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Kairosclerosis

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On the walls hung banners and balloons while streamers littered the ground. A boy made an announcement for interested boys and girls to go to the court and see the basketball team’s match. Another group of seniors waved flyers catching the attention of a couple of middle school girls to join the literary club. There was chatter and laughter, echoing through the packed corridors.

It was expected for Fukurodani Academy’s cultural festival, Keiji thought as he squeezed his way through the crowded area. The whole school was buzzing with families and interested middle school students. He supposed he was one of the latter as he exited the building and relaxed as he took in a deep breath in the open area. A bunch of students ran past him, talking about finding the volleyball court.

Keiji decided to follow them. Fukurodani Academy was known for its academics as well as its performance in sports. Their volleyball team was one of the best in Tokyo and Keiji was interested in joining. He hoped they were having a practice match. It would be good for him to see the team in action from close.

He supposed that was the reason why he ended up coming to the cultural festival. Only to see the volleyball team. But he had already decided to apply for the school. The entrance exam would be in a few months and he was confident he would get in. Whether it was an urge or a lingering curiosity, Keiji did not know. It wasn’t as if he was prepared to join the volleyball club through blind faith on what people would discuss about.

He had seen the team in one of its qualifier matches. He could still clearly remember the way the team functioned. What flaws one member had was quickly nullified by another’s skill set. Their wing spikers were fast and strong. Their setter was decisive and composed. Up till a certain wing spiker was called to the court. That had caught his attention; the way the wing spiker broke down every wall in front of him. Keiji had flinched when the ball had made impact with the ground. The whole court seemed to have rumbled at the powerful spike.

Their trump card, he had thought at first but then he began to sense a pattern. Soon the exchange between the setter and the wing spiker were not smooth. The setter began to opt to pass the ball to the other wing spiker and Keiji realized that the first few successful scores were on pure luck. There was no precision here with this particular wing spiker. They seemed to work on pure chance; if it worked, it worked.

And that was when Keiji leaned against the railing, his foot tapping in frustration as the wing spiker was soon sent back to the bench. He had potential. He could very well be the ace of the team, if only the setter would have worked with him longer. The match would have been over earlier, their victory even more certain if the wing spiker was given a chance.

He was their wild card, or even just a backup, he had thought bitterly. For the first time Keiji felt that he needed to be a part of this team. It wasn’t because he was proud in his skills, he felt as if he knew he could help them improve. He could set for the wing spiker and bring out that potential. The team was excellent but it could be even better.

Could it be that he had ended up coming to the cultural festival to find the volleyball team to tell them just that?

He was cut from his thoughts when someone bumped into him. Keiji stumbled but he was caught by a strong arm and hauled up.

“Sorry! You okay?”

Keiji blinked and found himself looking into bright gold eyes. He nodded, unable to form words as he pushed himself away from the stranger. He allowed himself to take in the stranger’s appearance. He wore his uniform messily, his sleeves rolled up and shirt untucked. He had his hair spiked up upwards as if in two horns. Keiji recognized the hair immediately and he let out a small “oh.”

The wing spiker grinned at him, as if he was aware that Keiji had recognized him.

“Hey, hey, hey!” he greeted, his gaze momentarily flicking towards Keiji’s left hand. “I don’t think we have met?”

“I don’t think we have.” Keiji replied, his heart hammering against his chest. He was not expecting such an early confrontation with the said wing spiker.

“Oh, I see.” The boy hummed thoughtfully before smacking his hand against his forehead. “I forgot! Are you interested in the volleyball club? We’re the best you know!”

“You don’t have to shout.” Keiji muttered. He expected the wing spiker to be intense but not that loud. He seemed to look better from a distance, he concluded.

“I’m sorry!” The wing spiker yelped as Keiji winced. He ended up whispering, “I’m sorry. Are you interested though?”

Keiji wondered if he should give him a truthful answer. He could end up being too hyper if Keiji said yes, but of he said no the other might resort to convincing him to join. The latter seemed most troublesome.

“I am actually.”

“Really?” the boy squawked. He puffed out his chest as he laughed loudly. “Well, I mean maybe you saw me on court and were impressed! You want to be like me someday right? Did you know I nearly qualified to be one of the best five wing spikers in Japan?”

“I’m sorry but I don’t even know your name.”

“What?!” the boy exclaimed. “It’s Bokuto Koutarou! Remember it!” Bokuto huffed out. “That’s so mean to your volleyball idol!”

“I don’t recall considering you as an idol Bokuto-san.”

“Hey!” Bokuto punched Keiji’s side playfully. “It’s Bokuto-senpai when you’re a first year here.” He winked.

Keiji tried not to roll his eyes. “How are you so sure that I’ll join this school?” he asked as he rubbed his arm. The punch had felt like a real one if Bokuto had intended it to be a joke.

Bokuto’s eyes once again focused on Keiji’s left hand before he shrugged. “I just know I guess.” He checked his watch and yelped. “I have to help Komi-yan with the flyers!”

“Then you should go.” Keiji sighed.

“Yeah I will! Also the volleyball club practices in gym three! See you on the first day of school!” Bokuto waved his arm animatedly before running off.

Keiji watched him nearly bump into another person before he yelled out apologies. He shook his head as he raised his left hand to study it. A single red string was tied around his ring finger, shimmering under the sunlight.

He can see them? Keiji wondered. The thread seemed to tug at his finger and its trail seemed to disappear into the path which Bokuto took. He quickly shoved his hands into his pockets and pushed the thought aside. He would see the volleyball team on his first day. Right now he just wanted to go back home and lie down.

It was just a mere coincidence anyways. After all, only Keiji could see the red strings.


 

The breeze picked up as Keiji made his way to Fukurodani Academy. It picked up a few fallen cherry blossoms, the stray petals carried off to a place unknown. A long time back, Keiji had wished that he were like a cherry blossom petal and the wind would carry him away too to a new place, with a new beginning.

He huffed at the thought now. A romantic; that’s what he had been back then. And perhaps a part of him still was. There was a part of him which would always wander to ‘what ifs’ and wishes which could be probable but were still not possible. For now he focused on the day ahead. He would attend the orientation, meet new people in his class and then apply for the volleyball club. The agenda was simple and precise. His day would go smoothly.

He turned to the street where the school was situated. The red strings made their appearance and he found himself tangled in a bunch of red strings, twisting and wrapped around different parts of his body. A new beginning with new relations, he thought as he made his way to the gate. He could not feel the strings and the strings did not come in his way. They were present, and yet they weren’t. He wasn’t even sure when they made they appeared for the first time. He was young back then and the strings’ existence did bother him at first. Not to mention that only he could see them frustrated him too. But he had slowly learnt to adapt to them and their presence was as normal as the blue sky.

“Hey, hey, hey!” A loud voice boomed and Keiji turned to find Bokuto running towards him, waving at him. His bag was balanced on by the strap on his forehead. Keiji wondered if he had the strength to actually carry his bag that way, or that his bag was actually empty.

He decided on the latter as Bokuto easily took it off and wrapped his free arm around Keiji’s shoulders. He laughed and Keiji scrunched his face in annoyance. Apparently Bokuto also didn’t care about personal space.

“I knew you’d make it!”

“I did pass the entrance exam.” Keiji stated, trying to escape Bokuto’s hold but the other had a strong grip.

“I know. You seem smart.” Bokuto grinned. He steered Keiji towards the building. “You’re going to join the volleyball team right?”

“I guess. I really should go for the orientation Bokuto-san.” Keiji said and Bokuto released him.

“Oh yeah! You’re a year younger than me! So it’s senpai not san.

“It was a pleasure meeting you Bokuto-senpai.” Keiji sighed tiredly as the other boy jumped in glee.

“Yes! A senpai! I’m going to teach you everything I know!”

“Sure. See you then.” He gave a small wave and Bokuto nodded enthusiastically before humming something vaguely sounding like ‘I’m a senpai- the best!’

 

A wave of exhaustion washed over him as he sat down on his seat in the auditorium. Bokuto Koutarou apparently had all the energy in the world and that seemed to drain Keiji. Maybe he drew in energy from the people around him? Keiji pressed his lips, willing to control a smile. He could already imagine Bokuto in an evil scientist’s getup- his hair perfectly suited the role- as he laughed and drew in wisps of gold energy. Perhaps that was why he had such bright eyes. He didn’t think Bokuto would be thrilled with this picture of him. Or maybe he would. Perhaps he’ll tell him one day when they’re on more comfortable terms.

If they’re on comfortable terms, Keiji corrected himself. He had never gotten close to anyone to term his relationship with them as ‘comfortable’. It would only be till the sake of school and club activities. He didn’t really let people in his personal life and he was sure other people got the message easily. Besides, he had learnt to cut the troublesome people off from a very young age. As the announcement was made for attention, he noticed the single string wrapped around his left ring finger. He lightly touched the string and wondered if he’d have to cut it someday too.


 

“You’re the kid who called him senpai right?” A tall third year barked at Keiji once he entered the gym.

Keiji froze at the door before he composed himself. “I would call you senpai too.”

A boy with blond hair snickered. Keiji found that the boy resembled a fox. “He’s a sharp one captain.”

The captain scowled. “No one asked you Konoha.” He turned to Keiji, “You called Bokuto senpai right? He won’t shut up about it ever since he entered the gym.”

Keiji’s eyes searched for the loud individual in the gym. The gym was peaceful which indicated Bokuto was not present currently.

“He didn’t shut up during lunch either.” A short boy piped in.

Keiji shrugged. “He asked me to. Technically he is a senpai.”

The captain put his hand on Keiji’s shoulder. “Just…don’t call him that. You’ve met him right? He gets too hyper when he gets something to brag about. And then he doesn’t focus.”

Keiji raised his brow at that but nodded all the same. “As you wish-.”

“Manato Hikaru, the captain of the Fukurodani volleyball boys’ team.” The captain introduced himself.

“Manato-san.”

Manato laughed. “Konoha’s right. Anyways you’re Akaashi-kun right?”

Keiji tried not to show that he was surprised they knew him. “Yes, you don’t have many new members?” he asked carefully, scanning the room to see if he could recognize a few faces from his year.

“Many, but you’re the only setter to apply.”

“Oh.” Keiji blinked. The strings had appeared once more and Keiji could tell they were new. They were wrapped around his other fingers, a few twisting over and under. He could make out the glimmering threads connecting him and the other members. He tugged at his fingers lightly but found that he could only touch the string wrapped around his left pinky.

“Besides, you’re promising, we saw-.” The captain was interrupted by the loud slam of the sliding door. Keiji’s mind provided him with ‘Bokuto Koutarou’ and he wasn’t surprised when he was right.

Bokuto saw him and he grinned. “Hey! You’re here!” He waved animatedly, “Guys! This is the guy who really looks up to me!” he declared loudly.

“I look forward to work with you Bokuto-san.” Keiji greeted with a bow.

“Hah?!”

