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december boys

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Tobio starts to ask questions.  

He wants to know everything, it seems, about Kakeru's first year in college, his team, and most of all, his relationship with Haiji. 

"How did you know you liked him?" Tobio asks. "Haiji-san, I mean." 

They're at a McDonald's, which they decided to stop at on a day of sightseeing for Kakeru, as Tobio took him around the town. Kakeru sucks up his thick milkshake through the too-small straw with difficulty as he thinks. 

It's hard to pinpoint when, exactly, he fell for Haiji. It wasn't all at once, and it might have happened prior to him actually realizing it, so he can't really say for sure. He does know one thing, though.

"In high school, I started to hate people watching me run. It felt like everyone was expecting things from me… I just wanted to run without anyone looking," Kakeru says. "I knew I liked Haiji when I realized I wanted him to watch me run—nobody else, just me. I wanted to prove to him that I could be what he wanted."

"A strong runner?" Tobio guesses.

Kakeru shakes his head. "Just myself. He knew that I just had to run, and that would be good enough."

"Woah," Tobio says, impressed. "He sounds cool." 

"He's not," Kakeru says firmly. He cannot have Tobio getting the wrong idea about Haiji, who is incredibly uncool. 

"So why do you like him, then?" Tobio asks. 

Kakeru feels like he could ask Tobio the same question, with how often the younger boy insists that Hinata is a complete dumbass. He senses that won't yield the results he wants, however. 

"I think because…" He pops a few fries into his mouth to give himself time to think. There's so many reasons, in the end, all of them banging around inside his head. But the main reason, the first reason, the one that got him to start opening up to all of Haiji's oddities, that made him so lovable was… "He's the first person in a long time that I really get. And that's how I know he gets me."

He stays quiet for a moment while Tobio seems to be mulling this over. 

"He gets you…" his cousin mutters, lower lip jutted out as he thinks. 

It is true, that Kakeru fell for the way Haiji seemed to always see him, see through him, with his eyes soft and fond one moment, piercing and all-knowing the next. But, speaking of Haiji's eyes…

"He's also really hot," he adds. Tobio chokes on his milkshake. "What? You're allowed to be into people because of their looks, too." 

"I don't notice that much about people's looks," Tobio says in a surly voice, but from the way he avoids eye contact when he says this, Kakeru senses this may not be a whole truth. 

It's probably good not to make his relationship seem quite so lofty and profound. Absolutely, he has connected with Haiji on a deep and personal level he's never experienced with another person in his entire life. His unfolding relationship with Haiji was sublime, shook him to the core of his foundation when he saw his feelings for what they were, and made him realize things he never even knew about himself before they met. 

But Haiji's smile is also really fucking cute, and from what Kakeru has seen, Hinata's is, too. And that seems maybe a little easier to make Tobio understand.

Tobio asking him "Have you kissed Haiji yet?" takes Kakeru by surprise when they're alone in the kitchen, washing dishes after dinner that evening. 

He fumbles with the plate he's holding and ends up dropping it into the sink full of sudsy water, sending up a mini-geyser and splashing them both. Tobio hollers something unintelligible at him as Kakeru clutches the edge of the sink and shakes with laughter at his outrage. 

"Aren't you holding them properly?" Tobio barks, like there's some kind of universally agreed upon method to handling a dish while it's being rinsed. 

"That was your fault," Kakeru says, swishing his hand around below the water for the plate. 

"My fault?!" 

"What do you expect when you ask nosy questions out of nowhere?" 

Tobio flinches and stares angrily at the soapy dishes. "I wasn't trying to be nosy."

His face is bright red, and Kakeru softens. He doesn't want Tobio to regret thinking about this stuff. "I'm kidding. It just surprised me." 

"You don't have to answer," Tobio says. He runs the water at full blast, the spray thunderously loud as it batters the dishes.

Kakeru reaches over and shuts it off. Tobio still does not look at him.

"I have," Kakeru says. "I mean, we've been together a couple months now, so, yeah. We have."

Tobio fidgets. "Is it weird?" 

Kakeru laughs. "The first couple times, it was. Neither of us had a lot of experience." 

"Really? Even Haiji-san?" 

"You really tend to give him a lot more credit than you should." 

"He's older! And your captain!" 

"Yeah," Kakeru says, "but he's also a running idiot. Like me. It just wasn't something we cared that much about before. I think he had a girlfriend for a little while in high school, though. His dad made him break up with her, but he said he wasn't that upset about it." 

Secretly, Kakeru wonders how true that is. He knows the Haiji of today would never let anyone tell him what to do where Kakeru is concerned; but would Haiji still be with his former high school sweetheart if his father hadn't deemed it a distraction? Had Haiji really not been that interested in the relationship, or would Kakeru have lost him before he ever had him? 

He doesn't really like to think that he had Haiji's dad to thank for that, so he usually moves on from that train of thought fairly quickly. Thankfully, Tobio is there to help. 

"So it didn't matter that you both sucked at it?" he asks.

"No," Kakeru laughs. "It was…" Awkward? Terrifying? Incredible? "Fun." 

Tobio looks extremely dubious. "Stuff isn't fun if you suck at it." 

"Hmm," Kakeru hums, "I don't know if that's true. You usually seem to have fun playing video games." 

It takes Tobio a full ten seconds to figure out he's been insulted. Kakeru watches the range of facial expressions he undergoes with immense satisfaction, up until Tobio attacks him with a dirty, waterlogged sponge. 

It's at their usual park the next morning, following the first half of their run, when Tobio asks him, "Did you have to try out for the team? Or were you scouted?" 

"Uh, not exactly," Kakeru says, surprised. "I told you I quit after high school. Or I thought I did, anyway."

Tobio watches him stretching with a confused frown on his face, then starts trying to imitate Kakeru's stretches himself. "Then how'd you end up on the team?" 

"Haiji convinced me," he says. 

Tobio's eyes get very wide. "Really?" he asks, interest piqued. "How?"

"I was, um," he says, and then hesitates, not sure where to begin. 

Besides him, Haiji, and Nico-chan, nobody actually knows this part of the story. The three of them had unanimously agreed not to tell Yuki—not out of any anxiety that Yuki would have an issue with Kakeru's borderline delinquent status, but because none of them wanted to deal with the amount of overprotective fussing it would incur on Yuki's part. 

How does he convey what an absolute disaster he was before coming to Aotake? He decides on the bare bones truth. He senses he can trust Tobio with it. 

"I was living out of a sleeping bag when I first ran into Haiji. I had no money and we met because he chased me down on his bike after he caught me shoplifting. Not because he really cared about the shoplifting," Kakeru clarifies, because that feels like an important detail somehow. "Just because he saw me running and was… um, curious about me, I guess." That's putting it lightly.

Tobio gives him this look like he's visibly watching the pedestal cracking beneath Kakeru's feet. "Kakeru-san!" 

"It wasn't my best moment," Kakeru admits. 

"You're a criminal?" Tobio asks at the top of his lungs, which seems unnecessary given they are sitting right next to each other. 

"I'm—you don't have to yell, Tobio—I gave the bread back," Kakeru says. "I was only a criminal for, like, ten minutes." 

"Why did you steal it in the first place if you were just going to do that?" Tobio asks.

"I was hungry," Kakeru says. "Haiji made me give it back. He brought me to the dorm right after for dinner." 

"Oh," Tobio says. He shoots Kakeru another funny sideways glance.

"What?" 

"You went home with him that fast," Tobio says.

It takes Kakeru the span of a confused moment to realize what Tobio is implying—mostly because he would never have dreamed Tobio, who apparently assumes people need to be black belts at tongue-fu in order for kissing to be worthwhile, knew to imply anything like that in the first place. 

