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The icy strike of water against his abdominal muscles strangles an embarrassing squeak from Makoto’s vocal chords.  Already submerged up to his neck, Haru gives him an odd look and promptly dolphin-kicks into the oncoming wave with a measured snap of his ankles.  Makoto shivers, crosses his arms over his chest to keep them dry, tilts his face up and inhales the sea spray and the salt in the air and the meager heat from the sinking sun.

It’s far too cold to be swimming in the ocean.  He told Haru as much no less than eleven times as they stripped down to their bathing suits on the beach, and the words, predictably, fell on deaf ears.  He thinks about repeating it in English and seeing if that can permeate Haru’s waterlogged brain, but English is Makoto’s worst subject and he runs a dangerously high chance of insulting someone’s mother by mistake.  Were Rin still their friend, he would be able to translate.  It’s a long shot, anyway.  Haru hears a whisper of welcome home carried on the crest of every wave that reaches the sand – he’d swim during the dead of winter if his body permitted it.

Hugging himself, Makoto squints towards the horizon and eventually picks out a bobbing dark spot in the distance.  “Don’t go too far, okay?” he calls.  Haru lazily lifts a hand in acknowledgement, if not acquiescence.  You’re not my mother-father-babysitter-big brother-minder-keeper – Makoto’s heard them all from Haru’s lips at least once.  He doesn’t mean to be rude.  Haru is just blunt by nature.  He doesn’t understand that Makoto survives situations where he feels completely out of control by grabbing the nearest person and mother-henning them to death.  And this… this is one of those situations.  He watches Haru surface dive and slide out of sight and shudders involuntarily.  He’s never known anyone who loves water as much as Haru does.  Rin comes close, though.  Where Haru embraces the water, swims with it rather than in it, Rin pushes and pulls and bends it to his will.  One submits, one dominates, two different approaches with equal results.

Makoto doesn’t subscribe to either.  He simply fears.  Contained, controlled environments like pools are manageable, as long as someone else is with him, but stepping into the ocean is like placing his foot in the monster’s maw.  There’s no welcome home for him, just a great gulping as the sea cocoons him in its wet tongue and swallows him whole.

Wracked with shivers, he grips his elbows tightly and chides himself to stop thinking about it.  He’s just here because it wouldn’t be safe for Haru to swim by himself.  Makoto scuffles his feet through the muddy sand, feels something hard and round beneath his heel, curls his toes around it, and unsteadily lifts his leg free of the water.  It’s a nautilus shell – small, perfectly intact, pearl-white with bands of taupe on its back.  He rinses it off and runs the pad of his thumb around the smooth opening.  There’s something mathematical about these shells that he can’t remember off the top of his head.  Maybe he could give it to his siblings.  Or maybe….  “Hey, Haru,” he says, looking up.

There’s no Haru.  No mop of dark hair, no streak of pale skin visible in the churning waves.  A tiny flame of alarm licks at his heart, but Makoto stomps it down and clutches the shell in his fingers.  He’s probably just underwater.  Ten seconds pass, then fifteen, twenty, it’s okay, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, Haru can hold his breath for a long time, forty, fifty, sixty –

The nautilus slips from his hand and, without letting himself think about it, Makoto dives into the ocean.

His brave little plunge doesn’t accomplish much; he forces his eyes open against the saltwater sting and can see nothing through the murky blue-grey darkness.  He kicks up to the surface again and blinks around, hoping to see his friend emerge, but there is still no Haru and now no longer any ground beneath his feet.  “Haru!”  He treads water for another few seconds.  “Haruka!”

The beach behind him – further back than he’d thought – is deserted.  No other options remain open, so he grips his growing panic no no please no not again like a paddle and uses it to propel himself towards the spot where he last saw Haru.  For all he knows, Haru’s just floating on his back and letting the waves carry him away, quite unaware of the things he’s doing to Makoto’s blood pressure.  Fear lends his strokes speed, but no matter how far he swims, Makoto doesn’t see anything that could be his friend.  He sticks his face into the water again.  Nothing.  He scans the surface and the horizon and the shoreline nothing nothing nothing.

