"Yeah. Hey. It’s uh… been awhile.”
His voice was the same. Gentle, earnest, and sharp as a knife underneath. His face, his sleepy eyes, his stupid side part were all the same. He was still the most understated person Keiji had ever met. Knowing how attractive he was had been like holding a secret over everyone else’s heads. Including Chikara’s. Dressed in a very familiar, very expensive tux with an orange rose in the lapel, he still had no idea how good he looked in it.
“My name is Keiji Akaashi. I’d ap-appreciate it if you’d go. This may come as a shock, but I don’t have anything to say- to say to you.”
What else were you supposed tell to someone you didn’t want to talk to?
“Look,” Chikara dropped any pretense of this being an accidental meeting, “I know I don’t deserve a minute of your time. I’m here because I can help.”
Where had this starry-eyed optimism come from?
“Help?” the word came out with a mortifying sniff. “If you think giving me unrequested assistance is going to affect some rec-rec-reconciliation–”
“Kaash er… Akaashi,” Chikara took a few steps closer, “I know. I ran away. I was a coward. I ruined everything because I couldn’t be honest with you.”
“Perhaps you should run away again. Permanently.”
The nice thing about this sort of anger was it drove away tears fairly quickly. His voice was back to its cold, emotionless self.
But Chikara didn’t leave.
“Can I sit down?” he all but begged. “I’m not tough enough to tell you all this while I’m standing.”
Keiji took a dozen breaths of the dusty, stale air.
“F……….fine,” he dropped his legs to the step below him and turned his back away from the wall. Chikara slid into the empty spot, the thud of his chucks reverberating down the stairwell. There was a long pause allowing the short distance between them to grow into some kind of windswept chasm.
“I sometimes think winning might have been the worst thing that ever happened to us.”
But they had so what was the point of bringing it up?
“It’s like,” he continued, accurately not expecting a response, “when a company just starting out suddenly gets tons and tons of business. Then they collapse under the weight of their own success. That’s what happened to us.”
Keiji… couldn’t argue with that clearly rehearsed speech. He turned his head, and glanced at his former best friend out of the corner of his eye. Contradicting his pulled together entrance, Chikara’s hands were shaking terribly, his face was white, and he looked like he was going to cry. It made Keiji feel better about the knowledge that his stuttering was going to get worse. In fact, he seemed to be the more collected of the two of them.
“My mom’s a finance pr-pr-professor,” and there it was. Self-fulfilling prophecy. “I’m familiar with enterprise m……..aturity.” He sighed, “Additionally, I was also present.”
“I know you were!” Chikara turned and waved his hand over his head in little circles, the way he always had when he thought something was obvious. A small gesture originally created to make fun of their sixth grade teacher that had remained a secret between them. “And you know, winning was… well, it was unbelievable and then the after party and then…” his face flushed.
“And then we had sex,” Keiji deadpanned, looking straight ahead.
“Yes. We did, and it was perfect. Everything was perfect… especially you.”
Keiji turned to tell him that no, he had been fumbling and awkward in very typical losing one’s virginity fashion. He was certain that, despite all his research and trembling efforts, he’d hurt Chikara during the process.
He didn’t get the chance.
“God, Keiji, it meant so much to me,” Chikara said with a distant sadness. “I hope you at least know that. But everything was overwhelming. I couldn’t process that much good at once. Then after…”
“It was hell,” Keiji gave him the gift of brief eye contact, though he immediately regretted it because Chikara was crying. Tears dripped sloppily down his face, and his eyes were scrunched up beyond recognition.
“It was,” he managed to keep his voice even despite his tears. “No one cared about our film, they just wanted to talk about us being gay, in love, and winning with something we’d made when we were sixteen.”
Keiji had never really stopped to think about how, in the ensuing chaos, their film itself had been ignored. How that had cut into Chikara’s soul. Keiji had cared about the process, the experience. Working together. He hadn’t cared about the product in the same way. The film Chikara had wanted to create just wasn’t Keiji’s medium.
“I know,” he gave in. “I have a restraining order on several members of the p-pap-p-aparazzi.” He tried for a bit of sour jocularity, “It was funny at times. Mom did spent that night in jail for kneecaping that photographer with a tire iron. It was pretty heartwarming when Kanye West paid her bail and sent us that Edible Arrangement.”
Chikara chuckled bitterly. “It was endless. But beyond that… I knew that if I didn’t do something, we’d be stuck together. Romantically, creatively, probably legally. Eventually you’d hate me because if my life came together the way I wanted, I could never give you the quiet life you want.”
“So instead of informing me of these very long-term concerns about our r-relationship, you got a GED in secret over the summer. Then you ran off to NYU without telling anyone, refusing to communicate. Do you know how many times I called? But there was nothing, as though you’d been ki- kidnapped. I had to find out the truth second- secondhand.”
“I know,” he croaked, not trying to defend his choices at all.
“I’m not certain if you’ve realized this yet or not, but that is an effective way to make not just me, but everyone we know, despise you.”
Chikara didn’t say anything for a long time.
“No one knows that more than I do,” his voice was low. “Forget about friendship; I have to work my ass off if I want anyone to even look at me without punching me in the balls. Half of our friends want to kill me, let alone your family. And when it comes down to it, I’m not even scared of your brother so much as I’m scared of Kenma and your mom.”
He took a few shuddery breaths.
“And you, Akaashi. I’m terrified of you.”
They could not keep this up. Keiji knew what had happened. It was over, he no longer wanted to discuss it. Especially since, despite all this, the only thing on his mind was Bokuto. Bokuto, even though the object of nearly a year’s worth of angst was right there, his very skin coated in desperate apologies and explanations.
“If you believe giving me closure through relived m…….emories is going to make us okay, you’re not nearly as insightful as I thought you were,” he said even, but not flat.
He didn’t know where the gentleness came from. Chikara did not deserve it.
“So why are you here?”
