Kakeru never talks when he runs. He’s never had a reason to.
Before meeting Haiji, Kakeru’s never had anyone to talk to while running. Running isn’t a social activity — least of all for him. When he runs, his mind becomes clear and his thoughts are free to float away unchained, roaming about without an anchor wherever they may go.
Haiji, on the other hand, talks. Not on every run, but when he does, it’s never for the sole purpose of filling silence. Even when he’s pointing out the weather or an interesting looking stump by the road, his words never feel like just words .
They’re running by the river together one afternoon before dusk on one of Haiji’s more talkative days. Haiji had started their session off by asking Kakeru how his day at class was and is now currently musing out loud about an old curry restaurant down the street that’s closed down.
It’s nice. After a long day of class, Kakeru is content to let Haiji’s soft tones soothe his mind. Beyond listening to what he’s saying, Kakeru simply enjoys hearing his voice ramble. He doesn’t know where the thought train started, but as usual, he’s happy to tag along for the ride. Even when he’s not being responsive, Haiji doesn’t seem to mind. He seems to enjoy Kakeru’s silence as a form of dialogue regardless — something that Kakeru greatly appreciates.
Even though you run by yourself, you’re not actually alone.
It’s still new to Kakeru, having companionship during a run. Even when he’s run with others before in the past, no one has ever given him the light buoyancy of a casual conversation until Haiji stepped in.
The dappling river glimmers beneath the pale, pink clouds above them. Kakeru begins to lose track of what Haiji is saying. The words flow through his head, a smooth stream gliding along with their steady rhythm of feet pounding on pavement, and his calm voice carries on with his legs, as gentle as the breeze grazing their faces. Without thinking about it, Kakeru begins to slow his pace.
It occurs to him then that before meeting Haiji, Kakeru’s never had anyone to talk to while running.
The low-hanging sun dips down towards the horizon ahead, casting a shimmer of gold across the ground before them. Haiji’s silhouette glows gold as well, Kakeru’s eyes tracing the fuzzy outline of the older man’s form. It occurs to him then that while he’s seen Haiji run on multiple occasions, he’s never ran leaving such a distance behind him before. From this vantage point, Kakeru can see it all — those square shoulders, the long torso, his spine a straight vertical line drawing down to his feet. It’s breathtaking. He’s… beautiful.
Is this what Haiji sees when he watches Kakeru run, too?
A shrill bark from Nira jolts him from his thoughts. Kakeru blinks. Up ahead, Haiji has turned around to face him while continuing to run backwards.
“Everything okay?” he asks, a small frown worrying his lips. Nira barks again and scampers ahead. When Kakeru glances up, his eyes lock with Haiji’s, and the intent regard behind them makes him look away.
“I uhh…” Kakeru trails off, feeling his cheeks heat up, the image of Haiji’s form outlined by the sun still burning hot in his mind. “I’m sorry.”
Picking up his pace, Kakeru catches up to Haiji’s side and keeps level with him. His eyes remain trained on the ground.
With a short laugh, Haiji turns back around to face the front.
“There’s no need to apologize. I was just a little surprised — it’s not like you to fall behind.”
“I—” Kakeru swallows and looks up towards the sun. His heart races even faster than his legs and it takes everything within him to keep his breathing normal. “I was just enjoying the view.”
“Ah. I see.”
In his peripheral vision, Haiji faces forward with a smile.
The aroma of curried chicken fills the kitchen. Like most nights, Haiji stirs the pot while Kakeru loses himself in the steady clop clop of his knife gently chopping carrots on the cutting board. Steam unfurls from Haiji’s loving creation, spiraling up towards the kitchen fan above.
Unlike other nights, however, there’s a quiet tension in the air, one that pervades throughout the entire dorm. Even the twins’ room carries less noise than usual, the usual trivia show King-san watches completely absent. Every member of Aotake is holding its breath in anticipation.
Only a few more days until the big race.
Steadying himself, Kakeru continues to chop, every clink of steel against wood a nervous beat against his heart. Of course, Haiji is the one to break the silence.
“Have you figured it out yet?”
Kakeru glances up from his task and turns to face him, confused.
“Why you run,” Haiji finishes.
“Oh.” Kakeru looks back down at the carrot he’s cutting, his knife hovering over the thick end of the root.
Why do you run?
