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I'll Catch You When You Fall (Fukurodani Tower)

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The aviary is Koutarou’s favorite room in the tower. It’s the highest level that is also indoors, though indoors is a strong word. For the most part the walls are pillars, spaced evenly apart with enough room between for a fully grown owl to spread its wings easily. Each pillar is dotted with nests and in these nests are the owls.

Suzumeda looks up from the bird on her arm when Koutarou walks in. “Hey,” she says.

“Yo,” Koutarou says. “Is that it?”

Suzumeda nods and turns her attention back to the glossy black crow perched patiently on her forearm. It’s talons aren’t as long or sharp as an owls would be so the extra protection of Suzumeda’s gauntlet is technically unnecessary. The crow watches them with intelligent eyes, tilting its head in tiny movements as it listens to their conversation.

“Hey there,” Koutarou coos, approaching it. It seems so small next to the owls that pepper the room. Many of them stand on their perches, watching. They’re used to other messengers coming and going as the humans in Fukurodani Tower communicate with the outside world but they still seem suspicious. “I hear you have a message for me.”

The crow caws at him, opening its beak and giving a loud cry in Koutarou’s face. A barn owl that was sleeping starts and falls off its perch, righting itself with the flutter of wings. The rest of the birds in the room chatter at that, little screeches and chirps, shifting and puffing up and flapping their wings around. The crow, calm as can be, just tilts its head around and regards the chaos.

“Oi, quiet,” Suzumeda says. The owls of Fukurodani Tower, smarter than the typical owl, quiet at the command of their keeper.

Koutarou, for his part, can’t help but laugh. The crow tilts his head to regard Koutarou, shuffling around on Suzumeda’s wrist as it does so.

“You’re kind of a troublemaker, aren’t you?” Koutarou asks.

“Aren’t all crows troublemakers?” Suzumeda points out.

The crow caws again, tossing its head with something like annoyance. It shifts around and lifts one leg in Koutarou’s direction.

“Thank you,” Koutarou says politely, reaching out to take the message from it. “Will you be staying for a return message or should I send an owl?”

The crow caws again and then flaps its wings, lifting off from Suzumeda’s wrist. It circles the room once and then it’s gone, out through one of the gaps and into the open air. Koutarou watches it swoop and turn towards the southeast, towards Karasuno Tower.

Koutarou looks down at the letter in his hand. His name is written in Sawamura’s narrow handwriting.

“Anything we should worry about, Commander?” Suzumeda asks, watching him carefully.

“Nah,” Koutarou says, giving Suzumeda his full attention along with a smile. She smiles back. “It’s fine, probably just informing me that I won a bet or something.”

Suzumeda shakes her head at Koutarou. “Sure.”

Koutarou takes his letter and heads for the stairs, down to the commander's quarters. Once he’s in his room he opens the message.

Bokuto,

All is quiet here too. It’s a bit too quiet, if I’m being perfectly honest. Even with the aid of magic our keenest eyed warrior can’t see any movement out there. Some of the younger warriors are getting restless for action. I’ve been forced to keep them occupied so that they don’t blow up the tower.

Let me know if anything changes.

Sawamura Daichi

Commander of the Karasuno Tower

Koutarou frowns, turning his attention to the large window that takes up most of one wall. Outside is the wide expanse of the Wastes, rolling hills of jagged dark gravel that reflect the rainbow, like an oil slick. It often shifts and shudders as it produces monsters but for the last month it’s been quiet, not even a tremor. On the sharp cliffs of the Disk, a plateau upon which humanity lives that rises above the Wastes, five towers are filled with the warriors who hold the Wastes at bay.

What do the warriors do when the Wastes fall quiet?

Well, it seems to depend on the tower. At Karasuno, apparently, they get up to the kind of hijinks that threaten to blow themselves up. At Nekoma they play cards. At Seijoh they place bets. He’s still waiting to hear back from Ushijima on the state of the north.

Here, at Fukurodani Tower, they race.

“Are you certain, Commander?”

“Are you certain, Subcommander?” Koutarou shoots back.

Akaashi rolls his eyes, green and gray in the setting sun. Koutarou can’t help but grin, can’t help but feel his heart beat a little harder at how fondly Akaashi presents his exasperation.

“Three laps around the ramparts,” Komi says. “No magic, just sweet, sweet parkour. Loser has to cook dinner, if you fall you don’t get dessert.”

“No dessert?” Koutarou complains. “Isn’t that a little harsh?”

“The worst,” Yukie agrees from somewhere behind him, ever an ally.

“Are you planning on falling, Commander?”

Koutarou sticks his tongue out at Sarukui. Some of the other commanders keep order by staying lofty. Koutarou has never seen the point. He wants his warriors to trust him, he wants to be family. “No way. Bring it.”

Akaashi and Koutarou step up to the starting line, drawn with chalk on the stones of the walkway. With his back to the wall, Komi lifts a hand and eyes them carefully.

“On your mark, get set, go!”

