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Teach Me to be Free

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"All right, everyone! I'll see you for class next week," Makoto said with a smile. "Thank you for your work!"

"See you, Coach Tachibana," came the chorus of voices. Then his class of twelve year olds dispersed, heading to the locker rooms. A couple stayed behind to ask him a few questions, but soon he was left alone to gather the kickboards and other equipment.

"Looks like you're doing well off, Coach Tachibana," a voice echoed suddenly off the walls.

Letting out a gasp in surprise, Makoto fumbled and dropped a kickboard, the floating device almost landing on his foot. Glancing over his shoulder, Makoto spotted Rin staring at him with a grin. Picking up the kickboard, Makoto rose to his feet, a smile growing on his face. "Rin? What are you doing here? I haven't seen you for a while!"

"Long time, no see, Makoto," Rin said, giving a small wave in greeting. "Looks like the coaching thing is still working out for you."

Makoto nodded, shifting the kickboards under his arms. "It's been quite fun. The kids learn so fast."

"That's because they have Coach Tachibana showing them the ropes."

Embarrassed at the praise, Makoto ducks his head slightly, unable to scratch at his cheek like he usually would when his hands were free.

Rin looks amused at the tall man trying to hide from his gaze. "Anyway, how about you finish here, Makoto, and meet me in the lounge area. I got something I wanted to talk to you about." He barely waited for Makoto's nod in acknowledgement before he was turning around and leaving the poolside, his footsteps echoing after him.

Puzzled and intrigued, Makoto set the kickboards on the equipment rack. What was Rin up to? He grew up in the same town as Rin and they were friends until Rin moved to Iwatobi and then Australia. They kept in touch over the years, but only in university when Makoto decided to pursue coaching in swimming did they really connect again since Rin sometimes visited Japan for competitions.

Heading to the showers, Makoto quickly rinsed the chlorine from his skin, the warm water relaxing for his muscles. Then, he quickly towel-dried his hair as much as possible, changed out of his swimsuit, and gathered his things before heading to the lounge. As he walked through the doors, he spotted Rin looking at the wall of photos. One of them was from a time they swam together as a team. A few newer pictures showed teams that Makoto coached.

Makoto walked over to stand at Rin's side, a hint of pride in his eyes as he looked at his teams on the wall. He waited a couple moments for Rin to begin his explanation, but when it seemed Rin was lost in thought, he cleared his throat to get his attention.

Rin drew away from a photo, a sheepish smile on his face. "Sorry. Just reminiscing."

Makoto nodded. "It's fine."

Letting out a sigh, Rin folded his arms as he turned to face Makoto. "I need your help with something. Well, someone in particular."

"Someone?"

"Yeah. He's this guy I met back when I lived in Iwatobi. He's a swimmer too, but well, something happened and I found out he's not swimming competitively anymore."

"That's awful. Did something happen?"

Rin shook his head in frustration. "The damn stubborn fool won't tell me anything." Then he glanced up, noticing the concerned look in Makoto's eyes. "He wasn't injured I don't think. Something else is bothering him."

"Oh, I see." Makoto nodded, though there was still a look of puzzlement in his expression. "But what does this have to do with me?"

Letting his arms unfold so he can rest his hands on his hips, Rin smiled, a little devious. "You're going to coach him, Makoto."

"What?"

Rin let out a laugh and his smile widened. "You're the only coach I know and you have the patience of a saint. You definitely can help this guy swim again."

"But what if he doesn't want to swim anymore?" Makoto's voice trailed off as he watched Rin shake his head.

"No, that guy is weird. He's practically married to water."

Married to water? That's kind of an odd turn of phrase. Makoto bit his lip. Someone who loved water to not swim... He couldn't think where he would be if he couldn't swim and teach others to enjoy swimming. "Well, I don't think I'd be much help. Did he say he needed help? I'd hate to intrude..."

Rin tried to hide his exasperation. Makoto was sometimes too empathetic. "He said it's hard to get into the water and swim," he said, leaving out the parts where Haruka told him to buzz off.

That look of concern wrinkled Makoto's eyebrows. "Well...okay." He straightened his shoulders. "I suppose I can try at least."

He had to resist the urge to fist pump. Instead he held out his hand to shake Makoto's. "That's all I can ask for. I'll arrange a meeting for you guys. I'll send you details later."

Taking Rin's hand, Makoto shook it. "I'll keep a lookout then."

