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The Sun in Jericho

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Nezumi, stage name Eve, age twenty-seven, citizen of No. 1 -- The City of Dreams.

Currently between gigs.

The resident mouse scurrying through the wall behind his bed startles him from a catnap.

Shion.

Nezumi has fought against dragging his past with him, but he has never been able to forget that name. Put it out of mind, sure: he can go for months without thinking of Shion.

Then something takes him back -- a scent, a casual gesture from someone he's with, or when he happens to look at the sky at sunrise and remembers his days in the West Block. The sound of tiny rodent feet. One moment, and his chest fills with that soft and lonely ache idiots call nostalgia. Nezumi calls it pointless.

After ten years, those West Block days are little more than a misty, unpleasant blur -- a vague trickle of names and faces and places he's not even sure were ever real. Only one face stands out, only one name rings true.

Shion.

In the years since leaving No. 6 behind, Nezumi has dug a deep memory moat, and in it he's buried his past. But Shion has always treated that moat as though it were but a line drawn with a stick dragged across sand by a hapless child. The sort of soft child that Shion was when Nezumi first met him.

"That's right," Nezumi murmurs into the dark bedroom. "I wanted to see what he would become, didn't I?" I even made a vow, pompous asshole that I was back then.

"What's that, precious?" whispers this week's bed-warmer. What's his name again?

"I said, isn't it time you went home?" Nezumi replies without looking at him. "You don't want to be out on the street past curfew." There are still three hours until curfew, but Nezumi's decided he doesn't like him any more.

"I could just stay here." Voice like a purr. Warm hand gentle against the small of Nezumi's back.

The touch, which Nezumi more than welcomed not ten minutes ago, is repulsive now. He's not sure if it's because he's done with this one after just three nights or because remembering that ancient vow always makes him feel gloomy. He is sure that he needs to be alone. Now.

Nezumi kicks the heavy duvet away and gets to his feet. "No one sleeps in my bed except me," he snaps. "Get dressed and get out."

~

The flavour of the week leaves grumbling but without a scene. All of them think they'll be the ones to change Eve, to subdue and possess him. Nezumi never says never, and there's always a man on hand with more swagger than most who thinks he'll succeed where so many have failed.

He's terrible at names but great with faces. You don't need to know the name of a guy to know he's eyeing your neck. So he's never made the mistake of sleeping with the same person twice -- and it's never actual sleeping, of course.

No one sleeps in my bed except me.

Sleep is vulnerable, and Nezumi doesn't trust anyone not to take advantage. He hasn't been in any real danger since wanderlust left him and he settled, more or less, here in No. 1, but he will never become as complacent as the city folk who surround him. Still, Nezumi's resigned himself to being surrounded by them. His wanderings have taught him two things irrevocably.

One: his people are all gone, even though he was right to suspect that he and the old woman who brought him out of the fire weren't the only survivors of the Mao Massacre. Three others -- sisters, a year apart, the youngest just two years older than Nezumi -- hid inside a tree trunk on the outskirts of the settlement and found an underground passage to a nearby network of caves.

They wandered, like Nezumi and the old woman, but they did not thirst for revenge, only for peace, and their travels took them to a kinder place: the oceanside, where a scouting vessel from No. 4 picked them up. It would have been a wonderful ending for them, except they had no vaccinations. All three succumbed to variant smallpox soon after arriving in No. 4.

In that regard, No. 6 may very well have saved Nezumi's life: he had no vaccinations either, but he received all the necessary ones when he got microchipped in prison. If not for that, he might have died of a pox, too.

The second thing Nezumi learned after eight years of drifting from settlement to settlement was that no one can survive for long outside city-state limits, not on their own. The planet has not yet healed enough to sustain a solitary large predator, let alone a soft, breakable human.

He was surprised to discover he prefers the relative anonymity the cities afford to life in the villages beginning to sprout where nature has triumphed over humanity's devastation. He thought he would feel better living closer to the earth, but he only lasted three months working the land and having people always in his business. Such is the way of small communities -- and out in the wild, without community there is only death.

He went back to the city he liked best and stayed, waiting for his feet to itch once more. Hoping for it. Though more and more often he catches himself thinking that his need to wander stopped the day he realised that living only for himself in a world like this made him nothing but a waste of space. The old woman was wrong when she told him to live only for himself. When you live for yourself, you survive -- and that's all. But even cockroaches can survive. A human who no longer needs to struggle for survival yet lives only for himself doesn't amount to much more than a cockroach.

He likes No. 1 best because this is where all the artists come to live, create, and eventually be enshrined in the Citadel of Severed Dreams at the heart of the city where the children's choirs celebrate them in high voices, day and night. Nezumi doesn't know how No. 1 came to be the place of dreams, nor does he care. Here he can do what he likes best -- perform -- and be housed and fed in exchange. Not a bad life.

Nezumi doesn't know why he kept his old West Block stage name. Maybe to keep from forgetting those days full of danger and fury. Perhaps a remnant of old feelings stowed away in a shadowed corner of his heart hoped the holofilms would reach No. 6 someday. Somewhere in that city -- the Moondrop, a certain Lost Town bakery, or some cushy Chronos bungalow with stray cats napping on the lawn -- Shion would take one look at the image with those guileless eyes of his, and then he'd smile in pure delight and reach out for the projection. Knowing he can't touch it, trying to anyway. That's how Shion is.

"Fuck," Nezumi spits. He doesn't think of Shion often, but when he does, he can't stop. The anger simmering in his bones is not for the mouse who woke him, or the simpering fool he kicked out of bed, or for Shion.

He's incandescently pissed off at his own fool brain for its wretched predictability, for following the same godforsaken pattern every time Shion comes up, no matter how hard Nezumi tries to steer his thoughts another way.

No one sleeps in my bed except me.

The last time he deigned to share a bed with another person was during his time with Shion, and they weren't even having sex. There was that one night when Shion let his clumsy but earnest hands wander underneath the threadbare blanket, that one night when Nezumi let him do as he pleased, but that hardly counted. It was such a non-event that it irritates Nezumi to remember it still.

He wraps his dressing gown around his shoulders and goes to the window so he can press his forehead against the cool glass.

Lately these memories are like gongs in the back of his mind. Trip one and it'll reverberate for hours, going over the scant remnants of whatever he can remember. The echoes of them, no less persistent, say the same thing.

Ten years.

More than ten: it's already December and almost time for Solstice, the busiest time of the year for entertainers. Nezumi's turned down every job offer that's come his way because he keeps thinking that he needs to leave town. An unfulfilled promise waits.

Nezumi hates having become a man of his word.

~

"Hey, Eve! You change your mind about that private party yet?"

Nezumi waves the shouter -- his sort-of agent, Schwinn -- off. "Not a chance. I am not performing in a rabbit outfit."

"Not a mascot type rabbit!" Schwinn offers, pedalling up to ride along Nezumi's stride. He is steering the bicycle with one hand and twirling a fake handlebar moustache with the other. Nezumi doesn't want to ask. "Come on, Eve. Cute little tail, cute little ears, floppity-flop. Booty shorts. Sexy."

"I'm not dressing as any sort of rabbit," Nezumi says. "It's undignified."

"You were a potato in last year's Academy production," Schwinn points out, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth.

Nezumi sighs. "That was for sick children." He takes a sharp turn into a narrow space between buildings where Schwinn can't follow him. "I'm leaving town for a while, spread the word."

"If you're after the Mover, she's not home!" Schwinn hollers after him. "I just saw her at the casino."

"Liar," Nezumi mutters. He spoke to Saki ten minutes ago; she's waiting for him at the hangar, and she'll wait for as long as necessary, because he promised her ten autographs.

He re-emerges on the other side of the boulevard, tugs his coat closed and bends against the wind. Twenty minutes later, he wishes he'd taken his bike, but he doesn't want to leave it at Saki's; she'd sell it in two minutes. Bound to be a weirdo out there who wants to sit on Eve's bicycle seat.

When he gets to the hangar, Saki's got her folding table out beneath her plane's nose and is cleaning her gun. It looks huge in her tiny brown hands: someone who doesn't know Saki might make a joke that children shouldn't play with illegal grown-up toys. Then Saki will raise the gun, and someone will find one side of his head neatly shaved by six large bullets.

Nezumi hangs his coat on a hook by the door and crosses the considerable distance between them. Before he can even offer a greeting, Saki points him to a stack of watercolour paintings. "Sign these, then we'll talk. You said."

He sits down on the floor and dutifully scribbles his stage name beneath the artist's signature with a permanent marker, ten times. When done, he joins Saki at the table. "Why don't you just get her to draw one decent portrait, have me sign it, then print copies? She works off photos anyway, what's the big deal?"

She smirks. "Don't say ridiculous things, hot stuff. Laughing tarnishes my reputation. Who'd want to display a cheap print when they can have a hand-painted Henrietta original, signed by the artist and her subject?"

"Cheap prints are accessible to more people, so they end up on more walls," Nezumi points out. "Means exposure for both artist and subject. Means more interest, more fans. People will pay even more for the originals then."

"Not enough people in this world for that kind of mass-market mentality, sugar. You're either a hundred years too late or a couple of centuries too early. Anyway, I'm sure you didn't agree to sign these ten just for the privilege of chatting about my business model."

"Indeed," Nezumi confirms with a slight smile. "I want you to take me to No. 6. Today."

Saki whistles. "Did you get a fan letter that touched your shrivelled heart? That place is over the ocean. Might as well be over the fuckin' rainbow, too."

Nezumi bites his bottom lip and thinks. He didn't expect her to be curious -- she usually isn't, as long as you do what she wants in exchange for the favour you ask. Should he go along with her fan letter theory? But if she senses that it's a lie, she'll refuse to take him, and there are no take-backs here. Once Saki says no, you're done.

"It's where I'm from," he says, deciding that a partial truth is good enough. "I want to check on... some folks."

"I thought No. 6 was a police state," Saki says.

Nezumi shrugs. "It wasn't when I left." Not any longer. "You know there are always rumours about that place. Nobody bothers to cross all that water. If it's a police state, I'll take my chances. This can't wait."

"Will you be needing me to stand by while you check on... folks?" she asks, as if to emphasise that she noticed his earlier pause and judged it significant.

"No, I'll find my own way back. They've got an airport." At least they did last time he was there.

"Why don't you hitch a ride to No. 3 and take a normal plane out?"

"That would take too long. Your flier's the fastest."

"Hmph," Saki says with a head-tilt and a mischievous smile. "Flattery, Eve? You of all people should know that won't work on me." Saki's lack of interest in men is as profound as Nezumi's lack of interest in women.

"I'm not trying to flatter you," Nezumi retorts. "I was talking about your machine." He pats the plane's flank as though it belongs to a beloved horse.

She does laugh this time, deep in her throat. "You're such a handful, I swear. Fine, I'll take you back home if that's what you want. But you're signing twenty more Henrietta originals so I can afford the fuel. They're in the back, go bring them yourself."

~

Nezumi stands by the floor-to-ceiling window in the customs clearance area and watches Saki's beast gather speed in an almost-vertical twisting climb, his stomach roiling at the memory of being in the plane for that splendid experience. The little plane tips its wings once, as if to wave goodbye, then zips out of sight. As the last of the engine exhaust fades into the blue-grey twilight, a curious hollow sensation he doesn't recognise overcomes him. Is he lonely? No. Abandoned? No. Sad--?

