After meeting you, he said, "We're no ordinary men. We're destined for something great."
"Hey! You like running?"
The words break through the panicked whirl of Kakeru's mind and she turns her head without slowing. A man is cycling alongside her, his bike clattering over the bumps and holes in the tarmac. He grins at her, while the wind whips his hair back from his face and makes his clothes stream out behind him like banners.
"Do you like running?" he calls to her again, his smile manic.
Kakeru blinks. Her feet thud against the pavement. She could outpace him, probably, but where would that get her? After a few more strides, she slows to a stop, her heart racing and her stomach a tight little knot. She hasn't eaten since yesterday morning; she couldn't have maintained that speed much longer anyway.
The man slows too, touching one foot to the ground as he brakes to a stop. "You're fast," he says, still grinning when he turns to look at her.
"So what?" Kakeru mutters. He's giving her the creeps. She tenses, poised to start running again in the opposite direction.
He glances at the sandwich in her hand. "I think you almost gave that poor store clerk a heart attack."
Kakeru's jaw clenches. She thrusts her hand out, shoving the sandwich at him. "Take it."
But to her surprise he only laughs, and holds his hands up in surrender. "I'm not here to make a citizen's arrest," he says. "But let's go back, hm? I was going to pick up something to eat myself, I'll treat you."
"You don't need to do that," Kakeru says, her shoulders hunching inward. "I'm fine." In a display of utter betrayal, her stomach chooses that moment to rumble loudly, perfectly audible on the quiet street. She winces.
"Come on," he coaxes. "I promise, I don't want anything from you. I've been hungry too."
Kakeru looks at him. His hair is damp, and he has a warm smile. There's something familiar about him, but she can't place him just now. He doesn't look like he wants to hurt her, at least. Even if he does, Kakeru is hungry enough not to care.
"Great!" he says, beaming at her. He hops off his bike and turns it to face the way they came. "What's your name, by the way?" he asks as he starts to walk his bike back toward the convenience store. She can't help noticing that he walks with a limp. When she doesn't reply right away, he glances back at her, his expression gentle. "I'm not interested in what you've done, and I won't call the cops," he offers. "I just want to help."
Kakeru watches him for several moments, weighing up his words. She doesn't have a lot of choice but to trust him. "...Kurahara," she says eventually, turning away. "Kurahara Kakeru."
"Kurahara-san," he says, breaking into a smile again. "Do you have somewhere to stay?"
"I—I'm a student. At Kansei."
"Kansei?" he demands, one hand shooting out to grab her shoulder. "You're a Kansei student? I'm a postgrad! What department?"
His hand is starting to hurt, gripping her far too hard. "I—Social Science?" she offers, and tries to twist out of his grasp. "Look, I—"
"Do you have somewhere to stay?" he asks again, squeezing her shoulder more tightly. "You don't, right?"
Kakeru grimaces, and finally pulls free. "I lost my deposit at mahjong," she mutters.
He doesn't even blink. "Come and stay with me. I manage a bunkhouse for Kansei students. There's an empty room right now."
"What? No, I don't have any money—"
"Pay me later!" he says, waving off her protest. "You're a Kansei student. I can't just leave my kouhai in the street."
Kakeru shakes her head. "I don't know…"
"The house is all women, if that's what you're worried about. I live next door with the landlord." He grins at her, and she's struck again by the uncanny sense that she's met him somewhere before. "We'll make it work," he promises, then pauses. "What else are you gonna do?"
It's the question that's been plaguing her for two days, and Kakeru doesn't have an answer. She has a half baked plan of camping out in an internet cafe until classes start, and then squatting in the library for a few days. She knows it isn't really feasible.
"...Fine," she mutters at last.
He brightens. "Great!" he says, with more enthusiasm than the moment really deserves. "Let's go!"
"I'm Kiyose Haiji, by the way."
A moment passes, then recognition strikes, and Kakeru's eyes widen. "Wait, what?"
"Just call me Haiji," he offers, still smiling that boyish grin.
"No, but—" Kakeru fumbles. She hesitates. Haiji is watching her expectantly, maybe a little curious. "Nothing," Kakeru mutters, clenching her fist around her bag strap. "Let's go."
