They’re planning their training regimens for summer camp, but Kakeru had stopped paying attention around three yes, Haiji-san’s ago. Haiji was a little amused by the glaze in his eyes, and curious at the novelty, as Kakeru was usually diligent to a fault. Haiji was also tired after a day of physical therapy and coaching, but Kakeru was almost completely gone, eyes vacant and drooping.
Obviously, this was an opportunity to have a little fun.
“So I pulled my gun out, right,” Haiji nudged him with the leg he had resting against Kakeru’s thigh as he spoke, and Kakeru nodded vaguely in response, eyes unfocused. Haiji grinned. “And Coach was like, there’s no way I’m getting this club more funds until they start winning things. So we had a shootout there, and the old man’s dead, and it’d be nice to have some help burying him, you know?”
“Yeah, Haiji-san,” said Kakeru, still distracted.
Okay, so this was turning out to be a little less entertaining than he’d hoped it would be. “Ka-ke-ru,” Haiji said. He dug his leg further in, shuffling till he was half in Kakeru’s lap to get his attention. “As captain, you should be paying a little attention when the assistant coach is slaving away for the club’s sake, shouldn’t he?”
He had Kakeru’s full attention now. There was an angry red, like a rash, climbing up his neck. He looked down at the scattered papers on the table. “Sorry, Haiji-san,” he mumbled.
Haiji stared at him for a beat. “Is anything the matter, Kakeru? You seem a little off.”
The redness had reached Kakeru’s ears, and Haiji watched it with confused fascination. “No, Haiji-san, I’m—just a little tired. Um. Sorry for not paying attention. I’m—we’re grateful for your help, really.”
Haiji dropped a hand to the thigh he was nudging with his foot, endeared, and Kakeru jumped as if he’d been burned. “Haiji-san, can we—can we finish this tomorrow?” he asked, a little brokenly, and practically ran out of the room before Haiji could say anything.
Haiji looked down at his training menu, baffled by the whiplash. Maybe he didn’t have Kakeru figured out after all.
The next day they woke up early for practice, and Kakeru seemed back to normal. It was one of those days where the kids ran as if their bodies weighed nothing, and all the times were good. Kakeru was acting more and more like a captain by the day—he ran at the rear today, letting Jota and Joji take the lead, and Haiji was filled with a mix of nostalgia, for the original Aotake Ten, but mostly pride for Kakeru.
The simplicity of the emotion belied how massive it was, how true. Haiji wasn’t really all that sentimental, but he was almost knocked off his feet by the intensity of it, how he has seen Kakeru grow and grow. And it became so real just then that Haiji had to show it in some way to Kakeru, so that when his laps had ended, it was almost subconscious when he put an arm around Kakeru and pulled his face close.
Haiji was almost immediately called away to look over the times by Hana-chan, so he didn’t notice Kakeru’s demeanor shift for a few minutes. When he finally glanced over at him again, his smile faltered a little, because Kakeru’s face was suddenly closed off, his eyes angled at the floor. Not wanting to make a big deal of it, Haiji simply made eye contact and raised a brow, knowing he’d pick up on the unspoken question.
Kakeru shook his head almost imperceptibly. He cleared his throat. “I’ll be going on ahead,” he said, addressing the team, “going to get some extra laps in,” --which wasn’t unheard of, but still a red flag when he was in this kind of headspace. He ran off before Haiji could say anything.
His departure left Haiji anxious and on edge. Kakeru’s eyes had been bright with the success of their times just a second ago. He hadn’t spoken to anyone since, so it had to be something he’d had in his head—or something that Haiji did. “I’ll... I’ll be right back,” Haiji said distractedly to Hana, and took off after Kakeru.
Kakeru had made it to the riverbank where they used to practice and was staring into the sky like he’d forgotten where he was. He startled a little when he noticed Haiji jog down towards him.
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru said, looking tired. “What is it?”
“That’s assistant coach to you, punk,” Haiji said to deflect, and began doing some half-assed stretches with Kakeru in the corner of his eye. “Just wanted to get away from those loud assholes, really.”
“Okay,” Kakeru said, as Haiji kept stretching his calves, thoughts tangled. What even was he worried about? Kakeru was an eccentric guy, but his eccentricities were formulaic, like wanting to run every waking minute and thinking seinen manga was any good. Haiji wasted precious minutes trying to figure out what he wanted to address in the first place, let alone how to go about it.
Kakeru ended up breaking the silence. “I think your legs must be warmed down by now, Haiji-san.”
“Hm? Oh,” Haiji said, straightening out of his crouch with a roll of eyes at himself. “Hey, Kakeru. You haven’t had any…bad news of any sort, have you?”
