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Miya Atsumu has spent his whole life running. Not physically: he hates the exertion that comes with it, exhaustion with no satisfaction and how his legs shake with no purpose. No, his running is figurative, mental. It's a race to hold out the longest, to hold on the tightest, to show tenacity in the face of adversity.

 

At least, that's what he's been told. You cannot grasp dreams that are intangible wisps in your mind. But Atsumu has been solid, real, true his whole life. He hasn't been nice: bringing dreams to fruition has never been about being nice. But he has been honest, and he finds honesty to be the quality of anything worthwhile.

 

He has never been truthful when he doesn't have to be. At school, he lies about returning a pencil. At home, he lies about eating Osamu's last onigiri (no one is ever fooled, but he tries). At stores, he promises to pay someone back for a purchase. He lies, small ones, white ones, inconspicuous ones, just as anyone else. Volleyball has always been truthful. He hides himself, squanders it away so no one sees how much he cares, but it has a habit of coming out. In the set of his brows as he lines up a toss. In the crouch of his legs as he prepares to serve. In the flicker of his eyes as he calculates and strategizes. It all comes out in volleyball–honesty.

 

He is an honest liar. It’s a contradiction. But isn’t that the consequence of feeling loyalty to only a few parts of your life?

 

In junior high, Atsumu isn't an asshole, but he's damn close to being one. Dismissive of his peers, hyper-focused on bettering his athletic abilities, and paying only the bare minimum attention to any of his schoolwork, it's a miracle he passes. Atsumu doesn't believe in miracles. They're what those who have little confidence and weak talent hope for, and Atsumu is neither of those. He takes pride in this.

 

Osamu, perhaps the only person in the world who knows him as well as himself, doesn't understand it. He understands the allure, understands the love, but he doesn't understand . Atsumu doesn't waste his time trying to explain. His emotions surrounding volleyball are tangled and spiky, beautiful and painful and difficult to find the start or end. He knows he loves it. He knows it's the only thing he could ever imagine doing. He knows it's a far-fetched dream, so terribly far from where he is now. He knows he will do anything to make it a reality.

 

Inarizaki is their only choice. Not because of any limitations placed on them by others, but because of the limitations they place on themselves. Even Osamu, who has no interest in going all the way, desires to play as best he can. Osamu's good, Atsumu knows this; they practice together constantly, Atsumu with no concept of "enough" and Osamu with nothing better to do. It's enough to make the team, he knows this. It isn't enough to make a career out of, he knows this; their paths will diverge after high school, no longer joined at the hip in all senses physical. It'll feel somewhat like cutting a limb off, he thinks. To no longer face the world with his brother, knowing that while it was more fighting than not, they would always put each other first. He won’t have that security anymore.

 

At Inarizaki, Atsumu is an asshole, fullstop. It never occurs to him that he should try to be anything else. He doesn’t have energy to waste, entertaining people who don’t share his dedication and love and will never accept that volleyball comes first. Everything he has accomplished, he has fought for tooth and nail, spilt blood and sweat. It was never him with the innate talent to be a setter, but it was him who became the starting setter for the team in his first year. No one would distract him from that.

 

He works his fingers raw, until the sacred acts he completes reverently every day bring only the harsh pain of strained muscles and abraded nerves. Each set is a scream for peace, each floater is a cry for mercy. It is less of a disregard for his health and more of a greater desire to continuously improve. Not a desire–a calling. Not a calling–a purpose. His first year is a constant cycle of proving himself capable, proving that his place on the team was earned with talent and dedication and skill, and it pays off at the cost of his own body. Pain is temporary and a necessary consequence, and Atsumu is too used to pushing through it, breezing past on wings of unrelenting passion. He is on a precipice, teetering dangerously close to the edges, and yet he continues stretching higher.

 

No one answers his silent prayers, not until his second year. In his second year, there is a captain, and there is a companion, and there is someone who refuses to allow Atsumu’s worship to consume him. Kita Shinsuke is many things (a prodigy, a worshipper, a pushover are not amongst those). He is steadfast, diligent, habitual. Atsumu does not notice this–not at first. Because Atsumu is running, flying, pushing, and he does not notice anyone who is not running, flying, pushing with him.