Koutarou is off like a shot, Akaashi keeps pace. Behind them, the rest of Fukurodani cheers. It isn’t very far to the first corner and Koutarou swings in front of Akaashi at the last second, forcing him to slow down slightly. Akaashi huffs but doesn’t say anything. The first hurdle is coming up.

The ramparts around the top of Fukurodani Tower are not continuous. There are three separate sections, accessible from different places in the interior, which means that there are three separate gaps that need to be crossed. Three quarters of the way down the north side of the tower is the first gap, a few meters wide. Above it, jutting out from the tower, is a beam that they installed just for races and hanging from it is a rope. Koutarou reaches it first.

He jumps, reaches, catches, swings. The first mistake that new recruits make is thinking that the rope will carry them all the way across the gap. It’s not quite long enough, not without swinging on it for a few moments to pick up speed. Instead, Koutarou angles himself towards the wall and catches it with his feet, kicking off and letting go of the rope once he knows he’ll be clear.

Koutarou lands on his toes and keeps going. Behind him the rope swings back towards Akaashi.

You would think that being the first person to cross the first gap would put you at an advantage, and it kind of does, but the second gap is the longest.

Just after rounding the corner to the east side of the tower is a gap over twice the length of the previous one. Washio and Konoha tied off ropes on each end, making tightropes that the racers have to traverse. Koutarou, even after years of living at Fukurodani Tower, still isn’t very good at the tightropes.

Above him, on the signal fire platform, the rest of Fukurodani cheers. Akaashi has probably already crossed the first gap.

Koutarou doesn’t slow down. He runs for the edge and leaps, trying to clear as much of it as he can. He reaches out with his arm and catches the rope, jarring his shoulder a bit as it stops him from falling. He hangs by one hand about a third of the way across but he doesn’t let his momentum stop, he starts walking with his hands.

He’s made it another third of the way when Akaashi runs past, arms flailing wildly as he tries to keep his balance on the rope. Every few steps he pauses to regain his footing but he’s still moving faster that Koutarou. Koutarou picks up the pace a bit but Akaashi jumps back to solid ground before Koutarou reaches the edge.

He uses his upper body strength to pull himself up, pushing his feet under himself in the same movement and almost stumbling as he chases after Akaashi.

The last gap is the trickiest, spreading around the southeast corner. There’s a pole that is planted in the dirt below, the top of it just shy of being on the same level as the ramparts. Jumping to the pole is easy, jumping from the pole to the south side of the ramparts is hard.

Koutarou can’t help but admire Akaashi as he does the last jump. He’s graceful and smooth, barely alighting on the pole before kicking off towards the next ramparts. He makes it, of course he does. Koutarou makes to follow.

Like Akaashi, Koutarou makes it to the pole easily. He slips a little jumping to the south side and he has to scramble, losing him precious time. Akaashi is well ahead of him now and Koutarou curses, picking up speed.

The southern and western stretches of the ramparts are continuous and while you’d think that it would be a good time to pass, the southern side is narrower than the others because of the stairs that lead up to the signal fire. Still, this is where pure running speed will let Koutarou close the gap so he gives it his all as they round the corner to the western wall.

To one side is the tower and to the other the Wastes, stretching out to the horizon. Akaashi crosses the line well before Koutarou and Koutarou grits his teeth, pushing himself faster. He catches up to Akaashi just as Akaashi kicks off and becomes the first to cross the first gap of the second round. Koutarou is forced to skid to a stop or fall over the edge as he watches Akaashi use the wall for leverage to throw himself across the gap.

Koutarou catches the rope and backs up a few steps before flinging himself across the gap. Just a single kick off the wall gets him far enough to let go and land running. He slides around the corner to see Akaashi already starting to run on the ropes of the second gap.

Sprinting after him, he gives a running leap to the cheers of the rest of Fukurodani. He catches himself like before and it gives Akaashi a start, who whips his arms through the air and then, as if in slow motion, starts to fall.

Koutarou hears everyone cry out at once but Akaashi catches himself at the last moment with a hand. Koutarou keeps moving, now on Akaashi’s heels as they both go hand over hand to the other end of the gap.

Akaashi pulls himself up first and runs, Koutarou not far behind. Akaashi is the first to jump the third gap, smoothly making it to the pole. He’s in Koutarou’s way, going to break Koutarou’s momentum again, so Koutarou takes a risk.

He swings wide and jumps the gap without the pole.

The rest of Fukurodani cries out in panic and for a moment Koutarou cries out with them. The gap is just slightly too far to make in one jump, that’s why there’s a pole there, and then he lands home free and he runs, his wordless yell of delight lost in the sound of his warriors cheering for him.

Koutarou cannot rest, however. Akaashi is close on his heels. He sprints down the southern ramparts and then along the west. He can hear Akaashi behind him, hear the calls of Fukurodani. He crosses the line and starts the final lap, his blood singing.

He reaches the first gap and flings himself towards the rope, catching it and swinging for the wall. One, two steps and he’s over, not slowing down.

The second gap is handled the same way, flying over it. His speed must be higher because he feels like he jumps further. Maybe it’s the awe of his warriors, their belief in their commander after his display of skill. He keeps pretty good pace and Akaashi catches up on the ropes because he’s always been faster at them.

