The water was clear, and rippled as Auron broke the surface with the sole of his bare foot. "It's cold," he said, and his voice echoed off the glass walls of the empty natatorium; the sound faded quickly beneath the steady rumble of the machines that circulated the water through the pool.
Tidus laughed as he sat down on the lowes bench of the nearby bleachers to untie his own shoes. "You get used to it." He placed them next to one another, balling up his socks and stuffing one in each shoe, then reached for the hem of his tight shirt and pulled it off. When he lifted his head again, his dark hair stuck out in a thousand different directions, making him look something of an eager adolescent hedgehog. With his slender features and lean, unlined body, Tidus at thirteen looked precious little like his father.
Auron winced as the water hit the hem of his light pants, causing the fabric to soak up the chill and cling to his leg all at once. With a deep breath, he stepped his other leg into the pool, plunging it all the way to the knee before good sense could get the better of him. Everything else in Zanarkand seemed at arm's length, distant and out-of-focus, barely intangible; the cold of the water, though, cut straight through to being real.
He was unprepared for a sudden wild yell from behind him, and barely had time to turn before a blur came whizzing into his good eye's field of vision, past the steps and straight into the great circular pool. The ensuing splash was mighty, and Auron shivered as the long, dark tunic he'd chosen to wear welcomed the water to his skin just as eagerly as his pants had. Surfacing, Tidus shook his head like a dog drying itself and laughed. "Yeow! Feels good!"
"I don't believe you," said Auron, stepping in to his waist. The floor of the pool was a deep blue tile, so dark that he could squint and imagine himself suspended above something bottomless. Above him, the glass set in the ceiling let in mostly starlight, tempered by the light pollution from the buildings just out of sight. Everything was dark, and still. "...This feels strange."
"That's because it's water for the game. The machines have to pump extra gases into it." Tidus cupped his palm and scooped up a handful of water, letting it fall back to the surface. "It's so you can move faster in it -- I mean, if you try Blitzball in regular water, it takes forever. But that's how you can breathe it."
He'd feigned ignorance when Tidus had mentioned it first, and Tidus had been happy to explain everything he knew about the subject several times, just as he'd explained everything else about Zanarkand to the one-eyed stranger whose mystery Tidus never questioned -- at least, not where Auron could hear. There were holders and breathers, Tidus had told him, and holders just stuck their heads out of the sides of the tank or trapped bubbles when they needed air, and that wasn't so bad, since everybody needs air, and most players were holders anyway, but breathers....
When Tidus spoke of breathers, he did so in a tone quick with awe. Breathers never had to call a time-out, never missed an important play because their lungs were aching, could float for hours inside the sphere without budging. The human body naturally rejected having its lungs filled with water, but breathers were better than their bodies. The best players, Tidus said, his blue eyes bright, were always breathers.
Jecht had been a breather. Tidus never mentioned this.
"Come here," Auron said to Tidus, who was partially submerged, his knees tucked up to his chest, treading water. He reached out his hand at chest level, and Tidus walked to him, tendrils of shaggy hair dripping water down his smiling face. Auron never told Tidus that he could change his hair and clothes all he wanted, his grin would always be a dead giveaway. Auron never told Tidus a lot of things, like how every time Tidus talked about relaxing one's lungs to let the fluid in, all Auron could hear was the arrythmia of Jecht's heavy, wet breathing, drowing high in the thin mountain air.
Instead, he cupped his hand around Tidus' face, resting the curve of Tidus' smooth jaw in his weathered palm. Tidus' skin felt warm against his own. "I'm ready!" he said, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, sending out tiny waves that lapped quietly against the curved sides of the pool. The water felt warmer now, as though, mindful of their presence, it had faded on its own from the sharp chill to a more muted lukewarmth. With the way the dream cradled the city and its inhabitants, Auron supposed this might not be an entirely inaccurate description of events. "What do I do first?"
Auron never told Tidus that he was completely unsure if this would work, because he was just as completely sure that the one thing it needed above all others was Tidus' unerring faith in him. "You close your eyes," Auron said, his voice low and quiet, and Tidus obeyed without question. "Close your eyes and think of the water. Take a deep breath and think of floating in it, somewhere safe and warm. It's dark and quiet, and you know you're safe. There's nothing in the water that can harm you."
As he spoke, Tidus' bright smile faded into a looser expression, peaceful and relaxed. Tidus was full of motion, always spinning, always fighting the good fight; Auron held him in place now, his anchor, and as he spoke, Tidus slowed. The waves against the pool's edge first became little more than ripples, then disappeared completely. "Take a deep breath and think of how the water feels around your feet. It doesn't fight you. It supports you. You could stand on it, and it would hold you up." The surface of the water shimmered, ever disturbed by the machines that cycled it in and out again, but even against that tiny tremor, Auron could see the night sky reflected around them. "Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. There's nothing here in the water that wants to hurt you."
