Later, he would learn that the carved stone had stood as they were for over nine hundred years, that a century after it was built, a traveler from the north sojourned in Khmer and left having written that the temple was erected by a divine hand, its stones shaped into heroes and gods and its towering facade wrested from the heavens and set down on earth in a single night.
But that was later.
He watched the man with pomaded hair find a hole on the stone wall, small enough that it could fit only his fingertip. The man looks at the hole in front of him with resignation, his eyes blank, as if he’d spent a while looking for the right one. Then he cups both his hands around it and leans in to whisper something inside.
The sun is high, casting short shadows on the ground and throwing light right on top of his head, each strand of hair under the light shining from the pomade. Underneath his cupped hands, his jaw twitches ever so slightly; his voice must be so quiet he barely needs to move his mouth.
But this is a guess, at best.
Whatever he’s whispering is drowned out by a melancholy score, its shape contracting and swelling in turn, parallel to the doorways and wide, open temple grounds around the man as he stood where he was, still whispering. Above him, the sun has lowered in the sky, creeping west where it would soon set. No one is around to see him, the gray edifices around him empty, except a bald headed child in an orange monk’s garb resting underneath the eaves of the temple, shielded from the sun and unseen or ignored by the man.
He walks away. First through a stone hallway illuminated by sunlight, his jaw tight and his jacket slung over his shoulder. Then through a dark doorway, right in the middle of the frame, the elaborate peaks of the temple’s roof silhouettes behind him. The man is only a silhouette now, too.
The hallways of the temple are shown once more, now deserted. Then the hole on the wall, plugged with a mound of dirt, tufts of grass peeking through.
In his seat, cloaked under the safe darkness of a movie theater, Koutarou had forgotten all about the tub of popcorn on his lap. He was staring at the screen in front of him, transfixed, tears running down his cheeks.
The three of them trooped to the tiny izakaya near the theater where Koutarou and Akaashi were off-season semi-regulars after the movie.
That night, they were with Miyamoto Keishi, Akaashi’s college senior from both the lit department and the literary journal staff. He was a year older than Akaashi, Koutarou’s age, a published writer, and a literary editor at (Japan’s top literary journal) Yuzu magazine. Akaashi had lots of respect for him, so he figured intermittently (whenever Akaashi felt like it) in their lives.
The izakaya had a varied sake selection, ice cold beer, and their yakitori was divine, slathered in a secret sauce that was only a tinge spicy. It was tucked into a side street so narrow it was almost an alleyway. The place itself was built into one of the old buildings with a storefront on the ground floor and an apartment for the shopkeeper upstairs. Inside, the space was cramped, and wallpapered with menu items each written in individual lengthwise pieces of paper. The only decor was an autograph board with Koutarou’s signature. The lone proprietress, a kind middle aged woman whose hair was always in a tight bun, hair graying at her temples, served everyone from behind a U-shaped bar. There was a side door inside the kitchen that led out to the street in front of the izakaya, where there were spillover tables and chairs.
They were seated outside, because the June weather was suspiciously free of even a drizzle and the air was tolerably muggy thanks to a light breeze. Akaashi and Miyamoto sat across each other, Bokuto between them to Akaashi’s right. All three of them were halfway into their beers, but Koutarou had been quiet the whole night.
The momo yakitori was tender as always, but his wistfulness from the film was tough as tendons. He felt weirdly agitated, feeling as if he should be telling Akaashi everything he loved about him, even if his boyfriend should know for seven years now.
Koutarou watched Akaashi beside him, watched the spidery shadows of his lashes thrown on his cheek by the yellow-orange light from the lone exposed bulb plugged right on the izakaya wall that served as lighting for the makeshift al fresco dining area. Akaashi and Miyamoto were deep in conversation, but Koutarou had long lost the line, looking instead from the shadows to the scattering of light brown freckles on Akaashi’s cheek that only began appearing in his twenties, right underneath his new, round glasses with the metal frame only at the top.
“I don’t know,” said Miyamoto, regarding Akaashi with a frown. “I think Murakami lost his insight in his new works.”
“I don’t agree,” said Akaashi, his voice monotone in a way that told Koutarou he was a little bit annoyed. Not at danger level, but with the potential to get there. “His language is still good. And it’s okay for great writers to rest on their laurels and write what they want, otherwise what else is the status for?”
“Do you know literally anyone who read 1Q84 and liked it?” Miyamoto countered, his eyebrow raised.
Well, I haven’t done either , Koutarou answered Miyoshi’s question in his mind. He’d only read Norwegian Wood, just because Akaashi said it was one of the books that made him want to study literature. He loved it, it was broody in the way that Akaashi was broody, and he’d never forget the bit where the narrator confronted his crap friend about what types of jobs were difficult. He’s had a bookmark in Kafka on the Shore for maybe two years now, long enough that he should really just start it again. He was promised a talking cat, but he wasn’t there yet.
“And is everything in Mishima Yukio’s oeuvre The Temple of the Golden Pavilion?” Akaashi shot back, the monotone stronger now, it barely sounded like a question.
Koutarou heard them, but felt like he was listening in from another world.
When they got together with Akaashi’s college friends, they went to a place totally impenetrable to him, crossing an invisible screen where everything looked the same but everyone on earth had read The Magic Mountain and understood why Michel Foucault said that everywhere is a prison.
Koutarou stayed on this side, where his most treasured knowledge was how to aim a spike between receivers across a court.
It was strange how he always forgot this until he went to the next hangout, and everyone else had to cross again without him.
This was how it happened: Koutarou was on his way back from the grocery store farther from their condo that sold the cookie butter they liked but could only get in the off-season. (“For both our sakes,” Akaashi had said, “because you won’t eat it at all in between games and I could eat a whole jar when I have five drafts to check.”)
The route he took back home passed a small movie theater in Shinagawa a 20-minute walk from their condo (11-minute jog if they were running late) that Akaashi favored because they showed old films, sometimes as double billings for one ticket because the theater only had four screens. It was the kind of place that put a handwritten chalkboard sign and kitschy plastic decor (that time it was a derpy, off-brand Charmander with sad eyes) outside to advertise the films they were screening like the soup of the day in a restaurant.
On that day, walking back from the grocery store with one of his two full reusable shopping bags definitely containing two jars of cookie butter, the chalkboard out front read: ONE-NIGHT SCREENING THIS SUNDAY ONLY! In the Mood for Love (2000).
In the Mood for Love was Akaashi’s favorite foreign film. It had been for years, since Akaashi was in second year college and Koutarou was still with his old team.
Akaashi first told him about it over their many FaceTime calls, Akaashi hogging one of the small, study rooms in his university’s library with nothing in them but tables, chairs, and a whiteboard in Tokyo, Koutarou in his Hiroshima team-issued apartment with the tatami-floored bedroom, 676 kilometers between them.
Akaashi pressed the microphone on his earphones to his lips, and said, “I saw a movie today, Kou, and gods, it was just so beautiful.”
Akaashi’s voice was as tender as it had been on that sunny day in high school two weeks after nationals, when they both confessed their feelings for each other in front of the campus greenhouse.
Koutarou tried to watch the movie that week, on the bus ride back from an exhibition match in Nagasaki. It had been an unusually cold autumn with winds and hale, and he remembered thanking the gods for heated seats.
He leaned back onto the seat, rented the movie on Amazon, and propped his phone on the pull-down tray in front of him. But the exhibition match had been long and the press commitments after even longer, so he dozed off just when the pretty woman with a bird-like face decided she wanted to have noodles for dinner. He was nudged awake when the credits were already rolling, and the bus was right in front of the team apartments in Hiroshima.
