Adagio : at ease
(Borrowed from Italian)
Slow, fluid movements emphasizing control
Kiyoomi starts ballet when he’s six years old. The one-hour sessions consist of throwing gossamer scarves in the air and hopping through glittery hula hoops, while parents coo from folding chairs.
Class is not riveting to Kiyoomi, but he tolerates it for his mother’s sake. A company ballerina for the bulk of her youth, she grew up dancing and wants him to do the same. Before class, she sits Kiyoomi down on her lap and hums as she brushes his hair back into a ponytail. Kiyoomi likes the feeling of the bristles dragging across his scalp. The brush is an extension of his mother’s supple, concentrated hands.
This is a time before Kiyoomi notices the crack in the bottom left corner of the studio’s mirror, before he becomes acutely aware of the fact that hundreds of feet smear their bacteria across the floor each day.
This type of childish apathy is blissful.
Assemblé : assembled
(From the French “assembler” : to assemble)
The dancer pushes off the supporting leg to brush the working leg into the air,
touches the feet together, and lands in a demi-plié in fifth position
The paranoia starts when he’s ten.
It’s partner stretching during warm-up. Kiyoomi is seated in a straddle position. A classmate looms over him, pressing the heels of their palms into his upper back.
There are no alarms that blare when the shell of his ear first meets the floor. The trepidation is subtle, the small things multiplying. Kiyoomi is the fabled frog in a slow-boiling pot of water: he only registers the heat after his skin has already turned to rubber.
The puffs of carbon dioxide propelling through his partner’s puckered lips are now very, very loud. His cheek is twitching against the dingy vinyl. There is a hair thirty centimeters from his nose. It is not his.
Hiding in the bathroom has always been Kiyoomi’s solution to calming a rapid heartbeat. He’ll shut off the lights, sink to the floor, and clutch his head in shaking hands until the palpitations settle.
But standing is futile. His legs have turned to wild grass, and the fans buzzing in the corner of the room are great gales slicing through them. The dread in his head is heavy enough his curls sop with it.
“Is there a problem, Sakusa-kun?”
Kiyoomi’s field of depth widens from that stray hair too close to him. He’s the only one still stretching. His chest has hollowed off the ground, and there’s a dull pain in the concavity of his spine. The other dancers are timidly observing him from single-file lines.
His instructor repeats the question. Her tone is kind, but frost rimes her smile. If Kiyoomi doesn’t answer, he’s actively rebelling, and rebellion means extra conditioning. Having to stay after class is about the worst thing he can imagine now, so he untwists his scowl. “No, ma’am. Nothing is wrong.”
Kiyoomi stands up and teeters to the back of a line. The leather of his shoes scrape with every step.
His révérence at the end of class is jittery. The bow is supposed to be a thank you to the instructor and an acknowledgment of the day’s performance. Normally Kiyoomi enjoys it, the way he likes outlining shapes after coloring them, or boxing in the answer at the end of a math problem. It gives a sense of finality and order.
This evening, it feels tedious.
Getting home will be a trial. For the last two hours, Kiyoomi has been dreading the thought of taking the train. He could run, probably. Ballet has blessed him with substantial cardiovascular endurance, and if he keeps a steady pace, he’ll be home before dark. But running would mean getting sweaty again, and he’s just changed out of damp tights.
Kiyoomi considers the hard seats and sticky handlebars and masses of people who swarm the train.
He runs all the way home.
There’s a clatter of his mother dropping something when he trips up the genkan.
“Kiyoomi? Are you all right?”
In the kitchen, his mother is frowning at the globs of soup that have dripped off her fallen ladle and onto the floor. She grabs a rag.
Kiyoomi is blasé about his mother’s diligent cleanliness. On any other day, he might have been upset by her choice to clean up a spill before consoling him. But today is not any other day. Today, something nameless and strange unfolded, something Kiyoomi only understands the utter magnitude of.
He esteems the order of her priorities.
The rag in his mother’s hand moves back and forth, left to right. The motion calms Kiyoomi enough that he can wiggle out of his shoes and place them against the border of the genkan. He tiptoes haphazardly into the kitchen. Placing his full feet on the floor doesn’t feel safe.
“I hope that isn’t what your élevé looks like,” his mother says, looking down the bridge of her nose to his heels that are faintly raised off the ground, “because if so, I’m not sure how well that studio’s working out for you.” (Kiyoomi doesn’t go to the studio his mother teaches at. It’s unprofessional, she says.)
His mother sets the used rag down on the counter and offers a smile. It falls flat when Kiyoomi doesn’t return it.
“Did something happen in class? Was Nakamura-sensei harsh?”
Kiyoomi says nothing. Silence is holding his tongue.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
Kiyoomi and his mother are alike in the respect that they are not the prying type. They keep to themselves. They do not repeat questions unless necessary. His mother inquiring about class three times means the discomfort Kiyoomi's emitting is pungent. Her concern is confirming there is something wrong with him.
“I think I’m sick in the head,” is what Kiyoomi wants to tell her.
His mother enjoys cleanliness, but she doesn’t covet the asepsis Kiyoomi needed today. She isn't queasy when she stretches in their living room, and her face hovers close to the threads of the carpet. She isn’t paralyzed by having to chaîné across the same floor as other dancers.
“I think I need to quit ballet,” Kiyoomi decides to say. While he does so, he reaches his hand inside his mother’s chest and grabs hold of her heart. “All dance, actually.” And then he squeezes, splintering it into a million little pieces.
The light in his mother's eyes wanes. “Why would you want to do that? Is this about the élevé comment? I was just teasing.”
Shards are sticking into the soft flesh of Kiyoomi’s palm. “I know.”
“Well, do we need to move studios then?”
“No, that’s not why.”
“Then what is it?”
Kiyoomi looks down at the fragments of his mother’s love he’s still holding and thinks that maybe if he clenches his fist hard enough, they’ll piece themselves back together again. So he tries to explain.
The confusion is expected, but the melancholy radiating off of his mother ambushes him. Her quivering lip and forlorn eyes pin him down. She’s pitying him, and all at once, Kiyoomi wants to scream at something or rip out his eyebrow hairs, because he didn’t ask for this. He didn’t ask for the sudden, prominent smell of dust in the air or the recognition of dirt trapped under his nails. He certainly did not ask for the sorrow in the curve of his mother’s lashes.
“Oh, honey,” his mother sighs, and then she reaches her hand out to pat his head, the same way she always has.
Her fingertips that had once been so soothing are claws raking across his scalp. Kiyoomi recoils from her touch, scarcely suppressing the urge to swat away her hand.
He expects his mother to be burned by his frigidity, to be furious that he’s defective. But she neither yells nor cries. She simply slumps her shoulders and wilts into herself.
(Posture means everything. Dance instills this principle in Kiyoomi, but at ten years old, he doesn’t realize it applies outside of the studio.)
His mother roughly grips the edge of the countertop behind her. “So, is this our new normal?”
Kiyoomi hates it. He hates talking to his mother like she’s a stranger. Even as he carries the bricks over one at a time and stacks them into a tall, tall wall between them, he laments the barrier in their relationship.
Kiyoomi hates everything right now, but above all else, he hates the anxiety thinly veiled in the white of his mother’s knuckles. So he nods. “This is our new normal.”
It’s odd to say it’s okay that her son is a weirdo, Kiyoomi thinks, but his mother says it anyway. She says it over and over and over again, until Kiyoomi realizes she’s trying to convince herself more than him, until he realizes broken things can be put back together but may never be whole again.
“I don’t think you should give up dance though, Kiyoomi.”
“How am I supposed to keep dancing when I can’t control any of this?”
“Well, you’ll never meet anyone who’s as in control of their body as a dancer.”
After a skittish week away from the studio, Kiyoomi returns to class. Dance evolves from a pastime to appease his mother into a form of control. Kiyoomi doesn’t have jurisdiction over modern medicine or strands of disease or doorknobs enveloped by unclean hands, but he does have sovereignty over himself. Being able to better move his body means being able to better dictate his reactions. It means knowing how to wield his limbs like weapons against all that cannot be regulated.
So Kiyoomi practices. He learns how to isolate his movements. He learns how to stretch as if the fragile bones beneath his skin aren’t waiting to snap. He learns how to communicate through dancing, which is fine because words have always felt clunky in his mouth, and no less comfortable once they were out in the air.
And he practices until he understands how to shift his weight and place his arms and fake his smile. And he lets the energy in his movements water his soul until dahlias and geraniums and marigolds sprout around his sternum.
Kiyoomi takes this garden for granted. He has long since accepted that improvement is an endless process, so he assumes it will have to remain fertile.
He’s not sure when dance shifts from a grain of salt speckling the sky to the center of his universe. Maybe when he’s twelve, and he wins his first title. Maybe when he’s fourteen, and he takes a master class from a choreographer he’s been admiring for years. Maybe when he’s sixteen, and he experiences his first major injury. (His meniscus tears like tissue paper as he lands the aerial. Trying to function in the following months without the routine of practice is painful. The anguish is eclipsed only by the realization that the flowerbeds in his chest are barren.)
Or maybe it isn’t a specific date. Maybe it’s gradual, like the waves of the ocean creeping towards toes on packed sand, or a patchy drizzle morphing into a thunderstorm.
One way or another, Kiyoomi becomes passionate about dance. He breathes it in until his ribs crack, and then he coughs out the eight-counts that linger in his blood. Learning to love dance means learning to love himself—not for his personality, or his achievements, or his looks, but for the simple truth that his body is a vessel that can tell stories. These are the stories of his past. They are of love, loss, and all of the feelings prose will never do justice.
So Kiyoomi stretches his splits. He rolls his wrists. And he rewrites history.
Kiyoomi will minor in dance at university. It’s the best way to hold onto the only thing he knows. The announcement is made over a dinner of cold soba and small talk, proclaimed by a ghost haunting Kiyoomi’s body; the words are not his.
“It would be a waste of your academic prowess if you majored in it,” his father agrees, beaming in approval behind a napkin.
While Kiyoomi doesn’t dislike his father, they’ve never been close. The old man has made a few less than respectful comments about his son’s participation in a “feminine” sport, but these are unavoidable. They came nestled in the bag with Kiyoomi’s first pair of pirouettes when he was seven, a two-in-one deal.
Skipping college altogether to audition for a company is completely out of the question. Kiyoomi can tell by his mother’s wistful gaze that she wishes it weren’t, but she doesn’t voice her regret. At the dinner table, his mother has a habit of existing as nothing more than head nods and rehearsed responses. And, like Kiyoomi, she understands that there is no use in wallowing over things that cannot be.
Tonight, her only contribution to the conversation is the quiet slurping of noodles.
Développé : developed
(From the French “développer” : to develop)
The working leg is drawn up to the knee of the supporting leg, then extended outward
Kiyoomi’s campus has a gym, but after comprehensively inspecting it his first year, paying for a separate membership elsewhere had been the better option. It’s a bit of a walk to get to his gym of choice, but less people frequent it, it’s open twenty-four hours, and best of all, there’s a separate room for classes. Kiyoomi has no interest in CrossFit or overzealous pilates instructors, but he treasures the windows of time when classes aren’t in session, and the room is free for his taking. There are large mirrors reminiscent of the ones at his old studio, and although the floor is slippery, he can turn. (He doesn’t, normally, since anything past a triple requires taking off his shoes.)
Coming to the gym in the middle of the night was only supposed to happen once. But time is finite and the tasks in a given day are unending, so Kiyoomi takes what he can get in stride. Besides, if he overlooks the subdued scent of deodorant permeating the building even though it's far from maximum capacity, the gym is almost a bit lovely like this.
Kiyoomi uses his foot to nudge open the door to the room for classes. (He affectionately named this “the dance room” a year into his gym membership.) It’s empty. It always is, but it still feels like stumbling upon something precious when he lays eyes on his lone reflection.
Armed with a spray bottle and paper towel, Kiyoomi begins to disinfect the vegan suede of his unrolled yoga mat. Intellectually speaking, Kiyoomi knows the mat isn’t dirty. But rationale hasn’t been enough for a long while, and life tends to go like this: cleaning his mat before sitting on it, even though he scrubs it after every sweat-free stretching session; lint rolling his covers before climbing into bed, even though nothing has touched them since morning; kicking the doors of public facilities open with the toe of his shoe, even though he’ll be drenching his hands in sanitizer once he’s inside.
