Chapter 1: Train Guy
"I saw him again today," Bokuto says, dumping his duffle bag on the floor and kicking his shoes into the overflowing pile he shares with Kuroo. "Train Guy."
"Oh?" Kuroo's question comes from the kitchen, around the clashing of bowls onto the counter as he inevitably slams them too hard. "Hasn't it been a week? I thought you'd given up."
"Whatever he does, he must've had a week off," Bokuto replies. It's two easy steps inside, another four to slide in behind Kuroo, one more to pick up the bowl of rice before it hits the counter a second time. He shifts a hand through a drawer, pulls out Kuroo's favourite set of chopsticks, and proceeds to seat himself beside the sink as he eats. "He's got a new book again."
"Unsurprising, after a week." Kuroo twists, and in a movement, he knocks the chopsticks clean from Bokuto's fingers. He bends and twists the arm back, a practiced motion, not even looking over as he catches them two inches from the ground. He twirls them in his fingers as Bokuto sticks out his tongue. Show off.
"I'm telling you, Kuroo, you gotta take the train back with me one of these days. I'll point him out to you. Sometimes he's hard to spot, he's got like, twenty coats, but I know his posture now." He waits as Kuroo hands him a different pair of chopsticks before stuffing more rice into his face. "I mean, you should also stay late at practice sometime, just to practice with me!"
"I do stay late, Bo. I just don't wanna stay until ten minutes before the last train home and panic as I run for it. I'm being a professional now that we're in the big leagues." Kuroo tilts his head with that smarmy look he gets when he is not being a professional, but rather, his usual twenty two year old pile of awful. "But fine. Later this week, I'll catch the last train with you, and you can show me him."
"I'm gonna hold you to that, Kuroo, so don't you forget."
Kuroo can't do the next evening as he actually needs to leave on time to do the ridiculous thing of 'see a doctor'. Bokuto finds himself on the platform, under the harsh white light and dark sky, with just the duffle and the usual crowd and the brisk air filling his tired lungs and muscles.
Two men in suits (lawyers), always carrying the same briefcases and discussing cases in hushed tones, eyes darting, fingers twitching. A university student, her hair tied in messy buns or loose ponytails, large pink-green headphones over her ears and chipped nail polish on her fingers (that starts fresh on Mondays and is gone by Thursday). A middle aged woman, folding her apron from the variety store a block away, tired and emailing on her phone on the bench not far from Bokuto's side.
And the final member of their late night get together is Him. The Train Guy.
Train Guy first appeared two months ago, leading Bokuto to believe he is (possibly) a university student. Train Guy has thick, curly black hair he keeps cut short, but cannot tame. He wears coats that change based on his scarves, thick gloves when it gets uncomfortably windy. He's always reading. On the platform in the sharp lights, on the train, everywhere. He can read a book in two days if it's short, three if it's long, and Bokuto always subtly checks the spine or cover to see what it is this time.
He doesn't know what Train Guy does, or studies, or enjoys (besides reading). He doesn't know his name. All he knows is that Train Guy's been there before him every day for the past two months, standing under the same light, and it looked empty without him this past week. That Train Guy gets off two stops before he does. That it brings Bokuto some kind of gentle comfort just knowing Train Guy is there again.
But then there's the headlights and the screeching and the rumble on the tracks that carries through his body, and the doors lining up perfectly, and it's time to take the train. Bokuto and the lawyers and the messy bun girl and the emailing employee and Train Guy all shuffle their way on. They form the same pattern, taking the same spots as every other night, making their private, unknowable network. A spattering of occupied seats on an empty train.
Train Guy always stands. Back ramrod straight, unmoving save to blink and turn pages (Bokuto doesn't think he actually breathes his body is otherwise so still). He keeps perfect balance as the train starts to move again.
Bokuto pulls out his headphones and rests his head back and lets music wash over him. He feels the rhythm, the beat with the shifting of the landscape, the streams of lights, the rattle and clank that cut through his music on the rougher parts of the tracks. He feels the air shift as the cart moves and rattles and he moves, mind and body, along with it. He moves and glides and exists in between volleyball practice and home, between the sliding doors, between the music and his tired-in-a-good-way feet and the huge metal casing around him and the glass rattling behind him.
He becomes Bokuto again two stops from home when he watches Train Guy leave, with a glance over his shoulder. It's the only time they ever make eye contact.
And this time, Train Guy gives the tiniest incline of his head as the doors close between them.
"I'm telling you, he nodded at me. Like that, that head nod that's the same as saying 'Sup?' or 'See ya' without saying anything." Bokuto's talking around his toothbrush, standing in slippers and PJs in the washroom as Kuroo sits just outside the door, clipping toe nails. Bokuto spits. "I mean, I like seeing Train Guy and all, but I didn't think he knew who on Earth I was. He's always reading."
"Wow, maybe he's seen you every day for the past two months or something," Kuroo replies. The clippers make quiet, sharp noises, punctuating his sarcasm. Bokuto frowns in the mirror.
"Kurooooooo," he whines. "I'm serious here! We've never done anything besides like, look at each other. I don't even stare! What does this mean??"
"You stare at everything, Bo." And there's Kuroo's head, peeking around the door, his lopsided grin sliding into a smirk, his still damp hair plastered in clumps against his forehead. A thin string of water slides between his eyes down to his chin. "Anyway, it probably means he's just used to seeing you too. Why not say hi and stop making it such a big deal out of nothing, huh? You're getting awful worked up."
"I'm not worked up at all!" Bokuto yells, as he makes a huge show of huffing and fixing his hair and rinsing his mouth. He is cool, calm, collected, and he exits the bathroom by shoving Kuroo into the wall with one foot ramming into his face. "It's just weird, okay? It's weird. Train Guy's like, a silent, permanent entity in my commute home. He's like the train, you know? He just happens."
"Show me him tomorrow," Kuroo says around toes. "I wanna see who you're so worked up about."
Kuroo doesn't even need Bokuto to point him out. The next night, he figures it out instantly.
To be fair, Bokuto's described him enough that he didn't really expect it to be a challenge. Kuroo could probably have done a full illustration, from the ever-changing coat to the piece of hair sticking straight up on the right side of his head to the new book he's reading. He knows where Train Guy waits, the way the light plays off his hair, the small fidget in his feet when the first sounds of the train appear.
Okay, maybe Bokuto has been staring. A little. A tiny bit. But just from the corner of his eye. Just in the lulls of his low conversation with Kuroo as they sit side-by-side, just on the third song that starts as he and Kuroo share earbuds. Small, sidelong glances. Just blinks of attention. Taking in the angle of his head. The never before seen blue and white scarf. The-
Train Guy meets his eyes. He stopped reading. And there's Kuroo's elbow getting lodged between his ribs, there's the screeching of the train (still one stop before Train Guy gets off), and there's the eye contact he can't seem to break. The train's moving and they're moving but it seems distant, foreign. He floats above his seat and around Kuroo and his only anchor is that gaze turned to him.
The eyes are dark, glinting, intense. Unbreakable, unmovable, the same straight backed look as Train Guy's shoulders, the same intelligence as the books he reads, the same elusiveness and change as his coats. Sweat forms on the back of Bokuto's neck, on the palms of his hand, and he knows it's not from practice.
Kuroo breaks the spell, leaning on Bokuto's shoulder, raising his hand up in a wave. His eyes are half lidded, his mouth twisting in a silent laugh, and then he grabs Bokuto's hand and waves it too. Train Guy blinks. Bokuto blinks.
The train screeches to a stop and doors open and it's where Train Guy needs to leave, but he hesitates. His mouth opens, slightly, but no words come out. No sound. No action. He slips through the doors seconds before they close. Bokuto's kneeling on the seat without knowing how he's gotten there, staring out the window, mouth open. He feels Kuroo's eyes on him and the lawyers' eyes on him and Train Guy's on the platform, and his eyes are the most intense and focused.
Train Guy waves from the other side of the glass doors.
"You've got to say hi to him tomorrow," Kuroo says. He jams his key into the lock, and jiggles the door in the frame, until there's the faint click and the key turns and the door swings open. Bokuto steps inside first, kicking off his shoes, taking Kuroo's duffle in one arm so he can close the door. Bokuto puts both duffles just inside the entrance. Kuroo takes off his shoes and puts them on top of Bokuto's and grins as Bokuto shouts and kicks them off.
"Why did you make me wave? Why did you wave in the first place, Kuroo? We had a nice relationship and now things are gonna be awkward!" Bokuto's voice gets louder as he steps down the hall, one duffle in Kuroo's room, one in his. He sorts through the sweaty uniforms and takes the worst of them for the laundry, elbowing Kuroo until he gets to the basket first. "What am I gonna say to him? Sorry, my friend is an idiot?"
"You're the one who wanted me to see him," Kuroo replies. "This is just the unfortunate consequence of making me stay late at practice."
"Oh? What's that? Didn't you say you enjoyed the practice just two hours ago?" Bokuto feels his ears twitch and a grin spread across his face, and before Kuroo can escape, he traps him in a headlock and ruins his well kempt hairstyling with a huge noogie. They squirm and wrestle through the hall, slamming into the walls, and Kuroo can't escape and Bokuto won't let go and it all comes to a sudden end when they both trip, at the same time, over the giant pile of shoes back in the door way. Bokuto removes a converse from under his ass as Kuroo takes his face out of a pair of Nike's.
"This time tomorrow, you better be telling me Train Guy's name," Kuroo says. He sits up, jamming his fingers into the bridge of Bokuto's nose. "Or else I'm gonna stuff your face in these Nike's as a punishment. They reek, by the way. Train Guy seems like a cool person. Go make a new friend."
Easier said than done.
Train Guy's there, again, without fail, reading before Bokuto even arrives. He seems far away, as if the platform's grown a couple extra thousand miles since yesterday, and Train Guy did his best to ensure he's at the furthest point of it from Bokuto. Which is ridiculous, of course, as he's no further from the lawyers or the university student or the middle aged woman than usual, as he's standing under his regular light, as he moves to the same door he always takes getting in.
Bokuto has no trouble making friends. That isn't the problem. The problem is Train Guy, and his importance on his commute. He is a fixed point, a steady reoccurrence: the sun rising every day, the stars shifting in the sky, the seasons moving from hot to cool to hot. The train coming in, exactly as scheduled, aligned in the same spots it has for years.
What if he doesn't want to be friends? What if he starts taking another train? What if the One Week where he didn't show up becomes two, becomes four, and Bokuto never sees him again? How will he know when Train Guy finally reads a book Bokuto likes, or finally decides it's warm enough to not need a coat?
What if he doesn't like him?
It's too soon when they're both on the train. Bokuto can only hover on the edge of the seat. He twitches, his stomach knotted, his hands twisting and untwisting as he focuses on them. He tries to think about the match point he got during their friendly against Russia today. He tries to think about running drills with Kuroo until ten, then on his own until twelve. In, out. Deep breaths.
There's a pair of legs just beyond his fingers and he yelps, slamming back against the seat. There's the coat, and the scarf, and his eyes travel up until they meet the dark ones of Train Guy and the halo of messy curls framed in the yellows and blues of the blurring city lights. His book's held in one hand, closed.
He opens his mouth.
"Hi!" Bokuto beats Train Guy to the punch, somehow, possibly breaking the sound barrier, possibly shattering the windows behind him, possibly forever ripping through the liminal space time of his commute. Both lawyers turn to look at him, then return to their muttering. Train Guy looks startled, just for a second, the first expression Bokuto's really seen on his face. Of course it's a bad one. Deep breaths. In, out. Take it down to an acceptable indoor volume. He has one of those, right? "It's, um, nice to meet you!!"
(And there comes a pause, the empty moment in the conversation. It eats away at him and he knows, he knows, he's already mucked this up, that he's making this self-fulfilling failure prophecy, that his mind and mouth are working together to sabotage him. The deep, gnawing, burrowing worry in the core of his chest that makes him shaky and that makes him ramble and that causes him to worry he's making a bad impression which makes him shaky which-)
"...Nice to meet you," the voice echoes his statement, and it's lower and louder than Bokuto expected. Train Guy blinks and pushes back a stray curl. He shifts the book into his bag. It seems like he means to say more, but he just stands, perfectly balanced, perfectly poised, even as the train rounds a curve. Bokuto clears his throat.
"So," and Bokuto can feel his own nervousness like a physical weight. He spoke to Russians easier than this, and he had to talk to them through a translator. "We've, um, been taking the train together for a while, right? I saw you nod the other day. I guess it was kinda weird to wave as you were leaving yesterday, and you can blame my friend for that, he's an idiot, but, uh, what I wanted to really say!! Is that, um, how are you?"
(And the silence springs up again and Bokuto tries, he tries very hard, to squash his brain under his thumb, because he can feel the slipping and he needs to catch himself. He tries to focus. He knows he's not talking to Kuroo and he's not talking to the Russians and it's different from those two situations, and that's why he's nervous and why Train Guy's slow. No one else on their train minds if he and Train Guy are talking suddenly, the lawyers barely gave them a second glance. The acceptable worry and nervousness quota for all this is far lower than what's going on right now, brain, thank you.)
"I'm alright, thank you. How're you?"
(He forces his own pause in the conversation to take a deep breath. Train Guy's still here. Train Guy's just quiet. Nothing is going wrong. He's just going to have to keep at a different pace and outlook. Something just for Train Guy.)
Train Guy, who, in the lull, has offered out his hand and shifts his weight slightly as the train comes to the first stop.
"I'm Akaashi Keiji," Train Guy says. Bokuto repeats the name in his mind twice, three times, as he takes the offered hand and shakes. Akaashi Train Guy has a firmer grip than he expects, a stronger shake, and Bokuto wonders what exactly he's hiding under that coat. Bionic arm is his first guess. Muscles is his second.
"I'm Bokuto. Bokuto Koutarou!" Bokuto replies. He leans back in his seat, trying to get that last knot out of his stomach, trying to settle his hands. "Do you want to sit?"
Headshake. "I'm fine standing."
"Are you a student?" The question's out before he can stop it, bubbling up somewhere from behind his leftover anxiety. Once it's in the air, his burning desire to know the answer melts away that last little bit of nerves holding him back. "Or like, do you power read for money? Because you're a really fast reader."
"A student," Akaashi Train Guy isn't quite smiling, isn't quite smirking. Somewhere between entertained and amused and something else. Bokuto can't place it, but it lingers in the corners of his eyes. "For now, at least."
"Well, that'll be me eventually, I'm sure, minus the quick reading bit," Bokuto replies, the words flowing, and he slides his hands back to lock behind his head and he feels the need to fidget with them lesson each second. "I'm-"
(Bokuto doesn't force the pause this time, but he does stop, does drop his hands back down to his sides, feels them grip his knees. He can't make sense of the interruption and it makes his eyes to narrow and his eyebrows to lower and it hurts his face to concentrate like this.)
"You know?" he manages.
"Ah. I know what you do," Akaashi Train Guy half mumbles into his scarf, looks to the side, stuffs his hands in his pockets.
It hits Bokuto like it's never hit him before. A slap to the face, a jolt, the sensation of the train lurching to the stop and his body whipping back into place. Maybe Akaashi Train Guy considers him the Train Guy. That he's also nervous about breaking their silent companionship, worried about the introductions, thinking about how he'll ruin the commute by saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
(He's tempted to take Akaashi Train Guy's strong hands and tell him he knows what that's like, that it's going to keep him up for three hours tonight as he recounts every horrible detail to Kuroo in an effort to calm down. That he's going to need to hear someone else say he hasn't just ruined the familiar half hour he has to himself every day. But that's too forward, too sudden, and it would freak them both out. Somehow, just knowing Akaashi's nervous too relaxes him.)
"What gave it away? My athletic physique? My huge duffle stuffed with my gym clothes? The volleyball I definitely do not borrow without permission sometimes?" He tries to think less of Akaashi Train Guy and more of the guy named Akaashi who's fidgeting his hands in his pockets. He focuses on keeping his own hands, his own posture relaxed, and hopes it's a little calming to see.
"No. Well, yes, it's obvious because of all that, but that's not how I know. You're on the National team, right? Wing spiker."
"You got it! I-"
That's not how I know.
The truth dawns on Bokuto's face and the train fills with light, the sun risen again, pouring in from the fluorescents overhead and outside and the streetlights zooming by. He lifts his eyes to meet the eyes of the guy named Akaashi, and the grin almost hurts him, but he can't contain it spreading further and further.
"You like volleyball."
"Yeah," comes the reply, barely a whisper, and Bokuto realizes if he'd blinked at the wrong moment he would have missed the sound and the breath and the brief twitch of the mouth he thinks may have been a smile. "I like volleyball."
double update this week as i've got this reserve of chapters and i might as well! :) enjoy
Chapter 3: The Closed Book
content warning this chapter: discussions of anxiety
"-and then he's like, 'I like volleyball'!" Bokuto recounts, his head on Kuroo's lap. He sprawls on his bed, Kuroo's long fingers rifling their way through his hair. His chest feels tight and all his breaths are shallow, but Kuroo's face is relaxed and his breathing even, and it makes it easier to calm down. "So we started talking about the Russian friendly, right, and he said he had class and couldn't watch the stream but saw some highlights, and I was talking about some of the points I scored, and the Russian team's strengths, and we talked about Ob...Obomo...Obama?"
"Yeah! Him and his saves and then before I knew it, Train Guy was saying goodnight and stepping off the train! He gave a wave and the door closed and, I just, gah! I am never gonna see him again now!" Bokuto finishes with a huff that's halfway between an exhale and a sob. He grinds the backs of his palms into his eyebrows. He kicks his feet a few times in frustration. "It was just so awkward, like, beyond awkward! I mean it was so easy to talk about volleyball but I have such a giant mouth I'm sure I fucked up and I was so loud and twitchy..."
"Hey, Bo? Sorry to interrupt," Kuroo says, not at all sorry to interrupt. He shifts the collar on his sleeping shirt before he continues. "Remember earlier today, when you were talking with the Russians, and I came by?"
"No?" Bokuto pulls his hands away from his face to cock his head a bit. Kuroo watches him, shaking his head. Somehow, that clicks the memory back into place: the smell of sweat and the feel of the volleyball spinning in his hand as he addressed the translator, his left shoelace loose but the match finished. "Oh, wait, was it-"
"-when I came over and reminded you not to get caught up talking to the Russians, and to take your meds, and you assured me you would never forget something that important?" Each word digs into Bokuto's chest, not as waves of anxiety, but pangs of guilt: he already knows where this is going. He covers his face with his hands. Kuroo immediately peels them away, abandoning his post in Bokuto's hair. "By the way you're talking about your constant low-key freak out on the train, something tells me you forgot."
"I forgot," Bokuto echoes. He groans loud and long enough to make his chest rattle. "Tomorrow, don't let me go without taking them."
"You bet your ass I won't," Kuroo replies. He drops Bokuto's hands the five inches down onto his face. It stings, sharp, and Bokuto yells. He launches into a sitting position and shakes his head clear. He then glares at Kuroo, who's studying his nails as if nothing's happened. Bokuto tackles him into the headboard, digging his fingers into the soft spots between Kuroo's muscles, until Kuroo laughs out a plea for mercy. They both sit on the bed straightening their shirts, grinning. "So, Bo, tell me more about Akaashi the Train Guy. Where's he go to school?"
"He..." Bokuto rubs his chin. He frowns, reviewing the conversation on the train again. "Huh. You know, he didn't say."
"You didn't ask?"
"I forgot! He said he was a student, alright?"
"Okay, so, does he play volleyball, or does he watch it?" Kuroo lounges back on the pillows, picking up one of the three stuffed cats he got from Kozume during high school. "Please tell me you at least asked him that."
"Ha, ha, well," Bokuto says. He rubs the back of his head. He has no answer, and Kuroo knows it (and rolls his eyes and shares a look with the stuffed cat). Bokuto feels the anxiety rocket back into his chest, a dam exploding, a building collapsing. "Oh, my god, I never asked him anything about himself! He must think I'm a selfish jerk! Forget that, I am a selfish jerk! That's it, I'm quitting volleyball and moving to Canada and-"
"Deep breath," Kuroo instructs. Bokuto takes a shaky breath, inhaling through his mouth, "Hold it for five... there you go, exhale. Keep doing that. Tomorrow, you're taking your meds at the right time, you're going to get on that late train, and you're going to talk to Akaashi without so much built up anxiety, okay?"
"Okay," Bokuto replies. He lets Kuroo count to five for him on the next breath.
The difference remembering to take his meds makes with meeting new people is almost ridiculous. When he sees Akaashi under his usual light, book almost finished, wearing a red and black colourblock jacket, he barely has to swallow the lump in his throat. He even manages to feel a wave of relief in place of burning anxiety. Akaashi's still here. He didn't take another train just to avoid him. Maybe things hadn't gone so badly after all.
Hope feels a lot better than anxiety.
Akaashi is so close to finishing the book Bokuto doesn't bother to call out, and doesn't run over. He watches those dark eyes flicker over the characters in the book, the gloved hands (though the wind isn't that strong) grip tighter, Akaashi's mouth shift into the faintest of smiles as he flips the last page over. He's in his own world: he doesn't look up when the train begins to rumble in, nor when he steps onto it.
The doors close as the book closes: softly, in time with the chimes, without the other passengers noticing. Akaashi closes his eyes soon after, his shoulders relaxing from their usual ramrod straight to a slouch. He taps the book against his hand. His head turns to one side as the train rounds its first corner, angling to set his thoughts in a different order.
Bokuto hears Kuroo's words in the back of his head, and he knows he's staring, that he should look away, but he can't quite bring himself to. He plays with the strap on his duffle, the same absent movement as Akaashi as he pushes back curls that won't stay put and slings his bag forward, tucking the book away.
When he's back in the real world, Bokuto waves him over.
"So I meant to ask, what school do you go to?" Bokuto looks up, as Akaashi refuses to sit down, even after Bokuto stuffed the duffle bag under his feet. Akaashi's balance is ridiculous. Even when the train lurches to a sudden stop, he only shifts his weight from one foot to the other, his knees bending half an inch. Bokuto, sitting, tumbles to the side, and lets out a squawk, mirrored by the university student down the train car. "There's a couple nearby. You don't have to say if you don't want to!"
(The silence returns, and Bokuto can see gears moving behind those dark eyes, Akaashi weighting options as the announcer lets them know there's been a delay. Everything's planned with his responses.)
"Nishi University. I'm in my first year there," Akaashi replies. He fixes the edges of his sleeves, then stuffs his hands back in his pockets, ruining his work. Bokuto wouldn't have guessed first year: he'd thought Akaashi to be closer to his own age, perhaps a near graduate. It's probably just how mature he is (and Bokuto doesn't want to admit that Akaashi, in his first year university, is more mature than Bokuto is now).
"I hope you're having a good time then!" Bokuto chatters. He's starting to get used to the flow of their conversation, used to filling in the gaps and lulls when he thinks Akaashi's too nervous to reply, and keeping himself quiet during the pauses when Akaashi just needs to think. "Nishi's got an amazing volleyball team too. If I hadn't joined a club, I probably would've tried to get to the Nationals through the school. I bet you've had a great time going to their games. You know Yoshida on our team? He's from Nishi Volleyball Club!"
"Mm, yes he is. I've seen recordings from his games there. Coach still speaks fondly of him." The train lurches forwards. Akaashi keeps his balance again, and Bokuto stares, impressed. He then sees Akaashi's shoulders stiffen even straighter, sees colour drain out of his cheeks, sees the slight widening of his eyes.
(And Bokuto's mind races, because he knows those reactions: the slow grip of panic, the accidental overstep of the line in the sand, the moment when you go too far and your mind screams back at you your mistake when it's far too late to retract it. He can't place the origin, can't place why Akaashi's licking his lips and staring, not at Bokuto, but over his head at the blur of lights, making his dark eyes dance with neon and fear. Bokuto runs the conversation back in his mind, and nothing makes sense, nothing quite-
Dawn breaks in the middle of the night.)
"Do... did you just say Coach?" Bokuto feels the warmth in his chest spread up to his mouth, spread to his smile and eyes. The train car dances before him and he sits forward as far as he can in his seat. He sees Akaashi shift his shoulders, sees him fidget, but he can't stop himself. "Do you play? Do you play at Nishi?! I thought you were just a fan, but man, you must be good! What position? Where'd you go to high school? If you got in there I've gotta know you from your high school-"
"Please just, stop for a second," Akaashi mumbles. His face has made its way into his scarf. Bokuto clamps his mouth shut, covering it with his hands. Akaashi shifts on his feet. His hands are wormed so deep into his coat pockets Bokuto thinks he's going to rip holes into them. As they pull into the next stop, Akaashi stumbles a small bit from his spot.
"Sorry, sorry, I can go off like that!" Bokuto puts his hands together in front of his face and gives a quick half bow. "I just wasn't expecting you to play, honestly. I didn't think we'd have anything in common, and Nishi, you must be amazing, I'm surprised I haven't heard of-"
"I'm such an idiot," Akaashi says, more to himself than Bokuto. He blows air out his mouth, not quite a sigh. He clicks his tongue once. Bokuto feels himself squirm. Akaashi isn't looking at him, refuses to catch his eye (despite Bokuto's attempts). He knows he has to apologize, doesn't know what he said, but knows he has to unsay it, immediately.
"Hey, look, I'm sorry for-"
"Please, not right now." The words are a slammed door, and Bokuto rocks back in his seat. Numbness spreads across his fingers, to his knees. Shit. Shit. Akaashi is unreadable, his tone flat and measured. "I can't do- I just don't want to talk. Sorry."
(Bokuto can't find his voice as he watches the jitters creep up Akaashi's shoulders, and he wonders what in his questions triggered the reaction, but he knows he can't ask. Yesterday his anxiety convinced him he'd messed up. Today, he knows heart and soul and mind he has, but he can't place it. He knows by the way Akaashi has to grab the pole for support when it comes time for his stop, the way they never make eye contact again, the way Akaashi hastily shuffles to the platform. The way his face shifts into something beyond neutral, something beyond a stranger: he's not Train Guy, he's Akaashi, three thousand miles away, and Bokuto knows nothing about him.)
Akaashi doesn't glance back. The doors close. Bokuto smacks himself in the forehead.
Chapter 4: The West
"Hey, Bokuto?" Kuroo's voice carries from the front door to Bokuto's room, where he yawns and hefts the bag on his shoulder. He makes his way to the foyer, where Kuroo's pulled on his shoes and his jacket, ready to head out. Bokuto drops his duffle on the ground and sits to pull on his sneakers.
"Yeah?" Bokuto starts lacing his shoe, fails, and starts over again. He fails twice more before he manages to tie it properly, his shoulders heavy with a sigh. "Did I forget to clean out the sink again?"
"Nah, for the first time in a year, you actually remembered to do that," Kuroo's voice is light and teasing. His hands rest on his hips. "Remember what you were telling me last night? About Train Guy and his freak out?"
"You mean how I actually ruined my commute for the rest of my life this time? Yeah," Bokuto huffs. He stands, testing the shoes, and gives Kuroo a weak nod, shoulders slouching forward. Kuroo rolls his eyes. They exit into the morning air, thick with mist, the sun trying and failing to dispel it. Bokuto locks the door behind them as Kuroo gets a head start down the stairs. Bokuto takes two long steps to catch up, shoes squeaking as he goes. "Was that it? Were you just reminding me of my failings? I don't need it, Kuroo, I know. I'm awful."
"Hm? No, sorry, forgot to finish. Still half-asleep," Kuroo replies, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders. The duffle lifts two inches against him. "And like I said last night, I promise, it'll be fine. What I'm trying to get at is just... you haven't like, looked him up or anything yet, right? Like Googled him?"
"No? It's not like I'm ever gonna see him again." Bokuto pouts. Kuroo grins. He shoves Bokuto in the arm. After a few nudges, Bokuto squares his shoulders and gives a small shove back. Kuroo's next one gets blocked by Bokuto's duffle, but Bokuto has free range, and soon he's landing elbows on Kuroo's side and arm, one even on his shoulder. They both laugh when Kuroo trips on the sidewalk after dodging a blow.
"Ha, well, regardless, do me a solid?" Bokuto nods as Kuroo continues. "Don't Google him. Don't go looking for the info you asked him. I did, and, well... it's best to not do it. For his sake."
"What?" The word tumbles from his mouth, his feet stopping, his mouth still moving. "Is it bad? Did I just almost make friends with like, a convict or something? Oh god, is it a good thing I ruined our budding friendship?"
"Bo, no, shut up, I would have led with that if you had," Kuroo says. He takes his hand and puts it on Bokuto's back, shoving him back into motion. Any delays would make them late for the morning train. "The whole thing just seemed weird to me... I wanted to be sure he wasn't hiding something, like-"
"Seriously, man, focus. Yeah, I wanted to make sure your new stranger friend wasn't a criminal, but that's not what I found out. It's... complicated. It's something I don't think he wants to talk about, and I think he's been forced to talk about way too much. I kinda regret looking it up, myself, except that I can warn you not to. Let's just say Train Guy's had a really full life and you scared him into thinking you know it or are gonna find it out. I think he'd appreciate getting to tell you about it on his own terms."
"If I see him again, you mean." Bokuto digs his fingers into the duffle strap and scuffs his feet as he walks.
"You will. Trust me. If he's tolerated you for two months, running your mouth won't scare him off. And when you do see him, don't press him about his past this time. He'll appreciate it." Kuroo turns his gaze to Bokuto and fixes him with a long, 'Do it or Else' look, which Bokuto rolls his eyes through.
"Yeah, I got it, geez," Bokuto shoves Kuroo's face to the side with one hand as they enter the station. "I'm an idiot, Kuroo, not an asshole like you. I wasn't even planning on Googling him. Thanks for the heads up, if I get to use it."
"I'm hardly an asshole," Kuroo says, intentionally sticking out his foot to try and trip Bokuto on the steps. He doesn't quite succeed, but Bokuto stumbles in the effort to avoid it, as Kuroo floats up the remainder of the steps. "Hurry up, now. We'll miss the train."
Bokuto shows up just as the previous train's departing. He's never seen the platform like this before. The remainders of wind gust loose newspapers along the track level, the benches and Akaashi's spot rest, unoccupied. It's not silent, but empty: the hum of the lights, the rattle of the train, the city going to sleep, all unable to change the stark air. He's never been the first one to the last train.
Out of habit, he hovers near his usual spot, sneakered feet toeing the small crack that marks the centre of the doors. He shoves his hands in his pockets, only to remove them, cracking knuckles and shifting his collar and adjusting his zipper. He glances over his shoulder. He shoves his hands into his pants pockets next, then back to the hoodie. He rolls on his feet. He counts the city lights, blue and yellow, red and white. He glances over his shoulder, again, but the platform is still empty, and he is still alone. The dread puddles in his body.
He looks back at the city.
The moon appears in the sky, low, just above the skyscrapers, separated from the stars by the thick grey cloud it peaks through. Bokuto feels his hands move to his back pocket, feels the wind shift on his face even as he draws the phone to his hand. He captures the picture a second before the moon is hidden. It's grainy and out of focus, the angle is wrong, the corner showing his thumb. But it's his recording of the moment, his impression, his frozen, stark atmosphere. The city lights blur on the screen, in his face, in his eyes. New stars amongst the dark buildings. There is no horizon: only sky.
"Gah!" Bokuto shoves the phone into his pocket the same moment he rounds on his heel. Akaashi's stopped just by the entrance, book in hand, white scarf wrapped tight around his neck to ward off whatever cold he thinks he feels in the pre-summer air today. Even from the distance, Bokuto can feel the studying look he's getting. Heat rises in his cheeks. "Um, hi!"
"Hi," Akaashi echoes. His mouth sits in a slight frown, his eyes narrow. The book slides its way back into the bag, unopened. He takes a few steps closer, but not conversationally close. His low voice carries in the stillness. "You're here earlier than usual."
"Yeah, uh, well," he sputters. He bites the inside of his cheek, counting to ten. The three hundred times he'd run this scenario in his head had gone much smoother than this. He exhales loud and slow, shoving twitching hands back into his hoodie pockets. He takes a half step forward. "Sorry. I was hoping to catch you... a bit early. Since you're always here before me. To chat. Talk? Talk. About yesterday."
"Oh." Akaashi, for a moment, looks confused, but it flickers and fades with a slight slump in his shoulder. His bag shifts down his shoulder and he hefts it back up. The studying gaze fades into one of resolve, slides down to stare at the crack near Bokuto's feet. "I'm sorry."
"I- what?" Bokuto cuts himself off, and it's his turn to narrow his eyes in confusion. His mouth opens and closes without words.
"I'm sorry," Akaashi repeats. "I overreacted yesterday. I-"
"No no!" Bokuto waves his hands in front of him at the same speed of his headshake. "Stop right there! You didn't do anything wrong. This is my apology! I shouldn't have been prying, especially since we just met and I saw you were uncomfortable and just kept going instead of apologizing properly. Kuroo - the other guy you saw, though I'm sure you know him from the team - always tells me I'm too loud and I tend to ramble when I'm," and here he begins to count on his fingers, "explaining anything, nervous, or excited, and I'm kinda doing all three right now? But, ah, on topic, it's not fair to you, and it's not how to make friends by expecting their life story immediately, and I don't want to make you say anything, especially with what went on-"
"With what went on." Akaashi's voice cuts through Bokuto's rambles, stiffens Bokuto's back. Akaashi looks like he's been slapped. His dark eyes are wide, his hands clenching. He takes a step back without noticing.
(Bokuto notices, and it makes his heart ache, makes his blood run thick and slow in his veins, makes his mind yell at him to get away, get away, and he forces himself to stay.)
"So you do know." Akaashi's words carry no bitterness, only fact. The accusation, instead, is in his eyes: grinding into Bokuto's, unblinking and wide and with the first glints of panic. Bokuto shakes his head again, drops his arms to his sides. He takes two steps towards Akaashi, leaving plenty of distance between them.
"Please, let me... let me explain. I don't know." He tries to keep his voice down, his words simple. He thinks about practicing with Kuroo, the mock run-throughs in his head on the way here, and focuses on those. He tries to ignore the arrival of the college student behind them as he digs his nails into his palms inside his pockets for focus. "I swear, I don't have any idea what went on, just that something did and you don't want to talk about it and I'm not gonna ask. Kuroo told me he looked you up and threatened to smack me silly if I did the same. All he told me was it's something you'd wanna keep private... oh, and that he's sorry for looking it up. I just... I want you to feel comfortable. Here. Still. On your commute. And I'm sorry for making things... like this."
(The pause is heavy, the air no longer empty, Bokuto's quiet words weighing on his own shoulders. Akaashi's expression clouds, his eyes blank. Bokuto can't keep his shoulders from slumping a bit forward, can't push back the remaining thoughts in his head. It wasn't enough. Akaashi Train Guy is lost to him.)
Laughter rouses him from his stupor, hitting him as he emerges from the depths of his mind, the water breaking and the sound echoing. Akaashi hides his mouth behind a hand, but the grin is in his eyes and the shake of his shoulders. For a long moment, Bokuto is stunned into watching. It's the most expression he's ever seen on Akaashi and it opens him up, draws him out from beneath the scarf and coat. It's the moonlight peeking out of the clouds in the endless sky.
"You're very straightforward," Akaashi says, choking back the last of his laugh with a clear of his throat. Bokuto notices the lawyers glance over at the two of them as they get to the platform, watches the variety store employee ignore them as she, too, appears. "And long winded. But, thank you. For the apology. Your friend's right, it's not something I... enjoy talking about. And-"
"Hey, hey!" Bokuto closes the distance between them by two more steps. "You don't even have to explain your dislike. I'm dense, but not that dense! I promise I'll never pry or look it up. It's yours to tell if you want to. And you don't ever have to! I just, uh, want us getting off on the right foot. From here on out."
"Thank you," Akaashi replies, his back straightening, his face relaxing. It carries the relief and thanks more than the words. Bokuto finds himself grinning, and he isn't sure where it came from, but he thinks it might be part of the flood of relief rushing through his body. He shifts from foot to foot and rubs the back of his head. Akaashi hesitates, opens his mouth, and though he looks like he's about to say something else, the only words that come out are "the train's coming."
Chapter 5: Waxing Crescent
It becomes a new routine. Sometimes he approaches Akaashi, still reading, the light casting them both in harsh shadows and highlights. Sometimes Akaashi comes up to him, at the edge of the platform, his coats forest green and pearly white and royal blue. Their moments together are silent after their greetings. Bokuto finds he prefers it this way. He still has time to study the city, the people, Akaashi's book. He plans his days, listens to music, retraces each practiced spike and save, mentally reviewing himself over and over.
As soon as they cross the threshold into the train, everything changes.
He tries his best not to be loud (and after the first round of glares from the lawyers, he's learned the acceptable volume level for the last train), but he does talk. He talks about his day, the team, the intensity of practice. He talks about the new place he went for lunch, the stray cat he almost caught, the shop display so good he has to go back to look inside. Bokuto uses his hands, his feet, his big expressions and quiet laughs, and he watches Akaashi get drawn into the stories.
Akaashi isn't as quiet as Bokuto would have thought. He does tend to think before he speaks, which Bokuto admits with a laugh he often forgets to do. He has lots of questions: about play formations, about training techniques, about Bokuto's favourite places to eat. His sense of humour is dry, cutting, observational. It takes Bokuto two days to be able to instantly tell a joke when he hears it. He learns Akaashi doesn't always laugh, but snorts and gives small, sardonic smiles when he's amused.
Lately, Bokuto's learning a lot about Akaashi.
Akaashi never sits because his old train line was incredibly busy, and he never got a seat. Now he's just used to balancing. He has a limited number of coats, even if that number is eleven, which is largely excessive in Bokuto's mind (and Akaashi is horrified to learn Bokuto only has two, one for winter and one for rain). He's read twenty four books since he started university, and Bokuto has never heard of any of them. He has two raised scars over his one ear, trailing back under the curls that stick up on the side of his head, and Bokuto knows they're from a stitched injury, but doesn't ask after the cause. Akaashi's eyes aren't black, but a dark green, as Bokuto learns one day in the harsh glint of an unfiltered station light as Akaashi turns back to wave.
Bokuto wonders, absent and alone for the final two stops, what Akaashi looks like in the sun, instead of midnight sky and city lights.
They don't bring up Akaashi's life much, and Bokuto doesn't raise any questions about what he does (though he suspects a great deal, like how Akaashi definitely plays volleyball, that he lives alone, that he gets cold far too easily for someone who must work out and exercise). Any time the conversation gets a bit too close to Akaashi's past, Bokuto guides them back to safe topics, back to volleyball and trains and weather. He manages to get Akaashi to memorize his usual practice schedule just by talking about it to fill the gaps. Akaashi never comments on the topic changes, but his eyes soften, and Bokuto takes that as a private thank you.
A few days, they don't speak at all on the train. Akaashi pours over the end of his book, never wavering in his stance, standing in front of Bokuto. Bokuto uses these days to listen to his music, to text Kuroo, to catch up on news he's missed since he last pulled out his phone. He gets used to the silence, different as it may be. He grows comfortable in it, he relaxes in it. It becomes his new space in between.
He thinks he prefers Akaashi hovering in front of him, hands gripping a thin paperback, lifting his eyes occasionally for eye contact, over Train Guy standing doors away, miles out of reach. Bokuto thinks he might not have ruined his commute after all.
"-and that's why you have got to go try the takoyaki there!" Bokuto finishes, crossing his arms on his chest to keep his arms from shaking. He leans back and looks up. Akaashi rubs his chin and tilts his head to the side as he does when he's actually considering something Bokuto said seriously. His gloves are thick red leather, and Bokuto can almost hear the creak of them as he moves his fingers. He tries to hold the image in his mind as he speaks. He won't get to see those gloves again for a week. "C'mon, Akaashi, have I lead you astray yet?"
"Yes." Akaashi doesn't even blink before saying it. He's still rubbing his chin. Bokuto winches, clutching at his heart. He opens his mouth to whine Akaashi's name when Akaashi's foot comes down over his, hard enough to make him yelp instead, but gentle enough for no real damage. Akaashi's mouth is half twisting into a smirk forming. "Not that loud, Bokuto."
"How did you know I was going to be loud?!"
"You're always loud." The words come off with a cold edge, but Akaashi's smirk, the small glint in his eyes are the cues Bokuto needs to know he's joking. "Besides, you told me you hate it when the lawyers glare, and they're already looking."
(They smile at each other. They glance at the lawyers. The silence stretches through the next curve, and Bokuto savours it, feeling it press as a weight on his shoulders. He relaxes his arms, drums his hands on his knee. He knows what he has to say next and the thought and the words aren't as fun as cracking jokes or takoyaki, but he's run out of ways to avoid it and he opens his mouth to say it anyway.)
"So I-" Bokuto starts, as Akaashi says, "Bokuto, I-"
(Silence. The awkward kind.)
"You first," Akaashi says. He gestures one of his red hands.
"No, you first. I'm always first!" Bokuto nods back, his hands drumming the beat a bit faster against his legs. He looks side to side. He tries to avoid showing the twitch that is definitely not forming in his eye from nerves. Akaashi rolls his eyes, a protest hovering on his lips, but with a nudge of Bokuto's knee against his shin, it fades into a sigh.
"...Alright. I was just thinking about some of the things I said, when we met. I know I didn't answer a lot of your questions and.... well. Ah. There was something, is something, I can say," and here Akaashi twists his scarf between his fingers, his other hand a fist in his pocket, his shoulders snapped straight. Bokuto smiles to try and ease his tension, his elbows locked in place, his own hands twitching with his unsaid words. He isn't sure Akaashi notices he's just as fidgety about something he wants to say. "I know you know I play volleyball by now, but I wanted to tell you. To confirm it. You deserve that much."
"Akaashi..." The word tumbles out of his mouth before he can stop it, and he digs his nails into his jeans, into his skin to stop any further interruption. Akaashi doesn't look at him, but over him, the next station lights casting a harsh glow on his skin.
"I do play for Nishi. I'm vice-captain. I play-"
"Setter, right?" Akaashi stiffens, then lets out a small quick breath through his nose, and nods. Tension ripples through his arms and legs, but he doesn't struggle on the next curve.
"Right," Akaashi echoes. His voice wavers. His eyes dart to the station map as both his hands go into his pockets, clenching and unclenching.
(Bokuto knows Akaashi's stop is next, can feel the pressure radiating off him like the midday sun. But it's the first thing Akaashi's admitted about his life unprompted. Bokuto treasures the words, cradles them, and this time he wishes Akaashi's hands weren't quite so many miles and layers of coat away, because he'd take one right then and there to thank him if he could. Barring that, he supposes, he can be loud.)
"Akaaashiii!!" He earns the glare from the lawyers, but he brushes it off. He stumbles to his feet as Akaashi jerks back, half falling, to give him space. He looks down at Akaashi, at those wide green eyes, creased with confusion and perhaps a bit of irritation. He lowers his voice, more to keep the words private than to avoid irritating the rest of their group. "Thank you, thank you, thank you for trusting me. I mean it. If you don't want to talk about it more we can-"
"I'd like to talk more about it," Akaashi's voice is a whisper into his scarf, into the curls of his hair. "Sorry. I'm still getting used to this."
"Which part? Talking about yourself, or talking about yourself to your favourite volleyball player?" Bokuto thinks he sounds a bit forced, but he still earns that eye roll, still hears the soft laugh get trapped in Akaashi's scarf, sees the small relaxing of his shoulders. His grin spreads from ear to ear as Akaashi unfolds himself, at ease, smirking.
(As if Bokuto can change things for him so quickly, as if Bokuto can really just improve his mood and lighten the air, and it's a nice feeling to think he can. He feels something rise in his chest, between nerves and giddy laughter, but he squashes both with a rub of the back of his head and a signature wink.)
"You're not my favourite volleyball player," Akaashi says. This time, when Bokuto clutches his chest in despair, Akaashi gives a short, barking laugh at him. "Sorry, Bokuto."
"I'm the best on our team!" Bokuto stamps a foot down, and it's only Akaashi's quick movement that keeps his toes from becoming victim to Bokuto's rage. Bokuto apologizes with a quick, desperate look, and Akaashi shrugs. Forgiven, Bokuto launches right back into his loud declaration. He jams a finger into Akaashi's scarf and it sinks inches deep before hitting something solid. "Just you wait, Akaashi. I'll be your favourite."
"Mm, we'll see." He glances over Bokuto's shoulder as the train takes the final turn, his station rolling in. He shifts his bag on his shoulder, adjusts his scarf over his chin so the wind can't blow down it. He tightens the gloves on his hands, tug by tug. His eyes hold a question and they flick to the seat.
(Something nags at Bokuto's mind, like this change in topic has pulled him from, that a few minutes ago he was trying to say something and was too nervous to force it out, and he can't remember what it is, but it seems too important to forget, and was it about Akaashi or school or- oh, crap, shit. He forgot.)
"Akaashi! Shit! Don't get off until I finish!" he yells, and this time a lawyer clears his throat, and the university student looks up from her seat in surprise. Bokuto slams his hands down on Akaashi's shoulders, the train slowing, his words speeding. "I won't be here for the next week. I'm going to Korea for a tournament. I'll be back next Sunday. And-"
"I know," and Akaashi's smiling, as if Bokuto's a small child, as if he's said something endlessly amusing. Bokuto's not done. The train stops. The thoughts launch from his head as the floor lurches under his feet. He digs his hands in for balance, finding shoulder muscle, tense and strong. His knees buckle. Akaashi stands ramrod straight throughout, his hand shooting out to rest on Bokuto's side, the pressure the only thing that keeps him from falling over.
"Fuck me," he mutters. The doors creak open beside both of them as Bokuto relaxes his fingers. He takes a breath, but Akaashi's already moving. His side feels warm where Akaashi's hand has pulled away.
"Good luck, Bokuto. You can try and change my mind while you're there about my favourite player. I'll be watching." He ghosts away, four steps across the metal floor, out into the warming night air. Bokuto's not done. He's frozen in place. He can't even turn around to watch Akaashi go. It's only the lurching of the train, forward, that slams him back into his seat, heavy and sudden.
"I thought I'd find you here," Kuroo's voice is light and amused, his arms crossed on his chest. Bokuto slumps against the wall beside the door, lightly beating his own head back against it. A picture of Kuroo and his old cat rattles dangerously above his head. He hopes it falls and knocks him unconscious for his idiocy. "You forgot to ask for his email, didn't you?"
"Of course," he groans. He slams his head back one last time and closes his eyes. "I forgot to ask for his email."
Chapter 6: The Unsuspecting Victim
"Finally, a reason to really celebrate - I'm here to visit!" Oikawa announces, throwing open the door to the hotel room. Bokuto rolls his head from its location face down in a pillow on the bed. Oikawa slams the door shut with his foot, waving a key he was not assigned in his hand. He kicks the pile of shoes out of the way and perches himself on Kuroo's bed, the motion comfortable and fluid. He pulls a bag of nuts from his jacket pocket and begins to eat. "Well? Where's my greeting?"
"Hi," Bokuto says. His voice catches in his throat and he groans. He faceplants back into the pillow. It's too soft. His face sinks down two inches, practically against the mattress. He picks as a loose thread on the duvet with one hand. "Nice to see you."
"Wow, that's pathetic," Oikawa announces around a mouthful of nuts. He swallows loudly. Bokuto hears a shuffling, then feels something sharp and round and wiggling digging into his side. Oikawa's toes. "You remember we won our first match, right? I mean, despite that weird set by Masuda that got him swapped for yours truly, we did really well. You remember that, hm?"
"Probably." The toes dig their way in just beneath his ribs. After a few more strange prods, Bokuto slams his elbow back. Oikawa pulls his foot back moments before it makes contact. The crunching of nuts continues to fill the air. "Aren't you supposed to be rooming with Ushijima?"
"Ugh! Don't remind me. I told him I was going to visit you guys and he gave me his 'we need to be in top form for tomorrow' speech, and then was all," Oikawa drops his voice an octave to attempt to imitate Ushijima voice, "'If you can perform sufficiently on such limited sleep, then I suggest you follow through with that.' It's nine thirty! He's such an old man!"
