The first winter after Nezumi leaves is the hardest for Shion.
It isn't so much for lack of company--he has his mother, after all, and Inukashi has moved out of her crumbling derelict hotel and into a proper residence with all the amenities readily available in this new land that has sprung up from the remains of West Block and No. 6 (which admittedly isn't saying much), and Rikiga-san seems to have gotten his nose for journalism back and has set up shop in some requisitioned rooms of Latch Building. So Shion's got shoulders to lean on and then some.
Nor is it so much for lack of distractions--building a new city is not as easy as his mother would make it seem, and there are rules and regulations to set down and meetings to attend if only for show, citizens to protect and provide for like so many tiny children ("More helpless than my aunt's third litter, and that's saying something," Inukashi likes to snipe), all of which leaves him utterly exhausted at the end of each day only to close his eyes for a few short hours before starting over again. No, he is not lacking in distraction.
It's only that...it’s all too easy to feel the nip in the air, to see his breath steam in the chill and remember a time when escaping the cold was not so easy as ducking into the bakery, when coming home meant less a greeting with the warm scent of baking bread and more one of soft chirping cries for attention. Fifteen winters of sheltered love pale in comparison to a mere span of weeks with sharp, biting rhetoric and being kicked out of bed by cold feet and spicy soups with dry crusts of bread--because really, he loves his mother, but this is Nezumi, and if there's anyone who can make Shion balk at returning to her open arms and piping hot muffins fresh from the oven, it's him: not because Shion loves his mother any less, but because he just loves Nezumi that much more.
And no company, no matter how warm, nor distraction, no matter how urgent, can ever replace the feelings that welled up within and were subsequently quashed out of necessity and fear during his brief time with Nezumi--nor can they ease the ache that comes with the knowledge that he very likely will be kept waiting quite some time, heart growing all the fonder as hearts are wont to do with such absences, before he must deal with those feelings again.
He doesn't mind waiting--or well, not in the way that he feared he would initially; that he wouldn't be able to handle it, that he'd break on the third day and try to convince Tsukiyo to take him to his master like some fuzzy little homing pigeon, that he'd slip into a lethargic depression that would generate gossip far and wide, eventually reaching Nezumi's ears and sending him charging back to beat the shit out of Shion for being difficult before storming off again.
But none of that happened, thankfully, and so Shion can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that Nezumi has once again proven that he would never lie to Shion again: He is indeed fine, as fine as he can be all things considered.
Still, being fine is about all he can amount to in those first few months that creep by more slowly than is bearable, and it is with no small amount of relief that he welcomes the crispness of autumn and that chill of winter that seeps in swift and silent, draping itself over the residents of Lost Town (or what used to be Lost Town) with frightening quickness, until Shion steps out one morning and shivers to his bones, nose burning, and feels such a thrill as he hasn't experienced since last Holy Day.
It takes a week of Winter before he remembers why he loves the season in the first place--but he's happy to let his mother's apple turnovers and warm cocoa vie for the honor.
She never asks what he's thinking about anymore when she catches him staring out of open windows; he supposes she's learned there's no sense in asking questions she already knows the answer to. His response hasn't changed and likely never will, superceded only transiently by the odd invitation to a committee meeting to help plan the laying of new pipes out past the remnants of the western wall or brainstorming how to join West Block to their powergrid without overtaxing the current infrastructure and plunging half the city into a blackout.
He can hear his mother puttering about in the front, shuttering the windows and ensuring the day's remains are properly cupboarded. She'll likely be around back where Shion is soon, tutting at him for sitting at the table pretending to pore over their books and instead being summarily distracted by the open window he insists on standing guard by (just in case), which was fine in the summer but is downright foolish in what is well and truly Winter now. He knows that, like a watched pot refusing to boil, nothing of note is going to happen until he least expects it, but he can't help it--no matter where he is, or what he's doing, his eye is always drawn to windows, to doors, to stairs leading up and out, the thresholds through which he can close his eyes and imagine what might happen if he were to open them again and meet a flash of gray and a weary smile.