"Ah, excuse me, Eve-san?" It's the voice of the timid, horse-faced immigration control clerk who took his paperwork away twenty minutes ago.

Nezumi wonders what he's going to do if they find something wrong with it -- heaven knows what kind of No. 6 he's come back to, after all. Will they throw him straight into jail or will they put him on a plane to No. 3? If the latter, he'll be back in No. 1 in three days' time. He'll have to endure Saki's scoffing for three years thence.

"Yes," he says to the clerk. Not a question, not a demand: just a flat, unemotional word to match his facial expression. Whatever happens, happens. What counts is that I tried, Shion.

The clerk bows slightly and proffers Nezumi's travelling papers with both hands, like a junior choir boy facing an instructor. "Please accept our apologies for the delay. The City relies on electronic means of identification, so we had to verify your identity using, ah, other methods."

Ah, yes. The City. No. 6 is not the official name any more, but they still haven't come up with another, so all the laws and guidelines apparently call it The City, in Temporary Lieu of a Distinguishing Name.

The clerk dabs at his forehead with a crisp white handkerchief. "We haven't seen a guest of your -- ah -- calibre in many a year, sir, and… what I mean to say is, well -- will you be requiring a security detail?"

"No, thanks," Nezumi says. "I'm from around here, you see."

"Is that so? You were born in the City, sir?"

"I was born in Mao," Nezumi says, watching the man's face carefully.

The clerk's eyes go dull. "Oh, that's-- I don't know how to say this to you, but--"

"I know it was destroyed," Nezumi says. "I merely did not want to tell a lie to a government official, you see."

The clerk swallows, looking relieved. Nezumi accepts his travel documents with curt gratitude, asks about transportation to Lost Town, and bids a distracted farewell.

Five minutes later, he's on a high-speed train to Lost Town, first watching green blobs give way to greyish-brown ones outside the window, then realising he'll never see anything at this speed and focussing on the electronic itinerary displayed on the train wall. None of the station names mean anything to him except Lost Town Centre and Municipal Building (Former Moondrop).

He saw the most obvious change while Saki was landing -- West Block is gone. Where once stood a merry little town that later grew to miserable slums now lies a vast field -- of what, Nezumi doesn't know, but it looked well-used from above, like proper tilled earth, not empty wasteland. It doesn't upset him. West Block was once home, but it was also the worst place a person could call home.

"Lost Town Centre," the train informs him and glides to a halt.

Nezumi crosses the platform into the station. It's more like a fairytale gingerbread house; the platforms are all outdoors, and the building itself only has an automated ticket gate and some vending machines -- tickets, cold drinks, and nutritional supplements. He hasn't seen one of these tin cans since he travelled to No. 3 for a special performance eight months ago. He wishes he'd had the foresight to find a moneychanger, because one of those pale green bottles of whatever it is would go down nicely right around now.

The square outside the station teems with people, cars, horse-carts, shouting street vendors, and... uniformed dogs? Nezumi blinks, but the mutt is still sitting atop a bandstand at the far corner of the square, with a little blue doggy vest on its roan back and a saucer cap between its pointed ears. An elderly matron shuffles out of a side street, and the dog gets to its feet and barks three times. Two other dogs lope towards the old lady and run in front of her, baying in unison. The crowd parts for them, all the way to the intersection.

Incredible.

It's not the dogs Nezumi's thinking of -- everyone knows dogs are smart enough to do things like this and then some -- it's the people. The good-natured looks on their faces and the unquestioning manner in which they yield to a couple of mongrels and an old lady. He is reminded of the village where he tried to lay his roots. Deep inland from No. 4, it was nothing like these all-brick buildings, this cobblestoned square; just a huddle of thatched-roof shacks held together with ropes, spittle, and hope. But the energy smells the same. These people trust each other, even though they might not always get along. It feels a bit like West Block, but… not.

He has to wonder if it's appropriate for an obvious stranger to approach people for directions here. The airport building was practically empty: No. 6 isn't exactly a tourist hotspot, what with the rumours. He could try and ask one of the dogs, but he'd rather not.

"Excuse me? Hi. You look lost." A young woman's voice. She's little more than a girl, really -- sixteen, maybe seventeen.

Nezumi quirks an eyebrow. "Have you a name, or shall I have to refer to you in my memoir as 'that charming young lady who saved me a great deal of embarrassment in No. Si-- ah, the City.'?"

"I'm Lili," she says with a grin. "It's okay if you call it No. 6; everyone does. The official types get grumpy about it, but it can't be helped."

Nezumi smiles -- and it's genuine. Shion, you did it. Or you're still doing it. Whatever it is, you're doing great. "Well, charming young Lili, could you please tell me if there's still a bakery around here run by a woman named Karan? I believe I fancy a hot cross bun."

Lili beams. "Auntie Karan! Yes! Just go straight past the newsstand and turn the corner, and there you'll be." She narrows her eyes slightly. "Say, haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

"Perhaps in a holo-show," Nezumi suggests with a completely straight face. "I'm a famous actor."

She laughs, light and airy like the bells calling for winter at the Citadel. "Oh, do go on, funny stranger. Please, tell Auntie Karan Lili says hello. And try the cheese muffins!" That last is over her shoulder as she walks on to wherever she was going.

Nezumi wonders if Lili would know Shion, too -- there's no reason she wouldn't; he's Karan's son after all. But now that he's here, he doesn't want word getting to him that a strange man is looking for him in Lost Town. He wants to surprise Shion.

He follows Lili's direction to the bakery door and enters. Overhead, a bell trills softly. Karan is behind the counter with her back to the entrance, folding the embroidered display cloths.

"Come on in and be welcome!" she calls without turning around. "You're just in time, I was about to close up for the night, though I've still got stock. What'll it be?"

"I bring greetings from a lass named Lili," Nezumi says in his gravest tones. "She said to try the cheese muffins."

Karan whirls around, cloth still in hand. "That voice-- oh, it is you."

Her eyes shine with joy, and though Nezumi doesn't remember his mother, she must have looked at him with eyes like that when she was alive. With just a long, warm gaze from this woman who doesn't even know him, he feels like someone's son.

"You're back -- and you look so handsome too, oh my."

Nezumi smiles back at her. "You're looking incredible yourself, Karan-san. You haven't changed a bit." He's lying on that last part and she knows it, but they are, after all, both adults -- and the first part is true: she does look fantastic. "Is... he here?"

She shakes her head with a smile. "He's at the library vault, where you used to--"

The bell tinkles again, and Nezumi finds himself halfway out the door. He can't speak, not a word of apology for interrupting and leaving, nothing -- he has to go to Shion.

She calls out to him. "Nezumi--? Nezumi, wait! Please!"

Nezumi won't -- can't -- wait. Lili's laughter, the dogs barking at the crowd, Karan's aged face, the sweet smell of pastries -- he is brimful of memories, and with them awakened a deep longing to see Shion's face. For years he's held an unarticulated, unacknowledged fear that Shion was no longer in this world -- because how would Nezumi ever know any different? Now that he does know, the fear's streaming out and he feels lighter on his feet than he has in years.

It can't be a coincidence that Shion's at the library vault. Maybe he knows the airport clerk. Shion, Shion -- did you really wait for me? He doesn't understand where these feelings are coming from, but if they were to rain down upon his head he'd be a drowned rat, like a boy he once knew: a boy of twelve who crawled to care and safety through a balcony door.

West Block isn't there any longer, but the steps to the vault must've survived whatever the city did to make that field -- and he doesn't need directions there. He remembers where the lesser gate was ten years ago. Now there's no wall between him and the former West Block, between him and Shion. Why is Shion in that vault? Does he live there? Did he really wait for me? Karan tried to call him back earlier, but Nezumi is too far now to return and find out if there's something he should know.

There. A misshapen remnant of the old wall has survived -- Nezumi doesn't have time to read the plaque next to it. He hops over a soft-rope fence and he's out in the field, his feet leading him, by sense memory, to where the marketplace once was. Behind him, a chorus of dog barks resounds in the swiftly gathering darkness. Chasing him? No, why? He's just a young man running through a field, careful to put his feet on the already-trampled soil so he doesn't hurt whatever's planted here.

Part of a rusty railing rises from the ground where a concrete wall once blocked the wind, and then the steps, edges worn smooth by years of use. The third one from the top has a small, vaguely foot-shaped indentation in it. It was one scorcher of a Sunday, and Nezumi was wearing those new sturdy shoes he scored from the prison block. Shoes were always a problem until his feet stopped growing at about age nineteen, far away from that stair with the forever footprint.

He wonders what happened to that mottled superfibre cloth he used to wear when he lived here. He brought it away with him, but it's been many days since then, many miles and roadside stops, acid rain and makeshift shelters between misshapen trees. The sweet days of his freedom. The later days, when freedom grew old and pale.

I'm stalling.

He is. He's standing in front of the door to his old haunt, and he's stalling because on the other side is the answer to the questions he's been too afraid to ask. He wasn't ready for the answers when he left this place, but he's ready now.

I think.

Nezumi opens the door. The hinges move slowly but silently; someone's been taking good care of them. Shion. Are you there? Will I really see you again?

The stove's been upgraded: it's electric, now; there's an outlet on the wall and everything. A naked light bulb hangs from the ceiling, too. All of the books are still there, he can see at a glance: stacked neatly on metal shelves, and, by the looks of it, alphabetised. The bed in the far end, neatly made. Next to it, a small sofa and a table. Shion sits on the sofa, head bent over a large hardback tome. His hair's cut shorter than Nezumi remembers; the sides and back are shaved almost bare: part of he raised scar the parasite wasp left behind is visible on the back of his skull.

Whoosh goes Nezumi's belly; it's as though he's never left Saki's plane and is descending at that insane speed no human should experience. The lump in his throat didn't gradually form the way it does when he's acting -- it just appeared, all at once, because Nezumi's realised something he's been feeling all this time without knowing it.

Lonely: he's been lonely. One decade, all those empty spaces in his heart that he thought were battle scars. Shion's figure blurs before his eyes, shatters and fits into the scars, erasing them. How does that old song Saki always hums go? So shines the sun in Jericho, down upon your soul. That's how it feels to look at Shion.

"Shion," he breathes.

Shion places a bookmark inside the volume before him and looks up.

"Hello," he says, in a voice deeper than Nezumi knows, a lower tenor. Shion's lips form a perfunctory smile -- the sort bestowed upon the children of strangers. "I'm sorry, I believe you have the advantage of me. Have we met?"

Nezumi's ready with a sarcastic retort to Shion's easily anticipated over-emotional outburst, but the meaning of Shion's words strikes him like a slap. He blinks once, closes his mouth, and stops just short of shaking his head in disbelief. Of all the things I thought he might say, that didn't even cross my mind. I've become quite arrogant, haven't I? I didn't even consider that he might've forgotten my face. Maybe even my name. My whole existence. I took too long.

Nezumi fights the urge to shove his hands into the pockets of his coat: it's an obvious defensive gesture. He's so off-guard he doesn't know what role to play. He can't think of any character who can bring him back to solid ground. He's forgotten all his lines.

