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Character Development

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The quiet of the room, interrupted only by the percussion of fingers on a keyboard, was humming with restrained antagonism.

"I'm occupied at the moment," it murmured.

"If you would be so kind as to leave," it muttered.

"I have little to say to you," it danced on the edge of a growl.

“Perhaps you should make intimate acquaintance with the business end of a rake,” it insisted. Mildly. And so on and so forth, conjuring a wall of gentle hostility dense enough to hang a picture frame on.

But the room’s second inhabitant was used to it.

“So like I was saying, it’s obvious what you need to do," his brother lectured, sprawled on a bed that wasn’t his. "Coincidentally it’s also what you want to do. Stay home.”

Pulling himself away from his mediocre final paper on George Bernard Shaw, Keiji delivered a dismissive glance to his own personal annoyance, then focused on the screen once more.

His brother still didn't get the hint. Or, what was more likely, ignored it. Because he was the worldly wise one. Obviously nothing could escape his notice.

“Why is it difficult to believe that I want to attend my senior prom?” Keiji sighed, finishing the sentence he’d been rewriting for what seemed like an hour. Literature was his thing, maybe, but fascist-sympathizing playwrights who opposed vaccination and supported eugenics were definitely not. He should have left the words as they were fifty minutes ago.

A cackle rose from the bed, indicating that the great Tetsurou had come up with a retort he considered clever.

“Wellll," he drawled, "it’s mostly because you’re eighteen, genetically predisposed to hotness - considering exhibit A here..."

Keiji didn't need to look to know that Tetsurou was pointing at himself.

"...but,” his brother continued, a little more exasperated, “you sit in front of your computer writing and listening to your awful nineties rock pretty much every Saturday night. I have a pretty good grasp on your personality after watching it develop over the past eighteen years and honestly, I don’t get why you’d wanna go.”

“I’m impressed you gained that much wisdom in the year before I was born,” Keiji said. “As I understood it you spent most of it refusing to eat anything but mashed bananas.”

“Okay,” Tetsurou was now humoring him. “So you really want to go…”

“It’s a quintessential high school experience.” Keiji had to work to maintain the thinnest veneer of composure. It was a bad sign if his brother had worn him down this quickly, but this was hardly the first time he’d grilled him on the subject.

“…but you can’t find any guy worth taking.”

Keiji sighed out his rage wearily.

Because he couldn't.

Chikara had left for New York right before the school year started. Which still hurt, if Keiji was honest with himself, but there was nothing for it. His best friend or whatever it was that they had been was gone and, based on the manner of their parting, there was no happy reunion in their future.

Scrolling through his mental contact list for other guys who liked dudes proved fruitless. Noya had a burly street artist boyfriend. All of the juniors he knew were together, and too much to handle even outside of that. Despite how many times it was suggested, Keiji refused to go as Ryuu’s pity date. Especially since that guy wanted to bring a girl more than the rest of the straight male student body combined. Kenma was obviously not an option.

“You know,” his brother began tentatively, “since we’ve already gone twice, I don’t have to go with Kenma. You two could go… together…”

“It’d be like going with you,” Keiji shut down that profoundly generous yet insanely stupid offer instantly. Because it almost definitely would, but also because it certainly wasn’t what Kenma wanted, let alone Tetsurou.

“And you can’t just go with someone you’re friends with, or just by yourself, because…?”

“Overzealous classmates,” he said in a tone that was even flatter than normal. The words skidded across the floor and rattled at his brother's feet like a loose trash can lid, making enough noise to shut him up for a few blessed moments. The computer screen held no answers, but Keiji stared holes through it searching for them anyway.

How was he the type of person people wanted to meddle with? He regretted the day he’d come out. Not because he was embarrassed, but because recently people had started treating him like the sole representative of the entire gay community. As though there weren’t – on top of the dozen gay guys he knew of – at least thirty women who loved women hanging around, ready to talk about their adorable girlfriends to anyone who would listen.

“Oh yeah, your little fanclub…” Tetsurou mused. “That’s what you get for being hot, I guess. It was the same for Tooru, but man, he eats that shit up. Think it’s worse for you though. First off, you don’t have an angry porcupine to scare them away. On top of that, you’re just a broken-hearted little nerd. A lot more approachable and a lot more in need of some charitable assistance.”

Ignoring the realities that he was nearly six feet tall and certainly past the broken-hearted stage, Keiji focused on the crux of his problem. “I told them I had already found a date in order to encourage them to leave me alone.”

