When he went to the pool to go swimming in the evenings, they wouldn't let him unless there was a lifeguard on duty now, because his mother didn't come with him anymore. It made him mad. He had been swimming before he could walk. It wasn't fair.
"Maybe when you grow up, you can be a lifeguard," the girl who checked pooltags told him. She wasn't even a grown-up herself. "You really are a good swimmer, but you can't swim alone until you're twelve. It's the rules."
"I don't want to be a lifeguard." Tidus scowled at his own pooltag, which betrayed him as always with its bright red UNDER TWELVE sticker.
"Why not? Girls like lifeguards." She giggled and moved to cover her braces with her hand. "It's a good summer job."
Tidus clenched the keyring in a small fist and glared up at her. "People who swim out too far deserve to drown." He tucked his towel under his arm and turned away sharply, stomping away as impressively as he could on damp concrete. Stupid grown-ups. Stupid rules.
He didn't look back to see the expression on the girl's face. He had seen it too many times already.
His mother was lying on the couch when he got home, watching TV. She looked like she was half-asleep, though, like she wasn't really watching it at all. He glanced at the display and made a face. Soaps.
"There wasn't a lifeguard today," Tidus said, walking past her and into the kitchen. He took the milk out of the fridge and set it on the counter, and then went to pull the stool over.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"When you turn twelve, they let you take a test to see if you can swim okay, and they give you a special tag that says you can come in when there isn't anyone there." He clambered up and got a glass out of the cabinet. "It's stupid. They know I can swim."
"Maybe there'll be a lifeguard tomorrow, honey." Her eyes closed again, and she curled her legs up a little.
Tidus pushed the stool back and took his milk into the den, sitting down on the couch where her feet were a moment ago. "You sleep too much, Mom." He picked up the remote and changed the channel. She wan't really watching it, after all.
She smiled a little but didn't say anything. Her fingers plucked at the fabric of the cushion idly. If I did that, I'd get yelled at, he thought.
Actually, she didn't yell at him much anymore. Well, that was something.
There wasn't anything on, so he gave up flipping and just watched his mother doze for a while. Lately, she'd wake up late, get dressed, go sleep on the couch all day, and then go back to bed early. It was weird.
He looked out the window at the lights over the bay. It was getting dark already.
He sat on the houseboat's deck later, when it was nighttime and the water was lit up with the reflection of the city. His mother was still on the couch. He should go down and wake her up. It would be too late for dinner soon.
The water itself was black where it lapped up against the side of the boat. He used to ask both his parents if he could go swimming here in the sea, and they always said no. His mother would say no because the water here by the dock was too dirty, and his father said no because the other boaters didn't look where they were going and he might get hurt. But the last time he asked his mom, she hadn't answered at all, so he didn't ask again.
He could pick out three or four really bright stars tonight, but they didn't compare to the city across the water. It was every colour imaginable, always moving, always living. Being there really wasn't as cool as looking at it from a distance. The boat rocked gently with a wave from someone going by ignoring the NO WAKE buoys, and Tidus clutched the rail out of habit.
The men from his father's insurance company had been by a few weeks ago, and they said that they were ready to start payments. They had policies about that sort of thing when a death occurs and there's no body, and it had been a long time now. A really long time. Nobody was even looking for him anymore.
The lady next door said it was a good thing, and that insurance companies would pull every trick they could avoid actually paying a poor widow her due. Tidus didn't really understand much of it, but what he did get just seemed stupid. His mother, though... she was really sad. And that made him mad all over again.
We don't need you, he thought at the water angrily. Just go away. Stop making her so sad.
School the next day was tedious, as always. School was nothing more than where he went during the day, so he couldn't spend the morning and early afternoon having fun. Nobody had ever much cared about his grades, which was just as well, since they weren't very good. He stared out the window and daydreamed about the championships.
The only time class really held his attention was when when it had to do with blitzball. They talked about the chemical composition of the fluid in the sphere tanks sometimes, but when it came up on tests he could only stare between the words and think of players darting through the water like birds in the air. He usually ended up doodling team logos on his papers, and he didn't think the teacher was amused.
Some blitzball players could even breathe it. He hadn't figured out the trick to that yet. Even if it wasn't real water, how could you breathe it? You'd have to be a fish. But the players who didn't dash up for air during halftime were definately the cool ones. He'd be able to do it someday, too.
As quietly as he could, he practiced holding his breath. Even if you learn to breathe the water, you could never be good enough at holding your breath. He counted the seconds by his teacher's litany: one multiplied by two multiplied by three multiplied by four....
