Home » Short stories » Short story: “Beat the heat with your shirt still on”

Short story: “Beat the heat with your shirt still on”

Resvisiting some old characters with a story that was my own attempt to cool down a bit.

***

It was the hottest summer in recent memory and Zouriel’s old ac-unit had decided to crap out right in the middle of it. After trying to suck it up for a few days, endlessly long days where the temperature rose inside to match the outside, and though he kept all the windows open, it didn’t improve the situation much. Finally, after tossing and turning through yet another night, sweat clinging to his bare skin, he decided to leave the sweltering city for the cool shade of the forest, and Cassandra’s house.

Oy had been more pleased to see him initially, though he could tell the woman didn’t mind it as much as she professed she did “Another mouth to feed, you’d better help out with chores”. Of course he wouldn’t be sitting around on his ass all day, he’d huffed. He had been mistaken about one thing though, and that was that it would be all that much cooler among the trees. Oh, it was still preferable to his apartment and the building which smelled of something rotten, no matter if it was trash pick-up day or not, but it was still damnably hot, smelling of resin and drying pine needles, as nature seemed to retreat into itself to save itself from the drought.

“Well, that’s the damn tomatoes watered again”, Zouriel said, dumping the empty bucket in front of Cass, hanging laundry in front of the house.

“You should have watered yourself too”, she said with a grin, indicating his sweat soaked shirt.

“Feh, it would only make me feel more wet and gross”, he muttered, making a bee line for the front stoop.

“You could always go swimming in the lake”, Cassandra said, digging in her shorts pocket for another clothes pin.

He let his gaze pass from her hair, contained by a bright bandana, to her tank top and short cargo shorts. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Oh, come on”, she said, turning to face him. “You whine and complain about being hot, but when I suggest the best way to cool down, you just sulk.”

He chewed on his lip, wracking his brain for a response that didn’t make him seem like an asshole. She broke his train of thought with a sigh as she turned back to the laundry.

“Oy has been bugging me all day about taking him to the lake, but I have some work left to do back inside and I don’t like him to go alone.

“If you don’t want to go swimming yourself, can’t you at least chaperon Oy, so he can go play in the lake for a bit?”

She turned around to look at him, her dark eyes pleading. It was the kind of look that hit something deep inside him, something painful that he couldn’t deny.

“You’d be doing me a favor too”, Cassandra said, smiling now. “I’d get a bit of peace and quiet for a while.”

He picked at his sweaty shirt and then got up.

“I’ll just change into something less disgusting”, he said as he ducked inside the house, her thanks echoing in his ears.

By the time Oy had led them both to the lake, large enough that it spread out to the left and right as they entered the clearing, some rocks lining the little beach with fine pebbles, washed smooth by the water. The water was clear and inviting, but Zouriel still sat down on the rocks, while he encouraged Oy to get in the water.

“I’ll keep an eye on you from over here”, he said and leaned back, letting the slight breeze from the lake cool his skin.

At first Oy just gave him a funny look, and then dove right in, making a huge splash as he cannonballed into the water from the rocks, right next to Zouriel. The boy mostly doggy paddled, but somehow he still managed to keep himself afloat and moving. He mentally reminded himself to teach Oy how to swim proper sometime. Just…Not right now.

After the boy had splashed around a bit he approached the rocks again, giving him a puzzled look.

“Why don’cha wanna swim, mister Zourie?” he asked. “Can’t ya swim at all? It’s not very deep! Miss Cass said so!”

Zouriel sat up a little straighter, putting more weight on his left arm.

“I can swim fine, I just…don’t like to get wet.”

Oy seemed to have interpreted that differently, because he could see the glint of mischief in his eyes, before he began to move his arms. Before the splash of water washed over the rocks, Zouriel had managed to move away from the worst of it.

The boy pouted. “But it’s nice to get wet! It makes you all cool.”

Oy crawled up on the rocks, a soaking wet bundle and Zouriel was grateful he had stayed in his human form. A soaking wet ocelot might not have smelled all that nice, he imagined.

The boy huddled up and peered up at him with his bright blue eyes. “Are you angry with me?”

Zouriel blinked, taken aback. “No…Why would I be?”

“Because…I tried to get you wet”, the boy said, curling up in a ball.

Zouriel let out a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“I…You have not done anything wrong”, he said, leaning back. “I am the one who don’t want to get in the water, because I…don’t really like taking my clothes off…”

Without noticing it himself he had begun to chew on his finger nails, an old nervous tic from his own childhood, so very long ago now.”

The boy blinked his bright blue eyes again, innocence hiding the very adult understanding underneath the surface.

“Why?” Oy asked

“Because…” Zouriel began, then realized that when he’d first met Oy, first met Cassandra he’d been hurt and he felt pretty sure Cass had been forced to strip him out of his cold and wet clothing, down to his skin. What was the point in hiding from them anymore?

Slowly, to make sure the left arm didn’t rip the worn fabric, he peeled out of the shirt, sweat soaked already, revealing the map of scar tissue that stretched out from his left shoulder, spiderweb lines leading down, the pink, glossy areas around his neck and upper chest that were still sensitive.

The boy didn’t say anything, just looked him up and down, a hesitant finger rising up, then dropping, as if the first instinct had been to reach out and touch the bumps and lines that was the map of Zouriel’s chest.

“Okay”, the boy finally said and nodded, a smile flickering on his face.

He began to slide back into the water, backwards this time, causing alarm to shoot up in Zouriel’s mind, was that really safe, then Oy stopped, then looked up at him again, eyes wide.

“Does it still hurt?”

Zouriel hugged his knees to his chest, carefully, some shame still lingering in his mind despite it all. “Some of it’s sensitive, but it’s not that painful anymore.”

“Maybe it will feel nice if you get it the water”, Oy smiled then. “When I burned my hand on the stove that once, it felt nice in the water.”

Zouriel contemplated the boy’s eager eyes, then slowly got up, stripped out of the pair of old cut-off jeans he was wearing, then slowly slid down into the water too. He even splashed the boy as he went down, for good measure, which got him a giggle and a splash of water in the face in return.

The water did feel pretty damn good.

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