Lean fingers pinched, pulled, pushed, and poked at the knot that had developed in Tsukishima’s neck after sleeping through most of the nearly 2-hour train ride from Sendai to Tokyo. He arrived early in hopes of getting some shopping in before meeting up with Akiteru’s team for a practice match with their coach’s alma mater. Although he agreed with Coach Ukai when he said he should look to Nekoma’s Kuroo for guidance where blocking was concerned, he didn’t really have a lot of time during the rest of the camp to continue with him. He figured today’s practice should more than make up for it. At the end of the camp he thought it was just as well that he couldn’t run through a few more drills with Kuroo because he didn’t know how to handle that guy. Whether he was aware of it or not–most likely he was–that guy had a way of getting under his skin. At the thought of him, Tsukishima sucked his teeth in regret–over a few things, actually– he wished he wasn’t so uneasy around Nekoma’s captain and he wished he had gotten over his fear of disappointment sooner so he could have taken better advantage of the time they did have. Well, what’s done is done.
After he checked out a few music stores, Tsukishima found all but one of the CDs he wanted to get. The last one was a long shot anyway, so he decided he’d curb the heartbreak and head over to the only store that sold the headphones he read about in a magazine a few weeks ago. He called and reserved them the day before, so there was no chance of walking out of that store empty handed.
With his prized purchase now in hand, Tsukishima made his way back to the train station and returned to kneading some relief into his neck. His right shoulder had grown tired while reaching his arm across to his other side as he performed his ministrations. Just when he thought to give up because the knot didn’t seem to be any looser than it was when he woke up on the train, a warm hand slid over the spot, firmly gripped it and rolled right into the kind of massage Tsukishima had been aiming for, but failed miserably at achieving.
He looked to his left, out the corner of his eye, and saw long fingers moving expertly, rhythmically along the slope of his neck and shoulder. Slowly, to the right he turned to find a familiarly infuriating smirk, he scoffed, “coxcomb-senpai?”
Kuroo stopped cold and let his hand fall away from Tsukishima’s shoulder, “really?”
Tsukishima came to a stop as well and turned as he asked, “is that a rhetorical question?”
“Right, Tsukki.” He laughed a bit when he saw Tsukishima bristle at the nickname. “Speaking of… Where’s your crew?”
“Shorty and the rest–your team?”
“In their skin, I suppose. I’m not travelling with them.”
“So what are you doing down here?”
“I was minding my business before you came along.”
“You’re so cute when you act like you’re annoyed. Do you want me to show you around?”
You would never think it was possible, but the corners of Tsukishima’s mouth turned down even more than they already were in response to being called cute.
“What? You don’t think you’re cute? Well, you’re not all pocket-sized and lively like your #10, but you certainly bring a smile to my face.”
Tsukishima rolled his eyes and adjusted his backpack. “I’m here for practice with my brother’s team; I’m not here to sight see, so if you’ll excuse me.” He tilted his head in deference, and then turned to leave.
Kuroo reached out and caught a hold of the loop on Tsukishima’s bag and just a bit of his collar, lightly choking him in the process.
“What the hell are you doing?!” he growled as he found his balance.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just didn’t want you to get away.”
“What?” he asked sternly. “I just told you my name, you could have just called it like a normal person.” Tsukishima looked around and noticed passersby staring.
Tsukishima cut him off with a tight-lipped glare. Tokyo has 13 million people in it. How is it that he managed to run into this guy? He wasn’t running late, but he didn’t want to chance it, being in a relatively unfamiliar place. He worked up as bright a smile as he could, though his eyes were flat, “bedhead-senpai, I’d like to be on my way, if you don’t mind.”
Kuroo ignored his request–and the name–and decided that Tsukishima wouldn’t know his way around, not being from Tokyo, so he offered to escort him. Tsukishima declined without delay, but Kuroo was casually insistent about it.
Tsukishima realized, with this approach, the conversation would go on forever if he didn’t either make a scene or agree to it.
Tsukishima walked half a step behind Kuroo, because he, in fact, was not 100% percent sure about his route to the university. They had to catch one bus and the walk to it was short, but as they went, Kuroo pointed out this and that location and recalled a few incidents that Tsukishima found extremely funny. However, his desire not to get too involved with the guy prevented him from laughing along as Kuroo remembered things fondly. Even though he was only half listening when they passed a cafe whose window case was filled with a variety of shortcakes–primarily strawberry–he almost let a giggle slip when he paused in front of the window for a brief moment. That was close. He wiped off the imaginary drool and let the strap on his left shoulder slide off as his hand continued over to the knot that was only half worked out…thanks to Kuroo. “Ugh.”
“Let me,” Kuroo requested as he slung his arm across Tsukishima’s back and placed his palm on top of the boy’s reedy fingers.
“No thank you.”
“Two minutes. Just two.”
Tsukishima acquiesced. Three blocks and five minutes later, the knot was gone, but Kuroo’s hand was still on his shoulder. He wanted him to move it but he didn’t want that to lead to him having to acknowledge the gesture or thank him for alleviating the pain, so instead he asked, “don’t you have better things to do?”
“What could be better than hanging out with you?”
Tsukishima dismissed it as filler nonsense as he adjusted his backpack, effectively removing Kuroo’s hand.
“So you’re not just bothering me?” Tsukishima asked in response to finding out that Kuroo actually had plans to go to the same place he was going.
“I’ve been accepted to all of my choices, so now I’m just doing some…reverse scouting. Today’s the last one.”
“Who chooses a school for sports without seeing them play?”
“Heh. Nah, it’s not like that. I’ve seen all of them play, some against each other, but seeing a team during a competition and watching them practice are totally different things.” He looked at Tsukishima to see if he understood and then nudged him. “It’s like getting to know someone intimately. You know what I mean, Tsukki?”
When they arrived, Akiteru’s captain mistook Kuroo for Tsukishima’s friend and let him join in the practice. He forgot that the practice was supposed to make up for not having more time to train with Kuroo and protested by offering that Kuroo was unprepared. However, since the tag-along had intended to meet up with Kenma, Bokuto, and Akaashi for a few drills after his reverse scouting, he actually had his gear with him.
During the first game, they were on opposing sides–Tsukishima was with his brother’s team and Kuroo was with the host university’s. He’d finally come to his senses and realized that having Kuroo join in was actually an opportunity that he’d be stupid to pass up. After Kuroo blocked a particularly awesome quick by his team’s Ace, Tsukishima admitted to himself that he was glad that he got to see Kuroo in action up close again, but he didn’t like the smirk that kept getting flashed at him, let alone the comments the cocky bastard kept whispering through the net.
The second game saw the boys on the same side of the net. He was wowed at how Kuroo held his own against the collegiate players when he was facing him, but when they were side by side, Tsukishima got the chance to really experience it. Even as he marked this or that spiker, Kuroo’s scope of awareness was broad–he would whisper or gesture to Tsukishima what his next action should be and he was never wrong. He had gotten a taste of it when they were blocking Bokuto, but the ability to do it even in the midst of competing was a skill Tsukishima could not dismiss.
Once the game was over the teams mixed and mingled and then broke off into smaller groups to do some focused drills. Tsukishima and Kuroo were fortunate enough to end up with the host school’s Ace who also happened to be one of the best middle blockers at Japan’s post-secondary level. The Ace monitored Tsukishima’s posture and corrected him when needed. He pressed one palm behind his shoulder and against his abdomen to tweak the arch of his block. With his newly awakened drive, he took to the instruction well. They ran a few trials before the Ace had to step away for a moment. In his absence, Kuroo guided him.
Kuroo’s in-game awesomeness had overshadowed his uttering of nonsense from before they arrived at the gym. He was almost 190 cm–being called cute by anyone was something he wasn’t accustomed to. He chalked it up as more of Kuroo’s nonsense, but now with one of Kuroo’s hands on his hip and the other flat against his chest as he demonstrated the way he should be reaching when he blocks, Kuroo’s words were coming back to him. As he sorted through their earlier conversation in an attempt to determine if he should mind anything Kuroo had said, he became increasingly more aware of something more pressing in the present. Kuroo had moved from his side to behind him and had begun to re-position his whole body to conform to his own. A low voice vibrated behind his ear, the back of his neck tingled from the warm breath that brushed against it, and something was definitely touching his butt, yet Kuroo’s tone was earnest and critical. When his surrogate instructor let go of his wrists leaving his arms in the air, they slid down the front of him–barely touching him–but close enough to skim over his nipples. It was a weird sensation and Tsukishima could feel himself blush, but Kuroo went right on as if nothing happened. He wanted to elbow him, but if Kuroo really hadn’t noticed, it would have caused an unnecessary scene. He felt embarrassed, but he wasn’t sure what his face looked like to others. Fortunately, while he tried to figure out how to get Kuroo off his back, a whistle blew from the other end of the gym. He couldn’t move away fast enough.
Akiteru’s team was staying overnight, but Tsukishima had to get back to Miyagi. They said their good-byes and he assured his brother that he would be fine getting back to the train.
A block away from the gym he felt a chill and had the odd notion that he was being followed. He turned his head just enough to peer over his shoulder. He was certain he would see nothing, but to his surprise he saw Kuroo gaining on him. Running away would make a scene, so he faced forward and continued walking. Kuroo’s legs were long and his gait was steady and swift, so he was upon Tsukishima before he knew it.
Kuroo draped his arm around Tsukishima and quickly caught his breath. He asked why he kept walking when saw him trying to catch up to him. When he received no answer, Kuroo leaned in and apologized. Tsukishima was shocked and wanted to ask for what, but he didn’t want the conversation to go on any longer than it already had.
Kuroo read his mind. “I wasn’t trying to be funny. It was just an honest reaction. You’re really cute when you’re being serious. I didn’t intend for that to happen and I didn’t want to make you any more uncomfortable by drawing attention to it, so I just kept going. I’m sorry.”
Without the slightest inflection, Tsukishima thanked Kuroo for his consideration and started to excuse himself, but before he could say another word, he was interrupted.
“I know you have to get back home, so I’m not going to keep you, but I just wanted to thank you for letting me tag along today and if you’re ever back down this way or want to come back down, just give me a call.” Kuroo crooked his neck so the could look up at Tsukishima. “Exchange?” he asked as he pulled out his phone.
Tsukishima adjusted his backpack. “Well, other than today, I don’t have any business here, so I don’t think I’ll be back.”
With his phone still in position to transfer, Kuroo gave Tsukishima a look as if to ask, what’s your point?
“There’s no point in exchanging numbers if I’m never going to use it.”
“Come on…you never know.”
“What would I even come back here for?”
“Oh, you wound me. Isn’t seeing me enough of a reason?”
“Hardly. What do you want with me anyway?”