Nezumi, the world means nothing to me without you. Nothing. Shion said that to him not long before their parting. Nezumi dismissed it, of course: it was a laughably childish sentiment. But he did believe it, heaven help him. He even remembered it.

A warm hand falls on his shoulder.

"How's that for acting ability?" Shion asks, smiling softly, his eyes aglow with the same love Nezumi ran from, the love he refused and forgot and came back here to find.

Shion's hand moves from Nezumi's shoulder to his cheek, so gentle he has a hard time not tilting his head so he can rest against it.

Nezumi moves away from Shion's touch and eases back a step. He's ashamed for having had his guard down. It's been too long since he's seen Shion as a threat, and the first chance Shion got, he took advantage of it.

"That was a cruel thing to do," Nezumi says.

"Cruel?" Shion's eyes go wide. "I thought-- I thought it would amuse you. Mom called and said you were-- Forgive me."

He looks like a pathetic puppy that's done its business on the wrong part of the floor, and Nezumi sniffs. "You thought I'd be amused that you didn't know me? After all I've done for you? For shame, your Majesty."

"No, I thought you'd be amused by my terrible acting," Shion says, giving him a furtive look Nezumi hates on sight. There's no Shion in that look; it is far too sharp. Then it's gone, and Shion sighs. "I've spent so many hours trying to imagine how it would be, if you ever returned, and now I guess I've gone and ruined it, haven't I?"

Nezumi leans closer. "I don't know about ruined, but you've certainly made a terrible first impression."

Shion stares at his mouth. "Can we start over?"

Nezumi gives him the briefest of kisses on the cheek. "We can try to start over."

"We do have two weeks at our disposal," Shion says, walking behind Nezumi. "Please allow me to take your coat, sir."

Nezumi frowns, shrugging out of his coat and letting Shion take it. "What do you mean, two weeks?"

Shion hangs the coat next to his own on an old-fashioned standing rack and then turns to face him again. "Well, we're going to be here for two weeks." He looks at his watch. "Door's already locked."

Nezumi tries the door, but it won't budge. He whirls around to stare at Shion, speechless. Two weeks? He did tell Schwinn to put the word out that he'd be gone a while, but he meant a week at most. He's going to lose so many work opportunities. Why, he might not get back until after Solstice.

Shion peers into his face. "You look upset. Did Mom not tell you?"

"Tell me what?" Nezumi snaps. "Explain."

Shion nods, and Nezumi feels disturbed that there's no sad-puppy look in his eyes. He always used to get that look, before, whenever Nezumi got angry. I haven't seen him for ten years and I'm wishing to still have the power to hurt him? I truly am despicable.

"I don't know where to start," Shion says. "I don't know what you know--?"

"Nothing," Nezumi says, though he's not about to tell Shion that he rushed here as if his hair were on fire. "Explain from the top."

"I consult for the city's Sustainability Committee," Shion says. "That field out there is my current project--"

Nezumi stops him. "You people levelled West Block for a... project?"

Shion gives him a look of absolute horror. "Of course not! There was a cholera outbreak three years ago."

"I thought that was eradicated," Nezumi says. Shion's face is as expressive as ever -- easy to read yet impossible to understand.

"Some strains of pathogenic organisms can form tough shells around themselves and go into suspended animation; we just had no idea this was possible for as long as these lived."

"What happened? Was someone digging for gold and found bacteria, or what?"

"No one knows who patient zero was, but the strain turned out to be aggressive. Three hundred died before people realised it wasn't just flu and raised the alarm. We had a field hospital going near the wall memorial, hazmat suits and all. People were very afraid; there were rumours that the parasitic wasps were back, that the city was secretly run by robots, heaven knows what else."

Nezumi has to fight not to tune Shion out, but he can't help focussing on the strange-familiar way his lips move, and then on the rest of him, so oddly different from before. No more baby fat, sharper eyes, well-used muscles concealed beneath a knitted cardigan fit for a grandmother, and that short hair. He looks like the type of guy the Academy likes casting as soldier extras.

"No one knew where the infection came from, but once we evacuated everyone and isolated the sick and suspect, new cases stopped overnight. A referendum decided that it would be better to burn West Block down, since there's no way to tell where the bacteria came from. We have no available treatments -- those who survived had to beat it on their own."

"What about this place?" Nezumi asks, looking around. "What if it came from here?"

"Impossible," Shion says, then looks guilty. "I bought this land, long ago. No one was allowed down here until after the outbreak started. That was when I-- but I'm getting ahead of myself." Shion gestures to the sofa. "Please, sit down."

Nezumi clicks his tongue in irritation and pushes past Shion to take a seat. It's a good excuse to stop staring at him. "Go on."

"Would you like some tea?"

Nezumi spots an electric kettle on a little footstool stuck between two bookshelf units across from him. The bottom tier of the stool has a small assortment of dishes and two mugs. Next to the sofa, not visible from the entrance, is a mini-freezer.

He looks up at Shion. "Do you live here?"

Shion pulls up the rickety chair Nezumi remembers from the past and places it across from the sofa. "No, but I've kept the lights on."

"I can see that. What were you talking about?"

"Tea?"

"Later. You were telling me that West Block burned."

"Yes. Burned and decontaminated. It took some doing but we worked out a way to house everyone who survived -- the Twilight House in Chronos; it was a death factory before the revolution. City Works overhauled it and now it's called Emerald Apartments. Between it and some other dwellings that were still empty, all the West Block folks had homes."

Nezumi's still stuck on a word Shion just used. "Revolution, huh."

"That's what it was."

"Am I a revolutionary hero, too?" For all that the old No. 6 is gone, Nezumi doesn't like the idea of being considered its saviour.

"Your name was kept out of everything, just as you asked." Shion gives him a long look. "Nobody knows that they owe their lives to you, who hated No. 6 more than anyone. I never felt that was right."

Nezumi waves a hand. "Ancient history. I've got fame coming out of my ears back home."

Shion's eyes flash for an instant. What was that? Pain? Anger? Why?

"Something wrong?" Nezumi asks. Shion's eyes have gone dull.

"No," Shion says. "There is no problem. We went over every inch of the ground with every piece of equipment we had before we isolated the source of the outbreak: part of the basement floor of Inukashi's old hotel had cracked to the foundation, and there was an underground laboratory."

Nezumi, despite himself, has pushed Shion's strange look aside. He leans in. "A lab underneath the hotel and Inukashi's mutts missed it?"

"No, the laboratory was under the foundation itself, there before the hotel. It must have been part of some kind of covert operation, because we found evidence for all sorts of death vectors, though only the cholera strain had hibernated like that. Everything else was dead."

"What did you do?"

"Sent robots to collect everything for analysis, just in case. We tore up all the foundations in the area, to be sure there were no other nasty surprises and took the pieces away for decontamination. Then I had an idea for a project, and got permission to truck in soil from up north to turn the whole area into a field."

"Well, I've got to grant it to you," Nezumi says. "You certainly can lay a mean field, Shion."

"Why, thank you for the compliment," Shion says without missing a beat. "We're working on cultivating hardy winter crops and researching the viability of fertilising crops through precipitation."

Nezumi raises an eyebrow. "Is that why the door's locked? Are you and I supposed to cultivate a crop of hardy little winter humans in here? I hate to be the first to tell you this, Shion, but the two of us lack some important equipment."

Shion doesn't seem to notice Nezumi's attempt at flirtation. "The door's sealed because the passage is filled with six metres of snow. The winter crop's already planted; right now we're trying to find out--"

Nezumi snorts. "Come off it, I was just outside. Not a cloud in sight."

"We don't rely on natural weather. The machines deposit snow at an extremely high rate to ensure it sticks for the duration of the experiment."

"Machines? Weather machines?"

"Yeah, the thin rods all around the perimetre are part of the set-up," Shion explains. Nezumi doesn't remember seeing any rods, but then again, it was dark, and he was in a hurry. Shion scratches his forehead. "Don't you have artificial climate equipment -- uh. At home?"

Nezumi thinks about No. 1, the city that craftspeople built, with its winding streets where no two buildings resemble each other and its barter economy. "No. We do have an old fighter plane that can go faster than a song."

"I see," Shion says, frowning. "Well, I wouldn't call them weather machines, but they do what clouds would if we could control clouds. Over much smaller areas, of course."

Nezumi chuckles. "Of course. You haven't changed at all, have you?"

Shion looks pleased. "What do you mean?"

"Your head's still in the clouds," Nezumi clarifies. "Literally."

"Nezumi."

"What?"

"Were your jokes always this terrible?"

Nezumi shows Shion his teeth. "I'll have you know I've drawn in crowds of hundreds who wanted the privilege of hearing my jokes. So why are we buried under six metres of snow?"

"Nitrogen," Shion says. "The rainwater in this region -- which we collect before it can fall within City limits -- has elevated levels of nitrogen compounds that act as a natural fertiliser. We're trying to see if there's a difference between how much nitrogen gets deposited into the soil over two weeks of snow versus two weeks of controlled rainfall."

"What can you do from in here, though?"

"I come down to look after the books," Shion says. "The demolition work we did to tear up West Block foundations put some cracks along the vault ceiling, and now the snowmelt from the ground starts running down here." He nods at the stack of buckets by the foot of the bed. "I place these to catch wherever it's dripping -- it's never the same place -- and pour it down the shower drain. Nothing exciting."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Nezumi says, honestly. "Just pack the books up and move them somewhere with no leaks."

Shion's eyes turn wistful. "That would be the sensible thing, wouldn't it? I-- I could never bear to leave this place empty, I suppose."

Nezumi wants to ask why -- no, he needs to know why, but asking would reveal too much, and he's still angry with Shion for his 'acting' stunt.

Besides, between the stunt, Shion's secret, furtive look, and the way he becomes morose for no reason, here's another thing that bothers Nezumi. Shion was always disgustingly open about everything he felt. I could never bear to leave this place empty isn't a reason for anything; it's a reason behind the real reason -- namely, the thing Nezumi wants to ask. The old Shion would never use such an obvious trick to evade an honest answer.

I've been trying to tell myself that he hasn't changed at all, seizing upon every familiar gesture as incontrovertible proof, but he's changed. How much? Just how much of this man is Shion?

"Why don't you come here and give me a proper kiss, Shion?" He doesn't mean it. He just wants to get a rise out of him. Or maybe he wants Shion's eyes to shine the way they did before. If that wasn't just wishful thinking.

Shion smiles with just his lips. "Let's not."

"Let's not kiss?"

Shion's smile widens, but his eyes remain cold. Then the smile fades. "Let's not pretend, Nezumi."

Nezumi's heart plummets. "Pretend?"

"Like there's anything here." Shion gestures at the space between them.

"There's a table," Nezumi offers. "That's a thing."

Shion nods. "I suppose you're right. Would you like some tea now?"

That's it? You're going to agree with me and offer me tea? I was acting obtuse on purpose.

