After games, Akaashi usually led the team through mental exercises. Visiting teams grew used to the spiritual tableau: the whole of Fukuroudani in their greys and whites gathered around their unnervingly angelic setter, his voice careful as he encouraged them to remember that their worries, their impulses, their vague ideations were not them.
They were primarily for Bokuto’s benefit. Everyone acknowledged this truth with silent gratitude. Bokuto himself often lost track of the exercise halfway through, preferring to rest his head on Akaashi’s shoulder, arms clinging in a loose ring around his waist.
As per the routine, Akaashi recited the exercise as he remembered from writing it in his thin moleskin journal.
“You are separate from your mind. Your mind does not define you. It should not confine you. Take control of your mind.”
The words rang out with a monotonous coldness through the greying light of the gymnasium, the harsh squeak of tennis shoes swiping at the slippery ground.
Players from the visiting team were staring at him. He’d forgotten to close his eyes.
“Let’s stop there for today,” he said through a deep inhale.
Bokuto found his way to him, the deep composure of his expression giving way to something else, something that swam in his eyes and scared him into forgetting his strength.
He gripped Akaashi’s shoulders, bunching the flimsy fabric of his undershirt. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Bokuto-san.”
Snapshots of his phone, white and shut between the covers of his Chemistry textbook, pulsed through his head. Gently, he stretched Bokuto’s fingers out and smoothed them off of his shoulders.
His voice heavy, Bokuto said, “You’ve been off since before the game, Akaashi.”
There was an aggravating weight to his voice. If he had to, he was going to follow Akaashi out of the gym, on the subway home and through the entrance to his apartment building.
“I’ve got a mess to sort out.”
His stomach twinged. Throwing it out there with that word fashioned it into more of a mess than he thought possible.
Some of the boys from the visiting team were still staring at him, eyes narrowed. The gymnasium, ordinarily large and somehow comforting, transformed with a sudden violence into a very small and confined space.
Moving with purpose, Akaashi flinched when a frowning boy elbowed him hard in the ribs.
Pushing himself between them, Bokuto pinned the taller boy down with the mounting astonishment in his voice.
“I expect better from Datekou’s friends.”
The boy shrugged, straight dark bangs obscuring his eyes.
Pointedly ignoring him, Akaashi said, “Come on, Bokuto-san.”
His mouth straining for words, Bokuto followed him out of the gymnasium, his eyes alight with a storm beyond him.
The familiar confusion settled with a whirling nausea deep in Akaashi’s stomach. Keeping this from Bokuto helped the both of them, but he hadn’t aimed for cruelty.
He found his black bag buried under the mound of Bokuto’s well-worn belongings. Kneeling on the hard grey concrete of the locker room floor, he read through the messages on his phone, the cavern in his stomach yawning onwards.
Call me after the game.
Please tell me you’re okay.
If Futakuchi calls you, don’t answer. Promise me.
A call from an unknown contact came through. Akaashi watched his phone ring outside of himself, the dreadful sensation of someone hovering above him sinking over him.
A text from an unknown contact pulsed soundlessly across his screen.
you’re not who everyone thinks you are. fucking LIAR.
“Who the heck would send you such an awful message?”
His voice bordering on a warning, Akaashi swerved his head and said, “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t read my messages, Bokuto-san.”
Standing, he shoved the handle of his bag across his back. It never stuck on his shoulder for long, always slumping down his arm and weighing him down with the cumbersome amount of textbooks and notebooks he carried. Rolling his eyes, he shoved it back up his shoulder, his eyes roving over Bokuto falling into step beside him as they made their way out of the locker room and out the back door.
In the parking lot, his cheeks smarting from the brutal smack of cold air, Akaashi said, “Bring your bag today?”
Shaking his head, Bokuto stretched out one long leg, covered in thick grey leggings. His gaze drifted down to the dark screen of Akaashi’s phone.
“Are you gonna tell me what’s going on with you at some point?”
Sighing, Akaashi stored his phone in the pocket of his beat-up blazer. He’d expected the worst again, and he’d gotten the best again. It was easier, now, to expect the worst of people. Responding to the better outcome meant coming down from the high of preparation for a fallout, recuperating from a breathtaking punch with no cause.
“First I’ve gotta figure out what’s going on.”
Ordinarily he would try for a smile, hoping a semblance of calm would help guide Bokuto through his day. His mouth stayed shut in stubborn defiance. Bokuto hung his head, irritating the static fabric of his dark grey blazer.
“You’re not a liar,” he said, staring at the winter twilight, pink and violet and a faded blue coming over the clouds. Akaashi winced.
