that those who expose themselves to the dangers of the world should avail themselves so little of its varied solace.
Consider Miya Atsumu.
It is their third Spring High. Itachiyama and Inarizaki have just played against each other and the former has won as they have won each time they have played against each other in the last three years. Everyone is gone by this point except for Atsumu, who is standing in center court and wiping his face with the inside of his shirt. Kiyoomi watches him watch nothing from across the net and thinks that his expression looks awful, half-hidden though it is. There is a cut above his eyebrow from a risque set he had hit the barriers to make earlier. His shirt has ridden up above his stomach.
Kiyoomi cannot put into words the thing about Atsumu at this moment that stuns him, only that it does. He turns it over in his mind as he retrieves his face mask in its Ziploc bag from the bench. Has Atsumu done anything noteworthy today, this year, ever? He had served and set and stood on the court wearing the mantle of a captain. But Kiyoomi had done this as well.
Atsumu’s shirt falls back over his stomach. The illusion breaks. He catches Kiyoomi looking and smiles at him with narrowed eyes as if he is looking for a fight.
Kiyoomi searches himself for a response and finds that he has nothing to offer. It is their third Spring High and therefore their last. Whatever he chooses to do in this instant will likely have little impact on his future.
So he chooses the simplest option: he leaves.
In spite of it all, Atsumu comes back. Or does Kiyoomi go to him? Atsumu doesn’t go to college. Kiyoomi does. He spends four years pretending he’s not going to spend his life playing volleyball and then he decides to spend his life playing volleyball.
He receives his new jersey a week after tryouts, thumb and forefinger pinched tightly around one corner of the fabric. Up until this point Miya Atsumu has been sick or missing. It has not occurred to anyone to inform Kiyoomi of this and it has not occurred to him to care. In his absence, Kiyoomi has made a logical decision. The Adlers’ shower stalls are too small. The Black Jackals are strong.
In which case, one might point a finger accusingly and say that he is the one who goes to Atsumu.
It does not matter. Kiyoomi is here to play volleyball. That’s all there is to this affair. A net and a ball and a fist in the air. The unfortunate reality of his flesh-and-blood body, connected to the other five on the court by a fragile thread. This, he has no intention of shortening or lengthening.
To everyone’s disappointment, Atsumu comes back. He has become twice as horrible now that his twin is not around to rein him in. Kiyoomi always preferred the other one. He was a menace on the court but lacked the insensitivity that had eaten his brother’s soul when they were children. This made him marginally more bearable and, if not, at least a decent human being.
Miya Atsumu is barely sentient. He is the equivalent of a rock that requires constant attention despite being in possession of no remarkable features other than his skill with a ball. His jokes do not land. He is a large cake disguised as a realistic 3D printout of a turkey. Upon cutting into it one finds not the contents of a turkey but the sweet crumbly texture of flour and sugar and eggs and is inevitably disappointed.
“Sakusa Kiyoomi,” Atsumu says, the first time they meet under the mantle of the MSBY Black Jackals. He retracts his hand when Kiyoomi does not move to reciprocate. This he does awkwardly, and in an attempt to hide the awkwardness he moves to steeple his fingers. “Can I call you Kiyoomi?”
“No.” Kiyoomi tosses him a ball. It narrowly misses his face.
Atsumu has done something terrible to his hair. It looks hard and stiff and lifeless and is the color of ash now instead of mustard. This must be where his paycheck goes.
“What,” Atsumu bounces the ball against the floor once, twice. He smiles brilliantly. “Are you in love with me already?”
“You hair,” Kiyoomi says.
“Aw, so you love the hair and not the man. How superficial.”
Atsumu stops smiling and flashes him a mouthful of angry teeth. “I knew I should have fought you after our last Spring High. You were asking for it, weren’t you? Huh, Kiyoomi? Kiyo-omi? Ki—”
It’s surprising how little has changed about him in four years. Kiyoomi walks away before Atsumu can ruin his day any more than he already has. The current balance of their shared karma is ninety-ten with ninety being in Kiyoomi’s favor. He has the whimsical hands of fate on his side. He is determined to keep them here.
Other things have changed. Kiyoomi presents a typed-up list of reasons he should be allowed to keep his private accomodations and is swiftly rejected. Then and again, he is a newcomer to this place where people go to play volleyball for the rest of their lives. He should not be surprised.
The Black Jackals have their own dormitories. The building is twenty-three years old and half the buttons in the elevator don’t light up. Kiyoomi presses the button for the fifth floor. He presses it again, harder. The elevator rattles to life and he wonders how many layers of sweat have dried on all of its buttons. He should have worn gloves. There’s an empty Pocari Sweat on the floor.
The elevator rattles to a stop. He reads the name tags on the doors as he drags his suitcase down the narrow hallway.
The door to room 504 slams open. Bokuto Koutarou sticks his head out. He gives him a bright manic look which Kiyoomi guesses is meant to portray enthusiasm. The rest of his body tumbles out into the hallway and he begins to advance down the short path towards Kiyoomi like a large and menacing dodo bird.
Kiyoomi jams his key in the keyhole. He twists it hard enough that the metal digs into his skin. It opens with its own distinctive earsplitting screech and he stalks inside, his suitcase growling behind him as he wheels it sharply into the doorway.
