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Sticking Around

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Given the rules, Kei could never really understand how anybody found it in themselves to feel excitement about the discovery of their soulmate. Yes, it was the fulfillment of some mysterious destiny, perfectly-crafted, assigned at birth, et cetera, but really, what idiot would look forward to getting dragged by some invisible red string of fate across the continent just to end up Stringed to a complete stranger?

One answer to that question would be Hinata, ever-optimistic, ever-fortunate. Ever since Kei had met him a year and eight painful months ago, he’d been nothing but hyped (for the lack of a better, more annoying word) for his introduction to his soulmate, and just last June, on the day he officially turned seventeen, he was—in the middle of lunch break—dragged halfway to Tokyo only to end up bumping backs with that setter he liked so much, the one from Nekoma. He became extra insufferable after that, something which Kei didn’t think was possible, given how insufferable he was already. But that just further proved his point: all this soulmate business was bullshit and, ironically, bad for the soul.

His would be destroyed soon enough, he figured. Three months ago, he’d also turned seventeen and he’d spent the entire day, not celebrating but fearing for his life or else his sanity and future, anxiously anticipating the sudden pull of an all-powerful string on his back, the sudden jolt of his body, and then an all-expense paid trip to who knew where, hopefully the void. But no, he’d remained in Sendai that day, un-dragged, unstringed, and that had been that.

(That didn’t change the fact that he could get dragged any day now, though. And that his soulmate was apparently younger than him. How much younger, he didn’t know. He honest to gods didn’t want to find out.)

The last three months had been some of the most agonizing of his life. In between Hinata texting Kozume every ten seconds and his classmates sharing stories about other people having been Stringed, some of them pretty alarming, Kei didn’t know what he could possibly do to forget about the whole thing for at least a minute. His headphones could only block out so much, and they definitely couldn’t momentarily blind him while a random passerby abruptly flew in another direction for the entirety of the street to see.

Since September he’d been really tempted to tie himself to a pole, to be honest, because although he wouldn’t be able to move for the rest of his life, it weighed about the same as all of this dreadful, suspense-laden waiting he would have to do for his soulmate to reach the appropriate age and for fate to run its course and for the actual Fate to—very literally—pull the strings. It made him sick, thinking of how long he could possibly be kept in the dark, but it made him even sicker knowing that the minute he wouldn’t would be the minute he met his lifelong match. And if that wasn’t a good enough hint, then he would say it outright: he really, really didn’t want to.

(But if he didn’t, this story wouldn’t exist.)

It was in the afternoon of the twenty-second of December that everything changed. Which kind of sucked, because that day had actually been going kind of well for Kei. The weather wasn’t terrible and he’d eaten some pretty good vegetables over lunch, in addition to seeing Tanaka slipping and falling on his ass after Kageyama had made his surprise lunch party birthday wish. They’d gotten their homework back and he’d gotten all of the answers right despite his initial doubt, and the single one of his favourite bands had just released was very much to his liking.

Even volleyball practice, both in the morning and in the afternoon, hadn’t gone terribly. Ennoshita had long since transformed into a terrifying captain that could frighten everyone into shutting the hell up and continued to do a magnificent job. None of the first years jumped into the net. Yachi had successfully broken up a fight between the oddball pair (she was learning, and it was nothing short of magnificent) and the new applicant for manager had been heartily taking notes as she lectured them. Yamaguchi’s jump serve practice had gone well too.

Practice was pretty good. But it was after practice, after the reasonable lot of them had gone back to the clubroom to dress and pack up and head home, that Kei felt a strange tingling on his skin while he zipped his bag up, not too unlike chills or that feeling he got whenever reminded of the one time he got rashes. He made a face as Narita behind him declared that he was leaving and opened the door.

And thank god he had, because that was when Kei felt a sharp pull in the middle of his back, and all of a sudden he was speeding backwards out of the clubroom without even moving his feet.

The first pull was rattling—Kei found himself making a noise he’d never heard from himself before—and the drag was pure anguish. It felt like someone had attached a metal claw to the skin of his back and kept mercilessly tugging at it. The already-cold wind was even colder as he was quickly hauled down the stairs and back onto the dirt ground without his consent and yet he had no time to shiver, the urgency and adrenaline of the situation leaving him unable to think, unable to consider grabbing onto something because it couldn’t be too late to try and tie himself to a post, right?

He was about to meet his soulmate. The realization came fast like a knife in the gut. But even worse than that, worse than his forced submission into a social construct that ruined lives and plans under the guise of forging love, was that his body was suddenly back inside the gym.

Why the fuck was he being dragged back inside the—

Kei couldn’t contain his brief yell as he felt his back collide with someone else’s, and felt both of them collapse onto the floor. The metaphorical claw on his back still clung like a madman and stung and he winced, wanting to get up but only able to attempt to catch his breath. He continued to feel the tingling, crawling on his arms and legs, along with a dampness on his forehead. His soulmate behind him said and did nothing.

He let his eyes shut as he inhaled. He wasn’t going to look back. He didn’t want to know who it was.

“Oh my god!” came Yachi’s voice near the ball carts.

“Oh my god,” Hinata echoed, voice even louder than Yachi’s.

Oh my god,” cried all the first years still in the room.

Kei’s hand flew to smack his own face, letting his palm now covered in effort-sweat run through his hair. He grasped at the locks right as the third years came running to the gym doors, looking like a bunch of journalists following a criminal pursuit.

“Oh, shit,” Ennoshita said.

“Oh, shit,” Nishinoya cried after him, and then like Kei he let his hands collide with his face and stumbled away, his laughter loud and would-be-contagious had it not been at Kei’s expense.

He narrowed his eyes but otherwise, didn’t say anything. This had to have been his long-running bad luck with people at work here. There had to be a reason behind the irritating repetition of shock phrases, he knew, and the only way to find that reason was to muster the courage and patience to stand up, or turn around at least, and face his ‘perfect match’ like a man.

But he wasn’t a man. He was seventeen. Therefore, this wasn’t fair.

Seeing the look on Hinata’s face only made things worse. His mouth was hidden behind his hand but his eyes above them were no doubt shrinking in delight. Whether it was because he was hysterical with happiness or just trying not to laugh didn’t matter. It pissed Kei off.

“Oh, wow. Oh wow,” he said, voice muffled. He snorted. “Congratulations, you guys. This is amazing.”

And then, Kei’s soulmate spoke.

“Shut up, dumbass.”

Oh, fuck no.

Urgently, like the fidgety, startled lizard he only ever saw on the internet, Kei’s entire body twitched in an involuntary effort to turn around and make sure that Kageyama Tobio wasn’t his soulmate, please god, Kageyama wasn’t his soulmate but instead, his form crumpled to the ground, his glasses askew, the invisible force on his back twisting harder than ever.

Ow,” Kageyama’s unmistakable voice yelled, far too close to Kei’s ear, as he also fell over. For what reason, Kei had no time to tell. “What the hell? Could you not drag me with you when you fall to the floor?”

“Who’s dragging you anywhere?” he snapped back, and it wasn’t his best retort but it did seem to shut Kageyama up.

Far too effectively to be normal, in fact. All of his erratic movements had abruptly come to a stop, as well as his breathing. “W—wait,” he said. “Who—who is this?”

“Are you serious right now.”

“Oh no,” Kageyama said, almost wailed, if that were only in his character. “No. No way.”

“Right back at you.”

“No way,” Kageyama said again, gritting his teeth from the sound of it, forcefully trying to get up at the same time and consequently sending a wave of pain coursing through the entirety of Kei’s back.

And his own, it seemed. They groaned together.

“Are you guys okay?” Ennoshita said, wearing a face of genuine concern. A breath of fresh air, really, but Nishinoya’s unending and ever-boisterous laughter in the background was an awful accompanying sound. “Uh, congratulations, but you should probably get up. The floor just got mopped; it’s pretty cold.”

“I’m trying,” Kageyama said, and he did indeed try again, only for the both of them to howl in pain (and in unison) once again. He fell back down. “This bastard won’t let go of me.”

“Do you feel me holding onto you right now? I’m not doing anything!” Kei protested.

Ennoshita blinked at them. “Wait, what?” He crouched down, examined the non-existent space between their backs, touched and tried to push them away, lightly. He tried to squeeze a hand through their point of contact, failed. “Wait—you can’t get up?”

“No,” Kei confirmed.

“Does it hurt when you try to move?”

“Yes,” Kageyama hissed. “Is there something attaching us together? Could you get rid of it please?”

The brief silence that followed the request was enough to send Kei’s heart pounding far more rapidly than it ever had before, intense volleyball matches considered. He couldn’t move his body without risking further torture but he did crane his neck to look at Ennoshita, whose face was now a mix of confusion and fear as he glanced around at the rest of the assembly as if to ask for their help. Nobody spoke. Nishinoya had stopped laughing.

“Uh,” Ennoshita said finally, “I don’t know how to explain this and it isn’t supposed to happen, but…” Ennoshita bit his lip, briefly. “I think your strings might be tangled together. You guys are stuck.”

❄ ❄ ❄

An existential crisis, six rounds of Chinese Get Up, and a near-impossible walk across campus later, Coach Ukai and the upperclassmen (well, the reasonable ones anyway) had finally managed to disperse the rest of the team and bring the unfortunate pair over to the faculty room, where Takeda stood and gawked at them for five whole minutes.

"Oh, no, uh," he said after enduring a light shake from Kinoshita, "no, this is good. Sorry. This is news. Good news, sorry. Congratulations!"

"Sir, I think you’re missing the point," Ennoshita said, as gently as he possibly could. "They were pulled towards each other and now they’re stuck. It hurts when they try to split up so it’s like they’re still attached when they’re not supposed to be. Do you have any idea why?"

Takeda seemed to take a few more moments to collect himself and study the newly-stringed pair—their faces, not their backs—before clearing his throat, adjusting his glasses. "Um, well, this is new. I’ve certainly never heard of this happening before. Once you two have been drawn together, the strings on your backs should automatically possess the ability to stretch as far as you two will go. It’s the ultimate symbol of the match."

"Just for reference," Kei interjected, already far beyond sick of feeling all of Kageyama’s bodily movements, "is it possible for a match to be, hm, I don’t know, a mistake?"

"Oh." The look on Takeda’s face was startled, appalled. "Now that, I’m pretty sure has never happened before. Fate is nothing but reliable. There aren’t supposed to be any mistakes."

"What is this supposed to be then?" Kei wriggled, and Kageyama behind him wiggled by default ("Quit that!").

"An intervention," Takeda suggested, "done completely on purpose to cater to your situation, maybe?"

"But you said that this has never happened before," Kageyama protested. "Are you saying that we’re the only special case? We can’t be the only two people in the world who matched even though we hate each other."

"Oh no, I said that it hasn’t happened as far as I know. I’m not an expert in the field; I just teach based from experience and what’s written in the curriculum. But, because I am fairly knowledgeable, being a teacher and all, there is one thing that I can tell you for sure."

And Takeda smiled. "Fate is reliable, and so are the bonds she forges. So there’s no way for two people to get matched if they hate each other."

Helpful as the discussion had (not) been, the phenomenon was a strange and inconvenient one and therefore merited further, much more drastic actions. Another near-impossible trip was made to the principal’s office shortly after, and once the old man had been given an in-depth explanation, he wasted no time in phoning both Kei’s and Kageyama’s parents and scheduling an urgent meeting—one which involved the newly-stringed, the witnesses, the school nurses, and anyone who thought they had input on the matter, meaning the whole damn faculty.

Perfect.

Unsurprisingly, the urgent meeting turned out to be just a bunch of adults yelling ideas at each other and the students shrinking in the background trying not to get eaten in the process. Kageyama’s mother, almost as intense as her son was, was particularly annoyed that the Biology teacher had no answers to give any of her questions regarding the System, and Kei’s had launched a barrage of her own inquiries that silenced the room for a record-breaking thirty seconds.

“How are they going to bathe? And dress? And go home and sleep? And function normally? And live?”

Kei’s father had set a hand over his mouth and sank in his chair. The third years had done the same, though probably for a whole different reason, if the quaking of Narita’s shoulders was any indication.

Everything after that half-minute was pretty productive, thankfully. There’d been a heated debate on whether the compound Kei-Tobio would stay under the Tsukishimas’ care or the Kageyamas’, and the final judgment was that they would simply stay in school, in the infirmary guarded by the nurses should anything go wrong, while the school personnel consulted with the experts. Their parents were permitted to visit in the afternoons, and Kei felt like he was going to be trapped in the confines of a hospital due to a terminal illness.

(Well, he was stuck to Kageyama, so it was enough like one.)

The two of them were permitted to attend school, but Kei would be momentarily transferred to Kageyama’s class and given supplementary work for the advanced lessons that he would miss. And the rest was up to them, apparently: what strategies they would employ in order to properly walk, talk to other people, get dressed, which sides of the infirmary bed they would be taking.

Coach Ukai had let out a snorting laugh when the last bit had been brought up, and Kei and Kageyama took it upon themselves to feel shame in his place.

“This is insane!” Hinata cried once Ennoshita finished relaying the set of verdicts. He and Yamaguchi had waited outside the principal’s office apparently, to get ahold of the developments as early as possible. What they were going to do with them, Kei didn’t want to guess. “This is the first time this has happened in the history of forever. It’s like you guys discovered a disease! We should name it. Uhh, how about...the Sticking!”

“You’re a fucking idiot,” Kei said.

“Tsukishima! Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“Well, you’re constantly thinking with that brain, so who’s really worse off between the two of us?”

Hinata had threatened to fight him then and on a regular day, it would’ve improved Kei’s mood, but Kageyama’s mother giving him her own version of what was apparently the family death glare ruined any shot at happiness he could’ve had within the next seven years.

He wished he could look at her son with something similar, but he couldn’t, and already Kei felt like so constricted, unable to function like a regular person. Add that to the fact that the principal had suddenly emerged beside them and suggested that they take turns steering the front of their joint ship and this was a terrible day, absolutely terrible.

They did exactly that, though, Kei ending up walking backwards to Kageyama’s preferred pace after having lost their decider game of mirror janken (just regular janken, but played in front of a mirror so they could see each other’s moves), all the way up to the infirmary isolation room (all the privacy of an actual bedroom but with that juicy, hospital feel). Their parents had left and then returned in the evening to deliver some of their clothes and personal belongings for while they stayed in captivity. Kei wished Kageyama could see his eyes roll when the latter’s personal volleyball was so urgently delivered.

