When Akaashi Keiji woke up with his throat tight, the night after they had lost to Karasuno in the Spring High, he figured it was just from all the emotions. It hadn’t been pretty, and while he’d definitely had his hands full dealing with Bokuto’s fallout, he’d been able to ignore his own grief. He’d wanted to give Bokuto and all the others a good finish, but they had just barely fallen short and Keiji had maybe, certainly cried when he was alone in his room that night. Of course that was where his sore throat came from.
After a week, and an irritation that only grew, Keiji was forced to consider allergies, which were rare for him, or a cold, which was rarer. And worse was the fact that some of his teammates, his captain in particular, started to notice he was a little under-the-weather.
“You feelin’ alright, ‘Kaashi?” Bokuto, ever-cheerful, asked as he idled in the club room after practice. He had no more games, nothing left to prove and the university entrance exams to study for and yet he still came, without fail, to Fukurodani’s volleyball practices. “You’ve been looking a little sick!”
“I’m fine, Bokuto-san,” his throat constricted a little, and he cleared it. Stupid cold. “Thank you for your concern.”
Bokuto slapped him on the back, with too much force and just as energetic as ever. “You’re not foolin’ me, but I’ll let it slide this time! As long as you come to get meat buns with me on the way to the station!”
He beamed, bright and shining, and there was the hint of a headache beginning but Keiji couldn’t help but nod.
He smiled fondly to himself when Bokuto leapt upwards with a victorious cheer. His energetic senpai certainly had a way to make others feel better.
Keiji’s cold, if that’s what it was, woke him up again in the middle of the night. He coughed, and coughed, and coughed, but as he lay there afterwards, breath ragged in the dark, his weariness dragged him back to sleep. He woke up groggy with a massive headache the next morning, but thankfully it was the weekend and he didn’t have to prepare for school.
His mother, upon learning that he felt unwell, insisted he return to his bed and brought him tea and medicine. It soothed his throat, but the headache persisted.
After another two weeks, both Keiji and his mother were about to bite the bullet and visit a doctor. A summer cold didn’t last for going on six weeks, and it definitely wouldn’t have been getting worse. Keiji wondered if he’d picked up some sort of illness in class while his mother wondered if it had been acquired at the tournament. There had been a lot of people there.
Thoughts of the tournament made his head reel a little though, and all he could see swimming in his mind’s eye was the state of dejection that Bokuto had fallen into. It had been the kind that lasted all the way back on the bus, and even on their walk home after. He’d actually turned down the team’s invite to go have yakiniku, his favorite, before everyone went their separate ways for the evening. It made Keiji’s head ache, and his throat tightened again.
He rolled over in his bed and coughed into his fist with a groan. It was the third night in a row he’d had trouble falling asleep because of his coughing fits, and tonight it just seemed...worse, somehow.
An unfamiliar taste blossomed across his tongue, and Keiji scowled, sitting up. There was a faint edge of copper and an underlying hint of earthy bitterness, and the feeling of something that simply didn’t belong. He fumbled for his bedside lamp and, once the light flared up, he squinted at his closed fist. His eyes adjusted, and Keiji stared blankly for a moment at the shredded, pink-speckled...paper? Tissue paper? Napkins? When had he swallowed paper in any form over the last few hours?
He felt another piece on his tongue and pulled it from his tongue with his free hand. He noticed that it didn’t fall apart like any type of paper would, and huffed a slow sigh that irritated his already painful throat. Keiji rolled it between his fingers, felt the velvety texture before noticing the almost wilted appearance, and felt a chill through his whole body.
Keiji tried to remember everything he’d ever heard about coughing up flowers, but his knowledge was admittedly limited. He’d honestly never really been invested in learning about it. His interest in romance was low and he’d never really had a strong attraction to anyone, so it seemed like kind of a moot point to be concerned about it. Keiji had turned down a few confessions, even, and hadn’t really looked back on it. Volleyball and his studies were more of a priority, so intrapersonal relationships had taken a back seat.
So when, exactly, had he fallen in love with someone?
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he coughed once, twice, thrice more into his fist, and he could feel the petals slide up his throat and across his tongue, bitter and intrusive.
He wiped his hand clean of slightly blood-speckled flower petals with a tissue on his nightstand and dumped them into the trash can, spitting after them. He clicked his lamp off, rolled over, and resolutely willed himself back to sleep. The petals in the bin and the bitter taste on his tongue tried to keep him awake, but he was determined. These things would have to wait for tomorrow, when he started trying to figure out who he was even in love with.
At the very least, now Keiji knew it wasn’t a cold or allergies.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to start hiding it from his mother. He just passed it off as the stress from exams looming nearer, and though she still offered him tea and throat lozenges, she laid off the suggestions of going to the doctor.
“If you still feel ill after all your exams are over,” she said, brushing her fingers lightly through his fringe, “we’ll go see the doctor, Keiji.”
“Alright,” he responded thickly. His throat itched and he closed his fingers into a fist to keep from reaching up. “After exams, we’ll go.”
She leaned forward and brushed a kiss to his temple, smiled at him, and left him to his homework again. Keiji waited until he heard her finish descending the stairs before he coughed into his hand again. His chest ached when he coughed, but only wilted petals came up before dusk. It was after night fell that the petals were an eerily beautiful white, tainted pink with flecks of blood from his tormented esophagus.
It had been about five days since the first petals had appeared, and he’d already picked up the pattern. Wilted, brown petals during daylight hours, and beautiful white petals stained with his own blood during the night. The petals didn’t stay bright for long, even after dark, before they wilted and turned brown throughout. If Keiji was superstitious, he’d take that as a bad sign for his future, whether with this love or his life or whatever else. But Keiji wasn’t very superstitious, and he reasoned that some flowers simply weren’t made to last.
Keiji dumped the newest expulsion into the trash can before turning back to the notes in front of him. He would have sighed if he didn’t know it would exacerbate his already tender throat, so instead he tapped his pencil lightly against the notebook. He was just studying, and in his current state he didn’t think he’d get very far with that. He could feel the stress headache putting pressure on his mind, and Keiji inwardly groaned as he prepared to cease the endeavor for the night.
It was then that his phone buzzed loudly against the desktop.
He had never startled easily, but all things considered, he didn’t beat himself up over the way his shoulders shot higher and his head ducked at the sound. It buzzed again shortly, and Keiji took a slow, measured breath. After a moment, he reached his unsteady hand out to flip his phone over, and read the push notification.
They were from Bokuto-san.
To [me]: hey hey hey, akaashi!!!
i hope ur feelin better bc we’re def gettin yakiniku tmrw n u cant miss it!!!
Keiji cast around for a reason to get yakiniku. It wasn’t a birthday and they hadn’t won a match or anything, so it didn’t add up very quickly. Besides, he had yet to miss practice, except for the one day his mother insisted he stay back at least from morning practice because she’d heard him coughing in the middle of the night, so he had figured he’d been hiding his affliction fairly well.
He hesitated to respond, and the phone vibrated in his hands.
To [me]: its gonna b gr8 kaashi!!! u have 2 b there
Keiji rolled his eyes a little, but smiled fondly at his phone. He still didn’t know why it was so important, but he’d roll with it.
To [Bokuto-san]: Alright, Bokuto-san. I’ll be there.
He let his phone fall back the few inches to his desk as the itch rose up his throat again, and Keiji curled in on himself just a little as he coughed once more. Three, four, five vicious and gut wrenching coughs later, plus a few phlegmy and lighter coughs, and he was staring at the most petals to date. They were mostly wilted, though the last few had started to seem brighter, if he ignored the speckles of pink, and his vision swam momentarily before he sat back in his chair with a groan. His raw throat protested, but he didn’t have to cough again, so Keiji counted that as a small victory.
He watched the shadows flicker on his ceiling for a brief moment before he willed himself to move, and then he started the task of disposing of all the petals in the bin. His phone buzzed again while he was cleaning, but he didn’t bother with it until he had turned to climb into his bed for the night, about fifteen minutes later.
To [me]: awesome!!! can’t w8!!!
Keiji snorted a little, reaching for the water next to his bed as the tickle in the back of his throat threatened, and then wearily curled up under his covers. He was absolutely exhausted, and he was thankful when sleep seemed to find him and pull him under with relative ease, compared to the nights before.
He actually slept until his alarm went off, but he didn’t wake feeling as refreshed as he had hoped.