The gym echoed with laughter as Bokuto looked to and fro with a shocked expression. The other team members added in ‘typical Bokuto’ and ‘don’t get your hopes too high’ while others covered their mouths as they giggled. Keiji felt a sudden dread overtake him. He didn’t mean to sound harsh, nor did he want Bokuto to be treated this way. He wasn’t different from them, he wasn’t any better at all.

He was about to apologize when Konoha smacked Bokuto’s back.

“He’s just being casual somewhat. We don’t want our juniors to feel so formal right?” Konoha tried to reason and Bokuto huffed out.

“Is that true?” He turned to Keiji.        

“Yes. The captain taught me that for good sportsmanship we have to treat each other as equals.” Keiji found himself saying, “I will still be formal since you are technically a senior.” He added with a shrug.

Bokuto seemed to be satisfied with the answer and he nodded. “Yeah! Don’t want to be so formal! You’re a good guy! Um what’s your name?”

“Akaashi Keiji.”

“Akaaashi! Welcome! Are you a wing spiker too?”

Before he could answer, Manato spoke on his behalf.

“This is our future setter. Let’s hope you get along with this guy.”

Bokuto seemed to brighten up at this and Keiji was even more certain he was buzzing with energy- and stealing it from everyone in the room.

“Let’s start with warmups guys.” Another guy clapped his hands. “You, get changed.” He gave a pointed look to Keiji.

Manato leaned in, “He’s our current setter and vice-captain, Sora Ryuki. Try not to get on his nerves and impress him.” he smirked, “After all, you are his successor now.”

 

Bokuto followed him to the locker room, asking questions about his volleyball team in middle school to his favorite food.

“Akashiii, you’ll toss to me loads okay?”

“If you say so Bokuto-san.” Keiji replied as he pulled on his t-shirt for practice.

“Of course we need to see if you’re as good Sora-san. We need the best setter out there.”

“I hope I don’t disappoint.” Keiji said as he exited the locker room with Bokuto right behind him.

Did he really have no sense of personal space?

“Akaaashi! I’ll help you stretch!”

Keiji sighed as he saw no one else in the gym volunteer to be Bokuto’s partner. It seemed as if everyone was actually relieved that Bokuto had found someone else to pester. The red string tugged at him and he tried not to scowl. The strings never did pull or tug before. So why was this one so adamant to announce its appearance? He knew this one linked him with Bokuto. Did strings really possess some sort of traits similar to the one he was connected to? This one seemed to boast its presence, much like Bokuto whose entrance made people’s heads turn.

How troublesome, Keiji thought as he joined the others.

 

“Now Akaashi-kun, please toss to Bokuto-kun.” Coach Yamiji said and Keiji nodded as he positioned himself.

“Finally! I thought he’d never toss to me!” Bokuto exclaimed as he entered the court. “Toss to me real good ‘Kaaashi!”

“Please don’t butcher my name Bokuto-san.” Keiji felt drained. He had to toss to every team member so far, with Sora and the coach studying him intently. He felt as if he were prey, assessed by predators to see if he would make a good meal. He tried to push the thought away and willed to focus on Bokuto and his movements. He had to prove to them all that he was good enough. Bokuto was the last person he had to toss to and he actually looked forward to it. He had to make this toss count.

The ball was passed to him and he could see Bokuto on the move. He tossed the ball and saw Bokuto jump. His form was perfect, Keiji noted as the ball connected to Bokuto’s hand and it slammed to the ground.

Something was off. People began whispering and he noted Sora’s expression was tight while the coach appraised him. The captain was grinning widely and Konoha gave him a thumbs up. But Keiji felt the thread around his ring finger loosen up. Something was wrong. It wasn’t his best toss; he knew that but Bokuto was able to hit it. He turned to Bokuto and nearly flinched.

Bokuto was staring at his hand before he looked at Keiji with a sharp gaze.

“It wasn’t that great.” He frowned. “Could be better Akaashi.”

“I know.” Keiji replied, feeling his cheeks warm. Of course it was disappointing, he was tired. He wasn’t expected to be tested with every spiker and middle blocker in the club. He didn’t know they’d save Bokuto for last. But even more so he was disappointed in himself. He shouldn’t be worn out so easily. He had to build up more stamina and strength. If he had made a slight movement, the ball wouldn’t have even connected.

If it works, it works.

He’d make a note of today’s practice.

“Do you want Akaashi-kun to toss to you once more?” Sora asked Bokuto who shook his head.

“I think he’s tired.”

Sora frowned. “Well, Akaashi-kun can take a break then. Although you’ll need to work on your stamina.” He then turned to the other first years. “I don’t know why you thought to join the volleyball club, but be sure that we emphasize on a tough practice. We can’t have you getting tired so easily.”

Keiji felt that the jab was directed at him but he didn’t show that he was disturbed by it. He simply bowed and walked to the bench where Yukie sat. She handed him a water bottle.

“Sora is like that. Don’t let him get to you.” She smiled lazily and Keiji nodded.

“I guess he’s tougher because I’m the only setter besides him?”

“He’s tough with everyone. Mostly because our coach is soft I think.” She scratched her cheek. “Not used to such practice?”

“Today was just the first session.” Keiji pressed his lips into a thin line as he watched Sora toss to the captain. A perfect straight.

“Hmm, I’d say watch out for Bokuto-kun though.” Yukie hummed as she tapped her feet to a rhythm.

“Why?”

“You’ll see soon enough.” She sighed.


 

It was two days after when Keiji found out the meaning behind Yukie’s words. Keiji had somewhat adapted to the strict regime. He was even able to give Bokuto a satisfactory toss. It was when they held a practice match with Bokuto in Sora’s team and Keiji in the opposing. He had come to understand Konoha’s movements and the other boy was willing to help him. Washio and Sarukui were also easy to interpret. The trouble lay with Bokuto. And by the look of this match, it seemed that it was not only Keiji who faced trouble. Sora and Bokuto were not in sync. With Bokuto unable to spike a ball successfully, Keiji noticed a change in Bokuto’s usual energetic moods. The others seemed to have noticed it too. He heard Konoha murmur,

“Here it comes.”

“I was wondering when his mood drop would come. Two days in a row felt like a dream.” Sarukui chuckled.

The only one who was not amused was Sora and the other third years.

“Don’t toss to me! I’m just worthless!”

“Honestly?” A third year exclaimed in frustration.

“Don’t mind, don’t mind.” Sarukui waved his hand as Komi elbowed his side.

“Bokuto, the official matches will begin soon,” Sora spoke slowly, as if he was controlling himself from exploding. “Please, you’re going to be a regular this time. Just get it together okay?”

Bokuto huffed. “Easy for you to say.”

Keiji noticed the tension in the air. It was as if something was going to snap and break any second.

“Bokuto…” The captain started.

“I’m just a nuisance right? It would be better that no one tossed to me right?!” Bokuto yelled.

Keiji turned to the coach who caught his eye. He shook his head and tapped at his watch.

We’ll discuss this later.

“I’m not saying that! Just…”

“I know when I’m not wanted.” Bokuto snapped and he stormed out of the gym.

“Is he always like this?” A first year asked meekly.

Sora groaned while the third years shook their heads.

“He’s only here because he’s good sometimes.”

“Why do we even put up with him?”

“Coach Yamiji are you sure that’s the next ace? Let’s just make Washio the ace at least he’s stable.”

Keiji felt his blood boil. Bokuto did act somewhat unreasonably, but that didn’t mean everyone had to be so harsh. He was about to speak when Konoha patted his back.

“This isn’t your fight kid.” He said with a small smile before looking at the gym’s entrance.

He glanced at the other second years who remained quiet while the third and first years mocked and complained about Bokuto. He clenched his fist and willed to shut it all out.  

The red strings around his fingers were loose, except for the ones which tied him to the second years.

 

“Yamiji-san, you wanted to talk?” Keiji stood before the said man. Everyone else was busy cleaning up the gym.

“Yes, have a seat.”

Keiji paused as he saw the others work. The coach seemed to notice and he smiled. “Don’t worry, Manato-kun had the same expression when I told him too.”

Keiji nodded and sat down. “What did you want to say sir?”

Coach Yamiji turned to him with a solemn expression. “I want you to practice with Bokuto-kun.”

“I’m not even a regular.” Keiji replied instantly.

“I know, but we’ve tried to make him compatible with Sora. Unfortunately it seems that neither of them want to cooperate with each other.” He lowered his voice into a whisper that Keiji had to move closer, “It isn’t wholly Bokuto’s fault though. Sora has developed some sort of pride which won’t allow him to make adjustments.”

“I see.” Keiji found himself looking at Sora who chatted with Manato. He turned back to the coach, “What do I have to look out while practicing with Bokuto-san?”

“He’s unpredictable, and yet he’s very predictable.” 

“Meaning?” Keiji raised his brow.

“He has his moods where he doesn’t believe he’s good enough. And sometimes his movements are very rash. Unfortunately I don’t think Bokuto-kun is the type to change rapidly. So the responsibility would lie with the setter.”

“Isn’t that simple minded reasoning?” Keiji found himself asking. It was true though, this just gave Bokuto an easy way out- give all the load to the setter. No wonder Sora was so annoyed.

“Initially yes, but once Bokuto-kun gets confidence in his spikes, I’m sure he’ll begin to work on himself for further improvement.” The coach smiled. “He’s not that stupid Akaashi-kun. When the heat of the match gets to him, he’s sharp to score.”

“I know.” Keiji licked his lips. The scene of Bokuto’s powerful spike at the tournament replayed in his mind like a silent movie, only the loud impact of the ball echoing in his ears.

“You’re not the type to back down from a challenge, Akaashi-kun.” Coach Yamiji observed. “Let Bokuto-kun be your new challenge.”

Keiji took in a deep breath before standing up. “I’ll do my best sir.”


 

He had faced a ton of challenges from a very young age. Granted, he wasn’t the best at handling them at first, but he had learnt to adapt and gain control. One of the key things was to keep calm. Unfortunately with Bokuto, it was a daily struggle to do just that.

They were in their third week of the school year when Bokuto slumped back into his difficult moods. The third years ignored his tantrums now as it was now known to everyone in the volleyball club that Keiji was Bokuto’s new ‘babysitter’.

“Bokuto-san.”

“Aghaaashi just leave me okay? I’m worthless I can’t even spike a ball!”

“You spiked the one before perfectly.”

“Pure luck!”

“Your friend from Nekoma won’t be impressed if you continue with this Bokuto-san.”

“Kuroo is never impressed.”

“You told me that he was impressed by your quick in the last training camp.”

“That was last year and it doesn’t count!” Bokuto huffed out but Keiji could see the smile forming on his lips. The string tugged at his ring finger.

His mood is getting better.

“Fine, let’s practice more.” Bokuto held out his hand and Keiji took hold of it, pulling the other boy up. “Toss to me ‘kay~.”

Keiji sighed. “Of course Bokuto-san.” He fiddled with his fingers, pulling slightly at the red string around his ring finger as he followed Bokuto towards the net where the others practiced.