Koutarou had been meaning to really see it since then, except he was bad at sitting still and watching movies in his own time, especially after practice or games. And his life was practice and games. It wasn’t that the movie was boring, he’d fallen asleep watching Love Letter once, and that’s his favorite movie.
Seeing films in movie theaters was different. They were made to watch movies in and nothing else, like volleyball courts were made to play volleyball on and nothing else. Falling asleep in a movie theater was just a waste when he could do that on his own couch for free, and the dark helped him focus on the movie. In the dark, everyone on the screen felt real , their feelings so heavy in the air he could grasp them if he stretched out his hand.
He took a picture of the chalkboard and sent it to Akaashi, who was still at work.
On his lunch break, Akaashi called, as expected. Koutarou was back in the condo, waiting for a delivery of sushi he ordered. “Can I ask you for something weird?” Akaashi said as soon as Koutarou picked up.
Koutarou replied, “Yes,” immediately because he was familiar with Akaashi’s own definition of weird and it involved not-weird and totally common things adults do for each other professionally, like when he went out for drinks with Sayo-san from Air Salonpas, who’d invited along Asuka-san, a PR professional Hoshi+Partners, who later introduced him to Aihara-san from Apple Music, who got him a 50-foot billboard in Shinagawa. (His agent, Saeda-san, called this the very android term “mining your contacts for opportunities.” Really, it was just taking the time to talk with everybody.)
Akaashi laughed softly over the phone. “Hey, at least wait for me to ask first.”
“Nah,” said Koutarou, “It’ll still be a yes then, too.”
Akaashi paused, taking a deep breath. “Well, since I’m writing again, I want to try submitting... things to the journals.” His voice sounded so delicate when he talked about this, his apprehension regarding his writing like it was cotton candy and just the act of speaking about it, bringing it to his lips would dissolve it.
Koutarou opted for a neutral hmm in response.
“So,” Akaashi continued, “I was wondering if I could ask Miyamoto-san to join us to watch In the Mood for Love? He still works at Yuzu , so maybe he could tell me about the poetics of the editorial board.” On the phone, Akaashi had paused again, but longer this time. Then he said, “Please consider… Miyamoto-san is a bit aggravating.”
Koutarou laughed and laughed and, in a fit of forgetfulness, said yes.
The thing was, he considered himself well-versed in adult conversation. He listened to four podcasts regularly: A daily news one, two weeklies—one economics explainer and the other for politics, and a bi-weekly one for pop culture. First because he wanted to know more about the world and keeping up with issues gratified him. Second as part of his job, because talking to other people was part of “mining your contacts for opportunities” and networking. He could believably talk about Son Masayoshi’s questionable injection of massive venture capital (n. capital invested in a project in which there is a substantial element of risk, typically a new or expanding business, “You know,” Kuroo had said when he asked, “like Kenma’s thing,”) on increasingly perplexing startups, how Abe’s ‘womenomics’ wouldn’t work without real systemic (adj. relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part, or more government-subsidized childcare options and “the men of Japan stepping up with the domestic work,” according to Yukie when he asked her about it) change, and the suffocating restraint (n. understatement, especially of artistic expression, “It’s the art version of doing a dump instead of a flashy spike in the right circumstance,” said Akaashi) in Shoplifters.
None of these topics worked with Akaashi’s college friends for long. They went off across the screen before he could even try.
“They're into mixed genres now, remixes of traditional forms, and one editor in particular loves memoirs,” said Miyamoto.
“Remember when we said Yuzu would never?” Akaashi replied, smiling. “They were very classic New Criticism before.”
Koutarou had lost the line again. They must have jumped to what Yuzu was publishing while he was distracted.
Miyamoto, smiling at Akaashi, took a sip of his beer and said, “Gods, so much can change in, how long has it been, five years?”
When Akaashi replied, his voice was warm. “Since we were first in the journal together? Six!”
“We are so old ,” said Miyamoto. Then he smirked and added, “Graduated from the star poems yet?”
“Never,” replied Akaashi immediately, firmly clasping Bokuto’s hand under the table.
“Well, unlike Yuki-san, I’ve always liked the star poems.”
“Good, because they’ll be part of my repertoire until I die,” replied Akaashi in a monotone that didn’t betray any sentiment, but he squeezed Bokuto’s hand as he said it. He continued, “So can I send you around eight pieces?”
Eight pieces, huh.
Miyamoto smiled at this, the genuine kind that wrinkled the corner of his eyes. He seemed really excited. “Sure, no problem. I'd love to read your new stuff, I've always been a fan.” Miyamoto took a long sip of beer, then turned to Koutarou and asked, “What do you think, Bokuto-san?”
About what? Akaashi’s writing? Yuzu being into mixed forms or whatever?
Truthfully, he didn’t read Yuzu enough, and when he did, he defaulted to the short stories. And Akaashi’s writing, well.
Maybe it doesn’t mean much from me, he thought, but he’s my favorite writer.
Before he could reply, Akaashi intervened and said, “Oh, leave Koutarou alone. He’s still thinking about the movie.”
“So it’s your first time to see it, huh?” Miyamoto said. If Koutarou thought that his entire face seemed smug, no one else needed to know. He thought, Yes. I totally said so before we entered the theater. You nodded and everything.
Aloud Koutarou said, “Yeah. It’s a lot.”
“What did you think?” asked Akaashi, turning to him. Koutarou watched the shadows cast by his lashes and glasses travel across his freckles as he turned his head. He looked unreal, like he belonged in a movie even though he was right there, holding Koutarou’s hand.
There was a pause in conversation that lingered. Miyamoto looked like he was about to say something.
Finally, Bokuto said, “It’s so sad. I was holding out hope that they’d cross paths again. It’s like the longer they didn’t, the more a bit of my hope was scooped out, until finally he was in Cambodia and it was over.”
“I know,” said Akaashi, inflections returning to his voice. “But doesn’t it hurt so good?”
Does it? Koutarou thought out loud as he considered this, “ Love Letter hurts so good. This movie? I don’t know, I think it just hurt. They were separated by things they couldn’t admit to themselves and to each other. Like they should’ve just said. ”
Akaashi was looking at him, his eyes fond. “Said what?”
“Everything, I guess.” Koutarou considered what he would have said, had he been the man. “I like you. I’m unhappy where I am right now. Let’s be brave. Run away with me.”
Miyamoto cleared his throat and piped in, “Really? It was pretty obvious to me they wouldn’t end up together, even when I saw it for the first time.”
“Anyway,” continued Miyamoto after taking a swig of beer, “It obviously isn’t a love story at its core.”
Koutarou wanted to say that the movie was called In the Mood for Love.
But he was fixated on that word. Obvious.
In Koutarou’s defense, derivatives were really, really hard.
He was bad at studying, but he always worked hard enough to stay within the passing mark. His team captaincy was dependent on hitting that mark. It took having a rotating assignment of study buddies from the third years in the team to keep him focused (Akaashi was a special case and somehow always on call), a little bit of homework copying, and a lot a bit of attending consultation hours with his teachers for most of his classes (all of them, really, except for Music and Practical Arts), but he always passed. He was even getting 80s in Literature and English exams (respective passing marks: both 70) ever since Akaashi joined the team.
And sure, he was always trailing behind in the 60s for Math exams (passing mark: 60), but again, he always passed.
