When the war ends, Kai calls in a favor.
It’s been 463 days since he entered the detention center, and for the first time, he is needed outside those tall, concrete walls.
So he calls in that favor, by a particular Kotobuki Takeshi.
Takeshi squints and stubs out his cigarette in the dry dirt, scratching at the stubble on his chin. It’s patchy (he’s only eighteen years old), but he’s too lazy to shave, just like he’s too lazy to go on the run, and he’s too lazy to fight back when their cellmates beat him up, and—
Kotobuki Takeshi, Kai has found over the past few months, is extremely lazy.
Nevertheless, he made a promise, and Kai knows he’ll keep it.
“You sure?” Takeshi asks. “It’s a one-time thing, you know.”
“I’m sure,” says Kai.
“But are you really sure?” Takeshi asks. “I’m not gonna do this for you again, no matter how much you beg.”
“I’m sure,” says Kai.
“He abandoned you,” Takeshi says angrily. He grinds the cigarette butt under his heel. “He used you and left you when he was done. You sure you wanna do this?”
“Yeah,” says Kai. “I’m sure.”
“God,” Takeshi groans. “You’re so annoying.”
And so Kai flies for the first time, the invisible claws of one Kotobuki Takeshi’s IBM monster tearing tiny holes in his jumpsuit, over the concrete walls.
There is a woman waiting when Kai lands. She wears a crisp pantsuit and waits with her arms folded, expression deliberately clean.
“What do I call you?” she asks when he stops before her.
“Kai is fine,” he says carefully. “That good enough for you?”
“No,” she says, flicking her gaze up somewhere above his head. A sudden gust of wind, and the weight of claws on his soldiers disappears. She nods with her chin, “But your face and that thing are.”
“Alright,” he shrugs. “And who’re you?”
“Shimomura Izumi,” she says. “I’m an Ajin.”
“Alright,” he says again. “And where’re we going?”
“So you’ll come with me?” she raises an eyebrow.
He nods. “You can see my friend’s IBM, and you’re not one of Satou's henchmen. Besides, you sound like you’re telling the truth. Why not?”
“Huh.” She blinks, surprised. “Well then. Kai-kun, you weren’t what I was expecting at all.”
“Why? What did Kei say about me?”
She looks at him for a long time, a faint frown on her face as if trying to solve a particularly difficult puzzle. Finally, she shakes her head and turns away, motioning for him to follow.
They drive for a few hours, until they get to some base in the woods.
“We work for Tosaki Yuu, from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare,” Shimomura tells him as they enter the driveway. “You might have heard of him.”
“Oh yeah, he was on that list from that video that Satou broadcasted, right?”
She nods. “He was one of the two people who survived the assassinations. He was also behind Satou’s arrest. Nagai-kun has been working with us for about a year, now.”
“So he was also at Forge Security because of you?”
“Yeah.” She peers at him curiously. “You have a good memory, kid.”
“Thanks,” Kai smiles.
There are exactly five other people included in the operation, according to Shimomura. They’re all waiting in the surveillance room when Kai and Shimomura arrive. Some faces, he recognizes from the press coverage, albeit from vastly different types of broadcasts.
There’s Tosaki Yuu, the guy who apparently hired all the rest. Kai recognizes the weird zig-zag in his glasses and the sharp glare he angles towards Kai.
There’s Ogura Ikuya, some Ajin expert Kai’s seen on talk shows and newscasts, and he thinks he’s heard that the guy worked in America for a while before coming back.
And then there’s—
“Tanaka, right? The second documented Ajin in Japan.”
The giant of a man is slouched in a chair in the corner, but his large frame is easily recognizable, not to mention a face that’s been plastered all over the country on police alerts and warnings. He tenses when Kai speaks.
“Yeah,” he grunts, hackles raised. “So?”
Kai shrugs. “Just thought you were arrested sometime last year.”
“Had to get my revenge on Satou.” Tanaka shrugs. “I wasn’t gonna let him think he could abandon me like that and I’d take it lying down.”
“We’ve been keeping it under wraps,” Tosaki says shortly, as if he expects Kai to be satisfied with just that.
