It was Naru’s turn. Miwa grinned. “Naru, I dare ya to…” she paused, looking around. She ducked under the water and came up with a handful of slimy brown kelp. “I dare ya to take a big bite of this.”
Without hesitating, Naru seized it and shoved a hank into her mouth, despite Handa’s weak protests. He had given up trying to stop the children from doing such things about five dares ago. He glanced towards the horizon, his hand shielding his eyes from the setting sun that was setting the ocean ablaze with its golden light.“Alright kids, time to go.”
Miwa pursed her lips and put her hands on her hips. “That’s awfully convenient for you Sensei, considering it’s your turn now.”
It was no coincidence that Handa chose to call off the ridiculous game at that moment. They had been loitering around in the ocean for hours now. When Miwa, Tama, Hiroshi and Naru had grown tired of swimming and splashing and fishing, they had gathered around and dragged Handa into their game of courage, which had quickly grown from harmless fun like put a handful of sand down your pants, to downright dangerous, like let a crab pinch your tongue (Miwa had gotten that one, courtesy of Hiroshi). Handa had been let off easy on his first dare, which had been to join them in the ocean fully dressed, but he suspected that the next one wouldn’t be so tame. “It’s getting late and it’s starting to get cold.” He shivered for effect.
“We can go after your turn. You’re the last one.” Tama reasoned. “Just finish the game off, Sensei.”
Handa folded his arms. “Fine, what do I have to do?”
Naru, who had been beneath the surface, broke through the water, triumphantly holding aloft a fat, black sea cucumber. “Kiss this!”
The group erupted into laughter as Handa shrieked and desperately tried to splash Naru away. “I am not kissing that, that’s disgusting!”
“You gotta!” Naru thrust the sea creature into Handa’s face, making him scream.
“You could kiss Hiroshi instead.” Tama had spoken to the ocean, as softly as the whisper of the waves against the shore, but everyone heard it.
Naru squealed, Miwa slapped the water with a booming laugh and Hiroshi’s head whipped around so fast it’s a wonder it didn’t twist right off. Handa turned as pink as the sunset and began to stammer. “I’m not going to do that.”
Tama rushed to defend herself. “I mean, you could kiss something else, Hiroshi was just an example!”
Miwa cut her off. “No, it’s perfect.” She clapped Handa on the back. “What’ll it be, the slug or the other invertebrate?”
“Hey!” Hiroshi protested, but he wasn’t really angry at the taunt. He felt flushed, he couldn’t look up from the ocean just in case he met Handa’s eyes. He shifted awkwardly, picked at the sand in his pants and licked the salt from his lips, but he didn’t object.
Handa looked desperately from the sea cucumber to the boy. One of the things he could easily kiss but didn’t want to, whereas the other he desperately wanted to kiss but knew he couldn’t. “I’m ending this here.” He tried to wade towards shore but found himself anchored by Miwa and Tama on each arm.
“That’s not fair, we all did two dares, and you’ve only done one.” Miwa pouted. “Just kiss the damn thing, and then you can go.”
Handa looked at the seaweed between Naru’s teeth, the sand in Tama’s hair and the blood on Miwa’s lip. He saw the determined gleam in their eyes. These kids took this game seriously, and they weren’t about to let him off the hook, no matter how much he squirmed. He looked at Hiroshi. The boy was just standing there, looking down. He wasn’t arguing, nor making a run for it. Handa frowned. Surely, if he had a problem with it, he would have objected by now. Maybe he didn’t mind being kissed. “Fine,” Handa mumbled, deflating. “I’ll do it.” Hiroshi’s head shot up. Naru thrust the cucumber at him, and Handa recoiled. “Not that! Drop it already.”
“Wait, you mean you’ll kiss Hiroshi?” Miwa’s eyes shone with devilish glee. Tama looked shell-shocked.
Handa nodded and moved towards Hiroshi, who raised his hands warily. “Does this count as an extra dare for me?” Hiroshi’s voice was shaky as he joked.
Handa grabbed Hiroshi’s hand and pressed his lips against his fingers. A tingle ran through Hiroshi. “There. Now, let’s go.” He turned around to see Tama about to burst a blood vessel.
She raised her hands, her fingers curled like claws. “No! You have to kiss on the lips!” Her voice was ragged and deep, as if some kind of demon was speaking for her from the depths of her throat.
