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Zee is hopping on one foot, already shirtless, flailing his twiggy leg around to shuck the sticky pair of jeans off where it clung to his ankle. Despite the last wisps of the sunset sinking below the horizon, Donovan catches the rosy sunburn on the back of Zee’s neck, the clean line that separates the tinged red tan from the clear, lighter brown right under where the hem of his T shirt began.

He tries and fails to hide his snickering, seeing as Zee turns on his heels and fixes Donovan with a frown that’s almost comically offended. Zee opens his mouth to protest - only to stumble on a twig and fall directly onto his ass.

“Don’t laugh!” Zee yelps, indignant and pointless in shushing Donovan’s resounding howls. His hand flits across the grass surrounding him, curling his fingers around the nearest throwable object he can find.

Donovan easily doges the sand dollar lobbed his way. “It’s like I’m watching a grandpa trying to do the stanky leg into nudity,” he snorts.

“Man, screw you, this isn’t easy. For the record, I’ve got heatstroke!”

“Your excuse every time, I’m sure.” He’s big enough to admit he deserves the pebble that hits him square on his bicep as he squats down to untie his laces. At the very least, it’s simpler to focus on the improvised slapstick and peeling sunburns than to reflect on the fact an almost naked Zee Hatcher was sitting right beside him.

A sputter and shout sounds itself about thirty feet in front of him, looking up in time to see Alex slip waist deep into sea water. From this distance Donovan can still see the tremor that wracks through Alex’s body as he tiptoes inch by inch into the water. The flex of muscles as Alex rolls his shoulders and tenses against the cold.

Fucking - shit.” Alex’s voice tapers off into something Donovan can’t catch. Alex turns to face the other two boys, his expression set into a sobering grimace and arms wrapped tight around his torso.

“Still as warm as you promised it would be, huh Alex?” Zee teases, yet still undaunted as he pulls his remaining sock off his foot. “I can tell by the baby carrot in the water.” He chuckles heartily while Alex hunches over, waving two trembling middle fingers in Zee’s direction.

Zee tears past the beach in his boxers, sand and debris whipping into the air under each step like mini explosions. With one long ‘whoop!’ Zee charges into the water, Alex shrieking in response as Zee splashes into him, attempting to tackle Alex and drag him down with him.

Donovan takes this moment to reflect on how the fuck he got dragged into an impromptu swim in the ocean just as the sun and temperature started sinking.

Then again, he thinks of the mischief glinting in Alex’s eyes, the giddiness that bloomed across Zee’s face as the two pitched the idea to him during lunch. How apparent he could feel Alex’s knee press against his own underneath the table, the fond graze of Zee’s delicate hand on his shoulder.

There’s absolutely no way those two could force Donovan into doing what he didn’t want to do.

He clutches at the hem of his T-shirt and strips in one fell swoop.

Asked and answered.

He’s shimmied his pants down to his thighs when a whistle cuts through the air. In the water, Zee is just a head bobbing neck deep in the water, Alex still standing straight and rigid - albeit soaked, and the intensity of their combined stares causes a breath to catch in Donovan’s throat.

Donovan stands upright, cocking an eyebrow at the two, laughing quietly. “A picture lasts longer, y’know.”

Zee chokes on air, and a little bit of salt water. Alex snorts, his face betraying himself within a couple redder shades of pink. A coy grin blooms across Alex’s face, “I think we’re just wondering if Big D lives up to his name.”

Doubled over in laughter, the thought to wear his pants into the water out of pettiness briefly flits across Donovan’s mind, immediately drowned out by the absolute audacity of every word out of Alex’s mouth.

Zee wheezes his glee as he stands up right and clears his chest of ingested ocean, Alex sputtering with his face in his hands, slowly sinking down into the water to hide in his embarrassment.

Wiping the tears from his eyes, Donovan regains his composure, turning his back to the two, much to the protests of disappointment aimed at his back. His pants at this point sunken and gathered around his knees. Behind him is a splash followed by another loud and appreciative wolf whistle. The stupidest flutter of pride spurs in his chest in response.

Carefully maintaining his balance, he shimmies the rest of the way out of his pants, kicking them haphazardly into the pile where the rest of his clothing lay. Despite how humid and thick the air was, a breeze still had him shivering.

Cupping his hands over his pride, he turns on his heels and walks through the transition of the patchy dirt into the sandy banks lining the water. Zee boos him as he approaches, shaking his head. “Where’s the main event?”

“Not everyone wants to dunk their dick into an ice pool. Give me a second,” he replies, sucking in a breath as his foot sinks into a dip in the sand, the cold lapping up his legs with each step. Gritting his teeth, he grimaces at Alex, “What made you think this would be fucking warmer at night?”

Alex raises his hands defensively, as he treads water on the spot, eyeing Zee warily. “It’s been soaking out in the sun all day, in theory it’s supposed to be soaking in all the heat too.  We could’ve showed up at six in the morning when it was really freezing.”

“Yeah, I’ll show you freez- Jesus Christ!” Donovan swore, taking another awkward step into a deeper dip, sinking hip deep into the water. He found himself doubling over again, waiting out the initial shock to mellow out into a cohesive numbness.

“You just have to dunk yourself completely underwater and it’s fine,” Zee pipes up so much further away now, already chin deep in the water, hair plastered down slick on his head. “Once you do yourself a dirty dunk you can actually get over all of it.”

Donovan raises a brow. “I get the feeling that that’s something one of your siblings told you after they pushed you into the pool one time to excuse themselves.”

Alex laughs at that, but paddles out further into the water with ease. “Zee kinda has a point there though, D. This isn’t too bad.”

