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The Excruciatingly Beautiful Process of Falling In Love (As Told By Tsukishima Kei Over Ten Chaotic, Wonderful Years)

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0.

 

Rain pounding down on the metal roof. Every seat in the auditorium taken, suits and business wear in the front and school uniforms in the back. A single spotlight beating down on the stage, increasing the temperature ten or so degrees for anyone standing on or sitting anywhere near it. One voice says a name, everyone applauds before falling back into a stuffy and suffocating silence. Students walk up one at a time, take their diplomas, and sit back down again while they wait for everyone else.

Kei knows the graduation routine well. He’s been to the ceremony twice, since the school makes all the students go every year. He’s seen two groups of people leave, and he hadn’t known most of the people in them. It’s been weird coming back after break and seeing that a whole group of people has been replaced by five classes worth of gremlins, but he’s never really cared all that much.

But now that he’s waiting for his own name to be called, everything seems different somehow. He feels... something, and he isn’t sure what that something is.

He’s sitting next to someone from one of the other classes, a girl that he’s never talked to and never gotten to know. He doesn’t even remember her name, and neither of them seem to have any interest in talking, so he doesn’t bother to find that out. She’s whispering to one of her friends next to her, quiet enough so that no one knows they’re talking, let alone what they’re saying.

He would be tempted to take his phone out and text Tadashi something, but that seems like it would just be in poor taste and Tadashi’s talking to Yachi in their row on the other side of the aisle. Kei’s jealous that they get to sit together while he barely knows anybody in his general vicinity, but he can get past that. He can be alone with his thoughts until this is over.

Someone else’s name is called, a girl in the row in front of him. She walks up the stairs onto the stage, the principal gives her her diploma, and she shakes the hands of a line of teachers, all while the audience steadily applauds. The girl sits back down, the people in her row congratulate her, and the cycle starts all over again.

As the next person’s name is called, Kei’s thoughts start to wander. He starts staring out the window, and no one seems to notice. The sky's getting darker, and the clouds are getting thicker.

“Tsukioka Chiyo.”

The girl sitting next to Kei immediately hops up to her feet amidst a cluster of giggles from the girls sitting around her. She eagerly walks through the row and up to the stage, and it seems like the pink ribbon in her hair is about to fall out. She's grinning the entire time, cheerfully and enthusiastically shaking each teacher’s hand. She practically skips down the aisle again, diploma in hand, before sitting back down again, tightening the ribbon as all her friends whisper congratulations before it all dies down again for a split second.

“Good luck.” Kei hears a whisper from Tsukioka’s side, and when he looks over at her, she's smiling just as wide as she was on stage. Kei isn't quite sure what kind of luck he needs - the only thing he can see happening to anyone is tripping somewhere, and even that seems unlikely - but he nods a quick thanks anyway and looks straight ahead, waiting for his name to be called.

“Tsukishima Kei.”

Kei gets up from his seat just as the applause starts, and soon realized that it's incredibly weird hearing it now that it's meant for him. It's a rare occurrence whenever he's the center of attention, and he's in no way used to this. He shuffles through his row, looking down at all the smiles from all the people he's only talked to once or never at all, before he's walking down the aisle and up the stairs to the stage.

He's surprised to see the teachers looking at him as fondly as they are. Sure, he got good grades and behaved himself in class, but it wasn't doing nothing wrong as much as it was doing nothing at all, and he'd never gotten close with any of them. Well, except his chemistry teacher to an extent. And Takeda-sensei, of course, who Kei is pretty sure is trying not to cry.

“Congratulations!” Takeda-sensei whispers as Kei shakes his hand, the first in the line. He smiles, and Kei nods another thank-you before going down the rest of the line.

The principal’s smiling when he hands Kei the piece of paper he's apparently been working at for years, the one guaranteeing that yes, he did work his ass off for the past three years for a reason.

They briefly turn to the audience for photo-ops, just like everyone else, and Kei can easily spot his family in the third row - they're right next to Hinata’s family, too, but Kei can get past that for now. Akiteru’s holding up his phone and grinning while simultaneously trying to console their mother, who's doing everything she can not to cry. She’s probably saying something like “my baby’s growing up”, just as cheesy as always. Kei manages to flash the tiniest grin he can muster at the phone just as the flash goes off - he doesn't want to smile, but he doesn't want to see how disappointed his mother will be if he's frowning in the picture she may end up framing and displaying somewhere in the house when he's off at college, right next to a photo of a widely-grinning Akiteru at his own graduation. But Kei figures that's going to be replaced by a picture from Akiteru’s upcoming wedding as soon as the summer rolls around.

Right. Akiteru’s getting married . In less than a year . And Kei’s going to be his best man .

Feeling like he's grown ten years older in the span of three seconds, Kei makes his way back down the aisle as the applause continues, and he can easily see Tadashi and Yachi whoop as they meet his eye. Tadashi is smiling even more than usual, which is not only saying something but is making Kei’s heart flutter way more than is necessary.

But there's something almost melancholy hiding behind Tadashi’s smile, and as much as Kei doesn't want to admit or acknowledge it, he knows exactly what it is. He's feeling the same thing.

He walks through his row and sits back down, looking up at the sky again as the same three words run through his mind over and over again:

This is it.

This is it.

This is it.


I.

 

There are some labels that stick on forever, no matter how intimidating you try to be. And even though it’s already been a year since moving to Torono, eight-year-old Kei’s been blessed with the new kid label for at least the next three-and-some years. Maybe forever, depending on where he ends up going to middle school.

Over the past year, he’s learned a lot more than what his teachers have told him in school, mostly about his new home. It’s a suburb of Sendai - it’s barely big enough to be called even that - and plenty of adults live there and spend around sixty minutes on a crowded train to get to work in the city, including his parents. He isn’t sure why they decided to live here instead of somewhere closer, but he doesn’t feel like he needs to. It’s also very rare that anyone new moves in, so he was designated an outcast on his very first day of school, and while he isn’t subject to any bullying - he gets the feeling that people are scared of him - he’s mostly ignored by the rest of the school and doesn’t have any friends. It wasn’t like he had many back where he lived before, but now he has zero. Zilch. Nada.

He’s walking home on a warm and sunny May afternoon - alone, of course - when it happens. Making his way towards the playground, he’s minding his own business when he hears something. Voices, biting and sarcastic. He can’t make out what they’re saying, but they sound like they’re around his age.

When he rounds the corner, he sees four people he’s seen in the halls at school. Three of them are tall-ish; they’ve got some height but it’s nothing compared to what Kei has. They look to be throwing something at the fourth, a scrawny kid with shaggy brown hair and a face full of what looks like freckles. If Kei hadn’t known that all three of them were in the class next door to his at school, he would have thought the freckled kid was at least a year younger than he was.

“Looks like you’re on backpack duty!” The lightest-haired of the bunch laughs, chucking what looks like a backpack into the smaller boy’s chest. “Gotta bulk up somehow, right, Tadashi?”

Tadashi - Kei assumes that’s his name, even though he has no idea what his last name is - seems to let the bag hit him without any sign of resistance and falls to the ground, and Kei just wonders why he doesn’t fight back. It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard, at least from where Kei’s standing; just shove it off and stand up. But whoever this kid is, Kei certainly isn’t him.

“Aw, are you crying now?” One of the other boys asks with a snicker. “You’re such a crybaby , Tadashi!”

Sure enough, Tadashi is in fact crying, even though he’s trying to hide it.

But no matter. Kei has to get home, and the quickest way there is through all this. And he wants to get it over with as quickly as possible. He doesn’t feel the need to get himself involved.

Of course everyone looks at him as he walks by. Of course they do. He’s ridiculously tall for a third-grader, and "ridiculously tall for a _" is a description that he suspects is going to fit him for a long time.

"Who's that guy?" The light-haired boy asks, glaring Kei up before he shrinks back, voice dropping to a whisper. "Is he a sixth-grader?"

"Nah." The third boy, the one who hasn't talked yet, shakes his head with a snicker. "He's just in class three, he's nothing to be worried about."

