A week after the Ekiden, not much is different at Chikusei-so. Kakeru expects the motivation to decline, the withdrawal from the high of running in the long-distance relay to settle in. With the chilly January air turning warm as February approaches, and their focus naturally shifts to final exams, it’s easy for him to expect the slow separation of the team.
But it doesn’t come.
If anything, running the Ekiden makes the team stronger, more open with one another, willing to communicate. They run together, eat together, study together. It’s like the Ekiden never happened. And yet, it did, and that experience is what still links them so strongly to one another.
Over the course of the past year, Kakeru knew he could trust his teammates, but the moments after their return home to Aotake is when he truly feels like they are a family.
Not much is different after the Ekiden, but it certainly isn’t the same.
Kakeru’s grateful that he gets along with his teammates, that he’s made friends with them. He’s grateful that they have a guarantee to return to Hakone next year—to return to the stage that’s made him feel like he has a definitive place in this world.
But he’s not truly happy and he doesn’t think he can be; not yet, anyway.
Life is as close to normal as it can get, but there’s a noticeable lack in energy without Haiji to run them into shape. It’s not a permanent change, but it might as well be. Haiji’s a fourth year and graduating in April, and Kakeru’s still got three more years to go before he can follow in Haiji’s footsteps.
He’d drop out of school if it meant seeing Haiji more often, but he can almost picture Haiji’s horrified look and the twins’ shrieks of protest at being left as the only remaining first-years of the Kansei Ekiden team. Kakeru doesn’t think he’s essential to the track team, but the rest of them do and if there’s one thing he can’t bring himself to be, it is a disappointment.
After all, without Haiji the rest of the team would have never made it to where they had and Kakeru refuses to overturn that dedication. He still doesn’t think it’s fair that things are the way they are, but Haiji’s strong-willed and stubborn; he puts on a happy face and tries to convince them that he’s perfectly content just having gotten to run with the rest of them, even if his prospects for running again are meagre at best.
It’s hard to really believe that though when Haiji can barely walk and needs crutches to get around. He still tries to cook for them, even with one shot knee but he’s promptly ushered out of the kitchen by Musa and babysat in a locked room by Yuki.
He complains the whole time. Hell, he even tries to bribe Yuki to let him out but after the first time, his tactic is no longer efficient.
Kakeru offers to watch Haiji instead—wants to spend time with Haiji because he’s only here for a week after the Ekiden—but Yuki puts a stop to that before it even reaches a discussion.
“Absolutely not,” he says firmly.
“Why?” Kakeru asks, annoyance flaring up.
“Hah. You’re the easiest target of us all,” he laughs.
“No I’m not,” Kakeru insists. “You don’t even want to watch him,” he adds.
Yuki raises an eyebrow as if to ask if that’s the best insult Kakeru can come up with. Kakeru flushes under his gaze, but doesn’t say anything else.
“One week until his surgery,” Yuki reminds. “We are not messing this up.”
Kakeru takes offence to the insinuation that somehow he’ll mess up Haiji’s chances of recovery. If anything, he wants Haiji to get better more than the rest of them. But the thought is unfair, and he’s quick to realize it so he settles his anger and treks up to Prince’s room to read as a distraction.
That first week after the Ekiden is simultaneously the longest and shortest week of his life. He sees Haiji, but he doesn’t really get to spend time with him. Haiji’s penchant for doing any and all tasks around the house means he can’t be left alone and Kakeru both hates that Haiji’s always got a supervisor watching his every move and grateful, because at least it prevents him from saying something stupid right before Haiji leaves.
When Haiji does leave, Kakeru realizes he would have been happier off if he said what was on his mind. The only hope he has remaining is that Haiji’s room is still filled with most of his belongings and that he’ll hopefully get a second chance.
For a week, Kakeru’s sulking is justified. The rest of the house is solemn too, without Haiji’s sunny smile to light it up. But as the second week comes and goes, his friends start to pick up their rhythm.
Responsible as ever, Shindo takes over the cooking, Musa helping where he can. King resumes his job search during the day, and Joji and Jota finally get to play soccer again.
Nico-chan spends the early hours of the morning focused on finishing his final projects so he can actually graduate this year, Yuki’s club life becomes active again, Prince’s manga club duties resume.
They still run daily, in preparation for next year’s Ekiden, for those of them who will be there to participate. But everyone has other things to do, places to be. Kakeru feels like he’s the only one who is stuck in a moment that’s long since passed, and he can’t give it up.
So he swallows his misery and mopes in the traditional way: by silently reminiscing on all the good times he spent with Haiji. But even he has a limit, and unfortunately, his threshold when it comes to Haiji is remarkably low.
Kakeru doesn’t adap well. He never has and doesn’t expect to this time around, but it’s still sucks when he can’t.
He misses Haiji’s overbearing presence, the way he always knew what to say or when to not say anything at all. Kakeru misses his cooking, the gentle way he pours his tea, how his face glows pink after a few too many glasses of sake. He misses their runs together, walking Nira with him, coming home early to cook and staying up late to help clean.
Most of all though, he just misses Haiji.
And he hates that he seems like the only one who does.
“Don’t any of you miss him?” Kakeru asks angrily one night over dinner.
He’s not loud, but the room stills in an instant. The smiles start to slip into awkwardness, but Kakeru holds his gaze and refuses to back off. Why is it so easy for everyone to act like Haiji isn’t here?
“Kakeru…” Shindo starts.
“No,” Kakeru shakes his head. “Don’t tell me that I need to move on, or that everything is going to be okay, or that I have my own life to live!”
