“Sorry, sorry -- I just need to --” Kuroo knows he’s holding up the busy lunch line, but there’s no way he’s walking out of here with his shoulder bag, this huge paper bag of food, and all of those drinks without carefully arranging everything first. He’s already the youngest and newest artist at the shop. He doesn’t need to return covered in everyone’s sodas and bits of burritos.
There’s a pecking order at the tattoo shop and he’s definitely at the bottom. For now, he thinks, finally shifting everything so he’s confident he can make it back. He nods apologetically a few more times to the staff and the people behind him in line and then walks back out into the smothering humid air of a Tokyo summer.
Their creaky front door squeaks when he walks back in but it’s muffled by the metal music playing on the speakers -- softly, Kuroo notes with a chuckle. As the artist/owner of the shop always says, “it’s loud enough that people know what we’re about, but soft enough that I can focus. We’re not animals.”
“Here’s your burrito, Ibuki-san!” Kuroo singsongs to the woman behind their front desk. He fishes in the bag for her lunch and sets her drink in front of her. He quickly checks out the line of business cards on display on her desk and feels a puff of pride when he looks at his for probably the tenth time that day. The wall behind her is filled with awards won and paintings done by the other artists. Soon his stuff will be up there, too. He knows it.
“Thank you!” She sings back. “Oh and your 3:00 called.” She says, her voice returning to it’s normal tone. “They’re going to be thirty minutes late.” Ibuki is a walking package of contradictions. She’s cute and petite but covered in tattoos and will drop the filthiest jokes at the worst times. She’s silenced the entire shop on more than one occasion, cackling as she doesn’t just step over a line, but crushes it under her heavy, black boots.
Kuroo groans. “There goes my break before my 6:00. I’m never getting out of here today, am I?”
“Nope! If I leave the keys, can you lock up?” The phone rings. She scrunches up her face in annoyance but shoots him an appreciative glance before answering in her overly-cheery tone she only uses for customers.
Kuroo nods and mouths the words “I’ll lock up,” before continuing through the doorway to the studio.
Big boss isn’t there today so he struts through, waving at the other two artists before he realizes a client’s settled in. He stops several feet away, not wanting to intrude. “Whoops - hey man. You want me to --”
“Yea, just put it in the fridge.” Iwaguchi says in his rough voice. The older artist, hair peppered with hints of age, pauses for a moment to blink and wipe the client’s arm where a new tattoo is just beginning to take shape. Kuroo stops dead, a jolt of wonder flashing through his head as he looks at the client’s back. Blond hair. Tall. Black glasses.
Nah, there’s no way. Plus, this guy’s hair is shaved on the side and, let’s face it, the man’s got a sleeve of tattoos. That guy would never.
Kuroo shakes off the ridiculous thought and walks back towards the only other artist in the studio today. Nakayama’s sketching when he walks up, her newly-dyed bright, blue hair standing out even against all the art on the walls.
He holds out the last burrito that isn’t his in the bag. She looks up, excitement dawning on her face. “Food! Yes. Thank you.” She sets down her sketchbook and rolls over in her chair, away from her station. “Perfect timing. I got, like, almost an hour until my next.”
“Same. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten yet today. Got up too late.” Together they settle in to the tiny backroom with one folding table squeezed into the center.
“Did you have a show?” Nakayama asks, unwrapping her burrito like it’s a treasure, already reaching for the basket of sauce packets they keep on a shelf in the backroom.
From where he sits down, Kuroo can see the client’s back and just a little of his profile. Impossible scenarios run through his head again. There’s no way. “Yea, I didn’t get back until after three.”
“Christ. I don’t know how you stay up that late.” She mumbles through bites of her burrito. “I used to hang that hard, now I’m like, ‘it’s midnight - where’s my bed? - I want my pajamas.’”
Kuroo snorts. “It’s not that late. And like, we’re not getting the prime spots. There’s the opener, yea? Then the main act, and then, when it’s late, once everyone’s drunk and thinking about going home - bam - there we are.”
Nakayama laughs. “Which band of yours played last night?”
She sneers. “That name is still so cheesy.”
“No it isn’t! Plus, if it was - which it isn’t, mind you - but if it was, I could blame it on the fact that we started when I was a freshman in college. Freshman are fools.”
“What’s your other one?”
Kuroo snickers. He loves this one. “Late to the Party. Literally we named it that just so we could say ‘great to see you all here tonight. We are late to the party.’ It’s funny every single time.”
“I bet it is.”
The conversation lulls as they remember how hungry they both are and Kuroo finds his gaze drifting back into the studio, especially when the client stretches and Kuroo’s able to catch a little more of his face. He bites the inside of his mouth when he stares for too long and he turns away, ready to try and shake that thought once and for all. He’d never be here. The odds are impossible.