“Ohoho! So you’re fucked then?” His brother’s voice was approaching a frenzied squeak

Keiji wondered if George Bernard Shaw and his brother might get along if politics and medical science were avoided. “In so many words,” he adjusted his glasses, “yes. I also implied that the date was of a romantic nature. Unfortunately.”

Tetsurou's feet hit the ground as he sat up. “Why the fuck would you do that, Keiji?”

He looked his brother straight in the eye. One, since the other was hidden behind his terrible hair.

“You don’t understand how tenacious they’ve been.”

There was a long, heavy pause. He’d been desperate. Mobbed at lunch and in the hallways, stripped of the quiet moments he loved. With the exception of Kenma, his closest friends had all graduated. In their absence, there had been no one to serve as a buffer between himself and the horde. Keiji could generally handle difficult people. But not for months without a break, and certainly not in such large numbers.

Also he’d overestimated his pool of available dates.

“For someone who used to plan bank robberies for fun, you're pretty dense sometimes,” his brother chuckled, scrabbling for his phone. “Never fear, little buddy,” he texted furiously as he spoke, “big brother Tetsu’s gonna take care of this for you.”

“You’re about to ruin my life.”

“If what I’ve learned from the movies of our youth counts for anything," Tetsurou smiled airily, "I’m about to do the exact opposite.”

 

 

Keiji didn’t necessarily forget about his brother’s ominous promise. But he did try not to think about it.

The whole mess really was his fault. His "fan club" hadn't come out of nowhere. It wasn’t just like Tooru’s; it had been Tooru’s. Keiji had inherited this unexpected burden upon his graduation. And despite Tetsurou's claims, it had little to do with his looks.

There was a prevalent delusion that, much like the great Tooru Oikawa, Keiji was well on his way to becoming a sought-after member of the entertainment industry. It was no surprise that a certain group was trying to ingratiate themselves to him - that was the way things worked in this part of California. Their ineffective methods were also not much of a shock.

No one seemed to care that Keiji’s skill set in the realm of film began and ended with writing one, and he really didn't want to do that as a career. Maybe if Chikara had stuck around. But he hadn't. So probably not even if he had.

It had been nine months and really the sorrow was gone whenever he thought about his ex... everything. But the anger at himself, the mortification, was not. So even though there were at least two out sophomores with definite crushes on him, they were not avenues he would choose to pursue. He absolutely did not want to hurt a classmate by getting romantically entangled just for the sake of a dance. Leading people on was absolute bullshit.

He would know.

But he wanted to go to the prom. Not for traditional reasons, admittedly, but earnestly all the same.

It was a common national experience. Being so common, it was also something he didn’t think he could duplicate through sheer imagination. He'd make too many mistakes. He wasn’t the kind of hyper-masculine elitist who was going to pretend that teenage experiences were useless. To the contrary, they were vital. But without attending, the event would be challenging to understand at best, no matter how many unnecessarily extravagant promposals he witnessed in the hallway.

This was a problem, if he wanted to write about it someday. And he wasn’t going to discount that chance.

He and Chikara hadn't gone their junior year because they'd been far away, trembling bodies leaning against each other in a lavish ballroom, faces flushed with champagne as they slow danced awkwardly in insanely priced tuxes, the fibers of the red carpet fresh on their heels. 

Keiji collected memorable experiences like his grandfather collected fruit trees, and that night had been wildly memorable for a number of reasons.

He didn't want to remember a single one.

But he was really inept at turning off his thoughts. He could either muse over the loss of his virginity, or worry over whatever nonsense his brother was about to hit him with. The latter was a lot more immediate and difficult to avoid.

Classes were over at UCLA. Tetsurou’s finals had all been lab reports and papers, so he had moved home and picked up his part time job as a pharmacy assistant at CVS. His haste was probably scenery-driven: his room was directly across the fence from their neighbor, Kenma Kozume's. Their windows had always faced each other. Whenever this was brought up, his brother blushed, then waggled his eyebrows to pretend that he hadn’t. The details of their relationship were among the few things Keiji had trained himself to ban from his mind on no uncertain terms.

Mostly.

Since Keiji was walking home with Kenma himself, Tetsurou would almost certainly be at the house when they got back.

The nice thing about walking with someone that he’d known since birth but was in no way related to was that Kenma didn't expect Keiji to talk. At all. He also wouldn't get into his business unless things were desperate. The not so nice thing was that Keiji desperately needed someone to talk to at the current moment, and getting his oldest confidante to do that meant–

"What’s wrong?"

