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It's Not Pain, It's Just Uncertainty

Chapter Text

Shion wakes before the dawn, shivering from cold, back pressed to the frigid stone wall behind him. Next to him, the left side of the mattress is empty. He sits up, stretches, stands up, stretches again. He washes his face in the cracked porcelain sink, gets dressed in the same clothes he wore yesterday, and retrieves breakfast from his backpack. He does all of this in silence. It is hard to make noise in this room — the weight of years of dust and hundreds upon hundreds of books smother any sound that might find its way down from the world above. Not even mice venture hear any longer. In this crumbling library, Shion is alone.

After he eats, he makes his way slowly, methodically, through the narrow spaces between the bookcases, winding deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of shelves. He knows the exact location of every book, and the name of every title, in this sprawling collection. He knows because once, a lifetime ago, he placed the books here, dutifully organized and categorized and catalogued them, filed them away in neat rows, brought order to this one corner of chaos.

He reaches a shelf deep within the maze of books and casts his eyes along the spines until he finds the book he is searching for. It’s an old paperback, with a fraying cover and yellowing pages, tucked between a volume of sonnets and the thick biography of a playwright. He runs his hand over the cover, fingers catching on the embossed gold lettering of the title, and then he tucks it under his arm and carries it out of the maze and out into the room beyond.

Shion has perfected the art of reading this book over the course of exactly one day. He reads each sentence with precision, every word a beat in a song whose tempo he controls. He begins the book at dawn and finishes it as the last of the light that squeezes through the gap between the carpet and the front door fades. He’s been careful not to let himself memorize the book, like he’s memorized so many others. He imagines the words are like the ocean, washing over him like a wave, covering him entirely, and then retreating, leaving him alone the shore. Shion has never seen the ocean, and he suspects he never will. The metaphor works either way.

He reads every word of the book, starting with the cover. The Reader’s Library, the cover says. The Tragedy of. Then in larger, slanting letters, Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Annotated Edition. Edited by Catherine Griffiths. With a new forward by Eric O’Donnell. He opens the book. There, again, is the title. On the third page there is new information. First edition published 1981. Winston and West Publishing. London, New York. All rights reserved. Next there is a Table of Contents, a page of Acknowledgements, a Forward, a Preface, an Introduction. He reads all of this, and pictures what he thinks low tide must be like. As the page numbers transition from x’s and i’s to numbers, the tide swells. Scene 1, he reads, and the ocean engulfs him. Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches.

He stops at midday for a hastily wrapped sandwich and trip to the bathroom, but the rest of the time he sits at the table in the center of the room and reads. His watch reads 8:30 as he reads the final number of the barcode on the back cover (it is 4). He stands, shakes his leg from where it has fallen asleep, and returns the book to its place on the musty shelves. He shrugs into his coat, laces up his sneakers, turns off the light, and leaves the room. He doesn’t lock the door — he can’t think of anyone else who would ever come here. He climbs up the cracked cement stairs and emerges into the night.

Now, for the first time since he arrived here at midnight the day before, Shion hesitates. He’s spent the whole day reading, yes, but he has also spent it waiting. This is the only day he waits, and like every year he’s loath to stop. But waiting only gets you so far. Most days, you have to keep going. Shion turns from the stairs and walks away, and imagines that he’s left his anticipation where it belongs — back in that underground room, with only the books and dust for company.

He walks home under a sky of brilliant stars, skirting the edge of the West Block, whose bazaar never closes and whose lights never go out. He prefers to traverse the silent wasteland the Bureau of Resource Reclamation has not touched yet, where the stretches, dead, to the horizon. The gentle lights of Artemis greet him just beyond the Third Breach, where he waves his pass to the crusty-eyed checkpoint officer before completing the final few blocks between the Wall and home.

The flat above the bakery is dark, and Shion enters through the back door as quietly as he can. He climbs the spiral staircase to his room and collapses into bed, his backpack and clothes a haphazard pile on the floor. His mother is asleep in the room next door, and she doesn’t see him clutch his sheets tightly in both fists, take a deep breath, and wait for the tears to come. Last year they came quickly, and the year before that, and the year before that as well. They flowed hot down his cheeks, searing a path as they went, steam rising from the wet spots where they hit his pillow. This year, nothing comes. It's midnight. The day is over. Another year gone, Shion is twenty-one years old, and for the first time in five years, he isn’t crying. But some things never change, and like every year, he falls asleep to the same mantra.

