Haiji’s knee doesn’t survive the Ekiden.
It buckles under his weight the minute he slips from Kakeru’s arms, and in a panic Kakeru grabs onto him again just in time for both of them to go crashing to the ground. Haiji laughs sheepishly, apologies spilling from his lips, his body too weak to even move from where his face is pressed into Kakeru’s chest and Kakeru wants nothing more than to collect them one by one so he can hand them right back.
“You’re okay,” Kakeru says, unsure whether he’s saying it to reassure Haiji or himself. “You’re okay.”
The drive to the hospital is a silent one —though Haiji keeps his fingers intertwined tightly with Kakeru’s the entire time and Kakeru is grateful for this small grace. He can tell by the pallid hue of Haiji’s face and the sweat beading on his brow despite the frigid temperature outside that Haiji is doing his best to hide his pain behind pinched lips, but really it would be preferable if he were to let it out—whether that means crying or screaming or anything in between.
Kakeru would accept it all. Haiji has earned that much.
He pushes Haiji in through the automatic door on a wheelchair and does his best to accept that this is where they’re at right now, as the sharp scent of antiseptic washes over them like a tidal wave that makes his eyes water.
There’s a certain frenetic energy in the emergency room that makes something fierce burn in the pit of Kakeru’s belly—not exactly regret, but not completely devoid of it either. It’s much more complex than that, the answer hidden somewhere between the sound of Haiji’s triumphant laugh as he crossed the finish line and the faded beginnings of the bruise blooming surely underneath the skin of Haiji’s knee.
It isn’t regret, Kakeru assures himself. He glances over at Haiji propped up in his wheelchair and reaches over to tug the slipping jacket around his shoulders into place. It’s not regret. It can’t be.
The triage nurse takes one look at Haiji—at the jagged scar flaring red-purple on his knee—and offers a kind smile, swiftly flying through the mandatory vitals check with care and precision before sending them both out to the waiting room again. Haiji is smiling the entire time, chattering on and on about non-specifics all while peppering in questions asking if Kakeru is sure he wants to be here when Shindo and Yuki are all but fighting off reporters demanding to know where the new record holder for the ninth section is.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru murmurs finally, eyes never straying. “I’d rather be with you."
“Oh.” The tremor in Haiji’s voice melts into softness as he quirks a brow, mouth curving into something fond that Kakeru thinks he ought to be able to name. “I see.”
As with any emergency room the wait is ridiculously long, and at some point through the hours Haiji’s eyelids flutter shut, his head tipping left to rest gently on Kakeru’s shoulder. The way the wheelchair’s armrests dig into Haiji’s side doesn’t look comfortable but Kakeru knows better than to jostle him. He sends out a few texts to everyone back at Aotake, immediately finding himself bombarded by questions that he doesn’t yet have answers to.
I. Just. Said. We’re. Still. Waiting. He types out, one character at a time, pocketing his phone afterwards in case his temper gets the best of him. There’s no room for this kind of irritation, not when Haiji’s leg continues to tremble even in sleep and his brows are drawn together like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It isn’t often that Kakeru gets to see Haiji’s sleeping face.
Haiji doesn’t really stop, after all. Everything about him is ephemeral, in a sort of wondrous manner that makes Kakeru fear looking away lest he miss something—the upturning of Haiji’s palm, a slow blink, or the way he half-smiles sometimes, with eyes a million miles away—so very quiet and yet overwhelming all at once. Haiji tends to have that effect on people.
Though, admittedly it’s possible that in this case ‘ people’ really only refers to Kakeru. There’s no empirical evidence for this after all, because it’s not like he can go around asking if anyone else feels like the world stops spinning whenever Haiji so much as exhales, or even just—
“Kiyose Haiji-san,” the nurse calls, and in response Kakeru flinches hard enough that Haiji stirs. They follow her past the double doors through a series of hallways, until she stops at a waiting area with some changerooms and hands Kakeru a hospital gown.