“Yakiniku! Yakiniku! Yakiniku!” Bokuto cheered with some of the other members of the Fukurodani volleyball club as they filed out of the club room. They were all back in their school uniforms after changing from their practice gear, and everyone was suitably pumped for going to get yakiniku.
Keiji had learned, at morning practice, that Bokuto and the coaches had planned it. It was kind of a going away present for the third years, who would be graduating shortly–a thought that strangely made Keiji’s perpetually ravaged throat tighten, threatening another exodus of flower petals–but also a passing-the-torch event, of sorts. It was fitting that it was the captain’s favorite meal, though. That was something that Keiji wouldn’t have changed even if he’d had a choice in the matter...which, in hindsight, he thought maybe he should have had a choice, or that he should have at least known about it, as vice-captain. Then again, they all knew he’d been ill lately, so maybe they were just trying to keep the stress off of his shoulders.
Keiji felt a little useless at the thought, and silently cursed the ache pounding at the base of his throat, the tickle that threatened to burst upward and outward at any time in a soft explosion of wilted petals and hints of blood.
“C’mon, ‘Kaashi!” an arm dropped heavily around Keiji’s shoulder, and he looked up to find Bokuto beaming at him. “Lighten up! I know you’re stressed about your exams and all that, but you’ll be fine! And just think of the yakiniku!”
He snorted, almost regretting it as he was forced to clear his throat to avoid coughing, and then responded simply, “Thanks, Bokuto-san.”
“Hey hey hey, you ever gonna just call me by my name?” the captain cocked his two-tone head to the side, grinning widely. “Not that you have to, I was just wondering!”
“I call you Bokuto-san,” Keiji responded hoarsely, gently clearing his throat afterwards. The tightness was worrying, and they were only halfway to the yakiniku place. He wondered if he could make it there with time enough to slip into the bathroom before he had to start coughing. “Isn’t that close enough?”
The arm around his shoulders pulled him closer, and Bokuto laughed wistfully. “Alright, I get it. You’re too shy to call your captain and your senpai by his name. But hey, that’s one of the things I always liked about you, ‘Kaashi.”
Keiji’s chest tightened, and he had to cough, balling his fist in front of his mouth and keeping his mouth as closed as possible for the two, three small coughs. He could still feel the overwhelming urge to keep going, to hack out a lung or three, but he was miraculously able to reign that feeling in as another thought settled deep in his stomach, leaden and cold as the single wilted petal on his lip that he licked back into his mouth with all the rest to hide them.
Oh, so that’s what it is.
I’m in love with Bokuto-san.
The bitterness of petals and blood weighed heavily on his tongue, but not as heavily as the next leaden weight that settled in the pit of his stomach.
I’m in love with Bokuto-san...and he doesn’t love me back.
It took Keiji several seconds to realize that Bokuto was asking him if he was feeling okay, fluttering nervously, and Keiji very carefully nodded. He shifted the petals in his mouth to the side so he could speak uninhibited, and with only a bit of gravel in his tone, he managed, “I’m fine, Bokuto-san, it’s just a little bit of a cough. I should stop by Family Mart on the way home for some masks, just in case.”
“I could go get you some now, if you wanted!” Bokuto offered, brows furrowed and golden eyes narrowed in concern. The rest of the team had since meandered ahead, to the yakiniku shop, and Keiji didn’t want to draw too much attention, so he shook his head.
“No, that’s fine. I’ll be careful not to get anyone else sick, Bokuto-san.”
I don’t think it’s contagious, anyway, he thought to himself, though with a look at Bokuto, he wondered at that.
On his good days, Bokuto practically emitted a light of his own, bright and cheerful and beaming. He radiated positive energy and it seemed to seep into those around him, brimming with confidence and no false bravado. And...even on his down days, Keiji had always found something endearing about Bokuto. Maybe it was the way he’d always picked himself back up after being dejected for a while, or the way that he seemed to get antsy when his mood started to rise once more, his fingers itching for a toss that he could slam down on the other side of the court.
The thought simultaneously made Keiji want to tell him, Nice kill, Bokuto-san, while fighting back the urge to fold at the waist and send a veritable cascade of blooms falling to the pavement at their feet. He was able to resist, swallowing thickly past the petals coating his throat as he found himself making another observation.
Bokuto was probably pretty easy to fall in love with, Keiji decided.
Keiji woke in a cold sweat that very night, not from a coughing fit as he’d become accustomed to as of late but with a rather different prickle in the back of his esophagus.
He threw himself from the bed, nearly tripping in the sheets tangled around his legs, and stumbled for the door. As quickly and quietly as possible, hand clamped like a vice over his mouth as the bile rose in his throat, bitter and vile, he rushed for the bathroom.
As soon as the lock was turned behind him, he lunged for the toilet, hands scrabbling for purchase on the rim as he heaved.
It was not as simple as just heaving the contents of his stomach into the toilet. The bile was rancid on his tongue, but it would be too easy if that’s all it was. But he’d finally realized what the catalyst for his affliction had been, and in the back of his mind, he blamed that epiphany.
Keiji felt them slide up his windpipe, larger than any petal or bud he’d coughed before. Hot tears welled up in his eyes and he was choking, suffocating–these must be too big to come up, he thought, they wouldn’t make it and he would choke on them–until his hand slipped on the rim and he hacked a cough, stretching his slim fingers over his lips to muffle the sound. He slumped lower, watching petals slip between his fingers and flutter to the tile floor beneath him. The metallic tang of blood in his mouth was stronger than ever before, and he squeezed his eyes shut as his ragged coughs finally quieted.
With some effort, Keiji opened his eyes again and his eyes trailed over the blooms in the toilet bowl before him. They were mid-bloom, as opposed to the petals and buds he’d expelled before.They were bright white, though the edges were already tinged with brown and all of them were colored with splatters of red and streaks of pink.
Objectively, Keiji knew there was something eerily beautiful about the flowers, about the pink and red accents, but reality settled over him with the soft, detached buzz of something akin to denial.
The red streaks from his fingers on the toilet seat drew his attention to his hands, smeared with his own blood, and his throat felt tight again. It was raw and sore and the coppery taste masked even the bitterness of the wilting flowers in the bowl before him, and he shuffled backwards to press his back to the edge of the bathtub. He drew his knees up and rested his forehead on them with a shaky breath.
It was probably time for Keiji to start facing the facts.
Fact one: he was in love with Bokuto Koutarou.
The very thought prickled at the back of his throat, but he swallowed stubbornly and forced himself to think about it, to really understand what it meant to be in love with him. And a warmth filled his chest, bubbling and soft and ever so reminiscent of Bokuto’s big, gummy grin.
He coughed weakly against his knees, a few red-speckled petals sliding against pale thighs and fluttering to the floor.
Fact two: Bokuto Koutarou did not love him back.
It was a given, for multiple reasons. Japan wasn’t exactly welcoming of same sex couples, for one, and unrequited feelings were kind of a prerequisite for coughing up flowers, for another. Not to mention that, if Keiji had never really considered romantic relationships before because he had focused on volleyball and his studies, he couldn’t imagine Bokuto had, either.
The ace lived and breathed the sport. The squeak of their shoes on the gym floor, the solid thwap of a volleyball slamming down on the other side of the net, the whoops of victory after they scored the last point of the match. It was practically in Bokuto’s blood.
Fact three: he was coughing up flowers because of his love for Bokuto Koutarou.
Keiji had done his research, since the first petals had fallen, and he wasn’t a fool. This affliction, this hanahaki disease, which seemed so trifling at first, seemed like something that only the most foolish schoolgirls would fall victim to, was no laughing matter. If it went unchecked, Keiji knew that he could actually die from it. The two ways to resolve the matter were drastically different, and that left perhaps the biggest question of all.
What was Keiji going to do about it?
He could approach Bokuto. He could tell him about the flowers, about the feelings he hadn’t even realized were creeping up on him, and wait for his reply. If Bokuto somehow returned the sentiment, if he actually loved Keiji back, then the flowers would go away.
But if he didn’t feel the same, Keiji would be left with the other option.
There was a surgery to remove the plants, the flowers that had taken root in his lungs. He could have them removed, and with them the memories of the love he’d felt for Bokuto. The side-effects were that he would never feel any sort of romantic affection for Bokuto again, and he ran the risk of losing memories in which Bokuto had played a major role.