Kuroo’s patent smirk returned along with a raised eyebrow. “Heh…,” he said smugly.
Tsukishima was past the regret of giving him as much time as he had up until now. He was irritated and it didn’t help that that feeling he had when Kuroo was standing behind him on the court had started to return. “I don’t know what’s going on under that plumage of yours, but I’m not interested.”
“You’re not interested in practicing with me?”
Tsukishima’s brow furrowed deeply and he questioned him doubtfully, “practicing what?”
“Blocking, of course! You’ve already had a taste, why not try out the full course. You and me… one-on-one…”
“Could you not say things so suggestively?” He actually wanted to get more time in with Kuroo on the court. And though it irked him to accept the invitation under these circumstances, there really wasn’t a lot of time left before the preliminaries. Tsukishima pulled out his phone, but then sucked his teeth when he saw a full-blown smile on that sly cat’s face. He had no desire to make him happy, so he decided to ignore that illuminated grin and anything that it could imply. “It’s not like I have all the time in the world or money to be traveling down here all the time, so don’t take this as any kind of promise.”
Kuroo looked at the new contact details that were just beamed over, “Tsukishima…?”
“Is that so? Well, okay then, my little firefly, I’ve got your number, too, so look forward to hearing from me soon.”
“Ughh,” Tsukishima huffed at the thought of Kuroo calling him… especially by another nickname.
Somewhere on the cusp of waking, Kuroo felt a faint vibration on his thigh. Three quick pulses and then stillness. And again and then again.
Over the two weeks since he ran into Tsukishima, he had developed a habit of checking his phone on the first pulse. He had sent several texts to him, but not once had an incoming text been from the person he was hoping for. He was slowly reinstating his normal policy of not reviewing his messages until he was good and ready–it was better for his heart. At that moment, sleep seemed more inviting than checking his phone only to be disappointed. However, since the day before, it wasn’t a text that he was looking for a response to, but a package he sent.
More awake than he was a few moments ago, Kuroo rescued his phone from under him–another habit he developed over the last two weeks was falling asleep with his phone in his hand. Before he unlocked his phone he saw that the notification light was blinking yellow. He yelped quietly with joy. Yellow was the color he assigned to his little firefly, one Tsukishima Kei.
░ [I can’t accept this.]
His first text from Tsukishima; the text he had been waiting two weeks to read. He hoped that, by some miracle, Tsukishima would accept his travel package with gratitude, but he knew a miracle such as that would not come easy. The three pre-paid round-trip fares that he sent–one for each of the next three weekends–were accompanied by a mircoSD containing six playlists–one for each trip–that highlighted a different moment from the day of the practice matches, and three coupons for a free strawberry shortcake from the cafe Tsukishima lingered in front of for half a second. Kuroo was sure Tsukishima thought he hadn’t noticed. He replied,
░ [Is it about the cost or is it because I’m the one giving it?]
░ [A one-way ticket alone is already too much. I can’t imagine that you have a job other than being a captain, so how are you affording this? And even if I didn’t have an issue with the cost, I’ve never done anything to deserve this from you, so I’m not sure what accepting such a gesture would insinuate.]
░ [Don’t worry about the money. I’m sure you know how awesome I am–that awesomeness has its privileges!]
░ [I hope you don’t think that qualifies as an explanation.]
░ [You don’t think I’m awesome?]
░ [So cold.]
░ [Okay, seriously; there are no costs attached, for you or me. And there no strings attached either. I just want to practice with you. You have a lot of potential and I really want to see what you’re made of when we meet at Nationals. A fair fight, if you will.]
░ [I’ll let you know by the end of the week.]
░ [Yeah, I knew you couldn’t say no.]
░ [Just as I thought, I can’t accept this.]
░ [No! Sorry! Sorry! I was just kidding!]
003 Side Out Pt. 1
Tsukishima worried the phone in his pocket. He told Kuroo he would let him know by the end of the week if he was coming or not. It was late Friday and practice had already ended and he still hadn’t messaged Kuroo. The truth was that he had already made up his mind. He’d gotten permission from his mother and Coach Ukai agreed to let him off early from Saturday practice so he could go. So what was he waiting for?
Although Kuroo said “no strings attached,” Tsukishima was sure the guy was interested. But he himself wasn’t. Getting involved with people, whether casually or intimately was such a hassle. The last time he ventured down that road, it was his own fault that things didn’t work out, but at least they were able to remain friends. So now, like most things, he saw no benefit to getting worked up over it. That went double for Kuroo. Especially now. During the camp, he felt that Kuroo had purposely singled him out rather than choosing to antagonize him simply because he was the only one around. But all of his recent interactions with him were… friendly by comparison–though the difference didn’t stop him from being irritating. The change unsettled him; he was sure he was being tricked and you’d be hard pressed to convince him otherwise. And he knew the minute he let his guard down, Kuroo would turn right back into the bastard Tsukishima knew him to be.
He could play it safe and opt out of the trip, but in doing so he’d miss out on personal training. Or he could go and just make it clear to Kuroo that he wasn’t interested and just stay alert to keep from being caught off guard by all the BS that was guaranteed to slide off of Kuroo’s tongue.
Kuroo’s taste in music never crossed his mind until he was faced with listening to a playlist that he made. Tsukishima tried to preview the tracks, but all the titles were changed to “track 1,” “track 2,” “track 3,” etc. The enclosed note instructed him on which order to listen to the playlists, so he guessed this little annoyance was Kuroo’s way of ensuring that he did. Each playlist title reminded him of a moment that happened or story Kuroo told him during his last visit. One Touch; Amaranthine; Walk With Me; In Your Skin; Shortcake, Strawberries, and Whipped Cream; and Coleopterapnea. He had to admit, the guy was clever.
Not knowing what to expect from the playlist put him on edge and kept him alert, but it wasn’t until he neared the end of the ride that he realized the first playlist was full of songs perfect for getting your heart rate up and your adrenaline going–the kind of music that would put any normal person on par with Hinata–definitely not where he wanted to be. The trip down seemed to go much quicker than the last one. A very, very quiet voice in his head suggested that the anticipation of seeing Kuroo was the cause. “Not even,” he countered, surprising himself that it was said out loud.
Despite never having specifically observed Kuroo’s rear form, when he stepped off the train and exited through the turnstiles, Tsukishima zeroed in on his host immediately. If knowing him from the back wasn’t disturbing enough, the fact that the guy even had a hat on so his trademark plumage was out of sight was a downright blow to Tsukishima’s sense of self. Realizing that he was somewhat attuned to someone and that they had proven that they were–unfortunately–attuned to him was the first step in a direction he did not want to go. Three feet behind him he hesitated to speak, but then Kuroo turned to face him.
“You look like you’re ready to engage… I take it you were listening to One Touch?”
“Ah, good boy.”
“Let me guess, your favorite track was No.7… I bet you played it twice, right?”
Tsukishima was annoyed at his presumptions and the fact that he was right just made him itch. “You’re really irritating.”
“So I was right. Heh…”
“What do you want me to say?”
Kuroo hitched and eyebrow and his lips twisted up into a smirk with just a bit of a pout for good measure. He shrugged his shoulders and turned to lead the way. “Come on, let’s go.”
With his keen insights, powerful plays, and low-key leadership, Kuroo was, in Tsukishima’s eyes, an obnoxious bastard. It would be easier for him to take if Kuroo’s manner could be tidied up with, “if he just kept his mouth shut…,” but it couldn’t. Because even if he was mute, that smirk and shrewd look in his eyes said as much as, if not more than any string of words that could ever pass his lips. Yet, he was drawn to him. Tsukishima’s last bastion of hope was that he had not acknowledged that the attraction ran far deeper than the guy’s talent on the court. It was of a tawdry class, but his ignorance was a source of bliss, nonetheless.
A girl zipped by on a longboard and Tsukishima was snapped back to the moment he pressed play on the first playlist. The first and slowest track opened with the sound of a skateboard on asphalt. He was pulled back to the present by an apprehensive tone. “What…?”
“I said, ‘don’t get so lost in thought that you trip over something and fall, because you’ll have to wait until I finish laughing before I help you up.'”
Tsukishima could feel the vein popping above his left temple. That’s not what he said at all. What he caught of the tone reminded him of Kuroo’s apology after he practically choked him three weeks ago. Well, since he met him at the station, he noticed that his whole demeanor had changed from that time; he was back to the Kuroo he first met on the court. He didn’t even wait for me to let my guard down. Ironically, Tsukishima was now more at ease.
“You should have eaten by now, right? Then we’ll head straight to the court.”
Kuroo spun around and threw his arm over Tsukishima’s shoulders and closed in for a loose headlock, “we’ll need to do something about your stamina,.”
He pulled at Kuroo’s arm. “There’s nothing wrong with my stamina,” Tsukishima said, despite the fact that he was always last when the team ran laps.
“That weary look on your face tells me otherwise. You looked so pumped at the station. We’re only 6 blocks away and now you look like you could use a nap.”
“That has less to do with my stamina and more to do with the wearisome nature of present company.” He pulled at his arm again.
“Aww Tsu–,” Kuroo caught himself. He told Tsukishima that there were no strings attached, so he resolved to forgo the flirting. He didn’t want to make him uncomfortable or make him think that he wasn’t serious about practicing with him. He released him from the headlock and took two steps ahead. “Suit yourself, but I’m not going to go easy on you.”
“There’d be no point in me coming if you did.”
Kuroo quickly bit his bottom lip to stop his innuendo laden retort from escaping. Fortunately they had reached their destination, so he was forced to quietly accept his loss and move on. “We’re here.”
His hands twitched and his upper body lurched a bit each time he saw Tsukishima’s posture slacken. He knew it would only be for a second, but he wanted to break the habit altogether. But no touching meant no touching–one of the many promises he made to himself that morning. To get around his self-imposed show of restraint, he enlisted his senpai who came to practice with him to make physical contact with Tsukishima. Bokuto was there, too, but Bokuto and he were of a similar mind, so that just wouldn’t do.
“Pay attention!” Kuroo yelled from the mezzanine. He’d already played two sets against Tsukishima and coached him from the opposite side of the net. Now he was watching him from a spectators vantage point to better assess the disagreeable punk’s reaction time. He continued his barrage of commands. “Taka-senpai, get his arms down! Out in front! Farther! You already owe me two laps, do you want another one?! Ueda-san, he’s starting to predict your moves—keep him on his toes! Koutarou, you better not be going easy on him!”
Kuroo wasn’t sure what to make of the piercing glance Tsukishima gave him while his posture was being physically corrected for the umpteenth time. The self-assured part of him figured his little firefly must be upset because it wasn’t him doing the touching, but the part of him that wasn’t such an insufferable know-it-all realized that that guy wasn’t always so easy to figure out. He wanted to test it, but time had run out for the day.