Kei’s somewhat surprised that he’s being described as “nothing to be worried about” - he’s sure he’s been called worse behind his back, but he’s never bothered to listen - but he doesn’t have time to get more involved with this than he already has. So he walks on by. He can feel everyone’s eyes on him, and after a few seconds of barely trying, he looks back. Everyone’s silent, staring at him like he’s some kind of inhuman entity.

“...Pathetic,” Kei mutters, turning around and walking home.

 

~*~

 

Akiteru’s old shoes fit horribly wrong on Kei’s feet. They’re far too narrow and they’re just barely long enough for Kei’s already-huge feet to fit inside. He’s sure he can play just fine - plenty of people are only starting today, after all, he at least has experience - but he can’t wait until he gets shoes of his own next week.

He walks into the gym alone, just like always, and he already knows that it’s going to be tough to fit in. There are a few people around his age inside, talking up a storm and laughing amongst each other in a way that echoes and never seems to stop.

There’s someone else standing outside, leaning around a corner and looking in from the outside. The hair looks somewhat familiar, mousy and brown, but Kei can’t place where he knows it from. He just offers a quick hello as he passes, not making much out of it.

“Um, th-thank you!”

Kei turns around, not entirely sure the voice is directed at him, only to see the kid looking up at him with a timid smile on his face.

“Excuse me?” Kei tilts his head to the side, unsure of what the other boy is talking about.

“At the park, the other day!” The boy’s smile is bright and wide while it lasts, but it only remains for a few seconds before he looks down at the ground. “I-it’s okay if you don’t remember, it probably wasn’t that important.”

It takes a few seconds of silence for Kei to remember what happened the other day, and even then, he’s surprised that this kid actually thanked him. It wasn’t even like he did anything. Sure, someone could make the case that he caused a distraction, but that didn’t last long.

All his thinking is interrupted by a noise of surprise from the smaller boy, who’s looking down at his shoes in awe. “Are those volleyball shoes?!”

“Y-yeah, I guess.” Kei looks down at the shoes, which he’s only wearing for the first time today. They were his brother’s, and they still don’t fit him quite right. His feet are significantly wider than Akiteru’s were. “They’re my brother’s.”

“Really?” The boy asks, “Does he still play? How old is he?”

“He's in high school.” Kei notices how tentatively the words come out of his mouth, like he doesn’t want to say something wrong. “He plays for the team at Karasuno High -”

Karasuno?! ” The kid’s eyes go wide before he stops, a sheepish grin on his face. “Sorry, I didn't let you finish. W-what position does he play?”

“He’s, like, the ace or something.”

“He’s the ace of a championship team? That's so cool!” The kid looks up, holding out his hand with an intrigued look in his eyes. “What's your name? I'm Yamaguchi Tadashi.”

“Um, Tsukishima Kei.” Kei tentatively returns the handshake, and Yamaguchi just grins up at him again. Kei feels something in the pit of his stomach and he isn’t sure what it is.


 

II.

 

Kei’s read enough books by now to know that the world isn’t as light and colorful as it seems. There’s always that moment when you realize that it’s not all butterflies and rainbows, and he knows it’s coming. He’s just expecting it to happen at least in middle school, and definitely not when he’s only at the tender age of ten.

But he’s not thinking about any of that right now. He’s too busy watching his entire world fall apart.

Okay, maybe he’s being a little melodramatic.

“See, I told you!” That kid from his class, Nakajima or Nakahara or whatever his stupid name is, has been annoying for probably his entire life, but this is on an entirely different level. “None of the regulars are named Tsukishima, none of them!”

Kei wants to punch him.

“Do you really think we don’t know that?” If Kei wasn’t so preoccupied thinking about how he’d just been lied to by one of the very few people he actually trusted, he would have taken a much greater interest in Yamaguchi’s use of the word “we”.

But no. Kei’s staring right into Akiteru’s eyes, and neither of them are even looking at the court anymore. Kei can pretty much see everything going through Akiteru’s mind; he can see the guilt and shame in his eyes, but what does that matter? He still lied, and it doesn’t seem like Kei’s going to be able to live that down for a long time.

“H-hey, Tsukki, are you okay?” Yamaguchi asks, the shyness and uncertainty in his voice painfully clear as Kei snaps out of the weird world-shattering-induced trance he’d been in.

Kei gulps, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Um, I have to go to the bathroom, and your mom said -”

“Right, I’ll go with you.” With one final glance at the court and the stands laid out in front of his eyes - a sight he’d never truly forget - Kei turns around and walks out, desperately trying to think of other things.

“Sorry for making you leave, I -” It’s painfully obvious that Yamaguchi is trying to fill the awkward silence with something, even if it’s just rambling. “I mean, unless you wanted to leave, that is, but that didn’t seem very likely -”

“Shut up, Yamaguchi.”

Yamaguchi looks down at the ground, and Kei’s sure that he thinks he said something wrong, which he really didn’t. “Sorry, Tsukki.”

Things stay silent for a while as they walk down the hall. There’s no one out here save for a few people getting food or using the restroom, and it only serves to make things more tense and more awkward. Yamaguchi won’t look up as he shuffles along the floor, and Kei starts to fall behind as he tries to get his thoughts anywhere in the range of where he wants them to be.

“Um, I’m going to go in now.” Yamaguchi’s twiddling his thumbs again, a nervous habit he’s had for years. “I guess I’ll just meet you out here...”

Kei nods, finding a spot against the wall to sit that’s right next to the window. The rainy season is just beginning and the world outside is a steady drizzle, perfectly paired with the grey and overcast sky. Coincidentally, it also goes pretty well with his mood, too.

He just sits there for a few minutes, ten years old and feeling the entire world get a lot heavier on his shoulders. He should have realized earlier that everything was too good to be true. Even if it was all for his own sake, he should have seen through everything earlier.

He’s so deep in thought that he almost doesn’t notice Yamaguchi sit down next to him. Almost.

“I didn’t think you wanted to go back in yet,” Yamaguchi says quietly, like he’s trying to hide it from everyone else. Not like there’s many people in here.

“Do you want to?” Kei asks, “Because it’s not a big deal if you -”

“I don’t care.” Yamaguchi rushes over the words as he says them, almost treating them like one instead of three.

“Okay.” Kei nods, staring out the window once again.

Everything is so quiet and still that when Yamaguchi reaches over and hugs him, Kei not only notices every movement, but he completely freezes up for a few seconds, having not expected it. Yamaguchi doesn’t say a word, and Kei isn’t sure if he’s supposed to say anything.

“...What are you doing?” Kei asks, dropping his voice down to a whisper.

Yamaguchi’s eyes fly wide open as he quickly pulls away. “Sorry, I didn’t mean -” He scrunches his eyebrows up as he thinks of what to say. “I just thought you would -”

“Would what?”

“I thought you’d appreciate it.” Yamaguchi looks down at the floor. “Sorry, I don’t know what -”

“Thank you.”

“O-oh, you’re welcome!” Yamaguchi chuckles awkwardly, still sitting straight up. “Sorry if that was awkward or anything.”

Kei just shrugs. “Do you mind if we stay out here for a few more minutes?”

“Nope!” Yamaguchi grins as he leans against the wall himself. “A-as long as your mom isn’t worried about us.”

“She won’t be.”

“Okay.” Yamaguchi scoots the slightest bit closer and starts talking about the math homework he has to do when he gets home, a thinly-veiled request to ask Kei to help him. But Kei doesn’t mind; the distraction makes him feel the slightest bit better.


 

III.

 

Middle school stays, for the most part, normal. Sure, Kei shoots up even taller than he already was, way past normal at this point, but other than that, things are mostly ordinary.

That doesn’t mean it’s great. Middle school is still hell.

Kei’s height gets him promoted to a regular on his slightly-above-mediocre school team in his first year, a spot that he keeps until he becomes vice captain his third year, but they never get very far in tournaments, so it doesn’t matter. At this point, volleyball is something to do, a club to join so he’s not sitting bored at home all the time.

