On the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, Bokuto swapped most of his vegetables from his ekiben (except for the pumpkin simmered in fish broth and the lotus root pickles) for all the meat in Akaashi’s. That kind of exchange was a common enough occurrence, even at school, and Akaashi never minded.
His mother usually teased that he must have been a monk in a past life, hence his frugality and love of vegetables. Who else on Earth could ever claim boiled rapeseed was their favourite dish? However, Akaashi couldn’t say if he loved vegetables because of an actual preference or simply out of habit, because Bokuto loved meat. Always spare meat for the ace. The ace needs his strength.
It was different now, though. Bokuto was no longer his ace. The ace.
They changed trains, commuting from Osaka station to Shin-Osaka where Bokuto got very excited at the souvenir shop.
“Look, Akaashi, giant matcha-flavoured Pocky! They’re as big as Italian breadsticks, look!”
Bokuto bought two boxes and ate them all on the train to Hiroshima, although he did propose some to Akaashi, who refused.
Was it because now they were an item? Akaashi thought. This sharing of their food, was it something couples did? He had no idea. He’d never been anyone’s boyfriend before and the supposed change of status didn’t make a great difference in how he and Bokuto normally behaved.
Destroying one packet of Pocky after the other, Bokuto was interested in discussing the future of the Fukurodani Volleyball Club with Akaashi, sending crumbs flying everywhere as he barely bothered to stop chewing while he spoke.
Akaashi gave short and precise answers when Bokuto remembered to pause, swallow and breathe, and the rest of the time studied him in silence while he kept babbling with his mouth full. It didn’t look like a facade, he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Akaashi being captain, with no hint of regret or even faint nostalgia. Although Bokuto was still wearing their team’s track jacket, even as they sat together on the train, and despite school being over for several days now. Akaashi wondered if that actually meant anything.
“Hey hey, watch out for those first-years, greenhorns can be a handful!”
“Was I ever a handful, Bokuto-san?” Akaashi wanted to know, as Bokuto crammed three more breadstick-sized Pocky in his mouth.
“You were never a ‘first-year’. You were always Akaashi,” Bokuto replied immediately, and then didn’t leave Akaashi enough time to ponder this startling answer:
“You’ll make a great captain. Well, you have to. You need to carry on my legacy, you know,” he added with a matcha-green smile.
Akaashi’s captaincy seemed to make perfect sense to everyone except Akaashi himself. A little like how he had become vice-captain even though he had been only a second-year. It had barely bothered anyone, even then. Wakaba, the third-year before him, had stepped down without so much as raising an eyebrow.
“Well, it makes sense,” Wakaba had said. “You know how to handle Bokuto.”
So what, Akaashi had wanted to reply. Knowing how to handle him doesn’t make me a good vice-captain. There is a whole team to manage as well. Why is everyone so ready to forget this very important detail?
But the truth was, and as aggravating as his mood swings were, Bokuto had been the heart and soul of Fukurodani. And now that he wasn’t part of the team anymore, and since, according to everyone else, Akaashi was only ever good at “handling” Bokuto...
Now, even that wasn’t quite true. He hadn’t been able to manage Bokuto well enough to make win him the title of national champion in Bokuto’s last year of high school volleyball, and that was a fact.
Bokuto hadn’t even made that much of a nuisance of himself, come the day of that crucial last match. He’d given it his all. Everyone had given their all. And yet they’d still lost, because, simply put, Itachiyama had been stronger. That was that.
Sure, Akaashi could formulate it to himself now, but it had been a different story then.
Just thinking back to it, he could still taste all that bitterness and bile that had clogged his throat to the point of preventing him from speaking. Not that there had been much to say anyway. On the way to the locker rooms, he’d felt Bokuto’s insistent, restless stare searching his, but Akaashi hadn’t wanted to return it, for no reason he could have explained. In his peripheral vision however he’d watched Bokuto opening his mouth, closing it, not subtle at all in his attempts to catch Akaashi’s attention and try to speak to him. Until Komi had had enough:
“Akaashi,” he’d called in a weary voice. “Bokuto wants to talk to you.”
At that, on top of all the other emotions he’d already had trouble dealing with, Akaashi had felt dread.
What can he possibly want with me, he’d thought. Does he want to tell me how disappointed he feels, how crushed, because it’s his last year as a captain and ace, it was his last chance – if that’s what he wants to say, he can save it, I’ve a pretty good idea already.
Unless... it can’t be reproach, can it. This is so unfair. I’ve tried my best, and who the fuck does he think I am, some kind of glorified baby-sitter? Is this really all I’m worth in his eyes?