That was why some people ended up choosing the third option, though rarely.
Rather than forget, some people chose to suffer their unrequited love until the flowers in their lungs eventually claimed their life.
Keiji sighed, pressed his forehead to his knees, and started trying to script his conversation with his parents in his head. His mother still suspected that he was ill, and she would only buy that it was academic-related stress for so long. And he needed to be able to explain everything clearly to them, since his mother would want to know his reasons and his father would remain stoic and examine him behind his wire-framed glasses. He’d have to get through that conversation, though, no matter how hard it might be.
He’d need their permission to get the surgery, after all.
“There’s no way,” he wheezed to himself softly. “There’s no way he’d love me back.”
He coughed again, a few tattered petals sticking to his knees and fingers, before he forced himself up and started the long and arduous task of cleaning the bathroom of blood and flowers. By the time he remembered to flush, the flowers in the bowl had already wilted, and he wondered if the quick deterioration of his particular flowers meant that his love had been even more ill-fated from the start than he’d already figured it was.
He wasn’t a superstitious person, but it seemed like a sign.
It was too easy, loving Bokuto. It was kind of like he’d figured already, that falling in love with Bokuto must be pretty simple. Because he was like the sun, vibrant and shining and full of energy. Now that Keiji knew what his own complicated feelings were, what they had been perhaps this whole time, he was falling even harder.
Predictably, that just made everything harder in general.
Keiji had a harder time trying to hide the flowers as he fell even deeper into his feelings for the ace. He had to run to the bathroom during practice three times more than usual on average, now, and the flower petals that tumbled from his lips were withered and wilted in the daylight hours. He ignored them, watched as they swirled in the toilet bowl when he flushed, and made his way back to the team after making sure the evidence was gone.
“You doing alright?” Haruki rested a gentle hand on Keiji’s shoulder, raising an eyebrow. Keiji had just returned from his fourth trip to the bathroom, so it was understandable. He wondered at the fact that no one had asked him earlier, though they’d all been keeping an eye on him. “You’re looking pretty pale.”
Keiji shrugged. “I’ve been better, but I’ll be fine. I think it’s just stress from exams.”
Haruki Komi was as loud as Bokuto most of the time, but he merely arched a brow in disbelief and let the subject drop.
“Speaking of exams,” one of the coaches said idly, glancing over the club, “why are all of you third years still coming every day? Your university entrance exams won’t take themselves, and they definitely won’t study for themselves.”
He looked very deliberately at Bokuto, who pointedly looked away, whistling.
“Some of us want to play in university, coach!” Haruki turned his attention there instead. “We can’t slack off now!”
“Hey hey hey, Komi’s right!” Bokuto joined the conversation, pumping an energetic fist in the air. “If we wanna keep playing, we can’t let ourselves get all rusty! What would a university do if I couldn’t hit a cross anymore?!”
“They’d come find Akaashi to set you straight,” Tatsuki’s words made Keiji turn to him in shock.
“Good one, Washio!” Haruki folded over himself, laughing and reaching to thump Keiji on the back again, harder than necessary. He stumbled a little and coughed into his fist, feeling the damp slide of a petal against his skin. Panic nearly made him break out into more coughs, but he clenched his hand around the petals and shoved his hands into his shorts pockets. He hoped no one had really noticed, but he caught Akinori’s eye and quickly looked away.
Haruki, from beside him, was looking at him with concern, too.
“I’m sorry! Are you sure you’re alright? That sounded like a nasty cough.”
“I’m fine,” Keiji repeated, swallowing hard. “Just stress, or something.”
“Maybe you should sit out the rest of practice, ‘Kaashi?” Bokuto had bounced over, concern bright in his eyes and a small frown on his lips. “Drink lotsa water and I’ll walk you home after, ‘kay?”
“That’s a good idea,” the coach observed. “Haruki was right, Akaashi. You do look rather pale today. Why don’t you go ahead and sit out today?”
He tried not to let it get to him, but being asked to sit out for practice was like taking one of Bokuto’s spikes to the gut, which he’d done exactly one time and didn’t care to remember. It would be infinitely more painful to be benched during an actual game, Keiji knew, but it still made him feel completely useless. He wanted to fight the coach’s suggestion, to say that he could play, but he knew things would only get worse, the state he was in. Instead, he clenched his teeth against his protests, gave a curt nod, and made his way to the side of the gym to do some cool down stretches.
The next time he excused himself to the bathroom, he didn’t notice Akinori Konoha behind him until he had to pause for a coughing fit in the hall, petals spilling out over his palm, wilted and wet and sticking to his fingers and his chin.
“So that’s what’s up,” the calm voice observed, and a hand came up between his tense shoulders, rubbing. “I’m not gonna ask you who, but what. As in, what are you planning to do about it, Akaashi?”
Are you going to confess, or have you confessed? Are you going to get the surgery?
He coughed again, his heart thudding wildly in his chest, and honestly told his teammate, “I don’t know.”
“You should figure it out soon, bro,” the pressure between his shoulder blades was actually comforting. “It looks like it’s pretty bad.”
Keiji made a noncommittal noise of agreement in his throat.
He debated, but then, hoarsely, Keiji muttered, “Since the High.”
“Akaashi,” Akinori practically gasped, his hand falling from Keiji’s back. “Akaashi, that’s been weeks. It’s definitely pretty bad already, isn’t it? Are they fully blooming yet?”
“I’ll figure it out,” he said in lieu of answering, feeling the scratchy prelude to another fit rising in the back of his throat. “I have to go,” he added, before he stumbled into a jog and tried desperately not to leave any more wilting petals in the halls. It was a common enough occurrence for a high school, he was sure, but it still felt too personal to trail them everywhere.
When he was through, he watched the brown, curled petals spin with faintly pink water, down and down and down until they were flushed out of his sight, and Keiji felt incredibly drained.
He must have looked like it, too, when he got back, because Bokuto missed a spike, stumbled a little on the landing of his jump, and ran to Keiji’s side. Bokuto grabbed his shoulders and leaned closer, peering at his pale face, the bags under his eyes, and his brows drew together in concern.
“Coach, on second thought, I’m gonna walk ‘Kaashi home now.”
“Don’t you dare say you’re fine again,” Bokuto cut across, frowning a little. Keiji recognized a bit of concern, so he just sighed.
“Good idea, Bokuto. We’re about to wrap up practice anyway, so you should just pack up and leave, too,” Coach came forward to put a warm hand on Keiji’s shoulder. “Go get Akaashi’s things too while you’re at it, Bokuto.”
“Yessir!” Bokuto gave an exaggerated salute and cast a worried look at Keiji before turning to gather their things.
The coach turned back to him. “Akaashi, you should rest up. I don’t want to see you at practice for the rest of the week.”
There it was again, that feeling that he’d messed up. He wanted to be able to play, even if being close to Bokuto sometimes did more harm than good as far as his condition went, and being denied the one part of his routine that he didn’t want to change was…rough.
“Coach, the club meeting on Friday–” he tried, but the coach just grinned.
“Congratulations, Akaashi, you’re going to be team captain next year,” Coach squeezed and shook his shoulder lightly. “The club meeting on Friday was going to be about that, and about deciding your vice-captain. You can send me an e-mail if you have any recommendations about it, but we’ll do all the official stuff when you come back on Monday.”
“I…” Keiji began, but he found he couldn’t actually form words. He just earned a gentle smile as Bokuto bounded back out from the locker rooms, two bags slung over his shoulder as he called out goodbyes to the rest of the team. “I can’t be a good captain if I’m not here,” he tried again, looking aside, but he earned a soft chuckle.
“That’s why we know you’re the best choice, Akaashi. But your health should come first, so take some time to pull yourself together, and we’ll see you next week. Alright?”
Keiji didn’t want to give in, so he tentatively asked, “Can I at least sit in on practices?”
“Ah, I guess that’s fine. You’d probably find a way to do it anyway, wouldn’t you?” Coach patted him on the back, then stepped away as Bokuto jogged up. “You can watch practices, but I don’t want you playing for the next few days. And if you’re going to sit in, then we can just go ahead and do the meeting on Friday anyway. How’s that?”
Keiji didn’t trust himself to speak, so he just gave a short nod.
“Alright. Now get home safely, and get some sleep tonight!”
