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burn out, burn bright

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Kei is twenty-six going on sixty. Internally, at least. High cortisol levels from years of stress and overwork and well-hidden anxiety led to a doctor’s visit and firm advice to take a break from his high-stress postgraduate program. Something about lowering his blood pressure and heart rate.

Externally, Kei looks like a solo traveler checking into a ryokan during a weird off-season. He’s shivering slightly even in his pea coat, the December chill lingering after his walk from the bus stop to the little inn nestled away on a side street. 

The small, gray-haired woman across the inn’s front desk passes Kei a small, brassy key. “Enjoy your stay in Kyoto,” she says, creaky voice and gentle smile. 

Kei simply bows in response. 

He doesn’t remember the last time he enjoyed much at all. 

The hall is narrow, light wood floor and white wallpaper. The odd numbered rooms are on the right, and Kei shuffles along in a pair of the inn’s provided slippers, small suitcase rolling quietly behind him. He’s nearly to his destination when a flash of raven dark hair and a blue parka nearly barrel him over from room nine.

“Sorry,” is all Kei gets from his assailant.

Kei’s jaw tightens slightly as he steadies himself. When his doctor recommended that he take a break away from stressors, Kei didn’t know how to explain that people tend to be the biggest source of stress in his life. 

Ignoring both the man in the parka and the half-assed apology, Kei brushes past him and slips his key into the door.

“You’re in room eleven?” parka man asks, lingering in the hall despite Kei’s clear lack of interest.

“Yes,” Kei answers dryly. The lock clicks as he turns the key. 

“Oh,” parka man says. “It’s been empty most of the month.”

Kei purses his lips, pushing the door open. He finally glances over to his right to see a pair of narrow, considering eyes underneath shaggy bangs, a serious expression that might be a scowl or just the man’s face. He looks to be about Kei’s age. And also vaguely familiar, though it could just be that Kei finds him annoying in the way he finds many people annoying. 

“Well now it’s not,” Kei says.

“Yeah,” parka man agrees stiffly. “See you later.”

Kei doesn’t bother with a response to that, simply wheeling his suitcase inside the small room, the door closing with a click behind him.

He shakes off the interaction, though he can still feel the frown tugging at his mouth. He rubs his nose, pushing the frames of his glasses up before letting them fall back into place as he surveys the room.

There’s a small chest, a desk low to the ground with a cushion, a futon, two pillows, and a window with an off-white curtain. The curtain is drawn back, cloudy December day shining bleak gray light into the room.

It’s clean, at least, and Kei leaves his slippers beside the door before pulling his suitcase over to the chest, kneeling on the ground to transfer his sweaters and scarves and thickest pairs of slacks inside. He pulls out his books and laptop next, setting them on the desk and hunting for an outlet, letting his laptop flicker on when he connects the charger, navigating on to the inn’s weak WiFi.

He’s not going to check his email. He’s not. He’s—

143 Unread Emails .

The notification appears across the bottom of his screen. His chest tightens painfully, and he winces, hand going over his heart and clutching at the fabric of his coat.

Breathe, he reminds himself, even as he feels sweat begin to gather at his temples. Breathe. 

He inhales heavily through his nose, wincing again when his chest twinges again. But he exhales through it, inhales again, and then closes his laptop. 

Kei spent five years working on his dissertation. Five years of preparation and work only to have Tadashi drive him to urgent care a month and a half before his defense because his ribs hurt and he couldn’t breathe and his heart felt like it was bursting and his vision bled black around the edges.

Outside the window, a starling settles on the dead branch of a tree, fluffing its feathers in the chill. Kei watches it, and thinks how the bird must be wonderfully oblivious to things such as existential crises. The starling hops a little over on the branch. There’s something wrong with its wing. It tries to fly further up the tree, but can’t seem to make it very far, flapping in frustration from limb to limb. Kei breathes slowly until the stabbing pain behind his ribs ebbs away, and the little starling has finally disappeared from view.

He reached for a book next, opening to the first page and trying, for the first time in years, to read something simply because it might be nice to do so.

 

-

 

Parka man is a quiet neighbor, which can’t be said for the previous tenant he lived next to in his apartment complex back in Tokyo. 

Kei still sleeps restlessly. The doctor said his insomnia should abate with less stress, but the doctor said a lot of things and prescribed a lot of medications. The little green pills he now takes every night don’t seem to be helping with the hours he spends lying awake staring at the ceiling.

When Kei’s alarm goes off at seven-thirty, Kei has been up for nearly half an hour, scrolling listlessly through the news on his phone while still underneath the blankets on his futon. 

He drags himself upright, changing into a pair of slacks and a sweater, folding his sweats neatly to use again tonight. He slides his glasses on, everything suddenly sharp and clear.

The inn’s tiny dining room is stocked with rice still in the cooker, miso soup in a huge bowl nestled on a pink hot pad, and an assortment of vegetables and fish laid out beside it. The room is empty and dim, the morning gray and dreary as Kei serves himself breakfast and retreats to one of the few tables squished in close quarters.

Kei is halfway through picking at his food when parka man comes into the room with bleary eyes and sleep-puffy cheeks. His hair is disheveled, and he squints at Kei for only a moment before heaping rice and fish on his plate and plopping down at another table.

Good , Kei thinks. He’d tensed at the thought parka man would sit next to him and attempt conversation, but it seems neither of them are morning people nor particularly sociable. 

Parka man eats quickly and gets seconds, and Kei is watching him with some sort of bizarre interest when the old woman who checked Kei in yesterday slides the door open to the dining room. “Good morning,” she says brightly, gray hair pulled back into a neat bun.

“Good morning, Sakamoto-san,” parka man mumbles with his cheeks still full.

Kei wrinkles his nose before bobbing his head in greeting to Sakamoto. He pushes a radish slice around his plate. 

“Ah, Tsukishima-san,” Sakamoto says as she shuffles over to the rice cooker, popping open the lid and peering inside. She fluffs it a bit with the shamoji. “This is Kageyama-san, another guest who will be here for the month.”

