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life in color, life in motion

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The boy in the narrow bed tosses and turns, displaces the bedclothes, kicks at his sheets – and stills, just as the alarm clock on the side table comes to life with a shrill, insistent beeping. The digital display reads “06:00”. In the five minutes it takes for the alarm to switch off, the boy does not leave the bed. He does not jump to his feet, snap his sheets into rigid folds, or arrange his pillows. In intervals of five minutes, the clock repeats its alarm – but Arakita Yasutomo does not get up until the clock reads “07:15”.

In brisk, efficient movements, he takes a shower, puts on his uniform, and grabs his book bag with his left hand. He checks the time – twenty minutes before classes start. The dormitory’s cafeteria would still be open, and the walk to Hakone Academy’s school building would not take ten minutes.

Perfunctorily, Arakita considers eating breakfast on the run. Terrible for the constitution, he remembers. His prescriptions demanded a full stomach before they were taken, however, and he contemplates the white plastic pillbox with a lidded stare.

At fifteen minutes to the start of classes, he decides against the thought, and takes the pills nestled in the partition marked “Monday” into his palm, then swallows them dry.

Arakita is not late for his first class of high school.

He is, however, absent for the second – he spends the full sixty minutes dry heaving in the boys’ toilet, his right arm stiff and shaking as it scrabbles for a grip on the linoleum walls.

Three months after suffering the injury in the game that would have sent him to a seeded school headed for Koshien, and the pain had not faded.

 


 

Buoyed by the excitement of living close to the home stadium of one Japan’s premier baseball teams, the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars, Arakita Yasutomo had grown up cheering for loaded bases and homeruns. With a love of the sport shared by other boys his age, it was easy to abandon aimless running and games of pretend for the chance to stand on the mound and win innings with heightened senses and adrenaline rushing through his veins.

All throughout his elementary school days, Arakita played. In his first year of middle school, he was awarded the title of best pitcher. During his second year – with his pitch count at a solid 80, his breaking balls feared, his at-bat’s more than capable of sweeping the visiting team’s confidence off the field – he and his team made their prefectural debut. By his third year, high school teams had begun to scout him, wanting his skill for their bid for Koshien.

In the last game of his last year in middle school, Arakita throws what would be his last pitch.

The bat connected with ball, just as Arakita fell, knees dragged down by the uncontrolled motion of his follow through. The pain that had been building since the second inning, weakening his grip and forcing him to compromise his pitches and shake off his catcher’s signs at nearly every turn; that same pain had doubled, and, unfiltered by the thrill of the play wracked through his right shoulder, firecracker-quick down to his wrist, leaving his arm stiff, immobile, and useless.

The pain did not stop, and Arakita fell further, his body curling over his right arm, and he screamed out at the feeling of something coming undone in the only limb that felt, paradoxically, alive, even as it died.

The coach called for a time out. Paramedics came and bore Arakita away on a stretcher, and as they carried him by the dugout he saw the second year they’d been training as a relief pitcher take up a mitt.

Later, he’s told that his team had won the game. After fourteen hours, a physical exam, and an EMG to see if he’d damaged his nerves or his muscles, Arakita finds out that the attentions of a seeded school was not the only thing he’d lost.

In the summer before high school, with his former team sending get well soon cards and flowers and never once stepping into his hospital room, busy as they were with acclimating themselves to the high schools that had accepted them, Arakita struggled to come to terms with what the doctors had called an irrefutable fact – he would no longer be able to use his right arm as he’d done before.

The complications stacked together, and against them, his baseball career crumbled: he would suffer partial loss of movement in his wrist and hand, his grip strength would not even be half of what it used to be, and the repetitive motions necessitated by pitching would only lend to the further battering of his nerves.

But, the doctors assured him, with the proper medication and a strict adherence to the prescribed physical therapy, he could avoid losing all feeling in his arm for good. He would not have to live as an invalid, as his mother had feared, and with enough time, he could slowly progress from using splints or slings and be able to support his arm on his own.

Arakita stared at his mother’s tearfully smiling face, listened to her voice as she assured his father that he would be alright, everything would be okay – and he found that he was grateful, for the first time (and perhaps, the last), for the painkillers which coursed through his veins, and how they dulled his senses enough to make it seem like he wholeheartedly agreed.

In the spring of that same year, Arakita entered Hakone Academy – an hour’s travel by train from his hometown; featured prominently for its school grounds, curriculum, and relatively young but prolific cycling team; and, most importantly, lacking any semblance of a diamond or a baseball team.

With thoughtless ease, he shrugged off his parents’ concern, distracted his sisters with the prospect of redecorating his room beyond recognition, and ticked the “yes”-boxes on the dorm information sheet where it asked if he would be staying for the year’s vacations.

 


 

The rest of Arakita’s first day passes in a muffled, irritating blur. None of the other students in the classroom knew how to approach the scowling boy in the fourth row, not when the health representative’s pleasant greeting only earned her a vicious comment on her eyesight and lack of common sense.

Arakita preferred it this way – even exchanging customary greetings with people who kept shooting him suspicious, fearful glances was taxing; actual conversations would be like pulling teeth without anesthetics. And it wasn’t as if he came to Hakone to make friends, or even learn anything. The teachers were easier to fool, and if he straightened the corners of his mouth and gave them the barest minimum of a nod in acknowledgement, they were satisfied and moved out of his way.

His schedule gives him early dismissal on Mondays – his doctor advised against unsupervised individual or team sports this early on in his recovery, so instead, he would go to the nearby hospital to have sessions with a physical therapist on the days supposedly slated for physical education. The doctor had given him the therapist’s number, and, disgustingly prompt, his phone alerts him with a message half an hour before their scheduled session.

Arakita turns his phone off and stalks around the school, avoiding students and teachers alike until he finds an out of the way shed and settles there. It’s nearly dark when he treks back to the dorms, and with one last faked pleasantry for the dorm manager, he returns to his room and flushes the night’s pills down the toilet.

 


 

“Of course, we’re aiming for mobility, but pitching is entirely out of the question.”

And the doctor started in on his physical therapy regimen, how the prognosis was hopeful but they shouldn’t stop being vigilant, and how it was imperative that Yasutomo-kun took his medication without waiting for the pain to become unbearable.

“In most cases, three months of treatment would yield positive results. Perhaps, even within the school year, we’ll see some improvement.”

His mother was happy. His father relaxed at the news, and the hand he settled on Arakita’s shoulder was clearly meant to be encouraging. Even his doctor smiled, as if he’d just solved all of his patient’s worries.

“Isn’t that wonderful news, Yasutomo?”

Pitching is entirely out of the question.

He would never play baseball again.

“Yasutomo, aren’t you happy?”

Arakita stares at the ceiling, keenly aware that he had not fallen asleep at all, that the ‘dream’ he’d had was actually a memory – and he takes another deep breath, one more than he thinks he has any right to take.

In four hours, he would have to get up again. It would only be the second day of classes.

 


 

The boys’ bathroom is usually empty in between first and second period, and sometimes, he doesn’t even have to lock himself in a stall and wait for the bile to rise in his throat. Sometimes, he simply stands and digs his nails into his idiot arm for fifteen minutes, or until he’s satisfied. It’s not as if there’s anything entertaining in the bathroom – Hakone Academy students aren’t delinquents, so there are no cleverly hidden or arrogantly obvious graffiti in any of the stalls or the linoleum walls.

Even the mirrors are clean, unblemished, and perfectly honest when they reflect back the slightest of tremors in Arakita’s right hand when he reaches up to run his damp fingers through his hair.

Only the first broken mirror is an “accident”.

(The words “I was trying to fix my hair, I must have slipped on a wet patch, I’ll be more careful next time” are spoken as easily as “I’ll be okay, just give it time and space, I’ll be okay”.

No matter if Arakita has to repeat them twenty-two times.)

Arakita is asked to visit the nurse on the first Sunday of his second month in Hakone Academy. Ostensibly, so that the bandages on his right hand (once around the knuckles of his ring and middle fingers, twice over the back, right above a thick, pulsing vein) could be changed, but Arakita does not hope for anything so simple from the visit.

When he arrives, his physician – who looks like a grandfather, smiling benignly even when he told Arakita he would never pitch again – is there too, taking the time to explain the minute changes to his prescriptions, the expected side-effects, and, nearly as an afterthought, he asks how Arakita is doing.

(There is a system – one, three pills behind is “Pretty okay”; an entire day’s worth is “Alright”; two days is “Fine”; a week, the current standing record, is “I think I’m doing better”)

Arakita straightens in his seat, gives the kindly old doctor an easy, practiced smile, and says, “I think I’m doing better.”

 


  

This is how Arakita figures his ‘system’ out:

By the second week, most of his medication has either caused him to dry heave into the toilet or live through classes by biting his tongue to keep him awake. Sleep is a luxury, and so is a day when he doesn’t want to shove a sniveling student down a flight of stairs because they take so goddamn slow when they walk in front of him. Arakita is no stranger to bruises, but everyone else is, because the school blazer is at least good for covering them up when they appear on his idiot arm.

His phone is off more than it’s on, but his physical therapist has caught on to his avoidance, and comes to pick him up before his last class ends.

The only truly quiet place Arakita has is the shed he’d found on the first day.

He opens his eyes on his third Sunday at Hakone, takes one look at the array of pills he’s scheduled to take – and with a flick of his wrist, empties them into the toilet. That’s three pills down, he thinks almost giddily to himself.

Arakita visits the library to do his homework, spends lunch picking at the grass growing behind the shed (no one seems to have noticed that he’s practically claimed it as his own by this point), and walks around the school grounds three times before he starts to feel the ache in his bones.

It was, all things considered, a pretty okay day.

He experiments, and the rest of the ‘system’ branches out from there. When he starts wanting to gnaw his idiot arm off, he sits by the shed. When his arm starts to feel like one giant sore spot, he sits by the shed. He never truly gets used to the ache, but somehow the days aren’t as bad as before.

(The students in Arakita’s class stop noticing the scowling boy in the fourth row – he does not intimidate them so much nowadays, and if he’s perfectly fine with ignoring them, well, they’re perfectly happy to return the favor)

On days when he feels “pretty okay”, he’s even able to fake his improvement in front of his physical therapist.

 


 

That morning, the hallways buzzed with students asking each other about their plans for winter break. On instinct, Arakita checks to make sure his phone is off, and after class, he stays at the shed another extra hour.

When he comes back to the dorms, the dorm head, a third year with smiling eyes and a good, solid handshake, leads Arakita into the dorm manager’s lounge where the telephone is. He tells Arakita that his mother had been calling, and that he’d asked her to call at this specific time since he knew Arakita would be done with classes already. All this, as if Arakita had not turned his phone off to avoid this very situation.

“She was asking if you weren’t going back for a break. I saw your information form, and you said you’d be staying all throughout the school year, but she seemed to really want your company for the holidays. I hope you’ll take the chance to talk it over with her.”

He leaves Arakita alone in the lounge to speak with his mother.

Today is a “fine” day, so Arakita chooses to indulge his mother – he listens to her talk about the decorations they’ve put up around the house, how his sisters and his dog miss playing in the snow with him, how they swear they haven’t gone too overboard with the redecorations in his room. He hm’s and ah’s and produces a sound that successfully passes off as a laugh at the correct intervals.

Because it’s a “fine” day, he feels largely disconnected from the majority of his surroundings. Arakita starts to think that he is talking with his mother, face to face. The phone, the distance between them (Only an hour by train), dissolves, and the words, unburdened by even an ounce of sentiment, come easier.

“Didn’t the doctor tell you? I’m doing better, mom. I want to stay over for the holidays – the dorm heads and everyone else who’s staying are talking about a party, and I’ve been working really hard, I deserve a break! Yeah, yeah, I take breaks. This is a break! I know. I know you do. I do, I do, but – I’m okay. I’m feeling better. Yeah, I’ll try to call. I won’t forget. Yeah, yeah. Bye, mom.”

When he returns to his dorm room, Arakita keeps his phone off. He stays awake until after lights out, lulled into half-consciousness by the droning buzz in his head. The day ends on an “alright” note.

 


 

Arakita’s parents receive a phone call from the school, a few weeks before summer break. Recently, the calls about Yasutomo have only seldom been on a good vein, but this call isn’t from the dorm head or his physical therapist or his physician – it’s from his homeroom teacher.

“There isn’t anything wrong with Yasutomo-kun’s grades, you must understand. He’s performing acceptably well, and just the other day he approached me to inquire about the summer classes we offer. Personally, I think it would help him to sign up for them. They’re set up to act as introductory classes for the subjects he’ll be taking in his second year, and it’s admirable that he’d like to prepare for them ahead of time. I do hope you’d give the matter some thought.”

Warmed by the thought that their son had started to take his studies seriously, a possible sign that he truly was getting better, Arakita’s parents gave their approval.

With his back against the shed which was his only comfort for the past year, Arakita receives the call from his parents – he listens to his mother gushing about how proud she was, his father promising to send his scooter over as soon as his physical therapist finished her assessment, and even speaks briefly with his sisters, who are, in their words, taking the best care of his dog.

Arakita dry swallows a pill, the last one he’ll be taking for another week, and manages to pretend that he’s as happy as his family is.

 


  

It’s daunting to think that he would have to face another year – the last was bad enough, why did he have to take on another?

Another year of hauling around a dead limb. Another year of accidentally breaking glasses or cups and pretending to be well-adjusted. Another year of waiting for night to fall behind a shed that, curiously, has begun to seem like a cage, for all the comfort it gave him before.

But then – it’s only another year. If he didn’t want to, he could even opt out of finishing it.

It isn’t as if he has anything to live for, anyway.

 


  

Summer classes are less of a pain than regular classes – only a handful of students from his year had signed up, and they were content to continue the mutual agreement of ignoring Arakita if he ignored them in return. The exercises and assignments are hard, but doing badly is not an option, so Arakita grouses and grumbles while he finishes them up in the library or behind the shed.

 

 

But the weeks pass by too quickly, like the road racers Arakita had once seen while driving up Mount Hakone on his scooter, and all too soon Arakita finds himself contending with a new set of classmates and another adjusted schedule and teachers who smiled too widely at the “quiet, diligent boy” in the last row.

Just to spite them, and the classmates who apparently still hadn’t gotten the memo about how they could survive the year without getting shoved down the stairs, even after two months of Arakita ignoring them, Arakita cuts the afternoon half of his classes and visits the shed.

It occurs to him that, because of the hectic work-arounds filling up his schedule, he hadn’t had any time to himself behind the shed. A tragedy, and, upon reflection, that was possibly the reason why he’d taken to crushing his pills between his teeth instead of dissolving them in cans of bepsi – he’d fix that today.

Arakita turns the corner, and – stops in his tracks, when he realizes that he is no longer alone.

There, in what was obviously a recently-erected hutch in the shade and comfort of the shed he’d come to think of his own, was a rabbit. In lieu of a greeting, it twitches its nose at Arakita, who, in shock, simply lets his limbs sit him down across the hutch.

After a few moments, Arakita realizes that he couldn’t keep referring to the rabbit as ‘rabbit’. Painted across the top of the hutch was a name, and, if he were to acknowledge the fact that he would be sharing his shed with the rabbit from thereon in, he would have to acknowledge its name, too.

With a sigh, a muttered curse, and only a moment’s hesitance, Arakita leans over and extends his right hand towards the rabbit. It sniffs curiously at the air, before inching closer and nudging its nose against Arakita’s hand.

“Hey, Usakicchi.”

Chapter Text

Arakita does not know the first thing about rabbits. He’s never seen the appeal of having one as a pet, the only animal he would willingly admit affection for being their dog (the stray cats he sometimes feeds aren’t part of the equation), so the predicament of sharing his hideout with what is, to his untrained eye at least, a baby rabbit isn’t something he has ever prepared for.

Which is why, on the day following his first afternoon with Usakicchi, Arakita finds himself browsing through the school library’s collection on animals and pet care. The librarian lends him a rolling table – the one she uses to cart the returned books around to re-shelve them – and Arakita’s stiff idiot arm prompts his sincere thanks. He spends half an hour peeking and prodding through the shelves, and sits down with no less than a dozen references at the end of it.

A few of the books Arakita takes down cover general pet care (fishes, puppies, cats), but fewer still are devoted solely to rabbits as pets. One talks about their preference for Hakone grass, another about their  associated folktales, and another details the process of rabbit hunting in the earlier years – but none of the books could give him an idea about actually owning and taking care of a rabbit.

Later, as they stack the books back into the shelves together, the librarian recalls lending out a series of rabbit-specific books just the other day, “To Shinkai-kun, a second year; He’ll have them for another week, but I’d be happy to set them aside for you when he returns them.” Arakita thanks the librarian, and makes a note to visit again the following week.

In the meantime, Arakita turns to the internet for help, and after dodging some questionable websites he manages to at least have a grasp of the essential basics: for food, Usakicchi would need good quality hay or grass, fresh water, and vegetables at regular intervals; for the cage, it would need a designated corner with shredded newspaper or straws for the litter, and maybe a cardboard box with holes cut into it for a playpen. Nothing too hard to find or prepare, Arakita notes with some relief – at the very least, it wouldn’t be harder than taking care of a dog.

During afternoon break, Arakita brings the printed pages of his research, the next day’s homework, and a cupful of vegetables and water to the shed. Usakicchi hesitates for only a moment when faced with food – a dainty sniff of the air, a glance at Arakita – before digging in with gusto. This makes Arakita huff out a laugh and hide behind his papers, but Usakicchi is too concerned with the food to notice Arakita’s amusement. Eventually, Arakita settles, and gets started on his homework.

 


 

After a week, Arakita is pleased to find that Usakicchi is a model pet. Some would call it being “terribly uninteresting” or “boring”, but Arakita doesn’t mind the fact that the height of excitement for Usakicchi is a cardboard box with six holes in various places. It’s inarguably cute to watch the fuzzy thing wriggle and hop around the cage – and his lap, that one time Arakita decided to experiment with human-pet contact.       

(Usakicchi was warm and soft under his idiot hand, calm and still until Arakita brought out the lettuce. He nearly missed his classes, and, once in them, his phone is almost confiscated – Usakicchi photographed well, even with the shitty pixels on Arakita’s phone.)

As a result, Arakita’s schedule undergoes a slight adjustment: in the mornings, he drops by the dorm cafeterias for a bite of breakfast for himself and Usakicchi; during breaks, he checks on Usakicchi’s water and litter; and after classes, he hunkers down and plays with Usakicchi, sometimes dozing off on homework while Usakicchi munched on a handful of treats.

Arakita gets so involved in Usakicchi’s care, in fact, that when he wakes up on the morning marking his third month as a second year in Hakone Academy, he nearly forgets to flush his pills down the toilet. As he stares at his pillbox, Arakita feels an expression of confusion tugging his brow and the corners of his mouth down.

He tries to remember details from the past week, how many pills he’d crushed or flushed away – but at the forefront of his mind is running searches for Usakicchi, the cafeteria ladies smiling when he asks for an extra cup of vegetables, the librarian telling him that “Shinkai-kun, the second year” would have the books back by Friday.

Eventually, when the insistent, dull throbbing in his idiot arm turns sharp and grating, Arakita dumps the day’s pills into his palm and down his throat anyway. He frowns at his pillbox again – and realizes with a start that today is Friday, the day set aside for his physical therapy sessions this semester. And this session in particular is important because, after talking it out with each other and his parents, his physician and his physical therapist had agreed to have his sessions at the school infirmary.

Has he really been that distracted by taking care of a dumb rabbit that he’s forgotten how his week had gone, “system”-wise? The thought offsets Arakita’s mood for the rest of the day – even Usakicchi seems to notice, if the damp nose that nudges Arakita’s fingers when he’s setting down the lettuce is any indication of concern. In class, he’s even more of a recluse than usual, but his classmates have come to know better, and no one comments on his clipped answers and fouler mood. He manages the day somehow, and is still able to stand at the door of the infirmary no later than scheduled.

Aside from the incident with the mirrors, Arakita hasn’t set foot into the infirmary at all in the duration of his first year and in the first few months of his second year, but the nurse remembers him and is pleasant and polite as she ushers him to the curtained-off rows of beds further in. She tells him that his therapist is caught in a spot of traffic, as some roads were closed off for the bicycle racing club’s practice race, but the rest of the way shouldn’t take her more than five minutes.

Arakita busies himself with looking around the infirmary (all beds empty, aside from his and the one directly across it), cataloguing his pain (a high six, holding steady), and rotating his idiot arm clockwise, counter-clockwise (to the droning count of the physical therapist’s voice in his head). He’s distractedly wondering if Usakicchi has finished the vegetable cup from that morning’s breakfast when his physical therapist arrives, apologetic and characteristically gung ho. Arakita musters up some passable expressions for her, and the rest of the hour passes in counts of eights, the turning of his joints, and a brief interview about his week and how the session went for him.

His physical therapist is smiling brightly as she leaves, congratulating him on his progress and improvement. The nurse has to remind her to modulate herself, but Arakita’s therapist is an unrepentantly loud woman, and the damage is already done – the curtains providing a measure of privacy for the only other student in the infirmary are drawn open, and Arakita watches as a redhead with sleepy blue eyes folds and fixes the cot’s bedclothes and sheets.

The nurse approaches both of them, giving Arakita a nod and the other boy a polite smile as she fixes the curtains around the bed. “How are you feeling, Shinkai-kun?”

Arakita ignores their idle chatter, focusing on slipping buttons and straightening his sleeves – wait, did she say Shinkai-kun? “…and since I woke up in time today, I’ll be heading off to the library to return some books.”

A furtive glance confirms Arakita’s growing suspicions: ‘Shinkai-kun’ is holding a small stack of books, and as the titles printed on the spines proudly proclaim, they’re the rabbit-care books Arakita has been waiting for. Coincidence or something like it, Arakita thinks, and tries to look less un-amused at the universe’s lame attempt a joke.

He walks up to ‘Shinkai-kun’, meets his questioning gaze, and asks, “You’re a second year, yeah?” The boy nods, and because Arakita has no skill in making small talk, he glances pointedly at the books in his hands, “I’ve been wanting to borrow those books you’ve got. Mind if I go ahead and bring ‘em back?”

His words aren’t pitched to be threatening, but Arakita knows he tends to menace out of habit and the fact that he can’t speak more than two civil words to his decidedly unintelligent classmates doesn’t help. Still, Shinkai doesn’t pick up on Arakita’s blatant lack of social skills, and even smiles at him as he hands over the books and thanks Arakita for his offer. He’s not condescending about it, and Arakita cobbles together the excuse of a report that was due soon before shuffling out of the infirmary.

Something about Shinkai’s easy smile and the way it didn’t quite reach his eyes stands out in Arakita’s mind, but he shrugs the thought off and makes his way to the library in quick, nearly-rushing strides. The books aren’t late (somehow, he doesn’t think Shinkai would have let him bring them back if they were), but Arakita almost is for Usakicchi’s afternoon meal. He runs through the cafeteria, successfully intimidates a gaggle of first years away from the vending machine, and makes it to the shed and Usakicchi’s hutch with at least an hour of daylight left.

Usakicchi favors Arakita’s sudden arrival with nothing more than a perfunctory sniff and an excited hop-wriggle. Arakita rolls his eyes at the rabbit’s greeting, but he gives Usakicchi a few gentle pats with his idiot hand anyway. He sets out the food he’d brought, and kneels to wheedle the rabbit closer to the tray.

An unsuccessfully muffled laugh breaks the silence, and Arakita looks up to see the boy from the infirmary (‘Shinkai-kun, the second year’) standing at the edge of the shed, laughing behind his hand. His eyes are laughing, too, as he watches Arakita coaxing Usakicchi onto his lap. Usakicchi dutifully does another hop-wriggle, and clambers onto Arakita’s lap.

The rabbit is, apparently, shameless; the boy, not so much – Arakita feels a flush creeping up his neck as he hisses, “Be quiet!”, and is, predictably, ignored.

 


 

year2-1

 

How Shinkai manages to interpret Arakita’s hissing threats and orders to leave as an invitation to sit down with him and Usakicchi is a mystery. Though, Arakita knows he’s being uncharacteristically irrational, and he berates himself in private while Shinkai cuddles Usakicchi – he starts with the obvious, which is, Why did I not think that the dumb rabbit had an owner?! Did I think the stupid fluff ball named itself??

“Since you already know Usakicchi,” Shinkai begins blithely, and this earns him another of Arakita’s glares – he continues, anyway, utterly fearless, “I’ll just introduce myself. My name is Shinkai Hayato, from class 2-B.” Arakita seethes for another moment before recognizing the futility of his struggles. He fixes a grudging look at Shinkai, and extends his left hand. “Arakita. Class 2-A.”

Shinkai glances at his right hand, polite even in his blatant questioning, but even if Arakita acknowledges that he’s not being overbearing about it, that doesn’t mean he’d indulge him. Shinkai gets the message quickly enough and shakes his offered hand, once, twice. When Arakita moves to pull his hand away, however, he tightens his grip noticeably, and asks, “Is that your first name?”

Arakita bristles at his audacity, “No, it’s not. Why’d you want my first name anyway?”

“So I can thank you properly, for taking such good care of Usakicchi.” Shinkai seems to have completely disregarded the fact that Arakita is a stranger to him. He also doesn’t seem to be the type to back down. Just my luck, huh, Arakita thinks.

“It’s Yasutomo,” he mutters gruffly, reaching for the rabbit and a bit of lettuce. If Shinkai was going to take all this in stride, Arakita wouldn’t be the one to kick it out of joint. He’s already come to accept Usakicchi’s presence in his hideout, making room for the rabbit’s persistent owner is just the other shoe dropping into place.

Shinkai’s hand joins Arakita’s on Usakicchi’s back, which the rabbit barely registers, being busy with the lettuce and all, but it makes Arakita look up – right at Shinkai’s face. Before he could let Shinkai know that he’s in clean punching distance, Shinkai says, “Thank you for taking care of Usakicchi, Yasutomo.”

Too close, Arakita thinks. And on the heels of that, What kind of person would stick their face this close to a stranger’s, for a fucking rabbit?!

The answer to that being ‘Shinkai Hayato’, apparently. Arakita can barely feel the ache in his idiot arm – the headache that Shinkai is cultivating is taking precedent over everything else with disturbing ease.

Dismissively, he breaks their mutual gaze, to nudge a carrot cube into Usakicchi’s mouth. “Whatever, I just had the time. D’you even feed this thing? It always eats everything I bring it, greedy shit.”

Shinkai leans back and tilts his head at the rabbit-care book lying ignored beside Arakita’s book bag. He flips through it and says, “I remember reading that rabbits should have as much food as they want, like hay or grass.”

“Hakone grass is a favorite of rabbits.”

“I read that, too. Though Usakicchi likes your carrot cubes better, I think. Does she want more?”

“You can tell it’s a ‘she’? And fuck off, I’m feeding her.”

“Mmhm, Usakicchi’s our little princess.”

Our princess??”

Shinkai winks, and points his finger like a pistol at Arakita before going “ba-kyun!” Arakita is utterly speechless, and later realizes he’s made friends with a complete weirdo for the sake of a rabbit.

 


 

Before leaving Usakicchi that day, Shinkai tries to fold a paper crown for her to chew on. Arakita helps by discouraging him, and, when Shinkai proves positively inept at the task, looking up instructions for origami crowns on his phone. They also exchange contact details (“Your dorm room?” “Haaa? Why would I tell you??” “I’ll just follow you later, then.” “Stalker! Weirdo! It’s 207, but you better not think that’s an invitation to come over!!”), and Arakita magnanimously refrains from charging Shinkai for the extra groceries he had to buy for Usakicchi.

Shinkai mails him that night – [Shall we go grocery shopping together tomorrow?], and Arakita replies embarrassingly quickly, [You think I have that much free time??? Meet me at the dorm lobby after lunch, if you’re late I’m leaving you behind AND charging you].

Troublesome, Arakita thinks, as he opens Shinkai’s reply – blank, save for a cheery-looking rabbit kaomoji – and downs his night’s pills with a lukewarm can of bepsi. Really troublesome.

 


 

Arakita’s schedule changes, again:

Saturday afternoons are grocery days.

Shinkai smiles wide when he’s made to carry the basket, and Arakita only realizes the danger of this when, at the checkout, there are snacks that Arakita is sure Usakicchi isn’t allowed nor able to eat. “Fuck, pay for your own groceries!”

Sunday mornings are exercise days.

“A cardboard box, Yasutomo?”

“Yeah, she needs a new one, the old one’s gnawed soggy. Usakicchi! Listen! You’ve gotta find the fucking exit, not make one…”

“… It’s very smart of her to do so, though.”

“…Tch.”

On weekdays, Arakita claims morning break-feeding. Shinkai claims afternoon breaks. Arakita tries to claim lunch, too, but Shinkai butts heads with him long enough that it ends up as a joint-feeding session, with all three of them having lunch together.

Not even a week after their first meeting and Shinkai is insisting that Arakita use his given name.

Shinkai waits out Arakita’s five minute-long rant on decency, personal preferences, Usakicchi’s growing lack of manners, and Shinkai’s general weirdness, and comes out of that day’s lunch period with the fond memory of Arakita yelling “Hayato! Hamster cheeks Hayato!”

Arakita only counts this as further proof of Hayato’s weirdness.

 


 

[Yasutomo ], Hayato begins, [ I’ll visit Usakicchi first today].

Today?

Arakita blinks blearily at his phone and pulls up the calendar.

It takes him a good three minutes to thumb out a simple reply, which Arakita wholly attributes to having skipped two, now three, days of medication. Hayato texts back a happy rabbit kaomoji which Arakita painstakingly copies to his drafts for future reference. He peers at the timestamp on the message – he isn’t late for class yet, and so feels completely justified letting his head drop back down onto his pillow.

It takes another fifteen minutes for the haze in his head to clear, after which the day’s to-do registers in his mind in fits and starts: Maths exam. Revising an essay on Japanese history. Physical therapy at the infirmary. Trying to get Usakicchi to play with a ball. Pills after dinner. Not too busy, Arakita thinks, and sets about preparing for class.

He reminds Hayato about the ball during morning break, and gets a winking rabbit kaomoji for his trouble, with the message [We’ll be waiting later after classes!].

Even though Arakita knows he probably overheard the catch up interview his therapist did at the end of their session, Hayato never brings up their first meeting at the infirmary. He doesn’t say a word about Arakita not having any physical education classes, or about how Arakita holds his right arm differently on some days. Arakita doesn’t make much about Hayato being at the infirmary on that day, too, even though sometimes Arakita spies a dazed look in Hayato’s eyes after breakfast or a trip to the bathroom in the middle of lunch.

He figures they have their own issues and asking questions isn’t ever going to be on the agenda, seeing as how they were both already very concerned about Usakicchi, her growing appetite, and Hayato’s tendency to give Arakita head pats as if he were another dumb rabbit.

[Yeah, yeah, see ya]

 


 

Hayato knocks on Arakita’s door exactly eighteen days after issuing his threat to follow Arakita to his room if he didn’t tell him what its number was. Arakita dry swallows the day’s pills, loosens his tie, and answers the door with his mouth turned down in a scowl out of habit. Hayato greets him good morning, all pink-cheeked smiles, and asks if they could eat breakfast together.

“Hayato! Fuck! I already said I’d meet you at the hall, idiot.”

Unrepentant, Hayato links his arm with Arakita’s as they walk. “I was just making sure you wouldn’t forget. Besides, there are pancakes today. I’m doing you a favor, Yasutomo.” Arakita rolls his eyes and bumps his shoulder against Hayato’s. “Yeah, sure, you’re doing me a favor. When did I say I needed one, haa?”

“Food solves most problems, Yasutomo,” Hayato intones, inappropriately solemn. Arakita gives him another shoulder-shove, and Hayato laughs before grabbing Arakita’s idiot hand and tugging him down the steps leading to the cafeteria. “Let’s go, Yasutomo, before they run out!”

Later, as he’s staring half-attentively at the board in class, Arakita thinks about Hayato’s hand, wrapped around his, and how easily he’d been able to tell that it was warm.

[Your palms are sweaty, d’you know that? Super gross.]

[Sorry, sorry, I was nervous about not getting any pancakes!]

[Glutton. Aren’t there cafés in town for you to terrorize?]

[There is a new one, but it’s closer to the station than the school. Do you want to go after classes?]

Arakita has only ever visited the hospital and the closest convenience store. He’s lived in Hakone for a year and a half, and he’s never been around the town itself.

[Yeah okay.]

[I’ll pick you up later then]

[Fuck off!! We’re dropping by Usakicchi first.]

 


 

“Yasutomo, here, try this one.”

The bite of cake that Hayato is holding up reminds Arakita of the lipstick his sisters often pester their parents to buy. It’s horrifically pink, but Arakita doesn’t put much stock in his assessment – it’d been a while since he’d eaten cake, it could be one of those ugly on the outside-tasty on the inside deals. Probably. He leans over anyway and closes his mouth around Hayato’s fork, leaning back to chew contemplatively on what seemed to be a concentrated square of sugar. He takes a sip of his water, and meets Hayato’s excited gaze.

“… I think my tongue is numb, Hayato.”

Hayato laughs. Arakita threatens to punch his teeth out.

“If that’s how you feel about ‘Angel’s Delight’, how about plain chocolate?”

“Go fuck yourself, Hayato. Give me the coffee slice.”

 


 

It’s not surprising that Hayato has a sweet tooth – even before their visit to the sweets café, Arakita’s gone shopping for groceries with him enough times to watch it in action (“Put the box of assorted chocolates down, Hayato.”), so it’s nothing that needs to be said. He likes bepsi, too, which is a big part of why Arakita doesn’t rag on him for his ultimately unhealthy food choices. He remembers this when his mother sends over candied fruits and sweet jams one weekend, five months into the school year.

Arakita makes his way to Hayato’s room – 213, just a hallway and a turn down from his own – and contemplates how fast he could hand off the packages before Hayato insisted on thank you-hugs. The guy was ridiculously touchy-feely, but Arakita knows he only denies indulging him on principle – they sit close when they spend time with Usakicchi, and Hayato is a good, solid pillow for movie marathons. He’s pretty well built for someone who looks defenseless against a gust of wind, but all he does with it is shame Arakita by not even breaking a sweat when they walk around.

Besides, when Arakita holds on to Hayato, he actually feels things in his idiot hand, like when he’d first held Usakicchi – although he’d never say such things out loud. Between them, Hayato is the one who can say “Yasutomo! I love you!” without flinching or having his intentions called into question (they were mostly related to food, anyway). Arakita is the one who threatens fatal bodily harm and acts as a human-pet pillow when Hayato and Usakicchi double-team a nap on him. It should piss him off, but Arakita knows what it’s like to find a good place to rest in, and if Hayato put Usakicchi behind the shed for that same purpose, Arakita isn’t about to kick them out.

Arakita knocks on 213’s door, and when he wordlessly holds the packages of sweets up to Hayato’s face, Hayato’s eyes light up and he throws his arms around Arakita without reservation. “Yasutomo! I love you!”

What an idiot, Arakita thinks, without a single trace of malice.

 


 

Actually, is it possible that… I’m the idiot…?

As a general rule, Arakita doesn’t pay attention to his classmates. The lack of communication goes both ways, and he’s never felt the need to connect with any of them – not in his first year, and certainly not now, when his hands are already full with minding Usakicchi, and on occasion, Hayato.

But when the boys crowding around a desk to his left start discussing things like feelings, and how people demonstrate feelings, it isn’t Arakita’s fault that his interest is piqued because he associates all the things they’re saying with one person in particular, especially since the link forms much, much too easily –

“What, all that – the lunches and the touching and everything, that’s supposed to show how much she likes you??”

“Haven’t you been paying attention? That’s exactly what I’m saying! She wouldn’t go through that much trouble just because she felt like it, yeah? She definitely… definitely likes me.”

Arakita wants to grab the boy speaking with such self-assured calmness and shake him for answers – How sure are you? How many lunches did you share?? Did she ever say “I love you!” just because you brought her some damn sweets?!? – but he knows it would be useless. They were talking about girls, and Arakita is thinking about someone who is most assuredly not a girl, even if the distinction ceases to matter under the right light or when Arakita’s not too drugged up in painkillers to acknowledge the fine lines of Hayato’s face.

Fuck, he needs to leave. Better yet, the other guys need to stop talking. Arakita wishes he’d flushed his pills down the toilet instead of washing them down with the bepsi Hayato brought him before breakfast. He needs to stop thinking. He needs to–

“Even if she likes you, you won’t know ‘til you kiss her, right?”

Arakita freezes in his seat, and remains unmoving until his phone vibrates with a message.

[I’ve got a surprise for you. Come to the shed after classes, and don’t be late!]

 


 

Arakita doesn’t find out what Hayato’s surprise is.

He gets to the shed, a stitch in his chest making breathing an absolute chore, and Hayato is there, his fingers skimming over Usakicchi’s fur. Too gentle, and Arakita thinks about how he usually has to hand the dumb rabbit off to her actual owner sometimes, when Hayato starts acting like he hadn’t built the thing a little hutch and given her a name.

“Hayato.”

You’re a fucking idiot, Arakita wants to say. He’s said it – and by extension, Hayato’s name – so many times these past few weeks. Arakita’s mouth has never fit so well around another person’s name. It’s annoying how easily it comes to him, and it’s annoying that Hayato never had this problem, calling him ‘Yasutomo’ right off the bat. The insult is easier, but he doesn’t mean anything by it. If there’s an idiot between the two of them, Arakita’s sure it’s him.

“Yasutomo. Come over here, I need to show you something.”

It’d be too cliché, right? To fall for the first person he finally feels comfortable with. Since when did his life turn into a shoddily written light novel? This was insane. Also, unfair. Arakita feels the stitch in his chest widen, and now he can’t even feel his feet moving. Is this what an overdose feels like? How many hours has he spent with Hayato, here, without needing anyone else?

“Hayato,” Arakita repeats, and reaches for him with his steadier hand. Hayato turns easily, a line of concern knotting his forehead, a question on his lips, and Arakita sees no other opportunity for it, so he leans closer, holding Hayato still by his shoulders – this time, the silence is fabricated and unreal, and Arakita knows, mere millimeters between them, that he’s made a mistake.

Gently, very gently, Hayato coaxes Arakita to lean away. The look in his eyes, the pressure of his hands on Arakita’s arms – too gentle, much too gentle, I am not your fucking pet rabbit, stop looking at me like I need your fucking concern!

But Hayato says “Yasutomo,” with a full measure of pity instead and Arakita realizes that he can’t breathe because, before this morning, he hadn’t taken any of his pills at all, for a solid week. It’s only because Hayato had come to his room, and insisted on walking to class that morning, and even bribed him with a bepsi, that he’d rushed and taken them anyway. Fucking idiot.

“Yasutomo, I…”

Hayato reaches for his right hand, and Arakita flinches back, his gaze dropping to Usakicchi’s hutch. He recognizes the singing in his veins now, and takes up a litany of stupid, stupid, how could you be so goddamn stupid in his head. He doesn’t even look at Hayato when he turns and runs.

 


 

All throughout middle school, Arakita had friends – all the members of the baseball team were his friends. It was the kind of friendship that existed because they saw each other nearly every day for the better part of three years. He hadn’t even been particularly close with his catcher, but they worked out fine. Looking back on it now, he must’ve at least known that they only liked him because of baseball. People were easy, back then, because he knew what they wanted from him and he knew he wouldn’t let them down.

(Arakita remembers being proven right when not one member of his team visits him in the hospital. He broke the vase they’d sent over with the flowers and cards, and told his parents that it was an accident; the team didn’t send another.)

Ever since he came to Hakone, Arakita hasn’t had time for friends. Interacting with people for extended periods of time is a chore, and Arakita already couldn’t even stand himself; his classmates would do no better. The teachers are easier, even if the patronizing looks in their eyes made his skin crawl. His physical therapist, his physician with the painted smile (“You’ll be fine, Yasutomo,”) – they’re easy, too. He’s long learned how to tune them out, and the system helps. Things are manageable, and that’s the best Arakita thinks he could ever hope for. Being happy again is entirely out of the question.

And then amidst all that, there’s Hayato.

Everything about him should have pissed Arakita off. His persistence and how fast he learned to push Arakita’s buttons, and how he was always toeing the line between being a ditz and being unfairly cheeky – all of that together made the kind of person Arakita should have hated and shoved into janitor’s closets, holding the door closed until they cried.

But now, even the thought of making the stupid idiot cry wrenches something in Arakita’s gut. The thought of avoiding him and Usakicchi for the rest of their days at Hakone is just as unpleasant. It’d take too much effort, besides, and Arakita doesn’t think he’d have the energy to handle that, on top of ignoring everyone else. His lifestyle really couldn’t take so many sudden changes.

Arakita sighs, and checks the time on his phone – seven in the morning, on the dot. He’d been awake all night, thinking and being stupid. He didn’t have any other choice, anyway.

He keys in a message to Hayato, simple and quick. [Meet me at the shed this morning break]

Hayato replies barely a minute later. [Alright]

 


 

I’m pathetic , Arakita thinks glumly, tickling Usakicchi’s nose with an apple cube. Why’d I even run away? Tch. Usakicchi ignores Arakita’s scowling – she never did have any patience for that kind of thing – and paws at Arakita’s hand. After some maneuvering, she takes the cube for herself, and does a pleased hop-wriggle when Arakita shows no sign of resistance. They’ve probably spoiled her, but having a pet and not spoiling it doesn’t sit well with Arakita. He offers her another bite of apple, and that’s when Hayato arrives.

“Good morning, Yasutomo, Usakicchi – ah, are you giving her treats again?”

Don’t act like nothing’s wrong, stupid!!

“Er, yeah. Hey, if she gets fat, it’s because you don’t let her exercise like I told you.”

Hayato hunkers down beside him, exactly two hands away, and frowns, setting down a cupful of apple cubes. Usakicchi looks up from her first cup of apples, and twitches her nose at them. “Yasutomo, I think we’ve spoilt her rotten.”

“No shit.”

“I’d like to say that you started it, because I know you dote on her more than I do.”

“Haaa! That’s because – because – why are we talking about your stupid rabbit, you stupid hamster cheeks.

Hayato looks at him then, and Arakita takes back half of every insult he’s made about Hayato being a ditz. He’s pinned in place by Hayato’s serious, level gaze, and Arakita tenses up before soldiering on.

“Yesterday, I. It wasn’t… why didn’t you punch me? You should’ve.” Arakita might not have run away, if Hayato did punch him. It might even have brought him back to his senses earlier.

Hayato makes a soft, amused sound at Arakita’s assertion, “Maybe I should have. You ran away before I could explain, and if I’d punched you, maybe you would have stayed.”

“Get the fuck out of my head, Hayato.”

In the face of Arakita’s petulant scowling, Hayato only smiles. And yeah, Arakita’s seen that smile before, directed at Usakicchi – but he’s mostly sure there’s no insult in it. If Hayato’s still fond enough of him to give him that smile, maybe they won’t have to call it quits.

“… I’m sorry. For trying to kiss you.”

“I forgive you.”

There’s barely a beat between their words, and Hayato’s expression doesn’t change. Arakita still wants Hayato to punch him in the face, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t feel relieved.

“It was for a stupid reason,” Arakita adds, and Hayato reaches out to ruffle his hair. Rude. He asks “What was the reason?” and Arakita bats his hand away.

“Told you, something stupid.”

“Did you think you were in love with me?”

Now Arakita wants to punch Hayato in the face. Really. Who says that kind of thing without even blinking?? “Yeah, and now that I think about it, it’d be the worst decision of my life – everyone in this shed knows you’re in love with chocolate-banana flavored everything.”

Hayato just nods sagely, which takes the kick out of Arakita’s insult. Hayato always does that, though, and Arakita waits for his explanation in silence.

“It would be. Neither of us is capable of those kinds of complicated feelings right now, I think.” Hayato leans back, shifting his gaze to Usakicchi. He continues, sounding as light as Arakita feels, “I wouldn’t be against being loved by you, though, Yasutomo.”

This time, when Hayato looks up, he’s smiling at Arakita – and the sight makes his stomach flip-flop in the most ridiculous way. It doesn’t hurt at all. Arakita smiles as he lifts Usakicchi onto his lap.

“Well, get in line, hamster cheeks. I’d pick Usakicchi over you, any day.”

 


 

Usakicchi falls asleep on Arakita’s lap, with Hayato tracing circles on her back, and the two of them keep talking as the night falls around them comfortably.

It’s easy to talk about feelings with Hayato, Arakita discovers. Part of it may be because they share the same feelings, but Arakita likes to think the other part is because Hayato understands so well. He’s glad Hayato knows this, and knows that Arakita thinks this, too, because actually saying it is not on Arakita’s itinerary for that night.

As Hayato said, they’re not in love with each other – it’d be too complicated for them just then, personal issues notwithstanding. That didn’t mean they couldn’t care about each other, or treat each other with affection. “We already do,” Hayato says.

“Yasutomo, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t like me, even just a little.”

In reply, Arakita insists the fingers pinching Hayato’s cheek are filled with affection, too.

 


 

Being friends with Shinkai Hayato is a spun sugar-affair. Arakita’s taste buds are slow to develop immunity to the desserts that Hayato adores, but Arakita himself has to contend with thoughtful messages more often exchanged between chummy middle school kids, eating at least two meals together every day, and having Hayato over for homework and movies (he does not count the winking and the gun-pose; Hayato is allowed his idiosyncrasies but Arakita doesn’t have to value each and every one of them, especially not the embarrassing one). The dorm manager has caught them sleeping over at each other’s dorms more than once, and they only avoid disciplinary actions thanks to Hayato’s way with words (and contraband sweets).

On the other hand, being friends with Arakita Yasutomo involves always having a bepsi on hand and bearing with weakly delivered verbal abuse when the topic of pills is brought up. They only argue about it once, and, as with their other past ‘arguments’, Arakita comes out of it wanting Hayato to punch him in the face.

 


 

It’s the first time Arakita might be late for his first class.

“Fuck! Hayato, we’re gonna be fucking late!”

“We weren’t going to sleep without finding out if the wolf-boy was really dead, now were we?”

Arakita hates how magnanimous Hayato sounds, even with toothpaste frothing around his mouth – but above that, he hates how he’s technically right (the wolf-boy wasn’t really dead, and that helped Arakita sleep better). He elbows his way to the sink, grumbling as he fumbles in the little shelf for his toothbrush and his pillbox.

Hayato’s already done rinsing when Arakita shakes the day’s pills into his hand. Their eyes meet in the mirror, and before Arakita could threaten to flush Hayato’s head along with his pills, Hayato fishes a rabbit-eared pillbox out from his pocket and rattles the pills inside it. There are more than a few, from what Arakita hears.

Without breaking their gaze, Arakita dry swallows his own and Hayato makes a faintly disgusted face. “I haven’t bought you your bepsi yet, Yasutomo.” So he did notice. Tch. Arakita shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. What’re you in for?”

Hayato tucks a pill under his tongue and gulps it down with a swallow of water, before replying, “Officially? It’s a subset of a depressive disorder. I get nightmares or no sleep at all. Some days I feel sad, but most days I just feel guilty.”

Arakita doesn’t speak, but he doesn’t look away from Hayato either, and Hayato seems to understand enough by how he relaxes, ever so slightly, when Arakita sets his right hand on his shoulder.

“I ran over Usakicchi’s mother, during a race. It was… an accident, and on my way back on the same road, I saw her lying there, dead, and I took her baby in. I stopped cycling for a while. My parents sent me to a few doctors, and they gave me these pills to help things get better.”

Arakita can’t stop the way the corners of his mouth turn down at the sentiment, “And do they help?”

Hayato shrugs, tucking his pillbox into his pocket. He pats Arakita’s hand, once, twice, and settles his hand over it. “They don’t make things better. But sometimes, they keep things from getting worse.”

He doesn’t look at Arakita’s nearly empty pillbox, but Arakita doesn’t need him to.

All the way to class, Arakita berates Hayato for bringing the wolf-boy movie on a weekday, his slow-ass morning routine, and the fact that he had to count out his change for the vending machine. Hayato smiles throughout all this, and clutches Arakita’s right hand tighter.

“Say, Yasutomo, let me buy you a cuter pillbox.”

“I’m not letting you buy me a puppy pillbox, Hayato.”

“Would you kindly receive one as a gift?”

“I would, and then I’d throw it at your face. Seriously! It won’t make me want to take them any more than I usually do!”

“I guess it’s just the bepsi, then…”

“Glad we’re back on the same page. Now, hurry the fuck up! We’re really late now, and it’s all because you’re a fucking turtle!”

“I thought I was a hamster? Oh, but I have a friend who has a turtle…”

“Shut up!”

 


 

Hayato doesn’t press for details about Arakita’s routines, but he takes naps in the infirmary while waiting for Arakita’s physical therapy sessions to end. Like before, he doesn’t say a word about Arakita’s idiot arm, but Arakita knows he’s curious.

It’s during one of their trips to Hayato’s favorite sweets café that Arakita tells him. He does nothing to embellish or stretch the story beyond what it was, but Hayato cries for him anyway. On the bus heading back to Hakone Academy, Hayato holds Arakita’s right hand. His palm and his fingertips, which Arakita feels on his knuckles, are warm.

They sleep in Arakita’s room that night, and Hayato asks Arakita about what it felt like to stand on the mound, and if he missed it. There’s not a trace of pity in Hayato’s voice – just sadness, and Arakita licks his lips and tucks his head under Hayato’s chin, and says, “It – it feels, it feels great, and, and, I – ”

After a year and a little over six months, Arakita finally grieves for the future he lost.

 


 

One month after meeting Shinkai Hayato, and Arakita puts his system to an end. Hayato doesn’t buy him a puppy pillbox, but he does, without fail, buy Arakita his first bepsi of every day they meet.

Usakicchi learns to drape herself over a ball (“This! This is the surprise you had for me back then??”), visits the veterinarian’s (“Do we have to have her neutered, Yasutomo?” “Why are you asking me?!” “Because you’re also Usakicchi’s parent!”), and spends a few memorable nights in Arakita’s room watching animated cartoons featuring her cousins and other animals.

“I’m feeling domesticated, Usakicchi,” Arakita says, as he brushes the rabbit’s fur in careful strokes. Usakicchi twitches her nose at him, her favorite expression which Arakita thinks to mean ‘Suck it up, buddy’. Hayato would be scandalized if he knew how rude his rabbit had grown up to be, so Arakita doesn’t say anything. Still.

“You’re just happy about it because you get spoiled. Shit, where the fuck is your dad, huh? It’s his turn to clean up after you, and if he tries to get out of this one–”

“Mom is going to be very mean to him?”

Arakita looks up, to find Hayato at the edge of the shed, a helmet in his hands. He isn’t wearing his school uniform. Printed in English on the clingy material spread over his shoulders, and down the sides of his cycling shorts are the words “HakoGaku”. Even though it’s the first time he’s seen Hayato wear what had to be his team jersey, Arakita has the distinct feeling that it suits him.

“You bet your hamster ass. What’s with the get up?”

Apropos of nothing, Hayato walks over to Arakita, drops to a knee, and gathers him up for a hug. Arakita hugs back as a habit, and it’s only when he settles his arms around Hayato’s back that he feels the slight tremors wracking his frame. “Oi, what’s up?”

“I spoke with my friends at the club. I’m going to ride again, and they’re going to help me.” So, not bad nerves. Good.

“And are you nervous because you almost missed shit duty today?” Arakita asks, thumping a fist on Hayato’s back. The laugh that he gets is breathy and uneven, but it’s good enough.

“Yes. Also, it looks like rain, so I brought mom an umbrella. Never say I’m a neglectful husband, okay?”

Arakita takes his helmet and gestures to Usakicchi’s hutch in response. Hayato’s movements are jerky and quick, but he does his job and Arakita feels nothing but fondness and a bit of pride for him. There’s a light he’s never seen before in Hayato’s eyes, a new tilt in his smile. It’s good for him, Arakita thinks.

When Hayato finishes, they stand up, Arakita’s right hand clutching Hayato’s left. Arakita tosses Hayato’s helmet up once, and then reaches up to fix it on his head. The chinstrap is tricky, but he fastens it in the end, and Hayato smiles and thanks him. They stand in silence for another moment before Arakita punches Hayato’s shoulder.

“Well? What the fuck are you still doing here! Get going!”

It does rain, like Hayato predicted, but Arakita is already in his dorm by the time it falls. Usakicchi’s safely tucked under the shed and Arakita saves his worrying for Hayato when it turns completely dark.

For another hour, he lies in bed wondering about what Hayato looked like while he rode his bike up the hills of Hakone. And, after that, Arakita thinks about how his right hand hadn’t been completely idiotic for the past few months. After a while, the thoughts blur together and carry him off to sleep.

Arakita dreams about a team of riders cresting a hill, and him, standing at the sides, watching them.

 


 

Hayato invites Arakita to a race, after hearing about his dream. “It’s not an official one, just Juichi and Jinpachi and me. Maybe you’ll see what you wanted to see, there.”

It’s on a Friday, during Arakita’s physical therapy hour. After their session, Arakita asks his therapist to drive him to the last stretch of road before the designated finish line. There’s a folding table set up with bottled water and towels right beside it, and Arakita stands there for a little less than five minutes before he hears them.

Hunched over their handlebars, practically flying down the road – one, two, three blurs rush past Arakita and he barely has time to wonder which one was Hayato when he wheels up to him, panting hard and dripping with sweat. He’s taken his helmet off, and he’s smiling as he pulls out a power bar from his back pocket before greeting Arakita.

“Hey, Yasutomo. Like what you see?”

Arakita gapes at him for a moment before grabbing the nearest towel and throwing it over Hayato’s head. “That was the lamest line I’ve ever heard from you, and I’ve heard plenty.” He starts to rub Hayato’s hair dry, perhaps more vigorously than he would have liked, but Hayato’s laughing as he does it. The other two riders – one blond and one short – come up to the table and Arakita lets up on his greeting.

Hayato peeks at him from under his towel. “But the race – how was it?”

Arakita tosses Hayato a water bottle and bides his time. He’d only seen the barest fraction of it, and what little he’d seen already took time to process. Could bikes really move that fast? Arakita’s sure they’d beat him on his scooter, hands down.

He settles on grudgingly muttering, “… You’re fast. It’s like you go wild while you’re out there."

Hayato tugs on a lock of his hair and gives him a sheepish smile. Arakita’s about to poke him for the face he’s making, but then the blond rider with surprisingly thick eyebrows turns to them, and Hayato straightens up.

“Juichi,” he says, “This is Yasutomo. Yasutomo, this is Fukutomi Juichi, future captain of the Hakogaku Cycling Team.”

Arakita stares at Fukutomi Juichi for a moment, taking in his height, the stone-set look of his face, and his eyes – clear and fixed on Arakita, in a way that most would find intimidating. Arakita shakes his hand and says, “Good to meet you.”

Fukutomi’s grip is strong, and he replies, “Likewise,” without breaking their gaze. He’s still holding onto Arakita’s hand when he continues, “Shinkai has spoken of you. Thank you for looking after him in our stead.”

Arakita shrugs and tosses a flat glance at Hayato, “He’s a handful, yeah. He ride okay?”

Fukutomi nods, and finally releases his hand. “And he’ll ride even better, in the future. Shinkai is ready to move forward now.”

“That’s right, that’s right!” the short rider cuts in, throwing an arm around Hayato’s shoulder and raising his water bottle as if in preparation for a toast. Arakita squints at him, but the image doesn’t change – the guy’s wearing a headband. “With his friends supporting him, Shinkai will most definitely achieve perfection on the road once again!”

Arakita stifles a sigh. It just figures that even Hayato’s friends are as weird as he is.

But, weird as they are, they cut a good figure out there on the road. Arakita notices Hayato’s questioning gaze and shakes his head, before turning to Fukutomi.

“Hey. I wanna ask you something.” Fukutomi blinks, but doesn’t look surprised, “Go on.”

“If you’re riding, you’re going somewhere, yeah? Well, where are you all headed?”

The three riders exchange a look, and Arakita watches as smiles break out on shorty’s and Hayato’s faces. Fukutomi’s expression only hardens, as if to support the certainty with which he delivers his reply.

“The peak. The Inter-High.”

Arakita mouths the words silently, before nodding.

“Alright. I’ll go there, too.”

 


 

To set the tone for the rest of their friendship, Toudou Jinpachi completely misunderstands Arakita’s proclamation.

“You’re volunteering as a manager?! I thought you were going to challenge one of us for a spot on the Inter-High team!”

They’re sitting at a fountain close to the club room, with Hayato dutifully allowing Arakita to fill up his volunteers’ form on his back. Fukutomi is watching Arakita write, and when it looks like he’s finished, he comments, “I thought the same. You wouldn’t be able to do it, but your words sounded like a challenge, Arakita.”