The rest of the team started to call out their own farewells, and Bokuto tossed his arm around Keiji’s shoulders. His throat tightened, just a little, but he managed not to cough right then and there.
Understanding dawned in Akinori’s eyes, though. Keiji saw it when he looked quickly back and forth between he and Bokuto, and his gaze stalled when he met Keiji’s eyes. He just mouthed, Bokuto? and Keiji figured the way he averted his gaze was answer enough. It was probably only a matter of time before he was figured out, anyway.
Bokuto guided him towards the exit as soon as they had called their own goodbyes to the rest of the team, his arm still firmly around Keiji’s shoulders. The proximity made Keiji’s throat itch something fierce, and he swallowed carefully around the lump rising there.
But Bokuto was kind. He was tender and careful and genuine when he asked Keiji if he was still good to walk, or offered to lend his shoulder for Keiji to lean on. He was attentive. He knew that Keiji didn’t want to talk about it, so he filled the air with other chatter–some new cat meme that Kuroo from Nekoma had texted earlier that day, some plans to meet up with Kuroo before they ended up going to college, and hey hey hey, ‘Kaashi, did I tell you that Kuroo and I are both taking the exams for this college together next weekend?
Keiji’s chest ached. His throat constricted, and he could practically feel the flowers waiting to break free. But he couldn’t even find it in him to resent them, because without them he might never have understood what that underlying warmth was, coiling in the pit of his stomach, whenever he interacted with Bokuto Koutarou.
Fact one, he reminded himself, glancing at the energetic boy at his side. He smiled softly, allowing the bittersweet coils of reality slide into the warmth pooled in his stomach.
Fact three, he chided another reminder to himself.
Of all the things he’d researched, he was mildly surprised at himself for not seeking out exactly which flower kept trying to choke him.
That night, as he huddled against the side of the bathtub again to wait for the third wave to pass, he scrolled through his phone searching for the flowers. The search white flower had turned up way too many results for him to sift through, especially with as impatient as a sleep-deprived Akaashi Keiji could be, so he revisited the search bar. He tried a few different searches with few results, but then he finally thought of another.
white flower blooms at night
It still turned up more results than he thought it would, but the list of pictures at the top of his search drew his eye. He scrolled for a moment before the sixth image, and then he immediately opened it.
Queen of the Night, he read. He hadn’t seen a fully bloomed flower yet, but apparently they were very short-lived flowers. They bloomed only once a year, in the natural world, and the blooms didn’t even survive an hour. It explained why none of his petals ever stayed white for very long, and considering that it only bloomed at night, it explained why he always coughed up already wilting flowers during the daylight hours.
Kadupul, another search called them. Keiji rolled the word around on his tongue a time or two, and then decided he’d call them by that name instead. This decision came partly because he thought fewer people would recognize it by that name but also partially because he didn’t think he could bear to tell anyone, including his parents or a doctor, that he was coughing up the Queen of the Night.
He groaned and pressed forward, drawing his knees up like he had done on several previous nights, now, and rested his forehead on them. His skin was clammy, and sweaty, and Keiji felt the exhaustion seeping into his very bones.
It was about time he said something, or did something. He idly wondered if three days was enough time to go see a doctor, schedule the surgery, and then get back to practice. Logically, he knew it was a ludicrous idea, but he was so, so tired.
Keiji was tired of being kept awake by the flowers that only bloomed at night, that crawled their way up his his windpipe and threatened to suffocate him before they finally cascaded past his lips. He was tired of hiding, though he wasn’t entirely sure why he had felt that hiding was necessary in the first place. And, perhaps most of all, Keiji was tired of wanting something he hadn’t known he wanted until his desire slowly started to kill him.
And yet...Keiji wasn’t tired of loving Bokuto at all.
A sound gurgled up from his throat, and it took him a solid fifteen seconds to realize what it was. A choked sound, half sob and half laugh, as his eyes burned with unshed tears.
No. Despite everything, despite how his throat was raw and despite how he had started to cry on his bathroom floor at three in the morning on a Tuesday and despite the fact that he had school in five hours and was planning to at least sit in on practice in three, perhaps the only thing Akaashi Keiji wasn’t tired of yet was actually being in love with Bokuto Koutarou.
It was easy. Bokuto made it easy to love him, and Keiji’s throat constricted at the idea of losing that feeling.
So this is why some people just let it take them, he realized as he pressed his wet cheek, warm from tears, against his knee. They don’t want to forget how it feels.
Keiji took a shuddering breath...but then lunged for the toilet once more.
The coach took one look at him and then escorted him directly to the nurse’s office the next morning. He didn’t even let Keiji argue. Yamiji just gave Keiji a careful once-over, a furrow between his brows, as he put his hand on his shoulder, told the team to keep practicing, and towed the setter from the gymnasium.
“I thought I told you to rest up,” he scolded, not unkindly. Keiji’s shoulders rose, tension building. He’d almost immediately snapped I tried! back at the coach, the venom rising as quickly and as rancid as the bile that rose with his flowers for the early morning hours. He managed to refrain, somehow. He didn’t think that was the way the future captain should talk to Yamiji.
Instead, Keiji gave a grunt of acknowledgement.
Coach sighed a little, scratching the back of his neck. “Listen, Akaashi,” he said as he opened the door to the infirmary. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re not well. You know you’re going to be Fukurodani’s rock next year, don’t you?”
How? He thought vaguely. How can I be a rock without Bokuto-san by my side?
Keiji didn’t reply.
“You’re working yourself too hard. I know you’ve been trying your best for the team, but you’re going to burn yourself out. But I can tell when my players are sick, Akaashi, and this doesn’t seem like just some summer cold. Whatever it is, you need to get it checked out and get better soon,” Yamiji squeezed his shoulder, and Keiji swallowed thickly. “Not just for the team, but for yourself, too.”
“Y-yessir,” Keiji muttered softly, avoiding eye contact.
“I want you to lie down and try to get some rest for now. Forget about morning practice, and forget about classes–though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell your teachers I said that. I just want you to try to get some sleep, and I don’t care if you end up sleeping all day. I’ll get someone else to go around and gather your assignments for you. Just...rest.”
He nodded mutely and Coach Yamiji lingered for a few moments longer before he nodded and left the infirmary.
Contrary to Keiji’s expectations, he found it easy to drift off, lulled into sleep by the distant echoes of a volleyball slamming into the floor.
When he awoke, he wasn’t quite sure where he was. He was groggy and came to rather slowly, as if trudging through three feet of water. He coughed softly once, twice, and heard a soft gasp.
“Hey hey, ‘Kaashi! You’re awake!”
He blinked slowly, licking his lip to make sure that all of the petals were in his mouth and Keiji finally managed to blearily blink into the light. As the room came into focus, he finally started to remember where he was. He’d fallen asleep in the infirmary, and he had no idea what time it was now.
“Are you feeling any better?” the voice asked, worriedly, and a familiar shock of dyed hair swam in his view. He blinked quickly and swallowed hard, nearly choking on the petals stuck to his tongue.
“Bokuto-san…?” Keiji murmured, pushing himself up. His arm shook more than he expected, so he forced himself up faster. “What are you…”
“It’s time for lunch,” Bokuto supplied, smiling softly. Keiji’s chest tightened, his throat tickled, and he silently pleaded for his flowers to stay down, to stay hidden until Bokuto left his side. “I thought I should check up on you, but you were still sleeping so I just decided to wait, and then you woke up! Are you hungry for anything? I bought a melon bread, but if you want something else I can go get it!”
“N-no,” Keiji managed, shaking his head. “I’m...not hungry, but thank you, Bokuto-san.”
The frown he earned for that comment made his stomach twist and his airways constricted, just a little. “I don’t believe you, ‘Kaashi.”
“Regardless of whether or not Akaashi is hungry,” the nurse said, surprising Keiji and making Bokuto’s shoulders rise in shock, “he will be going home. His mother is on her way to pick him up.”
“But my classes–”
“Coach Yamiji will have your teammates gather your assignments for you,” the nurse informed him. “Now, Bokuto, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with Akaashi before his mother arrives.”
“Oh,” his shoulders dropped, and Keiji’s throat constricted even more. He couldn’t fight back the cough, but he managed to cover his mouth quickly enough that the petals stuck to his palm. Bokuto turned to look at him almost as fast, eyes wide and worried, and Keiji cleared his throat awkwardly. “Are you alright, ‘Kaashi?”
