The first time it happens, Haruka’s by the river, a stained, light brown muffler just beyond his right fingertips.
He’s burning up. Everything’s hazy, and the water, the water is foreign and that scares him most of all - instead of welcoming him, healing him, it’s muddy and cold and he knows with a dead, calm certainty that if he falls into it, it will claim his life.
Haruka leans forward to grab the muffler.
His foot slips on the riverbank.
He reaches out with his left hand, scrabbling desperately, but there’s only empty air there and he falls into the water headfirst, to the sound of Aki’s screams from the shore -
Everything goes dark.
This is bad, thinks Haruka. Makoto will kill me.
Ah - wait -
The fever flares up within Haruka, hot, hotter than ever in the icy chill of the water. He feels like he’s floating in another world.
I’m already dead.
Silent visions fly through Haruka’s mind, broken and disjointed.
He sees his small, helpless body, still in its school uniform, drifting down the river. He sees Aki wailing, tears streaming down her face. He sees the bright red lights of an ambulance. He sees a stranger's lips coming close to his to perform CPR, and he wants to laugh at the absurdity, but he’s dead. His world is soundless, voiceless. He sees them covering him with a blanket on a stretcher.
The image blurs, and suddenly he sees himself in the water again, washing up where the current meets the shore.
He sees Makoto bent over him. They’re alone in the sand, with the night sky behind them, constellations of stars illuminating the deep blue. Makoto’s eyes are dry.
Makoto’s not crying, even though I’m dead?
Haruka looks closer, staring at Makoto from behind lifeless eyelids, and he realises that Makoto’s not crying because Makoto is dead as well. There’s no expression on his face, only blankness, and it’s like someone turned out the light behind his eyes. The emerald green’s lost all its shine.
The dead-alive Makoto gets up and walks away. He’s moving. He’s breathing. But there’s nothing left within him, no spark of life. He’s an empty shell with the spirit snuffed out like a flame in the wind.
No, thinks Haruka. No. Makoto. No. Don’t die like this.
Then a blazing light sears Haruka’s vision, and his eyes fly open.
Haruka’s by the river, a stained, light brown muffler just beyond his right fingertips.
I’ve been here before.
His gaze flickers to the side, taking in his surroundings. The grass, the mud, the low-hanging branches, the dust swirling in the shallow waters lapping at his feet.
I was just here.
In a daze, Haruka takes a step forward, and the dizziness takes him again. The world spins on its axis for a second. The grass feels like it’s growing longer beneath his feet. He tumbles, and falls down the embankment. Aki is screaming. Haruka goes numb with incomprehension.
This… this just happened.
And then it’s like Haruka’s mind switches off, and his body takes over, acting on its own. It pivots on one foot and tilts to the side, switching hands, so his left hand’s reaching for the scarf, and his right hand leans back instead.
Why am I doing this? What’s going on?
His left hand grabs hold of the thin strip of fabric, drifting on the water’s surface, and his feet lose their balance on the loose gravel of the bank. He slips.
Everything goes dark.
Something clicks inside Haruka, like a puzzle piece snapping into place.
The last thing he remembers before Makoto shows up is stretching, stretching his right hand back for dear life, and grabbing hold of the few blades of dead grass by the riverside.
After Makoto and Matsuoka leave him in the hospital, Haruka pinches himself. It doesn’t hurt, at first. Perhaps the medication is dulling his senses. Or perhaps it really was just a dream after all?
“They said it was a miracle you made it, Haru. That you didn’t just fall in and get swept away. You had such a high fever…”
Makoto’s voice, running through his head, cracking a little behind the smile.
A miracle, huh.
He tries pinching again, harder, and this time he feels it. That’s going to leave a bruise.
Haruka can’t make any sense of what happened by the riverbank, so he chalks it up to a weird, influenza-induced hallucination, and tries to fall asleep while thinking nothing further of it.
The second time it happens, Haruka is running down the road alongside the coast, towards the lighthouse, and the street lights are coming on one by one.
