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Chasing Paper Suns

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i.

“‘I love three things,’ I then say. ‘I love a dream I once had,
I love you, and I love this patch of earth.’
‘And which do you love the most?’
‘The dream.’”

 

 

When the results for the Japan men’s national volleyball team tryouts come out, Hajime is torn between being happy for his best friend (Oikawa made the cut) and mind-numbing disappointment (Hajime didn’t), although to claim that he is surprised would be a gross stretch of the imagination. ‘You could try again next year,’ is what people tell him, all clumsy consolations and averted glances, but Hajime knows that the chances of him getting scouted after a first failure are atrociously slim. His professional volleyball career has been irrevocably doomed to failure even before it has started, and the prospect leaves him more angry than upset.

Oikawa doesn’t spare him pitying glances or feeble words, doesn’t even try to avoid the topic, and for that Hajime is thankful—they’ve never tiptoed around any issue before, so why start now? Hajime understands, more than anyone else, why he has failed where Oikawa has succeeded; Oikawa as a volleyball player is outstanding in ways that Hajime cannot, will never, emulate. This has nothing to do with skills or talent; Oikawa Tooru is no more genius than Hajime is. This has nothing to do with ambition either, because Hajime, too, has carried youthful dreams the size of mountains. It’s just—unlike Oikawa, Hajime has never had himself wrecked with single-minded determination to win at all costs, has never had his entire being distilled into a single, all-consuming thread of longing. He has never understood, and does not care to understand, the seduction of Kamikaze missions, the allure of hurtling at terminal velocity towards a goal as elusive and abstract as perfection.

Yet it all comes down to this in the end.

A boy grows up accepting no title other than the best, only to be hit with the bitter realisation that he is not, cannot match up to a genius; he reconciles to that with a belief that there are things greater than talent. He forges on, armed with a sort of dogged resolve that toes the line between laudable determination and laughable foolhardiness. Success follows, but only after a long journey, and not without significant compromise. That Oikawa Tooru is not a genius is both a blessing and a curse.

(And just because Hajime understands why he has failed where Oikawa has succeeded, it does not make things any easier—it cannot drive away the haziness unfurling in his heart.)

Some days Hajime likes to think of himself as Oikawa’s counterpart—the two of them blending into a single devastating unit, the invincible setter and his unyielding ace, the bond between them unbreakable and true. Other days he feels like he is chasing after a rising sun, always running and running with his eyes fixed on the distance, trying to cross a chasm that stretches on without end, caught in an endless and exhausting pursuit.

 

 

The day before Oikawa leaves Miyagi for Tokyo, where his training centre is located, Hajime meets him for a meal. He passes Oikawa a couple of new knee guards, because he knows that Oikawa will probably never bother to replace them when his old ones wear out. He’s really picky about it, too—he doesn’t use any brand other than the one Hajime had bought him. It is less parting sentimentality than it is practical concern borne out of habit on Hajime’s part, but Oikawa all but tears up, anyway.

‘You’re so nice to me, Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says, scrunching his nose up in a mock sniff. ‘Are you trying to make it harder for me to leave?’

‘Please leave and never come back,’ Hajime mutters, and it earns an indignant ‘Iwa-chan!’ and a friendly punch onto his shoulder. Hajime makes it a point to retaliate with his usual fervour, as if to say, look, don’t worry, nothing has changed and nothing will change, as if it is something he has to prove.

‘Hey,’ Hajime begins, after a period of silence broken occasionally by Oikawa slurping noisily at his coffee, ‘you’d better not tire yourself too much there. I don’t want to have to go all the way to Tokyo to bring your sorry ass to the hospital if you collapse again.’

‘And here we have Iwaizumi Hajime, mother of the year—’

‘I’m going to foot the bill,’ Iwaizumi growls while glaring at Oikawa, and hastily leaves his seat, since it is the only alternative to stabbing Oikawa in the face with a dessert fork. They make their way out of the restaurant some time later, after a brief and embarrassing tussle in front of the cashier, both of them scrambling to foot the bill, and step into the noisy streets teeming with people on a Sunday night.

‘So, this is it,’ Oikawa says grandly, gesturing with his hands and tilting his head up to gaze at the skies in an atrociously melodramatic manner; Hajime almost rolls his eyes to the back of his head, writhing inwardly with second-hand embarrassment. ‘We’re going to have to part forever. Will you miss me, Iwa-chan?’

‘You’ll be back in a few months so no, not really,’ Hajime deadpans, and it’s not exactly far from truth. They’ve known each other for almost fourteen years now, but sometimes it feels like they’ve been together since they were born, and then even beyond that—it's something indelible and visceral, something unbound by chronology and space. Not being around Oikawa is a concept as foreign to Hajime as having an appendage or a bodily organ removed. Does one pine after a misplaced kidney? Hajime finds the prospect rather unlikely.

‘Iwa-chan, you’re such a terrible liar,’ Oikawa says, smile never leaving his face, but there’s a certain vulnerability in his expression, a barely perceptible tremble in his voice that Hajime pretends not to notice for both their sakes, ‘if you’re going to miss me, you can just be open about it.’

‘I’m not—’

‘Maybe if you begged me hard enough, I might change my mind about everything,’ Oikawa continues, leaning forward, his breath fogging up in the cold winter air. His tone is light and airy, but there is nothing insincere about the way his eyes are scrutinising Hajime anxiously. Hajime draws upon the Oikawa-translator ingrained deep within the recesses of his brain and realises that Oikawa might be giving him a chance to reach out and make him stay. The idea is unrealistic as it is ludicrous, and Hajime almost laughs aloud at the thought of Oikawa dropping everything and staying for him. Hajime doesn’t take the bait for obvious reasons—it’s probably Oikawa’s apprehension speaking; he’s always been prone to making extremely stupid split-second decisions in the face of pressure—and they don’t mention it again during their time together that night.

 

 

In the nights to come, Hajime will replay that scenario repeatedly in his head with crystal clear clarity. Should he have said something then, reached out and held Oikawa back? Maybe if Hajime were a little more selfish. Would it have made a difference? Not that these things matter when it really comes down to it; it is not in Hajime’s position to make Oikawa stay.

Oikawa is nineteen and blazing with the incandescence of a wayward sun—and how could Hajime possibly anchor the sun?

 

 

 ii.

 

“Time was passing like a hand waving from
a train I wanted to be on.
I hope you never have to think about anything as much as I think about you.”

 

 

After what seemed like a long period of time but was in fact just one-and-a-half days, during which he was decidedly not eyeing the phone obsessively, Hajime receives a call from Oikawa.

‘You picked up on the first ring, Iwa-chan,’ comes Oikawa’s voice over the phone, bright and breezy as always. ‘Were you waiting for my call this whole time?’

‘Shut up,’ Hajime murmurs. Oikawa’s probably smiling smugly now; scratch that, Hajime knows for a fact that Oikawa is gloating at his phone right now. ‘How’s the new place?’

