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The Ai Chi Method

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            The text thread was over a year old but Haru didn’t have the heart to delete it. Her last message had been short and to the point.

            ‘I’m tired.’

            He didn’t scroll through it often unless he was looking for a reason to wallow. The conversation had mostly been him begging and her refusing. She hadn’t been wrong, though. Gou, more than anyone, had the absolute right to put up a wall and declare herself tired and done. His biggest fear was her moving on before he could move forward.

            The first session with his American therapist had been awkward.

            “I’m a therapist, too.”

            The line had been delivered as an attempt at humor but it tanked quickly like the weighted flags Makoto’s students loved so much. She’d smiled and asked about his work and studies before questioning him at length about his family. The introspection hurt more than he’d anticipated. Digging at the roots of his turbulent childhood and lonely teenage years left his chest feeling hollowed out. More than once he’d considered dropping his sessions but seeing Gou’s words – I’m tired – every time he opened his text messages shoved him right back into line.

            Haru left his phone under his pillow and stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. He needed a haircut.


 

            The clinic was large and serviced more than one local school. Haru thought he could avoid alerting her to his employment for at least a week or two. He was wrong. Gou spotted him in the pool with a patient on his second day.

            He’d only just stepped out of the showers after his last session when she confronted him.

            “What are you doing here?”

            “Could I have a moment to dress?” he asked softly, trying to edge around her.

            “Have you developed a sense of modesty now?” Her tone was lighter but Haru didn’t dare assume that meant he was in her good graces.

            Fine. He sighed and dropped his towel to the floor. Gou didn’t even blink and her eyes never strayed below his chest. Haru pulled on a pair of soft warm up pants before turning back to her.

            “I work here.”

            “No you don’t,” Gou said firmly, shaking her head. “No, you don’t. I work here. You… can’t.”

            “I got my certification nine months ago and I need to pay the bills when I’m not training.”

            Gou crossed her arms over her chest and leaned her shoulder against the wall of employee lockers.

            “I saw you on the roster for the Olympic team.”

            Haru pursed his lips. “How did you manage that?”

            “You really have to ask?”

            Rin. Of course. Haru shrugged. “I guess it was a dumb question.”

            “Why here,” she asked softly. “Why this clinic. You could’ve gone back to Tokyo.”

            “So could you,” he muttered, shaking out a clean t-shirt.

            “Iwatobi is my home,” she snapped. “Why would I be anywhere else? I’m not like Rin.”

            “I’m here because I missed the quiet life.” His voice was loud in the mostly silent locker room. He left out the part about missing her. “Things are about to get noisy for a while.”

            “Haru –”

            “I’m sorry, Kou. I should’ve told you.”

            Gou blanched then flushed. “If you think calling me Kou will make me less annoyed with you, then the pool chemicals have rotted your brain.”

            Haru couldn’t contain the tiniest of grins. “Gou, then.”

            “Kou is fine,” she said haughtily, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder. Haru was happy she was still the same in that way.

            “I promise I’ll stay out of your way.”

            She frowned. Her mouth opened to reply but she snapped it shut and spun on her heel. The sound of the door snicking closed drew his small grin into a full smile.

            “I’ll see you around then,” Haru whispered.


 

            Haru excelled at Ai Chi. Rin and Makoto liked to joke that of course Haru was good something that required a blank face and submersion in water. He was skilled in more than one method of physiotherapy but Ai Chi – specifically the pool – fascinated him.

            He felt her before he saw her. Gou could still command a room when she wanted to. Even an empty one. The water lapped at his legs and arms and chin as he waited.

            “You seem less tense now.” Gou hadn’t asked a question but Haru still felt like he owed her an answer.

            “I took your advice.”

            “I don’t remember giving any.”

            Haru stood and glided to the pool’s edge where her legs dangled in the water. Her pants were rolled up and over her knees.

            “You told me you were tired.”

            “Oh,” she whispered. “That.” Gou sighed and her eyes fell to the ripples around her calves. “I didn’t mean it, Haru.”

            “You did.”

            “Well, okay, yeah, I did. But I didn’t mean for you to drop off the face of the planet.”

            “To be completely fair,” Haru said, smiling and folding his arms on the edge of the pool. “I didn’t do that. I just took a break… and therapy.”

            “Therapy? Like what you do here?” She frowned. “Are you hurt?”

            “Not that kind of therapy. The talking kind.”

            Gou blinked in surprise. “Oh. That seems…”

            “Very unlike me?”

            “A little yeah,” she whispered. “How did that go?”

            “Imagine spilling your guts to a total stranger and paying them to explain your feelings to you.”