“Two things,” Chikara held up his fingers with conviction. “First, and less important: I am so, so sorry, Kaashi,” he rested his hands on his lap and his voice slid into a resigned, calm tone. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I loved you and–”
“If you can’t apologize without bringing that into it, keep it to yourself.” Keiji stuttered so much through the sentence, it was hard to tell where the words began and the nonsensical repetitions and pauses ended. He wished he had been angry enough to shout. He had been once.
But it was no matter because Chikara understood every word.
“You know,” he looked at him sleepily, for once like himself, “for someone so composed, you have a real flair for the dramatic.”
Keiji’s jaw dropped at his sheer gall.
His ex was still facing forward, but his hands were shaking even more than before, his entire body, even. This whole situation was absurd; two people who missed their junior prom missing their senior one because they were having a months-postponed breakup on a set of stairs that went nowhere.
A bark of laughter forced its way out of Keiji’s throat. Then another and another. At the sound, Chikara slid into a fit of very nervous giggles. It only took an instant for them to dissolve into earnest, if frenzied, laughter. But their hysterics eventually gave way to a hovering uneasiness that left the stairwell silent beyond the sound of their rapid breathing.
The situation was wrong, a shoe on backwards. They had been so important to each other for years. No one else knew so much about who he was. Keiji wasn’t supposed to hate him. But he didn’t know how to stop, and he didn’t know if he wanted to.
Chikara might as well have been reading his mind. “Right now I don’t deserve forgiveness. If you give it to me, I’ll be angry.”
“I didn’t know what to do, and I was in over my head,” he continued, more sure of himself. “The NYU opportunity came up, they pushed, and I ran away. I was afraid to talk to you because I knew I’d run right back if I did. I don’t...” he bent over forcing himself to breathe deeply. “I’m telling you all this not because my affection is significant now, but because you deserved to know what was going on in my head before I left. What I should have told you in the first place.”
He turned and faced him, looked him in the eyes, a sad half smile on his face.
“I don’t think we would have been good together, Kaash, not forever. I didn’t want to be your boyfriend anymore and… that didn’t make me a bad person. But I’m so sorry, because in the process of figuring that out I hurt someone dear to me, I was unforgivably cruel to my best friend. And now I’ve hurt myself too, because even though I don’t deserve anything of the sort, god, I want him back.”
“I don’t think you have the capacity for that kind of work.”
He had never considered actual reconciliation as a possibility. To be friends again. He didn’t know how to think about it. But lying to himself had not been panning out lately, and it would be massively untrue to say he hadn’t missed the part of their relationship that had nothing to do with romance. Ironically, the more his feelings had gotten tied up in someone else, the more he’d wished despite himself that Chikara had been there to talk to about it.
“Well,” Chikara’s smile was floppy and nervous and that, out of everything, was what pulled at Keiji’s heart, “I’ve always been a pretty hard worker at the last minute. A product of having big dreams but being mediocre and lazy most of the time.”
He reached into the bag he’d brought along and pulled out a small but very high end camera.
“So. That’s that. And this is the second thing,” he muttered, turning it on then scanning through clips. Keiji could tell they were from the prom just by the lighting. “A lot more important. And lucky for both of us, it has nothing to do with me.”
“You managed to get footage in a dark room lit with twinkle lights? And how did you even get in? I can’t think of anyone who’d smuggle you…”
“I am going to film school, you know. And I, um, came as Ryuu’s date,” he said to the camera with a forced casual tone that Keiji immediately picked up on. “Other than Kazohito, and Hisashi, he’s the only one who would talk to me for months. I wasn’t going to come but he… asked. I figured I could practice getting shots in this kind of lighti–”
“He is the straightest person in California, Ennoshita.”
“I… know,” he was trying to convince himself more than Keiji. “But, you know, feelings… happen… sometimes… ah! Here it is. Speaking of feelings.”
He thrust the camera into Keiji’s lap.
“So, Ryuu overheard the conversation your beefcake date had with Kaori’s girlfriend. Did you seriously bring a fake date to the prom? I know you know what always happens…”
“Are you jealous?” Keiji asked point blank, uninterested in a lecture.
“I said that we wouldn’t have worked out long-term,” Chikara was unpredictably matter-of-fact. “That doesn’t mean you’re not the most gorgeous, brilliant person I’ve ever met, six-years of intimate friendship aside. It also doesn’t negate the fact that I thought about you every day since I left. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have residual feelings for you.”
Keiji did not think knowing this information was a good use of his limited emotional resources, but he had asked, so it was his fault. But he was still angry.
“So yes, I am jealous of this tall, attractive, muscular person. I hope someday you too get to agonize over your feelings until you hate yourself.”
Now he was angrier still.
“Well don’t try to get over me with a straight guy,” he delivered his rage in a precise blow. “That’s not going to end well.”
“You set up a fake date, Kaashi!” Chikara lifted his eyebrows at the hypocrisy.
“Actually that would be my brother. He was fairly insistent.”
“How did you not realize he was setting you up?” he had the nerve to laugh. “This is Tetsurou! He tricked Tora into doing his chores for a year. Are you sure you just didn’t go along with it to see what happened?”
That was a question that he didn’t want to think about.
“Anyway, Ryuu said things went sour. Money was exchanged for enduring your company. You found out, and you were,” his voice deviated from his normal mild, sensible tone, “really sad when I found you. My guess is you thought this fake arrangement had turned into something real, while in reality it was faker than you ever realized.”
“Please don’t deconstruct my prom night.”
“Just watch the damn video, Kaashi,” Chikara reached over and pressed play.
It was hard to tell what anything was at first. Just people in the darkness while whoever was behind the camera made adjustments. Then the scene lightened, and Keiji realized the lens was focusing on himself, in conversation with Noya and Hitoka. He was laughing and looked ridiculous. The joke had been completely stupid, but it had seemed funny in the moment.
“This is invasive,” he glared.
“It was accidental… at first. I was trying to film Noya and Asahi because Noya begged me to. He wanted to make sure he looked manly when he was dancing or some other lunacy.” Keiji snorted despite himself. “Just wait for it.” The camera began to pan, stopping at someone impossible to mistake for anyone else.