As he descended from the mezzanine, he saw Bokuto running alongside Tsukishima and ruffling his hair. His left jugular convulsed at the sight. He smoothed the skin from under his chin down to his collarbone a few times in an attempt to abate his jealousy. It would have worked if he hadn’t seen what he thought was a smile on the kid’s face. No, he was just wincing; there’s no way he’d smile at someone (else), right? Just as he was about to call out to them, he noticed that Bokuto had broken away and was now in the middle of sidestepping a beeline back towards the mezzanine stairs; he stopped just short of crashing into him.
“Ah, that kid’s good! He’s gotten even better since camp; you better watch out.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Kuroo lifted his chin and folded his arms across his puffed out chest, “he’s good, but not that good.”
They both looked on in salacious awe as Tsukishima’s thigh and calf muscles jumped in soundless slow motion with each stride that brought him closer to finishing up his last lap. Bokuto broke the silence. “So…,” he goaded. “What happened there?” His head nodded in the direction of the ever-nearer Tsukishima. “Did you change your mind?”
“You were kind of distant today. Don’t you think he looked lonely?”
“Eh, isn’t that his regular face?”
Bokuto laughed and then started waving his arms about as if he was trying to get the attention of someone far away, “hey Tsukki!” However, Tsukishima was less than 5 feet from them, so Bokuto looked rather ridiculous, but that was nothing new. His smile grew as the vein over Tsukishima’s left temple became more prominent. He nudged Kuroo, “heh, l think I like this face better.” He turned his attention back, “you alright, Tsukki?”
“I’m sure I asked you not to call me that,” Tsukishima gnashed as he came to a complete stop and futilely tried to clear the sweat from his forehead.
“But I’m worried about you. You looked so lonely.”
“Lonely?” Tsukishima scoffed. “I think you’d do better to worry about your own emotional state, Mood swing-senpai.” His sneer lingered.
“Aww, I have feelings too, you know… It’s just that, Tetsurou here, he’s been distant with you and– OW!”
Kuroo pounded Bokuto’s hair down to the crown of his head in objection. “you’re so noisy!” He ignored his friend’s feigned look of acrimony. “Go swoop in on a rat or something, you damned owl!” Something moved in his periphery and he remembered that Tsukishima was still standing there. He smiled and laughed as if to say, don’t mind this idiot. Kuroo also ignored Bokuto’s whining yelp that was no doubt an overreaction to having his head lightly mugged in the direction of the locker room. Looking dejected, his friend took the hint and left, but not before Kuroo was treated to a peck on his cheek and had to watch as the guy tauntingly jacked his eyebrows up and down a few times for Tsukishima’s sake.
The corner of Tsukishima’s mouth curled up as if he’d gotten some real dirt on Kuroo. “I didn’t realize you and Manic-senpai were so… familiar.” The last word was enunciated for effect.
“WHAAAaAAT?!” Kuroo’s voice cracked as it climbed a few octaves.
Like some auntie who just got her best dig in, complete with a raised brow and wide eyes, Tsukishima chuckled behind closely set fingers.
“Hmph…” Kuroo found his composure and let his conceit take over. “Laugh all you want, but I think we both know that I have better taste than that.”
Tsukishima scrunched his face as he felt the fabric of his shorts fall away from the back of his thigh as the moisture that helped it cling evaporated. When he relaxed, he noticed that Kuroo’s unnecessarily boastful countenance had also fallen away. He assumed the guy thought the face he made was in response to his comment, but that certainly wasn’t the case, because Tsukishima had tuned him out before he even started talking. He ventilated himself by pulling at the collar of his crew neck tee shirt, repeatedly. “If you don’t need me for anything else, I’d like to take a shower…”
“We could practice that, too.”
To Tsukishima’s blank stare, he responded, “what? I haven’t done it all day.”
“So I noticed,” Tsukishima mumbled.
With a smile so sardonic he could only use it on Kuroo, he falsely repeated, “I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ve got that down.”
“Come on!” Kuroo said as he threw up his hands. “That’s too many words and you know it!”
Tsukishima’s return ticket was time-stamped for the next morning, so they headed for Kuroo’s place. On his way to Tokyo, he had prepared himself for the inevitable advances from Kuroo and he decided he would just shut him down. Well, that’s what he imagined, but since it didn’t seem to be going down that way, he was reticent to say anything lest he spark a flame that he only assumed was already lit. As sure as he was about Kuroo, he could have been just as wrong. The guy was a crafty sort, so flirting could very well just be his way. I’m not even interested, so it doesn’t matter, he reasoned in hopes of concluding his dangerous succession of thoughts.
When they disembarked from the train, Tsukishima answered a few quick questions his host asked him about food and then watched him make stupid faces as he typed out a longish text. He wondered aloud how much more time they had until they reached their destination. Kuroo answered that is was a 15-minute walk. In stark contrast to the silent train ride, Kuroo was yapping up a storm. It was mostly nonsense, but Tsukishima did manage to learn that his train fare was courtesy of Nekoma’s vice captain, Kai’s uncle to whom Kuroo promised a huge favor that he refused to elaborate on. And that the cake vouchers were given to him by an appreciative granny and gramps whom he helped load a cake and other goodies for their granddaughter into their car. It was a little too late, but knowing that they were somewhat free made him feel better about accepting them.
He wasn’t quite sure how to respond when Kuroo told him that his parents left to visit his uncle the day before, so they weren’t home. But a strange mix of relief and disappointment came over him at the sight he saw once Kuroo opened his front door. A pair of sneakers too small to be Kuroo’s and too rugged to be his mother’s were situated–neither neatly nor arbitrarily–in the genkan. Before he could ask, his question was answered.
“I home… Ah, Kenma’s here already. That means to food must be here too. Come on, let’s go up.”
Tsukishima was suddenly pissed. He opened his mouth to complain, but he realized he didn’t know why he was so angry. So he just excused himself instead, “sorry for the intrusion.”
Once they reached the top of the stairs, he could just make out some soft clicking sounds. There was no definitive rhythm to them, but they still seemed practiced somehow. As he rounded the corner, his throat twinged letting him know that spicy food was on the menu. The door Kuroo stopped in front of was cracked and Tsukishima could clearly hear the deliberate clicking that was only whispers seconds ago. The door swung open wildly to reveal Nekoma’s setter belly down as he propped himself up on his elbows on Kuroo’s bed. Tsukishima’s fingers clenched into a fist. He looked down to see why there was an unusual tightness in his hand. He stared, puzzled. His dazed thoughts were interrupted by the tapping he felt against his chest that was accompanied by a request from Kuroo involving him handing him his bag and entering the room. The request only vaguely registered with him, but the actions he took on assumption didn’t appear to have caused any issue, so he lingered in his daze a bit longer. When he came to, he was staring down the blunt end of a pair of unseparated chopsticks. “…Thanks.”
As the night got underway, Tsukishima was feeling less and less like he had any idea of what Kuroo’s intentions were. Even though he himself was not very friendly, he thought he understood the extents of friendship. What would most people think about the relationship between two people who were close enough for at least one of them to have a key to the other’s house and for the other to not so much as bat an eye when they found the one making themselves at home on their bed? Though his list of close companions was short, there’s only one he’d even consider allowing on his bed–having a key to his house was completely out of the question. He decided to push those bothersome thoughts aside.
The dinner conversation was dominated by Kuroo, to no ones surprise. Tsukishima was relieved that most of his chatter was directed at Kenma; Kuroo seemed satisfied with only bringing him into the conversation when he needed backup against some minor criticism his teammate lodged at him. His maguro-zukedon was delicious. Though his favorite was magugo-yamakakedon, he was still surprised that Kuroo made a guess so close. Although his bowl wasn’t empty he was full. As he savored the taste he heard a new name come up in the conversation that he was only recurrently a part of.
“Does Shouyou do extra practices like this, too?” Kenma asked with his face aglow.
Tsukishima hesitated a moment. He understood that he was being asked a question, but he wasn’t sure why. “…I’m sorry?”
Kuroo thoughtlessly tapped Tsukishima’s elbow, “who does shorty do extra practices with?”
Tsukishima guessed, “anyone he can get his hands on?”
“Sounds like him. I heard he used to practice by himself in the corners of gyms and school hallways,” Kenma offered.
There were certainly worse things to talk about, but Tsukishima quietly begrudged the fact that even here, hours away, he still couldn’t escape Hinata. “Hmph…” It was low, but the way Kuroo’s eyes darted to him let him know that it was heard.
Kuroo stretched and almost choked on his yawn when he caught sight of Tsukishima who looked to be in the same position he was in when he went to sleep the night before. “What is he a corpse?” He saw that his bed was empty which meant Kenma had gone home. The thought of doing something untoward to his unsuspecting kouhai made him tingle with anticipation, but the thought of a seriously furious Tsukishima just numbed him altogether. So he settled for kissing his own fingertips and passing it on to the corpse’s forehead. No response. Hardly satisfied, he slunked off to the shower.
With a little more than an hour before he had to leave, Tsukishima made his way downstairs–dressed, packed, and ready to go. He set his stuff by the wall leading to the genkan and then turned back and found his way to the kitchen.
“Morning,” Kuroo said cheerfully.
Having taken in his host’s not-ready-for-public-viewing attire, which consisted of a tee shirt unironically bragging about hot rods, a pair of plaid pajama pants, and Mega Man toe socks, Tsukishima answered, “so your hair is just naturally like that?”
Kuroo walked Tsukishima as far as he could walk him before crossing a pay barrier. As his guest turned to leave, he stopped him with a question, “was the trip worth it?”
“Coach Ukai said that I’d benefit from training with you and I believe he was right.”
Kuroo couldn’t stop himself from doubling over. His body wracked with laughter. When he came up for air he wiped away a few tears. Catching his breath, “a-a-any-thing not to complement me, huh? That’s fine, I guess.” With an easy sigh, he had reclaimed his cool. He pulled a small card out of his back pocket and held it snugly between his middle and index fingers behind him. He looked Tsukishima over with a hint of regret and smiled a little, mostly to himself. “So, does that mean I’ll see you next weekend?”
“If time permits.”
“Can’t you just play cute for a minute and say something like, ‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Kuroo-senpai’?” Kuroo bargained.
Tsukishima’s eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down, “I would never say something so revolting.”
He let his head drop and his shoulders slump, “geez… you’re killing me here!” Without looking up Kuroo shoved the card at Tsukishima and flicked his wrist a few times as if to say, take it. Take it.
The card was so close to his face, Tsukishima had to practically cross his eyes to see what it was. He swiped it from between Kuroo’s fingers. “What is this?”
He straightened up, his face still a little red from hanging over. “It’s the tracklist for One Touch.”
