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miserability

Chapter Text

 

The Karasuno gym is a graveyard of memories. Dead and lifeless, only the tombstones are volleyball nets and the epigraphs are jersey numbers. 

It hasn’t changed in the slightest over the years. The stage still has those dusty red curtains and the railings on the second floor are still covered in rust. Outside, dusk breaks as the sky begins to turn an inky black. Casting everything in a sickly shade of green, the fluorescent lights inside make up for the fleeting sunlight. Even in the harsh light, the trinkets of Tadashi’s youth remain untouched across the court. 

And there, standing in the mausoleum that houses their former selves, stands Tsukishima. 

Except he’s young. Foolish. Seventeen, with a smile that goes on for days and a pair of glasses he broke long ago. He’s dressed in a tuxedo, sharp and ready with his golden curls tucked neatly behind his ears. These remnants, the details Tadashi had long forgotten, become resurrected in the cemetery of their past selves. 

“You look good,” Tsukishima… Tsukki… compliments. 

Tadashi looks down at his own clothes—a dark, formal montsuki that drapes over his arms and legs with thick, heavy fabric. At the center waistband of the kimono lies the Yamaguchi family’s crest; a sort of laughable reminder about the duty of his name, even at a time such as this. 

Loyalty. What a joke.

He doesn’t need to look at his reflection to know he’s younger too. He can feel it in the way he moves; the control he has over his limbs is effortless. There’s callouses worked into his fingertips and bruises on his forearms. His mind, like how it was during his teen years, is only concerned with two things: volleyball and Tsukki. 

“Thanks…” Tadashi’s voice trails off as he continues to look around the gym that used to serve as the place he spent the majority of his youth. 

They’re alone. All activities were paused mid-practice, almost like the players had fled at a moment’s notice. Volleyballs are strewn across the floor while water bottles litter the sidelines. Even the team’s banner is there; it rests on the floor with cleaning utensils scattered around. The kanji has soap suds on it, the little bubbles barely visible over the white brushstrokes. 

Ages ago, when Tadashi’s world extended as far as the gym and his mother’s apartment, he believed in the team’s mantra. 

To fly, after all, is to be free. 

But Tadashi fears someone clipped his wings long ago.

Outside, perched on the windows, rests an audience of crows. While Tadashi cannot see their beady eyes, he knows they stare down at him with a judging glare. They open their beaks to squawk, but no noise emerges. Maybe they’re calling to Tadashi, asking him to join them once again. Maybe they’re telling him to stay far away, for good this time. 

Tadashi turns his gaze back to Tsukki. 

He holds out a hand. “Would you care to dance?” 

Tadashi’s about to comment that there’s no music, but a low melody of violins behinds to hum through the open gym. 

Without an excuse, Tadashi accepts. 

He slides his hand into Tsukki’s, and places the other hand onto his shoulder. Tsukki’s hand finds home in Tadashi’s waist, his fingers cool against the wrapped thick fabric. 

They begin a slow waltz, even though neither of them ever learned how to dance in the first place. The few times they partied together consisted purely of Tadashi allowing his limbs to hang however they pleased and Tsukki refusing to indulge in the practice at all. 

Still, they manage to glide across the floor like they were meant to dance here all along. Tadashi’s usual clumsiness has disappeared in favor of confident steps and easy motions. Tsukki leads him through it all, eyes wide and soft. 

“I missed you,” Tsukki whispers, the confession bouncing off the walls and securing itself in Tadashi’s chest. 

His response comes forward without any hesitation. “I’ve missed you too.”

At least, he’s missed this. A dreamscape where they don’t need to worry what the outside world considers them. A place where they don’t need to hide the way they twirl around each other. Their audience of crows simply encourages them on. 

“I don’t get it,” Tsukki sighs. “Why did you leave me?”

For once, Tadashi wants to tell the truth. He wants to spill every secret like he used to when he and Tsukki would push their futons together for their semi-frequent sleepovers. They would speak about whatever came to mind and never discuss the topics again. 

Even as they aged, they continued to fling those hushed truths into the empty space of the night. As they would lie in a hotel bed instead of futons, Tadashi would often find himself speaking when he knew Tsukishima wasn’t awake. 