After all of it was done, they were left alone.

The first few moments were spent in an awkward silence, standing right in front of the bed but not looking at it. There was homework to accomplish, books to read, music to listen to, but Kei couldn’t think to do any of it. Not when he had to drag Kageyama or worse ask for his permission whenever he wanted to move around. Kageyama seemed to feel the same, or maybe he was content with standing around and taking deep breaths. Or maybe he fell asleep while standing. That would be a problem.

"Hey, don’t sleep," Kei said, at last breaking the stagnant quiet.

"I’m not asleep!" Kageyama cried, sounding frantic. "I just—I don’t—how—"

He tilted his head back but pulled it together before it could completely knock into the back of Kei’s, and shifted abruptly.

"I’m...gonna text Sugawara-san."

"Fine," was all Kei said, though he’d normally have more of a comment. Kageyama had been doing that since last year’s third years left, communicating with Sugawara whenever something extraordinary happened to him. It had been something the graduate instructed him to do, and maybe it was because he’d never been shown that brand of kindness before but Kageyama took it to heart, very much so, and everyone could see how much it helped him.

Once upon a time, though, Kei had wondered why he didn’t just drop the phone and talk to people who were actually there. But then he remembered that Hinata is an airhead and that Yachi and Yamaguchi are worrywarts, and decided that Kageyama was probably better off.

(Kageyama confiding anything in him was definitely out of the question.)

Shortly after the sound of pressing keys died, the phone vibrated.

Kageyama made a small, startled noise, one so soft that Kei probably wouldn’t have heard it if he wasn’t where he was. He heard another press of a button and felt Kageyama’s shoulder move. "Hello?"

"Kageyama!" It wasn’t on loud speaker but Kei’s ear was close enough to the phone to hear Sugawara’s voice. Judging from the evident confusion that rang in it, he already had the full story. "Wait, wait, tell me I read that correctly. You got Stringed to Tsukishima but your strings got tangled up and now your backs are stuck together?"

"Yes, you read it correctly."

"What does that even mean? Did you talk to the teachers about it?"

“They said that it might have been done by Fate on purpose, though no one knows why yet. They’re going to consult with experts about it, but in the meantime, we have to sleep in school so we’re close to the nurse, just in case something happens. But they don’t really think it’s dangerous or anything.”

“Mm, I see. Well, as long as it’s nothing deadly, then I guess it’s fine.” Or so he said, but the tiny giggle he let slip through the receiver told them so much more. “So. Tsukishima, huh?”

“Please stop.”

“I’ve barely even started! How are you, emotions-wise? What went through your mind while you were getting pulled towards him? What about after?”

“Sugawara-san, please don’t ask so many questions that are hard to answer,” Kageyama cut the barrage of inquiries midway. “I don’t like this whole soulmate thing. Getting pulled hurt and I was taking a drink at the fountain so I got wet. All that just to get Stringed to Tsukishima, the bastard? It sucks.”

“Yeah,” Kei interrupted, “I’m right here, you fucking dolt.”

“I know that!”

“Oh! He’s there? Can he hear me? Am I on speaker?” Sugawara asked excitedly.

“I can hear you just fine, Sugawara-san,” Kei replied with a louder voice.

“Wow, you two must be standing pretty close then!” Kei shut his eyes and hung his head. “Well, at least I can talk to both of you at the same time. Now listen closely. I know you two are all about fighting and getting on each other’s nerves, but things are different now. You two are Stringed together. Literally, even. That means you’re destined for each other.”

Kei’s heart beat once, far too heavily, inside his chest.

“That means you’re going to spend the rest of your lives together, and that’s mandatory unless you're both going to take the single routes. So I think it goes without saying that you’re going to have to learn to get along,” Sugawara continued, paused, and then continued again. “You know, I have a feeling your situation is going to help you a whole lot.”

“How?” Kageyama said.

“Well, you’re stuck together, aren’t you? Automatically that counts as bonding time because you can’t get rid of each other even if you wanted to. And you still have to fulfill your responsibilities as individuals, but you’re going to have to do them together, so that’s gonna take a lot of coordination and communication. Those are important in a healthy relationship. So maybe the teachers were right. Maybe Fate did do this on purpose for your own good.”

For Kei’s own good, perhaps, but the ordeal certainly wasn’t doing any favours for his happiness and outlook in life. This whole thing was one giant mess, all of it stemming from the fact that their ‘destiny’ was chosen for them. He crossed his arms and let out a frustrated breath, waited for more of Sugawara’s ever-wonderful life advice.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “It seems unfair, right? I don’t really know why everything works this way either. But everyone who’s taught about this entire system has told us that Fate is reliable, right? Makes no mistakes, and all that? So that can only mean that this is happening because it’ll lead to something great in the long run. Just believe that, and let it foster, and I’m sure the rest’ll take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, I’ll personally buy you two train tickets so you can come over and hit me on the head.

“Fate just wants us to be happy. Don’t you forget that. So try and find your happiness within its plans too. Okay?”

The silence that unfolded was pregnant, and what had broken it was a heavy sigh from Kageyama’s end. “Okay. Sort of.” Kei let out a light snort. “Thanks for the advice, Sugawara-san.”

“No problem! One last thing, though.”

“Yes?”

“Send me a selfie?”

“Goodbye, Sugawara-san,” Kei said in Kageyama’s stead, and thankfully, the latter had very effectively ended the call before their opportunistic upperclassman could get any more appeals in. Kei felt him put his arm down and waited before speaking again. “So?”

“So...what?”

“We’re supposed to be working for happiness or something. Right now, what would make me happiest is to go to sleep, but apparently I have to tell you that now for it to happen. Would you mind getting ready for bed?”

“No, it’s fine. I kind of want to sleep too,” Kageyama said, but before Kei could lay down the instructions as to how they would walk to the infirmary bath, he scratched at his head. “But...I have a question.”

“What?”

“How...are we going to use the toilet?”

Happiness in the long run be damned, Kei really wanted to grab Fate by the neck and squeeze right now.

❄ ❄ ❄

The following morning, of course, began on an excellent note.

"VOLLEYBALL."

Kei’s entire body twitched where it lay, and with the erratic movement came an intense pain in the back from where, he remembered, he was attached to Kageyama. Eyes wide open and struggling without glasses, he settled for staring at the blank wall next to him and his belongings to try and attain the state of peace most people had the privilege of experiencing fresh after sleep.

And then he scowled.

"What is wrong with you?" he said, too annoyed to feel weird about the lack of eye contact that came with speaking to someone. So much for better communication. "Why the hell are you suddenly screaming volleyball so early in the morning?"

Kageyama the dense, the utter lamebrain, couldn’t seem to hear Kei’s irritation. "Volleyball!" he yelled again, and Kei sighed. "How can we go to morning practice when we’re like this? How am I going to set? How are you going to block and spike? How are we going to play?"

"If you’d shut up for a little bit," Kei said, feeling above his pillow for his glasses, "you’d realize that we can’t."

"Bullshit."

"Call it what you will, but nobody in their right mind is going to let us practice at this rate, morning or afternoon."

An irate groan followed, but not much else. Kei, grateful for the silence which hopefully meant that Kageyama had conceded to the facts, raised his head as best he could given the position and prepared to put his glasses back on. If he was already conscious, he might as well get his day started. No thanks to Kageyama.

"Get up."

"What?" Kei said.

"Get up. We’re going to the gym."

"Did you not hear what I just said? We can’t practice like this."

"We have to."

"No, we don’t—ow."

Kei felt an agonizingly strong tug on his back, one that stung so badly he saw stars and thought his skin had been ripped clean off. Kageyama yelled as well, but Kei, numb from the pain, still felt himself being dragged to his side of the bed.

"Stop!" Kei grunted, trying to grab hold of the bed sheets.

"No! We’re gonna practice!"

"No, we’re n—stop it, we can’t possibly—"

In one burst of movement, their pathetic compound form was rolling off the bed and down onto the hard floor, the sound their arms made against the tiles accompanied by moans of pure anguish. Suffering didn’t have a very good grasp on Kageyama, though, and like nothing had happened, he was getting to his feet, somehow managing to get Kei up as well as he let out a growl of stubborn determination, and quickly marching the both of them towards the bathroom with his back heavily hunched.

Kei stumbled over his own two feet, unable to match the brisk pace Kageyama had set for himself, unable to see the floor because he was tilted back so far and almost bouncing on Kageyama’s back and how the fuck was he walking this fast— "Kageyama—"

The bathroom door slamming against the wall drowned his voice out far too easily, and before he could say anything else, Kageyama was stepping inside and falling on his knees and Kei was following suit without much of a choice.

"I’m showering," he said hurriedly, and the warmth of his shirt disappeared behind Kei’s back.

"What—" was all he could say before Kageyama got to his feet, presumably to rid himself of the rest of his clothes. Kei grimaced as a pajama pant leg brushed against his shin. "Wait a second—"

On went the shower.

"Would you wait a damn—" This time, it was Kei’s turn to suddenly lurch forward, dragging the nude Kageyama out of the path of the water, and huh, it was pretty easy when he was mad. "My clothes are going to get wet!"

"Hurry up and strip then."

"Oh, Jesus, don’t say that ever again."

This was the basic level of chaos that comprised Kei’s life for the next few days. They’d rushed to practice in the state they were in only to end up laughed at and rejected. Kei had decided to get some studying done instead, only for Kageyama to toss balls up behind him while he did so. They’d entered Kageyama’s class only to get laughed at some more, and Kei couldn’t even walk over to the one guy who took a photo to snap his phone in half because Kageyama was too embarrassed to move. And the day ended on an even better note, Kageyama falling asleep midway through a discussion he’d started about how they managed to take their shirts off even while their backs were stuck together. Kei had said something about Fate being a bitch but not that much of a bitch and received snoring in response.

Connecting with a guy like this was going to be impossible, no matter how ‘connected' they already were.

Of course, everyone thought so too. Their fellow second years had pulled them aside one afternoon to talk to them about exactly that, about how Kageyama could be insensitive and how Kei could be an ass (in the words of Yamaguchi, no filter) to him in particular, and it had exploded into an all-out lecture on the measures they needed to take in order for the whole thing to work.

“The key,” said Hinata, who’d been Stringed to Kozume for seven months now and was loving every bit of it, “is spending a lot of time together.”

“Well, that’ll be easy,” Kei deadpanned.

“Yeah, see, that’s why you guys are really lucky! For me and Kenma, we have to make an effort to spend time together because we’re so far away, so we make do over the phone and internet. But you guys have all the time in the world now, so you gotta use it well. Don’t just do homework and sleep back-to-back. Hang out, have fun! Go on a date!”

Well, if there was one thing that Kei and Kageyama could agree on, it was that going on a date sounded absolutely disgusting, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t try, no matter how heartily and simultaneously they’d gagged after Hinata had suggested it. The next afternoon they’d (or Yachi and the others had) asked the nurses for permission to go out to a convenience store and eat and chat and whatever, only to end up running into Kageyama’s best friends Kunimi and Kindaichi and—surprise, surprise—get thoroughly laughed at once again.

“Oh god,” Kunimi wheezed, taking his phone out of his pocket. “I’m saving this.”

“Send it to Oikawa-san,” Kindaichi snickered.

No.” Kageyama’s words were mostly unheard that afternoon.

It was plain as day, plain in the way nothing seemed to go right despite all their enduring: this had to be a mistake. There was no way that the two of them were made to be soulmates, together forever, or even together for a short period of time. Kozume and Hinata had clicked before they’d gotten Stringed together, and complete strangers still had countless opportunities to get to know each other and formulate (pleasant) opinions. Kei and Kageyama had gone past the point of impressions and likability. All that was left was exasperation and snarky commentary.

The night that followed that disastrous ‘date’, if it could even be called that, was mostly spent in exhausted silence. Kei did his homework as usual and Kageyama stared at his, the two of them sitting cross-legged atop their shared bed. That was, until Kageyama’s phone laid out beside them started vibrating, the sensation filling Kei’s legs.

He only spared a glance at Kageyama picking the thing up, but he could still clearly hear the sound of it buzzing against Kageyama’s palm. He let it buzz for a few moments more, until finally Kei heard a press of a button and then almost nothing at all.

And then high-pitched, wild, wickedly amused laughter.

Oh, shit! Oh my god!” cried the happy voice from the phone, one that Kei found familiar but couldn’t place. “Oh my god, his head is right behind yours! They weren’t lying; you and Glasses are stuck together. Ahh, Tobio-chan, this is amazing!”

Wait, what?

Kei craned his neck as best he could, only to be greeted by the disgusting sight of none other than Oikawa Tooru on Kageyama’s phone screen, grinning up to his ears and dabbing at his eyes. Kei glowered, elbowed Kageyama in the elbow. “You have his number?”

“No! It was unidentified.”

“Then why the hell did you agree to go on video call?”

There was silence on Kageyama’s end (but not Oikawa’s; never Oikawa’s) and Kei knew exactly what was coming next. “Shut up.”

Boom, there it was.

“Oikawa-san, how did you even get my number?” Kageyama turned his attention back to his beloved upperclassman, who sounded like he was going to start wheezing anytime soon.

“I asked Kindaichi for it, duh,” Oikawa said, voice and shoulders bouncing. “Ohh, wow, I haven’t laughed this hard in so long. Anyway, how are you two wonderful youngsters doing today? Good? Getting intimate?”

Kei sighed. “Please go away. I’m doing homework.”

“Don’t shut me out, Glasses-kun! Any friend of Tobio’s is a friend of mine.”

“Kageyama and I aren’t friends. And neither are you two, for that matter.”

“So cold. You two make a perfect match.”

Well, that was the first he’d heard that. Kei didn’t mean to hold his tongue but did anyway, mulled the words over in his head.

“What do you want?” Kageyama asked along with his exhale. “If you’re just here to laugh all night, we’ve gotten enough of that already, so save your phone credits.”

“Wow, you sound so tired,” Oikawa remarked, and though his laughter had ceased, his smile could still be heard all the way from whatever big city he was in now. “No—well, yes, I’m here to laugh—”

“Hang up,” Kei instructed.

