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between seashells and ocean dwells

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Room one, two, three, four, five-

The hallways were long and bright, light spilling joyfully into the white-walled spaces and granting any excitable child the opportunity to hop from sunlit tile to tile as he made his way through the passage. Six, seven, said the doors, and Kaoru skipped over a tile that was cracked at the corner, just a tiny bit. Eight, nine, the doors continued, and Kaoru dodged around the kindly nurse he talked to from time to time, during those periods of waiting for his mother to finish up her treatments in sterile-smelling spaces or scary, metal-filled rooms. Ten, eleven, not quite yet.

Twelve- “Mom! I brought you something!”

Impatiently nudging the door shut behind him with a foot, Kaoru turned to face the familiar bed at the corner of a familiar room, with a familiar woman sitting up against the pillows before him. His mother smiled, spreading her arms in invitation- as much as she could with those strange tubes and wires that were always stuck to her, anyway- and Kaoru bounded forwards, a giddy grin spreading over his own face as he clambered onto the mattress. The art of giving the world’s most careful, sparing hug was something he’d long mastered, everyone telling him that he had to be mindful of his mother’s condition- which made sense, sure, but also didn’t at all. His mother was strong, capable, someone who braved the waters of the ocean at their wildest, someone who wouldn’t turn away from even the most violent of tempests. With that strength, she’d make it through this whole ‘hospital’ mess just fine.

Slowly pulling away (he missed the warmth already), Kaoru neatly arranged himself in his allotted space before his mother, legs crossing as he hunted for what he needed in his multiple pockets. “How was school?” came the soft question in the meantime, one that was often asked for reasons Kaoru wasn’t entirely sure of. If he had to pick a single word out of the entire dictionary to label the experience of (upper) elementary school, he’d go with boring. Still, his father had said that he shouldn’t give his mom answers like that, so…

“It was alright,” Kaoru shrugged, which wasn’t a lie- ‘not terrible’ was already an ‘alright’ in his book, and apparently that was a good mindset to have in hospitals. “I went to the beach after, though, and that was fun. Ah, here it is-” he tugged his desired object out of his pants pocket in a flourish, triumphant and vaguely aware that he should probably clear all the knick-knacks out of his clothing at some point. Letting the item roll over on his palm and right itself, the shell stood proud and pretty over the lightness of skin (palms didn’t tan easily, which was plain weird), weathered grooves coloured a pastel shade of blue and catching in the gentle sunlight that streamed in through the windows. “It’s a shell,” he said brightly, and from his mother’s amused expression he knew exactly what was coming- “don’t say you already know it is! This is a special shell.”

“Tell me all about it,” his mother said with a soft smile, and oh, Kaoru had come here ready. Sitting up a little more importantly, he only paused to give a slight groan as his mother pulled him onto her lap instead, completely wrecking his ‘cool storyteller’ image. Well, that and the fact that Kaoru wasn’t even supposed to be sitting like this- something about bones and body weight and fragility, all those grown-up terms that Kaoru heard when eavesdropping on doctors’ discussions through keyholes but didn’t really compute. Tilting his head to the side in question, he received a quirk of lips that said, I won’t tell, if you don’t.

A good enough justification, in Kaoru’s opinion. Adjusting himself so he was a little more comfortable (and shifting some of his weight off of his allegedly fragile mother), he huddled a little closer, the gentle arms encircling his waist something distinct, comforting. “I found it in one of those treasure troves,” he whispered, because treasure troves were secrets and only he and his mother were aware of their very existences. That didn’t excuse him from a threateningly raised eyebrow, however, and he quickly backtracked to justify himself, waving his palms in a hurried wait, wait gesture. “I know you said I shouldn’t go there myself, but I was careful, I swear- didn’t cut myself on glass, or anything. I’ve gotten good at navigating without any help,” he added on with no small degree of pride. It wasn’t as if there was anyone to accompany him to private beach hideouts these days, anyway- it was just him, himself, and the thought of his mother miles away as he ventured into fish-filled rock pools and pretty caverns alone. “You don’t have to worry about a thing, I promise.”

Heaving a soft sigh, his mother leaned in to press a firm kiss to his forehead before pulling away once more. She didn’t look angry, thankfully enough- more of a mixture of wry and fond, the way mothers often looked. “Go on, then.”

“Right. So I was at one of those treasure troves after school, and there was this huge group of fish swimming around in the corner of a waterpool. There were gobies, sticklebacks...” Kaoru counted them off on his fingers, eyebrows scrunching up as he made an effort to remember. “Some colourful ones that were really cute. Anyway, I was curious about what all the fuss was about, so I gave the water a ripple to get them away and check, and found this.” Lifting the shell up for show again, he grinned, admiring its exquisite patterns and shine beneath the white lights of the room. “It was a little more sandy when I first picked it up, but I cleaned it just the way you taught me and came back here. It’s for you!”

