Sakusa confesses to Atsumu with all the enthusiasm of someone reporting a traffic jam.
“I like you,” he says, and it’s as strange and wrong as someone saying the sky is green.
Atsumu, stunned into silence, blinks at him once, twice, three times. He says nothing; Sakusa says nothing. Around them, their teammates keep going through their post-practice rituals, stretching and making small talk and dragging themselves slowly towards the locker room. They remain completely, blissfully unaware that the world has just fallen off its axis, and Atsumu envies them for it.
In the end, he breaks first.
“Hah!” he laughs, hoping it doesn’t sound as awkward as it feels. “You’re so weird sometimes, Omi-kun! What’s gotten into you?”
But Sakusa doesn’t laugh and he doesn’t answer and he doesn’t walk away even though Atsumu badly wants him to. He just watches Atsumu watching him, his eyes dark and his lips pressed into a tight, unreadable line. He looks just how he always does—like he’s here but not exactly thrilled to be. Nothing about him looks like someone who just confessed which only adds to the surreality of the whole situation.
Atsumu moves in to clap him on the shoulder. It’s a stubborn, bratty habit he’s lovingly cultivated and subjected Sakusa to for months now; he moves in, Sakusa flinches away. That’s how it works. It’s how they work.
But now Sakusa stands still and lets Atsumu reach towards him without so much as a twitch.
Atsumu jerks his hand back at the last possible second.
“Well,” he says, forcing a smile and a small, aborted wave, “see ya later!”
Then he hoists his bag over his shoulder and hoofs it the hell out of there, nearly shoulder checking Sakusa in his rush to get to the double doors beyond him. He doesn’t quite run, but it’s a damn near thing. Who the heck could blame him?
Kiyoomi Sakusa just looked him dead in the eye and said, I like you, with as much passion as a houseplant. How could anyone know how to react to that?
It’s not until he’s out on the street, where a lazy winter wind stirs around fallen snowflakes at his feet, that he realizes how hot his face feels and how sweaty his hands are.
Sakusa’s dispassionate voice haunts him all the way home: I like you, I like you, I like you. He feels it from the roots of his teeth to the soles of his feet, and no matter what he does his traitorous thoughts keep coming back to it, recreating the moment so many times over that the memory starts to feel blurry worn at the edges, like it might have been dream.
I like you, Sakusa had said, his dark gaze steady and his broad shoulders kept ramrod still even as Atsumu came near.
I like you, Sakusa had said in a tone other people would probably use for reading a menu or the back of a shampoo bottle.
I like you, Sakusa had said.
And he’d said it to Atsumu.
That was the strangest, most incomprehensible part of it all. As a rule, people who actually know him don’t like Atsumu—Shouyou, of course, being the exception that proves the rule. Everyone else resents and respects him in equal measure, and that suits Atsumu just fine, thanks. He’s got no need for kindness for kindness’s sake and no room for anyone in his life who gets their feelings hurt easily.
The only confessions he’s ever gotten were either meant for Osamu—which, above all else, had been the driving force behind changing their hair colors—or were shouted down to the court from adoring, distant fans who only ever saw him in his element and at his best. They’d cry, We love you Atsumu! in voices sweet as sugar, and he ate it up every time, feeding his vanity more than anything else.
Nothing about Sakusa’s confession had been sweet. Nothing about it had even felt real.
In his apartment, Atsumu pauses in the middle of brushing his teeth and pinches the meat of his hip, hard. It hurts like hell, and he inhales some toothpaste that sends him into a sputtering, coughing fit until he’s got spit and suds at the corners of his mouth and tears in his eyes.
“Sunovabitch,” he wheezes at his flustered reflection.
Later, Atsumu lies in bed and stares at the ceiling, unwilling to close his eyes because he knows exactly what he’ll see when he does: Sakusa, with his curls a little frizzy, his cheeks still flushed, and his expression completely and totally normal. It’s the normalcy that gets its hooks in him and pulls. It’s what makes Atsumu feel like surely, surely this is some bizarre attempt at a joke.
But does Sakusa ever joke? Try as he might, Atsumu can’t drag up even a single intentionally funny thing he’s ever said. He’s a prickly, straightforward type who seems to barely tolerate the people around him on a good day. The thought of him trying to tell a joke is actually kind of a joke itself. And if this is a joke? Well. Atsumu’s not laughing.
He’s also not sleeping.
In order to sleep, he’d have to stop picturing it happening and stop hearing that stupid, flat tone Sakusa had used. And that’s not happening anytime soon, evidently, so Atsumu continues to stare at his ceiling, feeling unmoored and ungrateful for it.