The plan for this evening is to do a thorough stretch, then some weightless strength training. Hopefully, it’ll be one of Kiyoomi’s quicker visits to the gym, because even if he doesn’t have an eight AM lecture tomorrow, exhaustion still seeps into his skeleton and makes his dancing sloppy in the afternoon.
Kiyoomi breathes in, out, and then rolls his neck in small clockwise circles. After two eight-counts of the bubblegum pop song blasting through the speakers of the dance room, he adds his shoulders in. The crunch of his joints realigning themselves is a reminder that he is here. He is here, living, despite the anxiety and the germs and the everlasting writing on the wall.
Two more eight-counts and Kiyoomi brings all of his torso into the motion, letting his knuckles drag across his mat. At the bottom of the third circle, he stops and grabs his ankles, pulling his head through straddled legs. Inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts, and then once more. He rolls up and repeats the entire process counterclockwise.
Kiyoomi is routines constructed upon routines. The procedure for stretching was engraved into the soles of his feet before he ever took a formal dance class.
His family had always leaned toward the category of early birds, but that morning, Kiyoomi’s mother woke him up before even the warblers chirped. She told him there was something important they had to do. Kiyoomi, still swimming in sleep, had squinted and wondered what could be more urgent than eating breakfast. It made sense minutes later once he was flinging himself into an indolent pike, trying to copy his mother’s seamless motions.
“You know, stretching isn’t just placing your body,” she had said, and Kiyoomi saw her hair slick back into a bun, and her ballet shoes lace themselves up. The person who spoke next was not his mother, but Sakusa Rie, principal dancer, tweezed into shape through years of sacrifice traded for the slim chance at success. “It’s actively reaching. You need to close your eyes, grow a few centimeters, and try to grab something every time you stretch.”
When you’re young, metaphors tend to go over your head. A confused Kiyoomi removed his hands from his kneecaps to clutch the carpet.
His mother chuckled behind her hand. “No, you don’t physically touch anything, Kiyoomi. You reach until you get the feeling.”
This instruction, in Kiyoomi’s five-year-old mind, was incredibly vague. He might have been young, but he knew that feelings were fickle things. They were bound to be perceived differently by different people. And because they couldn’t be encapsulated by words, he didn’t understand what exactly he was supposed to be searching for. Naturally, he’d told his mother this.
“The feeling? You’ll know it when it happens,” she’d promised, and her presence was so powerful Kiyoomi felt compelled to believe her.
As he tugs his left arm across his chest in an empty gym, Kiyoomi thinks of reaching for the wall.
The analog clock reads 1:46 AM. This is probably not what his mother had implied when she said that stretching was the proper way to start the day, but growing up means developing a level of elasticity to certain norms. There are rules that can be bent, and there are rules that cannot. Time is a construct, so Kiyoomi’s rigidity on stretching hours is slightly more malleable.
He closes his eyes as he tendus into second, bending to the right to stretch his left oblique.
Kiyoomi adores being able to lose himself in the moment when he dances. Some people describe it as detaching the mind from the body, but for him, it’s more the feeling of being so grounded within his body that everything aside from his heartbeat is insignificant. Triviality and mysophobia tend to be mutually exclusive, so dance has made a home out of Kiyoomi’s heart because of this unique sensation it evokes. But the temporary solitude has a nasty byproduct: Kiyoomi’s peripheral vision becomes significantly narrower, even when he’s only stretching.
“Shit, my water bottle!” a voice calls.
There’s a thud of the presumed bottle hitting the floor, and suddenly Kiyoomi can feel rivulets of phantom sweat trickling down his back. He keeps his eyes screwed shut.
Someone else is in the room.
At this point, Kiyoomi considers his possible courses of action. The first is to continue stretching, but this is difficult when the world around him is refocusing with audible clicks. The second is to acknowledge the stranger. This is, arguably, the “mature” approach.
Kiyoomi is an adult. Giving a curt head nod won't kill him.
Politely nodding at a stranger doesn’t kill, no. But having to politely nod at a leering stranger definitely inflates Kiyoomi’s homicidal tendencies. The guy isn’t even trying to be subtle about it, raising an eyebrow and poking his tongue into his cheek. His gelled blond hair and lazy grin reflect gaudy aplomb, even as he struggles to twist the cap of his leaking water bottle back on. Kiyoomi’s got a good five centimeters on him, but he’s still tall, and built. In short, he seems like a douchebag.
But his panache is channeled. It’s the kind that saturates the air around the congregating sports teams on campus.
This is a university athlete.
Soccer, maybe? Kiyoomi could picture him bouncing a ball between his knees, or holding it under his arm for a photoshoot, and all with that ugly simper on his face.
The mystery athlete gives Kiyoomi a once over in the mirror. “Yer pretty tall,” he observes. The twang of an accent rasps low in his throat. His brazen eyes drift to Kiyoomi’s legs, and something like exhilaration glints gold in his gaze. “Good quads, too. Ya ever played volleyball?”
Ah. So it’s volleyball.
“I’m a dancer. Ballet and contemporary, mostly.”
When the only expression he’s met with is the human equivalent of a blank sheet of paper, Kiyoomi settles himself into croisé devant. He crosses his body to the corner, pointing his right foot in front of him and bringing his arms up to fourth. It’s an instinctual motion, his shoulders rolling back, his chin raising the slightest, his feet turning out.
The volleyball player gapes. “Oh, I get ya!” He proceeds to attempt a shabby plié. (The keyword is attempt; Kiyoomi has seen three-year-olds execute the move with more coordination.) “Ya mean that kinda stuff, right?”
Vexation throbs in the tendons of Kiyoomi’s wrists. “Yes, that kind of stuff.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy who dances,” the volleyball player admits. He runs a hand through his hair and what looks like an entire tub of product. “Ya know, that’s kinda sick.”
Surprisingly enough, he sounds more fascinated than sarcastic. But his current intrigue doesn’t negate the way he’d been boring holes into Kiyoomi’s backside a few minutes ago while trying to decipher the cause of his muscular quads.
“Well, now you have,” Kiyoomi says flatly. “I’m a guy. I dance.” If he wants to get out of here before half past two, he needs to cut the small talk and resume stretching.
“And what might be the name of this guy who dances?”
Kiyoomi entertains the idea of withholding his name, but then remembers he’s being mature. “Sakusa Kiyoomi.” It takes a beat for him to remember the, “And you?”
“Miya Atsumu,” comes the lightning-fast response. Of course he was waiting to say his name.
“Do you play volleyball for the university?” Kiyoomi asks as he stretches his right oblique.
“Woah, hold on.” Atsumu sets down his water bottle to gesticulate with his hands, baffled. “How’d ya know I play volleyball?”
“You asked me if I’d ever played before. Seems like something a volleyball player would ask.” Not all volleyball players, Kiyoomi knows. Only ones as insufferable and self-centered as this one he has the misfortune of speaking to on a late Friday night that’s bled into an early Saturday morning.
“Oh. That makes sense.” Atsumu starts to stretch his arms. “So now that I got yer name, how ‘bout a backstory? Whatcha doin’ here at two AM?”
“I could ask the same of you.”
Atsumu flaunts pointed canines. “Always gotta get a workout in. Ya do whatcha gotta do, ya know?”
It’s unfortunate that Kiyoomi does know, or at least understands something similar. He’ll let a week without hitting the gym slide—something he’s willing to bet Atsumu is horrified by—but going a few days without stretching is debilitating. Stretching is a lot like sleeping: if Kiyoomi pulls one all-nighter, the only consequences are mild discomposure during the next morning’s lecture and a small dent in his bank account (courtesy of his doubled caffeine intake for that day). But if he stays up to see the sun emerge from the skyline multiple nights in a row, he’s a walking corpse. Similarly, if he takes a day off from stretching, all he has is a pinch in his nerves the next time he squares off his splits. But if those days pile up, when he finally does find the time to fold himself in half, it feels dangerously akin to tearing every muscle in his body.
“I suppose I understand,” Kiyoomi says, to which Atsumu’s foxy grin only grows wider.
“Genial” is a euphemism for Miya Atsumu. He tries to push a conversation even as Kiyoomi presses his nose to his knees in a pike. His Kansai-ben rattles behind the pulsing blood in Kiyoomi’s eardrums when he does his bridge.
The cavalcade of unwanted chatter halts only when Kiyoomi stretches his wrists.
“Sheesh. Yer pretty flexible, ya know that?”
“No, that thought has never crossed my mind,” Kiyoomi wants to deadpan, but instead, he bites back, “You’re pretty bothersome, you know that?” It’s a swift, petulant reply, and Kiyoomi wants to snatch it out of the air with gloved hands and bury it below the soil of the succulents lining his window sill.
Atsumu seems unfazed, staring at his planking reflection. Douchebag. But then he cranes his neck to make eye contact, and Kiyoomi quashes a visible flinch.
“All right, last thing I’ll bother ya ‘bout. Promise.”
Kiyoomi eases into a straddle. He heaves a sigh until his abdomen lays flush with the floor. “I’m an open book.”
“So, I got yer name.”
“Yes,” Kiyoomi says once a timeless ten seconds have passed, and it’s clear Atsumu thinks his incredibly complex statement merits a response.
“And I got yer backstory.”
“What’s your point, Miya?” Time is money, and as far as Kiyoomi’s concerned, he can’t afford to have this conversation.
“First off, it’s Atsumu, Omi-kun. And don’t tell me not to call ya that. It’s too late.”
The room is too tight. The fibers of the yoga mat are puncturing Kiyoomi’s skin. Atsumu’s breathing is becoming increasingly ragged and obnoxious with each minute he holds his plank.
Kiyoomi tries to imagine standing in a void, away from pretentious volleyball players and perspiration. “And second?” he asks from behind hooded eyes.
“You said, ‘first off,’” Kiyoomi grits out, “and when normal people use that phrase, it implies they have another point.” But to be fair, Atsumu doesn’t seem like the type of neat universal who can be deemed “normal,” and the number of actual points he’s made this night probably amount to a grand total of three.
He’s been talking for twenty minutes straight.
“Oh, right! Well, I figured I got yer name, and I know why yer here, more or less, so why not get yer number too?”
Somehow, the room manages to get tighter.
Kiyoomi answers, “No.”
From: Unknown Number
it’s miya atsumu
the volleyball guy from the gym
Kiyoomi’s teeth dig into the swollen flesh of his bottom lip. The weak tang of blood hides behind his incisors. He refuses to touch his phone, but he can’t look away from it. His wary concentration can’t be attributed to hygiene, since the interval for his UV sterilizer box to work its magic is complete. But sanitizing his phone for the better part of a patient half-hour cannot rid Kiyoomi of his most troublesome organism, it seems.
When the metallic taste starts bringing salt to the roof of his mouth, he caves and picks up his phone. Kiyoomi isn’t all that enamored with the blame game, but he’s more inclined to play when he knows who the culprit is.
The line rings twice.
“Moshi moshi!” Motoya’s cordial voice chafes Kiyoomi’s composure.
“I know it was you, Motoya.”
“And why would you say that?” his cousin asks, and the question is lush and languid like lady ferns. Motoya is always this relaxed, even on the days Kiyoomi is aggravated or panicking, or pursuing method acting and portraying a very convincing cactus.
“Well, for one, I haven’t made a specific accusation yet, and you already sound like you know something.”
Motoya only giggles. Fucker. “Oh, right.”
“I know you gave my number to him.”
Kiyoomi can hear the hair twirling and eyelash fluttering from across campus. Motoya enjoys playing dumb. (He has been this way since he was four.) Kiyoomi does not.
“To Miya,” he says evenly. Motoya gave his number to Miya Atsumu, whose most standout quality is his ability to leave a sour impression after one interaction.
“You know, it’s pretty weird that you call him that. Everyone else just calls him Atsumu.”
“I don’t care about everyone else!” Kiyoomi snaps, and he tries not to think of all the ways his cousin is dissecting that sentence. “Why did you give it to him?”
“Why did you talk to him about college volleyball and not think to mention your cousin is on his team? I’m your best friend!”
“Not by choice,” Kiyoomi objects.
“Friendship is a two-way street, Ki. You could have cut me off years ago if you had wanted to.”
Kiyoomi wouldn’t have cut him off. Motoya knows this. But even as they took off their randoseru for the last time and outgrew pair after pair of uwabaki, their juvenile bickering is the one aspect of their childhood that always fits like a glove. Kiyoomi could use something familiar right now, so he shoots back, “Was I expected to have just ignored you the eight years you came over with your mother for tea?”
