Kaoru always had a habit of running away.
When he was 4, going to the doctor was a scary event for him. He’d run to his room and cling to the bed sheets until he was carried away from it, and even when they have arrived at the clinic, he’d cling onto the hem of his mother’s shirt and dig his face into her shoulder, believing that if he squeezed his eyes hard enough, he’d disappear from this place.
When he was 6, his sister had made a sand castle on the beach. Kaoru hadn’t meant to, but as he was digging for shells in the sand, he accidentally disturbed the home of a small crab, and its movement and its claws startled Kaoru so much that he stumbled back and knocked down his sister’s castle. He wanted to apologize immediately, and he tried, kind of. He tried to, but he could, he started to well up in fear that he made his sister angry, and ran off to his mother’s before he could find out if she was indeed angry.
When he was 10, the first time he attempted to surf on his own, without the need of an instructor, Kaoru would stare at the waves coming at him on the shore, and he had imagined the sound of them crashing louder and louder in his ears. He had started to love surfing too, but he’s scared of things going so wrong that he ran back to the opposite side of the sea, where he couldn’t hear the waves anymore.
The only thing that kept him from running away… Was his mother.
She was the one who cooed him in her arms and told him that the check-up was nothing to be feared of and that the doctor was kind, who wouldn't do anything to hurt a good child like him. There’s no need for needles this time, she told him, as Kaoru kept fearing might happen. After a while, she passed him a lollipop that the doctor offered, and Kaoru’s mother told him he was a brave boy. ‘See? That wasn’t so scary, right, Kaoru?’
She was the one who told him to properly apologize to his sister, that he didn’t mean to destroy the castle she worked so hard on. Kaoru had more tears on him than his sister did, but he could still see how upset she was. But their mother gently urged him. Your sister would understand, she wouldn’t hate you for it. And though hesitant, Kaoru’s small voice tried its best to deliver the words, “I’m sorry, it was an accident.” His sister took Kaoru’s hands in hers and brought him to the sandy remains of her once-castle. “Then you’re going to help me make a newer, bigger castle, Kaoru-chan!” She demanded, but there wasn’t any anger in her tone. His sister grinned, and Kaoru stopped being afraid. He smiled. Their mother smiled with them.
She was the one who put a hand on Kaoru’s back when Kaoru’s feet dug deeper into the shore. You’ve been practicing really hard, Kaoru, I know you have. He tried to shut out the waves and listened to her words. You can do this. Believe in yourself, because I believe in you. When he faced the water again, the waves felt smaller than a few moments ago. Less scary. He ran towards the water and paddled into the sea. The waves were getting stronger, and he swore his heart could’ve jumped out from any moment. But his mother’s words echoed against the tides, and gave him courage. The biggest wave was about to come, so he turned around, stood up, and braced himself. Then in an instant, all the fear became awe. Kaoru rode the wave like he was on top of the world, and though it lasted for a moment, he knew he fell in love. And in the distance, his mother waved at him. Kaoru waved in return, and swam back to shore, ready to do it all over again.
She was his beacon and his solace. No one gave him strength the way she did. Her gentle and kind heart gave him hope where he could find none. And he’ll forever be thankful for it.
Thankful for her.
But then one day, it all went black, and it made him want to run away again.
And his mother couldn’t be there to stop him.
It was a rainy afternoon. Students with umbrellas at hand were getting ready to go home. Some students stayed indoors, either to wait out the rain or to continue with their school activities.
Kaoru stared out the window by the stairwell.
There’s no rush to go out. The live house was going to have some regular gigs tonight, so there was no need for him to overlook anything in particular. Management could handle a regular schedule just fine. He wouldn't need to report to his dad either, but let’s face it: talking to him, in general, made a screw in his stomach. So even the prospect of going home wasn’t in his best interest. He had his umbrella in his locker, so he could leave at any time, but it’s just as fine to say he forgot to bring it today and had to stay in school until the weather cleared up.
To the clubroom, it is, then.
As he went down the hallway, he passed by a few other rooms. He could hear loud chatter about paint and figure posing in one, theories of Edo literature in another. There was one sports club having discussions about their next game, and then there was a room that occupied a unit practicing their next live show.
So noisy, Kaoru thought, knowing the irony that came with it.
He arrived at his destination not much later. There were no lights that indicated anyone else to be inside — which was, of course, convenient for him.
