Haiji’s thesis advisor teaches Kakeru’s introduction to sociology class. Kakeru finds this out at the tail end of the first major assignment due, after he’s stared at a blank document and blinking cursor for a good four hours. He’s first in line for office hours the next morning, seeing double from the sleep deprivation - two of his own reflection in the bathroom mirror that morning, two blurry Haiji’s, bidding him a sunny goodbye.
Kakeru says an embarrassed, “Bye,” and shoulders his bag to escape out the front door.
He’s waited for a good fifteen minutes when the office door finally opens and out steps Haiji, sweat drying on his forehead, in his tracksuit.
“Kakeru,” Haiji says, delighted.
“Do you know this young man?” Kakeru’s professor says, appearing over Haiji’s shoulder.
“Oh, yes,” Haiji says, beaming. He’s horrifyingly fresh-faced, cheeks flushed a healthy pink from exertion and hair gently windblown. “He’s on the track team.” There’s an actual little green leaf perched in Haiji’s hair.
“Yes,” Kakeru says, before Haiji can rattle on about the Hakone Ekiden and extort Professor Takeda for sponsorship money. He probably already has. He’s shameless like that.
Haiji smiles at him then, genuinely pleased. “Professor Takeda, I’ll see you later.” They both watch him bound down the hallway. The leaf flutters to the ground.
“Well,” Professor Takeda says, turning to survey Kakeru over his glasses. “Come in, then.”
It turns out Kakeru has been interpreting the central question all wrong, and has somehow misread several texts, and that’s why the assigned essay makes no sense.
“Hmm,” Haiji says later, leaning over Kakeru’s shoulder at the dinner table. It’s hard to study in his room now, when he can hear Prince’s every rattling footstep amplified via thousand-pound machinery. It’s easier to listen to the familiar clattering of Haiji making dinner, opening and closing cupboards, stacking plates and the even rapid cadence of his chopping.
“What,” Kakeru says, leaning away from him. From this angle, Kakeru can tell that Haiji’s hair is lighter on top than it is underneath from the sun. These are the things Kakeru notices about Haiji now, things unrelated to his stride and the slight twinge in his thigh that means he’s overdone it on his knee. Running things. Kakeru notices the tiny green leaf, and the gentle gradient of Haiji’s hair. He smells citrusy, from the dish detergent. These are Haiji things.
“Your argument is circular,” Haiji says, prodding Kakeru’s laptop screen with one finger. “Here, and here. See?”
Kakeru frowns. “Yeah.” He doesn’t see. Haiji is looking very earnestly at him.
“Okay, yeah,” Kakeru says again, squinting at his computer screen, and highlighting the section Haiji pointed to.
Haiji, merciful, lets Kakeru go, and goes back to snipping the ends off a pile of green beans. He does it with two efficient motions - snip, snip. And then a pause. Snip snip. Kakeru’s trying to focus on the essay - he still really has no idea what Haiji was referring to, but Haiji’s most likely right - when he realizes Haiji’s stopped moving, kitchen scissors held motionlessly in the air.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru says, heartbeat accelerating. He’s on his feet before he knows it, crossing the kitchen, snatching Haiji’s hand in his own. There’s a pinprick of blood that swells to a single red pearl on Haiji’s index finger. Without thinking, Kakeru puts his own finger on it and presses.
Haiji laughs, and puts the scissors down on the cutting board. Kakeru startles, and tries to pull his hand away. There’s a red smear on the pad of his index finger. “Kakeru,” Haiji says, laughing, holding Kakeru’s hand. “Why did you do that?”
“Um,” Kakeru says, aware that he’s flushing. “I’m sorry.”
Haiji is still holding Kakeru’s hand. He seems to realize this, squeezing it tighter, and then letting go. “It’s cute,” Haiji says, smiling, and then produces band-aids out of nowhere and makes sure Kakeru washes his hands with soap. Kakeru takes care of the rest of the green beans, the essay forgotten.
Haiji tells Nico-chan about Kakeru saving him from his papercut later, Kakeru picking moodily at his sociology assignment and pretending not to listen.
“And then he leapt across the room,” Haiji says, holding up his finger solemnly. The band-aid has already been discarded. There’s a tiny pink dot on Haiji’s finger.
Nico-chan laughs, a short huff, and then looks at Kakeru. Kakeru straightens over his laptop.