But Tadashi doesn’t receive the luxury of darkness anymore. Fluorescent lights illuminate his every move and word, and so he’s forced to come forward while the sun still trails outside. 

“I didn’t mean to leave you,” Tadashi admits, dropping his head onto Tsukki’s shoulder. Immediately, he wraps his arm tighter to eliminate the space between them. 

“You still left me though,” Tsukki whispers. “I didn't know what to do without you.” 

A part of Tadashi recognizes Tsukki’s voice as his own. Tsukki would never say something like that, let alone say it to Tadashi. Especially now, what with their strange admittance and awkward pauses. Tsukki here though, he waxes words like poetry. They’re the phrases Tadashi’s dreamed of him saying so of course they’re not real. 

“Did you ever love me?” Tsukki’s voice is so low, Tadashi doesn’t even believe he heard it in the first place. 

The words hang and inflate, pressing into Tadashi with each passing second of silence. He takes a hand and raises it to Tsukki’s head, threading it through the curls. It’s soft and gentle on his fingertips. Tsukki has always been so soft. 

“I think…” Tadashi trails off, mind slowly wrapping around itself to form even one coherent thought. “I think I did at one point.” 

Tsukki sucks in a breath. “And now? Do you love me now?” 

Love is such a finicky, tricky word. 

It’s something he said in passing to his mother when she went off to work early in the morning. It’s a command he barked out at his father, the feeling afterward sticky and distasteful. A fleeting sort of thing he’s felt throughout many of his relationships in his life, even if he wasn’t always the best at verbalizing it.

Throughout every argument and kiss, every period of time they were separated or the moments where the world only existed between them… Tadashi has always loved Tsukki. Try as he might—and he’s tried so, so hard—but Tadashi can’t stop loving him.

But to love someone for the way they laugh and smile is not the same as being in love with someone for the way they’ve broken your heart time and time again. 

To love someone is to become your most vulnerable self around them. Tadashi has exposed himself in more ways than he can count and has allowed Tsukki to see him bare. 

Rather, Tsukishima has stripped him of the armor he’d put up after years of feeling so alone. He removed his helmet and knee pads, not caring what Tadashi looked like underneath. Tsukki simply accepted him nude and smiled at what he saw. 

To love someone is to hand them a sword and expect them to never draw it. But Tsukki did, time and time again, slashing until nothing remained.

So while Tadashi may admit his love for Tsukki, he will never allow himself to fall in love again. 

“I love you,” Tadashi says, since saying it out loud is harder than saying nothing at all. It’s heavy on his tongue and hangs even heavier in the air. 

Tsukki suddenly stops swaying underneath him. 

“Tsukki?” Tadashi asks. It’s quiet. Small. 

“Why are you lying?” Tsukki whispers. 

“What?” 

“Why are you lying?” he repeats. “You've been lying to me ever since we hooked up and you’ve been lying to yourself all these years. Will it ever stop?” 

“I’m telling the truth,” Tadashi asserts even if there’s not much power in his voice. 

Tsukki barks out a laugh. “You want the truth? I’ll give you some truth.” 

He moves forward and Tadashi flinches at the sudden additional contact. He doesn’t stop him though, even as he leaves a line of kisses along Tadashi’s jawline. Lips traverse over the comfortable space with incredible tenderness until they hover above his ear. 

“I want to fuck you,” Tsukki whispers, voice a growl. 

Tadashi jerks backwards, still trapped by Tsukki’s grasp. 

He’s aged. There's darkness underneath his new glasses and a bored look on the rest of his face. He’s nineteen or twenty-two, but in reality it doesn’t matter. He’s not Tsukki anymore. He never had been. Tsukki doesn’t even exist. 

“You think I wanted to be your friend?” Tsukishima laughs. “What kind of fucking idiot are you?”

The crows outside squawk and scream. The music has fled, leaving behind only the sound of Tsukishimai’s rough voice and the shrieking of the birds. 

Tadashi should fight back. He should retaliate and shout and thrash against his abuser, but instead he takes it. He succumbs to the words, falling deeper into Tsukishima’s arms. 