"Totally," Bokuto mumbles the reply into the pillow. It's starting to get warm around his head. He shifts again, inches to the side, looking over at his visitor. Oikawa's head is tilted to the side, one eyebrow raised in a silent question. A walnut hovers in his hand before he drops it back into the bag.
"You alright? Is this because they didn't let us practice late? 'Cause, trust me, I'm none too pleased-"
"It's not the practice." Bokuto groans and pushes himself up, running a hand over his face. He crosses his legs under him, sitting on the bed. He tugs at a piece of his deflated hair and shoves his bangs to the side. "I mean, I'd much rather be practicing than sitting here, but..."
"You take your meds?"
"I did. Kuroo made sure of it."
"He's upset he's an idiot," Kuroo calls. He steps out of the bathroom, towel slung around his shoulders, boxers on his hips. Steam pours into the room from behind him. "He's known we were coming for weeks and talking about how he'll miss his 'new friend', and yet he totally forgot to ask for his email. He's been moping around about it literally since he got home two days ago. You shoulda seen him sadly stare out the plane window. Hilarious."
"I am not moping! I'm just, it's just..." his shoulders slouch and he lets out a sigh. He picks a piece of lint off his pajama pants. "We got sidetracked... he distracted me... I was gonna, really..."
"New friend?" Oikawa asks, completely ignoring Bokuto's weak protest. He wipes a hand on his shirt and launches from Kuroo's bed. He twists and plunks down next to Bokuto, and arm sliding around his shoulders. "Tell me everything. Tall, short, more handsome than me? Hah, just joking, we both know the answer to that one. Where'd you meet him? What's he like? Can I expect drama? How long have you been keeping this from me?"
"Well..." Bokuto purses his lips and glances over at Kuroo. Kuroo flashes a sly, toothy grin, and gives a bow that says if Bokuto doesn't start talking, he will. Bokuto turns his head back to Oikawa, whose breath is hot and warm on his face. It smells of peanuts. He shoves Oikawa's face away, earning a snort from Kuroo and a fake howl of agony from Oikawa as he falls into the headboard. "He's quiet, sarcastic. No drama. We take the same train. We started talking-"
"Oh, is this that Train Guy you talked about?" Oikawa snaps his fingers, eyes lighting up. He leans awkwardly against the headboard, jacket ruffled. He pulls out more nuts. "You never used to shut up about him. The guy who reads a lot and owns a ton of coats?"
"Yeah, him. We're friends now. He's a fan. He probably watched the match." Bokuto flops backwards on the bed, crushing Oikawa's legs beneath him. He grinds his palms into his forehead. "And I totally blanked like an idiot on asking for his email, and now I can't talk to him for a week-"
"You see what I have to put up with?" Kuroo's voice is closer now, and the bed shifts with his weight as he sits down. He gives Bokuto something that should be a reassuring pat, but is more of a slap to his abdomen. "I keep telling him it's just a week. It's not like you haven't gone a week without seeing him before."
"Hand me some nuts," Kuroo continues. "I'm hungry. Bo, sit up and get the TV on. You need a distraction and Oikawa's good at that."
"Hmm? Are you trying to insult me?" Oikawa shuffles his legs under Bokuto's back.
"Me? Never." Kuroo gives a snorting laugh. Bokuto hauls himself to his feet, to the TV, moments before Oikawa starts throwing nuts and Kuroo grabs a pillow and whips it at Oikawa's head. He turns the TV on, lets the blare of the evening news (in Korean he barely understands) blare over them. A cashew stings the back of his head and he turns around. Kuroo looks innocent. Oikawa has a face full of pillow. Maybe he can afford a little distraction.
But, just as Oikawa is no match against both him and Kuroo in a pillow fight, the distraction is no match for the weight of the night.
The city lights beyond the curtains (one set thick, one set thin) are unfamiliar in pattern, but the colours are the same. Bokuto sits, wishing for a balcony, tucked in the gap of curtains, careful to keep the darkness trapped with Kuroo. He holds his phone in hand, timing the stops of the train, imagining Akaashi deftly flick page after page in his book.
Life teems around him: the blare of horns, heavy on the still air. A siren flickering in and out of existence. Muddy cell phone lights in the street below, neons of bars and restaurants being blocked by patrons, office lights flickering off as final workers leave, flickering on for cleaners. If the window could open, Bokuto knows he'd smell the same smog, the same food and perfumes and grime as he left behind at the train station at home. Feel the same grit in the air. Hear the same low hum of the ebb and flow of people.
He finds, in a city bursting at the seams, in a hotel full of his peers and teammates, something doesn't sit quite right (in his mind, in his chest, in the night). He mulls the feeling as he watches the time change, stop to stop, until he knows Akaashi's getting off and heading home. On the same night, under the same sky, in the different city lights.
It's then he snaps a photo and slips the phone away.
The words he tried to say are still caught in his throat. He chokes them down as he stands, fingers trailing in curtains as he moves through them, thick and thin. The dark of the hotel room is graced, just for a second, with the brilliance of the outside. His hand drops, and under his steady gaze, the light fades, one fold, one layer, at a time.
"Hey, Bokuto?" Kuroo's voice carries around the uniform covering Bokuto's ears. He pulls the shirt down before he glances over his shoulder. Kuroo leans on the edge of the bed, already dressed, his team jacket draped on his shoulders as a cape. His arms are crossed. His one finger taps a slow pattern. "You look like you were hit by a bus. You good for the match?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. I just had trouble sleeping is all," Bokuto says. He gives a forced laugh, a half shrug. He looks at the windows, the curtains half open, the morning sun streaming in. "Don't worry. I'll play fine."
"It's actually really bothering you, isn't it?"
"...maaaaaaybe," Bokuto replies, dragging out the sound as he drags on his jacket. Kuroo tsks at him. Bokuto can imagine the headshake that always accompanies it. He stuffs his hands in his pockets, refusing to look back. "Kuroo..."
"I get it, Bo, really. You miss him. Your brain's puzzling this one over. But we have a match to win, and I need to know if I should tell Coach not to put you in." This time Bokuto does turn, and he sees Kuroo give him a once over, dark eyes taking in Bokuto's eyebags and his stifled yawn.
"I can play. I promise."
"Alright, I trust you." Kuroo shrugs himself into a standing position, and takes two steps across the room. Bokuto can tell from the look in his eyes that he does trust him. He slams his hands into Bokuto's shoulders with a grin. "Besides, Akaashi's gonna be watching you up there. Even if you can't talk to him for a week, you can still impress your number one train fan, hm?"
"Oh, didn't I say?" Bokuto lolls his head to the side and flashes the first grin he's really felt over at Kuroo. "He told me I'm not his favourite player."
"To your face?"
"And this is the guy you miss?" Kuroo gives his shoulders another slap and they share the grin. Bokuto feels a weight lift in his chest as they walk towards the door together. "C'mon. Let's go give him a show."
Chapter 7: Pedestal
He gets to the station early, just in case.
Akaashi isn't there yet, of course, so Bokuto leans in Akaashi's spot, eyes trained on the entrance that Akaashi comes through, as the second last train pulls away. He whistles. It took Kuroo an hour yesterday to convince him not to go out, that Akaashi wouldn't even be expecting him the day they got back, that they needed to unpack, clean. Instead, today, despite not having practice, he'd taken the train out this way at night, just to catch his regular train back.
Bokuto thumbs over the zipper on the messenger bag at his side, switches the song he's whistling, shifts on his feet. The extra minutes pile onto the previous week, grains of sand to tip the scales, and his shifting gets more rapid, the whistling more disjointed. He doesn't move his gaze, nor his head, even a millimeter to either side. Not when the lawyers arrive early, or when a newspaper blows into his leg.
He doesn't move at all until the familiar dark curls break on the train platform.
"Bokuto!" Bokuto pushes himself off the column, a grin spreading on his face. He stops whistling to raise a hand and wave. Akaashi crosses the distance, his one hand grabbing the strap on his bag to keep it from bumping his side. His cheeks are slightly red, his eyes bright. He's smiling.
(Bokuto stares, his welcome greeting drying up in his mouth, his eyes focusing on how the smile hits Akaashi's eyes, how Akaashi tries to slow his breathing as if he's run most of the way there. Relief floods through his body like a cold cloth on the back of his neck, and he stares like Kuroo says he stares at everything. Akaashi doesn't seem to mind.)
"I watched you guys play - you did amazing!" Akaashi offers his hand, and it's instinct that makes Bokuto grab it, and as they've both done a million times during games, they slam their shoulders together. The bump hurts as muscle hits muscle, and Bokuto's impressed again at how strong Akaashi is under his coats and scarves. Akaashi claps him on the back before they let go. "I thought you did really well in the game against South Korea, and the game against Iran was really something. Coach let us skip practice to watch since he knew we wouldn't be doing anything anyway. I wish you'd won it."
"Same, but hey! A silver medal's nothing to lift your nose at." For emphasis, he rubs his nose and squares his shoulders. Instead of the usual eyeroll, Akaashi laughs. "In the big leagues you gotta be gracious about your defeats and all that. I, of course, being a professional, am very good at being courteous!"
"Kuroo stepped on your foot at one point to keep you from yelling in anguish, though."
"Gah! Those cameramen get everything these days..."
(His voice trails off, but Akaashi's still smiling. Akaashi hasn't ever smiled this much.)
"It's great to have you back. It's been quiet here this past week," Akaashi says, and his voice is earnest, without even a hint of sarcasm. The tone jars Bokuto, and he shifts his fingers around the zipper on his bag again. He snaps his fingers in the air before slamming his fist into his open palm.
"Right, that reminds me! I've got two things to talk to you about." He turns his head and opens the bag, rummaging around the various paper and extra socks for the small tissue paper wrapped package. He holds it out with a grin. Akaashi's smile starts to fade. "First of all, I got you something in Korea!"
"No." Akaashi's voice is flat. He grabs the strap of his bag again and takes a step back. Bokuto shoves the package further at him, ramming it into Akaashi's chest. Akaashi doesn't lift his hands to catch it, so Bokuto just holds it there. "I'm not accepting this."
"Too bad! I get all my friends stuff when we go to tournaments. And we are friends, so don't try and pull that on me." He hardens his gaze and squares his shoulders, the same pose he makes to intimidate blockers on the other side of the net. Akaashi glares back, unaffected. It isn't until the rumbles of the train begin that Akaashi closes his eyes and lets out a deep sigh. Bokuto can see him counting to ten in his mind. He waggles the gift into Akaashi's chest, the grin creeping wider across his face. "C'mon, Akaashi. You know you can't win."
"Alright, fine, I'll take it." Akaashi snatches it from his hand. He moves to put it in his bag, but Bokuto shakes his head, and with another sigh and the usual Akaashi glare, he opens it. Dark red fabric tumbles out of the paper across his hands, speckled with white and gold. Akaashi trains his eyes on it. Bokuto shuffles on his feet, his hands drumming into his legs in excitement.
(Akaashi's eyes go wide before they narrow, taking in the pattern, the shapes, the dark reds on crimsons on burgandies. He shifts his thumbs over the fabric, absent. His fingers tighten just a bit. It's all Bokuto can do not to explode on the spot, his body shivering with tension and anticipation, rolling on the balls of his feet to his heels as Akaashi finally meets his gaze again. There's a softness in his eyes, to his glare, a looseness in his shoulders.)
"It's a scarf," he says.
"I thought you'd like another one," Bokuto says, raising his voice as the train rumbles in at the station. "And it's light fabric, too, so you can wear it around in the warmer weather. You've probably noticed it getting warm, y'know, under your coats? And I was thinking," and he counts on his fingers as he talks, "how can Akaashi survive in coats and heavy scarves when it really heats up, so-"
"Bokuto, the train's here."
"Right!" He clamps down on his speech and follows Akaashi through the familiar doors to his spot. He shifts his bag on his lap as he sits, hovering at the edge of his seat, legs already bouncing with transferred energy. Akaashi, as usual, stands in front of him. He folds the scarf back down. He rewraps the tissue paper around it, and places it in his bag, all as the train starts to move with a sudden jolt. Bokuto nearly falls to the floor, grabbing the pole beside him for support. "Man, I haven't missed that part of the commute."
"It would help if you sat properly in your seat, not hanging off the edge of it," Akaashi comments. "For a volleyball player, you have very poor balance."
"Akaashiiiiiii, can't you read the mood? This is when you're supposed to agree with me!"
"When you say something worth agreeing with, I will." He deadpans over the edge of his scarf as Bokuto crosses his arms and pouts, letting out a wordless half groan, half whine. Akaashi taps his foot against Bokuto's until he slides back, properly, in his seat. "Thank you for the scarf. That was very thoughtful of you."
(Bokuto feels his chest swell and it's only the curve of the train around a corner that stops him from getting up to his feet to - to what? He'd hug Akaashi, in an instant, in a second, just for accepting the gift, unknowingly helping Bokuto quash the worry he'd picked the wrong scarf or the wrong kind of gift. But it strikes him he isn't sure Akaashi likes to be hugged. The thought stalls him out until the moment for him to ask passes, and he'll just have to find out another time, he supposes.)
"We're friends! It's what friends do. They look out for each other, especially when they think they might overheat when it warms up later this week." He fixes Akaashi with an 'I mean you' look, and Akaashi rolls his eyes. "Besides all that though, there's ah, something else I needed to do. With you. In a way. It's more of a question."
(He takes a shaky breath, looking into his mind for the lead in he'd practiced over and over a week ago, and then forgotten to use. He turns the words in his mind for a minute, watching Akaashi watch him, that unsteady, unwavering, calming gaze in response to Bokuto's increase in fidgeting and stuttering and stumbling. The patience in his stance. Bokuto's next breath is a lot steadier.)
"I meant to ask before I left, but... since we see each other all the time, and I... I'm just used to talking with you now! And going away I wouldn't, er, I didn't have a chance to talk to you for a week, and..." he's stumbling over his words and he takes a moment to collect himself again, a deep breath and a clench of his hands on his knees. "I missed you this week. Can I have your number? Or your email? Or both, I can't really call you out of the country."
"Oh." Akaashi's eyes flicker with surprise as they reflect a sharp white city light. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out his phone, sliding it unlocked. His phone case is blue and bronze, with something like a feather or bird, but the design is blocked by his fingers. "Yes, of course. Here, just add yourself as a contact. I'll message you."
"Perfect!" Bokuto finds himself grinning and sets a world record for typing speed, putting in his number and email. It's a nice phone, too, newer than the one Bokuto has. He thinks about taking a selfie for a contact photo, but knowing Akaashi he'd be interrupted before he finished. He returns the phone right into Akaashi's waiting hand.
"Thanks," Akaashi says. He types something himself, which Bokuto assumes to be the aforementioned messages. Akaashi's eyes remain on the phone, his grip tight as the train slows to a stop.
(The moment seems private, and Bokuto isn't sure he should be watching it, but he can't seem to look away. Akaashi's expression is happy, but it's a different happy than his persistent smile at the station or his quiet calmness during their conversations. It's something new and Bokuto feels warm, somewhere in his cheeks and chest, watching the expression.
Akaashi wanted this too, it seems.)
"Y'know..." Bokuto begins, and he feels his phone buzz with the messages. He pauses to pull it from his pocket, but doesn't read them. He shifts on his seat. "I wouldn't have minded if you'd asked me."
"You're a professional athlete, Bokuto. I didn't think it polite to go asking after your contact information if you didn't want to provide it." The softness fades to Akaashi's regular expression: a little bit tired, a little bit serious, but at peace.
"Yeah, I've heard that before," Bokuto laughs, the sound coming from his nose with an extra, unprompted snort. "I'm not that famous, Akaashi. Not yet! When I am, I'll tell you not to sell off my cellphone number, alright?"
"That sounds like the perfect time for me to sell your email address, then."
(They share a short smile, and fall into silence, and Bokuto finds he's missed that, too. It's become easy, reassuring, to let the words sit between then, to let the comfort level grow. But the words sit with him, and the taste of 'professional athlete' is heavy in his mouth, and he doesn't want Akaashi to think of him like that for any longer than he already has.)
"Kuroo and I often go out for lunch on Wednesdays before practice. Do you wanna come with us tomorrow? We can pick you up at the university and drop you back off. It'd be nice to see you outside the dank train home!"
"Um," Akaashi says, and his confused expression reminds Bokuto a lot of himself. He laughs, clapping Akaashi on the arm. "I wouldn't want to intrude."
"Impossible! I'll send you details tonight now that we can contact each other outside face to face talking, and you can let me know if you want us to come get you or not. How's that?"
"...Alright." He glances over Bokuto's head, then to the doors. Bokuto follows his gaze, gauging how long the slowing train has until it opens the doors at Akaashi's station. "Let me know and I'll let you know?"
"Deal!" Bokuto gives Akaashi another arm clap, and this time he gets an exasperated mutter as Akaashi adjusts his bag before stepping off the train. He turns to wave, and Bokuto waves, before turning his hand into a phone shape and mouthing 'I'll call you'. Akaashi makes a show of pretending he didn't see. When the train moves again, Bokuto settles himself back down, and pulls out his phone.
'It's Akaashi' reads the text, and Bokuto programs the contact in. He flips to the email, opening it as he looks out the far window. He glances at the message, looks away, and snaps his head back down. He'd expected it to say the same thing. It doesn't.
'I missed you too.'
"Akaashi's on his way," Bokuto says, sliding the phone back into his jeans pocket. "Class got out a bit late."
"S'cool," Kuroo replies. He slides the sunglasses down his nose with a violent head nod, a move he's been trying to master since he saw one of the Iranian players do it at the tournament. "Gives me time to check out the campus. Never been to Nishi before."
"That's 'cause your grades weren't good enough to even consider applying," Bokuto says, sidestepping in time to avoid Kuroo's inevitable elbow. They both laugh: Kuroo's dry with an undercurrent of 'I'll get you back', Bokuto's loud enough to startle two students walking by.
"Guess Train Guy's smart and good at volleyball. Something neither of us seem to have achieved," Kuroo replies. He pushes the sunglasses back up his nose and flashes a grin at Bokuto. Bokuto grins back, then pauses. Realization flashes through his mind. He crosses his arms on his chest. His nostrils flare.
"What did I tell you the entire way here! Don't call him that! I don't want you accidently saying it to his face. It's weird. Just use his name and pretend, like, you don't even know what a train is."
"You act like I haven't met the kid before, Bo," Kuroo chides. He wags his finger in front of his face, his duffle shifting at his side. "I've already made my excellent first impression."
"Well, don't make your second one worse, okay?" Bokuto huffs the words out. He taps his fingers on his arms. He takes in the worn red brick of the older building they wait in front of, the distant glass surfaces of a new science wing, white and blue. His eyes glaze over the students, smiling, frowning, until he picks out the one face in the crowd he actually knows - the one guy who raises his hand in greeting.
Akaashi, in the daylight, is a sight to behold.
Bokuto had never once thought there was any strangeness, any oddness in how Akaashi looked. Not in the glow of fluorescents, those sharp whites and faded yellows, nor the neon colours from distant signs as the train pulled along the tracks. He may have wondered, guessed, the difference the sun would make, but not to detail. He knew there would be a change: the sun shifts all appearances as it rises and sets. He just hadn't expected it to be this different. He sees Akaashi for the first time (for the hundredth time).
Never once would he have described Akaashi's skin as sallow as they stood together on the platform, but looking at him now, crossing the campus, that's the word that flashes through his mind. Train Guy is sallow. Gaunt. Sharpened angles. Dulled colours. Muted. Even his hair, worn and faded by the flickering intensity of electricity, by the deafening roars of the upcoming trains. Walking towards him now, he realizes, is the real Akaashi Keiji.
Akaashi's still pale, paler than Kuroo and certainly paler than Bokuto, but the hue has shifted in his skin. There's a warmth to his cool undertones, a distinct life in his cheeks that the midnight city leeches from him. There are faint freckles on his nose, a small splattering of tiny dents (from acne or chicken pox) on his forehead, another scar near his two raised ones, flat and dark, a long thin shadow on the side of his face. A life story washed out by the movement of the trains.
His hair is inflated at midday (or, Bokuto corrects himself, has deflated by night). Curls springing into the air, along his neck, towards his face. Reaching and tangling with ferocity they lose under the stars. Rich and thick, untamable waves. Absorbing the light instead of reflecting it - that, instead, moves to his eyes. Even at a distance, Bokuto can pick out the kaleidoscope colour, black to green to black, with more ease than he could with Akaashi hovering over him on the train ride. Flickers of shadows as he moves under trees, brilliant emeralds as he emerges on the other sides.
Around his neck is a scarf (he'd hardly be Akaashi without one), and the colours and shapes are - Bokuto hovers on 'familiar', then grinds to a full stop, the word slamming whiplash in his brain as his eyes widen and focus. That's his scarf, looped and folded just so to show off the pattern. The same scarf he weighed and held in hand in a small shop not far from the hotel, the same scarf he wrapped around his other presents, the same scarf he made sure he had, first thing, opening his luggage.
Bokuto feels the grin in his chest before it hits his cheeks, his mouth, his eyes. He feels it come out as a big wave, finally returning Akaashi's as he's meters away. Akaashi doesn't wave a second time, but he nods, and he almost smiles.
It's seconds before he'll be beside them, and it takes those few seconds for Bokuto to notice one last detail on the daytime version of Akaashi Keiji.
His shirt, long sleeved, striped, crossed with his messenger bag, is just that. A shirt.
He's not wearing a coat.
"So you're the guy who dared to tell Bokuto he's not your favourite to his face and survive," Kuroo says, leaning on Bokuto's shoulder and giving his own short wave. Bokuto stiffens his shoulders and tries to shrug him off, stirred from his stupor. Kuroo leans more weight on him. Akaashi doesn't react. "Never thought I'd see the day. Nice to meet you, like, properly, instead of awkwardly creeping you on the train."
"I would say likewise, but I wasn't the one staring on the train," Akaashi says. Both he and Kuroo turn their eyes to Bokuto. He shoves Kuroo off his shoulder and straightens his shirt. When Kuroo threatens to lean on him again, he gives a glare. Then, half a heartbeat later, he whips his full attention back to Akaashi.
"Akaashi, you're not wearing a coat! And that's the scarf I got you! And it's warm out!" he yells. He holds his hands up, hovering them around the scarf, gesturing wildly at it. "I don't, I didn't, you're wearing it and not a coat!"
"It's too warm for a coat today," Akaashi says, as if he usually goes without them. He shifts the messenger bag on his shoulder. He gives Bokuto a look that speaks volumes while only saying 'Really, Bokuto'. "And I didn't want someone to worry."
"But... you... that's..."
"While Bo's in shock," Kuroo interjects, as Bokuto still opens and closes his hands three inches from Akaashi's scarf, "how about we go for lunch? There's a place that we usually head to, if you're cool with it?"
"Sounds good," Akaashi says. He uses one hand to flick Bokuto's fingers, one eyebrow raised as his eyes flash green. Bokuto gets the message and drops his hands, giving the back of his neck a quick rub as he flashes his most charming smile. Akaashi doesn't react, just shifts on his feet, until Bokuto and Kuroo share the grin instead and start walking.
"I do want to know the answer, though," Kuroo says, crossing his arms behind his head as he walks. He stands between Bokuto, who feels his mouth open with confusion, and Akaashi on the inside of the sidewalk, who barely flicks his gaze over. "Y'know, to the question of the hour."
"What are you talking about? What question, exactly?" Bokuto asks. He stuffs his hands in his pocket and taps the edge of his phone. "Is it how I discovered the best somen place this side of town?"
"No, this one's for Akaashi, our guest of honour." Behind his sunglasses, Kuroo slides his eyes over to Akaashi. This time it's Akaashi's turn to look confused, his eyes seeking out Bokuto's as they slow to a stop at a street light. His lips purse. Bokuto shrugs.
"What's the question?" Bokuto asks.
"Who his favourite player is, duh!" Kuroo lowers his sunglasses with his hand this time. He shifts his duffle into Bokuto's gut as he turns towards Akaashi. Bokuto grunts. Kuroo keeps talking. "Is it still someone on our team? Can't see you picking some opponent when we have one of the best teams going right now. Of course, if it's yours truly, you can just-"
"It's not you," Akaashi's words are dry. He crosses his arms on his chest and stares straight ahead. "Light's changed."
"God, he's harsh. Kids today don't respect their elders," Kuroo mutters. Akaashi walks ahead of them, head darting side to side, pausing, and then crossing the road. Bokuto hovers beside Kuroo, waiting half a step before driving Kuroo's duffle into the spot right beneath his ribs. Kuroo makes a strangled sound followed by a yelp. "Fuck, you made me bite my tongue, Bo."
"Huh?!" Kuroo and Bokuto, in the same movement, stare at Akaashi. He stands, twirling the end of his scarf, already crossed the road. He nods for them to hurry up, and Bokuto shoves Kuroo's arm to get a head start. It's three loping strides before he's besides Akaashi again. Kuroo's foot catches his heel, but he ignores it. "Did you just say-"
"Oikawa. He's the best player on your team."
"He doesn't even play in the starting line up," Kuroo points out. He shakes his head. Bokuto feels a grin spreading across his face. "And he spends half his paycheque on nuts. Seriously. He budgets for it."
"So all I have to do is play better than Oikawa and I'll be your favourite?" Bokuto asks. He rolls his feet, heel to toe, and leans down towards Akaashi's face. Akaashi holds up a hand before he gets too close. Bokuto backs off half an inch. "Easy."
"Not easy," Akaashi counters. His mouth tugs into a slight frown. His eyes narrow. Bokuto slides back another two inches, his back straightening under the intensity. He has a feeling he doesn't want to see that on the other side of the court. "Oikawa's going to be your starting setter one day. Maybe soon. He's better than Masuda, he got changed in for him twice during the tournament. And he's got the best serve on your team."
"Wow, Bo, that's dedication," Kuroo laughs. He reaches around Bokuto to ruffle Akaashi's curls. His hand gets caught, immediately, and he half pulls, half tugs it free. Akaashi stands so still that Bokuto wonders how often this happens. "You shoulda brought him instead of me along for lunch. Oikawa loves meeting fans."
"Hm, he also loves food... I bet I could invite him out..." Bokuto says, tapping his chin. A second group of people walk around them, and he realizes he's stopped leading the way to lunch. He gestures, walking down the street. Kuroo takes the outside edge, and Akaashi slips between them. His shoulders are up to his ears. His hands are stuffed in his pockets. Eyes trained on the ground. Bokuto knows that pose by now. He elbows Akaashi, but much lighter than he would Kuroo. When Akaashi looks over, he gives a small smile. "But maybe we'll just stick to us three for now, huh?"
(He sees something like a smile in the green of Akaashi's eyes, the smallest and loudest and most sincere of thank yous, and Bokuto's smile changes to a grin and he can't stop it.)
"Good call," Kuroo interrupts. "I can't even handle you and Oikawa at the same time." Bokuto tears his eyes away to meet Kuroo's overtop of Akaashi's head. Kuroo nods, then Bokuto. Kuroo claps a hand on Akaashi's back. Akaashi stumbles, but doesn't yelp, though Bokuto does in surprise. "For now, let's see if you can stomach how much Bokuto can shove into his mouth in a single sitting."
Not only does Akaashi have no problem watching Bokuto eat, it turns out he's the only human alive who can eat more somen than him. And he still has room for ice cream.
Lunch is fun. That's the word Bokuto wants to use: fun. Fun like lunches in high school, or out with friends in the middle of the night, loud and young and careless. Kuroo and Bokuto talk the most, with wild gestures and dramatic table poundings, about the tournament, about how they met years ago over a match in middle school, about the new fighting game Kuroo wants to try. Bokuto laughs, loudly, inappropriately, knee slapping and grinning, to every sly move and gesture from Kuroo.
Akaashi laughs twice during the meal, when Kuroo drops his chopsticks and they land in his shoe, and when Bokuto whines loudly about being unable to eat anymore. He laughs once over ice cream when Bokuto overestimates the distance and shoves half his face in the dessert. The air gets lighter, cooler, calmer, each time. Bokuto doesn't stare, but he always looks at the slight shoulder shake, the eye rolls, the way Akaashi hides himself afterwards, loops of red fabric over his red cheeks and white scars.
The three of them sit on the wall of a high school, two blocks from Nishi, bags tossed by their feet in a pile. Kuroo swings his legs, tapping brick with his heels, streaks of vanilla ice cream on his hand, ignored as he speaks. Bokuto half listens, his ice cream finished, his eyes wandering the city and the school, the unfamiliar patterns of people.
It's three minutes later until he eases the phone out of his pocket, camera flashing, two quick photos: one of the school, one of the street. Back to back, halves of the coin, the sum of his afternoon. He watches them on his phone, the single moments in time, lulled by Kuroo's story, until he feels something watching him.
Head titled, eyes wide. A bid of chocolate smudged at the corner of his mouth. Leaning forward, stopped just outside Bokuto's personal space. Hovering. His fingers drum, twitch. Thoughts float just inside his mind, not quite expressed, not quite contained. The curiosity leaks into his expression, in the shift of his legs, in the way he tries not to get a better look, but wants to.
Bokuto closes the gap between them, slow and deliberate. Akaashi doesn't flinch back. Bokuto hands his phone over, and under Kuroo's continuing story, shows the photos he's taken and the places he's been. Akaashi's eyes stick to the phone, drawn in deep, the patterns of lights, the people and buildings, the selfies, the volleyball matches flashing by. Kuroo leans on Bokuto's other arm, making comments, adding his own memories, as Akaashi relaxes more and more, three feet in the air, the early summer heat in his cheeks and smile.
The clock winds down, and practice looms in the passing of minutes on the top of his phone, and Bokuto is very aware of the exact minute they need to head out. The numbers press into his brain, and he shifts, peeling his legs off the top of the wall one at a time.
He asks for a group selfie before his hands twitch, before he jumps off, before the knowledge of what time it is becomes a pressing of time (and in turn, the pressing becoming a bud of anxiety). Kuroo leans in, shifting the sunglasses on his face, practicing his smiles and finger guns. Akaashi doesn't snort or look away. He doesn't shift any further away. He just insists on wiping his mouth first.
this is the last chapter i have pre-written (if you can believe this, all the chapters so far have been done before the week they're published. amazing), so i'm not sure if i'll have chapter 9 up next thursday, like all these chaps have been. i hope to, but there's no guarantee! 7ish weeks of consistent updates is really good for me, so fingers crossed i can make it another... but it might be delayed until saturday if i get busy!
thanks so much for reading and supporting this far!! i'm committed to finishing this for you all :)
Chapter 9: Before the Storm
i got it done!!
for this chapter: anxiety warning towards the end!
for an update about the next couple chapters: see the end notes!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They make the little habits a little bigger. The next two Wednesdays shift the pattern from Kuroo and Bokuto, to Kuroo and Bokuto and Akaashi. They learn his campus, bit by bit: the science building Akaashi emerges from after class, glass and metal, streaked and shiny and new. They see his friends in passing, headnods and waves, a realm they barely cross into. Akaashi lets Bokuto take pictures of his food when they go out, but not his outfits, and Bokuto is left with a collection of plates and hand and a feeling he can't place.
The weather shifts, heat rising from the pavement and brick and stone, melting spring into summer. Akaashi only dons coats during the summer showers, and sports a collection of long sleeved shirts instead. Bokuto usually forgets his raincoat until it's too late. They huddle together under Akaashi's umbrella, lightning in streaks of white and purple and blue in the darkness of clouds, neons in the sky to match the ones on the ground. Their shoes get soaked, their eyes get wide, and the thunder can't overshadow Akaashi's groans of impatience or Bokuto's loud declarations or their shared, private laughter.
Their contact isn't limited anymore - and it's nice, a gentle, bubbling nice in the middle of his chest - to text Akaashi a good morning, to say hi between practice sessions, to check in around dinner. In return, Bokuto gets the in-betweens, the transitional spaces, the not-thens and just-nows of Akaashi's own life. An unedited stream of thought against Akaashi's usually heavily controlled discussions, texts coming in whenever he finds something 'ridiculous' (and he uses the term near hourly, angrily, humorously, incredulously). The long classes he'll text through that are boring or easy, the ones he's silent for as he concentrates, the times when the library's too loud or not loud enough or when he's between practice sessions, too.
Kuroo tells Bokuto that he's been using the word 'ridiculous' a lot more lately. Bokuto tells him that's ridiculous.
"Take five!" Coach's voice echoes over the screech of shoes on the floor. Bokuto wipes the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He glances across the net at Kuroo, who's already turned towards the benches. He ducks under the net to follow him. Kuroo gets there first, and without looking over his shoulder, holds out Bokuto's water bottle. Bokuto takes it. Coach booms out behind them. "Masuda! Oikawa! You two come here."
"Someone's in trouble," Kuroo breathes. He straightens, one hand on his water bottle, the other hooked in the hem of his shorts. Bokuto takes a long drink before closing the bottle with his teeth.
"Coach isn't gonna stop practice to tell them off. He'd just do that during play," Bokuto replies. He shifts past Kuroo to put the water bottle down, trading it for a towel. He wipes his face again and rests it on the back of his neck. "Besides, they've both been playing alright."
"Oh?" Kuroo raises his eyebrow, but not his voice. Bokuto furrows his in return as Kuroo gestures back to the court with his water bottle. Oikawa and Masuda stand next to Coach, both their arms crossed. Coach speaks too low to hear, but his expression has a shadow to it. "Masuda messed that set near the end. Makes me think about what Train Guy said. You think he knows something we don't?"
"Akaashi. And I dunno man, I doubt it. I like Masuda. He's solid. He stays late to practice with me sometimes. Probably just having a bad day."
"If you say so," Kuroo replies, his tone saying he doesn't think so. Bokuto sticks out his tongue as he watches Masuda and Oikawa cross the court to stand side by side. Serve drills. The team, a rough line on the side of the gym, turns to watch. Masuda's face, long and taut, beads with sweat through his first three. Oikawa clicks his tongue as his second serve goes out. Coach, on the far side of the gym, tightens his grip on his crossed arms. Bokuto swallows, his throat dry. He reaches behind him for his water bottle.
"Kuroo," Ushijima's low voice cuts in from the side. Bokuto lets out a loud yelp, fingers fumbling the water bottle as it crashes to the floor. Kuroo, beside him, violently flinches back, nearly tumbling over the bench. He takes a deep breath as he clutches his chest as the bench rocks back and forth.
"You gotta stop sneaking up on me," Kuroo mutters. Bokuto picks the water bottle up and takes another drink. His throat doesn't feel better. "What's up Ushijima?"
"I'll meet you here tomorrow for our trip."
"Sounds good," Kuroo says. With a curt nod, Ushijima grabs a towel from the still rattling bench and turns his back. Kuroo gives a sigh, lowering his voice again for Bokuto. "You think Akaashi takes his blunt lessons from this guy?"
"Probably," Bokuto whispers back. Ushijima glances over at them, dark eyes glowering. They both look away, Kuroo whistling like the innocent child he never was, Bokuto studying his nails like he's never seen them before. It isn't until Ushijima shifts down the sidelines that either of them dares grin. "Man, though, have fun scouting clubs for Coach. I wish I could go. Don't pick out anyone good enough to replace me."
"Doubt I could. I'll-" and Kuroo pauses, eyes narrow. Bokuto follows his gaze, watching Masuda's final serve. It hits the net. Sweat now flows down his face. His breaths are short, uneven. Oikawa glances at him, ball spinning in his hands. Coach stands stone solid, the lines on his face etching deeper. The ball falls to the ground at the same speed that Bokuto's stomach drops. "Maybe I'll be looking at setters."
"You doing alright?" Akaashi's voice floats down, and Bokuto realizes he's been staring at the same ad for a solid minute. He blinks his eyes back up. Akaashi hovers over him on the train, head tilted, eyes wide. Lips pursed. "You haven't been as chatty today."
"Who, me? Nah, I'm good," Bokuto replies. He gives a grin and a wink, just to get Akaashi to huff out a sigh and look back out the window.
(He isn't quite sure he's feeling alright, and he knows Akaashi's right, and there's a crease in the back corner of his mind he can't smooth out, a bruise on his heart he can't place the origin of, that keeps him silent. Something is off, but not quite off, an extra car on the end of the train or a broken light at the station, just enough to be on edge but not enough to comment on. It's hard to keep from his eyes, but he can't explain it, so he doesn't say anything.)
"Long practice?" Akaashi guesses. This time, Bokuto nods. He yawns, to emphasize the practice and to close his eyes. He pushes the gesture, arms out high above his head, shirt stretching off his stomach. He flicks Akaashi in the nose before he drops his hands to his lap again. He opens his eyes just in time to catch Akaashi wrinkle his face. "I told you to stop that, Bokuto."
"Guess I forgot that little detail," Bokuto says, and he gives a small laugh. Akaashi bumps their knees together, the sign he knows Bokuto's lying but won't press it because it's too much work. Bokuto lets the silence stretch for another minute, eyes darting, before he clears his throat. "So, Akaashi, I just have a small question..."
"When you said Oikawa would take Masuda's place - wait, it was like two weeks ago, do you remember saying that? You did. Anyway, like, how did you know? Or come to think that? Just, you know, wondering, 'cause it's like, where do you draw from, or is it because you like Oikawa best, or-"
"Bokuto. You're rambling, but not like usual." Bokuto takes a deep breath as Akaashi leans forward. He puts his hand on Bokuto's forehead. His fingers are cool, gentle. Bokuto is too surprised to move. "Hm. It's not a fever..."
"Akaaaashiiii..." Bokuto shakes his shoulders and puffs his cheeks out, rising from the shock. "I'm not sick. I'm just a bit tired, alright?"
"If you start sneezing, take a day off." Akaashi draws his hand back, and Bokuto's forehead is colder without it. He flexes his fingers, his gaze drifting over Bokuto's head. His eyes gather the night of the sky as his shoulders straighten. "And to answer... it's the pressure. The pressure when you're on the court, when you're down two points, when you're up for the final serve. All eyes on you." Akaashi cracks his knuckles, one finger at a time. "The pressure is breaking Masuda. It won't break Oikawa."
(Akaashi is distant and dark, each breath gathering the air from the train until he's taken the shape, the form of the world. There is no moon in orbit, there is no Sun at the centre of the universe: there is only Akaashi. The pressure has not broken Akaashi Keiji, and from the distance in his eyes, the years on his shoulders, the great unknown haunt in his step, Bokuto knows it has tried its best to. But the very same pressure, he thinks, is what folds his mind, over and over, the endless loop of Masuda's ball hitting his hand, the the net, the floor.)
"And..." and Akaashi looks down, and he's just Akaashi, worry fighting its way into the creases of his forehead and corners of his lips, "rest up when you get home, alright? If you need something, or want to talk, just text me."
"Thanks, Akaashi. I will."
(He knows he won't.)
The pressure, the next day, has not left. It stems from the very walls of the gym, collapsing downwards, glacial slow, inescapable. Bokuto can see it, can feel it on the hairs of his arms, and despite his shivers and struggles, and all his strength, he cannot stop it.
Practice does not go well.
They run individual drills: with Kuroo and Ushijima away through the day and overnight, the line is too different for practice matches. Serves, blocks, sets and game plans and endurance drills. Laps. Check ups with the team doctor on breaks. Back onto the court, arms stretching, legs straining, sweat thick in the air.
The gauge of the pressure level is Masuda, lead setter, not actually-but-could-be vice captain. Pulled aside by Coach, the assistant coach, the real vice captain, and Oikawa, all within an hour. His serves are out, or too far in. His sets are crooked, awkward, over shooting and falling flat. He misses his times for runs. His arms shake as he holds a water bottle, a towel.
Bokuto looks away when takes his drugs. He rereads the memo Kuroo wrote on his phone, to calm down and think things through. He can, he knows he can. But not today. The thoughts he pushes are whispers against another missed set, against his own arm slamming into the net instead of a ball. Against Coach's low growl and hard-set face.
Against Masuda, thinking he's alone in the washroom, grabbing fistfuls of hair, sweat and not sweat streaking down his face into the running sink. Cold and warm, washed away under the pressure.
Bokuto tells himself it's not about him, that the failure isn't from him or for him or targeted at him, but each drum of the volleyball slams his chest, a blow bruising through muscle and bone. He rattles: the shaking spreading through his limbs, and it's hard to focus. Masuda misses. Bokuto misses. One, two. The nervousness spreads, disease like, through his body, until Coach ends practice. He does not take Bokuto aside. He does not look at Masuda.
The team filters out the doors, voices low, bags slung across shoulders. Masuda, without a look back, without staying for more, ghosts out into the world, as the gym collapses inwards. Bokuto watches, but cannot follow, cannot escape the walls, solidified and unbreakable. When he tries a serve, on his own, he can't quite throw the ball in the air at the right spot.
He doesn't know what else to do.
hi all! based on some feedback from friends, i've decided to upload the next bit as a 2 chapter update, so that the resolution comes right after the heavy stuff instead of having to wait an additional week (though i guess it starts here? sorry i tried). i'll include relevant warnings in the chapter as well.
this means that either:
-next week there will be two chapters, and then a week off as i recuperate from writing so much
-no chapter next week, followed by a double update
thanks for reading!
Chapter 10: Squall
thank you all for waiting, this took a while to get right! two part update (chapters 10 and 11), be sure to click through for them both!
warnings for this chapter: panic attacks, anxiety, references to self harm and self loathing, negative thoughts
Hours later. Practice past. Routine: taking down the net, sorting the volleyballs, packing his bag. Locking the gym. Deep breath on the doorstep.
Doesn't work. His brain itches.
Routine: five minutes, a half-walk, half-jog to the train station. His feet are too slow. His mind is too fast. He feels it coming, creeping through his brain, a fire lit under his skull. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Fingers twitching. Hands shaking? Are they twitching or shaking? Why can't he place it? He needs the answer, needs it. Can't find it.
Another feeling, deep from his gut, lead in his shoes, sand in his eyes. His gaze darts between the station lights. Hands are shaking - definitely shaking, not twitching, and he shoves them in his pockets to try and stop it. A car horn blares and he jumps, flinches, shoulders to ears, eyes tight closed. Deep breath.
Routine: it takes thirty minutes on the train, ten to walk home, and then he can have a panic attack. Alone. In the empty apartment. For an hour. And he's going to - it's there in the shaking and the panic and the blurry rim forming at the edge of his eyes, which might be tears or a trick of the light.
There's an iron clamp in his mind made of one phrase: not yet. That's all that matters. Not yet. It's only forty minutes of empty space, and then he's home free.
Oh, right. Akaashi.
The clamp goes down, hard (not yet not yet not yet) and Bokuto summons what he hopes is a charming smile. Arms locked at the elbows. Feet moving on automatic. Eyes looking to Akaashi, but mostly past Akaashi, willing the train to come earlier.
Words. Words are a thing he needs. He frees one hand from his pocket. Neck rub. Casual. Thoughtful. What face should he be making? Under the clamp his mind is full force scrambling, the nonsense panic in his brain a bubbling sound in his ears. Where's the word he needs?
"I'm... peachy!" Not the right word. Hand back in pocket. Laugh - very nervous. He hasn't been making eye contact. Time to change that. Wait, is this too much eye contact? Blink. Just blink. Put the iron clamp on tighter. "How are you?"
Akaashi doesn't reply. He gives a Look, and usually Bokuto knows what his Looks mean, but he draws a blank. Is Akaashi angry? He might be angry. He's never seen Akaashi angry, so if he can't place the expression, maybe it's anger. Maybe he shouldn't have asked how he was.
It's only twenty minutes on the train with Akaashi, but now Akaashi's angry and Bokuto's hands are seriously, seriously shaking so hard, how can no one see this? And-
The train's here.
"The train's here," he says. He doesn't wait for a reply. No looking back. The countdown starts now. Stiff movements, leg after leg, oh god, did a lawyer just look at him? The lawyer so looked at him. He slides into his seat. Bokuto can hear the mumbles, sounds that are not quite words, coming from the two of them. It's about him. He knows. He can't hear but he knows, he knows, and Akaashi's angry and the lawyers are gossiping and - oh. There are Akaashi's shoes. He guesses he's looking at the ground.
"Bokuto, are you alright?"
Bokuto doesn't reply. He moves his hands, pocket to lap. Folded. Like back in school, as a kid. The thought makes him laugh: again, nervous, shaking, high pitched. He realizes his one shoelace is untied. He doesn't know when. Or why.
Not yet not yet not yet not yetnotyetnot-
The train's moving. Thirty nine more minutes to go.
Bokuto makes his hand stay still, keeps his feet from tapping. He blinks back another round of blurriness (and this one is tears for sure). The train thumps over the rails, and he sees the volleyball against the net, against the ground. Thump. A rock forms hard in his throat and he can't swallow. Thump. Wait. That was Akaashi, but he didn't hear what Akaashi said, and when he looks up, Akaashi is done speaking.
Pale. Furrowed brows. Angry. Angry at him. Angry at him for failing the plays today. Angry at him for being here. Angry, angry, angry.
Routine: the first stop. The doors open.
Not routine: Akaashi sits down beside him.
An alarm sounds. Bokuto is sure it's from the train, but it's not from the train, and it's not in his ears. He can't place it. He can't find its source. Deep breath. It's in his head.
Akaashi's sitting beside him. Sitting. He's close. Their legs are bumping. Akaashi's eyes are dark and hard and his voice is low, and it's always low, Bokuto guesses, but now it's almost too low to hear.
"Bokuto, something is wrong. You're clearly upset. I won't force you to talk about it if you don't want to, but I know Kuroo's not here, so if there's anything you need... you can ask me instead."
The words rattle, loosen the clamp, and Bokuto struggles to maintain it. He speaks around the lump in his throat. He sounds wrong. "You're sitting."
"I'm worried about you."
Actual worry? He's seen Akaashi worry before, right? He doesn't remember. He doesn't remember much but the soreness in his guts, and is he feeling dizzy? Not yet. Routine: He checks his phone, puts it in his bag. He doesn't process the time.
Is Akaashi angry underneath the worry? Angry because he's worried? Bokuto can't pick: Akaashi said he didn't have to explain, but Akaashi's worried, so he should explain. Defuse the anger. Is his leg shaking now? Are the lawyers watching him again? Routine: a deep breath before speaking. He thinks about what he'd do if he were at home, with Kuroo.
"I'm going to have a panic attack the moment I get off this train," Bokuto says. He winces, regret flushing his cheeks. Stupid idea. Too blunt. Akaashi isn't Kuroo. Akaashi won't understand, under the worry and anger, and what was Bokuto thinking, when he shouldn't have said something-
"Okay," Akaashi says, expression unchanged, which Bokuto can't understand. Where's the reaction? Why isn't Akaashi angrier? "Would anything help you right now?"
Bokuto shrugs. The clamp's too tight. He has no thoughts. He has no ideas.
"Sorry, not a good question. Would talking to you help distract you?"
Headshake. Too hard to talk. Too hard to listen. The lump is in his throat and ears, the clamp in his mind. It takes all his attention.
"Am I okay to sit here?"
It doesn't matter - he shrugs again, but the shrug makes him glance at the lawyers, heads lowered. His back stiffens, the sirens sounding in his skull again. His leg shakes so loudly the rattling must near break the train. Akaashi follows his gaze. He stands up, and it's at an odd angle, but Bokuto can no longer see the lawyers - and the lawyers can no longer see him.
He thinks. He isn't sure.
He blinks. Tears again: the corners of his eyes prick and sting. He bites his lip and rests his head back against the seat. He thinks about how much force he'd need to slam his body though the glass window above him. His head hurts and his body hurts and god, god, he can't stop shaking. He clings to his lifeline (notyetnotyetnotyet) as he counts down the minutes a second at a time.
Routine: off the train at his stop. The empty station. The smudges of dirt and wear and tear. Routine: a shuddering breath.
"Where do you live?" Akaashi asks, at his elbow. He pulls out his phone.
The clamp relaxes, flexes, floods Bokuto's brain, the not yets fading, repeating into wait wait wait wait wait. "Akaashi?!"
The past ten minutes, rushing back. Akaashi, not getting off at his own stop. Akaashi, a wall between him and the lawyers. Akaashi, offering a tissue moments before they got off the train, so Bokuto could blow his nose. He puts it all together slow, sluggish. His forehead hurts.
"You can just text the address," Akaashi continues. "I'll get us there."
