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notice me kouhai

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“Bokuto’s been spending a lot of time on his cell phone lately,” Sarukui said at practice, one bright afternoon. The sun was shining (outside the gym) and the birds were chirping (probably, though a thousand loud volleyballs and some overzealous first-years were clattering onto the laminate), which misled Akaashi to thinking this was a normal statement on a normal day. When Akaashi swung his gaze to his left, he could see Bokuto measuring the size of a volleyball against his head.

“Smiling a lot, too,” Komi said, lying face down.

“Texting, too,” Konoha said. The small cluster of third-years mulled over these revelations of their ace and captain using mobile technology. Akaashi had the misfortune of taking a swig out of his water bottle when Konoha asked, “Do you think he’s cheating on Akaashi?”

The spurt of water from Akaashi’s mouth glittered under the sun and flowed like a gorgeous geyser.

“Wait,” Komi said, propping himself up onto his elbows. “Bokuto was getting really chummy with those guys from Karasuno. And everyone knows he has a thing for younger guys.”

“Excuse me,” Akaashi began, muffled by the towel pressed against his mouth.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Sarukui told him, the only one who had taken a sympathetic tone. “He gets riled up when they compliment him.”

“I can’t believe he’d cheat on Akaashi, though. I mean, this is Bokuto. Do you think he’d even know how to romantically text?” Konoha screwed up his face. “That meathead would probably just, you know, ‘wuld u like 2 play vlbl w me?????’”

“Come on, guys, be serious,” Komi said. “If Bokuto’s really cheating on Akaashi, then we have to think about the real things. Like who gets us kids in the divorce.”

“Dibs on Akaashi,” Konoha said, a second before Komi said the same. They jabbed their elbows into each other’s ribs and would have probably restarted the Days Since Fukurodani VBC Fought Over Something Incredibly Dumb (Fights About Owls Most Likely to Poop on Someone’s Head Acceptable) sign if Akaashi hadn’t risen from the bench. He glowered at them, clutching onto his water bottle like a microphone.

“I am not dating Bokuto,” Akaashi said, slowly and clearly.

“Akaashi,” Sarukui said, sympathetically.

“There is no chance—” Akaashi was cut off by a thump behind him. Bokuto had apparently balanced the volleyball on his head, pulled the collar of his t-shirt below the spinning design, and walked into the wall. Konoha laughed hard enough to fall off the bench and onto Komi, which left Akaashi slapping pastel fairy tale band-aids onto everybody’s forehead (Snow White for Komi, Little Red Riding Hood for Konoha, a vindictive Alice in Wonderland for Bokuto, and Sleeping Beauty on Washio, for some reason). By the time his teammate’s wounds had been ameliorated, he had no space to insist that he was distinctly not dating Bokuto, and if he was dating Bokuto, then Bokuto wouldn’t cheat on him, and also, he was not dating Bokuto.

**

Still, Akaashi said, “I am not dating Bokuto” in the club room the next day. He believed in honesty for their team’s harmony, and also, he was not dating Bokuto.

“Oh, yeah,” Konoha said, and told Washio, “Bokuto is trying to cheat on Akaashi with a first-year.”

Washio whipped his head around to look at Onaga, who had been struggling to pull his practice shirt over his head. Onaga blinked, and the last innocent of the room had been besmirched by the rumor. Akaashi had already finished changing and stood at the doorway, arms folded across his chest, unwilling to allow the charade to parade onwards.

“We aren’t dating,” Akaashi said. “And it’s incredibly unlikely that he’s wooing a Karasuno first-year.”

“Hinata or Tsukishima?” Washio asked.

“Tsukishima, probably,” Konoha said, the newly crowned purveyor of Bokuto-related scandals. “Or both. I think he’s been texting Hinata.”

“He does love those compliments,” Komi said wistfully. “Do you think he wants to be a sugar daddy?”

“What?” Bokuto asked.

“If you want to be a sugar daddy,” Komi repeated, and then jumped in surprise with admirable vertical height. Bokuto had entered the club room, his school bag roped around his forehead. Bokuto was texting with one hand. He gently pressed his hand against the small of Akaashi’s back to move him aside while he ventured, half-distracted, to his locker.