Tsukishima simply holds him aloft as if Tadashi was nothing more than a mere ragdoll. “You’re pathetic to think I wanted anything more than to fuck you. You’re not even good at that though. You’re worthless.”

Glass shattering distracts Tadashi for only the briefest moment. A crow has crashed through the window and now lies dead on the edge of the court.

Looking back to Tsukishima, a rippling fear consumes his entire body. From the devilish gleam behind his broken glasses to the repetition of his most intrusive thoughts, Tadashi is truly genuinely terrified of the man…  no, the thing that holds him. 

Tadashi awakes with his heart threatening to rip out of his chest altogether. 

He doesn’t scream though—luckily. The last thing he needs is complaints from his neighbors about his nightmares of all things. 

Still… he can’t even begin to comprehend everything that happened as the details of the dream become fuzzier and fuzzier with each passing moment. 

The one image that remains, seared into the back of his eyelids, is the picture of Tsukki smiling at him and asking if Tadashi loved him. 

Subconscious, dream-world Tadashi might say stupid words out loud but the real Tadashi would never admit to something as feeble as loving Tsukishima. It’s not nearly that simple; the word simultaneously over-simplifies and under-encompasses what they are. 

If only it were so easy to call it love and move forward. 

Tadashi pushes himself out of bed and heads straight for the shower to wash away the images from the night before. He doesn’t know what’s worse: nightmares or wet dreams. Ideally, Tadashi wouldn’t be thinking of Tsukishima at all during his periods of rest but it appears his mind has other plans for him. Maybe his heart does too, but Tadashi can’t listen to his own reasoning. It’s wrong, whatever feelings may arise.

What’s right and what’s always been right is moving on from a silly childhood love story. 

 

---

 

“YAMAGUCHI!” A curt voice rings over the cubicles, startling Tadashi out of his own work. 

He knew this day would come. After his atrocious performance at the last meeting with the Frogs representatives, Tadashi’s been anxiously awaiting for when Hayato discovered his missteps. It’s been eating him alive, the mere thought that he’ll be punished or even fired for flubbing his presentation. Blame Tsukishima or blame himself, Tadashi’s career is still on the line. 

On cue, Hayato rounds the corner with a curled lip and a furrowed brow. “You really fucked it up this time huh? See, I knew we couldn’t trust you with the fucking Sendai project. Even if you are sleeping with one of the execs, it doesn’t do shit to—”

“I’m not sleeping with the execs!” Tadashi argues, immediately regretting the outburst as the rebuttal surfaces. “I mean it’s not like that, I’m—”

“Screwing the blonde chick,” Hayato finishes for him. He steps further inside the cubicle, reeking of cheap cologne and last night’s beers. His five o’clock shadow should’ve been taken care of hours ago, but instead Hayato presses in further with a rank smile and sweaty browline. “And some little birdie told me that wasn’t all.”

Tadashi swallows harshly, his throat a desert. 

“See, I heard you’ve also been fucking one of the players.” Hayato curdles a laugh, dropping his voice low. “Tell me, how do you take it? You’re probably one of those fuckers that likes it up the ass, huh? God, when Suzuki hears about this you’ll—”

“H-hey fellas.”

Hayato halts his spitting, whipping around to see the angel Morikatsu hovering over Tadashi’s cubicle. 

“Looks cozy in here,” Morikatsu comments. He rubs at his neck and whistles out a little tune as Hayato pats himself off. 

“You’re done, Yamaguchi,” he threatens. “Even if you’re one of Suzuki’s little pawns, another fuck-up won’t save you.”

Hayato pushes through, catching Morikatsu’s shoulder before stomping away to his own desk. 

Tadashi places a hand on his chest. His heart beats and beats and beats, unrelenting and anxious. 

“What was that all about?” Morikatsu whispers harshly. “It’s like one moment I’m just chilling and the next—BAM! He’s all up in your face.” He rocks back on his heels and raises an eyebrow at Tadashi. “You good?”

“Fine,” Tadashi replies. His entire body is numb.

Morikatsu twists his lips. “I… I didn’t mean to… ah… overhear so…”

“I don’t care,” Tadashi sighs. He drapes an arm over his eyes and leans back in his chair. “Seriously, I don’t care anymore.”

