The first time it happens, Akaashi is eight years old, perched atop a stool in the kitchen, dutifully spooning oyakodon with vegetable curry into his mouth. Abe-san - their housekeeper - isn’t a stellar cook, but she always has Akaashi’s preferences down perfectly: the egg is runny just the way he likes it, the rice is sticky and slightly undercooked, and the carrots have been meticulously removed from the curry. It is a pleasant if unremarkable meal, but somewhere along the fifth bite, Akaashi senses a strange sensation bubbling in his stomach, feels the unfurling wisps of unease.
Frowning, Akaashi takes another bite of his oyakodon. Abe-san notices the look on his face, and sets a glass of water down onto the table.
‘Is there something wrong with the curry?’ She asks, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Are the eggs undercooked?’
Akaashi shakes his head. There’s nothing wrong with the eggs - there’s nothing wrong with the ingredients themselves, he knows, the ingredients are fresh and the food tastes delicious, but there’s a lingering aftertaste of something gut-twisting and awful. In between the runny yolk and fragrant zucchini-and-potato curry, Akaashi can make out, with disturbing clarity: an empty despair, fleeting images of an empty house, lipstick stains on crisp white shirts. The knowledge of it lends a certain off quality to the food; the pair of hands that made this bowl of food feels like they were unhappy, distracted.
Akaashi grabs the glass of water in front of him, brings it to his lips, and downs it so fast he almost chokes.
‘Goodness, Keiji,’ Abe-san says in mild alarm as she Akaashi on the back. She peers at the bowl of innocuous looking oyakodon, and frowns. ‘Slow down. Is the food that bad?’
Akaashi brings the empty glass down onto the table, and sticks his tongue out because his mouth still tastes funny. ‘Abe-san,’ Akaashi asks, curious, ‘Abe-san, are you sad about something?’
Abe-san blinks in surprise. She laughs. ‘Keiji, dear, what are you talking about?’
‘The food tastes like you’re sad.’ Akaashi furrows his brows in frustration; in school, his teachers used to teach them words like ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ and ‘bitter' with colourful flashcards, words to describe the things they eat, but this - there are no words for this.
‘A food can't taste sad,’ Abe says. She’s laughing now, but her laughter seems a little strained. ‘You use sadness to describe humans, you can’t use it to describe food.’
Akaashi pushes the bowl away from him, and slides down the stool. ‘I’m not hungry any more.’
‘Keiji,’ Abe-san says, but Akaashi has already made his way to the living room. Abe-san tries to coax him into eating for a while more, before giving up and clearing the bowls away. She writes the incident off as an age-related tantrum, and leaves Akaashi to his own devices for the afternoon.
Unfortunately for Akaashi, that isn't the end of it; dinner - made by Abe-san before she left for home - is a repeat of the afternoon’s incident. The single slice of saba fish sits on Akaashi’s plate, barely touched. Akaashi drinks glass after glass of water.
Akaashi’s mother peers at him, concerned. ‘Is everything alright, Keiji? Are you ill?’
‘It’s the food,’ Akaashi says, wrinkling his nose. He can’t even think about eating it without wanting to throw up. ‘It tastes funny. It tastes sad.’
‘You mean it tastes bad,’ his mother says. ‘But it tastes fine to me -’
It’s a hopeless cause; Akaashi puts his chopsticks down. ‘I’m going to bed early,’ he says, and runs off to his room before his mother can say anything else.
The next day after school, Akaashi returns home to a bowl of chasoba prepared dutifully by Abe-san. He takes a tentative bite, and then another, stomach still churning from the unpleasantness of yesterday’s oyakodon and grilled fish. Today, however, he brings the chilly noodles into his lips and feels - nothing. Not unhappiness, not even a wisp of emotion, just plain noodles. Akaashi, relieved and ravenous, demolishes the entire bowl in five minutes flat.