“Well, you do a pretty fine job of ignoring every other thing you find annoying in life.”
This, unbeknownst to even Motoya, is incorrect. It’s as regrettable as it is true that Kiyoomi is hyper-aware of everything he loathes. He takes steps to mitigate these abhorrences, but being able to ignore them is a privilege his anxiety keeps locked away. The key is only fished out when he’s dancing.
But most of the day, Kiyoomi isn’t stretching or running routines. Most of the day, he’s recognizing everything and anything that exasperates him. It’s the tree sap stuck in the crevices of his shoes. It’s the grime of a train grab handle. It’s Miya Atsumu’s voice worming through thick gym air and whittling away at his ability to abstain from physical violence.
Trying to explain all of this gives Kiyoomi the symptoms of a migraine, so he says, “You never answered my question.”
“Yeah, because you’re not going to like anything I say.”
It would be unfair to Motoya to dispute this because, since the start of the phone call, Kiyoomi’s brain has resolved to stamp any sentence containing “Atsumu” with a big red X.
“Well, why not say the truth then?”
Motoya sighs into the phone. Kiyoomi winces at the volume. “You really want me to say that you two are both jerks, so I figured you might get along?”
Overall, Motoya is a nice guy. He’s a social butterfly. He’d spot you if you forget your wallet. He’ll let you copy his notes. But he’s also family, which means he feels no mercy when he drags his cousin through the mud.
“That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Kiyoomi asks, wringing mire from his ego.
“I guess not. Plus, Atsumu’s pretty hot, and I think he’s into dudes, too.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
That little titter again. “Just text him back. Once. For your own sake.”
Kiyoomi ends the call. His feet ache.
There’s still a solid twelve hours of the day left, so he disregards Motoya’s advice and spoon-feeds himself small tasks that fall somewhere under the umbrella of productivity. He edits the essay he’s shirked for the past two weeks. (It’s riddled with text inconsistencies; Kiyoomi makes a mental jotting to stretch his middles for an extra two minutes.) He reads the news article his father sent him in the morning.
For lunch, he passes on convenience store food and opts for something from his fruit basket, which has become an embarrassing still life over the last few days. He peels an apple with a butterknife. It's disappointingly blotchy beneath the uniform ruby skin. Kiyoomi pokes a finger at the bruised pulp before discarding it for an orange.
He heads to the gym while the sun is still high in the sky, beating down on the nape of his neck and urging sweat to collect there. When Kiyoomi returns to the dorms two hours later, he takes a long, long shower, and thanks the gods he doesn’t believe in for the umpteenth time that he managed to finesse his way into a double and out of a roommate. To finish off the evening, he binges an incredibly average drama.
Once the moon is twinkling through his window, and his options are truly exhausted, Kiyoomi makes a proper contact for Atsumu.
To: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
He lint rolls his bed from the crown to the foot, then slithers under the covers, feeling accomplished.
Since he was eight, Kiyoomi has been sleeping on his back. This is the only way he feels certain his path of oxygen is unobstructed, the only way his lungs don’t feel infinitely too small to support a body that has always felt too big. No matter how drowsy Kiyoomi gets while resting on his stomach, he has to shimmy until his nose points to the ceiling to knock out.
He doesn’t dwell on the fact that, after sending a three-character text to Atsumu, he lies on his side for twenty-six minutes.
The sun skimming across his sheets the next morning is an unbidden friend. Kiyoomi’s neck has rusted over in his slumber and refuses to crack, even as he rolls his head. He taps his phone to turn off his alarm, and to see whether Motoya has sent him some sort of goading message. There is no preview of his cousin’s trademark slew of emojis (which Kiyoomi still can’t decipher the irony of), but there is a text notification.
From: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
so how am i going to see you again
Kiyoomi snaps his head to the side like he’s trying to shake water from his ear.
To: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
With your eyes.
Reduction finally strips the iron oxide from his vertebrae, and his neck pops. Kiyoomi continues jerking his head. He’s still trying to shake something.
No reply pings his hip for the rest of the day, or the next day, or the next two weeks.
Kiyoomi finds himself stretching during reasonable hours.
It’s fifteen days later when he sees Atsumu at the gym again, during a star-crossed night that narrowly flanks morning. Though Kiyoomi doesn’t mind the glass that has crystallized between them after his forthright text, he finds himself studying it.
They go about their workouts in separate spheres. Atsumu lifts his weights. Kiyoomi stretches his calves. Atsumu does his planks. Kiyoomi marks choreo. Atsumu flourishes, loudly. Kiyoomi shrinks, quietly.
He’s on his fifty-sixth élevé when he notices Atsumu has taken a definitive pause from his sit-ups to watch him. When Kiyoomi looks at him in the mirror, the word that comes to mind is “pensive,” which feels like an earnest antithesis.
“Have you never done élevés before?” Kiyoomi’s voice is gravelly from disuse. He clears his throat.
Atsumu saddles him with a confused lip bite. “Huh?”
“Sorry,” Kiyoomi says brusquely, “have you never done heel raises before?”
Atsumu’s mouth puckers into a small “o” of understanding. “No, I’ve done ‘em before. Just never the way yer doin’ ‘em.”
Kiyoomi is doing the variations of élevés that he’s done since studio: coupé and passé on either foot, then using both in first, parallel, and first to parallel. Kiyoomi looks down at his feet, which are currently in first, and thinks he could understand why his movements might seem complex to the untrained eye.
“I’m rising up on élevé from first, then rotating my hips to parallel when I go back down. And then lifting my heels in parallel, rotating to first, and coming back down. And then I’m repeating the motion.”
“Well, that’s fascinating,” Atsumu murmurs. His dulcet tone is unctuous enough that Kiyoomi knows he’s laying it on thick, though he can’t determine why. “But serious question: am I supposed to pretend I understood the words ya just said?”
Ah. That’s why.
“Why don’t I just teach you instead,” Kiyoomi lours, frustration snaring his attempted civility. “Maybe it’ll be easier for you to understand if you try it yourself.”
He walks over to Atsumu, who is leaning against the opposite end of the barre as if it’s a common hand railing. Kiyoomi situates himself in first, then nods expectantly. Atsumu attempts to echo him, knocking his heels together to form a disproportionate V. Symmetry does not appear to be his forté.
“It’s no different from volleyball,” Kiyoomi explains. The barre is solid beneath the heart lines of his palms.
“In volleyball, where do you ideally put your weight?”
“Uh, in the balls of my feet?”
“It’s the same concept in dance. I élevé in first position,” Kiyoomi demonstrates, “and then I come down in parallel.” He rotates his hips until they’re straight, and then lowers his heels to kiss the floor. “The whole time, I keep my weight in the balls of my feet, so I don’t wobble. Try it.”
Atsumu mimics his motions with a fraction of the poise, but his ankles don’t waver, even as his voice does. “Woah, okay. I see what yer doin’.” He does another élevé, faltering less this time. “Ya know, it’s weird that this is really fuckin’ easy but looks hard when ya do it so fancy and fast.”
Kiyoomi ignores the backhanded compliment. “To an extent, I’d argue that’s the basis of dance: making easy things look difficult.”
“Ain’t it the opposite?” Atsumu is brandishing an addled left canine. “Ya know, make the hard stuff look easy?”
“I don’t think the simple can be grand unless the grand can be simple.”
Kiyoomi’s breath lodges in his windpipe. Obscure dance philosophy is meant to be entertained alone in the privacy of his locked room; it is not meant to be confided to a stranger in a public gym. He doesn’t allow the time for Atsumu to wedge in a response.
“Putting my weight in the balls of my feet also helps me avoid sickling.”
“What’s sickling?” Atsumu’s blithe acceptance to the opacity of Kiyoomi’s previous statement is unsettling, but not unwelcome.
Kiyoomi shifts his weight to the outsides of his feet, jutting out his ankles until he feels an authoritative pinch. “This,” he says, peeling a hand off the bar to point down at his unaligned lower half, “is sickling.”
“Ew,” Atsumu says bluntly.
Curbing a chuckle, Kiyoomi straightens his ankles, then lowers his feet to the floor. “Yes, ew. But it’s easy to end up sickling if you don’t have enough strength in your ankles.”
“Which is why ya do the élevé thingies. To build yer strength.”
“Glad to see you’re able to put two and two together.”
“Always gotta bite my moment!” Atsumu clucks in disapproval. He brings his left foot up to some mangled, primitive form of coupé and smiles. “Ya know, before today, I kinda thought you were just some ballerina prick, but I was wrong. Yer not a terrible teacher, or an asshole.”
Slowly, with all of the control he’s honed over the past fifteen years, Kiyoomi developpés his leg into passé. Then he extends it out to a perfect ninety-degree angle to kick Atsumu square in the hip. He topples over like an empty shampoo bottle, or something equally gauche.
“No,” Kiyoomi corrects, “I’m definitely an asshole. And you need stronger ankles.” He tilts his head, cracking his neck sharply.
Atsumu remains on the ground, kneading the heel of his palm into his bottom, but he’s smiling behind his sore dignity. “What I need is a stronger ass. Ya got some mean kicks, Omi-kun!”
Just for that, Kiyoomi practices his grand battements.
Later that morning, when the birds are twittering, and Kiyoomi is hoping to steal a few hours of sleep, he lies on his side and ponders. He ponders the last time he touched a stranger, even with his shoe, and the last time he’d been able to forget a barre hadn’t been wiped before he touched it.
It’s one AM again. Kiyoomi isn’t proud that coming to the gym at such a disagreeable time is becoming a habit; he’ll concede that much. But the sanctity of stability outweighs his loss of face from any of the individual, unconventional components of his routine.
He’s already sprayed down his portion of the barre. The weight of it feels good in his hand. It’s a little too low, but it’s firm and it’s sterile and it’s there. He counts two eight-counts before he tucks in his tailbone and starts his pliés.
Songs pass by. Kiyoomi reminisces about the classical music his instructors used to play, the piano trills his mother put on every Saturday while preparing tea. He tendus to second then sinks down.
The door to the dance room swings open with enough force to jolt the counts out of Kiyoomi’s head.
“Hey, Omi-kun! Whatcha doin’ there?”
Miya Atsumu is a menace.
“Just basics.” Kiyoomi keeps his legs engaged and flits his eyes to Atsumu. He doesn’t deserve a further acknowledgment. “Starting tendus en croix next.”
“I thought we decided a while ago that ya can’t talk to me in cursive.”
Kiyoomi wants to drop his chin, walk over to Atsumu, and wrench the smirk off his face. But he doesn’t. Instead, he does one tendu devant, agonizingly slow, and puts on the voice his mother uses to talk to the pre-ballet toddlers. “Foot drags out from fifth across the floor in front of me like whoosh. Foot drags back in to close to fifth like swoosh. That’s a tendu.” His turnout looks good today. “Repeat motion to the side, the back, and then to the side again, so it’s in the shape of a cross. Hence the word ‘croix.’”
“Gee, thanks, ‘ppreciate the baby talk, sensei.” Atsumu shrugs off his jacket. “Volleyball” is embroidered across the back, below their university logo. Motoya has the same warm-up piece, but it’s considerably less irritating on him.
“I didn’t think you’d understand anything past an elementary level.”
“Oh, fuck you, pretty boy!” Atsumu growls, and then his cheeks are flushing a bit, even though he hasn’t started his workout yet.
Seeing Atsumu ruffled catches Kiyoomi more off guard than the comment itself. The tips of his ears burn. But he redirects his focus to the arch of his foot as he begins his tendus. Beyond the heat blooming at the sides of his head, his physical condition is fine, so his protocol need not be altered.
Atsumu, true to his nature, keeps talking. He walks all over Kiyoomi’s bulleted rules, and then sits cross-legged on top of the title of the list as if to ask, “What are you goin’ to do ‘bout it?”
The answer, of course, is to indulge him. Kiyoomi understands how people like Atsumu work. They’re walking maelstroms, but simple-minded and driven by their own motivations. Practicing tolerance to this kind of overbearing sincerity (read: idiocy) is corroding, though, and it isn’t long before Kiyoomi interjects, “Don’t you have a roommate to bother?”
Atsumu wrinkles his nose. “Samu doesn’t listen to me.”