“Oh,” Bokuto said. “Sure. You don’t have to worry about changing diapers for sugar.”

Komi and Konoha looked at each other with identical looks of elation.

Akaashi was not dating Bokuto.

If he had to be rumored to be dating anybody, he would have chosen a model. A celebrity, or an actor on the big screen. If his classmates whispered that Akaashi-kun had been seen sliding into a slick cherry red sports car after school, sprouting sunglasses atop his head and waving off persistent paparazzi, well. He would have nobly suffered through such ludicrous claims. But he could only assume his teammates noticed he and Bokuto spent a significant amount of time together, and therefore assumed they must be dating.

Incorrect. They spent a significant amount of time together because Bokuto was the de facto captain and Akaashi was the vice-captain in fact. Bokuto threw his papers aside in a fit of boredom, and Akaashi picked them up and organized them by due date and importance. A moonlit night of steamy afterschool practice might appear tantalizing on paper, but the reality of running after his leaping captain to get the stamp of approval for the funding request forms lost its appeal after the third lap.

So Bokuto texting somebody else, or even dating somebody else, had no importance to Akaashi. Bokuto’s computer could be riddled with searches listing ‘singles in my area into volleyball’ and ‘likes long romantic matches at the volleyball court,’ but as long as he spiked the ball past three blockers, Akaashi did not care.

At the end of practice, when the normal team members left and Bokuto enthusiastically stayed behind and Akaashi simply existed within that plane of space, Bokuto wedged himself against Akaashi with his cell phone on his lap. The phone buzzed with incoming messages.

“Hinata?” Akaashi asked, shoving a lid over his self-hatred.

“Yeah!” Bokuto said. “He likes volleyball.” Like this fact would surprise Akaashi, who had first met Hinata at a volleyball camp for volleyball players during volleyball training season. Bokuto hummed while he thumbed a response, his long kneepads rubbing against Akaashi’s legs.

It wasn’t like Bokuto had a thing for younger guys. Both he and Kuroo had certainly enjoyed Tsukishima’s company, but they had been uncles to a rebellious nephew. And certainly, Bokuto’s ego had grown three sizes too large when Hinata praised him, but this was Bokuto. And if Bokuto enjoyed playing with their first-years, wasn’t it only because he was swindling them at rigged games for them to treat him to ice cream? Akaashi drew his knees closer to his chest, resting his elbows atop of them, and stared at Onaga. Onaga collected the balls on the court and glanced around nervously.

But judging by Bokuto’s grins over his phone, he did, perhaps, like the flattery of his underclassmen. People who praised him, complimented him, patted his head. Akaashi watched Onaga push the cart of volleyballs beside the posts.

“Bokuto-san,” Akaashi said.

“Yeah?”

“Sometimes,” Akaashi said, picking through his verbiage, “you aren’t half as bad as what your requests for flattery might have led you to believe.” Bokuto still had his legs stretched out, hands resting on his white shorts. His cell phone blinked awake from where Hinata had apparently sent a picture of a volleyball.

“Oh, sure,” Bokuto said, half-grinning and half-frowning. A flimsy defense against a potential insult, a shuddering attempt at modesty against a compliment.

“Hey, Akaashi,” Konoha whispered while he bent over to pick up his towel. “Onaga’s getting really nervous. You’re really staring spears into him. Akaashi? Can you hear me? Hey, hello?”

**

“Akaashi,” Bokuto sang. “Let’s have lunch!” Akaashi had been assigned a seat along the hallway, so the second-year class had well been treated to the sight of Bokuto dangling from the hallway window, yakisoba bread in his mouth, volleyball in his hands. In the winter, when they occasionally closed the window, they had also been treated to Bokuto running into the window several times, which had led the hard-working class rep to slide open the panes before lunch.

“Are you running away from Shirofuku-san again?”

“I’m hungry,” Bokuto proclaimed. He sat backwards on a chair, its back leaning into his chest. His bountiful lunch consisted of cafeteria bread, a juice box from the vending machine, and his rattling cell phone.

“Is it Hinata?”

“Yeah, must be his lunchtime, too.” Bokuto rocked the chair. “Did you like the training camp with Karasuno this year?”