Kageyama.

The name strikes the same feeling of familiarity Kei felt yesterday upon seeing Kageyama outside his room, but he still can’t quite place it. And it doesn’t seem like Kageyama recognizes him, so it’s possibly just a strange feeling with no real roots. 

“Through new year?” Kageyama asks. He’s just as abrupt and clipped as he was in the hall yesterday, though out of his parka he looks smaller, a little less certain.

“Yes,” Kei answers. He gathers up a spoonful of soup.

“Tenryu-ji isn’t far,” Sakamoto says as she seemingly decides the rice is adequate, moving on to inspect the other dishes. “Though it’s a little crowded on new year’s eve.”

Kei doesn’t reply, simply continues to slowly eat his soup. It’s barely warm now, having sat in his bowl for so long already. 

“Well, I’ll leave you to your breakfast,” Sakamoto says kindly when neither Kageyama nor Kei answer.

“Thank you,” Kei murmurs as Kageyama fumbles out a, “thank you for the delicious food,” around another mouthful of rice.

Charming.

Sakamoto, however, smiles at Kageyama, her eyes crinkling before she leaves the dining room, shuffling with her back slightly bent.

Kei clears the table he’s using, stacking his dishes neatly in the bin on the back counter near the door to what Kei assumes is the kitchen. He can feel Kageyama watching him, but ignores his presence, straightening his sweater as he heads back to his room to read some more of his book.

 

-

 

From Tadashi (9:37)

how is kyoto? any plans for your first full day there? ^.^

From Tadashi (12:42)

did you get in okay last night?

From Tadashi (22:20)

tsukki i can’t tell if this is you ignoring messages like usual or if something happened on your way to kyoto/the hotel. please just let me know you’re okay when you get the chance i’m already looking up local news in kyoto to make sure there aren’t any articles about unidentified tall guys in an accident or who collapsed on the street

From Kei (22:22)

you worry too much. yes, i made it in safe.

From Kei (22:23)

sorry. i meant to answer earlier. 

From Tadashi (22:23)

i figured you probably don’t feel like talking. i just wanted to be sure you were okay

From Kei (22:24)

i know. thank you for checking in. i didn’t do anything special today. it’s cold so i took a short walk and then stayed inside reading.

From Tadashi (22:25)

fun reading?

From Kei (22:25)

yes, fun reading. also you should get some sleep. i know you have work tomorrow.

From Tadashi (22:26)

ohh look who’s worrying now O.O

From Kei (22:26)

you’re impossible.

From Tadashi (22:27)

but you love me anyway!!!!

From Kei (22:27)

go to bed, yamaguchi

From Tadashi (22:28)

^.^ love you too tsukki

 

-

 

It’s three in the morning and Kei is sick of staring at the wall in the darkness of the room. Even the headphones clasped over his ears aren’t providing any solace, Kei’s brain sluggishly, frustratingly awake.

-yet true altruism is impossible to prove, given findings on the instinct to preserve genetic diversity in addition to biological relations-

Kei buries his face in his pillow, internally screaming even though all he lets out is a quiet groan. He pulls off his headphones, raking his hand through his hair before sliding his glasses on and stumbling up. He leaves his futon in disarray from all of his tossing and turning and slides on the slippers by the door.

-if the action is still ultimately intended to further the survival of their group-

Kei makes his way down the hall slowly given that the only light provided is the moon bleeding in through the windows. The inn is still unfamiliar, but Kei tries to remember Sakomoto’s brief tour yesterday, retracing his steps until he finds himself in the small, cold courtyard encircled by the guest wings of the inn. 

He stops, though, after taking a few steps down off the porch.

Kageyama is sitting with his back against the raised platform along the east wing. He’s wearing his blue parka, and his eyes are piercing as they lock on Kei.

A small part of Kei wants to simply turn around and leave, but he has no desire to go back to his room. That, and Kageyama has already seen him anyway. And he’s thankfully not trying to greet him.

Kei walks through the dead garden, flowers withered after so many freezes this year, and sits on the ledge opposite Kageyama, though he faces the back wall of the inn’s property. He leans his head back against a column and takes a slow breath.

The frigid air stings at his lungs, sharp little pinpricks in his chest.

He used to take walks in the early hours of the morning - or late hours of the night, depending on how someone looks at it. He didn’t have a particular direction, or a goal, but he would walk because otherwise his head was so loud it felt like his skull would crack apart from all of the noise. Sometimes walking would bring him too close to an edge.

He curls his hands into fists, the fabric of his loose sweatpants suffocating beneath his fingers.

-never going to finish, all that work for nothing, so useless, so stupid-

“Hey.”

The word is like a bucket of icy water dumped over Kei’s head, and he takes in a sharp breath, eyes flicking to Kageyama in the darkness. “What?”

“You want one?” Kageyama lifts up something from his lap. 

“No,” Kei says, though he has no idea what it actually is. He doesn’t want to talk to Kageyama. He doesn’t. He just doesn’t want to be left alone with his thoughts either. “What is it?”

“Yakult.” Kageyama tosses it to him, and Kei fumbles briefly with one hand before he catches it.

“I didn’t say I wanted it.”

Kageyama frowns at him. “It’s yakult.”

Kei’s lips curl in annoyance before he glances down at the little pink yogurt bottle. His hands are cold, knuckles turning a pale red that nearly matches the yakult. He shivers slightly in the cold before peeling off the top of the yogurt and tipping it back. 

Strawberry. 

Summers in Miyagi with Tadashi, strawberry panapp from the convenience store between their houses, sun beating down on the back of their necks as they sat in the grassy field outside the school.

Kei’s chest hurts, but it’s an ache this time. He doesn’t mind that kind of hurt as much.

“Thanks,” Kei mutters, though he’s not sure it’s loud enough for Kageyama to hear anyway.

The two of them sit outside in the cold, Kei’s occasional shiver, Kageyama nestled in his parka staring off into space. 

