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Keiji got The Email at 5:00 PM, at the end of business day, right on the dot.

He imagined a faceless worker, bored and anxious to leave, finger hovering over their trackpad, waiting to press send right before clocking out of work, blissfully unaware that he referred to The Email with the appropriate capitalization.

He was alternating between unpacking boxes and assembling furniture in what would be his home office, a full room of their sizable 3DK condominium graciously conceded to him by Bokuto to lure him from working overtime in a job he was yet to secure, when his phone vibrated. It was The Email. 

Thank you for your interest in joining the team at the Yuzu literary journal. Unfortunately— 

He almost dropped the screwdriver he was using to wrangle a sad pile of wooden boards and screws into a shelf on his foot. But the world didn’t drop from under him like he’d feared.

He thought about calling Bokuto.

 

*

 

Keiji was in the last three weeks of his final year of college. He only had four classes left, and he’d loaded them between Mondays and Wednesdays so he’d have Thursdays and Fridays free for job hunting and working on his thesis. The thesis was on its final draft and his adviser was mostly happy with it. He just needed to go over his citations again. The job hunt was… in progress.

Earlier that afternoon, he was packing the last of his possessions out of the student apartment he’d shared with Miyoshi Ken since he moved out of home after high school. Despite living in Tokyo his whole life, his parents insisted he get an apartment near campus anyway so he could be spared from a 45-minute daily commute.

Miyoshi, his soon-to-be ex-roommate, was also a fourth year in the literature department, a deft writer who was blessed with a laid back personality and, more importantly, a beat up Nissan pickup truck. Keiji had enlisted Miyoshi and the pickup truck to a slow, weeks-long moving out plan by promising to proofread and correct citations on his thesis.

Their building was only four years old. The paint was still drying when Keiji’s parents signed the lease. It was one of many nondescript apartment buildings by the same four real estate conglomerates that popped up every few years near universities in Tokyo.

Keiji met Miyoshi at the literature department orientation. By the kind hand of fate, he was looking for a room and Keiji was looking for a roommate. Their apartment felt only slightly larger than a shoebox, but these were things he’d come to accept, living in Shibuya.

Now, four years later, they were both seated on the bedroom floor, as sprawled as the small space could allow them to be with all the books they’d accumulated in college stacked around them. Keiji felt like Godzilla towering over a defenseless city of words, and was momentarily tempted to knock everything down. 

They were trying to decide which books to sell and which to bequeath to underclassmen—Keiji’s marginal notes for Lit Crit I and II were coveted in the department and could fetch a high price, according to Miyoshi’s intel—when Keiji’s phone rang. 

It was Bokuto.

Keiji stood up and excused himself to walk out of the room. He ignored Miyoshi’s teasing look, lips pursed together in a knowing smile, as he slid the door closed behind him.

Pressing his phone to his ear, he said, “Hello, Bokuto-san?”

“Hey, Keiji!” came the reply. As usual, Bokuto sounded excited. Keiji’s cheeks warmed. He should be embarrassed at how happy he got just hearing his boyfriend’s voice, after five years together. Bokuto continued, “Are you done packing?”

“I'm working on it,” Keiji said. “I think we'll be done here by four. Whats up?”

“Ah wow, that's early.” A pause. Keiji could hear the muted but distinct ambient noise of a locker room in the background—metal doors being pushed closed, the indistinct murmur of conversation. It almost made him nostalgic. “Nothing in particular. Just wanted to let you know I'm going home tonight, okay?”

Keiji’s breath hitches at that word, home.

Bokuto’s trade into the MSBY Black Jackals the past year marked the first time in their then four-year long relationship they would both be living in Tokyo again. Bokuto debuted straight out of high school with the Mondelez Beavers, a Division 1 team based in Hiroshima. Keiji never left.

Bokuto’s new contract came with team accommodations right by the Jackals training facilities and home stadium in Koto ward. They were a 50-minute commute from each other’s apartments, but that distance was negligible compared to a four-hour bullet train ride.

Then Keiji was graduating soon. He had planned to move back into his parents’ house before Bokuto dropped the bomb that he’d bought a condominium, “a really big one, Keiji. There’s so much space.”

“Baby, you still there?” Bokuto said, gently pulling Keiji out of his head. He could hear the smile in Bokuto’s voice, familiar as he was with Keiji’s silences.

He cleared his throat and said, “Yeah, okay. Do you need me to make dinner?”

“Nah, Tsum-Tsum says he's treating us after the game.” 

There was a rustle over the line, then Miya Atsumu’s voice suddenly close enough for him to make the words out. “Is that Akaashi-san?” Bokuto hummed in affirmation, then “Say hi for me!”

“Did you hear? Tsum-Tsum said hi.” He heard a heavy door creaking open over the line, then the ambient noises stopped. 

Amused, Keiji said, “Tell him I say hi back.”

“Also I think it's supposed to be my turn to cook,” said Bokuto. “So don’t cook dinner! Order something! Make sure you eat before I get home, okay?”

“Okay. Are you gonna be back late?”

“Not super late, maybe around 9.”

“Okay. Eat well tonight too. See you later.”

“Yeah, you too. Love you, Keiji.”

Keiji knew he was fully blushing now, which again seemed ridiculous given how often they said it to each other. “I love you too,” he said back. They hung up.

