It was a day that was quite sunny from morning on. How many times have I come here, thought Haruka as he looked up at the blue sky. The Hiyori Aquatic Center was particularly large even within the prefecture, so most meets were held there. He felt like every time he came here, it was sunny. It was an indoor pool so it didn’t really matter if it was sunny or not, but he thought sunny was better.
“Weather’s nice today.”
Makoto’s voice was bright as always. Especially on sunny days.
“Wow, it’s huge.”
It was Nagisa’s first time to the center, and his eyes grew wide as he looked up at it.
And then, the extremely reticent Rin. Maybe he was nervous, although it wasn’t like him.
At check-in Rin wrote down all four of their names, and the check-in person took out the girls’ list and began looking for their names. Haruka thought Rin would say something, but he just watched this happen silently. The check-in person reached the end of the list without finding their names and looked up questioningly, about to say something. But, seeing their faces, the official seemed to understand and began to look on the boys’ list.
Walking down the hall to the locker room, the smile Nagisa had been holding back burst forth at once.
“Did you see? They took out the girls’ list. I wonder whose name they thought was a girl’s. I bet it was Rin-chan’s.”
“No, it was all of ours.”
“Yeah, yours too.”
“Whaat? I didn’t know Nagisa was a girl’s name. You know, I saw the name Rin-rin on an animal at the zoo. A female.”
Haruka held it back, but Makoto bent over, laughing. Shooting a side glance at Makoto, Rin said grumpily, “Get too relaxed and we’ll lose. Hold it together better.”
Did he really get it? It felt like the only thing that had come across in Rin’s retort to Nagisa was his nerves.
When they entered the locker room, they heard the sound of lockers opening and closing all over. There were already a lot of kids there. When Rin opened a nearby locker, the other three looked for empty lockers near his and opened their doors.
Rin turned at hearing his name suddenly called, and several on their way to the pool were looking at him. His face relaxed unconsciously. It was the kids from his old club, Sano SC.
“Hey, it’s been a while.”
He answered them with a light wave, and one gave a friendly smile as he approached. It was Sousuke Yamazaki, lanky and tall as always.
“You look pretty good.”
“I guess. How about you?”
“Same as ever. But what I wanna know is, have you gotten to see your dad?”
Rin was stunned by this question.
Conscious of Haruka and the others, he gave a vague reply.
“Huh. Well, see you around then.”
Appearing to sense the reason for Rin’s evasiveness, Sousuke ended the conversation quickly and left the locker room. Only an odd silence remained.
No one said a word as they changed in silence. Finished changing first, Nagisa imitated Rin by snapping the strap of his goggles.
With his voice sounding just as carefree as ever, the stagnated atmosphere disappeared like the sky clearing of clouds.
“Then I’m second,” Makoto said as he shut his locker, sharing a grin with Nagisa.
“Hey, how many times are we swimming today?” Nagisa asked Rin.
“What about tomorrow?”
“If we’re in the top 16, then we’re in the semifinals, and we compete in the top 8.”
“So we have to win three times.”
“Yeah. Well, for today let’s just focus on getting into the top four of our group.”
As he said that, he wondered if it had been a weak declaration. It might have been bothering him somewhere inside after all that the team wasn't in top condition. He looked at Haruka. He was trying to shut his locker door, his back to Rin. Surely he’d heard him. Maybe he thought Rin was weak too. Maybe he thought what was making him weak was inside himself.
He wanted to tell him not to worry about it, but he didn't know how to say it, so he just stared at Haruka’s back.
At the pool, races in order of year were going on. Girls were always first, then boys. Right now the girls’ medley relay was going on amid loud cheers.
Aki stood on top of the starting block for the anchor leg. They had qualified because all of her team’s races had been getting fiercer and fiercer, each one more breathtakingly brutal than the last.
Aki’s opponent in the next lane kicked off from the block at the exact same time she did. They hit the water. Their heads emerged simultaneously. As if they were synchronized, their arms and legs moved in time for the crawl. Behind them, a third and incredibly vigorous swimmer gained on them. She was about to overtake them at the goal, but Aki managed to hold on and finished in second place, qualifying, at almost the same time as her opponent. Had it gone on another five meters, she really might have placed third. A chill ran down her spine as she contemplated that.
Aki’s group of four began to walk toward the locker room, no one saying a word.
“Congratulations, Zaki-chan.” Makoto held his palm up.
“Thank you. Good luck to you too, Tachibana-kun.” She slapped his hand with hers with a faint ‘snap!’ sound as they passed each other.
She had gotten them second, but just barely. The other three weren’t smiling either. They had practiced so much, improved their times and everything, but they still weren’t able to win by a wide margin. It weighed on all their hearts. Maybe they’d been nervous. Maybe they’d gotten too cocky. Maybe their form had been bad. Not knowing the exact reason why, they were worried.
But no matter how worried they were, no matter how much they might not know whatever the reason was, there was only one thing to do tomorrow. Swim as they had practiced. And believe that if they could do that, they would win.
Aki took a deep breath in, and when she spoke, it was her bright voice again.
“Everyone, good work today. Tomorrow, let’s all do our best again.”