He opened the door and turned on the lights, and sure enough, there was nothing. Just a couple of desks, slightly dusty from not having been kept well. The steps he took on the ceramic tiles echoed in the cold room. No one seemed to be have attempted to hide in here either. It was just...
“ Marine Life Club, right…” he muttered to himself. “What a joke.”
Kaoru took himself the liberty to sit one of the desks. He opened his bag and pulled out a book — a blue hardcover with just about average-sized thickness. As far as any other student could tell, it wasn’t a textbook from the school. He opened up the book to a page where a bookmark, in the shape of a surfboard, was left on. On the spread, it had illustrations of different sorts of marine life; beautiful silver scales and brightly colored creatures, some oddly shaped, and some, in-between. There were even handwritten notes on them, scribbled with a red pen. It breathed life into the lonely room.
Kaoru’s fingertips ghosted over the edge of one page. There were two scribbles of smaller jellyfish beside them, and a child’s handwriting that wrote out “Mama’s favorite!”
Kaoru hummed at the memory.
“—There’s so many ‘fish!’”
The sudden voice made Kaoru jump up from his seat. Before him was a person (he had to blink twice to make sure) with long blue hair, curling to its tips, and almost innocent, sea green eyes. On his uniform was a blue tie— the same year as him, but most importantly...
“K-Kanata-kun!” Kaoru shrieked out a name he finally remembered. “You’re dripping wet! Again!! You do know it’s gonna be slippery on my way out!”
“Hey,” Kanata spoke as he completely dismissed Kaoru’s complaints. “Is that ‘book’ yours?”
In some defensive reflex, Kaoru closed the book and brought it closer to his person — just a tad farther from the one that was completely soaked. “Uh…” Kaoru tried to see if Kanata reacted in some way to his defense, but the blue-haired boy only stared back less in puzzlement and more in anticipation of his answer.
Which, in all frankness, he didn’t want to talk about.
“Wh-Where have you been all afternoon! Do you really just hang out in the pool o-or that fountain all day long? There's club activities, you know — I mean, sure, this hellhole isn’t much of a club than it is just… A really empty classroom with just a couple of desks or whatever. But you should really think about it sometime, you know! Staying here for a change. I mean. Geez, it gets really lonely here all by myself — ”
“‘ Lonely’ ...?”
Kaoru’s mouth froze.
That’s… He didn’t really just say that. Did he?
Kanata looked at him more curiously now. Kaoru felt like he was being examined inside out, that God suddenly placed him on the spotlight and Kaoru’s struck with stage fright. He could take it back. Play it off as a joke. Come on Kaoru. A second more, it’s going to be more awkward.
“I mean… Like. You know. Maaaaybe if this place actually looked more like a clubroom, it wouldn’t feel like such a hellhole. I just…” He tapped on his own book impatiently. Where was he going with this? “I just wish it had a little more… life to it. Then it wouldn’t be so boring, and I wouldn't be suffering as much, haha…”
Kaoru meant for that laugh to trail off, but Kanata was looking at him more seriously than before. It probably did just got a bit more awkward.
“You… wish for that, Kaoru…?”
“Fufu… I ‘understand’... I’ll see to it that your ‘wish’ will be granted.” Kanata smiled.
Kaoru blinked twice. Now he’s lost. He had always heard Kanata was eccentric, but he’s only had so few real conversations with him that sometimes he forgets that fact. He had no idea what Kanata meant by “granting” his wish, and even less of an idea of what he’s supposed to do now. He can’t read his book in as much peace now, and there’s still this situation with a wet person standing less than 2 feet in front of him. Maybe he should just head to his own classroom and —
“So..… what does it ‘mean’?”
“What does… ‘Lonely’ mean?”
Kaoru thought Kanata was playing with him, but something in Kanata’s face showed that he was genuinely asking the question. He was like a three-year-old child who didn’t know the world was outside of what he could see with his own two eyes. It confused Kaoru. Why would he be suddenly asked that? What would he even say? There’s no need to explain himself of something that’s not true anyway… Right?
“Hey—” Kanata took a step closer. Apparently, he didn’t know what ‘ spatial awareness’ meant either. “I do not understand, will you please ‘explain’ it to me? What is the meaning of the word ‘lonely’?”
When he noticed Kanata, who was still very much drenched and dripping, started to close the gap between them, Kaoru shoved the book back into his own bag and stood up.
