When Rin steps into the living room of the Nanase house, the first thing he sees is Haruka’s face framed in the midst of flowers arrangement.
He wants to laugh, because Haru isn’t even smiling in the picture—he’s just looking out of the frame with his usual straight face. Until the end , he thinks almost morbidly, and the thought bring tears to his eyes faster than the way his throat closes up, the way his chest tightens. He swallows, blinks back the tears, and tries not to choke on his own breath.
He wonders how the hell he actually managed to forget how painful it is to be left behind.
A woman by the altar breaks crying—again, Rin guesses, seeing from how red and puffy her eyes are. Haruka’s mother, perhaps, as she’s clutching another framed photo of Haruka—still not smiling at the camera—like a lifeline. The man beside her is quiet, face shadowed and shoulders hunched like he’s trying his hardest to hold something inside, and Rin wonders once again if that was how he looked like years and years ago, when her mother sobbed over his Dad’s photo and Gou buried her face against his arm; the scent of flowers a reminder of lost and pain, and his Dad’s smile was surrounded by white papers and black suits, a monochrome that he hates the most.
Haruka doesn’t smile. Not in the photos framed, and not when Rin bends down over his casket to see him for the last time.
He just looks—white. Last year’s Nationals gold medal on his chest gleams under the dim lightings of the room, somehow irritatingly cheerful despite the somber atmosphere of the room. It doesn’t belong here, Rin thinks painfully, just like Haru shouldn’t belong here, either.
“In the end,” he mutters, syllables cracking in his throat. “I can never beat you, huh?”
He doesn’t have anything else to say other than that—in his world, Haruka’s existence is a large one: the one he strives to surpass, the one that keeps him running forward, the one whose friendship he’s earned after years and years of being a rival, years of years of trying to understand each other. Rin doesn’t want to even begin trying to describe the loss he feels; somehow, that would probably rude to Haruka. Maybe.
He doesn’t know what to say to Haruka’s parents, either. He wonders if it’d be rude, to retreat out of the room without offering his condolences, and maybe finds somewhere quiet where he could cry. Speaking to Haruka’s parents would be too much, and—
Something bumps against his back, and Rin nearly faceplants into Haruka’s casket if it isn’t for the strong hands grasping his arm and pulling him back.
“I’m sorry—“ someone says, and Rin turns to meet the saddest green eyes he’s ever seen.
The gear of fate halts for a moment before it turns again.
“Oh,” comes out of two lips at the same exact time—a word of recognition even though they have never met before. Memories formed only by stories, told by one person who means too much and has now gone, brings names to lips, syllables familiar like they’ve said it their whole lives.
Gentle hands tie the red string with a soft smile, an inaudible goodbye.
He’s only seen Makoto in pictures. Thrice, if he remembers right, because Haruka is not someone who flaunts pictures of his friends everywhere. No, Makoto’s pictures nestle in his phone, along with his other friends and a few of his family, and Rin only sees it on the times he’d needled Haruka endlessly about what his life in Iwatobi is like.
Tall, attractive, with green eyes that Rin thinks are too gentle for this world. Impressive muscles, a very nice smile—Haruka had said that Makoto is completely oblivious to the fact that he has a fanclub at school. Rin had laughed, his interest on this Makoto person a fleeting thought in the face of his coming race with Haruka, but being friends with Haruka also means that you can’t not be aware of Makoto’s existence.
But the Makoto he saw in those pictures—bright, gently smiling, happy—is a mere ghost of the one standing before him right now. Rin takes in the tired lines on his face, the slump of his shoulder, the blank eyes. He doesn’t know this Makoto—doesn’t know the Makoto outside of Haruka’s cell phones pictures, outside of the casual mentions and little stories Haruka has.
And yet, he knows the pain of loss reflected on those eyes.
Makoto’s smile is as empty as his own, when they turn into the front garden. People in black come and go, sympathy in his eyes and grieving words on the tip of their tongues. He was still so young, Rin hears, each syllable echoing in his ears. He was so talented, what an unfortunate accident. He was a quiet, but gentle kid. His poor parents—no one should bury their own son.
Somehow they irritate him—how much do they know about Haruka, anyway? They probably know him all their lives, have been a part of his daily life forever, but they don’t need Haruka to fuel themselves on, to push them through grueling path of dreams, never hears Haruka growls in frustration after a loss, never sees how far Haruka could go, how passionate he could be, how—
He grits his teeth audibly, tries to swallow the hiss, but fails. “Talking like they know everything about Haru.”
By his side, Makoto pauses, eyes wide when they find Rin’s own, and Rin feels the back of his nape burns with shame. He turns away, lips thin, aware that he’s being a jackass—they’re not the only ones mourning—but can’t bring himself to care too much about that.
“I’ve heard much about you,” Makoto, surprisingly, is the one who begins the conversation. Their steps pause just out of the Nanase family house’s gate, off to the side as they stay out of the way of people coming in and out of the house.
Their eyes meet, and Makoto chuckles, but the corners of his eyes don’t crinkle. “Not that Haru tells much, but after so long, it feels like I actually know you.”