Aki’s words brought smiles back to the team.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“True, there’s tomorrow.”
“Yeah! Let’s win it all tomorrow!”
“We can definitely do it. We’ve practiced so hard for this, you know. Let’s do our best!”
With everyone’s smiles, a true smile came back to Aki’s heart. It didn’t matter if it was bravado or acting tough. If someone on the team felt optimistic, everyone’s mood would be lifted. And everyone’s moods would give you a true smile in your heart. That was what a team was – the strength of a team. If it had that strength, then even if they didn’t win tomorrow, even if they cried, they could be grateful they were a member of this team. That alone was in Aki and her team’s hearts as unwavering confidence.
While feeling a new energy well up within her, Aki began walking toward tomorrow.
Rin was doing some light stretching in front of the starting block, while checking to feel that Makoto and Nagisa were in place ahead of him, and Haruka behind him. He didn’t particularly need to vocalize it, but he wanted to be truly aware that he was about to swim with these teammates.
The medley relay was long-distance, with each person swimming 100 meters for a total of 400 meters. The first swimmer was Makoto, second Nagisa, third Rin, and then the anchor Haruka. The swimming club name would be called from the first lane, the first swimmer would raise his arm and come stand next to the starting block. Because the first stroke was back, he would start from the water.
After a short whistle sounded four times, a long whistle sounded and Makoto entered the water. After the next long whistle he grabbed the grip and placed his feet against the wall.
“Take your marks!”
With a jerk he tightened his posture. A moment of silence. Then, at the sound of a short buzzer...
At once he leapt backwards. Hit the water, and began to move with his legs stretched out. As he entered the stroke, he came above the surface, his face coming up the highest. He moved with powerful strokes kicking up spray, appearing to be some ocean creature.
It seemed to Rin like Makoto’s swimming was something different from before. Not the difference between crawl and backstroke, but like some fundamental part of his swimming had changed. His pushing aside of the water and smooth progression hadn’t changed, but there was no more reckless using up of all his strength. It looked like he was swimming easily, yet with a threatening pressure, thick and heavy like an orca or a whale. And he was definitely getting faster. Maybe he was turning into a sea creature, Rin thought as he watched Makoto swim.
As Makoto touched the wall first among all the groups, Nagisa’s legs jumped off the starting block. He was too high and overjumped. Just by jumping too high, you would sink deep and it would take time to float back up to the surface. In breaststroke, if your form wasn’t right from the starting block, it was difficult to finetune it. After hitting the water, you only had one stroke and one kick in the water to make up for it.
After Nagisa finally surfaced, their group had slipped to second place. Sano SC was half a person’s length ahead.
...Don’t sweat it, Nagisa. This always happens. What’s special about you will catch up in the last half.
Rin stood on the starting block, whispering this to Nagisa in his head.
Sousuke was standing next to Rin. When he’d been at Sano SC they’d fought to represent the team, and their former relationship that could absolutely be described as friends. When Rin told him he wanted to go to Australia, when he told him he wanted to swim with Iwatobi SC, Sousuke had said “I know,” somewhat exasperated, and hadn’t half-heartedly tried to stop him or interrogate him. Sousuke had, until the end, continued to be the person who understood Rin well. “See ya.” “Yeah.” That had been their final conversation.
And now Sousuke was in the lane next to him as his rival.
“Sorry about earlier.”
Sousuke kept his gaze straight ahead as he spoke to Rin. He was honestly apologizing for the awkward conversation before.
“It’s fine, don’t worry.”
Rin gave him a few short words back. He was saying it was no big deal.
Just with that conversation, they were able to go back to how it had been a few months ago. And they could recognize each other anew as an opponent they could never lose to.
Rin assumed a crouching start position. He had been trying this style out for over a month now. It wasn’t really because it shortened his time, or because it could be proven as having some logical advantage. It was only that in the process of searching for a form that suited him, he had come across this as one to try. He was only testing the possibility. That was his only reason.
In the end, Nagisa couldn’t make up the difference, and touched the wall in second place. As soon as Sousuke finished jumping, Rin’s feet left the block. Between the two starts, it wasn’t a fight between kicking power alone. The real fight was whether they could leverage that power into a driving force. Conscious of the angle of his entry into the water and his posture underwater, Rin reached the surface.
Sousuke was a little ahead of Rin. Dolphin kicking, he swam alongside Sousuke. The other swimmers had gotten totally left behind. From here on, it was his and Sousuke’s fight alone. As he surfaced, he began swimming butterfly. At this point, Rin had a slight lead.
But Sousuke would display his special ability soon. If Rin could gain the lead so easily, he wouldn’t see Sousuke as his rival. Sousuke had a skinny body, but by fully maximizing his long reach and comparatively large hands, he steadily chased Rin down.
They turned at basically the same time. But Rin was ahead. And Sousuke was chasing after him.
I can’t rush. I can’t let my shoulders tense up. All my body’s movements need to come from my legs. Focusing on an image of swimming with his thighs, he cut through the water easily.
Just when it seemed as if they were neck and neck, Rin barely pulled ahead and reached Haruka.
Haruka dove above Rin’s head. The angle and point of entry weren’t bad. But...