“Yama-kun?”

“Sorry, I’m just… I’m exhausted.”

 

---

 

There, in the late evening of summer break, Tadashi and Kei stared at the screen to some chatboard Tadashi had never seen before. While they could be outside and enjoying the nice weather, instead they were huddled under a big blanket on Kei’s bed. He’d only recently received a hand-me-down laptop from Akiteru, the offending hardware heavy and unwieldy despite the new-found freedom it provided. 

Over the last few weeks, they’d explored all kinds of far-reaching websites, but now they were drawn into a random dinosaur-themed chatboard that Kei seemed to navigate easily. He pulled up the main page, where they scrolled through lots of photos and posts that made their laughter spill out of the comfort of their blanketed fortress. 

A notification popped up in the corner of the screen, and Kei dismissed the message.

“Who is that?” Tadashi asked, clicking on the profile. All it spoke of was dinosaurs and spaceships and other things kids dream so often about. 

“No one,” Kei said, reaching out for the controls. He maneuvered off of the page and onto the main chatboard.

“Tsukki! I want to see what you were talking about!”

Kei sent him a glare, but relinquished the laptop anyways. Tadashi happily accepted it and began to skim through their messages. Most of it was what Tadashi expected out of a dinosaur chat forum, but as he dove deeper he saw the underlying conversations between the two. 

This boy went from discussing paleolithic diets to talking about his family and friends (or lack thereof, really). Tadashi supposed that wasn’t all that strange either, until the messages flooded in about how awful his family was and how the boy was scared to be in his own house and how tired he was of dealing with everything. 

Tadashi looked over to gauge Kei’s expression, but he wasn’t responding. No, he cleaned his glasses and sat there like nothing had happened at all. 

“Do you know him?” Tadashi asked quietly.

Kei kept cleaning his glasses. “He’s just some kid I met online. I’ve never met him in person or anything.”

Tadashi turned back to the screen. He typed a quick message, aware of Kei’s eyes upon him. He didn’t speak up though, even as the text went through. 

 

From: dinoman11, 09:13

Are you alright?

 

Tadashi stared down at his own message as his stomach sank downstairs and out the door. It dropped off in the ocean and floated away as the boy immediately began to type; messages inundated the server and Tadashi found himself lost as he attempted to go through the rather incoherent ramblings. 

“What…?”

Kei grabbed the laptop away and began to read for himself. “He always does this,” he supplied. “I don’t know why.”

Peeking over, Tadashi only caught a glimpse of the last message. 

 

To: dinoman11, 9:19

I think I’m going to kill myself

 

Tadashi blinked at the foreign words.

He… he was joking, right? It had to be some sort of joke. A horrible, terrible joke. 

“Tsukki…” Tadashi began, but he didn’t have much else to say. 

Kei typed something back, flowery words about how the boy shouldn’t be doing this and how it was a bad idea and all of these wonderful things about care and love, except Kei said it all with a straight face. There wasn’t even a reaction, even as the boy insisted these were his final days.

Tadashi could only watch, numb and dull, as Kei continued to type. He looked tired. 

Eventually, Kei handed off the laptop to Tadashi and he copied Kei’s language to spit out the same messages. It felt cheap, but what could they do? They didn’t know this boy or what he looked like or where he lived; for all they knew, it was some adult playing a bad prank on them. 

Even so, they swapped the laptop back and forth to pull the boy back from the ledge. Tadashi’s stomach sank further and further with each message, and guilt wrapped around him until he was a mummified doll only able to deal out dirty therapeutic messages. 

Their eyes grew heavy with sleep though, and Tadashi found himself drifting away into a place where he and Kei laughed as they splashed around in some big pool. 

They were awoken by the awful squawking of a bird that had unwittingly flung itself into Kei’s bedroom window. They scrambled up, only to see its corpse down in the lawn below, wing thrust towards the sky as if it had really believed it could fly away from its own peril. 

“Oh god…” Kei muttered, shoving his glasses on to get a better picture of the carnage. “Did you see—?”