“No! Let me finish! I’m not just here to laugh. Of course I’m here to help my dear little Tobio-chan out. Contrary to popular belief, I care about your well-being, and since Glasses-kun is now technically...a part of you—” His giggle was the most annoying thing Kei had ever heard ”—I care about his well-being now too.”

“It wouldn’t be so popular a belief if you didn’t make it so known yourself.”

“I do not. Don’t be so cynical. Tobio, give him the phone.”

“Huh?” Kageyama said.

“Give your soulmate the phone. I want to talk to him eye-to-eye.”

“I’ll pass,” Kei said.

“No, no pass. Give him the phone.”

Kageyama paused, but reached over to comply with Oikawa’s wishes. “Just take the phone,” he muttered.

Kei rolled his eyes. How Kageyama managed to be so unafraid of literally everything and yet fall helpless in the hands of this one annoying leaf-head was far beyond Kei’s level of comprehension. He took the phone. “Nothing’s stopping me from hanging up right now, you know,” he said, keeping his eyes on his homework to avoid Oikawa’s gaze.

“Oh, please. Like you don’t want to know what I’m going to say.” Even from the corner of his eye, Oikawa’s cheeky smile was glaringly obvious. “Glasses—ah, Tsukishima-kun, yeah? You don’t like Tobio very much, do you?”

“I’d say not at all.”

“Gee, thanks,” Kageyama mumbled. His back curved a little more.

“You don’t get along,” Oikawa stated, matter-of-factly. “You think he’s full of himself and he hates it when you provoke him. Even I could tell that much, last year when we were on the court together. You think that this is a lost cause because of that. Maybe you’re even questioning Fate for bringing you two of all people together. Am I right?"

He was, but no way in hell was Kei giving him the satisfaction of knowing. He glared at his textbook and tried to read the words.

"Well, I’m here to tell you a little story." Kei snuck a glance at Oikawa’s face, now a little more serious, now contemplative. "Did you know, Tsukishima-kun, that up till a few days ago, my entire group of friends had been expecting me to get dragged back to Sendai to get Stringed to Tobio?"

"What?" Kageyama cried.

"Yup. They were so sure about it that they bet money on it and now I’m several hundred yen richer than before. But that’s beside the point. My friends are all pretty smart people. So why did they think that I would be soulmates with Tobio, who’s been my greatest enemy since middle school?"

"Because you think he’s adorable?" Kei offered.

What?" Kageyama cried.

Oikawa’s face fell. He seemed to take a breath to say something but closed his mouth, pinched it shut even, and shrunk into himself. Talk about subtle.

"I do not," he muttered, but recovered quickly enough. "But anyway, no! The reason they all thought that is because being soulmates isn’t about getting along or even liking each other. Those parts come later. Being soulmates is about the fit, about your individualities meshing together to form something amazing, something the world’s never seen before. It’s about what you two can do together, what you two will be together. Everything that comes before is irrelevant."

"So this is basically you saying that you and Kageyama would be great together."

"We’d be one hell of a power couple if we managed to make it work," Oikawa admitted, and Kei felt Kageyama twitch, "but that’s the thing, see. Your being soulmates doesn’t guarantee that you two are going to work. It’s up to you to work, to work. Understand?"

Kei couldn’t help but think how much easier it would be if Oikawa and Kageyama had just landed with each other, but he sighed anyway. "What’s the bottomline of all of this again?"

"Work," Oikawa said, smiling. "Work for your full potential and nothing else is going to go wrong. That’s a guarantee, and that’s why you two were Stringed together. Now, as for why you two are stuck together, I have no clue. But I offered you wisdom in your trying time so if you would be so kind as to send me a close-up—"

"Hang up," Kageyama instructed, and Kei graciously complied.

❄ ❄ ❄

On the fourth day, third morning of their having gotten stuck together, the nurse knocked on the isolation room door and sat them down once she was sure they were both dressed and ready.

“The school has done its best to get in touch with researchers in the field,” she told them, “and fortunately, you two aren’t alone. There have been several recorded instances of the same phenomenon all over the world, so it’s really something that can happen, and it definitely isn’t bad for the health. Unfortunately, the whole thing is still under observation. The several cases are still only a few in a billion, and it hasn’t happened enough and at the right time for experts to actually get any conclusive findings or to draw any generalizations for the condition.”

And that was a wonderful thing to be told at seven in the morning of Christmas day, really. Kei was ecstatic.

“Some cases ended well. They pulled apart after a while. No one specific duration for every case. However, some cases are, apparently, still ongoing. For how long, I’d...rather not say—” So ecstatic “—and there isn’t any traceable pattern to it because interviews can only go so well, and everything about it is purely psychological.

“It depends on the people, is what I’m trying to say,” the nurse said, placing her hands on top of each of theirs. “It depends on you. This is something that’s under your control, so let’s try and be a little optimistic and proactive about it, okay?”

“Okay,” they both said, a little too routinely to be considered genuine, but that wasn’t something a nurse needed to concern herself with. Apparently, she was going to have to tell their parents all this afterward. That was going to be a little harder.

So it was up to them—or rather, Kei alone, because how analytic could anyone expect Kageyama Tobio to be about anything other than the perfect set—to take care of themselves, then. That was all Kei got out of that, and he was neither surprised nor particularly troubled. He wasn’t the type of person to take optimism to heart, especially not for things like volleyball, but this was different. This was his future, something he was going to have to live with and something he wasn’t going to be able to change. And if he didn’t work for that supposed happiness all his upperclassmen and even other people’s upperclassmen kept talking about, then who would?

Screw actual psychologists and String experts. Kei would do all the needed analyzing himself.

He kept an extra watchful eye over Kageyama, then, tried to tone down the cynicism a little for purposes of observation but ultimately failed, spent the time he used to use for volleyball seeking to understand what exactly about him and Kageyama Fate thought would go well together, what Fate thought they did well together, and how they’d be able to use those to, according to Oikawa, ‘work to work’.

But it was so hard, so fucking hard to focus, when all Kageyama seemed to do with the time he used to use for volleyball was play more volleyball. With himself, mostly, tossing the ball against any wall he could find like he’d been doing since all this began. The consistent rhythm of it would’ve been soothing if not for the constant shake of his body behind Kei’s, effectively shaking him too.

“Isn’t there anything else you can do besides play volleyball with yourself?” Kei asked, crossing his arms.

The noises of bouncing came to a stop. “Uh,” Kageyama said. “Play volleyball with you?”

Kei rolled his eyes. “Volleyball freak.”

“At least I’m good at it.”

“Is there something you’re trying to say?”

“Play volleyball with me.”

“How stubborn are you? They’ve been sending us away from practice for days now. We can’t play volleyball like this.”

“I don’t mean at practice. I mean, just—you know, right here.”

They were right outside the gym, just beside one of the entrances; no gear, no net, snow all around them. Kei made a face. This whole thing seemed to be driving Kageyama insane. “How exactly are we supposed to play here? And while we have our backs to each other?”

“It could work! Like—here.”

He felt Kageyama’s shoulders move, and after a brief pause he heard the unmistakable sound of rubber hitting skin, the sound of an easy pass. Against his better judgment, Kei looked up. The ball was high above his head, and then falling almost too precisely right by his hands. He caught it in his hands and stared at it.

“Did—did you get it?”

“Yes,” Kei said, sighing. “I got it.”

“Why didn’t you pass it back?”

“Are we seriously doing this?”

“Have anything better to do?”

He did, but however infinite the list was, he didn’t say so. He’d been doing his homework more diligently than ever these past few days and was already beginning to feel how tiring it could be, simply being a good student and not anything else. He breathed out again, tossed the ball into the air, and passed it backward.

Kageyama’s entire body grew alert the moment he heard the sound of the pass, and Kei felt him raise his arms up. “A little short,” he remarked, though not just to be disagreeable, Kei could tell. The sound his pass made was a little softer than usual, and Kei figured he’d tossed it from right above his head.

It fell towards Kei’s arms as accurately as it had earlier, but Kei wasn’t quite in the mood to be impressed or envious. He simply passed it back, put a little more power into it this time.

And this time, Kageyama made a startled noise, started attempting to move forward and bringing Kei along with him. “Now it’s kind of long,” he said, but managed to pass it back anyway.

This time, the ball flew in a graceful arc and started to fall a few feet away from where Kei had ended up dragged, and it was his turn to jog forward, feet in the snow and all, leaving Kageyama with no choice but to follow. “Speaking of long,” he said, thoughtlessly passing the ball back.

“Hey!” Kageyama cried, rushing forward even more urgently than he had earlier. “Don’t make this into a competition of long!”

So he said, but the ball he’d returned had ended up farther than ever, and Kei couldn’t help but smile, even with utmost exasperation, as he chased after it. There was only a slight sting from where he was stringing Kageyama along, and catching the ball just in the nick of time made it worth it.

He wasn’t sure how far he’d sent it, but he did know that the betrayed cry that came from Kageyama’s mouth when he refused to move to help come after it was every bit as satisfying as a successful pass would have been. “Asshole, don’t sabotage me!” he yelled as he forcefully thrust himself forward, taking Kei along with him despite the initial resistance.

“The ball’s going to end up on the roof if we don’t cut it out,” Kei only said, trying to pull the corners of his own mouth down.

“You could’ve just said so—ugh.” His walk slowed as the ball finally hit the ground. He picked it up and spun it in his hands. “Hey, I have another idea.”

“Joy,” Kei said, but he was listening.

“Remember in grade school when volleyball was just being introduced, they used to make us take turns doing self-passing?”

They hadn’t gone to the same grade schools, but Kei could distinctly remember a similar exercise being explained from when he was a child, could remember that he and his tall body had been called to the front to demonstrate for everyone. “Yeah.”

“Let’s do it.”

“What do you mean ‘let’s do it’? How?”

“When we were self-passing, we were always trying to keep it straight, right? I’ll pass it up straight, and then we spin around and you have to get it.”

“You mean, we’re going to act like a single person?”

“Yeah. Uh.” He hesitated. “Uhh, the situation’s inconvenient, and it’s gonna be a lot to figure out, like Oikawa-san and everyone else keep saying, but we can twist it around and make it fun sometimes, right?”

They were indeed basically just a single person right now, Kei realized, and this was going to be the dumbest thing he’d ever done since he first became capable of doing anything, but he adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, sighed. “I guess,” he said. “All right, then.”

“You’re okay with it?”

“Okay is an abstract concept, but we’ll try it anyway.”

“Okay. I’m gonna get it up.”

Kei felt him toss it, heard it hit his arms right above the wrists, and then felt himself getting whirled around a complete one hundred and eighty-degrees to stand where Kageyama had stood earlier, just in time for the ball to come careening back down towards him. He couldn’t believe he was doing this, but he passed it back up like he used to as a child none the wiser, and along with Kageyama, spun their joint forms around again.

“Whoa,” Kageyama said, the ball making contact with his arms quicker than with Kei’s in the previous pass, and he was spinning them around again. “You sent it up pretty low. We’re gonna need to spin faster like that.”

“Mm,” Kei hummed absentmindedly, sending the ball back up, vision already beginning to spin from the constant turning. He fought another smile away. “Is that a challenge?”

Kageyama was silent as they spun around, but a smirk worked its way past his lips right before he could pass the ball up again. “Okay.”

The sound of the ball as it bounced against his arm told Kei that the pass would be lower than ever, and it was against his principles and everything he stood for, but he and Kageyama spun around rapidly, Kei stretching his own arms immediately and urgently bringing the ball back up as well as was possible. And they spun again, even faster, Kageyama even more eager to fulfill their objective and make life a living, spinning hell for Kei.

It didn’t take long before they were a revolving, awkwardly-jogging mess, the straight and erect path their ball was supposedly taking curving when they were too out of sorts to control it, leaving them changing angles as well as positions and making the oddest noises, ones they’d never made before and certainly not around each other. Things like, “Hey!” spoken with smiling mouths and frustrated yet amused little growls and maybe even the occasional chuckle. Kei couldn’t be sure. The grassy plain around the gym he’d gotten so familiar with was white and turning upside down and he wasn’t quite sure about anything until he was lying on it, crushing Kageyama underneath him.

Their breaths came fast, Kageyama’s muffled from where his face was jammed against the ground. Maybe it was the four days with hardly any movement’s fault, but Kei was genuinely winded, a little tired, infinitely dizzy.

But it was fun. He sort of had fun, and it wasn’t until the gym doors were opening and a curious Ennoshita and Narita with a bunch of other members of the team were poking their heads out that he realized that he’d just enjoyed himself for the first time in days because of something Kageyama had thought to start up.

Volleyball, he realized, Ennoshita’s inquiry about their conditions (and possibly, sanities) sailing right above his head in the same way that Kageyama’s ball had done a million times over in a single afternoon. Volleyball was what they did well together.

❄ ❄ ❄

It hadn’t been like that at the beginning. It felt like too long ago but Kei could never forget their first meeting, at a park when the sun was down and Kei was too busy taunting him about his kingly past to notice that Hinata even existed. It was what started their rocky relationship and what was making everything exceptionally difficult at the moment, but more than a year had passed since the Three-on-Three from hell. They’d grown.

If that first wave of interactions, joyless and full of spite, was Stage One of their development (and Kei could not believe that he had to analyze their fucking development), then midway through the Inter High began Stage Two. That transition could be fully attributed to Sugawara, probably, him and his advising Kageyama to try and communicate with his spikers a bit more. It was the first time Kei felt he’d actually done well against an opponent and alongside their dictator of a setter, and the first time he started considering that maybe he wasn’t completely a dictator after all.

Considering. He was still a blunt idiot, and a single well-executed play wasn’t about to change that.

Stage Two was a pretty lengthy one, encompassing the Inter High up until Finals against Shiratorizawa. There wasn’t exactly a big enough transition there but Kei did have memories of being...a little concerned. Kageyama’s job then as the genius, pinpoint-accurate setter had been tedious and had obviously taken its toll on him, and a tired dictator didn’t spell anything good for their chances at the time. It wasn’t much, and Kei was more concerned about winning than Kageyama himself really, but he supposed he could mark it as Stage Three.