It doesn’t matter.

At the third gap Koutarou cuts Akaashi off again by clearing it in one jump. Except that he doesn’t. His chest collides with the parapet and he can’t grab hold. He slips off the wall with a pathetic ‘omph’, his breath rushing out of him with the impact, and above him Akaashi clears the gap in two jumps.

Hubris was his downfall, Koutarou thinks. He was not worthy. A failure. Koutarou feels morose as he picks up speed during his descent to the ground.

Pathetic for the commander of Fukurodani Tower to fall to such a rookie mistake.

With a sigh, Koutarou reaches inside himself to the place where his magic resides, pulsing gold, and lets it spread through him, to grow like feathers against his skin and sharpen his sight and give him weapons.

Transformation has always been his best skill.

Koutarou turns his fall into a dive, swooping out of it and circling the tower a few times as he flies back up. The wind through his feathers, as always, feels amazing.

He alights on the parapet next to the starting line, where Akaashi pants, hands on his knees. Washio pats him on the back and the rest cheer to the victory of their subcommander.

Koutarou hoots mornfully.

“Sorry, Commander,” Onaga says. He’s standing next to the parapet where Koutarou landed. He reaches out and strokes fingers through Koutarou’s feathers in comfort. “Better luck next time.”

Koutarou blinks at him, long and slow, and chirps a little. He’s bigger than a normal adult great horned owl by quite a bit and the sound comes out deeper than it would from a natural one.

“Come on, Commander,” Konoha calls. “You’re making dinner.”

“Score,” Sarukui says.

Koutarou puffs up a bit, pride eased by the knowledge that he is universally considered to be the best cook in Fukurodani Tower.

Not getting dessert is the worst. Koutarou pouts in the corner of the mess hall, watching as Yukie eats half of Konoha’s cake while he’s not looking. When Konoha gives her the stink-eye she just smiles at him and he rolls his eyes back. She pecks him on the cheek before stealing a bite from a distracted Washio’s plate on her other side.

Yukie gets double food. Koutarou gets none. He pulls his knees to his chest and frowns at them.

“Clearing the third gap in one jump was amazing,” Akaashi says and Koutarou looks up to meet his gaze.

“I shouldn’t have tried to do it the second time,” Koutarou says.

“Maybe,” Akaashi allows. “But it was still impressive. With a bit of practice you might be able to do it regularly.”

Koutarou can’t help but perk up from the thought. “You think so?”

Akaashi wanders closer and sits next to Koutarou on the floor, so close their shoulders would brush if Koutarou leaned over a little. The desire to close the gap is distracting. He wants to lean on Akaashi, maybe press his face into Akaashi’s skin. He banishes the thought. There’s no point in having thoughts like that. Making Akaashi uncomfortable is the last thing he wants to do.

“I’m sure of it, Bokuto-san. You’ve always been amazing.”

Koutarou grins. “Thanks, Akaashi.”

“Here,” Akaashi says and Koutarou turns his attention to Akaashi’s hand, which holds a plate of cake and two forks.

“Huh?” Koutarou asks dumbly.

“I see no reason why I can’t split my dessert,” Akaashi says.

“You’re the best, Akaashi,” Koutarou says.

Akaashi smiles. “Thanks, Bokuto-san.”

Practice makes perfect, or so they say.

Koutarou runs the track along the ramparts. The first gap is easy every time, muscle memory being more than enough. The second gap has always been Koutarou’s weakness but it’s not where he focuses his efforts. No, today is about the third gap. It’s about clearing it in one jump.

He swings wide as he comes up on it but it’s hard to keep up his speed. Over the course of the entire morning, running it again and again, he makes it three times.

Koutarou transforms back into a man after flying back from another fall. His torso aches with bruises. He’s so frustrated. He should be able to get this.

“How’s it going, Commander?” Yukie asks, sitting on the parapet of the signal fire platform. She leans over slightly to look down on him, one hand stretched behind her to grip the stone so she doesn’t fall.

“Fine,” Koutarou grunts, wiping at his forehead. It’s so hot.

“You seem kinda tired,” Yukie says.

“I’m good,” Koutarou says. “One more time.”

“If you rest for a bit you might be able to do it after a break,” she points out.

Koutarou grits his teeth. “One more time.”

He runs, feet pounding the bricks. First jump, grabbing the rope and kicking off the wall. He hits the ground running. Second jump, he tries to keep up his momentum as he struggles across the ropes. Third jump, he swings wide and flings himself across the shortest distance.

With a little more speed he might have made it.

His feet touch the corner, toes catching on the edge. It’s not enough, he slips. His leg scrapes the entire way down. He hisses in pain even as he barely manages to catch himself with his arms. He climbs back to the ramparts, muscles bulging with the effort, before rolling flat onto his back and giving a wordless shout of pain and annoyance at the sky. He’s so tired.

“Shit, Bokuto you’re bleeding.”