The belated realization as to their current predicament dawns on them—a hospital gown, a wheelchair-bound patient who is unable to stand or bend his leg, and his—
Friend ? Kakeru blinks, considering. That doesn’t sound quite...right. Teammate? Yes, but also no. Kouhai? None of these words even begin to explain the fullness in Kakeru’s chest when he looks down at Haiji, forehead beading with cold sweat and purple exhaustion lining the bottom of his eyes, because even so he’s beautiful like nothing Kakeru has ever known. Looking at Haiji makes Kakeru reach a high that he has only ever been able to achieve during his best runs—and it goes without saying that running has always been it for Kakeru.
Maybe up until now, anyway.
And he knows, he knows this implication is so very obvious but tremendous like a shadowy beast, one that Kakeru isn’t quite ready to prod at even if it only serves to deny the inevitable.
The nurse hovers for a moment as if to offer another option for both Haiji and Kakeru, should either of them choose it. For Kakeru, at least, there is no reason for him to hesitate.
“Haiji-san.” Kakeru holds the gown up in one hand, heart fluttering with the hope that Haiji trusts him enough for this. “May I help you?“
He watches as Haiji sucks in a breath through his teeth, visibly fighting every fibre of his being because they both know very well that Kiyose Haiji does not ask for help , but he’s trying, and in the face of it all Kakeru swears his heart cracks wide open.
“Yes,” Haiji says finally, lifting his eyes with a barely-there smile that is equal parts gratitude and resignation. The white-knuckled fist in his lap softens as he breathes out a small “yes, please do.”
And so the world does stop turning.
Maybe it ought to be awkward, the two of them crammed into a small changing room with Kakeru’s fingers nervously sliding around the hem of Haiji’s waistband, but somehow it isn’t—though certainly intimate . Still seated in the wheelchair, Haiji’s shucks his top and props his hips up by pushing with his good leg, just enough so that Kakeru can slide his shorts off.
“I got it,” he says, sticking his arms through the gown before Kakeru can move from where he’s bent down in front of Haiji’s legs. When he’s finished, Kakeru’s hands linger, unsure of what to do next yet yearning to stay in this moment for just a moment longer.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru starts, gently lowering his hands until they come to a rest atop Haiji’s knees—the pulsing skin under Kakeru’s left hand is burning hot and it makes regret seem that much more plausible in the pointless internal debate he’d been mulling over earlier.
But then yet again, the image of Haiji rounding that last corner comes to mind—the way he’d roared , fists raised high in triumph just past the finish line, the way he’d fallen into Kakeru’s arms trusting that he’d be caught while looking so very at peace, and Kakeru just can’t bring himself to name that feeling with such a heavy word.
“Your hand is cold,” Haiji says, eyes a million miles away. He rests his own hand on top of Kakeru’s with a smile. “Feels nice.”
Comfortable silence falls over them and if Kakeru were to let himself be swept up by the mood anymore than he already has, he might give in to the urge to press his lips to Haiji’s knee in the name of gratitude. Maybe worship. It’s a fine line he thinks, as he stares down at the contrast of his own skin against angry purple-red bruising, because his feelings towards Haiji has always toed the bridge between the two even before the shadowy beast made itself known.
They exit the changeroom and Kakeru parks Haiji next to the row of seats before sitting down next to him.
“Kakeru!” Haiji shouts suddenly, reaching out to grasp Kakeru’s hand. “Kakeru look!”
He points towards the television across the room, where the news channel is replaying highlight reels from the Hakone Ekiden. A pixelated Kakeru is running on screen as a bolded headline once again announces him as the new- new record holder of the ninth section, beating the record Fujioka Kazuma set just 11 minutes prior by a single second.
“...I barely remember running it,” Kakeru admits, shuffling through his memories for any recollection of the bridge TV-Kakeru is currently shown passing, or the roar of the crowd, or maybe the bite of winter air against his sweaty skin. It’s a blur mostly—quick passing colours like a vortex in his peripherals. The strange feeling of leaving his consciousness altogether.
