Paris is different, Kakeru thinks as he steps out into the street. He’s greeted by the brisk morning air, sunlight bathing the buildings under its warm glow. It’s a fantasy; he thinks, recalling the postcards his dad and step-mom sends him on one of their annual trips, the Eiffel Tower in the background with clear skies, pink, loopy letters spelling out, From Paris with Love .
Prince booked their apartment in the 14th arrondissement and Kakeru’s already mapped out a route for his morning exercises the night before, a few taps on his phone with Prince seated beside him, hunched over a book. It’s only a little over five kilometers to run to the Eiffel tower and another five back, and despite the muted dissatisfaction written on Prince’s face, Kakeru isn’t too surprised when he sees him climbing down the stairs.
Kakeru gives him a brief nod, pausing slightly when he recognizes the familiar, ratty black track uniform Prince is wearing. Memories of Aotake and its ten rowdy residents flood his mind, and Kakeru can almost visualize the steam rising from the rice; the sound of the poorly chopped carrots against the board, the wooden handle of the knife under his clumsy grip. There’s the taste of beer at the tip of his tongue; crisp and bitter, Prince is shouting in the background for Jota to take his oily hands off his book as Joji picks at his unattended meal. In the corner, Yuki is scowling at Nico-chan senpai, the older man’s hair is tied up too high for once, looking like the ends of a broomstick. King’s rambunctious laughter roars in the background and Shindo blushes from Musa’s earnest compliment.
Most importantly, there’s something warm and solid pressed against his side. An arm is thrown around his shoulder, drawing him closer and anchoring him to the walls of the Aotake. Haiji is there and he’s always too close, too hot, and too real in Kakeru’s mind and Kakeru knows that even though it’s been two years since he’s graduated and left, he’s always pulled back to the night after the Ekiden. To Haiji.
“What?” Prince— and for the life of him, Kakeru can’t stop calling him that after all these years, says, fidgeting under Kakeru’s stare. His hair is pinned back by a clip and tied into a ponytail, the same stub that Kakeru remembers in college whenever he brushes past Prince during their runs.
“Nevermind,” Kakeru replies with ease. At least it’s not a T-shirt and jeans, he thinks drly.
“Stretch first and then we can go.”
When they reached the corner, about halfway, Kakeru wills himself to run slower. Beating his time had become a side hobby, a personal goal after college. The intensity is no longer there. It’s not the same like before when he was running for a time, for a position, weaving through the crowd to compete with the runner leading the pack, sweat soaking his back, his muscles burning, propelling himself to move faster, run faster— forward. But for once, Kakeru opts to run slower. The pace is leisurely, the air leaves him light and content with every exhale, and Kakeru feels Prince trailing behind not too far away. There’s a stubbornness to Prince hidden behind his gangly limbs and droopy eyes that at first glance, indicates he rather be curled up on the couch with a book than out on the streets, narrowly avoiding pedestrians.
Kakeru’s never been out of Japan before. The farthest he’s gone was to Osaka with his dad for a business trip when he was still too young to take care of himself and a diet of cup ramen was out of the question. Kakeru can’t recall any other trips because there weren’t any. And now that he’s here, out in a different country, he feels a sense of admiration for Musa who chose to study in a foreign country different from his own. Paris is different and Kakeru’s not sure how he feels about it.
Everything opens late here, saved for the handfuls of Boulanger shops that pop up at every turn and corner, reminding Kakeru of the convenience stores back at home. The smell of bread lingers in the air and he passes a pharmacy, its neon plus sign and glass door sticking out from the array of Haussmann buildings. The streets are empty, except for the early risers walking their dogs, cradling a bag of pastries as they struggle with a game of tug-o-war that has Kakeru’s gaze lingering at the familiar scene.
“Are we almost there yet?” Prince asks between pants, his droopy eyes focused on Kakeru. His hair jostles like a horse’s tail, jerking at every movement.
One foot forward, Haiji had once said.
“Almost,” Kakeru responds and points to the tower coming to view.
“Oh,” says Prince, momentarily stunned. The rest of the run is silent and Kakeru is even pleased with the selfie they took when they arrived.
On their way back, he uploads the picture onto his Instagram, mindful of the time back at home. Haiji should be awake soon.
Kakeru’s time at Aotake were the best years of his life; even after the eventful first year that held both the over encompassing joy of the Ekiden and the bittersweet departure of Haiji, King, and Yuki. By his second year, Kakeru was made team leader. The remainder years at Aotake allowed him to strengthen the bonds even further, but there was no contest when it came to which year was the best.