Koutarou looks down to see that the scrape is oozing blood now, a bright line of red down the front of his left leg disappearing under his shorts. It stings and throbs, reminding him that he injured it in one of the messiest ways possible. Koutarou touches it lightly with his fingers and hisses at the fresh wave of pain.

“I’m fine,” he says, bending his leg experimentally. It hurts, of course it hurts, and he grits his teeth, curling his legs under himself so that he can push himself to his feet. Putting weight on his leg doesn’t hurt any more so he’s pretty sure that nothing is broken, which is good. He’d never live it down if he actually broke a bone practicing a difficult jump that could revolutionize the way the members of Fukurodani Tower race.

“Oh my god,” Yukie says. “Meet me at the bench so I can look at it, I don’t trust you not to play down an injury.”

Koutarou bites his tongue because that’s a totally fair thing to say. He’s been known to work through exhaustion and pain to get the job done. His gut squirms. Here he is, needing looked after because he’s an idiot.

“I’m fine,” he repeats, his voice coming out of his throat petulantly.

Yukie ignores him, as he thought she might. She heads for the stairs and Koutarou doesn’t have much of a choice but to follow on the walkway below, slower because bending and straightening his knee is starting to really hurt.

“Insubordinate,” Koutarou complains to himself. “I’m the commander and I’m fine.”

Koutarou continues to grumble as he comes up on the corner of the tower. Before him the Wastes stretch out past the horizon. The rolling dunes of oil dark gravel are broken up by occasional jagged spires, like broken pieces of rubble reaching for the vast blue sky. The rainbow reflection of the sunlight seems to shimmer, like it’s coming off of water instead of rock. The sharp cliff that the tower sits on to overlook the Wastes is a line between the lush, living forests of the Disk and the nothing that the Wastes offer.

Well, nothing except nightmare creatures.

As Koutarou walks towards the corner, trying not to limp, his sharp eyes catch movement to his side. He turns his head slightly and what he sees makes him stop.

The wall, a magical barrier held up by the towers to protect the Disk from the creatures of the Wastes, is rippling.

Generally speaking, the wall is invisible. It ripples when touched, like poking jello or throwing rocks in a pool of water. It stretches along the cliffside, curving with the Disk to connect the towers in a seal of protection. If one tower falls the entire wall falls, it’s why each tower is filled with warriors to protect it. As long as they stand true the wall is impenetrable. In the distance, if Koutarou squints, he can just barely make out the top of Nekoma Tower and only because he knows what he’s looking for. If something bad were to happen to them, if Tetsurou were to fall or the tower were to be breached, the signal fire would be lit. Right now no light spills from the top of Nekoma Tower.

Koutarou slows his steps and walks right up to the parapet to squint at where the wall appears to be rippling. It seems almost rhythmic. With a murmured word his eyesight clears.

A single piece of gravel from the Wastes impacts the wall, repelled by it. Then another. Then another. They seem to be evenly spaced. They seem to be headed for Fukurodani Tower.

The hair on the back of Koutarou’s neck prickles with unease. The Wastes aren’t moving, not shuddering and groaning and screaming as creatures shake themselves from the depths. He still feels like any moment now something will rise from the surface.

“Yukie,” Koutarou calls, not taking his eyes off of where single pebbles are being tossed into the wall like someone or something is testing it for weakness.

“Do you need help?” Yukie calls back.

“Come here for a minute.” Koutarou squints, trying to see what is doing the tossing. The Wastes are quiet, not even stirring.

“What’s up?” Yukie asks. It sounds like she’s rounding the corner.

The pebble tossing stops. Koutarou bites his lip. It’s could be nothing.

There’s a moment of silence and then the Wastes erupt.

A creature, larger than any Koutarou has seen yet, breaks the surface like a whale. It’s not far from the tower and it rises into the air with purpose, momentum carrying it up and up and up. It’s almost as big as the tower itself and after a moment gravity starts to slow it’s ascent. In the space between heartbeats it stops and lets out a chilling screech, the kind that worms its way into your ears and rumbles its way through your chest. Then it begins to fall towards the tower.

It’s going to crush the tower.

The pain of his scraped up leg is the last thing on Koutarou’s mind. Adrenaline thrums through his veins. His sharp vision gets sharper. The creature seems to fall in slow motion. Koutarou can see every jagged detail of its hide, every rivulet of syrupy black substance that dribbles in the cracks. He can see the eyes, dozens of them littering it’s face, each beady black one fixed in a different direction. From this angle Koutarou sees no arms but it’s entire back is facing away from him so he can’t be sure it doesn’t have any.

Koutarou moves before he can do more than see it start to fall. His feet pound against the bricks as he races towards the west side parapet. He hears Yukie’s intake of breath as he passes her by, skidding to a stop and doing the only thing that might spare the tower, that might spare the Disk.

It can’t be allowed to crush the tower.

He’s never been very good at abjuration. That doesn’t stop him from flinging his arms into the space between the tower and the Wastes and pushing.