“I’m fine, Bokuto-san,” his voice was rough, rougher than he liked, and it probably meant he was going to have another coughing fit. He wanted Bokuto gone before that happened, before he could see the bittersweet petals that proved how much Keiji loved him. “Please don’t worry. Go eat your lunch and finish your homework.”
Keiji could barely take the small frown on Bokuto’s lips, the furrow between his brows that proved that he didn’t quite believe it. Bokuto was always more observant than others gave him credit for, and now his expression turned to one of hurt. Bokuto wanted to be there for him, but Keiji wasn’t telling him what was wrong. He could tell it was being hidden from him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, softly, before he could stop himself.
Bokuto’s eyes widened, then Keiji saw his expression soften, and he dropped an arm around his shoulders. For a moment, Keiji expected him to try to wheedle more information out of him, but Bokuto just breathed out slowly and spoke gently, with a little less vigor than his normal tone usually allowed.
“Get better soon, ‘Kaashi, then you can tell me everything.”
Maybe, Keiji said inwardly, but outwardly, he offered a little hesitant smile and, “I’ll do my best, Bokuto-san.”
The arm around Keiji’s shoulders retracted, and Bokuto gave him a grin. “I’ll take what I can get, ‘Kaashi. And now I’m gonna go find Washio and eat lunch, but text me when you get home, okay?”
He nodded in response, and Bokuto left with just one last glance over his shoulder at the door. The nurse then stepped forward and closed the door gently before turning to Keiji with a reserved expression. She bent at the waist to snag the small wastebasket she’d just changed the bag in, and brought it over to him.
When he looked at her, she merely stated, “For the petals.”
He took the can from her, mouth falling agape as she pulled a chair up next to his bed.
“H-how did you–”
“You had a small fit in your sleep earlier,” she answered in a rather flat tone. Panic gripped his throat and he looked behind him on the bed, for any sign of wilted brown flower petals, but she drew his attention back when she spoke once more. “I cleared away the petals before your friend came in. I assume that no one knows yet?”
Keiji averted his gaze, his fists clenching in the white sheets of the infirmary bed. “Just you. And one of my teammates saw, just yesterday, but he hasn’t told anyone yet.”
At least, Keiji didn’t think Akinori had mentioned it. He couldn’t be sure, since Coach didn’t even let him stick around for practice that morning before carting him off to the infirmary. But Akinori seemed to trust Keiji’s judgment, for whatever that was worth.
“I’ve informed your mother, as well,” she stated easily, and he flinched. He’d been afraid of that, but a small part of him was thankful that he didn’t have to tell her himself. “You’ve progressed quite far, if it’s taken such a toll on your health. Your athleticism is probably the only reason it’s not already worse, Akaashi, but you can’t let it go untreated. Your mother was going to set up a consultation for as soon as possible, to discuss your options.”
He swallowed, but forced himself to nod and croak out, “Okay.”
Her face softened, and she reached out to lift his chin up. He hadn’t been aware of dropping his gaze to the floor, but he had. “Listen, Akaashi. I know that what you’re going through has got to be rough. I don’t know whether you’ve tried to make a confession or not, but regardless, you should know that you have to make a decision soon.”
Are you going to get the surgery?
“I know,” he murmured, looking away.
“The decision should be entirely up to you, but you should consider your options carefully,” she informed him gently. “The specialist will know more, of course, and can give you any warnings that are required before you make your choice. But, if I may…” she sighed, glancing towards the window before looking back at him, smiling softly. “Try talking to him.”
Keiji stared at her, and he knew his surprise was showing on his face when she chuckled at him.
“I saw the way you looked at him, when he was here,” she answered, shrugging a little. “Anyway,” she pushed herself up, stretching a little. “Your condition is confidential, of course, so I won’t be telling anyone aside from your mother and the faculty that needs to know, so don’t worry about that.”
“The rest is up to you, Akaashi,” the nurse told him, just as a knock sounded at the door.
His mother waited beyond, rushing in to fret over him as soon as the nurse let her in the room. She ran her hand through his hair, trailed down to cup his chin, and pressed a kiss to his temple.
“Oh, Keiji,” she murmured, pulling him into a hug, “why didn’t you tell me?”
The knot in his throat had nothing to do with the flowers that kept trying to suffocate him, but everything to do with the tears that welled up after. He pressed his forehead to his mother’s shoulder and tried not to let his entire body shake with the force of his tears.
He probably wasn’t very successful.
The next morning at nine, he was sitting awkwardly in an office, his mother right beside him, as the hanahaki specialist his mother had scheduled an appointment with went over his condition. He almost would have preferred sitting in class, instead.
As expected, his situation was advanced. It had been weeks, after all, and sleep had been fleeting for most of the nights this past week. It wasn’t unusual, the specialist had informed him, when the flowers growing in his lungs bloomed only at night. Sleeplessness was just another way that unrequited love could kill him, it seemed. And it had definitely taken its toll on both his physical and mental health.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the side effects before,” she said carefully, pushing a chart between Keiji and his mother, “but I do have to go over them. In the event that we do perform the surgery, there is a high success rate. However, there are risks that go along with that.”
“What kind of risks?” his mother asked, almost breathlessly.
“It is the removal of an actual plant that has taken root in the lungs, so there is always the possibility that some kind of lung disease may develop later in life. There may be some shortness of breath even after the removal, whether it be mild or severe asthma,” the specialist pointed to the first set of information.
She moved on, explaining that there could be complications, listing other reasons Keiji may need to return for any reason after the surgery, and then she finally delved into the part that he was dreading.
“The removal of the flowers also has the added effect of dulling your emotions. Your feelings for the person in question will never be as strong as they were when you contracted the hanahaki disease, and in some extreme cases there have even been patients who have lost some memories that involved the subject of their affection. In even rarer cases, there’s the possibility that you may forget them, and their role in your life, entirely. And while you can be reminded of that, you won’t have any memories of their impact on your life.”
For a moment, Keiji imagined forgetting the way his heart lurched whenever Bokuto scored on a spike down the line, or that feeling of euphoria when his set reached Bokuto’s palm at the highest point of his swing, or when Bokuto had swept him up in a hug after a victory, spinning him around and cheering so loudly that Keiji’s ears were left ringing for the next ten minutes. He imagined not remembering all the times he’d stayed late to help Bokuto practice his straight, or even come in early to help remind Bokuto that his cross was also a viable weapon, even when it could be blocked. His chest tightened, and he couldn’t help the cough that racked his form, picking him apart at the seams while he was already in agony over the idea that he could possibly forget what Bokuto meant to him.
A wastebasket was pushed into his hands, and Keiji allowed the flowers to fall directly into it until he’d finished coughing.
“Ideally, especially with someone so young, we’d like to see the issue resolved without resorting to the surgery,” the specialist pointed out, glancing between Keiji and his mother and the wilted, blood-stained petals that stuck to the rim of the trash can in his hands. “There are, simply put, a lot of risks that go with getting the surgery, including the possibility of stunting any emotional growth. We don’t like to put that risk on younger patients, because their emotional stability is still maturing. With as far along as you are, however,” she bit her lip and flipped a few pages from the folder in front of her, “we can’t really afford to wait too long. I can have an appointment set up for the surgery for as early as next Wednesday, so I’m going to tentatively schedule you in while you decide.”
Numbly, Keiji managed a nod. He tried not to think about how many practices he’d have to miss for recovery. His mother sniffled loudly, thanked the specialist for her information and attention, and soon he found himself being bustled out of the hospital and back home, ushered up to his bed to finish out the day with much needed rest.
At least he’d convinced her to let him return to school in the morning.
He had slept early, so that when he inevitably rose to heave the contents of his stomach and the flowers of his lungs into the toilet, he had already been fairly well-rested. The few hours he’d spent between coughing or vomiting flowers, staring at said flowers, white in the wee hours of the morning but flecked with red, were admittedly taxing, but at least Coach Yamiji didn’t immediately drag him from the gym when he showed up to watch morning practice on Thursday. And it was much the same when Friday rolled around.
He made it through morning practice with only one trip to the bathroom, through his classes with only two, and then evening practice arrived. The meeting would be at the end of the practice, so Keiji leaned against the wall and watched.