When he was little, his father used to take the houseboat out farther to sea so he could train. His mother would put sunscreen on him and they'd sit on the deck and watch. He remembered his father leaning back on the rail of the bow, laughing and dripping cold seawater. There is no Mark I or Mark II, he'd said, grinning like an idiot. It was just some stupid bit of showmanship. And everyone fell for it.
Tidus thought about that trick a lot during class, for some reason. That sort of dishonesty seemed to lurk behind many adult faces.
The sky was clear and thin and blue when school finally let him go. The water was much darker, but it reflected the sunlight and made it hard to see. Tidus took a notebook out of his satchel and held up to the right side of his head, blocking the ocean from his view. He had lived by the sea his entire life, so he wasn't sure how other people could stand to be away from it... unless it was midday. Then he wanted nothing more than to build a giant wall between it and himself.
It wasn't a long walk home. It wasn't a long walk anywhere.
"You're going to run into somebody that way," the lady who lived in the boat with the purple trim laughed as he trudged by.
He grunted at her. Her boat was really stupid-looking. His mom used to make fun of it behind the lady's back all the time.
"Tell your mother there was someone here around lunchtime looking for her. Ghastly-looking man, you two should watch out." She fanned herself and looked out over the water with faint annoyance.
"Mom'll be asleep," he shrugged, and paused to twist around and fit the notebook back into his backpack. It got caught on his other spiral notebook and didn't want to go in.
"Oh, yes, I suppose she would be. Poor dear." The lady sighed a little and offered him a slight smile. "If you need anything, Tidus, don't hesitate to ask."
The notebook finally went in, with the loud rasp of one metal spiral catching all the way along another. "Yeah, sure," he said without looking back at her.
His mother wasn't on the couch today, but the radio was on. He droppped his books on the small set of stairs and sat down to untie his shoes. Maybe there'd be a lifegaurd today. Still, worth a try.
"Mom?" he called. There wasn't an answer right away, but that wasn't really a bad thing. Maybe she'd gone shopping. That would be great. She hadn't been shopping in a really long time, and he was sort of growing out of his shoes. "Mom, are you home?"
There was a noise in the kitchenette, and she poked her head around the corner and smiled at him. "I didn't hear you come in."
He rolled his eyes and yanked a shoe off. "You must be deaf."
She leaned in the kitchenette's doorway to the circular center room, tall and thin. Her eyes looked puffy. Tidus sighed a little and started on the knot in the laces of his other shoe. Why didn't she ever look happier to see him?
"Are you hungry?" she asked after a minute or so.
He set his shoes by the door and shook his head. "I thought we could go swimming, maybe."
Some already dim light in her eyes faded some, and she shook her head. "I'm not feeling very good, sweetie. Maybe this weekend?"
"You don't have to swim," he said. "You just need to be there so, I don't know, no one can sue them or something."
"They should hire a lifeguard for the afternoons," she said, walking back into the circular den. The room was lit golden with the still-bright sunlight pouring in from the windows; even so, the light in the kitchen had been left on. "A lot of kids must want to go swimming after school."
"If you went out and excercised more, you wouldn't be so tired all the time, I bet." Tidus beat her to the couch, sitting on the middle cushion almost defiantly. "Mom, please."
"I said this weekend, Tidus."
She sat down next to him with a motion that was really closer to falling than sitting, and she reached up and covered her eyes with one hand, pressing her fingers and thumb into her temples. Tidus' eyes widened with sudden alarm. "No, Mom, Mom, don't cry, please don't cry, I'm sorry--"
"I'm not crying!" She dropped her hand and gave him a quick smile. "I'm not crying, I'm just tired. My head hurts."
He bit his lip and stared up at her with wide eyes. She ruffled his hair a little and stood up again. "I'm going to go lie down." Her step was a little unsteady, but Tidus only noticed how her hair needed combing.
He didn't bother going back to the pool. He felt a little stupid showing up every day when they kept turning him away. He had better things to do. Today, better things to do involved kicking a blitzball around the deck of the boat. In theory, it also included homework. First things first, though.
Blitzball players had no real reason to know how to bounce the ball on their head, as they were underwater and, well, whatever made the water not water made it so what went up didn't come down like that. That didn't prevent anyone from doing it outside the tank, though. Tidus could reliably bounce the ball off of his head twice before it had to be retrieved from several feet behind him. He had learned not to try it while his back was to the water. He had also learned not to try it while people were watching.
His father had been able to keep it up until he got tired of it. It was all right, Tidus supposed reluctantly, to acknowledge to himself that his father had been very good at blitzball. The best, even. It set a kind of goal: he would be better. It would be stupid of him not to acknowledge it, but he had difficulty comparing his worship for players of that calibur with his feelings about his father.
Once, twice... and off the ball went. Tidus sighed heavily and ran after it half-heartedly. Television was beginning to look like a better plan for the evening.
