It wasn't like he was afraid of water. Howard gave the lake a scornful look, perching his hands on his hips and eyeing the water that gently lapped up on the bank with stern indifference. After all, he'd been swimming before - he knew how to swim; it wasn't like he couldn't do it.
But… The remembered image of that thing from the sea, back then, flared back to life in the spot where it was etched into his mind, creating a burning picture in his thoughts. Howard cringed a little, forgetting to be stoic.
He could swim. He just… wasn't sure if he could swim well, given the circumstances.
Not fast enough - that's all. There's… nothing wrong with my technique or anything. I'm a good swimmer!
Anyway, they were going to be leaving soon. He couldn't get around that. Shingo and that old man were working all of them like crazy, and it was paying off - Howard could feel that as much in his aching muscles as he could see it in the gradually filled-out form of the ship they were building. And in case something happened - he should be able to swim fast, not just with perfect form. Good form. Average form?
"Aaaah, whatever!" Howard shook his head violently, banishing the thoughts with some irritation. "Hurry up and get in the water already before someone notices you're gone!"
It was after dark - everyone else should be sleeping, assuming he hadn't been noticed. The water looked like ink, foaming up against the shore and leaving traces of residue, slithering back into the depths reluctantly only to be pushed back up in a quiet, almost soothing rhythm. The air was mild - not warm, not cold.
It'd be cold when he got in the water, probably.
"Geh… stop thinking, already!" Howard hit his palm against his temple a couple of times, hoping to get rid of whatever was making him hesitate. He was tired - maybe that was it. Maybe he shouldn't be there at all. He needed his sleep; what the hell was he doing, trying to get in extra work, anyway?
But then again… the sea monster…
"Okay!" He'd made up his mind - this had to be done. It was for his own good. Howard tugged his shirt over his head, dropping it off to the side, and then bent down to remove his shoes. The pants made a quick follow-up, leaving him his underwear for that just-in-case case where someone realized he was gone and came looking.
With that taken care of, Howard stepped gingerly into the water, glancing around one final time to be sure that he was really alone.
He was so convinced that he really was that the dark silhouette standing just off to the right caught him completely by surprise. With a startled yell, Howard toppled over backwards and landed flat on his ass in the shallow water, scrambling a bit until the present company came close enough to identify itself.
"K-Kaoru!" His heart was still pounding; in a second, he recovered enough to feel ridiculous - and annoyed. What the hell was Kaoru doing, jumping out of nowhere to scare people like that, anyway? "What are you doing?" A second thought struck him then, and he blurted out, "Oi! How long have you been standing there?"
There was a certain stark outline to Kaoru's form in the dark; he seemed to gain more of an edge. The lines of his body were almost sketched in, rough and sharp, but between the outlines, everything seemed impossibly smooth - seamlessly structured. He took another step forward, hands in his pockets, studying Howard with a familiar impassive expression. "It's late for swimming," he said, instead of answering either question.
Howard shivered; he was cold now on top of everything, and it wasn't helping his mood at all. Something about Kaoru really made him tense; especially in moments like these - in the dark, alone, when he looked so impressive.
It was… unsettling.
And at the moment, Howard was aware that he didn't look very impressive, sprawled in the water, damp and miserable and only in his shorts. He scowled, and picked himself up with as much dignity as he could muster, summoning up his pride and irritation like a wall against the humiliation. "You shouldn't stand there and watch someone get undressed without saying something, at least," he said with a justifiable amount of righteous indignation, and made some show of swiping at his legs to brush off the excess water, studiously not looking at the other boy.
Kaoru didn't seem moved. "What are you doing?" he asked, in more of an idly curious tone than anything accusatory.
"What does it matter to you?" Howard muttered, still nursing his wounded pride and not wanting to do something else that would make him look stupid again. He turned his head in what he hoped was an indifferent sort of way, meaning to regard Kaoru with the same kind of unruffled cool he was being gifted with at the moment.
Kaoru could've been cut from stone; he stood there on the back, with the shadows behind him and the moon illuminating him, as if he were some sort of god contemplating his creation. There was an air about Kaoru that no one else could quite match: a sort of competence - world-wise, almost. Mysterious, definitely. Howard wasn't sure if it was exasperating or intriguing, but it did funny things to his stomach. He didn't want to look too long, because he would've liked to look for longer.
It was one of those things - on the list that made him different from the others. The list of inadequacies. The things about him that were detestable. Like selfishness. Like being unable to say the right thing, ever. Like seeing another boy - a friend, even - and thinking things about his skin, his face, his hips and body, that weren't acceptable, reciprocated, or even really allowed.
