It's a couple months after the summer training camp that Haiji catches Kakeru completely off guard, upending his worldview with the simplest of sentences.
They're on their way back to the dorm from Tsuru-no-yu. The others walk ahead of them, as usual; this is the one rare time when Kakeru brings up the rear, limbs loose and relaxed and more than a little heavy with comfort after the long soak in the unbearable hot water. Haiji always stays behind with him, and they often talk about training and schedules, or they walk in companionable silence.
But today, as they make their way down the darkened road in the chilly fall air, outer layers pulled close around them for warmth, Haiji says,
"I heard someone in Aotake has a crush on you."
It takes Kakeru a long moment to respond, because he doesn't process what was said right away. Then he does, and his feet stutter to a stop in tandem with his brain, which sputters in abject confusion, before giving up on the concepts of both walking and thinking as a whole.
Haiji does not stop walking. He does, however, glance over his shoulder to give Kakeru the sort of smile he cannot stand, because it means Haiji is planning on being infuriating.
"There's rumors," he says, "floating about."
Kakeru forces himself to jog to catch up. "You're not—you're joking."
"Why would I joke about something like this?" Haiji asks, eyes wide.
"Why would you tell me?"
"I thought you deserved to know!" Haiji says. "As the object of someone's affections!"
"Who is it then?" Kakeru demands.
"I can't expose them," Haiji says, frowning. "That wouldn't be meaningful."
"Then why did you say anything at all?" Kakeru hisses. He glares at Haiji. Haiji smiles serenely back.
"So that you can figure it out," he says, and then sighs contentedly, looking up at the stars. "And seize your chance at happiness."
Kakeru squints at him doubtfully, before turning to look at the backs of their teammates. He contemplates it for a moment. One of them has a crush on him…
He shakes his head. "No. You must have heard wrong, Haiji-san."
"What makes you say that?" Haiji asks.
Kakeru shrugs. "There's no reason for anyone to have a crush on me."
In the last few months, especially after the training camp at Lake Shirakaba, they've all gotten much closer—as teammates, and as friends. Kakeru truly doesn't know what he'd have done—what he'd be doing—without the nine men he spends almost the entirety of his time with. He does care about each of them a lot.
But he knows himself, and he knows he's not a very good candidate for anybody to get a crush on, of all things. He knows he's awkward, poor at social cues (getting better, though), tragically unfunny, has trouble keeping his emotions in check. They all know that about him, too. They accept all those things about him, which is great, and he's forever thankful.
But who in their right mind could manage to develop a crush on that combination of dysfunction?
He looks at Haiji. Haiji beams back at him, and Kakeru swallows, looking away.
There's no way anybody has a crush on him, he's sure of that.
Haiji, as always, does not let Kakeru's reticence deter him. "I can help you figure out who it is, if you want."
Kakeru sighs. "I don't really see the point."
Haiji has the nerve to laugh. "Maybe you will."
Haiji-san is relentless when he thinks he's right about something, which he obviously does in this case.
"Maybe it's one of the twins," he murmurs in Kakeru's ear out of the blue one evening when they've all gathered in the twins' room. Kakeru nearly spits out his drink. Haiji had been nowhere near him, where did he come from?
"It's—are you crazy?" Kakeru hisses. Haiji stares back at him blankly. "The twins like Hana-chan, you know that. Everyone knows that."
"That doesn't mean they can't like you," Haiji says. He absently piles more food onto Kakeru's plate as he explains. "They both admire you most, I think. And they're always trying to catch you smiling."
"That's because they're annoying," Kakeru grumbles. He takes a sip of his drink, shoulders hunched. "They don't—why would they admire me most? I'm not cool, like Nico-senpai, or good with girls like Yuki-san, and they say I have crappy taste in manga—"
"Because you're serious," Haiji says. He's still speaking right in Kakeru's ear, and even though it's embarrassing, Kakeru can't figure out why he doesn't want to move away.