 

Miya Atsumu has been running, reaching for a goal he makes more tangible every day, with exhaustion that serves purpose and legs that burn with the ache of it. He doesn't expect his heart to start running too.

 

During first year, Kita made it abundantly clear that he understands his own shortcomings. He has also made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in Atsumu’s angry tirades about said shortcomings. It was a bit unsettling at the time, all things considered: Atsumu has never had anyone stand up to his bitchiness so simply, and he accepted and stood down with hardly another word. He saw the boy in a new light afterward.

 

It meant he watched Kita more in the upcoming months, as winter turned to spring and dirty, slushy snow made way for bright, springy grass. As they approached the Spring High, a new fervor infused their practices. The fact that they are a powerhouse school or that Inarizaki has swept the qualifiers the past three years means nothing. There is no space for complacency in the rise to the top. Atsumu watches Kita, stable and reliable, not their flashiest or most powerful player but just as important. Because he does things right, over and over, and Atsumu can trust him to hit his tosses right, over and over.

 

Hard work reaps results, and they pass through the qualifiers with teeth bared. Fame, power, reputation–they all fall into the ocean on crumbling foundations. Diligence, skill, tenacity–those are what dig their roots in and keep you anchored. Inarizaki is growing its roots, one year at a time.

 

Atsumu does not trade in metaphors, and he resents people who do. Talking in circles without ever mentioning what you truly mean is cowardice to him. He used to think Kita would be like that. Perfect student Kita Shinsuke, in the top class with the top marks, seemed like the kind of boy to talk in condescending tones about this week’s classic author, and Atsumu was prepared to resent him for it. It’s part of the reason he was thrown off by the appearance of Kita’s true, blunt demeanor. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, says it exactly how it is. If something is being done incorrectly, he fixes it as quickly and efficiently as possible. There is no stasis until he is sure something can be done forward and backward, fully awake or half asleep.

 

Unlike Atsumu, Kita does not limit this to one area of his life. While Atsumu’s ambitions solely encompass volleyball, and only hedge the corners of academics to support his spot on the team, Kita is a jack of all trades and master of most. Regardless of whether it is volleyball, academics, or personal health, Kita attends to it all with the same stalwart attention. It’s practically a given that he’s one of the few people Atsumu doesn’t have to be held at knifepoint to respect.

 

It’s no surprise to him that despite having a team of veritable cannons to pick from, Coach Kurosu replaces Suzuki with Kita toward the end of the second set of the third round. They’re trailing by five, have been for the past six points, and they’re getting frustrated. This set is important–they’re one up on Kamomedai, but their star first year, Hoshiumi, was a big threat in the late sets when everyone was tiring out. If they could drag this one out, he knows Inarizaki can outpace them and steal the third, but they have to close the gap and make this set a close one.

 

Kita is the eye of the storm. Around him, there is an unruffled peace, unaffected by tension and game frustration. Atsumu can see, sharp and clear, the best lanes to set to and from, where the blockers will struggle, and where their defense is weakest. An unguarded back corner is taken with a line shot. A cross shot to the other side of the court, spinning off of their libero’s arms. Kita diving to get his hand under a feint that had taken Atsumu, Ojiro, and Akagi off guard. They lose the set, 26-28, but Atsumu grins anyway. He knows they can come back from this, and his senses are no longer clouded.

 

Kita slips in and out of the third set, relieving Suzuki and Akagi when deemed pertinent by the coaches, but it’s only while he’s in their rotation that Atsumu takes any risks. It’s not that he doesn’t trust the others. It’s the security that comes with knowing that even if things go south, Kita will be there to clean it up.

 

At 17-14, Atsumu gets an idea. They’ve never practiced it, not on the fly like this, but he’s confident he and Osamu can pull it off. He waves Kita over, unhurried despite the anticipation running rampant in his gut.