Shimomura introduces the last two. There’s Manabe, with callused hands and scars littering his face, and Kou, a kid with nut brown hair who looks to be about Kai’s age. Kou, Shimomura tells him in a lowered voice, is also an Ajin.
“So you’ve been friends with Kei for a long time?” Kou asks after Tosaki dismisses them all, deeming the introductions over.
Kai nods. “You close with him?”
Kou wrinkles his nose. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Sounds like you weren’t super close,” Kai remarks, raising an eyebrow.
“He’s kind of cold.” Kou shrugs. “We started off pretty bad, but he’s smart. Besides, not many other Ajins to talk to around here, and he’s the same age to boot.” He peers curiously at Kai. “You guys are really different. I wasn’t expecting some dude with bleached hair and piercings to be the type of guy Kei would associate with. What about you? Were you close?”
Kai thinks for a while.
“Well,” he finally says, “he’s my best friend.”
The situation is like this: a few months after Tanaka was taken into custody, this totally illegal secret taskforce that Tosaki Yuu totally set up managed to arrest both Satou and another Ajin in his group. Satou got shipped back to America, and the other guy was locked in some containment facility in a secret location. Apparently, at least according to Tanaka, there were two more guys that Satou recruited that were still on the loose, and they had taken Kei with them when they couldn’t figure out how to get rid of him during the fight, and now they’re trying to use him for leverage to escape the country.
“That sounds kind of stupid,” Kou remarks. “He can’t die; what kind of leverage can they have?”
“Even Ajin fear death,” Tanaka says, and the words sink like heavy stones. “All they would have to do is cut off his head.”
Kou doesn’t have a reply for that.
The plan is like this: Tosaki Yuu and his group of hired tech people will somehow track down their location while pretending to comply with their requests. Then, they’ll set up an ambush wherever they are and retrieve Kei before they can leave Japanese soil.
“That’s nice and all, but why am I here?” Kai asks. “It sounds like you’ve got this all figured out.”
“We’re having trouble tracking them before the deadline they set,” Tosaki admits. “They’re pretty good about switching cars and using cash and burner phones and the like. Basically, we’ve only got one clue.”
It’s a video.
“A livestream,” Tanaka clarifies. “They’re fucking idiots. If they’d prerecorded, they wouldn’t have had this problem.”
It’s a video of Kei gagged and blindfolded. A series of demands and threats, standard hostage protocol, all of which Tosaki fast-forwards through.
At the end, just as the last of the demands are being listed, Kei begins to thrash violently, shaking his head and bucking in his chair.
“—Oi, what the fuck is he doing?” The camera shakes as one of the men runs forward into the frame to restrain him. After a moment, a hand reaches over to cover the lens.
There’s a muffled thump and a cut-off yell, and then Kai feels a tug in his chest as he hears the sound of Kei’s voice for the first time in months.
“—ai! Kai! Tell him to find the tree in—”
His voice cuts off with a loud gunshot. Kai flinches as the hand slowly withdraws, revealing the sight of Kei, freshly bound, with blood spatters painting his shirt red. There’s a figure standing in front of him, his head out of view, and when the mass of mangled flesh that is his throat re-forms, he sticks a tranquilizer in Kei’s arm.
Tosaki pauses the video. “That’s about all. We found the warehouse, but they’d already cleared out by the time we got there. Do you know what Nagai is talking about?”
“Yeah,” Kai says without hesitation. “Yeah, I know exactly which tree he’s talking about.”
Tosaki blinks. “Well,” he says. “That was a lot easier than I was anticipating.”
The first day, after Kai gets ahold of some clean clothes and jumps into the nearest shower, Manabe teaches him how to shoot a gun.
“Damn,” Kou says as he lingers a little behind them, watching the lesson. “You picked this up a lot faster than I did. Not as fast as Kei, though.”
“Kei’s smart,” Kai says. “I’m just a little good with my hands.”
After he’s got a somewhat good grasp of how to handle basic firearms, Manabe leaves to attend to some business or another, leaving the two boys to their own devices.