“What his name, Kaashi?” Chikara asked as he came into focus.
“Bokuto,” Keiji muttered, throat tight. Bokuto’s first name trembled on his lips, but he left it there.
“He’s looking at you, you know.”
Bokuto was ignoring Shouyou, who was bouncing at his side. His eyes were soft, almost stunned, and he swallowed hard, like he’d seen something unforgettable.
The camera panned back to Keiji’s laughter.
“I don’t blame him,” Chikara said. “That smile is something else.”
“Are you trying to show me something, or hit on me?”
The camera panned back but Bokuto looked sad more than anything else. Like…
“It looks like he’s seen something he thinks he can’t have,” Chikara offered, pulling the camera away.
“Or he feels guilty,” Keiji grumbled.
“Kaashi, you sit in cafes for hours spying on people so you can write about them. I don’t know how much time you spent with this guy, but I suspect you can read him like a book. So is that really what you think? I’ll defer to your judgement, but you probably want to watch this other clip first.”
So you can write about them…
Have you ever read Pygmalion?
Chikara tugged at his sleeve then thrust the camera back in his lap.
This time it was Bokuto the camera was focused on. He was thrilled with himself, telling what had to be a volleyball story to Tetsurou and Noya, while Asahi shook his head. His hands were flying, and his bowtie was hanging untied around his neck. Keiji wanted to roll his eyes at whatever he was saying.
He wanted to hear whatever he was saying.
The camera panned, this time to a very familiar teal suit, its owner sitting at a table. Kenma sat next to him, glancing over and shaking his head before returning to his game. And for good reason, because Keiji looked…
“I’ve never seen that look on your face before. I’m certain you never had it when you looked at me,” the words were blunt and painful. For both of them. “That might be why I felt like leaving was a good idea. Though it didn’t make the way I left okay.”
“Why are you doing this?” Keiji turned and looked his ex in the eye.
Chikara didn’t expect to be looked at. He took a deep breath then he smiled that sad, earnest smile again. “It’s what best friends do. Even though I shouldn’t, I am very unsubtly trying to be yours.”
“A person shouldn’t make faces like that after six and a half dates,” Keiji insisted. “I barely know him.”
“You could bottle your feelings up, since that’s always worked well for you,” Chikara hummed. “Or you could act like yourself and address the problem head on.”
“I can’t believe you have the balls to say that.”
“Breaking your heart didn’t destroy my sense of irony. In fact, I’d like to think it’s been refined by fire.”
“Heavy-handed as usual.”
“Well, I did literally move across the country to keep from having to cut things off in person. But enough about that. You do know there’s only about fifteen minutes of prom left? You wouldn’t deprive a poor, friendless ex-boyfriend the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say…”
“Chikara, do not.”
“…go get em, Tiger.”
Profound insight from someone you had committed to hate was painfully difficult to swallow. But Keiji was desperate, so it didn’t matter. Chikara’s words ran through his head as he dashed through the corridors, trying to find someone who had seen Bokuto. Luckily Bokuto stood out, so everyone seemed to have some vague idea of who he was. But not where he’d gone.
He felt lighter, a little, with all the questions of what had happened in September now gone from his mind. But that didn’t make the experience less painful. It actually made him both need and hate Chikara more. He desperately needed his best friend, but he couldn’t be called that after what he’d done.
The videos had provided incontestable evidence of Keiji’s own feelings, which he had been trying to reabsorb into some kind of new and exciting form of denial. They also made it somewhat impossible to believe that Bokuto had just been in it for the money.
But there had been one statement that was more important than anything else, really. And Chikara hadn’t had a clue about its impact.
“Spying on people so you can write about them…”
It was also the issue that Haruki had inadvertently touched upon when he brought up a somewhat toxic narrative about a man who makes a woman “worthwhile” and then falls in love with his own work. Or the mere idea of his success. Or just… with her.
Something Keiji had not allowed himself to think about.
He had made Bokuto into something, or at least helped Bokuto incite some personal change. Now what was he going to do with him? Leave him, earnest and excited, to try to make his way in a dating world that followed very few of the rules Keiji had established? What was he supposed to do now that Keiji had gotten what he wanted.
If Bokuto had been secretly paid to romance him in some way, well, that was terrible.
But… there had been another under-the-table transaction. One even more secret. Tetsurou had no idea about it and Bokuto certainly didn’t suspect anything. But this operation had one deliverable.
A list that Keiji knew by heart.
- completely unstable self-esteem
- over-celebrating victories and taking defeats too much to heart
- bouncing up and down on the scale of moods hourly
- being tied to others’ reactions
- lack of filter
- long flights of speech
- completely absent sense of fashion
- ridiculous hair and eyebrows
- dangerous vehicle
- occupies too much space
- too generous
- terrible at keeping secrets
- can’t hold on to money
- aggressively competitive
- sloppy eater
- reckless in his assumptions
- questionable faith in others
- too vulnerable
- no understanding of situationally appropriate romance levels
- impossible when angry
- easily distractible
- quick to violence
- terrible hygiene
- terrible at bargaining
- desperate for praise
- too pushy
- needs to ask questions before he acts
- abysmal tastes in music
- needs to address childhood issues
- ruins the moment, if he even realizes there is a moment to begin with
- does not understand social media etiquette and privacy settings
- lacks initiative
There were ridiculous and contradictory and there were bound to be more.
The two of them had used each other.
Of course the idea that Bokuto had been paid to be his date was heart-wrenchingly painful. But how much more disgraceful was spending intimate moments with someone, paying attention to his wants and needs and dreams all for the primary goal of copying down his personality? To do so during a vulnerable moment of growth and change. All to develop a character.
It was the most despicable thing that Keiji had ever done.
Worse than the act itself was that it had been done to Bokuto specifically, who trusted without worry, who gave affection easily and happily without a thought of being hurt. Whose every weakness had a corresponding strength that Keiji hadn’t even bothered to record. Because apparently that wasn’t interesting or useful. Such lack of foresight was both an ethical and an authorial weakness.