 

“Kita-senpai,” he starts, until Kita gives him a deadpan stare, which makes him hurry to amend himself. “Kita-san, if you receive the serve, try to get it right up near the net. I want to try something, but I need my options open.” Kita eyes him thoughtfully and gives a small nod, settling into position just as the referee blows the whistle. Predictably, Nozawa serves to the back left, where Kita’s current rotation had taken him. He switches to an overhand set to get the ball close to where Atsumu had asked for it, taking a quick step back as he did so. Atsumu steps under it, but he isn’t focused on the ball. Instead, his eyes flicker to Osamu, so briefly it would be missed by anyone else, and while his twin’s face remains impassive, Atsumu is sure he understands. So he jumps, sets, and watches gleefully as Osamu’s delayed spike goes right past the falling blockers.

 

“Coulda given me a heads up, Tsumu,” Osamu complains, even as they high-five.

 

“I did give ya a heads up,” he retorts, then turns to Kita. “Thanks Kita-san.”

 

“Yer twin connection is pretty scary,” Kita remarks. “All it took was a look ta tell Osamu not ta jump.” Atsumu’s eyebrows rise.

 

“Ya caught that?”

 

“I was watchin’ ya. I wanted ta see what ya had planned.”

 

Atsumu was foolish to think he’d discovered all he could about Kita. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

 

Losing to Shiratorizawa in the semifinals is sobering. Anyone who is anyone in the Nationals circuit has heard of Ushijima Wakatoshi, and few have found success with receiving his spikes cleanly. Knowing this reputation and facing it are two different things. Atsumu feels firsthand how the spin on the ball rubs painfully against his arms, the rush of blood that fills the skin after it hits. There are bruises littering the length of his arms afterward, but he knows Akagi and Kita had it worse. They don’t mention their injuries, so Atsumu keeps his complaints to a minimum. He’s abrasive, but he’s not purposefully insensitive.

 

He never thought Kita would be an ugly crier, but he pushes away the surprise to make room for pride. He knows Kita–punctual, attentive, meticulous–will do what is best for them. He will do exactly what he has to make them the most polished version of themselves he could. Atsumu has no doubt in these convictions, the same confidence that fills him when he tosses to Osamu or when he’s behind the service line.

 

Atsumu has the whole summer to think about Kita, and he resolutely refuses to do so. It’s one thing to have his captain be in his every thought while the volleyball season is in full swing, but summer is another matter entirely. If he thinks about Kita, he will have to acknowledge why he’s thinking about him, and that confusion simply wouldn’t do. Instead, Atsumu runs and runs and runs, and he doesn’t allow himself time to think about what will happen when he stops.

 

Whiplash is something Atsumu is not used to. Whiplash with special regards to Kita is, unfortunately, a different story, one that Atsumu is coming to know well.

 

Routine is a ritual. Atsumu can appreciate the sentiment, even if it only manifests for him in his serve. The satisfaction of matching every step with his breath, of moving through the motions perfectly to deliver a perfect jump float. Once the routine becomes a token of luck, he loses all respect for it. Luck is a fickle thing and it’s a fool’s errand to trust it.

 

Kita has routines, but only because if he's going to do something, he’s going to do it right. Every step meticulously completed, so thoroughly there isn’t an imperfection to be found. Kita has his routines, and somehow Atsumu had made a hole for himself in them. Now, Kita’s routine has a small adjustment of one hour to take into account, when he stays behind to play an extra 2 v 2 with the Miyas and Suna. Sometimes, Osamu and Suna beg off, and then it’s just Atsumu and Kita, receive after serve and spike after set.

 

“Are ya tired, Kita-san?” They’re alone today. He isn’t sure what prompts him to ask; it’s not something he’s in a habit of doing. But he feels softer today, as if the hard edges he normally keeps angular and sharp have worn down–or maybe he didn’t have the energy to keep up pretenses. He watches Kita wipe away the sweat collecting on his brow and cheekbones with the towel he kept nearby.

 

“I’m fine,” he finally announces, settling back into a ready position. “We still have ten minutes left.”

 

“That’s not what I meant.” But how could Kita have known that? Although he likes to briefly entertain the idea when he is particularly rattled by Kita’s deduction, Atsumu knows he’s not a mind-reader. “Aren’t ya tired of humorin’ me?”

 

Kita’s expression clears. There’s no hesitation in his steps when he approaches the net, and drawn by some unnamed force, Atsumu follows his lead.