A week ago, training camp then three days away, stern-faced Katagari sensei handed him his checked math final facedown and folded. When he opened it to see his final score of 57 encircled, he discovered for the first time that a piece of paper could hurt him.
A day after that, with training camp two days away, Koutarou was in Akaashi’s room. They were going over drills to prepare Koutarou for his impending English oral exam.
Akaashi had said, “There’s always an exception to the general rule.” Bokuto thought of the crumpled exam paper, stuffed at the bottom of his bag.
Koutarou loved Akaashi’s room almost as much as its owner because it was right at the top of the old house, so it was pretty big for one person. It had a vaulted ceiling that sloped down, with Akaashi’s bed right in the middle where the ceiling was the tallest. His walls were all white and the floor was exposed light wood, cuffed and dulled over years and contact with pair after pair of bedroom slippers.
Akaashi’s taste in the decor was restrained, and he had nothing on his walls except for a large cork board stuck on one slanted wall filled with art prints, photos (Koutarou was in seven ), post-it notes to himself that made no sense to Koutarou (one of them said, “No. 6: Total show-off”), and postcards from everytime Koutarou went on vacation.
(The postcards always arrived after school had started. The latest postcard with the green, serene Amida Buddha came a day into the new term. When they were alone together having lunch on the roof, Akaashi asked, “Thank you for the postcard Bokuto-san, but isn’t Kamakura only an hour away?”
Koutarou had grinned, confident, and said, “How far away it is doesn’t matter, Akaashi. What matters is that you always wanted to go!”
If his heartbeat picked up with the hope that the rising color on Akaashi’s cheeks was because of him, well, no one else needed to know.)
When Koutarou first visited in his second year, he’d said, “Wow Akaashi, your room is so cool! ” The Bokutos did not have an attic, they had a tiny spare room cluttered with all the sports Koutarou tried and decided to quit before he discovered volleyball — baseball mitts and bats, an old bike his sisters used for a while too, two basketballs, even a small canoe.
Akaashi, even more reserved back then, had replied, “Thank you, Bokuto-san. It gets hot in the summer, though.” Then they huddled together at Akaashi’s desk, Koutarou on a fancy storage box with a lid used as a stool, to start on their homework.
After two weeks of Bokuto coming over almost everyday, Akaashi’s parents snuck in a low table with two cushions across Akaashi’s bed, “So you can stretch your legs,” his mom had said.
Two days away from training camp, they were seated across each other there again, at the low table, like they had for more than a year.
“There’s always an exception to the general rule,” Akaashi said, his tone patient as always. A sheet of paper with the oral exam coverage was on the table between them, together with both their notebooks, and Bokuto’s English textbook.
Akaashi continued, “In this case, the general rule is that simple present tense is used to talk about habits and general truths. Bokuto is Fukurodani’s ace. Practice starts today.” Akaashi used his mechanical pencil to point to the sections of Bokuto’s own notes where he’d written exactly this. “The exception is that simple tense is also used when talking about future events that have been scheduled. Training camp starts in two days.”
The general rule is that Koutarou passes all his exams. The exception is derivatives. His make-up exam is in a week, after training camp.
Katagari sensei asked him to visit him in the faculty room after class. Yukie pointedly looked at him with big, concerned eyes as she was packing her things to leave for practice. He managed a smile, wanting to reassure her, and said, “Tell them I’ll be quick. I’ll be there in a few.”
Koutarou stood in front of Katagari sensei’s desk under the unflattering fluorescent lighting in the faculty room and felt small, even if he’d been taller than most of his teachers since he started high school. His teacher was frowning as he always was and his voice was stern.
“Listen Bokuto-kun,” he said, his voice taking on a disappointed inflection that Koutarou always thought only Akaashi was capable of doing. “This is a star athlete’s privilege so keep it on the down low okay? I talked to your coach and the academic coordinator. Since your grade was so close to passing, you can go to training camp. You just have to retake the test after, okay?”
Of course, he nodded, expressed his thanks, bowed a lot, and slunk off to practice. He felt guilty, although he didn’t understand why. He shoved his exam at the bottom of his bag and decided not to think about it, at least until after practice. It was only paper, but he felt like it could burn a hole through anything.
Just the existence of it was burning a hole through his chest. A day later, he still hadn’t told anyone.
“Bokuto-san,” said Akaashi, his voice monotone and taking on that magic inflection of disappointment. It still sounded better on Akaashi than Katagari sensei. “Are you even listening?”
Koutarou was gripped with the need to tell. Otherwise, he’d just walk around with a hole in his chest he could fit his hand right through. He needed to tell. He needed to tell Akaashi, in particular.
He couldn’t wait another second, so he asked, “Akaashi, can I tell you a secret?”
“Okay,” Akaashi replied immediately, his monotone gone, patience creeping back in his voice. “What is it?” Koutarou loved this about Akaashi, that he could change the subject, run off in a tangent, and Akaashi would follow. There was never a ‘What are you talking about?’ or ‘Huh?’
Koutarou looked right at Akaashi’s dark eyes and said, “You have to promise not to tell anyone, okay?”
He couldn’t explain it, because it wasn’t like they were making noise before, but a reverent hush had fallen in the room. Even Akaashi’s old window aircon unit, which thrummed like a fan on the hottest days, had fallen silent. The trill of the violin Akaashi’s brother was practicing downstairs seemed far away.
Akaashi looked straight back at him, his face solemn. “I promise,” he replied.
Koutarou leaned closer and Akaashi mirrored his action, until their foreheads were almost pressed together. He told Akaashi everything in a whisper.
Two days later, at training camp, everyone was excited about Karasuno, the new entrants. Kuroo had been hyping them up for weeks, it was freak duo this, freak duo that.
But when Karasuno arrived, the freak duo was nowhere to be found. Remedial classes, everyone said. The news spread fast through dozens of teenagers in one gym.
Koutarou felt genuine disappointment about this. He did something he tended to do when filled with negative emotion: Blurt stuff out without thinking about it. He said, “Can’t you just do a little studying and pass your finals?”
Akaashi’s voice came from behind him. As he approached Koutarou, he said, “Bokuto-san you failed your math final,” his voice perfectly neutral. He was stating a fact, after all.
Koutarou felt the burn boring a hole in his chest again, after he thought he’d gotten rid of it. He would recognize it later: Shame. He lost all his voice modulation from two days ago and yelled, “Akaashi, you promised not to tell anyone!” His good mood leaked out of him.
It had been another funny thing for the team to laugh about together, and Konoha immediately volunteered to tutor him “like a goddamn hawk, Bokuto, you won’t even think about getting bored.” Akaashi sent him superb tosses the rest of the day, and his good mood returned.
Later though, he’d woken up in the middle of the night, splayed across two futons (his and Akaashi’s), his left temple pressed against the other boy’s shoulder. The momentary slump was gone, but the thing eating at his chest remained. Koutarou counted the rise and fall of Akaashi’s breathing, watched his serene face as he slept.
Akaashi, he thought, you said you promised.
The walk from the izakaya to home took 25 minutes, the kind of distance that was a bit of a drag when feeling drunk and lazy after a night out, but was too close to call a cab over. They usually suffered the walk, except the time they hosted a high school reunion and they both got piss drunk because Kaori was devious at Never Have I Ever. (“I’m not,” she’d said on the phone the next morning. “Both of you are just boring, and we love that about you.”)
