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dusty rays and shattered beams, slippery roads and sunburned dreams

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Whale Island isn’t silent, despite what most might think. Fishermen come and go, bringing with them the cries of seagulls looking to thieve a sardine or two, and even at its highest altitude, the song of the sea is omnipresent, mingling with the buzz of the forest to create the accompaniment to their modest way of life.

 

In 24 years, Mito has never heard the quiet. She thinks she might never get to. After all, this is where she belongs — she’s meant to be the steady port for others’ wayward vessels. Her life wasn’t made to explore wide expanses of sky with only her wits to keep her company, to run fast and run far until she became one with the raging wind.

 

No. That assessment isn’t fair. Her life hadn’t been made for anything, really, and therein had lain the problem. She had always been too kind to let others drown while she sailed on ahead, too dutiful to focus solely on the sensation of salt on her tongue without considering the dehydration that would soon follow.

 

And Ging had known it.

 

How could he not, when they had a childhood tying them together, turning pretense not only impractical, but downright impossible to attempt? She’s sure he sees her with unparalleled clarity, even now, after a hundred moons, the way she sees him for the selfish, disappointing man he truly is. They have always understood each other deeper than others could hope to.

 

Wasn’t that why he had returned to their tiny, insignificant island 10 years ago, carrying a child too young to understand the blow being dealt to him in the moment? Why he hadn’t returned since? She cannot — will not — forgive him for using her better nature in his favor, for stealing her freedom with his poisoned trust.

 

Though perhaps her fate had been sealed even before that, when he had first left, untethered and fearless, the way she would never be. She wonders what it would have been like, if he hadn’t branded her forever as the one who stayed. Is there unsung potential lurking in her veins? Or is a past truly the one thing they share?

 

Through it all, however, she has never begrudged Gon. They’re unfair, the cards her cousin handed her, but she can’t help but be thankful for the child who’s made of sunlight, refracting into a colorful kaleidoscope with each passing moment. He loves so deeply, her son, and without judgement or reproach. The muscle fibers that comprise his heart have an infinite capacity to expand.

 

A soul like his could never be happy in Whale Island, Mito knows. His curiosity is a wide-eyed, hungry thing, and the picture of Ging on the wall gives him a void to fill, a desperation Mito fears will lead him to ruin. The one gift Ging left them, other than that wretched box Grandma doesn’t let her throw away, is his shadow. It has clung to her for years, and so too does it cling to her boy, though it pains her to admit it, to admit she cannot give him the acknowledgement he craves.

 

Mito lets him go, when the time comes, praying he might be lucky enough, shrewd enough, to dispel the miasma of Ging’s would-be legacy and forge a path for himself, though the hope’s too feeble to sink to her bones. Afterwards, she climbs the hill to their house resolutely, as the salt sea-wind stings her eyes and tangles in her hair, and resigns herself to the wait, the same way she had once before.

 

Gon passes the hunter’s exam on the first try, as she knew he would, and comes back to her and the maritime air after a handful of too-long months with a newfound confidence in his step and a silver-haired boy at his side.

 

Killua, she thinks, is the tragedy after the curtain has fallen, the city after the earthquake has razed it. His cat-like eyes scan every detail in their village with a focus usually reserved for far less mundane things, and his soft, deliberate footsteps speak of a deep gash that hasn’t started to scab over yet. She wishes she could do more for him, but his past isn’t something she can wipe away, much less in a month. Instead, she settles for telling him he’s always welcome in their home, whenever he wants, for as long as he wants. Killua’s a perceptive kid — she hopes he understands the truth of what she’s saying.

 

Then they leave, as swiftly as they had appeared, and Mito’s left to her thoughts and her routine once more. Worry keeps her heart in a vice-like grip, as weeks pass and no news come. She tries to convince herself that the radio silence is a good thing, that bad news travel fast, but her mind runs itself ragged positing myriad scenarios, each more upsetting than the last.

 

A year goes by before Gon next returns, but when he does, this time alone, Mito knows instantly something has changed. His cheer seems less truthful, somehow. No, the word isn’t quite right; her son has never been dishonest. Rather, it seems he’s making a conscious effort to preserve his upbeat disposition, carefully ignoring particular memories that sometimes come to the surface.

 

He tells her of Greed Island, and she feels the familiar, offended rage rear its ugly head. How dare Ging manipulate his own son like this? Hadn’t it been enough to abandon him? How dare he oversee Gon’s growth from a distance, denying him any shred of recognition, yet demanding more from him all the same? In that moment, Mito swears she hates her cousin a little, childhood fondness be damned.

 

Her son’s voice shakes, almost imperceptibly, when he mentions a hunter named Kite, and she gleans from his omissions that there’s a story there, written in tears and, perhaps, even blood. She doesn’t ask, for fear he might retreat inwards, and he doesn’t tell. She wants to say something, to find the perfect permutation of words that will soothe his aching soul, but nothing is ever so easy. Gon is a bright, clever boy, but he does not learn through speeches or, at least, not the ones she’s capable of giving. She’s failing him, she knows, her limitations binding him alongside her.

 

After he goes to bed, Grandma places a heavy hand on her arm, and tells her Gon needs to find solutions on his own; that her fretting, while well-intentioned, might lead him astray. Mito isn’t sure she agrees, but she wonders, somewhat bitterly, if her secrecy regarding his father might have spurred him on, might have sped up his inevitable meeting with disaster. She had only meant to shield him from the hurt of abandonment, but she fears she might have inadvertently made Ging’s figure all the more mythical, by surrounding it with mystery.