He fills his lungs and shrieks, “HARU!!”

The ocean mockingly flings back his own voice, strained and cracking.  No one surges out of the water to frown and tell Makoto quit shouting, I’m right here.  His heart pounds its fists against the hollow of his throat.  He’s all alone.  And Haru, quiet, amazing, aquatically gifted Haru… not a trace.

The next wave catches Makoto by surprise.  It shoves his head under with all the force of a kid playfully dunking their little sibling, but when he breaks the surface again, water slaps into his mouth and he chokes.  His instincts are begging him to turn around and swim back to the beach now.  “Ha-” he starts and gets another mouthful for his trouble.  The coating of salt on his tongue makes him gag.  Keeping his head above water has become a chore and he kicks wildly, reaches out and tries to push himself up.

I’m drowning, he realizes.  He knows the signs, all the kids at the swim club were taught to keep an eye out for anyone who might be in trouble.  Oh, god, I’m drowning.

And then the tide sucks him down.

No no no – Makoto opens his mouth to scream, as stupid as that seems, and accidentally swallows the freezing water that pours into his throat.  Years and years of swimming lessons leak out of his mind and all he can do is thrash helplessly and sink like a sandbag.  He’s tired, as if he’s been doing laps for hours without a break, and somewhere in the back of his head he thinks that doesn’t make sense, I was fine a minute ago.  The desire to exhale wars with a primal need to save the only air he has.  Go up, he tells himself, grabbing his last tendrils of rational thought and holding on for dear life, it’s not that far.  He has enough oxygen in his lungs to make it to the surface.  Don’t freak.  Just go up, get to the top and float and head for the shore oh god Haru.  But he’s suspended in place despite his churning limbs; no matter how high he reaches, he can’t find where the water ends.  Kids’ movies get it all wrong.  It’s so dark in the sea.

A flash of white overhead seizes Makoto’s attention.  He looks up and sees something gliding along, no more than a meter up, something with steadily pinwheeling arms, long legs, and black swim trunks.  His brain launches a relieved chant of Haruharuharuharuharu that cuts through the terror.  He exhales a stream of bubbles hey I need some help here and flails his arms to catch Haru’s eye.

Haru doesn’t see him.  Haru swims on and fades don’t leave me please don’t leave me from sight and Makoto screams with everything he has left.

The water he swallowed comes back up in a sour rush.  Vomiting underwater is unpleasant enough with air in his lungs; without it, his head burns and his throat spasms.  I don’t want to die.  He grits his teeth to hold back the involuntary inhale as his vision begins to why can’t I move turn grey at the edges.  There is no way up.  No matter how hard he kicks or how fast he paddles, the ocean has an iron grip on his please no ankles, it’s pulling him deeper.  Please I don’t want to die and then he can’t stop himself from breathing in the saltwater.  It floods his throbbing lungs, so cold that for an instant it feels like winter air no no no no no before the pain cannonballs into his chest.

As a kid, Makoto had read somewhere that the last thing to happen before drowning is a profound, encompassing sense of tranquility which replaces the terror.  It’s a byproduct of the brain shutting down from a lack of oxygen.  So he hangs on to feral panic with all his might, lashes out at the water, silently pleading help me please someone help me help me as he coughs and retches and a crushing pressure squeezes his aching head and his ribs.  He’s going to die here.  Has Haru realized he’s disappeared yet?  He’ll never make it to school on time without me – I can’t die – please I want my mom I want my dad and the twins HaruNagisaReiGouRinpleaseplease he thinks he might be crying.  He can’t breathe, everything’s gone dark, he feels like he’s freefalling no please through empty space help me and all he can taste is salt I don’t want to die and he shakes and thrashes and

wakes up

The sound Makoto makes when he tries to inhale is like a gasp colliding with a whimper that swiftly deteriorates into a shrill, thready wail.  It would be a proper shout were he able to get any air behind it, but there’s nothing in his lungs – no water, no oxygen.  He can’t hear anything besides his own rattling breaths.  The side of his face scrapes against rough, wet fabric that smells like saltwater.  That just sets him off again, and this time, when he tries to take a breath, it comes out as a scream.