Behind him, the bedroom door slowly slid open. Miyoshi popped his head outside and said, “Man, I really missed the boat on this high school sweethearts thing.” 

“You did have a high school girlfriend when we were in first year,” said Keiji, his eyebrow raised. “You broke up with her by winter break.”

Miyoshi waved his hand like he was swatting Keiji’s words away. “Yes, yes, I know. Technicalities, Akaashi.” 

Keiji shot him a pointed look. Unfazed, Miyoshi continued, “I was just thinking that, if I’d availed of a professional athlete high school sweetheart, I would gladly move into his condo, live as his trophy husband, and not have to work so hard to find a job.”

With time and the wisdom of 21 years, Keiji had grown familiar with his tendency to overthink himself into a hole. The first line of defense was to recognize when he’d been given a nuclear warhead of an insight that he would not be able to resist turning in his mind again and again and again.

Standing in his college apartment, he watched it happening right then. Miyoshi aimed it straight at him.

Trophy husband, trophy husband, trophy husband.

 

*

 

Bokuto told him on a completely normal day.

It would have been better for Keiji’s future writing career if the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, petals drifting down the trees, or if the sky was gray and dark with the possibility of rain.

Instead, the sakura trees were bare and the sky looked as it always did. 

It was two weeks after nationals. 

A week after nationals, the third years officially retired from the club. Bokuto gave a rousing speech, then the club broke up in two groups, one for the graduating third years and one for everyone else, and lined up. Keiji led everyone else to bow and say a final “Thank you very much!”

Everyone cried, except for Keiji. Their coaches teared up, Kaori complained to Yukie that she should’ve worn waterproof mascara, all the first years were sniffling. Bokuto, Washio, Sarukui, Konoha and Komi had their arms around each others’ shoulders, and they all looked up at the ceiling at Komi’s advice, who said, “If we look up the tears will go back inside.”

Keiji watched everyone and felt outside himself. He woke up the morning after nationals with all his emotions gone. He’d misplaced them somewhere between the Tokyo Metropolitan Arena, the yakiniku their coaches treated them to after, and the Fukurodani campus. Maybe he dropped them in the bus and they were still there, rattling underneath the seats.

After that, Keiji drifted through his days like a ghost, like he’d lost whatever kept him tethered to his body. He looked down at his hands, amazed that he still existed.

It was bad enough that his mother set him an appointment with his year’s guidance counselor two weeks after nationals. He was excused for the last morning period before lunch. He didn’t tell anyone but Bokuto.

“Look, Akaashi-san,” Kiruhara-san, the guidance counselor, had prompted, calling his attention to a piece of paper she’d deliberately placed between them on her desk. They were in her warm office decorated with about fifteen different ceramic cat figurines lovingly placed on various surfaces. 

She drew a circle with her pink friction pen on the sheet large enough that its sides bordered the paper’s edges, and said, “This is your life.” The large, blank circle. 

Then, she drew a tiny dot inside. “This is your impressive first-runner up finish at nationals.” Her voice was so kind. “Look at them together.” He did. He followed the way she waved her pen at the expanse of empty space for emphasis. “Do you see? The loss is just a part of your life.” 

When Keiji emerged from her office three minutes into lunch break, Bokuto was already waiting for him outside. He raised the two bento boxes he was carrying after he saw Keiji and said, “I asked your classmates to get your bento out of your bag.” 

For the first time in a week, Keiji felt warm.

Bokuto insisted they eat outside. They walked together past nondescript trees, under a nondescript sky before settling on a bench to Bokuto’s liking, one with a view of the school greenhouse. They sat straddling the bench facing each other, their bentos between them.

On the way, Bokuto was chattering about how much he missed the other third years who had gone (socially) underground to study for entrance exams. But once they were seated, he grew quiet.

Bokuto inhaled loudly, like he did when he was psyching himself up before a serve. Then he said, “I have a confession to make.” 

That word. Confession. Keiji snuffed the traitorous hope smouldering in his chest. 

“Your mom asked me how you’re doing. I told her you weren’t doing so good,” said Bokuto, his entire being deflating. “I’m sorry, I should’ve told you sooner. It feels like I went behind your back.”

Ah. In his mind, Keiji recited, This is just a part of my life.

Oblivious to Akaashi’s thoughts, Bokuto continued, “But I was so worried about you, Akaashi. Everyone was. Konoha was on me to talk to you. I just didn’t know how to make it better by myself. I’m sorry.”

Keiji sighed softly and said, “That’s okay. I’m glad you noticed I needed help. Thank you, Bokuto-san.” He knew better now than to think he had any control over Bokuto’s emotions, but he couldn’t help the rising warmth in his chest when Bokuto’s posture straightened and he smiled again.

Then he leaned into Keiji and whispered conspiratorially, “For reciprocal purposes, can I tell you something secret too?”

“Reciprocity,” Keiji corrected, “but sure.” 

Bokuto, vibrating with excitement, looked straight in his eyes. “You can’t tell anyone, okay?”

“Of course I won’t.”

“I’m getting signed by the Beavers!” The earlier whispering was mooted because when Bokuto was excited, he was loud. Some of the students milling about them turned to look. Bokuto, ignorant of their attention, ploughed on, “It’s as good as done, my parents hired a lawyer and an agent to go over the contract and everything.”