He had realized a few things during this course of time with Bokuto. The first thing was the red string which connected them. It would be loose when Bokuto would be in his moods or any disagreement would take place between them. On other occasions when they would actually be in sync, the thread would be wrapped tightly around his ring finger. None of the strings had done this before, he noted, and he could only touch this particular string. It did serve him as an indicator but it wasn’t very useful on days where Bokuto was particularly very difficult.

Last time Bokuto had grabbed him by his collar when Keiji pointedly told him that his movements were too rough and he needed to be more serious. The captain had sent them off early from practice that day.

The other thing he realized was that Bokuto had many weaknesses to work on and consequently Keiji had many of his weaknesses to work with. He had begun to make a list of Bokuto’s weaknesses. They’d tackle it one by one, he had decided, but with their progress he wasn’t so sure anymore. The inter-school tournament was still far off, but if Bokuto is really to be a regular, they had less time.

Lastly, he realized he had many weaknesses as well. He thought he could bring out the best in Bokuto but his tosses were far from perfect. The speed and stamina which Fukurodani required still surpassed him and the constant jabs on his performance by Sora didn’t improve his mood. Whatever Sora pointed out was right; he was still slow, his physical strength was lacking and given the extra time he practiced with Bokuto, he didn’t find himself improving at all. He would switch to Konoha from time to time, but he realized soon enough that the only reason why he and Konoha functioned smoothly was because Konoha was skilled at every position. It was easy for him to bring out the best from Keiji’s tosses.

It wasn’t the other way around, and that bothered him.


 

“Yo, how’s the setter!”

Keiji tried not to groan as his personal space was invaded by a tall, lanky boy with dark, messy hair.

“Good evening Kuroo-san.”

Kuroo hummed as he slid his arm around Keiji’s shoulder, “You don’t seem in your best spirits today Akaashi-kun.”

Keiji huffed as he tried to push the arm away. Again, he was unable to do so. It seemed as if troublemakers had an extremely strong grip. He really didn’t want to be interrupted on his Sunday trip to the mall by another loud person.

“I’m a bit tired from practice.”

“You had practice today?”

“Only till the afternoon because Bokuto-san wanted to toss extra balls today.”

Kuroo let go of Keiji and walked with him. Keiji noticed the faint glimmer of the red string connecting them both.

“You’re a good guy Akaashi.” Kuroo said at last. “I don’t remember the last time someone went out of their way for Bokuto.”

“I’m not doing it for him.” Keiji replied curtly.

Kuroo raised his brow before shaking his head. “Tell yourself whatever you want, but I know you want Bokuto to improve.”

“With all due respect, I must correct you Kuroo-san,” Keiji sighed, “want to improve. Bokuto-san is just a challenge for me to overcome. He has to improve on his own.”

“A wing spiker can’t improve without a setter Akaashi-kun.” Kuroo pointed out. “But, at least this time someone was willing to toss to him in the practice match.”

Keiji stopped walking and Kuroo paused as well. He looked up at Kuroo and furrowed his brow, “You noticed too?”

Kuroo nodded. “I can tell his seniors don’t like him much. Hell, I didn’t like him much at first either. But the guy is really something.” He sighed, “He’s a bit exhausting but Bo is really passionate when it comes to volleyball.”

“Can you tell me more about him?”

“Interested much?” Kuroo waggled his eyebrows and Keiji rolled his eyes.

“Kuroo-san, please.”

Kuroo grinned, the mischievousness never fading from his face. “Alright, there’s this really cool coffee shop which opened on the third floor. We’ll talk about him during our date there.”  

“Sure.” Keiji shrugged and followed Kuroo.

The red strings appeared, in a tangled mess once more around his body, but he could see clearly that the thread around his right wrist connected with Kuroo’s.

 

The next day before practice, Keiji walked up to Sora. The third year gave him a questioning look and Keiji bowed.

“I want to learn how to make my tosses better. Please teach me Sora-san.”

A hand tapped his shoulder and he rose. Sora studied him before nodding.

“Watch carefully.”


 

Keiji soon found himself excusing from practicing with Bokuto to train with Sora. He would observe the other carefully; the way he tossed to other spikers. Sora informed him about the types of tosses the other spikers preferred and Keiji soon found himself noting them for future reference. Practice with Bokuto was continued intensively after the official practice. He was able to interpret Bokuto’s movements more easily, and began to discuss a few combinations with the other. Bokuto, being eager and full of energy (despite the hours of training), was always ready to try something new.

He would have liked to assume that they were progressing. Practicing with Bokuto meant pushing himself too, adapting to his changing moods as they spent more time together. However, he knew this wasn’t enough for Bokuto. He could toss to Bokuto, try out combinations and refine his own movements, but at the end of the day he wasn’t a regular for this season. It did sting a bit that he was working extra hard as a first year compared to the others, only to be standing at the side to watch. He would deem these thoughts as unnecessary later and think about it positively. He’d be a better and worthy addition in his second year. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t toss to Bokuto in the official matches.

What mattered was that Bokuto was prepared for the tournament. Bokuto had to be used to Sora’s tosses, or at least Sora was to adapt to Bokuto. The latter seemed nearly impossible, Keiji had decided earlier, and so he found himself imagining Sora and positioning himself. He’d try to mimic Sora’s movements.

The day he tossed to Bokuto, mirroring Sora, the spike was successful.

Bokuto, however, felt otherwise. “That…felt different.” He commented as he wiped his upper lip with his sleeve.

“I’ve been learning a few things from Sora-san.” Keiji simply replied.

Bokuto clicked his tongue and shrugged. “I prefer your tosses though.”

“Why?” Keiji blurted. It made no sense. If he could mimic the way Sora tossed to Bokuto, perhaps Bokuto could get the hang of it. Could the spiker adapt to a toss? He could amplify the impact, but was it possible? Keiji had wanted to test.

“Maybe it’s because I can feel that you want me to bring the best out of your tosses.” Bokuto answered instantly.

“And how can you come up with that conclusion?” Keiji swallowed as he felt his cheeks grow warm.

“I just know it!” Bokuto beamed and Keiji had to look away.

Too bright. Too trusting.

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s just that,” Bokuto began as he stepped closer to Keiji, “I know Sora-san doesn’t like that I get too rash.”

So he’s noticed it as well, Keiji thought. It didn’t come as a surprise to him though. He could tell that Bokuto could read the tension in the gym as well as everyone else. Perhaps even more. The gym echoed with his footsteps, them being the only occupants.

Keiji wondered if Bokuto had ever stayed back alone in the gym in his first year. The memory of a dejected Bokuto at the match he had seen played once more.

“I’ve been told that I’m difficult to deal with. I guess I’m lucky that you’re here.” He chuckled. Keiji thought he saw a faint glimmer in Bokuto’s eyes.

“Are you crying Bokuto-san?”

“What?! No!” Bokuto jolted before hastily rubbing his eyes with his fingers. “I just wanted to say that I know you want to improve so I’ve got to improve too!”

Keiji crossed his arms before shaking his head. “We’re here because you wanted to practice your spikes, not the other way around.” he countered at which Bokuto whined.

“’Kaashi! Accept me being serious!”

“It’s hard to do something like that.” Keiji felt his mouth twitch upwards as Bokuto protested further about being so very, very serious.

The red string glimmered around his ring finger. It felt snug around his finger and Keiji gently pulled at it. The thread didn’t budge but it remained to shimmer.

For the first time he felt comforted by its presence.


 

“Oi! First year!”

Keiji furrowed his brow in confusion as he looked up from his book to see the second years from the volleyball club enter his class. His classmates had also paused in their conversations to behold the scene. Keiji felt all eyes on him and he tried to focus on the newcomers instead. Konoha grinned while Komi saluted. Sarukui knocked before entering and they all made their way to his desk. None of them took a seat.

“Come eat with us.” Konoha offered, the grin never dropping. He looked like a scheming fox, much so like Keiji’s first impression of him.

Keiji nodded and stood up from his seat. He wondered why the second years wanted him to spend lunch with them. As they weaved their way through the crowded corridors, Sarukui nudged him with his elbow.

“No bento?” He asked curiously as he peered at Keiji’s empty hands.

“I already ate Sarukui-san.” He did have another bento, but that was for before practice.

“Woah! It’s only been ten minutes since lunch break started!” Komi exclaimed with wide eyes.

Konoha lightly punched him on the side, “You’re messing with us right?”         

“No,” Keiji felt blood rush to his cheeks, “I guess I was hungry today.”

“Ah a growing boy.” Sarukui piped in.

Keiji tried not to roll his eyes. His seniors seemed to find enjoyment in riling others. That explained Bokuto’s random bursts of frustration when Komi or Sarukui would pass a comment when Bokuto would lose his momentum. He made sure they didn’t get to him though. He decided to steer the conversation to another subject.

“Where is Bokuto-san?”

“He’s at the canteen, buying food. Don’t worry he’ll join us in a while.” Komi answered, “Besides, we have to talk to you about something.”

Keiji raised his brow in question but glancing at the other older boys he decided that this conversation was probably not for the corridors.

They ended up going to the roof where Washio was seated already. A pleasant breeze blew in the open space. They joined Washio and Keiji tried not to fidget as a familiar feeling washed over him, making him feel exposed. This almost felt like a confrontation and he tried to keep his nervousness in check.

Don’t let them see. Don’t let them see. Don’t let them see.

The red strings appeared, and he fumbled with his fingers till he could touch the one around his left ring finger.

“Relax.” Washio said, offering a smile.

Keiji raised his chin. “I am.”

Konoha and Komi glanced at each other and Keiji tried not to grit his teeth. What exactly did they want to talk about? He tried to shut down any of the memories that threatened to surface. He wasn’t used to this sort of scenario, and the last time he encountered such a situation; it wasn’t very pleasant.

“Alright, first order of business!” Sarukui tapped his bento with his chopsticks. “Konoha?”

Konoha coughed before turning to Keiji. “Alright so we all know that the Inter-High tournament will start soon and all of us second years want to thank you for your hard work.”

“Hard work?” Keiji blinked. The others laughed and Keiji realized they meant his late practice sessions with Bokuto.

“It’s just that finally there’s someone who can bear Bokuto.” Konoha laughed, “I remember being dragged to toss to him. I barely survived.”

“It’s for my development too.” Keiji countered. All of his hard work wasn’t really for purely altruistic reasons.

“You say that, but as a setter you need to be accustomed with all of us.” Washio stated. “It’s good that you’re practicing with Bokuto-kun, but you’ll be the official setter once Sora-san retires.”

“So after the Inter-High tournament, practice with us lots!” Sarukui declared.

Keiji swallowed. They all had asked him to join them for lunch so they could say this? He wasn’t so sure on how to respond.

“I won’t let you down.” He ended up saying dumbly.

“We’ll be counting on you Akaashi-kun.” Sarukui grinned.

It was then when Konoha snapped his fingers, “There’s another thing too. Akaashi-kun, can you do a favor?”

