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the courtship ritual of the hercules beetle

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They fly to Okinawa early in the morning on a Thursday. Tooru is barely awake, relying on Hajime to guide him through Haneda airport and get them to the correct boarding zone before their plane takes off.

"I don't understand how you can be so useless in the morning when you used to pull all-nighters before games," Hajime says, giving the smiling woman at the desk both their tickets before picking up both his own and Tooru's duffle bags. Tooru, holding onto the straps of his backpack like they're helping to keep him upright, glares at Hajime blearily.

"This is not morning," Tooru replies. "This is some unidentifiable hour between Hell freezing over and Hell burning to ashes." He rubs at his face. "Also, some of us aren't Grandpa Iwa-chan, going to bed when the sun sets and waking up when the sun rises like some kind of dairy farmer--"

"Fuck you," Hajime says. "Eleven is not that early. It's a perfectly reasonable time to go to bed."

"That's practically still the afternoon," says Tooru around a yawn as they walk down the ramp to the plane. "I shouldn't have let you buy the tickets."

"You reserved the hotel room. It's only fair if I get the tickets, even if it is my birthday present." Hajime grabs a handful of Tooru's shirt and pulls. "Let's go find our seats, Sleepykawa."

"That one's cute," Tooru says. "You're being nice today. Are you my Iwa-chan, or is this real-life evidence of body-snatching?"

"I'm always nice to you." Hajime grins at him over his shoulder. "Except when you're being an idiot." His eyelids lower to half-mast, amused. "Hmm, I guess that would make it seem like I'm never nice, since the percentage of time you spend not being an idiot is so low..."

"Don't get witty with me before Hell-Freezes-Over o'clock!" Tooru balls up his fist and socks Hajime lightly in the arm. "It's not even fair; I'm not at my most brilliant and witty until at least ten!"

"Just for that, I'm going to wake you up at nine in the morning every day, and make you go running with me," Hajime warns him, stopping as he reaches their seats. He puts both their bags in the overhead compartment, and then takes the middle seat, leaving the one on the aisle for Tooru.

"What do you have to go running for?" Tooru says, sliding his backpack to the floor and sinking down next to Hajime, immediately pillowing his face in the crook of Hajime's neck and breathing in. "Are you trying to build calf muscles on top of your calf muscles? You know, grasshoppers can do that, if they overproduce certain enzymes. A lot of the mutated ones where the nuclear plant exploded have calves on both sides of their legs, and have developed the ability to run in any direction." He snuggles in when Hajime slumps down in his seat to make his shoulder at a slightly more comfortable height. "It's too bad most of them have underdeveloped thoraxes because that would definitely be an evolutionary advantage worth keeping for the modern Japanese grasshopper."

"Is it possible for you to be interested in things without being obsessed with them?" Hajime asks, quietly, so as not to disturb the old woman Tooru thinks he saw in the window seat, and Tooru chuckles lowly, picking up Hajime's arm by the wrist and lazily running his thumb up and down the blue-purple vein, feeling goosebumps rise up under his soft touch.

"No. What's the use in liking something half-heartedly?"

"Most people call that a hobby." Hajime shakes his hand free. "Though I guess you study insects for a living, so it's a good thing you’re that into it, I suppose."

Tooru nods, and feels his hair scrape Hajime's chin. "Wake me up when we get there, Iwa-chan."

"Sure." Hajime pushes Tooru's hair away from his mouth. "I won't leave you on the plane."

"Don't leave me anywhere," Tooru replies, or at least thinks he does, as he drifts to sleep.

He's still in a drowsy fog for much of the rest of the morning, and it isn't until about noon that he really wakes up and realizes he's actually in Okinawa.

"Iwa-chan! Let's go to the beach!" He pushes out the glass door of their simple two bed hotel room to the narrow balcony, where Hajime is leaning on the rail, face tilted toward the sun.

Hajime turns around at the opening of the door, and smiles over a golden tanned shoulder. "Finally awake?" He pulls his phone out of his pocket. "A little after twelve. Earlier than I thought!"

"The beach!" Tooru insists, reaching out to grab Hajime's shirt before finally processing that Hajime isn't wearing one. Instead his hand lands flat on sun-warm skin, sliding down the lean, muscled lines of Hajime's abs until he reaches the elastic of Hajime's underwear, and Hajime's breath audibly catches, the muscles tightening and releasing under Tooru's fingers until Tooru grabs the waistband of Hajime's denim shorts instead, pulling as he averts his eyes. "Come on, slow poke!"

Hajime allows himself to be pulled into the room and when Tooru thinks it won't be weird, he lets go, turning around to strip out of his own shirt before rooting around in his duffle bag for his swimming shorts, the tips of his fingers tingling from the softness of Hajime's skin.

They walk down to the beach from the hotel carrying nothing but sunscreen, water and towels. They find a patch of unclaimed beach next to two women in their forties with a couple of kids, who give both of them once-overs behind their sunglasses until Tooru cheekily grins at them.

Hajime just looks embarrassed, so Tooru teases him as they lay out their towels in the sand, asking him what it's like to be good-looking enough to get attention from hot moms.

"Shut up," Hajime says, red like he's already sunburnt as he pushes the sunscreen bottle into Tooru's hands. "I can't take you anywhere."

They both slather on the sunscreen, Tooru doing a sloppy job until Hajime snorts at him and squirts more onto his hands, rubbing them together to warm the lotion before putting his hands on Tooru's shoulders and sliding them down the outsides of his arms, applying an even coat of it before moving to Tooru's neck. He rubs the rest of the lotion on his hands in a steady, circular motion across Tooru's skin, dipping the pads of his fingers up under Tooru's shoulders, where he must be able to feel the erratic beating of Tooru's heart, and then skating his palms down along the sides of his ribs before finally coming back to rub the thick layer of sunscreen into Tooru's still winter-pale arms.

"Always taking care of me," Tooru says, with a reedy smile that he exaggerates with batted lashes.

"You'll get whiny if you burn," Hajime says, gruffly, when he's finished. "I did it for myself, really." He takes a step away, enough for Tooru's heart to stop feeling like it's moments from making a break for it and ripping itself out of his chest to head for the horizon line. "Ready to get in the water?"

"I'll let you go first," Tooru says, eying the chilly looking waves dubiously. "Since you're my guest, and all."

"Chicken," Hajime replies, and shoves Tooru into the sand between their carefully stretched towels.

Tooru pouts up at him. "Self-preservation is an important part of human survival."

Hajime just raises both brows and walks backward tauntingly until he gets into the water. "Says the man who didn't eat vegetables for years!"

"I'm still alive, aren't I?!" Tooru yells back, cupping his hands around his mouth in the shape of a megaphone to make sure his voice carries.

Hajime shakes his head at him, and then Tooru watches him dive under the foaming waves, disappearing for a few moments before surfacing again completely wet with his back to Tooru and his face tilted up toward the warm summer sun.

The sea water runs down from Hajime's hair along the line of his spine, pooling briefly in the dip at the small of his back, and Tooru can hear a buzzing in his ears, louder than summer cicadas, and louder than the ocean, when he is unable to tear his eyes away.

Hajime turns around, light catching wherever ocean water sits atop the golden brown of his skin, and his smile is easy and carefree, like the Iwa-chan Tooru recalls from middle school summer vacations, back when they were still young enough that being outside with no obligations was the best thing in the world. It's the Iwa-chan Tooru had been miserable without, and Tooru is so--

"You coming in?!" Hajime shouts, and Tooru beams at him, standing up from his towel and sweeping off as much of the sand as he can.

"Only if you promise not to pick me up and dunk me, you barbarian!" Tooru calls back, and Hajime laughs, shaking his hair like a wet dog.

"I absolutely do not promise," he replies, but Tooru wades out to him in the water anyway, stinging cold salt water sloshing and slapping at his knees.

Tooru goes to see the presentation on Friday. It's fascinating, and Tooru forgets about the beach for a solid hour as the scientist from Cal-Tech goes into the work she's been doing with NASA researching the composition of the Mars soil, and he's cataloguing the implications already as he listens to the question and answer portion with half an ear.

He escapes the room before the next presentation begins, something about Hawaiian volcanic rock degradation, and runs into Kurokawa, who had made sure to pass along the invite to him through the department head, in the hall outside the lecture room.

"You've been spending time at the beach," says Kurokawa, gesturing to his tan. "You weren't so golden last week! I guess you're making the most out of having to come to a geoscience convention for one presentation?"

"I'm staying until Tuesday," Tooru says, with an unrepentant grin, and Kurokawa laughs.

"I wish," she replies. "I've got at least five more presentations to watch today, and I haven't had a moment to even glance at the beach. I'm also in the middle of running a time-lapse experiment back on campus, so I'm heading back Saturday night."

"Too bad," Tooru says. "I'll enjoy myself enough for the both of us!"

"Too cruel," she says, before opening the door to sneak into the just started presentation.

Tooru heads back to the hotel, undoing his dress shirt before he even gets to the room. He opens the door to see Hajime on the floor doing sit-ups, a thin layer of sweat on his skin and his face scrunched in concentration as he whispers an inaudible count to himself.

Tooru watches the muscles in Hajime's stomach for a few seconds before he looks away, going into the bathroom to rinse his face and change into more comfortable clothes. He tosses his nice trousers and dress shirt onto the floor when he emerges, and Hajime, who is sitting on the edge of his bed, having apparently finished up his exercises, sighs and stares at them mournfully.

"How was the presentation?" he asks, meeting Tooru's eyes.

Tooru bites his lower lip thoughtfully, and flops down on his own bed, crossing his arms behind his head. "You know, five years ago, people were amazed when the Mars rover brought back evidence that there was once microbial life on Mars, and now, I feel like we're a few steps away from proving that both Mars and Earth had similar forms of life on them a billion years ago. How amazing is that?" He rolls over onto his side to face Hajime. "When it turns out Ender's Game got the closest to what actual aliens look like of all the popular science fiction books of its generation, I'm going to be the one who gets the last laugh!"

He expects one of Hajime's usual responses; an amused eye roll, or a frown hiding a fond smile, or even a grimace of annoyance. What he finds instead is Hajime looking at him with a slightly furrowed brow and a helpless smile on his face, his hair sticking to his cheeks and ears, and his lips dry and chapped.

"What are you looking at me like that for?" Tooru asks, plucking at the duvet on the bed until the small red flower is hidden in a fold.

