Warnings: implied homophobia, drinking, spoilers for the Fifteen light novel.
Feet Over Harsh Ground
Yosano considered her tolerance for the filthy quite high. She’d too often had her hands plunged into things that should never see the light of day not to develop a certain sturdiness in the face of grimy, slimy, uncomfortable things.
She let out what must be her fiftieth curse of the afternoon when her foot once again fell into something moist and sunken.
“Can you stop this,” Kunikida groaned from behind her, the irritation on his voice ringing a little too true. “You knew what you were getting into by coming along.”
“It’s not like I had a choice, did I?” she replied. “They’re looking for some specific stuff. You need my help with this.”
“At least chastise your language a bit.”
Yosano snorted as she ripped her foot out of whatever congealed substance it had sunk into. It left a disgusting residue over the white and grey stripes of her sneaker, and when she stepped onto dry ground again, the sole was sticky with it.
“Gross,” she muttered.
She had known what to expect of that particular trip. The two clients who had crossed the threshold of the agency that morning had been too tight-lipped, too foreign, for what they needed help with to be entirely clean. She hadn’t been able to place their accent besides pinning them as European—languages had never been her forte—but their slicked-back hair and straight suits would have sufficed to put her on her guard if their own guardedness had not.
A specific type of full body scanner, they had said, refusing to give them more than that but looking at Yosano insistently.
A body scanner which could apparently only be found in the ruins of an old military settlement at the very far end of Yokohama.
Yosano had no idea what these two and whoever had sent them knew about her and her involvement in the army, but the fact that she had an idea what sort of scanner they were looking for didn’t reassure her in the least. She had toyed with the idea of telling Fukuzawa not to agree to their request; after all, if they wanted it that much, they could go fetch the damn thing themselves.
Fukuzawa would require an explanation, however, for her insistence. She didn’t feel quite so ready to reveal her past to him or any of her colleagues.
“This place is odd,” she heard Kunikida mutter behind her. A quick glance over her shoulder allowed her to see him struggling to lift a heavy door from where it had fallen against a wall of the dusty room they were in.
“You mean besides the the fact that it looks like a post-apocalypse flick background?” she asked, making her way toward him.
She grabbed the other end of the door. With the both of them pushing and shoving, the thing finally gave way and fell to the side, revealing a very old desk full of broken drawers. It seemed to have survived better than most of the furniture in the base, but it wasn’t what they were looking for.
“You know what I mean,” Kunikida said, wiping his forehead. “This doesn’t look like a military facility at all.”
Yosano nodded, looking around herself once more.
Tin cabinets shoved to the ground by some force greater than themselves. Desks and bedrooms and what had looked like an operating block on their way to the only part of the base where walls still stood at all…
“This place looks like a hospital,” she said in a low voice. “And a weird one at that.”
She searched through the drawers of the hidden desk. Most of the paperwork in it had turned to dust in the blast of the explosion that had taken the place apart, and what was left was incomprehensible to her.
“This is all written in code,” she murmured, rubbing the sweat off of her own forehead before pushing the torn pages of a folder toward Kunikida. He took them from her and flipped through them quickly. “Do you think you can read any of that?”
“If you couldn’t then I doubt it,” he replied, frowning. “Damn it.”
This would’ve been a good opportunity to call him a hypocrite, but she felt too exhausted to. “Where’s Dazai?” she asked instead. “I haven’t seen him in a hot minute.”
Kunikida shrugged. “He was searching that office we found a while back. Said I could go ahead and join you.”
Even destroyed as it was, or perhaps because of it, it would take the three of them days to comb the whole base. From outside of the buildings, Yosano had hoped that perhaps some equipment had survived destruction, but even where walls had kept standing, everything was turned over, broken, sometimes crushed. The likelihood of a scanner surviving where tables made of sturdy wood had not was very small.
“I don’t get why they couldn’t just come do this themselves,” she said out loud. “If they had the money to send people here then why appeal to us for it?”
The reply came from behind them: “Because they’re scared of this place.”
Yosano and Kunikida turned their heads around as one. Dazai met their surprise with one of his quick and fleeting smiles.
“I found blueprints,” he announced before they could question him.
“How the hell did you do that?” Yosano asked.
“Aw, sensei,” Dazai said, placing a hand over his heart. “Did you really think I’d come with you and not make myself useful?”
It didn’t answer anything, as always with Dazai, but Yosano gave up on the idea of trying to make him talk. She grabbed the maps from him with a nod of thanks and spread them over the desk, Kunikida by her side so they could study them together.
They were burned, flaking in places, but still readable. And thankfully not written in code.
“There,” Yosano said after a silent minute, tapping a corner of the second underground floor with her finger. “We should go there.”
“There’s nothing written there,” Dazai pointed out.
She hadn’t even heard him come over, let alone lean over the desk at her side.
