It was a hot night.
Ushio sprawled in the cracked naugahyde chair, feeling sweat trickling down his back and watching the ceiling fan as it spun, wobbling precariously on its axis and threatening at any moment to come crashing to the floor. The lights were turned off, but the greenish glow of a street lamp cast a sickly illumination over his room. Outside, the clouds hung heavily over the city, seeming to hold the heat in like a blanket. Ushio stirred a little, reaching for a beer bottle that rested at his elbow, but the liquid inside was flat, and as warm as the air around it. He grimaced.
He had not been sleeping well lately. It wasn't fair. He wanted to be asleep, because at least when he was asleep, he couldn't worry about anything. Instead, he lay awake in the sweltering heat, too lethargic to even get up to fetch a drink of water, and wonder what he was supposed to be doing.
Damn Yugi. This is his fault.
Which wasn't true, but thinking it made him feel a bit better. Seriously, what was wrong with that kid? Who gave him the right to get into people's heads and screw up their lives? Did he think he was doing Ushio a favor by making him give up his old ways? That had been a few years ago, and yet he still felt like a burnt-out fire. A fire raging out of control was a bad thing, but a fire that had been put out was nothing at all.
It was probably just as well that he'd been cured of his money addiction, because now he had none. Once he'd graduated from high school, his parents had chased him out of the house and told him to get by on his own. He'd taken a half-hearted stab at getting into a college before admitting that the life of an academic was not for him. After that, there had been a succession of dull dead-end jobs. At the moment, he worked at a furniture store, where his job consisted mainly of taking things off of trucks or putting them back in again. That paid just enough to give him something to eat and pay rent on an apartment just big enough for a bed and a table and a couple of chairs. It had a shower that worked fine as long as you didn't care about water pressure and didn't want your water too hot, a television that functioned as long as the weather was good and there were no planes flying overhead, and a toilet that worked at least half the time.
Ushio shifted restlessly, feeling the edges of the torn faux leather scratching at his bare skin. There was something uneasy in the air tonight, he thought. Some of the fight may have gone out of him, but his old instincts were still there, and he knew trouble brewing when he felt it prickling at his nerve endings. It felt as though there was a storm brewing, though the air was still and the clouds silent. Even the normal city noises were muffled.
He shook himself. Maybe he was just punchy from boredom and lack of sleep. A cold drink would help, he decided, so he laboriously dragged himself from his chair and began making his way to the kitchen.
There was a flash. For a brief instant, light filled his room, so bright that every object in it was thrown into brilliant relief. Then he felt something, a tremor that ran through the very air and made his bones vibrate and his heart shake in his chest. Everything he owned that could fall down did, and the window shattered in a spray of glass.
Then, just as suddenly, everything went dark. Ushio blinked, trying to get his sight to readjust, and took stock of his situation. He had a few cuts across his bare back where the flying glass had cut him, but on the whole, he was not badly hurt. It could have been worse if he had stayed in his chair a few moments longer. As it was, his apartment was a mess, and the walls showed some signs of cracking from whatever had shaken them, but it didn't look ready to fall down just yet. The light from his digital alarm clock had gone out, and his VCR was no longer blinking twelve o'clock at him. The street light outside had gone out.
What happened? he thought groggily. Vague memories of high school lectures on Hiroshima flickered through his head. He had never thought very seriously about them - they were all about something that had happened to people who weren't him, and therefore didn't matter. Now he wished he'd paid more attention. Whatever had just happened, it hadn't seemed like a natural thing. He could see no light outside, but the clouds themselves were giving off a sickly purple glow that didn't seem to cast any shadows.
Before Ushio could ponder this phenomenon very long, he heard a crack, and a bit of plaster trickled down from the ceiling to dust his sweat-damp skin.
Time to get outta here, he decided. His building might have withstood the initial blast, but he didn't trust the old place to stand up much longer. He grabbed the shirt he'd been wearing earlier that day and hurried out of the apartment.
Once outside the building, he could see the damage that the blast had done more clearly. He discovered that he had been lucky - he lived on the lee side of the building and had therefore escaped unscathed, but the opposite side had crumpled from the impact. Other buildings had fared even worse, collapsing entirely. The street was full of people wandering around in a daze, trying just as he was to understand what was going on. Many were weeping in fear.
Ushio was shocked out of his daze by a sobbing woman, who ran up to him and clutched at his arm; he was just barely able to resist the urge to shake her off.
"Help me, please help me," she cried hysterically. "My baby girl - she's still inside!"
He stared at her, unable to process a response. People did not, generally, come to him for help. The greater part of his life experience involved people asking for help in keeping clear of him. However, it was clear that this woman was so far beyond the boundaries of reason that she might have latched on to him if he were a little old grandpa with a walker.
"Where?" he heard himself ask.
The woman sniffled and pointed to a nearby house that had half-collapsed.
"We were in the living room," she said in a quivering voice, "and we'd just put her to bed... and now we can't reach her..."