“It…” Kaoru stammered. “I… I have to go.”
And he did. Kanata was left in the clubroom, and Kaoru did not bother to look back at the face he made as he bolted to the door. He was too caught up in thoughts himself, of why that situation went the way it did, and why he was feeling the way he did.
Kaoru clung on tighter to the strap of his bag.
He kept on running.
Kaoru felt glad that he didn’t have to go to that room over the next following days.
He got busy with the live house for a few nights, tasked with either managing behind-the-scenes, or filling in for the late schedules. He also dragged himself into a number of dates. He talked to them about the latest trends, let them compliment him on his looks and personality, and even his ‘hard work’, if he bothered to talk about that at all. Girls had always been able to put him at ease. It was much better than having to face his clubmate again after his shameful exit from last time.
But there was no avoiding it forever. Eventually, his schedule couldn’t fill itself up, and he’d rather pass his time elsewhere than go home while the sun was still up.
Which lead him back to the front of the clubroom.
He’d been thinking a lot about that day, and why it happened. He didn’t know what came over him, spilling all those words like that. He didn’t mean to do that, not especially to a person he barely knew. Kanata-kun was just someone he agreed to form this club with, just because Kaoru didn’t want to join any existing clubs, and no one was willing to take Kanata-kun into theirs; he was too odd, people commented, and that he had no awareness for anything except for himself. But Kaoru didn’t think of that as a problem and, in fact, he was almost envious of Kanata; that kind of free-will concept was something he yearned for.
Plus, Kanata looked like a girl. It made him be easier to talk to, as ridiculous as that sounds.
Their relationship was only a coincidence. Just convenience. Kaoru didn’t want to become close to anyone, really. And he still didn’t plan to.
But needed to explain himself, at least. He needed to clear up his dignity, and say something like: Look, I know I left things awkward last time and just so you know, Kanata-kun, that’s not how I am usually. I mean. Never, actually. It’s a funny story, really, haha— No, actually, no story. Uhm. Anyway, I can’t explain what happened but it wasn’t me! We clear?
Yes. Solid plan. Genius.
Kaoru grimaced at his own useless thoughts. Either case, he couldn’t let this go on any longer. He knocked on the door to let himself known, before entering on his own accord.
“Kanata-kun? Are you in here—“
Kaoru felt like he just got transported to a new, entirely different room. It wasn’t a barren classroom anymore, but instead filled with the very obviously large tanks that have been placed around the room. The room was still dim, but the blue illumination of the tanks scattered around a low light. And, to top it off, there were creatures living in them— fish, jellyfish, even corals, and a few others. Each tank had a life of its own, a huge contrast to the lonely room he had been used to just a week ago.
If he were placed in a different set of circumstances, maybe Kaoru could appreciate the sight for all its serenity and beauty.
But something tugged in his heart when he took all this in, and he did not like it.
A voice emerged from behind the tanks. Kanata appeared before him, blue light against his skin and hair, almost making a fuzzy aura of aqua around him. When it seemed like Kanata confirmed Kaoru’s face in the dark, he lit up.
“What do you think~?”
“H-Huh? What do I think of… what?”
“‘This’,” Kanata spread his arms out wide and spun around the room. He looked exceptionally delighted. “The ‘devotees’ worked on these faster than I expected. I would have loved to include more ‘friends’, but there’s only so much ‘space’ on ‘land’...”
Kaoru had to process through the weird ‘devotee’ mention. “What? Wait wait…. You mean, you did— you got these tanks installed?”
Kanata enthusiastically nodded.
Kaoru dared to walk further into the room and inspect a few of the tanks. He got the huge tank in the middle of the room, filled with jellyfish. He placed his hand on it and confirmed that it was real.
He turned to Kanata with a perplexed look. “Why?”
Kanata tilted his head, and said in the most sincere voice: “Because Kaoru ‘wished’ for it.”
Kaoru’s head suddenly started to ache. He thought that all this eccentric talk of having “powers of god” and “granting wishes” and “devotees” was just all in Kanata’s head. He couldn't have been serious, Kaoru thought. He couldn’t have taken his words, silly as they have sounded, as something serious and interpreted it as wish that he wanted to have granted.
He looked up at Kanata again, lost in his own world again.