“Haiji,” Nico-chan says, drawing out the first syllable. They’re old friends, and Kakeru watches them interact with the fascination of someone who’s never had any friends he could consider old, how they pick up and put down conversation, how Haiji will put a hand on Nico-chan’s elbow when it’s just the two of them, conspiratorial. “He saw you faint.”
Haiji blinks. They both swivel to look at Kakeru, shrinking into the corner of the room. He tries to look very studious and focused, tapping authoritatively at his laptop keyboard. When Kakeru emerges again from his shoddily constructed argument and the embarrassed buzzing in his ears has worn off, the conversation has moved on, and Haiji is gesturing with his hands about cuts of meat, and Nico-chan is watching Haiji, a phantom cigarette hovering in his mouth.
After Haiji and Nico-chan separate to their rooms, Kakeru is pleasantly surprised that the essay has taken shape, and he can tell what Haiji was talking about before. He closes his laptop with a satisfying click and makes sure to turn off the kitchen light. He means to go to his room, but pauses at the foot of the stairs. He’s motionless for a few seconds, debating, shifting from one foot to the other, and then goes up the stairs.
Kakeru knocks politely on Prince’s door, listening to the familiar hum of the treadmill. It lets out a particularly loud creak every five seconds. When he hears the creak again, Kakeru knocks again, but louder.
He can hear the step-step-thump of Prince getting off the treadmill. The door opens. Prince leans up against the door frame, huffing. “You want the next volume?”
“Yes,” Kakeru says, politely, and Prince gives him a particular once-over before crouching in front of one of his stacks of books. Prince always does this before he lends Kakeru anything, like he’s x-raying Kakeru for correct intent. Kakeru watches him tick over the titles with one finger, before gently extracting the right one.
He holds it out imperiously for Kakeru to take.
“Thank you,” Kakeru says, and scuttles a little bit until he’s sitting criss-cross on the end of Prince’s bed.
Prince gives a toss of his head. His hair’s coming out of its clip. “You’re welcome,” he says, and then gets back on the treadmill with another pronounced thump.
Kakeru gets a couple chapters in, totally engrossed, when Prince suddenly says, “You and Haiji.” He’s a little out of breath. He jabs the stop button and the treadmill grinds to a creaky halt.
“What?” Kakeru says, owlish, bookmarking the page carefully.
“I said,” Prince says, hauling himself up using one of his manga stacks, “you and Haiji get along well.” Even his eyelashes are drooping from exertion.
“Oh,” Kakeru says, and tries to think of something else to say. It’s weird to think about it but Kakeru really likes Haiji, likes being consulted about running and about dinner, likes having Haiji, dependable, at his back. When running he doesn’t even need to see Haiji across from the oval, can just feel the dependable churn of Haiji’s feet behind him, carrying him safely around and around.
Prince snorts. He taps the cover of Kakeru’s manga. “You should probably give this up, by the way. They don’t get together.”
“But it’s still good?”
“Yeah,” Prince says, shrugging, “but I’ll give you something else next time.”
When Kakeru moved into Chikusei-so he had thought, everyone in here is really weird. He thinks about that now, as Prince takes the half-read book from his hand and propels him firmly into the hallway.
Haiji talks to Professor Takeda a lot. Kakeru runs into Haiji in the sociology department building several times over the course of the semester. Kakeru chalks this up to Professor Takeda being one of Haiji’s people - one of the many adults that Haiji mysteriously draws close to, that call out “Ahh, Haiji-san,” with a smile when they see him across the street and cross to give him wooden crates of turnips and paper-wrapped cuts of beef and tell him about their kids, or their businesses. It’s part of Haiji’s charm, that he’s close enough to their 77-year old landlord that they walk to the bathhouse together even when the building’s bath works. Shindo once caught the terrible neighborhood grouch giving Haiji a string of garlic bulbs.
“Nishiguro-san?” Haiji says later, perplexed. He holds up the garlic. “He was just giving me these. He had extra from last year.”
“Unbelievable,” Yuki says, staring at the garlic like it’s going to leap across the kitchen to bite him. “You know he told me my ear would fall off if I poked any more holes in it? He doesn’t even know who I am.”
Haiji laughs. “He grows garlic in his backyard,” Haiji says, putting it away carefully in the cupboard.
“You’re the Snow White of Kansei,” Yuki says, which gets a laugh out of Nico-chan, scrolling through his phone across from him at the table.