Nezumi looks away. His insides roll with unease: he's scared. Scared that the ignorant, idealistic, stupidly earnest Shion he knew is gone -- replaced by this man with dull eyes that are too kind and hide that shifting, sidelong look that Nezumi just can't like, it doesn't matter how fucking gorgeous he is. Shion was here at first, but at some point during their conversation, he... changed. Oh, yes -- when Nezumi mentioned No. 1. Did I mention it by name? No, I said back home. I think I did.

"I'm sorry," Shion says. "I'm not being very fair."

Nezumi glances at him. Shion's hands lie clasped tightly in his lap, and his eyes find Nezumi's.

"I thought you came here tonight because you wanted to spend two weeks with me. That turned out not to be the case, and I was disappointed, but still I thought you had come back to me." Shion's head drops even lower. "But you have a home."

That's what it was. "One does not preclude the other," Nezumi says, but Shion's either not listening or doesn't understand what he means.

"You told me we were different," Shion says. "You said you were a drifter and I was stationary, and that made us incompatible. Do you remember?"

Nezumi doesn't. He remembers throwing every excuse he could think of at Shion to make him stop asking Nezumi to stay. Every time he asked, it was that much harder to refuse. "I guess," he says.

"So I thought -- well, I thought that if you ever got tired of being a drifter and wanted to become stationary, you'd come back to me. When I saw you in the doorway, I was so happy, and when you said you had a home already, I-- I didn't expect that. I didn't expect it to upset me."

Nezumi frowns. "Sounds like you figured out for yourself I was supposed to do to, and now you're angry that I didn't."

"I'm not angry," Shion says. "I-- just, I waited for you."

"I didn't ask you to." The words are out even though Nezumi knows it's the wrong thing to say -- he's not an arrogant sixteen-year-old made entirely of sharp edges -- but he's on the defensive, and he can't just throw that off.

Either way, it's too late to try and correct the course: Shion flinches, and colour rises in his cheeks. "I know you didn't ask me to. I didn't say you owed me anything in return." He looks like he's about to continue speaking, but a shadow crosses his face and his expression changes. "Let's just not do this. It doesn't matter anyway."

Nezumi has played dozens of characters with all sorts of personalities, but he doesn't know how to back down, how to avoid escalation. On the stage, the more dramatic, the better -- but that won't work here. He wants to talk about it. It's the whole reason he's come here. Yet he doesn't know how, and if he pushes Shion any further, he might break his heart. It's in Shion's voice.

"Okay," he mutters, as tonelessly as possible. "I'll have some tea, then."

"Black or green?"

"Black," Nezumi says, stretching as he takes another look around. "Please." The last time he drank a hot beverage inside these four walls was ten years ago. Boiled water, plain. Add a little bit of sugar, and it was the height of luxury. Yet somehow those days, with all their misery, feel like a happier time than this silence he can't break right.

The book Shion was reading catches Nezumi's eye: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers. Shion moves the tome out of the way and empties the tray he's assembled with uncanny speed. Kettle, mugs, a wooden box full of tea bags, and a round cookie tin.

Nezumi pours hot water over a teabag and pushes the mug aside to wait for it to steep. He peers into the tin, which contains bite-sized pieces of hard-baked dough rolled in tiny white seeds. He takes one gingerly and sniffs; he has to bring it really close to his face to discern a delicate hint of burnt sugar. He bites it in half, holding the second half between his fingers. Crumbly and just sweet enough to be satisfying, not cloying. It's been a while since Nezumi's eaten anything prepared with so much care. He doesn't even notice popping the rest of the cookie into his mouth -- then it's gone, and he's left with a craving for another.

"It's good, right?" Shion asks, watching him anxiously from behind a mug clasped between his hands. His elbows are balanced on his knees. He looks uncomfortable.

"As expected of your mom," Nezumi says with an appreciative nod.

Shion puts the mug down and clears his throat. "Actually, I made those."

Nezumi, who was reaching for another, pauses. He doesn't understand why he feels so awkward. It's as though Shion has tricked him by waiting to see what he thought of the cookies before revealing they were his handiwork. But anyone would wait: opinion of a work without the influence of knowing who produced it is bound to be less biased, and Shion values honesty more than anything.

Nezumi keeps his tone light. "I wouldn't have held back if they tasted terrible. You should've just told me you made them." Does Shion think he would have lied?

"I'm sorry," Shion says. "That's not why, I-- I just didn't think you'd want any if I told you."

Nezumi feels as though he's received one of Saki's right hooks of love, straight to the gut. He thinks I'd refuse his food? "They're delicious," he says. "You'll make somebody a fine husband one day."

Shion looks gut-punched, and Nezumi wonders why it is that out of all the many glib compliments at his disposal, he had to pick the one with the most backhand in it. He didn't come all this way to needle Shion. It's as if these very walls are infusing Nezumi with the essence of what he used to be. L'esprit de angry teenager.

This isn't how their long-awaited reunion was supposed to go. I took too long.

He takes another cookie.

"I could make something else, if you're hungry," Shion says.

"No, thanks." He's not hungry at all, which is strange -- he hasn't eaten since breakfast. Ever since he stepped into Lost Town, he's felt like it's the night before a premiere. He swallows the second cookie. "Tell me, what's the deal with the dogs?"

Shion blows on his tea. "Dogs?"

"Yeah. I saw these dogs in little hats in Lost Town."

"Oh! The police dogs," Shion says, beaming. "They've been around for so long that I forgot it would look unusual to someone from outside."

Nezumi fishes the tea bag out and puts it down on a saucer Shion's prepared. "Police? The dogs are the police?"

"Yeah."

Nezumi tries the tea, but it's scalding, so he puts it down. "But they're animals. They don't know right from wrong."

"They're the police, not judges. A police force is meant to protect the citizens from crime, but who are they protecting the citizens from?" Shion takes a sip of his tea and sets the mug down, looking at Nezumi all teacher-like.

Nezumi decides to play along. "The other citizens, obviously. If it were non-citizens, that's for the military."

"Right. Isn't it a conflict of interest that citizens are protecting citizens against other citizens? If a police officer decides to commit a crime, who's going to stop him?"

"That's when you have a special task force to investigates police."

"What if everyone on that task force is in the pocket of a politician?"

Nezumi shrugs. "That's just the risk you take, isn't it? Corruption is an inevitability in human societies. You plan for it and hope it doesn't mess you up too much."

"I disagree," Shion says. "I think people become corrupt because for some reason they can't be happy. Yoming was like that."

"Yoming?" Nezumi thinks of a loudspeaker, but he can't remember a face to go with it.

"Someone who was involved in the rebuilding back at the start," Shion says. "He's not a bad person, but he lost his family to No. 6, and he just couldn't be happy any more. He tried to make himself rich at the expense of others, thinking wealth would plug up the hole in his soul. Love is necessary. People who become unable to love are the saddest people in the world."

Nezumi thinks of the ache of loneliness receding from his heart as soon as he laid eyes on Shion and wonders if maybe he's onto something. Just sitting here like this and talking about the preposterous idea of dog police is enough to make him forget the situation he's in, his work, his past, his everything. It's like hanging out with Saki, only he doesn't want to make out with Saki.

Shion continues. "Dogs aren't going to try to get rich. Give a dog a full belly, a safe place to sleep, and human attention, and he will be the happiest dog you can imagine. They don't have it in them to be corrupt."

"Neither do snails, but you're not putting snails in charge of the phones at the precinct. I hope."

"If snails could talk to people and assist with inquiries, I would," Shion snaps. "Laugh all you want, but we took corruption out of a huge part of the public safety equation. Of course, it's not all dogs -- they can't talk to witnesses or take statements if a crime is committed. And we had to change a bunch of laws -- the ones that required all attendant police to testify at citizen trials, for example -- but it's been working out just fine. Dogs are incredibly clever. Once you train a dog a certain way, he'll know what to do in every situation you've prepared him for. If he's not prepared, he'll come to you for instructions."

Nezumi takes a deep drink of his tea. Suffused by the warmth down to his fingertips, he doesn't even feel like playing devil's advocate. "You sound like Inukashi."

Shion smiles. "It was Inukashi's idea, now that you mention it. We had a conversation much like this one at the time."

Nezumi snorts. "So is Inukashi like the police chief now?"

"Inukashi and Shionn run the dog division, yes. Schooling, housing, food..."

"You put a baby in charge of your police dog training? I weep for the future of your streets."

"What are you talking about, Nezumi? Shionn's already eleven years old."

Right. "Time has a tendency to pass for others just as it does for us, huh?" Nezumi murmurs. Eleven. That's only a year younger than we were when I first met Shion. Then it was flight, and West Block, his plans for revenge, and the little mice. With aching clarity, he remembers where his superfibre cloth went. He wrapped Hamlet and Cravat in it before he buried them.

"What happened to Tsukiyo?" he blurts.

Shion drinks the last of his tea. "He died -- two years after you left. I kept telling him he just had to hang on a little longer, but you didn't come back." Shion doesn't sound accusing at all, yet Nezumi feels an unvoiced accusation between them. He resolutely ignores it and finishes his tea as well. If Shion expects him to feel guilty for taking too long to come back, he'll wait a long time.

"Are you sure you don't want any food?" Shion asks.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Nezumi says. "The tea's made me sleepy, though." He eyes the bed.

"Go ahead," Shion says.

Nezumi lies down as he is -- it's too cold in this place to take any clothes off, and his boots are already by the door. Shion clears away the tea things, then crouches down beside the bed and pulls out a large clear bag, out of which comes a thick, bright red blanket that rivals even Nezumi's duvet at home. Shion straightens, shakes it out, and moves to cover Nezumi with it, then bunches the blanket awkwardly between both hands and proffers it to Nezumi. "Here. It's very warm."

"What about you?" Nezumi asks. "Are you going to sleep?"

"There's two blankets," Shion says. "An extra pillow, too. I'll be fine."

Nezumi smiles. "Don't want to share the blanket with me? I see how it is."

Shion looks puzzled. "A bit difficult to share a blanket when you're here and I'm on the sofa."

Nezumi sits up and glares at him. "Why are you treating me like a guest?"

Shion lowers his eyes. He bends to pull another zippered bag from under the bed and kills the light by pulling on the string switch. Nezumi's eyes take a few moment to adjust to the dark; Shion is already getting under the second blanket on the sofa.

"Shion."

Shion doesn't answer him.

Nezumi pulls the red blanket over his head.

No one sleeps in my bed except me.

It sounded so cool just hours ago, and now it is more of a lonely plea.

~

When he wakes to the smell of fried eggs and strong coffee, he thinks he's back at that bed-and-breakfast just inside the walls of No. 4 where he got the bad news about the three sisters from Mao.

"Good morning, Nezumi," Shion says from the sofa, with a smile so achingly sweet Nezumi closes his eyes again. "Did you sleep okay?" What about last night? Did I imagine that... whatever it was?

"Fine," Nezumi says, burrowing back under the blanket. "It's cold."

Shion shrugs helplessly. "Sorry. They can only spare so much power for this place, so everything runs at reduced levels. The shower has a gas heater, though, and the City hardly uses gas, so there's as much hot water as you want."

Nezumi sniffs the air and eyes the stove. "Is there enough food for both of us?"

"Yeah, it's mostly freeze-dried. The coffee's instant, but not bad. Not like that canned stuff they sell at train stations, bleh." Shion sticks his tongue out.