But far worse than any in his long line of mistakes was that during the entire process Keiji hadn’t ever stopped to wonder if he’d been doing something wrong.
“Where’s Bokuto, Tetsurou?”
The locker rattled against the scrape of a dress shoe heel.
Other than his mother, his brother was the most important person in Keiji’s life. He knew the feeling was mutual, though his lead over Kenma was infinitesimal at this point. They didn’t get along perfectly. In fact, they argued a lot. Even with those quarrels, the brothers didn’t fight much.
But when they did...
To call Tetsurou frantic would be an understatement. There was no question he was convinced he’d caused some kind of disaster. He was desperate to explain, hands in his hair, cracking the gel that held down the slicked back style he’d been so obsessed with maintaining.
…when they did fight, Keiji lost his otherwise placid temper, and Tetsurou always lost because, despite his swagger, he didn’t know how to fight against someone who fought tooth and nail.
Because Keiji did not like to lose.
“He’s poor, Keiji,” he exhaled. “The only reason I offered him money was because he’d gotten laid off this catering job. His new one didn’t start right away but he’d just moved out of the dorms and his truck was in the shop. He needed it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t ask his family cause they don’t have a lot themselves. And he refused to borrow it from Tooru, even though he’s loaded, or just take it as a gift.”
What an idiot.
“Keiji, he couldn’t pay his rent! There was nowhere for him to go! So Tooru gave me the money, and I set up a situation where Bokuto would take it. Like a job. Figured I’d kill two birds with one stone, y’know? God knows learning how to date’s done him a world of good, but it wasn’t just about him! I didn’t know how else to help you, and I was so damn sick of seeing you so closed off and just… miserable. Did you even notice what it was doing to Mom?”
It wasn’t about any that anymore but there wasn’t time to explain. Bokuto was probably driving away by now.
“Just tell me where he is!” Keiji slammed his much larger brother against the line of lockers behind him.
They’d run into each other in the hallway next to the third gym. It was where they’d played volleyball together. The smell of the air was nostalgic, although not enough to affect their moods. Next to them, Kenma sighed into his game, as though he’d expected this to happen but was disgusted anyway. He made no move to stop either of them.
“Look, Keiji, I’m sorry,” Tetsurou’s hair was now a catastrophe, crest creeping back into its default shape. “I didn’t expect things would turn out like this. I figured he’d tell you! I mean, his third sentence was asking about your dick! Bokuto is not exactly a secretive guy.”
If his brother refused to answer the one question he wanted to know, then Keiji was going to push back.
“You’re endlessly meddling. Sticking your nose in everything, then stepping back to watch,” he said grimly, the rage at being so stupid as to not suspect the money rising to the surface and overcoming his good sense. “You thrive on provoking people into doing what you want. As though it’s for the greater good. How do you get to decide what’s good for anyone?!”
He didn’t even realize he’d pulled back his fist until someone grabbed it.
“Cute as you look angry, it’s time to calm down there, buddy,” Makki’s fingers were closed tightly around his wrist. “Fall into the strong arms of your cousin. There’s no better embrace, I can promise you.”
“There, there,” Issei looped his arms under Keiji’s armpits then pulled him into a somewhat unwanted hug that moved him out of punching distance. “God, I can’t believe we’re breaking up the fight we’ve all waited years to see. But, c’mon Keiji. You know Tets wouldn’t fuck with anybody just to hurt them. Everybody knows that. He’s just a sweet gangly nerd trying to help by blowing up school property and such.”
“Hey!” Tetsurou protested.
“He’s left, hasn’t he?” Keiji scowled ferociously. He could either be angry, or he could cry. He’d almost punched his brother without realizing he was doing it, and he wanted to puke.
“Yeah,” Tetsurou sagged against the metal, Kenma at his side. “I’m a pretty big guy, but I don’t think anybody but Iwazumi could make Bokuto stay put if he wanted to go. Even then it’d be one hell of a struggle.”
“What about me?” Hajime came around the corner, his shirt untucked, belt undone, and his hair a mess.
“You’re tough and manly and the rest of us will never be enough,” Issei said over Keiji’s shoulder.
“We’re spending the summer together at the gym,” Makki added.
“Bokuto ran off, and you’re the only one who could have stopped him,” Tooru appeared around the same corner, looking like he’d put his finger in a light socket.
A light socket that gave out enormous hickeys.
“He isn’t gone.”
From the other corner of the hallway, Tobio lead a pack who had all apparently been eavesdropping instead providing any actual help. Keiji felt a deep sense of disgrace. He’d rarely raised his hand against anyone, let alone his own brother. But now, nearly all of his friends had witnessed his lapse in sanity. Somewhere out there Suguru Daishou was smiling like a snake.
“Yeah,” Shouyou bounced, “Dunno how far he’s getting without his keys!” He swung the keyring around his fingers with a jaunty twinkle, pleased enough to indicate that he’d never successfully pickpocketed a person before in his life.
“Heh, or his wallet,” Noya flipped the duck taped square over and over in his hand. Once again, the item had been in Bokuto’s jacket, which had probably been hanging over a chair.
“Who even told you he was trying to leave?” Keiji grabbed the keys and wallet before they even realized he’d moved. He slid the keys in his pocket and ran his hands over the smooth surface of the purple owl duck tape over and over.
“Suga!” the thieves smiled.
Noya went on to give a smug explanation. “He texted us and told us to help before Bokuto left. So we stole his stuff from his jacket while he was crying.”
It was no real surprise that Bokuto would cry in this situation, but it still hit Keiji like to a punch to the gut. Seeing his reaction, Shouyou’s face dropped.
“On second thought, that was, uh, kind of mean. I bet he feels worse. I dunno what you guys are fighting about, though. Did your brother… um… kiss him or something? Kenma, are you okay????”
“I’m fine,” Kenma murmured. “And that’s not what happened.”
Noya made a slow, uncomfortable chewing motion as he dealt with the information. Asahi sighed somewhere in the distance.