And if when lunch is over and he’s prepping his station, if he keeps glancing over it’s because he admires Iwaguchi, wants to emulate his style and learn from someone with experience, not because he’s trying to figure out if it’s really him. Kuroo drops a roll of paper towels and it rolls across the floor. He hears Nakayama chuckle behind him.
Three o’clock rolls around and Kuroo’s ready. His tablet sketch is done. He has a few variants ready just in case, plus a few color schemes to present. He’s started to figure out that a good chunk of his clients end up wanting something a little different than what they originally said. It’s awesome when he shows them what he was thinking and they light up. Kuroo likes it when something he brought to life based on their ideas ends up being on their skin forever.
Iwaguchi’s near finishing the outline and shading on the man’s arm. From the looks of it, they’ve been at it for a while. It’s a half-sleeve, working in some older pieces. Kuroo guesses the man’s going to have to come back to finish. It seems like it’s building towards full-color.
He’s tried not to stare, honestly, but he’s had nothing left to do for the past twenty minutes or so and he just can’t shake the thought. That, like, has to be Tsukishima. Kuroo feels it in his guts. If it is him, and Kuroo’s almost certain at this point, then he looks way different, but the cut of his jaw, the fluffy blond hair at the top, the way his shoulders sort of stoop from being way too tall, way too young - it all screams Tsukishima.
It’d be wild if it is him. They haven’t spoken in - what - ten years?
Iwaguchi sits up straight, stretching his back and shoulders. “You wanna go take a look?”
“Sure.” The man responds. And now Kuroo’s almost positive that’s Tsukishima. It sounds like him. Kuroo’s whole body tenses, his face surely frozen with some idiotic expression, as the man turns around to walk towards the full-length mirror in the studio.
The man looks up. Stops short. Stares back. His brows knit together. “Kuroo-san?”
Yep. Definitely, 100% Tsukishima Kei.
Kuroo lifts his hand and gives a tiny wave. “Hey. Hi. Hey, Tsukishima.”
Tsukishima keeps staring forward. Kuroo watches his eyes drift up and down his body. He’d feel weird, but he’s doing the exactly same thing. It’s amazing what ten years can do to someone.
Tsukishima’s filled out a little over the years. He’s still slender and sharp collar bones poke out from his t-shirt, but his shoulders seem broader. His face, though -- If Kuroo had just passed him on the street he’s not sure he would have recognized him. He’s grown into his features. He’s less angular, a bit softer around the edges, but with cheekbones for days. The hair on the top of his head is like he remembered, but the sides are shaved close to his head and a single black, stud earring frames the side of his face. Those glasses, though -- those glasses are shockingly exactly the same.
Suddenly very self-conscious, he wonders how he looks to Tsukishima -- what has ten years done Tsukishima’s memory of him. He’s not sure what to do with his hands. He stops waving and them awkwardly shifts them around in front of him before they come to rest stiffly on his thighs. “How are ya?”
“Good. How have you been?” Tsukishima’s voice is slow and robotic.
“Good.” A silence quickly follows and Kuroo’s aware of Nakayama’s eyes boring holes into his back. Even Iwaguchi is giving them strong side-eye while he pretends to tidy up. It feels too weird just hearing the music, the two of them staring at each other. He has to talk. “It’s been a while.”
“Like ten years.”
“That seems about right.
“Well I’m gonna--” Tsukishima points at the mirror across the room and turns to keep walking towards it.
Kuroo lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He spins in his chair to see Nakayama staring at him, her eyes blown wide and a mischievous grin on her face.
In a near-slient whisper she teases, “Haaaaa - what the fuck was that?”
Kuroo mouths back, his face all scrunched, “I don’t know.”
“You’re so awkward.” She tips her chin up. “I got you.”
Kuroo shakes his head in a fierce no and then spins back around. He grabs his tablet and pretends to be very busy flipping through his sketches from earlier. He keeps glancing up through his eyelashes at what Tsukishima’s doing in the mirror.
From what he can see, the piece is incredible. Kuroo wouldn't expect anything less from Iwaguchi. The man’s been tattooing for well over a decade. Tsukishima’s too far away for him to see all the finer details, but he can make out an open book at the bottom, out of which is pouring all kinds of cosmic-looking stuff. He wants to see it up close, but there is no way that’s happening.
When Tsukishima starts to walk back to the chair, Nakayama shouts, “How do you two know each other?”
Kuroo’s whole body tenses. He forces himself to sit up, tilt back his head, and paints on a practiced charming expression. “Oh, from high school. We played volleyball.” It’s clear from her expression that Nakayama finds that fact adorable.
Tsukishima starts to gather his things - a discarded hoodie, a shoulder bag. “Different high schools.”