After that, Rin bid his goodbye. Makoto finished some paperwork before locking up the club and heading out to find a place to eat his dinner.

 

Clutching the strap of his bag, Makoto looked down nervously at his phone, double checking he read Rin's directions correctly. He was in a quiet section of a park. The occasional jogger and dog walker passed by, but otherwise Makoto didn't see anyone. Taking a seat on a bench, Makoto wondered if he arrived too early. Rin said he'd be there before him and he'd try to calm his friend before Makoto arrived. What if Makoto was in the wrong part of the park? Should he look around? But Rin could be running late and he'd hate to search the park only for Rin to show up just as he left. Leaning back on the bench, Makoto closed his eyes briefly, soaking up the sun. His mind began to drift in aimless thoughts.

There was the sound of footsteps rather close, feet scuffing the ground until they came to a halt rather close to Makoto.

Blinking as he opened his eyes, Makoto dropped his gaze until he met the gaze of a young man, probably around his age, with blue eyes, staring at him with a look of slight annoyance. Studying the stranger’s face, Makoto wasn’t sure what he did to cause offense. Shifting so he made more space on the bench next to him, Makoto smiled apologetically. “Sorry, did you want to sit here? Would you like me to leave?”

The young man stared at him a couple moments longer before slowly sitting down next to him. Maybe he was the Nanase Haruka Rin mentioned in his text? But where was Rin?

Glancing at the young man next him, Makoto hesitantly asked, “Are you by chance Nanase Haruka?”

Letting out a huff, the young man nodded. “Yes.”

Makoto waited to see if Nanase would give him more introduction. Nanase didn’t look interested at all. It reminded Makoto of some of the shy kids in his class, and he had to bite back a giggle. When he felt Nanase’s gaze on him, Makoto quickly schooled his features. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Nanase. I’m Tachibana Makoto. I look forward to getting to know you.”

“Same. Nice to meet you.”

“So...um, you know Rin, too?”

The slight look of annoyance returned again. “That Rin tricked me. Said he’d take me to a mackerel lunch with a friend,” Nanase grumbled.

“You haven’t had lunch yet?” Makoto leaned closer in his concern. “That’s no good, Mr. Nanase! Eating is important! How about I treat you to lunch instead?”

Nanase’s eyes narrowed slightly in distrust, but when he saw Makoto looking him up and down as if he could determine his health with just his gaze, he felt himself relax. “I am hungry.”

Nodding, Makoto rose to his feet, patting away the dirt from his pants. “All right then. Let’s go find a place. Follow me, Mr. Nanase.”

Nanase followed suit.

 

Finding a place was easy thankfully. The restaurant they found was pretty busy and as they entered, Makoto accidentally pressed back into Nanase as someone else exited. Makoto cast a small smile in apology at Nanase. Then they were seated, ordered their food, and waited.

Resting his elbow on the table, Makoto rested his chin on his palm as he looked at Nanase. He didn’t pay as much attention as earlier, but now that he was facing across from Nanase, he couldn’t help but think that Nanase was actually quite handsome. His dark hair made his eyes stand out more, his eyes a brilliant shade of blue you could get lost in. It was hard not to stare. Suddenly, those eyes were staring back at him.

Feeling caught, a blush began to flush his cheeks and Makoto looked away quickly.

Nanase let out a soft breath. Was that a laugh?

Makoto began to scold himself for his unprofessional behavior. He shouldn’t be thinking his student was cute and handsome. He was here to be a coach. Clearing his throat, Makoto turned back to Nanase. “So, um, Mr. Nanase, did Rin tell you anything more about me other than that I’m his friend?”

Nanase shook his head.

“Oh, okay. Well, I like swimming too. I mainly do the backstroke. What about you?”

A look of interest crossed Nanase’s eyes. “I only swim free.”

Free? Freestyle? Or free from competitions? “When did you start swimming?”

“I grew up by the beach, but I joined a swimming club when I was in elementary school.”

“Oh, that’s the same as me! I was too shy to swim at a club until Rin joined with me.” Makoto let out a soft, sheepish laugh.

Nanase nodded. “He is a pushy kind of guy.”

Makoto laughed again. “He is, isn’t he? But that’s why he’s a good friend.” Before Makoto could say more, though, their food arrived.

