Warnings: mentions of past child abuse.
Summer dragged over Yokohama like a beast’s hot breath, sweltering from mid-morning to late at night, making the pavement simmer. It seemed to turn the streets liquid and the day light to fog; Atsushi could not walk outside without feeling like he had stepped into a cloud, if clouds were made of sticky sweat. Sharing a dorm with Kyouka meant that whatever coolness they could afford by the way of electric fans had to be shared as well, and often the night found Atsushi breathing loudly in the open closet where he slept, trying and failing to put his overheated mind to sleep.
If Kyouka suffered the same, she didn’t say anything. She was still as a statue as soon as she lay down at night, but Atsushi didn’t know if it meant that she slept. She always kept her back turned to him.
It was after such a hot night that they walked into the office and found the rest of the agency almost as numb as themselves. Kunikida didn’t have half as much work piled over his desk as he usually did, and his forehead was already glistening. The open door of the nurse office let through the high-pitched sound of what must be three different fans. The Tanizaki siblings were speaking lowly by an open window, too dizzy it seemed to do much more than that. Ranpo was asleep on the couch.
Dazai wasn’t even there. Kenji looked to be the one handling the temperature best: his soft singing could be heard through the silent office floor, weirdly in tune with the upbeat song playing on his small radio.
“Hi,” he called as soon as Atsushi was past the door, smiling brightly.
Atsushi didn’t have the heart to try and match his enthusiasm. Kyouka shuffled past him and replied, “Hello,” tonelessly.
Kenji was quick to engage her in conversation. Atsushi often forgot they were of an age until he could see them like this—speaking in low voices, bright-eyed despite the heat, Kyouka’s features relaxed into childlike curiosity—and couldn’t help but smile at them.
“Good morning,” he told Kunikida, rounding past Dazai’s empty desk so he could sit at his own. The chair was still a little cool to the touch, and his back shivered appreciatively.
“Good morning,” Kunikida grumbled, licking his lips absently.
He had gotten rid of the waistcoat and jacket of his suit, but the outline of his undershirt was clear-cut against his skin. He must feel as if he were toasting.
“Can’t we do anything about the heat?” Atsushi asked empathetically, looking over his own desk with complete lack of energy or motivation. “I don’t think anyone can work in these conditions…”
“Air conditioning is too expensive,” Kunikida replied. He was doing a good job of hiding how thin his breathing was, all things considered. Atsushi could barely hear the effort he put into each word. “And bad for the environment. All of you are just lazy,” he called loudly.
There was a faint, collective moan. Atsushi was pretty sure he saw Yosano’s hand flash through the door of the infirmary with its middle finger up.
“It’s too hot,” Naomi replied, fanning herself with a stack of paper.
“You’ve been working here for two years, you should be used to it.”
“Kunikida-san! We’re on the fifth floor, it’s like all the heat in the building is concentrated here—”
Atsushi soon found himself too weary to listen to the unfolding argument. He exchanged a pained glance with Tanizaki, who in the absence of his sister had prowled over the windowsill in fruitless search for air.
“Is it always like this?” he asked in the downtime between Kunikida and Naomi’s words.
“Yes,” Kunikida ascertained.
“No,” Naomi retorted, shooting their superior a nasty glare. “Didn’t you read the papers, Atsushi-san? We’re riding one of the worst heat waves of the decade. This is all global warming’s fault.”
“Well global warming isn’t going to get better if we install something as expensive and energy-costly as air conditioning.”
Another debate ensued which Atsushi didn’t listen to, but during which Naomi made a crude-looking gesture toward her own sweaty self.
“I thought it was called climate change,” Atsushi mumbled, turning his chair around.
Kenji grinned at him. He was perched atop his desk, seemingly unbothered by the heat. It wasn’t so surprising coming from someone who ran in the winter dressed in nothing but shorts and an old T-shirt. “In my village, we learn very young that there’s nothing to do about the weather,” he declared.
“I think everyone knows that…”
“I wanna go to the beach,” Ranpo bemoaned from the couch.
He must’ve been woken by Kunikida and Naomi, who were still going at it.
Atsushi wouldn’t have paid much attention to it if not for Kyouka’s reaction. She looked quickly in Ranpo’s direction before turning back, some complicated emotion flashing over her face. She didn’t say anything.
At least the spat was amusing. Yosano even emerged from her den of buzzing fans to watch it unfold, hair tied up above her nape and sipping a cold drink that definitely did not look like soda. Kunikida had somehow veered the conversation toward dorm issues such as Naomi’s habit of leaving her trash bags by the door to be collected by someone else, or the fact that Dazai always inexplicably missed his turn at cleaning the common rooms. Both of them seemed to have forgotten what they were even arguing about.