“Reunion will come,” he whispers, a promise to the silent world. “Reunion will come.”

Chapter Text

Shion awakes on the morning of his twenty-first birthday to a pounding headache and the sensation of something sliding up his left nostril.

“WHAT THE-“ he yelps, scrambling up to a sitting position against the headboard, only to see a little boy with a shock of black hair standing at his bedside, grinning maniacally.

“Shionn, don’t scare me like that,” Shion says, pulling what he realizes is a tuft of grass out of his nose.

“Good morning Shion!” the boy trumpets. He looks very proud of himself. “Mama said I could come wake you up!”

“He did, did he?” Shion mutters, his headache returning full force now that he doesn’t have a plant up his nostril to distract him. “Tell you what, you go back downstairs and tell everyone I’m awake, and I’ll get dressed and then meet you down there, okay?”

“Okay!” Shionn says. He skips back off down the stairs, and Shion falls back into his pillows with a groan. His midnight breakdown seems silly in the light of the morning, and the voices echoing up the stairwell are a reminder that the real world is here in Artemis, not in some crumbly old army barracks. It’s time to get up.

The kitchen is crowded with four people and a dog in it, but two slices of cherry cake and a mug of coffee have done wonders for Shion's headache, and the tight fit around the scrubbed wooden table is cozy. Inukashi sits with Shionn on his knee, trying unsuccessfully to make him stop talking long enough to eat his breakfast. Shion nods along to his monologue, hiding his smile in his coffee cup.

“And then me and Mama went to the grocery store after the other store!” he recounts breathlessly. “We got milk and eggs and dog food and carrots and-“ The chattering stops abruptly as Inukashi jams a spoonful of oatmeal into his mouth mid-sentence.

“There you go, Puppy, eat your food and let someone else talk for a little while,” he says. He looks up from his son as Shion rises to rinse his dishes in the sink.

“Shion! I didn’t say it before, but Happy Birthday! I came around last night to see if you wanted to go out to celebrate, and of course you weren’t here. Jeez, you weren’t with Rikiga or anything, were you?”

“Uh, no,” Shions says, maneuvering around his mother and two trays of sweet buns to sit back down at the table. “I was at the lab until late last night.”

Karan sets her trays of buns on the cooling rack and sits down at Shion’s other side. “Really Shion,” she says, “you spend to much time there!” Looking at Inukashi she says, “He didn’t just come home late last night, he spent the night at the lab the night before that as well! Sometimes I wonder if this job with the Bureau is any less stressful than his committee position was.”

“I’m alright, Mom, I promise. The Committee was definitely worse. And I like what I’m doing now.”

“What’s your job again Shion?” Shionn asks, mouth finally liberated from his mother’s spoon.

“How many times do I gotta tell you, Puppy, your uncle Shion here is a scientist!” Inukashi says, squeezing Shionn around the waist and making him giggle.

“That’s right,” Shion says, heart fond. Last night feels even more distant than it did in bed this morning, watching Inukashi and his son. “I’m learning how to fix the earth outside the Wall so plants can grow.”

“Wow!” Shionn enthuses, before taking a deep breath and saying, “Well, ok. So then we bought pasta and flour and broccoli and…”

“Shionn!” Inukashi grumbles, and Shion laughs. Maybe twenty-one isn't so daunting after all.

***

In the years following the Collapse, NO. 6 changed rapidly. The Restructural Committee facilitated three waves of reconstruction in rapid succession, and when it was formally dissolved with the ratification of the Constitution of the Republic of the People of the City of NO. 6, the newly formed Bureau of Community Development had immediately picked up where the Committee had left off. Five years on, the West Block is barely recognizable — gone are the deteriorating high rises and ramshackle houses; in their place are high density housing projects, hotels, theaters, and music clubs. All that remain of the old Block are the bazaar and the tall black obelisk that stands at its center. Carved into its marble sides are thousands of tiny nicks — one for every person believed lost to the Hunts of the old regime.