“I can’t ride for shit, didn’t I already say that? My right arm’s a bust. Here, Fukutomi.” Arakita hands his form over, and tugs Hayato to his feet. Toudou’s grumbling continues, and he shoots him an annoyed glare. He’s beginning to wonder if Toudou ever shut up.

“Why the fuck do you care, anyway? Is it because I called your headband lame? Don’t worry, I won’t touch your stuff, princess.”

“What! How dare you insult Toudou Jinpachi, God of the Mountains?!” Before he could launch into another tirade, Toudou’s phone rings, and Arakita silently thanks whatever gods were listening for the distraction.

“Arakita,” Fukutomi says, unfailingly serious even then, “I’ll give these to the senior managers during practice. Thank you for choosing to support us.”

Hayato throws an arm around Arakita’s shoulders and beams at him, “You’ll need to study cycling, Yasutomo. Let us help you, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, but if you teach me about cycling like you try with maths, I’ll stick to looking stuff up on the internet. Hell, I might even just ask Toudou.”

“Hang on, Maki-chan – I heard you speak my name, Arakita.”

“Weirdo!”

“Ah, you may say that now, but this God of the Mountains would be happy to bestow upon you the honorable knowledge of the road!”

Fukutomi offers his collection of race tapes, at a more acceptable volume. Hayato is still smiling at Arakita when he starts yelling. As they make their way to the club room, he drops his hand to squeeze Arakita’s right hand once, and Arakita squeezes back before asking aloud where Toudou’s batteries were and, if it’s possible, can they take them out now.

 


 

The internet is helpful, and the books and tapes are helpful, but, as one of the senior managers at the club tells Arakita, there’s nothing like the feeling of an actual race. So, it comes to be that Arakita’s first stint as a volunteer gopher for the Hakogaku racing team is at the 40th Inter-High.

Tensions are high and even Arakita notices how the air is charged with an electric current – over a hundred cyclists would be present to ride down the roads, and all of them were aiming to pass the single-digit tag holders, Hakogaku.

Toudou claps a hand on his shoulder when he spends too long staring out at the other teams pouring in. “Arakita, don’t be nervous. We’ll be riding our best today! And you’ll be cheering your lungs out for us, the inevitable victors.”

“Toudou,” Arakita drawls, mirroring the hand on his shoulder, “Why don’t you go call your precious Maki-chan? Before I realize how much I can’t stand your three separate bangs and fix your hair for you.”

With his phone strapped to his ear, Toudou shuffles away, crying about how mean his friend was being. Hayato comes up to him just in time to overhear the last bit, and he nudges Arakita’s shoulder with the fakest of frowns on his face. “Yasutomo, don’t upset Jinpachi. This is an important race for him.”

Arakita sneers at Hayato’s face, and reaches up to pinch one of his cheeks until it flushed red, “It could’ve been your big race, too, idiot! Train harder, for next year, and maybe I’ll consider lugging around that fat rabbit of yours so she can watch you throw yourself over the finish line.”

The smile on Hayato’s face is completely at odds with the verbal abuse he’s been dealt. Arakita dismisses him with a flap of his hand, and a reminder to bring Toudou back for the huddle the captain would be calling.

Two idiots down, one to go. Where the fuck is Fuku-chan?

Arakita’s respect for Fukutomi had grown in leaps, after that first race. There was something about the firm set of his gaze and his passion for moving forward that endeared him to Arakita, and he felt secure pinning his half-formed hopes for a future on the blond. Fukutomi was like a compass, and Arakita had come to appreciate his straightforward nature.

What Arakita doesn’t appreciate is the fact that he can’t seem to find him.

“Oi! Izumida, you see Fuku-chan anywhere?”

“Ah, yes, he’s with the coach right now, Arakita-san.”

“Tch. Thanks.”

When Arakita arrives at Hakogaku’s tent, Fukutomi is just stepping out. Before Fukutomi could even greet him, Arakita shoves a handful of power bars into his hands.

“Fuku-chan! Don’t leave before I can set you up, dammit.”

“Yes. My apologies. Where are Shinkai and Toudou?”

“Heading back. If they’re not here in five minutes, I’m calling for them with the PA system – lost child announcement, one of the children is about this tall and in possession of a little girl’s headband.”

Fukutomi’s expression doesn’t change, but Arakita knows by the furrow in his brow that he’s amused. They stand in silence for another moment, before Arakita holds out his fist. There wouldn’t be any other time to do it, so Arakita says, “Fuku-chan. Stay strong.”

Even if Fukutomi didn’t say “I will,” the solid tap of his fist against Arakita’s is enough reassurance.

Half an hour later, the 40th Inter-High begins, and Arakita gets ready to cheer his lungs out.

 


 

The sight of Sohoku’s rider limping across the finish line burns itself into Arakita’s memory – the odd movement of his legs, his labored breathing, the way he supported his upper body throwing the muscles of his shoulders and his back into stark relief. He’d barely been able to complete the race. His teammates, the boy built like a brickhouse and the spider climber, didn’t seem to know what to do with him; they hovered around him, nervous and out of sorts, utterly at a loss.

And all because – because of Fuku-chan.

Hayato holds him back as he screams at Fukutomi, whose rigid, uninjured posture only serve to remind Arakita of how incredibly wrong it was to see the cyclist from Chiba struggle to reach the end of the race.

What the fuck where you thinking?! Fuku-chan, I can’t believe you, is this how you wanted to win–”

Your team won, Yasutomo. The captain and the reserve pitcher, they’ve been approached by scouts. Maybe you’ll get to watch them at Koshien, won’t that be nice? You’ll definitely be better by then.

At the back of his throat, Arakita tastes sick, putrid bile – and on his tongue, the dry, powdery remains of painkillers taken at a double dose. Everything, every color and noise, all of it is too sharp, and Fukutomi’s silence after his confession grates on Arakita’s very nerves.

Fuck,” Arakita spits, going limp in Hayato’s arms, breathing hard and clutching at his idiot arm. It aches, and his head aches, and seeing Fukutomi completely unmoved makes him want to do something drastic to match the jackhammer-pounding in his head.

“… Let’s go, Hayato.”

Arakita leans on Hayato’s shoulder as they walk back to the dorms. Neither of them speak, or move to look back. Fukutomi doesn’t stop them.

 


 

For a long, tense month, Arakita ignores Fukutomi.

He throws himself into learning all he can about cycling, spends his days hounding the outgoing members, aces and managers alike. He keeps himself occupied and unreachable, save for Hayato who binge watches race tapes with him and gently, constantly, needles him about his untouched pills. When Arakita messes up and his idiot arm turns unfeeling and unresponsive, Hayato is there to help him fix his sling and load another tape into the player.

They do not speak about Fukutomi, but Arakita isn’t so self-absorbed that he thinks Hayato isn’t talking with him at all. Hayato knows what Arakita’s silences mean, though, and doesn’t press for anything. Toudou exemplifies surprising tact when he sits with them at lunch, only asking if he could help Arakita in his endeavor to learn more about their noble sport (to his credit, he isn’t surprised when Arakita says yes, but it takes hours to make sense of his excited babbling).

On three memorable Fridays, Arakita talks with his physical therapist about cycling-related injuries and their treatments. She’s pleasantly surprised, and doesn’t hesitate to lend him books and case studies. She even promises to arrange meetings with her coworkers who practiced in the field, and Arakita agrees to all of them.

But the memory of Sohoku’s rider crossing the finish line remains vivid in Arakita’s mind, and when Arakita sees Fukutomi again – Fukutomi, who stands straight and resplendent in his jersey, talking with Toudou by the fountains, as if it were any other day – the image is no less clear; the anger he felt upon hearing Fukutomi’s confession returns, and Arakita’s self-control crumbles.

(Pitching is entirely out of the question. He’ll never play baseball again.)

“Yasutomo!”

Hayato calls his name, but does not stop him. Fukutomi himself doesn’t move, just stands and stares as Arakita advances towards him. Arakita’s left fist connects cleanly with the right side of Fukutomi’s face, and the burn he feels through his knuckles and fingers confirms the power of his hit. Fukutomi stumbles backwards and falls, and Arakita reins in the urge to follow him. Already, there’s color in Fukutomi’s cheek, which Arakita knows will darken to an ugly, purple bruise by the next day at the latest. His expression is miserable, and his hand shakes as it comes up to his face; his lips trembling with vulnerability around Arakita’s name and a weak apology.

It’s not enough, though.

year2-2

“Arakita, let's stop this...”

“Fuck  off , Toudou, I know you’re not going to  defend  this bastard!”

Arakita’s left hand is burning, but his right arm is aching – from his shoulder to the tips of his fingers, his elbow and his wrist. The pain of the injury from two years back comes to life again, just as the memory of that rider from Chiba holds steady in his mind. The words Arakita has held back for a month come flowing out, and no one does anything to stop his tirade.

What kind of a sportsman are you?! Do you fucking expect people to follow you after what you did? Fuku-chan… Fuku-chan, I should have hit you with my right hand, but I fucking can’t, and god knows if that rider from Chiba’s ever going to race again – just, fuck. Do you even understand what you did??

Arakita flinches away from Hayato’s reach, rubbing his shaking right hand over his face. He’s out of breath and everything is too sharp, too bright. He’d only taken his sling off a few days ago, but he hadn’t taken the day’s pills yet. Out of sorts and imbalanced – I have to get away, Arakita thinks.

Without waiting for Fukutomi to stand from where he’d fallen, Arakita leaves, clutching at his right arm and desperately willing reality to slot back into place.

 


 

Arakita falls into fitful sleep beside Usakicchi’s hutch. When he wakes up his head is pillowed on Hayato’s lap, and his left hand is throbbing under an ice cold bottle of bepsi. Hayato is looking down at him, an impossibly fond smile on his face. The first thing he says, when he meets Arakita’s bleary gaze, is “Thank you.”

Unbelievable.

“I punched your best friend’s lights out, Hayato.”

Hayato nods, and helps Arakita sit up. He turns Arakita’s left hand around in his, and says, “He needed that, I think. And you need another half hour with an actual cold compress, this one’s no good.”

Arakita rolls his shoulders back, checks himself for pain (high six, but that’s the usual), and nods.

“Let’s go to the club room, I bet there’s one there.” Arakita stands and holds his hand out for Hayato, which he takes gratefully. After a moment, Arakita sighs, and asks, “Did Fuku-chan leave?”

“Toudou took him to the infirmary. You hit him very hard, Yasutomo, he staggered a little when they left.” Hayato sounds inconceivably impressed, and Arakita groans.

“… I’ll apologize to him tomorrow. I already avoided the bleach-headed fuck for a month, should’ve known that wouldn’t do any good.”

“Tomorrow,” Hayato echoes, twisting the cap off Arakita’s bepsi. He hands it to him – along with his pillbox.

“Tomorrow,” Arakita repeats, and knocks back his pills with a swallow of bepsi.

 


 

The next day, Arakita practically kicks the locker room door open. Toudou jumps at his sudden entrance, and when he realizes it’s Arakita who’s come in, his expression falls.

“Arakita, Tomii, he–”

“What do you mean Fuku-chan went to Chiba?!”

 

Chapter Text

Unbelievable, just un-fucking-believable.

Arakita passes the turnstiles with five minutes to spare for the 9:15AM train to Chiba. With his travel pass in one hand and his phone in the other, he rushes to the queues forming behind the yellow lines, trying his hardest not to let his growing concern and frustration show beyond the scowl on his face and the shaking grip on his phone. Arakita doesn’t think he has the self-control to stop himself from snapping at anyone at this point, especially after the rant he’d been forced to cut short when Toudou told him that Fukutomi had gone alone to see Sohoku’s rider an entire hour before he’d arrived at the club room.

Fuku-chan, going to Chiba! Alone! And with a black eye that’s probably bruised over by now! Arakita didn’t feel a shred of regret for what he’d done, but he did want to hit himself over the head for leaving Fukutomi to take care of it on his own. Judging by Toudou’s explanations, he’d probably knocked something loose in Fukutomi’s head– “He said you helped him come to a decision! And that he was going to go apologize formally…” – and the idiot didn’t even have the decency to let him know.

Arakita suppresses a groan as he thinks of what could possibly pass as a ‘formal apology’ for a guy like Fukutomi, and unlocks his phone to jab at the call button under Fukutomi’s name.

As with his other six attempts, the line only kept ringing and ringing.

Dammit, Fuku-chan! Chiba’s still three hours away!

 


 

 Three hours later, Arakita could still feel the burning need to sit his newly-installed idiot captain down and give him a long lecture on what not to do after being punched in the face by an angry former-pitcher with medication-induced aggression issues. And also, a crash course on what a cellphone is for, and how not to make people’s aggression issues worse by knowing how to properly use them.

With a glare at the indirectly offensive object, Arakita sighs noisily, and the other two second years of Sohoku’s cycling club– the spider climber and the guy nicknamed ‘the Human Bullet’ – flinch in unison.

He’s sure they’ve clued in to their unexpected guest’s frustration, but even though Arakita wants to behave decently, the urge to shake Fukutomi until he hears the satisfying click of nuts and bolts slotting back into place is stronger – beyond asking them where Fukutomi was (out on a fucking ride with their teammate, apparently), he hasn’t spoken at all; he sits on their bench, fingers tapping an ominous, staccato rhythm, scowling as he thinks about how badly Fukutomi might have bruised and berating himself for not bringing a first aid kit.

Still, some of the tension in Arakita’s shoulders did ease out at the news that Sohoku’s rider – Kinjou, the spider climber had called him Kinjou – is well enough to go cycling again. It still doesn’t make him feel bad about hitting Fukutomi, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t do anything as drastic when he finally sees him. The lectures would push through, though; he’s not about to let Fukutomi think he could do anything just because he was strong and also, the captain.

Another ten minutes pass, and just when it looks like the Human Bullet is going to break the uncomfortably tense silence (Arakita has been ready to say “Look, whatever Fuku-chan did, I already hit him for it!!” since his arrival), the door opens. Standing at the threshold are Fukutomi, who’s sporting a shiner that even Arakita has to wince at, and the rider Arakita recognizes from the Inter-High, Sohoku’s Kinjou.

He looks good, is Arakita’s first thought. Loose stance, steady legs – the near-crumpling mess he remembers seeing at the race is gone. Good, Arakita thinks, that’s good. You can still ride. He brings his gaze up, and sees that Kinjou is staring at him. Arakita only then remembers that he hasn’t introduced himself at all, which is probably what Kinjou is waiting for, as he holds Arakita’s gaze.

He opens his mouth to give a proper greeting, only to be cut off by Fukutomi settling a hand on his shoulder. “Kinjou,” Fukutomi says, “This is the one I spoke of. Arakita Yasutomo.” Arakita thinks Fukutomi sounds much too happy to be introducing the guy who punched him so hard his depth perception is probably still off – but instead of glaring, he settles for elbowing him sharply in the side and continuing the strange staring contest he’d apparently taken up with Kinjou.

“It’s good to meet you, Arakita,” Kinjou says. They shake hands, and Arakita feels the warmth from where Kinjou’s palm is pressed against his – belatedly, he realizes he’d held out his idiot hand; when Kinjou tightens his grip, Arakita self-consciously tries to match it. “Yeah, s’good to meet you too.”

 

year3-1

 

Arakita lets a moment pass before he asks, “Did Fuku-chan apologize?”

Kinjou nods, “We’ve agreed to settle things at the next Inter-High.”

His answer doesn’t sound forced or ill-delivered, so Arakita is inclined to believe him. He doesn’t doubt how earnest Fukutomi can be, and if the very guy he’d slighted thinks they’re on fair enough terms to start talking about the next race, Arakita considers this part of the case closed.

He gives Kinjou’s hand another firm shake, and sneers as he says, “Good. Hakogaku looks forward to making you eat our dust.”

Not to be outdone, Kinjou matches his proclamation with one of his own, “Sohoku won’t be passed that easily, Arakita.” He smiles, then, and Arakita remembers enough of the games he’d played before to recognize a rival’s acceptance of a challenge.

“Haa! We’ll see about that!” They release each other’s hand, and Arakita lets himself counter Kinjou’s challenging gaze for another moment longer before straightening himself up and turning to his captain with deliberate slowness.

“Now that that’s settled…”

Fukutomi, possibly drawing from the memory of the last time Arakita glared at him with such ferocity, takes a measured step back and tries to affect a completely unassuming look (similar, Hayato might have said if he were present, to the face of a puppy who didn’t wish to be scolded.).

Fucking sucks then, Arakita thinks, ‘cause I don’t like dogs!

“Fuku-chan! You’re a fucking idiot! Your face looks like absolute shit, did you even listen to what the nurse told you?” With a hand fisted in Fukutomi’s shirt, Arakita maneuvers his hopeless captain onto the bench. He carefully tilts Fukutomi’s face to examine the bruise, all the while continuing his rant, “Ice! You didn’t keep ice on it! What’re you gonna do if this messes up your sight, huh??”

Appropriately cowed, Fukutomi bears with Arakita’s fussing. When Arakita pauses to finally ask if he could borrow a cold compress, he straightens up in his seat and says, “Do not worry, Arakita. I am strong.”

“I decked you and you look awful,” Arakita snaps back, making Fukutomi’s shoulders sag near imperceptibly. Someone behind them masks a laugh with a cough, and Arakita has the sneaking suspicion that he knows who it is. He glances over his shoulder, to find Kinjou holding out a cold compress. His smile is perfectly polite, but Arakita notices the glint of amusement in his eyes. Haa, so you’ve got a sense of humor, too!

“What’re you looking at, eh, Kinjou?” It comes out as threatening as Arakita always means it to, and he can see Sohoku’s spider climber and the Human Bullet sweating at the sidelines. Kinjou doesn’t even blink.

“I think I’ll decline answering that question, Arakita. I have a feeling you’ll want to punch me as well, regardless of what my answer is.”Arakita lets out a bark of laughter at his reply, surprised and pleased by Kinjou’s gall.

“Smart answer! But hey, I can’t be going around punching every idiot I come across, even if some of you just can’t help asking for it!”

Kinjou’s smile widens, and Arakita can tell by how he’s glancing over his shoulder that Fukutomi’s probably nodding emphatically behind him. Arakita takes the cold compress and turns back to Fukutomi, settling it over his bruise with a gentleness that is, unfortunately, absent from his next words, “Fuku-chan, don’t be an ass, you know you needed that punch. Your face still aches right? Thought so! That was a good hit. Hold the fucking compress there for a few minutes, and keep fucking still, or else I’ll give you a matching set.”

Fukutomi catches himself before he nods, “Alright, Arakita.”

Satisfied, Arakita looks back at Kinjou and the other Sohoku riders. “Yeah, give us another fifteen minutes and we’ll be out of your hair.”

“It’s no trouble,” Kinjou says. He glances over at something on the far table, and asks, “While you wait, perhaps we could share the manjuu Fukutomi brought over?”

Arakita can almost hear Hayato laughing in his head.

“… Yeah, sure, why the fuck not.”

 


  

To Arakita’s delight, the afternoon passes on an overall less stressful note – Fukutomi keeps the cold compress on his face without making any sudden movements, the spider climber and the Human Bullet get in a few passable taunts to Hakogaku’s ability to fight them for the finish line, and Kinjou Shingo amiably agrees to exchanging contact information for the sake of continuing their discussion on whether or not snakes on a stone path need to be afraid of getting stuck in between rocks even after Arakita and Fukutomi take their leave.

Once they settle into their train seats, Arakita, feeling significantly less wound up than when he’d first headed out that morning, turns to his captain, and asks, “Feeling any better, Fuku-chan?”

Instead of a strained assertion of his strength, Fukutomi answers honestly, “It still stings. I’ll trouble you for your company at the nurse’s office when we get back.”

Arakita agrees to go with him, and pulls up his phone to thumb out a message to Hayato about their return. Fukutomi turns back to the window, and when Arakita glances at him, he can tell by the set of his shoulders and the furrow between his brows that he’s thinking about the next inter-high, and their challenge against Sohoku. Fuku-chan’s fired up, he thinks, and directs his pleased smile at his phone.

A comfortable silence settles between them, and Arakita is content to let it linger, temporarily absorbed by the games Hayato installed on his phone. Eventually, he plays them on autopilot, letting his mind wander about the preparations needed for the inter-high: the selection race, the training regimens that would need adjusting, the information from the other teams that he’d need to analyze (Sohoku’s only the first, they would have other challengers) – and internally, Arakita scoffs at himself, Who’s getting fired up now, ah?

The silence stretches on until two hours into the trip, when it’s broken by Fukutomi addressing Arakita to get his attention.

“Arakita,” he says, “I need to speak with you.”

Arakita grimaces, and looks away from his draft of a message to Kinjou. Right, he thinks, we haven’t actually talked about shit. He side-eyes Fukutomi for another moment before saying, “I’m not apologizing for hitting you, Fuku-chan. I’m sorry about not going with you to the infirmary, but – I’m really not sorry about hitting you.”

“I deserved it,” Fukutomi asserts, then turns to give Arakita the full measure of his earnest stare. Even if he thinks it’s more than a little daunting to receive it head on, Arakita holds his ground and waits for his captain to continue.

After a pause, Fukutomi speaks again, unwaveringly solemn, his serious gaze fixed on Arakita.

“Thank you, Yasutomo.”

It takes a moment for the words to sink in, and in that same moment, the tips of Arakita’s ears turn pink, his cheeks quick to follow suit. He sputters, but Fukutomi presses on, clearly unwilling to leave it at that simple proclamation.

“My actions have been disgraceful; it’s miraculous that Kinjou forgave me. Having you drive home the gravity of what I had done, and coming after me today as well – I have much to make up for, towards you and the club. This next inter-high… Hakogaku will rightfully claim victory, and it is my hope that you’ll continue to support us in reaching our goal.”

The flush on Arakita’s face doesn’t grow darker, but the weight of Fukutomi’s words still makes him grumble inarticulately in his seat. “Fuku-chan, you made a shitty mistake… You owned up to it, I’d say you’re at least on the right track of ‘making it up’ to us.”

And as for supporting you…

Arakita gives Fukutomi’s shoulder a playful punch, and grins at the flinch that Fukutomi muffles into an attentive nod. He tells his captain, with an excited gleam in his eyes, “When we get back, let’s talk about how we’re gonna take the win at the inter-high. We’ve got just about a year to get ready, Fuku-chan, there’s no time to waste!”

 


 

 In Arakita’s experience, a year’s time is never to be underestimated: something that is capable of simultaneously stretching on indefinitely like the laziest day of summer and passing as quickly as a wave reaches and dies at the shore couldn’t possibly be quantified by dithering, subjective descriptions like “just enough” or “too much”. At around a hundred days less, give or take holidays and make-up classes and obligations popping up left and right, a school year is even more troubling; and though their contexts vary, the questions that rise concerning those nine months fall in much the same vein: How can I make this count?

The cycling club’s outgoing seniors apparently had the answer for that.

In the weeks leading up to their graduation, the retired third years of Hakogaku’s cycling club, inexplicably happy to have someone eager to take up the finer details of club management conspire to send Arakita mail after mail, cornering him at the dorm cafeteria during common meal hours and pulling him to the side in the hallways to either impart a genius moment of revelation, share with unshakable confidence some “absolutely necessary tips!”, or, on one occasion, hand over a stack of race videos he’d had to have Hayato carry back to his room.

For an entire morning, Arakita screeches and grumbles at the mass flood of information he’s been given – and then for the rest of the afternoon, he works on skimming and sorting it all into recognizable, relevant piles. To their credit, the incoming captain and vice-captain of the club both offer their services without needing to be asked, and Arakita takes full advantage of Fukutomi and Toudou’s combined knowledge until they’re collectively bleeding cycling out of their ears.

In the end, the result of their work sits divided into files covering most of Arakita’s desk: on one side, the annotated copies of the school’s calendar and the class schedules of the incoming second and third years; on the other, flyers for the events in town affecting the roads running through and around Hakone and the information packets on the local and prefectural races members have volunteered or were recommended for. Here and there are paragraphs and lines marked in red or green, pages after pages lined with his, Toudou’s, and Fukutomi’s handwriting, and stacks of CDs and reference books on cycling acting as temporary paperweights.

With a sigh, Arakita settles in his bed with his laptop and the first of the many race videos he’s been given – he has an hour until Hayato comes over to drag him to dinner, and Arakita knows from experience that it would take him that much time to watch and analyze at least thirty minutes of footage. Hopefully less, if his insight hasn’t suffered too terribly from complete disuse.

What’s the difference between pitch recognition and style analysis, anyway, aside from the sport? he thinks, and starts on the footage from the previous year’s inter-high selection race.

 


 

A week later sees Arakita spending lunch more often than not sitting across Hayato and sandwiched between Toudou and Fukutomi, a spread of documents with Arakita’s notes between the paragraphs and in the margins taking over the table. He ignores their surprise at his ability to pick up on the nuances of the club’s riders’ styles in favor of pointing out possible shifts in training intensity and form or technique adjustments. They spend nearly half the period in deep discussion, and only Hayato’s occasional offer of a bite of his food ensures that Arakita doesn’t go completely hungry during his afternoon classes.

During club period, they try out Arakita’s suggestions, to the incredulous stares and indignant protests of some of the other members. Arakita ignores them, and focuses on the ones who actually take his advice. Incidentally, Hayato reports that they end up showing some improvements in their times by the end of the week.

That Friday, Arakita notes their names and times on his clipboard, and sends a message to his physical therapist saying that he would be a little late for their session. He just has Hayato’s group’s last lap times to record, so he thinks it wouldn’t take too long. He moves to sit on the floor beside the door to the clubroom, ready to herd the group back in for their cool down when they return.

He’s idly considering telling Hayato to stay with his second years instead of walking him to the infirmary, when he hears voices carrying from the outside.

“Who does he think he is, anyway? That Arakita…”

“So he takes a crash course on cycling, suddenly he’s good enough to be ordering us around? What’s the captain thinking?

“Shinkai-senpai vouches for him, too! It’s weird, definitely weird!”

Arakita recognizes them as the second years who’d refused to correct their forms earlier in the week, during their high intensity rides. They’d begged off Wednesday practice because their backs were killing them, and Arakita hadn’t wasted a moment before scolding them for their stubbornness. He’d told them to come back on Friday – and here they were.

“You don’t think he’s tricked them somehow…”

“Hey, don’t joke about that…!”

“But look, why else would they let him do what he wants with us?? And, d’you remember when Shinkai-senpai didn’t ride with us for a while?”

“Yeah…? Wait, are you talking about those rumors…”

“It’s the same guy, right! Some of the girls in my class kept talking about seeing them walk off together…”

How fucking stupid can you be, Arakita wonders vaguely, before standing up and opening the club room’s doors. The second years nearly jump back when they see him, and for all their shit talking, they still fumble and stutter past him with barely audible greetings.

“If you’re looking for the others, Hayato took them out on a ride earlier. You couldn’t have been on time for that?”

The second years pause, and one of them elbows another, muttering, “Told you I saw ‘em…” Arakita rolls his eyes and fishes for the key ring from his pocket. “Do your warmups, I’ll get your water bottles. Hayato can take you on a few laps if he feels like it when they get back.”

He turns away from them without waiting for a reply, but Arakita doesn’t have to look twice to know they wouldn’t have said anything anyway. Kids like that, he thinks, they’ll be culled off soon enough.

When Hayato returns with his group, Arakita takes only a minute to ask about their times and their conditions. The second years still look winded, but none of them are passing out on their feet like last week. Hayato looks pleased, and taps his finger on one name on Arakita’s list (“Izumida Touichirou”) as he winks conspiratorially at him.

Hayato then turns to his second years, and says, “You guys can cool down inside.” They reply with a chorus of “Understood! Shinkai-senpai, Arakita-senpai!” before hurrying off. He looks back at Arakita, and starts undoing the strap of his helmet, “Shall we go, Yasutomo? We’re only five minutes late.”

Arakita huffs, and whaps his clipboard on Hayato’s unprotected head – “Idiot! You’ve got another group to take around! They were late, they just got here, go ride with them.”

Hayato glances at the new group of second years standing by the door, water bottles and helmets in hand. He gives them a wave, and says, “You guys go on ahead, I’ll catch up to you in a few minutes.”

He turns back to Arakita, and links their arms together, saying, “That’s taken care of. Let’s go.”

As they leave, Arakita doesn’t miss the looks the second years throw at him – but he figures everyone had their bad days. Even the rumors they’d been tossing amongst themselves aren’t much cause for worry; he thinks those would die down before they even got any traction, stupid as they were. Besides, there were better things for him to do with his time.

Arakita dismisses the second years from his mind and falls into step with Hayato, waiting until they’re out of earshot of the club to ask about Hayato’s ride and Izumida’s progress.

 


 

The next week, Arakita demands for the chance to further observe their bikes in motion. Fukutomi and Hayato agree easily to his request, but Arakita still has to figure out a way to observe Toudou on climbs, given that his idiot arm had started misbehaving enough to make him cautious about taking his scooter out. He could take the van, but the club’s advisor was always more interested in asking him about the preparations for the inter-high selection race whenever they spoke; he could never get a word in edgewise.

“Yasutomo,” Hayato says, interrupting Arakita’s thoughts by holding up the unbitten end of his curry bread to Arakita’s mouth, “You should eat. I’ll buy you a bepsi later.”

How the hamster manages to be both coaxing and gentle, despite the fact that he’s fully suspicious of the contents of Arakita’s stomach and pillbox, Arakita may never know. What he does know is that even if he tries to resist Hayato’s wheedling, he would lose. Wordlessly, Arakita obeys, and continues studying the detailed diagram of Fukutomi’s Bianchi.

Every so often, he looks up at the bike itself and its rider, practicing on the rollers in front of him. He scratches out notes on the diagram with his left hand, and asks Fukutomi questions when he hits a block. Hayato gives his input a few times, but mostly he gets Arakita to finish an entire packet of curry bread and plays with his right hand.

After an hour, Fukutomi excuses himself to go out for a ride. Hayato opts to stay with Arakita, with the excuse of helping him examine points about Fukutomi’s Bianchi. As soon as Fukutomi rides off, however, he glances pointedly at Arakita’s stationary right hand.

“Yasutomo?” he prompts, infuriatingly observant.

Arakita sighs and attempts to roll his shoulder, earning himself a stabbing pain through his joints for the effort. Seven-eight, he thinks, mostly eight and holding up. “You promised me a bepsi,” Arakita says, getting to his feet and holding his idiot arm gingerly. “Get me one.”

“Just one?” Hayato asks, reaching out to squeeze Arakita’s right hand. Arakita squeezes back after a few seconds, and scowls at the ache in his wrist. “Fine, bring the whole damn box… Tch! Hayato! I can’t believe we even need this stupid code!”

Hayato gives him a hug, a smile evident in his words even if his arms tighten around Arakita more than usual – “It’s cute, and nobody outside the two of us knows about it. I’ll really bring you a bepsi, but you can check the locker room for a surprise while you wait.”

Arakita watches him leave, before letting loose a litany of curses under his breath and making his way to the locker rooms. He has no idea what Hayato might have gotten him, but there’s no doubt it’s a snack or something sweet, and it’s highly possible that it’s both, knowing Hayato. Arakita thinks about ants and weirdly flavored umaibo as he works on the number-combination for Hayato’s locker.

When Hayato runs back in, he’s only gotten to the second to the last number. The thought of him running so fast from the clubroom to the dorms and back again tugs on the corners of Arakita’s mouth, and he looks over to start scolding the stupid hamster, “Hayato, you didn’t have to run back like–”

Arakita doesn’t finish his sentence, as he’s suddenly grabbed by his shoulders and slammed against the locker – he counts five repetitions before whoever it is who’s gotten at him (Not Hayato, definitely not Hayato) lets up and holds him there, one of his arms pinned up harshly against his back. He’s forced to his knees, face mashing against the grills of the locker under Hayato’s, and before Arakita could wonder who his attacker was, someone grabs him by the hair and pulls his head back, and Arakita is faced by one of the second years he’d called out for incorrect posture the week before. Fuck.

“Hey, Arakita-senpai,” the second year greets, with a lilting airiness to his voice and a winning smile on his face that makes Arakita want to jam his elbow in his gut and throw a punch at his nose. Unfazed, Arakita returns the greeting with a vehement, “Asshole.”

The second year laughs and tightens his grip on Arakita’s hair, “Hey, look, Arakita-senpai looks like he wants to deck me like he did with the captain!”

Arakita glances around at the sound of scattered snickers, and counts three other second years aside from the one on his back and the one with the shit eating grin on his face. One of them is standing by the door, and he gives Arakita a little wave when he notices him looking.

“Hisui, aren’t you scared?” another boy coos, and Hisui, unshakably confident with his hand in Arakita’s hair and someone else’s weight keeping Arakita pinned against the locker, laughs again. When he speaks, he looks Arakita straight in the eye.

“We’ve got him down with his left, Maeno. And you know his right arm’s a bust.”

With a feeling of creeping dread, Arakita realizes he’d been pinned down by his working arm.

That means my right arm is–

“Hisui, look, he’s afraid!”

Someone’s hushed, gleeful exclamation is all the warning Arakita gets before his right arm is pulled back sharply, forcing it into an unnatural angle. He bites down on the scream that claws its way up his throat, but the flash of pain isn’t stopping, and Arakita can feel the muscles in his back straining as they’re pushed to meet. It’s as if his arm is being torn away from his body in the slowest, most agonizing way, and Arakita’s jaw falls open in a scream as he feels the creaking of the joints in his arm.

NO STOP FUCK– 

An eternity passes before Arakita stops screaming – someone has started to laugh, and through the fevered haze of his violently protesting muscles and nerves, Arakita hears Hisui speak – “Arakita-senpai,” he drawls, “Are you listening to me?”

Arakita almost jerks his head in a nod before he recognizes the other sound echoing in the impossibly too-small space of the locker rooms. He can’t stop the way his body starts to shake when he hears the irregular thump of wood hitting metal – two years going and he still remembers the sound a good, strong bat makes when it’s leisurely dragged over a row of lockers. His heart starts trying to burst out of his ribcage. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

 

year3-2

 

He nods.

“Good. I’ll only say it once, so listen carefully: We don’t want you messing around with our cycling team.”

Hisui draws Arakita’s head back and shoves his face against the lockers in one hard push. The sound reverberates in Arakita’s head, just as the soreness spreads over the right side of his face. After a moment, Hisui grabs his jaw and forces him to look up again, and Arakita sees that he’s no longer smiling.

“The captain and Shinkai-senpai might like you because they’ve had you like this before – I’m certainly not discounting how good you are at taking those guys’ cocks up your ass – but I know you’d agree that favoritism isn’t very sportsman-like behavior.”

Hisui slams his face against the lockers again. The guy who’s holding Arakita’s arm back shifts his hold and pulls, and Arakita tastes bile at the back of his throat. He tries to concentrate, drive away the irrational fear in his head – but he just can’t hear the bat anymore.

“Your presence is disrupting the club, Arakita-senpai. I’m really curious as to why you’re even here, seeing as how you don’t even cycle in the first place. You know nothing about how hard it is for us, how much you’re ruining our chances for the inter-high.”

Something cuts through the air above him. The whistle of chiseled wood swung in deliberate movements replace his pulse. Hisui’s hand moves to the back of his neck.

(“You’ll never pitch again.”)

“You should leave the management of the cycling club to the people who actually know what they’re doing. Stop ruining our fun. Next year, we’ll be the kings of Hakone, and you’ll be gone…”

Another hand covers the lump in his throat. Someone murmurs, “Aim for his elbow!”

“We’ll be leaving you with a reminder, just to make sure you understand. Your arm’s already fucked up, right? One more break won’t hurt–”

“Do speak up, Hisui-kun,” another voice cuts in, “We can barely hear your sinister threatening from all the way over here.”

And just like that, Arakita’s thoughts catch up to reality – he hears his own labored breathing, the nervous scuffling of shoes, the clunk! of a bat being dropped to the floor. The hands holding him up fly off him, and unsupported, Arakita falls to lean heavily against the lockers, scrabbling at the grilles with his stinging left hand. The pain in his right hand has edged into a frazzling, hissing nine, and Arakita knows without even looking that it’s trembling as hard and fast as the pulse that’s jumping in his veins.

Hisui speaks into the silence, faltering and deferential, “T- Toudou-senpai…”

Figures, Arakita thinks dimly.

“Haha, what’s that?! Turning tail now? You’re never going to get girls to like you if you’re low class enough to gang up on your seniors.”

He hears Toudou stepping in, and the second years scurrying away from him like a pack of frightened puppies. “You’re all from Shinkai’s group, aren’t you? Hisui-kun, Maeno-kun, Hamada-kun, Sakaguchi-kun, Noboru-kun. I wonder what he’d say when he sees how you’ve treated his best friend.”

Arakita huffs out a breathy laugh – the image of a demonic Hayato advancing on the petrified second years isn’t at all amusing, but the fact that Toudou’s using the mere thought to blackmail the kids into talking is.

“Toudou-senpai, we just…” That’s it Hisui, dig your own fucking grave, “We just don’t think he belongs in the club!”

“Y-yeah, he doesn’t even cycle anyway… What does he know about how unfair his training schedules are…”

Unfair?” Toudou spits, and Arakita manages to lift his head and turn around just enough to see him holding his phone up in one hand, pointing its camera at the second years, “What makes you think fairness has anything to do with training?”

In one quick movement, Toudou grabs at the baseball bat lying on the floor. Arakita catches a glimpse of the scowl on his face before he straightens up and points the bat at the second years.

“Training is meant to be unfair! We’re training you to break past your limits, and grow even stronger as cyclists! Your endurance is the first thing you have to work on, and if you think Tomii’s going to accept you in the club after your whining about the perfectly legitimate schedules you have the privilege to be experiencing, you’re wrong.”

The threat of being kicked out of the club is enough to send the second years into a fresh wave of cowering. They exchange fearful looks before turning as one to their ‘leader’, who looks just as afraid as they do. “T-Toudou-senpai, you can’t…!”

“I can, I will, and I’m of the mind to do so much worse if you don’t get out now! Do you want me to send this video to the school’s forums and let everyone in Hakone know that you aren’t to be trusted, let alone respected?”

The second years stay rooted to the spot. Toudou brandishes the bat as he steps towards them and snaps, “Leave!”

Arakita watches as the second years run out of the room, tripping over their feet and trying to get past one another. Hisui is the last to leave, blubbering and dragging his sleeve over his eyes. Arakita thinks he should find it funny, but with the absence of immediate adrenaline, nothing else is registering in his head aside from the razor-edged throbbing of both his arms. Could really use that fucking ‘bepsi’ now.

Toudou walks to the door and peers out. Satisfied, he closes it and thumbs down the lock, before coming to stand next to Arakita, texting furiously with one hand and still holding the bat with the other. If Arakita were in his usual frame of mind, he’d think it passing strange to see Toudou, of all people, gripping a bat in such a way that it’s obvious he isn’t looking to hit a ball with it. After he finishes his message, he turns to Arakita. The scowl is gone from his face, but he’s looking at Arakita oddly.

“I messaged Shinkai. He’s on his way back, he said he was held up by a few second years.”

Accomplices. There’s more of them. Arakita nods, and shifts slightly against the lockers. Even the smallest movement triggers a firecracker-chain of aches in his muscles, and instead of numbness, he feels every aching inch of his arms. Fucking hell.

When Arakita tunes back into reality again, Toudou is sitting beside him. The odd look on his face is still there. Dimly, Arakita thinks it doesn’t match his headband.

“What’s wrong with you today, Arakita? Usually you’d have fended off those unattractive losers even without my benevolent aid.” Toudou glances at his arms, and asks, suddenly all too serious, “Did they hit you?”

Arakita almost thinks about the consequences if they had hit him. Instead, he closes his eyes and shakes his head. “No. But they fucked with both my arms.”

He hesitates for only half a second before saying, “Call Hayato, and tell him to bring my sling.”

 


  

The only thing the sling does is move his arm into a natural resting position. The pain doesn’t fade, even when Arakita takes his evening’s dose and washes it down with a few swallows of bepsi. To his credit, Toudou refrains from asking about either things, and concentrates on fussing over the superficial bruises on Arakita’s face. Hayato sits behind him and acts as an all-around source of comfort, now and then dropping kisses onto Arakita’s stiff shoulders.

After a while, he murmurs, “Yasutomo?”

… Fuck your perceptive hamster brain.

“… I don’t even fucking cycle, Hayato. What the fuck am I doing messing around with your stupid team.”

There’s neither desperation nor heat in Arakita’s words, only simple resignation, and he hates the taste it leaves on his tongue – like the absence of sawdust and sweat, I can pitch, a sterile hospital room, I can still pitch, medication fed into his nerves through intravenous drips and shoved down his throat like clockwork, I still want to pitch, bile and blood and broken painted-glass, You’ll never pitch again, all in one flash of memories he’d been sure he’d forgotten.

“You take care of us, Yasutomo,” Hayato says, one large hand pressed against the wildly beating organ of suspicious importance in Arakita’s chest, “You make sure we’re still able to ride, every day we want to.”

(“It – it feels, it feels great, and, and I – I still want to pitch, Hayato, but I can’t anymore, I was stupid, so fucking stupid…”)

“You know well enough for the seniors to trust you, Arakita,” Toudou says, quietly but with so much certainty, “You even… knocked some sense back into Tomii, when he needed it the most.” He cracks a smile, and Arakita huffs at the awkwardly worded sentiment. Even Hayato muffles a laugh at the memory, and tugs Arakita closer.

“There’s no stopping you from learning. And besides, you’re important to us, Yasutomo,” he drops his head against Arakita’s shoulder, and murmurs, “I want to ride at the inter-high, and see you at the finish line with Usakicchi.”

The thought is completely ridiculous, and Arakita feels himself smiling at the absurdity of Hayato’s dream. “Fucking hell do I have to carry your fat rabbit, Hayato.”

“Yasutomo, you promised…”

“Rabbit or no,” Toudou interrupts, “You really do have to be there, Arakita. What kind of manager doesn’t come to greet his victors after they’ve won the race?”

Idiots, Arakita thinks. He still can’t move his arms, but that doesn’t stop him from making a face of pure disbelief at Toudou.

“What makes you think you’re gonna win right off the bat? We don’t even have a complete team yet! The selection race is next week, make your fucking proclamations then.”

For some inane reason, Toudou laughs. Hayato chuckles into his shoulder, and Arakita rolls his eyes at the antics of his pedaling idiots.

They stay in the locker rooms, bickering about the selection race (“I’ve got my eyes on a promising first year, a climber just like me!” “Oh, joyous.” “Arakita!”) and Toudou’s dismal handling of a bat (“I was not thinking of hitting them, Arakita!” “You looked like you were.”), until Fukutomi arrives and Toudou herds him away for a talk. Hayato offers to carry Arakita back to the dorms, and is instantly refused – but Arakita does ask him to sleep over, to the brief irritation of the dorm manager.

Three hours after he puts on his sling and downs his pills, Arakita still rates his pain at a high, steady eight. He has Hayato settled beside him, however, and when he checks his phone, he finds a message from Fukutomi, consisting of a surprisingly cute apple emoji, and Kinjou, [One of our freshmen looks like you. Disturbingly. Are you related? ***yourclonepossibly.jpg***].

None of these things take away an ounce of the pain, but Arakita lets Hayato tuck his head under his chin anyway, and he makes a note to reply to both messages in the morning. Hayato murmurs his name in his sleep, and Arakita closes his eyes to the sound of his soft snores and the dimming light of his phone.

He falls asleep soon after, and doesn’t wake up until the next day, even when he starts to dream about the sound a ball makes when it flies past a stunned batter and into a catcher’s waiting mitt.

 


 

In the morning, Arakita doesn’t kick Hayato out of his bed, but he does get him to assume body pillow duties until his stomach growls for attention.

He sends a happy cat emoji to Fukutomi, and the message [Fuku-chan! At lunch! I have an idea about the selection race I wanna run past you.]

To Kinjou, Arakita sends a hastily taken selfie, right after he wakes up – his hair is mussed, his t-shirt is falling off one shoulder, but his teeth are bared in a grin when he stares at his phone’s camera. [See a resemblance?? No!!! ***checkyoureyes.jpg***]

His arms still hurt enough for him to chew through his morning’s pills, but Arakita takes it in stride and only grimaces when he calls his physical therapist for an impromptu session.

 


 

Arakita’s physical therapist clucks her tongue and purses her lips when she comes to see him the Sunday after Arakita’s unfortunate brush with Team Underdeveloped Egos (as Toudou liked to refer to them). They talk, and Arakita is poked and prodded and told off firmly for his over-exertions. They also make arrangements for a week of rehabilitative sessions, and phone in an appointment with his Hakone-based physician the weekend following. His physical therapist also advises Arakita not to overdose on his pills, and Arakita suspects she pitches her voice loud enough to carry to the only other occupied bed on purpose.

When their hour is up, Hayato gets up from the infirmary bed across him and offers to accompany him to the hospital. Again, Arakita refuses his offer.  

“You won’t have time to, idiot hamster cheeks, you’ll be watching the inter-high prospects for me!”

The Hakogaku cycling club would be holding it’s inter-high selection races on Friday – the course is the same one the third years have been riding in their practices, with a few of Arakita’s alterations put into effect: Non-climbers would have to contend with routes leading them up through the mountains, and on the way down, all of the racers would have to negotiate hairpin bends if they wanted to stay together as a group.

Toudou, Fukutomi, and Hayato test it out for him, and when they return, Fukutomi regards Arakita with another of his serious, appraising gazes.

“The course would be difficult for those who take the road at face value and think too highly of their abilities. You’re quite frightening to have thought of it, Arakita.”

Arakita grimaces and sticks his tongue out at the comment. Toudou babbles excitedly about how it would cull for them a new breed of climbers, ones who could commune with the mountains themselves. Hayato only smiles, “This makes for an interesting selection race, Yasutomo.”

“Tch! What’s a race without any stakes, anyway? Cut off the deadwood, and we’ll see if you can find your other two kings, Fuku-chan.”

Three days, Arakita thinks, in three days, the real work starts.

 


 

 [Kin-chan! Thanks for the inspiration for the races]

[[Hm? Ah, the alterations? You’re stealing my ideas, Arakita. Deplorable.]]

[Say that to my face, baldy!!!]

[[I do have time for a video chat after practice later.]]

[Good! I’ll just wait for the episode downloads for The Return of Superman]

[[A foreign series?]]

[You’ve never heard of it?? FUCK! We’re sharing screens later. >: ( ]

[[If you say so Arakita]]

 


 

 The inter-high selection race doubles as the club’s welcome race, which Arakita thinks speaks volumes about the importance of the inter-high for Hakogaku. Still.

“Fucking put me down, Hayato!”

In complete disregard for their friendship, Hayato does not obey, and continues to bodily drag him to the clubroom for the welcoming ceremonies. Arakita isn’t even struggling all that much, but Hayato had somehow gotten the strange notion of Arakita skipping out on them in his head. Personally, Arakita blames Toudou and his mysterious message (“Tomii’s got an important announcement to make before the race! It involves our dear – ma – na – Oops! I’m not telling, wahaha!”).

At least Hayato is mindful of his recovering arms, but this only means that Arakita is being carried along like a teddy bear. The stares of a few other students don’t deter Hayato, and halfway to their destination, Arakita gives up on protesting.

When they arrive at the doors of the clubroom, Hayato sets him back on his feet, and smiles widely even when Arakita sends him a particularly nasty glare.

“The fuck was that for, Hayato?!”

“We can’t miss the welcoming ceremony, Yasutomo.”

And with that, he opens the clubroom’s doors – just as Fukutomi steps up to stand in front of the gathered inter-high hopefuls. At the same time, Toudou swoops into the space to Arakita’s left. “Good job getting him here, Shinkai. Now, let me take over!”

“Go, Jinpachi!”

Callously betrayed by his friend, Arakita can only stare and sputter as Toudou drags him through the crowd of club members. They make way for their unapologetically loud vice-captain readily enough, but Arakita notices that most of them don’t seem to recognize him (barring Izumida, and another handful of second years). Though, he doesn’t recognize anyone from the unfortunate locker room fiasco either. Still, it doesn’t make the situation less confusing.

“Toudou,” Arakita hisses, “What the fuck are you doing??”

“Language, manager!” Toudou replies in a hush, before positioning Arakita to stand at Fukutomi’s left and leaving him there to take his place at Fukutomi’s right.

The fuck does this look like. Fuku-chan??? The incredulous stare he gives Fukutomi is ignored, and suddenly Arakita is keenly aware that there are over two dozen pairs of eyes fixed on the three of them as they stand together – and most of their curious gazes are directed at him.

“I have one last member of the club to introduce to you,” Fukutomi begins, “You’ve met your seniors and specialists, your vice-captain and your captain. This person holds the same level of importance as they do, as he will be in charge of ensuring that you are able to honor Hakogaku with your performance on the road. I speak of the person to my left, Hakogaku’s manager, Arakita Yasutomo.”

Fukutomi turns to Arakita then, and so does Toudou – both have identical, expectant looks on their faces, Arakita barely keeps himself from yelling at them. He turns to meet the suddenly attentive gazes of the club’s neophytes, who wait silently for him to speak.

Fuck, Arakita thinks, I’m as nervous as you kids look, what the hell. At least one of us has to know what they’re doing here! Fuck! Why’d you even make me do this, Fuku-chan!

After a moment, he licks his lips, and says, “… Fuku-chan makes such a big deal about it, but it’s really simple.” C’mon, Yasutomo, finish this already so they can ride! “Your captain, your vice-captain, and your seniors – they’re here to help you become your best.”

Arakita glances at the fresh-faced first years, the second years who’d be working to inherit the legacy of the third years – no matter where he looks, he sees a bunch of pedaling idiots, and the thought makes him grin as he continues, “I'm just here to make sure you don't die while you're at it."

At the back, Arakita sees Hayato gearing up to shoot him a wink. He looks away hurriedly, and catches Toudou giving him a thumbs up. Fukutomi, by far, is the worst – he’s giving Arakita the same look he’d given him on the train heading back from Chiba. Arakita just knows he’s going to follow it up with something equally embarrassing, and he isn’t disappointed – in the next moment, Fukutomi’s facing the club again.

“Arakita is right. The training regimen of Hakogaku is not merciful. There is a possibility that you may not survive it. Arakita is here to at least give you a fighting chance. I’ve entrusted this task to him, as there is no one else better suited, no one else I find I can trust with the means to our victory, other than him.”

Fukutomi’s words cast a reverential silence over the club members. If before they stared at Arakita with curiosity, now they regard him with awe in their eyes. Arakita thinks Fukutomi’s blown his usefulness to the club out of proportion, but with how Fukutomi is still looking at him the way he did when he’d thanked him for punching him out and following him to Sohoku, it’s suddenly difficult to muster up a denial.

Fukutomi’s next move makes it difficult to even consider breathing.

“You are strong, Yasutomo. You make us strong. We look forward to being in your care this year.”

And then Fukutomi bows deeply, followed in short order by Toudou and the rest of the club, who repeat their captain’s words in a loud and clear chorus. Even Hayato bows, but not before giving Arakita a smile that steals whatever strength he’s been using to keep himself upright. At least, it makes it that much easier to bow back to Fukutomi and the rest of the club.

When they straighten up, there’s a new spark in the first and second years’ eyes. Arakita is doubtful of what exactly put it there, but he isn’t about to take the sudden surge in their drive for granted. He jerks his head at Toudou, who steps up immediately.

“With that, the Hakogaku Cycling Team welcomes you to the fold! As you know, the race today doubles as both your welcome race, and the inter-high selection race! Groups A & B, take your places outside. Groups C & D, follow Shinkai. Groups E & F, start your warm ups! We climbers must save the best for the last, after all...”

Toudou herds away the riders, now divided into their individual categories, but not before flashing another thumbs up at Arakita. As Hayato does the same with his group of sprinters, he gives Arakita his unfailingly embarrassing ba-kyun! before Arakita could shoo him out.

Slowly, the clubroom empties, and Arakita is left with Fukutomi, who’s claimed a set of rollers to himself. He sighs and fetches his captain’s water bottle, handing it to him with a flat glare and pink-tinged cheeks.

“Was all of that really necessary, Fuku-chan?”

Fukutomi nods, not even taking a moment to think of his answer. “It’s necessary for them to know your face and your duties, as well as their responsibilities in relation to you. You should expect nothing less than respect from them, Yasutomo.”

There’s a pause, then, where Fukutomi holds Arakita’s gaze – he remembers that they haven’t spoken about the locker room incident, and Arakita doesn’t think he’d even want to revisit the memory (even Hayato hadn’t tried to remember what his surprise had been) – but Fukutomi only repeats the words he’d spoken earlier, the ones that had Arakita inarticulately sputtering in his head.

“You make us strong, Yasutomo. We will be victorious with your support.”

Arakita doesn’t contest this; in fact, he says nothing at all to Fukutomi, and instead walks over to the open doors of the clubroom, to watch the start of the inter-high selection race.

 


 

 [Kin-chan! Fucking guess what happened today]

[[You finally found the documents proclaiming your undeniable relationship with Imaizumi, thus removing all doubts from my mind about his hidden ferocity?]]

[N o]

[Stupid Kin-chan! What the hell!]

[[I apologize. My doubts remain intact. What happened today?]]

[Fuku-chan! Fuku-chan named me Hakogaku’s official manager, can you believe it??]

[As if I have so! much! free time! to spend on making sure a bunch of pedaling idiots don’t pull a muscle or go crashing off into railings. Bullshit!!!]

[[As I recall you saying before, you’re used to handling bullshit, aren’t you, Arakita?]]

[[Be extra careful with the railings.]]

[Kin-chan, just call me by my first name already :P]

[HAHAHAHAHA KIN-CHAN! You ass.]

[And I am! But that doesn’t mean Fuku-chan can just dump an entire club’s well-being on me! Hayato and his stupid fat rabbit are already a handful! I’m gonna be in charge of so. much. shit.]

[Also are you done with your homework yet]

[[Done. Let me get on my laptop and you can rant about your newfound duties. I’ll tell you about what I thought of last night’s episode.]]

[‘k see ya Kin-chan!! ]

[[See you, Yasutomo]]

 


 

 The day after the selection races, Arakita stands in front of the vending machine closest to his physician’s office at Hakone’s municipal hospital. His phone vibrates with update after update from Toudou about the seniors’ observations, but he’s ignoring it for the moment as he considers the row of bepsi on display in the machine.

His arms are both recovering nicely, as his physical therapist predicted (the check-up is just to make sure he hasn’t pulled anything irreparable, and also to see if his prescriptions needed adjusting), but Arakita is still doubtful of his ability to maneuver a bottle cap or a can.

Hayato usually handed him his bepsi already opened, a fact which has gone thankfully unnoticed by even Toudou, the unhelpfully observant three-antennae’d bug. Today, however, Hayato is absent from Arakita’s immediate right, having been told to ride with his second years. Arakita doesn’t regret foisting him off on his underclassmen, even as he stares irritably at the bepsi just out of his reach.

With a sigh, Arakita pockets his money, and starts to make his way back to the line of plastic chairs outside his physician’s office. Having nothing else to distract him from the impending sermons and droning recitations of his physical limitations, he pulls out his phone to start scrolling through the many, many messages Toudou’s sent him in the space of an hour.

When he returns to the waiting area, Arakita sees that one of the seats has been occupied. At first glance, Arakita thinks it’s a middle school kid, with how short they look – but the longer he stares, the more familiar the person who’s sitting at the edge of their seat and kicking their legs to some inane tune becomes.

Blue hair with one stubborn idiot antenna. T-shirt with three triangles stenciled on it. And… cycling shorts.

Toudou’s voice rings out in Arakita’s mind: “We have a promising first year! A climber, just like me, someone who has the blessing of the mountains!”

He glances at his phone next, and scrolls to the message listing the names of the winners for the selection races. Bracketing one name in particular are a series of star emoji’s, a sure sign of Toudou’s sincere excitement.

Arakita looks up from his phone, just in time to catch the boy blinking at him. Seeing no other chance for it, Arakita ventures, “Manami Sangaku… Right?”

The boy tilts his head, and Arakita watches with morbid fascination as his lips curl into a smile, the action somehow entirely independent of the rest of his face.

“Fancy seeing you here, Arakita-san.”

Now isn’t this a fucking small world.

 


 

The rest of Toudou’s mails detail the seniors’ impression of the selection race. A proper deliberation would be done when Arakita returned from his check-up, but he’d asked for highlights, anyway. Three riders had been picked out from the lot of participants – the second year sprinting-machine and Hayato’s favorite, Izumida Touichirou; another second year, a climber who took surprisingly well to flats, Kuroda Yukinari; and lastly, the first year climber whom Toudou had had his eyes on even before the race, Manami Sangaku.

