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breathe deep and zealously

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“It’s okay if you call me Shans.”

The wash of the waves, steadily lapping at cool sand, almost drowns their words around the edges. It’s funny how at night, small things seem bigger. Small sounds seem louder. The rise and retreat of the rushing waves. The crack and fizz of her soda can. When she brings it to her lips, cold, she wishes the artificial raspberry were something more comforting and warming instead. But it’s all she has right now. And that’s okay.

“You’re sure?” Kasio asks after the words finally knit together into something she understands, filling the gaps stolen by the sea. Everyone’s different; she knows that fact far better than most. But, anything other than Kasio to her is like pins and needles under her skin. She wouldn’t want to do that to Shans.

What did they say about their name, back at the beginning? It felt like a character. Someone different to who they really are.

They give a little hum, and Kasio smiles, because there’s always musicality in their voice. Even when they’re not singing, it’s easy to get lost in the rises and dips in their tone. The easy, welcoming warmth. “You know, it feels a little wrong with people I know from before.”

She knows. They’ve had this conversation before, or at least echoes and shadows of it. Back when they first started feeling out new names, seeing which one fit and felt right. Periodically ever since. She calls them Shans, still, because they ask. Because they say it’s okay. And maybe it’s just her own biases mixed with a heavy dose of wanting to do right by them, but every now and again, she hesitates. Wonders if it still feels right, still feels okay—that old nickname.

“You’ll tell me if you change your mind?”

She looks out at the beach when she says it. Aside from where their meandering trails of footprints lead in, the sand is smooth and untouched. It is winter, after all. She takes another sip, cold can to her lips, and watches the line where the sea meets the sky, way out on the horizon. Even though the astronomer in her scoffs a little, the romantic in her wonders whether the stars could ever fall into the sea. Float on the waves. Bob and dip and glow, beacons of silver in the water. A starless sky above, a starry sea below.

Something bumps her shoulder, gentle and easy, and reels her attention back in where it belongs. Here on the beach.

When she glances over, it’s Shans, pressed shoulder to shoulder with her. Or more like upper arm to shoulder, with the inches they have on her. But they’re smiling, eyes impossibly warm and crinkled softly around the corners. It’s reassuring like nothing else, and something glows in Kasio’s chest. She likes it, holds it there and knows she’ll never let it go. She nearly made that mistake once, and she won’t do it again.

“Cross my heart.”

Kasio smiles too, now, the stubborn muck and worry washed clean out of her chest. It feels better, freer, to have that confirmation out in the open. Like she can breathe easier now. Like she can walk easier, too, not having to tread lightly or sidestep around a name she isn’t sure she should still be using.

“How did you know I was worried about it?” she asks after silence settles in for a while. Or relative silence, anyway, given the pulse and rhythm of the beach all around them. She likes to think she’s not obvious about that kind of thing. She tries not to be.

For a moment, Shans just considers, letting the question sit and wait a moment. “It’s in how you talk,” they finally answer, wrapping the scarf around their neck a little tighter while they do. “When you get anxious about it, it’s like you take an extra breath before you say my name. Like you’re not sure if it’s okay or not.” After a few moments, they add, “It’s nice that you care, but I don’t want you to worry about it. Shans is kind of nostalgic in your voice.”

That’s... really sweet, actually. Kasio says as much. And she holds tighter to the soft warmth she feels. Right now, it seems like enough to ward off the cold. Though, a proper jacket more suited to the frost in the air might be a good start, too. Hers is too light, and the gloves she wears had their fingers cut off a long time ago. She said it looked better that way, scissors in hand, fabric and thread littered across the table. That was years ago, late, late into the night or early into the morning.

She still thinks they look better, but they don’t do a lot of keep the stiffness from her joints when they start to freeze over. Oh well.

Before she knows it, the familiar presence of Shans leaning at her shoulder dissipates, and she glances to find them getting settled in the sand, long legs stretched out before them, arms reached back to brace against.

It looks like they’re staying awhile, then.

That’s okay. It’s not like Kasio has anywhere else she’d rather be. After some time together at that old house, then some time apart, with Maggy and Colum and Jack and Mam and Fergal and all by herself, she found there’s really nowhere that feels as good as Shans. Their orbit is where she wants to be. And she’s thought a lot about that. What it says about her. What it says about them. What to do with all of that emotion. But at the end of the day, this is all she wants. Time and space—proximity. Their attention. Their words and the sound of their voice. This, being close to each other, is all she wants. Nothing more, nothing less.

In time, she sinks down beside them, the sand damp and pliable under her fingertips as she gets situated. They’re far enough from the water that it won’t reach Shans’s toes, even with their legs stretched the way they are; Kasio’s are folded beneath her. But, they’re close enough that the scent of salt spray is still ever so slightly stronger when the waves come in close, stirring the air in a light breeze.