 

“I’ve known this for a while, Atsumu.” No honorifics, not when it’s just them. Kita does things right, but this is not something that has a stark, delineated right or wrong. “When ya set yer mind to somethin’, nothin’ in hell is gonna convince ya otherwise.” A slip of an accent. He usually does a neat job of keeping it under wraps. “Nothin’ in hell is gonna keep ya from becomin’ the best, so I might as well keep ya from crashin’ and burnin’ when no one’s keepin’ an eye on ya.”

 

“So it’s yer obligation.” He doesn’t know if he’s being accusatory or stating a fact. Maybe it’s both. Accusing him of a fact. Kita’s eyes flicker over his face. Atsumu catches the smallest twitch of his jaw and doesn’t feel any satisfaction in causing it.

 

“Yes and no. It’s an obligation to ya, ‘cause someone has ta look after yer health. But ya could also say I’m a little selfish, Atsumu. I want ta see yer improvement.” He doesn’t know what to do with that, so he abruptly turns back to the service line. The only sound, for a few charged moments, is the squeak of his sneakers on the gym floor. Then a second pair of squeaks, Kita walking to the back half of his court, and the cycle continues. Serve, receive, rinse, repeat. They don’t say another word until Kita has locked up and they part ways, and even then it’s only a cursory “Good night” from both of them.

 

Atsumu lays awake that night, unable to understand anything that had happened that evening. Unwilling to understand it is probably more accurate, but if he acknowledges he is unwilling, he has no excuse to ignore the racing of his thoughts and heart. So he sticks with ‘unable’, sleeps fitfully, and goes to practice the day after as if nothing is wrong. Because nothing is wrong, no matter what his heart thinks.

 

The Interhigh National Tournament was almost theirs. It’s such a mocking word: almost. They were almost good enough, almost strong enough, almost, almost, almost . He doesn’t want to hear it again. So he practices like he hasn’t since the beginning of first year, wearing away at his body until it’s final sculpture is not almost anything. He refuses to accept almosts. He needs perfection. He needs it so badly he can and will play through any sickness or pain to achieve it.

 

It’s only a cold. It’s hardly even worth mentioning, and so he doesn’t. Kita has always been observant though, and by now Atsumu should be used to getting singled out. It doesn’t make the irritation any easier to handle, and it doesn’t stop him from getting in a one-sided heated argument that he will never admit to losing, and it doesn’t stop Kita from leaving him a small care package and calling him the next morning. It’s one thing to do something right, he thinks, head pressed against the cool tile of the shower. It’s another thing to go this far for someone who’s only a member of your volleyball club.

 

Atsumu works hard, then works harder, because nothing can stop him from achieving what he has set his mind to. When he does something, he does it wholeheartedly.

 

(And isn’t that the crux of the issue? If he’s in love, he will only ever love wholeheartedly. It’s electrifying, terrifying, and he only has so much room in his heart.) 

 

Heartbreak catches up to him anyway in the form flightless crows, less aptly named now. It should not have been a loss, but Atsumu knows better than to mourn it. ‘We don’t need things like memories.’ Learn your mistakes, then work hard, work harder, do everything wholeheartedly, and you will achieve what you set your eyes on. There’s a new dream now: be a teammate Kita will be proud of. Their stoic captain doesn’t cry when they lose, and he doesn’t cry on the bus home, and he doesn’t cry when he hands Atsumu the captain’s jersey, the underlined 1 underneath a barely-there smile burning itself in his memories. There will never be a time when he thinks of himself as captain, he realizes dully. It will always be Kita.

 

(And isn’t that the crux of the issue?)

 

“You’ll do well,” Kita says, slip of an accent nowhere to be found. Atsumu doesn’t miss it–how could he, when there is something much better to focus on? A promise, a conviction. He will do well.

 

That summer, Atsumu thinks about Kita, but not in the way he should be. He thinks about Kita’s receives, smooth and assured, always getting the ball where Atsumu asks for it. He thinks about his calm, centering them in a hurricane of desire and adrenaline. He thinks about his eyes, observant and calculating, and stops himself from going any further. There is no time to dwell on repressed feelings, crowded into a small chest in his head and tucked away to gather dust. They’re oozing out, slipping through the cracks, spreading into the rest of his thoughts until all he has are Kita’s hands and Kita’s hair and Kita.

