Haiji's body shuddered in Kakeru's arms. He was slippery all over with sweat, on fire in the freezing air, and the muscular frame that had carried him over twenty kilometres to the finish line of the Hakone Ekiden seemed somehow smaller now. Delicate, and dangerously weak. The towel Kakeru dumped over his shoulders was damp in seconds.
"We made it," Haiji puffed out, words riding on a smoky-white breath. "I made it."
He smiled up at Kakeru, the barest exhausted twitching of lips, and Kakeru felt a rush of tears spill over his bottom lids.
"Yeah," he choked out, and pressed his face against Haiji's in a wave of pure emotion, tears mingling with sweat. He knew they would have to move soon, to see the team one last time before Haiji was inevitably carted away by the medics swarming around, but for now, they had time. They had time, and here he was, huddled together with Haiji on the frozen ground. Their hearts beat together, rabbit-quick, and he felt dizzy with happiness and nerves. They had time, but not much; this moment would never come again, and it was bleeding out in front of him. So he took it.
"You made it," he whispered, lips moving against Haiji's cheekbone, as close to a kiss as he dared. The Kansei University Track and Field captain stilled below his mouth, turning his head slightly to look up at him, and their pulses slowed down together, the moment stretching out, glasslike. A teardrop, falling to a flushed cheekbone and magnifying the dusky pink below. Rivelets of drying sweat, streaked from forehead to heaving collarbone. And two sets of lips, brushing together in silence, as the crowd roared in the distance of the Hakone Ekiden finish line.
Shindo was the first one to start crying. Beside him, Yuki rolled his eyes, but his glasses looked suspiciously misty and he kept clearing his throat.
"It's only a building," he sniffed. "They don't last forever, you know."
"I know," Shindo warbled, tears rolling down pink cheeks and plopping into his cup of sake. "But it's not about the building, it's about what it symbolises."
"The end of an era," King agreed, and slapped the twins on the back as they bawled into each other's arms. "Have a heart, Yuki."
"Hmpf," Yuki said, but as he got up to get another beer, his shoulders were shaking.
Kakeru hadn't gone into the demolition party expecting tears, but the flowing of sake had helped them all along, and as he watched a thoroughly drunken Shindo sobbing into Musa's jacket, he felt a tickle at his own throat.
Haiji handed him a napkin, wordlessly.
"Thanks," he mumbled. "Apparently alcohol makes me tearful."
Haiji laughed. "You're not the only one," he said, as Prince scrubbed his eyes with his shirtsleeve and Nico slapped an arm over Yuki's still-shaking shoulders. Leaning against Haiji, Kakeru looked up into the cherry blossom trees, listening to the sound of Nico and Yuki shoving each other and blowing their noses.
"Aotake brought us together," he murmured. Beside them, the dorm creaked in the rustling wind, and it sounded like a lullaby, oddly comforting after years of Kakeru being terrified it would fall down around his ears. "I feel like I owe it to the dorm to be sad about it being knocked down. We made a lot of memories here."
Haiji hummed, the sound reverberating down his chest into Kakeru's back. "That's true, I suppose."
"First time you told me you loved me, we were here."
Kakeru sneaked a look up at him, grinning slyly. "Other first things too."
"Thanks for that mental image," Yuki called over, and Haiji's ears flushed bright red.
"He's drunk, he doesn't know what he's saying," he called back. Kakeru snickered, and Haiji frowned down at him. "I liked Drunk Kakeru better when he was sobbing sweet sake tears over a convenience store napkin."
Kakeru made a kissing sound up at him, laughing.
"Come home when you can," his mother finished, crackly voice thick with sobs. Kakeru nodded in a daze, realised she couldn't see him do so, and murmured his assent.
The line clicked dead.
He had no idea how long he sat there, the silence of their new apartment muffling the world around him, but as the front door creaked open he realised he was still holding the phone up to one ear. It felt too heavy to move.
There was the shuffle of feet kicking off boots, and Haiji soon lurched into view, laden with shopping bags. He looked flushed from cold, smiling as he dumped them on the floor by the faded green pantry.
"Okay, so I bought the cheapest of everything and still had to choose between conditioner and panko, so I went with panko, because good pork katsu is more important than silky hair, sorry-"
The chattering died off abruptly. The hand holding up the phone wavered, but Kakeru still couldn't bring himself to put it down. He fixed his eyes on the floor, listening to the careful pad of footsteps approaching his seat on their raggedy couch. Haiji's stripy socks soon marched into view, stopping next to his own plain black pair.