‘Pretty good, but I’ve been so busy,’ Oikawa hums. ‘I moved in to my new apartment, and I met my teammates yesterday.’ It takes a while for Hajime to register the fact that he’s no longer included in Oikawa’s definition of a teammate, and the knowledge settles at the back of his mind a little sourly, like a piece of something gone bad.

‘What’re they like?’ Hajime asks, because he’s not—he’s not jealous or wistful or anything. He really isn’t.

‘A bunch of intense geniuses,’ Oikawa says, and there is a familiar fieriness to his voice, a lingering bitterness that does not escape Hajime. He frowns.

‘You’d better not get carried away again,’ Hajime says in a warning tone, because encounters with geniuses do not sit well with Oikawa, and now he’s being thrown into a pit teeming with them. Hajime thinks he’s never come across a more successful recipe for catastrophe, where Oikawa is concerned.

‘Iwa-chan, my being here means that I have to eat and breathe and sleep volleyball.’ There is a joking quality to Oikawa’s voice, and yet Hajime almost flinches, because—of course. That fanatical drive is half the reason why Oikawa’s in the team, anyway, and why he isn’t; Hajime should’ve known better. It’s just.

‘You know what I mean, dumbass.’

‘Alright, alright,’ Oikawa relents, although Hajime knows Oikawa’s saying it mostly to placate him. ‘Anyway—I’ve got to go, I have another briefing to attend in ten minutes.’

And because Hajime is not the clingy sort, he doesn’t say already?, doesn’t say but we’ve barely spoken for two minutes. ‘Alright, bye, Oikawa.’

‘Goodnight, Iwa-chan. I miss you and I’m sure you miss me too, even though you’d rather die than admit that,’ Oikawa says cheekily, hanging up the phone before Hajime can protest against the last statement. And in spite of everything—of the four hundred miles that span between them, and phone calls that make for poor substitutes of Oikawa’s larger-than-life self—Hajime finds himself placing down the phone with a smile.

 

 

Hajime has never been the sort to whine about his failures (Oikawa whines enough for the both of them and possibly half the populace of Japan), so he delves right into looking for an alternative course of action to take. And it’s not like he lacks for choices—he plays volleyball well enough to have a reputation that precedes him, and he’s always done well enough academically to qualify for most courses even without his volleyball accomplishments to boot. Eventually he settles on Sendai University—it’s close to home, but most importantly, it’s the only university in Northern Japan specialising in Physical Education. Hajime decides that he wants to become a professional volleyball coach; it’s a sudden decision, but certainly not one borne out of desperation or a moment of rashness. Hajime knows that his decision has nothing to do with being rejected by the national team—his love for volleyball is not contingent upon whether or not he’s playing for Japan, and he’s always been good when it comes to training others, anyway.

His parents are reasonably supportive, although it does not escape Hajime that they might’ve had pamphlets for courses like law and medicine lying innocuously around the house for some time now.

Oikawa, on the other hand, is surprisingly encouraging. ‘I was hoping you’d go into that,’ he tells Hajime, when Hajime called Oikawa to inform him of his choice. ‘You were practically the second coach-in-command in high school, y’know. Coach used to joke that you were going to steal his job right under his nose.’

Back in Seijou, Oikawa would lead the team to victory with his fancy speeches and uncanny ability to draw out the best from his teammates, but it was Hajime who’d pushed them to train, pushed them till they wore hardship and tenacity like the names of old friends at the back of their hands, and for that they thrived and improved. Oikawa might’ve been their captain, but Seijou’s volleyball team had been Hajime’s as much as it’d been Oikawa’s.

‘Thanks,’ Hajime says, feeling rather touched by Oikawa’s vouch of confidence. ‘How’re you faring over there?’

‘Still a benchwarmer, that’s for sure,’ Oikawa tells him with surprising grace; Hajime finds himself straining a little to detect traces of envy, but it doesn’t come, not even a hint of wistfulness.

‘It’s only natural,’ Hajime says, tentatively. ‘You’re new at this, they’re not gonna—’

‘You don’t have to explain that to me, you know. Of course I’m not going to make it to the top in a day,’ Oikawa cuts in cheerily. ‘I might not have talent or that much experience, but I’m going to work my way up.’

In that one sentence, Hajime realises: they’re not the same people any more.

‘Yeah, dumbass,’ Hajime says, pride swelling in his chest like a miniature sun. ‘Yeah, of course you are.’

 

 

The next few months pass by in a haze. Chronology slowly loses its meaning when you’re in college; first it blurs a little at the edges, courtesy of caffeine runs and all-nighters, and then it slowly slips away, in between wild parties and the inevitable twenty-hour naps you take after churning out three papers over two days, and just like that—entire months start to pass by, even without Hajime noticing.

Oikawa’s not breezing through his training, either. He spends every single waking hour in the gymnasium, doesn’t rest on weekends, and Hajime has half a mind that he’s probably sneaking in extra training sessions at night, too. He doesn’t call Oikawa out on that, though, because Oikawa seems to be coping well enough. He does drop gentle (not that they do gentle) reminders now and then: are you eating enough? Why are you having cup noodles for dinner again? Your eyebags look like they can hide a corpse in them. Dumbass, if you’re so tired you should just go and sleep, I’m ending the call now

But it’s okay, Hajime thinks as he finds himself looking at the curly crop of Oikawa’s head through a fuzzy computer screen one day, after Oikawa had dozed off right in the middle of Hajime telling him about a particularly difficult paper. Even if they might appear to be growing apart, Hajime knows that their roots run deeper, are tied more inextricably, than what the naked eye can see. And it might take some time, but they are getting there.

 

 iii.

 

“You turn towards meteor showers in August,
wishing yourself like that:
bright and burning wholly out.”

 

 

Oikawa comes back for short visit during Hajime’s summer break; if he’d been a pseudo-celebrity back in high school, he seems to have attained full blown celebrity status now, much to Hajime’s eternal bafflement (although Oikawa is quick to dismiss the sentiment as jealousy.) Hajime’s not particularly bothered by it, though. It just means having to deal with even more fangirls, an increasing population of fanboys consisting middle school and high school volleyball enthusiasts, and consequently Oikawa’s ever-inflating ego.

What does bother him, however, is—

‘You know, you haven’t been off your laptop the whole time you’re here,’ Hajime says one day, when they’re sprawled in Hajime’s bedroom like lazy kittens, eating slices of chilled watermelon in a vain attempt to combat the relentless summer heat.

Oikawa briefly turns away from the volleyball match on his laptop screen long enough to flash Hajime an apologetic smile, and Hajime’s fingers itch to just slam the laptop shut. ‘Sorry, Iwa-chan! It’s just that everyone’s probably training while I’m slacking here, and—’

A cushion sails across the room and hits the nape of Oikawa’s neck. ‘Dumbass, can’t you just put down the laptop for thirty minutes?’

‘Aw, come on, Iwa-chan.’ Oikawa reaches his hand to his back to scratch the spot where the cushion hit him. His hands are red and raw and peeling, Hajime notices. He catches a flash of mottled purple on pale skin underneath Oikawa’s sleeves, and realises that Oikawa’s been wearing long sleeves ever since he’d returned from Tokyo, despite the killer heat. Sudden realisation dawns upon Hajime.

