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A Year Of Waiting

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Chapter 1: January - Remembrance

How strange are the tricks of memory, which, often hazy as a dream about the most important events of a man's life, religiously preserve the merest trifles.
Richard Burton

 

It was raining.

No, that was an understatement: It was pouring, storming, the wind lashing at unsuspecting branches, breaking them off just to throw them at windows, picking up litter that was lying around just to drop it everywhere on the streets and in the parks.

Accompanying the storm was a freezing cold. After all it was January, and even though winter was late this year, the temperatures were soon gonna drop below zero degree. Combining that with the furious wind made it obvious that hardly anyone would like to take a step outside if they could help it.

With a silent sigh Shion glanced outside the window. He had been so absorbed in his work that he had missed the first offshoots of the storm, and now he was trapped here in his office.

He had forgotten to bring an umbrella and if he went home without anything to shelter him from the vicious rain he was gonna catch a horrible cold, that much was for sure. Also he was all alone in the little two-room cottage building, located in the park, that had been former host of the moon-drop.

He preferred this seclusion occasionally, whenever he felt like he couldn't get anything done in the bustling headquarters of the Reconstruction Committee, where everyone who dropped by seemed to need his help with something or appeared to shove even more work onto him.

So he had made himself his own little office out here, with an assistant who worked in the second room. But today was Sunday, his assistant wasn't working and nowhere in this damn building was a spare umbrella. He had to remember to place one in the cupboard that stood beside the entrance door, so that he wouldn't be forced to stay in the future, just because of some stupid storm.

It wasn't as if there weren't sleeping accommodations in his office, after all he had to work late into the night alarmingly often but the old couch wasn't exactly comfortable. And on top of it, little Shion was currently staying over at his mother's since Inukashi said she needed some time off and Shion hadn't seen the little one in like forever, much to busy with  his work.

So he had hoped to spend the evening with them in the warm, cozy living room above his mother's bakery, perhaps tugged under a few blankets to shield them from the cold, perhaps with a few candles chasing away the darkness due to the potential power outage caused by the storm, surely with a lot of baked goods on the table and laughter and happiness.

Instead he was trapped here, equally in the dark and even though he couldn't exactly complain about the actual room-temperature, he still felt cold inside. A cold that couldn't even be chased away by the cup of steaming cocoa he held in his hands. It was his first cup since quite a while.

He usually drank coffee now. It had started out with a mixture that was almost only sugar and milk with a little drop of the black, bitter liquid, but as things had progressed, the rebuilding going on and organizational choices were required from him, the work gradually piling up on his desk he had found that mixture to be much to ineffective. Reducing sugar and milk by the same degree that the pile of papers grew, he had now reached the point where his coffee was as black as the night and his desk was hardly spot-able anymore beneath all the documents and books.

One of the reasons why he was working even though it was Sunday, by the way.

He could have got all of those documents and books as digital copies, but he had discovered that he worked much faster with real paper, enjoying the feeling of it, and the sound of his pencil scratching over the surface whenever he jotted down notes.

The only disadvantage was that it took up horribly much space, resulting in his buried desk.

But now he didn't want to think about work and since he wasn't trying to stay awake for work he had settled with the hot cocoa which was still much more to his liking than the bitter taste of coffee.

Too late had he recognized the similarities, too late had he realized that he hardly would be able to repress the memories, alone in the dark, with hot cocoa and a storm roaring in front of his window, to exhausted from work to distract himself by looking through more documents.

So here he was, standing at the window, giving in to his fate, to the unpreventable.

Here he was, thinking about Nezumi.

Two years had passed since Nezumi had left him. Two years, seven month, 28 days and roughly 20 hours.
He'd kept track.
And he hated himself for it.

The first months had been the worst. He had jumped every time when he had heard Tsukiyo squeak, expecting it to be Hamlet or Cravat or one of Nezumi's robotic mice, telling him he was coming back.

Everything had reminded him of Nezumi, every book, every meeting with Rikiga, with Inukashi.
The way the bed felt so spacious and cold without another body to share it with—because seriously, Tsukiyo definitely didn't matter much when he decided to sleep with Shion instead of at his mother's—the way how the artificial light in the bakery was so much brighter than the flickering flame of the old gas lantern that had illuminated the raw stone walls.

Every droplet of water reminded him of the dripping wet twelve-year old that had suddenly appeared in his life, turning it upside down and hitting him with much more force than the typhoon of that day could ever have.

Every passerby made him hear Nezumi's mocking voice, how he would've made fun of them, said that they were to weak or to thick or to stupid looking, how they looked like they'd lived a life full of luxuries and devoid of any deprivation.

And there was cooking, reminding him of the stew that had been their usual dinner. Buying meat brought back how Nezumi had taught him how to bargain in his usual harsh but effective manner.

Whenever Shion had been to soft at bargaining Nezumi had forced him to work overtime at Inukashi's, until he re-earned the difference between the price he paid and the price Nezumi had allowed him to pay.

After a few days of blistered hands and arms that felt as if he wouldn't be able to lift them in the next three years he had started to try much harder. He became a lot better at arguing, more adamant to stand his ground with regard to the price. Surely, he still used to spend more money then Nezumi, since he wasn't capable of the flirting Nezumi used to get his food at the lowest price possible, but he had gradually picked up a few techniques and those still came in handy whenever he went shopping nowadays.

Fish used to remind him of Nezumi too, since he instinctively avoided it, the fact that Nezumi didn't like it having been etched into his subconsciousness.

But not only those supposedly 'major' things triggered memories. Sometimes it was only waking up in the morning, wondering what special ingredient he should add to the stew that day to make it more interesting before he realized there was no reason to cook a stew, no weary, grumpy, hungry teenager coming home in the evening to appreciate his efforts or complain about the poor seasoning.

Sometimes he thought he heard Nezumi's voice in the way the wind drafted around his ears, thought he spotted Nezumi's hair in the crowd or felt like he was being watched by those entrancing gray eyes.

But whenever he turned around, whenever he looked closely, whenever he stopped to listen no one was there. It was only him and his imagination.

The turning point had come when he had been out with Rikiga one day, sitting in some sort of fast food booth, absentmindedly studying whoever walked by, listening to him talking about how he was publishing real articles once again, how beautiful Karan had grown and how annoying Inukashi was. Shion smiled and nodded and agreed from time to time for good measure, so he wouldn't seem rude, as a result agreeing to help Rikiga with the research for his article about how the reconstruction was going.
Then a girl had walked by, wearing a pale blue summer-dress. It was floaty and reached down to her knees, with a little flower on the left strap.

Not even aware of if he had thought about how Nezumi would've probably looked better in that dress than the girl did.

It had took him a few moments, much too long in his opinion, to really realize what he had just thought and to that his reaction was instantaneous: a furious blush had settled on his cheeks.

“What's up, Shion? You're burning up. Don't tell me you've caught a cold, have you?”, Rikiga had asked him worriedly.

“Oh, no, it's nothing.”, Shion had tried to wave the matter aside, but since he knew it wasn't exactly believable, considering the burning he felt in his cheeks, he added: “I guess I'm just a little overworked.”

“You should take it easy, Boy. It's not good to work till you drop!”

The funny thing was, that at that point he hadn't even been particularly busy. Sure, he'd always had something to do, but he had time to help his mom with the shop occasionally or to go out an afternoon with little Shion.

It was after that talk, after realizing how desperately he had to miss Nezumi, if even girls started to remind him of the grey-eyed actor/actress, that he had decided something had to change.

So in opposition to Rikiga's advice he had started to take on more and more tasks, until not only his desk but his thoughts about Nezumi were buried beneath work as well.
His waking hours he had spent working until he dropped into bed, falling asleep that fast it came akin to passing out from exhaustion.

His mother was worried, Rikiga often scolded him for making his mother worry, Inukashi told him that she could use help with the dogs some time and that little Shion missed him, but Shion continued with his new-found living pattern.

