A Test Of Courage

Settling In

The town was lit in a beautiful array of colours as the sun began to fall below the horizon, the giant stars reflection glimmering on the surface of the ocean.

Makoto stretched his arms high above his head before releasing the breath he'd been holding. Him and his friends decided to drop by the ice-cream parlour after practice.

He turned and leaned against the railing to watch the group conversing with each other. Makoto had been a bit worried that his cousin, Hanako, would be too intimidated by his friends after what happened at the pool, but it seemed his worries were misplaced as she quietly laughed along with the rest at one of Nagisa's many antics.

However, Makoto's worries should've been placed on his best friend...

For the rest of the day Haru had done nothing but avoid Hanako like the plague. Every time they accidentally came within more than a meter of each other Haruka was quick to replace the gap between them.

The entire walk through town was one awkward struggle for Makoto as he tried to chat with Haru, who'd been distancing himself a good few meters behind the rest of the group, while also pay attention to his cousin so she wouldn't feel left out.

Though Gou had offered to take care of Hanako in his place, Makoto just wouldn't feel right leaving his cousin in the hands of someone she didn't quite know; not that he didn't trust Gou, but he was more worried about Hanako being uncomfortable.

Ever since that incident when she was little, Hanako has separated herself from everyone except him, so he was cautious to leave her in anyone else's company.

Makoto turned his attention away from the noisy table his friends occupied to the quiet raven-haired boy standing beside him.

Haru stood with his back to everyone as he gazed out at the orange tinted water, his arms crossed and his elbows resting on the white railing in front of him.

The brunette smiled and pulled himself up so he was sitting on the bar. “Haru.” He called to get the other boys attention.

Haruka blinked away his thoughts and shifted his deep blue eyes silently towards the other teen.

Makoto was about to ask why he had such a problem with his cousin...but quickly thought better of it and instead decided to ask, “Shall we start heading home?”

Instead of responding Haru turned his attention to the calm, serene view of the ocean once more before blowing out a small puff of air and pushing away from the railing.

Makoto took that as a 'yes' and went back to the table, drawing attention away from Nagisa's loud outbursts.

“What is it, Makoto-senpai?” Rei asked, being the first one to notice the brunette sidle up next to them. The others turned once they heard Rei's acknowledgement.

“I think it's time to call it a day.” He replied, smiling sheepishly as Nagisa whined and stuck his bottom lip out.

“But Mako-chan! It's still so early!” The blonde whined, pointing towards the sun which was almost completely gone now.

“It's almost time for dinner and we don't want our parents getting mad now, do we?” Rei spoke up, siding with Makoto.

“You too, Rei? That's not fair!” Nagisa proceeded to weakly hit his fists against the blue-haired boy's chest as he stood from his seat.

“Hey, Nagisa, stop it!”

“I guess you're right. My brother will be furious if I stay out any longer.” Gou said with a sigh before standing up and pushing her chair in.

“Let's go, Hanako.” Makoto stretched his hand out to the brunette girl still seated at the table. She gave him a small smile before accepting his offer to help her up.

Haru watched from the corner of his eye as Makoto pulled the water-hater to her feet before pushing her chair in so it was out of the way.

When Makoto met his stare with smiling green eyes of his own Haruka huffed and turned his head in the other direction. Makoto couldn't help but snigger at his best friend's sudden change in behaviour.

“Well, I'll be going now. Good bye!” Gou called, waving to everyone as she jogged down the street.

“Bye~! Say hi to Rin-chan for us!” Nagisa shouted, waving both his arms above his head in farewell.

“I guess we'll be taking our leave as well.” Makoto announced. The taller boy exchanged farewells with the two youngest members of the swim team before turning to see Haru already walking away.

“Haru, wait up!” Makoto called, dragging a surprised Hanako along behind him.

Haruka turned his head enough to glance at his friend over his shoulder. Upon seeing the girl trailing behind Makoto he quickly turned back and sped up, but his quick strides couldn't compare to his best friend's long legs, and the green-eyed boy eventually caught up to him.

Haru blew out a silent sigh of frustration as Makoto started droning on about how exciting tomorrow was going to be. Usually he wouldn't mind his friend's animated ramblings, in fact, he found them rather comforting. But today he just wasn't in the mood.

