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The first semester of university flies by, and soon enough Pran is returning home for the two-month-long summer break. He leaves most of his things at his dorm so he comes back relatively empty-handed, carrying only one bag filled with snacks and essentials. When the cab drops him off, his mother – who'd taken a half-day off of work to welcome him back – already looks on the verge of tears.

"My sweet, sweet boy," she coos, patting his face. "It's been too long."

"Mom. It's only been a few months."

"Too long," she repeats, fixing his hair. "What do you want for dinner? We'll have whatever you want." 

"How about something to pair with Madam Dissaya's world-famous hot sauce?"  

"My perfect, perfect boy," she coos, and Pran automatically readies a smile. "Your father will be home early tonight. We have so much to catch up on."

It doesn't take long for Pran to get settled. His bedroom is more bare than his dorm, but it has the basics. His bed. His desk. His clothes. He opens the curtains and sees the house next door, Pat's balcony only a jump away from his own. He closes his curtains and heads downstairs. 

Pran helps his mother with dinner. He's good at cooking, but he doesn't have the motivation for it at his dorm. At home, he's his mother's assistant in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and reaching for pots on high shelves. She doesn't make small talk while she works, but Pran likes it that way. There's something satisfying in watching her sprinkle spices in the sauce pan, dice onions without shedding a tear. 

When his father returns from work, he brings home a small cake. 

"The bakery was on the way," he explains, except Pran knows that's a lie. The cake is from his favorite bakery, which is on the other side of town. 

"Save it for later, honey," his mother says sternly. "Pran, set up the tableware."

"Yes, ma'am."

Dinner is good. Pran has missed home cooked meals. She makes all his favorites and then some. There's something about rice from his home's rice cooker that tastes monumentally better than what they serve around the university. 

They mostly talk about Pran's university life and how he's adjusting. He doesn't need to lie as he describes how much fun he's having. He talks about his classes and how his professors seem to like him. He talks about his new friends: Wai, Safe, and Louis, as well as the many other acquaintances. He talks about all the nice restaurants and cafés he's found, and he assures his parents he's eating three square meals a day. He talks about not needing to use his gift and how good it feels to be normal.

His parents talk about their own lives at home, despite Pran having heard many of the same stories over their phone calls. He still smiles as they speak, because a phone call can't translate his father pushing up his glasses mid-sentence or how his mother scrunches her nose at a particularly annoying memory.

Over a slice of strawberry cake, his mother's story about finding a deal at the jewelry store gets interrupted by a booming bass noise coming from next door. She scrunches her nose.

"The neighbors are at it again," she grumbles. "Don't they know that no one wants to hear their ruckus at the dinner table?"

"Pat is back from university, too," Pran says, attempting to ease the situation. He realizes right away that it does the opposite.

"Don't get me started on that, Pran. The moment I heard their son was going to the same university as you, I swear I–" She stops herself as Pat's father places his hand over hers. "I was not pleased."

"I barely see him," Pran lies. "He's a different major, too."

"Nothing good can come about when you're with that family. I had half a mind to transfer you again, but I remembered how set you were attending this school, and–" His mother sighs. "If that boy tries to bother you, report him to the police."

"Dear, that's a bit extreme," his father says placatingly. "Just avoid him, Pran. You know how it is."

Pran nods, moving the rice grains around his plate. "Got it."

After dinner, Pran retires to his room. Next door still sounds like a nightclub, and he has no idea why. Although, there's an easy way to find out. "Easy" being the relative word, because after Pran sends the text he has a small meltdown during the six minutes it takes for Pat to respond.

🚿 (20:55)
why is ur house so loud

🚒 (21:01)
my parents bought a karaoke machine omg

🚿 (21:02)
???

🚒 (21:04)
we're karaoking!!!!! 

🚿 (21:06)
if it's like this all night my parents will be in their rights to call the cops on u. like... actually.

🚒 (21:08)
yea but karaoke :( is so fun :(

🚿 (21:09)
🚓🚓🚓

🚒 (21:11)
fine i'll try to get them to stop

🚒 (21:15)
after i sing one more song REALLY LOUDLY!!!!!!!!