Then someone flips the volume switch and the world slams back into motion.  Hands fasten into Makoto’s shirt, drag him upright.  The cloudy ocean-blackness softens into nighttime, lit by the streetlight outside the window and the dim lamp on his desk that he always “forgets” to turn off before he falls asleep, and through a film of tears he sees Haru’s mouth move.  “– okay, it’s okay.  Makoto.  I’ve got you.  You’re all right.”

His chest heaves – uselessly, there’s no air, he can’t breathe.  Someone is sobbing.  Haru purses his lips like he’s deep in thought, drapes a blanket around Makoto’s quaking shoulders, strokes his hair, takes his face in his hands.  Later, Makoto will find it kind of sweet that Haru basically just ran down the list of what Makoto does for his brother and sister when they’re upset, but now, all he can do is gasp, “I can’t breathe I can’t breathe –”

Haru shushes him.  “You’re hyperventilating.” He leans in until their foreheads are nearly touching, so Makoto can see nothing but his face, and speaks in a low, steady tone.  “Listen to me.  Remember when we were kids, and you were trying to improve your backstroke, and Coach Sasabe taught you to breathe in rhythm?”

It takes some effort to think coherently through the haze of panic, but Makoto nods jerkily, and Haru continues, “I need you to do that for me.  Try to picture it.  When your right arm recovers, inhale; when your left arm recovers, exhale.  Right, inhale.  Left, exhale.”

Haru’s voice can be very soothing when he puts his mind to it.  Makoto has some idea of what he’s trying to do, and, gradually, he lets his friend’s words pull him out of his stampeding thoughts and into a daydream.  Right, inhale.  Left, exhale.  He used to try to hold his breath so he wouldn’t suck water into his nose and mouth, but then he’d be dizzy and winded after a few laps.  Right, inhale.  It isn’t too bad on his back, though, since his head isn’t totally submerged.  Left, exhale.  Water splashes over his face and sluices off just as quickly, right, inhale.  Left, exhale.  Right, inhale.  Keep your hips up.  Left, exhale.  Don’t turn your head to see how close the wall is, it creates too much drag.  Right, inhale.  Left, exhale.  Start counting strokes when you pass under the flags.  One, two, turn over – flip – push off.  Break the surface, left, exhale. Right, inhale.  Left, exhale.

When he comes back to himself, he’s breathing normally again and Haru’s fingers are rubbing over the shell of his ear.  Haru scrutinizes him closely and seems to decide that his coaching is no longer necessary.  “Good.”  He skims his thumb along the scar on Makoto’s chin, faded to near nonexistence after almost six years, barely visible except to those who know it’s there.  Makoto acquired it during swim practice, when he’d clambered out of the pool a bit too quickly, slipped, and smashed his face into the closest starting block.  His nose bled and his split lip bled and the gash in his chin bled and needed seven stitches and for once in his life, he didn’t faint at the sight of blood – he was much too elated by knocking an entire half-second off his best time.

Haru drops his hands, sits back on his heels, and Makoto immediately slumps forward to rest his head on Haru’s shoulder. 

Nothing happens for a moment.  Haru isn’t really into being touched, while Makoto likes hugs and cuddling with his brother and sister and finds physical contact soothing.  Finally, though, he links his hands together against the small of Makoto’s back and just holds him, giving him the tactile input he’s craving.  Makoto presses his nose against Haru’s baggy t-shirt and lets out a quivering sigh.  The shirt is his own – no matter how many times he sleeps over, Haru never remembers to bring pajamas – but Haru still smells faintly and comfortingly of chlorine.  “Sorry,” Makoto mumbles.  His head feels light enough to float away.  “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

The shoulder beneath his cheek rises and falls.  “You sounded like you were choking,” Haru says.  “I thought you’d thrown up.  Then you started crying.”

