1. ursa major
The building Tooru moves into the week before the spring semester begins is just like the rest of the city: tall, sleek, and full of people with somewhere to go. He imagines that to a casual observer he blends right in, with his straight shoulders and his buttoned-up coat, just another drop in the current that swirls around him and streams up and down the front steps. Crossing the lobby he stops for no one. On the elevator he moves only to draw the strap of his duffel bag higher on his shoulder with one hand, eyes forward, watching the numbers change—21, 22...
He is careful always to guard against feeling small, to remember that he need not be cowed by all this unfamiliar height, or even impressed. So, he doesn’t hesitate over the threshold as the unlocked door swings open. He doesn’t pause in the entranceway.
He doesn’t so much as bat an eye when he walks into the bedroom and finds his roommate standing on the bed by the wall, hanging up what appears to be the periodic table of elements. Instead, he simply says, “Making yourself at home?”
Kuroo Tetsurou looks so languid and crooked and utterly at ease it’s as if he never left home. And yet the hand that reaches out and grasps Tooru’s firmly in greeting is the hand of the captain, the hand of a person who doesn’t play games, no matter how it might seem; Tooru knows who he is, of course, but it still comes as something of a surprise. He needs to work a little not to be disarmed by it.
“We meet at last.” Kuroo inclines his head toward the half of the room he’s already marked out for himself. His periodic table on the wall. His jacket on the floor like he’d tossed it at the swivel chair by the desk and missed. That’s it for the captainly determination, then. “Hope you don’t mind I took the liberty. I thought you’d like it by the window anyhow.”
“Sweet of you,” Tooru says, and lets go. He does not ask how Kuroo might have figured what he’d like.
Out the window by his bed he can see how the city lights sparkle white and blue and yellow below them, like a tide of stars. He’s not about to wax romantic about missing the night skies that arced over the place he left behind, a smaller, slower-moving town less washed out by light pollution, but he’s been here barely a day and already noticed that no one looks up. In the city the light is everywhere, at all hours. That means you never have to wonder how you’re going to see your way ahead.
But there are stars in the side pocket of the bag he brought from home. They’re the plastic kind that glow in the dark. His big sister and her son had helped him peel them from his bedroom wall on his last night, had gathered them in a clear plastic packet with surprising delicacy, so you don’t forget. At the time Tooru hadn’t felt like he needed to ask what.
Tooru remembers sitting with her on the grass outside his house, watching close as she taught him the shape of Ursa Major, going nearly cross-eyed with the effort of imagining how the Big Dipper made the tail and backside of the bear. He remembers teaching Takeru the same, years later, carrying him on his shoulders and pointing up, always up. Here, under a different sky, he figures he could still make a constellation on his wall from memory. He could allow himself the small comfort of remembering things that still come easily.
In the end, so he won’t have to share them with anyone, Tooru hides the stars in his desk drawer while Kuroo’s back is turned.
The girls—a pair of classmates from Chemistry, or is it English?—find Tooru as he’s leaving evening practice, themselves fresh from cheering on a friend on the women’s judo team. Or so they tell him, after they call out in greeting from across the path and hurry to his side, falling into step on either side of him as he makes for the gate. The encounter is organic enough that he might simply take it for coincidence. Certainly he's not so ungentlemanly as to assume that they had been in fact waiting around for him, for all the surprising convenience of their timing.
“Your training schedule seems so hectic. How do you ever carve out time to study, Oikawa-kun?”
“You must be so tired, Oikawa-kun.”
A little higher next time, Oikawa. Think you can manage?
Tooru smiles, relaxed and honey-sweet, as if he hasn’t been practicing how to smile this way since before he ever learned how to talk. “Oh, no, not at all, not at all. I’ve been training every day since middle school, so I’m used to managing my time. Thank you for worrying about me, though.”
In a similar vein, girls have followed him around after practice—and before it, if he’s being honest—since middle school, too. It’s not so much something to boast about as a clean fact, something to adjust to the same way a change in the weather is. Tooru knows how to be gracious, how to keep up a conversation like everything is fascinating, even when his thoughts are moving slower than his mouth and his bones cry out in protest. Not so fast next time, Oikawa. These aren’t the spikers you knew.