But it’s definitely more than that for Yamaguchi, and yet he’s the one on the sidelines as a second-year while more “talented” first-years get regular spots. Honestly, none of it is fair. But no one really cares about seniority; both of them know that all too well.

And today is no different. Despite it being the last game of their second year, there are three first-years on the court, including the libero, whereas Yamaguchi’s leading the sideline cheer squad. Again. He’s trying his hardest to hide it, but Kei knows for sure that he’s jealous. Or discouraged. Or both. No one else can see it, but it’s definitely there.

Match point, second set. The play that could end the game and send their team onto the next round after a lot of effort and a little luck. They haven't gone past the second round in at least three years, probably longer.

One of the third-years steps up to serve, everyone on the sidelines cheering him on. The atmosphere is loud and full of energy, and nowhere is that more clear than the middle of the court. The cheering doesn't get any quieter when the serve crosses the net and the rally begins; if anything, it gets louder.

Throughout the noise, Kei manages to focus on the other team's play with narrowed eyes. The libero receives the ball with relative ease, sending it to the setter in a graceful arc. Kei carefully watches the setter's eyes and stays on the balls of his feet, trying to discern where the ball's going to go next.

As soon as Kei sees the trajectory of the setter's hands, he's sure that the hit is coming from the middle, and judging by the shouts of his teammates, they know that, too. It's all the easier for him that way.

It's reflex by now; the jump is far enough away from the net so there's no chance of touching it but close enough so it'll fall on the other side of the net. Flanked by the first-year hitter on his right, Kei blocks the attack as nonchalantly as usual, and the ball falls.

After a second of dead silence, the noise in the gym erupts louder than ever as some of the players on the sidelines jump in a High-School-Musical-style cheer, Yamaguchi included. After the routine handshake with the other team, Kei's team is nothing but smiles and joy and a little bit of pride.

"You did it, Tsukki!” Before Kei can even get a much-needed drink of water, he feels someone jump on his back.

“It was just another block -”

“It was not !” Yamaguchi shoves Kei’s shoulder as soon as his feet hit the ground again. “You won the game!”

“I really didn’t -”

Tsukki .” Yamaguchi frowns, and for a split second, Kei can see something in his eyes that only makes him feel wrong . But just as he realizes it, it’s gone, and Yamaguchi is smiling again like nothing happened and he was just doing puppy-dog eyes and a pout as a way of making Kei realize that, yes, he had actually made the final play of the game, which was possibly the most important one.

And Yamaguchi hadn’t left the sidelines for the entire hour and a half that the game took place.

In that instant, Kei realizes something very important.

One of Kei’s teammates slings an arm around his shoulder and shouts congratulations practically in his ear, coming right between him and Yamaguchi. Kei’s sure the guy means well, but he was in the middle of a kind-of conversation and he can barely hear whatever compliments the guy’s trying to throw at him.

To his horror, more people start doing the same thing, getting much closer to him than he’d ever want them to. They’re all telling him about how he did a great job and how he won the game for them, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He just wants everyone else to leave him alone like they always did.

When Kei finally gets a chance to go grab his water bottle next to the bench, Yamaguchi is sitting on the end, staring straight at the ground and looking like he’s trying not to cry.


IV.

 

“Kei! Phone’s for you!”

Kei, glad for the chance to take a break from his math homework, tentatively pokes his head out of his bedroom door and looks down the hall to where his mother seems to be having a lively conversation with whoever’s on the other end. Kei knows exactly who it is; it’s seven-thirty, just when he’s expecting the call to come.

He shuffles down the hall to where his mother’s standing, right near the entrance to the kitchen, and after saying a quick goodbye, she hands him the phone. He holds the receiver to his ear, walking right back down the hall to his room.

“Hello?” He finally asks.

“Hi!” Yamaguchi sounds even more cheerful than usual on the other end, holding back an excited giggle. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah, give me a minute.” Kei picks up his pace as he makes his way back to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him once he gets in. He lets his swivel chair slide him the rest of the way to his desk, where a nearly-sealed envelope is waiting for him, his name on the front written in a font that almost looks typed. “Okay, I'm ready.”

“Okay.” Yamaguchi lets out a breath. “Let's do this.”

Today’s finally the day. After months of waiting and anticipation, Karasuno High School’s acceptance letters were finally sent out this afternoon. It had been Yamaguchi’s idea to open the letters from their top choice school at the same time, and Kei didn't have a problem with it. It was also his idea to call each other, since the horrible reception at Yamaguchi’s house made texting incredibly slow and nearly impossible, and Kei didn't have much of a problem with that, either. Kei’s letter had sat unopened on his desk all afternoon, waiting for this exact moment. And now it's about to dictate his fate for the next three years.

Kei holds the letter up right in front of his face, ready to rip the envelope open and see the paper that’s clearly visible in the bright light shining through the lamp on his desk.

“On three, okay?” Yamaguchi’s voice is crackly through the phone, but Kei can understand him just fine. “One, two, three!”

Kei tries to open the envelope as neatly as possible, but after a few seconds he gives up, just trying to open it as quickly as he can. It looks messy when he's done with it and there are tiny shreds of paper all over the desk, but the letter’s sitting in front of him now, just waiting for him to unfold it and read it.

“To Tsukishima Kei and family,” Kei whispered, trying not to read the letter too loudly. It's typed, and it's clear that the same letter was just copied a bunch of times and sent off to every address on their list, just with a different name every time.

“To Yamaguchi Tadashi and family...” Yamaguchi echoes, possibly even quieter, like he’s accidentally reading the letter aloud when he didn’t mean to.

“We’d like to inform you that you've been accepted -” Kei stops reading, breath caught in his throat. “Yamaguchi, I got in.”

“Really?” Yamaguchi stops dead in his tracks on the other end before he makes a sound that can only be described as a subdued squeal. “So did I!”

Kei breathes a sigh of relief. “I guess you're stuck with me for another three years.”

“Tsukki! Don't be like that!” Yamaguchi giggles. “I'm glad we're sticking together.” He pauses for a second. “You are going to Karasuno, right?”

“I told you, it was my top choice.” Kei tries to smooth out the letter and lays it on his desk again, knowing that his mother’s going to want to see it as soon as she gets the chance. “Of course I'm going.”

“Good,” Yamaguchi says. He says something else after that, but it's muffled and Kei can't understand a word of it until he comes back a second later. “Dad says I have to help with the dishes, see you later!”

“Bye.” Kei presses the red “end call” button on the phone, leaving it right next to the letter on his desk. He's too lazy to take it back out to the kitchen right now, and he's filled with the insatiable desire to just lie down on his bed and think .

After sprawling out on his twin bed that's already a little too short, he stares up at the ceiling. The fan above his head is perfectly still, just as expected for the middle of December, and he's the slightest bit cold in the winter air.

The voices outside Kei’s bedroom door are slowly getting louder, and he’s tempted to go out and see what’s the matter. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t have any interest in seeing Akiteru’s homecoming when he knows that he’s going to come knocking on his door in a few minutes anyway.

Coincidentally, Kei hears three rapid knocks at his door a few seconds later.

“Come in,” Kei mutters, not taking his eyes off the cracks in the ceiling.

“Hey!” Akiteru sits down on the swivel chair Kei was in just a few minutes before, still bundled up in the coat he was most likely wearing outside. “I can sit here, right?”

“Go ahead.”

“So how are you?” Akiteru asks, leaning back in the chair. “Ready for winter break?”

“I guess.” Kei frowns. “Aren’t you hot in that coat?”

“Yeah.” Akiteru shrugs. “Too lazy to take it off, I guess.” He grins. “Mom said that high school acceptance letters are supposed to be coming right around now.”

“What about them?”

“Just wondering if you’ve gotten any yet,” Akiteru says.

“Nope.” Kei’s always been a horrible liar, but it’s probably easier to hide it when Akiteru can’t clearly see his face.