“Samu?” Kiyoomi asks lightly, because he’s polite like that.
“My brother. Resident asshole in my life.” A chortle. “Yer close to takin’ the spot, though.”
Kiyoomi coughs a mirthless laugh. “Fuck you.”
“Thanks for the offer, but maybe later,” Atsumu winks, like the sixteen-year-old boy he is. “But at least Samu gives me a nice place to live.”
“Why’s that?” One question at a time, Kiyoomi is nudging Atsumu into a sea of self-absorbent tangents. Once this happens, tuning him out will be a facile victory.
“My brother got his culinary certificate thingy fresh outta high school and immediately decided to take the cookin’ world by storm.” Atsumu looks bitter, but there’s a trace of pride lodged in the furrow of his brow. “His business is doin’ pretty good.”
“Cooking,” Kiyoomi repeats. “That’s unexpected.” He doesn’t mean to say the second part aloud and cringes when he realizes he has, but Atsumu only snorts.
“Yeah, it ain’t super conventional, but at least he’s good at the shit he does. Used to play volleyball with me in high school, and he was good at that, too.” Atsumu huffs that last part, and Kiyoomi deduces that sibling rivalry is likely the chief instigator of his hubris.
“Do you also cook then?”
Atsumu blinks. “Me? I dabble,” he says in a way that means he knows his way around a kitchen. “But Samu’s always been better.”
It’s annoying really, because Kiyoomi had predicted Atsumu’s culinary skills to be limited to heating pre-fried kakiage and making miso soup. “Oh?” he responds, and this also comes out as a question.
“Yeah, well, he’s always been better at everythin’,” Atsumu murmurs. His arm stutters in the middle of his bicep curl. The weight fumbles out of his hold, and the thump of it against the ground resounds like something surreptitious being verbalized
“Sorry.” Atsumu picks up the weight. His movements are as hushed as his voice.
Kiyoomi can’t pinpoint how, but this Atsumu isn’t who he met two months ago, or even the person who sauntered into the dance room twenty minutes ago. He looks bashful, almost, or maybe contrite is the better word. It takes a conscious effort for Kiyoomi not to show his bewilderment.
Humans are complex creatures, each one a labyrinth in their own right, but based on personal experience, people like Miya Atsumu are supposed to be straightforward. Kiyoomi isn’t sure what to make of Atsumu surpassing his expectations.
Tombé : fallen
(From the French “tomber” : to fall)
The dancer falls from one leg to the other while flexing the knee
It’s a day like any other, except for the fact that Kiyoomi wakes up with a blistering headache. Despite his nonstop chasing, sleep had eluded him last night. The reflection he stares at while brushing his teeth is skeletal, the corded muscle of his arms clinging to bone through sheer willpower.
His socks nip at his ankles. He dons and doffs three pairs before accepting that all polyester will be scratchy twine against his skin today. After taking a deplorable number of painkillers, Kiyoomi trudges to class.
The aloe yogurt he attempts to force down at noon is nothing more than insipid, thick slime in his mouth, which is somehow worse than if it had actually tasted gross. Kiyoomi disposes of the plastic cup even though it’s only a teaspoon away from full. (His mother’s voice rings in his plugged ears: “Mottainai.”)
He sterilizes his phone four times throughout the day. It still doesn’t feel like enough.
Stretching is the one item on the itinerary Kiyoomi is looking forward to. It’s most definitely going to hurt like hell, but he’s counting on it being a respite from the bees that have been vibrating against his skull for the past seventeen hours. The only problem is that there is now an asterisk printed beside stretching, and that asterisk represents Seeing and Talking To Miya Atsumu. Most days, this footnote isn’t an issue. Atsumu is tenacious and trying, but the late-night, offbeat conversations he incites have become a refreshing distraction, something that can slow down the nauseating speed at which the world turns. But tonight, Kiyoomi has a feeling the dialogue will be draining.
The best way to tackle this predicament is to stretch outside of the typical time frame Atsumu frequents the gym. This tends to be around one to two AM, so if Kiyoomi goes at three AM, he should be safe. He sets an alarm for a quarter to three. Then he uncaps his correction pen and paints over that glaring asterisk with sweeping strokes. And he repeats until the outline of it blurs into obsolescence, until it’s as if the star were never there in the first place.
Wind whistles abreast Kiyoomi as he walks to the gym two hours later. The scent of the building’s disinfectant greets him, striking only in its familiarity. He walks towards the dance room and shoves open the door. And then he slams it, turns around, and counts to eight under his breath three times, because the room isn’t empty. Miya Atsumu’s corporeal form is more persistent than any annotation, it seems, and Kiyoomi has left his correction pen at home.
“Yer here pretty late, aren’t ya?” Atsumu bellows when he enters.
Kiyoomi’s shoulders raise to his ears without his consent. He unrolls his yoga mat. He does not respond to Atsumu. He is here to stretch. He is not here to read footnotes.
Neck rolls. Arms. Obliques. Right lunge, split, pigeon pose. Left lung, split, pigeon pose. Butterfly sit. Hips. Pike. Standing pike. Straddle. Middle splits.
Only during Kiyoomi’s wrist stretches does Atsumu find the courage to pipe up. Or maybe he reaches the tail end of his iota of self-restraint. It’s an unwanted advance either way, but ultimately inevitable.
“Yer pretty pale, ya know that?”
“Not all of us are as partial to the sun as you are, Miya. Or to skin cancer, for that matter.”
(While this isn’t the reason for Kiyoomi’s rawboned figure, it is objectively true. During high school summers, he stayed indoors as much as possible, splitting his time between sweating within the confines of the studio and becoming one with the tatami room of the house.)
Through thousands of unsolicited chats, Kiyoomi has polished his ability to orchestrate conversation. It’s still a procedure, like everything else that matters. He’s placed the bait. Now Atsumu will get riled up, roar back an insult, and tumble into a tangent about his glorious, tanned complexion. Hook, line, and sinker.
But Kiyoomi has miscalculated. Or perhaps Miya Atsumu transcends calculations.
“Nah, but for real, though. Ya look like a ghost, man.” Atsumu is hovering at the bottom of a tricep push-up. His concern is a dozen push pins nicking Kiyoomi’s skin.
“You’re a real charmer, Atsumu.”
“And yer pissier than usual. Someone’s havin’ a rough night,” Atsumu mutters, and Kiyoomi feels the urge then and there to give an overwhelmingly feline hiss. “At least tell me ya ate today.”
Kiyoomi thinks of the upturned yogurt cup in his trash. “I ate.” Briefly.
Atsumu walks his hands in from his plank until he’s sitting back on his heels. He is wearing athletic shorts. How many people have sat where Atsumu’s bare knees are meeting the floor? How many droplets of oil spoil there? How many memories have crusted themselves into that particular patch of wood? Kiyoomi wonders and wonders and does not ask the same questions of the square meters beneath his yoga mat.
“Let’s go get somethin’ to eat.”
Kiyoomi finds a foothold amidst his spiraling stupor to remind Atsumu it’s 3:17 AM.
“I know a place.”
There are several reasons Kiyoomi doesn’t protest. For one, he’s winding down from his stretching. For another, now that the prospect of food has been mentioned, the rumbling of his stomach is loud enough to alarm a small village. (Atsumu’s crooked grin might be a plausible reason, too, but this thought is ethereal and distant from Kiyoomi’s conscious mind, like shimmering city lights from a plane window.)
“As long as the food is good.”
Half an hour later, they approach a dimly lit shop. Atsumu seems keen on barreling in, but he pauses his frenzy to hold the door open for Kiyoomi.
Kiyoomi unstuffs his hands from his pockets and dips his chin as he enters. It means thank you.
“Table for two!” Atsumu shouts, even though they’re the sole customers.
“We’re closed,” a dry voice calls.
Standing behind the counter is a near carbon copy of Miya Atsumu. His hair is jet black rather than beach blonde, and his cheeks are slightly rounder, but his eyebrows are identical to Atsumu’s, and he has the same shoulder to waist ratio (offensively isosceles). There’s an apron hanging around his neck, but it’s untied around the waist, ribbon strips dangling listlessly.
Atsumu would be the type to not mention his brother is a twin, Kiyoomi muses.
“That any way to treat a customer, Samu?” Atsumu quips, sliding himself onto a stool and propping his elbows up on the counter. Kiyoomi has a feeling that, if Atsumu were short enough, he’d be swinging his legs back and forth like a child.
“Irasshaimase, fucker,” Atsumu’s brother deadpans. “That better?”
Atsumu awards him a cheeky grin. “Perfect.” He glances at Kiyoomi, then the stool beside him, and then back at Kiyoomi. “I’m like, ninety-six percent sure no one’s sat in that seat since this loser,” Atsumu says, jerking a thumb to his twin, “last cleaned it.”
The string that extends from the top of Kiyoomi’s head when he turns has reappeared and is trying to keep him upright, but he snaps it so he can take a seat. The reverb of its breaking thrums in his ears as he makes an impersonal introduction behind a taut smile.
“Pleasure to meet ya, Sakusa-san. Call me Osamu.” Osamu outstretches his arm for a handshake but draws it back when Kiyoomi makes no move to return the gesture. Atsumu gives his brother a loaded look.
“Ya know, when ya say, ‘Call me Samu,’” Atsumu starts, dragging his fingers across one of the laminated menus on the counter, “ya make it seem like that ain’t yer real name.’”
“And when you put yer grubby hands on my shit for no reason,” Osamu shoots back, plucking the menu out of his brother’s hands, “ya make it seem like it’s yer first time here.”
In the five minutes he’s been in Osamu’s shop, Kiyoomi has made two inferences. The first is that Atsumu’s fondness for swearing is hereditary. The second is more of a confirmation than an inference: Atsumu isn’t all that careful about germs with other people. (Or maybe, he just really likes fucking with his brother. This is easier to accept than the possibility of Atsumu adjusting his habits for Kiyoomi’s benefit.)
Osamu smooths out an invisible crease in the menu. “So, shake onigiri, right? Or are ya feelin’ the konbu tonight?”
“Shiozake is good,” Atsumu confirms. He cocks his head at Kiyoomi. “And, uh, he’ll take the umeboshi.”
“Oh, so yer already on the knowin’-the-order basis, huh?” Osamu asks, retying his apron around his waist. “Onigiri comin’ right up.”
“Shut yer trap, Samu!” Atsumu snarls, but his brother has already glided past the draping curtains into the kitchen.
A smile toys on Kiyoomi’s lips. “Well, he seems lovely.” He relaxes into the stool a centimeter more. He’s all right. This is all right.
“I know,” Atsumu gripes. “He’s a complete ass.” He picks up the now unguarded menu and begins fiddling with it again. “Wait a second. Omi-kun, yer smilin’ right now! I can see the corners of yer eyes crinklin’! I swear to god if ya actually think he’s lovely...” Atsumu relinquishes the menu and crosses his arms, and now he looks more like the vain athlete Kiyoomi first framed him as. This is inexplicably comforting.
“Friendly reminder that I’m taken,” Osamu hollers through the noren.
Kiyoomi chuckles behind the seclusion of his mask.
“Yer okay with the umeboshi, though, right? I kinda just guessed on that one,” Atsumu admits.
“It’s not a problem.”
The guess was more than okay. Umeboshi have been Kiyoomi’s favorite food since the time he first tried one at six years old. His mother had warned him that they were sour, but Kiyoomi had insisted he have one. (This was still the Kiyoomi who felt he could take on the world with his hands tied behind his back and a blindfold spanning his face rather than a disposable mask.) After that day, whenever he and his mother quarreled, she would leave out a bowl of rice with a single pickled plum on top. Kiyoomi would scarf the meal down, and while neither of them ever mentioned it, it was an unspoken agreement that they’d forgiven one another after that. But this is an anecdote Kiyoomi would prefer to disclose another day, one when Atsumu’s twin isn’t surely eavesdropping.
By the time their food is brought out, Atsumu has persuaded Kiyoomi to impart his shoddy day.
“Well, I sincerely hope that these,” Osamu chimes in, placing three large onigiri in front of Kiyoomi, “will taste better than yer bland yogurt goo.” He places his hands on his hips and winks.
Atsumu blows a strand of hair out of his eyes, peevish. “Would it kill ya to not flirt with every guy I bring over here?”
“Yeah, it probably would,” Osamu snickers. He pats the table beside the plate. “I’m goin’ to sleep now. Clean up, will ya?”