Rin shifts, shoes scuffling as he looks away—something in his chest aches but he can’t quite place why. “I’ve heard much about you, too,” he offers, and hates how it sounds so half-hearted, but can’t quite care about it. “For the whole five years I’ve known him.”
Makoto doesn’t look at him now, turns away to watch the tops of house roofs—the sky is unfairly too bright today, and Rin wishes it would rain. “Thank you for coming all the way to Iwatobi from Tokyo.”
Rin’s face hardens. “I would have done it even if I were abroad,” he says, each syllable fiercer than he intends them to. He scrubs his face with the back of his hand harshly, thankful for the sharp sting spreading over his cheeks. “He’s one of my best friends.”
The silence between them stretches long.
Rin doesn’t look at Makoto when his words come, the last syllable cracking: “Mine, too.”
His feet are heavy.
The water sways around his knees—dark, menacing, as it clings to his feet for every single step he takes. Far, far down there, someone stands tall, submerged up to his chest, white and blue jacket floating behind, swaying calmly with the water.
“Haru—“ he gasps, drags a foot forward, and nearly stumbles. Something is pulling him back—something in the water, in the wind, in him . He grits his teeth, opens his mouth to shout as loud as he could. “Haaaaaaaruuuuuuu!!!”
The wind steals his voice, muffles it into nothing. Haruka doesn’t look back. Rin struggles, pushes himself forward with all his might, but the water whispers, “You can’t.”
His breath catches,
“You can’t,” it says, echoes in his ears. “You have no right.”
“—if you get here a week earlier.”
“Come on, it’d be great.”
“You have no right.”
“Haaaruuuuuuuuu!!!” his shout, raw and pained, and the water drags him down even more.
Haruka doesn’t look back.
He wakes up with a dying scream in his throat, drenched in sweat.
“Fuck,” comes out in a weak gasp, and Rin drags a trembling hand over his face. On the bed, the shadow of the tree ouside of his window dances, dark tendrils against the dim streetlights fltering in from the curtain, and Rin recoils from them, curling into himself like they’re dangerous.
He remembers Haruka’s face, framed on top of the altar, and feels like throwing up.
Rin closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. Another one, then another. The bedside clock says it’s three in the morning, red numbers a glaring light in the darkness of his room, but he pushes himself to his feet, tangles his feet in the blankets and nearly stumbles face-first into the floor. Frustrated, he throws them off, doesn’t look to see if it made it back on the bed, and snatches his jacket and cap.
The night is inviting him out.
On the slope down towards the beach from his grandmother’s house, Rin nearly smacks his face onto Makoto’s chest.
“Oh!” Makoto says, sounding surprised, and Rin does a double take. He looks up, sees Makoto’s eyes widening, sees the remnants of tear-tracks along his cheeks. “Rin..? What are you—“
“Grandmother’s—“ his voice cracks, and Rin coughs once to clear his throat. He hopes Makoto doesn’t hear how tired he sounds. “My grandmother’s house is close-by. It’s where I’m staying.”
Makoto blinks at him. “No, I mean… it’s three in the morning..”
Oh. Oh yeah. Rin averts his eyes from Makoto’s—remembers Haruka playing with the straw in his glass, face impassive but eyes soft, and the words spoken softly, Makoto could make you feel so transparent —and looks down towards where the beach is.
The night breeze bites into his nape, sending a shiver through him. The ocean in an endless expanse of darkness, like a black hole that sucks all life from the town—too quiet, too empty at this time of the night. He tries to remember what it looked like from above, the small window view of the plane he boarded back to Iwatobi, leaving his team in Tokyo and quitting all his races in the Nationals.
Sousuke would be furious at him when he got back from the rehabilitation.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Makoto’s voice doesn’t break the silence—it fades into the wind, loud enough only for Rin to whisper. “To the beach.”
He should refuse. He should say no. It hurts to look at Makoto—a constant reminder of Haruka, of how Haruka’s existence changed Rin’s life, of how much Rin’s world is splashed by Haruka’s color, of how Haruka isn’t here anymore —
But for some reason, he says, “Sure,” and hates himself a little for that.
The small smile Makoto flashes him still look as empty.
He meets Haruka for the first time in their first year of middle school, at the stage of the Nationals, swimming side-by-side only for Rin to lose, and in the midst of the frustration of losing, Rin finds a new excitement of having a rival.
Haruka’s a genius, Rin thinks, excited at the challenge. He’s a genius and Rin isn’t, but Rin could go toe-to-toe with him, and that makes him feel good about himself, somehow. It doesn’t matter that Haruka just gives him a fleeting annoyed glance when he runs after him, but there’s a flash of determination he catches in Haruka’s normally impassive face when he declares that he’d win next time, and Rin keeps that close to his heart.
Sousuke rolls his eyes at him, but Sousuke doesn’t understand. Rin needs another rival—Sousuke is one of his, but they’ve fallen into a routine that makes it feel like it’s just a game instead of a competition, and Rin craves the adrenaline. Something that gives him a push, something that makes him feel like he has to aim even higher and higher, and Haruka is exactly that.
He does win, next time. Haruka scowls at him from across the pool, and Rin simply laughs, offers him a hand to shake, drags him out to eat tonkatsu with Sousuke, and learns how much Haruka loves mackerel. It’s all half-hearted scowls and rival banters after that, and it takes much, much more of it for Rin to be able to call Haruka his best friend , but despite everything—despite being rivals and living miles away and having different lives when they aren’t swimming together—they become friends.
