The first time is when he realizes his body is breaking.
His father pushes him to train, and he pushes himself. Again. Again. Until he can feel his joints that are hardly a decade and a half old start to pull apart. His tendons strain to bind him together. His veins pump equal parts oxygen and agony.
Haiji looks around the team. At the other boys, legs free of braces, shoulders free of the weight of having his father be coach. Most of the time, he clenches his teeth and does what he needs to do.
He looks at the team and sees some looks of pity, some of contempt. He hears the doctors warning him that if he keeps going, he won’t be able to walk by the time he’s thirty, but he can’t listen to them—he can’t quit yet. All he has ever known is running. (He squashes down the fear that it’s all he’s good at.)
He misses practice. Once. Twice. Then three days in a row because the inflammation is so bad he can barely crawl to the door of his bedroom.
It’s worse when he gets back—the looks of pity, the looks that seem like they’re just waiting for him to fall. And then there’s Fujioka, who still looks at him like he can make a comeback—like he’s more than broken pieces held together by fraying threads–like he’s strong, when he’s just too weak to show the world he’s breaking.
The second time is at the end of high school.
Fujioka wants him to go to Rikudo instead of Kansei. Haiji knows there’s a part of him that wants to follow Fujioka, that believes in miracles and happy endings. He could let a dream like that seduce him, but he won’t. He made his choice.
Haiji stands in the middle of the path. Fujioka is a step or two behind him. He can feel the barest hint of late afternoon sun setting, and the breeze that lifts his hair reminds him of what running feels like. For a moment, he closes his eyes against the dimming light and thinks of miracles. Then he thinks of the way his leg is shaking even when he’s only standing still. And all the reasons he made his decision in the first place.
His lip trembles, but he turns to Fujioka with a smile and shuts the door on a future he doesn’t dare to dream of. I’m not strong, he says and wonders if someone who has never been anything else has a chance at understanding.
The third time is after surgery.
By now you’d think he would be used to it. For years he hasn’t been able to take as much as a single step without the pain reminding him that he isn’t whole.
But he’s not.
Haiji clenches his teeth and carefully does the exercises the physical therapists describe. He tries not to get frustrated at the days and weeks and months of sitting still. But every time he fails to take a step, every time he hits the floor for trying too hard, every time his body screams in agony as it strains to meet his demands, it gets harder to keep the tears from his eyes.
As he sits on the floor, head bent to rest between his knees, arms clenched around his body, he learns to regulate his breathing again. Steady his heartbeat. His body learns that growth takes patience and not just hard work. His mind learns to fill the empty hours with his university work.
And there’s a new dream brewing. Something that comes from deep inside his soul.
It’s then that he decides on Hakone, and the fire that’s been long gone from his eyes starts to return.
Because he can’t run, he throws himself into researching and planning. He finds the people he needs one by one. He gathers them until they’re just one person short.
And then, as if by red strings or the winds of fate and things he didn’t used to believe in, Haiji finds him. Number ten. He sees salvation in the way a petty thief runs away from the convenience store.
Kurahara Kakeru is a name he recognizes, because he spent the past years scanning through anything related to running—high school, college, or otherwise. Kakeru runs by, and the breeze that follows causes his heart to skip a beat. He feels the touch of the wind god, Fujin, in that breeze and sees the wings of Hermes on his heels.
Hours later he can still see Kakeru running. Kakeru is a shooting star and his feet light the path that Haiji has so desperately been trying to follow. He has dreamed of the Hakone Ekiden for years, and for the first time, he can see exactly how he’ll get there.
It’s not easy to get Kakeru, or anyone else, really, to agree to his plan. But in each one of them, he knows there’s a soul that wants to run. He just needs to find it. As he struggles to get them to agree—one by one—and struggles to get them to get along, to train, to run , he realizes that maybe he’s not so weak anymore.
At first, he finds himself turning to Kakeru, because he’s the most experienced runner on the team—other than himself. And then he finds himself turning to Kakeru just because he can. Kakeru who is blunt and stubborn and selfish in ways he probably doesn’t understand. Kakeru who runs on a path of starlight. Kakeru who is honestly brusque and righteously short-tempered and awkwardly charming.
Haiji finds himself as the team comes together as a team—watching each one of them find their own path to run. He is still looking for an answer for why he runs. How can he love a sport that breaks his body and wears down his mental stamina? It’s exhausting and infuriating and each step along the path is a battle. Sometimes he wonders. Sometimes he thinks he settles into the pace of his feet against the track and thinks he already knows.