"You looked so excited, just then," Hajime says. "Like the first time we won a volleyball game in middle school with you as starting setter. I'm... glad you're happy, is all, since I don't get to see you look like that as much as I did when we were kids, and for a few years I didn't see it at all." He closes his eyes, the furrow gone but the smile lingering. "It's one of my favorites, out of all the faces you make."

"Oh," Tooru says, and then he grins. "You have other favorites? Tell me, Iwa-chan, which of my expressions you like best~"

"Fuck, I hate you so much," Hajime grumbles, picking up one of his pillows and throwing it right at Tooru's face.

It devolves into a pillow fight, and ends with all their blankets and pillows on the floor between their beds, Tooru trapped underneath Hajime's heavy bulk as Hajime pins his hands on either side of his head. Hajime's knees dig in on either side of Tooru's hips, and the warmth of his calves bleeds through Tooru's shorts to his thighs.

The way Hajime is laughing, tiny huffs of breath that tickle Tooru's lashes like butterflies, reminds Tooru of being three, of being thirteen, and of being twenty-three, and thinking how could he ever like someone else more than this?

Without thinking anything beyond that, Tooru lifts his head and presses his mouth to Hajime's in a soft, open-mouthed kiss.

At first, it's just Tooru's lips against Hajime's still parted in a laugh, and a puff of toothpaste scented air along the roof of Tooru's mouth.

Then Hajime's hands go lax in surprise, and Tooru takes advantage, slipping his right wrist free and reaching up to tangle his hand in Hajime's hair, yanking him down to spare Tooru's neck. Tilting his head for a better angle, he starts to kiss him more carefully, matching his top lip to Hajime's bottom one, his own lower lip skimming the stubble on Hajime's chin.

One second passes, and then two, before Hajime groans and then kisses him back, crushing his body into Tooru's as his tongue licks along the inside of Tooru's lower lip, then slipping into Tooru's mouth to tease out a whimper that Tooru's almost embarrassed to have let escape.

Hajime's free hand cups Tooru's cheek, thumb stroking the bone, and for all that Hajime hasn't dated, he must have kissed, because the way he licks deeper into Tooru's mouth, tongue curling around Tooru's before skimming the back of Tooru's teeth, is more deft and sure than Tooru's ever experienced before.

Hajime kisses like he does everything else; deliberately, thoroughly, mapping out the texture of the inside of Tooru's cheeks even as he roughly clutches the curls at the nape of Tooru's neck.

Tooru can feel Hajime's heartbeat against his sternum, and he tightens his hand in Hajime's hair, pulling a little as he sucks Hajime's upper lip between his teeth. Hajime hisses, his other hand dropping Tooru's wrist to cup the back of his neck and bring them impossibly closer together until Tooru's not sure whose pulse it is he feels racing, or whose moan he's swallowing down. Heat burns through him, tension coiling in his thighs as he grinds up into the hard muscle of Hajime's abs, smelling fresh deodorant and sweat and sea salt, and it's...

...Almost like their first kiss had been, years ago, with Tooru pressed up against a mirror and tipsily thinking about what a mistake he was making, giving in to something like this that could cost him so much, and--

And that thought is enough; enough to break the moment, reality coming back to Tooru in a rush and making a home for itself alongside guilt and regret in his chest. He untangles his hand from Hajime's hair and pushes on his shoulders, their mouths coming apart with a wet sound that adds to the heat in Tooru's belly even as his mind races with horror.

He feels Hajime's hands leave his neck and fall away from his face, and opens his eyes to see them resting on Hajime's own thighs. He looks up, to find that Hajime is looking down at him, eyes wide and thin lips puffy and red. He's breathing harshly, each inhale looking like it costs him and every exhale warm on Tooru's face. "Oikawa," he says, hoarsely.

"Shit," Tooru says. "I didn't mean to... I don't want--"

"Of course you didn't mean it." Hajime's face shutters completely, his face going totally still even as his breaths continue to come quickly. "You..." The red fades from his face as he looks down at Tooru. "I thought I could do this, Oikawa, but I can't."

Tooru suddenly feels like if he doesn't manage to say anything, if he doesn't even ask what Hajime means, then Hajime is going to get up and leave and walk right back out of Tooru's life again, existing only at the fringes of it, and Tooru will be empty and cold, a big piece of his heart missing and trying to fill it with people like Megumi who, if Tooru's honest with himself, probably never stood a chance. "Iwa-chan," Tooru says, searching for something, anything to say, and grabbing Hajime's forearm as Hajime sits back on his heels. "Iwa-chan, don't--"

"Haven't you always known I was in love with you?" Hajime asks, and Tooru hides from the memory of the way Hajime had kissed him, that night after the play, lips so warm against Tooru's cold forehead.

"I..."

"There's only so long we can both pretend that you don't know, and I think this is about the limit," Hajime continues, running a hand through his hair. He licks his lips, and for a moment, all Tooru can think about is how they taste, before he hears a hundred voices in his head telling him he's not supposed to feel this way, and there's nothing he can do about it. "I should have listened to Hanamaki, huh?"

Hajime climbs off Tooru, then, and standing up like that, looking down on him, Hajime looks so big, and Tooru feels infinitesimally small, like a carpenter ant with a broken antenna that can no longer find its way back home. "Don't be angry at me, Iwa-chan," he chokes out, because it's the only thing he's thinking about clearly, in the mess that is his head right now.

Hajime shakes his head, walking over to where his clothes are neatly folded, and shoving them into his duffle as messily as Megumi had, when she'd cleaned her things out of Tooru's closet at the apartment, leaving her engagement ring and Tooru's sweatshirt behind. "How can I be angry at you, Oikawa? I knew better than..."

Hajime closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath, and that look... it's what Hajime had looked like, when Tooru moved out of their Koto apartment, or whenever Tooru introduced him to a new girlfriend after that. Tooru hadn't wanted to know that look meant that Hajime was hurting. It was better if he pretended not to recognize it all.

"I'm not angry at you," Hajime says, with finality, zipping up his duffle and not seeming to mind that all his toiletries are still in the bathroom. "I'm angry at myself."

And with that, Hajime pulls on a T-shirt, picks up his bag, and walks out the door, leaving Tooru lying in a pile of pillow and blankets and wishing that the ground would open up and swallow him whole.

Yahaba had been in town, and there'd been a get-together at Kyoutani's place, mostly against Kyoutani's wishes. Tooru had had half a bottle of wine, and he could feel it in his head and at the extremities of his limbs.

Hajime had even deigned to have a couple of beers, alcohol-red as he messed with Kyoutani's sound system, turning the volume up and down and swearing when it refused to land on the exact value he wanted.

"And you think I'm finicky," Tooru had said, draping himself along Hajime's back, his lips brushing the nape of Hajime's neck and making him shiver. "Who cares if it's on twenty-seven exactly, Iwa-chan! Twenty-six or twenty-eight will do!"

Hajime had let his hand drop from the volume dial and turned around, and Tooru had been temporarily dislodged until he settled his arms around Hajime's neck instead. He'd wobbled, a little, and Hajime had gripped his hips with both hands to steady him. "Woah there," he'd said, laughing. "Had too much to drink?"

"No." Tooru had laughed, rubbing his nose lightly against Hajime's before stepping back out of his grip. "Half a bottle of a weak red is nothing for me~"

"I don't know, Trashykawa," Hajime had replied, crossing his arms and smiling, "you look pretty tipsy to me."

"I'm not," Tooru'd denied, swaying to the music to hide the unsteadiness of his steps.

"Sure, sure," Hajime had said, and then Kyoutani had stolen his attention again, and the two had gotten caught up in a deep conversation leaving Tooru to his own devices. He'd ended up sitting in Matsukawa's lap in an armchair and pouring himself another glass of wine as Yahaba and Hanamaki schemed about something with a scandalized Kindaichi sitting between them on the sofa.

"Hey, go easy on Iwaizumi," Matsukawa had said, words slurring from too many shots of vodka.

"Go easy on Iwa-chan? Why would I do a silly thing like that?"

"You know it's not nice of you to flirt with him so much when you don't mean it."

Tooru hadn't known if Matsukawa was really aware of what he was saying, but the words came dangerously close to the only conversations he and Hajime had never had; close to conversations about Mrs. Honda's son and what it meant to be too grown up to share a bed anymore.

Tooru had been twenty-five, and still afraid to open that door and see what kind of monsters would crawl out from behind it, even as a tiny piece of him had been sure the door had been cracked for years, and Tooru had just been ignoring the tiny, dangerous shadows collecting in the corners of their Koto apartment.

Another glass of wine, and then Hajime had come and gotten him from Matsukawa's lap, picking him up like he didn't weigh anything and setting him on his own two feet. "Time to go," he'd said, leading Tooru to the exit. Kyoutani had filled a pitcher of cold water in the kitchen at Yahaba's direction, and Yahaba had looked delighted at the prospect of pouring it on Matsukawa to wake him up instead of giving it to him in a glass to drink.

They'd walked home hand in hand, Tooru skipping ahead as far as the breadth of their clasped arms would allow before drifting back, giggling, to Hajime's side. "We used to walk home from school like this," Tooru had said. "Back when we were eight!"

"You were less drunk," Hajime'd replied, laughing. "I think our elementary school teachers would have been even more scandalized by you if you'd been drunk."

"They just couldn't handle my creativity." Tooru had let go of Hajime's hand to spin in a circle, before reclaiming it. "I would have been an absolute angel with a slightly more understanding teacher."

"You kept putting spiders in Fujita's desk," Hajime said, laughing. "You just wanted to cause trouble."

"No," Tooru said, grinning widely, the night air stinging his cheeks, "I just liked spiders. I was destined to be an entomologist!"

"You were destined to be lots of things, back then." Hajime let them into their first floor apartment, pushing Tooru in and locking up behind him. "What were you and Matsukawa talking about so seriously?"

"Hmm?" Tooru had asked, dragging Hajime with him to the bathroom, and then using him for balance while he dug around for his toothbrush.

"When you were sitting with him, he was saying something to you and you were listening really carefully."

"Oh, that," Tooru'd said, hesitating. "He told me to be careful with you, if I didn't mean it." He put a thick blob of toothpaste on his brush, and started scrubbing away at his teeth haphazardly as Hajime had watched him in the mirror. Tooru had wanted to look away, but he couldn't look away from the intensity in Hajime's eyes. "But with Iwa-chan, I always mean it~" His words were muffled by foam, but Tooru knew that to Hajime, they'd be perfectly intelligible, since Tooru used to talk to Hajime on the phone while he was brushing his teeth in middle school, back when he was always supposed to be in bed by ten and every minute after finishing his homework was precious phone time.