“Then what’s this ?” In one motion, Akiteru picks up the letter that had been sitting on Kei’s desk. “You didn’t even tell me you applied to Karasuno, and now you’ve gotten in!” His eyes are wide with anticipation. “Do you know if you’re going there yet?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“It’s a good school, you’ll like it.”

“It’s just school.”

“I knew you’d say that.” Akiteru chuckled. “Do you know if Tadashi got in?”

“He did.”

“Good.” Akiteru crosses his arms in front of his chest. “It’s better coming in if you know someone, anyway.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Well, congrats.” Akiteru stands up and stretches his arms above his head. “I’ll talk to you more tomorrow, I need to take a shower.”

“Okay, ‘night.” As the door closes, Kei looks at the letter again, reading it over a few times. He has to confirm that he’s actually going by January 6th, when school starts again after break.

He doesn’t suspect that he’ll even have to think about it.


V.

 

For once, Hinata Shouyou isn’t saying a word.

In any other instance, Kei would be extremely grateful for the quiet, but the silence is suffocating, even for him. The bus rattles along the highway, bouncing over the cracks in the road, but the humming motor is the only sound. No one wants to start the conversation, not right now.

Never mind everyone else, Kei isn’t even sure why he cares so much. Sure, everyone was riding on the wave of victory and optimism from the first two rounds, but beating Seijoh the way they are now wasn’t even close to realistic. Besides, it wasn’t even the last game of the year; Spring High prelims are coming up fast, and there’s plenty of preparation to do. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big loss. But for some reason, here he is, utterly disappointed just like everyone else on the bus with him.

“All right, we’re gonna be back at Karasuno in a few minutes.” Ukai turns around, yawning halfway through his announcement, eliciting a laugh from everyone awake enough to give him one, with the obvious exception of Kei himself. “If anyone objects to taking the rest of the weekend off from practice, speak now.”

Surprisingly, no one says a word.

“Okay, we’ll meet up again on Monday.” Ukai starts turning around again before he pauses, looking everyone over. “You all did a great job today. Win or lose, you can’t really deny that.”

No one responds, and the bus chugs on.

When they do get back to Karasuno, Kei’s one of the first people off the bus, taking the opportunity to stretch before he starts the walk home with Yamaguchi. It’s the same thing that happens every day, but nothing about it seems normal with the cloud of gloom hanging over everyone’s heads like this.

After saying a few quick goodbyes to everyone, Yamaguchi joins him and the two of them set off for home, not talking for longer than usual. It’s usually not long before Yamaguchi starts talking about something that happened that day, but none of that’s happening right now.

“... Can you come over?” Yamaguchi finally asks, voice so quiet it’s barely audible.

“Probably, when?”

“Right now.”

Kei unconsciously lifts an eyebrow. “I don’t think there’s a problem with it.”

“Thanks.”

When they get to the corner where they usually split up and go opposite directions, Kei follows Yamaguchi to the right instead of the left, making a mental note to text his mother as soon as he can.

Yamaguchi practically races up the stairs to his bedroom once the two of them get inside his house, not saying a word, and Kei tries to get over his confusion and catch up. When he finally gets past the staircase and pushes open the door to the bedroom wider than it already was, Yamaguchi’s lying face-up on the bed and staring at the ceiling, his jacket and bag both haphazardly lying on the floor.

“Why did you invite me over if you’re just going to sleep?” Kei asks, staying close to the door.

“‘s not that,” Yamaguchi mumbles, not changing his position.

“Hm.” Kei frowns. “Then what is it?”

“Nothing.”

“Really?” Kei narrows his eyes.

“Yes, really.” Yamaguchi sits up with a hiccup, turning toward the window. “It’s nothing, promise.”

As much as he doesn’t want to, Kei can’t help but be skeptical. “It’s obviously not.”

“All right, all right.” Yamaguchi sighs, turning towards Kei again. He looks like he’s trying as hard as he can not to cry. “Do you think we might have won if I had gotten my serve over?”

“Why do you ask?” Kei isn’t sure he’s asking the right questions, or if he’s supposed to be talking at all.

“We would have won, right?” Yamaguchi looks down at the floor. “It’s like Ukai-san said, everyone played well. We could have done it.”

“It was one point -”

“It was the only one I could have changed!”

Yamaguchi’s voice seems to echo for a second in the newly-created silence before he curls up into himself, choking out a sob. Kei doesn't know what to do, he doesn't even know if there's anything he can do. He stays back, frozen, unsure if any path of action is the right one.

All he knows is that he said the wrong thing, and he needs to make it right as soon as possible.

He takes a step toward the bed before he can regret it, one foot after the other until he's close enough to turn around and plop down a foot or so away from where Yamaguchi's sitting. Only now does he realize just how exhausted he is, and he wouldn't mind just lying back and falling asleep here. But that's not what he's here to do, and rest is the perfect incentive to get it done.

Sucking in a breath, Kei leans in and hesitantly puts his arms around Yamaguchi’s shoulders in an awkward sorta-hug. Within a few seconds, he can feel the sleeve of his jacket getting wet from all the tears, but for some reason, he’s okay with it. Yamaguchi hasn’t pushed him away yet, so he stays right where he is.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, taking into account that he’s right next to Yamaguchi’s ear.

“It’s okay,” Yamaguchi whispers back with a tiny giggle. “Sorry if I get snot on your jacket.”

“My mom already makes me do all my own laundry, it doesn’t really matter.”

Yamaguchi looks down for a second and when he looks up, he’s smiling again like he wasn’t just in tears mere seconds before. His eyes are a little red, but he looks at least somewhat better than he was before.

“Sorry, I was -”

“No, I get it.” Kei finally finds it a relatively-less-awkward time to let go and lies back on the bed. “I mean, I really don’t, but -”

“I know.” Kei’s convinced it’s a trick of the light, but in that split second, Yamaguchi’s eyes look the slightest bit brighter. “Thank you.”


VI.

 

Whenever the world has something to say to him, Kei’s always had something to say back. That hasn’t always meant that he’s ended up saying it, but he’s always had a comeback somewhere in the back of his mind. He won’t let the world get the best of him.

But right now, for the first time in years, he’s completely speechless. He’s said all that he can say. He’s surprised that any words whatsoever were able to come out of his mouth once Yamaguchi started yelling at him about how pathetic he’s being, but now his mind is drawing a total blank.

Maybe that’s the point.

The two of them are staring each other dead in the eyes with only a few inches of space between them. Yamaguchi’s grabbing the front of Kei’s shirt, and the air seems so stuffy around them that Kei can barely breathe.

“Motivation?!” Yamaguchi shouted, leaving Kei with no options but to listen in the silence surrounding them. “What more do you need than pride?!”

Kei’s entire world stops for a split second, and he understands . He suddenly realizes everything Yamaguchi’s trying to say, and only then he realizes exactly how pathetic he is. It’s like he’s been enlightened or he’s somehow gained the power to know everything he possibly can and he’s surprised that his head isn’t hurting by now from all the new knowledge he’s suddenly gained.

Yamaguchi’s doing all this because he cares. Because he doesn’t want Kei to take everything he has for granted. Because he doesn’t want Kei to be held down by his own stupid inhibitions.

And in the heat of the moment, Kei can’t help but laugh to himself, if only a little.

“A-are you okay?” Yamaguchi’s eyes are wide when Kei looks up at him again, and his skin has gotten noticeably paler in the past few minutes, though Kei isn’t sure if that’s just the lighting.

“Fine.” Slowly but surely, Kei starts to regain his composure again with a well-placed shrug. “I just never thought I’d -”

“Hm?” Yamaguchi cocks his head to the side with a puzzled frown.

“You’re actually pretty cool.”

So much for keeping his composure. Kei can’t believe he let that out of his mouth. Definitely not going according to plan.

Well, there are a lot of things not going according to plan right now.

“What?!” Yamaguchi laughs nervously, like he’s not quite sure what’s going on. “Tsukki, are you sure you’re okay?”

Yes .” Kei frowns. “I’m definitely okay.”

“Okay, good.” Yamaguchi sighs with relief. “I was worried for a second.”

