At first, Haru thought maybe he had a chance. Between the banter and the sly looks and what he hoped was just the right kind of tension, he thought that maybe he had some time to buy for the two of them. He knew that Makoto always got what he wanted in the end, but maybe this time, maybe, because Yamazaki had that look in his eye when he looked at Haru, like he didn’t know whether he wanted to punch him or devour him, and maybe Haru was seeing things, but he knew that look well because it was the same look he had when he looked at Yamazaki, and maybe, and maybe, and maybe—
The day Makoto had announced that he and Yamazaki were dating, Haru knew he had to do something about it. Because that was the first day he saw it in Yamazaki’s eyes. The light beginning to fade.
He had looked at Haru, and Haru alone, as Makoto had bragged about the way Yamazaki had taken him on the most impressive date the night before, and Haru had seen it. The beginning of the end, not for him, but for Yamazaki.
Yamazaki’s eyes had asked for help.
“How much did that set you back, Yamazaki?” Haru asked, interrupting Makoto’s description of their dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town. Makoto had huffed good-naturedly.
“It’s what Makoto wanted,” Yamazaki said, not quite slowly enough to be a realization, but still slow.
“It’s not really appropriate to ask, Haru-chan,” Makoto said, and his blush and his embarrassed chuckle were flawless, if you didn’t know what to look for.
Haru knew what to look for.
That was not the official day he made an enemy of his best friend, but it was the beginning. Makoto’s eyes were dark, like pit-traps filled with perfectly-sharpened spikes. He could see himself falling into those traps, could see someone coming to fill the pit with dirt, to seal Haru away forever.
Haru woke with a gasp.
It was no longer the beginning of the end. The end of the end had come and gone a long time ago, gone away on the first train to Tokyo on a sunny Tuesday morning.
He could smell fish cooking as he stepped out of his house, coming from one of the neighbors’ kitchens. It was a strong smell, a stench even, and it was all Haru could do not to gag as he eased down the stairs and hurried past the Tachibana house and out toward the sea.
Kisumi nearly tripped over him. He was sitting in the sand far enough away from the shoreline that the tide was no danger to him but joggers were. From the look of things, he had been there for a long, long time.
He didn’t even look up, but his shoulders tensed. Kisumi supposed he knew why. He’d heard the old ladies by the grocery store gossiping. He’d seen the messages in the group chat. He knew what had happened. What was still happening.
“Haruka,” Kisumi said softly, and moved to sit next to him. Haruka flinched, but still said nothing. Part of Kisumi buzzed with the thought of being so close to Haruka, being allowed to even sit next to the man he’d been in love with for years. He pushed that thought down. “You okay?” He asked.
Haruka looked at him then, and it was all Kisumi could do not to gasp. Those eyes did not belong to the Haruka he’d known. Those were haunted eyes, eyes that were tired and worn, eyes that were ready for Kisumi to hurt him. They were ready for whatever vitriol Kisumi was prepared to throw at him.
They weren’t prepared for Kisumi to settle in and turn to watch the ocean in silence.
Kisumi could feel the tension growing in Haruka. He knew that Haruka was on edge, waiting for something that Kisumi swore would never come. Kisumi would never hurt Haruka in that way, the way all the old ladies and the neighborhood kids and the group chats had. And now, watching the ocean and feeling Haruka never relax an inch, Kisumi understood.
He would do whatever it took to make Haruka happy again. To make sure he never felt the need to wait for vitriol again. He would follow Haruka to the ends of the earth and back again if he thought that maybe, just maybe, Haruka would need him.
He didn’t say a word for almost an hour. When the sun rose properly and people began filling the streets, Haruka’s shoulders tensed even more. When Haruka rose and turned to leave, Kisumi followed him.
Haruka glanced over his shoulder fourteen times on the walk from the beach to the shrine stairs. Kisumi knew because he was counting. There was no looking back as they passed the base of the stairs, just scurrying and furtive glances from side to side. It wasn’t until they were on Haruka’s parents’ property that Haruka turned to face Kisumi properly.
“What are you doing?” His voice was raw, like he hadn’t used it in years. Kisumi shrugged and grinned.
“Following you home,” he said.
Haruka’s eyes flicked to something down the stairs and then back to Kisumi. “You don’t want to do that,” he said.
“Oh, sure I do,” Kisumi replied, and bullied his way through the front door. “Got anything to eat?” Kisumi asked. “’M starving after that jog.”
He expected some quip about how little exercise Kisumi had done that morning, but none came. Haru hesitated for a moment, then passed like a ghost into the kitchen. Kisumi followed him, trying not to betray any of his concern. Robotically, Haruka started the stove and pulled out a package of leftover rice and some eggs. Kisumi caught a glimpse of the inside of his fridge, and something about it bugged him. He couldn’t put a finger on it until the smell of rotting fish hit him.
“Haruka, dude, you need to clean out your fridge more often,” he said, crossing to the appliance and pulling the door open. Inside, there was exactly one package of mackerel, and it had clearly been in there for a long time. There was not much else inside, though Kisumi knew that at one point Haruka’s house had been bursting at the seams with food. He had always been the most hospitable among their friends, always letting people in uninvited and feeding them and making sure they were taken care of. Kisumi saw a shadow of that today, as Haruka cooked up the egg and rice, but when the food was done cooking, Haruka looked like he didn’t know what to do next.
Kisumi’s heart shattered, then, the crack that had appeared when he’d found Haruka on the beach widening and spider-webbing out into a thousand different shards that dug into whatever soft surface they could find. “Haruka,” he said softly, and guided Haruka with gentle touches to sit at the table. “Tell me.”
“Tell you what?” It was a dead question, just an automatic response to the sound of Kisumi’s voice, nothing at all to do with carrying a conversation. Kisumi tried not to sigh.
“Tell me the whole story,” he said. Haruka looked up at him then.
“Don’t you already know it?” he asked.
“I know what other people say. I want to know what you say.”
Haruka looked down, like he couldn’t stand to look Kisumi in the eye. He seemed to shrink, though he did not move. His presence, already small and meek, seemed to flee the room entirely. Kisumi was left with a husk, a body with a beating heart and breathing lungs, but no life. Kisumi did sigh then.
“You don’t have to tell me now,” he said. “But I want to hear your side eventually.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “Give me your wallet.”
Haruka didn’t even ask why. He just pulled the wallet out of his pocket. Kisumi took it slowly. “I’m going to go get you some groceries,” he said, pulling out a few thousand yen. “I’ll be back in an hour. In the meantime, I want you to take a shower and change your clothes, okay?”
“Why?” Another dead question. Kisumi smiled at him.
“Because you stink, and I’m not hanging out with someone who hasn’t showered in, what, over a week?” Kisumi wanted to reach out, to cup Haruka’s cheek, to ruffle his hair, to pull him close. But he didn’t. And he wouldn’t. Not until Haruka was ready. If that time ever even came.
Kisumi waited to leave until Haruka was already following his orders. He opened all the windows in the house to air out the smell of disuse and despair. He shook his head as he left, taking Haruka’s key with him and jogging down the shrine stairs.
The closest grocery store was small, but it had the essentials Haruka needed. Things like milk and rice and eggs and some meat — not fish, he had a bad feeling about fish. He was just turning the corner to find Haruka some sort of treat to tempt his appetite when he ran — almost literally — into the last person he wanted to see.
“Kisumi!” said Makoto in surprise, reaching out to steady Kisumi by the elbow. Kisumi regained his footing and took a step back.
“Makoto! Hi!” Makoto’s eyes went a little dark, and Kisumi felt themselves settling like players at a chessboard. He realized suddenly that every move he made in this conversation put Haruka at risk. He would have to proceed with extreme care. “Are you okay?” Kisumi asked. “You look… I dunno, tired, or something.”
“I take it you haven’t heard.” Makoto’s voice was the perfect imitation of grief.
“Heard what?” Kisumi tinged his own voice with concern.
“Sousuke left me.”
“Oh. Oh, god, I’m so sorry! What happened?” Makoto hung his head for a moment, then smiled, an obviously fake smile that was meant to appear to hide how heartbroken he was.
“It’s nothing,” he said. Kisumi made himself lay a hand on Makoto’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m your friend. You can tell me.”
“It’s… it’s not just Sousuke,” Makoto said. “It’s Haru, too.”
“What about him?” Kisumi cocked his head to the side.
“I’m worried about him,” Makoto said in a rush. “He— I don’t know, he drove Sousuke away. I don’t know why he did it. He must have been jealous, or something. And now, he’s a mess! He’s refusing all our invitations to go out with us, he’s become this anxious wreck! He won’t even talk to me anymore!”
“He what?” Kisumi gasped. “But, hang on, how would he drive Yamazaki away? I thought the two of you were, I dunno, it for each other.”
“We were,” Makoto said mournfully. “I… Don’t tell anyone this, okay?”
“Don’t tell anyone what?” Kisumi leaned in like he was sharing a secret.
“I… I was going to ask Sousuke… to marry me,” he said. Kisumi gasped.
“No,” he said.
“Yes. And Haru, I guess he figured it out. And he never liked Sousuke all that much, you know.” That was a bold faced lie, Kisumi knew, the first actual lie that Makoto had told so far. Kisumi had seen the way Haruka had looked at Yamazaki.
“So, what happened?” Kisumi asked.
“Haru just started being a beast to him. Every time we were all together, he would just be so cruel to him. And asking these questions, that were so inappropriate, like he was trying to compare my relationship with him to our relationship, as if they were in any way comparable. I tried to tell Haru to stop, but he just kept pushing, and pushing at Sousuke, until—” Makoto’s breath caught. “Anyway, when Sousuke… when he left, he said to thank Haru, for making him see the light. And now he’s— he’s gone, and if that weren’t bad enough, my own best friend—”
“Geez, Makoto, I’m so sorry,” Kisumi said. “I don’t. I don’t know why he would do something like that.”
“I don’t either,” Makoto said sadly. “I just want my friend back, you know? But he’s… he’s sick, Kisumi, and he won’t get help. I’m just so worried about him.”
“You wouldn’t be a good friend if you weren’t,” Kisumi said, and immediately regretted it. Makoto was smart enough to see right through that. Kisumi slapped on his most concerned face and made a sad noise in the back of his throat.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you,” Makoto said. “You don’t want to hear about my woes.” He chuckled in a self-deprecating manner that Kisumi recognized from middle school, when all of this had first started.
“I’m here for you, Makoto,” Kisumi said. “Anything you need, just let me know.”
“I will,” Makoto said, and the promise rang like the ominous tolling of a bell. Kisumi smiled, grabbed a bag of chips at random, and made his hasty retreat.
He had to get back to Haruka.
When Kisumi burst through the door of Haruka’s house, Haruka was in the living room, freshly showered and in clean clothes, staring blankly at the wood of the table. Kisumi bit back a sigh - of relief or sadness, he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure how to bring the subject up with Haruka, all the horrible things Makoto had said to him. The way Makoto had twisted the truth, whatever it really was, into his own favor. He had to know the truth, had to know exactly what Haruka had done and why he had done it. But Makoto had been right about one thing. Haruka was an anxious mess. There had to be a way to approach this without causing Haruka to lash out, or worse, retreat farther than he already had.
The groceries put away, Kisumi took a deep breath. Through the kitchen window, he could see the roof of the Tachibana house. He slammed that window shut, and made his decision.
“Haruka,” he said softly, and moved to sit across the table from him. “I know you have no reason to trust me. But believe me when I say I’m on your side in all of this. I need you to tell me what happened, so I can help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” Haruka said, and there was none of the fire or the contempt Kisumi would have expected from the sentence. It wasn’t even bitter. It was just tired.
“Haruka. Please look at me.” Haruka flinched, but reluctantly he did what Kisumi asked. There was so much fear in his eyes. “Please,” Kisumi said, laying his hand palm-up on the table, an offering. “The more information I have the better I can combat the lies.”
“Makoto is my best friend,” Haruka said, but from the look on his face, the words tasted foul. “Whatever he told you is probably what you should go with. He’s got everyone’s best interests at heart.”
“Bullshit.” Haruka jumped, looking at Kisumi like he had kicked a puppy. Saying anything against Makoto amounted to about as much in that town, Kisumi knew. Kisumi leaned closer to Haruka, making sure he was looking at him before he spoke. “I know what Makoto is,” he said, slowly and clearly. “I don’t believe a word of his lies. I want to know the truth, and I know that that can only come from you.”
Haruka’s shoulders slumped.
“It’s not lies,” He said. “I drove Yamazaki away, just like he says.”
“I figured as much. So. Why’d you do it?” Haruka blinked at him, his breath growing faster. “Easy,” Kisumi said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to confirm my own suspicions.”
“What suspicions are those?” Haruka murmured.
“That you’re the good guy in all this,” Kisumi said.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened, and I’ll be the judge of that, okay?”
Haruka said nothing. Nothing, nothing, until finally, quietly, he whispered, “Everything Makoto says is true.” Then he stood, without another word, and passed out of the room.
Kisumi became a regular fixture at Haru’s house after that. Haru hardly put up any resistance, too tired to do much more than hand over the spare key when asked and stay out of his way otherwise. Kisumi insisted on coming over daily, so Haru let him. He let him drag him out of bed and into the shower, into clean clothes, into the kitchen to eat something other than plain rice. After their first disastrous attempt at takeout ended with cold food spilled across Haru’s front porch two hours after they had ordered, Kisumi also dragged Haru to the grocery store. In fact, everywhere Haru went, Kisumi went with him. Almost everywhere.
Kisumi couldn’t follow Haru to his job.
The little old lady who ran the bento shop was kind enough. She may or may not have believed the rumors, but she never said anything to Haru one way or the other. The problem wasn’t her.
The problem was the looks he got from the customers when she was around. The problem was the words they said when she wasn’t.
Haru was used to it. The poison spewing from their lips like foul-smelling gasoline onto the fire of the town’s newfound hatred of him. He let each word hit him in the chest and absorb there. Most of these people didn’t know him any better or worse than anyone in a small town knew anyone. They were just doing what they believed was right. He could handle that.
He could make it through each day, he knew. He was strong enough, or perhaps numb enough, that their words didn’t hurt too much anymore. And at the end of each day was Kisumi.
Kisumi had taken to swinging by the bento shop after his shift and waiting the last hour or so of Haru’s, chatting with the old woman and glaring at the customers. Haru wished he wouldn’t. It would only get him pulled into this mess. Still, he couldn’t say he wasn’t grateful to have someone to walk him home.
The gratitude held him up all the way up the shrine stairs. It buoyed him as they passed the Tachibana house, made him feel like maybe things were going to be all right. Like maybe he had done the right thing, and that he wouldn’t be punished for it forever. He still had a friend, it seemed.
And, it seemed he had another. Kou was waiting for him at the gate to his house, lounging against it like she hadn’t a care in the world. She brightened when she saw Haru and ran up to give him a familiar, vanilla-scented hug.
“Kou,” he said softly. “When did you get back?”
“About half an hour ago,” she said. “My classes were canceled for Monday, so I figured I’d use the long weekend to visit home.” Haru stiffened, and of course she noticed. But other than a narrowing of her eyes, she didn’t give any sign anything was amiss as she greeted Kisumi and led the way into Haru’s house.
She took over in a way even Kisumi hadn’t managed to, and Haru found himself bundled onto the couch with a series of chick flicks and something greasy and fattening Kou had brought for dinner. It was a good night, and the next day, Haru didn’t have work. He went to the grocery store with Kisumi, picking up supplies for the meal they had promised Kou that evening, and everything seemed like it was getting better. For just a moment, everything was right in the world.