 

He gets a bigger chest. He has more important things to worry about.

 

The Interhigh qualifiers are as they always are, except now Atsumu has to lead them through them. The brand of captaincy weighs heavily on his chest, and he knows he isn’t Kita, never will be, could never come close, but he does his best to embody his best qualities. Patience and diligence do not come easily to him, and Osamu, Suna, and Ginjima make sure to rub it in his face at every given opportunity. Once again, Inarizaki is headed to Nationals, and Atsumu cracks down twice as hard on them. A good third of them have never played on any national level, and he knows there is very little room for mistakes.

 

He hears through the grapevine that Shiratorizawa barely secured their position as Miyagi representative this year; he supposed that’s what losing your powerhouse player does to you. They lose in the second round, so Atsumu finds himself vindicated. There’s some regret that comes with not being able to play against Kageyama and his deadly hitter (Hina-something was his name, but it doesn’t stick in Atsumu’s mind the same way.)

 

Inarizaki plays in the Interhigh with their teeth bared and hackles raised. The whispers that trail behind him ask more or less the same thing: have they lost their touch. No, they hiss, and they fight to prove it. Preliminary rounds, quarterfinals, semifinals, finals. They’ll make it to the top and show them all that while reputation is fleeting, skill never fails.

 

He hates losing, always has and always will, no matter how much each loss teaches him. Losing to Kamomedai rubs him all the wrong ways, and he’s irritable the whole bus ride home. The other second years know better than to even try to look at him like this and Suna, the perfect vice captain he is, fields any questions the underclassmen feel are undoubtedly pertinent to answer. It’s just like last year: making it to the top only to fail in the last stretch. Atsumu is sick of it.

 

His phone rings sometime that night, while he stares at the ceiling of his and Osamu’s shared bedroom, and he only contemplates ignoring it for a moment before he moves to pick it up. He presses answer as quickly as he can after he catches the caller’s name. For the space it takes for him to breathe once, twice, there is silence. Then–

 

“Atsumu.” No honorifics.

 

“Kita-san.” He hasn’t earned the right to speak to him any more familiarly.

 

“Ya played well.” The breath in his lungs seems to still.

 

“You can’t know that, Kita-san.”

 

“I watched ya. I think I have it on good authority that I’m right.” The breath freezes. Kita had been there? He shakes the question off. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t have played any different, because he already knows he gave it his all, gave it beyond his all just to have that taste of success.

 

“When?” It didn’t matter, he repeated to himself. He wanted to know, though. He wanted to know so badly it hurt, or maybe it was his lungs begging for fresh air. He breathes.

 

“I came for round 3, quarterfinals, and the finals.” Atsumu doesn’t remember seeing him in the stands, but his memory of anything other than the games is dodgy at best. “I’ll say it again Atsumu. Ya played well.” He doesn’t quite believe it, but hearing Kita say it allows Atsumu to release some of the tension of the loss. It’s still there, tied up in his chest with promises and dreams he has yet to achieve, but that’s a problem for Tomorrow Atsumu.

 

Kita returns for winter break and comes to watch their practices. He doesn’t join them, but he sits on the bench with Kurosu and pulls Atsumu over every now and then to tell him what he’s seeing. Watching, observing Kita contradictingly puts Atsumu at ease. If Kita is watching his back, there’s nothing Atsumu doesn’t feel confident doing.

 

Once or twice, they meet up: the third years and the former third years who were able to get away for a week or two. A game here and there of pick-up volleyball, always held at the Miya house because they’re obsessed enough to have a volleyball net. More often than not, Atsumu ensures he and Kita are on the same side. It has nothing to do with fondness, he tells himself. It's simply reassuring, he continues. It’s only a matter of pulling out the best in everyone, he finishes. He blatantly ignores the insinuation that Kita brings out the best in him.

 

There was no chance for them to speak alone, and Atsumu’s fine with that. Or maybe he isn’t, considering his matchstick patience with the team the week after the former third years left, returning to their new lives where a high school volleyball club is a ghost of their past. Osamu is gracious enough–or lazy enough, it’s difficult to differentiate the two motives–to not mention it. The rest of the team follows his lead.