Howard felt his face screw up - with irritation at himself and no small amount of frustration towards the reaction - and turned away again, haughtily. "The things I do with my own time are my own business anyway," he added airily, and spun to stalk back into the water, doing the best he could to make his stride seem unaffected by the drag.
"Work on your stroke," Kaoru told his back, in that sort of almost offhand way that made it sound like he didn't really care but said the words just for the hell of it. Howard had his suspicions about that tone. He had images of Kaoru standing in front of the mirror, practicing his bored look and his bored voice until they became second nature and he could use them at will to try and sound cool.
The mental pictures made him feel a little better.
The words, though, didn't help. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded back over his shoulder, not really sure if he was indignant because Kaoru had figured him out or because Kaoru was telling him his swimming technique wasn't good enough.
In answer, Kaoru reached down and smoothly pulled off his shirt, kicking off his shoes and making short work of the waist of his pants.
Howard blinked at him. "Eh?" He's taking off his clothes… Wait. He's taking off his clothes? "Wh-What are you doing!?"
Stupid question, that one. But he couldn't help it. His jaw had kind of worked loose by that point, and was hanging limply, forcing him into stunned silence. Kaoru had finished with the pants and strode into the water without flinching then, coming over and past where Howard was standing gaping at him. His skin seemed oddly light in the moonlight - not pale light, but a sort of bleached nut-color. His upper body was thin, like Howard's, but wiry muscles were built into it, the telltale signs of an active lifestyle. It was like a not-quite-fully-formed tribute to male beauty, still in the awkward stages of adolescence but with obvious traces of manhood lingering around every edge.
Kaoru was going to be gorgeous. Kaoru was gorgeous.
Howard wasn't sure if it was envy or something else entirely that made his stomach clench and his mouth go dry.
"Here. Watch." Kaoru glanced sideways at him, and the clenching only got worse. Howard swallowed. He was watching, all right - his attention was firmly fixed on the line of Kaoru's hips, the way his back arched just a little into the firm curve of his ass and down again past the somewhat jarring interruption of his shorts to slim, muscled legs. It was hypnotic.
And probably very obvious. Howard jerked his eyes back up and off to the side, feeling his cheeks heat and hoping it wouldn't be visible. "Wh-Whatever," he muttered out, clenching his teeth and trying to act like he hadn't been staring.
Why is it like this, anyway? Stupid…
Kaoru either hadn't noticed or didn't care; a second later, he slid forward into the water and into a strong front crawl stroke, propelling himself forward with apparent ease, at a speed Howard couldn't have achieved no matter how much strength he put into it. After a few seconds of that, he stopped and turned himself around, treading water. "Keep your fingers closer together," he called back - almost with some expression in his voice, even. "Moving your arms will only tire you out more. Make every stroke count."
"Like I need your help…" Howard scowled, trying to cover up his own confusion and uncertainty about the situation. It was hard to figure Kaoru out sometimes, and that lack of surety made him jumpy. Especially when combined with the lack of clothing. Forget that - forget it right now! Squeezing his eyes shut, he splashed forward and swam out in Kaoru's direction, with as much skill and speed as he could muster.
It did feel like he pulled more water past him with his fingers together.
Not that he was going to admit it, of course.
"Good." Kaoru actually gave him a brief smile when he reached the same level as the other boy. He didn't wait for the admission; either he didn't think it was necessary, or he knew Howard wasn't going to give it. In any case, his lack of commentary was a relief. "You need to kick faster, move your arms less - your legs won't get tired as soon. Watch." And he moved forward again, back towards the bank.
Howard let out a frustrated breath. He didn't have patience with things he didn't understand - and he didn't understand this, that was for certain. What was Kaoru trying to prove? That he was a better swimmer? Why bother to explain things the way he was?
Maybe he just didn't think Howard was a hopeless case, after all.
He thinks… I'm worth making an effort for?
The irritation was fading, and what replaced it was an odd, tingling sort of warmth. This was different than the immediate reaction to Kaoru's mostly-naked form - different than what he felt when Luna encouraged him, when the others forgave him. It wasn't lust, and it wasn't friendship… But it was a nice feeling, an unsettling feeling - a mix of the two, in a way. He wasn't all that sure what to make of it.
But he didn't want to risk driving Kaoru away now.
"That's much better than before," the other boy approved after a few more laps, and pushed himself back into shallower water to sit down, drawing one knee up to rest his arm over it. "Want to try some more?"
He hardly seemed winded. Howard slouched over and flopped down beside him, still breathing heavily. "I can't move any more!" he complained, pulling up both knees to rest over them. His arms felt like jelly - how did Kaoru manage to keep up that kind of pace, anyway? Howard glanced at him sideways with a mixture of exasperation and admiration. "You're crazy to work like that all the time!"
