The kitchen is quiet around them, save for the soft, rhythmic chopping sounds, knife through mushroom to meet the cutting board below. Haiji busies himself with the more complicated cooking tasks, watching a thick red sauce begin to simmer on the stovetop and leaving Kakeru the grunt work, as usual. Above them, a television is on, King and Shindou’s voices mingling pleasantly with the trivia show jingle, and if they strain their ears, they can hear the faint sound of Prince’s treadmill just a little further down the hall, the hollow
thump, thump, thump
much more relaxing when Kakeru isn’t situated directly below the upperclassman.
Kakeru remembers the first time Haiji asked him to assist in making dinner for their teammates —h e remembers the tension bouncing between them, still unsure of Haiji, and unsure of himself in Haiji’s presence, remembers the tiptoeing he did to avoid conversation for more than a few moments at a time, his short answers, subdued sounds of acknowledgement in response. Haiji was always friendly, but even then, Kakeru bristled.
There wasn’t much for Kakeru to give him, not in the beginning, but he warmed with the room, warmed to Haiji, and with time, began to believe that his status as second-in-command in the kitchen was less of a punishment, but instead maybe a way for the two of them to wind down in comfortable silence — the easiest method for Haiji to pin him down in the evenings. Haiji, with his apron tied loose around his waist, humming so quietly Kakeru was uncertain that he was making a sound at all. Kakeru was never forced to speak while in the kitchen with Haiji, never pushed to answer when the words didn’t line up right on his tongue, and though he would never mention as much, Haiji knew that Kakeru was grateful for that unspoken offering.
“Can you pass me the herbs,” Kakeru glances at the boy beside him, pulled back down to earth when Haiji speaks into the quiet kitchen, “Kakeru?”
Haiji is smiling at him like he alway does: as if he’s reading Kakeru’s mind, word for word, syllable for syllable, before Kakeru has had any chance to unpack these things himself. It’s the same knowing smile he gives each of the boys living in Aotake, but the light in his eyes is different tonight, warm in a way Kakeru isn’t sure how he would describe if pressed. They’re both worn from a week of tough evening practices; Kakeru’s brain feels like it might be misfiring, the only part of him that’s ever really known overexertion at the end of a long week. Wordlessly, he scoops up and hands Haiji a small bowl sitting at the edge of his cutting board, piled high with leafy greens Kakeru had just finished chiffonading — Haiji’s word, not his own — before he tackled the small hill of mushrooms.
The smile sticks, pinned there even after Kakeru’s attention is back on the cutting board, complicated thoughts dodging the knife in his hand. He feels his cheeks grow hot with the attention, and knows before he can really question it that Haiji sees it too. He chuckles to himself, stirring the pot both literally and figuratively beside Kakeru. Above them, the twins begin to yell, and Kakeru nearly misses what Haiji says next.
It’s almost sing-song, so sudden and nonchalant, that Kakeru’s grip on the knife falters just slightly. He whips his head to the side, trying his best to give Haiji a withering look, but Kakeru’s sure he just looks appalled in place of it. Haiji’s laugh grows heartier, eyes downcast as he sprinkles herbs into the sauce they’ve put together.
Kakeru had grown accustomed to his teammate’s teasing, but Haiji had a way of getting under Kakeru’s skin still, centimeter by centimeter, and used it to his advantage often when they were caught alone. Haiji is so good at it that Kakeru almost doesn’t resent it anymore, almost allows it without an ounce of push-back. He’s growing more and more tired of trying to win out over Haiji’s persistence, climbing with careful steps to the I don’t really care side of the fence. Somewhere inside of Kakeru’s frazzled brain, he knows that he can’t win no matter what he does, anyway. He knows Haiji well enough by now.
They finish cooking in prickled silence, Haiji’s omniscient smile the elephant in the room. Kakeru feels pins and needles poking at every exposed inch of him, even when Haiji excuses himself to invite the others to eat. He hears the television shut off, King’s muffled complaints, Shindou’s promise that there would be another broadcast, and the twin’s celebratory shouts of food being ‘finally ready.’ Kakeru eases back into his comfort with each bite he takes, diligently avoiding Haiji’s wandering gaze from across the table, barely tuning into the conversations around him until Joji demands his attention from where he’s seated on the floor between his brother and Prince.
Kakeru feels Haiji shift in his seat while he’s distracted, slowly extending his legs into Kakeru’s space underneath the table, situating his feet beside Kakeru’s. Their ankles brush, and then, slowly, Haiji presses in close against Kakeru, the smallest sliver of skin between his sock and sweatpants cold against Kakeru’s ankle. The little touches here and there, arm around Kakeru’s shoulders after what could only be called stargazing together: Kakeru is convinced that he is short-circuiting for a moment — this has to be an accident, maybe some sort of prank — misses half of Joji’s remark, and stumbles to catch up with the laughter that bursts from the people seated around him.
Haiji doesn’t look up from his rice, but he looks thoughtful where Kakeru would have bet his allowance that he would find smug. There is a method to Haiji’s madness, Kakeru knows this, of course, but now, seated around their friends and teammates, he can’t seem to lay hands on Haiji’s motives. Something in Kakeru’s stomach flips and kicks itself in the process, and he sets his chopsticks down.