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Nico-chan says, looking up from his phone.
“Yeah, well,” Yuki says, and the conversation devolves into a familiar argument about Yuki’s initial coup against Haiji’s one-man Ekiden registration effort that Kakeru half-listens to, concentrating hard on shucking bamboo shoots.
“Do they ever get tired of that?” Haiji says, and it takes Kakeru a second to realize that Haiji’s said it only to him.
“No,” Kakeru says, moving the de-shelled shoots to Haiji’s cutting board.
Haiji laughs, lining them all up before slicing them neatly. Kakeru watches his knife work. Everything Haiji does is neat, and efficient. Sometimes Kakeru thinks Haiji asks him to help out with dinner preparation just because he’s lonely and itching for company, not because he needs help.
“There,” Haiji says, setting down the knife, the bamboo shoots all sliced into the same size, facing the same direction. Haiji slides them neatly into the wok, already warmed up. “Thanks, Kakeru.”
Kakeru nods. It’s nice to just see Haiji work, be present to watch him execute with precision the things that keep Chikusei-so together, like Haiji is a watchful guardian spirit that sits atop the building and nudges everything into place. But Kakeru knows better, now. That Haiji’s deep well of energy, his finely-honed perception, the deft way that he weaves the ten of their lives together - he’s one man, warm and finely made. But still, just one person.
“I’ll do the dishes,” Kakeru says, as Haiji slides the shoots onto a plate, already waiting in place, and puts the wok in the sink to soak.
“Oh, I can do it,” Haiji says, taking more things out of the fridge.
“No,” Kakeru says, flipping the sink on. “I’ll do it.”
Haiji turns to look at him, and it makes Kakeru feel laid bare. He picks up the brush.
“The other one,” Haiji says, still looking at him. “That one’s for the non-stick pans.”
Kakeru picks up the other one.
“Thanks,” Haiji says after a beat, and ruffles Kakeru’s hair. It makes Kakeru feel really good, like he’s done something amazing, and not just done a couple dishes.
Kakeru has always watched, intently. He’s quiet. He likes to look and listen. At dinner, when there are three different conversations going on around him, Kakeru likes to sit on the side and listen, methodically clearing his plate.
“You’re like one of those desert cats,” Musa says, when it’s just the last stragglers finishing up. Kakeru’s done, already, but he likes to sit and listen to the dregs of each conversation, sipped slowly until the last of the tenants float off to their own business.
“Desert cat?” Shindo says.
“Hmm, like,” Musa says, and then mimes an inscrutable movement.
“Oh,” Shindo says, much smarter and more perceptive than Kakeru is, “a meerkat!”
“Yes,” Musa says, repeating the word carefully, and they both do the motion again, and laugh.
“Kakeru,” Haiji says suddenly, appearing in the doorway. “Run with me?” He’s already wearing his running clothes, sneakers held aloft.
Kakeru stands automatically. Musa and Shindo laugh again. “I have to do the dishes.”
Haiji looks fond. “Actually,” Haiji says, and points to the whiteboard that sits behind the kitchen table, “it’s Musa’s turn.”
Kakeru is pretty sure it’s his turn. But it says on the chart, in Haiji’s neat katakana, Musa.
“Go, go,” Musa says, stacking the bowls. Kakeru looks from the chore chart, to Musa, to Haiji, perplexed. Shindo looks amused.
“It’s what it says on the whiteboard,” Shindo says, smiling in that gentle way of his.
“Okay,” Kakeru says, wrongfooted. “See you later.”
“Bye, Kakeru, Haiji-san,” Musa says, and Kakeru goes to his room to change.
He meets Haiji at the front door, Nira sitting patiently at Haiji’s feet, pink tongue lolling. Haiji’s brown hair is backlit to a gold in the fading light, and when he looks up at Kakeru, the light glances off his eyes in a sparkling moment.
Kakeru knew Haiji was handsome, in a vague way. He knew it from looking at effect, how girls watched Haiji pass in the hallways, and in the strange way Yuki sometimes flushed a blotchy red when Haiji let his composure drop when he was drunk and turned from the Haiji who probably wore socks to bed to a slicker and more endearing version of himself.
Watching Haiji turn his face upward to Kakeru now, though, is different. Haiji is very handsome, Kakeru thinks.