The magic inside someone has to be twisted into different shapes depending on what kind of magic one is trying to do. Koutarou was always best at transformation because all that is required is that you cover yourself inside and out with your magic, that you absorb it into yourself. That’s second nature to Koutarou. The next best thing is evocation, where you pull your magic into a ball or a wave and ripple it out of yourself like a shockwave, or transmutation where you fill something you’re touching with magic until it’s more you than not you and you can shape it just like transformation. Abjuration, though, is a completely different kind of shape all together.

Koutarou tries to flatten his magic like dough, roll it out like a pie crust until it’s thin. He pushes it out, pushes it with all his might while trying not to let it bunch together. Like a sheet it stands between the tower and the creature, fluttering ineffectually in the wind. Koutarou pulls it tight like a sail. He doesn’t know the words for what he’s trying to do, doesn’t know the spell that will make it take less energy, so he pours his all into it. He tries to make a barrier, an iron shield.

In the split second before impact Koutarou resolves to ask for some pointers from Onaga or Washio, who both specialize in abjuration.

The creature hits Koutarou’s barrier like a ton of bricks, the impact making his arms quake with the effort. His palms burn, like he slid on them across the carpet, and he pushes more magic through his arms and out, trying to reinforce the shield. His muscles strain and his tendons pop and he pushes. He tries to push the creature away, tries to buy himself a moment of reprieve. He pushes and pushes and pushes and his eyes sting and he can’t see anything through their watering.

Just like that it’s over. The creature slides off the barrier to land at the foot of the cliff below, flopped out like a beached whale. Koutarou’s barrier stutters and dies and he lets his arms fall limp leaning heavily on the parapet.

“Commander!” Yukie cries out. Koutarou wipes at his face shakily and squints down at the creature below. With a great shudder it begins to rise, far from defeated.

“Sound the alarm,” Koutarou says. “Get Akaashi and the others.”

“But-”

“Go, Yukie.”

Koutarou doesn’t stop to see if his orders will be obeyed, he has faith in his warriors. He envelops himself in magic, his energy levels horribly low, and takes his favorite shape. He’s a giant horned owl with talons as sharp as knives and he is willing to die to defend this tower.

With a screech Koutarou takes to the air and swoops down towards the monster the Wastes spat out.

The creature turns over, getting stubby little legs and sharp fins under itself so it can stand. On its back where one might find wings there are legs instead, many of them like a spider. They unfold, many jointed, with clawed ends. As it starts to rise Koutarou realizes that the spidery legs are more like arms, poised and ready to strike with it’s claw weapons.

Before it can get up completely, regain it’s balance for another strike at the tower, Koutarou dives.

He impacts the side of the monster with his claws out and he rips at its hide. Wastes creatures are generally resistant to magic, their tough armor-like skin absorbing and refracting magical energy. If a hole can be made, though, they can be lit up from the inside.

He’s barely started tearing into the skin when he’s forced to take to the air again, one of the arms swinging his way claw poised to run him through. The claw is almost as big as he is and it’s more stinger-like than claw-like. Koutarou’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know what it does.

It takes two more passes for Koutarou to make a sizable dent. By the time he’s managed it the creature is standing at its full height, the top of its head almost reaching the tower ramparts despite the fact that the cliff isn’t shallow. It’s huge, easily the biggest creature the Wastes has ever produced. The Wastes had been quiet for a long time. Apparently, it was a herald of this creature’s arrival.

Koutarou wonders how the other towers are fairing.

He’s exhausted. He’s only been fighting for a few minutes but it feels like an age. The magic needed to maintain his owl form is wearing on him. The bones feel wrong, a sure sign of his impending transformation back. He doesn’t have time, though. He dives for the hole he’s made in the creature’s hide again, tearing into it viciously. He tries to make it larger, a bigger target, and the creature shrieks. Just as he’s kicking off again, trying to put some distance between himself and the arm swinging his direction, an arrow of light threads through the air and lands in the wound, dead center.

Koutarou would recognize Akaashi’s work anywhere.

He turns his head just slightly to see that the rest of Fukurodani have made it to the ramparts. Washio and Onaga are putting up a barrier, far more stable and complex than the one Koutarou brute forced into existence earlier. Konoha’s spear flies through the air towards the creature and Koutarou doesn’t have to watch to know that when it embeds itself in the creatures hide that Konoha himself will follow. The others are getting set up but by far the most beautiful sight is Akaashi.

Akaashi’s arm pulls back in the air, his lips moving in a familiar pattern. From his fingertips a string of light hovers and sharpens, casting the side of his face in a yellow glow. He lets go and the arrow shoots forwards as if Akaashi is using a bow. The arrow of light buries itself into the hole, dead center, and the creature howls.

Koutarou sags in the air in relief. For just a moment his wings stutter, the feathers getting a little less feather-like, before he forces the last of his magic back through them. Just a little longer, he tells himself, except the stinger of one of the arms clips him and ruins everything.

It scores across his wing and he feels every millimeter of it, every burning hot moment. Normally, when something bad happens Koutarou can see every instant and it helps him to react faster. This time, everything happens faster than he can react.