And then at the very end of it all waiting for him, Haiji.
“Your form is perfect,” Haiji says with his eyes glued to the screen in quiet awe but his voice sounds distant somehow, the tail end trailing off into a soft “...beautiful.”
Before Kakeru can even think of how to respond to that , or the belated realization that Haiji’s fingers were still wrapped tightly around his, a nurse steps out and calls them into the examination room. After they enter the room the doctor asks a few cursory questions which are recorded on the computer before explaining that they would like Haiji to get an MRI to survey the extent of the damage.
As an athlete, this might be Kakeru’s greatest fear—big fancy medical words with hospital staff dutifully recording his every move like a death sentence. It hurts to think that Haiji has been here before, is now here again , except this time—
This time —
Be brave , Kakeru chides himself with a shake of his head, taking a deep breath as he tries his best not to make a face like the world is ending. After all, he isn’t the one that likely left his heart behind on the asphalt of the Ekiden course. He isn’t the one who must bear the brunt of the pain so he has no right to be afraid, not when Haiji is still cracking jokes to the technician that comes to prep him for the MRI as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.
Everything moves faster after that—Haiji is taken into the MRI room and a short while later he is brought back out before being told that he can expect to come back for the results in a couple days. In the meantime, the doctor hands over a prescription for pain medication and a sheet with precise instructions on how to care for his injury, but Kakeru suspects that despite the polite smile on his face, there isn’t any information on the pamphlet that Haiji doesn’t already know.
Kakeru helps him change back into his clothes, they call a taxi, and finally, finally head back to Aotake.
The group is already waiting for them outside when their taxi pulls into Aotake’s front yard. Joji and Jota bolt forward, both reaching for the door handle and wrenching it open before the car has even come to a complete stop.
“That’s dangerous!” Kakeru squawks, quickly turning to apologize and pay the rightfully disgruntled taxi driver.
Haiji is ushered out of the car before he’s all but carried into the house and taken straight to bed. A pillow is gently tucked under his leg. A glass of water fetched for him. There are nine grown men fussing over whether he’s warm enough, whether he’s hungry, or whether he has a fever, which doesn’t even begin to rate on the scale of medical accuracy. The twins offer to give him a sponge bath.
“Honestly, you guys,” Haiji laughs, stifling a yawn as he bemusedly watches Shindo carefully readjust his futon cover for the third time. “I’m not dying .”
“And even if you were, you wouldn’t say a single thing.” Yuki reaches over to flick Haiji’s forehead with a scowl, which only makes Haiji laugh harder. “So we’re covering all our bases.”
Despite looking like he has more to say Haiji’s eyelids are drooping lower by the second, which prompts Nico-chan-senpai to stand up decisively and usher the group out so that Haiji can get some actual rest.
“Why does Kakeru get to stay?” Joji protests with a pout, pointing an accusatory finger, and though no one replies out loud the eight blank stares sans Jota he receives in return are perhaps answer enough.
“I’ll leave once he falls asleep.” Kakeru blushes—it’s an assurance that sounds far too transparent even to his own ears because Haiji’s breathing has already steadied out into a soft rhythm and everyone present knows full well there is no real reason he needs to stay.
That is, aside from the fact that it aches to even think of doing so right now.
“You stay as long as you need to.” Musa pats Kakeru’s shoulder with a giggle and brings his hand to his own pink cheek. “How lovely.”
Before Kakeru can properly deny whatever that giggle insinuates, the door clicks shut behind them and he’s left alone with only his pounding heart and Haiji’s peaceful sleeping face. Kakeru sighs, eyes downcast with a sense of unnerve wriggling around in his throat.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru murmurs after a few moments, reaching out gingerly to tap the tip of his index finger against Haiji’s knuckle. It’s only when Haiji doesn’t so much as stir that Kakeru summons the courage to slide his palm across Hajii’s warm hand, enveloping it and wishing he had the power to keep it safe.