Ten minutes walk back through the Third Breach, nestled between the sprawling new suburb of Artemis and the remains of the Wall, lies the campus of the People’s University of Science and Technology. Brand new labs and lecture halls, barely two years old, fan out from the central quad. Shion’s building, like most of those in NO. 6, is a marvel of solar glass and carbon fiber. He scans his ID card at the front desk and rides the elevator three floors up to his lab. Most of the members of his team are already there when he arrives, as well as an email from the Bureau of Resource Reclamation detailing the next stage of their survey.

He’s printed out the day’s sampling requirements and is securing his work belt more firmly around his waist when Dana comes up and claps him on the back.

“Happy birthday, boss!” she says, voice booming. Shion grins, sheepish. He’s long since learned that asking her to call him anything other than “boss” is a lost cause.

“Thanks, Dana,” he says. “How’d it go yesterday?”

“No big problems, but, well…” she trails off.

“What?” Shion asks, slinging his work back over his shoulder and heading for the door with Dana and the rest of the team.

“It’s just, we picked up some more of those trace readings. I don’t know what to make of it, I can’t find anything about it in the database.”

“Again?” Shion wrinkles his brow.

“Yeah. Third time this month. Look, boss, I know what the charter says, but are you sure there isn't some more data we don’t know about? This is NO. 6, for pete’s sake, if any city is gonna have information about unknown soil containments it’s this place.”

“Well, as sure as I can be,” Shion says. “The Committee made it a priority to declassify everything we could get our hands on, but I guess there’s a chance we missed something. Otherwise, maybe we really have discovered something new. Maybe this is good news.”

Dana hmms non-comitantly.

“Well,” she says, “guess we’ll find out.” She moves away to strike up conversation with David, one of the grad students, leaving Shion lost in thought as the team makes their way across campus to the transportation bay. It isn’t until their van clears the Breach and starts out towards their survey sight, a good hour from the Wall, that Shion’s reverie is broken.

It’s probably strange he finds the wasteland beyond NO. 6 and the West Block so beautiful. Here to the west, unlike the carefully cultivated farmland hugging the Wall to the south, the earth is dull and desolate. The horizon is unbroken for miles, except for to the west, where mountains rise, dark and foreboding. Even on clear days the air seems hazy, and everything is unnaturally still. And still, Shion can’t help but feel awe at the vast expanse in front of him. The sky today is a deep blue, and the mountains are capped with snow. Yes, he thinks, this job is infinitely better than the Committee.

They work in groups of three, bent low over the soil. Shion holds the scanner over each sample of dirt he collects, reading out nitrogen levels which Dana scribbles down in a notebook. David bags and labels each sample they collect, and over the course of the day they make their way down one row of the grid they’ve marked off. The work is repetitive, but if feels good to be outside, to laugh and joke with his peers, to actually do what he thought he’d be doing all those years ago, back in the sterile classrooms of the gifted program. His work is anything but sterile now, and he revels in the grit under his fingernails and the sweat on the back of his neck.

Its 4:30 in the afternoon, and the work is winding down, when Shion hears a shout from off to his left.

“Hey, do you guys see that?”

He looks up to see Elijah and another grad student looking off to the south, gesturing at something. He peers in the direction they’re pointing, and sees a cloud of dust rising up off the barren plain.

“What in the-“ Dana says next to him. “Is that a person?”

Shion stands up and jogs to the van, trepidation rising in his throat. The headache from this morning is back full force, and his pulse races. Everyone in NO. 6 has grown up with stories of the raiders who live out in the wasteland between the cities. Had he been naive to bring his team so far out beyond the Walls, with no protection to speak of? He doesn’t let himself think of the other possibility. His waiting for the year is over.

He roots around in the back of the van until he finds the small pair of binoculars in the team’s emergency kit. Running over to where Dana now stands next to Elijah, David, and several other team members, he raises the binoculars to his eyes and focuses in on the dust cloud.

“It’s a…motorcycle,” he says, stunned. “It’s someone on a motorcycle, they’re headed this way.”

“What?!” Dana exclaims, making a motion for the binoculars, which Shion hands her. She puts them up to her face and stares for a few moments.

“Well I’ll be damned,” she says. “What do we do, boss?”

