the phone to his ear. “Hi, Mom!”

The voice on the other end of the line was indecipherable to Keishin from where he sat.

“Yes, I’m sorry, the volleyball team has kept me busy,” Takeda bowed slightly, even though his mother couldn’t see it. “No, I didn’t spend New Year’s alone. I spent it with some work friends. And uh,” he glanced at Keishin, “with my boyfriend.”

The volume on the other end of the line increased. Takeda’s face lit up into a huge smile. Keishin stared, amazed at the exchange. So far as he knew, Takeda had never mentioned him to his mother.

Takeda went on. “No, actually, he lives here in town.” Takeda’s face fell. “Well, yes, of course he does.  We met through my job. No, he’s not married!”

Keishin’s cigarettes were in his hands before he realized it. He admonished himself. Then he caught the strained expression on Takeda’s face as he listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. Without another thought, he lit one and stared down at the town below.

Takeda spoke quickly, as if interrupting a lecture, “He knows that better than I do, don’t worry. Yes, of course I have friends I can talk to.”

Keishin exhaled, the smoke blurring his view of the valley. In the far distance he could see the Sendai suburbs proper, seemingly an ocean away from here.

“Mom, it’s fine. Really.”

Keishin inhaled while Takeda listened. He spotted a new tower on the hill across from them. Maybe that’s why this spot had signal now.

“I know you worry about me. Well, yes… you weren’t wrong about how people can be here, but I’ve met a lot of good people too! I know that this is where I’m supposed to be. My students need me, and my boyfriend makes me happy, and so do my friends. I’m going to be alright. I promise.”

Keishin’s stomach fluttered at that. Takeda paced back and forth, his expression shifting from defensive worry to a sad smile. “I know. I miss everyone there, too. Come cheer for us at the tournament if you can. Alright. Yes. Talk to you soon. Bye.”

Takeda lowered the phone away from his ear and let out a frustrated huff.

“Everything alright?” Keishin asked.

Takeda plopped himself down on the ground next to Keishin. “She’s never acted like that before, not about someone I’ve dated. She doesn’t even know you!”

Keishin set the cigarette against his lips, then hesitated. He pulled it away without inhaling. “I mean… you gotta admit that I don’t really look that great on paper. You’re livin’ in a backwoods town far from family and old friends, and you’re basically datin’ a guy from work who’s got nothin’ to his name but a few part time jobs. Not exactly a situation a mother would pick for her kid.”

“You’re selling yourself short.” Takeda sighed. “It was like this when I first moved here, too. I know she worries. I guess I just took it for granted that she’d be happy I’d found someone.”

Keishin gave into one more puff, then snuffed out what was left of his cigarette. “We can take our time with it. She might come around when she realizes I’m not a scumbag out to use a guy in a vulnerable spot.”

Takeda leaned into Keishin’s shoulder, his face buried in the collar of his coat. “You’re right. It’s just frustrating. I want everyone to know how great you are.”

Keishin’s face flushed. He wanted to argue, then thought better of it. Instead, he wrapped an arm around Takeda’s shoulder as they watched the clouds go by over the hills.

 

--

“How did you know?”

The TV had shifted to a commercial break. Keishin and Takinoue were watching a rerun of a monster show while their hair bleach processed. Takinoue’s family had gone out for errands and they had the place to themselves.

Keishin glanced at Takinoue. “How’d I know what?”

Takinoue picked at the label on his soda, his eyes fixed on the screen. “That uh, that you were gay.”

Keishin had wondered when this would come up again. “Dunno, I guess I didn’t realize something was up until I noticed most folks didn’t feel that way.” Keishin paused, and when Takinoue didn’t move to fill the silence he went on. “…There was this kid I liked in preschool, I think he went by Ko-chan. Anyway, one day he started telling me stuff about how some boys liked boys and that… it was a bad thing to do. A bad way to be.”

“A preschool crush, huh…” Takinoue slowly worked the corner of the label off with his thumb.

“Yeah. It was just puppy love, but I figured out pretty quick t’keep that stuff to myself. I kept hopin’ one day I’d look at the right girl and feel something, but it never happened. Eventually I stopped waiting for it to happen. That was… I dunno, early college maybe? That was when I knew this was just how it was gonna be. This is how I am.” Keishin was surprised he was able to tell this story without a lump forming in his throat. It didn’t feel like he was explaining a failure anymore. At least not to Takinoue.

“I keep reading that most people seem to know pretty early on, yeah…” Takinoue trailed off, pausing to peel a piece of the label off of the glass. It came off partway, first leaving a sticky residue then ripping into a thin white layer.

Keishin eyed the bottle. “Why d’you ask?”

Takinoue glanced at his phone, checking the time before they needed to rinse out the bleach. “That thing Shimada said got me thinking, I guess. I dunno, I just thought everyone looked at hot people and was like… yeah. Nice.” He let out a short laugh, then bit his lip. “I dunno. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. But maybe I just wish I was that way, you know?”

Keishin raised his eyebrows. “You… wish you were gay? Or bi? Or…?”

“Bi, I guess.” Takinoue pushed at the sticky residue from the label with his thumb, trailing the glue across the glass and rolling it into little pieces that stuck to his fingers. “But ah, I realize it’s a bit late for revelations like that now. I just wish I was.” He glanced at his phone again.  “I dunno, it’s fucked up. Don’t worry about it.” He stood up and walked towards the bathroom.

Keishin stared at him, then followed him to the bathroom. Takinoue started running the water. His face was serious, a little wrinkle between his eyebrows as he concentrated on getting the water temperature just right.

Following their routine, Keishin sat down and leaned his head back over the drain. Takinoue rinsed his hair, and Keishin relished in the relief of having the bleach off his scalp.

When Takinoue was finished, Keishin sat up and toweled his hair, then squinted at Takinoue. “So, lemme see if I got this right. You’re saying that sometimes y’look at a cute guy and think ‘man, I wish I wasn’t straight’”

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.” Takinoue leaned back for his rinse.

Keishin wasn’t laughing. He guarded Takinoue’s brow with his hand and rinsed the bleach out of his hair. The color had taken well, and his roots blended smoothly with the rest of his hair. Keishin hummed thoughtfully then said, “You know, if you’re catchin’ yourself wishing you were queer, then maybe you are. It’s not like there’s an age limit to realizin’ things about yourself.”

Takinoue looked away. “I… don’t wanna be a faker. Everything I read seems like people know since forever, and that’s not me.” He buried his face in a towel. He kept talking, his voice muffled and barely comprehensible through the cloth. “Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m still heartbroken.”

Keishin sat down next to him. “We all tend t’ make things sound pretty obvious in hindsight, myself included. Doesn’t mean it felt clear and easy at the time.” He nudged Takinoue with his shoulder. “Besides, who gives a shit if y’ try it out for a while and decide it’s not for you? Better to fake bein’ queer for a bit than fake bein’ straight for a lifetime.”

Takinoue pulled his face out of the towel and looked at Keishin. His hair was a mess, damp and pointing every which way from being rubbed down with the towel. The monster show was still playing in the other room. Keishin titled his head at him, wondering what his stare meant.

Takinoue buried his face in the towel again. “Damnit, Keishin.”

“What?” Keishin blinked at him.

“Nothing. Come on, let’s go finish that episode.” Takinoue threw his towel over his shoulder and headed back into the other room. Keishin followed, and they spent the next hour watching scientists try to stop a giant rose/human hybrid from taking over the city.

 

---

Keishin rested his head against the window of the bullet train. The landscape rushed past, his eye barely able to process the trees and buildings as they went by.

The kids had lost at Nationals.

He closed his eyes. The events of the tournament were a hurried blur, punctuated by a few crisp moments of triumph and defeat. Particular plays by his students. The arc of a few perfect serves. The whistle blast that ended each game. Naoi’s and Nekomata’s faces when Nekoma lost.

Keishin smiled.

That match had been everything he could have hoped for. The Battle of the Trash Heap, bolstered by Takeda’s stories and the kids’ own friendly rivalries, had culminated in a match that shook the stadium’s expectations.

Nekomata had looked at Keishin differently after that. He’d given him a brief nod—uncannily similar to the way Keishin’s grandad did when he was in front of someone he thought well of. “Your team fought well.”  He looked Keishin over, almost as though seeing him for the first time. “Good luck in the tournament.” He grinned. “And don’t forget that we’ll be ready to rip you all to shreds next time.”

Keishin shook his hand. “You’re welcome to try.”

“Ha!” Nekomata huffed. Then his face fell somber. “Tell that grandfather of yours to look after his heart,” he said. “I’ve been to enough funerals lately.”

And with that, they’d moved on to the rest of the tournament.

It seemed like such a small moment after everything the team had gone though. They’d faced off with the country’s best players and best coaches. Their eventual defeat had been bitter, leaving the kids fallen and exhausted on the court, full of frustration that they had come so close only to have it end a few matches from the final.

But defeat was useful. The people they’d encountered would inspire them all to hone their skills even more for the next round. There was something sweet in the knowledge that there was a way to make yourself better.

Takeda stirred next to him. He was getting a much-needed nap. He hadn’t slept much since they’d gotten back from the tournament, and Keishin almost felt guilty for throwing him on a bullet train the day after they’d returned from Tokyo.

Takeda sat up and stretched.

“Sleep well?” Keishin asked.

“I did. We’re close, aren’t we? I can’t wait to see Itsuki,” Takeda said.

Keishin let out a short laugh. “You figured out what your birthday surprise is, huh?”

“There aren’t too many reasons you’d give me a specific packing list and then take us on a train to Tokyo.” Takeda smiled and pressed his knee against Keishin’s. “It’s the perfect present.”

-

Nakano was waiting for them as they stepped out of the train station. He was dressed in fashionable slacks and a blazer with a bright pink flamingo pin on the lapel. Behind him stood a broader man in dark jeans and a deep purple button-up.

“It’s my two favorite sports nerds!!” Nakano ran over and pulled them both into a hug. He pulled back and beamed at Takeda. “Happy birthday! How was the ride here?”

“It was fine. It’s good to see you again, Itsuki-chan.” Takeda looked to the man who was standing near Nakano. “Ah, I don’t think we’ve met…”

“That’s right! This is my boyfriend, Maeda.” Nakano beamed.

“Maeda Yuuto. I’ve heard a lot about both of you.” He bowed. There was a streak of grey in his short-cropped hair.

“Takeda Ittetsu,” Takeda matched his bow.

“Ukai Keishin. Thanks for picking us up here.” Keishin looked around the station. The streets were busy, but it seemed quiet without the kids around.

Nakano started walking them away from the station. “Come on, let’s get your things to Maeda’s car. Arai-san and the others are waiting for us at Niko’s Pub.”

Takeda’s eyes widened. “Arai-san’s here?”

“Of course, everyone came out to see you! We’ve all missed you.” Nakano squeezed his hand. “Welcome back, Take-chan.”

Takeda’s face softened into a smile. Keishin’s chest warmed.

They followed Nakano and Maeda to their car, then loaded up to head to the restaurant.

City driving was awful during the best of times, but Maeda drove like an old cabbie. Nakano and Takeda didn’t seem bothered, laughing over the radio while Maeda wove through traffic with sharp turns and sudden starts and stops.

By the time they arrived, Keishin was rattled all to hell and desperate for a smoke. He had left his cigarettes in his bag in an attempt to stave off the cravings. Between the car ride and his nerves about meeting Takeda’s old friends, it was clear that had been a mistake. He bit at his tongue and focused on keeping his breath steady as they walked the block and a half to the restaurant.

Nakano shared every detail Takeda had missed as they walked. “So, remember how we always used to cram around a few tables at Niko’s? Well they took over the second floor of their building so there’s more spots now, even private rooms! I made Sano go and save a room for us ahead of time so we’ll have space for everyone. They have this new mixed drink I think you’ll like too, Take-chan!”

Takeda beamed brighter, “That’s fantastic! I’m glad to hear they’re doing so well.”

Keishin stared longingly at a woman smoking a cigarette.

“Here.” Maeda tapped on his shoulder. He offered Keishin a pack of nicotine gum. “Itsuki mentioned you’re trying to quit. Me too. These’ll help if you’re having a craving.”

Keishin took a piece of gum out the pack. “Thanks. I uh, might’ve gotten a little optimistic about my nerves here.”

Maeda smiled. “Don’t worry. They can be loud, but they’re a friendly bunch.”

The izakaya was small and packed with people, overflowing out onto the street even in the cold weather. They pushed through the crowd and up a set of stairs in the back.

An older man in a cowl-neck sweater waved them over towards a private room. His hair was silver with speckles of black here and there, and he looked relieved to see them. As soon as they were close he pulled Takeda into a big hug. “It’s been too long, Take-chan.”

“Arai-san…” Takeda’s voice wavered. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Arai pulled back and looked at Keishin. “This your knight, Itsuki?”

“Uh….” Keishin looked behind him.

Nakano shoved Keishin forward. “That’s right! This is the guy we have to thank for bringing Take-chan back to us.”

“I’m not—it’s nothing,” Keishin blurted out. He bowed to Arai. “Ukai Keishin. Nice to meet you.”

“And he’s so polite, too!” Arai returned his bow. “Arai Masao. Come, sit! Almost everyone’s here already.”

The room was just big enough to be cozy instead of claustrophobic. Nakano introduced him to everyone at the table. Keishin did his best to put the names to memory: there was Hara with the long hair, Reo and Ichika who were holding hands at the table and had matching bracelets, and then there was Sano with the pink sweater.

Arai waved Takeda and Keishin to a pair of empty seats next to him. As Keishin was about to sit down, the door slid open.

“Sorry I’m late!” A woman with a pixie cut and a leather jacket stepped through the door. “Traffic was a damn mess.”

Takeda stared at her. “Yu— ah, Kobayashi..?”

The woman nodded sharply, almost as if to shake herself. “Takeda-san.” She turned away from him and cleared her throat, as if the rest of the room had just appeared. Her eyes fell on Keishin. She blinked at him, then burst into laughter.

Keishin stared at her. “Uh…..”

“Sorry, sorry!” She wiped her eyes and shook her head at Takeda. “It’s just. Take-chan… you’re so predictable.” Then, the tension from earlier apparently shattered, she turned back to Keishin and offered an apologetic smile. “I’m Kobayashi Yuki. Pleased to meet you.”

“Ukai Keishin. Pleasure’s mine.”

The conversation flowed smoothly after that. Keishin got to know more about Takeda’s old friends at the table. Sano was an intern at a local accounting firm who had started drag just before Takeda left town (Nakano bragged about how Sano’s makeup skills had improved under his tutelage). Reo and Ichika were old friends who had taken a decade before realizing their crush on each other was mutual. Hara had recently changed their pronouns, and Takeda commented that he’d never seen them happier. Arai had taken Takeda under his wing when he first started drag, and had introduced him to many of the friends there at the table.

After the first round of drinks, Arai turned his full attention to Keishin. His demeanor reminded Keishin of a concerned parent. “So, how did you two meet?”

Takeda answered for them with a self-deprecating smile. “I was put in charge of my school’s volleyball team after a co-worker retired. And since I didn’t know a thing about the sport, I was desperate for an assistant coach, so I asked an alumni of the team to help. That was Keishin.”

Hara’s eyes sparkled. “Desperate, huh? If I know you, that means you practically broke down his door asking.”

Keishin snorted at that. “Basically, yeah. He kept stoppin’ by the shop, callin’ every day...”

Arai tilted his head. “And why did you refuse?”

Keishin faltered. “I… didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “My grandad’s a coach and everyone wants me t’ follow in his footsteps. But that’s not…” he shook his head and smiled at Takeda. “This guy showed me I could do things in my own way.”

“Keishin‘s helped me too,” Takeda said. He squeezed Keishin’s hand under the table, and Keishin felt his chest fill with warmth. “He brought me back to myself.”

Kobayashi cleared her throat. “You certainly wandered far. How’re things in Miyagi? You wound up in some little town, right?” she asked.

Takeda nodded. “It’s been hard sometimes, but I’m happy with the way things have come together. I miss the community here, and it was lonely at first, but it’s all perspective that’s allowed me to grow.”

Nakano smiled softly at Takeda, a little sorrow at the edge of his expression. Keishin could see dark circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t been sleeping well lately.

“You’re near Sendai. How’s the queer community there?” Arai asked.

Takeda said, “I wouldn’t know. I really needed to focus on work for the first year or so.”

“Oh!” Nakano’s eyes widened. “That’s… quite the dry spell.”

Reo snorted. “Speak for yourself.”

Ichika nudged Reo. “But this is Take-chan we’re talking about!”