He thinks about what their first words might be--or if there would be any words at all for a very long time. Maybe instead of cliched, expected greetings, he'll fling himself into Nezumi's open arms (or just tackle him to the ground in a hug; Nezumi isn't the type to meet anyone with open arms) or just break down into tears when the realization hits that he's not asleep, this isn't another daydream, everything is finally right again.
Maybe it won't even happen anywhere he expects it; for all the hours he's spent scrawling his thoughts in a notebook perched by the windowsill in his bedroom, it would serve him right for Nezumi to simply take the seat opposite from him at the tiny cafe he sometimes grabs lunch at on the way to the new city hall, swiping his croissant and taking a sizeable bite while peppering Shion's face with crumbs as he idly commented that I leave you alone for a few measly months and you lose your girlish figure on me? I'm wounded.
However Nezumi chooses to come back, though, Shion is sure that his mother will be the only person more eager than Shion to get her hands on him. He wonders if perhaps being subjected to Karan's poking and prodding and tutting that Why you're nothing but skin and bones, you never should have gone off wandering alone! will make Nezumi regret returning altogether--and he smiles at the thought; no, Nezumi will come back no sooner nor later than he intends, and he won't be moved once he's set course.
But after making the rounds to his mother and being silently amused at the gruff rejections of an offer to have dinner together extended to Inukashi and Rikiga-san, on finding themselves finally alone (for better or worse)...he wonders what might happen then. Will they retire to his room and have that long talk they would need to eventually share? Or will Nezumi make camp on the floor by Shion's bed and complain dramatically that he's weary, oh so weary from his arduous journeying and ask to pick up again in the morning? Will they both avoid treading in such dangerous territory altogether until it culminates two weeks thence in a spectacular blow-up (that will likely involve some physical violence on one or both their parts) leaving Nezumi with a bloody nose and Shion with a shiner and neither in a very talktative mood, pushing any discussion even further down the line?
Or maybe it won't be any of that. Maybe they'll dance around each other, with none of the grace and beauty they'd shared that one evening and only awkward guilt dogging their steps as each tries to divine just how best to broach the subject of so what do we do now? Maybe in the end they'll neither one of them have a really good answer for that question, and just bundle up one evening (Shion in his old, rust-colored coat nearly worn through at the elbows and Nezumi with a warm woolen scarf he'd picked up in a town near No. 4 wrapped snugly at his neck) before trudging into the elements with Karan shouting at their retreating backs You'll be back for dinner, right? I'll have some stew!
Maybe Nezumi's legs will still be longer than Shion's, so much so that his strides will take him further and faster, and Shion will be as he always was: chasing desperately after him. Shion won't recognize their path at first, but he'll follow obediently, if not silently, and pepper Nezumi with questions about their destination, why Nezumi isn't wearing a proper coat, if they ought to have brought an umbrella since the skies look heavy with even more snow to complement that crunching beneath their feet, and can't Nezumi slow down a little, please?
I gave you all this time to grow and you haven't budged an inch; it's your own damn fault if you can't keep up, he'll return with an easy smile and raised brows, looking as pleased with himself as usual, and Shion will express his offense with a frowning pout, but double his steps nonetheless. He'll gladly suffer a few burning muscles from the effort for the reward of being able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nezumi, like he's always wanted.
Eventually, though, their surroundings will meld into more familiar settings, until Shion can feel his pulse racing with adrenaline and raw excitement as he starts to recognize this craggy outcropping of building ruins or that snaking tangle of rebar and have to almost physically rein himself in, refraining from tugging on Nezumi's jacket with We're going back? We're really going back? because something tells him, something just makes him feel...like Nezumi won't want to go back there.
But maybe he'll make an exception--or maybe not, maybe it won't be there at all; maybe instead, Nezumi will take a sharp turn and grab Shion's hand to tug him along, urging him to stick close because West Block is still West Block in many respects, and the ruffians and thugs are not gone, just spread more thinly.