This Shion is a different person compared to the Shion who gave him the silent treatment last night.

An electronic sound warbles from Shion's cardigan, and he snatches a personal communicator out of a pocket. "Shion." He listens for a few moments. "Uh-huh. Who did?" He laughs. "Yeah, thanks for that." Pause. "Of course, I will. Please tell Saurabh I said hello. Bye."

"Is that thing always on?" Nezumi asks as Shion pockets the device again.

"Well, yes," Shion says. "I may not look like much to you, but I've got a pretty busy life."

"Get them to send someone to dig me out," Nezumi says, ignoring the barb. "I'm sure it won't ruin your experiment."

"Ruin, maybe not, but it will compromise it, and the Sustainability Committee isn't swimming in funds, so you'll just have to stay put. That's what you get for not listening to Mom. Do you want to eat before or after you shower?"

Nezumi eyes the door to the bathroom. He hasn't had a shower in years -- No. 1 only has communal bathing; the constant architectural projects being built on top of other projects precludes things like indoor plumbing. His own plumbing chooses that moment to remind him of its existence, and he remembers the most wonderful thing about this little vault he used to call home: the flushable toilet. He's done his business in an outhouse for so long he's forgotten there were much more dignified ways of answering nature's calls.

"I'll shower," he says. "But I didn't pack a towel." He didn't pack anything. He just up and went back to No. 6 on a whim, and now he's stuck here for two weeks without so much as a toothbrush.

"There's a clean towel on the other side of the door," Shion says, turning the stovetop heat dial down a little. "The purple toothbrush is yours."

~

Nezumi steps out of the bathroom wrapped in a huge fluffy towel and feeling like what he imagines those chanting monks from the steps of the Citadel must experience when they sing their praises to their god: transformed and uplifted.

"Keep the door open so it airs out," Shion instructs without looking up from his plant book. An empty plate sits on the sofa's armrest; he's eaten alone. No wonder -- Nezumi took almost an hour.

"You don't have to tell me that," Nezumi grouses, but his heart isn't in it. He feels too wonderful to be annoyed: he's just had a real, hot shower in complete privacy. Nothing could possibly ruin his good mood.

Or so he thinks until he looks around for his hair brush and cannot see it. Obviously, since he did not pack one of those, either.

"Your hair's so long," Shion says. "I didn't realise it-- um. It's beautiful."

"It's a pain," Nezumi says, turning to the coat rack to raid his pockets. He hopes for a measly comb but finds only lint and a ticket stub from last year's Solstice gala. "I'll have to cut it off if it gets too tangled, so tell me you have a brush I can use. Even a comb will do."

"I keep my hair short so I don't need one."

Nezumi makes a face. "Well, then give me a sharp knife. I may as well get rid of it now and save myself the grief."

"C-Can I try?"

"What? Cutting off my hair?"

"No, untangling it." Shion holds up his hands. "I have these." He pats the sofa next to him. "If I'm no good, I'll get you your knife."

Nezumi pauses. Shion being involved in any part of his grooming process has never occurred to him, and he doesn't know how he feels about it. He's still profoundly confused by Shion's changeable moods. Last night he was full of brooding angst. This morning he's all smiles and calm self-assurance.

There's also the matter of what Nezumi is wearing.

He washed out his underwear and hung it on the laundry rack inside the bathroom, and he doesn't fancy putting on his street clothes without underwear. Clean underwear was never a problem when he used to live here: he neither had the luxury nor didn't care. He wore the same clothes for weeks in those days, as did Shion. They didn't have hot water to shower with, either. But now Shion is really hot, and Nezumi's become used to a certain level of comfort, so this situation is troublesome no matter how he looks at it. He doesn't want to hang around Shion in a towel, nor does he want to wear wet underpants. But he doesn't want to lose his hair the most.

"I-- um, I'll just keep this on," he mutters, sitting down on the edge of the sofa with his back to Shion. He folds a corner of the towel over the edge near the top of his chest to secure it, but keeps his hand on it just in case.

At first Nezumi snaps every time Shion pulls too hard, and then he gets used to it. Then Shion gets the hang of it, and the snags stop. Nezumi relaxes as Shion's hands steadily move up the entire length of his hair. His fingertips brush against Nezumi's upper back, against his shoulder blade, against his nape. Nothing about this is supposed to be sexual, yet if Shion were to casually request a blowjob right now, Nezumi would kneel faster than Shion could unzip.

"What's wrong?" Shion asks, smoothing a hand down the right side of Nezumi's hair, like petting a very long cat.

"Nothing," Nezumi says, feeling guilty. "Why?"

"Your breathing changed."

That's because I was thinking about putting my mouth on your dick. "Uh-huh, sure."

"Your hair's so soft," Shion murmurs. Something in the pitch of his voice makes Nezumi's heart pick up even more speed. If he doesn't find a distraction as soon as he can, his lizard brain is going to cause him a great deal of embarrassment. It's not news to him that he wants Shion, but he doesn't think trying to score a quick orgasm off Shion right this minute is a wise move.

Shion's not the flavour of the week; he's important.

"What happened to your bid for mayor?" he asks, desperate for any topic of conversation.

Shion's hands pause. "There isn't a mayor any more. The citizens decided that the position was tainted, after all those years of deceit. Who told you I ran for mayor?"

"Figure of speech," Nezumi explains. He doesn't care about politics and has never bothered to learn any of the weird terminology they use. "Last night you told me you were on some environmental committee, but then you talked about changing the police force."

Shion rakes his fingers through the thicket of hair resting against Nezumi's mid-back, and Nezumi hopes Shion doesn't notice his shiver. "I used to serve on the Restructuring Committee, which later became City Council."

"What happened?"

"I retired after four years."

"I gathered as much. Why did you retire? Did something happen?"

Shion just continues brushing out Nezumi's hair with his fingertips, leaving Nezumi wondering if he asked those last questions or just thought about asking them. Polite society would expect him to apologise for prying in such a situation, but fuck polite society. He and Shion may have parted ways long ago, but they've been through enough together to not stand on ceremony.

"I began to change," Shion says after a while. His undertone is so bitter that Nezumi's glad he can't see his face, for he's sure it must look pained. "I was changing so much, sometimes I didn't recognise myself."

A chill runs through Nezumi, and he recalls meeting Shion's father about a year after he left No. 6. He doesn't remember what that man said to him, but it was something along the lines of change being inevitable for people who are put in charge. Did that guy ever find his way back here?

"I wasn't making bad decisions or anything," Shion said, gathering Nezumi's hair at the nape of his neck. "It'll get less tangled later if I put it in a braid, is that okay?"

"Huh? Oh. Sure." Nezumi usually wears a high ponytail, but a braid is an even better idea, and he's surprised he's never thought of it before. "Where did you learn how to braid hair?"

"My mother taught me. Shionn wears his hair long, and he liked to have seven braids when he was smaller. I spent a lot of time with him after I retired."

Nezumi smirks. "You retired from babysitting No. 6 to babysitting a brat? Seems like a step up."

"Well, something like that. Anyway, it wasn't a dramatic exit if that's what you mean. I didn't like the person I was becoming, so I left Council. It was all quite amicable"

Nezumi cranes his neck to look at him. "Power get to your head?"

"Don't fidget," Shion admonishes. "It's more complicated than that."

"What about the promise you made to," -- Nezumi searches for the name -- "Safu?"

"I'm committed to keeping it," Shion says. "Just on my own terms. Safu wouldn't have wanted me to change." He lets go of Nezumi's hair. "There, all done. Tie the end so it doesn't fall apart."

"Thanks," Nezumi says. He should go and tie his hair, but just sitting by Shion's side like this is relaxing. He is comforted by Shion's voice, his quiet breathing, his entire presence.

"Aren't you going to get dressed?"

Nezumi glances in the direction of the bathroom. "My underwear's still wet."

"You didn't bring anything with you, did you?" Shion turns Nezumi partway around by the shoulder. His hand is warm. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"

Nezumi laughs, a little too high-pitched. He wishes Shion wouldn't move his hand away. "No, I'm not. I've just got a strange knack for leaping before I look when it comes to you."

Shion beams, releasing his shoulder. "You did come back here to see me."

"I wanted to see what you've become."

"I'm sorry this is all you got," Shion says, his look turning wry. "I might have a solution to your underwear problem, though."

"What, you'll let me borrow yours?"

Shion's eyebrows shoot up. "Would you wear mine?"

"You still wear Y-fronts?"

"Yes."

"Then no."

"Why not?"

"They make my ass look weird."

Shion rolls his eyes. "I'm not going to look at your ass."

"I don't care if you look at it or not. I'll know it looks weird."

"You're still such a diva, I swear."

Nezumi turns around even more and surveys him haughtily. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It's always your way or the highway with you."

Nezumi turns up his nose. "That's because my way is always better."

"Well, my way won't mess with your ass fashion. If you hate it, you can take it off." Shion kneels between the sofa and the table and dives under the bed.

"Ass fashion? Such crude language from a dignitary, frankly I am shocked," Nezumi intones.

Shion emerges slightly dishevelled with a roll of white cloth about a handspan wide, which he presents to Nezumi.

"What would you like me to do with this?" Nezumi asks, turning it over in his hand.

"You can wear it as a loincloth."

Nezumi stares at him. "...Yes?"

Shion nods. "Yeah, it's easy. I can show you."

Nezumi considers his options. One, prance around in a towel until his underpants dry, which won't be for hours. Two, go commando in tight trousers. Three, put on wet underpants. He sighs. "Hurry up and show me. It's cold."

"I'll have to stand behind you," Shion says, taking the cloth out of Nezumi's hand. "I don't know how to put one on from the front since I've only put it on myself."

Nezumi is glad that Shion isn't going to be fondling his genitals at full frontal, but he keeps the thought to himself, because thinking about Shion and fondling in this way is starting to rearrange the landscape under the towel. He hasn't felt this turned on by the mere idea of sex in a long time. He gets to his feet, and the shock of the cold floor against his bare soles is enough to curb his dick's enthusiasm.

"You'll need to take the towel off," Shion says. "I'll be quick."

"That's what he said," Nezumi mutters.

Shion either doesn't know the joke or doesn't care. He reaches around Nezumi's shoulder with one hand and presses one end of the cloth against his shoulder. "Hold that there."

Nezumi complies, and Shion releases the cloth to dangle to the floor. "Put your hand over the cloth where your private parts are."

"I'd like you to put a little more authority into your voice, Shion. If we're going to engage in that sort of play, let's do it with feeling."

Shion sighs. "This'll go a lot faster without the wisecracks. Move your legs a little farther apart." Nezumi does so, and Shion reaches between them to pull the hanging end of the cloth back and up Nezumi's ass crack. "Is that okay? Adjust it so it feels comfortable."

Nezumi sticks the loose end under his chin and uses his free hand to tug the cloth a little to the left.

"That'll do." The cloth starts to pull and tighten; Nezumi glances over his shoulder to see, and finds Shion twisting the cloth with the absent-minded look of a man who knows what he's doing. Once he twists the cloth all the way to the end, Shion loops it around Nezumi's waist, on top of the flat cloth pressed against Nezumi's belly. His movements are spare, mechanical, and Nezumi wonders if he might be sexually indifferent. If someone Nezumi wants were to stand this close in front of him bare-ass naked, he'd at least breathe a bit heavier.

