Teshima hung over himself, heaving air and shame. Night air only made the weight in his chest more obvious. Every space around was empty darkness and he wasn't sure where the path ended anymore. Wheels tread onward, legs unable to stop. He knew where he was. It felt like it was nowhere, regardless, as though the finish line had been the single line trapping him to a life and truth he'd tried to escape.
It was him to bounce into Koga. From there, it was ground, nothing between to keep in mind. The two sprawled in grass, in silence. The sky spun beneath him and he let his eyes close.
He'd known from the start.
Koga's shoulder was tense and hot enough to make his hand burn. A voice in the back of Teshima's mind warned him. He'd be brushed aside, by harsh and unforgiving hands - but it made Teshima grip all the tighter. Retribution didn't come. Somehow, the look on Koga's face made him hurt worse. How long it had been, alone. Teshima had spent years avoiding touching it.
"The two of us," he said. As though the two of them had fallen back in time. "Straight to the end."
None of it was fair.
"It'd be nice to prove that there's a place where effort can trump talent."
There was more buzzing in Teshima's head. He could never explain that part. He was too used to all the dressing of language, words over substance, and the fear of every obvious flaw growing underneath. Sincerity was too easy to peel away with brittle honesty. So he wouldn't take the risk. Not when he couldn't believe he deserved it.
He didn't say - "It'd be nice to prove we could both be here."
The training camp started.
Imaizumi wouldn't stop looking at him, another proof of how displeased, and desperate, and terrified they were. Already trying too hard to be a captain Teshima was more and more unsure they could ever be. Naruko held back - suspicious in its own right. Another concern to make the spotlight of sunset burn away another layer of composure. But it was easier to ignore than a junior for whom every obvious fact about Teshima was another crushing blow.
"What do you mean by that?" came with the intent of an edge that didn't reach.
A glance to throw back, no one to defend him, Teshima grinned.
There were a thousand things he could never explain. "There's one more spot on the register," he said. Fingers flared toward himself, he took a bitter delight in his words. "One person who hasn't earned his place."
There were times in quiet jealousy and fondness that Imaizumi reminded him of Koga. Too tall and too soft all at once, too grown for their own good. Mortification stood on their face as his words sunk in. Anger and fear and a dozen things that would never make it out of their mouth for how they shook and held themself down in a body that betrayed them. Both the types who needed Kinjou. The types who - could have helped each other.
His regrets stood like a thousand stalks in the field. As though it wasn't clear from the start.
Aoyagi's fingers were the eyes she wouldn't direct toward him - tense and restless, the slightest twitch another show of the cracks in her unflappable nature.
"If I lose," he'd said.
Maybe he was sick of this. Causing eyes to widen, a mouth open in genuine silence, every word he wouldn't accept.
"You're still the vice captain."
Minutes passed - an hour. The two of them walking, Teshima a step behind. For once, he stayed silent. For once, he hoped she couldn't hear a whisper of everything blazing in his head. He liked walking down this path, out the CSP and into Hakone. The two of them had found the well-worn path in their first year after giving up. There were no cars to see himself in. No signs to reflect the shadow of his presence. Teshima could have been a mirage and never been there at all. It was easier to breathe for the thought. But she knew he wouldn't have left and didn't have to look back to check. She always did. She had to. So he tried to ignore the twitching wave of her hair, every near glance another growing doubt.
"The team's good this year," Teshima spoke up. It was enough to assuage concerns, for a moment. Aoyagi nodded. "You're really good with Kaburagi. It's almost like Tadokoro never left."
"He is here," she answered, in her hoarse careful voice.
And she stopped.
In the dying light of spring, her hair wasn't so much gold as it was near-platinum. As though she'd never bleached it. As though there weren't curiosities around the clubroom that never made him stop aching. Teshima paused, steps away, a careful smile drawn across his face. Reserved, almost - looking at her like this.
Two fingers dug into his chest.
In the last light of a dying spring, he didn't realize till her eyes had risen in much the same shock as before - he was smiling - he shouldn't have been making her worry, even if tears were burning his eyes shut.
He couldn't breathe. The same grin cut into his face, he coughed, and put down his head.
"Hahahah, I guess it really is spring again." Kneading wrists into his face, he was fine. Fine enough, as long as he didn't see her face. "I must look totally gross, right, Aoyagi?"
In the breath after - almost, he wished, he'd used her name. But as he smeared away tears and snot, it didn't matter. He'd taken the moment just as much as clouds over the sun, the luster in her hair lost, her mouth held in a prim line.
A captain would know the right thing to say.
"I think I'll pick up some allergy meds while we're at the store," instead. "I'll cover the cost! Feel free to throw in anything extra you might want. Wasn't there a brush pen you were looking at recently? Your old one does seem kinda worn." The words kept falling out, but it made him start walking, gently pulling her along. Nice and friendly and good and florid in appreciation and love and - "Really, it's alright, you should let me treat you more often!"
Absolutely sick of himself. He filled the space and left little room for anything but the path forward. Darkness edged along the prickling rise of gravel, achingly noticeable beneath his feet with the setting sun.
Koga's breath came as steady as the clock's tick. Loud. Over-burdened.