“Bokuto-san, that’s amazing!” Keiji smiled at Bokuto’s obvious joy, but he wasn’t surprised. He thought, It was always a certainty. “I never doubted it. You worked so hard. You deserve everything.”

Bokuto sat up even straighter at the praise, his cheeks coloring. “I really, really couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks for staying late with me for spiking practice all those times.”

In his ghost state, Keiji was numb to fear. So he said, “Don’t even mention it. I was able to practice with my favorite volleyball player for two years. The honor was mine.”

Bokuto seemed to burst with happiness. His nose scrunched up in pleasure and the red on his cheeks deepened. He was so beset with happiness he hid his face behind his hands. Watching him, Keiji felt joy and anxiety return to him, as intertwined as they’d ever been. Maybe it took them two weeks to find him again from across Tokyo.

Then Bokuto stilled and inhaled again, like he was preparing for another serve. “I’m moving to Hiroshima after graduation.”

Keiji worked very hard to keep his smile on his face. “I suspected. Are you worried about it?”

“About living alone? Nah. My mom is helping me move.” Keiji hmmed. Bokuto looked straight at him again and said, “What I’m really worried about is being away from you.”

It was a normal day. The sakura trees were not in bloom. The sky was a customary shade of blue, with the requisite number of clouds painted across it. 

For once in his life, Keiji couldn’t find the right words to say. But he felt. He felt the cool breeze blowing hair on his face. The warmth inside his chest had grown into a hot spell, spreading up his face, and down all over his body. He looked down at his hands and they felt his, a part of him again.

Familiar with his silences, Bokuto leaned into him and whispered again. “I have a second confession to make, and it’s selfish and terrible. You can turn me down, okay?”

Keiji’s heart was pounding. He willed himself to say, “But Bokuto-san, you haven’t asked me anything.”

Without hesitation, Bokuto said, “I really like you, Akaashi. So much. You make me feel happy and like I can do anything. I want to make you happy too. That sounds like a lie coming from the guy moving to Hiroshima in a few months, but it’s true. Will you let me?”

In her office, Keiji had told Kurihara-san a secret. “It’s not really about the losing,” he said. “It’s that everything is changing, everyone is leaving, Bokuto is graduating, and that scares me.” 

In the pink friction pen circle that is his life, Bokuto would make up significantly more than a tiny dot. He was a part of Keiji’s life, without the qualifying ‘just.’

And now, Keiji was a more-than-’just’ part of Bokuto’s life too. Apparently, he’d always been.

With his solid hand, he reached over to cup Bokuto’s face. Bokuto leaned into his touch. Then he said, “You don’t have to do anything to make me happy. You already do.”

 

*

 

Miyoshi dropped Keiji and his boxes off the new condominium at quarter past four. After four years of friendship, he quickly noticed that Keiji was chewing on something, so on the way he filled the silence with chatter. He was blunt, but far from unkind. He helped unload and carry all the boxes upstairs.

And then Keiji was alone.

Bokuto and Keiji’s new building was in Shinagawa. It was the type that had real plants running down its sides in an attempt to soften its imposing glass edifice. The marketing brochure used words like ‘urban greening.’ There was a communal pool.

The condominium itself was, by Keiji’s estimate, as big as three and a third of his shoebox in Shibuya. It had wall-length windows. The rooms could be lit not only by a large fixture in the middle of each room, but also with small lights placed all around. Those could be dimmed precisely with dials on the wall, instead of switches. There was an actual working range hood over the stove. It had a balcony.

And they weren’t renting together. Bokuto bought the place. Keiji, still jobless, had no way of earning rent to pay him back.

He turned that nuclear warhead thought, trophy husband, over in his mind.

It was strange how, in matters of Bokuto, Keiji could both overthink and underthink everything. Why can't I ever just think the right amount? Then, Why was I okay with this for so long? 

They really needed to talk. He thought of calling, but Bokuto had a game.

They moved into the new place in haphazard spurts of time between Bokuto’s away games and Keiji’s job interviews. They had a couch from Bokuto’s mom, but no dining table. His parents bought shelves and a desk for his would-be office. With his internship paycheck, Keiji ordered a discounted mattress that came in the mail rolled into a box. Bokuto bought a bed frame, but it was still unassembled, its parts dumped in the bedroom. Near it, the mattress was pressed against a window, on the floor. 

His mind was swirling with new revelations he was hesitant to tackle on his own, so Keiji was thankful for the work. He decided to do the bed frame first. He dug up a screw driver from one of the boxes and sat on the floor beside the pile of wooden beams.

They had no TV. Instead, Keiji propped his phone on the mattress, its back rested against the window, and pulled up a livestream of the game. It hadn’t started yet, but the Jackals were already warming up on court. The camera zoomed into Bokuto waving his arms over his head, already hyping up the crowd. Keiji couldn’t help but smile.

After just three games with the Mondelez Beavers, the rest of the country caught up to what Keiji always knew in his heart. Bokuto Koutarou was a star. 

Even barring his superb volleyball skills, he was just so likeable. Kids loved his on-court antics. Young people loved his expert meme verbiage and willingness to do any dance challenge. Plus he was a recurring guest in Kodzuken’s livestreams. A fashion editor at Non-no lovingly tweeted that he was ‘the best himbo.’ Old people, charmed by the sincerity he displayed during his many TV guest appearances, loved him and, according to a nationwide poll, wanted him as a son-in-law above even Ushijima Wakatoshi.

