Kashiwazaki Akane’s body was on fire. Groaning, he opened his eyes and surveyed the shadows drifting by the stacks of manga balanced precariously around him, breathing shallowly. His calf muscles were cramping, so he tried to turn over, only to freeze as his back muscles spasmed in protest as well. Moaning, he tried to sit up slowly, wincing at every twinge.
I really hate running. He chuckled at the thought, then whimpered as even that slight movement caused more pain. Maybe I just died during the race and this is the afterlife. If that’s the case, that ogre better get me out of this mess.
A muffled knock disrupted his sardonic thoughts. Speak of that ogre. “Prince? Are you okay?” He heard the door creak open.
Akane, moving as little as possible, glanced over and smiled wryly at the shadowy figure in his doorway. “Haiji-san? Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“I heard you groaning.” The older man shouldered the door open the rest of the way, maneuvering carefully to avoid hitting the stacks of manga with his crutches. “I brought some medicine and a bottle of water.”
Akane accepted both the paracetamol and ibuprofen gratefully, gulping down the water. He was placing the empty bottle on the floor when he caught the faint smell of dashi hovering in the air. “Were you cooking? At three in the morning?” He asked in disbelief.
Haiji shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I couldn’t sleep with my knee anyway, so I thought I’d get some prep done. And Yuki was up earlier. His feet took quite a beating yesterday, so I helped him a bit too.” Haiji was silent for a moment and added, “At least Shindo is doing better.”
Akane grimaced and rubbed his legs as his thighs decided to also join the party. I’m never going to be able to fall back asleep like this. He levered himself out of bed with yet another groan. “Prince?” Haiji asked, alarmed, as the second year staggered towards him. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
“No, come on, let’s go downstairs.” Akane mumbled. “I should probably stretch out, right? Move around a bit?”
Haiji nodded, the furrows in his brows easing. “Yes. You’re right. Come on, let’s go.”
Haiji led the way down the darkened corridor, navigating by the dim moonlight on the landing. Akane watched as he deftly descended the stairs, carefully protecting his knee. “You’re really good at that,” he remarked.
“Well, I got pretty good with crutches in high school. It’s a really useful skill to have.” Haiji’s tone was light, but Akane noticed how his knuckles tightened around the grips.
“Of course,” Akane replied softly, holding the noren aside for Haiji. The kitchen was warm and bright, several tubs already filled with marinating meat. “You never do things by halves, do you?”
The dorm leader laughed, a too-bright smile plastered across his face. Akane sighed in return, starting some slow calf stretches, while Haiji continued cooking. The muscle pain eased slightly as the medication finally kicked in, and Akane breathed a sigh of relief.
“The aches are the worst on day two and should be feeling a tiny bit better by tomorrow,” Haiji said off-handedly while he finished mixing batter. “Make sure you take something before you go to sleep tomorrow. And drink a lot of fluid,” he added, as he slid another water bottle towards the youngster.
Akane nodded, opening the bottle and taking a sip. Haiji poured the batter into yet another plastic container. Akane watched as Haiji carefully washed his hands afterwards, seemingly lost in thought as water streamed through his fingers.
“Out, damned spot. Out, I say!” Akane found himself reciting. Haiji jumped. Wide, stunned eyes met his. “Heaven knows what she has known.”
Haiji laughed uncomfortably, turning away from the sink. “You startled me.” He paused before he continued, “It’s nothing like that.” Akane waited patiently, continuing to stretch without a word, until Haiji finally offered, barely audible, “I shouldn’t have forced you all.”
That brought a small, but real, smile to Akane’s face. “Now you think of that,” he grumped. “I’m glad you made us, though. Everyone else is glad, too. If anything, they’re worried about you.” He glanced down at the injured leg.
The team captain shook his head. “I know. My knee was a cost I was willing to pay. But you all –“
“- passed along the sash and trusted you to make a comeback. And you did it.”
Akane saw the words hit, the soft intake of breath and the slight incline of Haiji’s head. He continued deliberately, molding the words as they took shape around his tongue. “I hate running.” He saw Haiji recoil at the blunt words. “But I’m glad – so grateful – to have run the Hakone Ekiden.”
Haiji gave a wry smile. “Enjoying being a sports manga protagonist?”
Akane broke out laughing, unable to control himself. “I’m not the protagonist. I didn’t fall in love with running or climb up the mountain or anything like that. I’m a supporting character.” He stretched, grateful that the outburst hadn’t caused more pain. “But,” he continued, meeting his captain’s gaze, “I understand better now.”