His mother blinked, eyes widening in the slightest- had he managed to surprise her, this time? His older sister often claimed that Kaoru had zero subtlety when it came to gifts, and that their mother was probably just pretending to be taken aback from time to time, but hah. This’d show her. “It’s beautiful, though,” came a soft murmur as Kaoru placed the shell carefully onto his mother’s palm, allowing her to turn it over between her fingers and admire it herself. “Are you sure you don’t want to keep it for yourself?”

“Nope, it’s yours! A good luck charm,” Kaoru declared, because this was what the doctors were always hinting at when they talked about his mom, right? She’ll be lucky if she manages to pull through this- so all she needed was a little luck, really, and Kaoru would give her plenty. As much of it as he could muster. “It’ll keep you safe, help you to fight off… everything you need it to. You’ll be out of this place in no time, I promise.”

This place being this dry, boring hospital room, all blank walls and medicinal smells and nothing lovely or fun at all. No sand, no ocean, no gorgeous little fish to look at and talk about and allow to nibble at fingers and toes. Kaoru smiled brightly, his cheeks probably leaving dimples that his mother would affectionately nudge at with her little finger at some point. “We’ll go see the ocean again when you get better, ‘kay?”

The smile on his mother’s face gently mirrored Kaoru’s own, if only just a little quieter, a little more- some sort of emotion Kaoru didn’t know how to name. Sad, was the word that came to mind, yet not in a crying, sobbing sort of way- it lingered for a second at most, and then it was gone in the blink of an eye, which usually meant that Kaoru had imagined the entire thing. “We will, my love,” his mother said softly, a hand slowly lifting to stroke at her son’s hair, and Kaoru gave a slight hum of agreement, leaning into the touch that was warm, warm, warm. “Of course we will.”

(She didn’t get any better. They never went to the ocean together again.)

•••

“Careful, careful- I said to be careful, Rei-kun, what’re you even-”

“But I’m being adequate amounts of careful, aren’t I?” The look Rei gave him was wide-eyed, pleading, and a hundred percent bullshit. Kaoru rolled his eyes liberally as he took another step over the glossy stone path underfoot, each one shimmering and reflecting the sun’s love in multicoloured hues through the water that flowed seamlessly over every one. “Besides, I’m sure my darling Kaoru-kun wouldn’t be able to bear watching me slip and fall to my death in an abandoned rock pool. How romantic, I’m flattered.”

“You came to that conclusion all by yourself,” Kaoru deadpanned, though he let a smile curve at his lips as he reached out a hand to his boyfriend regardless. “Come on, you big baby. I’ll guide you through.”

“My hero,” came the sing-song reply as Rei picked his way towards the blond and intertwined their fingers, leaning in to plant a quick kiss to his cheek (which flushed red soon after). Evening was beginning to set into this leisurely world of theirs, the allure of pretty rocks (and sometimes glass) glittering beneath the segment of ocean that lapped at their heels, making Kaoru thankful they’d had the insight to fold the hems of their trousers up to mid-calf. Walking barefoot was fine- the best, really- but getting only one part of his pants soaked in seawater at a time was just strange. It was all in or nothing at all, and without a spare change of clothes, Kaoru didn’t particularly feel like hopping into the ocean and dousing himself entirely. There would still be an entire car ride back home, after all.

There was a certain space tucked away at the far end of this natural pool, one that Kaoru hadn’t visited in years yet was now dragging his lover along to see. If he remembered correctly… “One right, three straight,” he mumbled under his breath, trying to take steps the approximate size of an eight-year-old’s. “Two left, five straight.” Ducking behind an opening in a rock wall that seemed flat and complete at first glance, he glanced back to make sure Rei was still in one piece, not nearly slipping on rocks or getting stuck in narrow spaces. (This path had been blissfully easy to navigate as a small child, but having an adult body made things difficult. He wondered just how much effort his mother had put in for him, back in the days before the hospital, to bring him to tiny, special pockets of love such as this.) “Almost there, Rei-kun.”

There was a placid hum of assent, something so gentle and utterly fond lacing Rei’s expression when he looked at him that Kaoru had to quickly turn away again, cheeks burning. Just a little further. Stepping forwards in the dim light of a rocky path, catching sight of the space where light poured in from a different, slightly larger opening, his heart hammered in his chest. “Here we are.”