That way, more than two years had passed with him barely thinking of Nezumi.

As of lately he'd even been able to reduce the amount of work and increase his free time without falling back into old habits, like being reminded of Nezumi at everything he saw or did, which was one of the reasons why he had actually looked forward to his first free afternoon in a while.

Still, as he stood there, facing the storm and nipping on his hot chocolate, he slowly felt the frustration subside, and the cozy warmth that started to fill him surely didn't only originate from his drink.

Thinking of Nezumi still resulted in a pang of pain, still made him feel like there was something missing inside of him, as if he was incomplete, but the feeling was dulled and as he didn't avoid it  anymore, he realized that he could actually remember the time they'd spent together fondly.

He closed his eyes and felt as if he could smell the damp scent of Nezumis underground library, a smell of old, slightly yellowed paper mixed with a hint of the ingredients and spices he used for cooking.

He could almost hear Hamlet, Cravat and Tsukiyo as they scurried around the room and over the books, perhaps searching for some crumbs of bread.
And there was the noise of Nezumi breathing calmly, sitting beside him on the sofa, completely at ease and defenseless as absorbed as he was in his book.
Yeah, the way Nezumi—who always was stiff and shut of around anyone else—relaxed around Shion, finally let go of the mask he was hiding behind outside, stopped acting, even if it was only for those little moments—that fact made Shion feel content, warm and... proud.

He was proud that he was a person Nezumi could feel safe with, even though he still wasn't quite sure how he had become someone worth of this honor.
But most of all he was thankful that Nezumi had chosen him out of all persons to open up to.

A little smile crept onto his face and it stayed there even as he reopened his eyes, kinda loosing the mental image, the scents and the sounds, the feeling remained.
Another sip of hot chocolate, a droplet on the window, suddenly a thunderbolt, then a flickering of lights.

Nothing of those things could shake him right now. He noticed how the time passed only by the way the rain started to subside eventually, until it was only barely dripping anymore, and he could finally leave.

He unhurriedly walked into the little kitchen, washed his cup and left it in the dish rack to dry.
Then he went back into his office, gathered all of his important belongings, put them into his bag and finally shrugged into his coat.
But before walking out of the door, he turned around and threw a last glance at the mug.

I guess being trapped here wasn't that bad after all.
It surely made me realize a few things.

And he knew that from now on he would always be reminded of this afternoon whenever he saw that certain mug, would be reminded of Nezumi and their time together, but he found he was actually grateful for that.
Because perhaps...
, he decided as he stepped outside and pulled the door close behind him, ...perhaps it isn't such a bad thing to bask in remembrance from time to time.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: February - Understanding

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.
- Albert Einstein


"I don't think this is going to be enough...", Shion mused, studying the ingredients piled on the table doubtingly. "I knew I should have bought more."

"Oh don't worry, it's plenty.", Karan replied, stepping around her son to reach for the table give the products displayed so conveniently an inspection herself. "It's gonna get measured either way and that's more than enough, in regard to weigh, no matter how little it looks."

"Hmm...", Shion replied, who still didn't sound exactly convinced. Sure, from a mathematical point of view he had bought what was needed, but it looked so small on the big table, especially compared to the amount of flour, seasoning and other things that were piled on it when his mother prepared her baked goods for display and selling.

"Now come on, Shion, the other one's are gonna be here soon, you should hurry and dress in something less fancy.", she said, as she ushered him towards the staircase.

"I don't think you can call this outfit fancy, mum...", he complained. After all he was only dressed in a faintly blue jeans, combined with a black sweater he had bought a few days ago.

"But the clothes are barely a week old, it'd be a shame if you were to ruin them.", Karan said in her typical I'm-your-mother-so-it's-useless-to-argue-with-me voice.

And well, she had a point.

So with a sigh Shion gave in. "Okay, I'll be back in a second."

"Great, I'll handle the remaining preparation, so no need to worry about that."

With that she flashed her son a last smile and returned to the kitchen. Shion wasn't quite sure, but he thought he might even have heard her humming to herself happily.

He studied her retreating back for a second, before it was hidden by the curtains that separated the kitchen and the sales room. A smile etched itself onto his features. His mother was quite happy nowadays, with the bakery running as great as it was and with Shion being able to visit unusually often this month.

Perhaps it was due to his new-found resolution that he could finally stop running away and hiding from his memories by burying himself beneath work or perhaps it simply was his co-workers and his boss' impression that he wasn't taking enough time off, and thus his efficiency suffered.

Shion tended to doubt that his efficiency decreased by the least bit, because even if since his time in the privileged course almost eight years had passed already, the taught discipline had been etched into his very being; from when he was four years old on, the eight years of indoctrination had made him pretty much resistant to anything that might reduce his productivity.

Still he wasn't one to complain about free time nowadays, enjoying the company of his mother whenever he got to see her. And no matter how much he loved his own flat, a really sweet, little, cozy one, that he had spent a lot of money and time on interior design for, the one he had collected as many books as possible for to fill the empty shelves with, no matter how much it felt like home there, it lacked some sort of warmth there. It wasn't that he didn't like staying there, or as if the cold was omnipresent in his flat, but whenever he was at his mother's he still noticed the difference.

It was the smell of bread, the gentle light of the sun streaming in through the windows, the little bouquet of flowers on the counter. Surprisingly they weren't even showing any signs of withering yet, although they were ten days old already. They had been a present of Rikiga to his mum, a valentines present. He remembered how she had blushed, only slightly but visible to Shion nonetheless.
And she had smiled, really gently. Her mood had been suspiciously good for the remainder of the day.

After all Inukashi had already warned Shion that he better should watch out that he wouldn't end up with Rikiga as a stepfather.

"Shion? You ready yet? I think they're gonna be here soon.", his mother inquired from the kitchen, pulling him out of his musings.

"Not quite ready, but I'll only need a few more seconds.", he answered and didn't even wait for his mother's potential answer before dashing up to his room.

The one he was staying in while visiting his mother had been a storeroom, and since it wouldn't have been good for the ingredients to be exposed to direct sunlight, there were blinds that Shion kept half-closed most of the time. Thus the light was a little shady as he entered the room, but he didn't exactly complain.

He had taken a liking to rooms that were only lighted by a flickering flame, or a not so flickering one, but a flame nonetheless.

Right now the lantern wasn't lit, for obvious reasons like him not being in the room, it being 10 in the morning and the sun thus shining through the little space the blinds didn't cover, making the light of flames unnecessary.

Shion rushed over to his cupboard. No matter how often he tried to convince his mother that she could use it for storing her own things, she refused, telling him she didn't need it and that he should feel free to keep a few clothes and things of him there. He had stopped his attempts of persuasion by now. Probably his mother felt as if Shion was inclined to come back from time to time if a part of his things was still in this old cupboard.

Shion knew that she knew that he would always come back, no matter if there were some of his belongings here or not, but he guessed it was something emotional, something that couldn't be explained with logic or reason.

Although he had to admit that it was indeed convenient for him to have his stack of clothes tucked in here, because that way he could drop by and spend the night whenever he felt like it, without worrying about next day's fresh clothes.

So now he opened the doors and rustled through the little amount of outfits he had left here.

In the end he simply decided on one pair of his old beige trousers, one that he probably hadn't worn in about two years, so not even his mother could possibly declare them as 'to fancy'.
Sure, they were a pale color, closer to white than to brown, but he reasoned that when dealing with dough, darker colors were probably at a greater risk than pale ones.

The choice of a fitting shirt proved to be rather difficult. He pulled out one after another, but all that he came up with were business shirts, ones that didn't seem appropriate for baking.

But just as he was about to stop caring and simply take one of the less official collared shirts, he discovered something that he had almost forgotten was there.

Buried underneath all the other clothes, tucked into the last corner of the cupboard lay one shirt he hadn't once worn, and which was well-worn nonetheless.