Maybe their fingers linking will feel even more chest-achingly right than Shion can imagine.
He'll try to distract himself here, because focusing on how warm their palms are slitted together like that can only lead to thoughts of other ways they might remain warm (his imagination is an active one, in fine shape from being exercised thoroughly since Nezumi's departure), and he'll cast his gaze to the ground, taking in the shapes and patterns dotting the muddy path, snow and dirt and muck sluicing together as they tromp along--and that will be when the snow starts to fall.
Not a lot, just enough to powder the ground and let them leave tracks in their wake, big brown blots on a growing field of white. Nezumi will yank Shion closer until their sides brush and hunker down inside his scarf, his voice muffled as he grouses It figures...
They'll turn off the beaten path when they spot the first spring rider, a decrepit little thing that looks like it used to be fashioned after a bear of some sort but now is a far cry from anything recognizeable. Shion will run a finger along the creature's nose, brushing off the thin layer of powder snow accumulating there, before giving in to Nezumi's tugging reminder that they have miles to go before we sleep, Your Majesty.
Reluctantly, Shion will turn away and follow obediently as Nezumi wanders over to a rusted swing set, hand falling limp to his side when Nezumi loosens his grip and takes a few measured steps forward alone to tug on one of the chains experimentally before throwing Shion a look over his shoulder and jerking his head in invitation.
It'll be all Shion can do not to scramble into the seat next to him like he's half his age.
At his side, Nezumi will already be working himself up into a fine back and forth arc and fall, long, slender legs flung forward before being pulled back in. The whole contraption will groan under his weight, but Shion will ignore the aching cries of the flimsy metal and struggle to match Nezumi's pace, cheeks flushing with the cold and the effort and the infectious excitement because fuck, Nezumi's smiling, like--really smiling, and as amazing as it is, it'll also be a bit eerie, unworldly even, and Shion will wonder somewhere deep inside if that is why Nezumi had to leave: because he'd forgotten how to let go, how to be anything but on-guard and alert and suspicious and acrid.
Out here, though, where no one ever comes, where mothers would never let their children dawdle alone and where adults have no time for such frivolities, the snow will be packed white and pure and unmarred, piling up around them and upon the rusted relics of years gone by.
Nezumi will use the forward momentum of one final swoop on the swing to leap up out of the seat, landing daintily and trotting forward, across a small clearing towards a tall, still-towering jungle gym, its green paint chipping in places leaving it a mottled rusty brown underneath the snow. Shion will scramble to follow, landing far less gracefully and nearly toppling forward in his eagerness to join Nezumi in this strange rite of childhood that they neither one of them ever were allowed to enjoy. He supposes at some point he ought to ask what they're doing out here, tempting frostbite, but that somehow feels wrong, like it's not allowed just yet--and as Shion has no such desire to start a conversation, this suits him just fine.
Nezumi will scale the maze of twisted steel and pipe as easily as a cliffside or crumbling staircase and be seated comfortably at the peak before Shion can even eye a safe beam to get started on. Told you to follow my route, Nezumi will chide, but the bite will be gone, now less stinging than the cold wind whipping up, and the way he smiles as he watches Shion struggle to find his footing, chin propped in one hand before he sighs and reaches down to offer a hand up, will feel at once familiar and so brand new. He'll wish Nezumi could show Shion this side more often, even though the stark contrast with the Nezumi of memory will still leave him with an uneasy knot in his stomach.
They'll sit there perched like ("two turtle doves...") freezing idiots staring off at nothing, just listening to the sounds of the early evening and the far-off industry of the city settling in beneath the fat white flakes fluttering down, and still Nezumi will explain nothing of what they're doing, instead peeling off his scarf and draping one end over Shion's far shoulder so that it falls across them both, doing absolutely nothing in the way of keeping them warm but still somehow leaving Shion nearly shivering at the heat nonetheless. He'll cock his head to the side, wary, searching Nezumi's gray eyes for some explanation, but his expression will be shuttered as he hums some tune Shion isn't familiar with, and Shion will just smile softly and settle in against Nezumi's side--he likes touching like this, physical confirmation of all things real and present.