Makoto’s mom had called him after he got back from the SC, and said that Makoto had gone out and hadn’t come back yet. His bicycle’s still at the bottom of the stone steps.
The uneasy feeling in the pit of Haruka’s stomach twists, and churns.
Where would Makoto go, once the sun sets? Makoto is scared of the dark.
Makoto is scared of the water.
Haruka turns away from the lighthouse and back towards town instead. He pops into the SC, which is just about to close; Coach Sasabe says he hasn’t seen Makoto all day. He pops into the shop where they always buy popsicles. He pops into the mall, running around the swimwear section for a while. He even runs over to school to see if Makoto is there, for some reason, but the gates are closed and he can’t glimpse anyone in the courtyard through the high metal bars.
Haruka is out of breath, and the sky is pitch dark now.
How many places can there be to hide in a small port town?
There’s only the water left.
Haruka runs back towards the beach. He retraces his steps on the road he was taking. The lighthouse illuminates the surface of the water, and suddenly, Haruka sees him at the far end of the beach.
A figure, standing waist-deep in the water. Walking forward slowly, tide coming in.
“Makoto!” Haruka shouts, at the top of his lungs.
He runs. He runs so fast he falls over and skins his knees on the rough pavement. He gets up, winces in pain, and tries to move, but there’s a trickle of blood running down his shin and his legs feel like jelly all of a sudden.
“Makoto!” Haruka calls out again, limping, cursing himself. “Makoto!”
Makoto’s head turns. Haruka can’t see his face clearly, but he hears his voice. It’s empty and dull and chillier than the sea breeze. “Haru…”
“Makoto, what are you - ”
Just then, a huge wave comes crashing in, and Makoto falls into the water.
Time freezes for Haruka the moment he hears the splash of Makoto’s body hitting the sea.
No, Makoto. No. Don’t die like this.
The deja vu slams into Haruka like a tsunami. He blinks.
Time unfreezes. Everything around him starts to move, again, in slow motion, and Haruka sees Makoto disappear, bit by bit, beneath the dark choppy waters. His arm is the last thing to vanish, fingers reaching up in silent desperation as the ocean, the place he fears most, finally takes him once and for all.
Haruka’s feet are stuck where they are. His bleeding knee gives way, and he crumples on the spot.
No! he thinks, fiercely, squeezing his eyes shut.
The world stops.
The world spins.
Haruka is running down the road alongside the coast, towards the lighthouse, and the street lights are coming on one by one.
This time, he doesn’t even stop to think or ask stupid questions. He doesn’t stop to pinch himself. He doesn’t waste time running up to town.
Haruka keeps moving, straight towards the beach. Dusk is falling.
The lighthouse grows bigger in his vision. His heart pounds in his chest, louder than his footsteps, echoing through the empty port. “Makoto!” he calls, as the lighthouse’s beam hits the dim silhouette at the very edge of the beach, but Makoto doesn't hear him. He keeps running.
Haruka’s body goes on autopilot again. Just like it did, last time. He dashes forward, avoiding the cracks in the road; he still can’t run as fast as he wants to, as fast as his feelings will take him, but at least he doesn’t fall over and hurt himself.
The lighthouse shines on Makoto once more, and the wave of relief running through Haruka nearly makes him collapse.
Makoto’s not in the water. He’s standing still by the shore, facing the sea. The tide is nearly at his feet. But not yet. Not yet.
Haruka’s made it in time, this time round.
Running with all his might, he shouts again. “Makoto!”
Makoto turns to him.
As Haruka runs up to him, drawing near, the haunted, hollow look in Makoto’s eyes burns a hole straight into his chest, wedging itself in the dark recesses of Haruka’s heart.
I moved time and space for you, Makoto. I changed the world, thinks Haruka as he faces Makoto's vacant gaze head on.
Don’t you dare take a step further.
Later that night, much later, when Makoto’s safely at home and Haruka’s stopped shaking, he lies in bed, sleepless. His fingers reach absently towards a spot on his arm, rubbing a phantom bruise that had taken a week to clear last time.
So. It’s like this, is it?