“So,” Kou starts as they walk back to their rooms. “You were friends with an Ajin in the detention center, right?”
“Yeah.” Friends. Takeshi wouldn’t have called it that but it was true.
“Can he make the black ghost?”
Kai nods. “It can fly.”
“It can fly? Damn, that makes me jealous,” Kou groans. “Why can’t I do something like that? Kei can make a shit ton, but I can barely manage to keep one together for ten minutes on a good day.”
“Kei can make a lot of them?” Kai asks, curiosity piqued. He’s never seen them before.
“Yeah, without breaking a sweat. It’s so cool when you see them all together at once.” Kou gestures enthusiastically, waving his hands around his head. “That’s how we won against Satou, you know? We’d gotten them cornered, and Kei was facing off with them, and then he had a flood.”
“It’s when you make even more black ghosts than normal,” Kou explains. “It only happens when you’re so emotionally tense, you’re about to crack or something. Anyway, there had to be, like, forty of them or something. It was crazy.”
Kai frowns. “How many is normal?”
“For most of us, the maximum is two. For him, it’s like five to ten. According to Ogura-san, it’s because he’s been an Ajin for a really long time.”
Kai blinks. “Oh.”
“Damn,” Kou sighs again. “I had to kill myself a bunch of times to get to the point where I could make one. That bastard’s so lucky.”
“Dying makes it easier to make them?”
“Yeah. Kei taught me how to hang myself. It’s the easiest way,” Kou says in a matter-of-fact voice, “not as painful as most of the other options out there.”
“I think it’s pretty cool you can make a ghost now,” Kai tells him. “It’s gotta be hard to do that kind of shit to yourself repeatedly.”
“Kaito,” he says slowly, eyes wide. “You’re a pretty chill guy, you know?”
He smiles. “Just Kai is fine.”
Later in the evening, they get called in for a mission briefing.
“We’re going to inspect the tree that Kaito-kun has directed us to,” Tosaki says. He hands out thick folders as he briefs them on the details.
The date of the operation is written in bolded letters at the very top of the first page. Kai makes the mental calculations. Five days.
He skims over the words with single-minded focus until a poke from Kou disturbs him. He looks up.
“How do you read this word?” Kou whispers, jabbing at his paper.
Kai squints, “‘Coincidence.’”
Afterwards, they walk back together, trading stories.
“You never thought it was weird?” Kou asks when they’re almost to their rooms. “The whole idea of Ajins?”
“It’s weird, yeah, but that’s about it,” Kai shrugs. “Not like you’re suddenly going to become a different person after I know you’re an Ajin.”
“Hm.” Kou looks thoughtful. “Is that why you helped Kei?”
“I guess, but not entirely.” Kai shoves his hands in the pockets of his shorts. “It’s not like I’m going to risk my life for every Ajin I meet. I helped him because he’s my best friend. That’s it.”
They stop in front of Kou’s room, lingering outside the door.
“I mean, I know you said he was your best friend, but I gotta ask again,” Kou says. “What’s your relationship with Kei? It’s obvious you were really good friends, but didn’t he hurt you when you were young?”
“Yeah,” Kai leans against the wall. “He hurt me real bad.”
Kou doesn’t look at him. He waits, staring up at the night sky. He’s patient, and Kai realizes it’s very easy to talk to him.
“My family didn’t have a great reputation,” Kai says. “And Kei wanted to be a doctor. He couldn’t afford to hang out with the son of a criminal.”
Kou winces. “Yikes.”
“Yeah. It sucked.” Kai leans back against the wall, squeezing his eyes tight. “It really sucked.”
“Oh.” The word is heavy, laden with meaning.
Kai opens his eyes, staring at Kou.
“I get it now,” Kou says.
Kai doesn’t try to protest. Kou’s good at reading people; it’s useless.
“So,” Kou says at length. “You gonna do anything about it?”
Kai just shrugs.
The next morning, he gets up early and meets Manabe at the shooting range again.
He demonstrates the skills he learned the previous day, and Manabe teaches him some more. Afterwards, they get some juice from the vending machine, sitting down on a bench outside the building.