Crumbs fly as Kakeru saws his way through the baguette, half of its body still hidden from the yellow paper bag, the word NICOLAS is bright against the red background. Prince is seated across from him, his eyes glued to the words on the page, instead of the lone piece of bread that sits unattended on the plate. There is an alarming amount of butter spread on the spot next to his plate.
“We should get shopping over with today,” Prince says solemnly, his eyes never leaving the book.
“We can get chocolates for the twins,” Kakeru replies in between smearing pâté on his butter drenched slab of bread. He reaches for the jam and jambon, ignoring the scolding voice about proper eating habits that sounds a little like Haiji. He nabs a piece of camembert cheese to his plate as a form of rebellion.
“Chocolate is fine, chocolate is good,” Prince mutters, flipping to the next page. His breakfast still left untouched. “What are you getting for Haiji?”
Kakeru is midway from chomping on his bread when he freezes and bites his tongue instead. He winces and glares at Prince, the man’s sleepy eyes are in view.
“I don’t know. I still don’t know what I’m getting for the others. Including Haiji-san.” He makes his tone sound as definite as possible, keeping his gaze on his plate to ignore Prince’s burning stare. Kakeru doesn’t think of himself as a coward, but he knows he’s not good with words. He’s better than he was before, but there’s no competition when it comes to Prince. His feelings are still a recent discovery since his college days and he’s still trying to grasp the concept of being open about things that don’t concern running. Much less the confusing mess of jumbled thoughts and emotions that shows up uninvited at the mere mention of Haiji that has Kakeru running off a cliff if he could.
“It goes well with most things. Like dinner.”
Kakeru furrows his eyebrows and swears that Prince just rolled his eyes.
“For two,” Prince supplies helpfully, eyes trailing back to his book.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kakeru replies blandly. He glares down at his breakfast and stabs the piece of cheese. It’s impaled at the tips of his fork and Kakeru flattens it with the back of his spoon.
Don’t play with your food, Haiji would say.
He feels like he’s missing something and even the squawk that comes out of Prince’s mouth after he’s seen the butter on the table leaves Kakeru feeling irritated and confused.
Kageyama arrives on a Friday, two days later than Prince and Kakeru. Conveniently, it’s on the day where Kakeru is left alone while Prince meets up with his publisher. “It’s a romance,” Prince said the night before. “I’ll give you a copy once it’s out. You might be able to relate to the protagonist,” he said, eyeing Kakeru.
When Kakeru’s dad found out about his spontaneous trip to Paris, the word traveled to Kageyama’s mom, who then bought a ticket for her son. “To see the sights and think of it as a graduation present,” she said, sharing a knowing look with his dad that Kakeru did not miss. Although judging from the constipated look on his step brother's face, Kakeru had surmised that Kageyama would have been happier with another volleyball to add to his collection or a pair of brand new shoes.
By the time Kageyama arrives at the apartment, Kakeru is already dressed and ready. It feels like deja vu when he opens the door to let Kageyama in. The only time that Kakeru sees the younger male is when Kageyama is dropped off at Aotake. After the first year, their parents made it a habit to have Kageyama stay with Kakeru. Bonding time as Kakeru’s dad had dubbed it. And while they were both gradually getting better at the idea of having a family that no longer consisted of a single parent, it was still a work in progress.
“Hi,” Kakeru says. He keeps the door wide open for Kageyama to invite himself in. “You can put your things in the room on the right.” He points to the door down the hall.
He watches Kageyama go before allowing himself to sigh. Family bondings weren’t really important when Kakeru was growing up, his dad preferring a hands-off approach. The tendency must have rubbed off on Kakeru because being around Kageyama was always an awkward affair. They only meet once or twice a year and it was hard to pick up where they left off. The awkwardness would take a few days to settle down.
“Do you want to rest up for a bit before we do anything?” Kakeru asked.
A strange, gurgling noise emits from Kageyama’s stomach, filling the silence in the room.
He’s staring, mouth ajar in equal parts fascination and horror as Kageyama shoves the last bite of crepe into his mouth, polishing off his third plate. After a hasty Google search, they chose the closest cafe possible within walking distance of the apartment. The air is cool outside and Kakeru allows himself a soft exhale, shoulders slumping a little. Tables and chairs are crammed together in clusters, voices filling the open space that acts as background noise. Kakeru doesn’t understand French, so none of it concerns him. It’s only when he tries to push his chair back does he realize how tightly packed the cafe is.
He lifts his gaze from his sparkling water, meeting Kageyama’s blue eyes, a shade darker than Kakeru’s own.