“Yeah, anyone can kiss a measly hand. You gotta get some lip lockage if you want to leave.” Miwa grinned.
Handa glanced at Hiroshi, who looked like a fish dangling helplessly on the end of a rod. He took a deep breath and slowly reached out a hand and cupped the back of Hiroshi’s head. He heard a sharp intake of breath behind him. Yet Hiroshi wasn’t pulling away. He looked jittery and nervous, but he was meeting Handa’s eyes.
It’s okay, it just has to be a peck. Handa thought as he leaned in. He saw Hiroshi close his eyes and his heart skipped a beat. Feeling his coarse hair beneath his fingers, Handa pulled him in until their lips touched.
It was like a tidal wave had crashed over Handa. He felt the sharp impact of shock as the wave hit him, then he was tumbling over and over in the surf, unable to reach the surface. He could feel Hiroshi’s lips moving against his, sucking the air from his lungs and leaving him dizzy. He clung to the boy, feeling his broad shoulders under his fingers. He could feel Hiroshi’s fingers in his hair, like water rippling through the locks as the surf washed over him. He surfaced, gasping.
He saw his own surprise mirrored in Hiroshi’s soft brown eyes first, then in the eyes of each of their audience members. Naru’s eyes were popping out of head and Miwa’s jaw was almost touching the ocean floor, whereas Tama had transcended reality and achieved nirvana. Handa turned salmon pink. “Let’s go home,” he choked out before thrashing his way to shore like a fish out of water. Hiroshi stared after him, feeling as if the ocean had spat him out on the shore and he was just lying there, letting the waves wash over him.
The troupe walked in complete silence until they reached Naru’s house, then Tama’s, then Miwa’s. They waved a subdued goodbye before disappearing into their houses. Soon, Hiroshi and Handa were left alone. “I’ll walk you home,” Hiroshi mumbled and Handa turned to him like an embarrassed schoolgirl.
“You don’t have to…” He trailed off, somehow reluctant to protest more. The atmosphere was stifling, yet Handa didn’t want to say goodbye to Hiroshi just yet.
They reached Handa’s house. Hiroshi was just about to say goodbye when words tumbled out of Handa’s mouth. “My bathtub hasn’t been lighting lately, could you take a look at it?” Hiroshi looked startled, but agreed and followed Handa into the house, even though they both knew that Hiroshi was no expert on bathtubs. They reached the bathroom. Hiroshi knelt and filled the tub with water before turning the crank. It caught instantly. “Oh, I guess it fixed itself.” Handa said lamely.
Hiroshi stood and turned away from the man so he wouldn’t see him laughing. But Handa caught a glimpse of his smirk and saw the shake of his shoulders and he descended on the boy with a flurry of fists. “Stop laughing, you wannabe punk!”
Hiroshi laughed harder. He turned and caught Handa by his wrists. “Yer such a bad liar, Sensei.” Hiroshi’s eyes glimmered with mirth. “Or should I call ya Seishuu, now that we know each other personally.”
Steam was practically pouring from Handa’s ears as he squirmed in Hiroshi’s grip. “Stop teasing me!”
Hiroshi laughed and released him. Handa looked into his sparkling eyes and saw his own longing. He looked away and mumbled something incoherent. Hiroshi leaned forwards, cocking his ear towards Handa. “What?”
“I said you can call me Sei, if you like…” He trailed off, adding the last part as an afterthought.
Hiroshi smiled and leant in. Handa closed his eyes and parted his lips. Hiroshi captured them with his, holding Handa by the shoulders as he kissed him. They parted and gazed into each other’s eyes. Hiroshi tilted his head and kissed him again, deeper. This kiss didn’t feel like a tidal wave as before, it was more like falling into a pile of feather pillows. Handa felt as if he was melting and Hiroshi’s hands were the only thing keeping him up. Hiroshi’s tongue flicked against his lips and Handa opened to meet it, tentatively exploring Hiroshi’s mouth as he slid his hands down the other boy’s back. Kissing Hiroshi was like kissing a summer breeze, gentle and sweet. A welcome relief from the still humidity of Handa’s life. But, like the breeze, it was fleeting and eventually they parted.
“Do you want to have a bath?” Hiroshi asked, his voice low.