Hajime had ruffled his hair as Tooru spit the toothpaste out into the sink. "Do you really?"

Tooru had rinsed, and then turned around, his back to the mirror as he looked Hajime in the eyes for real. "Would I lie to you, Iwa-chan?"

"It's not me you lie to," Hajime had said. "It's yourself."

"And you don't?"

"No," Hajime had replied, easily, honestly. "I've never been able to do that very well." He'd brought his hand up to the curve of Tooru's neck, right where it met his shoulder, and rested it on the bare skin. "It would be better, if I could." His eyes had flicked down to Tooru's mouth, and he'd bitten his own lip.

And all Tooru could think, then, in the fog of wine, with the mint taste clinging to his tongue, was that one of Hajime's best qualities had always been his honesty, his honesty to Tooru, and that it made him, really, too much for Tooru to look away from, because there would never be someone who suited him like this.

Tooru had reached out and hooked his fingers in the neck of Hajime's sweater, curling them down and pulling, and Hajime had stumbled forward, into him, pushing Tooru back into the sink with his heavy frame, gripping the edge of it with both hands for balance on either side of Tooru's hips. "You're pretty amazing too, sometimes, Iwa-chan," Tooru had said, and Hajime had managed half a surprised laugh before Tooru had kissed him, sloppy and wet, missing the center of his mouth but catching the corner.

Hajime had gasped in surprise, and Tooru had kissed him again, this time at the bow of his upper lip, and Hajime had cupped Tooru's hips with both hands and picked him up, setting him on the edge of the sink. Then he’d kissed him back in earnest, curving into Tooru with so much concentration that Tooru had been overwhelmed, brain short-circuiting from the lips and tongue slipping against his own to the hands on his hips to the smell of beer on Hajime's skin to the firmness of Hajime's thighs in between his knees as Hajime pushed him back.

He could feel the water from the sink bowl soaking into the thighs of his jeans, and the faucet digging into his back, and the mirror cold against his neck, his hair sliding on the glass.

It was better, Tooru had thought, than any kiss he'd shared with a girlfriend, and it reminded him of a conversation in the kitchen with his sister, when she'd told him none of those girls really had a shot.

At that moment, Tooru had finally believed her, and he could feel something inside of him lurch.

Hajime had pulled away the moment Tooru had gone still in his arms, and staring at him, disbelieving and angry and bewildered, Tooru had thought, Iwa-chan grew up handsome, before he'd forced the thought away.

"No, I can't think about this," Tooru had said, his hand still covering Hajime's mouth, like hiding his lips would make the whole memory of the kiss disappear. "I don't want this. I'm not like Mrs. Honda's son."

"I am," Hajime had said, and Tooru had stared at the bathroom ceiling, swaying slightly. Hajime had pressed his palms flat on Tooru's thighs to keep him from falling, and Tooru had thought, even as rejection and denial of what Hajime'd just said bubbled up from his stomach like vomit, waiting to crawl out of his throat, that he never wanted for Hajime to lift his hands away. "You knew that, though."

"Did I?" Tooru had asked, and Hajime had been so quiet that Tooru could hear the shift of furniture in the apartment above them, and the sound of wine sloshing around in his stomach.

He'd pushed himself off from the sink, freeing himself from Hajime's hold and pushing past him out of the bathroom. "I'm going to bed, Iwa-chan."

"Oikawa..."

"Bed!" Tooru had said, and then closed the door of his bedroom, before pressing his back up against it and sliding down to the floor, hiding his face in his hands as he brought his legs up to his chest. "Fuck," he'd said. "Fuck."

He'd sat there for most of the night, his mouth tasting of toothpaste and Hajime, and his heart hollowed out like termites had eaten the whole thing away in the space of minutes, or maybe the termites had been eating away at the inside for years, and it had been the kiss in the bathroom that had broken through the outer shell.

"About last night," Hajime had said the next morning, when Tooru, clean and showered, had ventured into the kitchen. Hajime's hand was gripping the handle of the skillet so tight his knuckles had gone white. "I..."

"What are you talking about?" Tooru had asked, just like he'd practiced twenty times this morning at a whisper, staring into the bathroom mirror trying not to think about how it had felt against his back, as cool and unmoving as Hajime had been warm and writhing, pressed up in between Tooru's spread legs, breathing into his mouth. "Ah, Iwa-chan, I don't remember much of last night, and I've got a terrible hangover! When did we get home?"

Hajime had looked at him, and licked his lips, slowly, carefully, and then he'd closed off, turning back to the skillet to make sure the egg wasn't burning. "After midnight," he'd said. "There's ibuprofen in the living room, if you need it."

"Thanks!" Tooru said, waiting until he was out of Hajime's sight to start to shake. "It's fine," he whispered to himself. "It'll be fine."

Then he had pressed fingers to his mouth for the hundredth time that morning, and tried to breathe.

Tooru stays in Okinawa until Tuesday, even though he’s now alone. He goes and visits the famous aquarium and takes pictures for Sasada, and writes an outline for his next paper by hand on the stickynotes by the hotel phone that are supposed to be used to jot down numbers. It takes thirteen of them to get all of his ideas down, and when Tooru’s finished he still feels just as empty and listless as when he started.

He goes down to the beach, sitting in almost the same spot he and Hajime had laid their towels on Thursday, and he gets sunburned in odd patches along his shoulders and the undersides of his arms. It’s fitting, he decides later, examining the uneven skin in the shower late that afternoon, that his outsides be as raw in parts as his insides.

He returns to Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon. He has a crick in his neck from the plane, because he fell asleep at such an odd angle, almost like he’d wanted to…

"How did the conference go?" Sasada asks, when he reports in to work on Wednesday.

"Well," Tooru says, but it’s as though he’s seeing the world through a thick fog, and the only thing clear at all is the memory of Hajime’s mouth hot on his own and the way his heart had felt like it was breaking when Hajime walked out the door.

"That’s a nasty burn," she says, gesturing to what she can see past the collar of his dress shirt. Tooru pulls at his collar to hide it away.

"Ah, this?" Tooru smiles, letting it stretch across his whole face. "I’m just evening out the playing field with the new students. I wouldn’t want them all to sign up for my class in the fall and leave everyone else with an empty classroom~"

"I wonder what it’s like, to love yourself that much?" Sasada muses, giving Tooru an evil eye.

I wonder too, Tooru almost says, but instead, he laughs, and winks at her, and whistles on his way to the staff meeting room to get himself a cup of instant coffee.

That night, he meets Hanamaki and Matsukawa for dinner. It’s uncomfortably quiet as they eat, and Tooru picks at his meal, even as he struggles to keep anything from showing in his face.

"Stop pretending," Hanamaki says finally. "It’s disgusting. I’m not Iwaizumi, but you’re also not an award winning actor, Oikawa, and it’s obvious you’re miserable, no matter how much you grin at your chicken because you can’t meet anyone’s eyes."

"Is Iwa-chan… Is he…" Tooru stabs at his chicken. "He likes men, right?"

"Duh," Matsukawa says.

"You can’t tell me you never even suspected," Hanamaki says, eyes narrowed. "You’re anything but oblivious, Oikawa."

"That’s what Iwa-chan said to me," Tooru replies, and then he sighs. "I did, really. Probably."

A part of Tooru had been aware of it since the beginning, or maybe since when they were fourteen and Hajime rarely looked twice at any girl. Tooru thinks again about the long looks that Hajime had given him, during late night practices, when he stayed to make sure Tooru didn’t tire himself out. He thinks about all the crushes Hajime would never admit to, and the protective spread of Hajime’s hand along his spine. He thinks of that kiss, hot, lingering, fierce, in the bathroom, that he’d pretended not to remember for more than five years, and the look on Hajime’s face that next day, eyes shuttered and shoulders tense and feelings locked away from Tooru, the moment Tooru’s decision had crystalized for the both of them.

But it had never been just about Hajime, for Tooru. There’d always been his own feelings, nebulous and undefined and too bound up in things like his mother telling him he’s too old to wear Hajime’s jacket, no matter how much Tooru liked the scent of Hajime’s deodorant, or in his sister telling him she was sure that he and Hajime weren’t up to anything weird. The old women buying vegetables, and Goto, who might never get an academic job and no one will ever say it’s because he screws men and had the sheer nerve to get caught with so shameful a proclivity.

"You just didn’t want to know," Hanamaki says forcefully. "Is that it?"

Matsukawa kicks him under the table, and Hanamaki ignores it.

"Did you know that most insects find their mates by smell?" Tooru asks, after a few moments, giving up on his chicken and swirling his fruit juice around in his glass to mix the pulp back into it. "There’s a certain type of male wasp in the Amazon that emits three different scents at once, and to attract a good mate they have to have just the right balance between the smells."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Matsukawa taps his spoon on the edge of his bowl impatiently.

"It’s just that…" Tooru stares at his hands. They’re shaking again, so Tooru lets go of his glass and hides them in his lap. "It’s just that even when I was little, I loved the way Hajime smelled. The way my pillows smelled like him after he spent the night. It’s this clean scent, you know. Like the way grass smells during rainy season, mixed with that deodorant he’s worn since we were ten. I used to think I always want my pillows to smell like this in the morning."

"Oikawa," Hanamaki says, deliberately, "did you…" He seems to rethink his question. "Are you saying what I think you’re saying?"

"I kissed him once," Tooru replies. "Before, I mean. That night we were all at Kyoutani’s, when Mattsun told me I was being cruel. That I shouldn’t flirt if I didn’t mean it."

Matsukawa drops his chopsticks to the floor. They clatter loudly, and a few people turn to stare. He picks them up with a sheepish apologetic grin, before turning back to pin Tooru with a stare. "What?"

"I didn’t think it through." Tooru looks up at the ceiling, meagre appetite completely gone. "Good sons probably don’t kiss boys, and my mother really wanted to have a kid come out right." He’d thought a lot about how much heavier Hajime’s coat had felt across his shoulders, that night of the play, with the added weight of his mother’s thinly sugar-coated suspicion. "So I thought it might be better if I didn’t remember it."

