The first time he slides up and over Rin, knees digging into the mattress as he breaches that ring, it's warm and tight and smooth and everything he imagined it might be. But that's because it was warm and tight and smooth the last first time, and the time before that, and not the time before that, but only because that first time had been up against the far wall in the standing shower of Rin's tiny Sydney apartment and all they'd had at hand was their own spit and slick, and Haruka hadn't wanted to waste the time or energy to fetch any proper lubricant when thirty seconds from now, he was going to be seventeen again instead of nineteen and Rin was going to be back on the bottom bunk in his Samezuka dormitory, and they were going to start this long, lingering wind-down again until they wound up in bed or on someone's couch or against another wall (or maybe the same one) with heartbeats in their ears and their names on each other's tongues, spilling their life and passion only to fuel another reset.
He'd stopped counting after the seventeenth reset.
It's not a time loop he's stuck in, at least not that he can tell—he's not reliving the same day over and over again; he's not even reliving the same week or year. He lives and lives and lives and everything feels normal, so normal that he's lost track of how many times he's thought for even a moment that he's free, that this time, he can finally have his life back. That who he fucks won't trigger another reset. But then it happens, as it always does when he doesn't do anything to stop it: Rin is there and he's Rin, and sometimes it's slow and tortuous, and sometimes it's five minutes later, but always there's hands and skin and lips and teeth and shit Haru shit sh— and bliss for a moment, because orgasms let you forget what comes after and just drift in bright, white limbo.
Until he wakes up, and he's seventeen again instead of nineteen or twenty-three or seventeen-and-a-half or—one time—thirty. He's seventeen again for the hundredth time, and he doesn't know why or how to stop it or how to get out.
He's tried everything to break the cycle; he's had plenty of time to, after all.
The first and most obvious tack was to just not fall in love with Rin. Not falling in love with Rin meant not having sex with Rin, which meant no resets. It's simple, elegant, and a sacrifice that should be easy enough to make; they aren't soul mates, just friends who build each other up and push each other on and knock each other down only to help one another back to their feet—but that's not love. It doesn't have to be. He doesn't have to fall in love with Rin, that's not part of this loop. That's all on him.
So he tries not falling in love with Rin.
But it never works, because falling in love with Rin might not be a have to as far as the loop's concerned, but it is as far as Haruka is concerned, and he can't not be himself, can't not be the best damn Nanase Haruka there is and not, somewhere along the way, look at Matsuoka Rin and not feel like there's an opposite there he's innately attracted to. It's a pull, a certainty; it's not hope or belief, it's a resolve that he knows he can't avoid. It's kismet.
The idea of entwined destinies had always seemed like something out of shoujo manga—Rin's idea of romantic at its worst—so he'd fought tooth and nail for his idea of freedom when he'd realized what these resets were. Pushed Rin away, cut off contact, convinced Makoto that it's just better this way, and he'd moved on. Rin had left for Australia again after graduation, colder and confused but with a sure set to his shoulders that told Haruka he wouldn't repeat the same mistakes of before (no, that was Haruka's job). Makoto had moved to Tokyo, and he'd tried to invite Haruka along, but going to Tokyo would mean a future and swimming and maybe seeing Rin again, and he couldn't, because that would just trigger a reset. So he dug in at Iwatobi, pitching in part-time at the swim club when Sasabe needed an extra pair of eyes on the grade-school groups and working evening shifts at the fish counter of the local supermarket. Nagisa and Rei eventually moved away, and even Gou finally stopped texting him invitations for tea, and in the silences and distance that blossomed between them all, he could feel their knowledge and understanding that this, like every low point in Haruka's life, involved Rin somehow and could therefore only be set aright by him.