 

The Spring High feels mostly surreal, only partially grounding. He’s back in that moment, a year ago, making a promise to a former captain that he will make him proud. He’s back on the court, watching a missed receive shatter Inarizaki’s chances. He’s back, now, and he’s here to make good on promises and payback. Inarizaki enters the Spring High with teeth bared and rises victorious, and Atsumu has never felt so deeply entrenched in a dream.

 

There’s something to be said, however, about the shiver that overcame him when he saw Kita in the stands during their rematch against Karasuno. He didn’t put a name to it, but the rush of confidence it gave him said more than enough. Kita is at his back, and Atsumu can do anything.

 

Inarizaki, champions. Atsumu, one step closer to his dreams. He keeps running.

 

He runs so hard, so fast, so long, he ends up in Serbia after high school. Partizan teaches him many things: setting, teamwork, and how to stop running from feelings, because sooner or later they’ll catch up to you. And Atsumu has known they’ve been gaining on him for months. Apparently it takes fleeing the country and the subject of said feelings to come to any terms with them, and Atsumu has first-hand experience with how crushing the realization is.

 

After realization of his repressed feelings, in accordance with the cycle of acknowledging you are a human with emotions, comes rationalization of why he repressed them at all. In Atsumu’s case, why Kita would never, ever date him.

 

He lists them all out in his notes app. Selfish. Arrogant. Single-minded. Emotionally-challenged. There’s more, but a call interrupts him as he was starting to find his rhythm.

 

“Getcha head outta yer ass,” Osamu snarls on the other end, and Atsumu is hit again by the absurdity of their relationship. Even across the globe, Osamu won’t hesitate to spit fire at him.

 

“No idea what yer talkin’ about,” Atsumu answers, entirely unsarcastic for once.

 

“Yer thinkin’ about not bein’ good enough, aren’t ya?”

 

Even across the globe, Osamu sticks his finger right where it hurts most.

 

“Well, quit it. I’ll only say this once, yer better than ya give yerself credit for. Ya never see yer own improvement because yer so caught up in improving. Ya never look back ta see how far ya’ve come. So fuckin’ look.”

 

For once, Osamu is wrong. He’s not thinking about volleyball.

 

(And isn’t the crux of the issue? His life isn’t just about volleyball anymore, it hasn’t been for a while. Maybe he should get his head out of ass and face it.)

 

Kita, watching Atsumu improve. “I want ta see yer improvement.” A late afternoon at the gym, parting in silence.

 

Atsumu huffs a laugh. “Maybe ya’ve got some decency in ya, Samu. Never thought I’d see the day.”

 

“Shut up, sewer rat.”

 

Miya Atsumu has spent a long time running, and who’s to say he’ll ever stop? But he finds running is easier when there’s a home to return to. If he accepts the MSBY Black Jackals offer in Japan, he might get that chance.

 

He’s on the next flight to Japan before he knows it. His first practice is in two days. One day to arrive, one day to get settled in his Osaka apartment, chosen only because it knocked an extra hour off of travel time to Shiso–not in anticipation of anything, but just in case. The extra hour he commutes every day is a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things.

 

He’s back in Japan for a month when he receives a package in the mail. Its shape and wrapping are nothing special, and that’s what gives Atsumu his first clue. He keeps his hopes reasonable, but his movements are hurried when he cuts the package open. Inside there’s a folded blanket, thin for the summer months, because Atsumu is incapable of sleeping without one no matter how hot it gets. And below that, a framed picture. His thoughts scatter into white noise. It’s from his third year, during winter break. He doesn’t know who took it, only that it shows Atsumu’s arm thrown casually over Kita’s shoulder as he talks to Akagi and Ginjima about something or other.

 

Wondering why is a futile task. Atsumu picks up his phone and calls Kita. It’s 6 on a June day and he’s certain Kita will pick up.

 

“Kita-san.”

 

“Hello Atsumu. Have ya received yer package?”

 

“The picture, Kita-san. Why did you send it?” It’s an answer, albeit not as direct as Kita might like. Atsumu’s head is spinning with questions and what-ifs, and he doesn’t have time to play the game.

 

“A memory. Thought ya should have one of me, and I liked this one.” Kita liked this one. Out of all the possible pictures–the team, of matches, of a million other options that are more formal–Kita liked this one. Atsumu isn’t sure what to make of it.