"The twins are anything but serious," he says.
"Exactly," Haiji murmurs. "Your curry's getting cold." Kakeru dutifully shoves another spoonful into his mouth. "The twins want to be serious about something for the sake of it, and I think watching you run has helped them learn how to be."
Haiji pokes Kakeru's cheek where it bulges full of rice. "It's helped all of us. Even me."
"Haiji-san," Kakeru says, "none of us were as serious about this as you."
Haiji grins. "No… but, you made me realize I have to be thankful. About having all of you to take it seriously with me."
Kakeru wipes his mouth with a napkin, which is why he has no earthly idea how the twins both let out simultaneous yells of, "He's smiling, isn't he?! Kakeru, was that a smile?"
They mob him with their too long arms and too exuberant affections, and Haiji makes himself scarce to avoid getting caught in the onslaught. He does smile mischievously at Kakeru, who shakes his head in dismay. Neither of the twins, he is sure, have a crush on him, because they're like this with everyone.
But it's nice, to hear about what they saw in him that made them want to run with him.
They're in the middle of practice, half the group running around the track in a timed sprint, when Haiji glides by Kakeru in the middle of his stretches and says, "Maybe it's King."
"Haiji-san," Kakeru scolds, after he has picked himself up from where he nearly face planted in the grass in shock. "Stop sneaking up on me."
"I'm not sneaking," Haiji protests, in the voice of a man who is deliberately and constantly sneaking.
"You are, that's the face you always make when you're—anyway, King-san?"
"It's a possibility," Haiji says.
"It is not a possibility," Kakeru says. "We rarely even talk!"
"He tells me you ask him a lot of questions about all the trivia answers he knows," Haiji says.
Well… that was sort of true. It had started not long after Haiji had been sick, and Kakeru had started taking an active interest in the rest of the team. Understanding manga had helped with Prince; the same had held true of King, in a different way. They still hadn't managed to make him straighten up his form—but King took more of an interest in running when he felt like someone was taking more of an interest in him.
Haiji is starting to smile in that irritatingly smug way of his, so Kakeru shakes his head, looking to head him off.
"I was trying to make conversation," Kakeru says. "King-san prefers talking to Shindo and Musa."
"Still," Haiji says, "he thinks you're a good listener, which is a good quality!"
"I think a lot of people would say I'm not a very good listener," Kakeru says.
"No… you're stubborn," Haiji counters. "And you let people know if you disagree with them. But you do hear the things people say."
"I… try," Kakeru mumbles. He does. He's a sociology major for a reason; because he's always felt like he wants to understand people better than his current capacity, which is almost zero.
"It always feels that way for me," Haiji confides. "Take it from me, a terrible listener."
His words make Kakeru do a double take. "You're not."
Haiji laughs. "After everything I've put you through, you can still say that?"
"Yes," Kakeru says firmly. "It's not that you're a terrible listener, Haiji-san, it's that you listen too well."
Whenever Kakeru tells Haiji something, Haiji always seems to manage to pick it apart, find the things Kakeru wants to say, means to say, and then turns it back around on him. He keeps taking Kakeru's resistance born of insecurities and dissolving them to suit his own purposes; namely, making Kakeru run. Perhaps Kakeru should mind, but he doesn't.
Maybe it's not that Kakeru is such a great listener (he thinks that's probably bullshit), but more that Haiji is good at saying things he needs to hear.
"It's definitely not King-san," he says, getting ready to line up for his sprint.
Haiji sighs. "Hmm, maybe not. We'll keep trying!"
Kakeru shakes his head, and resolves to become a worse listener for the foreseeable future.
Kakeru catches the door with his foot as he comes out of Shindo's room, remembering to ask just in time, "Shindo-san, is green tea okay? Do you want something stronger?"
Yuki calls back from inside, "I do! Beer!"
"I meant caffeine!" Kakeru huffs.
"Green tea is perfect," Shindo says with a laugh. "Thank you."