 

-

 

They never talk. Sometimes Kageyama has yakult, or an extra box of milk that he tosses to Kei. They still sit at different tables if they’re in the dining room at the same time for breakfast, but at night, when everyone else is asleep, they keep silent company in the courtyard.

Kei leaves the inn occasionally when he hears a voice in the back of his head that sounds far too much like Tadashi’s wheedling that he should be at least seeing some of the sights. It’s just hard when the busses are crowded and Kei struggles to breathe with the press of bodies around him, or when he’s hit with a wave of dread because he’s at Kiyomizudera at night and it’s beautiful, but he’s not in Tokyo huddled up his apartment editing his thesis.

The anxiety medication that the doctor prescribed for ‘taking as needed’ goes mostly unused, but there are times when Kei’s lungs burn and his hands won’t stop shaking and he swallows one dry, waits for half an hour before the trembling stops and he feels a little less like his heart is in his throat, suffocating him.

Maybe Kei should be annoyed that Kageyama is there, even at night, even when the rest of the city is sleeping.

For whatever reason he’s not. Not really.

 

-

 

It’s a little before noon on Saturday, and Kei slides his hands into the pair of gloves that his mother gave him on his birthday last year, a pale brown knit. He can hear voices as he walks into the hall and locks the door to his room behind him, slipping the key into the pocket of his coat.

“-an autograph, if that’s alright?” it’s a woman’s voice in the lobby, definitely not Sakamoto.

There’s a quiet response that Kei can’t quite make out, but the mumbling is familiar enough. Kageyama, though Kei isn’t sure why someone would want his autograph.

“My brother plays, too,” someone else says, and Kei rounds the hallway and finds himself in the lobby with Kageyama, a young man and woman, and a bulging suitcase, Sakamoto nowhere in sight. “Not professionally, of course. But he was really upset when he heard you were injured.”

Kei blinks, though he continues forward around the small impromptu gathering to where the guest’s keep their shoes in a row of wooden lockers. 

It clicks then. Kageyama Tobio, volleyball, the Schweiden Adlers. 

Kei stopped following professional volleyball years ago, but Tadashi had games on television sometimes when Kei was over. Kageyama was a big deal, Kei thinks.

The woman laughs nervously. “But we’re all wishing you a quick recovery, aren’t we, dear?”

“Huh? Yeah, of course,” the man answers. “How much longer do you think you’ll be off the court, Kageyama-san?”

“I don’t know.” Kageyama’s voice is quiet, but Kei can hear how it shakes slightly on the last word. “I don’t have a pen.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I have one here,” the woman says, and Kei turns to find her rummaging through her purse.

Kageyama’s face is pale, and his jaw is tight. His hair hangs into his eyes, and it looks like he wants to disappear. 

Kei is familiar with the feeling.

“Kageyama-san,” Kei finds himself calling sharply, because he’s getting second-hand anxiety from the scene. “We’re going to miss the next bus.”

Kageyama’s head jerks up, and he seems to see Kei for the first time. “What?”

“The next bus,” Kei says, now a bit impatient because Kageyama isn’t taking the out. “For Takara-ga-ike Park. If you’re not ready I’ll leave on my own.”

Kageyama blinks once, twice, then bows stiffly to the man and woman who have him practically pinned in against the front desk. “Excuse me.”

Kei steps into his boots while Kageyama hurries to do the same next to him, tightening the laces of his sneakers.

“Oh, well, we’ll see you around then!” the woman calls brightly, and Kageyama’s mouth tightens into an unhappy line.

“Let’s go,” Kei says, and leaves the inn without looking back, a cold gray day greeting him.

He hears the door swing shut and another set of footsteps, and Kageyama catches up with him quickly. He doesn’t say anything, though, and they make it to the stop just as the bus appears further up the street.

Kei can feel the tension radiating from Kageyama, and he chooses to ignore it. The bus squeals to a stand-still in front of them, and Kei gets on board swiftly, Kageyama right behind him.

It’s thankfully near the beginning of the bus route and there are a few empty seats. Kei takes one by the window, and Kageyama sits down beside him.

As the engine rumbles and the bus begins moving again, Kei glances at Kageyama from the corner of his eye.

Kageyama is hunched slightly, and he’s chewing on his lip, hand absently rubbing at his left shoulder.

“You didn’t need to actually come with me,” Kei says flatly. 

Kageyama doesn’t look at him, still staring at his lap. “Did you know?”

Kei frowns. “Know? What, that you’re a famous volleyball player?”

Kageyama grunts a quiet affirmation.

“Surprising as it may be, I didn’t recognize you until today, oh great talented Kageyama.” Kei rolls his head to the side, rubbing at a tense spot in his neck. “And I won’t be asking for an autograph either, so don’t get any ideas.”

Kageyama finally lifts his chin, eyes meeting Kei’s. “I didn’t think you would.”

“Good,” Kei says. He tilts his face to the window, staring out at the row of businesses they’re passing. “If they ambush you again, you should talk to Sakamoto.”

“It’s fine.”

“If you say so.”

They spend the rest of the ride in silence, only broken when Kei mutters, “this is the stop.”

Takara-ga-ike is big enough that there aren’t crowds, even on the weekend. Kei knows the major tourist spots are likely being swarmed right now, but Takara-ga-ike is peaceful. Kageyama keeps pace with Kei, almost like a shadow. A tall, frowning shadow in a blue parka.

They walk one of the paths that cuts through the park and comes out of the trees by the lake. Kei’s breath is visible in the winter air, and he tucks his chin into his scarf, trying to conserve heat. 

Kei begins his way around the lake only to realize Kageyama isn’t in step just behind him, and turns to find Kageyama squatting at the edge of the path with his phone out. A duck waddles near the edge of the lake a few paces away from him.

Kei watches as Kageyama snaps a few pictures before the duck quacks loudly and flaps its wings.