Bokuto has a million questions, a billion, an exponential spike, but he has to deal with Akaashi missing the final train home, and it's his fault, his fault for-
"Bokuto. I just want to see that you get home, safe and sound, alright? I'm not stranded here. I can call a cab. Let's get you home."
Bokuto texts the address. He wishes he had an autopilot system.
The walk home is confusing, the landmarks familiar, but unfamiliar. His mind hurts and the clamp hurts and he's tired of not yet, he wants it to be yet, he wants his slippers and a box of tissues and a blanket and to stop thinking. He freezes at the first intersection. What light means go? What if something goes wrong? What if-
"Look both ways, Bokuto," Akaashi's voice, a murmur in the still air. Akaashi looks both ways. Bokuto follows his lead. Left, right. Crosswalk stripes of black and white and black.
A noise, far off: a real siren, and Bokuto flinches, his throat closing, near middle of the road. That's it. He's not going to make it home. He's going to collapse, right here, and stop breathing and die and die and-
Routine: Bokuto is struck by the sudden realization he is probably already having a panic attack.
"Bokuto? I'm here. Can I touch your arm? Is that alright?"
Nod. It won't make a difference. Akaashi's hand is there and he feels it lock around his wrist and he wonders what the point is when he can't breathe or think or see. The clamp crumbles in his mind, rusted red iron, heaped on the road around his feet.
Akaashi says something, but he doesn't catch it, just the tone, and the tone is un-Akaashi like but he can't place why. It cuts through the wave of panic threatening to overwhelm him. Bokuto swallows for the first time in what feels like hours. He tries to focus. He looks at his wrist, at Akaashi's bony knuckles, white and tight.
"Can we get off the road, Bokuto? Please?"
Akaashi steps then, and Bokuto steps, slow and awkward. Akaashi's voice fills the air, but the words are lost. He follows Akaashi's feet, the sound of the voice, and blinks back the crumbling of the world around him. He can't breathe. His legs shake. Akaashi's hand slips down, or maybe Bokuto's moves up, and he crushes Akaashi's fingers under his own. Step, by step.
Routine: Bokuto can't find his keys. Not routine: Akaashi finds them for him. Not routine: Bokuto dumps his bag, kicks off his shoes, and sinks to the floor within seconds of getting inside. Not routine: the heaving, deep-chested wheezing when he can't catch his breath. The edges of red in his vision. His hands in his hair as his head rests on his knees. The deep, sickening feeling, between throwing up and gagging.
He tries to focus on the feelings of nails digging into his skull instead of the never-ending stream of thoughts within it.
(why are you so bad what are you going to do now what's your plan you'll never make it in the team you can't play any longer kuroo's not coming home you're not coming home the team will never take you back even masuda is better than a failure failure failure-)
Nails digging. Thoughts racing.
(you dragged akaashi out here you dragged yourself out here you had a panic attack in public and people saw and are thinking about you right now and laughing and you're not fit to be a professional athlete give up go home failure failure failure-)
Akaashi beside him: the presence highlights the absence, and Bokuto's not sure how long he's been on the floor without Akaashi. Minutes? Hours? He tries to push a question through (Where had Akaashi been) but it chokes him, a sob caught in his throat. With effort, he lifts his eyes, watery, blinking, weary, to search Akaashi's face for answers.
"You're safe here, Bokuto. Promise. I'm here."
It doesn't answer his question, but it answers another question he didn't know he had. If he was alone. He tries to think of what he'd ask Kuroo to do, and he squeezes, forces, the words out of his mouth.
"Can you just like, talk? About something?"
He talks about his family as Bokuto tries not to dry heave into his legs. His mother, a pediatrician, his father, a teacher. How he never got away faking being sick as a child. He talks about his program as Bokuto matches his breathing to the rhythm of Akaashi's voice. Kinesiology, the study of human form, and it's tough, but fun. If he can't play volleyball he's going to be a sports therapist, or both, maybe, anyway. He talks about volleyball as Bokuto starts to really listen, panic seeping into the ground instead of further in his bones. How they play as a team, their tall blocker, young but clever. How Akaashi doesn't know how he ended up vice captain - not in general, just as quickly as he did.
Bokuto takes a deep breath and turns his head.
Akaashi stops talking. He picks up a glass of water, from nowhere, and the box of tissues from the main room, no longer in the main room. It answers the question of where he's been before he was here. Bokuto takes the tissues first, his nose blowing obtuse and loud, but it clears his head a bit more. Then comes the glass of water, and it's cold, and Akaashi's hand is warm, and he holds both.
"Drink the whole thing," Akaashi says.
Bokuto takes the cup. He drinks the whole thing. With effort, he stands up.
Throbbing in his head and aching in his arms, his chest. He struggles, staggers, exhaustion a physical force pressing down against his shoulders. His eyes dart. The clock on the oven reads much later than he thought. The mess on the floor of his bag is larger than he remembers. He leans on the wall, legs threatening to buckle.
Not routine: Akaashi stands up beside him. Not routine: Akaashi takes his arm again and walks him down the hall. Not routine: Akaashi waits just outside the bedroom as Bokuto kicks off his socks and throws off his shirt and lies, face down, in his bed. There's a sharp pain in his eyes and salt digging into his cheeks. Weak, shallow gasps for breaths escape his lips. His thoughts slow, stop, an empty expanse of mindscape where ten minutes before there had been endless commotion.
The creak of the door as Akaashi opens it. Bokuto doesn't look up.
"I'm sorry," Bokuto says, the pillow muffling the words. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's alright. Just focus on recovering."
"Can you stay?"
The question surprises Bokuto, as he didn't think it, only spoke it, and he wonders what part of his mind it sprung from. He bites his lip, shakes his head, grinding skull into pillow. He groans, once, twice. He rolls his head to the side.
Akaashi seats himself beside the bed, a shuffle of movements Bokuto can only half see. His face is pale, eyes ringed dark and tired, the dark scar on his cheek carving his face hollow. But without complaint, or question, he leans his forehead against the side of the short bed frame.
And he stays.
Chapter 11: Bokuto Koutarou
thank you all for waiting, this took a while to get right! two part update (chapters 10 and 11), be sure to click through for them both!
warnings for this chapter: discussions of mental illness
"Bokuto, you need to wake up for lunch." Kuroo's voice carries at an odd lilt across the room. It jars Bokuto awake, his eyes opening, his face towards the wall. He groans. His face hurts, and it feels wet. He blinks. There's a damp cloth against the pillow, and he has no memory of it arriving there. His mind feels like muck, sluggish, only half rested after last night. A second groan escapes him. He hates anxiety.
"Ten minutes," Bokuto replies. His voice is hoarse, and he coughs. His blinks make his eyes sting. He must look terrible if he feels this gross.
"You said that twenty minutes ago. You'll probably want to change, or maybe shower. I'll get your lunch ready. We're both in the kitchen when you're done," Kuroo says, and Bokuto isn't sure if he's hearing wrong, but the voice sounds too low. Bokuto furrows his brow, unable to place the meaning of the words. He raises a hand in acknowledgement, then drops it heavily against the bed as he thinks. Why Kuroo doesn't just haul him out of bed like the last time he slept in after a panic attack? As if in reply, Kuroo clears his throat. "I hope you're feeling better. Even a little bit."
"Kuroo?" Bokuto sits up, twisting his head, but there's no one in the doorway. He pinches his nose, squeezes his eyes shut. He still feels off, but Kuroo's right: he needs to get out of bed and get back into routine. He grabs the damp cloth with one hand as he swings his legs off his bed.
Bokuto freezes, half way through his shower, hands rubbing shampoo into his hair. A low voice. Respectful distances. Mysteriously appearing damp washcloths by his face. No horsing around. The presence of a second person in his kitchen worth mentioning.
It wasn't Kuroo in his doorframe. It was Akaashi. That was Akaashi's voice.
He'd completely forgotten about Akaashi. Shit.
Bokuto sets a world record for fastest shower, rushing through the mist to dry himself off. He tries not to focus on his eyes in the mirror, still puffy and pink, the left bloodshot, despite Akaashi's attempt to ease it with the damp cloth overnight. Every other second as he darts around the washroom he has to blow his nose, and his one nostril is clogged so much it makes it hard to breathe.
His thoughts rush as quickly as his hands as he pulls on his shirt, his shorts: what had Akaashi done after Bokuto insisted he stay, then fell asleep? Why hadn't the alarm on his phone woken him up? For that matter, did he even know where the phone was? When had Kuroo gotten home? What about the day's practice? What if-
Deep breath. He won't panic a second time in twelve hours.
He slides through the hall, absently realizing he's left the fan running in the washroom, but he doesn't bother to turn around. It's three seconds before he's skidding to a stop in front of the table, where Kuroo slowly rises, eyes wide. It's one second before he steps forward and hugs Bokuto, close, tight, around the neck.
"I was gone for one day, you big dummy," Kuroo mutters. He pats Bokuto on the back, two claps, before drawing back at arm's length. His hands rest on Bokuto's shoulders. "How're you doing now?"
"My face feels like it's melting off," Bokuto replies. "Also I can't clear my nose? I might be dying."
"Sounds like you're feeling better." Kuroo's laugh is low and short. He pats both of Bokuto's shoulders, once, twice, before grabbing the shirt in his fists. Dark brown eyes meet his, glinting. "You had me worried. I came back first thing in the morning, called a cab as soon as I could. Ushijima was pretty cool about it. And then, I arrive here, and you're still asleep."
"Yeah... I uh. Seem to have misplaced my phone. That's where my alarm is," Bokuto says. His eyes dart over Kuroo's head, and then to the side, and he jumps. Akaashi's in the kitchen.
(And he isn't sure why he starts: he knows Akaashi's here, and he knows Akaashi went to the kitchen. He said so. Bokuto stares all the same. Akaashi, at the stove, folding egg over rice like he's done it a million times. Akaashi in the same clothes as yesterday: askew and ruffled and wrinkled. Akaashi with knotted curls and dark rimmed green eyes, pursed lips over a half wound scarf. His focus is complete, intense. Powerful. He doesn't look away from his task. Neither does Bokuto, not until Kuroo's voice jars him back to reality.)
"Oh. Akaashi has it. He took it from your bag to text me. He's probably still got it. He's a pretty resourceful kid, though he's lucky you don't lock your phone." Kuroo leans in, sliding one arm around Bokuto's shoulders. His breath is warm against Bokuto's cheek, and though it doesn't smell, Bokuto wrinkles his nose. Kuroo rolls his eyes. "Hey, I brushed my teeth. Look, Bo. Here's the serious deets. I already booked you an appointment to talk about everything with your doc. I told Coach we wouldn't be making it in. He was alright with it, so you don't have to worry about dealing with that or him being angry."
"You're a godsend, Kuroo," Bokuto breathes, and it's time for a second hug. He slides his arms under Kuroo's, pulling in close. His face goes right into Kuroo's shoulder. There's another slap on his back as Kuroo sighs into his hair. His voice is quiet, muffled, and he isn't sure Kuroo can even hear him. "Really, I mean it. I was a mess. Like-"
"Akaashi let me know a lot of the details," Kuroo mumbles. "You don't have to relive it right now. I do want to talk to you about it, so I can help you next time, but it'll wait. What you should do soon though is talk to Akaashi. And thank him a billion times."
"I will. I'm definitely apologizing first, though. I can't believe I-"
"Sorry to interrupt," Akaashi interjects. His voice is flat and very much not sorry, and the familiarity of the tone makes Kuroo snort and Bokuto grin. He peels himself away from Kuroo, just far enough to use his eyes again. There's a plate in Akaashi's hand that slides onto the table. Akaashi adjusts his scarf immediately afterwards, wrapping it more tightly around his neck. "Bokuto needs to eat something."
"That he does," Kuroo says. He gives one final firm pat before stepping back completely. The air is cold in his absence, but comfortable. Bokuto sits at the table, dragging the plate towards him. Kuroo sits across from him. Bokuto turns to say thank you, but Akaashi spins on his heel back to the kitchen. He doesn't look back. Bokuto lolls his head towards Kuroo, who grins as he props his elbow on the table to lean in close. "He's not angry, before you ask."
"Seems kinda angry," Bokuto mutters. He takes a bite of the omurice. It's delicious. He adds it to the list of things he needs to talk to Akaashi about, if he ever comes back out of the kitchen. Bokuto watches him start the dishes.
"I'll forgive you for not getting it because you're recovering, and generally suck with reading people, but he's not angry," Kuroo drums his fingers on the table, flicks his bangs out of his hair, eyes watching Akaashi in the kitchen. Bokuto follows his gaze, eyes narrowing, but his brain stalls out on an answer. He turns back. Kuroo shakes his head, a tired smile on his lips. "He's embarrassed, Bo."
"Akaashi!" Bokuto calls as Akaashi ducks out of the kitchen and around the corner into the hall. He can't see Akaashi stop, but he hears it, the feet stopping midstride, the shuffle of fabrics as he turns. Bokuto stands, glancing over his shoulder at Kuroo. When Kuroo flips him a thumbs up, Bokuto sets off down the hallway. Akaashi waits, stiff backed, shadowed in the dark hall. "Hey, mind if we talk?"
(Akaashi nods. He won't meet Bokuto's eyes. He shuffles on his feet, wrinkled shirt growing messier by the moment. His hands twitch at his sides. Bokuto almost reaches out to grab one, but holds back, keeping the foot of space between them unsullied.)
"I'm sorry," Bokuto says, the moment Akaashi mutters his own "Bokuto, I-"
(A pause. Of course.)
"You first," Akaashi says, still studying the floor. "Mine will take longer."
"Well, ah, it's just, I'm sorry for dragging you out here, and for worrying you a lot yesterday. I couldn't really tell at the time but I'm sure I freaked you out, especially stopping in the middle of a road like that!" Bokuto takes a breath. Akaashi nods. "And I know you had class this morning, so I'm sorry to make you skip it for me."
"I just wanted to be certain you were alright when you woke up, if Kuroo didn't make it in time." He rubs his toes into the floor, sock squeaking. "And it's not your fault. Anxiety's hard."
"Still! You didn't have to stay and I'm sorry for having this happen when you weren't prepared. Especially without making sure you were okay overnight! Did you sleep? You look like you didn't sleep."
"I slept a little," Akaashi says. Finally, he shifts his eyes upwards, and his expression is somewhere between amused and rueful. He shrugs. He fiddles with the end of his scarf. "Kuroo told me to stop texting him at three in the morning and go crash in his bed, so I managed some."
(Something goes off in Akaashi's brain from the flash of panic shooting vibrant through the green of his eyes, and he stiffens, his hand launching its way to his pocket. He pulls out Bokuto's phone, gentle, a precious gem in his hands. He buries his face deep into his scarf as soon as Bokuto picks it out of his hand, and though Bokuto doesn't mind, though he finds himself very willing to give Akaashi his phone, he doesn't press the matter any further. He just pockets the phone.)
"Well... thank you. For still staying despite the hassle, and coming with me without me asking you to, and keeping me calm, and the cloth, and texting Kuroo, and. Well. Basically everything you did last night." He shifts his weight on his feet, leaning down a bit, until Akaashi retracts himself from his scarf. Bokuto gives a small smile, tilts his head to the side. He has to resist giving a thumbs up, so he instead pats Akaashi's head. "Oh! And thanks for lunch! It was really good? I can't imagine being as competent as you are at eighteen. School, volleyball, looking after people, cooking..."
"Eighteen?" Akaashi, this time, tilts his head to the side. He squints, then shakes his head, his mouth parting, his usual 'What the hell' expression. It twists at the corners, first into a smirk, then a smile. Bokuto feels his eyebrows knot in confusion at the rapid cycle of expression. He still can't process them properly. "I'm sorry. I never clarified. I didn't think to. I'm in first year of university, you're right, but I'm not... I didn't exactly come straight from high school. I'm twenty one."
"...Oh," Bokuto replies. He searches for another word, phrase, anything. "Oh."
"I didn't start university until this year, and... most people already know that. And why. Because of. Well. What you don't know." Akaashi makes a sound half way between a sigh and a laugh, and shakes out his shoulders. "Sorry for inadvertently lying to you about my age for months. Though I suppose you can feel better about being less competent than I am if I'm just a year younger than you."
"You said it first, Bokuto."
"Well..." Bokuto can't press the point. Akaashi's right. He shakes his head, and the conversation is so like their regular ones, he feels himself smile. "Regardless of how old you are, thank you, Akaashi. Really. You saved my-"
"Bokuto, you don't have to keep thanking me. You're very welcome. That's what friends are for. I wasn't going to leave you alone when you were in crisis, especially if you were going home alone. I wanted to be sure you were safe." Akaashi grinds his toes into the floor again. His hands clench to fists, one at his side, one in his scarf. He bites his lip, takes a deep breath. "And..."
(Akaashi drops his head to take another breath. When he looks up, his eyes blaze with a bit of fear, with a bit of defiance, with the enormity of his past struggling over itself as he prepares to speak. Determination leaks from him. Bokuto is mesmerized, silenced, awed.)
"About... what I wanted to say earlier. It's... well, I know what it's like." His voice is lower, quieter, than a few seconds before. Bokuto leans down a few inches, but doesn't break eye contact. "Not the having anxiety part, exactly, but... I get panic attacks, too. It sucks and you always feel awful afterwards and being alone through it... well, it's hard."
"Akaashi, you don't-" Bokuto starts, but Akaashi's hand is there, raised, palm out, telling him to stop. Bokuto opens his mouth anyway. Akaashi uses his palm to give Bokuto's chest a small push. Bokuto clamps his mouth shut.
"The fact is... I've got mental health problems, too. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. It's why I don't like talking about... stuff. So having you not ask or pry, and having you steer conversations away from it if we got close... it's been really nice. I really appreciate it, even if you didn't know why, and I want to be as good a friend to you as you are to me, and do something like that in return, and I-"
(Akaashi stops, biting his lip again, finally breaking eye contact. Bokuto struggles to keep up with the revelation, his mind churning, slow and steady, as it processes the information. He watches Akaashi's shoulders stiffen, hunched up to his ears, and it has to be the shadows making his cheeks darker, even though it isn't the right kind of darker. Bokuto wants to touch Akaashi's shoulders or hair or hand or something to close the gap between them. He wants Akaashi to look at him again.)
"Sorry if that's a bit much to process, Bokuto, but I wanted to let you know, so you didn't think I was completely unprepared. I know what to do because I've done it before," Akaashi finishes. "And... I wanted you to know."
(Bokuto really wants to close the gap.)
"...Thank you, then, Akaashi, or, uh. Thank you for telling me." Bokuto says. He scratches the back of his neck. He takes a half step, and when Akaashi doesn't move away, he closes the gap completely. He moves a hand forward, hesitates, and pulls it back to his side. Akaashi flicks his eyes to the movement, but doesn't speak. "Look, there's one more thing... I hope you don't find it. Like. Weird to ask? But, it's like. It's... can I hug you? Are you okay with hugs? After that, and what you said, and yesterday, I just. I dunno. I could go for a hug."
(Silence, heavy and sudden, presses down on his shoulders. Akaashi's eyes, unreadable and blurred by the pause in the air, blink, but are otherwise unflinching as they turn on him. Bokuto worries, for a moment, for an eternity, that the answer was too obvious to deign answering. His heart hammers cracks into his ribs. Akaashi didn't really seem like a hugger, after all.
The reply comes, not with words, but with a spark in Akaashi's eyes that heralds a smile, a real smile, spreading across his face. It lights the hall, the air around them. He spreads his arms, and before they're even fully wide, Bokuto hugs him. Arms thrown around Akaashi's chest, head lowered into Akaashi's scarf, inch by inch, until the fabric covers his face and smile and the giddiness in his shaking arms. Akaashi hugs tightly - tighter than Bokuto, grabbing fistfuls of shirt like a lifeline. He listens, and feels, Akaashi's breaths, in and out, against his cheek and chest and heart, and he resolves not to move for as long as he's able to stay.)
Chapter 12: Spin of the Earth
It's always a little bit awkward after an off day.
The first thing he does on his day back is speak to Coach, in private, for twenty solid minutes. They sit behind the gym, the morning air warm, not yet hot. His hands twist together and emotions ring thick in his voice, but he makes it through without crying. Kuroo's preparations smooth over any of the parts Bokuto is unsure how to cover, or unable to give voice to.
Coach is stoic, but not harsh, eyes dark in the shadows, bright from the reassurances. His door is always open if Bokuto has any questions (and next time they should talk inside, where it's not quite so warm). If he needs time off to recover, or for any appointments, all Bokuto need do is mention it. Coach can't change his methods, but he will give time off, to anyone, for illness. Any illness.
This time, Bokuto does tear up, and he wipes his face on his shoulder until Coach tells him not to ruin his uniform. The smile carries in his voice and through Bokuto's choked blubbering.
They stand, together, heading towards the sounds of the team gathering and preparing for practice. Three feet away from the doors, the sights and sound vibrant, Coach leans in and tells him not to worry, not to fear. He's willing to make any accommodation he can for their ace.
The words swell, reverberate, in his chest, root his feet to the ground. It takes a moment to process (is it true? Does he mean it? Is he saying that to make him feel better or-)
Coach call him inside for practice.
The gym is brighter than usual, the lights gentle, shining. The air's thin enough for him to breathe, really breathe, deep from the top of his head to the depths of his chest. He takes in the mix of his teammates - and his eyes narrow on Masuda, a ball resting under his arm, as he talks to Oikawa. Coach whistles, and Oikawa heads to one side of the gym, Masuda to the other. Two lines running parallel, opposite.
Bokuto crosses to Masuda, reaching out with his hand and smile. Masuda's face is tired, worn, resigned. There's a calmness that wasn't there the last time Bokuto saw him. The stress has leeched out of him, as it has leeched from Bokuto. Hand meets hand, and Bokuto's grin spreads to his eyes, reflected in Masuda's. He promises to see Masuda on the court again, when he's ready. When they're both ready. Masuda's gaze is steady as he nods, his handshake forceful, as Ushijima calls out for the main lineup.
Bokuto stretches his arms over his head and walks towards his captain and their new starting setter, already running drills without him. He joins, easily, swiftly, finding his rhythm in the pounding of shoes, the heartbeat of the gym. There's a waver, in his mind, a pinch of anxiety, but the slaps on his back, the shouts in the air, after a perfect spike, after Oikawa's dump, drive it back to the depths.
Practice with Oikawa as their new setter is smooth, comfortable. His sets are quicker, the angles different, but Bokuto knows them. He's played with Oikawa before. They stand together after plays, discussing distance, timing, tricks. His serves are more powerful, and much more painful when they miss. The familiarity, Kuroo on his left, Ushijima on his right, eases him into the changes, with Oikawa across from him in the huddles.
Masuda joins in, on occasion, throughout the day, describing shortcuts to hand signals he's taught the lineup. Oikawa listens, intent, confident, and thanks Masuda with a genuine smile and a promise of nuts.
Two days later, Bokuto meets his doctor and gets a prescription change. He knows, as the new drugs settle, week over week, the anxiety will be even harder to find. In the meantime, the doctor reminds him to keep himself occupied, outside practice, to keep it at bay. Bokuto tracks the wheeling sun in the sky, the waxing and waning moon, the full bloom of flowers, the brilliance of summer, on his camera to pass the time. Quick images, bound to the phone in his pocket, little snippets to keep the breath flowing easily in his lungs.
Just out of frame, more and more often, is Akaashi. It's no longer just lunches with Kuroo and the train rides home, but little moments, hangouts, meetups. He walks to Nishi after Akaashi's classes and before his volleyball practice to grab a snack. Akaashi swings by on Bokuto's breaks, but never gets too close to their gym. They meet in small parks, strip malls, the street corner halfway between the two of them. The pictures Bokuto takes are filled with jokes, small complaints, Akaashi's dread at tomorrow's test, their latest spikes and serves.
Something small has shifted in Akaashi, as if the first big secret he's shared has bridged a gap Bokuto had been trying to cross without realizing. There's a little less fear, a little more security, in his expressions, his eyerolls, the sharp looks he give when Bokuto's too loud. There's a little extra smile in his hellos and goodbyes. Each photo, each moment, each tiny piece of trust Akaashi places in him makes Bokuto want another. And another.
"What are you looking for out there?" Akaashi asks. His scarf, thin and dark, hangs in loose loops around his neck. His curls fall as he speaks, framing the angle of his head, the tiredness in his eyes. Bokuto watches him in the reflection of the window. He kneels on the train seat, his arms braced to steady his phone as he aims it out the window. "We ride this train every day. Nothing's changed."
"It's impossible for there to be nothing new out there! Things change every day, duh," Bokuto replies. He shifts his arms a bit closer together. Akaashi rolls his eyes and shifts his feet. "Hey, can you stand still? Every time you move, your reflection gets in the way."
"Forgive me," Akaashi drones, but he does move to the side and out of the shot. "I still don't understand. I know you like taking photos, but it's pitch dark out there. And if we have to suddenly stop, you're going to be hurt, kneeling like that. Like you were yester-"
"That was the first time it's ever happened!"
"Kuroo told me you broke a finger like this in high school."
"Akaaashiiiii!! Don't bring that up! Man, I shouldn't have let him give you his number," Bokuto grumbles, his eyes narrowing, focusing on the screen. "Emergencies or no, all you two do is gossip about me. Which I don't mind, but you could at least gossip about the good stuff."
(He focuses back outside, the lights blurring, the train speeding, taking them far away from his words. Akaashi sighs, relents: his body shifts out of the window entirely and reappears, a tangible presence, just to Bokuto's left. His eyes, close and dark, are rimmed with curiosity not even snide remarks can contain. Bokuto shifts to let him see the screen, the focus, the few settings he can access.)
"So," Akaashi breathes, his voice close and quiet and low. Bokuto suppresses a shiver he can't place the origin of. "You didn't answer my question. What are you looking for?"
"For something special, Akaashi! For something to remember!" Akaashi gives him a look, but Bokuto can't catch it. His eyes are focused elsewhere.
The frame: a small, backlit screen, the outside rim white, worn with fingerprints, scratches, traces and stories in themselves.
The subject: the tiniest of breaks in the steel forest, the moment between heartbeats, the lull of transition. The smallest body of water, black with night, that Bokuto recognizes before he sees it. He knows by the turn of the train, the lights of the buildings, the signs of the graffiti, heralding the arrival of the lake. Tonight, the surface flickers: the beams of the moon on the furls of whitecaps, the strong winds fighting with the strong white light. Little patterns form as highlights, a once in a lifetime view.
Bokuto snaps the photo, on his phone, and in his mind. He exhales, slow and long: beside him, Akaashi does the same. They inhale the white, from the moon and the waves and the edges of the frame. Their next breath brings the walls, the darkness of the city, high rises cutting into the sky.
They emerge, together, on the other side of an experience, where the sight clings to their minds, the morning dew on a field of flowers, the moth drawn to the flame. The tiniest click of a camera that echoes in their ears, endlessly repeating, the soundtrack to the rare snippet only they will ever share.
"That's a beautiful shot." Akaashi's voice breaks the spell. Bokuto shakes himself out and twists in the seat. He sits properly, lowering the phone between them. Akaashi looks without touching. "You're very good at this, Bokuto. Would you send me it?"
"Of course!" Bokuto begins to flip through phone menus, attaching and sending the photo over. He catches Akaashi's eye, this time in the faint reflection off his phone screen as it darkens, and he feels himself grin. "Hey, Akaashi, wanna take another photo?"
"Do I..." Akaashi's expression fades to confusion, but only briefly. The sharpness comes to his eyes, the huff from his nose that Bokuto feels on his face. "I'm a mess, Bokuto. Can't you ever ask to take selfies before midnight?"
"I do! You just say no then, too." He gives a small elbow, and Akaashi leans back to get out of it. "If you really don't want to, I won't take one, but I think it'd be fun! Then we'd have two photos together. The lake one and this one!"
(He hopes, a private hope, that the trust he keeps getting extends to photos at midnight like it does to health secrets and phone numbers. The hope flickers when Akaashi frowns, doused by the crinkle of eyebrows. It sinks, hard and cold, in Bokuto's stomach. Bokuto opens his mouth to take his words back, because it's not that kind of trust, it's-)
"Just one. Make it count, Bokuto."
(It's a flare brighter than the whites on the water or in the sky.)
"Thanks, Akaashi!" Bokuto has the camera open in moments. He adjusts the angle as the train slows, a stop before Akaashi's. "Come a bit closer, I'll take it while we're stopped so it's not as blurry. I can only get a bit of you in if you sit so far!"
"You're so fussy, Bokuto," Akaashi mutters. He shifts, leg against leg, arm against arm, until he's leaning a bit closer to Bokuto. He takes a moment to adjust the scarf on his neck a bit tighter. He runs a hand through his hair to straighten his bangs.
"And I'm fussy?"
"I can get off at this stop and walk home, you know."
"Nah. You're too tired for that," Bokuto points out. Akaashi frowns: he doesn't have a comeback. The grin on Bokuto's face edges as wide as it can go, and he twists his wrist a little more to get the angle. "Are you going to smile, Akaashi?"
"Just take the photo, Bokuto."
(Bokuto does. It's not the best, not at clean as the previous. Station lights halo their heads, a blur of yellows behind them, a flare on the lens just between their heads. Bokuto's smile, a grin, large and sweeping. Akaashi's smile, small, barely a lift in the corner of his mouth. It's easier to see in the corners of his eyes, one shadowed to black, one bright green.)
"Terrible," Akaashi says, but it's not in his tone. There's a slant of red to his cheeks that isn't there in the photo.
(Bokuto wishes it was. It's a nice look.)
"Too bad! I'm keeping it, forever, the end," Bokuto grins, pulling the phone back just before Akaashi makes a quick grab for it. Akaashi's reflexes are faster, but Bokuto knows him well enough to have planned ahead, and tall enough to ensure Akaashi can't reach. Akaashi groans, but settles back in his seat as the train picks up speed again. "Good effort, Akaashi. I thought you were tired."
(Akaashi glares before he turns away. His shoulders go up, towards his ears, as he takes out his phone. The silence settles, easy, lighter than the summer humidity, lighter than the weight of the photo on Bokuto's phone, lighter than their arms and legs, touching, as neither moves apart.)
"It'll be pretty there, when fall arrives." Bokuto blinks and tilts his head. He looks down. Akaashi catches his eye, looking towards his own phone, where Bokuto's photo sits open, full screen, full brightness. "Would you want to go?"
"To the lake. In the fall. You could take another photo."
"Sure, Akaashi," Bokuto replies. "I'd love to go! I'll hold you to it! You know, there's this great knick knack place I went to there with Ushijima..."
(Akaashi shakes his head, but the smile is still in his eyes. Bokuto flips, from photo to photo to Akaashi as he talks, and finds all three make him smile.)
Chapter 13: Ace
The new drugs settle their way into blood and bone, bringing with them a mixed bag of highs and lows. Bokuto sees his doctors, Coach, Kuroo, as he needs to, but no amount of visits or talks can prevent the adjustments needed in his body.
His lows are deep, dark pits, claws and teeth. A missed spike at a critical moment in a friendly against South Korea. The sleepless nights, midnight to 3AM to six, hand over his face, around his phone, in his hair. A gnawing in his gut that makes it hard to eat. A shake in his hands that makes it hard to dress. Kuroo prodding him, elbow in his side, because he'll forget to take the drugs without the reminder, the memories slipping, sand through a sieve.
The highs start small: the tiny crests of the speed bumps in his life. The photos etched on his phone, carved and solid, even as he can't place the memory without them. The claps on his back when he manages a service ace. The short naps, only spanning the distance between the train station and Akaashi's stop, his head resting on Akaashi's shoulder and scarf, the sounds of Akaashi's fingers nimbly turning pages, the book coaxing out the sleep Bokuto cannot find anywhere else.
But the anxiety slips and falls away all the same, and hope and highs fill the gaps where it retreats. Joy springs up, unexpected, at Kuroo's perfection of his sunglasses trick, performed in front of Oikawa, to his jealousy. Listening to Akaashi brag, a rare phenomenon, about Nishi's victory over Chuo in both men's and women's volleyball. At the height of a spike, the furthest edge of his reach, the small, unknowable point where skin meets bone meets ball to create a miracle.
He scores consecutive services aces, consistently, through games against China and Australia. He's top scorer each practice match and friendly. His back stings with slaps, his ears ring with compliments, as the high burns away any dreg, any corner left of anxiety that the drugs may have missed. The feeling keeps rolling, boiling - persistent and pure, until there's no more lows, no more sleepless nights, no more fangs or claws digging into his sides.
By the end of the third week, he's Bokuto Koutarou, full glory, risen again.
"Hiro, Bokuto! Come here for a minute," Coach's voice booms across the gym. Vice Captain Hiro drops his duffle bag to the floor with a large thud. He cracks his knuckles over his head. He starts walking across the floor in measured strides. Bokuto, standing still, shoots a glance at Kuroo.
"Wait up for me?" Bokuto asks. Kuroo offers out his hand. Bokuto slides his duffle off his shoulder and lets Kuroo take it.
"Yeah, I'll wait. We have dinner plans with Train Guy tonight," Kuroo says, slinging the bag over his shoulder. He grins. Bokuto whines, high pitched, his knees buckling as his hands fly up.
"Kuroo! I told you not to-" Coach, on the other end of the gym, clears his throat. Loudly. Kuroo gives his shoulder a shove. Bokuto shrugs it off, shaking his head, trying not to smile. He follows Hiro's steps across the gym. They pick up the pace as Coach leads them towards his office. Bokuto drops his voice to a whisper as soon as they hit the hallway. "You have any idea what this is about, Hiro?"
"Hmm," Hiro replies. He taps his chin with a finger, his long eyes sliding over. He winks. "Yup. But I don't wanna spoil it."
"Come in, you two," Coach says. He pushes the door open and crosses behind his desk. He shifts some of the whiteboards, covered in plays, to the side. He props his hands under his chin. Bokuto takes a seat, perched on the edge. Hiro lounges backwards in his, nearly lying down, arms crossed behind his head. "Bokuto. I've no time to waste with preamble. I've been discussing with Hiro, Ushijima, and the assistant coach, and we've decided to shift some positions around."
"Um, okay?" Bokuto replies. He wrinkles his nose and tilts his head to the side. He taps a finger against his knee. "That, uh, sounds good to me?"
"He's talking about your position, Bokuto," Hiro mutters. Bokuto stiffens, jumping out of his chair a half inch. He has to bite his lip to prevent a shout. His eyes dart back and forth between Coach and Hiro.
"I'm giving you a promotion." Coach cuts in. "You've consistently been our ace player since the previous tournament, and you keep improving daily. We're hosting the Asian Olympic Qualifier in a month, and I want our team at its best. I'm putting you in the opposite position on first rotation, and making you vice captain. You're already the main force of our attacks. It's time we make it easier for you to play."
"Coach, sir?!" This time it's his head that darts between Coach and Hiro. His mouth hangs open. Hiro gives a short laugh, finally drawing himself up into a sitting position. He reaches across the gap to pat Bokuto's arm twice.
"I'm more than willing to let you have it, Bokuto. You're a great player, and the team already looks to you in tough situations to score. You might not be the best leader yet, but you're up there."
"I... but... what?" Bokuto stutters.
"I'll be telling the team on Monday," Coach continues, speaking over Bokuto's stammering. He unlaces his fingers to cross his arms on his chest. He puffs a short sigh. "But I wanted to make sure you knew ahead of time, in private, so it would give you time to... compose yourself. As you need to. For the actual announcement."
"...Oh! Oh, um, of course!" Bokuto takes the hint and clears his throat, composing himself. He squares his shoulders. He closes his eyes, stills his fingers. He thinks about all his and Kuroo's jokes about being professionals as they battle over the last slice of cake. After two deep breaths, he jumps from his chair, spinning on his heel to bow to Hiro. "Thank you! I'll do my best. Please take care of me."
"Congrats, Bo," Hiro replies. When Bokuto looks up, he gives a wink. "I look forward to working under you. And don't be afraid of Ushijima. He's not that bad."
"I won't let you down!" Bokuto turns, giving a much deeper bow, pulling back at the last second before he bashes his face into the desk. "Coach! Thank you!"
"You've earned it, Bokuto." When Bokuto straightens, Coach is smiling. He waves a hand. "You two can head out. I've already kept you late. Get some rest this weekend. We'll be training hard, very hard, the moment Monday arrives. And," he pauses, eyes darting between Hiro and Bokuto, "please don't tell anyone."
"There you are!" Kuroo straightens, inch by inch, from the steps where he'd been lying on the steps. He slides his sunglasses into his mess of bangs, pushing both on top of his head. He shifts Bokuto's duffle bag into a hand and offers it. "You sure kept me waiting. What'd Coach want?"
"I'm not supposed to tell anyone," Bokuto replies. He takes his bag, hands buzzing with energy. It takes two tries to slip it on over his head. He glances over his shoulder once. No one. He gives another glance to the side, then leans close to Kuroo's ear. "So, let's walk, quickly, away from here, so I can tell you without Coach and his sonar hearing picking up on it."
"Say no more!" Kuroo's eyes have a flash of dangerous delight in them. He tucks his hands into his pockets and starts his long-strided walk away from the gym. Bokuto follows, his grin edging wider and wider every step they take. At the first intersection they hit, he rubs his hands together. At the second, he glances around. At the third, half way to the train station, he knows it's safe to speak.
"Coach traded me and Hiro's positions. He's put me in opposite and made me vice captain. He's gonna announce it Monday, so don't-" The back slap, while not unexpected, is incredibly strong. Bokuto squawks, stumbling a bit on the curb. It takes three quick steps for him to catch himself again. He straightens and whips his head around. Kuroo's pleased, yet smug face hovers mere inches away. He slides his arm around Bokuto's shoulder, then his neck, then tugs Bokuto against his chest, his other hand slowly rising for a noogie. "Kuroo, don't you dare ruin my hair! I'll flip you on your ass!"
"But I'm just so proud of you!" Kuroo's voice is not quite mocking, not quite bubbling. The hand gets closer and Bokuto throws an arm around Kuroo's waist, his other hand grabbing the arm around his neck. He shifts his feet, strains his muscles. He lifts Kuroo half an foot off the ground, sideways into the air. Kuroo squawks. Bokuto puts him down. Kuroo pulls back both his hands at mach speed. "Hell, you're strong. I keep forgetting that. Bah. But seriously, Bo, congratulations. Three weeks ago you thought you were gonna be thrown off the team. Now look at you go. I remember back when you couldn't even hit straights back in high school..."
"And to think, you still can't hit them," Bokuto sighs. He gives Kuroo's chest a shove, but he's grinning, and Kuroo's grinning, and the only damage is Kuroo's shades slipping back down onto his nose. They start walking again, Kuroo in the lead, the train station just visible over the edges of his messy hair. "You won't be able to get away with this talk come Monday, you know!"
"I'll have to go back to my kind, loving ways, it seems," Kuroo replies. His hand pats Bokuto's shoulders absently. "But really, I'm proud of you. Let me know if you get too stressed out and I'll help back you up, okay?"
"You know I will, Kuroo." Bokuto falls into a comfortable pace, Kuroo one step ahead. The road tumbles before them, and the walk is steady, familiar. Bokuto starts to tap a pattern into his bag strap as he walks, Kuroo echoing it back at him as they approach the train station. When they enter the station, he stops, sliding his hands into his pockets. "It could be fun, I think. Being in charge. Talking to the refs. Calling plays."
"You'll have to use all your old man wisdom, that's for sure," Kuroo says. He purses his lips, a thought crossing his mind. Bokuto cocks his head to the side, but Kuroo shrugs. They start up the stairs, the rumbling of a train departing filling their air. On the last step, Kuroo stops. Bokuto slams his face into his motionless back, groaning. "Yknow, it just hit me. You walked me to the train station after practice. You never leave immediately after practice unless there's something we have to do. Did we make plans? Like a Mario Kart All Cup tour?"
"Did we...?" Bokuto crinkles his eyebrows, his eyes narrowing on the departing train. He steps up beside Kuroo, gazing at the platform, the benches, the- the lights. The pillars. The absence of the night, of a scarf clad figure in his usual spot. Bokuto freezes, his grin slipping, then crashing, off his face. He opens his mouth, but nothing comes. He clenches his teeth and hisses the word to life. "Akaashi."
"Ah, fuck," Kuroo mutters. He flicks the sunglasses over his face, one perfect movement. "I knew we forgot something."
Chapter 14: Aftermath
this chapter is very late (much like bokuto and kuroo are) because of who i am as a person... thank you all for sticking around and my apologies!
minor warnings this chapter to references to triggers, anxiety, flashbacks, but very vague overall
"You're late." Akaashi only speaks when Bokuto and Kuroo, heaving and breathless, skid to a stop before him. He sits under a tree on the campus. He doesn't look up from his book. Around his mouth and neck are the loops of red that Bokuto recognizes as the scarf he bought. The sight digs a pang into Bokuto's side, though it might also be a stitch from running. He doubles over. Akaashi flicks a page in his book.
"S...s... oh, god," Bokuto wheezes. He puts a hand on his side, squeezing his eyes shut. He can hear Kuroo chug the remainder of his water bottle behind him. It's another minute before he can straighten. "Sorry, Akaashi. We got sidetracked... with... stuff I can't mention... team stuff... and... wow, just, a sec, I can't breathe."
"You should have called or something if you were running behind," Akaashi's words are clipped. He still doesn't look up. Bokuto glances to Kuroo, who stands with his hands on his hips, chest rising and falling. He raises an eyebrow. Bokuto shifts his phone a little ways out of his pocket, checking the time, to be sure he was right. They were only twenty minutes late.
"Weeeell... yeah, you're right. We weren't really thinking about that, it didn't seem too late! Just wanted to make up for lost time. Sorry, 'Kaashi. Won't happen again! That's a guarantee." Bokuto flashes a charming, yet apologetic smile, which Akaashi does not even raise his head to look at. He fumbles his bag open, shoving the book inside. It crushes against a textbook, a water bottle, and the cover creases in half.
(It's only then Bokuto notices the tension spreading from the small dents in Akaashi's forehead to the long scar down his cheek. His cheeks too red, his lips too pale, for the afternoon sun. His long sleeves pulled down to cover his palms. The realization hits, a drop of water rolling down the back of Bokuto's neck, sudden, shocking, chilling to the bone.)
"Hey, hey, Akaashi... we really are sorry," Bokuto says. He shifts his bag and crouches down, looking up and under at Akaashi's face. It's blotchy across his nose. His eyes are narrow, his breathing short and quick. "I didn't think it was long enough to be a big deal... or I thought you'd go along with the joking. But... you don't seem regular annoyed. I can apologize again if you-"
"No." The word comes from gritted teeth. He stares at his bag. He lies his hands flat against his legs. They're stiff, the bones jutting out with the effort to keep them still.
"Okay! Well, we don't have to go to dinner, if you're not feeling it. We can take you home. Or, hey, if you're angry at us, I've got lots of suggestions for-"
"Bokuto, please not right now." Bokuto clamps his mouth shut. Akaashi's voice is lower, hoarser, and he swallows before speaking again. "You know what's wrong."
(Bokuto doesn't know, and he opens his mouth to ask what Akaashi means, but the words dry on his tongue. He's left parched, stunned. Akaashi has looked up, and he's not looking at him. He's looking at Kuroo.
The look is desperate - wide, watery eyes, searching Kuroo's face, full of the words Akaashi cannot give voice to. His hands surrender, clench into fists, nail biting into skin through the thin barrier of fabric he's tugged down as a last defense. Bokuto follows the look to Kuroo's face, already morphing from confusion, to understanding, to the dark grip of guilt that pierces his brown eyes.
Bokuto has no idea what's going on.)
"Fuck." It's closer to a sigh than a word. Kuroo's mouth opens to say more, and closes. He kneels, across from Akaashi, a few feet back. He reaches out an arm, hesitates over Akaashi's shoulder, then his head. He draws it back. "Hell, Akaashi... I should have... I do know. I wasn't thinking. I'm-"
"It's easy to forget."
"That's not an excuse. Don't worry about making me feel better, Akaashi. I'm sorry. This is all on me."
(Bokuto sees it then, in the shake of Akaashi's shoulders as he nods. The strain in his body. The pressure that cannot break him. The secret that loops in his hair, his words. The great unknown that Bokuto knows just enough about, finally dawning in his mind.
The past has come to haunt him.)
"Akaashi..." Bokuto breathes the name before he can stop himself, but Akaashi doesn't reply. He stares at the ground by his feet, taking deep breaths. Bokuto glances to Kuroo. He opens his mouth, but before he can mouth his question, Kuroo gives a sharp nod. Bokuto feels his side begin to hurt again, and he offers a quick thank you to his new medication for keeping at least the rest of him under control. He opens his bag and digs around until he finds his tissues. He offers it to Akaashi.
"Thank you." Akaashi grabs the tissue and twists it in his hands. He does not use it.
(A pause. Heavy. The air grows thick. Bokuto, as usual, is the one to break it.)
"Do you want to skip dinner?" Bokuto asks. A nod. Kuroo reaches out and lifts Akaashi's hand, lightly, fingers gracing around his wrist. Akaashi takes the hint and blows his nose. Sloppy. Messy.
"Do you want me to leave?" Kuroo asks. Headshake. Another nose blow, louder this time.
"We can take you home then, if you want. Get you on the train and help you get in," Bokuto murmurs. He pulls out another tissue, and Akaashi crushes the first in his fist before taking the second. His eyes are red rimmed, watery, and the strain not to cry is plain on his face.
"Just the train is fine. Just. In a minute. I don't wanna go out in... public. Like this. I'm sure you get it." His voice is nasally, and he ends it with a sniffle. His smirk is forced, and he drops it in a second with a sigh. He wipes his nose.
(Bokuto knows the forceful push, the struggle around the clamp, the persona. He knows it like the wind in the air, the sun on his face, the leaves falling, scattering around Akaashi as if they dare not disturb him. He thinks about brushing back Akaashi's bangs, or finding another tissue, or trying to hug him. He thinks about it as his fingers twitch, as Kuroo shifts, as the world slows around them.
But he doesn't do it.)
Instead, he says, "I get it."
It's not the last train, or the second last: it's an indiscriminant time, caught in the waves of the setting sun. The train is crowded, compared to midnight, but it's not packed, to Bokuto's relief. The faces of the strangers blur, but do not overwhelm. Their muttered speech and discussions and over-loud headphones provide a haze in the air, the atmosphere of a time Bokuto rarely experiences. He feels intrusive, out of place: but his curiosity is not above a quick photo to record the groups of people and the slanting red light.
He sits, though not in his usual seat, eyes darting low. If he looks too high, straightens too much, the sun bleaches his eyes. Spots dance around his vision already, from the last time he glanced to Kuroo's face.
The taller man stands before him, but doesn't effectively block the light. The haze acts as a thick pressure against Kuroo's shoulders. It keeps them loose, sagging, awkward, like holding an injury while still trying to hit a spike. Last Bokuto saw, the weight made the halo of warm colours around Kuroo's head seem dull. The reds did not quite catch in his hair.
He doesn't check to see if Kuroo's expression has changed. His eyes, instead, draw to the side. There, Akaashi rests, head angled, eyes closed. Akaashi, his breathing light, fingers laced, loose on his lap. Akaashi, pure exhaustion in his curls and scarf loops and damaged book and ripped sleeves.
Akaashi, drained, lips slightly parted, the sun fighting the shadows still deep-set in his face - asleep on Bokuto's shoulder.
"You sure he's asleep?" Kuroo asks. He keeps his voice low. He shifts on his feet. His fingers tuck into his pockets, then dart out again, drumming his thigh.
"As far as I can tell," Bokuto says. He shrugs, feeling all too late Akaashi's head shift in the movement. He stops, winces. They both stare. Akaashi doesn't move. His breaths are even and steady. "Gah. We should be good, if that didn't wake him."
"Good, 'cause I feel like a complete idiot, and it's killing me." Kuroo's bag slaps against his side as the train slows. Bokuto follows it with his eyes, then uses his free hand to stop it before it slams into his hip bone. "Thanks. Can't always do stop it and keep my balance. He's right though, Bo. I should've remembered."