That same Manami Sangaku who, in a truly unimaginable twist of circumstances, is sitting next to Arakita on a squeaky, plastic hospital chair, the most disconcerting not-smile Arakita has ever seen pasted on his face.

“Had fun in the race yesterday?” Arakita asks, scrolling through another of Toudou’s messages (he’s just gushing about Maki-chan in this one).

Of course he’d been in the van with Fukutomi and the others, watching Manami and Kuroda duke it out in the Group F race, but Arakita acknowledges that his and the riders’ perception of the race would be different. Maybe ‘fun’ isn’t really the best description for their race, but Manami still chuckles, the sound pretty but unreal to Arakita’s ears, and says, “I did! The mountain air felt great, and it was good to have raced with Kuroda-san.”

[It was amazing, almost as amazing as when I race! It was like the mountains willed him forward, Arakita!] reads one of Toudou’s messages; Arakita doesn’t reply to it (“I was there, stupid!”). He hums thoughtfully at Manami’s answer, and for a while, Arakita thinks he’s content with that simple line of questioning.

Still, a few seconds later, he side-eyes the boy humming a tuneless ditty beside him.

“So. What’re you in for?”

The humming slowly comes to a stop. Arakita doesn’t retract his question or apologize for how it sounds, and simply waits for Toudou’s wonder climber to answer. Manami isn’t obligated to tell him the truth, but having long since let go of the idea of “privacy” when at a hospital, Arakita still expects even a blatant lie.

Manami giggles, bright and jarring, and says, “It’s… nothing too big, Arakita-san. Just, routine check-up’s, y’know? To see if I’m still alive and breathing.” Arakita thinks it’s fake – but an answer is an answer.

“Neat,” he comments, and then, as casually as he can, adds, “I’m here to see if my arm’s still dead.”

Manami’s eyes drift over to Arakita’s arms, and he watches them intently for a minute or two, as if trying to figure out which one is wearing the guise of a functioning limb. Arakita almost laughs – “Hey! Quit staring! If you wanna ask, then ask.”

Toudou’s wonder climber flinches back at the suggestion, straightens up in his seat and looks away from Arakita. He’s quiet for a long moment, and then he speaks, passably nonchalant, “… Which is it? Arakita-san.”

Just then, a nurse walks out of his physician’s office and calls Arakita’s name. Down the hallway, a girl’s voice calls out, “Sangaku!” Arakita lightly punches Manami’s shoulder with his left hand, and says, “I think that’s for you.”

Manami ignores him, and keeps his gaze on Arakita’s arms. He asks again, “Which is it, Arakita-san?”

Arakita laughs, getting to his feet and making his way to the door the nurse is holding open for him. He glances over his shoulder at Manami, and says, “When you tell me what you’re really in for, maybe then I’ll tell you.” He doesn’t wait for Manami to reply, and lets the nurse close the door behind him.

After his check-up, with his physician’s bland but well-meaning sermon fresh in his head and a brand new prescription tucked into his pocket, Arakita looks around the waiting area. In Manami’s place is an old lady, hunched over her cane. The seats next to her are empty, and as Arakita exits the hospital, he’s not surprised to find that even its hallways are devoid of anything resembling Toudou’s wonder climber.

 


 

[[We have six now]]

[Us too]

[[Are yours strong?]]

[The strongest. And they’ll get even stronger, after I’m through with them]

[[We look forward to making them eat our dust]]

[Haa! You wish, Kin-chan]

 


  

“Fuku-chan, you’re thinking of making Kuroda your assist?”

It’s the week following the selection race, and Arakita has regained enough functionality in his arms to be able to feed himself as he, Fukutomi, Toudou, and Hayato review the data forms of the three inter-high hopefuls. They’ve holed up in the locker room in their shared lunch period, intending on finalizing their choices to be able to make the announcement later at the start of the day’s afternoon practice.

Fukutomi spears another apple slice with his fork, and nods. “Izumida is a fine sprinter. Between Manami and Kuroda, Manami is the stronger climber. Kuroda can be trained to conquer the flats and carry me to the finish line.”

Toudou preens noticeably at the praise being heaped on his climbers, and even Hayato nods in agreement at Fukutomi’s observations. Arakita himself doesn’t have any problems with the line-up, but hearing Fukutomi’s reasons gives him a clearer idea of what else needed to be done for and about their new blood.

He grins and starts peeling another apple for Fukutomi. “Man, Fuku-chan, you’re gonna work these kids to the bone!”

Without missing a beat, Fukutomi says, “They must become strong. Please help them, Arakita.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m here for…”

With their deliberations accomplished, they spend the rest of the lunch period attempting to outdo each other in peeling apples (Fukutomi ends up eating all their attempts, and Arakita grumbles about his diet).

When afternoon practice comes around, they leave the classroom building together, Arakita walking ahead of the other three, if only to escape their continuing argument about whose apples were the most perfectly peeled. He opens the doors to the clubroom, catching the tail end of a conversation between Kuroda, Izumida, and another second year.

“… and it’s obvious the seniors will choose me to be the assist. Izumida, you’re a shoe-in for the sprinter category, and I guess they’ll make do with Manami for the climber’s – but all that just leaves me with the honor and prestige of being the captain’s ace assist! There’s no one else who can do it!”

…Technically all true, Arakita thinks, but for some reason, Kuroda’s words strike him the wrong way, and he stops short at the doorway. Toudou comes up to his left then, possibly intending to ask Arakita to vouch for his apple-peeling skills – but at the same time, Kuroda notices them, and waves.

“See! The vice-captain and the manager are both here! They’re probably going to announce the inter-high line up now, and you’ll see that I’m undoubtedly right.”

Toudou sends Arakita a puzzled look, but Arakita’s already swept into the clubroom, aiming to pull the cocky kid down a couple of pegs. It wouldn’t take much doing, and Arakita only wants to make sure he didn’t make too big of a deal of himself in what is, at its core and all its facets, a team sport.

It’s still part of a manager’s responsibility to straighten out a few kinks, he thinks, with only the faintest traces of irritation. Arakita stops in front of the trio of second years and after greeting the other two with a nod, he turns to Kuroda.

“Hey, Kuroda…”

The kid practically beams up at Arakita (Did he just… puff out his chest? What…?), “Arakita-senpai! You’re announcing the inter-high line up today, correct?”

Arakita nods, and Kuroda cuts him off, “Let me be the first to thank you for acknowledging my expertise. I’ll make sure to carry the second single-digit tag to the finish line with pride. Will the captain be coming to speak with me, maybe about possible joint rides? We’ll need to talk about our future training sessions, and I’d like for that to be one less worry off your shoulders…”

For a moment, Arakita just lets Kuroda ramble on – the kid had a mouth on him, definitely, and Arakita’s pleased to know he’s already thinking ahead to the preparations for the inter-high – but after a while, he catches on to the tune of Kuroda’s thoughts.

Ugh. This is more work than I thought.

“Kuroda,” Arakita cuts in, “That announcement you’re waiting for? It’s today, yeah, for the sprinter’s and the climber’s categories.”

The second year stares at him, uncomprehending, “And the assist’s?”

“I’m thinking of pushing that back. Kid, I’m not gonna lie, you ride well – but your attitude just now? Garbage. Seriously, if you don’t cut back on it, I might have to convince Fuku-chan to let you go from the line up. S’not gonna do the team any favors if you’re gonna be on it but not about it.”

With that, Arakita moves to rejoin the other third years for the announcement – he’s stopped, however, by Kuroda suddenly coming to stand in his way. Hayato, Toudou, and Fukutomi have noticed the commotion, and Hayato’s already moving towards Arakita’s right, when Kuroda speaks.

“Arakita-senpai… You’re seriously going to jeopardize Hakogaku’s chance at the inter-high, the chance that I would be giving them, just because you find something wrong about my… my ‘attitude’?”

The kid is pissed, Arakita can see as much. He’s all tense, drawn back shoulders and fisted hands, eyes flashing with indignation. Still, he talks like he’s entirely indispensable to the team he isn’t even officially a part of yet. Arakita glances over Kuroda’s shoulder, to meet Fukutomi’s gaze – there’s no sign of reproach in them, which Arakita takes to mean that he’s in charge of the situation. Fantastic.

“You should listen to yourself talk, Kuroda, you’ll get what I mean.”

At that, Kuroda’s jaw drops open in shock. Arakita doesn’t think he’d hit him hard enough for such a reaction, but all too soon Izumida and the other second year come over to flank Kuroda, fussing over him in turns.

“Yuki, that’s enough already, we shouldn’t–”

That’s completely absurd!

Kuroda’s outburst draws the attention of the rest of the clubroom’s inhabitants – a group of first years on the rollers and another group just coming in for practice come to a standstill as they watch Kuroda faceoff with their manager, and Arakita can’t help but wish that someone had bothered to take up crowd control.

At this rate, this is gonna blow up in my face, Arakita thinks.

Fuck it.

“Kuroda, I said you ride well, didn’t I? Just, not as well as the inter-high needs.”

Izumida and the other second year are bodily holding Kuroda back now, and Hayato’s taken to standing in front of his right side. Arakita wants to tell them that this isn’t going to go down like the brawl they’re all expecting, but with the way Kuroda’s struggling, a little failsafe isn’t something Arakita is going to refuse.

“You saw me! You saw me cross that finish line mere seconds after that first year upstart, and you tell me I’m not good enough for the inter-high?!

Arakita starts to nod, and possibly get into an actual explanation as to why that is, but Kuroda talks over him, incredulous and outraged.

“Arakita-senpai, are you possibly blind? Even my previous team acknowledges what an asset I was to our victories! My proficiency, my skill – no one dares to badmouth any aspect of it, just ask anyone from my previous school! I was the star player for any sport, you name it – basketball, soccer, swimming, even baseball!”

 “Yuki–”

Not now, Ashikiba – Nobody’s ever questioned my skill, Arakita-senpai, so what makes you think you can?”

Hayato’s standing completely in his way now, and Arakita sees Toudou, his gaze narrowed and his mouth in an unflattering scowl, start to make his way towards them – but suddenly all Arakita can think about is the sound chiseled wood makes on steel grilles.

And Kuroda keeps talking.

“Come to think, I’ve never seen you ride with us before, Arakita-senpai. Why is that? Why do you think you can critique my undeniable prowess when you haven’t even shown us yours? I bet it’s because you actually have none! I bet you can’t even catch my slowest fastball, let alone keep up with us on the mountains!”

Arakita’s eyes widen at Kuroda’s accusations, and suddenly, his mind clears.

You fucking brat.

“And just what are you willing to bet, Kuroda?”

Their little audience suddenly shift their gazes to him, but Arakita couldn’t care less. He pushes past Hayato to stand toe to toe with Kuroda, a different gleam in his eyes.

“You sounded so damn sure carrying on like you did – well,” Arakita leans forward, until he can see the reds in the whites of Kuroda’s eyes, “Fucking show me what you’ve got.

Arakita feels Hayato’s hand settling on his right shoulder. He relents and straightens up, but he holds Kuroda’s defiant gaze unflinchingly, and says, “You’re right. I couldn’t possibly keep up with you on the mountains. Can’t even ride, period. But slowest fastball or not, I think I could catch a few of your pitches.”

Kuroda scoffs, “I won the newcomer’s best pitcher award in my first year, Arakita-senpai! It’d be a slaughter if we played ball at all.”

You don’t fuckin’ say, kid!

“Good! Fantastic, even!” Arakita lets himself match Kuroda’s expression, feeling a familiar fire flooding his veins, “At least it’ll make things interesting.” At Kuroda’s glare, Arakita elaborates, “I haven’t spilled new blood in years.”

Arakita feels Hayato squeeze his right shoulder in silent question, and he forces himself to loosen his stance. Can’t help it if I’m keyed up, Hayato!

“Tomorrow, before afternoon practice. Let’s play a game of catch, Kuroda – but let’s raise the stakes, s’no fun if we don’t. You throw me three pitches – any kind you like. You get even one pitch past my mitt, and I’ll quit the club.”

Someone in the audience gasps in surprise, and Hayato’s grip on Arakita’s shoulder tightens again.

“And since I’m feeling merciful, if I catch all three of your best pitches, I’ll let you keep your life.”

Kuroda wastes no time in agreeing, “Terms accepted. Enjoy your last day at the club, Arakita-senpai.”

Arakita lets out a laugh, before narrowing his eyes at Kuroda, “I’ll make you eat your words, kid.”

 


  

Hayato hovers around him for the rest of the day, and after club period, Toudou and Fukutomi waste no time cornering them in the locker room.

“Arakita! What was that? I’ve never seen Kuroda act like that before!” Toudou clucks and fusses so much that Arakita has to take a moment to laugh at him, before he even starts explaining anything. Fukutomi sits across him and after Toudou and Hayato settle down on the remaining seats, Arakita speaks.

“He’s got drive, Fuku-chan! He’d be fucking amazing on the road, pulling for you with all his strength. The kid’s good! Better than good! But fuck if that’s gonna matter one whit if he keeps being an absolute asshole.”

Arakita tilts his chair back, bites at the knuckle of his left hand’s thumb for a moment, before grinning and meeting the collectively confused and concerned gazes of Hakogaku’s top brass.

“I’ll get you your ace, Fuku-chan, no sweat! After all, new meat’s always better after it’s been pounded through for a while.”

For some reason, neither Toudou nor Fukutomi look especially reassured by his words. Only Hayato nods his head in agreement, and this time, when he shoots Arakita his embarrassing as fuck wink, Arakita doesn’t look away.

 


 

 They agree to play on a field five minutes away from campus, chosen because of the quality of the soil – yielding enough to the drive of a spade, but solid enough for footwork – and because Arakita didn’t want to disrupt the rest of the club’s practice.

At least, that was the fucking point, Arakita thinks, watching the small crowd of first and second years milling outside the makeshift infield. Hayato catches his annoyed scowl, and says, “You did agree to this in the middle of the clubroom, Yasutomo.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Arakita looks away from the crowd and spits over his shoulder, shifting his gaze to the pitcher’s plate, set up sixty feet away. Kuroda stands there, stamping his feet around and getting a feel for the mound Arakita had personally supervised the creation of.

For a moment, he catches what looks like a smile on Kuroda’s face.

Yeah, feels good there, doesn’t it, kid?

Izumida comes up to Arakita’s left then, breaking his reverie, “Arakita-senpai, your mitt.”

“Ah, thanks.”

It’s borrowed and a little worn-through, and heavier than Arakita remembers any mitt being. But the stitches look strong, and the palm boasts scuff marks and skids from at least a hundred balls caught from under a batter’s swing. Nice. Take care of me today, yeah?

With a practiced flip and shuffle, Arakita fits the mitt over his right hand.

(And he’s using his right hand, no matter how big of an idiot it is, because his left hand might be underused but he knows he can still toss decently with it. His right hand is completely stupid, and is only good for catching – Arakita still has his pride, after all, and he’s not about to give Kuroda the satisfaction of watching him fumble with a ball in a challenge he set up himself.)

Arakita looks around at their audience, herded a good distance away by Hayato and Toudou. He sees Fukutomi standing amongst them, beside Izumida and that other second year who looks as nervous as Toudou, but is more obvious about showing it. Manami’s standing next to Toudou as well, wearing that same, depthless smile on his face.

Are you fuckers stupid? Standing around, like you’re waiting for a show…

“This is a fucking slaughter,” Arakita mutters, punching his borrowed mitt with his left hand.

“Oi! Kuroda! You ready?!”

With his gloved hand shielding his right, Kuroda nods.

 


  

Arakita had measured the distance between the home plate and the pitcher’s mound himself. He’d had to ask Hayato to dig up and pat down the dirt for the mound, but he was the one who directed him about its shape, and how tall it had to be. Kuroda volunteered to bring the ball and the mitts, which was good because Arakita was thinking of asking Toudou to borrow them from Hisui and his goons, and that was perhaps going a bit too far.

They wouldn’t need the rest of the diamond, neither the infield nor the outfield – none of the bases would be set up, either. For all that Arakita had opted to discard from an official diamond, they could have settled for approximating a catcher’s box – but this was a real match, not a practice game of catch.

No, it wasn’t even just that.

Kuroda had called it a slaughter.

Fine, Arakita thought, I can roll with that.

The beast of the mound wouldn’t turn away prey that was stupid enough to present itself on his home turf.

 


  

Arakita squats down, instinctively dropping his left hand down in position for a sign. He holds up the mitt just under his line of sight, perfectly situated within the strike zone. The rest of his body, unencumbered by the catcher’s protective gear, sits coiled in anticipation. Something whistles through his veins, like firecrackers and lightning.

Kuroda starts to wind up – and Arakita’s insight snaps to attention.

His stance is straight, forward – but with a loose wrist. He grips the ball with his thumb at bottom center. His fingers are pointing at the mitt until he releases the ball. Trajectory is straight, speed is high.

Too easy, Kuroda.

The sound the ball makes when it comes into contact with Arakita’s mitt is deafening; it sounds out louder and larger than life, even in the grave silence of their makeshift field. No one speaks, not even when Arakita rises to his feet, cradling the ball in his mitt.

Arakita has to yell to reach Kuroda with the distance between them, but he doesn’t think this is the only reason why his throat feels raw and why his words shoot through the silence like gunshots.

“A four-seam fast ball! 80 to 90 miles per hour! Good pitch to start with, Kuroda!”

The second year’s mask of cool indifference doesn’t break, even when Arakita tosses the ball back to him. He shifts his footing on the mound, and Arakita squats down again, watching his every move.

Cocky brat makes for a cocky pitcher. He circles his mound like a dog trying to find a resting place, comes back to his first choice anyway, eight out of ten times. The way the light’s hitting us, a cap would have given you enough shade, but that’s fine.

Stare at me all you want, but I’m the one seeing through you.

“Next ball!” Arakita cries, and Kuroda gives him another stiff nod.

Normally, Arakita thinks, the sequence for this would be: a fastball first to see if the batter likes to swing, followed by a lying fastball interchangeable with a curveball just to show how good he is at controlling the ball, and then lastly a forkball to break the strikes, draw the batter’s instinct out, and crush their spirit with it’s late-in-flight descent.

One prediction down, two and a half to go.

Kuroda starts to wind up again. From Arakita’s vantage point, he sees him shift his grip on the ball hiding behind his mitt twice, judging by the in-out movement of his elbow – an obvious tell. Kuroda gears his arm up at the same angle as his fastball, but when he releases it, his wrist almost seems to disappear with how ‘thin’ it gets as he twists it.

Same speed. Ball flies in the tunnel between pitcher’s last hand position to the strike zone. Trajectory should be within the middle, but – his eyes are moving up – outside?

Arakita grinds his left foot into the imaginary home plate, stretches his leg out as far as he can while still keeping his footing, lets his right knee hit the ground and plucks the wildly spinning curveball from the air.

 

year3-3

 

His heart jackhammers in his chest, and every bone in his body feels as if they’re on the spit, above a fire that burns hotter than the last inning of the last game of the summer tournaments.

The crowd might have screamed, but all Arakita hears is the thundering rush of his blood.

And then, Kuroda steps off the mound.

DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE, KURODA YUKINARI.”

At the sound of Arakita’s voice, what’s nearly an inhuman growl save for the rigid snap of syllables punctuating it, Kuroda freezes, ten feet away from the mound.

Arakita stands and pitches the ball back to Kuroda, and it’s only by the grace of the mitt that he throws over his face that he avoids getting a black eye. He fumbles to pick up the ball, and by the time he does, Arakita’s returned to the catcher’s initial position, a feral, predatory slant to his features.

“Get back to position, Kuroda. No decent pitcher leaves the mound until the game’s finished, and you’ve got just one ball left.”

The kid looks spooked. His knees shake, unless he locks them up in a standing position. C’mon kid, you don’t have a cap to hide behind, so quit feeling for it around your head. Just concentrate on me, that’s it. It’s just you and me.

I’m right across you. There’s nowhere else for you to run.

One last ball, Kuroda Yukinari.

 


  

“One last ball, Arakita!”

One last miracle, one last chance to pitch a shooting star with his named burned upon its skin into Koshien.

One last game, too, though Arakita didn’t know it back then. His last game – not for the season, not for the year, but for life.

“You’ll never pitch again.”

It had been, up to then, the best game he’d ever played.

And in one heartbeat, it ended.

 


  

Kuroda’s hand is shaking. His stance is the same as his four-seam fastball and his curveball – straight, forward, with a loose, thin wrist at release. But here – at the split second before you let go, you make the fatal mistake of keeping your fingers locked in its last position.

Fingers split wide like a victory sign. Ball’s trajectory comes in straight. It’ll break off late in its flight – five seconds from now – heading down for the home plate.

Arakita digs his heels in deep, rocks backward three seconds before the ball crosses the batter’s line, and catches Kuroda’s expertly executed forkball like it had just been gently tossed to him.

He feels a smile break out on his lips – and the curious pull of gravity on his knees, forcing him to kneel on the invisible home plate. The lightning and fire he’d been feeling for all three pitches finally register in his mind in a burst of blinding clarity.

The ball falls from his stiff, immobile, useless arm.

Fuck. So that’s why it all felt familiar.

Arakita watches with numb horror as the ground gets closer. Instinctively, his body curls over his right arm, in which something has detached, and he bites his tongue, bringing blood to the fore, as he feels what had to be every nerve in his dying arm come alive in pain.

Yasutomo,” he hears, somewhere above him, and then he’s being helped upright by familiar hands. Hayato doesn’t shake as he straightens him up, stays perfectly steady even when he wipes at the blood that has trickled past Arakita’s lips.

Running footsteps skid to a halt in front of him, and when Arakita refocuses his eyes, he sees Kuroda’s face – pale, sickly pale, and he thinks, Fuck! I’m the one who needs a fucking morphine drip here, kid!

“A- Arakita-senpai, are you–”

“I’m peachy, kid, fucking fine. You, though!” Arakita barks out a laugh, tasting blood in his gums when he tries to stifle it, “God, what kind of wild pitch was that second one?? Your catcher wouldn’t have taken that lying down – or, actually, he would have? Just to be able to catch it? Fuck, I’d have liked to see that!”

Arakita hears more people converging around them, and then, Fukutomi’s voice calling for order. Thanks Fuku-chan, just let me finish this up.

“But seriously, Kuroda… You’re a good pitcher. Real good. I honestly believe your teams – all your teams – wouldn’t have said a bad word against your skill, and even here, when you ride… You’ve got will, kid, so much fucking will… But you’re so damn selfish. So fucking self-absorbed.

Suddenly, Kuroda sags to his knees in front of Arakita, rubbing at his eyes. Arakita tries to reach out with his right hand, but the resulting shock of pain is enough to make him completely lean back against Hayato. Later, he thinks, as he watches Kuroda’s shoulders shake.

“You have reason to be, yeah, but fuck! Baseball, cycling – you know how many people are on each team, and you know what each member’s duty is. You know they don’t act independently of each other, that they rely on each other and support each other, and not just when there aren’t any runners on the bases or when someone’s in danger of dropping out.”

Arakita swallows against the lump rising in his throat. Not yet, fucking not yet.

“It’s a tough road, starting as an ace and working with your team to become a king. The way you are, you don’t even have the right to call yourself an ace of Hakogaku.”

The world starts to blur in Arakita’s eyes. He estimates about another two minutes of coherence before he loses it, and with all the strength he can muster in his protesting idiot arm, he gives Kuroda a sloppy pat on the head.

There’s an audible sob, and Kuroda looks up at him, snot running down his nose and tears streaming down his cheeks, and Arakita huffs and gives him a tired smile.

“At least, not yet. Give it time! I won, right? So, I’m letting you keep your life. Do something with it.”

When Kuroda starts to cry in earnest, Izumida and the other second year come up to either side of him, supporting him in much the same way Hayato is currently doing for Arakita. Good for you, Arakita thinks, before Hayato asks him if he can stand. “Yeah,” Arakita says, but the ground won’t let me!

Arakita leans on Hayato as they walk away, and when he ascertains that they’re far enough from Kuroda and his friends, he lets himself black out. It’s only for a brief moment, a handful of heartbeats at the very least, and he’s fully intending on resuming his awkward limp-shuffle when he comes to again, but when does, he finds that Hayato’s already carrying him.

“… Hayato?” Barely slurring, good – he might still have one more coherent minute.

“Yasutomo?”

“Don’t call the ambulance.” I’m awake enough to not subject myself to that joy ride, thank you, resurfaced memories. “Let’s take a cab.”

Apologetically, Hayato replies, “Sorry, Yasutomo, but Jinpachi already called them. They’re waiting for us up ahead.”

“… Fucking lame headband.”

 


  

Sirens. Crying. Sharp, sterile scent and taste.

The game, the game, what happened to the game?

Nobody answers him. Nobody can speak words other than “You’ll never pitch again.”

I know that! I fucking know that! But what happened to the game?!

“You’ll never pitch again.”

Lightning, fire. Dirt. Salt.

Slipping under.

On the side table to his left is a vase and a get well-card.

 


  

There is no vase or get well-card on the side table to his left, when Arakita wakes up. There’s a phone, presumably for him to call the nurse with, but nothing else. The IV stand to his right is tall and unassuming; the thin tube snakes down from it, and its needle, he knows, is nestled securely in one of his veins. Above him, the ceiling is white. The light streaming in is the muddy gold and bronze of late afternoon.

How long have I been asleep, Arakita wonders.

He closes, and a series of images flash behind his eyelids – A rabbit. A hutch. A boy with a sleepy, gentle smile. A hallucination?

He tries it again – another set of images come: Blurs on the road. A blond, stone-faced boy, and a shorter boy with a headband. Weirdos. Next image, the same boys – the blond has a bruise on his face, shorty is staring at him fearfully. Ouch. Did I do that? And again, the same boys, this time eating apples.

On the third, fourth, fifth blinks, Arakita sees bikes, bikes, and bikes.

Before he closes his eyes for what he thinks to be the last time, Arakita huffs out a laugh.

“Bunch’a pedaling idiots…”

Something crashes against the floor, and suddenly, there’s another voice speaking. “Arakita! You’re awake!”

When Arakita looks, it’s the boy with the weird headband from his hallucinations.

“I am not a hallucination!” he shrieks, somehow not attracting the attention of the nurses. “Also, no, I’m not that loud, I know when to be respectfully quiet!”

“… Weird headband.”

What do you have against my headbands, that you must disparage them every chance you get?” the boy hisses. Arakita is about to correct him, I only do so in my hallucinations, but – he considers the boy for another moment longer.

Headband. Three locks out of place. Disapproving frown. Toudou Jinpachi.

“Oh,” Arakita murmurs, “You’re real.”

And so is everything else.

 


  

“Of course I’m real!” Toudou insists, taking his seat after he uprights it, arms crossed and making no effort to avoid sounding offended, “We were-… I was so worried about you, and you call me ‘not real’! You’re so ungrateful!”

Arakita snorts indelicately, “God, I know. I hate myself, yeah, but thankfully not enough to dream up a headband weirdo.”

Toudou picks at his sleeve, his expression unchanging, and says, “Ungrateful. Do you know how much convincing I had to do just to get in to even see you?”

With your unimaginable capacity to be incredibly annoying when you put your mind to it, I don’t wanna know, Arakita thinks. That has too much sarcasm in so few syllables though, so he settles for a bland, “Nope, how long before the doc lost it when you got on your–” Toudou has a rival, what was his name? M-something… “your Maki-chan rant?”

“Excuse me! I do not talk about her that much! And anyway, Maki-chan’s not involved in this…”

Maki-chan, right. Thought that was a guy? Way to slip off, Yasutomo.

Arakita gives Toudou a flat stare. Continuous communication is difficult, he realizes, especially when it takes Toudou a while to get over being offended hit after hit. He looks even more upset than he did earlier, and Arakita reigns himself back in.

“… Seriously. What did you do?”

Toudou huffs, straightening up in his seat. “I have some family business, back at the inn, so it’s not too hard to stop the school from suspecting that I’m going outside of curfew. Shinkai and Tomii are visiting tomorrow; your doctors thought you wouldn’t wake up until later tonight. Something about your medication…”

Medication. So that’s why I don’t feel like a pin cushion.

Arakita tries to peer at the label on his IV, but the series of letters and numbers aren’t familiar. He could usually tell what the doctors gave him by deciphering the scrawls on the information square behind the bag, but his eyes are uncooperative, and the text swims in his vision before Arakita gives up.

His mind then switches to the other part of Toudou’s statement.

“Hayato… and Fuku-chan.” The names are easy to say, like he’s practiced the syllables as much as his signs. “… S’all real, then.”

“Seriously, Arakita,” Toudou says, his fingers catching onto Arakita’s blanket; he’d dropped his gaze when Arakita was puzzling over Fukutomi and Hayato’s names, but now he looks back up, and continues, “The whole club was asking after you today – Kuroda, especially!”

A smile breaks through the odd expression on Toudou’s face then, and he adds, “Lesson well taught on that account, though. Thanks to you, he’s been nothing but compliant and receptive to everyone’s feedback all day. I mean, not that I wouldn’t have eventually been able to keep a rein on him myself, but what you did…” Toudou trails off then, and glances outside, taking a moment before he speaks again, “He should be riding with Tomii right now, he looked so nervous when Tomii asked him to…”

Kuroda, Arakita remembers, the game. The challenge I set up, the make-shift mound, the worn catcher’s mitt.

A four-seam fastball, a curve, a fork.

“Hey. Did anyone tell him he landed me in the hospital?” Without waiting for Toudou’s response, Arakita emphatically adds, “Fucking don’t. It’s not the kid’s fault, I would have ended back in here one way or another.”

Toudou shifts in his seat, the look on his face unnaturally pinched and missing his usual conceit. “Of course we haven’t told him! Shinkai – Shinkai thought you wouldn’t want him to know, and Tomii kept the other first and second years away… Nobody’s said anything to anyone, only me, Tomii, and Shinkai know.”

Good, Arakita thinks. The last thing I need is to become a sideshow attraction at the club.

“Shinkai also… He also told me and Tomii about your condition. He figured it was only right that we knew.”

Arakita doesn’t feel the associated dread that usually came with people finding out about his dead right arm. He figures it’s because he can’t actually feel much at all, given how doped up he is.

“We… None of us thought…”

Toudou’s voice has gone quiet, and when Arakita chances a glance at him, he sees Toudou’s fisted hands shaking on his lap.

“I never knew… just how hard you were trying.”

Of course you didn’t. Like I’d fucking let you know.

“God, shut up about it, then. I do what I have to do, that’s all there is to it.” Arakita wishes he could snap his fingers for Toudou’s attention – the guy’s eyes have turned suspiciously misty. “If you say anything stupid, Toudou, I’ll break your favorite headband.”

Toudou gasps and hurriedly wipes at his eyes as he says, “M-me? Say something stupid? How could you think that I, Toudou Jinpachi, am incapable of tact!”

Arakita rolls his eyes, and magnanimously refrains from commenting on Toudou’s statement.

“… Well, you’ve come to see me. You’ve seen me, and I’m alive, if slightly doped up. You can leave now, Toudou.”

Devoid of the starts of an embarrassing set of waterworks, Toudou’s voice almost sounds normal when he says, “Really! Kicking me out after I came all this way to see you… But I suppose you do need your rest… The doctors were very insistent on not disturbing you, it took me hours to convince them to let me in, and I’d like to not have expended my energies unnecessarily like that!”

Arakita looks away from Toudou, shifting his gaze to the window. The sun has set, he notices, and the sky’s just starting to darken.

A thought occurs to him. It’s not just Toudou’s expressions which are odd. He’s still in his school uniform, not in his jersey. It’s almost nighttime.

“Fuck, hey, Toudou – what time did you even get here? You… you don’t look as put together as you usually do, what gives?”

Toudou looks at his phone, and says, “It’s almost seven now… I supposed I’ve been here since four. I came right after classes ended – just popped into the clubroom to check up on everyone before I had to catch the bus heading here.”

Arakita gapes at the headband weirdo.

You absolute airhead. What do you mean you just ‘popped in’! You were supposed to ride with your climbers today, what the fuck! Go home! Eat! Practice your stupid ninja acceleration in the morning!”

Wholly affronted at the barrage of orders, Toudou gears up to counter Arakita – only to be cut off by an audible growling.

Arakita feels a headache building.

Go eat dinner, you piece of shit headband freak!

Toudou stands (sending the chair toppling to the floor, again) and says, “Well what about you?! I can’t very well go about my life normally while knowing that you’re incapacitated in possibly the worst way! What kind of friend would that make me??”

As with their first meeting, Arakita feels that Toudou has completely missed his point.

“I told you! This fucking happens, and I deal with it fine on my own!” Arakita wishes he could move his left hand and manhandle Toudou out of the room, but the most he can do is clutch fruitlessly at the sheets under his hand; the impotence of his entire body, finally making itself known, turns Arakita’s next words harsh and vehement, “And why the fuck do you care? I never did anything for you…”

Friends? Hah! As far as Arakita is concerned, he only has one – and Hayato’s already put up with so much more than he should have. It wouldn’t surprise Arakita if one day he’d just get up and leave him in the dust – that’s just how things go.

Toudou’s voice, indignant and shaking, cuts through Arakita’s thoughts.

“God! You’re so – so obstinate, and belligerent, and difficult, why are you so difficult…” His shoulders have started shaking, and Arakita can tell what’s coming next – Where’s the tissue box when you need it, he wonders. Toudou keeps talking, though.

“I don’t need to have a specific reason to care about you, I just do! Friends do that! You might be the most stubborn, pig-headed person on this planet – and I really think you are – and I’ll still care about you! How hard is it for you realize that people can care about you without a reason, Arakita?!”

In the following silence, broken only by Toudou’s attempts to catch his breath, Arakita stares.

He doesn’t mean for his next words to come out of his mouth, but the night is already so strange – the mere fact that Toudou is standing there beside his hospital bed, spouting banalities about friendship and people caring about each other, throws him so far off balance, he can’t even tell which way is up, let alone which thoughts he should keep to himself.

“…Well, why would people care about me in the first place, if I never did anything for them?”

Toudou starts to cry. It goes largely unnoticed, what with his apparent confusion over Arakita’s logic – but the tears are still there, and Arakita’s fingers itch for a tissue to wad up and throw at his face, or at least a cup of water to shove down his throat. Stop crying, idiot.

When he finds his voice again, Toudou sounds completely disbelieving, “You… you’re an idiot, you know that? Saying that… that the team has no reason to care about you – what about Tomii, and ShinkaiKuroda, whose entire outlook you changed in a single afternoon! All the work you’ve been doing for the club, on your own strength and without hearing anyone’s mindless complaints… Are you telling me you think none of that matters to the people around you?”

Arakita feels himself disconnect from the moment. He tastes dirt and disappointment, hears the droning of sirens and his mother’s hushed insistence, It’ll be okay, Yasutomo, it’ll be okay. He remembers the vase filled with vibrant flowers, the get-well card without one signature.

He remembers being told that his team won the game.

“… Anyone could have done it,” Arakita says, unaware of how plaintive he’s come to sound, knowing only that Toudou is discrediting everyone’s efforts and making too much of his own.

They won the game without me. They didn’t need me at all.

“Anyone with a good arm could have taken you to Koshien, and you fucking know it.”

I know it. I know, I know. So cut the deadwood loose already.

Toudou stares at him in silence. Heartbeats pass, and Arakita feels another plea on the tip of his tongue (Please just fucking go), but before he could even muster the will to say it, Toudou speaks.

“It was still you, though. The one who did everything for us was you – Arakita Yasutomo.” His voice is soft, but steady, and there’s no other sound in the room to distract Arakita from what he says next.

“… Koshien, the Inter-High… You said it yourself – you do what you have to do. If you didn’t care even an ounce about the team, you would never say you feel like you ‘have’ to do anything for us, and we… we feel the same way about you…”

Toudou’s shoulders start to shake again, but he keeps talking, and Arakita… keeps listening.

“… You work so hard… and you – you boss us around with so much conviction… like you have every right to be there, like you have a purpose, the same as us… You think we’d just… just not notice that…”

God. Don’t cry anymore.

Hanging at his sides, Toudou’s fists tremble. He sniffles loudly, and his voice finally cracks, his words slurring together, “Like hell… like hell wouldn’t I ag-knowledge… jus’ how much you do f’r us…. ‘m not s’ungrateful, like – like some people…”

Fuck. Damn you.

“Jinpachi,” Arakita says, “Get your sniveling ass over here already.”

Needing no other encouragement, Toudou sits himself on Arakita’s side (his left, thankfully), and sobs into his blanket. “You’re so frustrating!” He cries in between his gulping breaths, “I’m so frustrated with you! How can you not – how can you not see how important you are to us!”

Sorry, Jinpachi. Sorry. Please stop crying.

He doesn’t say those words. Instead, Arakita lifts his idiot hand, and, mindful of his IV, settles it on Toudou’s head in slow, soothing pets.

“Your face is gross,” he says, “Stop crying. Your Maki-chan’s gonna be worried about you. Girls don’t like gross guys.”

“I ca- can’t help it!” Toudou counters, rubbing his jacket sleeve over his eyes, “I’m so frustrated at you! A-and this doesn’t concern Maki-chan – she’s different, anyway…”

Arakita tugs, gently, on a lock of Toudou’s hair. “Just stop crying. You’re gross. And I’m doped up, remember? I’m probably… not always this frustrating. I blame the meds.”

Something Hayato said about his pills, from nearly a year ago, resurfaces in Arakita’s mind. He sighs, and adds, “Don’t tell Hayato I said that.”

Toudou sniffles again, and stops drying his eyes. They’ve turned red-rimmed now, and Arakita wonders if the nurses would let Toudou borrow a cooling pad. When Toudou speaks again, his voice is scratchy, but he doesn’t sound like he’s about to break down a second time.

“I won’t… and I know, I know you aren’t. It’s just. You’ve never been like this before – so abrasive… It was really shocking.”

Arakita doesn’t tell Toudou that he’s always like that. He looks around for a tissue box, and finds the corner of one peeking from the shelf of the side table.

“Tissues, over–”

“Are those your true feelings, though?”

When Arakita looks back at Toudou, he finds him sitting up and favoring him with a calm stare. His question makes Arakita feel anything but – but there’s no use lying, Arakita knows, in this place. He tells Toudou as much.

“Can’t hide anything here. And my medication’s always been problematic about keeping my shit quiet. Anyway, snot face, there’s a box of tissues under the side table.”

Toudou pulls it out and sets it on Arakita’s lap, grabbing a bunch and blowing into it with zero delicacy. Arakita would have laughed, but instead he waits for Toudou to finish, wanting to ask him to call the nurse. Toudou finds the little trash bin near his bed, throws his tissues away after another sniffle, and comes back to sit by Arakita again. Arakita’s glad to see that he looks passably normal now, despite the redness around his eyes.

Should tell him to go home. For real, this time.

Before he could say anything, Toudou cuts Arakita off again. “Arakita…” he says, “You… still dream about Koshien, don’t you.”

It’s not a question that Arakita expects. When did I mention Koshien? He’s caught off guard, and doesn’t have the chance to filter his answer when he replies, “Sometimes. I still dream about it sometimes.”

Toudou stays quiet for a moment. Arakita waits for him, somehow knowing that this would be the last words Toudou would speak for the night.

After a while, Toudou speaks.

“You know, I could say ‘dwelling on the past isn’t a good thing’… but I’m not Tomii.” He gives Arakita the same smile he’d worn that day in the locker rooms, and continues, “Acknowledging the past which made us who we are today isn’t a bad thing at all. But… if you let it dictate who you are, you can’t move forward.”

He seems to steel himself then, squaring his shoulders and keeping his gaze on Arakita.

“You can’t go to Koshien. You know that. That’s in the past… But you can come with us. We’ll go to the Inter-High, to a different but no less important grand stage – a place we both know you won’t deny caring about just as much as we do.”

Toudou takes Arakita’s right hand in his, and Arakita notices that his fingertips, which touch Arakita’s palm, are warm.

“Please come with us. Tomii’s right, you know. We need you to help bring us there. We need you to meet us at the finish line. We’re your victors, remember?”

Arakita struggles to find his voice. There’s a lump in his throat, and he imagines it to be the size of Toudou’s ego. He shakes his head, curling his fingers around Toudou’s hand with no small measure of difficulty. Toudou notices, and carefully squeezes back, “Arakita?”

“… Idiot. How am I supposed to come with you if you won’t even let me recover, haa?”

Toudou starts, as if he’d just remembered where they were, “Uhm! Uh, sorry, I… I got carried away…”

“Obviously,” Arakita snorts, “Snot face.”

Self-consciously, Toudou grabs another wad of tissues and wipes at his face, indignantly protesting, “Snot face! After I went and bared my soul and raw emotions at you, you call me snot face?”

After wiping his face more times than Arakita thinks is necessary, Toudou continues, pointing his finger accusingly at Arakita, “Even if I like you, Arakita, you’re still the rudest person ever!”

At that, Arakita actually laughs.

 


  

It’s around eight in the evening when Arakita manages to coax Toudou to leave. The night nurse, whom Arakita could easily tell is smitten by him, only comes in once to remind Toudou of the time.

Before he leaves, Arakita makes Toudou promise, on the solemn secrecy of why his hospital blanket has to be changed out of schedule, to tell Hayato and Fukutomi not to skip practice in order to visit him.

“Threaten them,” Arakita insists, when Toudou brings up their possible defiance, “You already missed one day of practice! The captain doesn’t have that luxury, and Hayato needs to work with Izumida more! Tell them you’ll bring out the bat – Don’t give me that face, I know you kept it!”

Later that night, alone in a familiar hospital bed, under a familiar ceiling, Arakita finds that he’s unable to keep himself from smiling and laughing at the picture Toudou made as he blew on wad after wad of tissues.

 


  

Predictably, the next day, Arakita is visited by a new set of visitors.

“God,” he mutters into his left hand, “Why did I ever want visitors. You guys are fucking impossible.”

“He means we’re strong, Juichi,” Hayato helpfully translates, and Fukutomi, though outwardly completely unmoved, preens.

“We’ve brought you gifts, Yasutomo,” Fukutomi says, setting a basket of fruits on the rolling table. Hayato siddles up to him, fearlessly sitting himself right beside Arakita’s working arm. It’s only now, that he’s come very close, that Arakita notices the suspicious lump in his jacket.

Oh, for the love of god.

“Hayato,” Arakita says, eyes narrowing at the lump, “You are the worst father. Ever.”

Across the room, Fukutomi locks the door. Hayato smiles, perfectly happy with his stupid as fuck decision – and opens his jacket to let Usakicchi’s head pop out.

“Worst father,” Arakita repeats, holding his left hand up for the rabbit to sniff at. Usakicchi wriggles excitedly, and Arakita laughs, “Hey, no, I don’t have any treats for you here.”

“There’s an apple in the basket,” Fukutomi supplies, and Arakita only now notices that he’s holding a small knife and the aforementioned fruit.

“… Make sure you only peel the skin, Fuku-chan.”

Their visit isn’t as tiring as Toudou’s, Arakita is happy to note (“Toudou tired you out, Yasutomo?” “Yeah, we talked… Hey, Hayato, enough of that face – you know you’re my number one pain in the ass.” “Never doubted it, Yasutomo.”)

Mostly it consists of Fukutomi displaying surprising adeptness at handling Usakicchi, and Arakita being regaled with tales of Fukutomi’s own pet turtle (aptly named Turtle). When somehow the conversation turned to the barrenness of Arakita’s room, Fukutomi remembers that neither of them had brought flowers.

He starts to apologize, but Arakita shakes his head, a smile tugging on his lips, and says, “I don’t mind! Really, I’m only here for another day at least, it’d be such a waste, Fuku-chan.”

“Nevertheless,” Fukutomi replies, “It’s only proper that we come with something to make your stay here less bleak. I hope Usakicchi and the fruits are enough.”

“Yeah, yeah, they are.”

After a while, Arakita manages to get the two to leave, and while Hayato busied himself with tucking Usakicchi back into his jacket, Fukutomi comes to stand at Arakita’s right.

“Yeah, Fuku-chan?”

Unlike Toudou, Fukutomi doesn’t grapple with his words. With his face set in its customary seriousness, Fukutomi says, “Please don’t push yourself too hard, Yasutomo. I thank you for what you did for Kuroda, though I found it reckless of you – but it was for the team, and because of that, my thanks alone might not be enough. Still, I hope for your quick recovery. We need you at your best.”

“Juichi’s right, Yasutomo. Remember our promise!”

Arakita huffs, and waves them both away – “Let me fucking recover then!”

God, you’re all so impatient, Arakita thinks, when he’s finally alone. Just give me another day, I’ll be back soon.

 


 

 The following morning, Arakita’s physician comes by. With no small amount of concern, he tells Arakita that his little stunt might have just cost him all the progress he’d been working at for the past year. The chances of being completely unable to use his right arm have plunged back to fifty-fifty, and when the results of his grip-strength test come in, Arakita is told that his grip- and lifting-capacity have collapsed to less than five kilograms. For the duration of his stay at the hospital, and at intervals of at least six hours a day, he would need to keep his right arm in a sling, until he adjusted to his new set of prescriptions.

Arakita pins his newfound calmness in the face of these highly upsetting facts on his medication, which he’s being forced to take on time and in correct doses. And, he concedes, it might have something to do with the fact that Hayato, Fukutomi, and Toudou keep flooding his inbox with messages – there were so many other things for him to worry about, the continued uselessness of his right arm could take a backseat for a while.

Except, Arakita thinks, for when I fucking need a drink.

Arakita stands in front of the vending machine closest to his physician’s office for the second time in so many weeks, tapping his slipper-clad foot and fingering the coins he held in his left hand with increasing irritation. The nurses wouldn’t listen to his requests for bepsi to replace the water that came with his meals, yet Arakita knows another day of going without would just about kill him.

“Fuck,” he mutters, seriously considering the option of calling Hayato and asking him to sneak him in some bepsi in a spare water bottle.He continues to consider it, even as he hobbles back to his room, maneuvering the hallways with his IV stand.

He’s so deep in thought that he almost collides with a person standing stock still in the middle of the hallway.

“Hey – watch it, people are walking here–”

“Arakita…-san?”

Arakita looks up, and is surprised by the sight of Manami Sangaku, wearing the same t-shirt as the last time he’d seen him in the same hallway, a white paper bag with blue text on it in one hand. He raises his left hand in greeting, “Hey.”

“… What’s Arakita-san doing here…?” Manami asks. Arakita notices that he isn’t smiling, and snorts when the thought registers – Who’d be smiling in a place like this? Still, Manami had asked him a question.

“Nothing big,” he says, a conscious echo of Manami’s previous answer, “You? Stopped by the pharmacy, did you?”

Almost mechanically, Manami nods. He seems surprised by the fact that he did, and then, inexplicably, he elaborates, “It’s… My asthma. Medication for it – inhalers, and the stuff for the nebulizer.”

Arakita figured as much. Before the selection race, he remembers Toudou complaining about Manami drifting off after practices. Arakita himself had protested about the difficulty of having to search high and low for the little wonder climber, but this was one possibility that he hadn’t crossed out entirely.

Something occurs to Arakita, then.

“You answered my question! Looks like the truth, too. Guess I’ll have to answer yours, now.”

With not a single trace of exaggeration, Arakita flaps his useless right arm, nestled at the correct resting angle in his sling. “Remember what I told you before? About how I come here to see if my arm’s still dead? It’s this arm – and, surprise, surprise! It still is.” Arakita straightens up then, and favors the still unsmiling first year with a skewed grin of his own.

“See, this is what happens when you don’t watch out for yourself, yeah? So! Listen to me when I yell at you at club! I’ll see you there tomorrow.”

Like the last time, Arakita doesn’t wait for Manami’s reply. He makes his way down the hallway with his IV stand, humming that catchy snack commercial jingle he remembers Hayato being obsessed with a few weeks ago, and misses the stare that Manami pins to his back, even as he rounds the corner and out of his sight.

 

year3-4

 


 

Toudou did not lie.

The moment Arakita bursts into the clubroom for afternoon practice, calling out the names of Hayato’s team of sprinters, the first and second years crowd around him, congratulating him for his win and asking him to spot their times and forms, amongst other things.

Having been completely unchanged by his hospital stay, Arakita yells for order and barks commands at the crowd, somehow pacifying them enough to return the clubroom to its previous state of normalcy.

“Idiots,” Arakita hisses as Hayato comes up to his right with an open bepsi can. He takes a good, long drink before side-eyeing the hamster-cheeks standing beside him, but before he could turn his yelling on him, Hayato has already squeezed his shoulder and trotted off after his sprint team.

Arakita changes tact then, and looks for his captain, finding him sweating over the rollers with Kuroda at his side. Fukutomi gives him a nod of acknowledgement – Kuroda, on the other hand, literally jumps off his bike.

“Arakita-senpai!” he cries, “I’m so glad that you’re back, I wanted to apologize for my behavior up to now, and how I acted during our match, I was completely in the wrong and I hope you can find it in you to forgive me, or at least concede to helping me improve as the captain’s assist!” Kuroda ends his absurdly energetic greeting with a deep bow.

Arakita stares at the back of his head, shoots a look of deep, unbridled frustration at Fukutomi, and then yanks on Kuroda’s collar. Kuroda jumps, and resumes babbling, “A- Arakita-senpai, I’m ready to subject myself to any form of punishment you wish to inflict upon me and–”

“Oi! Who said anything about punishment? Just keep fucking practicing! Fuku-chan’s a slave driver, y’know, a slave driver, so you better make sure you can keep up with him!” Arakita shakes the boy by the collar one last time before releasing him, and then adds, “And fill up your water bottle, it’ll fucking suck if you faint from dehydration.”

“Yes, Arakita-senpai!”

Arakita watches Kuroda scuttle off, and then turns to his captain. “You asshole,” he begins, only to be cut off by a firm nod. “It’s good to have you back, Yasutomo.”

Arakita sighs. “…Fucking great to be back, I guess.”

The rest of the club period passes in a whirlwind of activities and firmly worded suggestions to keep practicing, Kuroda. Hayato comments that Arakita has gained his affections entirely, and Toudou has a brief moment of grief at the insinuation that one of his climbers has been stolen. Arakita gives them each a whap on the head with his clipboard, and makes no comments about whether they were right or not.

Before leaving, Kuroda comes up to Arakita to ask if he could observe his form the following day. Arakita tells him he’d have done it anyway, and before Kuroda could further explain, his other second year friend (Ashikiba! Arakita remembers, Ashikiba, with the weird Danish roll-hair style) helpfully drags him away.

By the time that the club is nearly empty, Arakita is just finishing noting down the last entries in his timesheet. He sits at the locker room, his and Hayato’s book bags on the chair beside him. As he works, he rubs idly at his right arm, practicing the motion that his physical therapist taught him to improve circulation and generate some comforting heat.

When the door opens to show Manami standing at the doorway, Arakita gives him a nod and says, “You should get going now, I’m just waiting for Hayato before I lock up.” He looks back at his timesheets and resumes counting to eight’s and sixteen’s while he rotates his wrists and shoulders.

After a while, Arakita realizes that Manami hasn’t moved from his spot at the door. When he looks up again, Manami is still standing there, one hand resting on the doorknob. He’s not smiling, and he stares at Arakita the way he did when they met each other at the hospital.

“… Manami?”

“Arakita-san… Are you really okay?”

“Hm? I’m out of the hospital, aren’t I?” Arakita makes a few notes on the margins of his timesheet, and discretely shifts his right arm off the table.

Manami walks towards him, saying, “You are. So, if I just – poke at your arm a little, it won’t hurt?” And he wastes no time, and does just that, to Arakita’s surprise. “Manami, what the fuck!”

Arakita flinches away from the simple tap on his shoulder, instinctively switching his grip on his pencil before he catches himself. Manami is still staring, but he’s drawn his hand back to himself.

“It hurts, right?”

Fucking yes, Arakita wants to say. That’s not an answer he’s comfortable with giving to Manami, though, so he looks away and tests his shoulder to avoid answering him.

Another moment passes, and then Arakita hears Manami take a breath before asking, “Are you going to be okay, Arakita-san?”

You’ll need your rest, Yasutomo, Arakita remembers his physician saying. He’d done all he could to look normal enough for the hospital to let him out early, and his physician saw no reason to stop him, seeing how insistent he’d been. But he’d still told Arakita, You’ll need your rest. Don’t overexert yourself. You know your limits.

Right now, Arakita rates his pain at a high seven.

It’s nothing he can’t handle.

“Yeah! Of course I will be! What, you worried about me, or something? That doesn’t really sound like you, y’know. I’m not your bike.”

Manami nods, shamelessly agreeing to the implied notion that he didn’t actually care for anything besides his bike. He stares at Arakita’s idiot arm, and says, “I’m finding it difficult to look at you right now, though, Arakita-san.”

Difficult? Arakita thinks about how he’d used his arm to pick up after riders all day, explicitly against his physician’s orders. He scowls, shrugs his left shoulder, and says, “Maybe you should cover your eyes then, if seeing a man in pain bothers you so much.”

“You’re the same,” Manami blurts out, and he continues, even under Arakita’s confused stare, “You… you’re the same. Even after – the other day. You look and act exactly the same, the way you always are, the way you’ve always been ever since you joined the team.”

“Haa! Nice to know my effort’s paying off then,” Arakita says, leaning back on his seat. He catches the minute widening of Manami’s eyes, the way his fingers twitch, the way he, as he confessed earlier, can’t seem to look at Arakita straight. After a moment, he finds his voice again.

And then, the look in his eyes change.

“What happened to your arm, Arakita-san?”

What is it with climbers, Arakita wonders moodily, and their dumb as fuck questions.

“Sports injury,” Arakita answers shortly, sweeping his stuff into his book bag. He stands with one bag in either hand, and steps around Manami as he continues, “Fucked it up in middle school. Pathetic, right? Fuck it, it still works half the time, anyway.”

He stands at the doorway, and looks over his shoulder at Manami. The fuck are you looking at me like that for, kid?

“C’mon, that’s enough for today. I’ll lock you inside if you don’t get a move on.”

Manami opens his mouth, possibly to ask another question, but just then, Hayato comes up to Arakita’s right, swiping both book bags and smiling around the power bar in his mouth. He nods at Manami, and then looks at Arakita, “Ready to go, Yasutomo?”

Arakita nods, and turns to Manami. The wonder climber blinks and then, possibly recognizing the chance that Arakita’s chosen to give him, takes a step towards them, and asks, “Are you never going to get better, Arakita-san?”

Arakita sighs, and looks away. Seriously. Fucking climbers. He scuffs his shoe on the floor and squints at the rollers he can see over Hayato’s shoulders. After a beat, he says, “The way I am right now? Who fucking knows. Probably not.”

He turns then, and fixes Manami with a stare that, completely unbeknownst to him, ends up keeping the wonder climber awake, long after they’d laid down in their bed.

“Doesn’t fucking mean I can’t move forward as I am, right?”

Just you watch, I’ll show you how I turn reality on its head.

Chapter Text

In the dark, the alarm clock on the side table ticks on undisturbed until the digital display reads “5:00”, at which point it starts to emit a shrill, insistent beeping; eventually, the sound becomes loud and persistent enough, and a hand emerges from the large, blanketed lumps on the bed, reaching for it and knocking it off to the floor with a thump. The beeping continues, in no way muffled, and after a while, half of the lump shifts and sighs in defeat.

“Mmm, Yasutomo…”

Guhh… I’ll get it…”

Arakita pokes his head out from under the blanket he shares with a still-mostly-asleep Hayato and squints at where the alarm clock has fallen – and, impressively, continues to sound out the time. It beeps louder than ever with the numbers “5:10” flashing on its face, completely unaffected by the scowl directed at it. Grumbling, Arakita reaches down and feels for the snooze button, hits it, then sets the clock back on the side table.

Hayato murmurs appreciatively at the return of silence, and Arakita is tempted to inch back under the covers and resume sleeping as his bedmate obviously plans to do – but he’d set his alarm for a reason, and already his few minutes of coherence were stopping him from face-planting into his pillow and working its magic on his mind, clearing it for a brief summary of the day’s to-do.

Wednesday: Shower. Pills, pack the sling to wear in class. Make Hayato presentable (bring up haircuts). Breakfast with Usakicchi – ask for extra cup of carrots. Spot morning group at the gym. Check first years’ frames. English quiz, Japanese history essay. Lunch with Hayato, Fuku-chan, Toudou. Maths test. Afternoon practice proper – light cycling for recovery group, check line up for hard interval group.

After a talk with Toudou and some consultations with the second- and first-year members of the club regarding their schedules, Wednesdays and Fridays were designated as rest periods for the hard interval days. The schedule would allow the members enough time to complete their regimens and recover adequately without the drawback of having them fall asleep on their class work or worse, on the rollers. This schedule leaves the club and the adjoining gym scarcely populated on Wednesday mornings, with only a handful of members present for Arakita to spot and check on, condition-wise. At least one person would be on the lifts, and Arakita actually looks forward to spotting for Izumida, suspiciously sentient pectorals aside.