About as heavy as he's breathing right now, in fact, because Shion's tugging on the twisted cloth in the sort of unceremonious way that pleases Nezumi; he likes incongruencies, and Shion's gentle, apologetic nature is at odds with the way he's manhandling Nezumi into this loincloth.

"Let go of the loose end and smooth it down however you like it," Shion instructs.

Nezumi almost tells him to do it himself, but refrains. Barely. Being manhandled by Shion may feel kind of nice, but he doesn't like being told what to do. Still, he obeys. As much as he wants Shion to touch him, now is not the time. Shion pulls the end back through his legs, then twists, tugs, and tucks it with speed even Nezumi's reflexes can't follow. I hope he doesn't expect me to remember how to do this.

"Done." Shion's fingertips caress the burn scar on Nezumi's back.

Nezumi shivers. "Don't."

Shion pulls back. "I'm sorry."

I'm the one who's sorry, Nezumi thinks. That soft touch alone should have been excuse enough to turn around and steal at least a kiss. He pokes at the twists of fabric on his hips. "Will this come unravelled if I take it off like normal underwear?"

"It shouldn't," Shion says. "If it's to pee, you can just take it out in front."

Nezumi catches his eye. "Gonna show me a special way to do that?"

Shion blushes all the way to the roots of his white hair. "Don't make fun of me."

Nezumi holds his hands up. "Hey, I was just wondering. It's comfortable, though I feel like my ass cheeks aren't covered even a little."

"It's a good look on you," Shion says, staring shamelessly at his backside.

Nezumi's cheeks tingle with unexpected warmth. He's used to being flirted with and even leered at, but he's never expected either to come from Shion. He retreats into the bathroom to put his clothes on and cool his face against the shower tiles.

-

Nezumi learns how to put the loincloths on by the third day, and he can't tell if Shion is pleased for him or disappointed that he doesn't get to play underpants instructor any more.

They tend to start their days apart and then gravitate towards each other: if Shion's talking shop on the sofa and Nezumi's reading on the bed, either Shion will eventually come and sit down beside Nezumi to ask if he's hungry, or Nezumi will casually plant himself on the sofa and lean against Shion's side with his back. It's warmer like that. The vault's walls retains heat from the stove quite well, but the cracks in the ceiling leach it away -- it's not miserable, but it's better together.

They talk, a lot -- at first, Shion catches him up on the doings of No. 6 besides what he's already told him.

Rikiga died of a heart attack last year, the lifestyle of his West Block years having caught up to him. He's left everything to Shion, who still has no earthly idea what he's supposed to do with a printing company, a publishing company, an auction house, and a fast food chain. Shion's been letting the existing managers run things while he keeps an eye on the books.

"Asking to be taken advantage of," Nezumi says, shutting Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and placing it on the table.

"You're the one who taught me to delegate," Shion objects. "If you don't know how to do something, pay someone to do it for you. I can't micromanage four companies on top of my regular work."

"Get people you trust installed in key positions," Nezumi says, settling against Shion. "Don't just trust whoever Rikiga trusted. Or you'll end up like Schwinn, this guy I know. He always brags about knowing people who know people, but of course when anyone deals with him, they don't treat him any better just because he's a friend of a friend. So he always ends up at a disadvantage. The world's too small: you've got to have friends."

Shion pulls open the green blanket he's been using to cover his lap and spreads it over Nezumi's knees, too. "That's a depressing reason to have a friend."

"Why do you have friends?"

"Because love is necessary," Shion says. "If you care about as many people as you can, you never run out of love."

"That's just spreading your caring way too thin."

Shion shakes his head firmly. "We don't just stop having feelings once we've given ours to some number of people."

"Sure we do," Nezumi says, curling his legs up under the blanket so his knees touch Shion's thigh. "No such thing as an infinite resource."

"Love isn't like that. It's like the heart: it will keep going as long as it can. Once it stops, your life ends. If you run out of love, it's the same, except you keep on living -- but you only live for yourself."

Like a cockroach, Nezumi thinks. To Shion, he says, "So what about the people who created No. 6? The poor things, if only they'd had someone to love, they might not have caused the suffering and death of untold thousands? Your way of looking at things is still too idealistic." Which is kind of a relief, to be honest.

"I do think those people only loved themselves, which isn't enough."

Nezumi sighs, exasperated. "Haven't you got an answer for everything. If you can't run out of love, why do some people abandon their friends and leave their families?"

"That's not running out. That's just stopping. You can stop loving somebody if they give you a reason."

Nezumi doesn't like the direction the conversation is going, because he has a nasty feeling Shion's about to brighten and, in that Gifted Programme voice of his, say something like take you and me, for example. I stopped loving you a long time ago. He casts about for another topic. "Speaking of people abandoning their families, I ran into your old man once."

Shion's nose wrinkles for a fleeting moment. "He showed up at the bakery back when I was still on Council, talking about all the rare metals just waiting to be dug up out of the ground around here."

Nezumi peers closer at his eyes. "You don't sound like there's any love lost between you and that progenitor of yours."

Shion shrugs. "Like we were talking about earlier, you can stop loving a person. Or you can choose not to love them in the first place. I have no obligation to love a sperm donor."

"Don't tell me he tried to mistreat you." The idea alone makes Nezumi wish he'd killed the shifty-eyed bastard. Years ago, Shion did care about his father, at least to some extent.

"Nothing like that," Shion says. "He did try to bully me into convincing Council to give him permission and a team of workers to start an excavation in the north."

"And?"

"That land belongs to Sasori's people. I told him to go ask Sasori."

"Sasori, huh?" Nezumi remembers the face, but even the name reeks of danger. "Did he do it?"

"I don't know," Shion says. "He went off to the north in high spirits and he hasn't been seen since. That was seven years ago."

Nezumi, at a loss for words, retrieves Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea from the table and goes back to reading. Shion rests his head on Nezumi's shoulder and tries to read along upside down, but eventually falls asleep.

~

Once they run out of local news, Shion pesters Nezumi to tell him about the things he's seen. Nezumi's already told him a bunch of stuff -- about Saki, and Schwinn, and the many differences in living standards between No. 1 and what Shion knows.

He tells Shion about the Citadel of Severed Dreams, a building that will never be finished because every brick is made of the ashes of a dead resident. No. 1 couldn't spare any territory for proper cemeteries -- arable land in the area was too precious at the city's inception. So they built a ceremonial hall where cremations take place, after which masons craft a brick using the deceased's ashes, carve their name and dates of life on it, and add it to the growing circular structure: a roofless, massive tower, the Citadel is the heart of the city even though it's on the outskirts.

"It's called the Citadel of Severed Dreams because No. 1 is the City of Dreams," Nezumi explains to a sincerely wide-eyed Shion. "When a person dies, the dream they were living out in the city is suddenly cut off."

Shion sips tea. "It's grey, right?"

"What, the Citadel?"

Shion nods. "If the bricks are made out of ashes, then it's got to be grey."

"Grey is the usual colour, but sometimes families will ask for special colours to be added that were important to the deceased. Children are always singing in the Citadel, too, and families ask the choir directors for special performances during their loved ones' ceremonies. The bricks aren't all the same size, either -- some people leave more ashes than others, so they end up with bigger bricks."

"I'd like to see it one day," Shion says. "We hardly ever get news of the other city-states here. I didn't even know there was such a thing in this world."

Nezumi toys with the idea of inviting Shion to come and visit No. 1 with him when they get outside. He wonders what kind of face Shion would make and glances at him. They're side by side on the sofa again, their knees drawn up, the green blanket wrapped around their backs and shoulders. Either Shion or Nezumi keep tugging on their own end of the blanket periodically, and each time they end up pressed closer together.

"Speaking of the singing children," Shion says. "Were you able to find any other Singers in your travels?"

Nezumi tells him about the three sisters from his village and their sad demise. "I don't know if any of them were Singers. I haven't found any more Forest People. With time, Sasori's people may become the seed that sprouts into a new forest tribe, Singers and all."

"You must have been so sad about these women from your village. You could have tried to continue the tradition."

Shion says it with perfect equanimity, and it vexes Nezumi: shouldn't he be jealous? It's clear to him by now that Shion's far from indifferent to him; they haven't exactly discussed it but Shion remains hopelessly easy to read.

"You say really strange things," he says, sitting up straighter. "Even if I had children with each one of them, where are those children supposed to find Forest People to mate with? Marrying your kin isn't the best evolutionary strategy."

"I don't mean continue the bloodline, but the Singer tradition. It's a genetic thing, right? Between the four of you, even if you all had offspring with outsiders to the tribe, one of those unions might have produced a Singer. Even if none of the sisters were, they probably still have the potential DNA. Rare but recurring individual phenomena in most vertebrates usually arise due to genes present but dormant in the whole population."

"It has nothing to do with human genetics," Nezumi says. "If it did, wouldn't there be other Singers around? I live in the city with the highest concentration of artists in the world, and I've never heard another Singer voice."

"Maybe you're right," Shion says.

"How about you?" Nezumi asks. "You've got yourself a field and all, but what about sowing your seeds?" He's feeling vindictive and being completely petty; he knows, yet he can't prevent it. Shion has once again completely messed him up inside.

The account ledger Shion was looking at earlier slides from his knees to the floor, and Shion bends down to pick it up. "I've been busy. Haven't thought about that kind of thing."

Not going to talk about waiting for me, are you? Ever since Shion said they shouldn't pretend there was anything between them, he's been nothing but warm, but it isn't the right warmth. Not the kind Nezumi wants.

It's been a week since Nezumi walked in here: there are already three buckets on the floor to catch the snowmelt. Every day they spend a little more time close together. Shion's sleeping on the bed with him now, even -- and it's so much warmer like this, sharing a blanket. Nezumi likes being able to sleep in pyjamas, even if they're borrowed from Shion and too short in the legs and sleeves. They're better than street clothes. When he thinks back to how life in this room used to be ten years ago, he has to admit to himself that in many ways, he's grown soft.

The feeling of lying next to Shion wishing things were different, wishing he would touch him is still familiar even after ten years. In the past, he was too proud to be the first, clinging to the fantasy that he didn't care for Shion at all, not even a little. Now, although he can tell Shion wants him, he's sure Shion will refuse him all the same, and Nezumi's too proud for that. Even a repeat of the last time -- fumbling and awkward -- would do, but Shion never tries. They sleep side by side, or with their backs touching, but even in sleep Shion hasn't reached for Nezumi once.

He'd sooner agree to be a sexy rabbit in booty shorts than let Shion know any of this, though. So instead he tells him stories.

The festivals and craft bazaars of No. 1; the lights in the sky over No. 2; No. 3 and its ambitions to reach the Moon; hearing whalesong near the ports of No. 4. Nowhere is the slow rebirth of nature as apparent as in the sea. He spent little time in No. 5; Nezumi will always think it guilty by association due to its close diplomatic ties with No. 6. Stories of the village that would not be home. Stories he's been hoarding without realising, as though he knew that one day he'd have someone to tell them to.