Haruka doesn’t even know what like this is. He doesn’t know what all this means. He’s pretty sure he’s not an alien, or a time traveller, or anything but a scrawny, helpless, uncertain teenage boy who sometimes ends up treating his best friend like shit even though he never means to.
Makoto… how could you think I would be okay without you?
How could you think about going someplace I wasn’t around?
Nothing makes sense in this world. Nothing.
Only the fact that Makoto is here in it, together with him, and they’re both alive and breathing, right now.
The third time it happens, Haruka is asleep in a tent.
The wind is wailing like a banshee, and there’s a raging downpour beating down on the thin canvas. He hears Nagisa snoring lightly next to him, an elbow thrown over Haruka's back, and Haruka can’t help smiling a little at how the younger boy seems entirely impervious to any and all forces of nature determined to beat hapless campers into submission.
Nagisa himself should be classified as a force of nature, thinks Haruka.
Then he hears it. It sounds like a voice, drifting towards him on the edge of the storm, barely audible above the thunder that follows right behind.
The first thing he thinks is Makoto.
That’s Makoto’s voice.
Haruka sits up.
Next to him, Nagisa stirs. “Haru-chan?”
“Did you hear that?” Haruka asks.
“Hear what?” asks Nagisa, rubbing his eyes.
“Huh?” Nagisa stares at him in bleary uncertainty. “I didn’t hear anything…”
Haruka sits in silence for a few breaths. Outside, the wind continues to howl.
“I guess it was nothing,” he says eventually, and lies back down.
In the morning, when Makoto and Rei’s tent is found empty, and Nagisa is a reckless bundle of nerves that's frantic to do something, anything, and it’s all Gou can do in between crying jags to keep Nagisa from throwing himself in the water to look for their missing friends, and Amakata-sensei has run off to the Coast Guard and hasn’t come back, and Rin’s come running down from the lodge where Samezuka are staying because he found out somehow, and Haruka stares out at the sea, calm and sparkling and blue and monstrous -
He can’t breathe. He can’t speak.
He sits by the shore, hugging his knees close, listening to the sound of Nagisa’s keening behind him. The knot in his chest tightens. It’s like his lungs are filling with water.
Rin’s footstep sounds from behind him then, and he feels a hand on his shoulder.
Haruka looks up, to see Amakata-sensei approaching from a distance, walking very slowly, two uniformed men with her, and a lifeless figure draped in their arms -
Haruka is sick to his stomach. He bends over and heaves, but it’s dry, and nothing comes up.
No, Makoto. No.
Before he can even complete the thought, his eyes are squeezed shut again, and he finds himself ready and waiting this time, for the blinding light and that feeling of the universe twisting inside out, upside down -
Haruka is asleep in a tent.
He’s listening for it. He’s on high alert. His eyes are closed, his breathing is light, and he shuts out the sound of Nagisa beside him.
Haruka sits bolt upright.
“Haru-chan?” Nagisa mumbles.
“Did you hear it?”
“That voice,” says Haruka, firmly, this time. He’s wide awake, and he knows what he’s doing.
Ignoring Nagisa’s incoherent, bleary protests, Haruka opens the flap of their tent. The rain comes lashing at his face, and he shields himself uselessly with his arm as he goes over to Makoto and Rei’s tent.
“Makoto?” he calls, knowing with a sick certainty there won’t be an answer. But he has to try anyway.
He bends down and peers inside the empty tent. Nagisa comes over to join him. “What’s wrong… Huh, they’re gone?”
Haruka reaches out and puts a palm on the sleeping bags. “Still warm.”
It’s not too late. I’m in time.
Nagisa yawns. “Maybe they went to the toilet?”
Haruka doesn’t even bother to respond to this. He stands up, and looks around, in faint hope that he’s somehow made it before they ever hit the water, that maybe Rei and Makoto are somewhere on the beach. Like the last time, when he’d found Makoto on the edge of the shore, before the tide came in…
But there’s no one in sight. With a sinking heart, Haruka turns around to face the sea.
“What is it?” asks Nagisa.