After that, nothing really changes.
Atsumu gets less sleep, sure, but he’s young enough and normally so good about getting his rest that it doesn’t catch up to him right away. His tosses are as perfect as ever, and he swears they’re coaxing Shouyou’s jumps higher and higher every day—Kourai is gonna be pissed, and Atsumu’s already looking forward to reveling in it.
Nothing changes but Atsumu feels different now, and somehow that changes everything.
He’s just too aware of Sakusa. From where he’s standing on the court to the assessing looks he likes to give Atsumu’s more aggressive tosses to the bounce of his damn curls—all of him feels somehow more present, like a higher-definition version of him has replaced whatever was there before. This version of him makes Atsumu’s fingers twitch when they’re not touching the ball, and it’s frankly a miracle it hasn’t impacted his game yet.
(Maybe it’s just a testament to just how great he is at volleyball. Which, for the record, is true. How great must he be if he’s got what it takes to keep up with his monster teammates even when he's distracted outta his wits?)
But Sakusa keeps hitting his tosses and putting those awful, beautiful spins on them, and isn’t that exactly what his confession did to Atsumu, who’s been spinning out of his right mind for the better part of a week because of it? The bastard.
Atsumu jerks his gaze away before he can look too closely at the sweat beading along Sakusa’s hairline. He unfortunately already knows that that’s a quick way to wind up staring too long at the moles above his right brow and the slight downward curl of his mouth.
It’s been a long week.
He sends another up to Sakusa who brings his palm down with supreme prejudice, and the connecting sound is like a gunshot, echoing through the room. There's no spin to this one—just pure, unadulterated power. Across the net, Oliver dives to dig it, but the ball ricochets off his forearm and lands out of bounds.
“Nice kill,” Atsumu says cheerfully, his smile not reaching his eyes. He doesn’t try to go in for a shoulder clap, even when he hears Bokkun and Shouyou start to cheer.
Sakusa flicks that cool gaze over to him, and he curls his hand into a triumphant fist. The curve of his mouth is edging upward. Something about it makes Atsumu’s chest hurt.
The thing is, Sakusa does know him.
They’ve never been close, sure, but they’ve been acquainted with one another for nearly a decade, through all of high school and the years Sakusa went to university while Atsumu went pro. Now they've been teammates for over a year, which means Sakusa’s had front row seats to no fewer than forty of Atsumu’s meltdowns—a third of which were shouted down the phone at Osamu while all of the Jackals acted like they couldn’t hear.
It means he knows Atsumu’s wildly, violently allergic to bananas and that he will fuss nonstop when he gets cold and that he agonizes about every uncool thing he’s ever said on an almost-nightly basis. It means that Sakusa’s heard—at least in passing—his jogging playlist and has seen him freak out just hearing the word "spider". It means he’s been present and accounted for through a truly unholy number of Atsumu’s bad jokes.
So, what gives?
What could have possibly driven him to say, I like you, like he was reciting a math formula? Amusement? Curiosity? Malice?
The whole situation is bad for Atsumu’s health. It twists him up like nothing else and fills him with what ifs and could it bes that are best left unasked and unanswered. Knowing that doesn’t make them go away, of course, but the sheer impotency of them takes some of the edge off. He knows he won’t ask, so what good is it to keep wondering?
So what if Sakusa meant it? It doesn’t have to mean anything for Atsumu. It doesn’t have to be anything more than a thing that was said to him once that he brushed off with a laugh. It could be a memory or it could be forgotten. He's not responsible for Sakusa’s feelings any more than he’d expect Sakusa to be responsible for his. If Sakusa wants to put his heart on his sleeve like that, he ought to know the risks involved.
It should be laughable, imagining a guy as prickly as Kiyoomi Sakusa wearing his heart on his sleeve. A month ago, Atsumu would never have considered him a romantic.
But that was before Sakusa had looked at him and said, I like you, like it was the simplest thing in the world. Nothin’ could have prepared Atsumu for it, and nothin’ has helped him make sense of it since.
One day, he’ll be able to remember it without feeling his heart in his throat. For now, Atsumu just resigns himself to more nights of strange, restless dreams he’ll long forget come morning.
“Hey, I wanna ask you somethin’,” he says one day with his phone pinched between his ear and shoulder.
“No, I didn’t steal nothin’ from you when you came to visit,” Osamu says, his voice a little tinny through the line.
Atsumu pauses and narrows his eyes at his living room wall. “So we’re gonna come back to that when I’m done,” he warns, tone sharp, “but for now I gotta know. Have you ever been confessed to by someone who sounded, like, I dunno. Bored by it?”