Abe-san stops going over to Akaashi’s house a few weeks later. Akaashi’s parents are tight-lipped about the whole affair - ‘Abe-san has gone for a long holiday,’ they tell him vaguely - but he overhears their hushed conversations anyway. The truth is, Abe-san’s husband has recently made off with a girl from his workplace, and Abe-san is taking a break from work to settle the matters at home. What an awful situation to be in, Akaashi hears his mother say. I can’t imagine how that would feel. Akaashi listens to the news standing next to the triangle of light spilling out from the half-closed door of his parents room, his heart pounding furiously as he recalls the feeling he'd felt back when he'd eaten Abe-san's food, and the images he'd seen - the gloomy interior of an empty house; the terrible sinking dread accompanying the lipstick-smudged shirt.
What seemed like an isolated accident occurs again during lunchtime in school a month after the incident with Abe-san; this time, it’s the new cook at the cafeteria who’s always angry and muttering obscenities under his breath. Akaashi takes a bite of the chicken stir-fry and almost chokes on the vitriol bubbling beneath the skin of the meat, on the pent-up anger of a man who hates his job but has to do it to support his family anyway. The same thing happens again two days later, with a curry croquette brought from a roadside vendor, and before long Akaashi realises that he’s lost the ability to turn off this strange power of his altogether.
It takes him a while to get used to it, but even as a child Akaashi is adept at handling unfortunate circumstances. On particularly bad days, he’d throw his meal away, and opt for a run to the nearest 7-11 instead. Pre-packaged food becomes Akaashi’s breakfast and lunch staples: mass-produced bread, plain and unthreatening. Cup noodles, tasting like the distant hum of a factory somewhere in the city. Potato chips, uncomplicated and innocuous. For the most part, he gets along just fine - after all, finding the nearest vending machine dispensing junk food, or a nearby 7-11, is just a minor inconvenience.
And just like that: elementary school passes by, then junior high, and before long Akaashi finds himself in high school, shuffling in and out of classes with a mounting sleep debt, mostly due to the ridiculous amount of time he spends playing volleyball before and after school. It’s tiring but satisfying, and Akaashi’s managing quite well between being a starter in a first-rate volleyball team and managing his academics commendably, so he can’t complain, really. For the most part - weird and deathly unhealthy eating habits aside - Akaashi passes through high school without ever mentioning his bizarre food psychic abilities, and he intends to keep it that way; after all, his friends back at elementary school and junior high hadn't taken to it very well. Everything seems to be going well without a hitch - that is, until Bokuto Kotarou happens. (And if Akaashi is to be completely honest, most strange occurrences in his high school life can be summed up thusly: Bokuto Kotarou happened.)
It all begins with Bokuto bursting into the court one day yelling about a new hobby of his, whilst carrying a tupperware of cupcakes resembling - there is no euphemistic equivalent of this - igneous rocks. At the other end of the court, the second and third years huddle together in lieu of an emergency Bokuto-related meeting, code red, we're all fucked, guys. (This is their third one for the week; Komi’s been keeping count.)
‘D’you think we could find a way not to eat this without Bokuto throwing a tantrum during the practice match with Nekoma later,’ Sarukui whispers with palpable fear. They’ve been looking forward to this practice match for two whole weeks, after all.
‘We could use them as volleyballs for warm-ups,’ Konoha offers, his eyes flashing in a wild and slightly deranged manner. ‘If we throw them fast enough, Bokuto might never tell.’
It’s a futile effort. Bokuto bounces over and looms semi-threateningly over them, tupperware in hand. He smiles invitingly.
‘Come, come, no need to be shy and all that,’ he booms cheerfully, and thrusts a cupcake into each of their hands. Akaashi looks at the cupcake resting heavily on his palm and pretends to admire it, but Bokuto is looking at him while practically vibrating with excitement and there is only so long you can stare at a cupcake before you start to look outright ridiculous. On any other day Akaashi would have politely but firmly declined the cupcake, but there’s no telling what might happen if they sent Bokuto spiralling into one of his low moods right before an important practice match. Unable to delay the inevitable, Akaashi takes a bite.