Tugging Rei into the miniature cove, there was a soft hitch of breath from behind him that made Kaoru smile- he’d had the exact same reaction the first time he’d been brought here as a kid, he could clearly remember. The golden sand, the rocky pools, the rough-textured walls being thrown into brilliant light, all the way from where the ocean teased at grounded edges to the very tip of the natural arch up above- none of it had changed over the years, even when so many things about Kaoru had. The sound of waves rhythmically taking to the rocks was soothing, as was the faint bubbling of water in certain areas where the crystal liquid trickled anew from some other, unseen source. Like a place straight out of the fairy tales , his mother had once said, and Kaoru had nodded along, entranced. Our secret hideaway- don’t bring just anyone here, alright? Only the people you love.

“Rei-kun,” Kaoru murmured, any qualms about getting his clothing wet instantly diminished by just the sight of this lovely place, the memories of dripping shirts and sea-soaked hair that came along with it. “Let’s sit.”

They made their way over to a shallower part of the cove (Kaoru leading, Rei following), before carefully settling down on a gentle ledge of smooth rock that faced the veritable opening of the space. Small-scale pools of iridescent water and multicoloured fish adorned the sea-worn area, and Kaoru huffed a soft laugh as Rei tentatively dipped his fingers into the one by his side, his gaze still one of evident wonder. No matter how learned a person was, all it took was a single glimpse of the purest of nature to bring them right back to their roots- or so Kaoru had long discovered.

Leaning himself against Rei’s stable warmth and letting his head rest on his shoulder was something instinctive by now, an action Kaoru might have physically recoiled from long ago but had become a comfort, over time. An arm wrapped around his waist and a pair of lips pressed briefly to the side of his temple, and Kaoru could almost feel his eyes slipping shut. Tranquility and familiarity mixed and coalesced into a calming, potent blend, the world something capable of giving love for once, giving Kaoru all these pretty little things as if in repayment for all the days of joy lost. If he fell asleep, would Rei wake him? He likely wouldn't be able to make it out of the cove himself, so if Kaoru was the one to doze off... 

"Kaoru-kun," came the soft call, along with a gentle nudge in the side that roused him well enough. Kaoru slowly blinked his eyes open, taking in Rei's warm, steady expression before letting his gaze wander over to his outstretched palm. There was something small and glittery on there, grooves reflecting minute rays of sunlight off of themselves like a second nature, and- oh.

He felt his body tighten, his breath catch abruptly in his throat. This shape, this colour, this precious quality that seemed to only show itself in this affectionate cove filled with countless pools and living creatures- it was all familiar, almost agonisingly so. It was as if Kaoru was eight years old all over again, making his way into a fantastical treasure spot for some time alone, only to stumble across a pretty, pretty seashell that would later be gifted to a mother who whispered light, painfully empty promises for the sake of the double-edged sword called love. The shell that Rei held was nearly identical to that one from long ago, and now that Kaoru was thinking about it...

Where exactly had that shell of his mother's gone, after she'd passed? Was it still somewhere in the house, having been collected as part of her possessions in the aftermath, or had it been thrown away with all the grace of an empty plastic bottle, as something worthless and invaluable like so many other things in that hospital room seemed to be, barring just one single, perfect person?

(Had it been tossed right back into the mourning ocean, sent on its merry, unknowing way home, where it belonged- to the place his mother had always felt most at peace at, a quality that had been passed down to Kaoru as he grew?)

Perhaps this was that very same shell his mother had touched and held- but it can't be, Kaoru told himself tightly as a lump rose gradually in his throat and threatened to close it right up. The object was a slightly darker shade of blue, on the side of the silent and just a touch melancholic. As if it knew its almost-sin of merely existing, of being nearly a carbon copy of a memory so sacred.

Staring. Rei was staring at him, maybe even concernedly. "I, ah- my mom had a shell like that," Kaoru blurted, which was more or less the truth. He frantically blinked to try to clear the faint stinging in his eyes, but that was just the salt from all the water around him, wasn't it? "Not the exact same, but… similar." Taken from this exact same spot, maybe even the exact same pool- perhaps this place really was a treasure trove, only allowing adventurers to chance upon such otherworldly gems once or twice in their many, many years. "It was… just a little different. Colour, and all that." Age, time, status of life and death.  

A good luck charm- fat lot of good that did.

"I thought she'd survive, y'know?" The words came out unbidden, a shaky, aching laugh accompanying them as if to lighten the mood, the tightness in his chest. He spoke quietly, almost in a whisper, because if ghosts truly did exist, this seemed like the sort of place the loving ones idled their time away in. "I thought we'd be able to come here again. Together. I was so blindingly optimistic, god, I-" he felt his fingers curling into stinging fists, frustration bubbling up in his chest as he fought the urge to bring the entity forcefully down into the peaceful pools of fish and water below- the lives of innocents didn't deserve to be wrecked as collateral damage of the universe, after all.