The stinger slices across his wing and his scream comes out as an owl’s screech. The venom burns and he tries to head towards the tower, to make it to the ramparts where Yukie stands waiting to heal the injured. It burns and his arm is no longer a wing but a human arm bleeding something slimy and dark green.

His magic is pulled out of him, the rest of him follows in the direction of his arm. Koutarou is a human falling through the air and when he tries to push magic through his limbs it’s eaten by something that burns cold, feathers materializing before vanishing again.

The rough dunes of the Wastes are coming up fast. He can’t touch them. If he touches them they’ll never let him go.

Koutarou pushes the last of his magic through his limbs. It isn’t enough. He barely slows his decent.

He’s going to die. They’ll light the signal fire and every tower will send a representative to attend his funeral.

Akaashi will make a good commander. He’s always been responsible.

He kinda wishes that he let himself call Akaashi beautiful to his face, just once.

Koutarou hits the Wastes and they eat him whole.

Someone is pulling at Koutarou’s fingers, trying to pull them off. They’re pulling with something sharp, like claws and rakes. He pulls back, because he doesn’t like the feeling, and they dig in harder. They’re icy. They’re icy cold and they’re trying to find their way into his bones.

“No,” he tells them.

“Please?” they ask.

“Please what?” he wonders.

“Please?” they repeat.

“I can’t answer you if you don’t tell me what you want.”

“Please?”

Koutarou scowls and tries to pull his arm back but the hooks are in him, lying along his finger bones in neat little lines. He pulls and his arm goes nowhere. They pull and Koutarou follows.

“No!”

“Please?”

“Stop it!”

Koutarou’s arm is going to pop off. It’s going to be torn off. It occurs to him that he should open his eyes.

There is light here. The entire world glows. He feels warm all at once. Above him is a dappled russet sky, streaks across that remind him of feathers. To the side are blacks that seem highlighted in golds, curling and swaying like grass. It’s beautiful. He floats here, pulled along by nothing only to realize that there’s nothing pulling him at all. No ice in his skin, no hole in his hand. He stands in the air looking at a world painted in abstract shapes and he’s not sure why he isn’t falling.

Koutarou looks down to see a giant eye staring up at him, hazel green and steady. It reminds him of someone, it makes his toes tingle. He wants that person. He wants to tell that person something, something about how they make him feel. He needs to find them.

“Bokuto-san, please?”

“Who are you?” Koutarou asks, a little desperately, and the colors shatter. Gravity takes effect and he falls head first towards the gravelly dunes of the Wastes.

Somewhere someone is screaming. The air is hot, so hot the friction from it lights him on fire. He streaks towards the ground like a comet. He raises his arms to a flying position and tries to become an owl, tries to stop his decent, but he only burns.

Landing puts the fire out, as if he dove into a deep pool of water. He breaks the surface only to be falling up into a sky, like the underside of the world.

An owl swoops behind him and catches him, red and brown. The feathers are soft and he shoves his face into them even as they start to slip away, across his skin and between his fingers. His stomach feels sick, his skin is raw with pain, and he just wants everything to stop moving.

His throat hurts. He’s screaming. His voice bounces off of stone walls. Someone touches his face.

“Bokuto-san, please stay with me.”

“Stop him from moving.”

Koutarou opens his eyes to see that he’s nose to nose with Akaashi. He tries to pull away but Akaashi’s hands hold his face still. Koutarou is still screaming. He can’t stop.

“Come on, Koutarou,” Akaashi says. His voice sounds rough, like maybe he’s been screaming too. “Stay with me.”

Akaashi’s face streaks like something’s washing it away. Koutarou blinks and it’s gone. He’s alone in a dark room. His muscles ache like they’ve been overused, his throat aches like he’s been screaming for days. He blinks a few more times and the room comes into focus, painted in dark shadows.

He’s laying on a bed in the Konohas’ quarters. Yukie sleeps in a chair a few paces away, slumped over the table with her head cushioned on her folded arms. Konoha is nowhere to be seen, or at least nowhere that Koutarou can see from his place on the bed. He has a splitting headache and he lifts a hand to rub it away.

The skin on his hand is sensitive and he stops almost as soon as he starts. With a wince he sits up instead.

He tries to do it silently but he must not do it silently enough because Yukie is suddenly sitting up ramrod straight, a hand fumbling with the lamp on the table. It floods the room with a warm glow and the light makes Koutarou wince.

“Commander,” Yukie says, scrambling towards him. At the sound of her voice something in the other room falls to the floor.

“Yukie,” Koutarou rasps. “What happened?”

“You hit the Wastes,” she says. “Well, just your arm. We thought you were dead and that Akinori was just bringing back a body. If he hadn’t caught you by the ankle before more of you could touch it you’d have been done for.”

The man who Koutarou apparently owes his life to stumbles out of their bedroom. Koutarou’s brain is getting clearer and clearer. He’s in the Konohas’ living room on a cot.

“Oh thank God,” Konoha says, rubbing his face and sagging against the door frame. “You’re awake.”

“How long was I out?”

