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and then, morning

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The story almost tells itself: Kakeru sees Haiji again on the bank of Tamagawa. The dusty pre-dawn light collects at the edges of him, and seems to soften him in parts, and his hair has gotten longer. He’s wearing a gray windbreaker. Dark gray, like a cloudy sky. 

Over the years, Haiji has surprised Kakeru in many ways. In other ways, he hasn’t, but it’s been a number of months since Kakeru last saw him, so in this particular way, he manages it. It’s the sound of him that does it first, the only sign of life besides the distant buzz of traffic on Makuro Bridge and the occasional airplane passing far overhead and the thrum of Kakeru’s blood in his ears—it’s the sound of Kakeru’s name, handled with precision, from a few meters to his right.

“I thought I might find you here,” Haiji says cheerfully when Kakeru turns to him with a look of alarm. 

Because it’s nearly summer, the water in the river is lower, and Kakeru can see the strip of a gravel island in the middle of it, dark and indistinct enough that it could be a whale’s back. He loses track of his breath somewhere between his chest and his mouth. Haiji’s smile—or this particular variant of it, the one for greetings and thanks—looks the same. 

“Did I startle you?” Haiji asks, blinking innocently. 

“No,” Kakeru lies, and stands up a little straighter. “Haiji. It’s been—why are you—on the riverbank, Haiji?” 

Haiji laughs. His eyes close, just for a second, and then open again. “I was looking for you. My train came in an hour or so ago.” 

Kakeru mentally rifles through the itinerary that Hana had emailed to him and the twins the weekend before. She had color-coded it: which senpai would be arriving in Tokyo on which date, and from where. Haiji’s data had been in green; a bright, minty green that had seemed to glow off of the scanned graph paper. Kakeru had read over it several times. 

“Ah,” he says when it returns to him that this is, indeed, the date that Haiji had said he would come. “Aren’t you tired?” 

Haiji stifles a noise of amusement, and Kakeru feels immediately embarrassed. 

“Not too,” he answers. “I slept on the train. Those seats are much more comfortable than they look! I was surprised.” 

Kakeru nods slowly, if only to indicate that he shares in Haiji’s enthusiasm for comfortable train seats. In truth, his brain is still buzzing from post-run adrenaline, and the sweat on his skin is growing cold, and here by the river Haiji’s presence is arresting, and his eyes are so brown; and Kakeru is finding it hard to think about much else beyond this. Haiji’s eyes. 

It’s a far cry from the occasional email in his inbox, nestled vertically between ads for sneakers and convenience store coupons. It’s a far cry from Haiji’s name at the bottom, closing the distance.

“And,” Kakeru says, his tongue struggling under the words for reasons he can’t understand, “how is—Ōtsu?” 

He asks this every time they talk, as if the city where Haiji had gone to coach a works team will have reshaped itself, or crumbled. He knows that the team is doing well, both from Haiji and from the news. He still hasn’t been to visit. Haiji always comes to them first. 

“It’s nice to be near the lake,” Haiji tells him. Kakeru nods again at this answer, which he had expected. Haiji has always loved the water. “Especially at this time of year. It makes for a nice hike.” 

Kakeru decides that when he does visit Haiji, he’ll take the hike with him.

“Anyway,” Haiji goes on, and steps closer to Kakeru, wet grass bending under his red sneakers, “Ōtsu is Ōtsu. You’re the one graduating today, Kakeru.” 

Kakeru blinks, his mind stalling for a moment, still mapping Haiji’s shape as the rising sun crawls up the sky’s edge across the river. 

That’s right. He is graduating today, isn’t he? He loses track of so many things when he runs, weightless in every sense. He’s graduating, and Joji and Jota are, too, and that’s why Haiji came—that’s why all of them have come, paired up in vacation rentals like Nico and Prince or Musa and Shindo, or by themselves in hotel rooms like Yuki and Prince. That’s why this morning has felt different, though the run is the same: 6 kilometers each way at 4 AM, when enough dark has seeped out of the sky that the stars no longer stand out, the makeshift course a little longer than it had been from the now-gone Chikusei-so. 

Kakeru has walked past the empty lot a handful of times, taking a circuitous route from campus to the apartment he shares with the twins to watch weeds and wildflowers sprout from between the slabs of concrete. He wonders what will become of it, and if buildings can live on like spirits do, if some part of the drafty house where they’d all lived out a remarkable year will remain in whatever replaces it.

“I haven’t had the chance to say it,” Haiji says, “and saying it after would seem a little—redundant?” He ducks his head, and his hair brushes over his eyebrows. “Congratulations, Kakeru.” 

“Did you come all this way just to tell me that?” Kakeru blurts out. 

Haiji’s smile slips off, his mouth shrinking, his eyes round. Before Kakeru can scramble out an apology, it comes back again, with a different line of affection this time. Kakeru sucks in a breath, unthinking. 

“Yes,” Haiji murmurs. “I came here to tell you that.” 

He emphasizes here in an unusual way, as if there is another place forthcoming, where he will tell Kakeru something else. Kakeru is reminded of so many mornings at Aotake in his first year, racing the sun to the river’s side, watching the city glisten and wake from a distance, the reliable rhythm of nine sets of footsteps carrying him forward. He is reminded of the way Haiji’s weight would land on the pavement beside him, the two of them sharing a fleeting glance, all at once still and in motion, and he is reminded of the light on the lake.

That is what this look from Haiji feels like, too—compelling him to breathe, to cultivate an awareness of every cell in his body and of what they are made of. Recycled stars, Prince would say. Kakeru had always liked that. 

“I’ll go back with you,” Haiji says, “if I can impose.” 

Worry spikes in Kakeru’s chest. His eyes dart instinctively to the slope of Haiji’s right leg through his sweatpants. 

“Haiji—”

“At a brisk walk,” Haiji finishes. 

Kakeru stares at his face, his short lashes, how the unfolding sunlight reaches them. He glows. He glows. 

At last, the tension in Kakeru’s shoulders wanes. There’s a breeze picking up, a little elevated, just close enough to tousle Haiji’s hair and his. 

“It’s nice to see you,” Kakeru says, more quietly than he means to. 

This is what matters the most, more than his future at the Olympics and more than the ceremony in three hours’ time. This is what matters: the sight of Haiji, and all that it means, and has always meant, ever since it had first come to him, half-lit by the blue glow of a vending machine. 

Haiji laughs again—this one fuller, using more parts of him. Kakeru thinks that he would chase that laugh anywhere. As far as the stars.

“I’m glad,” Haiji says, and starts toward the slope of the grassy hill, beckoning over his shoulder with one hand, his gaze not wavering from Kakeru’s face. Still glowing. “Come on. I’ll race you.”