But that wasn’t all that happened in that one match. He’d injured his finger, and when he came back all the more ready to fight like never before, he remembered standing next to Kageyama, exchanging their usual sort of banter but with an all-new intent, something they shared that they hadn’t before: drive to win, and a willingness to work together to get that win. Kei did all he could do given his position, jumped and spiked and deceived with all the strength he could muster, and trusted Kageyama with the rest.

And it had worked. It was his first time cooperating with Kageyama closely—like he would with a teammate he actually liked—and it worked.

Nationals was a different story. They’d split up to attend different training camps and came back different players, Kageyama suddenly reverting back to his old ways and, annoyingly, making Kei jump higher than he wanted to. He hated that. Oh yeah, he hated that a lot. Just recalling it made him grimace to himself, and if it was the beginning of Stage Four, he was more inclined to call it a regression rather than a development.

Until he realized that he’d gone along with it.

Kageyama demanded the same thing from his junior high spikers. Jump higher, move faster, hit stronger—and they’d tried and tried up until they refused to anymore and went as far as to ignore his toss when it went up, at the cost of the championship title. Kei, on the other hand, tried and succeeded and got annoyed, but kept matching up anyway, during practice up until actual games where the lead was massive and the crowd was on the edge of their seats.

And, again, it had worked. Kageyama gave him neither warning nor sign, but they pulled it off every single time.

He brought this up with Kageyama behind him the moment he realized it, and Kageyama had paused a good long while before helpfully saying:

"I guess we can consider that proof, then. That we can work to work, I mean."

"But that’s just volleyball," Kei said. "Does it really apply to real life, and in the String context?"

"Volleyball’s just like real life, isn’t it?"

Kei rolled his eyes. "Oh, sure. You’re running around doing things you don’t want to do, people are yelling at you, Hinata’s there…"

"Yeah, exactly." Kei gently shut his eyes, mourned the death of unnoticed sarcasm. "It’s basically the same thing. One big goal, but overcoming tiny obstacles step by step to reach the goal. Coming up with a strategy at the beginning and at every problem that comes up."

In silence, Kei only blinked, took a moment to replay the words in his head. They actually made a little sense. "Maybe you should start using volleyball metaphors for everything you talk about," he remarked. "It’ll make you sound smart for once in your life. Can you try doing it for Math?"

"I hate you."

"Actually, according to Takeda-sensei, you don’t."  It came out before he could think about it, and he quickly spoke again before Kageyama could turn it against him. "But that aside, this isn’t just a matter of daily life, is it? It’s also…"

No, this direction wasn’t any better, but he only sighed. "It’s also...kind of about love."

Which was a little bit different from life. Which was a dream for many but a privilege only for some. Which was a lot more complicated than in the movies. Which, in their world right now, apparently involved getting dragged towards the gym and falling to the floor and living like hermits in the school infirmary.

Which, Kei quickly remembered the moment Kageyama gave a shrug, was basically just equal to volleyball in his simpleton soulmate’s mind. "It’s still kind of the same," he said. How much milk did it take for anyone to be this carefree? "Still kind of a goal. And people strategize for it, right? That’s what dates and presents and all that are for, right?"

The mentality was stupid but, honestly, refreshing, and the corner of Kei’s lips briefly twitched up with his exhale. "You’re telling me a date is a type of play."

"Yeah. And, uh, you don’t really know the effectivity of plays until you try them out, right? Practice them...and stuff?"

"Is this you saying you want to practice, then?"

There was a pause, which Kei used to look up from this evening’s homework to examine their reflection in the glass cabinet. Particularly Kageyama’s reddening ears.

"Well...we have already, but...once isn’t enough, so...do you want to?"

"Hey," Kei said, shrugging as well, "wherever you go, I follow." He felt a little warm himself, even in the harsh cold weather.

❄ ❄ ❄

That warmth was quickly eaten alive by the biting frost and the still-glaring inconvenience of the situation, but still, the Saturday that followed, Hinata had Kozume take a train to Sendai ("By himself!" he declared proudly) so that the four of them could engage in what was apparently called ‘a double date’, where double could stand for double the couples as well as double the awkwardness. Said awkwardness had begun before the date even did, in the form of the school nurse’s jubilant smile and unnecessary giggling when they’d asked permission for it. Needless to say, Kei wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the day.

"Oh," Kozume had said the moment he laid his cat-like eyes on the joint soulmates. "You guys really are stuck."

"Told you," Hinata said.

"Uh. Are...you doing okay?"

"I think I’m getting better at walking backwards," Kei offered flatly.

"That could be useful for matches," Kageyama muttered.

Kozume took a breath to speak more, but seemed to lose his words and his control over his usually blank face to pity, and to the cumbersome decision over who to pity more. He exchanged looks with Hinata, who had only a crooked grin to offer.

"Anyway, that’s all in the past! Sort of," Hinata said, bright voice cutting into the silence, and Kei couldn’t decide which he preferred. "Today, the greatest pair of soulmates in town is going to show you what it’s like to have fun. But first: Tsukishima! Pop quiz. What does Kageyama do on his days off?"

"Volleyball," Kei answered simply.

"I mean something date-worthy! Kageyama, what about you? What does Tsukishima do on his days off?"

"Homework," Kageyama said. "And music."

"What kind of music?"

"The ones on his iPod."

For once, even Hinata was rendered speechless. "Do you—do you guys just—sit back to back all day without talking? Just doing homework? Just staring into space?"

"Basically," Kei said.

"What the heck. Kenma, we have a lot of work to do."

That wasn’t completely true anymore. They weren’t Hinata-Kozume levels of loquacious, but they did start spending a fair amount of time talking after their little Christmas Volley-Go-Round and the topics ranged from basic get-to-knows to the ridiculous things that apparently popped into Kageyama’s head at random times in the day. But Hinata didn’t have to know that. Kei couldn’t care less if nobody did. It was between him and Kageyama, and that was that, and taking that to heart seemed to make what would be bad things a whole lot better.

Everything seemed better when it was just him and Kageyama.

But they humoured the ‘greatest pair of soulmates in town’ anyway, followed along when they were taken to the local arcade after rejecting the idea of seeing a movie in the state they were in, tried to escape only a solid five times when Hinata demanded that they play the Dance Dance game and man two arrows each. It was pretty funny, if completely ridiculous and an excellent way to catch attention, but Kei could almost see the tense and focused look on Kageyama’s face through the ferocity of his stomps, and it was almost made worth it.

After that, they’d gone to the park. Hinata’s favourite, apparently, because it housed the set of monkey bars that had honed his arm strength. He’d crossed it once and dared the wild Kageyama-Kei to do so in their state, only to explode the moment he realized they were tall enough to cheat it. Kozume had struggled to hide his chuckle, and Kageyama hadn’t even bothered. His eyebrows were probably pushed together too tight, eyes crinkling in a wicked sort of delight. It was the smile Kei saw most often on him, back when he still could. It made his own laugh a little louder.

Dinner was pretty excellent, the food eye-catching and delicious and Hinata having given them a lesson on chivalry and the spirit of volunteerism regarding the bill only to end up paying for the entire sum himself. Honestly, if someone had told him double dates consisted of a whole lot of Hinata’s suffering, then Kei would’ve gone on one long ago regardless of who he took along with him.

That was, until he noticed the look on Kozume’s face as he watched Hinata sniffle and rummage through his wallet.

Kozume was anything but expressive, and his friend and babysitter Kuroo had told Kei that the one exception to that general truth was when he was annoyed. But his eyes looking at Hinata were full of life, a joy that Kei didn’t think he could qualify with words. His smile was small but it stretched for miles. Where Kei stared and saw an orange gremlin, he gazed and saw the sun itself, something that gave him meaning and purpose, someone he could love, someone he maybe already did.

And looking at him looking like that, Kei couldn’t help but wonder. What did Kageyama see when he looked at Kei? What did Kei look like while he stared at Kageyama? What were the answers before and what were the answers now? He craned his neck to take a peek, daring himself to discover them—

—and promptly realized he couldn’t. Kageyama was behind him and he had been for about a week already. Hinata called him lucky, called them closer than ever, and yet they couldn’t even see each other’s faces.

The pit of Kei’s stomach soured.

"All right," Hinata said once they’d left the restaurant that had just robbed him, never mind the dark gray cloud that had settled over Kei’s head. "This is the last lesson for the day, and one of the most important, so watch closely!"

He touched Kozume’s cheek, closed his eyes, and pressed their lips together—and Kei could only follow as Kageyama made the most uncomfortable noise he’d ever heard and spun around to walk away. He couldn’t have said it better himself, really, but his frown was still tight as they headed back in silence.

❄ ❄ ❄

Fate was reliable, he acknowledged. Fate was reliable, but she was also an ass.

❄ ❄ ❄

"Are you ready?"

"No."

"How far do you think we could reach if we start running right now?"

"Going two miles an hour? Not very far."

The two of them were taking turns eyeing themselves in front of the mirror, both wearing some of the stuffiest but fanciest clothes Kei had ever had the burden of touching. He felt constricted in his white dress shirt (that the nurse had so heartily insisted he tuck in, but screw that) and black suit pants that had been his father’s, while Kageyama was squirming in something similar but in blue and black and with a jacket haphazardly thrown onto it.

They looked good, no doubt about that, but none of that would matter if they threw up all over themselves in a fit of nerves. And nerves were inevitable when their families were coming together for New Year’s dinner.

It had all started this morning. Yamaguchi and the rest of the agreeable people of the team had come over to take them on a shrine visit—their first one as soulmates—and hadn’t laughed too hard when they took turns doing their bows. Hinata (though his agreeability was questionable) had suggested then that they play Hanetsuki like he’d done last year. Kei had refused but Kageyama had agreed, and they’d engaged in a battle of control over direction for about two seconds before Kei was giving in to what was apparently the majority vote.

And the game itself hadn’t been so bad, until midway through it, his phone was buzzing in his pocket and Kageyama’s was ringing in his and they were both receiving calls from their parents about an unannounced conference they’d had about spending New Year’s together as two families, and Kageyama was blanching and Kei was something close.

“We want to spend it with you, obviously,” Kei’s mother told him once it was clear his retching wasn’t going to lead to anything serious. “But your soulmate is attached to you and it’d be rude to exclude him. His mother felt the same way, so we talked it out and reached a compromise. We’re all going to have dinner outside tonight. That’s exciting, right?”

No, it wasn’t, but Kei’s mother was too sweet to sass and anyway, no amount of sass would be able to change the plan. All he could really do now was stare at his dressed-up self in the mirror and turn so Kageyama could do the same thing.

“You want to try running anyway?”

“We’re gonna need to come back to school eventually.”

“Damn it.”

They headed out, thick winter coats and hats thankfully hiding how embarrassingly formal they looked despite their ridiculous orientation. Their parents had chosen a restaurant a considerable walk from school, and so after yet another (the hundredth, perhaps) game of mirror janken, Kei was left to deal with the double takes of various fellow passers-by headed in the opposite direction. He gave each of them a smile they would surely remember when they put out their lights tonight.

And when they arrived at the dinner table, their parents looked almost as awkward as they felt.

"Kei! Kageyama-kun! You made it! Sit—uhh," Kei’s mother had so enthusiastically began and then so sadly trailed off, her hand gesturing to emptiness, and the meal hadn’t even started but Kei’s father’s hand was already settled by his temple. Kageyema’s mother just looked plain frustrated.

In the end, they had to borrow two stools from the kitchen and Kei and Kageyama were left to orient themselves as best they could at the table. Kageyama chose the side that faced his mother mostly, and Kei couldn’t be any happier with the decision.

"So," Kei’s mother started yet again, clasping her hands together and wearing a bright smile, the kind that one would see in that single hopeful moment in an apocalyptic movie, "how are you two?"

They opened their mouths at the same time, default words like ‘fine' sitting at the edges of their tongues but also dying there. Kei glanced down at his lap.

"Back-to-back," Kageyama said.

"Yes, we see that, Tobio," his mother said. "Have you been coping? Is school all right? Is your room at the infirmary still comfortable?"

"Uhh, I don’t know about coping, but we haven’t...gotten run over or anything yet, so." Kei kind of wished he would be right now. "And school’s the same. People have stopped laughing already."

"People were laughing?" Kageyama’s mother demanded.

"That’s no surprise," Kei’s father muttered.

"I’m sorry, but how is this funny?"

"Look at them! It’s strange! People always laugh at things that are strange."

"Well, they’re not things; they’re people! They’re our kids stuck in an inconvenient situation. How can you possibly find this funny?"

"Not me; the other kids in school!"

"May we have a menu, please?" Kei’s mother called loudly.

Honestly, his father butting heads with Kageyama’s mother should’ve been something that Kei had expected, but luckily, the presence of food at the table worked some wonders for the tension, along with Kei’s mother’s helpful prodding and mediating. She asked most of the questions of the night, some about how Kei was doing, some about what Kageyama was like, and a lot about how they were faring together. The familiar voice and speech brought Kei comfort, but from behind him, even with plate in hand, he could feel Kageyama squirming. He’d gotten a lot less vocal a little later into the night until he’d stopped speaking altogether and left Kei feeling his slight tremble.

It was unsettling, feeling Kageyama in a way he never had before.

"May we be excused?" he asked, placing his plate on the table and ignoring the jolt of Kageyama’s body. "I just need to use the restroom for a bit."

"Oh, sure," Kei’s mother said, but she looked alarmed.

"Do you need...help? Or anything?" Kageyama’s mother added.

She was every bit as good at making things uncomfortable as her son was. Kei gritted his teeth. "No, thank you. We’re good."

No mirror janken was needed this time; Kei wordlessly took control of their joint ship and Kageyama was more than content to follow along, head tilted down probably avoiding everyone’s eyes all the way up to the restroom.

Kei squeezed the two of them into a cubicle before talking. "What’s going on with you?"

"What?"

"You stopped talking. And you’re shaking. What’s going on with you?"

For a while, it was quiet, so quiet that all Kei could hear was Kageyama’s breathing, and that in itself was a problem. Kageyama wasn’t as loud as Hinata or Tanaka but he couldn’t be called quiet either. He wasn’t quiet. From experience, Kei and the rest of the team knew that he only got quiet when he was thinking too hard, perhaps during a match or when he was deciding which flavour yogurt to get for lunch. But this flavour of quiet, Kei had only seen once before, during their first official match against Oikawa’s Seijoh. The kind that only happened when he was legitimately scared, and desperate to keep control.