"Oh my god," he huffs. "Are you judging me?" 

"My senpai told me that when you go home with someone on a first date, that means things are getting steamy," Tobio says, insufferably smug. "Don't you know that?"

"It wasn't like that, you little—" Kakeru makes a grab at him but Tobio is already rolling out of the way, grinning evilly. "Do you even know what that means?" 

"Um, yes?" Tobio says, like Kakeru is the stupid one. "It means you guys are gonna…" Kakeru can visibly see the moment Tobio realizes what he's actually suggesting as his whole face goes bright red. "Do stuff!" 

"Do stuff," Kakeru mocks, and then it's his turn to dodge when Tobio tries to whack him. "Okay, well, things didn't get 'steamy'. I just met the rest of the team, which none of us knew was a team at the time. And then Haiji told us about running in the Ekiden." 

"Huh. Well," Tobio says contemplatively. "I didn't do anything nearly as bad as you. But I did get kicked out of the gym my first practice." 

"Oh?" Kakeru raises both eyebrows. "Troublemaker Tobio, huh? What did you do?" 

"I got in a fight with Hinata," Tobio says. "And then we knocked the vice principal's wig off." 

"Wait, wait—what?" Kakeru sputters. This sounds somehow wilder than the shoplifting. "Explain." 

By the time Tobio finishes recounting the story about challenging Hinata to a battle of receives, culminating in a rather violent de-wigging of their uptight vice principal, and the team captain unceremoniously banning them from the gym until they learned to work together, Kakeru is crying literal tears of laughter.

"Is it really that funny?" Tobio asks, even though he's grinning too. 

"Yes!" Kakeru says. "So what happened?! How did you end up getting back on the team?" 

"We just…" Tobio trails off, flopping onto his back in the grass next to Kakeru. "We actually played together. And it was—it was different." 

Kakeru laughs. "Different?" 

"Yeah," Tobio says. "It was fun."

Something about that rings so true for Kakeru, despite not knowing exactly what Tobio is talking about, that he has to fall over into the pink-petal dusted grass next to him. He sighs, shielding his eyes from the sun, newly risen and dappled through the leaves of the tree they're under. 

"It changes a lot," he says, "when it's actually fun." 

"Yeah," Tobio says again. 

"So, does that mean you guys started getting along after that?" Kakeru asks. 

"No," Tobio says. "I couldn't stand him, and he hated me." 

"You just made it work, huh?" 

"More or less," Tobio says. "We got better." 

"That's obvious." 

Tobio throws some grass at him. Then he goes quiet again, frowning down at the lawn, which Kakeru now realizes he often does when given something he wants to consider. He waits patiently while Tobio idly tears more green blades from the dirt and flicks them in Kakeru's direction. "Did you and Haiji-san get along right away?" 

Kakeru mulls this over. "Not really. I couldn't really stand him at first, either." Haiji, upon first meeting, was infuriating—and weird, and overbearing, and, Kakeru had thought at the time, ignorant. 

"Oh," Tobio says. He ceases his grass flicking. "But you still ended up liking each other." 

"We did," Kakeru says. "A lot." 

"Huh," Tobio says. "Okay. Cool."

Shortly after this, he's up and on his feet, full of energy and insisting they run back. If his frown seems to have evened out a little bit, Kakeru doesn't comment on it. 

*

It's Kakeru's mom who suggests they go hiking. The trails in Miyagi, she reminisces, are really nice—perfect for two boys who "don't know how to keep still," and who are always running off to be outside at every available opportunity.

Kakeru does like the idea of exploring the countryside, and the mountains call to him a bit more strongly than they might have before the camp at Lake Shirakaba. The two of them start looking up trails online, then campsites, and within a day have decided to make an excursion out of it.

"Water bottles," Kakeru says, standing by the front door in the early morning. His mom and her sister have gotten up early to see them off today, but they are both practically asleep on their feet. 

"Check," Tobio says dutifully, patting the backpack pocket where they have stored the bottles. 

"Toothbrush."

"Got mine." 

"Those tiny sausages for breakfast?" 

"In here," Tobio says, thumping their cooler. 

They both look at each other in satisfaction, before both realizing at the same moment:

"Map!"

Tobio darts back to the room to get their map, while Kakeru's mother yawns. 

"You need all this to go on an overnight camping trip?" she asks. 

"Never know what you'll regret not bringing," he says with a shrug. 

"Alright," she says. "Well, as long as you're having fun, I guess…"

Kakeru smiles. "We are."

Tobio remains irked by the apparent judgment of their over preparedness for an amusingly long time. "Why would we be doing this if we weren't gonna have fun?" he scoffs later, on the bus ride to the campsite. 

"I think up until recently, she probably thought I didn't know how to have fun," Kakeru admits. "But it's just that my parents' idea of what I should enjoy was pretty different to mine."

"How?" Tobio asks. 

How to explain… Kakeru drums his fingers on his duffel bag as he thinks. 

"You know my dad's a runner, too, right?" he finally asks. 

Tobio scrunches his face in thought. "Maybe? Or… I know he did a sport…"

"It was running," Kakeru says dryly. "Why do you think I'm named for it?" 

"Ohhh…" Tobio nods. 

"I think to him, having his whole life be about running was the same thing as having fun," Kakeru says. "He thought… he probably thinks that's what it means to be serious about it. And I am serious about running, I guess… but, like I told you, high school wasn't fun. I don't think my parents understood. I guess I didn't really try to make them understand, either. I just thought everyone only wanted me to run." 

Tobio hums. "My parents always wanted me to play volleyball because I liked it. If I wanted to stop, they wouldn't have minded."

"Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I just told my dad I wanted to stop," Kakeru sighs. "Instead things just got… they got bad." 

"What happened?" Tobio asks. When Kakeru doesn't answer right away, Tobio nudges him. "Come on, Kakeru-san… I already know you're a delinquent." 

"I'm not a delinquent!" Kakeru protests, shoving Tobio. His cousin grins, unrepentant. "Jeez, I'm gonna regret telling you that, huh?" 

"I'm kidding!" Tobio says. "Besides, even if you were a delinquent, I wouldn't care."

Kakeru squints at him. "Oh, really?" 

"Yeah," Tobio says. "You're my cousin."

This is not what Kakeru is expecting at all, and is also so painfully sincere that he has to take a moment to recover from an overwhelming wave of fondness. He then fixes Tobio with his best cryptic stare (the one he's picked up from Haiji) and says,

"What if I told you I killed someone." 

Tobio stares back at him. Eventually, he replies, with the demeanor of someone trying to work through a difficult math equation, "Why… would that make you hate running?" 

"Maybe I've been on the run since then," Kakeru says, "and that's why I don't like it."

"That's not the same kind of running, though." 

Kakeru shakes his head. "I can't tell if you're too literal to mess with, or if you really wouldn't care if I was a murderer." 

"Why would I care if you're a murderer?" Tobio says. "It's not like you're gonna murder me."

"I mean, theoretically, on this camping trip would be the best time to do it," Kakeru points out.

Tobio rolls his eyes with a healthy level of disrespect. "Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure I can take you." 

"Oy, don't get cocky just because you're taller." 

They spiral into a heated debate over which one of them would be the more competent murderer. ("You could never do it, you're too blunt," Kakeru insists to Tobio. "The first thing you'd say to anybody would be 'I'm here to murder you'.") The detour derails the conversation entirely, and they still haven't gotten to Kakeru's explanation by the time they have to unload off the bus. 