Right now, she thinks, the two of them are a study in opposites. Shans sits straight backed, reclined back with their hands in the sand to brace against. Kasio is hunched a little, tipped forward; posture was never her strong suit. Her hair is long and messy, tangled up with the sea breeze. Shans’s is just this side of perfectly ruffled. She trembles just slightly, at the fingertips and somewhere in her chest, shivering with the cold that sinks in. Shans doesn’t seem bothered, and their rich, deep complexion doesn’t betray the wind burn like Kasio’s does, turning fair, milky skin a chapped pink.

A sudden rush of noise jostles Kasio just a enough, and she isn’t sure how long it’s been since they sat down. But, she does put together that noise as the high hum of a zipper coming undone, and finds Shans shrugging out of their big, puffy coat. Her nose scrunches, and she’s just about to call them crazy for abandoning the jacket in this weather, with the temperatures only falling farther since the sun sunk down beneath the sea. But, then they’re reaching over and tucking the coat around her shoulders like it’s the most natural thing in the world, care in every gentle tug of the fabric.

They don’t even say a word about it, just pull the coat, even more oversized on her smaller frame, snug around her then go right back to looking out at the surface of the waves, capped in white foam. Kasio could too—turn her attention right back around like nothing had happened at all. Instead, she looks straight at Shans’s profile, watching long lashes dip to the swell of their cheeks with a blink, and wonders how the outsiders and the weird ones and the people no one else wants are always the best she’s met.

Eventually, Shans must feel the weight of her gaze, but not the warmth of it, because they tip their head in her direction, a brow stitched down at one corner. “Overstepping?” they ask quietly, and she knows from the downcast eyes and the sudden coolness rushing between them and blotting out the warmth there that it’s still a bit of a tender spot. And just like Shans and their name, Kasio’s so pleased to know there’s genuine care there, but doesn’t need the worry. They haven’t stepped beyond the boundaries of a friend since that morning in the old house, under a broken roof, still holding to the last drowsy remnants of sleep.

“No, just thinking how you’re a good person,” Kasio says and flips the coat hood up over her head. Something like warm honey and a little bit of spicy heat fills her lungs on the next inhale. Shans. It’s a nice smell. Not quite like home, but closer to a memory of an old home. One where music reverberated through thin, old walls and her neck was always stiff from sleeping on a couch, but where she felt herself. Where she found someone she didn’t really want to live without. She breathes deep. More than anything, it just makes her feel safe.

Shans doesn’t say anything more, but she can feel the tension that had cropped up roll off their shoulders like beads of rain off a yellow coat. And once again, something sweet and warm settles in. Kasio is content to just sit and soak it in. And with Shans’s coat, she can do that without soaking in all the cold and damp too. Though, they’re left only in a thick sweater now, a creamy orange scarf bundled around their neck. But, the cold doesn’t seem to eat at them like it did her, at least not yet. She makes a note to keep an eye on them. It’s her fault for underdressing, so if they need the coat, they get it back whether they like it or not.

Beside her, through all the wisps of fur on the hood, she makes out Shans shuffling around a bit, resituating. With their knees pulled up closer to their chest, they reach for a pocket, pause for a moment with the visible realization that they’re not wearing their coat anymore. Then, a careful hand finds into way into Kasio’s coat pocket and comes back with a lighter and cigarette in hand. Or—no cigarettes are tobacco. What is it called when it’s not tobacco? She can’t remember, but knows that’s not what Shans smokes. None of it is really her forte.

“Do you mind?” they ask, flicking the lighter open and on with a familiar click of metal. The tiny flame flickers and wavers in the breeze, but doesn’t snuff out. It’s a little entrancing, watching the tongues of red and orange and blue dance in time with the breeze.

“If you smoke?” Kasio clarifies, tilting her head.


“Not at all,” she says with a absent wave of her hand.

There’s something about the way that the lines in Shans’s expression soften and ease that just feels right. They look better that way, easy and unconcerned, simply being, existing without trying to do or be anything other than what they are.

With practiced hands, they hold the lighter close, then snuff it out altogether, tossing it down to rest in the sand. Taking a long, bone deep inhale that Kasio swears she can feel in her own lungs, they hold it for just a beat then blow out a gentle stream of smoke. With it, the air suddenly takes on a different scent, beyond the salty ocean spray and the warm spiciness clinging to the coat. Just the subtle hint of smoke weaves its way in.

Just the beginning flakes of ash falling to the ground from a glowing tip, Shans holds their hand out her way in a silent offering. Mindlessly, she almost takes it, but hesitates a moment instead.

“I don’t know that it’s a good idea,” she says after a few more tentative beats.

Shans doesn’t push, nodding, just asks a gentle question. “Getting more health conscious?”