“How was your flight?” Kakeru asks before he can stop himself. The question itself was already stupid. Four years of college with a major in sociology could only get him so far. But he was trying.
“Fine,” Kageyama says gruffly. He scowls as if remembering something and continues, “there was a baby crying. It was too loud.”
“Oh. Me too. I mean, there was a baby crying on my flight too.”
Kageyama nods, taking a hold of his glass to guzzle down the rest of the water. They sit there in silence and Kakeru’s already fidgeting in his seat within minutes. He doesn’t know why it's so difficult to connect with Kageyama who was only two years younger. He played a sport and was also socially awkward too. Perhaps that was the problem. Kakeru was always used to having people approach him. It had been his classmates in high school and Haiji in college. But it had been him who approached Prince to gain an understanding. Maybe it wasn’t that they were both awkward, but that he wasn’t trying enough.
And he was the older one, his mind supplies helpfully.
“Prince is preoccupied with something and won’t be back until dinnertime,” Kakeru says, ignoring the startled look on Kageyama’s face at having been spoken to, knowing Kageyama probably thought they were going to sit there in silence until they overstayed their welcome.
“Oh. Okay,” Kageyama replies slowly. He’s looking at Kakeru now, unblinking eyes boring into Kakeru’s skull.
“Okay. We could do something? Until then?”
One foot in front of the other, Kakeru thinks.
On the last day of their trip, Prince suggests they see the Louvre.
And it’s there at the Louvre when Kakeru is squinting at the Mona Lisa from a distance, dressed in a tacky I love Paris shirt, matching Prince and Kageyama, does enlightenment come crashing down on his ignorant, naive head.
“I think I like Haiji,” he blurts out, stunned and horrified by his revelation.
“Try again,” Prince says calmly.
“I think I’m in love with Haiji.”
Kakeru swears that he’s heard Prince mutter, ‘fucking finally,’ but his attention is caught by Kageyama. There is confusion written on his normally sharp features and his mouth thins to a line, constipated, Kakeru thinks wildly, still high from his own epiphany.
“I thought you two were dating.”
And that’s it.
My life is a lie, Kakeru thinks with a weariness that could rival Nico-chan senpai.
There is a baby crying on the plane again, but Kakeru pays no mind to it. He’s crammed in the middle seat of their row, stewing in turmoil, while the engine roars, drowning out the sounds of Prince flipping through his book from his seat by the window.
It’s a long flight back home and he needs to work the next day. The students can have one easy track day. He sinks into his seat and wills his eyes shut.
The problem is not work.
The problem is Haiji.
Kageyama is shuffling in the seat next to him, trying to get some sleep. He scowls when he realizes it’s impossible in economy when there’s a baby crying. He turns over and abruptly meets Kakeru’s gaze.
“We have six hours left,” Kakeru supplies helpfully.
It doesn’t change the younger man’s downward lips, so he gives up, and closes his eyes.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“My thing?” Kakeru repeats.
A myriad of expressions runs through Kageyama’s face that leaves Kakeru mystified before he settles for a neutral look.
“Your thing with Haiji-San!” Kageyama spats out before flushing scarlet at his own outburst.
“There is no...thing?” Kakeru says, gripping the armrest.
“You could...” Kageyama begins before trailing off and making a vague hand motion. “Ask him?”
“Ask him?” Kakeru echoes, shoulders hunched.
“Ask him to get out?”
By now, Kageyama is resembling a balloon, ready to explode.
“Ask him out. On a date.”
“Dinner for two,” Prince murmurs behind his book, and Kakeru is left speechless for the duration of the flight.
“Prince was kind enough to get me a bottle of wine,” Haiji says, joining Kakeru by the balcony, away from the party that’s going on inside Nico-chan senpai’s apartment. “It looks pretty expensive too, but I’m not exactly a wine kind of guy. That’s more Yuki’s specialty.”
Kakeru doesn’t respond to that. Eyes trained to the trees below them, nursing his glass. Haiji moves closer, back leaned against the rail, shoulders relaxed with a beer can dangling from his fingers. Kakeru turns to look at him.
Haiji’s tie is loosened and several buttons are undone, his shirt is wrinkled from the group hug earlier, courtesy of the twins. They stand there in silence, only the distant wail of the ambulance rushing down the street acts as an indicator of the city life hustling below them. Kakeru isn’t put off by the silence. It’s different than when he’s with Kageyama and the thought leaves a small part of him feeling a little guilty.