Tsukishima turned it over and his face lit up for half a second.
Feeling good about himself, Kuroo’s trademark smirk returned. “You probably thought I was going to leave you guessing for all time, didn’t you? Give me some credit, man.” He reached over to ruffle Tsukishima’s hair and garnered himself more than one popped vein and something else–he couldn’t tell if it was a shadow or actual blush, but whatever it was, it was gone by the time his hand slid off Tsukishima’s head, down the side of his face, paused a moment to thumb his earlobe and then pulled away. He let the sensation tarry on his fingers a minute before he shoved them into his pockets. Even still, there was a slight tickle that remained.
Tsukishima adjusted his backpack and slipped the tracklist card into the cafe tote that held the first of his three strawberry shortcakes. When the girl at the counter heard that he was headed to Sendai, she slipped a cold pack in the tote to make sure it was still as heavenly when he finally got a chance to enjoy it. His thoughts of the moment he would be slicing a fork into that wedge-shaped delectation were suspended when heard his name being called.
He did everything he could to keep from blushing; he thought of many, many disgusting things–things he was surprised he could even conjure up. That voice. His name. No. His pulse was still steady and his face was still cool, so he took it that he’d won against that useless reaction. “…”
Implying the tracklist, Kuroo tried again, “So now that you have something else to look forward to, will I be seeing you next weekend?”
Likewise implying the tracklist, “well, now that I got what I came for,” he said as he gingerly hoisted up the cafe tote, “probably not.”
“Come on! You really want to see me off to my grave, don’t you?”
Mirroring Kuroo’s trademark smirk, the left corner of his mouth coiled up and in his flattest, driest voice, Tsukishima replied, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Kuroo-senpai.”
On the growing list of things he’d rather not admit, Tsukishima placed Kuroo understanding him somewhere painfully close to the top. It wasn’t so much that it irritated him–though it did–it was the part where it seemed so effortless for the guy. He’d never set out to be any kind of enigma, but damn if Kuroo wasn’t unraveling him like one. Today’s train ride to Tokyo slogged along despite another perfect playlist. The fifth one, Shortcake, Strawberries, and Whipped Cream, just like One Touch and Walk With Me before, it was also another crescendoing torrent of heavy drum beats, furious bass lines, blaring horns, and lyrical acrobatics orchestrated to get him keyed up, ready to go. Kuroo compiled adrenaline pumping tracks for his ride down and mid-tempo meditative tracks for his ride home. The track progressions were always on point and somehow always matched the gradual shifts in his moods has he got closer to or farther away from Tokyo. Tsukishima laughed to himself when he realized he probably couldn’t find a better playlist even if he made his own. He shuddered at the implication.
During his first trip down, Kuroo met him at the station alone and when they practiced, it was mostly hands on training until Kuroo relocated to the mezzanine, then later at Kuroo’s house, although his parents were gone, Kenma stayed over. On the second weekend, Kuroo brought Kenma along with him to the station, he instructed him from the mezzanine, again, and his parents were home. And today, Tsukishima’s jaw set in annoyance when he saw Kenma waiting for him at the station without Kuroo. It was just a thought on the train ride home last week, but he was sure of it now; Kuroo was avoiding being alone with him. I wasn’t as if he wanted to be alone with him…it wasn’t, but it just the principle of it all.
They arrived at the gym to a few of the Nekoma alum congregating around the entrance. Greetings were made as Kenma abandoned Tsukishima to shuffle his way through the crowd on his own. There were side pokes, shoulder slaps, and more hair ruffling than he thought he could stand; even Ueda-san who probably beat Hinata’s height by a sneeze got in on it. When he finally entered the gym he was red-faced, slightly winded, and his glasses needed to be adjusted. After he got his bearings, he surveyed the court to see what was going on. He could hear Kuroo, but he couldn’t see him, so he walked farther in. Tsukishima followed the voice to the far stairs of the mezzanine and found Kuroo under them, crouched behind a stack of floor mats with his phone to his ear. He stood watch, looming, wanting him to notice, but not wanting to say anything. Finally, he cleared his throat. “I’m here.”
Kuroo didn’t hear him and nearly jumped out of his skin when he turned toward him while he was still talking. The call ended abruptly when the phone flew out of his hands. “Geez, man! Say something, don’t just stand there!” He staggered to his feet. “You ready?”
“I doubt I’d be here otherwise.”
Just as he was about to protest falling into the routine of the previous two weeks, Tsukishima nearly toppled over at the unexpected weight of an overexcited Bokuto. “M-Manic-senpai,”
He had him in a headlock and wouldn’t let go. Tsukishima made an attempt to free himself, but Bokuto wouldn’t budge. He stood for a moment to think. Backing up into a wall would probably work, but the closest one was about 10 feet away. He could bend forward to flip him off, but that seemed to be more trouble than it was worth.
Kuroo looked rather idiotic surveying the area to find his tossed phone. Tsukishima made no attempts to hide how entertained he was by it all. And if he didn’t have an idiot attached to him, he may have even doubled over with laughter.
Kuroo, regained his composure and fished his phone out of the corner it flew into. He took stock of the damage and noticed none. “Alright, alright, alright. Ha ha. Yeah, it’s funny. Get your rocks off while you can. We’ll see who’s laughing at the end of the day.”
Tsukishima decided to be smart about his predicament and reached behind his back and pinched the soft flesh on the underside of Bokuto’s arm. Thankful for his balance, he narrowly escaped being pulled back and down to the floor as Bokuto was forcefully disengaged. He turned back to see Bokuto whimpering and nursing his bruise. Since he was facing away from him, the movement of the nursing arm looked an awful lot like Bokuto was publicly amusing himself with a private pleasure. Although Tsukishima declined the opportunity to comment, Kuroo couldn’t stop himself.
“Yeah, Koutarou,” Kuroo says as he makes his way over, “I know I said to get your rocks off, but I didn’t mean it that way.” He crouches next to Bokuto and says in a whisper loud enough for Tsukishima to hear, “he gets me hot, too, but you can’t do that kind of thing in a place like this. If you put it away now, I promise I’ll take care of you later. Heh.”
Tsukishima rolled his eyes, momentarily forgetting his complaint and now desperate to get on with the day. “Are we going to play or not?’
“Yeah,” said Kuroo. “Let me just walk this fool out.”
“Geez, man,” Bokuto whined, “I’m right here; you should at least wait until I’m gone to call me names.”
“Shut it,” Kuroo commanded as he began to usher Bokuto out.
“Do your best, Tsukki!” Bokuto yelled back. “Oh, and be nice to my friend here, he’s been in a sour mood lately.”
Tsukishima looked on as they disappeared into the swarm of senpai and wondered why Kuroo didn’t offer any sort of rebuttal to Bokuto’s warning.
He ran through the plays of the first two matches in his head as he finished up his sandwich. Whether it was due to improvement on his part or resignation on theirs Tsukishima couldn’t say for sure, but the posture correcting that had become part and parcel to the practices had dwindled down to only two full adjustments and one minor tweak. While he had decided that it wasn’t worth mentioning, Kuroo felt differently.
“Good job, today,” Kuroo praised as he stooped next to Tsukishima. “You’ve come a long way since the first weekend.”
Not bothering to look at him, Tsukishima countered, “that was the point of all of this, right?”
“It’s a complement, take it. You almost done? I want to run through some drills.”
“I’m finished. Can I request that during the next match, you correct me? I’m tired of being poked and posed while they figure out exactly what you mean yelling from the mezzanine.”
“As much as I’d like to poke and pose you, there won’t be another match today. They’re leaving early to go watch one.” Kuroo was sure Tsukishima was going to comment on his innuendo or at least throw him a death glare, so when he saw a look of disappointment on his face, he was thrown off. “W-Well, um, don’t worry about it, you’re practically perfect, so you don’t really need anymore of that.”
“Oh, I see,” Tsukishima replied unknowingly letting a hint of his disappointment slip in.
Bokuto was right, Kuroo had been in a sour mood. He felt bad because he had made slight advances on Tsukishima, but throughout the weekend practices, he’d become increasingly more certain that the kid wasn’t actually interested in him. He’d sifted through all of their interactions to find which one gave him that idea in the first place and, in retrospect, there weren’t any and the ones he initially thought were, in light of recent events, he felt were just him reading the situation wrong. Tsukishima was just a standoffish and sarcastic kid and was not being coy or playing along with him in a game of cat and mouse. Kuroo couldn’t actually tell if he made Tsukishima uncomfortable because he really only had two expressions when they talked: annoyed and blank, but he could only believe that unwanted advances would lead to that. However, this show of emotion confused him because the disappointment didn’t seem to be solely about not having another match. Kuroo caught himself and rather than respond to something that he could have also read wrong, he’d opted for a final encouragement instead, “you’ve got everything down, so as long as you remember to keep your knees bent and ready, you just might be unstoppable.” Kuroo stood up and extended his hand. “So how about those drills?”
He wasn’t interested…he wasn’t, but Kuroo’s change in attitude irritated Tsukishima for some reason. The drills were straightforward; the ride back to Kuroo’s place was quiet; this weekend was both parent and Kenma-free and there they were, lights out two hours earlier than the previous weekends. It was weird and the following morning was the same. Kuroo made light conversation, reiterating points from the practices, only making brief eye contact, and keeping his distance. As he worked at his rice, two cards came into view. The tracklistings, which were usually handed to him at the train station or told to him over IM once he returned home, were next to his bowl. Tsukishima looked up to see Kuroo staring at him.
“It’s your last visit. I didn’t want to forget.”
Tsukishima’s irritation grew and he just wanted the trip to be over. His train wasn’t departing for another three hours, but he didn’t want to be alone with Kuroo anymore. He told him that he wanted to stop at a few places before he headed home, so they left and shopped around for a while. Telling Kuroo that he didn’t have to accompany him and that he’d be fine on his own would be pointless, so he didn’t even try. Since he already had the playlists, Kuroo no longer had a reason to extend their conversation at the pay barrier like he’d done the previous weekends. Any other time, he would have been relieved, but today the thought just added to his irritation. With his last cake and a few new books in tow, they were heading to the station with a half an hour to spare. They were not too far from the entrance when he noticed that Kuroo wasn’t walking with him anymore. He turned around to see where he got off to, but Kuroo was only a few feet away looking like he wanted to say something.
“Hey, can we talk for a minute?”
Tsukishima looked at the time on the building across the street–he had 25 minutes left until he needed to be on the platform. They took a seat on a short brick wall that was backed by a few trees. Tsukishima waited.
“I want to apologize,” Kuroo prefaced. “I like you and I thought that you were into me too, so I flirted with you because of that. I did want to practice with you, so that wasn’t just a cover up, but I don’t know if I made you uncomfortable, so I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry about that. I realize that I misread the situation, but now that I know, I promise I won’t do anything like that again.”