That time, he made it to twenty-three—three days after his birthday, he'd woken to the stench of mackerel burning and the sound of colorful cursing and found Rin in his faded blue apron pointing toward the sitting room with a spatula. "You're gonna eat this mackerel I've just burned the shit out of, and then you're gonna tell me what you're up to these days, and I'm gonna tell you what I'm up to these days, because that's what friends do when they haven't seen each other in a while. And then, I'm gonna do the dishes while you shower—shower, no bath—and we're gonna do some laps at ISCR." He'd jerked the fridge door open and pulled out a bottle of barley tea. "And then, we're gonna come back here and fuck. Because I want to talk to you with a clear head, and I can't do that while I'm standing here wanting you like this."
He doesn't really have a favorite first time, but he thinks that might have been the one that felt the most relieving, instead of like the tightening of a noose, with a door beneath waiting to drop him back to the beginning again. He'd never found out what it was Rin wanted to speak to him about with a clear head, not in all the resets since, and he wonders if he ever will.
He can't not fall in love with Rin, he's realizing. Probably because there hasn't been a time when he hasn't already been in love with him, on some level. It's not a slow collapse into emotion, it's recognizing what's always been there, smoldering beneath the surface. He still tries, so hard, but with each successive reset, he loses his will more and more quickly, because fighting Rin is like fighting the ocean. It's always going to win, and Haruka's just going to wind up exhausting himself when it's so much easier to just give in and let it wash over him. What's another reset or twenty, after all, when he gets to spend his years falling in love with Rin over and over again?
So he stops trying not to fall in love with Rin and tries just not having sex with him.
The sex is the driver, after all. He spent five whole loops testing the reset for its triggers; they can touch, they can stroke, they can kiss and suck and it won't do a damn thing, but the moment one of them slicks up and noses in—and it doesn't seem to matter which, because Haruka tried that too—once they're racing toward that peak of completion and climax bears down upon them, the white rushes in and it's bright and blinding, and Rin lied, he lied, because each time he reaches for that light, it's a sight he's already seen before, every single time. He wants to beg Rin to show him a new sight, show him what comes after, but he knows Rin wouldn't understand, because Haruka still doesn't himself.
But Rin wants touch—he wants sensation and emotion all bundled into one act, and when Haruka balks or avoids it or tries to satisfy with a hand or mouth, it only builds up over time to bitterness and confusion and then explain it to me! tell me why! Rin wants his lips and hands and thighs and the small of his back and the nape of his neck, and Haruka eventually realizes that a life unfulfilled, a relationship where they're neither one of them happy, is no relationship at all. So he gives in, buoyed by drink or a victory high or just the dark, warm quiet of a summer's eve with too many thoughts in his mind and Rin's fingers slipping under the hem of his briefs. He tells himself he's just giving Rin what he wants, because then he doesn't have to admit it's what he foolishly wants too, despite knowing that this will be the last time he'll feel this particular brush over his nipple or hear that particular hitch to Rin's breathing. He'll hear it again, but in another time and another place with another Rin, and the worst thing about the resets is not the frustration of having to do this over and over and over but realizing that he's never going to get to learn the rest of the story.
He's never going to get to see what Rin looks like waking up the morning after, or discover how he recovers his composure when they rejoin their friends after a quickie in the bathroom, or hear him apologize to Haruka's next-door-neighbors in a Tokyo apartment with too-thin walls. He's going to have a million first-times and never a second-time or a third-time or a we've been together for ten years now and I still want you-time.
So he stops trying not to have sex with Rin and tries having sex with someone else instead.
He can't stop being in love with Rin; he can't stop wanting to sleep with Rin if they're together. But he can limit his options, train himself to accept a cage and satisfy himself with someone who is not Rin, because if he's with someone else, it means he's not with Rin, and Rin will accept that because he has to.
It's Makoto, because of course it's Makoto. Makoto is the one who understands him innately, who never questions, who lets him be himself because he wants Haruka to be happy, and as long as he's not hurting himself or holding himself back, Makoto will give him as long a leash as he desires.
Three loops he spends with Makoto.
The first is the best one, because it's still new then, something he's never tried, and so he takes it slow, lets it develop and nurtures it when he might have otherwise ignored it or never noticed it to begin with. He convinces himself, because he must, that Makoto could be good for him. It's not difficult, because it's not a lie, but it's also only the real truth here, inside this loop. But if he has to live in a loop forever, he thinks he's glad it's with Makoto.