The cupcake has the consistency of overcooked beef, and tastes of a haphazard mixture of ingredients; Akaashi can make out the thick sweetness of too-much-honey interspersed with the sharp tanginess of ginger and lumps of unsifted flour. There are random bursts of saltiness from bits of unmixed salt, probably due to Bokuto’s less-than-religious stirring of the batter. The cupcake tastes almost rushed, somehow, like a patchwork of mishaps, and Akaashi would not be surprised if the fire department had been involved at one point in the making of the pastry.
Next to him, Komi is chewing his cupcake dutifully, albeit with obvious effort. Washio has assumed a completely neutral expression on his face, although Akaashi thinks that his eyes might be watering. Sarukui, having seemingly demolished the entire thing out of sheer willpower alone, looks like he deeply regrets every single choice that has led to this precise moment in his life.
‘It isn’t too bad, huh?’ Bokuto says, grinning. ‘I made them in our school colours, so they’re like, marbled black and white chocolate swirls! Do you guys want more?’
Sarukui looks like he might pass out at the thought alone. Komi pauses mid-chew to shake his head weakly.
‘I’ll have more,’ Akaashi says, to the general astonishment of everyone. Bokuto looks the most shocked of all; his eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.
‘You have more?’ Bokuto echos, incredulous. ‘Here, you can have it all-’
‘Just one,’ Akaashi says, hastily. Objectively speaking, the cupcake is as awful as a cupcake can ever dread to be. And yet - its terrible taste and consistency aside - there is something about the making of the cupcake that seems earnest and genuine, like the person who made it had desperately wanted everyone to enjoy it. The pastry sits snugly in his stomach, and Akaashi can practically feel the honey sliding down his throat, warm in the way only Bokuto can be.
‘One more it is, then,’ Bokuto says, very obviously trying not to seem too pleased with himself, and failing abjectly. He hands another cupcake over to Akaashi, and bounces away to push more cupcakes to unsuspecting first years.
‘I can’t believe this,’ Konoha hisses after Bokuto has left, sounding genuinely betrayed. ‘Are you trying to encourage him-’
‘The cupcake is good. Kind of,’ Akaashi supplements, after Konoha looks at him in a way that suggests the statement might warrant an immediate and thorough neurological examination. ‘If you... uh, chew it long enough.’
Konoha rolls his eyes so vigorously that Akaashi fears they might vanish into his skull altogether. Fortunately, Nekoma arrives before Akaashi can get mobbed to death by his teammates, and as they engage in a - as Bokuto put it, because he has absolutely no clue as to when his descriptions cross the realm of creative to full-out corny - battle to the death, the horrors of Bokuto’s brief flirtation with the culinary arts are pushed to the back of everyone’s mind.
Except it wasn’t just a brief flirtation. It is, in fact, a protracted and long-suffering affair, of which the entire Fukurodani team are unfortunate collaterals. What happens is this: three days later, Bokuto makes his way to training with a bagful of cookies studded liberally with dark and milk chocolate, and proceeds to offer it to everyone with undue and unrelenting enthusiasm. And then, a week later: a tray muffins looking like miniature models of the aftermath of an atomic bombing. When it appears that Bokuto does not seem to be weaning off his terrible new hobby, the rest of the team have no choice but to increase their threshold for semi-edible food, even when said food looks like it has been shipped right out of a geography lab.
‘I can’t look at that guy holding a pastry without getting a toothache now,’ Komi remarks one day, rubbing his cheek and wincing. ‘Is this some pavlovian shit?’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Akaashi replies half-heartedly before discreetly changing the subject, and if he secretly sort-of enjoys Bokuto’s cookies, no one has to know.
Just like that, the third year’s final season comes and goes, amidst a whirlwind of sweaty trainings and salonpas and pocari sweat and, strangely enough, regular batches of chocolate chip cookies. Spring tournament happens; the last ball is slammed onto the ground, smacking painfully of finality, and the last whistle is blown. Tears are shed, some with significantly more dignity (Akaashi, Washio, Komi) than the others (Bokuto, Sarukui, Konoha, most of the first years), but for the most part Bokuto holds it together beautifully. Look at how far we have come, Akaashi thinks to himself as they make their way out of the court, red-faced and bright-eyed, their motions lagging with exhaustion. Leading the team is Bokuto, his gait steady and his head high.