Small notes formed in his head, like watching his fellow second years and thinking ah, he needs to start his run-up sooner, or even occasionally, his straight is a lot weaker than Bokuto-san’s, so we’ll have to work harder to break Nekoma’s blocks, even without Kuroo-san there. He found a spot where he could suggest better footing, noted that the first-year setter wasn’t completely synced with everyone’s preferred tosses yet, and started thinking about ways to help him.
He tried not to think about how he didn’t quite feel fit to be a captain, when he’d have to sit out for weeks while he recovered from his surgery.
Before the end of practice and subsequent meeting, Keiji had slipped out of the gym twice to make his way to the bathroom. His fingers were shaking by the time he returned, and he felt rather weak, but he would be fine. He had dealt with this for weeks, now, and the solution was so near that it didn’t bear thinking about.
The rest of the team finished up their sets of three-on-three, and then Coach Yamiji gathered them around for his meeting. Bokuto was practically humming with energy from where he had flopped on the floor, right next to Keiji. He kept casting excited glances over, and Keiji had the feeling that Bokuto already knew about his promotion to captaincy, too. His excitement, at least, was winning out over the worry he’d kept showing throughout the early stages of practice, so that was a bonus.
It had been a while since the last time Keiji had excused himself, but he didn’t think much of it until he felt the sensation of his throat slowly tightening. He took a deep breath and tried to focus on the coach’s words, swallowing thickly past what he suspected was a clump of petals threatening to rise. The coach, he realized, was congratulating them on the past season, thanking them for their hard work and following up with both scolding the third years and thanking them for sticking around, to help whip the rest of the team into shape.
“And, although I’m pretty sure everyone has known this all along,” he laughed a little, “we’ve run out of time. We can’t postpone announcing our new captain and vice-captain anymore, can we?”
An agreement swept through the team. Keiji merely nodded, forcing himself to swallow once again.
“After much deliberation, and some recommendations, everyone should congratulate your new vice-captain, Wataru!”
“Ohoho!” Bokuto laughed, and he reached over to his other side to grab Wataru Onaga’s shoulder, shaking him excitedly. “Look at you, VC!”
Wataru stood, shifting awkwardly as if he didn’t believe it. And Keiji could relate to that feeling, because he’d felt it just last year. It was unusual for a first year to get picked for a role of captaincy as he went into his second year, but it had happened to Keiji and now Wataru. But...he couldn’t deny that the first year was a good fit. He and Keiji had been the only two starters on the team that weren’t third years, and Wataru had good game sense.
Nervously, he stumbled through traditional take care of me lines and then a tentative promise to do his best in helping Fukurodani remain a powerhouse the following year with whoever his captain was going to be–though he looked directly at Keiji when he said it, so it was obvious who he thought that captain would be. And then he stood, shifting slightly, at Coach Yamiji’s side after he was done. He seemed just a little more confident now, after the approval that the rest of the team had shown, and even though Keiji had been more than a little distracted by fighting down the lump in his throat, he’d heard enough to know that the coach and the rest of the team had chosen wisely.
“And now for your captain,” Yamiji glanced across the team. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, after he served as your infallible vice captain this year. Akaashi, congratulations on being chosen as Fukurodani’s captain for the next year.”
Keiji pushed himself to his feet, which took a lot more concentration and effort than he was accustomed to, and bowed to the captain.
“Thank you for the opportunity,” he started, listening as the rest of the team, including the third years that remained, started whooping.
“Settle down, settle down. Akaashi’s still a bit unwell, so I want to get this over with as soon as possible so I can send him home!” Coach’s tone was cheerful but also brooked no argument, and the rest of the team quieted pretty quickly. Keiji was thankful for it, especially when he swallowed, hard, and the coach nodded to him quickly. “Let your captain say a few words now, and we’ll close with a word or two from the former captain.”
Even after two years in Fukurodani’s volleyball club, Keiji still wasn’t used to the way that a team full of high school boys could fall so quiet so quickly. Their rapt attention was on him, and while he wasn’t usually fazed, his illness was making it harder. Their scrutiny made his skin crawl with paranoia–can they see any petals? Do they know? Did Akinori actually tell anyone, or has someone else noticed? Will they think I’m incompetent for letting it get between me and focusing on the game?
He composed himself quickly, and offered a short bow to the rest of the team. “Thank you for your support,” he said, feeling a little like a broken record. He stood and looked around at the rest of the team again, and offered a small smile that had a few of the members grinning back. “I know I’m not setting a good example right now, getting sick and sitting out,” they snorted, someone called don’t mind, don’t mind with a laugh while Keiji cleared his throat again and ignored the slick feeling of a petal rising to his tongue, “but I’ve been using that as a chance to watch you guys. You are all improving, little by little, and now that I’ve had a chance to sit back and watch, I’m confident in our chances next year. I have notes, but we can talk about them another time.”
Coach nodded approvingly, and Keiji cleared his throat again, fist at his lips.
“Take care of me next year, too,” he finally finished, bowing once more.
Bokuto leapt to his feet, laughing brightly and dropping his arm around Keiji’s shoulders. His arm was gentle in a way his loud voice was not, and Keiji knew it was Bokuto’s silent are you sure you’re okay, ‘Kaashi?
He wished he could answer that he was, but Bokuto’s proximity was making it harder to hold back and harder to breathe.
“Hey hey hey!” Bokuto bounced forward, arm slipping from Keiji’s shoulders, to look down at the rest of the team. Keiji coughed lightly into his hand, earning a worried look from not only the coach and a few other players, but particularly Akinori. “I know I’m hard to work with,” Bokuto laughed at himself, a few halfhearted protests rising from the team, “but you guys did it, and I’m so thankful for that! It’s been a crazy year, and we got so close!!”
Bokuto clenched his fist here, curling in a little and letting out a frustrated gyaaaaah! that made the other third years sigh or snort with amusement.
“But...that doesn’t matter now! You guys all worked hard, and if it wasn’t for you guys backing me up, and Akaashi especially,” he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, pointing to where Keiji was standing, “I wouldn’t be counted as one of the top high school spikers in the country!”
“Way to make it about you,” Haruki snorted, and the team joined in the laughter.
“Shush, Komi, your captain’s still talking!” Bokuto stuck his tongue out, and Keiji couldn’t help the smile that he hid behind his hand, despite the feeling of flowers creeping up this throat. He wanted to bolt for the bathroom, but he wouldn’t do that to Bokuto, not in his last speech as captain.
“Former,” Akinori chipped in, and Bokuto whined.
“C’mon, guys!” he pouted a little, but then straightened and put his hands on his hips. “Basically, what I’m trying to say is that you guys are all awesome, and I’m really glad I got to play with you guys this year. And last year. And the year before that, but mostly this year, because you guys trusted me enough to be your captain. So...thank you for taking care of me all this time, and please continue to take care of your new captains!”
Bokuto bowed, and Keiji’s chest ached.
He managed to stay still, bow again, and take his seat to listen to Yamiji’s closing remarks. They’d already cleaned the gym for the night, before the meeting, and everyone else simply had to change clothes and gather their bags before they left. Keiji intended to follow, but as he trailed out of the gym toward the club room to grab his own bag, he started to cough. With a sinking feeling, Keiji knew that he wouldn’t stop coughing any time soon, and the nearest restroom was too near the club room, so he ducked down the side of the building and walked as fast as he could, his hand pressed tight to his lips.
He heard someone–Akinori, he thought–call out to him from behind, but he broke into a run instead. The exertion made him cough harder, but he was able to slip out behind the academy’s maintenance shed, slamming one palm flat on the side of the building as he wheezed. He moved his hand and slick, wilted petals fell from his lips, drifting to the ground. He pressed his forehead against the solid wall, coughing again, before he pressed his shoulder against the wall. Keiji turned until his back was pressed against it, and then slowly allowed his legs to slide out from beneath him. He slid down the wall until he was just sitting against it, and then he started to cough again.
His coughs were guttural, wet, and painful, and he hunched forward to press his forehead to his knees as he struggled to breath between them. His hands rose and fisted in his hair, tears welling in his eyes, and Keiji started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he should have asked if there was any possible way to have the surgery sooner.
Keiji sucked in a sharp breath, coughing as a result, and ignored the petals that fell from his lips as he turned his head to the sound.