Akaashi had a cold, chilling moment, gazing upon the octopus sausage from his bento. He was forcibly reminded of a parent faced with the reality of their child dating a stranger. Their precious child would say, what do you think about Miku-kun? He thought, with a pinpoint clarity and the calm from the eye of a storm, that they should have a family meeting. Miku-kun should bring some sponge cake and be prepared for a Real Talk.

“It was interesting,” he said instead.

“You were talking to Kageyama, right?” Bokuto chewed through half his bread. “The amazing setter?”

“In a platonic way,” Akaashi said. In his distinguished career as a high school student, he had never been on a double date and had no intentions to begin now. He had provided Kageyama with a cup of water for his enthusiastic eating and spent some of the barbecue discussing the ideal angles of setting.

“Yeah,” Bokuto said. “He practices with Hinata during lunch, too! That sounds fun!”

Bokuto was just going to date all of Karasuno’s first-years.

Akaashi should have seen this coming. Of course. Bokuto was charismatic, especially to hot-blooded simple-minded volleyball players. Tsukishima would eventually touch Bokuto’s biceps in welcome. Hinata would already be fiery, gripping Bokuto’s firm hands. Kageyama could be swayed by Bokuto’s spikes and back muscles. Who wouldn’t be romanced by Bokuto’s back. His robust deltoids, his well-strengthened trapezius, the structure of his rhomboid, the sheer seductive power of his latissimus dorsi.

“Akaashi?” Bokuto asked tentatively.

“What?”

“You got something on your face.” Bokuto swept his thumb near Akaashi’s mouth, plucking a grain of rice onto his finger. He ate the rice, eyebrows arched in concern, until he finally said, “Hey, are we still on for this weekend? You said you wanted to buy new shoes, right?”

“Yes,” Akaashi said. He had asked Bokuto to come with him, though his invitation had been extended long before Sarukui had ruined everything.

“I’m really looking forward to it.” Bokuto offered an almost hesitant smile, different from his usual thousand watt beam. He was trying to match Akaashi’s somber mood, and Akaashi suddenly felt like he had done a dishonor to his cheerful umeboshi onigiri.

“Me too,” he said softly.

Bokuto folded his arms over the edge of Akaashi’s desk. The white of his dress shirt clumsily peeked out against the rolled up gray sleeves of his uniform. Bokuto had an animated face, usually pulled back in sharp and keen hunger. When he smiled, mouth a gentle curve, head tilted at a studying angle, Akaashi wanted to run his fingers against Bokuto’s cheek and dip his fingers beneath his jaw, just to see if he felt as soft as he looked. Bokuto’s sloping smile slipped into horror when a shadow fell across Akaashi’s desk.

“Bo-ku-to,” Shirofuku drawled. “I thought I’d find you here. You said you’d pay me back today.”

Their volleyball manager, Akaashi reflected, would make a good extortionist. Her hand canted at her hip, belying her light tone. Bokuto chuckled warmly, and then dashed for the doorway.

“Hey! Bokuto!” Shirofuku darted for the sliding doorway a second too late. Their footsteps resonated down the hallway. Akaashi was left with his empty bento box and half-eaten cafeteria bread.

His seated neighbor leaned over with interest at the debacle. A transfer student, so he was still a minor celebrity. He had apparently moved from a smaller school and away from an intelligent ex-girlfriend to now be serenaded by the volleyball team.

“Who’s the cute upperclassman?” the transfer student asked.

“Bokuto-san is the captain of the volleyball team,” Akaashi said, capping off his lunch box. “You’d see him, or rather hear him, if you attend any of our matches.” And then, at a glance at his classmate’s quiet face, he added hastily, “I mean, you mean, Shirofuku-san is the manager of our volleyball team.”

**

Akaashi deserved the Cinderella band-aids. They were shoe shopping at the mall, and Akaashi had worn down the carpeting of the store. The first shoe had too little cushioning. The second had an uneven sole. The third, too tight. The fourth, narrowed at the end. He’d have to break in the shoe, too. He rocked his foot back and forth and frowned. He was a setter, which meant rather than sensitive feet, he had sensitive fingers. He could tell when his nails had grown too long or where his joints had begun to ache, just as he felt the warm muscles of Bokuto’s thighs when he sometimes pressed his hand against his leg to get his attention.

