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Silica Sand

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Carefully, carefully.

The paper stack was leaning.

Asahi bit his lip, an envelope clutched against his chest. It was going to be the roof of the paper stack. But only once stability was reached. Five other envelopes had already been gently laid to rest. The Satou file had been a bit tricky. Bulky because of the unnecessary number of business cards that unbalanced its left side. It was shorn up with paperclips. A risky move, but it was holding.

Asahi looked out the window for reference once again. What was the point in building a paper city if it didn’t perfectly match the real thing. Shinjuku’s skyscrapers were many. Tall and many, uneven, unshaved hairs on Tokyo’s face. On a clear day the zit that was Mt. Fuji could be seen rising to majestic, whitehead heights between them.

Forty second floor. Small firm. Ap development. A job where Asahi had been promised computer interaction only. They hadn’t told him about clients, that clients would want to see him, discuss what they wanted, that he’d have to go to conferences and look presentable and work twelve to fourteen hours a day on a top floor of a skyscraper.

It felt like losing, somehow. Even though his family was impressed, his friends all complained they wanted to move to Tokyo, work in tech, in a skyscraper that sat right in the middle of the urban jungle.

Asahi thought they were out of their fucking minds.

He kept that to himself.

The first two weeks he had refused to look out the windows. He kept his head down, focused on his keyboard, the beige walls of his cubicle. When it was windy he’d clung to his desk, the rattling panes making his ribs hurt from holding in his breath. His seniors at the firm didn’t seem to notice. The swaying building or his crippling fear. And slowly the latter diminished even while the former grew all the more violent, the rainy season wrecking havoc on the glass skyscraper. But the human body couldn’t remain in a constant state of panic. Or maybe a fuse had just exploded somewhere in his brain. One of the fear ones. Or the caring ones, they were probably very close to one another.

He could look out the window now. Not down, but out at least. At the other buildings, swaying in the wind. Occupants staring back at him from across the gap. Probably wishing he and his building weren’t there. So they could see the clouds. Ocean. Fuji zit.

Anything other than glass.

“Azumane.”

Asahi jumped out of his seat, cursing softly when his knee slammed into the underside of his desk. Three towers lost. Kasamatsu, Chiba, Matsubara.

He quickly shuffled the papers into something resembling ordinary chaos and then glanced over his shoulder towards the man hovering in the entryway of his cubicle. Composed, tie in a half-Windsor, pocket square. Akaashi tilted his head to the side, regarding Asahi with his normal indifferent expression. His hair was so poofy. Probably from the rain that had pelted them this morning on the run from the subway.

“Moniwa offered to take us out for lunch. Are you at all interested.”

“Lunch? Ye- no. No, sorry,” Asahi said quickly, managing to hide a wince as one of the reports sliced open his thumb. Papercuts were too tiny to hurt this badly, they were terrible injury illogics at work.

Akaashi blinked.

“Which is it.”

Asahi thought about client meetings and the elevator ride down down fifty two levels.

He shook his head.

“No.”

Akaashi pressed his lips together. Asahi thought that might mean he wasn’t pleased about something. Or allergies. Why were there so many expressions and reactions that looked vaguely like ‘pissed off’ the human face should be simpler.

“You always say no.”

“I – I don’t. Think that’s entirely—”

“You have a refusal rate of around ninety eight percent.”

Asahi clutched his papers harder. He wasn’t good with Akaashi.

“…I’m not… doubting your data, but how could you possibly have calculated—”

“You say ‘no,’ a lot, Azumane. That’s all. It was hyperbole,” Akaashi calmly interrupted, turning around. “Do you want us to bring you back anything.”

“No, th—”

“Very well. We’ll be back in an hour.”

Akaashi’s form turned the corner, obstructed by another cubicle.

Asahi slowly sat back in his chair. His thumb tingled.

He pressed the bloody cut against his teeth, listening to his coworkers as they filed out into the hallway. Everyone was so young, early twenties, right out of college. He’d been serving them tea as an intern only a few weeks ago, almost a decade their senior. Late start, late career switch. He still had to tack on the honorifics when he spoke to them. Not with Akaashi who had told him in his normal calm way to stop the second time Asahi had tried, but the rest seemed to find it hilarious. More so that the deferentials weren’t required of them. He could just be “Asahi” or “Azumane,” no Mr. needed.

But now there were other, newer interns to tease and torment, and Asahi’s cubicle was very much in no-man’s land in the small office space. Glass windows to the left and behind. Stuck in the corner of the office, farthest from the entrance, most likely to be the one hardest to get out of in the event of fire or earthquake. Akaashi had helpfully pointed that out for him.

The last voice left.

Asahi inspected his thumb. Bleeding had stopped but it still smarted. He dug around in his desk drawer until he found a bandage. It was hard to get it affixed in the correct place, his non-dominant hand having to work really hard to keep the plaster from sticking to itself. It ended up half-rolled in on itself, and as Asahi stared at his poorly-bandaged finger and listened to the whir of computers as they kept him company all he wanted was to brave the elevator ride, hop back on the subway and go home. Bed sounded nice.

He slowly leaned back, resting his head against the back of his chair. He stared at the gray, upside-down world on the other side of the glass.

It sounded really. Really nice.

He closed his eyes for just a moment to regroup. Hashimoto meeting this afternoon. Joint meeting with Nobuyuki, he could handle most of the talking. Had to recheck the code for the Kishi ap. Who knew how long that would take. Hopefully he’d be able to make it home before nine, ten at the latest.

Ten more hours here.

The computers quietly whirled.

Ten more hours here.

He had a blowup mattress stashed in the bottom drawer of his desk. It had gotten too much use lately. Missing last trains, panicked clients, coworker mistakes. Lots of reasons to stay.

The glass behind his head shuddered.

Asahi instantly bolted upright, getting away from the window as quickly as possible. He’d done the morbidly-stupid thing his first day there and calculated how long it would take to hit the ground if the glass ever decided to give way. Both too long and too short was the final answer.

Asahi managed to catch himself before he cracked his head against his desk and turned to stare at the glass, half expecting it to splinter at any second. For a moment he thought it had – a large, dark streak ran right through the middle of it. When he looked closer he saw that it was a rope. Two ropes, in fact. Swaying loose in the breeze.

Asahi cautiously approached the windows, still not too fond of standing around them for any period of time. The ends of the ropes lightly smacked against the window right at eye level. Buffeted in the wind. Asahi frowned, watching them jitter and dance around each other for a few moments before he slowly followed them upwards. They disappeared above the limits of the floor-to-ceiling glass. Why were there ropes outside? All he could think of was pictures of old medieval houses in Europe. Where they’d hoist heavy things into second stories via pulleys and ropes. But that was before elevators and what would the upper floors of a skyscraper need with a medieval loom or a grand piano.

Suddenly there was a flurry of movement – the ropes shook violently, the metal around the glass creaked, the windows trembled and Asahi jerked away from them again, nearly falling backwards onto his computer.

A pair of scuffed, orange Converse came into view, dangling just below the top of the window. Then legs, shins, knees. Black jumpsuit with a logo stitched onto the breast. A small wooden seat attached to the ropes. Torso, neck—

Asahi blinked in surprise, staring out at the person on the other side of the glass. It took him a moment longer to register the bucket of water, to find the word “window-washer” in his brain’s panicked and disorganized dictionary.

And then two large, light-brown eyes were peering at him through the glass. Curious. Averted quickly.

Asahi slowly sat down, pressing his hand against his heart. He watched the window washer, who seemed completely focused on his work. Methodical. Staring only at the glass, not what was beyond. Sponge, soap. Water, scraper. Clean, smooth lines, slowly moving down the tall windows. His limbs were short – he had to push himself up out of his seat every so often to reach into the corners. But the rhythm never crumbled.

The repetitive motion was oddly soothing. By the time the washer reached eye level Asahi had calmed down enough to feel awkward about staring. The window washer caught his eyes again for a moment, and Asahi gave an automatic, nervous wave, not sure what else to do. He immediately cursed and sat on his hand, terrified somehow that he’d distracted the man who was only two ropes and a pirate’s plank away from fifteen point three seconds of falling followed by certain skull-shattering demise.

The man on the other side of the glass blinked and then laughed. Like a silent movie. All Asahi could hear was the computers whirling.

The man set down his sponge next to him and waved his hand in return. He said something. At least his mouth was moving in syllable-making patterns. Asahi just smiled politely and pointed to his ears. The man made a confused face and then reached up to touch his own, shoving his fingers underneath the red helmet perched atop his head. He gave Asahi a slightly befuddled look before his eyes suddenly lit up. He laughed again, slim fingers fiddling with a shock of blonde hair peeking out from underneath the helmet. Blonde. Foreigner, maybe. Or half. His eyes were so big.

Asahi gave the man one last smile to hopefully signal an end to the non-verbal interaction and then quickly turned around to face his computer again. The longer he stared at the man and the wooden plank and the rope the more nervous he got. Not good for his heart. Too nervous to work, even, had to pretend. He opened a word document and started typing, making it three nonsense words in before a dull taping noise made him glance over his shoulder.

Tonk.

The window behind him was covered in soap. Scrawled through the suds, written in sloppy, barely-legible characters were the words /THANks NO One eLSE Waved/.

A few seconds later water splashed against the window, wiping the lettering away. The man on the other side grinned, flashed him a thumbs up, and then returned to work. Methodical, eyes on the glass, not what was beyond.

Asahi watched the man, wondering how it was possible that the best interaction he’d had that week had been facilitated through cleaning supplies and basic mime.

The ropes twitched and the window washer dropped lower until only the top of his red helmet was visible. Asahi listened to the distant squeak of the scraper against the glass. He had to explain. He felt a weird pressure to do so, to tell the window washer that he wasn’t really nice, he’d just felt awkward and panicked, that he didn’t deserve thanks for being nervous and over-wrought.

Asahi found himself grabbing a sheet of paper, marker, scribbling on the back of the Gotō invoice. He sat down on the floor in front of the window, gently rapping his knuckles against the pane.

The ropes on the other side of the glass stopped their jittering for a moment. The red helmet grew bigger, the words SAFETY FIRST written in neat, white letters on the side became legible again. Two pale brown eyes peered through the glass, over the carpet at Asahi’s knees, chest, neck, face. The window washer stared curiously up at him, and Asahi held out his sign.

/You’re welcome, but I feel you should know it was a spontaneous reaction. Which doesn’t mean I don’t say hello. I do. But it wasn’t thought out or planned. I didn’t set out with the intention of interaction. I hope your day isn’t ruined and this is really long but I was worried you’d be too far down if I took the time to write another less rambling one I’m sorry./

It took the window washer several agonizing seconds to react. And when all he did was burst into more silent laughter, Asahi quickly put the sign away. The ropes were shaking so badly. The man didn’t seem to notice.

He disappeared for a moment, reappearing with the sponge. He caked the window in soap, and Asahi watched him write with a speed that hinted at many, many window conversations before, /SpONTaneouS is GOOd aNd HOneST. SEE yoU NeXT weEK./

A splash of water wiped away the words just as Asahi finished reading them.

The ropes shuddered again, and the red helmet disappeared from view.

Asahi sat back, his thumb throbbing from the bandage wrapped too tight. He ran his fingers though his hair, the short strands still feeling alien even after almost a month of adjusting to the change.

What day was it.

Asahi picked himself up, grabbing his phone and opening the calendar ap.

Thursday at noon.

He worried at his lip, listening to the creaking of the building, watching the ropes shudder on the other side of the glass.

He hit the icon for Thursday next week, typing quickly, /Skip Lunch/ before closing the ap. He lowered his phone and stared out the window, at the buildings framed between the two ropes.

Maybe next week he’d be brave and look down.

Might be worth it.

-/-

“Are you waiting for a bird to hit.”

Asahi looked up from his computer. Akaashi was standing in the entryway to his cubicle. One of his eyebrows was raised. It was also very well manicured. Groomed. What did you do with eyebrows.