For some reason, Kei can’t stop thinking. He can’t stop thinking about what Yamaguchi said to him, sure, but he especially can’t stop thinking about what he’s going to do because of it. He has an idea, and it’s one that he’ll probably regret but one that he can’t just not consider.

“There’s something I have to do.” Kei speaks quietly as he turns around, unsure of what he’s about to go do.

“Okay, have fun!” Yamaguchi laughs, a real laugh this time.

“...Oh, Yamaguchi?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.” Before he can regret anything else, Kei jogs off in the direction of Gym 3.

There’s a second or two of complete silence.

“Tsukki, you can’t just leave after that !”


VII.

 

It takes at least a half hour in the club room before everyone finally calms down. A half hour of screaming, hugging, and too much jumping around the room for anyone’s good.

Yes, beating Shiratorizawa is a huge achievement, but all Kei wants right now is to go home and sleep.

He makes his biggest mistake when he yawns right in a moment of silence. It’s quiet enough, but it’s noticeable. Everyone stares at him, Hinata looks like he’s about to burst out laughing, and Kei knows he’s not getting out of this alive or quickly, least of all both.

“You’re tired already ?” Tanaka asks with a chuckle.

“I would have gone home as soon as we got back if I wasn’t dragged in here.” Kei reaches down to the floor, only to scoop up nothing but air. “...Where’s my bag?”

Hinata and Nishinoya share a giggle. Those little bastards .

“You wouldn’t happen to have it, wouldn’t you?” Kei crosses his arms in front of him. “At least, you seem like you know where it is.”

“You’d better not be too tired to grab it from me!” Nishinoya proudly hoists Kei’s bag above his head like he’s taunting him with it.

Kei in fact is too tired to try, and he knows it’s not going to get him anywhere when he can’t tell whether Nishinoya’s going to try to throw it to Hinata or Tanaka if he gets too close. Besides, someone’s going to grab it when Nishinoya’s hoisting it above his head like that.

“What kind of energy source are you running on?” Ennoshita does just that, plucking the bag out of Nishinoya’s unsuspecting hands and tossing it back to Kei in a high enough arc so that neither Nishinoya nor Hinata can grab it again.

“You’re heading out?” Sugawara asks.

“If there isn’t a problem with it.” Kei's talking more to Yamaguchi at this point, who only gives a single nod.

"Nope, definitely not a problem." Sugawara grins. "Nice job today, you two!"

"Thanks!" Yamaguchi beams.

"Get some sleep, we have a lot of work to do!” Sawamura calls out as Kei leads the way out of the club room and off the school grounds onto the blissfully quiet street.

Yamaguchi’s practically skipping down the street; there’s a huge dopey smile on his face and he looks so happy . Kei has the sneaking suspicion he wants to scream right then and there.

“Why do you look like you’re about to pass out?” Yamaguchi asks with a giggle. “Are you really that tired?”

“What do you think?”

Yamaguchi’s grin only grows wider. “You did great today, Tsukki!”

Kei tries not to blush and fails miserably. “Shut up, Yamaguchi.”

“I’m serious!” Yamaguchi’s cheeks are dusted with pink in the chilly October air. “Ukai-san called you MVP for a reason .”

“Yamaguchi, you’re worse than my mom.”

Yamaguchi bursts out laughing. "I'm not sure that's possible, but I’ll take your word for it."

“Speaking of, do you want to come over?”

“If it’s okay with your mom -”

“She always makes more food than we need and I need someone to be there so I’m not the only one attacked by her hugs.”

“I don’t know...” Yamaguchi scrunches the corners of his mouth up into a frown. “I’m not sure I want to be crushed to death today.”

“You’re the worst.”

“Don’t worry, I’m coming.” Yamaguchi smiles. “Besides, it’s not like I could say no to your mom’s cooking.”

“Hm.”

Their conversation fades into a comforting silence as they walk down the street. The sky’s been dark for a while, and stars are popping up as tiny white blips against the dark blue background. They’re the only people on the street as they pass by the lights shining through drawn blinds of every house they come across.

Kei’s perfectly fine just staring at whatever piques his interest until Yamaguchi grabs his hand. He wants to look down, to see if Yamaguchi did it without thinking, but if he in fact did do it without thinking, he doesn't want to ruin it. So he stares straight ahead, spotting his house at the end of the block.

Strangely enough, Yamaguchi’s doing the same thing.

"You know, you did pretty well, too," Kei says, still avoiding the clear elephant in the room.

"It wasn't anything compared to you, though.” Yamaguchi’s smile stays plastered on his face, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to fade anytime soon.

“Was too.”

“Don’t argue with me on this!”

“I can and I will.” Without really thinking about it, Kei squeezes Yamaguchi's hand tighter. “You’re improving more than you know, trust me.”

“Really?”

Yes .”

“Are you sure?”

“Shut up, Yamaguchi.”

Yamaguchi snorts out a laugh. “Sorry, Tsukki!”

They still haven’t stopped holding hands, and Kei is starting to think that Yamaguchi has noticed by this point and is just ignoring it. Well, trying to ignore it, because his cheeks are too pink for it to be caused by the wind, but that’s probably happening to Kei, too.

He’s not quite sure what tricks his emotions are trying to play on him.


VIII.

 

Kei is screwed. He's screwed and he knows it, but he's not sure there's anything he can do except wait and hope and pray that things will turn out okay.

Funny, he's never been that religious.

He puts his head down on his desk and stares into the wood, completely unable to focus on anything even remotely related to the math homework he's trying to get done before tomorrow. He hasn't been able to finish one problem before it crosses his mind and he just has to spend ten minutes contemplating it in tandem with his entire existence, which he's sure is about to end. And he's usually good at math.

He could be wrong. He could be just overthinking this and making himself freak out for no reason. Everything could be just fine outside the confines of his worked-up head.

But after seventeen years on planet Earth, he's learned to trust his gut. And his gut is telling him that this is a Very Bad Situation, trademark symbol.

His phone rings next to him on the desk, the vibrations making his head shake right before he shoots up to a more normal sitting position. He fumbles slightly while trying to grab the phone, which makes him very happy that he's alone in his room and not with anybody he knows. He grabs the phone and doesn't check the caller ID; only three people ever call him, and two of them are his mother and his brother, who both happen to be sitting in the living room.

“Hello?” Kei asks into the phone, realizing that his voice sounds a lot sleepier than he thought.

“A-are you okay?” Yamaguchi’s voice is crinkled with static, but Kei can still easily hear his concern. Dammit.

“Yeah, I'm okay.” Kei lets out a breath, which becomes a yawn halfway through. Double dammit.

“Okay,” Yamaguchi says, “Um, can you help me with the math homework?”

“Yeah, do you want to come over?”

“Sure, if it's not too much trouble.”

“It's not.”

“Okay!” There's a brief rustle on the other end. “I'll be there in five minutes, bye!”

“Hey, can I -” Kei’s interrupted by the monotone beep as Yamaguchi ends the call before he can say anything that's on his mind. He's sure that Yamaguchi just did it to get out of his house faster, but that doesn't change the fact that Kei now has to say it in person, with Yamaguchi’s eyes possibly boring into his soul. Triple dammit.

Kei leans back in his chair and sighs, knowing that there's no way in hell he’ll get the math homework done tonight. Or any homework for that matter. So much for helping Yamaguchi with it.

He’s sure that there are two options from here on out, considering he tells Yamaguchi about it . One, Kei will be right in his assumptions and things will be awkward. Or two, Kei will be wrong in his assumptions and things will be... even more awkward, because he’ll then be forced to tell Yamaguchi why he cares so much.

And that's the one thing he really doesn't want to do.

He'd seen it all happen. He'd seen Yamaguchi grow a few centimeters taller, grow his hair out just enough so he could put it in a ponytail over spring break, and come into his second year recently crushed by the steamroller of puberty. He'd seen some of the girls stare at him in class noticeably more than last year, and he'd come to a fairly reasonable conclusion that at least a few of them were into him.