It was past 11 o’clock and most of the stores had shuttered except for the convenience stores and bars. On a Sunday, most people out were rushing to the stations, trying to shake their buzz while speedwalking, though slouched shoulders betrayed the collective Monday dread.
In summer, Shinagawa was its most dressed down, everyone around in tees and linen shirts. The humidity had picked up, the night air so dense he could feel it against his skin even without a breeze, and Koutarou felt sweat dampening his back as he walked. The sky above was cloudless, though the moon was just a sliver. Maybe in another place far away from Tokyo’s lights there would have been stars instead of a moving single dot of light he knew was probably a helicopter.
Walking beside him, Akaashi asked, “Are you okay Koutarou?”
“Yeah,” he replied. He really was. There were no slumps anymore. He sieved negative emotions through and out of him now. Get it out of your head, he thought. Lock it in a box. What matters is right now. Against all odds, it was a beautiful night. If something other than the balmy night air was warming his chest, who needed to know?
“Are you mad at Miyamoto-san?”
“Nah. He’s always an ass, I just always forget.”
There was a pause. Then Akaashi’s voice again, quieter this time, “You felt so far away from me tonight, though.”
Koutarou thought, I’m the one who felt far away? Me?
He could deny it and say he’s just having a bad day because of the off-season starting, but Akaashi would see it for the dodge that it is and would bring it up again as they’re brushing their teeth for the night. He didn’t feel like having that conversation then, he just wanted to sleep. Staying silent was not an option because Akaashi would think he’s hiding something, and he himself wasn’t even sure why he was so glum tonight, he couldn’t explain it yet even if he tried.
He settled on, “So did you.”
Akaashi’s hand reached for his hand all of a sudden, which was a surprise because his boyfriend was generally selfish with PDA. Of course, Koutarou took it and laced their fingers together.
“How much for your thoughts right now?” asked Akaashi.
“I don't know,” Koutarou replied.
The economy for thoughts between them was a barter system — one thing the other was chewing on in exchange for a service ranging from doing the dishes two nights in a row to better things. He couldn’t figure out though what his not-sure-what-they-are thoughts were worth, and he wanted to be honest.
“Okay,” said Akaashi, his voice losing inflection a little bit. “But you should understand that when you tell me that I felt far away from you tonight too, it feels like you're mad at me.”
Koutarou said, “I just agreed with something you said first, Keiji,” even if he could look at the conversation from beyond his murky feelings and realize it was a bit of an ass reply.
Akaashi, of course, figured this out too, and said, “I meant ‘you didn't talk much tonight,’ in the context of asking if you're okay. You meant something else.”
Koutarou wanted to be reassuring, so he said, “I'm not mad at you, Keiji.” He knew the question marks were coming.
“Okay? But you won't tell me what's wrong?”
I’m just gonna be honest and try not to be an ass from now on, decided Koutarou.
Aloud, he said, “I'm not sure if anything's wrong. I just… Don't feel like talking tonight.”
“Will you feel like talking tomorrow?”
He heard Akaashi loudly inhale beside him, which was something he did when he didn’t want to sigh while they were arguing. A brittle silence fell between them, the thrum of taxis carrying drunk passengers home, the conversations between friends leaning against each other on the way to the station, the chatter from passersby on their phones suddenly loud.
Neither of them spoke for two minutes. (They were still holding hands.)
Akaashi was the one who broke it. He tugged Koutarou’s hand, so Koutarou turned to look at him. “Not maybe,” said Akaashi, his brows and lips drawn together in determination. “I'm invoking the math exam rule. Please tell me what's wrong tomorrow, after work.”
“Okay,” replied Koutarou immediately. (In his mind, the hierarchy of laws went like this: House Rules between Koutarou and Keiji, the constitution, then laws Parliament passed.)
Akaashi pulled him to a stop on the sidewalk, beside the 7-Eleven second closest to their condo (there were so many 7-Elevens). The determination he’d worn earlier gave way to a worried frown and he said, “Don't get mad, I'm just anxious when you're cagey with me.”
Akaashi was wary of looking at maps. He’d told Koutarou in high school, when Akaashi was in first year and Koutarou in second. They were across each other at the low table in Akaashi’s childhood bedroom. One of them—Koutarou couldn’t remember who anymore—had a geography exam, so an atlas was open between them.
Neither of them had said anything for a while and they were both taking down notes when Akaashi asked, “Aren’t they scary?”
Koutarou, distracted, had said, “Hmm? You mean the maps?”
“Yeah,” replied Akaashi. “It’s not really the maps themselves, but what they represent.”
Koutarou put his pen down, looked at his friend, and asked, “You mean because the world is so big?”
Akaashi sounded wistful. “That, and what’s between them, I guess. And what’s beyond them.”
Koutarou remembered looking at Akaashi and thinking, What’s between maps? Who else would think that? Sometimes it was like Akaashi could see invisible things and when Koutarou was with him, he could see them too. That was the first time he felt it, the genuine curiosity to know his friend’s thoughts. So he asked, “What’s between the maps?”
Akaashi paused for a while, considering his answer. Then he said, “Emptiness, I guess. Things I don’t know.”
Looking at his boyfriend under the glow of the 7-Eleven sign, Koutarou wanted to say, There’s nothing you don’t know about me.
He said, “I know, I'm sorry. I'm just… It's been a while, but sometimes I'm not sure what I'm feeling myself. I don't know how to explain it to other people.”
Akaashi’s frown deepened. “I'm not other people, okay? You can tell me.”
“I will. You said tomorrow, after your work.”
“Okay,” agreed Akaashi. The tension that had been pooling between them was dammed, stopping its flow, and it came to a momentary standstill. Then Akaashi looked at the store entrance and asked, “Do you want to buy frozen grapes before we go home?”
Koutarou hesitated for only a moment. He watched his brand new, stark white Adidas sneakers that Akaashi’s mom had given him as a going away present sink into the wet sand of the Inland Sea, sandy splotches landing on the toe box, and felt only a prickle of guilt. Shoes were made to be walked in, after all.
It was the tail end of summer, just when the symptoms of autumn began to creep into the early mornings. Koutarou had been underdressed for the overcast day and chilly breeze, so he hugged his denim jacket closer to him as he kept walking. His mom was already three meters ahead of him because she was a fast walker who did not have any qualms about her leather work boots. She seemed excited. There was a spring to her step as her long skirt billowed behind her.
She turned around then to look at him and said, “Kou-kun, hurry up!”
He felt the thrill of her excitement, infectious as always, and jogged to catch up with her, suddenly uncaring of the globs of sand he kicked up and onto his new shoes.
Traveling from Tokyo to Hiroshima would have taken an hour and a half by plane, two hours by bullet train, nine and half hours by car. Koutarou and his mom decided to make a trip of it and take a car. Or more specifically, a small pickup truck his dad borrowed from work, with the East Japan Railway Company logo painted on both doors.
When they announced their decision over dinner, his mom’s homemade from scratch gyoza was still steaming on the serving platter on the dinner table.
His dad, the kind of man who read their community newspaper cover to cover and answered every question Koutarou had about anything in it for the past 18 years, was skeptical. “Are you sure? There are airline deals. Flying is probably cheaper than all the toll fees.”
“Oh come off it, Naoki,” replied his mom, the kind of woman who spent 200 yen on a single lottery ticket whenever the jackpot was especially tempting, flicking her hand at his dad as if shooing his words away. “Che Guevara traveled across Latin America for nine months in a motorcycle. It’s a coming of age thing!”