Takeda flushed slightly. “It wasn’t—! Well. Yes. But, I think I needed the space.” He took another gulp of his drink, then grinned. “Besides, I just got more familiar with some erotica… and YHard’s selfie forums.”

The room erupted in laughter. Keishin struggled not to spit out his drink.

Nakano snickered behind his hand. “There’s the Take-chan we know.”

“Speaking of the Take-chan we know… We’re all going to Chiyoko’s later, right? Are you four gonna dress up? Will we get to relive one of Take-chan’s infamous performances?” Hara asked.

Takeda’s face fell. “I brought some makeup, but….”

Nakano cut in. “I’ve got this covered. You can borrow some of my clothes, just like old times. I’ve also still got the notes from our Hot Girls routine if you wanna perform.”

Takeda’s smile returned. “Do you still have that blue dress?”

“Sure do!” Nakano grinned.

Hara turned to Keishin. “What about you? Do you do drag, or...?”

Keishin shrugged. “Not really. I like some of the makeup. Sensei knows how to do my eyes so they look nice. But beyond that, it’s not really for me. What about you?”

Every one of Takeda’s friends had a different answer. Hara loved to wear dresses, but it was for comfort, not performance. Reo loved ruffles and gothic gowns and the transformation from her everyday self that could come with drag. Ichika was a makeup artist and a photographer, but not a performer herself. Sano loved the artistry and the excuse to be loud when he was performing.  Kobayashi said she found herself through drag, but it didn’t feel right anymore. Nakano loved that drag was unapologetic in it’s femininity and pushing of boundaries. Arai had found queer community through drag decades ago and loved it as a space to explore ideas safely and joyfully. Maeda loved drag but did it only once in a while, declaring himself too tired to do it tonight. Arai teased him that if an old man like himself could find the energy, so could he.

After dinner they parted ways to get ready for the rest of the evening. Keishin and Takeda went with Nakano and Maeda back to their place to get changed for the club.

Nakano and Maeda’s apartment was large by Tokyo standards, but it began to feel smaller and smaller as Nakano filled the living room with dresses, wigs, and boxes of shoes. Takeda was mostly naked as he tried on various things. He stepped into a sparkling blue dress. He frowned as he reached around for the zipper. “Itsuki… I don’t think I can fit into this anymore.”

Nakano had just come into the room with a handful of foam padding. He blinked at Takeda, then his face lit up with delight. “I’ll get my bigger ass!” he chirped as he turned on his heel to go back into the other room. “Try that purple one!” he shouted over his shoulder.

Takeda sighed and grabbed another dress. Keishin shifted, unsure of how to help.

Maeda stood up from his spot on the couch and addressed Keishin. “You should be thankful that I’m not dressing up tonight. I take even longer.” He stretched. “Care to join me on the balcony? It’ll be chilly, but you can smoke there, if you need it.”

Keishin had been unconsciously reaching for his cigarettes all evening, and he caught himself with his hand halfway into his pocket. He nodded and followed Maeda out onto the balcony. There were two plastic chairs out there, some pots that presumably had flowers in them during the summer, and a tin can that served as a makeshift ashtray. Maeda sat down and sighed in the fresh air.

Keishin lit his cigarette and inhaled slowly, savoring the relative quiet outside.

“I’m glad you two could come out here,” Maeda said. “Itsuki needed it.”

Keishin remembered the fatigue in Nakano’s eyes at dinner, and the way his messages had become less frequent over the last few weeks. “Thanks for having us. …Is everything alright?”

“Could be better.” Maeda took out a piece of gum. “He lost his job a few weeks ago. He got fired for stirring up too much of a fuss. You know how he is.”

Shit,” Keishin winced. Of course Nakano had kept this from him, especially before Nationals. “Are you two going to be alright? How’s he holding up?”

“He’s taking it hard. He cares a lot, and that’s one of the things I love about him. But it’s rough, when the things you value most are what get you ousted.” Maeda sighed. “We’ll be alright financially, he just needs to get a little bit of that fire and confidence back.”

Keishin turned his head, careful to keep his exhales away from Maeda. “Anythin’ I can do?”

Maeda smiled. “You’re already here. Good company does a lot for the spirit. Hope it does you some good, too.”

“…It’s nice to feel less guarded when we’re in public,” Keishin admitted, cheeks heating when he remembered Takeda’s gentle hand on his at dinner.

“I know that feeling,” Maeda leaned back in his chair. He was heavily built, with muscular arms and a round belly. A few laugh lines and worry lines marked his face. The light caught the streak of silver near his temple.

Keishin felt something in himself shift. He realized he’d never really talked with a queer person with grey hair before that night. He felt his image of his own future open up, a tiny vision of himself in a little apartment in the city, living with the man he loved while his hair turned white.

“Are you out to your family?” Keishin blurted out.

Maeda’s eyes widened. “It’s… not really something we talk about,” he said. “My parent’s health isn’t doing so well these days, and I don’t wanna worry them, or burden my brothers with it until they’ve passed.”

“…Oh.” Keishin frowned.

“Ah, but Itsuki’s out to his family!” Maeda offered, realizing the shift in Keishin’s demeanor. “It was a big fuss at first, and a few relatives still won’t speak with him. But most folks came around after a few years. I’ve met his father, and I even think he likes me, if you can believe it. You thinking about telling your folks?”

“Dunno.” Keishin puffed at his cigarette. “I want…” he sighed. “I want everyone to know and it all to be fine. Nobody asks me about marriage or kids again. Nobody makes a thing of it. Fat chance that’ll happen.”

“Out there? Probably not,” Maeda said. “But… sometimes just one or two people’s acceptance can make a big difference. If you could pick anyone, who would it be?”

“A couple of friends already know. I think… I think my ma’d really like Takeda, if she could accept it.” Keishin longed for his da’s approval, too. An image flashed in his mind of his da smiling at him, full of pride. He shook himself and bit his lip. It hurt to think about it.

“Now, I grew up in a little town just outside Nagoya, so I get that rural life can make it harder than it is already. Especially if you’re in a family business.” Maeda turned to him. “But listen. You ever find yourself in trouble, come find us. I’m a manager at a construction company and we always have work for guys like you.”

“Maybe. I don’t think I look that great on paper…” Keishin had always assumed that having his only resume items be family businesses would mean he’d be sunk if he ever got kicked out.

“It’ll be alright. Even if you’ve got an arrest record, we can work it out. Maybe you’d fit right in!” Maeda grinned. “The point being, you’ve got people. You don’t need everyone’s understanding and approval in order to survive. It’s just a question of what’s worth it to you, what your heart and your pride need to thrive. There’s plenty of ways to be.”

“Mmm.” Keishin looked at the city lights below, a thousand shimmering points and possibilities. “Thanks for talkin’ to me about it.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s always good to share the little bits we learn. I bet you’ll do the same for me someday.” Maeda stood up and stretched. “Shall we see if they’re ready to head out?”

--

Nakano’s heels clacked on the pavement as they made their way from the parking garage to the bar.

“So uh, how should I refer to you two when you’re dressed up?” Keishin asked.

 Nakano tossed the pale tresses of his wig. “I don’t care what you call me, as long as you call me gorgeous!”

“I like to be referred to as feminine when I’m dressed in a feminine way,” Takeda said. Takeda’s purple dress emphasized the curves Takeda and Nakano had worked to create. Between that and the long wig and brilliant eye makeup, Takeda was a work of art. She smiled at Keishin with perfectly painted lips.

“Well, you’re beautiful,” Keishin said. “What should I expect tonight?”

“Chiyoko’s is a performance bar. Performers the owner approves of go on stage and sing or do a comedy act. These two will be performing kind of early, as a warm-up performance. Then we watch others, chat, and drink until they close. Or, more likely, until we’re too tired to stay any longer,” Maeda said.

The bar had an unassuming entrance, with a simple neon sign in the shape of a microphone. The inside was surprisingly large, with a dozen standing tables along the edges of small dance floor in front of the stage. People were gathered at the bar, talking over the thump of the music. Sparkling lights and antique mirrors decorated the walls, casting everything in a soft shining glow. Then the atmosphere shifted and people moved to gather around the stage, the lights of the walls diming as the stage lights brightened.

A pair of drag performers started the night with a comedy act. It was full of pop culture references that mostly went over Keishin’s head and innuendos that made him laugh. His disconnect from popular shows and movies aside, the bare-faced openness about sexuality was a stark and refreshing contrast to his daily life.

As the first act wrapped up, Takeda squeezed Keishin’s hand.

“Nervous?” Keishin asked.

“Of course. That’s part of the thrill,” Takeda said. Her eyes were focused on the stage. The comediennes finished their act, and Takeda and Nakano took their turn.

They did a dance routine to Hot Girls by Namie Amuro. It was a routine they used to do regularly and their synchronized movements flowed smoothly… until one of them went left when the other went right. Nakano crashed into Takeda and fell. Takeda caught him and, grinning, they moved into an improvised pair dance before separating and going back to the routine. Keishin smiled as he watched them, old friends finding step with one another again. It was a wonderful thing to see some of the people and places that made Takeda who he is.

The owner of the bar and Maeda greeted Takeda and Nakano as they stepped off the stage. While they chatted, Keishin held back and took in the scene. Details stood out to him, like the pack of cigarettes sticking out of the owner’s back pocket, the same brand Keishin liked. The ring on Maeda’s right hand. Nakano’s hoop earrings. Takeda’s unfamiliar figure, the artistry and unapologetic expression in her outfit. The Takeda who Keishin knew and loved was still there, in the thoughtful tilt to her head as she listened, in her bright focus and charming smile.

Keishin turned his attention to the crowd: small groups talking and laughing, couples holding hands, and a few loners here and there. People were looking at Keishin, looking at the way he looked at Takeda. A wonderful feeling of being both known and unknown enveloped him, of being so visibly queer yet blending into the crowd. A stranger gave him a hungry look as he passed by, and Keishin couldn’t stop himself from grinning.

“Enjoying the attention?” Takeda pressed into his arm, pulling Keishin back from his thoughts.

“I missed the feeling of being in a place like this,” Keishin said. He set an arm around Takeda’s waist. “Being so open.”

“Well, if you see anyone you like...” Takeda hesitated. She leaned into his touch but her eyes fell away from him, her voice losing some of her character’s bravado. “I know we’ve never talked about monogamy.”

Keishin startled. “I thought we had? Kinda?”

Takeda frowned. “I just don’t want to keep you from enjoying yourself. I know this is a rare thing for you.”

“What’s rare is gettin’ to meet your friends. Seein’ all this.” Keishin pulled her closer. “Gettin’ you to a place y’can be as loud as you want later.”

Takeda smiled. “Is that so?”

Arai was performing now, singing a slow, swinging love song Keishin recognized but couldn’t place.

“Mmmhm,” Keishin hummed. “Where’s all this coming from all of a sudden? You alright?”

“I’m alright. I just… took having you all to myself for granted. Seeing you like this, I’m reminded that I’m lucky you chose me, that you brought me here. That you’re you. Part of me wants to be selfish. But more than that, I want you to have everything you could possibly desire.”

“I wanna be yours. And I want everyone to know it,” Keishin said, the words out before he could second guess them.

Arai’s voice echoed through the bar, deep and melodious. “If I hadn’t met you, what would I do now? Would I then love somebody in an ordinary way and live an ordinary life? I give myself to the flow of time, paint myself your color…”

Takeda reached into the little handbag Nakano had lent her. She pulled out a lipstick, applied a fresh layer on her lips and, tall enough in her heels she didn’t even have to reach, she planted a kiss on Keishin’s cheek. “There. Now they’ll know.”

Keishin flushed. Applause echoed through the bar as Arai finished his performance.

Dance music blasted through the speakers for a break for the performers. Keishin and Takeda went back to mingling with Takeda’s friends, everyone shouting stories and jokes over the music. Keishin laughed along for a while, then found himself itching for a cigarette and a break from the noise. He slipped away from the group and out the back door.

He wasn’t the only one who’d had that idea. People mingled around the doorway, talking too loud even though the music was a dull thump from the outside. Keishin sought solace around one corner, only to interrupt a couple kissing. Flustered, he apologized and shuffled around the corner on the other side of the doorway. It wasn’t the coziest spot, a little too close to the urine stains on the alleyway wall. Still, he was out of the way and it was a welcome break alone.

He lit a cigarette and savored the familiar ritual and click of the lighter. He couldn’t see the door, but he could hear people talking around the corner, the sound of the music inside increasing in volume each time the door was opened, then muffled again when it closed. After a few puffs on his cigarette it settled into a kind of rhythm, the fuzzy background noise of the city. 

Takeda’s voice caught his ear.

“Oh, uh… Kobayashi-san,” Takeda said. “Have you seen Keishin?”

“Didja lose him already?” Kobayashi’s voice was teasing. “I haven’t, but I just stepped out for a smoke.”

“Ah.” Takeda said.

Keishin puffed at his cigarette then took a step towards the corner to say hi.

Kobayashi cleared her throat. “He seems sweet.”

“Keishin? He is, yeah…”

Keishin froze, still out of sight around the corner.

Kobayashi laughed, then sighed. “Geeze, it’s such a relief. I was worried sick.”

“I… about me?”

Yes, about you! I didn’t think you’d just run off to the middle of nowhere and stop talking to us all for two years! Anything could’ve happened!” Her voice quieted. “It hurt.”

Keishin glanced down the alleyway. It was urine stained and fenced off partway through. He shifted awkwardly on his feet and wondered if he should cover his ears.

 “I’m sorry,” Takeda said reflexively, then after a pause said, “What you said to me after I asked you to move to Karasuno with me—”

“You didn’t ask,” she corrected.

“...no, I didn’t.  It was selfish of me to assume what you wanted. You deserve someone who builds a future with you, not for you. I’ve… taken a lot of time to think about how I could do better. I want to become someone who genuinely looks after the people around him, goes beyond words and grand gestures. If I’m honest, I think I was afraid that if I tried reaching out to any of you again, I’d slip right back into who I was before. I was ashamed.”

There was a pause. Keishin could hear Kobayashi drum her fingers on the doorframe. “…So, you were too busy trying to become a person who considers others’ feelings to consider the feelings of your old friends, huh?”

Takeda laughed softly. “Well, when you put it like that… I still have a lot to learn.”

“But you’re learning. We both are.” She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, too. I was angry that you were going somewhere I didn’t think I could survive. I still don’t think I could do it, if I’m honest.” She took a deep breath. “So, I chose to stay here and get the most out of it. Make new friends, see new people, push my work into new venues. It’s been good. Really good.”

“I’m glad. You deserve it.”

“You deserve whatever happiness you find too, you know.” She hummed, her voice brighter the next time she spoke. “Whatever we need to do to survive, that’s what we all should do. As long as we’re still breathing, we can keep learning and growing. Finding happiness. Making out with country yakuza dudes. You know. The works.”

“Yuki!” Takeda yelped.

“What?” she laughed. “You have a type! Remember what I looked like when we first met? Come on, let’s go back inside. Your date’s probably wondering where you went.”

The music blasted, then turned to a soft thump as the door swung shut. Keishin contemplated how long he should wait before following them in. He took his time with the last few puffs of his cigarette and took another glance at the shimmering lights of the street before heading back inside.

The small bar was getting more packed now, but Keishin found Takeda at the edge of the crowd.

“Keishin, there you are!” Takeda said.

“Sorry, I stepped out for a smoke and got lost in the crowd,” Keishin said.

“Just happy I found you. Shall we go find the others?” Takeda took his hand and led him through the crowd.

They found Maeda and Nakano sitting at a little table in the corner. They appeared to be bickering, and a few empty drinks sat in front of them. Nakano’s arms were crossed, the melancholy on his face barely hidden by a proud pout.

As they got close enough to hear, Nakano blinked quickly and redoubled his efforts at a pout. “A likely story,” he said to Maeda.

“I’m just saying that you do a lot of good just being you,” Maeda said. “And the thing about you, dear, is that you love to try to change things for the better.”

Nakano shook his head. “If by that you mean I don’t know when to shut up and mind my own business, sure.” He wrinkled his nose and took a sip of his drink. It looked like it was mostly ice at this point.

“That’s right, you’re a goddamn busybody and I love it!” He gestured to Keishin and Takeda. “These two wouldn’t even be together if it weren’t for you, you meddling banana,” Maeda teased and wrapped an arm around Nakano.

Nakano huffed. “You’re never gonna see my banana again if you keep this up.”