When they pass the library and he sees Kuroo through the wide front window, checking out a miniature fortress of books at the circulation counter, Tooru does not see a way out. He’s simply being practical when he excuses himself, still smiling—“I’d better wait for my roommate, see you two tomorrow, get home safe”—and breaks from the path to stand at the entrance. May as well walk home together since they’re both already here.
“Just wave your handkerchief if you wanna be rescued next time,” Kuroo says, the moment the entry door whooshes open to release him, in the sauciest voice Tooru has ever heard. For a minute it’s tempting to regret everything.
“I don’t need to be rescued by anyone, least of all you. You’re welcome to go chase the damsels if that’s what you’re after, Kuroo-chan.”
Tooru has discovered that Kuroo throws his head back when he laughs. Also that he laughs often, and loudly, full from the chest. It's an ugly sound, half a scream already like a cat's yowl, and he seems to mind that not at all, however many heads might turn at the noise. “Gosh, Oikawa. You're a real piece of work, you know that?”
So he’s been told. “I think the word you want is ‘charming.’”
The truth is this is the first time they’ve walked anywhere together. Kuroo walks fast when he feels like it, as all folk from the Big City seem to, loping and long-legged like he has miles to travel, but Tooru keeps up with him easily. The casual observer would have to put their ear right next to his mouth to hear the hitched breaths that betray his own stride as just shy of effortless. He knows too well how much work it takes to make things look easy. Some days—many days since coming here—he thinks that work is all he knows.
There are no constellations to steer himself by in the city; only asterisms, smaller patterns. The Big Dipper. Orion’s Belt, three stars in a straight line like a promise that persists even though the rest of the hunter is obscured.
Kuroo has to stop him at the next street crossing. Tooru feels the hand press down against his shoulder and only then realizes that the light’s still green—that he had been so busy searching the sky that he hadn’t noticed and nearly walked into traffic, and then where would he be?
“Incredible, you really are always looking up.” Tooru can’t place the way he says it. The reflex is to imagine the awe in his voice is an affectation; clearly he’s only teasing again. “Try not to die, okay?”
He answers only, “I won’t die.” Then the light changes and he moves ahead, out from under Kuroo’s hand.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?”
Tooru glances up from where he’s seated at his desk, shining the light from his phone screen onto an open physics textbook. An hour now he’s been squinting down at the pages, since the power went out without warning just after midnight. “Some of us have midterms on Tuesday.”
Kuroo, rising from bed, looks half-cut from the blackness himself. Some of the light falls on his arms and his bare feet and the planes of his face uncovered by his mess of sleep-mussed hair, but everything beyond that is dark as ink.
“Yeah, well, some of us think you won’t be able to take any tests once you go blind.” Kuroo reaches out and seizes his wrist. Tooru nearly drops his phone, but manages somehow to find his feet. “C’mon, let’s get you some real light.”
They take the elevator up to the roof-deck, to stand by the rails and wait for their building to come back to life. From here they can see how the lights have gone out all along their street; some accident, maybe, some damage to the lines. Tooru can imagine how they must look from above, a lightless little island in the middle of an artificial galaxy, the only dark spot in the night. He cranes his head upward and already knows he’ll find the sky that bends above them pink and featureless, pricked in places by only the brightest and most persistent of the stars.
In the stories Tooru was told as a child, the most illustrious of the dead were placed in the sky for all of humankind to see and remember. The water-bearer. The twins. The vain queen. He can’t help wondering now how the gods would feel about being thwarted by urban sky glow.
“What are you looking for when you look at the sky like that?” Kuroo laughs when Tooru squints at him. Tooru’s beginning to think he laughs at everything. “Want to spot a UFO?”
Tooru gives him what he imagines is his most disdainful side-eye. He’s not about to tell Kuroo that he has a working knowledge of every UFO conspiracy theory from Roswell to Rendlesham Forest, that spotting a UFO with his own all-too-human eyes has been his life’s dream in the same way that setting for the men’s national volleyball team has, and studying dark matter, and—broadly, distantly—Making Something Of Himself. To do so would mean admitting that he’s not sure how all these dreams cohere, in what continuum they might all fall together.
“Sort of,” he answers, his eyes back on the sky. This is already more candid than he’s comfortable being, strictly speaking, but he supposes wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t know how to live in that discomfort. How to build a home in it, so to speak. “Mostly I just want to see the stars.”