Bokuto was playing with Akaashi’s cell phone. He sat on a bench and had toed off his shoes, though Bokuto hadn’t tried any sneakers. Akaashi frowned at Bokuto’s socks.

“When do you have gray socks?”

“I got ‘em as a present,” Bokuto said.

“From Hinata?”

“From my grandma.”

The gray socks made him look more mature. His casual outfit had an unusual maturity to it, like he had been motivated by actual human reason and not driven by a guttural instinct towards the gaudiest t-shirt available. Bokuto slouched over Akaashi’s phone in his messy jacket and warm long-sleeved plaid shirt and Akaashi’s irritation built up around his ears. He stood in front of Bokuto with shoes squeezed a size too small and he straightened out Bokuto’s jacket collar and when Bokuto glanced up at the motion, Akaashi said, “Please don’t drop my phone,” and he couldn’t tell if he had been aiming for sweet or spiteful and Bokuto offered a bewildered half-smile in return.

“Did you find a pair?” Bokuto asked, thumbs clutching onto Akaashi’s phone.

“No,” Akaashi said. “Pair of what?”

“Shoes!”

“I liked the ones on display,” Akaashi said, turning in the narrow shoe-filled corridor of cabinets. “But they were unfortunately too expensive.” The shoes in question had been the right size, comfortable, and lent well to running and jumping, but the price tag dangled off the shoelaces in numbers reserved for his math class.

“Those are a good brand! They’d look cooler with painted flames, but they’re still okay,” Bokuto said. “I got a little money saved and I almost paid back Shirofuku, why don’t I pay for half?”

And Akaashi had a horrified sensation, standing atop the pea green flooring and surrounded by cardboard shoe boxes, that he had eavesdropped into a potential future. Those wooing lovers would tell Bokuto, yes, of course they need the shoes, need need need, and wasn’t Bokuto such a strong and handsome boyfriend, absolutely, and Bokuto would cheerfully dish out the dough, unaware that he had fathered far more than a few granules of sugar and would they even appreciate him, did they even know how Bokuto sounded, hoarse yet sweet, when he woke up after late night practice with his eyes still bleary but smiling when he saw Akaashi, would Bokuto even know he was paying for compliments, this outrageous affair happening before his eyes.

“Don’t you dare,” Akaashi said, with more bite than necessary. Bokuto recoiled. Akaashi felt bad for a second, and then worse when Bokuto looked down at his gray socks in thought.

“Are they evil shoes?” Bokuto asked eventually.

“No.” Akaashi tapped his fingers together. “I’m sorry for my outburst.”

“It wasn’t really an outburst,” Bokuto said, grinning and looping an arm around Akaashi’s shoulders. “If you have to be mad, you have to do it louder, Akaashi! Trust your senpai on this.”

The sleek lines of the mall lead them in winding circles, passing the bookstores and boutiques. The expensive chocolates and champagne, trendy notebooks and pens, and mannequins dressed in refined suits were displayed in long rows of window shopping. Bokuto fluttered towards the sportier stores with sleek water bottles and toy stores with mecha figures and RC cars. Between pressing himself against store windows, Bokuto glanced at Akaashi with increasing worry. When they passed the arcades with their claw machines, he’d ask, “Do you want this?” or “I’ll get you this” or “I’ll win you something nice!” but Akaashi ony said, “No, thank you,” and kept his mouth shut in a straight unhappy line until he finally stopped in front of a bright café near the glass railing and Bokuto walked into him.

“Bokuto-san,” he said. “Please don’t misunderstand. Just because somebody is kind to you does not mean they like you.”

“Oh,” Bokuto said. “Are you saying nice people don’t like me?”

“No.”

“Okay,” Bokuto said, nodding with understanding. “So you’re saying that people shouldn’t be nice to me?”

“No.” Akaashi sat down at a nearby brick ledge, leafy plastic fronds at his back. He rubbed his hands over his face and covered his eyes, trying to find some coolness behind the flats of his palms. He didn’t know how to say that he was angry and frustrated that their teammates thought they were dating, frustrated that they weren’t, not that he would, but it was the principle of the matter, because he knew Bokuto would be attentive and kind, and faithful and devoted, but they weren’t dating, and that was fine, Bokuto could run off with clusters of first-years grasped in his strong arms, but they weren’t dating, so he didn’t understand why irritation shriveled inside his stomach, and gray socks, who gave someone gray socks, those were serious socks.