“THE BOY!” Tadashi remembered, crawling away from the window to grab Kei’s laptop off the floor. It must have fallen at some point during the night, but Tadashi flung it open with a growing sense of desperation and dread. “We shouldn’t have fallen asleep. Oh my god, what if he’s dead? What if he actually died?”

Tadashi threw his head back to find Kei still preoccupied with the bird. 

“Tsukki?”

Kei turned to face him. “Hm?”

“Are you okay?”

Kei looked down at the bird once more. There was a small impact mark on the window, right above Kei’s head. 

“I’m fine,” Kei assured, tearing himself away from the window. “Let’s just check in on the kid.”

Tadashi nodded and returned to the screen. He pulled up the chatbox and skimmed through the messages. 

 

To: dinoman11, 02:51

I just don’t want to be here any more. 

 

To: dinoman11, 02:57

Hello?

Are you there??

 

To: dinoman11, 03:04

This isn’t funny and I’m not joking. Do you even care about me?

 

To: dinoman11, 03:07

I’m really going to do it. 

 

To: dinoman11, 03:09

Seriously I’m going to do it. 

 

To: dinoman11, 03:12

This is all your fault. I’m doing this because of you.

 

To: dinoman11, 03:14

Goodbye. 

 

Tadashi scanned over the messages again and again, but there was nothing more. That last goodbye at 3:14 was really everything that he’d left.

Panic bubbled nice and easy, filling Tadashi up until he couldn’t feel anything anymore. He was numb even as Kei ripped the laptop from him and began to look over the conversation himself. 

“He… There’s no way…” Kei continued to mutter disbeliefs but Tadashi couldn’t even bother to look at him. 

No, his gaze was fixated on the spot where the bird had crashed. At least there they could clearly see what went wrong. They knew exactly how life flitted away and had the carcass as clear evidence. And although it was terrifying to see, at least they knew . They could see it. They didn’t have to wonder any more. 

But this boy—a boy who Tadashi couldn’t even name or picture or begin to describe—was dead. Or maybe he wasn’t. Tadashi would never know unless he asked.

Yet he was paralyzed with the fear, with the knowledge, that Tadashi had killed him. That Kei was his accomplice and together they’d caused the death of a perfectly innocent boy. Because it was a very real and very horrifying possibility that they were the cause of another’s demise. 

Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe the boy was off living life, forgetting he’d even sent those messages in the first place. Tadashi was too scared to find out. 

This boy existed as one of Schrodinger’s creatures, somewhere between the dead and the alive. While Tadashi didn’t know much about quantum physics, he knew plenty about what it was like to exist in the liminal space between life and death. If Tadashi and Kei reached out, they were opening the box; they would have to face the inevitable ways of their cruelty when the boy didn’t message back. 

Tadashi looked back to see Kei’s fingers flying over the keys. The slight tapping noise bore into Tadashi so before it became too much he grabbed the laptop away and slammed it closed. 

“What are you doing?” Kei demanded, holding his hand out. “Don’t you think we should check up on him?” 

“But what if he really doesn’t message back?” Tadashi argued. 

“He will.” 

“But what if he doesn’t?”

Kei sucked in a breath. “He will. Now give me the laptop.”

“No!”

“Yamaguchi—”

Tadashi wrestled away, but apparently Kei wasn’t messing around today. He lunged for the laptop, flattening himself onto Tadashi’s chest. The extra weight forced the air from his lungs, but Tadashi refused to let Kei peer inside. They didn’t need to know that they’d ruined their own lives on top of ending another person’s. 

“Yamaguchi!” Kei screamed, pushing himself up on the other boy’s rib cage. He managed to take hold, but Tadashi continued thrashing.

“No, stop! Stop!” Tadashi demanded. 

In one moment, the laptop is there between their hands. The next, it’s being flung out the window at the very spot where the bird had collided. Shattering glass and the calls of birds suddenly enter the room before a crash flattens out all of the sound together.

Tadashi can feel the concerned shouts of Kei’s mother somewhere within the house. He can feel the click of the door and the worried voice Akiteru supplies when he enters the room. He can feel Kei’s pleas about how it wasn’t their fault and that they didn’t mean any harm and that they’re fine, really they’re fine. 