Shindo backs down, hands dropping to his side. He lowers his gaze, and although Kakeru should feel embarrassed for disrespecting his senpai, he doesn’t. He will later tonight when he’s trying to sleep, but it’s hard to remember the politeness when he’s frustrated and riding high on emotions.
“He’s not dead,” Prince says quietly.
Someone gasps—probably Musa—but Kakeru ignores the sudden murmur in the room.
He turns his head to face Prince, eyes burning. “I didn’t say he was,” Kakeru bites back bitterly.
“Then quit acting like it. You make it sound like we don’t care but you’re the only one who doesn’t care. Do you think Haiji would want you to put your life on hold for him?” Prince continues. “It’s annoying.”
“Prince,” King hisses.
Prince just shrugs and doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t have to say anything else, because as much as Kakeru hates to be called out like this, Prince is right. He won’t admit it right now—or ever, probably—but his silence speaks volumes, anyway.
Kakeru balls his hands into fists, fingernails digging deep into his palms. His dinner is only half-eaten but he’s lost his appetite. Despite Nico’s protests, he gets up and retreats to his room.
Maybe things are different after all.
The morning after his minor outburst, there’s an obvious elephant in the room wherever he is. Everyone except for Prince and Yuki walk on eggshells around him. Kakeru knows they’re trying to be patient, but the nicer they are to him, the worse his mood gets.
As if sensing that Kakeru is nearing his limit, Haiji calls. Kakeru’s in class when he does, having forgotten to mute his ringer that morning. He frustratedly tries to cancel the call but his hearts stops when he sees Haiji’s name on his screen. Ignoring his professor’s protests, Kakeru grabs his backpack and runs out of the class to a secluded area in the corner where he can actually talk to Haiji in silence.
“Hello?” Kakeru answers.
His voice is almost shaky, and he doesn’t know why he’s so nervous. He can’t remember if he’s always been like this, but that can’t be right.
Briefly, Kakeru recalls the feeling of Haiji’s arm around him, the weight of his tired body, moments away from collapsing, sprawled over Kakeru’s shoulder. He can practically feel Haiji’s body heat; the exhaustion and tiredness from having running 20 km on adrenaline and painkillers alone finally kicking in.
That moment won’t leave his mind. The one right before, of seeing Haiji run towards him and only him, doesn’t help either.
Kakeru knows it’s what makes him so nervous now because he knows how he feels about Haiji.
“Kakeru? Kakeru? Hello… Kakeru!”
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru breathes out.
“Oh, hi,” Haiji smiles. “I thought I got the wrong number for a second. I’ve never had to call internationally before… thought I was putting in the wrong area code,” Haiji chuckles.
“No, it’s me,” Kakeru answers.
Stupid—of course it’s him. Kakeru’s face turns pink but Haiji just laughs like he’s told the funniest joke.
“How are you?” Haiji asks.
“I should be asking you that. How’d your surgery go?”
He doesn’t want to tell Haiji how he really is and if he lies, Haiji will know and press him. But he does truly care about Haiji’s health; it’s more important than his, anyway.
Haiji’s first surgery back in high school was in Japan, but after a trip to the doctor’s office, he was told that a second, same procedure wouldn’t cut it. A re-tear in his ACL was bad enough, but this time around he also tore his meniscus. There were only a handful of surgeons around the world capable of performing the required arthroscopic surgery necessary for recovery.
With Fujioka’s fame and connections, and Haiji’s own father’s reputation of grooming high-level athletes ready for university track, it was settled that he’d go to America this time around.
“Eh,” Haiji hums. “It went.”
“Did something happen?” Kakeru asks nervously.
“No,” Haiji chuckles. “I just don’t like being cooped up in a bed all day. I could have been doing that at home,” he jokes, recalling the week he spent at Chikusei-so after the Ekiden.
“Sorry,” Kakeru apologizes.
“Why? It’s not like it’s your fault. I know you’d have let me at least go to the bathroom alone. Do you know how weird it was to have Yuki stare at me the whole time?” Haiji shudders.
Kakeru’s lips twitch in a smile. Leave it to Haiji to make light of any situation. His optimism is admirable, but Kakeru’s chest is still tight knowing there wasn’t anything that he could do to help—that he still can’t do anything to help.
“Kakeru? Is this a bad time? Are you busy?” Haiji asks.
“No!” Kakeru says quickly.
He doesn’t want Haiji to hang up. It’s been so long since he’s heard his voice that this brief conversation isn’t enough. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Kakeru knows that nothing will ever be enough, but he stores that thought for another time.
“What time is it? Sorry, I should have done the time conversion before,” Haiji apologizes sheepishly.
Kakeru checks his watch. “9:30 am.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” Haiji laughs.
“Yes, but you’re more important.”
Haiji’s silent for a moment. Kakeru bites his tongue, wishing he could take back what he just said, but there’s no use. Haiji is more important and he doesn't want to lie to him anymore. He’s never wanted to lie to Haiji, but the fear of rejection aside, it’s the fear of solitude that keeps Kakeru from doing what he truly wants.
“Thanks, Kakeru,” Haiji says, “but you should think of yourself as the most important person in your life.”
“Isn’t that a little selfish?” Kakeru retorts.
“No, it’s what you deserve,” Haiji responds firmly.
It’s not fair that Haiji can say the right thing at every moment. Kakeru’s heart swells at his words. He’s not quite sure if it’s what he deserves, but at least it’s what Haiji thinks he deserves and for now, that’s good enough.
“Sorry I didn't call earlier. Let everyone back at the house know I’m doing okay, will you?” Haiji smiles.
“Are you hanging up because I should be in class?” Kakeru asks, disappointed.