“KIYOOMI. MY NEW FRIEND.”
He peels off his face mask and drops it in the trash.
From somewhere down the hallway: “BOKUTO. SHUT UP.”
Atsumu tilts his chin up to the ceiling like an ostrich and exhales loudly. It’s Wednesday afternoon, during one of their three minute breaks. Kiyoomi is leaning against the side of the gymnasium that is less crowded. Atsumu, who is determined to be as offensive and inconvenient as possible at all times, has joined him.
“Kiyoomi. Omi. Omi-kun.” Atsumu tests each syllable on his tongue like candy or a clump of dirt. He bites his teeth down on it. Atsumu scoots towards him, a terrible demented insect with dinner plates for hands.
Five meters. Three meters. One. Don’t flinch.
“Can I call you Omi-kun?”
“Miya.” Kiyoomi holds his breath and pretends he isn’t trapped in a gymnasium with Miya Atsumu for the next five hours. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this but volleyball is a team sport. I can choose not to hit your tosses if you’d prefer that.”
“Aw. You’d do that for me?”
“Miya. Shut the fuck up.”
Kiyoomi is not, by nature, an angry person. He held out hope for humanity in his earlier years and was subsequently disappointed to find, as he grew older, that everyone had self-destructive tendencies no matter how hard they tried to hide them.
For instance: Hinata Shouyou and his meteor. Bokuto Koutarou and his ankle. Miya Atsumu and the way he talks to everyone like he wants them to bite his head off.
Does he actually want someone to bite his head off? Is he not afraid of the pain? The dislodging of his neck and his windpipe and his soul?
Kiyoomi wants to know the answer to these questions the way people look at the sky and wonder how far away the planets are. He wonders if he has enough hand sanitizer in his bag. He notes the number of days left until his next trip to the pharmacy. Atsumu crosses his field of vision, laughing loudly with the unfortunate teammate who has won his company for the evening.
Few things in life necessitate the act of asking. Volleyball is one of them, and so Kiyoomi has spent his entire life adapting to accommodate this. Miya Atsumu is not volleyball. Miya Atsumu is barely sentient.
Then and again, Kiyoomi has been described with similar words before. It bothers him that they share a quality, and that of all of them, it has to be this one.
He makes a table on Google Spreadsheets for the residents of the fifth floor. Bokuto Koutarou is in the room with the shitty creaky door hinge. Hinata Shouyou has colonized several teammates’ rooms and can be spotted intermittently between them. Miya Atsumu is somewhere on the side opposite him.
Kiyoomi doesn’t like this place. There are rooms and doors crowding both sides of the hallway. His teammates are always sweaty or wet. Kiyoomi has brought his month-old citrus air freshener from home but he doesn’t want to waste it all trying to salvage what he feels is largely unsalvageable.
There are two windows beside the fire exits at both ends of the fifth floor hallway. Small, squarish. Not big enough to let in much sun. The bacteria in this building is thriving, he knows. But he cannot do anything about that as he cannot do anything about an increasing number of things these days. He has signed his life away to volleyball. There were no other options. There are no other options.
Still, he thinks, pressing the edge of his mask around his nose. Maybe he should have joined the Adlers after all. That would have meant trading Atsumu for Kageyama Tobio.
Which is the lesser of two evils? Which looks less revolting in a volleyball jersey?
He does not have the answers to any of these questions. If nothing else, he knows this: he would have adjusted to the size of their shower stalls eventually.
It’s Friday night, now Saturday morning. The clock on Kiyoomi’s desk reads something past four a.m..
Atsumu sways gently from side to side as he speaks. He does not have the grace to look or sound guilty despite the fact that he must have spent several minutes yelling at Kiyoomi’s door.
They had won today’s game, as they had the last. Someone had proposed a party. Kiyoomi had not been involved but most of their team went along with it. This included Atsumu who wanted to network or harass people or perform some twisted combination of both. One group came back at half past twelve, singing and sounding more like they were yelling as they waltzed clumsily back to their rooms. Another returned at three. Both times Kiyoomi was woken up. Both times he had to put in his earplugs, which had fallen out in his sleep.
Kiyoomi’s first instinct is to tell Atsumu to fuck off. He bites it back. Atsumu can see about as much as he can in this darkness, which is nothing. Maybe he will leave if he fails to get the rise out of Kiyoomi he is likely here for.
“Omi-omi,” Atsumu tries again. It comes out as a whine. Kiyoomi’s hands twitch erratically on the doorknob.
“I think I saw a serial killer.”
Enthused by his response, Atsumu takes several steps into his room towards him. “Don’t come near me,” Kiyoomi says sharply. Atsumu stops. He retreats.
If Kiyoomi’s room is a box then Kiyoomi is just the right size to fold himself into its interior without touching any of its walls. Atsumu was not included in these calculations.
Kiyoomi doesn’t like this, but Kiyoomi doesn’t like most things. And where is Atsumu amidst all this; what is he trying to do?
He pushes his hair out of his face with the back of his hand. “Explain.”
The lights are off in Atsumu’s room and there’s a pack of Family Mart chicken on the floor.