“If what we’re looking for is what I think it is, then I doubt they’d place it anywhere obvious,” she replied. “This is the only room without any indication of what it is.”
Not that the rest of the facility was named in more obvious ways—the wide dorm they had crossed on their way, behind the kitchens, was indicated as a reserve on the prints.
Dazai looked at her thoughtfully. Yosano thought for a moment that his usually empty eyes shone with some curiosity, but all he said was, “Makes sense to me.”
“This’ll be dangerous,” Kunikida declared. The frown on his face was so pronounced now that Yosano was certain it would leave a mark behind. “We don’t know if the foundations are still standing. It’s bad enough just walking around in here, but with several floors above us ready to crumble?”
They all let his words wash over them, lost in thoughts, judging the pros and cons.
“It’s too bad the agency doesn’t have anyone with superhuman strength to save us in case this happens,” Dazai said eventually. “It would come in handy.”
“It’s not like we get a lot of new recruits, Dazai.”
“I guess I’ll just have to heal you if you get hurt,” Yosano interrupted before Dazai could talk again. She folded the blueprints and shoved them in the back pocket of her jeans. “Dazai, just don’t get hurt at all. Doctor’s orders.”
Dazai shrugged and walked away.
Content for now to have avoided yet another argument between her coworkers, Yosano patted Kunikida on the shoulder and followed suit.
Dazai was strangely subdued on their way to the stairs. Come to think of it, his behavior had been off ever since the foreign men in suits had come to the office to request their help. Dazai had pulled his weight at the agency ever since he had joined them, seven months ago now, but he couldn’t be called hard-working in any way; yet he had insisted to come with her and Kunikida without being asked to. Only the fact that no other client had come between the men’s departure and their own had made Fukuzawa agree to his request.
Yosano never really knew what to think of Dazai.
Some days he seemed almost a child, messing with Kunikida, playing games with Ranpo, bothering her in the infirmary as if he had all the time in the world. She had grown used to his sick sense of humor and to his negligence toward his own life, though she kept an eye on him on the days his childishness made way to somber moods and snider words. Just because she didn’t think he would truly put his life at risk didn’t mean he couldn’t hurt himself in other ways.
Dazai being secretive was something she could respect. Discretion was a taste she had acquired long ago, after all. His dealing with his apparent depression, the causes of which she could only guess at, was not for her to meddle with unless he asked her to. She didn’t think he would take it well no matter how genuine she was in her offer to help.
Still, she thought, watching him and Kunikida struggle to pull open the doors leading to the staircase, it was always surprising to think of him as being only a couple years younger than herself.
“Kunikida-kun,” Dazai panted, resting his elbow against the uneven bend of the door. “Could you materialize us a wrench or something?”
“My notebook’s not big enough for that and you know it.”
Yosano rolled her eyes. Several pipes stood naked along the destroyed wall of the corridor, as if stabbed into stone by some giant’s hand; she grabbed the end of one with both hands and pushed down until it snapped cleanly.
“There,” she said, throwing the pipe at Kunikida’s baffled face. He caught it mechanically. “Try that and thank me later.”
“You’re full of surprises,” Dazai commented with another half-smile.
With the pipe acting as a lever, they managed to unhook the door from its hinges and make it fall onto the ground. Dust rose around them and burned at the back of their throats, at the wet of their exposed eyes; thankfully, the rest of the frame remained standing.
“Well,” Dazai said, looking down at the dark staircase. “Let’s travel to the belly of the beast, shall we?”
Kunikida’s ability always came in handy for situations like these. He had armed each of them with a full-blown tool kit before they even entered the ruins, and Yosano was glad for the flashlight he had thought to include once they descended away from daylight.
The stairs seemed intact enough. They bypassed the first underground floor entirely, breathing quietly, listening to the scattered sounds of rats running away from them as they delved ever deeper. Finally the last flight of steps came to an end before a set of heavy doors.
They looked as if something had blasted them open.
For a moment Yosano could do nothing but watch the trailing glow of her flashlight. Each door must be at least a foot thick, made of now-rusted steel, three of them in a row. Each had folded like sheets of aluminum under whatever had struck them open.
“What the hell happened here,” Kunikida whispered, apparently as dumbstruck as she was.
Dazai moved forward first. Not a word escaped from him, and not a breath either. He was as silent as a shadow.
The room behind the doors was the biggest they had seen yet. Thick pillars of stone and steel supported the ceiling, so high above them that their lights barely reached it. It explained the length of their descent but not what purpose the room served, and looking around herself gave Yosano no more clues. At first she thought it was rock she was walking on, but the crunching noise her feet made upon contact with the ground told her otherwise.
It was glass. Everywhere. It littered the bare floor and piled against the walls in gentle mounds, shifting every now and then as one shard fell under the others, so covered in dust that it barely reflected light. Each was the size of a pebble.
“What is that?”