Kaoru gave him another of those slight smiles, this time with obvious undertones of amusement blended into it. "Possibly," he agreed, in a tone that suggested he was just humoring his companion.
"You don't need to patronize me." Grumbling aside, Howard didn't mind that much - he leaned back on his elbows after a moment, letting the water lap at his upper arms and chest. It was starting to get chilly where his skin was exposed to the air, but it wasn't bad enough to get out yet. There was just enough light to reflect off the water and illuminate the area; the night was clear and there were stars out, and somehow the atmosphere seemed perfect.
It was nice enough to lull him somewhat - if he hadn't wanted to enjoy the moment, he probably would've got up and headed off to bed for the night.
This sort of thing is good sometimes…
Still, it was hard to be quiet and just lie there with Kaoru in his underwear only a short distance away. Howard fought to keep from fidgeting, feeling his patience - already in short supply - boiling away with every second that passed. It felt awkward not to say anything, but with Kaoru, sometimes it felt awkward to actually say things, because unless he had something specific to say, you were usually just talking to yourself anyway.
Doesn't he understand how to make small talk? What is wrong with him?
It was aggravating. Howard shifted a bit, resisting the urge to look over at Kaoru. He wanted to keep quiet and seem just as cool and unaffected, but he wanted to speak and break the silence because, damnit, if he didn't say something soon - if Kaoru didn't say something soon…
As if he'd read that thought, the other boy abruptly pushed himself to his feet, water sloshing against Howard's side in his wake.
"Uh?" He hadn't been expecting that. Howard quickly raised his upper body into a sitting position, surprise and disappointment warring at the pit of his stomach. "Where are you going?"
"We're done here, aren't we?" Kaoru glanced in his direction. If anything, he looked better than before - there was water dripping slowly over his torso and limbs, making his skin seem even more sleek and inviting than it had earlier. "I'm going back."
"Wait!" Howard scrambled up hastily, moving to follow - now that he had company, particularly this company, he didn't like the idea of losing it. "I'm coming too - WAH!"
Kaoru had been in the process of turning; Howard saw, as he tumbled forward, how his eyes widened - how he took an instinctive step back to brace himself. But the ground was too uneven and he hadn't had enough time; as Howard fell forward onto him, Kaoru fell backwards into the water again, landing with a fairly impressive splash in a mess of arms and legs.
There was a lengthy moment of stunned silence as the ripples in the water cleared.
Howard took a breath in and then let it out, mind starting to catch up with the situation. This was not just any chest he'd just took a faceplant into, the working part of his brain was insisting. He was currently staring, from an inch or so away, at a wet, naked chest. Wet. Naked. Firm. Chest.
Kaoru's wet, naked, firm chest.
Which was heaving slightly, probably due to being winded by the fall. And attached to a set of similarly wet, naked arms, which were at the moment clenched tightly in Howard's hands - also a result of the fall.
Wet, naked Kaoru - pressed against him and breathing hard.
Howard raised his eyes slowly, met the other boy's slightly surprised stare, and promptly lost it.
"You're doing this on purpose! You must be doing this on purpose! Somebody is doing this on purpose!" He scrambled off Kaoru and pointed accusingly with one trembling hand, keeping the other clenched in a fist at his side and trying to direct attention away from his furiously flushed cheeks. "You… You stay away from me with your - your chest and arms and - and other… naked… things." Wrong choice of topics - very, very wrong. "Just - just stay away!" Howard concluded, with as much of a commanding tone as he could manage, and turned a self-righteous glare on his unwitting assailant.
The image in front of him was worth looking at; Kaoru had raised himself up into a sitting position, and looked like he'd been smacked in the back of the head with some kind of blunt, heavy object. He blinked a few times, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he'd just heard.
"All right… If you're not going to leave, then I will." Howard was back in control of the situation - somewhat, anyway. And now I make my escape - good, excellent, way to go, Howard! All right, so the outburst hadn't exactly been planned - it had worked, hadn't it? He rose up quickly, gave Kaoru a quick, disdainful sort of glance, and started for the safety of the shore - and his clothes.
"Wait." Kaoru was on his feet and had hold of his arm before he could get two steps, jerking him to a halt. "What was that?" he asked, in the even-toned voice that constantly drove Howard crazy. There was more expression in it this time, though - some shock, some caution, some uncertainty… It didn't sound like Kaoru at all - not the Kaoru he knew, anyway.
It sounded… like someone who had insecurities, just like everyone else.