And for the first time in his life he wished the path to his house wasn't the same one that Makoto had to take.

Seeming to notice that Haru wasn't liking the idea of communicating, Makoto directed his conversation to the girl on his other side, his happy-go-lucky tone never faltering once.

Hanako replied in small sentences, something Haru couldn't help but notice as he compared her and Makoto. In fact, if you looked past the physical traits, the two were nothing alike.

Feeling irritated at himself for even bothering to waste his time thinking about the water-hater, he tilted his head to narrow his harsh stare at the footpath.

Every time he caught the slightest movement from Hanako in his peripheral vision he edged that much father away from the two, something that hadn't slipped by his friend.

As the trio reached the top of the steps to Haruka's house Makoto smiled brightly and warned him about not staying in the bath too long or he'd catch another cold.

Haru ignored the brunette as he pulled a key from the pocket of his pants and unlocked the door.

“I'll be here bright and early to pick you up, Haru-chan!” Makoto promised.

“You don't have to,” Haruka grumbled. “And lay off the -chan already.”

Makoto huffed out a laugh as the raven-haired boy opened the door and stepped inside. “See you tomorrow, Haru.”

“Goodbye, Nanase.” Hanako mumbled quietly, bowing slightly to the older boy.

Haru didn't bother to respond as he shut the door behind him, albeit roughly.

I straightened up and stared at the door with wide eyes, wondering what I'd done wrong.

“Was it something I said?” I asked as I turned to face my cousin. Makoto smiled sweetly and made his way back down the steps.

“Don't worry, it's nothing you did,” Makoto assured me before glancing off into the distance. A look of guilt quickly replaced his earlier smile as he sighed and turned onto another street. “Haru isn't usually this bad...I think it's because of what I said at the pool.”

“What you said?” I questioned, giving the taller boy a quizzical look as I followed after him.

“When I explained to the group that you hated water, I think Haru took it as a personal insult.” Makoto explained, scratching the back of his head sheepishly.

“An insult...but why?”

My cousin exhaled heavily before dropping his shoulders. “Haru, he...well, it's a little hard to explain, but I guess you could say he has a kind of...connection to water. A deep one.”

I stayed silent as I thought that over in my head. A connection to water? Like, a bond with it?

“I'm not sure I understand...” I admitted after the minutes of silence became too much to bare. “Water is just water.”

“Not to Haru.” Makoto sighed as the Tachibana's house came into view.

“But water can't feel, it can't breathe. It can't live. The only thing it does is...take.” I whispered the last part so quietly that I wasn't even sure if Makoto had heard it or not, but judging by the way his features darkened, he knew what I was thinking.

In an attempt to brighten up my spirits, he quickly jumped in front of me to open the gate to his yard before stretching one arm out and gesturing to the building before us.

“Welcome to my home!”

I plastered on a fake smile for his sake and followed him through the gate. I fiddled nervously with the corner of my tank top as we walked down the cobbled path cutting through the grass and leading to the front door.

“I'm sorry for intruding on you so suddenly like this. It's just... now that I'm evicted from my home and my dad is-... well, I don't really have anywhere else to stay.”

“It's alright,” Makoto smiled sadly at me as we paused in front of the door. He turned to face me completely before laying one of his big hands on top of my head. “Family have to help each other out in times of need, right?”

I beamed up at my cousin and wiped the brimming tears before they could fall. “Yeah.” I agreed softly.

Just then the door opened with a slam and two children came running out, both throwing themselves at Makoto.

“Big brother!” They cried happily, hugging his arms and legs. Makoto stumbled to regain his balance and laughed at his siblings enthusiasm.

“Come on now you two, I can't walk like this!” Makoto scolded playfully. I watched with ambivalence as the close-knit siblings argued light-heartedly amongst each other.

Unable to bear it any longer I turned my back on the happy greeting and peered inside the house. Just as I was about to step in someone came running down the hallway.

“Ah, I thought I heard my son's voice!” Makoto's mother spoke, wiping her soapy hands on a greasy apron tied around her waist. It didn't take long for her to notice me however, and as soon as she did she gasped in delight and swept me up in her tight embrace.

“It's so good to see you again, Hanako!” She sang as she spun me around. I fumbled to get a grip on her arms as I felt myself slipping ever so slowly from her hold.

