Sunrise had come: the light of a new day. The sky above was a delicate wash of watery grey, the clouds near the horizon thin-stretched tufts of vibrant orange. The sea spread out in the distance, calm and dark, revealing the first glints of silver where the light touched it, and near the water’s edge, the outline of a boat stood as a black silhouette. Excited voices carried on the early morning air, a chorus of different accounts struggling to be heard all at once.
It was a beautiful morning, and it it promised to become a beautiful day.
Aoi Kurashiki, however, was not looking at the sky. His voice was not one of the voices forcing back the silence. He did not stand clustered in the little group gathered around the lifeboat but sat a short way down the beach, the damp sand soaking through the fabric of his pants. His knees were up, arms wrapped around them, face resting in the juncture between the two- buried as though the world could be blocked away.
He was not crying anymore; the tears had stopped perhaps fifteen minutes ago, leaving something hollow and exhausted in their wake. He was trying to coax his mind into considering more productive thoughts, like what he was supposed to do now, or how he planned to get home, but it kept circling back to the incinerator floor instead. The notion of “home” brought him up short every time, reminded Aoi that only an empty apartment waited for him.
The third time he pictured it- stepping through the doorway without the sound of his sister’s voice to tell him “welcome home”- it finally struck him that this was true.
He thought he had cried himself out, but the tears came again with a sound of muffled pain, soft and wretched. A minute passed into two, and then five, and Aoi might have gone on for some time longer had a hand not touched his shaking shoulder, prompting him to lift his head.
It was the blind boy standing there beside him, eyes closed, face pale in the light of the dawn. His head was inclined slightly, as though looking down- facing the place from which he’d heard crying. Light, Aoi’s mind reminded him. The boy’s name was Light. It did not seem a terribly important thing to remember- a piece of useless trivia from the time when his sister had been alive, nothing more.
“There’s a road at the edge of the beach,” said the boy. “Once the sun is up, we’ll walk until we find a phone or someone who can take us to one, then call our parents. The detective will make arrangements to see us home.”
Aoi wiped at his face with one hand, scrubbing the tears from cheeks that were already sticky and hot. He did not say anything in reply. What was there to say? That he had no parents to call? That he couldn’t afford to take a bus across town, let alone get home from wherever the hell this was? And after a beat of silence, Light removed his hand.
It was not with bitterness that the boy assumed Light would turn away now, his attempt at sympathy made. It was not with any particular rancor. It was only with conviction, the pessimism habitual in someone used to taking the hard knocks handed out by life. The blind boy would rejoin the others- would forget about as much as he could by talking it away, and Aoi did not particularly blame him.
It came as no small surprise when Light did not, in fact, go after all. He sat instead beside the other boy on the damp sand, stretching out his legs. His face was turned toward the sunrise, calm features washed with something unfamiliar. “The police will find him,” Light said. “He’ll pay for what he did.”
Aoi was not sure what words he had expected, but it hadn’t been those. A noise caught in his throat- a laugh, of all things, short and choked, as out of place on this beach as they were. “Some good that does.”
Light’s face angled his way, and there was a slight crease in the refined brow, an unhappy set to the pale mouth. “It does very little,” he agreed. “But very little is better than nothing at all. Whatever comes of this, the law cannot possibly ignore what happened tonight. Not with eighteen witnesses.”
Nineteen, Aoi’s thoughts whispered, soft and insidious. It should have been nineteen.
“Fuck off,” he said, distinctly, instead of voicing them.
Or perhaps the words were less distinct than he intended them, for instead of complying, Light reached over to set a hand on his shoulder once more. “If nothing else, it will prevent him from acting again,” said the blind boy, “and it will bring him a measure of what he deserves.”
All at once, it was as though the empty space the grief had left inside him had been set alight. Rage flared up, hot and sudden, in his chest; it closed his throat, warmed his cheeks, clenched his jaw. “What he deserves?” Aoi was on his feet before he’d finished the final word, hands balled into fists and chest heaving. “What he deserves is to be kidnapped in the middle of the goddamn night and tortured a couple days before some sick bastard makes him play a game with his life as the stakes.”
The blind boy joined him in standing, brushed the sand from his pants absently. “Admittedly, a punishment of that sort seems more poetic. However-“
“No howevers. To hell with that shit. Kidnapping, torture, and his own fucking game.” Aoi bit off each word, throwing them out like a challenge. “After that, his family can get dragged in, too.” At some point, his breathing had grown uneven while he spoke, and tears slipped down the boy’s cheeks in a steady stream. He dragged the back of one hand across his eyes, roughly. “Then we can see how he likes it when someone else is pulling the strings.”
“Aoi.” Light’s voice was indecipherable; beneath the surface of calm, there was a thread of something new. “You’re upsetting yourself.”
“I’m upsetting myself? Jesus Christ, now I’ve heard it all.” There was a soft touch on his shoulder: Light’s hand, steady and reassuring. Aoi seized it and shoved it away. “You know what? Go fuck yourself. Why don’t you run and call mommy and daddy to bring you home?”
It wasn’t until Light made the second attempt, the weight of his hand warm on Aoi’s shoulder, that Aoi hauled back and punched him. The blind boy staggered backward, eyes flying wide for just an instant- green, unseeing, bewildered- the offered hand now pressed against one reddened cheek.
“What part of ‘go fuck yourself’ is hard to understand?” Aoi swiped at his eyes again, scrubbed at the wet tracts making their way to drip from his chin.”I thought I made it real clear.” His voice broke on the last word and he swallowed- took in a single, shuddering breath before he could go on. “You deaf, too?”