Kakeru stared at him for so long Haiji began to feel a little foolish. He hastened to add, “Anything that might. You know. Get you down. Because I’ve noticed that you’ve been kind of out of it lately.”
Kakeru’s face transitioned very quickly from polite attentiveness to ill-hidden panic. “I—Haiji-san—” he looked down. “Sorry,” he said in a soft voice. “It’s nothing bad, I promise. I’ve just been thinking over some things.”
Haiji scuffed his foot in the dirt, feeling all of nine years old, having upset his first friend in elementary. “Anything I can do to help? I’m you coach and your Haiji-san, Kakeru, but after all this time I’d like to think I’m your friend.”
Kakeru’s face did another abrupt shift that Haiji wished he could read. He forced a cough. “Thanks, Haiji-san. Um, we better get back to the team.”
“Of course,” Haiji said automatically, “those twins may have started a riot already.” He held out a hand and let himself be pulled back to the road by Kakeru.
Kakeru grimaced and picked up the pace without a word, pretending not to hear the way it made Haiji laugh.
Qualifiers for Hakone Ekiden drawing so close meant Kakeru disappearing to the library in the sparse free time that he had. He sent a text in the team group chat that he was available for phone calls, which Haiji sent three eye-rolling emojis at. Study and set a good example, he texted. The kids and I are sick of seeing your face.
They’re not kids, Kakeru replied a few minutes later. I was that age when I first joined.
So now you know what I went through
You were terrible, Haiji-san
If Haiji was being honest, a part of him wished he hadn’t insisted that the team focus on studies, because now he had unplanned free time to think about how Kakeru’s light, teasing You’re terrible, Haiji-san made him feel. He told himself it was because of how out of character it was: Kakeru didn't flirt, if that was even what this was. And sure enough ten minutes later he was still thinking about Kakeru and how he seemed only to pay attention to Haiji when he was far away.
“Goddammit,” he said out loud, and set his planner aside and called Prince.
Prince let him go to voicemail. Undeterred, Haiji called again, and got picked up on the seventh ring.
“What,” Prince hissed.
“Hey,” Haiji said, trying not to make his grin audible, “how are you, Prince? Eating well?”
“Haiji-san, if you called me to waste my time—”
“Whoa, okay, okay, salaryman.” Haiji tapped his fingers on his desk as Prince fumed quietly on the other end. “Listen, you’re close to Kakeru, right? Do you know if there’s something the matter with him?”
There was a pregnant silence. “Um,” Prince said at length, “I mean, not that I’m aware of? We mostly talk about manga, anyway. Shouldn’t you be asking him that?”
“I did,” Haiji said, before his pride could stop him from asking for advice from a kouhai. “I don’t think I got through to him, though. So I suppose I’m—asking how you do it?”
“How I ask Kakeru to talk about his problems?”
“Oh,” and Prince went silent again, like he was thinking. This time the pause was long enough that Haiji thought he’d maybe forgotten he was on a call, not unheard of when it came to Prince. “Haiji-san, you do know that most of Kakeru’s problems are about how he and his teammates can run faster, right?”
“So it’s really unlikely that he wouldn’t confide in you.”
“But he isn’t,” Haiji said, and Prince made an exasperated huffing noise on his end.
“I meant, it’s probably something personal,” he said. “As in, he doesn’t think he should burden you with it. Since it doesn’t directly affect you.”
“But it does.”
Another pause. “Haiji-san…what exactly has he been doing that concerns you?”
“Just—weird stuff. Spacing out in the middle of conversations. His mood changes in like, two seconds while I’m not looking. And he, uh. He blushes a lot.”
“Hm,” Prince said. “What is he normally looking at—or talking about—when he’s blushing?”
“Me,” Haiji said, and instantly regretted it, because the next silence was a meaningful one. It sounded like Prince had worked something out and was trying to lead Haiji to it, and Haiji wasn’t used to being led to anything. “Prince, what the hell.”
“You care about him a lot,” Prince said, annoyingly cryptic. “That earnest wish should be enough to guide you through. Now I’m going to hang up, because I have a job that I could get fired from.”
Before Haiji could get wound up about Prince quoting shoujo manga at him instead of proper advice, the line began to beep.
The day of the qualifiers, Kakeru came down to where Haiji was writing down the roster on the signup forms, sports drink in his hand, looking down. Haiji kept squinting at him with suspicion after he’d passed the bottle over to him. Kakeru being quiet was nothing new, but the obvious way he was thinking about something made Haiji itch under his skin.
“I didn’t know they still stocked this brand,” Haiji said, just to get Kakeru to blink and focus on him.