Rin felt like time had stopped for Haruka alone. His body wasn’t moving forward. Not only was the distance between him and the top swimmer widening, but the third-place swimmer was swimming next to him. Haruka’s arms and legs were slowing, like he was drowning. It was like the day he tried to get Aki’s scarf...
After the turn, he slipped behind the third-place swimmer and was even with the fourth-place swimmer. Despite that he continued to repeat the basic movements.
By the time Haruka finally reached the goal, they had dropped to fourth place. His breath was ragged, shoulders heaving up and down. You wouldn’t think he had only swum 100 meters.
He pulled himself out of the pool without taking Makoto’s outstretched hand, took off his swim cap and goggles, and headed for the locker room. He passed Aki on the way, but wouldn’t look at her. Everyone watched Haruka walk off silently. No one knew what to say to him now. Silently watching him was all they could do.
At last, he disappeared into the locker room.
By the time the morning sun was starting to rise at last from the edge of Mt. Myoujin, Rin was in front of a grave. Cold, salty air was blowing past, almost grazing his cheeks. Waves broke softly against the cliff. On the lightening sky amid lingering lavender clouds, there were countless streaky patterns that looked like they had been drawn in pastel crayon.
The grave was set facing the sea. There was nothing to regret in its imposing appearance; it appeared proud to Rin. It looked down on the sea with an air of composure, giving off an aura of dignified majesty.
Rin stood in front of the grave. It was still dark, so he had just been staring at it for a while. As the sky recovered its light, it threw the lines of Mt. Myoujin into sharp relief.
“Today’s the last day. I came to say goodbye. I decided to chase the dream. I don’t know how far I can get, but I’m going to go as far as I can. So I won’t be able to come here for a while. Please forgive me. But you know, I’m glad I came here. I’m glad I met them. It really got me in the mood to chase this dream. ...Wherever I go, I’ll never forget about them. Never. I... I really want to win today. Just for today, I want to swim my absolute best. I want to become a real team with them. So I came to tell you this properly today: please watch whatever happens, all of it just as it is.”
He made a fist and lightly rapped the gravestone with it. It felt cold.
The wind blowing in from the sea was coiling around Rin and disappearing.
He whispered it again.
Was the tide coming in? The sound of the waves breaking on the rocks drowned out the seagulls’ cries. He felt sunlight and looked up to see the sun peeking out above Mt. Myoujin. It was starting to shine on sea and land alike.
Rin took a big breath of salty air, filling his chest. Then he faced the grave again.
“I’ll be going now. Bye.”
He flashed a small smile, then ran off towards the site of battle.
“Hey hey, so what place should we get in the semifinals?” Nagisa asked Makoto with his usual exuberance as they changed in the locker room.
“If we’re in the top 8, we qualify for the finals,” Makoto answered as he adjusted the length of his goggles.
“We want first place. Don’t use soft words like 8, or we’ll lose!” Rin slapped Nagisa’s back on the word ‘lose’, and the dry sound echoed throughout the locker room.
“Oww! What do you think you’re doing, Rin-chan?”
On the other side of the room, there was a burst of laughter as Sousuke peeked over.
“What’s this, Rin? They’re still calling you Rin-chan?” Sousuke said and laughed again. Rin hurried to deny it.
“N-No, it’s just this guy. Everyone on the team calls me Leader.”
This time it was Makoto who bent over laughing. “Oh yeah, Rin-rin?”
Laughter rose from the other side of the room again. Rin turned to face Makoto.
“Makoto, would you please help me out here?” Rin said, and there was another laugh. Makoto and Nagisa laughed too. Rin should have been mad, but the others' energy was infectious and the edges of his lips twitched. But when he looked at Haruka sitting on a bench, it took the wind right out of his sails.
Haruka was staring off into some far distance by himself in silence. He hadn’t said a word all day. No one had been able to talk to him. Not showing a sign of how he must be feeling, he had just been staring off into space expressionlessly.
If yesterday hadn’t happened, you might think he was the same as always – that if you relied on him, he’d definitely come through for you. But...
Something started to burn inside Rin.
We’re a team, Haru. Believe in us!
They weren’t swimming alone. That thought kept running around inside his head.
Rin shut his locker door and snapped the strap of his goggles.
“Okay, let’s go!”
Aki touched the goal. More than what place she was, she was worried about her time. Turning her head to check the time, she saw a time better than any she’d gotten in practice.
Aki made a little fist inside the water. This was different from yesterday. Her body was working like it had in practice. She had been able to swim with her feelings more than she had in practice.
We can do it. If we keep this up, we can win the finals!
That was her conviction.
Aki climbed out with the help of Yuki’s hand, where her team all greeted her with a smile.
“You did it, Zaki.”
“Yup, the finals are next!”
“You got a good time.”
“Yeah. We might really do this.”
Everyone’s faces looked totally different from yesterday. Every one of them felt like the team’s mood was flying high.
The four of them lingered by the area by the pool exit/entrance to cheer for the boys. The girls’ second race finished, and Sano SC – Rin’s old swimming club – placed first in the boys’ first race.