His dad deepened his skeptical frown, but his eyes were full mischief. “You think traveling nine hours to Hiroshima with his mom will turn our baby into a socialist revolutionary?”
“What’s a socialist revolutionary?” asked Yuka, Koutarou’s 10-year-old sister.
“That’s a great question, Yuka-chan,” said his mom, doling gyoza into Miyuki’s, his 9-year-old sister’s, plate while smiling at Yuka. “Dad will explain.”
Dinner was a celebration that night because they got a call from the sports agent his parents had hired to negotiate that the final terms of Koutarou’s contract with the Mondelez Beavers had been settled. All that was left was his signature.
It was a collective sigh of relief for everyone who loved him. He may have decided to be a normal ace midway through his last high school nationals, but he knew just getting him there was an all hands on deck operation.
Just receiving the call from the recruiter broaching the topic of contract negotiations because they were interested in signing him was enough to spurn his mom to make strawberry shortcake from scratch for dessert on a Wednesday school night. She hand-whipped the frosting and bought fresh strawberries to decorate. She kissed him on the cheek maybe five times.
Koutarou knew it was a relief that he wouldn’t have to trudge through entrance exams.
In 2012, the Mondelez Beavers, based in Hiroshima, were relatively new in the league, a four-year-old passion project of an heir to a storied candy company who packed its lineup with marquee V. League players a bit past their athletic career peak. A new general manager was coming on board for the 2013 season who, lucky for Koutarou, wanted young talent. Sure, the Beavers was a middling V. League team and not the Schweiden Adlers, but he was grateful to debut in Division 1 and with the near certainty of being a starter, because the Beavers’ star OH was set to retire after the 2012 season. There were other offers from better teams with deeper rosters that came later, but he’d have been the third or fourth player on the queue. Koutarou knew himself. If he didn’t get enough court time, he might get discouraged and quit midway. (Deciding to be something and then actually being that something were two different processes, after all.)
He told the other seniors when they were given a half-day off and he invited them all to lunch in Washio’s favorite curry place. Koutarou got extra allowance from his dad to “treat all your friends and say thank you.” They were in the tatami portion of the restaurant, seven pairs of Fukurodani-issued shoes neatly lined up. When he finally dropped the news as they were waiting for their orders to arrive, his friends were happier than he was. Komi led everyone into what felt like eight rounds of applause.
“Oh my god! Our baby is growing up!” said Kaori, who was tearing up. “Wait, I don’t know if I’m actually emotional or if I’m feeling everything ten times more because I haven’t interacted with humans outside of my family and cram school for three weeks.” Everyone laughed, but there were also resigned grunts of agreement.
“He actually did it,” said Sarukui, “he dodged the entrance exams! King shit.” Cheers and applause broke out in the group again.
“You told Akaashi already, didn’t you!” said Komi, pointing an accusatory finger at Koutarou. He pressed his lips together in response.
“I think he did, probably the same time he confessed,” deadpanned Washio. After that, everyone took a turn to tease Koutarou. He didn’t mind though, not when his heart felt so full.
When the goodhearted teasing died down, Konoha led them all to a group huddle around the table and said, “Outside, we’re all gonna hug for a really long time, okay? Long enough that it’s gonna be awkward by the end, but we’ll power through.”
After they all trooped out of the restaurant, seven pairs of school shoes back on, seven heads ducking under the noren, Konoha called everyone into a huddle again, standing outside this time. “Bokuto, stand in the middle,” he barked. Koutarou did as he was told.
“Wait!” said Koutarou, before Konoha could give the order for everyone to close in on him. “I just wanna say, thank you guys so much for helping me for the past three years. At everything. School, practice, games, Akaashi.” Komi chortled loudly. Konoha made retching sounds. Koutarou, grinning now, ignored them and continued, “I really couldn’t have done it without you all. Thank you for taking care of me.” He bowed.
A blissful hush fell among them, and he imagined that they basked in the warm aura of three years of camaraderie together. Then Yukie said, “Gross, Bokuto. You don’t have to give us a speech. We’re not Akaashi.” In the moment, this was hysterical, and they all closed in on him for the group hug while everyone, even Washio, was howling with laughter.
Enfolded in the tangle of long teenage limbs, all their shoulders shaking with joy, Koutarou thought, I never want to forget this. The hug lasted for eight minutes.
He came home that night to find collapsed moving boxes set down in his room and a note from his mom that said, “Best to start early!” Moving away suddenly felt real. Koutarou sentenced his calculus book to go in the ‘Donate’ bin before the ‘Donate’ bin even existed.
Over the next few weeks, he had to contend with the sheer amount of stuff he’d accumulated just from 18 years of existing. He kept his autographed poster of Katagari Shoko, best still-working WS in the V. League, and by sheer dumb luck his future teammate, obviously. Same with all his volumes of Slam Dunk. His collection of pamphlets from every volleyball competition he’d ever been in kept in the bottom drawer of his desk went to his mom. The upside down sleeping cats gachapon toys he collected with Kuroo, which took them a full summer vacation to complete, went to his sisters (an argument broke out between them about who would get the Scottish fold). He found a bloodied foam knife buried deep in his closet from his first high school festival, when his class decided to transform their classroom into a haunted house and he was assigned the role of vengeful serial killer spirit. It was an easy toss. The slim book of haikus from Akaashi with a reserved note on the cover page that said, “Happy birthday Bokuto-san, with all my patience, Akaashi (20/09/2011),” was an easy keep.
On the morning of D-Day, after all the things to keep had been packed in boxes and those boxes slotted together in the bed of the borrowed pickup truck, while Koutarou’s mom was nursing her second cup of coffee for the long drive ahead, their doorbell rang. Koutarou opened the door, expecting the newspaper left on their doorstep, as usual.
When he opened it, he got Akaashi standing there, hands behind his back, instead.
“Akaashi!” yelled Koutarou, pleasantly surprised. “What are you doing here?”
From the kitchen, his mom called, “Akaashi-kun, come in! We’re having breakfast.”
Akaashi blushed and called back, “No thank you, Bokuto-san. I need to leave in a bit, my mom’s waiting for me downstairs.”
“What do you need then? Are you okay?” asked Koutarou, suddenly concerned. He didn’t even know he had anything to be concerned about. They spent a whole afternoon yesterday in Keiji’s room while his parents and brother were out for a violin recital.
Akaashi’s blush deepened. “Yes, everything’s fine. I just have something to give you.” He produced a book from behind him. “I wanted to give it earlier, but I couldn’t find it in bookstores. I ordered it online, and then it took forever to get to me, so I thought I’d just send it to you in Hiroshima later, but then it arrived last night after you’d already left—”
Bokuto took the book from Akaashi. Its colorful cover read Volleyball Mental Kyoko Method by Watanabe Eji. He flipped to the cover page where Akaashi had written, “Only task focus,” and nothing else.
Koutarou pulled Akaashi into a hug. “Akaashi! I love it so much!” right at his boyfriend’s ear. In his mind, he thought, You, too. I love you so much too.
When they pulled apart, Akaashi, his expression serious, looked right at Koutarou and said, “You can be Japan’s ace, okay? I know it. You don’t need me to do that. You can talk yourself out of all your sullen modes. Have fun and go be the best in the world.”
He didn’t pack the book. He held it in his hands even when he was in the front seat of the pickup, hurtling towards Hiroshima and the Future. His mom, ever kind, did not comment on this, and instead complained about SEVENTH HEAVEN playing on the radio for the fourth time in two hours.