The twins’ dynamic is something Kiyoomi would have to spend a lifetime investigating to comprehend, because Atsumu rolls his eyes and says, “Yeah, ya know I always gotcha,” as if he hadn’t been needling his brother into oblivion five seconds ago.
“I ain’t gonna thank ya. But nice meetin’ ya, Sakusa, and enjoy the food!” With that, Osamu unties his apron and hangs it on one of the metal hooks ornamenting the wall. He ascends the stairs in the back corner of the shop, which are hidden vaguely in plain sight. When the creaking of steps ceases, Atsumu and Kiyoomi are alone.
Tact is not Kiyoomi’s strong suit, so he says to Atsumu, “I guess you must bring a lot of guys around here.”
A blush slinks up the column of Atsumu’s neck and wells in the apples of his cheeks. “If I’m bein’ honest, nah. I just said that to say it.” His face contorts, and he looks like a child caught with their hand in a cookie jar. “Yer the first guy I’ve brought here, actually. I don’t really talk to that many people.”
Kiyoomi’s skin should be crawling, but it isn’t. His shoulders aren’t curling either. Something in the back of his brain is soughing at the way Atsumu’s garish hair is muted to a cool gold under the dusky lights.
(Atsumu, who basks in the undistinguished glory of midnight gym conversations, doesn’t talk to many people?)
Through a mouth full of cotton, Kiyoomi says, “I should eat now.”
He unzips his gym bag to take out a pocket-sized hand sanitizer. It smells like coconut water. He squirts a dollop into Atsumu’s cupped hands, and then into his own. They rub their hands until they’re raw, and the liquid is absorbed. Thirty seconds has never felt longer.
Perhaps it’s just because his digestive tract has been yearning for nutrients, but the onigiri tastes good. Good is an understatement—it’s superb. When he voices this, Atsumu grins smugly, to which Kiyoomi replies, “Your brother made this, not you, so I don’t know why you’re smiling.”
They barely avoid the catastrophe of an onigiri being swatted out of Kiyoomi’s hand and onto the mopped floor.
Ten minutes later, all rice and seaweed have been devoured, and Kiyoomi is feeling alive for the first time in twenty-four hours. His limp muscles have restrung themselves. He contentedly dabs at the corner of his mouth with a napkin.
It’s only when Kiyoomi stares down at the empty plate of glass that he remembers Atsumu was supposed to have food, too.
Guilt is a feeling Kiyoomi evades whenever possible. He achieves this by only committing actions that have high probabilities of success, and being aloof from people or projects he could potentially harm. But somehow, Kiyoomi has forgotten these two measures. And while the forgetting itself deserves some inspection, he’s more preoccupied with the guilt puddling in his stomach, congealing into sludge at an alarming rate.
“You never got your onigiri.” He swallows, staring hard at his clean plate. “Sorry.”
The nonchalant shrug causes Kiyoomi to look up. Atsumu’s jaw rests in the curve of his palm, the sharp line of it twitching ever so slightly. He’s wearing a soft, soft smile, and Kiyoomi feels like he’s in a daydream, or observing a relic from a past life, because he’s positive he’s never been smiled at like that. He blinks twice, and the idyll of Atsumu persists.
Something takes root in the grotto of Kiyoomi’s chest. It grows shoots that nuzzle the flowerbeds cultivated through his years of dancing. This is new. There’s new vegetation, new life decorating his cartilage, and it’s been spurred by Miya Atsumu. Having space for anything aside from dance is new.
Kiyoomi wants to lock himself in the nearest restroom like he would have all of those years ago. But he doesn’t. His eyes stay glued to Atsumu’s wonderfully incongruous smile. His feet are planted in the ground.
Eventually, Atsumu says, “We should get ya home,” and offers to walk Kiyoomi back to his dorm. Kiyoomi declines, which earns him a protest, a whine, and then a disgruntled, dismissive wave of the hand—in that order. But Atsumu still holds the door open for him when he leaves.
Kiyoomi ventures into the balmy morning. Once he’s out of sight of Onigiri Miya, he begins to pick up speed, until his lungs are burning and he’s shredding through the calm breeze, disturbing the blue stillness of a city rousing from rest.
He runs all the way home.
Some things change, but most don’t. They continue to interact at the gym and nowhere else. Atsumu still runs his mouth, and his words fill the grooves in the wooden floor and the scars in Kiyoomi’s knee. For the most part, Kiyoomi wades in his new, hazy feelings. Some nights he flounders, and other nights he drowns.
“Okay, what’s the stupidest shit you’ve ever done?”
This rapid inquiry is no significant departure from the rounds Atsumu has been firing at him the entire evening. Kiyoomi is lying down, stretching his shoulders. His palms are far behind him, pressed flat into the yoga mat. As he inches his pinkies closer together, he mulls over his answer.
There was the time he accidentally marked a triple on stage during a recital. Or the time he accused Motoya of stealing his jazz shoes. Or the two years he’d spent calling his neighbor’s dog “Kuma” when his name was Hayato.
If it were anyone else trying to beleaguer his past, Kiyoomi would have mumbled the first memory that came to mind, and that would have been it. But this is Atsumu—the same Atsumu who’s now helping to water the garden growing in his soul—so Kiyoomi searches for a more honest answer.
“When I quit dancing, probably. I think I broke my mother’s heart that day.” The sentence claws its way out of Kiyoomi’s mouth without his approval. “I mean, I was young, but sometimes I wonder if she’s ever fully recovered.”
A stuffy silence follows, broken only by the cracking of knuckles.
“Damn,” is what Atsumu finally responds, shaking out his hand, and it looks like he wants to card it through Kiyoomi’s hair. “Ya know, I was gonna say the time I got stuck in my hamper, and my brother had to cut me out, but now that just feels kinda stupid.”
In spite of the somber turn in their conversation, or perhaps because of it, Kiyoomi laughs. “Why were you in the hamper to begin with?”
“Cus Samu dared me to try and fit in it!”
“Did he dare you,” Kiyoomi asks skeptically, “or did you say something like ‘I bet I can fit in this hamper’ and he didn’t object?”
Atsumu grins mischievously. “Omi-kun, yer really figurin’ me out, huh?”
No, I hardly know you, Kiyoomi thinks to himself.
Miya Atsumu is an enigma, a blemish on the rind of all of Kiyoomi’s philosophies. He’s louder than he claims to be and too judgemental for someone who hates being judged. He finds the energy to persist with his poor conversation starters, and his vitality reinvigorates Kiyoomi’s when it atrophies.
“Yes, it’s quite the misfortune for me,” Kiyoomi deadpans.
Atsumu laughs, and the warmth of it challenges kotatsus and smoldering cigarettes and the sun in the sky. “Well, if ya don’t mind findin’ out a bit more, you should come to one of our matches.” The grin is still on his face, but misgiving is woven into it.
Kiyoomi transitions to a pike. “I’m sure I’ll get to know you loads better by being a face in the crowd that does nothing but boost your ego.”
“Exactly,” Atsumu beams. “But ya know yer not just a face in the crowd, right?”
The mask on Kiyoomi’s face conceals the breadth of his smile. He braces his ankles and buries his nose between his contused knees.
To: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
I’m going to the game this week.
From: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
To: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
Are you alright lol
From: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
yeah i just wasn’t expecting this to actually happen
To: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
Motoya asked me to come.
From: Miya (Volleyball Douche)
way to get a guy’s hopes up
It’s Kiyoomi’s third year in university, and he’s attending what is probably his fourth sporting event ever. Back in high school, he was dancing twenty-five hours a week. It was easier to watch the recorded versions of Motoya’s matches than to cram one of them into his already congested schedule. The quality of Kiyoomi’s life still revolves around dance, but quantitatively, he spends fewer hours in the studio now. He no longer has a convenient excuse for his lack of varsity spirit; he’s just never been inspired to go to any games.
A charismatic voice gives an incredibly generic announcement commencing the match. Kiyoomi doesn’t like sitting down in public places, but there is something inherently awkward about standing in the bleachers among genuine volleyball fans. It’s sweltering, being enwreathed by that familiar, palpable passion for a sport, but one he doesn’t live and breathe.
Sometimes when stimuli oversaturate Kiyoomi’s processing capabilities, this thing will happen: instead of perceiving a moment in front of his eyes, his mind will show it from a different perspective, like a birds-eye view, or someone walking beside him. When this happens, he isn’t himself anymore, but a spectator surveying actors reading from scripts. These camera angles in his head will keep switching and panning until reality is decidedly fluid.
The whirl of Dri-Fit and the cacophony of squeaking sneakers is triggering this dissociation right now. Kiyoomi has never understood it well enough to stop it, so he lets it ebb and flow. Eventually, he’ll be able to latch onto something occurring before him, and the sensation will dwindle, then fully desiccate.
He doesn’t expect Atsumu to be the thing that grounds him, but he is. At some point in the second set, Kiyoomi glimpses that dead blond hair. Atsumu is shouting at his teammates and tugging at the neckline of his jersey to fan himself. The excitement seeps out of him like sweat. It is evident that Atsumu isn’t living in or coexisting with the moment; he is the moment, manipulating the pacing of the match like he manipulates the trajectory of the ball.
Slowly but surely, before the crude grandeur of Miya Atsumu, Kiyoomi solidifies from a shapeless entity back into a human being.
Atsumu is the epitome of laid-back, but this is the first time Kiyoomi has ever seen him look at peace. If this is Atsumu pacified, what word best describes how he acts off the court? Who is the person Kiyoomi interacted with at the gym last week, or a month ago during that indelible night at Onigiri Miya? How much stamina is required to always act so calm?
Kiyoomi watches their team rack up three points from service aces and contemplates what, if anything, he really knows about Miya Atsumu.
He finds himself staring at Atsumu for the rest of the set. If this were a movie, Atsumu would look up at him through the corner of his eye and flash a smile of too many teeth, and Kiyoomi would pretend he disliked the attention while gingerly waving back. But life is more peculiar than any feature film, so Kiyoomi spends fifteen minutes studying someone who is completely engrossed in a plotline of his own.
At the start of the third set, Kiyoomi forces himself to watch his cousin instead of Atsumu. Motoya snaps his knee pads while he waits for the serve. He’s done this since middle school, and Kiyoomi has never been able to wrap his head around why someone would want to occupy their hands seconds before they’re supposed to use them to receive a ball hurtling at deadly speeds. Because Motoya is Motoya, he digs the ball flawlessly, sending it directly to Atsumu.
One way or another, everything seems to lead back to Atsumu.
Kiyoomi does not get caught up in what he does not understand. He’s been generalized as robotic, blunt, and eccentric because of it, but labels are negligible when his ideology has not yielded over the last twenty years. Gleaning information from those who hide because they don’t want to be found is simply not worth the time nor the effort.
Kiyoomi does not understand Atsumu. He does not understand whether Atsumu is hiding because he does not want to be found, or because no one has bothered to look for him yet.
He is drawn to him all the same.
Their team loses. Motoya will grin tightly and say, “Well, it’s to be expected when they’re ranked so high.”
Kiyoomi waits in the lobby to give his cousin the lauding he’s expecting. As the crowd around him disperses, he remembers that this is where it ends for most onlookers. They don’t have relatives to congratulate. They come to enjoy a sport among a multitude of like-minded fans for two hours, and then they vanish.
The minutes pass in counts of eight. Kiyoomi taps the toe of his shoe against the concrete in a way that would make his mother pull a face.
Motoya enters with a peal of laughter and, more notably, Atsumu’s arm slung around his shoulder. There’s familiarity in the gesture, absolute trust, and something like jealousy smarts in the curl of Kiyoomi’s lip.
Kiyoomi avoids physical contact when he's able to. This is a rule, the same way he warms up a double before he pulls a quad, or changes his clothes after he’s been out in public. But the curious envy remains. It festers in the sliver of space between Kiyoomi’s cupid’s bow and surgical mask.
He looks away from Motoya and Atsumu and Motoya’s arm around Atsumu. “You played well, Motoya,” he tells the wall behind his cousin.
“Thanks, Ki!” Motoya preens. “Sucks that we lost, but they were really good.”
“How did I play?”
Atsumu’s arms are now crossed, but there is no sly smirk plastered on his face. He’s emotionless, and it’s off-putting.
Kiyoomi stops tapping his foot. He counts to eight. “You play like you live.”