Juggling the tray and cups, Kakeru lets the door shut, turns, and nearly runs directly into Haiji.
"How long have you been standing there—"
"I was just passing by," Haiji says easily. He looks at the tray in Kakeru's hands. "Tea for Shindo?"
"And Yuki," Kakeru adds, "and Musa."
Haiji hums, and doesn't say anything more. Then he hums again, louder. Kakeru exhales, also loudly.
"Nothing!" Haiji says.
"What were you thinking?"
"That you are a very good kouhai."
"You were thinking about this crush thing again, weren't you," Kakeru says. He doesn't need to hear Haiji's answer or see his face to know he's right, so he turns and heads downstairs to start boiling the water.
"If I was, it's only because I'm wondering what you think," Haiji says, as he follows Kakeru into the kitchen.
"I think," Kakeru says, shaking his head, "that he doesn't have a crush on me. I don't think anyone does."
Haiji clicks his tongue. "Even when you so diligently help him…"
This makes Kakeru smile, a little bit. "I don't, though. This is as much as I can do, he's the one who does so much for us."
"He told me you said the team can't keep going without him," Haiji murmurs.
Kakeru turns faster than he means to, nearly burning his hand on the stove. "He—he told you that?"
"Mmm," Haiji nods. "You told him that when he needed to hear it most. You're surprisingly good with people, Kakeru."
His words might have that familiar teasing lilt to them, but he means them. Kakeru ducks his head, blinking at the floor.
"He works really hard," he says.
Haiji leans against the counter next to him. "So do you. That's why it meant so much."
The kettle starts to whistle so Kakeru busies himself with pouring out the tea, because he's not sure what to say to that. He's just glad he said what he did back then, and he's glad it means something now.
"Have you considered Nico-chan?"
The question makes Kakeru actually snort. "No, I have not considered Nico-chan-senpai."
Haiji rubs his chin, then goes back to chopping vegetables. "Maybe you're right. You're a bad influence on him."
"Huh?" Kakeru says, incredulous. "Me? How?"
"Yuki said you corrupted him," Haiji informs him impishly. "That you motivated Nico-chan too much."
Kakeru rolls his eyes. "We were both being dumb back then, and you know it."
Haiji grins. "Yes! I do. But maybe he was so eager to listen to you because of his innermost feelings—ah, Kakeru, no!"
His smug proclamations are cut off when Kakeru grabs the nearest utensil—spatula—and menaces him with it, causing Haiji to abandon his post to avoid getting whacked. He returns with a pout, which Kakeru ignores, even if it is stupidly cute. Kakeru tries to make it a habit of solidly ignoring Haiji any time he is acting "cute."
"It's not a bad thing you gave him a reason to want to run," Haiji says.
"I don't think it is," Kakeru agrees, "but he wanted to run already, anyway. I could tell."
"Like I could tell with you," Haiji says with a smile.
Kakeru huffs. "I mean, he doesn't have any feelings for me because of it. He probably thinks I'm immature."
Haiji shakes his head. "I doubt that."
"Well, he likes Yuki well enough."
This makes them both start laughing out loud, and then neither of them can look Yuki in the eye at dinner without bursting into giggles, leaving the rest of the team baffled.
It's not Musa, either, no matter what Haiji says.
"You knew where Tanzania was."
Kakeru rules this out on the basis that knowledge of basic geography has probably never been a factor in wooing anybody.
"You take baths together in the dark."
That's… true and maybe harder to explain, but actually makes Kakeru even more sure. Things have never felt the slightest bit romantic or charged between them, even once. It's just a nice place to talk, oddly enough.
"He's drawn to your kindness."
Kakeru has the hardest time swallowing this reasoning. He doesn't see himself as a particularly nice or kind person. His default mode of problem solving tends to be trying to punch the problem.
"There's different types of kindness," Haiji clarifies when Kakeru says as much, "yours is a bit more, uh, explosive."