A flash of lightning sears the sky. Haruka’s eyes narrow, then widen. He'd known what he'd see. He gasps anyway, the shock seizing him for one awful, terrible moment.
Rei’s in the water. Makoto’s in the water.
Haruka dashes towards the roaring waves, dimly aware of yelling at Nagisa to go get Amakata-sensei. His pulse pounds in his veins as he leaps into the sea.
There’s only one way that any of this makes any sense.
The world has plans for Haruka and Makoto, and they do not end now, not so soon.
The world that Makoto lives in is a patchwork of timelines, written and rewritten around Haruka.
The world that Haruka lives in falls apart whenever Makoto disappears, the very fabric of his existence folding in upon itself like a black hole.
The world that Makoto and Haruka live in cannot exist without the other in it.
“I’m going to a university in Tokyo.”
“Do whatever you want!”
The words ring in Haruka’s ears as he takes off down the beach at a dead sprint. Away from Makoto, away from Nagisa and Rei, away from the teeming mass of humanity, away from the weight of the world on his shoulders, though some part of him knows that he could run forever and there'd be no escape from the last.
He doesn’t look back. He keeps on moving.
There’s nowhere he can swim. The sea is - well - full of lanterns. It's late. Iwatobi SC Returns is closed. Without being able to lose himself in the water, out here, exposed on the edge of the shore, Haruka feels like he’s drowning in the humid summer night. The air is choking him.
A sudden wave of exhaustion comes over Haruka, and he comes to a sharp halt, gasping for breath. He’s at the far end of the beach, near the lighthouse where he’d found Makoto all those years ago.
He’d saved Makoto, back then; perhaps Makoto had saved him too, just by continuing to live in his world.
But now -
This isn’t how things are supposed to go.
No, Makoto. No.
This isn’t how his world works. This isn’t how Makoto’s world is supposed to work. Haruka feels the bile burning in his throat, and he swallows, the fiery feeling making his stomach churn. He looks up at the lighthouse. Reflexively, he closes his eyes.
He thinks of Makoto letting go of his wrist, Makoto’s receding figure, down the forked paths of their future. Walking away, further and further from Haruka, until he’s nothing more than a pinprick on the horizon.
Haruka shuts his eyes tighter, harder than he’s ever done before, throwing his whole heart into this one wish.
Don’t go away.
Haruka opens one eye slowly, then the other. He’s still alone at the end of the beach. He looks down at his wrist, and the imprints of Makoto’s fingers are still there.
The world hasn’t changed.
A cold feeling washes over Haruka as he stands, rooted to the spot, watching the lights float away on the sea in the distance. Perhaps, he thinks, it’s because there isn’t any death involved this time, perhaps this thing only works when it's literal life and death at stake…
But that feeling in his gut doesn’t go away. It gets worse, twisting sharply.
And Haruka thinks with a dread certainty, the world didn’t change this time because this is how it’s meant to be, now.
The world is moving on. The world is racing forward, tearing into two, ripping down the middle, and Haruka’s stuck where he is without Makoto, and the world is telling him that that's how it is, this is his new reality, the dream is over -
Haruka shudders, waking into a living nightmare, a silent scream at the back of his throat.
He takes the long road home that night. He walks through the town till it's nearly dawn. The sun rises so early in summer, and it's scorching.
It's a new day by the time Haruka tumbles into bed and curls up in his blankets.
The world still hasn't changed.
It's a new day.
The world hasn't ended, either.
Haruka can't comprehend what this means - what anything means - anymore. He almost sleeps right through the insistent ringing of his doorbell. When he answers it in a daze, and Rin tells him they're going to Australia, it barely even occurs to Haruka that there's anything weird about this.
As he boards the plane, he looks back at Japan. He closes his eyes, squeezing them shut one last time.
He opens them.
He's still there, in the tunnel leading to the aircraft, with Rin chattering about some nonsense at his side.
And Haruka almost starts laughing, uncontrollably, manically; he thinks, well.
If the world won't change for me anymore -
I'll just have to go and change it myself, then.