With popularity came lucrative brand deals, ruthlessly negotiated by Bokuto’s agent. First Mikasa volleyballs, two-tone biscuits dipped in a strawberry-milk chocolate, Air Salonpas, a paracetamol-ibuprofen tablet for muscle pain, then running shoes, an entire skincare system, wireless earphones bundled with a music streaming service subscription. 

To Keiji, it was inevitable that a bigger, better team would covet Bokuto for their lineup.

It all added up to a brand new condominium in Shinagawa. 

In contrast, Keiji was over two months into his serious job hunt and had yet to receive a single offer.

In writing and editing, as with volleyball before, Keiji knew he was far from the best. This was a cold fact to him now, one he could acknowledge with admirable dispassion after what felt like hundreds of vicious writing workshops that taught him to rip any emotional attachment he had for his work the moment he submitted the draft. In this too, he was not a monster. He tried very hard to become one in the past four years, but as astrology-obsessed Yukie-senpai would say, maybe it wasn’t in the stars for him.

From where he sat, Keiji could see their closet, his side empty. His clothes were still in boxes. Hanging on Bokuto’s side, he saw a familiar blue shirt from years ago.

Firstly, the figure of the ace is one that inspires his allies.

In high school, Keiji knew this for a fact, believed in it more than anyone. Even years later, he could never forget looking up at Bokuto’s back as he leapt to spike a toss. 

But maybe Keiji was tired of looking at Bokuto’s back. He was always trailing behind, chasing after him.

Surrounded by slots of wood that the brochure with opaque instructions he’d unfurled in front of him promised he could turn into a bed frame, Keiji felt irrationally alone.

 

*

 

Keiji did not realize just how much of his life he’d dedicated to volleyball to the exclusion of all other school activities until the third years graduated. In some ways it was understandable. He was an experienced starter in a nationally-seeded team, and then the team captain.

But after the third years left, his days grew quiet.

This dawned on him on his first lunch break back, when he took his bento and started to walk towards his classroom door, muscle memory leading him to where Bokuto would be waiting for him. Of course, there was no one there.

Takizawa Emi, their kind-hearted class president, had seen him before he tried to cover his gaffe by turning around and pretending he’d forgotten something at his desk. 

“Akaashi-san!” she called, while he was miming looking for something in his bag. “Over here!” She was seated with her two friends, their three desks pushed together. “Come, join us,” she said, pulling an empty beside her. He made a mental note to pray for her eternal good health the next time he visited a shrine, and went to take the offered seat.

By the sheer force of Takizawa’s singular charm, he found himself with friends in his class for the rest of the year. But it was awkward at first. He had to start at the beginning with full names, do you have any siblings, what do your parents do. Things they already knew about each other.

More surprising to him was the distance he’d unknowingly created between himself and his fellow ex-second years on the volleyball team. He was theoretically aware that while he’d wormed himself with the third years, his batchmates had become close friends without him. But the logistics of this fact eluded him until he found himself dropped into their friend group, out of the loop with their in-jokes and the cast of characters frequenting their lives outside the team that populated their conversations. 

In the locker room after practice, they teased each other incessantly.

“Ooh, Nakamura, I saw you talking to Reina-chan before practice!”

Who is Reina-chan, Keiji thought, as he changed out of his soaked shirt.

“Ah, shut up. She’d never give me the time of day. I’m not Takahashi.”

Who is Takahashi? What happened between him and Reina-chan?

Sometimes, he asked for footnotes. Other times, any question from him felt like a vibe killer. Was it like that for them too, when I was with the third years?

Before, on the days Bokuto graciously cancelled their after-practice practices, both of them trooped to the train station with Washio, Sarukui, Konoha and Komi. They used to take advantage of Washio’s considerable data plan to stream volleyball matches on YouTube, all six of them pressed together around a tiny screen. 

Once, they’d been so engrossed in a Nicholas Romero compilation they didn’t notice the train stop in front of them. The line behind them parted into separate lines as irritated passengers speed walked around their group to make it inside. 17-year-old Keiji did not care a single ounce.

By the kind hand of fate, their train routes home started at the same line, though the group slowly whittled down to just him and Bokuto as the others got off at earlier stops.

When it was just the two of them, they never resented the rush hour crowd. At any other time, Keiji would mind having his face so close to a stranger’s head he could guess her shampoo brand, but not when Bokuto’s arm was on his waist and Keiji could lean into his shoulder. 

In his third year, after practice, Keiji walked to the station alone. By the uncaring hand of fate, he lived out of the way from the rest of his teammates. Even on the days without practice, Takizawa lived so close to school she could walk home.

Keiji stood on the platform, in line for the train alone. He’d taken it for granted, the sheer amount of time he could spend with Bokuto before. With 676 kilometers between them, they spent time together in regimented hours and over screens, when Bokuto wasn’t practicing and Keiji wasn’t studying.

This was when Keiji started reading in earnest. He became a frequent library user in search of company for his imagination on his commutes home. He started with light novels until he worked his way up to Never Let Me Go by the middle of second term.

It amazed him that people could put words beside each other and make him feel, that he was holding a product printed by the thousands, and it seemed to whisper words written specifically for him.