Not entirely unlike - okay, exactly the same as Kei himself.

And after seeing a short girl named Suzuki ask Yamaguchi if they could talk in the hallway after lunch today, Kei came to another conclusion that this could be a confession.

And he had been internally panicking ever since.

Kei supposes that he has to talk to Yamaguchi sometime, so he begrudgingly stands up and makes his way to the door, feeling ever so slightly sick to his stomach. As he walks down the hall, he's convinced that his world is going to fall down right on top of him.

He would be surprised at his sudden out-of-character streak, but he's too nervous to care at this point.

The doorbell rings just as Kei walks into the living room, where Akiteru gives him a knowing grin, almost like he's aware of the situation. He's not - Kei hasn't told him anything, and he trusts Yamaguchi not to tell him either - but it's still weird. Just like everything.

“Hello!” When Kei opens the front door, Yamaguchi’s standing there, waving and being his normal cheery self.

“...Hey.” Kei opens the door wide enough for Yamaguchi to follow him inside, and the two of them make their way back down the hall again after Yamaguchi says a quick hello to Kei’s mother and Akiteru.

Once they get inside Kei’s room again, both of them sit down on his bed. Things are weirdly silent between them, and there’s a high chance that both of them know it.

“...Hey, Tsukki, can I ask you something?” Yamaguchi asks, still not meeting Kei’s eyes.

“Mm?”

“Is everything okay?”

Kei freezes for a split second, hoping Yamaguchi doesn’t notice. “Yeah, everything’s fine.”

“Oh, okay.” Yamaguchi finally looks up and frowns. “You just sounded weird on the phone, is all.”

“Did I?”

“Yeah.” Yamaguchi nods before looking back down at his homework. “Well, you know you can tell me anything.”

“Right.”

Silence. The suffocating kind. Kei can’t take it.

“Um, there is one thing I wanted to ask you.”

“What is it?” Yamaguchi looks much more excited than he probably should be.

“What happened with Suzuki-san today?”

“Hm?” Yamaguchi’s cheeks turn bright red in an instant. “What are you talking about?”

“After class. Before practice.”

“Oh, that !” Yamaguchi smiles a horribly fake smile. “Well, um -” He looks down at the floor and even starts to curl in on himself a little. “She confessed.”

Kei tries to resist the urge to scowl at his confirmed suspicions. “What did you say?”

“That’s the thing, I didn’t give her a definite answer. I said I had to think about it.” Yamaguchi chuckles a little but doesn’t look up. “She was so brave about the whole thing, I feel bad about it.”

“You can’t just make a decision like that on the spot. That’s a perfectly fine thing to say.” Kei shrugs, desperately trying to ignore the fact that he’s trying to give relationship advice to the person he wants to be in a relationship with when he’s never been in a relationship himself. “Have you been thinking about it?”

“A little.” Yamaguchi leans back in the chair and sighs. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Oh.” Kei frowns. “Do you like her?”

“Sorta.” Yamaguchi shrugs. “She’s nice, but she doesn’t really seem like someone I’d date, you know?”

“Hm.” The first words to pop into Kei's head are "thank god", but it doesn't seem tasteful to say them. "Is there anyone you want to date?"

"I guess there is." Yamaguchi scrunches his eyebrows up as he frowns. “They probably don't like me back, though.”

“Why wouldn’t anyone like you back?”

The corners of Yamaguchi’s mouth turn up into a very faint smile. “Why don't you tell me?”

What.

“Excuse me?” Kei tilts his head, trying to make sense of all this.

“Do I really have to connect the dots for you?” Yamaguchi’s voice is a lot quieter now, like he’s not sure what he’s saying, but he’s still smiling.

“I guess so.”

“I -” Yamaguchi looks right into Kei’s eyes, Adam’s apple bobbing all too visibly as he gulps. “I really like you.”

Well. That’s a wrap. Kei has the strangest feeling that he’s going to drop dead in a matter of seconds.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that -”

Kei doesn’t waste a second before he leans in and kisses him.

Yamaguchi's eyes fly open wide, and for a split second they're staring right at each other again. Kei wonders if he did something wrong, if he did everything wrong. He could have just ruined every chance he ever had of -

Yamaguchi wraps his arms around Kei's shoulders and gets even closer than he already was, and Kei's almost one hundred percent sure he's going to faint. His heart is pounding in his chest, his hands are shaking, and of course that's just a distraction from the fact that he and Yamaguchi are kissing.

Yamaguchi’s eyes are closed now, and he's much more relaxed than he was at the beginning of this mess. He lifts his hands and starts running his fingers through Kei’s hair without a second thought, and Kei’s definitely going to explode. He's rigid and frozen, unable to go with the flow that Yamaguchi’s trying to establish.

And when Yamaguchi pulls away, he's obviously noticed it, too. He’s frowning, and the concern on his face is clear.

“Sorry,” Kei mutters, almost under his breath.

“What are you apologizing for?” Yamaguchi's frown quickly turns up into a smile as he giggles. “I liked that.”

“I didn't think it through -”

“Well, you're only going to get better if you practice, right?” Yamaguchi looks like the weight of the world has just been lifted off his shoulders. It's a good look on him.

“What are you getting at?”

Yamaguchi sucks in a breath. “D-do you want to be my boyfriend? J-just to try it out, I don't know.”

As if just kissing him wasn't good enough. “Sure.”

Yamaguchi’s smile is even more divine than it usually is.


IX.

 

The beginning of the end comes in Yamaguchi’s bedroom on a seemingly normal September day. They're both sitting on Yamaguchi’s bed, trying to at least finish their homework in one class before their study session unavoidably devolves (evolves? It's more fun than homework) into a cuddle session. Kei’s a week away from being eighteen, and Yamaguchi isn’t far behind.

Which of course means they’ve been thinking about college for a while now. What they want to study, where they want to go, whether they want to stay home or travel somewhere new. Kei’s decided to go into environmental engineering (probably) while Yamaguchi’s going to go into education (more than a probably at this point).

There’s only one thing left to decide, but neither of them wants to be the one to say it.

“Do you want to split up for college?” Kei asks without really thinking about it.

“What?” Yamaguchi turns on the bed to stare at him, one eyebrow raised. “What do you mean, split up?”

“I mean go to different schools, live in different places, all that.”

Yamaguchi looks down at the floor. “Not particularly, but -”

“So we agree on that part.”

“Wait.” Yamaguchi holds up a finger. “My parents want me to stay close to home in case anything happens.”

“What?”

“I know all the schools you want to apply to are at least a few hours away, and I know they don't really have what you're looking for up here, but that's just the way it is.” Yamaguchi sighs. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier. I never thought the timing was right.”

“Oh.” Kei tries as hard as he can to hide the fact that this is something he never saw coming. He supposes that being in a supportive and positive relationship for almost a year can just do that to someone. He should have prepared better. “I can adjust-”

“No, don't.” Yamaguchi gives a weak smile. “I don't want to be the person to stop you from saving the world.”

“I won't do that, don't be stupid.”

“You might.”

“Shut up.” Kei lightly shoves Yamaguchi’s shoulder, causing him to erupt in a fit of giggles. “I'm not going to find the definitive way to stop global warming or anything.”

“But what if you do?” Yamaguchi asks. “None of -”

Tadashi .”

Yamaguchi shoots straight up at the mention of his first name, eyes open wide.

“Do you really not see what I'm saying?” Kei asks. “Remember when we first started dating, you were the one who said that you wanted to share an apartment after high school.”

“Yeah...”

With a huff, Kei lies back on the bed. “Compromise. We find a school around here that has a little bit of what we both want and apply there as our second choice. That way, if one of us fails an exam or something else goes wrong, we can fall back on that. Okay?”

Yamaguchi pauses for a second before he nods. “Okay. Just don't try to sabotage it.”

“I know, I won't.” Kei chuckles. “It's like you're more enthusiastic about me achieving my dreams than I am.”

Yamaguchi hums to himself with a smile. “Some things never change.”

“I guess they don't.”

