Author's Note: Written due to lack of KiriAn in latest chapters of 250DS. Set in late 1930's-China.
these castles in the sand
"My name's Kirihara Akaya," he says, all pride and quick flashing eyes, green like a lagoon, "and my family just moved here—my father's an officer in the Japanese military, did you know that? He's really famous." He squints at her. "You do speak Japanese, don't you?"
"Of course I do," says An, stung. "I am Japanese, after all."
"Guess so," says Akaya with a shrug, "it's just—you don't feel Japanese, that's all."
She looks down. "Well," she says, and frowns for a moment, "I've—well, I've never actually been to Japan. My family, we've lived in Tsingtao all my life." She crosses her arms. "So how do I feel, then, if not Japanese? Do I feel," she uses air-quotes, "Chinese?"
He pauses, brushes a finger under his nose. He's really thinking about it. "No," he says, "no, you feel like—I dunno. Like you're something different."
He grins, crookedly. "Something else entirely."
Tsingtao is a Yellow Sea port on China's Shandong Peninsula. Constructed by Germans, taken by the Japanese, and finally given back to China at the Washington Naval Conference, foreigners are still a major presence in the city, which boasts a 15,000-strong Japanese community.
An speaks Japanese, Mandarin, and English; she takes piano lessons from a Russian, tennis lessons from a German, and spends her time with British, Canadian, and American friends. It's little wonder that she doesn't feel Japanese to Akaya, though she dislikes the boy immensely for making this observation.
"My brother left only a few months ago," she tells Akaya, swinging her legs over the pier. They are pale in the twilight, pale like the white dress she wears. "To study in America." She breathes in the sea, sharp and salty, and adds, "He was my best friend."
"Can't be true." His curls bounce as he leaps to his feet, and stands poised at the very edge of the pier, staring down at the dark waters below, as if he's daring them, or maybe himself. He jumps, soaking An and her pretty dress. She considers getting ferociously angry, then laughs.
Surfacing, his hair sticking to his face like seaweed, Akaya spits out water, and finishes solemnly, "Best friends don't leave each other."
Akaya's father is dark-haired and dark-eyed, and stands impossibly tall and straight, as if the only way he could bend would be to snap in half. He is always in uniform, medals polished and gleaming, collar crisp and pressed. His words are few and far between.
"He's sad," Akaya tells her one day, licking an ice cream cone. "Ever since my mama died, when I was little." Thirteen years old, tall and broad-shouldered, and he still says "mama," and—and An thinks there's just something terribly innocent about that.
"My father, he's really important," Akaya declares, and how did such a strict, reserved man raise a child so wild and wicked? "Probably the most important man in Japan's whole navy. He's going to help build our empire."
An's hands are sticky. "What do we need an empire for?"
Akaya blinks. "For—well. For, you know. Empire stuff." At her blank look, he scowls. "You were born here," he says, and gestures out over all of Tsingtao, visible from An's balcony. "Not in Japan. You wouldn't understand."
She shoves her ice cream in his face.
With his father occupied by his duties, Akaya spends his days largely ungoverned. He follows An to her art classes, and only scratches his head when paint ends up splattered on the wall. He follows her to her dance classes, and waltzes her—poorly—away from her teacher.
At her tennis lessons, though, that's where he really lets go. Because he's good, better than good, fast and focused and strong and fast, and he beats everyone. Russians and Germans, adults and children—it doesn't matter. He always wins.
He takes a special sort of pleasure in it, too, especially against the other boys, and especially when they're not Japanese. While playing, he doesn't hold back, and even has the gall to call out insults in his native tongue.
"You shouldn't do that." An presses her lips together, and hits a forehand down the line. He returns it easily, and says nothing. "You're just asking for trouble."
"Maybe I am." His voice is slow, sure; his smile is feral.
An sighs, and hits a drop-shot.
They spend their summer on the Strand, Tsingtao's crescent-shaped beach. They build sand-castles and dig for treasure; they catch crabs and collect sea glass. One day, Akaya falls asleep, and An buries him in sand.
She sits there, knees hugged to her chest, and watches him, waits for him to wake up. She feels—she feels like she's done something momentous. Like the sand will preserve this boy, make him a time-capsule so that, once years and years have gone by, someone can dig him up and learn about these long sweet days by the sea.
Because she knows—not in the way she knows math, but the way she knows fear, love, the feel of the sun on her bare skin—that they will not last.
"I want to be a teacher." An lines up her shot, swings—the golf ball goes sailing off to land in the pond with a sullen splash. Over Akaya's snickers, she goes on, "To go to Japan, and teach English."
His eyebrows draw together. "Of course you do." He's proud of his poor English, Akaya is. "Me, I'm gonna join the navy like my father. Sail all around the world. You can come, you know," he offers. "If you want."
"Boats are all right." She arranges the sweater draped primly over her shoulders—her mother's work. The style doesn't suit her, but the pale pink does, and she wonders if he notices. Probably not. "I'd like to fly, though. To be an aviatrix, like that American woman, Amelia Earhart."
"Didn't she die?"
"She disappeared," An corrects, frowning. "Went down over the Pacific Ocean. It's only been a few years. She could still turn up."
"Pacific Ocean, huh?" He smirks. "Sounds like you're gonna need a ship to find her." Before she can reply, he swings, yelling, "Fore!" The ball goes through the window of the country club with a wonderful shattering sound.
"Oh," he says, wide-eyed. "Oh, shit."
An leans on her club, and smiles.
"Akaya," she says, and swallows. "Akaya, hold still."
He cocks his head, looks down at her. "Why should I?"
She stands up on her tip-toes, and presses her mouth to his, just for a moment, just for a heartbeat, just as the sun begins to go down over the water. Heart in her throat, she rocks back on her heels, gazing at him, her lips still parted.
"… Oh," he says, and nods, color spilling across his cheekbones. "Oh, that's why."
He wrinkles his nose when she giggles.
"Watch out," she says, as a rickshaw comes careening around the corner. Akaya just lifts his chin, and stands there, feet planted, like he's daring the driver to run him over. An pulls him out of the way before this can come to pass.
He scowls. "What'd you do that for?"
"I could ask you the same question. What's gotten into you?"
Akaya, with an uncharacteristically furtive look, glances around, and pulls her into an alley, away from the vendors and puppet shows and beggars of the streets. The alley is dank, and cool. "Father—he says war's coming."
"War," he agrees.
Again, she tries out the word—war—but where he had said it with a tone of mingled fear and awe, hers is plain fear. War does not belong in her vocabulary, in her world. War does not belong in her story.
He's just looking at her, those green eyes expectant, but she doesn't say anything else. Just takes his hand and leads him out of that alley, back to the colors and noise, the noise of people talking and laughing and swearing, all those little noises and moments that add up to us being alive.
The end comes, not with explosions and gunfire and boots on the ground, but with a ship. Not like those Akaya's father commands, but a passenger-ship, bound for California. "San Francisco," An's father tells her, once their bags are packed. "Won't you like that?"
She doesn't know how to tell Akaya. Just as war is not part of her vocabulary, neither is goodbye. So those last few days, she just smiles, and watches him, tries to soak him in like sunshine. More than war, she fears that the memory of him will disappear like writing in the sand.
The sun rises as she boards the ship, and as they draw away from the port, she looks back. Akaya's there on the pier, and when he meets her eyes, he stands. He stands, and turns around, and falls backwards into the water, just floating there, like he's trying to make a snow-angel. And she remembers—
Best friends don't leave each other.
She closes her eyes, and the ship sails away from the sun.
Disclaimer: I do not own Prince of Tennis.