His golden eyes were wide as he took in the scene before him. The way that Keiji was seated on the ground, the spit-slick and wilted flower buds that scattered the ground between Keiji’s feet, probably the trickle of blood that Keiji hastily wiped from the corner of his lip, and the tear tracks that streaked down the setter’s face. Keiji watched as Bokuto’s eyes flickered from one part to another, taking in all the pieces, and as recognition started to dawn. Understanding bloomed across his face, slow and then all at once.
“Akaashi,” he breathed, and then he rushed forward and dropped down to his knees, reaching out to pull Keiji’s fingers from his hair. “Akaashi,” he whispered again, even as Keiji had to turn his head and cough once more, with force that shook his entire form.
“Bo...kuto-san,” he wheezed, once he thought he could speak again, “Bokuto-san, please...just go.”
It was firm. There wasn’t any trace of his usual hesitation, the expected if you really want me to. One simple word, and a gargled sob worked its way up Keiji’s throat and into the still air between them. He pressed his cheek against one of his knees and sucked in a rattling breath as carefully as he could, to avoid an immediate coughing fit.
“Why?” was all Keiji could manage to ask, staring at where Bokuto’s uniform pants met the grass, where they sat among flowers that were all for him.
“I can’t leave you alone like this, Akaashi,” his tone was soft. It was enough to make Keiji want, even more than he already had. He’d never quite heard that tone of voice from Bokuto, but he liked it. It showed that Bokuto cared, that he was capable of reading the moments that people thought he couldn’t and capable of being quiet where it was necessary.
Keiji loved him. So, so much.
He started to cough again, and Bokuto’s hands were quick to start rubbing circles on his back, to help him relax his shoulders and start breathing again.
“How long have you been hiding it?” Bokuto demanded, though his tone was still gentle. “Have you told them yet? Did you confess? They’re an idiot if they turned you down, you know. You’re the captain of Fukurodani, you know!”
Keiji wheezed out a chuckle, but shook his head.
“I haven’t...told him,” he said instead, and mentally cursed himself.
Bokuto, however, squeezed his shoulder tightly. “You went to the doctor yesterday, right? You’re not going to just go get the surgery without telling him, are you?”
That’s exactly what I was going to do, Keiji thought to himself, but the pained whine from the back of Bokuto’s throat was enough for him to realize that he’d muttered it out loud. His thoughts were hazy, his throat raw and sore and itching, as if preparing for him to expel another flood of petals and buds, and he pressed his cheek even tighter against his knee.
“But...the side effects…!” Bokuto breathed, then his voice got firm again. “Akaashi, at least try. It doesn’t hurt to try, and whoever he is doesn’t deserve you if he doesn’t see how amazing you are. You’re smart, and funny, a little mean sometimes, but only in a good way!” he amended quickly, and Keiji coughed weakly and watched a few red-stained, brown petals tumble on top of the pile between his feet and in front of Bokuto. “And you have the best tosses in the world! When you send me a toss and it’s perfect and right at the peak of my jump, and it goes down all like gwaaah and we score–it’s the best feeling in the world!”
Keiji realized that Bokuto had grabbed his hands, both of them. At some point, Keiji had looked up, and now he was watching Bokuto’s face, his enthusiastic expressions when he talked about Keiji and about volleyball and...he crumbled.
“I’m serious, ‘Kaashi!” he implored. He opened his mouth again, but Keiji managed to find the energy pull one of his hands free and press two fingers against Bokuto’s lips. He quieted and, after another few coughs that made Bokuto’s hands squeeze tighter on the hand still between them, he finally worked up the nerve.
“I love you, Bokuto.”
None of his usual Bokuto-san. It didn’t feel right to say it here, to say it now. But he did somehow find the courage to hold Bokuto’s gaze as the realization of what he’d said started to set in. Those concerned golden eyes started to widen, and Keiji dropped his hand from Bokuto’s lips as they rounded in surprise.
“You,” Keiji agreed, trying to pull back into himself. He tried to find something else to say, but the I don’t expect anything from you, don’t worry, that rattled around in his head felt hollow. He also didn’t feel like saying I’d rather forget than put you on the spot like this, Bokuto-san, because he’d really rather not forget at all. Keiji couldn’t find anything to say, because in all of the scenarios he’d considered, there hadn’t actually been one where he decided to say anything about it to Bokuto.
Somehow, it felt like a weight off his chest.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Bokuto demanded, voice cracking.
I didn’t want to lose you, he thought, but he didn’t get a chance to say anything.
“You don’t get to decide how I feel,” Bokuto added, tone tremulous. “If you hiding it because you thought I’d get mad at you or something, you were wrong. I could never be mad at you for something like that!”
He managed to look back at Bokuto, managed to get his own deep green eyes to meet wide, imploring gold. “Bo..kuto…?”
“I thought you were just blaming yourself for the Spring High for a while, and that you weren’t talking to me as much because of that. But now it all makes sense!” Bokuto frowned a little, then looked back up to Keiji. “If you were trying to protect me or something, that’s not for you to decide, ‘Kaashi. You’re more important than any of that, you know?”
Keiji wasn’t quite sure what was going on. He didn’t know why Bokuto was taking such a roundabout route to tell him he didn’t feel the same, but it was unfair to phrase it the way he was and get Keiji’s hopes up like this, as illogical as it was.
“No, I’m not done!” he snapped, without malice. His fingers tilted Keiji’s face up when he tried to look away, and he looked a combination of sad, frustrated, and relieved, all at once. “I thought you were avoiding me because you were mad at me over the Spring High, for a while. And then I thought you were just busy. And then you started to really look sick, and I started to worry about you, ‘Kaashi. And I knew something was wrong, but you didn’t trust me enough to tell me.”
He breathed slowly, and Keiji murmured a quick, “I’m sorry,” before Bokuto waved him off.
“I’m sorry I didn’t notice, sooner,” Bokuto interjected, running a hand through his own hair. It was already a bit of a mess, and Keiji wondered how many times he’d already tugged at it throughout this entire conversation. He’d been staring at his own feet for much of it, so it would be understandable if he’d missed something. “I’m sorry that it was you instead of me, that started coughing up flowers, even though I was so, so sure you’d never like me back.”
Keiji’s breath hitched, and Bokuto held his surprised look with a warm, apologetic look of his own.
“I was going to tell you, after graduation,” Bokuto whispered then, tugging at a lock of his dyed hair. His other hand was still around Keiji’s, and with a shaky breath, Keiji shifted so that he would wind their fingers together.
“A...are you sure?”
Bokuto snorted. “They’re my own feelings, ‘Kaashi, and they’re the only thing I’m sure about right now.”
Keiji let out a slow, shaky breath, and then asked, “Me?”
“Of course, you!” Bokuto raised Keiji’s chin again, smiling softly. “There was never anyone else, really. I liked you from pretty much the first time we met, you know. You can ask Komi sometime, how much I talked about you. Still do, sometimes.”
It was a lot to wrap his head around. His throat was still raw, his chest still sore from his coughing, and the ground below still littered in wilted buds and petals, but Bokuto was also still in front of him, earnest and honest and confessing to him. He laughed a little, at first in disbelief, and then raised his hands to press his palms to his eyes as he started to cry again, in earnest.
“I love you,” he repeated, voice thick from emotion.
Arms, warm and sturdy and comfortable, wrapped around him, drew him in, and Bokuto’s voice in his ear was everything he needed to hear and more.
“I love you, too.”
Bokuto didn’t ask Keiji to move for a long time, even though Keiji’s tears had been short-lived, a startled burst of relief after weeks of denial and panicking over the possibility of losing his fond memories of Bokuto when he had the surgery. When Bokuto did prod Keiji into motion, however, he was gentle and reluctant to pull away from him.
With a start, Keiji realized that his reluctance had probably been due to the sheen of tears on his face. Bokuto had been crying, too.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, leaning back and scrubbing awkwardly at his eyes. Bokuto, however, let out a wobbly laugh.
“Hey hey hey, ‘Kaashi, that’s enough apologizing, okay?” he used the pad of his thumb to brush at a petal stuck to Keiji’s chin, brown and wilted. “Besides, it’s me who’s sorry I didn’t notice it earlier.”
“I mean it,” his voice was soft, but firm. “If you want to argue about it, we can do that later, after I walk you home. Okay?”
