Makoto let his eyelids drop, heavy as he watched the regular, hypnotic movement of the fishing bobber, a tiny red and white spot among slate grey. The world was a monochrome in winter, steely cold ocean reflecting the heavy, low-hanging clouds, dark with the approach of rain. He shivered, huddling deeper into his scarf and thick coat, white-knuckled hands holding tight to the fishing rod to keep steady.
It was just stubbornness keeping him out here by now, this close to an icy January rain - or, more likely, sleet, even snow. Just one fish, he bargained with the grey expanse. Even a tiny one, then he'd go home. But even this thought was a vague one, dull as the overcast sky, as he stared, lulled by the constant rhythm of the bobber - that suddenly dropped.
"Ah!" He gasped as the reel jerked, almost jumping out of his hands. Makoto got over his surprise quickly, pulling back and going to work reeling in whatever was on the other end of the line. It was a big one, that was for sure. There was an unusual resistance, the line pulled taut - and then the fish pulled back. Hard. Makoto let out a yelp as he was almost pulled off-balance and yanked into the frigid water. Bewildered but determined, he dug his feet into the cold, wet wood of the pier, and strained to raise the monster fish fighting him in an unexpected tug-of-war.
Slowly, the line began to move in Makoto's favor, the resistance fading until his steady effort was rewarded. Just a little more. It was almost his. Just a few more reel turns and -
Something broke the surface. Makoto's jaw fell open, and he almost dropped the pole again.
It was a hand. A human hand, holding the fishing line tight in a fist. A cold surge of fear swept down his spine as Makoto remembered village rumors that turned out to be all too true, stories about bodies washing up on shore, local fisherman accidentally hooking cadavers and pulling bloated corpses from the rime.
Please no, he begged silently, frozen. Please, God, don't let it be a body.
His wide eyes grew larger as he realized that although he wasn't reeling it in anymore, the hand was still rising out of the water. A wrist emerged from the near-freezing sea, then a forearm, so pale it was almost white (Oh, God, it was a frozen body, wasn't it?), then an elbow, a shoulder... then a head. Water streaming from black hair, a pale face of a boy turned up to look at Makoto with steady blue eyes, curious but entirely calm.
Makoto stared. Rather, they stared at each other for a few long seconds. Now, the way he'd been hypnotized by his bobber he was transfixed by the head and shoulders that floated serenely before him, as if their owner were gently treading water just below the surface. The boy blinked, slow and contemplative, and Makoto realized fully in a rush that he really was alive. The horrible spell was broken. He gulped in a breath (he'd forgotten about oxygen for a while there) and spoke, voice tight with shock and concern.
"Are you all right?" He didn't really know what he expected. Of course the boy wasn't all right, no matter how calm he looked. Who could be, in 40-degree water?
The boy in the water simply looked at him for a moment, seeming deep in thought about his answer. "Yes."
"You must be freezing! What are you doing in there?"
Another contemplative pause. "Swimming."
"But it's - aren't you cold?"
"I love the water."
Makoto didn't actually have an answer for that, and now - absurdly - he was starting to feel awkward. What exactly did one say to a strange boy, inexplicably hooked on one's fishing line? "Well - it can't be safe, swimming in the middle of-"
"What are you doing?"
"Fishing," he answered automatically, social reflexes overcoming the strangeness.
"My little brother and sister are hungry. It's been a hard winter for the whole village and I thought I could catch some..." He trailed off, staring at the young man who still held onto his fishing line. Well, he had caught something. Just not what he'd expected.
The water boy gave a slow, solemn nod, as if Makoto had passed some kind of unspoken test. "Keep reeling. You can have what's on the end of your line." Without even taking in a breath, the boy's head slipped silently below the surface.
"Wait! No!" Makoto lurched forward, falling to his hands and knees on the pier. He strained to see into the deep water, waving one hand and shouting for the strange young man to come back - but the sea was as dark, opaque and unbroken as it had been before he appeared.
Finally, he came to his senses enough to remember what he'd heard. Picking up his pole again, he quickly reeled in the rest of his line, almost afraid of what he might find. Finally, his bobber broke the surface, and he gaped at what he saw.
Hooked on the line, flapping weakly at the air, was a large mackerel.