“Have you seen that Korean horror movie. The one about the guy who kills someone in the car park and then makes eye contact with someone living in the apartment beside it. Y’know. He starts counting the floors up to that person’s unit. Then he breaks in and kills them. To erase the eye-witness evidence. Yeah so I was just fuckin’ looking out the window just now when I saw someone downstairs. With a knife. And I’m pretty sure he saw me.” Atsumu gives him a look. His hair is loose and all over his face and there’s a brown stain on the left side of his mouth.
“I couldn’t reach Bokuto. Bokuto would sleep through Armageddon. So.”
He gives Kiyoomi another look. He needs to stop doing that. Kiyoomi’s not sure what the fuck Atsumu called him to his room to do exactly and he doesn’t want to know. Atsumu’s bed is unmade. There are three pillows and two bolsters piled in a heap against the wall. The Family Mart chicken is going to leave an ugly mark on the wooden flooring if he doesn’t clean it up. Atsumu looks scared shitless for the stupidest reason Kiyoomi’s heard of for anything since Bokuto tried to give him a back massage to help him loosen his facial muscles.
Ah, Kiyoomi thinks dryly. I am tired.
“There’s a security system,” he says in a moment of altruism. Atsumu looks doubtful.
“What. You want to go down and check?”
Is he stupid? Are they both stupid?
Maybe Kiyoomi is more fucked up than he thought he was. He says yes.
Cue two professional volleyball players under a streetlight at four in the morning staring at a vending machine.
“I swear I brought my wallet,” Atsumu says. He checks his left pocket. This is the fourth time he has done this. It has been ten minutes since they got here and they have not seen anybody since passing Bokuto’s sleeping form in the hallway.
“Okay.” Kiyoomi doesn’t care about getting a drink. Atsumu seems fixated on it. “Are you ready to leave yet.”
“Aha.” Atsumu holds up two hundred-yen coins. “I’m gonna get a drink.”
Kiyoomi wants to flick them several feet into the air. He wants to toss Atsumu several feet in the air and then leave. “Can I go now?”
Atsumu buys two drinks. He hands Kiyoomi the Pocari Sweat (bottled, cold) and pulls the tab on his soda. Kiyoomi wrinkles his nose at the sharp sweet scent that hisses out.
Miya Atsumu doesn’t shut up. Not even in this cordoned-off corner of the night, squatting on the sidewalk with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. He talks about the horror movie he’d mentioned earlier. He made Osamu watch it with him in high school. It’s a shitty fucking horror movie but the serial killer is kind of hot. Plus the guy uses a vacuum cleaner as a murder weapon. Doesn’t that sound kind of familiar? Atsumu nods to himself. It does.
Kiyoomi studies his Pocari Sweat (unopened, damp) and says nothing. He wonders if there is an ancient creature haunting Atsumu that will kill him if he stops talking or is remotely amicable for half a minute. Kiyoomi wonders. A cold breeze walks down the street towards them. Atsumu’s hair flies up.
Atsumu talks until he finishes his soda. He crumples the can and lobs it at the trash in the lobby; it goes in. They step into the elevator and Atsumu punches the button for their floor four times. The elevator creaks to life on the third. Over the sound of its twenty-three-year-old gears grinding against its fifteen-year-old body, Kiyoomi just about makes out the last thing Atsumu says to him.
“Huh. You’re nicer than I thought. But I’m still gonna call you Omi-kun. Don’t bank on that changing.”
“So, like, don’t you find it interesting that the guy who hates everyone and the guy that everyone hates are on the same team.”
Kiyoomi contemplates ending the call but Komori, who can read minds, flips him off through the camera. If he chooses to do so there is a ninety-three percent chance Komori will make the rest of his week hell. He takes his hand off the mouse. He folds his arms.
“Yeah? Which part are you contesting, the hating everyone part or the hated by everyone part?”
“Both. Neither.” Kiyoomi unfolds his arms to check his phone. “Doesn’t matter. You’re wrong.”
Komori steeples his fingers. “Very strange, Sakusa, very strange,” he says, serious and offhand at once. It’s rude. Kiyoomi considers ending the call again.
Before he can do that his doorbell rings. This is followed immediately by three explosive knocks and the sound of something hitting the floor.
“THE HYPHEN IS FUCKING IMPORTANT, BOKUTO.”
“SAKUSA-SAN. WE’RE GOING TO THE BEACH.”
They are not going to the beach. He tells Komori as much.
He goes to the beach.
When he was younger his grandmother once told him that coexistence was a series of long and elaborate compromises. Her husband had passed away when Kiyoomi was still in kindergarten. Before that he had borne witness to several drawn out arguments about everything from calling the plumber to the division of their inheritance. His grandmother didn’t seem very happy. Neither with her marriage, nor with the way she had set up their large, Japanese-style house in the suburbs.
What was wrong? Instead of asking, he ate his rice crackers with hands that smelled like citrus-scented hand sanitizer and kicked his feet against his chair. Their voices were louder than anything Kiyoomi had ever heard. He disliked it.
Later when his parents found out about his gig as an onlooker during the Sakusa’s family feuds, they stopped letting him visit on weekends. He began to fill his days with other forms of fear and entertainment. He moved to Tokyo and sold his future to volleyball.