But then a great gust will come along, pelting them both with a wash of white that whips away the scarf and carries it along over their heads to tangle in the lower branches of a tree at the outskirts of the playground area. They'll watch it fly away with expressions of confusion that melt quickly into resignation, and Nezumi will snort roughly beside him before shaking his head, shifting his weight, and turning around to climb back down.
While the tree isn't too terribly tall, there are no low-hanging limbs by which they can scramble up and into the branches above to disentangle the scarf. Shion wonders aloud if they shouldn't just leave it; he's got a spare one back at home, and if that's no good, there are plenty of second-hand stores to buy a new one at and--Fuck no, I had to do a complete reading of Leaves of Grass to afford that thing. I like it.
And Shion supposes that it takes a lot for Nezumi to attach affection to something, so he will relent--but his shoulders will still slump when Nezumi crouches and jerks a thumb behind him with the obvious intent for Shion to be the one flailing about trying to maintain his balance atop Nezumi while groping for the ends of the scarf.
The way Nezumi ruffles his hair in gratitude after snugly wrapping the scarf about his neck afterwards, though, will make the whole affair worth it.
But Nezumi's obsession with climbing and heights will not have been satisfied with the swings or the jungle gym or the tree, and he'll quickly locate a small playdome, scaling several smaller structures to launch himself onto the top, where he'll scramble up the slippery sides most inelegantly before managing to stand at the peak, huffing a satisfied breath that comes out as steam as he surveys his regal domain. He'll cock his head to the side in open invitation, but Shion will shake his head no with a chuckle--he'll pass this time, no sense tempting fate--and find a nice rotting see-saw to settle down upon, staring up at Nezumi in awe, as he always does, as the still night air is rent by a graceful melody that Nezumi will later remind him are carols, merry tunes sung long ago by families huddled around roaring fires to stave off the chill in the depths of Winter. Whatever they're called, Shion will find them fascinating, beautiful and exotic as any of the long soliloquies or flowing poetry that Nezumi often regaled him with; he's missed Nezumi's voice in all its incarnations--irritated snapping rants, biting rhetoric, passive-aggressive apologies and all--and he won't be shy about saying so.
Nezumi will stare at him dumbfounded for a moment before coughing purposefully and slipping down the side of the dome back onto level ground, hunching deeper in his coat and gesturing to the small satchel Shion will have toted along, changing the subject by questioning its contents.
Of course Shion will have brought snacks; this is, in some odd way, a picnic after all. Technically they'll have been prepared by his mother, but Nezumi will, for once, make no commentary, simply settling down on one of the rusted little spring riders and popping the bite-sized pastries into his mouth, his enjoyment fully evident by his facial expressions. Shion will stare at him, transfixed as ever, and try desperately to commit this moment to memory--old habit that he won't be keen to break--and when Nezumi tells him to take a picture, it'll last longer, he realizes that that's actually a very good idea, and laments that he didn't bring a camera.
But it's fine, Nezumi will reassure him with the same lazy confidence he's always had, the confidence that shouldn't instill such faith in Shion but still does: We can always come again.
Shion will still be finishing off his last bite, carefully licking his fingers free of the caramelized sugar dusting, when Nezumi hops down and is off again, tracks deep in the layer of new-fallen snow as he bends down to wipe his own sticky fingers in the powder. Shion will carefully bundle up the remaining pastries back into his satchel and set it aside, mimicking Nezumi's trick before realizing that--Nezumi's not just wiping his fingers now, he's making a snowball, and then Shion's stomach will sink with dread at the same time as a rush of adrenaline and excitement spills into his veins.
He'll laugh nervously at first, eyeing Nezumi warily as he smugly packs down the snow into a tight little ball with his gaze focused on Shion like a hunter on his prey. Oi, Nezumi--you're not gonna...
But oh yes, yes he is going to, and Shion will make a break for it, releasing an excited little yelp as he darts away and scoops up a handful of his own for what will surely be an epic counterattack.
