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As expected there are checkpoints at each hole in the great wall that kept the city cocooned in its own fantasy for too long, but when Nezumi walks up to the men in uniform they do not carry guns and their questions come down to whether he used to live in the city and which way to go for food and shelter. They smile as they let him in, a little strained and a little tired, they look almost human in their armor. He huffs and walks past them with a frown.

No. 6 is in ruins and he should be happy about that, but there is no victory in the rubble. The destruction looks too much like the days after the tanks rolled through their little market outside the wall. He can admit to himself that he's agitated just walking through here, like a hundred eyes on his back and voices whispering just out of reach.

“And here I thought you said that you would only come back to the city as a corpse,” comes the obnoxious voice of Inukashi. He catches himself before he flinches, but he's startled enough to turn and answer her honestly.

“Shion wrote me a message.” A strange and slightly worrisome message at that. Everything fine here, I miss you. could mean so many things. He shrugs. “It's no big deal.”

Inukashi falls into step at his side, arms crossed behind her head, facing the sky to soak up the sun. He hunches further into his scarf. “You are a terrible liar. When did you get so bad? Was it when Shion pulled a Juliet on you?”

Nezumi clenches his fists and his jaw. He can't afford to fight, they're in enemy territory, or what still feels like it under the dust. “We're not talking about that,” he growls. Her dogs perk up at the sound, not aggressive yet, but wary. Inukashi rolls her eyes, but keeps quiet enough. They have an agreement and mostly keep to it, those moments are too close to real, even now.

There is nothing left of Chronos and the destruction radiates outward. A few women and children clear the rubble from the streets, clothes dirty but higher quality than anything they wear outside the wall. Nezumi snaps at a man who means to stop them, turn them to safer paths. Cutting through the dead heart of the city is fastest, and above all, satisfying.

He doesn't look at the bodies, desiccated and crumbling as they are. They remind him of that first time he thought he could lose Shion and the unexpected hurt that came with it. The desperate terror. It's quiet here, cleanup hasn't reached the worst of it yet. Maybe the survivors are afraid of what they may find and rightly so. A lot of their awful history is written in blood, carved into the foundations of the city.

The bustling activity they stumble into the closer they come to Shion's – temporary – home is like a solid wall. Nezumi stops and waits for Inukashi to catch up, not because he's uncomfortable, he just wants to make sure she doesn't get lost and cause trouble. A few explosions had reached this place and a lot of people had died to the tiny avatars of Elyurias, but this is where people come who want to help and from here healing spreads into the rest of the city.

Shion is predictably at the center of it. People gravitate to him and his stupid smile and Nezumi stays still, outside the circle that forms around Shion like he's the messiah that will lead them to a better tomorrow. He could do it, too, he's got enough dogged determination for a small army. And then everything seems to slow, time crawling to a halt and Shion looks up.

Nezumi wants to say something biting, but for once, he's got nothing. Shion grins at him, bright and wide and nearly carefree. The masses don't part before Shion, but sort of stumble aside enough to let him through and Nezumi has just enough time to say, “looks like you've been busy,” before Shion crushes him in a hug. Funny how someone smaller and slighter than Nezumi can take all the air from his lungs. He presses into the embrace and loops his arms around Shion, one hand at the back of his neck where the incision scar is still red and angry.

“Not that I don't appreciate the surprise,” Shion says against the skin of his throat, “but what brings you here? I thought we were doing that whole tortured long distance scenario.”

Nezumi laughs, a weight leaving him that he hadn't even noticed. “I got bored. My place is not the same without you and they're doing A Midsummer Night's Dream at the theater. Titania is just not really me, if I may say so.”

Shion pushes back a little, just enough that the can see each other but not enough that Nezumi has to relinquish his hold. It's odd, this need to touch. They've not seen each other for no more than a week and it feels like ages. Is Shion taller?

“I'm glad,” Shion says, all serious intent and perseverance. He takes a step back, probably to preserve some kind of propriety. “It's not the same, sleeping alone in my old room. I miss your snoring.”

Inukashi throws some comment about domestication their way, but gets distracted by a group of small children taking an interest in her dogs. Shion grins and shakes his head, flushing a little. “My mother is back at the shop, we should go see her.”

Dread curls and uncurls in Nezumi's stomach. He's had some contact with the woman through her messages, but meeting her is something else. Meeting her as whatever he is to Shion means a kind of commitment he's always managed to avoid. Shion, unfortunately, has him by the wrist and when he starts walking Nezumi can only think to follow.

The woman looks barely older than her picture, though there are fresh lines on her face that have to be worry for her son etched deep into her skin. She hesitates and Nezumi stands in the doorway, unsure of his next step. He feels like turning and running back to a place that doesn't feel like darkness is coiled underneath, where people leave him alone and believe it when he pulls a knife and threatens to kill them.

He's not good with hugs and getting two in a row brings him nearly to breaking point. Shion's mother is kind enough to let go after a few terrifying moments, but she has a strange, wistful smile on her face as she pulls away.

“You are the one responsible for all this,” she says and Nezumi is uncertain whether she means Shion's hardships over the last few months or the destruction of the city, or maybe even the reason they had to leave their sheltered life in Chronos. Her smile doesn't reveal what she thinks of him.

Nezumi nods, acknowledging all of it. “I'm Nezumi,” he says, “it's a pleasure to finally meet you.” A pleasure like having killer insects gestating under his skin, but through no fault of hers.

She rolls her eyes, as if she can read his mind, and touches his hair gently, tucking a strand behind his ear. “Thank you,” she says, simply.

Coughing, Nezumi tries to play over his embarrassment, and turns to find Shion watching him. They share a smile because sometimes Nezumi can't resist. He silently bids his reputation as a hard street rat goodbye if anyone ever sees him like this. He walks over and throws an arm around Shion's shoulders.

“So, what are we having for dinner anyway? That cake looks amazing.”

The smiles and laughter he gets feel like a foundation.