Tsukishima’s blank stare betrayed the swirling confusion in his head. He opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted.
“I’m not looking for a response–actually, I’d prefer if you didn’t–so don’t worry about saying anything. I just wanted you to know, so… Uh, but like I said earlier, just remember your knees and keep practicing extending your reach. Oh, and thanks a lot for coming down, I had fun.” Kuroo presented his hand for a shake and resisted an extra squeeze when Tsukishima accepted it. “Take care of yourself and eat more–the next time we meet will be on the court.”
After his shower, he sat at his desk and waited for a notification that Kuroo had IMed him. After 15 minutes, he thought he was late, but then he eyed the playlist cards that he left on the edge of his night table. It hit him that there wasn’t going to be an IM that night…or possibly ever again.
Just like Kuroo wanted, he didn’t say anything. Now that he was a half a day away from it, he wasn’t sure if that was such a good thing. Good or bad, though, it didn’t matter because, even now, Tsukishima had no idea of what he could have said. He wasn’t interested…he wasn’t, but now that there would be no more flirting to shoot down, no more insinuations to ignore, and no more weekend trips to Tokyo, he should have been relieved, happy even, but he wasn’t. Truthfully, he was irritated, even more so than earlier. “I like you.” That’s what Kuroo said. His advances were easy to dismiss when they seemed noncommittal, but being told that straight out, Tsukishima couldn’t push it away anymore; the same went for his own feelings. It was all so troublesome and pointless; he didn’t want to get involved. In that moment, he felt like all the things that he’d suppressed and ignored were rushing forward–racing toward some way out. He didn’t like it. He didn’t know what to do or what there was to do anything about. “What is this,” he wailed as he threw his towel at the wall. The dull sound exploded in his usually still room and all he knew was that it hurt. The sound, his thoughts, his feelings–whatever it was, it hurt.
Right before Karasuno and Nekoma took to the court to face each other at Nationals, Yamaguchi waited outside of the bathroom while his teammate finished up. When Tsukishima exited, another had joined Yamaguchi. Before he could say anything, Yamaguchi, started towards the court. “I’ll see you out there.”
“I got your message. …If that’s all it is, then I don’t mind waiting.” Kuroo offered.
The words slipped up the back of his shirt, coiled around his neck, and then lanced through his heart. The last time they met, Kuroo said that he didn’t want a response to his confession and Tsukishima obliged. A week passed and the pain and confusion he’d felt that night had yet to subside. When it became too much for him, he messaged Kuroo. His feelings, Kuroo’s feelings, what there was to be done about them, he didn’t know and he disclosed as much to Kuroo. He waited, but no reply came. And now, despite the fact that his body felt like he was about to be a pile of limbs on the floor, Tsukishima froze. It had been a few weeks since he’d heard that voice, but even if a few decades had passed, he believed it would make no difference, because that smirk-filled timbre was unforgettable. Tsukishima looked to his left.
A year’s time came and went and Karasuno returned to Nationals as the reigning champions. Again, Yamaguchi waited for his teammate to finish up in the bathroom. As the door closed behind him, Tsukishima looked at Yamaguchi’s question mark of an expression. Yamaguchi excused himself, “I’ll see you out there.”
Tsukishima froze. He was unable to decide if he should be mad or relieved. Nothing, for a whole year, not a single word. Granted he was free to initiate contact at any time, but he couldn’t do it. The guy said he’d wait, but for what? For Tsukishima to understand his feelings? For the distance between them to close? A whole year and neither of those had changed. Tsukishima turned to his left.
“I just wanted to let you know that I still don’t mind waiting.”
Everyone was present, no one was injured, they’d all had a good night’s sleep, still, Karasuno’s captain could not shake the feeling that something was in the wind. But since he couldn’t put his finger on it, he assumed it had nothing to do with Nationals and, therefore, was irrelevant. He looked down at the sink and briefly lamented that the facilities had still not been updated with motion sensor faucets. He used his palm to guide the lever up, allowing the water to run.
Over the last two years, he’d earned nicknames like, “The Physicist” and “The Strategist.” But most of Japan’s high school volleyball community had come to know him as “Jingozaemon.” So named for his brilliant tactical plays that helped maintain Karasuno’s nearly no-loss record that began in his second year on the team. Even with all of that under his belt, Tsukishima drew a blank when he tried to figure out what to do in this situation. Another year, he’d made him wait. What kind of face should he show? How should he respond? Should he play it off as though this encounter was a matter of course now or should he let all of the conflicting emotions that had been haunting him break through? He just didn’t know…he still didn’t know.
He dried his hands and used the paper towel as a barrier between his clean hands and the not so clean faucet handle to turn the running water off. The paper towel was once more enlisted to help push open the bathroom door. When he exited, Yamaguchi was standing across from the door looking as though he was ready to apologize for something. Apprehension tightened its grip. Tsukishima turned his head to the left, just enough to see that no one was there.
Yamaguchi accepted his captain’s silence as his cue. “Ready?”
Nekoma was putting up a fight and Karasuno was meeting them blow for blow. Breaks were hard to come by and the pressure mounted all the more with the spectators cheering in the stands. Going in to the last of the five matches with two wins and two losses, Karasuno turned their eyes and ears to their vice captain. Tsukishima was never one for pep talks, so the responsibility and pleasure, as it were, always fell to Yamaguchi. With Coach Ukai and Takeda-sensei backing his every word, the team’s passion swelled. “We’ve worked hard for this. We can resume our friendship with Nekoma after we win, but, for now, show no mercy. And above all else, do what you came to do, support each other, and have fun!”
There were no hard feelings, there never were. As long as each team gave it their all, regardless of who won, only respect and admiration was exchanged between the long-time rivals. The fifth and final match worked both sides until 33/35 graced the scoreboard. Tsukishima could retire and graduate knowing he did well by his predecessor, Ennoshita, and Sawamura, before him, but before he hung his jersey up for the last time, there was a celebration waiting for the team back home.
Still feeling full from the previous night’s festivities, Tsukishima and Yamaguchi walked home in relative silence during the morning after the Tsukishima-led team’s last sleepover. When they reached the end of their common route, Yamaguchi slapped Tsukishima on the back and congratulated him again. He was about to go into it, but something caught his attention and he stopped short. Before parting, he left Tsukishima with his final encouragement as the vice captain of the Karasuno High School Volleyball Club: “We’ve come a long way. You’ve come a long way. Don’t stop now, Tsukki”
He knew that Yamaguchi was not one to speak in riddles, so he could only assume that he was referring to the matter before the game. You could hardly tell, but Tsukishima was on a bit of a high after their triumph and didn’t bother much about anything. That included the realization that, unlike the previous year, he didn’t even see Kuroo in the stands. As he turned to set off in the opposite direction of Yamaguchi, he figured, now that everything was done, he’d have some time to consider what he should do or should have done about the guy who said he’d wait. Not as much time as he’d have liked, though.
“Congrats on your victory,” came a voice from about five feet up his path.
At the train station two years ago, Tsukishima allowed Kuroo to believe otherwise and never actually corrected his assumptions, but the guy really could read him like a book, so it was pointless to feign anything. “Thanks. They were formidable opponents.”
“Of course, it was hard to choose who to root for, but I suppose that’s to be expected when you’ve invested so much on both sides. …You’re friend’s right, you know–you’ve come a long way.”
At that Tsukishima took a step forward. “Y-You, too. We’re quite a ways from Tokyo; wouldn’t it have been better if you caught me when I was still there?”
“You know just as well as I do that timing is everything.”
“…So you’ve told me,” Tsukishima replied, words tinged with regret.
“Can I walk with you?”
Feeling a strange sense of relief, Tsukishima slipped back into his usual demeanor. “Would it make a difference if I said ‘no’?”
No time for banter, it seems. Tsukishima knew this was it and at this very moment he felt like not being able to have come to an understanding after all this time meant that it probably shouldn’t be. It was time to end it. “In that case, I think it’d be best if you didn’t.”
Kuroo looked down at nothing in particular and focused on the freedom he had just been granted. It had been torture waiting and waiting and doing nothing else but waiting, but with this, he could give up. It was time. “I see.” He walked toward Tsukishima and gently clasped his shoulder as he walked by. “Sorry to have bothered you.”
Even after he could no longer hear Kuroo’s footfalls as he walked away, Tsukishima remained where Kuroo left him, unable to move. He was further restrained by those pangs of anxiety and disquietude that bullied him so long ago. It was no coincidence that they would return now–this, he knew. Tsukishima’s bag slid off his shoulder as his posture slackened. Carried by its weight, the bag fell further and though their reaction was delayed, his fingers caught the bag by its straps just in time to save it from hitting the ground.
“You know what I don’t get?”
Tsukishima’s breath hitched in his throat and thankfully, because he may not have realized that he wasn’t breathing if it didn’t.
“You like me. I mean, you like me, in that way,” Kuroo continued.
He regained just enough control of his body to react, but not gracefully so. Tsukishima’s head, neck, and upper torso turned toward the accusation, but his hips, legs and feet, like his fingers before them, were slow to react. “K-Kuroo-san?!” That’s all he managed to get out before his center of gravity gave up on his off-balance stance.
This was really not the moment to be taken by it and yet, Kuroo felt a warm breeze blow through him at the sound of his name slipping off of Tsukishima’s tongue, but there was very little time to appreciate it. He quickly snapped out of it and caught Tsukishima’s right arm, saving him from falling, but causing the lanky six-foot-two frame to spin about and fall backwards into his chest.
Being suddenly secured against the firm expanse by the arm that caught him caused a fluttering in unmentionable places in Tsukishima. Still slightly winded and a bit dazed, he asked, “why…are you still here?”
Kuroo wrapped his other arm around Tsukishima. “You didn’t really want me to leave, right?”
That wasn’t an answer to his question, but it was just as well; Tsukishima wasn’t sure what difference the answer would have made. He was in uncharted territory; the only thing he knew how to do was hold things at bay. Emotions, expectations, even people, and though nothing in the way he dealt with people had changed, his approach to things had the opposite effect on Kuroo; it only brought him closer. Being annoyed at how well Kuroo had marked him had yet to get him anywhere, so he shed that concern and decided it would be enough to understand, “how can you be so sure?”
Kuroo laughed a little. “I’m not. Not a hundred percent, anyway, but I have a feeling, ya know?”
“That’s what I don’t know,” Tsukishima returned.
Tsukishima was still in his arms when two girls about their age walked by. They smiled the kind of smile people had when they looked at puppies. It’s better than the alternative. He shook his head and then bowed it onto Tsukishima’s shoulder. “I guess we should move this inside.”