Just how many times has this hand been there to pull Kakeru out of freezing waters? Just how many times has Haiji saved him?
Kakeru doesn’t know where he’d be right now if Haiji hadn’t found him that night, all alone in the dark running from everything he knew he’d never be able to outrun. And Haiji never judged him. Never rebuffed him. Never had any orders or demands or expectations.
He just quietly and patiently stayed by Kakeru’s side until Kakeru had been ready, and in the face of that kind of gentleness there is only so much gratitude one man can harbour in his chest before it overwhelms him, turning into something else entirely.
A shadowy beast that awakens even without prodding.
The inevitable catches up to him, yet again one of those things that Kakeru never had any chance of outrunning in the first place—not when it persistently chases him on a bicycle with full intention to redefine everything Kakeru has ever known like it’s as natural as breathing.
Everything about Haiji is blinding. The empyrean curve of his smile has etched a permanent home in Kakeru’s heart and while Kakeru may not be the most self-aware person on the planet, even he isn’t so daft as to misinterpret those feelings as anything other than what they are.
“I love you, Haiji-san.”
Kakeru knows that saying it like this is taking the coward’s path. But Haiji breathes out in his sleep and the world stops spinning and Kakeru is powerless against that kind of might, against the sheer weight of the words on his tongue, and he squeezes Haiji’s hand as tightly as he dares without waking him.
“I love you.”
Kakeru closes his eyes, his bottom lip pinched between his teeth, and waits for the world to start turning again.
The MRI results show a torn ACL and meniscus, as well as significant degeneration from osteoarthritis. But perhaps the worst part is that Haiji doesn’t look surprised in the least.
“Even with surgery, you will likely never run at full function again. Certainly not competitively,” the doctor says, his finger tracing the grainy grey area between Haiji’s bones on the MRI scan. “As you can see there is quite a bit of erosion to the cartilage here, likely from pushing yourself too far too quickly after your last reconstruction. Our priority is to go in and fix the torn ligaments, but if the arthritis progresses, we may be looking at a knee replacement in the future.”
“I understand.” Of all things Haiji smiles , his voice not wavering in the slightest. The doctor continues with his explanation, listing off the potential risks of surgery and afterwards Haiji’s fingers do not shake when he signs neatly along the dotted line to consent for surgery.
Kakeru doesn’t know what to say. He stands in shocked silence, thinking about how he will never get to see Haiji run again, and even though he promised himself that he’d be strong for Haiji the bad news does feel an awful lot like his vision is going dark all over again. The shooting star that’d blitzed its way into his life crackles like a sparkler that has burned its way to the bottom of the wire, threatening to fizzle out at any given moment.
He will never get to see Haiji run again.
Repeating the words don’t make them feel any more okay.
Haiji’s surgery is scheduled for next week so that the swelling in his knee has some more time to dissipate, and then just like that they’re leaving the doctor’s office, brightly coloured informative pamphlets in hand that provide all the instructions for the pre-op procedure. Kakeru matches Haiji’s pace on his crutches, nodding along but admittedly not fully listening to Haiji’s casual musings about what they should eat for lunch.
“You knew,” he interrupts quietly when the urge becomes too much to contain.
Haiji stops, his eyes softening in a way that is almost as frustrating as it is endearing. He has an injury that will end his career as an athlete as he knows it but somehow Haiji is still the one who softens for Kakeru’s sake instead of the other way around.
“Ah…well, not definitively. But I was prepared for it.” His voice is cheery without even a hint of a bittersweet aftertaste. “I’m sorry, Kakeru.”
“...why are you apologizing to me?” Kakeru’s words come out in a mumble and once again he has the desire to scoop Haiji’s apology up into the palm of his hand. There is no world in which Haiji will ever have anything to be sorry for—not to Kakeru, at least. Not after all that he’s done for him.