With their lush imaginations combined, Koutarou and his mom had planned a full road trip with stops in Shizuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto before Hiroshima, until his dad called them back to the reality that his mom’s leave was approved for only two days in the middle of the week—Wednesday and Thursday—and she still needed to report for work in the department store on Friday, by 11 AM.
A compromise with reality was reached. They would drive straight to Hiroshima at dawn, arrive at the team apartments in the evening and unpack as much as they could, collapse in a tired heap, then wake up in the morning to take the train and ferry to Miyajima Island. “I haven’t been in a while,” said his mom, her voice wistful. “Not since dad and I went to ask the gods for you.” She kissed him on the cheek again.
They got up before sunrise surrounded by the half-unpacked mess of Koutarou’s things in his new apartment to catch the first train of the day to the docks, and then paid 180 yen per ticket to ride the ferry to the island. There was an absurd mass of people around them for a Thursday morning.
“It really is one of the best views in the country,” his mom said sagely, while they were both leaning against the railing on the deck, looking out at the massive, bright orange Miyajima floating torii gate erected in the middle of the sea. Rays of light had escaped from beyond the low clouds and seemed to shine right at the gate. The tide was receding, creeping further and further away that the illusion of floating was long gone. The shore was bare, wet sand. But it was exciting to Koutarou, the thought of being able to walk through the gate. He imagined crossing over in the spirit world.
This is what the tourist brochure said: Miyajima Island is officially known as Itsukushima Island. The world famous shinto shrine and torii gate are old as the mists of time, first founded in 593 AD. Both were built over water to avoid tilling the sacred ground and risk the offense of the gods. The structures were made with camphor wood, apparently a type of wood that was resistant to water damage. The latest iteration of the torii gate was built in the 19th century. Koutarou thought of these things as he jogged on the shore of the Inland Sea at low tide in his new shoes to catch up to his mom. They walked towards the gate together.
When Akaashi went to Switzerland with his dad last summer, he sent Koutarou pictures of castles from 300-something AD, the literal rock on it centuries old. It’s not like that here, he thought. Ancient palaces were copies of ancient palaces. The Miyajima torii from the 19th century was a copy of the previous camphor wood torii, and all iterations since were copies of the one from 593 AD. The wood would wrinkle with water damage, but it was somehow the same structure, the same palace, the same gate.
Koutarou stood right under the massive torii gate, looked at the expanse of blue sea beyond it, and felt small. The mass of other tourists and their selfie sticks around him didn’t register. He felt like he could take a few more steps, slip out of this world, and be stuck somewhere between it and another. Like he could take a few more steps and wake up in a dream.
Go be the best in the world, Akaashi said.
It didn’t matter, at that moment, where his life would lead.
In a week, he’d be thrown off by the new, unfamiliar padding in the gym that messed with the bounce of the ball. He’d grow frustrated but find it in him to tell himself, get over it, Koutarou. Get. Over. It.
In two months, he’d let a bad line call in the first match of the season get in his head until he had to be subbed out in the third set. His idol Katagari would pull him aside after the game and tell him, “Listen, Bokuto. You’re a great player. You just have to remember that on the court, you’re the only thing you can control.”
In a year, Akaashi would get an acceptance letter from Tokyo National and let Koutarou know over FaceTime that he’d be quitting volleyball. Koutarou would realize for the first time what his boyfriend meant when he said, You can be Japan’s ace, okay? You don’t need me to do that.
Under the torii gate, feeling the vastness of the world beyond himself and oblivious to what was ahead, Koutarou thought, I’ll try.
Obvious things are easy to perceive, like the smooth, synthetic leather of a volleyball under Koutarou’s two hands as he walked past the backline for a serve, like he was told at 9 that receiving volleyballs should be done at the juncture of hard bone where his wrist and arm met, but he knew at 24 can be done from anywhere on his body that could connect as long he got the ball to fly up, like the comforting press of compression knee pads against his skin holding the gossamer cartlidges in his knees together during long rallies into the fifth set, like the silence of a collective inhale on the other side he could only hear from the top of the net in the seconds he had to decide where to spike, like the tang of man sweat and Air Salonpas that pervaded every locker room he’d ever been in, like feeling the foundations of a stadium shake as the fans got up to stomp and jump and clap and cheer, like the giddy weightlessness that lifted him every single time someone called him “Bokuto-senshu.”
What wasn’t obvious, he could learn, like the right give of a melon under his fingers in the supermarket so it was just ripe enough, like the slick of Pharmaact Deep Cleansing Oil from the drugstore as it started to bubble on his face and how it felt exactly the same as Shu Uemura Cleansing Oil for less than half the price, like the unreachable, internal itch in his throat when he didn’t replace the aircon filter enough, like the dissociation of watching his utility bills deduct from his bank account on the app where they seemed like nothing numbers compared to the paper bills in his wallet, like the throb of a looming aura migraine from a circuitous conversation on the phone with an underpaid customer service rep of his terrible internet provider when please I just want my internet back, my boyfriend can’t even load Google docs.
Some things were just beyond him though.
Filling out a tax return without wanting to pull his hair out.
Finding jeans that fit his hips, bum, and waist in the department store in under ten minutes.
Arriving at interviews in the ‘five minutes before’ window when it was polite to show himself to the waiting journalist because coming too early was also rude, and being late was irredeemable. (He killed time in countless bookstores and stationery shops.)
Timing his vacation planning when the airfare deals were the cheapest, so he almost always paid full price. It’s okay though, he lied to himself often. The miles.
Not thinking hard enough about his retirement fund, though he did have one. Also life insurance, he should really get on that.
Finishing Kafka on the Shore.
Predicting the turns of a story.
Figuring out when the restrained, suffocating yearning between two people in a movie was hopeless, apparently.
Nothing was beyond Akaashi. His terrifying competence from high school just evolved with age. He could do everything Koutarou could, and everything he couldn’t.
And he didn’t get discouraged for long. A year into his new job at Weekly Biz, he started writing again.
Akaashi got up in the middle of the night to write, after he’d come home from work and they’d had dinner together. He stayed in bed until Koutarou was nearly asleep, pressed a kiss on his boyfriend’s temple and did whatever else he had to, before padding into his home office across their bedroom. The tak tak tak-ing of Akaashi’s keyboard lulled Koutarou to sleep.
He asked Akaashi once, why he had to stay up longer by going to bed early but not sleeping. “It’s okay, you know. You can just write after dinner.”
Akaashi looked at him with knowing eyes, the same gaze that assessed his unpredictable whims in high school in half a second, and said, “You say that now, but you’d miss me. And I’d miss you.”
Koutarou couldn’t deny it, so that was that.
Akaashi held his drafts close to his chest. It wasn’t that Akaashi balked at Expectations (the life-defining, get into the Olympic team whatever it takes kind). Actually, he took them so seriously he acted like a defense strategist, finding the most prudent course of action to meet them that would hurt him the least.
So Koutarou was careful.
He was okay with Akaashi only showing him ones that were “okay,” only three pieces (a long poem, a short story, and something called a lyric essay which seemed like a poem but longer) since he got back into the habit of writing almost nightly when the V. League season started last autumn.
It was June now, and Koutarou had still only seen the three.
He watched the man with pomaded hair pick at his food with chopsticks. He’s in a dingy eatery, its concrete walls pockmarked with grooves and stained with what used to be a fresh coat of paint, years ago. All the diners are men and they puffed cigarettes freely inside, smoke billowing behind him.