The fourth time is the moment Prince finishes his race just fast enough to let them go to the qualifier.
They have a chance. It’s a dream that is four years in the making, and they’re still only at the starting line. But they’ve earned the right to try.
Fujioka stands by his side. Steady in his presence and solid as always. Their paths are different now, but he always did love running with Fujioka at his side.
This time, his lip trembles, and he takes an extra minute to make his way to the rest of the team.
The fifth time is when they qualify.
The race is crowded with people trying to win, showing months or years of hard work in their steps. As they move forward, they spread out, finding their own pace within the pack. Haiji runs beside Kakeru near the front. He waits until the right time, and then with a tap on the back, he tells Kakeru to fly.
The mess by the water tables is unexpected, but he makes it by. He feels a shift in his leg as he lands and nearly stumbles the next step. As he runs, all he can think is don’t break, don’t break. He finishes the race thanking his body for holding out. Kakeru isn’t far from the finish line. As the minutes tick by, the rest of the team joins them until only Prince is left.
And then the race is over. And they wait to hear which schools made it. With each school announced, the tension rises. By nine, the pressure is so high he can barely think. Haiji stands with the men he’s spent the past ten months making into a track team, and waits as they all hold one collective breath. And then ten is announced.
It’s another goal passed. The finish line is almost within sight. His heart soars, full the bursting point with happiness. He turns to share this elation with the team and catches just a glimpse of Shindo sobbing into Musa(also sobbing)’s shoulder, the twins piling onto Nico-chan, King unplugging his ears with disbelief written across his face, and—Kakeru fills his field of view, blue-gray eyes practically glowing. For a moment, they stare at each other, hearts beating to the same tune of joy. Haiji leaps forward, ignoring a twinge in his right knee and any doubts he would usually have about jumping into Kakeru’s arms.
(The one time.)
They train hard in the time they have before New Year’s. They deal with the twins’ doubts and struggle with the limited time. Haiji spends more time in the hospital than he has in a while, checking and double checking. He still thinks of himself as broken pieces and wonders if the glue holding him together now is just as weak as it was before. He thinks of four years of planning and doubts that it was enough.
Haiji silences thoughts about himself and turns instead to thinking about the team. (He still wonders what he’s running for, too). He offers encouragement where he can, support where needed, and a reminder or two that rest is important.
And then the day comes.
Prince starts them out well, and Musa follows up. But then there’s the drama with the twins and romance of all things. In the middle of a race. Haiji ignores the temptation to say a variety of things to instill fear into their souls instead of sparkles and hearts. In the end, he opts for a gentler approach.
Kakeru, sitting next to him in the car, doesn’t seem surprised at all. When asked he mentions something about Musa, dark baths, and Hana-chan. And his cheeks flush and his eyes dart away from Haiji’s, and Haiji lets himself be distracted for a moment. Fixes the image in his mind of Kakeru shying away from talking of crushes with pink dusting his cheeks and one hand pressed to his lips to cover his embarrassment. Then Haiji directs some of the words he considered using on the twins at himself. Of all things, romance.
Shindo’s section of the race is the most difficult to watch. Haiji watches him stumble and stand again a hundred times. If Shindo stopped, Haiji wouldn’t blame him, but a part of his soul is begging him to keep going. It’s selfish, he knows, but a part of him needs this race—to heal, to move on. So he watches the screen, hands stiff with tension, and tries not to let the guilt set in.
The vice grip around his chest eases a little once Shindo is done with his section and back inside. Be shares a look of reassurance with Kakeru, as they finish pulling the blankets up around the figure of their now-sleeping teammate. Yuki hangs back just a moment. Haiji reads a kind of frustration and guilt in his expression. After a moment of thought, he steps out of the room pulling Kakeru with him.
The rest of the evening passes relatively uneventfully. Kakeru passes in and out of sight. Shindo wakes before too long and they videochat the rest of the team. It’s not the same as physically being in the same place, but there’s a kind of peace that comes with unity, even if it comes in the middle of a competition.
As he tries to sleep, he can feel a ringing in his bones, the sound of something that’s not quite in the right place. His knee doesn’t hurt—not yet, but it’s only a matter of time. In the morning, he wakes with a start, shaking off the tendrils of dreams of times past. His doctor arrives bright and early, right on time. He can see the sense of resignation in the man’s eyes—a sense of something that’s almost pity. Haiji watches silently as the doctor gives his old injury one last check and hands him the painkillers.