Until the third year of high school when the Nationals draws close, and Rin tells Haruka over the phone, “I can get you a ticket to that art exhibition if you get here a week earlier.”
Makoto takes off his shoes once they reach the shoreline, and Rin watches him leave bare footprints on the sand—steps half-dragged, heavy, fitting the slump of Makoto’s shoulders. Rin wonders if he leaves the same exact footprints on the sand, erased when the waves come to kiss the shore, taking away one of the proofs of their grief.
“We pass here every day to get to school,” Makoto says, tone subdued. Rin follows the trails he leaves behind before the waves take them away—a line of shoeprints behind bare footprints, barely visible by the moonlight. It had been sunny today, but with the night comes the clouds, and Rin once again wishes it would rain instead. “There’s an old convenience store down the road, where we like to buy popsicles in summer. On days when our practice ends at the same time, we stop by here to watch the sunset.”
Makoto comes to a stop, and Rin sees his eyes close, like he’s listening to the wind teasing the surface of the water, a quiet whisper. Then his head tilts towards Rin, eyes soft, and his lips move.
Rin doesn’t hear him. The breeze picks up right at that moment, riding the waves as it crashes into the shore, licking on their feet. Makoto closes his eyes again, the smallest of smile curving over his lips, tinted with sadness and not emptiness for the first time since they met.
Rin throws his gaze away to the ocean.
“Haru,” he says, in-between bites of his mother’s homemade curry croquette, chopsticks raised halfway up to his mouth and still trapping the piece of croquette in the middle. “Do you like Rin?”
Haruka stops chewing his mackerel, eyebrows knitting ever-so-slightly in an almost careful look. Makoto smiles sheepishly; an apology for asking something that is so out-of-the-blue, but also a sign that he seriously wants Haruka to answer.
“He’s great,” Haruka replies, in the end, and lowers his chopsticks to pick the remaining piece of mackerel in his bentou box. There are rice, tiny and white, scattered over the edge of the box, and a lone one stuck on Haruka’s chin.
“That means Haru likes him, right?”
He watches Haruka raises the chopsticks towards his mouth.
“I mean—like him, like that.”
The chopsticks pause. Makoto catches blue eyes narrowing slowly. “What is this about?”
“Ah, it’s not—“ he lets himself grin, a bit, an attempt to relax both himself and Haruka, as they chart into unknown territory in their friendship for what feels like the first time in a very long time. “I’m—I’m okay with it! If, I mean—if you like—“
It’s ridiculous how he’s the one getting nervous, when he’s not the one being interrogated.
“If—if you l-like… men… th-that way, Haru, it’s alright—“ he breaks off, catches his breath, then looks straight into Haruka’s eyes, all determined and firm, because this is the important part, nothing is more important than this: “I won’t stop being your friend, I promise!”
Haruka blinks at him. Twice. Thrice.
There’s a long sigh that’s nearly inaudible, answering him. Makoto stares as Haruka finishes his last piece of mackerel—somehow noticing the lone stray rice on his chin all by himself—and closes his bentou box carefully before reaching for his water bottle. He waits, eyes wide, for Haruka to finish his drink completely, for him to put down the water bottle, and for him to murmur, “Thank you for the food.”
His croquette forgotten, Makoto opens his mouth. “Haru…”
“He’s that kind of person,” Haruka says, the set of his shoulders relaxing, and Makoto sees the corners of his mouth curving upwards ever-so-slightly. “The one who everyone falls for, a little bit.”
Makoto reads, I might like him, a bit , in the way Haruka throws a look outside the window, to the clear blue sky of early summer, and smiles. He puts his croquette back into his bentou box, wedged in-between misshapen onigiris the twins had helped made this morning.
“I see.” He lines up the chopsticks properly, and beams at Haruka. “It’d be great if I could meet him, right?"
“You like him, don’t you?” Rin grins as he slurps his ramen, elbows knocking against Haruka. “That Makoto.”
Haruka’s eyes slide over to him, staring blankly for a long moment, and Rin takes the pause to swallow his food properly. The egg soup of this ramen stall is exquisite, he doesn’t want to choke on it. “What?”
“Nothing,” Haruka turns back to his bowl of mackerel soba. “Déjà vu.”
“Huh?” Perhaps this is how Haruka deflect questions of his love life. Rin puts down his chopsticks to turn properly at Haruka, resting his chin on one hand as he elbows Haruka once more. “Don’t change the topic, answer the question!”
Haruka makes a rather loud slurping sound, like he’s trying to drown Rin’s voice over the noise. Rin scowls. “Haru.”
“You know I don’t mind if you swing that way.” There’s a loud shout of order, from the other side of the table, and Rin lets the noises around drown them for a moment, lets his words sink. “I mean, if he’s really only your best friend, it’s great, too, but if you like him—“
“Everyone likes Makoto,” Haruka says, his voice matter-of-fact, and Rin can’t help laughing.