‘Hey,’ Hajime says, and Oikawa must’ve picked up the change in Hajime’s tone because he looks up sharply. ‘Let me look at your arms.’

‘What?’ There’s a sudden defensive edge to Oikawa’s tone that Hajime doesn’t miss. ‘Don’t be silly, Iwa-chan, are you worried that my arms are getting more toned and buff than yours because they are

Hajime leans forward, and Oikawa tries to pull back but it’s too late. Hajime yanks up the sleeves to reveal a perturbing assortment of bruises, ugly patches of blue and green and yellow and purple. Underneath them, the skin is red and inflamed.

‘Jesus,’ Hajime says, looking up. Oikawa hurriedly yanks his arm away, and rolls the sleeve down in a quick motion.

‘Oh, come on,’ Oikawa says dismissively, although he’s carefully avoiding Hajime’s gaze. ‘It’s not like you’ve never gotten a few bruises from training before.’

‘Are you kidding me,’ Hajime fumes incredulously. ‘A few bruises? A few? Because it looks like you have more bruises than actual skin.’

‘Iwa-chan, it’s not like—it’s not like I really have a choice,’ Oikawa says, finally looking up, and because it’s truly a shitty excuse the words come out more like an apology than anything else. ‘Let’s not fight over this, it’s so rare that we can hang out and this isn’t worth getting upset over.’

Hajime closes his eyes. Lets out a shaky breath. Tries not to think about wringing someone’s neck.

‘Fine,’ Hajime says. He reaches out and flips down the screen of the laptop; it closes with a satisfying click. ‘In exchange, you’re not gonna touch the stupid laptop for the next hour.’

‘Alright, Iwa-chan.’ Relief floods over Oikawa’s features.

They do not speak about it for the rest of the day; Hajime thinks that silence is a remarkably useful defense mechanism against the unease festering in the pits of his gut, against the sinking knowledge that this—this is only a prelude to something familiar and terrible, the prologue to that inevitable capturing spiral.

 

 

Summer comes and goes like a flighty, ethereal lover, a secret tryst of sorts, and Hajime finds himself spending more and more time occupied by college life. Likewise, Oikawa dives back to training with renewed vigour, determined to make up for the week of holiday spent in Miyagi.

Hajime’s halfway through the term when he receives a phone call on a particularly trying Thursday—or is it Wednesday?—night, exhausted from back-to-back lectures, fastidious professors, and half-hearted phone conversations.

It’s from Kitagawa Daiichi.

‘Our current coach will be stepping down soon,’ the teacher-in-charge tells him over the phone. ‘We’re pressed for a new coach, so he referred us to you.’

‘Oh,’ Hajime says. He blinks. ‘Oh, I’m kind of in the middle of the term right now...’ Hajime knows that’s only half the truth. The other half: some reminders hit too close to home.

‘Ah, I see,’ teacher-in-charge says with obvious disappointment. ‘That’s alright then.’

‘How about you drop me the details? Give me a few days to consider,’ Hajime says, mostly out of politeness, and also because he feels a little bad.

‘Sure, no problem,’ teacher-in-charge says. Hajime doesn’t think about it again for the rest of the day.

 

 

Iwaizumi has been following the broadcasted matches of the national team religiously ever since Oikawa made it to the team, but it’s not something he tells Oikawa, mostly because Oikawa has never had the chance to play in an official game. Not yet, Hajime corrects himself quickly. He does catch glimpses of Oikawa now and then—when the athletes are streaming into the court, when the camera zooms past the bleachers, when they’re taking team shots, but that’s about it. So when Oikawa finally makes it onto the court after both the setter and the reserve setter meet with unfortunate mishaps, Hajime finds himself perched right at the edge of his crummy sofa, clutching it so hard that his nails work crescent imprints into the cheap leather.

Oikawa starts off with a serve, and Hajime thinks he can’t breathe because when was the last time he’d seen that? He almost doesn’t recognise the serve, if not for the familiar arc of its trajectory, and then he realises—it’s the exact serve, but with twice the speed, and powered by a sort of raw, incredible power he never knew Oikawa had. The ball sails through the air and lands in the opposite court with deadly accuracy. Within a split second, however, the opposing team’s libero has shot underneath the ball, and returns it into the air with disturbing ease.

Hajime catches himself frowning. Wait—it was a brilliant serve—how could the libero have saved it so easily?

The game progresses on, and Hajime feels his breath hitching with each ball tossed with pin-point accuracy, each awe-inspiring serve. There’s something faintly unpleasant nagging at the back of his mind, though, becausefor all their brilliance, Oikawa’s serves and tosses don’t seem to be actually scoring any points.

A whistle blows, and the original setter enters the court in place of Oikawa. Hajime lets out a shaky breath; he feels a wetness trickling down his hands and spreading across the front of his shirt, only to look down to see that he’s been gripping the can of soda so tightly that he’s spilled half the syrupy drink over himself.

Realisation washes upon Hajime like a splash of cold water to the face. It’s not that Oikawa’s not brilliant; he is. It’s just—everyone else is, too, more so than Oikawa. And judging from the way Oikawa's walking out of the court, the miserable, defeated droop of his shoulders evident even through a television screen, Hajime reckons that he'd realised that, too. Hajime turns off the television, and spends the rest of the day ignoring the queasiness sitting in his stomach.

 

 

He calls Oikawa that night, punching in the numbers he knows by heart because it’s a faster alternative to scrolling through his phonebook and looking for Oikawa’s contact.

Oikawa picks up on the third ring. ‘Iwa-chan,’ he says. It comes out like a quiet, resigned sigh; the words reek of defeat and exhaustion. It’s awful.

‘I caught the match on TV, you were great,’ Hajime says, and means it. And then, a little lamely: ‘You’ve improved so much from last time.’

There’s a protracted silence. Hajime feels like socking himself in the face.

‘The gap… the gap doesn’t seem to be narrowing,’ Oikawa murmurs eventually. ‘No matter how hard I try.’

Hajime winces at the depressingly accurate self-assessment. He wants to say, I should know, I’ve been doing it for eleven years.

‘I miss Seijou. I miss Kitagawa Daiichi,’ Oikawa continues. He pauses. ‘I miss playing with you, Iwa-chan.’ It’s less of a confession than a straightforward statement, candid and entirely devoid of self-pity, made with no expectations of any form of affirmation or reciprocity.

‘Yeah,’ Hajime says anyway, because—that’s the truth. ‘Yeah, me too.’

 

 

When Hajime checks his inbox that night, he sees an email from Kitagawa Daiichi’s volleyball team, titled in bold letters: Request for Volleyball Coach. He sits in the dark, stares at the faint glow of the computer screen for a long time, before formulating a reply.

In the end, it is a simple decision.

 

 

iv. 

 

“So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.”

 

 

Mid-August, Oikawa comes back to Miyagi for a short visit. It’s right in the middle of Hajime’s exam season, and he has three essays and a presentation weighing at the at the back of his mind, but he meets up with Oikawa for lunch, anyway.