Asahi felt like a sasquatch. His eyebrows were two jungles above his eyes. He wanted scissors. Bleach. Those horrible torturous waxing strips some people used.

Akaashi was still waiting for an answer.

Asahi fiddled with his pen.

“A bird?”

Akaashi tilted his head, gesturing towards the window.

“You keep staring at the glass. You weren’t here for the seagull crash last year. But you might have heard about it and are waiting for a repeat performance.”

“What – no! That’s horrible!”

“I did think it was a little sadistic—”

“That’s not what I’m doing.”

“—but you are something of an enigma.”

“Then let me be as un-enigmatic as possible. I’m not waiting for some poor bird to hit the glass,” Asahi said firmly, quickly adding, “Or birds plural!” when Akaashi looked ready to press the issue.

Akaashi’s other eyebrow joined its twin, but all he said was a non-committal, “That’s good, then,” before falling silent. Asahi waited for him to leave, but when it became apparent Akaashi had no intention of leaving Asahi sighed.

“What?”

“Is something bothering you, Azumane.”

Asahi shook his head, prodding his mouse and watching the cursor scuttle across the screen.

“Still exhausted from last night, I guess,” he said finally. Which was true. “You and Moniwa can go home on time tonight if you want, though. All we really have left is the Hayashi file and—”

“I can’t speak for Moniwa but I’m not one to foist responsibility for a project onto one, lone newcomer,” Akaashi smoothly interrupted, resting his arms on the top of the cubicle walls. “And Hanamaki offered to go buy beer from the malfunctioning vending machine down the street.”

Asahi blinked in surprise, feeling his cheeks start to turn pink. Although he couldn’t remember which one Hanamaki was. Either the loud one or the other terrifying sarcastic one.

“That’s – it’s really not necessary,” he said slowly. “It’s just a few lines of code…”

Akaashi’s lips quirked up in a very small smile that was eaten by his words almost immediately. “We’re a team, Azumane. And that means we suffer together. And sometimes it means that when Haiba locks himself out on the roof we pretend not to hear him. Apparently.”

Akaashi lightly rapped his knuckles on the metal bar of the cubicle and offered Asahi another little smile.

“See you later, Azumane. Don’t work too hard.”

He turned to leave, and Asahi peered out of his cubicle entrance to watch the younger man go, wondering if he’d ever get used to him. The sudden, asphyxiating fear he’d felt whenever a senior coworker approached him was slowly abating to something less loss-of-consciousness-inducing but…

“Why is everyone so hard to read,” he muttered, less annoyed and more mystified. He sat back in front of his computer and prodded the screen, glumly counting the number of overtime hours he’d have to put in just to save face, if nothing else. He’d been indoctrinated. His father had warned him that taking a big corporate job meant he might be spending some nights at the office. But multiple nights…

Asahi slowly tilted forward until his head was pressed against his monitor. It was probably leaving a trail of forehead grease against the glass. He wanted a shower. He wanted fresh clothes and food that wasn’t takeout.

He sat back just enough to stare at the reflection of the window against his computer screen.

Empty.

Just the skyline.

With a quiet sigh Asahi forced himself to get back to work. More than a shower or healthy food… it would have been nice. But really he’d known the chances were slim.

He slowly sunk back into programming mode, chin in his hand as his eyes scanned the lines of code.

Tonk.

Asahi sat up straight, blinking the grey and white from his vision. What—

Tonk.

Asahi saw the vertical lines reflected in the monitor before he even turned around.

The window washer was grinning at him through the glass. He rapped his knuckles against the pane again.

Tonk tonk.

Asahi let out a little breath, his fingers twitching against his chest. Oh. When had—

The window washer was laughing, clutching at his own chest as he feigned passing out. At least Asahi hoped it was a feint. His heart really couldn’t take much more. It was mockery, whatever it was. Friendly, at least.

After sneaking a glance over the top of his cubicle to make sure no one was paying attention to his corner, Asahi slid out of his chair to stand in front of the glass. The window washer was peering down at him, pale eyes wide. Expectant. They were so large compared to his head size. Very odd eye-to-skull ratio for a grown man. Long lashes too. Like some sort of. Woodland creature.

Asahi realized he was staring and quickly waved, not sure what else the man could be waiting for. The washer immediately waved back and then soaked the window with suds.

/Hi/

Asahi waved again and then rolled his eyes at himself when he realized the window washer couldn’t see him because of all the soap. He waited for it to be cleared away before waving again. The window washer laughed and waved once more before lowering his hand. He grabbed the scraper and started working on the window, not seeming to mind that Asahi was watching him.

The methodical patterns were just as mind-numbingly relaxing as they had been the week before. Skyline hidden, monsoon, scraped away. Rivulets of water tracing the path of least resistance in their frantic escape until one by one the wind peeled them off the smooth surface, casting them over the side.

Asahi followed the window washer’s progress, ending up on the floor in front of the window with his knees tugged up against his chest. The man on the other side of the glass was at eye level. It should have been awkward. Voyeuristic.

Somehow it was just quiet. Soft and airy. Bubbles crawling across a sun-warmed glass.

Asahi propped his chin on his knees, trying to will himself to get back to work. It had been close to ten minutes already. He could see the clock mirrored in the window. But work was there and work was always, and would be always still even after the window washer left his field of vision. It would be there at night and the next morning and cheap beers from the vending machine down the street weren’t going to make it go away.

Tonk.

Asahi lifted his head. There was more writing in the bubbles.

/ouo/

What.

Asahi read the letters again before they were washed away. The window washer peered through the glass and didn’t seem pleased with what he saw. He let out a heavy sigh – clearly exaggerated – and then up went more soap.

/:)/

Oh.

When the bubbles were cleared away Asahi put a smile on his face, assuming that’s what the man wanted. He did seem pleased, but then up went more bubbles.

/:(? Y./

Y? Wh—oh.

Asahi hesitated and then turned around to grab his work laptop off the desk, the monitor riddled with broken code. He held it up to the window, fighting back a laugh at the look of horror that crossed the window washer’s face. Up went more soap.

/i'm sRy wtF is tHAt GIBberISH/

Asahi opened a word document and typed a reply.

::Code. I’m a programmer.::

The man had to practically press his face against the glass to read it but then his lips rounded into a little ‘o’ of understanding.

/VidEo GAmeS?/

Asahi shook his head. The man immediately looked devastated and glanced away, mumbling something that looked like it might have been ‘damn.’ Same thing Asahi’s nephews had said. They’d also looked pretty disappointed.

::I’m sorry.::

Asahi tapped the glass and held up the laptop. The man read the screen and then immediately gestured wildly, a grin on his face once more.

/its OK. gooD LucK w/thAT. c u NExt wEEk!/

A blast of water wiped away the words, and with one last wave the washer sunk out of sight again. Asahi closed his laptop and leaned back against the cubicle, watching the ropes jerk every so often.

Video games. Too competitive and artistic but… it might have been fun.

Asahi didn’t move until the rope suddenly trembled violently, the end snaking past the window a few moments later. That was it, then. Fast.

“Azum— …Is there something wrong with your chair?”

Asahi tilted his head back, staring up at Akaashi who wore an expression of mild concern.

“No – just… needed a change of scenery. I think,” Asahi said quickly, pushing himself up. “Did you want something?”

“…The Kitayama file,” Akaashi said after a moment’s pause. “We have the review meeting in a few minutes. I came to fetch you.”

“Oh – right, I’ll be there,” Asahi said, quickly gathering his things. When Akaashi didn’t immediately leave Asahi turned to glance questioningly at him.

“Is something wrong?”

“Hm? Ah… no.” Akaashi crouched down, peering out through the window before standing up, looking mildly disappointed. “I was hoping for something a bit more dramatic, but I suppose the trade building does look slightly different from that angle. Shall we.”

“I wasn’t… it wasn’t the trade building. Don’t worry about it,” Asahi mumbled, hurrying after the shorter man. Akaashi raised an eyebrow but all he said was, “I can recommend a good yoga program, if you’d like to spend more time on the floor,” before pushing open the door to the conference room. Asahi didn’t bother responding, just set up the presentation, provided the tech-speak where needed, and did his best to stay out of the way. When the meeting was over he returned to his desk, unsurprised to see two new folders in his inbox and a cold beer sweating onto his desk. The sun was already hidden behind the other high rises, casting their outlines into an eerie orange glow.

The beer remained unopened. As did the files.

It was pitch black by the time Asahi pulled himself away from his computer. He tapped the up key on the keyboard, a small smile on his face when the twenty five pixels jumped.

Might be worth something more than a grimace next week.

Asahi hit the key again, laughing when the pixels decided to disintegrate instead of follow the basic command.

Definitely worth more. He seemed like the type who would enjoy random destruction.

-/-

There were four men now.

Well, clumps of pixels, really.

They slid across a black screen and exploded if they hit the sides or any of the ‘rocks.’ What were supposed to be rocks. They looked more like amorphous blobs. But they were a serious attempt at rocks.

Asahi cracked his knuckles and tweaked another line of code. There were files on his desk. Quite a number of them arranged in stacks meant to look like nothing in particular. Just to get them out of the way. Hanamaki kept dropping more off. The last time he’d made a little face and said, “Man, work on somethin’ else…” Asahi had felt embarrassed enough to do real work for a few days. But then it was Wednesday and it still wasn’t good enough for tomorrow. So he pushed everything else aside and sat and worked embarrassingly hard on what he wasn’t getting paid to work himself to the bone doing.

And now it was Thursday.

The ends of the ropes dropped into view.

Asahi quickly unplugged his laptop and moved to sit in front of the window, waiting. His laptop was hot. Overheating, he was straining the processor he knew. IT would yell at him again. They yelled a lot. It would be okay, though. Hopefully.

The window washer worked his way down, methodical, neat. He paused in front of Asahi, staring at him through the glass. He nodded slightly, his lips pressed together in a thin line, and resumed cleaning. The window was covered in soap before Asahi could so much as wave.

When the soap cleared the washer was gone.

Asahi stared at the ropes, his brain immediately latching onto the erupted idea that he’d done something. Had he done something? Something to make him mad? There was a split-second window of opportunity. So maybe. Unlikely but maybe. Or left over from last week? The washer had smiled at the end of their interaction but he could have just been being polite, he was hired by the building after all, Asahi worked in the building that hired him polite was a thing people had to be so maybe this was his way of—

It was just going to go in circles. It shouldn’t have mattered but it did, the thought of having made someone upset, even a stranger, someone who made a living being reckless and Spiderman-y all over the outside of a ridiculously tall building. What if Asahi had made him so upset he lost his balance and fell, what if it made him mess up or forget to check a line god fuck what could he have done he had to know—

Asahi quickly rapped against the glass. The ropes stilled, grew slack, and the washer’s helmet appeared. He tilted his head to the side. Silent, polite questioning. Tired.

Asahi couldn’t think of anything he’d done. But he couldn’t rule it out. Had to get the washer to rule it out for him because he was selfish and anything bad at all that could ever happen would be on him unless the washer said everything was fine. He needed exoneration for an imagined offense god he was pathetic.

Asahi grabbed a pad of paper and quickly scribbled. He held it up to the glass.

/:(?/

Something flashed across the window washer’s eyes. When it left Asahi realized how dull they’d been. Soap was smeared on the glass.

/:(./

The pet rock returned to Asahi’s stomach. Unhappy.

He picked up the pad of paper again and set aside his laptop. Maybe next week.

/Did I get you in trouble?/

A look of surprise captured the window washer’s features. He quickly shook his head, his nail dragging across the window slightly as he wrote.

/NoT JOb related. DoN’T worrY./

Asahi didn’t believe it. But he tried to, really, really hard.

/Oh. Ok./

The window washer flashed Asahi a tired thumbs up. He suddenly paused, and Asahi followed his line of sight. It was fixed on the laptop.

/?/

Asahi hesitated, not sure he wanted to risk bothering the other man.