“Like you could resist my ass,” Maeda deadpanned. “My bubble butt. Or as you call it, my luscious—"

Nakano’s face flushed bright red. He shoved Maeda’s arm. “Yuuto! You’re— you’re going to embarrass Keishin!”

Maeda laughed, a warm chuckle that melted into a gentle smile. “Sorry, Love.” He put his hand over Nakano’s. “I’m just proud of who you are.”

Nakano looked away, a small smile betraying his attempt to keep pouting. Then he bit his lip and turned to Takeda. “Ah, you two have it from here, right? Old men like us need to be heading to bed soon.”

Takeda squeezed Keishin’s arm. “I’ll take care of Keishin from here. Mind if we grab our things out of your car before you go?

They said their goodbyes and grabbed their bags from the car. Keishin had picked out a place for them to stay nearby. It was a love hotel with a wild west theme and was a well-known destination for queer hookups around the neighborhood. Keishin had been there himself a few times, but it felt different walking in with Takeda instead of a man he’d just met.

Takeda was limping by the time they stepped into the hotel. Keishin watched with concern. “Your feet okay in those shoes?”

“I think I’ll be alright. It’s just been a while since I’ve worn heels, and these are a little big on me, so they’ve been rubbing more. We’re almost there!”

The shoes were the first thing to go once they got into their room. Takeda kicked them off and sighed happily as she flexed her toes.

Keishin had splurged on one of the nicer rooms. It was partially lit with strings of soft lights that circled the ceiling above the bed. The western theme was still strong, and a poster of a man on a bucking horse hung unapologetically over the headboard. Keishin snorted when he realized the bedposts were topped with spurs.

Takeda stretched. “Thank you for bringing me here, Keishin. This has been a wonderful birthday present.”

“It’s no big thing. It’s been fun t’meet all these people I have to thank for supporting you.” He grinned and pulled Takeda close. “But who says that was your birthday present?”

“I see!” Takeda laughed and turned around. “Help me with the zipper on this dress?”

Takeda took off her wig and the cap underneath it while Keishin unzipped the dress. Then it was a struggle as Takeda removed layers of hose and foam padding. He eventually emerged, sweaty and with red marks on his skin here and there from the elastic, his hair askew from the wig cap. 

Keishin stripped down and led them to the bathroom. Takeda washed the makeup off his face, then they showered together. After they were washed up, Takeda led them to bed. Keishin pressed Takeda down onto the mattress, kissing and caressing all those sensitive spots he’d mapped out on his body over the last few months. Takeda liked him in this role, liked the illusion of Keishin in control. Meanwhile Keishin was focused on all of his reactions, responding to each signal to repeat or ease up on every sensation.

As Keishin suspected, Takeda enjoyed not having to keep himself quiet that night. But more than groans, he spoke rushed and breathy odes to Keishin’s hands and lips and the press of his cock.

You’re incredible, the weight of your hand on my shoulder, the heat of you, oh Keishin…

Keishin tried to reciprocate but the most he could get out were some incoherent syllables and repeating the words ‘I want you, I want you, I want you…’

Afterwards, Takeda curled up against his shoulder, and they drifted off to a blissful sleep.

Keishin opened his eyes the next morning to a dull headache from the alcohol the night before. He grumbled and rolled over to find Takeda sitting up in the bed already. He was half-dressed in fresh clothes and his hair looked like it had been combed. He was typing on his phone.

“Mornin’,” Keishin said, his voice creaky from sleep.

“Good morning,” Takeda set his phone down and ran his fingers through Keishin’s hair. “How’d you sleep?”

“Alright. You?”

“Fantastic. Itsuki and Maeda asked us to meet them for breakfast before we head back.”

“Right,” Keishin sat up and stretched, his shoulder and neck popping. “Just give me a minute.”

Takeda shifted, as if blocking Keishin’s view of something on the nightstand. Keishin gave him a questioning look.

“I really appreciate everything you’ve done,” Takeda said.

“Y’said already. Don’t worry about it, it’s less than half of what you deserve.” Keishin smiled at him.

Takeda blinked and shifted again. “I ah… if I could ask you for one more thing…” He turned around and took something off the nightstand. “Could you… ah, please accept this, with minimal judgement on my lack of poetic structure?”

Takeda held out a bouquet of roses. Silk roses, slightly rumpled from when they must have been hidden in his bag. The small fabric blooms were tied with a red ribbon along with a slip of paper.

Keishin held them up to his face. He inhaled, even though they didn’t smell like anything in particular. Still, he could feel his emotions welling up already at the sweet surprise. He blinked quickly and wondered who the hell gave someone roses on their own birthday. Takeda was watching him expectantly. Keishin turned the paper over and found Takeda’s handwriting neat and careful on the page:

It’s not much,
what I have to offer.
Just cloth roses and
other people’s words, but.
Let me give you roses.
I’ll pluck them from the pretty lock of your lashes
or from the grocery store on my way home.
I’ll shout them from rooftops
and whisper in that secret way
only Toshi can drown out.

All the ways I know how to show love
seem hollow when I think of you.
Still I think, and say, and do.

-Ittetsu

Keishin buried his face in Takeda’s shoulder. The way Takeda had signed the poem with only his first name made the request clear enough, but it took him a breath before he found his voice. “It’s wonderful, Ittetsu. I love it.”

Keishin felt hands on his back as Takeda—no, as Ittetsu embraced him. “Thank you. I hope that as we get to know each other even better we can become closer, find more things to love and reasons to grow.”

Keishin set the bouquet on the bed and squeezed Ittetsu tight. Their first few months together had felt like a dream. But lately Keishin felt more real, more present, more like himself than ever. And now, holding Ittetsu under the tacky cowboy posters of the love hotel, it felt like coming home.

Ittetsu,” Keishin whispered, as though the name alone could hold all that feeling.

--

They met at a café a few blocks from the love hotel. The place had a cozy feel, with friendly paintings of animals on the walls, painted in warm colors that contrasted the teal tables and chairs. Nakano and Maeda were waiting for them at a corner table. Nakano looked dreadfully hungover. Maeda seemed to be fairing better, and he greeted Keishin and Ittetsu with a wave.

Maeda gestured to the chairs across from them. “Good morning you two, have a seat. This place is new, and it has the best omerice in the area.”

“And good coffee,” Nakano croaked. He rubbed his head and gave them a tired grin. “Did you have fun, Take-chan?”

Ittetsu smiled, bright-eyed despite the late night of drinking. “It was an absolute blast. Thank you for making it happen. Keishin was telling me you coordinated most of the night.”

Nakano waved a hand. “He’s too modest. This sports nerd here was the one who came up with the idea and made it all happen. I just knew who to call.”

The food there was good. Keishin’s omerice was savory but not overwhelming, with a bit of sharpness to the flavor that was pleasant despite his hangover. Keishin chewed his meal slowly, trying to parse the different seasonings and ingredients the chef must have used.

Ittetsu finished his last bite and sighed appreciatively. “That was delicious. Good idea to bring us here, Maeda-san.” He looked towards the back. “Ah, where is the restroom..?”

“It’s just around the corner there. Here, I wanna take a quick smoke break anyway, so I can show you on the way.” Maeda stood up.

Nakano cleared his throat. “I thought you weren’t going to smoke today.”

Maeda sighed. “Alright alright, then it’ll be a ‘fresh air and some gum’ break. Thanks for the reminder, love. I’ll be back soon.”

Nakano smiled and rolled his eyes. His smile faded as they walked away.

“You alright?” Keishin asked.

Nakano’s gaze dropped to the table. “I’m fine. Just hungover.”

There was an awkward silence.

“…Maeda told me a little of what happened. That your boss fired you,” Keishin said. “That’s really shitty. How are you holding up?”

Nakano frowned. “I didn’t want to tell you two and put a damper on Take-chan’s birthday. But yes, I was fired for being too disruptive. For caring too much. For being too… me.” He sighed and put his head in his hands. “I really thought I could do some good with this job, influencing corporate policies and actually making a difference in people’s lives. And instead I opened my big gay mouth one too many times and… that’s it.” Nakano flicked a droplet of condensation off the table, scattering it into tiny pieces.

Keishin looked down into his coffee cup. He’d never seen Nakano like this before, and he wanted to say the right thing. As close to it as he could manage, at least. After a pause, he said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but…. Do you have any idea how much it means to a guy like me to know someone like you is out there? Living your life out in the open. Havin’ you send me messages asking how I’m doing and telling me what the world could be like. Even in my darkest days, it got me through to know someone was out there who knew the real me and cared. Even now, just coming here and seein’ the life you and Maeda share makes me think that… maybe there’s a future for me after all.” Keishin cleared his throat. “I know you wanna change the whole world. The world needs changing. And it’s shitty as hell to have the things that make you a such great man be thrown in your face like it’s some kinda problem. But you make a difference whether you realize it or not. I don’t know what you’re gonna wind up doing next, but whether it’s serving coffee or running for prime minister you’ll still be the same guy. You’re still gonna check on your friends, and laugh and cry at the things that need it, and go meddlin’ in people’s business big and small. You’re still gonna be you. And it’s gonna matter, because you matter.”

Nakano blinked rapidly, his eyes turning even redder. He sniffed and turned his head. “I can’t believe you said all that without making a single sports metaphor.”

Keishin chuckled. “Well, I could say that every player on the team matters whether you’re a star setter or a ball boy, or being too injured to play doesn’t mean you can’t encourage your team, or—”

“Yeah yeah, ball is life,” Nakano snorted, then laughed. “I fucking missed you. You two should come visit us again, maybe sooner than three years from now?”

“Definitely,” Keishin agreed. “You’re welcome to come up there and visit too, if you like. Maybe you can even catch some of our games in the high school spring tournament.”

“You sure you’d be okay with a bunch of homos in the stand?” Nakano teased.

Keishin responded without hesitation, “Definitely. Might even help out some of the kids t’ see a buncha happy gay adults. Y’never know.”

Nakano smiled softly. “That’s true. You never know. Thank you, Keishin.”

--

The scenery rushed past them in a haze on the train ride home. Keishin set his eyes to the horizon, where the familiar mountains of home were coming into view. He wondered if the news from Nationals would eclipse the rumors about his sexuality, or if it would simply add fuel to the fire.

Ittetsu took his hand and squeezed it. It was quiet in the train car, with only a few other passengers who read or slept peacefully. Keishin squeezed his hand back.

“It’s funny, the way such different worlds can be connected by a line of iron rails,” Ittetsu said.

“Or by words,” Keishin said quietly. “I’ve always liked that about you. Whenever you read to me, it’s like the words bring somethin’ closer to me.”

“You’ve been reading the book I gave you,” Ittetsu said, surprised.

“Of course.” Keishin kept his gaze on the mountains ahead. “I like knowin’ what makes you tick. What you think about.”

“Hmm. What are you thinking about?” Ittetsu asked.

“Home,” Keishin said.

“Are you worried?” Ittetsu asked.

Keishin turned to him, and thought of the long line of tracks behind them, and his friends, and the shape of the valleys and fields and the town he’d grown up in. “Yeah,” he admitted. “But now I know I’m not alone.”

Chapter Text

Sage Cold Mountain
is forever like this:

dwells alone and free,
not alive, not dead.

-Han Shan

 

The birds have vanished from the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.

-Li Bai

--

Keishin’s parents welcomed him home with pride. He brought them back gifts from Tokyo: a box of specialty sweets and a tote bag with the Tokyo Tower printed on it. He’d gotten his grandad a gift too: a souvenir towel from that year’s National tournament with a little matching keyring. When he delivered the gift the hospital staff greeted Keishin with enthusiasm, smiling and mentioning how proud his grandad was of him, how much he talked about Keishin.

His grandad greeted him with a joke about their final loss, a jab at their undoing. Then he grinned. “What’s next?”

Keishin set the gift on the little table next to the bed and said, “We’re gonna see what the new batch of first years brings us, and train up from there. I’ve been keepin’ an eye on some strategies from the world qualifier matches, we might try those out. Keep expanding that arsenal.”

His grandad gave a sharp nod. Then his grin faded. “And what’s next for you, grandson?”

It always came down to this. Keishin looked away, his heart sinking a little. “Same old same,” he said.

His grandad frowned.

--

The news of the high school team’s victories at Nationals spread through the town like wildfire. It didn’t matter that they didn’t take the top prize; they’d gotten so close that no one could believe it. The buzz brought with it more funding for the team, respect from old fans, and some reporters from Sendai even came to the school to document how the fallen crows had learned to fly again.

Keishin kicked a rock off the sidewalk as he made his way to the gym.

The attention had also brought scrutiny.

The rumors about Keishin’s sexuality had spread. The signs of it were subtle, but he knew. He fucking knew.

People gave him odd looks on the street around town. A few regulars at the store stopped showing up. A few folks who rarely shopped there came in to gawk at him with less subtlety than they probably imagined. Ittetsu had wondered if it was just fans of the team, but Keishin could tell the difference in the stares, the posture of scrutiny compared to awe.

Worst of all, there was a quiet that followed Keishin wherever he went. A hush of chatter fell when he entered a room, and neighbors seemed more hesitant to say hello. Awkward pauses before talk of his family or the team came up, covering that thing no one would dare ask him about directly.

Keishin shook himself to clear his head. He was here. He pushed the doors to the neighborhood center open. The familiar scent of the gym wafted over him: rubber, the floor cleaner the building manager fancied, the hints of old sweat. The lights shone bright and Uchizawa and Mori were pulling out the net to set it up before practice. He could hear Takinoue and Shimada talking in the changing room, and Watanabe was adjusting his sneakers.

He needed this right now. He longed for that sharp focus that came to him on the court. It wasn’t just that the outside world mattered less when he was here. It didn’t even get a place in his mind. Here there was only the nuances of a play, the mechanics of the team, and the heady emotions that came with a battle you always had a chance of winning.

And of course, there were his friends.

Mori called out to him, “Hey Keishin, glad you could make it!”

Keishin grinned. “Hey. What are we working on today?”

“I was thinking mirror blocking drills since Tattsuan’s out on paternity leave,” Uchizawa said. “As your acting captain, I think we’d do well to work on our read blocks before the next tournament.”

“You two still having that argument about read or guess blocks, huh?” Takinoue laughed.

Keishin took off his jacket and started his warm up stretches. “How’s Tattsuan doing by the way?”

“He sent me a bunch of photos of his kid just after they brought him home. I think he meant it to be a group text, but I don’t think he’s slept much the last few days.” Uchizawa shrugged.

They ran through the drills. Keishin liked the rhythm of them, the body mechanics, the focus. There was no outside judgement here. No neighbors giving him strange looks. No whispers on the street. No going home and wondering if today was the day his parents would ask him if the rumors were true.

Takinoue shifted his stance and pulled away from Keishin, leaving him two steps behind on the drill. Keishin cursed and shifted, failing to keep up for the last round of the drill.

They shifted to a three-on-three scrimmage. Keishin was on a team with Shimada and Mori, and they started with a pretty decent lead before Takinoue, Uchizawa, and Watanabe made an aggressive series of plays and were nearly caught up with them. They were at match point. They just needed one more.

Keishin took a deep breath and took in the scene. The positions of the players. The ball’s trajectory. The distance between Shimada and the net. He shouted and tossed the ball to Mori, who spiked it in a precise cross past Takinoue’s defense.

“Aw, seriously?!” Takinoue shouted.

“Y’do always leave that side open,” Keishin grinned, thrilled that his call to toss to Mori payed off. He turned to Mori, expecting their usual celebratory ass slap followed by a chest bump.

“Nice toss!” called Mori. He reached out to Keishin, then stopped, his hand hovering awkwardly between them for a split second. Then he moved it upwards, as if to pat Keishin’s shoulder, then hesitated again. He settled for an awkward wave. “You uh, did great!” he offered.

Keishin’s stomach turned to ice.

Of course this was happening.

Mori was afraid to touch him.

Of course.

Keishin’s head swirled, a million ugly thoughts about himself rising. “Thanks,” he said, though a second too long had passed.

Shimada ran up and slapped them both on the ass with a resounding thwack. Keishin yelped.

“What kind of celebration was that? We totally trounced the enemy and you two are acting like we’re at an awkward company mixer.” Shimada threw his arm around Keishin’s neck and pulled him into a loose headlock, then turned to Mori. “You feeling okay? Did that ball hit you in the head or something and make you forget this is the same guy we’ve been playing with for years?”

“I don’t think totally trounced is a fair statement!” Takinoue huffed.

Mori laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Haha, sorry. I guess it’s… all that talk of you being such a great coach! It got to me for a minute. Good game, everyone.”

Shimada released Keishin from the headlock and squeezed his shoulder before he let go completely.