‘You look terrible,’ Hajime observes, because Oikawa does. ‘You’re just muscles and bones now. Are they starving you in Tokyo? 

‘You look like you’ve gained weight,’ Oikawa replies teasingly without missing a beat, tapping the edge of his teacup restlessly with a spoon. ‘All the partying and suppers finally starting to show, huh?’

Hajime frowns. ‘I’m serious. You’re over-training again, aren’t you?’ Oikawa’s wearing a long sleeved shirt again, but this time Hajime doesn’t even have to roll the sleeves up to see the bruises lining his arm.

‘Iwa-chan, this isn’t high school volleyball anymore, there isn’t such a thing called over-training, you know,’ Oikawa says, arranging his features into his usual pout, but something feels wrong and off-kilter somehow. There’s a certain tired edge to his voice that says, this isn’t something you might actually know. Says, I don’t expect you to understand where I am now.

‘Fine.’ Hajime’s spooning scoop after scoop of sugar into his coffee now, even though he usually takes it black. He briefly wonders if it’ll make up for the rank bitterness coating his throat like raw bile, stave off the sharp words tethering at the edge of his tongue. ‘You’re right, it’s different now.’

Oikawa blinks. He looks genuinely concerned. ‘Iwa-chan—Iwa-chan, are you—did I do something wrong?’

Yes, Hajime wants to say, and the worst thing is that you didn’t even mean to.

‘Nothing,’ he manages eventually.

Oikawa looks at him intently for a moment, before dropping the topic, and launches into a tirade about a particularly insufferable teammate. The old Oikawa would’ve tried his hardest to pry the discontent out of Hajime, would’ve whined and whined till Hajime had found his whining even more grating than the original issue to begin with. He supposes he should feel relieved about it, but he doesn’t.

Across the table, Oikawa is still halfway through his impassioned recount—’and I told him that I think his personality is as bad as his serves, and let me tell you, his serves are bad’—only pausing briefly to take tentative sips from his Americano.

‘I thought you hated that shit,’ Hajime says, nodding at Oikawa’s drink. ‘Said it tasted like cat piss, and gave you migraines.’

‘I grew out of cappuccinos,’ Oikawa says, by way of explanation, and shrugs.

Of course, Hajime thinks. They’ve grown out of so many things since their childhood: old clothes, alien cartoons, beetle fighting, milk bread. What else is there for them to outgrow? Each other? Am I an affliction for you to grow out of, too, he catches himself thinking, but the words die at the tip of his tongue.

The rest of the meal passes rather uneventfully. When they finally make their way out of the cafe, Iwaizumi feels peculiarly tired. Oikawa’s humming a catchy tune next to him, a sports jingle from years before, and it’s making Iwaizumi’s fingers twitch.

‘Man, I can’t believe I’m flying off tomorrow already,’ Oikawa says, under his breath. But there’s no lingering reluctance, only a sort of restlessness buzzing behind the words, like he can’t wait to actually leave.

‘Two months will pass quickly,’ Iwaizumi replies, right before they part. He does not say, you know, I have a funny feeling you’re not coming back anywhere.

 

 

Oikawa eventually starts appearing more frequently in official games, although his participation is almost always contingent upon someone else getting injured in the first place. He’s improving, Hajime notes, but never nearly fast enough.

Sometimes Oikawa will give a particularly well-timed toss to his teammates, and Hajime’s knee-jerk response will be something along the lines of: we used to do that in high school. Or when his teammates miss a toss: I could’ve spiked that ball. These are not empty statements stemming from wistfulness or jealousy; they have fourteen years of shared memories between them, the product of sweat and tears and whimsical childhood dreams, and maybe even something more. If Hajime’s feeling particularly nostalgic that day, he might even indulge in the belief that so long as Oikawa’s the one tossing, he can call for a toss while blindfolded, and still meet the ball with a clean spike.

And one day, after a particularly heated match—because sometimes he has a habit of harbouring secrets even from himself—Hajime surprises himself by thinking: if we’d stayed together, we could’ve taken on the world.

 

 

Winter rolls along, leaving frozen lakes and barren sakura trees in its wake; before long, the days start to get longer, the nights gradually shorten, and tufts of greenery start to peek out from the ground, coaxed by the gentle sunshine that heralds the beginnings of spring. Having to balance between his courses and college volleyball and coaching middle school students and the occasional meet-up with old friends isn’t an easy task, but for the most part Hajime manages to cope. Everything is fine, it’s just—Hajime thinks he is losing sight of Oikawa all over again.

There will be no sudden transition this time, no heated disagreements like that time in elementary school, or the huge middle school fallout courtesy of a series of unfortunate misunderstandings. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, their phone calls dwindle from everyday to every-other-day to twice-weekly occurrences, and conversations trickle down to half-hearted grunts, monosyllabic replies, and lines that sound like they’re being recited from a tedious script. Ask the same questions, give the same answers. Rinse and repeat.

But Hajime notices, of course. It might even be correct to say that he’d seen it coming, had known it from the very moment Oikawa had brushed his concerns away, eyes fixated on the volleyball game in front of the screen, watermelon uneaten in his hand. The knowledge eats away at him like an insidious, pernicious disease, rots him from the core. Hajime feels like a spectator of his own life, the way one might watch a badly scripted melodrama: sitting at the edge of the seat, bursting out, ‘look, everything’s going to fuck up all over again, you need to do something about it before it’s too late, do something, anything.’

He doesn’t say anything, though, because Oikawa is twenty and unmoored and busy chasing distant dreams, and Hajime—Hajime walks and breathes a humdrum existence, is grounded by things like college debt and uninspiring ambitions, and a heart heavier than his tongue.

 

 

v.

“We moved like angels washing themselves
we moved like two birds on fire.”

 

 

Aunt Ayumi who lives in Tokyo is getting married in May, and she extends a wedding invitation to Hajime’s family; it’s smack in the middle of the term, but Hajime finds himself accepting the request anyway. The decision puzzles his parents, mostly because Hajime’s relationship with Aunt Ayumi has theretofore only involved lots of ugly sweaters for birthday presents and contrived small talk during family gatherings, but the pertinent fact is that their hotel in Tokyo happens to be located a few streets down from where Oikawa lives. (Not that Hajime tells this to his parents, of course; no one really has to know. And if Hajime tries hard enough, he thinks that he might delude even himself.)

In any case—he finds himself standing outside Oikawa’s apartment on a suffocatingly warm Sunday evening, jabbing the doorbell impatiently. Hajime checks the unit number against Oikawa’s address stored in his phone for the umpteenth time, just in case he’s knocking on the wrong door. He’s all nervous energy and fidgeting fingers, and it’s annoying him because he doesn’t know why.