Kakeru is sixteen. She tells her parents that she and Sakaki are going to visit universities in Tokyo. She gets on a train, and then a bus, and then another bus. She got the address from the paper, after a report mentioned that Kansei's team captain was recovering at home following the Ekiden.
The weather is miserable: cold, and overcast. As she walks along the seafront, hail starts to hammer down. The streets are almost deserted; it feels like a ghost town. Kakeru pulls up the hood of her raincoat, and begins to climb the hill, looking down every few steps at the map on her phone.
The house is on a quiet street, but its windows are blank and silent. A neighbourhood cat watches her with baleful eyes from a nearby fence. After spending a minute or two gathering her courage, Kakeru rings the doorbell. A crow chatters at her from a nearby rooftop. She tries again, but there's still no answer.
"Are you looking for the family?" a neighbour asks, putting her head over the low fence. "You'll find Kiyose-san over at the high school this time of day."
Kakeru's heart flutters. "Thank you," she whispers, bowing.
It takes her another twenty minutes to reach the high school. Two long, squat buildings are bounded by beautiful grounds, with rows of trees and neatly manicured fields. A group of teenage boys are jogging around a long distance track, while their coach watches from nearby. He notices Kakeru after a moment, and her back stiffens in anticipation as he walks over to her.
"Are you from the girls' team?" he calls out. "I don't recognise you."
"N-no," she says. "I was just looking for someone."
His expression is hard. He reminds her of her own coach. "Come back at the end of practice," he says, shaking his head. "We're training for the interhigh competition." He runs his gaze over her, and Kakeru is suddenly very conscious of the way her top is more low cut than usual, although his gaze is clinical, removed. "I can't let them get distracted," he finishes, looking away from her again.
Kakeru grits her teeth. "The person I'm looking for—he's not a student," she says, forcing herself to sound braver than she feels. "I was told—is Kiyose Haiji here?"
The coach looks at her. For the first time, there's emotion in his face. "Who told you he was here?" he asks in a hoarse whisper.
"I—" Kakeru murmurs, glancing around for an escape. "N-nobody, sorry—"
"Wait—" he calls out as she starts to back away. "Are you—a friend of my son's?"
"He's in the hospital," the coach, Haiji's father, says. He grimaces, and his shoulders slump, the authority melting off him with the fine rain. "I haven't—if you want to visit him…"
"No," Kakeru says, shaking her head. She feels sick. She shouldn't have come. "No, I—I need to—"
She turns and runs, her trainers skidding on the wet tarmac. Her mind buzzes, going over and over the things she wrote in her letters, the ones she never sent: all the foolish questions she wanted to ask. Her hood whips back as she runs and the rain soaks her face and hair, but she doesn't slow down. She sprints until her chest hurts and her hands start to shake, and then she finally stops. She's come back to the ocean, and she stands there for a long time, staring out at the grey water.
"So…you just found her? In the street?"
"Don't worry, I'll vouch for her," Haiji says smoothly. "Besides, she's a Kansei student, she showed me her registration."
Kakeru looks at the woman in front of her, the one currently glaring daggers at Haiji. Kakeru thinks her name might be Yuki, but she's already forgotten everyone she's been introduced to since arriving fifteen minutes earlier. The woman is tall, with asymmetrical black hair and a deep undercut. Her ears are pierced several times, and her eyebrow too. Just behind her is another, taller woman with long, untidy hair and a weary expression.
"Well?" Yuki asks, turning to the other. "You're the oldest one here, do something about it!"
The woman sighs, and glances at Kakeru. "Are you gonna make trouble?"
Kakeru shakes her head emphatically.
The woman's eyes slide from her to Haiji, considering. "What the hell," she says, shrugging. "The more the merrier."
"Nico-chan!" Yuki shouts.
"Uh...thank you?" Kakeru says.
"Come on," Haiji says, clapping his hand on Kakeru's shoulder. "I'll show you where the bathroom is."
He leads her first to the last empty bedroom, where she leaves her meagre belongings, then along to the bathroom at the end of the hall. Kakeru ducks inside and shuts the door behind her, breathing a long sigh of relief. It's been a long day, and this whole evening still feels utterly surreal. The bath is still full and hot from the previous occupant, and Kakeru only hesitates briefly before starting to undress, already looking forward to a soak in the hot water.