These days he doesn’t think much of his grandmother’s words, though he remembers her expression when she spoke to him that day under the awning of summer, because it was pained and gentle and muted in that strange way all adults have about them. Kiyoomi is a professional volleyball player. Compromise means a loosening of the fists. If he loosens his fists then his wrists will snap and his career will end or his skin will break out in hives and his career will end. There is a wall between the world and his conscience. He lives behind it. He is safe here.
All things considered, he isn’t unhappy with what he has now. This is as good as his life will ever get given that he is Sakusa Kiyoomi, twenty-three this year and resolved to never touch a human being of his own accord. He is aware of the limits of his own mind and the vast, terrifying world that exists outside of it. As he will never be able to reach the latter, he sees no point in speculating about its shape, size, or color.
Miya Atsumu is probably the victim of a terrible haunting. It has made him perpetually jittery and emotionally underdeveloped and an insomniac. It sends him to Kiyoomi’s room again several weeks after the serial killer hallucination, only this time he seems to have either developed rudimentary communication skills or at least read about them somewhere. He knocks on the door and waits. He knocks on it again. He knocks on it ten times in a row with increasing intensity. Kiyoomi peels back the covers morosely.
“Do you have a bandaid?” Atsumu asks.
Kiyoomi tries to shut the door on him. Atsumu jams his shoe in the doorway and pries it back open. This is unfair. He has clearly been running or walking around anxiously in circles somewhere. His muscles are warmed up, whereas Kiyoomi has been asleep since eleven and still has one earplug in.
He had been having a dream about a perfectly white world. In it you could immediately tell when the purity of an object had been compromised. Two things which were not supposed to be in contact with each other would turn red in the places where they had met. These red splotches could then be identified and dealt with immediately. There, Kiyoomi existed in a pure vacuum of nothingness. He spoke to people through a glass wall. He played volleyball through a glass wall.
Atsumu’s hand glistens. The edge of the door smudges itself.
“No seriously, dipshit,” he tries again, leaning against the doorframe. He’s sweating.
“Don’t call me dipshit, dipshit.”
“Can I have a bandaid? I won’t say please but you can pretend I did. I know you have bandaids.”
Kiyoomi has bandaids. He keeps three first-aid kits in a drawer under the sink. He takes inventory on the last Friday of each month and refills any components that have dried up or expired from the supermarket near the train station or the pharmacy two stations away. There is another first-aid kit in his duffel bag. This he keeps in the inner pocket beside the antiseptic wipes, though he has another pack of antiseptic wipes inside the first-aid kit as well.
He stares blankly at Atsumu. Atsumu’s hand falters against the door.
Breathy voice, sweaty teeth, desperation.
Kiyoomi knows what anxiety looks and smells and sounds like. He has spent his entire life building an altar of worship to it in his bathroom sink in the hopes that it will leave him alone. The gods have yet to be satisfied, and so his anxiety lives in the mold under the faucet. It lives in his skin. His anxiety lives; it is alive.
Atsumu has given him no reason to care about his personal problems. Kiyoomi is not obligated to be concerned about his heart or his hands or the fact that he needs a bandaid at two a.m. on a Saturday. Atsumu has brought him nothing but misery. Kiyoomi should not care.
In a surprising twist of events, he finds that he does.
“That's not enough. More.”
“Are you a masochist or a fucking idiot?”
Atsumu holds up his hand. He puts it down. His other hand, the masochistic one, is lodged between the edge of the sink and a towel.
“Both. Neither. Shut the fuck up.” Atsumu makes a grab for the alcohol bottle. Kiyoomi snatches it away.
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Well I don’t. What the fuck are you doing?”
He presses the swab against Atsumu’s finger with his tweezers and holds it there. Atsumu hisses under his breath.
He had wanted a bandaid. Standing in the center of Kiyoomi’s room in a pair of hotel slippers (borrowed, Kiyoomi’s) Atsumu had held out his hand before him like a toy he had lost interest in. His finger was morbid, crusted with blood, still bleeding. Kiyoomi fought back the urge to throw him out. You need more than a stupid bandaid, Kiyoomi decided. Perhaps he sounded imperious when he said it because Atsumu flared up at his words. I’ll decide what to do with my own body, Atsumu snarled. For once he sounded angry instead of annoyed. His voice was bitter and acidic and not loud enough to travel but sharp enough that it grated on Kiyoomi’s ears. Kiyoomi made him put on the hotel slippers he had kicked off and ordered him into the bathroom. He opened the drawer under the sink.
“Yeah. Okay. That’s better.” Atsumu half-slumps against the wall and then decides against it. He straightens his back. His presence seeps into Kiyoomi’s tiny bathroom and threatens to drown his cleaning supplies.
Kiyoomi gathers the alcohol swabs and tissues and deposits them in the trash. He returns with the bandaid Atsumu had wanted.
Atsumu gives him a funny look. “Hand,” he parrots back stupidly. He holds his hand out in mid-air without attempting to touch Kiyoomi or attach himself to the bandaid Kiyoomi has begun peeling back with his fingernails.
Kiyoomi keeps his nails filed nearly to the quick. It is the third element of a morning routine he has perfected over the course of several lifetimes. Atsumu does not appear to file his nails so much as he destroys them. He does not seem to be aware, either, of how much blood there is staining Kiyoomi’s sink and how uncomfortable he is about this entire situation. Or maybe he is. Maybe Atsumu is pretending.