Carefully, as if it was actually going to break if he touched it to roughly, he took it out and hold it in front of him so that he could study it. It was a simple longsleeve, two-colored, the sleeves and the collar being a dark blue, almost bordering into black while the torso itself was an even paler beige than the one of his trousers.

Nezumi's shirt...

Such a long time had passed since Shion had collected it from the basement chamber that he had forgotten it was there. He wasn't even sure as to why he had taken it with him when he had gone to collect a few of the books he intended to keep or still had to read from the chamber, back then, shortly after Nezumi had left. He had only discovered the shirt when he had unpacked his bag at home that day and figured he must have taken it subconsciously.

Afterwards it had been squashed into the deepest corner of his cupboard, the memories it conjured up being to distracting and painful at that time.

But now he simply stared at it, and felt a sort of happiness rising that he hadn't felt in a while. He was close to the edge of giddiness, and he felt stupid for it, but the mere sight of Nezumi's shirt made him feel as if some of his presence was here in the room.

Without a second thought he changed into the beige trousers and pulled the shirt over his head.

It had long since lost it's smell—which was to be expected after being packed away for almost three years—and it was still a little too large for Shion, but it was a if something had been etched into that shirt, something that made Shion suddenly feel more confident, as if some of its previous owners attitude had rubbed off.

The chime of the doorbell brought him out his musings and made him jump up.

He'd been much to absorbed in his find and now the first guests had already arrived. He simply hoped he hadn't shoved too much of his preparation work onto his mother only because he'd been lost in his musings.

He certainly needed to stop getting lost in thoughts all the time. It was a bad habit he had found himself indulge in much to often nowadays.

"Anyone in?", a voice wafted up from the sales room, a voice he instantly recognized, although it was one he hadn't expected.

"Oh darling, it's great to see the invitation reached you and you actually came. It's been much too long since I've seen you for longer than a few minutes.", his mother happily greeted the newcomer and the muffled noises of complaint told him that his mother had pulled her characteristic hugging move, feared by pretty much every West-Block resident it had ever been performed on.

And when Shion emerged from his room, he saw that he indeed hadn't mistaken the voice: Right there at the foot of the stairs his mother had Inukashi in a dead tight grip.

"Inukashi. It's really nice to see you here.", he said as he moved down to greet her as well.

"What's with you and your polite speech. Have you been trained that good by the officials in the reconstruction committee? You sound like an old lady who's greeting the guests for her evening party.", Inukashi snorted.

"Just the greeting I expected.", Shion answered with a laugh. "But seriously, I'm happy to see you, though I didn't expect you here."

"Well, since she said she always liked my pies, rolls and muffins, I thought she might be in for the teaching as well so I sent her an invitation.", Karan explained, after she finally let go of the now thoroughly ruffled looking Inukashi. Her eyes widened slightly with surprise as she studied Shion.

"I didn't remember you having a shirt like that.", she noticed. "Have you been shopping lately? It's a little too big for you."

"Oh, this.", Shion pointed to his chest. "It's not new, I've simply never worn it since I got it."

His mother looked as if she was about to say something else, but another chime prevented her from doing so as the door opened once again. So she decided to drop the matter in favour of rushing to greet her next guest instead.

Shion was about to follow her, when he noticed Inukashi's gaze. She had recognized the shirt, no doubt. And perhaps it had come with age, but in the whole three years Inukashi had been surprisingly considerate, hardly ever mentioning Nezumi for she knew how Shion had always flinched inwardly at the sound of the name alone.

But she was not exactly a good actress, and her expression instantly gave away when she was refraining herself from saying anything about Nezumi, because then her face held a certain sad compassion which she probably wouldn't ever admit to, if Shion were to sound her out about it.

"I know it's his.", he said, and the way her expression changed from compassion to a sort of disbelieve instantly was almost comical.

"You know? But then why are you wearing it?" Inukashi asked incredulously, before turning into full-teasing mode, as if all of her concerns of hurting him had simply dissolved. "Do you expect him to hurry back here simply because you're wearing his things?"

"It'd surely be a nice side-effect.", he half-joked, although somewhere in the depth of his mind he noted how much he actually wished for that 'side-effect' to happen.

Wait, not to indulge in thoughts for the rest of the day, that's the plan.

He shook his head slightly to chase the dark thoughts away. It was a lovely Wednesday afternoon, the sun was finally shining once again, reflecting from the snow so that Shion was almost willed to go out with sunglasses because the white was that bright, and his mother had taken a day off to teach them some of her recipes.

'Them' being Shion himself, apparently Inukashi, and one of the new arrivals, Lili.

"Shion! It's been so long since I've last seen you.", she greeted him happily. "You look good."

Shion laughed lightly at the compliment and smiled back at her. "You do as well. But I don't think it's been such a long time. I saw you on valentine's day, after all. And I wanted to thank you again for the chocolate, it was really delicious."

Lili blushed slightly and started fiddling with her hands, as the door opened once again and the last expected guest entered.

"Sorry we're a little late, Rico didn't find his scarf so we had to turn the whole flat upside down since my mother didn't want to let him go without it.", Karan apologized breathlessly, as if she had run half of the way.

"Oh no problem, we've got all day. I'm just happy you could make it.", Karan greeted them with a wide smile.

"Oh, Shion, you're here too?", Karan noted as her gaze wandered over the bunch of people they were developing into.

"Yeah, I'm off work for the rest of the week.", Shion explained. "And thanks a lot for your chocolate on valentine's day, they were great."

"No problem, I'm glad you liked them, after Rico had done his... well experiments as to what ingredient might be the special something.", Karan shrugged it off. She had grown into a quite tough fourteen-year-old. "But will you read to us someday, if you haven't got to work?"

"Of course.", Shion promised. Their reading times had gotten considerably less, but Shion tried his hardest to invite the children over at least once a month. By now Karan had learned how to read herself, but she said she still preferred him reading aloud to her reading by herself, or her reading for Rico, who wasn't fluent enough yet to read on his own.

"I want you to read to me, too.", Lili complained.

"No problem, you can simply join us. I'll tell you three when I've got time, but now shouldn't we be concentrating on the task at hand?"

"Damn right you airhead, we haven't got all day.", Inukashi interjected from where she was leaned against the counter, getting impatient already.

"Yes, I think we should seriously get started. After all it'd be a real shame if my two cute little assistants would have taken the long way down here and wouldn't even learn the new recipe I intended to teach them.", Shion's mother said and blinked at Karan and Lili.

Both nodded fiercely and dutifully headed for the kitchen, Rico following right after Karan, and Inukashi gesturing for Shion to go first.

In the little kitchen all of the baking utensils were already prepared, lined neatly on each side of the table, and some more on the counter. It was a well practised layout, as this wasn't the first teaching session Karan held, although it was the first one with the impressive attendants-number of five.

A few month after the wall had come downKaran's bakery was no longer only an insider's tip for the people from Lost Town. Due to the publicity of delivering free catering to the workers who were trying to rebuild the destroyed houses in the West Block or cleaned up the debris, her baked goods were literally on everyone's lips and not much later she was getting difficulties to handle all the baking herself.

Back then Shion had tried to help her out, but with him having to participate in meetings on a regular basis he wasn't exactly that reliable as a continuous assistant.

So one day, when he met Karan and her brother again on an inspection round through the West Block, checking how the conditions there were and what the reconstruction committee should tend to first, he was overjoyed to know they'd survived. And spontaneously he had asked the little girl if she was interested in a job as an assistant in a bakery. Sure, she was young but she certainly needed the money and Shion knew how very mature she could act. And Nezumi himself had called her bright, so Shion had no doubt she would dutifully tend to any task she might be given.

And his mother loved children, so she surely wouldn't mind it if they were the ones who helped her out.

About one year later Lili had joined them as well. She didn't get paid much and only worked on the days she didn't have to go to school, and even then only for two hours at most, since his mother in no way wanted to take her free time from her, the time to play with her friends outside, but she saw how much fun Lili had so she allowed the few hours nonetheless.