The campsite is… well, sparse might be the best word to describe it. Even during their training camps, they'd had most of the basic amenities. 

"Did we bring toilet paper?" Tobio asks. 

"Uh…"

"How are we going to shit?" Tobio demands. Kakeru wheezes with laughter, which he does not find amusing. "I'm being serious!" 

"People poop in the woods all the time," Kakeru tells him. "Besides, there's an outhouse a little way down the trail. We can check there."

They set about getting their tent put up with great difficulty. Kakeru gets trapped inside it after it collapses due to mismanagement (read: he blames Tobio), and then has to suffer the indignity of extracting himself while Tobio rolls around on the ground outside, killing himself with laughter and being no help whatsoever. 

"I hate you," Kakeru says as he crawls free.

"You made the funniest noise," Tobio says, and then tries to imitate it. It sounds like a cat being stepped on. 

"I did not sound like that," Kakeru says, although he suspects he really might've.

After they finally manage to set up the tent, they decide to do one of the longer hikes. They bring their lunch with them and set off to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures during the long uphill walk. 

It's so nice, that spring morning in the mountains. It reminds Kakeru so much of that morning almost a year ago—running by Lake Shirakaba for the first time, the air threatening to get warm even before the day had really started. Instead of the brutal heat, however, this is just pleasant. 

It also reminds him of Haiji breaking away from the group to run with him, calm him down when his anger made his blood pound louder in his ears than the physical exertion. He listened to the reasons Kakeru drew up sullen and angry inside of himself, instead of just writing him off. That team, the others from Aotake, had done the same; had seen the real violence he was capable of when he snapped, and had heard him pour out all the ways he'd ruined things for others, and had told him they wanted to run with him anyway. 

Things had shifted perspective for him, then. That morning when they all sat in the grass and he came clean with everything, the sun shone through the trees like this; lighting Haiji up, letting Kakeru finally see how much Haiji believed in him. How much the team believed in him—not just in his running, but in him as a friend and teammate. He'd suddenly seen that it didn't matter a damn how good he was if he didn't want to run. Having a team that made him want to win was what really made him strong. 

He thinks back to that one star-filled night, and all Haiji's teasing, and how warm it made him feel to know Haiji was there, wanting Kakeru to stay. 

Wanting to run for Haiji hadn't just made him strong; it had made him feel invincible. 

But now… now it's all flown by, a haze of shimmering days he can't shake the feeling he didn't appreciate enough while he was living them. The team won't be the same members next year. Haiji won't be there next year. His hand won't be steady on Kakeru's shoulder any time he feels uneasy or frustrated or angry. All that certainty Kakeru has felt building since they met… 

Where does it go, when the one helping him channel it isn't there anymore?

"Is that a bunny?!" Tobio bursts out, startling him from his thoughts. He goes crashing into the brush, no doubt sending any rabbits fleeing from him. 

Kakeru breathes the mountain air in, out, deeply. "Any luck?" he asks when Tobio comes stomping back out, brushing leaves from his hair.

"No," Tobio says. He very optimistically had gotten his phone out to take a picture. "Hinata likes dumb little animals like that so I was gonna try and send a picture…"

Kakeru senses that Hinata may not be the only one who likes small cute creatures—not only because Tobio had seemed pretty excited about the rabbit sighting, but also because of how fond he is of Hinata himself. 

"I'm not good with animals," Tobio mumbles dejectedly—more to himself than Kakeru, who feels another surge of extreme affection hit. 

"I never finished telling you what happened with me," he says, somewhat to distract Tobio from his angsting over the rabbit. "In high school." 

"Oh," Tobio says, as they start walking again. "I figured maybe you still didn't want to."

Kakeru has been stalling… not entirely intentionally, but every time he reaches into himself to pull that explanation out, it gets all stuck in his throat. It's not as strong, but it's the same old feeling, the one that surfaced whenever he thought about telling Haiji and the others what a fucking mess he'd been, and risk scaring them all away. 

It jolts him in surprise, to realize that's what this is. He is worried, at least a little, of what Tobio will think. Not because he doesn't trust Tobio, but because he doesn't want something like that to mess up this unexpected bond that's sprung up between them. 

Then he thinks of Tobio saying he wouldn't care what Kakeru did, because they're cousins. And he remembers what Haiji said to him, back when they were looking at the stars.

No matter what happens, we're still us. 

"The truth is, I hated track in high school," he confesses. 

"Hated it?" Tobio asks.

"Yeah. You've never had that with volleyball?"

Tobio thinks about it, then shakes his head. "No. I always loved it. There was a little while in middle school where… some stuff happened, I guess. But it was my fault, anyway, and I never stopped wanting to play."

Kakeru nods. "I don't know if I ever really hated running. But I hated the sport, and my team, and the competition… and I, uh—I may have—" He stops and scratches the back of his head before barreling through it. "I punched my coach in the face and got our whole year suspended." 

"Y-y-you—" Tobio sputters. "You what?!" 

"Told you it wasn't a great time," Kakeru says. 

"What'd he do to you?"  

Kakeru can at least appreciate Tobio's confidence that something must have happened directly to him in order for him to violently assault another person. Given it didn't quite go down that way, he attempts to explain the situation as best he can. Tobio listens silently, his expression frozen in shock.

"…so that's what happened," he finishes lamely. "It wasn't self-defense or anything, I just… was fed up, I guess." Inwardly, he cringes. It still feels like the most pathetic explanation of his actions, given the fallout, how badly he messed things up for so many people. 

Tobio goes all puffed up and indignant, and Kakeru prepares himself for criticism—surely even Tobio, for whom volleyball is everything, would think before putting his and his team's chances in jeopardy like that. 

This train of thought is nipped in the bud when Tobio exclaims, "Kakeru-san, are you trying to make me admit that you are cool?!"

Kakeru does a double take. "Huh?" 

"That's like something a character from a manga would do!" Tobio says, punching the air in demonstration. "Defending your teammate! That coach sounds like he sucks! Coach Ukai is way better." 

"There were probably other ways for me to go about it," Kakeru says. "If I was better at talking to people… my whole team suffered because of me." 

"Your team should've backed you up," Tobio says. "That's what Karasuno would do. I'm pretty sure Suga-san would've punched someone too, if they were acting like that. Actually, Tanaka-san did punch me and Hinata once."

If Kakeru remembers correctly, Tanaka is Tobio's wild upperclassman. "He did?"

"Yeah," Tobio says, "because we got in a fight." 

"Things get pretty crazy over at Karasuno, huh?" Kakeru says, bemused. 

"I guess," Tobio says with a shrug. "I still can't believe you punched someone, though."

Kakeru sighs. "I had—trouble. Controlling my temper. It felt like I was just angry, all the time." 

"You were?" Tobio asks, eyes wide. He nearly trips over a branch across the path, he's staring so hard at Kakeru. "But now…" 

"Now what?"

"Now you're like… all calm, and stuff," Tobio says. "You're always smiling, and you never get mad."

Now it's Kakeru's turn to be surprised. Always smiling? Him? "Really?" 

"Yeah!" 

"Well…" Kakeru thinks about it. "I don't have any reason to be upset." It's not something he's thought about consciously. But it does feel true that he smiles a lot more now than he had all through high school. In fact, thinking back on all the times he's ended up laughing on this trip, it might be more than all of high school combined. 

"I—" Tobio says haltingly, "I'm also not good at it. At not getting mad. That's why—well, I think I'm better at it now, but everyone still says I get pissed off too easily, and I yell too much, and I never smile—"

"What?" Kakeru asks. "That's not true. You smile all the time, too." 