Kiyoomi holds the bandaid out by both ends. He presses it lightly against the part of Atsumu’s finger where he has peeled back enough nail and skin to reveal the landfill inside of himself. Then he lets go.
“Do the rest yourself.”
Atsumu wraps the bandaid around his finger. For the first time in all the years Kiyoomi has known him, he has the grace to look somewhat guilty.
“Have you considered anything else?” His homeroom teacher shuffled the papers on her desk in a way that suggested she was bored or impatient or both.
The setting sun had bled all over the contents of the room. The career advisory center would be closing soon. In several minutes Kiyoomi would be made to leave regardless of whether he had satisfied his teacher’s secondhand obligations.
“No,” he said.
She shuffled the papers again. How many times had she done this today? The sound annoyed him.
At this point in his life the altar in his bathroom sink had yet to be completed. His hair fell too far over his eyes and he had to keep careful track of his allowance in order to purchase face masks in bulk, usually on the last Thursday of each month. The brand he wanted was hard to obtain in Tokyo and often required a courier service from some obscure website or another.
He had typed out his plans for the next five years in a Google Spreadsheet. He knew where he wanted to go. Failure did not concern him. There were only moments of security and then a large, all-consuming emptiness.
Kiyoomi wished she would stop shuffling the papers. The action sent plumes of dust into the air. He could see each particle even more clearly than usual because of the dying setting sun behind them. She gave him a dense, judgmental look.
“No,” he repeated. The clock struck six. He pushed his chair back and stood up.
There is no routine to the series of meetings that emerges following the serial killer hallucination and the bloody finger incident. The only thing that remains consistent is this: Atsumu is the one who asks. Atsumu is obnoxious and brattish and sleeps late or doesn’t sleep at all. He doesn’t expect Kiyoomi to find him and he is correct in assuming that Kiyoomi will not try. Kiyoomi sometimes sleeps late or doesn’t sleep at all, but he does this on average two or three times a month, not five times a week.
Atsumu is barely functional save for the violent livid way in which he holds a volleyball. Atsumu is a mystery.
Consider the five-meter wide space under the streetlight.
Kiyoomi is not burning with questions. Kiyoomi does not burn on principle. Instead his curiosity emerges like the body of a god from the bottom of the ocean, continents sliding off its chest and its upturned palms. It rents a three-by-three space in the left atrium of his heart. By the time he realizes that it is there, it is attending to complex orders from his hands and eyes and teeth. It has established itself as something necessary.
He does not want this body. But it wants him. Consider the street.
The ordinary surgical mask can only be used once. Once you have tugged it down and exposed your nose and your mouth to the great blistering outdoors, both your fingers and the mask will be damaged. After this you can only throw the mask away while pinching the strap uncomfortably between your thumb and forefinger. Cross-contamination is preventable if one cares enough. One must care very much.
Kiyoomi does not pull his face mask down for other people as a matter of principle. Lately he has been running out of Ziploc bags to put them in.
Atsumu tips the last of his Asahi (canned, cold) into his mouth. Behind him the glow from the streetlight touches his forehead and slides down the bridge of his nose. It pauses in the cleft of his lips and keeps going. The line of his throat. The jut of his clavicle. The collar of his shirt.
Summer is warm enough that they don’t need to be anything but themselves. Kiyoomi resents this. Atsumu does not.
“What matters to you,” Atsumu manages, drunk. “In this big fuckin’ world, what matters to you?”
Kiyoomi stares into his Pocari. He swirls the liquid in its clear plastic bottle. He caps it.
There is one reason and one reason only he agrees to these four a.m. meetings.
One: the street is deserted at four a.m..
One: Pocari Sweat (bottled, cold).
One: Miya Atsumu doesn’t stop talking but he stops being deliberately mean. He obliges Kiyoomi’s company by being only accidentally mean. Like a child on training wheels, he navigates the mottled complexion of their temporary universe, trampling over weeds and other small indifferences. Why’d you get your hair cut? Do you have a skincare routine? Oi, don’t lie, I know you have a skincare routine. How else can you look like that?
One: Miya Atsumu asks questions. He doesn’t seem to care for the answers.
Several things happened to Kiyoomi when he was a child. None of them were dreadful.
He was raised in a regular Tokyo household with two regular Tokyo mothers. One graduated from design school and worked in a startup firm in Shinjuku. The other was a lawyer. He went to a regular Tokyo elementary school and followed his peers to the regular affiliated high school.
Long before that, at the very beginning of time, Kiyoomi woke up on a regular Tokyo morning and discovered that the world had shed its skin overnight. In its place a new one had grown. It was dark and scaly and reminded him of knives. He does not remember what day of the week it was or if he had breakfast after that. He does not remember if he had defied the gods the night before. But he is sure this happened. He was not born afraid. No one is.
According to the adults in your life, what you cannot see cannot hurt you. It is one of those mantras they drum into you when you are five years old and impressionable, or you are eleven years old and watching people play volleyball on television for the first time. You carry it with you in your chest like a bad cold until the ignorance finally grows large and malignant enough and kills you.
Kiyoomi would rather know too much than too little. He knows his presence is one to be tolerated rather than welcomed. He has spent his entire life acquainting himself with this fact.