Strangely enough, this is one thing Kuroo doesn’t laugh at. Instead he says “Cool.” And then he says nothing, for what feels like a long time. And then he shifts forward onto his elbows, lets the railing take his weight as he leans further out into the night. “Yeah, I think I get it.”
Do you really? is only the first of many questions Tooru suddenly finds he wants to ask him. The second is, unexpectedly, What do you want to do with your life? Which splits off into many things, when he thinks about it. Why don’t you play volleyball anymore? What are you going to do with a degree in Applied Chemistry? Do you ever wonder if—
“Hey, make a wish.”
Out of the corner of one eye Tooru sees his upraised arm and knows where he’s pointing. He sees it too, the tiny moving cluster of light ahead of them and above, tracking its own slow, steady path across the sky. “That’s a plane, Kuroo-chan.”
The grin is in his voice now. Tooru resists the temptation to look over his shoulder.
An otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon in the fall finds Tooru alone in a museum he’s never visited, walking into a tunnel that leads into space.
It all started on Monday evening, when Tooru found the pamphlet for the Akiyama Memorial Space Museum on the kitchen counter, lying between the salt shaker and the paper towels like it had been forgotten there. Or, maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it all started the night of the blackout, back in the summer, the night Tooru admitted he was looking for... something. Like an idiot. Just because it’s easier to say things when you’re alone with someone in less than typical circumstances. Just because. It did not, by default, have to mean something.
And then, today, in the spirit of just because, he got on the train and went.
He found the building easily, domed and wide and sprawling, and entering it Tooru could see more immediately than he would have liked why Kuroo might enjoy a place like this. There’s a giant spinning model of the solar system in one room, one of the moon in another that visitors can stand right next to and touch. Glass cases full of moon rock samples and fragments of meteors. Galleries of spacecraft. And so many children and so much wondrous chaos, running up and down from room to room, perfectly at home.
Now, he’s following a gaggle of little girls into the star tunnel, and when they step out of the light and come under the shadow of the arced black ceiling every voice goes quiet. Kuroo is waiting there, standing by himself off to one side with his hands in his pockets—it’s strange to Tooru, then, how little he’s surprised to find him. After all, stranger things have happened.
The girls take one look at Kuroo and scuttle away to stand under Cassiopeia, leaving Tooru alone.
“Aren’t kids great? They never lie.” Kuroo beams, though under the shifting light with his face half-obscured by the darkness it looks infinitely more like a leer. No wonder the children give him such a wide berth. Tooru’s always thought there are entirely too many teeth in that smile. “You know, it’s funny how you’re always walking in on me.”
“You left a pamphlet in the kitchen,” Tooru reminds him.
“Huh. So I did.” Kuroo nods. His hair feathers down over one side of his face, making more shadows.
For a while they stand side by side without speaking, and Tooru fills the noise in his head by naming what he can see. The red giant Aldebaran. The Pleiades, seven sisters in a circle. The Crab Nebula, which took all his breath the first time he ever saw a picture of it up close—a supernova remnant, faceted like a jewel with blue and green and orange fire, burning so brightly it might still have been its own star.
“Doesn’t being here make you feel so small?”
Tooru regrets the question the very second it leaves his mouth. On the surface he imagines he’s not much different from the way he used to be. He has no way of accounting for this persistent feeling that something inside him has curled itself tight into a fist and refused to settle. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t been able to get his tongue around things he needs to, lately; always saying too much, or coming at something from an odd angle, warped and slanted, like the pieces of his life are suddenly falling together all wrong.
“Mm, I guess so. But it’s not a bad kind of small, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It’s sort of beautiful, I’ve always thought.” Kuroo chuckles when Tooru turns to him, incredulous. It’s a toss-up whether he’s more amused by the reaction, or by his own candor. “What, you don’t kinda feel like crying when you go stargazing? Or when you stand next to the ocean, or at the foot of a mountain, or something?”
He snorts. “That’s kind of a sappy way of looking at things, though, isn’t it?”
“It’s healthy to have a sense of wonder, don’t you know? What’s one thing you remember being amazed by?” Kuroo stops him with an extended hand when he opens his mouth, half about to answer something thoughtless. “No. Stop. Think about it. Really think about it, before you say anything. Then tell me.”