The boys’ second race group was filing past Aki and her team towards the starting block. In that group was Makoto, smiling.
“Congrats, Zaki-chan. Keep it up!”
“Yeah, thanks. You too, Tachibana-kun!”
As they passed, she slapped Makoto’s upheld hand with an audible snap.
Headed towards the starting blocks, Makoto glanced over at the waves undulating softly in the pool.
He was still afraid of water. He still felt like some goblin was lurking in it. He still couldn’t shake the sense that he would be swallowed up, entangled, and dragged in by it.
If this were an individual race, his legs might be cramping now. He might be frozen in place, unable to take even a single step forward. But he had his teammates with him now. He was part of a team that swam together. Haruka might be afraid of things like saving and supporting one another. But Makoto really felt supported right now. He might not be saving anyone else, so he might not have that power. But there could be no faking it – it was a fact that they were supporting him. Supported by his friends, Makoto could stand here now.
A strong, intense desire to win he’d never felt before had come over him. His chest, back, arms, legs, and insides had grown hot. It wasn’t for the sake or anyone or anything, or even for his own self. They had worked and worried and struggled in order to win. Thus, he wanted to win. That feeling alone would never lose, would never yield, to anyone.
He looked at Haruka, whispering quietly so no one else could hear. Then he made a tight fist with his right hand and strode off toward the water.
Nagisa said right as the race was about to start. Haruka hadn’t spoken to anyone yet today. No one had touched him. But Nagisa had hopped over that wall easily. Confidently, quickly, as if what had been important was suddenly trifling.
“What should I do? I’m nervous,” Nagisa said, though he wasn’t acting like it. Haruka’s mouth opened slightly.
“You? No way.”
“I’m serious. Look, my palms are drenched in sweat. My legs are shaking.” He showed Haruka his trembling knees. Haruka poked Nagisa’s head to check how much of it was for real, and the shaking in his legs stopped and Nagisa looked down, embarrassed.
“Sorry, I was lying about my legs. But I really am nervous. I messed up my start yesterday, and maybe I will today too. I can’t stop thinking about it. What if we don’t win and it’s my fault?”
What Nagisa was saying was very simple. He was taking the feelings he had inside him and presenting them honestly in words, with no ornamentation. Whether it was childishness or pure-heartedness, it was still something Haruka could not do.
“It’s not worth it to think about stuff like that.”
“I can’t help it. It’s really important.”
It might seem like that to Nagisa, but it didn’t seem worth it to Haruka, who inhaled shortly.
“Then if someone does get ahead of you, just think of it as that person’s fault.”
“No way, I couldn’t do that.”
Instead of saying anything, Haruka looked into Nagisa’s eyes. They stared at each other. Finally Nagisa realized what he was saying was contradictory.
“Oh, I see. But I’d still feel responsible.”
“Say that when you’re so fast that you feel responsible.”
“Oh, I see. Huh? Somehow I feel better all of a sudden. I’m not nervous after talking with you, Haru-chan.”
Was this kid just simple-minded or what? Haruka’s mouth opened slightly again.
The first swimmer was Makoto, second Nagisa, third Rin, and anchor Haruka. The order was obviously the same as yesterday’s, but they did not plan for the results to be the same.
Sano SC had gotten the top time in the previous race and qualified for the finals. Rin was on fire at the thought that he could swim with Sousuke again, and looked at Makoto while waiting for the signal to begin.
Four short whistles, and into the water on the long whistle. Grab the grip on the next long whistle.
“Take your marks!”
Everyone leaped back at the sound of the short buzzer. Makoto’s head was first. He was maintaining a nice streamlined figure.
It was important to be conscious of the streamline position no matter the stroke, but it was particularly difficult with backstroke because of the complicated S-shaped arm pull. You had to rotate deeply with your arm hitting the water above your head, and doing that with stiff shoulders would mean instability. If you rolled and listed widely to obtain that, then your body would sink and you wouldn’t pick up any speed. In order to pull off an effective S-shaped arm pull with a stable streamline, loose shoulders were essential.
In Makoto’s case, his shoulders were perfectly loose. He could bring the hand behind up above his head.
He reversed at the turn and pushed off the wall. As he began his stroke again, he stretched out wide again and distanced himself from the other swimmers.
Rin thought Makoto was perfectly cut out for backstroke. Of course there was his loose shoulders, but his back was strong too. Backstroke wasn’t “swimming backwards,” it was “swimming on your back”. Stabilizing the rolling with your back, making a nice S-shaped arm pull.
At the same time as the push, he stretched his hands towards the entry point. Using the power from the recoil from the stretching, he caught hold of the water. It was one fluid motion with no energy wasted, because the strength of his back was keeping the rolling stabilized.
Repeating a powerful stroke each time his head emerged, Makoto reached the wall in first place.
Nagisa dove. His timing was a little late, and it was his usual unrefined dive. A stroke, a kick. But he emerged first.
There was a reason Nagisa was better at breaststroke than the other strokes. It was because his ankles were weak. If he held his toes down, they would cling to his shins. In other words, he could use the full soles of his feet to kick the water straight back.