In the end, pushed bodily outside by the rest of the team, they’d found themselves alone behind the stadium, and Akaashi had kept that sick feeling at the pit of his stomach, before Bokuto had even started to speak. He’d been ready to lash out, to finally come out with all the frustration he’d felt “handling”, “managing” Bokuto, he’d been ready to bite his head off if he’d heard anything about how Akaashi could have maybe done better, taken better care of him... With growing resentment at some yet imaginary conversation, he’d waited for Bokuto to just get on with it, and Bokuto's first words had been:
“Akaashi, I’m sorry.”
Akaashi’s irrational anger had evaporated instantly. Hearing those words, he’d realised at once how horribly petty he’d been, how losing that one match had completely messed with his judgement to the point of distorting reality. Of course his captain wouldn’t have reproached him anything, of course Bokuto would have shouldered all the blame.
Akaashi had felt his heart grow too big for his chest and had wanted to reach out for him, to make him feel better, to keep everything bad, everything bringing Bokuto down far, far away.
Instead, a sob that he had been quashing for too long had escaped him, and the dams had broken: he’d cried without being able to stop. He’d grossly misjudged his captain, his ace, just because he hadn’t been able to bear the devastating sadness and guilt on his own.
With Akaashi going to pieces in front of him, Bokuto had promptly started to freak out and ended up being the one comforting him:
“No, Akaashi, please don’t cry, I know... I know how much you wanted to win this. I know I’ve let you down. I mean, not just you, the whole team, um...”
Akaashi had only cried harder then, and Bokuto had kept going, unaware that his words had been making it so much worse:
“Oh man, it’s so uncool of me.” He’d carded a hand through his wild hair in frustration. “I’ve pictured it, you know. I wanted to give this victory, the title and everything, to you, before I left. Er, I mean ‘you guys’. I mean...”
A small, embarrassed laugh, a shake of his head.
“No, I mean ‘you’. You, Akaashi. I wanted... I had this plan, you see. I would win this for you, and then I would turn to you and finally tell you... I wanted you to know... You’re, you’re amazing, and the most important person in my life. You’re smart, and, and, really cool, and I’ve never...”
The unexpected turn of the conversation had finally shocked Akaashi’s uncontrollable sobs into subsiding.
“I’ve never met anyone like you, and I...”
“Bokuto-san,” Akaashi had croaked out, feeling more and more uncertain.
Miraculously, Bokuto had stopped.
“Bokuto-san, what’s going on? It’s as though I’ve died recently and you’re reading out my eulogy.”
“Hey, I don’t know what that means but it’s important you hear me out, Akaashi! Also, don’t talk about you dying, I would...” He’d stopped again, and taken a deep breath. “Look, if we’d won, I would have confessed to you, is what I’m saying.”
Confessed...? He can’t mean...
Judging by the redness of his face that had had nothing to do with physical exertion, yes, Bokuto had most certainly meant exactly that. Akaashi had felt his own cheeks flaming up as well.
“We would have gone out, as boyfriends, I’ve pictured it, like, really realistic-like, and it would have been perfect, but now it’s all turned to shit, I’m so sorry. It’s too lame and super uncool and a champion should have confessed to you, not...”
“Wait, Bokuto-san.” The dread had come back with a vengeance, a hopeless abyss had opened underneath Akaashi’s feet. “Are you saying you won’t... Are you telling me that... what you wanted to say... is... off the table now?”
“Akaashi, please understand: I can’t confess to you when I haven’t even won Nationals, you’re too awesome and beautiful and precious, you deserve, like, a billion times better. I love you too much to turn it into something lame, like coming out with my feelings for you after a defeat and then you feeling pity for me. It has to come out at a high point of our lives where you think I’m totally awesome as well, but the moment has passed, I won’t have another chance, and there’s no way I can let you know how much I love you now, you see?”
Akaashi had mainly been seeing stars of pain from the beginning of a strong headache, due to the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster Bokuto had typically put him through.
“Well, Bokuto-san...” He had said, very slowly. “I may be wrong, but I think... I think you just...”
“What?” Bokuto had startled, comprehension suddenly dawning on him. “No! No no no, wait! I only wanted to make you understand that I couldn’t... but then I...”
Bokuto’s eyes had grown comically large.
“Aaaah!” He’d cried, both hands tearing at his hair as he’d fallen to his knees.
“Crap! Crap! I just did, didn’t I? I totally did! Why? Why am I a moron?! Forget it, Akaashi, forget everything!” Bokuto had pleaded from his prone position on the ground.
Akaashi had let himself drop to his knees as well, and had taken Bokuto’s hands in his.
“No, no, stop, Bokuto-san, I... I do. I want to be your boyfriend. I want to go out with you. Please,” he’d added, not caring if he had sounded desperate.
“But, Akaashi...” Bokuto had whined with a face full of snot and eyes huge, shining with tears.
“No.” Akaashi had said in a final tone. “You’re not lame, you’re not a loser. If anything, I’m the uncool one and you’re the one who deserves better.”