"Is it like, a trigger? People being late? Or is it the lack of contact?"
"The not contacting him bit. Well, I mean, I didn't know it was a trigger, it's not he told me or it was in the stuff I read. But it's pretty obvious now, and I know why us being late and not saying would upset him." Bokuto risks a glance up, but the sun is still strong. He blinks rapidly, making Kuroo's dark face snort. Bokuto raises an eyebrow, tilts his head, his next question silent. He can't read the reply expression before he has to look down again. More sunspots line his vision. "You don't really want me to tell you why, Bo. I'm just sorry I didn't think of it. Like, I didn't even think about it, or him, once, and that's awful considering I spend most of my time remembering all your mental quirks."
"Well I'm not free of blame either, so don't beat yourself up like you're the only idiot," Bokuto mutters. He rubs the bridge of his nose. "I see him every day and I'm too excited about a promotion to remember dinner plans or to tell him we're late. Why didn't we text? That's a dick move, even without his past, whatever it is."
"He seriously needs better friends than us," Kuroo agrees. He whistles low, between his teeth, as the train starts again. He shifts his stance. "So... what do you suggest we do to make it up to him?"
"Huh?! You want me to come up with it?" Bokuto's exclamation is loud, too loud. A few passengers glance his way. Bokuto stares down at Akaashi, who, thankfully, remains blissfully unaware of his outburst. His thoughts race. He can barely handle being a pillow for twenty minutes, let alone choosing appropriate apology gifts.
"Well, sure. You know him better. He is your Train Guy. I'm gonna properly apologize next we see him, when he's calmer, but I'd like to get him something to make it up to him too. I'm not a complete asshole, you realize."
"Hm, I didn't realize," Bokuto replies. He rubs his chin, tilting his head as he considers the information as if it's new. He can tell Kuroo rolls his eyes without having to look, and he knows the knee smash is coming before it hits. Sadly, it doesn't make it hurt less. "Okay, okay, I'll help. He likes food."
"I don't think dinner's the solution to triggering him instead of taking him to dinner. Probably bad memories."
"Good call. This is why we're a team, Kuroo. He likes going to parks!"
"I'm looking for an apology presents, Bokuto, not date ideas."
"Hey, I'm trying here! He likes..." Bokuto trails off, glancing down. Akaashi's scarf has fallen askew, his nose a little wrinkled. His bag is a heap on the floor. Bokuto uses one foot to straighten it out, then turns to his own. The duffle strap has caught around his ankle, and as he lifts it, the idea flashes through his mind. He finds himself grinning, and he stares up, the sun blinding, but not stopping him. "He likes volleyball, Kuroo. And I've got a great idea on what we should do."
Chapter 15: Cordially Invited
"I am never practicing with you again," Kuroo groans. He sits on the ground, far back from the platform edge, bag between his legs. Bokuto stands beside him, craning his neck to watch the steps. Akaashi has yet to appear. "I know Coach said we'd be working harder starting today, but did that mean I had to work so late with you too?"
"We're here to meet Akaashi, and this is when Akaashi gets the train, so, yeah, you had to stay late," Bokuto replies. He shifts on his toes to try and get a higher look.
"Bo, you're like, already taller than everyone here but me. Stop fidgeting." Bokuto turns to him and sticks out his tongue. Kuroo raises an eyebrow. Bokuto turns back, but in the few seconds he's looked away, there has been no change. "Listen, I know why we're here so late, it's my apology. I meant I could've used the time for better things, like napping, while you and Masuda throw balls around for another three hours. My arms are sore. Couldn't we just have made Train Gu-"
"-y come earlier?"
"Nah. That'd tip him off something's different. I don't think he, like, generally accepts gifts, so we have to have full surprise on our side. To Akaashi, today is just another regular ol' day." He turns his head, and they share a secret grin, the kind only co-conspirators can have. Bokuto puts a hand in his sweater pocket. The envelope with the present is it sits, a light weight under his hand. "Are you sure you want me to give it to him though? It is your apology gift, mostly."
"Mhm. This is strategic planning, though. He might worm his way out of accepting it from me, 'cause as you said, he, ahem," Kuroo clears his throat and does his best Bokuto impression, which is terrible, "'doesn't like, generally accept gifts.' But there's no way he'd turn down something from you."
"Uh, and what led you to this conclusion, exactly? I'm the one who gave him something and found out." Bokuto frowns. Kuroo raises his eyebrows, as if the answer is obvious. It isn't. Bokuto frowns more intently. With a laugh under his breath and a headshake, Kuroo looks down the platform towards the two lawyers. He whistles. It's the least innocent expression Kuroo is in possession of, and Bokuto considers wiping it off his face with a well timed noogie. But he hears footsteps behind him. He whips back around and has two seconds to process Akaashi, on the top of the steps.
(Second one: he's flushed from running, his breath heaving, eyes wide, searching, seeking, settling on Bokuto's.
Second two: Akaashi smiles with recognition, glows, stepping under the white light on the platform. Bokuto becomes far too aware of his own unstoppable smile, his hands, a sudden pounding in his chest.)
"Hey Akaashi!" Akaashi doesn't reply. He smothers his smile with a lowering of his eyebrows. He crosses the distance between them with long strides, elbows locked at his side. Bokuto feels his own smile falter with every step, a shadow passing across Akaashi's face where no shadow should form. Had he already figured out the present? Did he have some instinctive present-sensing sense? Bokuto takes a step back, but Akaashi closes in all the same. "Akaa-"
"You didn't tell me!" Akaashi's shove is not hard, palm colliding with Bokuto's shoulder. Intentionally controlled for how strong they both are. This close, the anger on his face is clearly forced. "You made opposite and vice captain?! You could have texted me when it was announced! I found out during practice today from Lev!"
"Haha, you're in shit," Kuroo snorts. Bokuto shrugs the duffle bag off his arm and dumps it on Kuroo. It lands with a thump and Kuroo's groan. Akaashi's expression is tugging back into a smile, inch by inch.
(It warms Bokuto's face, stuns him into place, and he stands, transfixed, immovable. Akaashi has no such restrictions to his movement, and he reaches, stretches out, and Bokuto knows he should react, but can't.
The hug is brief: Akaashi stretching on his toes, the soft fabric of the scarf brushing Bokuto's cheek. Arms tight around his neck, breath hot on his ear. A small laugh. Bokuto's arms are stiff at his sides, in his pockets, the after image of Akaashi's smile still burning before his eyes. And then Akaashi's pulling, drawing back, arms loosening around his neck, but not pulled back. The few inches of space between their faces is full of something Bokuto can't place.)
"Congratulations," Akaashi says, cheeks still flushed, his smile hitting his eyes. "You deserve it."
(The spell breaks. Bokuto finds his grin, finds his hands, and the movement bubbles out of him at once. A shift of his feet, arms sliding under Akaashi's, and he lifts. Akaashi's eyes flash in confusion as his feet dangle in the air, so Bokuto only gives him a half spin as he laughs before depositing him safely between himself and the tracks. He keeps the gap small, the bubbling feeling not letting him back away from Akaashi even as the hug ends, even as Akaashi hides his face in his scarf.)
"Aww, Akaashi! I wish I had! I couldn't tell you earlier, 'cause was a secret, and I mean I told Kuroo? But he's on the team and I can't have press leaks, not that I think you would! But just in case. And I had to wait for the announcement, but I didn't know when it'd go, 'cause Coach had us doing flying falls when our reporter came to say the story was live, and then we ran matches after, and it was hectic! " Bokuto rambles. He takes a deep breath. He crosses his arms on his chest, leaning back a bit, looking down at Akaashi with his new, practiced in the mirror all weekend 'Vice-Captain-y' look. "But you think I deserve it? Were you expecting this? I bet you were, you're so smart about this things? I was kinda surprised, but I've been working hard and now you can see me do really cool things, like argue with refs, or make plays, and I get to drive the team! Or..." Another deep breath. "Maaaaaybe the congratulations means, dare I say? That I'm your favou-"
"No, Bokuto, you're not suddenly my favourite because you got a promotion." The interjection is not unexpected after he'd been talking so loudly and quickly, nor is Akaashi's exasperated eye roll, but Bokuto still whines. He reaches out, making grabbing hands at Akaashi, who finally steps back as he swats the hands away. "How do you hold all that air in? I forgot how much of a chore it was complimenting you."
"It's a dangerous road, inflating his ego. You have to find the perfect middle ground of sincere compliment and a polite rejection of his immediate overreaction." Kuroo stands, hitting Bokuto in the back with his bag. Bokuto sniffles dramatically, pretends to wipe his eyes, and takes the bag back. Kuroo fixes him with a look. "But I think there's something else we need to talk about, before you forget?"
"Is there? Oh, oh! Right!" He spins around to face Akaashi, the bag slamming into his side, making him wince. "Look, I know you won't want to talk about it, but on Friday-"
(Akaashi's face darkens.)
"-we really messed up, and you've done a lot for me, and Kuroo's a good guy and feels terrible about it-"
"It's true. I am sorry, Akaashi." Kuroo takes a step to the side, hovering beside Bokuto, shoulder to shoulder. "What happened then, well, it was stupid of me, and I have no excuses. I know how much it must have hurt, especially when you know I know better. I won't do it again."
"It's fine. You already apologized." Akaashi scuffs his foot against the ground. His eyes dart around, his hands twisting on themselves.
"We won't talk about it further, but, we did genuinely want to apologize, and with the extra training we won't have time for so many hangouts, so consider this a gift for both occasions." He pulls the envelope out, hands it forwards. Akaashi cocks his head to the side, draws his head out of his scarf. He takes the paper and shoots them both a confused look. Bokuto slides his empty hand beside him in a fist. Kuroo pounds it. They wear the same, secret smile again. Mission success.
"What's with you two? I don't need a gift, I know you won't do it again. It's unnecessary." Akaashi mutters. His hands fumble the envelope open, long fingers ripping through the side, even though Bokuto hadn't sealed the glue on top to make it easier to open. He shuffles the small paper out into his hand. He studies it, eyes narrow, and as the comprehension hits his face, they fly wide. Kuroo leans an arm on Bokuto's shoulders, and Bokuto straightens, arms crossed again with his Vice Captain gaze, as Akaashi's eyes dart between them. "You-"
"The ticket's good for all the matches in the qualifier on the final day, including the, you know, final one," Kuroo supplies. He gestures with his hand, vague, twirling. "It's on a Saturday, so you should be able to come, yeah? Bo wanted to get you ones all week, but I figured you couldn't skip that many practices and that much school, so this was our best bet. The gym's not far from a train station, and no, it's not at our practice gym. S'too small, audience wise. I can flip you directions closer to the date if you're worried."
"That's not it!" Akaashi huffs. His cheeks puff out for a second before he controls his expression. "This is too much! It's not that big of a deal, and I told you, I don't need-"
"Akaashi, it is a big deal, to us. We hurt you, and that's not okay. And we wanna say sorry with more than words. So just accept the ticket and come watch us play." Bokuto grins, tilts his chin back, squares himself, the same way he does before a match. "There's no way we're not gonna be in the finals. We've got one of the best teams in Asia. And we want you to come watch a real, proper, National level game, especially the one that gets us into the Olympics."
(The blare of a horn interrupts, and all three of them flinch. The train comes, rushing, racing, along the tracks just behind Akaashi. He grips the ticket, the envelope, both pressed against his chest. The train whips the air around him, his curls and scarf flying, the yellow light of the train cars a frame around his still figure, a sharp highlight of his figure against the background of the world.
He meets Bokuto's eyes, and Bokuto stares, that same way he always does and can never stop. Akaashi's gaze has something to it: dark but not shadowed, wanting, but not acting. That something is reflected in the tension of his shoulders, the white knuckles gripping the white paper envelope, the just parted lips above the fluttering of his scarf where the words won't quite escape. Bokuto can't quite place the look: it's familiar, but unknown. His fingers itch for his phone, for the camera, and he tries to control it, tries to study the face, the body, the stillness in Akaashi against the movement of the train. The expression makes him look not quite surprised, but off guard. Open. It makes him look...)
"Thank you." Akaashi's voice barely carries to them. Curls settling, wind dying down, the train slowing to a crawl behind him. The yellow light hits the corners of his eyes. A smile peeking out as the doors open behind him.
Chapter 16: Absence and Presence
The days divide into three distinct categories in Bokuto's mind as the month spreads, a way to keep himself steady. A new routine to lock himself into: home, practice, and Akaashi.
Home. The last stop at the end of the day, the place he awakens each morning. The familiar mess of shoes in the doorway, dirty clothes in the hall, piling up around the long days and nights he and Kuroo can't make it back in time for laundry. The kitchen, untidy but clean, dishes used and reused for breakfast and midnight snacks and packed lunches. Hoodies thrown on the couch that he and Kuroo take and wear at will, neither of them quite sure who owns which anymore.
The days end late and start early. The city, never dark, glows around them at midnight, at two, at six in the morning. Yellow lights through the drawn curtains as they rest weary muscles with a glass of water and late night television. The pinks and oranges of sunrise, peeking around the doorframe as Bokuto struggles to lace his shoes and eat at the same time. The hum of the outside, the endless sprawl, dimmed for a moment by the safety of the walls. The hugeness, the daunting horizon, filtered through the smattering of pictures pinned to the walls, the deflated volleyballs stuffed into corners, the game controllers littering the floor.
It's a comfort to come back to, and a comfort to leave.
Practice. Starting the moment he enters the gym, shoes squeaking, taking his first breath of filtered air. The familiarity of the stretches, performed in sync. The huddles around white boards, shoulders touching, air hot between them. The jumps and leaps into the air as Bokuto runs through serves and spikes. Inside, floaters, bouncing up into the rafters. The force stinging his hand, the tingling sensation never quite fading, never quite sharp enough for him to want to stop. Chest heaving, in time with his heartbeat, in time with the team, in drills and breaks and between shouts and laughter.
Bokuto learns the others' styles as he never had to before - not just how to adjust his play to theirs, but following the patterns, start to finish, how they weave together in a match, and then teaching the others about them. Meetings upon meetings in Coach's small office, Ushijima at his side, as they discuss performances, tactics, morale. Calling his own breaks to correct arm positions or timing during plays. Slapping backs, congratulating, knowing now that more eyes are on him, both in the gym and out in the world. He keeps his chin high and his spirits higher. He feels the team lifting, soaring, around his words and gestures.
The drills, shouts, sore muscles and sweat stained floors stretch and stretch, as the sun tints the windows from white to orange to red to navy blue. The white overhead lights grow sharper as the outside grows dimmer. Practice ends, formally, but many stay. Groups of people ebb and flow with Bokuto's late practices, a tide shifting with the phases of the moon: Kuroo comes, more often than not. Masuda shows at first, and then less, and less, an absence in the atmosphere. Oikawa, sometimes, hardly enough, bringing with other members. Most days, there's no pattern, no routine, to follow at all after the sun sets.
Except the time he has to leave to catch the last train.
Akaashi. Around practice and Akaashi's studies, the only time they have together now is the same time they started with: the train ride home. The white light Akaashi stands under, the creased spines of books he snaps shut when he catches Bokuto's loud laughs and lumbering footsteps. The teasing, the jokes, the day in reviews, the old, the familiar, come again. Harsh looks from the lawyers, muffled conversations drifting in the air from the variety store woman on her phone, the absent look of the university student Akaashi says he relates to more and more as the year goes by.
But it's not quite as old, not quite as familiar, as Bokuto hoped. Something in the air at the station has shifted, and, at first, he can't place what it is. It nags at him, as the train travels, day after day, an itch under his skin, a shift in his legs. He takes more selfies, more photos, more memories, but it doesn't soothe him like he wants it to. The feeling forms as an ache, beneath his ribs, a space he'd never identified before now. It strikes, sharpest, when Akaashi waves his hand as the train doors close, staring until the speeding of the train breaks their eye contact, forces the miles between them.
After meeting for lunch and dinner, after spending days texting about matches and weird outfits and animals, after seeing Akaashi in the sun, the twenty minute train ride is not enough. That the captured smiles and laughs and moments, however precious, aren't enough.
Boktuo finds the underlying current, the thread that connects the routine, day to day, isn't the excitement of getting one step closer to the Olympics, isn't the nervousness of leading the team, isn't the tiredness settling permanently into his bones. It's how much he misses Akaashi.
"How do you do it, Kuroo?" Bokuto asks, face down on the couch. Kuroo sits on his legs, munching through his second bowl of cereal since Bokuto got home. The TV is on low volume, playing ten year old game shows both of them have seen before. Bokuto's breath is hot, and he keeps thinking of moving, but his arms are sore from drills. Kuroo taps something against Bokuto's back. Bokuto hopes it's not his spoon.
"Well, often I just wake up like this, but sometimes I blow dry my hair to get this effect," he says. He taps the spoon against the edge of the bowl, metal on cheap plastic. He shifts his bony butt to get more comfortable, or maybe just to bother Bokuto. "The face I was just born with. That help?"
"Nah, I know all that already. You mention it like twice a day, and I gotta look at that mug daily." This time Bokuto does shift, twisting just enough to flash a grin, but not enough to send Kuroo and his cereal toppling off his legs. They'd only just cleaned the couch. "I meant like... we're best friends, right?"
"But Kenma's also your best friend, right? Like, you grew up together. We have pictures of his cats in our apartment. You buy him gifts all the time. You used to spend every waking moment together until you moved out here with me for the National team. Don't you... I dunno, miss him? When you're busy like this? You never bring it up."
"Ohoho, that's what you're getting at," Kuroo laughs, half a whisper, half a sigh. He lifts himself up, allowing Bokuto to retract his legs, roll over, and sit up. Kuroo chugs the remnants of his cereal and places it on the floor next to a pair of sweatpants. "First of all, you suck at being subtle. Next time just open with, 'Oh, Wise One Kuroo, I miss Train Guy and I bow to your superior relationship management. Teach me your ways.' Much quicker."
"I don't sound like that!" Bokuto squawks. "And wise?! You poured orange juice on your first bowl of-"
"Enough chat." Kuroo waves his hand, looking a little sick at the memory of his orange juice cereal. He takes a deep breath and runs a hand through his hair. "First of all, of course I miss him. Why do all you people think I'm so mean, when I'm the portrait of piety? The difference between us is that instead of lying face down on a couch whining about it, I actually take time to work things out."
"But like, how? You can't go see him. We don't have any breaks 'til after the tournament. And you spend almost as much of your waking life practicing like I do." Bokuto picks at his toes, tucking his knees up to his chest, pressing them into the ache under his ribs. "Do you like, brain meld at night?"
"...No, Bokuto. We don't brain meld at night." Kuroo wrinkles his entire face in the same way he had eating the orange juice cereal, but he holds his gaze steady. "I just... make time? I go to bed late half the week so I can stay up and watch him stream video games. I spend my meal breaks texting him. I go into alleys walking home to take photos of stray cats to send him. It's not a lot, and it's exhausting, but I just, y'know, try and keep in contact until we can hang again."
"Yeah, I guess, but like, we still text and I see him every day, but it... gah, I dunno, Kuroo. It's weird? I like, don't know how to fix this. Here." He makes a vague gesture at his chest before he slumps his face down against his knees. His arms drop to his sides. He lets out a low whine. It's incredibly uncomfortable. Something sharp digs into his back, stuck into the couch. "Volleyball is so much easier than this."
"Geez, I gotta do everything in this house, don't I?" Kuroo sighs, as if he didn't nap as Bokuto did the laundry for the first time in a week and a half. There's a shift on the couch, a pattering of Kuroo's large feet around the room, and, when he returns, he puts something heavy on Bokuto's head, settling it between the hair spikes where it balances. Bokuto whips his head up as soon as it's settled and the object falls, crashing corner first into his knee. He yelps. It's his phone, thankfully undamaged.
"Thanks?" Bokuto says. He picks it up by one corner. "It was charging, though, so why did you unplug-"
"Go to your room, right now, and go email or IM Akaashi and tell him you miss him and wanna hang out on your week off after the qualifier." Kuroo crosses his arms on his chest and shakes his head. His feet are deep in the discarded sweat pant folds. All his weight is on his left leg, his right still sore from a fall at practice yesterday. "I want one less thing to hear you moping about. You're basically holding this team together, and you dying inside won't help us win. So get outta here and fix it."
"Scoot!" He takes his hands and pulls Bokuto off the couch. Bokuto, surprised, crashes into Kuroo's sore leg, and they topple, together, on the floor. Bokuto tries desperately to keep his phone from harm. Kuroo shouts about his leg. One of them lands on the remote, and the TV blares behind them, until it's drowned out by the start of Bokuto's laughter.
Akaashi's first reply is to tell Bokuto he's ridiculous and it's far too late to be up messaging. His second is to ask if, after the tournament, Bokuto wants to go to the lake together. The speed of the responses makes Bokuto's chest hurt, a little less, for the first time since the month began.
It hurts a lot less when he says yes.
Chapter 17: Driven
i meant to post this earlier but it's been such a hectic month for me... hopefully i can write more in nov!!
"Akaashi!" Bokuto waves, jogging towards the stairs. Akaashi pauses, book in hand, on the first step. He looks around, eyebrows furrowed. Bokuto waves a bit more wildly. Recognition flashes across his face and Akaashi tucks the book into his bag. Bokuto takes a few large steps to close the distance and they start up the stairs together. "What was that look? You know what I sound like."
"I couldn't see you," Akaashi replies without even a moment's hesitation. He shifts his bag on his shoulder, the strap caught on his scarf, but he's unable to detangle them. He grunts and stuffs his hands into his pockets. "You were in the shadow of a building, behind an overhead light. I don't have night vision, Bokuto. And you're a little early."
"Coach told me to go home early, so I came like, ten minutes ahead of time. Still counts?" At the top of the steps he reaches over: one hand to lift the strap of the bag, the other carefully tugging Akaashi's scarf clear. Akaashi thanks him with a nod and a look. "I know that's not really early, but! I'm just!! Oooohhh... you know what tomorrow is, right?"
"Hmm..." Akaashi taps his chin, staring off into the distance.
"Akaaasahiii!! Did you forge-"
"I know what tomorrow is, Bokuto. It's been the topic of conversation with everyone I know for the past month." Akaashi's voice is still dry, but the corners of his mouth tug up in his usual small smirk. He slides his gaze back to Bokuto's. "Let me guess: you're excited?"
"And nervous! You forgot nervous. I've been saying that for the past month, you gotta remember it properly!" Bokuto punctuates his comment with a small round of elbowing. Akaashi rolls his eyes as the first one lands, but before the second lands he takes a step to the side. Bokuto staggers. He yells, arms waving in the air to steady himself, before he catches himself. He frowns. Akaashi returns the expression mockingly.
(Bokuto's laugh bubbles right out of his chest, bringing with it the familiar, sharp ache. It sounds different than his usual one, but if Akaashi notices, he doesn't say. He does smile, and Bokuto's warm and excited and nervous all over again.)
"I won't see you 'til the end of the week," Bokuto continues, stretching his hands over his head, "but I'll see you at the finals! You have your ticket, right? And Kuroo gave you directions? Is there anything else you need? I'll send you a picture of my hotel room, they're usually so fancy for these things, I love sharing, and-"
"I'm fine, Bokuto. Calm down before you run out of breath. If you want to help, there is one thing I've thought of you could do." Bokuto cocks his head to the side. Akaashi reaches into his bag, fumbling around for a moment, before drawing his hand out. His phone. He unlocks it with a swipe and holds the screen outwards. A smile tugs at his mouth, even as he tries to hold it straight. "Can I have your number?"
(Bokuto blinks, and blinks again, until the memory rushes back, hot in his mind, flush in his cheeks. It brings a groan from the pit of his gut, heavy with the last tournament and his own forgetfulness, but the sound is cut by a laugh - short, contained, genuine. Akaashi. Bokuto stares, unblinking, at the way the smile lights Akaashi's face, the way he tries to stop laughing, only to start again, the way his fingers curl around his phone as he draws it back in a fluid motion. The way he ducks his face into his scarf, not realizing the smile is in his eyes as much as on his lips.
Bokuto presses a hand on his chest and wonders what the expression would look like in the sun.)
"Stop staring, Bokuto. The train's here." Akaashi mutters the words into his scarf as he turns. He starts crossing the platform as the train doors open wide. Bokuto stares, unmoving. It takes Akaashi turning back and raising an eyebrow for Bokuto to find himself. He drops his hand from his chest and scrambles after him, feet pounding, pressing down another exasperated yell as the doors ding. He feels the whoosh of the air behind him as the doors close, a hairs breath behind him. Akaashi smirks.
(Bokuto doesn't quite manage to stop staring.)
The first thing Bokuto does in the hotel room is wrestle Kuroo for the comfier bed. The second is send Akaashi a picture of the room. The third is checking out the rest of the teams.
The hotel is a swarm of bodies, in the halls, in the lobby, on the grounds. The space fills - not just with people and equipment, but with sounds and smells and sights. Bokuto watches from the central staircase as teams arrive - the South Koreans, joking and snapping photos, lounging in the hallways without having unpacked. The Indian team, heavy with bags, hovering on the entranceway and staring out the windows. China and Australia, arriving together, thick accents joking and laughing and crowding around their coaches as they all try to check in.
The powerful Iranian team, coming down the stairs behind him, backs straight, voices low. Bokuto has to keep the shiver from his shoulders as the air drops in temperature around them. The crowds part as they float down the stairs, eyes of every nation drawn in by the flow, the shift in pressure. A thick cloth mutes the hotel, the very air, until one snaps the silence with a loud high five with a member of the Indian team. The bubble bursts, ears pop, and the sound returns, a wave rippling from lobby to the highest room.
The day is long, with meals and meetings and final preparations. Coach stands before them, hour after hour, voice never wavering, from telling them to pay attention, to covering the bill, to sending them to bed. The sun sets, the hallways grow dark and shadowed, and as the light drains so do the sounds, the absent bodies, the smell of sweat and food.
Bokuto slips out of his room as soon as Kuroo steps in to the shower, knocking on his teammates' doors for one final pep talk. The rooms mirror his own - their assortments of uniforms and suitcases and pillows strewn across the room are all unique, but somehow, all the same. After the third room, a door creaks open behind him. Ushijima steps into the hallway, room yet unvisited. Their eyes meet, Ushijima's dark and distant, searching, sharp.
He steps back inside his room without saying a word. Bokuto watches the closed door for a long moment, stretching longer and longer, but his mind can't place the gesture, the meaning. He turns to knock on another door.
Game One: China.
Oikawa's sets start quick and get faster, soaring across the floor, tight into the net. Yoshida and Kuroo, dodging fakeouts, block straight to the ground. Their advantage is in height, and they use it. China's spikers can't shoot higher. Their blockers can't reach Ushijima's long arms and high jumps, Hiro's smart feints and float serves. They don't count on Nishinoya's never ending pursuit of the ball. Their serve faults are plenty - and Japan's are few.
Bokuto slams two balls into the rafters off blocks, the cheers of the crowd lifting his spirits even higher than that. Hiro slaps his back so hard he stumbles into the net, yelling, bringing a snort from Kuroo and a sigh from Coach. They take the game 3-0.
The night he spends playing cards on Oikawa's bed, betting nuts on poker games, laughing and snacking around Oikawa's frustrated yells and Masuda's soft laughs, Kuroo's bad luck dooming him to fold more often than play. Bokuto takes a few, short breaks, folding once just so he can check his phone when he knows Akaashi's done class for the day.
Akaashi's just as excited about the win as he is.
Game Two: India.
There's no height advantage this time. India can match them, block for block, spike for spike, inch for inch. That's just how Bokuto likes it.
The game is a series of tricks and mistakes, each team moving ahead on the others' faults. A service fault from Kuroo puts them behind. A net touch by India's captain puts them ahead. The spikes of the ball are deafening, the blocks stinging, the ball being passed back and forth at bullet speeds. Bokuto feels the back of his hand bruise as he barely manages a dig to keep the ball in the air. Oikawa runs into a journalist to set a ball, that, by chance, Ushijima keeps in play. Bokuto argues his first, second, and third call with the referee. He wins two of them. He gets pulled by Coach for the third, only to be put back in, minutes later, down three points.
The match is the longest of the day, and they squeak by at 3-2. Bokuto spends the night watching TV with Kuroo, bruised hand on his lap, eyes half focused on the buzz of the screen and the buzz in his ears. He falls asleep before the show ends.
Game Three: Australia.
Bokuto likes playing Australia. They always have bright grins and yells when they score, and their faces contort, huge, angry, when they lose a point. Their opposite is one of Bokuto's favourite players, besides himself, sandy blonde hair and quirked lips. They trade the ball back and forth, trying to out-do each other, scoring point after point and sending the first set well into the 30s before Ushijima takes the match. Bokuto scores over ten points on his own.
Oikawa misses his serve and two spikes at the start of the second set, and Coach switches him for Masuda. The team energy shifts. It settles wrong. Something heavy, on their shoulders, an itch Bokuto can't scratch in the game. The pressure. He keeps his smile wide to keep the energy up, but the difference is noticeable, from Kuroo's blocks to Nishinoya's saves, and it's not something that his pep talks on time out or backslaps and high fives on good plays can recover from. They lose the set he plays. They win 3-1 when Oikawa returns.
Bokuto texts Akaashi as soon as he can to tell him he's right. Akaashi doesn't ask what he means, and he doesn't comment on it - and that's how Bokuto knows he knows. He tells Bokuto he played very well today, and he's looking forward to Saturday, and to watch his hand until then. Bokuto shows Kuroo the text ten times, until Kuroo throws the phone across the room, landing just shy of their pile of shoes.
Game Four: Iran.
From the very first point, the game does not go well.
Iran is hard to block and hard to counter. The bruise on Bokuto's hand aches with each attempt to stop a spike, with each serve that miraculously gets saved. Even Ushijima, unflappable, has his mouth set in a scowl when they fall behind by five points. Then six. Bokuto feels the slow creep of anxiety at the back of his neck, in the pit of his throat, and he tries to stop it.
One missed play later, Oikawa shifts most of his spikes to Hiro. It's two more points before Bokuto can breathe again, before he slams through the defense, before he scores their first break point. Tension bursts in the air, from the crowd cheering to Nishinoya and Kuroo yelling in his ears, to Coach, stoic at the sidelines, pumping a fist in the air. It's small, but it's still a victory, and Bokuto does his best to make the best of it.
They still lose 3-1. It's another night with the TV on loud, Kuroo and Oikawa picking dirt off their pajamas no one else can see, drumming their nails against any flat surface they can find. Bokuto runs plays and movements over and over in his head, on the tablet Coach lent him, until he can start to piece together the breaks to mend in their own patterns, and the ones to exploit in Iran's.
Game Five: South Korea.
Ushijima and Bokuto have only one thing to say before the game starts: they need the win to guarantee their spot in the finals. And they're going to get it. Bokuto passes his eyes, blazing, over every member of the team, before the huddle breaks and the cheers of the crowds come back.
South Korea has a strong team. Their plays are smart, their blocks solid, their mistakes met with the same overdramatic reactions that Bokuto and Oikawa have. Bokuto makes more back attack points in the game than he's had so far in his career, Kuroo helping to keep his sightlines clear and unhindered as he slams one after another into the back corners of the court, narrowly in line with the net, in the open spots in the pattern. There's a ten minute break as they review a out ball for South Korea, so close on the line no one can quite tell where it ended up most. On the court, the two teams strike up conversations, until play is called and Japan keeps the point.
At that, the Korean team doubles its efforts, digs and blocks and spikes, shoes squeaking, sweat dripping, the thudding of blood in Bokuto's ears. The win comes, narrow, but earned, 3-2, from his final hit into the back row. He grins, wider and wider, and Oikawa picks him half off the ground.
His eyes dart to the cameras, and even though Akaashi will see him win tomorrow, he hopes he saw him win today, too.
"Oi, Bo." Bokuto pauses, mid stretch, and looks over his shoulder. Kuroo is thankfully close - he doesn't think he could have heard if he was any further away, over the chatting excitement of the crowd above them. Kuroo has a hand on his hip, the other pointing back over his own shoulder. "He's here."
"What?!" Bokuto pivots, eyes searching the crowd. "Where? How did you spot him? What's he wearing?"
"He's where my thumb is oh so wonderfully already pointing," Kuroo retorts. He jabs his thumb back a second time. Bokuto follows it up to a middle-aged woman with red hair. Definitely not Akaashi. He squints, eyes darting along the very large area Kuroo thinks his thumb is indicating. "He's in a white shirt, dark scarf. I already waved at him. He's not that hard to miss, considering-"
"Hey!!" Bokuto yells. Kuroo jumps almost a foot off the ground, and two Iranian players flinch on their own bench. Akaashi, looking the other direction in a very large crowd, whips his head around. Kuroo's right: white long sleeves, dark scarf, baffled, yet exasperated, expression. Bokuto gives a frantic wave, grinning, until Akaashi facepalms. He can imagine the sigh that goes with that nose pinch, the glare, until Akaashi raises his free hand in return to wave back.
(The room seems a little less loud, a little less dense, a pressure easing of Bokuto's chest unrelated to the impending game. A pressure he knows too well, by now. At the same time, the stadium feels a little bit bigger, the greatest distance in the world stretching from his spot on the floor to Akaashi in the stands.
But he's here, all the same.)
"Bokuto, stop waving like an idiot and huddle up!" Coach snaps. Bokuto looks around to see the rest of the team, aside from him and Kuroo, staring at them and waiting. He rubs the back of his neck. He gives one last glance up to Akaashi, who's shaking his head, trying not to smile. "Bokuto! Now! And bring Kuroo over here."
"Yessir!" Bokuto grabs Kuroo's wrist and hauls, and the two of them half stumble to the bench. He feels eyes on him, and, despite the crowd, he knows they're Akaashi's.
Bokuto tunes out the noise, the crowd, the moment he steps back onto the court. Deep breaths: in through the nose, out through the mouth. One final stretch, arms over his head. There's Kuroo before him, knees bent. There's Ushijima, coiled, eyes trained on the ball in the Iranian captain's hand for the first serve. There's the squeak of Bokuto's shoes as he crouches, tips of his toes, ready. The atmosphere sits heavy, from chest to shoulders to heart, a slow constriction of the universe as the ball soars into the air.
There's Akaashi, in the corner of his eye, and the pressure slips off Bokuto, oil on water. He dodges out of the path of the ball to let Nishinoya dig it at the last second, sending it high, off angle, but still in play.
He knows the crowd is there, the cameras, the press, but they come into mind as part of the game, not as a distraction. They're at the edge: the place Nishinoya is unafraid to run to, the place that Oikawa crashes into, the spot where Kuroo blocks a ball into and hits a camera. It's what cheers along with them when they score, yells along side them when they lose a point. It's the sky: always present, always shifting, but he doesn't need to look to know its there.
He just has to focus on the present.
Iran is hard to play against, even with all the additional research, even with the adjustments to their plays. There's no height, no speed, no size advantages. There's only skill - the ability to cross the court to get the ball. The lack of fear facing down three blockers soaring overhead. The ability to read Oikawa, while reading the motion of the ball, while reading the other team. The strength and aim to tuck the ball right where no one is, and where no one can get to.
Both teams excel at everything they do. Japan loses the first set to that skill, and win the second with it.
Bokuto's hand aches by the start of the third, the bruise throbbing and his fingers twitching, but he keeps it still enough to avoid being called to the bench. Sweat drips down his neck, his back, thin lines doing nothing to cool him under the hot lights and high pressure. The volleys are long, his feet sore, his legs aching after a week of game after game - but he doesn't stop, or rest, or complain. He slaps backs, and grins, and yells, alongside all of them, after Hiro's save and Yoshida's block and Ushijima's back attack hammering through the defenses.
When he can, where he can, between spikes and blocks and running and time outs, he looks to the one spot in the crowd he's memorized. Akaashi. Talking to the people beside him, making the small gestures he does when he explains something. Pointing at members of each team, mouthing their names. On the edge of his seat during the long volleys. He cheers, and yells, and fist pumps when Japan scores, his face full of expressions Bokuto wasn't sure he could make, never thought he'd have the privilege to see.
He only catches Akaashi's eye once: after scoring a point of his own, in the fourth set after losing the third, around the back slaps and hair ruffles for keeping them in the game for a minute longer. The straight line, the empty space that opens between the two of them, amber to green, floor to ceiling. Akaashi, only looking at him. Akaashi, smiling, only for him. Akaashi, grinning wider, waving, cheering, only for him.
He scores two more points in a row, makes three blocks beside Kuroo, and they take the fourth set. It's the best pep talk he's gotten all week.
The fifth set, like the other fifth sets they've played against Iran, is the hardest. Exhaustion hits hard for both teams - serves that don't quite go where they should, net touches from otherwise solid players, errors that Bokuto argues without quite as much breath as he would like. The Iranian coach calls one time out just to have a rest, when they're ahead two points. Both teams need it. Oikawa downs his second water bottle of the match, Ushijima sweats through a third towel. Bokuto keeps his eyes closed, breathing deep, focusing.
They snatch points where they can: off breaks, off service faults, off digs and dives and flying falls. Kuroo and Yoshida take energy from the crowd and each other, jumping higher, moving faster, creating a wall with Hiro and Ushijima and Bokuto against the Iranian team like they haven't before. Oikawa gets riskier, faster, trickier, his serves more and more deadly, and Bokuto matches his pace, play for play. Iran leads, Japan leads, as the volleys continue and continue and continue.
The break comes late, very late, when Iran's captain, the score tied 17-17, hammers his serve into the net. Both teams fall silent as the audience bursts into noise, cameras flashing from the sidelines, reporters scrambling over each other.
Bokuto takes a deep, shuddering breath, as the ball rolls towards him. It isn't his first time making a serve to win the game. He hopes it's not his last. He hopes he's not going to make the same mistake he just saw.
He picks the ball up, sending a twinge down his arm. Kuroo and Hiro cover the back of their heads. Coach, beside the bench, is silent, unblinking. The Iranian team spreads out, their libero balanced on his tiptoes, dark eyes glowing. Deep breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth. He throws the ball overhead.
Akaashi, in the crowd, hands in fists, knuckles white as his shirt.
In midair is where he finds he can really shine. There's nothing but the ground, the sky, the ball flying back towards him. The Iranian team has no real holes - but he thinks he can make one anyway, just to the left of their setter. Something is off in the tinge of exhaustion on his face, something Bokuto can't place, but something he trusts. The moment comes, when his hand and the ball connect: pain shooting up his arm, every ounce of energy left in him hurtling forward, blue and yellow stripes across the floor. It soars over his team, over the net, and his feet slam into the ground as the Iranian setter lunges.
The ball soars in the air, horizontal off the setter's wrist. Even as their libero dives after it, even as the captain scrambles, Bokuto knows it's too late. The ball slams the ground like a gunshot, inches from his fingers.
The room explodes.
Bokuto's head buzzes, the cheers overwhelming his ears and mind. There's hands on his shoulders, then his back, slamming and patting and shoving and clapping. Nishinoya, from the side, leaps into his arms and he finds himself being hugged. Oikawa elbows his side and grabs his shirt, and one by one, the whole team is crowds him, yelling, and Bokuto yells back. Hiro drags Coach, cheering, and Ushijima, smiling, into the group. One voice tumbles over another, with one goal, one idea, in mind.
They're going to the Olympics.
It isn't until Bokuto's clawed himself free that he manages to spot Akaashi again.
He's gotten away from his seat, to the edge of the high bleachers, hands gripping the railing far above Bokuto's head like a lifeline. His cheeks are flushed with excitement, hair tossled and scarf disheveled and looking every bit as tired and relieved as Bokuto feels, sitting on the bench rubbing his legs.
It's tempting to yell for him again - his name bubbles in Bokuto's throat, but the crowd still roars, shaking the walls, and he doesn't think Akaashi could hear him. Instead, when their eyes meet, he gives a signature grin and a huge wave over his head. Akaashi's wave is smaller, but immediate, and he leans a bit off the railing when group of people almost block their line of vision. He doesn't stop waving until after Bokuto drops his hand again.
Bokuto isn't sure if it's exhaustion or something else that sweeps over him. His chest tightens as his legs shake. He's glad to be sitting, glad Akaashi's too far off to notice, glad it isn't in the middle of the match. He takes a deep breath and stares at his knees, but the feeling remains, even when he turns back to the crowd.
Akaashi mouth is moving - likely speaking, but Bokuto can't hear him or figure out what it means. Instead of trying to reply, he raises both his eyebrows, shakes his head, and tugs his ear. Akaashi blinks. He turns, fumbling, and seconds later his phone is in his hand.
Even as he types, the ache grows in Bokuto's chest, a week of tournaments and late nights and sore muscles piling up together. Whatever the text says, Bokuto knows it isn't going to be enough. He's going to the Olympics, he scored the most important match point of his career, he's missed Akaashi. He glances around, the team lost in celebration or exhaustion, scattered stars across the floor.
There's no one around to stop the idea that rushes in behind the mix of emotions. So he decides to try it.
When Akaashi looks up, Bokuto points to the hallway leading off the gym floor. He puts a hand flat, walking his other fingers across it, then points, a bit more frantically, to Akaashi, then to the hall again. The smile slips from Akaashi's face and his eyes narrow, but before he can finish the expression, Bokuto slams his hands together and does a small bow from his head. He holds it for a long second. He can feel the crowd murmur around him, the tone shifting as they look to him. He peeks around his hands.
Akaashi's no longer there.
Bokuto scrambles to his feet. His legs are unsteady, the grip on his chest shaking his body, his hands, and by the third step, he's biting his lip. Feelings scratch the back of his mind that didn't come at the final serve, at any point during the match. It isn't anxiety, and he isn't scared, but there's a jitter in his walk that shouldn't be there.
The hall is empty, and dim, one light broken half way down, casting a long shadow behind him as he walks. Did Akaashi get what he meant? Could he figure out the layout of the gym? Should he have read the text first? Or texted the plan instead of making wild gestures in front of a giant audience? He freezes, turns back towards the court. He unclenches a fist he didn't notice making. He should go back for his phone, or something, anything, other than this. What if Akaashi left?
He raises a foot towards the light of the court. He steps. The sound that rings out is too sudden, too hard, too distant, to come from it.
Faster than his serve, faster than his thoughts, he turns back, and Akaashi's there. Chest heaving from running, skidding to a stop at the other end of the hall for a moment, a glimpse, before he's scrambling forwards again. Bokuto feels his muscles protest as he pushes himself into a run, feels the strain on the back of his calves, but his eyes meet Akaashi's, and the smile that forms on his face is a perfect match, and he thinks he would run a marathon to close the distance.
Akaashi manages to slow down before they connect, but Bokuto can't, his energy springing from a last reserve he didn't know he had. Akaashi's arms go up as Bokuto's go down, and this time it's easy to pick Akaashi up, easy to spin him around, once, twice, before dropping him to the ground. Akaashi pulls himself up, hands digging into Bokuto's jersey, face pressed against his neck. Bokuto finds his hands moving, one digging into dark curls, one feeling the movement of Akaashi's back, and he doesn't want to let go.
Akaashi's talking again, but Bokuto can't make out the words, even as Akaashi moves his head back. He focuses on the way Akaashi's hair curls around his fingers, the hot breath against his cheek, the slight tremble in Akaashi's legs as he tries to stand on his tiptoes for longer and longer.
Bokuto barely notices when his chest stops hurting. It doesn't seem important anymore.
every update i seem to get slower writing so thank you all for reading and waiting and being patient with me!!
also if you haven't seen, PLEASE check out this amazing fanart for my fic, done by painpackerrisingsun, whom i am forever thankful for... <3
Chapter 19: Free Fall
yet again i would like to take a moment to direct you to some amazing fanart by painpackerrisingsun!! i have stared at this for hours and so should you!!
"That was ridiculous!" The praise pops the bubble around his head. Bokuto pulls back enough to let Akaashi down on the flats of his feet, and no further. His fingers tug absently at curls. Akaashi's face is a little less flushed than it had been, but his expression is more open, arms loose around Bokuto's neck. "I can't believe you won! I can't, it's just, ridiculous! You played so well, I mean, I've watched lots of games, but this is my first National game, and-" Akaashi takes a deep breath, his mouth a thin line as he gathers himself. He exhales slowly. "You were amazing."
"Akaaaaashiii!" It isn't the exact phrase he wants, but Bokuto needs a moment to catch his own thoughts. His body feels light, his grin unstoppable. He doesn't look away from Akaashi's face, but he tugs his hands free of the embrace to gesture as he talks - big sweeping moves of his hands, with jabs to emphasize. "I'm so glad you're here! And you saw! Wasn't the game amazing? I can hardly believe we won. And their captain was just - I mean... you know!!" He fist pumps a few times over his head. "I saw you in the crowd, too! I saw you yelling! I didn't know you could yell?"
"Bokuto, just because I don't yell every time I speak-" Akaashi pauses long enough for Bokuto to realize he's been yelling "-doesn't mean I can't. I've never been to a game like this. And I've never seen your team live. I was just... enjoying myself."
(Akaashi draws his hands back and twists them together. Bokuto blinks, his train of thought faltering, until he catches the red spots growing darker on Akaashi's cheeks. It registers in his brain alongside how close they're standing, how little his chest hurts, how Akaashi's scarf is dark green just like his eyes. He takes a step back, hands freezing on the way to his face, unsure if he wants to hide or rub his neck. He stares at the empty hallway over Akaashi's head for relief, but finds none there.)
"Um, no, uh, no accusations here, I'm, just, well, you know, glad you enjoyed yourself! It was great to see! As, um, support, and stuff." His words tumble and stutter even more than usual. Bokuto bites a lip, squeezing his eyes shut. He spends two seconds berating himself before Akaashi laughs under his breath. Bokuto cracks an eye open, and the small smile peeking out from behind Akaashi's scarf tugs his own grin right back into place. He clears his throat and squares his shoulders and tries again. "I am glad you're here, Akaashi. And you got to see such a good game! I promised I'd make it a good one, right?"
"Nearly every day, for a month, yes." Akaashi's reply is dry, but not sarcastic, or annoyed. He hasn't stopped smiling.
"And I was right!!" He doesn't have to force the confidence as he puts his hands on his hips. "Did you think I played well? I got a lot of points, but I missed some digs, so I'm not sure what Coach is going to say. Beating Iran... first time this season, and right when it matters. Can you believe it? And going to the Olympics! And, and... gah, it feels so surreal!" He reaches his hands out, and when Akaashi doesn't swat at them, he lands them firmly on his shoulders. "I still can't believe I made that inside shot in the second set! And I was aiming for that! You saw, right?! Did you see the ref? Even he was surprised!"
"Bokuto, I know you're always loud, but please stop yelling." Akaashi's eyes dart around, though he has to lean quite a ways to the side for a moment to see around Bokuto's broad shoulders. "You're going to draw someone's attention and we're both going to get in trouble. You know it's off limits down here, right?"
"It's what? But I wanted to take you to see Coach after! ...Wait, did you sneak down here knowing-"
"What did I just say about yelling?" Akaashi gives him another look, and Bokuto's jaw snaps shut. Akaashi sighs, shaking his head.
(The smile returns, slowly, in the silence.)
"I did see," Akaashi says. "I was really impressed. You played really well, Bokuto. You've improved a lot this month. Especially on that final serve. I wasn't sure you'd noticed their setter was injured. He never could have made a save."
"Well, it was more a hunch really, I just thought he looked a little- wait. Wait, what do you mean, injured?" Bokuto leans back to look Akaashi up and down. Akaashi cocks his head to the side, lips pursed, as if the question is unexpected.
"Hm? He strained his left leg two volleys before. He was favouring it on his jumps. He was trying to avoid getting pulled, since he was their best shot at winning, but it backfired on him." Bokuto shakes his head, eyes widening. His brain falters on any reply. Akaashi shifts and takes Bokuto's wrist, easing it off his shoulder. "Speaking of, I want to see that bruise of yours. You kept going for digs with it all week when you should have switched hands. Have you seen your team doctor about it?"
(Bokuto nods, the words still not coming. He drops his other hand off Akaashi's shoulder as long fingers trace his bruise, not pressing on it, not hurting him, but curious all the same. Akaashi mutters under his breath, turning the wrist, the hand, over and over. His hands feel cool, but Bokuto isn't sure if that's because Akaashi's cold or because he feels far too warm.)