Kageyama immediately stands and takes a few steps back, his expression twisting with something that might be worry. He seems to realize Kei is looking at him and rakes his hand through his hair. “They don’t like me very much.”

“Ducks?” Kei asks incredulously.

There’s pink now, creeping up Kageyama’s cheeks. “Animals.”

Kei almost laughs at Kageyama’s embarrassment. Almost. “It helps if you bring food, you know.”

Kageyama’s brow furrows. “I thought you weren’t supposed to feed ducks. It’s bad for them.”

“Bread is,” Kei says, and he doesn’t know why he’s having this conversation, but it’s the first time he’s really talked to anyone in a week and a half. “You could cut up grapes and bring them. Or frozen peas.”

“Oh,” Kageyama says, and then looks back at where the duck is now waddling off, still fluffing its wings. 

“Come on, it’s cold.” Kei begins walking again, not waiting to see if Kageyama follows. He realizes a few steps later that he’s smiling, small and strange.

“We can find a cafe,” Kageyama says, catching up easily. His hands are shoved in his pockets again. “To warm up.”

Kei doesn’t answer right away. The voice that sounds a lot like Tadashi’s whispers, “you love new cafes. And Kageyama isn’t really that bad of company, is he, Tsukki?”

Shut up Yamaguchi, Kei thinks.

A breeze blows across the lake, rustling the treeline behind them, empty branches and dead grass. 

“Fine,” Kei says. “But nowhere that just serves coffee.” It’s too bitter. Kei’s never liked bitter.

“Okay,” Kageyama answers evenly. His cheeks are still faintly pink. 

Kei is sure it’s because of the winter chill.

 

-

 

From Nii-San (15:43)

I’m thinking about coming to Kyoto to visit! :)

When would be a good time?

From Kei (17:02)

you don’t need to do that.

From Nii-San (17:15)

I’d like to! 

From Nii-San (17:51)

Unless you don’t want company?

From Kei (18:46)

the weather isn’t very pleasant here

but if you want to come that’s fine

From Nii-San (18:51)

How about next weekend?

I’ll have to leave before New Year for work, but maybe you can show me around Kyoto!

From Kei (18:53)

okay. 

From Kei (18:54)

don’t forget to pack a scarf and gloves

i don’t have any extras

From Nii-San (18:55)

I won’t!! 

:) Can’t wait to see you soon!

 

-

 

Kei and Kageyama eat breakfast at separate tables, and sit on opposite edges of the courtyard at night.

So Kei doesn’t expect it when, on the Wednesday after their happen-stance outing, Kageyama knocks on his door.

“What is it?” Kei asks, frowning at Kageyama in the hallway. He’s wearing his blue parka and, what’s less usual, a black backpack. It’s slung over one shoulder, and it makes him look younger. 

“I’m going to go feed the ducks at Takara-ga-ike,” Kageyama says, and he rubs his hand beneath his nose. He doesn’t look Kei in the eye. “You… do you want to come?”

Kei stares at him. Feeding ducks? 

“I got grapes,” Kageyama adds. He shuffles his feet, the inn’s slippers a little too small, leaving his heels to hang off the edge. 

Kei breathes out sharply through his nose. “Did you cut them in half?”

Kageyama shakes his head. “I tore them.”

Kei leans against the doorframe. “If they’re too big of pieces, the ducks can choke on them.”

Kageyama’s eyes grow wide as he looks up at Kei. “They can?”

“Yes,” Kei sighs loudly. “Wait here, I need to grab my jacket. I’ll check the grapes whenever we get to the park to make sure you don’t kill something by accident.”

Kageyama frowns at him. “I’ll check them too.”

“Fine,” Kei says, and steps back into his room. He doesn’t bother closing the door, just reaches for his jacket. He glances back at Kageyama, who’s actually wearing gloves today, waterproof black material stretching over his hands. 

The bus ride is equally quiet, but it’s an easy silence. Kei tips his head back against the seat and closes his eyes until he hears the stop, and this time Kageyama is ready, slipping into the aisle before Kei can tell him to move.

They make their way through the same path they’d covered only a few days before. It’s even less busy today, and the grass around the lake is abandoned. There are a few ducks out, and Kageyama freezes several meters back.

Kei stops and glances over his shoulder at him. “You can get closer.”

Kageyama shakes his head. “I’ll scare them.”

Kei takes a few steps closer to the ducks, who completely ignore him. “They’re used to people. Come on.”

Kageyama moves forward tentatively, swinging his backpack off to open the biggest pocket. He retrieves a plastic bag. “They looked like they’d be sweet,” he says.

It’s ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous. That Kageyama thinks that ducks don’t like him, that he went out to buy grapes to feed them, that he worried over how they would taste when the ducks probably don’t care in the slightest.

Kageyama is ridiculous.

Kei’s never met anyone quite as strange as him.

The grapes are actually decently split, though it’s clear Kageyama pulled them apart rather than use a knife.

Kei sits down in the dead grass, tossing a few grape halves toward the ducks. Kageyama settles down next to him slowly, still seeming like he’s half afraid.

“Have you never had a pet?” Kei finds himself asking as Kageyama carefully tosses a grape toward the group of ducks gathering around them.

“No,” Kageyama says. “I tried to bring home a cat once in the street behind my apartment. It scratched me and ran away.”

Kei doesn’t do well at stifling a snort. “You don’t say.”

Kageyama grimaces at him. “It was cold. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Did you bring some canned tuna? Or jerky? Did you have a box to carry it in?” Kei lists, arching a brow.

Kageyama’s grimace turns into a scowl. “No. Hinata told me later I should’ve done that, too.”

Kei humphs to himself. The name Hinata rings a bell, too. Probably another big volleyball player. He sighs when he sees Kageyama lob a grape half a little too hard at the ground near one of the ducks, which immediately quacks and waddles back. “Gently. You’re not trying to knock them out.”

Kageyama flushes. He seems to turn red easily. “I know.” The next grape half he tosses lands softly a safe distance from the nearest duck. “Did you?”