Torn ligaments. Muscles, legs, endangered and near useless if he wanted a future at all. But his arms worked. Something always worked, with Koga, never not running on. Teshima stood outside the room, hidden behind the door, silent beyond a heart slamming against ribs.
"Give him the space to heal."
There was so much space, Teshima couldn't breathe. Fingers dug into the edges of frame and brick. It was all he could do to avoid careening through open air.
"He probably doesn't want to think too much about racing for now."
Today, it was repetitions. There was always another part of his body he found to work on. As though something was wrong, more than just wounds that could heal - as though something had been wrong from the start. Teshima had seen Koga's notes. Cheated glances through scheduling, nutrition plans, things left beside hastily stored bags.
Opponent teams. Everyone - Koga kept an eye. Teshima took a twisted pride in all he knew, every point of data he could drag into the open, but Koga had a mind for every aspect of the picture. So much more than a single race. Every person on a team, every bike, and he had seen so many times over, how well Koga knew specifications and modifications everyone made.
Teshima was good at this.
Hiding in the shadows like a crook.
Listening to the wordless labor of a future captain.
"Koga Kimitaka, right?"
Everyone did that.
No one really expected to be known. Teshima took pride in that - knowing people, everyone, having tabs on those worth knowing and everyone in-between. In every space people overlooked, he'd be there.
"So, what brings you to Souhoku? Is it that Kanzaki family? Or are you just local. You look like a local kind of guy." Teshima tripped over his words more than he expected. But it didn't make him back away. He gave a crooked grin, before waving Aoyagi over.
Aoyagi didn't shift from the bench, motionless behind that silent shield. Teshima still hadn't figured out how to bridge people together, but he felt sure he could do it. Given time. Given experience. He grinned and didn't push the point.
"You were," Koga fumbled. "Um." He was just as soft, even with the height he had on Teshima. Not what he'd expected out of a junior high prodigy - but that made him swell, a little. A little similar, a little not. "What was your name, again?"
He jumped on the question and ignored its quiet stab. "I'm Teshima Junta! And that over there's Aoyagi. Hajime," he nodded, holding up a finger. "Like victory."
Koga opened his mouth, slow and nervous, before his eyes lit up. Or maybe it was just his lenses. Harder to see his eyes, his hands were balled up, serious and excited all at once. "You two are first years, too? Are you going out for the team?"
When he'd come here -
Teshima had -
"Of course," he lied. "Why else would I be here?"
But there was a hand to meet him, and he took it as firm as he could between shaking fingers. Like crickets and lightning and giddy storms came the words, "The three of us could make it."
Other people would say -
"He's just the type."
Looking at Koga.
Only one spot was free on the team. Allegiances wore down quickly under facts like that. Teshima did, too.
But Koga didn't.
"He'll be a good candidate, one day."
From the start, Teshima had known.
"I lost," he said. "Congrats on the captaincy, Kimitaka."
Koga's glasses were fogged. He wondered if he'd cried. It was strange the obvious would have been a shock for Koga, the dagger surprisingly dull in his own gut.
"You'll do a good job," Teshima went on. "We'll get you on the register like you should have been from the start, and ..." His voice caught. It was unfair. Training for every inevitability, no matter how much he believed in miracles, he thought he'd been ready for this.
"Junta," Koga said, indescribably and inadvertently cruel. "We don't have to do this right -"
"And," Teshima interrupted, loud enough to hurt his throat. "Aoyagi knows all the stuff otherwise, you've still got her for vice captain, so I've made sure to put you in the best hands possible. It's all ready! Just. Need to get you back."
He'd been anticipating this. It shouldn't have been so hard.
Glasses slipped off Koga's face. In that, Teshima could see - the same eyes. Always -
"Sorry I tried to take it from you," Teshima said. Too quiet.
Koga had always been the rightful captain.
He couldn't even say he lost it.
Just that he'd failed in his one chance to steal it.
One vice captain - quietly furious and concerned all at once.
One captain - only half-limping, standing taller than he had in years.
One - Teshima wasn't sure where he stood - hung up between them, an awkward fit between doors.
"So it'll be ... you two, Onoda and co, and ... Kaburagi," Teshima mused, leaning into soft hair.
"About that," Koga said. Abrupt - but he wasn't harsh. Glancing up, he looked more like he did at fifteen than he had the entire camp. "...I don't like your plan."
"Oh," Teshima said. He kept himself together. His heart didn't fall out his mouth. "That's fair."
"I had another one in mind."
"Do tell," he said, sarcastic and a little more bitter than he meant. Aoyagi pinched him.
"Kaburagi's a strong cyclist, but ..." And he couldn't see Koga's eyes, through lenses that reflected every hint of light left through the windows. As much as he struggled to see Aoyagi's. But he didn't need to, if he'd let himself listen to the hands gentle and careful, holding him up. "For reasons that might be obvious, I can't say I'm fond of a first year being on the team." Dry. A little bemused. And - fonder than Teshima had seen in years.
More like Koga than he'd seen in years.
He'd thought that person had been lost.
There were some things that might have been too foolish to consider - too optimistic. Or perhaps, people too blinded by their fear of each other.
It had been a long time coming.
It was Aoyagi who said it. Hands reaching from one to the other, her voice was quiet as ever. "The three of us."