However, since breaststroke was the stroke that used the most strength out of the four, Nagisa always lost a bit of steam right before the 50-meter mark. As before, he had let another swimmer get ahead of him and now after the turn he was losing his place again. Probably he was thinking “I slipped” over and over inside his head. The instant he thought “I’ll get my spot back”, he would bring out his trump card.
Upkick. By bringing his legs together for the dolphin kick to move upward, it wasn’t only that he reduced the water’s resistance but that he used that movement itself as propulsion. It wasn’t anything he’d been taught. It wasn’t a style of swimming anyone could do, if you didn’t have something like an innate sense for it. That’s exactly why it suited Nagisa, who learned with his body. Possibly that’s why that butterfly lesson had been successful. If so, it meant it had been worth it to teach him that.
But that wasn’t the only reason Nagisa was gaining speed. There was something he couldn’t explain with words yet. Something he could only understand if he was swimming against others. If he had to say it, it was like a drive, but that still wasn’t fully it. That creepy-crawly sensation...
Nagisa stretched way out and caught up to the second-place swimmer, who then lost his balance and fell behind. Then Nagisa stretched out again and was just a hair’s breadth away from first place when he touched the wall.
Rin shot off from a crouching start. As he dove, he felt a lightness in his body, like he could fly off anywhere. Time slowed down.
I’m not hitting the water!
He was still in the air. His senses were still active, but time hadn’t caught up. It seemed like the world around him and his own body had stopped. The gap between his senses and the imbalance in time confused him, and his confusion made his body appear tilted. By the time he thought ‘Uh oh’ it was already too late, and he messed up his landing.
He lost their place by a large margin – behind fifth place. It was really bad for Rin, who prided himself on his ability to dash off, to have messed up his start. He had to hustle. The luxury of calmly thinking had gotten him blown off course. He couldn’t keep cool anymore. He could only think about plunging forward recklessly.
It wasn’t as if the race was that tight. Normally, Rin would have been able to finish in first place easily even with a failed start. But until he made the turn at the 50-meter mark, he couldn’t regain himself.
He’d tried to catch up, but when he touched the wall, it was in fourth place after all. He wasn’t even able to spare a glance upward to see Haruka diving above his head.
Suddenly, he sensed light and turned his head. Haruka was swimming – emitting light as he swam. A strong energy was turning into light and coming off him, so bright it dazzled.
Rin couldn’t move. He couldn’t tear his eyes away. He was completely and utterly fascinated, drawn in, attracted by Haruka swimming, gliding along like some water bird with wings spread wide as it fluttered in the sky.
By the time Makoto had helped Rin get up to the poolside somehow, Haruka was at the turn. His head emerged with an astounding lead. Then he began his strokes.
Catching the water like an embrace. Gracefully bending flexible kicks. A fluid rolling motion. And from that quiet form, a high speed that could not have been fathomed.
This scene that transcended reality had inextricably fascinated not just Rin, but everyone watching. No, not watching. Feeling. Every single person in the place had to be feeling a hot, throbbing heartbeat.
Haruka touched the goal. He climbed up to the poolside lightly, not even looking at his time. His actions were so light, it was as if he’d soon forget all about the fact that there had been a race.
He’d finished swimming, but the as yet uncooled energy was still coming off Haruka’s body silently. Repelled by this energy, no one could get close to him. They couldn’t move.
He’d gotten his speed back. But he still only felt regret. The air was permeated only with the energy Haruka was emitting.
Rin looked at his hands. They were slightly trembling. It wasn’t just Rin. Makoto’s back was trembling too. Nagisa’s legs too, so much that he couldn’t walk.
Haruka walked up to Nagisa and put his right hand on his shoulder. At that moment, tears spilled out of Nagisa’s eyes and a cry fell from his mouth. Hugging Haruka, he cried and wailed loudly. With no regard for what others might think, he clung to Haruka and sobbed.
Not surprised or confused in the least, Haruka patted Nagisa’s head.
“The finals are next.”
“Yeah, Haru-chan. Haru-chan!”
Nagisa looked up at Haruka, then buried his face in his chest and cried again.
In the locker room were joyful voices and disappointed voices all mixed together. And a thread of tension running through everything. Whatever the category, the finals were next. For the freestyle Haru should have entered and the breaststroke Makoto should have entered. And for the medley relay the four were swimming together.
Haruka and the others were sitting on a bench, silent and lost in their own thoughts. Nagisa’s eyes were still a little red, but his breathing was normal, and he was completely recovered and calm. Makoto was lightly rolling his shoulders, increasing his concentration on the finals. Haruka was blankly staring into space. Maybe it was a faraway gaze into his future.
And Rin was still hesitating.
They were supposed to have decided to face one another honestly, but he couldn’t take another step forward. If he tried to have a normal conversation, he might feel better, but...
No, he wouldn’t talk with them to feel better. He would talk to become a real team. They couldn’t do their best swimming with true emotions hidden. They shouldn’t be able to. He knew that, but he was still hesitating and frustrated.
He looked at Haruka who had suddenly said his name. Haruka’s gaze was fixed on some other faraway place.
“What happened back there?”
His tone of voice wasn’t accusatory. He was asking because he really didn’t know.