"Kakeru? Are you okay?"
Kakeru nodded, changing it to a shake of the head halfway through. He felt the phone being gently tugged from one hand, and the dip of the cushion as Haiji took a seat next to him. He could feel Haiji's knee barely touching his own, body brimming with palpable concern, but he knew that Haiji wouldn't ask first. He wouldn't push it. Right now, it was something Kakeru loved about him.
"My grandfather," he managed, eventually. "He's had a stroke."
Beside him, Haiji sucked in a breath. "Is he-"
"My mother asked me to come home," Kakeru continued. "As soon as I can."
Haiji didn't ask further, and Kakeru didn't elaborate. They both knew what it meant.
"Do you want me to come with you?"
Kakeru shook his head again. As far as both sets of parents were concerned, Kakeru and Haiji were friends co-habiting out of convenience. He wasn't sure he'd have the strength to keep up the lie. Not this time.
A hand on his knee, and he closed his eyes, shoulders shaking. Kakeru's relationship with his own parents had always been frosty, but his grandfather was different. They used to sit quietly together at the kitchen table, sipping their tea and ignoring the whispered arguments floating out from under the door of his parent's bedroom. His grandfather was the sole pillar of stability in an otherwise tumultuous life. He didn't interfere in his daughter's marriage -didnt talk much at all, really- but no matter how bad things got, even after all hell broke loose in high school, there was always a place for Kakeru at the dinner table, next to his grandfather. That was how he pictured him- leisurely turning the pages of his novel, one wrinkled hand looped around a cup of green tea. An image flashed into his head, unbidden, of that same hand lying limp against a hospital handrail.
He buried his face in his palms, and even the solid weight of Haiji's arms around him couldn't anchor him against the tidal wave of grief.
"You're not coming." Kakeru repeated, dully. Haiji was staring at the remains of the honeydew melon they'd shared for dessert, fiddling with his fork and avoiding Kakeru's eye.
He hated when Haiji got like this. Dodging eye contact like it would dodge the fight they were invariably going to have.
"I can't come." Haiji said to the melon carcass, apologetically. "It's the week of the training camp, and the team needs me. We've had this booked for a while."
"There are other coaches you could ask to sub in for you. "
Haiji shook his head, and Kakeru didn't even bother to argue that point further. Haiji was a notorious control freak, after all; he probably thought the team would do a complete 180 and return lazy and incompetent if he dared to miss even one day of coaching. Kakeru knew this, he'd gotten used to that particular aspect of Haiji's personality before they even started dating, and yet it still frustrated him.
"Write down a training menu then," he suggested. "Get the captain to run it, just for a couple of days. They'll be fine."
Haiji returned the fork to the plate; it fell with a gentle tinkling sound, oddly out of place in the tense atmosphere. "I can't do that."
"Why not?" Kakeru snapped, temper rising. "They can read."
"I'm their coach, Kakeru. This is what I'm contracted to do."
"And I'm your boyfriend. And this is my Olympic trial meet. This is important to me." He stood up to snatch the plate away in irritation, flicking the melon into the compost and dumping the plate into the sink with more force than was strictly necessary. Haiji noticeably winced at the thunking of china meeting metal.
"Kakeru, be careful. The plate-"
"I dont give a damn about the plate!" he snapped, whirling around. Haiji hadn't moved from the kitchen table, fingers now tracing over a scratch mark etched deep in the left-hand corner.
Weirdly, the little wooden table was Haijis favourite item of furniture. They had picked up for a song at the second-hand store, when they first went shopping to fill their new apartment together. He still remembered the excited look on Haijis face when they found it, the way he'd grabbed onto Kakeru's arm like a little kid and pointed wordlessly at the mahongany table, ordinary but for a few marks scattered here and there across the surface. Kakeru wasn't sure what the fuss was all about, but it was a very Haiji move to get excited about a kitchen table, and it was cheap besides, even if it was a hell of a job lugging it back home. Nowadays, he looked at it fondly; a momento of when they first moved in together. It was still unremarkable, but for the whorls and dips and mystery scratch marks that set light fracturing across its surface. Some of them were new; some pre-existing. It was a game they played sometimes, trying to imagine what the previous owners had done to cause all the little imperfections.