“I’ll drink it if you don’t want it,” Kakeru said, squatting down on the pavilion steps with him. A ghost of a smile passed his face when Haiji clutched it close to his chest, and Haiji grinned back. Again, he felt that rush of affection for his kind, likable kouhai who was probably his best friend.
Haiji looked back down at his writing board. He was getting sentimental in his old age.
He resumed scribbling the team’s names and registration numbers. He was aware of Kakeru’s attention on him, watching as he struggled to remember the first years’ family names. It was a simple, harmless Kakeru thing to watch him while he worked and Haiji had become used to it long ago. A gentle warmth on his skin that pushed his lips up in a smile. And then it was gone.
“What’re you looking at?” He waited till he was done with his form to look up and follow Kakeru’s gaze, where a red-clad cloud of Tokyo Sport athletes were marching towards the track. It took Haiji a second to place the redhead at the lead, half because he’d pinned the kid down for the type that quit within a year.
“Competition,” Kakeru offered tersely, beginning to open his own drink.
“Hmm,” Haiji mumbled. Was that what had set off Kakeru’s mood? He couldn’t really trust the twins to field the unsavory parts of Kakeru’s past the way Nico-chan used to, but Kakeru was a big boy now, surely he could avoid his enemies on his own—
Haiji’s eyelid twitched when, without prompting, Kakeru confirmed his suspicions: “I ran into him earlier. Sakaki. My old teammate.”
Kakeru nods. “He says they’ve gotten better. Their team. He’s captain too, now.”
Haiji makes a vague, impressed noise. “So now that that chip on his shoulder’s gone, maybe he’ll finally leave you alone.”
It was Kakeru’s turn to frown. “Oh. I—yeah, that’s true, running was part of the reason he disliked me.”
Haiji huffed a little laugh through his nose. “C’mon, Kakeru, you’re killing me here,” he said.
“What else beef did that kid have with you?” Haiji uncapped his own bottle, took a swig. “I remember that he took literally every opportunity to antagonize you. You steal his girlfriend or something?”
Kakeru stared at him, mouth slightly open.
Haiji nearly dropped his drink. “You did?”
Kakeru shook his head before Haiji could hyperventilate. “Not exactly, I—he confessed to me, in high school, and I turned him down.” He crossed his arms. His voice, when he spoke next, was suspiciously thick. “I wasn’t going to tell you, if it grossed you out, but…you asked.”
“It definitely doesn’t,” Haiji said, before Kakeru could misinterpret his stunned silence. Then he fell silent anyway. He couldn’t put words to how he was feeling right now. His head was still buzzing something unintelligible at him.
Kakeru frowned. “I don’t want you to mention this to anyone.”
A surge of red-hot frustration cut through the noise in Haiji’s head.
“Who do you even think I am, Kakeru?" he brushed off Kakeru’s reply, screwing his eyes shut. “Never mind. More importantly, did it gross you out?”
“No,” came Kakeru’s reply, firm. “I…I’m like that as well. Just not him.”
Haiji blamed the utter bizarreness of the day that he didn’t understand what was happening, not at first. Then his eyes snapped open, wide with realization.
“I like girls too,” Kakeru added quietly, reading Haiji’s expression before he could say a single word. He was getting really good at that lately.
Haiji, in turn, saw how nervous he was. “How come I’ve never caught you with anyone, of any gender then?” He gave Kakeru a suggestive little smirk, and dug his elbow into his side. “Fifty per cent of the population more than the rest of us poor idiots have available, and you spend all your time running?”
“Haiji-san…” Kakeru blinked, looked down. Haiji gave him a minute of peace, feeling indulgent. “I’m worried that you’re being too kind to me,” he said, in the same thick voice. He tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. “You’ve always been—”
Haiji’s grin slid off his face. His heart twinged like someone had plucked on it.
You were worried about this? About telling me? Isn’t my affection a sure thing?
“Shh, hey, none of that,” he said. “It’s the bare minimum, yeah? If the old team was here, they’d have done the same. The new one too.”
Kakeru mumbled a subdued thank you.
“And I swear I won’t joke about it if it makes you uncomfortable,” Haiji added.
“When it’s just—when it’s just us, it’s okay.”
“Even if it’s just endless commentary about how much action you’re not getting?”
A corner of Kakeru’s lips twitched. Finally. “Even that,” he said gravely, eyes bright with relief.
The next day, Kakeru dropped into the kitchen in the early hours of the morning. Haiji wasn’t that surprised by his presence, but he raised his eyebrows when Kakeru didn’t immediately take off for his morning run after greeting him, and took down a board to begin chopping carrots instead.