At first both girls had only been doing little tasks, like arranging the cakes and muffins in the display, or preheating the oven. But as Karan became more confident that she could rely on them she had started her teaching sessions, starting with easy recipes, little by little teaching them enough so that they were able to take the work of preparing a dough or baking a whole tray of muffins from her.

Shion had joined whenever he was free, as the sessions where usually set during the week, because he had developed a real liking to baking.

And yeah, by now it was more or less an open event, with Inukashi stopping by occasionally, Karan taking Rico with her or Rikiga dropping in to try and prove to Shion's mother that he had changed from being a drunkard into a potential house-man.

Although Shion had to admit that right now the kitchen looked as crowded as it never had before. The five of them plus Karan barely had enough space in it, but somehow they all managed to find a place in front of the needed tools, with exception of Rico who was working with his sister either way.

"Okay." Karan intoned in her typical teacher voice she always took on for those lessons. "Since we're finally all settled, I guess it's about time to start."

She moved to the head of the table, where she had prepared her own working space, so that everyone would be able to watch her.

"The pastry we're going for today is muffin-cake. It's pretty easy compared to last time's pie, but that doesn't make it any less delicious. For a whole tray you need: The cake mould...", She held up a rectangular shaped metal springform pan that was only barely smaller than the tray it was placed beside, "...a whisk, a mixer...", She pointed to the white mixer she already used for six years now, but that somehow didn't seem to stop working and the metal whisk sitting beside it, "... and most importantly the ingredients." With that she pointed to the pile of flour, milk, butter and all the other things Shion had bought just that morning.

"The amount needed to make one standard sized cake is: 440g flour, 200g sugar, 240g sugar, 250 milliliter mild, four eggs, two teaspoonfuls of baking powder and finally...", She concluded showing off the ingredients in general by pulling a bar of chocolate out, laying it down on the cutting board in front of her. "...we need 350g of chocolate. Actually it would be most convenient if you already had chocolate drops, but since those are hard to find and disproportionally more expensive, a normal chocolate bar is okay as well.

The first thing we need to do is chop the chocolate into little pieces, so that they'll be able to partially melt in the oven. If you take the whole 350g and aren't that experienced it takes a little while, because you have to do it carefully as not to hurt yourself.

That's why we start with preparing the chocolate, so that we won't have to stop in the middle of mixing the ingredients for the dough."

She glanced into the round as if to check whether all of pupils were able to cope with her tempo. As everyone faced back at her with eager eyes, she continued. "Okay, so that's basically what we're gonna do today. Now I guess it'd be best if you measured the ingredients you'll need. Since you've got smaller trays I noted down a fourth of the ingredients needed for a standard-sized cake for you."

Her words made the kitchen break into a lively bustle as all of them scurried around, measuring either with the help of a scale for the solid components or a measuring cup for the milk.

Inukashi almost made a mess by toppling over the flour after she had missed the 110g for the fifth time, barely able to contain her anger and only Lili's fast intervention of taking the flour herself stopped the kitchen from ending up looking as white as the scenery Shion could see outside the window.

And while Lili had saved the room from being buried in white, she had her own problems with pouring the milk into the cup without splashing too much. As she looked as if she was going to get really frustrated, Shion came over to help her by showing her how she should do it correctly.

"There you go. You see, when you pour milk in, the milk flows out of the beverage carton, but if you tilt it too much the liquid will block the way so that no air can stream back in to replace the volume of the milk, thus creating low pressure inside the package. That's why after a certain amount of milk has flown out, there's this little hiccup-like thing, when the milk spills out uncontrollably. That's because the low-pressure inside is trying to compensate the missing volume by sucking in air. So you simply have to take care that while pouring, you always let enough air stream back and then you won't risk spilling milk."

Lili eyed him with awe, and although Shion wasn't quite sure whether she really cared or understood what he had tried to teach her, she nodded happily as if she indeed had.

"So, now that everyone seems to be ready I guess we should get started.", Karan exclaimed, stopping the lively bustle and providing some sort of silence.

"As I already said, it's best to start with chopping the chocolate. Since that's a rather difficult task, please be careful. And you, Rico, let your big sister handle this one. You'll be able to try once you're older, okay?", Karan warned them, before she slowly demonstrated how to hold the knife and how to chop the chocolate correctly into the right size.

Shion imitated her movements, just as the rest did, but since he'd already been helping his mother with chocolate muffins for a while, he was finished earlier than most of the others. Noticing how Lili seemed to struggle a little, he turned to help her once again. After all she was the second youngest of the participants, and being two years older than Rico didn't mean all of her clumsiness with handling a knife had dissipated.

But she was grateful for Shion's help, so Shion reasoned she didn't see it as an insult to her abilities.

Inukashi however stood out with her expert handling of the knife. The years of having to defend herself in the West Block had been a harsh teacher, and it seemed almost out of place that she was now using the knife to do something as harmless as preparing ingredients for a cake.

In some part of his being Shion felt proud to see this. He felt proud because it meant that the reconstruction committee's—and thus his work as well—had made it possible for this scene to happen, for Inukashi no longer having to use her knife for defending but instead for baking.

And that in itself was one of the many little achievements, that made him believe what he did had a deeper meaning.

"What're you starin' at?", Inukashi asked him suspiciously as she caught his gaze.

"Oh it's nothing, I was just impressed by how fast you're at preparing the chocolate. You never occurred to me as a particularly experienced in cooking or baking.", Shion answered and scratched his head sheepishly.

"Now, don't underestimate me!", Inukashi simply replied, puffing herself up.

"Are you all done?", Karan's inquiring voice prevented Shion from replying.

With a glance around she assured that indeed everyone had produced a respectable pile of chopped chocolate.

"Okay, then we're all set to finally get to the real dough preparations!
First step: Stirring the butter until it's creamy. This one's quite tricky since if you keep you butter in the fridge it's much to hard to be stirred and you don't stand a chance to get it anywhere near creamy.
In summer you can simply take the butter out of the fridge a few hours before you want to prepare the dough if it's hot enough, but since that's rarely the case I've got two tricks. As you've probably already noticed your butter's soft enough.
I placed it on the heater so that it would melt a little, but you have to be careful with that since too much heat isn't good for the butter. If you haven't got that much time you can also put half of the butter into the microwave until it's almost completely melted. Then you simply pour it back into the bowl. The heat and the liquid state of the melted butter will make it easier to stir the other half into the desired creamy state as well.", Karan explained while already busily whirling her whisk around in her bowl.

The battle with the butter proved to be a tougher one than Shion had expected. Somehow there always seemed to get too many pieces stuck in the little spaces in between the metal strings of the whisk, and once his butter was finally in a state that at least in some sort of way resembled the one of his mother's butter, his arms hurt as if he was back from a long day of washing dogs.

He surely hadn't thought that whisking butter could be such a difficult task. His mother had granted Karan and Lili the help of melting half of the butter, since they hardly had enough strength in their arms. Karan had protested a little, but after she had tried for another minute without any result she had given in nonetheless.

Inukashi of course had fought her way through the whole thing almost effortlessly and Shion seriously wondered if she might not want to trade her hotel hosting business for a career as a cook, with her abilities to handle knifes and whisks and all other kinds of cooking devices seemingly without any problem. Or she might open up a little restaurant inside her hotel. Shion might even get the reconstruction committee to come across with a little money for a little renovation of the hotel if Inukashi promised to host a few homeless people for free for a little while until the reconstruction committee would be able to build more houses.

"You're watching me with that weird gaze again, Shion, like you're having one of those airheaded, crazy ideas of yours. Stop it, would you? It's seriously creeping me out, got it?", Inukashi told him with an irritated huff, and drew her arms up in front of her chest, as if to put as much distance between herself and Shion's stare.

"Oh, sorry, I was simply spacing out.", Shion apologized and concentrated back on the task at hand. Yeah, there might be a way to convince the committee members to give a little money but there was no way to make Inukashi give away free stays. She hadn't changed that much.