“How?” Bokuto had said, head tipped to the side, blinking in total confusion like some big, dumb, lovely animal. Akaashi had framed his face between his hands to put it back upright, and had plunged his gaze in his to convey he’d meant every word he’d said.
“I was the one who owed you something, not the reverse. It was your last chance at winning the title and I blew it. I’m... I’m the one who’s sorry, Bokuto-san, you have no idea how.”
“Akaashi...” Bokuto had called quietly, looking serious.
“I may be a moron, but you’re an idiot,” he had said with a completely straight face.
Always full of surprises, was his ace. Akaashi had given a surprised laugh.
“But it’s your last year on the team...”
“I don’t care about my last year. I don’t even care about the title of champion unless I can wow you with it. Yeah, sure, it wouldn’t have hurt, I mean I wouldn’t have spat on it, you know, but... I’ve already had my moment. Everything else is a bonus. Don’t you remember? The first match that we won together, when our training together finally paid off and our duo started working at last? We completely crushed it. You made me rank in the top five aces in the country. I should have asked you out then, but I chickened out because I felt it wasn’t enough yet and I still had room for improvement in your good opinion of me.”
Akaashi had laughed some more, before he’d gotten up, brushing dirt off his knees.
“You’re right, Bokuto-san.”
He had extended his hand to Bokuto to help him up to his feet.
“I am an idiot, you are a moron. We belong together, then, don’t we?”
Bokuto had flashed Akaashi such a dazzling smile as he’d taken the proffered hand that Akaashi had almost had to cover his eyes. He’d thought he’d still get afterimages, burning as it was at the back of his retinas.
They would have probably kissed at that point, too, had it not been for the catcalls and whooping sounds they’d heard coming from behind the corner wall of the stadium.
“That was so smooth, as expected from the ace!” Sarukui had teased with a humongous shit-eating grin. “No wonder our dear vice-captain couldn’t help but fall for those lines! ‘AGHWKAASHEE, YOU’RE AN IDIOT! I CAN’T SAY I LOVE YOU!’”
"Shut up, Saru, I don't sound anything like that!"
“What kind of answer to a confession is ‘I do’, anyway, Akaashi?” Konoha had asked, the unbelievable shit. “That’s way too formal, even for a stuck-up like you. Are you two getting married, after all?”
“Stop teasing, you bastards!” Bokuto had shouted at the whole team of imbeciles spying on them from behind the wall, affecting being pissed off although he’d still had that pleased look on his stupid face. “How dare you listen in on our private conversation!”
“Oh, please,” Komi had replied, rolling his eyes. “You two have been dancing around each other for so long that we’ve had to put a stop to the betting pool. I rather think we’re entitled to a bit of fun at last, since you’ve completely sucked it out of the traditional “will they won’t they” bets between friends of an idiot couple in the first place. We’ve suffered long enough, now we get to laugh at you.”
“You’re all traitors!” Bokuto had declared as Akaashi had slowly been dying on the inside. “We’re having a team party tonight and traitors are not invited! So I guess it’s going to be just Akaashi and me, duh.”
Akaashi had realised that since he’d taken Bokuto’s hand to pull him up, neither of them had let go. They had been standing in front of the team and holding hands the whole time.
“Aw, don’t be like that,” Sarukui had said, eyeing Akaashi with a look that had said they’d all noticed. Akaashi had died a little more, and forced himself to drop Bokuto’s hand. Bokuto had shot him a quizzical look, but then had turned his attention back to their nosey teammates right away.
“A party?” Komi had said, more quietly. “Even though we’ve lost the match?”
The good mood had suddenly dropped. Yet Bokuto alone had seemed unaffected:
“We’re having a party because it was my last official match with you scumbags and I’m going out in style, whether you want to join me or not. Who cares about losing when you’ve had the pleasure of playing by my side?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘pleasure’, exactly...”
“Hey, Konoha, you take that back!”
They’d always been aware that Bokuto had the most brittle ego and volatile personality among them... but what amazing strength of character, Akaashi had thought, watching Bokuto pick not only himself up but also his teammates, lifting their spirits again from rock bottom, overcoming depression and gloom after their defeat through his sheer power of will. Maybe Bokuto had been faking it and convincing himself through the process... still, even that must have demanded energy, and Akaashi, who hadn’t had a drop left in him, not for himself, let alone for others, had seriously wondered where Bokuto could possibly draw it from. Maybe Bokuto’s inner light really was infinite.
So whatever doubts I may have about being a captain, Akaashi said to himself while, beside him, Bokuto was engulfing the last of his Pocky sticks, I must power through them. Be more like him.
One bit of biscuit must have gone down the wrong pipe because Bokuto started making strangled noises and coughing in an alarming way.
Okay, so maybe not entirely like him, Akaashi amended mentally as he handed him his bottle of sencha.