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
He hears three more orders yelled up to the counter, repeated by the owner of the stall. A bunch of college kids are laughing rowdily on one corner, tables cluttered with bowls of ramen and glasses of beer, sounding almost too carefree with the world. And by his side, Nanase Haruka taps the edge of his bowl with his chopsticks, thoughtful as he weighs his words to answer Rin’s question.
“Maybe, a little.”
“For you, that probably means a lot, huh?” he laughs, turning back to his bowl and forsakes the chopsticks, just lets his palms cupping the bowl and brings it to his mouth. The soup is excellent, filling every corners in his mouth with smooth, savory flavor that runs to the back of his throat.
“I kind of really want to meet him, now.”
He sees Makoto again when he heads out to the beach that night, this time crouched on the corner of the road, a white cat in the crook of his arm, purring as his fingers run through her fur.
“Oh,” Makoto says when he catches sight of him. “Hi, Rin.”
Rin swallows, remembers if you get here a week earlier , and averts Makoto’s eyes. “Hey.”
“Whenever he comes home from Tokyo, the first thing he does is swim.”
They’re sitting on the steps towards the beach tonight. Rin is cradling the awful canned ice coffee he got from the vending machine, untouched but for the first sip, and Makoto has let go of the cat in favor of a warm cup of vending machine cocoa. It smells sweet even from where Rin sits an arm reach away from Makoto.
“I swim with him when I don’t have practice. Especially since our old swim club was revived and I was recruited to help coaching the kids.” Makoto pauses to take a sip—steam dances out of the cup, blown by his breath. “Haru is always full of energy when he gets back from meeting you.”
Rin doesn’t understand—why Makoto is telling him all of this, why Makoto keeps talking about what Haruka does and doesn’t, why Makoto is filling the gap of the images of Haruka’s life in Iwatobi, the gap in-between pieces of stories Haruka had told him over the course of their friendship. It hurts, every word, every syllable, but Rin can’t bring himself to tell Makoto to stop.
“He eats mackerel all the time, even in Tokyo,” Rin says, glad that he still sounds like he’s complaining, instead of choking up on the wave of pain that swells up his throat. “Doesn’t anyone ever tell him to eat something else?”
The smile that curves up Makoto’s lips is a real one. “Haru does what he wants.”
“Clearly you spoil him all the time.”
The chuckle that escapes Makoto’s lips surprises the both of them. For a moment, they stare at each other, eyes wide, breath caught—a mix of relief and guilt for laughing, for being able to laugh at all.
Rin turns away first, closes his eyes, and takes a shaky breath.
He hears Makoto murmurs a pained, “I’m sorry,” but chooses not to reply.
“Here,” Rin lobs a dolphin bobby keychain at Haruka, who catches it without fumbling. “Have a keychain.”
Haruka raises an eyebrow at him. “Why.”
“A promise that you’d get to Nationals again next year,” Rin says, shrugging, turning back to the rows of sea creature keychains in front of him. The aquarium shopkeeper is making a face at him for throwing the keychain he hasn’t even bought yet. “Give it back to me on summer when we meet at the final race.”
He continues browsing down the keychains, looking for something to bring back home to Gou, until Haruka’s voice makes him pause: “Rin.”
“Huh?” He turns to the sight of something thrown straight towards his face. Rin yelps, takes a step back and tries to catch it, fumbles with it for a second before he could secure it in his hand. He glares at Haruka, whose lips are asymmetrically pulled in a small smirk, and empathically raises his middle finger at him. “Stop trying to kill me.”
Haruka rolls his eyes. “Give it back at the final race.”
Rin blinks, and looks down as he opens his palm. A shark keychain made of glass, red as the color of wine, glints under the shop’s light, a reassuring weight in his hand.
The box sits by his feet, and Rin stares at it for a long, long while.
He’s brought it here to put them away. All of them. Things he thinks of as pieces of his dream—seemingly too faraway to reach now, that he feels like he doesn’t have the drive to run after it anymore. He’d have to apologize to Sousuke later. He’d probably be killed, but Sousuke would understand. He always understands, eventually.
The swimming goggles in his hands feels like it weighs a hundred times more. Rin stares at the box, at the gold and silver medals buried under certificates and photos of victories, at old swimsuits haphazardly thrown over training menu notes, at the shark keychain on the very top.
He lets the goggles fall, hitting the keychain until it bounces and slips in-between medals, and then closes the box.
Meeting Makoto on the slope towards the beach every night is a routine, now.
Rin wonders when is it that he’s begun to wait for Makoto if he hasn’t shown up—and then wonders when is it that Makoto has begun to do the same. It’s always the beach they go to, but sometimes they go further—down the road to where the convenience store is, further along the shore to where a cliff looms over them, or all the way back towards where Makoto usually play with the kittens. But it’s always the beach first, and Rin doesn’t want to question why, but he thinks perhaps it’s because the beach is the place closest to the water, closest to where one could swim, and Haruka loves water and swimming.
It feels cathartic, the late night walk.
“You’re in the basketball club, right,” Rin says one night, as they walk over to where the cliff is. “Haru says you’re good.”
Makoto scratches his head in a boyish gesture. “I have a height advantage, I suppose.”
“Why didn’t you continue swimming?”