Hearing the electric guitar riff in Kill la Kill's "Before My Body is Dry" through the glass of his window is not something he'd anticipated for his first night back home. Pran can say that Pat has continuously surprised him, and once the song ends and the music goes silent, he can also say that Pat is a man of his word.

––

Pran's birthday always falls a few weeks into the summer break. He's never been one for holidays or celebrations, so the day starts off like any other. He wakes up, gets dressed, and eats breakfast. His parents are at work, so he's left at home by himself. He doesn't have much to do inside, so he decides to take a walk through the town, bag slung over his shoulder. 

He ends up spending his time at a café with a sketchbook and a cappuccino. He keeps one earbud in, the other listening to the background of the shop. The sound of the coffee grinder, the chopping of hazelnuts, the ding of the cash register. Pran loves ASMR, and the natural soundtrack of a quiet café is just the white noise that relaxes him. 

In the evening, his parents take him to a fancy buffet. They invite some family friends and close relatives, so Pran's birthday is an excuse to catch up with them. Most of them Pran is on good terms with, while others are questionable at best but mean well. He doesn't mind the turnout; his parents are happy to be around friends, so he's happy. Pran also loves expensive food he doesn't have to pay for, so that's a plus, too. 

When they get back home, Pran stays in his room. He's tuckered out from the loud, boisterous dinner and is wrapping up his day before he heads to bed. He's putting away his sketchbook when he hears something hitting his window. Concerned, he pulls back his curtain and sees Pat, poised to throw what looks to be a gummy bear, which Pran surmises from the candy casualties on the ground.

"Pran," Pat calls from his balcony, a yell disguised as a whisper.

Pran opens his window. "What do you want?"

Pat waves his phone in the air, pointing and exaggeratedly mouthing the words, "Check it."

Once he finds his phone, Pran checks his texts.

🚒 (23:00)
made u look

Pran doesn't laugh, biting his lip. He looks back at Pat and huffs, "Seriously?"

"It's funny," Pat snickers. Pran goes to shut his windows, but Pat shouts, "Hold on–" 

"My parents will hear you," Pran hisses.

Pran freezes. "I'll be quick," he whisper-yells, and Pran wants to face-palm. "Just– Hold out your hands." 

"What?"

"I promise it's not bad," Pat whines. "Please?"

Hesitant, Pran does as instructed. He watches as Pat reaches down to lift what looks like a handheld hot air balloon onto the ledge of the window. Pat snaps his finger, causing a small flame to inflate the balloon, and he releases it into the air. It's guided by the gentle push Pat had given it. When the basket lands on Pran's open hands, the flame is snapped out and the balloon deflates. 

"Ta-dah," beams Pat. "Cool, right? I'm mixing engineering with fire. It's my secret side project." 

"You wanted to brag about your new skills to me?" Pran says, a questioning lilt in his tone, and Pat grins widely. It's beyond cool, but he's not going to tell Pat that. He sees an object wrapped in newspaper inside the basket and frowns. "What's this?"

"Open it – but be careful."

Once again, Pran does as instructed, with a confused emphasis on being careful. He unwraps the newspaper and discovers a glass paperweight. It's ocean-blue, shaped like a whale. When he looks up to question Pat about it, he scrambles backwards when he realizes Pat is right outside his window. 

"Did you– Did you just climb up here?"

"Yup," Pat says, jumping inside Pran's room. He glances at the paperweight in Pran's hands and says, "I saw it in the store, and I thought you would–"

"You got me a birthday present?" Pran interjects, stunned.

"Oh, is it your birthday today?" Pat teases. Pran kicks at his shin. "I'm joking! Happy birthday, Pran." He pokes the whale's head. "It looks like you."

"This is a fish," Pran declares.

"No, this is a whale, which is an aquatic mammal," Pat corrects. 

"How does a whale look like me?"

"It has dimples," Pat explains. The whale does indeed have a dimpled smile, barely indented in the glass. 

"It has dimples," Pran echoes. 

"Do you like it?" Pat looks nervous asking it as well as nervous awaiting Pran's answer.

Does he like it? Pran wishes he could hate Pat. He wishes and wishes he could, and yet Pat does something like this and– 

How could he ever hate Pat?