            “Wow.”

            “You’re right, though. I feel less tense. It’s nice to get rid of baggage.” He met her eyes and couldn’t stop smiling. “I think it makes me less exhausting.”

            Gou laughed and reached over to brush the wet hair from his eyes. “I’ll be the judge of that.”


 

            She caught him on his way out of the building on a Thursday night. Suddenly, Gou was beside him taking the same stride. Her hair was down around her shoulders. She never used to wear it down.

            “So,” she said casually. “Would you say your techniques lean more toward qigong or tai chi chuan?”

            Haru’s mood lightened. “Did you read that on Wikipedia?”

            “Give me some credit, Haruka.” Her smile was genuine.

            “I’d be happy to explain it to you,” he said softly, pushing the glass doors open. The night outside was warm.

            “I’m listening.”

            “Maybe over dinner? Or lunch?”

            “Hm.” Gou stared up at him in a way he still loved. “I’ll think about it.”

            “I’ll wait.” The night breeze picked up her hair and he couldn’t help the ridiculous grin. “Goodnight, Kou.”

            Haru also loved the way she still watched him go.


 

            Gou strode right past him in a suit that was quite obviously not the type employees wore in the therapy pool with patients during the day. Her bikini was black and tied at her hips in bows that didn’t look like they’d survive a dive into the water. Haru stood, still dripping in his trunks with the clinic logo on the left leg, confused as she stopped at the edge of the pool to tie up her hair.

            “What are you doing?” he asked tightly.

            “I decided not to take you up on dinner or lunch.” She spun around and planted a hand on her hip. “I think I’d much rather have a hands-on demonstration of the Ai Chi method.”

            “But you don’t swim!”

            Gou’s laugh echoed off the walls. “Does this pool look big enough or deep enough for swimming to you? Come on, Haru, I want the full experience.”

            She turned and knelt down beside the edge of the pool. On impulse, Haru marched toward her and, without stopping, hopped in. She dodged the splash and tried to show some grace but ultimately stumbled into the pool. Haru helped her right herself and kept her hair from getting wet.

            “That was close,” he said softly. “A narrowly avoided drowning.”

            “I’m not that bad,” Gou huffed.

            “I like that you’re not a good swimmer,” Haru whispered.

            “Why?”

            “Because it means you need me for something.” The words slipped free with less eloquence than he’d wanted but they were true. “You’re so good at everything else. It’s nice to feel like I can actually help you for once.”

            “Haru –” Her face fell into something sad but earnest.

            “I mean it.” He sucked in a deep breath. “You were right to tell me all that stuff before. You’re always doing the work. My work. Rin’s work. The swim club. Everything. You did all that. Thank you.”

            “I just…” She trailed off and her eyes focused on his shoulder. “I just wanted to be useful and help my brother. And that turned into a lot more than I expected.”

            “You’re a giver, Kou. I never realized what a selfish taker I was until you told me.”

            “Makoto told you more than once. I think Rin actually shouted it at you, too.”

            Haru shrugged. “That’s different. Now I know that’s selfish, too.”

            “Why was it different when I said it?”

            “Because you’re the one I was actually scared of losing,” he blurted. “Makoto and Rin are more stubborn than you. You could’ve walked away from me at any point and still be just as amazing and whole.”

            “Haru –” Gou sighed and met his gaze. “Please tell me you didn’t do all that therapy for me. I don’t know a lot about that stuff but I don’t think you’re supposed to do it for anyone but yourself.”

            Haru felt his lips curve into something embarrassingly sentimental. He touched a strand of wet hair that stuck to her neck and shoulder.

            “I went for you but stayed for me.”

            “I never wanted you to be perfect, Haru. I just wanted you to be happy. You were drowning and –”

            “You’re not a good swimmer,” he finished in a whisper.

            Gou’s cheeks turned pink and she pressed her forehead to his shoulder. Her hands slid over his chest to lock around his neck. Haru’s palms found the skin they’d missed on her hips and back. The water made it easy for her to buoy herself up against his body. She left kisses on his jaw and cheek before brushing her lips against his ear.

            “I missed you, Haruka. Don’t leave me again.”


 

            Gou’s kisses were more possessive than he remembered. She claimed his lips, his shoulders, his wrists, and his hips. Haru didn’t mind being taken if it was Gou doing the taking. Every press of her lips and nip of her teeth was a command.

            Don’t you dare leave me again.

            When she sighed for the last time and fell into his sheets, Haru took his own kiss. It wasn’t a command or even a reply. It was a promise.

            I won’t.