Volleyball is his answer to a world which asks nothing else of him. It refuses to believe there is anything else in him worth asking for. So his days pass, if not amicably, then quietly. His name is Sakusa Kiyoomi and the contents of his person are exactly represented by the printing on the label. His flesh-and-blood body. The skeleton his anxiety built inside of it. His flesh-and-blood soul. Volleyball.
Always, in the before and the after, like a mantra that will not and shall not and cannot kill: volleyball.
“What are you looking at?” Hinata blinks big round bird-eyes at him.
Kiyoomi folds his clothes into a disposable plastic bag. “Nothing.”
“Tsum-tsum,” Bokuto declares loudly and with pride. He is psychic in this world too. They all want to stop him from reading their minds but he is stronger than all of their left elbows put together and it would be too much effort to try. “He’s looking at Tsum-tsum, isn’t he?”
“What,” Atsumu says, swiping his bangs back over his forehead. Kiyoomi wants to see them burn. “What’re you looking at?”
Kiyoomi pauses for an eighth of a second.
“Your hair. Did you cut it?”
The hilarious thing is when they physically bump into each other for the first time since high school, Atsumu is the one who flinches away like he’s been burnt. The twenty-three year old elevator is nearly twenty-four now. Three-quarters of the buttons won’t light up if you press them. The residents of the seventh and eighth floors are in newfound agony. The residents of the fifth are smugly indifferent.
Kiyoomi is back from a trip to the pharmacy and Atsumu seems to have returned from a run. Atsumu runs frequently. This is not a surprise given that they are professional athletes, but his schedule is inconsistent enough that it suggests he runs not for the aesthetic or physical benefits, but something else.
This is one of a slew of discoveries Kiyoomi has accidentally made. Like the thing about Atsumu’s nails. Kiyoomi does not ask about this. Or the thing about insomnia. This, Kiyoomi does not ask about either.
He knows. He does not know why he knows.
Returning to the matter of the bump-and-bruised shoulders and the creaky elevator, we observe that Atsumu flinches several feet away. He bumps his other shoulder, the one that has not been burnt, into the wall. We observe, also, the interior of Kiyoomi’s chest. It is large and hollow and has a vaulted ceiling. There are no windows, and there is a single light bulb.
“Sorry,” Atsumu says, laughing awkwardly. He hides his awkwardness by steepling his fingers in the air. His gaze slants away.
Kiyoomi stares at the vaulted ceiling in his chest while Atsumu talks. He is serious about his hands-off policy. Enough that even Meian and the other senior players on their team do not try to clap him on the back after a good spike or a service ace, although Adriah has not given up on getting a high-five. Kiyoomi has spent his entire life building various monuments to his anxiety. Each one is a guardian angel in disguise. Each one is painted white.
In response to Kiyoomi’s silence, the ghost haunting Atsumu’s body climbs out of his mouth and sits itself on the floor of the elevator. Time slows its steps. The distance between the lobby and the fifth floor has never felt longer nor more bizarre, and now Atsumu is talking over the thing on the floor between them. As if this will hide its presence. Atsumu is bad at pretending.
Kiyoomi opens his mouth. All the stale air in the elevator rushes inside and begins to plant weeds between his teeth.
“Since when did you start caring so much about me?”
Atsumu looks up. “Oh,” he says, surprised. He frowns at his shoes. “That’s a good question.”
This moment is not entirely terrible. Kiyoomi hopes Atsumu never opens his mouth again. If he succeeds in doing this then he may be cemented in Kiyoomi’s mind forever as a sentient, half-decent human being who holds a volleyball like a newborn child or a crowbar.
If he succeeds in doing this Kiyoomi will not have to think about the other thing in the elevator. The thing he found in the vaulted ceiling of his chest, where he had been looking earlier while Atsumu filled the space between them with his words and his breath and his air.
Kiyoomi is serious about his hands-off policy. But he is serious when he says this too: there is a place on his shoulder where Miya Atsumu’s flesh-and-blood body met his three minutes ago. From the point of contact a splotch of red has unfurled like a wound. It spreads along the skin of his torso and inches into his ribcage. It carves a three-inch hole in the left atrium of his heart. It sticks its head inside and says:
Admit it. You didn’t hate that.
He doesn’t hate anything. He knows he gives more shits about all of this than he logically needs to. He lives with this knowledge or it lives in him. It eats him when he wakes up every morning and while he’s playing volleyball and again at night, as he turns out the lights and assesses the damage that the day has done. Every day he gets out of bed. He scrubs his skin until it cracks. He brushes his teeth and files his nails and checks his emails and moisturizes the fissures in his skin the soap has opened up. Every day he does these things.
We return to the image of Miya Atsumu at center court. He has just lost at his third and final Spring High.
He is wondrously, stupidly attractive with his ridden up shirt and his bleached hair and his brows, his eyes, his teeth. The people in the bleachers and the teams in the other courts are all hyper-aware of this. The world watches him wipe his face with the inside of his shirt and holds something in its hands: desire, then. Desperation.
Sakusa Kiyoomi pays this no attention. Sakusa Kiyoomi is studying what disappointment looks like on him.
Now look back and ask yourself: what went wrong? Because something must have. Nothing went wrong will the volleyball; the volleyball has always been fine. But something went wrong in your chest.
You think you’ll never see him again. In this image Miya Atsumu is beautiful and you do not care. Eventually, and for all the wrong reasons, you will.