“No,” Haiji laughs. “I’m on some pretty strong painkillers and they’re about to knock me out. It’s almost bedtime here.”
Kakeru almost asks if Haiji will call him again, maybe video chat the next time so he can actually see Haiji’s face and gauge for himself if he’s doing okay. But he’s too scared to make the first move and he resigns himself, like he always seems to do around Haiji.
“Don’t sound so sad. I’ll be home in a few weeks,” Haiji confirms.
Kakeru perks up at the new information. “You will?”
“Yes, but keep it a secret for me, okay? I want to surprise the guys.”
“Call me, then,” Kakeru bargains.
“If you want me to keep it a secret, you have to call me. Not every day but uh, call me…” Kakeru says awkwardly, losing his confidence the longer he speaks.
Maybe it’s the acknowledgement that he doesn’t want to constantly be one step behind that pushes him to actually ask for what he wants, but he still can’t believe he said those words aloud. Kakeru squeezes the his phone tightly in his hand, heart hammering in his chest as he waits for Haiji’s response.
He expects to be brushed off, for Haiji to turn the conversation to another topic. Haiji is good at not talking about what he wants but Kakeru owes that to his literature major. What he doesn’t expect is the answer he actually gets.
“Are you threatening me?” Haiji laughs loudly.
“I learned from the best,” Kakeru says weakly.
“Huh,” Haiji hums. “I can’t take all the credit. Looks like Prince has been teaching you something too.”
Kakeru flushes even though Haiji can’t see him. He’s become a better speaker over the past year, like he’s wanted to be, but Kakeru thinks Haiji’s done a lot more for him than he, himself believes. Reading the manga Prince lets him borrow has helped, but there’s no use in learning how to speak if he can’t speak like he wants to with the one person that matters. As unknowing as it may have been, Haiji’s let Kakeru practice more than he could have asked for.
“Is that a yes?” he presses.
“Yes,” Haiji confirms. “Just know you’ve now made a deal with the devil.”
“So you do admit to your demon status, then?” Kakeru smiles.
“Never,” Haiji chuckles. “I’ll call you again,” he promises, voice sleepy.
Kakeru waits for Haiji to hang up first, not sure he can bring himself to even move. When the line goes dead, he clutches his phone to his heart and tries to catch his breath. He feels like he’s just run the Ekiden all over again and he hasn’t even moved an inch since he rooted himself to the spot he’s in to answer Haiji’s call.
It takes longer than it should for his breathing to return to normal and by the time it does, class is over. Kakeru knows he’ll be in for a lecture from his professor tomorrow, but even that thought can’t ruin his day.
That evening, he returns home in a happier mood than he’s been since Haiji left. Hell, he’s happier than he’s been since the moments after the Ekiden was over and he was forced to accept the reality of Haiji’s injury.
Kakeru even apologizes to Prince over dinner that night, which is met with shouts of surprise. No one asks him why he’s suddenly had a change in heart, not wanting to tempt the good fate. He wouldn’t tell them even if they had because he made a promise to Haiji and that’s one promise he won’t break.
Good on his word, Haiji calls him again, the very next day in fact. Kakeru doesn’t expect to hear from him so soon but he can’t complain when Haiji’s name lights up his phone screen. This time, it’s after dinner for him and early morning for Haiji. The thirteen-hour time difference makes it hard to talk whenever they want but Kakeru will take what he can get.
He’s already in his room when Haiji calls, studying for his upcoming exams, so he doesn’t need to excuse himself from prying eyes and ears.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru greets.
His voice is a lot more confident than it was yesterday, but his fingers still twitch nervously.
“Hey, Kakeru,” Haiji replies. “Did I disturb you?”
“No,” Kakeru shakes his head. “I was just—”
He cuts himself off. If he admits he was studying, Haiji might hang up on him.
“Studying?” Haiji supplies.
Kakeru’s face twists uncomfortably. Apparently, there’s no point in lying to Haiji. Kakeru doesn’t know if he’s just predictable or if Haiji is just that good.
“I’m almost done!” Kakeru insists. “I know all my material and I can pass my classes!”
“Do well or just pass?” Haiji asks.
Kakeru hesitates. “Pass…” he admits, begrudgingly.
“You should think about doing better in your classes,” Haiji says lightly. “But I guess I’m one to talk. I haven’t done any of my studying either,” he admits.
“You’re studying too?” Kakeru asks, surprised.
He knows Haiji is graduating in April but for some reason, the fact doesn’t quite hit him until now. Just because he’s not going to class doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have to pass them. Kakeru would be lying if he said he didn’t have some kind of hope that Haiji’s exams might be pushed back, or that maybe he’d repeat the year like Nico-chan.
But then again, what else does Haiji have to do all day other than to study? Kakeru feels bad that he has so much free time, alone.
“I’m supposed to be studying,” Haiji corrects.
“So you can graduate?” Kakeru asks.
He opens the window for some fresh air, phone still in hand. February brings warmer weather to Aotake but it’s still chilly. Right then, Kakeru needs the jolt of the crisp air to ground him back to reality.
“Yes, that is the point of university: to graduate after four years,” Haiji hums.
Kakeru doesn’t acknowledge his statement or bother arguing menially than Nico-chan’s been around longer than that.
“Sounds like you’ll miss me,” Haiji teases lightly.
“Of course I’ll miss you,” Kakeru bites back.
It comes out angrier than he means for it to but Haiji just laughs, and Kakeru swallows down his apology. He’s torn between annoyance and delight; on one hand, Haiji is brushing his comment off, but on the other hand, at least he’s not reading into it.