Haiji’s tone is as soft and gentle as the time he told Kakeru he thought Kakeru might already know the answer to this question. He’s not pressing forcefully for an answer, but there’s a deep curiosity, a burning desire to learn, to know.
Why do we run?
Kakeru thinks about persistence, about growth, about loyalty and companionship. Everyone had protested but nobody has dropped out or given up. No matter which way you look at it, the odds had always been against them, and yet, despite all his initial misgivings, they had made it out to here.
Could this be part of the answer? Haiji has brought them this far, had started this long before Kakeru had even graduated high school. After the summer training camp, Kakeru had thanked Haiji for believing in him. Have the other members of Aotake kept showing up because Haiji believed in them too?
A small lump forms in Kakeru’s throat but he has no idea why. He wants to give Haiji an answer, feels like he’s just tiptoeing towards the cusp of it. His arm is outstretched and reaching — but his fingers still close on thin air. Nothing there but a chasing of the wind.
The fan keeps up its constant whir above the stove. Haiji stirs and waits.
Perhaps it all comes back to Haiji somehow. But what would that mean?
“I don’t know,” Kakeru says finally, bringing the blade down through the carrot’s stumpy flesh. “But soon… I think.”
He wishes he could say more but he doesn’t know how. Ever since Haiji first posed it, the question of what running means has been brought to the foreground of his thoughts, a constant stream that runs ceaselessly in his mind, smoothing over each heavy stone in its path.
Haiji gives a soft chuckle.
“Well. I’m sure that you’re inching one step closer to finding the answer everyday. Part of me suspects you might know already.”
Kakeru looks up at him, searching in Haiji’s face for what he might’ve meant, but Haiji simply tilts his head and smiles that enigmatic smile.
In that moment, everything in him seems to shift. Although Kakeru remains rooted and chained to the cutting board in front of him, he feels as though all the molecules in his feet, body, and soul are being drawn completely towards the man on his right. There’s a warm glow in his chest — the part that is seeking answers to the same question Haiji has been searching for — that flickers into life as his shoulders start to turn, burning brighter and brighter until his heart threatens to burst. Until his head spins and his eyes lock into focus.
Until he’s unable to see anything else except Haiji.
The answer seems to call back to him, so close he can almost grasp it. But…
Kakeru’s not good with words — has never been good at them. He opens his mouth to speak. Wills himself to say something. Anything.
“Don’t worry about it,” Haiji says, holding a hand up. “It’s no rush. I look forward to hearing your thoughts when you arrive at a conclusion.”
Kakeru looks down, his heart pounding a million miles a minute. If he can race half as fast as his organs are pumping right now at the Hakone Ekiden, they’d have a victory in the bag.
“Are you done with the carrots?”
Before Kakeru can say anything else, Haiji lifts the cutting board from the counter and dumps the chopped vegetables into a second pot for the next batch.
“S-sorry…” Kakeru offers under his breath.
Haiji chuckles again. “There’s no need to apologize.”
Kakeru opens his mouth again for another attempt.
I can’t… I don’t know how to say…
With a small sigh, he closes it and grabs a bowl so he can channel the pent up energy towards doing something more productive with his hands.
The overwhelming feeling that had gripped him still glows bright in his chest but it does not shake him to the core the way it had done just a minute ago. He remembers Musa giggling when he told Kakeru of his suspicions regarding Hana-chan and the twins and wonders how Musa can tell.
He also wonders what Musa would say if he could see Kakeru now, shoulders hunched and determinedly avoiding Haiji’s gaze as he spoons sugar and soy sauce into the mixing bowl, too timid and clogged in the head to utter a word.
“We need to get there before Haiji-san! Come on! Run!”
His legs are still numb from all the adrenaline of his own race but Kakeru can’t stop moving them. Running with Prince has reminded him of the humble step by step beginnings of putting one foot in front of the other and that’s all he can do now as Prince drags his feet and wails for him to slow down.
This is the moment they’ve all been hurtling towards. It’s time for Haiji to finish what he’d started, to pass on the hope they’ve put forth together. There’s no way Kakeru will let them miss this.
The wind picks up again as they make their way towards the end of the marathon, numb and bitingly cold against his cheeks. Kakeru’s spirits fall a little when he realizes it’s current is going against the race. He wonders how Haiji’s doing now that it’s been some time since he started running. Haiji had taken pain killers this morning. It isn’t ideal, but he was determined. Hopefully his knee is holding up okay.