"And then you moved out," Hanamaki concludes, and Tooru tilts his chin back down, catching Hanamaki’s gaze. Whatever Hanamaki sees in Tooru’s eyes has him setting down his water and biting his lip. "Oikawa…"

"Mmm?" Tooru’s hands are still shaking too much to make a grab for his chopsticks and take a bite, and he’s left with nothing to do to distract himself from the thrumming beat of his heart in his ears.

"It’s never been one-sided at all, has it?" Hanamaki asks quietly, as Matsukawa leans in to hear better, his broad shoulders blocking the rest of the restaurant from view, leaving Tooru feeling alone and cornered.

"Iwa-chan and I always have done everything together," Tooru manages to say, around a lump in his throat. "Why should this have been any different?" Saying it aloud is as terrible as Tooru had thought it would be, even if he does manage to make it come off nonchalant, like it’s the weather he’s talking about, and not the span of almost thirty years that encompass the beginning and the end of all he and Hajime are.

"Oh," Matsukawa says, at a loss for words.

Hanamaki continues to watch him carefully, all of his anger gone, replaced by something else Tooru doesn’t quite understand. "Why haven’t you told him that?"

Tooru summons up a smile, light and flippant. "Because it doesn’t matter," he says, showing all of his teeth. "It doesn’t change anything. It’s not… I’m still going to end up marrying someone my mother likes and having two kids for her to spoil worse than she spoiled me, and that’s the way it has to be."

"No it isn’t!" Matsukawa stabs Tooru lightly in the forehead with the tips of chopsticks he dropped on the floor. "Stop making that ugly face and think about this!"

"None of my faces are ugly," Tooru says, whacking them away, and then, softly, he adds: "and I’ve been doing my best not to think about this for so long that I’ve become an expert."

"Finish your dinner," Hanamaki says, after the silence at the table begins to stifle. "We can go out for drinks."

Tooru takes a long sip of his fruit juice. "I might have been wrong before, Makki-chan," Tooru says, smiling slightly around the bitterness of the grapefruit at the back of his tongue. "You’re definitely not the worst friends."

"Obviously," says Hanamaki. "We’re practically saints, dealing with you all the time."

Tooru takes a bite of rice that is ash on his tongue, and keeps smiling.

The day after the Edgar Allen Poe play, Tooru had wiggled through a gap in the fence posts between his backyard and Hajime’s, Hajime’s coat over his arm. He’d barely fit, and it had reminded him of when he hadn’t even had to think about how to angle his shoulders to slide through the narrow space. He’d wondered if it was a metaphor, for when everything had been simple.

He’d knocked on Hajime’s back door, and Hajime had opened the door and stared at him with a curious expression. "Bit early for you to be up."

"Just wanted to give this back," he’d said, holding out the coat.

"There was no hurry," Hajime had replied, reaching out to take it. Their fingers had brushed, and Tooru had pulled away like the touch had burned.

"Thanks," he’d said. "For letting me borrow it."

Hajime had stared again. "I’m going back to bed," he said eventually. "You want to come with?"

Tooru had licked his chapped lips, and shook his head. "No. Not today, Iwa-chan."

And something in Hajime’s face fell, subtle enough that probably only Tooru would ever even notice, and a thousand words passed between them.

Hajime nodded. "All right, Oikawa," he’d said. "All right."

It’s harder to lose Hajime a second time. The ache of wanting him close is familiar, but maybe it’s like Tooru’s knee, and the re-injury is worse than the initial one, taking longer to heal and never truly going back to the way it was before.

He thinks about Hajime when he wakes up, and when he goes to work, and when he cooks dinner alone in his apartment, wearing his stretched-out, faded, Tokyo Disneyland shirt and opening the cabinets to find seasonings he didn’t buy where there used to be nothing but empty space.

He goes about his life like a worker ant— no independent actions or unnecessary motions, just the most fundamental of tasks, the open chasm in his chest far worse than what he’d felt months ago when things had ended with Megumi, and Tooru knows what that means, unable to lie to himself about it anymore, despite his skill at the art.

He puts posters of the universe and his favorite Super Sentai cast up on his ceiling, taping them carefully with an adhesive that will definitely strip the paint from the ceiling if he ever has to take them down, and spends a lot of time staring up at the stars, letting them make him feel small.

He wishes, sometimes, when he’s sitting next to Hanamaki at a bar or talking to Yachi over a croissant at the bakery at Komagome station, that maybe humans were a little less like butterflies, and that this melting inside of him, turning him into nothing inside a hard cocoon of loneliness, meant that when he eventually put himself back together again, he would be different, that he would be new, but he knows it won’t work like that, and that even if he manages to build wings out of nothing he’ll still associate the warmth of Hajime’s hand on his neck with safety, because caterpillars remember everything they’ve ever learned.

He gets the promotion to lecturer two days before his birthday.

"That’s amazing," Sasada tells him. "You must be thrilled!"

"It’s only as expected," Tooru replies, tilting back cockily in his chair even as he searches inside himself for triumph, finding it mixed up with thoughts of Goto from Waseda and the shuttered look on Hajime’s face that won’t seem to drift far from the forefront of his mind.

"Still," she says, "congratulations, Oikawa."

"Thank you," Tooru says, and when Sasada turns away again, he slumps down in his seat, picks up the paper he was reading before the e-mail had come, and tries to find his place in it again.

It’s fitting, Tooru thinks, that he runs into Megumi at a coffee shop they used to frequent together on the day he turns thirty.

July 20th is the hottest day of the year thus far, and Tooru ducks into the cafe just to escape the heat, really, only to bump right into the woman he'd almost spent the rest of his life with.

"Oh!" Megumi says, and Tooru's fast reflexes save her ice-coffee from dropping as he catches it with one hand and steadies her with the other. "Tooru?"

She looks good, with her long hair pulled up in a ponytail and her lips stained a pretty pink. She’s carrying a new handbag, and she's cut her bangs shorter, and in her pretty floral dress, she looks like an advertisement for summer.

"Megumi-chan, you look awfully lovely today~" he tells her, the same way he always did when he saw her after a long time, and Megumi gives him a small grin, adjusting her grip on her coffee and tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"I've... I've been meaning to call you," she says. "Just to check on you. And to talk, too. About everything." She looks down at her watch. "You wouldn't happen to have an hour, would you?"

"Sure," Tooru replies. "Let me get a cup of coffee, and we can go for a walk."

They end up sitting side by side on a bench just outside an elementary school.

"Thank you for sending out the cancellation notices," Tooru says, shaking his plastic cup to mix the contents. The ice in his coffee had melted as they strolled, watering it down enough to dilute the sweetness of it. "It didn't really occur to me."

Megumi sucks her lower lip into her mouth, chewing on it, getting pink lipstain on the edges of her teeth. "Truthfully, I ordered them weeks before I broke up with you."

Looking down at his hands, Tooru exhales slowly. "Did you?"

"It wasn't easy, you know, to leave you. You're... smart, Tooru, and handsome, and funny, and kind when you think no one will notice, or if you can pass it off as something else. You're a good guy."

"No good enough to marry, though?"

Megumi sets her cup down on the bench next to her and turns to face him, reaching out and tilting his face toward hers with the tips of her fingers. "That's not how it's supposed to work," she says. "It wasn't about you being good enough, and you already know that. It was about us being right for each other."

"I do know," Tooru says. "I thought about what you said, Megumi-chan. For weeks, I thought about it, and..." He looks up at her through his lashes. "Well, you weren't entirely wrong."

"From you, that's practically an apology," Megumi murmurs, the left corner of her lips twitching. "It really did feel like you were wishing I was someone else, Tooru. That you expected me to already understand you in ways I couldn't."

"You might not have been entirely wrong about that either." Tooru grabs her hand, pulling it away from his face, and laces their fingers together. "It was probably selfish of me to want to marry you, knowing that, but I've always been a little selfish."

"It's usually a childish kind of selfishness," says Megumi. "Harmless, and forgivable since you're so pretty."

"I am really pretty," Tooru says, squeezing her hand one more time before letting go. "One of my best qualities."

"No it isn't," Megumi says. "You have plenty of other great qualities that are more important than that."

"You know, I don't think you're supposed to talk about how great the guy you're leaving is," Tooru says. "Even if it's true. It makes you sound like you're making a huge mistake."

"I might be," Megumi says. "But I couldn't do it." She smooths the wrinkles out of the skirt of her dress, the golden-yellow roses unwrinkling under her fingertips.

I couldn't do it sounds a lot like Hajime's I don't think I can do this, and Tooru should be used to hurting the people he loves, like a praying mantis that devours its mates. "Right."

"I won't settle," she continues, and she stares at him squarely, with determination. "You shouldn't be settling either, Tooru." The piece of hair she'd tucked behind her ear earlier falls forward and curves around her face. "Is she already married, or something?"

"Who?" Tooru asks, taking a sip of the watery coffee. It doesn't taste like much of anything, anymore, but it's cool at least, as the humidity bears down on him.

"The woman you wanted me to be." Megumi falls back, to rest against the back of the bench. "Did I meet her at some point? Is she one of your friends?"

The school bell rings, and the rushing of children pouring out of the building and into the open yard for play time is loud right when Tooru needs it to be, and he looks through the fence at the six and seven year olds chasing each other, and remembers a hundred times, a thousand times, he'd stolen Hajime's notebooks and goaded him into running after him. He'd held onto Hajime's things a lot, back then, as if they were insurance, and as long as he had something Hajime needed Hajime would stick around to get it back.

Then he'd gotten older, and instead of pencils or textbooks or a favorite pair of gloves, he'd taken a piece of Hajime's heart and kept it even when he knew it would be kinder to give it back.

And yeah, Tooru's always been selfish.

"There is no her," Tooru says.

Megumi swallows, and Tooru knows she's watching him, evaluating him. Her gaze is heavy, and Tooru feels trapped by it, but at the same time, he's never really felt any freer than this.

"There isn't a her," Megumi says, no question in her voice. Her hand comes to rest lightly on his knee, pink nails pretty against the light brown of his slacks. It's not as comforting as Hajime's hand, calloused and warm and just the right weight, but it's nice all the same.

"Yeah," Tooru says. He expects to feel something: fear, anxiety, anger. All that's left, though, is a sort of hollow relief.

Megumi leans into him, her head falling to his shoulder. "We'll both be okay," she says. She remains there for a few moments, before looking down at her watch again. "I've got to get back to work." She stands up, brushing away imaginary dirt from her dress, and then clears her throat. "I'll be in touch about everything else. The venue and all that."