 

“Thanks Kita-san. I like it too.” He’ll think about it another day, another time.

 

June rolls by, hot but not unbearable this year, and July seems to take it as a personal challenge. It’s the sweltering humidity, one that sinks into your skin and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own body. Inescapable unless you want to skin yourself alive, and even then relief is out of reach. Osamu has made a group chat to announce they’re holding Kita’s birthday party at Kita’s house this year. Atsumu had been in all the previous three, but this is the first year he’s able to go. He spends an uncomfortable amount of time trying on various outfits in the mirror.

 

Atsumu shows up in a beige turtleneck and slim fit pants and regrets every aspect of his overbearing yearning for turning him into a fool. Osamu takes one look at him and laughs, but at least Aran and Kita give him nods of approval for putting on more than an onigiri-printed t-shirt and matching cargo shorts. He faithfully refuses to look at anything below his brother’s face.

 

The party is, for lack of better words, nice. He’s able to catch up with old teammates, ones he hasn’t talked to, much less seen, for three years. As he makes his rounds, Kita is always in the corner of his eye. The crinkle of his eyes, the tug of his lips, the tilt of his head–it all feels like a secret Atsumu shouldn’t know. A ridiculous notion, but he can’t shake it, even when he finally stops in front of Kita with his own gift, wrapped in plain gray paper. It’s not the neatest job, but he hopes Kita understands that it was done with care.

 

“Mind if I open it now?” Kita asks, open and curious. The box is heavier than it looks for having such a small size. Although he nods his affirmation, he can’t help the tapping of his fingers on his leg. Kita peels back the wrapping, taking care not to rip it, and opens the box inside. He stills as he examines the gift, then reaches in with delicate fingers to pull it out. A snow globe Atsumu found in Serbia, in a duty free shop at the airport, with a tiny arctic fox inside. Its head is tilted up, examining the snowflake resting on its nose, and it reminded him of Kita so acutely he had to buy it.

 

“Cute,” Kita mumbles, softly enough that Atsumu has to strain to catch it, and his smile, not blinding but heart-wrenching all the same, is soft and fond when he looks back at Atsumu. “Thanks, Atsumu. I think I already know where to put it.”

 

The party continues well past their self-imposed deadline of 7, and Atsumu finds himself once again alone with Kita on the porch. The sun is setting in the distance, hiding behind the peaks of distant mountains. For a few moments, they watch it in silence.

 

“Atsumu.”

 

“Yeah, Kita-san?”

 

“I understand now,” Kita tells him, the sunset framing his face in oranges and purples, a personal canvas that Atsumu aches to look at forever. 

 

“Understand what?” Hushed tones for a hushed moment. Behind them, Kita’s birthday party is in full swing. He’s confident they hadn’t noticed the man of honor slip out in the midst of it all.

 

“Tendin’ to the rice,” he begins, “it’s hard work. Honest work. Makes ya feel like ya’ve done somethin’ worthwhile.” The breath catches in his throat in a way it hasn’t in years. Yes, it’s honest work, he wants to say. No, that’s not quite it, he wants to say. It’s more than that, he wants to say. It’s you, Kita-san, a painting brought to life in a sunset, who I promised to make proud, telling me I will do well, he wants to say.

 

He settles for, “It keeps me honest too.” But not honest enough. He can’t say anything he means to.

 

Returning to volleyball is less of a relief than he expects. Meian is a good captain and keeps them on their toes, but something always feels missing. Atsumu vehemently ignores the small part of his brain that insists everything is connected to Kita. He throws himself into it nonetheless. Every day is another day to improve, to learn from mistakes and work hard and never look back.

 

Their team grows in strength with Bokuto and Sakusa’s additions, both of whom Atsumu remembers from the Nationals circuit. And the year after, Hinata Shōyō arrives, sun-tanned and as much of a monster jumper as Atsumu remembers. Surrounded by monster hitters, bringing out the best in all of them, Atsumu nearly forgets the Olympics are nearly upon them. He nearly forgets, up until the call comes back after the 2019 playoffs, in the early morning of a March day, and he’s placed on the Olympic roster.