Makoto ducks his head, expression hidden. “I wanted to try something new?” He raises his head and throws his gaze to the ocean, and Rin sees loneliness etched in his face, old and unanswered. “In middle school, when we had to choose which club to join. I thought I’d change. Starts using ‘ore’ instead of ‘boku’ , and all that. You know.”
The breeze picks up, but not loud enough to cover Makoto’s sigh.
“A friend drags me to join the basketball club. Haru told me he doesn’t mind. So I did.”
Ah. Rin closes the distance between them, shoulders close enough to touch as he stands next to Makoto. “You wanted him to tell you not to join.”
Makoto shakes his head. “It’s not that.” He hesitates, mouth opening before closing again, uncertainty and tension on his shoulders. “I—wasn’t sure what I wanted.”
Rin makes a humming sound. “That’s why you couldn’t tell him.”
It takes five seconds before Makoto’s breath begins hitching, and Rin has to close his eyes, has to clench his hands into fists and takes a deep breath. By his side, Makoto crumbles, falls into a crouch with a shuddering breath, and breaks into silent sobs.
Don’t cry , Rin tells himself, teeth gritting. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
“Don’t cry,” he says, and when Makoto answers with a choked breath, he repeats, fiercer, “Don’t cry, Makoto!”
But the tears that falls along the curve of his cheeks are hot, stings as it dry on his skin, and Rin bites the back of his hand before joining Makoto on the ground, crouching and reaching out to grip Makoto’s shoulder hard. His nails dig through Makoto’s shirt, but Makoto doesn’t flinch. If anything, he grips Rin’s hand on his shoulder, nails on skin until it draws blood, and Rin is grateful for the pain.
“I should’ve told him,” each syllable wrecked, almost drowned by the sobs. “I didn’t—I wanted to swim with Haru-chan. I’d always wanted to. I just—I wanted to see how far I could go without—without Haru-chan, and I—I don’t want. I want him here, I—I should’ve told him—“ his breath hitching, Makoto shudders. “I didn’t throw away swimming. It’s not—it’s not like that—I don’t want Haru-chan to hate me for that—“
He rests his forehead on Makoto’s hand, and lets the tears out.
The news has Haruka’s bus number flashing in big, block letters across the television, and Rin forgets to breathe.
No, he thinks, no. No no no no, no no. That can’t be. “No,” he says, voice shaky in denial, even as the names of the bus passengers appear one by one on the screen. Forty people, all died. The three characters of Haruka’s name, right on the middle, glares at him with a horrifying realization, and Rin makes a wounded noise.
He grabs his phone, dials Haruka’s number, because it can’t be true. It can’t be true. Haruka’s supposed to get here this morning—he’s supposed to pick up Haruka, get dinner somewhere that serves mackerel, and then give Haruka the ticket for that art exhibition Haruka’s been eyeing for a month. The news can’t be right, it can’t be right, it can’t be—
“I can get you a ticket if you could get here a week earlier.”
“If you get here a week earlier.”
The news blinks with a footage of the bus wreckage, and something in Rin’s stomach bottoms as his phone sings: the number you’re calling is no longer active, please try again—
There’s a white noise that rings in his ears, and Makoto shakes his head, tries to get rid of them in vain. His Dad has his hand on his shoulder, gripping hard, as if trying to anchor him to earth. Makoto’s brain stutters to work, fails, stutters up again. “What?”
His mother cries harder. “Mako-chan—“
“No,” he says, shakily. “No.”
Haruka promises to bring back gold. Stories about what he sees in the water. Stories about how he races against Rin. It doesn’t make sense that everyone is crying now, because Haru-chan can’t be in that bus, he can’t be one of the passengers, he can’t be—
Except Makoto had been the only one to see him off.
He remembers the bus.
“No,” he says weakly, and his eyes burn, but the tears won’t come out. “No.”
It’s nine in the morning, and Makoto stands up from his crouch in front of the Nanase family grave. He reaches out to touch the gravestone, stares at the characters carved onto them until his eyes burn and everything blurs in tears.
He laughs shakily. “I’m sorry, Haru,” he murmurs, tries to wipe the tears with the back of his hand. “I just keep crying. You’ll hate that.”
For a moment, Makoto stays silent. He doesn’t have words for what he’s gone through the few past weeks—nothing for how empty every morning feels, how he keeps texting Haruka only to watch the flashing warning of message not sent, nothing for his meeting with Rin, for his night walks to the beach and how cathartic it feels, how it makes him feel guilty in the end. But he’s never really needed words with Haruka, and Haruka will understand, somehow.
So he opens his mouth, and says the only thing he could think of, “I want you back.”
On top of impossible dreams, there are even more impossible ones.
Haruka would hate to see him now.
“It’s hard,” he spreads his fingers on the gravestone, relishes the coolness of it against his palm. “But I’ll try.”
At least to take a step forward.
He pushes the box under his bed, makes sure that he gets it to the furthest corner of the room.
“Oniichan,” Gou says from the door, her face sad. “Grandma is calling.”
Rin gives a last glance towards where the box is, unseen now from where he’s standing. He closes his eyes, takes a breath, and tries to let everything go.
Makoto holds up a popsicle in front of him—watermelon, the plastic a nice cold touch on his fingers—with a smile.