Yukie pours barely a centimeter of water into a cup from a pitcher on a nearby end table. She offers it to him. “Almost a week.”

Koutarou winces and takes it. “That long, huh?”

“We’re lucky it was that short. We weren’t sure you would ever wake up,” Yukie admits.

“We’ve been out of our minds with worry,” Konoha says. “You idiot.”

Konoha’s voice is shaking so Koutarou doesn’t hold it against him. He takes a sip of water and finds that he’s dying of thirst. He tries to drink more but there isn’t any. The cup is already empty. Then his throat convulses and he starts coughing. It’s only when he’s covering his mouth, Yukie sliding a comforting arm along his back to support him, that he sees his arm.

The skin is covered in crisscrossing black lines, like he’s been grilled. Between them tiny lines of multiple colors spiderweb out, filling the gaps between the main lines with something that reminds Koutarou of the veins in the granite in the kitchen. He stares because the effect is bizarre. It’s almost like he’s taken some of the Wastes into himself.

He curls his fingers. The skin is sensitive, sensitive enough that the air itself makes it ache.

“I’m gonna want to keep an eye on that arm,” Yukie says. “You’re the first person to come into contact with the Wastes and not go crazy but we’re still not sure what the effects will be.”

Koutarou can’t take his eyes off his arm. “How exactly did I not go crazy?”

“Nothing I did,” Yukie says. “You’d want to ask Akaashi.”

At the sound of Akaashi’s name Koutarou’s head snaps up. Beautiful Akaashi. He had wanted to tell Akaashi how beautiful he was, how skilled and capable. Konoha and Yukie share a knowing look.

“Where is Akaashi? Is everyone else okay? Did you kill it?”

“Oh, we killed it all right,” Konoha says. “With extreme prejudice. How could we waste the sacrifice of our commander?”

“I need to-” Koutarou starts to get up but Konoha and Yukie catch him, pushing him back down.

“Not so fast, Commander,” Yukie says. “You need rest, you’re far from recovered.”

“But-”

“Nope,” Yukie says. “Doctor’s orders. Akaashi will still be there when you’re done healing.”

Over the next week Koutarou is visited by every resident of Fukurodani Tower save one. Komi regales him with a story of his badassery from an outside view, Sarukui sneaks him some extra dessert, Washio tells him stories about the things that happen while he’s confined, Suzumeda brings him letters from the other commanders and sometimes brings him owls to visit, much to Yukie’s horror and Konoha’s amusement, and Onaga cries with relief to see him awake and alert.

They even have visitors from the other towers, since the signal fire was lit before they realized that he was alive. Hinata visits from Karasuno, excitable as ever and giving Koutarou a hug that nearly breaks his ribs. Seijoh sends Yahaba, who seems kind but also seems like the kind of person who will end someone if they mess with him. Nekoma sends Inuoka, who is excited to get the chance to visit a different tower and informs Koutarou that Tetsurou nearly abandoned his post to come to Fukurodani to check up on him. Shiratorizawa sends a quiet man named Semi who reminds Koutarou of Iwaizumi, the subcommander of Seijoh, except less gruff and more sharp.

Through it all, though, Akaashi never visits. Each of the representatives comes and goes. Several members of Fukurodani visit every day. Never once does Akaashi set foot in the Konohas’ quarters. Koutarou feels restless. He wants to run out and find Akaashi, to ask him where he’s been. He feels a bit selfish, wanting to make Akaashi come visit him, but he never thought that Akaashi wouldn’t. They aren’t just commander and sub commander, they’re friends. Hell, according to everyone Akaashi held his vigil and helped Yukie heal him. He’s not sure why Akaashi seems to be avoiding him now.

When Yukie finally determines him fit to leave the Konohas’ quarters he goes on the hunt for Akaashi. Akaashi isn’t in his quarters, nor the kitchen, nor the rec area, nor the aviary. When he walks out onto the ramparts he’s breathing hard from all the stairs his body isn’t quite recovered enough to be doing. On the bench, looking out over the sun-drenched Wastes, is Sarukui.

“Saru,” Koutarou says, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. His arm is still sensitive but it’s getting better. The heel of his hand tingles where it touches his knee.

“Commander,” Sarukui says, scrambling to his feet. “Are you supposed to be running around already?”

Koutarou waves a hand in the air in front of his face. “It’s fine. Do you know where Akaashi is?”

Sarukui blinks and his eyes slide up and to the side, towards the signal fire platform. Koutarou follows his eyes up and sees nothing, but that doesn’t mean anything. Barely any of the signal fire platform can be seen from down here.

“Uh,” Sarukui says, clearly unwilling to lie to him but also unwilling to rat Akaashi out.

Koutarou sighs. “Thanks.”

He turns and heads towards the stairs for the signal fire platform. He huffs and puffs his way up them, using the railing for assistance. On the platform, sitting on the walkway with his back against the parapet, is Akaashi.