 


 

The gym was empty when Keiji had arrived. It was expected since he was early. He quickly changed in the locker room and rehearsed the lines in his head. Konoha’s words made sense but he wasn’t sure why the second years wanted him to convey this message to Sora. It wasn’t as if he didn’t agree with them, he had thought about it too.

He just hoped Sora understood. A part of him felt that the whole interaction would go terribly. But he had to; it was for the team after all.

The door opened and Keiji stood up as Sora entered. He bowed and left the locker room as Sora began to change. He drew in a sharp breath and willed to calm down. He took out the paper and rehearsed his lines once more.

 

“Look, as much as we want you to keep practicing with Bokuto,” Konoha begins, “We really need Sora-san to practice with him.”

“They both haven’t gotten the chance to practice much and you’re not a regular either” Washio continues, “And their practice is always a bit…”

“Disastrous?” Sarukui offers.

“…Yes.” Washio coughs before looking straight at Keiji, “Will you bring this point up?”

“Setter to setter talk.” Komi says and when Keiji raises his brow, he shrugs. “Don’t you two get along?”

“Not necessarily, but I can try.” Keiji agrees.

“There you guys are!” Bokuto’s voice booms and Konoha puts his finger on his lips.

It’s better if Bokuto doesn’t know.

 

“Sora-san.”

“Yeah Akaashi-kun?” Sora asked as he adjusted his kneepad.

“There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”

“Fire away.”

Keiji unfolded the paper and handed it to Sora who looked at it questioningly before taking it. “The tournament is near, and I know I’m not a regular while Bokuto-san is. I wanted to request if you could practice more with him. I believe he’s not just the wild card of this team, he’s actually capable of being the ace.” He explained.

The memory of Bokuto telling him about how awesome being the ace was and about how close he was to being the best wing spikers played in his mind. He tried hard not to smile right now as he faced Sora, but Bokuto’s pouting face was clear in his mind when Keiji had informed him that he did not hear a single thing about the top wing spikers from anyone besides Bokuto. The confident declaration of being the future-ace was still fresh in his memory. He looked happy and his stance looked like one of a reliable ace.

But Keiji noticed that Bokuto would only boast about it when they both were alone. He had realized that the team really didn’t accept him as a proper regular and that annoyed Keiji. Bokuto possessed the stamina, the power and the precision once he was in the zone. He could be unpredictable, but the setter had to adapt too; to be unpredictable with him.

The paper had all of Bokuto’s important shortfalls and how he preferred his tosses. Keiji had begun to note down Bokuto’s weaknesses from a very early point and he was able to keep track of which kind of tosses counted in scoring. In the beginning Bokuto preferred his tosses precise for a perfect cross spike whereas towards the end of the set he was unpredictable. If he was in his dejected moods, the best way would be to bring back the momentum through the other team members, make him want to join back in. The best way, he believed, was not to make Bokuto an accessory. If he didn’t function, don’t remove him. Go around him and keep playing. He’d snap out of it soon enough.

There were holes in it, but Keiji knew that only the situation would actually matter in the end. If handled correctly, they could win easily with Bokuto being their main offense.

“What is this?” Sora questioned sharply and Keiji nearly flinched.

“It’s on how to-.”

“I know what it is.” Sora interrupted him. He folded the paper and gave it back to Keiji. “I’ve been on this team longer than you first-year. If I needed advice, I’d ask from the coach. Not a know-it-all-first year.”

“I merely wanted to help.” Keiji clenched his fists. “I didn’t mean to offend. This is my team too.”

Sora crossed his arms and shook his head. “You’re telling me on how to toss. You had the audacity to ask me to teach you. Do you have a list of all of my flaws too?”

“I don’t.”

“You know what, you think you’re real smart. Coming up with a strategy like that. Why not I propose something during practice?” Sora sneered before turning on his heel.

Keiji shuddered once Sora was a safe distance away. An arm slid around his shoulders and he nearly jumped at the contact.

“It didn’t work huh.” Konoha whispered as he gazed at Sora walking away.

Keiji shook his head, wondering what other way he could have approached Sora. He was merely thinking about the team, he never meant to offend his senior. He knew Bokuto was difficult, he had seen them fall apart and he just wanted to provide advice. Besides shouldn’t he be a credible source since he stayed back with Bokuto almost every day?

Apparently not, he thought bitterly.

“It’s okay kid.” Konoha patted his back before going to the bench where Yukie called him.

Keiji tried to assess the situation. Sora was angry and he’d cool down, Keiji tried to convince himself. If anything, he’d just tell him off in front of everyone that Keiji had been disrespectful.

The red strings twisted around him and he tried to touch the ones around his hand. They passed through his hand except for the one around his ring finger.

“Hey, hey, hey Akaaashii!! Let’s do our best!” Bokuto declared and Keiji could only nod. For some reason he couldn’t trust himself speaking out loud.

It’ll be fine, he told himself again.

 

Despite his own reassurances, practice had proved to be a disaster. He had decided to focus on himself for a while. During the practice match, with him on the opposing team from Sora’s, Keiji was able to do a dump shot. It caught the other team by surprise and soon after the second years praised him. Manato gave him a thumbs up whereas Sora looked indifferent. Bokuto squawked in disbelief and soon began to whine about how he had been expecting Keiji to toss to him.

“Someone’s learning from the best.” Manato grinned glancing at Sora who smiled.

Seeing Sora smile made Keiji calm down a bit. He seemed to be in a better mood. But he wasn’t expecting what was to come later.

“Actually, I have an announcement.” Sora clapped his hands once the match was over. He earned the whole gym’s attention. “I feel Akaashi-kun is very gifted. And he has a whole strategy planned. I want him to have a taste of real competition.”

Keiji shot a warning glance to the coach who was intently listening to Sora. He felt the thread squeeze his finger and he found himself looking at Bokuto whose gaze was on him. He knew something was wrong too. Keiji looked away.

“I want Akaashi-kun to play in every second set of the matches we’ll have. I’ll switch with him of course.”

The gym was quiet. It seemed that everyone was too stunned to respond, or perhaps were wondering on how to take this in. Coach Yamiji rose from his seat and everyone turned to him.

“That’s an interesting proposal Sora-kun.” Coach Yamiji said, “Akaashi-kun has been practicing with Bokuto-kun so I feel that this will be a promising duo. But Akaashi-kun,” He turned to Keiji, “Get close to those who will be in the second set sequence. I want you to practice with Manato-kun and Konoha-kun as well. Reduce a couple of hours with Bokuto-kun. Talk to me after practice as well.”

Keiji felt the world darken around him. It felt as if a heavy weight had been put on his shoulders, crushing him. He couldn’t believe that the coach had easily accepted the proposal. How could he, a first year of a prestigious volleyball club, be a regular? All eyes on him, Keiji wanted nothing more than to leave. But he knew he couldn’t- or rather wouldn’t. Not with Sora giving him a nasty smile, the other third year sharply assessing him and Manato looking at him, just simply dumbfounded. He couldn’t bear to face the other members though.

But a part of him felt proud. He could prove himself to the others. After all, he had been working hard for being a worthy regular. Perhaps his timing was early.

The string around his ring finger felt loose and he touched it slightly, hoping it wouldn’t slip off.

He simply nodded at the coach.

“Noted.”


 

The gym had emptied after the end of practice, save for Keiji and Bokuto. It seemed as if the air had thinned around them, Bokuto did not speak during the entire practice after Sora’s practice. Keiji hadn’t minded at first; he had thought Bokuto was being considerate for once and letting Keiji gain more experience with Konoha and Washio.

However, the lack of eye contact and the evident avoidance gave way to frustration on Keiji’s part. He knew well soon enough that Bokuto was avoiding him. It annoyed Keiji a bit; wasn’t he the one given more responsibility with the team’s performance in the Inter-High tournament. Even tossing to Konoha and Washio didn’t provide him any comfort or tease him. It seemed as if a brick wall was built between Keiji and the others.

Isn’t this familiar?

He pulled at his ring finger, twisting the thread around it. The string was loose today.

Only the coach had tried to ease him off the pressure placed on him. He had reassured Keiji about his skills but he knew they wouldn’t go far if his teammates refused to interact with him. A lump formed in his throat. Why was he supposed to be the isolated one? He had been acting on behalf of the second years. Why should he be shunned by those who had put him in this situation?

He stood there, waiting for Bokuto’s call to toss to him. Instead Bokuto began to practice his jump serves.

The sound of the ball’s impact reverberated through the gym. Keiji shuddered. What was he to the team now? What was he to Bokuto?

What did I do wrong?

“Won’t we practice quicks today?” Keiji asked, the taste in his mouth turning sour.

Bokuto had another ball in his hand. He didn’t turn to Keiji. Instead he tossed it and did another jump serve. This time it wasn’t as precise and it went out.

“Bokuto-san.”

Another jump serve.

“Let me toss to you.”

Did I offend you in some way?

This wasn’t sulking. Bokuto was focused, his eyes not leaving his target points. Another serve. One more. Keiji felt his heart sink every time the ball hit the ground. Bokuto was thinking hard, sorting things out by himself.

And avoiding Keiji.

 

It’s always been like this.

Akaashi Keiji likes to make a scene.

Akaashi Keiji needs to disappear.

 

“Why are you avoiding me?”

Bokuto paused- a slight movement indicating hesitation. He did another jump serve. He then turned to get another ball. He wasn’t able to.

Keiji had grabbed the hem of his shirt from behind. Keiji didn’t think when he had moved. All he knew was that Bokuto now stood still, his back hunched and breathing ragged.

“Why?” Keiji whispered.

Bokuto sighed. “I really don’t think you should have given Sora-san that impression. You should have stayed quiet.”

“Really now.” Keiji found himself snapping. He tried to keep his anger in check but he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Bokuto didn’t seem to care about him at all. Keiji should have expected that coming; Bokuto thinking for his own selfish reasons, or how they could get to nationals and Keiji just seemed to have created more obstacles. “I just wanted to help. I’m not a regular.”

“Well, you’re part of the team now.” Bokuto replied sharply.

“I never asked for it!”

He didn’t intend for the events to turn out this way. He never wanted to be a regular so early. He respected his seniors, he knew their last year was important. Even if part of him always wanted to be a regular as soon as possible, he knew his limits.

“Well then you shouldn’t have said anything.” Bokuto turned and Keiji let go of his shirt. He was livid. “You shouldn’t have made it such an issue!”

Keiji could only see red. Was he really being seen this way? What did Bokuto make out of him through that one announcement by Sora? He hadn’t even heard Keiji’s side of the story. Besides, didn’t he do this for Bokuto? Wasn’t it about Bokuto that Sora and Keiji didn’t agree on? He clenched his fists as he stepped closer to the taller boy.  

“I did it for you!” He yelled. “All this time, I stayed back to help you improve Bokuto. I saw you last season! I saw how they used you as a chance! And I knew you were more than that! I was willing to help you become that ace you’ve always wanted to be.” He jabbed Bokuto’s chest with a finger before looking at his face.