That is, until he reached his house and found someone else waiting for him at the gate.
“Nanase-san,” Nagisa said, his voice like rusted barbed wire. “How could you?”
Kisumi almost didn’t see him. He was focused on the clouds, busy chattering away at Haruka about his plans for that night. But he noticed, oh, god, did he notice, the way Haru’s shoulders went tense and the ease that had begun to fill him over the past several hours dashed away. He turned to see Nagisa standing in front of the gate with his fists balled and his bright eyes turned dark with anger.
“Hazuki-kun,” Kisumi started, but Nagisa turned his glare up at him.
“This doesn’t concern you,” he growled.
Kisumi stepped, quite deliberately, in between them. “I’m afraid, it doesn’t concern you, either. Now, step aside, before I remove you myself.”
Nagisa began to shake with fury. But instead of lashing out at Kisumi, he turned to Haruka.
“How. Dare. You.” He said. “You had no right, none whatsoever, to do what you did.”
“Hazu—” Kisumi was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. It was shaking, and the knuckles were white. Kisumi looked to see Haruka turning paler and paler, his eyes going wide and his entire body trembling. Kisumi did the only thing he could think of. He grabbed Haruka by the waist, shoved Nagisa out of the way, and dragged him inside. The slamming door only just muffled Nagisa’s shouting enough to distort whatever words were being hurled their way. Haruka slumped in Kisumi’s hold and he barely had the reflexes to lower them both gently to the ground. He wrapped his arms around Haruka’s shoulders as Haruka fell apart.
The howl that left Haruka’s throat was inhuman. He balled a fist into Kisumi’s shirt and started to sob. It was as if a wall had broken, one that had kept all of Haruka’s emotions at bay, kept him numb and unfeeling. There was no questioning now just how badly this whole thing had hurt him.
“It’s okay, Haruka,” Kisumi whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Haruka screeched. Kisumi opened his mouth to say something more, something, anything, to help ease the pain. But there was nothing to be said. So Kisumi just held Haru a little tighter, rocking them back and forth.
Time became a non-entity. They sat there outside of its passage, Kisumi holding Haruka and Haruka holding Kisumi and the world falling apart. Eventually, Nagisa stopped shouting and presumably left. Eventually, Haruka started whispering.
“He was mine,” was the first thing Kisumi was able to make out.
“Nagisa. He was always mine. He was his own, but he was my kouhai, my friend. And now—”
“And now he’s just another one of Makoto’s pawns,” Kisumi finished for him as a sob wracked his chest.
“I have nothing left,” Haruka wept. “Makoto’s right, I don’t deserve any of them.”
“Makoto said that?” Kisumi didn’t know what he expected, why the rage felt fresh and new.
“He said a lot worse,” Haruka murmured. He didn’t say anything more after that. Kisumi eased him up off the floor, still sobbing, and pulled off their shoes. He led him down the hall and into Haruka’s bedroom, where he pulled him into the bed and let him curl into his chest. He didn’t know when Haruka fell asleep, somewhere between one sob and the next. He only knew he would be there when he woke.
Yamazaki tried to stay in touch, at first. A text message, nothing more than a tentative thank-you, followed Yamazaki’s departure on the Tokyo-bound train. After that, a picture of his new place. A question about a recipe Haru had given him once. Haru never responded, but Yamazaki kept trying.
Until the day after the Nagisa Meltdown. Haru woke with Kisumi in his bed and that tired, quiet feeling in his heart that only comes after a long, necessary cry. Kisumi shooed him into the shower and set about making them breakfast. Haru didn’t notice at first that there were no new messages from Yamazaki. No more calls or voicemails, no more texts, no more anything. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that he realized. He didn’t bother asking Kisumi about it, could barely work up the energy to be curious. Out of respect to his lingering feelings for Yamazaki and nothing else, he checked his phone.
Yamazaki’s number was no longer in the contact list. Haru frowned. He flicked through to his settings and pulled up the blocked number list. There were only two. The pizza guy who had judged Haru for his taste in toppings, and Yamazaki. Haru filed the information away to deal with on a day when his mind wasn’t as cloudy as a sea squall.
If there was one thing Rin couldn’t handle, it was the guilt. Haru was supposedly one of his best friends, he knew. But he also knew whose side he was supposed to take, and how things would play out if he didn’t take that person’s side.
The air was heavy with the scent of coming rain, stale and oppressive the day Rin’s world came crashing down around him. Everything was dark and muted, even colors of leaves losing their saturation. Until the sight of bubblegum pink hair caught Rin’s eye. Something about it seemed wrong. Rin couldn’t put his finger on it until he was just a few steps away and realized who and what was in front of him.
“Kisumi?” he breathed. But it couldn’t be. If there was one thing Kisumi was finicky about, it was his hair. The thought that he wasn’t keeping up his dye job was horrifying. But then Kisumi looked up, and Rin saw the shaggy blond roots accompanied by bags under his eyes and the weight on his shoulders.
“Rin,” Kisumi said, and he didn’t sound bubbly or upbeat as he usually did. He sounded defensive. There was movement behind him and Rin realized why.
Haru looked like a ghost. There was no other way to describe him. He was paper-pale and his eyes were shadowed, darker than they ever had been. His hair was long and unkempt, falling in his eyes, though he didn’t bother to push it out of the way. He didn’t look sullen, he just looked tired. And Rin knew why.
“I should go,” Rin said slowly, his eyes still on Haru. He tore them away to Kisumi and worked up a smile.
“See you around,” Kisumi said, still standing carefully between Rin and Haru. Rin stepped onto the first open train he saw, not caring where it was taking him. He took a few deep breaths of the stale air and then grabbed his phone.
ME: [Kisumi, you gotta be careful. If Makoto finds out you’re hanging around him, it won’t turn out well for you.]
He waited for a reply, but none came. There was no saving Haru, he knew. But maybe Kisumi had the sense to get out while he still could.
Rin could only hope.
To say Kisumi was worried about Haruka was getting rather repetitive. They had survived Haruka’s first meltdown and the four after that, had chased off the kids who had graffitied his front gate, had faced each day with something that was certainly not optimism but maybe wasn’t entirely despair either. Things were not getting better, but they weren’t getting any worse, either.
But Haruka was.
Getting him to shower had been difficult from the start, but now it was becoming a chore. At least two nights a week were spent curled up together while Haruka sobbed. The others were spent in silence that hurt more than any knife ever could. Kisumi felt that Haruka was waiting for something, for some ax to fall and leave him completely alone. And Kisumi knew exactly whose name was on that ax.
“You know I’m not going to leave you, right?” he asked one night as Haruka pushed pieces of his dinner around his plate. Haruka jumped, like he had forgotten he wasn’t the only person in the room. Then he shrugged.
“You will eventually,” he said in that rusty voice of his. Kisumi bit back an angry sigh. He knew he had to be patient with Haruka, but this was beginning to grate on his nerves. So he turned that anger where it belonged.
He waited until Haruka was in bed — at seven in the evening, later than the worst days but still too early — to pull out his phone. There were messages there that he had to answer.
YAMAZAKI: [Look, there’s no easy way to say this. I’m worried about Nanase. He won’t return any of my calls.]
YAMAZAKI: [Do you know how to get ahold of him?]
Kisumi sighed and tapped out a reply.
ME: [If you know whats good for you you will never show your face here again]
The reply was instantaneous.
YAMAZAKI: [Makoto got to you.]
YAMAZAKI: [Look, he’s not the great guy everyone thinks he is.]
ME: [Makoto didn’t get to me. Haruka did.]
YAMAZAKI: [I don’t understand.]
ME: [While youve been off living your best life or whatever it is youre doing ive been here picking up the pieces]
ME: [Dont come back here. You escaped. You got out. Now do some honor to the sacrifice that helped you get there and dont make anything worse.]
ME: [Stay away from Haruka, Yamazaki. Youve done enough damage]
Kisumi turned off his phone and resisted the urge to chuck it across the room. Down the hall he could hear Haruka shifting in bed. He bit back another sigh, wondering how many times he had done that that day. How many times had he repressed himself, put himself back into the box, smushed himself smaller so that he wouldn’t take up too much space, bring too much attention to himself, to Haruka. He was tired of the contortion, tired of the lies and the happy face he put on to show the world that he and Haruka were both going to make it through this. He was angry, so very angry, and he knew exactly where to throw that anger. So he balled it up in his fists and stomped over to the door.
He was halfway through putting his shoes on when a cold and slender hand touched his shoulder. He jerked and almost fell over in his surprise.
“Kisumi.” He almost fell over again. Haruka never initiated contact, and he certainly never started a conversation. But the Haruka he was looking at was not one who was thinking about what Kisumi was about to go out and do. This was a Haruka who needed comfort, and had come to the one source of it he had found in the past two months.
“Nightmare?” Kisumi asked softly. Haruka nodded.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?” he rasped. Kisumi put on his best, most gentle smile and stood.
“Of course you can,” he said, and kicked off the one shoe he’d managed to put on. All of his anger was forgotten, completely irrelevant in the face of Haruka asking him for support. He led Haruka into the guest bedroom he’d taken over and let the quiet of the world drag him under.
For months, life continued in much the same direction. Kisumi had been searching, ever since that first night after Nagisa, for a way out. But the best laid plans took time to lay, and so they stayed. Life settled into a normalcy of glares and muttered insults when they were outside and quiet solace when they were not. People still avoided Haruka like he was a plague carrier, but now they avoided Kisumi, too. Kisumi wasn’t sure what Makoto was saying about him, but he knew it couldn’t be good.
Haruka was retreating into himself. He barely spoke to Kisumi anymore, let alone anyone else. The old woman at the bento shop had stopped putting him at the front register, letting him stay in the back to make the product. Kisumi wasn’t sure whether he wanted to thank her for giving Haruka some relief, or curse her for letting him hide.
Kisumi worked his own job at the gas station and tried his damndest to save up enough to leave. In the evenings, when Haruka was asleep too early, Kisumi did his research. Tokyo seemed like the most obvious choice, until Kisumi tried to think about how Haruka would do there. It would be expensive, for one thing, and that would mean Haruka would need a full time job, which would mean interviews and mingling and office politics and all the things he simply couldn’t see Haruka managing. It would also be loud. Too many people. Too easy to lose oneself in the crowd. Kisumi needed Haruka to heal, not to retreat deeper.
Months began to slip by too quickly, and before Kisumi knew it, they had been living like this for over a year. Then came the final straw, the last blow that Kisumi could take.
Sousuke grew more and more tense as the landscapes flitting by through the train window grew more and more familiar. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the world outside bringing up memories he’d rather not indulge in. But this was important. It had been eighteen months since he’d last been home, and he needed to do this. He needed to face down his past.
Kuroko shifted beside him, nudging his shoulder against Sousuke’s arm. “Hey,” he said softly, and just the sound of his voice made Sousuke feel a little bit better. “You good?”
“I’m good,” Sousuke said. He reminded himself that he wasn’t here to see Makoto, to slay the dragon. He was here for Rin, to introduce his boyfriend to his best friend. And he was here for Nanase, to say thank you. He didn’t need to do anything he wasn’t ready for, but he was ready for a lot. He took a deep breath as the train pulled into the Iwami station.
“Last chance to back out,” Kuroko said, but Sousuke had already caught sight of a head of red hair waiting on the platform. Relief and joy flooded him in equal parts with terror, and he shook his head.
“Let’s go,” he said, and Kuroko nodded and stood.
Rin watched him get off the train with wary eyes that turned bright with tears. Sousuke shook his head and rolled his eyes and pulled his friend into a hug.
“Rin,” he said, “stop crying.”
“Not crying,” Rin mumbled, pulling his face away from Sousuke’s chest and wiping at his eyes. “Welcome back.”
Back, he’d said. Not home. They both knew it wasn’t a forever returning, wasn’t Sousuke coming to some magical realization that there was no place like home. He knew where he belonged now. He grinned and turned slightly. “Rin,” he said, “This is Kuroko Tetsuya.” Rin startled, like most people did, when he saw Kuroko, and Sousuke had to laugh. Rin laughed along with him, and it felt right. But then he caught sight of someone staring at him from the other side of the station. “Rin,” he said seriously. “How bad has it gotten?”
“For us?” Rin said quietly, looking around furtively as though Makoto’s ears were everywhere. “Not bad. For some, it’s been hell. They’re not going to let you be quiet about coming back.”
“That’s fine,” Sousuke said as Kuroko slipped his hand into Sousuke’s. “I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Good,” Rin said, but he sounded off. “A-anyway, we should head back to my parents’ place. Gou and Mom and Dad are waiting to see you again.”
“Sure, but…” he looked at Kuroko, who nodded. “I have something I have to do first.”
“Sousuke,” Rin said, but trailed off. He bit his lip, looking… guilty, almost. “You’re not gonna like what you find,” he said at last.
“What do you mean?” Rin shook his head.
“Just. Leave well enough alone?” he pleaded. Sousuke shook his head.
“I have to say thank you,” he said. Rin sighed and nodded.
“Just, be careful, okay?”
“Careful of what?”
“You know what.” Rin looked up at him, eyes serious and tired. Whatever had happened in his absence, it wasn’t good. Sousuke squeezed Kuroko’s hand, and nodded.
“I’ll see you at dinner,” he promised, and clapped Rin on the shoulder. As he made his way out of the station, he could feel eyes on him, judging, wondering, waiting. For what, he wasn’t sure, but he did know he didn’t want to find out.
The shrine steps were achingly familiar. Sousuke hesitated at their base, looking up. The path led to the Tachibana family home, but it also led past that, to Nanase. He knew he had to get past the one to get to the other. He had to step past his fear if he wanted to be fair to the man who had done so much for him. He nodded to himself and put his foot on the first step.
He made it past the Tachibanas’ easily enough, but as he drew closer to the top of the stairs, a feeling flooded his gut, unnameable and potent. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Until he rounded the final corner and saw the Nanase house.
There was trash everywhere. The gate was leaning on one hinge, graffiti splattered across it like a warning. There were no lights on inside, but Sousuke knew instinctively that someone was home. And then the door opened, and there was Kisumi.
They hadn’t spoken since Kisumi had told him to leave Nanase alone. He had no idea what Kisumi was like anymore; the man standing in front of him was not the bubbly friend he’d once known. He’d let his hair grow out, let his dye job fade to its natural blond. He’d grown thin, the shadows under his eyes standing out too starkly against his pale skin. But most of all, it was the anger that caught Sousuke’s eyes. Kisumi was furious, and it was written in every line of his body. Sousuke stepped up to the gate.
“Kisumi,” he said softly, and Kisumi shook his head.
“Leave,” he said. “Now.”
“Kisumi, what happened here?” Sousuke tried, but Kisumi jolted suddenly. A ghostly hand appeared on his shoulder, and a voice, rusty and unused, said,
“Let him in.”
“Haruka, are you sure?” Kisumi asked, looking over his shoulder. Whatever he found there must have convinced him, because with one last glare at Sousuke, he stepped back into the darkness of the house.
Foreboding that had been niggling at the back of Sousuke’s mind came rushing in at full force as he and Kuroko stepped over the property line.
The house was clean, but there was little else to it. Sousuke remembered this house as full to bursting with people and laughter and food and adoration for one another, but now there was none of that. It was as though the life had left the house completely. Sousuke and Kuroko took off their shoes and murmured their greetings to the house, then turned into the living room.
Sousuke stopped breathing.