He sucked in a breath. “I’m—I feel like everything’s happening too fast,” he admitted, the words falling like a load he’d been forcing himself to carry and could finally let go of. “We’ve only been soulmates for over a week, but we’re here meeting with parents and having fancy dinner and they’re asking about us and us together and—and—”

“Calm down,” Kei said, in a terrible attempt to soothe, and cringed lightly. “Just remember that it’s not actually supposed to go this fast. We’re just in a special situation; that’s why we’re having dinner and everything. Nobody’s rushing us into anything.”

“Oh, yeah, and I guess our parents asking if either one of us has dumb domestic habits is just them being curious,” Kageyama retorted. “This whole thing, this—soulmate thing. It’s—it happens too early. I just want to play volleyball. I’ve never even thought about dating, let alone getting married. Are we even old enough to know these things?”

“No. We’re seventeen; of course we’re not.”

“Then—”

“But the thing about being soulmates,” Kei continued, “well—I mean, based from what everyone else has been telling us—our being soulmates means that we have the potential to work this out together, just like with everything else. Finding our happiness, working to work, however else they word it. Happiness and ‘working’ don’t necessarily have to mean marriage, or even dating right now. Everyone’s just—everyone’s just prying into it like it’s their business. Making a big deal out of it because of this forced domesticity thing we have going on.”

Kei wasn’t sure where all of this was coming from, but he remembered Kozume and Hinata and all their self-proclaimed lessons, Sugawara and Oikawa who thought it was their senior privilege to give unwarranted advice and be listened to, and their parents who thought it’d be okay to organize such a suffocating dinner when the pressure of the situation alone was suffocating enough. He remembered how annoying it was to have all of them breathing down their necks.

He remembered that they weren’t who mattered here.

“Ignore them,” Kei told Kageyama. “They don’t get a say in whatever we want to do, whether that’s to be a conventional pair of soulmates or to stay the hell away from each other once this is all over. We’re the soulmates. Not them; us. It’s just you and me. These stupid tangled strings mean that from here on out, it’s going to be you and me, and everyone else is optional.”

Somehow, this time, the concept of it didn’t send Kei hurling into the toilet, however close he was to one already.

(Everything seemed better when it was just him and Kageyama.)

And Kageyama wasn’t heaving either. He was quiet again, though of a different kind that he’d been when they first entered their stall. His breaths were louder too, and Kei felt him lean back, maybe to relax, enough for the backs of their heads to lightly touch.

“Does that mean we can go back out and tell them we want to go back to the infirmary?” he asked.

Kei’s exhale was half a laugh. “I think so.”

“Okay. You should go already before we leave.”

“...you realize I didn’t actually have to go, right?”

“Wait, what?”

❄ ❄ ❄

The sneezing started about a day later.

“Achoo!”

Kei felt Kageyama shift as he wiped his nose. “You have a cold,” he observed.

It was the perfect opportunity to respond with snark, but Kei wasn’t in the mood for Kageyama’s loud, defensive voice when they were bathed in peace and silence. He sniffled and crumpled up his used piece of tissue. “Not yet,” he said. “But it’s probably on the way.”

“Do you want to lie down?”

“It was one sneeze.”

“Are you warm enough?”

He reached for his scarf discarded somewhere on the bed and held it by Kei’s shoulder, but Kei shook his head and gently waved it away. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Kageyama set the scarf aside once more, but Kei felt warmer anyway.

It only got worse over the next few days, as expected, and Kei had taken to wearing more layers of tops (shirts and sweaters and jackets alike) along with a mask, head gear, and the thickest scarf he owned. He sneezed more often than he spoke and had to carry an entire pack of tissues wherever he went, unable to last five seconds without it.

Kageyama, meanwhile, was surprisingly helpful—or at least trying to be—always asking Kei if he was dying and offering whatever warm article was within reach. He offered to carry Kei’s tissue sometimes too, and had been the one to tell the nurse about the cold and to get Kei several cafeteria bowls’ worth of free hot chicken soup. It wasn’t quite as good as the kind his mother made, but appreciated. All of it was very appreciated.

Still, the end of winter couldn’t come soon enough.

“By the way,” Yamaguchi told them one particularly cold lunch break, setting his box down on the table and reaching for something by his feet—a paper bag, apparently. “I told my mom about...well, you know—” He smiled at their conjoined form “—and she got you guys a congratulatory Christmas present!”

From the bag, he pulled out what looked like a ridiculously-thick scarf, patterned with black and yellow stripes. Kei’s watery eyes stung just looking at it. “She asked me what the colour of Kageyama’s hair was,” Yamaguchi continued, “and then suddenly she was telling me to give you guys this. She’s really happy for you, Tsukki! And she says she wants to get to know Kageyama better too.”

Yamaguchi’s mother was a wonder completely separate from her wonder of a son, Kei thought as he blinked at the thing. “Uhh, tell her thanks,” he said, frowning, “but how exactly is this a gift for the both of us?”

With a far-too-happy grin, Yamaguchi rose to his feet and drew closer to them, spreading the scarf out (and it apparently went on for five fucking miles, geez, Yamaguchi-san) and then wrapping it snuggly around both of their necks. “Joint scarf!” he cried happily, clapping his hands and then rushing to take his phone out. “Isn’t it the cutest thing? My mom’s such a genius!”

Kei shut his eyes and took a breath as Yamaguchi’s phone camera clicked, and yeah, the end of winter couldn’t come soon enough.

He and Kageyama hadn’t intended to wear the embarrassing thing out in public (though sometimes they did wear it to sleep; boy, it was thick) but as the days dragged on, it only got colder and Kei’s condition only got worse and it didn’t take long before Kageyama was sloppily wrapping it around them without warning and then saying nothing until they were out of the giggling specators’ line of sight.

The morning after that, Kei had awoken colder than ever, throat dry, nose clogged, head heavy. It was difficult to open his eyes, even more so to get up and find his glasses, but he mentally told himself it was nothing simply because he didn’t have the energy to physically tell anyone else otherwise. He struggled to go about he and Kageyama’s routine as well as could—the bath, the dressing, the ridiculously long walk to class—tried not to give away how shitty he felt through his voice and movements.

However, before the third period teacher could walk in, Kageyama was already saying: “You have a fever, don’t you.”

Kei looked up from the notes he’d been trying to read for ten minutes now. He had a pretty good guess that he did, but Kageyama wasn’t even asking. “How do you know that?”

“I can feel you. Your back is really warm but you’ve been shivering since this morning. And you’re talking less and walking slower too. Plus you’re breathing weird. It’s pretty obvious.”

Bewildered, Kei could only pause for a moment and try to digest the information. Kageyama could hear even his ragged breathing and tell what his regular walking pace was. He knew how much Kei talked on average. He could feel everything Kei did, and of course he could, of course, because they were stuck together but it was so odd. A month ago, Kei didn’t think the two of them had ever bumped fists. Now they were so close in a way they’d never been close before, could feel each other the way they’d never felt before and nobody else could.

Close enough that Kageyama knew about his fever before he could admit it to himself. He exhaled, his breath too hot on his own lips. “Okay, yes, I do. What’s it to you?”

“We need to go back to the infirmary.”

“Uh-huh, and what about class?”

“Have you never had a sick day before?”

“I meant for you,” Kei corrected, only slightly exasperated. “If I go, then you’re going to miss your classes for no reason. You’re already having a hard time catching up as it is because you keep falling asleep.”

Kageyama spluttered, as if he didn’t know that if he could feel Kei’s fever then Kei could feel him nodding off. “That doesn’t matter,” he hissed. Kei felt his head whip back briefly. “You’re not gonna get well if you sit here in class until the afternoon. You need medicine and you need to go back to sleep.

“And…” He scratched his head. “I already fall asleep anyway, so what difference does it make if I’m here or not? Might as well use the time for something more important.”

Kei wondered if Kageyama could feel the heat of his face as well.

Immediately once the third period teacher had arrived, Kageyama had steered them to the front and asked for permission to return to their quarters, and their History teacher—known for being quite the romantic—had no objections. “Take care of yourself, Tsukishima-kun,” she said, and then smiled and winked at him as Kageyama with his back turned led them out of the room.

Their pace as they trekked back to the isolation room was the perfect middleground between fast and slow that Kei could handle at the moment, and Kei had to make an effort to stop himself from internally ranting about Kageyama’s genius estimation skills. They made it back and he was given medicine and a lot of water and some more soup and was at last instructed to get to bed straightafter. Kageyama was around him the entire time, of course, following along almost too obediently until their heads were resting against pillows once again.

“Sorry,” Kei said softly once the nurse had disappeared from the room long enough, how comforting being back in bed was prompting him to say things he never would have before, probably, “you’re gonna be stuck in bed all day because I’ll be and you have no choice.”

Kageyama’s shoulders bounced lightly. “I wouldn’t say that,” he said, without a hint of annoyance or regret in his voice. “I could’ve ignored you and just sat in class without telling anyone you’re sick. And when I didn’t, I had a pretty good idea that this would happen. So if you think about it, this is kind of my choice.”

His bluntness extended from his volleyball critique all the way up to the things he told his soulmate when they were alone. Kei wrapped his blanket tighter around himself and let his eyes fall shut, despite everything, comforted. “Thank you.”

It was the best sleep he had in weeks.

❄ ❄ ❄

They were changing. It wasn’t something that Kei believed could happen, but he was seeing it, hearing it, feeling it happen. He could tell himself it was because they were tired of each other, unwilling to exercise sarcasm and derision a hundred percent of the time, but that wasn’t it. It was different. They weren’t tired; they were accustomed. They weren’t unwilling; they were civil. They were placated, peaceful in each other’s presence no matter how much they argued before, no matter how much fuel they had to argue—stuck to each other’s backs, privy to every inconvenience—right now.

It was actually working. It wasn’t what Kei could call happiness or the makings of a bright future, but it was working. They were working, maybe they were even friends, and it was terrifying in theory and Kei hadn’t seen it coming, but there wasn’t a single part of it he wasn’t content with.

Still, it was a little different from the ideal, that concept of finding your soulmate and then feeling like you’ve come home, of feeling actual fondness and love whenever they so much as popped into your head. It wasn’t the perfect String scenario, or even the type of relationship that would lead to a magical marriage when it one day came down to it. Kei supposed that he was just going to have to be content with that too, and be content with that contentment. And for a while, he felt sure that he was.

But he and Kageyama were cross-legged in bed one weekend, as usual, nothing new, far too routine. Kei was tapping away on his phone in an effort to beat his high score in a music game and Kageyama behind him was doing who knew what, sitting quietly until he spoke up.

"Hey, Tsukishima?"

Their mutual silence was something Kei had grown to like, but he didn’t mind it when either of them interrupted it for whatever reason either. He continued playing, idly humming to acknowledge Kageyama’s call.

"What do you look like again?"

His finger stuttered and he missed a long note.

His potential high score forgotten, Kei paused the game and craned his neck as far as he could, not that it showed him anything he needed to see. "What do you mean?” he asked, though he felt he knew exactly what Kageyama meant. “You know what I look like."

"I do,” he agreed, yet managing, at the same time, to sound like he could do anything but. “But I haven’t seen you in weeks, so I feel like I don’t."

It was a little alarming. "We see each other in the mirror all the time.”

"Just from the side, though. And that’s if we’re lucky and actually find a mirror, or when we’re turning around in the bathroom.” His voice was louder than usual. “I haven’t seen your whole face since our last practice. What do you look like outside the bathroom? What do you look like from the front? What do you look like, not just your picture or reflection?"

Kageyama starting conversations like this was just as routinely as their silence, but just like the first night he had, when he’d suddenly asked if Fate was some tangible entity somewhere in the sky or just a concept people used to explain things that didn’t make sense, Kei had frozen up, stunned, not just from the discovery that words about anything other than food and sports swam around in Kageyama’s head, but from how he’d been made to think as well—about things that he’d never bothered to think about before, things that actually bothered him when he did bother to.

Because more often than not, the things like this that Kageyama asked him were valid.

He knew what he looked like, of course. And he knew what Kageyama looked like too. He knew he did, but as he sat there clutching his phone too tightly in his hands trying to conjure up an image of that frowny face and concealed forehead and dull yet sharp eyes—that he knew he knew—he couldn’t come up with the entire picture no matter how he tried. The image was there and the specifics were too but it was like looking at the familiar, coloured print of a magazine, a cover he’d seen so many times, without his glasses on.

He knew the picture, knew what was on it. But he couldn’t see it.

Not a lot of his time before all this was spent looking at Kageyama’s face, and the times he did look at it were usually to glare or to provoke, but the fact that it was there to look at was an integral component to what had been Kei’s regular days. To watch it as it yelled at Hinata, to mock it when it said something stupid, to smile with it during moments that called for joy and pride and even wicked mirth. It used to be one of the many things in the halls and the gym that gave Kei entertainment, from the very first time he’d seen it at that awful game in middle school to the last, on his birthday weeks ago blowing out a candle with wide eyes and a slight tinge of red on his cheeks.

It had been his soulmate’s face all along, and now he couldn’t look at it.

Now he couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like, almost like life or Fate itself wanted to tell him he’d been taking it for granted by taking it away.

Now he kind of missed it.

Kei shuddered out of the realization. "You used to see it before," was all he could reply with, after a pause he hadn’t been able to quantify. He adjusted his glasses, tried to find it in him to restart his game, but his fingers hovered over his blackened screen, unable to do much of anything. "Maybe you just have the memory of an old man."

The pause that followed was Kageyama’s frown. "You know I don’t."

They both knew he didn’t. He memorized volleyball signals at a single glance and an entire textbook’s worth of vocabulary in a language he didn’t use days before a test. But Kei wanted to pull away, wanted the strings behind their backs to untangle so they could see each other’s faces. Kei had just realized that he missed seeing Kageyama in his entirety, and he had no idea what to do, both with the information and with himself.