Kakeru did not feel like playing now.
"Are you always going to pick coaching over me?"
Haiji met his eyes now; the apologetic look was fading, replaced with stubbornness to match Kakeru's own. "That's not fair. I don't-"
"You do, though. I've never missed any of your events, and-"
"I have less of them for you to miss, Kakeru. And I'm paid to do this, I can't just skip it-"
"All your coaching awards, all the track meets, and this isn't even the first time you're missing something huge-"
"I come to so many of your running meets, I always support you-"
"This isn't just any running meet, Haiji! This is the goddamn Olympics!"
Haiji reached out one hand, but Kakeru shied away from his fingers, blinking furiously. Over the course of the argument they had drawn closer together, facing off in the middle of the room. He felt tears springing up from the bottom of his eyelids, hot and angry, and he dashed them away in frustration. He hated this, hated fighting, hated that Haiji was missing one of the most important events of his life, hated that look on his face of desperate apology, he hated the words bubbling up in his throat, and as he let them loose into the air-
"Is it because you can't run anymore? Is that it? Is it too painful for you, that I have a chance to make the Olympics and you have to sit and watch from the sidelines?"
He knew he shouldn't have said them, knew before he even opened his mouth what they would do, but Kakeru never quite learned how to hold back in arguments. He’d gotten better over the years, but the urge to lash out was always there, primal and overwhelming. He hurt, so he hurt back. Like now.
Haiji retracted his hand so fast it was like he'd been burned. His face, blurring beneath the tears rapidly filling up Kakeru's field of vision, was carefully blank, but the look in his eyes was distinct and undeniable. Like he was looking at a stranger. Like Kakeru had turned into someone he didn't know anymore.
"I'm going to bed," he said in measured tones.
But the next sound was the slamming of the bedroom door, and Kakeru was left alone in their tiny kitchen, the taste of salt choking up his throat.
"I have to talk to you about something, Kakeru."
Haiji was hunting for the last sachet of mushroom tea, so the sentence was muffled by the cupboard doors blocking his head from Kakeru's gaze, but it hit his ears like a gong falling to the ground.
"What's that?" he managed, hands tightening in a death-grip around his own mug of tea. "Everything okay?"
"Found it!" Haiji re-emerged, waving the little white box triumphantly over his head. "Take a seat," he added, faux-casual, but his hands were shaking a little as he ripped open the sachet of tea and Kakeru felt horror climbing up over his innards, settling in his chest.
Swallowing, he stumbled over to the kitchen table in a daze, kneeling beside it with the mug still clutched in both hands. It was scalding his fingertips, but he clenched it tighter, willing the pain to chase away the roaring in his ears. This was it. This was what he had been fearing, he knew, and he stared up at Haiji, plopping down opposite him and setting the steaming mug down on a coaster.
Haiji smiled at him, and he tried to return it, but panic twisted it into more of a grimace. Haiji was getting ready to say something, and from the way he was tapping his nails against his mug, it was something important enough to make him nervous. Something he wasn't sure if Kakeru would like.
The horror continued its squeezing way around his upper chest to his lungs, and he couldn't catch his breath, he'd known this was coming, known all along that Haiji was too good for him, but the moment was here and excruciating and all he wanted to do was beg for it to never end, for Haiji to never walk out the door and leave-
"...so if you're free," Haiji was saying, in bright tones, "I think it would be a nice getaway for us, before your training for the Olympics really kicks in."
Kakeru blinked. The haze of panic lifted a little. "Sorry, what?"
"Lake Shirakaba." Haiji said, now sounding a little confused. "You remember? We went there with the original Kansei team before our Hakone Ekiden together?"
"I remember," Kakeru managed. "And you want to... Go there?"
Haiji was definitely looking bewildered now. "Kakeru, did you listen to a thing I just said? I suggested we go there together, just for a weekend. I thought it would be nice if we-"
Kakeru didn't hear the rest of the sentence. Relief was pounding its way through his bloodstream, pure and dizzying, and it was all too much, Haiji wasn't breaking up with him after all-
He burst into tears.
Haiji was up in an instant, shooting around the table to grab him by the shoulders. "Kakeru?"
"I'm sorry," he choked out, mortified. He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, so hard that he saw sparks and whirls of colour amongst the darkness of his closed eyelids, but the tears continued. "I just thought you were breaking up with me."