Kenma's soft interruptions of his fretting were always eerie. Keiji probably had some kind of physical tell, but he’d never asked what it was, and Kenma had never offered. Perhaps it was the way he fidgeted with his fingers…

Looking down at his busy hands, he thrust them to his sides, clenching them into fists.

"I’m concerned that I’m an idiot for wanting to attend our prom," he announced, after a great deal of mental wordsmithing. Normally thinking about what he was going to say that much would cause enormous difficulty. But Kenma was one of the easiest people on earth to speak to, since he was barely present to begin with.

His neighbor took a deep breath, probably more to focus on a particularly difficult point in the game he was playing than to consider Keiji's question in-depth.

"No more than normal,” he dropped, as though he were talking to Tetsurou, a permanent resident of the state of idiocy. 

Someday Keiji was going to give the best man speech at their wedding. It was not going to be an easy task. But he would make it absolutely scathing and deliver it perfectly if both of them kept this up.

Kenma's walk slowed to a crawl, "You don't do things recklessly. If you want to go, it's unlikely to be for idiotic reasons. But if you don’t know, there's no way for me to be sure."

They walked another block before he added with a small smile, "I doubt it though, Keiji."

 Well… maybe the speech would just make his brother look bad.

 

 

 

The kitchen was supposed to be safe. A place where he made pizza rolls, devoured his grandmother's onigiri, and got a drink of water when he couldn’t sleep (which was nearly always). The kitchen was not a place where Keiji was accosted by his brother and enormous, weird-looking men.

“Bo, this is my little brother, Keiji Akaashi.”

And yet there they were. 

“Little brother, this is Bokuto: one of my best bros and, more importantly, your prom date.” 

Keiji spent a long moment blinking.

"Bokuto," was almost as tall as Tetsurou, and Tetsurou had been the tallest in his grade since he was seven. His hair was dyed as white as cosmetic science could get something that had almost certainly started off as black (so it was more of a dingy sun-bleached grey). Certain sections had been left his natural color, and the whole mess stood up about six inches off of his head.

His eyes were enormous and, strangely enough, amber, just like Kenma and Kuroo's. For a sixth grade science project Keiji had researched the frequency of eye colors, and that one was the rarest. All three of them having it was actively insane.

Bokuto’s eyebrows were dyed to match his hair, and they were exaggerated in both size and arch. In a mere thirty seconds he had used them to great effect while he sized Keiji up.

A cartoon character.

His brother was setting him up with a cartoon character. Well, if a cartoon character reproduced with a beefy frat guy, since that's what the biceps and pecs and very revealing tank top were announcing with no shame whatsoever.

"I'm going to Kenma's," Keiji announced just as his "date" opened his mouth.

"O-hoho no you don't," Tetsurou grabbed his arm then called over his shoulder. "Hey Bo, why don't you head into the living room and chill for a bit, eh? Sometimes Keiji here gets a little crabby if he doesn't get his snack after school. Low blood sugar, you know?"

The monstrosity of a man shrugged, looking more than a little put out. Whatever he had been about to say, he let it go. He didn’t look happy about it.

"That’s some kinda gratitude," Tetsurou drawled as soon as their visitor was out of earshot. "What happened to my painfully polite little brother? I get the ideal guy to take you to prom, and you act like he's not even here!"

"I doubt I’d let him take me to the hospital if I were bleeding to death."

"Bokuto is a starting freshman, the star of the UCLA men’s volleyball team. You know, the team ranked fourth in the country?"

"Also of interest: I stopped playing volleyball.”

"Yeah, and we all know how that turned out," his brother muttered.

Keiji shook his arm free, uninterested in hearing that lecture again, "I'm going to Kenma's to finish some of the last major assignments of my high school career. Please let me know when I can come home."

But Tetsurou was immediately in front of him, long arms blocking the way, "Okay, look. Bokuto is a good friend. Do I make friends with terrible people?"

"Tooru Oikawa," Keiji responded without having to think. There were more but his brother’s first year roommate was the easiest example.

Tetsurou couldn’t counter immediately but after a moment he nodded to himself and grinned.

"That guy is like… reality television. Love him or hate him, you still watch, and he's the one who makes out in the end. Plus he worked out well enough for you didn't he? Honestly, Keiji, have I ever introduced you to anyone who turned out to be a legitimately bad person?"

He wanted to say yes, but he couldn't. Because everyone Tetsurou met eventually became a better person for it. His brother, for all his idiocy, had inherited their mother's clever kindness and generosity, with a heaping spoonful of getting into everyone’s business by poking it with a stick.