❄ ❄ ❄

That was the last conversation of that variety they had and they’d grown even quieter than they were before, but it was still every bit as comfortable. Kei thought he might have been reading too much into it, the situation and his own feelings clumping together in an unholy combination of ideas and messing with his intutition, but he couldn’t help but notice that they—yes, even Kei himself—had taken to using mediums of communication other than words, like somehow messages they both intended and didn’t intend to send were being exchanged and interpreted and understood better than what was natural for two people who’d lived to get under each other’s skin, without effort and with full condfidence.

For instance, Kageyama had a distinct way of moving when he didn’t like where they were or who they were with. Kei remembered running into some classmates who’d been dragging him to try and get into the swing of basketball for a few months now (“Your height is perfect and it’d be great for the team!”) and midway though the conversation he was barely even a part of, Kageyama had started shifting in place, almost inching away the more adjustments he made to his stance, and Kei had taken it as his cue to begin the farewell and the walk away.

And when they were out of earshot, Kageyama had muttered, “You’re not leaving volleyball, are you?”

“No,” Kei said, “I’m too used to it to do anything else. If the ball bounces off the hoop, I’d end up receiving it.”

Kageyama let out a sound that was half a snort, half an exhale, but by now Kei knew too well that it was a laugh.

And on another day right at the start of lunch period, Kei had tried to get up from their seat to beat out the usual cafeteria lunch rush (because Kageyama hated the lunch rush—long lines pissed him off—and their parents couldn’t bring them food from home to eat every day) only to end up falling back down when Kageyama had refused to stand up with him.

“Hey,” he’d called, “we’re going to end up falling back in the line.”

“We can go later when everyone’s gone,” Kageyama replied. “You should close your eyes for a few minutes. You’re sleepy, right?”

He was, but when he was in class, he did an excellent job of hiding that; no nodding off or slouching or even yawning, none of the manifestations of general tiredness. It was a skill he’d long since perfected. Kei narrowed his eyes. “How did you know?”

There was a pause. “I’m...not sure either? But either way, you should sleep or you won’t be able to focus after lunch. Here, I’ll lean over my desk a bit and you can lean on me.”

It really was just like volleyball, Kei often found himself thinking. There was no need for words or verbal forwardness; it was all just moving without reservation, keen observation, memorization of patterns, gauging each other’s reactions, and giving a little hint every now and again that wouldn’t be helpful to anyone else. It almost made Kei believe they truly were soulmates after all. And the others weren’t that far off.

“You know,” Hinata told them one afternoon as he freshened up in the middle of practice, and they were at practice without really practicing because of course they were, “I think you guys are doing better. You’re not lovey-dovey or anything like that and it’s fine, it’d actually be kind of gross if you were; I don’t think I’d be able to handle it—”

Noted.

“—but it’s a start. Maybe with a few more dates with me and Kenma, you’ll be able to master the basics.”

“Uhh, maybe they should also go on a few more dates just the two of them,” Yamaguchi suggested.

“Yeah, that too.”

“You two do seem more at ease around each other now,” Yachi noted, smiling up at them even while lugging three balls, that Hinata had been working with up until he’d started rehydrating, in her tiny arms. She was going to be capable of great things in the coming years. “Do you guys do couple things now? Even just in private?”

Kei frowned. “What do you mean ‘couple things’?”

“Um, couple things! Things couples do. I mean, I know you can’t hug or kiss each other yet—Hinata, don’t laugh!—but there’s still other things. Like, holding hands! Your position is pretty convenient for holding hands.”

It was. More times than Kei cared to count, he found his fingers brushing against Kageyama’s when he didn’t have them stuffed inside his pocket. But they had yet to actually touch in that way, let alone be able to boast that they’d engaged in anything close to hand-holding. Admittedly, it crossed his mind on occasion, particularly during moments that felt tender or one of a kind, but like hell he was going to be the one to initiate anything. For all their usual natural synchronization, it was the one thing Kei couldn’t quite guess about Kageyama: how far exactly he wanted to take this. Not that he tried to guess often.

“I’m guessing that’s a no,” Hinata said when neither of them spoke up.

“That’s okay. You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Yachi said.

Do you not want to?”

All three pairs of eyes were now centered on them. It felt like a spotlight and Kei could almost physically feel the heat and intensity of pressure on his face, and somewhere by his chest. Kageyama’s stance on the issue was one he couldn’t guess, and that was, perhaps, understandable, but he wasn’t anywhere closer to identifying his own. He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know how to find out. He didn’t know where to find the courage to ask. All he knew was that their arrangement as it was right now worked for them. Everyone could agree that it was comfortable and right. And he didn’t want to risk tearing it apart.

Before the pause could drag on for too long, Kageyama fidgetted, took a single step away that he probably wasn’t even aware of, and Kei was making a show out of giving a noncommittal shrug. “Haven’t really thought about it,” he lied, making it a point not to look Yamaguchi in particular in the eye. “Maybe when we can finally sleep in our own houses, we can figure it out.”

And that was the end of that. Kei could feel the air of finality as they began their journey back to the infirmary. It was yet another wordless agreement.

That night, Kei had a nightmare. He wasn’t aware that it had been a nightmare but he could remember feeling paralyzed, alone in the dark, and the presence of something menacing he couldn’t shape into something familiar. He could remember shifting scenes and colours that made him want to throw up and someone yelling. He could remember running as himself and then not as himself, climbing, his brother and some people he didn’t know fleeing by his side until they just weren’t anymore.

When he woke up, he was breathing hard.

It was still dark, the stars shining only faintly through their window, and Kei let his mouth hang open in an attempt to catch air while his eyes adjusted in the dark, focused on familiar sights like the form of his bag propped up against the wall. He wasn’t oriented in a way that told him he’d been thrashing around, wasn’t sweating either, and along with the leftover fear he could only feel relieved.

But also, he felt a hand tightly squeezing his.

He was fairly certain he hadn’t slept with his hand on his side but it was there now, Kageyama’s fingers not quite laced in his but wrapped around his palm instead, warm and still volleyball-hardened despite not having legitimately played for a long time. Kei could only blink for a while, the sensation of touch heightened in his blinded senses, felt his arm getting kind of stiff in an effort not to move and potentially shake Kageyama away.

Once his breathing had slowed and gotten considerably softer, Kageyama eased up on his grip and lifted Kei’s hand to put it back where it had presumably been earlier, and drew his own back. He didn’t say anything.

“Sorry,” Kei said in a groggy, not-so-morning voice. “Did I wake you up?”

“You were groaning, kind of,” Kageyama responded. “It’s fine, though.”

The quiet of the night and the thumping of Kei’s terrified heart were grating to the ears. He couldn’t quite get himself to drift off to sleep and he was too aware of the touch of the covers against the palm that had earlier been in Kageyama’s grasp, the sheets a little too smooth and cold for his liking. He felt his fingers idly tapping on the mattress and frowned at them, moved to bury his hands underneath his head and pillow. He pinched his lips shut, wished he could do to the same to his eyes.

“Uhh.”

They were already open, but it was like they opened all over again at the sound of Kageyama’s voice.

“Are you okay now?” he continued. “Do you still—um. If you can’t sleep, you can—we can—”

It was painful to hear and excruciating to wait for. Kei pressed more of his weight against Kageyama’s back, and the mumblings of ‘I' and ‘we' and ‘um' slowly died. “You don’t have to say it,” he said, Kageyama’s warmth and once-unexpected kindness burning on the surface of his skin and seeping further beneath it, “your embarrassment is gonna kill me.”

Kageyama grunted. “Well—”

“You already had to comfort me out of a nightmare, so obviously, I’m the one who should be embarrassed here. Let me see it through.”

Everything seemed to stop, and though it truly was humiliating in a way that wasn’t degrading on the person, a kind constituted by warming skin and quick heartbeats and an awkward face or two, Kei was willing to push past it, if it meant he’d be able to fall back asleep comforted by something he never thought he’d ever come to want and yet—he could admit to himself right then and there—he really did want, and pretty badly at the moment.

He took a breath, brought his hand somewhere Kageyama could easily reach it. “Keep holding my hand,” he said, “please.”

When had he resorted to doing and saying such lame and shameful things? Kei made a face, chewed on his lip, wanted to take the words back the moment they left his mouth, but he kept his hand where it was, and Kageyama had neither mockery nor violence in his response. He only moved to tentatively touch Kei’s fingers, hesitated, and then slipped his in between the gaps.

His gentle squeeze eliminated the need for any more guessing. Kei squeezed back and finally closed his eyes.

❄ ❄ ❄

It carried on. Very unbelievably, it carried on. At first, it had been exclusive to the nights, clutching at each other’s hands like they needed the touch to fall asleep and dream, but slowly but surely, the gesture began to see daylight. Sometimes, Kageyama would tap at Kei’s palm to catch his attention, point something out and make a comment about it. When they did homework together in the afternoon, Kei would take the hand Kageyama wasn’t using to beat his pencil in and keep it still, until the other followed suit as if transfixed. Initially, Kei had thought that it would be an inconvenience to their current mechanisms of walking, but when Kageyama had grabbed him as he stumbled walking backwards and didn’t let go, it became increasingly easier to consider making it a regular thing.

Making it a regular thing would bombard them with questioning eyes and eternal hellfire from the rest of the team, but Kei was going to have to feel Kageyama’s hand a little more to properly quantify which weighed heavier in his interests.

To be quite frank, it was ridiculous, how excited they both seemed after their little "I kind of like holding hands" discovery. They were like puppies who found a new hobby, or a baby that had picked out a new favourite toy. Every so often and at the most random of times, with no definite intervals, one of them would suddenly realize that their hands were idle and promptly move to fix that. In Kageyama’s case, it was rushed and frenzied, like danger was imminent and the only cure was taking Kei’s hand in his, yet somehow still managing to be shy. It was kind of cute actually, if Kei were to be completely honest with himself.

"Oh yeah?" Kageyama said, in that defensive way of his, once Kei had relayed the information, deliberately leaving out that final bit. "Well—when you do it, you’re really slow. So you’re obviously shyer than I am. You probably turn red everytime you do it."

"You mean like you are right now?"

"I’m not red—no, we’re not going to a mirror!"

Kei relaxed in his seat, half-smiling, but in truth, his attempt to get up had been half-hearted to begin with. Something in his skin screamed that going to a mirror wouldn’t be a very good idea for him either.

The development paved the way for many others as well, what used to be a banter meant to irritate now meant to—well, still sort of irritate, but in a more endeared fashion, all in good spirit, like the kind last year’s third years exchanged or half of the kind they oftentimes heard Kinoshita having over the phone. The rest of the team had noted this as well, Hinata a cross between proud and disturbed and Kei’s favourite pair of obnoxious third years flaunting their ‘obnoxious' by making an assortment of kissy faces and noises.

"Imagine how they’ll act when you’re actually kissing and stuff," Yamaguchi had said, and once again Kageyama was making the strangest of noises and steering them in the opposite direction.

It was like living an entirely new life, where a different kind of sun (brighter, more alive, not annoying) was shining overhead. What time Kei should’ve been using to feel confused and bothered at the gradual transition, he used instead to feel pleasantly surprised, and a little bit happier than he usually was, though he wouldn’t let anyone else know that. He had a feeling Kageyama already did, though, and just as well, because he wasn’t any different. His happiness had never been too obvious a sight, and Kei didn’t even have the luxury of sight at the moment, but he didn’t need it. It felt like he could see so much better than he had before.

Kageyama’s voice was lighter. His responses to Kei’s little quips were still brash and hasty but lacked the bite they never used to miss. He talked more, and about the most mundane of things. His body wasn’t as stiff as it used to look and his hand was now a free-roamer, grabbing Kei’s every now and again and toying around with it like there was nothing else he’d rather do.

Mostly it happened when they were doing homework. “How do you focus so well when you’re reading?”

“How do you focus so well when you’re on the court?”

“That’s different. And you’re pretty focused on the court too.” He used the hand that wasn’t linked with Kei’s to scratch his head. “I don’t like homework, and I know you don’t either, but you can do it better than I can. How do you keep from getting distracted?”

“The fact that I want to get it over with probably helps,” Kei said, “but.”

He took one of his earbuds (which he’d taken to using over his headset lately; it made it easier to hear what was going on outside his little paradise of music even while still thoroughly hearing the music) out and blindly brought it to Kageyama’s ear. Kageyama jumped at the sudden touch but quickly brought his own hand up to help Kei make the proper adjustments to the position of the bud.

Kei’d never willingly given anyone a share of his current listening before. Hearing only half the sound was kind of annoying, but he would live with it.

“Huh,” Kageyama said, after a good few seconds of Kei’s video game music playlist had sounded in his one ear, “I didn’t think that this would be the type of song you listened to.”

“I don’t listen to stuff like this all the time. But music without words is good for when you’re trying to concentrate. At least for some people. Maybe it’ll work for you too.”

“Okay, I’ll try it. Thanks.”

Contrary to what the effort of sharing the music had been for, all of Kei’s concentration on his schoolwork had gotten lost then, his mind becoming preoccupied instead with the thought of buying an audio splitter the next time they went into town, what brand would be good to get, how much of his savings he had left, whether Kageyama would want to listen to his music in the first place.

They were all such simple concerns and it was such a relaxing time. Kei wasn’t used to it but he felt like he could be, if life proceeded and carried on to be this good.

(This good was almost too good to be true.)

One afternoon, Takeda had appeared in their classroom right as the final bell rang and asked them to stay behind for a little ‘comprehensive update’ on the whole ‘strings tangled together’ thing, and if only they could have, Kei and Kageyama probably would’ve exchanged glances. They’d been in the state for weeks now but it was getting less and less inconvenient by the day, things they found difficulty in before getting overshadowed by the benefits of their constant state of closeness. If not for their inability to play volleyball and sleep under their own roofs, it honestly no longer seemed that big a problem.

Still, it would be really nice to see Kageyama’s face again. As Takeda cleared his throat and flashed them a smile, Kei subtly took his hand, and he squeezed immediately.

“So!” He clapped his hands together. “How’s everything? Ennoshita-kun and the others told me that you two are doing pretty well and that you’re easing into the relationship, and that’s good! I’m very glad to hear it.”

He sounded like he was trying hard to be. Kei tried not to frown to deep. “What’s going on?”

The teacher’s smile tightened. “I’ve been working very closely with the String experts all this time. I’m not doing any of the research, of course; I only hang around them and wait for results, but they’ve been looking into this particular phenomenon very seriously. I think the nurse filled you in on some of the findings they’d been collecting over the years?”