They reach the bus stop and Kakeru wordlessly takes Haiji’s hand, allowing Haiji to lean on his arm for support as he gingerly lowers himself onto the bench. “I knew the risks and I knew none of you would approve, but I chose to run anyway. I wanted to run with all of you, no matter the cost, and I decided that even if I could never run again it would still be worth it.” Haiji looks up at Kakeru, grin stretching beautifully across his face as the streaking sunlight kisses his skin. The sight is so overwhelming that Kakeru finds it a little hard to breathe. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I lack nothing, Kakeru. I don’t feel anything other than grateful to have experienced it.”
There is nothing else to say to that kind of grace.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Kakeru says gently, lifting his upturned hand upon seeing the bus rounding the corner down the street. “Nothing at all.”
Haiji smiles, looking so very at peace, and takes Kakeru’s hand firmly in his own.
A week passes them by faster than Kakeru is prepared for. During that time he runs, does a few interviews for some sports magazines at his friends’ insistence, and learns how to cook under Haiji’s detailed instruction.
It is news to absolutely no one that Haiji is really, really bad at staying still. Hell, prior to this no one ever saw him sleep, (other than that one time he literally passed out, and immediately after climbed out a damn window to escape) much less sit around all day like a good patient. Even with the drowsy side effects of the pain medication he is constantly on the go despite not really having anywhere to go, hobbling around on his crutches with excuses at the ready should he be discovered.
“I was going to head down to Yaokatsu,” he says sheepishly after Kakeru and Prince bump into him on their way home from class, halfway down the street from Aotake. “We’re out of daikon.”
For the first few days or so after the results of the MRI, a muted tension hangs in the air back at Aotake. None of them know what to say in the face of Haiji’s prognosis, and as if to make up for the silence Haiji chatters more than usual about anything and everything to anyone who’s nearby. Surprisingly, or perhaps not at all, the one who ends up breaking the awkwardness is Prince—one day Kakeru finds him curled up in the corner of Haiji’s room reading manga and before they know it, Haiji’s room becomes the new common area. It’s smaller than the twins’ room and certainly not ideal, but Haiji looks happy and it keeps everyone focused on the collective attempt to keep him in bed at all costs.
It only kind of works.
Surgery day arrives—the unspoken agreement, as with the other hospital visits, is unanimously for Kakeru to accompany Haiji as Aotake’s representative, on the condition that Kakeru answers his damn texts and updates them as soon as Haiji comes out.
“You guys know that I’ll be home tomorrow, right?” Haiji’s exasperated pretense fools exactly no one with how blatantly endeared he sounds as he reaches out to pat a teary-eyed Musa on on the shoulder. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry so much, you’ll bald early.”
As they turn to head out the door, Kakeru allows Haiji to go first—which is when Yuki and Nico reach out in unison to slap Kakeru on the back, hard .
“Go get ‘em, Tiger,” Yuki smirks.
Seriously. If Kakeru didn’t love these people with all his heart, he might’ve chosen to hate them instead.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he scowls, nose high in the air as he steps through the door, ignoring the sound of nefarious snickering following him out.
They arrive at the hospital, register at the desk, and get directed into the surgical waiting area where Haiji is gowned and poked and prodded at in standard pre-op prep. For some reason it isn’t until Haiji winces when the nurse is inserting his IV that it all sinks in properly—in just a few short hours they will be cutting into Haiji’s leg for the second time, which might not even be the last.
Wait times at the hospital are always said to take forever but the hours seem to disappear in an instant. It’s like Kakeru blinks and suddenly the porter is pushing an empty wheelchair into the room and calling out Haiji’s name, making Kakeru’s blood run cold.
“Well, here we go!” Haiji slaps his magazine shut with a sense of finality, pushing himself up onto one leg as he does a little bunny hop over to the wheelchair. “You should go home, Kakeru. It’s gonna take awhile.”
“...I’ll wait.” Kakeru mumbles, eyes downcast as he repeats himself more firmly this time, “I’m waiting.”
Judging by the soft huff of air that Haiji lets out through his nose, he knows better than to argue when there’s no chance of winning. “Got it. See you after, then.”