“Manabe-san, you’ve known Kei for a year, right?”
He nods. “Just about.”
Kai cocks his head. “You were hired by Tosaki-san to help take down Satou. There are enough men here to handle the henchmen on their own, so you probably don’t even have to be on this mission. Why are you still here?”
Manabe eyes him, then chuckles.
“I thought you were the same kinda kid as Kou, but now I see. No wonder you’re friends with Nagai.”
“You think so?” Kai smiles. “Thanks.”
Manabe grunts. “Sure, kid. As for your question, I’m here to see the job to the end. No loose threads, right? I’m a professional.”
“You’re very dedicated to your line of work,” Kai observes.
“Not at all.” Manabe leans back, turning the can of juice in his hands. His fingers leave trails in the condensation. “There was a whole group of us that Tosaki-san hired to guard Forge Security. In the span of maybe ten minutes, I watched them all die. I’m the only one left now, and I’m gonna finish this job for all of us.”
“I see.” Kai smiles. “I knew it wasn’t for Kei’s sake.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Well, I can’t imagine you like him much. He can seem pretty cruel and calculating at first glance.”
“So you are aware,” Manabe says curiously.
“I was right?” Kai glances at him. “You don’t like Kei?”
“Don’t trust him,” Manabe shrugs. “He’s a sneaky kid. Used to wear earplugs around him. It made me feel better, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to incapacitate me with just a scream.”
“So you hate him?”
“Didn’t say that.” He thinks for a bit. “I suppose I respect him. He’s smart. Clever. Hirasawa-san liked him. He’s a good soldier, I think, but he’s a bad kid.”
“You think he’s a good soldier?”
“Sure,” Manabe shrugs again. “Here, you see my scars?”
Kai nods. They crisscross the man’s face; they’re hard to miss.
“I got most of these at Forge Security. They’re proof, you see, that I faced Satou and I lived, and that everyone else faced him and died. They’re proof of my profession and my life.”
Kai waits as he raises a hand to his face, tracing the scars absently.
“Now, I didn’t see this in person, but after Satou killed the president of Forge, he tried to hunt down Nagai and Kou. The two of them and Hirasawa escaped to the roof so they could jump down out of the building, but the door was locked. They needed to open holes in certain sections to disable all the locking systems. You know how they opened the door?” Manabe’s hand falls, expression darkening. “They cut off Nagai’s arms, threw them far enough that they wouldn’t be able to reattach, and killed him while he held the stumps up against the door.”
Kai’s breath hitches. He remembers the look on Kei’s face when he had realized he wouldn’t be able to run on a broken ankle, when he had held a knife to his own throat and slashed with cold, quick efficiency.
“Every time I sustain injuries, every time I fight, I walk away with scars to show my suffering, my growth. It’s different for an Ajin, for people like Nagai. How many scars do you think he has under that unblemished skin? He doesn’t show fear when he dies, so it’s impossible to tell.” He turns to Kai. “That’s why he’s a good soldier. You get it?”
“Yeah,” says Kai, bile rising in his throat. “I get it.”
It’s a thirty-minute drive to Kai’s hometown. They go at night, because there are too many people during the day. Kai and Kou sit in the back of the van while Tosaki drives, Shimomura gives directions in the passenger seat, and Manabe, Tanaka, and for some reason, Ogura, sit in the second row.
“Why is he here?” Tanaka asks when the scientist clambers into the middle seat.
He just laughs, blowing a cloud of smoke into the Ajin’s sputtering face. “I want to see my favorite subject one last time before I leave for the States. Who knows, I might be able to convince Nagai Kei to come with me at the last moment.”
The tree is the same as always, gnarled roots latching down into the earth with dogged resilience as branches rose high into the night air, waving softly. Kai thinks of long summer days, the sound of cicadas and the feeling of the hot sun burning the back of his neck until the skin peeled off.
“This is where I met up with Kei when he first went on the run. He called me here to help him escape.”
The tree had held meaning long before they went on the run, but he doesn’t elaborate.
They walk a full circle around its girth before Tanaka notices fresh dirt dug up on the east side, a tiny hole that’s easy to miss on first glance. Inside, there’s a little plastic bag with something rectangular and small inside.