Tooru nods, looking up at her. The sun, high in the sky, frames her just right. "Take your time," he says. "I'm making Hanamaki deal with it, anyway."

She laughs, lightly, and then bends down to kiss his cheek. "Happy birthday, by the way."

"Is it?" Tooru asks, but he grins to soften it, not letting his smile fall until she's walked away.

He goes to his sister's for dinner that evening.

"No creepy bug pictures to decorate with tonight?" she asks, as she sits beside him at the table, both of them peeling potatoes.

"Thank goodness," Takeru mutters, as he passes through the kitchen, opening the refrigerator to grab a bottle of sports water on his way out to extra practice.

"Takeru-chan, I know you'll come to see the joy in fossilized flies someday," Tooru says.

"Maybe when your Mars insects launch an invasion," is Takeru's reply. He drops a kiss to the top of his mother's head, and swats away Tooru's attempts to ruffle his hair. "I'm too old for that, Uncle!"

"You'll never be too old," Tooru replies, delighted when Takeru groans in annoyance, making his way out to the front door. The door opens and closes, and then it's just Tooru and his sister, a bowl of peeled potatoes between them with a few left to go. "Ah, teenagers."

"You were a handful as a teenager yourself," his sister says. "I was thankful to be so much older than you back then." She looks over toward the front door. "Takeru's a lot more like Hajime than you, though. He's straightforward. You were all half-truths and fragile ego."

"What a glowing description of my adolescence," Tooru says, dropping a skinned potato into the bowl.

"Not much has changed, you realize." She smirks at him. "You're still obnoxious, too, birthday boy."

"No wonder my ego is fragile." Tooru picks up the last potato, but his sister takes it from him and starts peeling it herself.

"I'm faster," she explains, and Tooru huffs, setting down the knife. "You're going out with your friends tonight?"

"We're meeting at nine at Makki's." He starts to pick at his nails, getting trapped pieces of potato skin out from under them. "It's just Hanamaki, Matsukawa, and Yachi-chan." He pauses. "Mad-Dog-chan. Maybe Iwa-chan."

"Maybe?"

"He has a match tonight," Tooru says, even though Hajime's match ends at seven. "I don't know if he'll make it."

"He'll try his best, I'm sure," his sister says, setting the last potato in the bowl then picking it up and carrying it over to the sink. "He always does his best for you."

"I don't always do my best for him, though," Tooru blurts out, and his sister, who had just turned on the tap, turns it off again. She doesn't turn around, but Tooru can tell she's listening. "Iwa-chan is straightforward, and I'm..."

"Tooru," she says, "is everything all right?"

It's the same question she'd asked before, right after Megumi had given him back her engagement ring, and he'd kept it in his pocket planning to return it to her. It's the same question, and Tooru wants to give her the same answer, but he can't seem to force it out.

"I don't think so," he says, watching his sister's back tense. "No."

"What's wrong?" She turns around to face him, and as she scans his face her eyes widen in alarm. "Tooru, what's wrong?"

"Nothing I can fix," he says. "I saw Megumi today."

"Was it terrible?" His sister crosses the kitchen to hug him from behind, pressing her face into his hair.

"It was nice," Tooru says. "She was nice. It was all nice. But it didn't... It didn't hurt."

"Isn't that a good thing?"

"No," Tooru replies. "Because it means she was right, and maybe I didn't love her enough."

"Oh, Tooru, it's okay to move on." She nuzzles his hair, and her arms are strong around him, like when he was small and came to her room to get hugs after nightmares, before he'd started keeping his nightmares to himself. "That's normal!"

Tooru shakes his head. "I was more upset about Megumi leaving me than I was about losing Megumi."

"Then maybe it's a good thing you aren't marrying her." His sister lets go, and sits down next to him, their knees bumping under the table. "No matter what Mom says, getting married isn't all that important, Tooru. I don't know why she's so worried about it, honestly." She laughs, nudging at his bare ankle with her toe. "My life's fine, and I never got married, and I don't even want to."

"Mom wants me to get married because she thinks I'm..." Tooru swallows, covering his eyes with his hand. "She wants me to get married because she thinks I'm gay."

His sister stills, and Tooru keeps his hand in front of his face so he won't have to look at her. There are a thousand yellow jackets in his stomach.

"Dating Megumi was just like dating in high school," Tooru says. "And like in university. Like being in every other relationship I've ever had." He takes a shuddering breath. "I could only show her the good parts. The parts that everyone is allowed to see, because I've examined them from every angle, and know how they look." He smiles at nothing, feeling his skin pull under the press of his hand. The darkness helps. "Like selfies. I took the pictures, then chose the best ones to share."

Not with Hajime, though. Never with Hajime, who has seen him ugly-cry and held his hair while he vomited from drinking too much and let Tooru drool on his shoulder when he passed out from exhaustion on their way home from tournament games.

And his sister is so quiet, and Tooru hates it; hates that he always has to fill silences and hates that all of these things are spilling out of him. He guesses he's been holding them in so many years that even letting out a few opened the door for the rest of them.

"Do you remember," he asks, voice trembling, "when you called me a heartbreaker?"

"I'm sure I did that plenty of times," his sister says, and her own voice isn't that steady. "You were, Tooru. You left a swath of besotted teenage girls in your wake!" She laughs, but it falls flat.

"We took a selfie to send to Iwa-chan, and you told me..." He drops his hand, and finally opens his eyes to look at his sister. Her mouth is pressed into a thin, firm line, and she's looking at him with such surprised eyes that his words almost retreat back down his throat.

But then she reaches out and grabs his shirt, holding on to him lightly, and says, gently, "told you what?"

"You said 'if you want to date a girl, you should like her at least as much as you like Hajime, or it’s not going to work out'," Tooru finishes. "And I thought..." He blinks to clear his eyes, because his vision is blurry all of a sudden. "I thought, how am I ever going meet a girl I like more than Iwa-chan?"

His sister's hand tightens in his shirt, and her breath sounds so harsh to Tooru, even if not as harsh as his own. His heart is thundering, and the yellow jackets in his stomach are buzzing, and he hopes they don't decide to sting, because it takes the venom of over a thousand female yellow jackets to kill a man, but Tooru thinks he must have a million inside of him right now, for them to be so angry and loud.

"Oh, Tooru," she says. "I was only teasing you. I never meant..."

"And Mom used to give us strange looks," Tooru says. "For years, I didn't understand why, because it was just Iwa-chan, and there wasn't anything strange about us sleeping in the same bed, or me sitting with my legs in his lap to watch volleyball matches on television. It wasn't weird that he makes space on his plate for my carrots or--" He chokes on it, thinking of Hajime four months ago, letting Tooru steal most of his mushrooms because he doesn't think Tooru eats enough vegetables, or holding his hand in the park when it's dark and no one will see. "Then one night I came in wearing Iwa-chan's coat, and she said people would get the wrong idea, that they might think I was wrong, and then you said--"

"I said 'it doesn't have to be anything weird'," she says, cutting Tooru off. "Or something like that. I thought about it a lot, after you'd gone to bed. I thought about why I'd said it like that, when what I wanted to tell you was that you didn't have to feel weird about it. That you and Hajime were just... you and Hajime, and no one else's opinion really mattered, not even Mom's." She pulls on his shirt, dragging his chair squeaking across the linoleum. "It never even occurred to me that you were even..."

"I'm not," Tooru says, too loudly, and it echoes in the kitchen. "I'm not anything." He lets his sister pull him into a hug.

"Oh you're something," his sister says. "You're definitely my annoying, asshole little brother."

Incredulously, Tooru laughs, his forehead falling to his sister's sternum as she starts to pet his hair. "That's all you've got to say?"

"And I don't know about Mom," she says, combing through tangles in his hair, "but even if you were, say, to live with Hajime forever because you've been head-over-heels for him your entire life--"

"I never said that," Tooru rasps, his whole body shivering uncontrollably in her light hold.

"Even then," she says, as though he hadn't spoken, "you'll still be my annoying, asshole little brother."

"I am not annoying," Tooru says, when he thinks his voice won't come out all wobbly. He wipes his wet face on his sister's shirt.

"I notice you're not correcting the bit about being an asshole," she says, the hand in his hair dragging down to start comforting circles on his back.

"Being an asshole adds to my mystique," Tooru manages. He lifts his head. "It's my birthday. Aren't you supposed to make me dinner?"

She grins at him, her own eyes soft and wet as she reaches out to clear the tears from his cheeks with her thumb. "You're a brat. Now that's something you and Takeru definitely have in common."

Tooru laughs, and pushes her lightly, pulling a silly face, and exhales. "Well, I was his role model for many years."

"We're all glad that phase is over. Now help me cut these potatoes."

Takeru comes home to them throwing soap suds at each other in the kitchen, sweaty from practice, and gives them an exasperated, amused look. "Are you sure I'm the child?"

Tooru sidles up next to him, showing off his superior height, and smears dish suds on Takeru's cheek, making him release a surprised, puberty-crackling squawk. "Absolutely."

"Why are you in such a good mood suddenly?" Takeru asks, scrubbing at his cheek with the sleeve of his volleyball jacket.

"It is my birthday," Tooru says, smearing soap on Takeru's other cheek.

After dinner, all three of them clean up, and Takeru keeps glancing anxiously at his cell phone screen as they put the dishes away.

"Got a hot date?" Tooru asks, and Takeru shakes his head.

"No, just waiting for the game to start. It's Japan against Korea tonight, and it determines the seeding for World's." Takeru shoves his phone back into his pocket. "You..." He hesitates, and then shuffles around in an anxious, teenage way. "You can watch it with me, if you want."

He sees his sister react by almost dropping the dish in her hands, out of the corner of his eye, but Tooru just fiddles with the hem of his shirt, and nods.

"Yeah," Tooru says, "Sure." And he follows Takeru into the living room, curling up on the couch, a pillow clutched to his chest as Takeru surfs for the channel.

Hajime looks tired, Tooru thinks, when the camera zooms in close on him. Sweat clings to his skin and to the ends of his eyebrows, and the collar of his uniform is damp with perspiration, too. Tooru misses him, more than he's ever missed him before. He wonders if Hajime is thinking about Tooru, as he plays tonight. About all the birthdays they've spent together, and all the matches they've played.

Tooru can't think about anything else.