Keiji, on the other hand, had assumed her chilly politeness, blunt honesty, and generally calculating demeanor. 

Both had inherited her height.

"No," Keiji crossed his arms. "You have not."

"Alright then. Bokuto knows the drill. He gets it. You need a fake date of the romantic persuasion."

"Is he even gay?"

"I think he'd fuck pretty much anyone that'd give him consent. Oh, don't make that face! He’s not a creep. He's popular on campus, just terrible at taking anything past the hook-up stage. Kind of… intense. Freaks his dates out almost immediately. You’re the only person I know who could take on that kind of energy instead of just running away or getting caught up. You’re like… a shock absorber? But instead of impact, you absorb fun.” 

Keiji was pretty certain that that was one of the more insulting things his brother had said since he'd learned human language, and he’d been keeping track.

But Tetsurou was trying to persuade him, and there was no stopping him once he got going. “You take Bo on six practice dates, teach him how not to scare people off, and he'll show you the time of your life at the prom. How does that sound?"

"How many heartwarming romantic comedies have this plot, exactly?"

"You tell me, Mr. Internationally-Acclaimed-Screenwriter. Since you're the expert, you can avoid that whole trope altogether. Teach Bokuto how to be a good date, then let him show you a prom worth writing about. Cause that's what you want, isn't it?"

"Kenma told you that, didn't he?"

"Have a little faith in my own power of observation!"

Keiji gave him a pointed look

"He guessed," Tetsurou admitted, "but obviously he was right! Now, are you gonna play nice?"

The only way Keiji could tell that his brother was nervous was the way his horrible crest of hair quivered. He was trying. And he'd been trying to cheer him up for the better part of a year. And this wasn’t… the worst idea he’d had. That would be the Chemistry Lab Incident in sophomore year when Tetsurou had attempted to confess his long simmering romantic feelings for Kenma with science.

Science and toxic gas.

It had somehow worked, despite the arrival of the fire department and his departure in an ambulance.

"Fine."

Tetsurou clapped his hands and rubbed them together with delight. "Bo! C'mon back! Family meeting over."

In four astoundingly loud steps, Bokuto was back in the room. He turned on Keiji like he’d been sitting quietly for hours instead of minutes, "Hey, hey, hey, Kaashi! I gotta say man, I was looking at the pictures of you in the living room and damn you are the hottest fucking guy I've ever seen! And I have seen a lot of guys! Why the hell do you need a fake date? Do you have like… a weird dick or something?"

Keiji took a deep breath and responded with composure and decorum that gently deescalated the absolutely unbearable situation. Not unlike...

…a shock absorber. But of fun.

"No, Bokuto, my penis is perfectly normal. But thank you."

 

 

 

Keiji’s efforts to make date number one as low-key as possible were not as effective as he hoped.

“Hey, hey, hey, Kaashi!”

Bokuto placed his iced coffee on the table Keiji had picked for them, then sat down hard in his wicker bentwood chair. The spot by the open window had been selected so that, hopefully, they could people-watch instead of talk the entire time.

That was not going to be possible.

“So… this is a normal first date, eh?” Bokuto put his hands behind his head and kicked out his feet, as though he were coming back to his own place after a long day at the office. He was wearing another loose tank top, this time under a ratty yellow cardigan over coral-colored shorts and duck taped flip flops. Why he didn’t have “brah” tattooed between his almost visible nipples was a question that Keiji really couldn’t answer.

Bokuto’s actual question, however, was one that he could address. Especially since that was his part of the deal.

“It’s generally a good idea to meet for a first date at a neutral location that allows for a flexible time commitment,” Keiji explained. “A cafe, ice cream shop or bar allows ample time to get to know each other. It’s easy to stay much longer than intended, while allowing for a quick escape if things go poorly, unlike a restaurant or movie theater.”

“Whoa, man you must have gone on a hell of a lot of first dates.”

Keiji stiffened. He had incorrectly assumed that Tetsurou had explained all this.

“Actually,” he lifted his cup of tea to cover his mouth and any flush of embarrassment that might have developed, “this is my first.”

“Wait a minute!” Bokuto’s fist hit the table, and Keiji had to catch the guy’s drink to keep it from tipping over. “How are you supposed to give me advice then? Also, you’re fucking hot. How the hell have you never gone on a first date before this? I’ve gone on like fifty!”

A fair question. While Keiji knew a lot about dating, a decent chunk of it was either thanks to the internet, or observational in nature. That didn't make it inaccurate. Dating with this level of formality wasn’t something high schoolers could often do anyway.

All the same, this was not how he’d expected things to go. 