Tobio looks shocked. "I do?" 

Kakeru nods. In fact, it had surprised him a bit—the Tobio he remembered from middle school wasn't the scowling giant he's become familiar with on this trip, but neither was he so quick to tease or laugh or flash that terrifying grin. Middle school Tobio was, for lack of a better description, primarily tuned out if the conversation wasn't about volleyball or food. Present-day Tobio does frequently experience moments where it seems like absolutely no thoughts are passing through his head, but he's still far more expressive. 

"You smile the most when you're thinking about Hinata," Kakeru says.

"You're stupid!" Tobio immediately yells in mortification, and Kakeru bends over double laughing. "Well, you smile whenever you're thinking of Haiji-san!" 

Kakeru rubs the tears of laughter from his eyes. "Yeah, I can't argue with that." 

"Ughhhhh," is Tobio's only reply. 

"Does Hinata ever say any of that stuff?" Kakeru asks. He casually adjusts his backpack straps and doesn't glance at Tobio.

"What stuff?" Tobio mutters.

"That you get mad too much?" 

Tobio doesn't respond for a little while. Finally he says, "No. He doesn't." There's a little more silence, and then he adds, "He does sometimes try to get me to smile more, though." 

Kakeru hums knowingly, which earns him a light shove from Tobio. 

"I want to be different, too," Tobio tells him. 

Kakeru looks over at him now, but Tobio's eyes are trained on the ground. "What do you mean?" 

"I don't want to be the way I was in middle school," Tobio says. "I wasn't like you, I wasn't—brave, or anything—"

Kakeru snorts. "I wasn't brave." 

"You were!" Tobio insists. "I was just a jerk. I yelled at everybody because I thought they weren't trying, I thought they were wasting my time on purpose, I didn't realize—and my team just, they just gave up on me. And I deserved it. Somebody probably should've punched me."

Kakeru slows down, and Tobio follows suit, until they're stopped in the middle of the shady path. The air has warmed up considerably, and Kakeru can feel the sweat cooling the back of his neck. A bird call rings out from a nearby tree, filling the silence that spans between them. 

"Tobio," he says, when it becomes clear Tobio doesn't want to, or can't, continue. "You were a kid."

"So?" Tobio says sullenly. "So was everyone else."

"Yeah, and I bet none of them were perfect either," Kakeru says. "I was about to be in college and I still couldn't handle my own shit."

"Doesn't change the fact that everyone hated me because I was an asshole."

"I guess it doesn't," Kakeru says. "But you changed when you realized that. I can tell you feel sorry about it. I think that makes up for it, right?"

"I don't know," Tobio says helplessly. "I'm bad at controlling my temper, too. I don't… I really don't want to mess up at Karasuno." 

Kakeru gets it—he feels like he might get it better than anyone else. That must be why it hurts, right in his chest, a painful, sympathetic twinge. He can see that his cousin is awkward, but trying so hard, and he knows from experience how frustrating it is to always be worried about screwing up. 

But it's teams like Kansei, and surely Karasuno, that make the struggle worth the effort.

"Your teammates like you now, don't they?" he asks, more to remind Tobio of that fact than anything else. The stories Tobio tells, and all those pictures, those text messages from a certain teammate in particular…

Tobio nods slowly. "Yeah… actually… one time Hinata said…" He looks away, ears pink. "He said that this is just how I am. So I should just accept it." 

"Pretty good advice," Kakeru says. He can't resist slyly adding, "Sounds like he really likes you…"

"I knew you were gonna make it embarrassing!" Tobio grumbles heatedly, stomping up the trail away from Kakeru. 

Kakeru follows, and can't help grinning slightly. Isn't that exactly what he wanted to hear, though? 

*

Overnight camping means one thing for sure, and it's probably the thing both Kakeru and Tobio are most excited for: grilled meat. As evening falls, they get to work setting up the small charcoal grill they'd borrowed from Tobio's father. They had gone shopping the day previous, splurging on several packages of meat that had seemed exorbitant at the time, but now feels like the best decision they could have possibly made, this close to eating it. With the rice cooker going, and the first cuts of meat sizzling on the grill, Kakeru's mouth is already beginning to water. 

"Camping is the best," Tobio proclaims, watching Kakeru turn over the skirt steak with eyes sharp as a hawk's. His feet are bouncing restlessly; eventually, he pulls out his phone and snaps a couple photos of the richly marbled pink meat. "Hinata's gonna be so jealous."

Kakeru smirks, and then decides he doesn't mind inciting some envy himself. He sends Haiji a picture of the grill.

KAKERU: Miss you
KAKERU: But NOT eating carrot and potato stew for five days straight
KAKERU: And before you ask, no, I'm not putting any protein powder on this

Haiji replies quickly, likely due to indignation. 

HAIJI: That stew was character building!!!
HAIJI: The protein was for muscle building
HAIJI: Because I only want the best for you <3

KAKERU: because you're a dictator you mean

HAIJI: i thought you loved my cooking

KAKERU: I do, when you're in a sane mood

HAIJI: ?????? no idea what you could possibly mean by this

Kakeru snorts. In truth, he misses Haiji's cooking, good or bad, because either way it meant cooking with Haiji. It meant a cozy kitchen and standing shoulder to shoulder, that little flutter in his stomach that just kept getting harder and harder to ignore (until he realized he didn't have to ignore it at all). He's still afraid that he won't be able to stop missing it, that it will make the upcoming years less, in comparison.

"Careful not to burn it," Tobio squawks at him, and Kakeru is hurriedly snapped out of his thoughts.

The steak escapes unscathed, and is delicious. They eat an unwise amount, and it's glorious, having no one to split it with aside from each other. It sounds like Tobio is used to fighting off the hordes at his training camps; he's midway through recounting a story about the Tokyo summer barbecues when Hinata texts him back with a typical amount of capslock exclamations. Kakeru peeks over Tobio's shoulder, and his cousin graciously allows him to read the messages.

HINATA: UWAHHH that looks SOOOOO good save me some!!!!!!
HINATA: kidding i know youd eat it all bc ur rude
HINATA: i rly wish i could b there with u tho!!!!!!!
HINATA: !!!!!!!!!! 
HINATA: wE SHOULD GO CAMPING TOGETHER

"Woooow," Kakeru says. "He wants to go camping with you, huh?"

Tobio's mouth does that telltale little twitch. "He just gets dumb ideas…"

"Ideas that involve spending time with you," Kakeru points out. Tobio rolls his eyes. 

KAGEYAMA: I can't save you any of it, it'll go bad by the time you get back. Stupid
KAGEYAMA: I'm not rude. I'll prove it.

HINATA: HOW??????????????

KAGEYAMA: I'll show you when we go camping together, I guess. 

HINATA: :D 
HINATA: :DD
HINATA: :DDDDDD

Tobio sets his phone down and then puts face in his hands. 

"Very smooth," Kakeru says approvingly. 

"What if he doesn't actually want to?" Tobio mumbles. "What if he's just saying that because—"

"Because he wants to hang out with you?" Kakeru fills in. "Seems about right."

Tobio rubs his eyes. "I just—I don't—"

"Don't what?" 

"Don't feel like it could be real, I don't know!"

Kakeru, who's been grinning knowingly, feels his smile fade a little. "Why not, though?"

Tobio shrugs. "Even if… even if he feels that way, what would I do? He knows me better than anyone, he knows I'm difficult, and mean, and angry, and—"

"And," Kakeru says, "he still likes you. Look, set aside crushes or whatever—he told you to be yourself. He doesn't want you to change. And come on, you're not mean, you're just—"

"An asshole," Tobio grumbles. 