Tonk tonk tonk tonk tonk.

Asahi glanced at the window washer who was gesturing pointedly towards the laptop.

/LoOKs diFFERENt theRE’S SHAPES/

Asahi slowly dragged the laptop over, his neck feeling hot. It seemed pathetically amateurish. Four little pixel figures to control. Race across the screen. There were video games that looked like real life out there. Disturbingly so. Maybe he could pass this off as a joke.

The window washer mimed a tugging motion, and Asahi reluctantly slid the laptop towards the screen. He pressed a few of the keys, just to show that the little pixel groups did move, and nearly had a heart attack when the window washer suddenly pressed his face against the glass, his eyes wide. He tapped his fingers against the window, a slow smile tugging at his lips.

More soap.

/U maDE that? WheRE R the scARY NUmberS?/

/Hidden. It’s my first attempt. It’s simple./

/I WANT2 PLAY/

Half the soap was wiped away. The window washer carefully drew four arrows in the remainder and then stared expectantly at Asahi. He wiggled his fingers and mouthed, ‘MAKE IT MOVE.’

Asahi blindly obeyed. He pressed his fingers randomly against the keys, stopping immediately when the glass nearly shattered from the force of the window washer’s tonks. The man gestured to the arrows in the soap, tapping first the right and then the left.

Oh.

Asahi cautiously pressed the right and then left arrows. He was rewarded with a grin and another thumbs up.

Down down right.

Down down right.

Left left up right right right right quick down down up.

Left left up right right right right quick down down up.

Asahi could see the reflection of the game in the glass, the image blurry as he focused on the gentle taps against the arrows, trying to keep up with the instructions.

Right right right right slight up down quick left then right up up down up up

Silent laughter on the other side of the glass. Lips moving, fast, very fast, exciting talking. The pixels back in their starting position.

After a few moments the window washer calmed down. Reluctantly ran his scraper over the soap. He offered Asahi a little grin and another thumbs up.

Asahi picked up the notepad and drew again, needing to confirm.

/:( -> :) ?/

The window washer scrunched up his nose. He held his fingers a few centimeters apart but laughed again when Asahi made a panicked expression. He quickly waved his hands and leaned forward, breathing on the window.

/:)! ThX/

Asahi watched the condensation slowly peel away from the window. There were faint smudges of the letters left behind. The window washer gave him one last grin before the ropes loosened again, lowering him below Asahi’s field of vision.

Asahi let out a slow breath and lay back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

There were piles of folders on his desk. Hanamaki would be coming by again soon. Akaashi was out, wouldn’t be able to deflect.

Asahi glanced at this laptop.

Maybe he could make better rocks.

-/-

Tonk

Asahi flinched, his eyes darting automatically across the room to his corner.

Oh no.

“Azumane?”

“Yes – yes, hi,” Asahi said quickly, tearing his gaze away from the window and back to the meeting. Hanamaki was looking at him funny. Akaashi didn’t seem perturbed. He tapped one long finger against the paper.

“Moniwa is getting a bit anxious about this. Azumane, is there any chance—”

Tonk tonk

“—you could maybe push the deadline—”

Tonk tonk tonk tonk

“—a bit ahea—”

…tonk

“—d.”

“Okay what the fuck is that noise.”

Akaashi glanced at Hanamaki, frowning slightly.

“I don’t know. But language. We have clients coming.”

Hanamaki waved his hand to show he understood, falling silent again. Still looked kind of mad.

Asahi cleared his throat and said a quick, “Yes I can,” before he could be interrupted by—

TONK

He quickly stood up before the vein on Hanamaki’s forehead could start performing its terrifying jig again. Akaashi stared up at him, blinking owlishly.

“Azumane?”

“I have to – that – it might be – birds,” Asahi said in a panic.

“…Are you hoping to catch them?”

“Wh—no…”

“The windows don’t open…”

“Yes I know – I’m sorry, can – lunch? Quick lunch break?” Asahi said, wincing when the window near his desk gave one last, questioning tonk?.

“…Okay.” Akaashi adjusted the stacks of paper in front of him. “Fifteen min—”

Asahi gave a quick bow and then hurried across the room to his corner. He could see the ropes, but it looked like the window washer had already moved on. Just in case he took a seat in front of the window and cautiously tapped his finger against the glass.

Tunk

The red helmet appeared almost instantly. The window washer was grinning widely the moment he came into view. He waved excitedly and then held up a finger before fishing around in his pocket. He suddenly pressed a rectangular piece of paper against the glass. It took Asahi a moment to recognize it.

Business card.

Nishiya Yū
Staff, Kinoshita Cleaners
129 3-chome
Shinjuku-ku

Nishiya. He had a name.

Of course he did. That was stupid. Asahi knew his name. That was different.

Tonk tonk.

Asahi tore his gaze away from the business card. The window washer – Nishiya, Asahi reminded himself – was pointing at him, looking hopeful. Asahi made a little ‘ah’ noise when he realized what he wanted. He quickly pulled out his business card case and held one up to the window. Nishiya scrunched up his nose and then soap was suddenly covering the window.

/ReAD likE usUAL? AZumanE?/

Asahi grabbed his notepad.

/Yes. Nishiya?/

The window washer made a face. New soap.

/nishiNOya. SHoulD chanGe mY NAMe tbh/

/Oh! I’m sorry. Nishinoya./

Nishinoya flashed him a thumbs up.

/NiCE 2 meetU AzumaNE/

/Likewise./

/U buSY?/

/Sort of./

/U were L8/

L8… oh.

/Had a meeting./

Nishinoya made a face.

/GrOSs. Sry./

Asahi shrugged. It was work.

Nishinoya seemed to accept the answer. His short fingers toyed with the sponge in his lap for a moment. He looked restless. His eyes kept darting up.

It took Asahi a bit to realize he was distracted by the laptop on his desk. Oh right. The game.

He pushed himself up on his knees and grabbed the laptop, dragging it over. He hadn’t had any time to work on it. Real life had gotten hectic and terrible.

/Nothing’s changed. I didn’t have time./

Nishinoya gave him a bizarre look.

/ChaNGe? It Was ALREady FUn/

/I downloaded Tetris. It’s more a real game./

Nishinoya crossed his arms over his chest, one, unimpressed eyebrow raised.

Asahi immediately booted up his homemade game. His white flag.

Nishinoya relaxed and made the little soap arrows again, Asahi manning the controls.

They played for a while in silence, Nishinoya biting his tongue as he concentrated. The wind buffeted his seat around. He didn’t seem to notice. It didn’t break his rhythm, and every time the men died he tapped twice on the glass. Next life.

Asahi found himself adapting slowly to Nishinoya’s rhythm. He could predict which direction the window washer would move. Too close to an edge, go back. But not too far. Still staying always within that danger area, in the risk of disintegrating any second.

Seemed apt for a man who made his living clinging to the edges of things. Less clinging, really, more… confident sitting. Perching. Very falcon-like.

Suddenly Nishinoya stopped, his cheeks dusting with pink. He grabbed his sponge and soaked the window, disappearing immediately from view.

Asahi blinked in surprise, not understanding for a moment. But then a shadow fell over the window.

“Azumane?”

Oh.

Asahi glanced up at Hanamaki, who was looking at the opaque window with a tired, confused stare.

“Are you… uh. Watching soap dry?”

Asahi’s brain scrambled for a proper response.

“…Yes.”

Close enough.

“…Well okay.”

Hanamaki jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Akaashi asked me to come get you. You, uh. You. Good? Need more window time?”

“No – no I’ll be there in just a second,” Asahi said, reluctantly closing his laptop.

“Cool. And see if you can get that washer’s attention. Really shouldn’t leave the window like that.”

Hanamaki lightly tapped the glass with the toe of his shoe before turning and walking down the aisle.

Asahi waited until he was gone to reach out and tap the glass.

Tunk tunk

A small line of soap at the bottom of the window was slowly scrapped away. Pale eyes peered up through the opening, which grew wider as Nishinoya expertly wiped the soap off. He gave Asahi a sheepish grin through the glass.

/StARTLEd me. He’S TALL./

/So you hid?/

Asahi realized how that might sound and quickly added, /Which was smart./

Nishinoya laughed silently and rubbed the back of his neck.

/We’RE BOth goofing Off. ShOUldn’T riSk./

Asahi nodded and gave Nishinoya an apologetic grin.

/We don’t have to./

/NO WE DO/

Nishinoya tapped his finger vigorously against the glass, centimeters away from the laptop.

/SO CLOSE!!!/

/The game doesn’t have an ending/

/CLOSE!!!/

/There’s not really a goal./

Nishinoya gave him an exasperated look.

Asahi frowned and raised an eyebrow.

/What?/

/MaKE goaL THen/

/I’m not a game programmer. I don’t know how./

Nishinoya clicked his tongue. Asahi could almost hear it; the motion was so animated, even through the glass.

/LearN?/

The question mark was scraped away a millisecond later.

/IF u hAVE Time/

Asahi thought about the stacks of papers on his desk. The ones with red marks, yellow notes adhered to them. Hanamaki’s footsteps coming to fetch him a second time, getting closer every tick of the second hand.

Asahi found himself nodding anyway, enjoying maybe too much the brilliant smile on the other side of the glass. The slight widening of pale eyes as a shadow covered the window again, the way the tuft of blonde hair flew up off his forehead as he quickly dropped out of sight.

“Azumane, I really don’t wanna have to come all the way back here a third time…”

“I’ll be right there,” Asahi said, not bothering to look away from the window. Hanamaki would be able to tell he wasn’t really there. That he was on the other side of the glass, reading lips and signs. Trying to piece together and imagine a possible goal.

-/-

/2 MOR/

/I added an extra/

/WHAT?!??!/

Asahi laughed and pointed to the one ‘avacado’ on the screen. It was supposed to be a mango. Because what had been pixel men were now pixel… monkey. Type creatures. And they ate mango. Probably. But Nishinoya had insisted it looked like an avocado (how a clump of misshapen pixels looked like anything at all was still a weird miracle) and Asahi had been unable to un-see it. So avocado-collecting game it was.

Kind of a mouthful.

He tapped the screen again, grinning when Nishinoya sulked at him through the glass.

/What?/

/U said 5 AVKD 2 ClEAr LVL/

/I did/

/U liED/

/I fibbed/

/SAME!!!!!/

Asahi bit his lip to stifle a laugh, pushing his tie out of the way as he quickly wrote, /I forgot I changed the number. Sorry!/

Nishinoya stuck out his tongue. For a man who could plummet to his death at any moment he was very cavalier about his appendages.

/No UR nOT/

/I KNo thaT grIN/

/U Lie AGAIN/

/And Y SO MANY SNaKeS?/

/2 AVOID?/

/WHEN COLLECT AVKD/

/???/

The amount of time it took Nishinoya to erase and write the new message added up. Asahi waited patiently, responding only when he was given the little tonk of completion.

/I am a little sorry/

/HMPH/

/You took the time to write ‘hmph’/

/Was IMPortANt/

Nishinoya’s eyes suddenly widened. He pressed his face against the glass, wincing as he stared at the bottom corner of the computer screen.

‘OH SHIT’

He didn’t have to write that one out. Asahi could read his lips.

Asahi crouched down, mouthing back, ‘WHAT?’

Nishinoya sat back, pointing at his wrist. He was pale.

Oh…

Asahi checked the clock, his stomach sinking when he realized—

/45 MIN/

/Nishinoya I’m sosorry!/

/ITs OK BUT GOTTA GO TTYL/

With one last frantic wave Nishinoya disappeared from view.

Asahi leaned back against his desk, watching the ropes move. He idly tapped the keys on the keyboard, listening to the quiet ‘distress noise’ he’d programmed to play every time the monkey pixels bit the dust. Why he’d programmed sound in he didn’t know. It wasn’t like Nishinoya could hear.

