When Kakeru first saw the entrance hall with its giant mammal and fish dioramas suspended from the ceiling, he got a strange sense of déjà vu.
To be in a school of fish was like running.
How? Swimming with the current, for one. To become one with the fish, for another, but only in a manner of speaking. Not to become the fish—that was weird. There was a difference, somewhere, but Kakeru didn’t have time to examine what it was. He had exhibits to see—exhibits of real fish—that he would get to by first swimming under the fish dioramas with the school of people-fish that were heading towards them, too.
He was conscious of his hands by his side. If he pointed them, just a little, they’d resemble fins, maybe. A child darted past him, wearing an octopus hat. And for a moment, Kakeru wanted to be small again, so he could wear the same hat and not be stared at for an accessory that wouldn’t work on him as a nineteen-year-old.
“Don’t waddle, Kakeru. And no running, yeah? Especially not the kind we do.” Haiji appeared at his elbow, handing him an octopus hat. Kakeru stared at it; how did he know? “If you broke into your full sprint, I couldn’t catch you—and then who’ll stop you from pushing four-year-olds aside for your turn at the touch pool?”
Kakeru snorted, but slowed down to take deliberate step after deliberate step. There were, he thought, an awful lot of rules at a place that was supposed to be for delighted, eager children. And people like himself, he reluctantly admitted.
“Where to first?” asked Haiji, and Kakeru realized the reins had been handed over to him.
“There,” he answered, pointing at a series of tropical tanks, glowing both blue and multi-colored, mysterious and welcoming.
Haiji nodded. “I meant which exhibit, but that works, too.”
Kakeru did his best not to speed up, but he couldn't help it. Luckily, Haiji fell into step beside him without pointing it out. How focused Haiji Kiyose was, thought Kakeru. How one arrived at their destination mattered, but what was more important was that one arrived somewhere. A beginning, and an end.
Kakeru put the hat on, brushing the stuffed tentacles out of his face. “Do you eat fish, Haiji-san?”
“Uh, yeah.” Haiji’s head was tilted slightly in surprise. “Why wouldn’t I? Don’t you? You’ve never refused my cooking.”
“Um.” Kakeru didn’t know how to explain that he was torn between telling the truth, not telling the truth, and telling the fish the truth. “I guess,” he managed.
Haiji stared at him one moment more, and then threw his head back and laughed. “You’re so strange sometimes,” he chuckled. “That’s fine. So long as you keep moving, you can be whatever you want.”
Kakeru led the way to the tanks. Haiji himself had his strange moments, like when he had presented discounted tickets last night with a gleam in his eye, over their plates of curry with rice.
“Got these from the obaa-chan. They’ll expire next week. How about it?”
No one else dared to skip class or work. As always, Yuki was especially vigilant about not missing a single law lecture, but even Prince was reluctant to put aside his poems and novels in favor of conducting some on-site research. Not with upcoming papers and exams to prepare for, anyway.
Kakeru hadn’t agreed to accompany Haiji out of some sense of daring, though. The fact was, between Kakeru’s Data Analysis course and a trip to the aquarium, he simply believed the latter was the more important, and the more immediate, of the two.
He could sense Haiji’s eyes on him as he turned to the first tank. With the tank’s focus being on the coral and other creatures inhabiting the ocean floors and sea beds, there wasn’t enough space for a few fish, let alone a school of them.
Later, Kakeru decided, and his stomach fluttered with a thrill. The school of fish would come later. Or rather, he and Haiji would go to them.
At the crustacean exhibits, they paused at the giant snow crabs for a while. Kakeru liked how they moved—with purpose, like they knew exactly where they were going. Haiji pointed at one, the largest male, as it scuttled across the floor of the tank, pincers waving. “I think we had his brother for dinner last week.”
“Haiji-san,” gasped Kakeru, aghast.
“Oh, sorry,” said Haiji, though his grin indicated otherwise. “Was that in bad taste?”
Kakeru reached out to cover Haiji’s mouth, and it was only thanks to knowing Kakeru well enough at this point that Haiji ducked away, chuckling. But whatever admonishments were still on the tip of Kakeru’s tongue instantly died; Haiji was the one to reach out this time, only to take Kakeru’s already extended hand in his, guiding them towards what was next.
“You’re awful,” Kakeru breathed, shifting his hand so that his and Haiji’s fingers were laced together, two adjoined ghosts. He was incredulous at his own statement, at Haiji, when the truth was that Haiji was awful but also anything but, uninhibited and candid and free with shadowy ripples across his face and a unicornfish at his nose.
“Awful? Me?” Haiji seemed to be in far too good a mood for someone who had just been called something at which others would balk. “That so? Then explain to me just how awful I am.”
“You just are,” Kakeru said, forgetting his next sentence when Haiji raised their joined hands together to kiss Kakeru’s fingers. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe, here in the underwater tunnel, surrounded on all sides by sharks and rays and eels and whatever else this micro-ocean had to offer, an environment that was both real and artificial, both lonely and filled, all at once. The schools of fish came now—fusiliers, barracuda, mackerel—but he couldn’t look away. Not yet. “You’re the most awfully beautiful person I know.”
Haiji’s eyes widened.
Then, his eyes crinkled at the corners, in the smile he reserved for when he had left everything behind at the starting line. Believed, for the moment, that he was weightless, that he could soar. “Aren’t I special,” he murmured, to Kakeru, for Kakeru.
And with one last stroke of Haiji’s thumb across Kakeru’s knuckles, they ventured forth.