“Knock out a duck?” Kei squints at Kageyama at the ridiculous question.

“Did you have pets,” Kageyama’s voice is terse, forehead scrunched in concentration as he carefully throws another grape. “Or do you, back home?”

“Not right now,” Kei says. “We had a cat when I was younger. And my friend had a dog that we grew up taking on walks.”

Kageyama grunts in what might be contemplation. Kei doesn’t understand what goes on inside his head. “I never had time, even after I left home. I was always at practice.”

Kei understands that. “I’m in a similar position with school.”

Kageyama looks at him, hair falling into his eyes. “You’re in school?”

“Was,” Kei says, and tosses a grape behind the gathering ducks. They all flock to it. “I was getting my PhD.” 

“Oh,” Kageyama murmurs. “You finished?”

Kei exhales sharply. “No.”

Quiet falls over them again. The bag of grapes rustles as Kageyama digs around in it. “You’re on break too, then.”

Kei pushes his glasses up on his nose with the back of his hand, fingers sticky from natural sugar. His stomach grows unpleasantly tight. It’s not Kageyama’s business. It’s not anyone’s business.

Kageyama doesn’t say anything for a few moments, and Kei thinks the conversation is blessedly over. But then Kageyama mutters, “I don’t know if I’ll go back. If I can go back.”

Kei refuses to look at him, staring out at the lake, a few reeds poking out from the shallow water. Kei will go back. He will. He’ll defend his thesis and graduate and find a job and his life will go back to the way it was.

-faking it, not as good as anyone else here, they all work harder than you, are smarter than you, you’ll never amount to anything-

Kei’s fingers twist into the dead grass beneath him. He hated it. He hated it but he’ll go back. He has to. It’s everything he’s worked toward for so many years. 

“Isn’t there anything other than volleyball?” Kei asks flatly, ignoring the bitter tinge to the question.

“No.” Kageyama’s answer is quick and brief. “I only want to be on the court.”

A blade of grass snaps off into Kei’s hand. What does he want? What does he want?

Kei’s breath goes tight, an iron fist squeezing at his lungs, pushing at his ribs, twisting him up inside. “So simple,” Kei says, and it’s an insult, a shield. It’s also envious. 

Kageyama scowls at him again. “What do you want, then?”

It hurts to breathe. He wants to breathe. He wants to sleep. To rest. He wants for his head to shut up. He wants to remember what it was like to be happy. Kei feels the barely-there weight of the pill bottle in his pocket. “I’m going to get water,” he says, and pushes himself to his feet.

 

 -

 

Akiteru charms Sakamoto immediately. He doesn’t even try to. Kei’s brother has always been warm where Kei was cold, soft where Kei was sharp. He watches as Sakamoto bundles a futon in her arms, emerging from the small room behind the front desk.

“Oh, let me take that, Sakamoto-san,” Akiteru says quickly, stepping forward with his hands outstretched. “Thank you so much.”

“Of course, of course.” Sakamoto passes the pile of blankets over to Akiteru. She beams at him, skin creasing with the smile. Then to Kei, “what a kind brother!”

Kei sighs quietly to himself. “Thank you for the extra futon, Sakamoto-san,” he says. “Come one, Nii-san.”

Akiteru bows to Sakamoto one more time before following Kei down the hall to his room. “At least I can tell Mom that you’re in good hands here in Kyoto.”

“I’m not in anyone’s hands,” Kei mutters irritably as he unlocks his door. There’s barely enough space to lay another futon out, but fortunately Akiteru packed light, just a duffel bag that fit on top of the chest. 

The starling with the broken wing is just outside Kei’s window again, fluffed from the cold. 

“Do you have any favorite restaurants we could go to for dinner?” Akiteru asks once the room is set up, both of them sitting on Akiteru’s futon. 

Kei hasn’t gone out to eat since he arrived in Kyoto. The convenience store next door and the bakery down the street have been good enough the last two weeks. “No. You can choose.”

Akiteru nods happily, and he and Kei set out in the fading light for a curry house within walking distance of the inn. 

He talks about the weather.

Says it’s cold.

Asks if Kei has been staying warm.

Kei knows that he’s trying, but never knows how to really answer. How to mend a bridge that was damaged and then left derelict and crumbling for years. How to be the brother that Akiteru wants - someone bright and talkative and open. 

“How is Saeko-san?” Kei tries asking as they sit down at a back table in the restaurant, red linoleum tables and paneled floors. The question is stilted and awkward. 

“Good!” Akiteru answers, and his eyes curve with his smile. “We’re still settling on a date for the summer. Do you think you would be able to make something in Miyagi at the beginning of August?”

Kei would make any date Akiteru set for his wedding. He doesn’t know why the uncertainty in Akiteru’s tone makes his throat tight. “Of course I would.”

Akiteru still orders his curry mild. He still fusses over Kei not eating very much. He still insists on paying, saying it’s the older brother’s job, just like he did through the rare visits through Kei’s time in undergraduate school, during his internship, in his PhD program.

“Kei?” Akiteru asks on the walk home. The stars are bright overhead, so much clearer on the edge of Kyoto than they are among Tokyo’s skyscrapers.

“Hm?” 

“How are you doing?” Akiteru’s voice is gentle, tentative. Careful. “Are you feeling any better?”

Kei looks straight ahead. He doesn’t really know the answer. His chest isn’t seizing. He hasn’t had to go to the ER. He feels empty. He’s still not sleeping. “I’m fine,” he settles on. 

It makes his eyes burn.

“Kei?” Akiteru says again, and his hand comes to rest gently on Kei’s arm. 

Kei pulls away, quickening his pace. “It’s cold, nii-san.”

Akiteru sighs quietly, and Kei brushes at his cheeks with the back of his hand before Akiteru can catch up. 

 

-

 

This isn’t Kei’s finest idea, but it’s functional.

What else was he supposed to do to avoid Akiteru prying? If Kageyama is around, then logically, Akiteru won’t bring up anything too sensitive. 