He felt someone take his hand and uncurl his fingers. Something cold dripped onto his thumb and Akaashi had become the brand new owner of a dripping ice cream cone. Bokuto folded Akaashi’s fingers over the newly purchased cone.

Akaashi sat in the busy shopping mall, ice cream melting in sweet rivulets over the crooks of his fingers. Bokuto brought his hand atop Akaashi’s head, stroking through his hair fondly. Their knees brushed against each other and Akaashi licked his ice cream. He really could be spoiled sometimes, he thought, and closed his eyes to indulge in the strokes of Bokuto’s fingers across the tips of his ears.

“… and I felt really sad,” Bokuto was saying, joviality bouncing in his tone. “Like I lost something I could never get back. Like, when you’re a kid, you had a favorite food, but then, you have a different favorite food. And you remember that feeling, when you ate it and you felt really happy, and it’s not like that anymore, and you’ll never get that back. I was feeling like that, real down low. But you know what? You came through the door, Akaashi. And I was really happy to see you! I’m still happy to see you, and you make me feel excited about what’s going to happen in the future, too, all the new favorite foods. And you sat next to me, and you said, I’ll always remember this, ‘Did you check your other pocket, Bokuto-san.’ And I did. And my house key was there!”

Akaashi licked his ice cream. The sweetness of the strawberry ice cream lingered beneath his tongue.

“Anyway, what I’m trying to say.” Bokuto frowned. “Even if a thousand girls break your heart, Akaashi, I’ll be here for you!”

“I’m not heartbroken, Bokuto-san.”

“Oh. Anyway, what I’m trying to say, is even if a thousand spoiled breakfasts hurt your stomach, Akaashi, I’ll be here for you!”

“I don’t have food poisoning, Bokuto-san.”

“Well,” Bokuto said indulgently. “Even if you’re a jerk, I’ll be here for you.”

“Please work on your consoling skills, Bokuto-san.” Akaashi folded the empty paper and rose to his feet. “This doesn’t make me feel better at all.”

“Not at all?” Bokuto bounced to his feet and angled to peek at Akaashi’s face. “Not even a tiny eensy-weensy little bit?” Akaashi turned his head away.

“Not at all,” he said firmly, and if he hid his mouth behind a napkin a little too long, nobody had to know.

**

After Bokuto failed his math test, Akaashi headed to his house for ‘enforced studying.’ The make-up test followed on the heels of the initial abysmal score, and Akaashi had a duty to sit at Bokuto’s house and glare whenever Bokuto tried to sneak out his window. In return, Bokuto brought a plate of cookies and mugs of tea to his room. Akaashi sipped on his warm amber tea, legs folded beneath him while he flipped through his own homework. Bokuto had collapsed onto him, abandoning his half-scribbled attempts into the theoretical planes. Bokuto’s arms had worked their way around Akaashi’s waist and Bokuto rested his head on Akaashi’s shoulder.

“You smell good,” Bokuto mumbled, mouth a warm reminder against Akaashi’s ear.

“New shampoo.”

“Kinda smells like roses. And apples. Apricot? Sage?”

“Two-in-one shampoo and conditioner.”

Bokuto had tossed his jacket and tie across his rumpled bed. The sheets arose like clouds, the curves gentle under the subdued light. Akaashi scratched out an answer with his pencil. He had unbuttoned and hung his jacket over Bokuto’s chair, near where the math homework had been laid to waste underneath piles of sports paraphernalia. A tree rustled outside the closed window, past Bokuto’s curtains, and Akaashi deliberated over the algebra.

In the corner, Bokuto’s phone buzzed.

Akaashi studied the next page of his textbook. Bokuto must have been sleepy because he hadn’t yet noticed, and when Akaashi peeked at him, he had fluttering eyelashes and a slack mouth. Akaashi could have said something, but a dull stab of frustration crushed against him. In Bokuto’s room, plastered with volleyball posters and various awards, the phone should not exist. And Akaashi folded his knuckles against his forehead when Bokuto eventually stirred himself awake and began to pull away with a “Hm, phone,” and Bokuto’s hand rested at his hip with his fingers sprawled comfortable over the flat fabric while he rearranged his knees, still pressed against Akaashi’s back.