Kei pulls on Tadashi’s arm as he stands up from the bed but Tadashi still doesn’t budge. He simply leans towards the window, a small and slight breeze prickling at his cheeks. He thinks the laptop might have landed somewhere in the bushes so the bird is really the only thing he can look at. 

It still lies on the ground dead. There’s nothing Tadashi can do to reverse it. 

 

---

 

Sometimes Tadashi wonders what his life would be like if he could just talk things through. 

If he could sit down and have a conversation, a real, honest conversation, with anyone he chose. 

Who would be his first victim? 

His heart leaps to say Tsukishima, but that’s obvious. Of course Tadashi wants to talk to him, but there’s too much to say for one measly dinner. A five course meal couldn’t begin to dive into the complexities of their dialogue. 

Maybe it should be his mother. There’s a lot Tadashi would like to thank her for, a lot of questions he has. A lot of anger he’d never show, but knows lies deep somewhere inside of him. 

Maybe his father would be there too. But, really, Tadashi has nothing to say to him. Even a mere phone call would be awkward and slight because how does someone make up for decades of absence? 

There’s a lot Tadashi wants to say to Aiko. A nice brunch would help to settle their discourse; over mimosas they could examine why and how Tadashi still liked her. 

He could possibly talk to people he hasn’t seen in a long time. The laughter and pure joy that could come from an evening spent with Yachi, Hinata, and Kageyama would give Tadashi the energy he needed to do… well anything really. But there are others from his youth—Shimada, Daichi, and Ennoshita to name a few—that he’d like to thank for their contribution. They helped him flourish and grow, after all.

Or… if Tadashi was lucky… he would talk with the Schrodinger boy. 

He wonders about him occasionally in the times when his mind doesn’t have much else to think about. Like in the moment Tadashi steps off the train and passes over the small gap of the platform. Or when he exits an uneventful meeting with scattered papers in his hands. The passing, lingering moments where Tadashi indulges a weary thought such as his propensity to kill. 

Did the boy really die that night because Tadashi and Tsukishima grew too tired to encourage him otherwise? Or does the boy live on, weaving through life unaffected by the trauma he left on a digital grid?

Maybe Tadashi has met him. Maybe they sat next to each other in a college class or exchanged volleys over a net. Maybe they’ll never interact again. 

Who misses the Schrodinger boy? Tadashi doesn’t, or rather he can’t, considering he never really knew him in the first place. Did his mother weep at his funeral? Did his father attempt to hide his tears? 

If… if Tadashi were to disappear one day… who… who would miss him? 

Realistically, he knows a question like that is mere speculation because he has people that care about him in his life. Of course there are always people there to mourn the dead but he too would never know. Once he’s gone, there’s no telling who will arrive at his funeral dressed sharply in black. 

Tadashi will never know; the dead aren’t informed of the details of the living. He’ll never know what happened to the Schrodinger boy either though, he supposes. 

Tadashi thinks he would be okay with that just as long as he knew he was alive. But he’ll never know. 

The Schrodinger boy just remains the strangest blip in Tadashi’s life. 

 

---

 

Autumn bites with its cold, like it’s forgotten it exists as a transition between the summer and winter. The wind stings Tadashi’s eyes as he hurriedly makes his way past the random passersby on their phones, lost completely to the brewing storm of anxiety that’s lodged itself in Tadashi’s chest. 

He knew, he knew, that he was meeting Aiko tonight. He knew that she’d like to be greeted with a kiss when he arrived on time and that they would spend the evening blissed out in a sort of happiness seen only on the silver screen. He knew she’d lead Tadashi back to her apartment and ask for more than a simple kiss and Tadashi would be happy to oblige because he loves her and sleeping with her is just part of what he’d like to do.

He knew all of this, and yet he waited until the very last moment to get ready and prepare himself for what lay ahead. His mind wouldn’t let him function otherwise; waiting until the last minute to leave was the only way he could cope with actually seeing her.

And Tadashi knew, he really did know, that a healthy relationship shouldn’t function like this. 

Regardless, the whipping wind that shakes the golden leaves from the ginkgo surrounds Tadashi as he attempts to at least make up for his tardiness. He can’t take his eyes off of the fanned leaves though, going so far as to slow down and catch one. 