"You're ridiculous," Pran remarks, but Pat must detect the fond exasperation that slips through the insult.

"You can drop it in your fish tank at the dorm," Pat suggests. "It'll give it some life."

"Thanks," Pran says. He can't think of a witty comeback or cynical comment, so he doesn't trust himself to say anything more. 

The floorboards below his room creak, and Pran's blood grows cold. Pat gets the hint and moves to the window. 

"Goodnight, birthday boy," he whispers. 

Pran bites his lip. "Goodnight, Pat."

When Pat climbs out the window, he doesn't turn back around, which means he doesn't see Pran watching him until he stumbles back into his own room.

––

Pat is a simpleminded fellow. Summer break means a break during the summer, which means no schoolwork or productivity of any kind. When he returned home, he'd thrown his backpack across the living room and raided the pantry for snacks. He threw a fireball at Pa, also on break as a high school senior, who shrieked as it flew through the air and extinguished before it could reach her. She sent him a shock in retaliation, and they didn't stop fighting until their father bent a ladle getting their attention.

And they had karaoke! Which is tacky, but still the best activity to do with a mother that can literally remember every song she's ever listened to but can't carry a tune. Pat loves his mother, he loves his father, and, even though Pa is annoying all the time, he loves her, too. 

It's weird how he loves them so much but can't bring himself to tell them the truth about Pran. The neighbors don't come up in conversation nowadays, if ever, but Pat is well-aware of his parents' feelings about them. The feud between the two households is something both he and Pran were born into, and it's something they've lived with all their lives.

Pat's parents had told him to keep away from the water-gifted boy and the family that brings them bad luck, except Pat can't seem to help himself. Growing up, he'd had encounters with Pran that weren't great, sure, but there was one miracle that overshadowed all that. Pran saving Pa in those waters put him in a new light, a different perspective, and Pat never really looked at him with the same blind hatred afterwards.

In sophomore year of high school, he thought he could be friends with Pran. He wanted to be friends, truthfully. They were in the same class, and the competitions between them had started to actually feel fun. During band practice for the holiday festival, they could even hold a normal conversation. Pran wasn't as cold towards him, then, and Pat swears he even made the other boy laugh in earnest. By the end of the year, Pat really thought he'd gotten through to him.

And then Pran was gone.

Pat had hidden Pran's guitar under his bed in case he ever came back to school, but he never did. Pat knocked on his bedroom window, but he never answered. It took Pat a while to realize Pran had been transferred out, and the news wasn't earth-shattering or life-changing; it was just news Pat had to live with, and that was that. He went about the rest of his high school life without a rival, without an enemy, without the boy next door to keep him on his toes – and things were fine. 

Things were fine, but Pat had a Pran-shaped hole in his day that he didn't know what to do with. 

When they met at university, Pat hadn't expected anything to happen. He'd enrolled into a normal university wanting to start anew, and Pran seemed to want the same. Pat thought he could push the reset on his relationship with Pran, too, but it looked like that ship had sailed for the water-gifted boy. And Pat was fine with that; he didn't need to bother or be bothered by Pran. Ignoring someone would be easy.

But life is funny sometimes. Life has thrown Pran and Pat into coincidence after coincidence, forcing them to interact often and in secret. Misunderstandings, mishaps, and mayhem have brought them closer together. It had even spurred Pat to return home and dig out the guitar under his bed to give back to Pran, after all this time, after all these years. He wanted to clear the air, to extend an olive branch in the form of a dusty instrument. 

And it worked. 

Maybe he and Pran aren't exactly friends, but they're something, so Pat will take what he can get.

–– 

These days, Pat games a lot. He's a night owl, so playing until dawn and waking up after noon is the ideal schedule for summer break. His PC set-up is decent, and their internet speed is fast thanks to Pa's electrical capabilities. He even gets her to charge his phone, though she only does so when she's doing her morning chores. 

Today, Pat is rudely awoken by his sister, who is raiding his room for dirty clothes.

"Hey, stinky," she grunts, kicking his bed. "Get up. I'm doing laundry."

Pat groans, "Can't you wait 'til I'm actually awake?"

"Can't you do your own laundry?" Pa counters. Begrudgingly, Pat rolls over and Pa grabs the clothes underneath him. "Thought so." 