“We’re dating,” Akaashi half-muttered into his wrist. His pulse fluttered like a butterfly and the statement flopped out of his mouth like a determined fish. He sounded, he reflected sourly, like he was bitter and unhappy, and maybe he was, because it wasn’t fair that nobody had told him earlier, that he had to try and piece together the fragments from the affectionate way Bokuto sometimes looked at him, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

“Oh, Akaashi,” he heard Bokuto say. “Geez, I’m sorry. If I’d known, I would have brought better cookies.”

“What,” Akaashi began, and realized he had no end to the question. He stared at the innocuous sugar cookies in front of him, shaped in friendly circles.

“They’re not really romantic cookies,” Bokuto said sadly. “Chocolate cookies would probably be more romantic. Heart-shaped flower cookies! But I didn’t know, Akaashi, you should have told me sooner. Did we have our first date? Our first kiss?”

“Bokuto-san,” Akaashi said, and the phone still kept vibrating, and he dug his nails into his palm. “I’m being serious.”

“So am I.” Bokuto looked at him steadily, long enough for Akaashi to retire his pencil atop his long-forgotten homework.

“You shouldn’t lie to me,” Akaashi said. “I know where you hide your candy.”

“No, you don’t,” Bokuto said, swinging his head towards his sock drawer. “And I’m serious, Akaashi! I like you. I really like you.”

“Oh,” Akaashi said, and folded his hands across his lap. He relaxed his shoulders and looked at where Bokuto’s hands grasped around his stomach. Akaashi rested his fingers against Bokuto’s knuckles.

“Besides,” Bokuto said sheepishly. “I kinda have a thing for older guys.”

“Washio-san,” Akaashi hissed. He knew it. He had known it all along, Bokuto was going to run off with Washio. They’d have a volleyball themed wedding. Their married life would be very tall. Maybe Bokuto had his sight set on Komi, too, and Sarukui. How old was Kuroo? Akaashi should have known, should have seen this all along. Bokuto would respect a volleyball player with hair that high.

“What?” Bokuto curled his finger into Akaashi’s grip. “I meant you, Akaashi!”

“I’m not older than you,” Akaashi said.

“You have a mature air around you, I guess. Like, it’s kinda attractive,” Bokuto admitted. “The way you take care of me. It’s kinda—nice.” A faint blush arose on Bokuto’s face.

“I see,” Akaashi said. He rubbed at his own cheeks self-consciously.

“And maybe you’ll tell me what’s been bothering you,” Bokuto continued boldly. “I can tell you’ve been thinking really hard! I’ll hear you out, Akaashi, because I’m the greatest boyfriend of all time, since I have been your boyfriend for the last five seconds.”

“Well,” Akaashi said indulgently. “Perhaps if you compliment me, I’ll buy you nice shoelaces.”

He departed from Bokuto’s house in the evening, jacket buttoned over his stomach and tie neatened. Bokuto saw him off in the foyer, stepping one white-socked foot atop his other. In the cool breeze of the evening, Akaashi wondered when Bokuto’s hands slotting over his cheeks felt so natural, when he almost expected Bokuto’s warm kiss to his forehead, strong enough for Akaashi to squeeze tight onto his backpack’s straps, unable to release them even after Bokuto pulled away with a grin.

**

When Akaashi stepped into the club room the next day, Konoha said, “Sorry, Akaashi, we were joking pretty hard yesterday about you and Bokuto, we know you’re not really dating.” Unfortunately, or fortunately, Akaashi had been following at Bokuto’s heels and Bokuto whirled around, Akaashi walked into his elbow, and the ensuing whirlwind of band-aids and shouting arguments about the embodied constitution of dating and kissing boo-boos was enough to reset the Days Since Fukurodani VBC Fought Over Something Incredibly Dumb (Fights About Owls Most Likely to Poop on Someone’s Head Acceptable) sign, but Akaashi turned on his cell phone after class to see Bokuto had sent him a message of ‘wuld u like 2 play vlbl w me?????’ so he considered the day an overall triumph.