Maybe

He could cut a hole in the glass. Then they could talk and he wouldn’t have to wait five minutes for Nishinoya to finish writing a reply in soap. Which really was a terrible medium for expedient communication.

Or maybe he could kick the pane of glass out all together. Of course if there were no glass, Nishinoya wouldn’t have a job to do. So that would sort of be like shooting himself in the foot.

Asahi let out a heavy sigh and closed his eyes, his head gently bumping against the corner leg of his desk.

What did Nishinoya sound like.

His build was small. He sometimes pulled his knees up against his chest when he was thinking or after he’d been wrestling with the game for a while. His wrists were small too. Smallness was probably a desired trait in his profession.

But somehow Asahi couldn’t imagine his voice as small. Even though that’s what fit. Superficially Asahi imagined his voice was high. High but powerful. When he laughed it felt like the windows shook. Shattered on some microscopic level. Soap residue was probably the only thing holding them together.

“Azumane.”

Asahi glanced up. Akaashi stared down at him. His head cocked to the side.

“You’ve been working on the floor a lot lately.”

“…Yeah I guess.”

“Not a judgment. Just an observation.”

“…Thank you.”

“Yes. Do you have the Iwanami request done?”

Iwanami –

Oh.

No.

“No—no not yet,” Asahi said, quickly standing and searching for the file. Which last he saw was at the bottom of a huge stack of files. All with red marks on them.

Akaashi had the grace to wait patiently, but when the amount of time it was taking Asahi to extract the file stretched from ‘uncomfortably long’ into ‘evolution has cycled around again, dinosaurs reign supreme,’ he cleared his throat and asked politely, “Should I come back.”

“No it’s – it’s here. Somewhere,” Asahi said, going beyond nervous and into frantic mode with just those four words. He finally pulled the file out and scanned it quickly, realizing with a heart-sinking lurch that he hadn’t even started. And it was due in a week and a half. Needed in time for some large client meeting, no wiggle room on the deadline.

“I’m – Akaashi, I have to apologize. I’m not… where I should be with this,” he managed to say, defaulting to polite, distant language in his blind panic.

“Oh.”

And there was so much irritation in that single syllable.

Akaashi recovered quickly.

“So you’re not available to talk about it now.”

Asahi shook his head, feeling sicker by the second.

“Will you be tomorrow.”

“I – I can be. Yes.”

“Then please be so. Make this your priority, Azumane.”

The way Akaashi said his name was like a curseword. A curseword that had somehow misbehaved. And was being reprimanded. But also still used as a swear. It was confusing and upsetting and all Asahi could do was mumble, “Yes,” and get to work.

He opened the file and quickly reviewed the requested code. He started writing, feeling terrible and nervous and ill and still all he could hear past the reverberation of his swear-ed name in his ear was the sound of fingertips against glass. All he could think about was snakes and avocados and laughter and soap.

Not this.

The light bled out of the carpet. The fluorescents above took on a life of their own. Buzzing louder and louder with each voice that left. When Asahi got up to use the bathroom he was unsurprised to see every cubicle vacated.

In the bathroom he stared at himself in the mirror, prodding at a zit forming on his chin. He missed his beard. He looked so young without it. Maybe that’s why everyone dropped the ‘Mr.’ with his name.

A trip to the vending machine later and he was back at his desk, a cup of instant noodles soaking off to the side.

It was slow. Painful going. Somehow in learning to make the game he’d forgotten everything he’d been trained to do. He had to look up more commands than he could remember doing since his school days. At four in the morning he gave up, tugged out his air mattress and tried to sleep.

A week.

He had a week to code this huge, massive thing.

Asahi pressed his face against the plastic surface of the mattress and squeezed his eyes shut.

Panic wasn’t going to help.

He told himself as he steadfastly continued to panic.

It would come together. It always, always did. Always came together. Just meant he might have to live here for a while. Run back to his apartment on lunch-break only to check and make sure it hadn’t burned down, to shower, grab clothes. He lived nearby, it was feasible. Not sustainable but. Feasible.

After an hour and a half Asahi pushed himself up and sat at his desk again. Every time he closed his eyes he saw code. May as well put it to paper. So to speak.

At some point he drifted off, waking up to his cheek stuck to the keyboard and a faint ringing in his ears. A few voices. His coworkers. Daylight on the inside of his eyelids.

He slowly sat up and resumed working, only stopping to lift his hand and greet whoever it was that had stopped by his cubicle with a cup of coffee.

A week. A week to do this.

He wasn’t going to make it.

-/-

The number of paper cups stacked up beside his monitor was reaching critical mass.

Asahi stood, adding another one to the tower before he sat back down again and got to work. He pushed his bangs out of his eyes, so irritated at having to repeat the gesture every five fucking seconds because his hair wasn’t long enough to pull back anymore.

Tonk

Maybe he should grow it out again. Fuck the corporate policy he practically lived here, it should be under municipal rules, not corporate. May as well be a fucking residence.

Tonk tonk

But it was close. So close. Both the deadline and the project’s completion. He had about a dozen files that were backlogged to work on, but this one at least, the one that mattered, was getting done. He hadn’t slept in a proper bed for four nights, not after the breakdown on Saturday where he’d had to call it quits early he was practically delirious, not getting anything done. Something had flipped in his brain after that, and now all he could do was—

TONK

Asahi whirled around, too tired to process the face grinning at him from beyond the glass.

He glanced at the calendar.

Thursday.

He lifted his chin slightly in greeting but then pointed to his computer and shook his head. Work.

Nishinoya’s eyebrows flew up, his eyes widening to an almost comical degree. But then all he did was smile and give him a little shrug and a wave. He started to tug on the pulley system, but just before Asahi turned around he saw Nishinoya move closer to the window, peering up at him.

Asahi pulled away, suddenly seeing his reflection in the glass. He looked unearthly. Something tired, too tired to be human. Greasy, stringy hair, spots so dark under his eyes it looked like he’d been very weakly punched.

No wonder Nishinoya was staring.

Soap.

/u ok?/

Asahi stared at the three letters, his brain processing them at the speed of treacle in winter.

Before he could stop himself he was shaking his head. His eyes were smarting. Adding to the ‘just-punched’ look, probably.

Nishinoya sat on his bench, perched a hundred, thousand million meters off the ground. And for the first time he looked concerned.

He waved his hand.

Come here.

Asahi found himself sliding off his chair. He sat cross-legged in front of the window. Nishinoya was at perfect eye level. His eyes were so pale. Bright. Honey in a bear bottle on a kitchen counter.

“I’m – your eyes are. Very specific,” Asahi mumbled.

Nishinoya tilted his head to the side. He drew a ‘?’ in the air with his fingertip.

“Never mind.”

‘?’

Oh.

Right.

Asahi fumbled behind him for his pad of paper and slowly wrote a reply.

/Sorry. Tired./

Nishinoya nodded. He pointed to his bear honey eyes. Then to his helmet. Then he plugged his nose. And made a face.

Asahi didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or punch the glass.

Instead all he did was write /Yes/ on the notepad and hold it up.

Nishinoya’s expression fell. He tugged a knee up to his chest and rested his chin on it.

/sorry./

/It’s fine. Have to get back to work./

Nishinoya furrowed his brow. He patted his stomach. Lunch?

Asahi shook his head and mimed typing and eating. It wasn’t hard to mimic. He’d been doing the real thing for what felt like millennia.

‘OH’

Nishinoya frowned, staring at something behind Asahi. Probably the blow up mattress. Asahi had given up deflating it every time. Just shoved its half-deflated shell under his desk and used it as a footrest.

/r u sleeping here?/

Asahi nodded.

Nishinoya winced.

/tonite 2?/

Asahi nodded again.

/Deadline tomorrow. I’ll make it. One more night of this./

/fun sleepover? mby?/

/No. It’s just me. I’m the only one on the project./

Nishinoya blanched.

/alone? seems creepy/

Asahi nodded, standing up again. He pointed to his wrist and Nishinoya nodded, staring up at him through the glass. He gave him a little salute.

/hang in there/

/pun intended/

Nishinoya grinned and pointed to the ropes, his eyebrows moving so rapidly Asahi wondered if he’d become tired enough that he was starting to hallucinate. He did his best to return the smile and then sat down at his desk, beginning to work again. In the monitor’s reflection he could see Nishinoya working, his tongue peeking out from between his lips. His concentration face. He’d made it the first time the game had gotten to the third level. Which was honestly just a bunch of jibberish and failed physics. Asahi hadn’t expected him to get that far.

Another cup of coffee appeared next to him. Asahi gave Akaashi a thankful grimace and then resumed typing.

One more night. It was almost over. He could sleep in his bed. Actually take Saturday off—well, maybe not that. Had to catch up on backlogged accounts. But maybe half the day. Or part of Sunday, if he worked hard on Saturday…

The sun crashed to earth behind the taller skyscrapers. The fluorescents came on, their droning buzz something Asahi no longer even registered unless he was concentrating and listening for it. The building slid into silence, and by midnight he was alone again.

He was double-checking everything. Triple-checking. He’d have Akaashi look at a few parts, but he was amazed there were as few mistakes as there were. Considering his level of sleep-deprivation, he’d thought it would be riddled—

The reception phone suddenly rang.

“Jesus Chr—fuck.”

Asahi clutched at his chest, still half-in, half-out of his chair from his aborted leap-to-safety. He slowly leaned back, groaning quietly as his heart continued to pound helplessly against his ribcage. Wasn’t lack of sleep supposed to make you less responsive. But it also made you paranoid. Maybe he was in paranoid stage. Maybe it was a circular thing. Paranoia and responsiveness. Cycling forever until he imploded like a magnet turned in on itself.

The phone stopped ringing.

Asahi let himself keep his eyes closed for fifteen second, counting them with each tick of the clock on the far wall. At fourteen he forced his eyes open and leaned forward, resuming work.

The phone rang again.

Asahi frowned, his concentration crumbling. Six nights without interruption. Last night, home stretch, of course the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

It stopped ringing.

Asahi let out a little sigh of relief, one that was quickly stifled when the machine picked up.

/Uhhhhh fuck I feel stupid – oh god – oh no, I said fuck – okay, shit. Is – if anyone is there, is Azumane still working? Hello? Anyone named Azumane –/

Asahi slowly stood up, staring at the receptionist desk. He didn’t recognize the voice. It was low, aggressive. Bright. If he’d been in paranoia mode, he would have freaked. Thought ‘ghosts’ and probably bailed under his desk or barricaded himself in the closet with the salt from the kitchenette. Instead in his semi-lucid state of exhaustion he simply stared at the phone, wondering if it had somehow learned his name. And developed a rather blistering vocabulary.

/--se pick up if you’re there, I really don’t want the whole place to hear me being stupid on an answering machine message. Who even uses an answering machine anymore, by the way? Isn’t this a tech… techy… thing? Place?/

The aborted sentences made it suddenly click.

Asahi whirled around, staring out the window as though expecting to see him there. But of course not, it was going on one thirty in the morning, there was only the little squares of light from the other high-rises.

/Azumane?/

“Yeah – yeah, hang on,” Asahi heard himself say. Reflexes.

He stumbled out of his cubicle and across the room, lunging for the phone just as the voice on the other end crackled with a heavy sigh.

/Wrong number, I guess. Sorry to whoever has to listen—/

“Nishinoya!”

Asahi pressed the phone to his ear, his own breathing ringing in his head. For a few seconds that was all he heard. Frantic, labored breathing.

“Uh—Is. Please let this be Azumane?”

“Yeah—”

“I think I left weird messages—”

“—it’s me.”

“—on like five different answering machines.”

“Azumane, I mean. You don’t know who me is.”

“God I’m so embarrassed…”

Asahi heard the plastic creak as he tightened his grip on the phone.

Seconds ticked by. He counted them on the clock.

“Nishinoya.”

He heard a laugh. Saw it in his head. The afternoon sun catching the side of his face. Mouth red, teeth white. Eyes crinkled around the edges.

“Yeah. Nishinoya. The weird window washer.”