Keishin gave Mori a little nod. “Don’t go thinkin’ I’m somethin’ I’m not. Good game.”

They went to cool down. Keishin buried his face in his towel and sighed.

He’d been a fool to think this shit wouldn’t follow him here.

Keishin’s own words echoed bitterly in his mind as he packed up his things. He wanted to be done with shame, yet the denial had leapt out of him so easily.

Or maybe it was exactly as Mori had said. Maybe it was nothing. The thought wriggled at the corner of his mind. Maybe he was just reading too much into it. Too much into everything.

--

“I think you can trust your instincts on this one.” Ota’s voice was a little distorted on the phone, like he was walking outside while he was talking. Keishin was still getting used to the way he sounded on the phone, his voice always a little muffled, as he liked to call during his commute instead of emailing. “He was probably just making excuses to save face.”

“It’s not like I want folks comin’ for me with pitchforks. I just can’t stand everyone scuttlin’ around me like they know some dark secret.” Keishin sighed. He peeked out the window to double check that his parents weren’t home yet from their errands. The car wasn’t in the driveway. He could talk freely. “If someone’s gonna shame me, they’ve got plenty of reasons t’ do it! Who I sleep with should be at the bottom of the list.”

“What do you mean?” Ota said. “You didn’t murder anybody, did you?”

“No, I just—I’m used to bein’ the town loser. I always had bad grades, never worked a job except what family members gave me, and my grandad would rather give the family business to a board of strangers than have it passed down to me.” Keishin’s voiced wavered at the last part. He wrinkled his nose at himself and grabbed his pack of cigarettes.

“Are you smoking right now?” Ota asked.

“How’d you guess?” Keishin flicked his lighter.

“Stress is a trigger. I’ve been feeling some cravings myself lately,” Ota admitted.

“Y’ told me you quit over a year ago. Don’t start again now. Leave the failure to me.” Keishin inhaled deeply.

“You’re not a failure. We do these things in steps. When did you say your quit date was?”

“April fourth.” Keishin sighed. “Anyway. What’s going on with you?”

Ota hesitated. “Ah, well… I’m getting transferred again at work. It’s technically a promotion, so I’m being a bit ungrateful by saying this, but I… I’m tired of moving around so much. I really just wanna feel settled somewhere for once, you know?”

“Makes sense. You’ve been tryin’ to put down roots for a while. Where are you headed?” Keishin looked at the cigarette in his hand. “And how much of this thing do you think I should finish?”

Ota laughed. “I can’t answer that one for you. They wanna send me either to Kyoto for another short-term gig or a place up north for a longer contract. Uh, Tomiya, I think? It’s just a bit north of Sendai. Doesn’t seem like the easiest place to settle in for a guy like me. There’s not even a rail station.”

“Wait. Tomiya? Seriously?” Keishin started pacing. “That’s not too far from me.”

“You’re kidding.” The sound of the wind faded on the other side of the line, followed by the thump of a door closing. “Does this mean I’d get to meet that boyfriend of yours you keep talkin’ about?”

“Sure! But uh,” Keishin deflated, “you’re right that it’s not the easiest out here.”

“You’ve given me a realistic preview of that, yeah.” It was still strange to hear Ota slip into business jargon. “But, who knows where they’ll wind up sending me. Whatever happens, it’s nice to know the options are a little brighter than I first thought. I gotta go now, but you take care of yourself, alright? Don’t let the bullshit get to you.”

Keishin looked at his half-finished cigarette, then snuffed it out. “Ah, thanks. Have a good night.”

“You too, Keishin.” The phone clicked.

-

Saeko clicked her pen open. “What can I getcha tonight?”

“Two ‘Nice Kill!’ specials, please,” Hisakawa said.

“Make that four,” Ittetsu amended.

Tanaka’s ramen shop had started to feel like a second home. Hisakawa and her partner Kuroki always seemed to choose the quietest nights to go, and Saeko had proven to be a friend even though she no doubt heard them when Hisakawa and Ittetsu occasionally talked about LGBT bookstores and clubs in Sendai. She had seemed unfazed, as if they might as well be talking about the weather. Keishin was trying to feel more comfortable with that kind of talk, to let his curiosity win out over his old fears. He still glanced around the shop to see who was in earshot any time it came up.

Tonight, Hisakawa and Ittetsu seemed a little tense. Their usual bubbly demeaners were subdued, and their smiles seemed strained since they’d gotten off work that day. Keishin was willing to let them talk about whatever might have happened in their own time, offering them company and good food until that moment came.

Kuroki was not so patient. “Alright, what happened?” she asked her partner. “You’re making the ‘workplace despair’ face. It worries me.”

Hisakawa sighed. “Aw, I thought I was getting better at keeping a brave face.”

“You are, but I can still tell. I don’t want you to hide things from me, anyway,” Kuroki said.

Hisakawa smiled at her, then her expression soured. “My boss wants to shut down the art club.”

Kuroki’s eyes widened. “Why? What excuse has he come up with this time?”

“It’s the volleyball club,” Ittetsu said. “He wants to put more funding into the sports clubs since we did so well this year.”

“But the art club doesn’t get any school funds in the first place! Everything you spend on supplies is from your own pocket!” Kuroki said.

“He’s claiming that the room we use needs to be repurposed,” Hisakawa sighed.

“And I’m sure that it’s a safe space for the queer kids at the school is merely coincidence.” Kuroki said.

Ittetsu looked crestfallen. “The volleyball team has brought attention to the school and the press coverage has made the principal nervous. He’s saying he only wants clubs that ‘reflect the school’s values.’”

 Keishin felt a knot tighten in his stomach. He swallowed and did his best to push the feeling down. “How are the kids taking it?”

“They’re determined to fight it. Argue that the arts bring value.” Hisakawa smiled bitterly. “That they have value.”

Their ramen arrived. Things were quiet for a moment while they all took their first bites, staring at the carefully arranged nori and carrots in honor of Karauno’s team colors.

Ittetsu set his chopsticks down, his face serious. “The kids shouldn’t have to fight this alone. What’s our game plan?”

Kuroki tapped a perfectly manicured nail on the table. “The principal appears to care most about two things: public opinion and funding for the school. Ideally, we’ll find a way to leverage one or both.”

“The art club’s been goin’ on for a while, right?” Keishin asked.

“Yes, though Hisakawa is the reason for its current role as a safe haven for outcasts in the school,” Kuroki said.

“Right. Either way, I bet some alumni are still around that’d be pretty upset if they found out it was gettin’ shut down.” Keishin said. “I can ask around, if you think that’d help.”

“That would be great, yes!” Hisakawa said. “I’ll see if I can get any of the other faculty to back me up.”

“I’m happy to set his mind at ease in any way I can, too. I don’t want our success to be used as an excuse to hurt you.” Ittetsu bowed in apology.

“It’s not your fault,” Kuroki said. “He’s been looking for an excuse to go after the art club for a while now.”

“Exactly. I’m glad you’re both here,” Hisakawa said. She smiled. “Maybe we’ve got a chance.”

After dinner, they parted ways. Keishin and Ittetsu walked back to Ittetsu’s apartment. When they got inside, Ittetsu sat down and sighed heavily.

The plants and flowers
I raised about my hut
I now surrender
To the will
Of the wind.

…something like that,” Ittetsu said.

“Ryokan.” Keishin knelt next to him. “Rough day, huh?”

“Yeah.” Ittetsu leaned against him. “How are you?”

“Eh, tryin’ not to let stuff get to me.” And failing, he thought. He nestled his face into Ittetsu’s hair. “Anythin’ I can do for you?”

“Honestly, I just want to curl up in a warm blanket and watch a movie.” Ittetsu said.

Keishin stiffened. “Right. I’ll give you some space.” He started to get up.

Ittetsu stopped him. “I should have been more specific. I meant I want to curl up in a blanket and watch a movie with you.” He pressed his forehead against Keishin’s. “Being near you is comforting. We can do something else if you want, though.”

Keishin tilted his head so their noses were pressed together. “I wouldn’t mind a break from reality either.  Snugglin’ up with a movie sounds perfect. Got one in mind?”

“There’s a comedy from the Tokyo LGBT Film Festival list I’ve wanted to see for a while now.” Ittetsu opened up his laptop.

They made a nest of blankets and pillows and settled down for the movie, a bubble of warmth and safety in the early February night. Keishin settled in, determined to set his worries aside for the evening.

The film was a Taiwanese movie called Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and featured a cast of characters trying their best - in funny, sweet, and sometimes painful ways - to connect with each other. The main character had tried to hide his sexuality and live life as a straight, married man. It had proved unsatisfying for everyone, and by the time the events of the film were finished unfolding Keishin found himself choking up.

Ittetsu turned to him as the credits began to roll. “I really enjoyed that, I—woah,  hey, are you alright?”

Keishin buried his face in the blankets. He swallowed and tried to breathe.

Ittetsu placed a hand on his shoulder blade.

Keishin took another minute before he felt ready to speak. “Just… Feels like all my best hopes and worst fears have been comin’ true lately. I’m grateful I’ve met you, I really don’t know what I did t’ deserve it. And I’ve felt so connected with everyone else. But with the talk goin’ around, some small and foolish part of me wishes I could put the genie back in the bottle. I guess seein’ that that life didn’t work out too great either hit me a little hard.”

“Keishin, it’s okay to be scared. Change is terrifying. Even good change.” Ittetsu settled next to him, laying with an arm around him. “I’ve been scared, too.”

Keishin rolled over to face him. “What are you afraid of?”

“Losing my job, losing my teacher’s license. Our students getting hurt. Losing you, or you getting hurt. But those fears don’t get to control me. It’s natural to worry about things you care about. You care about this town. You care about your life.”

“And my folks,” Keishin added. He cleared his throat. “I know it’s only a matter of time before this gets back to them, assuming it hasn’t already. I haven’t even been able to think about what my grandad’ll do when he hears about me…” he trailed off, his chest tightening again.

“Do you remember what you told me before our first real game? I was so worried about it,” Ittetsu said.

“I don’t, honestly. Did I tell ya to do some breathing exercises or somethin’?”

“You told me that the fear of losing was simply the flipside of the hope of winning. Different kinds of fuel. So long as we focused on the hope, on what we could do, that fear would be nothing more than fuel for our fires.”

Keishin snorted. “You sure I said all that?”

“Pretty sure, yeah.” Ittetsu traced a line from Keishin’s forehead to his cheek. “What do you hope for?”

“…I hope my family can find a way to be proud of me,” Keishin said. “Shit,” he groaned and covered his eyes. He took another deep breath then met Ittetsu’s eyes again. “What d’you hope for, Ittetsu?”

“I hope I can make the world a little brighter.” He leaned in and planted a soft kiss on Keishin’s lips. “And I hope that I can keep making you smile.”

“That’s two out of two, then.” Keishin pulled Ittetsu in close, and kissed him gently, again and again.

-

Keishin and his ma had a routine for their shift changes at the shop. Every morning his ma would open the shop while Keishin coached the high school team. Then he’d return to the store and his ma would tell him the town gossip she’d gotten during the early hours before leaving him to work.

This routine had gotten a little more harrowing since he knew that some of the rumors were about him.

“Sounds like Saeto-san’s planning on retiring pretty soon, if you can believe it! I never thought I’d see the day. Figured he’d be like your grandad and work until the end of time.” His ma adjusted a few things around the shop. “You’ll remember to do the dusting today, right?”

“Uh yeah, I got it,” Keishin shifted uncomfortably on the chair behind the counter. He’d had a cigarette on his walk back from the school, but he was already craving another one.

 “You know Keishin, people have been talking a lot about you lately too,” she said.

Keishin froze, bracing for the impact. “Uh, is that so,” he managed.

His ma beamed. “I always knew you had talent as a mentor, but it’s nice to know the rest of the town is seein’ it! You should keep up the good work with those kids.”

“Y… yeah? Thanks,” he sputtered.

“Alright dear, I’ll see you at four. Take care!” She turned and went out the back door that led to the house.

Keishin let out a heavy exhale, willing the tension in his body to relax.

Of course she hadn’t heard anything yet. People were just as likely to avoid confronting her about it as they would avoid asking him directly. He rubbed his forehead and focused on the work day.

That afternoon, Keishin jumped at the sound of the bell on the shop door. Between the nicotine cravings as he tried to cut back and the rumors going around town, he found himself tense every time the damn thing went off.

This time, it was Shimizu Miho. She didn’t normally stop by the store. She made a show of browsing the shelves, making small chat with a few other customers. Then she grabbed an ice coffee and went up to the counter.

“Good afternoon,” he said politely.

“Good afternoon, Ukai-san,” she said. “My, things have sure been busy lately, haven’t they?”

Keishin scanned the coffee. “Yeah, kids’re getting ready for the final midterms of the year. We’re plannin’ the spring planting.”

“I heard there’s a lot going on at the school, too,” she said. She looked him over as if she was looking for something, some sign he was out of the ordinary. “I guess the clubs are getting shaken up a little.”

“Guess so. That’ll be three hundred yen,” he said.

“Change is tough. But I think it’s good for the school to reflect the community’s values, don’t you?” she handed him a shiny 500 yen coin. Her expression was pointed, carefully sculpted to convey her meaning.

Keishin shrugged, willing the tension in his jaw to relax. “I just want whatever’s best for the students. Do you want your receipt?”

“No,” she said. “Thank you.” Her eyes flicked over him again, still uncertain. “I hope you’ll continue to keep an eye on my daughter. She’s been doing better, but it’s important to keep her on the right path. You know how much people here love to talk, poor thing.”

Keishin opened his mouth to respond, but she was already walking out the door. The next customer came up to him and there was nothing to do but go about his day.

After the shop cleared again, Keishin tried to sneak a quick smoke. He had just taken his second puff when that damn bell rang again. He rushed to put it out.

“Thank you young man, I prefer to keep that scent off of me.” Hayami smiled at him as she entered the shop. “My goodness, you look a bit jumpy. You’re not trying to quit, are you?”

Keishin jiggled his leg behind the counter. “I wanna cut back at least, yeah. Can I get you anything, Hayami-san?”

“You tell me. Do you still keep my favorite liquor on the top shelf?” she grinned.

Keishin obliged and got a bottle of the plum wine she fancied down for her.

“Very good, thank you. You’re always such a dear about that,” she held up the bottle to the light and beamed. “My mahjong friends and I are in your debt.”

“It’s… just my job,” he said.

She grabbed him by the arm before he could go back to the counter. Keishin was shocked at how strong she was. She glanced around the shop, then said, “Listen dear, if anyone ever gives you or that precious neighbor of mine any trouble, you let me know, alright?”

Keishin stared at her, dumbfounded. “…what?”

She rolled her eyes and gestured to her hearing aids. “Oh come on dear, I’m not that deaf.” She let go of his arm and marched to the counter. “People here get all kinds of foolish ideas in their heads. Anyone tries to cause trouble for you, I’m happy to deal with it.” She grinned with a terrifying cunning that reminded him of Nekomata.

Keishin blinked and made his way back to the register, still barely processing what she was saying. “You don’t need to trouble yourself—”

“My mahjong group knows every secret in this town,” she bragged. She pulled out her purse. “And how to shift opinions. Take-sensei is the best neighbor I’ve had in years. Just say the word.” She slid her credit card across the counter to him.

Keishin stared at her, then ran the card. He vaguely felt as though he was being offered a deal by a crime boss. “I… don’t really want this to be a thing…” he said.

“Hmm, bit late for that now,” she mused. “But I can try to keep things harmless. Might even be fun.”

“You really don’t need to—” Keishin started, but she was already turning away.

“Don’t you worry. People of all lifestyles should do what they want, provided it doesn’t hurt nobody.” She made a sign with her hand, referencing some metal band or another.

“What, uh, wait!” Keishin called as she was almost to the door.

She turned around, giving him her most innocent old lady smile. “Yes dear?”

“There… is actually something you can do to help me out,” he said. “Would you mind calling the school in support of the art club? With Hisakawa-sensei as the mentor. Please.”

She raised an eyebrow, as if he’d just given her a delightful puzzle. Then she grinned again. “If that’s what you want, the mahjong club is on it! Take good care of my neighbor, now.”

She left Keishin standing behind the counter, still dumb-founded.

Just when he thought he knew this place, something like this went and happened. He’d never seen that side of Hayami, or had to contemplate a secret mafia of gambling old women.

He prayed this didn’t mean the rumors had spread to Ittetsu as well, that he was the only one who would have to deal with the strange looks and stares.

He returned to his seat and lit a cigarette while he waited for his ma to return.