Bokuto looked back at him with a stunned expression. Keiji let out a sigh and stepped back.

“But I guess that’s a bother too huh? Why don’t you flaunt being the ace in front of anyone else?”

I don’t need you.

“That’s none of your concern Akaashi.” Bokuto fumed. “You knew I was a failure. I couldn’t ever be the best. Everyone knew. So stop lying.”

Keiji let out a laugh. It came out broken and bitter but he couldn’t care less. “I was willing to help. But if you won’t accept anyone’s help, it’s no wonder you’re treated as the black sheep.”

“It’s not as if everyone likes you either.” Bokuto countered.

Keiji froze.

“Don’t think that you’re any better with the others. You’re worse off than me at this rate.”

“You know what?” Keiji raised his arms in surrender, “I don’t care. I really don’t care anymore. Remember to lock up when you leave.”

 

Keiji turned and walked away from Bokuto, towards the locker room and slammed the door behind him. He trembled as he leaned against the door and brought his hands to his face. He slid down on the floor and whimpered as he drew his knees in. The feeling was familiar; isolated and hated. None of the third years liked him much, the captain must already think of him as a burden. He supposed this was still lenient since he was the only setter. Perhaps if there was another, he’d be kicked off by now. The second years couldn’t like him either. After all, didn’t they just use him to get their work done? He was just a first-year who could do petty work. He was angry with himself for letting his guard down.

Bokuto was right. He was the black sheep. Ever since the beginning. He couldn’t get along with his peers, and when he did try he’d be left with a few acquaintances who too would fade away into their own lives. Their red strings had refused to appear, only a faint glimmer at times, a bitter reminder of what he should have done. Perhaps the new strings would fade too. He glanced at the ring finger. Only Bokuto’s string was visible right now and he clicked his tongue in frustration.

He was a fool to think he could bring Bokuto into the spotlight. It was his ego that had fueled him. How could he simply bring out the best in someone when he couldn’t even improve himself? He should have known better. To think he was willing to work so hard for someone who refused to acknowledge it.

Hot tears rolled down his cheeks as he glared at the string. He had worked hard. He had cooperated with Bokuto and learnt to work with his moods. He had stayed back till late, missed dinner at times for exhaustion would give way to sleep. He had to manage school work with volleyball practice and he was willing to do it all again and again.

But if it was to be like this…he pulled at the string. It was loose. He could cut it and let life roll on its own with the adjustment. If his relation with Bokuto ceased to exist, it might turn out to be better for him. For the both of them.

Their relationship was a problem. He wasn’t able to bring out the best in Bokuto, and Bokuto was unable to acknowledge and trust Keiji. He was too simple-minded, too hotheaded, too unpredictable and too dependent.

Bokuto was the problem. And Keiji had to fix it all as usual.

Determined, Keiji pulled the string. If he could remove the link, things could be better. At least…better than this.

When the string refused to snap, Keiji pulled at it with his teeth. When he was able to snap it off- break his relation with Bokuto- the red string gave a faint glimmer before disappearing. A cold feeling washed over him and he shuddered.

He heard something crash from the gym. Bokuto must have bumped into something. He decided he didn’t care enough to open the door and look. Instead he got up and changed into his school uniform. He wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, hoping they wouldn’t seem as swollen to for questions to arise once he returned home. He grabbed his bag and quickly left the gym, glancing once towards Bokuto who sat there on the ground, staring at his left hand.

The cool air blew in his direction. His ring finger felt exposed and Keiji brought his hands together, rubbing his palms together to keep warm. He was alright, this was normal for him after all, he reminded himself. He had done this before. Bokuto wouldn’t even remember their fight. It would be fine. He could even quit. He really didn’t need to play in this team. He could join some other club. Perhaps he could join some neighborhood association for volleyball. He could make any choice for himself. There was always an alternative.

Cut off all your problems Keiji.


 

The following day, Keiji entered the gym to be greeted by Konoha and Washio. He could feel the gazes on his back as he followed the two for warm ups. Sarukui patted his shoulder but Keiji did not show a sign of having a friendly conversation.

He still didn’t forgive them for pushing him and then not supporting him.

It was only when Keiji began to set for Konoha and Washio that he realized something was not right.

“Bokuto called in sick.” Washio offered when Keiji scanned the gym.

“Oh.” Keiji frowned when he couldn’t feel the red string on his red finger anymore.

I cut it, he realized. The string wouldn’t appear anymore. Keiji positioned himself and tossed to Konoha. It barely missed Konoha’s hand and he apologized.

Maybe they wouldn’t converse again. Maybe one of them would end up leaving the volleyball club. They couldn’t be linked anymore. Bokuto wasn’t in Keiji’s life anymore, nor was Keiji in his.

He found himself touching and pulling at his ring finger from time to time, only to touch nothing but his skin.

He felt empty.

This happens. You’ll get used to it.

Cut off all your problems Keiji.

 

Coach Yamiji had steered him to the bench towards the end of the practice.

“Everything alright?” He asked, his eyes scanning Keiji’s face for something.

“Yes sir.”

The coach raised his brow and when Keiji did not falter in his position, he chuckled.

“Don’t get so worked up. Today seemed like a slow day to me as well.” He gave Keiji a knowing smile. “Sometimes we all need Bokuto-kun to lift our moods eh?”

“Bokuto-san?” Keiji blinked and the coach nodded.

“Haven’t you noticed how fired up we all are with Bokuto-kun yelling and boasting around?” Coach Yamiji shrugged, “I’ve noticed Bokuto-kun tends to make everyone want to be in their very best.”

“Even Sora-san?” Keiji blurted, before glancing around the said senior.

“Even Sora-kun.” The coach confirmed.

“But they don’t get along.” Keiji pulled at his ring finger, as if his fingers needed to touch the string again or else they’d keep on searching for it. It was annoying.

The coach seemed to study his fingers before he shook his head. “Sora-kun can’t cope with Bokuto’s energy and that seems to make him in a foul mood. He wants to improve; Sora-kun always wants the best for Fukurodani. He can’t improve with Bokuto-kun and that makes him furious. Not at Bokuto’s weaknesses,” he sighed, “but his own incapability to adapt to Bokuto’s character.”

“Bokuto-san has many weaknesses.” Keiji pointed out.

“He does, but don’t we all? You were distracted today.” Coach Yamiji gave him a questioning look, “I trust Sora-kun’s decision to put you in the team. He didn’t do this out of hatred Akaashi-kun. He knows you have a drive to bring out the best with your tosses. He knows you’re capable.”

Keiji swallowed. He wondered if he was shaking. So everyone believed that he and Bokuto had potential. And yet they received such treatment? He wanted to give everyone a piece of his mind. The coach could also be deluded. Maybe he yearned for a functioning team that he perceived it all in such a way.

There was no way Bokuto inspired others to work hard.

There was no way Keiji was important to the team.

The coach patted his shoulder. “You’re carrying a burden which you don’t have to. Trust your teammates Akaashi-kun.”

Keiji felt his eyes prickling but he nodded and excused himself. He swiftly walked past Yukie and left the gym. It was only when the cool wind greeted him and the cold made him shiver and the thoughts flooded his mind.

Bokuto and I can never work again.

I cut him off.

I’m cut from him.


 

He was the last one left in the gym. The second years had offered to stay back and practice but Keiji had insisted he just needed to practice his jump serves. They had left after much convincing and soon Keiji was alone.

He hadn’t practiced any jump serves. Instead he sat cross legged on the floor, ball in his lap as he absentmindedly stroked his left ring finger. He should practice, or at least lock up and go back home.

The door slammed open and Keiji jumped to his feet in surprise.

“Akaashi?”

Keiji blinked. Bokuto stood there leaning against the door frame, panting while his hair was unkempt and not in his usual eccentric style.

“Bokuto-san?”

“Give me a minute.” Bokuto heaved out as he fell on his knees. “One second!”

Keiji pinched the bridge of his nose before he turned towards the bench to bring back his water bottle. Bokuto gratefully accepted it and opened the bottle to gulp it down. He ended up coughing at which Keiji began to rub his back.

When he settled down and the gym was no longer echoing with Bokuto’s cough, Keiji sat across him.

“You wanted to say something Bokuto-san?”

“Oh? Oh right.” Bokuto scooted closer. He grabbed Keiji’s hands and squeezed them. “I’m sorry.”

“For?” Keiji tried to pull away his hands but Bokuto’s grip didn’t falter. He felt his neck grow hot. Bokuto was too close for comfort. He had to remind Bokuto again about personal space but for now he decided to let it slide and waited for his answer.

“I really shouldn’t have shouted at you. I shouldn’t have said that people didn’t like you from our team.” He put his head down till his forehead touched Keiji’s fingers. “I’m sorry Akaashi. Everyone likes you. Everyone thinks you’re real smart and a genius.”

“They don’t.” Keiji replied coldly.

Bokuto shook his head, his hair brushing Keiji’s knuckles. “They like you. And I like you Akaashi.”

“Really now.” Keiji said sarcastically.

Bokuto lifted his head, gold eyes now burning into Keiji’s. “I do. You’re the first to accept staying back with me.” He gave Keiji’s hands another squeeze. “You never said I was dumb. You believed in me. And you saying that you could make me the ace… was really nice.”

Keiji chose to look at their hands. Bokuto’s fingers were smaller than his, but his hands were wider, thicker. There was still no string on either of their fingers.

“I’m sorry too. For losing my temper.” Keiji whispered.

“No! You don’t have to apologize!” Bokuto exclaimed. “I’m the one to blame ‘Kaashi! I messed up. I shouldn’t have been so intimidated by Sora-san!”

“But you were.” Keiji looked back to Bokuto who grinned.

“I realized Akaaaashi’s angry face is scarier.”

Keiji huffed but he felt his lips twitch upwards. “You’re forgiven Bokuto-san.”

“That’s amazing!” Bokuto let out a laugh. “I was afraid you’d be mad at me forever! You’ll help me be the ace? I’ll help you be the best setter ever!”

“I’ll help you, and you’ll help me,” Keiji began and he noticed a faint glimmer on his finger, “I’ll toss to you.”

Bokuto’s grin widened. He squeezed Keiji’s hands one last time, before releasing them. “You’re the best Akashii!”

As Keiji saw Bokuto run to get a ball, he slowly got up and touched the shimmering red string on his ring finger once more. The string trailed to Bokuto and Keiji wondered if the strings really could be mended.

“Akaaashii!!”

Keiji rolled his shoulders as he made his way to Bokuto. Whatever the reason was, he was glad their relationship hadn’t disappeared.


 

“Nervous?”

The chants for Fukurodani increased as they stepped into the court. Keiji glanced at Konoha before looking back at the crowd cheering for them.

“Not really.”

 

“We’re sorry.” Komi starts but Keiji waves his hand.

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“It wasn’t fair on you.” Konoha leans against the wall and Keiji closes his eyes.