He wanted to fight it, just a little. It wasn’t really Bokuto’s fault that Keiji had fallen in love with him, and it wasn’t really his fault that he hadn’t noticed because Keiji hadn’t been acting any different than normal. If anything, he’d been focusing on Bokuto a little less than usual, aside from the occasional glance when he was taking a break. But Bokuto was smiling at him, already on his feet.
Keiji nodded in answer to the last statement, and allowed himself to take Bokuto’s hand. Bokuto helped him up with ease, even when Keiji stumbled. His legs protested his weight, but he managed, and together the two made their way back to the club room to pick up their bags. He was leaning on Bokuto far more than he’d like to admit, but he didn’t seem to mind.
Bokuto’s belongings were a little scattered, as usual, so Keiji took a seat while he scrambled to collect them, and pulled out his phone. He planned on texting his mom, but he was kind of unsure what to tell her.
Hey, Mom, we might not need that surgery appointment anymore, he considered for only a few moments. Mom, I confessed to him was another possibility, but it didn’t feel right. He had only confessed under duress, in the heat of the moment, and because he’d been caught with flowers on his tongue.
To [Mom]: Bokuto-san is coming over.
He didn’t even ask, and after the week they’d had, he was pretty sure his mother wouldn’t mind. After all, she hadn’t even been surprised when he had, haltingly, admitted who the object of his affections was, and she’d urged him to say something. He didn’t think she’d change her mind now.
“Alright!” Bokuto’s boisterous tone pulled Keiji’s attention away from his phone, and he slipped it back into his blazer pocket. Bokuto stepped over to where Keiji was waiting and swiped his bag off the floor next to him, beaming. “Ready to go?”
“My bag, Bokuto-san,” he tried after he’d pushed himself to his feet, holding out a hand. Bokuto just shook his head, grinning, and Keiji sighed. He relented easily, though, and stepped forward to open the door. “Thank you.”
“No problem!” he chirped back. He paused after he’d stepped from the club room to wait for Keiji to step out and lock the door behind them. “I’d carry you, too, if I didn’t think you’d hate me for it, you know!”
Keiji thought Bokuto was joking, so he snorted. He didn’t think giving an actual verbal response was a good idea, considering that Bokuto might take that as a challenge.
He was content, on the walk back to his house, to listen to Bokuto talk about anything and everything. Keiji could tell that he was doing it just to fill the air between them and to lighten Keiji’s mood, and he appreciated it. Bokuto gave him room to fill in the gaps, and if Keiji didn’t want to speak, he would continue on as if he hadn’t paused.
Bokuto Koutarou had always been like this, every since Keiji knew him, and that was probably why he was so easy to fall in love with.
Keiji glanced up and met his glance, and Bokuto smiled at him, leaning over to press his elbow against Keiji’s side. Keiji, an amused grin on his lips, nudged him back, and the fell into a comfortable silence for the next few blocks, until they reached Keiji’s block. The silence stretched for a while longer, until they reached the house, and he glanced over to Bokuto.
“You’re...staying for dinner, right?” he asked slowly, staring at the gate in front of them.
“I was hoping I could stay the night,” Bokuto answered easily, but when Keiji snapped his attention up, the other boy was determinedly looking up at the front door. In the fading light, he could see the pink high on Bokuto’s cheekbones, and felt the back of his neck head up.
“I...that would be…” Keiji started, and then stopped, took a breath, and leaned a little closer to Bokuto’s side and muttered, “Thank you.”
He felt the tension ease out of Bokuto, the way he relaxed into Keiji’s side the same way Keiji had leaned into him. For the first time in a while, there was a warmth rooted deep in Keiji’s chest that had nothing to do with flowers threatening to spill from his lips.
“Are you boys going to come inside, or is dinner going to get cold?”
They both jumped, inadvertently putting a few inches between them again as they turned to look at the door. His mother stood there, hands on her hips and a smirk on her lips, and Keiji felt a sense of fondness rising up that overshadowed the faint hint of annoyance.
“Auntie!” Bokuto exclaimed, throwing the latch on the gate and leading the way in, “I missed you!”
In typical Bokuto fashion, he radiated exuberance with everything he did, stepping forward and actually lifting the older woman in the air. She laughed and patted his shoulder until he let her down, and then she stood on her toes to press a kiss to his cheek.
“It’s been too long, Koutaro!” she smiled when she stepped back. “I feel like you grew again!”
He laughed. “Maybe?”
Keiji managed to step up to the door without either of them noticing, and stepped forward to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. She smiled at him, too, and raised a hand to pat his cheek. Her gentle touch spoke louder than words, in that instant–I’m so glad you told him and things must have worked out were hidden in her smile, I knew it would be fine in the way her fingertips lingered on his skin.
“We’re home, Mom,” he said, softly.
“Welcome back,” she answered, smiling, before she stepped inside and motioned for both boys to do the same. “Hurry up, get inside. Take your things up to Keiji’s room and then get ready for dinner. I assume you’re over for the night, Koutarou?”
“If that’s alright with you!” he answered easily, though as soon as she laughed and agreed and disappeared into the kitchen, Keiji saw him take out his phone and tap out a message.
“You haven’t asked your parents yet, have you?”
He stiffened and glanced over, before grinning sheepishly. “You’re not supposed to know me that well, ‘Kaashi. Can’t I keep some secrets?”
“No,” Keiji answered simply, and Bokuto just laughed as he dropped their school bags at the end of the bed and shrugged out of his blazer. He tossed it on top of his bag and groaned, stretching. Keiji followed suit, hanging his blazer carefully on the hook by the door, before he turned to rummage through his dresser. “Did you want a change of clothes?”
“After dinner and a shower, maybe,” he answered, dropping an arm around Keiji’s shoulder. “You’re looking kind of pale still, ‘Kaashi. Worry about yourself a little more, will you?”
Keiji sighed, but he turned to rest his cheek against Bokuto’s shoulder as if it was second nature. They stood like that for a few minutes longer, before Keiji stepped back and reminded them that dinner was waiting downstairs.
On the way down, Bokuto checked his phone and said he had permission to stay over, and the last worry shackled to Keiji’s chest slipped away.
It wasn’t so bad, this time. Keiji woke up, warm and comfortable, but with a tightness in his throat. He worked his way into a sitting position and coughed into his hand.
The sensation of flowers in his throat was just as unnerving as ever, the red that dotted the petals eerie in the light filtering through his curtains, but an arm wrapped around him from behind and a chin rested on his shoulder. Bokuto’s breath brushed across his cheek, his other hand wrapping around Keiji to lightly brush along the single flower resting in his palm. He traced the petals carefully, as if committing them to memory.
“It’s beautiful,” he breathed, and Keiji hummed his agreement. Bokuto didn’t scramble to apologize for being insensitive, like he might have earlier that day, but instead pulled Keiji closer to him. “Bittersweet, too.”
It was a perfect description, Keiji thought. So he hummed to that, too, leaning his head back against Bokuto’s shoulder.
“I hate that you had to go through this for so long,” Bokuto’s voice was rough from sleep, even though they’d only drifted off a couple of hours ago and it was now well into the wee hours of the morning, “but...these pretty flowers were all because you love me, right?”
“We’ve been over this,” Keiji deadpanned, and Bokuto snorted.
“You know what I mean. Gosh, Keiji, so mean.”
Keiji’s chest squeezed at the sound of his given name, slipping out so casually and sleepily, but he didn’t remark. He liked the sound of it, after all.
“But anyway. It sucks that you had to go through this? Like, it really sucks. I’d never wish it on anyone, especially after seeing what you had to deal with. But it makes you think that loving someone can be a really beautiful thing?”
He smiled a little at the innocent way Bokuto thought through everything. In a way, he was right.
“The first time I saw a full bloom, I thought it was beautiful, too,” he admitted, instead of saying anything else. Bokuto hummed this time, the arm around Keiji’s waist drawing him closer. “I thought that loving you was a really beautiful thing, even if it hurt.”
“I love you,” Bokuto murmured into his neck, and Keiji shivered a little in his arms.
“I love you, Kou,” Keiji whispered back, softly.
Bokuto’s breath hitched, just a little, and his arm tightened again and pulled Keiji closer. Keiji turned his hand so that the now wilting bloom tumbled into the trash can at the edge of the bed, then. It reeked of finality, of the end of something, but when Keiji turned around to lay back down, drawing Bokuto with him and allowing him to tangle his fingers in Keiji’s hair, he thought it might be the beginning of something, too.
And it really was beautiful.