There was a gentle tugging on his wrists, and he let Haiji guide them away from his face. He looked deeply concerned.
"Kakeru, what have I done to make you think that?"
"Nothing," he burbled. "We just had that massive fight a couple of months ago, and I saw you looking at apartments for rent on the laptop, and I thought-"
"Oh, Kakeru," and he was nose-deep in the warmth of Haijis chest, breathing in the familiar smell of deodorant and lemon body wash. The thumping of Haijis heart sounded next to his ear, steady and rhythmic as footfalls. "Have you been worried all this time?"
Kakeru nodded shamefully. A warm hand ran up and down his back, and he heard Haiji make his usual sympathetic humming sound, a sound Kakeru wasn't sure he was even conscious of making. he closed his eyes, feeling Haiji all around him. It was okay. They were okay.
After a while, he realised he was probably getting snot and tears all over Haijis t-shirt. He sat up, sniffing.
"I'm sorry I'm such an idiot, " he managed. Haiji shook his head, hands reaching up to cup Kakeru's face. His thumbs slid out, gently wiping the last of the tears away from puffy eyelids.
"Don't be sorry. You just put two and two together and made sixteen, is all. The apartments were different places I thought we could rent out on holiday. And fights are natural for couples. Can you imagine if we agreed on everything?"
Warm breath, puffing on Kakeru's face, and Haiji kissed him, chaste and sweet. "It would be so boring."
"But I'm so difficult," Kakeru said in a small voice. "And I say things that I don't mean, and I get impatient really easily, and-"
"And I love you," Haiji finished for him. "Every part of you. Even the parts of you that drive me up the wall. Okay?"
Finally, Kakeru smiled, feeling his cheeks tickle where tears had dried salt-tracks across them. "Okay. But Haiji, about that lake trip..."
"You're not driving us there, right?"
"The stars are pretty tonight," Kakeru quoted, and he felt Haiji shake with laughter under his arms. The summer air had rapidly cooled with the dying of the light, but they had made no move to retreat inside. Instead, they watched the inky blue-black spill on the horizon, a paint can kicked over in the western sky, and the stars that followed it.
"I wanted to kiss you, that night," Haiji said, tilting his chin to look up at a constellation directly above their heads. His hair tickled Kakeru's cheekbones, ruffling occasionally in the breeze that moved in and danced around the veranda. "But I thought you had a crush on Hana-chan."
Kakeru snorted. "Boy, you were wrong."
Haiji turned around in his arms, grinning, and planted a neat kiss in the corner of his mouth. "A couple years late, but there you go."
"What was that?" Kakeru scoffed, leaning in to catch Haijis lips again, soft and tasting slightly of the mabodoufu they'd had for dinner. The crickets sang below them, endlessly calling to one another in a sea of dark grass, and he closed his eyes, savouring the moment. When he opened them, Haiji was moving away and down, dropping single-kneed to the creaky wooden flooring. A note of panic sounded in Kakeru's head for a moment- had his knee given out?- before he realised that Haiji was resting on his good knee, and his face wasn't in pain at all, it was... It was...
Kakeru looked at the little box, sitting in his boyfriend's hands.
Comprehension dawned, slowly at first but soon washing over him completely, like the darkness over the night sky.
"Kakeru," Haiji said, and Kakeru had never heard his own name said like that before. "I’ve loved you since the first time we ever came here. I've loved you since the moment I saw you. And the only thing that's changed since then is somehow, incredibly, I love you even more now. And I think-" he broke off, voice filling with emotion, and Kakeru looked down into the eyes of the person he loved best of all, eyes shining with tears and moonlight. "I think I'll keep loving you more and more, every day, if you'll let me. So-" he broke off again to take a choked breath. "So-"
"Yes," Kakeru said. "Yes, I'll marry you."
Haijis composure shattered completely, and his shoulders shook with sobs as he pulled the plain silver ring from its nest in the box, slipping it onto Kakeru's finger. It fit, perfectly, and he stared down at it, marvelling. The wind picked up in the distance, and everything was glowing, the stars and the moon and the silver band fitting so lightly around his finger it was as if it had always been there. He pulled Haiji to his feet.
They were both crying now, tears rolling unchecked down their cheekbones, and as they kissed, it tasted of salt and happiness.