“It’s one of the tracking devices I supplied,” Tosaki realizes. “It’s battery operated, not connected to our main servers. It was for emergencies, in case Satou ever tried to shut down the power grid, like he did at Forge.”
The design is pretty simple. There’s a screen and a few buttons for navigating the map. Miraculously, it still turns on when Tosaki turns on the power.
“Is this really going to work?” Shimomura says skeptically as it buffers, scanning for signals.
The screen lights up with a green light. It blinks in place at a location less than ten kilometers away.
“Holy shit,” Ogura starts to laugh again.
“I can’t believe they’re this fucking stupid,” Tanaka says.
“Satou really was all the brains,” Tosaki smirks.
No one says anything, but Kai can feel the excitement, the anticipation, humming in the air. It’s been a long war, and they can finally see the end.
The car is silent as they make the short drive and pull into a lot a few blocks down from some abandoned building that the tracker’s been sending signals from.
“Hey,” Kou whispers. “What’re you gonna do after this is all over? Are you going back to the detention center?”
Kai thinks about the concrete walls, about the taste of Takeshi’s contraband cigarettes, about his warning, I’m not gonna do this for you again, no matter how much you beg.
He thinks Takeshi would help him out again, if he really begged him for it. Takeshi’s softhearted like that. He just isn’t sure if he would actually need to escape ever again.
“I don’t know,” Kai answers honestly.
Kou gives him a weird look, but Shimomura shushes them before he can say more.
They’re positioned to bust into the warehouse, with Kai and Kou at the back, when they hear the scuffling inside.
Internal fallout, Tanaka mouths, pressing his ear to the door. It’s not really good practice, but it’s not like he’s going to die from it, anyway.
They kick the door down and swarm inside, tranquilizer guns trained on the two Ajin standing, bewildered, inside. All in all, the operation goes smoothly, and the two terrorists are quickly subdued and bundled into custom-designed restraining suits.
There’s just one problem:
“Where’s Kei?” Kou demands.
Kai keeps a hand on his own gun, heart pounding in his chest, as he begins to walk further into the building alone, protocol be damned. It’s the closest he’s been to Kei in over a year, and he can feel a mysterious force pushing him through corridors and empty rooms.
He doesn’t realize the rest of them have all caught up and are walking behind him until he pushes open the last door and Kou gasps.
Lying in the center of the room on a dirty table, is a body wrapped nearly head-to-toe in soiled bandages, stained with red and brown with blood and dirt and old urine. It looks sickeningly similar to a video Kai had once seen of Ajin experimentation, and the only difference is that the mouth is left uncovered, lips hanging slack.
With nearly the entire face obscured, they can’t be sure it’s Kei, and Manabe holds him back before he can charge forward.
“It’s all a game to them,” Tanaka says grimly. “A sick farce. They never knew what it was like to be on that table and feel the pain in their own flesh.”
Kai realizes with a jolt that the Ajin he had seen in the video had been Tanaka himself. He still remembers the barely audible screams, muffled with layers and layers of bandages. He can’t imagine what it would have sounded like without anything blocking the sound. He can’t bring himself to think if that had been a deliberate decision on Takahashi and Gen’s part. No one throws up, but Kai can feel nausea crawling up his throat.
It’s apparent what they have to do, but even then, they all hesitate. Kai wills himself to take the first step forward, but a hand rests on his shoulder, holding him back.
“I’ll do it,” Kou says, licking his lips. His voice is shaking, but he grasps a knife in his hand firmly. “This could be my last chance to kill the damn bastard.”
He holds the knife to the neck and hesitates, blade poised over bandages.
“Just do it,” Tosaki says impatiently. “The body’s restrained. It doesn’t matter even if it’s not him.”
Kai looks away as he pushes down.
When it’s over, there is silence as they all watch the bare arm reform, countless wounds under the bloody bandages closing. The body spasms a bit, chest arching up as the heart twitches back to life, and then it settles back onto the table with a tiny sigh.
Kai licks his lips. “Kei?”