They both said “itadakimasu” before digging in. The food was good and felt cozy in its flavors somehow. Nanase looked like he was in heaven every time he took a bite of mackerel. In the back of his mind, Makoto thought maybe they could eat out regularly. For coaching reasons of course.

As they began slowing down, Makoto rested his chopsticks on the edge of his bowl. “Mr. Nanase? Can I ask you about something?”

Nanase paused, tilting his head slightly in consideration, then nodded for Makoto to continue.

“Rin told me that you don’t swim competitively anymore and that you wanted help. I’m a coach, you see, and well, I was wondering if there was anything I could do to help?” Makoto bit his lip, nervously wondering if he was being too forward about this, especially since Nanase didn’t know him at all. Hesitantly, Makoto looked up to meet Nanase’s gaze. And he saw, as if a door closed, those blue eyes dimming slightly. Before Nanase could respond, Makoto made a dismissing waving motion with his free hand. “You know what, that was silly of me. You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. How about let’s try being friends first? Is that all right with you?” He gave a warm smile.

Nanase bristled slightly, but as he gazed at those soft green eyes, he found himself nodding. “Okay.”

Makoto nodded in return. “Okay. How about let’s finish eating.”

As they finished their meal, Makoto filled the silence with small talk. He told Nanase about his family a little and his job coaching. It took some coaxing, but he managed to learn that Nanase was an only child and currently he was working as a chef. When they were leaving the restaurant, they exchanged phone numbers and Makoto suggested that he’d take Nanase out for lunch again perhaps. Then Makoto headed home, but as he turned away, he felt like Nanase was staring at him, trying to puzzle him out.

 

Somehow their lunch dates slowly became a regular thing. After a few lunches, Makoto and Haru were on a first name basis. A few more after that and Makoto felt they really were friends. Haru was quiet and didn’t talk much, but once Makoto paid close attention, he began to read Haru’s expressions more. The little wrinkle in Haru’s brow when he was deciding between two different mackerel dishes. The almost-smiles and laughs. But always that lingering feeling of Haru holding back.

It was after his last class at the swim club that their routine changed. Makoto left the locker rooms, a tad more exhausted because his sister Ran recommended a movie to him to watch and it ended up to be a horror movie. He didn’t sleep well at all that night. Then on the way to work there was a lot of traffic. And one of the kids in his earlier classes got sick, and he had to deal with a frantic mother and prevent the other kids from getting upset too. His lunch was also interrupted because one of the other coaches needed a quick sub so they could go pick up their kid from school. And then there were Makoto's usual afternoon and early evening classes.

So, in Makoto’s exhausted state, he completely didn’t notice Haru coming out of the lounge area and approach him. It wasn’t until after Makoto stepped out the entrance that he finally heard his name being called and he turned around.

Haru had followed him through the doors, and there was a look of worry in his eyes as he came closer. “Hey, Makoto.”

Rubbing one of his eyes with a knuckle, Makoto gave him a tired smile. “Oh, hi, Haru. You’re here.” Makoto nodded to himself before he realized what he just said. His eyes widened slightly as his mind woke up. “Wait, Haru, you’re here? How? Why?”

A look of amusement crossed his face as Haru gestured to the swim club. “You told me about where you worked last time. And why...it is because you’re here.”

Makoto felt his heart glow warm at Haru’s words. “Thank you, Haru, for coming to see me. Did you watch my class?”

“Yeah. It looks like you had a fun time.”

“Yeah.” Makoto nodded again. “Those kids are so sweet.” A slightly dopey, tired smile remained on Makoto’s face, and he swayed a little on his feet.

Haru was watching him carefully until he stepped forward, placing a hand on Makoto’s shoulder. “Maybe you should head home, Makoto.”

Makoto looked at the hand on his shoulder, then at Haru’s face. He shook his head stubbornly. “But Haru is here.”

Haru sighed. “I can come back later.”

“But I’ll be asleep later, Haru.”

Haru raised a brow at him and gave him a flat stare.

Makoto shook his head again. “I’m fine, Haru. Anyways, you came here to see me. Is something up?”

Haru’s hand squeezed Makoto’s shoulder slightly. “Well… I was thinking of maybe swimming…” His hand dropped and Haru looked away, his voice trailing off as he did so.

Makoto’s mouth opened in surprise before he quickly shut it, not wanting to seem rude. Does this mean Haru wanted him to be his coach?