“You’re not weird.”

“Some of your building-mates may think otherwise come tomorrow.”

Asahi slowly sat down in the receptionist’s chair, still holding on tightly to the phone.

“Why’s that?”

“I had the building, obviously, and a vague idea of what you did. And a really good sense of which floor you were on. The rest was guesswork. Really – kind of haphazard. Guesswork.”

Asahi felt his lips pulling up into a smile.

“You hunted me down.”

“What – no! No – no not – that makes it sound creepy or—uh.”

The phone fell silent for a moment.

“This is creepy. I’m so – I’m so. Sorry.”

Asahi rested his forehead against the desk, fighting off an exhausted laugh.

“You’re Nishinoya.”

“…Yes.”

“The window washer.”

“Yeah –I’m. I really am sorry. For some reason this… it seemed like a good idea.”

“You’re a lot more eloquent when you don’t have to talk with soap.”

The phone suddenly erupted in noise. Asahi had to pull the receiver away from his ear as it crackled loudly. It took him a moment to realize Nishinoya was laughing.

The glass definitely had shattered at some point. And the phone was about to join it in a minute.

“Yeah! Yeah I probably am. And you’re – your voice is even deeper than – oh man there’s no—absolutely no good way to end that sentence.”

“Your voice is really different from what I thought it would be, too,” Asahi said quietly, throwing the other man a bone. “It’s… honestly surreal.”

“Different? How so?”

Asahi closed his eyes. He could see Nishinoya leaning against the glass, his brows furrowed like they did when he was thinking.

“Hm. It could be the sleep deprivation talking but I thought for some reason you’d sound really… nasal.”

“Nasal?!”

“Or high pitched.”

“Nasal and high pitched. That’s. I really, really should be mad at you right now, Azumane.”

“You can be mad.”

“No I don’t want to be.”

Asahi could see his lip jutting out in a sulk. He suddenly laughed.

“Oh – god, I feel – I feel so stupid.”

“…why’s that?” Nishinoya asked, caged.

Asahi scrubbed at his eyes.

“Of course this is what you sound like – it’s really… really obvious.”

“What?”

Nishinoya laughed again.

“You are strange, Azumane.”

“I know…”

“Who programs avocados into a video game, anyway.”

“In my defense they were supposed mangos.”

“That’s a really weak defense.”

“I know—”

“Substituting one tropical fruit for another doesn’t undo the strangeness. I feel it’s my duty to tell you.”

“I had to work with what I had.”

“What did you have, exactly?”

“A series of mistakes that resulted in something vaguely… ape-shaped for a protagonist.”

“Oh my god.”

“I decided to run with it.”

Nishinoya burst into laughter again. It pinged against the phone, bright and buzzing. Drowning out the fluorescents.

“Nishinoya?”

A deep breath.

“Aha… yeah?”

“I’m going to transfer you to my desk phone.”

“Sounds exciting!”

“I – not. Really. Just hang on.”

“Beam me up, Azumane.”

Asahi continued to punch in the buttons for the transfer, not really getting the reference. His office phone began to ring and he quickly hurried over, knocking the receiver off the cradle and then heading back to hang up the receptionist’s phone. He sat down at his desk again and hit the speaker phone button.

“Okay. Sorry about that.”

“No problem. I’m – well I meant to start the conversation this way but it sort of. Got away from me.”

A deep breath.

“I’m sorry to bother you while you’re working, Azumane. Thanks for picking up.”

Asahi felt something warm uncurl in his chest. He stared at the lines of code on the screen, his head too full of mismatched threads to make conscious sense of it anymore. Unconscious, reflexive he could do.

“Thanks for calling.”

“Yeah – no problem. You… uh.”

The phone fell silent. So long that Asahi said softly, “Nishinoya?” unsure if he was still there.

“Huh? Oh…”

Nishinoya cleared his throat. A deep, guttural sound. Hard to match with anything on the other side of the glass.

“I’ve been doing this job for… something like five years now. Not a really long time but… not a lot of guys stick it out this long. I like it, though. I get to see a lot of lives – a lot of people living. Spending their time in buildings and… working. Which sounds boring I guess? Considering most of them are office buildings but… I dunno. I like it.”

“I don’t know how you can stand being that high up,” Asahi said quietly, absently fixing a mistake he noticed.

“It took a bit of getting used to. Some guys can’t handle it. Which I get. It’s scary and I’m not always okay up there. Talking with you’s nice, though. The kind of distraction that won’t end with me falling. Probably, anyway.”

Asahi winced.

“Oh – I’m sor—”

“You’re fine. If I really thought – I wouldn’t still be doing it. And not for—god, what was it, an hour?! Something ridiculous like that that I was playing that damn game last week.”

“Forty-five minutes.”

“Right… right. Yeah that’s – way, way too long.”

Nishinoya laughed again, but the noise was slightly strained.

The phone fell silent again, and Asahi was content to sit in the silence.

“Azumane.”

Asahi picked at the keys.

“Yeah?”

“Are you –uh.”

Nishinoya let out a heavy breath. It overloaded the speaker for a moment.

“I’ve… like I said. I’ve been doing this for a while and… sometimes. There are people like you. I can tell… they haven’t gone home in a while. Part of the culture – we have a word for working ourselves to death, after all. Gotta give it up for linguistic evidence…”

“Oh – yeah. Usually there’s a few others with me,” Asahi said quietly. “Not… not right now, though. I’m alone.”

“Yeah. And – well sometimes… they. I dunno…”

Silence.

“Are you okay, Azumane?”

Asahi frowned, staring at the phone. His head was buzzing with exhaustion. Like a giant bee.

That sounded horrifying.

“Okay? I… yeah. I. Think so.”

“…There’s—… Sometimes the windows on these older high rises can open. And I couldn’t remember if the ones on your building could.”

“… These can’t,” Asahi said slowly, glancing at the window just to make sure. “Akaashi – sorry, my coworker. He said so. I think they’ve been glued shut.”

A heavy breath, speakers cracking in and out again.

“Oh. Oh – okay. That’s good… There was this other building whose windows could open, and this girl who used to work late nights and—just. Too many of them. I think. She always looked so tired. Had the same mattress you – uh. I mean maybe. Obviously I’m not super… super familiar with air mattress brands. But – something. Today just… I guess I got a little paranoid or nervous. And it’s probably – it’s late and man it’s gotta be creepy in there.”

“…It’s a little creepy, I guess,” Asahi said, his brain not functioning well enough to follow the broken tiles of Nishinoya’s speech. “I thought you were a ghost at first.”

“Really? A ghost?”

Nishinoya laughed again, the noise bright once more.

“Think your building’s a little too modern to have ghosts.”

“Maybe. Maybe just really boring salary man ghosts…”

“God that sounds like a nightmare. I have to ride the train with a bunch of them. There’s this group – they always talk shit about their girlfriends constantly. Way, way too loud. Trains are small and public and how assholes like them can even get girlfriends – Sorry, I… get loud. And now that you have to listen to me…”

Another laugh.

“Probably not as nice as just miming, huh.”

“It’s nice,” Asahi said, his eyes automatically scanning the last line of code. He let out a relieved sigh, smiling when Nishinoya said a panicked, “What?! What happened, what was that?”

“I’m done.”

“Done – oh! With the uh… the math? Stuff? Your project?”

“Yeah. Done with checking. I can have someone else look at it tomorrow.”

“That’s awesome! And it’s only – holy shit two in the morning.”

“Yeah.”

“Guess you missed your last train, huh.”

“Yeah.”

“…Your brain broken?”

Asahi laughed, scrubbing at his face.

“Yeah.”

“Oh god it is. How will you finish that game now? Everything will just be a long string of ‘yeah’s.”

“Yeah.”

“…Still a better concept than an avocado.”

“Nishinoya!”

Nishinoya burst into laughter, the mad-hatter sound ricocheting off the sides of the cubicle.

Asahi dissolved into exhausted laughter as well, resting his head on the desk and closing his eyes.

“What’s so funny?”

“You fucking scolded me – I’ve never heard anyone so comfortable with nominally berating me before.”

“It… I wasn’t trying to scold. Maybe… gently reprimand to cover my embarrassment at my sub-par programming.”

Nishinoya let out a low whistle. It rattled the phone casing.

“Listen to you. Sleep-deprived and still flinging around words like ‘sub-par.’”

Asahi hummed, his eyes growing heavier behind his lids.

“Yeah, I’m… you’re… good with words.”

“You did mention that. Thanks.”

“But so bad… at window words.”

“I read a lot of advanced comics. Helps with the vocabulary and the terrible syntax. I guess.”

Asahi just hummed again, too tired to verbally respond. The building fell quiet again. He could hear the fluorescents buzzing. The phone breathing.

“Hey, Azumane?”

Asahi shifted, resting his forehead on the crook of his elbow.

“Mm?”

“I hang up, you gonna be okay?”

“Mmhm… just… gonna sleep.”

“Okay. Sounds good. But – uh.”

Silence again.

Asahi cracked open an eye, staring at the phone.

“…Yeah?”

Shifting noises.

“More ‘yeah’s.”

“Sorry. Yes?”

Silence. Another sigh.

“…Could you erase that message I left?”

Asahi nodded, not caring that he couldn’t be seen. Nishinoya would know.

He lumbered over to the receptionist’s desk and deleted the message before heading back. He tugged out his half-inflated mattress and lay down on it.

“Done.”

“Thanks.”

Nishinoya didn’t sound all that relieved.

“Are you sleeping now?”

“Yeah… on my mattress.”

“So if I hang up you’re just gonna sleep?”

Asahi nodded, yawning widely.

“Too tired to do anything else…”

“Good.”

The fluorescents flickered. Gray spots darted around the inside of Asahi’s eyelids, exploding into color when they reached the edges.

“Azumane?”

“Mm.”

“You asleep?”

Asahi waved his arm at the phone as best he could, not sure if he was even still awake.

“Okay.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“Thanks for picking up.”

“Good night.”

A click. Buzzing of the lights.

Asahi pressed his face against the plastic of the mattress, exhaustion hitting him like a hammer.

The lights flicked off.

-/-

The mattress was tucked away in its cardboard box again. Moniwa had stopped by, noticed Asahi shelving it and said happily, “Oh good.” There was a great deal of relief contained in those words. “Oh good.” Oh good, you’re not sleeping here anymore. Oh good, you got the code written on time. Oh good, you no longer smell or look like roadkill.

Asahi had just smiled in response, too tired to work up much energy.

The week following the all-nighter hell was a strange, murky blur. Like he was watching his life through a train window. Reenacted by someone not him. A really tired, quiet someone.

If it were a show he would have flipped the channel immediately. As that wasn’t a metaphysical option available to him, he resorted to keeping his head down and getting through each day as quickly as possible. His apartment was a nightmare. Everests of dirty laundry, dishes that were their own zoological experiments and experiment-monitors in one. Extremely high sentience level. Terrifying.

At that point sleeping at the office was almost preferable. A sentence that a month ago would have given Asahi nightmares of the worst sort of anxiety.

What he needed, really, was a day off. A proper day off.

Asahi lightly prodded the short stack of cases he had left to work on.

A day off. Maybe… in a couple months. Around the holidays he’d be able to afford it. Probably not until then, though…

Tonk!

Asahi glanced over his shoulder, returning Nishinoya’s wave. He sat down in front of the glass and held up his notepad.

/Hi. Thanks again for the other night./

Nishinoya gave him a thumbs up.

/no PRblm. U bEttR?/

/Much. Well. Yes./

Nishinoya tilted his head to the side.

/Much->YEs ???? WhiCH/

Asahi tapped his pen against the notepad before resigning himself to veracity.

/Some. So halfway between much and yes. Tired./

Nishinoya made a sympathetic face. He leaned forward, his fingertips grazing the glass. It took Asahi a moment to realize what he was doing. Prodding at the dark circles under his eyes. Missing by a few centimeters thanks to the barrier between them.