They nodded quietly.

Takeda nodded as well. “Well, aside from that, there’s something else.”

It became even quieter.

“One of the cases under observation in another country was concluded recently, and it has to be the most severe one, so severe that researchers in universities are writing theses about the event and its implications. The two men were stuck together, back to back like you, for an alarming few years. Because it took so long to clear up, they’d gotten used to the arrangement and were just about ready to settle down, even if their position was a little awkward.

“A few days ago, they finally separated. It happened during the day, while they were planning the details for their wedding, but it—it didn’t quite make for much of a celebration,” Takeda said, and by now, his smile was long since dead, replaced by a pale face etched with worry, “because...it turned out...it was a little discrepancy in the work of Fate. On the way to their getting Stringed to their soulmates, they’d gotten mistakenly tangled together. So when they finally separated, they were dragged off elsewhere and away from each other.”

He bit his lip, looked both Kei and Kageyama in their wide eyes. “They weren’t stuck together for any particular reason. They weren’t really soulmates.”

❄ ❄ ❄

It was just an additional possible cause to consider, Takeda said. There was no reason to believe that the case applied to them because theirs wasn’t similar in nature—it had barely been a month, they didn’t feel any unnecessary pain, they were getting along perfectly well now and everything was great—and there was no reason to be excessively afraid, he said. But the news felt like a bludgeoning to the stomach, a belt ruthlessly wrapped around the heart and mercilessly squeezed, thorns that grew where Kei’s and Kageyama’s hands met in their embrace.

They could’ve been a mistake. They probably had been in the first place.

They were sent back to the infirmary with a terrible attempt at a reassuring smile, and the entire walk back was silent. Kageyama didn’t bother hauling Kei to practice to do nothing outside the gym. Their hands didn’t let go but Kei’s felt stiff, like somehow it didn’t belong where it was anymore. He felt Kageyama’s twitching.

There were no words spoken for the longest time. Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like days and all those days, they weren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. They sat cross-legged on top of the bed like they usually did, but there were no notes on their laps, no coherent thoughts in mind. The only sound in the room was breathing, and Kei couldn’t be bothered to hear even that.

He tried to remember, to look back on every memory and material he’d used to convince himself that Fate had put him in the right place against the back of the right person. He remembered how well they worked, how much fun they had playing their own version of volleyball, how warm Kageyama’s hand had been in the few days that he’d allowed himself to hold it. He remembered the concept of you and me, ‘you and me and no one else’ and remembered how good it felt to know that there was someone he could be amazing with without the need for anyone else, let alone approval.

It felt like all of it was fading, like none of it had been real. Like it had been the greatest ruse that anyone could have orchestrated against themselves. And he’d fallen for it hard.

Even when night fell, they didn’t bother getting up to turn on the lights. None of the nurses or any of their supporters had come for a visit. They sat alone in the dark still dressed in their uniforms and their fear and uncertainty. The room was stuffy and Kei felt suffocated by his own gakuran and he wanted nothing more than to take Kageyama’s hand and feel that everything was okay, but for the first time since his nightmare, he fought the urge back.

When he felt the bed shift, heard the sound of something softly yet erratically brushing against their sheets, he realized that Kageyama was taking deep, concerning breaths, and then the first word was spoken.

“Tsukishima?” he said.

Kei couldn’t formulate a response.

A faint light shone from Kageyama’s side of the room, something that Kei figured had to be his phone. “Can—” The light vanished, but quickly came on again, vanished again. “Can we go to bed?”

Suddenly Kei didn’t know how to say yes and no. He only swallowed, took a breath, and slowly moved so they could sink onto their pillows and do whatever, try to sleep even though on regular days at this time they would still be smashing balls against the floor. He took off his glasses and buried his hands under his pillow and head. Everything was cold.

“What—” Kageyama spoke again, after an eternity of silence and open eyes staring at nothing in the dark, trying to close but without much luck. “What do you think?”

Kei threw a hand over his eyes and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

They didn’t talk again, but they didn’t fall asleep.

❄ ❄ ❄

Waking up the next morning was blank. Retrieving his glasses and putting them on was dreary. Waiting for Kageyama to stir and attempt to get up was dry. Kei hadn’t a had a morning this silent since he’d last woken up in the solitude of his own bedroom, but he did nothing to put a stop to it, only stood up and headed to the bathroom for the daily drill they’d been performing without fail for weeks. Shower, dress, cafeteria for breakfast, infirmary for brushing, class. It was the same everyday, and by this time, they’d already perfected it, but somehow Kei felt like he was doing it all alone.

The walk to class was uneventful, punctuated by a few greetings here and there from happy classmates and people who “supported their relationship and were really happy they were soulmates”. Kei could feel both of their necks moving, bows perfunctory and polite but detached. His right hand held tightly onto his bag strap and the other was in his pocket. A quick glance at a window they passed told him Kageyama was the same.

Class itself was lifeless, as humdrum as it had been when Kei’s attention was devoted to the lesson and nothing but the lesson. He couldn’t even find it in himself to feel anything when he noticed Kageyama dozing off. Maybe he didn’t get much sleep last night, Kei guessed, but that was where he forced his thoughts to stop. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t jostle Kageyama awake. It felt like it wasn’t his place. He waited until lunch and stood up like he usually did and left Kageyama to put the pieces together himself.

They didn’t meet Yamaguchi or Hinata to eat, steered themselves instead to some empty corner of the universe where they knew they wouldn’t be hounded, their consents in the decision once again given without words. Up till now, even with the bitter taste in his mouth but not from his meal, the telepathic connection they seemed to have still threatened to amaze Kei, but he didn’t let it. He didn’t want to think about any other of their potential (or not) connections either. He shoved bite after bite in his mouth without really thinking about it, blocked out the sound of Kageyama’s own chewing.

His chest got tighter the quieter it became.

When the sound of lunch boxes closing replaced the ones of chewing, Kei felt but a split second of stinging on his back before they were both standing up and walking away—back to class, Kei supposed, because there wasn’t really anywhere else to go no matter how early it was. That was fine, though he wasn’t really looking forward to once again being around people. He wished they wouldn’t run into anyone they talked to on the way back.

But life was cruel, and so he heard Nishinoya’s voice.

“You mean to tell me that after this crazy fucking month of getting stuck together, they might not actually be soulmates?”

Without a concrete prompt, both Kei and Kageyama stopped.

“Yeah, apparently,” said Tanaka, in the most serious manner Kei had ever heard on him to date.

“That’s bullshit!”

“How did you know this, Tanaka-san?” This time, it was Yamaguchi.

“I saw Take-chan looking kind of fidgety the other day and asked him what was wrong. The experts had just gotten back to him with their new findings then, and they figured it could be another possibility, especially because he told them that Tsukishima and Kageyama don’t really get along.”

“Didn’t! They didn’t, but they get along great now, and even they know it! They’re happy!” Hinata sounded panicked, outraged. “I thought Fate was supposed to be reliable and perfect. How could she do this to them?”

“Okay, everyone just calm down,” Ennoshita said, but his levelled voice was a different kind of levelled, lower than usual, too controlled. “It’s a possible option but no one’s saying that this is definitely the case. There’s still a chance that they’re really soulmates.”

“But still, Chikara!” Nishinoya pressed. “They were so pissed at the beginning. They were probably really worried about their future and maybe they even felt bad about themselves because they thought they were so unmatchable that they were Stringed to someone they didn’t get along with. And now that they’ve finally gotten themselves fixed up and might even like each other and they’ve started holding hands for Pete’s sake, they’re gonna find out that there’s a slight chance they didn’t need to go through any of this? That they're not actually going to be allowed to be together? Never mind the inconvenience; imagine how they must be feeling!”

“They started holding hands?” Hinata screeched.

“How could you not notice?”

“This is their future,” Narita chimed in, putting a halt to what was probably Nishinoya madly shaking Hinata in his fury. “The String is probably one of the biggest worries anyone can ever face in life, so they’re probably afraid, yeah. And really frustrated too. But we won’t be able to change the facts. What we should be deciding now is what we can do to help them.”

Kei felt a frown pull at the corners of his mouth.

“I think we should talk to them first,” Yachi said.

“Yeah,” Kinoshita agreed. “We can take as many guesses at how they’re feeling all we want, but if we don’t hear it from them, nothing that we think to do is going to be very effective.”

“And if it happens that we’re right, what advice do we have to give?” Tanaka asked. “I’m pretty sure they’ve had it up to here with all of that ‘trust in the reliability of Fate’ crap. What do we tell them so that they don’t get as upset?”

“That Fate’s a bitch,” Ennoshita said simply, silencing the entire group, “but in spite of that, she can still pull through.”

That was all Kei had the luxury to hear before he became aware of Kageyama’s slight shifting in place, constantly changing the leg on which he put all of his weight, and though a little bit sombre, Kei sent a brief tap to his fingers and maneuvered the two of them away. He could still hear their teammates yammering, holding a conference that nobody expected of them, but the sounds of their urgent voice slowly disappeared the further Kei moved, not stopping because Kageyama wasn’t telling him to. They made it back to the more populated parts of the campus, lightly endured a few greetings here and there, walked past Kageyama’s acclaimed vending machine—

—or rather, walked midway through it until Kageyama firmly planted both his feet on the ground, signalling their halt. Kei didn’t say anything as he was spun around, as Kageyama punched one too many of the buttons on the machine, as several cases of who knew what fell out of the thing.

Kageyama bent his knees but not his back to pick it all up, and when their legs had straightened, he held a yogurt cup over Kei’s shoulder. Kei took the offering, glanced at the strawberry cartoon printed on the lid, and opened it.

“Isn’t it kind of dumb?”

Kei stopped.

They were still in front of the vending machine, Kageyama having made no move to go anywhere else or even consume his assorted dairy products. “We’re in a situation so pathetic,” he continued, “that those guys ended up banding together outside of practice so they can figure out how to help us.”

His hold tightened on his yogurt, but for the first time since yesterday, a small smile crept onto Kei’s face and stayed. “Yeah,” he said, “so pathetic that everyone had to hear Nishinoya-san acting smart and talking about feelings.”

Kageyama snorted. “We made Ennoshita-san curse too.”

“Yachi talked to the older guys without a single stutter.”

“Hinata’s a dumbass.”

“Nothing new there.”

Kei bit at his small smile, the bittersweet of it crawling onto his teeth. He always thought he’d vomit on-the-spot on the day he found his ridiculous volleyball teammates showing any kind of concern for his deliberately-annoying ass—though he did feel a little sick right now, actually—but at the moment his heart was as warm as his back against Kageyama’s. Truly pathetic, but for now, he’d let it slide.

He flattened the plastic lid of his cup. “Maybe we’re reacting a little too strongly?”

“Maybe,” Kageyama repeated. “I mean—they predicted that we would, so maybe it’s normal, but...this doesn’t have to be the end of the world, does it?”

“No,” Kei said. “It doesn’t.”

It was a journey Kei never expected to make, the road to achieving whatever kind of relationship this was with Kageyama Tobio, of all people—who was once and forever will be the king of the court in ways that only the privileged could truly understand—but there wasn’t a doubt in his heart that he enjoyed every last bit of it, from the initial irritation at getting wiggled when he least expected it, up to the very last touch of their hands.

This didn’t mean they had to revert back to being teammates Tsukishima and Kageyama; not in the least. Fate was a bitch and one hell of a liar but she was still reliable, as everyone said, and if she thought it was so important that teammates Tsukishima and Kageyama become something more but not the most, then Kei could only accept that and move on, look forward to maybe one day pulling apart from this newfound friend and once again feeling that excruciating drag towards whoever it was he was supposed to be dragged to.

It sucked, a little. But maybe the ride had been worth it.

“I…” Kageyama started. “I had a lot of fun, these last few weeks.”

“Me too,” Kei admitted, “but we just said that this isn’t the end, didn’t we? We can still keep having fun. Not as soulmates, maybe, but—you know.”

“Friends?”

Kei took a breath. “Yeah, friends.”

“Can we still hold hands?”

“Do friends hold hands?”

Kageyama paused. “I think they can, yeah.”

“Then we can still hold hands,” Kei said, “though I’d kind of like to eat this yogurt first. It’s pretty cold.”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll eat mine too. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought two milks, though.”

“Hey, double the milk, double the millimeter you’ll grow in the next year.”

“Fuck you, I’m gonna grow way more than that.”

“Oh, like you said you would last year?”

“I hate you.”

So he said, but once they’d finally allowed the rest of the world to access the public vending machine and disposed of the yogurt and Kageyama’s two cartons of milk, they’d linked hands again, made their way back to the classroom hurtling light insults at each other and the rest of their ridiculous friends probably still convening by the bushes about feelings.

They went to sleep that night with their fingers still intertwined, and just as the final semblances of consciousness left him, Kei told himself: no matter what happened tomorrow morning, or the next, or the morning after that, it would be for the best.

❄ ❄ ❄

Without opening his eyes, he could already feel the strained pain of his right arm. He squeezed his eyes shut further, shifted to give it a little more breathing room. He’d probably lain on it wrong, or perhaps he’d gotten used to laying on his left, on account of his and Kageyama’s inflexible position. He couldn’t quite see too bright a sun through his eyelids yet so he moved to lie on his left once more, wondered how he even ended up turned around.

Something in his chest stirred, screamed at him, told him to open his eyes and look around and see what needed to be seen, and though he tried to ignore it his brain could only stay asleep and inactive for so long. Slowly, he opened his eyes and let them adjust to the usual cream walls of the isolation room before rubbing at them and reaching up for his glasses.

But before he could grab them, an arm flew over and landed on top of his face.

He frowned at the forearm grating into his cheekbone and haphazardly flung it away. How Kageyama even managed to do that while they had their backs to each other was beyond human understanding, Kei thought, shaking his head, turning around to glare at the recklessly-sleeping idiot and perhaps startle him into wakefulness and coherence—

—until he realized that was capable of turning around in the first place, and he had been since earlier.

Kei tried to breathe despite momentarily forgetting how, kept his mouth open to let air rush into his paralyzed, overloading system. He stared up at the ceiling, the same colour as the rest of the room, nothing special other than the fact that this was his first time looking at it with his back warm against the mattress instead of another person. He was lying on his back. And he’d been lying on his right all night.