Shion sets his jaw. Whoever this person is, they’re probably not savory. Ever since the Collapse, more people than ever before have immigrated to NO. 6, but always by plane. Shion has never heard of someone arriving by overland travel before, and never by themselves.

“I think,” he says, thinking quickly, “that whoever this person is, they’re probably tired and hungry. We shouldn’t assume the worst. But just in case, let’s head back to the van. I’ll talk to whoever this is when they get here.”

As the group hurries to follow his lead, Dana hands the binoculars back to Shion, and he looks through them to the figure again, now getting rapidly closer.

The motorcycle is old and battered, and it sounds likes nothing he’s ever heard before, a growl that carries across the landscape. He wonders if its old enough to be working off a combustion engine. The body of the motorcycle is black, and the rider is in black as well, with a helmet covering their face. Grey hair whips behind them, as well as what appears to be a long grey traveling cloak.

The binoculars slip through his fingers, and Shion dimly registers the dull whump of them hitting the ground. He knows that cloak. But it can’t be.

The motorcycle is almost upon them now, the roar of its engine so loud it blocks out all other sound. It comes to a skidding halt beside the van, where the rest of the group is huddled inside. Shion remains standing where he is, watching as the rider puts their foot down, releases the kickstand, and dismounts.
It can’t be, Shion thinks. It can’t be.

In the seconds before the rider reaches up to pull off their helmet, he remembers his mantra from the night before, the one he’s allowed to say out loud one night a year, every year, ever since Nezumi walked out of his life and left him at the mercy of the Restructural Committee. Alone. His heads pounds.

Renunion will come, Shion.

“Reunion will come,” Shion whispers, and his hands curl to fists.

Chapter Text

Here’s the thing. Nezumi knows he has a flair for the theatrical. He’s an actor; he’s always made his living by playing up the drama. The huge, antiquated motorcycle is a case in point. But he’s not that much of a drama queen. So yes, in hindsight he sees how skidding to a stop in a cloud of dust and making a show of tossing his hair as he removed his helmet was, maybe, a little over the top. But how was he to have known the group of surveyors he'd pulled up to included Shion, of all people? It wasn’t until he’d taken off his helmet that he’d realized the tall, broad-shouldered man even was Shion, and not an athletic 60-year-old. He hadn’t expected to find him so easily. And he certainly hadn’t expected to get punched for it.

Nezumi hisses as his ass bites the dirt. His jaw throbs where Shion decked him, and when he brings a hand up to assess the damage he can feel it swelling under his fingertips. Shion stands over him, grimacing and rubbing his reddening knuckles with his other hand.

“What the fuck, Shion!” Nezumi says, scrambling to his feet. In his peripheral he can see one of the other surveyors climbing out of the van, but he ignores her in favor of looking at Shion, whose face has gone white.

“I was done for the year,” Shion gasps, and then he doubles over and vomits into the dust.

“Shit!” Nezumi yelps, stumbling forward to catch Shion around the shoulders before he can pitch forward into his own sick. “What the hell, Shion!”

Shion sags against him, passed out. Nezumi makes to shake him back awake when the surveyor from before is upon them, bringing her hand down hard on Nezumi’s shoulder, startling him.

“Don’t jolt him!” she says. Her voice is firm and colored with an accent Nezumi can’t place. “Lay him down on the ground, slowly.” She punctuates the last word with a glare in Nezumi’s direction. Together, she and Nezumi get Shion on his back on the ground.

“What’s wrong with him?” he asks, as the woman begins to root around in Shion’s pockets.

“He’ll be fine,” she says, pulling a small container from one of the pockets on Shion’s vest. She opens it to reveal a syringe and a vial of milky fluid. “He must have forgotten to take his medicine this morning.”

Medicine? Nezumi’s mind races, he can’t remember Shion ever needing any kind of medication in the year they spent together.

Shion’s eyes flutter open. Nezumi moves closer without thinking.

“Dana,” Shion mumbles, “what happened?”

“You had an attack, Boss,” the woman (Dana?) says, voice softer now, but still authoritative. “I need you to turn your head so I can give you this shot, alright?”

Shion does as he’s told, turning his head away from her. His eyes land on Nezumi’s again. He gasps, although Nezumi can’t tell if this is because of him, or because Dana has just administered a shot to the back of his neck, right where Nezumi knows a small surgical scar should be.