Asahi pulled back, his cheeks flushed and his stomach rolling with embarrassment. He knew he still looked a mess. And Nishinoya was probably just concerned—

Asahi shoved the panicked line of thought aside as Nishinoya touched his own face, giving him a sheepish smile. Asahi frowned and leaned forward, his eyes widening when he realized that the bags underneath Nishinoya’s eyes the other man was pointing to almost matched his own in terms of severity.

He quickly grabbed his pen again.

/What happened?!/

Nishinoya visibly sighed. He coated the window with soap.

/InSUm

Again.

/InSAMn

Again.

/COUldnT SlEEp/

Asahi winced.

/For how long?/

Nishinoya shrugged and waved his hand in the air. No idea, clearly. Probably not paying attention.

Asahi clicked his tongue in worry, flushing again when Nishinoya laughed and pointed at him through the glass.

/U LooK oLD whEn U Do ThaT/

/You do it all the time./

/I SoUNd cooL prbBLy/

/I could sound cool too./

/No ur 2—

Nishinoya stopped writing, obviously thinking hard.

—2 biG-BROthEr./

Big brother?

/What do you mean?/

Nishinoya crossed his arms over his chest, his brow furrowing.

/RoLE MoDEl/

Asahi sat back, half irritated half… pleased.

/Really different reaction than what I’m used to./

/???/

Asahi sighed and tugged at his hair.

/Used to have long hair. And a beard here./

He tapped his chin.

/Corporate likes the clean-shaven look./

Nishinoya’s eyes widened. He peered at Asahi through the glass, and then grabbed his sponge. He carefully dabbed it against the window, leaving little streaks behind. It wasn’t until he sat back and made a frame with his forefingers and thumbs that Asahi realized what he was doing.

/The look probably would work better without soap./

/U’D LooK

Nishinoya paused, dramatically clutching at his chest.

/…CooL. W/ThaT/

Asahi laughed, quickly stifling it behind his hand.

/Why so pained?/

/BC Ur A NERD/

Nishinoya laughed, lightly hitting his hand against the glass.

/HuGE nERd. w/ SoFT NerD FeaTURES/

Soft nerd features…

Asahi held up his hand, pointing triumphantly at the calluses he had. From. When he used to work on bikes when he’d had free time. They were fading fast. Good thing Nishinoya had chosen then to mock him. Another month and they’d probably be gone.

Nishinoya leaned forward, his nose practically touching the glass.

‘I CAN’T SEE,’ he mouthed.

Asahi tensed, almost hearing the voice in his head. Nishinoya’s voice from the phone – it was too hard to link with the broken language he used with the soap writing but when he did that. It matched. Asahi could hear him.

Asahi scooted forward a bit, cautiously pressing his hand against the glass. He felt on edge. Not the sort that Nishinoya’s feet were dangling over. Somehow more reckless. Vague feelings of lacking any kind of safety regulation.

Nishinoya sat back, regarding Asahi’s hand for a moment. He flexed his fingers, splaying them out as he slowly lined up his palm with Asahi’s. His fingers. Fingertips.

Asahi found himself holding his breath, watching through the glass as Nishinoya scrutinized their hands. The tendons on the back of his hand flexed as he moved, his short, slim fingers disappearing behind Asahi’s bigger ones.

His hands were so small. Pressed against the other side of three centimeters of glass. But his nails were torn, his knuckles cracked and dry. Hours of water seeping into the skin, evaporating, taking moisture with it. Asahi could almost feel the calluses pressing against his own. Piercing the glass, etched into by blunted, dirty nails.

His hands were so small.

Nishinoya sat back, suddenly pulling away from the glass. His hand was fisted in a ball at his side, and for a moment he almost looked angry.

Asahi withdrew as well, heat on his palm lingering longer than physics dictated it should have.

Nishinoya’s expression was still pinched.

Asahi warred with himself before finally grabbing his pen.

/u OK?/

Written in the backwards, nearly-illegible script.

It took Nishinoya a moment to notice it. His lips parted in a little ‘ah’ before a tentative smile conquered his features. He stared through the glass at the three little letters for a very long time before he suddenly sighed and leaned forward, his forehead clunking softly against the glass. He breathed on it, wrote, /YES/ and waited for it to fade before letting his head rest against the smooth surface again.

Asahi let out a sigh of relief, leaning forward as well. His forehead touched the glass, right over Nishinoya’s. Like a magnet. Electro-magnetism, maybe. Wasn’t that something the body had? Or was that just fish and sharks.

Nishinoya’s eyes were closed. When Asahi pulled away slightly he could see just how long his lashes were. Dark barcode lines against his cheek. The shock of blonde hair that peeked out from underneath his helmet was slowly dancing against the glass, trapped between the red plastic brim and Nishinoya’s forehead.

He looked exhausted. For the first time, Asahi felt their positions reversed. That Nishinoya was the caged, quiet animal and he the loud tourist banging on the glass.

Asahi hesitated and then carefully pressed his palm against the glass. He tapped his nail, blunted from the keyboard, against the glass.

Nishinoya slowly lifted his head. He stared at Asahi’s palm, a dark look flashing across his light eyes before he let out a little sigh and smiled. His hand rested over Asahi’s again, and a moment later he laughed. Visibly forced.

Soap. Left-hand writing.

/UR HAndS BIG/

Asahi struggled with the pen for a moment before he gave up and quickly switched hands. Left against glass, right holding pen. Probably would work better.

/Like sasquatch. Makes it hard to type./

Nishinoya switched hands as well.

/BiG’s GOOd./

Asahi snorted quietly and underlined the last sentence. He held the notepad up against the glass, tapping just a bit for emphasis. Nishinoya stuck out his tongue, and Asahi saw him mumble, ‘Yeah, yeah…’

/MiNe’RE sml/

Nishinoya’s finger lingered on the last letter, dragging the line down, down through the soap.

Something told Asahi not to agree directly with that statement. True though it was.

/Probably good for your line of work./

Nishinoya shrugged. Mouthed ‘NOT REALLY’ and wiggled his fingers.

/They’re proportional?/

He winced when Nishinoya glared at him through the glass, looking honestly angry for a few seconds before he let out what must have been a groan and hit himself in the forehead. None too lightly from the look of it.

/SrY. I’M weIRD abt THiS StuFF/

/What stuff?/

Nishinoya gave him a look and wiggled his fingers and tapped the top of his helmet. But then he shrugged again, a bit of lightness returning to his movements.

/MaKEs IT eaSY 2 HauL MyseLF I GuESS/

Asahi nodded as enthusiastically as he could and quickly wrote, /And you would make an efficient SpiderMan./

Nishinoya’s eyes widened and he suddenly burst out laughing. He pressed both his hands against the glass, mouthing, ‘NERD,’ slow enough for Asahi to read. Asahi rolled his eyes dramatically enough for Nishinoya to see.

/You’re the one who said he reads comic books./

Asahi cautiously rested his hands over Nishinoya’s again, trying to bend his fingers to make them look smaller.

Nishinoya wrinkled his nose, stretching his fingers wider until his fingertips were flush with Asahi’s.

Asahi watched, guarded and nervous that he might ruin it by moving, as something in Nishinoya’s expression slowly unwound. His fingers stopped straining. Palms and wrists relaxed. And after a moment’s pause Asahi followed suit, letting his fingers stretch back out to their normal length.

Nishinoya blinked slowly, and Asahi thought of cats lying atop stone fences. Regarding. Slow blinks, content.

Nishinoya’s right hand suddenly moved.

Soap.

/you’re nice./

More soap.

/you should be careful with that./

Asahi lowered his hands when Nishinoya did. The other man’s expression was serious. Guarded in a way that thickened the glass. Made it wavy, dense. Asahi could barely see him.

He picked up his notepad, wrote, held it up to the glass.

/You’re nice, too./

He faltered. Wrote again.

/And I like your hands./

He barely held up the notepad long enough for Nishinoya to read. It was so childish, stupid he shouldn’t have said anything, was probably just feeding into the other man’s insecurity.

For a moment Asahi wasn’t sure Nishinoya had registered the sentence. But a split second later and Nishinoya’s cheeks were dark red. The glass was clear. Mere millimeters thick.

Nishinoya worried at his lip, his gaze darting down to his hands before he pressed his palms against his face. He inhaled, so deeply Asahi could nearly count his ribs, and then breathed out. The glass fogged up.

When he lowered his hands the cat was gone. So too was the guarded man, the too-thin glass. Everything was normal, smile, soap, cursory goodbye hastily scrawled.

But then Nishinoya paused. His fingertip still pressed against the pane.

He wrote. Slowly.

/3984-5576/

It took Asahi a moment.

He grabbed his pen, wrote his own cell number on the paper and held it up.

Nishinoya leaned in close, mouthing the numbers over and over again. Twenty seconds worth of memorization and he sat back, his eyes closed, lips still moving.

When he opened his eyes he smiled. Mouthed ‘TALK TO YOU LATER’ and splashed water over the numbers.

Just before he dropped down he pressed his hand against the glass again. When he left, Asahi could still see a faint outline of slim fingers, the oils in his palm slowly etching their way into the window.

-/-

It was Sunday.

Asahi didn’t know it was Sunday because he forgot to turn off his alarm. For a long time he didn’t know it was Sunday. He made it all the way to the train station before he saw the different train arrival times and put two and two together and knew that it was Sunday.

He sat down on a bench next to an ice cream vending machine and stared through the chain link fence. The tracks were slightly elevated. He could see the tops of cars. His building down the street slightly and to the right. Black and white monstrosity. 1K. Maybe ½ K. The kitchen could practically fit in the palm of his hand.

Asahi glanced down at his palm. His skin felt cooler. Pressure against his fingertips. Smooth. He’d felt it all week, the glass against his hand. Warmed from the other side.

And his briefcase was trying to jump off the bench – shit

Asahi caught his bag before it fell. It was vibrating.

Curious, he pulled out his phone. It was seven thirty on a Sunday morning.

And he recognized that number.

Asahi stared at the digits lighting up the surface of his phone. He hadn’t put in his name, for some reason. So instead all he had were eight numbers staring up at him. Asking.

Tonk tonk

Asahi felt his hand shaking. A different sort of glass. A clearer message.

God he was terrified.

Why was he terrified? Was that a proper reaction or was he just too tired, too loopy to process things properly.

His thumb barely tapped the surface. He pressed the glass to his ear.

Tonk tonk

Asahi cleared his throat. Terror lessening to nervous.

“Hello?”

“AH!”

Asahi jerked his phone away from his ear, staring at it in surprise. What –

It was making more noise.

He cautiously pressed it to his ear again. Laughter.

“You picked up!”

Nishinoya.

Asahi had to bite his lip to keep from saying his name. To confirm or greet. To give a name to this oddity on a Sunday morning that was, in actuality, a perfectly normal event.

Or maybe it was just happiness that moved his tongue.

He said it anyway.

“Nishinoya.”

“Azumane.”

Asahi tightened his grip on the phone. He could see the red helmet. Blonde hair. Bear honey eyes. Terrifying occupational hazards.

Nishinoya laughed again.

“I like that. Very classy, no pretense.”

A pause.

“Sorry – ah, shit it’s still so early. I went out drinking last night with some buddies – sort of. Lost track of time, I guess. Not that – I’m not… I’m not an. Alcoholic. God –okay your way of starting the conversation was much better.”

“You’re fine,” Asahi said softly. The tracks were starting to rumble. “I like this way too.”

He heard Nishinoya click his tongue.

“Ah, I knew it. You’re still asleep? Half asleep? Or – … is that a train?! Are you on a train?!”

“Platform,” Asahi said, raising his voice to be heard over the incoming noise. “I also had a uh. Temporal confusion? Forgot what day it was. Started to head into work.”

“You mean you don’t work on Sundays? Get a load of this slacker.”

Asahi tightened his grip on his phone, too tired to move from the bench. He watched the few people straggle off the train. Sad salarymen and women in suits. Working on a Sunday.