So far, it’s working.

Kageyama still looks slightly confused as to why Kei invited him hiking today, and looks a little confused about why he then agreed, but the three of them are now making their way through the bamboo grove in Arashiyama.

“That’s Kageyama from the Schweiden Adlers,” Akiteru had whispered on their way to the bus stop earlier in the morning.

“I know,” Kei had muttered back, and for whatever reason the reply seemed to be enough for Akiteru to guess that it wasn’t something Kageyama wanted to talk about.

The crowds were to be expected, since it’s a Saturday, but Kei tries to steer them to quieter paths. 

“So how did you and Kei become friends?” Akiteru asks during a slower part of their hike, winding through the bamboo trunks. 

Kei looks back at him sharply, but Kageyama is already answering, “I don’t think we’re friends.”

The confused expression on Akiteru’s face makes Kei snort, and Kageyama glances at Kei. His lips twitch as well.

“Oh,” Akiteru says, rubbing the back of his neck. “So… you’re… sleeping together?”

Kei jerks to a stop, Akiteru nearly running into him. Kageyama seems to choke on his own spit, spluttering into coughs. 

“No,” Kei stares at him as he feels heat rush to his face. “We’re - we just happen to be staying in the same inn.”

“Oh,” Akiteru says again, looking with wide eyes between a still hacking Kageyama and Kei, who is likely the color of a tomato. “Sorry!”

There’s a beat where Kageyama’s cough peters on and the three of them stand there on the path. And then Akiteru chuckles to himself. 

Kei pinches the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “Definitely not my best idea,” he mutters.

But then there’s a weird, scratchy noise, and Kei realizes that Kageyama is laughing . Maybe laughing is a generous term for it, since it’s more of a rusty cackle. His eyes are crinkled in the corners, and he’s covering his mouth with his hand.

“Your face is red,” Kageyama points out between bark-laugh noises.

“I’m leaving both of you here,” Kei manages, then starts walking again with as much dignity as he can muster. He knows Akiteru is directionally challenged, and Kageyama didn’t seem to be much better on their two trips to Takara-ga-ike. 

His brother and Kageyama are both still chortling to themselves as they catch up, and Kei chooses to ignore them both.

Akiteru’s stupid question seems to have endeared him to Kageyama, however, and now the two of them make only slightly-stilted conversation, Akiteru clearly the only one with actual social skills.

Akiteru tells Kageyama about Saeko and their engagement, about how the family cat misses Kei. He asks Kageyama questions too, though he’s careful. If he’s a fan of Kageyama’s, he must know about the injury. But he doesn’t bring it up. He instead asks how Kageyama has been spending time in Kyoto, what his favorite restaurant is, if he has plans for new year’s eve.

The weather warms slightly as the sun stretches higher into the sky, above the tops of the towering bamboo forest. 

Akiteru insists on taking them both to lunch at the base of the mountain.

Kageyama’s nose is faintly pink from the cold. He watches Akiteru almost curiously when he’s talking. Like he doesn’t understand him.

That would make two of them.

Akiteru also intentionally picks a fight with Kei over their rivalry as kids over who really broke that vase, and Kei rises to the bait, even if it’s with his arms folded over his chest and punctuated with eye rolls.

“He’s a good kid,” Akiteru says when they’re back in Kei’s room for the night, stretched out on their futons.

“He’s not a kid.” Kei frowns. “Isn’t he in his twenties?”

“Twenty-five, same as you,” Akiteru answers, and his voice grows a little softer. “He had a long career in volleyball ahead of him. There was talk about the Olympic team.”

Kei’s jaw tightens as he stares up at the dark ceiling. A flash of annoyance goes through him. Or not annoyance, but something similar to it. The way he feels when he hears that Tadashi’s boss is being shitty to him again. The way he felt in high school when he walked in the classroom to two idiots in their grade tossing Tadashi’s lunch bag back and forth while Tadashi’s eyes were glassy with tears. Except Akiteru isn’t a bully Kei can sneer at, and the problem is Kageyama’s injury anyway. “He said he’s going back.”

“Really?” Akiteru asks, and he sounds genuinely surprised. “I didn’t think his shoulder would ever fully recover.”

His shoulder. Kei remembers seeing Kageyama rub at it sometimes. 

“I don’t know,” Kei mutters, and rolls over on his side. Kageyama said there was nothing for him but the court. Kei’s never had a dream like that. Not one he’s followed. Not one he’s clung to. He learned so long ago that having a dream was breaking your own heart. 

“Well, I hope he does get back to volleyball,” Akiteru says quietly.

Kei doesn’t answer.

Hope is the dangerous part of dreams, after all.

 

-

 

From Tadashi (7:54)

tsukkiiii i miss you!!

how was your weekend with onii-san?

From Kei (8:21)

it was fine.

and i guess i miss you too

From Tadashi (8:22)

tsukki

can i come down to kyoto?

From Kei (8:23)

i know you’re saving time off for the spring.

i think i’ll come back after new year

From Tadashi (8:24)

are you sure? 

i don’t mind taking a couple days if it’s to see you

From Kei (8:24)

i’m sure. i’m fine, yamaguchi

I’ll be back in tokyo soon

From Tadashi (8:25)

okay… but if you change your mind you have to let me know

From Kei (8:26)

sure

From Tadashi (8:26)

i mean it!!!!

From Kei (8:26)

yamaguchi

From Tadashi (8:27)

okay okay

love you

From Kei (8:27)

you too

 

-

 

“Your brother is nice,” Kageyama says.

It’s a little after two in the morning, and the courtyard is even colder than it is most nights. 

Kei shivers. “You should’ve joined his fan club before he left.”

Kageyama makes a confused noise, and Kei isn’t looking across at the porch, but he’s pretty sure Kageyama is furrowing his brow like he does so often. “He has a fan club?”

“My friend is the president.” Kei snorts quietly. Tadashi has always loved Akiteru. “I’m sure you can come up with a slogan for t-shirts.”