"I'll get her," he said.
He ran toward the house. He hadn't really been intending on keeping his promise, but... what else was there to do, really? Just wander around in a daze the rest of the night? He had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so he might as well do this. He waded into the rubble, pushing aside chunks of masonry and broken beams as though they were merely paper and straw. The broken edges cut at his hands, but he ignored them. Somewhere underneath it all, he could hear the muffled sound of a child crying.
"Hang in there, kid," he muttered.
With a grunt and a great heave, he pushed a particularly heavy piece of what had once been a wall out of the way, and uncovered the head of a wooden bed. It had been solidly constructed, with a tall headboard, and falling piece of the wall had tilted against this, creating an empty space. Crouched in this small bit of shelter was a little girl of perhaps three or four years old. She looked dirty and frightened, but she didn't seem to be badly hurt. She looked up at Ushio as he dug away at the wreckage, and she went from sobbing to crying in earnest.
"Mommy! Daddy!" she howled.
"Cool it!" he shouted, and she stopped abruptly and stared at him. Somehow, this managed to make him feel guilty.
"Come on," he said, more quietly. "I'll take you to your mom and pop, okay? But you gotta quit crying, 'cause I'm not letting you get snot all over me. Got it?"
The girl silently held out her arms, and he awkwardly managed to pick her up. He was not used to carrying children, but she put her arms around his neck and snuggled trustingly against him, tucking her head beneath his chin. However, as soon as he started to walk, she began whimpering again.
"Carrot-chan!" she said.
"What the hell's a Carrot-chan?" he demanded.
"My bunny," she said, as if he were an idiot.
For a moment, he thought she was talking about a real rabbit, and that he would be expected to scour the ruins of the house for a live animal. Then he noticed a scrap of fabric sticking out from beneath the blankets, and he reached down with one hand to fish out a bedraggled-looking plush toy. It looked like it had been blue once, but had been snuggled and played with to within an inch of its life, and was now more gray than anything. He passed it to the little girl, who tucked it under her arm and went back to clinging to his neck. Both his arms were required to keep her in place, forcing him to pick his way carefully through what was left of her house so he wouldn't lose his balance. He made it back to the street without incident, and was relieved to pass the child back to her anxious parents.
"Thank you so much," the girl's mother said tearfully. "I thought - I thought she'd..."
"It was nothing," he muttered. "No big deal."
"Mommy, this man used a bad word!" said the little girl, giggling.
"It's all right, dear, he's old enough," said her father. He turned to Ushio. "I can't thank you enough for saving our precious little girl..."
"It was nothing," he said again.
"Well, thank you anyway," said the girl's mother, and she stunned him by standing on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
He stood there a moment, too shocked even to blush or stammer, but simply remained fixed to the spot like a statue while the reunited family walked off together in search of safer territory.
"Bye bye!" the little girl called, and waved to him with her free hand as her parents dragged her along. As they disappeared into the crowd, he thought he heard her say, "Daddy, that man was nice. He saved Carrot-chan..."
Ushio sat down on the sidewalk and wondered what had just happened. It dawned on him that he might have just saved someone's life. He had never done anything like that before. Endangered people's lives, certainly - he had done that lots of times. But saving someone? Having people be grateful to him? That was new. He had been terrorizing other people since he'd been old enough to hit his playmates with toys while their parents weren't looking. Actually making people happy was a novel experience. And it had been easy. All he'd had to do was push some stuff out of the way and pick up a little kid, and suddenly everyone was happy. He hadn't even had to think about it.
He wondered if he could do it again.
Very slowly, he began to grin - a slightly feral grin that he hadn't worn in a long time. He'd been itching for a fight for ages, and there had been nothing for him to fight against. Now the whole city was attacking, throwing stone and wood and glass at its own people. If it wanted a fight tonight, he would fight back.
He prowled the streets. Wherever he found a place where a roof had fallen in or a wall had crumbled, he searched the area and listened for any sound that would mean someone was still alive under it all, and where he heard them, he dug them up. It wasn't long before his hands were raw and bleeding from the labor, his fingernails broken to the quick, but he barely felt any of that. He was feeling a high of adrenaline mixed with that strange new euphoria he felt when he managed to bring someone up alive. Sometimes they were not alive when he found them, but he'd never been the type to be squeamish. If he found someone who was beyond help, he moved on.
In some places, fires had broken out. Many of these areas were already abandoned, as any residents who could flee had already left the area. Ushio paused on one of these streets, looking up at a house that was already nearly burnt to cinders. The other buildings around it were beginning to catch as well, and he wondered if it would be worth it to see if there was anyone inside them or if he should just move on, when he realized he was not alone. Someone was creeping out the front door of one of the houses that hadn't started burning yet. He did not seem to be in any hurry - in fact, he seemed more concerned with checking to see if anyone was around to notice him. He was carrying what looked like a bedsheet folded into a bundle and slung over his back. He turned his head and spotted Ushio, but by then, it was already too late.