Donovan takes only another half inch step into the water, perfectly content to work it through his own pace, thank you very much.

Pebbles and jagged sticks bite into the soles of his feet, muddy sand curling between his toes, yet he can’t force himself to be miserable over it. He takes a wide stride, the resistance against his step slowing him down, as he studies the scattered moonlight against each ripple of dark water. The boys swim out further into the murky darkness with each step he takes, only to linger with a patience meant to coax him closer to them, chasing away his apprehension with eager smiles and laughs.

He can’t quite bring himself to breach his head underwater yet, but by the time he’s able to push his feet off the ground, he transitions to actually swimming, finally somewhat appreciative of the coolness of the water lapping across his chest and easing the soreness of his joints.

Donovan flips sides to float on his back, blinking away the salt in his eyes as he stares up into the sky. The moon peeks behind a small curl of nighttime clouds, otherwise surrounded by stars and constellations none of which he remembers by name, but only by the memories of following his mother tracing their connections by finger in the astronomy books she borrowed for him. He never really knew how he felt about religion, but his mom was a praying woman, and she’d always look to the heavens whenever she did.

It’s a wonder, really, Donovan thinks. It’s a shame he never had a chance to see it like this when he was younger.

Deft fingers seize his sides. Donovan flails ungracefully, splashing, and if his voice had gone an octave higher than he realised possible, that’s between him, God, and the sea water crashing into his face and flooding his lungs.

A set of hands steady him upright by the shoulders in the water, another thumping his back as he hacks up mouthfuls of sea water. He squints to see Zee burning brighter red than his sunburn, his name tumbling out of his lips between squeaky apologies. Alex appears in the corner of his vision, just as sheepish as Donovan register’s Alex’s warm hand rubbing between his shoulder blades.

( And damn it Zee , Donovan secretly thinks, he got a point about getting over a dunk .)

“I thought you were going to hear Zee before he got to you,” Alex admits.

“Technically, Alex, this means I win the bet, but,” Zee mumbles, eyes darting back and forth between boys, lingering on Donovan for good measure. “I’m glad you didn’t end up drinking half the ocean there.”

“See if I…” - Donovan coughs. “See if I go swimming with you assholes again.” He jerks his chin up towards the view of the speckled skyline, and coughs once more. “Maybe I just want to appreciate nature without being on alert of a tiny American shark going for my ribcage with his twig fingers.”

Zee opens his mouth to protest this accusation, yelping as Donovan unleashes a wave of water into his face with a grand sweep of his arm before submerging underwater to make a hasty retreat from Zee’s retaliation.

Donovan pops back up just a few feet away, sticking out his tongue and flipping Zee off with both hands. Blows a wet raspberry for effect. Only briefly can Donovan register the sound of Alex’s roaring laughter and wipe an arm across his eyes before eying the dark figure of Zee charging after him, haphazardly kicking up a storm along with him.

“You pulled me underwater!” Donovan shouts, paddling backwards.

“So what?”

“You started it!” Ducking back under the surface, Donovan cuts a breaststroke through the waves, squinting to navigate the murky depths as his eyes sting furiously. He breaches with a gasp and finds that he’s circled back around to Alex, who spots him immediately.

“Nah, nah, nah, nope, I’m not a fucking human shield!” Alex swears, shaking his head and kissing his teeth loudly as Donovan reaches out for his arm.

It all descends into chaos as Zee catches up with them, half hearted warnings lost beneath giddy giggles and unceremonious splashes, sharp torrents piercing the gentle lull of waves rolling onto shore. It feels almost poetic - three boys in a exhilarating, uncoordinated dance of give and chase underneath moonlight in the expanse of the ocean. The swearing keeps them humble, though.

Somewhere towards the end of all this, Donovan finds himself stumbling close to shore, sluggish in strides with the water pulling all around him, his own exhaustion weighing him down.

To his left he feels an arm hook around his and there’s Zee leaning against him, a little too spent to crack any jokes or japes, but his smile is as warm and grounding as the boy himself is. To his right, a warm hand curls around his. He knows its Alex without looking, but when he does he finds Alex’s tired eyes white and sparkling against the dark.

All three collapse in a heap in the sand, far enough away from the shore as to not worry about the tide lapping at their feet. Zee still clings to his arm, Alex with an arm draped across Donovan’s chest as their slight shivers subside, immediately consumed by the intense summer heat. Sand coats their backs, coarse, sticky, and Donovan grimaces at the prospect of spending all next week gradually washing it off of him and out of his hair.

“You think anybody will notice we’re out?” Alex asks quietly, lifting his head up to regard the other two.

Donovan tuts at this, using his thumb to swipe off a section of the thin layer of sand sticking to Alex’s cheek. “I’d reckon it would be a challenge given we’re coming back with half the beach on us.”

“Since when has that stopped us before?” Zee points out.

“I mean… I guess,” Donovan says with a shrug. “I’m not taking the heat by myself if seaweed falls out of my pants though.”

“C’mon, don’t narc,” Zee snickers, nudging Donovan’s shoulder with his own. “Especially if you’re gonna narc without a collaborating witness featuring yours truly to get Alex in the shits.”

Alex throws his hands into the air in pure exasperation, purposely sprinkling more sand above him as he does. “Unbelievable. This is how our relationship ends - turned against by my best mates for my very good idea, this is how you do me in.”

Zee and Donovan cast each other a lingering glance for a couple of seconds before regarding Alex and nodding somberly in unison.

The sky is clear, the moon ever present and grounding as hysterical laughter erupts from all three boys, accompanying the natural crash of waves and the beat of their hearts winding down from the residual rushes of adrenaline.