The team eventually gathers together and they pull up Haiji’s location on the map. It’s fitting for them to be here together like this, here at the zenith point of all things. After everything Haiji has done for them, it only makes sense for them to pool together all their resources at the peak and give back however they can in this pivotal moment of his life.
Haiji-san… Whatever you’re going through right now as you run: I hope you’re happy, because you’re doing what you love.
Kakeru’s heart still has not stopped pounding since he started his portion of the race. They’re going to be in tenth place, Yuki calculates, if Haiji and everyone else around him keeps on the way they’ve been going for the last three kilometers. The message gets relayed and there’s nothing else they can do but watch and wait with bated breath.
In spite of it all, Kakeru continues to trust him.
As they follow Haiji’s progress on the screen, each second that passes stretches like minutes, until each fog of their breaths takes painstakingly long to materialize. Finally, the moment Daiwa passes the tape, Kakeru breaks away from the group and wheads straight to the finish line, waiting… waiting…
And then, he sees him.
Still a tiny dot out in the distance, Haiji rounds the corner, banner draped across his chest. Kakeru’s heart picks up as Haiji emerges from the shadows and out into the light.
Under the weak spring sun, Haiji glows brighter than ever. It’s clear that he’s holding on, putting forth everything he has, running hard, running, running… But more than anything else, Kakeru can tell, even from this distance, that Haiji looks happy .
Kakeru hardly registers his arm raising up above his head or his hand cupping around his mouth. His entire body, vision, and soul is turned toward the older man, his eyes locked securely into place.
Until all he sees before him is Haiji.
Haiji, who’s still struggling now even as he’s doing the thing he loves most.
As Kakeru watches, he senses more than sees the stab of pain go through him, aches with Haiji as he wills himself to carry on. Despite the suffering he must be undergoing, his legs are still moving, still hurtling towards the finish line, and the look of determination, fulfillment, and pure joy never leaves his face.
And suddenly — it clicks.
Kakeru has never sustained an injury in his life. Many people have commented on it before. Observant ones, awed ones, resentful ones. He understands now that not everyone can be so fortunate. Haiji has longed for and wanted what Kakeru had taken for granted. But no matter what happens, even if this is his last race, his last leg, just as one cannot stop a bird from taking to the sky or a flower from being too beautiful, as long as he still has working legs, nothing in this world can stop Haiji from running.
That hope in itself is more powerful than anything he’s ever felt. That is what it means to run. In the end, for him, it all comes back to Haiji .
Kakeru’s eyes sting and well up, his lips trembling as Haiji draws nearer and nearer.
It’s you. It’s been you all along.
The look on Haiji’s face as he bursts through the tape is the happiest Kakeru has ever seen. With aching gasps, Haiji collapses into his arms with his knees shaking uncontrollably.
“Are you okay?!” Kakeru asks urgently, but Haiji doesn’t say a word. Clinging tightly to Kakeru, he continues to catch his breath with the widest smile on his face.
“You did it,” Kakeru says soothingly instead. His chest fills with a swell of pride and something else he’s not sure he can name as he stares down at the man in his arms. “ We did it.”
“Do you—” Haiji asks between gasps — “believe me now when I said the residents of Aotake are strong?”
There’s a small smirk on his face as he shuts his eyes and breathes. Kakeru can’t help but grin.
Even though you run by yourself, you’re not actually alone.
Two marathon volunteers rush over to them with a towel and drape it around Haiji’s back. Still panting heavily, Haiji sets an arm around Kakeru’s neck and allows him to lift them up into a standing position.
Up ahead, the team is gathering together to congratulate him. Turning his head inward towards Kakeru, Haiji mutters a whispered thanks into his ear. His hot, rasping breath sends a chill down Kakeru’s spine.
Shifting his arm, Kakeru smiles back and holds him close.
“It’s to be expected,” Haiji says the morning after the race when Kakeru went to check in on him. A bittersweet quiet falls upon them following these words, Haiji sporting a wry smile and Kakeru stalling by his futon, hesitant. He doesn’t need to ask to know what Haiji meant.
“This… um—” Kakeru swallows. There’s so much he knows he wants to say but when it comes down to it, words always seem to fail him. No matter how much the situation demands it, he is never good with them. “Even if you can’t run anymore, this isn’t your last race.”