Howard turned to look at him, startled out of his plans for escape and cover-up. "What do you mean 'what was that'?" There was something about Kaoru's expression - closed-off, but very serious somehow. Intense. Like he was trying to bore holes into Howard's face with his eyes. It was hard to look away, and at the moment, Howard didn't feel like trying to manage it. "I just… said…" Hard to think, too. What was he saying? Kaoru was close to him. Kaoru had been close to him a couple of times before, but not like this. Not half-naked, alone, looking at him with that kind of expression.
Howard felt his cheeks heating, and didn't make an effort to hide it this time, staring back at the other boy with some astonishment.
What is this? What's he doing?
"You… really…" Kaoru let that trail off, and breathed in slowly, as if to stabilize himself somehow. "Then," he began, in a softer tone, and leaned forward. "Maybe…" The second word came out almost as an exhalation against Howard's mouth - but all he could do was stand there frozen, with his skin prickling and his heart doing a drum roll, as surprisingly hesitant lips closed over his.
The world slowed and came to a halt around him.
Howard knew himself to be sought-after, back home. It wasn't really surprising - he was, after all, very good-looking. He dressed well, he took care with his hygiene, and he was naturally attractive. Add that to the fact that he was rich and important, and of course it was obvious why girls would want to date him. He'd kissed a few - it was sort of expected - and boasted a little, but when it came right down to it, his knowledge on the matter was severely limited. It just hadn't seemed important at the time.
It felt a lot more important at the current moment. Howard was dimly aware that his knees were shaking; that he'd leaned in toward Kaoru, closed his eyes, allowed his mouth to form right for the kiss. It didn't seem that Kaoru knew a lot more about it than he did, but he was aggressive once he seemed to get the motions right - his free hand slid over the line of Howard's jaw and settled at the back of his neck, holding his head firmly in place. The contact was enough to make Howard shiver; Kaoru's hands were still wet, and a little cold, but the touch felt good. His lips, too, had been cool, but the inside of his mouth was warm. So warm… intense… Howard couldn't help but throw himself into it enthusiastically, lips and tongue and ragged breathing between them whenever it got to be too much and they had to break apart for brief instants. Howard's left arm was still held tight in Kaoru's hand, but he found his right clutching at Kaoru's hip, in some instinctive gesture.
Not what he'd expected. But how could he have expected this? How could anyone expect this? It was ten times as good as in his half-guilty fantasies, a hundred times better than kissing the girls, and it was with Kaoru. Kaoru. If someone had asked him an hour ago if he thought he'd be kissing Kaoru, he'd have called them crazy.
Howard had never thought he could be so vehemently grateful to be proven wrong.
Don’t stop… don't stop, don't stop… No - I said don't…
Kaoru pulled back, slowly, and sucked in a long breath, putting some distance between them. The hand on Howard's arm kept that distance enforced, despite his best efforts.
Howard opened his eyes, feeling like he'd been woken up from a particularly vivid and intoxicating dream. He felt cold again - the air was getting in where Kaoru had been seconds ago, and… well… damnit, what was the problem, anyway? He stared at the other boy in perplexity. "What's the matter with you? It just got good!"
"Howard." It wasn't a harsh tone - the opposite, really, or as close to it as he'd heard Kaoru get. There was a slight smile on the other boy's face - a little bemused, a little hesitant, but not at all unhappy. It was a reassuring sight. "Later might be best," Kaoru said, after a short pause. "Right?"
"Later…" A surge of disappointment hit Howard at those words. He stared at Kaoru in dismay. "How much later?"
Thankfully enough, Kaoru was at least brave enough to look him straight in the eye as he answered. "I don't know."
"I don't know." Howard was starting to get sick of that answer. How long were they going to be stuck on this planet? 'I don't know.' How long before the communication device was fixed? 'I don't know.' What were they going to do, now that they didn't have a way to leave? 'I don't know.' And now this. He let out a long-suffering sigh, and returned the gaze with some resignation. "All right… it can't be helped, can it? Later. You don't know when. All right."
Kaoru's eyebrows went up a little.
Howard felt himself smiling then - the least he could get out of this was that he'd managed to one-up Kaoru. Sort of, anyway. "I suppose I can wait," he drawled out, "if it's going to be as good as this." A thought occurred to him, and he added, quickly, "But you'd better make it worth my time!"
The slight up-turning at the corners of Kaoru's mouth seemed to promise a great deal more than that. "We'll see," was all he said, and then he let go of Howard, and turned to find his clothes.
The self-satisfied little smirk didn't leave Howard's face even when he'd finally made it back to Everyone's House and crawled into his hammock for the night.
His thoughts were all over the place. After all, aside from accomplishing the original goal of improving his swimming speed, he'd also managed to see Kaoru (almost) naked, sneak in a kiss, and get a promise for more later.
Not bad for an evening out, really.