Do not lose sleep over this. Proceed as you always have.
By the time he became the ace of his high school volleyball team, his reputation was sealed. Volleyball, germaphobia, volleyball. Or, if you preferred: germaphobia, volleyball, germaphobia. Whichever word came second would be bracketed in by two identical copies of the word that encapsulated the other half of his existence. He had built himself up in this shape and could no longer be bothered to try to change it.
He received a confession only once at Itachiyama. The perpetrator was a small girl with frizzy hair and a habit of touching the hem of her skirt when she was nervous. She stopped him in the hallway after volleyball practice one evening. She touched her skirt. She touched her hair.
She said: “I know you’re scared of germs and everything but I promise I’ll make it better.”
Make what better? Was something currently bad? Kiyoomi’s expression twisted beneath his mask.
At the seven minute mark of her long and heartfelt speech, she tried to touch him. He dodged on instinct and only realized afterwards that he had moved awkwardly out of the way of a small, manicured hand. In it was an envelope. The flap was secured with a heart-shaped sticker.
He didn’t want to take it. Her speech concluded just short of eleven minutes and he remembered none of it other than that he was apparently in need of some form of betterment. He didn’t understand it. His spiking form had been steadily improving. He was doing well.
He pinched the envelope between his thumb and forefinger and watched as she watched him do this. He peeled the heart-shaped sticker off the flap with the tip of his fingernail. He extracted the letter inside.
She waited expectantly for his response. Behind him he could feel the eyes of Komori and half of the volleyball team on him. Perhaps there was supposed to be something immense about this.
“Sorry,” he said after a minute, folding the letter delicately back into its envelope. He did not try to touch the heart-shaped sticker or press the flap back down. He thought about it. “No.”
She tilted her head to one side. “No?”
He had spent most of his life saying no to things. This part, he was used to.
Should he say sorry? “Sorry.”
“No,” the girl shook her head. “No. It’s fine.”
He thinks that if someone else does not bite Atsumu’s head off first, he will. Not with his teeth. But maybe with his hands.
Consider, abstractly, the idea of consumption. What it entails to care enough about something to ingest it. To take all its dirt and bacteria and the history of its sins into yourself.
Consider the space under the streetlight. Consider fear.
Atsumu is in a good mood today. This is a rare event worthy of being recorded in the history books, although it is not Kiyoomi’s history book to write in. Atsumu’s room is freshly vacuumed. The three pillows are stacked on top of each other. One bolster lies parallel to the wall. The other is in Atsumu’s arms as he sits down on the edge of his bed and kicks his heels against the side. There are no marks on the wood from months-old Family Mart fried chicken.
In spite of his brattish disposition and his selfishness and the way he navigates the world like a child on training wheels. In spite of his cruelty and his insensitive smile and the way he’ll make weaker players cry just to see what color their tears are. In spite of his preference for canned drinks.
Sakusa Kiyoomi doesn’t trust the lip of an aluminium can not to kill him. In spite of this. In spite of all this.
He studies Atsumu’s profile as he scrolls through his phone. He has laid out drinks and snacks on the low table in front of the bed. These are in small ceramic dishes whose cleaning Kiyoomi had supervised. Each dish contains a serving spoon or chopsticks. There are three-inch stacks of tissue bracketing the arrangement.
Atsumu had appeared outside his room and asked him if he was free and willing to oblige his loser complex for a moment. This is more than Kiyoomi had been expecting. Then and again, Kiyoomi has spent his entire life learning that expectations are made to be overturned. There will always be something new to fear. There will always be new sources of disappointment.
When he was younger his grandmother once told him coexistence was a series of long and elaborate compromises. He had not understood what she meant then. As he proceeded cautiously through the unbearable hallways of time, he forgot about them as people are wont to forget about things that are irrelevant or awful. Coexistence and compromise did not interest him. He saw no reason for them to. The outside world was vast and terrifying and he had no plans to know any more about it than he had to. He played volleyball. He played volleyball.
Watching Atsumu watch nothing from the other side of the bed, he thinks: besides volleyball, what else is there?
It occurs to him that he could give Atsumu his own supply of bandaids and tissue and alcohol swabs but in truth he would rather spend the money on his own supplies. Besides, if Atsumu is dying then he will have to help himself anyway. You are your first and only line of defense against the universe.
There is less to say between them some nights. In that absence something else has sprouted. Kiyoomi does not speak this language very well.
“God. Fuck. Fuck me. Fuck.”
Kiyoomi’s bathroom, three a.m.. White lights (standard-issue), alcohol swab (his), Atsumu’s fingers (bloody, ruined). He bites his lip hard enough that Kiyoomi expects to see more blood in this sterile space than there already is. He gives Kiyoomi a resentful look.
“Don’t look at me. You did this to yourself.”
“I know.” Kiyoomi places the tweezers back on the bed of tissues. He turns on the faucet. “I wish I didn’t have a fuckin’ body.”
Kiyoomi laughs. It is the equivalent of air passing through an air-vent. He is confident Atsumu does not hear it.
“Did you just laugh.”
“No,” Kiyoomi says. The running water is giving Atsumu’s exposed fingers the equivalent of several punches to the gut. He seems spiritually at peace with this fact.