Kakeru laughs. "You're honest."

"I just… don't want to scare him away," Tobio says softly. 

And if that isn't too damn relatable. They both fall silent, staring at the burned down embers of the grill. 

"I get that," Kakeru says. Tobio looks up at him, skepticism mixed with a little bit of hope, like he wants Kakeru to fix the problem but doesn't quite believe he can. "I was scared as hell of my teammates finding out how bad I screwed up in high school. I didn't know how to tell Haiji—I'm not sure I would have, actually, if he hadn't stopped me getting into another fight."

"Kakeru-san, I hope you get into less fights these days," Tobio deadpans. 

"Don't lecture me when I'm lecturing you," Kakeru tells him. 

"Too late." 

"Wait your turn!" Tobio only grins at him in response and Kakeru shakes his head. "The point is, I pretty much had to tell him what happened, and he had me tell the whole team."

"What happened?" 

"Nothing," Kakeru says. "Except, I guess, they understood me better. I didn't scare anyone away, it was just something I didn't have to worry about hiding anymore, because they knew me. And Hinata knows you. It doesn't sound like anything about you, specifically, is going to make him run away."

"It's still scary no matter how much he knows me. I just don't want to mess up because I really…" Tobio takes a deep breath, then looks Kakeru dead in the eye. "I think I like him." 

The statement is delivered with such gravity and honesty, like the unveiling of a great secret, that Kakeru can only stare at him for a long moment.

"No way," he says, "you think you like him?"

"Shut up," Tobio mumbles.

"Your partner?" Kakeru continues. "The one you mesh with perfectly on the court? The kid you never stop talking about? The one you text with that little smile on your face—"

"SHUT UUUUP!" 

Tobio lunges for him to cover his mouth and Kakeru leans so far back in his folding chair to avoid him that he nearly topples over. Tobio has to grab the arms of the chair to prevent him from eating shit, which just proves Kakeru's suspicion that his cousin actually is not mean, and is in fact too good for this world. 

"You suck," Tobio informs him. "I can't believe I was worried about you hating me before you got here when you're the most annoying person ever." 

"What?" Kakeru asks, skimming over the insult. "Why would I have hated you?" 

"People don't usually like me at first," Tobio says. "Plus you're like a famous athlete and stuff…"

"I'm not famous," Kakeru splutters. "And even if I was, it wouldn't change anything. I'd still like you."

"Because we're family?" Tobio guesses.

"No," Kakeru says. "Because you're pretty cool, and hanging out with you is fun." Tobio's mouth rounds in a shocked O. "I can't believe you were worried either!" He feels bad about it, even if he had nothing to do with it. Knowing Tobio now, and his insecurities, he doesn't like to think Tobio was preparing himself for the worst like that. He ruffles Tobio's hair in lieu of any other way to express his emotions, and Tobio bears it good-naturedly. 

Haiji gives him a call a little later as they're packing up the grill, so Tobio waves him off to take it, saying he'll handle the rest of the cleanup. Kakeru gratefully plops into one of their folding chairs nearby, not inclined anymore to hide his calls from Tobio now that there's no need. 

"Calling to convince me of the merits of curried protein powder?" 

Haiji's laugh on the other end of the line is as warm as their campfire. "No… believe it or not, I just wanted to hear your voice."

"Oh," Kakeru says, face heating up; if Haiji is the campfire, then he wants to bask in the glow forever. "Well, here I am."

"There you are," Haiji says, with a sigh. "Too far away, though." 

Kakeru blinks at the sky. He wasn't really expecting this onslaught of emotions, and isn't sure what to say without it coming out sounding like too much. Haiji seems to sense the turmoil.

"Sorry," he murmurs.

"No, it's fine," Kakeru says. "I know what you mean." 

"Only a couple days of your visit left, though, right?" 

"Yeah," Kakeru says. "I'm gonna miss it here." 

He glances over at Tobio to see his cousin look away jerkily, obviously eavesdropping, before he sticks his tongue out at Kakeru anyway. Kakeru grins.

"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself," Haiji says. "But I can't wait to see you again."

"Yeah," Kakeru says. "Me, too." 

He thinks he can sneak in a visit before the new semester starts up. Before he returns to Aotake, with the fourth years' rooms at Chikusei-so empty, waiting for new team members to fill them. Haiji's room across from Kakeru's will have someone else in it next year. People are already taking an interest in the team after his record-breaking run; but the team was so much more than just him, and more than that, it was so much Haiji. 

"I won't steal too much more of Kageyama-kun's time with you," Haiji says. "Goodnight, Kakeru. I love you."

"I lo—" Kakeru starts to say, but the words get all clogged in his throat. "I'll come see you as soon as I get back!"

He realizes he sounds a little childish, feelings bursting out of him unable to be contained, but Haiji, at least, is well aware of how hard it is for him to hold back his emotions at times. Hopefully he can also hear the actual meaning behind the words. 

"You better," Haiji tells him, but Kakeru can practically hear his smile. 

Tobio joins him as he's hanging up, two steaming cups of tea in his hands. He passes one to Kakeru, who is grateful for something to warm his hands. 

"Kakeru-san…" Tobio says, as they sit quietly side by side, sipping the hot tea. "Were you going to say… I mean, it sounded like you wanted to…"

"Hmm?" Kakeru murmurs, his mind still elsewhere, on Haiji.

"Were you gonna say you love him?" Tobio blurts out.  

"How close were you listening?" Kakeru accuses, though he knows it was probably hard not to. "I was—I mean, yeah, I…" He trails off, not sure how to explain all the shit going through his head. Things he doesn't really need to bother Tobio with. 

"Has Haiji ever said it?" 

"All the time," Kakeru admits. "I used to wonder how it didn't embarrass him… but he's Haiji, so I guess that answers that question."

"So…" Tobio's mouth twists into a confused little beak. "Why didn't you say it back?"

"I do say it back! I just…" He trails off.

Has he though, lately?

Kakeru thinks back on the past weeks. He knows what he feels; but it's so hard to say, when he can't stop thinking about how he only just managed to figure it out, right in time for everything to change. It makes him ache to dwell on it, when faced with all the things it's going to make him miss a hundred times more. Yes, he loves running—but that made the pressure of facing all the struggles that came with it all the more difficult. It was Haiji who made him sure of the way he felt again. 

"You should say it," Tobio insists. "If Hinata told me he loved me, I would tell him, too." Kakeru is impressed by his boldness, up until Tobio adds, "Because he'd probably think he was better at this stuff than me, otherwise."

Kakeru rubs at his eyes. These two. "Maybe Haiji is better at it than me."

"That's dumb," Tobio decides. "I've heard the way you talk about him." 

"What's that mean?"

"Obviously, you love him," Tobio says. "So don't lose to him."

Kakeru doesn't bother pointing out that not everything is a competition for most couples. He turns Tobio's words over, again and again. 

"You're right," he says. "It's just been… hard to say when I'm kind of freaking out. I don't know what I'll do for the next three years without him. How I'll do without him. People keep saying they're expecting me to lead the team…" 

God help him, what if he punches someone again? He can't be trusted. The thought that Haiji is some kind of magical fisticuffs deterrent is so absurdly amusing that it makes him giggle to himself. Tobio is less amused by his lack of conviction.

"Why would you be worried about that?" he scoffs. "You helped me a ton the past couple weeks, and it was just us. Haiji wasn't here."

Tobio has a way of stating things as though they are fact and not personal opinion, and although this should be generally infuriating, it's one thing about him that Kakeru has grown unbearably fond of. It makes it hard not to see the sense in what he's saying. 