"Thanks, sis," Pat says, only partially bitter.

As she's going around the room and throwing Pat's clothes in the hamper, she grumbles, "Even Pran thinks it's ridiculous I do this for you."

After hearing that, Pat is wide-awake now, sitting up and narrowing his eyes. "When'd you talk to him?" he questions. 

"When do you think? I ran into him when I was picking up your laundry." Pa scrunches her nose as she picks up a sweaty sock. "He told me not to tell the parents about him. I mean, they found out anyway, so I'm assuming you already know."

"Well, he's my neighbor," Pat mutters.

"Wait, really?" Pa blinks. "I didn't know that part."

Pat frowns. "You said you ran into him," he says, confused.

"He didn't say he lived there," Pa explains. "Wow, neighbors both at home and at school. Talk about soulmates. What are the odds?"

The same thought has crossed Pat's mind loads of times. It makes him wonder what's considered normal, because he and Pran are anything but. Two boys, core-gifted, from families that don't get along. He's toyed with the idea of the multiverse and what it would be like if a critical aspect of his life was changed. 

Would he and Pran still be rivals if they were both fire-gifted? Or if they were both girls? Or if their families were never unlucky neighbors to begin with? 

"Hypothetically," Pat begins. "What do you think would happen if we ever became friends? Me and Pran."

Pa hums. "The world wouldn't end," she says, "but our parents would be super pissed." She giggles to herself. "He'd probably tell you to clean your room better. I heard he's a clean freak."

"Yeah," Pat chuckles, and then he coughs. "I mean– yeah, he totally looks that way." He makes a grabby hand. "Give me my phone."

Rolling her eyes, Pa takes Pat's phone out of her pocket and throws it at him. "You can do this yourself, too," she whines.

"Your lightning's better than mine," Pat says, shrugging. "I'll treat you to ice cream."

"Two cones," Pa vows, and Pat nods. She pauses in the doorway. "And Dreamcatcher's new album." And then she leaves.

Pat lays back on his bed. He can feel his body warming up, the fire that may quite literally run through his veins keeping him awake. He reaches for his medicine bottle on his nightstand and takes a pill, swallowing it dry. After he cracks open his window, letting the cool summer air into his room, he flops back to stare lifelessly at the ceiling, approximately four hours of sleep fueling him. 

Then, he hears music. It's coming from outside, just loud enough for Pat to hear from his bedroom. It sounds like indie pop, emphasis on pop, because a sweet voice is singing along to the song, missing every other word and replacing gaps with hums or mumbles. 

Pat grabs his phone and sends a text. 

🚒 (9:24)
whatcha up to

And he gets a response almost immediately.

🚿 (9:25)
nothing

🚒 (9:26)
doesn't sound like it 🎵🎤👀

The music and singing stop. Pat frowns. 

🚿 (9:30)
creep

Pat scoffs.

🚒 (9:34)
ur window is open!! so is mine!!
it's hot in my room!!!
i'm getting fresh air!!!!!

🚿 (9:36)
did u set urself on fire again

That happened one time. And it was in third grade!

🚒 (9:37)
no i'm Naturally Hot 🔥

🚿 (9:38)
🤢🤢🤢

🚒 (9:40)
wow!!! the disrespect!!!!!

🚿 (9:41)
yeah don't catch me respecting you

Pat rolls his eyes. He gets out of bed and pulls on a shirt, stuffing his phone in his shorts and shuffling out the door to find food. The air smells like pancakes and bacon, which means it's the weekend and his dad has cooked breakfast. Pat never wakes up early for the first meal of the day, so he hopes there's enough for him.

When he walks into the dining room, he sees his parents dancing in the kitchen. There isn't any music playing, only the sounds of sizzling bacon and coffee brewing, but that doesn't stop them. They hold each other's hands, stepping back and forth along the tiles. It's a senseless morning waltz, and Pat grimaces when his mother nuzzles his father's nose with her own.

"Gross," he comments loudly.

"It's called being in love, dear," his father says, spinning his wife around before hugging her close. "It makes you do silly things."

"You'll know once you fall in love," his mother giggles, kissing her husband's cheek.

"Know what?"