Haiji’s mouth parts open halfway between grief, hope, and surprise. Closing it, his lips tremble as he reaches out a hand between them—
The door behind bangs open as the rest of the team — with the twins leading in front — pile in and gather around his futon, asking how he’s doing.
That had been just a few days ago.
Today, the quiet hallways and wooden floorboards of Aotake carry a somber note. While the excitement and highs of finishing the race together haven’t completely faded away yet, the recent announcement that Haiji may or may not have to undergo another surgery has set the house at a tense unease. It kills Kakeru that after all Haiji has poured into them, they are powerless to help him in this one important way.
It’s not as if they didn’t realize this would happen. Haiji more than anyone else had been aware of the risks. The determined smile he’d given them when he told them he’ll expect everything to carry on as normal had been the worst part of it. The crinkle in his eyes had made it impossible for anyone to see any sort of emotion in them, but Kakeru thinks he can guess.
If he can’t undo this damage and give Haiji back his legs, Kakeru resolves to help out as best he can in other ways.
“I’ve told you before that I can manage,” Haiji insists one day when Kakeru walks him downstairs with his backpack on his way out to class. On the surface, his tone is calm and gentle but Kakeru can hear the strain and frustration in them. “It’s been more than three weeks on these; I’m getting used to them.”
He gestures to his crutches.
“It’s not that I don’t think you can…” Kakeru starts to say, but before he can finish, Haiji pulls his own backpack out of Kakeru’s hands and slings it over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” he reassures with a small chuckle, clapping a hand on Kakeru’s shoulder. His hand squeezes, and so does Kakeru’s heart. “Part of recovering hinges upon me practicing a little mobility, you know.”
“Um — I — ”
Why is it always so hard to say what he means?
“Well — See you later, Kakeru!” Haiji waves as he slides open the door and exits, one crutch after another. Before he’s completely out of earshot, Kakeru hears him call out, “I can cook tonight!”
The next few weeks see a fair amount of improvement on Haiji’s knee, but next to none on his willingness to accept help. He undergoes one more surgery and is set to continue on crutches for the next one or two months so naturally, the others are pooling in their efforts to ease his chores and duties as much as possible. Musa and Shindo try to clean the bathroom more often before Haiji can even attempt to pull out a mop and Yuki has been silently doing extra shifts of groceries throughout the week. The twins have offered to cook from time to time, but whenever they do, Kakeru usually ends up recruiting them for help in the kitchen instead. Throughout it all, they manage to avoid a confrontation with Haiji about the amount of workload they’re voluntarily taking on in his stead.
Kakeru knows it’s more than likely that Haiji has already figured what’s going on, but he doesn’t say anything to them. In the midst of all the highs and lows that came from reaching the top together at Hakone, Kakeru still hasn’t been able to tell Haiji yet that he’d figured out what it means to run. It’s an answer that keeps shifting and evolving, but Haiji is always at the center of it.
Sometimes, Kakeru often catches him in the middle of the night doing little things like boiling a pot of tea or wiping the counters. He figures Haiji needs moments like this of doing things for himself, so as much as he wants to barge in and help, Kakeru lingers behind the staircase wall, making sure Haiji doesn’t accidentally hurt himself, and waits for Haiji to go back to bed before going on to do whatever task he’d needed to do in the first place.
It’s on one of these nights, about a month and a half after Haiji’s surgery, that he finds Haiji asleep in the kitchen, his cup of tea forgotten on the table beside him. The kettle remains on the stove, the fire off but still steaming. After grabbing a blanket from Haiji’s room, Kakeru walks back over to the dining table to drape it over him. Scattered underneath Haiji’s arm are papers and pamphlets — all to do with other track and field teams in their area and coaching after college.
Haiji stirs beneath him. Alarmed, Kakeru retracts his hand from Haiji’s shoulder and backs away slowly.
His voice is soft and heavily laced with sleep. The sound of it wraps itself around Kakeru’s spine, low and buzzing.
“I’m here,” he says, hearing the words echo out of his mouth before he even realizes he’s spoken.
“Um — sorry…” Kakeru backtracks as Haiji lifts his head up from the table. “I was… I was just thirsty.”
Haiji looks down at the blanket and sighs. “No. I’m the one who’s sorry.”
Kakeru frowns at that. “Why?”