Right there on the platform, his nose buried in a book, he relished the pain in his chest as he read, Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.

 

*

 

Job hunting was a performance. One that, as far as Keiji was concerned, had very little correlation even with the jobs they advertised, which successful applicants would ostensibly have the honor of doing. 

There were sets to inhabit. It did not matter how the building looked on the outside; whether it was a confounding glass and metal structure that stretched from the ground to take its earmarked place in the Tokyo skyline, a squat, unpainted concrete brutalist holdover from the 80s, or one tucked into a residential neighborhood, indistinguishable from the apartments around it. 

Once inside, the lobbies were identical. Pristine floors he could glean his reflection on. An imposing desk bordered by tasteful seating, upholstered in inoffensive neutrals. They were dotted with equally tasteful, professional floral arrangements, tulips or orchids only. Behind the desks were smiling receptionists backlit by minimalist company logos who guided him through increasingly complicated security procedures—usually, swapping his ID for a guest badge to clip on his chest or a card to activate an elevator that would usher him to the right floor; once, awkwardly smiling at a small camera shoved in front of him so that a real estate conglomerate and the security company they contracted can have a copy of his face for eternity. Discreet perfume wafted through the nicer lobbies from gods know where; in the rest, essential oil scents from a diffuser right on the desk, placed by a resourceful receptionist. 

There were costumes to wear. As soon as he started his last semester of college, his father had given him the tip that the secret to correct professional dressing was in the details. During one miraculous weekend when both of them were free, they took the train together to Mitsukoshi in Ginza. 

“It’s best to start out with at least one nice work suit,” his father said as the elevator doors in front of them opened to the men’s department. 

With his father’s blessing, Keiji had picked out a deep navy suit made of Worsted wool, then subjected himself to being nearly prodded by pins in a fitting room so it could be taken in to fit him perfectly. He also picked out a dress shirt and tie to match. 

And so he did have exactly one (1) very nice work ensemble, a suit with functioning buttons on the cuffs so he could roll up his sleeves instead of easing out of his jacket to wash his hands, and one dress shirt with a little tab on the collar that would keep it from curling in the heat. He padded the rest of his corporate wardrobe out with his own purchases from 109 and UNIQLO.

His father told him that suits and workwear were “meant to be a uniform,” and so they were. The identical lobbies were filled with warm bodies in uniform suits from UNIQLO, stretch wool slim fit black, stretch wool slim fit charcoal, stretch wool slim fit navy. There was always at least one woman wearing a beige lace pencil skirt, also from UNIQLO.

There were lines to memorize. Sign-ups for resume and cover letter seminars and interview simulations started in earnest over his last summer break, even before his fourth year officially started. In these functions, he and his uniformly-clad castmates now populating the identical lobbies were taught to speak, in Keiji’s mind, like androids.

It was a new lexicon designed specifically for him to be asked predetermined questions for which he would give predetermined answers. No taxing thought necessary. With enough practice, the predetermined answers would take their place at the forefront of his mind at all times, ready to be recited.

He will be asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

I don’t know. Anywhere with Bokuto. 

He will answer, “Working in publishing is my long-term goal. So in five years, I will still be working in publishing.”

He will be asked, “How do you work under pressure?”

Terribly.

He will answer, “I’ve been given leadership roles in my extracurricular activities since my second year of high school, and throughout college. And I’ve spent my last two summers working in competitive internships. I personally enjoy a fast-paced work environment and welcome the challenges it brings.”

He will be asked, “Why do you want to work at our company?”

On the train, I scanned your website on my phone and it said— 

He will answer, “This is an established company with a long history I want to be a part of—”  

And so on. 

The accompanying written exams were the bigger pain. They brought new, meaningless vocabulary words in his life.

More and more people are turning to free longform digital media or ebook piracy instead of buying physical books. How do you propose we futureproof our business?

Read the scenarios outlined below carefully. Which by your assessment is the business-critical task?

Read the scenario outlined below carefully. What key learnings can you take away from it that our business can operationalize?

He wanted to scrawl, I don’t know , I’m not applying for Marketing , and Use normal words .

But he had to follow the script.

 

 

 

 

ACT ONE

The ambient noise of android activity breaks the silence every so often, first soft then gradually raising in volume. The clatter of heels. A phone ringing. A printer whirring. The murmur of someone on the phone. The noises blend together, then the curtain rises

Before us is part of the offices of Toudou Publishing Co., responsible for publishing and distribution of Weekly Biz Shounen, Monthly Biz Shoujo, the fashion magazine Lassy, Yummy, Travel Always, Tech Today, the trade publishing imprints Roki Press for contemporary novels and classic reprints and Happy Press for light novels and children’s books, and Japan’s top literary journal Yuzu

The space is bisected in two, separated by a wall with a door in the middle. The left half is a conference room that has been repurposed for group interviews. There is a single long table with a black cloth over it occupied by five androids with their backs to us. They are rifling through resumes on the table. In front of them, facing us, are five plastic chairs about two feet apart. Deeper in the room, against the back wall, is another chair occupied by the ANDROID-ASSISTANT . She is balancing a Macbook on her lap.

