One of those slow, baking summer days that looked more like July than mid-June had fallen across the city. The heat moved like soup down the streets and pooled at the waterside. The park trees and lawns looked dusted with sunlight, burnt brittle greens providing a measure of shade.
It had been a weird fugitive summer, going everywhere with an ear pricked for trouble. Even so, caution seemed to melt in the sun today. Otoji would concede boredom factored into the explanation, too. Tooru and his goons hovered at the edges of every day. He and Joe were a pair of runaways in their own town, whatever they did. So if lounging in the park on a drowsy afternoon counted as tempting fate, he'd take the chance.
"The beer's warm." Joe had left a set of wet footprints on the paved ground from the fountain to the grass. "You should've taken a cooler from the cafeteria."
"Add theft to your public misconduct?" Otoji shot back. "It's got to say 'no swimming' somewhere 'round the fountain."
"No mention of wading." Joe flopped down next to him on the ground, wiry lanky frame in comfortable disarray. "And I couldn't figure out a way to turn on the sprinklers."
"What, so you could run naked through them?"
"All the way to public indecency? I could get behind that." Mickey raised an amused brow. "By the way, you get to bitch about the beer when you're buying it, not before."
In reply, Joe took a swig of the Corona. Otoji let himself be distracted by the movement of his throat for only a second or two. No more than three, anyway. Some other charge moved through the air, heavy and sultry as it was. The three of them sat or, in Otoji's own case, sprawled, in the dubious shade of a few trees in Mikasa Park. As the others carried on, he stared up at the washed-out sky, pondering.
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Joe said. "It's liquid, I'll take it. Last resort, I can pour it over myself. Since someone was too beat for the beach."
"Someone has to be up at the asscrack of dawn," Otoji had to cut in. "Mickey asked, so I figured we'd come."
"That's so sweet of you, Otoji--"
"Oh, man, don't start," Joe groaned.
" 'Course we would," Otoji said with finality. "It's not a big deal."
Mickey chuckled, in that easy, throaty way he had, apparently enough of a comment to that. It wasn't a big deal; it was just not the given it would've been before. The Tokiwa Group was out there, and Ten Knot was a scorched shambles, for all that Otoji could almost forget, in lazy moments like this. The fountain splashed away some way off, but otherwise the park was sleepy.
It took Otoji a second to realize Joe hadn't meant him. He'd lowered the bottle and was eyeing Mickey with an air of scrutiny rather than mostly mock irritation.
"Nah." Reaching into the bag, Mickey popped the cork on another Corona. Sometimes there seemed to be history, a private unspoken thing in the choice of beers, for him and Joe. Otoji had never asked, but the thought came back to him. "Just glad, for a moment there."
"What's there to be glad of? Too hot to work, too hot to fuck--might as be too hot to live." Joe's complaining, not very heartfelt to begin with, now sounded entirely for the sake of form.
"What'd you mean?" Otoji lifted himself up onto his arms. His tee-shirt stuck to his back with sweat, bristled with grass.
Mickey gave a small shrug. "Glad to see you."
"You see us all the time. Not that it means it's... you know. That you couldn't be glad."
"Except when you run away to Taiwan and come back joined at the hip, leaving me no chance with you." Tilting his head back, Mickey raised the bottle but did not drink. His eyes glinted with good humor, and that eased the bit in Otoji's throat if only a little.
When it came down to it, he had no idea how anyone could not like Mickey. Through damn near every mess and scrape and close call he'd had since coming to Yokosuka, Mickey had been there, lending a helping hand or fist as needed. He was one of the good guys, however rough the start they'd had.
Now he saved Otoji from fishing about for a reply with another low laugh. "So, glad to see you. There you go."
Joe poked his damp toes into Otoji's shin from the other side. "Fuck, I didn't know I signed up for a heart-to-heart. You should at least've brought more beer."
It took a lot for Joe to annoy Otoji these days, but now he frowned at him. Some part of it was annoyance, the rest musing. Something he could almost touch, almost catch into words, hovered in the air. His brain grasped at the thought he'd had about Mickey.
They hung out almost every day, in the shelter of the Navy base or in the relative peace of Dobuita Street, but what did he actually know about Mickey? That he could lay a man out with a punch but reserved that to those he couldn't talk down. He didn't drink Corona as exclusively as Joe but always when in Joe's company. He'd never hidden how he felt about Otoji, yet Otoji looked at him and saw a friend who'd never let him down. It was one of those things you had to have been there for.
"Hey, Mickey." The sun seeped through the tree branches in a green dazzle, making Otoji squint as he craned his head back. "How'd you get named that? Isn't it kind of a nickname?"
He tried to listen for any sign in Mickey's voice that he'd overstepped some boundary, but at best the answer was tinted with surprise. "The usual way. I was baptized."
"Huh," said Joe. "Just tell me there was no Disney involved when they picked that."
Otoji shot him a dirty look and was expertly ignored.
"For Mickey Hart, actually." Mickey grinned.
Joe's sarcastic eyebrow turned nonplussed. "You're shitting me. The Grateful Dead?"
"None other. My mom was a fan."