"So..." he tries. His words sound a little choked, and he can't seem to stop his eyes from bulging with surprise. He swallows. "You noticed all that? From the crowd? In the middle of a match?"
"Well, I am studying to be a sports therapist. I'd be rather poor at it if I couldn't tell when someone was hurt." Akaashi gives Bokuto's hand a final pat before letting go, stuffing his own hands into his jean pockets as he eases back.
"Well, I guess that makes sense... hey, can you do that in a game? Tell when something changes in how a person moves in the middle of a match?"
"I can do it in the middle of setting the ball, if we're playing well enough," Akaashi shrugs. "It's not that impressive. It's just how I play."
"Not that-?" He cuts himself off, clearing his throat to cover the yell before Akaashi can react. He drops his voice low. "Akaashi, that's amazing! Masuda can't change a set mid-play, and I can't pick out details like that at all. I bet there aren't many people at National level who are that observant! Maybe Oikawa and Kuroo, but no one otherwise on our team, at least!"
"No buts!" Bokuto flashes his signature grin. He grabs Akaashi's arm and pulls him into another hug, shushing before Akaashi even begins his groan. He tightens the hug when Akaashi shifts his hands up to try and push back. He can just imagine the exasperated look Akaashi is presently giving his jersey. It's all he can do not to laugh thinking about it. "If a future Olympian thinks you're good, you must be! I know talent when I hear it, Akaashi, and that's a skill we'd be lucky to have more of. When do you have another practice match? Can I come watch you play?"
"Only if you stop talking about me." The words come muffled up from Bokuto's chest, but there's Akaashi's usual sly humour to them still. "You're supposed to be the star today, Bokuto. Don't let me distract from that. You can have your turn to be impressed when you see me play. It's my turn right now."
(Silence. The natural, breathable kind. The lull as Akaashi's praise rings in his head, as Akaashi's hands grab on the front of his jersey. Bokuto presses his smile onto the top of Akaashi's head, for a moment, but a moment that stretches longer and longer. He decides Akaashi isn't cold, he's just warm - from the game, from the praise, from the filled hole in his chest, burning outwards. From the hints of red on Akaashi's cheeks as he pushes himself back, just enough to make eye contact.)
"Bokuto, there's something I-"
"Bokuto, Bokuto, Bokuto." The words, drawn out, make Bokuto's back stiffen. Akaashi shrinks, making himself as small as possible. Bokuto makes a quick turn, arms out to shield Akaashi behind his body. Looming at the end of the hallway, eyes dark, is Oikawa. "Coach sent me to grab you for an interview. Here I thought you'd be running around signing autographs... I didn't expect to find you sneaking around, bringing fans down here, especially after that long lecture we had about not doing that."
"You had a lecture about it?" Akaashi hisses. Bokuto glances back and shushes him, before turning his biggest, brightest smile to Oikawa. Oikawa's expression doesn't change. If anything, it gets darker. Bokuto feels his smile start to droop, and he gulps. Akaashi's hands dig into his uniform.
"Oikawa, you're not going to-"
"Nah, I'm just messing with you. I don't actually care what rules you're breaking." Oikawa's large, lopsided grin makes Bokuto want to strangle him or thank him, but he can't pick which. Oikawa looks at his nails, shifting his weight to one hip. "But seriously, Coach is pissed you ran off without saying anything, and you do need to do some interviews, Vice Captain. Our illustrious team reporter's having a fit, too, and you know what she's like flustered. And Ushijima's so awkward in front of a camera. I can only cover for so long. Just send whoever that is away, and... who exactly did you sneak down here, Bokuto?"
"Uh," Bokuto replies. Oikawa wipes his hand on his jersey shorts as he waltzes forward down the hall, stopping just short of Bokuto. He taps his foot, arms crossed. Waiting. Akaashi doesn't move, save for his hands gripping Bokuto's jersey tighter. Bokuto's eyes dart between the top of Akaashi's head over his shoulder and Oikawa's eyes, and there's a bit of nervousness in him he hasn't felt in weeks. He starts to shift to the side. "It's, uh, my friend. He came to see the game. Here, Akaashi, we're not gonna get in trouble. You like Oikawa, right? So don't be..."
(The word 'shy' dies on his lips as he looks, properly looks, at Akaashi. He isn't shy. Bokuto can't name the strange expression on Akaashi's face, but it has nothing to do with worry or embarrassment. It's something else - Akaashi's face is pale, sallow against his white shirt, the dark scar vivid on Akaashi's cheek. Circles just tinting purple shine neon beneath his eyes. There's a slight shake to his head, and it's only then, as the twisting in his jersey loosens and Oikawa steps around, that Bokuto realizes Akaashi does not want to be introduced to his favourite player.)
"Huuuuuh? Akaashi? That's not-" Oikawa stops mid-thought, his eyes flying open as he takes in Akaashi. Akaashi straightens under the gaze, but his face doesn't regain any colour as he holds eye contact. Bokuto's eyes dart between them. Akaashi's face gets less resolved every second, as Oikawa seems to struggle through a stall in his brain.
(The air is very, very thick.)
"Akaashi, this is Oikawa," Bokuto mumbles. He looks to Akaashi, eyes full of an apology, trying to rush through things if can't understand or stop them. "Oikawa, this is-"
"Akaashi Keiji, what the hell are you doing here?" Oikawa breathes. The exhale turns into a shaky laugh, then a proper laugh, and then Oikawa's shoving Bokuto aside to get closer. He gives Akaashi a huge clap on the shoulders. Akaashi hides his face in his scarf, hands endlessly twisting on themselves. Bokuto stares, mouth hanging open, unable to stop. "I can't believe it! How'd you end up here, friends with Bokuto of all people?"
"Huh? Excuse me?" Bokuto interjects. Neither of them look over. Akaashi shifts on his feet.
"Hi, Oikawa. Long time no see." His voice, quieter than it had been, carries in the otherwise empty hallway. "I met Bokuto on the train. We take the same one-"
"Akaashi is your Train Guy?! Like, the Akaashi Keiji, and you've known him for months. Oh, man, oh man, this is too much, even from you, Bokuto. I can't believe this!" Oikawa's words come out between hard shoulder pats and laughs. Akaashi looks over to Bokuto and mouths 'Train Guy?', but doesn't keep eye contact for long. Oikawa leans in, eyes narrowing, grin darkening. "I see you're playing volleyball again, Akaashi. See you didn't quit after all, hm?"
"...I am," Akaashi mumbles into his scarf. "I'm sorry. I could have... I just... I didn't expect to see you. Here. Today."
(Oikawa leans in again, but the words aren't meant for Bokuto's ears: only the confusion, the distance, and the density of the air are given to him. Akaashi's eyes flicker, and this time it's guilt hovering in his shoulders, hiding his mouth. Guilt driving his eyes to the ground as Oikawa pulls back. Something passes between them, in those hidden words, in something bubbling back to the surface from the past. It boils beneath Bokuto's skin.)
"Hey," he starts, and Akaashi darts his eyes over, "can you explain-"
"While we're already breaking the rules," Oikawa interjects, sliding an arm around Akaashi's hunched shoulders as if he's welcome there, "I might as well show you around down here. Hey, do you want to meet Coach? I can't imagine you don't, I mean, when else are you going to get a chance to suck up to the National coach who's your only shot of going pro for real? C'mon, my treat. For old time's sake."
"I..." Akaashi's words die on his lips. He glances at Bokuto, but as soon as they make eye contact, Akaashi turns away. "I..."
"Oikawa, what the hell are you talking about?" Bokuto interjects, crossing his arms on his chest. Akaashi flinches inwards, and Bokuto grinds his teeth. Not what he meant to happen. "I mean, uh, if you two don't mind-"
"What, you don't know?" Oikawa rolls his eyes, resting his head against the side of Akaashi's. He winks, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. Bokuto feels his hands clench against his arms. "Jeez, Bokuto, I didn't think you were that dense. Akaashi wasn't that obscure a player, even if yours truly was the best thing to come from Seijoh in years. Akaashi and I played together in high school! Though I was our main setter, of course. I taught this kid everything he knows... or, I guess I should say, everything he used to know, hm?"
(The ground opens up beneath his feet. A cavern, a crevasse, for his spirit to sink into. Not the great unknown, but a great unknown, a layer he didn't expect to discover, a layer he hadn't thought possible, hasn't yet unraveled, but will never escape from.
Akaashi still won't look at him.)
"Bokuto, stop standing around with your mouth open like a fish and go do that interview before Coach kills you." Oikawa wags a finger, but even when Bokuto tries his muscles, his mouth remains frozen in place. His eyes dart between them. Akaashi seems even more hunched in on himself than he had moments before. "Akaashi'n I are going to go take a browse around while you do your job. Sometimes, it pays to be popular, but not in charge. C'mon!"
(It's an easy maneuver for Oikawa to lead Akaashi around, never lifting his arm from his shoulders, never glancing back as his hand goes up to gesture as he describes the team. Bokuto turns his head, but can't yet pull his feet from the pit. The emptiness fades with each step the pair take away from him. The shock is scraped down by a boiling beneath his skin, crawling up his neck. There are claws in the back of his brain, tinges of heat at the corner of his eyes, and the feeling evaporates any other in him as he watches the two setters walk down the hallway.
Akaashi glances back, hesitant, the barest glimpse of green on a still pale face. It's too far away to read his expression. If Bokuto was closer, he could tell what it meant. If Akaashi was still back here, with him, it'd be easy. If it were him, not Oikawa, leading him away to Coach, like he wanted to. Easy. Like reading a book over his shoulder on the train, like reading his texts at midnight. As simple as a joke to clear the air, as simple as-
But he isn't there, and it isn't simple, and a storm sits in his chest as Akaashi turns back without saying anything. Ever step makes Bokuto dig his fingers in a bit deeper into skin, set his teeth a little harder against themselves, the boiling feeling unnamable and unstoppable and exponentially exploding the longer he looks.
Bokuto knows he won the match. But it's Oikawa tugging Akaashi's curls, Oikawa leading him away, Oikawa laughing and stepping into the light, side by side, with Akaashi.
Bokuto thinks he's lost something he didn't know he was trying to win.)
The sky is beautiful, but Bokuto can't bring himself to care.
He sits on a set of steps behind the stadium, leaning back on his hands, frowning. The crowds have long gone, but their team, only just freed of press and fans, still float around, seeing family, changing clothes. Showering. There's an emptiness, now, in this part of the city, a feeling that should fascinate him, that should strike wonder in him. But the wonder doesn't come.
The sky is dark, but not from lack of light: the sun hovers above the horizon still, and the sky is sheer white, pale blue, around it. It's the clouds that bring the heaviness, the darkness: thick and grey, stretching over his head in clumps and lines, giving the feel of night at the start of the evening. Up there, the wind rages, the clouds whip round the Earth at dazzling speeds. Miles below, in another world, the air is still. Bokuto's already taken a photo, a video, but neither tug his heart nor distract him enough from his thoughts.
He'd done his best through the interviews - and there had been many more than Oikawa led him to believe. In the photo-ops, the crowds, the streaming of action, he felt the giddiness of the win return, the enormity of the victory, the pride in himself, his team, his future. He kept his words impassioned, honest, loud - everything the reporters expected. Maya, their team reporter, left to type notes up on a spare tablet before Bokuto even left the room. He was the perfect vice-captain.
He knew he shouldn't look. Knew it like he knows he shouldn't pick at a scab. But it itched, and he'd picked, and he turned and looked across the gym, between interviews, around questions. Akaashi and Oikawa, talking to Coach. Akaashi and Oikawa, meeting Ushijima. Akaashi and Oikawa, never more than a few feet apart. Akaashi and Oikawa.
Oikawa. Not him.
Bokuto jars his teeth together, draws himself from the memory. He follows the flow of the clouds before him without seeing it, the after image of the setters still fresh in his mind. He'd excused himself to come here to think, but he can't think enough to sort the feeling, the bubble that keeps rising in his chest, the burning in his mind.
It isn't directed at Akaashi - though if he had known Akaashi wasn't shy, but purposely avoiding meeting his former teammate, he could have prevented this. It isn't at Oikawa, either - or, it is, but it isn't at the same time, and he finds it hard to pin the exact target. It isn't all of Oikawa, but it's something in his actions. Something in the casual arm around Akaashi, his fingers in dark curls, those few short feet in Akaashi's radius he didn't leave, wasn't forced or asked to leave, once he entered.
He would have changed where they met, what he said, what he did, to let it have been him there instead of Oikawa. He isn't sure what to make of that.
"Gah! Crap!" Bokuto lurches to the side at the sound of the voice. He grabs his shirt and jacket as his heart thunders in his chest. It takes a moment for him to take an actual breath. "You scared me, Akaashi."
"I'm sorry. I thought you heard me coming. I wasn't trying to sneak." Akaashi's voice carries far too much guilt for just startling Bokuto - something not hard to accomplish. He glances over. Akaashi's expression is neutral, in contrast to his tone. He shuffles on his feet, hands in his pockets, a stiffness in his shoulders that makes it not as casual as he clearly hopes it looks. At least Oikawa isn't there.
(The thought comes into his mind, a bubble popping from the mass in his chest, a new, red-hot streak on his mind he tries to clamp down on. He locks his jaw to keep it from going further, from reaching the air. For some reason, he doesn't want Akaashi to know about it.)
"Can I sit down?"
"Huh?" Bokuto gets the feeling Akaashi already asked the question, and he only caught the repetition. "Yeah, sure. Feel free."
"Thanks." Akaashi sits, very slowly, leaving a good foot between them. Bokuto glances at it, then at Akaashi's face. He can't see most of it - Akaashi's ducked down into his scarf - but it's just as telling. Bokuto drums his fingers against the ground, focusing on keeping his face calm.
(Akaashi is as far from him as the clouds, the silence between them a second darkness in the air.)
"Oikawa wasn't lying." Akaashi's voice is muffled in layers of scarf, low and quiet, but the words are discernable enough to make Bokuto snap to attention. "We... went to Seijoh together. I was a year beneath him. We weren't close, but he was a good captain. He taught me most of the skills I still have today - he taught me how to do a jump serve. He led a strong team."
"Akaashi?!" Again, not the word he wants, but the only one that comes to mind around his own whirring thoughts and the oddity of Akaashi's speech. Bokuto sits up straight on the steps. "What are-"
"Let's not pretend what happened in there was anything short of a mess, Bokuto." It's the first phrase he's spoken without a trace of guilt in it. A hint of regular Akaashi, somewhere under the scarf. He clears his throat - he clearly hadn't meant to make that slip - and hunches his shoulders to his ears. Bokuto watches him intently, shoving his own thoughts aside to listen. "The fact is, I... made a fool of both of us back there. I should have... you deserve to know why, at least. I'm sure you're confused. Why we... why Oikawa and I..." He makes a vague gesture with his hand. Bokuto nods, but his mind is a swirl of confusion. He has no idea what Akaashi is trying to get at. Taking it as a sign, Akaashi begins again.
"He used to say I could play as well as him if I tried a little more - so I'd stay late and try as hard as I could. I looked up to him a lot, even then. He wanted me to inherit the team, be the next powerful setter, start a legacy at the school. I almost did. But things didn't quite go..."
(Akaashi's eyes search the clouds as Bokuto searches his face, but neither finds what they're looking for.)
"Have you ever lashed out at someone when you know they're right, just because you don't want to admit you're wrong?" Not waiting for a reply, or acknowledgement, Akaashi continues. His words pick up speed, tumbling out one after the other with barely a pause. "Something... happened, and I decided to quit playing volleyball when I was in third year. I was captain. Oikawa had just made the National team when he heard I... quit, and he'd come to try and talk me into trying to continue. We... fought about it. I said a lot of things I regret, and I never tried to apologize to him. I was afraid to reach out again. I... hadn't spoken to him again, until today."
(Bokuto has a feeling there's more than just something happened, that the something is the pressure, the great unknown, the turning point in Akaashi's life he faces down every day. Bokuto doesn't press the vagueness, but he doesn't take it lightly. It's the most Akaashi's ever said to him.
It's almost as overwhelming as the match.)
"...you didn't have to tell me that, Akaashi," Bokuto says. He rubs at the bruise on the back of his hand. "But thank you. You don't have to explain things more if you're not comfortable, or just because I was confused in there, though."
"I think you were a little more than confused, Bokuto." Akaashi's eyes never leave the clouds, still soaring overhead. He plays with the one end of his scarf, not seeming to notice what he's doing. "I saw you looking over between the interviews. You're angry."
"No! I mean, angry isn't the right word," Bokuto protests. He puts his hands up between them, even as he feels a little twinge in his side, around the bubbling in his mind. "Or, it's not everything, and it isn't, wasn't, at you. I was..."
(The bubble pops.)
Bokuto isn't sure where the word came from, why it blankets his thoughts. It's strange to put a name to the churning in his gut, the distraction in his mind. The sensation leaves a foul taste in his mouth he can't ignore. It's not something he's known before. It isn't something he expected to know now. He thinks of Oikawa, and imagines himself there, and the feeling suits the image more than he feels comfortable admitting.)
"It's complicated," he finishes. He scrapes his tongue against his teeth, but the taste doesn't change. He rubs his hands against his pants, shuffles his legs. His mouth tugs into a small scowl, and he tries to hide it behind his hand.
"Complicated," Akaashi repeats, but there's no hostility in his voice. He sighs, fingers dropping to his lap as his knees tuck up against his chest. He gives a short, dry laugh. "I certainly understand that. I'm sorry for adding to it, or causing it. I'm sure you've had a lot of feelings to sort through today, and this isn't one of the better ones. And I'm sorry for leaving with Oikawa without saying something. If I'd been better, back then, or if I'd just told you, this wouldn't..."
"Akaashi, it isn't like that, I promise!" Bokuto waves his hands frantically, and it draws Akaashi's attention enough for a flick of his eyes. There's no green in them at all in the low light, and he looks tired. "Look, I think, there's just been a lot going on today, and it's... overwhelming, for both of us, but I'm not angry at you. And..." The word catches in his throat, and he has to struggle to continue. "About Oikawa..."
"He forgave me. In the hallway." Akaashi's voice clears his scarf as his head leans back, but it doesn't seem like the words are for anything but the air. "I didn't think he would."
"Akaashi..." Bokuto reaches a hand out, hovering it over Akaashi's shoulder before gently placing it down. "I-"
"Bo, you out here? The fuck are you? We're leaving for dinner in ten, get your ass in gear! I'm gonna drink so muuuu..." Bokuto and Akaashi turn, in one movement, both staring over their shoulder at the incoming voice. Kuroo stands by the back door, leaning out, hand frozen mid wave. His eyes dart between Bokuto's face and Akaashi's, and his smile slides away. "...uh..." His expression quickly folds into a tight-lipped smile, but his eyes are bright with regret. "Ah... Akaashi. You're. Talking. Um. Wow, look at the time! I'll just wait inside! See you soon!"
(The door slams shut, but not before Kuroo's facepalm can be heard. Akaashi slumps back into his scarf. Bokuto staring back at his feet. Their sighs echo at the same time. Bokuto holds his hand in place for another moment, but the mood is gone, the air is cleared, and he's left with the strange, bitter, jealous feeling at the edge of his mind, anticipation for their dinner celebration, and a desire to do something, anything, to make Akaashi smile once before he goes.
Maybe complicated was the right word after all.)
"I should probably head back. Kuroo will come drag me there if I don't." He gives one last squeeze before he pushes himself to his feet, fingers trailing away from dark scarf and white shirt. Akaashi stands after him, stuffing his hands back into pockets as he goes. Bokuto tries flashing him a grin, which almost gets returned. Almost. "Hey, Akaashi... really, thank you for telling me. About this. I think it did make things easier to sort, and... less confusing. I won't pry more if you don't want me to, but if you want to talk... well, I'm here, and I have Oikawa's number, if you need it."
"...Thank you." He scuffs his shoe against the step, a smile tugging up his face, little by little. "You're a good friend."
"Of course! This is what friends are for." He gives Akaashi a huge shoulder pat, leaning his head in. He catches Akaashi's eye, and his grin tugs wider. "I'm sorry meeting your favourite player didn't go how I thought it was going to, but, I'm glad it worked out anyway. If you need anything, just text me while I'm out, okay? I promise I'll check my phone."
(Bokuto makes it two inches backwards before Akaashi's hands launch up, gripping his wrists, careful to avoid the bruise. Akaashi's eyes are wide, tinged with something that Bokuto might mistake for fear, but it flashes, flickers in a different way. Desperation.)
"Wait, wait, you can't go. I almost forgot." Akaashi's hands tighten, though Bokuto hasn't moved any further back. He only tilts his head to the side. He feels his eyebrows crinkle inwards, his mouth half open. "I tried to tell you earlier, but then Oikawa showed up, and he interrupted, and, I just realized this is going to sound stupid, now, after all this, or fake? But... gah, this is why I tried to tell you earlier!"
"Huh?" Bokuto blinks, both at the exclamation and because he has no idea where this is going. He wants to check Akaashi's temperature. "Akaashi, what are you talking about?"
"Do you remember, when we first went out for lunch?" Akaashi's voice picks up speed. He squeezes his hands, as he speaks, each word making him grip tighter, until Bokuto flinches. Akaashi drops his hands immediately. "Sorry. You asked if all you had to do to be my favourite player was play better than Oikawa. And, I really wanted to tell you before, but I think... of everyone here, in the tournament, even on your team, you played the best. That's all."
"Are you serious?" The bubbles begin again, bursting in his chest, angry victory and excitement, but he tries to focus on the present. His fingers twitch - a reminder that the time he has is beginning to wind down - but he tightens them to stop it. He just needs one more minute. "You can't leave it there. You gotta say it. I want to hear you say it."
(The look Akaashi gives is without guilt, without malice, and full of annoyance. It makes Bokuto smile, even before he speaks.)
"You're my favourite player, Bokuto."
(It's not quite in him to have another big reaction: the exhaustion's finally caught up with him between the long game, the pep talks, the victory, the defeat, the unknown, and this. He still feels the swell of pride another bubble in his mind, but he can't manage a yell or fist pump, or much of anything else, really. It settles in it chest, but it doesn't settle his chest, and the sensation is odd against the lingering pangs of jealousy.
The ground has caught Akaashi's attention again, and all Bokuto can see is the top of his head. Bokuto shifts a hand, from shoulder to chin, tilting Akaashi's face up. He studies his face, his expression, the bit of colour in his cheeks around the dark scar and dark curls. Bokuto has a nagging feeling there's something he should do, or say, but it doesn't come to him. He watches, and waits, but Akaashi doesn't fill the gap until he speaks.)
"I know I've made a bit of a mess of things, today, for you, so I hope that helps you feel a bit more like yourself," Akaashi mumbles. He closes his eyes, biting his lip. "You should probably head back inside, or something. I know you get antsy if you're not on time."
"...Yeah, I should." Akaashi peeks an eye open as Bokuto draws back, arms back at his sides. He stuffs them in his own pockets to keep from rubbing the back of his neck. "And... regardless of everything else, Akaashi, seeing you was still the best part of today. Olympics and all."
(A pause stretches, and Akaashi looks at him, the slanting white light between the clouds shuttered across his face. It lights his eyes, not greener, but brighter, a bit of the tiredness melting away. Something's different in the smile he has - something gentler, more honest than Bokuto's seen before. Bokuto itches for his camera, for anything besides his mind, to record it. He wants to see it again, and it hasn't even disappeared yet.)
"You really are more than I deserve, Bokuto Koutarou."
(A breath on the wind, and Bokuto barely catches it, close as they are. As if the look wasn't enough.
Akaashi gives him a shove, gentle as his smile, two hands on his chest. He nods at the door. Bokuto hovers until Akaashi pushes, more firmly, shaking his head. The smile slips away, retreating back under the layer of tiredness settling on Akaashi's shoulders. Bokuto takes the hint and walks up the steps, slow and careful. When he reaches the door, he checks back over his shoulder, and Akaashi is still looking, still watching, the expression back on his face as if he'd only tucked it away until he thought Bokuto couldn't see it anymore. Bokuto wants to ask what it means, but the door is there, and the time is pressing, and he can't take the time now to ask.
But they'll talk later. He's sure of that.)
this is the longest chapter i've written so far for this fic, so thank you all for reading!! :) all your comments last chap were delightful to read, so i hope you enjoy the conclusion to this arc hehe
as a note updates will be slow the rest of the month due to me needing to take time to write gifts... sadly i have yet to master writing 2 stories at the same time. but i'll be back working on it as soon as i can to bring you the final story arc!
Chapter 21: The Right Amount of Awkward
"What the hell are you doing that requires you to make so much noise this early in the morning?" Kuroo's voice is heavy with sleep and the hint of disbelief he gets whenever Bokuto's up to something. Bokuto turns, sitting in the foyer, encircled by every shoe in the entire apartment. Kuroo's definitely just woken up - his hair is even worse than usual. Behind him, Kenma hovers, eyes glued to his phone. He likely hasn't slept. Kuroo pinches the bridge of his nose. "What. The hell. Is this mess."
"I'm looking for the match to this shoe!" Bokuto replies, holding up the red and black skater shoe from his lap. "I had to go through the closet, and then I tripped, and, well, we aren't exactly tidy people, so everything kind of fell and I had to organize it. Also, it's 8:30. You usually wake up at seven. It's only early for little boys who stayed up past their bedtime watching Kenma play Playstation. Mornin', Kenma!"
"Good morning," Kenma replies. His doesn't look up. Kuroo rolls his eyes and huffs.
"My bedtime is later than yours, old man. Anyway, who cares? You have like, ten matching pairs around you." Kuroo sticks a finger in his ear and starts cleaning it. Bokuto ignores him, turning back to the circle of shoes he's encased himself in.
"I'm going out with Akaashi today, remember? We're going to the lake."
"...And? Why are you dressing up for Akaashi? Guy sees you sweaty and rumpled every day. I don't think he'd care if you showed up in your PJs, at this point." Kuroo makes a huge popping sound with his mouth as he, likely, pulls his finger out of his ear. Bokuto doesn't look back up, but he does flip him off.
"I'm not dressing up! I just like these shoes and I never get to wear them anywhere!" Bokuto checks under a pair of Nike's he's looked under three times already. Nothing.
"Maybe you don't get to wear them because you can't find anything in here," Kenma murmurs. Bokuto whips his head around, frowning. Kuroo laughs, giving Kenma a hearty slap on the back. Bokuto curls a hand around one of the Nikes, eyeing the distance between his spot on the floor and Kuroo's open mouth.
"Try your bedroom," Kuroo huffs out between laughs. He ducks just in time to avoid the shoe hurtling towards his head.
Ten minutes later, Bokuto discovers Kuroo's right about where the missing shoe is. Ass.
"Hey." Akaashi taps his foot against Bokuto's to get his attention as the train doors close. Bokuto pulls his eyes away from the window and blinks. He's mid way between opening his mouth and yanking out his headphones when Akaashi taps their feet together again. "Nice shoes."
"Oh, why thank you!" Bokuto mentally fist pumps as he squares his shoulders, a smug grin forming on his face. "Aren't they awesome? They're really comfy-" Bokuto cuts himself off as Akaashi pointedly meets his gaze, then stares at the floor. Bokuto knows that cue by now. He leans forward, looks down. Two identical pairs of shoes look back up. "Holy shit. Holy - you're joking, right? I'm texting Kuroo. And he said it didn't matter what shoes I wore."
"They're certainly - what did you just say? 'Really comfy'?" Akaashi flashes a smirk and gives a small shake of his head. Bokuto whips out his phone and snaps a picture of their feet. Akaashi's still for it but for a shift of his knees, when the train rounds a curve, to keep his balance.
(And the shift catches Bokuto's eye, somehow: he pauses mid-text to take in Akaashi's outfit. The scarf around his neck - Bokuto's scarf, Bokuto's gift - matches the reds of his shoes. The greens in his eyes, sharpened by the morning sun. Purple beneath them, darkened by what was likely a bad night's sleep. His shirt, grey and white, an English phrase Bokuto can't quite understand sprawled across it. His messenger bag, a lot lumpier than usual, slung comfortably across his body.
There's something about his look, something Bokuto can't place in the ease of Akaashi stuffing hands into his jean pockets as the train slows again. It all fits together, from his dark curls to their matching shoes to the angle of his head. Bokuto's staring - he notices only when he sees Akaashi raises his eyebrows, just a little. Just enough. He opens his mouth to apologize.)
"You look good today." The words are out before they're processed in his mind. Akaashi blinks, the tilt of his head changing, less accusing then it had been seconds ago. Bokuto throws his hands up as the words catch up to him, waving them frantically, as his own eyes widen. "I mean, I just, um-"
"Thank you." Bokuto's mouth hangs open wider than his eyes. Akaashi looks over his head, out the window, but for once he doesn't move to hide the smile on his face. Maybe he doesn't notice it. "So do you."
(Bokuto closes his mouth, but he doesn't stop staring, the remnants of Akaashi's smile and the morning sun on his face drawing him in, second by second. Akaashi doesn't tell him off. Bokuto doesn't know what to make of it, but he doesn't question it, either.)
Bokuto has always liked the lake.
There's something special about it, the blue water, the tall trees. There's a richness of greens in the parkland surrounding it, a depth to the greys and browns of the rocky shoreline. It isn't an escape from the city - the high rises, apartments, still tower in the distance no matter what way you look. But Bokuto doesn't want it to be an escape, or even a separation: the lake is part of the city, of the sprawl, as much as the buildings and lights, as much as he is. There's a different sort of beauty, here.
Akaashi has never been before.
His eyes are wide, taking in each of the sights one after the other. He looks to the lake so often in the first few minutes of their arrival that Bokuto can't help his grin when he asks if Akaashi wants to start the day there. It's no time at all before they're crouched on the slippery rocks, Bokuto trailing his fingers in the cool water as Akaashi stares towards the horizon, the edge of the lake, the distance he often searches. The light ripples in his eyes like it dances on the water, green and blue. One catches Bokuto's attention more than the other.
When Akaashi agrees to a selfie without any nagging or begging, Bokuto knows he's having a good time.
Their phones don't leave their hands after that, even as they leave the edge of the lake to walk. Akaashi snaps as many pictures as Bokuto does, leaning over to compare their shots of the same tree, asking questions and tips for keeping the phone steady, telling Bokuto to send him pictures of birds he isn't quick enough to catch himself. Bokuto snaps pictures of people as well, tidbits of the lives of others at the lake in the late summer air, glimpses into their own happiness.
Whenever Akaashi isn't looking, Bokuto takes pictures of him, too. Small moments and expressions, from the tilt of his head as he reads a sign about the lake's history, to the tiniest parting of his lips when he sees a hawk soar past, to the little wring of his hands as he tries not to show his nervousness stammering directions to tourists. He catches Bokuto once, turning back around a little too quickly for Bokuto to lower the phone. The flat look he gives lasts an entire five minutes - five minutes that Bokuto spends whining and apologizing, even though he finds he doesn't feel that sorry at all.
"Bokuto, come here." Bokuto looks up from his careful studying of a spider in the grass, rubbing the dirt off his hands onto his jeans. Akaashi, from out of nowhere, has produced a large checkered blanket and placed it on the flat, grassy ground. He gestures, impatiently, and Bokuto scrambles to his feet.
"Akaashi, what is this? Where did you get this from?" Akaashi shoots him an exasperated look, then darts his eyes to his messenger bag. Bokuto smacks himself in the forehead. "Gah, stupid question. So, like, why do you have it, then? If you didn't wanna sit on the grass, there's benches, you know?"
"It's time to eat."
"Well, yeah, but I figured-" Bokuto cuts himself off with an 'oof' as Akaashi shoves something into his chest. A box. He scrambles to hold it as Akaashi pulls back, pulling another small box from his bag. It's only then it registers in Bokuto's mind they're bento boxes. "Wait, did you make lunch?"
"Mhm. I thought it'd be nice to stay here and eat, and you said you liked what I made that time at your house. You're allowed to picnic, here so long as you don't leave a mess behind. I checked. Sit down, Bokuto, and stop gaping like that." Bokuto snaps his mouth shut and sits down. Akaashi hands him a pair of chopsticks, opening his own lunchbox. "There's another in the bag for each of us, since I know how much you eat. I hope it's to your liking."
(Bokuto stares from the box in his lap, to Akaashi opening the box in a fluid movement, to the lake, and thinks he'd likely eat anything Akaashi made for him, even if he hated it.
When he tries it, he very much does not hate it. He tells Akaashi it's the best thing he's ever eaten. Akaashi tells him to stop cramming food into his mouth or he'll choke. He begins to protest, and chokes on the food. Akaashi laughs. It's the best thing he's ever heard.)
"So... your favourite player, huh?" Bokuto leans back on his elbows, toes stretching in front of him, shoes discarded on the side of the checkered blanket. Akaashi sighs as he closes his messenger bag, the empty bento boxes replaced. Bokuto takes that as the perfect time to practice his sly grin and eyebrow waggling. "C'mon, Akaashi, you didn't expect me to go an entire day without mentioning it."
"I'm allowed to hope." Akaashi shifts off his own shoes, placing them neatly down. He takes a moment to straighten Bokuto's before sitting, cross-legged, on the blanket. His face is a little droopy, his mouth set. Resigned to his fate. "Let's get this over with, then. What do you want to talk about specifically?"
"Weeeeell... I wanna know why! Do you have some kind of points system? You know a lot about players' styles and scoring, and I wouldn't be surprised if you just did like, number crunching in your head. Or were your eyes just finally opened to the strength and majesty of my spikes?"
"None of those things, especially not the last one." Bokuto lets out a low whine, ramping up for a louder complaint. Akaashi flicks him in the temple. "Don't yell. I wouldn't say it's just your skills - and while those are impressive, I wouldn't call them 'majestic'. Ever. It's more... how you change the team around you."
"Huh?" Bokuto purses his lips. He narrows his eyes, one hand lifted to rub the back of his neck. The action makes him almost lose balance, and he slams back down onto his elbows. "What do you mean?"
(Silence, as Akaashi's own lips purse, as his eyes seek out the lake between the gaps of people, the gaps of trees, as he thinks. Silence, but not real silence: the air is alive around them, the laps of the lake, the songs of the birds, the lives of the crowd. Silence, but only found between them.)
"You're very reliable. And you always make an effort, wherever the ball is. Your team can look to you, for you, any time, and you'll be there. You're very confident - even if it's a bit much - and that makes the rest of your team feel confident, too. You keep them motivated very easily, just by being yourself, in a way Hiro didn't and Ushijima can't." Akaashi picks at the ends of his sleeves. Bokuto tries to catch his eye, but Akaashi seems intent on not looking over. His voice drops quieter, but there's enough of the silence left for Bokuto to catch his words. "I really admire that about you."
"...Akaashi..." He does his best not to whine or shout, but it isn't enough to draw Akaashi's attention. He hides his face in his scarf as Bokuto tries again. "Thank you, Akaashi."
(And there's more to say - more he wants to say. But the words won't come to his lips, even though they tumble in his mind. There's surprise in his hesitation - somehow, he hadn't really thought he'd get an answer, an honest answer, out of Akaashi. The praise is nothing he hasn't heard before, either. But still, the words don't come.
The angle of the sun must have shifted, because his face feels much warmer than it had a few minutes before. He sits up, rubbing his cheeks, only to notice Akaashi doing the same thing, his face flushed. It clicks in Bokuto's mind that, perhaps, it isn't really any warmer outside after all.
He really doesn't know what to do with that realization.)
"We should probably head back soon," Akaashi mumbles. He fidgets his hand, first at his scarf, then at the blanket beneath them. "We can't stay all day."
"Haha, guess not," Bokuto agrees. The laugh sounds forced (because he forces it), but Akaashi nods along all the same. Bokuto rubs at his cheek, a little bit harder, wondering if he can force the blush off his face before he speaks again. "D'ya wanna do one last walk along the lake before we go?"
"Sure." Akaashi doesn't move to stand. Neither does Bokuto. Absent, at the same time, they both rub their cheeks.
Bokuto finds a calmness in those last few moments at the lake. He finds it in Akaashi's short laughs and quips, his harsh looks and familiar habits. He finds it in the distance, ever shrinking, between them, in Akaashi's arm brushing his as they walk. It stays with him, as they cross from nature to city, from lake to station. He pulls out his phone at the platform, turning for one last picture of the lake, when what he really wants is a picture of Akaashi, trying not to smile as the train pulls in.
Chapter 22: Change
The week passes more quickly than Bokuto would like, but not so fast he can't enjoy himself. Of course, there's a lot to catch up on that isn't fun, first: he and Kuroo spend a whole day cleaning the apartment, top to bottom, end to end. They find long lost treasures in the cracks behind the couch, the tight spots behind desks, under heaps of clothes not moved in a month. Empty prescription bottles, crinkled highschool photos, forgotten video games, all from another era - almost another life. They blast music and shove each other, elbows in each others' sides, laughing and singing along. Off key, warbling, but at least the words are right.
Bokuto even manages to get their shoes organized.
The rest of the time they spend with friends, and each other. They go out with Oikawa and Nishinoya and get drunk at karaoke, still singing in the cab they split back to their apartment to crash. Kuroo drags Kenma out shopping as Bokuto meets up with Konoha and Washio for lunch, only for all five of them to meet up coincidently at dinner. Bokuto and Kuroo cram the past months' worth of movies into a single afternoon at the cinema. Bokuto eats six hot dogs and two bags of popcorn on his own. He only feels a little sick afterwards.
They pick up Akaashi for lunch for the first time in too long. The familiarity of the routine returns, from Akaashi's dry remarks, from Kuroo's impatience with Bokuto's whining, from the three of them shuffling down the sidewalk, hands flying in gestures and noogies. Bokuto hovers at the edge of campus when they return, not leaving until the last hint of colour from Akaashi's scarf disappears behind brick wall. Kuroo tells him it's his fault when they miss the train by the extra minute he loitered. Bokuto thinks it's worth it.
At the end of the week, he and Kuroo go separate ways to see their parents. Bokuto is greeted by the same big smiles and laughs from his mother and father that he shares with others, the familiar scent of something cooking that might be a little burnt bursting through the front door. His father makes him bend down so he can kiss his forehead. His mother asks if they get to go to the Olympics now, too, and how she wants to watch diving. He spends his day helping around the house, moving furniture, pulling weeds, and hiding ingredients and heirlooms on the top shelves where neither of his parents can reach - only to bring them back down when they notice.
He and Kuroo return with armloads of homemade food, though Bokuto's is a little more burnt than anything Kuroo brings back. They spend their final night off, feasting and watching TV, until, with stomachs full and eyes drooping, they have no choice but to go to bed.
"Bokuto? Do you have a moment?" Masuda taps him on his shoulder as he speaks. Bokuto turns, towel draped around his neck, head tilting to the side. He gives a glance to Nishinoya, who gives him a thumbs up before sliding over to Kuroo. He steals a look at the clock. Ten minutes left on the break. He flips his mouth to a smile.
"Seems like it!" Bokuto gestures to the bench behind them. Masuda hesitates, but with a roll of his shoulders, he takes a seat. Bokuto sits beside him, back straight, positioning himself in the most mature manner he can. He hears Kuroo snort as he walks off, and he holds the pose just to spite him. "What's up, Masuda? Something on your mind?"
"Hmm, I suppose you can say that." Masuda's eyes wander the gym, and Bokuto follows them across the team as they rest, the first break on the first day back. An ache finds its way into Bokuto's shoulders and back from sitting so straight, but he doesn't drop his pose, just in case Kuroo's looking. When he turns back, Masuda is staring into the distance. There's a smile on his face, but just barely. "I've been telling some of the guys, and Coach will talk about it tomorrow, but I wanted to... you've been great, especially lately, Bokuto. For the team, and for all of us."
"Masuda? You... feeling okay?" Bokuto sacrifices his stiff backed pose to slouch down and put a hand on Masuda's shoulder. Masuda doesn't look over. "If something's up, you can tell me, or I can-"
"I'm going to leave the team." Masuda closes his eyes and misses Bokuto's start, but he does flinch when Bokuto squawks. He raises a hand for silence. Bokuto bites down on his lower lip and tries to keep himself from jumping off the bench. It's another kind of tension that sweeps his mind as Masuda shrugs his shoulders and touches his chest. "For a while now... the spark's just not there. I've been playing on this team for almost five years. I'm starting to get old, for the sport. I've been to the Olympics. I don't think I have another in me. And... I don't think the team needs me."
"Masuda?!" Bokuto glances around the gym, scraping his mind for the words. He's on his feet, unable to keep himself from launching into the air this time. He scrambles, hands flailing at his sides. "I... holy shit. I didn't, I mean, I didn't expect- I can't imagine-"
"This is why I especially wanted to tell you ahead of time," Masuda's voice is low, light. When he stands, it's a slow motion, casual. Light. "Bokuto... the team has to change at some point. I won't be going until we find a replacement, but I will be going. Coach agrees it's the right thing for the team. I want to see you all win at the Olympics, and I don't think you can do that with me. Someone has to back Oikawa up, but it... just won't be me. And I think... I've thought, for a while now, that it's okay if it's not me."
"Bokuto! C'mere!" Coach barks. Bokuto starts again, shoulders jumping to his ears. He darts his eyes between Coach, arms crossed and dwarfed by Ushijima at his side, and Masuda, still smiling. Just a little.
"I'll still be here tomorrow, Bokuto. And the day after. This isn't goodbye, not yet. Just a change. And... you should probably go before Coach has to call you again. You know how he gets." Bokuto nods, takes a step, and hesitates. He clenches his hands into fists. He turns back, arms wide, and envelops Masuda in a bear hug. Masuda squeaks. Bokuto squeezes tighter.
"Dinner. Tomorrow. My treat." He draws back to meet Masuda's eyes, to get the confirmation nod before he steps away. In the background, Coach starts to scowl and glare at the clock. Bokuto gives one final shoulder pat, one last look, before he starts to cross the gym. As he looks away, he can see Masuda sigh, and the relief edging on his face is a force of its own.
It's strange, really.
He doesn't want him to go. Masuda makes quick hand signals for them to run different spikes, as the other half of their team practices blocks against them. Bokuto likes Masuda. He's a good leader, though a little quiet. He sees a lot, understands a lot. He'd been there to welcome Bokuto on the team, the one who hadn't been afraid of the risks he wanted to take, the first one who asked Coach to bump him up to the main team.
But, as Masuda switches for Oikawa, as Oikawa gives a shitty grin and throws the ball in the air for a serve, Bokuto wavers. The team is better with Oikawa, faster and quicker, fresher. It's the way they slam more spikes through the blocks, the way they scramble a little harder for the ball. He can see it clearer now: maybe it's being vice captain, or maybe it's because he's looking, but the air is lighter. Stepping from the shadows into the clear day.
Masuda is a weight on the front lines on a team that needs to be as free as possible. As a teammate, as a leader, he can understand that. Can see it now, in a way, a month ago, he wouldn't have been able to. But the Bokuto who still catches Masuda's cheers from the sidelines, who misses the feel of his sets under his hands, is not quite sure he's ready for it yet.
He makes more spikes than he expects.
Chapter 23: Payoff
"So," Akaashi's voice slides up beside him. There's movement, and Bokuto knows without looking that Akaashi's stuffing his book back into his bag. "What's on your mind?"
"Huh?" Bokuto blinks, drawing his hands out of his pockets. He straightens from the pillar he and Akaashi wait under, blinking the city lights out of his eyes as he turns to face him. "What makes you think something's on my mind?"
"You aren't exactly the best at hiding your feelings, Bokuto. And you spent two hours texting me how excited you were to ride the train together again, and then you didn't notice me walk up." Akaashi leans back, head tilting to the side. His eyes study Bokuto's face. There's something about them, some extra note of concern, that makes it hard for Bokuto to look away. "Did something happen at practice?"
(His mind grinds, skids to a halt. He shouldn't tell Akaashi about Masuda leaving. It isn't public. Hell, half the team doesn't know yet. He could be vague. Akaashi would understand. He could wait and talk to Kuroo, too.
But Kuroo's not here right now, watching him, arms crossed, lips pursed, trying not to show how worried he is. Kuroo isn't here, dark eyes searching, fingers twitching, ready to help. The thing on his mind isn't something to be worried about, and Bokuto wants to reassure Akaashi, to tell him he's alright, that he's not upset. He wants to make him smile.
The thought jars him - he can't place its start, its origin in his mind. His stomach twists, his mind wheeling, and he makes a stupid decision.)
"I'm going to write something on my phone, and you can't tell anyone, okay?" Akaashi nods, his lips drawing tight, as if he can sense something's off. Bokuto whips his phone out, writing the message quickly before flipping the screen around. Akaashi takes it, skims, and drops the phone. Only Bokuto's quick reflexes manage to save it from the ground.
"He's-?!" Akaashi cuts himself short as Bokuto raises a finger to his lips and shushes, louder than Akaashi had spoken. He glances over his shoulder at the usual crowd, but no one, not even the lawyers, look over. "You shouldn't- I mean - really, Bokuto. We're friends, but this isn't something - it's a secret, isn't it?"
"Everyone's gonna know tomorrow," Bokuto mutters. He stuffs the phone in his pants and shifts his feet. Akaashi's expression has lost all of its patience and openness, but the concern is still there, somewhere around his glare and drumming fingers. Bokuto clears his throat. "You wanted to know what was on my mind! And, I guess, I'm not so much upset, I just... I get why, and that's weird to me? I feel like I should be upset? I'm just..."
(His sigh is heavy, his shoulders slouching, his eyes squeezing shut against the light of the incoming train. His stomach still churns, but not like anxiety, not like sadness. He feels the air pick up, feels something brush his upper arm, debris in the wind.
Then it grabs it.
His eyes snap open, and it's Akaashi's hand there, Akaashi standing in front of him, Akaashi giving it a small squeeze and giving him the small smile he'd hoped for as the train grinds to a stop behind them.)
"It's alright, Bokuto. I think I understand. Come." Akaashi draws his hand away, slowly, as he walks to the train. Bokuto stares, first at the back of Akaashi's head, then at his arm, as he trails after. He takes his seat as Akaashi gets into his spot in front of him. "I'm not going to say much, considering... our location, and the information, but there's nothing wrong with... with being grateful for what he did in the past, and what he's doing now. Not feeling sad doesn't mean... it isn't a bad thing. I promise."
(When Bokuto thinks it, his mind tumbles in on itself, endlessly chasing the same point, over and over. Akaashi saying it is a cool breeze, a gentle nudge at his shoulder. He isn't sure when he began to trust Akaashi this much, but he's glad for it, as he turns the words over in his mind.)
"Thanks, Akaashi. Really. You're so good at words, and I'm just..." Bokuto makes one of his famous vague gestures. Akaashi blinks for a moment before he reaches out, his hand resting on Bokuto's shoulder as the train creeks to a start. Bokuto looks at his feet. His chest feels tight, suddenly. He tries to laugh, and it comes out shaky. "Feelings, right?"
"Mm. I understand that." Akaashi shrugs his arm back a little too quickly, and Bokuto checks his shoulder to see if there's something on it. Akaashi shifts his feet, a little more than he has to, his hands going right into his pockets. He stares out above Bokuto's head, his lips pressed tight.
(Bokuto wonders what he's avoiding.)
"I suppose you can try and look forward to getting a new teammate," Akaashi notes. He doesn't look down. "It won't be the same, of course, but you're always excited about good players. It'll keep your mind off things. There's plenty of time before the submission deadline for your team at the Olympics."
"Huh...! That's a good idea, Akaashi. I'll try it." Bokuto grins, but Akaashi's still not looking at him. It morphs into a frown. He leans back in his seat, tapping his chin. "I bet Coach will have us..."
(The idea, faint at first, grows roots into his mind as his voice trails off. His eyes slide to the right to catch the green flash through Akaashi's eyes as they pass the bright streetlights. Bokuto feels his grin bloom as the thought unfurls in his head. It might be the best damn thing he's done all day.)
"Yknow, Akaashi... we'll need to look at new setters."
"Obviously." Akaashi's voice is cold and blunt. He gives a glance at Bokuto's face, withering, the perfect compliment to his tone. There's a flash of confusion when he sees Bokuto's grin. It only grows wider on Bokuto's face as he speaks.