Makoto is a different kind of warmth from Rin, enveloping and buoying like a southern current, and when he flows, it's gentle and strong and solid. Being in love with Makoto is simple and unhurried, because it's just an extension of what they've always been, and this way, Rin isn't hurt. He's happy for Haruka, actually—he teases them and rolls his eyes and protests too much PDA! when Makoto so much as looks his way during lunches together, and he sends them letters from abroad addressed to 'the Nanase-Tachibanas' because he's a dick like that.
Haruka finds he can have second-times with Makoto, a realization so new and euphoric that he doesn't stop to think, until loops later, what that means. He doesn't care so much who it is he's waking up next to or falling asleep beside—the simple fact that he can do these things now is enough. Enough to make him forget (for a while at least) that he loves Makoto, but he doesn't love Makoto, and then it's just a reminder that the longer this drags on, the crueler it is. He knows that, should the loop reset, Makoto will never remember any of this, will never know that he was happy and Haruka was content and that they'd signed a contract on a 1LDK in Ebisu together near a station perfect for both their morning commutes. Makoto won't know that Haruka's sighs of completion are mingled with sighs of relief that he's still here, still in this loop and it hasn't all reset—because once it does, once they're both seventeen again and Rin only calls them the 'Nanase-Tachibanas' sarcastically and not affectionately, Makoto will just be Makoto again, but Haruka will still be Haruka and have to live with everything he's done.
So he breaks it off, or—once, only once; never ever again—he cheats on him, getting himself and Rin pissed out of their skulls while Makoto pulls an all-nighter with a classmate for one of his lectures. And then the reset comes and the slate is wiped clean and Makoto only calls him Haru-chan every now and then instead of almost daily. After the third loop, when Haruka realizes he's adopted a nervous habit of twisting a ring on his finger that isn't really there, he never tries to date Makoto again. It was dishonest and desperate and Makoto had been so happy. And that was the worst part.
That's when he starts to entertain dangerous what-ifs. Thoughts like—if he died, if he killed himself, would everything reset again? Or would this loop continue on without him? And Rin—if Rin didn't exist, would that loop cement and overwrite the Real? Would Haruka even want to live in a loop where he could never, ever have Rin again, even if he were willing to risk a reset? He doesn't need to ask himself, really—the fact that he never tries these things, whether out of cowardice or trepidation, is answer enough.
He attempts, on a few occasions, to explain the resets to his friends—but each loop is different, so he's never quite successful in convincing Rin or any of the others of the personalized prison he's locked inside, and with each reset, each new loop, he feels himself losing a bit more of his fragile grip on reality. Sometimes he'll spend weeks, months inside a loop trying to remember what the Real was like, because even though he understands that, inside here, with each reset, he's still the same Nanase Haruka with the same personal history and same friends and family, he starts to doubt. Maybe his father doesn't live in Nagoya; maybe he died in a crash when Haruka was seven, car hydroplaning into a tree in the same storm that took Rin's father. Or maybe he doesn't feed stray cats off his back porch, maybe he really has a dog—a big black one that moved in when Rin left for Australia years ago. He can't quite remember what his parents looked like anymore, and his grandmother's photograph sitting inside the little shrine is aged and faded and blurred beyond recognition.
But Rin, he remembers. Every inch of Rin, he remembers. The knobs at his joints, and smooth cords of muscle on his legs, the long, awkward fingers, and the breathy keen his voice takes on just before he spills, back arching and voice raw as he collapses with legs akimbo, sprawled out on Haruka's unmade bed while a floor fan lazily paints the room.