It was a lie, Auron knew. The books spoke, on pages Tidus never turned to, about how breathers rarely played more than ten years, fifteen at the most; they used words Tidus at this age either did not read or could not understand, giving long medical explanations of how breathers could never clear all the water from their lungs, how the gases in the water were not the same mixture that the body needed for regular respiration, how players who stayed submerged for more than ten hours had to be rushed to hospitals and hooked to venilators until their lungs could remember air. There was plenty in the water, including the water itself, that wanted to hurt Tidus.
But Auron kept his hand still on Tidus' face, and spoke to him soft and steadily, barely pausing in his low murmurings. "Take a deep breath and think of how the water feels around your legs. Imagine moving your legs, and feel how it moves with you. It slips around you. It only wants to be everywhere you're not. Take a deep breath and let it fill in the gaps around you."
When Tidus' head rocked softly forward, Auron caught it, drawing him closer, until they stood half a foot from one another. Taking a deep breath himself, he reached and placed his left hand atop Tidus' wet head. Without resistance, Tidus sank under the weight of the touch, slipping perhaps half an inch deeper beneath the surface. "Take a deep breath and think of how the water feels around your chest. You breathe in, and the water opens to let your chest expand. You breathe out, and the water slips back in to the place where your body was. Think of your heartbeat. Imagine your pulse as it starts in your chest, and then imagine each beat going past your body, out past your skin, until it's absorbed by the water. Every heartbeat, the water takes into itself. The water knows you. It's known you for a long time." He increased the pressure atop Tidus' head, and bent his own knees, and together they sank a full inch.
"Take a deep breath and think of how the water feels around your head. Imagine opening your eyes and seeing the world as it is underwater, smooth, soft. Nothing is heavy. The water fills your ears, and everything becomes softer." As he spoke, Auron bent deeper, pulling Tidus down with him, slowly, careful not to wake the boy from his dream-like state; the water, now chest-deep on Auron, spilled over the tops of Tidus' bare shoulders. "All noise is far away, too far away to trouble you. Even my voice is miles away, now so faint you can barely make out the words, now gone entirely. All you can hear now is the water itself."
When the water touched Tidus' lips, Auron fully expected him to panic, to open his eyes and protest the rising tide; but Tidus remained still as though he were asleep, tendrils of his hair curling out behind him on the surface of the water. They hovered there, Auron nearly on his knees now in the shallow pool, Tidus crouched now half-fetal, his arms having lifted and come to rest crossed atop his thighs. Auron fell silent, listening to the hum of the machines and the slow, even hiss of Tidus' breath, watching as each exhalation made ripples upon ripples in the water. He counted off first one minute, then another, all the way to five, and still Tidus remained motionless, bobbing gently.
He'd regretted the offer nearly as soon as he'd made it, one evening after years of Tidus' repeated explanations and guileless musings about how much better being a breather would make him; the sun's setting had painted a rose glow over the sky, and they had been sitting far out from shore, Auron resting dry on the end of a long pier, Tidus just past arm's reach, floating on his back atop the dark sea. I could teach you, Auron had said, for no reason other than at that moment, with the last rays of sunlight reflecting off the waves, he had seen in Tidus' smile the face of the man the boy was becoming. After all, it was never too early to start learning how to do the impossible.
The implications, though, were what made Auron pause just before the crucial moment that would take Tidus under. They could be standing in a pool of actual water -- not the hyperoxygenated liquid used for the blitzball game, but the real kind, heavy and airless -- and Tidus would still be there, eyes closed, waiting with absolute faith for whatever came next. Tidus trusted Auron to drown him.
"Take a deep breath and think of your father," Auron said, his voice barely audible above the constantly spinning machines, pressing his fingers against Tidus' skin. "Remember how it felt when he held you to his chest. Remember his skin, and his heartbeat, and his breath. Remember how he taught you first. Your body already knows how to do it. It's the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is remember." He set his feet wider, bracing himself against the ebb and flow of the pool. "The water won't hurt you. There's nothing you need that isn't already there inside it. All you have to do is keep breathing. Whatever you do, don't stop breathing."
Auron took a deep breath himself, and pressed down on the top of Tidus's head, and Tidus alone submerged.
He tensed the muscles in his left arm, expecting some resistance as the bubbles rising from Tidus' mouth and nose lessened and then stopped completely, but there was none. Tidus had curled up into a ball, drawing his knees to his chest, bending his head low over his folded arms. He looked peaceful there, distorted only slight by the water, floating above the dark tiles beneath the reflected night sky; Auron let go and stood again, and Tidus remained in place, breathing.
Everything came from water, Jecht had said once, in one of his uncharacteristic moments of profundity, standing among the ruined buildings of Zanarkand, knee-deep in a flooded street Auron now recognised as the road to the pier where Tidus' houseboat docked. It was difficult at first, had taken him a long time to get right, but once you figured out how to breathe in it, it was the easiest thing in the world. Once you learned, you never forgot.
"Wake up," called Auron, his voice loud enough to echo off the high ceiling, and beneath the surface, Tidus opened his eyes.
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