“The doctor said I’ll be off crutches soon,” Haiji deflects. “So. At least I’ll be able to pick up my slack before us fourth years have to move out.”
Kakeru walks over to the stove and pulls out a cup to make his own cup of tea.
“There’s no slack to pick up on your end,” he says. Pausing, he picks up the kettle and looks back at Haiji. “That’s what you meant when you said nobody runs alone, right?”
Haiji lets out a small laugh as Kakeru starts pouring. “I can’t believe you’re using my own words against me.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have told me that, then,” Kakeru teases, turning to face him with a smile.
With his newly made cup of tea in hand, he comes around and takes a seat on the bench across from Haiji. Haiji’s watches him as he takes a small sip of his drink. Setting it down on the table, Kakeru frowns at it and adds, “It’s only because you said that though, that I was even able to learn how to see beyond myself.”
Kakeru lifts his head. “If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be in a really bad place right now. So… when you talk about things like ‘picking up your slack,’ it’s nothing compared to everything you’ve done for me. For all of us.”
“I appreciate that, Kakeru,” Haiji says with a wry smile. “But there’s no reason for any of you to feel like you owe me.”
“It’s…” Kakeru pauses. His mind and throat seem to be struggling again with words. It’s always when what he needs to express is most important that they decide to fail him.
“We… we don’t do it because we feel like we owe you.” The word owe just sounds wrong. A bitter taste that doesn’t belong. Their view of Haiji isn’t and has never been about obligation. “It’s — It’s…”
Kakeru feels a swelling inside his chest as he tries to grasp for the right word. There’s something expanding between his lungs, causing all the closed up spaces and corners of his heart to open up more, receptive. Like rain washing down on old soil and cleansing the earth, making way for new life and new hope. He supposes there’s only one word to describe this feeling.
Haiji holds his cup between his hands, his fingers gently tapping its ceramic surface. He says nothing.
“If that’s the same way you felt about all of us running Hakone together,” Kakeru continues. “Then… you understand.”
Haiji sighs, then takes a long drink of his tea. When he sets the cup back down, however, he’s smiling.
“Thank you, Kakeru,” is all he says.
“Haiji-san…” Kakeru starts. His fingers tighten over his hot mug. Still, even after talking about gratitude and feeling that overwhelming welling of emotions, after all this time, he still can’t bring himself to say the words he needs to communicate the most.
“What is it, Kakeru?” Haiji’s expression is gentle, but enigmatic as always. Kakeru isn’t sure how to read it in this moment.
His hands loosen their hold on his cup.
“None of us think you’re weak, Haiji-san,” he says finally. Haiji’s eyebrows raise a little in — what? Disappointment? Or relief? “You’re probably the strongest person I know. But… while you’re healing, you can—”
He takes a deep breath and swallows.
“Please. Allow me to be your strength, too.”
A long silence fills the room. Feeling uncertain, Kakeru chances a glance up at Haiji.
In the warm glow of the kitchen light, Haiji stares down at the table space between them, lips curved in a quiet smile.
Kakeru’s breath fogs up before him as he steps out into the dark. Not a single light is lit inside Aotake. Although the last of winter’s chill still clings in the air, today is already looking to be the warmest day they’ll have in a while. Closing his eyes, he takes in a deep inhale and tilts his head up.
The stars don’t twinkle as brightly as they do up at Lake Shirakaba, but against the soft, dim navy skies about an hour before dawn, it’s a beautiful sight all the same.
With a slow exhale, Kakeru lowers his head and takes a step forward—
— only to stop when he sees the shadowy figure of someone sitting on one of the hedgeway stones off to the side of the house.
“Oh. Haiji-san,” Kakeru acknowledges as he walks over to him. “So you’re up, too.”
Haiji looks up as he approaches, and Kakeru catches a split second of the mournful expression on his face before he replaces it with a smile.
“Ah, Kakeru. Couldn’t sleep either? Or are you up early for a run?”
Kakeru frowns as he considers his answer.
“Both,” he says. With a sigh, he steps up and sits down next to Haiji, eyes trained on the ground. “For some reason, I haven’t slept a full night since Nico-chan senpai left.”
It’s true, he realizes, as the words leave his mouth. The hallways feel emptier these days, ever since King-san moved out first. These days, Kakeru feels haunted by the lack of TV noise, the absence of Yuki’s gripes, and the growing silence the three of them have left in their wake. It’s as though the building can sense its occupants slowly vacating, every creak of the floorboards an aching cry from all the furniture and possessions and people it’s losing, and soon, Haiji — Haiji will be next.