Haruka shifts upright, arms stiff from balancing his weight across his shoulders and jaw sore from working Rin. He swipes at his lip and swallows thickly and wonders why it's never this that triggers a reset, why it's always one of them, inside the other, thrusting and panting and begging for it all to continue forever, that jerks them back to the beginning. He never gets a morning-after, but neither does Rin, and that doesn't seem fair, that Rin doesn't even realize what he's missing. Somewhere, out there in the Real, away from this dream within a dream within a nightmare, is the real Rin, one of flesh and blood who never resets, who is the same person day after day and who Haruka doesn't get do-overs with. He's the one that matters, and he tries to protest as such, even as Rin snorts at him and shakes his head, rolling Haruka onto his back and pressing a fresh condom into his hands. "If you don't put that thing to good use, Nanase, then I will; then we'll see just what's real." He grimaces as he reaches beneath himself to feel for his opening, grinding out breathily, "Not...exactly how I imagined this would happen...but you never...make it easy to get you to do something with me, do you?" He's straddling Haruka's hips, reaching down now with his free hand to stroke the shaft that Haruka has reluctantly rolled a prophylactic onto, giving himself over to the inexorable draw of fate. Kismet. All he has left.
Rin mistakes his complacency for consent, snorting softly as he scoffs, "Fine, make me do all the work..." and sits up straighter on his knees to angle Haruka's shaft below himself. And it's just as he's nosing in that it finally hits Haruka that this is it, these are his last moments here, alone, with this Rin, before another reset hits and they're seventeen and stupid and 'just friends'—whatever that means—and Haruka has to decide anew if it's worth it, if Rin is worth another few weeks, months, years of waiting just for this brief, heady encounter. How many more times can he go through this, back to square one, before he finally gives in to those dark thoughts and decides that he's done? How many more times can he put Rin through this? How many more first times can he give this person he cares for, bone-deep, white-hot, without being able to give him happily ever after—or even try?
"I—I can't—" he protests sharply, tongue tripping over his words, but Rin is already warm and tight and smooth around him, and the insides of his thighs brush the knobs Haruka's hips like a jockey on a mount. He shakes his head in frustration, but Rin's eyes are clenched shut, so he doesn't notice. "Rin...Rin I can't..."
Rin's lips curl into a grin, and Haruka realizes how he must sound—what Rin must think 'he can't' do. "I realize you're used to coming in first, Nanase, but this isn't a race..." He lets his head loll back, breathing deep and even as he lifts onto his knees slowly before settling down again, drawing out the sensation long and lean before burying Haruka inside him once more. Haruka can't even enjoy it, though, because with each lift of straining thighs and hitch to Rin's breathing comes the build-up, that tingle at the base of the spin that wraps around his shaft like an arrow bolt nocked at the ready.
He wants to weep, wants to beg Rin not to do this, because he's tired, just wants it to end—his whole life now is just climax delayed, a sip of joy, a glimpse into what could be, before he snaps back to start his Sisyphean task anew. He wants to wake up in his bed, seventeen again but seventeen for the last time, and he wants to never dream again. Rin can have his dreams—Haruka will have his goals. He wants to go back to the Real, a world where everything is as it seems and there is a middle and an ending to every beginning, a world where he never worked the fish counter at a supermarket or took off a promise ring Makoto gave him or forgot what his mother's given name was.
Rin's voice is in his ear now, his broad, flat chest leaning over Haruka's as his hips piston in countertime to Haruka's reluctant, instinctive upward thrusts. He's passed the point of conscious speech and is just muttering Haruka's name, mired in pleas and yes fuck yes—shit, and Haruka clenches his eyes shut, wrapping his arms under Rin's to clutch tight to his shoulders as he buries his face in the crook of Rin's neck. He'll have the last memory from this loop be the heady, strong scent of Rin's sweat and passion and the faint breath of chlorine from the pool, everything them, filling his nose and ears and burning this moment into his memory, along with a thousand others from the lives he's lived since he can remember. He can't wake up, he maybe never will again, but just for this one moment, he's—
"Oh Haru," Rin exhales with striking clarity, tone a chilled rush of frost down his spine, and he cocks his head to the side to whisper into Haruka's ear, "You can't end dreams that aren't your own."