“Nezumi, you’re here.” He doesn’t look angry anymore, just tired. Nezumi tries for a smile.

“Yeah, I came back.”

Shion reaches out and brushes Nezumi’s hand, and Nezumi laces their fingers together.

Dana looks between the two of them.

“Do you two know each other?” she asks. "Shion?” But Shion’s eyes are closed again, and his chest is rising and falling in a gentle rhythm. Dana levels Nezumi with another glare.

“He’s going to be out for a while," she says. “The medicine I gave him is partly a sedative, and it takes some time to pass completely through his system. Now I don’t know who you are, or where the hell you came from, but if the boss here knows you...” she pauses at this, eyes drifting down to where Nezumi is still holding Shion’s hand, “then I suppose you could follow after us on that whatever-it-is you’re riding and help me get him home.”

Nezumi nods, and exhales in relief. His awareness widens past the little circle where he and Dana kneel over Shion’s prone form. The smell of sick reaches him, and the feeling of a light breeze, and the sound of nervous voices off to his left by the van. All it took was one look at Shion, and the rest of the world disappeared. It doesn’t bode well. He can’t afford to lose his touch.

He meets Dana’s glare with a smile. It’s amiable, friendly, one that’s gotten him out of any number of tight spots before.

“Thank you very much,” he says. “I’d be glad to help you get him home. And...” He pauses. He doesn’t know if he can trust Dana, or frankly anyone from NO. 6 past Shion and his mother. But Shion works with this woman, he obviously trusts her with his medication, and Nezumi would rather not fuck up this reunion anymore than he already has. It’s probably best to get on this woman’s good side, and to stay there.

“I apologize,” he continues, “for the entrance I made. It wasn’t my intention to alarm anyone. I’m grateful you’ll let me stay with him, at least until he gets home.” He lets the smile fade into an earnest, serious expression he used to reserve for dealing with his old West Block theater director. Dana regards him silently for a moment, as though sizing him up, and then nods. Together they manage to get Shion somewhat upright, braced between the two of them.

“Hey David! Come help us carry him!” Dana shouts, and someone around Nezumi’s age with sunburned cheeks jumps from the van and hustles towards them. He takes Shion’s legs, and together the three of them carry Shion, still asleep, towards the van.

Hang on, Shion, Nezumi thinks, as he climbs onto his bike and starts up the engine. We’re going home.


***

Home, similar to Shion’s explosive right hook, isn’t what Nezumi is expecting. It’s not the cramped bakery in Shion’s old neighborhood, it’s not some fancy house in Shion’s even older neighborhood, it’s not even the dilapidated barracks where Nezumi used to live. Instead, Nezumi follows the van for an hour, across the wasteland and past a sweep of brightly lit high-rises, which he realizes with a jolt is the West Block, until they pass through one of the many holes in the old wall. On the other side is what must be a brand-new suburb of modest houses and apartments, all built around what looks like a university. Nezumi doesn’t recognize any of it.

Still, some things never change, and when Karan barrels out the door of a little bakery just off the main square, bursts into tears, and then hustles Nezumi and Dana inside and up the back stairway with her son in tow, Nezumi finally feels like he’s getting the reunion he expected. Karan wants to where he’s been, how long he plans to stay, if he has a place to live, if he’s had anything to eat. He smiles at every question, and she smiles back, and doesn’t ask again.

“You’re so thin!” she tuts instead, and bustles him into her gleaming kitchen. “Here, I’ll make you a sandwich.”

Three sandwiches and what feels like his weight in warm, sweet tea later, Nezumi escapes up the stairs with the excuse he’ll watch Shion until he wakes up. Dana had been sitting across from him at the scrubbed kitchen table, arms crossed, eyebrows creased, and the combination of both women’s attention on him had made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The relative quiet of the upstairs hallway is a relief. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes. He’s tired.

There’s a bathroom halfway down the hall, and he takes advantage of it, washing the grime of the day’s travel off his face and from underneath his nails. When he emerges, he turns towards Shion’s room, figuring he might as well make good on his promise to watch him, when he hears Dana’s voice from downstairs.