 

He calls Osamu first. Then his family. It’s an obvious enough progression, but then his thumb is hovering over Kita’s contact, and he questions many things. Most prominently: when is he going to start being honest with himself? It’s true, he’ll only ever love someone wholeheartedly, but isn’t that exactly what he’s been doing these past four years?

 

“Kita-san.”

 

“Atsumu.”

 

“I got the call back from the Association. I’m officially on the roster.” The thing about Kita is that he only needs a hint of context before he’s on the same page as the person he’s talking to. He doesn’t disappoint.

 

“I knew ya would be. I told ya ta have more trust in yerself, didn’t I?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” There’s a pause in which Kita exhales heavily, and his next sentence is filled with more emotion than Atsumu is heard in a long time.

 

“I’m really proud of ya, Atsumu.”

 

Here. Now. If he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it wholeheartedly. Time to start running.

 

“Kita-san, there’s somethin’ I gotta tell ya. Is now a good time ta visit?”

 

He gets on the first train to Shiso he can, which turns out to be the last one he can that day. The 9:18 Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka gets him to Himeji, and from there it’s a series of buses to arrive at the edge of Kita’s rice paddies. He’s already waiting on the porch when Atsumu arrives.

 

“What did ya need ta tell me, Atsumu?” A slip of an accent, no honorifics. Only when it’s just them. Like with everything worth doing, Atsumu throws himself off the deep end.

 

Miya Atsumu has been running his whole life and he hasn’t tired yet. There’s so much to achieve, so many lofty dreams that whisper to him in gyms and on courts and during sleep. But he thinks it’s time to find a place to rest his weary feet. The race is not over, will not be until he has decided so, but every part of him aches for someone who will make the endless horizon easier to bear.

 

On the outskirts of Shiso, Hyōgo, he finds fields of rice paddies that stretch to the edge of his vision, framed by mountains. In these fields, he finds some semblance of calm. He allows his pace to slow, just to a quick walk, as he approaches the house just off the main road. It’s around 5 in the afternoon, and he knows Shinsuke will still be out in the fields, but that doesn’t bother him. The promise that he will be here soon is more than enough.

 

Two distinct styles of shoes at the entrance, a sports duffel left haphazardly in the bedroom, an MSBY BJ mug next to the sink, a fox snow globe on the dresser. Shinsuke pressed against the counter, eyes bright and breathing heavily, head tilted back just so. Atsumu’s hands on his hips, careful not to dig too hard, his lips on Shinsuke’s jaw, Shinsuke’s hands in his hair. It’s hazy in the best way, each touch sharpening his focus for only a moment until it flutters away.

 

In bed, sunset and sunrise and the middle of the night, his arms encasing Shinsuke’s body. His fingers trailing over exposed sides, light as a setter’s touch. Understanding that though his hands may not have the innocence of a young love, they are affectionate all the same. Awoken by the rustle of sheets and the absence of a warm body next to him, hushed and soothed to return to sleep. Shinsuke’s indulgent smile shining brighter than any sun could.

 

There are a hundred and one ways to describe this security Atsumu has created for himself. It’s someone to come back to after a long season, who is more home than any pitiful Osaka apartment with nothing to show after being lived in for two years. It’s the eye of the storm he calls his life, sheltered from pain and ambitions for a brief reprieve before he steps back in. It’s contentment with the unimportant things, of a hand in his tugging at him to step back and embrace mundanity instead of stardom. It is all of these things and more.

 

Shinsuke doesn’t expect him to give up his dreams (those intangible dreams, made more solid with every set and every serve and every step on the court). Atsumu doesn’t expect him to give up the life he has carved for himself in the midst of these mountains. It’s a mutual agreement that the distance of 1 hour and 39 minutes is only as large as the dishonesty that comes with it, and Atsumu has always been honest when it came to his heart.

 

So for just a moment, a drawn-out summer moment, Atsumu lets himself stop running. He’ll come back during the season, but he can only afford the luxury of a slow jog during those stolen weekends. Here, now, sunk into the amber-lit sheets of Shinsuke’s bed, he breathes, deep and whole, and promises tomorrow he will wake up with the sun–if only to spend one more hour with the man his heart keeps running after.