“It’s ‘pretty’, isn’t it?” Kanata’s voice was soft, but the room was quiet enough that Kaoru could hear a faint echo. “It’s just like being in an ‘aquarium’~”
The echo deepened.
Suddenly, Kaoru was 7 years old again, small and naive, held tightly by his mother’s delicate hand that smelled of jasmines and vanilla. It was one memory of many. He would point at the fish, tell his mother of the ones he recognized, and ask about the ones he couldn't. She would respond gently, sometimes with a sweet laugh, sometimes with a nurturing smile. He remembered how each passing year, the memories of them spending time at the aquarium became fewer and fewer, until…
The blonde staggered on his feet, blurs of blue shook around in his vision. Kanata’s face came clear in the middle of it; he wore an expression that Kaoru hadn’t seen on him before, an expression that Kaoru recognized the meaning of, but did not want to acknowledge.
The look of concern. The look that sits at the edge of kindness and pity.
“Sorry,” Kaoru finally found some strength to say it. “I’m not feeling well after all. I’ll… I’ll head to the nurse’s office for now but… I might not come back for today, s-so… Yeah.” Kaoru avoided eye-contact as he stepped his way back towards the door. He could hear Kanata make a confused whine, but Kaoru didn’t give him time to say anything back.
“Don’t wait for me, okay?”
Once again, Kaoru ran away.
A lot happens in a year.
If the Kaoru from a year ago were to ask the Kaoru from now: Will it still be lonely after you decide to stay?, the past Kaoru wouldn’t have believed the present Kaoru’s answer.
While there is still a hole in his heart, for the one person who left his life without warning, he’s starting to let it be occupied by others. Some, he never expected to, like a bold yet kind junior girl who got hurled into a rough mess of the entertainment world, but is fighting stronger than most people out there. Or like two classmates— one boisterous but friendly, and the other, sassy but thoughtful; and some he’d been rejecting for a while now, like his unit juniors who deserve better guidance, and his clubmates who share his love for the sea.
Shinkai Kanata included, of course.
Kanata, who has, since the previous year, been trying to look out for him, even when Kaoru never asked to. Some pretentious part of Kaoru thinks it’s Kanata’s continuous attempt to learn about that one word, and what he could do to help erase that word from Kaoru’s thoughts.
And Kanata does. Bit by bit.
Kanata does it by giving headpats, when there are no complaints, no words needed to be said. Even when Kaoru claims to dislike it because Kanata is a boy, Kanata continues to give headpats, gently and purposefully.
Kanata does it by being patient with Kaoru, welcoming him in the clubroom with open arms. Even when Kaoru does it to skip practice, or even when Kaoru doesn’t because he has dates to go to, Kanata will be waiting, to let Kaoru know he can come in whenever he wants to, whenever he needs to.
Kanata does it by gracing Kaoru’s tears, by listening to his story, and hum to him with a humble tone. Even when Kaoru thinks that tears make him weak, or that the reasons behind them aren’t worth crying over, Kanata comforts him, and tells him that tears are a sign of strength and growth; there is no need to feel shameful of them, nor of the reasons that led to them.
And slowly, Kaoru meets it halfway, by learning to accept a different word on his own:
A word that goes both ways, as Kaoru learns. Without receiving kindness, a person can’t become strong. And without being kind, a person can’t become brave.
And without kindness, a person can’t learn love.
He forgot about it, long ago, when he lost the kindest person he knew— the one person who was so full of love for him and others, that Kaoru became scared of loving and losing again. He’s only started to realize this, and part of him regrets not remembering it sooner.
So now, when he stands on stage, he gains this strength to face the music without malice. When he comes to school, he feels comfortable enough to make bonds with people again. When he comes home, he gains the bravery to stand up to his father, and fight for the life he wants to live.
No more running away.
Kaoru stands in front of the clubroom.
He can hear a person inside. He’s singing to the tanks, Kaoru bets. Their junior will likely come just a little later than him, and though he knows that guy will hate his guts when he sees him, Kaoru knows he’ll miss him when the time comes.
He’ll miss the person inside too, and Kaoru wonders what he can do for him in return once they don’t have the luxury of daily school schedules and club activities that lets them meet on a regular basis anymore.
But Kaoru shakes his head. He doesn’t need to think of that for now. He’ll enjoy this life step by step.
With strength. With bravery. With kindness.
He slides the clubroom door open, and a warm voice, a warm smile, greets him “home”.