The room is weirdly silent for a minute before Yamaguchi starts talking again. “...Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, what is it?” Kei asks, wondering why he's being so vague. He usually gets right to the point, and that has Kei worrying for the worst.

“I was wondering if I...” Yamaguchi frowns, barely closing his eyes. “How do I put this?”

“What's the problem?”

“Nothing.” Kei doesn’t need Yamaguchi’s eyes to be open to see the mischievous look plain as day on his face. “I just don't know how to say this without ruining the magic.”

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

“Anyway.” Yamaguchi opens his eyes again and they're filled with determination, a subdued version of the way they look when he's going out to serve during a game. “Since you pulled the first name card a few minutes ago, I was -”

“Yamaguchi, do you want to kill me?”

“Come on, Kei, it's only fair!”

Kei feels like he's about to faint from just how good his name sounds on Yamaguchi’s - Tadashi’s? His boyfriend’s? He doesn't know how to think of him anymore - tongue. He feels like he's crossed some point of no return so he decides to stick with Tadashi from now on.

“Was that weird?” Tadashi asks, blush spreading across his face. He's always been a graceful blusher - Kei’s face just always turns bright red, like it undoubtedly is right now. “Because you can just forget I said it if you didn't like it -”

“No, I did.” Kei tries his hardest not to smile but he knows it doesn't work. “I wouldn't mind if you kept doing it.”

“All right.” Tadashi smiles back while he picks up his pencil and stares down at the worksheet still in his lap. “I'll try.”


X.

 

Kei’s biggest dreams and his worst fears both come true on the same day, a drizzly day at the end of January. He got the letter from his top choice school - a college in Tokyo famous for its engineering degrees - the day before, and he was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a letter of acceptance. The same went for his second-choice school, the local one he’d go to with Tadashi if anything went wrong.

Or, of course, if they just wanted to stick together, which is a definite option.

He didn’t tell Tadashi about his luck right off the bat - he wasn't that arrogant - but somehow Tadashi just seemed to know. He just told him to think about it, and said they'd talk about it the next day.

The next day came far too quickly.

Kei’s been thinking about it all day, and he can't decide on what he wants because he wants everything he can't have. He wants to go out into the world and get a good education so he can get a good job and subsequently a good life, but he also wants to stay with the one person he trusts with all his deepest darkest secrets.

And even worse, there's nothing else to think about. Finals don't start for another month, and after a narrow loss in the Spring High finals - which Goshiki, unsurprisingly, gloated about too much for his own good - Kei’s volleyball life is long since over. There probably isn't a single person in his entire year who isn't thinking about what they want to do after graduation.

After school, Kei and Tadashi walk home the same way they always do, talking to each other quietly enough so that no one outside of the two of them can hear what they're saying. Once they're far enough away from school and into their neighborhood, they ever so subtly lock pinkies until they reach Kei’s house.

“Where's your mom?” Tadashi asks, stepping inside the house immediately after Kei. “She's usually here when we get home, right?”

“She's probably out running errands or something.” Kei frowns as he walks into the kitchen, trying to find something resembling a snack. There's a note on the table from his mother, saying that she left to the grocery store around fifteen minutes ago and would be back soon. “Want anything?”

“Not hungry.” Tadashi shrugs, hanging his bag on one of the hooks by the door.

“Suit yourself.” Kei opens the cupboard next to the refrigerator to find exactly what he's looking for - an unopened chocolate bar he got when he went out with Tadashi and Yachi last week. His first thought is surprise that it's lying on the shelf uneaten, but it makes a lot more sense when he realizes his brother hasn't been home since new year’s.

With the chocolate bar in his hand, Kei turns around and starts down the hall toward his bedroom, knowing Tadashi’s right behind him. Just like always.

When they get inside, they both flip over on their backs on Kei’s bed, staring straight up at the ceiling. Over the past few years, they've taken to just lying here like this for a few minutes every day to recover from everything the day had to offer, and everything falls silent except for breaths that almost seem to sync up after a few seconds.

It almost seems to last longer than usual this time.

“I got my college letters last night,” Tadashi whispers, still looking straight up at the ceiling.

“So did I.” Kei frowns, hating that he can’t delay this conversation any longer. It’s happening right now and there’s nothing he can do about it.

“I got into my top choice.” Tadashi smiles, eyes bright.

“Congrats.”

“Thanks.” Tadashi giggles, turning onto his side to look over at Kei. “What about you?” He grins, wide and toothy, like he’s a little kid again. “Like I even have to ask! If I got in, you had to get in too, right?”

“Yeah.” Even with all the practice he’s had at it, Kei can’t help but blush at the praise just as much as he did ten years ago. “I did.”

“I knew you would.”

“Hm.” Kei knows what’s coming next.

“So are you going to accept?” Tadashi asks. “I won’t be offended if you do.”

“I know.”

Tadashi frowns, voice getting even quieter. “Want to talk about it?”

“Yeah.” Kei blinks, then nods.

“Okay.” Tadashi lets out a breath, like he’s trying to think of what to say. “What are you worried about?”

“What do you mean?”

“What’s stopping you from a confident decision?” Tadashi asks with a chuckle. “Because if it’s me, I might just push you all the way to Tokyo myself.”

“Hm.”

“Is the whole long-distance thing bothering you?”

“No, duh.” Kei rolls his eyes. “It’s not like we’ve known each other for ten years or anything, that’s definitely not it.”

Tadashi laughs. “We’ll find a way to make it work.” He reaches over and grabs Kei’s hand. “I promise.”

“...Okay.” Kei’s still extremely skeptical, and he only hopes that Tadashi isn’t able to notice.

“You still don’t believe me, don’t you?”

Wishful thinking at its finest. “Nope.”

“Thought so.” Tadashi turns onto his back again. “What do I need to say?”

“I don’t know.” Kei sighs. “It’ll just be so weird .”

“Yeah, but like I said, we’ll figure it out,” Tadashi says. “You’ll still come home for breaks, right?”

“Probably.”

“And my phone plan has unlimited calling.”

“Right.”

“And we can Skype whenever you want.” Tadashi smiles. “Communication isn’t going to be an issue.”

“Yes, it will.”

“Is me promising to kiss the life out of you once summer break rolls around not enough for you?” Tadashi asks with a sly smirk that he’s obviously learned from Kei somewhere down the line. Kei hates that he’s trying his hardest not to just die on the spot.

And that’s all it takes for Kei to outright laugh. Tadashi looks at him like he’s just grown a second head, mouth ever so slightly open in a confused “o” with one eyebrow raised.

“I-is everything okay, Tsukki?”

“Fine.” Kei finally smirks back. “If you remember to keep your promise, it’s a deal.”

“Don’t worry!” Tadashi rolls over and wraps Kei up in a tight and unexpected hug. “I will!”

Kei smiles and hugs him back, thinking that maybe saying goodbye won’t be as hard as he thought it would be.


XI.

 

Saying goodbye is definitely just as hard as Kei thought it would be.

He’s finally snapping out of his daydream and he’s back at graduation again, lamenting the fact that he has to wear a tie. It’s itchy and he feels like he’s going to suffocate at some point during this whole ordeal. He’s even hotter under the spotlight than he was before, and he’s glad this is almost over.

“Yachi Hitoka.”

Yachi bounces up from her seat across the aisle, smiling wider than ever as she makes her way down her row. She briefly turns around to respond to what someone said, probably Tadashi, before she enters the aisle.

It’s the same thing that’s happened every time so far, so even though Yachi is someone Kei considers a friend, he doesn’t pay attention as much as he probably should. There isn’t anything else to pay attention to, however, so he, like everyone else, watches her walk on stage and shake hands with the line of teachers, just like everyone before her. Everyone seems to be smiling wider once she reaches the top of the stairs, but Kei isn’t surprised. Yachi’s been making people unconsciously happier for probably her whole life, and this is no exception.

Like many of the girls before her - and Hinata, too, can't forget him - Yachi almost skips down the aisle when she comes back to her seat, diploma in hand. She beams when Tadashi whispers something to her from his seat once she sits down, probably something along the lines of congratulations.