A friend of his, an older man wearing a newsboy cap—lit cigarette between his fingers in one hand, chopsticks in the other—is sitting across from him. There are two half empty glasses of whiskey on the table between them.
Without prompt, the man with pomaded hair, in between chewing his food, says, “In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did?”
His friend, tone flat, answers, “I have no idea.”
The man, as if expecting the skepticism, continues, “They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.”
“What a pain! I’d just go get laid.”
The man smiles at this and leans against the grimy wall behind him, uncaring of his carefully styled hair and clean cream shirt. He says, “Not everyone’s like you!”
His friend takes a long puff in his cigar then says, as he’s exhaling smoke, “I’m just an average guy. I don’t have secrets like you. Tell me something!”
The man takes a sip of his whiskey and says, “I don’t have secrets," though his cautious expression, lips pressed together, said otherwise.
The day after the movie, Koutarou made the executive decision of treating himself to stay in bed for as long as he wanted.
Akaashi’s alarm went off at 6:30 AM, which briefly woke him up.
He woke up again at 7:15, when Akaashi went back inside the room to press a kiss on his temple before leaving for work.
Koutarou finally woke up at 10:14 AM, the blinds over their floor-length windows still down, still in his pajamas, and hours after the range of time that was acceptable for him to still call it a ‘morning run.’ He wrote the day off and burrowed back into the covers with his phone to doomscroll on Twitter. By 2030, one in every three Japanese people will be 65 or older. The labor force was shrinking. Economic insecurity among the younger generation discouraged marriage and contributed to declining fertility rates. GDP growth was expected to be no more than 1% in the coming decades. Also, polar bears were projected to go extinct by 2030. And a meteor was hurtling towards the earth, maybe.
He resurfaced at 12:37 PM feeling sufficiently pathetic and decided to finally shower.
Ten minutes later, he finally left the bedroom in a clean shirt and sweatpants, and debated if he should cook lunch for himself.
In the early days of the non-LDR phase of his and Akaashi’s relationship, when they first moved in together, they alternated chores, including cooking. Then Akaashi blackened a pot because he got distracted while making curry from an instant pack and it burned, red sauce turning a sickly red-brown like dried blood and staining the inside. It was a blessing that they had a range hood over the stove so the entire building’s fire alarm system didn’t go off. Still, it was close enough that Koutarou offered to do all the cooking so long as Akaashi would do the dishwashing and cleaning up, which was the worst part of cooking. (Koutarou just didn’t think too hard about what his boyfriend ate when he wasn’t home for away games.)
Today though, Koutarou wanted to indulge in the pervasive heat in his chest that definitely wasn’t heartburn, still eating away at him hours and hours later. Even the thought of cooking instant ramen was too much. He pulled up UberEats on his phone, ordered a box of Korean fried chicken that was half-original and half-spicy, and thought, Go hard or go home. Well, he was home. So he was doing both, really. He ordered the largest iced coffee, black, from Starbucks too.
Then he sat on one of the barstools against the island counter in the kitchen, watching the drivers navigate Tokyo in the tiny map, and contemplated his feelings.
Here was something that Koutarou knew at 24, but didn’t at 18: His insecurities were his own. The burning shame convinced him to imagine something else in Akaashi’s expression where there probably wasn’t. When Akaashi said nothing to Miyamoto’s ribbing, Koutarou heard god it’s true Bokuto-san really is stupid, even if he’d never say that because Akaashi wasn’t a cruel person. Also he factually did not say anything.
But the possibility of him thinking it—the heat in Koutarou’s chest ate away at him slowly.
Another thing he knew at 24, but didn’t at 17: He asked his mom what love was, after he first realized that he had a massive crush on Akaashi. She smiled and said, “Love is a series of compromises,” her tone indulgent, like she knew as she answered that he’d be dissatisfied. He’d thought it was a boring answer then, but it was the truth now. The ebb and flow of his whims were unpredictable, even if he knew now to ignore them. He ignored them, but still felt them.
Akaashi was not a whim. He was part of Koutarou’s life and would remain so until the GDP stopped rising past 1% and the polar bears went extinct, if the human race hadn't been wiped off the earth then. If a meteor would hurtle towards the earth, he’d choose to watch a movie with Akaashi again and be satisfied as the shockwave of the molten rock forcing itself into the atmosphere flattened both of them and Tokyo to nothing just when the credits were supposed to roll.
Alternatively, he’d like to be 65 years old and earning a pension with Akaashi, hopefully past 2030, so long as the meteor didn’t come.
Love really was a series of compromises, like deciding how to tackle cooking together. Being a constant in someone’s life was about finding common ground.
He wondered, though, how much common ground they had left.
It was 1:03 PM, he was hungry, alone, and he’d somehow made himself sadder than he was earlier that morning. Thankfully, the doorbell rang. It was UberEats.
The mystical rain-free June weather of last night did not hold for long, and it started to rain just as Koutarou had thought of going on an afternoon run post-finishing a proportion of the fried chicken box that will not be disclosed. It was obnoxious, in-character June rain in Tokyo, the kind that started as a trickle, enough to convince unwise tourists that it was okay to go out, but got worse and worse as the afternoon progressed, until the water was falling from the sky in sheets. Koutarou, a Tokyo native, did not fall for the trick.
He cancelled the rest of the day and made the executive decision to stay inside. He took a grief siesta on the couch, for a change of scenery.
He dreamt of Konoha, baby-faced high school Konoha with the emo haircut, looking stern and explaining derivatives to him, that limits are based on the idea that if you have an equation on a graph, you can often predict what it's going to look like at one point, just by knowing what it looks like at the surrounding points, and they’re useful because they can predict what happens when you make intervals smaller, while an interval is just a range on a graph, the space between two points on the horizontal axis, and the underlying concept of derivatives is that you can use infinitely tiny intervals to figure out exactly how an equation is changing at any moment, like let’s say the graph is how two people on a volleyball team have been acting around each other for more than a year now, where the y-axis is the range of their relationship where the closer the value is to zero, the more they should just fucking confess to each other and date already, and the x-axis is the passage of time, and the rest of the volleyball team can use infinitely tiny intervals to guess that maybe, if they talked to each other, or if the older boy could at least broach the topic, then they could get to zero—
Koutarou woke up at 3:32 PM, his heart pounding, the burning shame ever present. He felt restless again, and not just because he didn’t run that day. His mind strayed back to the movie, to the man with sad eyes, the beautiful, bird-like woman, both of them unable to say what they mean. Inexplicably, he felt the need to see it again, to watch the microexpressions flit across their faces again and see if he could decode what was obvious to Miyamoto and Akaashi.
He rented it on Amazon, for the second time.
By the time Akaashi got home past 5 PM, Koutarou was weeping at the TV, watching the man walk away from his buried secret again. It was the kind of cry that left him breathless. He didn’t even hear Akaashi come in. He only noticed his boyfriend was home when Akaashi sat down on the couch beside him and pressed a kiss on his wet cheek.
Koutarou sat up and wiped his tears away. “Okaeri. Sorry, I didn't hear you.”
Akaashi was looking at him, concern clear in his furrowed brows and kind eyes. He asked, “Are you okay, love?”
Koutarou, suddenly self-conscious, rubbed his nose on the neckline of his t-shirt. “Yeah. Sorry, I just wanted to check.”
Koutarou turned to look at Akaashi and said, “If it was obvious. If I watched again. I wanted to check if it was obvious they wouldn't end up together.” Akaashi looked back at him, his eyes pained.