Nezumi's first strike will fall wide of Shion, but his next will hit frightfully close to where he's ducked around behind a slide that's tipped onto its side, and Shion will just haphazardly toss his snowball in Nezumi's general direction out of reflex, pegging a tree trunk three paces to his right. They'll exchange a few more rounds of fire before Nezumi will remind him the hard way that he's got hunting instincts and years of fighting experience on Shion--and he'll find himself with a handful of snow sliding down his bare back and his white locks plastered against his head where Nezumi's snowball has found its target.
Chilly and frustrated, Shion will whirl around and grab him by the lapels--most unawares; their time apart has dulled Nezumi's already stunted ability to predict just how Shion will react when cornered--and jerk him around, sending him flying flat onto his back in the snow, where Shion will shortly join him as Nezumi tightens his grip painfully around Shion's wrist to ensure they go down together. They'll scuffle in the snow, rubbing powder in each other's hair and faces and shoving and grabbing and laughing like Shion isn't a wanted murderer and Nezumi hasn't been gone for too long, too too long and Nezumi will have Shion on his back in record time because he's that skillful and Shion likes it this way anyways--and then there'll be a long moment where it isn't playing anymore, there are no pastries sitting warm in their bellies, no melodies ringing still in their ears, just cold, stark silence and two hot, living beings sharing breath and space and each other.
Shion will swallow, breathing hard, and his fingers will tighten in the fabric over Nezumi's arms as he exerts just the slightest pressure, light enough that it could be interpreted as holding his balance, or trying to pull himself up--but really he just wants Nezumi to do what they've been doing this whole evening: to not think, to just do and let Shion confirm once more (always just once more, just to be sure) that he's here and real and they can be by each other's side or in each other's faces or staring at each other's backs or in any number of new, never attempted positions that are perfect for two people who could live without each other but can't bear the thought of having to try.
...Shion. I just--
There's the delicate clink of cutlery against a plate, and Shion jerks awake at the soft brush of his mother's lips against his temple as she sets a plate of cherry cake before him. "Eat this, and then get to bed; you've got that lunch with one of Rikiga-san's acquaintances in the afternoon. There'll be time aplenty to stare out your window tomorrow."
Shion smiles in the low light of their makeshift dining room, flushing at being caught daydreaming again, and he nods firmly. "...I know." She squeezes his shoulder once before brushing past him and up the stairs, exiting to creaks of aging wooden planks as she ascends.
He runs fingers through his hair, almost surprised to not feel the dampness of snow-soaked strands, and ruffles his locks with a sigh; this is getting ridiculous. He stands and trudges to the window to close it. It's snowing.
Far in the distance, he can just barely make out the outline of the crumbling wall through the darkness and snow, beyond which he knows lies a cold, empty underground apartment and a decrepit little playground no one ever visits. It seems a waste...but Shion doesn't dare tread in either alone.
The first winter after Nezumi leaves is the hardest, not for reasons of weather or scheduling or material hardships, but for hours spent waiting by open windows in stunts he knows Nezumi would never approve.
He latches the window tight and draws the shade.
Winter is supposed to be a time of waiting--withdrawing and settling in and biding one's time until Spring comes again. It's a long, dark season full of harshness and sharpness, equal parts numbness and pain, and can easily seep inside--mind and body--and steal away any warmth. It's a time of difficulty, a time that requires one to stand steadfast and strong and endure. A time to bear.
But on its heels there is always Spring again; never has there been a Winter without a Spring waiting at the other end--an unbroken promise that others have seen through...and that Shion supposes he will have to trust in as well.
So he can--and will--wait. He'll wait through this winter, and the next, and the one after that, and all winters thence, until Nezumi gives him reason to stop staring out of open windows, until he can close it against the chill because all that he needs is here, at his side, warm and steady beside him with a wry smile and a piping hot cup of cocoa and a light, playful voice reminding, You'll freeze what little brains you've got; get your ass in bed.
Winter is a time of waiting, but there are promises to keep.