“You’re ready!” Haiji says, and stands up. Kakeru usually watches Haiji’s right leg, but this time he watches Haiji’s face, how his eyelids flutter and his mouth moves, the faint freckles on his cheek from time spent under the sun.
“Ah,” Haiji says, stretching his arms above his head. Nira circles his feet, hopeful. “Sorry girl, we’re going too fast for you.”
Nira settles down with a whine. Haiji scritches behind her ears, and then says, “The usual?”
“The usual,” Kakeru says, and takes off down the street.
Haiji’s the only one in Aotake who comes close to keeping with Kakeru’s pace, and maybe the only who ever will. It took him a while, longer than Kakeru even knows, since before he’s known Haiji. Kakeru doesn’t even want to think about the hours of physical therapy Haiji’s been through, how he disappears every Monday afternoon with a grim expression and comes back with one layered with exhaustion, favoring his left leg.
Kakeru’s never been hurt before, beyond the aches and pains running brought everyone, the shin splints and rolled ankles. He was grateful for it, before, because it meant he could keep running all the time, and never had to stop, but now he’s grateful in a way that goes deeper, whenever he looks at the spiny scar that loops around Haiji’s knee like barbed wire.
Lots of things have changed since Kakeru moved into Chikusei-so.
“Kakeru,” Haiji says, voice floating up from behind him, “you’re not going easy on me, are you?”
In response, Kakeru speeds up. Things are still changing.
When the get to the park bench that marks the halfway spot, Haiji puts a hand on it. He’s breathing hard, nostrils flaring a little, and Kakeru can see a gentle sheen of sweat on his forehead in the dim light. “Remember in the beginning,” Haiji says, and smiles a little bit, like the memory is good.
“Ugh,” Kakeru says, embarrassed, and shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Don’t bring that up.”
“Why not,” Haiji says, laughing. “I said it would take me six months to match your pace.”
Kakeru waits, because Haiji’s face is suddenly in shadow, shuttered.
“I think,” Haiji says, blowing out a breath and pulling up a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes, “that it might take a little longer.”
“That’s okay,” Kakeru says, considering it. It is okay. Haiji hasn’t said much about his knee, but Kakeru knows with the surety of how he knows the sun will come back day after day that the injury was serious to the point where Haiji’s lucky he can still run. Kakeru is lucky that Haiji can run, he realizes suddenly.
“I know,” Haiji says, subsiding, and looks at Kakeru with an expression on his face that Kakeru can’t read, some strange emotion that Kakeru doesn’t understand. The moment passes, and Haiji levers himself up off the bench with a quiet grunt, rolls his ankle, and starts running again.
Kakeru thinks about Haiji’s face, later, after he’s bathed and laying in bed staring at the ceiling, how Haiji’s eyes had glittered and the set of his mouth. Every time Kakeru thinks he’s coming close to understanding Haiji, Haiji slips neatly out of grasp to sit just out of reach.
It’s easy to forget that in between all the running, that Kakeru’s a student, and has to pass his classes. School exists.
“It doesn’t,” Haiji liked to say, when he was drawing up training charts with Kakeru after dinner, or listening in on their conversations during driving. “We all agreed that training for the Ekiden would come first.”
If King or Yuki were present, they argued with Haiji, loudly and ineffectively. Nico-chan and Prince ignored him, Musa and Shindo made what they thought were neutral faces of agreement with poorly concealed private doubts, and Kakeru simply agreed.
Kansei University does not agree.
“Take it your own pace,” Nico-chan says, watching Kakeru write increasingly long to-do lists.
“And look at where you are,” Yuki snipes predictably.
“Okay,” Kakeru whispers, and gets up at six in the morning not to run, but to queue sadly for a fifteen-minute meeting with Professor Takeda to review his paper topic.
Haiji is not there this time. “How’s training?” Takeda asks, scratching brutal red lines through Kakeru’s paper.
“Good,” Kakeru says, after a pause. He casts about for something else to say and settles for just that. Haiji would have a lot more to say on this topic, but Haiji’s not here.
“And how’s Haiji-san?” Takeda says, setting aside the red pen and fishing through his desk for something.
“His knee is getting better,” Kakeru blurts out, trying to avoid settling for a monosyllabic ‘good’.