"So... you're a setter, yeah? Can I try and scout you, Akaashi?"
"Can you - can you what?" Akaashi snaps to attention, eyes flying wide.
"See, Coach likes us to go scout players we think would be a good fit for the team. He knows we all have friends in other leagues or our old clubs, and he trusts us to judge them on ability, not our friendship. And Coach judges for himself from there and makes the calls, even if no one's recommended a player! Nishi's got one of the best clubs going, and someone's gonna end up there for sure. And you did say I could come watch you in a match." Bokuto nudges their knees together, the grin never leaving his face. "So what do you think? Can I come watch you play and see if you're up to par for a National team?"
"I..." Akaashi's mouth works, without sound. He lurches as the train comes to a stop, his eyes bugging even wider. Bokuto reaches a hand out, steadying him as the doors open. Akaashi takes a shaking breath and rights himself. He pauses, eyes dating to Bokuto's for a moment. Then he spins on his heel and sits down beside him.
(Bokuto stares at the side of his head as Akaashi closes his eyes. His lips part, just a little, as he exhales. His hands are flat on his legs, but shaking. His expression is unreadable: Bokuto wonders if it's nerves, or excitement, or both. He wonders if it'd be going too far to hold his hand.)
"Are you serious?" Akaashi finally stutters. His hands curl into fists, and Bokuto feels himself frown. "You want to scout me? Do you... I just... do you think I'm good enough?"
"Akaashi... c'mere, lemme tell you a secret." Akaashi turns his head, his glare telling Bokuto exactly what he remembered from the last secret. Bokuto puts on an innocent face, pouting, until Akaashi rolls his eyes. He leans in, a little, and Bokuto closes the rest of the gap, until their foreheads are almost touching.
"I don't know." Akaashi narrows his eyes. Bokuto winks. "I haven't seen you play. The real question is, do you think you're good enough?"
(He hesitates. It's in his whole body: his face ducking half into his scarf, his shoulders going up, his fingers twisting and picking at each other. It's there, again, the familiar haunt, the looming past, a question Akaashi hasn't given air to with him, but Bokuto has learned to recognize. He struggles with something, his face twisting, and Bokuto's hand shoots out without his permission to cover Akaashi's.
He feels Akaashi's tension, feels him relax, feels the shaking subside and the fidgeting subside and the unknown fade to the back of his mind. As Bokuto gives a small squeeze - and just one, just one, as he realizes where his hand is and what he's doing with it - Akaashi straightens. He meets Bokuto's eyes, and the green and black is dazzling, inhuman.
Bokuto draws his hand back, tears his eyes away, but not soon enough to stop his heart from pounding.)
"I think I am," Akaashi says.
"Play your best for me, Akaashi," Bokuto mumbles. He stares down at his shoes, hands firmly against his legs. He doesn't manage to make eye contact with Akaashi for the rest of the train ride.
The announcement the next day at practice is followed by rounds of hugs, shouts, and back pats. Masuda is the center of attention, affection. The air is light enough to breathe, Bokuto's chest loose enough to appreciate it. The softness is still there around Masuda as he smiles and returns the hugs, the laughter, the tears. It takes a while to get back into the swing of drills.
At lunch, Bokuto slips away, tapping Ushijima's shoulder - and he follows without question, eyes dark with understanding. Bokuto recites his speech in his head, over and over, the entire walk to the office. He only manages to get ten words in before Coach waves his hand and tells them he wouldn't consider sending anyone else to look at Nishi but his captain and vice-captain. His eyes glitter, arms folded, as he explains what makes a good setter - maturity, strength, leadership, skill. He dismisses them with a reminder to let him know when they'll be missing practice to scout.
Bokuto wonders if Oikawa's introduction at the qualifier had sparked Coach's interest in the team, or if he'd known about Akaashi Keiji long before.
Practice is only interrupted once more - by Oikawa and Kuroo, faces matching in indignation, as Ushijima tells them after a rally he and Bokuto would be scouting Nishi. Kuroo protests his desire to watch a blocker from his high school, Lev, in action, which Ushijima dismisses with icy calm. Oikawa mutters about being an expert on setters, grinding his nails into his palms, his toes into the floor.
Bokuto thinks he wants to see Akaashi play, too.
The hours slip by, drills and breaks and meetings held on the sidelines, around Coach and clipboards and tablets. The sun sets and the nets come down, and on the steps outside the gym, Bokuto slings his arm around Masuda's shoulder, a little too tightly, and asks him where he wants to go for dinner.
"Run it by me again." Bokuto taps his fingers against the armrest on his bleacher seat, eyes narrow. He keeps his back straight, only his neck and head turned to the side to stare down his quarry. Below them, Ushijima stands with the teams' coaches and assistants, voices too low and too far to hear. "What are the two of you doing here?"
"Scouting," Kuroo replies, eyes full of faux innocence. The extra fast blinking makes him look like he has something in his eye. Behind him, Oikawa pulls his snapback lower on his face, resting against the top of his leopard print sunglasses. His face is almost completely obscured otherwise by a popped collar. "Just like you. And might I say, what a surprise it is to see you-"
"Oh that is such crap, Kuroo! Coach told me and Ushijima scout Nishi, not you two," Bokuto snaps. He puts on his stern expression, the one he uses when someone fumbles an easy receive or someone cuts him off in line. Kuroo has the nerve to roll his eyes. If Oikawa reacts, he can't tell. "You really expect me to believe you're just coincidently here the same day I'm watching Akaashi play, after both of you griping about us being here?"
"Sheer coincidence!" Kuroo insists, as Oikawa mutters something that sounds a bit like a 'yes'. Kuroo's smile falters. Oikawa starts munching nuts he draws from his pocket. "We were sent to look at Chuo, who Nishi happens to be playing, and we decided to reschedule our scouting to today because-"
"Bull. Shit. You knew when I was coming. We live together! You're bitter about Lev, Oikawa wants to watch Akaashi play live, and I'm your excuse to show up here."
"Not so loud," Oikawa mutters, the nuts crunching deafening Bokuto's thorough complaints. "I don't want to draw attention. Akaashi doesn't know I'm coming."
"You two are in such deep shit when this is over," Bokuto huffs. He crosses his arms on his chest. Ushijima appears behind them, coming up from the stairs, and Bokuto perks up. Just who he needs. "Ushijima, you smooth things over with their coaches?"
"Yes." Kuroo and Oikawa both flinch at the booming low voice. Bokuto smirks. Ushijima sits in the row behind them. The seat protests, creaking painfully loud. "They seem to accept the reasoning as to why four National level players are camped in their bleachers. But you two will need to answer to our Coach about the change in plans tomorrow. He will not be amused by your childish antics, Oikawa. You're getting too old for this."
"Kuroo did it too!" Oikawa snaps, sitting up on his knee in the seat to glare. Ushijima isn't looking at him at all though. He gazes over his head and to the gym floor below. Oikawa grumbles something under his breath and sits back on his ass. He exchanges a look with Kuroo, or, he probably does, as the sunglasses dwarf his face. "Can you believe-"
"The teams are here," Kuroo interrupts. In one motion the four of them lean forward, Oikawa taking off his sunglasses, Bokuto nearly launching forwards off his seat. His eyes dart around in the last moment of fun he can have before he needs to start working. He spots Akaashi immediately, talking to their libero as they emerge, who stands a full two inches taller than the top of Akaashi's curls. Bokuto makes a mental note to tease Akaashi about being the shortest player on his team. After. For now, he takes on the same serious expression painting Kuroo's face, the same sharpness to his gaze in Oikawa's. It's time to scout.
Akaashi Keiji. 191cm. Setter. Vice captain at Nishi Volleyball Club. Black compression shirt under the Nishi uniform: black and forest green, accented with white. His expression is the same as usual: neutral, attentive, bordering on dry. But there's the focus there, the same when he wraps up a book, when he discusses plays, when he calculates a tip. It's a good sign.
It only takes one gesture from him to get the team to huddle up as their captain is called over to the coaches. He talks, and though Bokuto can't hear the words clearly, he can see the way the other players' shoulders straighten, the slight lean forward, as they listen. He keeps their attention well, flashing hand signs, gesturing to the whiteboard the libero holds for him, even earning a short laugh as he mumbles something, smirking. He doesn't waver, doesn't step back, until their captain arrives with a grin and a laugh of his own.
Akaashi meets Bokuto's eyes in that moment, fingers raised to his temple, flicking out a quick salute. He smiles. It floods the gym, the teams, the dark corners under the bleachers and the bright lights in the rafters. It's just a second, a flash of a moment, before Akaashi's attention returns to the huddle, but for Bokuto the moment stretches for hours, days, eternity.
By the time he manages to lower his heart rate and remember what he's supposed to be doing, the teams are warming up. Nishi has a good line up of players: some Bokuto knows from high schools, some from the other players on his team recommending them. Lev, the one Kuroo tracks with his eyes even though he should be watching Chuo's setter, definitely has the potential, though he doesn't quite measure up to Yoshida. Not yet.
Bokuto's focus, though, is Akaashi.
His form is near perfect. There's no hesitation in his plays, and his movements are subtle and effective. His weight shifts no more than it has to on receives, his feet planted firmly one moment, then flying over the floor the next. His eyes are always moving, wide and dark, calculating. The few spikes he runs are hit at the top of the arc, angled and precise, one landing just inside the line - obvious from Bokuto's view above the gym, impossible to tell from where the opponents team would play.
He's versatile, for a setter. A good quality to have when everyone around you is top of their country. His spikes may not be anywhere near as powerful as Bokuto's or Ushijima's, but their accuracy is on par. Watching him receive another ball and run up to the net, in perfect sequence, Bokuto thinks if Akaashi wants to, he could become a spiker in a heartbeat.
He shifts to the side, and Bokuto knows what's coming: sets. Near hovering on the edge of his seat, Bokuto watches as Akaashi turns to face him. This time there's no smile, no cute salute, no friendly playfulness. Bokuto stares down as the vice captain of the National team. Akaashi meets the look as the vice captain of Nishi, and there's not a hint of the hesitation that he showed on the train, not a glimpse of his nervousness. His eyes blaze, daring Bokuto to look away.
Then he turns his back and Bokuto's mind grinds, screeching, trying to stop itself before he topples over.
Akaashi isn't wearing a scarf.
The fact, on it's own, is not something Bokuto would have thought important. No one wears a scarf playing volleyball. The jarring, the slam on the breaks, the reeling comes from the presence of the large scar slashing across his neck, disappearing down the back of his jersey. The edges are faded, though not quite skin colour, the middle still noticeably dark. The lightning strike across Akaashi's back, the blinding sight bolting through Bokuto's mind, stalling him out.
He'd always thought Akaashi just liked scarves. And maybe Akaashi does. But with a scar visible from this far, with his past looming behind him, threatening and volatile, he doesn't think liking scarves can be the only reason. It only makes sense to cover what must have been the number one conversation starter about it.
Bokuto knows he wouldn't have had the tact not to comment on it, not with Train Guy. But for Akaashi Keiji, who would have known the outcome, who would have realized who was coming to the game, he won't comment. The weight of the gesture, however subtle, is crushing, overwhelming. It's a weight, a promise, an outstretched hand Bokuto will willingly take.
And what he needs to do in exchange for Akaashi's trust is his job. Scouting.
It's two breaths to refocus: he may have missed Akaashi warm up from surprise, but the real place to judge is the game. Two breaths to remember Coach's words, Coach's guidelines for a setter. Two breaths as Nishi's captain raises his hand to serve the first ball.
From that moment onwards, Akaashi dominates the game. There is not an inch of space for any other thought, for any other option. It is not opinion - not to the part of Bokuto watching as vice captain, not to the small part of him watching as Akaashi's friend. It's the truth. Akaashi Keiji is amazing at volleyball.
The form that had been perfect in warm up is enchanting in game. Not a single wasted movement, from his quick reactions to the serve changing course, to his runs across the gym to be wherever the ball is, perfect pass or no, to his eyes, always following the ball, always following everyone else on the court, at the same time. The angle of his wrists on block, to stop or soften spikes, is never wrong, never out of alignment. His calls of when the ball is in or out are accurate down to the last one.
He plays the same way he does everything: methodical, precise, processing information and responding to it before Bokuto can even fully understand what's happening. He knows moods and tones, showing the same insight from the Olympics, but as his own mind races and his body rushes to find the ball. His balance, the same as on the train, is sturdy and strong, and his falls are more planned than accidental.
His jump serves are consistent, strong and well-aimed, except his second one, the outlier on purpose. A tribute, of sorts. It comes as close to Oikawa's terrifying serve as Bokuto thinks another human can manage. Oikawa pulls the hat down over his eyes and slouches as far down as physically possible in his seat as it slams through a receive attempt by Chuo's libero. Hiding, even though Akaashi clearly saw through his disguise, clearly meant for him to know he noticed. Hiding, but smiling, grinning. Oikawa, it seems, has already made up his mind.
Akaashi's sets, his most important skill, are beautiful.
There's no other word for it: in the air, for those few seconds the ball is touching Akaashi's fingers, it's beautiful. It's a work of art. Almost every set is the perfect height for the spiker, exactly what they need to get it the ball over the net, around the block. He trusts the team to get him the ball from a bad receive, and they trust him to know he'll keep it play, whatever the cost. There's no way to tell what way the ball is going when it lands in his fingers - he can flick it backwards over his head without looking, forwards when the arc of it already seems determined to go behind him. He can, and does, dump the ball without blinking, with his eyes still searching for someone free on his team to make a spike he's never going to toss. He doesn't rise to taunts, or jeers from the other team.
Bokuto sees him change his mind mid-set three times, and each time scores a point, avoids a tricky block or a set up to receive, and raises a round of cheers from Nishi. Each time Akaashi spares a glance, a look, up into the bleachers, and it isn't just for Bokuto. He blazes, full glory, for all of them. And no one looks away.
Kuroo's as far forward in his seat as Bokuto, eyes trained and hard, darting to Chuo only to keep up appearances. Oikawa eats nuts, feet propped up on the seat in front of him, snapback over his knee, staring at Akaashi without backing down. Ushijima is silent, unreadable, but there's tension in his neutrality, interest in his eyes, which is an impressive amount of attention to get from him.
Akaashi is as good as any setter they faced in the Olympic qualifiers. He hits every quality Coach wants ten times over. He's the answer to why Nishi has done so well this year, even for a powerhouse of a club. At the centre of their team, at the centre of the world, Akaashi wipes sweat off his forehead and flicks hand signs behind his back, eyes trained on the serve about to come through.
By the time the whistle ends the match, by the time the ball hits the ground, when Nishi takes home victory yet again, Bokuto knows one more truth. He wants Akaashi to set for him. That's the highest recommendation he knows how to give.
whoops forgot ny author's notes
i hope you are all enjoying!! just a note there will be a short pause as i work on getting my valentine's day fic complete for. valentine's day (i hope!!). and then regular scheduled fic will resume.
Chapter 25: The Reward
"There he is!" Bokuto yells, jumping to his feet as Akaashi emerges from the gym doors. His curls are flattened, damp from either a quick shower or dumping a water bottle over his head. His scarf, blue and white, is also wet, making Bokuto think it might have been the water bottle thing. He waits for Akaashi to hit the bottom of the steps before he opens his arms. He waggles his eyebrows, and Akaashi, with a sigh, opens his as well. Bokuto crushes him in a hug. Akaashi's hug is looser, his body heavy with exhaustion after the match. He slumps forwards. "You were amazing! Akaashi, I don't- you just- you're so-! Gah, I shoulda written down my compliments, I have so many-"
"You're crushing me, Bokuto," Akaashi groans. Bokuto yelps, almost dropping his arms in his haste to loosen his grip. Maybe Akaashi hadn't so much 'slumped in exhaustion', but been 'crushed into his chest'. He makes sure his next squeeze is safe levels of tight before he steps back, checking Akaashi for bruises. Akaashi adjusts his scarf and swats Bokuto's roaming hands. "It wasn't that tight, Bokuto. And what happened to the rest of you? I seem to recall there were a few more people in those bleachers."
"Ugh, don't remind me. I'm sorry about that," Bokuto huffs. He wrinkles his face as much as it can go. Akaashi gives a short laugh, gesturing to the path leading off campus. Bokuto stuffs his hands in his pockets and follows Akaashi down it. "Ushijima actually has a reason. He needs time to process his thoughts after scouting, so he headed out after we talked to the coaches. Kuroo, meanwhile, grabbed Lev and they went off for coffee, or drinks, I wasn't really sure which. The mysterious fourth person, who I've never seen before-" he turns to see Akaashi roll his eyes "-dashed off so he could maintain his secret identity."
"Probably for the best." Akaashi's voice is so dry it makes Bokuto break into a laugh. He slaps his knee mid-walk, the action making him stumble to the side of the path. Akaashi continues on without checking over his shoulder. "He's seen me play before, anyway. It's just... been a while. I doubt he was surprised."
(As Akaashi's lips press together, they press a bubble around him. Bokuto rights himself, eases himself back into his spot beside Akaashi as they cross the border, from campus to street. There's tension across Akaashi's shoulders, the now familiar darkness in his eyes. Bokuto feels his chest twinge, feels the pride in there trying to burst through his own closed mouth. He doesn't want Akaashi to be upset.
He wants Akaashi to smile.)
"Hey... 'Kaashi," Bokuto murmurs. He presses his elbow into Akaashi's side, much lighter than he ever would for Kuroo. Akaashi flicks his eyes over. "He was really proud of you, you know. He didn't say anything, but when you imitated his serve, it like, rolled off him. He thinks you're good enough for Nationals."
(Akaashi's eyes dart back to the sidewalk, but his shoulders lose the tension in them. Close. He's almost there.)
"I thought you were amazing back there, too. Your plays are so smart and quick, I couldn't even catch some of them, and that's saying something!" Bokuto feels his voice growing louder, and he taps points off his fingers as the compliments come back to his head. "You always pushed really hard, you kept everyone organized, you had some amazing dumps... you've got great aim for spikes, too, and seeing you change your mind mid-set is just. I don't even have a word for it. Stunning? That's probably close enough. You're definitely what's making Nishi stand out so much this season, and when I see Coach tomorrow, I'm gonna tell him all that and more. I asked you to play your best, and you did! From one vice captain to another - you aced this scouting, Akaashi."
(And there it is. Small - barely tugging Akaashi's lips, fully melting the bubble around him. He closes his eyes, hums, and the afternoon sun shines a little brighter, the air gets a little warmer. The smile opens, blossoms, and Akaashi's eyes snap wide, blazing with the same pride Bokuto feels pounding in his chest. Akaashi tilts his head back, just a bit, gazing at the clouds, the trees. Confidence rolls off him in waves, tilting the earth, the heavens, towards him.
If Bokuto had wanted to look away, he couldn't have. Akaashi's as beautiful now as he was in the match - poised, in his element. Confidence suits him, has always suited him, but seeing it this strong, this bright...
He opens his mouth to voice the thought and the word reverberates in his head. Beautiful. He hadn't noticed choosing that word to fit Akaashi, and, for some reason, he can't find a word to replace it with.)
"Thank you," Akaashi speaks up, jarring Bokuto out of his thoughts. He holds out his arm. Bokuto, still dazed, walks full force into it. He grunts, looking around. An intersection. He eyes the walk sign: flashing, but they could have made it. He shuffles his feet, trying not to dart across the road. Akaashi seems content to wait. The smile still sits on his face. "And thank you for not mentioning..." He waves his hand around his scarf. The scar. "It... means a lot. Both things. And to hear how far I've come. Especially..."
(Akaashi finishes with a sigh and a tug at his sleeves, and Bokuto knows him well enough by now not to say anything more. Instead, he brings out his phone, crouching to catch the angle of the clouds behind the buildings lining the road. He turns the camera on Akaashi, who raises an eyebrow, but lets the photo get taken, damp hair and all. Bokuto feels light when he rises, when the walk signal flicks, when they start walking again.)
"So, you wanna like, go somewhere?" Bokuto asks. "We should celebrate! We could get dinner. My treat?"
"Hmm, tempting," Akaashi muses, tapping his chin. The smile flicks into a smirk, and his eyes twinkle. Bokuto can see him calculating how much food he could eat for free, and regret forms in the pit of his stomach. "But I'll have to pass. I need to get home to study. I've got a test in two days, remember?"
"Uhhhhh, definitely," Bokuto replies, racking his brain for any memory of this test and coming up blank. He avoids the flat look he can feel from Akaashi by pretending to check a text on his phone. Another totally convincing act. "So I can't even take you out for one small dinner until after that?"
"That's right. I need the time to review." Bokuto starts to whine, digging his hands into his hair. Akaashi picks up his walking speed, and Bokuto has to jog the next few steps to keep from being left behind. Akaashi's tone becomes lecturing. "If you have energy to make a scene, you can at least walk a bit faster, Bokuto. I intend to catch a train sometime this year."
"I'm walking plenty fast!" Akaashi rolls his eyes and shifts the bag on his shoulder. Bokuto takes the moment of distraction to dart ahead and flick him in the forehead. The glare is expected, but only makes him grin. "Okay, so, how about we hang after your test? We could do dinner, or there's a movie I've been meaning to watch, or-"
(The idea pops into his head, and he stops his thoughts and his feet in the same moment. Akaashi walks past him, pauses, and turns to stare, questions burning behind his eyes. Bokuto rolls the idea around, head tilting side to side as he debates. He knows Akaashi well enough by now, right?)
"Would you wanna come sleep over?" Akaashi blinks, then scrunches his nose in confusion. He starts walking again. Bokuto scrambles to keep up, words tumbling out of his mouth. "Like, Kuroo and I have them all the time - usually with Kenma - just like, after practice hangouts when we don't have to go out in the morning. Chilling, watching old movies and playing games, making a pillow fort, eating marshmallows until we feel sick... normal adult stuff."
(Akaashi's hesitating. It's in the part of his lips, the pause before he takes to the steps of the train station. Bokuto doesn't press, doesn't comment, but the small bit of hope in his chest flickers. He starts thinking of other plans: the new sushi place opening soon, a day trip to a park. They ascend to the platform, crowded, dense with the afternoon, and he picks his way around people as he picks ideas in his mind. It isn't until they approach their regular spot, as close as they can get, that Akaashi breaks his silence.)
"I sleep terribly." Akaashi fiddles with the scarf, but it's not from discomfort. His expression is resigned, frustrated, like when he loses a point that's unpreventable, or doesn't get the last fry at lunch. "Sometimes I don't sleep. Other times I get nightmares. I need space to get up and move around at night, or to watch something to keep myself distracted. I'm not exactly ideal at sleepovers. But..." He glances up from under his lashes, then down at his feet. "If you're alright with that, I'd like to come, all the same."
(Bokuto's more than alright with that. But he manages not to say it.)
"Don't worry about any of that, Akaashi. I'll let Kuroo know and we'll make sure to show you where everything is ahead of time. You can wake me up too if you get, like, extra bored. My anxiety's kept me up lots, and I know how boring it gets. Brains, am I right?"
"Mm. Just one of those fun little mental illness things," Akaashi mutters. He and Bokuto share a look, flat and tired, for a long moment. Akaashi breaks eye contact first, tilting his head, and, moments later, the sound of the train hits Bokuto's ears as well. "We can probably make it on this one, if it's not too crowded pulling in. As for the sleepover, I'll be free the evening my test. Do you want to do it then?"
"Sure think, Akaashi. After your test on... math?"
"I don't have a math course."
"Right. Uh. Biolo-"
"Whatever! Okay! I have no idea what it's on. But when it's over, we're celebrating. It's a date, Akaashi!"
(He doesn't catch Akaashi's reply, if any, over the screeching of the train and the bustle of the platform. He only catches Akaashi's cheeks, turning red, as he shoves his way through the crowd.)
Bokuto marches into Coach's office before even changing into his uniform the next day. He slams both hands, firmly, on the desk, and tells him he'd be an idiot not to draft Akaashi onto the team as soon as possible. Coach's smile is mild, eyes fierce, as he says it's the third time he's heard that exact phrase this morning, and if Bokuto doesn't want to join Oikawa and Kuroo in extra laps around the gym for going where they shouldn't have been, he'll be careful to watch his language during the rest of his report.
Bokuto bows so low in his apology he smashes his forehead into the desk. He sits down after that.
The rest of Bokuto's report is much more professional, but no less forceful, outlining everything he promised Akaashi, and more. Half way through, Ushijima walks in, making small hums of agreement from the doorway and adding his own points when Bokuto has to stop for air. Coach nods along, almost expressionless, but there's a twinkle in his eye he can't hide, an excitement matching Bokuto's own, that opens a large world of promise. He's considering it.
It's more than Bokuto could have asked for, and exactly what Akaashi deserves.
Chapter 26: Horizon Line
"What's with the bag?" Bokuto cocks his head to the side as Kuroo steps out of the apartment almost a full minute after he told Bokuto to wait outside. He hefts a large duffle, stuffed full, on his shoulder. It seems to impair his fine motor skills, as he fumbles his keys, dropping them twice. Bokuto shoves him aside to lock the door instead. "We're just going to get Akaashi at Nishi. Are you planning to like, hike there?"
"I could've gotten that," Kuroo mutters. He picks up his keys again, throws them in his bag, and draws out a ratty cap he stuffs over his hair. He cracks his neck one way, then the other, before starting to walk. "And, anyway, I'm not going to get Akaashi. You are. I'm taking the train to Kenma's. Place is all yours. Don't burn it down on me."
"Huuuuh? You're ditching? I thought you were gonna hang with us!" Bokuto whines, high pitched, and gives Kuroo's arm a shove. It did explain what Kuroo had been up to instead of enjoying their half-day off by playing phone games with him on the couch. But it didn't answer everything. "Why aren't you sticking around? It woulda been fun to have the three of us chilling. And when were you planning on telling me you were leaving overnight, huh?"
"...You really don't get it, do you?" Kuroo peers out from under the brim of his hat. His expression is withering, as if his mysterious piece of insight is the most obvious thing in the world. Bokuto, having no other course of action left, pulls the brim of the cap down over Kuroo's eyes. Kuroo stumbles, yanks it back, and, in revenge, uses Bokuto's head as an armrest. "Tell you what. If, by tomorrow, you haven't figured it out, I'll tell you."
"Figured what out? You're not pulling off the cryptic wise old man act very well, Kuroo. Tell me."
"Nah. Just trust me," Kuroo replies. He taps the toe of his shoe on the last step of the apartment stairs, straightening as they hit the road. "I have a damn good reason. I'll be back tomorrow. Have a good time without me, y'here? And no whining."
Bokuto spends his entire trip to Nishi whining to Kuroo on the phone, drawing the gaze of the business people on the train, the swarms of strangers on the sidewalk, the students hanging around campus. He stops only when he notices Akaashi at his side, giving him a look that says everything - from how loud Bokuto talks on phone calls, to how long Akaashi's been standing there without him noticing, to how late it's getting.
Bokuto slams his phone closed without saying goodbye. He hopes Kuroo doesn't mind.
The train ride home is shorter than the one there - and though he knows it isn't, not really, it feels that way. With Akaashi there, staring out the window over Bokuto's head, complaining about the test he likely aced, there's no space to focus on how time's really passing. It's impossible to look away. The way Akaashi flicks a curl out of his eyes as the train rounds a corner. How he shifts his bag onto Bokuto's lap when, three stops before getting off, the car gets too crowded to hold it at his side. How he rolls his eyes when Bokuto complains about Kuroo ditching them. Bokuto isn't sure he would have remembered to get off the train if Akaashi hadn't led the way.
As they cross the street, his thoughts shift to the first time, the only other time, he was here with Akaashi, in darkness and anxiety. Now, the light from the sun, the light from Akaashi's smile, the lack of pressure in his mind and shoulders and chest, change everything. He's able to point out the familiar landmarks, the homes of neighbours he knows, the spot where he and Kuroo sometimes find a stray cat they named after Kenma. Akaashi nods along, stepping closer as Bokuto points, following the gestures with his eyes. He doesn't object when Bokuto steps too close and walks into him, but he does when Bokuto dares him to race up the stairs.
Bokuto wins. But not by much.
The atmosphere doesn't waver as time stretches out. They elbow each other throughout two Mario Kart all cup tours, laugh through reruns of old sentai shows, and when Akaashi offers to make dinner, Bokuto only pretends to protest. Akaashi puts him to work prepping vegetables as he seasons meat, hands careful and precise. He hums under his breath in time with the theme song of the show, and he knows it too well for this to be his first time seeing it. Bokuto turns his head to the side, watching without trying to look like he's watching, staring at his faint smile, his lowered eyes, his inner glow. He taps Bokuto's head with a spoon and tells him to get back to work without so much as glancing up. Bokuto tries, but it's hard to find his focus when Akaashi's enjoying himself.
And he is. It's in the tone of his teasing, the huffs when Bokuto arranges the food on his plate in the shape of a face, his refusal to play along when Bokuto tries to make a shot to the garbage bin from across the room, and misses, horribly. It's in his dry laugh at the villains in the sentai, the bright glint in his eyes when he studies old white boards of plays from the corner of his eyes. Bokuto hauls them out from underneath sweaters and plates, and the glint grows brighter as the sun sinks lower. Their arms press together, their heads close and voices low, as Akaashi asks after strategies and plays, staining his fingers red and blue to match the sunset as he smudges the markings, the hours, together.
They build the pillow fort - or, Bokuto does, as Akaashi sits on the edge of the room, eyebrows raised, and plays Granblue on his phone. Bokuto acts as both labourer and architect, standing back to reframe his composition, adjusting chairs and pillows, hauling the couch cushions off as the base. He drapes blankets over and under and around until he's stripped every comfortable surface in the apartment and tied it together in a big, but warm, mess.
They change into pajamas, and Bokuto makes a point of not looking at Akaashi's neck, not mentioning the scarf discarded in his pile of clothes. Instead, Bokuto does what he promised, and gives a tour of anything Akaashi might need when Bokuto's asleep. He runs through how to reset the WiFi, how to open the door to the balcony when it jams, what dishes are clean and what ones are dirty and how to fiddle with the light in the corner so it stays dim instead of fully on. He pulls out extra towels if Akaashi wants to shower, or has some other need for towels, and hands him the softest blanket of the bunch for his personal use.
It's halfway through him hauling out a portable phone charger from his bedroom that Akaashi lays a hand on his shoulder and tells him he's set, and it's okay, and they can go crash in the pillow fort. Bokuto meets his eyes, wanting to confirm, and his brain stalls. Akaashi's expression is soft, from the greens of his eyes to the faint corners of his smile, his body relaxed, his collar hanging a bit too far on one shoulder, the sleeves a bit too far down his hands. Bokuto stares, and stares, and his brain runs in circles, trying to catch what's catching his attention, but he can't place it in the yellow light and the hazy air. He watches as faint lines form at the corner of Akaashi's eyes as he huffs, trying not to laugh, and tells Bokuto to stop staring.
Bokuto doesn't, even as Akaashi leaves the room without him, draping the blanket over his shoulders like a cape. It's another minute before he kick-starts himself into action, chest throbbing, face warm, the phone charger awkward in his hand.
Akaashi's settled when he returns, upright in the fort, busy on his phone grinding through bosses before the day rolls over. Bokuto flicks the lights, one by one, until there's only the faint glow from the windows, the blue light of Akaashi's phone, illuminating his way forward. He tucks himself under a blanket, shifts two pillows, and turns, watching Akaashi watch his screen, the little twitches of success and frustration. His eyes flicker, barely kept open, and every few seconds they close a little longer than the time before. Each time Akaashi is still there, though shifted, as if Bokuto's blinking slowly moves him through his stances in a slow, mesmerizing dance.
The last time he closes them, he feels something cool brush his cheek, and though he knows what it is, who it is, the exhaustion hangs too heavily for him to voice the smile he feels. He lets it spread, small and faint, on his lips, as he slips, ever deeper, into dreams.
A crash resounds through his head, his limbs, and Bokuto bolts upright as soon as the sound registers in his sleep-laden mind. He scrambles out of his cocoon of sheets and pillows as fast as his hands can find air. It takes a few moments for his eyes to adjust, and he blinks, trying to will them to register the scene faster. Before him, in the dim light of a properly adjusted lamp, Akaashi stands, eyes wide with guilt, as green and vivid as the oven clock beside him that reads 3:43am.
Bokuto pauses. It's a slow, simple blink, as he takes in Akaashi lifting the dropped cup back up off the floor, the blanket still tied across his shoulders as a cape, the now cleared counters of the kitchen, a stack of dishes piled in the sink, wet. It's nothing he hasn't done before in the middle of the night, especially the cup-dropping, and waking him isn't anything he wants Akaashi to worry about.
He watches Akaashi shift the cup into its spot on the cupboard, eyes never quite meeting Bokuto's, but watching all the same. Akaashi's feet shift, side to side, and his fingers drum on the edge of the counter. Bokuto isn't sure saying everything's fine is going to make the cut.
Instead, he smiles, waves, and shrugs the sounds, the disturbance, away, as big as he can make it. He points to the balcony as he cocks his head to the side. When Akaashi doesn't follow the gesture, he clears his throat, pointing a little more insistently, using his other hand to wipe the sleep from his eyes. Akaashi's eyes dart to three points: the balcony, Bokuto's finger, Bokuto's face. They connect together, leech the guilt from his eyes and set resolve into his nod. He tugs the ends of his sleeves over his hands. He takes a few steps, but not many, and waits.
Bokuto's turn, then. He taps Akaashi on the forehead, light, as he walks past, just to see Akaashi wrinkle his nose. Bokuto's laugh is barely there, still mired in sleep, but genuine, from his chest and head and heart. He's had enough rest to spend a bit of time helping Akaashi feel better. He pulls back the curtains, forces the balcony door open, and the cool, night air rushes in to greet them both.
It's a sight he's seen a hundred times, and one he loves.
The black sky, bleached at the horizon by yellow lights. The tall buildings, urban mountains, scattered far, near, and every spot in between. Dancing lights from the streets, from the other apartments, from the variety store at the corner. The modern stars in a city, in a small corner of the universe, where the ones from space can no longer be seen. The new forming constellations, ones he's named himself a hundred times over, after familiar routes, familiar sights, familiar people.
There's something in his hand before it even starts to itch. Akaashi stands beside him, closing Bokuto's hand over the object, raising his arm up. Akaashi's phone. Bokuto opens the camera, adjusts the angle, and adds to his never ending collection of moments, slivers of time, another repetition of a scene so common, so unique. He sends it to his own phone, hidden somewhere under pillows and blankets and hours of sleep. The phone passes back into Akaashi's waiting hands.
He steps over the threshold, Akaashi one step behind.
The fresh air is welcome, but the cement balcony is colder than he'd expected, and the shiver runs up his body even as he fights to stop it. He shakes his head, bits of hair stinging his eyes. Something hits the back of his head, spills over his shoulders - the blanket Akaashi had been wearing. Bokuto glances down. Akaashi, of course, is wearing slippers.
Bokuto shifts the blanket around on his shoulders, around his arms, and sits. The cold seeps into his legs, but it's not too bad, and the longer he rests, the more he adjusts, the warmer it feels. He hums a note, low and quick, to match the buzz in the edge of the air, the break in the stillness of the night. He looks up at Akaashi's profile, framed in the white lights above, and pats the spot beside him.
Akaashi glances down, but doesn't sit. It's his turn to stare: and it isn't calculating, but curious, searching. Bokuto racks his brain, presses his lips together, trying to find what Akaashi's looking for before he does. Maybe something's missing. Maybe he's mulling something over. Maybe, like the thousand times Bokuto's sat here alone, waiting for a sleep that never came, he's lonely.
It's that thought that makes up his mind. He shifts his legs, a little at a time, until he thinks there's enough room for an Akaashi-sized person to fit there. It's a quick gesture to pat the space between his legs and offer a shrug, a just-in-case to make the offer conditional, friendly. Without pressure.
He's not expecting to find Akaashi sitting there before he can process the movement, and the surprise is a bit too strong, a bit too much, to take in.
It churns in his brain, on loop, as Akaashi leans the back of his head against Bokuto's chest. It shifts, down, into his throat as Akaashi settles, finding a spot he finds comfortable. It hits hard in his chest as Akaashi reaches up with one hand and tugs the blanket around them both, a little tighter, as his other cradles his phone to unlock it.
Bokuto opens his mouth to say something, anything, but as the phone lights up Akaashi's face, as the colours dance on the screen to match the lights in the sky, in the air, in his chest, the words fizzle, and he deflates, face first, into Akaashi's curls.
Time passes, in the way it always passes without a point of reference - in a tumbling, endless instant, of skidding and sliding and stillness. At some point his arms find their way around Akaashi's waist, at another point his hands sit over Akaashi's around the phone, and he can't place which comes first, which comes second. In one moment he hums, face pressed into Akaashi's shoulder, and in another he peeks out, letting the silence, pinpricked by the city, surround them.
The word is bold and black, a dark spot on a backlit screen. Bokuto isn't sure when Akaashi typed it, when he closed the game, when the change happened as he sat dazed and warm and content. He feels Akaashi's eyes on him, darting back to the screen with the confirmation Bokuto's finally paying attention. He starts typing again.
I'm ready to try and sleep. Can we go back inside?
Bokuto hums, hands stretching forward to take the phone. He manages to type ten okay emojis in before Akaashi wrenches the phone back into his possession. They sit there a moment longer, Akaashi staring at him impatiently from the corner of his eye, until, in a second of realization, he's scrambling upright, hands reaching for a scarf to hide in that isn't there, staring out at a city without seeing it. Bokuto tries not to notice the heat in his cheeks, the warm spot on his chest where Akaashi had been, as he stands second.
The scene plays out near the same as earlier in the night, with the light from Akaashi's phone illuminating the way into the fort. Bokuto closes the balcony door, the curtains, but not quite perfectly: when he settles into the fort, he sees a line of white stretching in from the smallest of gaps. Gentle, not harsh, a moonbeam made of neon and floodlight. It doesn't bother Akaashi as he settles down on a pillow, as he tucks the phone above his head, so Bokuto doesn't let it bother him, either.
The stillness returns as Bokuto lies down, in the breathing space between them, in the inches that seem too empty and wide. He can make out Akaashi by the slowing blinks, the beam of white licking edges of his curls, and his chest feels full of the image. He wants to say goodnight, to wish Akaashi luck sleeping, to say anything, but the words refuse to come.
Akaashi fills the space instead. He brushes his fingers against Bokuto's cheek, and for a moment, a moment that has no start, or end, or middle, they linger. It's too soon when they move, when they find their way into his shirt, into the spot still warm from where Akaashi lay minutes ago. Seconds or hours pass before Akaashi's eyes flicker closed, and his breath stills, and his body relaxes.
Sleep does not come for Bokuto. Not this time. His mind, his eyes, every inch, every sliver of his being, is too focused on Akaashi Keiji, on the brushing fingers now tangled in his shirt, to even remember what sleep is.
And it's not just the Akaashi lying before him, his hand relaxing as sleep claims him deeper and deeper, the Akaashi with messy hair and dark eyebags and a shoulder sticking out of a too-wide neck hole. It's at the Akaashi from earlier today, laughing at sentai shows, the Akaashi impatiently at his side, waiting for him to finish a call. At Akaashi, at the peak arc of a set, at the moment of truth, at the match point. At Akaashi during dinners, finishing books, tapping his fingers against his knee to the beat of the music playing in both their ears. Akaashi, eyes wide, taking in the beauty of the lake, the park. Akaashi, gazing off into his unknown, afraid, but undaunted. Akaashi, frozen and framed with the lights of the station, the lights of the train, hair whipping around his head in an artificial wind. Akaashi, Train Guy, a million miles away, now tucked against his chest as the night stretches into day.
The images form a pattern in his mind, a simple mosaic of moments and feelings, of glances and stares and memories. He sees them play out like his photos, the places Akaashi hovers in and out of frame. The thoughts sit just above Akaashi's head, just above the slice of light highlighting his raised scars, his rest.
Bokuto wonders what it would be like to kiss him.
The feeling that forms from the thought is a familiar one, one he's felt many times before, one that, until now, with the final piece of the puzzle, he couldn't name. It's nothing new, and the word comes to him like a bubble popping in the back of his mind, like a light flicking on, like the cool feeling of fingers against his cheek. It explains everything - how no one else can put so much into a look, how no one else's curls are quite as perfect, how no one else's eyes glow and darken in light and shadow. It explains the deep vat of jealousy at the image of Oikawa's arm on his shoulders, the long hesitation to find a word besides beautiful, besides perfect, to describe him.
Bokuto knows what Kuroo meant, now. He knows it as sure as the dawn breaks in the sky, in his mind, as the white light shifts to pinks and red that dance across Akaashi's skin.
Akaashi Keiji, a sight he's seen a hundred times, and one he loves, has loved, for far too long without noticing.
He has no idea what to do with the realization.
oh how ive longed to share this chapter
"Huh. I should've stayed after all. This is a damn nice fort." Kuroo peeks his head under the overhanging blanket, bag dropping with a thud beside him. Bokuto peeks over the edge of his knees, arms tight around his legs. His blinks are slow and dry eyed. Kuroo gives him a wave and a mock bow before sliding in beside him. He shuffles his butt on the pillows until he gets comfortable. "So? You want to explain your cryptic text that only read, and I quote, 'Auuuuugh', that you sent the moment Akaashi was on a train? Things not go well last night?"
"You know it's not that." Bokuto blows air out of his mouth and frowns. He tugs at his pant leg, willing the wrinkles to disappear. "How long have you known, anyway? That I was..." he stumbles, trying to cover it by clearing his throat, but Kuroo's eyebrows shoot up nonetheless, "...in love with him?"
"Oho. He can be taught! For what it's worth, I've known since you took him on that date to the park. Don't correct me," Kuroo interjects the moment Bokuto straightens, mouth wide, "it was definitely a date."
"Well-" Bokuto starts, but he draws a blank on the retort. He frowns, leaning back against the couch, his legs straightening as his arms cross. He taps his finger, his chest feeling tight, and he doesn't try and stop the whine that comes out of his mouth. "I am like, a walking mess, aren't I?"
"Yup." Kuroo pats his shoulder, looking for all the world like Bokuto has a tragic illness and he's on his deathbed. His favourite level of fake sympathy. He stares wistfully until Bokuto shrugs off the hand and gives Kuroo a shove. "Okay, okay, I'll lay off a little. But you still gotta spill. What happened last night? Did you kiss him? Did you ask him out yet?"
"Did I- what?!" Bokuto screeches, scrambling away, feeling his face burn with probably his most embarrassing blush ever. Judging by Kuroo's shit eating grin, he must be right. He rubs his cheeks, far too hard, in an attempt to subdue it. "Don't be stupid, Kuroo! I did absolutely nothing about it! I barely even slept after I figured it out, and he was right there, and, and..." He pauses, remembering how close Akaashi had been, how his curls flattened on one side of his head, his yawn so big his eyes watered. It doesn't help Bokuto's blush. "Nothing happened at all, and nothing's going to happen, until I have like, five years, to sort out what to say. Maybe ten."
"Sounds like a great plan, Bo." Kuroo does his best to suppress his grin, but it takes two attempts before his face straightens out. "But, seriously, you are going to at least try and ask him out, right? My aro ass has an upper limit to pining it can tolerate before I die."
"Maybe. Probably. I mean, yeah, but, like, not right now, or, uh, later, is better," Bokuto mutters, fumbling over the words. He meets Kuroo's skeptical, flat gaze and shoves his face into his hands. "I need some time to sort things, Kuroo. I know you don't really get the feeling, but it's kinda overwhelming, and like, Akaashi is so..." he waves a hand, sure the gesture will translate what his words cannot. Kuroo hums over his head.
"Tell you what," he says. "Give me five to get a cup of water, then you can lie here in this fort with me, and for twenty minutes I will listen to you whine about how gay you are for Akaashi. But, I'll only do it if you promise to talk to him soon. Deal?"
"Make it an hour."
"No way. Thirty minutes max. The upper limit of pining, remember?"
"Deal." Bokuto nods, and Kuroo shimmies his way out from under the fort, his bare feet padding along towards the kitchen. Bokuto listens, wondering what he's going to say and if thirty minutes is enough time to say it in.
It's cheap, but during the thirty minutes he spends talking about how smart Akaashi is, how funny, how his fingers twist when he's trying to control his emotions and his eyes glint when he's in the sun, he completely avoids promising to talk to Akaashi any time soon. He isn't ready. His brain whirls, every spare moment, on the feeling just revealed to him.
He needs the time to think.
He can shut it out during practice, when the thud of the volleyball and the shouts of Coach and his teammates are enough to drive any other thoughts from his head. But during the breaks, during his downtime, his thoughts turn towards Akaashi, to the long moments as the sun rose, as the apartment shifted pink and red and yellow and blue, as Akaashi's eyes flickered in his fitful, hard-fought sleep.
It isn't that he's unsure about his feelings - he's had crushes before, and this is definitely the next step up from that. It isn't that he's not sure about Akaashi accepting his feelings - or he tells himself it isn't that over and over as he runs through every possible rejection scenario. He has to clamp that anxiety down with a brisk walk outside during lunch as he waits for his drugs to settle.
More than that, more than anything, he needs to think, to plan, as it's the worst possible time to have realized he's in love.
If it had been before he'd scouted Akaashi, it would have been easy to ask someone else to go scout him when the need arose. If it had been a month from now, Akaashi would or wouldn't have made the team already, and no one would bat an eye. But now, right now, as he discusses Akaashi's future with Ushijima and Coach, as he compares Akaashi to other setters, is not a great time to realize it, let alone admit it. It's not even something he can share with Kuroo - the secret is too important, the future layout of their team too close guarded, to even start to reveal his hesitation.
The problem looms, obvious in his mind, the weight clinging to him even as he soars through the air in a spike. He doesn't want anyone to say Akaashi made the team on anything other than his own merits. He doesn't want to cast another shadow over Akaashi's career when there's already one biting his heels at every step. He doesn't want to steal Akaashi's spotlight, to have all the talk be on a new couple, to leave any room for doubt around his skills or talent.
But he hasn't figured out how to say that to Akaashi, let alone how to confess, and he's grateful for the distraction, the intensity, of practice. But despite his constant internal debate, his rushing thoughts, the intensity of his feelings so brilliant enough to blind him, he still has to see Akaashi on the last train home after practice.
Things haven't been so awkward since they first met. Bokuto's greeting is rambling, his words falling one after the other. He has to force his mouth shut before something tumbles out he doesn't want to say yet. He finds himself staring when Akaashi tilts his head and asks how he feels, finds himself ripping his gaze away way too obviously, mumbling excuses about long practice, a long day, a long week up ahead. He isn't sure what else to say, so he remains silent as the train pulls in.
He knows Akaashi notices, but the reaction is strange. Akaashi doesn't pry. He doesn't ask his usual follow-up questions. He doesn't even tell Bokuto to stop forcing things if he doesn't want to talk. Instead, he too remains silent. He draws his book out of his bag on the train, and doesn't read it. He stares at the pages, his cheeks a little red, his eyes narrow and angry and something else, but whatever it is isn't obvious enough for Bokuto to place. Bokuto knows he should ask, but the words are too tangled in his confession, his feelings, and he says nothing.
When Akaashi gets off the train, he doesn't look back, his shoulders slumping and his hands tugging his scarf. Bokuto's mind itches, burns, but the weight still looms on his shoulders, and the shadow he might cast on Akaashi's future is too dark, too scary, for him to reach out.
He proceeds to do something else stupid: he avoids Akaashi.
He tells Coach he's free at lunch when he's asked to stay behind to plan plays, and cancels on Akaashi - with enough warning, at least, not to upset him. He purposefully doesn't check his phone on breaks, busying himself with the team, floating from player to player listening to concerns and advice. He texts Akaashi to say he's going home early to get some extra sleep, that he's got a big practice the next day, and Kuroo's eyebrows are high and surprised when they take the train together before the sun has even started to set.