"Wow," he says, "so you can be nice to me, after all."

"Ugh," Tobio says, but he's grinning. He blows on his tea for a bit, then says, "I'm really glad you came with your parents this time."

"I am too," Kakeru says. 

"Even though you had to be away from Haiji?"

"Yeah," Kakeru says. That was a hard decision to make, no doubt, but he still wouldn't change it after the time he's had here. He could see how much it meant to his parents, and he got to know Tobio so much better. "I barely ever get to see you. I have the rest of my life with Haiji."

It's only after he says it that he realizes how huge a statement that is. 

But… it doesn't feel wrong. They'll have that last day of spring break together, and he'll have weekends during the upcoming semester, and probably phone calls every night. It's still a daunting prospect because he doesn't know what the new school year and season will bring. But what he knows for sure is he'll have Haiji to help him when he needs it. In that sense, things haven't changed. 

And no matter what does change, Kakeru has never worried about the two of them, what they have. He's pretty sure that's forever. And if he can just remember that, it makes the things in the short term seem a lot less scary. 

"I can't believe you're already leaving soon," Tobio says.

"I know," Kakeru says, "it went by so fast—"

"Do you think you could visit more often from now on?" Tobio asks, loudly, and all in one breath. "Or, maybe when Karasuno has training camps in Tokyo…" He looks nervous, like he's still somehow unsure that Kakeru would want to hang out with him more than this. 

"Definitely," Kakeru says. "We've gotta see each other more. You better e-mail me, too." 

Tobio's mouth wobbles happily, and Kakeru slings an arm over his too-tall shoulders so Tobio can lean into his side. 

"You know, my, um, my parents…" Tobio starts, hesitant, "they don't really get the volleyball thing. And you're the only one, obviously, who I've told about Hinata—so this is the first time I've ever had someone else in my family who—I mean, you just get it, and I just…" He flounders, and Kakeru tries to help him out.

"It feels strange," he says.

"What does…?"

"That we have these… lives, that are so different, but so alike? That we're so alike, I guess?" He breathes in, sighs. "Even though we hadn't really talked before this trip, it just feels like we know each other."

Tobio nods. "Exactly." He yawns, then, slouching in his chair and ducking his head low to settle it on Kakeru's shoulder. "I'm glad you came to visit."

His yawn triggers one from Kakeru. They should just crash in the tent for the night, but it's too nice outside, with the stars all blazing up above. It reminds him of Shirakaba, and setting off fireworks with the team, and feeling understood. Now it'll remind him of Tobio, too, which seems only fitting. 

"I'm glad you talked to me about everything," he tells Tobio.

"Yeah," Tobio says. His voice goes as quiet as Kakeru has yet to hear it when he asks, "Can I call you Kakeru-nii?"

A surge of emotion so soft and bright it nearly overwhelms him wells up inside Kakeru. "Of course you can." 

And he realizes that that's love. He loves his giant little cousin, who in the span of two short weeks has put his fears and his hopes right into Kakeru's hands for safekeeping. 

He loves his parents, and he's glad he could reach out to them again, after the gulf between him and his father had gotten so wide. 

And he loves Haiji—he loves Haiji, to the ends of the earth, to the very top of the steepest mountains. 

It takes a long time to reach those places, so he'll spend the rest of his life, he thinks, loving that man. The few years while he's still in college are a drop in the bucket compared to a lifetime. 

He glances over where Tobio's head rests heavy on his shoulder to see the other boy is asleep, breathing evenly. Kakeru will give it a little while until he wakes him, will sit out here watching the stars a little longer.

"Goodnight, Tobio."

*

The evening before Kakeru's last day in Miyagi, Tobio's phone starts blowing up. It nearly vibrates off the bed next to him, and he glances down in surprise and does a double take. 

"It's Suga-san," he says. 

"Oh?" Kakeru has his tongue between his teeth, focused mainly on navigating his cart on the TV screen in front of them. For all that he's relatively good at Smash, he's rubbish at racing games. "What'd he say?" 

"He—oy," Tobio grunts, "you just want to make me lose, don't you?"

"No, no," Kakeru says. It's entirely his goal. Tobio immediately shunts him off the track with his own car to his doom, and he groans. "Can't you just let me win once? I'm going to be gone for good the day after tomorrow."

"You're so childish," Tobio says, with an air of great superiority. He does, however, grab his phone to read his texts. "Oh." He blinks. "It's our team chat." 

Intrigued, Kakeru leans over to read. 

SUGAWARA: ATTENTION ALL KARASUNO VOLLEYBALL CLUB MEMBERS
SUGAWARA: We will be gathering tomorrow at 11 am sharp for a rendezvous and lunch!
SUGAWARA: *ATTENDANCE IS MANDATORY*
SUGAWARA: (yes i am talking to you directly tsukishima)
SUGAWARA: I will send along the coordinates posthaste. 

SAWAMURA: Attendance is not mandatory
SAWAMURA: Suga, what?? We said this would be like a chill thing

SUGAWARA: HOW CAN YOU BE CHILL WHEN THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE TO BE TOGETHER DAICHI
SUGAWARA: as a family (ಥ﹏ಥ)

TSUKISHIMA: I'm busy tomorrow.

SUGAWARA: I know where you live

TSUKISHIMA: ???? how

SUGAWARA: guess

TSUKISHIMA: Yamaguchi………

YAMAGUCHI: he's not busy tomorrow
YAMAGUCHI: We'll be there! ^^

AZUMANE: Um, will we be having lunch…?
AZUMANE: I can bring potato salad

NISHINOYA: COUNT ME IN OBVIOUSLY
NISHINOYA: ALSO ASAHI-SANS FAMOUS POTATO SALAD?????
NISHINOYA: 🔥🔥🔥

AZUMANE: Noya, I keep telling you, it's not as good as all that… you're going to get people's hopes up

SAWAMURA: only you would get performance anxiety over potato salad.

TANAKA: HELL YEAH HELL YEAHHHHHH
TANAKA: why dont we all bring something??? i'll ask my sis to help me tonight!

YACHI: oh!! I'll bring onigiri, if that's okay with everyone???
YACHI: this is such a great idea Suga-senpai!

SUGAWARA: I know right?
SUGAWARA: It actually was Daichi's idea tho
SUGAWARA: he's trying to play it cool but he's been moping to me for days
SUGAWARA: I think he's getting reverse empty nest syndrome

SAWAMURA: I am so tempted to block you.

SUGAWARA: you always say that but you never do~

SAWAMURA: Onigiri sounds great, Yachi. Thanks! 

SHIMIZU: I'll pick up something on the way as well.

TANAKA: KIYOKO-SAN IS COMING? 😭😭😭

NISHINOYA: HASHTAG BLESSED 😭😭😭

SHIMIZU: Wouldn't miss it.
SHIMIZU: :P

YACHI: Shimizu-senpaiiii (。T ω T。)

HINATA: AHHHHHH
HINATA: whats going on I JUS TLANDED BACK IN TOKYO!!!!!
HINATA: I MISSED U GUYS
HINATA: WERE MEETING TOMORROW?
HINATA: are we gonna play VOLLEYBALL
HINATA: HEY WHERES KAGEYAMA
HINATA: KAGEYAMAAAAA U BETTER COME SO U CAN TOSS TO ME

Feeling pleasantly overwhelmed at how much Karasuno reminds him of Aotake, Kakeru looks at Tobio.

"Wanna go?"

Tobio bites at his lip. "It's your last day, though…"

Kakeru grins. He's being completely truthful when he says, "This seems like the best way to spend it."