Closing his eyes, Tooru wonders if it really would be all right to let himself love Hajime. If he could let himself, after all this time, admit the truth of the whole thing, and slip his arms into the coat Hajime's been offering to let him wear for years.

The thing is, Tooru had known since he was a small child that Hajime belonged beside him.

Once, when he was six, his parents had taken him and his sister to the beach, and Tooru had cried the whole way there, fat tears rolling down his cheeks as he looked out the back window.

"Why are you making such a fuss, Tooru?" His mother had turned around in her seat to look at him in exasperation. "I thought you liked riding in the car!"

"We forgot Iwa-chan!" Tooru had said, between sobs, and his sister had muttered an infuriated "Oh my God," from behind her fashion magazine, as Tooru looked at his mother with watery eyes, wondering why she still looked confused.

"This is a family trip," his mother had said. "Hajime is at home with his own family, Tooru."

"Iwa-chan's my family," Tooru'd replied, scrubbing at his face. "How can I go on a family trip without him?"

"Hajime's your best friend," his mother had corrected. "You can't take Hajime with you every single place you go, Tooru."

"I never want to go someplace where Iwa-chan can't come too," Tooru had replied, blinking watery eyes. "Never."

"What about when you're old and married, Tooru-chan?" his sister had teased. "You want Hajime to come with you on your honeymoon?"

She’d snickered as their mom had hissed "he's six!" at her, and Tooru had looked over at her defiantly.

"Yes," he'd answered, even though he hadn't been quite sure what a honeymoon even was. He'd curled his toes in his shoes, feeling the urge to stomp his feet, or maybe get out of the car and walk back home, and maybe make Hajime build a fort of pillows and towels and sheets in the upstairs hallway where they could hide away from everyone else.

"You won't feel that way forever," his mother had said, reaching back to hand him a tissue for his face. "You'll both grow up and grow apart, and I'll tell you this story when you're a teenager to embarrass you. Blow your nose, okay?"

And Tooru had taken the tissue and wiped carelessly at his face, and thought, in the uncomplicated way of six year olds, that if growing up meant not wanting to be with Hajime all the time, he didn't want to grow up.

Tooru's thirtieth birthday party is tamer than his twenty-ninth had been.

Calling it a party is something of a stretch, when really it's just Tooru's few close friends, sitting around in Hanamaki's living room playing a game of Snakes and Ladders Matsukawa had picked up as a joke gift from the hundred-yen store, with everyone taking shots any time a roll of the die had anyone landing on a snake. Kyoutani is particularly competitive, slamming his piece down on the board angrily with every set-back, sloshing tequila out of everyone's shotglasses and onto the table, leaving behind a sticky film on the glass that Tooru's already started to draw tiny lewd stick-figures in with his nail.

"You know," Hanamaki says, refilling his and Matsukawa's glasses as Yachi slides her pale blue figurine down a snake, looking mournfully at her position on the board as Kyoutani sulkily grabs the die, still in last place, "if it weren't for the tequila, I'd think this was your tenth birthday party."

"I had a lot more candy at my tenth birthday," Tooru said, taking a gulp of water from the bottle of it at his side. "And how do you know? Maybe I was knocking back shots like a pro when I was ten!"

"What a horrible image," Hanamaki drawls. "That's nightmare fuel, Oikawa. Even fifteen year old you knocking back shots sounds like a horror film."

"Maybe we should have hired a stripper," says Matsukawa, and Tooru shakes his head, watching Yachi pat Kyoutani gingerly on the back as he rolls a three.

"Think of Yachi-chan!" Tooru wags his finger in Hanamaki's face. "Besides, if I wanted to look at someone beautiful and sexy, I'd just go look in the mirror~"

"You disgust me," Hanamaki says, drinking the freshly poured shot, and then standing up on unsteady legs. "Who wants cake?"

"Is there a stripper in the cake?" Matsukawa asks hopefully, and Hanamaki picks up his bottle of water and squirts it twice on Matsukawa's face.

"Why are you so invested--" The doorbell rings, and Hanamaki stops speaking, looking toward the door with pursed lips, before glancing obliquely in Tooru's direction. "I'll get that first," he says.

Tooru hears Hajime's voice soon after Hanamaki's door opens, low and tired, and Tooru's heart races as he slowly looks over his shoulder to look at the entrance to the living room.

Hajime doesn't look all that different than he looked a couple of weeks ago. His hair hasn't gotten any longer, and his tan hasn't faded. To Tooru, though, who hadn't expected Hajime to come at all, he looks a little perfect, standing there with a medium-sized wrapped package with the tiniest of smiles on his face as he looks around the room.

"Whose idea was the Snakes and Ladders drinking game?" Hajime asks, and Kyoutani growls profanities under his breath as Matsukawa raises his hand like a proud primary-schooler.

"Iwa-chan," Tooru says, a wide smile across his face that he knows can't possibly look real, "I didn't think you'd make it!"

"I have never missed a single one of your birthdays, Shittykawa," Hajime replies, crossing the living room to squat down in front of Tooru. He holds out the present, and Tooru takes it. "Open it later, when you get home." He narrows his eyes. "And don't shake it.”

Actually about to rattle it to see what sound it makes, Tooru stops himself just in time. "Is it an explosive?" He wiggles his eyebrows, and Hajime frowns at him. "Is that why you want me to wait?"

"No," Hajime says. "It'll just be easier, if you do." He looks around the room, making eye contact with everyone there. "Don't let him open it, okay?"

"You can count on us," Matsukawa says. He's looking between Tooru and Hajime uncertainly. "You staying?"

"Oh, should we restart the game, Iwaizumi?" Yachi asks, politely, and Kyoutani looks briefly hopeful, but Hajime just shakes his head.

"I just wanted to drop by and leave Oikawa his present," Hajime replies. "He got pissy the last time I was late." He stands again, calves flexing as he rises from his squat, right as Hanamaki returns with the cake. "He wrote me a really passive-aggressive letter and taped it to my desk with E.T. stickers."

"I was nine," Tooru says, faintly. "You can't hold something against me from when I was nine!"

Hajime snorts, and Hanamaki sets the cake down on the table, forestalling Tooru's impassioned defense. "Blow out your candles before Iwaizumi leaves," he says.

Tooru looks at the chocolate cake in front of him, with a three and a zero shaped candle, and then closes his eyes.

"Don't forget to make a wish, Trashykawa," Hajime says, voice as warm as a caress, and Tooru fills his lungs and blows.

He opens his eyes to thin trails of smoke.

"Would you like to take a piece with you?" Hanamaki asks Hajime.

"No, thank you," he says. He looks down at Tooru again, and his smile slips a little. "I should be going. It's World's, so I've got morning practice at five." He laughs lightly. "Or as Oikawa calls it, Hell-Freezing-Over o'clock."

"I'll see you to the door," Tooru says, scrambling up from his seat and almost knocking over his shot glass.

"I've been here as often as you have," Hajime says, but Tooru ignores him, walking past him to stand at the edge of the genkan, leaning against the wall as Hajime moves past him to put on his sneakers.

He bends over to tie them, and Tooru clenches his hands into fists. "Thank you," he says, too loud, and too fast. "For coming, I mean. I didn't expect..."

Finished with his shoes, Hajime uncurls his back, looking up slightly at Tooru, who stands taller than him thanks to the step down to the foyer. "Like I said, I've never missed your birthday, and I didn't intend to start today."

"I never meant to fuck everything up," Tooru says. "All I've ever wanted is to keep you close."

"Oikawa..." Hajime reaches out toward Tooru, almost touching him, and stopping just shy of grasping his arm, flexing his fingers slightly before he sighs out: "It was already fucked up. It's been fucked up for years."

"If it's been fucked up for years, won't you stay a little longer?" Tooru asks, and Hajime’s fingers end up barely brushing the inside of Tooru’s elbow as he pulls away, stepping backwards.

He straightens his shoulders and looks at Tooru for a spell, gaze flitting from Tooru’s eyes to his nose and finally to his mouth. He smiles, small but genuine. "No," he says, and then he takes another step back, turns around, and walks out, leaving Tooru standing in the genkan staring at a closed door.

He stays there until a tipsy Yachi comes and finds him, her small hand clasping his bigger one and tugging gently. "Oikawa?"

"He said no," Tooru tells her, knowing that she won’t understand what he means, what the word had meant in the moment, the significance of it, but needing to say it anyway.

"Come back to the living room," she says, "before Kyoutani eats the entire cake."

"Fine," he says, and he returns to his friends, and smiles and laughs and means none of it at all as his birthday comes to a close.

When he gets home, it's two in the morning. He sits at the kitchen table with Hajime's present in front of him, examining the neatly wrapped corners and the bright bow in Seijou sea-blue.

He unwraps it slowly, peeling back the paper and opening the cardboard box inside carefully. Inside is a plant, barely budding, in a ceramic pot just like the one he keeps Hajime-chan in. There's a note, too, scribbled in Hajime's practical, even hand.

Shittykawa, it says, and Tooru traces the kana with his thumb, imagining Hajime deciding on whether to use that awful nickname or not, "This is a cobra lily. It's kind of like you: It'll sleep all winter, because it gets cold way too easily, and it really loves bugs, especially butterflies. (As a warning, though, it'll try to eat anything that gets close enough to its mouth if you let it get hungry enough.) It's one of the prettiest of the carnivorous plants, but it's also extremely high-maintenance. It'll demand lots more attention than a Venus flytrap, but if you take care of it well, it'll bloom-- bright red and showy. See? Just like you, really. You should name it Tooru-chan."

He hears the words of the note in Hajime's voice, alternating between teasing and serious, and Tooru tries to read it again but the words blur, making him angrily blink to clear the wetness from his eyes.

It's perfect, Tooru decides, looking at the little plant poking out of damp soil. It's the perfect present, just like the flytrap had been, and Tooru already loves it so much, and...

And the thing is, the thing is, it's no surprise that Hajime knows Tooru. Hajime has always known Tooru, in the same instinctual way a dragonfly knows how close it can skim the water without getting its wings wet.

Hajime knows him, inside and out, in a way no one else ever will, and he still thinks Tooru is someone worth knowing, even after seeing pieces of Tooru better left in the dark.

