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The Ace, or Three Times Prince Learns Something New About Kurahara

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Kurahara Kakeru fit all the criteria of a lone genius.

The OP skill that placed him on a level above the herd. The only thing Prince knew about running was he sucked at it, and even he could tell that Kurahara had something special. Check.

The standoffish attitude. Arrogance qualified by talent, sharp mouth, and a perpetual tight-lipped scowl. "It would be better for everyone if you quit" - oh yeah. Check.

The icy good looks. You couldn't have an ugly ace, after all. Prince was known for his princely (duh), almost feminine features. Kurahara had a different appeal - a boyish but serious handsomeness - that nonetheless had strangers giving him appraising looks during their runs. Check.

The tragic backstory. If Kurahara's former teammate were anymore hateful, he would be able to spontaneously combust into little pieces of red-haired spite and inferiority complex. There was definitely a story there, and not one with a happy ending. Check.

All in all, Prince concluded that Kurahara Kakeru was definitely the lone genius type. He was probably doomed to one day serve as the inspirational goal for some fired-up protagonist, and for that, he had Prince's pity.

 

 

As a literature major, Prince of all people should have known better than to accept surface-level impressions as truth.

 

 

One, Kurahara was oblivious to how hot he was and also a dunce at romance in general. He never participated in the twins' obsession with obtaining female fans, he treated Hanako-chan as no more and no less than a team manager, and he sputtered helplessly when Haiji asked him if he had a girlfriend.

His resting bitch face was usually enough to scare off potential admirers from actually hitting on him, which might explain the ignorance to his own attractiveness.

However, there was that one time Yuki managed to convince Haiji to let him skip nighttime practice and bring everyone to the club instead.

Kurahara refused to embarrass himself dancing, so he sat at the table with Prince while everyone else partied away on the dance floor. They were both in their natural habitat: Prince was reading, and Kurahara was glowering at the world.

Due to a combination of the club's dim lighting (which softened Kurahara's scowly features to something more approachable) and abundant alcohol (always an enabler of poor decision-making),  more than one person came to the table to ask Kurahara to dance. They always walked away disappointed.

Kurahara wasn't cruel about the rejections; he gruffly responded, "I don't dance" to men and women alike. If anything, he seemed confused and grumpy that A, the team wasn't running, and B, that strangers were trying to talk to him.

Finally, one admirer had the bright idea of buying Kurahara a drink.

The server brought over a glass of wine.

"We didn't order this," Kurahara said.

"It's a gift from the gentleman in the corner." She gestured to a tall, handsome man at the other side of the bar.

Kurahara looked lost. "Do you want it?" he asked.

"I think that's for you," Prince said dryly.

"I don't drink," Kurahara said.

"Then I guess it'll go to waste. Or maybe one of the guys will get tired of dancing and come back. You can give it to them then," Prince suggested.

Kurahara furrowed his brow. "But this must be expensive." His expression cleared. "I'll return it to him."

Prince put his book down, since he had some live entertainment to watch instead.

Drink in hand, Kurahara approached the "gentleman in the corner." Prince was too far away to hear their conversation, but he could gather from context cues that Kurahara was trying to return the drink and the gentleman was taking the opportunity to aggressively flirt with him.

At one point, the gentleman leaned over and started whispering into Kurahara's ear. The classic "it's too loud, let me move closer so you can hear me" move. Judging by how Kurahara's face was moving from flushed to firetruck-red, the whispers weren't exactly PG. 

After a few moments of this and some non-platonic caressing of the back, Kurahara was so flustered that his knees went weak and he nearly stumbled. Which the gentleman immediately took advantage of by wrapping an arm around his waist.

Moe gap?!, Prince thought.

The entertainment was cut short when Haiji picked up on the waves of discomfort Kurahara was emanating and made his way over from the dance floor. With his help, Kurahara managed to pry himself away from the disappointed gentleman in the corner.

Face still red, Kurahara settled back into his seat by Prince.

"Making friends?" Prince said blithely.

Haiji shot him a sharp look that said, "I know you just watched as our kouhai floundered."

What Haiji actually said aloud was, "Why don't the three of us head back for now? I'm getting tired, and don't forget that we have practice tomorrow morning!"

Kurahara nodded vigorously.

Tch. Saved by 'dorm mother' Haiji.

Prince did learn something from that night though. He revised some of his previous assumptions: Kurahara wasn't a jerk. He was just awkward and clueless.

 

 

Two, far from being arrogant, Kurahara was low-key and unpretentious. Contrary to popular opinion, he did not feel that his ability to run circles around people (literally) meant he was superior.