“Yeah.” It took Makoto a second to realize he spoke his thought out loud. “If it’s Makoto… I don’t mind if you’re my coach.” Haru’s cheeks seemed a little pink in the evening light.

Makoto spluttered a little bit, a blush coming to his cheeks as well. “Yes, of course, Haru! Just let me know when you’re ready.”

“I will.”

They stood facing each other for a couple moments, a slight breeze tickling Makoto’s face and blowing Haru’s hair into his eyes. Makoto’s hand twitched, and suddenly he was face to face with Haru. With gentle fingers, he brushed Haru’s bangs from his eyes, his fingers lingering along Haru’s cheek. Then Haru blinked. Makoto became aware of himself again and he stepped back, the blush now crawling up to his ears and down his neck.

“Sorry, Haru. Um, h-have a good night!” Makoto gave a short wave and walked hurriedly away. What was he thinking? He hoped Haru didn’t mind his sudden breach of personal space. But as Makoto headed home, he couldn’t help but think of how lovely and kissable Haru’s lips were.

 

Later that week, Makoto received a text from Haru, which was odd since usually Makoto was the one to reach out first. Reading the text, it seemed Haru was inviting him out to lunch later, though it wasn’t at any of the restaurants they’ve been eating at. Perplexed, Makoto typed his response and got ready for the day.

Thankfully, classes ran smoothly and Makoto was able to leave on time to the destination Haru gave. Walking along a strip of restaurants, delicious smells began to fill the air. Makoto’s stomach rumbled. Finally, he arrived at the restaurant Haru chose. He stood outside waiting for Haru a couple moments, but when he didn’t see him, Makoto thought he’d try to take a peek inside the restaurant to see if Haru had already grabbed a table for them.

The restaurant was small, but neat and clean. It wasn’t ridiculously busy as you’d expect since it was lunch rush hour. Makoto scanned the tables, looking for Haru, but he still didn’t see him. Frowning, he was beginning to wonder if he put in the wrong address on his phone, when the hostess approached him.

“Excuse me, sir? Are you Mr. Tachibana?”

“Oh! Yes, that is me.”

“Good. We have a seat reserved for you over here. If you’d follow me,” the hostess replied, and with a slight bow, before she led him to a table near the doors to the back.

Makoto took his seat, the look of confusion having never left his face since he entered the restaurant. Still no sign of Haru.

Not too long after he was seated, a waiter showed up at his table. “What would you like to drink, sir?”

“Barley tea is fine, thank you,” Makoto said as he picked up the menu.

“All right. I’ll get that for you right away.”

Makoto gave a nod and then began scanning the items on the menu. Oddly enough, there was a dedicated section just for mackerel dishes. Haru would certainly love this restaurant. But where was he? Makoto couldn’t help it. He began to deflate a little, the excitement from that morning after receiving Haru’s text dying away. As he scanned the menu, at least he saw his favorite food. Soon the waiter returned with his tea, and Makoto ordered the green curry.

As he waited, Makoto looked around at the restaurant again, wondering what made the place so special. What if something happened to Haru and that’s why he hasn’t shown up yet? Maybe he should have waited longer? Pulling out his phone, Makoto debated sending a text to Haru. Staring at the screen in thought, Makoto didn’t look up when the waiter placed the dish on the table in front of him.

But then the waiter took the seat across from him.

Looking up, Makoto’s eyes widened as he saw in front of him, in chef clothes, was Haru.

“Haru?! Wait, is this—? Why did you—?” In his surprise, his words and questions stumbled over each other in a rush to get out.

A pleased glow was in Haru’s eyes. Gesturing to the plate in front of Makoto, Haru smiled a little. “Now you can try my cooking, Makoto.”

The grin on Makoto’s face was brilliant. He never expected that Haru would invite him to the restaurant he worked at!

“Haru, this is amazing!”

Haru breathed a laugh. “You haven’t eaten yet, silly.”

“Oh, right! Of course. Itadakimasu!”

Makoto took a generous bite of the green curry. And immediately he felt at home. The vegetables and meat were cooked perfectly and the combination of spices were superbly balanced. It made him rather nostalgic for his mother’s cooking. Makoto was pretty sure he hadn’t had green curry as delicious as this in a while.

“Wow, Haru, this is delicious! You are an amazing chef. You could open your own restaurant, I bet. Though, you might only serve mackerel if you did.” Makoto laughed to himself at the end.