"You'll know," his father repeats, as if stressing a word can suddenly make Pat understand the meaning of it.

Pat serves himself breakfast and tries not to lose his appetite at the sight of his lovey-dovey parents. He brings his plate to his room, setting it on his desk as he boots up his PC. He's chewing on a sausage link when he notices something sitting on his balcony. 

He goes over to find a water balloon the size of his hand filled with water and ice cubes. There's also a note taped to it. 

because your room is hot
close your window
creep :p

Pat lets out a laugh. Pran can't control ice, which means he had to have taken the extra step to his kitchen, gotten an ice tray out of his freezer, and added the cubes to the balloon himself. He must've added the water so he could guide it safely through the air instead of just chucking it like Pat would've. It's hard to imagine Pran doing something so silly for a prank, but then again, he's always been clever and a little extra. 

It looks like Pran's window is still open, so Pat closes his. He can hear the music start to play again just as the window locks shut, and he grins.

Later, when he's in a game of Valorant with a water balloon ice pack resting atop his head, Pat thinks to himself, Oh.  

Maybe he already knows. 

–– 

The new My Hero Academia movie is showing in theaters, and Pran makes plans with Wai to watch it. Wai lives a few towns over, so he borrows his mom's car to pick Pran up. He pulls into Pran's driveway and says hi to his parents, giving them a good natured-smile. When Pran's house is well out of sight, Wai makes a comment, unprompted. 

"Your mom is kinda hot."

Pran pulls a face. "I need you to never say that in front of me ever again," he says, disgust evident on his face and in his voice. 

"I call it like I see it," Wai responds. "Your dad was a sight for sore eyes, too." 

"I am not above becoming biphobic right now. I'm begging you to stop." 

"I'm joking," Wai says, though Pran remains skeptical. "They seem cool."

"I mean, they're my parents, so." Pran makes a noncommittal noise. "Anyway, how're things at home? I hope you're finally taking a break."

"I got a seasonal job," Wai confesses. Pran sighs. "What? Retail always needs workers, and I always need money."

"You have to take a break at some point," Pran urges, and Wai waves him off. "Come on. What's your scholarship look like?"

"Barely covers a quarter of my tuition. I have to keep my grades up and submit five book reports every semester until I graduate."

Pran sits back. "Yikes."

"Sometimes I wish I was born gifted so I could've gone to a gifted university," Wai says with a sigh. "I heard at some places you can get a full-ride for being core-gifted. Pretty wild."

Quiet, Pran looks out the window. "Yeah," he says. He wonders what Wai will say when he finds out about Pran's gift, whether he'd resent or envy him for it. He thinks about telling him, right then and there. 

Instead, he asks, "Do you like snacks during a movie?" 

"At home, yeah. In theaters, no way. It's a scam."

Pran grins. "That's why we're friends."

The movie is good. Pran doesn't cry, but he thinks he hears Wai sniffling beside him. 

––

Pran wants to say he hasn't thought about Pat's birthday, but then he would be lying. The truth is, he's thought a lot about it. After Pat had given him a birthday present, he wondered what kind of present Pat would want in return – not that birthday gifts have to be treated like an equivalent exchange, but Pran can't help himself from thinking that way.

He waits until the day of Pat's birthday to make a decision. He buys Pat a shirt from a clothing store. They wear the same size, and Pran has a pretty good grasp of Pat's wardrobe. He feels strange with only one item at the checkout, so he throws in a pair of sunglasses and socks at the last second. When he gets home, he wraps the shirt in three sheets of newspaper and string and stares at it, pensive.

There isn't a good time to give it to Pat. By evening Pat's family isn't home, but neither is he. There wouldn't be any harm giving it late; Pat probably doesn't expect a gift from him in the first place. But it feels wrong, and Pran knows that it wouldn't be the same unless he gave it to Pat on his actual birthday. As the hours tick by, the time inching closer to midnight, Pran settles with the idea that this wasn't meant to be. 

When Pran sees the firetruck calling him on his phone, his heart starts to race. When he answers, he manages to keep the excitement out of his voice.

"What do you want?" 

"There's this cool pond about half an hour away," Pat begins. "Lots of open space. Nice trees. This rock that looks like a dick if you turn your head sideways."