Pretty big step up from just feeding a rabbit, he thinks idly.

With a final yawn and a quick catalogue of his pain (middle six, and holding steady), Arakita gets up and starts on his day. 

 


 

 Half an hour after dragging Hayato out of bed and arguing with him about the merits of a haircut (“Let’s get one together, Yasutomo.” “You’re the only one who needs it! I’m not careening down hills with a gross mop on my head.” “Ah, yes – and you do look incredibly cute with a ponytail…” “Finish brushing your goddamn teeth already.”), Arakita stands at the entrance to the club’s gym. A quick scan of the room reveals: a trio of first years dithering about on the free weights, a second year just starting his stretches, and Izumida on the lifts, all as more or less expected.

Arakita lets Hayato go off to greet his favorite sprinter, and busies himself with drilling the first years on their conditions. The second year joins in the conversation when one of them starts describing his back pains, and Arakita makes use of his acceptable stretching forms to teach the first years how not to make their muscle cramps worse. It takes ten minutes, two demonstrations, and three questions for the kids to get it right, but they manage in the end and Arakita adds their names to his mental list of catch up-chats for the next day.

“Morikawa, I’ll leave them to you, yeah?”

“Understood, Arakita-senpai.”

He moves to join Hayato and Izumida, glancing at the gym’s entrance as he crosses the room. No one else seems about to enter, and Arakita wonders if the other first years have forgotten their morning exercise drills.

“Looking for someone, Arakita-senpai?” Izumida asks in between lifts. Arakita shakes his head and comes to stand behind him, watching the steady flex of the sprinter’s muscles and the rise and fall of his chest with a practiced eye. Izumida is in perfect form, as always, and Arakita falls comfortably into the routine of mentally counting along with the second year’s rhythmic ‘abu’s’.

“Nah... Just wondering where the young blood are. Maybe I should have asked the dorm manager if any of them died overnight. Update my kill count.”

Arakita can hear the smile in Izumida’s voice when he comments, “I didn’t notice any body bags piled up outside the dorm. Fear not, Arakita-senpai, you still have a zero mortality rate.” Hayato sends Izumida a wink for his reply, and Arakita huffs at their exchange.

“Tell that to the kids who dropped out after I told ‘em they’d be riding at least 500 miles for starters.”

Hayato chuckles and waves his unopened power bar (One, Arakita counts in his head, out of the allowed-eight), “They weren’t dead, though, Yasutomo. And, don’t worry, we won’t let that spotless record be dirtied – we’ll do our best to support each other and make sure we don’t fail Yasutomo, right, Touichirou?”

“Yes, Shinkai-san! Abu!”

The pair of sprinters sparkle at each other for a moment, and Arakita ventures, “… Y’know, Hayato, I’m not exactly sure if you’re being a good influence or not.”

Their simultaneously delivered winks were enough of an answer.

 


 

 For most of the club’s younger members, Arakita’s concerns revolve around building their endurance and making sure they warm up and cool down enough before and after club period – he leaves the discussion and practice of technique to their seniors and specialists, and, true to his words at the welcoming ceremony, just makes sure they’re alive enough to learn them.

Many find his nitpicking annoying and unnecessary, but Arakita’s ears are sharp, and the complaints don’t even reach Fukutomi’s ears before he’s silencing them with a vividly detailed rant on the possible jeopardizing consequences of overlooking a simple warm up/cool down session.

Toudou comments on his method once, saying something about it being crude and detrimental to the club’s popularity, but Arakita counters that it was much more preferable than being threatened with Toudou’s bat. Toudou hasn’t spoken a word against him since, but the second years who’d overheard them suddenly become pleasantly cooperative during stretches that Arakita decides not to completely abandon the subject of the bat, even in the face of Toudou’s consistent, low-key begging.

Still, the results are mixed, and members have resigned from the club because of his methods, but Arakita remembers the names of the ones who do stay. He keeps his eye on them, confident that they wouldn’t kick up too much of a fuss if he paired them up with their fellow underclassmen for exercises and rides.

It’s a completely different drill for the interhigh group, and Arakita’s infinitely grateful that Toudou and Fukutomi take on the brunt of the work for them – but still, his jurisdiction technically covered the entire club, and Arakita would be damned before he let anyone else do his job for him. The topic would have to wait until his next lunch with Toudou and Fukutomi, however – for this afternoon, Arakita has riders to observe on the rollers.

A scan of the training room turns up more than half of the day’s scheduled riders. Arakita notes how most of them were grouped in two’s and three’s, hunched over their handlebars and lost in focus. He counts fifteen underclassmen in all, and flips through his clipboard to tick off names on the list of riders who’d be slated for recovery for the next day.

He spends a few minutes observing each group, and eventually comes to stop in front of a pair of rollers occupied by Kuroda and Ashikiba. As they ride, he scrutinizes their forms, watching intently as Kuroda shifts gears to enter his third repetition of a hard interval. Arakita makes a note to grab a water bottle for him as soon as the second years tasked with the day’s inventory cleared out of the storage room–the kid had a horrible habit of forgetting to fill up them up (and subsequently denying that he did), and Arakita has yet to figure out a way to drill the instruction into his head.

His gaze shifts to Ashikiba next, and while the climber seemed to be in generally good shape, something about his form catches Arakita’s eye. He observes Ashikiba for a few more moments before coming to a conclusion: Back’s too hunched over. Kid’s got to be aching by now. Seat height probably needs adjustment.

“Ashikiba,” Arakita says, cutting through the second year’s focus. Ashikiba blinks, straightens up, and greets him, “G–Good afternoon, Arakita-senpai!”, impressively retaining balance on the rollers while giving him a snappy salute. The climber smiles nervously, and somehow, Arakita is reminded of Hayato.

“… Yeah, listen, how’s your back feeling? You look a little uncomfortable.”

“Uhm,” Ashikiba glances around for a few moments, before looking back to meet Arakita’s gaze. “Just–a little? It’s probably because I fell asleep in the lecture this morning, and it was hard to get comfy in my seat…” Beside Ashikiba, Kuroda frowns and says, “Just tell Arakita-senpai how you really feel, Ashikiba. He won’t be able to help you out if you don’t.”

Ashikiba fixes another nervous look on Arakita, and in response, Arakita lightly taps the ridiculously tall second year on the head with his clipboard. “Kuroda’s right – it’s part of my job. Don’t make me manhandle you off your bike!”

Cowed by the half-idle threat, Ashikiba rattles off a short list of muscle pains, centered on the muscle group comprising his upper back, with periodic aches coming from his shoulders and upper thighs. At this, Arakita does make the second year get off the bike, but he makes the effort to ask politely and refrains from using force against a kid who looked as if he’d probably tip over at the slightest turn of the wind. Ashikiba obeys, and hovers around Arakita at an acceptable distance while he examines the bike, matching it to the specs he’d memorized for when adjustments like this became necessary.

After a few minutes, Arakita nods to himself – seat adjustment, nothing too drastic. Should take care of it before he goes any harder for his intervals. “Ashikiba, your seat’s just slightly off. It’s likely because you got taller, somehow, and haven’t taken the time to adjust it, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Get your toolkit.”

Ashikiba nods and scurries off, nearly bumping into a group of second years and getting into a brief and weirdly cyclical exchange of apologies. Kuroda heaves a long-suffering sigh from the other rollers, and when Arakita looks at him, the climber says, “Sorry about that, Arakita-senpai. I’ll check up on Ashikiba more closely from now on; that person’s not really always a handful.”

Arakita shrugs, scribbling a note on his clipboard and setting it aside. “Like I said, it’s part of my job. If he–” Arakita pauses then, and wrinkles his nose at something before resuming, “If that person gets to be a handful, then I’ll bring it up. Ashikiba doesn’t need to be babied.” Kuroda stutters on his rollers suddenly, but he catches himself in time and nods jerkily at Arakita’s words.

“…Thank you, Arakita-senpai.”

Haa, I just said it’s part of my job! Now quit dawdling and get back to your intervals, Toudou’s bringing you kids out for a climb later – who knows, you might find Manami while you’re out! Try to get a good race out of the space cadet, why don’t you?”

When Ashikiba returns, Arakita takes the toolkit and sits the climber down with him, describing the changes he would be making on the bike and soliciting the second year’s opinion before actually starting on anything. Ashikiba remains attentive throughout the process, and gives Arakita a sunny smile when he leaves, pedaling in a considerably more relaxed manner than earlier. “Thank you, Arakita-senpai!”

Weirdly like Hayato, Arakita thinks as he goes off to the storage room, but not in a bad way.

When he arrives at the storage room, Toudou is already there, collecting water bottles for his climbers. He lets Arakita toss a few more bottles and some towels into the box he’s carrying, before suddenly commenting, “You’re in a good mood today, aren’t you, Arakita!”

Arakita considers this statement and shrugs. He waves Toudou out of the storage room and locks the door, pocketing the keys and walking ahead of the climber as he says, “Maybe it’s because I haven’t witnessed you being needlessly cruel to our underclassmen today.”

Toudou sputters behind him, and Arakita whistles as he returns to the training room, followed closely by Toudou’s unmistakable, indignant shrieking.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t keep it.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Toudou.”

 


 

 It rains late in the evening on Friday, and continues on until the morning of Saturday, when the interhigh group leaves for their ride. In anticipation of their return, Arakita arms himself, Ashikiba, and the three other second years who volunteered to see their seniors back with piles upon piles of towels. His efforts aren’t wasted, as most of the group look drenched to the bone when they pull up at the back entrance of the clubroom.

Hayato makes a beeline for him, arms outstretched and stubbornly dragging out the syllables of his name, “Ya-su-to-mo..!” Arakita rolls his eyes before pointing at the mat in front of him. “Stand there, don’t hug me, and let me dry you off, you gross, wet hamster.”

Obediently, Hayato takes his place on the mat. A second year takes his helmet from him and guides his bike under the eaves for drying, and Hayato smiles and thanks him, before turning back to Arakita and holding out his arms again. Normally, Arakita would have continued protesting, wanting to at least dry Hayato off before indulging him – but today he notices the tired lines around his favorite boy’s eyes, the brittle quality to his normally comforting smile. He looks to be just on the verge of crumbling to his feet, and the rain doesn’t help, dulling the light around him and painting shadows over his face.

The frown on Arakita’s lips slips off as the seconds tick by, and with a sigh (It’s laundry day, anyway, he thinks), he throws a towel over Hayato’s head and steps in for a hug. He’s immediately pulled close, muscled arms locking firmly around his waist; Hayato fits his face against the junction of his neck and shoulders and takes a long breath, nearly tipping Arakita over when he exhales and sags against him. He murmurs an apology but doesn’t make a move to right himself, and Arakita huffs at the blatant display of spinelessness.

“Shut up,” he says, and because his mouth is right next to Hayato’s ear, Arakita doesn’t pitch his voice louder than he has to. If it comes out as an equally soft murmur, well, only Hayato hears it – Fukutomi and Toudou are smart enough to decode the hand that Arakita flaps at them as a signal to leave him with the wet hamster, bringing along with them the curious second years. In a few moments he and Hayato are alone at the back entrance, rocking lightly on the balls of their feet and clinging to each other.

When Hayato still doesn’t surface after a while, Arakita lifts one end of the towel and drapes it over his own head. Under the fabricated privacy of the now-damp towel, he bumps his nose against Hayato’s cheek and says, “Hey.”

Hayato turns his face slightly so their foreheads touch, and Arakita thanks his bit of foresight for making sure the towel went over both their heads – Hayato has a look on his face that Arakita’s only ever allowed under blankets and in the dead of night, a look that Arakita hates as much as the sight of his own face in the mirror when he wakes up to a bad arm and a full week of pills.

(That’s a lie, though. He hates seeing the look on Hayato’s face so much more.)

“I still can’t do it,” Hayato says. His voice cracks around the edges like the mirrors Arakita broke in his first year at Hakone, and Arakita swallows down the frantic urge to say it’s okay, it’s okay, everything will be okay. Hayato didn’t deserve that, not the knee-jerk response that would only grate at him and draw darker circles under his eyes. “I tried to, Yasutomo, but I couldn’t…”

“I know. I know, Hayato.”

The rain falls harder beyond the reach of the eaves, and Arakita hears the club bustling just on the other side of the glass doors. There’s noise everywhere, so he puts all his focus on Hayato’s breathing, on the way he murmurs his name and nothing else. He reaches up to cup Hayato’s cheeks, and Hayato leans in further, covering Arakita’s hands with his. He closes his eyes, and they stay like this for a long while, until Arakita’s sure that Hayato’s mostly asleep on his feet.

“You still have to cool down, Hayato,” Arakita says in the same hushed, gentle murmur he’d spoken in earlier; it gets Hayato to nod, however, and go inside without complaint. Arakita coaxes him back onto his bike, and he balances on the rollers without needing Arakita’s hand to steady him. Hayato spins easily, with Arakita standing in front of him, keeping up a stream of idle chatter that lasts until he stops pedaling.

Nobody questions them (at least, not out loud) as Arakita leads Hayato to the locker rooms and gets him changed. On their way out, they pass by Fukutomi, and he gives them a short nod of understanding. Arakita hands off his clipboard to Izumida and Kuroda with a few last minute instructions, and at the entrance, Ashikiba gives him an umbrella, and tells them to take care.

Arakita musters up a smile and a word of thanks for the climber, before opening the umbrella and linking his right hand with Hayato’s left. He squeezes Hayato’s hand once, and it’s only after Hayato squeezes back that Arakita takes a step forward, heading for the dorms.

 


  

Hayato falls asleep in Arakita’s bed, rolled up in both their blankets with his head pillowed on Arakita’s lap. With his right hand, Arakita pets Hayato’s head, and with his left, he thumbs out a message to Toudou.

[hayato’s passed out on me, he might wake up later. can you bring dinner over? door’s open]

[Alright. His room or yours?]

[mine]

[I’ll eat dinner with you]

The fuck?

Arakita squints at Toudou’s last reply, scowling at the thought of prolonged conversation with Toudou at this point – then again, he’d at least be able to tell Arakita what happened on their ride, and it isn’t as if Toudou lacked any tact or sensitivity.

(The conflicting images of Toudou with a bat and Toudou crying over his lap at the hospital surface in Arakita’s mind. He understands the latter, though he isn’t too sure about the significance of the bat for the current situation…)

[k see you]

 


 

Just before Toudou arrives, Hayato stirs and shifts restlessly over Arakita’s lap. It takes some maneuvering to keep him under the covers and in a non-cramp inducing sleeping position, and Arakita’s in the middle of thanking his idiot arm for not adding to his problems when the door opens on their strange blanket-human hybrid.

To his credit, Toudou keeps whatever comment he’s about to make to himself, and contains his surprise in one violent eye twitch. He enters the room, sets one boxed dinner on Arakita’s desk, and waits for Arakita to settle into an acceptable seated position before handing him the other box and opening his own.

They eat in silence for a few minutes before Toudou asks, “How is he?” Arakita snorts and continues picking at his vegetables.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that? How’d he ride today?”

A complicated look steals across Toudou’s face, and, grudgingly, he answers, “Good. Better than good; I hardly remember him being that fast outside of his demon mode.”

The Straight-Line Demon. Arakita couldn’t reconcile his favorite boy (now favorite blanket lump) with the title, but that’s the problem of his imagination; he doesn’t doubt the truth of Toudou’s words, or the result of Hayato’s tireless efforts. Still.

“He still can’t pass on the left.”

Toudou shakes his head and keeps his contemplative gaze on his cup of tea. He grapples with his words for a few moments, and just when Arakita thinks he’d give up and throw a fit, he ventures cautiously, “…It’s not… easy to fix that, is it.”

It’s a stupid question. Arakita knows Toudou didn’t mean it as one, and even if he can’t parse his expression from where he sits, half curled around Hayato, he also knows there’s more to Toudou’s words than just that.

Arakita twirls a lock of Hayato’s hair around his finger, and says, “It depends. What do you think needs fixing?”

The silence stretches longer this time, dragged out by Toudou himself. He putters about, putting away the two empty boxes of dinner, unable to meet Arakita’s gaze. On the bed, Hayato stirs, and Arakita looks away from Toudou’s back to maneuver himself beside Hayato, who takes the opportunity to drape himself completely over his bedmate. Arakita lifts his right hand to Hayato’s head, tangling his fingers through his hair with all the gentleness that was often absent from his words. When he looks up, Toudou is sitting on the floor, staring at his hands – something has twisted the climber’s brow into a knot, and after a minute of frowning intensely at his lap, he looks up at Arakita – or at least, what little of Arakita he could still see from under Hayato – and says, “Shinkai.”

In the face of Arakita’s disbelieving “Haa?” Toudou stubbornly repeats, “It’s Shinkai – or part of him. No matter how you put it, there’s a part of him that needs fixing. The part of him that can’t go back to the road, because of what happened – the part that manages to, even still, even if he can’t pass on the left. He needs to become stronger at overtaking his opponents on the right. That, that’s the part that needs fixing.”

Arakita doesn’t comment on his answer – it wouldn’t have been his place to say whether or not Toudou had been right, even if it looked like Toudou wanted some form of validation. He excuses himself not long after, having presumably satisfied his day’s quota of words spoken in high emotion, locking the door quietly behind him as he leaves.

Arakita lets a few seconds pass before he shifts down under the blankets and pulls Hayato close. He presses his lips to the crown of Hayato’s head, and murmurs, “That’s what he says. The guy has pretty good ideas sometimes, Hayato.”

Hayato doesn’t speak, but Arakita does feel him smile against his neck, and this, he considers enough progress to warrant a kiss on Hayato’s forehead, no matter the difficulty of actually maneuvering it.

 


 

 On Sundays, by the time Arakita’s finished his homework and the week’s grocery shopping with Hayato, the club room is filled to capacity with first and second years taking turns spinning on the rollers and exercising in the gym, spotting for each other and simulating races. The third years use the day for maintenance and catching up with the performance of their specialist groups (“That doesn’t include your fan club, Toudou!”), and so are more or less scattered around the training room. All in all it’s a routine day, down to even how many times Arakita raises his voice about a certain subject.

For the third time that hour, Arakita sweeps his gaze throughout the training room – and for the third time, he finds himself yelling, “Someone better tell me, and they better do it fast – where the fuck is Manami?!

On cue, Kuroda answers his question, and at least this time there’s a variation to it – instead of “No one’s seen him since this morning,” Kuroda says, “A first year just saw him riding out of campus.”

Not the most ideal answer, but Arakita takes what he can get without too much fussing.

“Kuroda,” Arakita snaps, “Go after him. Bring the mountain-crazed tumbleweed back, I’m putting him on the rollers for the rest of the day.” Kuroda balks, sputtering at the command, “—Why do I have to bring him back?!

Haa?? Are you saying you won’t?”

“I’m not his minder!” Kuroda insists, “And I have training to do! I’m set to ride with the captain today!”

Really, Arakita’s glad that Kuroda hadn’t lost any of the drive he’d seen when they clashed after the selection race – he hadn’t been lying when he’d said that it’d be good fuel for him come the time when he would have to pull for Fukutomi at the interhigh; this, however, didn’t change the fact that he was a mouthy brat who was still adjusting to working with a team.

With that in mind, Arakita straightens up and glares down at Kuroda, “Consider this your fucking warm up, then.”

Bristling, Kuroda fixes his helmet on his head as he answers, “Fine! But don’t blame me if he’s worn out by the time I get him here!”

As Kuroda wheels his bike out of the clubroom, Arakita calls out, “Train your legs on the flats, see if you can’t head the kid off before he gets to the mountains. And don’t forget your water bottle!” Kuroda fumes as he gets on his bike, “I haven’t forgotten it! Quit nagging at me already, Arakita-senpai!”

Arakita watches him ride out of the club’s courtyard and sighs, irritably scratching his head – Fucking assists.

He glances around then, and, upon spotting Hayato having a discussion with his second year group, decides to cool his head off there. He’s greeted with a cheery chorus by the younger members as he sits beside Hayato, and a wink-and-pistol combination from the hamster cheeks himself. Embarrass yourself, why don’t you, fucking idiot, he thinks with no real malice.

“You’re quite fond of Kuroda, aren’t you, Yasutomo?” Hayato says as he hands him an open bottle of bepsi. Arakita takes a long drink before replying, a scowl firmly set on his face, “Yeah, I’m fond of how much of a brat he can be.” Hayato laughs, bumping his shoulder lightly against Arakita’s, “He’s very fond of you in return, though.”

Arakita snorts, and bumps his shoulder against Hayato’s none too gently, “You need your eyes checked, hamster cheeks. And your weight, god, is that another power bar? What kind of example are you setting?? You’re a terrible senior, Hayato!”

For some reason, the second years sitting with Hayato don’t cower at the barrage of verbal insults Arakita has just hurled at their precious ace sprinter; instead, they trade grins and half-hidden snickers, and even Izumida coughs into his hand to hide the smile spreading on his lips. Hayato himself practically blooms in the face of Arakita’s ranting, and he throws his arms around Arakita’s shoulders as he proclaims, “Yasutomo! I love you!”

“Why are you even – fluff-for-brains, if you make me drop my bepsi, I swear–”

Izumida speaks up then, perhaps looking to save the club’s ace sprinter from a fate worse than death, and points towards the club’s entrance, “Arakita-senpai! Yuki’s back!”

Arakita frees himself from Hayato’s embrace (“—affection, Yasutomo! I’m showing you affection!”) and stalks over to Kuroda, eyes narrowing at the way the climber glances around at the racks, refusing to face him. “Kuroda? Where’s Manami?”

In clipped tones, Kuroda answers, “I haven’t gone up yet, Arakita-senpai.”

“And why is that.”

Arakita watches as the assist-in-training takes down a water bottle from the racks, turning to Arakita calmly as he answers, “…I forgot my water bottle.”

Behind them, a few snickers escape the covert hands of the underclassmen. Arakita thinks he hears Ashikiba actually squeak out a laugh, but the climber muffles it quickly – still, the damage is already done, and Kuroda’s narrowing his gaze at the rider over Arakita’s shoulder, his grip around his water bottle tightening in annoyance.

Arakita sighs loudly and brings his right hand up to massage at his forehead, willing away the headache that is, unfortunately, part of days such as this one. “At least you remembered before you went up.”

“I wouldn’t have forgotten if you weren’t nagging at me! And I don’t forget it every time I leave!”

“Sure you don’t,” Arakita agrees, waving a hand dismissively as he turns away, “Bring your phone with you; call in if you can’t find Manami in an hour.”

Kuroda starts and draws himself up indignantly at this dismissal, saying, “First you ask me to find him, and then you think I can’t do it?? I will bring him back, I said so already!”

“Fuck, then why don’t you get going??”

“I’m going already, mother!” Kuroda insists, grabbing another bottle from the racks before stalking off to his bike. He glares at Arakita over his shoulder as he mounts his bike, “I’ll definitely bring Manami back, just you wait!”

Arakita watches as Kuroda wheels his bike out, smirking to himself and—wait. What did he just call me…?

Not even a moment later, a bright and vaguely disconcerting greeting of “Kuroda-san! Good afternoon!” drifts into the club from the courtyard, followed by Kuroda’s indignant yelling. Arakita shakes off the funny but entirely forgettable slip of the tongue and steps out of the club room, intending on mediating between the more volatile members of the interhigh team.

In the courtyard, Kuroda has launched into a scolding tirade directed at the club’s wonder climber, who continues to smile in the face of Kuroda’s ire, “Manami! Where have you been?? Do you know how much you’ve worried mother? He’s been asking about you since this morning, and you were supposed to go riding with Toudou-senpai today, mother said—”

Manami blinks, and the smile on his face widens. “That’s a cute name for Arakita-san, Kuroda-san.”

“Cute name… what are you—!!!”

The click that happens in Kuroda’s head is nearly audible, and Arakita grimaces when he hears the desperately stifled guffawing from the rest of the club though, and the hacking that he thinks is most definitely Ashikiba trying not to laugh outright. Kuroda’s head whips around then, and he stares, wide-eyed and somewhat fearful, at Arakita. “A- A- Arakita-senpai, I—”

Climbers,” a new voice interrupts suddenly, “Care to join me on the mountains?” A handful of second years answer Toudou’s call, and he practically sparkles as he waves the group out the door, somehow managing to nudge a mortified and embarrassed Kuroda along with them. Toudou keeps a hand on Manami’s back as well, even though the first year is too busy beaming at Kuroda to properly slip away (Arakita catches him mouthing ‘Mother’ and ducking under Kuroda’s reaching hand, when they mount their bikes).

Finally, the door closes and a comfortable silence returns to the club. Arakita allows himself a huff of laughter, before walking back to Hayato and his sprinter group. The second years have mostly stopped snickering, but Hayato is shameless and happily greets him, "Welcome back, mother!" Arakita grabs his unopened power bar in response.

Hayato pouts until Arakita sits next to him and then says,  bumping his shoulder against Arakita's once again, "Usakicchi will be jealous."

“Shut up,” Arakita answers, busying himself with his clipboard, “It’s not like it’s going to catch on.”

 


 

Of course, when Monday rolls around and the team of second years he’s nagging at for their forms chorus “Understood, mother!” at the end of his tirade, Arakita has to take a moment to repeat his words to himself.

When the first years who want to inform him of their times during morning practice call out to him by saying “Mother, do you have some time to look at our records”, Arakita actually says the words out loud again.

It continues throughout the week, however, and his encounters with various members of the cycling club are constantly sprinkled with the appellation. The final straw comes on Wednesday, when Arakita walks into the club’s gym, predictably empty save for Izumida and a handful of other underclassmen.

“Hey, Izumida,” Arakita greets, “You’re early again.”

“Ah, yes, I wanted to get a head start on my routine for the day, mother.”

…Even you, huh, Izumida.

Somehow, Arakita can’t bring himself to be annoyed – Izumida speaks so plainly and honestly, and, considering how long it had already been going on without any adverse consequences (Kuroda bristling at Manami isn’t anything new, and it only takes two days for Ashikiba to stop from slipping off the rollers at the sight of Kuroda’s blushing), it would hardly make sense to be upset at this point.

Besides. They’re giving me a title of unparalleled power. What’s there to be mad about?

“Mother? Is something wrong?” Izumida inquires, pausing on his eighteenth rep. Arakita waves a hand dismissively, and says, “… Nah. Just don’t overexert yourself, yeah? C’mon, I’ll spot for you, and then we can talk about a race I think you’d want to join next month.”

(Later, Arakita makes a note to let Usakicchi know she’s still his first daughter – though preferably not within Hayato’s earshot.)

 


 

 On Friday, Arakita wakes up from his already fading dream feeling out of sorts and irritable, tangled in his sheets and half an hour earlier than his alarm clock. He nearly drops his phone when he checks it for messages from Kinjou, his idiot arm seizing up with sparks of pain that he rates as eight, at the least. Even when he gnaws through his pills and downs the entirety of the bepsi that Hayato brings him right at his doorstep, the aching remains, and he concedes defeat with a put off grumble.

The sling rights his arm and lessens the pressure of keeping it properly aligned, and Arakita tunes out the static shocks in his arm to listen to Hayato’s plan to set up a play date for Usakicchi and Turtle. Still, the pain persists even through breakfast, and Arakita informs Toudou and Fukutomi that he’d be skipping his morning catch up with the underclassmen in favor of working out the aches in his idiot arm at the infirmary.

Fukutomi nods, and says, “Your presence at the club is invaluable. Take care of yourself, m–… Arakita.”

Hayato nearly chokes on his noodles, and Toudou resolutely busies himself with his phone as Arakita takes a moment away from adjusting his sling to stare blankly at his captain.

“What were you about to say back there, Fuku-chan.”

Fukutomi, looking largely unaffected by the eerie calmness of Arakita’s voice, misses the baby carrot he’d been trying to pick up with his chopsticks. He looks up at Arakita, and after a moment, speaks.

“… I’ll bring the lettuce for Usakicchi and Turtle’s play date. Excuse me.”

When he gets to the infirmary, Arakita attributes the fact that he can confidently lower his pain rating to a middling seven to the fact that he’d never seen anything funnier than watching Fukutomi power walk away from the table where Hayato and Toudou were practically crying as they laughed.

 


  

By the time afternoon practice comes around, Arakita feels comfortable enough with his pain (steady six, just don’t lift anything with it, not even the clipboard) to remove his sling. The club room is only starting to fill up with riders when he arrives, and today, it seems that the first years have monopolized the row of rollers directly in his path to the storage and locker rooms. Arakita takes a moment to observe them, offering a nod to those who notice him during their rest periods.

After a while, however, Arakita’s brow furrows at what he sees. Incorrect grips, backs flexed backward or else too hunched forward – what the fuck is with all this tension??

“Hey,” Arakita waves a hand at the pedaling first years, drawing their attention to him, “Slow down, the lot of you, and straighten up. What’s with the tension? You’re killing your backs there.”

One of the first years gearing to be a sprinter, Nanohara if Arakita remembers correctly, glances at the others before answering Arakita, “We were just… the captain was here this morning, and he talked about the interhigh. It got us really excited, and we wanted to be able to ride there, as well, so…”

“We’re going to train as hard as we can! For the interhigh!” another first year pipes up – Shigemori, whom Arakita remembers is fond of trailing after Toudou’s climber group – and the other first years murmur and nod their assent. Arakita figures that a short talk was in order, if he didn’t want a pile of overworked first years on his training room floor, and holds up a hand to signal them to stop completely.

The first years obey, albeit anxiously, and stand to the side of their rollers, keeping their bikes upright and catching their breaths as they stare at Arakita. With a serious look fixed on the line of first years before him, he says, “That’s a pretty big dream, and yeah, you’ve got the rest of the year to train up for the next one – but haven’t you kids been paying attention to what I tell you at the start of practice? You overwork yourselves now and it’ll take ages for you to recover, if you even have the chance to.”

He continues, even as the first years freeze up at the thought of being completely physically incapacitated (Yeah, not on my watch, kids), “New blood like you need to be more careful about how much you push yourselves. You ruin your equipment now, you won’t be able to rely on any of it when you need to.”

“But, the interhigh…” Nanohara begins, only to trail off in the face of Arakita’s unwavering gaze. “Your interhigh, the one that’s gonna happen a year or two from now – that’s important, but so is what’s happening right now, right here in the present. Your training, your rides with the seniors and the specialists, your health and your physical condition – that’s what you need to focus on.”

One by one, the first years nod resolutely, standing straighter under Arakita’s eye than they did moments ago. Shigemori claps a hand on Nanohara’s shoulder, and they trade encouraging smiles before turning to Arakita and thanking him (Shigemori doesn’t use the appellation, but Nanohara does – adding to Arakita’s privately compiled evidence of the peculiarities of sprinters).

Arakita lets them return to their practice, scribbling notes on the clipboard he’d left on a nearby table. The second years would be coming in after a while, but he figures he still has enough time to sit his captain down for a few words before the rest of the club flocked in and his routine picked up.

“Hey, did Fuku-chan mention where he was headed after he talked with you?”

Nanohara glances up from where he’d been monitoring his heart rate and answers, “He was heading for the gym when he left, we haven’t seen him come out yet.”

“Ah, thanks. Call me when the sprinter group comes in, yeah?”

“Understood, mother!”

Seriously. Fucking sprinters.

 


 

 To his relief, Arakita finds Fukutomi alone in the gym, adjusting his free weights. The rest of the machines are empty, and when Arakita glances at the time, he estimates at least twenty minutes before the second years come in for their afternoon warm up (Izumida has been a remarkably good influence on his year mates, for which he’s grateful – it makes it easier to normalize his view of the sprinter’s sentient pecs).

Fukutomi notices him as he walks in, and gives him a curt nod in greeting. “Arakita. How are you feeling?”

“Pretty good,” Arakita replies, as he sits himself on the bench beside Fukutomi, passing his captain a towel and his water bottle, “Sorry about bailing out on morning practice, Fuku-chan.”

Fukutomi throws the towel over his shoulder and takes a long drink from his water bottle before saying, “It was no trouble. Your health is important. I took the chance to speak with the first years about the interhigh and the importance of our legacy.”

Arakita considers the situation briefly in his mind – Fukutomi was a steadfast and resolute person, and his views on the interhigh were well known; however, the last time they’d talked in a serious, personal capacity, three-hour train rides and black eyes were involved. From the information available, Arakita concludes that the best way to approach the issue with Fukutomi is head on, much like the fist he’d once directed at Fukutomi’s face.

“Fuku-chan,” he begins, “Why does it look like you’re more concerned about winning the interhigh than actually leading your club?”

Fukutomi’s answer comes without a pause, and Arakita feels right when he thinks his captain says it thoughtlessly. “Because winning the interhigh and keeping our standing is the priority.” A beat passes. “Why do you ask?”

It’s the answer Arakita expects, but not the one he wants. He shifts tracks and tries for nonchalance with his next words, “Remind me again how many members this club has, Fuku-chan. Give me a guess, right off the top of your bleached head.”

The answer comes slower this time, as Fukutomi visibly questions the sudden shift in topics. Still, he ventures, “We are the largest bicycle racing club in the prefecture.”

Generally correct, but still not what Arakita’s looking for. He somehow feels as if he’s sending mixed messages to his captain, and wonders if his plan isn’t about to send them crashing down to bare functionality. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d have to practically manhandle Fukutomi, but with his idiot arm being more of an idiot than usual, he doesn’t think he has enough power to deliver an actual wake up call to his captain’s face.

So, he continues. “That’s not a number, Fuku-chan.”

The pause is longer this time around, and Fukutomi actually sounds uncertain when he admits, “I’ve lost track.”

But I bet you’ve never forgotten a single fact about the interhigh team, eh, Fuku-chan.

Arakita nods and stands up, rolling his right shoulder to shrug off a spot of aches, “Eh, I guess that’s fine. I realized just now, it’s not really your job to make sure your people aren’t permanently injuring themselves on the rollers or on the road.”

He pauses, glancing back at his captain – Fukutomi doesn’t look as if he’s about to cut him off, either verbally or with a punch – and, satisfied, continues airily, “Looking out for people, that’s a king’s job, isn’t it? And Fuku-chan… you’re just an ace.”

At this, Fukutomi actually drops the dumbbell he’d been picking up. The crash attracts the attention of a few first years just beyond the door – Arakita flaps a hand at them, waving them away, before turning back to find Fukutomi standing in front of him, stone face set in disapproval.

That’s a better look – you’re listening now, aren’t you, Fuku-chan?

 

year4-1

 

Arakita tilts his head up and meets Fukutomi’s glare with a challenging one of his own, and says, “What’s with that face, eh, Fuku-chan? You gonna tell me I’m wrong?”

He certainly looks as if he’s thinking of doing just that. Stone face or not, his stance speaks volumes to Arakita, what with the way they’re standing toe to toe and not giving each other an inch. Arakita notices how Fukutomi gradually wilts though, how his expression changes from indignant rage to plain confusion, the longer that Arakita stands unflinchingly in front of him.

Yeah, calm yourself down, Fuku-chan, Arakita thinks, and reins himself in, relaxing his own stance. There’s no need to turn the situation into an all-out brawl. He knows Fukutomi’s not ignoring his duties for any mean-spirited purpose, after all. Fukutomi isn’t mean, period. He might be a hard ass, but he isn’t mean.

“Fuku-chan,” Arakita says, “Hakogaku’s cycling club isn’t made up of just six people. You’ve got underclassmen who braved the school’s entrance tests and moved out of their hometowns just because they saw you race and wanted to learn from you before you graduated. They’re part of the club, too.”

Arakita smiles then, reaching up and knocking his left fist against Fukutomi’s cheek. His captain looks startled, but his eyes lose the last traces of unease their little staring contest had dug up, and he blinks wonderingly at Arakita.

“The road you ride on… is too big for just one person, don’t you think?”

“…Yasutomo…”

“You can go on and on about Hakogaku’s standing, about the club’s fame and prestige – but if you don’t have people to carry that legacy, what use are they? They’d just be words without any life to them.”

Arakita sits himself back on the bench, and pats the space next to him, waiting until Fukutomi settles beside him before continuing, “Those kids – the first years, especially – they came here, awed and inspired, wanting to learn and race and carry Hakogaku’s name with pride… and you don’t even give them the time of day. The fuck do you think they’re going to do with Hakogaku’s legacy, when you’re gone?”

Fukutomi bows his head and laces his fingers together, considering Arakita’s words for a long moment. It isn’t the first time Arakita’s seen Fukutomi look dejected, and it stings, somehow, that he’s instigating it on purpose – but it’s a necessary bit of cruelty, and Arakita knows he’s pretty much built for the job.

After a while, Fukutomi speaks up, “… I have nothing to offer in my defense, Yasutomo. What you’ve said… is true. Ever since I acquired the captaincy, I’ve thrown myself wholly into training for the interhigh, ignoring everything else.” He frowns at his hands, and continues, clearly anguished but still holding on to his composure, “It was presumptuous of me to hand off my duties to you, even if you are an exemplary manager.”

Ah, jeez. Beating you up is my job, Fuku-chan.

“You didn’t do it on purpose, give yourself a break. And this year’s interhigh is important, I know. But this won’t be the last.”

Fukutomi looks up at him then, and Arakita holds his gaze, “For Izumida, Kuroda, and Manami, it’s their first. Next year, when they’re the top brass, it’ll be another important interhigh. Hakogaku’s legacy won’t end this year, and you should be out there making sure that the ones set to carry it when we’re gone can do it right.”

Though his right arm protests, Arakita grips Fukutomi’s shoulder, wanting to pass on the will he’d seen in the eyes of the underclassmen he’d been managing the last few weeks.

“As an ace, it’s your duty to make yourself ready for the interhigh. But as a king, it’s your duty to make sure the people you leave behind can go there as well.”

Fukutomi takes a moment to digest his words before nodding and reaching up to cover Arakita’s hand with his own. “You’re right, Yasutomo.”

Arakita gives his captain a grin and says, “Hey! Neat! This time I didn’t need to punch you to get you to say so!” Fukutomi snorts, and Arakita spies the smallest of twitches at the corner of his lips – it’s practically already a full blown smile for Fukutomi, and Arakita takes the chance to ruffle his captain’s hair when he stands.

He’s about to take his leave when Fukutomi sets a hand on his shoulder. Arakita turns easily, and raises an eyebrow at his captain, who coughs into his hand before saying, “Today... It would be good to touch base with the younger members today. To see how they’re faring. Will you help me, Yasutomo?”

Arakita lets out a short laugh, and replies, “Yeah, sure thing, Fuku-chan. Someone needs to be there to make sure you don’t fry the first years’ nerves out.”

 


 

 When they step into the training room, Toudou immediately comes up to them, looking just at the edge of full-on panic, “Tomii! Arakita!”

“Toudou, what’s up? Did anything happen?”

The climber glances between the two of them for a few seconds, before exhaling loudly and weakly waving them away – “It’s nothing… Ah, it’s nothing, the first years must’ve heard wrong. You’re not about to beat each other up, what was I thinking…”

Arakita shoots Fukutomi a puzzled look before turning to Toudou and shrugging, “Why would we beat each other up? If we wanted to get pummeled, we’d ask you. You’d sweep the floor with us, no sweat, if you have your b—!!”

Toudou cuts Arakita off with a hand to his mouth and a loud, forced laugh, “Wahaha! Arakita! Your sense of humor, it’s really too much!! Come, help me find our little wonder climber, okay? I’ll borrow him for a while, Tomii, see you later!”

As Arakita lets himself be dragged away, he motions for Fukutomi to stay where he is – he’d promised to help his captain out with the first years, and he would keep his word, as soon as he managed to annoy Toudou enough to get him to send him away.

“Toudou, calm down, will you? No need to bring out your ba—!”

Is that Manami dangling from that tree branch out there.

“—What the fuck, Manami!”

 


 

 The next day, Toudou comes up to Arakita’s left and, apropos of nothing, tells him, “Arakita, pinch me.”

Arakita stares and slowly, slowly raises his hand to Toudou’s cheek. Toudou backpedals quickly, “Er… not my face though – but, like, here. Pinch my arm.”

Arakita blinks at the offered limb, and then lifts his curious gaze to Toudou’s face. He hopes the look of abject confusion he’s giving the climber is enough to get the message across, but just in case Toudou missed his perfectly valid attempt at non-verbal communication, he asks anyway, “Why.”

“I think I’m hallucinating! Or dreaming! The pain’s supposed to prove that what I’ve just seen is real!” Certainly, Toudou does look as if he’s suffering from some sort of spell – to Arakita though, it’s really no different from how he usually looks. Must be the mountain air.

He takes a measured step away from the climber, and asks, “And just what is it that you’ve seen, that you think you’re in some illusion trip?”

Toudou draws himself up to his full height, and says, with a wealth of dramatic effect, “Tomii’s speaking with the first years.

Hayato comes up to Arakita’s right then, fresh from his ride with his sprinter group, an open bottle of bepsi in hand, “Here, Yasutomo,” he says, handing over the bottle, before looking at Toudou and matching the serious, concerned look on his face, “Jinpachi. I saw it, too – it’s definitely not an illusion.”

As Toudou goes on about how the sight had been too much for his brain to process, Arakita gives himself a mental pat on the back and an extra long swig of bepsi – Heh, I knew Fuku-chan could do it (after some reasonable amount of practice and one incident of reducing a group of freshmen to almost-tears).

“I didn’t hear the word ‘strong’ even once! It was like… he was actually giving them sound advice fit for their category!”

Arakita snorts at Toudou’s incredulity, and idly leans against Hayato as he says, “He better be! I told him yesterday he needed to talk with the younger riders, so they can actually learn shit from their experienced seniors – you’re supposed to be their mentors, aren’t you?”

For a long moment, Hayato and Toudou look at him as if he’s grown a second head. Or refused a bepsi.

“Arakita,” Toudou begins cautiously, “You do realize… you’ve practically got Tomii under your thumb…” Hayato nods, and adds, “Even I haven’t been able to get through his stubbornness like that.”

Arakita wrinkles his nose at the look on their faces – “Hell, you guys act like it’s something special! I just told him to do his fucking job, what’s so hard about that??”

Unbeknownst to Arakita, or even to each other, Hayato and Toudou both think of the same answer, at the same time – ‘Everything!

Hayato recovers from the shock first, wrapping his arm around Arakita’s shoulders and nuzzling up against him as he says, “I always knew you were something special, Yasutomo.” Toudou smiles ruefully as he agrees, “I must admit, I’m also impressed. You’re doing remarkably well for a five.”

“Hah! I kinda have to be, y’know?” Arakita glances down then, muttering, “You’re all special too…”

The reactions are instantaneous – Hayato squeezes him tighter and looks about ready to profess his undying love for him (for the fourth time that day), and Toudou flushes a suspiciously bright shade of pink, holding a hand delicately up to his chest as he trails off, “Arakita… I didn’t know…”

Arakita bites his lip at the sight. That’s it. Cycling really does make you crazy.

“… Especially annoying, is what I meant!” Arakita says, exploding into a tirade that has a nearby group of second years nearly sliding off their rollers, “What the fuck are you two standing around for?? Are you gonna let Fuku-chan handle all the other underclassmen? Gather up your alternate groups and ride already!”

Toudou jerks into motion at his command, griping about seriously un-cute managers as he stalks off. Hayato simply smiles and shoots him a wink, turning away as he calls out for his sprinters.

Left alone, Arakita takes a moment to smile down at his clipboard (Fucking cyclists, he thinks), before straightening up and casting his gaze around the training room.

Now, can anybody tell me where the fuck Manami is.”

 


 

 A month and a little over a week after his physician pronounced his idiot arm as being five kilograms less of a functioning limb, Arakita wakes up with a hollow feeling in his guts and a dream right out of reach, fading as fast as he blinks the sleep away from his eyes. The past seven hours did not leave him refreshed and well-rested; instead, he feels tired and wholly displaced. It takes him a minute or two to draw up the date and his day’s to-do, and even when he remembers it without a hitch, he still catches himself feeling as if he’d forgotten something important.

After he gets up and downs the day’s pills with a long swallow of bepsi, Arakita considers himself numbed enough to successfully shrug off his odd collection of moods. He links the dismal quality of his sleep to the building stress of managing around a hundred members of a prestigious, competitive-sports club, as opposed to his sole preoccupation during the previous year – Usakicchi’s still the easiest to take care of, out of everyone he knows – and the complete lack of anything resembling a responsibility the year before that. He’s probably still adjusting to the rapid changes in his lifestyle, and no one ever said that changes came easily.

Still, the peculiar mix of moods returns the day after. And the day after that. And again, to make it a collection of three.

On that third day, Arakita packs up his pillow and blankets, and claims sleepover rights at Hayato’s room. His demands are uncontested, and for a while, sleep came and went as easily and unremarkably as he’d been used to. He attributes part of the peacefulness of his sleep to Hayato, and the other part to the fact that, by the end of the week, his routine at the club had undergone its last adjustment, and his schedule finally stabilized enough for him to be able to set aside a few weekends for meetups with Kinjou.

The only downside to all of this is that his dreams seemed to consider themselves part of his schedule, too, and resumed plaguing him the very night he moved back into his room, still revolving around the daunting presence of vague, unfamiliar shadows.

 


 

For the day’s visit to the hospital, Arakita comes prepared: his phone is charged, he’s sent mails soliciting conversations (Kinjou doesn’t have weekend practice today, and Arakita plans on grilling him about their mutually enjoyed tv show the entire time he’s being made to wait for his appointment), and, most importantly, he’s been armed with a water bottle full of bepsi (thank you, Hayato).

Incidentally, he also has Manami, and while the presence of the club’s wonder climber is an addition Arakita doesn’t really dislike, he just knows he’s going to keep hearing that umaibo jingle all throughout the day, thanks to the younger boy.

“Manami, I swear, if you don’t cut that out, I’m going to cut something off of you.”

Predictably, Manami stops humming and positively simpers at the thought of dismemberment. Arakita usually has an idea if the kid’s joking or not, but his radar is out of commission today thanks to his shitty sleep cycle, and he takes Manami’s reaction at face value, wisely refraining from commenting further. Manami drops the act a few moments later, and resumes humming – this time, Arakita knows he’s doing it entirely for the sake of filling the silence.

Still, not even five minutes pass before Manami stops humming again. When Arakita glances up at him, Manami holds his gaze for a second before smartly turning away. Arakita looks down at his phone, counts to ten in his mind, and looks up – he catches Manami blinking at him, this time, and, like the last, he stares at Arakita for a full second before looking away.

Arakita bites his lip and stifles a sigh, mentally preparing for another round of what has been, for this past week at least, Manami’s favorite game to play with him: ‘Am I Going to Initiate Conversation or Not?’

The mechanics of the game are simple: Arakita catches Manami staring shamelessly at him, they hold their somehow mutually blank gazes for no longer than a second, afterwards they blithely ignore each other until the next time they look up and spot the other looking back at them.

(Upon being consulted, Hayato suggests that Manami is waiting for the perfect moment to actually initiate the conversation. After witnessing the game lasting for a day, Hayato recalls his suggestion and tells Arakita to pray to the mountain gods instead. “Yeah, sure, but will Toudou even fucking listen?” “What if you offer food?” “I think I’d stand a better chance if I kidnapped Makishima.”)

As Arakita predicted, they spend the next ten minutes immersed in the game, until Miyahara rounds the corner and happens upon them – Arakita has always admired the girl for her unfailing dedication to keeping the wild marimo-with-feet that is their wonder climber somehow afloat, and now he adds ‘Good with timing’ on the list of her notable qualities.

“Sangaku,” she begins, “I’m attending a meeting for the class representatives later, I won’t be able to see you home,” she then turns to Arakita, bowing politely as she says, “I hate to trouble you, Arakita-senpai, but could you please make sure Manami gets home safely?”

Arakita doesn’t even think about his answer – he’d been thinking of offering to walk them home, anyway, to find out how Manami had been doing with his classes. “Yeah, it’s no trouble; I’ll make sure the kid doesn’t fly off.”

Miyahara spends a few minutes thanking Arakita profusely before dashing off, and as he and Manami watch her rush down the hallway, Arakita comments, “She’s really spoiled you rotten, hasn’t she, Manami.”

At that, Manami smiles, and Arakita thinks he detects some measure of fondness in his voice when he says, “She likes to, and I don’t see the point in stopping her from doing what she likes.”

Arakita snorts at the cop out, and pokes his finger at Manami’s cheek, ignoring the way the wonder climber just lets him, and says, “You’re turning out extremely spoiled, I’m seriously starting to believe you’re going to end up becoming a mama’s boy.”

Manami continues to smile, and even lets out a short laugh before he says, “I’m not, though.”

“C’mon, Manami, don’t even try to deny—”

“A boy, that is. Or, a girl, for that matter. If Arakita-senpai wants to call me something other than my name, or those nicknames you’re so fond of making, just ‘they’ or ‘them’ will do.”

Arakita stares at Manami, processing the kid’s words and, more importantly, the way they stare straight ahead at the physician’s door right across from them, keeping a white knuckled grip on the edges of their plastic seat – it only takes a moment, and then Arakita’s shrugging, picking up right where he’d been cut off.

“Yeah, okay, but don’t you dare deny you’re a spoiled brat.”

It’s Manami’s turn to stare at Arakita now, mouth going slack and a look of genuine surprise settling on their face. They’re silent for longer than a second, and just when Arakita thinks he’s somehow messed up, Manami speaks.

“If I’m a spoiled brat… then does that mean you’re admitting that you pamper me more than Kuroda-senpai?”

Arakita’s eyes widen at the question – and then he’s locking his working arm around Manami’s neck and pinching their cheek as hard as his idiot hand can, “Pamper you? What makes you think you’re being pampered, you little shit…!”

This time, when Manami laughs, Arakita doesn’t have to wonder if it’s real or not.

 


  

By coincidence, their physicians call for them at the same time. Before they go to meet them, Arakita makes sure Manami knows to wait for him by the vending machine (“Understood, mother!” “Don’t bullshit me, Manami.”), and Manami tries to ask Arakita for a sip of his bepsi for the eighth time (“Never in thirteen million years.” “That’s oddly specific…”).

Arakita’s snickering as he remembers the look on Manami’s face when he enters his physician’s office, but when the old man takes the seat across him, the thick folder of Arakita’s medical records in his hand, the smile slips off his lips, and he puts on the face he’d taken great pains to perfect just for these occasions.

“Good afternoon, Yasutomo. How are you feeling today?” Kagami Natsuhiko speaks like a well-loved grandfather, and he smiles like one, too, even after two years and countless visits where all he ends up doing is scolding Arakita for fucking up his arm. Arakita still can’t stand the sight of his face or the easy lilt of his voice, but he feigns passable amiability and returns the doctor’s greeting before answering his question as succinctly as he can.

“High seven, but the sling helps. I’ve been getting enough sleep, but I suppose exam season never really ends, and neither does the stress that comes along with it.” The lie comes easily, and Kagami continues the check up as if he believes it completely, keeping his questions on the same vein and commending Arakita for taking care of himself more responsibly. It’s difficult to tell if the doctor has taken his blatant, easy lies for what they are, but the check up continues without the doctor giving any clues otherwise. The hour is up quickly enough, and because Arakita doesn’t talk about the increasingly frequent and disconcerting dreams, his prescription stays the same for another two weeks.

“I’ll be seeing you then, Yasutomo.”

“Mhm, see you, Kagami-sensei.”

When Arakita makes his way to the vending machine, Manami is there, shaking a bottle of bepsi. Arakita deliberately stares at them, then at the bottle, and then back at Manami. The kid doesn’t disappoint, and smiles as they say, “Ah, you caught me.”

Fucking climbers.

 


  

The third Sunday of the month is marked specially on Arakita’s calendar: the date is encircled with a green pen, and a snake wearing a pair of pointed shades sits at the corner of the box. The note, scrawled in Arakita’s loopy, left-hand script, says: ‘Movies with Kin-chan at Chiba!!!’

“Did you charge your phone, Yasutomo?” Hayato asks as he squeezes the last bit of Arakita’s toothpaste onto his toothbrush. Beside him, Arakita nods, hurriedly rinsing and spitting into the sink, “Yeah, but remember – you only get to call me if it’s really important! I’m hanging out with Kin-chan today! It’s mom’s rest day, got it??”

Hayato gives him a frothy grin and nods, “Have fun, Yasutomo!”

Despite the mere three hours of sleep he’d gotten, and the odd, leaden feeling in his gut – which he blames entirely on Kinjou’s contagious excitement over the movie they’re going to see – Arakita grins back at Hayato. “Yeah…!”

 


  

The 8:00 train to Chiba is packed for reasons that escape Arakita’s current analyzing capabilities. Everywhere he looks, there are tightly knit groups of businessmen in suits, girls in gaudy dresses, and boys in sports jerseys of every questionable color combination. Arakita tries his best to shrink himself, and keeps his back against the wall as thumbs out message to Kinjou.

[its like at least 65% of the population is in the train with me. im gonna die kin-chan]

[oh well at least i’ll have bepsi with me when i kick it]

Barely a minute passes before Kinjou’s reply arrives: [[That means 65% of the population is in danger of too much bepsi exposure. Yasutomo… I didn’t know you were this diabolical.]]

Arakita bites his lip to keep himself from laughing outright, and quickly taps out his reply: [says the guy who’s planning to switch out his freshmen’s equipment without telling them!! that is brutal kin-chan! so brutal. you’re the actual diabolical one and im probably going to end up as a sacrifice if i don’t get crushed in this train]

Kinjou next message features two emoji-snakes bracketing the words [[A worthwhile offering]]. Arakita has to stamp down on the urge to start guffawing in a packed train compartment.

 


  

His friendship with Sohoku’s ace is a thing of curious interest for anyone else who’s heard of it – when they’d told Toudou about what exactly took place at Chiba (expanding the hastily given summary of Fukutomi apologized, Arakita made sure he didn’t fuck up his eye), he’d given Arakita a truly puzzled look, and said “You made friends with him because you punched Tomii in the face…?”

Fukutomi nodded then, and somehow that actualized the story in Toudou’s head, enough for him to change tracks to comment on Arakita’s uncouth behavior on their rival’s home turf (“You scared Maki-chan! What would you have done if you’d thrown off her condition??” “I didn’t! She’s probably tougher than you give her credit for, having to put up with you all the time…”).

Hayato commented that Kinjou probably recognized a kindred spirit – and at that, Arakita had to be thumped on the back several times after nearly choking on his lunch at the thought of sharing interests with the guy who’d confessed to preferring Cole over Bepsi.

Afterwards, as they walked to Usakicchi’s hutch, Arakita had said, “He’s a nice guy,” and Hayato only smiled.

“… Still has shitty taste in drinks, though.”

“Nobody’s perfect, Yasutomo.”

“What do you call bepsi, then?”

“Better than Cole.”

“Heh. That’s good. I’ll use that on Kin-chan soon.”

 


 

 “Three hours! I travelled three hours, just for that!”

Kinjou takes the seat across Arakita and raises an eyebrow at his outburst, “Ah. You liked it that much, did you.” Arakita stuffs his mouth with a handful of fries and doesn’t comment, but Kinjou ends up smiling a truly shit eating grin anyway. Arakita glares, and punts a ketchup packet at his smug face.

“You didn’t say they’d bring back the dead brother! Kin-chan! You know I liked him!” It’s Kinjou’s turn to use food as an excuse not to reply, and Arakita sips moodily at his bepsi while he waits for him to finish chewing.

Contrary to the fierce scowl on his face, he isn’t mad at all. The movie had exceeded his expectations, and Kinjou hadn’t jostled his elbow off the armrest even once. They both preferred to watch the movie in silence and leave their frantic comments after the credits, and Kinjou had even made sure they ate at a restaurant near a good cake shop. There wasn’t anything for him to be pissed about (except maybe the sheer number of people at the theater, but that shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given the popularity of the film).

Kinjou had thus far been perfect company – except for the bit about the dead brother.

“I only realized he’d be coming back twenty minutes into the movie, Yasutomo,” Kinjou says. There’s a spot of mayonnaise at the corner of his mouth, and Arakita throws a wad of tissues at his face as he insists, “You still could have told me! And you’ve got mayo on your cheek.”

“Ah, thank you—but that would have spoiled the movie for you. And I think the couple behind us didn’t realize it either. Their popcorn might have made its way to us, if I’d suddenly spoken about him.”

Arakita huffs, though privately he concedes Kinjou’s point. As his last act of petulance, he sticks his tongue out at Kinjou, who only chuckles and swipes one of his fries. Arakita feels himself deflate a little at how easily Kinjou accepts his childish antics – but then Kinjou swipes an entire handful of his fries, and Arakita feels entirely justified sending a barrage of ketchup packets at Kinjou’s face.