He’s not even sure whether Haiji told Takeda about his injury, but Takeda’s face softens, and he slides an envelope across the desk to Kakeru. “For your team fund,” Takeda says, and then flips back to the first page of Kakeru’s essay. “Starting from here it starts to unravel.”
“Yes,” Kakeru says, holding the envelope.
He walks out of the office in a daze, holding the envelope with two hands, like it will bite him and try to escape otherwise.
Haiji’s reading a book at the table when Kakeru gets back. Kakeru toes his shoes carefully off and lines them up against the door. “Welcome back,” Haiji says, firing off one of his dazzling smiles across the room.
“From Professor Takeda,” Kakeru says, and places it carefully in Haiji’s outstretched hand.
“Oh,” Haiji says, opening it, and then consideringly, “He must like you.”
Kakeru blinks. “It’s you, Haiji-san.”
Haiji tilts his head like a bird. “No.” He’s watching Kakeru again, something different in his eyes that wasn’t there before. Kakeru flushes without realizing it, the back of his neck and the tips of his ears hot.
Kakeru sets his essay down on the table to have something to do with his hands. Haiji glances at it, and laughs.
Kakeru looks at it sadly.
The end of the semester passes strangely, time stretching and shrinking. Kakeru spends hours with Joji and Jota working ineffectively and listening to their strange conversations about girls and unrealistic fantasies of running superstardom, and then actually finishes his work while sitting cross-legged on Prince’s bed, listening to the buzzing of his treadmill. The sounds are getting louder, which can’t be good.
Haiji is there through it all, extracting Kakeru from the kitchen table when he falls asleep there over his laptop, handing him vitamin supplements in the form of little gel tubes before he runs out the door each morning. When Kakeru opens the fridge and finds he’d forgotten to pack lunch, he finds a bento Haiji’s made for him, replete with a cartoon Nira made from tofu pieces with an umeboshi nose.
“You’re fussing,” Kakeru hears Nico-chan say to Haiji, voice low.
“So?” Haiji says, slightly rough in the way he only ever is around Nico-chan.
Nico-chan hums, and says something too low for Kakeru to pick up from inside his bedroom.
Kakeru flips the lights off. Even though he’s been running on adrenaline alone lately, hours into sleep debt and so tired his eyelids feel like they weigh a kilogram each, it takes him a long time to finally fall asleep. Haiji’s face comes to mind, unbidden. He can picture Haiji’s face on the backs of his eyelids perfectly, the gentle curve of Haiji’s jaw, the line of his nose, and the way Haiji’s mouth looks, saying Kakeru’s name.
this gave me a lot of grief but here we are!
Summer arrives with a sweltering oppressive humidity that reduces Kakeru to pretending he needs things from the fridge so he can open it and feel cool for a couple seconds. Haiji, true to form, is unaffected in demeanor, though his fringe gets pushed up now, more often than not. It does weird things to Kakeru’s stomach that he didn’t anticipate.
He stares at Haiji across the kitchen, carrying on as normal. Haiji catches him looking, and Kakeru looks down, flushing. Kakeru’s always been looking, but lately Haiji’s been looking back - catching Kakeru’s eye when it lands squarely on Haiji’s face, as it always has. It makes Kakeru a little embarrassed, and something else he doesn’t have a name for, a feeling that sits happy in his stomach.
“Gross,” Prince says, hunkered down at the kitchen table instead of in his room for once, drawn out by the electric fan.
Kakeru startles, peeler slipping to catch the thin skin of his thumb. He hisses, sucking the finger into his mouth.
Haiji’s head comes up. “What happened?”
“Finger slipped,” Kakeru mumbles, scrutinizing the scratch.
Haiji makes a commiserating noise, and then he’s holding Kakeru’s hand in his own and inspecting Kakeru’s finger like it might be a serious wound, and not a scratch that will scab over within a day. Haiji extracts a band-aid from a kitchen drawer and a little tube of clear gel that he dabs carefully on Kakeru’s cut before applying the bandage, tip of his tongue in between his teeth in concentration. Kakeru stares.
“Two houses both alike in dignity,” Prince says from his corner. When Kakeru looks at him, his book is closed in front of him, chin propped up on one hand.
“Yes,” Haiji says, eyes held innocently wide. And then he says something in English that Kakeru doesn’t understand. Kakeru looks back and forth between them.
Prince smiles, and flaps the other hand at Haiji.
“Kakeru,” Haiji says, taking the vegetable peeler from him, “will you boil water for noodles?”