It's scary to sit here at the kitchen table and know that he is at a fork in the road, one path leading to where Tooru's always been supposed to go, and the other leading to the only place Tooru's ever really going to belong. It's scary because Tooru's been telling himself for years and years that Hajime isn't what he should want, isn't what he should need, not like this. It's scary because Tooru's heart feels too heavy and full to carry down that first path all by himself, even if it’s safer, and it's scary because he knows Hajime has the strength of a Hercules beetle, capable of carrying a heart that is a hundred times his own weight.

Looking around at his empty kitchen, at his whole empty apartment, that had only felt like home when little pieces of Hajime had started to trickle in, Tooru thinks it is inevitable that he would end up here.

He reaches out and pulls the pot closer, smoothing down the top layer of soil with his fingertips. "High-maintenance, huh?"

He looks down at the soil sticking to his fingers, and smiles, his stomach in a thousand knots and his heart in his throat.

Really, he made this choice a long time ago. He made it that night in the bathroom, when he'd pulled Hajime in by the collar and kissed him. He made it again weeks ago, pinned under Hajime on the hotel floor in Okinawa. He made it a hundred times between.

In the end, Tooru will always choose Hajime, thrusting aside anything else, no matter how enormous and frightening. Maybe, Tooru thinks, he too has the strength of a Hercules beetle, when push comes to shove.

He slides back from the table, and goes into his recycling to find a jar.

The summer of their fourth year of primary school was the hottest summer on record; endless, sweltering heat and humidity, from sun-up to sun-down, keeping most of the neighborhood kids inside.

Tooru had remained undaunted, though, crawling around on his knees in their backyards under the gentler late afternoon sun, pushing aside the grass with one hand and holding on to a pickling jar with his other arm, a piece of cheesecloth left back on the back steps for later to seal it off.

"What are you even doing?" Hajime had asked, startling him into almost dropping the jar.

"Collecting," Tooru had replied, returning to his task and cheerfully shouting "Aha!" as he spotted a tiny pill bug clinging to a blade of grass for shade. He scooped his nail underneath it, easing it onto the tip of his finger, and then held it up for Hajime to examine.

Hajime had crossed his eyes, peering at it. "Why are you collecting them?"

"Ami in class 5C says she likes cute things," Tooru had replied. "Pill bugs are cute."

"Are they?" Hajime had sat down next to him and started half-heartedly looking too, separating the blades of grass by combing his fingers through them. "Why do you care what Ami in class 5C likes?"

"She's cool," Tooru had replied, thinking back to when Ami had told off a few boys who'd tried to steal Hajime's favorite coloring book last week while Hajime had been in the bathroom, interceding before Tooru had even gotten the chance. "And tall."

"She is tall," said Hajime, sounding unsure about the whole business. "So since you like her, you want to give her a bunch of pill bugs. Because they're cute."

"Yep!" Tooru took the one steadily climbing along the edge of his finger and gently eased it into the jar.

He'd looked over at Hajime to see his face, but Hajime had found one, and he was staring at it with fixed concentration, his eyebrows gathered tightly. "I guess you're right," he'd said, reaching for the jar.

"About what?" Tooru had asked.

Hajime had grinned at him. "Pill bugs are kind of cute."

Koto is beautiful at night.

Tooru has always thought so. When they'd bought their first apartment, Tooru had looked out the kitchen window and seen Tokyo Bay, and he'd thought I could live here forever.

Driving down streets he'd seen plenty of on foot his first four years living in Tokyo, he still thinks he could've.

Hajime's new apartment is not too far from the one they'd shared. It's bigger, and in a newer building, with a revolving door and a security guard behind a desk.

Tooru's only been here twice. Once, when Hajime had a housewarming party, only a few months after Tooru himself had moved out of their old place, and again when Tooru had driven over with his sister there so they could drop off a package from Hajime's mom they'd picked up while visiting home.

He leaves everything in the car outside save for his keys and the plastic bag in the passenger seat, which he's careful not to swing as he picks it up.

Hajime'd had a match this afternoon. Japan had won, securing a berth in the semi-finals. Tooru had watched the game sprawled out on the couch, sleepy from staying awake all night, watching as Hajime slammed the ball down just inside the line in the third set, taking it home for the team in a straight.

That had been hours ago, though, and Tooru is sure that even if Hajime and his teammates had gone out for drinks, he'll be home now, because Hajime is like an old man and sleeps before midnight.

The security guard looks up as he walks in, and Tooru walks up to the desk with his fingers tightening around the handle of his plastic bag.

"Iwaizumi Hajime," Tooru says, when the guard asks him whose room he's headed up to. "I'm Oikawa Tooru."

The guard nods, and picks up the phone, dialing 603, Hajime's room number. It rings twice, and then Hajime answers, and even from the other side of his desk he can hear Hajime's sleepy voice. "There's an Oikawa Tooru here for you. Can I send him up?"

Tooru thinks, maybe, that this is it. If Hajime doesn't want to see him, Tooru will get back in his car, and that will give him too much time to think. Too much time to reconsider. If Hajime doesn't want to see him--

"You can go up," the guard tells him, hanging up the phone. "He's in six-oh-"

"Three," Tooru finishes. "I remember."

The guard nods, and returns his attention to the open book in front of him, and Tooru heads toward the elevator.

When he exits on Hajime's floor, he takes the last few steps down the hall in time with his heartbeat, and when he stops in front of Hajime's door, it takes him a few moments to lift his hand and ring the bell.

Hajime answers the door sleep-rumpled and gorgeous, in a thin white T-shirt worn threadbare at the armpits and a pair of loose pajama pants that he's had since high school, too taut at the thigh and short at the ankles. His hair is a ruffled disaster and his face is creased with lines from his pillow, and he smells like fresh deodorant and summer and childhood and happiness.

"It's late, Oikawa," Hajime says. "Ordinary people are going to sleep."

"I've never been ordinary, Iwa-chan," Tooru replies, licking his lips. "I'm extraordinary."

"Extraordinarily rude." Hajime moves aside. "Come in, already."

Tooru enters, leaving his shoes and padding barefoot into Hajime's living room. Everything is in its place, and even Hajime's throw blanket is folded up on the back of his sofa neatly. "Do you even live here?"

"You're just not used to what it looks like when people pick up after themselves." Hajime turns on another light, brightening up the room, and gestures for Tooru to sit down. Tooru doesn't, though, and Hajime patiently stares Tooru down for a while as Tooru tries to gather the frayed threads of his thoughts into something coherent. Eventually, though, Hajime exhales, sits down on the arm of the sofa, and asks: "What are you doing here, Oikawa?"

"Tooru-chan is really adorable," Tooru says, and Hajime's brows furrow. "Not big enough to eat flies yet, let alone butterflies, but he does tilt toward them when they buzz around."

"Ah," Hajime says, looking away, toward the far wall. Tooru doesn't follow his gaze, instead watching the slight twitch of the muscle in Hajime's jaw, and the way his hands fumble nervously with each other in his lap. "You like him?"

"Only you would know exactly the right thing to get me," Tooru replies. "How did you know I was worried about Hajime-chan being lonely?" Hajime's eyes dart over to Tooru, and Tooru shifts the plastic bag from his left hand into his right. "It made me realize that I owed you a birthday present too, though, since..." Tooru shifts his weight, "...Since I ruined the other one."

He holds out the bag, and Hajime just looks at it for a while, making no move to take it.

Shuffling forward, Tooru keeps his arm extended, letting the bag hang right in front of Hajime's face, so he has no choice but to accept it.

"What’s this?" he asks, finally lifting the plastic bag from Tooru's fingers, careful not to let their fingers brush.

"It’s for you," Tooru replies. He can feel himself going numb. "I… it’s for you."

"Obviously, Shittykawa," Hajime says, his face going full-grump even as his hands shake.

Seeing a man as solid and sure as Hajime looking so uncertain has Tooru wanting to touch him and reassure him the way he himself has been so many times reassured, but Tooru just stands there, and waits.

Hajime sets the bag down on the downward slope of his thigh, and opens it. "A… jar?" He reaches in and takes it out, and when he sees what’s inside it, he almost lets it fall, shock written along every millimeter of his face. Instead, though, it's the bag he lets fall, gripping the jar with both hands and holding it up so that he can see its contents in the light.

"It takes a lot longer to catch them by myself," Tooru says, as Hajime looks at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. "And they're harder to see at night. I went to that park near my place." He rubs his hands on his jeans. "It took hours, but I wanted to catch at least a hundred of them." He takes a shuddering breath. "And we should probably let them free soon, because I put a wet paper towel in there for them, but Armadillidium vulgare need more moisture to survive, and they shouldn't really be kept as pets."

Hajime swallows, and sets the jar down on his coffee table, fingers lingering on the cheesecloth cover as he stares at it, and then turns back to Tooru, his lips parted and his dark eyes shining in the light.

"I considered flowers," Tooru says, "but I figured you already know that I think killing flowers like that is a waste, and I figured that you would understand this--" He gestures to the pill bugs. "More clearly than flowers, because you understand me even when I don't understand myself."

"Oikawa," Hajime says.

"You always have," Tooru says. "Understood me, I mean, so I hope that you realize--"

"Oikawa."

Tooru stops, biting his lip, and braves the silence.

"Do you mean it?" Hajime asks, then, so slowly and deliberately that Tooru is sure he's hearing it from kilometers away instead of scarcely a meter. "Oikawa Tooru, do you mean it."

"Iwa-chan," Tooru replies, lifting up his heart with all the strength he has and holding it out for Hajime to take, "I've always meant it."

"I hate you," Hajime says, and he stands up from his perch on the arm of the sofa, reaches out to cup Tooru's face with both hands, and kisses him.

Tooru grabs on to Hajime's forearms to anchor himself and opens for him, letting Hajime press in as close as he wants and take. Everything else in the world fades out to nothing as Hajime crowds him backwards until Tooru's back hits the wall, Hajime's thigh sliding up between his as one of his hands moves to tangle in Tooru's hair and the other slips down to cradle his neck, thumb pressed roughly to Tooru's pulse point as Tooru tilts his head back for more.

Hajime groans as Tooru grinds down on his thigh and slips his hands up under that too thin tee, running his hands along hard muscle and soft skin as he tries to pull Hajime in closer, as close as he can get, as close as they are in every other way that counts.

"For the record, Oikawa," Hajime says, pulling away from Tooru to steal a few quick breaths, a hand sliding down Tooru's back and then up Tooru's shirt to press warm and callused to the curve at the end of his spine, "hundreds of tiny roly-poly bugs are not more romantic than a thousand flowers." He laughs, and it tickles Tooru's chin. "You're so fucking weird."