"I live here. I know where the–" Pran takes a deliberate, resigned pause, "–penis pond is." He bites his lip. "Are you inviting me?"

"Depends on whether you'd accept."

Pran hesitates. He asks, "Are you riding your bike?"

"Well, currently, I am already here. Kind of snuck out a while ago, if you can believe it." Then, a pause, as if giving Pran a chance to ridicule him – he does not. "But yeah, I rode my bike. Parked her right next to the ballsack boulder."

"I hate whoever came up with these names," Pran mutters. 

"Don't dishonor the horny tweens who came before us," Pat declares. "Pun intended."

"Yuck," Pran says, but he's smiling.

"So?"

Pran looks out the window. The moon is full and high, and the weather is nice. 

"I have to find my bike," he says.

"Okay, I'll see you soon."

Tossing the gift onto the grass below, Pran sneaks out his bedroom window and heads to the shed. Finding his bike is only a matter of unlocking the door, so he carefully pulls it free from the gardening supplies piled on top of it. He walks the bike out of the yard, and when he's far enough from his house he hops on. 

Streetlights illuminate Pran's ride. He remembers coming to the pond after classes with friends, past the alleyways and creeks. It had been a place to get away, away from the cars, away from the responsibilities, away from the adults that scolded them. The pond encapsulates the beauty of the elements and nature. It really is a shame that a bunch of middle schoolers came up with its infamously vulgar name. 

When Pran reaches the pond, he sees Pat's bike right where he said he left it. And he sees Pat, bathed in the moonlight, sitting by the water, igniting dried leaves and watching them disappear into thin air. Pat looks calm, and somehow, even in a tacky cutoff shirt, he looks beautiful. 

Pran could stare at him all night, if he could. (That would make him a creep, wouldn't it?)

Pat notices him quickly. He scrambles to stand and jogs up to Pran, bowing at the waist. "Greetings, young fellow. How are you on this fine night?"

Pran scowls. "You're being weird." He hands Pat the gift. "Open it later."

Pat smiles, giddy. "Is this my birthday present?" Pran shrugs, walking past him to get closer to the water. "Fine, I'll open it later." Pat puts it on the seat of his bike and stands beside Pran, peering at him from the corner of his eye. "Do you have anything else to say to me?"

"What're you doing here so late?" Pran asks. He doesn't say, happy birthday, asshole, but he's positive it comes across anyway.

"I'm relaxing," Pat replies. 

Pran picks up a stone, smooth on its surface. "What'd you do today?"

"A lot!" Pat exclaims. "I got up before noon, so me and Pa got sandwiches for lunch at that new deli by the elementary school. And they gave me a free bag of chips for my birthday."

"The chips come with the sandwich," Pran points out, snorting. 

"Oh." Pat clears his throat. "Well, I got sour cream and onion chips, and they were delicious." He looks up. "Then, I had a party at the community center. Good music, karaoke, catering... My parents invited all their friends, and I got to see some guys from high school. And then a few college buddies showed up."

Pran skips the stone, and it bounces against the water three times before sinking. He picks up another one and asks, "Did Ink stop by?"

"No, she had another thing earlier in the day and can't drive." Pat stands beside Pran, plucking the stone from him. "I think the only girls there were my mom and Pa. It was a real sausage party, if you ask me." 

"And yet you decided to wind down at the most phallic spot in town," observes Pran, gesturing to the rocks that give this landmark its name.

Shrugging, Pat remarks, "It has a nice view." He skips the stone, and it bounces four times. He grins. "I win."

"We weren't even competing," Pran argues.

Pat shrugs. "Still counts."

"Cheater." Pran watches the ripples in the water, concentric circles that catch the moonlight. It's calming.

Pat's voice is soft, careful. "Hey, remember that time in the river? When we were just kids?" he prompts. "I never thanked you for that."

Why is Pat bringing this up now? Pran doesn't want to think about the past. He wants to move on. 

"I could've done a lot more harm than good," he declares.

"You saved Pa from drowning," Pat says. "Thank you, Pran. Really."

"It was luck," Pran says, because if he does anything else but lie he may break down in tears. "Back then I could barely hold a bubble." 