If he had woken up sobbing like a child in front of anyone else, Makoto would’ve been thoroughly humiliated, but Haru is… Haru.  He knows all of Makoto’s deepest, darkest secrets, up to and including where he keeps his ratty old baby blanket (tucked between his mattress and the wall – out of sight, not out of reach), so a little bout of hysterics doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Still, of the two people in this room, only one of them has ever almost drowned for real and it isn’t Makoto.  “Sorry,” he says again.  Beads of cold sweat trickle down his back.  He wishes he could stop shaking.  Haru tightens his arms around him and rocks from side to side a little bit.

They spend a few minutes shamelessly cuddling.  If Haru wasn’t kneeling, Makoto would probably be in his lap.  It’s nice to be the comfortee rather than the comforter for a change, he thinks.  There’s salt-sweat on his lips and his stomach tumbles when he licks it away.  Haru’s narrow fingers trace the knobs of his spine, a gesture that feels a lot more intimate than it’s intended to be, and Makoto reluctantly decides it would be very, very prudent of him to put a bit of distance between them before his body does something unwise.

Luckily, at that very moment, the creaky floorboard in the hallway shrieks.  Haru lets go and Makoto sits up straight, runs his fingers through his damp, mussed hair.  “You can come in,” he calls.

His bedroom door inches open.  One little head pokes inside, followed by another – and then Ran comes charging in, springs onto the bed, and throws herself into Makoto’s lap.  Beaten to the prime real estate, Ren attaches himself to Haru instead.  “Are you okay?” Ran says in a hushed voice, like Makoto’s on his deathbed, looking up at him with round eyes.

“I’m okay.  It was just a bad dream,” Makoto says, fussing with the wrinkled collar of her pajama top.

“You screamed.” Ren locks his arms around Haru’s ribcage.  “You sounded really scared.”

“Oniichan’s scared of everything,” Ran reminds him. 

It’s true.  Makoto came to terms with it a long time ago.  “I’m fine, I promise.”  He hugs his little sister close, reaches over to smooth Ren’s hair, and, when his and Haru’s eyes meet, he finds something soft in Haru’s normally guarded expression.

They fooled around once, him and Haru.  They got each other off and never spoke of it again by implicit mutual agreement, so Makoto doesn’t know what it meant, and he tries not to think about it because what if it didn’t mean anything?  If it didn’t – and he’s painfully sure it didn’t – then he won’t risk ruining what they already have.  Haru is his best friend.  Seven billion people in the world, and of course he might be a little bit in love with his best friend.  Makoto can live without them being more, but moments like this make him wonder if maybe they could be.

Haru blinks and shifts his attention to the open window.  Maybe not.  “All right, it’s late,” Makoto says.  “Back to bed, you two.”  He scoops up Ran, stands, fumbles for his glasses.  The twins’ bedroom floor is always littered with a minefield of toys and there’s nothing worse than stepping barefoot on a stray Lego.  Ren’s stuck to Haru like a barnacle, so Haru follows Makoto’s example, lifts him easily, and together they pad into the shadowed, silent hallway.  Makoto’s parents are spending the weekend out of town and left him in charge of his siblings.  They don’t care if Haru sleeps over while they’re gone, though Makoto’s not sure they’d be quite so obliging if they knew the sorts of thoughts he has about Haru sometimes.

He and Haru tuck the kids into bed.  Makoto presses a kiss to his sister’s forehead, leans up and does the same to his brother.  “Good night.”

“Don’t have any more bad dreams, okay?” Ren says, snuggling his stuffed cat beneath his chin.

Makoto forces a smile that almost feels real except for the sudden phantom sensation of saltwater splashing into his mouth.  He shifts uneasily and fiddles with the drawstring of his pants to mask his shudder.  “I’ll try.  Night, guys.”  On his way out, he leaves the door open a bit so he can hear if they call for him, then rejoins Haru in his bedroom.  The other boy is studiously rearranging the rumpled blankets on Makoto’s bed.

The first thing Makoto does is close the window, muting the distant sound of the waves rolling against the shore.

“Makoto.”