"Breaking someone's nose is not very kind," Kakeru says. They're walking back from the market together, and it's evening, the sky rosy. By the time they return, they'll have to head back out again on their nightly run, but Kakeru doesn't mind this sense of always being on the move. Besides, he likes these walks they go on together, even if Haiji does use them to pose ridiculous questions, sometimes.
"Defending someone else is kind," Haiji says. "So is standing up for our team when it's being insulted."
"It's selfish," Kakeru mutters. "I don't think things through. I mess things up for other people." He bends down to scratch Nira's ears, since he's not sure what else to do.
"I think what no one thinks about, as much," Haiji says, "is that before any of that, you don't stop to consider the consequences to yourself. It's you who has the most to lose—your team, your friends, your sport. But you do it anyway, because you don't like seeing people get hurt. And I see that as kindness."
Kakeru doesn't realize his mouth has fallen open until Haiji pops his fingers under his chin, surprising him into closing it. He's never thought about it that way before. Maybe no one has, before Haiji.
Haiji shoots him a lopsided grin, before ambling away. "Besides," he throws over his shoulder, "don't people think having a protective boyfriend is sort of sexy?"
Kakeru's face burns. "H-Haiji-san!"
Embarrassed or not, it doesn't stop him from running after his captain.
By far the most mortifying moment of Kakeru's life is when Yuki catches Haiji in the act of trying to convince Kakeru that the bespectacled upperclassman must be interested in him.
"He has a soft spot for you, definitely," Haiji says. They're in the kitchen, late after everyone else has retired for the evening, heads bent together over the new training schedule Haiji has written up.
"Yuki-senpai has a soft spot for everyone," Kakeru murmurs, distracted as he looks at some of the numbers. "He just pretends he doesn't, and we all humor him."
"That's true," Haiji agrees. "But I definitely think his Kurahara Soft Spot is bigger than it is for, say, the twins."
"That's because I don't antagonize him," Kakeru says.
"Or," Haiji says, snapping his fingers like he's just thought of something brilliant, "it's because he's into you."
"Or," Kakeru counters, "you could be a normal person for once and realize that he isn't."
"So negative, Kakeru," Haiji sighs. "I definitely think Yuki could have a crush on you!"
"Since you're so sure someone does, you could just tell me—"
"Who do I have a crush on, now?" comes a third voice entering the conversation, and Kakeru looks over to see it's Yuki and nearly perishes of embarrassment on the spot.
"Ah, Yuki!" Haiji greets him. "You're still up?"
"Had to take a piss—did you just say…" Yuki looks back and forth between the two of them. Kakeru attempts to fold his entire body in on itself, making himself as small as possible.
"Hmm?" Haiji asks with a benign smile. It's terrifying.
"Did you just say I have a crush on Kakeru?" Yuki asks, in a tone of voice that seems to suggest he's sure he heard incorrectly.
"No, no," Haiji says with a laugh.
Kakeru breathes a silent sigh of relief.
"I just said you could have a crush on Kakeru."
The smack sound of Kakeru's head hitting the table echoes in the quiet kitchen.
Yuki is silent for a very long time. Then he laughs.
"Me?" he asks. "You said I have a crush on Kakeru?"
Kakeru whips his head up. "I told him you don't!" Desperate to salvage the situation, he points at Yuki and says, "Yuki-senpai likes people who are cute! He told me so himself!"
"Holy shit—" Yuki can't finish his sentence for laughing—he has to lean against the wall to stay upright. "I'm not laughing for the reason you think I am!"
"Huh?" Kakeru says. "Why—"
"Just, this guy," Yuki wheezes, "saying I'm the one with a crush…"
Kakeru stares between him, and Haiji, and back. "What does he mean?"
"Who knows?" Haiji says breezily.
"Yes," Yuki says, "who knows. Don't take this the wrong way, Kakeru. You're very cute and I think it's very possible someone has a crush on you."