"Imagine what you could do now," Pat proclaims. He turns to Pran, a wild look in his eye. He throws his phone out of the way and grins. His hands begin to smoke. "Play with me," he commands. 

Pran scoffs, "Absolutely not. You'll set yourself on fire."

"That's why you're here, waterboy." Pat extends his hand, a flame growing in his palm. "Come on. Bet you haven't done anything like this since high school."

"Pat, it's dangerous," Pran declares, but he can feel the water sloshing closer to him, the liquid already at his feet.

"But it's my birthday." Pat juts out his lower lip. "Please?"

Pran is weak for that face. Pran is weak for him. Pran would do anything for Pat.

"Fine," he says. He pulls a stream of water towards himself and cocks his head. "Give me your best shot, fireboy."

Pat's fire burns brighter, and Pran does everything in his power to douse it. Pat is even stronger than Pran remembers, the flames licking up his arms and whipping through the air. He can pelt fireballs from tens of meters away, dissipating them before they can damage the surrounding greenery. He can even kick fire from the soles of his feet, which opens a whole new chapter of potential insults that get thrown at him along with the splashes of water.

Pran is stronger, too. Water is his element, and he's thrilled to be out here, next to a body of water, a seemingly endless supply of ammunition. He creates clouds of rain, walls of liquid. He runs across the pond's surface and throws all that he can at Pat, blocking the fire that Pat hurls at him. He's stuck on defense, and it's starting to tick him off. 

"What'd they teach you in that city school?" Pat taunts. A wave of water slaps underneath his legs, knocking him off his feet.

Pran grins wickedly. "That." Pat brings flames to both his hands and charges.

Their battle slows when neither of them has the strength to wield their element anymore. How long that takes, they have no clue. There is no clear winner or loser by then, but the fight can't possibly go on. Pat's fire flickers and can't catch; Pran falls knee-deep into the pond, unable to stay afloat. 

They lie side-by-side on the ground, soaked with water and sweat. 

"We never get to do this," Pat says, breathless. 

"And what is 'this' exactly?"

"Be free." Pat turns his head, knocks his hand against Pran's. "This was freeing."

Pran smiles at him. An unabashed, sincere smile. His heart is pounding in his ears, and he can't control it. He can't stop the warmth building in his chest. 

"I was sad when you left, in high school," Pat murmurs, voice wavering. "I had no one to compete with."

"Must've been a weight off your shoulders." Pran can't stop and think about this. He can't go back.

"I missed you."

Pran's breath hitches. It's too much. The raw confession from Pat and what it means to Pran as a junior in high school, Pran as a freshman in university, Pran as a water-gifted boy so hopelessly in love with his fire-gifted rival. This time, he feels the pressure build behind his eyes, a stray tear falling off his lashes.

Pat maneuvers so that he's hovering over Pran, water dripping off his hair. He blinks away his own tears as he asks, "Did you miss me?"

Of course Pran did. "No," he whispers. Pat is too close. Danger. Firecrackers and smoke. 

"Liar."

And Pat kisses him. Or maybe Pran kisses Pat. Their lips meet in the middle, and that's all that registers in Pran's clouded mind. 

He's dreamed of kissing Pat – back then, now, forever. Running his hands through Pat's hair, over his toned biceps. Sharing hot breaths and not knowing which are his own. Having calloused hands run along his neck, whispering– 

"Pran."

It makes this feel real, even though Pran doesn't want it to be. He wants to take this moment and bottle the memory, preserve it so it'll never spoil. The heat of Pat's body. The tender touch of Pat's hands. The desire in Pat's eyes. It's all Pran ever wanted, but he knows it can't happen – they can't happen.

The part where all this comes crashing down is inescapable, but that doesn't mean Pran can't escape first. 

Pran pushes Pat into the pond. He actually throws him, since Pran is stronger than he looks and Pat is unsuspecting, and pushes him towards the center of the water so that he can't chase after Pran. The fire-gifted boy sputters and shouts, but Pran doesn't look back. 

Pat will be fine. Pat can swim. Pat won't drown, not by the water or by the weight of his own insecurities and uncertainties. 

As long as Pran doesn't join him, he won't drown either.