-

The weekend of Valentines Day, Keishin’s parents were out of the house. They’d gone on a weekend getaway to a little tourist village by the sea, leaving Keishin in charge of the store. The extra shifts had meant missing out on volleyball practice, but it was worth it for tonight.

“I think I’ve got everything we need,” Ittetsu stepped into the entryway, a heavy grocery bag from Shimada Mart in one hand. His face lit up as he looked around. “This is a lovely house!”

“Ah, thanks, my folks have put a lot into it. It’s been in my ma’s family for a while now.” Keishin took the bag from him so he could take off his shoes. “Didja pick a recipe you wanted to try?”

Ittetsu slipped off his shoes, then handed him a clipping from a magazine. It was recipe for a beautifully decorated cake. “Chocolate gateau with strawberries,” he said. “We can simplify the decoration if we need to.”

Keishin eyed the recipe, admiring the delicate decorations. “Looks great. I think we can do that.”

It was odd seeing Ittetsu in his family’s home. Ittetsu was wearing his nicer work clothes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him officially meeting Keishin’s parents.

Meeting my parents. For a moment Keishin’s heart raced. He felt so ridiculous even imagining it, but there it was. He took a deep breath to clear his head and led Ittetsu into the kitchen.

The cake recipe turned out to be fairly complicated. Keishin had never melted chocolate on a double boiler before, and Ittetsu got a little too focused on mixing the cocoa powder and flour together and made a bit of a mess. Still, together they managed to figure out each step, and soon the delicious smell of baking filled the house.

“How do we tell when it’s done?” Ittetsu asked.  He tapped at the side of the cake pan, watching to see how the cake moved. “Maybe a little longer just in case?”

“Lemme get a toothpick.” Keishin tested the center of the cake. “Looks perfect. We should take it out now so it doesn’t get too dry.”

“It smells amazing! I can’t wait to decorate it.”

“Cake’s gotta cool first, it’ll be a while,” Keishin said. He set a timer on his phone for when they needed to turn the cake out of the pan.

Ittetsu’s expression grew mischievous. “Shall we make out while we wait?”

“We’ll get distracted, forget about the cake, and make a huge mess!” Keishin tried to make his voice gruff to disguise the heat building on his cheeks.

Ittetsu laughed. “Happy Valentine’s Day?”

Keishin huffed. “I’ll do whatever you like after the cake’s done. Let’s get the strawberries washed and ready while we wait.”

Keishin cleaned some things up in the kitchen while Ittetsu set to rinsing the strawberries. Ittetsu carefully set aside the most beautiful ones for the decoration, a plateful of perfection.

“Keishin, look at this one!” Ittetsu turned off the faucet and held up an adorable tiny strawberry, blushing red under a mess of leaves.

Keishin hummed and leaned in close to look. “Huh. It looks like you,” he said.

“What?! I was just thinking it was cute!” Ittetsu flushed red.

Keishin laughed and leaned in close. “Exactly.” He opened his mouth.

Ittetsu laughed and held the strawberry away from him. “Don’t say something looks like me then immediately try to eat it!”

“Aw c’mon.” Keishin wrapped one arm around Ittetsu’s waist and reached for the strawberry with the other.

Ittetsu twisted, avoiding his reach. “Ask nicely and I’ll give it to you nicely!” he said between laughs.

Keishin stilled. He looked Ittetsu in the eye and said with as much gravity as he could muster, “Ittetsu, will you please feed me the world’s most adorable strawberry?”

“There’s my sweet Keishin. How can I refuse such an earnest request?” Ittetsu stroked his cheek and held out the strawberry. Keishin moved slowly, drawing out the moment before—

A loud bang echoed through the room.

Keishin jumped, his grip on Ittetsu’s waist tightening instinctively.

His grandad was standing in the doorway. At his feet was a carboard box of produce, dented from where he had dropped it.

Keishin swallowed the strawberry, leaves and all. “Grandad…” he rasped.

A potato had fallen out of the box. It rolled across the laminate floor and slowed to a halt at Keishin’s feet.

“I figured you’d be hungry with your folks gone, so I brought somethin’ by,” his grandad said. His eyes narrowed at Ittetsu. “Though now I see I shouldn’t have bothered.”

Keishin stepped between them. His throat was tight and the yellow light of the kitchen suddenly seemed sick. “Don’t,” he managed.

His grandad’s face shifted, his squint softening before his nose curled in disgust. “Excuse me?” His fingers tightened slightly, moving towards a fist.

Keishin focused on keeping his breath steady. “Whatever you have to say, just…. Say it to me. Please.” He extended an arm to make sure Ittetsu stayed behind him.

His grandad’s gaze hardened into a glare. An agonizing silence filled the room before his grandad spoke. “Walk with me, boy.” He turned around and went to pull his boots back on. He didn’t look back.

Keishin took a step forward as if going through deep water.

He felt a hand on his back. “Keishin—”

“Just go home, Ittetsu,” Keishin cut him off. His eyes were locked on his grandad’s back, hunched as he pulled his boots on. “I’ll be fine,” Keishin lied.

Ittetsu was silent behind him. Keishin pulled his sneakers on, then stole a glance back to the kitchen before he followed his grandad out the door. Ittetsu looked terrified, frozen against the kitchen counter.

Keishin tried to shake the image from his mind as the door clicked shut behind him. It didn’t work. His mind clung to the details of Ittetsu’s face and hair in the light of the kitchen as though they were a final gasp of air.

His grandad walked around to the driver’s side of his yellow SUV. Keishin hauled himself into the passenger’s seat, staring at the farm dirt caught along the floorboards. The door slammed shut, and they drove away from his parents’ home.

The drive was silent. His grandad kept his eyes on the road, his expression unreadable. Keishin watched the landscape roll by, that awkward tail end of winter when ice melted into mud along the roads during warm days, only to refreeze and shatter the next day.

The tires rumbled as they turned onto the gravel road that led to the farm. His grandad followed the winding path up to the field farthest from town and parked by an old tree. Isolated. Bare dirt.

Keishin swallowed back the thought that it was the perfect place to hide a body.

The engine shut off with a shudder. His grandad stepped out of the car, glaring at Keishin to follow.

Gravel and ice crunched under Keishin’s sneakers as he followed his grandad towards the field. Shadows stretched out as the late afternoon sun caressed the valley below. Keishin was shaking. Some bitter, prideful part of him hoped it could be passed off as a shiver.

“Cigarette.” His grandad extended his hand. He scoffed when Keishin hesitated. “C’mon, I know you got ‘em. Give.”

Keishin handed his grandad the pack of cigarettes and his lighter. The old man wasn’t supposed to be smoking. Doctor’s orders. Keishin wasn’t going to fight him on that now. He might die on this hill, but not for that.

His grandad inhaled deeply, smoke curling as he let it go. He passed the cigarettes back to Keishin. Keishin lit one, figuring that one last smoke overlooking the town wouldn’t be the worst thing. He studied the patchwork of fields below them: the curve of the old road, the stakes marking where peas would grow in the summer, the outline of the farm office where his da liked to work.

“That old geezer in Tokyo…” his grandad paused to take another drag from his cigarette.

Keishin swallowed, disoriented by the change in topic. “…Nekomata-san?”

His grandad nodded, his eyes locked onto the horizon. “He and I used to be pretty close.”

There was a silence as Keishin’s brain fought to make a connection. 

His grandad puffed at the cigarette, taking his time before continuing on. “Kind of like you and that teacher of yours,” he looked at Keishin, his eyebrows raised.

“That’s…” A thousand pieces started to click into place. Phone calls, memories from when Keishin was a kid, Nekomata’s harassment of him now. Keishin shifted his balance, reeling at the new information. “I… What happened?”

“I knew what I wanted.” His grandad gestured to the fields below them, the cigarette still burning in his hand. “I broke things off just before I married, and that was that.”

Keishin tried to imagine a younger Nekomata. “How’d he take it?”

“Oh, he hated me.” His grandad laughed, short and harsh. “But I think those feelings made our little rivalry burn that much brighter.”

Keishin scanned the horizon, noticing the little spikes of darkness the bare trees cast on the sky. “Do you ever regret it?”

“Regret what, exactly? Regret this?” His grandad gestured at the fields below.  “Regret my family?” He looked at Keishin, his eyes soft for a moment before he turned away again. “No. Regret’s a fool’s game. We all make choices in life, whether it’s with or against the tide.” He dropped his cigarette to the ground and smothered it under his boot. “Not just once, either. I thought about reachin’ out, repairing a bridge or two. But I think that geezer was seein’ someone else by then, and I wasn’t about t’ tumble with anyone new just to risk breakin’ your grandma’s heart.” He kicked the cigarette butt away with a final scuff of his boot. “She was my best friend, that woman.”

Keishin’s gaze fell to where the gravel road faded into the dirt. “You want me t’do the same,” he said. He felt himself start to choke up, the threads of his past and future tangling into a wretched knot around his neck. He puffed at his cigarette as an excuse to turn his head.

“That son of mine wants t’give you this place,” his grandad said, looking around at the farm. “Thing is, I’m here ‘cause of what I built. Nobody gave me a farm and a bundle of expectations. I wanted it, I worked for it, I sacrificed…” he clicked his tongue and turned his head. “I do want you t’do the same. I want you to have the chance I did to pick your own way. I don’t want you to live out the life I could have had or justify my choices by pickin’ the same. I told your da that if he wants the farm passed down through family, then I’ll need to see you’re up for it first. That way, you get t’ choose.”

Memories of his da’s fears and frustrations through the last year flickered through Keishin’s mind. “It’s hurting him,” he said.

“That’s his problem. Tell me about you. You gonna run off t’ Tokyo with that teacher of yours? Stay and marry a nice farm girl? Be the new town pariah?” his grandad wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“I don’t like those choices,” Keishin said.

His grandad nodded, eyes on the horizon. Keishin followed his gaze. In the distance, flocks of wild geese were making their way to summer homes.

“I like… helpin’ those kids,” Keishin said. “I like the land out here. I like my friends, here and out in the cities. I wanna be where I can do good, and people can do good by me. Right now, that’s here.”

“Here for now, huh?” His grandad’s gaze fell to the fields below. “That somethin’ you can take pride in? That enough?”

Keishin rolled a piece of gravel under his foot, nudging it forward, then back, then forward again. “I’m not gonna live my life hidden. Or as some big political statement.” He kicked the rock aside. “I just want to be the kind of man who helps others fly. Help ‘em not hate themselves, the way I did. That’s something I could take pride in. Pride enough to face my da, if you gotta know.”

His grandad grabbed Keishin by the front of his shirt. Keishin winced, bracing for the throw. When it didn’t happen, he opened his eyes. His grandad was staring at him, his sharp eyes scrutinizing his face for something, some sign of weakness. Keishin stared back and forced himself to breathe normally.

Finally, his grandad let go. “Fair enough.” The old man sighed and zipped up his coat. “I’m goin’ for a walk. Alone. You bring the car ‘round the office when you’re ready t’go home. I’ll be there.” He tossed the keys at Keishin.

Keishin kind of wanted to go home now. He shivered as his grandad tromped down the hill. The old man didn’t look back.

Keishin got in the car and went to pull out his phone to text Ittetsu. He cursed under his breath when he remembered his phone was still sitting on the kitchen counter at home.

So Keishin just sat there for a while, watching the wandering path his grandad took through the field, tracing the topography to avoid the mud and ice. After a while his grandad stopped and pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was an older flip phone, but he didn’t open it. Instead he turned it over in his hands, as though turning a decision in his mind. Eventually, he put the phone back in his pocket and walked on, towards the farm office and out of sight down the hill.

Keishin noticed his grandad’s keys were held by the keychain he’d gotten him from Nationals.

Keishin took a shaky breath. He could feel the weight of things shifting in him as he settled out of emergency mode. His head sank as his emotions welled up; a cistern overflowing and filling his stomach, chest, throat, then finally spilling out his eyes.

He laughed at himself, the way his thoughts had started to veer more and more towards mockeries of poetry.

The laugh turned hoarse as more tears fell.

How many people had come before them?

He thought of generations of men and women, of people, queer folks surviving through the ages. From before it was such a big fucking deal, and through times when it was worse, and through times yet to come. Generations of people quietly shut out from their true selves. Generations of people making choices to make the world better. To make their lives easier. To love one another.

His grandad’s history was a heavy, twisted thing. It linked him to the past and forced him to turn towards the future.

He thought of his students. He thought of the kids he didn’t even know yet.

He wiped his eyes and took another deep breath. It was only a little shaky this time.

He turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life.

It was time to move on.

--

The drive back to town was silent. His grandad pulled the car into the driveway of his parent’s house.

“Y’should throw those damn things out,” his grandad said as Keishin went to open the door. “They’ll kill you someday.”

“My smokes?” Keishin thought of the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, the familiar and comforting shape of box. His grandad had smoked for most of his life, until his heart had begun to give out. “I’ve got a plan to quit.”

His grandad nodded, uncharacteristically quiet. Keishin got out of the car, and his grandad drove away.

Keishin returned to an empty house. The kitchen had been scrubbed clean and the cake he and Ittetsu had made together sat on the counter, simply but neatly decorated. Next to the cake was Keishin’s phone and a note in Ittetsu’s handwriting that simply said, “Call me. Please.”

Keishin picked up the phone. It was dead. He thought of his charger upstairs, then shoved the phone in his pocket and went out the door and into the cold evening air.

His feet knew the way well enough by now. His breath clouded the air in front of him as he walked. He felt numb from the cold by the time he unlocked the door of Ittetsu’s apartment and stepped inside.

“Keishin?” Ittetsu dropped the box of tea he was holding and ran to him. “Are you alright?”

Keishin pulled him into an embrace. He was still standing in the entryway, Ittetsu on the step above him. He nestled his head into Ittetsu’s shoulder and breathed in deeply. “I’m okay,” he said.

He breathed in the scent of Ittetsu and his apartment, this safe space Keishin had found for himself. He wanted everything: the warmth of Ittetsu’s embrace and the feeling of wanting him and the birdcalls outside the building.

“I’m okay,” he repeated.

--

The future was carved with hope and exhaustion. This seemed even more true if you were a parent. Tattsuan’s sleep deprivation was clear in his most recent text to Keishin:

Wdvant drinks? I par tiny s find.

This was followed by another message about an hour later:

Sorry. Autocorrect. Drinks tongiht? Be good to see you! 6/?

Keishin had agreed and chose their favorite izakaya as the place to meet. He hadn’t seen Tattsuan since his son was born a month ago.

Tattsuan was already there when Keishin arrived.

“Hey Keishin, let’s grab a seat!” Tattsuan waved to him. There were dark circles under his eyes, but he seemed eager to start the evening. “Thanks for meeting me out here. I can’t wait to relax a little.”

“Sure thing. I bet you’ve been itchin’ to get out of the house.” Keishin looked around, noticing the absence of the rest of the team. “Just us today?”

“Yeah uh, looks like it.” Tattsuan shrugged. “Let’s go sit down.”

Tattsuan led him away from their usual table and to a spot towards the back. It was around a corner from the rest of the bar, a small table the owners placed there to make use of an odd nook leftover from when the building was converted from an old apartment complex.

It was a cramped spot, especially for two volleyball athletes. Still, it was just the two of them and Keishin supposed it was a bit quieter than the other tables. He figured Tattsuan could do with a little quiet.

“How’re things at home?” Keishin asked as he settled into his seat. “This is the most excited I’ve seen you about bein’ out in ages.”

“It’s good. I mean, I’ve never been more tired in my life but ah… when I look at my kid… I didn’t realize it was possible for me to feel so much love for something, you know? It’s really special.”

“I’m happy for you. I’m glad things worked out for you two,” Keishin said. “First round’s on me, yeah?”

They drank and snacked on edamame and chicken wings while Tattsuan showed Keishin pictures of his new son. The baby looked like a squished little bean of a human, bundled in a Godzilla print blanket that had been a gift form Takinoue.

Halfway through the third round, Tattsuan set his beer glass down. “So uh, the thing about sleep deprivation is that a lot of things kinda start to seem like a dream. The other day I was like, ‘Am I hallucinating or did my neighbor really walk by in a Sailor Moon costume?’ Turns out the neighbor kids were going to some convention or something. Anyway, I was hopin’ you could ground me in reality a little. I need all the help I can get”

Keishin snorted a laugh. “I bet. What’s goin’ on?”

Tattsuan took a deep breath. “Right, well. Fumiko’s mother has been around a lot to help us out, and of course she brings friends along. And they talk. About things.”

“Okay….” Keishin stared at him, slowly realizing where this was going.