Haru looked away, trying to hide from Makoto’s enthusiastic praise. “Well, I might serve green curry, too,” he grumbled, though there was a smile touching the corners of his mouth.

“Well, no matter what you make, Haru, I’m sure it would be wonderful.”

Haru gave a short nod. “Thank you, Makoto.”

 

A couple months after Makoto met Haru, Makoto finally summoned the courage to ask Haru to visit him at the swim club again.

It was after public hours as Makoto waited outside for Haru to arrive. The stars were a little hard to see in the city, but Makoto still spotted a few constellations he thought he recognized.

The sound of footsteps scuffing the sidewalk brought Makoto down to earth. In the glowing streetlights, Haru looked a little unearthly, a spirit obsessed with water and mackerel.

Makoto couldn’t help giving Haru a warm smile as the young man came closer.

“I’m glad you came, Haru.” Makoto’s voice was soft, as if he didn’t want to scare a spooked animal.

Haru’s eyes flicked over to the swim club, then back to Makoto. “Makoto…”

Makoto held up a hand to stop Haru, his smile still gentle. Then looking to the swim club, Makoto thought over their many lunch dates and the time Haru stopped by at the club. Even though Haru said he was thinking of swimming back then, he never showed up again. Still, Makoto got a vague feeling that Haru was...punishing himself or purposefully stopping himself from enjoying swimming.

“You know, Haru, I’m actually afraid of the water a little, especially the ocean,” Makoto began. From a glance, he saw Haru’s eyes widen in surprise, and then a questioning frown furrowed his brows a little. Makoto huffed softly and nodded. “Yeah, but I do like swimming. When I was little, an old man that was kind to me drowned, and suddenly I grew scared that something was hiding under the water. And then in elementary school, one of my friends almost drowned in a river, and Rin and I rescued him. It was…” Makoto closed his eyes, resisting the urge to shudder, “It was terrifying, Haru.”

It was silent for a couple seconds until there was the shuffle of footsteps, and then Haru was standing close to him. “I’m… sorry, Makoto. That must have been rough.”

Opening his eyes, Makoto shook his head. “It’s okay. After Rin pushed me to join the swim club, I learned how fun swimming was, and when I used the backstroke, it wasn’t as scary in the water anymore.” He turned to face Haru. “I couldn’t do it until it was with a friend, Haru. So,” Makoto held out his hand, the smile back on his face, “Haru, would you like to swim with me?”

Haru hesitated a little, looking into Makoto’s eyes. Those green eyes spoke of warmth, kindness, and immense love. Taking in a breath, Haru took Makoto’s hand. “I trust Makoto.”

A giggle of happiness filled Makoto as he felt Haru’s slender hand slide into his. Then without further hesitation, Makoto led him inside.

 

At the poolside, Makoto took Haru’s hand in his again. Then, gently, Makoto pulled Haru down so that their legs could dip in the water. Water reflections danced along their skin, creating a web of light on their faces as Makoto turned to Haru. “Ready?”

Haru nodded.

Together in sync, they both slid into the water. And then they were in a world of their own. Haru’s hand tightened around his, but as Makoto began to pull him to the center of the pool, his hold relaxed. When they surfaced, they were facing each other.

No words needed to be spoken as they began to swim around aimlessly, diving underwater, swimming in circles around each other occasionally. During one of their dances underwater, Makoto pulled Haru close to him in a hug. Makoto’s heart began to beat faster, delighted Haru let him be close. Then, he felt hands on his cheeks.

A gentle tug. Haru’s eyes met his briefly, searching, a silent question. Unsure, Makoto gave a little nod.

And suddenly, Haru’s lips met his, and Makoto felt like he was in heaven. As if everything fell into place. Like two puzzle pieces clicking into place, creating a completed picture of just the two of them.

Haru was gentle, soft and inexperienced, but so was Makoto. He was afraid he might mess up as his hands cupped Haru’s shoulders lightly. But soon they had to breath again.

Rising to the surface together, Makoto still felt breathless despite oxygen was back in his lungs. After Haru regained his composure, Makoto smiled and pulled him close to his chest. Leaning forward, Makoto brushed the tip of his nose against Haru’s.

Then they shared a kiss again.

It will still take more tries for Haru to swim again like before. But Makoto was ready to stay by Haru’s side. Not just as a coach, but also as a friend and more.