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(not) a protagonist

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Their hands brush repeatedly when they reach for their shared bucket of popcorn. It makes the tips of Chikara's fingers tingle with electricity every single time. He sneaks a glance at Tanaka's face, hoping that maybe he'd be just as bored with this film, but instead, Chikara finds him enraptured by what is going on onscreen.

“I don't know what to do anymore!” the protagonist yells, face contorted in anguish and hands thrown up in the air. Chikara keeps forgetting the guy's name. “She's never going to think of me as more than a friend!”

That's because you're not honest with her , Chikara thinks, cringing at the overacting that is put on display here. It almost looks like someone stepped on Protagonist-kun's foot really hard.

“Then just tell her how you feel!” the protagonist's friend suggests, forcefully grabbing him by the shoulders and spinning him around so they are facing each other. “You'll never know unless you take the initiative.”

For a brief moment, Nishinoya's face flashes through Chikara's mind. He said something similar just a couple of days ago.

Stop being such a goddamn coward! Just tell him or you'll never know what the hell is going on between you two!”

Kinoshita and Narita just nodded, giving Chikara looks that basically screamed, “Nishinoya is right, and you need to get over yourself.”

Chikara shakes his head. No, the situation in the film is entirely different after all. The hurdle of confessing perfectly heterosexual feelings is much lower, and most importantly, the protagonist doesn't have an entire volleyball team breathing down his neck and trying to get him to confess his feelings for the most girl-crazy guy in the entire school. No, Protagonist-kun only has that one friend who is trying to meddle, and as annoying as that guy is, at least he is only one person.

 

***

 

“What did you think about that scene when he gets on the bike?” Tanaka asks, digging his spoon into his ridiculously large melon parfait. “That was soooo romantic, wasn't it?”

Romantic? Chikara isn't quite sure they are still talking about the same film.

“You mean in the middle of that thunderstorm?”

“Yeah, when his rival is about to ask Hana-chan out, and he wants to get there first!”

Chikara has completely forgotten that the love interest's name was Hana-chan.

“The guy clearly had a death wish.” Chikara slurps his iced coffee, ignoring Tanaka's indignant gasp. “Also, there was no way she would've ever gone on a date with that douche of a love rival. The way he treated her was just...” Chikara pulls a grimace. Words can't describe his distaste for characters like that. “He wasn't a threat.”

“Well, I thought it was romantic,” Tanaka says stubbornly. “He wasn't going to be deterred by the forces of nature. I admire people with a strong resolve like that. You get like that too sometimes during matches.”

Chikara blinks in surprise. What is Tanaka even saying?

“I don't know what you are talking about.”

“Oh, don't try to be modest.” Tanaka rolls his eyes and leans forward on his elbows. “Ever since you've become captain, you never back down. Like during that last practice match with Dateko? Hinata was shut down completely, but you weren't fazed at all. You stood your ground, fighting till the last second, and that energy transferred to the rest of us.”

Chikara's ears are practically radiating heat. He takes another sip of iced coffee, but the cooling effect is minimal at best as the voices of his friends and teammates echo in his mind.

He talks about you all the freaking time,” Kinoshita insisted.

He won't shut up about what a great guy you are,” Narita added.

 

***

 

Chikara wonders how he even managed to end up here. Well, maybe he knows. It started when, pre-emptively, Tanaka asked Chikara if he wanted to form a study group at the start of their third school year.

“I'm trying to stay on top of things this year so I don't have to cram so much right before the exams,” he said. There was no way Chikara could've said no to that request. And so they met up every other night after practice to walk home together and do their school work in one of their rooms. Tanaka always had a tonne of questions, and Chikara didn't mind answering them. It was good for his own revision, and it provided him with a convenient excuse to lean in close to Tanaka so he could point things out in his textbooks and notes.

Before Chikara even noticed it, that physical closeness transferred to other aspects of their friendship. When Chikara was addressing the team, Tanaka would often go out of his way to throw an arm around Chikara's shoulder. The first time he did that, Chikara almost had a heart attack. But slowly, he grew used to it, and while it still made him feel all kinds of emotions, at least he didn't let them show on his face as much.

After Tanaka had passed his first test of the year with good marks, he insisted on treating Chikara to ice cream. After the second test, they went out to eat ramen together. Eventually, they didn't even look for reasons to hang out anymore. Chikara was riding so high on this new-found familiarity between them that he started confiding in Tanaka about how scared he was to mess up in his new position of captain and about how he was afraid of falling behind on his school work. In turn, Tanaka told him about how he still didn't know what he wanted to do for a job, about how he used volleyball as an escape from having to think about the future.

And now here they are, sitting at a café surrounded by couples after having just seen the cheesiest romance to ever haunt Japanese cinemas. Considering everything that has happened in the past months, this should be considered a date, shouldn't it? And yet, doubt still has its claws wrapped around Chikara's heart.

He insists on paying for Tanaka's parfait – Tanaka paid for their popcorn after all – and then they leave.

“I'll walk you home,” Tanaka says, putting on an air of nonchalance. But the blush on his face betrays him. Or at least, that's what Chikara likes to think.

 

***

 

The sun is low in the sky, dousing everything in orange tones as they arrive at Chikara's house.

“Well, see you tomorrow at practice,” Chikara says, turning to unlock the door.

And then there's a hand wrapped around his wrist.

“Wait!”

Tanaka's voice rings in Chikara's ears, making him turn back around immediately. For a moment, they look at each other in silence, and Chikara wonders if Tanaka is ever going to let go of his wrist. Chikara certainly doesn't plan on shaking it off any time soon. Finally, Tanaka takes a deep breath.

“Today... this was a date, right?”

Chikara blinks, too stunned to say a word in response. Maybe his teammates have been right after all.

“Because I really want this to be a date,” Tanaka goes on, smiling sheepishly. “I guess I should've told you that earlier, but... It's kinda hard to tell one of your best friends that you'd like to go on a date with him.”

Chikara can relate, which is wild, considering that he did not expect Tanaka to be interested in him of all people.

“This was the best date I've ever been on,” Chikara blurts out. Tanaka furrows his brows.

“How many dates have you been on before this?”

“One. With a girl from middle school.” Chikara snorts. “It was bad. We don't talk about it.”

Tanaka laughs. “That's more experience than I have.”

“We could gather more experience together?” Chikara suggests, emboldened by the knowledge that Tanaka isn't opposed to the idea of going on dates with him.

“I'd like that.”

And as the sun slowly sets behind Tanaka's face, Chikara is once again reminded of the film they watched earlier. As horribly clichéd as it was, the ending scene was quite poignant – Protagonist-kun and his new girlfriend kissing in front of a sunset.

Chikara steps closer, bringing his free hand up to Tanaka's face. He is tempted to just go for it, but he doesn't want to be too forward and scare Tanaka off.

“Can I–”

“Yes!” Tanaka doesn't even let him finish his question, closing his eyes and leaning forward. Chikara meets him halfway. It's awkward and off centre – so unlike what he saw on the screen earlier – but Chikara doesn't care too much. First kisses are overrated anyway.