Wholly and recklessly, with such coarse elegance, I want to grab my nail file and smooth out your blunt edges.
An ordinary person would ask Kiyoomi to explain his cryptic answer. Atsumu, extraordinary as ever, says, “All right.”
Motoya’s eyes dart between the two of them. He gives a lukewarm apology to no one in particular and scuttles away.
“So.” Atsumu adjusts the strap of his duffle bag. The width of it digs into his jacket. “Ya wanna go eat somethin’? I get hungry after I play, but the team ain’t goin’ out cus we lost.”
“Am I the replacement?” Kiyoomi keeps his voice as hollow as Atsumu’s.
A shrug. “If ya wanna be.” Atsumu turns to walk out of the building. He’s doing it again, putting on the equable front even though he’s set on what he wants. This is an admirable and arrogant feat.
The weight of a dozen millennia of rules rests on Kiyoomi’s shoulders, urging him to remain motionless. He inhales. He inhales until the gab quiets and the microbes freeze and his heart swallows itself whole. And then he exhales, and life resumes at a volume high enough to perforate his eardrums.
Kiyoomi arrives at the door a rightfully embarrassing two minutes later. Atsumu has waited there to hold it for him.
The wait time for Onigiri Miya is forty minutes. This isn’t all that appalling, given the quality of the food in proportion to the shop’s size, but it still results in Atsumu marching up to the hostess after carping for fifteen minutes.
“‘Scuse me, Ayumi-chan, could ya maybe get my brother from the back? I needa talk to him.”
The twenty-something girl continues shuffling menus. “Sure, Atsumu-san.” Her eye roll suggests this is not the first time Atsumu has requested to chew out his brother.
Atsumu returns to stand beside Kiyoomi, who has respectfully declined sitting down on the wooden benches provided for queuing guests. Wood is relatively porous, so cleaning it requires a shrewd eye and patient hand. It is not easy for Kiyoomi to trust vision and dexterity that is not his own. (There’s also the fact that the mystifying post-match longing hasn’t left him, and sitting feels too vulnerable. Kiyoomi does not tell Atsumu this.)
“Sorry ‘bout that. Didn’t realize it’d be so packed.”
Kiyoomi’s response is to watch Atsumu’s hand ball at the bottom of his sweatshirt.
“The hell do ya want, Tsumu? Contrary to you, I got shit to do.” Osamu is the same height as Atsumu, if not a few centimeters shorter, but he seems to loom over his brother now.
“Yeah, and I just had a game, so I’m starvin’. But ya don’t got any space, and I’m pretty sure I’ll die before the wait time is up.”
“Cute nickname, but ya do know yer an idiot, right?” Osamu looks like he wants to grab his brother by the hood of his sweatshirt and toss him to the ground.
Kiyoomi gets the inkling that, between the two twins, a hefty number of slings and compound fractures have been amassed.
“I ain’t got time for yer name callin’, Samu! We’ll just go somewhere else.” Atsumu takes a half step closer to the door to prove his commitment to the assertion, or maybe to piss off his brother, or maybe both. Likely both.
Osamu sighs, temper unbinding, and Kiyoomi witnesses two decades of Dealing With Atsumu in the seconds the exhale lasts. “How’d I end up with someone this dense as my brother?” He points a sluggish finger to the latticework ceiling. “We live upstairs, ya dipshit. Just order somethin’ to go and eat in yer room.” Osamu shakes his head as he heads back to the kitchen.
The hostess muffles a guffaw.
“I’m an idiot,” Atsumu says once his brother is out of range, but there’s no dejection in his voice. The hem of his sweatshirt has been abandoned.
“That you are.”
Kiyoomi isn’t looking forward to eating in Atsumu’s apartment, mainly because he’ll be eating in Atsumu’s apartment. There will be germs, but this is a motif in life he’s adapted to. Kiyoomi has precautions he knows to take.
He’s more perturbed by the concept of being alone with Atsumu. The gym is one thing. It’s empty in the evenings, but it is a public facility; there’s always the possibility of having company. The probability of a stranger moseying into Atsumu’s apartment is significantly lower, considering that attempted burglary is punishable by law, and entering the wrong room tends to be a trope reserved for low-budget romcoms.
“Yer okay with eatin’ in my apartment, right?”
They’re already climbing the stairs.
Fine is a lot of things. Fine is Kiyoomi’s mother’s china, which rests in an auburn cabinet with pendant drawer pulls made of bronze. Fine is the nylon and spandex material of footed black tights that snag out of spite. Fine is the word that describes Kiyoomi’s turn days, save for the few good occasions when god imbues herself in the soles of his feet, or the bad ones when ten á la secondes make his stomach churn.
Fine is a lot of things, but it’s certainly not Kiyoomi trying to quell his urge to break through the stairwell wall using only the hard edge of his shoulder and visceral fear. (Shattering his humerus would put him out of commission for a good three months, so he avoids pursuing this impulse.)
Atsumu pushes the door to his apartment open. “All right, home sweet home.” He toes off his shoes.
Kiyoomi edges into the genkan. “Do you have slippers?” The question tries to strangle itself.
“Yeah, actually, we do.” Atsumu crouches down to a shoe rack and pulls out a pristine package of beige fabric slippers. “Unopened and everythin’. Ain’t half bad, right?”
The twins’ apartment is nice, Kiyoomi notes as he takes a seat on the living room couch. (It might have been discrediting Osamu to assume it would be a complete dump.) It’s unexpectedly classy, boasting large windows, ivory walls, and an open floor plan.
The table in front of them is the one thing that seems out of place in the contemporary composition. It bears rings of discoloration, indicating one too many coasterless nights. Describing a piece of furniture as “loved” feels unnatural, but it’s the only word that’s coming to Kiyoomi’s mind.
“One of the only things we took with us from Hyougo,” Atsumu says, tapping his nails against the table affectionately. “Samu bitched ‘bout it before we left.”
Kiyoomi can understand wanting to hold onto a piece of a home when you’re trying to build yourself from the ground up in a new city. He doesn’t doubt the competition in the food industry either. “I think it’s all right that your brother is sentimental.”
The drumming of nails stops. “Huh?” Atsumu quirks a brow as if he’s trying to embroider meaning into an abstract art piece. “Nah, I meant he got pissy because I wanted to bring it. He didn’t see the point, ‘specially not when I wasn’t livin’ with him here my first year.”
So he’s the sentimental one.
Kiyoomi thinks of all the verve Atsumu puts into everything he does and wonders how someone can still have enough left over to care for things like memories. Then he looks at the haloed stains spotting the oak and asks them, “What do you know about him that I don’t? How many more sides to him are there?”
The table only groans as Atsumu sets down the bag of onigiri.
“I need to wash my hands,” Kiyoomi recites.
While the kitchen sink may be unfamiliar, the routine he follows is not.
Soap. Faucet handle. Warm water. Scrub until the dead skin is abraded, and then scrub harder. Continue for twenty seconds. Another pump of soap. Scrub again, and then scrub again harder. Continue for a second interval of twenty seconds. Paper towel. Dry the hands. Use the towel to turn off the faucet.
It’s methodical. But it doesn’t feel sheltering the way it should, because Atsumu is standing behind him, waiting for a turn at the sink. Their bodies are a meter apart, but the aura is snicking Kiyoomi’s achilles tendons.
The rules state that routine is what will help Kiyoomi survive. But now he is surviving, washing his hands at an unfamiliar sink in an unfamiliar apartment, and routine is smothering him.
Twenty more seconds of lathering to go.
After they’ve both washed their hands and Kiyoomi is as clean as he can get when feelings are still smoldering in the creases of his palms, they eat.
Traffic in and of itself is not charming, but compared to Atsumu’s chewing, the car horns and whirring of bicycle wheels are luxurious. Kiyoomi fixates on the raucous outside the window, and the taste of his onigiri. The rice is salted perfectly, the umeboshi is so tart it’s sweet, and the seaweed brings all flavors to equilibrium. As he devours his third onigiri, Kiyoomi looks back down at the table and catches sight of Atsumu’s phone beside the darkest circle of discoloration.
There’s a picture in the back of the device. Kiyoomi has seen streaks of it when Atsumu picks up his phone to skip a song or grumble about the inaccuracy of the weather app, but it’s rare for it to be still. The picture has never been a stationary object in Kiyoomi’s mind; it was always a smudge of unfathomable, moving color, as impossible to tie down as its owner. Seeing it on full display is disconcerting.
The photo is of two indistinguishable boys—Atsumu and Osamu. Kiyoomi has never been great with identifying the ages of children, but he can tell that this snapshot is from a time when the wonder in life was superfluous, and your hands still felt large enough to grab hold of it. The twins are piled on top of each other, with one of them holding up three fingers as if to celebrate a bronze medal. The photograph is worn by years and love and the vehement desire to protect what once was.
“I was a dumb kid.”
Kiyoomi raises an eyebrow. “Care to elaborate?”
“Well, I mean, I’m holdin’ up three fingers in that cus I thought that was a peace sign.”
Of course, it’s Atsumu making the flawed peace sign. His eyes shine bright against the earth tones he and his brother are sporting.
“I got a lotta photos in my room, ya know, if ya wanna see some more.”
The offer hangs between them.
To Kiyoomi, bedrooms are sacred. They have been since he convinced his mother to let him have his own in his last year of elementary school. A bedroom is more than a room. It’s personal. Kiyoomi is currently dressed in two layers of clothing and a membrane of relative haphephobia, and it’s still personal. It’s something that says, “Here. This is how I live. Judge me for who I am.”
This type of offer seems entirely, incomprehensibly like Miya Atsumu.
For the most part, Atsumu’s bedroom is nothing to call home about. There’s a small mountain of laundry that he kicks toward the wall. The hamper stands beside it in mockery. Atsumu’s bed has the same navy plaid comforter every high school boy seems to be partial to. An IKEA dresser is squeezed in the corner of the room, two of its drawers jutting out at offending angles. (“I lost the buildin’ instructions for that.” “Ah.”)
What piques Kiyoomi’s interest is the long, thin string running across the length of the right wall. Photos hang from it by assorted paper clips, clothespins, and a prayer. Up close, Kiyoomi can spy the dust coating them, as if they haven’t been touched since the day they were hung up.
There’s one of Osamu and Atsumu holding hands in petite blue and white uniforms. One of them is wearing his shorts backward. Kiyoomi bets a parent fussed them together to commemorate an entrance ceremony.
“First day of first grade,” Atsumu explains, filling in the blanks in the scenario Kiyoomi is already envisioning. “Hated wearin’ that stupid hat.”
“And the shorts apparently, too.”
“I’d ask how ya knew which one was me, but I guess it ain’t that surprising.”
The next photo in the line is a toddler trying to gobble down a chocolate bar, based on the gleam in his eyes and the smattering of brown around his mouth. It’s disgusting. Kiyoomi can’t help but think the boy looks like the poster child for jubilation.
Beside him, Atsumu sighs. “Yeah, I tried to bite a lotta rocks as a kid.”
Mud. It’s mud around his mouth.
Kiyoomi purses his lips to foil what has an equal likelihood of being a laugh or a retch. Neither reaction is attractive.
When Kiyoomi starts a puzzle, he turns the lid of the box down so he can’t see what finished picture he’s trying to create. After snipping the corner of the plastic bag of pieces, he’ll shake out a handful. These are split into edge pieces and center pieces. He repeats to gradually build the border of the puzzle. From there, Kiyoomi works his way inward until the frail frame is filled. The last piece placed is always the approximate center. This puzzle building process is an operation, another set of rules he does not bend.
When Kiyoomi first resigned himself to the endeavor of understanding Atsumu, he approached it like a puzzle: build from the outside in. He noted the external factors, like wardrobe and hobbies. But Atsumu isn’t a puzzle; he’s a person, and the most elusive one Kiyoomi has met. Starting with the edges first does not work when the sides are innumerable. You cannot build a border around the infinite.
Perhaps a better way to understand Atsumu is, conversely, by working from the inside out, like factoring a binomial. Kiyoomi settles on this philosophy as he scans the photos on the wall. (He ignores the voice in his head admonishing that any sort of linear approach will not work on a nonlinear subject.)
In the last photo on the string, a small child is crying. Blood dribbles from his mouth. His fingers are held up to the camera lens, red and sticky.
“What’s this?” Kiyoomi asks. Why on earth is this photographed? Why do you choose to display it? is what he means.