The man who was sitting on the couch was not Nanase. He couldn’t be. This man was a ghost, a shell. Some trick was being played. And then he looked up, not quite at Sousuke or Kuroko, and those eyes, the ones that used to be so filled with passion, were dead.
Sousuke took careful steps to sit on the opposite couch, Kuroko at his side. “Nanase,” he said softly. “Are you—”
“No, he’s not okay,” snarled Kisumi, standing behind Nanase’s seat on the couch. “I told you already, you made it out. You didn’t even think about what you were leaving behind, did you?”
Kisumi was furious, more angry than Sousuke had ever seen him before. It caught in Sousuke’s throat, the bile and the anger and the horror.
“What did he do?” Sousuke whispered, and Nanase flinched like he had been slapped.
“Look around you,” Kisumi said.
“Stop,” Nanase rasped, and the sound of his voice was like rusted metal. Sousuke took a breath through his nose and slapped on a thin smile.
“I,” he said, trying for a soft, gentle tone, but not quite making it. “I came here to introduce you to someone, Nanase,” he said, and turned to face Kuroko. Nanase didn’t look up, even as Sousuke made the introduction. Sousuke sighed. “I also came here,” he said uncertainly, “to say thank you.”
“For what?” Kisumi snarled. “For breaking his own heart? For ruining his own life so you could be happy? So you could be free?” Nanase flinched, and Kisumi bit his lip and furrowed brow. “I think you should go,” he said.
“Kisumi—” Sousuke started, but a squeeze at his hand stopped him.
“I think he’s right, Kuroko murmured. “We should go.”
Sousuke wanted to argue. He wanted to make Nanase okay. But Kuroko was right. There was nothing he could do. He closed his eyes for a moment, regretting, and then stood. He and Kuroko left the house without a word.
Kisumi was still, for a very long time. Haru watched him without looking at him, as he reigned in his anger and his sadness. He almost wished he had the energy to feel bad about what he had done to Kisumi.
“I’m going to bed,” he said after several minutes. He didn’t usually bother to tell Kisumi, but today he got the feeling Kisumi needed the sound of his voice.
He didn’t have the energy to wish he could do more for him.
Lying in bed with the covers pulled over his head, he could hear Kisumi moving around the house. He seemed more agitated than normal, moving more, moving things around more, then leaving entirely, then coming back and doing the whole thing over again. Haru didn’t know what he was doing, and he didn’t particularly care.
He only cared about Yamazaki.
He had moved on. He had a boyfriend, and the way Yamazaki had looked at him told Haru all he needed to know. Haru had never had a chance at all. Yamazaki had never looked at him like that. He could still smell Yamazaki’s cologne, choking him, suffocating him, poisoning him.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that the first sound of raised voices didn’t even reach him. Until he caught Kisumi’s name, and Yamazaki’s.
“I know Sousuke was here, Kisumi. Where did he go?”
“You’re not going to want to see him, anyway,” Kisumi replied, and his voice sounded cruel, crueler than Haru had ever heard it. “He’s got a boyfriend with him. He’s moved on from your abuse.”
“My— Kisumi, what are you talking about?” Makoto. That was Makoto. Haru curled tighter in his blankets, wishing he could drown out the words.
“I’m talking about this sick game you’re playing, this monster you’ve become,” Kisumi said. Makoto said something, too low for Haru to hear, but he could hear the anger in Kisumi’s voice when he replied, “No. And you’re never getting near him again.”
The confrontation seemed over then, because Makoto didn’t say anything else, and a moment later, the door slammed open and Kisumi started moving around again. Haru fell asleep some hours later, between one frantic thought and the next.
“Haruka,” Kisumi said softly, sitting on the edge of Haruka’s bed. “Sweetheart, I know it’s gonna be hard today, but I need you to get up. I need you to get in the shower for me, okay?”
Haruka looked more dead than he ever had before, but he sat up. Like a creaky old machine, he got out of bed and started walking toward the bathroom. Kisumi sighed as soon as he was out of hearing. There was work to be done, though, quick work and then all his plans would be complete.
He packed up Haruka’s clothes, his phone and charger, the laptop he hadn’t touched in months and its accessories. In the closet, he knew there were stacks of sketchbooks, and though Haruka hadn’t drawn in over a year, he had a feeling that someday they would become important again. So Kisumi grabbed a box he had stolen from the lady at the bento store and started stacking the sketchbooks inside. That was it, he realized. A couple of duffle bags, three or so boxes. The food had been thrown out, or packed for snacks on the long trip. He had already emailed both of their resignations to their bosses. All that was left was Haruka.
The shower turned off just as Kisumi was returning from putting the last of their things in his crappy old car. Kisumi laid out a set of fresh clothes and made one last pass through the house to see if he had forgotten anything.
Haruka didn’t say a word, just looked at Kisumi blankly. Kisumi took him by the hand and led him down the temple steps to where the car was waiting. He stopped only to fill up the gas tank, and then they were on the road.
It was an eleven hour drive from Iwami to their destination, and Haruka was silent through most of it. Kisumi wasn’t sure if he should keep up the bright attitude that he had tried to maintain through this entire ordeal, or if he should acknowledge Haruka’s pain and be silent. It wasn’t until Haruka spoke that he snapped out of his anger and uncertainty.
“Where are we going?” he asked, somewhere around Nigata, almost two thirds of the way there. They had stopped twice for gas and once to eat, and in all that time, Haruka had not worked up the curiosity. But when Kisumi turned east on the toll road, Haruka seemed to step around his wall of silence.
“Sendai, in Miyagi,” Kisumi replied, glancing at Haruka out of the corner of his eye. “I have an old family friend who lives there, who offered to let us crash at his place until we got our feet under us.”
Haruka looked at him, finally, and Kisumi had to stop himself from breathing a sigh of relief at the confusion in Haruka’s eyes. Haruka hadn’t had an emotion as strong as confusion in quite some time. “Get our feet under us?” he repeated.
“We’re moving there,” he told him. “We’re not going back to Tottori. We’re getting out, where they can’t find us, and they can’t hurt us.”
“Kisumi,” Haruka said, one of only a handful of times that Haruka had said his name at all in the last year. He looked down, his brow furrowing ever so slightly. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“Because you’re mine,” Kisumi said simply. “And I’m yours. And I don’t know about you, but I’m done watching people try to break what’s mine.”
Haruka was silent again for the rest of the trip. As they wound through the mountains, Kisumi rolled down the windows and took a few deep breaths of the fresh air. It smelled so different here than by the western seaside, so much quieter and, dare he say, freer. Kisumi closed his eyes at a stop light and prayed he was making the right choice, for both of them.
Keishin had been surprised to hear from his old friend’s son. He hadn’t talked to any of the Shiginos in quite some time. But he knew Kisumi from old, knew how fiercely loyal he could be, how much he loved taking care of people. He wasn’t all that surprised, then, to hear what little of the story Kisumi had told him, and was only too happy to offer up his couch for them. When they arrived, however, Keishin’s vague worry about Kisumi turned into horror.
Kisumi looked like shit. He was pale and thin and blond again, even though he had started dying his hair in middle school and hadn’t stopped when he finished high school. But the boy he’d dragged with him? He looked dead. He barely looked at Keishin, barely looked around at his surroundings. New town, new prefecture, hell, new climate and landscape entirely, and the kid had no curiosity whatsoever.
“Kitchen’s open,” Keishin said as he led them into his little apartment above the shop. “I don’t really have any rules beyond just don’t be a jackass and I won’t be one to you. Oh, and,” he said, stopping by the pull-out sofa bed. “It’s big enough for two, but I’m afraid you’ll have to share. Is that a problem?” He watched Kisumi closely, but Kisumi didn’t even blush. He turned to the kid with him and asked,
“Is that okay with you, Haruka?” The kid, Haruka, nodded, and Keishin realized he still hadn’t heard his voice. Whatever had happened to these two, it was clearly hell. Keishin slapped on a grin.
“Tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to some folks I play volleyball with. Sound good?” he asked.
“Uh, sure,” Kisumi said, a little uncertain, like he was sure there was nothing fun at all about volleyball. Which, Keishin figured, was probably true to a basketball player, but he knew what he was doing.
“All right, then,” Keishin said. “I’ll let you two get settled in. I’ll be at the shop if you need me.”
“Right,” Kisumi said, looking around a little helplessly.
“Why don’t you get unpacked first?” Keishin offered gently. Kisumi nodded.
“Right,” he said again, and turned to go. He glanced back over his shoulder at Haruka and bit his lip, then shook his head and followed Keishin out the door.
“Hey, Kisumi,” Keishin said as they descended the stairs together. “I don’t know what happened with you two back in Iwami, but you should know something.”
“What’s up, Uncle Keishin?” Kisumi asked. Keishin took a breath, not sure how to phrase this, then decided to just go for it.
“You can’t save that boy,” he said.
“Oh, I know,” Kisumi said. “That’s why I brought him here.”
“Don’t get it,” Keishin said.
“I can’t save him, not back home where everything was so bad. But maybe, out here, someone can.” Keishin smiled, and ruffled Kisumi’s hair.
“I mean, he’s gonna have to save himself,” Keishin said. “You can help as much as you want, but that kid has to choose to get better.”
“Flowers can’t grow where there’s no sun,” Kisumi said, voice soft and musing. Keishin patted him on the shoulder, then turned him toward his car.
“Get unpacked,” he said. “I’ll be up in a couple of hours to make dinner.”
“Uncle Keishin?” Keishin turned back to Kisumi, who watched the ground near his feet. “Thanks,” he said.
“Anytime, kid,” Keishin replied, and pulled out his phone. He may not have known what these two needed, but he had a good idea of who.
The last thing Haru wanted to do was go out to a volleyball game with Kisumi and Ukai-san. But he could see Ukai-san’s point about getting out of the house, and could tell just how much Kisumi missed physical activity. He agreed for Kisumi’s sake, not for his own. Kisumi looked shocked, like he had expected Haru to refuse, like he had known Haru would refuse. But Haru wanted to get better, he realized with a jolt. He wanted the fresh start that Kisumi had promised them both.
Still, sitting in the stands and watching Kisumi play was surprising. He sucked at it, horribly, but Haru could tell how much he was enjoying it. The people from the neighborhood association were the first friendly interaction Kisumi had had in quite a long time, and Haru couldn’t help but be grateful for it.
He noticed the other person sitting in the stands, because he noticed absolutely everyone around him. He was waiting, he knew, for something that would never come. The people here didn’t know Makoto. They didn’t know Haru. They didn’t have any clue what had brought him and Kisumi up to Miyagi. This person had no reason to attack Haru.
But still, when he shuffled closer, Haru’s defenses tightened even more than they already were. The person smiled at him and he stared back, utterly terrified, as the person said, “My name’s Suga. I’ve never seen you around here before?” He phrased it like a question. Haru stared at him for a moment longer, then shook his head, ever so slightly, hoping that his lack of response would get the guy to go away. But Suga just smiled wider. “Have you ever played?” he asked. Haru shook his head again. “I can see he hasn’t,” Suga laughed. “I used to. Haven’t in years, I’m too busy, but I like to come watch Tooru and the others play when I can. Tooru’s the fluffy brown-haired one, right there, with the pretty face and the cocky personality.”
Haru, despite himself, looked at the court. He could tell which one Suga was talking about with just a glance. He must have been the one talking to Kisumi, laughing and showing him how to spike the ball. Haru knew jack shit about volleyball, but he could tell this guy knew what he was doing.
Suga fell into what for him must have been a comfortable silence, but Haru was still on edge. No one just took an interest in Haru when he was doing nothing. They all either saw him drawing or swi—
He shut the thought down. It would have led to other, sadder, more anxious thoughts, and the last thing he wanted just then was to have a meltdown and ruin Kisumi’s good day. He settled in as well as he could to watch the game.
Kisumi had had the time of his life. Playing with the neighborhood association was fun, something he hadn’t experienced in far, far too long. And working his muscles, even in ways he had never really practiced using them before, was even more rewarding. For just a moment, he forgot about all the shit he and Haruka had gone through.
Just for a moment, though.
When he glanced up from Oikawa and Uncle Keishin showing him the basics of receiving the ball, he saw Haruka watching him from the stands. There was someone next to him, and for a moment the adrenaline kicked in and he knew with absolute certainty that this person was going to attack Haruka. But then the person laughed, a genuine, easy laugh, and Haruka glanced at him, then back at the court. Haruka didn’t seem easy around him, but nor did he seem afraid. He didn’t fear what this person would say, but rather let it wash over him like he did most of the things Kisumi said. Kisumi was so struck in awe and wonder that he almost missed the ball sailing toward his head.
“So you do have some reflexes,” laughed Daichi as Kisumi reached up to block the ball. “Whatcha starin’ at?”
“Nothing,” Kisumi said out of habit. The need to protect Haruka, to draw attention away from him, spilled into his stomach, but Daichi just laughed.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Suga doesn’t bite.”
“Yes he does,” Oikawa laughed. “He just waits until he knows you like it.”
“I hate you,” Daichi said, and Oikawa laughed again.
Kisumi felt himself becoming more at ease around these people. There was something about them that made Kisumi feel… not comfortable, but more safe than he had before. Like they could tell that he and Haruka had been through some shit, but they weren’t going to press. Kisumi looked from Daichi’s bright eyes to Oikawa’s sparkling ones to Uncle Keishin’s knowing ones. He closed his own and took a breath. Then he grinned.
“Show me how to serve next,” he said.
Ukai-san had a job for Kisumi at the convenience store, but it would only do so much to get them back on their feet. It would take effort from Haru, something Haru was not used to giving. Especially not lately. But Kisumi had done so much for him, and he needed to do something for Kisumi in return. So he dragged himself out of the sleeper bed before Kisumi one morning and approached Ukai-san as he got ready for work.
“Fucking criminy, you scared me,” he said, clutching at his chest. His face softened. “Do you need something?”
Haru hadn’t really spoken around Ukai-san since they’d got there, just one or two monosyllabic answers to questions Kisumi asked him. But if any of this was going to work, he needed to put in the effort. So he steeled himself and asked, “Do you know anyone with a job opening?”
Ukai-san started, but regained quick control of himself. He didn’t do Haru the dishonor of smiling or doing any of the other pitying-compassionate things that people around here did. He just thought for a moment, then said, “Let me ask around. I’m sure I can find something for you.”
Haru nodded and hesitated. Then he turned and walked back into the living room and sat on the sofa bed, staring at the wall. He waited until Ukai-san was gone to crawl all the way into the bed and curl himself around Kisumi.
“Haruka?” Kisumi rasped, turning his head but nothing else as though he didn’t want to frighten Haru off. Haru just shook his head and held him tighter.
To say Kisumi was shocked when Haruka went off to his first day of work in a nearby kitchen with no fuss whatsoever would be an understatement. Kisumi stared out of the front window of the corner store at the place where he had disappeared from sight for a decent minute after he had left. He would have kept staring, except that Uncle Keishin smacked him with a mop handle and put him to work.
He couldn’t get his mind off Haruka all day. Even when his shift ended at the store and he went upstairs, he worried. Haruka’s shift went an hour later than his, and then there would be the time it took him to walk home, totally about fifteen minutes if he hurried or half an hour if he strolled or shuffled.
In the end, it took him about twenty-three minutes. He walked through the door to the apartment above the shop without a word, smelling of spices and meat. Kisumi didn’t ask how his day went. He couldn’t. He just watched Haruka step past him and sit on the sleeper couch.
Kisumi busied himself with making the three of them dinner, paying more attention to Haruka out of the corner of his eye than what he was doing. He reached for the pan and missed, planting his hand right on the hottest part.