 


  

When they leave the restaurant for the streets, Arakita is once again struck by how many people are out – it’s entirely different from being constantly surrounded by the club, where there’s at least always a handful of familiar faces. Here, everyone’s face is new, and it only occurs to Arakita then that he’s in a completely different prefecture.

The thought of being surrounded at all sides by a mass of strangers makes something lurch wildly in his stomach, and the unpleasant movement sends the taste of bile, acidic and sharp, to the back of his throat. Arakita feels his idiot arm tremble, and for a long moment, he feels paralyzed, upright even without the ground under his feet.

Kinjou has to call his name twice to get his attention, and when he asks if there was anything wrong, Arakita can’t stop himself from blurting out, “I don’t know anyone – anything from here. I’ve never been to Chiba before.” It’s a flimsy excuse, weak like the voice that speaks it, and it doesn’t even begin to cover how Arakita feels suddenly, painfully, completely out of place; yet, somehow, answering Kinjou’s question, remembering that Kinjou was there beside him, beats back the formless black surrealism creeping at the edge of his sight, even just slightly.

For a moment, Kinjou only stares at him – and then, he holds out his left hand; Arakita takes it without hesitation, and finds that it’s as warm as he remembers it being, months and months ago, when they’d first met.

 

year4-2

 

“That’s alright, Yasutomo. I won’t let you get lost.”

Kinjou squeezes his hand, and the ground finally settles.

 


 

 While lining up for Arakita’s ticket back to Hakone, they make plans to meet again on the third Sunday of the following month. Arakita pesters Kinjou to make it a sleepover (“I want to eat Tadokoro’s breakfast! You keep whining about it but it looks really good!”), offering to bring the latest season of their other mutual tv obsession as compensation (“I’m a decent person, so I won’t spoil you for anything.” “Is that so, Yasutomo?” “It is so!”). In the end, Kinjou agrees, and Arakita smiles widely as he waves at him from inside the train, already excited for their next day out.

The compartment is full, but Arakita knows he’ll be able to get a decent seat a few stops later, so he bears with standing against the wall and hugging his backpack filled with cakes and sweet breads to his chest. He messages Hayato about his return and the souvenirs he’s bringing back, and gets a line of dancing emoji that last for two messages.

[god theyre just cake hayato]

[but you bought them for me! Yasutomo! I love you!]

Arakita smiles down at his phone. At the same time, the pneumatic doors hiss open, and a calm female voice announces their arrival at another stop. The crowd around Arakita jostles each other, and he feels his stomach lurch as the number of passengers around him increase.

It’s a tight fit, and Arakita irritably blames the hour – six in the evening on the day before the start of a new week, it’s no wonder that people have started pouring out of their offices and into every other imaginable space. Still, rationalizing it doesn’t change the fact that the feeling is familiar, and this time, no one’s offering their hand for Arakita to anchor himself to.

Shit, Arakita thinks. He grips his phone tighter, and thumbs through the messages Hayato and Toudou have sent him about the club – all simple updates, some nearly useless in terms of actual information but endearing as far as anecdotes about his ‘kids’ are considered. Hayato has taken a ridiculous amount of pictures, for some reason humored by even Kuroda and Fukutomi. Toudou’s messages are all in parts, taking up page after page on his screen – Ashikiba’s dancing has improved, the climber's rhythm has picked up nicely; Manami briefly joined them for practice earlier in the day only to be spirited away by the call of the mountains as soon as Toudou called for a group ride; Fukutomi’s visual rating goes up to a six when he speaks with the freshmen, Toudou opines that he’s stealing the blood of the young.

Arakita tries to keep his mood up, shrinking himself against the wall and behind his stuffed bag. Most of the passengers would leave at the next station, and again at the next – the inexplicable lack of air and the dissolution of the floor under his feet would stop in thirty, maybe even fifteen minutes. That’s not too long, considering how Hisui had probably held him down for only ten minutes.

As the train enters a tunnel, Arakita’s head snaps up and he remembers.

 


 

[hayato im sleeping over tonight ok]

[sure thing yasutomo. did you have fun with kinjou today?]

[yeah im bringing home cake dont eat it all in one go]

[i make no promises. are you alright?]

[yasutomo?]

[yasutomo]

{1 missed call – Hayato}

[sorry got squeezed in]

[im ok]

[i want bepsi when i get back. lots of bepsi.]

[alright. do you want to hear about what touichirou did with the second years today?]

[yea sure]

[and tell toudou if anyone’s stealing the blood of the young its him]

 


 

Arakita realizes that it didn’t matter if he remembers his dreams or not, come morning. They would always be about the same thing, and they would always leave him grappling for the light switch or huddling against Hayato under their blankets on the kinder days. On days that weren’t as kind, he wouldn’t have had any sleep at all; his pills would taste like bile on his tongue, and no amount of bepsi could wash it away.

He keeps his sling on, on those days.

On Tuesday afternoon, Arakita surveys the clubroom as he readjusts his dead arm. He glances at the clipboard lying on his lap and checks the time, before waving down a pair of passing second years. “Misato, Kobungo – Toudou’s group is heading up the mountains, get their stuff ready for them.” They bow briefly and head off, and Arakita ticks an item off his to-do list before sweeping the clubroom with his gaze.

He has a good view from where he sits, up front just beside the sliding door – all the rollers face him, and the underclassmen have more or less gotten used to the sight of their fearsome manager watching them like a hawk with its jesses tied; at least, no one has accidentally slipped off the rollers when they look up and meet his eyes.

He counts, all in all, twenty-six riders in the clubroom. Twelve first years (five sprinters-, seven climbers-in-training), fourteen second years (seven sprinters, seven climbers – the latter set in an alternating schedule with Toudou’s other climber group). Most of them refer to him with Kuroda’s appellation, and Arakita feels less inclined to raise his voice at them when they do, though there’s no change in the amount of attention and nagging he directs at them.

The hour drags on, and riders wheel themselves in and out of the training room. Arakita taps his pencil against the hard back of his clipboard, pops his foot off the floor in a steady rhythm, counts the pair of wheels spinning on the rollers for a second time. When Hayato comes by, ten minutes later, and sets an open bottle of bepsi on the table beside him, Arakita lets out the breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding.

“Fuck, Hayato, what took you so long!” He grabs at the bottle and chugs at it, finishing almost half before setting it back down and scowling moodily at his best friend. Most people would have flinched away or babbled apologies – Hayato only reaches for his right shoulder and gives it a comforting squeeze as he says, “I forgot my favorite power bars at your room.”

Arakita gets to his feet with a sigh, shrugging off Hayato’s hand on his shoulder and grabbing his wrist as he tugs him off, complaining loud enough for the underclassmen to hear even as they exit the clubroom, “Ants! You’re inviting ants to my room, you careless hamster! Crumbs everywhere and you just sit there and unwrap another bar – I’m watching your intake and the minute you go over it, you’re seriously going to need your speed to get away from me!”

The younger riders snicker and smile amongst themselves as they watch their seniors leave. Not one of them notice how hard Arakita grips Hayato’s wrist, or how Hayato stares at him with a tense look in his eyes.

 


  

“The code comes in handy, doesn’t it, Yasutomo?”

“…Yeah. Fucking shut up and help me with my sling – I seriously can’t feel my idiot arm anymore.”

“And your head?”

“Head’s fine. Your voice sounds stupider – farther away than usual, but there’s like. Just another hour and a half of club period left. I’ll make it.”

“I asked Touichirou to take the first- and second year sprinters out for the rest of the hour.”

“Asshole. Izumida’s too nice to you. Take the rollers close to the front so you can hear it clearly when I tell you how much of a lazy ass you are.”

“There’s no other place I’d have wanted to be, Yasutomo.”

“Fucking gross.”

 


 

 The pills stop helping by Thursday.

(Sorry, Hayato.)

Arakita chews through his entire day’s dosage, but by the time club period comes around, his stomach is barely settled. He’d already emptied it of its meager contents on his last two trips to the bathroom, but still he feels something rising up his throat and blocking every decent breath he means to take. He can’t refuse a bepsi, though, not in plain view of Toudou’s climbers, who are surprisingly observant and annoyingly mouthy, just like their senior.

He sips at the open bottle Hayato leaves him for an hour before he finishes it, and then he gets up anyway, telling a passing member of Hayato’s sprinter team that he’d be out for a bepsi run.

Arakita barely makes it to his room before his stomach completely rejects his favorite drink.

(There’s something to be said about the way he can literally feel his stomach expanding and contracting, forcing its contents up the way it came, far and high enough until he tastes it at the back of his tongue, past his lips again, the wrong way around – his whole body trembles as he holds onto the porcelain lid of the toilet and a heavy weight rests on his ribcage, squeezing, squeezing, until he doubles over again, and, god, if only he were vomiting up the sick, blackened patches of memories in his head instead of food, if only, if only.)

 


  

The nightmares take full shape roughly two months after the incident at the locker room, and even if it’s past midnight when Arakita closes his eyes on most days, the hour is irrelevant to the memories that rewind and replay themselves in his mind in vivid, striking clarity.

First come the sounds: the white noise of the afternoon streaming into the locker room, the footsteps he’d misheard, the rhythmic drag of the broad end of a bat over the grilles on the steel lockers. Someone’s laughter, Hisui’s voice (He wonders why he never hears himself scream).

Next, the feeling – and there’s only one feeling that registers, even when he’s awake and the world ceases to exist outside of his periphery. It’s the feeling that overtakes the warmth of Hayato’s hand and the reassuring weight of the stopwatch hanging from his neck, the clipboard in his left hand – the feeling that makes his pills useless, the feeling that sends him to his knees in front of the toilet, right after every meal, the feeling that is not unlike the first two months after the summer tournament, condensed into one pulsing echo that does not fade: Arakita’s long since known that his arm is dead, but in his nightmares, it dies all over again, and he feels every aching inch of his muscles, every screaming nerve – there are no fireworks, no lightning, only the reality of pain so excruciating, he almost wishes he could sever his right arm straight off.

If he’s lucky, the dream ends there.

(“Arakita-senpai… Are you listening to me?”)

At the end of the first week of nightmares, Arakita stares at his empty pillbox and realizes that luck had nothing to do with it at all.

 


  

His heart beats out a frantic, restless rhythm, hell bent, it seems, on bursting through his ribcage and out of his body entirely. He feels every spiking pulse at his fingertips, even in the hand connected to his dead arm. The grilles of the locker he’s pushed up against cut against his cheek, and Arakita wishes he’d wake up from this terrible dream.

“Are you listening, Arakita-senpai?”

He nods.

“Good. I’ll only say it once, so listen carefully.”

Hisui’s voice drops to a whisper, and Arakita feels his lips moving against the shell of his ear. In the next moment, Hisui’s lackey will break his arm. In the next moment, he imagines that he’ll hear the sound of his bones cracking, cutting through the petrified numbness in his mind. In the next moment, he will finally scream.

In the next moment he will stop thinking.

But instead he feels Hisui smile against his skin.

“You’re broken, Arakita. No amount of drugs or denial will change that. You can parade your so-called achievements for everyone to see – but the fact is, anyone with a working arm and an ounce of common sense could do what you do.”

No, no, no

“Useful? Reliable? Necessary? Don’t kid yourself. One-sixth of you is already dead, isn’t it about time for the rest to catch up?”

The moment of clarity Arakita has been waiting for finally arrives: his arm is dragged back and in the second it takes for him to suck in a breath his arm pulls free of his shoulder, he feels the start of his muscles tearing, his nerves igniting, at the heels of that his elbow explodes in lightning-flashes of pain as the bone bends and breaks clean off, piercing through his skin and dripping blood, dripping blood and dying

“Haha, why aren’t you screaming, Arakita? Doesn’t it hurt? Aren’t you in pain?”

why isn’t he screaming why can’t he find his voice why why he can’t breathe

“That’s fucked up. You’re fucked up, Arakita.”

he wants to scream god stop please stop this he wants to wake up he wants to wake up

“… Hey, at least you found something you’re good for.”

Suddenly there are hands grabbing at him, shoving his face at the floor and raising his hips up, his knees upright, hands tugging and shredding through his clothes Why why  Help He wants to scream Why can’t he scream

“Fuck, haven’t you figured it out yet?”

Cold hands on his skin. Smiling lips against his ear.

Someone forces his legs open and pulls his head up - and Arakita meets his own leering gaze, and finally understands why he couldn't hear himself scream.

 

year4-3

 

All this time, he'd been hearing his own voice.

 


 

 Arakita wakes up sobbing, clutching at his dead arm, curled into himself as tightly as his unconscious could manage. Hot tears sting his eyes, and he struggles to keep every breath, barely able to distinguish between the jackhammer pulse reverberating in his head and coursing through his veins.

Just when he thinks he can hold in a breath long enough to clear his mind, someone breathes against the naked skin of his nape, “…Yasutomo?”

An arm circles his waist, and Arakita jerks violently on instinct, struggling with all the strength he could muster in his sleep-weary limbs before he recognizes the warmth of the hand pressed against his chest, the sound of the voice speaking his name in low, soothing tones – a full-body tremor shakes his bones before he sags against Hayato, a fresh rush of tears clouding his vision. He hears his rasping breaths cutting through the drone of the air conditioner, and Arakita raises his hands to cover his face, wanting to muffle the cries pushing past his lips.

Hayato moves to pull him against his chest, and this time Arakita does not feel the urge to recoil. The hand that Hayato rests against the hollow of his throat is a soothing balm; when he settles it above the organ of suspicious repetitive functioning trapped in his chest, Arakita feels himself calming down – slowly, his heart starts to rest, lulled into the sense of safety that Hayato has always been able to bring about with just a few words and his warm, comforting presence.

When he feels as if his heart has at last stopped trying to leap out of his throat, Arakita nuzzles against Hayato’s palm and murmurs his thanks against his wrist. Hayato presses a kiss against the back of his neck, and Arakita sighs as he closes his eyes. He focuses on Hayato’s breathing, his own sluggish pulse – he hugs his knees to his chest and tucks himself into as tight a ball as he can manage, all to avoid thinking about the only part of him that hadn’t yet come to rest.

Arakita does not sleep again that night.

 


  

The days that follow the nightmares pass in a blur for Arakita, bleeding along into looping weeks of confusion and bone-deep anxiety. He jolts awake in the middle of class, unable to recall how he’d fallen asleep; his teachers don’t seem to notice, and Arakita starts to fear that he hadn’t been asleep at all. He goes through most of club period in a daze and at the end of several sessions, he stares in horrified silence at his empty timesheets and unchecked lists – still, these are preferable to the looks the underclassmen have begun to give him when they think he isn’t looking, the whispers that rise at the sight of his shadow, the sudden hush that falls when he enters the clubroom.

In conversations with Fukutomi and Toudou, Arakita finds himself drifting off if he isn’t holding Hayato’s hand – Toudou always looks like he wants to comment on their more blatantly obvious closeness, but Hayato talks over him and squeezes Arakita’s hand reassuringly, anchoring him back to the present as often as he needs.

Still, the transience of his thoughts disturb Arakita – he goes through days with the distinct impression that all he’s done is watch the sun travel the sky and not much of anything else; at night, he keeps his back to Hayato and tries to put at least a hand’s distance between them, to make it easier for him to slip out of bed when he wakes from his nightmares, wound up tight and cold all over except for the place between his legs.

He’s tried willing away the disgusting erections fueled in some sick way by his nightmares (hands on his hips his throat against his inner thighs the ringing echo of This is the only reason they keep you around resounding in his ears), but most times he ends up muffling his sobs against his arm as he jerks himself off in the toilet with the lights off, spilling into a wad of tissues and vomiting into the toilet not even a moment later.

It happens too often, too many times in one night, and Arakita thinks he would have gone insane already if not for the fact that Hayato welcomes him back to bed with a sleepy murmur of his name after every incident, safely ignorant of how much Arakita wants to flay himself alive – Hayato is his only comfort, and Arakita is grateful that the nightmares hadn’t touched him, at least.

He knows it would only be a matter of time, though.

 


  

When next Arakita finds himself touching bases with reality, he’s sitting in the library with a small stack of books to his left, his laptop open on a document in front of him. Across him, Toudou and Fukutomi puzzle over math problems, and to his right, Hayato highlights phrases on a handout. He tries to remember the date, the time of day – he fails, as expected, and he tries to mask the sinking feeling in his gut by picking up a book and flipping to the pages marked with post-its he vaguely remembers swiping from Toudou.

It’s a Japanese culture and aesthetics text. The post-its mark concepts relevant for their next essay, and Arakita recognizes the neater script of his right hand pointing out which topics would go where in the outline he’s apparently already prepared. He doesn’t recall ever being this organized with his schoolwork, but before the sinking feeling worsens at the reminder of his own failure to keep up with his memories, Arakita bites his tongue and forces himself to read through the section he’d noted as “main topic”.

The section is a three-page long essay about the evolution and importance of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. He’s slightly relieved when he recognizes bits and pieces from the text, but the words that stick to his mind are hardly as thoughtless as he’d first assumed them to be.

Impermanence. Imperfection. Incompleteness. Beauty in what is broken, in what passes, in what must be let go and given away.

(“You’ll never pitch again.” “You’re broken, Arakita.” “Anyone with a working arm and an ounce of common sense could do what you do.”)

The flow of time is irreversible, and in that transience, there is a melancholic beauty that should be cherished.

(He can’t feel his right arm.)

Arakita closes the book and glances at the time on his phone. Somehow, his voice sounds perfectly normal when he tells Fukutomi, Toudou, and Hayato that they’d been studying for too long – Hayato makes a show of stretching over the table and complaining of hunger pains, and Toudou immediately whips his phone out, gleefully tapping out a message to none other than Maki-chan about his recently concluded and all-too grueling study session. Fukutomi tells them that they would meet at the cafeteria for dinner – he would be showing them pictures of Turtle and Usakicchi, and such things should not be missed.

As they’re walking back to the dorms, Arakita frowns at his phone and tells Hayato to go ahead to his room without him. “I forgot – I have to pick up stuff at the dorm manager’s desk. No, it’s not sweets, so just hurry up and drop our stuff off, I’m starving, I just don’t wanna make the trip again later.”

Fukutomi walks with Hayato the rest of the way; Arakita watches them standing shoulder to shoulder, peering at Fukutomi’s phone, until they round the corner and lose sight of him. He walks up to the dorm manager’s office, finding an RA sorting the day’s mail at his table – when he notices Arakita standing at the door, he stands and smiles, “Arakita-san! I was just about to look for you – the pharmacy made its deliveries earlier today.”

“Thanks, Takeshita,” Arakita says, accepting the white paper bag he’s given. The boy nods, holding out a clipboard and a pen for Arakita’s receiving signature, and says, “It was lucky you’d caught me the other day, before I called up the orders. We wouldn’t have been able to correct yours, and it would have been such an inconvenience to miss days off your prescription.”

“Ah, yeah. It’d be a pain to ask the doc for another write up just because I lost mine; all he really did was double everything, after all. Thanks for helping me out.” Arakita gives the RA a smile he does not feel, but it seems to pass off well enough, and Takeshita only bids him a good evening as he leaves.

Arakita separates the blisters of pills between his pockets and walks off to the cafeteria, claiming the seat across Toudou at their usual table. For the first time in weeks, there’s actual bite in his banter with the climber, and when Hayato and Fukutomi arrive, Toudou is already complaining about how he’d missed how quiet Arakita had been – “Now he’s back to normal, insulting my style at every turn!”

Hayato smiles and opens the bottle of bepsi he’d gotten for Arakita, saying, “Sorry, Jinpachi, I happen to find Yasutomo more lovable this way.”

Haa, you think that’s gonna save you from getting cut off your precious choco-banana power bars?? Think again, hamster cheeks!”

Dinner passes normally, and afterwards, Hayato amiably agrees to sleep in his room for the night while Arakita cleared his own bed of the inevitable crumbs that had settled in it. He smiles warmly when he bids Arakita goodnight, and for a moment, Arakita feels himself falter – but it only lasts a moment, and then he’s shooing Hayato off to his room and locking the door after he closes it in the sprinter’s pouting face.

 


  

Alone in his room, Arakita lays out his pills. Tonight’s dosage is one, two – but he pops out three from their plastic shells and washes them down with a swallow of bepsi before his indecision could take form.

He swallows a fourth when his consciousness snaps back into place, and he remembers what he’d wanted to do with his Japanese aesthetic text in the library. A fifth, when he remembers the exact words (The flow of time is irreversible), a sixth (and in that transience, there is a melancholic beauty), a seventh and eighth (a melancholic beauty that should be cherished).

You’ll never pitch again. Arakita crushes the ninth pill between his teeth, as his doctor’s words resound in his head, You’ll never pitch again, You’ll never pitch again.

He takes the tenth after he throws his textbook against the wall. It leaves a noticeable dent, but Arakita couldn’t care less. His thoughts melt and rush together, and he feels his blood boiling just under his skin, pulled taut over atrophied muscles and bones that wouldn’t stand a chance against a decent fastball pitched at full force.

This isn’t beautiful at all. None of this beautiful. What’s broken is broken and what’s passed is passed – but I never wanted to let it go, never wanted to give my future away.

I hate this. I hate this. I hate me.

Useless and incomplete one-sixth dead the rest haven’t gotten the message yet and impermanent so fucking impermanent everything I want to keep I lose I gave up the mound but I never wanted to

For a long while, the only sound in the room is tearing plastic and Arakita’s shallow breathing. There are no less than fifteen pills in Arakita’s shaking palm, and he doesn’t even blink before he brings them to his mouth, dry-swallowing and crunching through the lot. He keeps his hand over his mouth as he crawls into bed, pulling his sheets over his head and screwing his eyes shut.

He prays to whatever gods were listening to him – don’t let me wake up again.

 


 

The gods have never listened to Arakita, however: five hours later, he wakes up to the feeling of wanting to hack his every organ out, spit out the acid creeping up the walls of his stomach and back up his throat – the first wave hits him just as he leans over his bed and he vomits out undigested pills and stomach bile that makes him want to rip his jaw off. He stumbles over to the toilet, pushing past the door and collapsing to his knees over the bowl, retching into it another round of pills, half-digested this time but no less painful when they tear up out of his mouth.

It feels like ages before every exhale stops turning out to be another wave of effuse, and at that point Arakita feels ready to pass out and possibly knock his head against the porcelain backing of the toilet – a concussion would be a godsend, maybe, anything to take away the spinning in his head, the void of coherent thought and the weight of the decision he’s made heaving down on his shoulders, his bruised ribcage, the feeble organ that still does its best to keep his blood flowing, keep him alive when it’s the last thing he wants – he curls up on the linoleum instead, every breath a laborious effort; he blinks away the tears that had, at some point, started to fall from his eyes, not even trying to wipe them away with his hands which he knows are shaking too hard, plied to numbness by the drugs that had already dissolved and were now working their way through his bloodstream.

Arakita thinks he might just die there, instead of passing in his sleep as he’d intended, leaving behind a trail of messes that somebody would have to clean up for him, the worthless husk of his corpse aside.

His mind jumps to Hayato, and it gets harder to breathe – he thinks of him calling his name, seeing what he’s made of himself, and the urge to just disappear is even stronger, sorry Hayato, I’m sorry – Arakita claws at the tiles, struggling to suck in air and keep it in long enough for his head to clear. It should be easy, given how much he’d hollowed himself out, but it isn’t, and he slips further into the hazy place between consciousness and the soundless, sightless dark, back to wishing that he’d just died after forcing down a handful of pills.

He keeps hearing Hayato’s voice, throughout his fugue. He wishes it could still comfort him, but it’s too late, too late, much too late.

Someone flips the light on in his would-be grave, and the world crashes around him, chaotic and muted in turns – what he thinks are quakes shaking the earth turn out to be footfalls in another second, and Arakita jerks when the lights hit his eyes and everything of him is thrown into sharp relief. Blood rushes in Arakita’s head as he cranes his neck to look at who’d had the worst luck to find him – red and brown and blue register in his vision, but after a thundering heartbeat the image sharpens, and Arakita feels as if he’d been pushed further under where he’d already sunk.

God, Hayato

“Yasutomo, wake up, please Yasutomo–”

Sorry Hayato I can’t. I can’t anymore I’m sorry.

Hayato’s hands are a searing brand on Arakita’s shoulders, impossibly real and steady as he helps him sit up. Arakita groans at the movement, his center of gravity all but thrown and in shambles – he feels as if the world has fallen in under his feet, and he desperately wants to cling onto Hayato but that would only mean he’d drag him down with him the next time he falls. He couldn’t do that to Hayato. Not Hayato.

“Yasutomo, stay awake, alright? I asked the dorm manager to call the ambulance.”

Oh god, no, no, don’t No Hayato, you should leave me alone already, I just wanted to sleep and not have anything matter anymore, please go

“I’m staying with you, Yasutomo—” Something breaks in Hayato’s voice then, and Arakita feels the warmth spread from across his shoulders to all around him, and he knows Hayato’s pulled him into a hug – god, but he’s disgusting, he’s awful and Hayato’s only ruining himself staying here with him— “Yasutomo, please don’t die.”

Through the tumultuous haze of sensations, like a lightning bolt that strikes at least a part of him into coherence, Arakita realizes that Hayato’s crying.

Not you, no, not my favorite boy, not my best friend I’m sorry, Hayato, I’m so sorry

“Please don’t die, please don’t, Yasutomo…”

I just did something stupid, I’m sorry

Somehow, Arakita finds the strength to lift his arms and curl them around Hayato’s back, fingers catching onto and clutching at his shirt. He knows his grip is weak and barely enough to keep Hayato with him, but there’s nothing else for him to hold on to, and he’s afraid now – so afraid of sinking, of leaving Hayato to cry over him, of pulling him under so they fall to the dark a breath apart.

“…’m sorry, Hayato, I’m so sorry…”

 


  

year4-4

 

There’s a boy standing on the mound, suited up in deep violet and white. The intricately stitched letters on his cap reads “YHS”, and they match the letters in white thread on the jersey he wears. He has a glove on his left hand and a ball in his right.

Obviously, the boy is a pitcher.

He spits over his shoulder and tosses the ball idly – he’s waiting for the next batter up, for his catcher’s signs. From where Arakita stands, the boy’s face is a blur – but the smile that stretches his lips is striking and unmistakable.

The boy is excited. This is an important game for him. It’s the last game of the summer tournament.

Arakita watches as the boy winds up.

When he tips his cap over his face, Arakita realizes that he’s watching himself.

 


  

Arakita’s eyelids flicker, but even before his vision clears he realizes where he is: white walls bleed into the white ceiling, and at his periphery the IV stand looms over his side – he is, by now, intimately familiar with the bare necessities comprising a hospital room, which at least have the comforting tendency to stay exactly the same.

But though he recognizes what is inarguably his real second home, he finds himself unable to wake up fully; he feels as if he’d been under for a long while, down deep in the darkest part of the water where even sunlight couldn’t reach. His lungs bear with the dull, persistent feeling of always being one breath short; it keeps him dazed and only partially alert, which is maybe for the best – if he can’t think coherently, he wouldn’t be able to remember anything until much later, and the hollow cavity he feels in his chest at every exhale would remain unexplained, as he wanted it to be. He knows for a fact that it would only hurt much more than it already did, if he remembers why it existed in the first place.

Still, when he turns his head, intending on finding the nurse’s call button, the reminder is there, asleep with his head pillowed on his crossed arms, shoulders hitching every so often. By this, Arakita knows Hayato had been crying, and he remembers exactly why that is.

(“Please don’t die, please don’t, Yasutomo.”)

For a long moment, Arakita simply stares at his best friend. The more he looks at him, the more he feels the protesting of nerves in his right arm. Most of him remains dull and clouded over, but his dead arm is slowly coming awake, and Arakita is glad for it because he wants—he wants sobadly to touch Hayato, wants to make sure he hasn’t rubbed his eyes red and puffy; he wants to pull him close and keep him there, hold him as he sobs; he wants to ask, Hayato, why are you here, what are you doing here, why, Hayato while he runs his fingers through his hair and thumbs away his tears.

His favorite boy stirs slightly and murmurs his name, and Arakita wills his arm to move.

It takes a considerable amount of effort, but he bears with the ache, managing to lift his hand and place it on Hayato’s head. Hayato keeps sleeping, and, finding himself just as tired from that simple exertion alone, Arakita decides to follow his example, and closes his eyes.

 


  

He’s back on the mound again, tossing a ball with his right hand and keeping his eyes on the batter’s box. Arakita sees himself grin and raise up a peace sign – two outs.

He doesn’t see any other player in the diamond, though, so he wonders who he’s signing to.

From somewhere, the Arakita on the mound gets a sign – he pulls in as he winds up, raises his left shoulder and makes as if he’s lost his balance before throwing his elbow back and pitching the ball like a sling shot.

Arakita’s eyes follow the ball.

The ball is headed for him.

As it turns, before it makes its descent, Arakita sees only white. When it dips, he sees the red of the stitches keeping the ball together. Red, white, red. It’s a good fork, deep and deceiving. Right before he moves to catch it, heedless of whether or not he’s equipped, Arakita looks back at the mound.

In the time it took him to analyze the ball thrown his way, the Arakita who’d pitched it had fallen to his knees. He sees him double over, clutching at his right arm – but no one comes to help him.

Arakita feels himself move to go to him, but at the last minute he remembers the ball, and when he looks back it’s coming closer and closer to his face, closer, and with a speed like that it would be liable to break him apart when it hits—

 


  

When Arakita next opens his eyes, the walls and ceilings are still white, the solution in his IV bag has lessened though not by much, and his lungs have adjusted enough to assure him that he’s taking just the right amount of breaths for the day. The sameness is soothing, but there’s one difference: Hayato is awake.

He sits far from Arakita, though still at his side – he’s extended his hand so his fingers are lightly touching Arakita’s wrist, and Arakita sees them tremble at every stroke, as if he’s afraid that even the gentlest pressure would hurt; his eyes are fixed on Arakita’s hand, and the fear is there, too, in his glazed, red-rimmed eyes; Arakita sees the tear tracks that have dried on his favorite boy’s cheeks and something, all that’s left in him after he’d gutted himself possibly not even a day earlier, whatever it is, is wrenched in Arakita, and it’s painful and sharp, and all he can think of in that moment is I never wanted you to cry for me.

“Hayato—”

He hates this – hates the shadows on Hayato’s face, hates the way he looks like he hadn’t slept at all and just spent the hours that Arakita had been in a drug induced stupor crying and crying, alone, without anyone to hold his hand or lend him their shoulder, or whatever piece of them still worked well enough to loan out.

He hates how Hayato jerks up at the sound of his voice, hates how relieved and scared and undone he looks – he hates how Hayato takes his right hand and presses his lips to his palm and murmurs his name, like he’s so glad that Arakita’s woken up – as if he weren’t poisoning himself just by staying there, as if Arakita had ever been good enough to legitimately warrant the gentleness and affection Hayato keeps heaping on him, as if it were that easy to love someone like him.

(He hates how much he wants it to be true.)

“I’m sorry, I’m—god, Hayato, I’m so sorry, it was stupid, I’m so stupid…

He’s fucked up, Arakita knows. It doesn’t take twenty-odd pills and a round of dragging out bile from his stomach to know that, but this – seeing the one person he could admit to loving back barely holding himself together, all because he made the most selfish decision and almost left him on his own – this makes it all the more clear.

I don’t deserve you. God, but don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.

Hayato keeps his gaze down as he shakes his head, bowed over Arakita’s hand like it’s some precious relic – he presses another kiss to his palm, and Arakita feels every conscious part of him ache when Hayato speaks, “You’re not stupid, you’re not… I’m. I’m the stupid one, stupid, selfish coward. I’m sorry, Yasutomo.

Arakita wishes he could say he’d never heard Hayato sound so broken. But he’s not the only one with nightmares at his heels, and on the nights when Hayato wouldn’t let go of his hand after dinner, he’d stopped himself from asking too many questions and just let his favorite boy cling to him before he slept – Hayato has cried on him many times, and Arakita hates the fact that he’s made him cry again.

“No, Hayato, I’m sorry – I did the fucking stupidest thing…” and Arakita can regret what he’d done, if only for Hayato’s sake, “I wasn’t thinking, I’m sorry, Hayato, please don’t cry anymore…”

He’s barely able to force out his next words, how could he when Hayato looks like he doesn’t want to touch him, is afraid of touching him? But Arakita knows there’s no one else he wants beside him at this point – “Please don’t leave, Hayato…

“I won’t,” Hayato says, between gulping breaths and fitful sobbing, “I won’t, I’m here now… But why do you still want me here, Yasutomo…? Even – even after all I’ve let happen to you…” Hayato still won’t meet his eyes as he speaks, dragging the words from his heart, from the crevice in his chest that Arakita is all too familiar with, “It’s my fault, Yasutomo…”

Arakita shakes his head, what are you talking about, I did this to myself, but Hayato continues, hands trembling around Arakita’s, “I wasn’t. I wasn’t strong enough, to protect you… I let you suffer on your own, because I’m a coward…”

But you’ve never left me alone, Arakita wants to say, I wouldn’t want anyone else with me, and you’ve. You’ve never left even though you should have. Hayato, Hayato, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.

God, what have I done to you.

“I couldn’t – I didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, even though I knew, I knew you were having bad dreams, and I still–”

I wouldn’t have let you, anyway, Hayato, you’re too good for me, I don’t deserve you, I don’t deserve–

“I don’t deserve to be your friend,” Hayato finishes, miserably rubbing at his eyes and holding Arakita’s hand away from him, so careful of Arakita in the way the Arakita himself has never found any reason to be.

Arakita thinks about the words Hayato says to him on a near daily basis, and wonders if he hasn’t lost the right to say them back just yet.

“Hayato,” Arakita says, curling his hand around his favorite boy’s fingers, slowly so he doesn’t think to pull away, “D’you still… love me?”

Hayato looks guilty when the question registers, and for a moment, Arakita thinks he’ll say no, that he’d lost his chance and irreparably damaged the intangible thing that links them together – but Hayato says “Of course I do,” like an awful confession, and Arakita feels like the guilt has latched onto him now, “I feel… really selfish, for admitting that, but I do, Yasutomo. I still love you.”

His arm protests, louder than it had when he’d moved it to Hayato’s head, but Arakita sets aside the pain and wraps his hand around Hayato’s wrist, tugging at it as he says, “Come here.” Hayato follows, but he’s nowhere near as close as Arakita needs him to be, so he continues, “I can’t, I can’t move, I can barely feel anything but come here.”

Hayato bites his lip, but he moves as Arakita instructs, doing his best not to knock around the IV trailing away from Arakita’s arm. It should be uncomfortable, how they’re squeezed in on Arakita’s hospital bed, but Arakita can finally put his face against Hayato’s neck, his left arm around Hayato’s back, and his right hand in his hair; all of that loosens the tension that had pulled Hayato’s shoulders taut and that’s all that matters for Arakita just then, and he’s able to somewhat steel himself with just a breath before he speaks.

Still, his voice comes out plaintive when he says, “I need you, okay, Hayato?”

It’s one thing to admit it in his head and something else entirely to say it out loud – but Hayato deserved these minor discomforts, and probably so much more than what Arakita is able to give, “I know I’m fucked up, and I couldn’t let you know just how much – but I still need you, I need you, so please don’t leave me…”

There’s an anguished sound that could have come from either of them, and then Hayato’s shaking again, muttering against Arakita’s shoulder. “I don’t want you to leave me either,” he says, and he still sounds like he’s talking through a crack in his chest; pulling out words that he’d buried in his own skin for Arakita’s sake, but he keeps going, keeps laying himself bare for Arakita. “I love you so much, I don’t deserve you, but I’m so selfish – I don’t want to slip up again and let you get hurt, I don’t want you to be in pain anymore, Yasutomo…”

Arakita tightens his arms around Hayato, clinging to him like a drowning man to his life raft, and in his desperation, he echoes Hayato’s words, losing himself in the repetition but meaning every word that falls from his lips.

“I love you, I love you, don’t leave me… You don’t deserve this, but I need you, so please…”

 


  

They cry themselves out, eventually. Hayato helps Arakita sit up, and they halve the contents of the tissue box between them; Arakita hadn’t even realized that he’d been crying, until Hayato reaches out to pat his face dry. Even after all they’d admitted to each other, Arakita is surprised that he hasn’t told Hayato how much he likes being touched by him – his throat still feels scratchy, so he simply lifts his face and lets Hayato do as he pleases, and then, after he’s done, insists on returning the favor.

As Arakita wipes his face, Hayato stares at him with a tender, fond look, and Arakita thinks, even if he isn’t at all gentle with his words, at least this. Let me give you at least this.

They sit together in silence for another moment, before Hayato reaches up to touch Arakita’s cheek, the corners of his mouth lifting up in a self-deprecating smile, “… We’ve both been really huge idiots, haven’t we, Yasutomo.”

Arakita feels himself smiling back at Hayato’s plain but factual words, and he reaches up to cover Hayato’s hand with his – he’s glad to find that, even now, Hayato’s hand is warm under his fingertips and against his skin. “It’s a first,” he agrees, “Both of us being idiots at the same time.”

Hayato huffs, letting Arakita lean into his hand; his thumb caresses Arakita’s cheek in slow, thoughtful arcs, and Arakita can see that he’s getting ready to say something, figuring out the right words and stitching them together – Hayato has always been more careful with the things he says, and Arakita is happy to give him his undivided attention.

When Hayato speaks, his hand stills on Arakita’s cheek, and he looks regretful, and guilty all at once. “… I’m sorry, Yasutomo. For being a selfish idiot, for taking you for granted…” He sees Arakita start to deny him, and Hayato shushes him with a finger over his lips, pleading, “Just listen, please?”

He waits for Arakita to nod before he continues, and as he does, Arakita feels whatever calm he’d built up over the last few minutes shrivel up and wither away.

“You’ve always been the one to pick up after me, and I… I’ve barely done anything for you in return. I’ve only played around… been irresponsible – I let you deal with everything, because I thought, I thought that that was good enough.” Hayato drops his gaze then, and his voice grows quieter; he takes his hand away from Arakita’s face, and Arakita almost asks Why, begs him Don’t – but he sees how badly Hayato’s hands have started to shake and he holds his tongue, lets his own hands clutch at his bedsheets.

“I still. Haven’t forgiven myself, for leaving you alone… for what happened with those second years. I shouldn’t have – I was so angry with myself… I couldn’t –I couldn’t do a thing to protect you then – not a thing – and even though I promised myself, I still couldn’t protect you from this…” Hayato clenches his hands, and just when Arakita thinks he’s going to stand up and leave, he looks back up at Arakita, another rush of tears running down his cheeks, “I let you suffer by yourself… and I am so sorry…”

I never want to make you cry, Arakita thinks helplessly, I never want to make you cry ever again. He reaches for Hayato’s hands, feels a lump rising in his throat when Hayato flinches away – it comes out of him as a sob when Hayato shifts closer, enough to let them both cling to each other.

“I didn’t want you to see me – I didn’t want you to see how fucked up I’d gotten, didn’t want to drag you down with me…” Another sob tears itself from Arakita’s chest, and he grips the back of Hayato’s shirt with trembling fists, “God, Hayato, you deserve so much more than keeping a wreck like me afloat…”

Hayato’s shoulders start hitching again, and he sounds as desperate as Arakita feels when he says, “But I want to, Yasutomo… I want to protect you, I want to keep you afloat because – because you keep me from going under, too…” He rests his forehead on Arakita’s shoulder then, whispering brokenly, “You’re important to me. You’re so important…”

It’s the first time in a long while that Arakita is able to feel as if he’d escaped the tides that drag him under at every sign of weakness. Though the memory of drowning, of the deeper dark nestled in the ocean just waiting for him to return, remains vivid and all too real, Arakita is comforted by the knowledge that Hayato is just as real as well.

With his right hand, Arakita reaches for Hayato’s left; he tangles their fingers together, basks in the familiar warmth of Hayato’s skin against his. “I’m sorry I scared you,” Arakita murmurs. Hayato squeezes his hand, presses a kiss to his temple – “It was really scary, seeing you on the floor like that… I’m just glad you woke up.”

Arakita nuzzles closer to his favorite boy, and thinks, I am, too.

 


 

When the doctors make their rounds, Arakita’s head is clear enough for him to machinate a passable excuse – he sends Hayato away to eat when Kagami-sensei and another doctor step in with their clipboards and painted, careful smiles.

“I think I feel my appetite coming back,” he tells Hayato, who scrambles to his feet and promises to bring back something delicious; Arakita watches him go until he passes the doorway and leaves his sight. He turns back to his doctors and keeps himself steady by thinking of Hayato returning to his room with one last crumb somewhere around his face.

The words “It was the exams, I was scared of failing, no matter how hard I studied, and it seemed to make sense then, I don’t know what I was thinking” come as easily as the thought of Hayato idling outside the door, and Arakita repeats them and every conceivable variation thereof until the tiredness shows on his face, and the doctors concede to continuing their talk the next day.

He doesn’t need to fake the smile that lifts his lips when Hayato comes into his room with a tray in his hands and a worried nurse at his heels. She relents in her scolding when Arakita insists that he’d finish everything, even without a bottle of bepsi. When she leaves, Hayato sits himself beside Arakita and holds up a spoonful of soup, and Arakita wrinkles his nose for a moment before striking a deal that would have them taking turns feeding each other.

Hayato agrees, and his expression should have come off as condescending to Arakita – it doesn’t, however, and eventually, when Arakita gets tired of holding up the spoon on his turns, he takes to feeding Hayato the side of cubed vegetables that sat on his tray. Hayato earnestly remarks that he feels very loved at that moment, and Arakita huffs, “Of course you are, hamster cheeks.”

 


  

His doctors inform him later that he’d been in the hospital for going on two days, but even that doesn’t faze Arakita. He fakes an emotion of distress and is reassured that only the pertinent authorities at his school have been informed – he takes the chance to receive a call from the dorm manager and his class advisor, thanking them for their patience and assuring them in turn that he would be returning to the academy shortly.

His mother phones him late into his second proper night on observation, and though he feels completely detached from her and her tears, he does his best to comfort her. “Didn’t the doctor tell you? I’m doing better, mom. It was just the exams. I still want to stay over for the holidays – I have a study group, they’ll make sure I don’t overdo it. Yeah, I’ll take breaks. I know. I know you do. I’m okay, mom. I’m feeling better. I’ll try to call. Yeah, yeah. Bye, mom.”

Kagami-sensei knocks on his door after he hangs up on his sobbing mother, and Arakita doesn’t have to fake the tremors in his right hand when he realizes it’s not Hayato who’s visiting him (Hayato had – gone to talk to the dorm manager, yes, get a change of clothes, some food in him. He’d be back soon). His physician speaks with him at length about his attempt, and Arakita remembers the drone in his voice from when he’d told him he would never pitch again – somehow it stings less this time, and Arakita allows himself to be gently scolded and comforted with just enough fussing to throw off any of his suspicions. He’s slated for release after another twenty-four hours of observation.

Arakita passes the time that he’s awake by twirling Hayato’s hair with his fingers while his favorite boy watched animal documentaries on the laptop he brought back from the dorms. They keep their hands intertwined on top of Arakita’s blanket, and when Arakita sleeps, he makes sure Hayato sleeps, too.

They would return to Hakogaku in the morning.

 


  

When Arakita meets with the dorm manager and his advisor, Hayato sits barely a hand’s span apart from him. He repeats the same lie he’d told his mother and his attending physicians, and they comfort and scold him kindly in turns; his advisor even insists that he would have no problem catching up on the material he’d missed in the past few days, as his teachers had already been made aware that a hospital visit had been in order for him and they would be happy to help him get back to speed, as Yasutomo-kun shouldn’t pressure himself too much.

Their words wash over Arakita, who smiles in the face of their well-meaning intentions and thanks them for their concern. He insists on attending classes the next day, and promises to make sure that Hayato does, too – “He’s helped me a lot, Minami-sensei, Kitahara-san. I’d appreciate it if you let us go at our own pace and return to classes together without too much coddling.” His advisor and dorm manager agree all too readily, and Arakita thanks them for their time before slipping his hand into Hayato’s and tugging him along to his room.

Upon their arrival, Arakita is mildly surprised to see Takeshita standing by his door. The bespectacled boy starts when he calls out his name, and then Arakita’s surprised a second time when he throws his arms around him, saying, “D-Don’t do that again, Arakita-san! I-if you need to talk with anyone, I-I’d be happy to listen… Grades aren’t everything, you know!” He trades confused glances with Hayato before politely pulling Takeshita’s arms off his shoulders, and he manages to give the dithering RA a passable thanks and farewell before opening his door and leading Hayato inside.

There’s a sizeable dent on one of the walls and the overwhelming smell of pine – Arakita doesn’t bother with the first and props open his window for the second; all else that may have changed in his room he ignores in favor of turning up the covers and looking for Hayato’s pillow and blankets.

“It’s probably in my room,” Hayato says, “Come with me to get it, Yasutomo.” Arakita squeezes Hayato’s hand as he nods, “Let’s go visit Usakicchi afterwards.”

Hayato smiles at the suggestion, and squeezes Arakita’s hand back.

 


  

The rest of the week bleeds together into one continuous mobius strip of events, of which Arakita can only confidently identify a handful: he remembers keeping his phone turned off; he remembers feeding Usakicchi with Hayato with the sun just peeking over the horizon; he remembers assuring Fukutomi that he would be fine; he remembers waking up in Hayato’s arms and standing next to him when they brush their teeth at the sink.

He remembers coming to afternoon practice and smoothly deflecting questions about his brief disappearance, shooing the underclassmen away to their scheduled rides for the day; he remembers Hayato watching him take the considerably adjusted medication his physicians had prescribed him; he remembers Toudou standing to his left, strangely silent, before suddenly leaving.

He’s not entirely sure about the sequence of these events, their importance, or even their reality – but Hayato appears in some of them, and Arakita supposes that that’s enough proof. He still feels uneasily adrift when he’s not by Hayato’s side, and it’s only when he settles into Hayato’s arms come nightfall does he feel grounded and conscious. Sleep steals the feeling away not long after he recognizes it, but Arakita doesn’t mind – the last thing he sees before he closes his eyes is Hayato’s face, and it’s not in any way a bad memory to have.

That entire week, they cling to each other, and Arakita knows he’s never felt more at peace.

 


 

(This is what Arakita does not see:

The second years avoiding his gaze, the first years faltering when they approach him. The climbers hovering at his periphery and scattering the moment he happens to glance, unseeing, at them. The sprinters with their fluctuating times and rising inclinations to burning out earlier during practice. Manami with their impersonal but curious gaze. Kuroda, with his forehead on the handlebars throughout his hours on the rollers. Izumida staring at him and Hayato from afar. Ashikiba, uneasy and thrown off momentum. Toudou and Fukutomi in hushed but no less frantic counsel, wondering What happened and Why are they like this and What can we do.

In Chiba, Kinjou takes up the habit of checking his phone as often as he consults his laptop. Still, there are no messages, no returned calls. It has been nearly two weeks since he’d last heard from Arakita.)

 


  

On the Monday of the third week, it rains during afternoon practice, just before Hayato is set to return from his chase with his sprinter group. Arakita leaves his seat at the front of the training room to stand at the back entrance, a towel slung over his arm. Ashikiba and Toudou come to wait with him, but neither of them are able to catch Arakita’s far away gaze – Toudou calls his name twice, and only succeeds in worrying Ashikiba further when Arakita ignores both attempts completely.

More than ten minutes pass before Hayato returns. His sprinter group trails after him, a sodden, exhausted mess; only Hayato looks as if he’d just come from a light ride, upright and smiling as he wheels up to Arakita. He bypasses Toudou and Ashikiba without so much as a glance, but Toudou considers this a blessing – with how Hayato and Arakita were looking at anyone else recently, he knows the callous dismissal is safer for his nerves, at least.

Arakita does not notice the growing anxiety around him – he’s focused on Hayato, on patting his hair dry and asking how his ride had gone. Hayato raises a hand to cup at his cheek and Arakita lets his lips curl into a smile, mirroring the expression on Hayato’s face.

(Toudou sees the look that passes between Arakita and Hayato, and the closest thing he can compare it with is Manami’s smile – the thought alone is unsettling enough, but the reality of it is what pushes him to herd the second years back into the clubroom himself. Fukutomi and Kuroda look up when they enter, wearing identical expressions of subdued concern. Toudou shakes his head and closes the sliding door behind him.)

“Hayato?”

“Sorry, I was late.”

“It’s fine. You’re cold, let’s get something to warm you up with.”

 


  

(This is what Arakita doesn’t hear:

“Shinkai…? Can you spare a minute?”

“Hm… Sure, Jinpachi.”

“How’s… How’s everything going?”

“Fine. Things are alright.”

“… And Arakita?”

“Yasutomo’s fine. You saw him just now, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Shinkai… I don’t know if you’ve noticed but… Things. Don’t seem all too good, recently.”

“It’s been quiet. I don’t think that’s bad.”

“Shinkai. If – if Arakita’s going through anything, any trouble, we—”

“We’re fine, Jinpachi. Thanks for your concern.”)

 


  

“Yasutomo,” Hayato says, “You’re drifting away again.”

Arakita looks up from his Japanese aesthetic essay (to revise: the conclusion of his opinion on wabi-sabi, “What is the value of impermanence in your life?”), blinking at Hayato for a moment before smiling sheepishly, “Sorry, did you say something, Hayato?”

“…I asked if you wanted to go see Usakicchi later.”

“Sure… sure, that’s fine.” Arakita says, before resuming work on his essay

It’s the first time in three weeks that Hayato realizes – Arakita’s smiles don’t reach his eyes.

 


  

(This is what Arakita doesn’t feel:

His right arm.

The crevice between his lungs, the ground under his feet, survivor’s guilt, the existence of anyone other than the person keeping him afloat.

Alive.)

 


 

Arakita wakes, inexplicably, from his dreamless sleep one night. When he looks up at Hayato, he sees that he’s still awake. The room – his? Hayato’s? – is dark, the hour is quiet, and Arakita has no idea what there is for Hayato to look so thoughtful about.

He wracks his memories for ideas – but nothing but fading stills of the club come up. In all of them, somehow, Arakita finds that the club members’ eyes are on him. He thinks it might be because he’d been giving them instructions – but Arakita has no memory of speaking, of drilling underclassmen about their form, or the interhigh team about their progress. He must have just forgotten, though.

“... Yasutomo?”

Arakita lifts his gaze again, offers Hayato an easy, sleepy smile, “Hey. It’s late? Why are we awake.”

“Mm… I just couldn’t sleep, I guess. You?” Hayato pulls the blankets over Arakita’s shoulder, inches closer to him even though Arakita’s already almost completely sprawled over him. He asks, “What are you thinking about?” and Arakita huffs out a laugh against his chest. I was gonna ask you that, haa…

“… Lately… Hasn’t everyone been weird, lately?” Arakita feels Hayato hum his assent, and he shifts slightly to prop his chin up on his arms, to better meet Hayato’s gaze. “Have you noticed it?”

Hayato nods, raising a hand to brush Arakita’s hair away from his face, “I’ve noticed. Is it bothering you?”

Why would it bother me? Arakita thinks. “No… Not really. But, d’you have any idea why they’re staring? Is it because I haven’t worn my sling recently?” Arakita’s arm has never felt better than it has these past three weeks, though his physician might just call it a case of lazy bones. Still, Arakita hasn’t had cause to rate his pain higher than a four, and maybe the underclassmen are wondering if anything had happened to his arm. “It’s fine, though. I’m fine.”

A complicated look crosses Hayato’s face, lingering when Arakita insists on the wellness of his condition. “Hayato?”

“Yasutomo,” Hayato begins, trailing his fingers over Arakita’s cheek; he’s looking thoughtful again, wordsmithing in his head – Arakita waits, idly leaning into Hayato’s touch. Finally, after a while, Hayato continues, “Yasutomo, How are you feeling? … About everything.”

There’s a certain weight to Hayato’s words, and Arakita can’t seem to hold his gaze for very long while he puzzles out his answer – it’s strange, because just then, hadn’t he told Hayato that he was fine? What had changed in the last few minutes, that his answer now escaped his thoughts?

Arakita picks at Hayato’s shirt, frowning slightly at the effort it took to articulate the impressions of thoughts in his head, but eventually he settles for saying, “…For some reason, I can’t seem to let you out of my sight. But everything… I guess everything’s fine.”

The silence that follows is heavy – Arakita swears he can feel its physical weight bearing down on him, and he can’t seem to meet Hayato’s gaze at all. It feels too much like the chains of an anchor catching hold of him, preparing to pull at his ankle and drag him down with the next wave. Arakita bites his tongue against the sensation, and asks, “How about you? How are you feeling, Hayato?”

It’s more than a thoughtless parry – Arakita realizes how much he’s wanted to ask the question only after the words leave his mouth, and afterwards he chances a glance up at Hayato to gauge his expression.

—Hayato isn’t smiling.

Arakita frowns at the sight, moving to touch Hayato’s face and rub away the crease in his forehead, the tight press of his lips, “You’ve got… this weird look on your face, Hayato.”

He’s sure he hasn’t seen this look on Hayato’s face in the past three weeks. It’s been too peaceful and too idyllic for him to have cause for such a face. Arakita may not have been entirely conscious of his surroundings recently, but he’s always been aware of Hayato, and Hayato – should not be making this kind of face.

“You look… like you’re waiting for something.”

Which is strange, because – Hayato has only had eyes for him, just as he’d only had eyes for Hayato; everything else blurs and fades and becomes background static and white noise, but to each other, they remain constant – nothing else has registered in Arakita’s mind except Hayato, and, by his admission, the same was true for his favorite boy.

So – what was this expression for?

Arakita is about to question him further, but Hayato chooses to act then, wrapping his arms around Arakita and shifting so they lay on their sides facing each other, Arakita’s right arm safely resting on Hayato’s left. Like this, there’s no way for Arakita to miss the intent in Hayato’s gaze, and the gravity of his admission – “I’m… waiting for you, Yasutomo. I’m waiting… for all of this to go back to the way it was…”

Hayato cups his cheek, passes his thumb under Arakita’s eye in slow, tender arcs, and says, “I’m waiting for you to stop looking at me with such sad eyes.”

“What… what do you mean?”

Sad eyes? Sadness? He hasn’t felt any of that at all these past three weeks, he hasn’t felt anything remotely close to sadness, to unhappiness, to the crippling hopelessness that had torn the plastic backing off of twenty-odd anti-depressant pills for him.

(Arakita stops before his train of thought leads him to realize that he has not felt much of anything at all in the past three weeks.)

“Go back – you want to… go back to how, how we were, when I…” He can’t finish the thought, keeps coming up short against the black walls that slam down around his mind; the break in his chest, the one he’d stopped thinking about immediately after they’d left the hospital, comes alive and Arakita speaks as if he’s reading off the words that bleed out from it, “… Are you saying you’re tired of this? Of us – of… of staying like this, afloat and…”

Hayato’s finally realized it. He wants out. He doesn’t want this anymore, and he’s so, so right to want to stop this but oh god I’m going to drown without him

“No,” Hayato says, soft but firm, the hand he’d laid on Arakita’s cheek keeping him from bolting out of the bed with gentle, deliberate caresses, “That’s not what I meant… I’d never be tired of you, Yasutomo, and I’d never be tired of helping you and taking care of you like you do me…”

Arakita takes a gulping breath, but even as he dodges the grips of shrieking hysteria hounding his mind, he recognizes the hook at the end of Hayato’s words, “…But what? What are you…”

Hayato sighs, touches his forehead to Arakita’s – he’s warm, he’s warm and real, and Arakita tries very hard not to be afraid of what Hayato will say next, tries to keep the crevice in his chest from spilling out any more black bile into his thoughts and words.

“Right now… You’re so far away from me, Yasutomo. From everything. And I don’t… I don’t know how to pull you back in. I don’t know… how to get you back to being Yasutomo. It’s all I can do to hold you, and stay by your side…”

Arakita meets Hayato’s gaze then, feeling panic biting at the edge of his consciousness, and, now growing insistent, the pull of the chain around his ankle, the quaking sigh of the crevice in his chest; Hayato closes his eyes and leans up to press his lips to his forehead, and says, “What can I do to get you to float on your own again, Yasutomo? Because this – just clinging, it’s… It’s not you. You’re much, much stronger than this, and I don’t know how to make you see that.”

A shuddering breath escapes Arakita’s lips; his pulse engulfs the rush of waves in his mind, his stomach lurches, and when he speaks it’s as if he’s catching his last breath before he’s pulled completely under — “I’ll drown… I’ll drown again, if I let go. And you – you’ll cry again, I don’t… I don’t want that…”

I don’t want to drown, I don’t want to let you go – but if I don’t, we go together.