“Oh,” Kei says conversationally. “Kai. I dreamed about you.”
Despite himself, he feels a rush of warmth to his face. Kou snickers.
“Yeah?” He busies himself unlocking the shackles around Kei’s ankles and wrists. “What kinda dream?”
Kou begins to unwind the bandages, starting with the head. Kai pauses as Kei’s wide, unblinking stare emerges from the ruins of his last death. The skin of his face is perfectly smooth and unbroken. Kai swallows down the bile in his throat.
“I was in the Forge Security building. Everyone was dying,” Kei says, a familiar, mysterious not-quite smile lifting one corner of his lips. “I ran onto the roof, and you were standing on the opposite building, asking me to run away with you. All I had to do was jump off.”
Never thought you’d be the type to have dreams,” Kou snorts, move to his feet.
Kai helps him sit up, and he tries not to stare at the clean, unmarked hand resting on his forearm.
“What types of dreams?”
“All types,” Kou says, and earns a glare from Kei.
“So where’d we go?” Kai asks, drawing his attention back before he can retort. At Kei’s confused frown, he clarifies, “In the dream. Where’d we run to?”
“Well, that’s the thing, you see,” Kei says, and he sounds sad. “I never jumped.”
Later, in the back of the getaway van, as Kei is nodding off on his shoulder, he says, “Do you know about the 1854 outbreak of cholera in England?”
On the other side of the van, Kou is already out like a light, head rattling gently on the window as he snores softly. In front, Tosaki and Shimomura talk in quiet murmurs, and Kai can’t tell if Tanaka and Ogura are actually asleep or not in the second row.
Kai says, “Nope. Tell me about it?”
“Well, it was towards the end of summer that year, on Broad Street in London. Over 600 people died. At the time, people thought it was because of foul air, so they used flowers and perfume to try and get rid of it. It ended when a doctor finally discovered the disease was coming from the water, and he got the well stopped. All those people were saved because of the calm analysis of one man.”
Kei sighs, dropping his weight further onto Kai’s shoulder. His head is heavy.
“That was what I told you in the dream, when you asked me why I hesitated to jump. I knew we would have to stop Satou then and there. That there wouldn’t be a second chance.”
“’S that so,” Kai says, staring out the window. “Brave of you to say that.”
“Not really. Didn’t care about the people, you know.” Kei’s voice drifts softer and softer as he inches closer to sleep. “But it’s what Kai would’ve wanted. He risked his life for me so many times. It’s the least I could do, since I can’t risk mine.”
Kai fights to swallow the lump in his throat as Kei’s breathing evens. He thinks he catches Tosaki’s eyes in the mirror, but from the back seat, it’s hard to tell. Eventually, he drifts to sleep with his cheek to Kei’s hair.
Kei stumbles straight to a bedroom when they get to the safe house.
“Wake me up only if Takahashi and Gen somehow don’t make it to the prison facility,” he mumbles, waving a vaguely threatening hand. “Or if Satou somehow escapes and starts plotting the next apocalypse in the next two days.”
By the time they finish drawing lots for the rest of the beds and Kai manages to strip out of his bloody clothes and tac gear, Kei is already fast asleep with the sheets pulled all the way up to his chin. After a shower, Kai takes the other bed in the room, and he can feel his consciousness fleeing the moment his head hits the pillow.
When he wakes up again, the sky is streaked orange and purple, and he can hear someone humming off-key in the common area. He stretches, sitting up, and glances over to see Kei still dead to the world.
Kou looks up when he stumbles into the kitchen.
“Yo,” he says, raising a glass of juice in greeting. “Tosaki-san and Shimomura-san had to go meet up with some government people or whatever. I think Ogura-sensei and Tanaka are still sleeping. At least, they’re still in their rooms. We’re not allowed to leave the building for now, though.”
“Have you been up the whole time?” Kai asks, digging around the fridge for a bottle of water.
“Nope, just got up,” Kou says. “Is Kei still asleep?”
“That makes it the second time he’s been tortured.” Kou shudders.