“I – I feel awful for asking this but I need you to tell me you’re joking so I don’t actually start to feel guilty for not going into work,” Asahi said weakly.

“You’re not a slacker, Azumane.”

Nishinoya’s reply came immediately.

Then a pause.

“You are a little neurotic, though.”

Asahi clamped a hand over his mouth, exhaustion making it easier to laugh.

“Azumane—”

“Azumane, did I break you?”

“Azumane you’re wheezing.”

“It wasn’t that funny.”

“Azumane say something!”

Asahi lowered his hand, taking a few slow breaths to calm down. Nishinoya was right. It wasn’t that funny. It was just exhaustion. Exhaustion and Nishinoya, some fantastical combination of the two of them and ice cream vending machines and Sunday morning.

Asahi tilted his head back, his eyes slipping shut. His ear was silent for a long time.

“…Azumane?”

Asahi let out a puff of air, warring with himself for a bit before he spoke.

“Asahi.”

“…Uh?”

“You can call me – just. Asahi is fine,” Asahi said, slowly pushing himself to his feet. “If you want. I – I don’t know how old you are, but it’s not like we’re in the same line of business or work in the same— it should be okay – if, uh, if I made you. Uncomfortable? Or – I don’t know. No one used my last name in college and now all I associate it with is work and my dad so—”

“Asahi.”

Asahi bit his lip, hugging his briefcase against his chest with one arm. His phone felt warm. It was burning his ear.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

A pause.

“You… I mean if you want. You – uh.”

Nishinoya cleared his throat and Asahi thought he heard him mutter ‘never mind’ before he said in a normal voice, “You still at the station? Actually going to board or are you just sort of… loitering.”

“I’m heading home now,” Asahi admitted, skirting back through the barrier after waving apologetically at the station attendant who let him through.

“What’s home like?”

“Home’s tiny,” Asahi said, pausing at a crossing as the lights blinked and the chimes chimed. “Just a one room apartment. I live around Ochanomizu. You?”

“What – no way! I’m in Roppongi but I go shopping around Ocha station all the time – all the snowboarding shops are awesome—”

“Oh – yeah, in the Kanda area? Around where the book sellers’ district is?”

“Maybe?” Nishinoya laughed sheepishly. “Don’t, uh… don’t really pay much attention to that part.”

“It’s neat. Lots of nice cafes and… an. Overwhelming number of books,” Asahi said, pausing in front of the station bakery. “…I have a question.”

“Shoot.”

“Do I buy myself a pity loaf of bread.”

“A pity – why pity loaf.”

“Because I wasted my once-a-week opportunity to sleep in.”

“Oh man, Azu – hi. Azuhi. Asahi. That’s so depressing.”

“The bread or that I can’t sleep in.”

“Both. Get something more exciting.”

“…Two loaves of bread.”

“Asahi!”

Nishinoya laughed and Asahi smiled. He stepped inside the bakery, grabbing a tray.

“They have a melon bread here that has melon-flavored custard in it,” he said quietly, lowering his voice to match the peaceful atmosphere of the bakery. There was soft classical music playing. He was the only one in the small shop.

“That sounds amazing. Get it.”

Asahi dutifully grabbed one of the little round breads.

“What’s it smell like?”

Asahi paused.

“…The bread? Artificial melon, mostly.”

“No. The bakery.”

Asahi cautiously sniffed the air.

“…Bread. Just generic. Lacking artificial melon.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“Fresh bread?” Asahi weakly tried again.

Nishinoya laughed.

“Better! Okay, better. I’m picturing it.”

“Via smell?”

“Via smell. Oh – oh get something filled with cheese. There’s these little poofy breads at the bakery near my place. They’re really chewy and have cheese in the batter or something…”

Asahi grabbed a bread filled with cheese and headed to the register. The man behind the counter greeted him with a tense smile that judged his phone usage. Asahi gamely ignored the disapproval.

“So what are you going to do with your day, Asahi? Besides eat what sounds like some choice baked goods.”

“I don’t know,” Asahi murmured, his voice sinking down to a whisper when the cashier’s disapproving expression evolved from subtle to blatant. Asahi quickly deposited his money on the tray and grabbed the bag, high-tailing it out of there.

“Are you gonna work on my game?”

Nishinoya sounded so hopeful. But the thought of programming on his day off made Asahi feel a little ill.

“Maybe.”

Nishinoya laughed again.

“That’s a no—you’re shit at lying, Asahi.”

“I know…”

“Even when we’re talking through the glass. Your finger does this weird little tap on the pen when you’re trying to be cagey.”

“It does?”

“And it takes you forever! You think too much.”

“I’m quite positive that’s true, but I’m not sure what’s to be done about it.”

“Do a mind-meld with me. I think too little so it would balance out perfectly.”

“Doesn’t—thinking too little seems kind of dangerous in your line work.”

“You act like I’m out there without any safety equipment, Asahi. Haven’t you read the lettering on my helmet like a million times? ‘Safety first,’ remember?”

Asahi stopped at a red light. He could see the four characters. They were white against the red of Nishinoya’s helmet.

“You seem like the type to ignore safety regulations, though.”

“Me?”

Nishinoya laughed again. It wasn’t as kind. But whatever else had replaced the kindness wasn’t aimed at him.

“You still don’t know me that well yet, I guess. That’s okay. I’m pretty by the books, actually. I work quickly – that’s, uh. I mean I kind of have to so I can make up time. But yeah when you work quickly you have to make sure everything’s safe since reaction time is so critical.”

“Oh,” Asahi said quietly. His stomach twisted. It wasn’t a good feeling.

He crossed the road in silence, jogging the last few steps as the light began to change. Nishinoya was silent on the other end of the line. He seemed to know Asahi needed the quiet.

Suddenly Nishinoya spoke.

“It’s okay, you know. We’re learning.”

Asahi’s steps faltered.

“What –”

“It’d be just a little weird if you knew every detail about my personality already, Asahi.”

There was a little smile in Nishinoya’s voice. Asahi could hear it. It made his chest warm.

“True,” he said quietly, ducking down the side street that led to his apartment building. “Guess I should fire that private investigator, huh.”

He had to pull the phone away from his ear, the speaker unable to cope with the sudden surge in volume. The fingerprints smudge on the screen practically vibrated off the glass.

Asahi took advantage of Nishinoya being momentarily out of commission to key in the passcode to his building and hop in the elevator. By the time the doors slid shut Nishinoya had recovered.

“Oh shit – oh… aha, dammit I think I woke up my roommate… I was being so careful…”

“You have a roommate?” Asahi asked, pitching his voice lower in sympathy.

“Yeah – kind of a sarcastic weirdo.”

“Oh…”

“You two would probably get along.”

“Hey—”

“It’s a compliment. Kuroo’s a great guy.”

Asahi paused in the middle of keying in the code to his apartment door. Nishinoya laughed.

“I can hear you stewing. What’s up, Asahi?”

“…Nothing,” Asahi muttered, finishing keying in the code and heading into his apartment.

“Out with it.”

Asahi kicked off his shoes and stumbled up into the entryway.

“What kind of name is ‘Kuroo.’ Is he a superhero?”

“Only if you count ‘secretly an insecure loser’ as a super power.”

Asahi pursed his lips, for some reason not liking how airy Nishinoya’s voice was. The slight tinge of admiration. It made his lungs tighten.

He squashed that little feeling. Forced air back into his lungs. It took effort.

“…well you’ll have to tell him he can join my super league, then.”

“Your – oh, oh very clever.” Nishinoya snorted. “You don’t come off as a secretly insecure loser.”

“Yeah I tend to wear that badge right on my sleeve,” Asahi muttered. He switched the phone to speaker and set it on the counter before grabbing plates and dumping some water into his electric kettle. Above the sound of rushing water he could hear Nishinoya snort. On the speakerphone the sound was strange. Echoy.

“You’re awfully hard on yourself, Asahi.”

“…I guess,” Asahi mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. That hadn’t been something Nishinoya would have said. Would approve of. He felt it in the spark relaying their conversation. It was suddenly much dimmer.

The teapot whistled and he poured himself a cup.

“You guess.”

Nishinoya sounded ticked.

“I guess.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that – it’s. It’s a habit. I’m sorry if it was weird or – off-putting.”

“Yeah it kind of was—” Asahi winced so hard at the blunt tone he nearly spilled his tea. “—usually when people do that they’re joking around or wasted. Either way they don’t mean it. Like – no offense, Asahi, but what am I supposed to say to that? You have to know I’m not going to agree.”

Asahi fiddled with his cup. He felt about a centimeter tall.

“Usually people just ignore it or… laugh awkwardly,” he mumbled. The cup was burning his palms. He couldn’t let it go.

“Oh.”

A pause.

“Yeah I really hate that. And I’m not gonna do it. You shouldn’t be a dick to yourself, Asahi.”

“Okay.”

Millimeter tall.

“Asahi.”

Asahi stared at his reflection in the cup.

“Yeah.”

“I’m not going to shit on stuff I like.”

“Oh.”

“Or let other people.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Asahi.”

“What.”

“This is me telling you I like you.”

Asahi stared at his phone. The surface was smudged in little patterns. Told what aps he’d been using. Mostly his credit card. Train pass.

He swallowed. Didn’t work, his throat was too try it just hurt. Liked. Liked liked what did that mean.

“You—”

“You’re a good guy, Asahi.”

Nishinoya spoke quickly. His words stumbling over themselves. He didn’t seem to have heard Asahi. “Well, from what I can tell based on being all National Geographic and observing you in your work environment, anyway. But yeah you seem like a good guy—”

Oh.

“—and I mean… I wouldn’t be calling you hungover on a Sunday if you weren’t. It’s weird – soon as I saw the stupid sign on the door and knew I’d have to wait I was like – it just felt like the time to try your number. See if what you gave me was legit. See how much I can piss off the neighbors with my loud conversation. I’ve gotten three cursewords hurled at me, by the way, for those of you keeping score at home.”

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” Asahi mumbled, tugging at a lock of hair. He grabbed the paper bag, his tea, his phone, and walked into his room to sit on his bed. He left the phone on his pillow, tea on the floor.

He paused, mid crossing his legs to sit atop his bed.

“Wait – sign on the door?”

“Oh… ah, yeah. We’ve got this system…” Nishinoya sighed. It wasn’t a happy noise. “Means he’s got a girl over. I’m being a good roommate, waiting until it’s not eight in the morning on Sunday to barge in there. He got me my current job, so…”

Asahi latched onto the new conversation thread.

“You’re not even inside the apartment? And current job? What’d you do before?”

“Like five thousand different things, can’t hold anything down. Keep bouncing around. Vet tech, got fired from that… Mos Burger… fired from that too. Couldn’t get the rice patties to keep their shape. And no, I’m out in the hallway and… ugh, it’s a really small place and Kuroo’s bedroom is just… it looks like a serial killer lives there. Way, way too neat. Practically sterile. So I know for an unfortunate fact that when or if ever he does bring a girl over he almost never lets them in there. There’s a futon in the living room – an American style one, they’re like really uncomfortable sofas.”

Nishinoya paused for dramatic effect.

“It squeaks really loudly. I could hear it all the way out here in the hall.”

“That’s – that’s so dis—”

“—disgusting, I know.” Nishinoya gagged and Asahi laughed. The spark crackled, a bit brighter.

“…Do you think – I’m hoping your room is off limits,” Asahi said quietly, trying for teasing. He was rewarded with an immediate, “GROSS ASAHI” and another burst of laughter.

“Shh – god, Nishinoya you’re so loud. How have you only been cursed out three times?”

“I lied – it’s a solid dozen by now.”

Nishinoya didn’t sound all that upset about it.

“Okay enough of my roommate’s bizarro mating habits. How’s the bread?”

Asahi made a little ‘ah’ noise.

“Forgot about it.”

“Unbelievable.”

“I am the worst.”