“Such a good role model,” he began, and Kakeru scoffed a dry, “Shut up, Haiji-san.”
The onions in the pan sizzled and Kakeru sniffled, his nose gone bright red. Their times in the qualifiers were good, and it was tradition to call off their normal rigid practice schedule the day after a meet. Haiji had no doubt the kids would be up in a bit, jamming their shoes on and running into the dawn out of sheer habit, but for now it was just Haiji and a soft-eyed Kakeru in the hush of the sleeping dorm as they made breakfast for the team together.
“Running out of eggs,” he mumbled to himself, making himself stop staring at the open, unguarded expression on Kakeru’s face.
“I’ll pick them up on my way to class,” Kakeru said, and Haiji hummed his thanks.
After chopping up carrots, Kakeru went outside and came back with Nira dancing around his heels, feeding her biscuits from a tin Haiji had never seen before. He stopped short before entering the kitchen.
“Haiji-san, are you okay with letting her near? Your allergies—”
“I’m fine,” Haiji said, blindsided that Kakeru knew about his allergies, let alone remembered. “When did I—”
“You mentioned they were worse in the morning,” Kakeru said. He ushered Nira to sit near the door, smiling down at her as she thumped her tail against the floorboards and waited for treats.
Kakeru scrunched his nose as he thought. Cute, Haiji thought absently, and scowled at himself. He really was acting odd lately.
Prince’s words bounced around in his head: You care about him a lot.
“First year, I think,” Kakeru said finally. “You were talking to Shindo-san.”
He finished cutting a load of leeks and pushes the pile towards Haiji. Haiji accepted it, still stunned by the fact that Kakeru remembered. It struck him suddenly that everything about the situation was painfully domestic; him in Kakeru’s space, cooking together, brushing against each other as they moved. Kakeru remembering about his allergies.
“Oh,” he said, and felt the back of his ears grow warm. He poured the veggies in the pan mechanically. “Thanks for the hard work, captain.”
Kakeru gave another faint smile aimed at the counter. He was a little red, a little rumpled. Haiji had to engross himself in stirring the pan for a while to stop himself from feeling so out of control.
His phone vibrated, giving him a distraction. He picked it up thankfully and it was a message from Prince: I hope his feelings get through to you.
His reply was automatic, not wanting to think too hard about what Prince knew that he didn’t: this is not a shoujo manga, Prince
When he looked back up, Kakeru was looking at him.
Abruptly his pulse started going at five hundred miles an hour, hammering in his ears like Kakeru might catch the way his thoughts were unraveling. Wishing he had a better distraction, he blurted, “Hey, you never ended up telling me what was going on with you, after all.”
Something shifted a little in Kakeru’s expression. “Yes,” he said after a moment. “I—It was nothing. Just personal stuff. No big deal.”
“You were really out of it,” Haiji said, as gently as he could. “Was it—was it something like what happened with Sakaki-kun?”
“Kinda. This time it was me trying to confess.”
“You did? How did it go?”
“Chickened out at the last minute,” Kakeru said, splaying his hands out on the countertop. “It’s someone really close to me, so I thought—"
Haiji put his hand on top of Kakeru’s and everything froze.
His brain shut down again. Whatever he was going to say to distract from how weird he was acting dried up in his throat, because what was going on what was he doing.
“Um,” he said, mind loud with static. “I figured. Waiting for you to make the first move might be. Not that fast.”
“Haiji-san,” Kakeru said. Haiji finally dared to look at him.
Kakeru was smiling, a slow awed tilt of his mouth like he could scarcely believe his luck. “Haiji-san,” he said again, “how did you know?”
Haiji exhaled in a rush, pure relief. “I always know.”
“You do?” Kakeru’s smile grew towards something like pure delight.
“Not really, but let’s pretend for now, shall we?”
“We,” Kakeru said. He looked almost dizzy. “Are we a we?”
Haiji rolled his eyes, that old familiar affection threatening to drown him. “Of course, Kakeru.”
“So you—“ Kakeru said, gesturing back-and-forth between them with his free hand.
Instead of answering, Haiji shuffled around, pressing the length of his side against Kakeru’s chest. Kakeru’s hands fell on his waist on instinct.
“Okay,” Kakeru said, smile impossibly bright. “I’m so—okay.”
Haiji snorted and he cupped Kakeru’s face, skin soft as a dream under his fingers. “You wasted so much of our time,” he said.
“Yeah,” is all Kakeru said, sounding genuinely penitent.
His pout meant Haiji couldn’t not kiss it. When Haiji leaned forward, Kakeru tilted his head and met him halfway.