When the water in the sink finally runs clear again, Kiyoomi turns off the faucet. He gathers up everything in the tissue bed and moves to deposit it in the trash can outside. He returns with bandages. There are more, this time; this is one of the crueler things Atsumu has done to himself.
“Huh,” Atsumu says, still thinking about the laugh he should have missed. “I didn’t really think you were human until now.”
Kiyoomi wants to sigh. He holds it back. “Miya.”
Atsumu holds his hand out like always. “Can you call me Atsumu? It feels weird to be called Miya. You could be talking to my brother or something.”
“I’m talking to you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Would I be talking to anyone else at three in the morning while I clean up their shitty fingers in my shitty bathroom?”
Atsumu stares long and hard at him. His brows are pinched and his hair looks like shit and there are bags under his eyes. Kiyoomi pins his gaze on the tile on the wall beside Atsumu’s left ear.
“What,” Atsumu laughs tiredly. “Do you want me to go?”
The tile is porcelain, white. At the center is a small yellow daisy. The paint around the stem is flaking.
“Do you want to?” Kiyoomi asks.
Atsumu drops his gaze. “Not really.”
Kiyoomi places one end of the bandage over the place where Atsumu has peeled back enough nail and skin to reveal the curious contradiction underneath. Twenty-four this year and still young and reckless and cruel to everyone, himself included. When will they stop?
“Thanks,” Atsumu says. “I’ll do the rest.”
He moves to take over the process of salvation.
Kiyoomi doesn’t pass the bandages to Atsumu. Atsumu’s other hand is equally torn up and he is ready to finish the stupid thing he started this time. He is resigned to do things Kiyoomi’s way, which is how things have always gone between them. Atsumu asks for something silly and contrived, like friendship. Kiyoomi gives him an hour.
He thinks of his grandmother and her big Japanese-style house in the suburbs, the broken plumbing, the shouting. He wonders what compromise is. If it is safety.
Does he have to let go? Can he not simply continue on like he has until now?
No one here will tell him what to do. This is the freedom he has fought all his life to give himself; this is relief. Atsumu’s hand is still hovering in mid-air, not attempting to touch Kiyoomi or any other part of his bathroom. He will not move an inch until Kiyoomi asks him to. This is an objective fact. Atsumu will do nothing.
“Don’t move,” Kiyoomi says. Slowly he begins to wind the bandages around Atsumu’s fingers, holding the fucked up mess of his flesh-and-blood body between the palms of his own hands.
Atsumu’s breath hitches.
“I said don’t move. Let me.”
Ask him what happens first: the unexpected arrival of a new kind of fear, or the thrill. The bizarre choked-up immensity of realizing you've opened up a space for rent, and someone has moved in.
Go on, ask him. He’s waiting.
“What are you doing?”
Atsumu is hiding his face in his hands. Kiyoomi thinks he should stand up as his bathroom is clean but still not as clean as the rest of his living space. Atsumu is kneeling. At this rate his knees will become dirty.
“I,” Atsumu says. He falls silent. He scrubs his eyes.
Earlier he had stood perfectly still as Kiyoomi held his hand by the wrist and wound the bandage around his finger. He did not blink even once. Kiyoomi worked methodically and carefully, cradling his skin against his. He did not breathe once.
Atsumu makes a frustrated sound. His face emerges from the cradle of his hands. He gives Kiyoomi a blank look.
“Stop looking at me like that,” he says, sounding annoyed and embarrassed and brattish and very Miya Atsumu. He sounds like he always does when he fucks up a serve.
“What,” Kiyoomi asks dryly. “Are you in love with me?”
Atsumu scrunches up his face. It makes him look five and fifty-nine at the same time.
“Maybe,” he tells the wall behind Kiyoomi’s feet, very seriously. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“Do I ever fuck with you?”
“Yeah, okay, no. I’m embarrassed,” Atsumu announces. He stands up very fast and narrowly avoids knocking over the soap dispenser.
“I probably like you. But also fuck you. And don’t bank on it. And go to sleep. And I’m sorry.”
He picks his way out of Kiyoomi’s room and leaves the hotel slippers (borrowed, well-worn) at the doorway.
“Sorry for what?” Kiyoomi asks.
Atsumu gestures broadly at himself.
“This.” He laughs quietly. “Good night. Seriously. Go to sleep.”
Kiyoomi stares at him. Atsumu's voice is barely above a whisper. Atsumu’s voice climbs into the cavity of Kiyoomi’s chest. It builds an altar of worship between his lungs.
It does not dislodge any of the elements that already exist inside of him. Kiyoomi is the sum of routines and routines and routines, built upon each other over the course of centuries. He has been curating the contents of his body for as long as he can remember.
His body is a complex, multilayered machine. Recently he has discovered that this machine can fly.
Atsumu dips his head briefly. He turns and vanishes down the narrow crowded hallway, like the specter of something from your childhood you thought you had long since forgotten about.
The process of salvation cannot be found. It can only be felt for, blindly, like a child moving through darkness. It arrives from the sacred white landscape of your dreams. It sleeps in the cavity of your chest. The days pass and pass over your head and under your skin until finally, you reach the place that you had been trying to get to since you were spit out of the gaping maw of the whale, and discover that there is something worth preserving in the vast and terrifying world around you after all.
And what other miracles?