The conversation turns towards the rest of the house and whether they’re still practicing, how they’re eating, whether they’ve had any arguments. It’s a good distraction from the thoughts eating at Kakeru’s mind, but it’s only temporary.
When Haiji finally hangs up, Kakeru’s left with embarrassment and regret. He told Haiji he’d miss him and he didn’t get any similar sentiment back.
Everything up till then has just been wishful thinking: after all, Kakeru knows he’s just an underclassman and Haiji has his whole life ahead of him—without him.
Kakeru doesn’t tell Haiji that he misses him again, but that doesn’t stop him from enthusiastically answering Haiji’s calls every day. If he only has a few weeks at best until they move on to different things, then he’ll savour what he can get.
He can almost hear Prince’s voice in his head, telling him that he’s being pathetic, but Kakeru ignores it; he even learns to ignore the yearning in his heart, if it means he can enjoy the sound of Haiji’s voice for that much longer.
Despite all the days they’ve been talking, Kakeru isn’t completely satisfied. Haiji will be home soon, even if it’s temporary, but he doesn’t know when.
“Haiji-san, when will you be back?” Kakeru asks, the first day of March.
Exams will start next week so Haiji has to be back soon. Unless he was lying about coming back at all, but Kakeru can’t bear to entertain that thought.
“Soon,” Haiji laughs.
It’s the answer he always gives, but Kakeru’s tired of hearing the same thing over and over again.
“That’s not good enough,” Kakeru says firmly.
“Oh? And why’s that?” Haiji asks. “Can’t be that you want to see me that badly?”
He phrases the question with enough confusion to make it seem like he doesn’t know. But his tone is too light, too teasing, for Kakeru to truly believe that Haiji has no idea.
The implication of the logic freezes Kakeru in his spot. He’s lucky he’s in his room and not in the common area where Joji and Jota have set up a group study session because his embarrassment is quite obvious.
“N-no,” Kakeru stutters. “That’s not—I’m not—shut up,” Kakeru hisses.
“Eh? That’s no way to talk to someone you miss,” Haiji teases.
“Who said I missed you?” Kakeru retorts.
Haiji snorts. “Pretty sure you did.”
Kakeru’s face turns impossibly redder. He hasn’t mentioned those words since the first time they slipped out but he should have expected that Haiji wouldn’t forget. His stomach drops a little at the teasing, and not just because it’s embarrassing, but because Haiji has to know how Kakeru feels and he still hasn’t made any effort to return the sentiment.
Truthfully, this is what Kakeru expected. He can’t say that knowing the outcome makes it hurt any less though.
“You’re awful,” Kakeru manages to choke out.
Haiji hums in agreement.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Kakeru reminds. He won’t be tricked into going off topic again. “When will you be home?”
“Come open the front door,” Haiji says simply.
“What?” Kakeru asks, annoyance disappearing in an instant. “You’re here? Now?”
He can’t have heard right and yet, Haiji’s telltale laugh that says nothing and everything in one gesture is exactly the answer he was looking for.
Kakeru forgets all his embarrassment in an instant. He’s so caught up in the moment that he doesn’t even greet Haiji a proper goodbye before he’s rushing out of his room, haphazardly throwing everything that’s in his way to the side so he can get to the front door.
He doesn’t know why Haiji wants him to open the door for him when Kakeru’s pretty sure he’s never even seen a lock on the door, but he doesn’t care when it’s been seven weeks since he last saw Haiji and now he’s here.
Kakeru half expects this to be a trick, but it isn’t. Haiji is clever but he’s not cruel. Standing there, in all his brightness and glory, Kakeru can’t find any emotion other than happiness.
“Haiji-san!” he shouts.
He reaches out for a hug but stops himself at the last minute, which brings him to awkwardly stand too close to Haiji, right in his personal bubble. But Haiji isn’t as awkward as Kakeru is and he freely reaches the arm that’s not supporting a crutch for Kakeru’s head. Haiji wraps his arm around Kakeru’s neck and pulls him in so quickly that Kakeru has to do his best not to stumble lest he takes Haiji down with him.
“Haiji? Is that you?”
Kakeru looks towards the house where Nico has his window open, head poking out as he looks for the man in question.
“It is you!” he shouts, laughter rumbling.
His voice carries through the rest of the house and within moments, everyone is outside, crowding around their absent housemate.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming back today? We’d have thrown you a party,” Nico chides.
“Don’t worry, I brought the party to you,” Haiji grins.
He jerks his head back behind him where three large grocery bags filled with nothing but alcohol sit. Kakeru doesn’t even want to know how Haiji managed to fly to Japan, go grocery shopping, and make it to Chikusei-so in twenty-four hours when they last spoke just yesterday.
“Yes!” King shouts, pumping his fist. “Party time!”
“Party time!” the twins bellow behind him.
They each take a bag in their hand and lead the way back into the house. The rest of them idle around Haiji, torn between setting up and making sure Haiji is comfortable. Kakeru watches as Haiji’s presence amplifies each and every person’s enthusiasm. He selfishly wishes that he could have had some time with Haiji to himself, but he has nothing to worry about. No matter how many people, Haiji doesn’t forget a single one.
“Come on, Kakeru,” he says, nudging Kakeru’s side to get him moving.
Kakeru nods, but follows behind, letting everyone else take up Haiji’s time. As much as he wants Haiji to himself, it’s unfair. He’s had nothing but Haiji to himself over the past month, even if it’s only been over the phone. Haiji’s everyone’s friend and they deserve him.
He deserve us too, Kakeru thinks, as Haiji is slowly escorted inside by the excited crowd. And then, I missed you.