Haruka looked up, looked like he was about to say something, but right at that moment Uncle Keishin came barreling out of the bedroom.
“What the fuck happened?” he bellowed. Kisumi showed him his hand and shook his head.
“Just a little burn,” he said. “Nothing important.”
“Let me see it,” Uncle Keishin said, and Kisumi gave him his hand, eyes on Haruka the entire time. Haruka was looking up at Kisumi with something not-quite-dead in his eyes, for just a moment. Then he looked away. Kisumi’s heart thudded in his chest, something he hadn’t been sure it was capable of doing anymore. He shook his head and took back his hand once Uncle Keishin had pronounced him fine. He turned back to fixing dinner with that strange floaty feeling in his chest that meant either he was getting sick, or he was once again lovesick.
It had been a while since he had felt butterflies or anything like that. He was still certain he loved Haruka, but it was a different kind of love now. An all-encompassing, protective kind of love, rather than the fluttery, giddy kind of his youth. Now he was less concerned with the question of whether Haruka liked him back, and more concerned with the idea of Haruka being okay again. He didn’t care if that meant he never got to be with Haruka. He shook his head and bit back a sigh, the first in several weeks.
Kisumi coming to play with the neighborhood association became a regular thing. Haruka following behind him and sitting in the bleachers also became a regular thing. Suga was doing the best he could with Haruka, but Tooru knew it was a matter of time. He’d seen firsthand what Suga’s friendly and playful personality could do. He’d seen it turn Kageyama from a bundle of nerves into, well. Not a shining example of social aptitude, but someone able to function in society. But sometimes even Suga needed a little help.
Tooru sauntered up to Haruka and threw an arm around his shoulder, ready to launch into something smarmy and off-topic when Haruka flinched, hard. Tooru took his arm back immediately, but continued leaning into Haruka’s space.
“What.” Haruka said flatly. Tooru smiled at him, something he hoped was softer and more inviting.
“You should come over sometime, Haru-chan,” he chirped. It was a mistake. Haruka flinched harder than ever, and Kisumi, looking up at some Haruka — instinct, had anger etched into the granite edges of his face.
“Haruka,” Kisumi said, walking over with measured steps. “Let’s go home.”
Tooru opened his mouth — to protest or apologize, he didn’t know which. But he looked at Haruka and saw in his face more emotion than he had ever shown. It took Tooru a moment to name it as fear. He took a step back, out of Haruka’s space, and watched as Kisumi grabbed Haruka by the shoulders and tucked him under his arm. They left so quickly that no one had time to process what had just happened.
“What did I do?” Tooru asked Suga, distressed. Suga shook his head and wrapped an arm around Tooru’s waist.
“I don’t know, babe,” he said, “but whatever it was, it wasn’t you. That was the face of someone haunted by their past. He wasn’t here, Tooru, he was somewhere else. Just.” Suga looked up at him. “Maybe don’t call him that again.”
“Right,” Tooru said, nodding slowly. He had thought that it had been the invitation that had done it, but Suga was probably right. He shook his head and found Suga’s hand where it rested on his hip, giving it a squeeze. “One thing’s for sure,” he said softly, turning to face his love. “That boy is ours now.”
Suga snorted. “Babe, I thought that was obvious by now,” he said. Tooru laughed softly.
“I love you,” he said. Suga nudged his head into Tooru’s shoulder.
“Love you too,” he said. “Whatever you’re planning, it’s a bad idea.”
“You’re gonna go along with it anyway,” Tooru pointed out. Suga hummed.
“I am,” he agreed. “Just to see how far we can take it.” Tooru snickered, and turned to grab his bag.
As they walked home, he turned the Haruka Problem over in his head. There was a solution there, he just couldn’t see it.
Work in the kitchen was fast-paced and therefore perfect. There was no time for Haru to think, no time for him to fall behind or get lost in his own emotions. It was… not good, but something. It was progress. And that was what Kisumi wanted from him most.
So when he woke up one night in the throes of another nightmare and Kisumi just curled tighter against his chest, he knew he had to do more.
The next time Oikawa invited them over, he was much more careful with the way he did it. He asked Kisumi first, gently prodding to see if Haruka would be open to the idea of trying out a few of the pastries at the cafe that Suga owned. Kisumi hesitated, but decided at last that he should leave the choice up to Haruka himself.
“Sure.” Kisumi blinked at him. “What.”
Kisumi blinked again. Then he shook his head and said, “I just didn’t expect you to want to go,” he said.
“I don’t,” Haruka replied.
“Then we don’t have to—”
“We’re going to.” Kisumi stared at him until he began to shrink. He quickly looked down at the space between his knee and Haruka’s thigh on the sleeper couch. His heart, which hadn’t stopped its intermittent thumping, did it again. He scowled, trying to put his thoughts into words.
“I don’t want you doing things you don’t want to just because you think it’ll make me happy,” he said at last.
Haruka was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “I want to get better.”
“Oh.” It hadn’t occurred to Kisumi, and he felt foolish for that. Of course Haruka wanted to get better. He was too stubborn not to. But he hadn’t realized it would happen so soon. “Okay, then, I’ll tell Oikawa next Thursday. You’re off then, right?” Haruka nodded, and Kisumi knew he wasn’t going to get much more out of him that day. But he was grateful for what he had gotten, what Haruka had been able to give him.
Thursday, when it came, dawned bleak and grey. It was one of those late-autumn days when everything seemed too tired to do much more than stir its head and sigh. But it found Haruka up before Kisumi, making them both breakfast. Uncle Keishin was already at the store, so the apartment was quiet other than the sound of bacon sizzling on the pan.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Kisumi said, but he murmured a word of thanks when Haruka put a plate down in front of him. Haruka sat down across from him, and Kisumi almost told him then. Almost told him everything. But then Haruka, clearly worn out from the cooking, poked at his egg and sighed.
“Just do what you can today, okay?” Kisumi said. Haruka looked up at him, barely. “I mean it. If you want to leave early, we will. And if you never want to do it again, we won’t. I’ll still be friends with them even if this one lunch ends early. It won’t make or break my chances at happiness. Got it?”
Haruka mumbled his assent, and Kisumi nodded, turning back to his own breakfast. They set out for the cafe around eleven in the morning, walking through the chill autumn air just a little too close to each other. Kisumi wondered when he had stopped noticing things like that, like how close they were and how they must have seemed to the outside eye. He wondered, if the air had been warmer, if his cheeks would still have been red. If he was even capable of blushing anymore.
They reached the address Oikawa had given them to find a busy little cafe, exactly like a picture out of a story book about a baker that Kisumi thought he must have read as a kid. He opened the door and let Haruka hold it for him as he went in first, an instinct he hadn’t even noticed until then. He shook the thought off like a cobweb and scanned the room. He spotted Oikawa leaning against the counter, flirting with an employee who looked more ticked off than charmed.
When the bell above the door rang, Oikawa looked up with a shining customer service smile. It faded into something less sure and more real when he caught sight of the two of them. “Welcome in,” he called, sounding actually happy to see them.
“Hi, Oikawa,” Kisumi said.
“Have a seat over there, and we’ll bring out some stuff for you guys,” Oikawa called, gesturing to a quiet, cozy corner. Kisumi led Haruka over to the chairs and took the one on the outside edge. Oikawa appeared from the back a few moments later, carrying a tray with four drinks and a plate of pastries. Suga joined them a moment later, looking harassed.
“Need I remind you, Tooru, you don’t actually work here,” he said, smacking a rag in Oikawa’s direction.
“Whatever,” Tooru muttered. He handed Kisumi a drink and set another on the table in front of Haruka, settling into one of the chairs opposite them. Suga rolled his eyes at him, but his face was fond as he sat next to Oikawa.
“Okay,” he said, “so these are a little experimental. I need to know if they’re any good, or if I should just stick to chocolate chip cookies and lattes.” There was a laugh in his voice, and in Oikawa’s eyes, like this was an inside joke of some sort. Kisumi shrugged and reached forward for a danish, breaking it in half. Haruka reached out and took the other half from him, examining it before taking a bite. Kisumi could barely taste his own bite, too busy marveling at him. Then he marveled further when Haruka said,
“Needs almonds.” He set the pastry down and reached for his drink, seeming to shrink back into his chair once more. Kisumi bit back a hysterical laugh.
“Almonds!” Suga said. “That’s exactly what I told you, Tooru!”
“And I specifically said we weren’t trying to send anyone into anaphylactic shock here!” Oikawa returned.
“Tooru you do realize not everyone is allergic to nuts, right?” Suga said. “And fewer of those are allergic to almonds? Most nut allergies are to peanuts.”
“Not the point, Kou-chan!” Oikawa cried.
“There’s almond milk in your latte.”
Kisumi sat back with a smile, enjoying the banter between the two of them. Somehow, he didn’t feel left out, more like they were putting on a show specifically for him and Haruka. And when they turned back to Kisumi and started talking about the other pastries, things felt even more natural than before. Like he was always meant to be here, in this place with these people.
Like he was home.
They moved out of Ukai-san’s apartment six months after they had moved in. The house Kisumi bought was an absolute steal, and Haru knew it was only because the woman who sold it to them felt sorry for him.
He knew he still looked like shit. Like a ghost. He also knew he was getting better. Food was easier to handle. The clean country air was easier to breathe than the seaside salt. And Kisumi was happy.
It was fascinating, really, watching Kisumi make friends. Haru could remember a time when he had hated Kisumi, hated the way he’d wormed his way in and made a home wherever he was. But now, watching him do it again, Haru could not be more grateful.
When the invitation to the barbecue came, Haru was in the middle of a high period. He accepted without much fuss, even knowing that by the time Saturday came around, he may not be feeling so on top of things.
Ushijima was the one who invited them. Haru had seen him around before, at a few of the neighborhood games, and at Suga’s cafe. He and his husband were quiet, serious people, and though Haru couldn’t quite get a read on them, he had seen Aone holding their newly-adopted baby daughter like she was the most precious thing in the world.
“I’m glad you came,” Ushijima said to them when they arrived. Haru nodded at him and the air grew a little awkward. Kisumi shuffled closer to him protectively.
And that’s when Hinata barreled into their lives. Haru barely had time to step back as an orange blur threw itself at Ushijima. Ushijima, for his part, caught the blur without much effort.
“This is Hinata Shouyou,” Ushijima said evenly. “Hinata, this is Shigino Kisumi and Nanase Haruka. Our new neighbors.”
“Nice to meet you!” Hinata crowed. Haru felt himself collapsing, but Hinata turned those bright brown eyes on him and grinned. “Let me introduce you to my boyfriend,” he said, and then trotted off. Kisumi glanced at Haru, who shrugged, and together they followed him. “This is Kunimi Akira,” he said, shoving a dark-haired, sullen-looking person toward them. “Wakatoshi, d’you need any help with the meat?”
With that, Hinata was gone, off chattering at Ushijima about something incomprehensible. Kunimi sighed.
“Sorry about him,” he said. “He can be a bit… much.” There was a fondness, but also an exasperation in Kunimi’s voice. “I can introduce you to the others, if you want, or if you want to just stay over here, that’s fine too.”
Haru had very strong opinions on how many people they were going to meet that day, but he allowed Kunimi to draw a few others over to their little corner of the yard. Terushima, who was loud, but easily distracted. Daichi and Iwaizumi, one of whom they had met at the volleyball games and the other who ran the animal shelter and corralled Oikawa as soon as he saw him. Tsukishima.
It wasn’t that Tsukishima scared Haru. He was halfway through a quip about Hinata when the unease came. At first, Haru couldn’t put a name to it. But he knew he had to get away.
One glance at Kisumi was all it took. He made some quick excuse that Haru couldn’t even pay attention to, and they were on the other side of the yard. Haru couldn’t bring himself to care about how rude they had just been. He only cared that the yard smelled like cooking meat and it was full of voices and bodies and he was on the verge of a downward spiral.
Kisumi reached into his pocket and pulled out a jar, huddling close to Haru. He uncapped the jar and held it up to Haru’s face. The scent of coffee beans flooded Haru’s senses. All he could focus on was the coffee and the man holding the jar.
“What are you doing?” he asked. Kisumi’s lip quirked, just slightly.
“Olfactory stimuli can help stop a panic attack, if used properly. That, and surprise, mixed with confusion? Like, saying or doing something harmlessly bizare. Trick I learned in one of my psych classes,” he said.
“You’re taking psych classes?”
Haru didn’t answer, but he did take another whiff of the coffee. His brow furrowed, and Kisumi took the jar away.
Haru didn’t say much more throughout the barbecue, but he let Kisumi fill his plate with meat and grilled veggies and ate a little more than half of it. He watched Hinata chase his little sister around. He watched Terushima hang off of Daichi’s arm and get shoved away time and time again. He watched Tsukishima watching him with that look in his eye that said he was trying to analyze a puzzle he didn’t have all the pieces to.
And all the while, as one eye stayed on his surroundings, the other watched Kisumi.
“When we were kids, it was like a game.” Kisumi knew he was drunk out of his mind. He hadn’t had a drop in over two years, but Oikawa and Suga had brought something raspberry-flavored and highly alcoholic and Kisumi had downed far too much of it. “He was always the best at it. See if we could get away with shit we knew we weren’t supposed to do. See if we could convince the adults it was actually right.
“And he was so good at it, and we all thought he was the best of us. The— what’s that fairy tale called? The pied piper. We all danced to his song. We all thought he was an actual good person.” Kisumi shook his head. “We were seventeen when I met all of them again, and the game wasn’t a game anymore. And he was so good at it. He had my little brother wrapped around his finger in a heartbeat. He taught kids to swim, ya know? Like, how are you supposed to argue with that?
“A-anyway, it was when Hayato stopped swim lessons that I started to notice. He could be so mean. Like, in a way where you didn’t notice at first. Like a razor that cuts so cleanly that it doesn’t even hurt until you start to bleed.”
“Poetic,” Oikawa commented, and Suga smacked him. Kisumi, too drunk to care, kept going.
“I kept my distance, after Hayato stopped swim lessons. Claimed I was busy with classes, and then work. Stayed in the group chats and went out to a couple of the bonfires and the shopping trips, but mostly stayed out of it.
“Yamazaki was apparently Rin’s best friend growing up, but I knew both Haruka and Makoto had their eyes on him. I don’t think, once Makoto noticed him, there was really. Much of a chance for him. When they started dating, things started seeming off, but I never paid much attention. It was Haruka who noticed the abusive tendencies, the isolation, the manipulation, things like that. I don’t think it was hatred that made Haruka drive him away. Not like Makoto says it was.”
“What happened?” Suga prompted gently when Kisumi fell silent. Kisumi heaved a shaky breath and began to tell them. About the vitriol from the neighbors. About the grannies who glared in the street. About their friends who shouted abuse. About the graffiti and the trash and the gate ripped off its hinges. About Hayato.
“I never told Haruka about this,” he said, his voice lowering, even in his drunken state, as though Haruka could hear from his place sound asleep in his bedroom upstairs. “But Hayato was always on Makoto’s side. When I started hanging out with Haruka, making sure he was safe, Hayato asked me why once. ‘Why are you spending time with an abusive person, Nii-chan?’ he asked me. ‘Why are you siding with the bad guy?’ Because that’s the thing, Haruka, he’s the bad guy. He’s the one who drove Yamazaki away, who broke Makoto’s massive heart. That’s how indoctrinated they all are. My own little brother refuses to speak to me now.”