Just as she kicks off her two day old underwear, the door suddenly rolls back in the frame behind her, and she turns with a yelp, clutching an arm over her chest, only to see Haiji standing there, his expression bland. She freezes, heart hammering.
"Let me know when you're out of the bath," he says. "I live next door with Tazaki-san, but I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything."
Before she can dredge up a response, he shuts the door. Then, just as she turns away, her heartbeat deafening in her ears, he slams it open again.
"Take your time," Haiji offers, simply, before retreating once more.
Kakeru stands there frozen, watching the doorway, pink and mortified. If anyone else had walked in, she could've borne it, but the knowledge that Kiyose Haiji just saw her tits makes her break out in a cold sweat. As she showers, still scarlet, she can't help wondering if this is how things normally are here; Haiji said he lives next door, but maybe he makes a habit of peeking at the girls in the bathroom.
When she's finished bathing, she darts back to her room and dries her hair with her borrowed set of towels. She's grateful to Haiji for the offer of the room, and for the borrowed blanket, but she can't help worrying about what she's going to do next. She still needs to buy her books for class, and then she'll have to find a way to cover the rent, low as it is. She drops the towel and leans forward over her knees, her stomach lurching at the thought of calling her parents to ask for more money. She doesn't think it's possible that they can get more ashamed of her, but if anything could do it, gambling away her entire deposit probably could.
By the time Kakeru joins everyone in the twins' room upstairs, she's feeling lost and sick, and she sits in silence while chaos unfolds around her.
"So, how do you know Haiji-san?" Shindou asks, smiling down the table at Kakeru.
Kakeru freezes. "Uh—"
"I wanted to talk to her, so I followed her on my bike," Haiji says, without offering any explanation. Kakeru can't tell if she's relieved or annoyed at him.
"Haiji!" Yuki screeches, grabbing an empty beer can and throwing it at him. "Are you crazy? You can't just go chasing girls down the street on your bike, you're gonna get arrested! Use your brain!"
Haiji seems unbothered by either her words, or the physical damage he's incurring. He smiles, and shrugs. "In my defence, I think she could've outrun me if she'd wanted to."
"That's not the point!" Yuki snaps. "You probably frightened the living fuck out of her!"
Kakeru frowns. "I wasn't frightened."
King snorts. "That's some sense of self-preservation you've got there, Missy."
"Haiji-san has a kind face," Matcha puts in.
Kakeru barely hears them. She's too busy watching Haiji, who meets her eyes across the length of the table. He doesn't smile, but something about his expression looks amused nonetheless. She feels almost like she's being tested, but she has no idea what that means.
"Eat up, Kakeru-chan!" says the girl at her side, Matcha, aka Fujioka Makiko. She apparently got the nickname by drinking endless cups of tea, but she also has brilliant green eyes. Something about her name is familiar, tugging at the edges of her memory the same way her first glance of Haiji did, but Kakeru can't seem to place her.
While the other girls start raving about Haiji's cooking, Kakeru glances up at Haiji again. He doesn't seem out of place among this rowdy, impolite rabble of women, and she's surprised by how comfortable they all seem around him. She helps herself to a little of the food at Nico-chan's urging, and eats quickly, finishing before anyone else. Even though the twins are first years too, everyone seems to know each other well, or at least they talk as if they're old friends.
She wonders, not for the first time, what she's doing there.
"So, Kakeru," Nico-chan says, leaning a bit closer. "Did Haiji tell you? You're our fabled tenth woman."
"God, not that again," Yuki says, laughing. "For months now—"
"On and on," Nico-chan agrees. "Just one more, just one more…"
"He's been non-stop since the twins moved in last week," King says, sighing.
Kakeru glances at Jouji and Jouta, who look equally puzzled. Haiji seems unfazed by their teasing, watching the group with a serene expression.
"You must be glad to have filled the room quickly," Musa offers.
Haiji nods. "Just thinking about what you want isn't enough," he says in a thoughtful tone. "It's important to know what you want, and speak it into being. Reach out and seize your destiny."
"Does anyone else know what he's talking about?" Yuki says, laughing.
Nico-chan laughs. "Not a clue. "We should celebrate though," she suggests. "Maybe go on a trip somewhere."
"Good idea, Senpai," Shindou enthuses.
Matcha nods her agreement. "I'm in."
Nico-chan glances down at Haiji, who's sitting serenely at the head of the table. "What do you say, Haiji? Want to go somewhere to celebrate filling the last room?"