Haiji looks good, despite his recent surgery. He has obvious trouble walking, which is no different from before he left for America, but at least his face isn’t twisted in pain at every step.
He uses one crutch to get around, as opposed to two, which is progress in Kakeru’s mind. But he doesn’t even bother going up the stairs. It’s a good thing his room is on the first floor, although it doesn’t mean that the rest of them don’t notice the way Haiji eyes the staircase hesitantly.
Kakeru expects Haiji to grow some bitterness: after all, it’s because of this team that his prospects for running again are low. But Haiji is just as Haiji’s always been: carefree, optimistics, kind.
He insists that it’s only been a month since his surgery and that he has a long road to recovery, including plenty of doctor’s appointments and physical therapy. His tone is light and he does a good job to make sure there’s no tension in the room, and once again, Kakeru’s left awed by Haiji’s ability to be so good with people.
Kakeru thinks it should have been the other way around—they should have been the ones getting Haiji something for his return—but he knows Haiji wouldn’t have wanted to make his coming back into a grand gesture.
It’s probably why he didn’t tell anyone when he was coming back, including Kakeru, not that Kakeru is strictly pleased with that.
For the moment though, he’s satisfied to enjoy a full house again. It’s 9 pm when Haiji arrives, dinner already having been completed by 7:30 pm, but with him, Haiji brings a whole new energy that settles deep in them all.
No one is stressing about exams, or jobs, or final projects; they’re only focused on Haiji and although Kakeru is slightly jealous of all the smiles Haiji is shining in everyone’s direction, he can’t help but feel as though Haiji deserves to be loved by them all.
Soon, there’s a second round of dinner. Shindo takes up his spot in the kitchen with Musa doing his best to do damage control. Shindo’s turned into a fairly good cook in Haiji’s absence but he’s easily the biggest lightweight of them all and his drunk cooking is a hazard to himself more than anyone else.
King turns the TV on, his beloved trivia games serving as background noise. Joji and Jota steal Haiji’s crutch, until Nico notices and puts an end to their shenanigans. Prince gets drunk enough to loudly recite his favourite manga confession scene off the top of the table until Yuki pulls him down.
By the time it’s 12 am, they’ve gone through all the alcohol, and Haiji hasn’t stopped smiling once. The high is starting to wind down, but the sleepy air is peaceful and Kakeru realizes his cheeks are tense because he hasn’t stopped smiling either.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Yuki states suddenly.
“Really?” Haiji laughs. “I thought you’d want me back the least considering you’re the most immune to my charms,” he winks.
If Haiji can make a joke out of needing to be watched, Kakeru hopes that means he can be trusted to take care of himself this time.
“I wouldn’t call it charm so much as blatant manipulation,” Yuki rolls his eyes. “And don’t act like we’re not friends all of a sudden. I missed you, you asshole,” he says defensively.
Haiji throws his hands up in surrender, but his eyes are crinkled and he laughs good naturedly.
“I’ll remember that you care so much the next time I need something from you,” Haiji grins.
“Don’t count on it,” Yuki snorts. “I may have missed you, but I’m mostly glad you’re back for Kakeru’s sake. He’s been so mopey and he always holes himself up in his room after dinner.”
Kakeru’s brief moment of happiness is cut short. His mouth drops open, protests dying in his throat at Yuki throwing him under the bus while the rest of the house bursts into loud laughter. Just like that, the sleepy air is replaced by a lively one.
“You’re right!” Joji remarks, sitting up from his spot on the futon. “We never noticed before but Kakeru doesn’t even study with us, right Jota?”
“We have different majors,” Kakeru grumbles.
“Eh, but we’ve got the same elective,” Jota points out.
“I don’t want to study with you,” Kakeru insists.
Why can’t they go back to Haiji talking about his time in New York? At least that way he can stare at Haiji freely without anyone noticing or commenting that it’s weird. Kakeru hates it when he’s the centre of attention, especially when he’s in a situation to be embarrassed in front of Haiji.
Of course, Haiji knows why Kakeru’s been in his room every night. Kakeru makes the mistake of looking to him for help and is met with crossed arms and a teasing smirk.
“Isn’t he always on the phone? I can hear him talking at the window,” Nico supplies unhelpfully.
Kakeru glares in his direction but he’s looking at Yuki for confirmation. Kakeru’s never hated the location of his room more than he does in that moment.
“Girlfriend?” Yuki smirks.
“Or boyfriend,” Haiji adds.
“Or boyfriend,” Yuki concedes.
Kakeru feels utterly betrayed. He can’t believe Haiji is on their side, that he’s even encouraging this behaviour when he knows that his suggestion is entirely untrue. Not that Kakeru would mind it if Haiji was his boyfriend but he doesn’t like being teased so mercilessly.
Given his predicament at controlling his emotions, Kakeru thinks he’s a good sport. His friends aren’t exactly making it easy for him to go along with the joke because his feelings are not a joke.
“Ehhh?” Shindo cries. “I get dumped for running too much, and Kakeru gets a girlfriend for the exact same reason?”
“Well, we don’t know if it is a girl yet,” Musa explains, trying to calm Shindo down.
He shoots Kakeru an apologetic look, which as far as Kakeru is concerned, is useless.
Joji and Jota bounce up and down, demanding to know an answer. Even Prince looks interested, hair pushed back in the way he only does when he’s serious.
“I don’t have a girlfriend!” Kakeru cries, exasperated.
“Boyfriend, then,” King nods to himself, like he’s just solved the biggest trivia question of them all.
“I don’t have a boyfriend either! It was Haiji-san!” Kakeru shouts, face red.