It isn't fair, and he knows it isn't fair, and he glares at himself in his reflection in the glass, angry, angry the behaviour has yet to solve his problem, angry that no matter how much he turns the thought in his head, he can't see a way through this. A way to confess, to keep Akaashi in the clear, to keep this from staining Akaashi's career and getting rejected and a million other things his brain imagines that can go wrong. He doesn't have the words, only the feelings, and the feelings he can't share without the words. The one day of excuses turns into two, weaker than the last, and he doesn't even try to read Akaashi's replies.
On the third day, Akaashi messages him to say he has an appointment and won't be on their regular train, just in case Bokuto makes it, and wonders where he is.
It's a relief, in a way - the promise of his usual routine without burden, without awkwardness. He uses the extra hours of practice to try and drill the guilt out of his gut, to find a way to make everything right, to find the words he needs. He's still musing, still drilling his brain, his hands sweating in his pockets, as he mounts the last step for the final train. His eyes gaze the familiar group once, twice, before they settle on something very important, and very wrong.
Akaashi. His eye bags are darker than usual, his frown more set. Anger radiates off him even from Bokuto's spot, miles away, trying to hide in his shirt. Bokuto flinches as the gaze turns to him, and though it's angry, it isn't the kind of angry he expected, and it makes him pause, even as Akaashi crosses the distance, even as his finger jams into Bokuto's chest.
"We need to talk," he says.
sorry if this is weirdly edited/has any glaring grammar errors, i'm super sick rn and might have missed what i usually catch on edit. i'll try and review when im feeling better!
"Hi, uh, Akaashi. Yeah, I've uh, been meaning to talk to you too," Bokuto replies. He shifts the bag in his shoulder, offering what is probably an incredibly fake grin. He makes fists of his hands in his pockets as he tries to ease away from Akaashi's finger. "It's, you know, with practice and all, it's been a little... busy? So, you know, I couldn't, do normal stuff. And yeah. Busy busy! That's me."
(Shit shit shit.)
"You've been avoiding me," Akaashi says. His arms cross on his chest, but he doesn't meet Bokuto's eyes a second time. He glares at his shoes, grinding his toes into the ground. His face is closed off, his body tense. "You've barely been replying to me, and you've never gone home early because you're tired from practice. Even when you were training for the qualifiers. You're doing it on purpose."
"Uh..." Bokuto scrambles through his half sorted thoughts for an explanation he knows doesn't exist. He pulls out one hand to rub the back of his neck, passing the gesture off as casually as he can as he stalls for more time. "Listen, I know I've been a little, hm, absent? Yeah. But I just, uh, needed some time to..."
"To what, Bokuto? To come up with a better excuse for why you haven't been speaking to me?"
(The words punch past Bokuto's flimsy defenses, straight into his chest, a sharp nail driven clean through. Bokuto's flinch is full of every drop of guilt he's accumulated, and even though Akaashi isn't looking up at him, his expression shifts enough for Bokuto to know he's seen it. His anger is still there, but something else is slipping out, stronger and stronger. Somewhere between resignation and disappointment, something highlighting a chill into the air Bokuto hadn't noticed.)
"Akaashi..." Bokuto pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath, trying not to shudder. Dancing around it isn't going to work, so there's only one option: as much honesty as he can bring himself to muster. It's not much. "I know I'm... in the wrong here, and I'm sorry for avoiding you. I... I just needed time to think over how to talk to you, and I didn't know how to say it. I wanted to take my time with it."
"Oh? And did you think at any moment what 'taking your time' was like for me? Did you think I wouldn't know what's going on here, and why you've been avoiding me?" Akaashi's hands clench at his sides, and when he wrenches his gaze up, it's a glare that meets Bokuto's eyes. Bokuto feels his back go ramrod straight. Akaashi's voice grows harder, more insistent. "Well?"
(The brain stall lasts a solid minute, the air between them growing colder and colder as Akaashi's expression never wavers once. Of course he'd never thought Akaashi would know - he'd been counting on it, praying for it, so at least when the words came to him, he might have a chance. And Akaashi doesn't seem happy, knowing. Is he upset about Bokuto falling for him, or upset he'd been avoiding addressing it? Something else entirely? When had he figured it out?
Bokuto stares back through the swirl of thoughts, a different stare than his usual, a stare full of his confusion and anguish. His mouth dries, his tongue sticking, and though he tries to continue his thought, to bring up another apology, he can't. He knows, in his chest of guilt, that staying silent is a mistake, a big mistake like the rest of his actions. But he can't bring himself to correct it.)
"I thought so." Akaashi's words are clipped, dull. Bokuto cringes, rubbing his hands on his pants, trying to look away, always being drawn back. Akaashi's breath is loud, laboured, even as his voice remains low. "Well, I do know what's going on. I'm not stupid, Bokuto. And I never expected this from you. You think I don't know ghosting is when I see it?"
(Bokuto brings his shoulders up, his head down, trying to somehow shrink his way into the ground. He has no excuses, no response: Akaashi is right. He didn't think, he never thought, he-
"What did you just say?" Bokuto blinks, drawing his head up, feeling his eyebrows knot in confusion. Akaashi's words don't fit the particular sense of guilt in his chest. It rings in his head, over and over. Ghosting.
"Don't try and play it off like it's coincidence that you stopped talking to me after the sleepover. And what kind of idiot tries to ghost someone who knows where they live and takes the same train everyday?" Akaashi's voice somehow gets lower, more cutting. His eyes dart around, and Bokuto follows. They share a silent moment confirmation: the usual crowd is not listening to them. "If... if me making a move... if you were uncomfortable with what I did, or how... you should've said something then, or in the time since, instead of cutting contact with me. I would have understood that. I don't understand this. After everything we..." His voice trembles, and he bites his lip, digs nails into his palms. "I thought you respected me that much."
"Akaashi, what exactly do you think..."
(Bokuto doesn't finish the sentence. He sees the answer in the blush creeping, unwanted, across Akaashi's face, in the trembling in his fists that clicks that extra expression, the chill in the air, in his mind: embarrassment. He finds it in the memory of Akaashi's head against his chest, resting on the balcony. In the faint linger of Akaashi's fingers on his cheek. In Akaashi's tight grip of his shirt, relaxing, as he slips into sleep. In the thousands of hints, leading up to those moments, he'd never quite understood, in gestures and touches and every small compliment he didn't exactly deserve.
His own feelings aren't the only ones he's failed to notice.
The change in perspective opens his mind, his eyes, as if a blinder he hadn't noticed has been removed. He tries to focus on the revelation, even as the rumble of the approaching train threatens to drown his thoughts. His actions and inactions, laid before him anew, in the blaring light of the train, and far worse than he imagined. Far worse than the guilt he already feels, rolling, churning, dropping to his stomach as it grows more intense. As Akaashi opens his mouth, he has to strain to hear the words he doesn't need to over the screeching breaks.)
"If you didn't want to accept my feelings, you should've told me, not made me figure it out myself." Akaashi's voice is colder than the air, but it shakes. His glare doesn't hold any heat, and the loss of it hurts just as much. He storms past, shoving Bokuto's chest as he heads towards the train. Bokuto watches, stunned only for a moment, before he lunges, his strides long and fast. The moment Akaashi slips through the doors, Bokuto's fingers lock around his wrist.
"It's not like that!" It comes out as a shout, and he feels all eyes that had been ignoring them turn to him in one motion. One of the lawyers clears his throat, loud. He stares at the back of Akaashi's head, his grip getting tighter, blocking them out as he focuses. "I know I messed up but please, please, give me one last chance to explain things. I promise, you have the wrong idea! I never would have... if I'd known... I..."
(It's only seconds before the doors close - but the seconds slow to the longest moment in the world when Akaashi doesn't move. His shoulders remain stiff, his back remains turned, his face hidden, the defeat he never should have suffered weighing him to the spot. Bokuto has time to realize he isn't welcome, time to realize Akaashi wants to be alone, and he drops his grip, the wrist, and he backs off the train.
He pinches his nose, hard, eyes squeezed shut, trying to create more pressure in his face so the pressure in his brain lessens, but it doesn't work. He steps back, again and again, hands raking through his hair as he tries to think, and not to think, at the same time. The train doors ding closed, the engine grinds, and with a sigh, Bokuto reaches for his phone, relaxes his face, opens his eyes.
Akaashi stands, arms crossed, steps in front of the rushing train. His face says everything: how he doesn't want to be here, how he stepped off the train anyway, how he knows why he's giving Bokuto another chance and how frustrated he is at himself for caving. As Bokuto's eyes widen, as his phone slips back into his pocket, Akaashi ducks his face into his scarf, and Bokuto knows there's not going to be another chance after this.
He also knows he could never live with himself if he hurts Akaashi again.)
"You have one shot, Bokuto." Akaashi's voice is rough, hard to hear. He shoves his hands into his pockets, fingers clinging to the edges of his sleeves. "Go."
Bokuto had never thought he'd end up confessing his feelings, flat out, screechy and rushed, at the start of an explanation for his own terrible actions. He'd never thought it'd happen sitting on a bench, in the middle of the night, at an empty train station. He had planned for much, but not this. Akaashi never sat himself a full seat away, on purpose, to put physical distance between them for his anger to rest. Bokuto never wrung his hands so hard his knuckles ached.
But when Akaashi says go, he goes.
It tumbles - how he wasn't sure what to do, how long it'd been since he last had to confess, how he hadn't noticed, and then noticed too much, about himself. The state of practice, the talks with Coach, the worry about his position on the team, about Akaashi's place on it. He rushes through his worries, about Akaashi's feelings for him, about Akaashi's past and future, about saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, which he'd done anyway. About Akaashi being the one turning on him.
With each word, Akaashi's shoulders rise, his face lowers, until there's nothing showing of his face except the dark curls. He tucks his knees to his chest, tugs his sleeves over his palms before digging his fingers into his pants. It's when Bokuto slows down and runs out of confessions that Akaashi groans, loud enough to end the conversation where it is. There's a huff of hair before he lifts his head and gazes, sidelong: to the empty station, the empty tracks, the empty sky.
"You," he says, "are a complete mess."
"I know. I'm sorry." Bokuto stretches his legs out to have something to do with them. He tries not to fidget with his bag. "I was-"
"No, I understood the first time through." Akaashi blows at his hair, clinging to his face, which fall right back against his cheeks the moment he's done. His fingers clench tighter in the fabric of his jeans. "Just- ugh, have you any idea... I've been so frustrated and anxious for... you complete..."
(Akaashi trails off, muttering, his composure all but gone as he starts wringing his hands and shaking his head. Bokuto knows it's not a silence he wants filled, so he waits as the air gets colder and the sky darker as more and more of the familiar city lights flicker off. He feels the edge of his phone, the shape of the camera drawing itself to the landscape, but he doesn't pull it out. He can sense from Akaashi's shifting, the change in his fidgeting as he takes a deep breath, that he has something more important to focus on right now.)
"I'm still angry at you." Akaashi's voice is quieter, a bit more controlled. A bit more like his usual self. Bokuto tries not to stare, hands flat, as Akaashi continues. "Tomorrow, you are going to talk to your coach and tell him you want to stop talking about me. I don't care if you tell him why or not, but you have to stop, for his sake and your own."
"I will. First thing." He tries not to plead, but it comes out a bit wobbly, a bit high pitched. Akaashi's face twists: he's forcing himself not to smile. The small victory tugs Bokuto's chest, but Akaashi's gaze hardens again in moments, and Bokuto knows it's not quite the time to celebrate.
"Don't ever do something like this to me again." The follow up has more bite, and while Bokuto winces, he knows it's deserved. Akaashi's brows furrow, the repressed smile slipping into a tight frown. "I really thought you... not that you hated me, but that you didn't want to be friends with me at all, if I was in love with you. You couldn't have ghosted me better if you were trying. You have got to learn to get over yourself, or at least think about your actions. I wanted to talk to you, tried to talk to you, but you were so..." he gestures, vague, so much like how Bokuto does it that his mouth drops open. "Just when I got up the courage to try something after months, you do this. What else was I suppose to assume?"
"No, you're in the right here, Akaashi. I didn't... I am definitely at fault. I knew it was wrong and I still... I gotta work on this 'not being an idiot' thing a bit more." Bokuto gives a small, wry grin, and though he swears Akaashi isn't looking, he sees the expression mirrored on his face. He clears his throat, straightens his shoulders. Little by little, Akaashi's calming down, under his anger. "Listen... for all my terrible ill-advised planning, this isn't how I wanted this to go down... between us. I know you'll want time, to think about things, and. Uh. Be angry. So take as much as you need."
(Silence. But not as painful as it could be.)
"I won't ask you to, uh," he pauses, the words caught in his throat, "d-date me, or anything, right now, because of all that and because of volleyball but... one day, I'd like to, still. I am in love with you, Akaashi, and I... I can do better. If you'll let me try." He stares at his shoes, the edges of the platform, anywhere but Akaashi. He rushes through to the end of his apology. "But, ah, in the mean time, I'll make it up to you however I can. Just name it."
"Call us a cab." No hesitation, no anger. A flat, blunt assessment. Just like him. "I'm getting cold, it's getting late, and unless you want to sit here until trains start running in six hours, we shouldn't stick around."
"Right! Of course!" The phone's in his hand before the words are out of his mouth. He flicks it open, near throwing it out of his hand with force. He has time to press two numbers before Akaashi's hand is there, holding his phone, fingers barely brushing his.
(Bokuto looks up.
The outward anger, the embarrassment, frustration, still linger in the corner of Akaashi's eyes, but the moonlight, the station lights, seem to soften it, somehow. He's struck by Akaashi's fidgeting, as obvious as his own, the way he shifts the scarf further over his neck, the way the lights catch in his hair and play on his skin. His fidgets are practiced, intentional in their mindlessness, practiced over hours of wandering thoughts. The loops of scarf touch his cheeks, his hair, tangle around his fingers, strings of blue like the night sky.
He wonders how he didn't ask Akaashi out way earlier.)
"Tomorrow," Akaashi says, lifting his face far enough from his scarf for the words to ring clear, "let's talk more over lunch. Okay?"
(Bokuto almost asks if he's sure, but Akaashi's look is flat, and the shiver down Bokuto's spine reminds him of every hour Akaashi has already had to wait for this talk because of him. Bokuto closes his mouth with the question still on his lips. He punches the number into his phone, and, as he listens to it ring, as he watches Akaashi's face relax for the first time all night, he figures he'll probably be paying for both the cab ride home and the meal tomorrow. It won't make up his debt, not even close.
But it's somewhere to start, at least.)
thanks for your patience! i am better now though i was out for two whole weeks with that cold (dang). may is a busy month for me every year, but im hoping for at least 1 update. things are winding down in the story and i cannot wait to get into the final arc with you all!!
The cab ride is long, but, like everything he does with Akaashi, not quite long enough. The city streaks by, dark and light, shining through his reflection in the glass. It's easy enough to pick out with his eyes, but too fast for the camera on his phone. Akaashi, a small darkness beside him, looks up from his book only twice: quickly, when a horn blares behind them, and slowly, when the cab slows down outside his building. His goodbye is blunt, and he opens the door roughly, closes it too quickly.
Bokuto waves as the cab pulls away. Akaashi pauses, watching for a long moment, before he raises a hand in return. Relief blankets Bokuto as the cab pulls away, enough to tide him over through the next curve of the road.
The lights are on when Bokuto enters his own apartment twenty minutes later, Kuroo propped up on pillows on the couch, a tub of yogurt empty on the floor. Bokuto pauses only long enough to dump his bag and kick off his shoes before he vaults across the room and lies, face down, over Kuroo, over the pillows, over the couch.
It's an hour of talking, of reliving the night in vivid detail, of the needed guilt over his action and Kuroo's straightforward advice, before he's ready to sleep. He flips through pictures on his phone in bed until his eyes droop, until the night mixes with the day, until the buildings and people, familiar and unknown, blur into a pattern he feels, but cannot name.
He doesn't dream. It's comforting, in its own way.
Morning brings an ache in his arm from sleeping with his phone in hand and a round of teasing from Kuroo about his age. Bokuto practices the words he has to say under his breath on the train, fingers curled around the metal pole keeping him upright. His mind races through every possible terrible outcome, and though he knows them to be impossible, he can't stop them from coming. Kuroo has him take two deep breaths when they step off, two as they approach the gym, and two before he enters Coach's office.
If anything, the admission is even more jumbled than his explanation to Akaashi, though he never thought that possible. Coach's face is unreadable as Bokuto suggests bringing back Hiro for advice, questions his own impartiality, and states he cannot, under any circumstances, ever talk about Akaashi Keiji ever again. He admits they aren't dating as fast as possible, but he does love him in a non-professional way, trying to downplay the reason for his visit even as he explains it. Bokuto ends with a stuttered apology, his shoulders to his ears, preemptively cringing.
Coach is silent for a long moment, fingers rubbing his stubbled chin. He leans back in his chair, head tilted to the side. He takes a deep breath.
"Drop your shoulders before you lose your neck permanently, Bokuto. I'm not gonna bite your head off. Calm down." Coach's words bark, rough and loud, but Bokuto drops his shoulders. There's no hint of anger in his voice, just his regular hoarseness from talking to the team all day. "It's good you let me know, Bokuto. Important. You're an avoidant kid, so I appreciate it. But, you're also forgetful. Your head's so full of your ego sometimes I think the important stuff slips out."
"Hey!" Bokuto retorts. Coach gives him a look so flat it rivals Akaashi's. Bokuto wrinkles his nose as his hands grip his shorts. He shifts in the chair. "Okay, well, maybe-"
"First," Coach interrupts, lifting one finger in the air, "I ask you all to scout people you're close to. Even if you were dating Akaashi, hell, if you were married, I'd have wanted you to tell me if you thought he's good. Despite that leaky head, you've got a good set of eyes and a great sense of the game. It's why I made you Vice Captain. I trust your calls." Bokuto straightens under the praise, puffing his chest, pretending he doesn't see Coach roll his eyes.
"Second," he continues, raising another finger, "you forgot who's in charge here. You, Ushijima, Hiro - anyone! - can come give me whatever recommendations you want, but I don't have to listen. Nothing you say will be the one thing that makes up my mind. You give advice, state your opinion, but it's my job, not yours, to pick the team. No one's going to think anyone got on the team because you're romantically involved, because no one's going to seriously believe you could convince me with only that."
"...Oh." Bokuto finds himself rubbing his own chin, head tilting to the side. The anxiety starts to seep down to his legs into the floor. "I... I hadn't really considered it that way. All I could think about was... I just want him to get his own chance to shine, I guess."
"You're a good kid for wanting to keep him in the clear, Bokuto. Especially with the chip on the shoulder he's already got. The last thing he'd need is more drama haunting him." Bokuto stiffens, fidgets on his chair. Coach waves his hand, eyes closed, not noticing. "But this is something you don't have to worry about." Relief: the great unknown remains, for the time being. "I won't call on you again, to help you feel better - likely I'll start reviewing on my own from here. It'll be a bit busy for me, so I'll need you and Ushijima to pull some extra weight with the team in practice. Understood?"
"Understood." Bokuto grins, knowing the words are his dismissal. He pushes himself up from the chair to bow, careful to avoid his head hitting the desk this time. He hears a laugh, faint but deep, from Coach's chest, but all he does is tell Bokuto to get back to practice.
Akaashi makes it expressly clear he is still angry, livid, as he makes Bokuto buy him two burgers, a side of fries, and the largest milkshake on the menu. Bokuto chooses to play along, to fake a sigh as he takes the money out of his wallet, earning him an elbow and an eyeroll. He pretends he doesn't notice Akaashi hiding his relief in his scarf - the scarf - that Bokuto bought him.
The conversation starts slow, around stealing each other's fries and battling for ketchup. Between bites and a stutter he can't shake, Bokuto apologizes, again, before he outlines his conversation with Coach - how even though it's okay, should be okay, if they dated now, he'd still feel safer waiting. Akaashi nods, a bit of mayo smudged by his mouth making his expression less stern than he's trying to force it to be. Bokuto fidgets with his straw to keep from reaching into his pocket for a photo that Akaashi would never allow.
He shakes himself, presses on, trying to keep the mood light to keep from focusing on how the words stumble on their way out of his mouth, how Akaashi's fingers curl, just so, as he leans his head against them. He explains that despite how handsome, hardworking, and famous he is (he tries to elaborate further, but Akaashi threatens to leave until he promises, in a whine, to tone it down), it's been a while since his last relationship. How he'd prefer to take it slow to start, whenever they start, ending with a promise to actually work on communicating this time around.
There's a pause as Akaashi's eyes search the busy tables, as he draws his hand from his face to curl it on the table, as he bites his lip, once, without noticing. The silence settles, for one breath, and another, before Akaashi's lips curl into a smirk, hooking Bokuto in. He says it's been quite some time for him, too - and he's even better looking than Bokuto.
Bokuto laughs, snapping the tension, slapping the table, until Akaashi steps on his foot and tells him to stop making a scene. There's his usual exasperation in his scowl, a little unneeded force as he wipes the mayo away from him mouth with a thumb, a certainty as he fixes his scarf and returns to eating. The little things, habits, that make up Akaashi, that fill the small spots in Bokuto's mind he never realizes are empty until they're full. Bokuto can't fight the grin that sits on his face as he watches Akaashi start to enjoy himself, even when that comes in the form of asking Bokuto to buy him a second milkshake.
Avoiding Akaashi had been the worst decision of his life, and one he doesn't intend to make again.
Akaashi's reminders that he's angry slow to a stop as lunch progresses, as they talk less and less about Bokuto's mistakes, and more about their usual topics. They talk about the South Korean captain's recent wrist injury, about which coat Akaashi will wear first when it's cool enough for them, about Akaashi's tests and classes and what courses he's looking into the next year. Akaashi laughs when Bokuto gets a brain freeze trying to eat all the ice in his drink at once, rolls his eyes as Bokuto uses fries as fangs dipped with ketchup-y blood, and guides him through folding paper cranes out of the remaining napkins. The lunch slips away, quickly, slowly, and moments before Bokuto feels the approach of anxiety telling him not to be late heading back to practice, Akaashi stands, gestures, and declares it time to head back.
The walk back to Nishi is short, quiet, the breeze tugging Akaashi's curls and Bokuto's sweater. Akaashi doesn't speak until they reach the edge of the campus, his second milkshake almost finished, held loosely in his hand. He doesn't hide his smile when he turns his head and thanks Bokuto for lunch, the light catching the greens in his eyes, brilliant and blinding. Bokuto tries, unsuccessfully, to hide his blush behind a hand, mumbling something he isn't sure is words in reply.
Akaashi asks if he'll see him that night as usual, and Bokuto isn't sure which one of them is smiling wider when he says yes.
happy (approx.) 1 year anniversary to this fic!!
around this time last year i started publishing this with the first 2 chapters... and ive had nothing but good experiences since. i love you all, all the usual commenters, the new and old fans, everyone who's opened it or left kudos. thank you!! and thank you for sticking with me as we wind down! i'm so excited to finish this with all of you over the next few months, and glad to get a chapter out to you despite my busy may. i hope you're all doing well and i hope you enjoyed this chapter!
Chapter 31: Rhythms
The pattern of Bokuto's days shifts as September bleeds away. It isn't too different - not far enough from the familiar to be jarring - but enough for him to notice it's changed. A sidestep, where he can still see the path he'd walked before, recognize it, look back on it. The new path stretches before him, repeating itself, flowing and ebbing. He likes it a lot more than his old routine, and more than he expected to.
Coach, true to his word, stops asking the team about other players, retreating to his office. Lawyers flow in and out, media back and forth, and every afternoon he places calls to his friends and fellow coaches worldwide. He leaves layout of practice to Ushijima and Bokuto, under the careful eye of the assistant coach. Bokuto stays late not only to practice his physical skills, but sitting to the side, examining other patterns, of their own team and their competitors, charting the course that will prepare them for the Olympics next year.
There's a thrill in watching the team follow the drills he sets, to have them defer to him, for the flow of practice to move along the path he created. Bokuto feels his chest swell with pride as skills hone, as Kuroo and Yoshida get more in tune with each other with less signaling, as Oikawa digs into himself for more control. Bokuto revels in the feeling, in everything from adjusting wrist angles, to unlocking the gym, to helping Maya with her interviews, to reporting to Coach at the end of the day, tired and sore.
On break, Kuroo tells him not to let it go to his head, reminds him that Coach will be back soon enough and he'll be just another lackey. Bokuto threatens to make him run laps around the building, elbowing his side, until Hiro comes from behind and locks Bokuto in a headlock, calling for mutiny. It takes Ushijima ten minutes to calm them down from a water bottle fight, leaving Nishinoya and Oikawa soaked from head to toe. But it raises everyone's spirits, even as they towel the floor themselves, and the laughter lingers long after their jerseys dry out.
For the first time, he wonders what it takes to be a coach, and if that's something he's cut out for, too.
He celebrates his birthday twice. The first is with his friends - from Nationals, from high school, friends of friends he's met in passing and loves to be with. Gift cards and t-shirts and figurines littering the bags at his feet, and he delegates Kuroo to be the one watching them, since it's his birthday and he's the boss. They start in a restaurant, overflowing on three tables shoved together, moving through karaoke bars as the night flashes by, his mind and heart full, his back aching from slaps, ears ringing from cheers. He sleeps over at Oikawa's and barely has a hangover when practice comes the next morning.
The second is at home on a quiet Saturday, Akaashi leaning on his arm, the new set of ear buds he'd bought as a (too expensive) gift shared between them. Bokuto plays his favourite songs, murmuring his thoughts, his insights, what lyrics move him, what swells of music swell in his chest. Akaashi listens, to him, to the music, shifting only to lace their fingers together. Bokuto's heart pounds in time with the beat.
They aren't really dating, but the shift, the sidestep, lies between them too. Akaashi sits with him on the train every night now, their legs brushing, arms together, even as they lose themselves in their own worlds. Bokuto tumbles into the city lights around them, the music rolling over him, over the train, an invisible bubble guiding the night. Akaashi sinks deep within the pages of his book, in places unknown and undiscovered, only found between his eyes and the pages beneath. The small touches, the hint of each other in the corner of their eyes, is all that anchors them together.
Bokuto finds that's enough.
He isn't sure the others on the train notice the change. The lawyers still glare when he's too loud, still mutter about their cases, their suits growing richer as the nights grow cooler. The variety store worker still sticks to her phone, smiling and laughing with whoever she messages. It's only once, as Akaashi naps on his shoulder, days of studying for finals weighing heavy, that the university student catches Bokuto's eye, glances at Akaashi, and gives him a thumbs up.
He gives her a grin in return. Familiar, but different.
"That's a new lawyer," Kuroo notes, water bottle light in his hand as he approaches Oikawa, wiping his face on his sleeve, and Bokuto, scrolling through his phone. A towel rests around his neck, almost falling as he jerks his head towards the well-dressed woman making her way down the hall. "I know that sign when I see it. Means she's someone else's - either the new player or someone higher up. Coach is getting close to picking."
"I asked Masuda if he'd heard anything this morning, but he's being coy, pretending he doesn't know when he's leaving," Oikawa replies. He puts his hands on his hips, stifling a yawn before continuing. "It's too bad Bokuto took himself off talking to Coach. He's a huge gossip. We'd definitely all know by now if he knew."
"Hey!" Bokuto snaps to attention, slamming his phone closed. Hiro and Kuroo fist bump, smirking. Bokuto scowls at them both, feeling his voice grow loud. "I'm not the only one! You're the one who spilled about the new uniform design before Coach-"
"The box was given to me! Who was I not to look?"
"Just because you sign for a package doesn't mean you get to-" Bokuto cuts himself off from his clever retort, feeling the phone buzz in his hand. A text from Akaashi. "Ah, wait a sec. Lemme read this."
"And who exactly is more important than us?" Oikawa asks. He sniffs, loudly. Kuroo offers him a tissue as Bokuto ignores them both, flipping his phone open to read the message.
You free tomorrow evening? Very blunt, very Akaashi. Bokuto tilts his head to the side, thinking for a moment, but can't see any reason not to say yes. He punches in his reply as an arm slides around his shoulder, the smell of peanuts wafting in the air. Bokuto turns, baffled at how Oikawa, five inches shorter than him, is taller now, but one glance down tells everything. Oikawa's standing on the bench.
"What's this? Are you making date plans?" Oikawa leans forward towards the screen, squinting. He probably forgot his contacts. "You should definitely say yes. We could make it a double date. I just met a girl who-"
"It's not a date!" Bokuto replies, shoving Oikawa just under the arm as he replies to Akaashi. Oikawa fumbles, unsteady on the bench, and it's only a quick arm grab from Kuroo that keeps him from falling. A few feet away, Hiro frowns at them, forlornly bending over to pick up his spilled water bottle. Bokuto winces. "Akaashi's finishing his semester exams, he probably just wants, like, free food off me after an all-nighter. Don't you have Ushijima to annoy instead?"
"He's in the bathroom. We're stuck with him," Kuroo replies. Oikawa laughs as Kuroo offers him a hand with a bow. He steps off the bench. Bokuto's phone buzzes again, and this time, when he opens it, Oikawa leaves him alone, content to talk with Kuroo.
Can you come over to my place? These tests are ridiculous. I need a break. Bokuto laughs, and he feels it draw the eyes of his teammates. He types a 'sure', and is half way through his emojis when another arrives. There's also something important I want to talk about, and I'd feel better doing it at home. That okay? You're not in trouble.
(Anxiety rises in his shoulders at the start of the message, only to bleed away by the end. Nothing bad. Nothing he did wrong. Just something important. He's grateful, all at once, as he sighs and sits down on the bench, that Akaashi knows him well enough to clarify, knows him well enough to know the mess his brain would make up from the simple invitation.
It takes a few more breaths for the moment to peel back, for the impact to blossom: Akaashi's never invited Bokuto to his house before. He's never asked to talk - not like this. He's not one to put off something important, so it must be new, or recent. Maybe something to do with school. Or maybe-
Bokuto glances down the hallway, the lawyer long since gone, but her afterimage repeating itself in his mind. He texts a reply, agreeing, asking for Akaashi's address if they're not meeting up after practice, or if they are, for Akaashi to name a time. But his eyes always drift back to the hallway, just in case the lawyer reappears, or Coach does. Neither do, and Ushijima calls the break over, and he has to store the phone before Akaashi can reply again.
It's too early to hope, but he hopes, anyway.)
Bokuto steps off two stops early for the first time in his life. He takes a deep breath. The first cool day of fall is refreshing, gentle, especially after the train trip. The crowd flows around him as he tugs at his hoodie, fixes his bag, checks his shoes for any wayward laces - the post rush-hour train routine. Around the endless stream of suits and chatter, he sees a figure rise from a bench. The familiarity of the motion flows to him, his attention fixing on the small spot in the crowd. They had planned to meet here, of course, but that doesn't mean he can't grin.
Akaashi hovers on his toes, an extra inch of height over a crowd they both already tower over, giving a small nod over a deep purple scarf when he catches Bokuto's eye. His face is tight with exhaustion, stress, the extra sleepless nights intentional and not. But his eyes are bright in the afternoon light, reflecting yellows of the sun, and a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth when Bokuto waves back. His hands are stuffed deep into the pockets of a black pea coat, the first coat of the season, and Bokuto guesses Akaashi isn't enjoying the cooling weather as much as he is. When he's done staring, he wanders over, one hand reaching to ruffle Akaashi's hair, the other reaching to take out his phone.
In a flat voice, Akaashi tells him it's one or the other. Bokuto chooses the selfie, his fingers curling on the phone instead of in Akaashi's hair. The light frames their faces, their smiles, the first moment of a new adventure.
The walk is short, quiet, with Bokuto snapping pictures of signs and posts, of buildings and trees. Akaashi hums under his breath, only stopping as they cross the street, when he points out a store he likes to Bokuto, and when Bokuto ruffles his hair anyway as they walk up the final few steps to Akaashi's floor.
The apartment itself is so quintessentially Akaashi that Bokuto feels like it's the thousandth time he's entered it instead of the first. It's messy, but with an undercurrent of order, as if the mess is intentional, planned, accessible - the complete opposite of the stormy mess that Bokuto and Kuroo live in. Books are crammed everywhere, in an obvious order even as they spill from the numerous bookshelves onto the floor, the TV stand, the kitchen counter. Two tall coat racks frame the entrance, one laden with coats, one half covered in scarves, as the other half sits as a mound on the floor beneath it, covering numerous pairs of shoes. The couch has two blankets under a pile of textbooks and notes, empty bowls from meals past on the surrounding floor containing pens and crumpled stickie notes. The walls are littered with posters, featuring a slew of movies from Harry Potter to Spirited Away, older sentai shows Bokuto remembers from childhood, and a few sports posters (though, sadly, no poster of Bokuto himself). A volleyball balances, precarious, on the edge of the table.
When Akaashi tells him to make himself at home, it's not difficult.
Akaashi declares he'll make dinner, and his eyes say they'll talk after, later, not yet. His hands fidget as he goes into the fridge, his movements slow, but wavering. He needs time, more of it, somehow, and Bokuto can give him that. He cracks his fingers over his head, stretches, and kneels beside the couch, pulling pens from bowls, sorting stickies. Akaashi protests, quiet, then forceful, as Bokuto takes the now empty dishes to the sink. But Bokuto knows how to be loud as he shushes, knows how to elbow someone five inches shorter than him out of a doorframe, and, with a wink, promises he knows how to wash dishes.
Akaashi's frown is frustrated, slipping to resigned, losing a battle he knows he can't fight. The sigh is expected, and while Bokuto prepares a retort, explanation, Akaashi finishes it with a quiet thank you, a tilt of his head, and a long finger pointing where the bowls go when they're clean. It isn't shaking.
It's a small victory, but Bokuto rides it through the dinner preparation, keeping the air light until Akaashi is ready to darken it. After the dishes, he moves to the scarves, sorting by colour and thickness and what ones he knows Akaashi likes the most. He makes sure his scarf is on the top, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Akaashi doesn't notice the intention.
Akaashi does, but he doesn't say anything.
The final three scarves have knotted themselves around each other, and, unfortunately, his feet. Bokuto whines, hand outstretched, calling for Akaashi to save him, to write his last will, to tell Kuroo he died honourably. Akaashi leans on his elbows on the counter, head cradled between his hands and angled, as he says he is far too busy with dinner to help. His smile is so coy, the framing of his curls around his face too stark and too handsome, and the complaints vanish from Bokuto's lips. He stares, and he can feel himself stare, but more than that, he can feel Akaashi staring back, the same intention, the same thought, passing between the two of them.
Akaashi says he looks cute. Bokuto snaps his head down and picks at the knot of scarves, trying to hide the blush, the unstoppable grin, until Akaashi calls him for dinner.
"So, about why I asked you to come over," Akaashi starts, easing himself, straight-backed, onto the cleared off couch. Bokuto is already settled, legs tucked under him. He shifts, facing Akaashi, doing his best to keep his expression neutral as his mouth tries to twitch into a smile. Akaashi stares at the wall for a long moment before his eyes slide to meet Bokuto's. "There's actually two things that I wanted to talk about, and- what are you doing?"
"I'm not doing anything!" Bokuto replies, slamming his hands down onto his knees as he bursts out of his silence. "I'm being respectful!"
"Your entire face is spasming. You look like you're about to explode," Akaashi drones. He pinches his nose, rolling his eyes. Bokuto drums his hands against his legs, leaning forward, until Akaashi relents, waving him back. "Just, just try and not freak out, okay?"
"Oh, we both know I can't make that promise, Akaashi." Bokuto narrows his eyes and grins, trying not to focus on the bubble of hope rising in his chest. He flattens his hands again and clears his throat. "Sooooo...?"
"So..." A deep breath. This time it's Akaashi who drums his hands against his knees, rubs the back of his neck, each nervous habit one Bokuto is desperately trying not to do. "After this semester, I'm going to be taking a leave from school."
"Because...?" Bokuto prompts.
(Hope thuds in his heart, rushes in his ears, as the universe hurtles him, a thousand miles at once, as Akaashi opens his mouth.)
"Because I'm going to be the new setter for the National team."
(Bokuto is very glad he didn't make that promise.
He launches forward, the space between them on the couch hardly an obstacle. Akaashi only has time to cut himself off before Bokuto collides, sending them both flying back into the arm rest. He wraps his arms around Akaashi's neck, pressing his face into scarf and cheek, grinning. Laughter rolls in his chest, and he feels it more than he hears it, the words still echoing in his head. The hope that had pressed his chest blossoms into pride, into the ever expanding grin on his face, into the pats that turn into slams on what he can reach of Akaashi's shoulder and back.
There are words to say, but the words don't come, and, in their place, he presses the feeling, the explosion, into Akaashi, one hug to show everything that he could never manage to say.
When Akaashi hugs him back, when his own face presses down against Bokuto's cheek, when his own laugh trickles and melds with Bokuto's, he knows it's enough.)
"You're crushing me," Akaashi wheezes at the end of a laugh, his hands slipping from the hug to tap Bokuto's shoulders. Bokuto slides back, giving Akaashi's hair a ruffle before returning to his perch. Akaashi takes a moment to sit up, cross his own legs, fix his scarf. Bokuto's face hurts from grinning, but he can't stop.
"Congratulations!" The word explodes from him the moment Akaashi looks settled. Akaashi blinks at the volume, but the smile returns, quickly, in its place. "I knew you could do it. You're the best setter out there right now, Akaashi. I'm so...! You deserve this, and, and, I'm so excited, to play with you, that you're going to...! How long have you known? How come you're telling me?! Isn't this-"
"Are you going to let me answer the questions, Bokuto, or just continue asking them?" Bokuto clamps his mouth shut so fast his jaw rattles. Akaashi has to make an effort not to laugh. "I've known for a few days. I finished signing the contracts yesterday, before I'd texted you. You probably saw the lawyer deliver them. Obviously I couldn't go, too, or else you'd... well. You're all gossips enough as it is. It was hard enough getting Masuda in for talks on his final day, there's no way I'd go unnoticed between you and Oikawa."
"As for why I'm telling you," Akaashi continues, forcing Bokuto to swallow the whine, "everyone is going to find out next week, when everything is finalized and I'm done exams. I asked your... my..." Akaashi frowns. He shakes his head. "I asked Coach if I could tell you a bit early. He's..."
(Akaashi's voice grows quiet, and Bokuto feels his energy quiet in time with it. He still feels full, blessed, amazed, but he focuses on Akaashi, on what Akaashi needs, on the shift in the air around them.
He knows, in a moment, in a heartbeat. The approach, the herald, the trumpeting arrival of the familiar, great unknown.
The reason Akaashi wanted him to come over.
The shadow looms, gripping Akaashi's chest, and his breaths, for a moment, are short for it. He stares at the wall, intense, strong, but still fighting. Bokuto only pauses a moment, an extra breath, before reaching out for Akaashi's hand. It's cold, as always, but he doesn't draw back, even as Bokuto gives a small squeeze.)
"When I join the team, everything's going to come up." Akaashi takes another deep breath, meeting Bokuto's eyes. The intensity isn't for him, but he squeezes Akaashi's hand harder anyway. "It's followed me everywhere, and... there's no way you aren't going to learn about it. You won't be able to avoid it anymore. I really appreciate you giving me the time, the space, for this long. You've been..."
(There's no end to the sentence, but the way his face, for a moment, softens, the way his shoulders relax as he exhales, the way he never breaks eye contact, say it all. It's Bokuto's turn not to breathe, and he feels himself tumble again, spiral into the greens and blacks of Akaashi's smile.)
"I want to tell my story on my own terms, but, if I can't, I at least want to tell you on my own terms. Especially... if we're going to start dating." There's a moment of silence as their eye contact breaks. Akaashi clears his throat, ducking his mouth into his scarf, as Bokuto rubs his neck. He shakes his shoulders, humming a low note before seeking Akaashi's eyes. There's another throat clear before he raises them again. "You deserve to know, so we can set up boundaries, talk things over... it's not something I want to keep from you. I've spent a lot of time since we... confessed, thinking about how to tell you. When to tell you. I've been preparing, mentally, for a bit, so I'd feel safe enough to talk it out before the story gets out on its own. I asked Coach to let me tell you about the team early so you'd understand why I'm telling you this, and what's coming next for me."
(Silence. Not awkward, not comfortable. The time needed for the words to settle, blanket the floor, to rest and leave their impact. Time for Bokuto's mind to sort his mood, his thoughts and feelings, to process, just for a moment, how far they've come.)
"...If you're sure, Akaashi, of course I'll listen. So long as you're comfortable." Bokuto tilts his head, waiting, and Akaashi gives a nod. There's a steadiness to him, even though the tension forming in his shoulders. The fierceness is back in his eyes, and even if it doesn't last, Bokuto isn't going anywhere. "Is there anything you want me to do before you start? I can get you water, or uh, let go, if you don't wanna be touched, or like, touch you more, in, an appropriate way, or-"
"You're rambling, Bokuto." For the second time that night, Bokuto's jaw slams closed so fast it hurts. This time, Akaashi snorts. "If it's alright, I'd actually like it if you kept holding my hand. If I stop, give me time to collect myself. Don't ask me anything until I'm done. Sometimes I need to slow down to think, or... process. Otherwise... unless you need me to stop, try not to interrupt?"
"I think I can manage that, for once." He tries a small smile, but Akaashi misses it, closing his eyes. It isn't time to keep joking around - the mood has darkened, and doesn't need to be lightened. Bokuto tucks the remaining feelings in the corner of his chest, squeezing Akaashi's hand, careful not to put too much pressure. Akaashi takes a few deep breaths, the only noise in the apartment. He opens his eyes.
part of me wanted to just write "cliffie" in the end notes and leave it at that but--
you've waited patiently, and next chapter will indeed be: akaashi's backstory. it'll have some content/trigger warnings. for those, i will put them in the chapter notes at the beginning! there will obviously be spoilers for the chapter in them (i mean, like, obviously i need to tell you what will happen in case it upsets you). if you don't have any triggers and don't want the heads up of what happens just scroll quickly! i'll put this note at the top of that as well as a reminder.
thanks for reading as always!! <3
edit: some lovely fanart for this chap!! by painpackerrisingsun, who is so kind to me ;u;
Chapter 33: Akaashi Keiji
as a reminder there are some Big content warnings this chapter which, of course, will contain what the chapter is about. if you don't have any triggers and want to avoid knowing what's coming, scroll on past! for anyone who needs it, here is the list, beneath the back slashes:
Car accidents, PTSD, hospitals (mentions of IVs), self-harm, self-hate, non-graphic descriptions of injuries/blood (incl. broken bones), scarring, discussion of panic attacks, triggers, flashbacks
Everything took place in third year high school. You already know I played for Seijoh as a setter, and, after Oikawa graduated, I became captain. Though Oikawa and I had very different styles, we were just as dedicated, and there was a lot of attention on us as a team. We worked hard, and had a good year - very good. The year before, we'd just narrowly missed going to the Spring High nationals - which would have been the only time we could have played against each other, Bokuto, and why you'd likely never heard of me. But in my third year, we made it.
All of us were excited about it, but me most of all. Oikawa was headed to the National team, and I figured I could be on the same path as him even faster, if we scored a few wins. There were a lot of late nights and long hours, but it was work I was more than willing to put in. I knew I was good enough to get scouted, if not for the National team, at least for a good club on the way there. I had a lot of confidence.
But you've probably already guessed things don't end like that.
We didn't have our first game until the afternoon, so our coach gave us some free time in the morning. I watched other matches with some of my fellow third years, and we let the second years go wander around the area. You know, see the landmarks, meet with their other friends... whatever they wanted to. When it came time for us to meet up, two of them hadn't returned yet. We texted, and called, but... no answers. All we knew was that at the rate things were going, they'd be late for the game, too. I volunteered to look for them - I was the captain, and they were my responsibility. That's when...
(Akaashi pauses. He's been focused on his lap, in a zoned-out way, and he spares a glance upwards. Bokuto, ever patient, watches him, eyes encouraging, but not overbearing. His hand is warm, as always, a reassurance. As if knowing what Akaashi's thinking, he gives a slight squeeze, but otherwise remains still. Waiting, just as he promised.
It's one of the reasons Akaashi trusts him so much.)
It only took a few minutes to find them, in the end. I think they'd lost track of time: they were loitering across the street, talking to each other, laughing, drinking bubble tea. I called out to them, twice, but with no response. At the time I thought they were ignoring me to get a few extra moments of freedom, but I learned later they really hadn't heard me over the traffic and their own jokes.
Either way, I knew I was going to have to haul them back. The crosswalk light was on my side, and I stormed onto the street. I remember how frustrated I was at them. This was our big chance, the first in years, and here they were slacking off. We'd worked so hard to get here, and I was blowing our pre-game meeting to get them. I had an earful prepared to launch at them, a list of duties and training they'd be doing to compensate for this after.
I didn't check the road. Back then I never thought to. Why would I? The light was on my side. I had plenty of time to cross. I wasn't even the lone pedestrian. But I didn't check, I didn't even consider looking at the cars. And, to this day, it's my biggest regret.
A car ran the red light and hit me.
It's strange, the things you remember, and what you don't. I remember the sounds, the smells: the burning rubber, the screeching tires. Car horns. Someone screaming. I remember turning my head, the seconds stretching to hours, the single frame of the car rushing upon me the split second before contact. I remember the sound of the glass cracking. A pair of black Nike shoes, inches away from my face, as sirens blared. Bits and pieces of the trip to the hospital, the colours and lights, the turns. How bright it was. How my eyes couldn't quite adjust. How damp my hair was, matted with blood.
Nothing else. And yet, it's still too much.
(Another pause, another breath. Akaashi takes a moment to tally his feelings, his thoughts. He's not too anxious, not too panicky. He can still breathe. So, he can continue. He's told the story many times without incident, and many times needing to stop, many times never starting again. The prep work he'd done mentally had paid off, at least.
Bokuto is still there, still silent, still holding his hand.)
The details came to me later, about the crash and the extent of my injuries. How I'd destroyed the windshield when I hit, how I'd rolled over the car, how much blood came from my head and neck from the glass and speed. How worried everyone was about my neck and spine and my vision, but, despite the huge gash in my neck, the cuts on my face, my nerves and spine were alright. I needed a blood transfusion. I had scrapes and cuts on places I couldn't even see. I broke five fingers, three on one hand, two on the other, and fractured my forearm. My shoulder got dislocated. I bruised my ribs. Hell, I bruised about every inch of my body that hit something, enough that breathing hurt, that eating hurt.
It could have been much worse. The car could have been going faster. I could have broken my legs, I could have ruined my eyesight. I could have been dragged under the car. I could have died. The doctors, the nurses, my mother, speaking to me as both my mother and as a doctor, assured me over and over again as I lay in the hospital that I was very, very lucky.
I damn well didn't feel it.
I had lost too much blood, and I was kept in the hospital for almost three weeks. I wasn't allowed many visitors, aside from my parents, for a while. It's... lonely, in the hospital. When they weren't around, sometimes the doctors were, or the nurses, but you don't know them yet when you've only been there a few hazy, addled days. And when the doctors weren't around, all I had were my thoughts, when I was able to be lucid enough to form them properly. I didn't have many good ones.
The endless loop that played on my waking mind boiled down to one thought, and one thought alone: I was never going to play volleyball again. The more I stared at my arms, at the IVs, the way I felt woozy turning my head, the bandages covering my body... everything was a sign. This was the end of what could have been my career. Time was against me, recovery was against me. I couldn't grasp that the injuries I had were minor, compared to what they could have been. That the bruises would fade, in time. That my energy would return. That I'd regain the strength I had, the muscles I'd lose from being unable to play. All I knew was that I'd been so close, and I was left with nothing.
When the doctor told me, with time and effort, she believed I would play volleyball again, I didn't believe her. I started to cry. My parents reassured me, held my hands, let me sob as much as I could. They all said it would take time, but I'd recover, all the same. Yet my mind screamed otherwise. It told me what I really knew - that this was the end. It took me ten minutes to stop disagreeing with them, until my voice ran out, until exhaustion took over.
It should have been a sign right then that something else was wrong with me, but, in the haze and panic and my general changes in personality from what we thought was shock, or the drugs, we all missed it. I certainly didn't notice. All I knew was I felt wrong inside, not just from the medication, not just from the pain. There was... something in me, that started as a hollowness, an emptiness, and morphed. Something deeper than shock. A bundle of emotions, raw and tender, that hurt to touch. The loss of my future, the promise I had. What should have been mine.