“Never gone on a second, come to think of it,” Bokuto muttered, looking miserably down at his teetering drink. In the time it’d taken Keiji to consider his words, he'd gone from complete maniac to drenched baby bird. It was immediately obvious that letting this state of dejection go on would create more challenges than their arrangement already presented.

So Keiji found himself opening up to a complete stranger and talking about an old relationship, all in the same breath. Two terrible choices on a first date, real or otherwise. He'd have to explain that at a later time.

“My ex and I were best friends,” he sat his cup on the saucer with a wobbly clack. “Our relationship gradually evolved into romance, so there really was no first date.”

Bokuto looked up. "Well that's really cool but, I mean, wasn’t there at least a minute where you were like, ‘Soo... we just put our tongues down each other’s throats…?’ I mean, assuming you like that sorta thing.”

Why this.

“It was very organic," Keiji was outwardly unmoved but inwardly unable to keep from wondering if maybe there should have been.

“Well, that sounds kinda boring," the man across from him mused, not a hint of malice in his voice.

That was it.

“Bokuto, here is my first piece of advice: consider what you are saying before you say it. Your dates may find your habit of immediately announcing whatever comes to mind profoundly offensive. That’s not what most people want out of a companion, especially a romantic one.”

His date's face was unreadable at first, then teetering on a meltdown, then thoughtful.

“Huh. Nobody's ever told me that like that before. It, uh, kinda makes sense, I guess," Bokuto took a deep, fortifying breath. “So, uh... what do you want out of a, um, romantic companion, Kaashi?”

This was not a real date. And he was not going to blush at the sudden question as though he were on one. Even if it had been unexpected and almost the exact right thing to say, despite its invasiveness. It still was not real, and Keiji had no idea why he even needed to consider such a thing. 

“I don’t trust you enough to answer that," he answered sensibly.

“Well, what do I gotta do for you to trust me then?” Bokuto persisted, putting his elbows on the table and leaning forward.

“I…” he had absolutely no idea. The mere thought of trust brought up a chaotic mass of emotions he had not dealt with. He took a sip of his tea and tried to figure out what to say without thinking about it too much.

Bokuto's eyes grew soft. The exaggerated features that had previously resembled a drunkenly assembled Mr. Potato Head eased into an interesting, even handsome face.

“I get it,” he said, with a gentleness that his entire existence belied. “Somebody hurt you real bad, didn’t they Kaashi?”

This was no more a therapy session than it was an actual date. A firm redirection was necessary.

“I would appreciate it if you stopped calling me ‘Kaashi.’ My name is Keiji. Or Akaashi. Kashi is a cereal brand one of my uncles likes because he mistakenly believes it is good for him. It tastes like cardboard.”

The diversion worked, because Bokuto was nodding his head enthusiastically, thrilled to be given something practical to work on.

He was taking this a lot more seriously than Keiji had expected.

“Right. Got it, Akaashi. Sorry, I usually call everybody by their last names or like some kinda nickname? It’s been like that since, I dunno, middle school? There were two of us with the same name in sixth grade; everybody started calling us by our last names so I thought we were supposed to do that with everybody. Then I thought it was just cool. Kept it up even when I changed schools. Got used to nobody using mine ‘cept my family. First names got to feeling really…”

“Intimate?” Keiji offered, just on the edge of sardonic. He was fairly certain it wasn’t that. It was just a name.

He was wrong.

“Yeah! Like…" Bokuto scratched the back of his head, "more than sexy shit. I mean, not like that with my family, ugh, that'd be gross. It just feels all nice when new people say my name, like they know a secret or something. Don't like everybody doing that to me. Know it’s weird, but I'd rather–”

“If you’re willing to entertain my preferences, I’m certainly happy to agree to yours," he felt the right corner of his lips turn up the slightest bit.

“So…" Bokuto grinned, not missing the micro smile, "do ya trust me now??”

Keiji chuckled, which he did not want to do, but stopping once he had given in would have been awkward. “A small amount more than I did before. But…”

“I gotta work at it? Okay. Can do!" Bokuto stood up and hit his own chest, gathering the attention of everyone in the cafe and on the busy sidewalk in front of them. "By the end of this prom, you’ll trust me with your life!”

A quick glance into Bokuto’s eyes said that he was dead serious. Keiji had absolutely no idea what to do with that information. He didn’t have time to come up with anything, because Bokuto was looking right back at him with an intense, feral stare. It was more overwhelming than the extreme discomfort of this happening in front of people.

What if someone recognized him? was drowned out by: What the hell is wrong with this person?