Tobio breaks into a matching smile.

KAGEYAMA: I'll be there.
KAGEYAMA: Can I bring someone with me?

*

When they show up at the "coordinates" provided the following day (a community park near Karasuno high school), the rest of the team practically mobs Tobio with affection. He bears his senpai's hair ruffles and back pats with a sort of dignified confusion, as though he's still not clear on why they have to do it but has learned it can't be avoided.

"Nice to meet you," says one of the sturdily built seniors—Sawamura, Kakeru recognizes, from the videos. "I'm Sawamura Daichi." He's a year younger than Kakeru, but looks like he could easily bench press him. Are all volleyball players so intimidating, or is it just a Karasuno thing?

Kakeru returns his polite bow. "Kurahara Kakeru." 

"We thought Kageyama was gonna turn up with a cute girl!" exclaims an exuberant boy with a buzzed haircut—definitely Tanaka, Kakeru thinks. 

Tobio looks deeply confused. "Why would I do that?"

"I told you!" someone yells in the distance, shrilly. "I said there was no way Kageyama has a girlfriend!" 

Kakeru turns just in time to see a blur of orange tearing furiously across the grass toward them. Tobio straightens up unconsciously. 

"A what?!" he bellows. "Hinata boke!" 

Kakeru has to work hard not to burst out laughing. Ah, there it is. 

Hinata—the orange blur, of course—practically skids to a stop in front of them. He glares up at Tobio. "Well?!" 

"Haah? Why would I—" Tobio sputters. He's rapidly turning red. "Why would you even be talking about that?!"

"Because Noya-senpai and Tanaka-senpai said you were, but I told them there's no way any girl would ever date you— even Tsukishima agreed with me—"

"I hate to agree with Hinata, ever," says the gigantic bespectacled boy Kakeru figures must be Tsukishima, "but, yeah." 

"And you don't have one," Hinata says insistently, staring up at Tobio and vibrating in anticipation of an answer. "Right?!" 

"No," Tobio says. 

Hinata exhales what seems very much like a sigh of relief. Tsukishima rolls his eyes all too knowingly, but Kakeru isn't sure if Tobio will catch on to the obvious connotations. Either way, his cousin is looking down at his tiny friend with a look of fierce intensity. Kakeru looks around at the rest of the team.

"I'm Tobio's cousin," he offers, by way of explanation, as Tobio has forgotten to properly introduce him.

There is a collective ohhh of interest.

"Cousin!" Sugawara says. "Wow, you two look like twins!" 

"Yeah, we've been getting that a lot," Kakeru says.

"You're Kakeru?" Hinata asks, turning his lamplike focus away from Tobio.

"Yep," Kakeru confirms, "and you're Hinata?" 

Hinata's mouth falls open. "How'd you know?!" 

"I told him you're short and annoying, so it's pretty easy to guess—" Tobio says. 

"Oy, Kageyama!" Hinata shouts, and then the two of them exchange a blindingly quick series of blows so fast it's actually a bit alarming, Hinata punching, Tobio blocking him. Only Kakeru appears worried, however; the rest of their teammates don't even blink.

It only comes to a halt when Sugawara breaks out the volleyball he brought and asks if they should play before lunch, to which Hinata and Tobio reply with a resounding yes. As the rest of the group is galvanized from there, splitting up into two teams, Kakeru joins the two Karasuno managers in helping set everything out for lunch.

The girls are friendly; Yachi, in particular, reminds him of Hana. Shimizu, meanwhile, actually has a history of track and field, and apparently watches the Ekiden every year—she only hadn't said anything because she didn't want to single him out right when he first met everyone. 

"I'm not surprised the two of you are related at all," she says about him and Tobio. 

"I think he's probably more talented than me," Kakeru says truthfully. Tobio, after all, is younger and has even more time to grow. 

But Shimizu just nods thoughtfully. "You can't compare the two. But he isn't like anyone else, I think we all see that." 

Kakeru laughs. That's an understatement. "Definitely not. And, uh… thank you both for looking after him all this while."

He's not quite sure what he's said wrong when Yachi's eyes grow wide and teary, before she starts apologizing profusely. 

"It'll just be me next year because Shimizu-senpai is leaving but I promise to do my best even if they start fighting again I know I can never measure up to everything Shimizu-senpai has done for us but I—"

"Hitoka-chan," Shimizu says, "you'll be great."

Yachi squeaks, hiccups, and then nods shakily. Kakeru empathizes with her immensely. 

"You guys have spent a lot more time with him than me, so I'm sure you know him really well," Kakeru says, "but I have a feeling Tobio doesn't really tell people what he's thinking all that often… You know, he showed me every single poster you made for the club?"

Yachi puts her hands over her mouth. "He did?" 

Kakeru nods. "I get being nervous. But I think that just means you care that much more…" He's not sure how to impress upon this girl he's never met that he thinks she's going to do just fine—clearly, she has people to tell her that already, if Shimizu's fond expression is any indicator. But he knows exactly where she's coming from, and even though he might be freaking out about the same thing, he still feels like he needs to try to make her feel better.

And Yachi is beaming at him now, wide and grateful. "I wasn't even sure he realized I was the one drawing those!" 

Kakeru laughs out loud. "He has a tendency to not notice things, yeah." 

"Unless you're a volleyball or Hinata, you've got no chance," Yachi says knowledgeably. 

"Or Hinata, huh…" Kakeru says, looking over at the game currently underway. 

Tobio and Hinata have managed to wind up on the same team, and have spent most of the game arguing over something or other. But while Kakeru watches, as soon as the ball is in the air, they fall into a perfect rhythm, twin movements, focused stares—even their breathing aligns. It's an understanding of each other that goes deeper than the court and the net, deeper than just a sport. 

Kakeru knows it when he sees it, because it was never just about the race with Haiji. It was never just running. 

When Tobio puts up the ball for one of those startling quick sets (even more impressive in person than when viewed on a TV screen), Hinata spikes it clean over to snatch a point from the other team, and their smiles are just as much in sync as their play. They're not perfect all the time, but when they are, it's beautiful to watch. They are pure unfiltered joy. It's like staring at the sun.

Then the bubble bursts, and they're back to poking fun at each other over another insult or critique, but Kakeru sees the way Tobio can't stop from looking at Hinata, at the same time he keeps trying to look away—like he's blinded by Hinata’s presence, but it's too bright to ignore.

And Kakeru knows without a doubt that it's just one more thing they have in common, the way his and Tobio's orbits spin. Hinata is Tobio's sun, just like Haiji is Kakeru's. 

When everyone piles back to the picnic benches after lunch, it's Tobio who hangs back, roughly grabbing Hinata's arm. Kakeru watches as furtively as possible, not wanting to tip anybody off to his interest in what he thinks is happening. 

Hinata… honestly looks ready to fight Tobio at first, but relaxes as he listens to whatever Tobio has to say. Tobio looks exceedingly grumpy the entire time he's talking, in direct contrast to the way Hinata's expression gets brighter and brighter—before he suddenly leaps straight up into the air, fists raised in excitement. Tobio smacks a hand into his hair and Hinata struggles, though noticeably not as hard as he might have. He's laughing the whole while. 

"Good games, you two," Kakeru tells them as they approach the tables. At Tobio's rather expectant expression, he adds, "You were really something out there, Hinata-kun."

"Y-you really thought so?!" Hinata stammers, going bright red. 

"Yeah." Kakeru smiles. Hinata squeaks, and stares at him with humongous eyes. "Is something… um, wrong?" 