“Oh, probably should’ve warned ya ‘bout that one. Hope yer not too squeamish.”
As elegant as they present themselves, dancers are not unscathed. Kiyoomi can remember his mother lying on the couch behind him while he watched NHK, her feet propped up on a pillow, blistered and regal. Blood was a childhood friend, something Kiyoomi knew long before he realized he’d spill it himself. By his first year of junior high, holding hydrogen peroxide-soaked paper towels with latex gloves was second nature.
“I’m used to blood,” Kiyoomi intones.
“Yeah, me too.” Atsumu snorts softly and interlaces his hands behind his neck. “Guess that’s what we signed up for when we chose to be athletes.”
Among fifteen years of performing and competing, Kiyoomi has never been regarded as an athlete by anyone other than a fellow dancer. “I suppose you’re right.”
“But that one wasn’t a volleyball injury. Split my bottom lip trippin’. My mom always told me not to walk ‘cross the grates with my hands in my pockets, so I guess it was kinda my fault.”
“I’m sorry that happened,” Kiyoomi half-heartedly mumbles, because he’s more preoccupied with squinting at Atsumu’s mouth for the remnants of stitches. His lips are plump and unmarked.
“If yer lookin’ for a scar, yer outta luck.” Kiyoomi wads his fists like they're crumpled bills and squirrels them away in his pockets. He doesn’t like being caught. “Never got stitches, but it healed fine.”
Healed more than fine, Kiyoomi thinks as he traces Atsumu’s bottom lip. “I see.”
But what does he see? This is another facet of Atsumu, one composed of faded photographs and the inescapable passing of time. These are the parts of him that he deems important enough to hang on the walls. The understated poignance overwhelms Kiyoomi.
(What, if anything, do I really know about you?)
“I need fresh air,” Kiyoomi wheezes. It’s meant to be an excuse to leave Atsumu’s bedroom and apartment and this new world of old memories that are stifling him.
Atsumu does not take excuses. He wants things done his way to satisfy his needs, and he simultaneously lives to please. So it’s marvelously logical when he says, “I gotta water the plants anyways,” and walks out of the room.
Kiyoomi lingers in front of the fractals of Atsumu, the constellation of photos on the wall. He closes his eyes and extinguishes the stars. An eight-count elapses. He rouses to meet a dying galaxy, and then he follows Atsumu into the next cosmos.
The balcony is willowy by design, made of spindly black bars that remind Kiyoomi of spider limbs. Illusory bugs wriggle across his clavicles as they step out onto it.
“I know she looks a little skinny,” Atsumu concedes, “but she won’t break on ya.” He props an elbow up against the slender handrail in rash demonstration. Kiyoomi waits with bated breath for them to plunge to their demise. The structure moans but does nothing much else.
A few plants rest on the metal table that bookends the left side of the balcony. (Kiyoomi chooses to look at them instead of Atsumu, who is now ribbing death by leaning over the rail.) They’re all more brown than green, drooping from the weight of the lives they’re living. Kiyoomi’s feet are sore.
Atsumu squats down to pick up a watering can. It’s already filled to the brim by dint of the previous night’s downpour. Tenderly, he sprinkles the plants. Kiyoomi can hear them sing under the filthy water.
Is attention in itself irresistible? Or is its irresistibility determined by who allocates it?
“Pretty, ain’t it?” Atsumu asks, setting down the watering can. He’s admiring the single blossom on the least shriveled plant. It’s a pale pink.
Kiyoomi looks for the scar that doesn’t exist on Atsumu’s lip. “It is.”
For the next few weeks, Kiyoomi does not see Atsumu. His disappearance is not as paradoxical as his presence; Motoya explains their coach gave a particularly guilting speech about the importance of sleep. Atsumu’s number is still weighing down Kiyoomi’s phone, and it wouldn’t be difficult to text him a bare hello. Kiyoomi does not. He stretches. He scuffs his shoes. He pretends he doesn’t notice that there is always a scheduled encounter that never takes place, an unchecked item on his to-do list, a nagging asterisk that cannot be expunged.
It is impossible to miss what you do not know. Kiyoomi cannot fathom Atsumu’s incessant passion or his scant yet purposive thoughtfulness. It does not make sense that Kiyoomi finds himself missing Atsumu’s company when he does not know Atsumu.
Late one evening, Kiyoomi shakes the moments he's shared with Atsumu from their manila envelopes and spreads them out across his bed in hopes of understanding them.
It is an anticipated shame when all they seem to say is, “Your rules have an exception.”
Kiyoomi feels flower seeds scattered the next time he dances, and the next time he sees Atsumu.
In dance, spotting is an essential part of maintaining balance in a turn or turning jump. The goal of spotting is to keep the neck and head in the same orientation for the whole of the rotation. Take a single pirouette, for example. The dancer picks a spot at eye level in front of them and tries to keep looking at it, even as their body begins to rotate away from it. At the very last second, when the neck can’t resist the momentum of the core anymore, the dancer whips their head around, only for their gaze to fall back on the same spot to finish the turn. The process would be repeated for doubles, triples, and so on. Spotting minimizes the hazard of falling out of a turn and prevents dizziness.
When Kiyoomi was a child, spotting was perplexing. He'd spend hours in front of the full-length mirror in his mother’s closet, turning over his shoulder and trying to retain eye contact with his reflection for as long as possible. Over the months, this practice manifested in his dancing, and he could pull a shaky double around. His spotting capability increased with the number of turns in combinations.
While evolution works its unforgiving course, memories endure. They are sewn in the back of Kiyoomi’s mind, repressed only when the floor under his feet is firm, and everything else in the world is soft. When Kiyoomi is thumbing through a textbook or filling his water bottle, he remembers: his eight-year-old gaze straying from the family photo on the wall, the sting of his bony bottom smacking the wood of the hallway.
It was different from lurching on uneven pavement or tripping down the stairs. When falling out of a turn, there is a distinct awareness of losing control, but even so, the crash landing cannot be prevented.
Kiyoomi first experiences this chilling consciousness at eight, and then again, fourteen years later, with Miya Atsumu.
There is nothing to lock his eyes on. He’s falling hard, pawing at iridescent water vapor and plummeting through the atmosphere. It is only a matter of time before he hits the ground.
Tendu : stretched
(From the French “tendre” : to stretch)
Stretching the leg out from one position to another while keeping the toes in contact with the floor
By the fourth time Kiyoomi eats in Atsumu’s apartment, they have taken to dining outside. There are now two stools for the table, metal and wiry to match the balcony. Kiyoomi is trying not to shift his weight for fear his stool will snap. Atsumu is rocking back and forth on his like he’s in grade school. He’s babbling about something that happened at practice.
Rather than brushing off the rice stuck on the corner of Atsumu’s mouth, Kiyoomi looks at the plants pushed toward the back of the table. All they do is observe, wait for the sky to split open with sun, and glow when Atsumu pitches a plastic watering can at them. There is still only that one blossom, pretty and useless against a blanket of umber and greige. When Atsumu dotes on it, the petals of it seem to swell pink.
How strange it must be, Kiyoomi thinks idly, for your growth to be dictated by someone else.
Kiyoomi does not rely on others. He has learned to trust in himself and himself alone. Even his reflection in the mirror can be duplicitous, for it often seems to move on its own accord, drifting from the counts he knows come next.
“Atsumu, what are you talking about?”
Clarifying questions typically don’t induce answers that reorient the direction of a conversation, so Kiyoomi sparsely asks them. Atsumu will prattle until he’s running on fumes, and by the time he’s exhausted himself, Kiyoomi will get the gist of what he means, anyways.
Atsumu’s nose scrunches up. He brings his free hand to his forehead in faux ire. “Were ya not payin’ attention that whole time? I was talkin’ ‘bout my jump serves!”
“I don’t understand you.” Suddenly, looking at Atsumu is a challenge. Does Kiyoomi usually focus on his left eye or his right? Or does he alternate between both?
“Okay,” Atsumu says steadily, setting down his onigiri. His facial features have jumbled into patchwork. “I think we’re talkin’ ‘bout different things right now cus I know ya get volleyball vocab.”
He’s not wrong. Kiyoomi has picked up the jargon of volleyball over an eternity of living beside it. Recordings of Motoya’s matches and synopses of them at family gatherings are the foundation of his fluency, but the last few months with Atsumu have filled the remaining divots in his comprehension.
Right now, Atsumu is talking about volleyball, and Kiyoomi has no idea what he, himself, is talking about. For one of the first times in his life, his brain hasn’t provided a tidy explanation of his motivations in a serif font. There are no restraints. Permanently having an outline to adhere to is stressful, but not having one is more stressful.
Because he doesn’t have a prescribed template of speech, Kiyoomi repeats, “I don’t understand you.” (It’s either that or, “I don’t understand myself,” and that statement has even less infrastructure than the first.)
Atsumu bares his teeth, then grinds them with enough force that they should crumble to ash. “Yer the one who says all the fancy-dancey shit and obscure philosophy! What’s so hard to understand about me?” He juts his chin back indignantly.
Kiyoomi wants to say, “I’ve been interacting with you for half a year, and I know next to nothing about you.”
Or, “When we speak, I can’t tell whether I’m having a conversation with the you who’s volleyball obsessed, or the you who asks questions about cabrioles and switch leaps at midnight, or the you who smiles at a sickly flower like it’s just granted your first of three wishes.”
Instead, he tells Atsumu, “I don’t get who you are. Or what you want from me.” Or, in turn, why I keep wanting something from you. “Trying to figure that out is exhausting. It’s like running every routine I’ve ever learned full out, five times in a row. And then doing ten sets of suicides across a soccer field.” He’s rambling, but he can’t stop. “And then sprinting up six flights of stairs. And then—”
“—I get it, it’s really fuckin’ hard!” Atsumu interjects, and he’s a bit red in the face.
“It’s more than hard.” It’s all of the boundaries Kiyoomi draws growing legs and wandering away. It’s him not minding. “It’s like... trying to stay afloat in white water rapids.”
(What, if anything, do I really know about you?)
Amidst the poor analogies and even poorer communication skills, Kiyoomi salvages the lucidity to think of dancing. He thinks of feeling weightless when he turns. He thinks of becoming resin to a sculptor when he stretches. He thinks about how, for the longest time, the closest he could get to flight was leaping, but now he’s perpetually in the air.
Is there a difference between flying and falling?
It is impossible for Kiyoomi to want what he does not know. And while he does not know Atsumu, he understands that Atsumu transcends the realm of possibility. Kiyoomi is no match for the boundless. He has already lost to the immensity of Miya Atsumu, and he wants.
This wanting is selfish. What he has with Atsumu is more dimensional than any friendship he’s been petrified of. It should be enough. Kiyoomi wishes it were. He wishes lax nights oozing into bleary mornings were enough. He wishes the occasional brush of Atsumu’s jacket against his hip was enough. He wishes sharing a table on a warped balcony housing expiring plantlife was enough. After all, these are the only pieces that come in the puzzle box. The number of them cannot be increased or decreased. He will never have enough pieces to be content, and he will always have too many to feign passivity.
Kiyoomi is an innately cautious dancer. He does not stand in the front of a class if he will not deftly pick up the choreo. He does not throw tricks if he will not land them. It is less torturous to not try at all than to try and fail, or worse, to try and be stuck continually trying. Kiyoomi’s current relationship with Atsumu follows suit: it is what he can have while keeping himself safe. It’s eliminating the risk of straining a muscle by only placing his body in comfortable poses.
“Oi, Omi-kun. Ya good?”
If having your mental acuity escape like steam from the spout of a teakettle equates to “good,” then Kiyoomi is doing stellar. The order in his brain is dissolving, organized thoughts collapsing one by one. Muzzy memories are leaking from their locked file cabinets.
One recollection pools behind Kiyoomi’s eyelids. It’s markedly clear compared to the others:
Kiyoomi is five. His mother is waking him up to stretch before the sun has stirred. She chides him for his lack of effort. A laugh filters through her bony fingers when Kiyoomi, desperate to apply her guidance, clasps the carpet. She explains to him that there are feelings that can’t be taught, only sought after until they are experienced.
“You’ll know it when it happens.”
“Shit,” Kiyoomi whispers, and then again. “Shit.”