He hasn’t told Oikawa that he’s visiting Tokyo because he’d thought it might make for a nice surprise, but with each passing minute Hajime realises that it’s really a stupid idea, even for Hajime’s standards. Even for Oikawa’s standards. He should’ve called Oikawa beforehand, and now he’s going to have to spend the evening waiting at the door like a pathetic locked-out puppy while Oikawa’s probably training in the gymnasium till kingdom come, or something. Hajime doesn’t do surprises like this—Hajime’s the type to get things sorted in advance with minimum hassle and maximum efficiency. 

Hajime wants to bash his head on the door. Was he out of his mind? What the hell was he thinking, trying to reenact a scene from some shitty romantic drama serial? It’s not like—it’s not like he’s Oikawa’s boyfriend or anything.

Hajime runs his mind through possible courses of action, before eventually giving Oikawa a call.

‘Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa’s voice is a little breathless when he picks up on the fourth ring. There’s also the hollow, resonating sound of volleyballs thumping against the wall, thereby confirming Hajime’s suspicions that he really is training somewhere. ‘What’s up?’

‘I’m outside your apartment,’ Hajime says.

There’s a pause. ‘Wait—what?’

‘My family’s at Tokyo for my aunt’s wedding, so I thought I might drop by your apartment.’

‘Oh,’ Oikawa says. Does he sound edgy or is he just surprised? Hajime can’t really tell over the phone. ‘You should’ve told me earlier.’

‘Sorry,’ Hajime says, not exactly sure as to why he’s apologising, but something about Oikawa’s tone tells him that he should, and somehow the conversation’s making him feel like he’s dipping his heart in an ice bucket. ‘It’s just—we didn’t have time before this, and we’re heading back the first thing tomorrow morning. If you’re busy I could—’

‘No, of course not, Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says, but there’s a split-second of hesitation there that Hajime does not miss. ‘Can you wait for half an hour? I’ll make it back by eight latest.’

‘Okay, see you,’ Hajime says, ending the phone call. And in spite of the stifling summer heat, of the humidity hanging thickly in the air, he finds himself shivering a little.

 

 

True to his words, Oikawa makes it back five minutes to eight, bag slung casually over one shoulder, a volleyball in hand. He quickly makes his way over, and Hajime catches a whiff of sticky sweat and salonpas spray, and the familiar musty smell reminiscent of old gymnasiums and tattered sports equipment. It makes his nose sting.

‘Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says, slinging a sweaty arm across Hajime’s shoulders, and Hajime has half a mind to shrug it off but he doesn’t in the end. ‘How nice of you to come all the way here.’

‘It’s just a short visit,’ Hajime says, as they make their way into Oikawa's apartment. ‘I can’t stay for long.’

The resultant relief flashing across Oikawa’s face hits Hajime like a punch to the face. Oikawa must’ve noticed it too, because for a moment his face twists into something almost like guilt.

‘Sorry, Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says hastily, nervously darting his gaze around; it’s an old defence mechanism Oikawa always uses whenever he’s guilty of hiding something from Hajime, and it pisses Hajime off every single time. He’s overcome with a strong urge to grab Oikawa by the shoulders and yell, look at me in the eye, dumbass. ‘We’ve got a practice match tomorrow that I’m going to be part of, and I promised Yuto I’ll be practicing tosses with him later.’ Yuto is Oikawa’s teammate.

‘You can’t spare a few hours?’ The words come out laced with a touch of raw-heated desperation that Hajime didn’t mean to betray, and he hates himself for it.

‘Of course I can,’ Oikawa says, looking genuinely torn. (That’s what hurts the most, Hajime will realise in retrospect. So much of their friendship had been based on the ten years they’d spent together on the court, fighting behind the same net, and back then their friendship had been practically synonymous to volleyball; it seems almost cruelly ironic that Hajime should now be something that detracts Oikawa from the sport.)

And things are almost fine again, almost, until Hajime drops his gaze to Oikawa’s knee, and frowns. He nearly says why are you wearing a knee brace, are you injured again aloud, but stops himself. There’s no point, really. It’s always the same old.

Oikawa catches his gaze. ‘Aren’t you going to comment about my knee, or something, Iwa-chan?’, he asks, and his voice is soft but his tone is guarded and his eyes are set with a sort of vexed determination, like he’s already bent on refuting something Hajime hasn’t even said, and it does not escape Hajime that what used to be a term of endearment now comes out dangerously like a mockery, an irony.

Things can only go downhill from here.

‘I am neither your mother,’ Hajime says, each word purposefully slow and maliciously deliberate, and it’s terrible and terrifying but he can’t stop, ‘nor your boyfriend.’

Because sometimes, he’s sick of running after wayward suns, sick of always having to look at Oikawa’s turned back. Sometimes, age and distance can wear away at even the strongest of pillars.

‘Iwa-chan, if it’s about—about all this, I’m sorry,’ Oikawa begins, but there’s a look of frustrated resignation on his face that says, there’s nothing you can understand and nothing you can change, and that’s what gets to Hajime the most, ‘it’s just—I’m just trying so hard—’

‘What, and I’m not?’ Hajime lashes back, and does not care to contain the ugly fury bubbling in his chest; it seeps into every rise and fall of his syllables, casts a poisonous sheen on his words. ‘Why’d you think I came to Tokyo to begin with?’

‘I mean, I’m trying hard to train,’ Oikawa says before he can stop himself, face freezing somewhere between guilt and horror, and then he’s stumbling over his words, ‘fuck—I didn’t mean, fuck—’

But Hajime is already out the door.  

 

 

At the age of twenty-one, Oikawa burns with the dogged determination of a dying star puttering through its terminal trajectory, and Iwaizumi learns, a little too late, that the corollary of incandescence is self-immolation.

 

 

vi.

 

“your hands are like my
heart. on some days how it trembles. let us
hold them together. I am like
you. I too at times am filled with fear.
walk through this with me. walk through this
with me.”

 

 

He receives three calls from Oikawa that night, but he doesn’t answer any of them, and returns to Miyagi with his phone stuffed resolutely in the depths of his bag. And even though Hajime personally thinks that three phone calls make for a rather pathetic attempt at reaching out an olive branch, it seems to be all that Oikawa is capable of. Post-Tokyo, Oikawa stops calling Hajime altogether.

Just as well, Hajime thinks with a sort of childish pettiness that he’s not quite used to, since Hajime’s not calling him, either.

 

 

(The worst thing is this: if Oikawa had bothered chasing after Hajime that day, had bothered to meet him halfway for once, then Hajime would’ve caved in and stayed.

And even now—if Oikawa could recall the memory of curious-looking insects suspended in blocks of colourful glass, the bittersweet aftertaste of sake sipped underneath Miyagi’s star-studded night skies, the lull of lazy Sunday afternoons they’d spent sprawled on their beds—if Oikawa could remember these things, could draw strength and happiness from things that matter, then Hajime would let go of his bitterness without a single moment of hesitation, would forgive him with all the gladness in his heart.)