 

This is the most frustrating part of being a parent, she supposes: the doubt. There is never a way to be sure her choices are the right ones, and the potential damage only surfaces long after anything can be done to correct it at its root. She hopes she’s done right by him, for the most part, though she knows there’s only so much she could have done against the hole Ging carelessly carved out of his child’s chest.

 

And still, Gon smiles, boyish grin thrown carelessly over his shoulder as he runs into the forest every day, chasing the adventures he can no longer live through. There is schoolwork to be done when he returns, which he endures with only mild complaining, and Mito wants to burst into shuddering sobs at how, despite everyone’s best efforts, it isn’t familiar anymore; her son has changed, grown unbalanced like a plant straining towards uneven sunlight, and she wasn’t there to see it, wasn’t there to help him, and now he’s hurt, irrevocably, and she doesn’t know how to ease the strain of carrying his own past.

 

It’s grown dark, summer slipping away and taking with it soft blue evenings that call for late dinners, and Mito washes the few remaining plates left in the sink, looking out the window into the ever-present sea that has at once both mocked and comforted her throughout her short-lived childhood. She hears the sound of a chair scraping against the floor, and, by the sigh that accompanies the movement surely happening behind her, she can tell Grandma wants to talk.

 

“What’s wrong?” Mito asks, setting the last of the plates on the counter to dry and turning around to face the knowing eyes of her de facto mother.

 

“You tell me. You’ve been staring morosely out the window for upwards of a month, now. Even Gon is starting to notice.”

 

Mito frowns. She could evade the question, but there has been something weighing heavily on her mind, and though Grandma doesn’t take her all that seriously most of the time, she at least listens to her worries. “He said that maybe he wasn’t meant to be a son,” she says, voice already unsteady. “How could we have failed him so much? How does a child even reach that horrible thought?”

 

“He’s not a child anymore,” Grandma points out quietly.

 

“He’s supposed to be,” Mito says, crossing her arms. “I don’t know what he’s been through, he obviously doesn’t want to tell me, but… What could have possibly happened to make him return to us so suddenly? He wouldn’t have otherwise, not without warning or an explanation.” She sighs. “Not while looking like he wants to leave, more than anything, but can’t.”

 

“And what do you think happened?” Grandma asks, gently placing her interlaced hands on the dinner table.

 

Mito’s gaze bores into hers. “I don’t care for speculating, but I think it would be fair of me to tear down the Hunters Association brick by brick in retaliation.” Her eyes narrow. “I suspect they placed far too much responsibility on him, exploiting the fact that he would never refuse it.”

 

She expects Grandma to dismiss her, to tell her to retract her claws, yet she only nods. “I’m afraid he might have been collateral damage.”

 

“Grandma,” Mito whispers, looking away, hands gripping her forearms too tightly. “I don’t know how to fix it.”

 

“I don’t think you can, dear,” her mother replies, slowly shaking her head. “This isn’t a wound you inflicted.”

 

“But I can’t stand seeing him miserable!” Mito cries, resisting the urge to stomp her foot in frustration. She became an adult too soon, locking away the child within instead of letting her grow, and now she’s forever saddled with the bratty impulse to lash out at the world when it fails to follow her neat lines.

 

“Well, you’ll have to bear it,” Grandma snaps. “He needs time to process, to digest what he’s feeling, and he can’t do it if you breathe down his neck trying to hurry him along.”

 

“I can’t sit idly by and pretend everything is okay!” she shoots back. “How would that be any different than how everyone else already treats him?”

 

Grandma goes quiet, and Mito decides to use the lull in the conversation to put the plates away, pretending that she isn’t holding her breath on her mother’s response. Her relationship with Grandma is… complicated. She’s always been a rather hands-off educator, and that freedom often tasted of bitter loneliness to her. Perhaps that’s why Ging blossomed, and she didn’t — he had never pleaded silently for sympathy that wouldn’t come. Even as an adult, she finds it hard to refrain from hanging on her every word.

 

“Sometimes, Mito, there isn’t a nice, simple solution to our problems.”

 

She closes the dish cabinet slowly, taking a deep breath as she does it. “I know. But that isn’t a good enough reason to do nothing and simply hope the fourteen-year-old child has the emotional maturity to parse through all of his feelings.”

 

“Interrogating him isn’t going to help him either.”

 

Mito sighs, pulling up a chair and sitting down as well. “It was unavoidable, wasn’t it?” she asks, resting her chin on her hand.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The sadness. He couldn’t outrun it forever.”

 

“You talk as if the boy is cursed.”

 

Mito closes her eyes, resigning herself to the fact that her mother won’t understand, not entirely. She isn’t one of the abandoned.

 

“Maybe he is,” she whispers quietly, thinking back to the day that Ging first left — he had been a child himself, and yet had never once looked back. And isn’t that the core of who her cousin is? Someone who doesn’t look back, regardless of what he leaves in his wake — the triumph and the destruction both.

 

Grandma pushes away from the table, physically distancing herself from all of Mito’s sorrow. “I’m going to bed. See that you keep that gloom under wraps, if you refuse to dispel it,” she says, climbing up the stairs without waiting for a response.

 

Mito winces into the now empty kitchen; she knows Grandma means well, though that doesn’t abate the sting of her words in the slightest. Still, in this she’s right. Gon has enough concerns already, and while he can’t help taking on as many burdens as he can, Mito refuses to be one of them.

 

Whale Island isn’t silent, Mito thinks, but even the constant crashing of the waves and the persistent hum of the forest’s fauna can’t chase away the heavy still of melancholy lodging in her heart.