The color is absolutely beautiful. Golden and warm, like honey has formed into something you can hold. It’s familiar and nostalgic somehow, like even the sight of a leaf pulls Tadashi back into a time unknown. 

Dumbly, he remembers that Tsukishima had a gingko tree in his backyard. 

“Tadashi!” 

He drops the leaf and lets the wind carry it away before he turns to see Aiko walking towards him. She’s done up all pretty, with a long coat that should be saved until the official start of winter but is necessary now with the bad weather. 

“Where were you?” she asks, panic surfacing more than anger. “I was waiting for you at the station. Why didn’t you pick up?”

Tadashi immediately reaches for his phone to see the missed calls. “Sorry,” he apologizes. He doesn’t offer an excuse. 

Aiko sighs. “It’s fine. Let’s just get going, I’m not sure they’ll hold our reservation much longer.” 

She steps forward, staying on the edge of the sidewalk near the line of shops Tadashi hadn’t noticed in the first place. Most of them are dilapidated fronts from the past, but the one they’re standing at catches his eye. 

It’s that candy shop from all those years ago, the one Tadashi and Tsukishima took refuge in when they’d been lost in the city as a pair of children. Except the place is closed. The letters from the old shop remain, the ghosts of candied promises remaining with indelible prints. Otherwise, the shop is unrecognizable from the haven it once was. 

“Tadashi?” Aiko calls, turning a little further down the road.

He hasn’t moved. Sucking a breath between his teeth, he remains still as Aiko comes to fully face him. 

“What are you looking at?” Aiko follows his gaze, wide eyes not following his trail of thought. 

“It’s nothing,” Tadashi assures. “I just… I came here once. As a kid.”

Aiko tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. “Do you want to tell me about it?” 

Shaking his head, Tadashi hastily replies, “Oh it’s not that interesting, I promise.”

The world stills for a moment or two, almost like it’s rearing its engine. Electricity sparks between them, courtesy of the streetlamps and the electrical grid that runs underneath Sendai. Tadashi has no time to prepare before he’s shocked by the words leaving Aiko’s mouth. 

“Tadashi sometimes…” She, too, starts slow, before the river rises and she begins to sail. “Sometimes it’s like you expect me to know all of these small, insignificant details about you. Ones that I’ve never had the chance to learn or something that you mentioned once in passing.”

“I don’t—”

“Even something like this,” she cuts him off, waving her arm towards the candy shop, “you won’t talk to me about it, and I don’t know why. I’m your girlfriend. You should want to talk to me.”

“I do,” Tadashi attempts. “I—I try my best to—”

“There’s so much in your mind that I can’t see. I’m not some psychic who can read your every thought and desire but I really wish I could! Maybe then we wouldn’t be so off…”

Tadashi startles. “Off?”

“Off,” she confirms, tucking another piece of hair behind her ear. “You have so much going on it’s like we’re never able to connect. You’re here, but you’re not really here.

Aiko doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t even play with her hair. No, she focuses all of her waning attention towards the patch of concrete beneath their feet. 

Between them, there’s a crack in the pavement. Weeds sprout and curl upwards, hoping to get the trailing amounts of autumn sun. They’ll wither and die soon with the winter without much else to keep them here. 

“I think we should break up,” Aiko says. 

Tadashi sucks in a breath between his teeth. He lets the air flee slowly, afraid to truly let it go seeing as his lungs can’t seem to function properly. 

“Okay.”

Aiko jerks her head up, meeting Tadashi for a moment before she starts to look around. Her face scrunches in confusion before she throws her arms to the side. “Okay?"

“If that’s what you think is best…” Tadashi’s words trail off. He’s not speaking them. Or at least, that’s what it feels like. Some ghost must have possessed him and occupies his body while Tadashi watches from the side, unable to control himself. 

Running a hand through her hair again, Aiko sighs. “What I think is best is that we’re both happy. What’s the point of perpetuating a relationship that you don’t want to be in?”

“I want to be in this relationship.”

“But you don’t want me.”

How… how is Tadashi supposed to respond to that? 

“Aiko…” he finds himself saying, but the sentence doesn’t go anywhere. 