"You bastard!" Ushio snarled, and rushed at him.
The man tried to run, but he was burdened by the parcel he carried, and his legs were shorter. Ushio tackled him and forced him to the ground. While the hapless thief attempted to free himself, Ushio struck him again and again with his clenched fist.
"You - fucking - bastard!" he shouted. How dare this man? How dare he do this? People were dying all around him, and all he could think about was making a quick buck by stealing other people's things. How dare he think about money at a time like this? How dare he...
...behave exactly the way Ushio would have, just a few years ago, before someone had pulled his brain apart by the seams. Remind him of how he used to be. Remind him of a part of himself he feared and hated.
Ushio stopped his fist in midair, realizing what he was doing. At that moment, he heard footsteps. He climbed off of the looter and hauled him to his feet, just in time to see a harried- looking uniformed policeman coming up the street.
"What's going on here?" the officer asked.
Ushio shoved the thief toward him. "I caught this guy looting houses."
"There's a lot of that going on tonight," the officer admitted. He took out a set of plastic ties and began trussing up the thief's wrists. "You can go sit in the car. We've got more important things to worry about than you tonight." Turning back to Ushio, he said, "Good job catching this guy. We've got our hands full tonight. Too much to do, not enough of us..."
"I want to help," said Ushio.
"Just keep doing what you can," said the officer. "We need all the help we can get."
And so he worked. Throughout the night, he scoured the wreckage of buildings for survivors. As he worked his way deeper into the city, he met others who had decided to help as well. One of them gave him a pair of leather work gloves to spare his hands. They worked side by side, mostly in solemn silence. It was a strange feeling, to be cooperating with someone, to be accepted by a group.
Was this what I've been missing, all this time? he wondered. They had just managed to dig a man up out of what was left of his house. His leg was broken and he had a gash across his face, but he was alive and being comforted by his wife while someone who knew first aid put a crude splint on him. There had been a moment of celebration when he'd been brought out safely, and Ushio had shared in the congratulations and pats on the back.
He didn't know how many hours he had been working when he stopped to take a breather. His clothes were soaked through with sweat, and so filthy it was impossible to tell what color they had originally been. He should have been exhausted, but he felt wide awake. Even though his muscles ached, it was a distant sort of feeling, something he could ignore. All the same, he paused a moment to mop at his face with a handkerchief that had already been pushed to the limits of its usefulness, and he stared out at the sky.
"Hey, look," he said.
People stopped what they were doing to look. Against the horizon, there was a faint pale glow - not the intense blue-white blast that had started all, nor the weird purple glow that had been growing steadily fainter as the night went on, but a pale golden glow. He needed a moment to think about it before he realized that this was not some new horror coming to visit itself on them all, but the light of the rising sun.
"We made it," someone said. "We got through the night."
Ushio thought that they hadn't made it through everything yet. There was still no electricity, and he had his doubts about running water. There were still a lot of lost and injured people, and many who had no homes to go back to. All the same, it was reassuring to know that the world hadn't come to an end just yet.
He was distracted from his thoughts by someone thrusting something at him, and he looked down to see that someone was offering him a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a bottle of water. He looked up to see that the policeman he had spoken to earlier had returned.
"Here," said the officer. "The people from the deli up the street sent it. You guys deserve a break."
"Thanks," said Ushio. He opened the water bottle and drained it in a series of thirsty gulps, and then started in on the sandwich. He hadn't realized how hungry he'd been getting.
"Welcome," the officer said. "And hey... you deserve some thanks, too. You've done good work tonight. Everyone has."
"It was nothing," said Ushio, uneasy with the praise.
The officer leaned against the remains of a wall. He looked tired, too.
"You should go home and get some rest, if you can," he said. "I think the professionals are starting to get things under control now."
"I want to stay here."
The officer gave him a thoughtful look. "What do you do for a living, anyway?"
Ushio shrugged. "Nothing in particular."
"Well, have you ever thought of going into police work? We could use someone on the force like you."
Ushio thought of the nightmare night he had just endured - of the fire, the thieves, the broken bodies. He thought also of the people who had survived, of the grateful mothers and relieved husbands and the children who might not have made it through the night without his help.
"Where do I sign up?" he said.
The little girl trotted alongside her mother and father. She didn't know where they were going, nor did she particularly care. She was young enough not to worry about the future, and thought of all this as a grand lark. For once in her young life, she'd been allowed to stay up all night. It had been fun.
"That big man who dug me up was nice," she asserted.
"Yes, he was very nice," her mother agreed.
"One day, when I grow up, I'm gonna marry him."
Her father laughed. "I think he's a little old for you, sweetheart."
She pouted and stomped her foot, annoyed by her father's slowness to understand. "I said when I grow up."
"I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, Mikage," said her mother. "I don't think you'll be seeing him again."