There was a beat of silence after the words; they had been aimed to cut, after all, intended to drive the other boy away. When Light closed his eyes and made as though to move, Aoi took a small measure of grim satisfaction in the result. Now he would go. Now he would walk across the wet sand and stand beside the little group beneath the steadily lightening sky.
But the blind boy did not turn away. He was stepping forward, for reasons unfathomable- was wrapping one arm around Aoi’s shoulders as the other hung stiff and awkward at his side. “No,” he said, very quietly, and it took Aoi an instant to realize that he was answering the question. “And in this case, only hearing suffices.”
The boy’s pale hand released its hold for a moment- reached, searchingly, for Aoi’s face. It found the tears there after a moment of exploration and brushed them gently away.
The touch was unexpected, and Aoi froze for the first instant of contact, tensing automatically. By the time his hand was curling itself into a fist once more, Light had allowed his arm to settle around the older boy’s shoulder again, resuming the embrace. The realization came belatedly that this was not a retaliation at all, as he’d half expected, but something much more benign: a hug, nothing more complicated or spiteful than that. The idea broiled to the surface like a foreign word whose meaning dances just beyond understanding, and Aoi’s eyes widened, the last of his anger dissipating in the wake of surprise. He could have numbered the years since he’d last been hugged by anyone but his sister, could have cataloged who and where and when. It had been his parents, of course- his parents, in the long-ago time when he’d been a happy child free of want or responsibility.
Now, whispered Aoi’s traitorous mind, there would be no one. Now his sister, too, would be part of a pretty once-upon-a-time: a handful of sweet memories. A lifetime from now, he would be able to count the years since the last hug he’d received from her, as well.
He wanted to speak. He wanted to push away this newest offered comfort with all its unwelcome thoughts. He wanted his words to cut so deeply that Light would have no choice but to withdraw.
But the biting comments on his tongue remained trapped behind the solid ache in his throat, and instead of words, a sob emerged- a low, harsh sound. A second swelled up behind it, and Aoi clamped his teeth shut, struggling to prevent a third, but by then it was too late. Now that they had begun, reining them in seemed an impossibility. This time, the tears came all in a rush, as uncontrollable as they had been on the floor of the ship’s incinerator, and Aoi bowed his head and wept.
He did not want his hands to close around the fabric of Light’s shirt, but that’s where he found them all the same. His forehead was not intended to land against Light’s shoulder- but that’s where it came to rest, a point of warm contact in the chill morning.
And certainly- certainly- there were not supposed to be words, choked out between the sobs and barely intelligible, but he found himself speaking them anyway, unable to hold them in. “I want my sister back,” he whispered, and in that instant, he sounded much younger than his fifteen years.
Perhaps there was more that needed saying, for Aoi opened his mouth as though not finished- but whatever had yet to be spoken died on his lips. His throat was a tight, hot ache, chest heaving for breath against the tears, and nothing left his mouth save the choked, tortured sound of his sobs.
Later, he would not be able to say when it was that Light’s hand drifted to his back to stroke in slow, soothing circles- he would not be able to recall what Light’s voice had whispered, tone even and comforting. By the time the sun’s light had begun to stretch across the beach, though, golden and warm, and the detective came to retrieve them, Aoi had cried himself out.
It was not until much, much later, when he stood alone in the empty apartment that still held his sister’s things, that he chanced to discover the paper in his pocket. The hand writing would have been elegant, but the spacing was uneven; it ran together, as though the person responsible for it could not see where one word ended and the next began. “Call me if you need to,” it said. Beneath, there was a phone number.
The Nevada sun was hot above them, burning down on Aoi’s shoulders- but somehow, even in a dress shirt and jacket, Light remained unruffled and collected.
Aoi scowled at him- would, under any other circumstances, have made a comment- but today, things were different. Today, his mind was busy running inventory on whether items were in their proper places, whether the power was on in the correct rooms, whether he had completed the final programming changes. “Quit enjoying the scenery and help me with this asshole. He’s heavy.”
“My sister will be along shortly. I’m sure she’ll be only too happy to assist.” But despite the words, Light was bending toward the CEO of Cradle Pharmaceuticals, seizing an ankle in one hand and helping to maneuver him down from the back seat of the SUV. Aoi released the man’s shoulders and let him fall in the dirt so that he could close the vehicle’s door, then circled back around to pick him up once more.
“Stairs,” Aoi warned, in an off-handed acknowledgment, when he reached them- and then he was heading up them backward, gait made awkward by the weight of what he carried. When Light followed with his half of the burden, there was only a slight pause as he found the first step, the lack of sight not slowing him noticeably after he’d begun.
It wasn’t until they reached the roof that Clover’s voice rang out from the second set of stairs leading into the building. “Got his bracelet!” she called, and her voice was remarkably cheery, given the situation. “The bomb, too.” An instant more and she was standing beneath the wide, blue Nevada sky with them- was holding out a circle of metal toward Aoi. “You want the honors? It’s your show, after all.”
“It’s only fitting,” Light agreed, face angled toward the sounds of their voices.
Aoi did not hesitate- but if his hand trembled, just a little, as it closed around the bracelet with the number “1” on it, he took comfort in the fact that Light did not see it and Clover did not comment. “Yeah,” he said, and his voice was rough at the edges. “I guess it is.”
The sound of the bracelet coming together around Hongou’s wrist conjured up harsh words spoken on a beach at sunrise nine years ago, and a plan that had been nothing more at the time than a childish dream of revenge. Aoi felt himself smile, and he held out his hand for the bomb. “And it’s about fucking time.”