“Yes but how did Suga know?” Tooru’s need for information was almost comedic, but they were all wasting time. Keiji didn’t care who told them, he just needed to leave.
“Yeah, I’m pretty certain he’s in bed with Daichi at the moment.” Tetsurou pushed himself away from the lockers, still eyeing Keiji with remorseful wariness.
At that moment, Ryuu thrust himself into the crowd, muttering as he dragged a mildly resisting individual behind him. He sat his burden on his feet, turned him around, and there he was. Again.
“Hello. Deus ex boyfriend here.” Chikara waved awkwardly.
Chaos erupted. The invisible lines in the sand that had been drawn when he’d disappeared lit up with neon lights. More people had opinions than expected. Although Keiji should have expected that.
“You know he’s only doing this so we’ll forgive him,” Tooru called in a sing-song voice.
“What’s wrong with wanting forgiveness?” Hajime countered. “Remember that time you stopped talking to me for a month because I said your hair looked weird?”
“That was not the same, Iwa!”
“Okay good because it looked weird as hell.”
“Sometimes people are confusing about… things,” Tobio added out of the blue, only for Shouyou to jump on his back and start yammering in his ear.
Makki and Issei were taking pictures.
As the arguments went on, no one noticed Kenma struggling through the crowd. He stopped right in front of Chikara. His hair, unraveled from its braids, hung like a curtain as he titled his head at a disturbing angle.
Despite what movies would have you believe, the sound of a punch is fairly quiet, especially a blow to soft tissue. So no one noticed that Chikara had been punched in the balls until he squeaked, “Knew it!” and fell to the ground in a heap.
“Way to take it like a man, Chikara!” Ryuu yelled unhelpfully as he crouched down and slapped his back.
“It’s over,” Kenma announced softly. “Keiji’s the only one who should be mad.”
Or that’s what Keiji imagined happened. He couldn’t be certain because he’d started racing to the auxiliary parking lot the instant Chikara arrived.
Bokuto’s truck was empty. Keiji even lifted the tarp and looked underneath, since Bokuto was the sort of person who would cower in misery under a tarp. But the bed of the truck was uninhabited. So was the ground underneath the vehicle itself. With that established, the glowing lights of the vacant football field gave Keiji a pretty good idea of where his date had gone.
Assuming that he hadn’t run away completely.
He found Bokuto sitting near the bottom of the bleachers. His hair was sticking through the gaps in his fingers as he clutched his head in one hand, his slightly crushed boutonniere in the other.
And he shook, because he was weeping pitifully.
His sobs were loud enough that he didn’t hear Keiji approach, even when his shoes clanged against the metal of the bleachers. When he finally stood in front of him, Keiji tried to get his attention by mere presence alone. But that didn’t work. It likely wasn’t that he couldn’t hear; he was just too upset to notice or care.
Bokuto’s face was a mess of tears and snot, his eyes rubbed red, his hair in all directions. A white dusting of crushed gel was scattered on the navy shoulders of his jacket. As though it took everything he had, he took a deep breath to speak.
“Look, Akaashi, you shouldn’t fucking be around me, since I,” he swallowed back a sob, “used you like that. Just… I’m sorry. Your brother gave me a grand to do this before I even met you. Spent it before then too. And I… I can’t pay it back yet, maybe not for years, I’m a piece of trash, but I’ll do it, I promise–”
“My na-name is Keiji, Koutarou,” he interrupted.
Bokuto made a very miserable noise. “Just stop, alright? Please.” He put his head back in his hand, still clutching the feathered flower like it would turn to dust with the slightest wrong move.
Keiji only knew one way to stop him from shutting down.
Conveniently, it was also the one thing he most had to do.
“Do you want know why I was happy with our arrangement?”
“Sure, whatever,” Bokuto sniffled into his palm. “S’not gonna change my mind.”
He took a deep breath, and put his hands behind his back. He’d decided on the run over he had to do this. But that did not mean he wanted to.
“You’ve called me a writer.” It felt strange using the term to refer to himself. Hedidn’t feel like one, not yet. He was just someone who liked to write. Apparently with very little ethics involved. “People who write often collect things they might write about someday: experiences, feelings, sensations. Like this prom, for instance.”
“Yeah, okay, so?” Extreme-misery-Bokuto was also somewhat petulant.
“Writers also collect characters, Koutarou, and I was collecting you. You were a concept I felt might be useful. Upon meeting you, I became deeply invested in our arrangement, not out of my original interest to experience a prom, but because I wanted your personality, likely to create some hackneyed fictional character.”
He paused to collect himself and to allow Bokuto to blow his nose into his sleeve. This moment was also necessary because saying what he truly had to say was mortifying, intensely painful, and above all, cruel.
“While the money you took had nothing to do with me, your personality is intimately connected to you. I took it without asking. Without… caring to ask. To use however I wished.”
Bokuto made a terrible choking sound and it took a long time for him to speak.
“Oh. Well. Good, I guess, that we’re both dicks.”
Big words made out of spun glass.
Keiji couldn’t cause any more chaos. He had to fix things. It was the only way to have Bokuto in his life in any future capacity. What came next had to be said perfectly.
Which meant it was going to be a battle to get every syllable out of his mouth.
“I’m s……..orry. I was v-v-very wrong.”
Bokuto lifted his head halfway, still heartbroken, but also confused.
“I was a com- com- com- fucking idiot.” The words were stuck and he wasn’t supposed to switch to a synonym mid-stutter – he’d learned that when he was ten, damn it – but he had to say this. “Y-you are so much more of a p-p-p-per-----” he shook his head and spat out a quiet damn it to the metal walkway, “an individual than I could ever capture in words. Even if I wrote about you every day until I died.”
Bokuto drew a quavery breath.
“You have gr…….own so real to me that I’m ter-terrified that after tonight I will see you on the street, nod my head, and go about my b-b-business. That will be all I’m allowed to do since we will be nothing to each other. I can’t do that. You could never be nothing to me, Koutarou. Even if that’s what you want.”