Osamu’s quiet on the other end for so long that Atsumu hisses, “Say something, scrub!”
“Sorry,” Osamu says, not sounding sorry at all. “I’m just—shocked. Who’d ever like you? And why? Maybe someone dared ‘em to say it.”
Atsumu snarls and kills the call.
He hates that it kind of makes sense, if he thinks about it too long. Which he does.
“Hey, you okay?” Shouyou asks on a drizzly Thursday morning on their way into practice. He’s got the usual pep in his step and is wearing one of his many Bouncing Ball sweatshirts, the hood pulled up over his head and scrunched mostly-shut to protect him from the bitter chill in the air.
Atsumu considers him for a moment. He thinks about saying, 'Bout a month ago, Omi-kun told me he liked me, but he did it in such a weird way and has been totally normal ever since so I’m convinced he did it to mess with me, and it’s actually kinda working.
He also thinks about saying, Omi-kun confessed to me and now I can’t stop lookin’ at him all the time and it’s sorta freakin’ me out.
And a tiny, traitorous part of him even considers asking, How can you tell if you like someone?
Instead of any of that, though, he just smiles tightly and asks, “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Shouyou points at his face, and Atsumu resists the urge to snap his teeth playfully at his finger. “You’ve got bags,” Shouyou tells him.
Even though he knows it’s true, Atsumu feels it like a physical stab that instantly and mortally wounds his vanity. He puts his hand to his heart and makes a strangled sound, eyes rolling heavenward.
Shouyou nearly falls on his ass as he scrambles to add, “I—just wanted to say! You should get your rest! It’s important!”
There’s a mean thing on the tip of Atsumu’s tongue, something nasty about how only one of them ever collapsed mid-game and it wasn’t him. If Shouyou were anyone else, he’d definitely say it. But Shouyou is Shouyou so Atsumu keeps his mouth shut.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says eventually, and he pushes a hand into Shouyou’s hood to ruffle his hair and laughs brightly at the indignant squawk that earns him. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Shouyou-kun.”
“Uh huh,” Shouyou mutters as he tries to coax his hair into laying a little flatter.
Somewhere inside, someone shouts, Hey, hey, hey! and both of them turn their heads sharply towards it. Shouyou barely glances back at him before breaking into a run, eager as ever to watch whatever’s gotten Bokuto all fired up.
Atsumu trails in not long after, and it’s more or less what he expected: Bokuto and Sakusa practicing their kills with the second-string setters. It’s a good habit to get into, just in case something puts Atsumu out of condition, and it gives him the rare opportunity to watch his spikers from a disengaged position with a fair and critical eye.
Which he would be doing if he could stop hearing I like you, over and over again every time he looks at Sakusa. He remembers it perfectly—as clear and maddening as it was the day he said it. Sakusa nails a cut shot and puts a spin on it that's mean enough to make Atsumu smile despite his sour mood.
“That was a nasty one,” Meian says, suddenly at Atsumu’s side with a broad, boyish grin that warns he’s a nasty one too, if you underestimate him. “Imagine going in to dig that. I think it’d break my heart.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Atsumu says.
That night, like every night for the past six weeks, he dreams.
In his dream, Sakusa’s curls are tossed against the crisp white fabric of Atsumu’s pillow case, and his eyes are cast downward so his long lashes look like smudges against his pale cheeks. Atsumu lays a few inches away from him, on his stomach, with one hand tucked against his sternum and the other offered palm-out to Sakusa. In his dream, Sakusa presses his fingertips to Atsumu’s palm and says, I like you, like he’s reading from a dictionary. In his dream, Atsumu says it back.
Come morning, he remembers.
The dream stays with him the way Sakusa’s confession had. It digs its claws into a tender place inside him and refuses to let go. It hurts imagining it again and again: Sakusa soft and sleep-rumpled and near, his voice devoid of any recognizable emotion, his fingertips against Atsumu’s palm. It was a dream, so it carried with it no real physical sensation, but the idea of being willingly touched by Sakusa makes Atsumu feel almost feral with want.
That’s the part that sucks the most: the wanting.
It came straight out of the dream and has forced itself into Atsumu’s waking life. Looking at Sakusa is different now. It makes him feel different. It makes something twist in his belly and gets his face flushed and has him fumbling in practices for the first time in forever.
He means that literally—never has he ever fucked up so bad, so often. Sure, he's gone for risky plays that didn’t quite connect, but that’s part of the process of getting better; these days, Atsumu’s not even going for anything new. He’s just desperately trying to keep his head out of the gutter. And failing.