“But we played each other.”
“Rival schools or something like that.” Tsukishima stands up straight and Iwaguchi gets up to follow him to the front desk to check out. There’s a hint of something like a smile on his face, hidden beneath layers of surprise.
Kuroo sits back, crossing his arms with a confidence he doesn’t quite feel yet. “I taught him everything he knows.”
“Well that can’t be true.” Tsukishima stands up straight, clicks his tongue, and a smirk emerges. Kuroo remembers that look with a sudden, intense fondness.
“And why’s that?”
“Because I was better than you.”
Kuroo bursts out laughing and Tsukishima’s smirk gets bigger. He takes a few steps towards the doorway. Kuroo realizes that his chance to talk to this ghost from his past is quickly disappearing and he doesn’t quite want that. Not yet. “The new ink looks good. Iwaguchi’s one of the best.”
“Thanks.” Tsukishima runs his hand up the back of his neck. He’s still inching closer to the doorway.
The rest of Kuroo’s words tumble out before he can stuff them back in. “Want to grab a beer sometime? Give us a chance to catch up?”
Tsukishima’s grin grows a little lopsided. His eyes dart around the room. “Well, I don’t know, we just--”
Kuroo doesn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. He waves a dismissive hand, smiles wide. “Ah yea, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Good seeing you, though.”
“Yea, you too. See you around.”
Then he ducks through the doorway back out to the front with Iwaguchi in tow. Kuroo grimaces, expecting the older man to have some choice comments about that exchange when he gets back. He already doesn’t want to turn around and see whatever stupid expression Nakayama’s making at the moment.
But she’s never been one to wait. “I have five minutes until my next appointment gets here and I need you to answer one simple question--” Kuroo feels her breath on his neck and he swipes her away. “--why were you being so awkward?”
He rolls his chair a few inches away and spins. “I wasn’t!”
“Oh my god, yes you were. Who is he?” She balances her elbows on her knees and holds her head in her hands like she’s expecting a story.
“Just an old friend. Not even that. Just a guy I practiced with sometimes. Our teams were, like, friendly rivals.”
Kuroo knows he’s right. Tsukishima wasn’t really ever a friend. They were friendly, as much as someone who wasn’t that freckled guy could be friendly with Tsukishima, but they were never friends. They never really talked about anything outside of volleyball or school. And once Nationals were over and Kuroo went on to college, they lost touch fairly quickly.
Nakayama looks disappointed. “That’s it? I thought with how weird you were being there was way more there.”
Kuroo shakes his head. “I was just surprised. He didn’t seem like the tattoo type back then. More like the sour but snarky, straight-laced kind of guy.”
“And that’s really all there is?”
“Yea. Knew each other, kinda. Lost touch. Then - bam - surprised.”
Nakayama rolls her eyes. “Boring.” She smirks. “I was hoping for something juicier to help the day go by faster.” She starts to roll back to her station. “I’ll just invent an interesting story in my head and tell you about it later.”
“Perfect. Then I’ll write a song about it.”
“You know it.”
When he finally locks up and heads home that night, Kuroo’s mind keeps wandering to the last time he saw Tsukishima in person. Sure, they texted for a little while after - before that eventually stopped, too - but the last time he actually saw the blond was at Nationals in his third year. He remembers the two of them talking trash during the game and Tsukishima thanking him at some point. He knows that last bit happened because it damn well almost knocked him off his feet.
Right after the game, as Kuroo tried not to wallow in the sting of a loss, the two of them found some time to keep the provoking banter going, but both of them were already so tired and Tsukishima needed to prepare for yet another game. Kuroo promised to watch Karasuno play and come say hey to him after. Tsukishima said he didn’t care either way, but he grinned as he waved and caught up the rest of Karasuno.
After it was all said and done, Kuroo did try to talk to him. He found Tsukishima surrounded by his teammates and their families near the front lobby. They looked exhausted, but proud. Tsukishima looked like a completely different person than that apathetic teenager he remembered from the training camp.
Kuroo hovered for a while, waiting for his chance, but ultimately decided it wasn’t his place to intrude. This was their moment. He sent Tsukishima a text, found Kenma, and went home.
When Kuroo finally makes it to his front door, he sighs and heads straight for his couch. A quiet night to himself has been rare lately. It’s mostly for good reasons. Glory Days has been getting a bit of a following in a few neighborhoods. The bars they haunt have been booking them more regularly and word seems to be spreading.
Most of that is Kenma’s doing. Kuroo sends him a thanks once he notices all their new Twitter followers from the past few days.
Kenma’s quick to reply--
Kenma Kitty [21:42]: what? Like it’s hard? People are easy to influence once you understand what works.