“Hm?” Makoto opens a drawer in his bureau, yanks his sweat-soaked t-shirt over his head, and switches it for a clean one.

A hand closes around his wrist.  He turns around and Haru, solemn-faced, adjusts the borrowed shirt sliding off his pale shoulder before looking Makoto square in the eye.  “I would never let anything happen to you,” he says.  “You know that, right?”

“I – I know.” Unwillingly, Makoto thinks of the sea, of staring upwards through the blue mire and seeing Haru swim away as he drowned no please don’t leave me and he’s shivering all over again.  Haru looks unconvinced.  “I know,” Makoto says again, putting a little more effort into not sounding fragile and on the verge of a meltdown.

Something in Haru’s face shifts and he nods.  When his grip loosens, though, Makoto twists his wrist and grabs Haru’s arm.  “Um,” he begins.  “Listen, I know our futon isn’t that comfortable – I’m sorry about that, the twins tried using it as a trampoline a few weeks ago – so, I guess, if you want… we could just share?  My bed, I mean.”

He stutters himself into silence and Haru just stares at him, blank-faced, making no move to detach Makoto’s fingers from his wrist.  Then he sighs, tugs his arm loose, and says, “If you want me to stay with you, just say so.” – which, in Haru-speak, means okay.  Makoto flushes and busies himself with fixing the covers, completely ruining Haru’s decent job of setting them into order.

“It’s a little pathetic, though,” he eventually mutters, flipping his sweaty pillow over.

“You’re not pathetic,” Haru says sharply.  Makoto thinks about protesting, because no normal seventeen-year-old needs someone to sleep next to them after they have a nightmare, but he’s too wiped out from his earlier freak-out to sustain an argument.  He crawls back into bed instead, and Haru follows.

Makoto’s bed is just wide enough to accommodate them both if they disregard all notions of personal space.  They lay on their backs, pressed together from the shoulder down; Haru absent-mindedly hooks his ankle over Makoto’s as they fumble with the blankets.  He’s pleasantly warm, in harsh contrast to Makoto, who still feels damp and clammy, like he climbed out of the pool and put his clothes on without drying off first.  Haru gives him a quizzical look when he starts shaking again.  “Sorry,” Makoto whispers, “I’m cold.”

“Do you have more blankets?”

“They’ve all been put away for summer.”  He sets his glasses on the nightstand and shrugs himself further beneath the covers.  The cold is inside him, besides, and no amount of blankets will leech it out.  He pushes his fingers into the gap between his bed and wall, pets the ragged bit of fabric hidden there.  “I’ll be fine.”

“If you say so,” Haru replies.

Makoto takes a chance and tilts his head to rest against Haru’s shoulder.  Heartened by the lack of twitching or pulling away, he says, “I dreamt we went swimming in the ocean, and when I wasn’t paying attention, you disappeared, so I went swimming out to find you… but I couldn’t and the waves pulled me down –”  He breaks off, swallows.  Haru makes a faint but encouraging noise.  “You swam by but you didn’t see me and I… I was drowning.”

“I told you, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

“I –”

Ever.  You aren’t going to drown.  Stop worrying about it.”

As if it’s that easy.  But maybe it is that easy for Haru, who’s never shown any lingering trauma from his own near-drowning experience, who’s more at home in the water than he is on solid ground.  Makoto licks his lips and wrinkles his nose.  “My mouth tastes like seawater.”

“You were sweating like crazy.  Go brush your teeth.”

Makoto laughs, to no one’s surprise more than his own.  Such a simple, reasonable, practical solution.  People call Haru weird and mutter behind his back and side-eye him when someone mentions water like they expect him to strip, but Makoto wouldn’t have him any other way… even if he sometimes wishes he didn’t have to fear for the fish tanks and decorative fountains of the world.  And Haru, in return, tolerates his scaredy-cat overprotectiveness.  “Night, Haru.”

Haru’s pinky brushes the back of Makoto’s hand.  Makoto grabs it and hangs on.  They are what they are, so whatever they are is good enough.