 

 

July passes by in a blur, then August, and before he knows it it’s October. Hajime learns that he is actually not above occasionally dealing with his deep-seated issues via alcohol intoxication and senseless partying, even if said coping mechanisms tend to culminate in terrifying The-Morning-Afters, involving lots of thundering migraines and curious lipstick stains and clothes reeking of sweat and smoke and perfume. There will be makeshift lovers in the clubs, bodies of men and women to be skimmed with vapid disinterest; he will tire of: her tentative, fumbling hands, his greedy, darting tongue, her acquiescence, his clumsiness. At night, these lovers will run their fingers up his thighs, trail them over the ridges of his spine, and he will burn with bitter wistfulness, all the while thinking of chocolate brown hair and dark eyes.

He doesn’t care to commit these affairs into memory, and whatever he remembers he remembers in loose, disjointed fragments to be tucked away at the back of his mind, never to be relived again: dingy love hotels, starchy, uncomfortable sheets, scarlet nails digging into the small of his back, and a hollow, visceral pleasure that always fades faster than he’d like.

The only consistent thing is this: he never stays the night.

 

 

The phone call comes when he least expects it—at 3:19 a.m., on a Tuesday night in December. Hajime looks at Oikawa’s name flashing on his phone, held a safe distance away in front of him, like it’s a ticking time bomb (and it is, it is,) and the remaining wisps of sleepiness clear rapidly from his head. The first thought that comes to mind is: something bad has happened. The second thought: I want to throw up.

With trembling fingers, he presses ‘pick up call’.

There’s a moment of silence. And then—

‘Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa breathes, so quietly that Hajime almost misses it, and the way it catches dangerously at the end.

‘Oikawa?’

‘Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa repeats. The monotony of his voice does not hide the palpable despair behind his words, and Hajime hates the way his name falls off Oikawa’s tongue, hates the way Oikawa repeats the phrase like it’s his last line of defense against complete ruination. ‘Are you there?’

‘What happened now?’ Wrong, wrong, wrong. That came out brusque and too harsh and sharp in all the wrong places; he’s anxious and terrified and it’s bleeding into his words. Hajime hurriedly corrects himself. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Don’t—you don’t have to say anything. Just—don’t hang up.’

‘What the hell, Oikawa? Are you okay?’

‘I’m—not? But, Iwa-chan—’ there’s a sharp intake of breath at the other end; Oikawa is crying. ‘Iwa-chan, I just need you to be there.’

Hajime’s wide awake now. ‘Where are you now?’

‘I’m—I’m in my apartment. Are you—’

‘I’m here,’ Hajime says, finally, and even though his heart is lurching and he wants to puke, because it’s for Oikawa’s sake, his wills his voice to steadiness. It never ceases to surprise him, Hajime thinks, that Oikawa helped him to become this brave. ‘I’m here, okay? I won’t go.’

‘Don’t hang up,’ Oikawa says. ‘You don’t have to speak—but—please—’

‘I won’t go,’ Hajime repeats. ‘I won’t. You can… talk to me or cry or stay quiet or whatever. I’m not hanging up.’

There’s a shaky intake of breath at the other end of the line, followed by a series of faint wheezing. Hajime’s fingers curl bone-white against his phone, and he feels himself shiver violently and involuntarily from the chilly winter air. Has the heater broken down?

‘How long can you...’ Oikawa’s voice trails off at the end, like he’s bracing himself for the inevitable rejection, as if he doesn’t dare to hope for anything.

Hajime exhales sharply. ‘However long you need.’

Another round of silence follows; Oikawa doesn’t seem to have anything more to say to that, so Hajime slowly slides into a hunched position, phone still pressed firmly against his ears.

‘Go to sleep,’ Hajime tells Oikawa, softly, and does not say anything when he hears muffled crying from the other end of the line.

 

 

It’s 6:24 a.m. when Oikawa finally speaks again, says ‘thank you’ like he’s divulging a secret, whispers it like a barely audible confession.

Hajime opens his mouth to respond, but Oikawa doesn’t give him the chance to. There is a soft click, followed by static, and then once again: silence.

 

 

Morning finds Hajime hastily stuffing spare clothes into an old backpack, before rushing out of the house and hailing a cab to the train station. Within the bumpy fifteen-minute ride, he manages to reschedule all his appointments, tell his friends to take his attendance for whatever classes he’ll be missing, and beg Kindaichi to take over his coaching duties for the next few days.

And there is no hesitation, only a sort of silent resolve, as he makes his way out of the cab, walks to the ticketing booth, and tells the ticket seller, ‘please give me a one-way ticket to Tokyo.’

 

 

 vii.

 

“There is always something left to love.”

  

 

It’s already evening when the train pulls into its destination. Hajime makes his way to Oikawa’s apartment, and isn’t surprised to find it empty. He’s contemplating calling Oikawa again, when the door to the next apartment opens and an old lady hobbles out.

She seems to be surprised by Hajime’s presence. ‘Are you here to visit Tooru-chan?’

‘I’m here to visit… Oikawa, yes,’ Hajime says, slightly fazed by the strange old lady who’s taken to referring to Oikawa by such a fond name.

The old lady laughs. ‘You can call me Imai. It’s so nice to see people visit Tooru-chan, he’s always so busy with his, what do you call it, that ball sport.’

‘You mean volleyball,’ he says. ‘Yeah, he’s always been fixated on it.’

‘Tooru-chan’s such a nice boy, he always helps me out with the difficult chores,’ the old lady replies fondly, and beams at Hajime. ‘Even if sometimes he ends up making a mess more than helping. But his heart is in the right place.’

Hajime can’t help but return the smile. ‘Sounds like Oikawa, alright.’

Imai-san leans forward, scrutinising Hajime with obvious interest.  ‘Ah, do you happen to be the one whom Tooru-chan calls Iwa-chan?’

Hajime blinks. ‘How do you—’

‘He invites me over to his house sometimes,’ Imai-san hums. ‘I’ve seen you in so many of his photos.'

Hajime recalls the last time he’d stepped into Oikawa’s house; he’d probably been too busy being angry at Oikawa to notice his surroundings. Hajime winces a little at the memory.

‘And he always talks about you,’ the old lady continues.

‘Does he,’ Hajime says with mild surprise.

‘Like when he tries to fix my oven but destroys it instead, he’ll say ‘if only Iwa-chan were here’’, Imai-san says, imitating Oikawa’s horrified tone with a small giggle. ‘Or when he tries to help me chase a cockroach, but hides behind me instead, he’ll say ‘Iwa-chan wouldn’t have a problem with that’.’

‘That’s… nice of him,’ Hajime says, torn between a strong desire to laugh and also feeling oddly touched by Oikawa’s staunch faith in his domestic prowess.

‘Isn’t it?’ Imai-san laughs. ‘In any case, are you waiting for him to come home? If you are, I could open the door for you, since he gave me a set of spare keys. I’ll go get it from my house.’

‘That would be great, thank you,’ Hajime says, gratefully. Imai-san’s about to head back into her house when she suddenly turns back to address Hajime.

‘Tooru-chan, he’s been so sombre lately,’ Imai-san says in a grave tone. ‘Do you know what happened? I haven’t seen that boy smile properly since a few months ago.’

‘He’s been through…a rough patch.’ Hajime doesn’t quite know how to answer. ‘But… he’ll be fine.’