After a Much-Too-Long pause, Keiji fiddled with his teacup and cleared his throat. “Generally during first dates, the two parties get to know each other on a somewhat superficial level. Where they’re from and–”

“Moloka‘i Island!" Bokuto slammed himself back into his chair excitedly. "That’s uh… part of Hawai‘i, if you didn’t know. Nobody knows,” he laughed, like it was some old joke. “We don’t get many tourists and there’s only like seven thousand people on the whole island! More people go to my university! Exponentially!” 

Keiji blinked, not necessarily expecting such an exotic home state, which was silly considering he had an aunt, uncle, and two cousins in Maui. But he’d just assumed Bokuto was from Gardena or something.

Also the word “exponentially” had been surprising.

His date took his surprise as an indication that he’d done something wrong.

“Ah man, sorry. I should have asked you first, right? Or waited until you asked me? Sorry, I just get real excited to talk about home. I’m kinda homesick, I guess. There’s a lot of concrete here and the water’s all gloomy and the waves are pretty small. Ugh, sorry, I’m the worst.”

Bokuto put his head in his hands, completely despondent for the second time in ten minutes. This proclivity to jump from one mood to another had to be exhausting. It certainly couldn’t be intentional. No one would willingly do such a thing to themselves.

“This misery would not go over well on an actual date, Bokuto,” Keiji said after giving his date ample chance to pull himself together. “Why not just ask me something instead?”

Bokuto took a shuddering breath and lifted his eyes, still looking defeated, though the tiniest bit less so.

“Agaaseeeee, where are you from?” he husked, looking like he wanted to roll around on the floor until his life ended.

Keiji was not about to let him mope his way through the rest of these abysmal dates. Bokuto was going to learn and improve or they were going to stay home from the prom altogether. Keiji could pick out some of the issues already. They were not unresolvable. This person could be happy. He could make someone else happy, with some hard work.

Not every romance had to end in misery.

“I grew up here, in the house where Tetsurou and I live now. We’ve been there since I was born.”

Bokuto perked up and Keiji received an unnecessarily fascinated series of nods. Considering the awed continental opinion of Bokuto’s own home state, Torrance, California was hardly a striking locale.

“So like… why do you and Kuroo have different last names?”

Keiji spilled the remainder of his tea across the table.

Wide amber eyes announced that Bokuto realized what he’d done. “Ah, shit that was really rude right?" He panicked, grabbing napkins to clean the spill.  "Sorry, um… okay! I’ll just tell you my junk then. So my mom’s Hawai’ian, like, Native Hawai’ian, and my dad’s Japanese – immigrated when he was ten. And ugh, they got divorced when I was seven, and I cried every day. I stayed with my mom cause otousan moved to Tokyo, but I had to go see him in Honolulu like, once a month when he was back for work. He’s kind of a dick but my grandparents are super nice. They came to Moloka‘i in the summers and hung out with all my aunties, and taught me to speak Japanese when I came home from Hawai’ian immersion school. My cousins laugh at my accent when I go to Tokyo. But I’m awesome for somebody who didn’t speak it at home, like it’s a really fucking hard language to learn to write and I can! I kinda forget kanji a lot, though.”

Interacting with this person was like trying to get a sip of water from a firehose. This was supposed to be a learning opportunity for Bokuto. Slow dances in exchange for relationship counseling. And Keiji was going to do his job.

Also did he just imply he could speak three languages?

“Bokuto, while this is very interesting information, it’s both overwhelming to the listener and leaves you very vulnerable to someone who you've only just started pursing romantically. Why are you telling me all of this?”

“Well, cause I asked you a super rude question, and I was just… leveling the court. You know?” As though trading embarrassment for embarrassment was an obvious thing that people just did.

Keiji pinched the bridge of his nose over his glasses and took a deep breath. “It’s not customary to make amends for intrusive questions by revealing deeply personal information. On a first date that could just cause further discomfort. And who’s to say I wouldn’t use it against you? How can you trust me so quickly?”

Seriously, how could he?

Bokuto didn’t even stop to think. “Well, like, I trust Kuroo. He wouldn’t have said I should do this if he thought you’d fuck me over. So… I trust you. What else am I gonna do, just waste my time being super careful and not trying? I'd just stay the same, man.”

Oh.

There was a tiny, shimmering moment of– 

“Tetsurou and I have different fathers," Keiji interrupted whatever small revelation had been occurring. "His died before he was born, mine is not in the picture.”

 

 

Astoundingly, the next phase of the date commenced somewhat organically.