Bokuto was looking at his hand. He was crying on it.
“You were right from the start,” Keiji forced out the words. “Chik-chik-chikara hurt me p………..ast what I thought I could take, and I have been terrified to have feelings of any sort since. But, I don’t think there’s anyone on earth who wouldn’t develop feelings for you, given the opportunity. And I don’t care if our situation began on prrrrretense, I was given that chance.”
But you don’t trust me!” Bokuto protested. “You shouldn’t! I could’ve told you, I was gonna tell you on the way to the desert but I couldn’t! I couldn’t even do it on the way here! I’m a fucking coward! I didn’t deserve any of the good times we’ve had, or how much you helped me, or any of it. I didn’t!” He slid into weeping again.
Keiji exhaled, then thumped himself down onto the seat in front of Bokuto, fists clutched on either side of his body so he didn’t worry his fingers.
It was time to taint something pure.
“Here is the answer to your second question from last night. I did not want you to know about it, and you have been c-c-c-ourteous enough not to pry. But I need you to know how much I trust you. But in the process, you have to trust me, because what I’m about to tell you is not going to sound plausible.”
He took a breath, thinking of the soothing rhythm of well-spoken words. He began a quiet, steady beat on his thigh, like he was giving a presentation in front of a crowded classroom. He imagined Kenma in the near vicinity, playing his Vita. Hardly there.
“A bit less than two years ago, Chikara and I made a short film. We’d been making them since we were twelve. His father has industry connections, so we had quality equipment, a great crew, and our actors, Tooru and Kiyoko, worked well together. For this film, we even joined the necessary unions to make our production legitimate. Chikara’s family lives a modest life, but they are very wealthy.”
Gold, teary eyes connected with his and then looked back at the ground.
“We took this project more seriously than we ever had before. I made the decision to quit volleyball to focus on the story, script and production. Chikara normally wrote and I did camera work, but he wanted this one to have a different feel. It was… a huge symbol of his trust in me.”
Oh god why did that hurt so much? It was over, he’d moved on.
He took a slow breath and maintained the beat on his thigh. “Tooru stayed on the team, but he ended up in the ER from overwork when the film was finished. Kiyoko’s parents are strict, and she had to sneak out of her house most nights we were filming. Chikara lost at least fifteen pounds because he never gave himself any time to eat. But we finished it…” he smiled bitterly, “only not in time for any film festival deadlines.”
He lifted his hands and sat them on his thighs, feeling the smooth fabric catch on the setting callouses that had never gone away.
“All but one.”
Bokuto sniffed and wiped at his cheeks, his nose. He lifted his head, and their eyes met for much longer. This time Keiji refused to let him drop his gaze.
“The Cannes Film Festival accepts submissions from anyone. Truly anyone. We thought it would be entertaining to submit there as high schoolers.”
They’d spent the night giggling over the application. Well, Chikara had giggled, Keiji had smirked, writing ridiculous descriptions of the film that would never, ever see the light of day.
“We never dreamed we’d get in.”
It was almost funny, the way Bokuto’s face contorted in a sort of informed confusion. “I… dunno what that means, exactly, but–”
Keiji smiled gently. “The Palme d’Or, the highest prize of the festival, is arguably a small step down from winning an Academy award.”
He swallowed hard.
“The film I wrote won the Palme d’Or for short films last May.”
“Holy shit,” Bokuto whispered. “You really are famous.”
“Yes. I am, he gave a bitter half-smile. “Or at least, I was for a time. I suppose I’ll always be known in certain circles. But that’s not really the issue.”
“Completely unexpectedly, a certain type of people went crazy over us, winning with a film we’d made when we were so young. We were pretty, gay, and, most importantly, Chikara and I had a romantic narrative. It was as though through supporting us, people could ignore the real live queer people around them. Of course that white suburban woman who hates her black lesbian neighbors couldn’t be homophobic or racist! Look at how much she just adores Troye Sivan and those charming little Asian boys! What was the pretty one? Katie?”
If he didn’t stop to breathe, he was going to start stuttering again.
“That was bad enough. Beyond legitimate film journalism who interviewed us with respect, unidentified photographers started following us. We were on gossip websites despite doing nothing worth gossiping about. It got worse and worse. We were asked to interview for a variety of nighttime talk shows and prominent YouTube channels. Though Chikara had accepted the award, they explicitly demanded both of us. They ignored Kiyoko and Tooru completely.”
Bokuto’s eyes were enormously wide, but he kept his mouth closed.
“I knew it would be difficult, but I also knew Chikara would benefit from the exposure. So I agreed. I should have told him I didn’t think they would go well. But I didn’t. So now I know there are two situations when I cannot control my stutter. One is on the phone. The other is during live television interviews”
He paused to breathe. The hand tapping on his thigh was beginning to shake.
“How’d he not know?” Bokuto demanded. “Or ask?”
He hadn’t expected such an insightful, painful question. But then, he also didn’t expect to have an answer come to him so quickly, so obviously.
“He was overwhelmed,” the words brought the reality to life. “Imagine if in high school you won an Olympic gold out of the blue. Something that you didn’t think was possible for years. Everything you’d dreamed of but before you were ready. That’s what happened to him.”
The compassion that grew in Keiji’s heart as he spoke was almost impossible to handle.
“The interviews were disasters. The hosts were patronizing. Telling me to slow down, that it was okay, to breathe, they’d chuckle. Their interruptions made fluency completely impossible. Chikara tried to answer everything himself; he wouldn’t let them ask me questions if he could help it. But there was only so much he could do. They wanted me to talk.”
Bokuto stood up and took a step down so that they were sitting next to each other.
“I was mortified without a single bit of mockery. Just the opposite: my stutter became an inspiration,” he spat. “Infinitely worse.”
The heat radiating from Bokuto’s body felt reassuring, even though there was at least a hand’s breadth between them.