Tattsuan dropped his voice to a near whisper. “You remember how I told you there was a rumor about you uh… you bein’ gay? That’s still going on.”

Keishin forced out a huff of a laugh. “Guess people don’t have much else t’ talk about, huh?”

“Right, well you did get Karasuno to Nationals again. You’re a bit of a local celebrity.” Tattsuan paused and looked at Keishin, as if waiting for him to say something.

Keishin shrugged. “It was a whole team of people who got those kids to Nationals.”

“Right,” Tattsuan tapped his fingers on the table. He looked around, then spoke in a long burst. “Anyway uh, one of these ladies started wonderin’ if it was appropriate for you t’be coaching high school kids, the boys’ team and all, if you were gay.”

Keishin’s blood went cold. Tattsuan pressed on before he could say anything.

“And then another one, I think you know Hayami-san? She said it was fine because you had a thing for older men…” Tattsuan rubbed his forehead with his fingers, unable to meet Keishin’s eye. He was starting to turn red. “And then they uh, they started talkin’ about how you likely had a sugar daddy somewhere, like up in Sendai? And I’d call it sleep deprivation, alright? But since then I’ve heard it from someone else too and I mean, if that’s what you want then that’s fine I guess, but it just seems like the power dynamics of that kinda thing might be a bit off, so uh…” He covered his mouth with his hand and his brow furrowed. Then he lowered his hand and met Keishin’s eye again. “I just want you to know that you deserve to be treated well, and as anyone’s equal. You run into any trouble or need anything and you can just come to our door, alright?”

Keishin stared at him, the situation equal parts horror and hilarity. “Y’think I have a… sugar daddy? Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?”

Tattsuan buried his head in his hands and slumped towards the table. “Ah fuck, I’m probably makin’ a thing outta nothing. I don’t even know if you’re... whatever!” He groaned. “I’m so fuckin’ tired. I’m sorry about all this.”

“No, you’re… It’s alright.” Keishin was stunned, most of all that he believed his own words. “It’s alright,” he repeated.

Tattsuan lifted his head. “You’re a good sport,” he said.

“Takes one to know one,” Keishin said. He sighed and rubbed his face. “Look, I don’t have a sugar daddy or anything like that. But… I uh… I am gay. And it means a lot, to have you hear somethin’ like that and check on me, instead of… assuming the worst about it, I guess.” He swallowed, his mouth dry.

Tattsuan’s eyes softened. “I dunno if I ever told you this, but I’ve got a brother who’s gay, out in Toyama. You’re so different from him, I never thought you could be like that too. But, I know this doesn’t change anything. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop the rumors.”

“Not your job,” Keishin said.

“As your captain, I beg to differ,” Tattsuan said. “Gotta look out for my team. Even if I don’t always know how. What do you need?”

Keishin sighed and stared at the remnants of his beer. “Truth is, I dunno what to do about all the talk going around either,” he admitted. “Seems like if I confirm it, that might hurt the team, hurt people I care about. But if I deny it, then I’m confirming in the minds of everyone that bein’ gay is something t’ be ashamed of. And that hurts people, too. Quite a bit.” He thought of Yachi and Shimizu.

“Maybe you don’t need to say anything? The folks who’re worth their salt won’t be bothered. And if anybody on the team has a problem with it, I’ll tell ‘em off on behalf of you and my brother both. Besides, you know how it goes, the rumor mill in town will move on as soon as the next thing happens.”

“Maybe.” Keishin finished off his glass. He reflected on what Ittetsu had said to him months prior about the need for a safety net, back when the nonsense about Yachi and Shimizu first blew up. Keishin could see his own safety net now, stretched from here to Tokyo. “I think I just need to know that the people who matter have my back,” he said. “I dunno what I’ll wanna do in the long run, but for now… thanks. I needed this.”

Tattsuan looked out across the restaurant, his face gentle and eyes unfocused. “You know, when I look at my kid… he’s just this tiny thing right now, but I can’t stop thinking about who he’ll grow up to be. Maybe he’ll be like my brother and you. Maybe he’ll be something I can’t even imagine. As a parent, I want a world that’ll be kind to whoever he turns out to be. I want people like you and my brother to be there for the kids finding their way.” He ducked his head. “Sorry, that’s a lot! I’m still pretty tired.”

Keishin blinked rapidly to keep his eyes from welling up with tears. “Since when has anyone looked at me and seen a good influence?” He forced a laugh and tried to make a scary face.

Given Tattsuan’s expression, it didn’t really work. “Yeah, see? What if my kid grows up and looks like a discount store yakuza! Gotta make sure he knows that he could still have a goddamn heart of gold.” Tattsuan laughed and raised his glass. “To the future.”

They took a drink. Keishin thought of the art club. “By the way, there’s somethin’ that you could do that might help me out… would you mind callin’ the school in support of the art club? They’re runnin’ into some trouble. It’s a bit of a gathering spot for kids who don’t fit in. Any alumni you know would be good to get involved as well. Just tell ‘em Hisakawa-sensei is the best arts advisor and they should keep what they’re doin’.”

“My mother-in-law and her friends are mostly graduates from there. I bet they’d have something to say about losing the art club. I’ll mention it.” Tattsuan waved a server over for their bill.

Keishin walked home that night full of strange thoughts. His grandad’s confession still hung over him, mixed with the awkward support from Tattsuan.  The hopes and pressures of being a parent must be heavy, now that he thought of it

It was likely even harder for his da, considering the high bar his grandad set for everyone he knew.

Keishin patted the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. But instead of pulling them out he paused and looked to the sky, taking a deep breath of the crisp night air instead.

He needed to tell his parents.

His da deserved to know why his grandad was dangling the farm in front of him, why there was this pressure. That it wasn’t his fault.

It was more than that.

Keishin remembered his conversation with Ittetsu weeks before, snuggled in the safety of his bed. That he wanted his parents to know who he was.

He sighed and looked out over the town, the streetlamps stretching out into the dark shadows of the mountains, the light melding to a soft haze before it faded.

Whatever came from his choices, he’d face it. And now he knew he wouldn’t be alone.

Chapter Text

Coming back—
so many pathways
through the spring grass.

-Buson

 

Keishin drummed his fingers on the little desk in his room. He had about ten minutes before his parents returned from the store and prep began for their usual late dinner. He sighed and stared at the screen of his phone, then hit the call button. After two rings, the line picked up.

“Hello?” Maeda’s voice sounded even deeper over the phone, and a little gruff. He probably hadn’t expected Keishin to call him.

“Hey, it’s Ukai. Keishin. I, uh…” Keishin cleared his throat. “Does… your offer still stand?” He thought of Maeda’s offer to help him get settled in Tokyo, if things didn’t work out with his family.

“You need a job?” Maeda’s voice was steady, a slight tinge of concern at the edges. “Yeah, we’ve got some work coming up in a few weeks that we’re hiring guys for. I could pull some strings... What happened?”

“Nothin’, not yet.” Keishin glanced at the pack of cigarettes across the room, fingers twitching. “I just… I’m gonna come out to my folks tonight.”

Maeda exhaled sharply. “…Ah. Shit. Okay. Yeah, I was serious about my offer. Anything you need, Itsuki and I will help you figure it out. You’re gonna be okay.”

“Maybe,” Keishin allowed. “How’s that guy doing, anyway? He hasn’t messaged me much lately.” Keishin paced back to the window, checking to see if his parents were home yet. The driveway was empty.

Maeda hummed thoughtfully, a deep and strangely soothing sound over the phone. “He probably hasn’t told you, but he got an interview at the Nijiiro Education Network. They’re a nonprofit that does LGBT education for schools and employers all over the country.”

Keishin blinked, startled by the good news. “That sounds perfect for him! Did he… when will he know?”

“In a few weeks. They’re interviewing about a half dozen other people. He’s keeping the news quiet for now since he doesn’t wanna jinx it. I just thought I’d mention it because, well, sometimes we can wind up ousted from one situation only to find ourselves someplace better,” Maeda said.

Keishin heard a car pull into the driveway. “Thanks. I’m rooting for him, for both of you. I gotta go now, but uh. Wish me luck, alright?”

“Good luck. Whatever happens, you’ve got folks looking out for you. Call me anytime, alright?” Maeda said.

“Uh, yeah, g’night!” Keishin hung up. He bit his lip as listened for the car doors, his nerves unbearable. He finally gave into a cigarette, a few moments of peace, then went downstairs.

His parents were preoccupied with their usual evening tasks. Keishin helped his ma with the last of dinner prep and set the table. They were having grilled mackerel tonight, and the marinade she had made for it smelled amazing.

Still, Keishin didn’t feel hungry.

He judged his parents’ moods while they ate. His ma was her usual self, sharing bits of news and gossip from around town. His da seemed relaxed, pleased with the progress they had been making on the early spring planting. He took a swig of the beer in front of him, then savored a bite of mackerel.

Keishin picked at his food. He forced himself to eat as much as he could, but his stomach churned with nerves.

“Somethin’ wrong, Keishin?” his ma asked, raising her eyebrows at his plate.

“No, it’s delicious!” Keishin snapped to attention and shoved a few more bites into his mouth. He tried not to choke.

His ma didn’t say anything, just watched him sputter with a bemused smile.

Keishin cleared his throat and looked at his parent’s plates. They were empty save for the vegetables his da had pointedly ignored. It was time, then. “There’s uh, something I’d like to talk to you both about, actually.”

His parents exchanged a quick glance of excitement and concern with each other.

His da set down his chopsticks and moved his plate aside, ready to give Keishin his full attention. His ma did the same. “We’re ready to hear anything you have to say,” he said.

Keishin took a breath, trying to summon the same calm focus he felt during a match. He knew what he needed to do, and it was time to do it. “I know you’ve been wanting me to get married for a while now, and I’ve dragged my feet on the whole thing…”

His parents’ faces brightened, eyes wide with sickening, misplaced excitement.

Keishin pressed on. “The truth of it is, I don’t think that’s gonna be possible. For as long as I can remember, I’ve only ever been attracted to men.  I’ve been dating another man for a while now, and he’s really important to me.”

Silence stretched through the room, the excitement in his da’s eyes souring to shock while his ma stared blankly. Keishin bit his tongue.

His ma broke the silence first. “…Oh Keishin. Her expression softened. “I knew there was something up, but I didn’t know… I’m glad.”

His da stood up suddenly, bumping the table in his haste. He walked out of the room without a word.

“Shoji?” his ma called after him. Silence. She stood up and followed him out into the hall. “Shoji! Don’t walk away from this. Shoji!”

Keishin could hear his parents talking in hushed voices in the hall, occasionally spiking to a heated volume.

—This isn’t like that, Fumiko!”

Keishin stared at the grain of the wooden table. It was odd, how many times Keishin had imagined this scene playing out. He’d spent years picturing shouting matches, accusations, even tears. In his imaginings he was always shaking, full of fear and shame and overwhelming grief at the rejection.

Am I the last one to know—!"

But now that it was actually happening, all Keishin could feel was anger.

Rage was boiling up from inside him, disgust that people who were practically strangers could support him while his own father couldn’t even meet his eye. He hissed out the breath he’d been holding and clenched his fist, the muscles of his forearm shaking as he put all that tension into the tight ball of his hand. Then he opened his palm, closing his eyes as the muscles relaxed.

This was it, then.

He would have to let those dreams go.

Do you expect me to just give up—”

“I expect you to act like a grown man!” his ma’s voice roared.

That was the end of the conversation. The front door slammed. Footsteps came back into the room. Keishin opened his eyes to find his ma sitting across from him again. Her arms were crossed, her mouth pressed into a thin line as she took a breath through her nose. She looked at Keishin, then away towards the door.

“I’m angry too,” she admitted.

Keishin’s gut clenched.

“Not at you. At your da. All of this… bullshit.” His ma usually kept herself a force of calm and soothing energy in family arguments. Keishin couldn’t help but feel startled, seeing her shake as she looked at the doorway. It was new, the situation revealing for them both. She shook her head and turned her attention back to Keishin. “You didn’t deserve that. Now, lift your head up,” she commanded.

Keishin sat up and raised his chin. He felt strange, unguarded and vulnerable.

“Good, there’s my son. All courage, and fire, and kindness,” his ma said. She smiled gently. “I’m glad I get to know who you are.”

“I’m sorry that I can’t…” Keishin blinked quickly and fought the urge to duck his head again.

Connecting hearts,” his ma said. “Maybe it’s not what your da and I first imagined, but because of you we’ve got a reason to connect with other ways of being, now maybe even whole communities of people. Whatever connections and family you bring to our door, I’ll be there to welcome them in.”

--

Keishin set Ittetsu’s bowl of katsudon down in front of him. They were settling in for a quiet night of Ittetsu grading papers and Keishin reviewing volleyball strategies. Keishin needed the peace after the stress of coming out to his parents yesterday. His father hadn’t been at the farm office that morning, and Keishin had only his own anxieties to provide any indication of how his da was doing.

Keishin had decided to keep what had happened to himself for now. He wanted to enjoy a peaceful evening together before whatever fallout came. Ittetsu had enough to worry about right now anyway.

“How’re you doing with things at the school?” Keishin asked.

Ittetsu put the stack of papers he was grading aside and turned his attention to his meal. “The principal is still set on dismantling the art club, or at least what Hisakawa has made of it. I’m still so puzzled that he’s so opposed to this, given what you’ve said about him. Are you sure that was him you saw at a gay bar?”

“It was a while ago, but yeah I’m pretty sure,” Keishin said. The moment had been terrifying, and Keishin had ducked out before he could be spotted.

“Hmm. Well, our coworkers are a mix when it comes to supporting Hisakawa. Some of them don’t want to rock the boat and just do whatever the principal likes. A few others take it as a personal issue, that no club should suddenly be shut down on a whim. I can’t tell how many are supportive specifically because of the queer students. It’s sort of an open secret.” He took an absentminded bite. “This is delicious, by the way.”

“Yer sweet, but that’s not what I meant.” Keishin took a bite. He’d oversalted the cutlet a bit. “I mean… how are you doing with things? Last time there was something like this at the school… it hit you pretty hard.”

Ittetsu forced a smile. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me.” He sighed. “It is… odd, doing this while I’m in the closet. Sometimes I feel so fake, having these conversations as if it doesn’t affect me at all. But I’m enjoying it a bit, too. I’m on the sidelines but I’m still helping. The retorts from my boss feel like less of a personal attack. It gives me just enough distance from the situation that I can advocate for others with more clarity. Mostly, I just want the students to have everything they need.”

“That’s a pretty big change from earlier,” Keishin said. He meant it as a compliment but immediately worried it had sounded incredulous, even critical.

Ittetsu took it as intended. “You’ve played a big part in that. Thank you for helping me reconnect with old friends, and for encouraging me to make new ones. I have the support I need to do this. No matter how things go I know people will be there for me.” He took another bite and smiled. “I know you’ll be there for me, probably with a delicious meal to cheer me up.”

Keishin turned his head, too many emotions stirred up at once. “My cookin’s not that good,” he said.

Ittetsu hummed and took another bite. “You’re really cute when you turn red like that, you know.”

How the hell am I supposed to react to that?!  Keishin thought as he ducked his head, curling in on himself.  The events of the previous night welled up in him, the horrible thud of the door when his dad had stormed out. The contrast was too much.

“Keishin, how are you doing with everything?” Ittetsu asked. “You’ve been quiet tonight.”

Keishin startled and pulled himself out of it. “I uh, I guess I just need a bit of quiet.”

Ittetsu chewed another bite and regarded him thoughtfully. “How are things with your family?” he asked.

Bullseye. Keishin flinched. As always, Ittetsu read him like a book.

“…I… came out to my parents last night,” Keishin admitted.

Ittetsu’s eyes widened. “What?! Keishin, that’s a really big deal! Why didn’t you tell me? Are you… is everything okay?” He dropped his chopsticks and began to stand up.

Keishin looked away. “I didn’t wanna tell you because it didn’t go great and while I’ve still got a place t’live and my job at the store, I didn’t want… I just wanted tonight t’be nice. You don’t need more to deal with.” He swallowed, embarrassed by the cracking of his voice.

“Keishin, I respect your desire to protect my feelings, but you can do that by being honest with me.” Ittetsu set his hand on Keishin’s arm, softening the scolding. “I want to know what’s happening in your life.”

“You’re right. Sorry.” Keishin set his hand over Ittetsu’s. “I just… I don’t know what I thought.”

Ittetsu gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “What happened?”