After they all had produced a buttery creamy substance, they added the sugar, just like his mother instructed them to, and after stirring the substance until the sugar and the butter had mingled the egg came to join them.

Breaking the egg without producing a slimy mess was more a challenge of caution instead of strength as the whirling had been, so this time almost everyone succeeded with the exception of Rico and Inukashi.

Rico was too tentative with his initial hit to form one big crack in the shell. So in the end he broke it open by almost completely smashing it into little pieces. Inukashi's try ended pretty much the same, but for the opposite reason as her initial hit was that strong it crashed the egg to pieces.

A string of hardly restrained cursing had followed, but as she caught the gaze of Shion's mother she quickly silenced and instead thanked Lili for helping her clean up the mess.

The second egg had successfully made it into the dough without further complications for both parties, and so they had continued with mixing the flour and the baking powder in a separate bowl.

Then they finally needed the mixer.

"Good, now comes another difficult part, since now we're gonna make one dough by alternately adding the flour-mix and the milk to the butter-cream. For this purpose we'll use the mixer, but you'll have to be careful not to give it too much power, since then the milk or the butter would splutter. So please go easy on the dough at the beginning. Once all ingredients have properly mingled you can turn it up a little before adding the chocolate.", Karan explained.

Surprisingly this time no one produced a complete mess, and even the task of adding milk and flour alternately in little bits without making it splatter everywhere was easier than expected. Adding the chocolate was literally a piece of the cake afterwards and mere minutes later all of them proudly glanced down at the finished dough.

Now there only was the task of rubbing butter into the cake mould left, so that the they would be able to detach the cake easier from it afterwards. Then they poured the dough into the mould and one after another carried their product to the big oven, where Karan took them and arranged them in a way everyone's cake would fit.

"Great, we're done! All that's left now is to wait. The oven should be heated to approximately 180°C, but I can't tell you an exact time it needs to remain in there, since every dough's different and thus needs a different time to bake properly. The right timing is one that comes with experience, but for the beginning you should simply start checking on it after about 15 or 20 minutes, when you've got a whole tray, or once you can smell the cake. Since you've used much less dough, we should keep an eye on those. After all less dough means it'll be ready sooner."

"But how do we know if they're finished if we check on them?", Lili asked, slightly nervous that her cake might burn inside the oven. She had spent so much effort on it that it would be a real shame. "I mean, I can see if it looks good on the outside, but I already messed up your cheese muffins at home by taking them out to early..."

"Oh, I didn't show you the trick yet?", Karan wondered aloud. "Then I'll have to catch up on that. Once the cake looks like it might be ready, that is. First of all we should use the time to get this place a little cleaned up."

With that she pointedly shoot a glance around the messy table, let her eyes ghost over the remnants of egg-shell, over the white mass of flour mixed with milk, the occasional brown stains where the chocolate chopping had been a little too rough or simply at the remaining bowls, plastered with whatever dough hadn't wanted to let go of the comfortable white plastic it was sticking to.

All in all the kitchen had already seen worse days, like that one time when Shion had attempted to bake his mother a birthday cake as a thirteen-year-old... But that was another story and—with Shion's luck—would be told another time.

It only took seven minutes, then the entrancing smell of cake started to fill the kitchen, making Shion's mouth water. It was insane how something could smell this good.
He only hoped the taste wouldn't fall short of the smell that much.

And while all of her pupils were still busy trying to restore the original state of the kitchen, Karan checked on the cakes. They weren't anywhere brown yet, but the expanding of the dough had already started, which meant they were well on their way.

Another seven minutes passed and while the surfaces of the kitchentable and working counters finally were almost visible once again, the cake finally took on its golden outer appearance.

"So everyone, I guess it's time now to show you how to check the cake without having to cut it open.", Karan summoned them. "For doing that we only need a skewer. A metal one's the best, but a wooden one would do as well."

Then she opened the oven and carefully pulled the tray out far enough so that she could stab into the cake with the skewer. As she pulled it back out, it was coated by a little bit of dough and melted chocolate.

"This one isn't completely ready yet, since the dough's still sticking to the skewer. Once you can stab into the cake without getting dough stuck on it, your cake's ready."

She put the cake back into the oven and let everyone check on their cakes themselves.

Karan's and Rico's cake was ready to be taken out, just like Shion's. His mother's cake was ready after one minute, Inukashi's needed about two more minutes, Lili's another four.

But then finally all cakes were out on the counter to cool down, and the smell made all of them want to sink their teeth into them instantly. But they refrained from doing to, since it would have probably been the fastest way to burnt mouths and that wouldn't do the taste any good for sure.

So they patiently waited, and continued with their task of cleaning up the kitchen, while Karan prepared a pot of Earl Grey, so that they'd be able to have a nice little afternoon tea, after they'd worked so hard.

As Shion faced outside he noticed that the sun had passed meridiem by now. Without him realising, they had spent almost three hours with their baking session and now the clock was nearing 2pm already.

Shion's stomach already started to complain about the lack of food as well, so he was more than happy when the tea was ready, the table laid and the cake cooled down.

His mother cut one piece out of each cake—so that everyone would be able to taste their own make—and placed them in front of their baker.

"Now then, thanks for listening to my lesson so obediently today. I hope you had a little fun and from the smell and look of it, the result isn't too bad as well. Seems like I'll be able to incorporate that recipe to the ones you'll be able to perform pretty much by yourself, if you'll practice it for a few more times." She announced after she had settled down at the table herself, her last words specially directed towards Karan and Lili, who shied a little away from the compliment that was indicated by the way Shion's mother blinked at them.

"But now enough of learning and practice. You all did a really good job, so let's enjoy the cake!"

The rest of the afternoon passed almost faster than the baking session in the morning had, with laughter and a lot of tea and cake, leaving all of them happy and stuffed by the time their little society dissipated.

Karan and Rico were the first ones to leave, since their mother was awaiting them home and Karan had promised to help her with making dinner. The leftover cake was tucked in one of the packaging used for sale, so that they could take it home with them easily.

Lili left only mere minutes later, since the sun was almost setting and her father had forbidden her to go out alone in the dark.

Shion offered to accompany her home, but Lili declined, saying she was big enough to go the way herself. After all she lived only a few streets away and although you could sense the dark coming, it wasn't dark yet, the streets only painted in a faint red light.

So Shion heeded her wishes and only saw her off, waving after her as she hurried the way uphill, the cake securely pressed to her chest. It would be a present to her little brother—she had promised him—who was going to turn two in a few weeks.

He was one of the children who had been born to the new world, to a world without any walls. Form him it would be normal for everyone to be the same, since that was the only way he would know it. He wouldn't put the persons into categories, like inside or outside the wall. Not that anyone inside the wall ever had thought in those categories anyway. For them they had been the only people.

But those born in the last three years, for them even the faint idea of such a categorization would probably seem illogical. Shion wanted them to be free to think above boundaries, he wanted to give them the possibility to doubt, to question, to change. To do all the things he himself hadn't been allowed by No.6.

If you would've been born in this time, Nezumi, would you be able to understand my point? Would you be able to see that in the essence, every human is the same?, Shion quietly wondered as he watched the ruins of the once proud building that had separated their two worlds, all possible shades of red and orange ghosting over them, painted by the setting sun. Or perhaps you already understand, somewhere deep inside you, that the world never was died in black and white to begin with. Because nothing is completely black, neither is anything completely white. And aren't it all the different shades of grey that make life so interesting and difficult to navigate through?

Yeah, even this 'new world' wasn't completely black or white, it wasn't perfect. But that wasn't what Shion was aiming for in the first place.

No matter how much it pained him, the little group of people founding No.6—his mother included—had aimed for perfection, for utopia and ended up creating a dystopia.

In the last years Shion had read a lot of books—some of them being dystopian novels—and he had started wondering if utopia was only an illusion, a state that couldn't ever be reached.