“Oh, no, it’s not that.” Kasio winds a tangled lock of hair around her finger, curling until she has the whole strand wrapped up, then undoing it all. It’s an easy gesture, soothing and repetitive as she winds that hair up, then lets it loose. “Last time I smoked with you we almost ruined everything.”

Shans hums, low and quiet, and flicks a bit of ash to the sand. Takes another long drag in. “I don’t think you have to worry about that,” they say in a cloud of smoke. Kasio’s breath clouds too, but it’s only moisture in the cold. “I think we’re on better footing now, right? I’d only known you a few weeks then and didn’t really know how much damage I could do with... everything I said.”

“It wasn’t all you or anything. I wasn’t in a good place, and I took it out on you,” Kasio admits, and it feels good to say out loud. It feels like progress, light and bright and proud in her chest. Because Shans is right. They’re better now then they were then, and that’s a nice thing to think about.

“You don’t have to, just don’t feel like you can’t.”

Kasio smokes.

She’s not as graceful about it as Shans. They make it seem easy, taking deep, sweeping breaths that seem so nourishing and satisfying, while she coughs into her wrist and tries not to show the way her eyes water a little. But, it still feels good all the same, and time passes a little more loosely around them, flowing smooth and mellow. They take turns, occasionally letting a forgotten trail of smoke swirl between them.


The sea breezes have long since blown the last traces of smoke away. And Kasio and Shans have reorganized themselves, too, conversation coming in snatches and bits as thoughts drift easier from head to tongue to ear. Shans laid down first, giving a dramatic stretch until something in their ribs popped and collecting a fine dusting of sand in the longer tufts of their hair. The undercut does a pretty good job of keeping the sand away, cropped so close to the skin.

Kasio had whined, a little, about not being able to join them on the ground without risking a disgusting mess in the shower in the morning. Her hair’s already ratty from the wind and salt spray, the last thing she needs to add is sand. But Shans just grabbed a handful of her hair, loose around her waist, and pulled her down against them, gently enough not to sting but firm enough to guide her down. They sorted her to their liking, twisting her hair up behind her head and resting her cheek against their abdomen.

She’s somewhere between intestine and rib, Kasio thinks, feeling the flat, curved bone against her brow when Shans breathes in. It’s a little strange to consider, but she finds herself thinking about all the organs under her head. Lung, intestine, stomach, heart. There’s more, too. And she finds herself thinking about how Shans is built in a way that she can feel some of the things beneath their skin. They’re on the thinner side and not particularly muscled, so when her hand comes to rest beside her head, she can count the ribs beneath her fingers if she presses a little. And the rest of what’s under her is relatively soft. All vital things she’s trusted to be close to.

The realization clogs her throat a little. And she knows the slight sting in her eyes has nothing to do with the smoke anymore, long gone. She closes her eyes to keep them from welling up and is thankful for the distraction when Shans starts talking again.

“What do you think about frogs?” they ask like it’s a serious question.

It’s so out of the blue that Kasio snorts, huffs a little laugh through her nose. And if it sounds a little clogged and stuffy, she’ll blame it on the cold rather than the welling emotion. “I think they’re cool. But why do you ask?”

“I remembered something I learned in biology about how they can breathe through their skin,” they sigh, and Kasio can feel the movement rolling through their body like a wave.


“That’s it.”

Kasio brings a hand up to exhale against her frozen fingertips. “You didn’t have a point?” she asks, then switches hands. It feels a little better that way, warm breath thawing the ice in her veins.

“I just remembered it, that’s all,” they say with a little shrug that rustles the sand beneath them.

Fair enough, then. Twisting around, Kasio turns so the back of her skull rests pillowed on Shans’s abdomen, eyes turned towards the sky. The stars seem to burn hotter, brighter than she’s ever known, yet they look hazy all at once, a little blurred. It’s brilliance behind a fog. But when she blinks and squints a little, they come into better view and she can make out constellations she’s spent too much time learning the names and places of.

“What else do you remember?” she asks, the words flowing easy. Talking to Shans is always easy, but so is comfortable silence around them. It seems like that’s what they fall into most often, when someone is tired or there’s nothing more to be said or a spot of quiet just sounds nice to soothe frayed nerves. But this is nice too, when thoughts come a little more freely and a little less restricted.

“About frogs?”

“About life,” she amends.

Either Shans’s mind has gone quietly blank, lost its paths of thought, or they aren’t quite sure what she’s asking for. Kasio guesses it’s the latter, but she’s had her fair share of times when they’re like this, together, that she finds she isn’t really thinking of anything at all. Her mind just empties, clear and in the present moment.

They’re quiet for a long, long time. Long enough that Kasio wonders if they’d forgotten what she said. It’d be fine if they did, it wasn’t exactly an important thought. Just something passing through. A bird fluttering by on a trip to warmer weather for the winter.