Aiko simply sighs and rubs at her eyes with the bases of her palms. “God, I’m such an idiot…”

“No, you’re not.”

“You’re not exactly subtle, Tadashi,” Aiko sputters, a cruel and sad laugh bubbling from the back of her throat. “I know you’re still hung up on your ex, and I really thought you’d get over her by now but I guess I wasn’t good enough of a rebound for you. And I have no idea what the hell is going on with you and Tsukishima, but I’m certain something is there.”

Curling his hands into fists, Tadashi has to force himself to listen to every dagger as it plunges itself into his chest. The comment about Tsukishima though is a whole greatsword. 

“Aiko, I’m so, so sorry,” Tadashi says genuinely. “I never wanted to hurt you.”

Aiko readjusts the shoulder of her coat. “Goodbye, Tadashi.”

She doesn’t say anything more. She pushes past him and stomps away from the candy shop like their entire relationship had never occurred in the first place. Tadashi turns to watch her leave, a sickening feeling rising that he’ll never see her again. 

Tadashi burns. 

Hot and scorching, like the sun itself is pressing into his tawny skin, seeping in to liquify his insides and allow them to spill onto the concrete. Tadashi doesn’t sunburn though; he freckles. Each spot serves as a reminder of a day spent too long soaking in the blistering heat because sometimes it feels better to burn than to not feel anything at all. Cool hands press aloe into his back, massaging it onto his shoulders. Tadashi burns fine on his own, but he blazes under the heat of another. 

Except it’s nearly winter, and Tadashi’s nose is pink from the bitter cold and his fingertips cannot function properly. His hand cannot reach out and beckon Aiko back to his side. Frozen in place, with icicles over his shoes and his mind and his heart. His heavy tongue cannot even fathom something to say to get Aiko to return. 

A part of Tadashi wishes for a sunburn. Another part of him is grateful his freckles aren’t as prominent as they used to be. 

Most of all, Tadashi longs to burn. To feel. To have something there. 

Why isn’t he angrier? Why doesn’t frustration bubble in his chest and rip words from his throat? Why doesn’t Aiko’s departure mean anything to him? 

You love her, he convinces himself. He’s used to lying to himself, so this thin white lie should be no different. 

You love her. You love her. You love her. 

Except it’s a fruitless search to discover what exactly he loves about her.

There’s more than plenty to admire. Her kindness, at least, is what initially drew Tadashi to her. Her smile, her hair, her voice. Beneath that though, Tadashi flounders attempting to come up with a story. 

There is… nothing. 

Others would love her so easily. They will kiss her without regret and stand closer because they cannot bear being away. They will give her the love she deserves, the love that gushes forward like a roaring river instead of the small trickles that Tadashi musters through the leaky faucet of his own affections. 

There must be something very, very wrong with Tadashi. 

That’s the only explanation. Why else would he let such a good woman like Aiko stray away? He’s loved women before, so why can’t he love her?

Perhaps the vat that once contained his heart is truly too empty to love anymore. The hole in his chest cannot afford to waste care, lest Tadashi’s heart stop beating altogether.

Tadashi’s father’s instructions from all those years ago still thrum inside his head, an off-kilter beat that causes more dissonance and than what it’s worth. Tadashi turned 26 last week, too many variables and issues in the way to celebrate the day properly. 

It’s not like Tadashi wanted to celebrate though. The age is simply a reminder of how he’s failed to build a life like he’s supposed to. He can’t even hold a girlfriend for a few months, let alone arrange a marriage. 

He should have tried harder. He should have held Aiko closer and not let her leave. 

Maybe then his rough hands would have been good for something. 

But as it remains, Tadashi is simply a jagged man who must push away all of the good things in his life. He doesn’t deserve them anyways. No, he could have never earned the right to be with a woman like Aiko. If she stayed in his life any longer, she too would be infected with the looming guilt and destitute that’s consuming Tadashi whole. 

So he’ll reject all of the good things that pass by. He’ll never deserve Aiko’s smile or Morikatsu’s companionship or a promotion at work or Yachi’s worry or… 

Tadashi laughs. 

Well isn’t that the root of it all?

Tadashi will never deserve Tsukishima.