So he wasn't aiming for perfect. He wasn't as deluded as to seriously think he and the reconstruction committee would be able to reach perfection. What he was going for was a world that wasn't perfect but better than the last one. A free world, where as many people as possible could live the way they wanted.

He wanted an optimal world, not a perfect one. Three years ago he probably wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between those two terms, were they both expressing the longing for the 'best', but from different starting points.

"Now, you airhead, got hypnotized by the sun again?" Inukashi's snarly remark brought him back to reality. "Made you waste a lot of hours you could have spent washing dogs back then."

She had stepped behind him now and her coat and the package in her hands told him that she was ready for leaving as well.

"Kind of." Shion admitted. "I guess this is goodbye then for now. Say hello to little Shion from me."

"Your mother already instructed me to. If you're so fond of him I'd gladly bring him over again some time soon. He's getting into his defiant phase and is hard like hell to handle sometimes. But I guess your mom's cake will be a good persuasion for him to behave.", Inukashi sniggered and raised the brown bag. "Glad I'll be able to assure supply myself now."

"Nice to hear that today was helpful. I admittedly already wondered what you were doing here, but I guess that makes sense. And sure, we'd gladly watch after little Shion. He's always behaving around my mom."

"Yeah, cake magic, as I said." Inukashi reasoned. "But I really should get going or Rikiga might resort to alcohol to get little Shion to sleep. It wouldn't be the first but surely his last time if he would do so. But since he's probably the best West-Block-Babysitter at hand I'd be kinda sorry for disabling him."

"Then I'd better not keep you any longer.", Shion replied and he was only 97 percent sure that Inukashi was joking, about the booze and disabling Rikiga. So instead he rather stepped forward to hug her goodbye.

Inukashi instantly stiffened and after about three seconds—Shion was proud of her for having lasted that long this time—she decidedly pushed him away.

"Stop that. Your mother's rubbing off. And not in a good way. It's creepy to go and hug people, ya know?", Inukashi huffed, and half-turned to head off. "Anyways, see you."

"See you. Perhaps I'll even come over and help you with washing the dogs sometime soon."

"Oh, you think someone as high and mighty as you can make time for something as trivial as my business? I'm feeling honored.", Inukashi mocked.

"I'll be sure to take time off for it." Shion only replied and after another dubious glance Inukashi only shrugged and turned around.

Without facing back she raised her hand in a last silent goodbye.

Shion waved after her until she was gone, even though he knew she wouldn't see it.

The way she retreated, the way she waved goodbye, the way she shied away from embraces and human contact.

I bet you'd hate to hear it, but actually you two are quite similar, Nezumi. At least you were three years ago.
She changed. Not only outwardly but inwardly as well.
So what about you? Did you change as well?

Shion wanted to know and at the same time he didn't.

A breeze caught his shirt, tugged at it and made him shudder. It was only February after all, and standing outside in nothing but his trousers and a long-sleeve probably wasn't such a good idea if the ground was still covered in snow.

So he stepped back into the welcoming warmth of the bakery.

He helped his mother with cleaning up the leftovers, washing the dishes. Then he laid the table for their dinner, consisting of a pork-stew and buns, and after he'd finished he excused himself for the rest of the night.

The whole day of shopping and baking had left him a little exhausted, but he didn't went to sleep.

Instead he took a piece of his cake with him, pulled over a jacket and sat down in his room in front of his opened window. He had started with opening it once again a little while ago, but had refrained from doing so almost all winter, since it was much to cold. It had become a ritual for him, one that he indulged in whenever he had time to. Sitting in front of the window, waiting.

He shared the cake with Tsukiyo who had been sleeping and staying in Shion's room for most of the day. The old mouse wasn't as active anymore, but its adoration for cake hadn't changed since the first day it had tried some of his mother's baking. And Shion's abilities didn't seem to be that bad as well, since the black mouse munched happily on the crumbs.

It was now hidden below the jacket, but Shion still wore Nezumi's shirt. It brought memories back, ones that two month ago he would have feared. But now he accepted them, welcomed them in.

He had tried writing letters to Nezumi, ones he knew the other would never read but he had thought they might be a good chance to get all of his thoughts straight. However his attempts had failed miserably. He wasn't able to put properly into words what he wanted to say and whatever he produced fell short of what he felt.

Only one letter hadn't been torn and thrown in away in frustration shortly afterwards. It hadn't even been as much a letter as it was only a piece of paper he had started to scribble questions on. It were stupid ones, like 'Are you eating properly?' or 'Do you still work as an actor?' and ones he'd been wondering about for a while like 'When is your birthday?' , 'Do you ever miss your parents?'. Even 'Do you miss me?' had found its way onto the paper but he had scratched that one right away. He didn't want to think about that Nezumi might not miss him.

But after all those stupid ones, after the ones which were a little more meaningful, after ones he wanted to ask simply out of curiosity, there was one question that was the one that bothered him the most. It stood there, at the end of the paper Shion had buried in the lowest drawer of his desk, below a dozen of books so that it would stay there, unnoticed.

That question read: 'Why did you have to leave?'

It was a stupid, childish question, just like the feeling of betrayal was childish and stupid.

"I always find it impossible to understand you. Even if we spent our whole lives together, I probably still wouldn't understand you. You're right in front of me, but at the same time, it's like you're far away."*

Those were the words Nezumi had told him once. It hadn't been the only time Nezumi had told him he didn't understand him, but right now Shion remembered those exact words. He always remembered them when the questions that started with 'why' crawled into his head, because the only way to answer them was understanding a person.

And yeah, right now their position was reversed, Nezumi was far away, or not so far, Shion had no way to actually tell, but at the same time whenever he closed his eyes he saw Nezumi right in front of him, summoned his features, his hair, his eyes in front of his inner eye so that he wouldn't forget. And with Nezumi's shirt against his skin he felt as if Nezumi was right there with him, as if he might leap through the window every second. But he didn't. Only the cold winter air blew in, carrying the scent of the snow with it.

Yeah, Nezumi wasn't here with him, and Shion tried to understand why, tried hard, like he had so many times before.

He could come up with a lot of logical reasons for his leave, like how Nezumi had hated the city, how all his life and energy had been directed to corrupt it, to destroy it. It represented everything he abhorred in life and it had been his main focus for so long, it was somehow obvious he wouldn't be able to overthrow four or more years of hatred just like that, completely change his living style and practically do a 180.

Yeah, all those were completely logical reasons and all of them were legit and Shion understood every single one of them... on a rational, logical level.

But deeper down, everytime his mind came up with this reasoning he noticed that as much as he hated it, there was an emotional level underlying.

And on that emotional level, no matter how much sense it made, no matter how much he tried, no matter how much he wished he could understand Nezumi because then perhaps waiting would be easier, he didn't.

So please, Nezumi, come back soon and explain it to me. Make me understand why you had to leave and I'll make you understand why living here isn't that bad at all.
I mean, if Tsukiyo can't resist my baking I'd be surprised if you could.

And as if the black mouse had heard and understood what Shion thought, he gave an affirmative squeak.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: March – Courage

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.
- Mark Twain


With a huff he tucked his face deeper into the scarf, trying to shelter himself from the omnipresent cold as good as possible.

Against his chest he felt a scurrying, as seven set of feet tried to make their way to a place inside his jacket that resonated more of his body-warmth.

He clicked his tongue in irritation and tried not to squirm at the unusual sensation, which was a task much harder than he it should be, in his opinion.

"Would you please stop it already?" he reprimanded them and instantly all movement stilled.

He heaved a relieved sigh and continued his way, down the hill through the snow-covered landscape.

The calendar had just changed to march, and although the meteorological spring was said to begin in approximately twenty days, the temperatures hadn't yet shown any sign of rising.

He knew, a few miles south the first buds probably were sprouting already. He'd seen that happen often enough, but here at the north's end of the land, amidst the mountains, winter was like a veil that persistently refused to lift.