Kakeru’s embarrassment only heightens when his explanation is met with raucous laughter. Joji and Jota roll around on the floor, Prince covers his face in his knees and hiccups, Nico and King even have tears in their eyes. Kakeru doesn’t understand what’s so funny, but the longer the laughter remains, the worse his mood gets.
Haiji has the gall to look surprised by the information, playing along with the rest of them. The only reason Kakeru doesn’t direct his anger at him is because he’s injured, and Kakeru still feels slightly responsible for it. And because Haiji’s face is pink, an indication that he’s more than a little tipsy, which is a courtesy Kakeru should be extending to everyone else but he can’t find the same sympathy for them.
Kakeru really needs to stop making a habit of causing a scene when he’s told something he doesn’t like, but the distance helps him focus his anger until it dissipates into annoyance and then finally, disappears entirely.
He gathers his empty glass, tosses it in the garbage with much more vigour than is necessary and storms off to his room. The last thing Kakeru hears is Prince mumbling, “I think we hit a nerve,” before he closes his door and blocks out the noise.
Kakeru isn’t embarrassed by the idea of his friends thinking—knowing—he likes guy, but rather by their nonchalance in addressing his crush, which is probably the most obvious thing in the world right now. He may not be great with his words, but Kakeru does know a little about observation.
There’s no denying that Haiji at least has a feeling, which is ultimately worse than anyone else knowing. The fact that Haiji won’t explicitly address it makes living in Kakeru’s mind absolute torture.
Just one more month, Kakeru reminds himself, but the thought just makes him feel worse.
He clears up his futon and settles into it. The noise outside is no longer loud, and he feels guilty for killing the mood for about half a second before he switches gears to thinking they deserve it.
Do they really though?
Kakeru barely has time to settle his guilt when there’s a soft knock at his door. It’s only been ten minutes since he stormed into his room, so there’s no way anyone will believe he’s asleep. Begrudgingly, Kakeru mutters his consent to come in.
He’s both irritated and unsurprised when he sees Haiji’s figure at the doorway.
“Go away,” Kakeru frowns.
“You just said I could come in,” Haiji reminds.
“That was for anyone but you.”
Haiji raises an eyebrow. “I came all the way here just to apologize despite struggling to walk, but fine, I guess I’ll go sleep in my room.”
Kakeru sits up, eyebrows furrowed. “That’s not fair,” he mutters.
“You’re the one who feels guilty,” Haiji smiles.
“Just… fine,” he grunts. “You can come in.”
Haiji grins and helps himself inside with far more ease than he was letting on. Hah, what struggle?
Kakeru glares at him, but makes room for him all the same. He helps Haiji down onto his futon to give him some kind of height. Kakeru doesn’t know much about injuries, but elevating them is good, right? Haiji offers him a quick smile at the gesture, which goes straight to his heart, before he realizes that he can’t just forgive everything with one look.
“Are you mad at me?” Haiji asks, stretching his legs out.
“That was fast. Least hesitant answer I’ve heard from you, except for maybe your firm denial about running the Ekiden back in April last year,” Haiji grins.
Kakeru can feel a serious conversation coming from a mile away. Haiji’s words may be teasing but his tone is anything but light. Kakeru brings his knees up to his chest in anticipation, eyes flitting between Haiji’s figure and the window behind him.
The curtains are drawn back, light from the moon spilling in right where Haiji is sitting. It casts a light glow around his figure, and well, if Haiji’s going to reject him for real then at least it’s a pretty picture he can keep.
“I’m sorry,” Haiji apologizes. “I shouldn’t have teased you.”
Kakeru blinks his eyes a few times in confusion. “You’re apologizing?” It’s not what he expected at all.
“You don’t want an apology?” Haiji asks, head cocked to the side.
“No, I—thank you,” Kakeru flushes.
If all Haiji came in here was for an apology then he could have waited until morning. Kakeru expects Haiji to say something else, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t make a move to get up and leave either, but then again, that could be because it’s hard for him to get up and sit back down again. Kakeru lets Haiji rest in silence. He sits with him, caged in his own room by splitting tension.
The longer Haiji stays, the less sane Kakeru becomes until finally, he takes a deep breath and says, “Haiji-san, I like you.”
There’s no going back now. The words sound awkward on his tongue, and he has to resist the urge to screw his eyes shut to will away the uneasiness he feels stretching through his veins.
“I know,” Haiji says quietly.
“You… know...” Kakeru repeats.
It’s not like he didn’t expect this, given his inability to keep a poker face, but Kakeru didn’t quite anticipate the nervousness this conversation would bring.
Haiji nods his confirmation. “Then why would you sit out there and joke about me like that with everyone else?” Kakeru demands.
He built himself up for rejection. Kakeru didn’t however, expect to feel so deceived. It’s the first time that he’s not angry, just resigned. He’s not sure he likes this feeling.
“Kakeru,” Haiji says, “do you really think I was joking?”
“What else am I supposed to think?” Kakeru bites back.
“That maybe I like you too?” Haiji supplies.
Kakeru opens his mouth to fight for another answer, but he closes it just as quick, Haiji’s words registering a few moments too late. He’s already built up his defenses, but they’re not high enough that he doesn’t still stumble over Haiji saying I like you, only to try and deny it to himself.
“Why would I think that?”
He doesn’t mean for it to sound so snappy, but Haiji’s wide-eyed expression makes it clear that it is.
“You ever think about why I called you when I was away, and only you?” Haiji asks.
Kakeru shakes his head. If he had to think about it though, he’d come back to Yuki telling him that he’s too easy on Haiji. But in all those calls, there was never a moment where Haiji asked him for anything. In fact, they mostly talked about Kakeru and how he was doing despite the fact that their conversations should have revolved around Haiji instead.