“Understand better?” Haiji echoed, hands still.
Akane’s could almost feel a physical weight in his hands. Parting them, he offered in a somber voice, “It’s funny. We were all doing different things. There was no sync, there were so many distractions, everything was rushed. Our thought processes were all different, completely scattered. But yet I’ve never felt more connected in my life. The feeling of having someone waiting for me at the finish line, of someone cheering for me – and the feeling of waiting at the finish line and cheering for someone else – that was my peak. It might not have been the top that you were aiming for, Haiji-san. But it was mine.”
Akane was glad to see the smile finally spread to his eyes, releasing that familiar soft glow. Haiji took a deep breath, shaking his head. “Thank you, Prince. Thank you for everything.”
Prince gave a little huff. “Remember, we all chose to run in the end. However reluctant we were in the beginning.” He paused, then added gently. “And you know, I don’t think the race is the main reason I’m so sore.”
“Hmm?” Haiji quirked an eyebrow, leaning against the counter.
Akane tried to make his voice as nonchalant as possible. “I’m blaming Kakeru for this. He made me sprint yesterday back to Otemachi. To make it in time to see you finish.” He thoroughly enjoyed the delicate flush that spread over Haiji’s cheeks. “He’s been hanging on to your every word lately.”
“It’s mostly hero worship,” Haiji replied, avoiding his gaze. “He’ll grow out of it.”
“Kakeru isn’t really a hero-worshipping type,” Prince noted evenly. “He tends to be more of a judgmental type?”
“He’s pure-hearted.” Haiji responded firmly, “and hasn’t had many people to trust in, until now. He’s wrapped me, running, being with a team, Aotake and Hakone, everything, into one package. He isn’t in love with me. He’s in love with the entire situation. He’ll discover that as he grows with the team and learns to be a leader. He’ll move on to greater things.”
“Move on?” Akane couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice.
Haiji nodded decisively. “He’s meant for greater things. He’s going to take Japan and the world by storm. Once he finds his footing, nothing will stop him.”
Akane refused to let him change the topic. “But, don’t you see how he looks at you? I don’t think it’s just because he’s confused you with running. He cares about you.”
The older man shook his head. “It’s not just me. He’ll grow out of it.” His tone was resolute, and to Akane’s ears, as decisive as when he asserted his intentions to run at Hakone.
“But you love him.” Akane felt like he was rapidly losing control of the conversation. He didn’t really know why he was arguing in the first place, as it wasn’t really his business, but he couldn’t seem to put it down.
“I . . . care for him.” Haiji admitted reluctantly, his words so fragile they trembled in the stillness. “He . . . anyway, I’m not really sure. And besides, I won’t be able to be by his side much longer.”
The phrasing made Akane’s stomach turn over. “You mean . . .” he tried to clarify, but Haiji didn’t let him finish the sentence.
“You’ll keep him out of trouble, Prince?” Haiji continued softly. “You’re probably his best friend, you really understand people, and you have a cool head. Can you take care of him after I leave?”
Akane blinked in disbelief. “Haiji-san? You’re leaving?” He corrected himself. “I mean, I know you are graduating, but you’ll still be around Tokyo, right?”
The fourth year laughed. “Yes, I’ll still be around a bit, but things will be different after we graduate. You’ll all have your own lives to live. That’s why I’m asking you now. Please, Prince.”
“Of-of course.” He caught himself succumbing again to the ogre’s wishes and decided to put up a bit more of a struggle. “But you have to promise to be around for as long as you can.”
It was Haiji’s turn to blink in surprise. “What?”
“If you’re planning on slowly disengaging and disappearing, you should know that it’s not going to work. If you want me to keep an eye on Kakeru, then you’ll also need to be around as well. You have a responsibility to all of us now, Haiji-san.”
Akane waited for Haiji’s response. The silence was dense, but Akane saw Haiji dip his head, and took that as assent. They stood, the seconds ticking by. In the end, Akane surrendered.
“I’m going to try to get a few hours before the sun rises. I should try a really slow jog tomorrow, right?”
“Yup, better to warm up slightly and stretch out a bit. You should visit the bathhouse, too, if you have time.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Stopping at the door, Akane looked at the lone figure standing by the table. “Try to get some sleep, too.”
“I will. Good night.”