His hands cupped the ball by its large treads, and he wondered if his mother would be awake by dinnertime. He frowned a little. There wasn't much to make dinner out of. Maybe he should walk to the supermarket and get bread or something. Frozen pizza, if she wasn't going to wake up.
It took him nearly a minute to look up again and realize he was being watched.
A tall, dark-haired man stood on the dock and stared at him with an intensity that made Tidus jump when he finally noticed him. He clutched the ball to his chest and swallowed.
The man blinked, and his expression turned gentler when he noticed Tidus' alarm. It looked more like a wink, somehow, and Tidus noticed with sudden blank terror that the man was missing an eye.
"Pardon me," he said a low voice. "Does a woman named Miral live here?"
Tidus contined to stare at the stranger's face with single-minded morbid fascination. A long time ago, his mother had told him that it was rude to stare at people who looked different, but the deep scar up the cheek and eyelid and brow help him captivated. No one had scars like that. How could such a thing happen?
The man pointed down the dock at the stupid purple boat. "The woman there said that Miral lived here. It's important that I talk to her."
Tidus took a deep breath, holding the blitzball in front of himself like a physical barrier. "She's asleep. She doesn't come out to talk to people."
A couple of moments slipped by, and the man shifted his weight with clear frustration. Tidus noticed a large ceramic bottle tied to the stranger's belt by his hip, and he found himself staring at that next. "Is she ill?"
Ill? Tidus bit his lip. He hadn't really considered that before. "I don't know. She just sleeps all the time and doesn't go outside."
"Is she all right?"
A sort of mindless fear began to creep into Tidus' awareness; he wanted the man to shut up and go away. "What do you care?"
The man sighed heavily. "If she dies, I don't know what I'm going to do...."
The blitzball struck the deck with a loud smack; the man blinked again as Tidus took several steps backward, eyes wide with fear and anger. "Don't say Mom is going to die!"
The expression the man gave him terrified him almost as much as his words did. Don't look at me like that! he wanted to scream, but now that he thought about it... he'd been seeing that look from a lot of people lately....
"I apologize," the scarred man finally said. With a final glance at the boat, he turned and walked away with no further comment.
"Mom! Mom! Mom!" Tidus shook his mother's shoulder violently. "Wake up! Mom!"
Her eyelids fluttered, and it seemed to take a long time for them to focus on him. Now he looked for anything that might be strange, anything that might speak of horrible disease or sickness, but when she finally opened her eyes, she looked the same as she always did. Just sort of sleepy.
"What is it?" She squinted at him a little. "What's wrong?"
Tidus heaved a huge sigh and let go of her arm. "You didn't wake up at first."
"'m awake." She sat up some and rubbed one eye with the heel of her palm. "Don't yell inside, Tidus, I've told you a million times..."
"There was this guy on the dock, he was missing an eye and he was looking for you and the lady two spots down said we should look out for him--"
"What? What guy? Stop yelling." She combed her fingers through her hair and looked out the window blearily. "What time is it?"
His eyes flicked to the VCR. "Five thirty-three." He took a deep breath and bit the inside of his cheek.
She exhaled noisily through her mouth, disturbing the fine hair that hung in her eyes. The sound of water lapping against the side of the boat only seemed to encourage the sleepiness of the bedroom, so Tidus started to speak again. "I locked the door, like he-- like I'm supposed to when there are strangers. But it'll be dark soon and I don't want to be alone."
"Mm." She seemed to think about this for a moment, then nodded and sat up entirely. "Okay. Let's go watch a movie on TV or something."
"In the den," Tidus said firmly.
She smiled. "In the den."
Tidus was cheered enough by his success in drawing his mother out of bed that he forgave her for nodding off during the boring parts of the movie; she was always awake during the commercials, and that's what counted. She pulled down a bag of chips that he could never reach so they could have snacks; he ate nearly the entire bag himself. She smiled at him every time he looked over at her.
He was vaguely bemused when she nudged him awake and told him to go to bed some undertermined amount of time after the program had ended.
He saw in passing, as he stumbled in the direction of his bedroom, that his mother had rearranged things in the room, even cleaning a little. An old trophy, which had been collecting dust since the moment it had been placed on the low mantle, now gleamed under a lamp on the other side of the den, closer to the door. It looked strange.
She wasn't sick. She was tired and sad, and she didn't want to go to parent-teacher meetings, and she never did yoga in the den anymore, but she wasn't sick.
His health book said that getting lots of sleep is good for you.
A small, vaguely triangular doodle was gradually forming in the inner pocket of his math folder as his teacher droned on about division. Tidus never wanted to be a big fan of the Abes, but they had a new guy this season that was coming cose to breaking records his own team had set, and Tidus considered this worthy of some admiration. It wasn't the team's fault, after all.