Kunikida’s voice snapped through the silence sharply, almost making her lose hold of her light. She directed it to the center of the room.
Something had once stood there that must’ve reached much higher overhead. Now it lay flattened to the ground like a great, crushed spider, iron bars linked to a wide circular platform and twisted out of shape by some unfathomable force. Bigger and sharper shards of glass still clung to them in places.
“It looks like—”
“A tank,” Yosano finished, carefully stepping over the metal bars to reach Kunikida’s side. “This must be what this entire facility was built for.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, and she didn’t think she was imagining the strain in his voice.
She gestured toward the bent doors at the end of the room with her light. “These were obviously made to keep something shut in,” she said. “I bet you anything that whatever it was destroyed the base on its way out.”
The question, unvoiced by the both of them, was what exactly had once been contained here.
Yosano felt nauseous now. The air this deep underground was cold and unfriendly, reeking like a haunt. Cobwebs spun from the ceiling in long, trailing ropes, most of them probably abandoned by their makers. She stepped onto the pedestal-like bottom of the tank to examine it more closely. Her every step echoed through the room as if she were walking the long nave of a church.
Kunikida was right behind her. Like her, he trailed the light in his hand over the edges of the tank, which must have been grotesquely big when it still stood. Eight grown adults could have stood at the bottom, and eight more on top of them before reaching the top, judging by the length of the twisted bars.
“I don’t know if I should be afraid that whatever was in this is now out there or relieved that it escaped,” Yosano said softly.
They stood side by side in uncomfortable silence before another sound came to them. Yosano startled, almost stepping on Kunikida’s foot when she recoiled. Their flashlights turned toward the end of the room they had yet to explore.
“Sorry,” Dazai said, blinking owlishly in the glaring light. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
There was something in his hands.
“What did you find?” Yosano asked, stepping off the remains of the tank, breathing more deeply the farther she walked from it. It was as though some heavy shadow lingered there and constricted her lungs.
“Nothing much,” Dazai replied nonchalantly.
He was standing by the remains of a counter which seemed to have flattened like the tank itself had. Some great pressure had weighed upon it until its legs gave out and its drawers spilled to the floor like guts. Dust and glass had piled here more than in any other area, and some shards were embedded in the wall behind it, gleaming slickly in the glow of their torches. Some of them were brown with blood, Yosano realized with sickness at her throat.
Dazai handed her the torn papers fisted into his left hand a little awkwardly, and if Yosano hadn’t been paying more attention to him today than she had on the regular, she would have missed his right hand slipping something into the pocket of his tan coat.
She met his eyes when she looked up, mouth open. His cold, expectant gaze dissuaded her from asking.
She was here to find something too big to fit into any pocket anyway. What did it matter if Dazai picked up a souvenir from a creepy, abandoned military base? She didn’t want to know more about this place than she already did.
“Code again,” she said, taking her eyes off of him entirely and giving Kunikida the papers for later perusal. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything here.”
“We could still try that second wing near the dorms,” Kunikida tried bravely. “The blueprints said it was an infirmary, right? The body scanner might be there.”
“It won’t be,” Dazai replied.
The glow of his flashlight flew past them and to the nearest corner of the room. There was a machine there that Yosano recognized with a jolt of pain through the chest. It was crushed as well, broken through, electric cords rising through its holes like exposed veins.
“Yes.” Yosano blinked quickly to erase the sting in her eyes and took a deep breath. “That’s the scanner. No way to repair it, though.”
Kunikida, as was his habit, turned his irritation toward Dazai. “Why didn’t you say anything when you found it?” he snapped at him, the papers crumpling in his fist. “We could’ve been out of here at least ten minutes ago.”
“I was too curious!” Dazai replied jovially. “I wanted to stay here longer—this place is fascinating, don’t you think?”
“It’s horrid. Let’s go, I need some air.”
He led the way for them, his steps screeching over the glass, lighting the ground near his feet so he would not stumble. Dazai gestured to Yosano to walk before him, bowing for added theatrics.
She didn’t look at the broken tank this time around.
Their way up and out of the facility went by a lot quicker than their way in. Yosano only started feeling relief once sunlight reached her face, making her sneeze loudly. She hoisted her backpack higher onto her shoulder and tried to ignore the grey tracks that dust had left onto her jeans, shirt, hands. Her face must be streaked with it.
Finally, they stood outside the enclosure of the base, at the edge of the slope that descended into Suribachigai’s depths. The crater opened before them like a valley between mountains, rid of vegetation, sunlight glinting off the tin roofs of the makeshift houses below.
“I always wondered what happened here,” Kunikida said, staring at the ant-sized people roaming the bottom of the crater. “They never found out who made that bomb explode or why.”
“Probably the port mafia,” Yosano replied tiredly. “It’s generally their fault when something blows up.”
Dazai said nothing. He too was looking down into the pit.
“Let’s get to the car,” he said at last.