“Where’s Dazai?” Atsushi asked, his eyes glancing over the usual mess strewn atop the man’s desk. It looked exactly the same as it had the night before.
“Who knows,” Ranpo replied. His hat was laid on top of his face, muffling his words. “Probably at a bar somewhere. Somewhere air condtioned.”
At this moment, the doors to Fukuzawa’s office opened, and Dazai strode out of it looking very satisfied.
“You have so little faith in me,” he told Ranpo.
Ranpo only grumbled in reply. When Dazai extended a hand toward him, he put a considerable stash of bills in it without bothering to look at him.
“Thank you,” Dazai said smugly, pocketing the money. “I’m sure you’ll win the next bet.”
“Dazai,” Kunikida fumed, losing interest in Naomi’s angry face. “Where the hell have you—”
Dazai lifted a hand, solemn, and Kunikida’s words fumbled into silence.
“Before you attack me, Kunikida-kun,” he said, “you might want to try thanking me. I just convinced our director to install air conditioning in the office. People will come by this afternoon to take care of it.”
There was a moment of silence.
“What?” Kunikida said.
“God,” Yosano drawled, finally walking into the office proper, “thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sensei.”
“Hang on—how? And today?” Kunikida looked at a lost for words and a lost for manners, Atsushi thought, watching him wipe the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. “Who’s gonna pay for it?”
“I will,” Dazai said.
“With what money?” Yosano, Ranpo, and Naomi replied.
Dazai clicked his tongue at all of them. “So little faith,” he repeated. “I do have some savings from my days of terrorizing the innocent, you know.”
“You annoyed Chuuya-san until he paid for it,” Kyouka commented quietly.
“That’s entirely besides the point, Kyouka-chan.”
Atsushi couldn’t very well remember how the rest of the morning had gone. Sometime in-between Dazai arguing with Kunikida over the importance of a comfortable working environment versus the amount of work actually getting done, Fukuzawa had come out of his office to inform them that they were all to leave for the day and come back the day after, so that the electricians could come install the AC in peace. Kunikida had to admit defeat in front of such orders, but the laugh Dazai gave at his slumped posture was good-natured, and Kunikida’s face brightened as they all stepped out of the building and into fresher air.
“Who’s up for a drink, then?” Dazai called once the door had closed behind them.
It was then that Atsushi noticed how differently he was dressed. It had crossed his mind that Dazai would be uncomfortable, wrapped up as he usually was; and indeed he had forgone the bandages for once, opting for long sleeves and a closed collar. The fabric of his shirt was thin. A pink scar peeked over the white edge of it, crawling up around his carotid.
Dazai caught his gaze with a half-smile. Atsushi looked away.
Yosano and Ranpo approved immediately of Dazai’s idea, no matter that Yosano already had a head start. The three of them took off toward the city center, pulling Kunikida along with promises of free cocktails, plying him with smiles and sympathetic pats. The murmur of their conversation died under that of running cars, of languid passersby seeking shade and gusts of wind.
Tanizaki and his sister bid Atsushi good day not long after, leaving him, Kyouka, and Kenji standing on the threshold of the red-bricked building. Atsushi looked at Kyouka nervously. She was staring at her socked feet in silence; only the glossy shine above her lip betrayed how hot she felt as well.
“Ah,” Kenji exclaimed suddenly. “I have to go! I keep forgetting I need to buy food.”
“How are you feeding yourself if you don’t buy food?” Kyouka asked him.
“I ask Kunikida-san to give me some.”
No wonder Kunikida had been on edge all week.
Kenji left them without further words. Kyouka stopped looking at the ground to look at the street instead, following passing cars with her eyes and shifting gently where she stood.
“Er,” Atsushi said. She turned toward him wordlessly. “Do you want to do something?”
“Do what?” she asked.
He had no idea. Their days off were often spent cleaning their room—or cleaning the common kitchen and bathroom, which Dazai was supposed to take care of on Sundays—and reading. Sometimes they walked around Yokohama, although those walks tended to leave Atsushi regretful. Many of the city’s corners were full of bad memories for Kyouka.
Remembering what Ranpo had said, he offered, “How about the beach?”
Kyouka didn’t answer him, but her face brightened. Her eyes were very wide.
“I don’t have a swimsuit,” she murmured.