Kakeru opens his mouth and tries to say something worthy of a goodbye that doesn’t sound too much like a goodbye, but at the last moment he falters, brows furrowing as the porter takes Haiji away. A nurse kindly points Kakeru towards the assigned recovery room that they’ll bring Haiji to after the surgery, but Kakeru’s feet remain rooted in place, his heart feeling like it might just plop onto the shiny hospital flooring in front of him.
He stares after Haiji’s back long after he disappears from view.
The surgery itself takes 4 hours, and then Haiji is taken to PACU where he stays for another 2 hours. At some point within those 6 hours Kakeru curls up in the armchair shoved into the corner of Haiji’s hospital room and nods off, his head leaning against the wall at a terribly uncomfortable angle.
When he jolts awake, a pair of porters are wheeling Haiji’s bed into the room with a nurse in tow.
“How is he?” Kakeru asks, more than a little panicked as he jumps to his feet and hurries to the side of the bed. A sigh of relief involuntarily escapes his chest when he realizes that Haiji is awake, albeit with his eyes looking rather glazed over but they light up in recognition above a big dopey grin when Kakeru approaches.
“The surgery went very well, though he’ll be groggy from the anaesthesia for awhile yet.” The nurse gives Kakeru a little smile. “You’re quite infamous amongst the operating room staff, Kurahara-san.”
“Well, let’s just say Kiyose-san is quite fond of you.”
Even the two porters chuckle as they position Haiji’s bed and lock the brakes, taking care to untangle his IV drip before stepping away and excusing themselves from the room. Kakeru’s cheeks turn pink under the weight of their cryptic eyes, and he wonders what in the world Haiji could possibly have said about him to warrant it. He thanks the nurse before pulling the armchair over beside the bed, feeling oddly emotional at the sight of Haiji with a nasal cannula tucked behind both ears. A fleeting moment of courage works its way into his veins and Kakeru reaches out to brush a stray lock of hair away from Haiji’s forehead.
“How are you feeling?” For once Kakeru figures it’s okay for his voice to sound entirely too affectionate because there’s little chance Haiji will remember any of this when he wakes up next anyway.
Haiji beams, his words slurring ever so slightly. “So good.”
“I’ll bet. Does it hurt anywhere?”
“No—pe. I’m great. Fantastic . I feel like I’m in the clouds .”
“Kakeru.” For once Haiji’s perpetually sharp mouth curves clumsily around the syllables as he grins with half lidded, glassy eyes. “Kakeru~u,”
The way Haiji draws out his name in an almost whine is just so uncharacteristic that Kakeru can’t help but laugh, wondering to himself if it would be immoral to take a picture as long as he doesn’t show it to anyone. Kakeru mulls it over, reaching into his bag for a bottle of tea before twisting it open to bring it to his lips.
“You have really pretty eyes, Kakeru. Did you know?”
Karmic justice strikes hard—his tea lodges in his throat mid-swallow and Kakeru chokes, the liquid spraying onto Haiji’s blanket like a waterfall. Just outside the door the nurse shoots him a concerned look, as if they think Kakeru could go into cardiac arrest from the high of a drugged-compliment alone. Haiji giggles (giggles!!), offering a helpful ewwww as he wrinkles his nose adorably and for just a moment Kakeru begs the tea in his windpipe to put him out of his misery entirely.
“Wh—“ Kakeru sputters, frantically grabbing tissues to wipe up his mess. He tries not to flush under the weight of Haiji’s dopey smile, because Kakeru knows very well that it’d be foolish to think this is anything other than the anesthesia speaking.
“Usually they’re grey,” Haiji hums, tilting his head pensively, “but then in the right lighting, bam ! They turn blueblue, like seaglass, or the sky right after a big storm clears, y’know? Like magic . Oh! And your legs! So long and pretty. And fast , like zoom !”