"Why did they have to build this stupid library up this high?" he complained to no one in particular beside the wind that blew icily around his ears, forcing him as deep into the superfibre cloth as was physically possible, with only his eyes barely remaining visible.

Yes, he knew it was normal for the temperatures to be low in these heights, but this was simply ridiculous for early march.

He stood against it nonetheless though, as he hardly had any other options for reaching his destination.

And although he was used to cold winters and all of his internal whimpering and complaining rather were a way of showing his irritation, he was quite relieved when he finally was engulfed by the warmth of the library-building.

"Nezumi! You've come already?", a girl with a huge stack of books in her arms greeted him joyously. Her auburn shoulder-length hair was held back by a blue hair-band, adorned with a little ribbon. And although her overzealous behaviour and enthusiasm seemed to say otherwise, the shimmer in her green eyes held testimony to her intellect.

And she adored the books she held with an intensity that led Nezumi to at least tolerate her as a co-worker.

"I know your shift is going to begin in about an hour, but I could really use your help here.", she practically begged, looking at him like a lost puppy. "The new stock has arrived, and we'll open in one hour, and I've got like dozens of reservations that still have to be filed and prepared... I don't know how I should get all this done by myself."

He'd never had something left for puppies, but he'd already come here with the intention to start working earlier, so he shrugged out of his jacket, saying: "As long as I'm getting paid the overtime."

She glanced at him, gratitude written all over her face. "Thanks a lot, you're my saviour! Could you please start with the reservations while I sort these into the shelves? That'd be great."

Without so much as waiting for his answer she already scuttled off in a hurry.

„Saviour, huh? Seems they're just as loose with words up here... A widespread phenomenon among townsmen, apparently." he mused, while moving to drop his jacket and bag in the back-room, putting on the vest that indicated he wasn't a clueless customer.

He hated the thing, especially since it hindered his blending in with the crowd to find a quiet corner to read, but his co-workers would call out to him anyway—which made it impossible to spend his days peacefully either way—and his boss had threatened to fire him multiple times if he were not to obey. Not that it this threat held any real meaning to Nezumi, after all he would easily find a new job with his looks, but on the other hand, it wasn't worth the effort.

„Now, you guys wait here. And behave." he told the mice that jumped out of his pockets. Hamlet looked back at him with a gaze that seemed to tell him 'I will make sure they do'.

„You better do.", he replied to the unvoiced words. „After all they're your children, so better take care of them."

An affirmative squeak, then the whole bunch of mice disappeared somewhere in between the boxes that were occupying most of the space in the little room.

Some part of Nezumi cringed at the thought that they would spent all their day in laziness, not doing the least bit to be of any profit to him.

But the mouse pups were only a few months old, and were neither resistant enough to brace the cold residing outside the door nor exactly trained to do any sort of job.

Although Hamlet and Cravat were doing a fairly good job at teaching them to obey and showing them certain techniques that were required to be helpful to Nezumi, they were having a hard time, having to overcome the silliness that came with young age, and that couldn't even be avoided by the sole fact that all of them were more intelligent than normal mice.

He only was lucky that Cravat was actually supporting Hamlet with raising the children, because Ophelia—being the moody, wild mouse she was—surely wasn't such a big help.

He had always known it had been the right choice to take three male mice with him, but Hamlet and Cravat were getting old, and secretly he was happy to know he'd own their successors if they should pass away.

It had come as a surprise to him, when Hamlet had turned up with the black-white spotted female mouse about three months ago. They had been passing by the former Mao territory at that time.

Not because Nezumi had wanted to, but after more than two years of constant wandering he had started to simply let his feet guide the way and see were he ended up.

And back then it had been the land that had been his home a long time ago.

It was the closest he had been to No.6 ever since leaving.

The field of ashes that transitioned into green, healthy, lush flora after only a few meters had laid silently and untouched in front of him, as he had gazed over the color gradient.

Obviously, the land was recovering, the fire not having burnt all of the buds, not having destroyed all of the forest and the nature was reclaiming the territory step by step, feasting on the nurturing ashes.

He had somehow feared the memories would resurface if he should ever come back there, but they hadn't. It had come to him as a surprise that watching the field didn't spur any sort of longing, any fear, any memories of the horrible fire that, back then, had torn his life apart.

No, he had been able to watch the scene in front of him with a distant remembrance, feelings of safety and insecurity dulled by something he couldn't quite pinpoint.

Perhaps it's true. Perhaps time can heal all wounds.

In the distance he had seen the sunlight being reflected by the silver buildings of No.6.

The city had been too far away for him to actually make any distinct observations, to make out how it had changed or stayed the same, but it still made its existence obvious over many miles.

But this hadn't been the time for his return. It might have been a step toward it, but it wasn't the final one.

Right before he had turned to retreat into a direction that at that point still had to be determined, he had seen a little group of people, moving toward the forest from No.6.

He had counted seven persons, not really more than black dots against the yellow background of the wasteland, but it wasn't too difficult to guess who they were.

Compared to all that lived in the caves it were only a few, which made him believe they were the first ones, trying to test whether it was once again possible to live in the forest.

His thoughts too fixated on the people and the city he had firstly noticed the enlargement of his follower group several hours after he had left the scene.

That the spotted newcomer's ancestors were similar to Hamlet and Cravat's was obvious right from the beginning. Well, perhaps someone illiterate might have seen a normal mouse, but he wasn't illiterate. It was the shape of her head, the placement of her eyes, the way she moved. Though most of all it was the way she had looked at him when he had noticed her standing beside Hamlet.

The gaze of fearlessness and determination was something no ordinary mouse would ever accomplish when being faced with a human stranger. And as much as it might sound like a cliche, he had seen the intelligence in her eyes.

That was the moment he had realized that perhaps he and his mice hadn't been the only survivors. The mice living with the Mao had always been intelligent and resistant, and when faced with dangerous situations it wasn't unlikely that they would be able to take shelter and survive.

He had remembered once reading a book about a theory as for why the reptiles that had inhabited the planet billions of years ago had been almost extinguished while the mammals had survived seemingly effortlessly, claiming the supremacy. One of the theories involved a comet, a fire and ash that had clouded the sun, making the earth go cold. And it had involved mice.

Because they were little and ate pretty much everything, they were able to survive by burying themselves in the earth and feeding on the plants that were left, or on the deceased dinosaurs.

Which meant that he should have expected some of the mice to survive. It had been a logical and very likely occurrence.

So he had almost wordlessly accepted the growth of their group, figuring that if she had survived by herself for that long she might even teach Hamlet and Cravat a little about how to scout for food themselves, without relying on him to provide them with anything.

It was a trait they both seemed to have outgrown while staying in a domesticated environment, where they easily could feast of crumbs that were left.

Not that they actually had changed their way of eating that much in the last two month spent with the female mouse, but at least they made sure to find their crumbs elsewhere, and not on his plate.

Which was okay with him. After all he didn't mind them scaring the No.1 citizens from time to time. Kept him entertained in his little one room flat, when he heard his neighbours scream through the way too thin walls.

He might have been able to afford a flat in a better neighbourhood, with more space and less obnoxious and overly curious neighbours, but he didn't see any meaning in spending more money than necessary when he didn't spent that much time inside anyway.

Most of his time he spent in the library. As for why No.1 had insisted on building it outside the city, high up in the mountain still was a mystery to him, but he somehow liked the solitude of it, so he didn't give it that much thought.

The only thing that somehow bothered him was that he had to walk about one hour to reach his workplace, and most of times he had to go before the sun had even risen, when the wind—that carried snowflakes and sometimes even ice shards with it—was the most vicious.

He hoped that once spring fully hit those walks would become much more enjoyable.

In fact he didn't mind walking for one hour, since he liked to be on the way, even if that way always led him to the same goal.

And when the temperatures were to rise the mice would be able to collect information once again. He had refrained from building any new robotic mice to do the job, since it seemed like too much effort to acquire the materials and devices necessary for doing so.