His version of fucking up is still better than your average scrubby setter which is good enough that no one says anything, but he notices and that’s what matters. He knows where his head is going mid-match, and it's humiliating.
It’s not until Bokuto laughs and says, “Hey, maybe save a toss or two for the rest of us,” that he realizes his obsession is affecting his playmaking.
“Yeah, I wanna fly too!” Shouyou pouts, and Atsumu is so freakin’ embarrassed he can feel his face start to burn. In no time flat he's probably so red his ears could whistle like a tea kettle.
“Sorry, sorry!” he says with a shaky smile. “I guess I just got hypnotized by Omi-kun’s freaky wrists!”
They seem to buy his excuse, at least. He carefully avoids Sakusa’s gaze but he thinks he feels it linger on him anyway. The thought makes him shiver.
I like you, he imagines saying. He has no idea how those words would feel on his tongue, but he knows he’s in no rush to find out.
He dreams of Sakusa’s fingers in his mouth and wakes up burning.
It can’t go on. He’ll obsess himself out of a professional career and into an early grave at this rate, and then he won’t be able to rub it in Osamu’s face that he had a happier life, and what’s the point of anything if he doesn’t get to beat Osamu at the end of the day?
Something has to give, and just like the day Sakusa confessed, Atsumu knows he’s going to break first.
He plans out the interaction in his mind, beat for beat, and throughout every iteration of it he is as cool and unaffected as Sakusa was when he first started all of this. He thinks about it for days, deciding the where and the when, and he knows exactly what it is he wants to say:
So, who was it that dared you to say you liked me? I’ve been dyin’ to know, you know. Don’t leave me hangin’ any longer or I’ll go crazy!
It’s a lie that’s so close to the truth he’s certain he won’t give himself away. It’s perfect. He’s absolutely, one hundred percent sure he’s got this and will soon take back control of his life. Then this whole ordeal will be little more than a distant memory.
Of course, it goes exactly nothing like that.
Instead, it happens like this:
They play an away game against the Eastern Japan Paper Mills, and they absolutely crush ‘em, which puts Atsumu on a high he hasn't reached in weeks. Then, after they’ve shaken hands under the net and start to head off-court, Sakusa lingers to say something to Komori, and Komori laughs. He offers his hand, and Sakusa takes it without hesitating.
Atsumu watches covetously as the corners of Sakusa’s mouth tip just out of their natural frown, and he feels it: a meltdown starting to brew inside him.
No, no, no, no, no, he thinks furiously, helplessly.
He stomps to the locker room ahead of the rest of the team and slams his locker open against the one beside it, snatches out all of his stuff, and slams it shut again. He can’t tear himself out of his sweaty clothes fast enough, and he can’t stop seeing the look on Sakusa’s face as he held Komori’s hand. Jealousy wrings Atsumu out, and impotent rage fills him back up again.
How dare Sakusa say confess the way he did to Atsumu when someone else gets his smiles? What sorta person just goes around sayin’ I like you, to innocent people for the hell of it? What the hell did Atsumu, in particular, do to deserve it? He sure as hell never asked for it!
Everything around him is awash of white noise as he towels off his sweat and pulls on his clean clothes. He’ll shower once he’s home and far away from here, where he can stand under the spray for as long as it takes to really lay into himself for being so stupid all these weeks.
His fingers tremble. He’s so mad. His heart won't stop hurting.
The door to the locker room swings open, and Sakusa comes in with a physical therapist at his side who’s jotting down notes on a clipboard and nodding to himself. There’s a brace on Sakusa’s right wrist, which could mean either a real or imagined sprain—neither of which is uncommon given his hypermobile joints and his tendency to worry too much about them. Either way, seeing it makes Astumu feel a little sick.
The physical therapist moves on to talk to Shion—who pulled off a pretty brutal flying retrieve earlier and will probably get chewed out for it now—and Sakusa heads for his locker but meets Atsumu’s eyes on his way. For all the length of a heartbeat, neither of them looks away.
It’s the longest they’ve held eye contact in months and then, before Atsumu can think better of it, he’s on him.
He fists his hands into Sakusa’s sweaty jersey and pushes him hard against the lockers, then he locks his elbows to keep him pinned at arm’s length. The air is sucked out of the room just like that, and everyone around them goes quiet. Atsumu hadn’t really heard them before, but the sudden silence is obvious just the same. He curls his shoulders in and bows his head between them, his face burning red-hot and horrible.
“Why did you say it?!” he demands, voice cracking.
Sakusa says nothing. He doesn’t try to dislodge himself from Atsumu’s grip, either.