“My ma’s alright,” Keishin said. “But my da…. He couldn’t even look at me. As soon as I said it, he just walked out of the room. I heard him and my ma exchangin’ words and to be honest I think if it weren’t for her, I’d be looking for a new place to live right now.”

Ittetsu frowned, his face scrunching like he’d tasted something bitter. “He doesn’t understand. If he knew more, knew what it was like—” He left the table and started rummaging through a stack of papers nearby. “I’ve been gathering resources for parents of queer children. I can give you a copy! Maybe that would help.”

Keishin reeled at the change in the conversation. “That’s not—I don’t know how much that’ll help him…”

Ittetsu pulled out a booklet and held it out to Keishin. It was clear from the cover that it was geared towards the parents of teenagers. “There’s resources on support groups for them in here, and definitions of terms—"

Keishin cut Ittetsu off from his spiel. “Look, my da’s worried for me because he had a good future in mind for me and I can’t do it. It’s that simple. I’m not gonna be a happily married man, and that’s what hurts him.”

“Then I’ll meet with him,” Ittetsu declared, sending a jolt to Keishin’s stomach. “I’ll convince him that you’re safe with me, that you’re loved.”

“What?! No.” Keishin’s frustrations broke. No! You’re not—we’re not doing that!” The vision of Ittetsu under his father’s scrutinizing stare was too much. His da’s rejection was of Keishin, and Keishin alone. “I know you wanna fix this, but can you just—!” Keishin cut himself off. He covered his face, then said quietly. “I just need things to not be okay for right now. Okay?”

Ittetsu stilled. “Okay,” he said. He sat back down at the table. Silence stretched uncomfortably through the room. “I’m sorry I… What can I do for you?”

Keishin faltered, unsure of how to convey his need for this place and eating dinner together and things feeling normal despite the quiet ache in his chest. He swallowed and made a vague gesture, somewhere between a shrug and a beckon.

Ittetsu pushed his plate next to Keishin’s, then moved around to sit next to him rather than across. He pressed his shoulder gently against Keishin’s as he sat down. “I’m here,” he said.

Keishin leaned against him and turned his face into Ittetsu’s shoulder to inhale the scent of him. “I know. Please eat.”

Ittetsu picked up his chopsticks. “You too,” he said gently.

Keishin obediently took a bite of his katsudon. It was losing some of its crunchiness, but the hearty flavor was still comforting. “…Sorry,” he said after a few bites. “I had all these dumb—” he stopped himself, then tried again. “I had a lot of ideas about you meetin’ my folks. I wanted it to go right.”

Ittetsu started to speak, “I shouldn’t have pushed—“

Keishin shook his head. “No. You’re fine. I… Let me see how things shake out, and if I’ve got any family left, I’d be honored to have you meet ‘em.

“Is that why you came out to your family?” Ittetsu’s voice was quiet.

“I woulda talked to you about that first, if that was all” Keishin sighed and set his chopsticks down over his empty bowl. “I wanted them to know me. Let my da and grandad talk things out with all the facts. I’m tired of the people who matter to me not knowin’. I’m tired of shaping my life around what people might say or what the stupid rumor mill spits out. I wanna control the narrative, here.”

Ittetsu’s eyes widened slightly at the last sentence. “I’m wearing off on you,” he said with a smile.

Keishin rolled his eyes. “Y’just now noticed, huh? You’ve been some kinda influence from the first time y’ called me at the shop.” He nudged Ittetsu with his shoulder.

Ittetsu laughed and relaxed a little into the touch. “So, what’s the game plan?”

“I was thinkin’ I’d talk to the guys on the neighborhood team next. Let ‘em know I don’t actually have a sugar daddy, at least. I don’t really give a shit about anyone else.”

Ittetsu’s eyes widened. “Wait, people are saying you have a sugar daddy? I’m going to need to take on a second job!”

Keishin snorted. “You can thank your neighbor for that one. Anyway, the rumors are so ridiculous now I doubt anybody can really believe ‘em anyway, thanks to her.” He wrapped an arm around Ittetsu. “Has anyone bothered you?”

Ittetsu leaned into him. “No, not really. Granted, I keep so busy with work I might not have noticed. We’ve been gaining some momentum with the art club battle and it’s hard to think about anything besides that and the team. Yachi-san’s been getting involved with the art club. The amount of pressure that woman can apply is impressive. I hope the principal sees reason.”

“Me too. Anythin’ I can do to help?” Keishin asked.

“Kiss me,” Ittetsu replied, a demand that Keishin was happy to oblige.

--

“I’m open!” Azumane shouted. He spiked the ball into the floor on the other side of the net with a boom.

Nishinoya cheered. “Fuck yeah!! Oh man, your next team is gonna be in for a real treat!”

“Hey, language,” Ennoshita scolded.

Azumane smiled, flushed from the training session. He and the other third years had been missing a lot of the practices lately while they focused on getting ready for whatever they had planned after graduation.

Tanaka’s face went placid as a buddha’s before he sent a vicious serve across the court, sending Nishinoya scrambling. “You’ve got an ace right here, bro!”

Keishin chuckled. The high school team was settling into a sweet rhythm during the lull. A few players had been pulled out for more special training camps, but the energy here was a pleasant mix of ambitious optimism and time to re-focus on the basics. Ittetsu was at a staff meeting tonight, but Keishin was sure that if he was here he’d have something beautiful to say about the end of the school year.

Across the court, Shimizu watched the scrimmage with an unreadable face. She’d been even more quiet than usual lately. Ittetsu had told him she planned to go to college in Kyoto. Keishin imagined her taking in the sights of the school gym just as he once did, trying to absorb all the good in there before it slipped away.

Yachi came running into the gym, flustered that she was late.  Shimizu’s face lit up into a smile the instant she came in.  Yachi ran over to her and they started talking and going through their notes.

As practice went on, a handful of students gathered at the doors to the gym to watch. Keishin didn’t recognize them, but it wasn’t that surprising. Ever since Nationals they’d get some occasional gawkers, here to see what all the fuss about the volleyball team was about. Yachi waved when she saw them.

“Alright, that’s enough for today!” Keishin shouted across the gym. “Let’s start clean up and then everybody can go home and get something to eat!”

His kids started cleanup with varying levels of enthusiasm. The gawkers outside the gym took it as their cue to come inside. There were four of them, and Yachi greeted them with a familiar smile. Keishin moved to stand nearby, just close enough to keep an ear on things.

He didn’t want anyone bothering his students, after all.

“—and this is Kiyoko, she’s the head manager on the team!” Yachi was saying. “Kiyoko, these are the members of the art club I was telling you about.”

“We’ve heard a lot about you!” a girl with a green headband said. “Yachi-chan loves to talk about the volleyball team, and I can see why!”

“Yeah, that was amazing!” a boy with longish hair said. “Our volleyball team is really good. Maybe if the art club does get canned, I’ll start a cheer squad for you or something…” he trailed off, then ducked his head in embarrassment.

“That would be welcome!” Shimizu said. “The team always needs more support.” She smiled at him gently.

If it gets canned,” said the tallest student. “It won’t. We’re meeting with the staff to discuss the importance of arts education next week. We’ll make our demands known.”

“It’s so scary when you put it that way, Rin-chan!” the girl in the green headband ribbed her friend. “Save the tire slashing for if we don’t get our way.”

Keishin decided to pretend he hadn’t heard that.

“Since the club’s still on hiatus, we were gonna go get some snacks and study together. Would you two like to join us?” the boy with glasses asked.

Shimizu’s face lit up briefly, then she frowned. “Sorry, I—” she began, before her phone started to ring. “Excuse me.”  She stepped away to answer it. “Yes, Mom. No, you don’t need to pick me up. I’m just on my way home now. Yes. Sorry.” She put her phone away and smiled apologetically at Yachi and the others. “Sorry, my parents have kept a pretty strict curfew lately…”

“I get it,” the boy with longish hair said. “Maybe next time?”

The crowd shuffled out the door. Yachi lingered by Shimizu, and Keishin took his cue to give them some space.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Yachi squeeze Shimizu’s hand. Shimizu smiled sadly and said something as she stroked Yachi’s cheek.

As Keishin went to lock up the gym that night, he paused and looked back. The setting sun was retreating in a thin line across the floor. It reminded him of his own final days as a student, and the way it felt like something ending while some terrible unknown future reached for him.

That was before he knew what his life could be. When it was all one thin line, shrinking by the second.

He turned around, towards the sun and the orange light that poured all throughout the valley, then closed the gym doors and locked up for the night.

 

--

Before Shimada could open the doors to leave the gym, Keishin cleared his throat. It was their first practice since Tattsuan’s return, and Keishin had been waiting all evening for the right moment to speak but it had never seemed to come. It was now or never.

“Hey uh, there’s actually somethin’ I’d like to go over real quick, if y’all don’t mind.” Keishin said.

His teammates turned to him, their bags in hand. Takinoue was bouncing on his toes, ready for after-practice drinks.

Surprise flickered across Tattsuan’s face, then he nodded at Keishin.

Keishin cleared his throat and made himself stand tall. “I know there’s a lot of talk goin’ around about me lately, and I’d rather address it plainly than let it simmer.” He took a deep breath. “I am gay. And no, I don’t have a sugar daddy or whatever. This isn’t anything new, so please don’t think of me any differently. I’m just me. Same as ever.”

An awkward silence filled the hall. Shimada’s face slowly turned into a proud smile.

Uchizawa broke the ice first. “So wait, you don’t have a sugar daddy? Does that mean you’re still gonna hit us all up for cash the next time your high school team goes to a tournament? I’m almost disappointed!”

Laughter wavered between the players. Mori crossed his arms awkwardly, his laughter the quietest.

Tattsuan stepped forward and slapped Keishin on the back. “Guess nobody has to wonder any more then. Thank you for trusting us all. I think it’s important for us to look out for each other as a team. Do you want us to say anything to folks about it or…?”

“I like t’keep my business my own. So don’t spread this around, but… don’t feel like you have to deny it to everybody either. It’s not something shameful. I’d rather people talk about volleyball than who I sleep with. The rumors were affecting the team, so I wanted to address it with y’all. That’s all.”

“That’s our man!” Takinoue grinned and threw an arm around his shoulder. “The court above all else.”

Keishin smiled, Takinoue’s touch relaxing his nerves. “Well, you know me.”

“So… no big deal then,” Mori said with a shrug. “Who even cares, right? Doesn’t matter!”

“I care.” Shimada stepped past Mori and gave Keishin a soft punch on the arm. “Thanks for trusting us with this. We gotta celebrate! Maybe some sushi?”

“Sounds great. Let’s go eat!” Uchizawa said.

On the way to dinner, Tattsuan pulled Mori aside and talked with him, speaking too quietly for Keishin to hear.

As they walked, Keishin unclenched his hands. He hadn’t even realized how tense he had been until the realization hit that he had nothing to hide from them anymore.

They were still his team.

They were still his friends.

 

--

Dinners at home were still painfully awkward. Keishin’s da had spent a week completely avoiding him. Lately he’d progressed to offering Keishin short greetings and a noticeable lack of eye contact.

“Thanks for the meal.” His da stood up and took his plate to the kitchen. “I’ve got an early start on the farm tomorrow, so I’m turning in early.”

“I’ll be there to help, Da,” Keishin called out.

His da grunted, then walked upstairs.

It was… something, at least.

Keishin thought of the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. No, not in his pocket. He’d started keeping them in his gym bag in the entryway to try and break the habit of smoking at home.

He had never quite realized how much the absence of something could hurt. 

His ma picked up the remaining plates off the table. “Keishin, help me with the dishes and then we can sit down and have some coconut jelly. I bought it special for us.”

That snapped Keishin out of his distraction. He helped his ma clean up, and they ate jelly together while she told him about a new TV crime show she’d been getting into. In exchange he told her about a few funny moments the kids had gotten themselves into, and about the art club, and about some recipes he wanted to try out. It was a pleasant break from the silence in the house and a distraction from the nicotine cravings that kept washing over him.

The silence and cravings both returned in full force the next day. Keishin’s da managed to only see him once throughout the whole morning of planting in the fields. Keishin caught him watching as he and Tattsuan were setting out bags of fertilizer. His da looked away as soon as Keishin saw him and returned to his own work.

There was something in his expression that stuck with Keishin for the rest of the day, through his bike ride and home and well into his shift at the store. He looked… judgmental, sure, but something else too. Keishin shook his head. Maybe it was just that his mind was ready to analyze any scraps of information it could get from his da at this point.

Keishin’s phone buzzed on the store counter. It was a text from Uchizawa.

Hey buddy, just wanted to say thanks for trusting the team with who you are. You need anything, and we’ll be there for you.

Keishin took the pencil he’d been updating the shop ledger with out of his mouth. It was full of teeth marks where he’d been gnawing at it in a poor attempt to stave off another craving. He reread the text from Uchizawa and felt his shoulders relax a little.

Keishin had started timing his nicotine cravings. He’d found that they usually lasted about twenty minutes. By that estimate, he had another ten minutes to go before the current craving passed and his body settled down again. He bargained with himself that if he resisted now then he’d give in to the next craving when it came.

He bounced his leg behind the table and let his mind race. Despite the mixed results, he’d felt calmer since coming out to the team and his parents, so his anxieties flew without anything concrete to hold on to. Would his da ever come around? Maybe. Would he tell his grandad? The old man already knew. The anxiety was uncomfortable and he had to focus on keeping his breathing steady, but his nerves would settle down soon enough. He could feel a headache forming, but that wasn’t anything some cold medicine couldn’t ease.

The craving subsided right as the bell on the shop door rang. Keishin looked up and was surprised to see Shimizu enter alone. It was the quiet hour between lunch and when school let out, so she must have skipped a class to come here. He frowned at the thought but decided not to ask.

She looked around the shop. Once she saw the store was empty she went up to the counter but didn’t meet his eye.

“May I… ask you something?” she said.

“Of course.” He led her to the little table in the shop that was farthest from the door and prying eyes. “Have a seat.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Then Shimizu took a deep and slightly shaky breath. “Are… you gay?” she asked.

Keishin startled. Despite everything going on, she was the first person to ask him directly. He felt a brief instinct to deny it, but the reflex fell quickly to his better thoughts. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.”

“Are you… happy?” She said quietly, “I just want to know… if you can be gay and be happy.”

Keishin took a deep breath. “Y’know, if you’d asked me that a year ago I might’ve had a different answer. But… yeah, I am happy.” Even with everything going on, his life had changed so much. He had changed.

Shimizu began to smile, then her face fell. Keishin could practically see the doubt, hear the echoes of his own self-hatred in the movements of her face.

He cleared his throat. “You know, if I’d heard someone say somethin’ like that when I was younger, I would’ve thought it was probably because the person speaking had some kinda strength that I didn’t. But look, kid… I may act as a mentor, but the fact is I’ve been a goddamn mess most of my life. There’s nothin’ I’ve got that you don’t.”

“Then how…” she trailed off. She was shaking now. Keishin waited for her to speak again. “How can you say you’re happy, despite yourself?”

“It’s because of myself. And because of who you are.” Keishin felt something shift in himself. Instead of just the lonely thread of his life, he could see a tapestry of connections. “Look, there’s a lot of shit in this town. But whatever the motive, nothing justifies treatin’ you this way. Makin’ you think happiness is for other people. They’re wrong.” Keishin shook his head to clear his anger, then continued. “I can’t tell you how you’ll find happiness. Maybe it’ll happen when you get the hell out of this town, away from the assholes who think there’s only one way t’ be in the world. Maybe it will come to you all at once, or maybe you’ll just keep gatherin’ good people and good things around yourself and one day you’ll look up and find that happiness snuck up on you somehow. I don’t know. But what I do know is that everything that makes you who you are—your queerness and your passions and that big heart of yours—it’s a goddamn treasure. The world is better with people like us in it.” Keishin’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before pressing on. “I’m so proud our town has made someone like you.”

Shimizu had been holding herself together by a thread. It broke then, her usual placid demeanor replaced with quiet and ugly tears as she set down the weight of whatever bullshit had been put on her.

Keishin slid a pack of tissues towards her. “Yeah alright, let it out.” He sniffed and turned his head to pad the tears off his own face.

Shimizu hid her face behind a tissue and sobbed. It was quiet and jagged, and done after just a few breaths. She looked up at him, eyes red. “You didn’t even cry when we won against Shiratorizawa,” she said.

Keishin cleared his throat and tried to compose himself. “Yeah, well.” He sniffed. “This is another kinda victory. People like us surviving, gettin’ the chance to thrive. Havin’ the courage to talk to each other.”