"N-no!" Hinata says, waving his hands in front of his flushed face. "You just—you really—y-you two really look alike!" He darts off to where Yachi is handing out onigiri. Kakeru watches him go, bemused. 

"Sorry he's weird," Tobio says. 

"I'm pretty used to weird." Kakeru glances at him sideways. "Sooo… what was all that about back there?"

Tobio does not meet his eyes. "What was all what about?"

"The two of you talking… alone…"

"It was nothing," Tobio huffs. "I was just talking to him about the camping thing."

"Oh?" Kakeru raises his eyebrows.

"It's nothing," Tobio insists, and now he's going red, too. "I didn't call it a d—a da—it's just a friend thing!" He scratches the back of his neck. "But… he does really want to go."

"Friend things are good," Kakeru says.

"Yeah," Tobio says. His mouth is wobbling suspiciously, until he can't hold it anymore. He smiles. 

"Wanna get food?" Kakeru asks. He's thinking maybe he'll see if Yachi and Shimizu would want to exchange contact info with him to pass along to Hana.

"Sure."

*

The following morning, Kakeru and his parents load up the last of their things into the family's car for the return trip to Tokyo. Tobio helps, but he and Kakeru are fairly slow going about it, after having stayed up far too late the night before talking. Even despite the early wake-up time, it feels worth it, getting to make the most of those last few hours. Especially with Tobio's newfound excitement and nerves over his next move with Hinata.

"Good luck," Kakeru tells him, "with everything." 

Tobio grins at him. "You too. Try not to get into any more fights—"

"Shhh, shhhh!" Kakeru hisses frantically, glancing back at his parents, but they're talking to his aunt and uncle and didn't hear. 

"Kidding," Tobio says, although he probably wasn't. "But, um, Kakeru-nii?" 

"Yes…"

"Don't worry so much about things," Tobio says. His eyebrows are especially serious now. "You really are cool. You'll be a good captain." 

Kakeru's mouth falls open a little bit, before he recovers. "Well, if Kageyama Tobio is telling me that, I guess I can't be worried!" 

"What's that supposed to mean?" Tobio asks, but he's laughing. 

"Nothing," Kakeru says. He smiles. "It's just you'd know… you never worried when Karasuno needed a control tower. You just did what you had to do."

Tobio goes pink, and looks extraordinarily pleased. 

"Kakeru!" his mother calls. "We need to leave soon or else we'll hit traffic!" 

"Coming!" He turns back to Tobio and takes a deep breath. "Well…"

"Yeah…" Tobio says. 

"Let's both try our best," Kakeru tells him. 

It's all they can do. 

Tobio nods, then raises a solemn fist. "Kansei, fight!" 

Kakeru laughs in surprise. "Karasuno, fight!" They bump fists, and he hefts his bag onto his shoulder. "Oh, and…" he adds, walking backwards so he can face Tobio, "next time, make sure Hinata knows it's actually a date." 

It's totally worth it for one last red-faced bellow of "SHUT! UP!"  

*

It's nearly a month later that Tobio texts Kakeru the weekend before a big track meet. 

Weekends mean Haiji, and Kakeru comes to join him on his balcony where he's staring out over the city, with two mugs of heated milk and honey in hand. Haiji accepts gratefully, and they stand there together in silence for a while, shoulders brushing. 

The start of second year had, shockingly, not made anything magically better… or worse. University is still a sorta scary blur in Kakeru's future, like trying to watch out of focus camera footage. There are expectations he doesn't know yet how to meet; he's navigating them as he goes. The new team members half idolize him, and half don't know how to respond to authority when it's their age (or younger). 

But he wants to do what he can for his team, because he knows how important running with others is. It turned his whole world around, and it started with Haiji, but it ended with all ten of them, together. And yes, these next three years will be different. Haiji isn't running with him, and neither are Yuki or Nico or King. And soon, it'll be Shindo, Prince, and Musa. But the twins will still be there, and Hana, and new teammates will come—and Kakeru doesn't know how he'll do it yet, but he'll need to be the one to show them that running isn't a lonely sport. Because Haiji won't be there to do it, so Kakeru has to at least make sure he doesn't let the things Haiji taught him go to waste. 

"I was thinking," Haiji says suddenly, "about the training schedules you sent me… one of the first years, Takahashi-kun, was it? You said he—"

"You don't have to think about that right now," Kakeru says, lightly hip-checking him.

"I thought you wanted to go over them," Haiji says. "You needed my genius expertise!"

"Someone is letting the new job go to his head slightly, I see," Kakeru observes, sagely sipping his drink. 

Haiji laughs with delight at being mocked, eyes crinkling at the corners. Laughter always makes him somehow even more beautiful, and Kakeru is never sure how he manages it. 

"It's fun for me," Haiji says. 

"And me," Kakeru agrees. "But we can do that during the week over text. I only get to see you today and tomorrow, I'd rather do other things." 

Haiji's grin turns decidedly wolfish. "Is that so, Kakeru-kun? What kind of things could you be referring to?" 

Kakeru lowers his mug and licks his lips—mostly to ensure he doesn't have a milk moustache, as he leans forward, closer to Haiji. For all his usual teasing and coyness, Haiji doesn't pull away; his lips curl into a knowing smile, but his gaze drops to Kakeru's mouth, eyes lidded and warm— 

Kakeru's phone buzzes loudly in his pocket. 

Irritated, he fishes it out to put it on silent, ignoring Haiji's quiet laugh—but they both see at the same time that it's a text from Tobio.

"Tobio-kun!" Haiji says. "What'd he say?" 

"Haiji-san, I can check it later," Kakeru says. "It's probably about volleyball." 

But Haiji just smiles. "You're important enough to him that he wants to tell you about it." 

Kakeru is moderately sure that Haiji just wants to snoop on his texts with Tobio because he is thrilled the two of them bonded or whatever, and Tobio's interactions tend to be fairly brief and to the point, so he relents, setting his milk on the railing so he can check his messages.

TOBIO: me and Hinata wanted to say good luck before your track meet next week.
TOBIO: oh and Hinata says to tell you thanks

Thank you for what? Kakeru is about to ask, but then a picture comes through.

It's a shot of the two of them, Tobio and Hinata together. Tobio looks grumpy and flustered, and Hinata is beaming, his cheeks smashed up against Tobio's—and towards the bottom edge of the frame, Kakeru spies their hands, clasped together, fingers intertwined. 

Haiji, honest to god, squeals with glee. "Look! Kakeru!" 

"I see it," Kakeru says, in what he hopes is a more measured tone, but the fact is he's just as overjoyed for his cousin. 

Haiji throws his arms around Kakeru's neck and plants a very wet kiss on his cheek. "That's all thanks to you! After you were so worried you weren't good with the youths!" 

"I was worried I wouldn't be a good team captain, not that I have issues with relationship counseling," Kakeru says, leaning into Haiji's arms. 

"Still," Haiji says.

Kakeru smiles. "Still." 

Still definitely not something he thought he'd ever be able to help somebody else with. It feels nice, to know he has. It makes him feel like there are other things he can help people with, too.

"I'll call him later," he says. "I think we were in the middle of something?" 

Haiji taps his chin thoughtfully. "Training plans?" 

His shout of laughter when Kakeru drags him back into the room is cut off when Kakeru kisses him. Much later, they'll realize they left their drinks outside, and they've tragically gone cold by the time they remember to run out and grab the mugs. But Kakeru feels like he barely needs it—not when Haiji is so close, and so warm. 

He's so bright that it makes being apart from him that much harder; but Kakeru knows this is the entire reason he loves Haiji. Why he keeps running, why he loves it.  

Like he's reaching out to catch a shooting star.