If forced to float by himself, Arakita is certain that he would drown, sink like a rock to the ocean floor, pass unnoticed, unsalvageable, never once be considered for or become aware of the thought of rescue – he knows these sequence of events intimately, though even in dreaming they elude him, still he knows, and he knows as well that after he goes, it would just be another weight on Hayato’s shoulders, another measure of a burden on his already suffering soul – but if how he’s been living isn’t quantifiable as living at all, then what good is continuing it?

You don’t deserve this, Hayato, but please, please don’t leave me.

Like before, Hayato’s voice cuts in through the waves that threaten to silence Arakita’s mind, speaking a truth that he’d confused with the promise of twenty-odd pills and forgotten in the same number of days, “We can’t go on like this, Yasutomo. And you know it, too.”

Arakita is pulled close, and he blinks his damp eyes in surprise when Hayato tucks his head under his chin, “It’s not as if I’d leave you, Yasutomo, there are… there are still ways for us to be together, without us suffocating each other… I’ll still be here to help you…”

But I don’t want you here just to help me.

“Hayato…” Arakita ignores the twinge of pain in his right arm as he reaches it around Hayato’s back, it’s a small thing compared to the way Hayato is still so tense and unyielding under his hand, “I’m not – I’m not staying with you just because I’m fucked up right now… That’s… That’s not the reason I want you to stay…”

How could he say it, though? How could he put into words how Hayato grounds and comforts him in equal measure, and what collection of sentiments could let Hayato know how essential he is to every breath Arakita is thinking of taking – ‘I love you’ is nowhere near enough, and Arakita knows Hayato matters to him more than the thought allowed.

“You… You mean so much to me, Hayato,” Arakita says, fighting through the tears and the stitch between his lungs – if only for now, he’d plug it shut with the echo of Hayato’s words (We can’t go on like this) and dare to speak his own, “You’re a strong, good person, and I don’t… I don’t want you to be afraid of anything anymore…”

Arakita feels Hayato’s arms tighten around him, and when Hayato murmurs, “You’re strong, too, Yasutomo…”, he screws his eyes shut and lets the tears, and whatever else they thought fit to carry with them, flow and empty him out.

 


 

The fourth week comes, and Arakita wakes up feeling like a hollowed-out husk, empty from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, bearing no significant weight, and entirely too liable to just evaporate into nothing. He disconnects from the world, even from Hayato who wakes up with him and touches his lips to his temple in lieu of a greeting.

He knows the gesture isn’t meaningless, and Arakita takes painstaking care to burn it into his memory, but the spike of affection and longing and muted peace fades out seconds later, and he’s left with the dull haze of Hayato’s words in his mind.

When Arakita takes his pills, it gets easier to ignore the world around him – but in exchange it sharpens his thoughts and makes them resonate, repeat, and rearrange themselves, and Arakita is left to think about his perfect uselessness and the fact that the only reason he couldn’t find it in himself to agree with Hayato the previous night was because he couldn’t imagine himself being anything other than ‘weak’ with how he is right now.

It’s the most he can do, Arakita thinks, and the thought of functioning at this bare, hopeless mindset scares him so badly that he can’t latch onto anything for the rest of the day – everything pales in comparison to reliving the first year of his supposed recovery, and the rest of him fumbles to keep up with the onslaught of memories and the pressure of staying upright for another eight or so hours.

He comes to the club room without Hayato for the first time in nearly a month, and he sees the shock in the underclassmen’s expressions, sees how they shy away from him and keep to themselves; he feels a stone drop into his stomach at the realization that they hadn’t started this avoidance today, and the odd stills that comprised his memories of the club for the past four weeks finally make sense.

 


  

Arakita starts skipping pills again, after he locks Hayato out of his room. He offers no explanation and tries not to think of the expression on Hayato’s face when he tells him that he’d wait for him, still. Arakita pounds his fists on the other side of the door and doesn’t let himself out until the memory of breaking the large mirrors spanning the wall of the boys’ bathroom leaves his mind.

He ignores Hayato walking beside him and tells himself that this is the reason why he’s fitted his sling on for the day – the fact that he can’t feel his right arm save for a few sporadic aches that soon melt into static is an afterthought (and he loses his breakfast in the boys’ toilet after first period when he remembers that he hadn’t been able to feel the idiot limb for the past three weeks – he hadn’t noticed because he hadn’t been holding anything for extended periods aside from Hayato’s hand).

The day passes muted and muffled, and Arakita is internally screaming at how it feels like his first year in Hakone – the underclassmen’s faces blur and their avoidance is another passing of the thread over the stitch in his chest. It gets progressively harder to breathe, and his concentration slips enough that the next time he reconnects with reality, Toudou is there at his left, asking him if he’s alright – over his shoulder, Arakita sees Kuroda and Ashikiba, and the latter still looks one loud outburst away from bursting into tears.

“I’m fine,” Arakita tells them, even as his grip on his clipboard starts to shake, “I’m fine, get back to practice.”

Arakita avoids meeting anyone’s gaze for the entire afternoon and keeps his door locked at night, covering his head with his pillow when Hayato comes by, persistent but gentle when he asks Arakita if he’s eaten dinner, and if he felt like hanging out before they turned in. He doesn’t answer, not even when he hears Hayato’s voice break when he calls his name – he holds out for another moment more before he gets to his feet and cracks open the door.

Hayato looks pale and he almost doesn’t stop his hand from reaching for Arakita when he sees him – but he does, and Arakita doesn’t know how he feels both relieved and hurt by the action; He drops his gaze before the look on Hayato’s face registers, and he tells him, “I was sleeping. I’m fine. Go to bed, Hayato.”

“Yasutomo…”

“Just go, Hayato.”

I don’t want to see you. I don’t want you to see me like this. I promised I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you ever again, and right now the worst thing that can happen to you is me.

Hayato doesn’t move from where he stands at Arakita’s door. Arakita can’t bear the silence stretching between them, so he closes the door and locks it, and he returns to his bed and covers his head with the pillow, and he begs off apologies to his favorite boy in his head until he falls asleep.

 


 

Hayato did not spend the night at his doorstep. Arakita hadn’t expected him to, and he’s content with sighting Hayato’s head bowed over a breakfast tray at the cafeteria – at the very least, he hadn’t pushed Hayato to miss any meals or stop coming to class. That was the smallest of mercies, and Arakita spares him even more grief by avoiding his morning period altogether and crashing at the shed instead, with Usakicchi and Fukutomi’s Turtle for company.

Still, whether he liked it or not, Arakita is now well and truly alone, an audience of one witnessing the gradual dips and peaks of his thoughts.

I’m fucked up, he thinks, and instead of the apathy and resignation that usually colored the sentiment, he’s surprised to find an echo of anger – he repeats it, in his mind and then eventually out loud, and at every repetition the feeling gets stronger. He remembers how he couldn’t meet Hayato’s gaze, the way the underclassmen avoided him, the numerous times Toudou and Fukutomi have approached him, together or on their own, and the way he brushed them off each and every time – I’m fucked up, I’m fucking garbage. Fuck.

He just doesn’t understand, though – he can’t understand, can’t make sense of what Hayato wants from him. It’s bullshit, all those things about needing to float by himself – but it had been Hayato who’d told him that they couldn’t go on as they were, Hayato, who loved him and continues to love him, he wouldn’t want to tear Arakita down further than where Arakita had already landed himself; if Arakita could trust anyone to care about him, it would be Hayato, and Hayato only wanted – he only wanted him to stop being sad.

Arakita clutches at his chest, at the invisible but no less real fissure between his ribcage, the crack that was the gate for all the hopelessness, all the sadness he’d been vomiting up like black, acidic bile – every breath he takes is polluted by the mess it pours forth and Arakita hates it, hates how even his thoughts are consumed and regurgitated by this break in his chest.

Hayato was right. It’s stupid to go on like this.

Through the dark fog obscuring his thoughts and sending him running back to where he’d come from, Arakita feels the edge of a decision, the sharp line of a gamble that would either bleed him dry or cut him deep enough to draw out the poison he’s taken into himself.

What else can he do, besides drown? He doesn’t want to go back to the hospital, doesn’t want to submit himself to four white walls ‘for his own good’, but he doesn’t want to go back to pretending everything’s okay either, passing through his days in an unfeeling blur, buoyed by his only link to the world and weathering the rope tying them together.

God, but what else can he do.

Arakita hates how his indecision grates him, hates how unsure he’s become of where he’s headed, what he’ll do next now that the worst possible outcome has left him with his life. He feels hot tears stinging his eyes but he wills them not to fall – he’s cried enough for the past month, out of fear and confusion and plain frustration; he feels so tired of it all—

But what other option did he have, what other choice could he make without spitting on the last two years’ worth of decisions he’s made to get to this point?

Hayato had said that he was waiting for him. He said he’d been waiting for him to come back. He wasn’t going to leave him, but he wanted Arakita to go back – back to how he was, back to being Yasutomo instead of a clinging, barely conscious mess.

“Are you never going to get better, Arakita-san?” Manami had asked him that, weeks and weeks ago. And he’d said – he’d said no, probably not, not with the way he is.

“…but it doesn’t mean I can’t move forward as I am.”

And isn’t that what he’s been doing all this time? Falling, picking himself up, carrying on for the sake of carrying on, no matter if the crack in his chest or the memory of his past makes him question whether he deserves to or not. At this point, did he really want to make a hypocrite of himself?

Fuck. I need to get punched in the face. There’s a limit to the shit you can put up with, Yasutomo, and this is it.

With a heavy sigh, Arakita sits up – he takes account of himself, rates his pain at a high six (and holding steady), and takes a deep, steadying breath.

Get up, Arakita Yasutomo. You’re not done with the world just yet.

 


  

When Arakita marches to the clubroom, the expression on his face makes the gathered first years scatter – the fierce scowl on their manager’s face and the set of his shoulders, tense and recoiled as if to attack, returns to them their instinctive reaction of flight instead of fight, but at least one of them is coherent enough to call for Hayato, the only person who could possibly think to tame the beast pacing right outside of the clubroom.

Arakita makes plans to apologize to the underclassmen, too, after dismissing their frankly embarrassing response to seeing him properly after only a month. But right now – he fixes Hayato with a serious look as he steps out of the clubroom, and before Hayato could even greet him or ask how he’d been, he says, “Punch me.”

Hayato balks at the order, but Arakita talks over his fumbling dissent, “If you love me, you’ll fucking punch me in the face, Hayato!”

(The words no longer feel like lead on his tongue. Arakita is so glad for it, but before he could repeat it as many times as he feels it in a day, he needed to get his face hit.)

“Yasutomo… I…”

“Just do it!” Arakita reins himself in, steps closer to his only favorite boy and grasps his shoulders with both hands, and he begs, without the helplessness that had previously underlined his every word, he says, “I need this, and you’re the only one I want to ask. Please, Hayato.”

Hayato stares at him with frightened eyes for only another moment longer – there’s a pained sound that precedes the sharp crack of knuckles against the left side of Arakita’s face, and then Arakita finds himself stumbling back and falling on his ass on the dirt, but as the pain erupts from his cheekbone, Arakita feels himself smiling.

Fuck! That hurt, fucking God, Hayato, you didn’t hold back at all…”

Arakita’s head feels clearer now. He cups his cheek gingerly, but he feels so good, he can’t keep himself from laughing, which just makes the pain worse–

“Shinkai-senpai, what are you doing?!”

Shit. We did this in front of the club, didn’t we.

 

year4-5

 

In a flash, Ashikiba and Izumida are helping him up, and Kuroda is standing between him and a bewildered-looking Hayato, loudly calling for a first year to go get their captain and Toudou. Arakita leans on Ashikiba as he gets up, and tries not to snicker at the worried look on Izumida’s face as he says, “Arakita-san, that’s going to bruise…”

“Mother,” Kuroda says, keeping himself facing Hayato like a defense squadron, “Are you alright?”

Arakita doesn’t stop the laugh that bubbles up his throat this time, and thankfully Ashikiba doesn’t start too badly at the sound – the climber keeps him upright, and Arakita reaches out to Kuroda’s shoulder with his right hand, “Cool it, Kuroda, I’m alright. I asked him to do it.”

“Yasutomo…” Hayato still looks stricken, even as Arakita walks up to him, his eyes pinned on what is sure to be an ugly bruise come the next morning. Arakita comes to stand barely a hand’s span away from him, reaching up with his right hand to pat Hayato’s cheek.

“Thanks. I really needed someone to knock my screws back into place – I knew I could count on you, Hayato,” Arakita stops short, but the words he finds himself wanting to say don’t seem to be coming from the stitch in his chest, so he goes on, smiling fondly at the person he fully considered to be his other half, “Sorry. For being a real fucking idiot, making you wait so long. I’m back, now.”

Hayato covers his hand with his own, turns a little to press a kiss to his palm, just like he’d done at the hospital – but now, when he looks at Arakita, his eyes are no longer haunted and grieving, and when he smiles, Arakita feels the final pull of thread sealing the crevice in his chest shut. “I’m glad, Yasutomo. I missed you… Welcome back.”

When Hayato lifts Arakita into a hug, it does not feel desperate, and Arakita does not feel as if he’s clinging to a lifeline – the action feels exactly as its meant to feel, a solid display of how much he loves this person standing in his arms. Arakita says as much against the shell of Hayato’s ear, and Hayato murmurs it back to him with the same wealth of emotion in his words.

“Kuroda, what’s going on, what happ—oh!”

Somehow, Arakita muses, Toudou had the uncanny ability to break up moments of high emotion. Arakita favors Toudou with an amused gaze as he lets Hayato lift him off his feet and hug him like a ragdoll, merely raising an eyebrow at the climber’s dumbstruck expression as if to ask, What do you think is happening?

Fukutomi catches Arakita’s gaze next, and Arakita gives him a lazy salute – Fukutomi answers with a nod, and, if Arakita’s sight hasn’t yet failed him, the barest hint of a smile.

“Arakita,” he says, “You’ll be needing an ice pack for that.”

Arakita laughs out loud then, and only yells once when Hayato offers to carry him all the way to the infirmary.

 


  

[hey kin-chan! sorry about the radio silence, been busy with the club]

[[It’s alright, Yasutomo. Have things settled down?]]

[yep, working on the interhigh group soon though – you better watch out and not slack off, kin-chan! we’re gonna make you eat our dust in the summer!]

[[I look forward to seeing you at the finish line, Yasutomo.]]

 


  

The day following the odd scene at the courtyard, Arakita bursts into the clubroom like his usual tornado of a presence, barking orders and calling for underclassmen and specialist groups. Somehow, though terrified, the underclassmen are happy enough to follow his commands, and the specialist groups he sends off with none-too-idle threats about their conditions answer him with a hearty chorus of “Understood, mother!”

It’s good to be back, Arakita thinks, scribbling notes on his clipboard and biting down on a power bar he’d confiscated from Hayato before sending him off on a chase with his sprinters (he had to pay for it with a kiss to his cheek, but Arakita would happily pepper his favorite hamster cheek’s face with kisses if it mean that he would stick to his diet and not send himself into a power bar-coma).

He watches the last sprinter round the bend of trees heading out of the school and walks back into the clubroom, almost bumping into Toudou who, for some reason, had apparently been standing frozen in place in front of the back entrance. Arakita is about to chew him out for adopting Manami’s space cadet tendencies, but the thought sparks something in Arakita’s memory, and instead he asks, “Haa, Toudou! Where’s your wonder climber?”

Toudou starts, and then adopts an expression of longsuffering resignation. “Arakita,” he begins dramatically, “Something must be done about Manami! They aren’t performing badly, they’re completing the barest minimum for training so I can’t complain about that, but—! They’ve been wandering off on their own afterwards, and I can’t get them to stay on team rides at all! It’s frustrating keeping them in line, to say the least, and if this continues, it’ll completely affect my condition and the rest of the interhigh team’s…”

Arakita fumbles in his pocket for a handkerchief to punt at Toudou’s face – he comes up with another power bar instead, so he shoves that into Toudou’s hands. “I’ll see what’s up with them. I’ve been slacking off, anyway – go ride with Ashikiba, see if you can do something about the kid’s rhythm… ah, and the bike – Ashikiba might have gotten taller? I’m not sure, but look into it, I don’t want the kid getting a bad back.”

Toudou stares at Arakita for a moment before nodding, and Arakita catches himself almost smiling at the sight of the tension leaving Toudou’s shoulders when he says, “Thank you, Arakita.”

In response, Arakita waves a hand dismissively and says, “But seriously, I mean it this time – don’t try to practice chiropractic techniques with your bat on the kid, okay?”

“For the last time, Arakita! I did not keep the bat!”

“Hey, Morikawa, have you seen Manami?”

“Arakita!!”

 


  

“Sorry mother,” Morikawa says, wheeling up to Arakita twenty minutes after he’d sent him out, “We couldn’t find Manami – they aren’t anywhere in the school building, and Miyahara-san said she hadn’t seen them since classes let out, she’s been looking for them, too – for a study group, I think? Anyway, their bike’s still parked, so we’re sure they haven’t gone to the mountains.”

“Heh, figures…” Arakita sighs and claps a hand on the second year’s shoulder, “That’s enough, then. Morikawa, go ride with Kuroda through the course for a bit. You’re on recovery today, yeah? Keep it easy and come back to me with your time later.”

“Understood, mother.”

…Fucking climbers.

Arakita runs through the list of Manami’s favored haunts and ticks off a large chunk – without their bike, there would only be two places for Manami to dawdle at, and if they weren’t at the school building, that only left one place.

The thought of going back to the locker room, on such a conspicuously peaceful day, sends a spike of panic through Arakita’s gut. He waits for it to grow tendrils and grip his limbs in fear – but it doesn’t. It doesn’t go away, but Arakita is able to at least make his way to the locker room without faltering. He grips his phone in his pocket and with measured steps, walks up to the closed door of the locker room.

When he opens it, he finds Manami sitting on a bench in front of Hayato’s locker, kicking their feet to what Arakita recognizes as the umaibo jingle they’d been humming at the hospital, the last time they’d sat there together. “Manami, fuck, have you been here this whole time!”

Manami looks up at Arakita then, tilting their head and gesturing at the lockers – “Great timing, Arakita-san. Do you know if Shinkai-san has any of those special umaibo flavors in his secret stash?”

Arakita lifts an eyebrow at the wonder climber, and he’s about to tell them off about messing around with other people’s stuff – but he finds himself still standing outside of the locker room, an uncertain feeling in his stomach preventing him from going any further.

“…Arakita-san?” Manami blinks at his unmoving form, and the placid smile that they’d been keeping up slips off again, as with any time they spoke with Arakita alone.

Fuck, Arakita thinks, I can’t talk to them like this. He takes a breath, disguising it as a sigh, and steps forward, “Even if you wanted some, you picked the wrong person to ask about sneaking snacks. What did I tell you about your diet, anyway!”

Manami gets to their feet, stretching idly as they laugh, “Hah, I don’t remember…!” They move to step around Arakita then, offhandedly musing about how good the weather is for a ride, and Arakita stops them short, “Not so fast, Manami.”

Again, Manami blinks in frank curiosity at Arakita, and Arakita answers by sitting himself on a bench and saying, “Sit down for a bit. You and I gotta talk.”

“Is something the matter Arakita-san?” Manami asks, sitting down on the opposite end of the bench. Any semblance of pleasantry has completely left their face, and Arakita is reminded of the times they waited on each other at the hospital, white paper bags with blue text clutched in their hands.

“Manami,” Arakita begins, “How d’you think you’ve been doing lately?”

Manami doesn’t look him in the eye when they talk, but they answer amiably, “Pretty okay. It’s still fun climbing up the mountains.” They lean back on their hands on the bench and start to kick their feet, continuing, “Toudou-san keeps trying to get me to ride with the group.”

The airiness of Manami’s words belie their feelings about the sentiment, and Arakita is glad that at the very least his radar for Manami’s expressions has righted itself enough for him to pick up on the slight peevishness coloring their words. “What, you got a problem with that? You are gonna be riding with a team at the interhigh, y’know. Toudou’s trying to prepare you for that.”

Manami nods, but it’s more of an acknowledgement than an agreement; with not uncharacteristic bluntness, they say, “Not always, though. And not at all, if I want to reach the peak. Riding in groups only happens at the start, after all.”

They’re not wrong, Arakita knows. He’s seen enough race videos to know how teams eventually fall apart in races spanning lengthy stages – it’s unrealistic to expect a team to stay together for the entirety of a race.

Still. “How do you think you’re gonna make it to the peak, though, riding by yourself? The interhigh’s a team event, remember.”

Manami turns to face Arakita, but their eyes look past him completely – he’s long since expected this kind of avoidance from Manami, and Arakita knows it only means that Manami feels as if the answer they’re being asked for is obvious enough.

“I remember. But all I have to do is not get left behind or crash into anyone, right?” Manami cocks their head at their next thought, “When it comes down to it, that’s all I have to do.”

Yeah, that’s the least you can expect from a rider. But you’re not just a rider, Manami – you’re an ace. A king.

Arakita frowns at Manami’s logic – simple and to the point, understandable but destructive in its callousness. That kind of thinking would ruin Manami in the long run, let alone the team they’re part of at the present.

“Manami—”

“I don’t like not being able to ride freely, Arakita-san. There’s no point to cycling for me, if I can’t do that.”

Selfish. Arakita thinks the word but without any malice – he recognizes feeling something similar when he stood at the mound, but this, this kind of selfishness was different from a pitcher’s claim over the mound. This selfishness had all to do with freedom – and ultimately, being alone. Arakita stares at the absence of an expression on Manami’s face, and speaks the words they had left unsaid, “…And you only ride for yourself.”

Manami flashes a smile at Arakita then, cautious and sharp, perfectly innocuous when they ask, “Why are you trying to guilt-trip me, Arakita-san?” Arakita snorts and looks away, “You’re the one feeling it. What do you have to feel guilty over, huh?”

He’s struck a nerve, Arakita knows. Manami physically flinches away, though they disguise it well enough as a move to stand up. “…Is that all, Arakita-san? Can I go now?”

Arakita huffs at the obvious avoidance, “Go where? I sure hope you mean the library; Miyahara’s probably waiting for you with your class work. You’ve got some catching up to do.”

The shrug that Manami answers him with is too flippant for his liking, Arakita notes, and he doesn’t make a show of hiding his disapproval when Manami says, “I was thinking of going for a ride. She’ll understand – it’s only a couple of math worksheets, anyway.”

And you’re barely scraping a decent grade at Math, Arakita thinks sourly – he’d been approached by Manami’s teacher, incidentally the same one he’d had in his first year, and there’d been talk of doing some tutoring for the members of the cycling club with less than desirable grades. Manami’s name had been on the list.

“Don’t you think it’s unfair that she’s doing everything for you, Manami?” Arakita asks, unable to keep the edge out of his voice. The idea of such one-sided dependence spiked something worse than panic in his gut, and Manami notices – they turn to face Arakita, but as with before, their gazes don’t meet.

“‘Unfair’?” Manami echoes, “How? She likes doing it.”

For a moment, Arakita hears Hayato’s voice in his head,“I’d never be tired of you, Yasutomo, and I’d never be tired of helping you and taking care of you like you do me…” He carefully stamps down on the memory, which is in turns bitter and sweet, and says, “She likes taking care of you, sure. But don’t you ever think of how little time or effort she has left for herself, after she runs herself ragged for you?”

It’s different, Arakita knows – their situations are different, but Arakita thinks even the simplest of friendships called for some form of mutual love, and what Manami is telling him doesn’t sound even a little like the sentiment at all. “You care about her, don’t you?”

Manami smiles placidly and says, “She’s my childhood friend,” and there’s something in the way they speak that has Arakita pressing on, a spot of malleability, something that would yield to his words if he shaped them well enough.

“Is she important to you? Are you important to her? If you honestly think she’ll stick around cleaning up after you forever… You’re mistaken.”

The careless smile drops off from Manami’s face entirely then, and they stand in silence as they stare at Arakita – for the first time that afternoon, their gazes meet and hold, and Arakita takes the chance without hesitating.

“People have limits, Manami. Just be careful you don’t push Miyahara over hers.”

This time, when the climber turns to leave, Arakita doesn’t stop them. The expression on Manami’s face right before they looked away from Arakita was enough of a cue – a sudden coldness had fallen over their face, and Arakita relents; he hadn’t set out to crush a kid’s world view that day.

“I’ll go ahead now, Arakita-san, have a good afternoon—”

“Manami, is Yasutomo in there?”

At the sound of Hayato’s voice, Arakita glances up at the door, finding his favorite boy staring after Manami as they walked away. He walks up to Hayato, grabbing a towel from the rack as he goes, and throws it over the sprinter’s bent head; he rubs idly at his hair as he greets him, “Hey, Hayato. How was your ride?”

 

year4-6

 

Hayato smiles as he talks about Izumida’s improvement, and how much he’d enjoyed their chase. As he speaks, his hand comes up to Arakita’s right elbow, rubbing at it without thought, and Arakita finds himself amused at the gesture – it’s something new and, if pressed, Arakita would say it was fucking cute (but only to Hayato, in a private corner, possibly under their blankets).

The tension Arakita hadn’t known he’d been feeling, wholly caused by the oddly personal conversation he’d just had with the club’s wonder climber, melts away as he listens to Hayato, and Arakita finds himself thinking, in an offhand and casual way, I love this big lug.

“By the way, Yasutomo, what were you talking about with Sangaku?”

Arakita blinks.

“… Oh, shit, I forgot to talk to them about their training.”

Hayato tilts his head curiously, and reaches up to pat Arakita’s cheek. “Oops, Yasutomo?”

“Oops is fucking right,” Arakita shoots a quick glance at the hallway, cursing to himself when he sees Toudou walking up to them, Kuroda and Ashikiba in tow. “Arakita! Shinkai!”

“Hayato, hurry, hide me from Toudou before he brings out his bat—”

 “—Arakita, what did I say!!”

“I’ll protect you, Yasutomo!”

 


 

After their slightly disastrous talk, Manami manages to avoid Arakita throughout the week’s practice – Arakita isn’t at all surprised, and it turns out that Toudou doesn’t blame him in the slightest (he does, however, wail on him for the continued mentions of the bat that he definitely did not keep).

“We’ll just have to rely on our final recourse, Arakita!”

“And that would be?”

“The intercessions of the Mountain Gods, obviously! They wouldn’t let one of their children fall from grace just like that!”

Arakita sends a message to Kinjou as Toudou continues extolling the virtues of the mountain gods, and it reads: [tell makishima her boyfriend is a delusional yankee in denial and that i am 60% sorry for her]

An unknown number replies: [[I knew that already but thanks. PS. Jinpachi is not my boyfriend]]

Arakita shifts tactics and tasks a first year, Shigemori, to pay special attention to Manami from then on. “I’ll do my best, mother.”

…Fucking cyclists.

 


  

It’s easy and comforting to fall back into the routine of managing the club, and Arakita finds his mood improving gradually, with only a handful of dips – these he manages by taking breaks at Usakicchi’s (she and Turtle have apparently gotten along well enough, to the point that they’re sharing leaves of lettuce) and, more often than not, spending time with Hayato.

The specifics of the time he spends with his other half barely register in Arakita’s mind, and it never occurs to him that he had previously thrown yelling fits for most of the things he now allows Hayato to do with nothing more than a huff or a slight adjustment of positions.

So, when Hayato drapes himself over his back as he speaks with Toudou’s primary climber group about the one-gear climb he’s planning for them, Arakita doesn’t even pause from answering the question he’d just been thrown. He lets Hayato wrap his arms around his waist and put his face against the back of his neck, and says, “Alright, any more questions?”

The gathered underclassmen shake their heads and disperse, and Arakita pats his favorite boy’s hands, “What’s up, hamster cheeks?”

“Hm, I had a message to deliver. I think,” Hayato nuzzles against his neck, and continues, “I’m trying to remember, Yasutomo, hush.”

Arakita snorts, “I can practically hear your hamster wheel turning. Go on, take your time.”

“Mm. You smell good, Yasutomo. Did I leave my shampoo with you?”

“Ah, yeah.”

Off to the side, there’s the sound of cracking plastic – when Arakita glances up, he finds Kuroda scrambling off the rollers, his front wheel and gears dripping with water. Beside the rollers he’d recently vacated, Fukutomi continues to pedal, a hint of concern in his otherwise stoic expression.

“Hayato, hey, let up a minute, I gotta talk to Fuku-chan and Kuroda.” Hayato relents, but only after dropping a kiss onto Arakita’s nape (and stealing the power bar Arakita had in his jacket pocket – but that’s only the fourth for the day, well within his diet), and Arakita makes his way to his captain and his ace assist-in training.

“Isn’t it enough that you keep forgetting your bottles, now you have to break them too? What the fuck, Kuroda!”

Upon his arrival, Arakita receives a glare from the climber, before he returns to propping his bike up on its kickstands, “I was just distracted – I need to re-grease my chainrings, excuse me.”  As Kuroda walks away, shoulders stiff and expression possibly menacing, judging by the way the first years avoid his gaze, Arakita very graciously does not think Fucking assists, and instead turns to his captain.

“Fuku-chan! You’re stressing him out! Don’t overwork the kid!”

Fukutomi raises an eyebrow at this allegation and says, “I’ve been working him as hard as normal, as we’d agreed during our last meeting.” Seeing that Arakita would not be appeased by his flimsy excuse, Fukutomi continues, “I believe he was genuinely distracted by something, Arakita, I’ll speak to him about his concerns when he comes back.”

Arakita nods and walks back to where Hayato still sat, crumpling a power bar wrapper and tossing it into the nearby bin. He sits back in the circle of Hayato’s arms and takes up his clipboard, checking times and ticking off names, glancing up only when Kuroda comes back from the locker room, toolkit in hand; Arakita looks at Fukutomi then, and, true to his word, Fukutomi moves to set his bike aside to sit with Kuroda. Satisfied, Arakita rests the back of his head against Hayato’s shoulder and takes a bite out of the power bar he offered.

“Did you remember your message, Hayato?”

“Hm? Ah, I did.”

“Well, spit it out!”

“Heh… I love you, Yasutomo!”

“… Seriously. Tch, I love you too, hamster cheeks.”

Offside, Kuroda drops the bottle of degreaser he’d been holding – Arakita starts, and then shoots a look at Fukutomi, who’s already picking up the bottle and handing it back to the second year.

“Alright, Kuroda?” Arakita calls out.

“I’m fine, mother!”

 


  

On the days when the underclassmen’s light cycling exercises and the interhigh group’s race simulations overlap, Arakita takes the chance to go to the locker rooms unaccompanied.

He knows it’s passing pathetic to be afraid of an integral part of the building wherein he spends most of his time, so after a few talks with Hayato, he’d decided to re-acclimate himself with the space and train himself to stop machinating scenarios to visit the locker room with at least one interhigh team member with him.

That Wednesday is one such day, and as the afternoon dragged on in leisurely routine, Arakita picks himself up and makes his way to the locker room. It takes only a handful of steps to bring him there, coming from his usual seat at the front of the clubroom. Because there’s hardly anyone on the rollers or at the gym, the short walk to the locker room is quiet, and Arakita fights to keep the bubbling panic in his gut down.

Still, he swallows hard when he hears a rustling sound coming from the other side of the door.

It’s probably. Probably a rat? No, we had the place bombed recently. Wind? Yeah, the window might have been left open. The high window, that even Hayato has to stretch up a little to reach. Fuck.

Fuck, this isn’t doing shit, just go inside already, Yasutomo!

With a breath to steel his nerves, Arakita bursts through the locker room door—

“—A-Arakita-senpai!”

Only to find Ashikiba sitting on a bench, paper and pen in hand. On the floor, he sees crumpled balls of paper, and when Arakita squints, he sees that they’re club membership renewal forms. All panic deserts him at the inexplicable sight, and when Arakita looks back up at Ashikiba, he finds the second year fidgeting and crumpling yet another wad of paper, afterwards scurrying to pick up the others and dumping them in the trash.

“What are you even doing here, Ashikiba…”

Arakita bends down to pick up one of the crumpled forms, finding it filled up completely with the necessary information. His eyes drift to the address line, but it’s the same as the first one he’d seen, way back when he’d been reviewing the underclassmen’s information – Ashikiba’s contacts and class information are the same, too. He looks over the rest of the lines, pausing once at the line asking for the member’s birth information, before crumpling the form and tossing it into the trash himself.

When he looks back at Ashikiba, the climber avoids his gaze, stuttering out an apology, “S-Sorry about, mm, the mess, Arakita-senpai, I was just… Please ignore it, it was just…” Ashikiba trails off uncertainly, and Arakita sighs.

“Kuroda should be coming back from his ride out with Toudou, soon. You should have gone with them! Get your momentum up, and quit wasting paper.”

“Mm—I, I just… I’m sorry, Arakita-senpai…”

Footsteps resound from the hallway outside, and when Arakita and Ashikiba look, they find Kuroda panting by the doorway, glancing nervously between them.

“Arakita-senpai,” Kuroda greets, straightening up and turning to Ashikiba next, “Ashikiba, hey, where were you...”

Arakita rounds on the newly returned climber, ruffling his hair and saying, “Your water bottle! I bet you forgot it again! And why didn’t you drag Ashikiba for the climb with you? She’s been in the locker room all afternoon!”

“I didn’t forget, how many times do I have to say so!” Kuroda snaps, swatting Arakita’s hand away, “I was just about to find her—” he stops short then, just as Ashikiba claps her hands over her mouth, eyes widening in shock. “Arakita-senpai, what did you…?”

Puzzled, Arakita raises an eyebrow at the second year; he glances back at Ashikiba, whose eyes have gone suspiciously misty, and then looks back again at Kuroda. “What? Look, if you really didn’t forget your water, you wouldn’t be out of breath right now. God, even Ashikiba’s better than you at remembering to stay hydrated, why don’t you try following her example, eh?”

Behind them, inexplicably, Ashikiba starts sniffling.

Ah, shoot, Arakita thinks. Was it supposed to be a secret…? She was putting it on the renewal forms, though…

“…Guh, Ashikiba, look—” Arakita isn’t able to finish his sentence, however, as in the next minute he finds himself almost toppling over as Ashikiba throws her arms around him in a hug. Kuroda yelps and tries to steady them, but Ashikiba is too tall, and it’s all Arakita can do to wrap his arms around her as well, clinging just hard enough to avoid falling. “Ashikiba! What the hell!”

“Thank you!” Ashikiba sobs, “Thank you… for acknowledging me, Arakita-senpai, thank you, thank you…!” She repeats her thanks in between sobs, and Arakita resigns himself to waiting out her crying jag; he rubs her back as soothingly as he knows how, and motions for Kuroda to find a clean towel, or at least some tissues.

“Yeah, yeah, jeez… It’s hard not to, y’know. You’re like a frickin’ giant sunflower…” Somehow, this only makes Ashikiba sob harder; Arakita sighs and pats her back, grabbing at the towel that Kuroda holds out for him, “I also acknowledge the fact that you might be dripping snot on me, so. Here, wipe your face.”

At that, Ashikiba finally straightens up, taking the towel and rubbing at her face. Arakita waves her back into the locker room to find her some water, and the strawberry sweets he knows Hayato shares with her sometimes. It doesn’t take too long to calm Ashikiba down, and after a while they leave the locker room together – Ashikiba gives him another parting hug and, thankfully, Arakita is prepared for it this time, losing his footing only once.

Later, when Ashikiba’s set up on the rollers next to Toudou on his cool down, Arakita lets himself be pulled aside by Kuroda. He explains, as best as he’s able to, that it had been quite a big deal for Ashikiba, having him acknowledge her right off the bat like that.

Arakita simply shrugs, “If she says she is, who am I to say otherwise?” A thought occurs to him then, and he asks, “Does she want everyone to know?” Kuroda shifts on his feet and glances at where Ashikiba pedals in a remarkably more cheerful rhythm, and says, “I think it’s up to her, to say so. But –between us… The rest of the club doesn’t know, but Toudou-senpai does.”

“Yeah, I guessed he would.” Arakita notices the nervousness that Kuroda desperately tries to hide with his concerned frowning, and he claps a hand on the assist’s shoulder, “Can’t say for sure about the others, but if anyone gives her any trouble, come to me. I’ll straighten them out.”

Kuroda stares at him for a moment, before nodding in perfect seriousness, “Alright, Arakita-senpai.”

“Don’t go to Toudou straight out, though. Well, on second thought, maybe go to Toudou? He’s got the bat, after all, you never know when we’ll need it.”

“…A bat?”

“… Don’t ask.”

 


  

“Manami’s late again, Yasutomo,” Hayato comments as they walk out of the principal’s conference room. The last round of interviews for the pre-interhigh issue of Cycling Monthly had just been concluded, as per Arakita’s schedule, but Manami had still ended up missing all of them – meaning that they’d also missed afternoon practice, which is really what Arakita is most concerned with.

“I’ll send your sprinters out to find them, get them to climb the mountains for a while,” Arakita huffs as he brings out his phone, checking for messages, “They need the practice, anyway—ah. Hey!” Arakita pauses then, a grin spreading on his lips – Hayato peeks over his shoulder, and asks, “Did something nice happen, Yasutomo?”

“Nice… I guess you could say that, heh.”

The latest message from Kinjou reads: [[It’s been decided –Sohoku will be having its training camp at the CSP near Kanagawa in the coming week]]

[is that so, kin-chan?]

[[That is so, Yasutomo.]]

Chapter Text

[a thousand kilometer training camp from hell, huh… and you say I’m the diabolical one!]

[[I was referring to your intentions, Yasutomo. Personally, I think you’re the furthest thing from demonic.]]

[kissing up to me won’t help your chances, Kin-chan.]

[[Of course.]]

[if anything, this just makes me want to beat you guys even more – hakogaku’s kings are gonna run you to the ground, Kin-chan!]

[[Challenge accepted.]]

 


 

With the intention of going ahead to grill Toudou about Manami’s and Kuroda’s conditions, Arakita sends Hayato back to the principal’s conference room to haul their captain out (“Tell him talk-show hour is up! I want the two of you on the mountains!” “Roger that, Yasutomo!”) and makes his way to the club room. Upon his arrival, he’s approached by one of  Toudou’s secondary climbers, who, after greeting him with a bow, reports, “Mother, Manami is looking for you. They’re at the locker room.”

Haa… Now that’s a first. “Thanks, Shigemori. Could you go wrangle up Kuroda and Toudou for me? Send them to the locker room when you find them.”

“Understood, mother.”

As he walks towards the locker room, Arakita recalls how Manami had been unquestionably focused on staying out of his sight for the past week and a half. With the interhigh just around the corner, he’d taken up the reins of the core team’s training, and somehow he’d been able to observe each king’s progress on their assigned course save for one – and that wasn’t for lack of trying. It hadn’t escaped Arakita that Manami was avoiding him, and he would have been more concerned about the occurrence if Toudou hadn’t been updating him about Manami’s improved attendance at the group rides he’d scheduled (Interviews and actual club practice aside, Arakita thinks).

Still, it would be best if he straightened things out with the wonder climber before it started to affect their riding in a less than desirable way. Not gonna apologize for wanting to set them straight, though. We’ll just have to come to a compromise, somehow…

When Arakita opens the door to the locker room, he finds Manami sitting at the table, poking at their cheek with a mechanical pencil. In front of them are two notebooks, and a spread of papers which, upon closer inspection, Arakita recognizes as the maths worksheets his advisor Minami-sensei liked to use for practice tests.

“Arakita-san,” Manami begins, adopting Toudou’s dramatic seriousness to disturbingly great effects, “I’m failing math.”

“No shit,” Arakita says, taking the empty seat to Manami’s left and rifling through the worksheets, “Did Minami-sensei give you these to pull your grades up?” He’d used the same tactic during summer classes, and Arakita had taken the extra credit tests back then for kicks, and to pass the time while Hayato got himself reacquainted with the road. “He usually gives five tests, worth ten points each – kind of like chunks of the final exams, so they’re just as difficult, but it’s a good way to make sure you don’t flunk out completely.”

Manami nods, “He’s giving me two per week, a mock and a graded one, and he said I could make arrangements with my tutor about how I could work on them.”

“Oh, you’re getting a tutor? Not Miyahara, I hope.” If anyone asked Arakita, he’d have said that the girl was too soft on Manami, but Manami was also infuriatingly good at getting their way, so he couldn’t blame her solely for Manami’s blasé approach to their academics.

“Haha, nope!” And then Manami glitters at Arakita (yet another of Toudou’s quirks; Really, all the good in Toudou, and they pick this up), and says, “My tutor is going to be the very kind and very reliable Arakita-senpai.”

Instead of immediately cussing out Manami’s statement, Arakita lets a few moments pass in silence, privately questioning how exactly his plans to avoid going home for vacations could have led to him having good enough grades to be considered a tutor of all things – in the end, he supposes devoting himself to nothing but his studies, Hayato and Usakicchi, and, eventually, the club really couldn’t have resulted in anything less than what was, apparently, a commendable academic history.

Who says you can’t be mentally unstable and still have good grades? Haha, fuck that.

When he tunes back into their conversation, Arakita finds that Manami has turned off the glittering, and had taken to giving him a measured, serious look.

“I thought about what you told me, Arakita-senpai.”

They don’t elaborate any further, and Arakita doesn’t expect them to; the sentiment is clear, in any case, and Arakita’s glad for the familiarity of the expression in Manami’s eyes – that perseverance, that drive to reach the peak before anyone else, filtered anew but in no way weaker.

He holds Manami’s gaze for a beat, before huffing, “Yeah, well, I wasn’t running my mouth at you for nothing.” Taking up the first of their worksheets, Arakita asks, “You’ve got your pencil out, I’m assuming you’re ready to get started figuring out what you don’t understand completely?”

The smile, sans glitters, returns, and Manami cheerfully answers, “Everything, Arakita-senpai.”

“For fuck’s sake, Manami, you haven’t failed every test you’ve taken. If you did, you’d be off the team.”

After explaining their Mountain God-strategy (“The Mountain God intercedes for me! Toudou-san said they wouldn’t let one of their children fall from grace just like that.”) and its tendency to grant them favor only on the days they paid homage by climbing to the peak at least three times (“Fucking Mountain God.”), Arakita sets Manami to work on their mock worksheets while he looked through their notes.

Just when Manami settles into puzzling out the non-multiple choice problems, Toudou and Kuroda enter the locker room. Arakita gives the self-proclaimed Mountain God another mental tally mark for his bizarre timing and waves the pair over to the unoccupied seats. As Toudou sits himself across Arakita, he shoots a curious glance at Manami’s lackluster greeting and the way they frowned at their worksheet, and asks, “… What is Manami doing?”

“Mock exam,” Arakita answers curtly, folding the corner of Manami’s notebook to mark his place, “Kid needs to pass their math class, before they fail and get put on probation.” Kuroda takes the seat to Arakita’s left and, after peering at the worksheets, comments, “Minami-sensei has a good tutor pool. That should help.”

Manami looks up from their third problem, amping up the glittering as they say, “Arakita-senpai is tutoring me.”

Before either Toudou or Kuroda could verbalize the shock that so easily overtook their faces, Arakita cuts in, “Which is why I need to know how they’re doing, training-wise, Toudou.”

“H- Huh?”

“Free rides aren’t gonna cut it, and I don’t want the kid riding after dark if we can help it.” Manami glances up at that, and even without looking, Arakita could tell they were about to contest him, so he continues, “I know you’re going to say something insanely stupid so keep answering your worksheets, Manami.”

There’s a huff from his right and a muffled snicker from his left, and Manami goes back to their worksheets, muttering, “Yes, mother…”

Toudou is rendered momentarily speechless at the sight, but at Arakita’s pointed coughing, he shakes himself back to attention, quickly drawing up the climbers’ current training schedule.

For the next half hour, Arakita crafts a new training regimen for Manami with input from Toudou and, occasionally, Kuroda (mostly though, Kuroda hissed at the faces Manami made at him behind Arakita’s back – irritating, but not out of bounds), taking into consideration their new tutoring schedule. Because Manami lived off campus, Arakita would be driving his scooter to Odawara four nights a week for their sessions, starting that Friday.

As he keys in the reminders on his phone, Arakita notices another line in the date box for the following Monday – and smiles.

“Oi, Manami, if you do good on your first graded exam, maybe Toudou will tell you a thing or two about some interesting riders coming to the interhigh.”

Manami doesn’t glitter this time, but they do turn to Toudou with a slow smile, their eyes gleaming excitedly, before resuming their work. Toudou glances at Arakita afterwards, and Arakita simply waves his phone in answer.

 


 

[treat me to a movie when we win]

[[Or, you could have dinner with me when we win.]]

[or you could treat me to movies and dinner when we win]

[[How about this: You could watch that spin-off mini-drama with me at my house when we win.]]

[NO I AM MAKING YOU DELETE THAT FILE WHEN WE WIN, CONVERSATION OVER]

[[Have a good dinner, Yasutomo.]]

[yea rest your eyes before you take a bath kin-chan]

 


 

Arakita sets his phone aside and turns his attention to the dinner that Manami’s mother had left out for them – they were three sessions into their tutoring schedule, and Manami had been commendably present at all three, heeding Arakita’s instructions and asking questions whenever they felt necessary. As such, their sessions tended to run over dinner, and Manami’s mother had taken to leaving their meals out for their mid-session break.

“Did Shinkai-san mail you something funny, Arakita-san?” Manami asks as they dig into their meal, cutting through the chatter of the television they’d turned on when they were waiting for the microwave to finish heating their food. Arakita watches a contestant drop into a vat of slime and wrinkles his nose, swallowing before answering, “It wasn’t Hayato I was talking with… And anyway, it wasn’t a conversation, I was wrangling a free dinner and movie.”

 

year5-1

 

Even with a mouthful of curry, Manami manages to communicate their curiosity, and Arakita finds himself elaborating, “For when we win against them in the interhigh – ah, by them I mean Sohoku, from Chiba. You know the one, Toudou’s ‘Maki-chan’ is on that team.” Manami nods, having been present for more than enough of Toudou’s infamous calls, and Arakita sips at his iced tea before continuing, “I was talking with their captain, Kinjou, and I was telling him he should treat me to a movie when we beat them. Kin-chan never gives up, heh, so he keeps one-upping me, and now I’m looking at a drama series marathon on top of my original plan.”

Arakita grins, holding out a fist towards Manami, “So! That’s another reason for you to do your best!” Manami obediently taps their own fist against Arakita’s, commenting, “Ah, but you’d be the only one getting that free dinner – isn’t that unfair, Arakita-san?”

“Well, it’s an agreement just between us!” Arakita replies. He glances at his phone when it vibrates, but the display only flashes an alarm (“No more power bars, Hayato!”), so he finishes ladling more curry over his rice before sending his other half the same message. Across him, Manami hums thoughtfully, channel surfing as they swirl their iced tea in their glass.

“Mm, it would feel weird to crash a date, so I guess I’ll just ask for take home dessert.”

Arakita motions for them to stop at a channel showing a talk show host interviewing a movie star (The dead brother’s bodyguard!! Arakita remembers) and says, over the polite clapping of the audience, “It’s not a date, Manami, but yeah, I’ll bring you dessert. But you have to win first.”

Manami smiles into their glass as they reply, “I have to pass my graded exams before that, haha.”

“‘Haha’ is right! Now, be quiet, I wanna hear him explain why he killed the main character’s brother…”

Manami sets down the remote and picks up their spoon, speaking around it when the conversation on the television reaches a lull, “I didn’t know Arakita-san liked drama series’.”

“I like this one, it started as a novel and I saw the movie adaptation a few months ago with Kin-chan. The guy they’re interviewing right now’s the dark horse of the franchise; even Kin-chan got swayed from liking the main character for a bit because of him…”

“So Kinjou-san watches it too.”

“He’s a terrible fan, though! Keeps missing episodes when they air and catches the marathons on weekends, I keep telling him it’s a bad habit because then, what would he do when the hiatus comes, right? He’s gonna whine about it! Kin-chan’s even the kind who doesn’t whine outright, and then I’m gonna have to set aside my completely justified satisfaction because who else would rewatch the series with him! And it’s the kind you can’t watch too many times, or else you’ll start having really crazy theories!”

“Haa…”

Somehow, Arakita ends up spoiling Manami about the plot of the series over their dinner – and a little bit about Kinjou’s deplorable watching habits, which he tries to derail with a discussion of his other more admirable habits, which then sidetracked into his hellish training regimens.

“He’s having them complete a thousand kilometers over their training camp, and he’s gonna mod their bikes to shit. I really wanna see that, I mean, scouting opportunity aside since they’re just gonna be at the cycle park in Izu, it’d be hilarious…” Arakita interrupts himself with a laugh, before continuing “…and I haven’t seen Kin-chan properly in ages now.” The admission is followed by a sigh, and Arakita lets his gaze fall to his empty plate as his own words registered in his mind. An entire month, and two weeks, give or take. Fuck, that’s a long time.

Aside from a thoughtful hum, and a passing, “You’re really good friends with Kinjou-san, aren’t you, Arakita-san,” Manami says nothing else before gathering up their dishes and going off to wash them, leaving Arakita to finish the interview alone. As the bodyguard’s actor did his signature move for the audience, he feels an unquantifiable surge of fondness, remembering how Kinjou had sat up in his seat at the theater at the same sight.

He glances at his phone again, tempted to send a message – even the briefest sentiment, [hey captain from hell, i missed you], would do – but the reminder that he still had worksheets to look over and formulas to discuss stop him from continuing the thought. He wouldn’t be able to stop himself from extending their conversation if Kinjou replied, and it’d keep him from engaging completely with Manami. He could wait until after, when he got back to the school.

But still, during their tutoring session, Arakita’s can’t help how his mood worsens – he knows Manami notices, yet they tactfully do not comment on it, focusing studiously on their work. As he drives back to Hakone, Arakita makes a note to buy an extra special-flavored umaibo, to ‘accidentally’ toss into Manami’s musette on their next race simulation.

And as he settles into bed, he sends Kinjou a text, [guess who caught a really cool interview on tv over dinner], grinning when the reply that comes back to him consists of only question marks and snake emoji.

 


 

At breakfast with Usakicchi the following day, Arakita leans his head on his other half’s shoulder with a sigh. Hayato doesn’t pause from peeling the apple he’d brought, but he does make a soft, questioning noise in acknowledgement. Arakita spends some time picking at the apple skin falling off in ribbons at the expert behest of Hayato’s knife before saying, “I miss Kin-chan.”

Usakicchi glances up at the first words Arakita had spoken since they’d sat down with her, hopping her way up his lap in the way that spoke of her quest for a treat. Arakita allows her on his lap, distracting her with soft pats across her back as they waited for Hayato to finish peeling the apple at his own pace.

“Did you not get to greet him good morning today?” Hayato asks. Arakita taps his finger against Usakicchi’s damp nose, and says, “I did. And we talked until it was really late last night – I told him about the interview, and he freaked out without really freaking out, so I knew he was really happy about it…”

I didn’t get to tell him the important thing, though, Arakita thinks. Predictably, Hayato verbalizes his thoughts not a moment later. “But you didn’t get to tell him you missed him.” Arakita nods, after which Hayato continues, “So you feel sad.”

“Yeah…” Arakita sighs, before scowling at a knot in Usakicchi’s fur, “It’s weird, Hayato! We’ve been talking a lot lately, and we mail each other every day... But last month… I missed our sleepover…”

Arakita trails off into another sigh, and Usakicchi starts to sniff his fingers, eventually coming to bump her nose against his hand – her favorite display of affection, as far as Arakita was concerned (Hayato was the one who’s tried to actually kiss her, tickly, damp bunny nose and all) – and he smiles down at her attempts to comfort him, before turning to speak against Hayato’s shoulder.

“It fucking sucks, Hayato… I know he got worried about me last month. Everyone did, but Kin-chan…” Arakita rests his forehead against his other half’s shoulder then, muttering miserably, “I want to let him know I’m okay, and that we’re okay… and that I’m really looking forward to him buying me dinner, and treating me to a movie, and letting me sleep over at his place after we kick their asses at the interhigh.”

Hayato sets his knife down on his lap, wrapping his free arm around Arakita and pulling him close. After a moment, he says, “Telling him over the phone or through mail isn’t an option, is it, Yasutomo?”

Arakita shakes his head. “But I can’t go over to Chiba right now, I’ve got training to oversee, and then there’s tutoring with Manami...”

He feels Hayato smile, and drop a kiss on the crown of his head before saying, “I’m sure you’ll find a way to see him, Yasutomo. It’s very important that you make your feelings clear, after all.”

Arakita nods, relishing the comforting warmth of his other half for another moment before pulling away and holding Usakicchi up to his face.

“Hurry up with that apple, dad. Your daughter’s hungry.”

“Roger that, mom.”

 


 

As if Hayato’s words were a magical incantation, Arakita finds himself on the half hour drive to Izu’s premier cycle sports park a mere four days later, the sun setting over the horizon and his conversation with Kinjou replaying clearly in his mind.

(“Say that again, Kin-chan?”

“Mm? The location of our training camp? Yasutomo, surely you aren’t going to send spies after us.”

“I fucking am. So, come on, fess up – and I’ll know if you’re lying! I’ll ask Makishima!”

“Truly, a despicable enemy. …It’s at Shizuoka, in Izu. The Cycle Sports Park.”

“…Haa.”

“Should I be afraid of your spies challenging us to a race now?”

“Hey! That’s classified information! Haha!”)

Manami rides ahead of him, weaving between the pools of light dropping from the lamp posts overhead, buoyed to flight by the crisp summer breeze and the knowledge that they’d passed the first of their graded exams, with hopeful prospects for the next ones. They’d offered to show Arakita a secret passage into the park, in exchange for the chance to ride after their short review of Manami’s progress (“Let’s offer praise to the Mountain God!” “I already gave Toudou a new headband…”).

When they pass the halfway mark, Manami drops back to comment, “I hope I get compensated for chauffeuring you to your date, Arakita-san. The umaibo from last time was really delicious – avocado and chocolate makes an interesting taste!”

Arakita laughs, “It’s not a date, Manami! But yeah, why not? I’ll pack it in your musette again, when you do your race simulations.” With a grin, Manami pulls ahead of him again, and Arakita revs up to tail them.

There’s a twinge of pain as he rotates his wrist, and Arakita takes note of the dull throbbing of his right arm – but it hasn’t changed at all from how he’d rated it that morning (a cooperative five). Arakita recalls that it had barely acted up during the past week, and he happily attributes this good behavior to the fact that he’d been anticipating this surprise visit for days now.

As they pass another sign pointing out their relative distance to the cycle sports park (“1 KM”), Arakita feels a giddy excitement bubbling up inside him, and he smiles even wider, already imagining the look on Kinjou’s face when he announced his arrival.

Heh, it won’t be long now, Kin-chan…!

 


 

After passing the marker and a handful of lamp posts, Manami comes to ride on Arakita’s left. They nod towards the paths branching off the main road they were on, and says, “We’ll go down the third path from the next lamp post. That’ll take us close to the accommodations building, and it has a good view of the track, too.” Arakita nods, counting off the paths that they pass.

At the third path, they take the turn. The sun had already set completely, but because being discovered before he enacts his grand plan isn’t an option, Arakita relies on the lower headlights of his scooter. Even with the trees cropping close together, the path is still serviceable, and Arakita feels another laugh bubbling up his throat.

It’s difficult for Arakita to curb his enthusiasm, boundless and overflowing as it is – Manami catches his grin, and Arakita tries to reel himself in, to no avail. They end up mirroring Arakita’s expression, and Arakita feels a rush of fondness for the wonder climber – he knows he’s talked Manami’s ear off about Kinjou more times than someone who wasn’t Hayato should have had to bear, but they’d been so good about his ramblings, Arakita thinks he might end up buying them weirdly flavored umaibo for life.

With a similarly wide grin on their face, Manami asks, “Arakita-san, Are you excited to see Kin-chan-san?”

The name makes Arakita snort, and he shakes his head before replying, “That’s Kinjou-san to you! He’s my Kin-chan, okay?”

“—Haha, duly noted, Arakita-san.”

“And fuck, of course I’m excited!” Arakita tips the visor of his helmet up, flashing Manami a toothy grin, “Kin-chan won’t know what hit him!”

 


 

[you are a true sadist captain holy shit]

[[Good evening to you as well, Yasutomo. How was dinner?]]

[never mind dinner (it was good, karaage and fried rice) IM TELLING YOU YOU’RE A FUCKING SADIST]

[[What secrets have your spies relayed to you now?]]

[the secret of your devilish thousand-kilometer training camp from hell, duh.]

[man kin-chan, i can still see your kids pedaling like crazy]

[[what]]

[five! five innocent kids, sacrificed to your mercy!]

 [[yasutomo we are not even remotely close to hakogaku]]

[pedaling kids. in the dark. tsk, tsk…]

[[yasutomo you didn’t]]

[heh]

[god it’s chilly out here. bring me a coffee, kin-chan? im right behind the accommodations building, fifth bench in]

[[5 min.]]