Kuroo wanted to say his hellos, but Tsukishima told him that no one was home. He was shown to the engawa and asked to wait while Tsukishima showered and changed his clothes.
A quiet grin played at Kuroo’s lips.
“Why are you making such a disgusting face?”
The grin broke out into a laugh. Kuroo took the glass of tea being handed to him. “Thanks. I was just surprised that you know how to play host.”
This could all go very badly, but he was tired of waiting and Kuroo realized that if he didn’t just come right out with it, he’d never get anywhere. It was only after Tsukishima turned him down earlier that he realized that not asking for an answer and saying he’ll wait was the worse thing he could have done. Kuroo patted the floor next to him. “Come on, sit.”
“You do realize that this is my house?”
“Ah, details, details.” Kuroo repeated the gesture and sipped his drink while Tsukishima settled in about a foot away from him.
And here they were, but what they were doing was something Tsukishima could not quite figure out. “…Kuroo-san–”
“Before you say anything,” Kuroo interrupted, “I’d like you to answer a couple questions, okay?” He had a theory and he wanted to see how it played out.
“I know you just like to be contrary, but when we interact, do I really, like seriously, get on your nerves?”
“Okay, so, what about right now? Am I annoying you right now?”
The question was straightforward enough, but Tsukishima took a few seconds to consider it. “…No. Not at the moment.”
“Alright. Now, when I touch you, for whatever reason, does it gross you out?”
“How about when I caught you earlier or right now?” Kuroo took Tsukishima’s hand in his, palm up, and toyed with his fingers–lacing them together with his and tracing the creases. “Are you bothered by this?”
Tsukishima looked at the handheld performance Kuroo was giving and wondered. “…It doesn’t bother me?”
“HA! Why do you have to say it like it’s a question?” That warm breeze from earlier returned. “I have another question, but can you tell me something before I get to it?”
Kuroo had always thought that Tsukishima’s snark and teasing was cute, being himself a provocateur, but this unsure, quietly honest side of him was slowly driving him out of his mind. He had to remain on task, though, because if things played out the way he believed they would, there’d be plenty of time to appreciate all the sides of Tsukishima. “During the time in between, what did you think about? About me? About us?”
He didn’t want to answer because he knew the truth was not quite true, but there was nothing else to say. “…I didn’t.” He looked at Kuroo.
Kuroo smiled. “Is it possible that you really mean that you couldn’t?”
“Yes.” The word slipped right out, no hesitation and something stirred in him. “…Yes, but…”
He realized it was the case for Tsukishima when it came to volleyball, but Kuroo was unwilling to just apply it so liberally to his whole disposition, but it seemed like that might really be the case. “You’re a very here and now kind of person and I think the fact that I gave you such a wide berth actually prevented you from taking anything into consideration.”
Tsukishima furrowed his brow. “What are you getting at?”
“Since I wasn’t there to remind you that I existed, you didn’t have any way to gauge your feelings.” Kuroo leaned forward into Tsukishima’s personal space. “On the court, you take the present into account, and by the present I mean all the plays that have been executed since the match started. To you, the past means nothing and the future hasn’t come yet.”
Feeling a bit crowded, but not minding it too much.”Yeah, so?”
“Well, it turns out it’s the same for us or your relationship with anyone, I think…” Kuroo leaned in more, but Tsukishima only leaned back by just a hair’s breadth. “If we go a year without seeing each other you won’t even consider that the way I felt or the way you felt the last time we saw each other would still be the same. Even though there’s nothing to say that those feelings would or wouldn’t change, but none of that matters to you because you only trust what’s happening right now.”
Irritation and relief were wreaking havoc on Tsukishima; it was impossible for them to peacefully coincide. That persistent, troublesome energy that had been absent for so long was returning in full force. Being at once annoyed and intrigued was a conflict that could only be brought on by being in the presence of– Tsukishima swallowed a gasp as his heart beat out echoes of those weekends from the past. Wanting to be near him, not wanting to admit it. Denying it even to himself. Not wanting to give in, but now, in his heart, in his mind, even…he knew. But he still didn’t know if that was enough.
Tsukishima placed his hand on the floor behind him and his body followed and Kuroo followed. And then the other hand and he backed further away and Kuroo followed. He tried once more, but the wall wouldn’t let him and so he held his breath as Kuroo moved in. Tsukishima looked down and saw Kuroo’s right knee between his legs and his left hand near his hip and when he looked up, his face was…right there. So close he could taste him. That sensation sent a chill down his spine and rattled a few other things he’d rather not say.
Kuroo hovered about Tsukishima like he was on the prowl. He looked him over and noticed a slight shudder skitter across his chest and then he saw it in his eyes. “You… You get it…don’t you?” It was more of an arraignment than a question.
Tsukishima looked away.
Kuroo whispered into the ear that was now exposed to him. “You’ve come a long way. Don’t stop now, Kei.”
Tsukishima flinched at his name being spoken in that voice and again when Kuroo’s hair brushed against his cheek; he knew Kuroo could hear his heart thump louder and louder with every passing beat. His hesitation, his fear, his uncertainty; he couldn’t hide them, so he swallowed them. “What do you want me to say?”
Kuroo sat back and looked at Tsukishima whose eyes were still avoiding contact. “Listen, I don’t want to force you, that won’t do either one of us any good. Besides, you already know whats up, but you have to put words to it, from your own mouth, otherwise we’ll never get anywhere.”
“I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be saying, ” Tsukishima reminded Kuroo, his choler rising.
Kuroo steepled his fingers against his lips. “Alright then, how ’bout this?”
“Tell me again why we’re here?”
“Weren’t we already talking?”
Tsukishima could already see that this conversation was going to go nowhere but in circles. “Why didn’t we just stay where we were?”
“What’s the problem? This place is just as good as any?”
“Exactly. So why did you drag me all the way to the gym?”
Kuroo debated with himself for a moment. “Actually, I take that back. This is the best place to talk.”
“Would you just get to the point? We’re not even supposed to be in here.”
“Eh? Why not? You’re the captain and you’ve been entrusted with the key, so it should be fine, right?”
“The season is over. We played our last game. I’m graduating soon. I’ve already handed over the title.”
“But you still have the key.”
“Okay, let’s practice!”
Tsukishima was nearing the end of his rope. “Kur–”
“We’ll just volley for a bit. Aww, don’t make that face. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute and all, but I like it better when you smile.”
“I am certain that you’ve never seen me smile.”
“Alright then, smirk. It’s close enough.”
“I really don–”
“What is the–”
His exasperation came out in a huff. Tsukishima grabbed a ball and they went about setting it back and forth across the net. This was ridiculous. There was absolutely no point to it that he could see, yet he continued to go along with it. There was nothing to be heard other than their breathing and the poing of the ball hitting their fingertips. The volleying had continued for about five minutes in this way when the poing Tsukishima expected to hear was followed by a resounding slap. He, without hesitating, jumped to block the cross-court shot and returned a kill. “You know, you could warn me next time.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Anyway, now that I know you’re awake, we can talk.” Kuroo retrieved the ball and resumed volleying. “Congrats on your win.”
“You already said that.”
“But you really did well; there’s no limit to praise, especially for the person that made Lev cry–I’ve only ever seen Yaku accomplish that. Or…does it embarrass you?”
“What is there to be embarrassed about?”
Kuroo shrugged. “Maybe it’s too much coming from me.”
Tsukishima missed the ball.
“Hahaha! I was right?!”
He was right, but the clouds would be raining down ponzu before he admitted it. Tsukiahima returned to a shallow position and continued without further comment.
“You’ve settled your university?”
“What are you studying?”
“Archa– What is that?”
“Ar-chae-o-me-try is basically the methodology and mechanism side of archaeology.”
In concert, his features adopted a wryness about them, “says the physiology major.”
“Aww, you knew that?” Kuroo conceded. “Takes one to know one, I guess,” he added, his words dripping with cheek.
“So, you gonna start calling me ‘senpai’?”
Tsukishima almost choked on nothing and missed the toss in the process.
“What? You’re coming to my university, right?”
He stood with the rescued ball wedged between the side of his elbow and his hip. “Why do you know that?”
“I asked Kenma to ask Shorty. Come on, toss.”
He wasn’t actually bothered, but he sighed anyway. “This is super fun and all, but–”
“I missed you. That was not fun at all. There’s nothing to be done for what’s done, but I wish I never said I’d wait.” With his experiment underway, Kuroo felt that even though his guard was still up, Tsukishima was probably relaxed enough that he could push ahead.
Tsukishima quickly tossed the ball with a low arc hoping to catch Kuroo off guard, but Kuroo was on point.
“I’m not saying that I regret waiting, but it really ended up being a waste of time.”
“Precisely, though we mean different things.”
“You meant that, in all the time we were apart, you could not figure out what to do about us or even how you felt about us. But I meant that, when we parted at the train station, I liked you and I told you that, and you liked me, but you couldn’t process it–it didn’t really connect because even if you understood both to be true you only understood it in the flash of a moment and you had no idea where to take it from there.”
Tsukishima heard the sound of the ball coming in contact with a palm and he rendered an attack which Kuroo skillfully intercepted with an offside block whose trajectory was a perfect set for the spike that was subsequently slammed right past him. It was close. He went to recover the ball and when he turned back toward the net Kuroo was barely two feet away from him.
“And each time I saw you at Nationals, it was the same.” Kuroo placed himself directly in front of Tsukishima; there was probably only a fist’s worth of space between them. “And today, it’s the same. I like you and you like me, but you can’t see past this moment.”
“Well, it’s fine that you say that, but what am I supposed to do about it?”
Kuroo stepped back. “Nope. This is as far as I go. I’ve more than met you half way. I’m not going to let you coast or allow you to say you were backed into a corner, though that’s not really your style. But I’ll tell you this… the feeling you have right at this moment and the feelings you had while we built up to it today, hold onto those and think back, all the way back to the first time we met.” Kuroo took a few more steps back, but this time in the direction of the door. “Just consider if there were no breaks in between…what that would be like. How that makes you feel. And once you’ve got it, put words to it.”
Kuroo stood with his hand on the frame of the door. “I’m not waiting this time. I want answer, but it’s up to you how you deliver it. There’s a key, a playlist, a ticket, and a slip with my address on it in your bag.”
Tsukishima looked behind him.
“I hope to see you on Saturday. If I’m not back by the time you arrive, just let yourself in.”
“Once you’ve put that feeling into your own words, I’ll help you figure out where to take it from there.”
Kuroo’s Flat – Meguro
Kuroo’s first year at uni and he’s settled into his new life. He gets a rare call from Kenma, so he takes a break from studying to catch up. Kenma only asked how his place was, as in, do you have noisy neighbors and is it close to school, but Kuroo decided to give him a remote tour.