“Why?” Atsumu shouts at the floor, eyes screwed shut like that will block out the fact that this is actually happening.
No one says a word.
He could sob, he’s so frustrated. He doesn’t, but he could. He can hear Osamu’s voice in his ear asking, Who’d ever like you? and he hates that he can’t blame him for saying it when he’s acting like this, twenty-three years old and throwing a tantrum because the boy he likes doesn’t like him back even though he said he did two months ago.
His fingers knot tighter into Sakusa’s jersey, and Atsumu shakes him with two mean jerks of his wrists.
“Answer me,” he begs, voice no longer raised but cracking just the same.
He can’t look at Sakusa’s face. He doesn’t want to see whatever’s looking back at him right now. It’s impossible for him to say what would be worse: judgement, disgust, or absolute neutrality.
Someone clears their throat. Someone else shushes them sharply.
“Because it’s true,” Sakusa says in the exact monotone that’s haunted Atsumu for the last two months.
Atsumu tries and fails to process that. He shakes Sakusa again, weaker this time. His chest feels too tight and his heart is too high in his throat and what is happening to him.
“You,” he bites out then stops, unsure what to say next.
He licks his lips and lifts his head to find Sakusa squinting at him. And, oh, the pinch of his brows and the strange, upward twist of his mouth into something that's a far cry from a sneer is wholly new and terrible. Is this how Sakusa looks when the person he likes is touching him? Atsumu has to laugh, so he does. It’s a bright and unfamiliar sound.
“You are so weird, Omi-kun,” he complains, uncurling his fists before he can give himself a knuckle cramp.
“I’m weird,” Sakusa says, and he makes a strange gesture with his hand as if to indicate the fact that the whole room is staring at them.
“I said what I said,” Atsumu insists, and he turns to walk away.
Before he can get too far, Sakusa stops him with a brush of his fingers against the back of his arm.
Atsumu’s whole body zeroes in on that single point of contact. He looks at Sakusa, and he feels naked, stripped down to his studs by just a little touch.
Sakusa says, “I don’t expect,” with a voice like he’s commenting on the weather, and then he stops mid-thought. He glances away and swallows, and a muscle in his jaw twitches. Atsumu can’t look away from it, wants to see it happen again and again and again; wants to be the cause of it every time. “You don’t have to do anything. I said it. It’s done.”
Which is maybe the stupidest thing Atsumu’s ever heard. Saying it didn’t make anything done. Saying it is what started this whole stinkin’ mess, and if Sakusa thinks otherwise then he’s got another think comin’ real soon.
“What if I wanna?” he asks before he can think better of it, before he can chicken out. “Do somethin’, I mean.”
Someone says, Uh, and gets shushed sharply again. Their whole team and no fewer than two doctors and three coaches are in here right now, and Atsumu couldn’t care less if he tried.
Sakusa doesn’t look like he cares much either which is exactly the sort of thing that’s been pissin’ Atsumu off for weeks on end but right now is so gut-wrenchingly attractive he doesn’t have it in him to resent it. It’s actually kind of calming, in a weird way.
He stares at Sakusa and Sakusa stares back, his curls a mess and his skin damp with sweat and his jersey rumpled where Atsumu just released him. His expression has settled a little from before so now his steady, unflinching gaze gives nothing away.
“Then do something,” Sakusa says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the whole world. Like Atsumu's stupid for even askin'.
Atsumu cocks his head to consider this. There are a half-dozen things he could do, but the thing he wants most is to make Sakusa suffer a little. Give ‘im a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. Let him have a few restless nights and see what it does to him, see if his pretty edges get a little frayed the way all of Atsumu’s did. He won’t drag it out too long—but he thinks he’s owed his own fun, now that the dust is starting to settle.
Because it’s true, Sakusa had said, and just like that he’d undone the vice around Atsumu’s heart—and maybe had enabled him to be a little awful in the process. But it’s okay. Sakusa knows him, knows that he can be a little awful sometimes, and apparently likes him anyway.
“Maybe I will,” Astumu says, and his smile is an impossible, wild thing he has no hope of containing or controlling.
And, for now, he hoists his bag onto his shoulder and leaves it at that.
Alone in his room that night, Atsumu stares up at his ceiling and tries to say it, just to know what it's like. He stumbles over all three words, feels flushed and silly for it, and still has no clue how Sakusa managed to do this. How did he manage to confess with all the ardor of a ticking clock? It's a mystery that's kept Atsumu up for too many nights now and probably won't let him off easily any time soon.
In the end, it doesn't really matter how he did it. So long as it's true.