It should be a revelatory dawning, one that unfastens the bolts in the balcony and brings tears to his eyes. But it isn’t, and Kiyoomi remembers, remotely, that not everything will be an extravagant gesture. Epiphanies don’t always occur during the bow at the end of a performance in front of a crowd of thousands, nor are they guaranteed to transpire in the dead of night when you have time to mull them over. Sometimes they happen at half past two on Saturday, while you’re precariously balanced on a lame excuse of a stool, in front of someone who’s twenty-one but still a boy. The simple can’t be grand unless the grand can be simple.
And once he remembers this, it’s a matter of following the routine. Kiyoomi makes his spine grow a few centimeters, presses his shoulders down and his collarbones out. His soul tethers to his body. He’s awake again. “Sorry. I needed to sort out my thoughts.”
“Uh. Yeah. S’okay.” Atsumu is dubiously nibbling his onigiri. “Still ain’t got a clue at what the fuck ya were gettin’ at earlier, though.”
“Have you ever had a problem you couldn’t solve,” Kiyoomi begins, voice reedy, “and then all of a sudden, you realized that the solution was sitting right in front of you?”
“Sure. Happens all the time.”
“You’re that problem for me.”
Anyone else would slam their fist down on the table, seething. Anyone else would demand an explanation. But Atsumu is Atsumu, so he takes a monstrous bite of his onigiri and says through a mouthful of rice, “Well, I’m sittin’ right in front of ya. That make me the solution, too, then?”
Kiyoomi could do a lot of things. He could rail at Atsumu’s overt egotism. He could call out Atsumu’s insouciant facade. He could slouch his shoulders until he felt small. But Kiyoomi knows that stretching isn’t placing. It’s actively reaching, even though it’s painful, and then reaching further.
“I think so.”
“So whatcha gonna do ‘bout it?”
“I don’t know.” Kiyoomi looks up to search the sky for clouds, but there aren’t any. “Ask you on a date, I suppose.” His blood turns to ice at the admission, rattling against his skin like loose change.
But then Atsumu’s face is melting into a smile like pudding over a low flame, rich and deliberate and sticky-sweet. The plants on the balcony swoon at him.
“Omi-kun, the amount of tact ya got is, like, zero.”
“I’m new to this.” The words feel more like a confession than they should.
Atsumu crooks a grin then, and something in Kiyoomi’s chest explodes softly. In this instant, he’s talking to that wonderstruck little boy in the back of Atsumu’s phone case. It serves as a reminder that people never really shed their old experiences; they just grow new layers on top.
I want to kiss him.
The notion is heady. But with the dizzying number of risks Kiyoomi has taken in the past few minutes, one more might give him a concussion. He stays put.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, because Atsumu comes to him. Nimble fingers brush aside the curls fanning his forehead. Kiyoomi stiffens on reflex.
“Sorry,” Atsumu says, but he keeps his hand threaded through Kiyoomi’s hair. “Ya good?”
The kiss against Kiyoomi’s temple is featherlight. It sets his skin ablaze all the same.
Fondu : melted
(From the French “fondre” : to melt)
A plié on a single leg
Their first date is a disaster. It begins with Atsumu tripping down the stairs to the train station, and ends with him clutching an ice pack to a split bottom lip.
“Well, now you might have a scar.” Kiyoomi tries to keep the smile from his eyes.
“Ya know, I was right all those months ago. Ya really are an ass.”
Kiyoomi flicks Atsumu in the forehead for that but still provides him with white-glove first aid. He lets his thumb linger on Atsumu’s lip for a minute. Just for good measure.
It takes time. Feelings—whether they be about stretching or trust or something like love—are confounding things. But surely enough, their lives meld together. Atsumu continues to adapt to Kiyoomi’s mysophobic tendencies. Kiyoomi feels his arrogance increase via pure osmosis.
They make mistakes. They make each other better. They plant new flowers on the balcony.
There is something special about mornings. Maybe it’s fitting, considering when they met. The early hours of daylight are scintillating and ephemeral, and Kiyoomi wishes he could stow them away like fireflies in a glass jar.
Sometimes their mornings are still at the crest of aurora, but nowadays, more often than not, they fall later. They’re sitting on Atsumu’s floor. Kiyoomi’s feet are in Atsumu’s hands. It’s nine AM.
“Life has a funny way of working out.”
Kiyoomi is the first to speak since they rolled out of bed. Months ago, this would have been monumental. Atsumu used to be terrified of silence, but he’s learned to welcome the serenity it brings. And Kiyoomi used to be scared of their unexorcised fears, but he’s learned those just mean they'll keep unraveling things about each other.
“I knew we’d end up like this.”
Kiyoomi angles a brow and exhales. The knots in the bottoms of his feet are loosening. “You knew you’d be massaging my feet on a Sunday morning?”
“Nah, I just meant in general. Like together, ya know?” Atsumu shifts his hands to pull down on the arches of Kiyoomi’s feet until his toes skim the floor.
Their morning stretching is something Kiyoomi savors, but he still feels the need to address Atsumu’s cockiness. “Is that so? And how did we end up like this?”
Now that the stage has cleared and he’s on deck, Atsumu’s nerve fizzles out like a cheap sparkler. “Actually, never mind. It’ll probably sound strange.”
“I’m used to strange.”
A sharp inhale. “If I tell ya, will ya promise not to get weirded out?”
Kiyoomi looks at the veins in Atsumu’s hands, and soberly says, “I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know that,” Atsumu dismisses. He traces sheepish shapes along Kiyoomi’s ankles. “Well. Uh. I kinda saw ya dancin’.”
“Woah, chill, Omi-kun! I didn’t look directly at ya while ya were doin’ yer stuff.” In an implicit apology, Atsumu’s hands guide Kiyoomi’s feet back down from their involuntary flex. “I know ya don’t like that.”
Kiyoomi frowns, trying to let his calves relax back into the stretch. “Then how did you see me dancing?” It’s not often he puts his comfort on the line to turn in socks at the gym, which is the only place Atsumu could have seen him. There’s only been a handful of times in the past year.
“I guess it wasn’t really you,” Atsumu clarifies, and his lips are bowed. “It was yer shadow—ya know, on the wall. I just stopped outside the door of the dance room and watched it.” He’s giving that awestruck look again, the one that’s far too ancient and romantic for Kiyoomi to be the recipient of. “Ya weren’t even turnin’ or jumpin’, but there was all this flowy emotion in yer movements.”
There aren’t many points of reference for dancing. You don’t know the counts or the choreo that comes next, and in a solo, you can’t watch for synchronization. All you get is what the dancer offers you. Emotion is one of the things that can be perceived even without a profound knowledge of technique.
Atsumu is complimenting Kiyoomi’s emoting.
“That’s one of the greatest honors for a dancer,” he remembers his mother telling him. “Moving your own body is easy. Moving someone else’s heart is much harder.” It was on the drive home from a cutthroat competition where Kiyoomi had won the judges’ spotlight award for emotion in motion. He was thirteen.
“I must have been freestyling,” Kiyoomi breathes.
“Whatever it was, I’d never seen anythin’ like it.” Atsumu runs his tongue across his teeth. “And that’s when I realized: shit. I really want somethin’ with this guy.”
Cheesy, Kiyoomi thinks.
“Ya know, this guy who’s prickly and blunt,” Atsumu continues, crossing his forearms in front of his face to block Kiyoomi’s blow, “but also mysterious and graceful, and sweet when he wants to be. And always fuckin’ hot.”
He smiles then, and Kiyoomi remembers that this is his now. Atsumu himself, maybe, but the feelings he evokes, too. The butterfly garden rooming with the flowerbeds in his chest is Kiyoomi’s, and it’s as real as the germs on his hands and the rules in his head.
The right corner of Kiyoomi’s mouth quirks up. He fans out his legs and drags his bottom forward until he’s in a straddle, close enough to Atsumu to see the stray hairs the razor missed this morning. He presses a kiss to his jaw. “You’re not too bad yourself.”
When one conjures a mental image of art, it’s usually cluttered sketchbooks, city murals, and glazed pottery. They imagine painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers. They do not imagine dancers.
But what is dance, if not art?
Art is feelings and ideas and the conduits we use to communicate them. Dancing may not be a traditional media like acrylic or charcoal, but it’s a form of storytelling all the same.
Dance gives you your limbs, your visage, and your heart, and then tells you, “Here. This is your body. It’s all you have.” It forces you to spend the rest of your life trying to achieve vibrancy with movement alone.
There is staggering beauty in this unfettered honesty. And that’s what dance is, really: honesty. It’s shapes and motions and showcasing all of your foibles.
If honesty is dance, and dance is art, is honesty art?
“Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout, babe?”
“The transitive property of equality.”
They’re draped on Atsumu’s couch. Kiyoomi is cradling a head of blond hair in his lap. The flowers on the balcony are enjoying the pitter-patter of rain.
“Ya know, I’d ask ya to elaborate, but I don’t remember shit from algebra.”
“Algebra? Please.” Kiyoomi flicks Atsumu’s forehead. “You thought three plus two was six.”
“I already told ya, I got confused with multiplication!” Atsumu brings his arm over his face, knocking Kiyoomi’s hand away. “And that felt like ages ago anyways,” he grouses into the crook of his elbow.
Kiyoomi threads his fingers back through Atsumu’s hair. “It was last week.”
“Was it? Damn.”
Atsumu is a lot of things—bad at mental math, Narcissus incarnate, and excessively whimsical, to name a few. He’s undeniably unrefined and incapable of or uninterested in reading the room. It is a wonder that someone who speaks their mind at all the wrong times can still be alluring to Kiyoomi.
But maybe it makes sense, the same way it makes sense that bananas are berries and the sun is a star. Kiyoomi’s always been bewitched by honesty.
“I think you’re an artist.”
“Ya think I’m a... what?” Atsumu rolls his eyes back and blinks up at Kiyoomi once, twice.
“An artist,” Kiyoomi repeats, resolute.
“Nah, I heard ya the first time,” Atsumu says slowly, “but I don’t get whatcha mean.” He’s sitting up now. “You’ve seen my handwriting, and me tryin’ to do yer coupé-relevé stuff.”
Kiyoomi tries to think of how to best explain his determination. “I see the way your presence draws out energy from your team,” he could say. Or, “You convince me that plants a day away from death are pretty.” Or, “Have I told you about how you single-handedly sowed daisies in the cavity of my chest?”
“Art is about creation and honesty,” he tells Atsumu. "You create, and you’re honest. So you’re an artist.”
At first, there is only an unreadable expression on Atsumu’s face. Or maybe there is no expression at all. But this vacancy is soon filled by the etching of a faint grin. “I got no idea what the fuck yer gettin’ at, but it seems like a compliment, so I’ll take it.”
Kiyoomi wants to use his sleeve to wipe away Atsumu’s dopey, almost sad smile. He gives him a peck on the mouth instead, and then—in a moment of repulsive vulnerability—rests his head against Atsumu’s chest.
Atsumu collapses dramatically, until his back is flat against the couch. He cards a hand through Kiyoomi’s curls, and the world stops spinning.
“Ya know, as great as this is, we’ll be late to dinner if we don’t leave soon. I made proper reservations and everythin’.”
“I’m sure your brother will be pissed if we’re late to his restaurant,” Kiyoomi mumbles into the cotton of Atsumu’s shirt.
“Hey!” A light smack to Kiyoomi’s shoulder. “Don’t be so condescendin'! Goin’ tonight could change yer life.”
“My life hasn’t stopped changing since I met you.”
Kiyoomi doesn’t mean to say this aloud, but the heartbeat beneath his cheek is steady and lulling. He’s not dreaming, but he’s doing something close.
There’s a stutter in Atsumu’s breathing, followed by volant laughter as he sits up. “God, ya can’t just say somethin’ like that outta the blue!” He shrugs Kiyoomi off and stands up, popping his neck.
From his seat of the indent between couch cushions, Kiyoomi likens Atsumu to an angel. The gray rain from outside the windows is casting his hair a diaphanous platinum, while the lamplight from beside him is softening the contours of his face.
“Come on, Omi-kun. Let’s get goin’.”
But Miya Atsumu is not an angel, or a puzzle, or any other clichéd metaphor. He’s a person, and he’s extending a hand right now. It’s brutally calloused, but it’s honest and it’s open and it’s there.
Kiyoomi reaches for it.
En avant : onward
(Borrowed from French)
Forward—in reference to the direction of a step’s execution
And what is love, if not honesty?