There’s a beat where Kageyama must figure out that Kei’s joking, because he huffs. “Do you not get along?”

Kei shrugs. “I don’t know. We don’t fight, if that’s what you’re asking. Don’t you have siblings?”

“An older sister,” Kageyama says. “She’s nice too. Just in a different way.”

Kei fidgets with the milk box in his hands. Kageyama had brought him one again. He doesn’t know why Kageyama keeps giving him snacks when they’re out here like this. “Less in your face with the niceness?”

“Your brother wasn’t in my face,” Kageyama answers, and Kei can hear the fabric of his parka rustling as he curls up in the cold. “My sister isn’t as open with people. Neither of us are.”

“I see.” 

“She was the one who got me into volleyball,” Kageyama says after a moment. “We used to play out in the street in front of my grandfather’s house.”

Kei closes his eyes, the chill settling into his skin. “My brother taught me how to play volleyball, too.”

“You play?”

“Only in the beginning of middle school.”

“Why did you stop?”

Kei breathes out heavily, opens his eyes and tilts his head back to the blanket of stars. “It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t very good anyway.”

“Then you could’ve gotten better.”

Kei laughs under his breath, short and bleak. He looks over at Kageyama to find him frowning. “And if better still wasn’t good? If I kept holding onto it because I loved it even though it wasn’t meant for me? If I didn’t make the team cut but lied about it to my family so they didn’t wonder why I was spending so much time on something I wanted to do but couldn’t ?”

Kageyama’s lips part slightly, eyes piercing even in the darkness, even beneath the curtain of his hair. “But what if you could?”

Kei scoffs. “My brother couldn’t. He was the one who tried to keep playing and ended up in the stands. It’s not worth it.”

“You’re wrong.” Kageyama’s voice shakes. He shivers violently beneath his parka. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kei laughs again, chokes around it. “Oh, I think I do.”

Kageyama stands, his hands clenched into fists at his side. He seems small, though, across the courtyard in the dead of winter. “It’s not over until you give up.”

Kei shakes his head. He can feel his lungs tightening. He can feel the pinpricks of pain shooting through his chest. He hates it. He hates it. “It’s over the moment you care enough to let it hurt you.”

-identify the nature of the distress or the need, and then preventative steps could be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of-

“And you don’t care about anything, do you?” Kageyama hisses. His eyes are overbright, glistening. “Or anyone.” He stares at Kei for another heartbeat, and then he turns on his heel and storms away. Kei hears the door slam behind him.

-care and compassion are still basic motivations. The evolution of this behavior-

“Fuck,” Kei whispers. He rests his forehead on his knees, clasping his shaking hands around his legs. “Fuck.”

 

-

 

From Kei (4:29)

i fucked up

From Tadashi (6:03)

are you okay?

From Kei (6:05)

yes. sorry for messaging so early.

don’t worry about it

Incoming Call from Tadashi (6:05)

[1 hour 14 minutes]

 

-

 

It’s New Year's Eve.

Kei ate breakfast alone in the dining room. He knocked on Kageyama’s door, but no one answered. He tried to read in his room. He laid down and curled up beneath a blanket. He took one of his ‘as needed’ anxiety medications. He tried knocking on Kageyama’s door again. He put on headphones and listened to music.

The sun sets and Kei feels like he did on the way back from the ER nearly two months ago, Tadashi at the wheel. Like someone had pulled him apart, scraped him empty, left the walking and talking Tsukishima Kei in one piece, but without anything inside.

He didn’t even like his thesis, or his advisors, or his whole PhD program. He’d chosen it because he was good enough at it. He knew it’s what he could do.

He still drove himself into the ground. Still panicked before every exam and then every review. Still spent hours pouring over mistakes he made on an assignment, or an article that was rejected from an academic journal.

Maybe it ran in the family.

That horrible, impossible need to love something, to want someone, no matter how hard you try not to.

It’s dark outside again. Kei waits in the courtyard. Midnight passes. Kei can hear the bell ringing in the shrine not far from the inn, twelve clear, sharp tolls. 

Kei’s world is hazy, eyes drooping, when he hears a door to the courtyard slide open. He doesn’t look back, but sits still, staring into the night. Into the new year.

“Tsukishima.” 

Kei’s breath shakes slightly as he draws it into his lungs, no longer on the verge of restless sleep. He turns his face to the side.

Kageyama is standing there in his blue parka. 

“Kageyama.”

“I’m sorry,” Kageyama says. His eyes meet Kei’s unflinchingly. “What I said last night. I was angry. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

Kei feels his chest tighten. He tries to keep his face blank, and it’s easier with the cold numbing his cheeks. “Why are you apologizing?”

Kageyama frowns slightly. “Because it wasn’t true.”

“What?”

“I know that you care. About your brother. Your friend Yamaguchi. Your family cat and the ducks at the park,” Kageyama says stiltedly. “I know that.”

Kei stares, and any hope he had at maintaining indifference, at acting like he didn’t care about his own apology, about this strange  man he’s only known for a few weeks. His eyes burn. “Kageyama. I know about your shoulder. I know and I said what I did to hurt you. Because I don’t understand it. You shouldn’t apologize to me.”

Kageyama is silent for a few moments. “It did hurt.”

“I know. I’m… I’m sorry.” Kei’s throat is too tight. It hurts to breathe. “You deserve to play again. And I think you’re stubborn enough to make it.”

“I will,” Kageyama says, but it’s a whisper. 

Kei swallows, painful and raw and still too close to tears. “Yeah.”

Kageyama stands there in his blue parka, and Kei knows that he cares about him. He doesn’t understand why. But maybe he’s not meant to.

“Hatsuhinode.”

Kei’s hands are shaking as he pushes his glasses up. “What about it?”

“Let’s go see it.”

Kei pulls his phone out of the pocket of his coat. He’s pretty sure Kageyama can see how his fingers are trembling as he taps the screen. “It’s only two in the morning.”