‘Ah, I hope so,’ Imai-san says, flashing Hajime a small smile, the edges of her eyes crinkling a little. ‘People like Tooru-chan, they deserve to be happy, you know.’

 

 

Oikawa’s apartment is surprisingly neat. True to Imai-san’s words, there are pictures of the two of them in little frames, scattered throughout the house, slices of time captured and preserved in neat little squares: two eight-year-olds at the beach, all sun-kissed skin and windswept hair, ice-cream cones in hand; fast forward to when they were ten, and there’s a picture of them after their first volleyball match which, judging by Oikawa’s tear-streaked face and raw, red nose, they’d probably lost; middle school saw them with alien plasters stuck clumsily all over their limbs, high socks, and terribly unfashionable hairdos (Hajime’s mother, deathly afraid of hair lice, had taken to shaving every inch of his hair with great vengeance; Oikawa, on the other hand, had simply mimicked the hairdo of whichever fancy celebrity that’d caught his interest, often to disastrous effect); the most recent photo is of them on their graduation day; Oikawa has his arm slung around Hajime, face pasted disturbingly close to Hajime’s cheek, and he’s flashing his rare, genuine smile, the one that he rarely uses because it ‘emphasises the crookedness of my teeth and makes my eyes look smaller than usual, Iwa-chan, and I have an image to uphold.’

Hajime runs his glance over the rest of the room. The calendar on the wall is alien-themed, Hajime realises, and there are packets of uneaten milk bread on the dining table. On the windowsill sits Hajime’s old bug collection, the one he’d been cruelly bullied into giving Oikawa because he’d forgotten about Oikawa’s eleventh birthday.

Something dull and heavy stirs in Hajime’s heart, makes his eyes sting a little. Looking around the living room, Hajime is reminded of things that never change, of pieces of Oikawa that will always remain.

 

viii. 

 

“Lock your warm hand above the chilling heart
and for a time I live without my fear.”

  

 

Exhausted from last night’s lack of sleep, and the lengthy train ride, Hajime falls asleep on the sofa. It’s almost midnight when Hajime hears the jangling of keys, and then the door opens and Oikawa’s standing at the doorway in his training gear, his face caught in surprise at the unexpected visitor.

‘Iwa-chan.’ Oikawa blinks, fingers still frozen on the doorknob. He looks awful, Hajime realises, all dark-rimmed eyes and unnaturally pale skin and lagged, exhausted motions. ‘Iwa-chan, is that you?’

‘Yeah,’ Hajime says. ‘Yeah, it’s me.’

‘Why’re you—’ Oikawa’s voice catches. ‘Why’re you here?’

A thousand possible answers flit across Hajime’s mind, but he settles on the first thought that comes to mind: ‘you’re an idiot, you know?’

Oikawa looks at him, stunned into silence.

‘Did you honestly expect me to not—not worry after you called me in that state? What the hell were you thinking? Why didn’t you call me earlier?’ So much for a heartwarming reunion, Hajime thinks dryly at the back of his mind, but the sight of Oikawa looking so bone-tired and dejected has always been a hot button for him. Oikawa, in general, has always been a hot button for him, Hajime realises with mild alarm. ‘What happened?’

Oikawa closes the door slowly behind him, and turns to look at Hajime. He looks like he’s in pain.

‘Ushijima made it to the national team last month,’ Oikawa finally says after a long pause. 

It’s not something Oikawa would be mighty pleased about, Hajime thinks, but surely there must be something else. Oikawa pauses again, and Hajime waits for him to continue. ‘The Asian Volleyball Championship’s next month. He was—he was picked for the starting lineup.’

Oh, Hajime thinks.

‘He's only been here for a month, you know? So I showed coach some… attitude,’ Oikawa says with a shaky breath. ‘And if… if I don’t apologise soon, he’s kicking me out of the team.

‘Iwa-chan.’ Oikawa closes his eyes, and Hajime watches as every last bit of guardedness melts away, revealing a sort of raw, throbbing vulnerability underneath. When Oikawa’s eyelids flutter open there is wetness lining the edges of his eyes. ‘I—I might never be good enough to—to close the gap.’

‘Idiot,’ Hajime says, and before he realises it Oikawa has succumbed to silent, angry tears, and Hajime’s walking over and pulling Oikawa into a hug. ‘Idiot,’ he murmurs again, but he doesn’t move away when he feels the wetness seeping through his shirt, doesn’t flinch when Oikawa’s trembling fingers dig into his shoulder blades, despairing, wanting.  

‘How can I be better than them,’ Oikawa says in a faint, muffled voice, face buried in Hajime’s shoulders so firmly that Hajime can feel each shaky exhale, each quivering intake of breath.

‘You don’t have to be better than them,’ Hajime says, fiercely. ‘You just have to be.’

Oikawa doesn’t respond, but his violent heaving has diminished to a faint, tremulous wheezing. It’s a start. ‘You just have to be, okay?’ Hajime repeats. ‘Sometimes that’s enough.’

There’s silence for a while. Slowly, Oikawa withdraws away from Hajime, but the fingers curled around Hajime’s shoulders never lose their firm grip. There are tear-tracks streaking down Oikawa’s cheeks, his nose is all scrunched-up, and he looks like he’s caught somewhere between not-quite smiling but not-quite crying either. But there’s something tentative and expectant unfurling in his expression, something that looks a little like resolve and feels a lot like hope.

‘Iwa-chan?’ Oikawa wheezes, and the laugh that follows is feeble and somewhat hesitant but mostly, it’s genuine. ‘Hey, thanks.’

 

 

That night, they lay in bed side-by-side, and it’s so very reminiscent of the sleepovers they had in their childhood, it makes Hajime almost sick with nostalgia. Oikawa must feel the same, because he reaches out and runs his finger through Hajime’s hair, playfully, exactly how it’d been when they were young. Winter light filters through the blinds, casting everything with a pale, blue glow. 

They lay mostly in silence, interspersed by conversations that go along the lines of ‘hey, remember when—’, or ‘do you remember that time—’. It’s well into the night when their voices finally start to grow smaller, start to fade.

And when Oikawa, half-asleep, tries to close the gap between them, reaching out and clinging onto Hajime as if to say, please don’t leave, Hajime will reply by threading his warm fingers with Oikawa’s freezing ones, and that really means, I won’t leave, I’m always here, you only have to remember to look.

 

 ix.

 

 

“Walking home for a moment
you almost believe you could start again.
And an intense love rushes to your heart,
and hope. It is unendurable, unendurable.”

 

 

They start calling each other again after Hajime returns to Miyagi.

It takes a while for them to slip back into their usual routine—four months is a not-insignificant period of time, after all, but they manage. And when Iwaizumi tells Oikawa over the phone, syllables strung carefully together into a seemingly casual remark: the maple trees across the road just bloomed yesterday and it’s kinda pretty, he really means to say: remember Miyagi, remember that distance does not have to take anything away from us, remember that you have a home to return to.

This time, though, these messages reach Oikawa—and truly, that’s more than enough.