“It wasn’t.” Keiji admits, “But that’s done now and I’m fine with how things have worked out.”

“That’s because Akaashi and I are practicing way better!” Bokuto pipes in, his arm slung around Keiji’s shoulders. “We have this in the bag!”

“Please don’t be overconfident Bokuto-san.”

Sarukui laughs and Washio shakes his head.

“Let’s have a practice match. I’ll ask the captain.” Komi suggests and Bokuto lets out a whoop.

Keiji would have told off Bokuto about personal space but he lets it be. The red strings are twisted and wrapped all around them; with him being able to see them all linked and connected.

He thinks it’s alright to spend time with his teammates.

 

“Come on everybody.” Manato interrupted their conversation. He gave them a smile. “Let’s do our best.”

A collective ‘yes sir’ was heard and Keiji followed Bokuto for the warmups.

 

“All of these are mine?!” Bokuto exclaims in disbelief. “Aghaaashi, I can’t be that bad!”

“You’ll get us kicked out of the library Bokuto.” Komi shushes him before turning to Keiji. “Continue Akaashi-kun.”

Keiji nods and circles the most troublesome of Bokuto’s weaknesses. Konoha and Washio lean in to see while Sarukui clicks his pen and Yukie peeks from Keiji’s side.

“Bokuto-san tends to go into his many moods. Yesterday was a prime example.”

“Hey!” Bokuto jabs Keiji’s side with his pen, “It was an off day for me!” he whispers.

Keiji ignores him and begins to draw a circle. “I’ve seen Fukurodani’s past matches with Bokuto-san playing. What I see is that when Bokuto-san goes into his moods, everyone else’s performance falls significantly as well.”

“Why does that happen?” Yukie muses out loud and Konoha shrugs.

“Coach Yamiji says that Bokuto-san’s mood affects the team and can affect the opposing team as well. But I don’t really agree.”

“You don’t?” Bokuto squawks.

“It’s the flaw of the team for not adapting. As selfish as Bokuto-san may be-.”

“Hey!”

“Shhh!!” Komi and Sarukui frown at Bokuto who raises his hands up in defeat.

“He may be selfish, but it’s not something we can cure in the match. So I suggest we come up with a strategy to adapt to his moods. The fault lies in the team as well. Bokuto-san will be a proper regular after the third years graduate-.”

“Still am.” Bokuto grumbles as he puts his head down. Keiji fights the urge to run his fingers through his hair.

“And if we cannot adapt to a short giving, we can’t really call ourselves a top volleyball team.”

“Harsh.” Sarukui grins.

“So we make sure Bokuto is out of the way for a while-.” Washio starts, tapping his chin thoughtfully with his pen.

“And then pave a way for him to score when the opponent least suspects it.” Keiji finishes.

Konoha lets out a low whistle and narrows his gaze at Bokuto. “You better work hard Bokuto.”

“He is.”

“I am!”

Bokuto blinks and Keiji covers his mouth to hide the smile forming on his lips.

“You think so?”

“Yes Bokuto-san.”

“It’s a good plan.” Yukie pipes in. “I’ll forward this to the coach so you guys can talk to him at practice.”

 

Sora motioned Bokuto to come over. Bokuto began to practice his spikes with Sora. He was better, Keiji noted as Bokuto spiked the first toss successfully. It wasn’t that powerful to turn heads, but Bokuto’s power accelerated as the match progressed.

He touched the red string around his ring finger as he hoped for the matches to go well. Sarukui called him and he turned towards the second years.

 

Their team was facing against Shinzen High in the first match. It was a skilled team, known for its combinations. Receives still needed work, had an effective block but Fukurodani could handle them.

Seated on the bench, Keiji could clearly see Bokuto itching to start. The match commenced with Shinzen High’s player serving. Keiji looked on to Fukurodani. A third year received it and passed the ball to Sora who tossed to Manato. The whistle blew and Keiji noticed Bokuto getting agitated on the court.

“Akaashi, eyes on Shinzen High.” The coach chided. “Look for openings, they have first years too. You’ll be playing in the second set remember.”

“Yes.” Keiji tore his gaze away from Bokuto, silently hoping that the other would wait. He began to assess their opponent.

 

“I don’t get it. I have to wait for Sora-san to toss to me?” Bokuto scrunches his face in confusion.

“Sora-san will only toss to you if the probability of you scoring is high.” Keiji sighs as Bokuto traces what seems like Keiji’s side profile in the air with his pen. “Not every toss is yours.”

Bokuto frowns. “I’ll get to spike as much as I want when you’re playing right?”

Keiji shrugs. “Depends on the situation. Don’t expect that much from me.”

“But you’re the best!”

“Bokuto-san, the librarian is giving us a murderous look.”

Bokuto pushes away his books and laughs. “Good, we don’t have to study. Come over to my place.”

“I prefer to study.”

“Study at my place.”

Knowing that if he accepts the invitation, they wouldn’t get anything done as Bokuto would take out his board games or start a movie- anything to distract them from doing what Bokuto deemed as ‘boring’ work.

Keiji gets up and picks his books. “Let’s go to my house instead.”

Bokuto thinks it’s a great idea. Keiji hopes they’ll be done with their studies in time. It is only when they leave the premises that Bokuto slings his arm around Keiji’s shoulders.

“I trust you Akaashi.” He says, catching Keiji off-guard.

“Oh.” Keiji manages at the time.

The red string tugs at him around his ring finger.

 

A powerful spike broke through the wall created by Shinzen’s blockers. The other members on the bench cheered while the crowd chanted Fukurodani. Keiji looked towards their side and noticed Bokuto’s eyes gleaming, his intense expression on his face that would have made Keiji shudder had he been on the opposing side.

He scored.

The first set seemed to go by in an instant. Shinzen would surprise them with their new combination attack, but Komi was quick and Konoha was versatile. Sora seemed to be calm and calculated. Bokuto would spike a few of his tosses, but Keiji was pleased that he had held back after pleading from the other second years. (Although Keiji didn’t feel that such drastic measures were needed.)

Fukurodani won the set, the score being 22-25. The next set was going to start soon and Keiji felt his hands cold with sweat. He fumbled for the card to switch with Sora and inwardly cursed for being so jittery.

“Good luck Akaashi-kun.” Yukie offered with a thumbs up. Keiji could only manage a stiff nod at the time.

“You’ve practiced hard y’know.” Sarukui reassured. “Wish I could play with you but another time.”

“Next game.” Keiji said and Sarukui laughed.

“Next game for sure.”

Keiji threw a glance towards Coach Yamiji who smiled.

“I know you’re capable.”

I don’t know if I am, he thought to himself.

The strings made their appearance and Keiji stroked his thumb over the one that connected him and Bokuto.

 

Keiji drew in a deep breath and held out his card. Sora made his way to him and took the card from his hand.

“Win this.” He muttered as he walked past Keiji.

Keiji took his position in the front row. Beside him stood Washio and Manato while Komi, Konoha and Bokuto stood behind. The whistle blew signaling Bokuto to start the game with his serve. Bokuto tossed the ball and jumped to spike it. It was powerful enough that it bounced towards the bleachers after making contact with the ground. The court was silent, the moment seeming to take forever to pass, as if every individual was still processing what had happened.

The whistle confirmed their point and cheers echoed in the gym. Keiji glanced at Bokuto and they made eye contact. A grin played on his lips and his eyes burned into Keiji’s.

 

(Toss to me. Let’s show them.)

 

A monster, Keiji thought as he returned the grin with a small smile. He felt Bokuto’s string tug at his finger.

Bokuto served again and this time Shinzen’s libero received it. The ball was spiked to their side and Komi received it.

“Akaashi!”                         

The ball made contact with Keiji’s hands and he tossed it towards Manato. He spiked the ball and they scored.

 Keiji’s heart was pounding. This was only just the beginning. He hadn’t tossed to Bokuto yet. No one in this court really knew Bokuto’s true potential. No one except for Keiji. The thought made him feel more confident. He couldn’t wait for Bokuto to spike his tosses. 

He was going to make Fukurodani win.

“’kaashi!”

The ball was passed to Keiji and he tossed it. Bokuto had jumped. The ball connected to his hand and he broke the wall before him with a successful cross-spike.

The sound of the ball against the ground echoed in Keiji’s ears.

Not enough.

The game carried on and Shinzen had scored well enough. The score was 15-18. They would catch up soon, Keiji had realized and as the ball was passed to him once more, Manato and Bokuto beginning to jump to spike, Keiji positioned to toss. As he jumped indicating to toss, he snapped his left wrist and the ball dropped to the other side. The whistle blew and his teammates looked at him with a surprised expression before they broke into grins.

He felt the dirty looks of Shinzen’s blockers but he didn’t care. Bokuto pouted, grumbling about him thinking Keiji was going to toss to him, but Keiji could make out the slight pride in his voice. He made eye contact with one of the blocker. Keiji smirked.

You’ll have to keep an eye on me too.

When he had thought they were making good progress, Bokuto’s mood made its appearance. It happened when his spikes started to get blocked. It worsened when Keiji opted to toss to Manato instead. He was grumbling and sulking. Don’t toss to me, he would repeat from time to time.

“You’re only sulking because you know it’s easier with me.” He declared when their coach called for a time out. Bokuto yelped.

“No! I’m just bad! I can’t make the best use of your tosses!”

Komi laughed nervously. “Come on Bokuto, you’re the man of the match here.”

“Pretty sure a beautiful girl is rooting for you in the bleachers.” Yukie offered.

Bokuto huffed. “She’ll be disappointed.”

“Please calm down Bokuto-san.” Keiji glanced at Sora who rolled his eyes at him. Bristling, he turned to Bokuto again. “I’ll make sure you score. We need to score six more points. I’ll make sure you get the last one.”

Bokuto considered him for a while before he nodded.

“Make sure you make up for Bokuto-kun’s moods.” Coach Yamiji advised. “Didn’t you have a plan for that Akaashi-kun?”

“We all do.” Keiji replied while the others agreed.

The match resumed and Bokuto didn’t ask for anymore tosses. He would halfheartedly jump but Keiji knew he wasn’t going to spike. The team began to function without Bokuto slowly, avoiding his dampening mood. It would change soon. The red string tugged a bit at his finger.

Not yet.

Manato and Konoha would spike and created a formidable offense. Washio’s blocks kept them grounded. Komi was their backbone. Fukurodani was back in track, but they were all waiting for Bokuto’s comeback. Their future ace was waiting for the right moment.

 

Akashii!! Ask me what I’m thinking!” Bokuto jumps in excitement.

“We’re supposed to be practicing quicks.” Keiji responds which results in Bokuto whining.

“Please!!!”

Keiji sighs in resignation. “What are you thinking Bokuto-san?”

“Well,” Bokuto straightens and puffs out his chest, “I’m thinking of what kind of ace I will be!”

“If you’ll be the ace.”

“Akaaashi!” Bokuto deflates before shaking his head. “No! I’m going to be the ace!” He points a finger at Keiji. “You’ll see!”