“There are five units on my side of the building; I’m the second from the last.”
“Since I’m on the third floor I can walk down or catch the elevator.” […]
“Yeah, it’s weird having an elevator. Even though I pass it everyday, I usually forget that it’s there because I haven’t used it since I moved in.” […]
“Yeah, when you come in, the genken is actually a room and there’s a shoe cabinet in there now. Bokuto put it together.” […]
“Ha! That’s all he’s good for. Oh, that reminds me… How’s Akaashi? Bokuto’s been whining non-stop about how he misses him.” […]
“Really? Maybe it was a surprise, because he didn’t say anything to me.” […]
“I guess that’s why I didn’t get any messages from him this weekend.” […]
“Kai just randomly brought a stool with him when he was here with Yaku, so that’s in the genkan, too.” […]
“I don’t know, he just put it in there when he came and it was still there when he left.” […]
“Maybe, but it’s still pretty random.” […]
“The kitchen is about as big as my bed back home. I don’t have a lot of stuff, so it all works out. Thank your mom again for the knife block.” […]
“Yes, I’m separating my trash properly.” […]
“It’s like three rooms. When you first open the door, there’s a stacked washer/dryer and a storage cabinet.” […]
“No, we had to buy it.” […]
“Yeah, the fridge, too, but we got a good price because Sawamura asked Takinoue-san to hook us up with someone he knew.” […]
“I guess it was more like Takinoue-san’s gift to the seniors and I somehow got included; Bokuto, too.” […]
“No, it’s all tile.”
“The WC and basin are to the left and the tub and shower are to the right.” […]
“It’s pretty spacious. If they put the shower in with the WC and got rid of the tub, the space could be turned into a bedroom, well maybe not, but an eat-in kitchen or whatever.” […]
“I have a wardrobe, a shelf over my bed, and the thing my TV sits on.” […]
“And the the cabinet that’s with the washer/dryer, but that’s it for storage.” […]
“I don’t think I’m going to need anymore, but if I did, I could put stuff under my bed or in the genkan.” […]
“Nope. Kai’s stool and two chairs out on the balcony. […]
“On the bed or floor cushions.” […]
“The only people who’ve been here are Kai & Yaku, Bokuto, and Sawamura & Suga.” […]
“There’s no way I would, you know my heart’s already spoken for.” […]
“I’m working on it. …Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” […]
“I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t worried, but I got a feeling, you know?” […]
“I’m looking forward to hanging out on the balcony and watching the cherry blossoms with him.” […]
“Yeah, it overlooks the canal.” […]
“Yeah, the whole place is pretty big; bigger than I expected for the price.” […]
“The neighborhood’s pretty cool–lots of families, so it’s a different kind of quiet” […]
“I can get to all of Keio’s campuses pretty easily.” […]
“Um, probably. Actually, I think you’d really like it.” […]
“If you do decide to go to Keio, let me know as soon a you can; they have a tenant referral program.” […]
“Maybe? But, by the time you get here, the renovations on the canal will be underway, so the rent will be lower, probably lower than mine. […]
“Well, that’s why I was able to get this place so cheap.” […]
“Oh, you were just wasting time waiting for Shorty? And here I thought you missed me.” […]
“Either way, I’m glad to hear you’re okay. Let me know if you need anything.” […]
“I don’t know, a pre-match pep talk?” […]
“I know you miss it.” […]
“Heh. Alright, cool.” […]
He was going. He was definitely going, but he still felt that he’d gotten nowhere. Tsukishima did as he was told. He meditated on those feelings and imagined what it would be like to experience them day in and day out. At first he thought that it would be unbearable because the guy had a way of getting under his skin, but the more he considered it, the more he realized how much more there was to his relationship with Kuroo. Tsukishima noted how Kuroo didn’t just accept his armor of apathy and used taunts and challenges as the first step in disarming him. Then came the flirting and the excessive familiarity and once his most stubborn layers were cut back, he had become ripe for the picking, yet he wasn’t plucked. He recognized that Kuroo had the advantage of age and experience, but he never felt like it was held over him. Tsukishima had to admit that if Kuroo hadn’t taken the approach he did, all the guidance and encouragement that followed would have likely fallen on deaf ears. It was because of Kuroo’s enthusiasm, dedication, and generosity–all the things Tsukishima had, at one time, been so strongly against–that he was drawn to him.
As he continued to piece together their development, disregarding his own hesitation and the long absences, he stumbled across something he had long since forgotten. The gears set to turning. It was something that, though sprouted from the same place, had become a thing altogether different than the drive that had been unleashed in him in for the game. It was simple. It was selfish. It was desire. He’d wanted to ride for two hours to meet and practice with Kuroo; he’d wanted to know which songs Kuroo thought would set and complement his mood; he’d wanted to be alone with Kuroo…in his room. So many things. The hands on instruction, the random topic conversations, the act of seeking him out, the flirting, and the unsettling insight–he wanted all of these things from Kuroo. He desired all of these things and more. It was such a relief when this knowledge took root in his consciousness. So much so that he was in no way surprised when his lips parted to set free a breath which carried the words: I want him.
His stop was only five minutes away. Instead of hopping on a bus after he reached Tokyo station as he did when he visited Kuroo when he was still living with his parents, Tsukishima now had to connect with the Yamanote line and ride about 15 minutes to Meguro. Once off, it was just a short walk down the hill from the west exit. Although he was as ready as he was ever going to be, Tsukishima hesitated when “Meguro Station” broke through the din of the car, announcing the train’s impending arrival.
Tsukishima found Kuroo’s building with out a problem. As he stood there in front of the door and fondled the key in his pocket, he tried to decide which he preferred. Would it be better if Kuroo was home or would it be easier if he had to settle in and wait for him to return? He left the key in his pocket and rang the bell that was inconspicuously situated in the small space between the door and window’s frames. No answer. He waited a few seconds and then tried again. No answer.
Tsukishima thought back to the first time he visited Kuroo’s house and Kenma was already there. He remembered how he had questioned the perception of the relationship between people who had keys to their friend’s house. He laughed at himself now that he knew that such a train of thought was merely a veil for the wave of jealousy that had come over him at the sight of Kuroo’s long-time friend at home on Kuroo’s bed. Tsukishima took a deep breath and steadied himself. As he righted the key between his fingers, it suddenly felt heavier than it did in his pocket. The lock disengaged after a smooth 45° turn of the inserted key to the left. He tapped the door lightly, but that was enough for it to open all the way. He looked on curiously as an unexpectedly tranquil atmosphere stretched out before him. He didn’t know what to expect of Kuroo’s place, but what he walked into seemed both like and unlike him. It was much neater than his bedroom at his family’s home. Well, it wasn’t messy, just cluttered with his existence: clothes, books, shrines to childhood heroes, sports gear, and trophies and plaques. His new place still felt like Kuroo occupied the space, but without all the flair.
“Sorry for the intrusion,” he mumbled sincerely as he settled his headphones around his neck. Assuming the guest slippers would be in there, Tsukishima opened the top compartment of the shoe cabinet to pull out a pair and then placed them just inside the flat; he exchanged one shoe at a time and then stored his loafers in the bottom compartment. There wasn’t much in there, but as he walked toward the back of the place, he took his time soaking it in all the same. When he reached the bed and living area, he paused…he wasn’t sure what to do. After a moment of consideration, he sat down on one of the floor cushions and nestled his bag in the hollow of his folded legs. Tsukishima felt strange about making himself at home while Kuroo was out, but he knew he would be teased more if he was still standing when he returned. He tried to distract himself with his music and the book he brought along, but it was no use, his nerves were on high alert. Fortunately or unfortunately, he didn’t have to wait long.
Tsukishima was caught of guard when a greeting came from his left and not his right which was the direction of the entry door. He cut his eyes to the voice to find Kuroo coming in off the balcony. And just for a second, his heart stopped.
Even though he’d already endured more than two years of waiting, Kuroo was emotionally wiped out from the week between his yearly pilgrimage to check in with Tsukishima and the moment he saw Tsukishima approach his building. He’d played it cool back at the gym, and there really was a certain level of calm that accompanied the confrontation, but the moment he reached Sendai, he started sweating bullets. He’d meant everything he said, but where that confidence came from, he was at a loss to say. He thought about how, just a week ago, he was preparing himself for rejection and actually considered not showing up at all. Tsukishima would never know, but the question of whether to give up or try again was what kept him from making his routine appearance outside of the bathroom at Nationals. As soon as he asked himself, “what’s the use,” he was overcome with a wretched emptiness and he understood, that if he didn’t try one more time, that feeling would stay with him for a long time. At that he found himself practically falling down the stairs to get out the door and be on his way to hope or heartbreak. Of course he was rooting for the former.
He stood just inside the sliding door trying to focus, but the memory of his previous foolish actions would not let him. How bold of him to push Tsukishima to find the words when he was still missing some himself? When they were apart, he spent a lot of time trying to articulate what it was precisely that attracted him to Tsukishima. He knew that Tsukishima was the kind of guy that would eventually ask,”why me,” but was he also the kind of guy that would accept, “it’s just a feeling that confounds me”? Would that be good enough? He really hoped so, because he completely failed at finding anything else. Well, there was no point in guessing about it when Tsukishima was right in front of him.
“Now that I’ve got you all the way out here, I realize how unfair it is for us to meet on my turf, so if you want to take a walk, we can, you know, to even the playing field a bit more?
Tsukishima turned his head to face Kuroo. He didn’t travel two plus hours to be amongst other people. “No, here is fine.”
They sat cross-legged opposite each other with the table between them. Kuroo with his back to the TV and Tsukishima with his back against the bed.
“No, just that, ‘I want you.’ Those are the words that came to me.”
“What does that mean, exactly? Like, what thoughts preceded that conclusion?” Kuroo asked because he wanted to know, but also to give himself time to process what he was just told.
“I thought about how I wanted to see you and how I didn’t mind travelling for hours to be with you. I thought about what kind of music you thought would suit my moods. Things like how I wanted to talk to you, be alone with you, and be touched by you.”
Kuroo was dumbstruck. Did he hear that correctly? He was sure he did, but really, did he? This type of honesty that Tsukishima seemed to blindside him with–because it always came when it was least expected–was one of the things that attracted him. Beneath the awe, he quietly celebrated having something to put on the list for when the inevitable question came. But back to the statement. “R-Really?”
“Yes. It isn’t as if you owe me money. Why else would I be here?”
Kuroo smiled, but he tried not to smile too big. He missed that, that disdain for ignorance that often accompanied Tsukishima’s words. This was another thing that pulled him in. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. “W-Well, that’s great; we feel the same way, then.”