“He got caught by the government before I met him. That time he was on TV, when Satou came out of the facility and made that whole announcement about the gathering? He originally went to break Kei out, but they had a falling out or something and Kei escaped separately. He was in there for a few days, I think. They experimented on him pretty much continuously.”
Kai sucks in a painful breath.
“It’s fucked up,” Kou says, and Kai doesn’t have anything to say in reply.
"So what're you gonna do now that it's all over?" Kou asks, studying him closely. When Kai still doesn't speak, he raises an eyebrow. "You should ask him. It seems like a waste to go back to the detention center now."
Kai thinks of Takeshi, still hiding within the concrete walls. I'm not gonna do this for you again.
"Yeah," he says. "I know."
When Kai walks back into their room, Kei is leaving the bathroom, fresh-eyed and looking thoughtful.
“Oh,” he says when he notices Kai. “You’re back.”
“I was in the kitchen,” he replies. “Hungry?”
“I found a chocolate bar in my room,” Kei shrugs. “I’ll be good for a while. How’s the situation outside?”
“Tosaki-san and Shimomura-san are out cleaning up the whole situation,” Kai tells him. “We’re supposed to stay here until further notice.”
“Huh.” Kei sits on his unmade bed. “Who knows when they’ll be back.”
Kai takes a deep breath, mentally steeling himself. He sits down next to Kei, not too close but not too far either.
“We need to talk,” Kai says firmly.
Kei sighs. He shifts his knees to point towards Kai, resting his chin in his hand.
“Yeah,” he agrees reluctantly. He smirks at Kai’s expression. “I didn’t delude myself into thinking I could get away with never speaking to you again.” The smirk falls. “Not after what you did for me.”
“Stop that. It’s not supposed to be like that,” Kai says, frowning. Kei flinches. “It’s not a favor I want you to repay.”
“You’re not naïve, Kai,” Kei shakes his head. “You know that’s how the world works. You do something, you expect something in return.”
“No!” Kai growls. “You don’t get it!”
“Yeah?” Kei sounds impatient. “What don’t I get? How can you just expect me to understand? I abandoned you for almost ten years. I treated you like trash, and then all of a sudden, when everything changes, you show up without a single explanation and start saving me all on your own!”
“You would have been caught in two minutes if I hadn’t shown up,” Kai says forcefully.
“You think I don’t know that?” Kei demands. “What I want to know is why.”
Kai flinches. “You’re my best friend,” he says.
“That’s not an explanation!” Kei shouts. “That’s not a fucking explanation!”
“It is,” Kai shouts back. “You’re always so pessimistic. Why do you think that alone wouldn’t be enough for me to help you? I’ve known you my whole life! I know you’re human, no matter what those stupid teachers and news outlets and policemen say. You’re you—you’re Kei—and that in itself is enough for me to want to rescue you, no matter where you are.”
Kei closes his eyes, chest heaving. His lower lip trembles mutinously.
“God,” he says, voice breaking. “You’re so stupid.”
“Shut up,” Kai grumbles, falling back on the bed.
“I suppose I need to apologize now,” Kei says, and already the brief shaky emotion in his voice is letting up, smoothing over. “I’m really sorry. It was cruel of me to do that to you, all those years ago. It made me really happy to hear you still consider me your best friend.”
Kai scrubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Thanks.”
“Still,” Kei continues. “There’s more, isn’t there? To why you’re so hung up on me.”
There’s a beat of silence.
“Well?” Kei demands.
“Uh,” Kai fumbles.
“Oh, please,” Kei growls, and suddenly, he’s flipping to look down on Kai, knees bracketing his hips and hands on either side of his head. “Are you seriously going to stop here? It’s been ten fucking years.”
Kai can’t really bring his vocal chords to work, so he gapes, still trying to process the sight of Kei, his short hair falling down to frame his face, eyebrows furrowed as he waits.
Finally, Kei rolls his eyes. “Man, I thought you were straight-to-the-point about emotions and things.”
He fists a hand in the front of Kai’s shirt, pulling him up into a clumsy kiss, all bumping noses and clicking teeth. When he draws back, he’s panting hard. Kai feels fuzzy and almost light-headed.