Handa turned as red as a boiled lobster. “I don’t think we’d both fit.”
Hiroshi stared at him before bursting out into laughter, shattering the atmosphere. “I didn’t mean together, idiot! Geez, do you always take it this fast? I only thought ya might want to get out of your wet clothes. You’re shivering.”
Handa sank to the floor and curled into a ball. Hiroshi knelt and poked him while trying to stifle his laughter. “I’m sorry for teasing ya.”
“Just leave me here to die.”
“If ya don’t want a bath, then I’ll have one.” Hiroshi straightened up and began to peel off his sodden shirt.
In a flash, Handa was up and pushing Hiroshi out of the bathroom. “You can make it up to me by making dinner,” Handa yelled as he slammed the door in his grinning face.
Hiroshi turned away. His pants itched with sand and his shirt clung uncomfortably to his back. He began to regret not taking Handa up on his offer. He pulled off his shirt and draped it over a kitchen chair before he began to raid the kitchen for anything edible.
By the time Handa emerged, clean and dressed, Hiroshi had dinner simmering on the stove. Handa peeked in the pot. “Stew?”
“Yep, with extra potatoes. Where’d ya get…” Hiroshi trailed off mid-sentence as Handa snaked his arms around his waist and buried his face into his shoulder. He could feel Handa’s warmth pressing against him. “You’ll get your clothes dirty…”
“Then stop teasing me and go have a bath.”
Hiroshi grinned and pried away Handa’s arms. “Alright, alright.” Handa released him and Hiroshi handed him the spoon. “You have to stir the stew though. Don’t mess it up.”
Handa snatched the spoon from him. “Even I can stir a lousy stew.” Hiroshi’s laughter floated through the house as he walked to the bathroom. Handa felt a warmth inside him, like a candle. A moth, drawn to the light, fluttered inside his stomach. He felt like he was back in high school again, he used to get the same feeling when someone smiled at him.
They enjoyed a quiet dinner, Hiroshi spoke little but sometimes, when Handa glanced up, he caught him smiling at him. They washed the dishes side by side, Hiroshi washing while Handa dried. Hiroshi wiped his hands on his shirt, Handa’s shirt really, since he had lent him a change of clothes.
“I’ll wash them and bring them back tomorrow,” Hiroshi said as he slipped on his shoes at the doorway.
“You don’t have to do that. Imagine what your mother would think if she found my clothes in your washing.”
Hiroshi chuckled. “She’d probably keep them and make a shrine.”
“I meant what would she think if she knew you had a bath at mine,” Handa went to cuff him over the head, but Hiroshi caught his hand and pulled him close.
“It’s fine. Even if my mum found out the truth, I doubt she’d mind. We might be country folk but we’re not that backwards. I’m more scared of your mother, from what I’ve heard of her.”
Handa shuddered. “I’m not looking forward to that conversation.”
There was a pause as the two men looked at each other, Hiroshi’s hands encasing Handa’s. Cicadas chirped around them. The dim street light gave Handa’s light skin a soft glow and his eyes sparkled as he looked at him. Hiroshi looked away and bit his lip. His cheeks were flushed. “So are we… together now?”
Handa’s skin turned pink. “I don’t know. I don’t know how these things work.”
Hiroshi chuckled. “Neither.” He squeezed Handa’s hands. “But I know I like you.”
Handa looked at his feet. “I like you too.”
Hiroshi put a finger under Handa’s chin and raised his head so he could look into his eyes. “That’s enough for me.” He leaned in and pressed a kiss to Handa’s lips. Handa softened like pottery clay under Hiroshi’s lips and he wrapped his arms around Hiroshi’s neck, kissing him back. “Four kisses in one day, I’m a lucky guy,” Hiroshi grinned as they parted.
“Go home already!” Handa pushed him towards the gate.
Hiroshi raised Handa’s fingers to his lips and kissed them, before releasing his hand and walking backwards to the street while waving goodbye. Handa waved back and remained standing at the door long after Hiroshi had vanished into the darkness. He felt as if he was floating on his back in the ocean, gently being borne up and down by the rolling waves. It was incredible to think that he owed all the astounding events of the evening to Miwa and Tama and their ridiculous game.
Handa smiled to himself. As it turned out, he had more courage than he had thought.