...Because you swam like that yesterday...
He thought that far, then gave up. He had so many excuses, he couldn’t make progress. Maybe he was nervous. There was definitely that. Or maybe he’d gotten over-excited. He’d thought so much about what he had to do, too much tension built up and he lost his calm decision-making ability. He knew that now, but it didn’t help.
He apologized honestly. It was the only word he could find.
Haruka turned his gaze to Rin. “I’m sorry I made you worry,” he said in a barely audible voice. Rin felt lighter as he slowly exhaled the air that had been trapped in his chest.
Don’t apologize. You can just do as you like and swim.
Rin smiled and nodded, answering Haruka wordlessly.
That’s right. Even though they had struggled to get here, it couldn’t be helped. Makoto looked at Rin with his upturned eyebrows. Rin was reflected in Nagisa’s transparent pupils. It was much too late now – there was no longer any need to hide it or dress it up. He could talk with them without avoiding the heart of the matter.
“Thank you, guys, for letting my own selfishness drag you along this far,” Rin said, and Makoto smiled as always.
“You didn’t drag us along. We’re all here because we want to be.”
“I guess. Yeah, I guess so.”
Makoto said that, but he had to, so Rin felt bad too. He’d dragged them into rough practices, and gotten them to focus only on the medley relay. That’s why he really was grateful. That’s why he really did have to say it.
“I have something I’ve been wondering if I should say or not. The next race is the last, whether we end up in tears or smiles. So before that, I do want to say it after all. It’s about my dad...”
He broke off there. The three of them watched Rin silently.
Rin steeled himself and breathed in deep. Long and deep, like he was about to dive into the water.
“My dad was in the first generation of Iwatobi SC swimmers. There’s a picture of them in the break room, and my dad is among them.”
It was the group shot taken every March. The first and the oldest photo. There was a boy holding a trophy in the middle, smiling happily.
“My dad won in the medley relay when he was in sixth grade. His dream for the future was to be an Olympic swimmer.”
A childish dream, indeed. You couldn’t help but smile. The corners of Rin’s lips were twitching as if he knew that, but he couldn’t fully laugh at it.
“In the end, my dad didn’t become an Olympic swimmer. He became a fisherman.”
He broke off. Struggled over what to say next. Makoto’s upturned eyebrows knitted. Haruka’s mouth narrowed. Nagisa’s throat shook a little.
Rin had been uncertain, but he was roused and lifted his head.
“He became a fisherman... and he drowned. They say it was only three kilometers off from the fishing harbor.”
From Makoto’s throat, a sound less than a voice escaped.
He looked at Haruka clingingly. Haruka met his gaze. They were able to have a wordless conversation. Possibly, they were making sure they were both thinking about what had happened years earlier.
Rin saw them do this and was convinced that it had been Haruka and Makoto who he’d seen that time.
Haruka turned to Rin with a stern expression.
“So we’d... met before?”
Rin nodded, with a small smile.
“Looks like it...”
He’d been walking hand in hand with his sister. What was harder than his father’s death was the sadness of the people around him. Suddenly, he felt eyes on him and turned around. Two children about his age were staring at them. He quickly wiped his tears and met their gaze. They ran off somewhere.
“How long have you known?” Haruka asked.
“When Haru fell in the river and was taken away by ambulance, Makoto never let go of Haru’s clothes.”
Clutching just the tip of his clothes, shaking like a leaf and repeating Haruka’s name.
“I thought it might be you two then, when I saw Makoto’s hand clutching his clothes.”
Haruka and Makoto looked at each other. Then they had another wordless conversation.
Rin continued his story.
“I decided to go to Australia. When I decided that, I really wanted to talk to my dad. Honestly, I don’t even remember his face, so I don’t really have a single memory of him. He’d go fish and be gone for days and days, so it can’t be helped, but...”
“Have you been able to talk to him?” Haruka asked.
“I don’t know. Not yet, probably... But I thought that maybe if I joined the same swimming club and won the medley relay, I might be able to see the same dream as him. But that didn’t have anything to do with you guys, and it was a little embarrassing, so I haven’t said anything... but I thought if we didn’t all have the same goal, we wouldn’t be a real team. It’s really selfish, but that’s what I thought. I want us to really be the best team!”
Rin’s eyes were hot. The heat overflowed. Through that, he saw Haruka. He saw Makoto. He saw Nagisa. He thought that he didn’t care if they looked deep into his eyes, that he didn’t care if he exposed everything about himself, if it was to these best teammates.
“I spoke to you first, right? After I lost to Haru. Back then, I was sort of glad there was someone fast at Iwatobi SC. Then, because of who you were, I started thinking more and more about you guys, and whenever I’d see you I’d think ‘we could make a good team.’ That’s the truth.”
Rin sniffled once.
“That’s my reasoning. Thank you.”
It was his answer to what Makoto had asked him weeks ago. Rin had said he wanted to only swim the relay, and Makoto had asked why he was so fixated on the relay...
Nagisa rubbed his reddened eyes once more and asked Rin, “But weren’t the kids at Sano SC mad? You’d been teammates for so long.”
Rin wiped his eyes once too and smiled at Nagisa.