“Dinner for two,” Haiji hums in wonder and breaking the silence that has Kakeru snapping back to attention. Haiji brings the beer can to his lips and takes a sip.
“Hm? Oh, Prince was saying the wine was dinner for two,” Haiji replies with a shrug. There’s an easy smile on his lips that sends Kakeru looking the other way. It’s quiet from where they’re standing, the balcony door acting as a barrier from the noise inside.
“Would you be my plus one if I asked?”
The question is rapid fire. In response, Kakeru whips his head back, gaping at Haiji. He winces at the crick in his neck.
“What?” Kakeru says dumbly, rubbing the back of his neck.
Haiji remains unfazed.
“We could share the bottle, over dinner,” he replies and gulps down the rest of his can before meeting Kakeru’s gaze head-on. Haiji has on another one of his smiles, a softer one this time, oozing a calmness and maturity beyond Kakeru’s years that clashes with the internal meltdown he's having just a few spaces away.
Kakeru doesn’t trust himself to say anything. He grips the rail and avoids Haiji’s gaze, crushing the sudden urge to bolt out with a hasty retreat to the bathroom.
“Why do you look so scared?”
“I’m not.” He scowls, shoving his face towards Haiji instead of the chipped paint on the rail.
“I—” He says; because it’s rude to leave Haiji’s question unanswered. Since the first year, Kakeru could never say no to Haiji. It’s been an issue long before he’s even realized it.
Haiji moves and he’s quick, situating himself in front of Kakeru and he’s too close, too real, too warm, and just there and it’s enough to send the lone brain cell that Kakeru has been safeguarding to an abrupt end.
“There’s something in your hair,” Haiji says, bemused, as he brushes a finger through Kakeru’s bangs, plucking the lint off. “I don’t remember you being this skittish.”
I don’t remember having functioning emotions back then, Kakeru thinks sourly.
“Whatever it is. You can tell me,” Haiji says. He claps Kakeru on the shoulder like he did when they were, but a mismatched, ragtag track team competing for a spot at the Ekiden. And Kakeru feels like a teenager again.
But everything was always made simple when it came to Haiji. It’s a trait Kakeru was envious of, his ability to simplify the complicated, ease away the unnecessary to leave out the bare minimum, and that was your focus. There was always a plan, a scheme brewing in the brown depths of Haiji’s eyes. What you had, what you needed, and what you needed to do to get what you wanted. Kakeru had been proven wrong the first time he stepped into Aotake, denial on his lips at the mere thought of running the Ekiden. And the Ekiden had come and gone, they ran it and also left. The mountain had long been conquered and Kakeru was left with nothing but himself.
“I’m in love with you,” Kakeru blurts out after a beat of silence, cheeks rouged as he fixes his gaze downward. He wonders if it’s too late to pack up and move somewhere far away. Maybe Musa had distant relatives in Tanzania who would be willing to allow Kakeru to hole himself up in their house for a few months. Paris doesn’t sound too bad either and he was nowhere close to finishing the Louvre, although it would be best to avoid the Mona Lisa. He would need to learn French and find another job at a school—
And something. A hand slides and cups the curve of his face and Kakeru is brought back down.
He’s in Nico-chan senpai’s balcony with Haiji. There’s a party inside and the should go back in, but he can’t move and there’s Haiji standing in front of him; too close, too hot, cupping his cheek with a tenderness that Kakeru wasn’t aware could be directed at him. And he squashes the urge to look around, to check if this was an elaborate prank set by the twins or Prince because he didn’t understand what dinner for two meant—
And Haiji is laughing.
And Kakeru stops.
“I was waiting for you to catch up.”
And Kakeru doesn’t know what to make about that, so he stops. And breathes. More silence follows, but it’s okay because it can’t get any worse than his sloppy outburst. Haiji isn’t looking at him in disgust and Kakeru doesn’t have to run off to Paris, living off of bread, butter, and bottles of actimel yogurt for breakfast.
He stops himself again. He leaves all of that. The uncertainty, the doubt, his own anxiety that boils underneath his skin, squirming and coiling in his stomach that leaves him sick. All of that is shoved far back, pushed into the confinements of a cardboard box and duct taped twice, saved for a rainy day when Kakeru is alone and the world seems impossibly large for his too small presence.
But for now, Kakeru breathes and leans into the touch. For now, he’s in the balcony with Haiji on the tenth floor of Nico-chan senpai’s balcony surrounded by other apartment buildings. The air is cold, but Haiji’s hand is hot and Kakeru holds onto that feeling. He leans into the touch and exhales.
“I was pacing myself.”
For now, that is enough.