Kenma still sees life like a game, one that he’s crushing, apparently. Though he’s not on stage as a part of the band, Kenma would never be in front of that many people anymore, he’s still the brain behind Kuroo’s heart and soul. Some things never change and Kuroo’s grateful for that.
So lately, more gigs has meant more practices. More practices mean less time to just zone out and exist. And when Glory Days isn’t playing, then he’s been trying to get Late to the Party into niche punk bars so they can jam some stress away. Again, good things, but sometimes Kuroo just wants to stare at his ceiling. And he does, with the beer he picked up at the convenient store on the way home, until the grime of the day and his tense shoulders beg for a shower. He takes the beer with him.
Kuroo always sings in the shower, no doubt bothering his neighbor on the other side of some very thin walls, but it’s a space where Kuroo feels like he gets some of his best creative work done. Tonight he’s singing bars from a new song into the beer can, like some awkward microphone. He sings and hums and tries to work out the kinks in the chorus. Something’s missing, but he’s not sure what yet.
He’s still humming when he goes to wipe off his mirror so he can see well enough to floss and go through his nightly moisturizing routine - his father frightened him about the horrors of tooth decay just as much as his grandmother warned him about early aging. He sets his almost empty beer beside the sink, goes to wind the floss around his fingers, but freezes when he sees the man looking back at him.
What has ten years done to him? What did Tsukishima see when he recognized him today?
He traces a single finger from the bridge of his nose, under his eye, along his cheekbones, and down to his chin. Kuroo’s still young and he looks it. Though his wild hair is wet and stuck to his forehead, his style is more or less the same - controlled chaos, like he likes it.
But maybe other things have changed? Maybe his eyes look different, like they’ve seen more now? Maybe the way he carries himself is different? He backs up, stands up straight, and puffs out his chest a little. Maybe he’s not as ripped as he was in high school, but he looks good.
He runs gentle fingers along the ink on his arms. That’s the obvious difference. Kuroo grins and snorts out a soft laugh. Sometimes it’s easy to look over the ink that stretches across his arms, his shoulders, that one piece down his ribs, because they’re just a part of him now. With each one, he felt like he became a little bit more himself.
Kuroo smirks at the man in the mirror, the same way he does before a first date, like he’s reminding himself that he likes what he’s got going on. To a certain clientele, he’s hot, right? He’s a bit of a delicious dish, if he does say so himself.
Tsukishima grew up hot.
The thought surprises him. Kuroo shakes his head, winds floss around his fingers, and shoves those words away.
That night in bed, the light from his phone illuminates his features in his otherwise dark room. His new black out curtains make sure none of the awful street light comes pouring in anymore. Though, staring at his phone in the pitch black probably isn’t good for him either. Kuroo just rolls over and keeps scrolling.
He chuckles at the string of trash talking between Kenma and him while they played against one another that night. Sure, they were already talking on their headsets, but some trash can only be spoken through the beautiful, wondrous language of memes.
Kuroo unlocks his phone and sends a quick text--
[00:14]: good night Kitty Cat. See ya in the morning.
He goes back to his messages and opens up the group chat between Bokuto, Akaashi, and himself.
That’s one thing that’s changed for the worse. Of course, Kuroo’s happy for them, but Kyoto’s too far. It breaks his heart that their apartment no longer is a short walk away, but he knows their opportunities were too good to pass up. Bokuto got a coaching job at a university and Akaashi decided to start law school.
Again. Happy for them. But also way too bummed to think about it for too long.
He drafts a short message about a dozen different ways before he finally sends--
[00:18]: do you guys remember Tsukishima? Also good night. Also miss you.
Kuroo would bet money on the fact that Bokuto is probably already asleep, but Akaashi’s a night owl. As he waits for a response, Kuroo starts to wonder --
He scrolls through his contacts and stops at one that’s long been forgotten. He presses his thumb against the name Tsukki and his phone asks him if he’d like to download the old messages. Kuroo stares at the question, hovers his thumb over it for longer than he can say why, then clicks yes.
It takes a minute, but then there it is -- the last time the two of them texted. The final message is from Kuroo, the end of some aimless conversation about classwork. He scrolls up and keeps reading. All of it reads like two people catching up from time to time. It’s small talk, but they didn’t seem to let too much time pass in between. Maybe a week or two - tops. And it’s kind of funny. He reads the messages in Tsukishima’s voice until he gets too far into the past for his liking.
Kuroo shuts off his screen and lets his phone fall on the bed beside him. His room is totally dark now. He replays his interaction with Tsukishima over in his head and cringes at the dumb faces he felt himself making. But he smiles. It was good to see Tsukishima, to know he’s doing well.
Maybe they were friends.
And Tsukishima has to come in sometime to get his tattoo finished.