Haiji snorts, then bursts into laughter. Kakeru’s heart squeezes with the sound of it.
“I’m sorry, I’m not laughing because you can’t sleep, I swear. It’s just — you’ve really come a long way,” he says, grinning at Kakeru. “When you first came to Aotake, you were a lone runner. Always going off on your own and keeping yourself closed off to new people. Now look at you. You’ve ran alongside a team. You’re letting yourself be affected by friends leaving, to the point of feeling so disrupted you can’t sleep at night.”
Haiji shakes his head as more laughter bubbles out from his mouth. “What’re you going to do when I’m gone?”
When I’m gone?
When I’m gone?
Gone, gone, gone…
A dark cavity seems to open up inside his chest at the thought. In less than forty eight hours, Haiji will be—
Glancing back up at him, Kakeru swallows.
Beneath the silver glow of the fading moonlight, Haiji is smiling, his eyes dancing with amusement. The openness in his expression sends a spark buzzing through Kakeru’s spine, and without meaning to, he finds his gaze dropping to rest at Haiji’s lips.
“I—” he pauses, squirming from the swift, swooping sensation in his stomach. Haiji tilts his head, still smiling. Something grips Kakeru’s heart and squeezes it tight. He’s never fully appreciated how beautiful Haiji looks, especially in this dim lighting of night. Perhaps it’s the nearness of Haiji’s imminent farewell, of sand in an hourglass trickling thin, that fills Kakeru with a sudden desire to preserve, to collect Haiji’s laughter and bottle it up for a lonely day. There’s not enough time, never will be enough time, to fully drink in all the beautiful qualities that make up this man before him.
“I know,” he says at last. “It can’t be helped.”
Haiji raises an eyebrow at this indirect response, but doesn’t probe. With a sigh, he leans back and gazes up at the stars.
“The reason I couldn’t sleep,” Haiji begins, then pauses. Kakeru watches and listens. A gentle breeze rustles the trees around them.
“I had another dream about running,” he shares. His eyes trace the shape of the moon up above as a sad smile spreads across his face. “I wonder how many of those I’ll have before I stop believing they’re real.”
“Haiji-san…” Kakeru frowns. Having lofty dreams and running with the full force of one’s passion and belief towards them has never quite been his thing, especially not before meeting Haiji. For Haiji, however, that’s always been both his gift and his curse. He can’t imagine how it must feel to constantly be chasing something you can’t have.
“Well. Sometimes it’s already obvious,” Haiji rationalizes. “Sometimes, I’ll be running through something so impossible, like a lake filled with stars or a path above the clouds, it makes it easier for me to realize I’m just dreaming. My mind can then shift into that strange, lucidity where you start to figure out that your surroundings are not real. Small mercies, I guess.”
He turns and gives Kakeru a wry smile.
“I’m sure eventually, once I get used to this new reality, I’ll start those dreams already aware of its impossibility.”
Kakeru looks down at his hands, unable to speak. There’s nothing he can say to relieve that sort of pain.
“It’s…” he starts, without actually thinking about what he means to tell him. “It’s not… not real.”
Haiji tilts his head. “What do you mean?”
Kakeru purses his lips, thinking. Use your words. “Um… I guess… if dreams are built based on a store of what you know and have experienced, then as someone who is a runner, it’s not… not real. In a sense. It’s still… part of you. Always has been and always will be.”
“Hmmm…” Haiji looks back up at the sky. The dark expanse is starting to lighten, but only just. Twilight will be upon them soon.
“You know,” he says, breathing out a low chuckle. “I run in a lot of strange places in my sleep. Sometimes, I can’t even call it a place. Sometimes, it’s just some crazy reality my mind has concocted, things and sights that I can’t even describe. But in the end, no matter where I’m running in these dreams, you’re in them almost every time. Whether you’re the one I’m running with or the one I’m running towards, it’s always comforting to know that I’m not running alone.”
Haiji smiles at him. “Would you say that that’s not not real, too?”
Kakeru stares, his heart pounding fast. Haiji dreams about him. He shows up in Haiji’s dreams . Haiji’s just asked him to spell out the implications of all this. And what are the implications? This is the man who taught Kakeru more about running than he ever could have learned on his own. Even when Haiji can’t run, he’s… beautiful. What could he ever offer back?