Kakeru gapes at him. "You—wait, what?"
"Goodnight, you two," Yuki says with a wave. "Don't stay up too late."
"Ah… Yuki truly is meddlesome," Haiji says, once he's gone. "Well, let's get back to work."
"It's late already, Kakeru."
No matter how curious he is about whatever just happened, Kakeru decides not to point out that it was Haiji's meddling that kickstarted the distraction in the first place.
When Haiji brings up Prince, Kakeru isn't that surprised. This one, he actually understands.
He's heading into his room one evening when Haiji exits his and they nearly bump right into each other.
"Sorry," Kakeru says, fumbling with the stack of manga he's carrying.
"Not your fault," Haiji says, smiling. "Another reading session?"
Kakeru nods. He and Prince have started a new series, and the current arc they're on is very intense. It makes it hard to put down the books in order to go to bed on time.
"Don't you think," Haiji says, tapping his chin, "it could be Prince who has a crush on you?"
Kakeru is prepared for this. "We're just friends, Haiji-san."
"But," Haiji says insistently, "you two hang out a lot. And you're the one who's helped him the most."
It's true that Kakeru and Prince have gotten a lot closer since they actually started getting along, and after Haiji, Prince is probably the person in Aotake that Kakeru spends the most time with.
Plus, there's the sports anime obsession, and Prince has outright called Kakeru an "annoying shonen protagonist" before. Prince tends to like those kinds of characters.
"You see?" Haiji prods Kakeru.
Kakeru considers. "Maybe."
Haiji's trademark look of naive curiosity vanishes, replaced by surprise. "Yeah?"
"He makes the most sense," Kakeru admits. "I think. Although I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have told you about it…"
"Right," Haiji says. He blinks at Kakeru. "So… if he liked you, would you…"
Kakeru blinks back. "Would I what?"
They stare at each other.
"Reciprocate?" Haiji finally says.
"Oh—" Kakeru realizes, and immediately feels his cheeks start to burn. "Haiji-san!"
"I—don't know!" Kakeru says, hushing his voice at the last second. "I don't… know, I've never thought about it. About this kind of thing."
"Ah," Haiji says. "Well—isn't that why we're doing this?"
"Trying to figure it out. So you can think about it."
"That's what you wanted," Kakeru reminds him, because Haiji is historically not the best at acknowledging that his wishes aren't universal. "I just—I think me and Prince are just friends, too."
"Oh," Haiji says. Then, "Are you… sure?"
"Yes!" Kakeru tells him. "Why are you acting so—so weird about this?"
Not that Haiji doesn't often act weird. It's just that he usually drops his matchmaking overtures fairly quickly when Kakeru deems one path unfeasible, instead of pushing, like he is now.
"I'm not acting weird, I'm just curious," Haiji says.
"You're acting weird."
Haiji huffs a laugh. "Alright, then. I guess I just… thought you might."
"Might what?" Kakeru asks.
"Prince," Haiji says.
A weird silence settles over the two of them. Kakeru frowns.
"No… I think maybe you've always been reading too much into this." He glances at Haiji. "Did you ever really know that someone liked me? Or was it just a guess?"
Haiji swallows. "I… knew. I know."
Kakeru sighs. "Well, I have no idea who it could be. Sorry. If that's disappointing."
"It's not," Haiji says quickly. "I don't think you've ever disappointed me."
It's so different, when Haiji lets his pride show—nothing like it was before, on his old team. For all Haiji's laser focus on Hakone (and fair amount of twisting all their arms to get there), it never feels like Kakeru is a means to an end. He really feels like Haiji sees something amazing in him that has nothing to do with running.
He's flushing again, but it's not an embarrassed thing this time. Or, it kind of is, but not entirely. He's not sure what to do about it, so he awkwardly bows, and retreats into his room.