He doesn’t expect anyone to have noticed the doctor, but perhaps he should have. Kakeru’s voice, in particular, is loud. Worried. Haiji tells them about the visit and assures them that painkillers are just in case. Kakeru’s eyes settle on his own. Haiji sees a kind of acceptance there—it’s different than the doctor’s resigned worry. He’s not sure if he’s reading more into Kakeru’s expression than he should, but to him that expression speaks understanding.
As the race begins again, the knot of anxiety in his stomach tightens. It’s the second and last day. It’s the day the race ends. It’s the day his dream ends. It’s a day of endings. There’s an unsteadiness in his chest as he watches Yuki head down the slope, snow swirling in the background. Yuki flies down the mountain like a blizzard.
He watches Nico-chan senpai and King.
He shares a short phone call with Kakeru, wondering what Fujioka could have said to make him sound like that.
In the end, all Haiji can think of is the truth. The adrenaline of the day is already pumping through his veins, but his heart picks up a notch. To me, you are the greatest runner . (He only finds out from Joji later, much, much later that Kakeru says he’s in love after hanging up.)
When he watches Kakeru run, even just within the confines of his phone screen, he sees starlight like he always does. But this time, he sees something else too. There’s an air of tranquility. There isn’t a smile on his face, but Kakeru looks content, like he’s glowing with the kind of radiance that can only come from inside and a soul that has found what it’s supposed to do.
It isn’t long before he stands at the relay point. Waiting. His heart picks up its pace. The painkillers in his bloodstream silence any inklings of pain. He takes a deep breath in. It’s almost over. He exhales and Kakeru comes into view, the glow in his eyes a hundred times brighter than it was onscreen.
Kakeru runs, and he looks like something heaven sent. His form is beautiful and his speed is hardly human. Haiji blinks and he can almost see wings sprout from his back. (It doesn’t take him long to learn that Kakeru broke the record Fujioka set only eleven minutes prior.)
When Kakeru passes him the sash, he doesn’t say a word aloud but the smile on his face says enough. He passes Haiji the sash and with it a wish of good luck. The sash is warm from Kakeru’s hands, and it feels heavier than just a piece of cloth. It’s the weight of the hopes of the other nine. But it doesn’t feel like weight. It feels like wings.
Haiji runs knowing this is the last time. He knows his body well enough, by now. Has heard the doctors tell him again and again that it’s only a matter of time. But as he runs, his chest feels light. It’s the final stretch of his dream. He only has a few more minutes left before he wakes, and it flies by. Even as he pushes his body toward the breaking point, he feels complete. Haiji runs toward the finish line. His broken pieces have been put back together and bound with veins of gold. He is whole. For the first time since long ago, he feels whole. And as Kakeru’s face comes into view once more, he knows why.
He smiles as he hurls himself forward. His leg is done for, and there’s some kind of comfort in knowing there’s no way to save it now. Even with the painkillers, his tendons are screaming in agony. He can feel the grinding of gears that no longer fit screeching as they’re forced to work. And yet he runs with a smile on his face. Runs straight forward, right across the finish line. Forward, forward, because he has finished one dream, but he sees the future in front of him—in the starlight at Kakeru’s feet, in the worried lines of his brow, in his arms that steady him as he finally comes to a halt.
It seems like mere instants. It seems like hours. The time he spends clinging to Kakeru passes in a whirlwind of emotion. There’s the elation of having finished the race. He had expected to be lost after he crossed the finish line, but he has never felt more at home than he does huddled against the cold pavement. His leg that he spent so many hours of torture to run with once again is in pieces, yet he has never felt more complete.
Tears sting the corners of his eyes. He blinks the first few back, but Kakeru murmurs you’re strong and you’re my reason for running within the same short breath, and the rest can’t be stopped.
The way home is long, and he spends most of it next to Kakeru. They’re all exhausted by the time the doors of Aotake are in sight once more. Nira greets them with an enthusiastic bark, and the most any of them can muster is a smile and a couple pats on the head. The building that’s usually bustling with activity during waking hours is quiet as they make they’re way to bed.
Kakeru dutifully brings Haiji to his room, unhooking his arm from around his shoulder as they reach the door. He mutters something about an ice pack and hurries out of sight. He appears again a minute later, this time with an ice pack in hand. Even after handing it to Haiji, he hesitates, making it obvious with his body language that he doesn’t want to leave. After a moment, Haiji takes pity on him, and the door swings shut behind the two of them.