Atsushi scratched the damp hair at his nape. He felt suddenly full of more responsibility than ever, though he didn’t know why. “Neither do I, actually,” he said. “Maybe we can buy one on the way? There’s lots of shops around the port.”
Kyouka thought over the proposal in silence. Noon was upon them, bright and suffocating, reducing shadows to little black circles on the asphalt. Atsushi thought that any drop of water falling to the ground now would vaporize instantly, vanishing with one last whistling breath, adding to the heaviness plaguing the city.
“Okay,” Kyouka said at last.
She grabbed his sleeve with the tips of her fingers.
Atsushi led her through the maze of burning streets, letting his nose and ears guide him more than his memory, scenting his way toward salt and the cries of seagulls. Kyouka and himself rarely had need for words in those moments they spent together. It was both comforting and upsetting. Atsushi knew, intellectually, that Kyouka had never resented him for awkwardness; he couldn’t help but feel that he was failing her anyway, by not knowing what to tell her.
It was easier once they reached a swimwear shop right by the first beach they found. Kyouka confined herself to a booth at the end of it, carrying three different suits, each with a bunny motif somewhere on it. Atsushi waited for her under the saleswoman’s imperious gaze. He grabbed the first pair of swimming trunks he found in his size just so she would stop glaring at him.
Kyouka ended up deciding on a blue suit with a white rabbit at the front. Its long ears followed the straps just shy of her shoulders.
“It’s very cute,” Atsushi told her with a smile.
Kyouka smiled back tentatively. Her face was red from the lack of air inside the booth. Her nose was shining damply.
She insisted on buying the suit herself. Atsushi got her a summer dress to go with it, easier to wear in the sand than her usual clothes, and Kyouka’s voice convinced the unsympathetic woman at the counter to let the both of them change in the booths before leaving.
They hadn’t planned on there being so many people out.
The weather seemed to have gotten the best out of half of the city. The beaches near the port and following streetful of hotels were black with people as far as the eye went; hundred upon hundred of sun-baskers, swimmers, families with children, filling the air with sound and running in upturned sand.
Atsushi and Kyouka stood at the edge of the stairs descending toward the water a little awkwardly. Neither of them was at ease around so many strangers, and Atsushi felt his breathing hasten at the very thought of undressing where all those eyes could see.
Kyouka was the one who ended up tugging him forward.
They walked along the cool water until their calves ached, shoes in hand and toes wetted by the waves. The sand burned their eyes everywhere they looked. Atsushi filled his nose with iodine smells, ignoring the crowd around them as long as no one ran into him—which happened to a few distracted children—and kept searching for a more isolated spot.
He found it after almost thirty minutes, between two arms of rock plunging into the water. There the soil was damp throughout, clinging to their legs even before they got rid of their clothes.
Atsushi undressed, stopping short of taking off his shirt. He sat in the sand ad he waited for Kyouka to be done.
“Sunscreen,” she told him once the dress was pooled at her feet. She held up the bottle they had bought earlier.
“I’m good,” he replied quickly. “I’m—I don’t think I’ll swim. I don’t really like water.”
Kyouka’s hand lowered. “You never take baths,” she said. “Only showers.”
Atsushi’s throat tightened. He didn’t answer.
His fingers drew meaningless patterns in the wet sand as Kyouka put the cream onto her arms and legs. Here the wind was stronger, slithering through his clothes and cooling his hot skin. He already felt much better than he had in the office.
“Atsushi,” Kyouka said.
He almost jumped. “Uh, yes?”
She held the bottle up again. “Can you do my back?”
It took him a second to understand what she meant. Kyouka had turned her back to him before he was done fumbling for an answer, rubbing the cream over her face with both hands, tying up her long hair. Atsushi lathered more of it over her shoulder blades with careful hands.
Then she was gone, jumping over sand and rock to get to the clear waves.
The afternoon went by slowly. More people overtook the beaches once the boiling sun hours were gone and the shadows started to lengthen. Atsushi only thought to put sunscreen over himself once his knees had turned crimson, and then the pain of touching them was almost too much to bother. The Tiger would heal him in no time anyway.
Kyouka played in the water for a long time. She came back to him at one point, napping on her towel for the better part of an hour before looking at him in silence and going back, leaving him confused.
She obviously wanted something from him. The problem was that he had no idea what it was.
After six in the evening, the masses started leaving. Children screamed in disapproval as their parents picked them up from the sea. Atsushi saw people queueing for the outside showers, rinsing their feet and hands quickly before putting their shoes back on. The sun veered westward. The tide crawled back toward the horizon.