It was an easy enough mistake to make when Kurahara said things like, "This team could never make it to Hakone," and "You guys aren't taking things seriously" and Prince's favorite, directed at himself, "If you aren't capable, you should just quit."

But an arrogant person wouldn't spend so much time trying to understand Prince's world and lifestyle and motivations in order to improve his form.

An arrogant person wouldn't cheer from the sidelines so enthusiastically, more enthusiastic than he was for his own race.

Just like how Kurahara learned more about him so they could communicate on the same wavelength, Prince needed to do the same for Kurahara.

Eventually he pieced together enough to interpret, "If you aren't capable, you should just quit," as, "Won't it be hard on you, struggling like this? For something you don't love?"

From there, he was able to understand "This team could never make it to Hakone" and "You guys aren't taking this seriously" as evidence that other than Haiji, Kurahara was in fact the most serious about this endeavor. The others were enthusiastic about qualifying for the Hakone Ekiden Marathon, but it was excitement for a far-away peak, an optimistic dream.

Kurahara viewed Hakone Ekiden as an achievable goal and imminent slope to surmount. He saw what would be needed to reach that slope and what they currently possessed, and he knew in his bones all the ways they were lacking. "This isn't a dream. This isn't a distant mountain peak. This is here. This is coming up, now. Take this seriously," is what Kurahara really wanted to convey.

Prince lent Kurahara some of his more verbose mangas. "You should take a cue from the characters in these books."

Kurahara stared down at his lap. "I'm not very good at talking. Not like Haiji-san."

"You fixed my running posture. I'll help you with your communication skills."

Kurahara looked up and smiled tentatively.

Huh. Damn it, they were already friends, weren't they?

 

 

Three, Kousuke Sakaki was a fucking asshole. Alternately, Kurahara Kakeru was a secret softie.

Previously, Prince had constructed some elaborate backstories to explain why Kurahara was so emotionally traumatized the way he obviously was. Such as, his ill mother had passed away while he was racing. Or, his strict father disapproved of wasting time on a sport while he could be taking over the family conglomerate.

It never occurred to him that Kurahara was just really lonely. Kurahara hadn't set out to become a lone genius; it was a title pushed onto him by his former coach and team. Ironically, he was a "one for all" personality forced to be in an "all for one" position. The most important thing to him wasn't to win but to run with a team.

When the Kansei track team unlocked level four intimacy and finally revealed the story of Kurahara's past team, Prince just thought, oh.

Kurahara described himself as self-righteous and conceited for punching his old coach. "The incident with my teammate was just an excuse to finally express all the feelings I had suppressed. I wasn't thinking about anybody else," he said, but Prince doubted that was true.

Yes, Kurahara was hotheaded and didn't consider the outcomes of his actions as often as he should have. And yes, his actions in this case led to unfortunate consequences for teammates like Kousuke Sakaki.

But Kurahara cared deeply - too deeply. Half the time something offensive came out of his mouth, it was because he was overthinking how other people would be affected. Frustration with his isolated position and stifled team atmosphere likely contributed, but Prince would bet half his library that the majority of the outburst stemmed from outrage on behalf of a teammate. 

The real asshole in the situation was the coach. And guys like Sakaki who passively endorsed a toxic and cutthroat system and got pissed when the person at the top of the pyramid of that system dismantled it. And who then held a grudge from high school all the way into college!

Sakaki was the kind of guy who really did think he was better than other people based on something as arbitrary as speed. It was karmic justice that Kurahara was faster than Sakaki and didn't even really care about that sort of thing.

"We like you just fine," Prince said to Kurahara.

"Everyone here already knew you don't think before you act," added Nico-senpai.

"You're our teammate. Nothing will change that, " Haiji concluded, eyes sparkling with conviction.

 

 

Kurahara wasn't some two-dimensional lone genius stereotype.

He was oblivious. One of these days, Kurahara was going to realize that he was the only one Haiji gazed at with that level of fascination, and it wasn't solely because he had good running form.

He made mistakes. The next time Kurahara blurted out something well-intentioned but cruel, Prince would whack him with a book (a light one, because Prince did like Kurahara now) and remind him that not everyone had a Kurahara-to-human translator.

He was amazingly talented, but that wasn't as important as how he handled that ability. He was kind, if bad at expressing himself. He was willing to both help people become faster and to slow down to match their pace, depending on what they needed. And he loved running with an easy sincerity that was a joy to observe. 

Kurahara was a member of the Kansei track team, and he was their friend.

He was no longer alone.