"You should write a book," Shion tells him on the tenth day. All seven buckets sit on the floor; sometimes it's a challenge to move around. "I don't think there's a single person in the world who's seen as much as you."

"You write the book," Nezumi replies with a small smile. "I'll star in the holo-show based on it."

Shion's face bears a soft, pleased flush, and Nezumi wants to kiss him.

"Why can't you bear to leave this place empty?" he asks -- to distract himself, and because he wants to know.

Shion swallows his mouthful of mushroom bake and smiles a wistful smile. "You'll laugh."

"I won't."

Shion puts his fork down and looks aside. "It's stupid, but this is the only place where I can be with you even if you aren't here."

Nezumi's heart starts pounding, and he bites his lip. He'd like to laugh despite his promise -- to cover up his discomposure -- but this is the first thing Shion has said since day one that acknowledges the... whatever it is they had once. That they maybe still have. If Nezumi laughs now, Shion will retreat to his mental fortress for another week or seven.

Ten years ago, he would have laughed at anyone who called him soft, and now he's desperate to prove that he has changed. Softened up. More than anything he wants to see Shion's open, honest eyes again -- the boy that was, not the politician, retired or not. His eyes are always very careful nowadays.

Shion used to turn everyone into family, wherever he went. Not by declaring that they were family, but treating everyone as if they already were. People responded to that -- even battle-scarred, tough characters like Inukashi. Nezumi himself. Not just people, either -- Nezumi's mice, Inukashi's dogs, the wild rats beneath the Correctional Facility. Even maintenance robots.

Love is necessary.

In the end, Nezumi can't come up with anything to say, and Shion goes back to his food with a bland smile.

The next night, Nezumi wakes from a hazy nightmare to find himself pressed up against Shion's back, his hand resting loosely on Shion's hip. He removes it, muttering a reflexive apology; he's sure Shion can't hear him.

"It's okay," Shion says. "It wasn't on purpose. You were asleep."

"Why aren't you asleep?" Nezumi mumbles.

"A lot of things on my mind."

It's the return of the morose and gloomy Shion. Somewhere in the darkness, a drop of snowmelt plops into one of the buckets with a hollow splash. Nezumi leans over to kiss Shion's neck without any real thought; it's there, and it smells so good, and he wants to.

"Please don't."

Nezumi lifts his mouth away from Shion's soft skin. He's so chagrined and embarrassed that he's wide awake. "Why not?"

"I don't want you to. Isn't that reason enough?"

Nezumi draws away, as far as the narrow bed lets him. "I don't mean it like that. You told me you were waiting for me."

"What I've been doing has nothing to do with it. I don't want your pity."

"Since when have you known me to be the sort of man who takes pity?"

"Go back to sleep, Nezumi."

In the morning, Shion is all about good cheer, as though nothing happened. Nezumi can't understand why Shion doesn't want to talk about it.

By the evening, he's finished the final volume of The Accursed Kings and reached a conclusion: sometimes the only way to understand is to ask.

"Shion."

"Yeah?" Shion looks up from scribbling in one of his many colour-coded notebooks.

"Look, last night--"

"Are you hungry? I'm hungry. What should we eat?"

"We just had dinner less than an hour ago."

"I guess I didn't eat enough."

"It's not pity," Nezumi presses. "I want--"

Shion takes his communicator out and punches a button. "Mala-san, could you put me through to your manager? No, voice only, I don't get enough bandwidth for video down here. Thank you."

Nezumi stomps off into the shower. He took one that morning, but he didn't wash his hair, so it's a good enough excuse.

"I'll do your hair," Shion offers when he comes out.

"No, it's fine."

"But why, I thought--"

"I don't want you touching me," Nezumi snaps. "Do you need a better reason?"

Shion bows his head. "I'm sorry."

"If you're so sorry, don't treat me like some kind of doll. You can't just take me out of a drawer, play with my hair, then ignore me until you're bored again."

"It's not like that," Shion mutters. "I don't know how to explain."

"What did you mean by pity? Why would I pity you? You're the person I respect the most."

"You don't understand."

"Then explain it to me."

"I told you. I don't know how."

Shion's communicator beeps, and he grabs it so quickly he's clearly glad for the excuse. Nezumi, having just taken a shower, doesn't have anywhere to storm off to without making it look like he is storming off, so he turns his back to Shion, furious.

"Yes? That's-- yeah, great news. Thank you. Were the readings--? I see." Pause. "Yes, thanks. See you soon."

"The robots will start to remove the snow in two hours. By morning, it will be safe to go outside and the door lock will be unsealed," Shion says.

Nezumi stands in front of the coat rack and stares at the coat he hasn't worn in days. Tomorrow. When he took the coat off, annoyed and blindsided, he thought two weeks shut up in this coffin of a room would stretch forever, but now that they're almost up, it's as though he's hardly had time to blink.

He hears Shion's footsteps behind him, feels a gentle hand on his upper back. "It would be a shame if your hair ended up getting too tangled just as you're about to leave."

I'm about to leave? What does that mean? Do you just want to see the back of me? Don't you want me here with you, Shion? Did you ever? Each question sounds even more ridiculous and pathetic than the last, so Nezumi just nods.

Shion works his fingers through Nezumi's damp hair, fast and efficient and silent. No snags, no false starts from the top instead of the bottom; Shion could make a living doing this now if he found enough long-haired people averse to plain old combs and brushes.

Is this it, then? Is this is how their days together will end? Of course, Nezumi can stay in No. 6 for as long as he likes, but it won't be just the two of them again. Shion might not even want to see him again before he leaves. Maybe Nezumi's got it all wrong. Maybe Shion's been done with him for a long time, and has just been enduring their time together with good humour since it couldn't be helped. Maybe Nezumi felt lingering touches and saw soft-eyed, longing looks because he wanted to see them. Maybe the way Shion's so careful to keep a buffer zone between their bodies has nothing to do with boners: maybe Nezumi is just that unattractive to him, and he invented the pity excuse to help Nezumi save face.

Shion takes his time braiding Nezumi's hair, then secures it with the tie he's taken to wearing on his wrist after Nezumi misplaced it once. He walks around to step in front of Nezumi and smooths a strand that's too short to stay in the braid away from his face. He looks so sad that all the anger drains out of Nezumi.

"Shion..."

Shion lifts Nezumi's hand to his mouth, kisses the heel of his palm. He's moved so rapidly that Nezumi can't even decide what to do next before Shion speaks.

"I thought I could resist," Shion whispers. "I can't. I take it back, Nezumi. I don't care if it's pity." His lips move against Nezumi's wrist, sending threads of white-hot ice through his nerves. "I want to be with you."

The rational, sensible thing to do right now would be to have a conversation -- at least to disabuse Shion of whatever notions he's got in his head about Nezumi kissing him out of pity. Naturally, Nezumi does the exact opposite of the rational and sensible thing: he grabs two greedy handfuls of Shion's ass, presses his body to Shion's, and lands an open-mouthed kiss on Shion's lips.

Shion's hands fly to Nezumi's face with such speed it's as if he's afraid Nezumi will change his mind and pull away. They upend one of the drip-catching buckets in their stumble to the bed and leave a mess of wet footprints on the floor. Shion's trying to keep his hands on Nezumi's face at all times -- Nezumi wishes he'd let them wander; he's never known how badly he needed Shion's hands on every part of him.

He also wishes he didn't bother getting dressed again after the shower, but he wasn't about to wear a towel and have Shion think he was trying to start something again. Once they're on the bed, their clothes go flying in all directions, and Shion is faster than Nezumi; he's already peeling his undershirt off while Nezumi's still struggling with his zipper. Shion helps.

The cool air stings his skin but doesn't pierce; it wouldn't matter even if the snow from outside were to fill this room -- it would melt from the heat that they're making together, skin on skin. They're both gasping for breath when Nezumi pushes Shion down on top of the bed, straddling him. He goes to kiss his ear but misses and buries his nose in the pillow to pretend that was his plan all along. His braid drops to the side, cool against the side of his neck.

"Turn the light off," Shion says into his ear. "I'm embarrassed."

Nezumi straightens up over him, balancing on his fists. "Why are you embarrassed?"

Shion's expression turns mulish. "I'm twenty-seven years old and still a virgin; why do you think?"

Nezumi blinks. "You're a what?"

Shion takes a deep breath through his nose. "What did you think I meant when I said I waited for you?"

"Not abstinence?" Nezumi offers, and Shion glares at him.

"I'm not clueless," he says. "I just haven't had practice. With a person."

Nezumi decides he doesn't want to ask why Shion specifies that he hasn't practiced with a person. "You had a little practice," he murmurs, taking Shion's hand and moving it down to the front of his boxers.

"You remember that?"

"I remember everything," Nezumi says, because it's true. The two weeks they've spent under this leaky roof have brought back the full depth of his feelings for Shion. "I'll just have to teach you everything I know, your Majesty."

Shion touches Nezumi's cheekbone with just the tips of his fingers. "Again, you mean?"

"Don't get too sentimental now, you'll make me weep."

Nezumi sort of means exactly what he said, but Shion snorts and leans up to kiss him, then pokes his tongue in just past Nezumi's teeth. Nezumi bites down lightly and sweeps his own tongue over it. Shion's breathing quickens. He's so easy to please. Nezumi's always liked a challenge and thought men who go to pieces too easily weren't worth his time, but Shion's no conquest, no game. He just wants Shion to feel good, so he deepens the kiss and presses closer to Shion.

Although he's taken aback by Shion's admission, he discovers it makes him unexpectedly happy. It's selfish, but it pleases him to know that no one's touched Shion like this before: no one's tongue swept across his dark brown nipples by turns. No one's heard the way it makes Shion gasp, nor his groans when Nezumi bites the very tip of each nipple so gently he's barely touching them. Every caress will be one Shion remembers as the first.

Nezumi's fingertips pressed lightly against Shion's lips, parting them for a slow, deep kiss. Nezumi's ips soft against Shion's jawline, then firmer at his collarbones, at the hollow of his throat. Nezumi's tongue stroking across Shion's belly button. Nezumi's teeth scraping delicately at the insides of Shion's thighs. The only part Nezumi doesn't touch is the raised red scar left by the parasitic wasp. He's always liked that scar -- it's proof of Shion's strength, his will to live. It isn't a toy.

Shion's cock is another story; Nezumi curls up rests his head in the dip between Shion's thigh and groin, and makes a plaything of his cock -- stroking it, licking it, kissing it, sucking the head into his mouth and working Shion's foreskin down with his tongue, listening to the noises Shion makes for him. One of his hands is on Shion's cock, steadying it; he's got a handful of Shion's thigh in the other, enjoying the near-constant quiver, sometimes so strong it's almost shaking.

"Please," Shion gasps. "Nezumi."

Nezumi sits up and bends lower over Shion's front. He gives the head of his cock another lick and then draws it deep into his mouth, keeping a firm hold on the base. His hair tie's fallen off somewhere, his braid's come undone, and his hair hangs curtain-like in his face. Shion tries to move it aside, but he keeps faltering as Nezumi takes him deeper and deeper with every movement, and his grip on Shion's thigh gets stronger; if Shion keeps moaning like that, Nezumi might not even need any help with his own dick.