“That’s why you came here,” Oikawa said, like he was piecing something together. He was looking at Suga when he said it. “To get away from all that.”
“Flowers can’t grow where there’s no sun,” Kisumi drawled. He was growing sleepy. “Haruka needs to be where he can grow. Where he can learn to be okay again.”
“So do you, Kisumi,” said Suga softly. He smiled, something kind that Kisumi trusted and hated in equal measure. “Why don’t you go to bed?” he suggested. “We’ll crash down here for the night, don’t worry about us.”
“You sure?” Kisumi asked. “I should at least get you—“
“You already got us blankets,” Oikawa laughed. Kisumi grinned.
“‘M drunk,” he said.
“You are,” Suga agreed. “Now go sleep it off, so you can get to the fun part of the hangover.”
“That doesn’t sound fun!” Kisumi accused, but he was giggling. He let Oikawa and Suagawara shoo him up the stairs, though he lingered at the top, just out of sight, held there on some need to understand what they thought of his story, what they were planning to do.
Somewhere between Oikawa whispering to Suga, “Well, that settles it,” and Suga wrapping Oikawa in his arms, Kisumi fell asleep against the wall at the top of the stairs.
Haru found Kisumi curled with his cheek smushed against the wall as he padded out of his bedroom for a glass of water. He stopped.
Looking at this, his only real friend left in the world, Haru felt something shift inside him. He frowned. “Kisumi,” He said softly, putting a hand on Kisumi’s shoulder. “Go to bed.”
Kisumi jerked awake, eyes going wild and terrified. Then they landed on Haru, and everything changed. Kisumi’s eyes went soft, his face slipping into a dopey grin. Like he was happy to see Haru. Haru’s frown deepened.
“Go to bed,” he repeated. Kisumi nodded and staggered to his feet. When Haru was sure he wasn’t going to fall down the stairs, he turned on his heel and marched back into his own bedroom, closing the door firmly between them.
He crawled back into his bed, but did not sleep the rest of that night.
Months were beginning to roll together again, and before anyone realized the time was passing, Haruka and Kisumi had been in Miyagi for two years. When Daichi and Iwaizumi held the grand opening for their new shelter, Kisumi found he didn’t have to drag Haruka at all. Haruka wanted to go.
He still flinched at the sight of cats. Iwaizumi didn’t ask, he never asked, but he kept up a low tone of conversation as he led them past the cat rooms and out to the dog kennels on their tour. And he smiled and nodded to Haruka’s unasked question, leaving him to play with the dogs.
“You ever thought about adopting one?” Kisumi asked as he crouched beside Haruka who had a bichon frise in his arms and a labrador snuffling at his cheek. Haruka looked up at him with wide eyes. Kisumi laughed, his heart doing another uneven little thump. “Well?” he prompted, elbowing Haruka in the shoulder.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Haruka said. Kisumi drank in the sound of his voice, no longer rusted metal, but whole and well-used. Haruka ruffled the ears of the bichon and hummed. “It would have to be the right dog,” he said.
“Have you seen the right dog yet?” Kisumi asked, smiling despite himself.
“Not yet,” Haruka said. “I’ll let you know if I do.”
Kisumi grinned and touched Haruka’s shoulder lightly, then turned to go.
He ran into Iwaizumi on his way out the door. “Oh! Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” he said. Iwaizumi smiled thinly at him.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
“What’s up?” Iwaizumi led Kisumi out of the doorway and over to a little corner where they kept the cat food and litter. Iwaizumi grabbed a bag of food and Kisumi did the same, and together they started refilling the feeders.
“I don’t know how to bring this up,” he said, “so I’m just gonna say it. I’m worried about you and Nanase-kun.”
“What about us?” Kisumi asked, trying to remind himself that they were safe here, that there was no need to be instantly on edge.
“Oikawa is a good friend,” Iwaizumi said. “He won’t tell me the whole story, says you told him and Suga in confidence. And if you don’t want to tell the rest of us, that’s fine. But I see the way he flinches. Especially around Tsukishima, or Hinata. And I see the way you’re so protective of him.” Iwaizumi put down his bag of food and turned to face Kisumi. “I need you to know that whatever happened in Iwami, it’s over now. You two have somewhere to go if you need to, people you can lean on. But we won’t know how to help if you don’t tell us.”
Kisumi’s eyes were prickling. He filled the last of the feeders and set his bag down slowly. When he turned to face Iwaizumi, Iwaizumi was watching the main room through the door, a frown on his face. He looked at Kisumi, and Kisumi smiled. “Honestly,” Kisumi said, “what you just said is the most helpful thing anyone could do. It’s a lot, and it takes a lot for either of us to trust someone these days, Haruka especially. But…”
“But he wanted to come today. Like, actively. He wanted to be here because this is where his friends are. And that’s huge.” Kisumi looked away, back to the front of the building where their friends were gathered, laughing and shoving and jumping all over the place. “You’re all good people. You don’t manipulate, or hate, the way people at home did. So it’s hard for you to understand what that kind of manipulation leaves behind.”
“We’re not saints,” Iwaizumi said.
“No, and you don’t pretend to be,” Kisumi agreed. “And that makes all the difference.”
“Well. Go collect Nanase-kun, and let me know if you two want a dog today. Either way, you’re always welcome here.” With that, Iwaizumi turned and deposited his bag of food back in the pile, then strode out to the rest of the gathering.
Kisumi went back to find Haruka in the exact same position he’d left him in. “Find it yet?” he asked. Haruka shook his head and eased the dog off his lap and stood. “Well, we’re welcome to come back as often as it takes for you to find the right one,” Kisumi told him. Haruka’s eyes lit up again, and Kisumi’s chest went tight and warm. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go join the others.” Haruka nodded and let Kisumi lead him out.
Tsukishima was standing near the door to the back, and Kisumi could feel Haruka go instantly on his guard. It was a problem they’d been having for some time now. Kisumi didn’t know what it was about Tsukishima. Haruka didn’t talk poorly of him, didn’t seem afraid, but his walls went up every time Tsukishima was around. And Kisumi wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“May I speak with you, Nanase-san?” Tsukishima asked, cold eyes landing on Haruka. Kisumi started to step between them, but Haruka put a hand on his shoulder and nodded. Tsukishima nodded, fiddled with his fingers for a moment, then took a breath and said, “Do we have a problem?” Kisumi schooled himself to remain silent as Haruka absorbed the words and replied,
“Not with you specifically.”
“What does that mean?” Tsukishima’s voice was annoyed, but patient at the same time. Haruka shrugged.
“You remind me too much of how I used to be,” he said. Tsukishima’s eyes went a little wider and a little clearer at that.
“I see,” he said. Haruka nodded. “In that case, I don’t think we do have a problem.” Haruka nodded again, and Tsukishima nodded in return and walked away to go find his freckle-faced friend, leaving Kisumi feeling like he had just missed something important. He turned to Haruka, who shrugged, looking tired.
“Can we go home?” Haruka asked, and Kisumi nodded. For the very first time, something like frustration welled up in him. But he pushed it down and wrapped an arm around Haruka’s shoulder, leading him through the clustered gathering and waving their goodbyes for him.
That winter found the snow piling thick against the windows. It didn’t snow like this in Iwami, and Haru found he loved the way the world turned to white and quiet. Iwaizumi was the last to arrive at the party, and, as Kisumi was busy entertaining the others, it was Haru who let him in and took his coat.
“Thanks,” Iwaizumi said with a nod, and Haru nodded back, turning to the coat closet. He rarely had reason to go into this closet, as he kept his own winter gear on the coatrack in the entryway. When he opened it, a box caught his eye, tucked in the bottom of the tiny space and marked in Kisumi’s flashy handwriting: Haruka’s sketchbooks. Haru filed away the information for later as he hung up Iwaizumi’s coat and joined the press of noise and the smell of bodies and winter cold.
Kisumi caught his eye, a question written on his face. Haru shook his head and wandered off to find Kunimi, the quietest person in their group. He passed the rest of the night uncomfortably, but without causing a scene.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Haru let himself feel the sweet sting of self-sabotage once again.
Kisumi wandered out into the kitchen the morning after their party with a yawn and a satisfied feeling in his bones. Haruka had done well at the party, and it was nice to have so many friends around. It felt like it had before, when everything was right and everyone loved each other.
He almost walked right past him. The fireplace was blazing, but that wasn’t unusual. Haruka got cold easily, and he’d been so sick the first winter they’d been there that Kisumi had intentionally found a house with one. Haruka sitting in front of the fireplace was nothing unusual either. But there was an awful lot of smoke, and a half-familiar box sitting next to him.
“What are you doing?” Kisumi screeched. Haruka didn’t even look up at him, just fed another sketchbook into the flames. Kisumi watched in horror as the pages, full of life and emotion, curled and blackened, then lit themselves ablaze. Kisumi made a pained noise as Haruka picked up another sketchbook. “What is wrong with you?” he screamed. Haruka chucked the sketchbook into the fire, sending up a spray of cinders.
Panic flooded Kisumi’s veins. There was one book left in the box. He snatched it and danced away from Haruka’s grasp. He flipped through the pages frantically, until all of a sudden he relaxed.
“Thank god,” he whispered. “It’s still here.” He sank to his knees, his fingers across the pencil strokes. It was one of the few pieces Haruka had ever done in color, of the cherry blossoms outside of their middle school. “This one’s my favorite,” he said. “I remember the day you drew it. It was the day I…” he shook his head and looked up at Haruka.
There were tears in Haruka’s eyes as he stared at him. Kisumi set the sketchbook carefully behind him and scooted forward to pull Haruka into his arms.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” he said, stroking Haruka’s hair as he sobbed into Kisumi’s shoulder. “I just. I wish I knew how to make things easier for you. I wish I knew how to keep you from feeling like this. But Haruka?” Haruka grunted, his hands tightening in Kisumi’s shirt. “Whatever happened, whatever this is, I’m not leaving you. I won’t ever leave you alone.”
Haruka choked on a word or two, but Kisumi didn’t press. He just held Haruka close, stroking his hair in the warmth from the fireplace.
“We’re going to get through this,” Kisumi promised, to himself as much as to Haruka. “We’re going to be okay.”
Haruka didn’t answer.
Hajime wasn’t surprised when Kisumi and Haruka came into the shelter a couple of days after the party. They seemed quieter than they had before that night, like something had happened. He spared a glance at Daichi, who shrugged subtly and shook his head.
“How can we help you two?” Daichi asked with a grin.
Kisumi looked at Haruka, who shrugged. They were holding hands, Hajime noticed, but he knew better than to assume.
“We’re here to adopt,” Kisumi said at last. “Can we go see the dogs?”
“Of course you can,” Daichi said with a smile. “You know the way right? We’ll be right there.”
Kisumi nodded and led Haruka into the back of the shelter. Hajime turned to Daichi with a question on his tongue, but Daichi just shook his head and leaned in to press a kiss to Hajime’s neck.
“I love you,” Daichi said softly. Hajime smiled.
“I love you too,” he said. Daichi nodded and pulled away to slip his hand in Hajime’s back pocket as they went back into the kennels.
Walking into their home with their new puppy, Kisumi felt a sense of completeness that he hadn’t known he was missing. He and Haruka were both still a little raw from the sketchbook incident, but in a way that new growth was raw. Something had changed between them, something that Kisumi couldn’t quite identify.
He didn’t think it was going to be something romantic, the start of some new page in the love story that was probably never going to happen. He didn’t hate himself enough to hope. But something had changed, and he wasn’t sure what it was.
In situations like this in the past, Kisumi had always followed Haruka’s lead. Let him set the pace, let him set the boundaries. But he had a feeling that whatever they were stepping into was something more equal. Something more Haruka-and-Kisumi rather than Haruka, and also Kisumi.
As Kisumi set down his keys and took off his shoes, Haruka let the dog off her leash and started showing her around the house. The dog followed Haruka much the same way Kisumi always had, looking up at him in absolute adoration.
“What’re you going to name her?” Kisumi asked, leaning against the doorway to Haruka’s room. Haruka sat on his bed and looked down at the dog, who grinned up at him, her tongue lolling. Haruka’s phone buzzed, and, much to Kisumi’s surprise, he picked it up.
“Kou,” he said softly.
“You still talk to her?” Kisumi didn’t mean it to sound as accusatory as it came out. “No, I didn’t mean like that,” he said when Haruka started curling in on himself. “I’m just surprised is all.”
“She kept in touch,” Haruka said.
“And…?” Kisumi wasn’t sure how to put into words what he was asking, but Haruka understood him anyway.
“We don’t talk about it,” he said, and he was curling again, and that was bad, was wrong, but Kisumi didn’t know if invading his space would make it worse.
But then Haruka took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He stroked the dog’s ears and something almost like a smile ghosted across his lips. Anxiety ricocheted through Kisumi’s veins, but when Haruka looked up at him, there was none to be found in Haruka’s eyes.
“I have work in the morning,” Haruka said. “I should get some rest.”
“Okay. Do you want her to sleep in here, or in the living room?” Kisumi asked.
“Here is good,” Haruka said, reaching down to stroke the dog’s ears again. Kisumi smiled at him for a moment, then nodded and closed the door between them.
Haru was doing his goddamned best. He walked Hana-chan every morning before he left for work, every afternoon when he got home, and every evening before bed. He fed her and played with her and slept with her at the foot of his bed, and ultimately she was a force for good in his life.
He was so tired.
And more than that, he was growing angry. It was a good sign, some logical part of his brain knew, but getting pissed when he walked outside and it was a bit colder than expected did not feel helpful. Little inconveniences sent him straight to livid.
It wasn’t like he wasn’t handling that anger well. He kept it simmering until there was time to go into his room and fume about it, never took it out on anyone else. He kept it to himself and didn’t use it to abuse anyone.
And then came the day when that all came crashing down around him.
It was all Suga’s fault. He was so sweet, in a genuine way that Makoto never had been. But he was also nosy, and meddlesome, and Oikawa wasn’t much better. After a day of testing drinks and pastries for the spring release at the cafe, Haru was sick of being cooed at and fawned over and feeling like everyone was walking on eggshells around him. He was tired, and frustrated, and coming home should have been a nice escape from that. But then Kisumi came home an hour later, and knocked so softly on Haru’s open door. Haru cursed himself for not closing it.
“Hey, you okay?” Kisumi asked. “Suga mentioned that you seemed off at the cafe today?” He phrased it like a question, and that was the final straw.
“What the fuck do you care?” Haru snapped. Kisumi, for his part, just blinked in surprise.
“You know I care,” Kisumi said. “May I come in?”
“Whatever.” Haru glared at the wall across from him, determined not to acknowledge Kisumi again.
“You’ve been angry for weeks, Haruka,” Kisumi said, and that startled a glance out of Haru. Kisumi smiled a sheepish smile, and that just made the poisonous fire building in Haru’s veins grow hotter. “I know you’ve been trying to push it down, and I want you to know it’s okay to yell it out right now. Whatever’s going on in your head, it’s okay to get it out.”
“I’m not angry,” Haru said, trying to will it into truth.
“You know,” Kisumi said, sitting down on the foot of Haru’s bed and staring at the wall with him, “I used to think that showing anger meant you were a bad person. That it was abusive. Now, obviously, I know that that’s not what all abuse looks like. But it doesn’t mean that anger can’t be healthy, too.”
“What are you talking about.”
“A couple of things,” Kisumi said. “Mostly I’m trying to stay calm so you get pissed and face this head-on.”
“…Why?” Kisumi turned to look at him.