"Mm...I know the perfect place," Haiji says, casting silence over the group for several moments.
Yuki brightens. "Oh yeah?"
Haiji stares straight at Kakeru. "Hakone," he says.
A cold fist clenches around Kakeru's heart.
"Well...I guess," King says, looking unimpressed.
Yuki peers down the table at Haiji with a suspicious look. "Why do you want to go on a trip with a bunch of women anyway?"
"You're kind of a pervert, huh, Haiji?" King says, saluting him with her beer can.
"Don't encourage him," Yuki says, rolling her eyes.
Haiji doesn't react, just watches them calmly.
"Maybe we could visit an onsen," Shindou suggests, and glances at Musa. "Have you been to one yet?"
Musa shakes her head. "I'd love to go."
"An onsen sounds great!" Matcha bubbles. "I haven't been to one in forever."
"Should we take the train?" Yuki asks, pulling out her phone. "Or maybe a car? You can drive, right, Haiji?"
"Neither," Haiji says pleasantly. "We'd use our legs to get around."
Yuki frowns. "Huh?"
Somehow, Kakeru already knows that whatever he's going to say next, she's not going to like it.
"Let's aim for the top together," Haiji begins, his voice low and urgent. "I'm sure everyone's seen it at least once, at new year," Haiji continues. "I can take you there."
Kakeru's breath catches.
"The Hakone Ekiden."
A stunned silence follows Haiji's words.
Shindou speaks up, or tries. "But—you—what?"
Nobody else seems to know what to say. While they stare, Haiji reaches down behind him and picks up a dirty, faded wooden sign. The one from out front.
Kakeru's stomach is a tight knot, even before the twins squint at the sign and read aloud the tiny characters in the corner.
Yuki yells in outrage, halfway out of her seat, while Ouji-san finally looks up from her manga long enough to give Haiji an unimpressed glare.
"The Ekiden?" asks Matcha, her eyes going wide. "No way."
Haiji glances at her. "Don't you want to follow in his footsteps?"
Matcha looks away, her jaw tight.
"You can all read the sign," Haiji says sweetly. "That is to say, you're all now members of the Kansei University Women's Track and Field Club.
Kakeru tunes them out, her heart hammering in her ears. She watches Haiji, and her hands shake where they rest against her thighs, clenched into tight fists. She's sixteen again, her eyes glued to the TV screen as the last runner stumbles, two thirds of the way through the final stretch. The camera pans down as he collapses on the tarmac. He tries to get up, but his right knee gives way under him and he goes down hard. As he struggles up again, the commentator praises his fighting spirit, but then he starts to put one hand in front of the other, dragging himself along the road, and the commentary falls silent. The runner's coach climbs out of the car and runs to the fallen man's side, and for a moment the camera catches the agony on the runner's face. Kakeru has never seen someone in so much pain as the moment he relents, collapsing back onto the ground.
"Uh, is this a joke?" King asks with an uncomfortable smile.
"It's not a joke," Haiji says simply.
Kakeru slams her hands down on the table, barely noticing the way everyone around her jumps. "No," she says firmly.
Haiji raises an eyebrow. "No?"
"It's impossible," she replies, anger creeping into her voice.
"Why is it impossible?" one of the twins asks.
Kakeru scowls. "Only the best schools qualify. People train for years. It won't happen."
Haiji raises an eyebrow at her. "You can't know that for sure."
Furious, Kakeru gets to her feet. "Count me out." She picks her way awkwardly across the crowded room, and slams the door behind her as she leaves.
Hakone. Kakeru huffs. A few years ago, she would've dreamed of a moment like this; not only to follow Haiji to the university that took him to Hakone, but to go there with him as her coach. As it is, she only feels sick, the food she's eaten sitting like a rock in her chest.
Kakeru retreats to her room, where a breeze is still stirring the curtains. She goes to the window that Haiji opened earlier, and presses her hand against the wooden frame. She could leave. Nobody would notice her go. Scowling, Kakeru digs her nails into the soft wood, gripping it as tightly as she can. She's suddenly tired, her whole body aching with it. Kakeru turns off the light, folds the blanket in half, and climbs into it like a sleeping bag. She'll stay for one night. Maybe things will make more sense in the morning.