That was another struggle altogether. Though Suribachigai itself was devoid of plants, the edges of the hole had flourished with low, thick bushes. Yosano felt thorns catch onto denim with every step she took and restrained a laugh at the sound of Dazai’s awkward steps. He wouldn’t wear those slacks again.
Kunikida’s car was parked about eight hundred meters away from the entrance of the facility. They reached it exhausted, dirty, and in Dazai’s case, sporting a good few bloody scratches. Yosano threw a bottle of disinfectant at him once she had opened the trunk of the car and sat on it.
“Thanks,” he said hesitantly.
She watched him untangle the ripped gauze from his calves so he could tend to the cuts. She said nothing about the numerous scars she glimpsed in-between his fingers.
To Kunikida’s displeasure, she took the time to smoke a cigarette before they left. It was easy enough to tune out his complaints about the smell and the danger and think back to everything she had seen while perusing the ruins. The sun was setting over the far-off sea, its light tinted pink. Suribachigai must be bathed in darkness already.
“All right, all right,” she replied once Kunikida’s voice called her name again. “I’m coming.”
She pinched the last of the tobacco out of the cigarette with her fingers and threw the stub away for some rodent or another to choke on. It vanished under the thick vegetation.
She took a seat at the back. Dazai had to move his legs aside for her—Kunikida’s car was not big—but she didn’t feel like riding at the front. Maybe because Dazai looked so forlorn. Brow creased and clothes rumpled and fatigue weighing on him visibly.
“Sensei,” he asked at one point, once Suribachigai had disappeared in the distance and the facility was but a twisted line over the horizon, “what kind of machine was it?”
“I’m curious as well,” Kunikida declared, eyes looking at them in the rearview mirror. “That didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen.”
“It was in a sorry state,” Yosano pointed out.
Traffic was intense at this hour of the day. Kunikida drove well, but even he couldn’t avoid it entirely. Yosano knew they’d take at least an hour to get back to the agency. It would be a long hour indeed if she refused to answer them.
Plus, she trusted them. Or at least she trusted Kunikida with her life and Dazai with a secret.
“I’ve seen one like it before,” she said slowly, looking through her window to avoid their eyes. “Also in a military facility, though it didn’t look anything like this one.”
“It’s not a body scanner, is it,” Dazai murmured.
She bit her lip. “Not exactly,” she replied. “It is a scanner, and it’s built for human bodies, but it doesn’t show bones or organs. It shows if someone is in possession of an ability.”
There was silence.
“So that… that cage we saw—”
“We can’t draw conclusions, Kunikida,” Yosano cut in, heart aflutter. “The place I—I mean, the place where I saw one of these scanners didn’t have anything like that room we were in. It could be a coincidence. And this facility was destroyed years ago, who knows what they were even keeping in there?”
“I don’t like this,” Kunikida hissed, fingers clenching around the steering wheel until its leather creaked. “I don’t like it at all.”
“I’m not exactly overjoyed about it either.”
It seemed none of them had anything more to add. Yosano thought again of the cathedral-like room, its floor pebbled with crushed glass and the tank at its center, the blood stains on its walls. Her guts seemed to knot themselves at the thoughts they were all sharing, as if someone had stabbed her and twisted the knife sideways.
They arrived at the office after nightfall. Fukuzawa was not displeased with them for their failure to retrieve what the two European men had come looking for, and he quickly dismissed them, no doubt taking pity on how dirty and tired they looked. A glance in the glass of a window informed Yosano that her face was, indeed, streaked with black dust.
“I need ten showers,” she muttered once she stepped out of the building.
Her feet ached. Her heart ached. Kunikida had stayed behind, ever-diligent, to discuss the trip in more detail with their director.
Dazai gave her an almost gentle smile. “I wouldn’t say no to a bath either.”
“God, thanks for reminding me. I’m going to occupy the dorm bathroom for at least an hour.”
“How cruel! There’s eight of us living there, you know.”
She waved away his protest lazily. “You’ll have to do with your own shower. Ladies first.”
Dazai accepted his loss in good humor, though his eyes remained evasive. Yosano glanced at him as they walked toward their home, and she didn’t know what she wanted to ask or if she wanted to ask it.
“You’re curious about something,” Dazai said without looking at her.
She didn’t startle this time. “I am,” she admitted, her voice oddly soft in the quiet street. “I’m very curious about you, Dazai.”
“I suppose that’s fair. We haven’t known each other that long.”
Not long enough for him to stop treating her with that same distance he had put between them from the moment he had learned that she was a doctor.
“You took something from that room,” she blurted out.
Their steps slowed as their building came into view. Yosano stopped outright in front of a rundown convenience store, the light of which burned yellowly onto Dazai’s somber face.
He turned his head aside to look at her. “Are you curious about that too?” he asked.