You couldn't bring up that word, mother, without it changing the conversation, however slightly. Otoji stifled the usual soft pang of guilt under the chance that had opened to him: he'd never heard Mickey speak of his family. Maybe it was that they really didn't talk about family much, his own, Joe's, anyone's, at least on good days.
He kind of wanted to keep this a good day.
"Could be worse," Joe offered. "You could've be named by a mafia boss. Or for some fucking politician."
"Okay, I'm obviously missing something here, but who's that?"
Joe flicked the cork of the bottle he'd opened at Otoji's shoulder. It bounced off and tumbled away into the grass. "Mickey Hart, you blues-loving heathen, played the drums for the Grateful Dead. Don't seriously tell me you've been living in my place for a year and..."
"Fine, fine, I get the point." In other circumstances, Otoji would have played along with Joe. He couldn't shake the feeling that Mickey was acting a little funny.
"Did things to rhythm that haven't been done before or since, Ma used to say." Mickey shifted, broad shoulders hunching as he leaned forward. It didn't seem a defensive posture, but he sounded wistful.
"Yeah, exactly." Joe bobbed his head for emphasis. "Shit, I wanted to hear them play someday."
"Sounds like a pretty good namesake," Otoji said. "And a good story, too."
"She was kinda over her wild days by the time she had me. Something of them stuck with her, though." There was fondness in Mickey's tone. "She didn't want me to enlist. Old peace movement spirit."
Otoji bit his tongue on So why did you? Joe dropped onto his back on the ground with a rustle, quiet in the rare way that meant he was really listening. Was he thinking of Lily, of the scent of citrus perfume, the waft of her clinging to the city, more ephemeral icon than real flesh-and-blood woman or mother? Otoji shook off the thought as Mickey did go on.
"I told her it'd either get me a job or get me into school and did anyway." Mickey shrugged. "I guess that was enough for her. So off I went to join the Navy and see the world."
Enough for her. Not the whole story. Otoji didn't linger on the realization. He loved Dobuita with its bright and dark places, loved all of Yokosuka with a force that drew him like gravity. It was a place that many people passed through, but it took a particular something to stick there. A strength, and a restlessness, maybe.
Could he be glad that Mickey had ended up there, now of all times, when Mickey had had to practically hide them on the base from Tooru's schemes?
The grit to tough it out; that was what Yokosuka took, and gave as well. That Mickey had in spades, and kindness and goodwill, when all was said and done.
"And to fuck pretty Japanese guys in dinky bar bathrooms," Joe added. Otoji might have loved him even more than his city, but he had a moment of wanting to sock him.
"Yeah, there's that." Honestly, did anything shake Mickey? His shoulders moved, as if to loosen a muscle, before he went on. "She might be down with that. I haven't asked."
Maybe it had been long enough, Otoji thought and didn't know whether he meant Mickey or Joe or both.
"Not like you can help it," Joe said philosophically, leaving it up in the air which part of Mickey's words he actually meant. His voice dipped. "You're family either way."
The shadows stretched across the grass, and the fountain splashed yellow in the setting sun. For a moment, they were all quiet, stretching, shifting, settling. The evening would be slow to cool. Otoji sprawled out and let himself drift from one stray thought to another. It always came back to family, by blood or by choice. One you carried with you wherever you went. He was starting to think the other carried you, too, when the going got rough.
It had. And they were still here. He closed his eyes on that thought, held it close, breathed its warmth, for a long while.
At last, Mickey broke the silence, took a pensive drag of his bottle. "And we're out of even warm beer."
"Now that's sad." Joe twisted up to sit. "I guess it can't be helped. We're gonna have to buy this time. Since Captain's still refusing to take all our spare money."
A second flashed by in which Otoji considered bringing up the obvious: they'd put themselves at risk. That second passed soon. They were three, on familiar ground. They could handle it.
He'd risk it, for what this evening had turned out to be.
Otoji picked himself up and made vague motions of brushing the dry grass from his clothes. "Yeah, seems that way."
"No public indecency before we go? I had my hopes up and everything."
And since when had Mickey done the teasing, anyway? It was more than the light hum of the beer in his head that made Otoji laugh in answer. "Look, it's either beer or naked frolicking. Make your choice."
"You sure?" Coming close, Joe leaned an elbow on his shoulder, smelling of fresh grass and beer and himself, and made his heart skip a beat. Maybe he'd be over that some day. "It's a nice lawn. Bit too nice, even."
"Which is why you should skip that plan, dumbass."
"You're no fun."
"Hey, if I have to make do with beer, then let's go." Mickey jostled Joe companionably in the shoulder. Otoji made room for him and fell in to walk on his other side as they left the darkening park behind.
They'd make their way down the streets and see them stir to their nighttime life. They'd watch Joe beat a whole bar at pool as if half by accident and send back the Coronas when they came with lime, and Otoji would doze off against Mickey's shoulder while he and Joe traded opinions on old American bands or the best way to punch a guy, and Mickey would see them home at the end of the night.
So it would go. June became July, and the rumors of the coming departure of the Independence became fact.
So it would go, and Otoji would think back to that evening and others much and yet not quite like it, and let them carry him.