Keiji wonders if he should remind Bokuto that pointing fingers is rude. He leaves it for now and shrugs. “Fine. Let’s assume you are the ace. Now what?”

“Don’t give me that look! Scary!” Bokuto sticks out his tongue and Keiji thinks about an overgrown child. He opts for a smile but Bokuto shakes his shoulders. “Now you look mean!”

“Out with it.” Keiji deadpans and Bokuto nods.

“I’m going to be the kind of ace which lifts the spirits of my team. Gets them fired up and wanting to win!”

It’s not like you already don’t, Keiji thinks to himself but chooses to not voice it out.

“I’ll be the ace which makes the setter feel that he tossed to the right guy!” He stops and looks straight at Keiji. “I’ll make sure your tosses don’t go to waste.”

With Bokuto’s gaze on him, Keiji finds it hard to form words. He chooses to look away.

Bright. Bokuto burns bright and Keiji wonders if he’ll go blind one day, unable to keep up.

“You better not anyways.” He replies and Bokuto squawks.

“Akaaashiiii have more faith in me!”

“I do, but don’t make promises for what you’re required to do.”

“Ah, mean.” Bokuto pouts.

“I trust you.” Keiji finds himself speaking, his heart hammering against his chest. Bokuto stops making faces and gives him a beaming smile. 

“I trust you too!”

“Now let’s practice.” Keiji changes the subject and Bokuto happily slides his arm around Keiji’s shoulders, warmth radiating from his body. Keiji feels his own cheeks turn hot and thinks it absurd.

The red strings appear and he sees them both wrapped and tangled in them. He wonders which ones Bokuto considers as important and a part of him hopes that the string around Bokuto’s left ring finger means some importance to him too.

He realizes later that only he can see the red strings and Bokuto can’t.

 

They were able to find their rhythm soon enough. They had countered their fair share of issues with Shinzen but the time was nearing. Their current level of offense and defense was satisfactory. They had their set point now. Bokuto’s halfhearted actions and low demeanor throughout the game had made Shinzen consider Bokuto less of a threat.

The string tugged hard against his finger and Keiji threw a quick glance at Bokuto who licked his lips.

 

(‘Toss to me.’)

 

Shinzen received Washio’s spike and the ball was spiked to Fukurodani’s side. Komi received it and passed the ball to Keiji.

He knew that he could toss it to the left and let either Konoha or Manato score. But Shinzen seemed to consider this as the blockers made their way towards the wing spikers.

However, they didn’t notice Bokuto on the right. Keiji’s plan worked. They underestimated Bokuto. As soon as the ball made contact with Keiji’s hand, he felt another tug. He tossed the ball to the right.

To Bokuto.            

Bokuto was in the air and he spiked the ball. In less than a second the ball slammed on the ground, the whole gym reverberating with the sound. The whistle blew to confirm their point. Keiji stood there stunned as he replayed the scene again and again in his mind.

 

“Did you know that I used to be a wing spiker in middle school?” Sora mentions one day during his practice with Keiji.

“No I didn’t.” Keiji replies politely. He sees Sora’s expectant gaze and he adds in a question. “Why are you a setter now Sora-san?”

Sora grins. “You have control. People think the wing spikers are the ones who change the tide in the game. But it’s the setters who decide the strategy first.”

“It’s not only dependent on the setter.” Keiji voices out before he catches himself.

Sora gives him a calculating look. “It’s not, I agree. But the setter allows the spiker to be in the spotlight. If the wing spiker knows the script, it’ll play out perfectly. But if the spiker is unpredictable…”

Keiji realizes that Sora is referring to Bokuto. He clenches his fists, suddenly defensive.

“But if he does bring out the best of the toss?”

“Then he should be the ace.” Sora replies smugly.

 

He replayed the scene: Bokuto in the air, his form perfect and his aim sharp and precise. It was exactly what Keiji had wanted. His toss had been a risk, but it played out right. Bokuto knew what Keiji wanted, in fact knew what they wanted and he executed it perfectly. Keiji felt his lips twitch upwards as he clenched his fists and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishing his goal.

They won the game.

Two strong arms wrapped around him and lifted him up. A gleeful laugh tickled his ear and Keiji wriggled his arms to wrap them around Bokuto’s wide shoulders.

“We did it!” He squeezed Keiji and soon more arms wrapped around them. He felt Manato ruffle his hair and Konoha whoop in joy.

“I can’t breathe.” Keiji laughed, trying to push away from Bokuto’s chest, while the other still held him close. The team around them didn’t budge either.

“We still have another match to win you know!” Sora called out and Keiji turned his head a bit to see him.

Sora was smiling, Yukie was waving and the coach seemed to be brimming with pride.

“We have another match.” Keiji agreed and the others slowly let go.

“We all knew you could do it Akaashi.” Sarukui patted his back.

“Hey, hey, hey! Isn’t Akaashi the best! I was the best and he’s the best so it was obvious!” Bokuto boasted.

Keiji pulled away from Bokuto’s arms. “Let’s line up Bokuto-san.” He pulled at Bokuto’s sleeve.

Bokuto beamed as he followed. “We won ‘Kaashi!”

“I know.” Keiji smiled. “We won.” He repeated.


 

“I’m retiring.” Sora announced.

The gym was silent before Bokuto blurted. “Why?”

The Inter-High was over. Fukurodani had managed to make it to the nationals and had lost in the semifinals. Back in the gym, their practices lax and slow, the whole tournament had felt like a dream to Keiji.

Now their vice-captain stood announcing his retirement.

“Will you too Manato-san?” Konoha turned to the captain.

“I haven’t talked to my counsellor yet,” Manato replied sheepishly. “I’ll get back to you guys in a few days.”

Sora rolled his eyes. “Manato can still manage his studies and club activities. I can’t.”

“But that’s because you’re applying abroad.” Manato elbowed him and Sora grinned.

“Right.” Sora pushed Manato’s arm away. Keiji noticed Sora’s hand linger while Manato seemed to look at him with unspoken pride.

“It’ll be chaos with you not around Sora-kun.” Coach Yamiji stated.

Sora shook his head. “I have a successor to keep the rough ones in check. Akaashi-kun.”

Keiji straightened and nodded. “I won’t disappoint.”

“Wait! Will Akaashi scold us all now?!” Bokuto exclaimed with wide eyes.

“Yes.” Keiji replied seriously and Bokuto jolted. The gym erupted with laughter while Bokuto looked as if he was betrayed. Amongst the noise, Sora motioned for Keiji to join him.

“I need to talk to my successor alone.”

 

They walked out of the gym and Sora stretched his arms.

“I’ll miss practice.”

“You can join in anytime.”

Sora gave Keiji a smirk. “Already taking my position eh?”

Keiji shrugged, a small smile threatening to give way. “I like having control. It comes with being a setter.”

Sora chuckled. “I raised you well.” His smile was replaced with a grim expression. “I’m sorry for being harsh on you throughout.”

Taken aback by the apology, Keiji shook his head. “It helped me.”

“I was unreasonable for putting so much on you in your first year.” He smiled slightly, “I’m glad you kept up with me.”

I’ve gone through worse, Keiji wanted to say, but he kept quiet as Sora continued.

“I don’t know if you saw it, but in the first match when you tossed to Bokuto for the set point… it was perfect. You both seemed to know what to achieve. It was perfect.” Sora smiled. “I can’t ever match up to that because I know you still have a long way to improve.”

“Only a little more than a year with Bokuto-san though.”

“Then make it count.”

Keiji felt two hands on his shoulders and before he knew it, he was pulled into a hug. He awkwardly wrapped his arms around Sora once he realized the other was crying, his shoulder wet with tears.

“You’re a great setter.” Keiji said lamely. He wasn’t too good with cheering other people up besides Bokuto who required praise and attention. With Sora, he was unsure.

“I know, I just didn’t want the others to see.” Sora replied with a muffled sob following.

“And you let me?”

“Yes.”

Keiji let himself relax and decided to rub circles on Sora’s back. It was strange, but it felt nice all the same. He and Sora had warmed up to each other after the first match, with Keiji feeling that he had passed Sora’s test but seeing his senior vulnerable like this made Keiji value their relationship more. It meant that Sora really trusted him.

The red strings appeared and Keiji saw the red string glimmering around Sora’s bicep connecting to him.

He hoped it didn’t disappear overtime like the others.


 

The amount of strange and out-of-place things didn’t stop there. Bokuto didn’t insist to stay back this time. They both were the last to leave the gym as usual, but Bokuto’s announcement of them walking home caught Keiji off guard.

“Are you in mourning that Sora-san retired?”

“No! I mean a bit…but I think we can take it easy right now!” Bokuto babbled out, fumbling with his fingers.

Keiji eyed him suspiciously, looking for any hints of Bokuto’s sudden decision, but there was nothing too significant to notice.

“Alright.”

The walk to the train station felt off too. They walked in silence and Keiji waited for Bokuto to start on his recollection of the day.

Bokuto kept silent. So Keiji decided to speak and prompt him.

“Sora-san told me that the third years wanted to make me the captain.”

“What?!” Bokuto exclaimed. “Really?”

Keiji nodded solemnly. “But they can’t make a first year captain. They’re thinking of making Washio-san the captain.”

“Washio would make a good captain,” Bokuto nodded, “Who’s the ace?”

Keiji smirked. “Konoha-san.”

“What?! The jack of trades! No way!” Bokuto fumed. “I wanted to be number four…”

“I’m lying.” Keiji admitted. “I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Bokuto chewed on his lower lip before snapping his fingers. “That means I can still be ace!” He laughed. “Don’t scare me ‘Kaashi!!”

“You were too quiet.” Keiji stated.

“Yeah…right…I was thinking.”

This can’t be good, Keiji thought.

“Want to go to the park?” Bokuto asked suddenly. “I want to watch the sunset.”

“Really.” Keiji sighed.

One look at Bokuto’s eager face made Keiji certain that he didn’t have a choice. He nodded and Bokuto grabbed his hand, guiding him through the winding streets. They reached a neighborhood park and Bokuto dropped his bag and settled on the swing. Keiji kept his bag beside Bokuto’s and joined him on the other.

Keiji looked above. The sky was a mix of blue, pinks and oranges. The sun would set soon and it would get dark and cold. He made a note to take out his scarf from his cupboard for the changing weather. Bokuto swayed a bit on the swing making it creak under his weight.

“Hey, hey, hey Akaashi!”

“Yes Bokuto-san.”

“I want to tell you a secret.”

Keiji opted to look ahead. He saw his bag against Bokuto’s, their matching volleyball keychains visible. He wasn’t sure what face to make whenever Bokuto shared a secret. He was sure he knew almost all of them by now. Bokuto was scared of the dark, he once ate all the cookies at the training camp, he burnt the left side of his butt because he spilled hot tea on his lap (don’t laugh Akkaashiii!!), he believed in aliens but he’d never tell Seijou’s Oikawa Tooru because Kuroo would make fun of him, he once believed he could read minds till he tried in his history exam and failed-. There were countless and Keiji would wonder why Bokuto liked to overshare so much.