“I like you, Kakeru. I want to be with you. I tried to see what it was like to distance myself and I caved after two weeks,” Haiji laughs wryly.
“You’re graduating though,” Kakeru reminds. “I don’t get what you’re trying to say.”
Haiji rubs his palm over his face harshly, face red when he pulls away. “I am graduating, but I’m not leaving Aotake. My life is here: my sports doctor, my friends, my new job, you.”
“You like me?” Kakeru repeats, stuck on that one sentence.
He’s so confused he doesn’t have the capacity to think anything else. Haiji, the same guy who is kind, clever, patient, hardworking, and so much more, actually likes him? Kakeru doesn’t even know what he can offer. All he knows how to do is run, and as delusional as Haiji may be when it comes to running, even Kakeru can’t believe that’s all he would settle for.
“Yes!” Haiji laughs. “Kakeru, come here. Let me kiss you before I die, please?” he asks.
Kakeru freezes. Haiji has been sitting right next to him this whole time but suddenly, the space between them feels far too small.
When he turns to face Haiji, to gauge whether this is still some part of an ongoing joke, he’s met with the sunniest smile in Haiji’s repertoire: the kind that’s genuine, contagious.
Kakeru doesn’t even care if he’s being teased, although he has a good feeling he’s not. He doesn’t know why Haiji likes him but he’s spent far too many nights without this proximity to try and decipher that now.
Slowly, Kakeru gets up on his knees, crawls impossibly closer to Haiji, and reaches out to take his hand, unsure of how to proceed. He’s never kissed anyone before, but Haiji doesn’t let him falter for too long. He grips Kakeru’s palm and pulls him closer, so fast that Kakeru’s left to try and balance himself for the second time that night before he puts all his weight on Haiji.
Kakeru’s not sure if Haiji just trusts him too much or is that carefree, but just as his panic settles from not squashing Haiji, his heart races again.
Haiji’s entire kiss is a contradiction: slow, yet demanding, gentle, but passionate, tender, and fierce. It’s ridiculous how good Haiji is at depicting his emotions in every single one of his actions—how good he is at making Kakeru question what’s real.
Kakeru refuses to be left behind. He kisses Haiji back, with as much determination as he’s capable of. Everything with Haiji turns into a competition, but this time around when Kakeru pulls back, breathless and red-faced, he doesn’t even care if he’s lost as long as he gets to do it again.
“Come here,” Haiji smiles.
Kakeru doesn’t know where here is considering they’re sitting thigh to thigh, but then Haiji looks down at himself and oh, he wants Kakeru to be that close? Kakeru feels his face heat up again and he’s grateful that the lights in his room are off. Haiji can see right through his facade anyway, but he doesn’t comment. He just waits patiently until Kakeru’s got one knee on either side of Haiji’s thighs and Haiji’s face directly below his.
“Will this hurt you?” Kakeru asks nervously.
“No, just don’t sit on my knee,” he jokes.
“That’s not funny,” Kakeru warns.
Again with that remarkable amount of trust. Kakeru doesn’t think even he trusts himself that much, but Haiji just shrugs like he’s perfectly happy to have his health in Kakeru’s hands.
He’s probably doing it on purpose—after all, Haiji’s always known how to fire Kakeru up. But even after knowing that, Kakeru doesn’t back down. He takes the collar of Haiji’s shirt in both hands, grips it firmly and pulls Haiji’s lips up to meet his.
Haiji keeps his body balanced on the ground with one arm, the other is in Kakeru’s hair, on his face, gripping his shoulder. Kakeru gasps when Haiji traces the length of his spine with his fingers. He parts his lips just enough for Haiji to deepen the kiss and suddenly, Kakeru feels incredibly unmatched.
He pulls back, ears red and face sheepish. He tries not to be jealous—tries not to dwell on just how Haiji knows how to kiss him so well—but it’s no use.
“I’m sorry,” Kakeru apologizes
He really doesn’t know how to keep up with Haiji, but then again, Kakeru doesn’t think he ever will.
“What for?” Haiji laughs. Kakeru shoots him a warning look, just daring him to try and make him say what they already both know. “Don’t worry,” Haiji grins, “we’ve got plenty of time to work on it.”
Kakeru splutters for a response and eventually settles on just shoving at Haiji’s shoulder instead. It’s not a good idea, especially when he’s still straddling Haiji, who takes full advantage of the proximity to pull Kakeru down with him, until Kakeru’s no longer just straddling him but lying across his chest.
“Haiji-san!” he shouts, panicked.
“What?” Haiji asks, faking innocence.
“This—this is—indecent,” Kakeru splutters.
“Is it now?” Haiji laughs. “I guess these kinds of relations with students is frowned upon for university staff.”
Haiji has a tendency to say one thing, and do another. This time is no different: he keeps his hands steady on Kakeru’s back despite his acknowledgement. His grip isn’t strong enough that Kakeru can’t leave if he doesn’t want to but it’s definitely firm enough to show he wants Kakeru there.
“Wait,” Kakeru pauses, Haiji’s words finally sinking in, “what did you just say? University staff?”
Haiji grins wide. “Kansei offered me a part-time job coaching the track team this year. I guess they felt bad, or maybe they really do think I am capable. Either way, I told you I’m not leaving Aotake.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Kakeru demands.
“It only just got settled yesterday,” Haiji admits. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”
“Or yours,” Kakeru retorts.
Haiji pauses, before conceding. “Or mine,” he agrees.
“So what, you were going to leave if you didn’t have a job to keep you here?”