Yosano breathed in quietly. Some remnant of the tank room’s ghostly air seemed to have burrowed deep in her lungs. Her chest stung, from the brunt of the day’s work, from her bra tightened too snugly to her skin, from the effort of breathing at all.
“I am,” she said. “But only if you want to share.”
It was weird to see Dazai hesitate like this. Oh, she had seen him stumble in the most mundane situations: upon being carded at a bar they had come to after work, after Ranpo had looked at him one day and said, “You’re a bit of a mess,” without prompting… But she had yet to witness him hover like this between trust and suspicion, his eyes so wide and lit so glaringly that he looked fifteen rather than twenty-one.
His decision came in the shape of a torn photograph. He took it out of his pocket and held it between two fingers as if afraid to damage it. Yosano accepted it wordlessly. Dazai wasn’t looking at her anymore.
It was hard to discern anything on the picture itself. It was an old polaroid, a third of which was missing entirely. But she had spent so much of the evening with her mind stuck in that room, on that cage at its center, that she had no trouble recognizing the intact tank in it for what it was.
There was no one standing by it. If she had not seen for herself the sheer size of its podium, the thickness of the steel bars holding the glass together, she could have mistook it for something half its size. For a picture taken in an aquarium perhaps. It was filled with water, or another sort of fluid, hauntingly green in the grim light of the room.
There was something floating in it.
At first she couldn’t make sense of it. She almost rubbed her thumb over the picture, sure that this was a stain and not what she was imagining—but the stain had a shape too familiar, too human, too small.
“This is a child,” she said.
Her voice came as a whisper. She brought the polaroid closer to her eyes, tempted to fish her glasses out of her bag for an even clearer image, but there was no mistaking it. Frail limbs drowned in white clothes, face swallowed by a mask providing oxygen, pricked with needles and tubes like a machine—she couldn’t see their face, hidden by rust-colored hair, couldn’t tell their gender because they were so young and distorted through the green liquid keeping them afloat like a goldfish in a bowl. A child.
She didn’t react when Dazai plucked the photograph from her fingers. Her hand came to rub at her mouth by automatism, as if the touch would be enough to keep her nausea at bay and prevent bile from gathering at the hollow of her throat.
“I think,” Dazai said quietly, “that this should stay between the two of us.”
This at least seemed to unlock her reason. “We have to—”
She had never heard him sound like this before. The sight of him then was one she could only withstand for a second before looking away.
“Fine,” she let out, one blade of a word cutting itself out of her. “Fine, okay. Okay.”
Dazai put the photograph back in his pocket. She stood for a long time next to him, her eyes fixed onto the curve of his wrist and the bulge his hand made under the cloth of his coat.
“You know something I don’t,” she said at last. “About this facility.”
“Why would I know anything about a place like this?” he replied evenly.
She almost stumbled when he started walking again without her, his stride easy, hers askew. Her whole body felt like a beating heart. It took the rest of the distance between the store and their dorm before she felt close to human once more, and even then, disgust had not crawled out of the hole it had dug deep within her.
“Dazai,” she called right as he was about to step into the building.
He stopped and looked at her, once more unreadable, holding the door open.
Yosano hesitated. “I’m not going to tell anyone,” she said. “And whatever it is you know—I’m not going to ask. Not if it upsets you that much.”
“I’m not upset,” he retorted.
He breathed in, surprised by his own outburst. His knuckles whitened around the handle of the door.
“All right,” Yosano admitted, willing to give him that. “I just wanted to tell you.”
She didn’t know why she felt such a need to earn his trust. Dazai had been a mystery she was content to leave alone from the moment she had met him, from the second they had shaken hands and she had felt his shiver at the touch of the calluses she had earned out of handling scalpels. Dazai was Kunikida’s partner. He was Kunikida’s to watch over and teach the ropes of their job.
Yet looking at him now, covered in dirt, clothes flecked with dried blood, she hoped that she had made the right choice. She met his faraway gaze with as much quiet determination as she could muster up and hoped that whichever way their lives would go now, Dazai would at least stop being scared of her.
It felt more important than even that picture he was guarding so jealously.
Whatever Dazai knew about that place, whatever the picture of that dehumanized child meant to him, he never revealed. The summer months trailed slowly over them after that day in the farthest and most ruined part of the city, hot and windy, blinding in their light.
Yosano spent most of her days sitting in her unofficial office with the door wide open, working on paperwork, chatting with the Tanizaki siblings or Ranpo. Her chats with Kunikida tended to happen after work hours, in the bars she favored and which only served spirits too strong for Kunikida’s taste. He contented himself with tea and watched her become looser and more talkative as the hours crawled by. It helped that unlike most of the men she had worked with, Kunikida never once made a move on her.
Sometimes, Dazai accompanied them.
All in all, it was a good life. The best life Yosano had lived yet. She didn’t know when she started calling the agency and its member home in the very confines of her heart; she just knew that each smile they got out of her felt like a scab pulling away from her and revealing new, unblemished skin.