The chatter around him separates, and eventually, the group begins to disperse, each member of the team bringing dishes to the sink, thanking Haiji and Kakeru for cooking, and splintering off to their own after-dinner chores. Kakeru wonders briefly if he could chance an escape of his own, feign a stomach ache, but just as he’s about to attempt to excuse himself as well, he catches Haiji’s gaze from the corner of his eye. Haiji doesn’t even have to ask him; Kakeru stays.
“Are you alright?” Haiji asks after the room has emptied. His back is to Kakeru as he starts scrubbing the dishes. “You didn’t finish your food,”
Kakeru buys time looking for the broom and dust pan. His hands are itching for something to do, something to occupy him while running from this is not an option. The presence in his stomach seems to have taken up jumping jacks, trying and failing to distract him from thoughts whizzing by at speeds impossible for him to reach on two legs. Their teammates’ chatter pulses from down the hall. Yuki’s open laughter in response to Nico-chan’s low, teasing murmur; Kakeru can hear the fondness between the two of them even this far away. The upperclassmen have things figured out, he’s convinced himself. He wishes he could be annoyed with Haiji on more than just the surface level anymore. It doesn’t stick.
“I’m fine,” he says finally, sweeping slow, even lines across the wooden floor. “Just not that hungry, I guess.”
Haiji hums in response, noncommittal, wrist-deep in dishwater. There is something on his mind. Kakeru is too afraid to open that door. Not yet. Instead, he sweeps the kitchen with more attention to detail than he has ever given the task, stooping to retrieve a stray chopstick that hadn’t found its way home with the others. He moves to offer it to Haiji, who looks up at him when he approaches, but doesn’t move take it from him.
“Did I bother you earlier?” Haiji questions, his expression neutral. Something sits behind his eyes. Kakeru can’t suss it out on his own, doesn’t know how.
“Which time?” Kakeru’s response is quiet, averting his eyes to watch Haiji’s busy hands. “You were a bit of a prick at the river this morning.”
Haiji’s lip twitches upwards, the faintest smile beginning to show itself to Kakeru. “It’s nice to be close to you.” He’s nonchalant again, as if saying something like that so plainly holds no weight. “I’m sorry if it was too much,”
Kakeru watches as Haiji’s hands still, feels him turn toward him, trails his eyes along the length of Haiji’s wrist as he moves to take the chopstick gently from Kakeru’s hand. Their fingers brush. Kakeru wants to believe that he understands, but there are gaps in his conclusions, things that he can’t unremember, despite everything he’s been taught and shown in the passed months. It takes a beat, but he lifts his head to look at Haiji finally, really look at him.
The smile is there now, reading Kakeru like a large-print book. It’s unfair.
“It wasn’t,” Kakeru confides, reserved, watching for any sign of a tell in Haiji’s eyes. This isn’t a sport, not to either of them. “Just surprised me, is all,”
Haiji’s tilts his head ever so slightly to the side, the smile softening around the edges in the easy silence. Kakeru understands. He’s stuck still, waiting, and he feels Haiji move before he registers it —hands wiping against his apron, dishes forgotten in the water pooled beside them, tip of his tongue darting to wet his lips. His fingers hesitantly encircle Kakeru’s wrist at his side, tender, tugging just enough to remind Kakeru that this is on purpose, not an elaborate trick at his expense.
“We don’t have to hurry, Kakeru,”
They meet in the middle. Kakeru’s eyes are screwed shut, skin warming under Haiji’s touch, easing into himself again at Haiji’s quiet promise.
He’s never kissed anyone before; Haiji knows this about him, and doesn’t push for anything more than chaste, something Kakeru could back out of if he felt the need. Kakeru exhales through his nose, trying not to trip over the thought of just how soft Haiji can be when they’re alone, trying not to scare him away. Haiji’s hmm ’s, lips buzzing faintly, warm against Kakeru’s own, welcoming Kakeru somewhere that he isn’t entirely sure he should be allowed. They vacillate there, between there and the kitchen that surrounds them.
Haiji removes himself enough to speak, eyes heavy, the sage smile now something new and exciting. The presence in Kakeru’s stomach is somersaulting, tripping, falling.
“I hope that didn’t surprise you,” Haiji’s voice is quiet, a secret between the two of them, another to add to the pile. “Can I do it again?”
This time, Kakeru minds the gap, inching closer to Haiji in his entirety. Their noses bump, Kakeru nearly steps on Haiji’s toes, and Haiji all but grins against Kakeru’s mouth. He knows better than to think this means that Haiji is unimpressed, but Kakeru cuts this one short all the same, ducking his head in the most mild fit of embarrassment. Haiji doesn’t question him; he understands.
Laughter finds them from upstairs, followed by the sound of the twin’s door opening. Jota exclaims to the quiet house that he’s on the hunt for beer, happy-go-lucky in turning it into a song that he sings to himself, taking the stairs slowly.
“No rush,” Haiji reminds him, the hand on his wrist squeezing just barely once, twice, before he returns his attention to the last of their dishes. There’s a towel in Kakeru’s hands as Jota enters the kitchen, covering for him before Kakeru can think to do so himself. He reminds Kakeru softly, “It’s okay,”
Jota fills his arms with all that he can carry, flitting around the co-captains like an anxious bee, and whistling jauntily to himself, none the wiser. He calls back for Kakeru and Haiji to hurry up, join the party, and disappears toward the stairs once more. They’re alone again before Kakeru manages to wrangle his heartbeat. Haiji’s smile, all-knowing, welcoming beside Kakeru in the barest of afterglow… Kakeru believes him.