Kyouka came back to him again.
“You can undress,” she said to him, dripping water onto the sand, white trails of salt clinging to her legs and elbows. She had put sunscreen on again after her nap; some of it smudged onto her nose like flour. “Everyone’s leaving.”
“I’m fine,” Atsushi told her.
She frowned. “You’re scared of the water.”
He found himself voiceless once more. It didn’t matter; Kyouka took his silence for an answer and pulled him up by the arm, her wet hands staining his shirtsleeve.
“Wait,” he said, “wait, I can’t just go in the water with…”
He didn’t finish. Kyouka hadn’t interrupted him, yet he felt on the verge of being scolded. Of being yelled at.
“It’s okay,” she said into the silence. “I’ve already seen them.”
Atsushi aborted a step backward.
He couldn’t think of anything to tell her. It was true that she had already seen his scars, that he had already told her, in his nervousness, of what had been their cause.
Not how he had gotten them. Nothing so specific. Only that some were burn scars and others not.
He shook his hand out of her grasp so that he could tug his shirt over his head. He turned his back on her to fold it and put it on his towel, and almost jumped out of his skin when her cold hand touched his spine.
“Sunscreen,” she cut in evenly. “The sun is still up.”
Atsushi swallowed around the knot in his throat. “Okay,” he let out.
Her hands were so small. So gentle. She didn’t linger on the horrid maze of raised skin he knew she could feel under her palms and fingers—she just applied the cream, wordless and efficient, and then turned him around so that he could take the bottle and take care of the rest of his upper body.
Her eyes never even strayed downward. Atsushi passed a shaking hand over the brown burns running across his ribs as quickly as he could.
He let her take his hand.
“My mom,” she said, guiding him between the rocks and puddles littering the way. “She used to take me to the beach all the time. I remember.”
“Oh,” Atsushi replied.
He didn’t know what else to say.
“She taught me to swim when I was this”—she raised a hand up to her chest—”tall. I bet I could teach you.”
“I know how to swim.”
It wasn’t a lie. The children of the orphanage had sometimes been taken to the nearby river, either for chores or for lack of a better way to spend their energy. Atsushi had often been pushed into the water and held down by the head.
He had learned to swim there because there was no other choice.
“I just don’t like water,” he said, heart drumming in his chest, as their toes dug into softer, stickier sand. Here their feet would be buried within minutes if they stood motionless; each pass of the water already sucked them deeper down, until they were ankle-deep in the mud.
“I can teach you,” Kyouka said.
“I know how to—”
“I can teach you how to have fun. In the water.” She looked up at him. Her eyes turned jade-green in the golden hours of the day. “Please,” she added in a small voice.
And Atsushi understood.
It was almost too easy to picture: a smaller, younger Kyouka, one with laughter on her lips instead of the tense crease of fear and regret, playing in the waves in the arms of her mother. Atsushi pictured her long-haired and beautiful because he didn’t know how else to. He saw this nameless woman hold her child under the arms and teach her to beat her legs into the waves so that she would never, ever sink.
“Okay,” he breathed. His chest felt aflame with more than just the light, his skin taught and painful over his bones. “Yes, sure, teach me.”
He had never seen Kyouka smile so brightly.
Atsushi grinned with clenched teeth as she pulled him waist-deep to the sea. He ignored the silhouettes at the corner of his eyes, the burning gaze of the Headmaster on his nape as ghostly hands tried to drown him. For a long while it seemed that every breath he took was filled with just as much water as air, that his lungs were screaming as they had screamed once in a silent office, where a man who hated him shoved his face into a basin.
Eventually the memories faded.
It wasn’t the Headmaster’s weight upon his back, but Kyouka’s, her body clinging to his as she rode him like a knight would his horse. Laughter pearled from his lips with more ease, answered by the growing silence of the bay, by Kyouka’s huffs of joy in his ear. He threw her off without fear of hurting her. He let her try and trip him until his head was under and all the white noise of the world vanished.
He was smiling when Dazai called him hours later, walking barefoot in the sand, Kyouka following him sleepily. He drank in the sight of the gold-lit ocean, of the pink sky overhead turning the sand to bronze, unbothered by the salt flaking off his skin or the sunburned tip of his nose. He heard Ranpo’s voice in the static of the call, singing drunkenly with Kunikida, Yosano’s sharp laughter echoing like a bell.
“Did you have a nice day?” Dazai asked him, his words barely even slurred.
Atsushi looked at Kyouka. Kyouka blinked at him and smiled almost secretly.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I did.”