If the ones who got left behind were the ones to hurt the most, then Kaoru could never be so cruel as to grant such a fate to any creature, especially if they'd have to play the role that he himself once did. (Still did, from time to time.) Keeping your emotions calm and your anger in check were all basic skills, for living beings could sense your fear, even your joy- or so he'd been told. Be careful, often came the gentle chides alongside hands on small shoulders and fingers in hair that matched the speaker’s own- you'll scare the fish. Be placid, fleeting...

...a little like the wind.

Even if he couldn’t interfere with the lives of innocents, the least he could do was minimise his own damage.

(Had he managed to minimise the damage for his mother, just a little bit? Had she felt happier, if only in the slightest, upon receiving such tiny gifts and trinkets borne from good intentions, even knowing that she was doomed? That smile on her face, the warmth in her eyes-)

(-that was all real, wasn’t it? He hadn’t just imagined it, in the exact same ways he liked to think up the phenomena of cheerful light that wasn’t even there. If looking at such an item had brought her joy, even if only a trickle at a time, day by day-)

“You know, if you took this shell...”

Rei turned the pretty object over in his fingers contemplatively, though the steadiness in his tone made it clear that his thoughts were anything but. “You and your mom could match.”

Mom- the word sounded so foreign and borderline amusing coming out of Rei’s mouth that Kaoru felt himself huff a soft laugh. This was a person who stubbornly referred to his parents as mother and father even straight to their faces, if only as a result of a strict upbringing- so for him to be using a more casual, unfamiliar sort of title for Kaoru’s sake was… quite something. “You found it, though. You should get to keep it.”

“A gift, then,” Rei murmured, taking one of Kaoru’s hands in his and lifting it to press a kiss there, making the latter’s heartbeat nearly triple in his chest. “One from me to you.” The shell was carefully placed onto Kaoru’s palm, and his fingers automatically moved to trace over the delicate lines, committing every timeless nick and groove to memory. “I’ll have you know that trying to return this to me will result in loss of kiss privileges, and a thousand of these little shells falling out of your closet the next time you open it. Just a personal guarantee.”

“The ecosystem wouldn’t survive a thousand shells being removed,” Kaoru said absently, because Rei had to know- a guarantee was a guarantee, and he wouldn’t put it past the older to actually carry out his threats, no matter how lighthearted. “Any organisms dependent on them for their livelihood would straight-up die, and it’s the butterfly effect from there.”

There was a soft groan, and the abrupt warmth of Rei squeezing Kaoru tightly in his arms as he buried his face in his hair. “Kaoru-kun, I hope you’re aware that your sex appeal goes up by about twenty levels when you say things like that. And I mean this genuinely.”

“Only twenty levels?”

“My mistake, I meant fifty thousand.” Lips were pressed tenderly to the top of his head as if in contrast, and the gesture was ever so warm and tingling amidst the cool, evening breeze that was beginning to venture out and play. Little fish idly circled one another in curiousity down below, and Kaoru carefully dipped a finger into a small pool of crystal water, the familiar, multi-hued creatures swimming warily around it for a moment or so before growing braver at his stillness and chancing tiny, ticklish nibbles. Rei’s next words came quiet, as if mindful not to disrupt the gentle peace that had washed over this delicate cove- “You love this place, don’t you.”

Was it really that obvious? Kaoru liked to think he’d been playing it cool, if only just a little bit. Perhaps he really was still a child, a fickle boy who couldn’t help but show the joy on his face and the lightness in his step when he caught sight of something, someone he loved. And this small, precious bubble of everflowing life certainly did fit the description- it was a place of comfort and familiarity, one he’d always found constant and been able to retreat to on days where the world threw darts and knives, and not a single kind word was to be uttered or heard. The ocean, at least, would always carry the same message- that it would never turn heel or stab him in the back, at least not in ways he couldn’t predict, and that even after years and years of solitude, it would prevail in its own sacred, lonesome way. It was a companion, nearly a friend, one that shared memories that stretched on even further than Kaoru could remember, and he knew, with absolute confidence, that the murmuring waves and stable tides would never, ever forget.

There was no need for a verbal response, it seemed- the older male had posed his words as a sort of rhetoric, anyway. “Let’s stay here a little longer,” Rei said softly, and Kaoru would never have the heart to argue with words like that, in a place like this. His free hand thumbed tenderly over the lines of his lonely, lovely shell, but perhaps the seashell wasn’t all that lonely, after all- the ocean could mercifully wash away the sand-worn tales of its past, gently moving it along until it found a second chance, a second world. Traces of time long gone might weave itself with freshness, then, like the breeze playfully drifting through plains and scattering long-born seeds to grow into budding blooms. They’d be charming, beautiful-

-a gift from me to you.

If his mother’s expressions had always mirrored his, and if that quality hadn’t weaned even after all these years, up to this very moment…

...then perhaps her smile upon receiving such a heartfelt gift really had been real, after all.