 

 

December passes, then January. February sees Hajime spending almost every day in Kitagawa Daiichi, mostly because the Junior High Spring Tournament is just around the corner. There are no mercurial geniuses in his team, Hajime notes with great relief, no almost-geniuses driving him up the wall with their self-destructive streaks and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Most of his players are earnest boys playing volleyball for uncomplicated reasons: because it’s fun, for the sake of their teammates, simply out of love for the sport itself.

Oikawa drops by for a visit one day.

‘What the hell are you doing here, don’t you have practice,’ Hajime hisses as Oikawa saunters into the gymnasium with an extravagant wave and a particularly grating ‘ya-ho, everyone!’

‘I’m going back to my roots, Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says, flinging his arms out dramatically. ‘Returning to my motherland. Getting reacquainted with the bosom of—’ He gets cut off halfway by Hajime flinging a volleyball onto his face.

‘Excuse me,’ one of the boys says. ‘Who is this weirdo and why is he disturbing our practice?'

‘He’s your senpai, and he’s back to help out,’ Hajime says, trying very hard not to look too pleased at Oikawa’s mortified expression.

They train for a while. Oikawa, unable to resist being in the limelight even in the presence of thirteen-year-olds, tries to show off by displaying an array of impressive serves.

‘Why are you showing them that sort of serve when they can’t do it,’ Hajime hisses, resisting the urge to punch the look of self-satisfaction off Oikawa’s face.

‘You’re just jealous, Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says, cheekily, but when a boy asks him to ‘show us that cool serve again!’ he offers to teach them to toss instead.

‘You’ve taught really them well,’ Oikawa tells Hajime, sitting on the bleachers, after they'd split the team into two and made them play against each other.

‘Did I,’ Hajime says, and the words come out coloured with obvious pride.

‘No one’s particularly excellent, but they make up for each other’s weakness.’ Oikawa sounds completely sincere, and there’s the familiar, passionate glint in his eyes, Hajime realises, the sort of earnestness that only appears whenever Oikawa’s talking about volleyball. It’s the same expression he’s carried since they were children.

Hajime smiles. ‘With six people—’

‘—the strong are even stronger,’ Oikawa completes the sentence, and smiles back.

 

 

‘I can’t believe we used be like these kids,’ Oikawa observes, when they’re the only ones left in the gym that day. The students have all gone home but they’ve decided to hang around a little while more, for old time's sake. They’re sprawled on the floor, boneless and breathless and panting. We’re getting old, Hajime reflects.

‘Oh yeah? I think most of them have more common sense than you do.’ Next to him, Oikawa makes a half-hearted, disgruntled noise, probably too tired to give a proper retort. They lay in silence for a while.

‘Say, Iwa-chan,’ Oikawa says, all of a sudden. ‘What would you tell your thirteen-year-old self if you had the chance?’

‘I dunno,’ Hajime says. It’s not something he thinks about. ‘To shake you off if while I still could?’

‘Mean!’ Oikawa huffs.

‘What would you tell yourself?’

Oikawa grins; there’s something in his expression that tells Hajime he’s up to something, but Hajime doesn’t bother digging it out from him because, knowing Oikawa, it’ll come in due time anyway. ‘You really want to know?’

‘You look like you’re dying to tell me,’ Hajime says. ‘So get on with it.’

‘Well, Iwa-chan, since you’re obviously interested,’ Oikawa says, cheerfully, with little concern for Hajime’s glowering expression. ‘I’ll tell you.’

‘First of all,’ Oikawa says, holding up his hands in front of him, fingers spread wide open. ‘I’d tell myself that I didn’t have to worry every night that you were getting your growth spurt before me, since I was going to grow taller than you eventually anyway.’

Hajime snorts.

‘Secondly, I’d tell myself that copying Jackie Chan’s hairstyle would be a complete mistake.’

‘Yeah, you should,’ Hajime agrees. It earns him a jab in his stomach by Oikawa.

‘Thirdly, I’d tell myself to burn Kageyama Tobio’s club registration form—’ He doesn’t finish his sentence because Hajime reaches out and slaps him on his stomach. ‘Ow—Iwa-chan, that hurt.’

‘Your list is dumb,’ Hajime groans. ‘Stop talking about it, you’re going to give me a headache.’

‘Wait, let me tell you my last one,’ Oikawa says, suddenly sitting up. He turns to face Hajime, eyes flashing in anticipation of something.

Hajime drags a lazy glance towards Oikawa, back still against the floor. ‘Yeah?’

‘I’d tell myself that if I were to fall in love with someone,’ Oikawa says, and there is a softness in his gaze that does all sorts of funny things to Hajime’s breathing, ‘I shouldn’t have to keep it in for five years before confessing to them.’

It takes Hajime a moment to register what Oikawa just said, and another moment for him to really understand the implications of Oikawa’s words. He presses his palms against the floor, and sits upright.

‘Did you just—’ He doesn’t say confess. Confess sounds wrong, Hajime thinks. It reminds him of the piles of chocolate Oikawa used to receive on Valentine’s Day, of scented pink letters and blushing girls holding bentos infused with love and affection.

There’s a faint red spreading across Oikawa’s cheeks, but he manages to hold Hajime’s gaze, unfaltering. ‘Yeah? I mean—yeah, I just did.’

And then, with greater resolve: ‘I love you, Iwa-chan.’

Hajime stares at him for a while.

‘Okay,’ he says, finally, mostly because deep down, he's been subconsciously waiting for this for a while now. Little things giving themselves away, things like phone calls that extend late into the night, conversations that start with 'I missed you' and end with 'can't wait to meet you again'. 

Oikawa blinks. ‘That’s it? Just okay? I was expecting—’

And before he can stop himself, Hajime leans forward and presses his lips against Oikawa’s. ‘Expecting this?’ Hajime says against Oikawa’s lips.

Oikawa laughs, a little breathless.

‘Not really, but this is better,’ Oikawa whispers, soft and tender, and kisses him again.

 

 

x.

 

 "In the heat of his hands I thought, This is the campfire that mocks the sun." 

 

 

Sunday morning, mid-July, Hajime finds himself on the train, hurtling towards Tokyo. No self-loving human being should ever wake up at 5 a.m. on a Sunday to catch the first train, Hajime reflects, but in all honesty, no self-loving human being should even date Oikawa Tooru to begin with. Hajime adjusts the cake on his lap, taking care not to knock it against anything; he’d stayed up the entire night, sacrificing his sleep in favour of baking the cake because literally no bakery in the world would ever bake Tooru his ridiculous dream pastry when the description goes something like ‘wasabi-flavoured-alien-shaped-cake-topped-with-chocolate-sprinkles-and-milk-duds’.

Hajime looks out of the window; the sun is rising, and if Hajime were the sentimental sort he’d make some brief allusion to new beginnings or something, but he isn’t, so he leans back to his chair, appreciating the scene in its simple entirety.

Not all distances are insurmountable, Hajime thinks, as the train speeds forward to Tokyo with a sort of unshakeable certainty that he can’t help but aspire to. And for that—not everything is lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”