“Because I think you need it,” he said. “I think you deserve to be angry at what happened to you. And because this is the biggest emotion that’s not been aimed at yourself that I’ve seen you have, probably ever.” Kisumi shrugged and looked away again. “Also maybe a little selfishly, because I want to know it’s okay for me to be angry, too.”
Haru had known, of course he had known, that Kisumi had been just as affected by all of this as Haru. But it hadn’t fully hit him until just that moment that Kisumi had faced exactly the same amount of abuse and vitriol as Haru.
Kisumi. The only person Haru thought might still be good. Makoto had taken him and broken him and he had still tried to fight for Haru. He had let himself be ruined, on the off chance that Haru might get better someday.
Guilt and anger sat in front of Haru like two pairs of shoes, one well-worn and familiar, and one shiny and new. Haru considered. He owed it to Kisumi to try and get better, even more than he owed it to himself. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“How dare he,” he snarled.
“How dare who?” Kisumi knew the answer, Haru knew, but he needed Haru to say it.
“How dare Makoto treat us like that? We were friends, we were-“ Haru dug his nails into his palms. “He was supposed to be my best friend. He was supposed to be the best of us.”
“He had no right,” Kisumi agreed.
“He was so systematic. He did it all on purpose. He knew me better than anyone else, always knew what I was thinking. And he used that against me, for years. He made me think I was crazy, do you know that?” He looked wildly at Kisumi. “He made me think at first that I was imagining the way he was treating people. And then that it was a game and I was nuts for thinking it was wrong. Like, it was just a game, so what was my problem?”
“It’s called gaslighting,” Kisumi said. “Making you believe abuse isn’t happening to you, or isn’t happening at all. It’s awful and I think that’s what he’s best at. He loves you, he wants what’s best for you, he’s good, and he would never do something so awful as everything he does.” Kisumi snorted. “He’s a master at it.”
“I never meant for you to get dragged into this,” Haru said. “That’s what I hate most, is that he isolated me. He took me away from my friends, and when one of them turned out to be loyal, he destroyed you too.”
“Don’t say you’re fine!” Haru interrupted. “You lost everything right along with me! I know about Hayato, Kisumi, I know he took the most important person in the world away from you.”
“He did,” Kisumi agreed. “It was awful, losing him. But… My priorities shifted. Now you’re the most important person in the world to me.”
“How can you say that?” Haru screeched. “How can you be okay with going from someone good, and pure, and fun, like Hayato, to someone like me?”
“What’s so wrong with you that I shouldn’t stay with you?” Kisumi asked, his voice growing indignant.
“Have you met me?” Haru snorted.
“I have,” Kisumi said.”And, yeah, you’re fucked up. He did a number on you. But you know what else? You’re also tenacious. You took this horrible thing that was done to you, and instead of wallowing in it forever, you grew. You started to get better. You’re still getting better, and you won’t stop.” Kisumi looked down at his hands, hanging loosely from his knees. “I admire you, Haruka, because of that tenacity. You didn’t pretend everything was fine. You didn’t shatter entirely. You didn’t end it all, even when you thought you had nothing to live for. And now?” He looked up at Haru again. “Now, you’re starting to thrive. You’re not there yet, but, Haruka, I wish you could see yourself the way I do. I wish you knew how amazing you were.”
“I’m not,” Haru said, and Kisumi didn’t bother arguing. Haru sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But you should see yourself.”
“All right,” Kisumi laughed. Haru felt a little lighter, a little less angry, a little more at the sound of that laugh. “I suppose that’s fair. But my point still stands that you yourself are pretty damn great.”
“If you say so.” Kisumi was quiet for a long moment, and Haru was too drained to break the silence.
There was something new living in Haru’s chest. Something warm. When Kisumi bumped his shoulder against Haru’s and smiled at him, he almost wanted to say something. But he had no idea what that something was. “You gonna be okay?” Kisumi asked. “You done hiding your anger from me?”
“Yeah,” Haru said. “And, yeah.”
“Okay. I’m here if you need me.”
Kisumi left the room and Hana-chan jumped up in his vacated spot. Haru wrapped his arm around her and let himself just feel for a long moment, burying his nose in her fur and breathing in the not-quite-unpleasant scent of dog.
Kisumi had no idea how they had all found out, but he suspected it had something to do with Oikawa and Suga. Those meddling bastards found out about everything eventually. He held onto that suspicion, because when he and Haruka walked into the cafe one afternoon in April and Haruka didn’t even flinch at the cheers and the sudden burst of confetti, Kisumi had no idea what to do with it.
“What’s going on?” he asked, almost growled, stepping instinctively in front of Haruka. Haruka, who huffed and pushed around Kisumi to go flop in his usual seat in the corner. Kisumi stared around the cafe, at all their friends, most of whom were laughing. Oikawa and Suga had their arms around each other by the counter. Daichi was fending off a giggly Terushima while Iwaizumi laughed at both of them. Hinata had gotten ahold of more confetti poppers and was threatening Tsukishima with them while Yamaguchi snuck up behind him with a popper of his own in his hands. Ushijima and Aone, Kunimi, Natsu, even Uncle Keishin, they were all there. And hung from the ceiling above the counter was a banner that read Congratulations, Kisumi!
Kisumi stood, shocked, in the doorway, until Iwaizumi took pity on him. He stepped up and dragged him into the cafe proper, giving him a congratulatory slap on the shoulder and only just detaching himself in time for Oikawa, Suga, and Hinata all to wrap their arms around him.
“I don’t-“ Kisumi started, staring around.
“You didn’t think we would let you graduate without throwing some sort of party, did you?” Oikawa laughed. Kisumi shook his head dumbly. He craned his neck to look back at Haruka, who was curled in his chair and watching the entire thing happen with something that might have been a smile on his face.
“I did,” Kisumi admitted. Oikawa made a distressed noise and hugged him tighter, thumping his forehead into Kisumi’s shoulder and rubbing his nose there. A laugh burst out of Kisumi and he returned the embrace, one hand clutching at Oikawa’s shoulder blades and the other mussing his hair. “You’re all assholes,” he told Oikawa, who just nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, standing up, but not removing his arm from around Kisumi’s shoulder. “And you’re an asshole along with the rest of us. You weren’t going to tell any of us, were you?”
“Didn’t see the point,” Kisumi said. There was more to it than that, and he knew Oikawa knew that, but Oikawa just snorted unattractively and slapped Kisumi on the ass, then stepped back to let Hinata clamber his way into Kisumi’s arms in his place.
Kisumi let himself be passed from neighbor to neighbor, from friend to friend, in a daze. He kept an eye on Haruka, because he didn’t know how he could exist without doing so at this point, but Haruka never looked distressed, never even looked bored as the party wound on. Kunimi went to sit with him at one point, and then Hinata with Natsu, and then Terushima, and then Kunimi again, and out of the corner of his eye, Kisumi could see Haruka interacting with each of them.
“Hey.” Kisumi looked up, startled, when Daichi stepped up next to him. “It’s okay, you know,” Daichi said.
“Letting yourself be happy.” Daichi jerked his chin in Haruka’s direction. “He set this whole thing up so that you could get something we all know you need, you know. It’s okay to not, and I quote, ‘be his babysitter for one goddamn afternoon’.”
“He said that?”
Daichi just smiled at him, reaching past him to pluck a cookie off of the tray on the counter. He bumped his shoulder against Kisumi’s and then wandered off, presumably to save Iwaizumi from Terushima. Kisumi felt like he was drowning.
When the sun had set and the cafe had been technically closed for an hour and Kisumi managed to drag himself and Haruka away from the clutches of their friends, they walked home in silence that was not comfortable in the slightest. Haruka’s eyes kept sliding in his direction, but he stared straight ahead, barely even acknowledging the man walking beside him. He didn’t know how to, not now. Kisumi had the feeling he had been approaching Haruka all wrong for months now. As though now Haruka was trying to tell him something, and he had no idea what it was or how to begin to respond. They made it all the way to their house and into the living room before Haruka snorted, grabbing his sleeve and dragging him up the stairs and into Haruka’s bedroom. He pushed Kisumi onto the bed and sat beside him, pressing their shoulders together.
Kisumi waited, because Kisumi always waited in situations like this, but Haruka, it seemed, had the same idea. Kisumi had no idea how long they sat there, each waiting for the other to break, but shock ricochetted through him when he was the first to actually do so.
“I don’t understand,” he said softly.
“Don’t understand what?” Haruka asked. Kisumi glanced at him, but couldn’t keep his gaze from skittering away.
“Why would you go through all that effort?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Daichi told me you set that whole thing up.” Haruka shrugged.
“I told Oikawa,” he said. “I also told him when we were both off, and that you wouldn’t come if you knew it was happening, but that’s it.” He shrugged again. “I didn’t exactly set the whole thing up, I just told someone who would.”
“Because you deserve it.”
“That’s not-“ Kisumi snarled in frustration. He wasn’t used to having this much difficulty communicating, especially not with Haruka.
“What’s actually wrong?” The question bowled him over. He turned to look at Haruka at last, to find Haruka looking right back at him, his eyes narrowed like Kisumi was a book written in a language in which he was not quite fluent. It was a look Kisumi remembered giving Haruka, years ago. Kisumi looked down at his hands, hanging loosely from his knees, and twined his fingers together.
“I… I don’t know where to go from here,” he admitted.
“Why’d you start going in the first place?” Haruka asked.
“I… I had this idea, that if I had a degree, I could get a better job and take care of us better. I started before we even left Iwami. I didn’t expect it when you got your job, or when we got this house, but I was in too deep to quit by that point.” Kisumi laughed, a humorless thing. “You don’t need me nearly as much as I thought you did,” he said.
“I do.” It was simply said, no burst of emotion or desperation or anger or anything other than pure fact. “Maybe not the same way I did before, but…” Haruka shrugged again. Kisumi was about to say something in response to that, but whatever it was died on his tongue when Haruka added, “You just don’t seem to realize that sometimes you have needs, too. And that it’s okay to have them taken care of.”
“So, you threw me a party, because I needed it?”
Kisumi stared at his hands some more, waiting for them to give him some sort of answer. He knew that this wasn’t Haruka’s way of paying him back or anything like that. This wasn’t Haruka feeling indebted. This wasn’t some equal exchange for something Kisumi had done. This was Haruka expressing something that lived between his ribs, the same way Kisumi had done for years now.
In the end, there was nothing Kisumi could say. Thank you felt too small, and I love you too redundant. So he just pressed his shoulder a little tighter against Haruka’s, and Haruka pressed back for just a moment before he stood to take Hana-chan on her walk. Kisumi stayed in Haruka’s bedroom for an endless few moments, trying to put a name to what was happening in his sea-storm heart just then. When Haruka and Hana-chan disappeared from the view through Haruka’s window, he gave up and stood and wandered into the kitchen to make them dinner.
Kei had been watching him from the very beginning, and he knew that he was being watched in return. He knew when Nanase’s gaze turned from defensive to distrustful to something neutral and utterly without emotion. He also knew when Nanase started to trust him. Kei thought he had gotten fairly good at judging Nanase’s mood, where he was in his spirals and mountain peaks. He knew when Nanase was doing well, and when he was doing better, and when he took a step backwards. He saw the upward trend for what it was, saw more than Nanase wanted him to.
So it didn’t surprise him.
They were at another of Ushijima and Aone’s barbecues, four years after Nanase and Shigino had arrived in Miyagi. Kei was leaning against the fence that bordered the road, watching as Hinata and Natsu chased Ushijima’s toddler around the yard. He turned to make some comment to Yamaguchi, who was already snickering, but groaned instead.
“Don’t be like that, Tsukishima,” Suga said, coming to lean against the fence next to him.
“You know you love our company,” Oikawa added.
Kei opened his mouth to let them know exactly what he thought of their company, but before he could, Yamaguchi nudged his shoulder and said, “They’re right, Tsukki, you’re the one who dragged me here.”
“I hate all of you,” Kei muttered. Yamaguchi laughed, and Kei rolled his eyes.
He noticed when Shigino and Nanase arrived, because he noticed everything. Kei wasn’t the kind of person who could lose focus enough to be surprised like that. Especially when, while he was sure Nanase didn’t hate him, he still didn’t know exactly where they stood. Kei hated uneven ground. So he was the only one who didn’t react when they wandered over to them and stood, not quite hovering, on the edge of their conversation. The others shifted subtly, celestial bodies reacting to the gravity of another and pulling him into their orbit. Nanase was quiet, because Nanase was a quiet person, but not in the same way he had been when he arrived.
Suga was talking about the cafe, not that Kei was paying much attention, more busy watching as Kageyama and Kindaichi slipped quietly into the back yard.
“I just don’t understand how people can drink that shit,” Suga whined.
“Kou-chan, you literally added it to your menu so that people could order it,” Oikawa pointed out.
“It’s diabetes in a cup,” Suga argued.
“It can’t be any more saccharine than being around you,” Nanase said, at a perfectly reasonable volume. He didn’t murmur it, didn’t mutter it under his breath, but he also didn’t shout it. It still cut through everyone around them like a knife. Shigino fumbled his cup and stared at Nanase. Kei could feel the tension mounting in Nanase, and barely flicked his eyes over to him. He knew something had to happen, or they would lose whatever miracle had just occurred. So he cupped his hands around his mouth and called,
“Oi! The King graces us with his presence!”
Hinata’s head snapped up and those obnoxiously sharp eyes scanned the yard for about half a second before landing on Kageyama, who went stiff as a board and actually tried to hide behind Kindaichi.
“You’re back!” Hinata crowed.
“I thought they weren’t getting back until next month,” Suga said.
“We should probably rescue him,” Oikawa hummed, though he made no move to help his kouhai as Hinata launched himself across the yard. They all watched as Kindaichi ducked just in time for Hinata to literally vault his shoulders and knock Kageyama to the ground. Yamaguchi and Kei both snickered, the laughter getting stronger as Kei glanced at Shigino who stared at the commotion in half-protective confusion.
“That’s Kageyama Tobio,” Kei explained. Shigino nodded, eyes going clear. They had all told him about Kageyama, the rising volleyball star, and his sometimes-groupie-sometimes-manager-sometimes-boyfriend Kindaichi. He knew about Hinata’s rivalry with him, though no words could describe exactly what sort of relationship they had. Not that Hinata himself ever actually put a name to it. Yamaguchi rolled his eyes and shook out his shoulders, evidently preparing to go detached Hinata before anything permanent and/or indecent took place. Kei watched him go, debating whether he should follow and poke at the situation until it blazed. Oikawa and Suga wandered off in their own direction, leaving Kei with just Shigino and Nanase.
Shigino was watching Nanase, but Nanase just watched the barbecue. His eyes flickered to Kei, and Kei saw the gratitude that Nanase would never put to words. He blinked in lieu of nodding his acknowledgment, then set off across the yard to see if he could antagonize Kageyama some.
No one but Kei noticed when Shigino and Nanase slipped out of the yard.
It was fine.
Little things kept happening. Kisumi noticed all of them, put each of them in a neatly-labeled file folder in the cabinet in his mind labeled Haruka. The first snarky comment at the barbecue had shocked him into a daze he walked around in for the rest of the day. The second, a quip at Oikawa’s cooking ability, he was a little more prepared for, but not by much. Eventually, they added up into a mountain of events, and Kisumi became, well. Not desensitized. Exposure therapy had never done much in his opinion. But perhaps he became more used to it.
He knew Haruka was watching him react each time. He knew that his reactions were too much. He knew that Haruka was choosing to keep it up anyway, that he was pushing himself through the fear and the awkwardness.