“-third attack in as many months, Karan. You can’t convince him to see a doctor?”

“You know as well as I do how stubborn my son is. I think the only person he ever really listened to was Nezumi.”

Nezumi tenses, and quiets his breathing, listening harder.

“Karan, excuse me, but who exactly is this kid? He pulled up out of nowhere on that motorcycle and just happened to know who your son was.”

“Nezumi,” Karan says, and Nezumi holds his breath, “is a friend, from when Shion was a boy. He did Shion and I a great kindness several years ago, before the Collapse, and he’s been traveling ever since. There’s no need to worry about him, Dana, I trust him with Shion."

"You know the first thing Shion did when he saw him was punch him,” Dana says, and Nezumi can hear the resentment in her voice.

“Really?” Karan’s laughter floats up the stairwell. It’s warm, like the tea Nezumi drank. “Well, Inukashi told me they fought sometimes, though I never saw it.”

“So he knows that troublemaker too, huh?” Dana asks, and the moment is past. Nezumi let’s out his breath, and for the first time that day, the smile on his lips is genuine.

Shion is still fast asleep when Nezumi enters the little bedroom. He stirs a little as Nezumi sits down at the desk under the window, turning over on the bed so he lays on his side, hands tucked under his cheek. His chest rises and falls in even intervals, and despite the fact his scar is still flushed an ugly maroon, the color in his face is back. His hair shines in the sunset that trickles past the curtains. It’s shorter now, cut back behind his ears, revealing a jawline flecked with pale stubble. He’s taller, less bony, and his nose and cheeks are freckled with sun spots. Nezumi wonders idly if he’s still the taller of the two.

He sits there with Shion for an hour. He hears Dana leave about fifteen minutes into his vigil, and he passes the remaining time trying to decipher Shion’s handwriting on the papers scattered about on the desk. From what he can tell, it’s about soil composites.

The room is dark, and stars are starting to appear in the sky outside, when he hears a new commotion from downstairs. A dog barks, someone laughs, and then comes the sound of a door opening, and of feet running up the stairs. Someone shouts, “Shionn! Get back here!” and then the door to the bedroom is thrown open to reveal a kid in a muddy school uniform with grass stains on both knees. The kid looks from Shion, still unconscious on the bed, to Nezumi, who’s on his feet in a fighting stance, and frowns.

“Who’re you?” the kid asks, loudly.

Nezumi surprises himself by replying.

“I’m Nezumi,” he says. “Keep it down, kid, my friend’s asleep here.” He jerks his head at Shion, and the kid’s eyes go wide. He opens his mouth to say something else when Inukashi sweeps into the room, picks him up, and claps a hand over his mouth.

“Shionn!” Inukashi whispers, “What did Mama say about bothering Uncle Shion when he’s sick!” The kid, unable to get his mouth free, points in Nezumi’s direction. Inukashi looks up.

“Holy shit,” he says. “It’s really you.”

He’s cleaner than Nezumi has ever seen him, in loose jeans and a halter top, and his hair is in a braid down his back. He looks healthy, and well-adjusted. He sets the kid down and murmurs something in his ear. The kid nods, expression serious, and zooms out of the room.

“You have a kid,” Nezumi says intelligently.

Inukashi barks out a laugh. “You’re telling me, rat brain! Thank your boyfriend, he’s the one who found Shionn for me in the first place.” He looks over at Shion and his expression sobers. Nezumi, in contrast, feels bowled over. Already today he’s been punched by the one person he thought might be happy to see him again, and now to top it all off, the one person he thought incapable of looking after another human being, on account of them literally being raised by dogs, is a mother. Nezumi quietly vows never to trust his own expectations ever again.

“Shion’s mama told me he had another attack, said you brought him in from outside the city,” Inukashi is saying, and Nezumi forces himself back to the conversation.

“I did,” he says. "What’s wrong with him, Inukashi?”

“Hell if I know, he won’t tell us anything.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” comes another voice, quiet and firm. It’s Shion, finally awake. Nezumi and Inukashi look towards the bed. Shion’s sitting up, rubbing his head and grimacing.

“Shion-” Inukashi starts, but Shion holds up a hand.

“Nezumi,” he says, looking at the wall, “I need you to leave."