“The greatest victory will be winning Nationals next year,” she said with a wry smile. She sighed and patted at her face with the tissue. “Hitoka keeps telling me to look up the LGBT center at my university. I… want to try.”

“You’ll find people. You’ll find space to heal and let go of the pain you’ve been keeping inside yourself. Parts of that might be hard, but you can always call on your teachers—and on me—and we’ll be here for you,” Keishin said. “You’ve got people cheering you on.”

Shimizu nodded, then folded her hands neatly in front of her as she looked Keishin in the eye. “Please be there for Hitoka, too.”

“Of course. And she’s lucky, because she’s got a senpai like you.” Keishin smiled. “Us crows’ll watch out for each other. Now get on out there and fly.”

She gave him a smile that said he was being a bit too cheesy, but she appreciated it anyway.

A while after she left, Keishin felt another nicotine craving. He indulged this one. Recovery was a process, after all.

The sun streamed in through the window and warmed his skin. He savored the moment, then snuffed out the cigarette and got back to work.

 

--

Keishin collapsed onto Ittetsu’s bed, sweaty and exhausted. The sounds of some rock band echoed through the room. He sighed happily, barely audible over the radio. The pillow was soft and clean under his face. He shifted, rolling over and pushing the towel underneath him aside.

He smiled blearily at Ittetsu. “C’mere,” he purred.

“Just a minute,” Ittetsu replied, still out of breath. He slipped himself out of the condom and set it in the little trashcan near the bed, then reached over and turned off the radio. Silence fell over the room, quickly filled by the sound of their breathing and the rustle of the sheets as Ittetsu crawled into bed. He settled against Keishin, his head on his chest, and sighed.

Keishin ran a hand through Ittetsu’s hair. The world seemed perfectly balanced, warm and bright. One of their cellphones buzzed, but neither of them moved to get it.

Ittetsu traced his fingers over Keishin’s chest. “I like that,” he sighed.

Keishin closed his eyes, lost in the moment. “Which part?” he mumbled.

Ittetsu giggled. “All of it. But to be specific, I was thinking of those little noises you make when I fuck you.”

A phone buzzed again.

Keishin kept his eyes closed. He tapped Ittetsu’s scalp gently with a one finger. “I’m surprised y’can hear me over yourself,” he teased, not even mentioning the radio.

“Of course I can. I wouldn’t want to miss a second of you.” Ittetsu nuzzled against him.

A phone buzzed repeatedly, as though one of them was getting a flood of text messages. It didn’t stop.

Keishin groaned. “Is that mine or yours?”

Buzz buzz.

“I thought I turned my ringer off.” Ittetsu sat up and reached for where his slacks lay on the floor.

A phone buzzed from near Keishin’s clothes. “Guess it’s mine, then,” he sighed.

Ittetsu unlocked his phone. “Oh, it’s for both of us, actually! It’s a group chat.”

“Really?” More buzzes came from Keishin’s phone. He scrunched his face and rolled onto his side to look at Ittetsu. “What’s goin’ on?”

Ittetsu scrolled through his phone, then he gasped. “Itsuki got the job he wanted! Look!”

“Seriously?!” Keishin sat up and began to read over Ittetsu’s shoulder.

Bananakano: GUESS WHO’S EMPLOYED AGAIN  ˚✧₊(‐^▽^‐)⁺˳✧༚
Bananakano: Nijiro Education Network has a new employer education coordinator!!
Bananakano: SO GUESS WHO’S READY TO DESTORY CISHETEREONORMATIVITY
Bananakano: AGAIN!!! ˚✧₊(‐ ಠ▽ಠ‐)⁺˳✧༚

AraiArrives: That’s wonderful news! (^_^)

NeoReo: YES YES YES GET PAID TO LECTURE SHITTY MANAGERS!

Kobayashi-sama: fucking knew you’d get it! congrats

Bananakano: I’d like to take a minute to thank all the little people \ \ \\˚✧₊(‐^▽^‐)⁺˳✧༚ // / /
Bananakano: hit me up if there’s any orgs you think need a good kick in the pants

Ittetsu lit up and started typing on his phone.

PerhapsAPoet: do you work with schools as well?
PerhapsAPoet: I have a request if so

Bananakano: I was wondering if you’d ask!
Bananakano: send me an email and I’ll point my coworkers at it ᕙ( * •̀ ᗜ •́ * )ᕗ
Bananakano: bring some light and glitter to your beautiful little mountain town

PerhapsAPoet: I will, thanks! and congratulations! ꉂꉂ ( ˆˆ )

Keishin found his phone in his pile of clothes and typed out his own congratulations, then put it on silent so he could put his attention back on Ittetsu. “Well, that’s some good news,” he said.

Ittetsu flopped back onto the bed with a big smile. “I’m so relieved! It’s perfect for him. Plus, while I have gathered some materials on my own, having more robust support will really help me out at work.”

Keishin relaxed back and set an arm around Ittetsu. “You’re gonna drag the school into some inclusivity, huh?”

“Yes! The students are the future of this town and this country. If we can show them a better way, teach them about how diverse life can be, then I’ll have earned my place as a teacher.” Ittetsu closed his eyes and sighed.

“You don’t gotta earn nothing,” Keishin said. “You’re enough just as you are.”

Ittetsu smiled, his eyes warm and shining as he looked at Keishin. “You too.”

Keishin exhaled and looked away, a smile creeping onto his face before he knew it. “If you say it then I guess I gotta believe it.”

Ittetsu laughed, then planted a kiss on Keishin’s cheek. “Thank you for coming over tonight. I needed this.”

 Keishin grinned. “Me too, y’know. The spring planting’s been taking up a lot of time, not to mention how hard you’ve been workin’ to keep that club together.”

“Lots of people have been working on that!” Ittetsu lit up, his inner fire glowing as his mind raced back into thoughts of work. “Kuroki started putting pressure on the school—apparently one of her coworkers is drawing out the school maps for funding and redistricting, and they’re saying they want to expand to more rural schools in the new Sendai suburbs plan, but only if they meet certain requirements for inclusivity. That’s just adding to the pressure from the community. Hayami keeps giving me names of people to ask for support.” He grinned at Keishin. “I think you’ve had a hand in that as well, so thank you.”

“I’ll keep doin’ what I can,” Keishin said. “Maybe you can give me some of the materials you’ve found already? I’m sure I’ve got more to learn, too.” It was satisfying to see so many people coming together for this, making a bridge to cross some impossible distance. Keishin wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to know how to protect and welcome everyone he could.

Ittetsu smiled and pulled him in for a kiss, as if the tiny space between them was too much to bear.

 

--

Sometimes Keishin wondered if the effects of stopping smoking were worse than what might eventually happen if he continued. It wasn’t a logical thought. He knew what smoking could do to his lungs and he’d seen the damage it had done to his grandad’s heart. But for weeks now his sinuses had been stuffy and his cough was getting more disgusting each day. Ota had reassured him it was just his body finally being able to clear out some of the damage. Which was great, but it didn’t change the fact that he felt like shit.

He brought up Ota’s newest message to him and read it again while another nicotine craving crested.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it all the time, your health is getting better every day. Keep at it, and you’ll get there. If you quit by the time I move up north I’ll buy you and your boyfriend a nice dinner, how’s that?

Keishin still rolled his eyes at the bribery. It shouldn’t be so enticing—he could buy his own damn dinners after all—but his appetite had shot up since he cut down on the cigarettes.  A good meal with an old friend was always appealing, anyway.

The message vanished as his phone began to ring from an unknown number. He answered it. “Hello?”

A smooth and polite voice came through the line, “Hello, is this coach Ukai Keishin? It’s Inoue Saburo.”

Keishin’s blood went cold. “Principal Inoue!” he startled, wondering why the hell Ittetsu’s boss was calling him. “What can I help you with, sir?”

“Glad you remember me, Ukai-kun. I’d like to meet with you to discuss something related to the volleyball club. Could you meet me in my office after school? It shouldn’t take long,” Inoue said.

“Oh, uh. Of course.” Keishin said. Of course he remembered Inoue. He’d been vice-principal when Keishin was in high school and had made Keishin’s life hell any chance he got.

“Wonderful. I’ll see you then.” Inoue hung up the phone.

Keishin spent the rest of the afternoon distracted, his mind turning over possibilities of why the principal would want to speak with him. There was a tinge of familiar dread too, leftover from Keishin’s school days. He rotated part of the store’s inventory to distract himself while he worried.

That afternoon, Keishin arrived at the school right on time for their meeting. Even still, he hesitated in the hallway in front of Inoue’s door. He wished he had let himself have a smoke before he got there.

No, it didn’t matter. Keishin didn’t need it, not really. He could do this. He took a deep breath and knocked on the slightly open door.

“Come in, Ukai-kun. Have a seat.” Inoue was exactly as Keishin remembered him. He was a thin man of average height, with thick black glasses and well-pressed clothes.

Keishin sat down in front of the desk. The principal’s office seemed both familiar and alien. Inoue had added a few houseplants and decorative pottery pieces around the room since he took the position, but the furniture underneath took Keishin right back to his troubled youth.

“Nice to see you,” Keishin said politely, though the roughness of this throat made it seem gruffer than he intended.

The principal cleared his throat. “Thank you for meeting with me. As I’m sure you know, there’s been a bit of a hubbub at the school lately around some of our club activities.”

Keishin tilted his head. “If the volleyball club needs t’be doing something different, I’m sure our coach Takeda-sensei would be happy to hear your concerns.”

Inoue gave him a cunning smile. “I’m pleased with what you and Takeda-sensei have done with the volleyball club! The attention will help the school tremendously. It’s not often a rural school such as ours gets this opportunity. But as I’m sure you’re aware, attention can also bring… scrutiny, shall we say?” He raised his eyebrows.

Keishin shrugged. “Dunno what you mean.”

“Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.” Inoue sighed. “I’ll be straightforward with you, then. One of our teachers has co-opted the art club into promoting deviancy.” Keishin bit his tongue and tried to hide his flinch at the words. His hands curled into fists on his knees, out of sight of the principal. Inoue went on, “I tolerated it for a time, but with so many eyes on the school these days, it can’t continue. I have to answer to the concerns of parents and the community.” He leaned back in his chair, hints of disgust leaking through his professional mask. “This teacher has riled outsiders against me so she can push her agenda. Unfortunately, she’s a favorite of the funding board, so I can’t just oust her. I’ve already cut some programming to appease her, but she’s greedy. They all are.”

Keishin took a silent breath to keep his rage in check. “With all due respect, I don’t really see what this has to do with me,” he said carefully. “I think every teacher wants what’s best for their students, myself as an assistant coach included.”

“I’m happy to hear that, because you can help me,” Inoue said. “The volleyball club is at the center of the new interest in Karasuno. If the volleyball team’s coaches were to speak out in favor of the school’s traditional values, it would carry a lot of weight. Perhaps enough to allow us to take advantage of these new opportunities while still maintaining who we are. Takeda-sensei has refused, but your name might matter more, Ukai-kun.”

Keishin stomach churned at the thought of the principal using his family’s name like that. He briefly considered just walking out, then thought better of it. “I have a sense of what’s on the table.” He thought of the way everyone was fighting so hard for those kids, and of Kuroki’s move to get more students there if they allowed the art club to stay and included more LGBT and inclusivity education for everyone. “Is this so important to you that you’d risk losing all that? Why can’t we just let kids be.

Inoue tapped his finger on the mahogany desk. “Do you know what is the most important thing a school can teach its students, Ukai-kun? It isn’t history or arithmetic. It’s how to integrate into society and be good citizens. Of course, the foundation of any functional society is the family. Man and wife, working happily in complimentary roles. If we can’t do that, then…” Inoue’s wedding ring glinted in the light as he folded his hands in front of him. “I’ll surely have failed my students.”

Keishin kept his voice level. “Surely there’s plenty of ways to be a hardworking and loving person. To be honest, I don’t see how cultivating denial and self-hatred is gonna lead to any kind of healthy society.”

“We all deny ourselves,” Inoue said. “We all have roles to play, and we play them for the sake of our communities. That’s life. The sooner we all come to accept that, the better.”

Keishin remembered the first and only time he’d dared to walk into a gay bar in Sendai. It was the first place that came up when he’d searched the internet. He had spotted Inoue there immediately, leaning against a wall and talking to an older man just inside the bar. Keishin had fled before he was noticed and never returned to that bar, or any LGBT space in Sendai. Back then, Keishin had been terrified of being seen and outed at home, and Inoue’s presence was a spectral reminder of how he could lose everything in an instant. Now, not even two years later, Keishin sat across from Inoue and saw not a frightening specter, but just another scared man. “Roles change as society changes,” Keishin said. “Every one of those kids has a place and something to offer, no matter who they love, no matter what their gender. We can choose to accept those gifts.”

“I’ve been around for much longer than you. Don’t lecture me. I know what choices are in front of them. I didn’t spend my life—!” Inoue cut himself off and calmed himself. “There are many roads to take in life, but only a few lead to a harmonious and peaceful society.”

“You know, when I was a student here… I hated myself,” Keishin said quietly. That was enough to give Inoue pause. Keishin went on, “It took a long time to recover from that. You say you’ve changed the curriculum since then, but I had a kid ask me the other day if it was even possible to be gay and be happy. Is this your vision of a good society, one where kids are already convinced that joy just isn’t for them? I don’t buy it. Those kids are making a space for themselves where they can imagine a better way for the world to be. Where they can make that better world happen. And you’ve got people all over asking you to go along with it. The problem isn’t with the students or their supporters.”

“You don’t know what the world is like, you don’t know what gets asked of a man as he becomes respectable! I have parents and funders of the school calling me every day to ask when I’ll get this under control!” Inoue snapped. “Your grandfather would understand why this is an issue.”

Keishin suppressed a bitter laugh. “If you knew my grandfather, you’d know how much he hates other people tryin’ to speak for him.” He shook his head. “Listen, this isn’t about me. This isn’t about my grandad, and this isn’t about you. You can choose to lead your life however you like, but your role as an educator means you have the power to change what people will and won’t accept. If some of the parents and funders don’t get it, then educate them. You have the tools and the materials to do that. And you have people who will back you up.”

“You think it’s so easy—” Inoue began.

“It’s not,” Keishin agreed. “It’s hard. And one of the hardest things of all is that this stuff wasn’t available sooner. But our lives have been what they have been. Those kids can and will walk a different path, whether or not we support them.”

Inoue blinked, then frowned. “I’m not like you,” he said quickly.

“No,” Keishin agreed. “But I know we both care about these kids.”

Inoue rubbed his forehead, defeated. “If we lose funding because of this, I’m taking it out of the volleyball club budget first.”

It was a threat, but the club had enough supporters that Keishin was willing to call his bluff. “As principal, that’s your decision to make.”

Inoue’s eyes widened slightly. “Perhaps you’re more like your grandfather than I thought.” His expression soured and he turned away. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some other matters to attend to.”

“Of course.” Keishin stood up. The room seemed smaller than it was before, less intimidating. “Have a good evening, sensei.”

Keishin walked out of the principal’s office, out of the school, and into the beauty of a spring sunset. A flock of magpies rested on the telephone wires, watching the orange light spread through the valley.

Keishin inhaled deeply, taking in the clear air. He felt exhausted, and wary, and vaguely giddy, as if he’d just faced a terrible opponent on the court and survived into the final set.

 

--

That was the biggest part Keishin played in the battle for the art club. For the rest of it he was on the sidelines, cooking meals and buying beer for Ittetsu and his friends, giving Nakano the ins and outs of the politics of the school, and encouraging supportive parents to call. Kuroki leveraged everything she could from the city planning board. Hisakawa led the students and most of the teachers in a wider school conversation about acceptance and bullying. Yachi’s mom pushed the funding board to add inclusivity as a priority. The students themselves met with the principal and vice principal to explain their situation.

In the end, the school kept the art club and the principal agreed to add a token amount of LGBT+ education to the curriculum. On paper, the education part didn’t seem like much: a single 5-minute lesson during social sciences class each year, and a day of anti-bullying training for the teachers. But it was an open door, a conversation starter. And when Keishin considered his darker days in high school, he knew it could be a lifeline.

The students were able to celebrate the art clubs’ return a week before graduation. Ittetsu told Keishin that they had a party over the lunch hour in a little room full of colorful flags, and that they ate cake and painted a canvas with an image of a bird flying free, its feathers blending all the hues of the rainbow.

For the rest of the semester Yachi and Shimizu barely left each other’s sides. Shimizu still had to hurry home after practice, but Keishin found excuses for them to stay longer whenever he could. He’d talk to Shimizu’s mother on the phone, tell her how the equipment n