In the darkness, he lies on his futon and stares up at his familiar, much stared at ceiling. Has he really not disappointed Haiji this time? It really seemed like he was after something, this time, with Prince. It was the only time he'd asked Kakeru directly how he felt in return. Maybe it was because there was nobody else left. Prince was the last member to think about. Even after all the reasons Haiji had given Kakeru for why somebody would like him, it still didn't add up.
Besides, Haiji was the one saying all that stuff, not his teammates. Maybe Haiji saw it that way, but it was no guarantee anyone else did.
Kakeru squints at the crumbling plaster above him.
Maybe Haiji… sees something…
The plaster does not give him any answers.
But… Prince was the last…
Ten seconds later, he's barging into Haiji's room. Haiji, lying facedown on his futon, rolls over to look at him, bewildered.
"There's one person we haven't thought of, yet," Kakeru says.
"Oh?" Haiji looks at him, eyebrows raised. "Who?"
Kakeru crosses the room to sit cross legged next to Haiji's futon. Perhaps sensing his seriousness, Haiji sits up as well, facing him. Kakeru balls his hands into fists on his knees. His heart is in his mouth, but there's really no other option he can see.
"Haiji-san," he says gravely, "do you have a crush on me?"
Haiji stares at him wordlessly, and for a second, for a second, he regrets. He looks away, opens his mouth to say, nevermind, forget it, but the words stick and won't come out. Shit.
"Didn't I tell you?" Haiji asks. Kakeru meets his eyes again, wondering what he can say, and Haiji smiles. "You never disappoint me."
Haiji shuffles closer, until their knees are touching. Kakeru can't look away from him.
"If I said yes," Haiji says, "would you still have to think about it?"
"You're the worst," Kakeru finally manages to say, voice strangled. "You're an idiot, why are you like this—"
Haiji kisses him. Very, very softly—Kakeru could lean back a centimeter and break their connection.
He doesn't, of course. He has never been able to pull away from Haiji.
"You sounded like you were asking if I'm dying," Haiji murmurs. His lips twitch like he's about to laugh, which Kakeru can feel, because they're so close. They're so close.
"Shut up," is Kakeru's immediate response, to keep from coming apart entirely. "Why didn't you just tell me?"
"You accused me of joking when I said someone had a crush on you!" Haiji says, suddenly very affronted. "You thought my feelings were a joke."
"I didn't!" Kakeru yelps, before processing that for a moment. Haiji's feelings. For him. Haiji is teasing him, he knows, but Haiji also has feelings about and for him. He can't deal with this. He can't deal with the way Haiji's hand drifts to the back of his neck, touch light but warm.
"You did say there was no reason for anyone to like you," Haiji adds. "I thought maybe I could make you realize that's not true, first." He bumps his forehead into Kakeru's. "You're always so determined to rule yourself out before you even start. How are you ever going to win a marathon with that attitude?"
"It's not the same thing," Kakeru protests. He leans closer to Haiji so he doesn't have to speak loudly to be heard. "I know I can run. I didn't know—someone, or—or you, liking me, I didn't…"
Haiji's fingers slide into his hair, still warm, still light, still there. "It's me, Kakeru. I'm the one who likes you."
"Okay," Kakeru mumbles.
"Is it?" Haiji asks, laughing kindly. "Do you reciprocate?"
It's not hard to guess Kakeru's answer. Clearly it never has been, which is exasperating, all things considered.
He's glad Haiji always makes things so difficult.
"Yeah," he says. "I think I do."
Haiji's fingers keep stroking the back of his neck, the base of his hairline where it's cropped close. "Good," he says, still smiling. "Hey, you know something?"
"We forgot to consider someone."
Kakeru blinks at him. "Who?"
Haiji shoots him a winning grin. "Coach Taizaki—mmph!"
There's a lot of new info for Kakeru to take in, but at that very moment it seems like there's no other choice than to shut Haiji up by kissing him again. This might have been Haiji's plan in the first place; but Haiji's plans tend to turn out alright for Kakeru in the end.
So for now, he'll seize his chance and follow along.