“They understood. And it’s better if Sousuke and I aren’t on the same team anyway.”
“Is Sousuke the guy you swam against yesterday?”
“Because we understand each other too much. He’s even more logical than I am, and we’d always argue. We’d always settle it by agreeing that the fastest is right, but we’re too competitive. We’re super similar, so it’s hard.”
“Do you hate him?”
“No, not hate, but more like he’s the one who understands me best even now. But sometimes that makes it hard to be around him... When you understand the other person’s feelings, you become unable to say what you really want to say. You can’t get to the heart of things. That’s not a friend so much as a part of your own self. You don’t love or hate a part of yourself. It got to be like that, so that I couldn’t even think of him as my friend, and it was really hard... it’s more interesting to swim with guys like you all, who I don’t understand at all. Although that has its own struggles too.”
“Who you don’t understand? What does that mean?”
“Like a kid whose arms stretch out as he nears the goal.”
“Is that me?”
“Or someone who uses up absolutely all his strength to swim with all his might.”
“Or a guy who pulls out amazing swimming just when you think everything is lost.”
“Haru-chan really was awesome.”
“You’re all a bunch of weirdos.”
Makoto raised his upturned eyebrows and gave him a carefree smile.
“We also have a romantic who goes on about his dreams and is a crybaby.”
Rin wanted to say something back, but he also knew it was true and grinned.
It made him wonder what his dad’s team had been like. They’d won, so it was probably a good team.
But Dad, I’m sorry, because this team is the best!
The announcement that the finals were starting came into the locker room. The invisible string of tension entwined itself intricately as it was pulled taut.
Rin put on his goggles and snapped the strap.
“The final race will decide everything!”
Makoto puffed out his chest, upturned eyebrows raised.
Nagisa snapped his goggle strap, imitating Rin.
And strong energy rolled off Haruka’s body silently.
Suddenly, he felt like a breeze had blown past. A breeze with a salty scent faintly mixed in. He thought it was similar to the breeze that blew over Mutsuki Bridge. The breeze blew out of the locker room almost exactly like it was calling the four of them to the site of the final match.
“It’s tomorrow, right?”
Sousuke said from next to Rin, lined up in front of the starting blocks. He was making sure that tomorrow was the day Rin left for Australia.
“Yeah, the next time will be way in the future.”
Rin answered that the next time they’d swim would be far in the future.
“Then we each gotta make sure we win today.”
Whoever lost today would be carrying around those feelings of frustration for years. They were both aware of that.
That was the extent of their conversation. But in that extent, a vow that they would absolutely race each other however many years in the future had been included. It was a promise that they would have enough power to compete against each other. Just that was enough.
Makoto clutched the grip and waited for the signal to start.
“Take your marks!”
The sound of the short buzzer.
Makoto leaped backwards. Then he hit the water. It felt like getting licked roughly by a huge goblin. He was still afraid of the water. But he didn’t feel like his body was cramping up anymore. Even if that fear was still clinging to a corner of his heart, his feeling of being connected to everyone was overriding it. That feeling was superior to anything else.
He couldn’t run away anymore. He plowed ahead at full strength. That was what his heart was ordering. There was no need to hesitate, only swim at full power.
As he broke the surface, he began the stroke. His eyes narrowed against the blue of the sky. They were indoors, and he was wearing goggles, but he could still feel the brightness of the sky. He swam so comfortably he could forget this was a race.
When he surfaced from the turn, the shape of the spray he kicked up was a little different. At the same time, the salty scent enveloped his body. He felt a strange sensation. No, not a sensation. Everything he saw and everything he heard had turned into the ocean. The light-filled blue sky was diffusely reflected onto the waves of the sea.
Makoto was now swimming across the ocean deep.
He hadn’t swum in the sea for many years. But he wasn’t afraid. He only felt good. The goblin was probably there in this water too. No doubt about it, it was even now lurking in the bottom of some deep ocean so it could attack him.
But right now Makoto had something to do. A mission he had to carry out no matter what. He had to get to Haruka, to Haruka and the others, faster than anyone. If it was for that mission, there was no use being scared no matter what kind of goblins might be there.
Kicking up waves, Makoto turned into a sea beast. He plunged onward, tailfin slapping, bending his whole body, pushing aside the water powerfully. Faster and faster than any creature in the sea.
Full of emotion he hit the wall, crying out as his body awakened.
Nagisa’s body fluttered through the air, entering the water at a good clean angle. Once underwater, the world around Nagisa changed. The light, the sounds, everything started to vibrate silently. Then Nagisa became engrossed in the simplest thought: swim fast.
Kicking the mass of water with a whack. Pushing the water in his hands apart swiftly. Thoughts directed forward, ahead. He didn’t feel exhaustion. He could keep going. He could keep swimming. He felt like he could keep going on to any destination.
Both hands on the wall for the turn. A kick, a stroke.
Suddenly, he realized someone was swimming ahead of him, in the same lane. He knew that shouldn’t be happening, but someone was definitely swimming there. He considered who it might be. At that moment, he felt a burst of strong energy and his heart grew warm.
There was no mistake. Haruka was swimming in front of him.
Come here, Haruka said.