 


 

“I’ve missed riding through the cycle park,” Manami comments in a hushed voice as they stand behind the trees skirting the accommodations building. After a beat, they clarify, “Illegally. It’s somehow more fun, that way.”

Arakita smothers his laugh with a hand, turning his gaze away from Manami’s cheeky grin to the view of Sohoku’s chosen circuit. He counts the same five hunched forms racing down the track, heaving breaths carried by the breeze and, offhandedly, he wonders about legitimately scouting them on their last day. Their lineup would be finalized by then, but it wouldn’t hurt to have preliminary data on the riders, even if some of them wouldn’t be able to make it to the coming interhigh.

Soon enough, however, the riders swerve out of their line of sight. Arakita checks the display on his phone – no new messages (aside from Hayato’s emoji-littered “Good Luck!”), but with a minute to spare. Manami tilts their head at him in silent question, and Arakita waves a hand dismissively. Surprise visit, Manami, this is a surprise visit.

Not more than a minute later, the intended recipient of the surprise makes his appearance, a can of coffee in one hand. Arakita feels a burst of affection for Kinjou at the sight, and the feeling piles itself on top of what he’d already accumulated on the trip and over the last week. With a quick gesture to Manami to keep hidden, Arakita sneaks up on Kinjou, who still faced the opposite direction, furtively glancing around the clearing.

In one swift move, Arakita comes up behind him and claps his hands over Kinjou’s eyes, whispering against the shell of his ear, “Kin-chan…!”

To his credit, Kinjou does not drop the can of coffee – he does, however, seize up completely in Arakita’s hold for at least half a minute, before venturing, in the same careful whisper, “If I say the despicable one’s name, will he at least appear before me properly?”

Arakita huffs out a petulant, “Maybe,” but he’s still smiling – and the smile only grows wider when Kinjou chuckles and reaches up to touch Arakita’s wrist with his free hand, murmuring his name with a fondness that sends a flush to Arakita’s cheeks, “Yasutomo.”

The words Kin-chan, I missed you are on his tongue, and Arakita almost speaks them, his face hidden against Kinjou’s nape – except then Kinjou’s hand wraps around his wrist, and under his arms, Arakita feels Kinjou’s shoulders heave with a breath, and for a long moment, Arakita waits for Kinjou to speak first—

“You haven’t let me turn around yet, Yasutomo.”

“—Oh, yeah, sorry Kin-chan…”

When he turns around, Kinjou looks perfectly composed, as if visits from rival cycling teams under the cover of night at a private cycling center have already become second nature to him. Arakita sees the insuppressible quirk of his lips, though, and while they’d indulged in video calls fairly recently, actually seeing Kinjou’s amused expression, face to face, remains a novel experience for Arakita.

Still, when their gazes meet, it’s the look in Kinjou’s eyes that makes an altogether different emotion send a lump up Arakita’s throat – something tender and gentle, something happy, but at the same time inexplicably sad. He remembers the first message Kinjou had sent him after that terrible month ([[It’s alright, Yasutomo. Have things settled down?]]), and suddenly the words I missed you do not seem to be the right words to say.

“Sorry,” Arakita repeats, the word falling from his lips at the forefront of a dozen other iterations, “Kin-chan, I…”

(when Kinjou held his hand, in the middle of the crowd in an unfamiliar place, it had been the only time that Arakita could feel the ground under his feet)

“Yasutomo…?”

Without a second thought, Arakita takes another step closer to Kinjou, throwing his arms around his shoulders and resting his face against his neck. His face is hot, but Kinjou’s skin is cool against his; the hand that he eventually settles on the small of Arakita’s back is warm, too, warm and real, and Arakita murmurs, a wealth of gratitude carrying his words, “Sorry about the last month. And… thanks for being my friend, Kin-chan.”

 

year5-2

 

He holds on for a long moment, but Kinjou doesn’t do more than pat his back twice – it’s an affectionate, if awkward, gesture, and Arakita berates himself internally for forgetting that not everybody accepted physical contact as easily. Eventually Kinjou replies calmly enough, “It’s no hardship, Yasutomo,” and Arakita takes it as his cue to step out of his personal space.

When they separate, Kinjou offers Arakita a wan smile, along with the canned coffee, “You don’t need to apologize about being overtaken by club duties. Your job is an important one, after all.”

Arakita reaches for the can, before changing his mind and clutching at Kinjou’s wrist, shaking his head as he says, “…It wasn’t just that, though. I can’t – I want to tell you about it, but now’s… not the best time.” He looks up then, his gaze earnest and pleading, and he continues, “Eventually, I’ll tell you about it. I mean, you deserve to know… You helped, after all, and we’re friends…”

Kinjou stares back at him with what seemed like countless questions in his eyes – before nodding and accepting his promise without speaking a single one. He presses the can of coffee into Arakita’s hand, and comments lightly, “Sorry it isn’t warm. I thought you’d ask for bepsi instead.”

“It’s fine,” Arakita says, holding the can up against his cheek, “You were holding it all the way here, anyway. I can still feel how warm your hand is.” With a grin, he continues, “It must have slipped my mind, since I was really excited to see you, Kin-chan!”

“And that somehow translated into wanting to give me a heart attack as a greeting,” Kinjou observes. His words are less deadpan than when they’re delivered through mail, and Arakita huffs at his blatant but still tastefully veiled sarcasm, punching his right shoulder in mock aggravation. “Suck it up, Kin-chan,” he says, “If you couldn’t handle that little shock, then you’re not as good as I’ve hyped you up to be – you may as well take me out to dinner even before the interhigh, if you’re playing just to lose!”

“That isn’t the case at all, Yasutomo,” Kinjou counters, and his eyes flash with a challenge that Arakita is all too familiar with – it eases the last of the awkwardness of the hug out of their midst, and Arakita’s glad to note that Kinjou has relaxed enough to hold his gaze again.

“You saying you’re up to the challenge, then, Kin-chan?” Arakita drawls, the old defiance creeping into his tone and making him cock his head at Kinjou, who rises to the occasion commendably with his own incontestable reply – a simple, wordless nod, unsupported by any other action. It’s as much of a challenge as his words had been, and Arakita is reminded of their first meeting and the promise of the interhigh, all at the same time.

With conscious deliberation, Arakita says, “That’s good. Hakogaku looks forward to making you eat our dust.”

At his words, a smile spreads over Kinjou’s face, and he replies with equal seriousness, “Sohoku won’t be passed that easily, Yasutomo.”

“Hah! We’ll see about that!” Arakita relishes the return of their familiar banter, smiling as he continues, “I’ve got six on my side, Kin-chan, and all of them are kings by merit. It won’t be an easy fight!”

“Seven,” Kinjou corrects, “You have seven kings on your side, Yasutomo, and I would not expect anything less than a true challenge from Hakogaku.”

At Kinjou’s words, Arakita raises an eyebrow and says, “Oi, what the hell, there’re only six riders, Kin-chan…”

“Six riders, yes,” Kinjou agrees, “But then, there’s their manager – you, Yasutomo. The seventh demon king, overseer of the road and Hakone’s mountains, master of Hakogaku’s hundred-strong racing team.”

The appellation makes Arakita think of adventure-quests rather than road racing, and his disbelief is apparent enough for Kinjou to add, “You’ll have to bring it up with Fukutomi, if you want answers.”

Fuku-chan??” Arakita repeats incredulously, to which Kinjou only nods. From behind them, Arakita catches Manami’s barely contained snickering, and he glances over his shoulder to call out, “Oi! Manami! Hiding time’s over, come here and introduce yourself, and fucking tell me what Fuku-chan said!”

Again, Kinjou doesn’t seem surprised by Manami’s presence, though he does balk slightly at the climber’s greeting.

“Good evening, Kin-chan-san!”

“Manami,” Arakita begins, a slight edge to his words, “Remember what I said earlier? It’s Kinjou-san for you. Kin-chan’s my Kin-chan, I got first call. Understood?” Manami nods and apologizes quickly enough, though there’s not a trace of remorse in their expression when they turn to Kinjou, “Kinjou-san, I’m sorry about only introducing myself now – it was only because I was on look out, though.”

Kinjou nods, amusement tinting his smile, and Arakita waves a hand at Manami as he explains, “Magic Marimo, able to pass through privately fenced cycle sports parks and the like.” Promptly, Manami takes a bow, and Kinjou muffles his chuckles into his hand.

“Alright, so you know each other – Kin-chan, Marimo on wheels – now what the fuck was that about a seventh king??” Arakita levels a threatening glare at both cyclists, but Kinjou insists on deferring the responsibility (“Your magic marimo would know better, Yasutomo,”) which Manami dodges expertly (“It’s best to go to straight to the source, right, Arakita-san?”) leaving Arakita with a burning question and not a single clue.

“Ugh, fuck, fine! I’ll ask Fuku-chan!” Kinjou and Manami share an amused expression at his frustration, and Arakita only barely keeps himself from launching into another tirade – a quick glance at his phone showed the lateness of the hour, and he and Manami still had at most an hour’s travel ahead of them, if they wanted to get back before full dark settled in.

“Kin-chan,” Arakita begins, only to be interrupted by Kinjou reaching for his right hand, “…Kin-chan?”

Kinjou gazes at him appraisingly for a moment before speaking, his expression turning solemn, “I won’t ask about it now, but I want you to know – to pick yourself up and move on despite facing a setback, that takes courage. I’m– … I think you’d make a good cyclist, Yasutomo.”

Arakita glances at their linked hands, feeling his lips quirking into a smile at the sentiment. You need to work on your compliments, Kin-chan, he thinks, squeezing Kinjou’s hand with his own before replying, “Can’t say I haven’t thought about it. Heh, it might have been fun to race against you, Kin-chan!” And win, Arakita adds, privately – he sees that Kinjou catches his unsaid words, though, and his smile widens, “This time, you’ll have to content yourself with my victors.”

“Victors already, Yasutomo?” Kinjou echoes in disbelief, “You’re getting ahead of yourself.”

“Hah! More like we’re getting ahead of you,” Arakita counters, “The kings will win this year, too – I’ll make sure of it!” Kinjou’s grip tightens on Arakita’s hand at this proclamation, and without fail, he answers with his own, “We’ll see about that in a month’s time, Yasutomo.”

Smirking, Arakita leans forward, intent on having the last word – “I’ll have you with your head down at the finish line, Kin-chan.” That seems to finally shut Kinjou up, as he only narrows his eyes in response.

Arakita squeezes his hand one more time before moving in for a last hug. At last, after a moment’s pause, Kinjou hugs him back properly, and Arakita sighs contentedly against Kinjou’s ear, “I’m really glad we’re friends, Kin-chan.”

“…I am, too, Yasutomo.”

 


 

The trip back to the main road passes too quickly for Arakita’s liking. He’s restless and eager to get back to the preparing for the interhigh, not to mention telling Hayato about his visit and Kinjou’s answer to his challenge. Manami also continues to refuse to answer his questions about the seventh king appellation, choosing instead to distract him with their findings from the scouting they’d done earlier in the day (“They have an interesting climber, a first year like me!”).

Eventually, Arakita does concede to shelving it for discussion with the other third years (Fuku-chan in particular, he thinks sourly), moving on to psyching Manami up for their match against Sohoku.

“You heard Kin-chan back there! They’re going for the last stage as hard as we are, so we have to pull ahead of them even further!” Manami responds positively to his platitudes at least, and by the time they reach the junction leading to their separate destinations (Odawara for Manami, Hakone for Arakita), they’ve got just the right glint in their eyes that assures Arakita that they’d be bringing their all to the interhigh. Before they head off, Arakita holds out his right fist towards Manami.

“Thanks for coming with me, by the way.”

Manami taps their fist against his with a smile, replying graciously, “Anything for mother.”

“Tch! Careful on your way back, alright, Manami?”

“Mm, you too, Arakita-san.”

 


 

For days after, Arakita can’t seem to hold his energy down. He throws himself into his work and falls asleep even before the dry taste of his pills leave his mouth, and the consistent dull pain in his right arm averages between five and six on most days, largely negligible and not worth more than half the day in the sling –the fact that he can barely feel the pain that has been his constant companion for nearly three years reminds him of the previous month, but unlike the month that he remembers in muted blurs and gut-wrenching stillness, the weeks before the interhigh are filled with motion and color, and his excitement overflows and spills over into the club effortlessly.

In the wake of Arakita’s passion, first years and second years alike could be seen sweating over the rollers and chasing after their senior specialists with a new fire in their eyes after his warm-ups, motivated by their manager’s vision of them taking part in their own future races. Even the interhigh team is treated to ceaselessly energetic pep talks before more than one of their race simulations, as Arakita makes no secret of what he thought of their rivals’ challenge and their preparations for the interhigh, as well as his desire to see them continuing to ride their hearts out after the race.

Even today, as the core team reviewed their training course, Arakita demonstrates a goal-driven thoroughness in questioning and revising the course that the underclassmen had never thought possible for him to surpass. The third years seem to consider it remarkable as well, if their lively discussion were any indication – their manager’s zeal proves entirely too contagious, and Arakita allows himself an extra long drink of bepsi at the conclusion of their meeting, feeling wholly fulfilled and ready to send his victors off on another ride.

Still, some loose ends needed tying up.

“Before I let you pedaling idiots go, there’s just one more thing…”

And with a flair that Toudou himself considered aptly dramatic, Arakita sets down the most recent copies of various cycling magazines on the table, opening them on the pages Hakogaku’s interviews had taken up. The same phrase, which precedes his name in almost every printing, had been encircled in all of the articles with red ink, the color stark and eye catching against the magazines’ reader-friendly layouts. The phrase was: “Hakogaku’s Seventh King”.

With deceptive calmness, Arakita taps his finger above one such mention, and asks, “Who the fuck started this.”

Almost as one, the interhigh’s sprinters and climbers turn to their captain, who remains utterly unfazed by the spread in front of him. Not even his presence, which grew even more menacing as the silence stretched on, could coax more than a simple nod from Fukutomi, and Arakita seethes internally at his captain’s built-up immunity against his ire.

Fuku-chan, what the fuck! This doesn’t even make sense!”

“In what way, Arakita?” Fukutomi asks, taking one of the magazines and skimming through it, commenting, “I don’t see anything wrong with it. The interviewers were sensible enough to follow my instructions to the letter, even if our coach had initially misinformed them.”

Hayato, in an attempt to be helpful, gives Arakita’s hand a few amiable pats as he explains, “Juichi was very insistent on the numbering, you know. That’s why some of the interviews ran overtime.”

“The numbering isn’t what I’m going on about,” Arakita begins, only to be interrupted by Toudou who insists, “That’s important, though, Arakita! We couldn’t let them publish a factually incorrect article, the redaction would take another month, and the interhigh would already be well on its way by then.” Impossibly, even Kuroda, Izumida, and Manami give their wordless assent to Toudou’s explanation.

For a moment, Arakita can only gape at them – Factually incorrect?? Are you all fucking stupid?? “Look, in case the mountain air’s somehow gotten to all of your heads, I’m going to remind you of a factually correct bit of information.” He pauses then, to wait for all six of his riders to turn their attention to him, at which point Arakita continues, “I can’t ride a bike for shit.The hell are you all agreeing to that title for – I’m not even on the interhigh team!”

There’s a moment of stunned silence – and then five different voices are disputing Arakita’s words in varying volumes: “You have all the right to the title, Yasutomo,” Hayato says, and Izumida echoes his sentiments just as Toudou persists on Arakita’s importance to the team; even Manami speaks up, plainly saying, “You are part of the team, Arakita-san,” and for once Kuroda is in complete agreement with them, nodding as he insists, “The fact that you can’t ride with us doesn’t disqualify you from the title, mother!”

Arakita balks at their words and reflexively attempts to quiet them down, but it’s Fukutomi who succeeds with the way he voices his support for the team’s assertions.

“You are our seventh king, Arakita,” Fukutomi begins, and the rest of the team defer to him, training their collectively adamant gazes on their manager and allowing their captain to continue uninterrupted, “For the interhigh team, and for the entirety of the club itself – you are a king, in your own right, by your own merit. We owe much to your efforts in ensuring our victory, and, just as importantly, our ability to continue riding even beyond the events of this important race. The title is wholly justified, and no one who’s been under your care would think to contest it.”

Fuku-chan, that’s… The frustration that had powered his earlier outburst evaporates into nothing in the wake of Fukutomi’s reasoning, and Arakita feels a flush creeping over his cheeks and up to the tips of his ears – as with any time Fukutomi addressed him in his full capacity as the club’s captain, Arakita is floored by the certain weight of his words, and the unquestionable sincerity that accompanied them.

His gaze falters, falling to the magazines scattered over the table, and Fukutomi follows his line of sight for a moment before speaking with absolute seriousness, “The rest of the high school road racing circuit need to know that Hakogaku is strengthened this year by an immutable, unshakable force.”

With a wink and his customary pistol-pose, Hayato says, “You’re strong, Yasutomo.” From his left, Toudou grins as he adds, “You make us strong.” And then, Kuroda and Manami nod to Izumida, cuing the sprinter to say, “We look forward to showing you how much we’ve progressed under your care.”

Rendered absolutely speechless, Arakita can only jerk his head in a nod as a response to his team’s antics. Eventually, when he’s asked if there was anything else he wanted to discuss, he simply waves his hand in dismissal, and, taking this as their cue, his riders rise from their seats to file out of the meeting room.

As he watches them, the memory of a promise surfacing in Arakita’s mind (What kind of manager doesn’t come to greet his victors after they’ve won the race?). Unwilling to let his team go without at least answering their feelings, he moves quickly to stand at the doorway, bearing with his team’s questioning gazes for only a second before proclaiming, “At the finish line! I’ll – God, you pedaling idiots talk big so I’ll – I’ll be waiting there! I’ll meet you all at the finish line, got it?!”

Arakita pauses for a moment to catch his breath, before swiftly turning away and barking orders for the support crew to assemble – he throws a glance over his shoulder when he reaches the end of the hallway, narrowing his eyes at his unmoving team before saying, “Well, what the hell are you all standing there for? Get out and ride! We’ve got an interhigh to win!”

Their answering chorus follows Arakita out of the hallway, and he continues on ahead of them, fighting to keep the smile on his face in check.

There’s just one last thing, though.

 


 

After that afternoon’s simulation race, the core interhigh team sits down to eat dinner together at the third years’ table. Even Manami is wheedled into staying with the promise of an interestingly flavored popsicle for dessert, and they happily take their seat at Arakita’s left (to Kuroda’s tight-lipped chagrin). Arakita rolls his eyes when Hayato, who’d taken his customary seat at his right, engages the wonder climber in a conversation about the best special flavors, though a smile does tug at his lips when they sing out their favorite jingle together.

Dinner soon turns into a lively, chatter-filled affair, with Izumida regaling Fukutomi about the growth of his bonsai, across from where Toudou recounts the thrill of his last match with Makishima, Kuroda hanging at his every word. Arakita finds himself contributing at least once in every conversations taking place around him, which continued even as they emptied their plates and halved their desserts (as promised, Manami's given one of Hayato’s special edition gari-gari-kun).

With the last of the plates cleared, Arakita asks Izumida and Kuroda to see Manami out of the campus (“Make sure they don’t go riding, they have a graded exam tomorrow!” “Will you send my intercessions to the Mountain God, then, Arakita-san?” “Toudou’s right there, Manami.”), leaving the third years to return to their separate rooms.

As they make their way up to the dorms, Arakita calls out, “Hey, Fuku-chan, Toudou… you guys busy?” Toudou and Fukutomi pause, looking over at where he and Hayato stand, hands linked, a few steps behind them.

“Not really, no,” Toudou says, “Was there something you needed?”

Arakita grimaces, taking a moment before saying, “In ten minutes – no, actually, after you get settled, come over to my room. There’s something I need to talk about with you two.”

Toudou’s brow furrows at Arakita’s vagueness, but Fukutomi simply nods, replying, “We’ll be there in ten minutes.” They walk on ahead to their rooms, and Arakita lets Hayato take his right hand as they watch the pair round the corner out of their sight.

“Ten minutes, huh….” Arakita mutters to himself. He feels Hayato squeeze his hand reassuringly, and the action lends him enough strength to square his shoulders and repeat, with steely determination, “Ten minutes. Don’t let me flake out, alright, Hayato?”

“You won’t, Yasutomo. You’re strong.”

“… Seriously, if you keep saying that, I’m never going to stop blushing.”

 


 

It isn’t an easy choice to make, Arakita knows, but it shouldn’t have taken him this long, either. The timing is questionable, and he feels another weight of guilt at the thought that he’d be ending such a good day on a bad note, but he knows that if he doesn’t do this tonight, he’d keep finding reasons not to. Lying by omission is still lying, and that wasn’t something he wanted to do to his friends, especially not when it concerned the month that had taken an unimaginable toll on them.

“I’m not doing this because I feel like I have to, you have to understand that. I’m doing this because you’re my friends, and I… You care about me. And I care about you, so…”

Arakita trails off as he licks his lips and tightens his grip on Hayato’s hand. He fights to keep his gaze steady as he stares at Toudou and Fukutomi, who sit across them with confused expressions on their faces. They’re clearly listening to him, riveted on his every faltering word, and Arakita tries harder to brace himself.

Starting is the hardest part, just get started and it’s all going to come out anyway, whether you want it to or not, so just. Fucking say it. Why is it so fucking hard?

“Last month, I…”

(Toudou looks ugly when he cries. I hate that face. I’m sorry I made him make that face, I really hate it. Please don’t cry, Jinpachi.)

“…What happened last month was that I…”

(I don’t want to know what Fuku-chan looks like when he cries. I’m really sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.)

Just when Arakita feels as if the stitch in his chest is ready to burst open, Hayato squeezes his hand and murmurs his name. The action, along with Hayato’s low, gentle voice, help to calm the jackhammer beating of his heart, and Arakita squeezes Hayato’s hand in thanks.

He blinks back the tears threatening to fall from his eyes, and finishes, in a stricken, breathless whisper, “I tried to kill myself.”

There. Now, keep going.

“You guys know how my idiot arm is. I get bad days sometimes – okay, a lot of times – so, the prescriptions…”

At the sight of Toudou’s trembling hands, and the shadow that has fallen over Fukutomi’s face, Arakita finds himself insisting, “It wasn’t because of anything you guys did, okay? It was me… Just me, I was selfish, and really fucking stupid, I thought…”

Hayato squeezes his hand again, and Arakita finally notices that his hand is shaking, too. So we’re back here again. Fuck. I’m sorry, Hayato…

The silence that follows Arakita’s words is stifling, and it weighs down on his lungs with the familiar pull of an anchor tugging him below the water’s surface. Still, what makes it all the more difficult to breathe is the sight of Fukutomi with his head bowed, sitting beside Toudou who’s rubbing miserably at his eyes. Arakita doesn’t dare look at Hayato, but the vise grip he keeps on Arakita’s hand speaks enough for itself.

Arakita swallows hard against the fear rising in his throat – with his failure out in the open like this, it’s difficult to remember how his team had lauded him as the seventh king mere hours before. He feels completely unworthy of the title, their friendship, their tears. He wants to reject it all now, and pry out apologies, word for word, from the stitched-up hole in his chest; he wants to lay them bare and match each of them with Toudou’s sobs and the tremors passing over Fukutomi’s hunched shoulders like maligned, desperate attempts at recompense.

He can feel the words creeping on his tongue and pressing against his lips, and even though he knows they’re only bile and black blood, they’re still better than nothing—

It’s Fukutomi who speaks into the silence first, though. His voice is uncharacteristically quiet, and Arakita is forced to look at him, at the helplessness that has stolen over his face, as he speaks in a broken, defeated tone, “We’re sorry we weren’t strong enough to help you, Yasutomo.”

And then Toudou’s coming around to cry on his shoulder, and Hayato’s pressing ardent kisses to the palm of his right hand, and it’s altogether too much like both times he’d been in the hospital – the tears fall without fanfare, just as they’d always done, but now Arakita feels every sob tearing itself from his chest, completely unlike the sluggish ache of the apologies he’d wanted to say.

“We’re sorry,” Toudou repeats, sounding as if he’d had to levy the words from cracks between his ribs, pained and desperate as they are, “We’re so sorry we couldn’t support you…” Arakita starts to shake his head, wanting to insist that it had been his own failing, his own ill-thought reasoning, but when he looks up, he sees Fukutomi pressing his palms against his eyes, and all the words die on his tongue. “Fuku-chan…”

“Yasutomo,” he begins, voice brittle and raw, but somehow still steady, “Please… From now on, please let us take care of you as well.”

What else can I do, Arakita thinks, as Toudou pulls back to add, rubbing at his splotchy, red-rimmed eyes, “You have to remember… You’re important to us, Arakita.” He doesn’t doubt the determination carrying Toudou’s words, so he nods and says, “I will. I’ll remember.” When he turns to Hayato, his other half leans in to press kisses to both his tear-stained cheeks. Arakita returns the favor, murmuring a fond “I love you”against Hayato’s forehead, before getting to his feet and hobbling towards Fukutomi.

His captain – his friend – deserves more than a lopsided smile and a fumbling hug, but Arakita does his best, giving his thanks with all the affection he can muster. Fukutomi resists at first, but instead of taking it as a rejection, Arakita only reaches up to run his fingers through Fukutomi’s hair, repeating his thanks for as many times as Fukutomi needed to hear it. Eventually, his arms come up around Arakita in a hesitant embrace and he rests his face against Arakita’s shoulder, and Arakita feels the stitch in his chest rest its persistent aching, quieted by the warmth of Fukutomi’s hand lingering on his back.

A little after that, Toudou and Hayato join them, too, and Arakita is glad that, damaged as he is, he’s still good enough to give his friends at least this much.

 


 

[[See you at the interhigh, Yasutomo]]

[remember our deal kin-chan]

[[I look forward to seeing you at the finish line]]

[only victors are allowed to greet me, kin-chan, and i have six lined up already]

[let’s see if you can do better]

[[Don’t forget who you’re talking with, Yasutomo]]

[[I’ve accepted your challenge. And I am the man who never gives up]]

 


 

The sign on the banners they pass by with increasing frequency read, “High School National Tournament, Kanagawa Prefecture Tournament – Interhigh Bicycle Road Race”, and Arakita wonders if the title isn’t terribly redundant, or he’s just too keyed up to bother with the long-winding formalities. It is, after all, the first day of the anticipated interhigh, and his team’s thirst for the road is at their peak. He knows well enough that even as half his team dozes lightly in their seats, they’ve begun to feel the pressure of the race bearing down on them. Even Manami, who’s seated at his left, has taken to tapping out a cheerful rhythm with their cleats, to no one’s immediate annoyance (save Kuroda’s, as usual).

Barely five minutes later, their bus pulls up to a stop; all idle movement halts as the pneumatic doors of the bus hiss open, and Arakita gets to his feet, clipboard in hand. He lets the support crew step off first, calling out a reminder to Morikawa about alerting the officials of their arrival, before motioning for his team to step off as well. As they pass him, Arakita holds out a hand for a high-five and, in Izumida’s charmingly formal case, a firm handshake. He’s the last to get off the bus, and Fukutomi has apparently elected to wait for him, as they only begin to cut through the crowd towards their tent when Arakita hands his duffel bag over to Hayato.

The holding area for the participating high schools is expectedly noisy, but Arakita’s sure the fanfare only increased when the other schools noticed their arrival. “It’s Hakogaku!!” “Hakogaku’s arrived!!” “The Kings, the Kings are here! Hakogaku!”

Yeah, yeah, it’s Hakogaku! Obviously! It says so on their jerseys, doesn’t it?!

“Shit, that guy behind them, in the track suit, isn’t that—?” “It’s Hakogaku’s ‘Seventh King’!”

…oh, for fuck’s sake.

Arakita scowls as the crowd’s murmurs grow louder (“The Seventh King’s here!”), and when Fukutomi and Toudou glance back at him with identically pleased faces, his expression only worsens, to his team’s collective amusement. Walking beside him, Hayato is quick to point out, “Yasutomo, the tips of your ears are pink.”

“Tch! It’s the stupid heat! Fuck, it’s like a sauna out here… Oi, Fuku-chan, hurry up already, the opening ceremony’s not gonna start without you!” Arakita looks to his left then, addressing Manami, “Don’t wander off anymore, Manami! I know you want out on the road soon, but let’s just get the official stuff done with quickly, yeah?”

The wonder climber smiles and says, “I won’t, Arakita-san.” Satisfied with the lack of insincerity in their answer, Arakita calls out the same reminder to the rest of his team, only to be answered with a chorus of, “Understood, seventh king!”

Fucking cyclists…!!

 


 

With less than twenty minutes to spare before the start of the race, and just minutes after the oddity of the welcoming remarks and that Kyoto Fushimi first year, Arakita hands over the last check of his team’s supplies to the support crew headed by Morikawa. He sweeps his gaze over Hakogaku’s tent, taking quick note of his team – Fuku-chan and Toudou, discussing strategy; Izumida, getting last minute tips from Hayato. Which leaves…

“Arakita-san, are you leaving now?” Manami speaks up from his right, an open bottle of bepsi in hand. Arakita grins as he takes the bottle, “What, you want to psyche up that Onoda kid some more? Hah! Fine, you can come with me – we’ll have to be quick, though.”

“You’re going to see someone, Arakita-senpai?” Kuroda asks, coming up to his left. “I’ll go with you. It would be good to meet the Sohoku that the captain’s been going on about.” Arakita laughs, reaching out to ruffle Kuroda’s hair as he says, “Yeah, alright, Kuroda. Get an eye on their assist too, while you’re at it, hah!”

He turns to Izumida and Hayato then, raising a hand as he calls out, “Hayato! I’m going to see Kin-chan! We’ll be right back!” His other half sends him a pistol-wink in reply, and with another wave to Fukutomi and Toudou, Arakita sets off.

As they walk, he half-grudgingly concedes that the popularity of his title had at least some merit – the crowds part easily for three of Hakogaku’s kings, and it doesn’t take too long for him to spot Sohoku’s riders in their bright yellow jerseys. If the English letters scrawled on their shoulders weren’t enough of a giveaway, the sight of a tall, black haired rider with a frown on his face all but convinces Arakita that he’s found the right team.

Fuck, fine, he thinks with an amused chuckle, he does look like me. Points to that, Kin-chan.

The rider – Imaizumi, all-rounder, Arakita remembers – notices their approach and stares them down almost immediately. At his sides are a short red-head (Naruko, sprinter) and the kid with glasses that Manami had called out to earlier (Onoda, climber), and Arakita feels himself start to sneer at the gaggle of first years that Kinjou had managed to cull.

“Hakogaku’s Seventh King,” Imaizumi greets, an impossibly serious tone in his voice, “What brings you here?”

Off to the side, Arakita sees Manami smiling at the climber with the glasses as Kuroda engages in a heated staring contest with the red-headed sprinter. He huffs out a laugh before looking back at Imaizumi and answering, “I’m here to see Kin-chan, what else? Be a good boy and call him for me, the race is gonna start soon, and I wanna make this quick.”

 

year5-3

 

“Not so fast, Demon King!” The red-head suddenly interrupts, “No way are we gonna let you psyche out our ace!”

Arakita hears Kuroda gasp indignantly at his words, and he sees Manami rock forward on their heels a little, a sharp smile on their face – Seriously! Can’t take you kids anywhere! He waves a hand to stay them, raising an eyebrow at the sprinter as he says, “Oi, oi, I’m just here to greet a friend… And what the fuck is with that ‘Demon King’ title??”

“That would be my fault, it seems, Yasutomo,” a voice speaks up from behind him. Arakita rounds on Kinjou instantly, a grin breaking out on his face. “Kin-chan! Your first years are rude shits, what the hell!”

Kinjou’s answering smile, unhindered by his shades, and the way he claps a hand on his shoulder, sends a spike of giddiness through Arakita – Ah, Kin-chan’s in good form today…! Excellent! “Were you expecting complete deference? They’re well aware of your strength, Yasutomo, it’s a natural reaction.”

“Heh, don’t stress them out so much, Kin-chan! If they burn out even before the parade ends, it’ll be so disappointing… And I still haven’t picked which restaurant I want to eat at yet!” Arakita reaches up to pat Kinjou’s hand with his own, glancing at the other third years idling behind him. “Though I’m keeping the option of a Tadokoro Special Lunch Set in mind. Hey, Makishima, Tadokoro – long time no see!”

The Human Bullet and Sohoku’s Peak Spider nod at him in greeting, before herding their first years away. Arakita glances at the thinning crowd and clasps Kinjou’s hand, “The race is about to start – I just wanted to say hi, and maybe get in a few hits.” With a smile, and a fond squeeze of Kinjou’s hand, “I’m really glad for the chance to let my team kick your ass on the road, Kin-chan!”

Kinjou huffs, squeezing Arakita’s hand back, “…I’m happy to see you as well, Yasutomo. I’ll be seeing you at the finish line first.”

“Hah! You can try!”

With a certain gleam in his eyes, Kinjou says, “I will.”

 


 

Five minutes to the start of the race.

Arakita tasks Morikawa and a handful of the support crew to go ahead of them to the resupply point, bringing the others with him to the starting line. Again, the crowd allows him to pass without trouble, and even the reporters and cameramen elbowing each other for a chance to get a glimpse of the team with the single-digit number tags make way for him and his support crew.

His victors stand at the very front of the two hundred-strong line of riders, and the feeling of boundless pride wells up in Arakita’s chest at the sight. This is what they’ve been working for, for the last year – the race that would carve another notch of renown in Hakogaku’s legacy, the race that his victors would complete with full confidence and all their effort rising to the fore.

“Oi!” Arakita calls out, leaning over the partitions. All six of Hakogaku’s riders turn to look at him, as if awaiting his command and Arakita laughs to himself, thinking Why not? Kin-chan gives orders all the time! He raises his voice, making sure that they hear him above the camera flashes and the murmurs of the crowd.

“I’ve only got one order for you guys!”

A change steals over his victors’ faces then, as they direct their full attention to their seventh king. Arakita trains his gaze on each and every one of his victors – from Manami, Kuroda, and Izumida, to Toudou and Hayato, and finally on Fukutomi – and says, “At the end of this race, I want all of you to come back to me.”

As one, Arakita’s victors give him their wordless assent, and then the speakers crackle to life as the officials announce – “Interhigh – Kanagawa Prefecture Tournament – Men’s Road Race, First Day! Begin!”

 


 

The 41st interhigh is an entirely new experience for Arakita – last year, he’d raced through the course with the rest of the support crew and cheered his lungs out at the near-unidentifiable blurs that their seniors had become. This year, even though he carried a heavier responsibility on his shoulders, he finds himself taking his time rounding up the support crew and sorting through the intel they feed him as the race progressed. He reviews it now with Morikawa, at Hakogaku’s tent at the holding area for the first day’s goal.

Today’s battlefield starts from Enoshima all the way to Odawara, a long flat course which is the sprinters’ domain. Instead of sending out Hayato, Fukutomi had chosen to slate Izumida to take the first checkpoint, one kilometer out of the shelterbelt. With his strict training regimen, and the muscles he’d honed to perfection and rested by refraining from participating in any big races, Izumida would have triumphed over the other sprinters without question.

If it weren’t for Sohoku’s Human Bullet, and that first year, Naruko Shoukichi, Arakita muses.

Intel tells him how, at 80 meters to the checkpoint, the crosswinds knocked over a score of road cones, forcing Izumida to weave a new path past their block. Sohoku’s sprinters met the would-be crash inducers head on, though, and burst past the checkpoint with blood on their faces.

From there on, the lead of the pack changed, until the road led off into Odawara city proper, where a crash left Sohoku’s first year climber, Onoda, at last place. Arakita could only imagine the shouting Toudou would have fallen into when Makishima refused to race him to the mountain result line, four kilometers from the first day’s finish line.

“He caught up, though!” Morikawa reports, “Amazingly, passing a hundred people, even that first year from Kyoto Fushimi!”

Which is how Makishima was able to claim second place, just behind Toudou. Arakita smiles down at the results sheets he’d been handed, thinking of how unbearable Toudou would be later, going on about his magnificent last race with his dear Maki-chan.

“And starting at that four kilometer mark, Kuroda stepped up,” Morikawa continues.

Kuroda. His skill as an assist is a statistical unknown, as far as the other high schools are concerned. They’ve only raced together a handful of times, but Fuku-chan’s fucking proud of the kid for bringing him to the goal ahead of everyone else, every fucking time.

At four kilometers to the finish line, the aces and their assists took over, and the observers Arakita had dotted along their way report how Kuroda had eaten up the distance like a starving beast, matching against Sohoku’s Imaizumi Shunsuke with terrifying fervor, cutting him off at every gain without mercy.

Hakogaku’s Beast, huh! Not bad!

And all of that led up to the last 500 meters before the finish line, where, out of anyone’s expectations, Kyoto Fushimi’s #91 caught up to the aces as they went all out to reach the goal at Lake Ashi.

“A three-way tie, eh?” Arakita throws the comment to his captain, who sits across him with supports handing him bottles and towels. Fukutomi nods, wiping the sweat off his forehead, “Sohoku is strong, Arakita.”

“’Course they are! So we have to be stronger!” Arakita says, getting to his feet and going over to ruffle his captain’s hair with his towel. He grins down at Fukutomi’s relaxed expression, continuing, “But that was a fun first day, wasn’t it, Fuku-chan?”

Fukutomi nods, and Arakita’s grin widens at the sight of his lips quirking into the barest hint of a smile.

“Tomii,” Toudou interrupts from the entrance of the tent, fresh from his ‘retouch’, “They’re calling the winners of the day’s results.”

With a final hearty clap on Fukutomi’s shoulder, Arakita sends his captain off. He gives Toudou a thumbs up as well, bearing with the sparkling that serves as his answer, before going off to where Kuroda and Izumida were in deep discussion of their performance. They pause when he stops in front of them, and before they could give him their customary (and often too-formal) greeting, he slaps his hands on their shoulders and says, “Good job! No effort wasted! You two rode well today, Kuroda, Izumida!”

“Arakita-san…”

“Remember this for next year,” Arakita continues, gripping their shoulders tightly, “And rest up today! You’ve got two more days of riding ahead of you, so you better keep giving it your all!” The uneasy expressions on their faces fade away at his words, and Arakita grins as he grabs clean towels from a passing support to throw over their heads.

“Now… and I can’t believe I’m asking this – where the fuck are Manami and Hayato??”

 


 

[your team’s giving us a good race kin-chan, im glad!]

[[I should say the same. Kuroda, that second year who was Fukutomi’s assist – he’s quite skilled.]]

[hell yeah! Hakogaku’s very own Beast of the Road! he’s out cold now tho, haha, curled up like a baby right after dinner]

[[Rest is important, Yasutomo. Tomorrow’s another day.]]

[it is. you rest up too, kin-chan! we’re at war tomorrow!]

 


 

“Line up and let them take your picture, Manami,” Arakita says, nudging the first year next to Toudou, “I gave them three minutes! Three! So stand still!” As soon as he’s finished setting his team up, Arakita gives the signal to the cameramen, making a point of timing them with his stopwatch. In between flashes, Toudou attempts to drag him in with them, “Look! Sohoku’s complete, so come on, Arakita!”

Arakita gives Kinjou and the rest of his team a wave before glaring at Toudou, “You have a minute and a half left! Do your weird pose already, and let’s wrap this up!”

The second day of the interhigh dawns with a promising air, and Arakita feels the tension returning to the remaining riders as they line up at the previous day’s finish line, now converted into the next starting line. Today’s battlefield would be the longest, and Arakita has already sent the support and observation crew along the course which stretched from Hakone Pass and all the way up Mt. Fuji, until the goal at Lake Motosu. Arakita himself would be heading straight for the sprint result point, but only after he makes sure his team took their place at the front of the lineup in time.

 “Oi! Hayato! How can I cheer for you if you don’t get a move on already!”

With a pistol-wink and a laugh, Hayato herds the rest of the team to the starting line, where they would be lined up according to the previous day’s results. Those same results would determine their starting time as well, and Arakita watches as the riders with the yellow number tags take their positions at the front – Midousuji from Kyoto Fushimi, Fukutomi, and, of course, Kinjou. Arakita catches his captain’s eye and flashes him a thumbs up before nodding to Kinjou and making his way out of the crowd.

He had a promise to keep, after all.

 


 

“Yasutomo,” Hayato whispers from the pillow pile right beside him, “You’re still awake, right?”

Arakita glances up from where he’d been texting Miyahara (Usakicchi should be hungry by now, don’t give her any apple cubes until she finishes her lettuce!), raising an eyebrow at his other half. “Something you need, Hayato?”

“I need a promise from you,” Hayato says. Arakita tilts his head questioningly, shifting to drape his upper half over Hayato, crossing his arms over his chest and setting his chin over his hands before saying, “Shoot, Hayato.”

“Promise you’ll come to cheer for me at the sprint result point tomorrow.”

The significance of the request isn’t lost on Arakita, especially with how Hayato is looking at him. Hayato had declined to join the interhigh the previous year, after all – but tomorrow he’d be riding for Fukutomi’s orders, and for the team.

And now, with this promise – he’d be riding for Arakita, as well.

Fucking hamster cheeks, Arakita thinks with the full measure of his affection for his other half.

“Fine,” he says, “I’ll be there, Hayato.”

Hayato smiles at him, giving him a double-cheek kiss as thanks. Not a moment later, Toudou comes into their room to call them for dinner, and Arakita squeezes himself between Hayato and Fukutomi to avoid his ensuing ‘Maki-chan’ rant.

 


 

Along National Route 139, past the site of the sprint result point, Arakita feels real fear for the first time in the course of the interhigh. Morikawa had waved him forward when he’d arrived at the resupply point, grimly telling him to go up the slopes with the riders. “Kyo-Fushi took the sprint result,” he reported, “And the kings’ formation is breaking. Go up and meet them, mother!”

Arakita grips his phone tightly in his left hand as he waits along the road – for today, he’d changed the home screen of his phone to a picture of Usakicchi, and he’d wanted to send Miyahara a message to give Usakicchi an extra treat when Hayato passed him at the sprint result point. With that plan dashed to the ground, he watches as the fickle crowd cheers for Kyo-Fushi’s riders as they speed down the road.

The cheering soon turns into worried murmurs, as Hakogaku climbs up the slope in what seemed like a dotted line – at least a hundred meters separated Toudou and Fukutomi at the front, Manami and Izumida in the middle, and Kuroda and Shinkai, all the way at the back. The fear that had trickled through Arakita at Morikawa’s report leaves him in a rush at the sight, and he comes right up against the railings to call out to his victors.

“Keep pedaling!! Hayato! All of you! Keep pedaling! I’ll be waiting at Lake Motosu! I’ll meet you all there, so don’t stop pedaling!!”

For a moment, it seemed that they hadn’t expected to see him there at all, cheering his lungs out – and then, the same confidence and drive steals over their faces, just as it had done on the first day, and one by one they give the wordless signs of their assent as they speed past him.

When Morikawa catches up to him, asking about the team’s condition, Arakita gives him a thumbs up.

“They’ll pull through. Now, let’s go! Pass the mountain check point, we’re gunning for the second day’s goal line!”

 


 

Kyo-Fushi takes the mountain result line, as Arakita predicted – but the mad dash for the second day’s finish line goes to Fukutomi, followed closely by Kinjou. The two teams that had supposedly broken apart during the course of the race come together in the end, and Morikawa tells Arakita about how Sohoku’s and Hakogaku’s sprinters and climbers pulled their respective teams up to the 4 kilometer mark. At that point, with Kuroda assisting him through the winding path leading up the side of Mt. Fuji, Hayato was able to regain his strength, enough to barrel past both Sohoku and Kyo-Fushi, taking Fukutomi to the last 250 meters before the finish line.

And as he promised his victors, Arakita is there to meet them at Lake Motosu.

“Fuku-chan!” Arakita calls out as his captain wheels off the main road, “Fuku-chan!” He comes up to him just as Fukutomi dismounts from his bike and allows it to be led to their tent. He looks at Arakita then, and Arakita stares back at the smile stretching over his lips and the tears streaking down his cheeks, before Fukutomi’s suddenly pulling him into a strong-armed hug, his face pressed against Arakita’s shoulder. “Fuku-chan…?”

“Thank you… for supporting us, Yasutomo,” Fukutomi says, his grip tightening as he continues, “I was able to pay my dues to Kinjou… and take today’s goal, because you supported me.” Against his shoulder, Fukutomi muffles a strangled sob, and repeats his thanks, again and again. Arakita smiles slowly as reaches up to return his embrace, rubbing comforting circles over his friend’s back.

“S’ my pleasure, Fuku-chan.”

 

year5-4

 

 


 

The rest of the team ride in moments later, and they soon join the support crew as they bombard Fukutomi with congratulations. Hayato hangs back to intertwine his left hand with Arakita’s right, smiling as Arakita relegated the post-race care of the team to Morikawa and the rest of the underclassmen. They sit together in the shade of the tent as the team accompanies Fukutomi to the awards ceremony, and Arakita adjusts the towel he’d thrown over Hayato’s head as he says, “Good work out there, Hayato.”

“Thank you, Yasutomo,” Hayato replies, squeezing his hand, “Juichi’s probably already thanked you, but I want to say it again.” He turns to face Arakita fully, with a smile that reminds Arakita of their first meeting on his face, “I was able to ride today because of you… Because you kept me afloat, and helped me remember how to stand on my own.”

A lump rises in Arakita’s throat at Hayato’s words, and, unexpectedly, he finds himself blinking back tears – “Fuck… fuck dammit, Hayato, what are you saying??” With a shaky breath, Arakita squeezes his other half’s hand, and says, “I love you! So of course… Of course I’d hold you up as long as you needed…!”

Hayato smiles at his words, and says, sounding as light as Arakita feels, “I’m really glad that I’m loved by you, Yasutomo.”

At the sight of his smile, Arakita feels his stomach flip-flopping in the most ridiculous way. It’s the best feeling in the world, and Arakita smiles back, before leaning over to press a tender kiss to his other half’s forehead.

 


 

Later that night, Arakita stands at the veranda of the room he shares with Hayato, phone in hand with a familiar number displayed on the screen. In the next moment, the call connects, and Arakita speaks softly into his phone as he watches the stars peek out overhead.

“Hey, Kin-chan. Heard you went all out today.”

Kinjou hums noncommittally and lapses into silence for a few moments. Arakita waits patiently for him to speak, picking up the sounds of cicadas and guessing that he’d caught Kinjou out on a walk. “Kin-chan…?”

“It was a good race,” Kinjou says eventually, and if he feels any regret at all, he’s careful not to let Arakita hear it. “There’s no doubt that it was a good race.”

“I’m glad. D’you have fun?” Arakita asks, smiling when Kinjou chuckles in reply before saying, “Yes. Yes, I did. We all did, I believe. And your team?”

“Fucking ecstatic,” Arakita drawls, “But more than that… they’re excited for tomorrow. The last day of the interhigh.”

Kinjou hums again, and Arakita’s certain of the expression on his face – if he thinks about it, he can almost see the gleam in Kinjou’s eyes, the relaxed planes of his face, and the thoughtful curve of his lips. Kinjou’s handsome when he broods, and Arakita can almost sympathize with the people who routinely mistook his friend for an older man. He keeps the thought to himself, though, as Kinjou speaks again.

“We’ll ride with all our strength tomorrow, Yasutomo.”

“We will, too,” Arakita replies, “I’ll be waiting at the Azami Line for my victors, Kin-chan. Don’t give them anything less than your best!”

“In that case, Yasutomo, you’ll have to prepare to greet another victor at the finish line.”

Arakita laughs, and the door opens – he looks over his shoulder, and waves at Hayato, who holds up two bottles of bepsi and a handful of power bars, before saying, “See you then, Kin-chan!”

“See you there, Yasutomo.”

 


 

The third day of the interhigh arrives, and with it, some troubling news.

“We checked, mother,” Morikawa says, grimacing in the face of Arakita’s deepening scowl, “…But the 12-pack of bepsi we brought along for the race has been consumed.” Fuck, Arakita thinks. At least Hayato got me one for my pills this morning. For now – vending machine it is.

With a wave of his hand, Arakita tells the second year, “Go double-check the team’s musettes then, Morikawa. If they ask where I’ve gone, tell ‘em I just went to the vending machine behind the stage.” Morikawa nods and takes a bow, handing Arakita a canvas bag before heading back into Hakogaku’s tent. Arakita shoulders the bag and makes his way to the vending machine, markedly more irritated by the whispers of the crowd that parts itself in deference to him than he’d been on the previous two days.

Still, when he arrives at the vending machine, the sight of the green button under the logo of his favorite drink eases some of the irritation off, and he fishes out coins from his pocket to ply can after can from the vending machine. He’s got half a dozen in his canvas bag when someone taps him on the shoulder, and a polite, cheerful voice speaks, “Excuse me! Will you be taking much longer with your drinks?”

When Arakita turns, he finds a girl smiling up at him with a canvas bag over her shoulder. He looks at the vending machine, which promised at least another dozen cans, and then back at the girl, saying, “I’m actually planning on taking every can of bepsi this thing can give me. But hey, tell me what you want, I’ll let you cut in.”

The girl thanks him, and asks for three Pocari’s and a bepsi. After tucking the Pocari’s into her canvas bag, she cracks open the can of bepsi one-handed and takes a long sip, sighing in satisfaction afterwards. Endeared by her obviously superior taste in drinks, Arakita asks, “Spectating for the race?”

“Nope! I’m a manager!” the girl says, her smile widening as she continues, “Just like you, Arakita-san!”

Arakita pauses, a can of bepsi in his hand, “…Have we met before?”

His fellow manager shakes her head, and gestures to the canvas bag over her shoulder – it’s only then that Arakita notices the words emblazoned across it: “Kanzaki Bicycle Shop – Chiba”. Kanzaki…? The name is quick to register in his mind, and Arakita glances up in surprise, exclaiming, “Kin-chan’s manager!”

Kanzaki nods, smiling as she bows, “It’s nice to properly meet you, Arakita-san!”

Arakita remembers Kinjou telling him about their manager once (A tenacious, eager manager with a sharp eye and a cheerful dispositionI think you’d get along with her, Yasutomo), and he gives Kanzaki a genuine smile as he holds out his right hand to her, saying, “Good to meet you, too, Kanzaki-san.”

They end up chatting about the interhigh on their way back to the tents, and Arakita finds himself amused by how similar their reactions to the results are, even if they came from different teams. He finally laughs outright when Kanzaki tells him about how the ‘Seventh Demon King’ title got around to Sohoku, as well as the first years’ gross misunderstanding.

“Arakita-san, please!” Kanzaki says, trying to curb her laughter as she continued, “They really thought you were going to ride in the race! They actually burned out earlier on a couple of training days, whenever Kinjou-senpai mentioned how hard you were working! Imaizumi-kun was absolutely convinced you were a domestique, but Naruko-kun kept telling him how you were definitely a sprinter!”

“Fuck! Kanzaki-san, I can’t even ride, haha!”

“Still! You’re Hakogaku’s Seventh King! That counts just as much!”

When they arrive at the cluster of tents, Arakita claps a hand on Kanzaki’s shoulder with a grin, “You work hard and support Kin-chan and your team, Kanzaki-san! Hakogaku’s going to take the title today!”

“Not if Sohoku can take it first, Arakita-san!” Kanzaki replies with a matching smile before walking off, waving at him as she rounds a corner.

 


 

Arakita’s in high spirits when he returns to Hakogaku’s tent, but the sight of an unfamiliar jersey (Hiroshima… Kureminami…?) looming over his first years immediately draws his mouth into a scowl. The way the two first years – Nanohara and Shigemori – shoot fearful, nervous glances at him as he comes closer doesn’t help the situation. “Arakita-senpai…!”

With his right hand, he decisively draws the Hiroshima rider away from his first years, who wisely take the chance to rush off from the scene. Arakita meets the rider’s almost predatory leer with a glare of his own as he asks, “Got a problem with my kids, Hiroshima?”

“Eh eh, what’s this? That fearsome ‘Arakita-san’ is a guy after all? What a letdown…” Hiroshima’s rider says, turning to Arakita and raking his gaze over him without even attempting to mask the action. His eyes catch onto something at Arakita’s right, and with a laugh that was fast grating on Arakita’s nerves, he leans closer, reaching for Arakita’s right arm.

“Still, look at all those stars you’ve got, Arakita-san…!”

(A tinny, almost faded echo – “Arakita-senpai… Are you listening to me?”)

“Yasutomo, is there a problem here?”

With a surer grip, Hayato pulls Hiroshima’s rider away from Arakita, keeping him back with his hand and a politely threatening look. Arakita steps closer to Hayato, effectively shielding his right from Hiroshima’s rider, who still hadn’t stopped staring at him. Tch! What the hell’s with this guy…?!

Scary, Mr. Fastest Sprinter! I was just complimenting your cute manager over there, eh eh.”

Arakita narrows his eyes at Hiroshima’s rider, biting his tongue to keep himself from playing into the guy’s trap. Besides, with how tensely Hayato stood between them, Arakita thinks it would be best if he didn’t give his other half an excuse to start in on Hiroshima’s rider with his admittedly decent fists.

“Hayato, let it go. You keep trash around you too long, it’ll stink up the place.”

“Heh! Hehe, Arakita-san,” Hiroshima’s rider laughs, “It takes one to know one, doesn’t it?”

At Hiroshima’s rider’s words, Hayato moves to step closer to him, and Arakita, already dreading the scene they would cause, reaches up to clutch at his arm, insistently hissing, “Hayato, don’t let him bait you!”

Hayato stills, but he speaks to Hiroshima’s rider so coldly, Arakita doesn’t have to look at his face to know he’s gone halfway into his demon mode. “You’ve got guts, stirring up trouble in enemy territory, Hiroshima. Why don’t we take this up on the road instead…?”

“Eh eh, where’s the fun in that?” Hiroshima’s rider drawls, keeping his gaze on Arakita, “Mm, if you really want a fight though, can we have your manager as a prize?”

Arakita feels Hayato start to shrug his hold off, but he tightens his grip and pushes past him instead, practically spitting his next words at Hiroshima’s rider, “Save your breath for the race, Hiroshima! Get the fuck out of my sight already, before I haul you off myself!”

Touchy,” Hiroshima’s rider crows, before continuing with a sly wink, “Say, if you need a shoulder to cry on later, when we win over your so-called kings, I’m free!” And with that, Hiroshima’s rider turns and makes his way down the rows of tents, leaving a tense atmosphere in his wake.

“Hayato,” Arakita says, looking back at his other half and reaching up to gently cup his face between his hands, “Hey, calm down, hamster cheeks. I’m fine. Don’t slobber on me.” It takes a few moments for the scowl on Hayato’s face to ease off into a concerned frown, but Arakita keeps patting his cheeks in the meantime, waving the curious first years back into the tent and their preparations.

“He didn’t touch you, did he, Yasutomo?” Hayato asks eventually, and Arakita shakes his head, allowing his other half to nuzzle against his right hand, “Didn’t get the chance to. You showed up right on time, thanks for that.” Hayato smiles at his words, and Arakita is relieved by the sight, enough to be able to pinch Hayato’s cheek playfully as he says, “That’s enough of that! The race is gonna start soon! Let’s get you to the road already…”

“Lead the way then, Yasutomo,” Hayato says, twining their hands, and together they set off for the last day’s starting line.

 


 

As with the previous day, the finish line has been converted into the starting line by the time the remaining racers gather under its banner. Arakita watches as Sohoku’s support crew, Kanzaki amongst them, come up to partitions to give their own final words to their team. He catches Kanzaki’s eye, and his fellow manager waves to him so energetically, Arakita finds himself waving back, “Hey, Kanzaki-sa—”

“Hey, there… You’re pretty cute! Got a boyfriend? If you don’t, why not date me?”

…Hiroshima!

“Heh, I won’t ask you to do it for free, though… Why don’t we go out after I take first place at this race?”

Arakita’s glad the crowd, thick as it is, still recognizes him and parts willingly as he makes his way to Sohoku’s manager. He reaches Kanzaki just in time to pull Hiroshima’s rider’s arm off her shoulder and shove him off with a glare, “You just don’t know when to fucking quit, do you, Hiroshima?”

At his side, Arakita sees Kanzaki square her shoulders and stare Hiroshima’s rider down, before saying, “That’s impossible. You won’t make it to the top goal, either – the two teams at the front have a significant time difference from the others, and,” she pauses then, glancing quickly at Arakita, “All of us have gone through tough training for this day.”

Heh, Kin-chan was right, we would get along, Arakita thinks, slipping Kanzaki an approving nod before Hiroshima’s rider speaks up.

“The little lady knows a lot about road racing, imagine that! Eh eh, but even though you’ve got a point… I have them!” he gestures to himself then, that same vulpine grin stretching over his face, “I, Machimiya Eikichi, the third year ace from Hiroshima Kureminami’s Technical High School, have stars!”