“Yes,” Kakeru says, moving automatically towards where the pots are stored, moment forgotten.
Later when Kakeru is pretending to study with Joji and Jota, it comes up again.
“This is boring,” Joji says, after they’ve been quiet for ten minutes, Kakeru absorbed in parsing a sentence he doesn’t understand in a textbook, and Joji and Jota kicking each other unsubtly underneath the table.
“Let’s play a game,” Jota says, jostling Kakeru’s shoulder. Kakeru closes the textbook. It’s better to give up early and conserve energy.
Five minutes of fruitless suggestion later, Joji and Jota predictably turn to talking about girls. Kakeru has never had anything to contribute to this conversation. He turns his head a little to look out the window above their blond heads, so it looks like he’s still listening. He uses this method in lecture, too. University is the same all around.
“We have to be like Haiji-san,” Jota says, and the mention of Haiji’s name brings Kakeru’s attention back.
“You know Haiji-san well,” Joji says, turning to look expectantly to look at Kakeru. “How does he do it?”
“Do what?” Kakeru says, owlish.
“Get girls to like him,” Jota says, tapping a finger against his cheek.
This gives Kakeru a pause. He’s never seen Haiji talk to any girls except Hanako.
“I don’t know,” Kakeru says, which is true enough. He thinks about the scene earlier in the kitchen, the strange knowing that Prince and Haiji had passed back and forth. The twins probably won’t know. Kakeru watches them squabble, books totally forgotten, and thinks that he’ll ask anyway, just in case.
“Has Haiji-san done anything weird, lately?” Kakeru says, folding one hand nervously under the other.
It feels like encroaching, sometimes, talking about Haiji. He’s an enormous figure in each of their lives, running alongside them, the first person they see in the morning and often the last at night. Despite this there’s a part of Kakeru that knows that if he tried to pin Haiji down, he would run right through his fingers like water. He’s never talked to anyone else in Aotake about this, but he can tell from the way Yuki will pinch off conversation and the way Shindo smiles that everyone chalks this up to the Haiji-ness of him, the cycle of wondering and knowing and trusting that leaves them reluctant to pry and speculate.
Kakeru knows Joji’s answer before he hears it.
“No,” Joji says, mind already on the next topic. “Haiji is always weird.”
Haiji gets weirder during the training camp. Kakeru chalks this up to the strange mechanisms of his four-year plan to get to the Ekiden, and the freedom of running through endless green fields and lushly dappled forest trails. Kansei is out of sight, and the other things in their lives, Professor Takeda’s essays, the missed call from his parents, and the mounting pile of errands to be run, have all gently melted into a fuzzy foreground, the qualifier shining impossibly bright in the background.
It’s understandable, Kakeru thinks, that it’s shifted so many things off-kilter.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Haiji says. It catches Kakeru so off guard he flashes briefly to that first night, the strain in Haiji’s neck and jaw and the maniacal glitter in his eyes when he biked alongside Kakeru. He gets the same feeling now, craning his neck to look at Haiji’s face in the dark, Haiji’s arm slung comfortably around Kakeru’s shoulders.
This question, at least, is much easier to answer. The answer settles something in Kakeru that’s been buzzing quietly for ages, fluttering nervously around the edges of all the times Haiji’s pulled close.
Kakeru’s careful, when he answers, to force past the embarrassment welling up in his body and the furious blushing, to focus on watching Haiji’s face.
It’s no good. Haiji tonight is as smooth and varnished as the polished surface of a mirror, where each of Kakeru’s questions is reflected back at him.
“Kakeru,” Nico-chan says one night when Kakeru’s plugging away at another assignment at the kitchen table after everyone’s drifted off. Relative to the rest of Aotake, Kakeru doesn’t even care about school that much, has never been all that great at it, but out of necessity and sometimes boredom it’s nice to worry less about running and more about whether occupational sex segregation is a national crisis and how to execute an argument in under a page.
Kakeru looks up. Nico-chan’s looking directly at him. Kakeru shuts his laptop.
Nico-chan sighs. It’s easy to imagine a cigarette in his hand, a gentle cloud of smoke surrounding him upon exhale. Kakeru resists the urge to rub at his nose, dislodge the phantom urge to sneeze.
Kakeru knows, instinctively, that they’re going to talk about Haiji. Kakeru feels like a dog scenting the wind sometimes, or insects and mice before a storm.