“I bought you one.”
Rin’s lips twitch up in a smile. “Thanks.”
They walk down the road towards the beach; the sun is low over the horizon now, and they can breathe in the scents of various dishes being cooked as they pass the rows of houses. Layers of reds and oranges a canvas for the cotton-like clouds, and it’s too warm for a summer that’s about to end.
Makoto’s shoulder touches Rin’s, arm brushing ever so slightly. “I’m glad you’re here.”
He sounds shy. Rin looks down at the popsicle in his hand, slowly melting in the heat of summer. He looks up, glances to the side, looks at Makoto’s small smile, at the two halves of popsicles in his hand—one of them untouched, one of them almost finished.
He wonders when is it that looking at Makoto isn’t painful anymore.
Me, too , Rin thinks, but the words caught in his throat, almost like a bile. He bumps his shoulder against Makoto instead, a silent reply, and asks, “What are you going to do with that half?”
The smile Makoto wears turns sad. “Haru would’ve hated it if I wasted it.”
It’s easier nowadays, for the both of them, to refer to Haruka in past tense, and the fact that it’s become easier for them hurts.
“I’ll help you eat the other half,” Rin offers, and this time, the curve of Makoto’s smile manages to pull up the corners of his lips as well.
Perhaps it’s about helping each other heal themselves. Perhaps it’s about sharing their pain. Perhaps it’s simply about having another one there, who understands how large Haruka’s existence is in their lives, who lost just as much.
Rin thinks he should be mad at himself for letting this happen. He doesn’t. The guilt is heavy, heavier now that he realizes what it is that he feels when he looks at Makoto, but when Makoto turns to him with a small smile, still pained but slowly brighter, slowly better, and Rin forgets to breathe, for a moment, he forgets about his guilt as well.
And, by the way Makoto’s eyes turn soft and softer still, he’s quite sure that Makoto forgets the guilt momentarily as well.
Haruka’s form is distorted by the water. Rin opens his mouth and sees bubbles of water escapes, and thinks, I’m drowning .
“I’m sorry,” he tries to say, but they come out as more bubbles, dissipated as soon as they touch the water. “I’m so sorry, Haru. I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry I asked you to come earlier. I’m sorry things are easier now. I’m sorry I heal. I’m sorry I fell in love. The blue and white jacket fades away with the water, Haruka’s back a blur the second before Rin closes his eyes completely, and then.
Makoto’s finger tucks back the stray bangs behind Rin’s ear, and Rin jolts, pulling back with wide eyes.
Makoto stops dead, eyes as wide as Rin. “I—“
The plastic bag that separates them as they sit on the stairs to the shrine rustle as Makoto lowers his hand. Rin’s eyes follow it, unable to rip his gaze away, not daring to breathe. Makoto swallows, fingers trembling, his voice shaky as he begins, “I’m sorry—“
Rin closes his eyes.
“We can’t,” it hurts to say that. It doesn’t ease the guilt either. Rin isn’t sure why he feels disappointed about that. “It’s—it might not.” He clenches his fists, forces himself to look away, and remembers if you get here a week earlier . They can’t do this. He can’t do this—he doesn’t deserve this. He’s come here to face the pain, to accept and live with it, and having Makoto by his side more than this would be some sort of salvation, perhaps, but Makoto should hate him. Makoto should hate him. “I can’t.”
He falls silent. Makoto’s gaze finds his, a flash of disappointment and pain, but then a small smile curves up his lips, sad but genuine.
The thing is, Haruka would not have been on that bus if Rin hadn’t told him to get to Tokyo a week earlier.
He would have just taken the usual bus for the Nationals, with his team, and he’d arrive early enough to hang out a bit with Rin before they have to get some sleep for the race the next day. But no. Rin had been impatient, had been excited to have Haruka around for another week longer, had been too keen on challenging Haruka out of the official tournaments. And he had said if you get here a week earlier .
And Haruka got on that bus. The one that crashed, the one that took away its passengers’ lives.
He’s the reason Haruka’s no longer here.
Rin glances towards the darkness under his bed, easily envisioning the shape of the box he’d pushed far into that darkness, and tells himself, you have no right to keep swimming .
Might as well not go back to Tokyo, he supposes.
He makes a face at the small bag of chocolate Q-bits Makoto has in his hand when they bump in the convenience store. Makoto gives him a defensive look.
"You’ll get diabetes one day,” Rin tells him. Makoto smiles, and Rin remembers the first picture of Makoto he’d seen on Haruka’s phone, and tries to compare and see if Makoto’s smile now is as bright as back then. Letting a small huff, he turns to the cup ramen shelf and begins browsing them. “Your addiction to chocolate is scary.”
From the corner of his eyes, he catches Makoto’s mouth curving down in the slightest pout. “That should be my line. Your addiction to spicy things is scary.”
Rin rolls his eyes. “They aren’t that spicy.”
“Your tastebuds are probably shot.” Makoto counters, chuckling, and Rin grabs a package of kimchi-flavored ramen to smack it gently on Makoto’s face. “Ow, Rin.”
Rin snickers. “Stop pouting, that’s unbecoming for a seventeen year old.”