Asahi froze, waited. Joking. He was just joking, it wasn’t like the other time he had to tell, had to pad had to cage –

The phone was silent for nearly two seconds before Nishinoya laughed.

“You are the worst, Asahi. Eat your bread. Let me live vicariously through you.”

Asahi let out a sigh of relief. No lecture.

He tore the cheese bread in half.

“Hungry?”

“Starved,” Nishinoya groaned. “It’s like my body knows how much I threw up last night and wants to make up for the lost calories. And then some.”

Asahi hummed in sympathy.

“I’ve never thrown up from drinking too much.”

“Oh…”

“Or had a hangover.”

“Oh – wait, what?! You’re lying.”

“Never.”

“Not even a tiny one?”

“No. I’m incredibly paranoid about drinking enough water.”

“Oh my god.”

Nishinoya’s voice was approaching something of a wail. Sea creatures were probably the only beings capable to responding to it.

“That’s not fair!”

“Probably not,” Asahi agreed, tearing into the bread. He barely tasted it. It was incredibly delicious.

“We’ll have to go out drinking sometime. You can teach me your secre—oh!”

There came a flurry of noise from the other end of the line. Asahi lowered his tea, staring nervously at the phone. Another voice. Slightly deeper than Nishinoya’s, nasal at the same time. A third, higher.

The speaker crackled.

“Asahi?”

Asahi swallowed his mouthful.

“Yeah?”

“I woke them up anyway so I’m gonna go barricade myself in my room and sleep this off.”

“Ah – okay.”

“Thanks for the company.”

He meant it. Asahi could hear the verve embedded in the four words. Sincere, insistent.

“Any time.”

Nishinoya hummed, the sound making Asahi’s phone vibrate.

“Good. I’ll take you up on that. Talk to you later, Asahi.”

The phone went silent.

Asahi picked it up. Opened the menu to recent calls.

Forty nine minutes. Unregistered name.

Asahi tapped the number, in the box marked ‘name’ typed slowly and deliberately.

Forty nine minutes. Nishinoya Yū.

-/-

“—next Tuesday as well. And then the Asagawa account. Azumane, have you looked into that?”

Asahi flipped through his files so quickly he gave himself a papercut. Ignore ignore ignore where was the Asagawa account – god why wasn’t he more organized why wasn’t he better slept—

Oh thank god.

“Yes – yes, development’s been in touch, we should have it shipped out within the week.”

“Make it within the next three days. We don’t have time for this. Run those numbers again, see if you can get me a better estimate. We’ll break for lunch. Everyone prepare for the Yamazaki meeting, reconvene in a half hour.”

The conference room was suddenly overrun with the wailing of plastic wheels against wooden floors. Asahi remained in his corner, pretending to busy himself with an empty binder until everyone else had filed out.

The moment the last pair of shoes crossed the threshold he sunk down in his chair, letting out a slow breath. He held out his hand. Fingers were still trembling. Paper slice still bleeding. Exhaustion, public speaking nerves. Poor organizational skills. Nothing ever good enough.

He was never going to get used to this.

Moniwa had barely taken a breath the entire two hours. And every five minutes there was a question about a different account. Specs, projections, extrapolations, actuaries and numbers and it was impossible, it was impossible to know that much information that quickly.

And he was still just as nervous as he’d been day one. Eight months later.

Asahi held out his hand again.

Better. Good enough.

He gathered his things and slipped out of the conference room, keeping his head down until he was behind the safe, beige walls of his cubicle. The ropes were already dangling outside the window. Red helmet a moment later.

Nishinoya waved, grinning brightly.

/YOOoooo/

Asahi waved tiredly in return and then held up two fingers. Twenty minutes. Barely any time for anything. And he had to eat lunch.

Nishinoya made a little face and erased some of the superfluous ‘o’s. He mouthed ‘SORRY’ and then tapped his finger against the glass over Asahi’s stomach, raising an eyebrow. Asahi rolled his eyes and grabbed his lunch, pulling the cover off to show Nishinoya the rice balls and burdock root side dish. Nishinoya gave him an approving nod. For some reason it made Asahi’s skin crawl with frustration. Of course he’d eat lunch. He wasn’t an idiot.

/U mAkE?/

Asahi nodded, already shoveling food in his mouth. Nishinoya would probably want to play the game. He had to eat fast.

Nishinoya made a little face and wrote /2 fast/ on the window before hopping over to quickly clean the other windows outside Asahi’s line of vision. By the time he returned Asahi had polished off his lunch and was booting up the game. He held the screen up to the window, relaxing slightly when Nishinoya’s eyes lit up.

/ChanGES?/

/Fixed that one boss. Should be beatable now./

Nishinoya’s expression crumpled.

/I COUld dO/

/It was literally impossible/

/FeW moRE tRIES/

/Still impossible/

Nishinoya looked close to sulking.

/HoW Do U kno/

Asahi frowned, trying to remember what it was about the code that had tipped him off. His head hurt. It was hard to think.

/Instinct. I guess./

Nishinoya’s eyes flashed with interest. He leaned closer, watching the little animation Asahi had programmed into the loading screen.

Soap.

/Ur gud @ ThiS/

Asahi shrugged, too tired to relish the praise like he normally might have allowed himself. For the few seconds before his more realistic opinion of his abilities would set in.

/I like it. It’s easy to be decent at the things you like./

Nishinoya nodded slowly.

/TrU./

He furrowed his brows, short fingers absently toying with his sponge before he wiped away his last message.

/Y isn’T GamE ur JOb?/

/GamE ProGRammING I Mean/

Asahi sat back, rereading the words several times. It was a valid question. The only answer he could think of was pathetic. Nishinoya would shoot it down instantly. Which would be fine if he were joking or if this were a light conversation. But the way Nishinoya was staring at him intently through the glass, the calm razor in his stare. It wasn’t a ‘which power ranger would you be’ question. It was a ‘why do you sound so tired, Asahi’ question. The sort that led to Nishinoya talking passionately for ten minutes at one in the morning. Mixing lecture, support, tangents about the size of the Earth relative to Venus, impossible to stop until Nishinoya got the answer he wanted to hear. They were exhausting questions. As much as Asahi wanted to value them, knew he should value them because he would never ask himself the sorts of questions Nishinoya did, it was hard when you really didn’t see how the Earth’s size relative to Venus had anything to do with bullying in middle school. Especially at one in the morning.

And today. Two meetings in, two to go. It made him feel drained just thinking about it.

Asahi flipped his pen between his fingers for a few moments. Honesty or energy conservation.

With a heavy sigh Asahi opted for the former.

He held up the notepad, hoping Nishinoya would let it go.

/Because this is my job./

Nishinoya’s light brown eyes slowly lifted from the page. They regarded him. Unimpressed.

/4 nOW mAyBE/

/U caN SwiTCH/

Nishinoya double-tapped the spot under the word ‘can’.

/I’m aware of that./

/So Y Not?/

More soap.

/Ur NoT hapPY/

A spark of anger made Asahi’s fingers twitch.

/I’m fine./

He practically heard Nishinoya snort.

/U HatE ur JOB/

Spark to lit match.

The pen nib ripped the page.

/I never said that/

/I cAN tEll/

/AlwAYS tirED u wERE hERE laSt WEEKend 2/

/I have to pull my weight. It isn’t fair if I’m the only one that doesn’t come in./

Nishinoya’s fingers tugged at his helmet strap. His seat was starting to sway. When he hastily wiped the soap away it left a filmy residue behind.

/Ur SO GOOD @ gamE. U NEvER want 2 DO uR job/

/That isn’t true/

/U CompLAIN evry WEEkenD/

/U NEveR waNT 2 go IN/

/If my complaining bothers you, please tell me next time./

Nishinoya rolled his eyes so hard Asahi was surprised he didn’t fall off his seat.

/NoT ThE poiNT/

/So it does bother you./

/I diDN’t sAy thAT/

/AlL I saID wAS u hatE UR job/

/AnD u StiLL havEn’T DEniED it/

/I don’t hate my job/

‘LIAR’

Nishinoya mouthed the word clearly enough for Asahi to read. His expression was stubborn, eyes narrowed.

/Y R u FiGhtING me oN ThiS/

/UR MiSEraBLE aLL thE TimE/

/Ur JOB iS KiLLinG u AnD u don’T CARe/

/U cAN do SomETHing BEttER/

/JuST cARE even hALF a PERcenT!/

Asahi glared at Nishinoya through the glass, his heart racing in his chest and his stomach twisting in on itself. Nishinoya looked close to angry. Probably because he knew he was right. He knew he was right and he knew Asahi knew.

But exhaustion, pride, fear. They clung to ignorance. Familiarity.

That and Nishinoya was being a huge asshole.

Asahi scribbled his last line on the notebook, impulsive, angry, misspelled. He threw the notebook down in front of the window before pushing himself to his feet. He grabbed his binders.

Tonk!

Grabbed his laptop too, he’d need it for the Asagawa account. The PowerPoint was only half finished. He had a few minutes.

Tonk Tonk Tonk Tonk TONK TONKTONKTON—

“God dammit what the fuck is that noise?” Hanamaki snapped, peering out of his cubicle. His hands were pressed over his ears. “Azumane, what is that?!”

“Window washer,” Asahi muttered, storming down the hallway towards the conference room. “He’ll probably tire himself out in a second.”

“…Not gonna ask how the hell you know that,” Hanamaki said, pushing himself out of his seat and following after Asahi, who did his best to ignore his new shadow.

“You okay though? Azumane?”

His new, persistent shadow.

“Yes.”

Asahi made use of the kickplate at the bottom of the conference door. Hanamaki hung back.

“…Okay. You got the presentation ready for the Asaga—”

“Yes.”

Asahi could still hear the window shuttering. Knuckles against glass. Not even caring if they were heard, struck only to make a point.

“Shut the door, Hanamaki.”

“…Sure thing.”

Hanamaki stepped back into the hallway, letting the conference room door slide shut.

Asahi booted up his computer, waited for work to sink its claws into his brain, keep it squared on the task ahead and not on the notepad abandoned in front of the window.

He got to work.

When Moniwa came in to set up the projector, Asahi lifted his head, listened for the glass. It was silent.

Chairs rolled. Wooden floors protested and people spoke, Asahi’s voice among them. Clipped. No one asked if he was okay. Hanamaki might have been signaling them. More likely they were wary of the tempers exhaustion and stress could breed. Calm, calm, didn’t have to be happy as long as sadness wasn’t officially welcomed in.

When the conference room door was opened again, the windows showed the softened darkness of the city after sunset. The small office space was flooded with goodbyes, promises of drinking, last trains on weekends barely caught, four A.M. taco stand runs and splitting cab fares.

“Azumane – hey, you coming?”

Asahi glanced up from his desk. Hanamaki had propped his chin up on the top of his cubicle wall and was staring down at him. He raised a pale eyebrow.

“C’mon. Moniwa’s buying. You could use a beer.”

“Several, maybe,” Asahi said. The anger had left him halfway into hour three of the meeting. He felt scraped open. Messy. Like only his skin was left.

Hanamaki hummed in response and reached over to clap him on the shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind Asahi’s lack of insides. Or notice.

“Several, sure. Meet in the lobby in five.”

He left.

Asahi leaned back in his chair, not wanting to pick up the notepad or look at the window. If this were a drama, there’d be a message there. Something to make him feel guilty or relieved. Draw the plot forward, resolve.

He turned in his chair and picked the notepad up off the floor. His handwriting was messy. Missed character in one place. Wrong radical. Still comprehensible.

/mind yuor own fucking business nishinoya/

Asahi tore the page out. Pen pressure had burnished the characters onto the next few pages. Ruined them.

He looked up from the notebook.

The city beyond the glass was beautiful. The undersides of the clouds drinking in the last few streaks of the peach foam sunset. Streams of cars, silently winding their way between the buildings, sleeping giants with their insides still hard at work.

Asahi’s window was spotless.