“No. It’s not great. I did what you asked–I thought about a lot, but I still don’t know what to do about it.”
“What do you mean ‘what to do about it’? You’re doing it now.”
Tsukishima crossed his arms. “I don’t follow.”
“Granted, it’s not romantic when you say it so matter-of-factly, but you just confessed to me and I told you that the feeling’s mutual.”
“Confessed? When did I blush while shoving a letter in your face?”
Kuroo was puzzled for a second before he caught on. “…Hahahahahahaha! Oh no, oh no… Seriously?”
“I don’t see what’s so funny.”
“Oh boy… It’s true that you weren’t blushing and you certainly didn’t shove an envelope in my face… Look, I don’t know if you’ve read too much shoujo or if that was how you’ve always been confessed to, but that is not the only way to confess. Simply telling the other person that you like them is fine.”
Hearing that, Tsukishima was struck with an understanding of events long since passed. But there was nothing to be done about what’s done, as Kuroo would say, so he turned his attention back to the present.
“Heh, now that I think about it, it was definitely the latter. But just saying it is enough.”
He wasn’t wrong, that was how Tsukishima had always been confessed to, though he figured with that realization just then, he couldn’t say that, because now he knew that there was that one time when it was plainly stated. But again, it’s all in the past now. “…”
“Like this.” Kuroo reached over the table and pulled Tsukishima’s hand out of its fold. “I like you.”
Tsukishima thought he could feel the heat coming off of Kuroo’s body even though he was a good foot and a half away, but he realized that he was the one who was heating up.
“…But what comes after that?”
Tsukishima flinched, his eyes opened wide, and he wasn’t quite sure how to react.
Kuroo didn’t mind guiding Tsukishima along, but this is the part he’d been waiting for; this was pretty much where they left off. “Okay, and this is where you get stuck.” With Tsukishima’s hand still in his right, he moved the table aside with his left and placed himself and his cushion closer to him. “I did tell you I’d help you.”
“So, I ask, ‘will you go out with me,’ and you say…”
“‘W–‘ Not ‘why,’ ‘yes’! You say ‘yes’ in this situation!”
“I know that,” Tsukishima groused as he pulled his hand away from Kuroo’s, “I’m not stupid.”
“Why do people date? What’s the point? You get together, something goes wrong and you break up. Or worse, you get married, have children, something goes wrong and you get divorced. Why even go through the trouble for something that’s going to end? If the number of divorces that happen in this country in the span of a year were spread out, it’d be something like someone filing for divorce every two and a half minutes.”
Kuroo silently questioned why he even knew a statistic like that. In a way, it was funny, almost as funny as Tsukishima’s idea of a confession, but Kuroo couldn’t laugh. For the first time since he realized he liked Tsukishima as more than just a target, Kuroo wondered if it wouldn’t work out. It’s not like he forgot how he was when they met, hiding his fragile heart under a mountain of apathy and snark, but he had matured since then, or at least he thought he had.
“So the guy that seems to have an answer for everything doesn’t have an answer for this,” Tsukishima said, trying to drive his point home.
“Before the answer, a few questions.” Kuroo channeled his frustration. “Why bathe if you’re just going to sweat again? Why cut your hair if it’s just going to grow again? Why read a book if there’s a chance that you may not like it? Why study a specialized field when there’s a chance that you may never be employed in it?” Why do anything when there’s no guarantee?”
“For the satisfaction,” answering his own question, his voice raising slightly. “For the enjoyment. For the love of it. Even for the hell of it! There is no guarantee that things will last or go the way you want, but you try anyway. You try because you want to.”
“And when it doesn’t work out?”
Kuroo took both of Tsukishima’s hands in his. “It’s the journey, not the destination. Sometimes the end is not even worth considering until you get there. Besides, not everything is meant to last forever, but that doesn’t mean those things shouldn’t happen at all.”
It was like it all made sense on paper, but Tsukishima was having a terrible time finding a place to get a firm hold on the idea. This was something beyond just not being sure and he was at a loss to place it. Yes, he was interested in Kuroo; he could no longer deny that. If it wasn’t his own experience, he’d find it hard to believe that it took him this long to truly acknowledge the depth of his attraction to him. Kuroo was so many things he used to say that he didn’t like but had come to admit that he was just scared of. And regardless of the path he pretended to walk, everything in him continued to steer him towards Kuroo. And yet, he was still unable to take that final step. What was it? Why was Kuroo so convinced that any of this was right and that it was right with him? And before Tsukishima realized, the question escaped: “why?”
He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but there was no point in retracting it now. “…I mean, why me?”
It was too soon for Kuroo; he wasn’t ready for it. He wanted more time.
Tsukishima expounded, “you are sufficiently attractive…”
“‘Sufficiently’?” Kuroo wondered if he should feel insulted.
“…and even though you are annoying, you come off as approachable and good-humored and because of that you seem like a fairly decent catch…”
“Hey! What are you getting at with these backhanded compliments?!”
Tsukishima ignored Kuroo’s protest. “There are plenty of people out there who would reciprocate your interest, so…why me?”
Kuroo sighed. “For starters, I’m only interested in you, so even if there are people who wanted to reciprocate, they can’t reciprocate for you.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I said, ‘for starters’!” Kuroo huffed as he gripped Tsukishima’s hands tighter. “Stuff like this is also why.”
Tsukishima’s expression struck an interesting balance between perplexed and aggravated.
“I tried very hard to think about specific things that attracted me to you because I knew you’d ask.”
By now he should really be used to Kuroo predicting his moves, but it still pissed him off like nothing else.
“And at first I couldn’t zero in on a single thing; every time I see you or think about you, I just get overwhelmed.”
“Is that right, ‘put that feeling into your own words’-san?”
“I know. I know. BUT! Right now, I can think a number of things.”
Kuroo leaned in. “You are such a difficult person…”
The balance collapsed and aggravation just took over Tsukishima’s whole face.
“You are. You hated to lose, but hardly put in any effort to win. You saw someone ahead of you, but rather than work harder to surpass them, you just hung back. You had your own set of gifts and even though you played it down like it couldn’t be helped, you felt inferior to someone who had a completely different assortment. That’s who you were when I met you, and while you seemed to have matured in those areas where the game is concerned, you’re still stuck there in this part of your life.”
Tsukishima was embarrassed by Kuroo’s observations; he felt like color was quickly spreading across his face and he wondered if Kuroo could see it. This was yet another reason why he couldn’t stand the guy. With each interaction, it became harder and harder for him to hide the ways he affected him. Sometimes he was slow with a comeback or even speechless and now he couldn’t even control his blood pressure. Is this what he had to look forward to? He was contrary and antagonistic by nature, yet in the presence of Kuroo he never knew what to make of himself. He was tired just thinking about it, but underneath all of that was a small fountain of hope that this kind of unease would continue. But who would he be without some level of discordance? So he countered, “…and despite all of that, you still want to be with me?”
“No. Because. It’s because of all of that, that I want to be with you. Because of your sarcasm, and your contempt, and your brilliance, and your naiveté, and your curiosity, and your honesty, and a host of other things… but truly, it all comes back to that overwhelming feeling that I just don’t have a name for yet.”
Tsukishima looked down at their hands. Kuroo’s hold had loosened and he had started rubbing the back of his hands with his thumbs.
“You took those steps that turned into leaps and they bounded you into the captain’s position; I was really proud of you when I found out–I knew you had it in you. So what I’d like to know now is if you think you could do it again?”
“And where am I supposed to land this time?” There was no hiding the skepticism in his voice.
“Where?” Kuroo echoed as he pulled Tsukishima into him with such strength that it even forced him onto his back. “In my arms, of course. Heh.” He was so proud of himself for that.
The sudden movement, the unavoidable closeness, the rising heat… Tsukishima wanted to know if this is what Kuroo meant when he said he was overwhelmed. Any minute now he was going to come completely undone.
Kuroo looked up into Tsukishima’s eyes; he tried desperately to block out the lips he wanted to suck and the neck he wanted to kiss. He could feel their hearts beating like a call and response–the cadence was intoxicating.
Tsukishima pushed himself up and settled back on Kuroo’s legs and then adjusted his bearings to accommodate Kuroo as he propped himself up on his elbows. He could get up, leave, and let things be–no question that would be the end. He’d never get this chance again, he was sure of it. He looked down at his fingers as they fidgeted about; Kuroo had already let go, but his warmth lingered. When he thought about never feeling that sensation again, he smiled.
“Something’s wrong with your face.”
At the thought of never hearing stupid remarks like that again, his smile grew.
“Wait?! Are you– Are you…smiling?” Kuroo was genuinely confused.
Never was a strange concept to Tsukishima. He’d spent so much time avoiding always because he couldn’t believe in it, that never just failed to come into to play. Having committed to running away from things for so long for fear of eventual disappointment, he’d manage go some time without knowing what it was to miss something or what it was like to not ever have something again. But for all that, there he sat trying to imagine what his life would be like if he couldn’t have these and other strange and annoying and amusing and intimate moments with Kuroo again. Suddenly never meant something to him and just as suddenly, he understood that it was nothing he want experience right now. There might come a time in the future when it marked the connection between himself and Kuroo, but he would rather have something to miss than not know what there was to miss at all. The doubt and hesitation he had was still there, but they were presently being drowned out by the thrumming of his heart while his nerves were being soothed by a rose blush that had been threatening to show in full for a while.
“Your face…it’s creeping me–!” Kuroo’s words and breath were cut off by thin lips and a warm tongue. Tsukishima’s hands were hot against is face. They traded breaths and sighs and saliva. Kuroo was more than simply caught off guard–he felt punch-drunk. His body couldn’t help but respond, however, he just had to be sure. “Hey!” He pushed Tsukishima away and sat up. The smile was still there and now beamed against a reddened complexion. “What was that?!”
Tsukishima averted his eyes.
“You’re blushing, you know?”
Tsukishima turned his head slightly and hid his smile with the back of his hand. “Sorry, I was fresh out of letters…”
Kuroo’s expression went blank right before it broke into a look of unadulterated astonishment.”Was that…a joke? Not even a hint of cynicism… You’re out of letters so you decide to shove your tongue in my face instead? Hahahahaha! Who are you?!”
And just like that, everything changed for Tsukishima, but old habits were hard to break; he almost pulled away when he felt Kuroo’s fingertips against his cheek as he turned his face to him, but he remembered that running away was no longer an option.
It was indescribable, what he was feeling. More than two years of waiting had finally come to an end. Kuroo thought that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t–he’d definitely be smarter about it. But since there’s nothing to be done about what’s done, he decided to just move ahead. When their eyes finally met, Tsukishima wasn’t the only one blushing. Kuroo pulled Tsukishima toward him and whispered in his ear, “do it again.”