“About Haiji,” Nico-chan says, and then pauses, navigating the strange denseness around the topic. Kakeru watches his pupils wobble. “He’s stubborn.”
Kakeru nods wordlessly, stomach churning.
Nico-chan looks like he wants to say something else, worrying his tongue in his cheek. He settles on, “Give him time.”
Kakeru forces his shoulders to relax against the rising frustration. He doesn’t know what it means that it gets easier and easier to trust Haiji completely, to follow the tugging in his gut straight in Haiji’s direction, but sometimes - he gets the distinct feeling there’s something coalescing around him that everyone can see.
“I will,” Kakeru says, looking Nico-chan in the eyes.
“Good,” Nico-chan says, amused. “So serious.”
“You were the one being serious,” Kakeru says, cheeks heating.
Nico-chan laughs. “Good luck, kid.”
Haiji’s been seeking out Kakeru before Kakeru even really knew it, drawing him aside, catching up to Kakeru when Kakeru runs ahead. Now that Kakeru’s watching for it, he’s a little scared, awed, at how whenever he’s watching Haiji’s head turn, Haiji will stop to look at him.
Kakeru’s caught a little in this thrall. Sometimes he imagines himself sitting still, staring straight ahead, and wonders how long it would take Haiji to drop in and nudge him back into orbit. A matter of hours, Kakeru thinks, when Haiji pulls him away from reading in Prince’s room to work on training schedules that Haiji’s already mapped out. Maybe minutes, Kakeru revises, hearing Haiji’s footsteps in the hallway and like clockwork, the sharp knock of Haiji’s knuckles at his door.
“I was just wondering,” Haiji starts, spreading his hands and fingers wide in the way that indicates he’s about to ask for a favor with no option of decline.
“Yes,” Kakeru says, rising to his feet without a second thought.
Haiji blinks. Something flits over his face, brief, and then he says, “Thanks, Kakeru.”
It’s Haiji’s knee. Kakeru feels the pinprick of phantom pain in his own knee that he always feels when looking at Haiji’s, the puckered shininess of the scar tissue in a gruesome loop around this most important joint. Haiji’s shaking from the effort of walking, something that sends icy pinpricks of fear down Kakeru’s back.
“It needs to be stretched sometimes,” Haiji says with brutal efficiency, propping his back up against Kakeru’s wall and staring at the opposite wall. “Hold my foot, here, and then push down.”
Now that Kakeru’s looking he can see the tension Haiji’s carrying in the set of his mouth, how he keeps ducking to keep his face in shadow. Kakeru can’t remember a time when Haiji hadn’t been looking directly into the light, staring down an oncoming train, bearing down amidst a raging storm. He wonders, suddenly, where Haiji’s been to make him this way, to bear the weight of his knee with such grace.
“Okay,” Kakeru says, and then trusts himself and the stillness of his hands to push down on Haiji’s knee until he can feel it lock into place, pressed flat against the wooden floor. He lingers, for a little bit, Haiji’s knee feverish hot under his hands.
“Thanks, Kakeru,” Haiji says after a long bitten-off inhale, tilting his head back to rest against the wall. His eyes are closed. There’s something distinctly crumpled about Haiji right now, collar bones fragile underneath the stretched-out collar of his white sleep shirt, worn soft after a hundred washes.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru says, hushed, watching the measured rise and fall of Haiji’s chest.
Haiji gives a little grunt. His eyes are still closed.
“Are you,” Kakeru starts, and then stops, staring at the bluish backs of Haiji’s exhausted eyelids. “Are we.”
He doesn’t know what to ask, but it ends up not mattering at all. Haiji’s dropped off into a light doze, head lilting dangerously to the side.
“Haiji-san!” Kakeru says, an aborted yelp, catching his head in his hands.
Haiji turns his cheek into Kakeru’s hand. “Sorry,” he mumbles, visibly tugging the corners of his mouth up.
“You need to rest,” Kakeru says, and it comes out more authoritative than intended.
“Mhm,” Haiji says, resting the full weight of his head in Kakeru’s palm.
A surge of affection wells up inside Kakeru, looking at Haiji’s face in his hands. That Haiji’s here, at night, all the usual walls down, trusting Kakeru with something Kakeru’s not even sure he will ever fully understand.