The right half is the holding area outside. There are fifteen plastic chairs in three rows, each occupied by an android. There is an eerie white light over the place that casts unflattering shadows in the hollows of their faces. 14 of them—android-men and android-women both—wearing identical UNIQLO suits in different neutral colors. They have identical plastic badges clipped to their chests, numbered 1 to 15 chronologically. A light is shone on AKAASHI KEIJI, who is seated on the first of fifteen plastic chairs, with badge 1 on his chest. He is wearing an immaculately fitted navy Worsted wool suit.

[ After being given a cue from one of the long table androids, the ANDROID-ASSISTANT rises, placing her Macbook on the seat. She is wearing a blouse, blazer, black pumps and a beige lace pencil skirt from UNIQLO. She walks through the door and into the holding area. ]

ANDROID-ASSISTANT: They’re ready for you now. Please come in five at a time.

[ Led by the ANDROID-ASSISTANT , AKAASHI KEIJI and the first row of four other androids rise. The ANDROID-ASSISTANT takes her place in the back of the room and places her Macbook back on her lap. The others walk into the conference room, taking matching strides—left foot first, then right, then left. They each stop in front of one of the five chairs, then uniformly turn to face the long table. They all bow. From the long table, the TOP ANDROID, seated in the middle, speaks. ]

TOP ANDROID: Please introduce yourselves.

AKAASHI KEIJI Good morning. I am Akaashi Keiji, a literature major from Tokyo National University and the deputy editor of Amaiwai literary journal. I am very pleased to meet you, and thank you for this opportunity.



 

Keiji stood on the platform, in line for the train back to his Shibuya apartment. Not for the first time since he began this whole process, he felt drained. Everything in him had been squeezed out by the seminars, the exams, the interviews. There was nothing left. It was like he’d forgotten he was acting and resigned himself to become an android through and through.

Then Bokuto called. As soon as Keiji picked up, without preamble, he said, “How was it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I can never tell if I did well.” 

Bokuto tsked over the line. “Keiji, I’m sure you did. Isn’t this your third interview?”

Keiji released a sigh from deep within his hollowed out body. “Yeah.”

“Then it’s out of your hands. What matters is that you gave it your best try. I know for sure you gave it your 120%.”

Bokuto possessed a superpower that worked only on Keiji. He could fill up what other people drained away. He could do it with simple words that would sound like a platitude or more android-speak from other people. 

“Thank you, love,” said Keiji. “That means a lot to me.”

“No problem. Do you know when you find out?”

“They said within two weeks, which is really too long a period to be useful.”

Bokuto laughed. “Ignore it. Lock it in a box. You’ll find out soon enough.” That made him smile.

Keiji heard the train approaching before he could see it. “Yessir. The train’s here, I’ll see you at dinner. The curry place, right?”

“Right. Love you. Bye, Keiji.”

“Me too. Bye, love.”

 

*

 

Keiji was on the verge of a panic attack.

It was the eve of the deliberations for his debut submission to his university’s literary journal, Amaiwai. He’d become a member of the editorial staff just three weeks ago as a first year, only one of two first years accepted from a veritable lake of hopefuls. The journal’s alumni had produced an abundance of Japan’s literati—best selling novelists, high profile magazine editors, national writers who’d made the Nobel longlist. Being published was good, but being a part of who decided what was published was better. 

At deliberations, they would assess anonymized submissions if they were fit for publication, through long discussions about technique and craft. It was commonplace for members of the editorial staff, present during deliberations, to have submitted some of the pieces under scrutiny. They had to sit and listen to their work thoughtfully, thoroughly criticized and they were forbidden to speak. New members’ first submission deliberations were an Amaiwai tradition. A baptism by fire.

Minutes from the 11:59 PM deadline, Keiji had given up assessing his limited body of work with a fine-toothed comb and settled on a poem he was the least displeased with, a love poem with seven stanzas (about Bokuto, not that anyone asked). But minutes after midnight, he was already wracked with regret. The images were too commonplace. Stars, really? They rejected galaxy poems by the dozen. If defamiliarization was the goal, he’d already failed.

He’d FaceTimed with Bokuto earlier and they’d already said goodnight. He was probably sound asleep. He had an important game the next day. 

But Keiji was panicked and selfish. He called again anyway, rushing out an explanation for his later-night phone call; then apologizing for the disturbance, after he’d come to his senses and realized how late it was.

“Whoa Keiji,” Bokuto said. “Slow down!”

“I’m really sorry Koutarou, it’s so late, I didn’t even realize—”

“It’s okay! I haven’t slept yet. I knew you’d call back.” From his voice, Keiji could tell he was telling the truth. A Bokuto roused from sleep sounded raspier. Keiji could not stop the fondness smouldering in his chest. He wanted to bask in it.

He heard Bokuto’s staticky exhale through the phone; then he said, “So this deliberation. It’s already two days away, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you can’t take back what you already submitted, right?”

“Right.”

“Then stop thinking about it. Put your worries in a box, lock it, and store it in a closet somewhere deep in your head, and lock that too. This is literally a problem with a deadline. In two days, it will just stop being one.”

It still amazed Keiji how Bokuto could turn the complicated very simple. With his phone still pressed to his ear, Keiji took three deep breaths. “Thanks love,” he said. “I really needed a breather.”

“Any time, baby.” Keiji heard the groan of mattress springs. Bokuto was probably slumping back in bed. “So,” he said. “Are you gonna read me this star poem?”

“Goodnight, Koutarou. You should really get some sleep for your game tomorrow.”