They were healing her. The irony wasn’t lost.
One September evening marked something of a change in her. She and her companions found no room to drink at the place they usually frequented—a small and ill-lit hole-in-the-wall a mere two streets away from their dorm—because some company or another had rented the place out for the night. The counter couldn’t be seen in-between the backs of red-faced men in suits.
They found solace near the beach, for a definition of solace. At this time of the year, with heat still lingering long after the sun had set, those bars were full of students.
Kunikida had only just sat on a stool at the bar when his first complaint came: “I can’t hear myself think in here.”
“We’re not here to think,” Dazai replied.
“What he said,” Yosano added.
She ordered for the three of them, familiar by now with what they liked and knowing the bartender would pay more attention to a pretty woman than two disheveled men. It worked to her satisfaction; soon she was placing tea in front of Kunikida, a glass of amber whiskey before Dazai, and sipping on wine herself.
The place was loud, no matter what she and Dazai had told Kunikida. This particular group of rowdy students had come together, still dressed for class and carrying books and backpacks. Yosano sat sideways on her stool to watch them laugh and yell at one another, boys and girl alike flushed with alcohol and heat.
The fact that they were about her own age did nothing to improve her mood. She disliked thinking of long-lost possibilities, of what-ifs, of if-onlys. Those never led anywhere fruitful.
“Do you regret coming here now?” Dazai asked her with glinting eyes, never one to miss an opportunity.
She downed her glass in one large gulp instead of answering.
It set the pace for the evening. Wine was poured in front of her until she lost track of just how much of it she had drunk already. Her tongue was dry, her ears aflame from the astringency. She stopped tasting it at all and comforted herself in languid stupor and the sight of Kunikida’s face reddening as if he were the one finding ivresse; some of the group seated behind them had stopped making so much noise and started making out instead, and he apparently found it wildly uncomfortable. Not that she could blame him.
“Lovely spectacle,” Yosano commented, cheek braced against her elbow, watching an impressive display of slobbering a mere seat behind Dazai’s back. “Truly makes you want to be young and in love.”
“Keep speaking like that and we’ll stop believing you’re in your twenties, sensei,” Dazai replied, grinning against the rim of his glass.
He must have drunk as much as her, but his face was barely red. He always held his liquor very well.
Yosano snorted crassly. “Does this,” she pointed at the couple kissing noisily behind him, “make you feel envious?”
Dazai actually took the time to turn around and stare. The couple in question didn’t seem to mind, if the way they clung to each other and seemed focused on swallowing each other whole was any indication. Yosano was pretty sure that she could have yelled at them and not made them let go.
“That depends on the kind of envy,” Dazai mused.
Yosano gave him a surprised glance. She hadn’t expected him to answer at all.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s something beautiful about being unafraid of showing affection, isn’t it?” Dazai picked up his glass once more, eyeing the liquid inside as if expecting it to turn to gold. “I don’t exactly want to be in their place, but this sort of thing takes strength. Not everyone in our society dares to express their love.”
Yosano suddenly felt the urge to drink even more. “You have a point,” she managed, pushing herself upright once more and waving at the bartender to fill her glass again.
“It’s called politeness,” Kunikida said. “Not that I mind people holding hands in the streets or kissing, but this borders on exhibitionism. We’re still in a public space.”
“Exhibitionism,” Dazai repeated glumly. “I guess you’re right, Kunikida-kun. Still, I can’t help but wish I was capable of doing that.”
Yosano grabbed her glass with more fervor, almost making the wine spill over the counter before the man behind it was done pouring it. By now the charms she had used at the beginning of the evening had vanished, and he didn’t hesitate to glare at her, even as he took the money she handed him.
The wine burned her throat when she drank it. The heat under her skin morphed into the start of a headache.
Unfortunately, it seemed Dazai was in a mood for conversation. He turned his head toward Kunikida and asked, “Have you ever been in love?”
Kunikida spluttered. It made Dazai smile quickly and Yosano grip the counter tighter. Her nails ached under the pressure.
“No,” Kunikida replied when he was done coughing. His face was redder than hers. “I mean—” and there he seemed to be looking around for a physical exit to an intangible crisis, weighed down by embarrassment. He cleared his throat and stared somewhere above Dazai’s head. “I just—I haven’t found someone. Yet. That I’d like to be involved with.”
“There’s no shame in that,” Dazai said. “Very honorable of you, saving yourself until marriage and all that. I did read your notebook, you know.”
“I’m not saving myself—”
Kunikida stopped himself before he could admit to what they had all guessed and breathed out of his nose loudly. He took a long sip of tea. The sight was somewhat endearing, and Yosano could guess that though Dazai was teasing, his intentions were not to hurt. Even Kunikida seemed to understand it; his next glare was not nearly as ferocious.