Then, Shans does say something. Quiet. Serious. “I remember you.” And it seems like such an obvious thing, so Kasio doesn’t understand.

“I’m right here. I think it’d be hard to forget, even if you wanted to,” she says, because she doesn’t know what else to say. Especially when the air has shifted from something light and breezy to something far stiller, far heavier. This feels important somehow, and she feels like she’s treading in the dark.

Shans shakes their head, readjusts a little. “That’s not what I mean,” they say, but it’s careful and understanding, in no way unkind.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I remember the you I met before I was me,” they say. And now, now Kasio can empathize. She has years of that. Of knowing things and places and people before she was her. Back when she was still hiding in someone else’s skin. Going by the wrong name. Being shepherded down the wrong path. The path a good, responsible son is supposed to take.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” She doesn’t know herself, how she feels about all those old things. From a different lifetime, a different world. Or maybe it’s not so far away at all. Just a thought, a memory away.

“You’re good.” It feels like a honeyed tea on a sore throat. Easing the ache. “You and Colum and Jack were all good for me, I think.”



“I’m glad.”

“Me too,” Shans says, loosening a little.

Kasio takes a big, long breath in, then lets it out just as long and slow. Fills her lungs with crisp, cold air then lets it go.

“What else?” she says, because that’s something she doesn’t want to dig too deep into.

She turns again, shifting so her cheeks presses to the long lines of a rib cage, hidden behind a knit sweater. Her gaze lingers on the line of Shan’s jaw, outlined gently in silver moonlight. And when their head tips minutely to one side she can catch the edges of upper lashes. The edge of an eye.

“No, you take a turn now,” Shans says. With her ear pressed to their lung, the sound of their voice is different. Hollowed, somehow. It’s the rush of air before it’s given thought, given voice.

Kasio might have protested, but something comes to mind, so she says it. It’s not deep or important or insightful or anything, but it’s what she remembers, for some reason. “I got the stomach flu a year ago. Try not to catch that, okay?”

The cold makes the air seems thinner, she thinks. It feels like it’s thinned since the sun went down, losing whatever warmth and weight it carried in the day.

“Were you on your own?”

“I had a cat,” she says. There was a brief period a stray cat took up being her roommate when the people next door were on holiday. Usually, it slept on their step, ate what they left out for it. But they left and it seemed lonely. Maybe Kasio felt a little bad. Then she felt worse, days later, though it wasn’t sympathy for a cat. Suffice it to say she knew every intricacy of the bathroom floor tiles and then some after hours of having little else to look at. Even now, her stomach gives a little lurch, remembering, and she closes her eyes for a beat. Breathes the unsteadiness away.

“Cats don’t count. They don’t hold your hair back or make sure you’re drinking enough,” Shans says. Though, it sounds more conversational than anything.

Stretching her arms up above her head, Kasio settles in a little better. “I made it though on my own. Not fun, though.”

“Call me next time. I’ll come,” they say, far too easy. In equal measures kind and nonchalant.

Kasio swallows, too aware of the saliva in her mouth. Too aware of the way her throat works to be rid of if. “Don’t say that. I don’t want a next time,” she groans, only partially joking.

“Sorry,” Shans says and laughs a little, soft through their nose. “But I do mean it. If I don’t have anything important going on, I’ll come fuss over you. God knows it’s nice to have someone care sometimes.” There’s something, a thread of loneliness pulling taut through the words, but Kasio doesn’t tug. Leaves it lying flat until it scatters on the breeze.

Intent, she digs the back of her skull down until Shans squirms, making a poor attempt at batting at her shoulder to get her to quit it. “You’re too nice, you know,” she says, easing up. There’s a backside to that, too. A quiet I don’t deserve it that she doesn’t voice. Because it isn’t true, and she knows it.

“I don’t know anyone else who would accuse me of that.”

Vaguely, she’s aware of the waves lapping at the sand again, before the noise fades back to the periphery. It’s a strange moment of clarity that leaves her fumbling a bit, reaching for something in the fog, rather than beyond it. “I guess it’s their loss if they don’t see it,” she hums.

There’s a break, a faltering in the exchange, and time spins slowly out of its neat coil. Kasio isn’t sure when she closed her eyes, or even that she has until she realizes the stars have fled. And the astronomer she wants to be, or even just the part of her still clinging to common sense and knowledge, knows they don’t just flit off like a barn sparrow, in the rafters one day then gone the next. They’re still there, burning, somewhere beyond her eyelids.

“This is nice.” Shans says with a sort of decision in their voice. A certain conviction that leaves things as fact rather than something as malleable as opinion.

“Yeah,” Kasio finds herself agreeing, because it’s an easy thing to do, here, now. With pleasant warmth running under her skin and nostalgic cold stinging her nose and fingertips. “It is.”