“Go ahead Bokuto-san.”

“Don’t laugh okay? No one believes me but I can see these red strings.”

Keiji froze and slowly looked at Bokuto who was staring up at the sky. “I can see them tangled all around me at times. But they never get in my way. Weird huh?”

 

(‘Hey, my name is Hotaka…I wanted to tell you something…I can see the red strings too.’)

 (‘They’re all tangled around me too! It’s strange right?’)

 

Keiji felt an urge to leave. Why was Bokuto even mentioning this?

“They connect me with the people I meet. No one believes me when I tell them. They think I’m joking. But maybe because no one ever takes me seriously right?” He laughed nervously.

 

(‘Akaashi-kun says he can see red strings.’

‘What? I can’t!’

‘No one can. I think he does this for attention.’

‘So lame.’

‘Why would anyone want to say something like that? It’s creepy.’

‘He just wants attention. He’s a loser.’

‘Do you think he’s an oni?’

‘Maybe he’s possessed by one.’

‘But Akaashi-kun is weird. He doesn’t talk much.’

‘Because we exposed him!’

‘Attention-seeker.’)

 

“They used to bother me a lot though but now I’m used to it.” Bokuto looked at Keiji. “I know they exist. I think only a few people can see them.” His gaze was now on Keiji’s left hand. Keiji hastily decided to swing a bit higher.

“When did you notice them first?” Keiji blurted as he felt the cool air against his face.

Bokuto blinked as if this was the first time someone had taken him seriously.

“I think when I was eight? Maybe younger? They would appear and then disappear. A few disappear for good if I don’t see the people connected with them again…or when they die.”

 

(‘No Keiji, I can’t see the red strings.’

‘How can I pull off something that I can’t see darling?’

‘Why are you crying about grandpapa’s string disappearing? Grandpapa will be alright.’

‘Keiji, his death isn’t your fault. Please stop about the strings.’

‘No strings today? Ah imagination reaps when you’re a child.’)

 

“I see.” Keiji halted and moved his legs aimlessly, the tips of his shoes getting dusty with sand.

“But look,” Bokuto continued, “I heard that if two people meet and they can see the strings, they’re bound to be soulmates!” He looked eagerly at Keiji as if he was searching for something within Keiji, “Isn’t that cool?”

 

(‘Did you know? If two people who can see the red strings meet, they are soulmates! I guess we’re soulmates Akaashi-kun.’

‘Gross, you touched me! I can’t see the red strings idiot.’

‘Akaashi-kun is so weird.’

‘Hotaka-kun! He really thought you were soulmates! Ew!’

‘What a creep.’)

 

“That sounds great Bokuto-san.” Keiji’s heart was hammering against his chest and his mouth was dry. Was Bokuto mocking him? Did the stories of his bullying in elementary school go around? It was so long ago and Keiji had made sure to cut them all off. He knew no one could remember. He had ripped off all of the strings when he was sick and tired of all the taunts.

 

(‘Akaashi Keiji? He’s in our class?’

‘He doesn’t talk much.’

‘I don’t remember talking to him…do we go and greet him?’

‘Akaashi-kun! I don’t think we’ve talked! You can call me Hotaka. Let’s eat together in lunch time!’

‘Don’t look so alarmed! I don’t bite.’

‘Did you say anything to him Hotaka-kun?’

‘I’ve never talked to him! Akaashi-kun have we talked before? See? I’m not a bully Ai-chan.’

‘You have the prettiest face Akaashi-kun! Why aren’t you friends with us?’

‘Isn’t it weird? Akaashi-kun can be so well-liked. You should talk more.’

‘This is our new friend Akaashi-kun! Let’s be good friends!’)

 

Bokuto seemed to look at him expectantly. Keiji decided to study his shoes and made a note to polish them once he returned home.

He didn’t want to be fooled again. Then again, why would Bokuto make fun of him? Wasn’t their relationship now based on trust? Was he being truthful? Or did Keiji leave someone out from his previous bullies?

The cool breeze blew and Keiji didn’t notice the sun had already set. It was dark and Keiji wanted to leave. He didn’t know what Bokuto wanted, what he wanted to achieve. Soulmates? It was absurd. Keiji wouldn’t be a fool. Not again.

“Hey, hey, hey Akaashi…I’ve been wondering…” the voice was softer now, as if in a prayer. Hopeful.

Keiji just wanted Bokuto to stop. He wanted to change the subject. Anything but this.  

“Can you see the red strings too?”

Keiji swallowed. It felt as if he had consumed a bucket of sand. His mouth was so dry, his heart pounding and he clutched at the swing’s chains harder.

 

(‘Cut all your problems Keiji.’)

I cut him off, and he’s still here, Keiji thought miserably. He could give them a chance. Maybe Bokuto could see the strings. He was so simpleminded anyways, he wouldn’t think of something to hurt Keiji.

 

(‘It’s not as if everyone likes you either.’)

 

“I’m sorry.” Keiji muttered. “I can’t see red strings.”

“Oh.” Bokuto sounded disheartened. “It’s alright…thanks for listening and not laughing.” He let out a forced laugh. Keiji kept his eyes glued to the ground.

“No problem.”

“Really though…thanks for being there ‘kaash. You’ve stayed for me and been there when I needed you. You can read my mind, you bear with me…I’m really thankful that we’re connected.”

Keiji heard the rattle of the chains and saw Bokuto get up. His back to Keiji, he waved.

“I’m going to leave now. It’s late! You should too.”

“Bokuto-san…” Keiji trailed off.

“Hmm?”

What did he want from Bokuto? What did Bokuto want from him? Keiji was unsure. All he wanted was to prove that he was better; that he could bring the best out of the wing spiker. He wanted to improve, he wanted to make new friends and he wanted to be happy.

Thinking back to the past months, Bokuto had provided him with all of them. Staying back in practice, bearing with Bokuto’s moods, learning from Sora, spending time with the second years.

Bokuto knocking at his classroom’s door impatiently during lunch break, chattering animatedly and buying Keiji an extra sandwich from the canteen.

Bokuto sighing in resignation with his head on his books, spending time at Keiji’s place to study, Keiji dragging him to the library, an ice cream treat after the study sessions.

The second years joining them, cracking jokes, sharing their first year stories- most of them with Bokuto being the main perpetrator getting them into trouble.

Kuroo and Bokuto eagerly introducing him to Kenma, him making a friend who wasn’t so exhausting, both of them talking on the weekends to discuss games, anime and the stupid things Bokuto and Kuroo got themselves into.

The moment he felt when he tossed to Bokuto, his form burnt into Keiji’s mind, replaying and replaying, making Keiji blush over the fact that he helped make that happen. The moment of relief and happiness that had washed over him after the end of the match.

Bokuto’s arms around him, the team cheering because he had passed that hurdle.

If the red string had never mended, would he be here with Bokuto? Would he have felt emotions similar to this?

“I heard that when a red string connects two people they are meant to do something great.” Keiji said carefully. He had researched a lot in middle school, him being able to see the red strings hidden and kept away from the world. It was better that way, he had thought back then.

Don’t let them know.

“I know that too.” Bokuto turned to face Keiji with a confused look.

Keiji drew in a deep breath and got up, the swing rattling behind. “What I mean to say is that right now, I can see only one.” He raised his left hand, the red string glimmering in the faint light of the street lamp.

Bokuto’s mouth fell open. He raised his left and a red string glimmered too. “You’re not making fun of me are you?”

Keiji let out a small laugh. “Why would I do something that cruel?” He touched the string on Bokuto’s finger and lifted the trailing thread. “I can touch it.” He looked up and saw Bokuto’s bright gold eyes on him.

“You can…” He smiled and held Keiji’s hand, feeling the string on Keiji’s ring finger. “I can see only one right now too.”

“I don’t know why this one keeps appearing individually.” Keiji admitted.

“I don’t know either.” Bokuto now held both of Keiji’s hands in his. “You know Akaashi…” his voice was soft and Keiji leaned closer to hear him. “Remember when we fought and you said some mean things and I said some mean things?”

“I remember.”

“I saw…the string break and disappear after you went to the locker room.” Bokuto shuddered and Keiji held his breath.

So that’s what he had been staring blankly at his hand that day.

“I got surprised and I slipped. I was scared it would disappear and we wouldn’t ever talk. It happens when people don’t keep in touch. But they fade and this one broke.”

“I broke it.” Keiji admitted, his voice shaky. “I’m sorry. I was angry. I wasn’t thinking straight. I-.”

“Hey.” Bokuto interrupted him and Keiji blinked back tears. “The string is here right? We’re here Akaashi.”

Keiji nodded but the tears began to flow anyway. Had he succeeded, they wouldn’t be standing here. Nationals would have never happened. He would have never experienced that moment. There were so many things that couldn’t have been done had they parted ways. He could have broken them apart.

“Keiji?” Bokuto jumped and quickly began to feebly pat Keiji’s tears away with his tie. “Ah you always have tissues. I should keep tissues too! Please don’t cry.”

Keiji hiccupped and then let out a snort. He pushed Bokuto’s hands away gently. “I’ll bring an extra pack of tissues tomorrow for you to keep. And I’m fine Bokuto-san.” He wiped his tears with the sleeve of his coat.

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m just happy.” Keiji smiled and Bokuto mirrored it.

He pulled Keiji into a tight hug and Keiji could smell the blueberry scented shampoo Bokuto used in his showers. He leaned into the touch and hoped to stay like this longer. He liked being with Bokuto, no matter how annoying he would get at times. When Bokuto burned bright, Keiji wanted to be by his side. Right now was no different. When Bokuto loosened his grip, they were tangled in red strings, yet Keiji found Bokuto’s smile to be brighter than the shimmering strings.

Bokuto grinned and he pressed his forehead against Keiji’s.

“We’ll do great things yeah?” he whispered.

Keiji paused and thought about retorting with a reminder of personal space. But then again he didn’t want to ruin the mood, and he really didn’t mind the touch.

He thought of practice with Bokuto, the long and tiresome study sessions, Bokuto praising Keiji and himself later, bringing him lunch, lounging at the corridors far too long because he wanted to share a secret- away from the other second years, laughing at his own jokes, getting offended with Keiji’s sarcastic remarks, falling asleep during their study sessions, whooping with happiness over winning a match.

Keiji wanted to experience more of it.

It didn’t really have to be great. It didn’t have to be that celebrated. It didn’t have to be grand and memorable for them to recall it from time to time. He wanted to appreciate the little things too. With Bokuto and with the Fukurodani team.

But then again, Bokuto Koutarou tended to make everything seem worthwhile and celebrated.

“Great things.” He repeated Bokuto’s words, eyes closed and a smile on his lips.

Bokuto laughed and stroked the string on Keiji’s ring finger.

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I'm grateful that the strings connected me to you.