“It was the icing on the cake, really. I don’t understand why, maybe it was a slow gossip cycle that summer, but the media wouldn’t let go of us. Their attention went well beyond the minimal publicity that short film award winners receive. We became personalities. Photographers followed us. Students at school started caring about both of us in ways they never had before, as though we could help them. They asked for love advice, and all sorts of other things we knew nothing about.”
“Star-chasing speech therapists around the country sent me letters. It was profoundly insulting because there is nothing wrong with how I communicate, and I have had the same speech therapist for thirteen years. At the same time, PR managers and film schools wouldn’t leave Chikara alone. We couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t do anything, and the end of the school year was wonderful because at least we could stay inside all the time.”
He could feel Bokuto’s hand hover indecisively over his thigh. There was a long silence, the distant sound of giggles, whoops, and slamming car doors echoing through the stadium.
Keiji cleared his throat. “And, as I told you, when it was time to face the world again, Chikara left. Although he’s here tonight. He found me, after I found out about the money. And he apologized. It gave me a lot to think about that I hadn’t considered.”
All breathing next to him stopped. Keiji turned his head. There was already so much misery on Bokuto’s face, it was hard to pick out the added anxiety. But Keiji had looked at Bokuto’s face a lot.
“He told me to chase you, Koutarou.”
Bokuto was shaking so hard, the bleachers sounded like a wind chime. Keiji took his hand to hold him steady.
To hold both of them steady.
“Thanks for trustin’ me...” Bokuto murmured after a long time.
“Don’t you remember what you yelled in the coffee shop? By the end of this prom, I’d trust you with my life.”
The burst of laughter was more like crying than anything.
“I don’t care if my brother gave you five thousand dollars to take me to the prom, and you blew it all on surfboard wax,” Keiji said gravely. “I am very happy to have spent this time with you. I am very lucky to have spent this time with you. I… cherish it.”
The cars had left. There was silence, save for the buzz of the stadium’s enormous fluorescent lights. Keiji stared across the field.
“Aka- er… Keiji,” they both turned and their eyes met, “I said it in the restaurant, and then things got crazy. I want to say it again cause I don’t think you got it. I don’t think you’ve ever got it. I really, really, really like you. You know, like you, like you.”
Even though Keiji already knew this without a shadow of a doubt, the words filled his body with waves of tingling electricity.
“I don’t want to stop seeing you,” Bokuto’s voice jumped from yelling to whispering with every few words, “but I don’t know how to ask without being a dick, or makin’ you uncomfortable. Especially after the money thing.”
This was when they were supposed to kiss. Fling themselves into each other and while a romantic summer top forty hit played in the background. But, they couldn’t quite yet, for a million reasons or, maybe, just one. There was a single variable yet to be considered.
“There is something that worries me, I suppose,” Keiji admitted after some time for reflection.
“Yeah?” Bokuto’s voice cracked. There was a light ping of the boutonniere’s pin as he carefully sat it on the bench.
“I expect that in a relatively short span of time, I’m going to fall in love with you. If that’s going to be a problem, we need to di-discuss it. We will still need to be honest with each other in this extended dating arrangement. Perhaps more honest than we have been.”
His hand fell to the cold aluminum as his prom date emeritus spun himself around to straddle the bench so that he was facing Keiji directly.
Bokuto’s fingers were not soft. And he was not a particularly gentle person. But the tenderness of his fingertips as they skidded up the back of Keiji’s neck to cradle his head made up for any lack of smooth skin or soft movements.
Bokuto’s face was blotchy from crying, half wiped-away trails of tears, snot smeared in multiple directions its main decoration. Keiji could see axe pick scars sprinkled across his cheeks as their foreheads tipped together. But he could also see the happy crinkles at the corners of shining golden eyes.
Bokuto’s lips were chapped. His breath still smelled of their dinner a bit. But he was smiling so soft and so sweet.
“Spose I’ll hafta learn to live with it,” he whispered, just before their lips met.
And they kissed.
And they kissed.
And they kissed.
Hajime Iwazumi was appealing enough when he was sober. He ran his ailing father’s general contracting operation during the day and took business classes at night in preparation for the day he’d take over. He kept Tooru from working himself to death from a city away, which was nearly a miracle. He had a lot of other phenomenal qualities which he kept to himself, though his boyfriend did not.
But when Hajime was just a little bit high, he relaxed and those more guarded skills fluttered into the open. And sitting around the bonfire at Suga’s post-prom/farewell-Daichi beach party, Hajime was quite relaxed. A happily sober Tooru was behind him and Hajime leaned back lazily into his boyfriend’s chest. Guitar in hand, he played and sang Magnetic Fields songs in his rocky, soulful baritone. Because Hajime was extremely musical, but only high Hajime would let anyone listen.
“I think I might be in love with Iwazumi,” Bokuto hummed as Keiji combed his fingers through his hair, breaking up the remaining gel until the strands hung soft and pliant. “Dude’s got pipes. And have you seen those arms?”
They were in sweatpants and hoodies thanks to a bag of Bokuto’s laundry that had never made its way from the laundromat to his house. In the cab of the truck, Keiji’s suit was hanging neat and clean from the ceiling hook while Bokuto’s was in a crumpled pile on the driver’s seat.
“I have. I really can’t blame you.” Keiji replied, looking across the beach.
Around the nearby bonfire was a variety of their friends. Tetsurou was exhausted, but refused to pass out because Kenma was asleep, curled up on his lap. Makki and Issei, who had revealed jackets full of airplane liquor bottles, drunkenly cuddled, telling each other terrible jokes. Noya was braiding Asahi’s hair. Suga’s face was drawn as he clung tightly to Daichi, who had probably kissed his head a hundred times. Kiyoko and Yui, the purveyors of the weed, lay side by side on a blanket, holding hands and staring wide-eyed at the sky. Hitoka, Kei, and Tadashi were asleep in an actual pile, Kei more on top than was necessary for someone his size. Somewhere, Shouyou and Tobio were either arguing or making out.
Everyone else had found a quiet corner of their own that Keiji was uninterested in locating.