(Akaashi knows, even then, that there will be tears later; Bokuto’s just holding them back for now. He thinks he respects Bokuto all the more for it.)
Three days after the third years quit the club, Bokuto goes over to Akaashi and hands him a single cookie, so large it spans the entire width of Bokuto’s palm.
‘Hey hey, Akaashi, this is just for you,’ Bokuto says, a huge smile plastered on his face. Bokuto thumps him on the back with a little more strength than is necessary, before slinging his arm across Akaashi’s shoulders, but post-season sentimentality must be doing all sorts of funny things to Akaashi, because he thinks he doesn’t really mind.
After dinner that night, Akaashi takes out the cookie from his bag, and bites tentatively into it. The cookie tastes a little different than usual, like someone had put a lot of thought into it, had fretted over every gram of sugar and struggled to balance between the precise egg to butter ratio. It is a sort of tentativeness that Akaashi wouldn’t usually associate with Bokuto, and if he weren’t trying so hard to discern the taste of the cookie, Akaashi would probably assume that the cookie had been made by someone else instead. Akaashi chews thoughtfully, tasting the richness of the chocolate and the fragrance of vanilla, feeling oddly touched that Bokuto would have expended such effort to make him something.
Akaashi works his way through the layers: the meticulousness, the unexpected thoughtfulness. More recognisably: the earnestness, the familiar warmth he's come to always associate with Bokuto. A lingering wisp of sadness and nostalgia, for seasons that will never repeat themselves again. And then, right at the end, so subtle that Akaashi would have missed it if he hadn’t been subconsciously looking out for it to begin with - the faintest traces of a buzzing excitement; the feeling of a skipped heartbeat; an unfurling, a confession.
Akaashi spends the rest of the night, and the morning after, mulling obsessively over the newfound knowledge. Logically speaking, there isn’t much he can do about it. It was just a cookie - except it wasn’t just a cookie, of course, it was a cookie that had I like you, Akaashi stamped all over it in Bokuto’s large loopy handwriting, but it’s not like Akaashi can make his way to Bokuto and say something like, ‘So, the cookie you gave me yesterday? It tasted like you’ve a crush on me.'
Another small caveat - Akaashi isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to feel about it; if he’s supposed to feel anything about it at all. By noon the next day, the dull intermittent throbbing at the back of Akaashi’s head feels like it might be burgeoning into a full-blown tension headache. And so when Bokuto runs up to him after class, smiles at him expectantly and asks, ‘Hey, Akaashi, how was the cookie?’, Akaashi feels his throat constrict in the worst way possible.
‘It was nice, Bokuto, thank you,’ Akaashi says, trying to keep his voice polite and neutral, but it comes out so deliberately dispassionate that even Bokuto picks up on it; there’s a long pause.
‘Oh,’ Bokuto says eventually, and it’s only too late that Akaashi lowers his gaze and picks up on the fresh plasters taped around Bokuto’s fingers, the burn marks on his wrist. It feels like a slap to the face. ‘Well - hey, I mean - I’m glad you liked it.’
Bokuto turns and walks away without saying anything else. Akaashi is left with a queasy feeling in the gut, and the knowledge that he’s probably just made a terrible mistake, but there is nothing left to do but to watch the retreating lines of Bokuto’s back.
‘I’m going to talk to him about it,’ Akaashi says to no one in particular three days later, while they are doing warm ups before training officially starts. The rest of the third years - with the notable exception of Bokuto - have decided to join them for the session, claiming that the juniors are going to 'need their guidance', but Akaashi knows the real reason why they're there.
In front of him, Komi looks up from stretching his thighs to peer at Akaashi, his head still parallel to the floor.
‘Are you talking about Bokuto?’ Komi asks, infuriatingly accurate as always. ‘Yeah, then you definitely should. I saw him in the corridors today, and he looked like shit.’
‘About time,’ Konoha supplements. ‘What the hell are the two of you doing, trying to break the world record for the longest game of gay chicken?’