“Um.. I…” he falters, willing himself to look Haiji straight in the eyes. His hands continue to wring in his lap, his thumbs kneading his knuckles, nails scraping flesh. “I…”
Haiji raises both eyebrows, mouth parted open in wait. The curiosity burning in his expression hits Kakeru like an arrow straight through the heart.
“I’m… not good with words,” he finishes lamely, dropping his gaze to his feet.
“Then don’t use them.”
Kakeru glances up and his world immediately slams into a stop. That enigmatic smile. The roguish gleam glimmering in his eyes. The slow swell of his bottom lip as his grin starts to fade…
Heart pounding fast against his ribcage, Kakeru moves before he can second guess himself. Haiji’s pair of widening brown eyes is the last thing he sees before he leans in and presses his lips to Haiji’s mouth.
He’s never done something like this before, isn’t quite sure how it all works. As a result, the kiss ends up being quick and short lived, with Kakeru pulling back at once, surprised at his own boldness and at how strange other people's lips feel. His hands are buzzing with nervous energy, no longer wringing themselves, but no less able to stay still. Slowly, he pulls back, his eyes searching Haiji’s face for a sign or a clue that he didn’t just make the worst mistake of his life.
Haiji is no longer smiling. With furrowed brows and half-lidded eyes, he looks back at Kakeru in a way Kakeru has never seen him look at anything before. The intensity of his gaze sets every nerve in Kakeru’s body on fire.
Lifting a hand up, Haiji slides his fingers up behind Kakeru’s ear and kiss him square on the mouth. This time, when Kakeru closes his eyes, he feels Haiji’s lips move against his with care and relish. It’s slow and patient, a gentle and repeated brush of acquaintance until tingling warmth starts spilling down Kakeru’s spine. With a shaking breath, he grabs a fistful of Haiji’s robes and opens his mouth.
He feels a flicker of tongue that he doesn’t know what to do with, but out of curiosity tries to mimic the act. In response, Haiji grips his hair tighter and drags Kakeru’s bottom lip between his own, pulling a small, muffled sound from the back of his throat. Haiji’s lips are so warm and inviting, and it’s all Kakeru can do but to hold on and give as good as he’s got. As their pace quickens, so does his heart, kicking off against his chest and sprinting faster and faster.
As a runner, Kakeru knows what it’s like to be out of breath, to push yourself so hard all the air escapes from your lungs, leaving you depleted and gasping for more. Despite the pain and suffering he endures to arrive at such a condition, there’s always an inexplicable elated feeling attached to that high. But this — with Haiji’s hand in his hair and every intake of breath a gulp of shared air — Kakeru’s never come close to feeling anything like this.
Overwhelmed to breaking point, Kakeru breaks away with a sharp gasp.
“You are my answer to what it means to run,” he blurts out, ignoring the stunned expression on Haiji’s face as he catches his own breath. Looking down between them, Kakeru grips Haiji’s robes tighter and frowns at their feet. “I’m — I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you until now. I just—”
He breaks off when he hears Haiji laugh. Glancing up, Kakeru finally allows himself to properly take in Haiji’s swollen lips and mussed hair. It’s a special kind of look he’s never had the privilege of seeing before, so in spite of himself, he starts to smile.
“It’s okay,” Haiji reassures when he stops laughing. “I have all the time in the world for you to fill me in on the rest of your thoughts — with or without words.”
Reaching out, he grabs one of Kakeru’s hands and interlaces their fingers.
“But for now, since we’re still up and awake, want to go to the park and watch the sunrise together?” Haiji asks. Keeping his gaze on him, Haiji brings his hands up to his mouth and presses his lips to Kakeru’s knuckles.
“Yeah,” he nods, ignoring the burning sensation heating up his face. “Let’s go.”
It’s an ironic but beautiful thing, Kakeru thinks as he gets up on his feet and helps Haiji onto his. Even though the world has taken Haiji’s leg and his ability to run, it’s also given back hope and running in a new way, a promise of a new dawn. Now, as Haiji is about to embark on a whole different journey beyond college, leaving behind a place they’ve both called home in the last few months, Kakeru is grateful that despite it all, there will always be more sunrises, more opportunities to look forward to, for him to greet another new day with Haiji.