He turns Haiji’s head back to gently rest against the wall, and then, eyes fixed on Haiji’s knee, hauls him up his arm. Haiji’s room isn’t far, right across the hall.
“Rest well,” Kakeru says, after he’s laid Haiji down as gently as possible on his futon, and put the covers on the wrong way, and then done it again, correctly. Haiji’s out already, face slack with sleep.
Kakeru fusses with the corner of the blanket, one more time, so it lies straight and flat, before he turns off the lights and returns to his room across the hall.
The next morning Haiji’s chipper, which fills Kakeru with such joy it feels like he needs to hold himself stiller, for fear of spilling it.
“Kakeru,” Haiji calls to him, after sending the rest of Aotake off with a mimed starting gun. Kakeru stops, jogging in place, turning his head. “Thank you.”
Haiji’s smiling. Kakeru’s lungs, so used to propelling him through kilometers of uphill and in thin air past hundreds of race-watchers and competitors alike, momentarily falter in the face of this.
Kakeru nods, and then runs what feels like the fastest five kilometers he’s done in a while, footsteps light over the ground.
The qualifier looms. Kakeru believes in Haiji, and he believes in Aotake. But still, it’s hard.
“Have you always been good at running?” Prince asks one day after a particularly dreary run, the humidity lying thick and heavy on the backs of their necks all morning. They’re squatting on the front stoop, waiting for the others to collect their things to walk to the bath.
“Yes,” Kakeru says, without pause. There’s no pretense, with Prince. Kakeru watches him close his eyes at the answer, propping up his chin on one pale elbow.
“Good,” Prince says, unclipping his sweaty bangs so they fall right in front of his eyes. “Some people are just meant for some things.”
Kakeru contemplates this as much as he can, wrung out and running on empty. “That means you were meant to be here, too.”
“Are you our third literature student,” King says from behind them.
“No, that was good,” Haiji says, towel slung around his neck.
King makes a clicking sound with his tongue, smiling.
“I just,” Kakeru says, jumping to his feet.
King laughs, stepping past them out the door. “You’re so well spoken lately.”
Haiji pats Kakeru on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Kakeru’s quiet, trailing after Haiji and King the whole way.
The qualifier is a day Kakeru tries to hold onto. When he wakes up in the morning he stares at the odd stain on the ceiling and tries to burn the moment into his memory, the potential that he can almost smell in the air, the sound of Chikusei-so waking up around him.
He and Haiji end up at the sink together, clumsily bumping elbows. Kakeru tries to remember this too, the heat he can feel through his jacket, Haiji’s efficient little motions when he rinses his mouth and puts his things away, and zips up his jacket in one fluid pull.
“Kakeru,” Haiji says, putting a hand out to hold Kakeru back by the arm when they’re getting into the van, Kakeru’s hand on the passenger door handle.
Haiji closes his eyes for a second, and then opens them. Kakeru can remember exactly Haiji’s voice and cadence from all those months ago.
“You’re going to run the Hakone Ekiden,” Kakeru says, and watches Haiji’s gaze land squarely on his own in surprise.
Haiji laughs. “Yes.”
It’s strange to think that in a day, in less than a day, it will be over. This is the last hurdle. Though looking at Haiji, eyes focused on the road, white-knuckling the steering wheel, Kakeru thinks that this is probably unlikely. This was one of the strangest things about Haiji that Kakeru had learned yet, his mysterious power to wave away hurdles like they were made of nothing but smoke. There were other, different hurdles that Haiji grappled with, that he strained against and thought about, but the ones that the team brought up were simply dealt with.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Haiji says from next to him.
“Just thinking,” Kakeru says, worrying with the shoulder strap of the seat belt.
“Are you worried?” Haiji says, swerving aggressively into the next lane. It’s a testament to how solemn the van is that there’s no yell of admonishment from behind.
“How are you not worried?” Kakeru says instead, watching Haiji’s face.
Haiji clicks up the speed of the windshield wipers and checks the mirrors before he answers. “Everyone’s been working hard.”
Kakeru nods. Inside he’s doing a little victory dance. Slowly but surely Kakeru’s inching closer to understanding the picture in Haiji’s mind, the goal he’s been working towards. And then once he knows that, he’ll understand it all - the question Kakeru wanted to ask Haiji, that night in the dark, Haiji’s answer, and the distinct sense that once he knows, that everything will change.