Somewhat.

"I'm gonna walk you home," Bokuto stood up and drew the last of his iced coffee out of the straw with an agonizing slurp and crunch of ice.

The cafe was a few blocks from Keiji’s house. It was late afternoon. Not only was there no element of danger necessitating an escort on such a short walk, but people might also see them walking together. Bokuto’s presence was only required for the prom. Anything further would create unwanted situations that Keiji would be forced to respond to.

"That is unnecessary," he said as they left the building.

"Akaaashi! No one ever lets me walk them home!" Bokuto whined. "Do I smell bad?"

Fearing a meltdown on a busy public thoroughfare, Keiji leaned in and sniffed Bokuto's shirt. Awkwardly, as there was only a small landing area that wasn't face to face with skin, or much too... low.

"You smell like deodorant and sunscreen."

Bokuto grabbed him by the shoulders until their faces were nearly level. "Is that a bad thing??"

"It's a neutral thing. Unless I associated it with a negative experience, or were allergic, it would not bother me. It does not bother me."

It was actually pleasant, but he wasn't about to say that.

"Okay, good, then let me walk you home! ‘Specially since I left my truck in front of your house."

Keiji tensed. "Why did you do that?"

"Well… I was kinda nervous. Figured I’d ask Kuroo for some tips on getting along with you. So I went to your house and your mom let me in. She's a real pretty lady by the way, you look at lot like her.” Now that they were away from the hum of the coffee shop, Keiji could hear the swinging lilt in Bokuto’s voice more clearly. He kept trying to deconstruct this accent, but instead he just found himself getting caught up in its rhythm. “She said Kuroo and Kozume were up in Kuroo's room. So I went up and. Shit, you probably don't wanna know this about your brother..."

Keiji hadn’t thought it were possible to get any stiffer. "No, I absolutely do not."

"Yeah, well,” Bokuto’s voice was dripping with regret, “You should know his lock is broken. And I was pretty shocked myself. Didn't expect it to be that way, exactly. I mean, didn't expect it at all, but when I did see it, it wasn't really..."

Keiji made a noise that sounded like gehhhh.

"Yeah, okay, so anyway, Kozume was just chuckling a little? Which was a little weird. And Kuroo looked pretty ready to kill me, so I just figured I'd have to wing it with you."

Taking a deep breath to force the thoughts of Kenma and Tetsurou doing whatever it was that he didn't want to think about out of his mind, Keiji realized they were halfway to his house.

"You tricked me."

"What?" Bokuto looked around, "Nah, I mean, I just started walking and you came with me and it wasn't on purpose! I can sit here and let you go on ahead. I’ll get my truck in like, half an hour. It's a nice day to relax. Kinda freezing, but nice."

"It's fifty-five degrees outside. Unseasonably chilly. A jacket is necessary but it’s hardly freezing."

"I'm not used to it," Bokuto whined, even though he’d obviously experienced this sort of weather in the nine months he’d been in the state. Maybe if he learned to dress for anything other than a day in mid-July. Or perhaps if he were anything other than an enormous child.

"Why did you need tips on getting along with me? These are fake practice dates, not a romantic encounter. The point is to make mistakes and learn."

"Ah, well, I mean, I kinda like to do a good job at shit and… uh… you're sorta intimidating for a high schooler, Akaaaashi. Always look like you’re fed up."

Keiji was noticing the number of vowels in his last name increase every time Bokuto said it. The expansion seemed to correlate with how much the following statement would get under his skin.

"You just finished your freshman year,” Keiji deadpanned. “You're a year older than me, I'm assuming.”

"Well yeah, but you'd be intimidating if I saw you at a party, even," Bokuto leaned against one of the posts on Keiji's small porch. Because they were already back. "Like, I'd have to talk to you, couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t, but it'd be scary as shit. I'd need like three beers first cause… I mean just look at you. Like… damn, so hot."

"I'd appreciate it if you'd stop saying that,” Keiji stepped onto the porch. “It makes me uncomfortable."

"But why?? I mean, you are! Just like Kuroo is pretty damn suave, and fucking amazing at blocking my spikes even though he won't play on the team cause he’s 'focusing on his classes.' Just like I'm fucking amazing at volleyball in general, and like, finding stable ground on a hike, and I’m a really good dancer. I’m amazing at a shitton of other stuff. I’m the fucking best! And, you know, I've got my moments… face wise,” Bokuto waggled his eyebrows and the secondhand embarrassment was nearly unbearable.