“Aww, c’mon Keiji.”

 

*

 

Nearing dusk, Keiji had assembled the bed frame and his office shelves. He filled up his shelves with books in no apparent order. He’d unpacked his wok and single pot out of their boxes and into the kitchen cupboards. He’d wrangled the mattress onto the bed frame and wrangled again to cover it with sheets and a comforter. But he couldn’t bring himself to unpack his clothes. Not yet.

Instead, he packed whatever he was feeling, the quagmire of emotions about this condominium, Bokuto and his own precarious future that he couldn’t put into words, in a box. He locked it, then placed it in a bulky safe in the basement of his mind. Then he locked that too.

This was a problem with a deadline. By 9 PM, when Bokuto gets home, one way or another it will stop being one.

However big, he thought, this is just a part of my life.

The Black Jackals won the game. He vaguely kept up with every point at the price of a depleted phone battery. And then for the life of him, he couldn’t find where he’d packed his charger. He texted Bokuto.

 

Akaashi Keiji [6:41 PM]

> Congrats, love. Watched the game.

> Sorry I can’t call, can’t find my charger. Can you bring yours home?

Bokuto Koutarou

> thanks baby!!!!!!!

> np, i’ll get on that. see u later, have some press to do.

> love u!!

 

Bokuto was so comfortable, his voice so familiar and singular to Keiji. Through text, call, FaceTime, his boyfriend had figured out how to deliver warmth as real as a tight hug. Keiji couldn’t help but smile.

Then he flopped down on the couch and watched the sunset from the giant windows. 

It was an ordinary day in the dead of winter. The trees outside were bare. The sky had dimmed to a bluish gray. But the Tokyo sun still shone yellow-orange light even as it dipped in the horizon. He watched the shadows cast by the furniture around him grow longer and longer, until it was finally dark.

He thought about standing and opening the many lights in the room, but his legs stayed still. He was untethered from his body again, but unlike last time he couldn’t fathom when it started. Stretched as he was across the couch, he looked at his feet in front him and wondered at his continued existence.

How long have I been not here? 

Thankfully it was never fully dark in Tokyo and they didn’t have blinds. He watched the city blink to life in front of him — store signs, street lights, still image billboards, electronic billboards, red blinking lights from broadcast towers. 

In the distance, he saw a billboard of Bokuto for the music subscription and wireless earphones. It was his side profile, the earphones prominent in the frame. But his eyes were scrunched close in pleasure and his plump cheek betrayed that he was smiling. He looked like he was listening to the greatest song on earth. 

Keiji thought, I would subscribe, even if he already was. 

Then, I promised him I would eat dinner. He finally willed himself to stand.




By the time Bokuto got home at the painfully considerate time of 8:59 PM, the lights in the condominium were on and Keiji had eaten two spicy tuna onigiris and a pack of frozen grapes from the 7-Eleven nearby. He was seated on the couch, trying to read a book.

Bokuto came in with his training duffel bag over his shoulder and a plastic grocery bag with a pint of matcha ice cream inside. They didn’t have a fridge yet, so he left the ice cream on the kitchen counter.

He ambled over to Keiji. In the time it took him to come over, he’d divined his charger out of his bag, and tossed it on Keiji’s lap. Then he dropped his bag beside the couch, and sank on it beside Keiji. 

“I’m home,” he said as he pressed a kiss to Keiji’s cheek. Keiji hmmed. 

After he pulled away, Bokuto said, “I bought ice cream. I know the Yuzu results are maybe out today. And you didn’t mention anything, so it’s either they’re not out yet or they are and you’re keeping it a secret to surprise me with news, good or bad. I wanted to buy you cake, but Tsum-Tsum said that’s way too celebratory and he’d hate it if he got cake and he only had bad news. And ice cream is neutral, you can eat it happy or sad, so I got that instead.”

He was so, so painfully considerate. Keiji didn’t know where to start. He settled on, “Koutarou, we need to talk.”

Bokuto picked up on the change of atmosphere and sat up straight, at attention. He turned and pulled his legs up the couch so he could face Keiji. “Okay baby, what’s up? What’s wrong?”

Akaashi put down his book and started fiddling with his fingers. He exhaled and said, “I promise it's not bad. Just serious. I wanna talk about this place. Me moving in.”

“Okay. I'm here, I'm listening.”

However big, this is just a part of my life.

Keiji turned too so he could face Bokuto. “Honestly I'm really not sure how to pay you,” he said. “For rent. I mean you own this place, and I don't have a job yet. So you're my landlord.”

Bokuto, appalled, said, “I'm your landlord?”

I spent four years learning how to string words together to create a cohesive message, Keiji thought, bitter.

Flustered, he said, “No, I mean you're my boyfriend. You make me so happy.” He reached out and took Bokuto’s hand in his. “I love this place. I love being here with you. I'm just not sure if I can pay for it.”

“Keiji, you don't have to pay me anything.” Bokuto tightened his hold on Keiji’s hand. “I'm 23 and I have more money than I'll ever need. If I can make your life easier with some of it, that's all I want.”

“Okay. I know that. I know how much you love me. I love you too.” Keiji paused and chose his next words carefully. “But that makes me feel insecure. Like you loving me is a condition I have to maintain. Like I'll be totally homeless if we ever break up.”