"I'm amazing," Tooru replies breathlessly. "It's the most romantic thing ever, and you know it."

"Whatever helps you sleep at night," Hajime murmurs again, swallowing Tooru's protests with another searing kiss, his tongue slipping past Tooru's teeth. Tooru whimpers, his own fingers traversing the expanse of Hajime's chest before dragging down his abs, palm crossing the thin line of hair that leads down to the waist of Hajime's shorts.

Every centimeter of Hajime is familiar, and at the same time, under Tooru's hands and lips and tongue, he's also new. This time, Tooru doesn't pull back, doesn't let fear and guilt rise up between them like another goddamn wall, and relearns the feel of Hajime's hands lingering on his hipbones, and the way his hand feels in his hair. He savors how Hajime finds each and every place Tooru likes to be touched and avoids the ticklish spots without errors as he relearns Tooru, too.

"You," Tooru says, when Hajime lightens his kisses to nips at Tooru's lower lip and soft licks to the corners of his mouth. Tooru peppers kisses to Hajime's chin and cheeks and the dip between his upper lip and his nose, before tucking his face into the curve of Hajime's neck.

"Me what?" Hajime asks, and that voice is new, husky and rich with want, and Tooru wonders if he'll ever run out of things about Hajime to like.

"What helps me sleep at night," Tooru says, letting his weight rest against the wall as Hajime presses their foreheads together, looking straight into Tooru's eyes. "It's you." Tooru smirks. "And wine, sometimes. I have to give credit where credit is due--"

"Shut up, Oikawa," Hajime says, laughter edging in around the desire, and Tooru thinks he could conquer the world.

"Make me," Tooru replies, and Hajime uses his index finger to tilt his chin up, and kisses him again.

"You look different today," Sasada tells him, when he arrives fifteen minutes past eleven in the morning to his new office, hanging his coat on the hook by the door and frowning at Sasada, who has pulled up a chair on the other side of his wide desk, one of Miguchi’s old books open beside her laptop.

"I don’t know why I gave you a key to my office," Tooru says.

"I was lonely in our old dungeon without you," she replies. "No, but seriously, you look different."

Tooru touches his face as he circles her chair to sit behind his desk in the oversized comfortable chair Miguchi had bought years ago, pressing his fingers to his nose, cheeks and chin. "I don’t have a zit, do I?" He groans dramatically. "If I do, I’m going home!"

Sasada laughs at his antics, but something lingers in her eyes as she studies him over the edge of her laptop. "No zits, I promise."

Tooru wonders if waking up this morning, and every morning for that past few weeks, body curled into Hajime’s, their limbs interlaced and his face pressed into the warm curve of Hajime’s neck, has left a visible mark on him, something other people can see and know what it means. He wonders, and his stomach twists.

Finally, though, Sasada leans back in her seat, satisfied, and says: "I think you just seem happier."

"Happier?" Tooru runs a hand through his hair, and smiles at her, tension unspooling. "What does happier look like? I hope it includes smaller pores on my nose."

Sasada gives him an arch look. "Get to work, Oikawa. I know you’ve got syllabi to write." Tooru opens his mouth to make a joke about how he’s waiting for solitude in his own office to compose, but Sasada continues before he even starts. "And whatever it is that’s made you happier… I’m glad you have it."

"Me too," Tooru says quietly, thinking of the scent of deodorant and summer. He looks at the window-sill, where Hajime-chan and Tooru-chan have made a comfortable home where the light of day streams in the longest, and notices that Tooru-chan has started to grow, curving stalk leaning naturally toward Hajime-chan’s lowest two traps, like the distance between their pots is too far. Tooru bites his lip. "Me too."

"It’s really not fair that you get Iwaizumi and Oikawa," Hanamaki says to Matsukawa as he stretches, extending his fingers to just barely touch his toes. "They share a brain on the court."

"They used to share a brain on the court," Yahaba corrects, helping Yachi to carry the score-card from the gym closet onto the court. "Are you sure it’s okay to use this place, Oikawa-senpai?"

"Yeah, yeah!" Tooru dismissively waves a hand, shaking out his legs to get used to the feeling of kneepads again. "I already checked and there’s no practice today, and staff are allowed to use the facilities." He buffs his nails on the breast of his T-shirt. "Besides, if any of my students wander in, they’ll be delighted to see their favorite professor in a pair of shorts!"

"Gross," Kyoutani says, on the other side of the net, where he’s doing push-ups as he waits for Yahaba to finish with the sign.

"Really," Hanamaki says, "Having Iwaizumi alone on your team is a complete disadvantage for us. He should sit out. Hitoka-chan should play."

"Please don’t drag me into this," Yachi replies, blushing. "I’ll just do the scoring, all right?"

"I promise to take it easy on you," Hajime says, and Tooru elbows him.

"We don’t take it easy on anyone, Iwa-chan! That is not how you approach a competition!" Hajime laughs at him, and Tooru pokes his arm. "Honestly, there are no true friends in war."

"It’s a pick-up game, Shittykawa, not the Inter-highs."

"Best of three sets?" Matsukawa asks. He’s got a ball under each arm, and he rolls one across the court to Yachi, who taps it with her foot to stop its progress. "Like high school?"

"Sounds good," Yahaba agrees, stretching his arms over his head, bending down to cross under the net to Hanamaki and Kyoutani’s side. Kyoutani glares at him, still looking a little bitter that Hajime isn’t on his team, but they’d drawn lots and Tooru had been smugly pleased that even fate wanted Tooru and Hajime playing with each other again. "After all, we wouldn’t want to wear Oikawa-senpai out completely."

"You traitor!" Tooru puts a hand to his chest. "I taught you everything you know, and you turn on me like this?"

Yahaba just grins.

"Are we starting some time today?" Kyoutani asks, and Tooru accepts the second ball from Matsukawa, heading back toward the service line.

It’s a three-on-three match, just something casual Hajime had set up because Tooru had mentioned offhand that he wondered if he could even still serve. Even so, Tooru’s eyes scan the court, dissecting the immediately visible holes in their defense, and the tension in Kyoutani’s right leg from impatience that’ll having him moving slowly to block in that direction.

"Shall we begin?"

"Oh yes, Great King," Hanamaki says, and Yahaba snickers.

When the ball goes up, Tooru can feel the rush of excitement, energy coming up from his toes and lancing up through his calves and thighs as he springs into a jump to complete the serve. The ball hits soundly against his palm and flies rapidly over the net, right past Hanamaki and Kyoutani.

It’s not as strong as it used to be, Tooru realizes, as Yahaba dives for the save, managing to set up a slightly wonky spike for Kyoutani to send back over the net.

Matsukawa digs it up before it can hit the court, sending it right to Tooru, who forms a triangle with his index fingers and thumbs as he squats right below the ball, tossing right to the high point of Hajime’s pre-emptive jump.

Hajime spikes it down hard along the sideline for a point, and Matsukawa whoops excitedly and Kyoutani agitatedly cracks his knuckles.

Hajime grins at him, grinning from a solid point like he doesn’t play for more high stakes every week on a national stage, and he turns to Tooru, holding up both hands for high fives. "Nice toss," he says, as Tooru's palms slap his. Tooru goes to drop his hands, but Hajime laces their fingers together instead.

Tooru's heart races, from adrenaline and affection and the feel of Hajime's hands linked with his own. "Nice spike, too," Tooru replies. "You ever think about going pro?"

"I've considered it a time or two," Hajime says, with a laugh.

"You're almost as good as I am," Tooru says. "It's worth thinking about."

"Almost?" Shaking his hair out of his face, Hajime shuffles a bit closer, until the toes of his sneakers bump Tooru’s. "I guess I'll keep in in mind, then."

"Man like you could medal in the Olympics some day."

"Hey!" Tooru looks over to the other side of the net, where Hanamaki is impatiently spinning a volleyball. He looks amused though, and happy. "You gonna just hold hands all day, or are we going to get this show on the road?"

"In that much of a hurry to get your ass handed to you, Makki-chan?"

Hanamaki raises his eyebrows. "You're awfully confident for a man who hasn't played a match in fifteen years. Though you do have Iwaizumi."

"I might be a bit rusty," Tooru says loftily, "but it'll be more than enough to beat you, Yahaba-chan, and Mad-Dog-chan. You mustn't forget I was your captain and setter-- I still know all of your weaknesses."

"Your personality is so bad," Hajime says, untangling their fingers and holding out his hands for Kyoutani to pass him the ball under the net.

Tooru chuckles, fluttering his eyelashes when Hajime looks back at him. "I’m your favorite," he says, and wiggles his fingers to ask for the ball. He catches it easily, and rolls it in his hands, feeling the seams. "You’re not fooling anyone, Iwa-chan~ You adore me! I am the sugar to your Papilio machaon, the flame to your moth—"

"The pain in my ass…"

"Only if you ask really nicely," Tooru replies, letting Hajime sputter in embarrassment as Matsukawa groans in misery, and then he sends the ball up above him, and prepares to serve again.

Later, Tooru knows, they’ll go to his sister’s house for dinner, and his sister will tease them both, acceptance written in every gesture as Tooru holds Hajime’s hand under the table. Later than that, they’ll go back to Tooru’s apartment and put a few more things into boxes in preparation for his next move, and then smush together on the sofa despite the sticky heat and watch reruns of The X-files on television until Hajime falls asleep, turning from handsome boyfriend to slumbering pumpkin at midnight. Even later, Tooru will rest his ear on Hajime’s chest, and listen to his heartbeat as he lies awake, thinking that even if in the vastness of the universe, Tooru and Hajime are nothing but ants, Tooru’s world is much smaller than that, and Hajime has always been the center of it.

It’s not that Tooru isn’t still scared. It’s not that he doesn’t hesitate. He can’t stop doing those things just because he’s chosen this, just because he doesn’t regret it, because he, like a butterfly, remembers every sign of danger he learned as a caterpillar, and life isn’t something anyone can ever really start over from scratch.

As his palm hits the ball with a satisfying smack, sending it spiraling through the air with perfect precision just the way he used to in high school, lactic acid burning in his calves and the court spread out below him like a kingdom waiting for him to conquer it, Tooru thinks that also, maybe, like a butterfly, he has emerged from the cocoon of the past ten years with a strong and beautiful pair of wings.

⚘ ⚘ ⚘