“I really like it when you do that,” Bokuto leaned into Keiji’s chest and tried to nuzzle deeper than was possible, given Keiji’s slender frame. Underneath them, the mattress’ springs and truck’s shocks complained angrily.
“Bow out of our relationship generously?”
“No!” Bokuto pouted. “I mean when you scratch my head like that. And wait… we’re in a relationship?!”
“I suppose not officially,” Keiji twisted strands of gray and black around his fingers. “Our situation is… unique, but it’d say we’re dating as of this point.”
Bokuto craned his head, “If we were officially, would you be my boyfriend?”
“Yes, Koutarou. We would be each other’s boyfriends.”
“Then yeah!” he punched the mattress to the truck’s great distress. “I want to be in a relationship right fuckin now. Uh… please.”
“I suppose that’s alright,” Keiji smiled wide into the neck of his hoodie, knowing no one could see him.
Bokuto’s fingers toyed with the strings of the same piece of UCLA Volleyball merchandise. “Don’t we gotta like, do something to make it official?”
“I’ll prepare a goat for sacrifice,” Keiji deadpanned.
“You are such,” Bokuto flipped himself over and pressed Keiji into the mattress, “a fuckin’ minx, Keiji Akaashi.”
“Where did you learn that word?” Keiji raised his eyebrow suspiciously.
The hairs on the back of Keiji’s neck stood on end as Bokuto pinned his wrists over his head with one hand. He ran the other up Keiji’s side, forcing out an undignified squeal before he kissed him insistently.
Ryyu was quite possibly unhappier at interrupting their pleasant moment than they were to have it interrupted.
“Why do I always catch people in the middle of shit? Man, Keiji, sorry I uh…”
Bokuto lifted himself up and they both peered down the end of the truck bed to see Ryuu looking very, very uncomfortable.
And Chikara, looking nonplussed.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said mildly. “I just wanted to–”
Bokuto vaulted off the back of the truck. He landed in-between Ryuu and Chikara, looming over the latter.
“Hey, hey, hey! I’m Bokuto, Akaashi’s boyfriend! Nice ta meetcha, new guy.”
Keiji had no idea how he knew who he was. But he did. The posturing was so painfully obvious that he flopped back onto the mattress so no one could see him laugh. Although Chikara probably knew damn well that he was.
“You’re a lucky man, Bokuto. I’m Chikara Ennoshita, an old acquaintance of Keiji’s. Actually, do you mind?” There was an uncomfortably long pause. “I hope someday to keep in touch with him. Only if he wants. So there’s my New York number, my email, my blog, and my Skype. No hard feelings if he doesn’t want them or if I don’t hear from him for a long time.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell him,” Bokuto grunted as though Keiji wasn’t there.
“By the way, I saw video of UCLA/BYU game. Impressive straights, but against someone like Ushijima the team needed a better setter to take full advantage of your spiking flexibility.”
“You play??” Bokuto’s demeanor changed completely. “And we do have a better one, Oikawa over there, he’d just messed up his knee and was off for two weeks!”
“Ah, that makes sense. And no, I have never played. But I have watched a lot of volleyball in my life. I’m particularly familiar with what makes a good setter.”
Keiji sat up on his elbows, wondering if he wanted to say anything. But Bokuto and Chikara were smiling at each other, albeit awkwardly, so there seemed no need.
“Keep up the good work, number four,” Chikara saluted, like an absolute nerd.
“C’mon dude,” Ryuu slipped his arm around Chikara’s waist. “Let’s go like, listen to the water and watch the sun rise. Something romantic and shit.”
“How do you plan on graduating if you don’t know which direction the sun rises? And did you finish that lab report? I told you I was only coming if you got it done.”
Ryuu’s defensive sputtering when on for about thirty seconds, until it abruptly stopped. Keiji decided he was going to think about the lifespan of the truck instead of considering what the silence meant.
“Wow. Never figured that Tanaka guy was gay,” Bokuto scratched the back of his head after he climbed into the back of the truck. “Think my gaydar’s busted.”
“I had no idea he also liked men and I’ve known him for years.”
“Your ex is kinda nice. I was gonna punch him, but then it kinda seemed like he’d punched himself plenty. Plus I guess Kozume bashed him in the nuts at the school? Anyway, you want these?” he held up the lines of Chikara’s angular handwriting. “He wrote em on my hand.”
Keiji took a picture with his phone and checked to make sure the image was readable.
“I don’t want them now. But perhaps someday I will.”
“Now where were we?” Bokuto rolled onto the mattress and pulled Keiji to him just as Hajime began to play something new.
“Hush,” Keiji braced himself on Bokuto’s chest. “I’ve always liked this song.”
“Ah… yeah!” Bokuto whispered loudly after listening for a few moments. “They used to play it at weddings a lot when I worked for that catering company. The one that fired me. Actually… that’s kinda why we met, I guess.”
“C’mon,” he pulled him close, “get over here.” In no time at all, Bokuto’s tenor joined Hajime’s baritone, but only one was softly singing into Keiji’s neck.
“Tell me again, what you said,” he whispered in the quiet that followed the last lingering chord.
“I’ve said a lot of things, Koutarou. Please be more specific.”
“Keijiiiii, you know what I mean…” Bokuto whined. “On the bleachers!”
He rolled on top of his newly acquired boyfriend, crossed his arms on Bokuto’s chest, then rested his head on his forearms. Gold eyes looked up at him with an expression Keiji was finally willing to acknowledge as complete and utter adoration.
“I’m going to fall in love with you someday, Koutarou,” he said in the same level way he said most everything. “Unfortunately there’s nothing you can do to stop it, as I believe the process has already started. You should prepare yourself.”
“Well that’s pretty fucking great,” Koutarou reached up and slid his thumb across his cheek, “cause I think maybe I’ve been in love with you forever.”
It was perhaps the stupidest thing Bokuto had said to date.
And Keiji loved every word.
The book of love is long and boring. No one can lift the damn thing.
It's full of charts and facts and figures and instructions for dancing.
But I love it when you read to me. And you can read me anything.