And it wasn’t just the sarcasm. Haruka was never going to be his old self, Kisumi knew. Neither of them could go back to who they were before, and neither of them wanted to. But this new Haruka was turning out to be just as sassy as the old one, though it tasted different. Sweeter, with less of the metallic poison of someone who was actively trying to survive ongoing abuse. Like this was what Haruka had been meant to be, if Makoto had never gotten ahold of him.
“When are you going to get a better job?” Haruka’s lazy question pulled Kisumi out of his thoughts. He glanced up from where he had been staring at his hands and over at the other end of the couch where Haruka was curled up with a notebook.
“You said you started going to school in the hopes of a better job,” Haruka said. “I mean, if you want to stay at Ukai-san’s, you can, I’m not saying you can’t. But it doesn’t seem like you want to?” His voice curled up at the end, turning the statement into a question. Kisumi shrugged.
“I’m kind of… debating,” he admitted.
“A job, and…”
Kisumi was quiet for a long time. He hadn’t really admitted this, even to himself. But thoughts of the graduation party and the conversation on Haruka’s bed after had not left his mind. He sighed. “And grad school,” he said, so quietly he was almost sure Haruka couldn’t hear them.
“Can you do that online, or will we be going somewhere else?”
Kisumi didn’t sigh, but it was a near thing. “That’s part of why I haven’t gone for it,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. There’s a school in Sendai that would be pretty great, but if I don’t get in…” He shrugged.
“This is home now.” It was an agreement, not an argument. It wasn’t Haruka digging his heels in and asking to stay, asking Kisumi to stay. It was more an acknowledgment that Kisumi himself didn’t want to go. “What are the requirements?” It wasn’t a regular notebook in Haruka’s hands. Kisumi narrowed his eyes at it.
“I’ve got the GPA,” he said slowly. “It’s the extracurriculars that I kind of lack. I could make up for it with enough recommendations and a good enough personal essay, but… Haruka, what are you doing?”
“Sketching. What kinds of recommendations do you need?”
The floor had dropped out from under Kisumi for what felt like the hundredth time that week. He knew that eventually he had to stop being surprised when Haruka made progress. But it was hard to reconcile this Haruka with the one in his head, the one he had found on the beach all those years ago. He stammered for a moment, then launched into a description of the admissions requirements for the graduate psychology program he wanted. Haruka nodded and hummed along, but his hand didn’t pause in its movements across the page. Finally, Kisumi floundered.
“I think,” Haruka said, looking up from his sketchbook at last, but still not looking at Kisumi, “it comes down to where you think you’ll be the most fulfilled. You’ve got the smarts to go to grad school, and the heart to use that degree after, but if you don’t want to, if it won’t bring you actual happiness, don’t. You don’t have to follow a path just because it’s the one you started on.”
“Y-yeah,” Kisumi said. “I don’t know what I want,” he admitted, quietly, more to himself than to Haruka. But Haruka nodded anyway.
“Me neither,” he said, like it was simple, like it wasn’t the entire world coming crashing down around their shoulders. Like their lives, which had been so focused on simple survival, hadn’t just opened up to endless possibility for the first time in six years.
“I’m worried about Kisumi.”
It was a testament to Koushi’s tight control over himself that he didn’t stutter or fumble at the statement. Haruka was leaning against the counter, watching the rest of the cafe as Koushi made his drink. They were fairly empty, just an old woman and her granddaughter in the far corner, and Koushi was the only one behind the counter. Koushi hummed.
“What makes you worried about him?” he asked.
“He’s been holding both of us up for so long, and now that he’s got support of his own, he won’t lean on it. And…” Haruka’s brow furrowed as he considered his next words. Koushi didn’t allow himself time to marvel at the sight of an actual expression on Haruka’s face, one that wasn’t full of fear or distrust. It was much more common now, but it was still such a difference from the ghost who had first sat in the bleachers with Koushi at a volleyball game. “And he doesn’t seem to realize that we can rest now. And make plans. He’s still stuck on survival, and I don’t know how to help him out of that. He’s too focused on helping me out.”
Koushi took a long moment to answer, finishing Haruka’s drink and then leaning against his side of the counter. “He told me, you know,” he said at last. “Me and Tooru. He told us the whole story. Or at least, I think it’s the whole story. Don’t worry,” he added when Haruka’s gaze flickered up to him, “we haven’t told anyone else. He told us in confidence.”
“I’m not worried about that,” Haruka said. Koushi nodded.
“The thing about trauma like that is that it affects everyone differently. Even when two people go through basically the same thing, their minds process it in different ways. For you, you shut down. Your mind couldn’t handle what was happening to you, so it shielded you from it. For him, he focused on something outside of himself, so that he wouldn’t have to face inwards. He took care of you, because he couldn’t take care of himself.” Koushi paused, grabbing a rag and dunking it in the sanitizer. “I think that now that you don’t need him to take care of you quite so much, he’s left with facing all the things he ignored. He thinks he’s done a good job of holding it together, but really, it’s more like… Put it this way. You two were under fire. And he thinks that now that the gunshots have stopped, he’s survived. He’s fine. But he hasn’t removed the bullets from his own wounds. He hasn’t actually stopped the bleeding.”
“How do I help him with that?” Haruka asked.
“I don’t know that you can,” Koushi admitted. “You, specifically. I’m not saying you’ve made it worse, don’t get that thought in your head, but because you were a part of all the trauma, he’s not going to let you help him. Not for a while, anyway.”
“Is there anything anyone else can do?” Haruka asked. Koushi smiled.
“I think what Kisumi needs is just time. Time and friendship. Which we can offer him here.” He hummed to himself. “Be there for him, I guess,” he said at last. “Give him what he’s given you. A space to fall apart if he needs it, and a ladder to pull himself out when he’s done. But don’t feel hurt when it’s not you he needs. He’ll come back to you in the end, he always will. But just like you needed more than just him to get to where you are now, he needs more than just you.”
Haruka nodded. He was quiet for a long while, then, without another word, he took his drink and walked back over to his corner and picked up his sketchbook. Koushi didn’t bother keeping an eye on him. He didn’t need to. Not anymore.
Some part of Kisumi knew he didn’t need to be the strong one anymore. Some part of him knew he was allowed to fall apart. But that part, that tender and curling thing, was buried so deep that Kisumi was certain that if he dug it out and brought it to the light, it would not survive. He would not survive.
He could feel it on the edges of his perception. The darkness creeping toward him, flickering in the corners of his vision, tugging at the back of his heart. He also knew that none of his friends saw it. He made certain of that.
Kisumi had worked so hard for so long to keep certain parts of himself from Haruka. To keep his focus on Haruka. To keep Haruka together enough that the residual glue on his fingertips would hold Kisumi together as well. He knew when that tactic failed, knew the moment understanding flooded through Haruka and he saw Kisumi for what he was: a broken, used up creature with no future to speak of. So he waited. Because the thing was, Haruka didn’t need him anymore. And if Haruka didn’t need him, then what point was there, in anything?
It was dangerous thinking, Kisumi knew. It allowed the darkness to press a little bit closer. It allowed it to catch up with him one day when he was waiting outside the restaurant for Haruka to finish his shift so that they could stop by the grocery store on their way home. It allowed those inky tendrils of dread to finally, finally wrap themselves around his heart and across his eyes until all he could do was stumble into a back alley.
The day Kisumi broke, the day the last of the threads holding him together snapped, the day he knew the end had come for him at last, the world reeked of food waste and whatever was living in the piles of refuse behind the restaurant. He had expected the end to come a lot more cleanly, but he supposed, as he used the last of his remaining faculties to curl in a tight little ball, that it made a certain sort of sense. Something inside him had been rotting for the past six years, and it was about time the outside matched the inside.
Time didn’t mean anything. He didn’t know how long he sat in that alley after he gave up. He didn’t know if the sun was still up or if it was still the tentative kind of warm that was summer giving way to autumn. He didn’t know anything but the darkness and too-bright green eyes, watching him like they had always known he would reach this point. Like he had run as far as he could and in the end it hadn’t meant a thing. There was no order to anything, no sequence of events. He had always been in this alley, though the alley had never existed. Kisumi had never existed, only this pain, only this anger, only this fear. Only the knowledge that he had done everything he could, and it hadn’t been enough. That it was time for him to disappear, and that he had never mattered in the first place.
From the chaos of everything and nothing, an event. The first thing that broke through to him was the scent, familiar and safe, of coffee beans.
Another event. His lungs stuttered around a breath.
Another. His eyes peeled open.
He was crouched in front of Kisumi, not touching him, but with the little jar that Kisumi still carried around in his pocket in his hand. There was a carefully-constructed nothing in his eyes. It wasn’t the same as before, wasn’t the emptiness of void that had existed when Haruka had ceased to. It was more like Haruka was making the choice not to show him anything at all. He watched Kisumi, then slowly, he took the jar away and stoppered it up. His eyes never left Kisumi’s as he reached out and curled his fingers around Kisumi’s hand. Slowly, he coaxed it away from where it was clutching at Kisumi’s arm and into clutching Haruka’s hand instead. Haruka still didn’t say anything, didn’t show anything in his gaze. Kisumi had always been able to read what was happening in those eyes, but now it was like the book was closed.
Haruka’s other hand was moving, slipping the jar into his own pocket and then curling around Kisumi’s opposite hand. When he had both of Kisumi’s hands in his own, he stood. Kisumi followed because it was either that or let Haruka drag him - something he wasn’t sure this Haruka wouldn’t do. He didn’t know, he realized. He didn’t have any clue how this Haruka would react, how he would act of his own accord. Because that was it, Haruka wasn’t just reacting anymore. He was making his own choices.
The darkness slipped through the hole that that thought made and threatened to overwhelm him again. His legs buckled but Haruka shifted his hold to his elbows and held him upright. Haruka’s eyes didn’t leave his as he took a step backwards and Kisumi’s own body reacted to step with him. There was no conscious thought, just following where he was led.
Eventually, Haruka turned to walk beside him. The sun was sinking, Kisumi realized, almost entirely gone, by the time he even worked up the effort to be curious as to where they were. Haruka was drawing him up the stairs to a half-familiar apartment building by the time he recognized that this was not the way home.
Haruka knocked, and Kisumi had no sense of the time it took for the door to open. He barely processed who opened the door, sharp brown eyes flickering between Haruka and Kisumi. Those eyes were not a closed book, but Kisumi didn’t speak the language.
Haruka said something and Suga said something in return and then Kisumi was inside, sitting on the couch while Suga and Haruka talked in the background, words Kisumi couldn’t be bothered to understand. He didn’t process the moment when Oikawa crouched in front of him, just that he was suddenly there and that he was talking, touching Kisumi gently and coaxing the darkness away.
When Kisumi’s mind came back enough to latch onto Oikawa, he let out a shuddering breath, and something shifted in Oikawa’s eyes.
“There you are,” he said softly. He reached up to brush his thumb across Kisumi’s cheek. “You scared us there, Shigino.”
“Don’t apologize,” Oikawa chided, his lips curling in a smile that held no humor, but a world of fondness. “I’ll let you in on a secret? We’ve kind of been waiting for this. You’ve held it together for so long, Kisumi. It’s time to let it go.”
“I can’t,” Kisumi breathed.
“Sweetheart, you don’t have a choice.” Kisumi could still hear Suga and Haruka in the kitchen, little words dropped here and there as they moved around each other. Oikawa’s head cocked. Kisumi watched the logic turn in his eyes before he said, “If you ever want to be of any help to him again, you have to let us take care of you. You can’t pour from an empty cup, you know that.”
“You sound like my professors,” Kisumi droned, but it was an automatic response, no real thought or passion behind it.
“And you sound like a robot,” Oikawa returned. He stood, wincing as one of his knees cracked, then bullied his way onto the couch next to Kisumi. He arranged Kisumi the way he wanted him, wrapped up in Oikawa’s arms, and some small and wounded thing in Kisumi let out a sob. Or it may have been Kisumi himself. Oikawa didn’t say anything, just ran his fingers through Kisumi’s hair.
“I-“ He couldn’t do it. It was too big. If he opened his mouth around it, gave it shape and form, it would devour him. It had already devoured him. It would destroy Haruka.
“He can’t hear you,” Oikawa murmured. “Koushi’s got him in the kitchen. He’s safe. And more importantly right now, you’re safe. It’s just you and me here.”
“I can’t do this.” Kisumi’s voice broke around the admission. Oikawa squeezed him a little tighter, the only acknowledgment.
“Can’t do what?” he asked.
“Anything. I. I can’t. I can’t have a future. I can’t go to grad school. I can’t get a job. He-“
“This isn’t about Haruka right now,” Oikawa scolded, but it was gentle. Kisumi shook his head. He didn’t know if he could separate Haruka from himself that way, didn’t even know how to begin. “Let’s play a game,” Oikawa said softly. “Let’s pretend Haruka wasn’t here. That he followed some dream and ran away with the circus or something. It’s just you here. What do you do. And, before you answer, running away with the circus with him is not an option. The circus has too many clowns.” Kisumi snorted, an automatic reaction to the teasing in Oiakwa’s voice. “It’s okay not to know,” Oikawa continued, when it became obvious Kisumi wasn’t going to answer. “It’s completely okay to have no idea. But you do need to be thinking about it. Because you and Haruka have been so tied up in each other that you haven’t even let yourself realize you’re more than his caretaker.”
“Have you thought about how he sees you?” Oikawa interrupted. “Have you thought past what he is to you and taken the time to understand what you are to him?” Kisumi went stiff, but Oikawa continued, casually, as though he were talking about the change of seasons, “See, you’re not some babysitter to him. You’re not some doctor, or therapist. He looks at you and he sees someone strong, someone who’s been able to take care of him, yes. But, and don’t ever tell him I said this, I would like to keep my limbs intact, thank you, he also sees you as his equal. His partner, of sorts. I recognize it, because it’s the same way I see Koushi. It’s not the same, I’m not saying it is, but when Koushi dragged me out of the pits of my despair after my knee blew in college, it took him a while to recognize that in me. That, yes, I needed him. But it was okay for him to need me too. It was okay for him to lean on me, and on our other friends.” Oikawa’s lip quirked. “He’s got this whole mom-friend thing going on, and the problem with people like that is that they rarely let other people mother them.”
“Can you just say what you mean?” Kisumi muttered.
“Sorry, I am rambling, aren’t I?” Oikawa hummed. “I’m trying to figure out how to put this. Koushi’s better at wording things so that they aren’t an attack.”
“Just fuck me up.”
Oikawa snorted, his thumb twitching against Kisumi’s temple. “You’re poisoned,” he said at last. “You’ve been injected with something so vicious, and it went on for so long. You’ve done your best to draw the poison out of Haruka, and now he’s able to stand on his own two legs. But, Kisumi, have you considered that it’s still in your veins?”
“I’m fine,” Kisumi said, because he had to be. “I know I went through some shit. But it didn’t affect me the same way it did him. We survived.”
“What does that mean?”
“Have you actually survived it? Have you gotten through enough of it that you’re out of danger?” Oikawa looked down at him, and Kisumi found himself wriggling like a pinned butterfly under his gaze, like an ant facing down a magnifying glass on a summer’s day. “There’s a difference between surviving and thriving, I know you know that. That’s what you’ve been focused on with Haruka. But I don’t think you’ve stopped to let your own wounds even close, let alone heal.”