He was free.

But more important was what he saw when he turned on his side: Kageyama was evidently still asleep, one arm underneath his head and the other splayed carelessly on the bed from how Kei had shoved it off his own face—and his face. It was there. It was drooling but it was there, eyes shut in a moment of peace, eyebrows completely relaxed, nose a little red from the cold, and Kei could finally see it.

They were free. They were no longer stuck together.

But they were still together.

(“It turned out…” Takeda had said, “it was a little discrepancy in the work of Fate. On the way to their getting Stringed to their soulmates, they’d gotten mistakenly tangled together. So when they finally separated, they were dragged off elsewhere and away from each other.”)

They were still soulmates.

Kei sucked in a sharp breath, held it there even as his entire body up to the tiniest parts like his lips shook from both confusion and an overwhelming rush of—he didn’t even know how to name it anymore. His sleepy, bare eyes were wide, his hand itching to move but without knowing to where or what should I even do and then it was just screaming fuck it and it was reaching out for Kageyama, a little too excitedly, and then slapping him in the cheek.

“Ow!” Kageyama cried before he even truly woke up, and as he blinked himself into the real world, Kei took the chance to draw his hand back because wow, that went well. “What was that for? What did I do?”

Kei couldn’t answer, and he didn’t. And when he didn’t, he only looked at Kageyama’s face, transitioning from sleepy and pissed off to sleepy and confused to not-so-sleepy and becoming aware—to absolutely alive and bright, his blue eyes sparkling in a way Kei had only seen from afar and on the court, his lip trembling just as much as Kei’s had been earlier, his hands slowly stretching out but not quite knowing where to go.

And he was looking at Kei’s face like there was nothing else to see. Kei bit his lip to keep from smiling. “We—”

Whatever it is he thought he was going to say was reduced to a whisper at the sound of Kageyama’s urgent, stroke-inducing scream, his eyes wild like they’d taken Nationals by storm, his body bursting forth from an idle, lax posture to a pounce. Kei didn’t think getting tackled when he was already lying down was possible but (with Kageyama, really, anything was possible) there they were, Kageyama crashing into him like a maniac and then the both of rolling all the way to edge of the bed, nearly falling over and saved only by Kei’s instinct to roll back and settle Kageyama nicely on top of him, foreheads close enough to touch.

They breathed like they hadn’t in forever. “We’re not stuck anymore,” Kageyama pointed out, looking dazed.

But with his eyes so close, Kei wasn’t much better. “Yeah.”

“And—and we didn’t get dragged off to other people.”

“Yeah.”

“We really are soulmates!”

“Yeah.”

Kageyama glanced up, eyes searching the room for who knew what, before settling back on Kei’s face. ”Fate is a bitch,” he started.

“But despite that,” Kei answered, “she still pulls through.”

They both paused, and only then did Kageyama seem to realize what exactly the nature of their current position was, but it didn’t have him pulling away. He’d never been the kind to pull away. He kept his face where it was, eyes searching over Kei’s so thoroughly Kei could almost feel his gaze physically tracing patterns over his skin. He felt his hands resting on Kageyama’s back shake, but he didn’t move, not even to check the time or whether the nurses were rushing in to check if someone was getting murdered.

No, he could only meet Kageyama's piercing stare, listen to Kageyama’s soft and fruity voice even closer than it was before, let his eyes gently wander down to Kageyama’s parted lips as they moved to say, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without your glasses before.”

The heat of his breath ghosted over Kei’s own lips, and Kei thought back to the time of the double date—the final, most important lesson that Hinata and Kozume and their connection had imparted. Kageyama had been quick to turn them around and walk away at the time, but Kei had seen it all: the softness of Hinata’s touch on Kozume’s cheek, the light pink of their ears, the natural flutter of their eyelids like they were met with something they’d known forever. It was chaste and brief, but so tender and otherworldly that the few seconds it had taken place had etched themselves into Kei’s mind and painted a vivid picture for him to pull up and view anytime.

And it was painting a brand new picture right now: one of two other people locked together, connected in such a way, and his heart stuttered, his breath hitched.

Kageyama’s face was close, so much that Kei and his terrible eyesight and the nature of the human eye in general could no longer detail his features, but there was no room left to react before he was moving even closer, was looking into Kei’s eyes as if searching them, was lifting one of his hands, bringing it closer to Kei’s face—

—and then cocking his head and thoughtlessly poking a single, curious finger against Kei’s eyelid.

One eye forced shut by a graceless finger and his entire being dragged back to cold, hard reality by the realization that his soulmate was still a seventeen-year old child, Kei loudly snorted. “Okay, uh,” he said, “that’s not appropriate.”

“Oops.”

He pulled his hand back and Kei took the chance to sit them both up, relinquishing his hold on Kageyama so the latter could clamber out of his lap and back onto the bed. Up until now, their mornings had been filled with nothing but the same old regimen, and it had been easy to grow accustomed but no longer needing to be was a sort of refreshing Kei couldn’t label. He put his glasses on with a fairly pleased smile on his face, watching as Kageyama’s pleasantly plain face unfogged in his vision.

“Well, we can finally move on our own,” he said. “You know what this means?”

“We can finally go home?”

“Yeah, that too. But something else.”

“Uhh. What?”

Kei allowed a raised eyebrow to accompany the complete picture of his amused face, unable to believe Kageyama Tobio, genuis setter, had forgotten about his first and one true love. “We can finally go to morning practice.”

And he was really glad he’d managed to bring that up, because Kageyama was beaming, absolutely glowing, before he could even close his mouth. And then he was crossing over the bed and skidding over to Kei and grabbing both his hands and dragging him forward.

“Let’s go, we need to hurry!” he cried, and perhaps a month ago, Kei would’ve thought it demanding, but now he could only interpret it as excited. “We can’t risk being late today; we’ve missed so much because we were gone for so long—”

Before he could be completely hauled through the bathroom door, Kei pulled his hands away, a brand new smile making its way onto his lips. “We don’t need to shower together anymore,” he said, “remember?”

Kageyama froze, jaw falling slack, and Kei couldn’t help it; he let out a loud, partly-condescending, mostly just amused laugh as the skin of his simpleton soulmate’s face painted itself a bright red, a shade suited to its current paler state.

He fastened his hands to his sides, fingers tugging awkwardly at the hem of his shirt. “Right,” Kageyama muttered, making a face. “Stop laughing; it’s not my fault I’m always the one bringing us places because you suck at mirror janken.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Kei said, holding a hand above his mouth as if hiding his grin would send it away for real, holding the other one up in surrender as he retreated. “Wait, I don’t suck at mirror janken.”

“Sure you don’t.” Kageyama held onto the door and lightly swung it as Kei mulled over the fact that he’d just gotten fucking sassed by a blushing airhead. “I’m gonna go first then, but you better hurry after so we don’t arrive late. Oh.”

He toyed with the doorknob some before stepping out of the bathroom again and situating himself right in front of Kei, who stared down at him.

“Uhh,” he said, glancing down then up, his surprisingly long eyelashes clear as day as he blinked, even with Kei’s awful vision, from how close they were. “Maybe—maybe this would’ve been more appropriate when we were in bed earlier. Sorry.”

And then he stood on the edges of his toes, briefly, softly stuck his lips to Kei’s cheek, right before turning the quickest one hundred and eighty degrees known to man and locking himself in the bathroom.

Kei himself was left standing there, a tall marble statue with its hands lifted in too-awkward positions. Except statues didn’t suddenly turn red. Nor did they start sweating, or internally screaming, and they certainly didn’t slap their faces with both hands and lowly whine and flop back down onto bed with their face buried into the pillow. But maybe that was what Fate did: make even the stoniest of hearts melt at the simplest of things done by the most unexpected of people.

Fate is a bitch, would be Kei’s response to that, if he currently didn’t have a mouthful of pillowcase. But, listening to the sound of water hitting the ground and Kageyama’s grumbling about the soap slipping through his fingers echoing within the bathroom walls, Kei had to hand it to her. She really did pull through.

❄ ❄ ❄

Practice that morning wasn’t so much practice as it was a flurry of screaming teenagers and a whole lot of unwarranted hugging supervised by an adult with a headband. Class still remained class, sadly (and Kei was finally back in his own with Yamaguchi), but a part of it was one big round of applause and a bombardment of curious questions Kei didn’t bother answering honestly. Lunch was getting dragged out of the room by his best friend and running into Kageyama getting dragged by his, and all of them dragging themselves to Yachi and jumping around a few more times before finally getting to the lunch. And the end of the day, returning to the infirmary with Kageyama one last time to retrieve their things was like going away and coming home at the same time.

The first night alone and without Kageyama was solemn, and not really as lonely as one would expect after a month of sharing rooms and sharing beds. Akiteru was one giant, bawling mess once he’d been given the entire scoop in detail and even up till they were in their own rooms, Kei could hear the ugly sobbing. He did his homework that night with cold hands but a very warm neck, the bottom half of his face buried in the bee-themed ten-mile scarf. He’d have it to remember to bring it tomorrow for Kageyama to take home in the afternoon.

Practice the morning after was more practice than yesterday, but it also had a call from Sugawara, answered by Kageyama and stolen by literally everyone other than Kageyama, excitedly telling the story and exaggerating the dialogue, Yachi being the only one considerate enough to make the necessary corrections when Kei was too exasperated to.

Sugawara, seated alone in his tiny, tidy-looking apartment, squealed like he had absolutely no neighbours. “That’s so nice!” he cried, his cheeks behind his hands turning red though he was but a secondary spectator for the whole thing. “Ahh, that’s so nice! I’m so jealous—gah, I wish I could get Stringed all over again!”

Lunch no longer involved any more screaming or jumping—or at least, not on their side. The conversation with Sugawara had reminded Kageyama that there were other people who’d heard and endeavoured to give advice (or something similar) and so they’d placed a video call to Oikawa during his own break and relayed all the happenings along with Kageyama’s heartfelt thanks. His gawk had been the most expressive Kei had seen him to date, and the contemplative faces he’d pulled as the story dragged on gave Kei hope that perhaps this Grand King could be a normal person after all.

“Now that’s a soulmate story if I’ve ever heard one,” he said, almost proudly, “though I think you should add in a few more cuter details if you’re going to tell your kids about it someday. Like, maybe throw in a kiss or two. Or maybe you should’ve showered together even after you split. Mmm, steamy.”

“Oikawa-san!” Kageyama cried as Hinata beside him doubled over in laughter.

“How old are the kids going to be when they hear this story exactly?” Kei asked.

“I meant that the water is steamy; you high schoolers are so dirty. But still—congratulations to you two! Even though you never did send me a close-up. And don’t forget: if you need a senpai’s wisdom and inexplicably can’t reach the ones from Karasuno, then you can always give little old me a call! I only charge 500 yen every ten minutes, or one tedious favour every twenty.”

“We’ll pass,” Kageyama deadpanned, but the light in both his and Oikawa’s eyes, joyous and filled with nothing but a genuine fondness, told Kei that they would be seeing a lot more of this questionable upperclassman as the days went by, and for no payment. He dug deep inside himself as Oikawa flashed them a peace sign and a peek of his tongue as he closed out of the call, as Kageyama lightly smiled while pocketing his phone, and couldn’t find a single (major) problem he had with that.

It wasn’t happily ever after, of course. A month without sport or exercise didn’t spell wonders for athletes in general, especially not athletes of their caliber (not to brag or anything), and doing extra work for his advanced classes was nothing compared to attending the lectures and taking the tests, and then there was the fact that the lot of them were transitioning into their third year and he’d been inducted Yamaguchi’s vice captain and Tanaka wouldn’t stop grabbing him and crying—basically it was going to be nothing but rough from here on out, the relatively lighter air of things doing nothing to concretely ward problems away.

But what Kei found important, however cheesy, was that this wasn’t ‘ever after’ in the first place. Trouble after trouble could come his way, and they would but he’d deal with all of them as gracefully as he usually did, like he’d always done before, because that was what life and love and volleyball were like, as his soulmate had so intelligently pointed out before. Finding a goal, identifying subgoals, coming up with a strategy that properly utilized his strengths and the strengths of his allies.

And this time, he had a bit of an additional with regard to allies.

“Kei!”

Kei ran up at just the right time, jumped up at just the right time, slammed the ball down when it founds its way to his palm at just the right time, and it was crashing nicely onto the other side of the court sailing right above one of the smaller first year’s heads. The tiny guy blinked up at him and then at the ground as if he hadn’t been aware that the ball had already passed and scored. Just the way Kei liked it.

Tobio let out a satisfied huff. “Nice kill,” he said, holding his hand out.

“Nice toss,” Kei replied, taking the hand and gripping it tight and letting it stay for a little longer than usual as he wiped his forehead with his sleeve.

“Oh, no,” Hinata said, already grimacing at the two of them. “Oh, no, no, you guys are on first-name basis now? Ugh, it's so gross now that it's actually happening; what the hell.”

“Hey, Hinata,” Tobio said, “remember that time we went out on a double date and you showed us those monkey bars—”

“Shut up! Do not bring that up.”

“Oh, you think first-name basis is gross? Well, if you don’t like that, then you’re really gonna hate this,” Kei said, directing his probably sadistic smile from Hinata to his partner. “Tobio, minus tempo.”

“Okay.”

No,” Hinata cried, horrified.

“You ready?”

No way!”

“Only when you are,” Kei said, poising himself for his run-up, the mixture of Hinata’s outrage and his and Tobio’s newfound coordination with things other than walking back-to-back shaping the smile on his face. He’d thought Fate crazy at first. Sometimes he still did, but she really did know how to put things together, and it was obvious to him now (about to perform an attack that had been sacred since their first year, and probably better) that there were, perhaps, one or two benefits to this fateful, lifelong arrangement.

And if it wasn’t obvious to everyone else yet, then Kei would make sure that this convinced them. He sent the ball up and broke into a run. He jumped with all the power he could muster and Tobio raised his hands. He swung his arm without hesitation and Tobio did the toss high, lightning quick, and just the way Kei liked it.

The smash was deafening, the team was in hysterics, Kei and Tobio smiled—and they all knew it was perfect.