“Sixteen,” Makoto corrects, one hand reaching up to grasp Rin’s wrist, fingers clasping gently as he pulls Rin’s hand away from his face. Rin stares, transfixes for a moment at the soft smile on Makoto’s lips. “It’s not November yet.”
Rin knows that. He knows that, just like he knows how much Makoto loves chocolate, or how much he loves his twins siblings, or how Makoto sucks at English. Those are the puzzle pieces of Makoto he’d heard from Haruka, repeated over time, pieces he’d ended up memorizing without knowing it. And Makoto—Makoto has his own puzzle pieces of Rin, too, doesn’t he?
It’s scary, to know that there’s someone who might know him more than he’d expected them to, even if they’d only known each other properly for a few weeks.
“I’ll take this,” Makoto says, snapping him out of reverie. He pries the cup ramen off Rin’s hold, his smile still firmly curving up his lips as he turns away. “Let’s go to the riverbank after this, if you’re free?”
He doesn’t have any reason to say no. He doesn’t even want to.
“—if you get here a week earlier.”
Makoto should hate him. Shouldn’t smile at him. Shouldn’t even be interested in him.
Rin swallows, and for the first time lets himself wonder, does he hate me?
“What do you mean, you’re not coming back?”
Sousuke’s voice is like a brewing storm. Rin feels the force behind each syllable, feels the rage that hides in each word, feels how Sousuke is holding back, how Sousuke is trying not to yell at him. It makes him happy, a little bit, to know that Sousuke isn’t allowing him to stop, to quit everything, but at the same time, he’s just so tired.
He can’t do anything like this—tied with guilt, weighed down with how much he hates himself for saying the words that made Haruka got into the bust a week earlier than he was supposed to. What right does he have to continue swimming, when he’s the reason that Haruka isn’t even here to swim anymore?
“I can’t,” he says, and his tongue feels like lead. “Sorry, Sousuke. You’ve got to understand—“
“I don’t fucking want to understand!” the bellow comes, almost expected, but Rin still flinches anyway. “I’m still fighting here, Rin. You told me not to give up. Don’t you fucking dare stop when I’m—“
“You’re different,” Rin cuts him off, and he cringes at the sound of his own voice—too tired, too helpless. “You can go so much higher once your shoulder’s all healed.”
“Talk sense,” Sousuke snaps, the last syllable crackling through the phone. “You have scouts contacting you before the Nationals. You have scouts asking for you to the school even after you threw away the Nationals—you have no fucking reason to quit—“
“Sousuke—“ his voice cracks, and Rin closes his eyes, relishes the burning sensation behind his eyelids. He opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again, only to find that all he could say is, “I have no right.”
“What the fuck—“
Rin lets the phone falls to the bed, and curls into himself.
The gravestone is silent. Makoto stares at it, his palm flat against the cold stone, thumb pressing hard against the dip of the carvings. It’s barely six in the morning, and the morning breeze bites just enough to keep him alert and awake. Above his head, the first of the leaves are changing colors, trading greens into yellows and reds bit by bit.
“I’m really glad that he’s here.”
A stray leaf, still green, glides through the air and settles on the top of the grave. Makoto reaches out to take it, the tip of his finger tracing the shape before picking it up. His gaze softens.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s you who brought him here.”
He pauses, hesitates. Wonders if it’s right, to tell Haruka this. But Haruka always knows. Always understands him better than he does himself, sometimes.
Makoto closes his eyes. “Brought us to meet.” He feels the corner of his lips pulls up into a smile—more genuine than he feels he’s been doing, ever since Haruka is gone. “Brought him to me.”
To find one another , he finishes silently, and welcomes the pain the beats with his own heart at the thought.
“Is it okay for us to be happy with each other?”
The breeze picks up, as if trying to catch the words unsaid, and send them up up up to where Haruka is. Makoto wishes they reach, wherever his best friend is, and hopes that it would make Haruka smile. I’ll be okay, he thinks, almost wistfully. I won’t be okay, for a while. Not yet. But I will be. And so will he.
So you don’t need to worry… okay, Haru-chan?
A tiny old branch gives into the wind, cracks and falls right on top of Makoto’s head, drawing out a yelp. Makoto cringes, one hand clutching his head, eyebrows knitted in pain for a moment, and then he pauses, stares at the gravestone, and starts chuckling.
“Yes, yes,” he says softly, fondly. “Stop with the ‘chan’ , right?”
Makoto’s footprints seem deeper in the sand, tonight.
“Come and sit over here, Rin,” Makoto says, from where he is lowering himself onto the sand, the waves barely tickling the tips of his toes. Rin takes a second too long in watching him settle down, the way Makoto’s shoulders relax for a fraction as he leans back. Makoto looks up and their gazes meet, and there’s something else in Makoto’s smile now—a bit more open, a bit more honest, a bit less pained. “Rin.”
He drags his feet deep in the sand, feeling the grains slipping into his shoes, before he finally drops next to Makoto. Their shoulders touch—the contact a reassuring one, and it makes Rin feel that much lighter, except the feeling is accompanied by more guilt, and Rin remembers, once again, I can get you tickets if you get here a week earlier.
He closes his eyes and breathes through it.