Yosano’s smile vanished when Dazai looked at her next.
“What about you, sensei?” he asked, resting his chin into his palm.
“What about me?” Yosano replied into her glass.
“Ever been in love?”
This wasn’t like Dazai at all. The Dazai she had come to know avoided such personal discussions, even under the guise of friendly drunk chatter. Perhaps even more when they came under the guise of such chatter. Dazai made light of his own death and delivered cryptic statements and walked with shadows in his eyes, but he never needled for information. Not like this.
Yosano’s glass hit the counter sharply. “No,” she lied.
Dazai stared at her levelly. Her eyes came to rest upon the lovers seated behind him once more. They had stopped kissing but were still in each other’s arms, their chairs pushed close together so that it made one seat for the both of them. The girl was nestled into her boyfriend’s arms, talking with a friend of hers and smiling each time he pressed his mouth onto her hair, and Yosano remembered—
—the scent of old wood in the staircase behind the gymnasium, damp stolen minutes in the heat of midday, between one bell and the next; muffled laughter pressed mouth-to-mouth like secrets shared, like wisps of magic spreading from her lungs to the lungs of another; the ringing announcing class like the sound of a patient flatlining on an operating table; the shades and the silence and young hands placing butterflies in her hair as if planting flowers, as if seeding a garden she hadn’t known the entrance to until that very moment; flowers growing and growing in her heart and her neck as she kissed and was kissed, as she touched the hollow of a neck and the line of a nape, right under long and heavy hair, soft chest against soft chest.
She remembered blooming petal by petal in the dark of that secret place. She remembered sunlight in the shape of a girl. She remembered her joy and her fear and no one can ever know, Akiko.
No one could ever know.
“I’ve never been in love,” Yosano said, the shaking in her heart barely making itself known, her fingers closed so tightly around the foot of her glass that she feared she would break it. “Not my thing.”
Dazai nodded. He didn’t tease her.
“What’s up with those questions anyway, Dazai,” Kunikida said awkwardly. Yosano could feel him look at her in concern. “You’ve got something you want to say?”
“Not especially,” Dazai replied, twirling the last of his whiskey around in his glass. A small smile stretched his mouth. “Why, were you hoping I would?”
“So harsh. You’ll break my heart one day, you know.”
“Ugh,” Kunikida grumbled, pushing his glasses up his nose. “You got the both of us to share, so now it’s your turn. Spill.”
“I guess that’s only fair,” Dazai replied with a sigh. He pivoted atop his stool until his back leaned against the counter and his hair almost dipped into his drink. He was staring at the ceiling. “Mmh, I suppose I have been in love before. Maybe.”
“Give a man a second to gather the broken pieces of his heart, Kunikida-kun.”
Kunikida looked almost irritated enough to snap. Thankfully, it seemed Dazai wasn’t looking for more than very cheerful, very fake antagonizing. Yosano could see the light in his eyes too clearly from where she sat.
“I’m not sure because I never asked myself the question at the time, I think,” he said. “I had what I wanted where I wanted it. It never occurred to me to ask myself why I wanted it.”
Yosano and Kunikida looked at each other for a second. She was pretty sure her expression matched the surprise Kunikida wore right then.
“I really can’t imagine what kind of person would fall in love with you,” Yosano said. “You’re not bad-looking, but that gets canceled out by the weirdness. No offense.”
“None taken,” Dazai laughed. “And I didn’t say it was requited.”
Silence spread between them for an awkward moment, thick even through the noise and bustle of neighboring tables and hosts.
“Don’t make that face,” Dazai said eventually. He winked at Yosano for good measure, one hand atop his crossed knees, fingers tapping lightly against his slacks. “Like I said, I had what I wanted out of that relationship at the time.”
“I have to agree with Yosano here,” Kunikida interjected. “You flirt with every woman your age who breathes in your general direction. It’s not like you have a type. I can’t imagine the kind of person you’d fall in love with.”
“Well, he was a bit of a special case.”
His choice of word—he, not she—jolted through Yosano like electricity. She froze in her seat for a second, an inhale too close to a gasp stuck in her throat, refusing to let it escape. Her heart felt like a hammer. Her ribcage made of glass.
Kunikida, bless him, cut through the moment as if nothing had happened: “I see.”
Dazai had stopped hitting his kneecap with his fingers. He was playing with a coffee stirrer, rolling it from index to pinky with surprising dexterity. His other hand, Yosano noticed, was deep in his pocket.
“If you want to know so bad…” The stirrer came to a stop in his hand. His shoulders tensed almost unnoticeably, and a papery sound escaped from the folds of his jacket. Dazai turned around once more and continued: “He was bad-tempered. Handsome, but with a disastrous sense for fashion. We yelled at each other half of the time we were together, and spent the rest trying to ignore each other’s existence.” He frowned. “He was short, too. Didn’t grow at all in all the time we knew each other. I must be twenty-one centimeters taller than him now.”