He cleared his throat and continued, “It isn't, still. I still think they should've ended up together. He should've waited at the hotel room a bit longer. She should've gone there sooner. She should've said something on the phone, in Singapore. He should've rang the doorbell when he tried to visit his old landlord. I don't think it was obvious that both of them wouldn't do those things.”
Akaashi remained silent, still looking at him.
He ploughed on, “I think that makes the movie sad. That they wouldn't do those things. Why wouldn't they? Why would telling someone how you feel not be obvious? I guess that makes me bad at watching movies.”
Akaashi looked like he was performing mental calculus, his mouth set to a frown. Koutarou knew he probably wanted to explain because he couldn’t help himself. He felt fond, because Akaashi was Akaashi. His interests changed over the years, but it was him.
Akasshi reached over to wipe Koutarou’s tears with his hand. Finally, he said, “You’re not bad at watching movies. I’m sorry I made you feel that way last night.”
Koutarou felt it again then, the restlessness. Maybe he had a hole in his chest already, one where light could pass right through even over his t-shirt. He was gripped by the need to tell, so he blurted out, “Akaashi, I have a secret.”
Akaashi’s mouth formed the shape of a smile that didn’t reach his eyes and asked, “You sure you don't want to whisper it into the hollow of a tree?”
“I'll never need a tree, I'll always have someone to tell. You, obviously.”
Akaashi’s eyes were watery, but he leaned closer, and Koutarou mirrored his action, until their foreheads were almost pressed together. He whispered, “Okay, what is it?”
He learned before that Akaashi got his eyes from his mom, his distinct eyelids that looked sleepy on most people but were sultry on him, the thin, long lashes that cast shadows on his cheeks under the right angle of light. His long thin nose and small mouth were from his dad. The cheekbones, the new dusting of freckles—they were somehow all his.
The sun wouldn’t be seen anymore that day, because the sky was pouring and teeming with dark clouds and it would set under the horizon in an hour. The lights were off, except the TV still playing the movie credits, and in the gray darkness Koutarou felt safe.
So he cupped his mouth between his hands and whispered, “I’m afraid that you’ll fall out of love with me. I'm afraid you'll get bored because we’ll have nothing to talk about. I'm afraid one day you'll find volleyball boring and then you'll find me boring too, because it's the only thing I know how to do.”
When he said it aloud, the dam holding the tension between them at bay broke.
Koutarou pulled away and Akaashi was the one with tears on his cheeks. Suddenly, Akaashi pulled a folder thick with paper from behind him that Koutarou didn’t even notice was there, and thrust it at his boyfriend’s chest.
Koutarou took it and asked, “What’s this?”
Akaashi cleared his throat and he looked away, embarrassed. “It’s every single thing I've ever written since high school, arranged by date so at least it gets better and better the more you read. I spent 20 minutes of my paid time and a lot of office ink to print all that.”
Koutarou regarded the standard issue office folder in his hands with awe as he opened it. The first page was dated 2011, a poem titled the star. Koutarou grinned. “Keiji, is this about me?”
Akaashi’s cheeks colored. “Yes, okay? I wrote about you a lot. I still write about you a lot. How do I say this?” Koutarou knew Akaashi addressed the last question to himself, as he often did when he was about to process his feelings out loud. So he closed the folder so he could look at his boyfriend and listen.
“I guess I’m embarrassed to show you my writing because you figure in them so much. I write about everything in my life, and most of it is you. Sometimes I think my brain is split in two, like I’m both living my life with you and also scouring for material to write about. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, it does,” answered Koutarou. “But why would you be embarrassed about showing me that?”
Akaashi paused, considering the question, then said, “Well, I guess I don’t want you to think I’m not present here, with you. I guess that’s why most people write about their exes. But I don’t have an ex and I don’t want one.”
I love you, thought Koutarou.
Akaashi continued, “In college, everyone teased me about it. They said I should’ve named my poetry collection 56 poems about Bokuto Koutarou. I mean, that’s not inaccurate. I just… I don’t know. It sounds stupid, now that I’m saying it aloud. I should’ve shown you everything from the start.”
He leaned forward, cupped Koutarou’s jaw in his hand and said, “Listen okay? I love you so much. An incomprehensible amount. You're not boring. You'll never be boring. I'll never get tired of talking to you, even if I start to hate volleyball tomorrow. We could talk about a million other things. We could talk about Sakusa-san’s preferences for limited edition disinfectant scents. We could talk about the terrible air conditioning at work. We could talk about Konoha’s new girlfriend, the new ICS merch designs, every single movie studio Ghibli has ever released, Yuzuru Hanyu’s latest costumes. I want to talk to you about all these things, before anyone else.”
Koutarou touched his chest as he listened, wondering where the burning had gone.
“And it’s not stupid to take a piece of art at face value and wait for it to give you what it will. The movie is about how far two people can hope for love, and it's okay that the audience should feel that way, too. That’s why it’s so sad.”
Akaashi’s brows were furrowed now, like he found his zeal the more he talked. He even dropped his hand from Koutaruo’s jaw so he could talk with both of them, like he did when he wanted so badly to be understood. On a roll now, he continued, “And everything I said before is a moot point anyway. I'll never get tired of volleyball. Not as long as you're still playing. You're still my favorite volleyball player, you know.” He ended with a huff, like a kettle reaching boiling point and needing to whistle out steam.
Koutarou, full of fondness, laughed.
Akaashi looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Don’t laugh at me after I give you my heart in a folder and a full TV drama speech about how much you mean to me.”
Koutarou raised both his hands in mock surrender and said, “I’m sorry. I just love you so much.” Akaashi’s eyes stayed narrowed, so he continued, “I love you an incomprehensible amount, too. I just also feel stupid, because I’ve been sad about feeling you’re falling out of love with me the whole day and you blast it all away with one speech. I ate Korean fried chicken for lunch and everything.”
Akaashi deadpanned, “How could I ever find you boring when Udai will be writing the longest-running sports manga series in Biz for years to come? I need to get him material, you know.”
Koutarou grinned and replied, “Well, I’m glad I contribute positively to your life then.” He pulled Akaashi into him, until their legs were tangled and stretched out onto the coffee table in front of the couch.
“What gave you the wrong impression that I’d hate having poems written about me?” asked Koutarou, his lips pressed to Akaashi’s temple.
Akaashi snorted. “If you like them so much you better read every single page because I can’t have you go around telling people I’m your favorite writer when you stop at page 16 and your reference to my work is still from high school.”
“Yes sir,” murmured Koutarou in between kisses on Akaashi’s cheek, the crown of his head, the skin by his ear. Akaashi was acting unphased, but his cheeks were coloring again.
He said, “Love, we should turn on the lights.”
“Okay,” murmured Koutarou again, not moving to get up and continuing his kissing.
Akaashi finally turned to look at him and said, “Also, you should marry me.”
Sometimes, Koutarou went through experiences that didn’t seem real until he told someone he loved about it, and he’d look around and doubt if he was dreaming as it happened. It was growing darker in their apartment and the music from the movie credits was still playing, swelling and contracting in time to their breathing. But he couldn’t hear the rain outside. He imagined getting up, looking out the window, and seeing water droplets suspended midair, veins of lightning frozen inside the dark clouds above, salarymen in suits with umbrellas over their heads stopped midstep.
Maybe this was it. The dream, the space between worlds. There was nothing scary about it.