As he thought that he’d definitely get outdistanced, he stretched out his arms.
You’ve gotten pretty fast.
At some point Makoto had started swimming on Nagisa’s right.
Really? Am I really fast?
Rin was now swimming on his left.
It’s because you practiced hard. It would be weird if you hadn’t gotten faster.
But you can’t beat me.
I’ll swim faster than you, Rin-chan!
Oh-ho? Then show me.
Don’t go for it too hard, Nagisa. Loosen up a little more.
But if I don’t go for it, I won’t win.
You can go for it, but don’t overdo it and tense up.
Heh, but Mako-chan, you’re the one who’s always swimming super powerfully.
Someone will overtake you if you keep talking.
Oh, wait, Haru-chan.
The breeze that had blown over the Mutsuki Bridge passed Nagisa by.
How far are we going, Haru-chan?
To the goal, of course.
Nagisa’s arms stretched out even longer. His body rode the water, speeding up with even more lifting power. He was happy to be swimming with everyone, so that’s why he felt strongly that he had to swim faster than anyone else. Full of those thoughts, he touched the wall.
“Go for it, Rin-chan!”
Rin shot off from a crouching stance. There had only been the tiniest gap between Nagisa’s touch and his feet diving off the starting block, which had been enough to measure correctly. The strange sense of concentration he’d felt in the last race was still with him, but he wasn’t confused anymore. He wouldn’t lose sight of himself again. He could evaluate and act on the situation so calmly it was astonishing. There was no unnecessary nervousness or excitement. There was only the very certain feeling that he wanted to be connected to Haruka through the best swimming possible. That power of concentration that exceeded all limits was propelling Rin on at top speed.
He could tell even now as he flew through the air who of the eight competing swimmers would be in what position. He entered the water fingertips-first at the ideal angle. Even the shape of the splash he kicked up was almost tangible and he could understand it. He couldn’t see it, but he could sense it. Underwater he could count each and every bubble.
From a dolphin kick he began his strokes. Catching hold of the water, then a keyhole pull. He didn’t feel even the slightest bit of disturbance. He could look down on his own form from just above his body. It wasn’t an image in his head – he was really looking at it. The video was feeding right into his retinas. If he expanded his field of vision, he could also see the form of everyone swimming right now. He could even discern accurately that Sousuke had just finished his start. It was as if he could even hear the change in his breathing.
After the turn, that word floated across a corner of his mind suddenly. He might have told Sousuke not to think about anything extraneous when swimming. But he wasn’t trying to think about it; it was just gradually taking up space in his mind. It wasn’t him over-thinking it. It was welling up from the depths of his heart as a certain fact.
Is my dad showing me this?
His chest was getting hot and the heat was spreading to his arms and legs. A world he’d never seen before, paling in comparison to any ideal, was spreading out before him. The future, so full of light it could spill over. Rin stretched out his arms towards the source of that light.
I’ll show you an extraordinary sight only the four of us can create!
Rin touched the wall. Then, lifting his head, he cried out to Haruka diving above his head.
Haruka flew through the air as he heard Rin’s voice. This was someone who usually bugged him so much, but he felt a strange comfort. Thinking how weird that was, he smiled.
He hit the water and let his body slide in. He didn’t force it to welcome him, but he also didn’t reject it. It wasn’t becoming one body, or a form of exclusion. It was accepting and recognizing each other’s existence.
He’d tried to fiercely hate how reliant he was on water. But the more he thought about it, the more the water tried to wind around him heavily, persistently, stealing away his freedom like shackles. Despite that Haruka just moved his hands and feet at random, swimming recklessly – forgetting all about feeling the water.
The result of all that had been yesterday’s race. He had felt like he was falling down towards the infinitely deep depths of hell.
Right before the semifinals when Nagisa had spoken to him, he had thought about how he looked in Nagisa’s eyes. Nagisa was just looking right at swimming fast, with no doubts. The person he saw in Nagisa’s eyes was incredibly confused. Confused, shaken, and wandering. And crying out for help like a weakling.
If he kept trying to fight the water like this, what would happen next? Or maybe he was supposed to honestly accept that he should rely on the water again. He’d been trying to reject that weak self who wanted help from someone while trying to cling to something.
What is he doing? he had thought while watching Rin’s swimming. And he also meant those words for himself. Relying on the water to try to heal a weak self, and trying to be strong by rejecting the water, were in the end the same thing. Just like Nagisa who would keep acting like himself, Haruka could also keep acting like himself. That was the light he had been able to find after wandering the edges of darkness.
A strong energy filled his body. He no longer intended to hold it back. Makoto’s feelings blazed within him. Nagisa’s thoughts gave him wings. Rin’s thoughts became wind, speeding him on. He was no longer confused about anything. He simply swam on with a strong belief in his feelings. That was it.
The depths of his heart were heating up unstoppably. As if a fire had been lit, his body was growing warm. The instant the glistening spray touched his body, it all evaporated and disappeared. His arms and legs, burnt red, were speeding up.
Before long Haruka was a dazzling streak of light breaking through the water at high speed. Headed not for a destination, but the goal over there.
>> Chapter Eight