"Stop," Shion gasps, and Nezumi does, wondering what went wrong. The minute he pulls back, Shion whimpers and comes, hips arching off the bed, splattering Nezumi's fingers and his own lower belly.

"You should've just come in my mouth," Nezumi says when he's done.

Shion pulls his own undershirt closer to clean Nezumi's fingers. "I didn't want to be rude."

"Too polite for your own good, literally." Nezumi snatches the shirt out of his hand and mops the rest of the come from Shion's belly before tossing the shirt to the floor and lying down beside him. Shion laces his fingers through Nezumi's, almost shyly. Nezumi tugs the blanket over them and closes his eyes. He's still hard, but it's not that important.

He does want more; he wants to rest his head between Shion's thighs until he's made him come so many times he can't move for a week. He wants to slide deep into Shion and kiss his soft, wet mouth as they fuck. He wants Shion to fuck him on his back, on his side, on his knees, and then he wants to do Shion the same way, maybe a little rougher. That will have to wait -- there's no lube here besides a pot of titanium grease for the door hinges.

More importantly, he wants more shared meals and spending afternoons cuddled up beneath colourful blankets and Shion's fingers in his hair. He wants to walk together with Shion through Lost Town, along the shores of No. 4, across the floor of the Citadel while the children sing. Nezumi doesn't like to think about abstract things like forever, but he'll stay that long if Shion wants him to. Seeing the world heal itself has softened Nezumi's heart, but it was Shion who opened it.

"Nezumi?"

"What is it?"

"Will you leave tomorrow?"

"Let's talk about tomorrow's things tomorrow," Nezumi says. He doesn't want to think about tomorrow. He should go back to No. 1 to get his stuff at least, but he doesn't want to do it tomorrow.

"Tomorrow," Shion murmurs, snuggling closer and wrapping a surprisingly sure hand around his cock. No. 1 disappears from Nezumi's mind.

~

The door opens. A long, thin strip of snow still decorates the ground on the far end of the passageway, but there is open sky above it.

"Your freedom, my good sir," Shion says with a flourish.

Nezumi smiles thinly. "Are you kicking me out, your Majesty?"

Shion's eyes widen. "No, I would never. I just figured you'd be anxious to leave."

Nezumi gapes at him. What part of him looks anxious to leave? What part of last night told Shion that Nezumi could possibly want to be gone?

I thought it would amuse you.

I just didn't think you'd want any if I told you.

I kept telling Tsukiyo he just had to hang on a little longer, but you didn't come back.

I'm sorry this is all that I've become.

Love's like the heart: it will keep going as long as it can.

I don't care if it's pity.

I just figured you'd be anxious to leave.

Finally, Nezumi understands. Shion really thinks Nezumi doesn't care for him. He thinks he's just gone through the motions of keeping their promise to reunite. He thinks Nezumi wanting him has nothing to do with their relationship, that it's a purely physical desire, stimulus-response sex. He thinks Nezumi keeping his good humour throughout the last two weeks is nothing but making the best of a bad situation. He's willing to bet that Shion hasn't for a moment let himself even hope that Nezumi wants to be here with him and that's why he didn't put up that much of a fuss.

I did this. I kept telling him he thought too highly of himself whenever he presumed good will on my part, I kept telling him I was only paying back a debt. I kept denying his feelings and mine, refusing to let him tell me how he feels. I kept pushing him away and then I left him behind. For ten years I stayed away. Is it any wonder that he gave up believing he could ever stand next to me? Anyone would give up. If Shion deliberately stayed away from me for ten years, I wouldn't believe he cared for me, either.

"Shion, I-- is that what you want?" Can I fix it?

"I don't want you to leave," Shion says and bows his head. "I always promised myself that if I saw you again, I wouldn't let you go." Nezumi can practically read the thought that Shion would never voice, because Shion doesn't do guilt trips. How can I stop you, when I'm not in your heart?

"So tell me to stay."

Shion gives him an incredulous look. "If you wanted to stay, you wouldn't need me to ask you."

I'm staying, Nezumi thinks. His mouth won't move. I'm staying! He tries to buy some time. "What will you do?"

Shion looks at him. "I made a vow that I would wait for you here, on this land where we first met, no matter how long it took."

"And you did," Nezumi says with a faint smile. "You waited."

"Yes. I kept my promise, even though the one who made it was a stupid boy, recklessly in love. I know you came here expecting to find that boy, Nezumi. The haste with which you're leaving tells me that you know he's gone."

"I could see that much from the moment I laid eyes on you, you airhead." Who the hell is leaving? I opened the door to freshen the air.

"Good," Shion says. "I'm glad to hear it."

Nezumi's heart sinks. None of the words I choose are getting through to him.

Shion sighs. "You have returned to see what I've done with myself and you've found me wanting. I was ready for that, just as I was ready for spending the rest of my days waiting. What else can I do? I will get on with it."

Nezumi thinks about Shion's love-is-necessary philosophy. "Find someone else to love?"

Shion's smile is sad. "I doubt that. But there's someone who will love me even though I'm like this."

Acid seethes in Nezumi's belly. "Who?"

"I don't know; we haven't met yet. There's got to be someone."

"That part of you hasn't changed at all, has it? The eternal optimist."

"I don't want to watch you go this time, Nezumi." Shion tilts his chin up. "I would only like a good-bye kiss."

It's an opportunity. If his mouth won't let him say the words, then it'll have to be kisses. Kisses don't lie. Nezumi takes Shion's hands in his and pulls him close, laying a slow kiss on his mouth, letting it linger. Shion makes a soft noise in his throat and starts to pull away, but Nezumi brings him back for another kiss, and this time he feels like he'll never have enough of these kisses, and he owes Shion ten years' worth of them. He can't give them all at once but he'll get a good head start. His eyes are closed and his throat is constricted; he's scared that if he meets Shion's gaze right now, he's going to start crying like a child.

He pauses, noticing that Shion's hands have gone slack in his, and he's standing too still. Nezumi looks at Shion's face, the tear-stained cheeks and dull eyes. "Why--?" I thought we understood each other.

Of course they didn't. Nezumi's been thinking about this all wrong. I have to say the right words.

"You're a cruel person, Nezumi."

"I kiss you so sweetly, and you call me a cruel person?" But those are the wrong words, and inside Nezumi appears a crawling unease, like microscopic hooks are embedded in the lining of his stomach and tugged, hard: what if his selfish nature won't let him use the right words?

In Shion's eyes, in his whole demeanour, is a wall -- rising faster and faster to keep him out. No, Shion, not you. Don't look at me with eyes like--

Shion speaks in the careful voice of an offended diplomat. "Nothing is sweet about a good-bye kiss that doesn't know when to end. Are you angry because I said I don't want to watch you go? All right, then I will watch until I've seen the last of you, if that's what you want. But I don't think it will teach me anything I don't already know."

"I'm not going anywhere," Nezumi says, quickly, before his unnecessarily enormous sense of self-preservation takes over in response to the pain and anger in Shion's eyes. "I haven't found you wanting." He steps closer and puts his mouth right against Shion's ear. "I've found myself wanting you. Not for a dalliance, Shion. To keep. To have and to hold, if you will. Will you?"

"What?" Shion sounds as though he's already removed himself from this conversation.

Nezumi has to breathe in deeply to collect himself. His heart pounds a furious staccato against his ribcage, and his palms are damp. He's always thought sweaty palms were an evolutionary artefact of times past, preserved only in dusty old books. He must simply have never been nervous enough before this moment. He's never felt more vulnerable.

All he wants to do is run out of here at full speed. If he does that, he can never come back, because there will be a wall he cannot break. Come what may, he never wants a wall between them, not again. It's well past time to act his age.

"Will you-- would you still have me?" As he speaks, he makes himself look into Shion's eyes.

They are wide, disbelieving. "What are you saying?"

"You are my love, Shion," Nezumi half-whispers. "Don't let me go this time."

Shion's mouth works, soundless, for a few seconds. "Can you-- again? Can you say--?"

In a second-rate play, Nezumi's character would be expected to pretend to be confused and repeat some other part of his earlier line, to his partner's frustration, just comical enough to ease the tension without resolving the conflict. But this is his life, and Shion is his love, and he knows what Shion wants to hear again.

"You are my love," Nezumi says, louder. "Shion."

It isn't I love you because that can mean other flavours of love. He wants Shion to know that the kind of love he has is the same. Nezumi kicks out with his foot to shove the door behind him closed.

Shion embraces him so fiercely that Nezumi's breath is stolen; upon regaining it, he returns the embrace, and they stand still, wrapped tight in each other arms, while the door to the outside swings slowly shut.

Once it closes, Shion pulls free, takes Nezumi's hand, and leads him to the sofa, still wordless.

It's like a drunken stupor, the way he feels when he bends low to Shion's lips and then can't stop moving his own lips against them. He slides his hands under Shion's shirt and pulls him on top, wraps his legs around Shion's waist and holds him close as they kiss. On the table, the communicator buzzes, but Shion pays it no notice.

Much later, they lie in bed under the big red blanket, naked, sticky bellies pressed flat against each other, legs in a tangle, gazing into each other's eyes in the exact way Nezumi has always been sure never happened in real life.

"I love you," Shion says. "I'm sorry I didn't say it back before."

Nezumi gives him a lazy smile and gets a firmer grip on his ass. "You don't have to say it back every time."

"You do," Shion says. "If I'm the first to say it, you have to say it back."

"Okay. Does now count?"

Shion pulls a disappointed face. "I guess not? I was saying it back in the first place."

Nezumi leans in close and whispers it to him. Shion's hands clench on the small of his back, but then the communicator starts yelling again.

Nezumi turns around to glare at it. "What a nuisance. Do you want to go back into the city today, Shion?"

"No."

"Won't your mother worry?"

Shion sighs. "I guess we should visit."

~

Together, they walk outside and up the stairs. Remnants of snow dot the field like stray sheep, and the city shimmers in the cold afternoon light. Nezumi looks around at the vast plains in the opposite direction, and feels not even a twinge of wanderlust.

The wind picks up, blowing towards the city. Nezumi gives it his back, glancing at the footprint on the stairs as he does. The past should be buried.

"Nature wants the vault back. Let her have it," he says. "I'll take charge of the books."

Shion looks aghast, and this time Nezumi can tell what he's thinking. This is the only place where I can be with you even if you aren't here.

"I said I won't leave," he says. "Though I'll need to find a new place to keep the books, I guess."

"Your work--"

"I don't need to live in No. 1 for that. I'm an entertainer. I chose that place because it was convenient at the time. Now it's inconvenient." The only one he'll really miss is Saki, and she'll be sure to look in on him from time to time. She'll want to meet Shion, too. Maybe he can take Shion on a trip to show him No. 1 after all. Maybe show him the rest of the world, too.

Shion steps up next to him and threads his fingers through Nezumi's. The casual familiarity of it makes Nezumi's soul tremble. Saki's clear singing resounds in his head: so shines the sun in Jericho, down upon your soul.

"Jericho," Nezumi says, nodding in the direction of the city. "There's my name suggestion, if they're still taking them."

"Why?"

Nezumi cocks an eyebrow. Why not? hops onto his tongue -- predictable, expected, easy. He swallows it.

"Because you're here, Shion. That's why."

end.