Kakeru doesn’t know why he’s backtracking when they’ve come so far but it’s easy to let the doubts cloud his mind and erase the good things. Haiji doesn’t let him dwell on his misery for long.
“Of course not. How many times do I have to tell you that I’d have stayed regardless. I’m graduating, not leaving forever,” he says firmly.
Kakeru’s dreamt of this exact situation so many times that he can’t believe it’s really happening now. Maybe not exactly like he dreamt, but there’s no denying that this is infinitely better. Haiji isn’t leaving, Haiji likes him, Haiji kissed him.
“Haiji-san…” Kakeru’s voice falters.
“Eh, why are you getting sad now?”
“I’m not sad,” Kakeru shakes his head. “I’m happy.”
Haiji kisses him again, suddenly, throwing Kakeru completely off guard. But Haiji is warm, and he smells nice; there’s nowhere else Kakeru would like to be more than in his embrace. This time when Haiji pries his mouth open, Kakeru isn’t taken aback and he lets Haiji kiss him in all the ways he didn’t think were possible.
When Kakeru pulls away for breath, Haiji doesn’t let up his hold. His mouth moves along Kakeru’s cheek, his jaw, down his neck. He even nips a little at the junction between his neck and jaw, startling Kakeru.
Demon for sure, Kakeru thinks briefly. But he likes the feel of Haiji’s lips on his skin and he shivers just thinking of where else they can reach.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru says, brain moving slow. Haiji hums but doesn’t move back. “Haiji-san,” Kakeru says again.
“What?” Haiji asks, slightly annoyed.
His frown is cute and Kakeru is tempted to let him continue but there’s something he needs to clear up first.
“If you’re going to be employed by the university, does that really mean we can’t…” Kakeru trails off.
Kakeru doesn’t want to know what this is like only to have it be out of reach again.
“Can’t what?” Haiji quips.
Of course his grin is back in full swing the moment he has an opportunity to tease.
It’s awfully presumptuous of him but Haiji’s kind, if nothing else. Kakeru doesn’t think that any of what happened tonight will lead anywhere else. He stills fumbles over his words because he never thought he’d get the chance to say them aloud.
“Probably,” Haiji laughs. “But I don’t care and ah well, who’s going to tell, right?” He pauses, before adding, “I guess you will though considering you love rules. You don’t even drink yet because you can’t legally, do you?”
“No,” Kakeru says, sitting up quickly. “I won’t tell, I promise.”
Haiji laughs, amused by Kakeru’s swift response. Dammit, he got suckered in again. Kakeru finds he doesn’t mind though when it’s with Haiji.
He reaches a hand up and ruffles Kakeru’s hair before he nudges him slightly. Kakeru rolls off Haiji, embarrassed by his desperation and the fact that he was just that close to Haiji for so long.
“You must really like me,” Haiji teases.
Kakeru knows Haiji expects him to splutter but after the events of the past two months and all of tonight, he thinks all his embarrassment is used up.
“Yes, I do,” Kakeru nods.
Haiji’s amusement drops in an instant, replaced by a content look. “Good,” Haiji smiles. “Does this mean I can stay the night? It would be so difficult to get up and walk back to my room now.”
Kakeru rolls his eyes. “Your room is next door, Haiji-san,” he says flatly.
“Ah, I’ve got a mean boyfriend,” Haiji sighs.
“Boyfriend?” Kakeru splutters.
His face only gets redders when Haiji laughs and kisses him, refusing to elaborate on the comment. Okay, so maybe Kakeru’s got some embarrassment left. Just, not enough to kick Haiji out.
Kakeru wakes up with Haiji’s arm around his waist and Haiji’s face buried in his shoulder. He’s warm, and soft, breath tickling Kakeru’s face with every exhale. Kakeru smiles, the events of last night playing over and over in his head.
He’s overcome with the urge to hide his face in his blankets and maybe roll around a little, but Haiji’s grip on him is tight and Kakeru doesn’t want to wake him up. So, he keeps still, head faced towards the ceiling, while he tries to contain the smile that threatens to split his face.
The past two months feel like they never happened. Haiji’s absence, Kakeru’s moodiness, none of it seems real anymore. And yet, it’s because they did happen that they’re here right now.
Kakeru’s daydreaming is cut short by a knock at his door.
“Kakeru? Are you awake?” Shindo calls out.
Kakeru panics, head turning to face Haiji who is very much still asleep next to him. Maybe if Kakeru doesn’t answer Shindo will leave.
Just as he settles to play dumb, Haiji mutters a distinct, “Come in,” on Kakeru’s behalf.
“Sorry for bothering you but Haiji-san’s not in his room and—EHH, HAIJI-SAN?” Shindo shouts.
Kakeru sits up, horrified. “Were you pretending to be asleep this whole time?” he accuses.
Haiji just shrugs noncommittally, but his stupid smile is good enough to convince Kakeru that this whole thing was planned.
“What are you doing here?” Shindo splutters. “Are you really the boyfriend?!”
“I am now!” Haiji grins.
He even pumps his fist for good measure and Kakeru’s overcome with the desire to bury his face in his pillow for the rest of the life. Shindo’s loud shouts bring the attention right to his room and before he knows it, the rest of the house is peering over Shindo and into his room until the ruckus gets too much that somehow, they end up all piled in Kakeru’s room instead.
How did this happen? When did this happen? Aren’t you graduating this year?
The onslaught of questions gives Kakeru a headache. The shrieks that light up the house when Haiji reaches over and holds his hand causes him a downright migraine. But Haiji’s sunny disposition washes all of it away.
Two months after the Hakone Ekiden, things are very different in Chikusei-so, but Kakeru wouldn’t have it any other way.