Bokuto flinched away after he said the last two words.

“No, Bokuto I promise we’re not breaking up right now,” Keiji reached for Bokuto’s other hand. “But if we do, I don't want it to be bad for me.”

There was a lull of silence. Then Bokuto said, “Keiji, do you regret moving in with me?”

“No! I love you. I'm happy I'll get to see you everyday now without taking the train,” replied Keiji, emphatic. “It's just that… Maybe we should've talked about all this money stuff before I agreed to move in.”

“Okay, I hear you. You're right.” Bokuto tightened his hold on Keiji’s hands. “We've both been so busy lately, we should’ve talked about it before. I’m sorry I pressured you to move in.” 

“I promise you didn't.”

“Well, I'm still sorry I didn't think about what you'd feel before I asked.” Bokuto let go of both Keiji’s hands. Then he reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind Keiji’s ear and said, “I just wanted you to say yes so badly.”

The touch made Keiji shiver. “There's nothing to forgive. To be honest, it didn't occur to me until this afternoon. I should've said something sooner.”

“Okay, good.” Bokuto paused, then inhaled again. “But I have something really, really important I want you to know, okay?”

“What is it?”

Bokuto looked straight at him and said, “Keiji, you're it for me. You're the last person I'm falling in love with. After we got together, I knew I didn't have to meet anyone else. I still don't want to.”

It was an ordinary night in the dead of winter. The trees were bare, the sky was starless and pitch black. Tokyo was still thrumming below them, the miserable pedestrians braving the cold, the neverending rumble of traffic.

Keiji felt. He teared up.

Bokuto, smiling now, continued, “That you seem surprised hearing that right now tells me I should've let you know sooner. I'm sorry about that.” He reached over and cupped Keiji’s jaw in his hand. “I didn't ask about rent because when I asked you to move in, I was sure we'd be married in a few years anyway.”

Some emotions, Keiji thought, totally eluded words. Tears ran down his cheeks. His glasses fogged. Embarrassed, he pulled away from Bokuto’s touch to take them off.

Unfazed as usual, Bokotu kept going, “I still think that right now. You can worry about us breaking up, that's fine. You've always been the one worrying about the details. But I won't, and I never will. You're my endgame, okay?” 

It was so like Bokuto, Keiji thought, to think that the possibility of breaking up with someone he got together with at 18 was just ‘details.’

“Okay,” Keiji whimpered. He wasn’t sure what was smouldering in his chest. Whatever he’d locked out of the box in his head when he decided to talk to Bokuto was as much of a quagmire as it had been before. But this time it was made up of joy and anxiety, as intertwined as they’d ever been for him, in their full potency. He was fully crying now, fat Ghibli tears running down his cheeks without pause.

Bokuto wiped Keiji’s tears with his hands, his gaze soft and gentle. Then he pulled Keiji into a tight embrace. In his half-there state, in the arms of the love of his life, Keiji was protected from shame. He cried freely on Bokuto’s shoulder. 

It took a few minutes for Keiji’s breathing to even out, but when it did, Bokuto murmured into his temple, “Are we good?”

Keiji, still sniffling, said, “Yes.”

They broke apart. Then Bokuto said, “Okay. Tell me how we can fix this.”




A protracted amicable negotiation over melted matcha ice cream later, they settled on these terms: Keiji would still not pay rent (Bokuto refused to budge on this), but he would pay for half of their utility bills in perpetuity. They would also split communal home expenses like a TV, fridge, and so on. 

By the time they were done, it was 10:30 PM. Keiji said, “I'm sorry for unloading this on you today after you had a game. I know you’re tired.”

Bokuto, guileless as ever, said, “Baby, don't say that. You shouldn't hesitate to tell me anything, ever. No matter what's bothering you.”

No hesitations. “Can I tell you what brought this on?”

“Please do.”

“Miyoshi called me your trophy husband.”

Bokuto was incredulous. “What?”

Despite everything, Keiji started laughing. “Yeah. He said if he'd locked down a professional athlete high school sweetheart he wouldn't even look for a job.”

“That's funny,” said Bokuto, smiling mischievously, “because I think I'm your trophy husband.”

Now Keiji was incredulous. “What?” 

“I’m serious. Like a bad one. A trophy husband without a V League trophy.”

Keiji’s mouth fell open. Bokuto laughed at him. “Why are you surprised? Keiji, you're the smartest person I know. You've always been. Everyone on the team talks about how they can't believe my genius boyfriend from a top university is in love with me.”

Keiji swatted Bokuto on the shoulder to shut him up, but Bokuto kept going. “Also, the most I can play is until I'm maybe 38, being optimistic. After that, I won't have a job. I'll have to rely on my publishing executive husband to support me.”

Face red, Keiji said, “Bokuto, shut up,” before pulling his boyfriend towards him for a kiss. 

 

*

 

Keiji woke up late the next day. Beside him, Bokuto was still sound asleep. Because they didn’t have end tables yet, he reached down to the floor where his phone was charging. 

He had an email waiting for him, sent at 8:00 AM at the start of the business day, right on the dot.

Thank you for your interest in joining us at Weekly Biz Shounen magazine. Congratulations. We think you will be a perfect addition to the team. We’d like to offer you a position as Associate Editor— 

He almost dropped his phone. Then he shook Bokuto awake.