“Did you hold your breath?” he asks dumbly.
“Shut up,” Kei mutters. “I just didn’t think to breathe. It’s not like I’ve had much experience with kissing people.”
Kei stares down at his lips, tilting his head thoughtfully. “The angle was wrong, wasn’t it?”
Kai finds himself starting to smile as the reality of it finally begins to hit him.
“Don’t laugh,” Kei says, frowning. He gets up and flops back onto the bed next to Kai.
“Don’t analyze it,” Kai retorts, the laughter already rising in his throat.
“How else am I supposed to get it better next time?”
Next time. The very thought makes Kai feel giddy.
“So there’ll be a next time,” he says, trying very hard to sound calm.
“Listen to yourself. You sound stupid. You really think I kissed you just so we could be awkward around each other for the rest of our lives?” Kei says it so matter-of-factly, like he already knows what they’re going to do, how they’re going to grow up.
Why is Kai even surprised? He knows he can depend on Kei to have everything planned out, to always be two steps ahead. That hasn’t changed since childhood.
Kai laughs in earnest this time.
In the end, they settle with the countryside, on some remote mountain in Kyushu.
“Think of it as a favor,” Tosaki says in the same irritated voice as always. “I’ve got a few strings left to pull in the government. It’s what happens when you help take down an undefeatable immortal terrorist.”
“Well then if they’re paying,” Kei had said, and then rattled off a list of books and equipment and tech and other things Kai didn’t really understand.
“I promised Eriko I’d become a doctor, but I don’t even have a high school degree right now,” he explains. “The government’s at fault for releasing my picture to the public, and I can’t go to university anymore. The least they can do is let me exploit their funds to finish my education.”
“You going with him?” Kou nudges Kai as they listen to Kei prattle on about his various accommodations.
“Yeah,” Kai nods. “I’m not going back to the detention center. Gotta find a job, though.”
“Easy,” Kou shrugs. “You could start a farm or some shit.”
Kai laughs. Kei rolls his eyes.
“What about you?” Kai asks.
“I’ll get an apartment in the city,” Kou grins. “Finish my high school degree. Get a job. No one knows who I am. I’ll still come visit you sometimes, though.”
“I don’t really see why that would be necessary,” Kei grumbles.
Later, when they’re lying in bed again, Kai stares up at the ceiling.
“Hey,” he starts, “You’re sure you want to stay in the countryside with me?”
“Yeah, why?” Kei’s voice is a bit slurred with sleep.
“I don’t know. You could probably wait a few years, get a degree online, and enroll in med school when you’ve aged a little and everything’s died down.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Kei says. He sounds more awake now. “That's stupid. This isn't going to die down in just a few years. And what would you do then?”
Kai turns over to look at him in the other bed. Suddenly, it feels too far away.
He sits up.
“What?” Kei squints. “What are you doing?”
Kai doesn’t answer. He stands, shuffling over and tugging on the futon that Kei’s wrapped himself in. With a sigh of content, he slides under the warm sheets and turns to face Kei.
“What?” Kei asks again as Kai wiggles a little closer.
“Can I kiss you?” Kai asks.
Kei is silent. He might be blushing. “Fine.”
Kai leans forward, brushing a quick kiss against the corner of his mouth. He feels a faint smile curl over his lips and takes a little longer with the next one. There’s less of the awkward urgency from before, and Kei’s lips are warm and soft against his, just a little bit chapped.
“That was a lot better than my attempt,” Kei admits when he pulls away.
“I know,” Kai tells him. He doesn’t lean in again, but takes his time admiring the faint shapes and planes of Kei’s face, fuzzy in the dark.
“Why are you staring at me?” Kei finally asks.
“I’m still trying to convince myself this is real,” he admits.
“Oh, calm the fuck down and go to sleep already,” Kei mutters, pulling Kai into a rough, awkward hug. It takes a little rearranging of limbs before they’re comfortable again.
“It's not like that much has changed," he yawns, tucking his head under Kai's chin. "You’re still my best friend.”
He doesn't stay awake long enough to see Kai smiling in the dark.