He was good at drawing this logo because his mother wore it as a pendant, so he saw it all the time. She had worn it as long as he could remember. So it was just as well that he had decided to like the Abes after all.
He chewed on his eraser. He nearly bit it off.
On the walk home he looked everyone he passed in the face, startling a few of them, but they all had two eyes. He was so distracted by this task that he didn't remember they still needed groceries until he was half-way home.
He hesitated. He really didn't like shopping alone. He couldn't reach half of what they needed, which meant asking employees for help, which meant, half of the time, being dragged to the customer service desk as a lost child. Idiots.
Also, it was kind of scary. Kind of. They only needed a few things. Maybe he could convince his mother to come along. They needed bread, after all; how could she object to going to buy bread? Everyone needs bread.
He could reach the bread himself, of course.
Sunlight gleamed off the water like it did every single day of Tidus's life, and for once he stared at it straight on, not even noticing when the light burned spots into his vision. People passed him on either side, not even seeming to notice the little boy gripping the shoulder straps of his backpack.
After a few minutes, he squared his shoulders and continued on home.
The lady with the stupid boat wasn't outside today. The only people wandering the dock were people he didn't recognize. He reached his family's houseboat and set his books down on the deck. His blitzball was caught slightly under the lip of the stair, and he walked over and kicked it lightly until it was free again. It rolled slowly toward the center of the deck, wobbling from side to side on its treads.
The den was empty; the television was off. He sat down and pulled his shoes off, picking at the knots in his shoelaces carefully.
She was in the bedroom. She was lying on her side, facing the wall opposite the door. That wasn't her side of the bed.
Tidus shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then walked in quietly. He climbed up onto the bed behind and shook her shoulder. "Mom."
She was drawn up tightly, like all of her muscles were tensed and closed up around something. Like she was having a terrible nightmare and couldn't wake up.
He scooted off the bed backwards and got off of it, and then walked around it so he could see her better. Her hair was in her face, and her hands were curled up beneath her chin. She didn't look tense at all.
One. Multiplied by two. Multiplied by three. Multiplied by four.When he reached fifty, he left the bedroom and went back outside. Someone on the next dock was throwing bread crumbs to the seagulls, so they whirled overhead and cried. People who live by the sea don't do that. Seagulls are annoying. He picked up his backpack and brought it inside, and then collected his shoes and put them in a closet.
He picked up the phone and hit one of the programmed buttons. It rang twice before someone picked up.
Doctors came by, then people with gloves and a stretcher. He stayed out of their way, leaning against the railing on the deck. He wrapped his arms around his blitzball and laid his cheek against it; at first it was cool, but it soon grew warm and wet, and he had to turn it over so it would feel cool again. It was too hot. When everyone was gone, he stayed where he was, sitting on the deck of his father's houseboat. Nobody spoke to him. Nobody even noticed him. He was completely invisible now.
There wouldn't be a lifeguard today. His breath hitched a little in his throat, like a hiccup. Being twelve doesn't mean you don't need a lifeguard. Grown-ups drown all the time, but Tidus would never drown. He would breathe the water someday.
The dock creaked with someone's footsteps, and Tidus looked up automatically.
It was him again. If he noticed Tidus, he showed no sign; he looked toward the houseboat's door for a long time, then looked out at the sea. He wore a long red coat that was decidedly out of season, and black clothing under that. He looked sad. He should have looked over-heated. Just looking at him made Tidus want to crawl back inside toward the air conditioning.
For long minutes the man watched the ocean, and Tidus watched him. It felt unreal somehow, like the dramatic last shot of a movie. Gulls wheeled overhead and the sun steadily sank lower, making everything red. Then the man turned on his heel, toward the direction of dry land. Tidus threw the blitzball from himself heedlessly, not caring where it ended up. It bounced twice and rolled to an unhurried stop.
He dashed out of cover and ran to the dock; he didn't even waste the breath to shout after the man. Which was just as well; the man was already turning around again when Tidus barreled into him. He was sure that he had intended to hit or kick the stranger, to yell at him and make him go away forever, but somehow he ended up getting tangled up in the long coat. So he just clung to that and cried, bunching it up with small fists.
The man stood still, making no motion to push him away. After a moment, he asked in a low voice, "Tidus?"
Tidus cried so hard he shook. He leaned on the man's hip, disturbing the ceramic bottle a little. Large hands closed over his and carefully disengaged his fingers from the thick cloth, and then the man knelt and lifted Tidus up easily, settling him against his shoulder. With no further word, he stepped on to the houseboat's deck and then took the weeping boy inside, closing the door against the strange and familiar alike.