Kisumi saw then the edge of the cliff that Oikawa was leading him toward. Or maybe, it was more like a tight rope, and Oikawa was jiggling the other end. Kisumi had been so sure that he had been walking along it just fine. But Oikawa gave another jiggle, and he found that he was hanging by his fingertips instead. He had no idea if there was any sort of net below him, or if he would fall into an endless chasm, land somewhere at the bottom, broken beyond repair.
The final straw was the kindness in Oikawa’s voice as he murmured into Kisumi’s hair, “Let us carry it for a while. You don’t have to hold it on your own anymore.”
Haru heard the moment Kisumi broke at last. He heard the first sob, the wail muffled against something - the couch, Oikawa’s shoulder, it didn’t matter. Every last instinct in his body was telling him to storm into the living room and destroy whatever it was that was causing Kisumi pain.
But that was it, wasn’t it? The thing that was causing Kisumi pain was Kisumi himself. And Haru couldn’t help him through this one.
“It’s okay,” Suga murmured, quiet enough that Haru could pretend not to hear him if he wanted.
Haru didn’t answer. He stood for a moment, absolutely still. Then, intentionally, deliberately, he turned and stirred the vegetables he was sautéing. This was it. The most difficult part of his recovery so far. It wasn’t getting away from Iwami and Makoto. It wasn’t making new friends. It wasn’t getting a new house. Kisumi had done all those things, not Haru. So now, when it came time to trust, to rely on people again, it was Haru’s turn to be the strong one. Oikawa was the one who was going to put Kisumi back together again, not Haru. At least, this time.
There was something there, Haru knew. Something that had been living in his ribcage. It uncurled itself, raised its head and looked around. He took a deep breath around it, told it firmly that now was not the time, and it curled back up and fell back asleep. He put it from his mind and let Oikawa pick up Kisumi’s scattered pieces, leaning himself against the support of Suga’s presence.
Weeks passed from the day in the alleyway, and Kisumi was still feeling a little raw. He didn’t quite know how to interact with Haruka anymore. While things had never reached awkward between them, it wasn’t as easy as it had seemed before. Haruka refused to treat him like he was broken, and he refused to let Kisumi treat him that way either.
He was doing the same thing, Kisumi realized, that Kisumi had done that day he’d followed him home from the beach. He wasn’t bullying his way into Kisumi’s life - he already had a place there. But he was refusing to be pushed out of it. He had started as an unwilling tenant, and when Kisumi had tried to evict him, he had changed the locks and made himself a comfortable squatter instead.
There had to be a way to bridge the gap that was growing between them. That was the thought that had steered Kisumi’s feet toward the cafe instead of straight home. He had some nebulous plan of grabbing a pair of coffees and sitting Haruka down on their couch and talking through it. He was rehearsing his own speech, going over it again and again, and almost didn’t notice his phone ringing. He fished it out of his bag as it rang out, frowning at the contact name. Iwaizumi seldom called, preferring to text. He was about to return the call when he glanced up at the window of the cafe and his world, which had already come crashing down so many times, did it once more.
The first thing he noticed was Oikawa. Kisumi had never seen a look of such pure rage, of such total hatred on his face. Kisumi’s brow furrowed as he followed the line of Oikawa’s glare, and his heart froze in his chest.
His back was to the window, but Kisumi knew that back. He would recognize it anywhere, even if it didn’t feature in his nightmares, following him even into his safest of dreams. And now, into his waking sanctuary.
His first thoughts were of Haruka. How Haruka would not survive this confrontation. How he needed to put up defenses, how he hadn’t done enough to protect Haruka. The work he had done with Oikawa - the work Oikawa had forced him through - had his thoughts flickering to his own survival as well. Because that back, those shoulders, that monster was turning, turning to look out the window and Kisumi knew he absolutely could not do this. Could not see, could not let himself be seen. So he turned on his heel and raced down the street.
The animal shelter was six blocks away from the cafe, three west and three north. Kisumi burst through the door as his phone started ringing in his hand.
“Oh,” said Daichi, and hung up his own phone. Kisumi’s stopped ringing. “Hey. Follow me?”
Kisumi nodded, let Daichi lead him back past the cat rooms and into the kennels where the dogs were kept. He led him through the back door and sat him down under a tree while he let the dogs out into the back yard.
“Nanase-kun is with Hinata,” Daichi said, conversationally. “I can tell him to bring him here, if you need.” It was a question, but Kisumi didn’t have the capacity to answer it. Daichi glanced at him, then nodded, and tapped something out on his phone. He proceeded to largely ignore Kisumi, romping around with the dogs instead.
Kisumi could feel the storm cloud riding on Haruka’s shoulders when he and Hinata arrived. But when Haruka sat next to him under the tree, neither of them said anything. Haruka’s hand found Kisumi’s, or maybe Kisumi found Haruka, and for an eternity they simply existed.
Oikawa Tooru had made many enemies in his life, but he had also made many, many friends. He had connections, had his little system of supports and helpers, people he would kill for, people he would die for, and more importantly at this moment, people who would do the same for him.
It hadn’t been an immediate realization when a green-eyed stranger had walked into Suga’s cafe. They didn’t get many tourists or passers-by, but the town was just large enough that Tooru didn’t know everyone in it. It wasn’t a surprise when someone new walked in and looked around curiously.
Tooru listened as the man placed his order with little Natsu, barely old enough to start working now, at the cash register, vaguely curious in the way he was with all new people. His attention shifted to Suga as he came out of the back holding a tray of danishes, a smile flickering across his face as he came up to the counter to pester his love. There was a tendril of his focus still on the stranger, which is why he caught it when the man sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck and asked Natsu if he could ask her a strange question.
Tooru could feel Suga slipping into a protective mindset, though it was nothing compared to the storm that was about to break out. It was a mild thing, a manager’s concern for his employee, and for Natsu specifically, who was still new at her job.
“What’s up?” she asked easily, all of that Hinata charm oozing out of her.
“See, I’m looking for someone,” the man said, and Tooru went a little more tense. “Old friends.” His face went a little sad, artful and, Tooru realized with a start, completely false. It clicked, then, just who this man was, and who he was looking for.
“Nat-chan,” he started, but Suga beat him to it.
“Natsu-chan, it’s time for your ten,” he called, blundering through the conversation as though he hadn’t heard it happening. Natsu looked up at him curiously - Tooru knew she had just taken her ten-minute break - but she nodded when he gestured with his chin toward the back. “Sorry about that,” Suga said with a sweet smile as he sidled up to the cash register. “She’s new, and she has a tendency to forget that she needs to take breaks.”
The man laughed, and assured Suga that it was no problem.
“You said you were looking for someone?” Tooru drawled, not leaving his place sprawled against the other end of the counter. “Koushi and I know basically everyone in town.”
“Ah, yes,” said the man. “Like I said, old friends of mine. They kind of disappeared one day, about four years ago? Almost five? We’ve all been so worried about them, you know? And then I caught word that they might be up here, so, well.” He laughed, a sheepish thing. “It’s kind of silly, I know, trekking across the country to look for a ghost.”
“Not so silly,” Suga said.
“Ghosts,” Tooru said, letting the word drip like honey from his lips. “Interesting choice of words. Seeing as they weren’t much more than ghosts when they arrived.”
Green eyes snapped to him. Tooru couldn’t see anything in them other than hope, but he knew beyond a doubt that it was fake.
“You know them, then? Haru, and Kisumi?”
“Oh, we know them,” Tooru said. “And we know who you are.” He tossed his head, keeping the man’s - Makoto’s - attention on him while Suga did what Suga did best - fading into the background somewhat and taking care of what needed taking care of. Tooru may have been the one sitting at the chess board, but Suga was the one moving the pieces into place.
Makoto’s eyes flashed for the barest of seconds with recognition. Tooru knew he had been seen, had been zeroed in on, like a missile finding its next target. And he knew that Makoto knew the same about himself.
The music started, and Makoto made the first move in this deadly dance.
“Have- have they been okay?” he asked, and while it was not the tactic Tooru had been expecting, he stepped into his own counter position with ease.
“They weren’t, not at first,” he said. He watched the artistic sadness flood Makoto’s eyes. Not despair, he had obviously never felt anything strongly enough to mimic the actual despair of knowing a friend was hurt. “Thing is, though, they survived. They’ve healed. The wounds you put in them are closed, scars that will never go away, but that won’t bleed out, either.”
“That I- I don’t understand,” Makoto said, cocking his head. His eyes went wide. “What- what have they been telling you? Haru- he’s sick, you know? He-“
Tooru held up a hand, and Makoto, probably surprised that someone dared cut him off, fell silent.
“Haruka and Kisumi came to us broken, that much is true,” he said. “We’ve seen the wounds, seen the shape of the knife that left them. We’ve held them when they broke, we’ve helped them pick up the pieces. We’ve watched them heal. All that anxiety. All that depression. All that trauma. Whatever they were when you first got ahold of them, they’ll never be that again. They’ll never be free of those scars. But.” Tooru cocked his head, letting Makoto feel the weight of his hatred for him. “They will also never be yours to hurt again. You are not welcome here, Tachibana. You cannot play your games here. This is not your home court.”
Makoto formulated some response, useless and empty and Tooru was ready to reply. But his eyes flickered at the sight of a pale blond head in the window, his first mistake of the day. He had just enough time to see Kisumi disappear from sight as Makoto turned to see what he was looking at.
Suga reappeared then, stepping forward toward the counter. He set a cup down in front of Makoto.
“Your order,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave, now.”
“I just want to know if they’re-“
“You don’t get to, though,” Suga interrupted. “You don’t get to know anything about them. Not where they are, not how they are, nothing. You get to leave, with your tail between your legs. Go crawl back to your own little kingdom and know that you failed.”
Tooru’s eyes flashed to the window again, but this time he didn’t worry when Makoto turned to look. Ukai was the first one through the door, and while he wasn’t the most intimidating of the group, he was the one who made Tooru feel the most safe.
“Suga,” Ukai called, too loud and too friendly. “Is my order ready yet?”
“I was just getting started on it,” Suga replied, sweet as could be. Turning back to Makoto, he said, clearly enough for the entire cafe to hear, “Like I said. It’s time for you to leave.”
“This guy bothering you, Suga?” asked Terushima, squaring his shoulders. Behind him, Aone and Ushijima stood stoic as could be. Tooru had an image of dogs straining at leashes. He saw it, in each of their eyes, and knew that Makoto saw it too. The fierce, unamused rage of someone protecting their home. He turned to watch the calculations that took place behind Makoto’s eyes and raised an eyebrow.
Makoto left without another word.
Haru lay on the couch with his head in Kisumi’s lap. They’d been kept in the loop, Suga recognizing that it would do more damage than good if they were shielded from this. They knew where Makoto was, thanks to the constant line of communication from Hinata who was using his ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere for their good.
Haru didn’t know why he’d thought they would let them sit in the silence of their own home. He didn’t know why he had expected to have to face this alone. Daichi had been the first one to bully his way into their house, claiming to need to use the bathroom and then setting up camp in the armchair in the living room and turning on the television. Oikawa and Suga let themselves in not even an hour later, and Haru didn’t even have the energy to regret giving them the spare key. They brought with them most of the neighborhood association team, and took it upon themselves to play host. Haru noticed each new person who Oikawa let into the house, but didn’t pay much attention other than to let the noise and warmth of so many people wash over him.
“When was the last time you losers went grocery shopping?” called Iwaizumi from the kitchen. Kisumi didn’t answer him, so Haru sat up enough to glare. Kisumi tangled his fingers in Haru’s hair and guided him back down onto his lap. Haru went without argument, letting Kisumi take what he needed.
Haru went to work for two shifts, accompanied there by one friend and home by another. Kisumi had one of his own, and Ukai-san stayed with him the entire time. Their house was never empty. Someone new volunteered to walk Hana-chan each time she needed to go out. Hinata and Kunimi went grocery shopping for them, and Haru laughed at them as he helped them unpack the mountain of junk food they had brought home. It wasn’t a permanent solution, but it didn’t have to be.
Three days, and it ended.
Kindaichi had been the one following Makoto around this time. They had stopped being subtle about it after the first night. Haru got the text at the same time as Kunimi, a picture of Makoto glaring straight at the camera from the other side of a train window. None of the horror, none of the fear, that Haru had expected from seeing Makoto for the first time in almost seven years hit him. He noted that his hair was a little shorter, and that Haru had never seen such a blatantly unpleasant expression on his face, but that was it. There was no connection left, no residue of having been Makoto’s best friend and favorite victim once upon a time. That had taken different forms over the years, and Haru knew he would never be totally free of it. But, as he returned to the living room after seeing the last of his friends that would leave out (there was no getting rid of Oikawa and Suga, not yet), and draped his legs across Kisumi’s on the couch, he considered the picture.
It didn’t feel like closure. It didn’t feel like an ending. It felt like Haru, and Kisumi, standing in the middle of the road at the top of a mountain pass. Haru looked back down the road, at all the obstacles and all the speedbumps and all the traps and pitfalls. He could see the waypoints, the places they had stopped to rest and resupply. He turned around.
In front of him, the road continued. He couldn’t tell where it would lead them, if it would always wind through this mountain town, or if they would leave here someday too. But he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that as long as he walked this road, he wanted Kisumi to walk it with him.
“Hey,” he said softly. Oikawa and Suga were in the kitchen, cleaning the dishes and disaster left behind by Hinata and Kageyama sharing a meal. Kisumi looked at him.
“Hey,” he said.
“You’re not going to leave me.” It was a simple statement, but behind it was the realization that had been building for years.
“I’m not,” Kisumi said. Haru nodded. Then he nodded again, this time in the direction of the envelope sitting on the table.
“Have you made a decision?” he asked.
Kisumi leaned forward to pick up the envelope. It had been opened, though the last time Haru had actually looked at it it was still sealed. He handed it to Haru, who didn’t open it.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with that degree,” Kisumi said softly. “I don’t know if I have it in me to actually go into counseling. But I figure, that gives me about two more years of school? Two more years to make that decision. And. I’m not ready to stop yet. Does that make sense?”
“It does,” Haru replied. “You going to stay at Ukai-san’s while you go?” Kisumi nodded. “Okay.”
“What about you?” Kisumi asked. Haru knew the answer, but it took him a long moment to put it into words.
“My future,” he said slowly, “doesn’t really matter. Not the shape of it, anyway. I’m out of big dreams. But…” He looked at Kisumi, and when he didn’t see any exasperation there, any pressure, he felt himself smile just a little. “That doesn’t really matter to me anymore. I just want to be here, with this family. With you.”
“That sure sounds like a question, Haruka,” Kisumi said, and though it was faint, so very faint, the sound of the teasing lilt in his voice told Haru everything he needed to know.
“I’m never going to make the decision for you,” Haru said. “We’re done with living each other’s lives for each other. But. If you’re willing, I’d like to live the rest of my life with you. I’m choosing you, and asking if you’re choosing me in return.”
“I made that choice a long time ago,” Kisumi said. Haru shook his head.
“I’m asking you to choose again,” he said. “Not out of necessity. Not out of survival. And not out of pity. For yourself, this time.”
Kisumi’s fingers wrapped around Haru’s ankle. His fingers were warm and his thumb brushed rhythmically across the bone there. Haru watched him consider. Watched him make his decision, and then think about it a little while longer. Watched the smile, nowhere near the lightning-and-firecrackers smile that he had worn in high school, but something new, something sure. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the back of the couch.
“Welcome home, Haruka,” he said softly.
Looking at Kisumi, watching the way the setting sun painting his pale skin and hair gold and red, drawing his eyes along the long, straight line of his nose, Haru heard the answer for what it was. He smiled.
“Welcome home, Kisumi,” he said.