In a very short time, that feeling turned to anger. Unfortunately, that coincided with when I was allowed visitors.
I started down a very bad path, with my former teammates, my classmates, my friends. In all honesty, they were far too patient with me. I yelled at them, I snapped at them, I threw their pity or sympathy or love back in their faces. I made them leave moments after arriving. I refused to reply to them. After all, couldn't they see? Couldn't they tell I didn't want to hear it? Didn't they know I had lost the one thing I'd wanted most in life? I didn't want them trying to make it better. There was no better.
The worst was, as you might have guessed, Oikawa.
He'd heard, of course, and the moment he could he came to visit. He was the last person in the world I wanted to see. I knew him, knew his style: he must have come to brag, to rub it in. He always liked lording his defeats over others. Look what he had accomplished. Look how far you've fallen. Look, Akaashi, how you'll never measure up. If anyone could remind me of my fall from grace, it was the one person who I always looked up to.
Of course, even Oikawa isn't so callous or rude. I simply hated myself so much that it was easier to hate him, to make him the villain, than to face my fears. He tried, like my parents, like the doctors, to assure me I could still make it. That, when I recovered, I could train my way back into the league. I could play along side him. He didn't want to see me quit. He reminded me of all the things he'd seen in me in high school, about our legacy together. He wanted me to try, when I was released. He even offered to come with me to help rebuild my muscles and skills, help train me on his down time.
It was too much. I lost it.
I don't remember exactly what I said anymore, but I didn't stop yelling. I threw my dinner tray at him, and missed - I was far too weak to hit anything, and two broken fingers didn't help. All I could think about was how much it hurt, how much pain he was causing, how big and ugly my future was. I wanted to make him hurt like he hurt me. I told him I never wanted to see him again. I told him I didn't want his pity, his meaningless words. I didn't want his help, and I never would. I yelled until I cried, until I grew hoarse. Until he left, without looking back.
The shame, the guilt, the realization what I'd done - it didn't come for ages. When it did, I was too afraid of what he'd say. I knew I'd done something that didn't need to be forgiven, and I didn't want to ask for it, even if I wanted to apologize. It wasn't until that day at the qualifiers I spoke to him again. That-
(Akaashi stops himself. It's not the time for that guilt, to relive that experience. This one is painful enough.)
Sorry. I'll talk about that some other time.
My rages faded as I recovered, and were written off by all of us as part of my recovery. By the time I was being sent home, everyone who was still around talked about how I was getting back to normal. I was quiet and observant again. Snappy and honest, but less brutal than I had been. That my sense of humour, if spotty, was returning.
It was, of course, an act: I knew how I should act and was trying, very hard, to do it. I hoped that if I could just last long enough, I'd stop having to fake it. That I'd actually start recovering soon, that the weird bundle in my chest of emptiness and fullness and too many, yet too few emotions, would untangle, if I just pretended it wasn't there.
The trip home was one of the hardest things I've ever done. From the moment I sat down in the back of the car, I could barely breath, even if my heart was pounding harder than it ever had. I couldn't stop trembling. I kept my eyes squeezed shut. I was terrified - fear like I'd never known it before, like the world was falling apart around me. As if nothing I did could stop it. It took an hour after getting home before I could even think clearly.
I didn't know what it meant, and I thought myself stupid for being so scared of nothing out of nowhere, so I didn't say anything. It was my first of many panic attacks.
The next few weeks were full of me keeping secrets. I didn't say how I was terrified to leave the house for the most basic of needs. I didn't say that I didn't want to go back to school, not because I needed more time to recover physically, but because school meant going outside, by the road. I didn't say how every time a horn sounded I grew tense, stiff. How I'd lose myself wherever I was standing - in the shower, watching a movie - and be transported back to that road, seconds before the world went black. How those memories would loop, over and over. How I'd feel so trapped, so unable to escape. How it would feel real, every time. How I dreamt of it until I woke up crying.
Around the flashbacks and panic I got very, very good at playing pretend. I told my parents I still spoke to my friends, even though I'd been losing contact with them, unable to find the words to say, unable to focus long enough to chat. I told my doctors recovery was going well, though at night I felt the ghosts of the stitches in my neck still, smelt the dried blood covering my clothes. I told myself I was fine, that this was how it had always been, and always would be.
The flashbacks didn't go anywhere, though, and try as I might I couldn't pretend them away. I'd stay up all night to avoid sleeping, just to try and stave off a nightmare. I started reading more and more to lose myself in another world, so I didn't have to pay attention to this world. Or myself.
And... well, I only got worse from there. I saw the doctor less and less, my parents less and less. I got very good at lying about why I didn't do errands, why I never went out. It felt like every day I was in my room having a melt down of some sort, and I felt... everything. And nothing. I felt guilt over being upset over the accident, even as months passed. I felt angry at myself for being so weak, anger at the driver who ruined my life. I felt the loss of volleyball as a sadness, so deep in my bones it would never leave. I felt... like I had no future. I had no function. I didn't, couldn't, find a reason to exist.
It got so bad I'd have flashbacks seeing cars out the window. When my dad got home from work, and the engine turned off. I started needing to distract myself, somehow, when it started. Movies and music and books weren't enough. I needed something stronger.
I started to self-harm. First just pinching myself until my skin bruised. Then hitting. Then... cutting. It would snap me out of the panic, or at least give me something more pressing to focus on. When it hurt, I could fix it. I could feel guilty about doing it, instead of thinking about the accident, or volleyball, or my friends. I could hide it. I started wearing long sleeves, started covering up more. I'd hoped that if everyone thought I was hiding my scar on my neck, they'd think nothing of the long sleeves to hide the ones on my wrists they didn't know of.
(With his free hand, Akaashi feels himself tug the long sleeve down, further. A habit he's not broken.)
It was enough to catch my parents' attention. When one's a teacher, and one's a pediatrician, at some point you always get caught. I think, really, it was more of a tipping point, though - the final extra push to notice that the something different about their son was definitely a problem. They didn't know a lot, but they knew enough. And I still couldn't see it, not like they did. I don't know how much worse it would've gotten if they hadn't, how long I'd have gone without knowing what was wrong with me.
When my parents talked to me about getting help, it was very gentle, accepting. They'd see me get better. They wanted to help, if I'd let them. I was confused and embarrassed - I didn't want them to know I was cutting. I didn't want them to know I'd stopped talking to all my friends. I didn't want some stranger doctor to know that I wasn't coping, still. I didn't want to get help. No one could help me get over something I should have been able to alone. No one was going to stop the flashbacks if I couldn't.
Most of all, I knew I'd have to get in a car, and I still couldn't admit to them I was so scared to be by the road, I thought I'd die if I went on it again.
But, my parents were both persistent and patient, and two weeks later, with lots of strings pulled and favours called by my mother, I was sitting across from who still is, to this day, one of my therapists. Despite being frozen in panic the entire drive there, despite shutting down so thoroughly I had to be half carried from my seat, I spent half our first session together wondering what on earth I was doing there, and insisting that, aside from cutting, there was nothing wrong with me.
The other half, we spent talking. Actually talking. It was terrifying and raw. I yelled. I cried. By the end, I had a name for what I felt. Four letters that would be mine from that point forwards. PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. I also had this... hint. This small, tiny feeling, somewhere in the bundle of pain and emotion in my chest, one that didn't quite fit. Not quite a hope, not quite an understanding, but the forming of a feeling that everything I'd been going through actually had a name. Had a community. Had an end?
Even so, I didn't want to go back. Going back hurt, and I didn't want to hurt more. I already hurt enough. I hid in my room when my parents tried to take me back for the second appointment, and we had to reschedule it twice before I managed to get in the car again. But I did. Somehow, I did.
It was hard. I relapsed so many times, cutting or panicking or any other myriad of problems I was trying to solve, it felt like I wasn't progressing at all. There's was so much I... I'd rather not go into details, honestly. The results, though, the small improvements, the landmarks I remember... those I don't mind sharing.
They came, slowly, but steadily, the more we worked together. The first time I could get in a car without panicking. The first time I'd smiled, and felt it, really felt it, since the accident. The first time I walked the block around my house alone. The first time I managed to attend one of the physiotherapy sessions I'd been skipping. The first time I watched, and enjoyed, a game of volleyball on the TV. And, after months, when I started on the path to finally finish high school and head to university.
It was around then my parents tried nudging me back towards volleyball, but I wasn't having any of it. I might have been recovering, but the gap was so large, so long, I didn't think there was a point trying to go pro. And, if I wasn't going pro, I didn't want to play. It still hurt too much. Instead, we planned my options, other careers I might want to take. The problem was that volleyball had been my life, my focus, there was little else that held interest for me outside of sports. My physio suggested I try and get into her field - that, perhaps, I could find some solace, some resolve, in being on the sidelines, still involved with sports.
I was on the fence. It seemed too easy. My doctors and therapists encouraged me, my parents helped pick out schools. But my motivation and confidence still hadn't returned, and I almost didn't apply at all. Who was I to try and get back what I'd lost? Who was I to think I could, when every time I saw myself, I could see the evidence of my ruined career in the scars on my face?
In the end, though, I did try. But not because I recovered my confidence. That came later, as I played again. It wasn't because of some big revelation, or some majestic turning point. I made my decision watching the evening news with my dad, on a random night, eating a stale bag of chips. It was an interview with the newest member of the men's National volleyball team.
An interview with you, Bokuto.
Bokuto's screechy, shocked yell echoes in the still apartment. Akaashi feels a smile, of all things, tug at the corner of his mouth. He isn't surprised at the outburst, but Bokuto clearly is - he clamps his jaws shut, his shoulders taught, on edge from his own shout. His expression melts to apologetic, with a hint of confusion in the head tilt he can't resist. He'd promised not to interrupt, and he had, all the same.
Akaashi shakes his head. There's no apology needed, and he isn't angry. It's Bokuto, after all. And the hard part, the worst part, his lowest points... he's covered. This part of the story, he can coast through telling.
This part, he could almost like.)
I almost didn't pay attention. I didn't care for you as a player. I thought you were skilled, but immature. Liable on a professional team. And - really, Bokuto, stop with the faces. Let me finish.
(Bokuto tries his best to stop his frown. He fails.)
As I was saying, I almost didn't. But, I was bored, and dinner wasn't ready, so I stayed. For the most part, it was bland, and typical. Except, when the reporter asked what your biggest struggle was, you immediately talked about your anxiety. You didn't try and hide it: you had an illness, and it made things hard for you. You were grateful for the understanding the coaching staff had for you, the acceptance of your new peers, the fact that with your therapist, you'd be able to play in such a high pressure setting. When asked why you'd reveal something so personal, you said you didn't want it to be a secret. It was part of you, for better or worse. You said since you could talk about it, you would, because other people can't. It was blunt, and honest, and off-tone for the rest of the interview, but they kept it all the same.
And, for the very first time, I thought that if someone else could have a mental illness and play, maybe I wasn't a total loss. Maybe I could play, too.
Over dinner I asked my parents which schools we'd looked at also had a good volleyball club. I've never seen them look so proud.
And from there... it's pretty easy to guess. I kept going to therapy, and physio, and I was allowed to start up my exercises and weights again. I started getting back into shape. I joined a local club to get back into practice - and quickly outpaced all the other members. I didn't have my confidence, or my previous strength, but I had the muscle memory, the skills, all the same. I applied to three schools, wrote three entrance exams, and got in, all three places. I picked Nishi.
I made the team.
But, with my return to volleyball, and at an important club like Nishi, there came something I'd forgotten about: attention. I'd been a big deal, had a horrible set back, and I was finally playing again. Quite a few of the reporters, covering national volleyball, from the university circuits, those who remembered what I had been in high school - they all wanted an interview. I declined them all. I couldn't... I still didn't want to speak about it, and I hated being reminded of it. I didn't want any stories about me out there, not until I was ready. I wanted to say things on my terms, but it was terms I didn't get to set. It got around. People who hadn't known me looked at me and saw the accident, the vague mental block they thought that kept me out of things for two years. I hated it. I still hate it.
Because, in the end, I still have PTSD, and I'm still not completely comfortable with everyone knowing. I can't be like you. Not yet. Some things - a lot of things, really - still get me. It's why I want, why I need people to tell me if they're late, so I don't start thinking about the accident when I'm not ready to. I get anxious when a car speeds, or at the sound of a horn, even if I can avoid panic attacks and flashbacks most days. I don't like walking beside the road on sidewalks, and try and stick to the inside edge. I only cross when the symbol shows it's okay - never when it's flashing. I need to take time off, to myself, around the time of the accident. I skipped a week of school earlier this year for it. I had to.
It's why, the first time I saw you on that last train, spinning a volleyball on your fingers and not giving me a second glance, I was sure you didn't know who I was. I was sure that it was a place, a time, where I could set the rules myself, where I could be comfortable. It's why I'm grateful for you waiting, for letting me tell it myself, as I wanted, for the first time in my life. And that patience, that acceptance, is why I trust you so much.
Thank you, Bokuto.
Bokuto doesn't break the silence.
He can sense it, still: lingering in the air that lies between them, a need that flows from Akaashi with every exhale, every blink. The moments are his, to recover, to rest. The silence belongs to him as much as the story. Bokuto uses it, rolling the words in his head, the feelings in his chest, the meaning growing deeper in him as the time slips away. But he knows he's only borrowing it. He knows it's there only because Akaashi wants it to be.
Red lines stain the floor, the setting sun dodging the buildings on the horizon, sliding under and around the curtains on the large windows. He stares at them, giving Akaashi's profile a break, and he thinks. Memories slide into place: Akaashi's habits, his clothes, his little quirks that make him... Akaashi. It's not a dawning revelation, but a pattern uncoiling, unfolding. A puzzle, just completed, only now revealing the image it always had.
Bokuto traces the edges of the light with his eyes as his mind traces the edges of the puzzle pieces. He finds himself, a roll he'd never thought he'd have, an interview he'd forgotten, an inspiration he never known he'd given. He finds Akaashi's strength, in places where he knows Akaashi can't see it, even now. He finds struggle, pain, endurance. He finds the shapes and angles of Train Guy, standing miles away, content with the knowledge he's safe on his trip home.
He finds Akaashi Keiji, deep in the unknown, and he loves him.
Akaashi grips his hand. Bokuto lifts his head up, intending to return the gesture, but when their eyes meet, he pauses. Akaashi's no longer distant - his eyes are focused, if still tired. There's a look in them that hadn't been there moments before as he looked beyond the apartment walls. A mix of desperation, of enormity, of need. An expression he cannot make words for.
It's easy enough to guess.
Bokuto slides his hand free, shifting back on the couch, lifting his arms up. Akaashi wastes only one second - a hesitation, as relief floods his face - before he shifts forward, closer. His arms go around Bokuto's torso, somewhat from the side, and far more awkwardly than their previous hug. Bokuto doesn't protest, choosing to shift the smallest amount so he can rub circles into Akaashi's back, and he waits. He lets Akaashi pull in closer, hold on tighter, take all the control he wants.
Darkness creeps in the apartment as the sun sinks, red bleeding to black, but Bokuto makes no objection, no complaint. The silence is Akaashi's to use as he needs. And if his hug gets a little closer, a little more desperate, if he needs a little more time - Bokuto's more than happy to oblige.
"Can you get me that drink of water, now?" Akaashi's voice rings hoarse as he pushes himself upwards. He cringes, straightening his back, and Bokuto tries to stretch his arm without making it look like it's as cramped as it feels. Akaashi clears his throat, blinking a bit too much, the corner of his sleeve coming up to dab his eyes. Bokuto yelps, hands flying forwards. Akaashi stops them with a glare, inches from his face. His eyes are red, bleary, but he's not technically crying. "I'm fine, Bokuto. Just a bit overwhelmed. The water?"
"Yes!" Bokuto leaps to his feet, the force rattling the table and sending a few scarves falling back to the floor. He hears Akaashi sigh. He skids into the kitchen, using his newfound knowledge of Akaashi's cupboards to find a cup and fill it with water. His turn out of the kitchen is far more controlled, the cup steady in his hand. Akaashi's shifted on the couch, focused on straightening his scarf. Bokuto flops down beside him, holding the glass out.
"Thank you," Akaashi mumbles. He takes a drink, and another, eyes closing. Bokuto fidgets, shifting on his spot. His eyes dart from Akaashi to the kitchen, prepared in case he wants another drink. He taps his hands together, reaching one out towards a stray curl on Akaashi's head, pausing, and drawing it back. Questions catch in his throat, but he doesn't want to say anything, do anything, until Akaashi's ready. He repeats the action, hesitating a bit longer, tapping his fingers a little louder. The third time he reaches, Akaashi's eye cracks open. "What on earth are you doing right now, Bokuto?"
"I'm, uh, I'm just..." Bokuto throws his hands up in the air, any excuse he could have thought of vanishing in the dark room. Of all things, Akaashi laughs, bringing the cup back to his lips to try and stifle it. Bokuto watches him for a moment, and clears his throat. If Akaashi's ready to talk, he should talk, too. "Thank you, Akaashi. I don't... I have a lot of words, but I don't think I have the right ones, to say what I mean, but I... thank you for the trust you put in me. And I'm here for you. And-"
"You don't have to say more. I understand. I know you." There's something in the corner of Akaashi's eye, a light, or smile, that makes the heat rush a little stronger to Bokuto's cheeks. His fingers reach out, and this time he manages to move the curl, and if he lingers a little too long, Akaashi doesn't say. He finishes his water and sets the empty cup on the floor. "Thank you for waiting for me to tell it. I know I've said it, but, I feel like I can't say it enough. I'm glad to know you, Bokuto."
(Another silence, as Bokuto's fingers dig into Akaashi's curls, as Akaashi leans towards him, until Bokuto shifts the remaining inches to the side and lets him rest on his chest. Akaashi's breaths as deep and even, and Bokuto can count the seconds Akaashi's holding them for his head. He uses that trick to calm down, too.
Thoughts roll through his head, questions, ideas, solutions, popping into place. Inhale, five seconds. The media problem. Exhale, five seconds. An idea forms in his mind, surrounding it. When the breathing eases back to regular irregularity, when Akaashi shifts back to sit up, Bokuto opens his mouth to let it appear, finished, in the air.)
"Akaashi, there's something I-" Bokuto says, the moment Akaashi clears his throat and speaks. "Bokuto, I'm-"
(Akaashi's flat look as they interrupt each other is priceless, and a good sign Akaashi is starting to feel like his regular self. Boktuo grins. Akaashi frowns more.)
"We need to stop doing this," Akaashi sighs. He pinches his nose. "I'm going first."
"Of course." Bokuto leans in, still grinning. Akaashi shoves his face back, rolling his eyes, ducking his face into his scarf to hide the smile of his own. Bokuto shifts on the couch as Akaashi cracks his fingers before continuing.
"I was going to say, that, I'm feeling alright, and if you had any questions, I can try and answer them. Maybe just a couple. And then you can say whatever it is you wanted to. Alright?"
"...Are you sure?" Bokuto does have quite a few questions: about Akaashi's needs, his comfort levels, any specific triggers he doesn't know about, yet. Questions about when he should ask if Akaashi's okay to take a cab, or when transit's safer. But there's something in the air, still, and he wonders if Akaashi's really prepared.
"Yes." His look is expectant, determined to prove himself back to normal. Bokuto tries not to frown. Knowing Akaashi, he'll start answering questions if Bokuto doesn't ask him something. Just one, then.
"What happened to the driver?" Bokuto asks. Akaashi blinks, lips pursing slightly as he thinks.
"Ah... he pled guilty. The case was barely in court: all the evidence was against him, and he didn't want to fight it. He knew he'd..." Akaashi trails off, blowing air out of his mouth. Bokuto reaches down and takes his hand again. "He didn't go to jail for long, and instead, he's paying my family - me - to help with... everything. He's the one paying for this apartment, in a way. It's what I use the money for. We don't interact outside that, and I don't want to. It's... complicated."
(Silence. Short, taught. Akaashi's eyes are shadowed, stewing. Bokuto knew he shouldn't have asked.)
"I think the rest can wait," Bokuto murmurs. He runs his thumb against the back of Akaashi's hand. "You don't have to force yourself, Akaashi. I'm not going anywhere. We can talk more about this when you're ready, and I'll be able to ask better questions then, too."
"Can I say my part, now?" Akaashi's nod is small as he collects himself, a small shudder running down his body as he sinks back into the couch. His eyes gaze off into the distance, and Bokuto, for once, doesn't try and catch them. "Thanks, Akaashi. A lot of what you said got me thinking, about the news, and your story. About how much you don't want all this coming up again. I can't stop it completely, of course, but... things are a bit different at National level. And maybe I can help, a bit, at least. Or make it easier.
"You remember Maya, right? Our team reporter. Short, has a temper, for some reason doesn't like me running off after matches?" A snort. "Yeah, you got her. It's her job to lead the stories like this: new team members, our big accomplishments, our individual awards... and it'll be her job to write a piece about you. Heck, she's probably already started, knowing her. She's got a lot of contacts, and for stuff like this they'll take her cues and notes and warnings seriously." Akaashi's head turns, slowly, but his eyes are sharp. Alert. He's probably already figured out where Bokuto's going. "My point here is that, if you don't want things getting out not on your own terms, she'll listen to whatever terms you are comfortable with, and write the story like that. And I can help you, too, if you don't know what to say. It's your story to tell, and we can make sure it's told how you want it to be, at least somewhere. And, if you're ever comfortable opening up more, you can talk to her, too, and- Akaashi?!"
(Akaashi wipes his face, quickly, but not before Bokuto notices the tears, not before more roll out from the corner of his eyes. His face is red, blotchy with the effort to keep himself calm. Bokuto's hands are there in seconds, cupping Akaashi's face, wiping his cheeks. His mind races. Had he done something wrong? Had he said too much? Should he have let the silence return, instead of speaking?)
"I'm alright." Akaashi's voice cuts through the worry, as if he'd known exactly where Bokuto's thoughts had fled. He sniffs, loudly. "Sorry. I'm... that's... I don't know what to say. I didn't even consider I'd get the chance, this time, since I couldn't before... or that I'd have someone to back me up, because I... it's not something I can ask, on my own. I don't..." His eyes squeeze shut. The tears don't stop. "I need a minute."
"Take your time. I'm here, Akaashi. I've got you."
(His hands move across Akaashi's face, smoothing, patting, wiping away tears as they form. Akaashi grips his one wrist, holding on tight, mumbling thank yous and apologies laced with hiccups and shaky breaths. Time slips away, again, the sounds of the city shifting, from cars and bustle and people to the quiet creaks of the building falling asleep around them.
Akaashi draws back, as the building rests silent, as the world shrinks into night. His face is blotchier than before, wet in places Bokuto couldn't reach, his dark scar near invisible, the two raised ones stand stark against his skin. But in his eyes, there's a calm, a peace, a relief. The smile, when it comes, is small. Full. Bright.
"I'll get you some more water," Bokuto mumbles, hand fumbling for the cup on the floor. He knocks it over before he manages to get a grip on it, and his shuffle to the kitchen is a bit spaced out. He turns the water on, higher than it needs to be, and starts to fill the cup. He stares at it, the clear water, the slight shake of his hands.
He wonders if he can really love Akaashi more than he had, moments ago.
"Bokuto?" Akaashi's call is barely audible over the rush of water. "I know it's getting late, but... would you stay a little longer? I'll pay for the cab ride, home, when you need it. I'd... I'd like to not be alone for a little longer. If that's okay."
"Considering the fact when I had a huge panic attack, I just flat out told you to stay and passed out, I'm pretty sure you can ask me to stay a bit late, Akaashi." He turns of the tap, spinning on his heel with a grin, crossing the room in seconds. Akaashi takes the second cup of water and pretends to spill it over Bokuto's head. Bokuto clutches his chest and falls backwards. He waits for Akaashi's snort before he props himself up on his elbows. Despite his blotchy face, Akaashi's shoulders are relaxing, and that's all Bokuto can hope for. "If you want me to stay the night, too, I can. I just gotta let Kuroo know what's happening either way."
"I think I'd rather spend the night alone, but I appreciate the offer. Thank you." Bokuto nods, sitting up, stretching out his arms. He cracks his neck to one side, then the other. Akaashi drinks half the cup of water in one go before placing it back on the floor. "I just want to watch something light with you, and calm down a bit before I try and sleep." Bokuto nods, reaching for the remote. He can find something on Netflix that easily fits the criteria. Before he presses anything, though, a hand covers his. Cold. Akaashi. "There's something else I'd like to ask, as well. If... you can."
"Huh? Sure." Bokuto tries not to cock his head to the side to ask the question, but he feels himself do it anyway.
"Before you go... I'd like Oikawa's number. I... it's time I talked to him, too." Akaashi's hands fold back into his lap, twisting together. His voice doesn't waver, though his hands shake. "He deserves a proper apology. And I need to stop running."
"Of course, Akaashi. I'll give it to you before I leave." Akaashi nods, but makes no move to grab his phone. It isn't time, yet. Bokuto's finger hovers over the remote, but he waits, watching Akaashi. Seconds pass before Akaashi taps his hand, and Bokuto flips on the TV, digging through different options for something easy to watch. He doesn't speak, doesn't complain, doesn't say anything as Akaashi rests his head on his arm.
The silence, after all, is Akaashi's - to break, and to claim, whenever he wants it.
i only have 2 chapters left... i'm both excited and nervous for this to end aaaaa... thank you for staying tuned so long!
For a day, routine returns. Bokuto goes to practice: at first goofing around, bothering his friends, then switching to his role as pseudo-coach, instructing and guiding. He listens to complaints and ideas, tests his own serves and spikes against Oikawa's, runs over the new signals they've developed, to be sure everyone remembers them. On the outside, he's his usual self: boisterous, a bit too loud, a bit too energetic for the morning.
Inside, he churns with excitement, anticipation. The thing that he knows is coming, wants to come. Kuroo asks him what's got him jittery, and it's hard to hold his tongue, but for Akaashi, for Coach, he says it's nothing. He channels his energy into the game, into the team, and, bit by bit, hour by hour, it spreads, until spirits are high and their movements are so in sync, Bokuto doesn't think the Olympics are going to be hard at all.
He shares one look with Masuda, as the practice formally ends. One look, long and hard, that says he knows, and he knows Masuda knows. Masuda blinks, then smiles, then gives an exaggerated wink, which Bokuto returns. The small secret they share for one evening, one night. Bokuto gives him a clap on the shoulders, but doesn't say anything. Not yet.
Coach opens practice the next morning calling everyone together for an announcement. Bokuto stands to the side, grinning, watching. When Coach says it, aloud, for the first time, that Akaashi Keiji from Nishi University will be their new setter, he feels the swell of pride in his chest all over again. He feels it like the grin on his face, like the energy in the air, as the room sparks and explodes into excitement. Nishinoya jumps into the air, tackling Masuda to the ground with a hug as he lands. Kuroo elbows Ushijima, grinning. Yoshida holds his hand out, and Hiro dutifully pays up on whatever bet they had going.
Oikawa struggles to hold his smirk, his casual air in place as he waves his hand and says of course it was Akaashi, how he'd known all along. But it does slip, and the pride Bokuto feels is reflected on Oikawa's face, in the small clench of his fist, in the smallest ripple of relief passing through his shoulders.
Coach says that starting tomorrow, Akaashi will be coming to practice. That Masuda will stay on for two more weeks before leaving. That he expects everyone to play nice, be fair, and help him fit in. To not bother him about his past, or else. Bokuto blinks, caught out of his stupor of pride, and Coach catches his eye, giving a quick, almost imperceptible nod.
That's just the kind of guy he is.
With a clap of his hands, he tells them to stop standing around like idiots and show him what they've been working on while he's been busy. Ushijima and Bokuto straighten, taking up their places, herding everyone into position. It's hard not to fidget, to explode again and again, but Bokuto clamps down on it, channels it, again, into his spikes and jumps, his shouts and pushes.
Only one more day. And he'll get to play with Akaashi.
"Oh illustrious Vice Captain, might I have a word?" Oikawa saunters up beside Bokuto and Kuroo at the end of practice, snapback barely on his head, his glasses perched low on his nose. He shifts his bag on his shoulder, overtop of his new colourblock hoodie. He'd always had a good sense of fashion. Bokuto shrugs, as does Kuroo.
"I'll go change and head out, then," Kuroo says. He tugs at the jersey collar, then taps Bokuto's shoulder. "I know it's pointless to tell you to do the same, Bo, but be sure to wash it soon or something. It's starting to get gross."
"It's fine!" Bokuto huffs. He gives a subtle sniff of his shoulder. Nothing. Kuroo laughs, waving a hand over his shoulder as he wanders away. Bokuto turns his attention back to Oikawa, who finishes pushing up his glasses with his middle finger. "What's up, Oikawa? I can't hang tonight, if that's what you're wondering. "
"Puh-lease, I have a date tonight," Oikawa chides. He wags his finger. "No, Bokuto. I have two much more important things to speak about. First of all-" he slides an arm around Bokuto's shoulder, pulling him in close. His voice drops low as his eyes dart to the side. The only motion is Kuroo ducking off the gym floor into the change rooms. Everyone else has left. "-we'll be throwing Masuda a surprise party on his last day of practice. It's really hush-hush, so I have no idea why they let us in on it. But I had to let you know. It's gonna be big."
"Oho!" Bokuto grins, rubbing his hands together. "So, we talking big-big, like, cakes and streamers? I can dress up the gym overnight so it's a surprise in the morning when he comes in."
"Which is exactly why I came to you with this information, as I have no desire to spend hours in here decorating." Oikawa retracts his arm, stuffing his hands into his pockets and stepping back. Bokuto stretches as he straightens. He waits, but Oikawa is silent, chewing his lip before talking. The moment is so odd Bokuto subtly pinches his arm to make sure he hasn't fallen asleep. Oikawa throws his head back, staring at one of the ceiling lights. "The other thing. I know I seem like a cool, suave, yet aloof, care-free guy-"
"Not really?" Bokuto cocks his head to the side. Oikawa ignores him.
"-but I, too, must sometimes acknowledge others... so, thanks for giving Akaashi my number. I missed him. Y'know, playing with him. And stuff. Haven't gotten to talk to him in a while. I didn't think he wanted to again, after the qualifiers." Oikawa hums, quiet, at the end of his sentence. He tilts his head, and Bokuto wonders if he's going to say more, but instead, he tugs the hat lower on his face, moves his bag from one shoulder to the other. He doesn't quite make eye contact.
"...Akaashi's the one who asked for it, you know," Bokuto says, slow and careful. Oikawa's head tilts to the side. "I didn't do it outta the blue, or anything."
"Huh." A quick flash of a grin spreads across Oikawa's face, different than his usual ones. There's a lack of arrogance to it, even as he pushes the hat back away from his forehead. He cracks his knuckles, one by one. When he finishes, he moves to put his hands back in his pockets, but, instead, claps Bokuto on the shoulder. Bokuto yelps. It hurt. "Thanks all the same, man. Guess this means I can invite you out for that double date after all. When are you free?"
"What?! No, Oikawa, I'm not - it's not-" Bokuto fumbles over the words, his voice growing loud and screechy. In the distance, Kuroo walks out the gym, cackling. Asshole. "You know we're not technically, like, dating, right? Like, not official-official? I'm not-"
"Oh, whatever, Bokuto. You're close enough. I'll text you a time and you can tell me if you're free." Oikawa's grin shifts, his usual demeanor back in place. Bokuto half expects him to exchange his glasses for a pair of sunglasses, despite the setting sun. "Though if he's starting tomorrow, don't you think you should make things all proper? Nothing left to wait on, after all."
"Well- hey! Don't just start leaving in the middle of a conversation!" Bokuto huffs. Oikawa pays him no mind as he spins on his heel, waving, one hand pulling out a set of headphones from his bag. Bokuto scowls, rolls his eyes. As Oikawa slams the gym doors behind him, Bokuto crosses the court towards his own bag. He takes out his phone to tell Akaashi he's proud of him for the tenth time that day, if, this time, for another reason.
Akaashi's first practice with the team goes perfectly.
Of course, Bokuto might be a little biased - it might stem from the left over excitement of seeing Akaashi get on the train in the morning, having him stand by Bokuto and Kuroo the whole way there, trying to read as Bokuto repeats, over and over, how happy he is, until Kuroo elbows him in the ribs. It might be, just a little bit, because he thinks Akaashi looks incredibly handsome in the National uniform. But he consults the vice captain side of himself and still has to admit that nothing has really changed since scouting, not even in the face of the unknown: Akaashi Keiji is amazing at volleyball.
Bokuto spends the first half of practice glancing over his shoulder instead of running laps and practicing spikes. Coach, Oikawa, and Masuda sit with Akaashi on the sidelines, discussing players and preferences now that he can see them in person. Akaashi mimics the wrist snap Oikawa demonstrates on one of his sets, as Masuda outlines the difference between where to place the ball for Hiro and Ushijima on a whiteboard as Coach nods along.
Akaashi's face is serious, intent. His voice, his words - though Bokuto can't make them out perfectly - are confident and knowledgeable. He's every inch the National setter he was meant to be, before he even gets to play. He holds his own, debating and asking questions, back straightening, inch by inch. The sun shines through the windows and he glows brighter, takes in more and more, his small, calm energy filling the gym as Bokuto watches.
He's struggled. He's fought. He's faced the world, his darkness, the unknown, over and over. But he's still there. And there's nothing in the world that can stop him.
Bokuto takes a ball to the side of the head and he stumbles, snapping out of his stupor, realizing he stopped playing, moving, almost a full minute before. Kuroo laughs. Ushijima pinches his nose. Akaashi sighs, and, from across the gym, yells to Bokuto to stop staring and pay attention.
Bokuto keeps staring, of course. That's what makes it fun.
It only takes the morning for him to fit in with the crew. Nishinoya wastes no time getting to know him, asking him questions, comparing their heights with and without his mass of hair. He has a silent companionship with Ushijima, both of their faces flat in the same way as Kuroo makes a bad joke. No one mentions the scars. No one asks about his past. They only give tips, ideas, and tell him to steer clear of Oikawa when he's on the phone, in case it's his new girlfriend. Bokuto couldn't ask for anything more.
When Akaashi gets pulled aside by Maya to talk about the article she's posted, Bokuto gets asked four times how he managed to date someone so out of his league in every way. Bokuto grins and says it's his great personality and amazing physique. Not even Kuroo believes him on that one.
The afternoon brings the moment that he's been waiting for since he first saw Akaashi play: sets. Actual sets, from Akaashi, to them. Coach says they'll be doing things slower than usual, to get Akaashi used to different styles and positions. When he tells them to line up, Bokuto beelines to the spot at the front, casually, if obviously, stepping in front of Hiro at the last possible moment. He rolls on the balls of his feet, smiling, grinning, waiting. Akaashi leans over to listen to Masuda, then catches Bokuto's eye. He nods.
Bokuto soars across the gym, feet light beneath him. He takes off with ease, with practice, without so much as a glance over to where Akaashi is. He doesn't need to look. There's enough pride, enough trust, buried in him, that he knows the ball will be there when his hand comes down. It's Akaashi, after all.
And it's the best damn serve he's ever gotten.
That part, he know, is biased - but he doesn't care. It's in the exact spot he wants it to be in, at the right angle, with the right spin. It's there with him at the peak of his jump. High enough to give him a free look at the entire court, loose enough to let him slam it into blockers' hands if he had to. Tight enough he could send it hurtling inside the very same block. He grins, feeling the energy blaze in the single moment he hangs in the air. He slams the ball, as hard as he can, dead center into the court. The sound hammers into his ears, echoing, overpowering the sound of his feet slamming back into the court.
A cheer goes up behind him and Masuda has time to pat Akaashi on the shoulder before Bokuto takes four long strides and closes the distance between them. Before Akaashi can blink he's picked him off the ground, spinning him in the air once, twice, three times until Akaashi laughs and tells him to put him down, tells him to stop being ridiculous, tells him they have work to be doing. Bokuto sets him down, waiting for Akaashi to straighten his jersey top, and pulls him into a tight hug.
"I'm so glad you're here," Bokuto whispers. Akaashi, for once, doesn't pull away, or protest, or even sigh. Instead, he hugs him back, just as tightly. There's noise behind them - teasing, or cheering, but Bokuto ignores it as Akaashi replies.
"Me too, Bokuto." Bokuto squeezes tighter, pouring all his pride, his excitement, into the gesture. Akaashi smiles into his shoulder. "Me too."
it feels so weird to only have one chapter left im yelling... i'll do my big write up at the end of next chap im gonna get so emotional haha. as always thank you all for reading!!
Akaashi stays with him after practice formally ends. He gets a few teasing remarks, about how bad an influence Bokuto is, how it's only his first day and he doesn't need to be that dedicated just yet. Akaashi takes them in stride, managing the noogies and well wishes, waving goodbye to his new teammates as they leave the gym. He shares a look with Maya, her backpack stuffed full of notes and tablets, and one with Oikawa, who twirls his keys around his finger. Both are grateful, thankful. Happy.
It makes Bokuto smile, too.
For the most part, they stick to individual drills, on opposite sides of the net. Bokuto runs through his nightly routines, until he feels himself slip into the familiar motions that come not from thought, but from memory. Akaashi practices his sets, pinpointed to locations, marked at different heights and speeds and spins. There are little adjustments he makes when one isn't perfect, the same twitches and movements of small muscles that Bokuto makes himself. The pattern is familiar, encouraging. Calming.
When Akaashi calls for a break, Bokuto obliges. They sit, back to back, at the edge of the court, Bokuto's earbuds shared between them as they pass a bottle of water back and forth. The gym is still, the yellow lights harsh, the windows slotted with dark night sky. In one ear, the music plays, cascades. In the other, he hears Akaashi hum along, soft, rhythmic, echoing.
He isn't sure when he puts his hand over Akaashi's, when Akaashi leans against him, but both are already happening as the song changes. The emptiness of the gym seems to fill, and yet, at the same time, it expands, until it feels like in all the city, all the world, there's nothing but the moment, the music, and Akaashi Keiji's soft voice at the center of it all.
"So, 'Kaashi, what'd you think of your first day?" Bokuto asks, arms crossed behind his head. Akaashi flicks his eyes over, keeping pace as they walk towards the train station. He tugs at his coat sleeves, even though Bokuto's told him four times already it's not cold enough for a jacket. He has to bite back saying it again.
"I had a good time," Akaashi says. He closes his eyes and tilts his head to the side for a moment. He opens them in time to step over a small section of uneven sidewalk. Bokuto trips over it, arms wheeling, until Akaashi grabs the back of his sweater and hauls him up. "It's a little overwhelming, but in a good way. Intense. I can't wait for tomorrow."
"That's what I like to hear! Especially since now that we've got you on the team, things are gonna get even more intense. Coach is planning some more practice matches, and the European qualifiers are starting soon, so we'll have to pay attention to our potential opponents." Bokuto adds emphasis with jabs and fist pumps, reaching over to ruffle Akaashi's hair as he finishes talking. Akaashi nods, until, of course, the hand clamps down over his head. He's not quite smirking, not quite scowling. His happy medium. Bokuto untangles his fingers and stretches out his shoulders, head leaning one way, then the other. "And, uh, on a more serious note, Maya's story went live in the evening. You saw it? You okay?"
(Akaashi turns his head, his neutral expression softening, his eyes lighting up, catching not only the streetlights, but something within. He isn't quite smiling, and Bokuto's glad for it - his heart has skipped enough beats as it is.)
"I did see it. And I am okay. Thank you for checking, Bokuto." Akaashi's voice is quiet, and he reaches out and takes Bokuto's hand. He gives it a single squeeze before he pulls back, turning to start up the stairs to the platform level. Bokuto stands, watching Akaashi walk, his fingers curling in on themselves, his thoughts scattered. Akaashi pauses, four steps up. "Are you coming, or are you planning on missing the train? I'm not going to wait for you."
(The lights of the platform, far above, halo his head, his curls, his scars. Instead of replying, Bokuto holds up one finger as his other hand digs around in his back pocket for his phone. By the time he pulls it out, Akaashi's face is neutral again, tinged with exasperation, but otherwise he hasn't moved. He doesn't even seem to have twitched.
The photo is darker than what Bokuto can see, the camera not quite capturing the subtleties of the light, of Akaashi's expression, of the majesty, the romance, of the moment, but those he can hold onto in his memory. He looks between them for a moment: the photo, the imperfections, and Akaashi, impatient, starting to shift on his feet.
Bokuto loves him. Maybe it's time to do something about it.)
"Bokuto, can we go now?" Akaashi's voice cuts into Bokuto's thoughts before they fully process. Bokuto yelps, stuffing the phone in his back pocket, taking the steps two at a time to both catch up, and surpass, Akaashi on the stairs. Of the regular crew, only the lawyers are on the platform yet. Despite Akaashi's nagging, they're still early. Bokuto hovers on the edge of the stairs, catching his breath, as Akaashi wanders over to their usual spot. It takes two more deep breaths for Bokuto to follow, and he isn't sure those are from exercise.
"Hey, so, Akaashi, I've been thinking," Bokuto starts, even though he knows full well he'd only started thinking about it again a few moments ago. He scratches the side of his neck, leaning back a bit, trying to force his way into looking casual. By Akaashi's slowly rising eyebrows, he's failing miserably. "And, uh, now that you're on the team and everything's all official, there's something I should probably ask."
"Ah. Yes, of course, Bokuto. You can have my phone num-"
"Are you ever going to drop that?!" Bokuto yells. Akaashi's grin, which is definitely just an upgraded smirk, is a clear 'no'. Bokuto grumbles low in his throat, his scowl threatening to turn into a pout, until Akaashi elbows him, light, in the arm. "Okay, well, on topic, what I was actually going to ask," he pauses, steadies his hands, and, after a few more deep breaths, only managers to stutters. "Is, uh..."
(Akaashi waits, eyes shifting green as they open a little wider.)
(The few lines of confusion creasing his face, his nose wrinkling. His head, tilting to the side, just like Bokuto's does. Underneath the confusion, patience, his hands relaxed as he waits for Bokuto to get there. Leaning forwards, inwards, bit by bit, as Bokuto's breaths grow even, as his mind focuses, as Akaashi forms from details to whole before him.)
"Can we make this-" Bokuto pauses, gesturing in the air between them, "-that is, can we make us official?"
"Can we...?" Akaashi blinks, eyebrows furrowing. It clicks: Akaashi's shoulders straighten, his mind clear. "Oh. Oh."
"Yeah," Bokuto says, the most eloquent reply he can manage. He clears his throat, glancing over his shoulder. The university student's arrived, but no train, and no one's paying them the slightest bit of attention. "I mean, we can keep, taking things slow, or whatever, but I... now that everything's done, and you're here, I'd... I love you, Akaashi. Half the team already thinks we're, like, officially boyfriends, and I want to be. Like, a lot. If there's anything else you wanna talk about first, we can, and either way I know we still have to talk about like, limits, and triggers, and problems we both have, but I'm willing to do that if you are! And, I mean, I-"
"Bokuto, you're rambling. Calm down." Akaashi puts a finger over Bokuto's lips, and Bokuto clamps his jaw shut faster than he ever has before. He wants to clench his hands or rub his neck or shift, but, instead, he watches Akaashi draw his hand back, meet his gaze, and smile.
(The relief is as cold and refreshing as Akaashi's hand folding over his own.)
"I love you too. Will you be my boyfriend, then, Bokuto?" Akaashi's hand tightens around Bokuto's. Bokuto steps closer, until he doesn't dare step closer, until he can almost feel Akaashi's breath.
"I'm going to be the best damn boyfriend you'll ever have," Bokuto whispers. His chest pounds, but he still grins, still winks, still puts his free hand against Akaashi's cheek. Akaashi's hand closes over his wrist, and he pulls the hand away. Bokuto watches it, blinking, confusion tingling his excitement. He opens his mouth to ask, closes it as Akaashi opens his to reply.
"You already are," Akaashi murmurs. He puts Bokuto's hands at his sides, stands up on his tiptoes, and, as he wraps his arms around Bokuto's neck, kisses him.
Bokuto is frozen in shock for two entire heartbeats.
The world stills around him. Akaashi is close - so close. Too close. Not close enough. Bokuto is very aware of his body, of his hands, of how he isn't doing anything. Of how Akaashi's lips are soft, how he twists a strand of hair between two fingers at the back of Bokuto's head. How, after two heartbeats, he pulls back, his breath hot, hands cold, eyes dark and curious.
That's when Bokuto realizes what he should be doing. He digs a hand into Akaashi's hair, half in his curls, half on the scarf. He slides the other around Akaashi's waist. He pulls him in again, and there's just enough space between them, just enough time, for Akaashi to mutter Bokuto's name, exasperated, before Bokuto kisses him back.
It's probably too deep for a first kiss, but Akaashi doesn't object, so Bokuto shoves the thought from his mind. He focuses on how Akaashi trembles on his tiptoes until Bokuto puts more pressure on his waist, taking his weight, holding him up. He thinks about how soft Akaashi's scarf is, how nice it feels to have Akaashi's hands on the back of his neck, in his hair, on his shoulders, wherever Akaashi moves them. How he absolutely wants Akaashi to be this close to him again. And again.
He starts to grin into the kiss, and the laugh forms in his chest before he can stop it. He starts to pull back, but not before the grin spreads to Akaashi, not before they both start to laugh aloud. Akaashi drops to the flats of his feet, arms trailing down to wrap around Bokuto's chest in a tight hug, shoulders shaking with laughter he's trying to stifle. Bokuto buries his face in Akaashi's curls, joy bubbling out of him, hugging, crushing Akaashi into his chest, until the world around them melts away, until happiness encases them, until there's nothing left, nothing at all, but how much he loves Akaashi, and how much Akaashi loves him.
Until the train rumbles into the station.
The wind whips around them and Akaashi takes a half step back, arms loosening. The ends of his scarf fly in the air, and Bokuto feels his own hair, messy and now unstyled, curl around his neck. At the same moment, their heads turn towards the train, the familiar motion of it slowing down, of their small group walking towards it. The lawyers, smiling to each other, clapping backs. The variety store worker, hand over her mouth, unsuccessfully hiding a smile as she texts. The university student, headphones on, nails chipped, doing her best to pretend she isn't looking over at them.
The train doors open, white light spilling out, and Bokuto looks around the platform above Akaashi's head. The city glows, distant, speckled, colourful. The station lights shine down, harsh and sharp. They all seem pale, weak, dark, as he glances down, as he looks at the angle of Akaashi's head, the strength of his smile, his little nod towards the train doors. Next to his glow as he finally steps away, as he reaches his arm out.
Bokuto takes his hand, and, laughter still stuck in their throats, excitement still catching in their minds, they step, together, onto the train - not for the first time, and not for the last.
ok i only have 5000 characters so i will try not to ramble TOO much
this has been a really long and fun journey for me, as this is my first longfic since 2012 (wow!!). i wanted to prove to myself i could stick to a plot, and a schedule, and write a cohesive, longer story... and i've really accomplished that above my own expectations. i'm super proud of myself and how far i've come as a writer, and understanding more about my own process.
i wanna give a bit shoutout to everyone who read along with me as it published (and another to anyone reading it all at once now that its done!! hi!! i hope you enjoyed!). tbh all your lovely comments have given me so many laughs and smiles and touched my heart in so many ways. many people will tell you to create for yourself, and i do, but it is always easier to have such a loving and kind base of readers excited by my work and encouraging me along the way.
thank you for your patience and above all thank you for reading an ongoing fic, whether you picked it up at the very start or on chapter 35!! i know it's a deep chancy dive but i'm glad and grateful you took that chance on me. i would encourage you all to take a chance on another ongoing fic, and pass the goodwill forwards - we writers thrive upon and nurture positive feedback, and i can't think of a better group than y'all!
from here i have more fics to write, more stories to tell, and, hopefully, that includes original works! feel free to hit me up on twitter (@tamocch) or on tumblr (mocaw.tumblr.com) for updates, and memes, and probably me talking about video games. :) cheers and thank you again for taking this journey with me, and bokuto and akaashi, and the rest of the strangers on the last train of the night.