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Hajime was tired.

Every inch of his body ached, his heart pounding as he forced himself to keep putting one blistered foot in front of the other; left, right, left, right, over and over again, trying his best to fall into a rhythm until he either finished the marathon or passed out from exhaustion. His head was throbbing and his throat was dry and he longed for nothing more than a sip of water, but he’d already finished his water bottle earlier and there was nowhere to refill it now – and his anxiety meant that asking one of his classmates for a sip from theirs was out of the question. It was cruel, really, that his brain worked like that. Things would have been so much easier if he wasn’t always so scared of everything.

The sun beat down, scorching his arms and legs and the back of his neck, the air around him stiflingly hot without even the merest hint of a breeze. It was ironic, honestly. He normally loved days like this. He liked warm weather, lazy summer afternoons where the butterflies and bees flitted between the brightly coloured flowers and people went about their business with smiles on their faces, enjoying the sunshine. But today was different. Today, his legs were aching and his lungs were on fire and he was falling behind his decidedly fitter classmates who all seemed to be handling the last stretch of the marathon with ease. His body just wasn’t built for this kind of exercise, and, he conceded, it probably never would be.

He was reaching his limit. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he paused for a moment, watching in despair as the gap between him and his classmates widened. He found himself wishing that he could be even half as strong as they were. Even the quiet, unathletic girls who spent their breaks drawing and reading instead of running around outside were well ahead of him, whispering to each other as they pointed at him. They were probably talking about what a loser he was, and he wished he could say that he didn’t care, but he did, he always did, his feelings of anxiety and worthlessness bubbling up in his throat and threatening to spill from his eyes – and they probably would have done, had it not been for the fact that he was so dehydrated the tears simply wouldn’t come. What self-respecting fourteen-year-old boy cried because he couldn’t complete a marathon?

He really was pathetic.

In the distance, a sandy-haired boy suddenly turned around, squinting as though he was looking for someone. When he caught sight of Hajime he gave a start, probably shocked at just how far behind he was.

Tomoya lightly jogged over, and when he finally reached Hajime his voice was full of concern as he asked, “Hajime? Are you okay?”

“I-I’m fine, Tomoya-kun, don’t worry…” Hajime wheezed, then doubled over as the pain of his stomach cramps overcame him.

Tomoya frowned. “You’re definitely not fine. Have you had anything to drink?”

“I’ve… I’ve already finished all my water…”

“Have some of mine.”

Perhaps his fatigue was making him a little delirious, but Hajime swore that for a moment, the sunlight illuminating Tomoya from behind as he stood there holding out his half-full water bottle looked just like a halo. What had he done to deserve such an amazing friend? He gratefully took the bottle and had a tiny, measured sip of water – then noticed Tomoya looking at him and shaking his head in exasperation.

“Don’t worry about it, okay? Just drink as much as you need.”

“B-But—”

“It’s fine. Really.”

Hearing Tomoya’s reassurance, Hajime took a longer drink and instantly felt relief as the lukewarm water hit the back of his parched throat. Tomoya was an angel, he decided. A real, genuine, bona fide angel. He took a few more sips and felt his dizziness slowly start to subside. Seeing this, Tomoya seemed satisfied, but then immediately moved onto a new line of questioning.

“Can you walk?”

“I’ll be okay. Thank you, Tomoya-kun.” It was a lie, of course. His legs were shaking, ready to give out any second now, but he still forced a smile, hoping that it would stop his friend from worrying about him any more.

Tomoya didn’t seem to buy it. “Stop saying you’re okay when you’re obviously not…”

He looked Hajime up and down for a moment, seemingly deep in thought. Before Hajime even had a chance to react, Tomoya had scooped him up, holding him gently in his arms as if he was some kind of princess.

Hajime spluttered, “T-Tomoya-kun, what are you doing?”

“I’m carrying you, silly,” Tomoya replied, flushing – and Hajime noted that the redness in his cheeks had come on perhaps a little too quickly to be caused solely by exertion. “I’m going to carry you all the way to the finish line, Hajime, so don’t worry about having to walk any further.”

Hajime quickly realised that Tomoya was almost as worn out as he was, puffing and panting in exhaustion as he caught back up to the rest of the class – and it soon became apparent that the presence of their classmates posed an additional problem. Hajime was painfully aware of their stares, their whispers and giggles as they caught sight of the pair, and he knew that Tomoya’s actions would make them both the object of ridicule at school for a good week or so at least. He was embarrassed, and he knew Tomoya must have been too, but if Tomoya was bothered by it at all then he was doing a good job of ignoring it. He was breathless, sweaty, blushing bright red, but somehow… When Hajime looked up at his face shining with determination and willpower, all he could see was a prince – a brave, handsome prince who had come to his rescue when no-one else had bothered to spare him a second glance. And in that moment, it was like a switch flicked on in Hajime’s heart as he realised, ah, I’m in love with him, aren’t I?

“Tomoya-kun…?” he whispered, “Why do always you go so far for me? You’re tired too. You don’t have to carry me…”

“And just let you collapse?” Tomoya scoffed, but his voice softened when he said, “I could never leave you behind, Hajime, ever.”

“Tomoya-kun…” Hajime smiled weakly up at his prince, unsure of whether his giddiness was caused by how exhausted he was or… something else. Probably some combination of the two.

“You are my best friend, you know. Now if you don’t mind,” Tomoya paused to catch his breath, “I’m gonna have to stop talking. I really need to save my energy, okay?”

“Yes! I-I’m sorry!”

Tomoya sighed. “You don’t have to apologise for everything, you know…” But his tone was fond, and as he took his next laboured step forwards, Hajime couldn’t help but notice the slight smile on his face.

Resting in his prince’s arms, Hajime found himself thinking about a lot of things. It was always like this, he mused. He’d always been weak, clumsy, never knowing his right from his left… He could never keep up with his peers, staring hopelessly at their backs as he struggled to do the things they did with ease. But every time he messed up, while others just ignored him or laughed at him, Tomoya always came back for him, picked up after him, took his hand and guided him with a kind smile… It must have been frustrating having to constantly put up with someone as slow as Hajime, yet Tomoya never got angry, always patiently helping him to the best of his ability. He really was a good person, and even more than that, a wonderful friend – a friend who Hajime loved with all his heart.

Hajime knew that, as he was right now, he didn’t have much to offer someone as amazing as Tomoya. He wasn’t strong, or smart, or funny, and deep inside, a part of him was always terrified that one day Tomoya would realise just how worthless he was and cast him aside, just like everyone else had. The thought of that ever happening hurt in a way that was a million times more painful than his headache or sunburn or cramps; his heart ached as he clung to Tomoya’s shirt, reminding himself of Tomoya’s declaration, ‘I could never leave you behind,’ as he desperately blinked back tears.

Being carried to the end of a marathon in the blistering heat by your best friend who you’ve just realised your decidedly-more-than-platonic feelings for was a strange place to make a resolution, but Hajime knew what he had to do.

When the day came where Tomoya was the one who was struggling, whether it was in a month’s time, a year, or even ten, Hajime promised himself he’d repay his prince for all the times he’d helped him over the years. He’d be there for him with a smile, kindly, patiently, understandingly helping him get over whatever obstacle it was that happened to stop him in his tracks. Hajime knew that he’d have to get stronger if he wanted to become someone who Tomoya could rely on, but it was okay. He had plenty of time. Tomoya would always wait for him, after all.

Whatever the future had in store for them, Hajime swore to himself that he would be the one to stay by Tomoya’s side, from now until forever.