“P-please, put me down!” I cried, but my voice was muffled from my face being pressed into her shoulder.

Feeling that she'd finally hugged me long enough, my aunt dropped me to my feet and held me at arms distance, her delicate aging hands resting on my shoulders.

“My, how you've grown! She's such a beautiful lady now, isn't she Mako dear?”

“M-mum! You're asking me?! I can't say something like that about my cousin!” Makoto stuttered nervously. I turned to give him a threatening stare, to which he quickly backed away from with his hands in front of him for defense.

“N-n-not to say that you aren't, Hanako!” He stammered out, his eyebrows twitching at my piercing gaze.

I stifled a laugh and eased up. I felt a little bad about it, but it was fun to know that I could still intimidate him like that, even if he is taller than me now.

“Now, who's ready for dinner?” Makoto's father called. The children barrelled past us to be the first at the table.

“Ah, Hanako! Long time no see.” Their father called, only just noticing me standing in the doorway. “Come, come. We can catch up over dinner!”

Without needing any further encouragement I stepped through the threshold, waiting for Makoto to do the same before we made our way into the dining room.

The night flew by and before I knew it a new day had already begun.

As I stood outside waiting for my cousin to put his shoes on, I couldn't help examining the garden. The grass was a healthy shade of green, as well as just about everything else connected to the Tachibana's lawn. The flowers were blooming brilliantly and there subtle aromas helped to calm my first school-day nerves.

As my eyes wandered across the gentle grass moving with the wind, I spotted something that hadn't been there the last time I'd visited. Crouching down to inspect it, I realised it was a grave for the families pet fish.

“Ah, so you found it.” I jumped at the sound of Makoto's voice right behind me. I stood back up and turned around, surprised to see just how close my cousin actually was.

Trying to avoid bumping into him I shuffled back to put some distance between us, but the sole of my shoe rolled over a stray rock and I ended up losing my balance.

I cried out as I saw the world turn and felt my feet fly out from underneath me. But luckily I had a relative with good reflexes, so just as my backside was about to meet with the ground a strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me back up.

“Thanks...” I breathed in relief.

“It was my fault, sorry about that!” Makoto apologised, smiling apologetically like he always did in these sorts of situations.

I guess some people just don't change...I mused silently before running over to the gate and opening it. “Better hurry up or we'll be late!”

“Hold on a second, we have to go pick up someone first.”

“Someone?” I repeated, turning to glance at Makoto. He smiled and closed the gate behind him before taking off in the opposite direction of the school.

“Haru, of course.” He replied casually. I felt my stomach drop and instantly slowed to a crawl, allowing Makoto to stroll on ahead without noticing.

The thought of having to endure an entire day of that silent boy's obvious dislike for me quickly brought down the earlier hype I'd been in this morning. All of a sudden, I didn't feel so well.

“Haru-chan!” Makoto called, glancing up at the second floor when he received no response. “Ugh, again?” He sighed, reaching out and pushing the door open before stepping inside.

“M-Makoto...! You can't just let yourself in like that!” Hanako whispered harshly, though neither her or the green-eyed boy knew why she was trying to be quiet.

“What if he's still asleep?” She insisted, latching onto her cousins arm in an attempt to slow him down.

“Doubtful.” Makoto rejected the idea almost immediately, leaving Hanako to wonder just how many times he's broken in if he knows what his friend is and isn't doing.

Once the girl realised that her relative was heading in the direction of the wash room her brows furrowed with confusion.

“Why are we going in here?” She asked, unable to help herself.

“To get Haru out of the bath, of course.” Makoto replied nonchalantly, as if that were the most normal thing to say in a situation like this.

“T-the bath?!” Hanako screeched in a tone a few octaves higher than normal. At the thought of seeing a butt-naked boy who hated her guts she quickly released her cousins burly arm and covered her reddening face in embarrassment.

“I-... I'll wait outside!” She squeaked, leaving no time for Makoto to explain the situation properly as she practically sprinted towards the nearest exit, her sudden burst of speed putting all Olympic runners to shame.

Makoto was about to tell her that Haruka would be in his swimsuit anyway, but the girl was gone before he could even utter the first word. With a heavy sigh, he entered the bathroom and proceeded to coax his friend out of the tub like he did almost every morning.

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