But he didn’t seem to care, because he was trying to prove a point. “And I bet you're awesome in a ton of ways, Akaashi, not just being the sexiest person I’ve ever set my eyes on. I just gotta find out what they are. And I mean, I want to, since we’re doing this thing. So like, I had to make sure before it happened that I didn't offend you on our first date, but… I saw your brother getting fucked instead."

Too much at once. Keiji was completely revolted and, blushing, and a lot of other things that he really didn't want to explore. So he didn’t. Unfortunately instead of coolly ignoring what was said, he couldn't stop thinking about what would inevitably happen when he opened his mouth. After years of speech therapy, counseling, and being tormented by any bully Tetsurou and Kenma didn’t destroy, there were very few situations which could actually push Keiji into states of self-consciousness or stress so intense that he felt he couldn’t speak.

But even the mildest, not to mention most inauthentic pressure for romantic intimacy, was apparently one of them. He would absolutely need to work on that. Immediately.

There was a long pause. Bokuto fidgeted. Keiji stared at the ground and wondered idly if it might open up and swallow him.

"The overall lesson from this d…………………….date,” he finally ground out, “is that you need to work on having a filter for the things you say in a romantic context. I expect improvement by our next rendezvous on Saturday. Which you are planning."

Rendezvous? Even he wasn’t that pretentious. Meet-up would have been better, he should have said that. He shouldn’t have used a different word at all. He needed to stop worrying about speaking. Looking at Bokuto, he forced himself back into the moment and the good habits he’d worked on for years.

"Got it," Bokuto nodded, seemingly unaware of Keiji’s internal struggle. He had taken the criticism unexpectedly well. It had already become noticeable that he was more stable if he was given something to work towards. But once again they were just standing there. Staring at each other wordlessly. And Keiji wasn’t silent to preserve his dignity. He was silent because he was not entirely certain he could speak. 

Don’t worry about perfection. What did he need to do next?

He had never really ended a date in any sort of definitive manner. With Chikara, they had just gone their separate ways, as they had since the Ennoshita family had moved to town six years prior. Once romance entered their relationship, there had frequently been some kind of mild physical affection thrown in. Departure was subtle. Understood.

But now, in Bokuto's case, there was probably a bit of guidance needed to indicate that he should leave. And he had to leave before he said something else bizarre and gave Keiji a heart attack.

There was one failsafe solution.

"I have a history paper to write, Bokuto."

"Akaashi, can I kiss you goodnight? Er, afternoon, I guess?"

Their sentences collided explosively in midair.

After about seventeen blinks, Keiji reigned in his shock with nothing less than a will of iron. "This is a practice date. Kissing is unnecessary, as you are not actually romantically interested in me. Nor I you."

"Yeah, well I'm pretty certain I mess up the kiss part of dates too!" Bokuto defended himself angrily, then gulped. "I mean, I wouldn't wanna pressure you to kiss me! Ahh, sorry. I just. Sorry, Akaashi. I just don’t know what I’m doin' wrong."

Bokuto's shoulders sank and Keiji could see him deflating, rapidly. If for no reason other than perhaps that Keiji himself was an idiot, he felt sympathetic. It was painful to see all of this – truth be told – glorious energy burning out into despair every five minutes. All quite possibly because no one had ever seen fit to give Bokuto any sort of neutral, measured feedback on his behavior. Keiji knew from personal experience how hard it was to change. He couldn’t imagine doing it without help.

And apparently sympathy made him insane.

"You can kiss me, but I will not hold back my criticism."

Bokuto nodded nervously, then stepped up onto the porch so they were face to face. “Don’t worry, I’m a good kisser,” he muttered, maybe more to himself than his partner. His trembling hands grasped Keiji's shoulders just a bit too tightly, and he leaned in. Keiji closed his eyes much more fearfully than the situation called for. 

But instead of pressure on his lips, he felt the soft puff of a whisper against his ear.

"Hey Akaashi, even if this wasn't real, I had an awesome time."

For a brief second, dry lips pressed awkwardly against his cheek, then Bokuto was running down the sidewalk to his truck. He hopped in, started the engine, ground through the gears, then promptly turned onto the wrong street to get to the 405.

Just like that, he was gone.

It was hard to move for a very long time.

"Keiji, dear,” the most familiar of voices drifted from the screen door behind him, “I believe your cheek is secure. You can let it go." He turned to see his mother, lips turned upwards in a soft, sly smile. “Your brother told me that ball of energy is your prom date. I'm so happy to hear it. You've been moping for far too long, little flower."

Tetsurou was going to get fucked. And not in the way in which he was apparently accustomed.