Again with the fucking stars…

“The stars that attract victory and bring powerful luck! I have them!” Machimiya exclaims, continuing to gesture to himself, before he slides his gaze back to Arakita, at which point his grin turns menacing and greedy, “Hakogaku’s precious seventh king has them, too! I can see why you keep him around… He has an entire galaxy of them, from where I see it!” On instinct, Arakita angles his right side away from Machimiya, drawing a laugh from Hiroshima’s ace.

“Heh! Don’t worry, Arakita-san, I won’t come after your stars now…” Machimiya vaults over the partitions then, quickly stepping up to Kinjou and Fukutomi as he says, “Today, I want the stars of the race’s most powerful contenders!”

Like the other racers, Arakita can only stare in confusion and shock as Machimiya “steals stars” from Kinjou with his bare hands. When he moves on to Fukutomi, Kuroda starts yelling for Machimiya to back off, until Fukutomi pulls himself away and fixes Hiroshima’s ace with an uncompromising gaze, “This won’t reassure your victory, Machimiya. Only the strongest will make it to the Azami Line.”

“Heh, you’re not wrong, Fukutomi-kun…” Machimiya says, waltzing back towards the partitions.

“But!” he adds, suddenly spreading his arms and casting his gaze over the spectators and the racers alike, “In a road race, there’s no telling what will happen!”

 


 

Later, as Arakita rushes down the mountain towards Lake Yamanaka, he remembers Machimiya’s words, and he feels the dread pooling in his stomach as they ring in perfect clarity in his mind, side by side with the support crew’s news about Sohoku’s riders.

…Kin-chan!

 


 

The 41st interhigh’s final course takes the riders and their spectators past the five great lakes of Mt. Fuji, continuing on the gently sloping National Route 139 and heading off on the flats connecting Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Yamanaka. After that, the most arduous stage of the race tasks the riders to conquer Prefectural Route 150, otherwise known as the Azami Line – the road that would draw out every last measure of strength for the climbers entrusted with taking the final goal at the peak of Mt. Fuji.

At the sound of the starting pistol, Arakita watches as the aces and, eventually, their assists, take to the road at incredible speeds. Further along the line, he hears of Sohoku and Hakogaku joining forces to catch up to their respective aces. Must have been a sight to see, he thinks with a grin on his face.

The news of Hiroshima Kureminami gathering up the pack of hopeless riders comes to him just as he reaches the first resupply point, and upon conferring with Morikawa and the observers who’d been keeping their eyes on the rest of the riders of the interhigh, Arakita concludes that Machimiya planned to destroy the pack he’d gathered from within, turning their cooperation into blame-throwing while he and his team comfortably pass through Route 139, with energy to spare for the last stretch of the race.

“The first years are in danger, mother,” Morikawa tells him as they make their way towards Lake Yamanaka, “I’ve just received word that Manami and Sohoku’s secondary climber have been swallowed by the pack.”

Arakita closes his eyes and mentally thumbs through the race simulations he and the core team had practiced in the months leading up to the interhigh. As he does so, he asks Morikawa to confirm who else had fallen behind. After a quick pass of mail and calls to the observation crew, Morikawa turns to Arakita with a hopeful expression on his face.

“Kuroda is with them, mother.”

At that, Arakita feels an almost painfully wide grin spread over his face, “We’ve got nothing to worry about, then. Morikawa, tell the observation crew between the halfway point of Route 139 and the sprint result line to keep their eyes on the racers.”

The encouragement of the news is short lived, however. Just as they arrive at Lake Yamanaka, Morikawa reports that Kuroda had engaged Hiroshima in a three-on-six race, Manami and Onoda in tow. Arakita grits his teeth and orders the support crew to prepare for an arrival, to the second years’ dismay. While he holds Kuroda’s ability to deliver both first years to the lead pack in perfect confidence, Arakita knows the toll the task would take on the assist would be harsh. At least don’t crash out, Kuroda…

Arakita’s desperate wish is granted when intel comes up to Morikawa about stragglers from the observation crew picking up Kuroda on their way, along with the news that Manami and Onoda had both successfully rejoined their respective teams. The recovery vehicle arrives at Lake Yamanaka in just a short while, and Arakita takes the time to make sure that Kuroda was settled in properly and promptly attended to by the support crew stationed with him, before starting up on the Subashiri trail.

As they head forward, Arakita recalls the strategies he and his team had discussed – It’s impossible to finish a race with all six of them together. The strain it would put on their bodies would be unimaginable, and like fuck am I letting any long-lasting injuries happen to those pedaling idiots.

As such, Arakita approves of Kuroda’s decision to pull out after his match with Hiroshima. Remember this for your next interhigh, Kuroda, Arakita thinks. Following this, however, Arakita knows Fukutomi would call Izumida up next, using his speed to get them to the last three kilometers before the mountain stage ahead of Kinjou and his team.

“Morikawa,” Arakita says, “Tell the crew at the three kilometer mark to get ready to receive Izumida.”

“… Understood, mother.”

After that, it’s an all-out sprint at Lake Yamanaka, and then, the last 15 kilometers winding up the West face of Mt. Fuji – I’ll meet you all at the end, so don’t stop pedaling!

 

 


 

The crowd of spectators spread out over the Azami Line, and Arakita notes with detached fascination how they seem to develop rubber necks as they peer around each other for a glimpse of the riders. They aren’t going to be here just yet, stand down, why don’t you?

When intel reports that Izumida had been successfully retrieved and brought to the med tents at Lake Yamanaka, Arakita asks Morikawa to check on Kuroda’s condition. As the second year confers with the support crew, Arakita answers a call from the observation crew dotting the path leading up to the mountain interval.

“Suzuki, what’s the situation there?”

“Mori-chan—Ah, mother? Mother! Shinkai-senpai’s just fallen back! He told us he’d still be finishing the race. Sohoku’s Human Bullet was riding with him,” Arakita nods to himself, and allows Suzuki to continue, “Also, two more of Sohoku’s riders have dropped out!”

wait, two?

“One of them crashed out pretty bad, and we heard something about a bad knee…”

It can’t be…—

With an urgency fueled by a growing feeling of panic, Arakita asks, “Suzuki, where did they crash out?”

“Uh, just before Subashiri? The recovery van’s already picked them up, they’re heading to Lake Yamanaka. Hang on, I’m getting confirmation on their number tags…”

Arakita bites his lip as he waits, feeling the same crippling fear from the previous day returning to flood his feet with lead. Morikawa shoots him a questioning glance, but before he could even wave off his concern, Suzuki speaks up again.

“Mother? The riders who’re on their way back to Lake Yamanaka for recovery are Sohoku’s number 174 and 171.”

171. Kin-chan—

“In a road race… there’s no telling what will happen!”

 


 

As he rushes down the Subashiri trail on a borrowed scooter, Arakita attempts to quell the dread building up inside him, rationalizing the information Suzuki had given him, as well as the confirmation calls Morikawa had made before allowing him to go. Only one rider crashed out, the other was able to keep standing until the recovery van drove up to them.

Still, Machimiya’s words from earlier that morning persistently weasel their way between his perfectly logical conclusions, and Arakita speeds up in a panic-stricken reflex. With the side roads thankfully devoid of heavy traffic, Arakita makes the trip down to the holding area at Lake Yamanaka in record time. The officials, recognizing him as Hakogaku’s manager, lead him to the shared medical tents without delay, assuring him that his riders had been well attended to.

“Sohoku, though – what about Sohoku’s Kinjou? Number 171!”

“—Eh? He’s there with them, too. Arakita-kun…?”

Arakita throws open the flaps of the medical tent himself, wild eyes scouring the small space for a pair of familiar green eyes and self-assured smile; to his right, he sees Izumida sitting by Kuroda, and to his left—

“…Yasutomo?”

The same fear that carried him down the Subashiri trail now drives him to stand in front of where Kinjou sat with his left knee bandaged and an expression of stunned disbelief on his face. Arakita tries to speak, but for some reason, his madly-pulsating heart has lodged itself in his throat, and it’s all he can do to reach out to Kinjou with a trembling hand. Without fail, Kinjou takes his right hand in his, venturing dazedly, “Yasutomo. What… What are you doing here?”

“I heard…” Arakita starts, before dumbly allowing Kinjou to coax him to take the seat beside him. His hand twines itself with Kinjou’s on pure reflex, and he swallows against the persistent jackhammer pulse of his heart as he continues, “I heard you crashed out. Are you okay, Kin-chan…?”

He doesn’t know where to look, Arakita realizes – his eyes keep flitting between Kinjou’s worried gaze (Fuck! I’m the one who should be worried here! Kin-chan!) and the bandages around his left knee in a panicked frenzy, and it’s only when Kinjou squeezes his hand that he finds himself able to meet and hold his steady gaze.

“I didn’t crash out, Yasutomo. My knee gave up after the sprint… I couldn’t pedal forward anymore, so I withdrew.”

Couldn’t… Couldn’t pedal forward…?

(Sohoku’s rider, the cyclist from Chiba, limping over the finish line. The odd movement of his legs, his labored breathing. The way it seemed to kill him, little by little, to move one foot over the other. He hadn’t even been able to get back on his bike, afterwards.)

“Kin-chan,” Arakita says, his right hand trembling around Kinjou’s left, “Kin-chan… You… Are you going to be able to ride again…?”

Kinjou shakes his head, and for a moment Arakita’s sure he’s going to vomit out the organ of suspicious importance that refuses to leave his throat, keeping him from getting enough oxygen, but Kinjou’s voice pulls him over and away from the cliff he’s practically leaning over as he says, “I will. I overdid it yesterday, but this kind of thing has happened before. It just needs rest.”

He offers Arakita a reassuring, if tired, smile, squeezing his right hand again as he says, “I’m fine, Yasutomo.”

Without a second thought, Arakita pulls his hand away and throws his arms around Kinjou’s shoulders, exclaiming “You fucking scared me!” with a voice that is surprisingly steadier than he would have given himself credit for.

Afterwards, the relief that floods his veins makes it difficult to say anything other than “Idiot Kin-chan!” for some time, but Kinjou knows him well enough to understand that there’s not a trace of malice in his words. He’s also markedly less awkward about Arakita embracing him, and Arakita sighs contentedly when he feels Kinjou wrap his arms around him after a moment’s consideration.

“… I’m really glad you’re alright, Kin-chan.”

Kinjou doesn’t say a word in reply, but he does squeeze Arakita tighter, and Arakita counts that as enough of an answer. Kin-chan’s probably fatigued, he thinks, I should let him rest. Still, it’s difficult for Arakita to untangle himself from what is, technically, their first decent hug together. He chooses to wait until his heart settles down, or until Kinjou stopped the hug himself.

In the meantime, Arakita relishes the feeling of having Kinjou, injured but whole, in his arms, along with the knowledge that he would still be able to ride again.

 


 

Arakita estimates that his first proper hug with Kinjou lasts for around two, three minutes, at which point he finally notices the red-headed first year lying on the bed right behind them. Kinjou explains that it had been Naruko who’d crashed out, after carrying his team up the incline, despite being a sprinter. “He’s also recovering well,” Kinjou insists in the face of Arakita’s growing concern, and he continues on to say that the concussion hadn’t been severe and that he would still be able to race.

The reassurance calms Arakita enough, to the point that he’s able to excuse himself from the tent to chew out Suzuki over the phone for his flawed intel. He’s still in high spirits from learning that Kinjou would be recovering without any lasting damages, however, so the second year isn’t too shaken up by his call. Arakita calls Morikawa next, to tell him that he’d be staying at the holding area at Lake Yamanaka until the conclusion of the race.

“I want to keep an eye on a few things here. Keep updating me, though.”

As ordered, Morikawa keeps Arakita on the line as he confirms information from the observation crew scattered over the last ten kilometers of the course, “Makishima and Toudou-sempai have marked each other. The aces and their secondary climbers have moved up!”

The officials observing the race corroborate this report, and Arakita wastes no time relaying it to Izumida and Kuroda, who are, as he’d been told earlier, on their way to recovery as well. Neither of them seem too fatigued by the orders they’d completed with all their strength, and Arakita spends the lulls between Morikawa’s reports affirming their efforts and, in Kuroda’s case, ragging him on his race with Hiroshima (“Got him good, did you, hah!” “I only did what was expected of a king, mother.” “Damn straight you did!”).

Later, Morikawa’s report at the 2 kilometer mark reaches Arakita mere seconds before the officials have the same information radioed in to them. His eyes are wide when he tells Kinjou, “Your first year, that kid with the glasses – Onoda – he’s chasing Manami down the last stretch for the goal…!”

As Kinjou repeats the news to his red-headed sprinter, Arakita turns to Kuroda and Izumida, who stare back at him in disbelief. Kuroda even rises on his trembling arms to say, “But – But Manami has their wings! He can’t have broken past those!”

“They’ll exult,” Arakita agrees, but the thought of Manami shifting up to their last gear sends a chill through Arakita, and he calls Morikawa to alert the observation crew closest to the finish line, “Watch Manami! If they exult, they’ll definitely break Fuku-chan’s order and go over the eighth gear—!”

“They’re at the last kilometer, mother!” Morikawa interrupts, “Manami’s flying on their own up to the goal! …Wait, Shimizu – 176? What do you mean 176 is chasing them—?!”

At 500 meters, the officials are informed that Onoda Sakamichi has lined up with Manami Sangaku. There are two more winding roads until the Azami Line ends, Arakita thinks, clutching his phone, so fly, Manami!

At 200 meters, all five of them gathered at the med tent have riveted their attention to the radio blaring announcements – “Sohoku’s 176 and Hakogaku’s 6 are still lined up, on the last straight road to the goal!”

At 100 meters, Morikawa sends Arakita a message, consisting of only two words [goal sprint].

At 60 meters, Arakita receives a message from Suzuki, [peak spider & mountain god gunning for third place!!!]

At 30 meters, Arakita gets to his feet and calls Morikawa, gritting his teeth as the cheers of the spectators pour in from the radio, along with the last count of distance. It feels like eternity before his call connects.

“Morikawa! Manami, how are they—”

“Mother,” Morikawa interrupts, “It’s over.”

 


 

Once, I told Manami something fucking embarrassing.

“Arakita-san,” they asked me, “Why do you keep pushing yourself to use your right arm?”

“Haa?? What kind of fucking question is that!”

“You told me before that you go to the hospital to see if your arm’s still dead. And it is. So, I was wondering why you still keep using it.”

“Well, what the fuck do you expect me to do with it?? It’s an idiot arm, yeah, and it dies every now and then… But I live with it!

“Really?”

“Fuck, really! Life doesn’t give you this kind of chance a second time, y’know!”

…alright, it wasn’t embarrassing at all. I wonder if they remember that conversation.

 


 

Being a king does have it perks, Arakita thinks as he, Kinjou, and Naruko are driven up to the Azami Line. He’d only asked one of the officials if there was some way they could get to the goal in time for the awards ceremony, and immediately they’d offered to drive them up there themselves. Arakita then left the support crew to look after Izumida and Kuroda, but not until he gave the two second years long, reassuring parting hugs.

“How’s that title feeling, Kin-chan?” he asks, glancing up at Kinjou from the message he’d just sent to Morikawa ([heading up with sohoku’s 171 and 174. keep manami with you]) and smiling at the expression of sheer joy on his friend’s face.

“Amazing,” Kinjou answers. He reins himself in, though, as he looks at Arakita and says, “I would have preferred arriving there on my bike, but being escorted by a king is an acceptable alternative.”

Arakita laughs at that, and settles his hand on Kinjou’s bandaged knee, “Just making sure you’re alive enough to get up on stage, Kin-chan!”

 


 

Morikawa’s message ([manami in conference with third years.]) arrives just as Arakita steps out of the car. He waves Kinjou and Naruko off to Tadokoro, half-running for Hakogaku’s tent, coming to a pause at its closed-off entrance when he hears Manami’s voice drifting out.

“...so I went to look at the view until they stopped.”

“Manami,” Fukutomi begins, and Arakita stays his feet, keeping himself from bursting into the tent at the urging of some gut feeling, “How are your legs?”

The tenth gear, Arakita thinks. The exultation.

“Painful. Do you think Arakita-san will give me a massage if I ask nicely later?”

Toudou speaks up next, “Morikawa told us that he kept asking about you on the last stretch. I’m sure he’ll yell at you for a few minutes before indulging you, you know how your mother is.”

“Haha, yeah.”

Haha, Toudou.

“Manami. Do you still want to ride?” Fukutomi asks. Arakita fights to stay put, thinking, Fuku-chan can handle this! He’s a good king! He busies himself with shooing away the reporters inching closer to their tent instead, almost missing Manami’s plainly given answer.

“Yes. I still want to ride, Fukutomi-san.”

The silence that follows nearly has Arakita wrenching the flaps open. Thankfully, Fukutomi breaks it just before he does.

“Good. This is not the end for you. Remember that this is only your first interhigh.”

“…Fukutomi-san…”

“You are strong, Manami Sangaku. You carried our dreams and aspirations to the best of your ability, and gave this race the whole of your efforts. Thank you for giving us your best.”

 

year5-5

 

Fuck, Fuku-chan. You’re too damn honest.

“…That said, are you prepared to take back Hakogaku’s pride next year?”

“Yes, Fukutomi-san… Toudou-san, Shinkai-san. I’m prepared to take back our pride.”

“Say it louder, Manami.”

“Yes, Fukutomi-san!”

“Good. Now, let’s go to the awards ceremony. Sohoku has been a peerless rival for us, and we must let them know that it was an honor to race against them.”

The flap of the tent opens from the inside, and Arakita meets the incredulous stares of the third years head on before turning to Manami, “Oi, oi, you’re not going out there looking like that, are you Manami? That Onoda kid’s not gonna recognize you with snot all over your face, come here…”

Wordlessly, Manami lets Arakita drag them back into the tent, staying still as he cleans up their face. By the time they’re done and out of the tent, the third years are all fond, tired smiles and, in Hayato’s case, needy nuzzling. Arakita lets his other half cling to his right arm, keeping Manami at his left as they make their way to the stage.

 


 

“The overall champion of the 41st Interhigh – Chiba’s Sohoku High School!”

Arakita can’t help but clap for Sohoku as they rise to the stage, hand in hand. He knows it had been a well-fought fight. He sees Fukutomi nodding at Kinjou, and he reins in the urge to ruffle his captain’s hair. Toudo’s already being embarrassing enough, he concedes, waving at Makishima like he does. Manami’s doing no better, fixing Onoda with a stare that lets Arakita know that their drive to ride is anything but dead.

The announcements continue, and Arakita squeezes Hayato’s hand before he leaves to claim his award for the sprint result. Hayato motions for him to come close to the stage, though, so Arakita complies – only to fumble with the bouquet that Hayato tosses to him from the stage.

“Hayato, what the fuck!!”

“For you, Yasutomo!” he says, adding his pistol-wink without fail. Hayato somehow manages to escape him afterwards, darting down the stage and disappearing into the crowd. Arakita clutches at the small bouquet, feeling the tips of his ears burning, not daring to look anyone else as he tries to keep his entire face from flushing red.

“Fast even on his feet. That’s a sprinter for you,” a familiar voice comments from his right, and Arakita looks up to see Kinjou smiling at him, leaning a little against the stage.

“Kin-chan! Oi, you should be resting that knee, idiot!” Fussing being second nature to him at this point, it doesn’t take Arakita much effort to coax Kinjou off his feet and onto the steps leading down the stage. “Let your first years handle the interviews, you can give the closing statement later and redact any embarrassing shit they accidentally spill.”

Kinjou chuckles at that, and Arakita sits himself next to him comfortably, resting his right hand over his bandaged knee. Something sparks in Arakita’s memory, and he turns to ask Kinjou, “Kin-chan, you know that deal we made? You never told me what you wanted, when you won!”

“Ah, that.” Kinjou stares off at the thinning crowd for a while, before meeting Arakita’s gaze, and continuing, “I only promised to meet you at the finish line, didn’t I? I’m sorry I wasn’t able to keep that promise.”

Arakita tsk’s at him, lightly bumping Kinjou’s shoulder with the bouquet he held, “Couldn’t be helped! Like hell would I have stood for watching you limp over the finish line again! You still have other races to ride in, you know.” Arakita pauses then, tilting his head at Kinjou as he asks, “What were you gonna meet me for, anyway?” The promise made sense when Arakita thinks of his victors, but Kinjou is from a different team – shouldn’t he have promised that to his own support crew?

At his words, Kinjou smiles ruefully at Arakita, before saying, “I just wanted… to see your face at the end, I suppose.” He glances down, setting his left hand over Arakita’s right, afterwards looking back up and continuing, “Somehow, the thought of meeting you there made me want to ride faster, pedal harder… Because I couldn’t wait.”

“Couldn’t wait… to see me?” Arakita finishes uncertainly, a puzzled frown on his face. Still, Kinjou nods, and says, “Yeah. After all, you were my motivation for this interhigh, Yasutomo.”

Just then, Sohoku’s first years descend upon them, wanting to drag their captain off for the last round of interviews. As he’s carefully urged away, Kinjou waves his goodbyes to Arakita with the same smile on his face, and suddenly Arakita finds himself alone at the steps of the interhigh’s grand stage. He stays there for a long while, Kinjou’s words lingering in his mind.

 


 

When Arakita returns to Hakogaku’s tent, Morikawa is there, directing the last of the support crew with their supplies back to the bus. He holds up an open bottle of bepsi for Arakita, and informs him that the team had gone on ahead, as “Shinkai-sempai wanted to secure the back of the bus for, erm, ‘lap-pillow purposes’.”

Sure enough, when Arakita gets on the bus, Hayato’s already sprawled over the five seats at the back, and he smiles when Arakita comes up to him, bouquet in hand. Wordlessly, he sits up to allow Arakita to sit down, pillowing his head on Arakita’s lap afterwards. Arakita threads his fingers through Hayato’s hair as the bus pulls out into the road, and with a pleased sigh, Hayato settles in for a nap.

The drive back to the campus is quiet, for the most part. The drone of the engine and the hum of the air conditioning lull the exhausted support and observation crew to sleep early on in the trip, and Arakita smiles when he sees Morikawa, who’d taken the seat just in front of him and Hayato, finally doze off on Suzuki’s shoulder.

A little to the middle of the bus, Arakita spots Manami and Toudou with their heads bowed towards each other’s, and at first he assumes that they were sleeping too, until Manami’s giggling proves him wrong. Toudou shushes them quickly, and they resume their conversation in a more subdued tone. Climber business, Arakita concludes, and casts his gaze around for his captain.

He finds Fukutomi close to the front, seated with Kuroda and Izumida, who both look wide awake as they listen and nod in response to what Fukutomi is telling them. As Arakita continues to watch them, he sees Fukutomi gesture to Izumida, causing the sprinter to freeze up and then subsequently flush a remarkable shade of red and stammer out something Arakita couldn’t hear. Fukutomi causes the same reaction in Kuroda when he turns and speaks to him, and Arakita chalks it up as Succession talks, before turning his attention to the passing scenery and, eventually, drifting off to sleep.

 


 

“…You were my motivation for this interhigh, Yasutomo.”

On his desk, next to Hayato’s bouquet in a makeshift vase, Arakita’s phone sits in its charging cradle. The display shows his battery percentage, a rabbit emoji, the date and time, and nothing else. He feels the urge to send Kinjou a message, but – What the fuck am I gonna say??

The question is startling, and Arakita finds himself unable to draw up a line of conversation. Even with the conclusion of the interhigh, Arakita thinks they’re good enough friends to not fall apart simply because the defining race of their high school lives had just ended.

Arakita blinks up at his ceiling, and suddenly, the fact that the race that he’d spent an entire year preparing for was finally over registers at last. The interhigh’s done. Hakogaku lost.

I wasn’t there to meet them at the finish line.

The tears don’t fall quietly this time, but Arakita manages to muffle the worst of his crying against his pillow, even as his shoulders shake with the effort. Every breath seems to tear itself from his lungs, and soon enough he grows dizzy from the uneven mess of his thoughts and the memory of each of his victors’ faces as they passed him going up on Route 139.

He knows it’s bordering on conceited to think that they’d lost because of him, but Arakita can’t help but feel that if he’d just given them more of himself – if the previous month hadn’t happened – if he’d put in more effort –

I did, he thinks miserably, we all gave it our best. Kuroda worked hard as Fuku-chan’s assist, and Izumida’s an amazing sprinter. Toudou’s strategies and climbing didn’t fail us, and Hayato picked himself back up to carry Fuku-chan to the goal. And Fuku-chan did his best as the ace and as a king, and because of what he said to Manami, Manami’s going to ride at the next interhigh, too. They’re all going to keep riding, after today.

But even as Arakita tries to push away the frustration of their loss, it still takes another hour for the tears to stop.

 


 

Around midnight, Arakita wakes up to the sound of his door being opened. Through the bleary daze of having fallen asleep after crying his eyes out, Arakita recognizes the vague shape edging into his room.

“Yasutomo…?”

Wordlessly, Arakita rolls over in his bed, leaving a space wide enough for Hayato to settle in. It’s common practice for them to visit each other’s room like this, and Arakita knows Hayato would get the message easily enough. He hears the door click shut, and then a weight settles beside him.

Arakita waits for Hayato to slip under the covers and wriggle up next to him, but, strangely enough, he doesn’t. He looks over his shoulder then, intending on asking his other half what his problem was, only to find Fukutomi blinking at him in the semi-dark, with Hayato standing at his shoulder, holding an extra pillow and blanket.

…somehow, I’m not even surprised.

“Don’t crush me,” Arakita slurs, before shifting closer to the wall and tugging at Fukutomi’s sleeve and disjointedly adding, “We hog covers.”

“I brought two extras, Yasutomo,” Hayato says, and Arakita grunts in sleepy approval. He tugs at Fukutomi’s sleeve again, but doesn’t speak, and Hayato helpfully translates, “It’s okay to lie down next to him, Juichi.”

After some maneuvering, a long moment wherein Hayato quietly insists that Arakita wouldn’t mind if Fukutomi spooned him, and a slightly shorter moment wherein Arakita monosyllabically explains to Fukutomi what spooning is, the three of them finally settle down with Arakita in the middle, Hayato at his right, next to the wall, and Fukutomi at his left. Cozy, Arakita’s sleep-muddled mind supplies, and soon, he’s drifting off again, head tucked under Hayato’s chin and Fukutomi’s arm thrown over his waist.

 


 

Some unidentifiable amount of time later, Arakita hears two subsequent thumps, and the first thing he thinks is, Why isn’t Fuku-chan cuddling me anymore? It’s the oddity of the thought that makes him sit up, but it’s the extra blanket ( apple-print) that makes him lean over the edge of his bed to tug at Fukutomi’s sleep shirt.

“Fuku-chan, come back to bed.”

It takes two more tugs and Hayato echoing his order for Fukutomi to crawl back beside him. As Arakita prepares to settle back between them, he hears another thump – this time, coming from his door.

Knocking, he corrects himself, as the sound persists. Arakita shuffles to his feet, glancing over his shoulder once to make sure Fukutomi hadn’t fallen out again, before opening his door just enough to poke his head out.

“…Arakita?”

Toudou is standing at my door, Arakita notes, with a pillow and a blanket. We’re not going to fit properly. Hayato’s a comfy bed, though.

“Uhm, sorry for waking you, I was just – Tomii and Shinkai aren’t in their rooms, so I was wondering if you knew where they were, but you’re obviously still half asleep, so I’ll just leave—”

Arakita holds up a hand to stop Toudou’s rambling, before muttering, “I’m getting on top of Hayato,” and making his way back to his bed. Toudou squeaks and follows him in, fumbling to close the door before coming to a halt at the sight of Fukutomi and Hayato bundled up in covers in Arakita’s bed.

“…I was late, then, was I?” Toudou murmurs, and Arakita huffs a laugh before patting his head and saying, “Don’t fall off Fuku-chan.”

It takes another round of maneuvering before the four of them settle in – they end up lying on their sides, with Fukutomi and Hayato bracketing Toudou and Arakita, but Arakita’s sleep-fuzzed mind still insists he’s comfortable. Toudou proves to be prime cuddling material (Maybe even body pillow material), and also thoughtful to boot, as he shifts carefully so as not to lean his weight on Arakita’s right arm, so Arakita has no trouble slipping back into sleep.

If not for Toudou tugging insistently on his sleeve.

“I take it back,” Arakita mutters, cracking an eye open to stare blearily at Toudou, “You wouldn’t make a good body pillow at all. What gives, Toudou, I was asleep.”

“You were calling Toudou ‘prime cuddling material’, Yasutomo,” Hayato comments, clearly in cahoots with the notion of not sleeping. Arakita scowls and, upon realizing Hayato can’t see his expression, elbows him in the side. This, however, only makes Hayato laugh.

“Shinkai, if you were awake, why didn’t you say so?” Toudou whines, “I don’t want to do this alone, you know!” Fukutomi speaks up then, saying, “Toudou, stop,” and Arakita could have cuddled him if only he hadn’t added, “Lower your voice,” right after.

Resigning himself to a sleepless fate, Arakita reaches over to tweak Toudou’s nose, asking, “What’s eating you, Toudou? Spit it out so we can figure out a way to handle it or something.”

“Full sentences,” Hayato murmurs against his nape, “He’s awake, Jinpachi.”

Toudou squeaks and bats Arakita’s hand away, hurriedly apologizing to Fukutomi when he ends up elbowing him in the side with the movement. He settles quickly, though, meeting Arakita’s gaze somewhat fearfully before saying, “Sorry.”

When Toudou doesn’t continue, Arakita raises a questioning eyebrow at him, “Sorry… for what exactly?”

With an encouraging pat on the shoulder from Fukutomi, Toudou continues, “We’re sorry for not meeting you at the finish line like we promised.”

A long silence follows. Fukutomi peers at Arakita over Toudou’s head, and behind him, Arakita can feel Hayato dropping a kiss on the back of his neck. Toudou tries to hold his gaze, but his hands are worrying at the blanket he’s got tucked up to his chin, and  all Arakita can think is I was the one who wasn’t there, idiot.

“…Arakita?” Toudou ventures hesitantly, and Arakita fixes a glare on him before sighing, and reaching over to tweak his nose again. “Nngh—! Hey! What was that for!”

“For being an idiot,” Arakita answers, moving his hand to Fukutomi’s and then Hayato’s faces and doing the same, earning himself a surprised grunt and an almost-chuckle, respectively. “You’re all idiots, and I don’t accept your apology.”

Toudou’s expression falls at that, and Arakita feels Hayato tightening his hold around his waist. Only Fukutomi continues meeting his gaze, but Arakita doesn’t miss how he clutches at his apple-print blanket. Still, he lets a beat pass before he speaks again.

“I don’t accept it, because there’s nothing to apologize for. You may not have crossed the finish line first, but you all fulfilled my only order to you.” With his gaze passing from Fukutomi to Toudou, and with his hand intertwined with Hayato’s, Arakita continues, “You all came back to me whole.”

“Arakita…”

“Fuku-chan took first place on the first two days, and Kuroda brought him there flawlessly, for someone who’s only just taken part in the interhigh this year. Izumida and Hayato took the sprint results and carried you all when the time came for it. Toudou, you’re still the Mountain God, and you yourself know how hard you worked to beat Makishima at the first day’s mountain result line.”

Arakita pauses then, reaching up to wipe at the tears that were gathering at the corner of Toudou’s eyes. When he tries to speak again, his voice wavers, but Fukutomi reaches over to clutch at his left hand to steady him, and after a breath, Arakita continues.

“And Manami… Manami did really well, you know? They’re only a first year. They exulted and pedaled as hard as they could, and I’m. I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of all of you.”

“But,” Toudou interrupts, and Arakita hates how familiar he is with his voice when he’s in tears, “But we were supposed to be your victors. All… all the work you put in for us… all your effort – this was how we were supposed to thank you.”

“Toudou, you fucking idiot,” Arakita says, half wondering and half fond, “You still are my victors.”

Fukutomi speaks then, sounding much too apologetic for Arakita’s liking, “You deserve the best though, Yasutomo.”

“And the best is what I have. Six kings who hang on me like a bunch of embarrassing babies… but they’re kings nonetheless. Amazing, and peerless, and strong…” Arakita sighs; he pats the arm Hayato’s thrown over his waist, and then reaches up with the same hand to ruffle Fukutomi’s hair, before curling his arm around Toudou’s shoulders and tucking his head under his chin and finally continuing, “Thanks for letting me support you this year.”

 


 

Predictably, Toudou cries hard enough to warrant a change of clothes for Arakita. Fukutomi falls off the bed one more time before they re-maneuver themselves, and Toudou is finally made privy to the reality that Hayato makes a good bed (“His stomach is a better pillow, though.”). Arakita, on the other hand, realizes that Fukutomi shares this quality, and that is the only reason that he’s actually able to sleep that night.

The next morning, Arakita finds himself surrounded on all sides by his bedmates from the previous night, and while he doesn’t question Hayato’s presence at his right, he does find Toudou’s and Fukutomi’s newfound liking for his left side surprising.

What’s even more surprising is Izumida and Manami insisting on having breakfast together (Kuroda being out with Ashikiba that day) – given that firstly, Manami apparently forewent breakfast at their own house (“I had a power bar, though! The apple flavored ones are good.”); secondly, Izumida does not seemed disturbed by the ‘third year hybrid’; and thirdly, the fact that they insist on having this ‘team breakfast’ at the rooftop of the dorms.

“You’re not going to want turns on this, are you?” Arakita asks of their underclassmen suspiciously, referring to the ‘hybrid’ whose current formation had Arakita sitting between Hayato’s legs with Toudou at his left and Fukutomi at his right. In response, Manami and Izumida trade all-too innocent glances. Hayato laughs and sets his chin on Arakita’s shoulder before saying, “Touichirou and Sangaku, you can switch with Juichi and Jinpachi for a while.”

“…You’re serious? Fuck, I’m not a human pillow, alright! I’m only allowing this because you’re all possibly still lacking oxygen from riding as hard you did in the last three days!”

When they do make the switch, Arakita takes the chance to ask Izumida about his bonsai and Manami about their graded exams. Both are doing well – Izumida shows him pictures of a healthy looking bonsai in the sun, and Manami reports that they’ve passed their last graded (make-up) exam.

They end up sitting together for lunch as well, and when Hayato asks to take a nap after their meal, Arakita reprises his role as a temporary human pillow. Hayato takes his new favorite place behind him, while Fukutomi elects to rest his head on Hayato’s shoulder, awkwardly linking his right hand with Arakita’s left (“Just because he punched you with it once doesn’t mean it’ll do you any harm now, Juichi.” “Yeah, Fuku-chan, listen to Hayato. He’s the one with the mean fist.”). Toudou sits at Arakita’s right with Izumida, chatting amiably and quietly about new training menus for the sprinter, and Manami dozes between Arakita and Toudou, unperturbed by Arakita’s occasional “threatening” pokes with a colored marker.

The afternoon passes in such an idyllic way that soon, Arakita finds himself without anything else to think about besides Kinjou, and the words he’d said to him at the awards stage. He thinks of asking his friends for their opinions, but the thought of interrupting what had obviously become their day off isn’t an option, so he decides to just mull it over himself, leaning back against Hayato’s chest as he thinks.

Kin-chan… couldn’t wait to see me, at the end. Because we made a promise? He said thinking of me made him want to ride faster. And that I was…

“…his motivation to race…”

“Did you say something, Arakita?” Toudou asks, lightly touching his wrist. Arakita shakes his head – before pausing, hesitantly squinting at Manami’s sleeping face and saying, “I’m thinking about something.”

“Hm? What about?”

Arakita picks at the ends of Manami’s hair, gathering his words for few moments, before asking, “What’s more important than victory?” Toudou blinks and leans back, trading glances with Izumida before answering, “Being able to ride another day?”

“While it’s good to know my rants stuck to your fairy-floss head, that’s not what I mean.” Arakita frowns as he searches for a connection, finally settling on the most obvious one, and continuing, “Why do you race Makishima, Toudou?”

“Ah! Well, that’s because…” Toudou pauses, and this time, when he sparkles, Arakita pays attention, “Maki-chan makes me be better, y’know? I wouldn’t have become this fast or this skilled, if I weren’t racing Maki-chan all this time! A victory’s only a victory if Maki-chan and I fought for it fairly!”

“Makishima-san sounds like your motivation, Toudou-san,” Izumida says, before turning to Arakita, “Is that the answer you were looking for, Arakita-san?”

Close, Arakita thinks. “If someone… If someone said you were their motivation to race, what do you think that means?”

Toudou and Izumida trade another indecipherable glance at Arakita’s question, before Toudou answers, “That’s a pretty heavy assignation, Arakita. Racing for the goal is different from racing for a person.”

Izumida continues then, leaning around Toudou to offer Arakita an encouraging smile, “By itself, the goal is already an important achievement. To say that someone is above that… those are very strong feelings, Arakita-san.”

Strong feelings…

Arakita leans back against Hayato as he digests their words, and Toudou and Izumida take the cue to return to their own conversation. Manami, Fukutomi, and Hayato continue to sleep, and for the rest of the afternoon, Arakita thinks about the peak of Mt. Fuji and what Kinjou could possibly think was more important than reaching it.

 


 

Kuroda’s excuse of hanging out with Ashikiba only avoids Arakita’s suspicions for two more days.

(Given that Arakita’s been in deep thought over Kinjou’s words for most of the two days, it’s somewhat justified that it took that long for him to act on Kuroda’s peculiar behavior.)

Come Wednesday afternoon, Arakita has all of Toudou’s climbers report to him about Kuroda’s whereabouts. As he’d thought, Kuroda had been in and out of the club and adhering to his post-race recovery schedule, but in such a way that he missed Arakita completely. He entertains the thought of having Toudou set the kid right this time, but when Ashikiba herself tells him of her concern about Kuroda’s continuously sour mood, Arakita makes the call to resort to the extreme measure of asking someone for a favor.

“Thanks for doing this, by the way,” Arakita tells Takeshita as they make their way to the second years’ floor at the dorms. Takeshita adjusts his glasses smartly and says, “It’s no problem at all, Arakita-san! Assisting students when they’re in need is part of my duty! Although… we aren’t really going to break down Kuroda-kun’s door, are we?”

When they arrive at their destination, Arakita explains, “I just need some leverage, if he doesn’t open the door and tries to make this harder than it should be.” Takeshita nods in understanding, and holds up his cache of pass keys, “Understood, Arakita-san!”

“Alright, here goes… Oi! Kuroda!” Arakita calls out, knocking sharply on the second year’s door, “Kuroda! Open up, kid! That’s enough moping!”

Surprisingly, though at the same time unsurprisingly, Kuroda opens his door at this allegation, scowling first at Takeshita and then at Arakita. “I was not moping, Arakita-senpai. Can’t I do my homework in peace?”

“You could if you actually had any,” Arakita counters, sticking a foot against Kuroda’s door. He glances at Takeshita and says, “I’ll take over from here; I owe you one, Takeshita,” before brusquely walking past Kuroda into his room, sitting himself at the homework-less low table.

Kuroda’s scowl deepens as he closes the door before sitting across Arakita, “It’s very rude of you to come barging in like this, Arakita-senpai.”

“It’s very rude of you to fucking avoid me for two days without an explanation,” Arakita shoots back, “What gives, anyway? You missed a day off last Sunday, I was hoping you’d be there to at least try and keep Manami and Izumida in check.”

“I was out with Takuto,” Kuroda says, crossing his arms and avoiding Arakita’s gaze, “And I was resting! I’ve been recovering with Toudou-sempai, too, I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

Arakita sighs, reaching out to ruffle Kuroda’s hair as he says, “Because Ashikiba said you were upset, and I don’t know if you’ve missed it, but I happen to care about you.” The sentiment, which Arakita meant to be comforting, only seems to worsen Kuroda’s mood, if the way he jerks himself away from Arakita’s hand is any indication. He still can’t seem to look Arakita in the eye, and the way he holds himself completely closed off adds to Arakita’s concerns.

“Oi, Kuroda,” Arakita begins seriously, “What is this about?” You’re not the type to keep things to yourself like this, Arakita thinks, “If you don’t tell me what’s bugging you, I can’t help you out, and if that’s the case, I’ll have to ask Toudou and—”

Kuroda’s eyes flash at his words, and he cuts Arakita off with a vicious exclamation, “That! That’s what’s bothering me!” As he continues, Arakita can only stare and listen, somehow knowing that interrupting Kuroda’s tirade at this point would not lend itself to setting things right.

“On the last day! I knew my role and I accepted it, I knew the strategy called for Manami to take the peak, so of course I’d do my best to deliver them to the lead pack. And I was… I was happy when I saw you waited for me at Lake Yamanaka. You knew what would happen to me and you stayed behind to make sure I was alright – but then, when you came back the second time, and you just… Threw yourself at Sohoku’s ace…”

Kuroda shakes his head, as if the mere thought escaped his ability to translate it into words, before continuing emphatically, “Arakita-sempai! Just because I- no, Touichirou and I, weren’t good enough to continue racing and meet you at the peak, that doesn’t mean you can just set us aside like you did!”

Arakita expects the accusation to sting – he’d thought similar sentiments of himself over the last few days, after all, but all it does is confuse him even further. “Kuroda, why do you think I set you aside…?” Sohoku’s ace? Kin-chan? What’s he got to do with this…?

With obvious difficulty, Kuroda explains, “When you came back down from the mountain… You didn’t come back for us at all! You went there to see Sohoku’s ace, and not… not us, not me or Izumida, even though we’d just given our all to make sure the rest of the team could meet you at the peak…!”

“Because I knew you were alright!” Arakita cuts in, frustration edging his words, “The support crew was there, and I asked them to keep updating me on your condition. I went there for Kin-chan because I heard he crashed, and even though it turned out to be someone else, I don’t regret going down there for him at all because – because –”

Because… what? Because he’s my friend? Fuck, Hayato’s my other half, and Kuroda and Izumida are my kids, on top of being my kings and victors…

“His knee was in bad shape,” Arakita continues lamely, his expression shifting into something less confrontative, “He almost couldn’t finish the interhigh last time, and this is his last year. Kin-chan was riding for the peak and…”

The peak wasn’t the only thing he was riding for, though, Arakita thinks, something was more important for him, something else made him want to brave the entire course of the interhigh – and that something else was…

“To say that someone is above that… those are very strong feelings.”

“… And he was riding to meet me at the finish line.”

“Somehow, the thought of meeting you there made me want to ride faster, pedal harder… Because I couldn’t wait. After all, you were my motivation for this interhigh, Yasutomo.”

“…Arakita-san?” Kuroda ventures, snapping Arakita out of his realization, “I… Arakita-san, I know that person was… probably really important for you, but I just…”

“Kuroda,” Arakita says, getting to his feet and quickly pulling the second year into a hug, amidst his initial struggles, “You’re important to me too, you shitty brat, and I’m fucking proud of how you rode in the interhigh, and I know Fuku-chan’s leaving the club in good hands with you.”

“A-Arakita-san??”

“And, just now – fucking thank you, okay? You don’t know what you just did and that’s fine, but fuck. Thank you, Yukinari.” And with that, Arakita practically bolts out of Kuroda’s room, unknowingly leaving the second year a flushed, gaping mess, heading for the one place he could count on bearing with his sudden, life-changing realizations.

 


 

“Usakicchi, let’s count one, two, three—”

Hayato!!

Hayato looks up from where he’d been crouched with Usakicchi, the rabbit’s paws in his hands, to find Arakita panting at the edge of the shed, hands waving for his attention.

“Yasutomo? Did something happen?”

Arakita nods, walking over to drop himself at Hayato’s side. His hands fly to his face, but he knows the tips of his ears are already burning – it wouldn’t take Hayato long to figure out that he’s losing it over something important.

“I’m going to guess, Yasutomo, but… Does this have something to do with Kinjou?”

With a groan, Arakita replies, “Fucking get out of my head, Hayato, oh god…” Eventually though, Arakita peeks from between his fingers, muttering, “Actually, don’t, it’d be easier for me to explain shit if you already know what I’m thinking.”

Hayato smiles, setting Usakicchi into her hutch as he says, “You’re thinking about Kinjou, Yasutomo. I can only assume you’re thinking of something good.”

Arakita groans again, moving to hide his face against Hayato’s shoulder before saying, in a stricken, somewhat hysterical tone, “Kin-chan… Fuck! I think Kin-chan likes me, Hayato!”

“You’re very good friends, yes,” Hayato agrees, reaching up to pat Arakita’s shoulder, “Is that all, Yasutomo?”

“No!” Arakita whines, pulling back and rubbing his hands over his face in a desperate attempt to calm himself, “I thought that, but! But… At the interhigh, he said… Hayato, he said he couldn’t wait to see me at the finish line!” Arakita feels his face burn even hotter as he repeats Kinjou’s words, but for Hayato to understand, he needed to tell him – “He said I was his – his motivation, and when I asked Toudou and Izumida they said, they said that…”

“Yasutomo,” Hayato says, cupping his face in his hands, “Breathe for a second, alright?”

It takes a moment, but Arakita does as Hayato instructs, taking a deep breath and exhaling after holding it in for a second, repeating until he feels the edge of his panic fade away, and until Hayato’s hands are the only warm things he feels against his skin.

“Better?” Hayato asks, to which Arakita nods. “Okay. What did Jinpachi and Touichirou tell you?”

“…They said, racing for the goal and racing for a person is different, and that… putting someone above the goal means that… that you had really strong feelings for that someone. And,” Arakita pauses, reaching up to clutch at Hayato’s wrist, “Just now, I was talking with Kuroda, and I realized… Shit, Hayato, I think I like Kin-chan too.”

Hayato tilts his head at Arakita, the same kind, indulgent smile on his face, and says, “Ah, so you finally realized it. Congratulations, Yasutomo.”

…what the fuck.

“Are you shitting me, Hayato,” Arakita says, clutching at the wrists of the hands still cupping his face, and fixing a disbelieving stare at his other half, “Hayato, did you know about this??”

“That doesn’t matter right now, Yasutomo,” Hayato says, lightly clapping his hands against Arakita’s cheek in a gentle parody of a wake-up call, “What matters is – what are you going to do about it?”

Arakita almost contests Hayato’s words, but – He’s right. As usual. “…Hayato, I don’t know. I mean, I like Kin-chan, I like him a lot… I like him so much, what if… What if it turns out I’m reading it wrong?”

“If things end up being like how it is with us, would you be sad, Yasutomo?”

The question silences the echoing buzz of Kinjou’s, Toudou’s, and Izumida’s words in Arakita’s mind, and now, he only has his own thoughts to consider. What comes to him, after thinking about being close to Kinjou as opposed to being with Kinjou, is startling in its simplicity, and Arakita tightens his grip on Hayato’s wrists as he answers, “Yes.”

If there’s anyone I feel safer with other than Hayato, it’s Kin-chan.

“When I’m with Kin-chan,” Arakita begins, his voice dropping to a hushed whisper, “I can finally feel the ground under my feet. He… He makes me feel like I can walk forward, Hayato… So that’s what I’m going to do,” and with a smile stretching over his lips, Arakita continues, “At this point, I don’t have any other choice.”

With a bright smile and a tender kiss to his forehead, Hayato says, “It’s important that you make that clear to him. I suggest that you bring him something when you visit, something like—”

“Manjuu?” Arakita finishes, wiping at the tears that had gathered at the corners of his eyes, “That’s not a bad idea, Hayato.”

“Food solves most problems, Yasutomo,” his other half intones wisely, and this time, Arakita is the one who laughs and grabs at Hayato’s hands, tugging him up as he says, “Then let’s go, Hayato, before they run out!”

 


 

Three days later, Arakita stands at the back gates of Sohoku High School, a box of Hakone’s specialty manjuu in hand. He still hasn’t gotten used to crowds staring at him and muttering his title, but it’s a minor discomfort he’s perfectly fine with bearing with, if it would at least get him to Sohoku’s cycling club’s room. He’s just about to approach a random student, who doesn’t look all too willing to cooperate with someone wearing an unfamiliar school’s track suit, when a familiar voice calls out to him.

“Arakita-san!” When Arakita turns, he sees Kanzaki coming up at his right, the same sunny smile he remembers from the interhigh on her face. “Arakita-san, are you looking for Kinjou-senpai?”

“Kanzaki-san – Ah, yeah, actually. Toudou said Makishima told him that they had morning practice today….” Kanzaki nods, “They do! I can show you to the club room, you can wait there.”

Arakita gives his fellow manager a nod in thanks, and in what feels like a blink of an eye, they’re standing at the door to the cycling club’s room. There’s only one bike parked in the stands, and Arakita feels a spike of nerves flip-flop in his stomach as he recognizes who it belongs to.

“Here we are, Arakita-san,” Kanzaki says, “You just go on inside, I just remembered I left something in my classroom. Make yourself comfortable, I’m sure Kinjou-senpai will be happy to see you!” And just like that, he’s alone at the club room’s doorstep, and it’s completely different from when he’d stalked up to it, nearly a year ago.

Still. What the fuck am I waiting for?

He hadn’t knocked last year, so Arakita figures there’s no reason to change his practice now – he opens the door without preamble, expecting to find the first years, or, in a strange twist of fate, Tadokoro and Makishima cowering in fear of him a second time.

Instead, he comes face to face with Kinjou, outfitted in his Sohoku jersey, shades in hand.

And the first words that fall from Arakita’s lips are, “I’m sorry.”

 


 

Immediately, the expression of surprise at seeing Arakita at his club’s doorstep drops from Kinjou’s face, and he replies in a stiff, toneless voice, “I see.”

Arakita’s eyes widen as he realizes how Kinjou took his words, and he shakes his head, crowding Kinjou back into the clubroom while saying, “No, no! I don’t mean it like that, listen, Kin-chan!”

He closes the door behind him, turning back to find Kinjou sitting on a bench, a look of forced calm on his face, and Arakita repeats emphatically, “Kin-chan, listen – I’m sorry for taking this long to realize your feelings.”

Kinjou only stares back at him, and Arakita continues, setting the box of manjuu to his left as he sits himself next to Kinjou, “I’m sorry for making you wait so fucking long for an idiot like me.”

Without breaking his hold on Kinjou’s gaze, Arakita reaches for his left hand and says, “Kin-chan, I really, really like you, too. And not just in the friend-way, like how I’ve been treating you…”

A thought occurs to Arakita then, and he squeezes Kinjou’s hand as he ventures, “… But have you really liked me for a year now?”

Kinjou’s only confirmation is the blush coloring his cheeks and a small, almost imperceptible nod.

“…Kin-chan!” Arakita exclaims, aghast and suddenly very embarrassed as he remembers the times they’d spent together over the year.

A year, though… that means…

“Kin-chan,” Arakita begins, clutching Kinjou’s hand, “When you first met me, I’d just punched Fuku-chan in the face. What the fuck.

It’s at this point that Kinjou finally speaks in protest, “I didn’t start thinking of you in a romantic sense until a few weeks later, though…!” Arakita nearly balks at his words, if not for Kinjou suddenly clutching Arakita’s hand in his.

“… We’ve both been idiots, haven’t we, Kin-chan.”

With the beginnings of a rueful smile on his face, Kinjou nods as he says, “I’d have to agree, Yasutomo.” His gaze drops to their intertwined hands, before he looks up again, continuing, “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier. There were so many chances for me to speak up, but I wanted to wait for the perfect time.”

Arakita huffs and rubs his thumb over the back of Kinjou’s hand, saying, “Like the interhigh?”

“I thought you deserved nothing less but a victory,” Kinjou says, “You are the reason I wanted the finish line so badly, after all.”

Fucking cyclists, Arakita thinks, squeezing Kinjou’s hand again. “You cyclists make shit so complicated, you know? Did you ever even try asking me for what I wanted? No!” Arakita reaches for Kinjou’s other hand then, and continues, “Shit, Kin-chan, all I want is you!”

Somehow, Arakita didn’t think Kinjou’s face could get any redder, but it apparently can, and he doesn’t bother stifling the laugh that bubbles up his throat at the sight.

Arakita feels as if his heart is going to burst with how happy he is. It seems almost unfair that he feels this much happiness from just being with Kinjou, but Arakita knows better than to try and balance such things out. For now, and probably for a long time afterwards, he’s happy, and Kinjou’s hands are warm around his, and they’re both smiling like idiots at each other—

“I like you, Kin-chan!” he repeats, “Over-complicated cycling metaphors and all!” Kinjou laughs as well, before holding Arakita’s gaze and saying, with perfect seriousness, “I like you, Yasutomo.”

Arakita laughs again, and with what is possibly the least threatening smirk he’s ever worn on his face, he leans over their intertwined hands, and says, “What are you gonna do about it, though?”

“That sounds like a challenge, Yasutomo,” Kinjou replies, smiling widely as he leans towards Arakita. With a stifled laugh, Arakita counters, “And what if it is??”

Kinjou reaches up then, to cup Arakita’s face in his hands, saying, “If it is… I have no choice but to take it up. I am the man who never gives up, after all.”

Against his cheeks, Kinjou’s palms are as warm as they’ve ever been. Arakita covers his hands with his own, and lets his eyes fall shut as Kinjou closes the distance between them, gently touching his lips to Arakita’s and lingering there.

 

year5-6

 


 

[im heading home now]

[how was it yasutomo?]

[ <3 ]

[!!!]

 


 

The months after the interhigh are somehow, to Arakita’s surprise, more hectic than the months leading up to it. With the underclassmen preparing to step up as the club’s new seniors and specialists, Arakita takes it upon himself to ensure that they’re fit to assume their roles in the coming fall.

He enlists the help of the incoming captain and vice-captain, Izumida and Kuroda, as well as the incoming head manager, Morikawa, to make sense of the slew of application forms and renewal forms, as well as the adjusted training menus for the new specialists. During one memorable meeting, he has Hayato wheel in boxes after boxes of racing tapes and data volumes, afterwards gesturing wordlessly to Morikawa, who only laughs and thanks him for the precious heirlooms.

On the other hand, academic requirements vie for his attention, and Arakita takes to bringing mock ups of his university entrance exams to his tutoring sessions with Manami, accomplishing them while the incoming second year pored over advanced worksheets and mock exams. Preparations for graduation are completed easily enough, and Arakita spends the time intended for scrabbling for grades spectating at the cycling club’s practices, along with the other third years.

“When we do this,” Toudou comments once, “It doesn’t really feel like we’ve resigned at all, does it?” Arakita huffs and tosses a water bottle at Kuroda before saying, “Who says you can resign from family, eh?”

 


 

And amidst all that hustle and bustle, there’s Kinjou.

The third years throw him a party (“What kind of party only has four guests??” “The kind you like, Yasutomo.” “…Fuck, yeah.”) the very night he comes back from Chiba, and after being assured that Toudou had only cried out of sheer, unparalleled joy (“We worked so hard for this, Arakita!!”), Arakita is left feeling terribly endeared by the sentiment.

(Enough to throw Toudou a party after his own surprise visit to Chiba a week later – to see both Makishima and Tadokoro.)

Kinjou hears about it and recounts his own abrupt celebration (“No, I do think I saw Makishima tear up somewhat.”), and Arakita spends the rest of the night lamenting his year-long obliviousness (“Apparently?? Everyone knew, except me?? I can’t believe this, Kin-chan!”). Graciously, Kinjou does not mention his other attempts at confessing, though Arakita does extract a promise from him to one day list them all up.

Afterwards, Kinjou says “I love you, Yasutomo,” before bidding him goodnight.                 

And what else could Arakita say to that but, “I love you, too, Kin-chan”?

 


 

[kin-chan!!! we passed!!!]

[[That’s excellent news, Yasutomo]]

[try sounding happier, kin-chan, we passed Yonan! we’ll be in the same university!]

[[I am ecstatic, Yasutomo, and you can see it for yourself when you come to the apartment]]

[hey hey which one are we checking out first?? the one near the cat café?]

[[The very same. I’ve reserved us a slot for 3PM, right after we look at the Higuchi complex]]

[nice!! see you, kin-chan! <3]

[[See you soon, Yasutomo <3]]

 


 

“Hurry up, Kin-chan!”

As he leads the way down the side streets, Arakita tugs on Kinjou’s hand, and Kinjou happily lets himself be pulled along, smiling in the face of Arakita’s excitement. When Arakita looks back at him over his shoulder, he’s finally able to appreciate the expression of contentment on Kinjou’s face – it would be difficult not to, as he’s pretty sure he wears the same face more than half the time that they’re together.

Arakita squeezes Kinjou’s hand and smiles, boundlessly hopeful as they go forward. The world moves in vibrant motion around him, bursting at the seams with colors he’d never noticed before, and he finds himself anticipating the future he’s started moving towards with Kinjou, and everything that would come after it.

This is, after all, only the beginning.

 

year5-7