Koutarou can’t believe he forgot how beautiful Akaashi is, or maybe he’s just so relieved to see him that Akaashi’s beauty is being thrown into sharp relief. His hair is a little messy in a way that’s endearing, his eyes a sharp green, his limbs lean and toned like a dancers might be. When Koutarou looks closer, though, he realizes that Akaashi looks tired. He looks like he hasn’t slept well in days.

Akaashi watches Koutarou as Koutarou approaches and doesn’t make any move to stop Koutarou or leave when Koutarou sits down next to him.

“Hey,” Koutarou says, suddenly unsure if he should have tracked Akaashi down. Maybe he doesn’t want to see Koutarou for a reason

“Hello,” Akaashi replies. He sounds almost as tired as he looked.

Koutarou waits for Akaashi to say something else, maybe something that will explain his absence from Koutarou’s side. For a long moment there’s just silence, the sunlight beating down on the tops of their heads.

“Whatcha doing?” Koutarou asks when he can’t take the silence anymore.

Akaashi’s mouth twitches, like he wants to smile. “Contemplating why I’m here.”

“Here like on the platform, here like at Fukurodani Tower, or here like in the universe?” Koutarou asks.

Akaashi looks back to the signal fire, a pile of wood in the center of the platform slightly recessed into the stone. Koutarou follows his eyes and notices how blackened the wood is still. It hasn’t been replaced yet. They’ll need to do that soon.

“The second one, though I suppose existential horror works just as well.”

Koutarou lets his knee knock into Akaashi’s. “Do you want to be here?”

“Yes,” Akaashi says without hesitation. “I want to be here very much.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Koutarou wonders. He wonders why pondering his place at the tower stopped Akaashi from visiting him. Or maybe he only recently started pondering his place?

Akaashi sighs. “I’m not sure I’m here for the right reason anymore.”

Koutarou frowns, trying to follow Akaashi’s logic. “What’s ‘the right reason’?”

Akaashi’s knees knock back into Koutarou’s. “Duty. Honor. To protect people.”

“Do you not want to protect people anymore?”

“I do,” Akaashi says, again without hesitation. “It’s just that I’m starting to want to protect you more.”

Koutarou tilts his head back to look up at the sky. Blue, it’s so blue it makes his head hurt.

“I don’t get it,” he admits. Akaashi sighs but Koutarou keeps talking. “I mean, I get what you’re saying but I don’t get what you’re worried about. Like, protecting people is great. It’s what we’re here for. But I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for you. I didn’t want to die because of you and the rest of Fukurodani. Sure, duty is why we’re here but being there for specific people is why we stay alive to fight another day, you know? So there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Bokuto-san…” Akaashi says. He sounds like he’s at a loss. Koutarou doesn’t look at him, he just keeps his eyes on the blue of the sky.

“I fought to stay alive because I wanted to tell you that you have beautiful eyes and I wanted to split my dessert with people and cook dinners again and win races. I don’t think that makes me undeserving of being here.”

“When I thought you were dead I considered deserting because I didn’t want to be here anymore. Everything reminded me of you,” Akaashi says like an admission. Then after a moment, “My eyes?”

Koutarou blinks and then looks back at Akaashi. “Yeah. You’re beautiful everywhere but your eyes are amazing.”

Akaashi stares at him. He stares at Akaashi. For a long moment nothing moves and then Koutarou realizes that he isn’t dreaming.

His face burns and he covers it with his hands, both to make sure that it’s not on literal fire and to stop Akaashi from staring at him. He can’t believe he just said that, casual as can be. He wasn’t thinking. He’s never thinking. He’s an idiot.

“I’m in love with you,” Akaashi says.

Koutarou freezes and pulls his hands down from his face. He turns his head slowly to stare at Akaashi.

“Huh?”

Akaashi is looking down at his hands. “I’m in love with you. I’m not sure when it started or how to get it to stop. I understand if you don’t want me to stay at this tower, as it probably makes you uncomfortable and ruins the chain of com-”

He doesn’t get to finish because Koutarou grabs his face and tilts it up so he can slot his mouth against Akaashi’s.

Kissing Akaashi is both exactly how Koutarou always pretends he doesn’t imagine it to be and nothing like it at the same time. Akaashi is warm and soft under his lips, his hands fisting in Koutarou’s shirt before Koutarou can pull away. It’s long and sweet, making Koutarou’s fingertips tingle or maybe that’s just how Akaashi’s slightly curly hair brushes against the sensitivity of Koutarou’s hand.

Koutarou pulls back just a bit, gasping into the gap between them. “Say it again.”

“I’m in love with you,” Akaashi breathes back. “I would have rather died than let you slip away.”

Koutarou lets his forehead fall onto Akaashi’s. “You saved me.”

“I sustained your consciousness on magic alone for days,” Akaashi says. “Yukie says it may have made the difference.”

“Because you love me,” Koutarou marvels.

“Yes.”

“I’m in love with you too,” Koutarou says.

“Oh,” Akaashi says.

Koutarou kisses him again, and then again. The sun lights up the blue sky over Fukurodani Tower two weeks after Koutarou fell into the Wastes and Koutarou kisses Akaashi, beautiful and clever Akaashi, again and again and again.