“It doesn’t really sound like you were in love,” Yosano said before she could help it.
She regretted her words immediately, but Dazai took them in stride as if she had simply mentioned the weather. “No, I don’t suppose it does.”
She took another sip of wine. Dazai took another sip of whiskey. Kunikida watched the both of them, and the warmth of his concern was almost scorching.
“Have you ever met someone,” Dazai murmured, softer and gentler than ever before, “so completely honest and straightforward, so incomparably human… that spending too much time with them becomes almost painful?”
His question was rhetorical, and neither Yosano nor Kunikida tried to answer it.
“It was like a constant reminder of everything wrong with myself,” he continued. “Like being told over and over how much of a failure I was at living. I craved his presence when we weren’t together, and I hated him for that. I was too jealous to enjoy having him near me, and I hated him for that too. And,” he took a deep breath, “he cared about me. I knew he did. He was too stupidly loyal not to care about me no matter how much we fought, but I couldn’t care like he did. He knew it, and he didn’t mind. He forgave me for that. I think that’s what I hated him the most for.”
Yosano thought for a second that he was done; then she realized that he was blinking too-fast under the dim lights of the bar, the amber shine of his drink reflected brightly in his eyes, and that his throat was simply too cluttered with memories to speak.
Dazai’s next exhale was shaky. “He should’ve been the one mulling over death and life and his place in the world,” he said. “Not me. It would’ve made so much more sense for him to be like me, after everything—” he stopped himself. Breathed in again. “But instead it was me. No good reason and no good excuse to be so morbid, while he was out there fighting tooth and nail to prove himself to the world. He didn’t even need to.”
“Dazai,” Yosano said.
He shook his head. The tear that had escaped from his eyes was wiped before it could even reach his cheekbone, and his grip around his glass was firm enough to hide his trembling from her.
“I think the worst thing is that I was too busy grieving for someone else, I forgot to grieve for him.” Dazai chuckled bitterly. “I forgot all about him until only a couple months ago,” he said. “And ever since then it’s like I’ve lost him, only it’s three years too late for it to matter.”
Dazai had spoken of envy, of strength, of the courage it took to express affection. The couple behind him looked about to leave, pleasantly drunk and obviously in love, leaning on each other even as they stood together; and now, for the first time, Yosano thought she understood what he had meant fully.
She once had love in-between old wood and dusty stairs. She had weeks of stolen embraces to cherish and resent and cherish once again, the now-blurred face of a teenage girl looking at her with adoration, her lips warm on Yosano’s lips and her hands threading Yosano’s hair with butterflies. Even after losing her—even long after anyone ceased calling her Akiko—she had other moments, other women, the warmth of naked bodies if not the warmth of naked hearts.
Dazai didn’t have any of that.
“I understand,” she said.
She hesitated, but in the end it seemed to her that her hand moved on its own. It settled at the crook of Dazai’s elbow gently, and Dazai didn’t reject the gesture, either too drunk to be afraid or unwilling to refuse himself this once.
On his other side, Kunikida patted his shoulder.
“It does feel like it’s always too little too late, doesn’t it,” she went on. “Love. No matter the kind.”
“I thought you’d never been in love, sensei,” Dazai replied with a chuckle.
His inebriation was starting to show now. His cheeks were flushed from more than just his tears, and his voice was louder, his words not so neatly-spoken.
“Maybe I lied,” Yosano retorted, giving his back a firm swap. He almost stumbled into his drink under the strength of it. “You know, I think I’m not drunk enough for this.”
“Ah, you really are a woman after my own heart. We should date.”
“Not on your life.”
Yosano called the bartender to them once more, ordering a refill for herself and Dazai and giving Kunikida a questioning glance. He sighed and, to her surprise, asked for some warm sake.
“What shall we drink to?” Yosano asked once their drinks had arrived. “I think this calls for a celebration.”
“There’s nothing to celebrate about someone being heartbroken,” Kunikida replied.
“Careful, Kunikida. Show too much of a heart and Dazai might fall in love with you instead.”
Dazai played along with her, giving Kunikida a leery once-over. He glared back, of course, but his face was red once more.
Yosano lifted her glass toward them. “To love,” she declared, “and all the idiots who let it go to waste.”
Kunikida’s cup clicked against the rim carefully. The regret present on his face was a masterpiece of comedy—Yosano knew he was already picturing the hangover he would have to nurse in the morning, now that he had agreed to let them pull him along in their drunken misery. She had never seen Kunikida come to work after drinking himself into the gutter. If anything, if promised to be interesting.
Dazai raised his whiskey with an odd look on his face; his hand froze in the air for a moment too long, and it seemed to Yosano that whatever he was seeing while looking at them both came from a long time ago.
His glass knocked into theirs almost shyly.
“To love,” he said. “Three years too late and twenty-one centimeters too short.”