“My leggings aren’t warm enough. Lend me yours, Bokuto-san.” Rubbing up and down the soft black material over his legs, he forced himself to pour his entire storage of effort into the distraction.
“Someone’s calling you,” Bokuto said, staring at the phone peeking out of Akaashi’s pocket, the screen now brightening.
“Guess I gotta get this.”
Breathing out a sigh through clenched teeth, Bokuto rubbed the backs of his fingertips down the scruff of Akaashi’s neck with a rough caress before navigating through the small parked cars towards the subway. Watching the broad expanse of his back, Akaashi held the phone to his ear.
“Can you please explain what the fuck’s going on to me?” Ennoshita said.
He sounded frayed, as though he’d exhausted his usual methods of traversing through mounds of shit and found them lacking.
“Not if you can’t.”
Actually, upon further introspection, Akaashi might have been more forthcoming with a response. It lolled on the edge of his lips, ready to pounce.
“He saw us on Saturday, didn’t he,” Ennoshita said. “That explains all this shady shit, all the texting and calling.”
Akaashi thought, I’m all right with him wondering about such a dumb question. I want to hear him say his name, once.
Instead of banishing it, like he’d naively imagined it would, the sound of that name on Ennoshita’s lips dug out the innards of the yawning cavern in Akaashi’s stomach with a scalpel. Ennoshita said that name like a benediction, a name on the edge of a moan.
“I’d care if we’d done something worth worrying about,” Ennoshita said, “but what we did barely counts as an afterthought.”
Yet here they were, in the tangible netherworld conceptualized by phone calls, talking about it. Ennoshita was talking about it, so on some level, it had more of a consequence than an afterthought. If he’d called to say as much and nothing more, what was the fucking point.
He closed his eyes as he said, “Do you want to think about me, Ennoshita?”
He’d thought he was the best out of his close friends when it came to dealing with the unknown, unforseen changes, uncertain futures. The pause, something out of an intangible reality filled with papers shuffled meaninglessly and radios chattering, tested that theory with a dangerous vengeance.
“Akaashi,” Ennoshita said, low, “I can’t buy my drinks from that vending machine anymore because I can’t stop thinking about how badly I wanted to kiss you.”
Now that he really thought about it, Akaashi began to understand Futakuchi’s assumption.
They’d been laughing, mindlessly and uncontrollably, all the way from Karasuno’s gym to the outdoor vending machine and then Ennoshita had shoved him. Akaashi had shoved him back in the stomach and a broken, unbearably ticklish laugh had sprung out of Ennoshita like a rippling rainbow. Akaashi hadn’t stopped tickling him, not even when he’d cornered Ennoshita against the vending machine, all thoughts of refreshment forgotten, his hands beginning to familiarize themselves with the unending softness of Ennoshita’s skin.
Someone had sworn, affronted, and Akaashi had torn away from Ennoshita’s open mouth and mussed-up hair and frozen.
Futakuchi, murder in his eyes, startlingly luminous in his Datekou blazer, had thrown up his middle finger before running the rest of the way toward the gym.
Neither of them had wanted to hang around there for much longer after that.
“Does he know about us?” Akaashi said.
Ennoshita snorted. “Absolutely not. Well...maybe now, he does.”
“Do you like him?”
On some level, he had always known he enjoyed the sensation of pain, enjoyed receiving it and moving through it. Only now did he realize that sometimes he enjoyed pain so much, he didn’t think to compartmentalize what hurt the most.
Ennoshita laughed, throaty and indulgent. “I kinda wanna fuck him.”
Vividly, to the point where his brain ached, Akaashi imagined Ennoshita in his bedroom, as he was now. The radio on, the sun close to setting, shadows falling over the wooden floor. He remembered the bookshelf over his old black laptop, filled to bursting with film books and trivia books and DVDs. He remembered film posters all over a pale yellow wall, a veritable museum, so many colorful titles that Akaashi had wanted to shut off the time on his watch so he could write them all down. He remembered how lived in it was, how it was the perfect combination of messy and comfortable and a nugget of golden warmth.
He imagined Futakuchi savoring the same room in a wholly different way.
Maybe he’d stop going to school for a while. You had to shelve volleyball sometimes.
“Are you okay?” Ennoshita said, a shaking edge of something else in his voice.
“Maybe you should have kissed me before we had this conversation.”
“Wait.” Akaashi braced the torrent in his stomach, washing over him. “Don’t hang up on me, Akaashi. Don’t you dare.”
Akaashi hung up, wiping frozen tears from his eyes as he walked out of the parking lot.