“I want to watch it from Fushimi Inari.”

Kei blinks at him. Kageyama stares back.

“Fine.”

Kageyama seems to hesitate for a moment, and then he holds out a gloved hand. 

The sharp pain in his lungs fades into an ache that whispers through his chest, spreading like too much ink on calligraphy paper. 

Kei takes his hand and stands. “I need to change. And we’ll have to get a taxi.”

“Okay,” Kageyama says. His eyes are fixed on their hands, both covered in gloves, loosely clasped. 

It’s impulsive.

It’s stupid, and something that Kei doesn’t really get. A sunrise is just a sunrise, even if it's the first of a year.

But Kageyama’s hand is in his, and he doesn’t seem to intend to let go.

Kei wouldn’t want him to.

 

-

 

They collapse near the mountain’s edge on a rocky overlook, both sweating now despite the frigid air. The city, dark and sleepy, spreads out below them. 

“This was stupid,” Kei mutters, winded. Their arms are brushing.

“Wait until the sun rises.” Kageyama’s voice is quiet, but this close Kei can hear that it’s warm. Can hear the way it rumbles slightly in Kageyama’s chest.

Kei makes an unconvinced noise, but he’s too tired to argue. His eyes sweep over Kyoto beneath the moonlight. He wonders how many people will wake up for the sunrise. How many of them will wish for Toshigama to grant them luck.

“I should finish my thesis this year.” 

Kageyama leans ever so slightly closer. “One of my coaches told me that ‘should’ is a shitty word. Should have, should do. You either did it, or you’ll do it.”

“What a remarkably simplistic take,” Kei murmurs, and Kageyama huffs at him. “Is it really that easy for you?”

“No. But I know what he meant. Should is something that holds us back in the past. Or tied to something ahead. Something we messed up on or something we don’t want to do. It doesn't help.”

Kei exhales heavily. “What if I don’t know what I want to do?”

“There’s something,” Kageyama says, and his brow is furrowed when Kei meets his eyes. “I think… No, I know you want a cat again.”

“A cat?” Kei repeats, frowning. He thinks about it for a moment before giving a short, incredulous laugh. “Fine. That’s not a degree. Or a career.”

“Does it have to be?” Kageyama asks, and he tilts his head to the side. “Why?”

Kei doesn’t have an answer. He looks away again, back to the city, and thinks back to Takara-ga-ike. He wants rest and space to breathe. He wants to get medications that actually help his anxiety. He wants to watch a movie at Tadashi’s apartment. He wants to be there at Akiteru and Saeko’s wedding. He wants to see Kageyama on the court.

“Ah,” Kei says quietly. He smiles to himself for what might be the first time in months. He smiles for himself.

The first traces of pink appear in the distance. 

Kei and Kageyama sit in the silence they both know well. Except that it’s not the dead of night, and they’re not across a cold courtyard.

They’re shivering on the edge of a mountain, but Kageyama’s head is resting lightly on Kei’s shoulder, tentatively. Kei leans into him. 

-often what is feared is also a source of healing-

Kei closes his eyes and thinks about how Kageyama is warm against his side. How his hair smells like pine. How he reaches for Kei’s hand again.

Kei breathes and lets the words rattling around inside of him wash away. When he opens his eyes again, there’s gold beneath the pink, pale blue brushing over the darkness.

You should tell him you think it’s beautiful, Tadashi’s voice prods.

Kei doesn’t. But he does gently squeeze Kageyama’s hand. He squeezes back.

It’s enough.

The sun is overbright as it rises, and Kei squints in the light from behind his glasses. Kageyama lifts his free hand to shield his eyes. Warmth washes over them, two small figures on the side of a mountain in a city of over a million.

“Tsukishima.”

“What?”

“Can I kiss you?”

Kei turns his face toward Kageyama. “You did drag me all the way out here.”

Kageyama huffs quietly. “It’s nice.”

“Fine. Now kiss me before I freeze to death.”

Kageyama’s lips are just as cold as Kei’s, but it doesn’t matter. His eyes are always so sharp, but he kisses so carefully. Every brush of his mouth is gentle, and intentional, and Kei raises a gloved hand and cups Kageyama’s jaw.

I want this.

I want you.

The sun rises on the new year, and the moon sinks back quietly, waiting to keep them company at night once again.

 

-

 

Sakamoto smiles when she sees them sitting at the same table for breakfast.

Kei answers a few emails while Kageyama is out on a run, and Kageyama kisses him when he gets back.

The starling outside Kei’s window flies , crooked wing healed.

Tadashi picks Kei up at the bus station in Tokyo.

The sun rises and sets and rises and sets, and Kageyama goes back to training across the city, and comes by Kei’s apartment, and does his physical therapy exercises with a scowl on his face in Kei’s tiny living room.

Kei defends his thesis and graduates and then gets a job tutoring at a local after-school academy. Maybe he’ll go back to research and conferences and publish articles again. Maybe. But not this year.

He goes to a different doctor. He tries new medications. He starts to sleep a little better some nights.

When he doesn’t sleep well, he has company.

Kageyama kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him. Kei kisses back. Grades his students’ homework with Kageyama’s chin hooked over his shoulder on the floor of Kageyama’s bedroom. Kageyama does it even when Kei complains that he’s making it difficult to mark the papers. Both of them know he doesn’t actually care.

They go to Akiteru and Saeko’s wedding.

They bicker, and they cook together, and they buy grapes for the ducks, Kageyama buys yakult for Kei, and they rescue a cat who loves Kageyama more than anything.

Kei watches Kageyama’s return to the court. He watches in the stands with Akiteru and Saeko and Tadashi. He watches Kageyama, so bright that it almost hurts to watch him. But the hurt is an ache, and a good kind.

He visits Kyoto on a late December weekend, gray skies and Kageyama’s hand in his, birthday wishes on his lips this time. The ryokan is small and familiar, and Sakamoto greets them both by saying, “welcome home.”

And Kei learns how to breathe again.