“I heard from Gou-chan,” the words are light, casual. Rin wonders if that’s the same voice Makoto uses when he talks to Haruka, when he tries to get Haruka to tell him things. “That you’re quitting swimming.”
The silence between them stretches for a long, long time. Rin turns his head away uncomfortably, and a second later, Makoto continues, “Why?”
Rin swallows, feeling the now-familiar guilt clawing its way up his throat. “I have no—“ he chokes out, breath catching on the last syllable. He gasps, fists clenching in the sand, and swallows once before trying again. “I have no right.”
Makoto doesn’t say anything. Rin’s grateful for that.
For a while, they watch the ocean—watch the waves crash and tickle the tips of their toes before returning to the sea, watch the tiny lights peppering the clear night sky all the way to where the line of horizon is, barely visible in the darkness. Makoto’s breath is steady and even by his side, and Rin reels back the urge to draw closer, to anchor himself in Makoto’s presence.
He hears Makoto take a breath, before the words come: “Will you listen to me, Rin?”
And he knows. He knows what Makoto is going to say. He knows, he dreads it, dreads the guilt that comes along with the soaring hope, the pain that follows the slivers of happiness sneaking into him and making his chest feel light.
“I like you.”
The pain doesn’t hit him hard. It slithers, bites, clenches in his chest with each breath he takes. He grits his teeth, squares his shoulders, and inwardly pushes away the hope. It isn’t real—Makoto shouldn’t like him. Makoto would not like him. Makoto would grow to hate him. He’s the very reason why Haruka isn’t here, anymore.
“You should hate me.”
Makoto turns, eyes soft but confused. “Why?”
He can’t say. He can’t put into words, even as he remembers if you get here a week earlier . So he turns away, tries to focus on keeping his breathing even, and bites the insides of his cheeks when he can’t.
Makoto touches his hand hesitantly. “Would it make you feel better if I say so?”
Rin blinks. “What.”
“If it makes you feel better,” Makoto says, looking into Rin like he’s an open book. Like he could see the guilt, the pain, the exhaustion. “If it’s what you want, Rin, I’ll say it.”
“What are you talking about—“
Strong arms pull him forward, warmth enveloping him like a cocoon from the rest of the world—from the pain, from the guilt—and for a moment, Rin’s time stops, suspended, tittering uncertainly, and Makoto’s presence is the only one supporting him, anchoring him in the present. His chin rests on the crook of Makoto’s collarbone, digging hard, but Makoto’s right hand firmly rests on top of his head, keeping it in place.
Rin’s breath stops.
“I don’t hate you,” Makoto tells him, his breath a warm puff in his ear. “It’s so much easier to blame you, but Haru would be mad if I do so, and besides, I don’t hate you.”
Rin opens his mouth, lips trembling. “Why—“
Makoto’s arms tighten, pulling him even closer. “I like you.”
His eyes burn. Something in his chest constricts painfully, and it’s so, so hard to breathe . “Makoto—“
“I like you,” He pauses, and quietly, quietly, murmurs into Rin’s ear. “And I forgive you. Whatever it is, Rin, I forgive you.”
Rin’s breath stutters, eyes widening.
I forgive you.
It’s not from Haruka. These words—these are not his salvation. And yet they crash into him as hard as the waves are, and something in him crumbles completely on impact—drowning the guilt, the pain, the exhaustion—and the sobs bubble up his throat, breaking past, slipping out of his lips before he realizes it.
“I—“ the word trembles weakly, snatched by the wind as soon as it’s spoken. Rin grits his teeth, squeezes his eyes shut, tries to bring proper words out, and nothing comes but a shaky breath and a choked sob. He grasps at Makoto’s shirt, fingers digging into the skin beneath, desperately holding on as another wave of guilt and pain and relief comes crashing. “I—“
Makoto tilts his head, lips brushing against the shell of his ear. “Rin.”
Like a dam breaking, Rin crumbles. Like a child, he buries his face into the crook of Makoto’s neck, voice rough as he sobs until he feels like he can’t breathe, letting go of all things unsaid, a desperate plea to be forgiven, to be released, because he’s so tired and yet he can’t let himself be happy, not with the weight of this guilt— I’m the one who killed him —and through all that, Makoto is there, holding onto him, keeping him upright, steady, in a way Rin never thought he needs.
He’ll tell Makoto, after. Of his guilt, of his pain, the way Makoto has been doing honestly these past few weeks to him. And then maybe, maybe, together—
“I want to be alright,” Makoto murmurs, his voice wet and hoarse. “Together with you, Rin. Can we?”
Rin holds onto him tighter, and that’s enough answer.
Makoto pulls the box from under his bed, and his hands guide Rin’s trembling ones to open it.
“You promised,” Makoto smiles, when Rin finds the shark keychain and holds it in his palm. He presses his forehead against Rin, eyes closing and his smile content if tinted with sadness. “You promised him, Rin.”
Rin shudders, almost chokes on the first syllable. “Next year.”
“Next year,” Makoto agrees, and his hands clasps Rin’s, the shark keychain trapped between their palms. He brings Rin’s hand against his lips, and presses soft kisses against his knuckles. “I’ll be there.”
Gentle hands tie the red string with a smile and a prayer, invisible touch on their pinky fingers.