“Yamaguchi Tadashi.”

Barely a second after Yachi sits down, Tadashi stands up, exchanging a quick high-five with her before he shuffles through the row. He adjusts his tie right before he reaches the aisle - it's navy blue with little stars on it and it suits him perfectly - and walks toward the stage looking more confident than he's looked walking anywhere in years.

Kei isn't sure if it's his own personal bias talking, but it seems like this applause is louder than normal.

Once third year hit, Tadashi had really started breaking out of his shell, and it shows here just as clearly as ever. He has a brief conversation with the teachers he’s had once he gets on stage, and the conversation with Takeda-sensei lasts a bit longer than the others. The teachers are laughing, he's smiling, and he looks so happy and Kei’s suddenly looking forward to the inevitable cuddlefest after this a lot more than he was before.

Their eyes meet when Tadashi turns around to look at the audience. He’s still wearing the million-dollar smile he gave his parents for their graduation picture, and it takes on a playful glow when he looks down at Kei, a habit he seems to have picked up over the years. It’s not like anyone else notices.

Hinata yells something at Tadashi as he walks back down the aisle, and Tadashi just laughs in response before he gets to his row and sits down again. The person next to him stands up, and it’s the same thing all over again. Good thing there are only five people left.

Kei stares up at the ceiling, wondering if there’s a way to make time pass just the slightest bit faster. He can only see a few miniscule cracks in the ceiling tiles but that doesn’t stop him from tracing them with his eyes. Eventually, he gets bored with that and decides to look out the window again. The sky is just as boring gray as it was before, and it doesn’t exactly do much to stimulate his senses. If anything, the overcast environment and the drone of names from the stage is only making him sleepy.

The applause suddenly gets even louder, snapping Kei out of his weird half-asleep trance. Everyone’s talking excitedly amongst themselves and Kei wonders what exactly he missed before he realizes that the last person probably just sat down.

“Congratulations to the class of 2018!” The principal’s voice booms through the speakers and the room instantly feels a lot brighter than it did before. “Students, thank you for your hard work over the past three years. Please go on to live the greatest life you can live, each and every one of you. This building won’t be the same without you.”

And just like that, it’s over.

Everyone stands up and stretches after sitting down for an hour and a half and the conversation starts up again, with people asking each other if they want to go out for food later or do something else to celebrate. It seems normal again even though it’s not .

Kei stands up later than everyone else, walking through his row without having to step over anyone’s legs. He has to find Tadashi, and he has to find his brother to tell him that if he posts that picture anywhere he’ll be dead by the end of the day.

“Tsukishima-kun!”

Kei turns around to see Yachi jogging toward him, trying not to trip in the heels she’s wearing. Tadashi’s right behind her, and Hinata and Kageyama are keeping pace a little ways behind him.

“What’s going on?” Kei asks, raising one eyebrow.

“We’re going to the bakery by Yachi-san’s apartment!” Hinata says. “Wanna come?”

“Probably.” Kei shrugs before he turns to Tadashi. “Do you have a minute?”

Tadashi blinks, just once. “Yeah.”

“So I guess we’ll meet you two outside?” Yachi asks.

“It won’t take more than a few minutes,” Kei says as the other three turn around and start walking toward the door.

“So... what was it you wanted to talk to me about?” Tadashi asks after a second of silence.

“Not much, just...” Kei sits down in one of the now-empty chairs. “I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Tadashi smiles, taking the chair next to him. “Okay.”

They fall into silence again, watching people slowly filter out of the auditorium.

“Can you believe it?” Tadashi almost wistfully looks out at the cloudy, rainy world outside the windows. “We’re officially out of high school.”

“Took no less than forever.” Kei scoffs.

Tadashi laughs. “Yeah, but it’s so weird , you know?”

“Mm.”

Both of them are avoiding one subject in particular, and both of them seem to be aware of it. No one wants to bring it up.

“So when are you leaving?” Tadashi asks, barely audible.

“Not for a while.” Kei pauses. “Well, not exactly.”

“Hm?”

“I’m leaving in three weeks. Roughly.” Kei frowns. “My mom wants me to get accustomed to everything before school starts, so I’m leaving a week early.”

“Oh.” Tadashi smiles. “Are you actually going to use your Snapchat then?”

“If you’re going to be begging me for pics, I guess I have to.”

Tadashi grins. “Who says I’m going to do that ?”

“Say that again in a month and we’ll see who’s right.”

“Is that a challenge, Tsukki?”

“I don’t know.” Kei smirks. “It could be.”

Tadashi smiles for a split second before he sighs, leaning back against the back of his chair. “I’m really going to miss you.”

“I’m not leaving for three weeks, why are you saying your goodbyes now?” Kei tries to ignore the fact that he was thinking of saying the same thing.

“Yeah, but!” Tadashi playfully side-eyes him. “Three weeks is nothing , You’ll be gone before I can even say the damn goodbyes if I don’t say them early!”

“I guess you’re right.” Kei frowns. He won’t be surprised if he starts crying by the end of this, but he really doesn’t want to.

As soon as he’s sure everyone else has walked out of the auditorium, he leans over and hugs Tadashi tight, eliciting a tiny squeak before Tadashi hugs him back. Neither of them say anything, they don’t need to. They just sit there, pressed up against each other like the world’s about to end, and oh no, Tadashi is crying and the shoulder of Kei’s jacket is starting to get wet from tears and Kei has absolutely no idea what to do.

“I’m going to miss you, too.” Kei starts running his fingers through Tadashi’s hair, hoping that’s the right thing to do in this situation. He’s never been good at this kind of thing. “... I love you.”

Kei can barely feel it, but he knows that Tadashi’s gone completely stiff and now he knows he’s done something wrong. Maybe he’s done everything wrong.

Or maybe it’s just his natural tendency to doubt himself whenever he tries anything affectionate whatsoever.

“... I love you, too, Tsukki,” Tadashi whispers, muffled by Kei’s jacket but still perfectly clear.

They fall into silence once again, but this time, it’s comfortable. The hug speaks volumes, and they don’t feel the need to say anything unnecessary. A few minutes pass before the silence is broken again.

“Everyone else is probably waiting for us.” Tadashi smiles as he sits up. “We should get over there before it starts raining even harder.”

“Right.” Kei stretches his arms up over his head as he stands up, looking around at the empty auditorium. He suspects that he’s never going to be here again, at least not until a reunion, so he looks around and takes it all in. The high ceilings, the bright spotlights, the raised stage where he presented once for a school speech contest in his second year - he’s still not sure why he entered. It all seems different now that he’s leaving it all behind.

Hello , earth to Tsukki!” Tadashi pokes Kei in the shoulder with a grin, like he’s been waiting for Kei to say something for at least a minute.

“Hm?”

“Getting nostalgic?”

“What’s it to you?”

Tadashi giggles, the adorable kind where he almost snorts halfway through. “Nothing!” He turns around and starts walking toward the double doors at the auditorium entrance. “Come on, everyone’s probably soaking wet by now!”

“Yachi-san probably brought an umbrella -” Kei stops talking when he realizes that Tadashi won’t stop walking. “Hey, wait!”

Tadashi turns around with a grin. “I was wondering when you’d stop being a slowpoke!”

“You’re the worst.” After Kei catches up with him, the two of them fall into step as they walk down the aisle and the rows of empty chairs.

“Look who’s talking!” Tadashi lightly shoves Kei in the shoulder with a chuckle.

They walk out of the auditorium and out into the rain side by side, knowing in the back of their minds that they’re saying goodbye to a lot more than just the building where they spent three years of their lives. They’re saying goodbye to the life they’ve gotten to know. The life full of going the same direction on the way home instead of splitting up. The life full of sitting on the couch every winter, cuddled up under multiple blankets while they stay up past their bedtime to finish the movie. The life full of hugs whenever they need them and kisses whenever they think it’s right. But they’re not saying goodbye to each other just yet, and they doubt they ever will.