So much for not flushing. Kakeru’s face burns , fiery havoc spreading from his cheeks to his ears all the way down to his neck, and he lifts his arm to try futilely to hide it. He is under the influence of heavy drugs, Kakeru repeats to himself as he chews nervously on his bottom lip, entirely unsure whether he even wants Haiji to mean any of this or not.
“I can’t keep up with you anymore,” Haiji chirps after a moment, fingers absentmindedly tugging at the frayed edges of his blanket. “Not that I’ve ever been able to. You’re going to go so far, Kakeru. Far, faaaaar into the distance.”
He grins, a wide, genuine smile that makes his eyes crinkle at the corners, stars glimmering in the warm amber of his irises, and says without a trace of hesitation, “I’m so proud of you, Kakeru.”
Now that’s playing plain dirty. Emotion wells up in Kakeru’s chest like high tide until his eyes are swimming with tears. They fall, plopping onto the back of his hand where it is resting on the bed just next to Haiji’s—close, yet not close enough to touch. Such is the running trend in the history of their affiliation, Kakeru supposes, pun unintended. Close, but not close enough. Never close enough.
But still, not close enough will always be better than nothing at all.
“No, I’m not going anywhere,” Kakeru says shakily, watching as his tears drop one by one onto the blanket, soaking into the fabric within seconds. “I’m staying right here.”
As if he couldn’t possibly imagine why that might be, Haiji’s eyes go wide with surprise. “Eh?”
“I’m not going anywhere without you, Haiji-san.”
How could Kakeru possibly go? There can’t be a path forward without Haiji, not when he is the one who lit up the darkness when it felt like there was no way out. Not when Haiji appeared out of nowhere and changed Kakeru’s entire life, gave him a place to stay and friends to call family and taught him how to put one foot in front of the other again, over and over until he found himself taking off in a run.
But to this Haiji only smiles, fond exasperation pooling in his dimples.
“Oh, Kakeru,” he sighs, not unkindly. “You still don’t get it?”
No, Kakeru wants to say. He doesn’t , because there is a lot in this world that he’s just coming to rediscover, and clearly the upturning of Haiji’s eyebrows insinuate that Kakeru is missing some obvious piece of the puzzle. But in this moment all he knows, through some instinct that takes root deep in his gut, is that looking away is an impossibility when Haiji’s smile melts like milk chocolate, his breath escaping in a delicate sigh like wisps of candy floss and his hair shining soft peach in the glow of the setting sun.
Kakeru sits by Haiji’s bedside and wonders if it’s even possible to want to kiss someone this badly—to want , in the most simple of intentions, to connect with someone in a way he’s never desired to before right up until Haiji came hurtling into his life like a shooting star, cutting through the dark of the night with promises on his lips and hope in his eyes. He wants so badly to understand this person, all mischievous smirks and silent self-sacrifice hidden in the shadows of his larger than life ambition.
The urge collects as a lump that Kakeru can’t seem to swallow.
So this is love.
And love, Kakeru realizes, is a single emotion that blankets innumerable pathways—a railroad system with infinite branching tunnels all inevitably tracing back to the same core. His love for running has always felt as natural as breathing but in the same way it threatened to suffocate him when it was torn from his chest, greedy hands and looming skyscraper expectations clogging his throat until his eyes watered. His love for his friends is like returning home—a safe haven, kindness freely given without judgement or demand, something that Kakeru didn’t think existed until he realized it was there this whole time, just patiently waiting for him to open his eyes and see it.
And Haiji, Haiji is—
“I don’t,” Kakeru admits finally. “So tell me.”
The way Haiji’s eyes go half-lidded makes Kakeru’s hair stand on end. Haiji purses his lips, thinking for a brief moment before a slanted grin spreads across his face and he crooks his finger to beckon Kakeru closer.
At this rate, it’ll be a miracle if Kakeru makes it out of here alive. He swallows nervously, making peace with his fate as he obediently leans in after a moment of rightful hesitation. Haiji cups his hand by the corner of his mouth, his breath coming out in a soft puff of air against the shell of Kakeru’s ear.