‘I don’t understand,’ Akaashi begins, frowning, but Konoha cuts him off mid-sentence. He looks like he might pass out from sheer exasperation.
‘Are you kidding me, all the cookies and cakes and shit, you were so obviously the only person who even liked them and he was so obviously making all those for you,’ Konoha says, sounding genuinely frustrated; there’s a hysterical edge to his voice. ‘You made us go through all that for nothing?’
Across Akaaashi, Sarukui starts to dig through his pockets, before producing 500 yen and passing it to Komi, who pockets the money smugly.
‘Told you he’s hopelessly oblivious,’ Komi says, looking obviously pleased, before resuming his human pretzel form.
‘I can’t believe you guys made a bet about this,’ Akaashi says, scandalised, but his heart is beating a little faster than usual at the new-found knowledge. Bokuto? For how long? All this time?
Konoha throws him a wilting look.
Akaashi shuts his eyes, exhales sharply, opens them again. He runs his gaze over the interior of the volleyball court, suddenly all too big and wide and empty without Bokuto running around and demanding that Akaashi practice tossing and spiking with him. The knowledge settles heavily upon Akaashi's heart, like a deep layer of dust.
After all that's said and done, Akaashi thinks, there is only one thing left to do.
Saturday morning, Akaashi walks right up to the Bokuto household, and rings the doorbell. The door opens at the third ring, revealing a dishevelled looking Bokuto.
‘Akaashi,’ Bokuto says, looking obviously startled, right at the time the smoke alarm goes off in the kitchen. ‘Oh, fuck -’
Akaashi invites himself into the living room before closing the door gently behind him; the house seems to be empty, except for Bokuto. Bokuto sprints over to the kitchen, where the oven has started billowing out volumes of smoke. There are bags of flour and sugar and cubes of butter littered all over the dinner table, and racks and racks of baked goods stacked on the kitchen top.
Bokuto follows Akaashi’s gaze across the kitchen, and laughs sheepishly. ‘I had so much leftover ingredients from… yeah… from the last time I baked, y’know? And they’re all expiring soon, so I thought I should use them before they go bad.’
Bokuto’s observing him carefully now, standing at a safe distance from across the table, and Akaashi hates it, hates that Bokuto should feel so wrong-footed around him. Akaashi walks over to the kitchen counter and pops a chocolate biscuit, still fresh from the oven, into his mouth.
The biscuit is more cloying than usual, as if Bokuto had wanted the sticky sweetness to make up for something in the scone, something awful and hollow and unwholesome. And amidst it all, both palpable and tentative - the feeling of longing, of want.
‘Bokuto-san,’ Akaashi says, before he even registers the words coming out of his mouth, ‘I know how you feel.’
There's a deafening thud as Bokuto releases his grip on the spatula, spins around so fast he loses his balance, and lands unceremoniously onto the floor on his bottom. Akaashi runs over, reaches his hands out to pull Bokuto up, thinks better of it, and squats down to look at Bokuto in the eye.
‘Bokuto-san,’ Akaashi says, slowly, ‘I know how you feel. About me.’
Bokuto opens his mouth, makes a half strangled noise. Closes his mouth.
'My answer,' Akaashi says, after a long pause, 'is this.'
Akaashi reaches out and holds Bokuto's hand in his own, his fingers trembling slightly, like he hasn't been secretly thinking about this ever since the day they'd strode out of the court after their last game in the Spring Tournament, ever since he'd looked at the strong, lean slope of Bokuto's shoulders, the contours of his turned back. Their noses are practically touching now, and Akaashi thinks about closing the distance between them - all it takes is a small shift, a slight tilt forward, after all. He doesn't, though, and it's okay; they have time.
‘Right,’ Bokuto breathes, his eyes fixed wide and unblinking on Akaashi's. ‘And how - how did you know -’
Akaashi laughs then, almost breaking the spell. ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ he says, and smiles.
(Kissing Bokuto, Akaashi will learn (not much) later, tastes likes warm chocolate mixed with ground cinnamon, and feels a lot like forever.)