The question is so bizarre that it seems almost a waste not to think about it, so Tooru does. But it’s also so specific it has him nearly stumped. He’s been impressed many times by various things since coming here. Overwhelmed, once or twice, by a particularly difficult exam, by a lucky toss at practice. But wonder, in that specific sense Kuroo means...
“When we were growing up my sister taught me all the constellations I know. In high school, I taught my nephew.” Half in shadow in the dark room, under the fake stars that he’s still somehow memorized, Tooru pauses, waiting for himself. “Some Sundays they’d come to our house for dinner and after that she and he and I would go into the garden, he’d ride on my shoulders, and I’d show him. In winter the sky would get so clear, it was so easy. It’d always surprise me how easy it was. How little the sky changed.” When he draws in a breath and holds it, closes his eyes, the stars are there too. “It’s kind of silly now.”
“It’s not.” Kuroo shoots him down in a second, without hesitation. “There’s a reason you’ve carried it with you this far.”
What if I’m not sure what that reason is? Tooru doesn’t ask. He clears his throat, shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “And you really think it’s enough? To keep going, I mean.”
“Well, man.” Kuroo shrugs. His hands open and spread out by his sides as if this truth—as if every truth in the world—speaks for itself. More than once, not just today, it’s been tempting to believe that things are as simple as he makes them sound. “You still play volleyball. You do more research on aliens than the government, probably. Your idea of a relaxing Sunday afternoon seems to be identifying celestial objects. You’re always looking up. So you tell me.”
You’re always looking up. Tooru stands quiet, and bows his head for once, and watches the light flicker and shift and dance across the floor.
“You’re full of surprises, Kuroo-chan,” he says at last. Like a confession, or a discovery, or an admission of defeat.
“Like the universe,” Kuroo answers with a wink.
They exit, as all museum visitors must, through the gift shop. Kuroo stops on the way out to pick up one of the clear packets of glow-in-the-dark stars in a box on the counter. “Lemme get you some of these in case you miss them after we leave.”
“Did your teammates have to put up with this kind of sentimentality?” It occurs to Tooru that they’ve never once talked about the past before today. He’s unsure whose doing this is, exactly.
“I’ll have you know my teammates loved me. So will you, when you finally come around.” The coins in Kuroo’s hand twinkle in the light as he passes them to the girl at the register. The machine dings, and the stars take their place in his jacket pocket. “C’mon, let’s go home.”
5. ursa minor
It’s nearly winter by the time Tooru returns from evening practice to find Ursa Major on the ceiling, and Kuroo standing on his bed. Which is to say, enough time has passed that nothing he comes home to can faze him anymore, probably.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?”
“I stuck the stars up in the sky for you, Oikawa.” He says it in the same easy tone of voice he uses when he says he’s made breakfast, or that he’s going out to buy shaving cream, like it takes nothing at all. “Now tell me you love me. It’s the least you can do.”
Tooru cocks an eyebrow, stalled in the doorway with his arms folded, but he finds too late that he’s smiling, despite himself. “You’ve been taking liberties with me since we met.”
Kuroo’s laugh is quieter now than he remembers it being back in April. What’s strangest is that lately it’s become the sound Tooru hears when he thinks of space—and then everything he imagines is, if only for a second, a little closer. A little less untouchably, coldly beautiful. A little more of this world.
Tooru enters the room and stands at the foot of the bed, studying the wall. The Big Dipper is more than just a pretty shape; it’s possible to use the outer edge of the bowl to trace the way upward to Polaris, the North Star, the most faithful of fixed points. Impossible to lose, even in a city with no night.
“It looks kind of incomplete, though, without the Little Bear,” Kuroo remarks, from somewhere above his head. “I ran out.”
Every stargazer worth their salt knows Polaris is contained in the Little Bear. Maybe it’s only fitting that they should also have the promise of the North Star in a room where the mess accumulates with the days—the stacks of library books and small mounds of unironed clothes, an immaculate desk by the window and a cluttered one by the wall, discarded jackets trailing on the floor like asteroids, crossing the invisible line in the center of the room.
“I can fix that,” Tooru says, before he opens his desk drawer and tosses the stars forward and up, up into Kuroo’s open hands.