“ It’s. A. Secret, ” he lilts teasingly, ungracefully swaying forward to plant a sloppy kiss to Kakeru’s cheek before falling back against his pillow in a fit of giggles.
The effect is devastating .
There is no quantifiable way to summarize the immense emotion that roots Kakeru to the spot, mouth gaping open like a fish, his entire face going scarlet within a matter of seconds—not if he wants to retain any semblance of dignity whatsoever that is, so he goes with the next most instinctive reaction.
“Haiji-san. Please stop laughing at me.”
“Pffft—b-but, your face ,”
The incessant giggling continues and Kakeru’s scowl deepens as he crosses his arms across his chest with a huff.
“I had no idea you liked me so much,” Haiji teases, grin turning absolutely wicked. “The world will come after me if running prodigy Kurahara Kakeru quit for my sake. Whatever should I do?”
“Wha—!” Kakeru sputters indignantly, nearly falling out of his seat in shock. “I don’t—!”
His protests die right there on his tongue because even as a pretense he can’t say that he doesn’t like Haiji—it’s a sentiment that shoots its shot only to miss the point entirely. Fact is, he likes Haiji so much it’s damning, like a pair of wax wings and the sun at the same time, and a part of Kakeru bristles at the thought of that feeling being so completely underestimated.
Sure it’s childish, but so is Haiji, so he figures they can call it even.
“You like me. Kakeru li~kes me.”
The words come tumbling out before he can think to stop them. “Yes, fine, I do! And what of it?”
Haiji’s laughter simmers into something softer and warmer when he gazes over at Kakeru. His eyes are practically twinkling as he sighs dreamily, head tipping sideways into a tilt.
“Marry me, Kakeru.”
Whatever Kakeru had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t that .
“Nnono, hear me out,” Haiji slurs, holding his swaying palms up before Kakeru can continue. “You're cute. Way too cute. We should get married.”
Kakeru is sure he’s watched a movie like this before, where the main character is sucked into a dream within a dream within a dream. That is the only reasonable explanation for this ludicrous conversation that’s occurring right in front of his eyes right now. If Kakeru were a smart man he would take Haiji’s ramblings as exactly what they are—the drug fueled, nonsensical ramblings of a hospital patient.
“Marriage doesn't work if the feelings are one-sided.” He mumbles petulantly, trying his damndest not to pout.
“One-side—” Haiji begins dopily, eyes rounding out like dinner plates. “Oh. Oh. Kakeru, you’re really kind of stupid, aren’t you?”
“Haiji-san. Oh my god. Please, just go to sleep already.”
Despite all the continued snickering Haiji lies back obediently and allows Kakeru to pull the blankets up to his chin.
“You’ll stay?” Haiji asks, stifling a small yawn.
A funny question to ask when there isn’t a force on earth that could make him leave, Kakeru thinks, donning a small smile packed with such colossal adoration that it engulfs him whole.
“Yes. I’ll be here.”
Whatever Haiji had intended to say is lost to the world as he drifts off to sleep almost instantly, and Kakeru is thinking about how there’s a saying that almost is the most tragic word in existence. It’s like he and Haiji exist in between the increments of almost —hands close but not touching, a confession spoken but not remembered.
But then again, isn’t it true that all things wax and wane like phases of the moon, fizzling in and out of temporary spaces, through a thousand almosts before reaching an eventual inevitability—and even after everything has changed exactly the way they ought to, Kakeru knows he will still be blindly running after this love with reckless abandon.
When Haiji wakes up clear headed, Kakeru doesn’t know if he’ll remember the terrible, awful, disappointing admission of the word ‘ like’ —as if the ocean can be called a puddle or the sun a mere flickering light. But Kakeru wants so badly to believe that he and Haiji are an inevitability that exists within an almost , merely waiting to be plucked out alongside a little bit of courage.
Be brave, Kakeru chides himself.
And as Haiji breathes out in his sleep in front of him, Kakeru closes his eyes and waits for the world to start spinning again.