Yes, information was always a useful good, no matter where you went, but he hadn't got any customers, hadn't got any reputation and didn't intend to spend enough time anywhere to attain either.

But a little tidbit, sold to the right person might as well prove to be an easy little side job, though not enough to actually make for his living.

That was what the library was there for after all.

At first he had been suspicious if it'd be a job he would stand, having to be polite to customers, but with a little bit of acting it had proven to be a piece of the cake. The only thing that really aggravated him was the way some of the books were treated. For sure, he didn't need every book to be at its righteous place, and if it looked like it had been read quite thoroughly, he didn't mind that either.

But if anyone came back with a formerly intact book that now had stained or even torn pages, god forbid they were treated by Nezumi.

No threat of his boss, no rebuke or rant could make him tolerate the mutilation of books. Who came here, lent them and intended to read them, had to treat them with the right amount of respect.

"You know, it's quite brave of you to stand up to our boss.", Elly told him as she was standing beside him, filling the library database with the information about which books were reserved, lent or overdue.

The red-haired co-worker was quite strange. She wasn't intimidated by him, and either she was too stupid to notice them or she simply decided to ignore all of his snarly, sarcastic comments. Neither did she really engage in the flirting he had tried on his first day. Someone who worships you is much easier to control and deal with—the first rule for living easily.

However, she hadn't fallen into his act, and nonetheless had treated him as if they had been friends ever since. Whatever she said was what was on her mind that exact moment, she didn't think about being polite or considerate, she simply was her bubbly, naïve self no matter the recipient of her talking. And even though her acting as if they were friends annoyed him to some point... he had to admit her nature fascinated him to a very easily calculable, very little but nonetheless existent amount.

Perhaps everyone who's grown up in a city, leading a sheltered life goes around assuming everyone's bound to be their friend.

Still, as easy as she was to read, as easy as her actions were to predict, sometimes she caught him off-guard with what she said.

"What leads you to think it's brave? They're his books, so defending them should be his priority, not mine. And seriously, he's an old crock, he hardly can do me anything." Nezumi replied mockingly although he knew his employer wouldn't be hearing him anyway.

"Well, I don't think I would be able to do it. Stand up to him to protect my ideals." She said, while scanning the last few books. "I'd be much too afraid of loosing my job. This means a lot to me, so I'm getting easily scared of doing something like that. I don't have as much courage as you do."

"Courage? You think that's courage? Not letting your boss have his way with you?" Sometimes Nezumi couldn't believe other people's viewpoints. At one point on his journey he had understood that the way people thought was to an almost ridiculous amount determined on where they grew up.

To call him 'courageous' because of something this petty... it was a thing no one from the West Block would ever have thought of.

"Well, yes, it requires much more courage then anything I've ever done."

"Oh I don't think so." Nezumi noticed, lacing his voice with the amount of sarcasm he needed to get her interested, earning a questioning gaze. "Combining a blue hair-band with red hair and green eyes surely requires a lot of courage."

"Is it really that bad? Jem said it was okay..." she wondered aloud, laughing her embarrassment off.

Jem. Nezumi instantly knew he had set something loose he better shouldn't have.

It was his own fault. He should have expected her to come up with Jem sooner or later. What now followed was inevitable. She went into full swoon mode.

His greatest sorrow, though, was that he couldn't even make her stop by claiming he didn't want to hear anything about someone he didn't knew. Since in fact he did know Jem.

It was a horrible coincidence, that out of all No.1 residents his library co-worker could date it had to be the main actor of the theatre he had auditioned and got a role at.

So since he knew she wouldn't stop all too soon, he simply went by blanking her voice out, an ability he had pretty much perfected in the last years.

He hardly even noticed the next hours passing, being chased from one point to another, having to change his roles every two minutes due to the customers likes and on top having to succeed in avoiding Elly—who seemed to be especially talkative that day—until her shift was over.

From then on it was at least a little more relaxed, since one of the most tiring tasks was accomplished, and from five past meridem onwards, most of No.1's residents didn't bother with a walk to the library anymore.

As he went to put the books returned that day back into their rightful shelf space, he couldn't help but wonder about what Elly had said.

Courage.

Standing up to the old crook certainly wasn't a sign of courage, he knew that much. His motivation was pride, perhaps, and for someone else it might have been stupidity, but in no case it could be counted as courageous.

But had he ever done anything he himself considered courageous, brave?

If he was honest, he didn't. It wasn't that he regretted all of his choices, or that he thought he should have acted brave at any point, since doing something brave pretty much equaled doing something reckless in his vocabulary and that wasn't a desirable course of action. It was bound to lead to death sooner or later.

Although, perhaps... he had hardly ever thought about how or when he would return, but his visit to the Mao forest had somehow got him wondering.

He had left because he wasn't ready. He had left because he was afraid.

That was the moment he realized that he wasn't courageous. Not in the least bit.

Per definition, courageous didn't mean to do something reckless, to do it against better reason. It meant was to do something potentially dangerous. Or to simply overcome one's fear.

A silent laugh escaped his lips and he shook his head to forcefully interrupt this train of thoughts.

Let's get this finished and if no customer drops by in the next ten minutes I'll close up early. If I already give deeper thought to what she says I certainly need a little rest and a very good book.

But even after ridding himself of the stupid vest, his usual clothes signaling him momentary freedom, after picking up the mice, locking the doors behind him and finally being on his way home his mind wasn't as devoid of thoughts about courage as he'd wanted it to.

There was only one thing he needed to obtain to be able to let his feet carry him back to No.&.

Okay, mind, that's it. I'm no fucking lion!

And with that he pointedly slung the superfibre cloth around his neck, letting his actions show his annoyance about his thoughts and recited Shakespeare's sonnets to keep himself busy.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: April – Lie

Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.
Ralph Waldo Emerson


Shion silently watched as the light of the new morning slowly crept over the concrete of the streets. If he'd open the windows, he'd hear birds sing, and smell the fresh scent of flowers mixed with the mild hint of the morning dew, short the scent of spring.

It had taken long for spring to come this year and Shion was unbelievably happy it had finally arrived. He didn't exactly have a preference towards cold or warm, winter or summer, after all liking one better wouldn't make any difference, they'd still both come, so it wasn't as if Shion had wished for this winter to end because he disliked it.

It was simply that while he didn't prefer a season in general, after a while it was getting tedious. The snow, the constant cold, the lack of vibrant colors in the parks and only little daylight, all this wore him down after a certain period.

And while he mostly considered himself neutral when it came to season-business, he had to admit that he quite liked the time when the air would slowly warm up and the plants would take on their healthy, lush green once again, the flowers starting to bloom.

With a sigh Shion raked his hand through his hair.

His mother kept on telling him he should get it cut sometime, but Shion didn't see any reason in doing so. It didn't bother him at work if he tied it back into a little ponytail, and from an aesthetic point of view he didn't mind either.

Actually it had been quite nice during the colder months that his hair reached a little past his shoulders now.

He had once caught himself trying to arrange his hair in a way that was similar to Nezumi's, but somehow he hadn't succeeded. It always looked different from the little ponytail Nezumi had sported.

So instead he had resorted to binding his hair without greater effort, only assuring it wouldn't fall into his eyes at work.

A creaking noise made him spin around.

His co-worker froze in the door-frame, careful not to drop the tray with two cups of coffee he was carrying.

"Sorry, Shion, didn't mean to startle you. Simply thought you could use one of these." he explained, raising the tray only slightly to indicate what 'these' were.

"Oh, thanks a lot. You didn't have to bother making one for me.", Shion replied and stood up from his seat on the windowsill, hurrying over to take the cup that had been prepared for him.

"Nah, don't worry, making one or two cups, hardly any difference." Kastor replied, with a weary but bright smile.

"Thanks anyways." Shion said, taking a sip. He frowned a little at the bitterness, but he was well aware that only this way he was going to get the amount of caffeine he needed, so he bore with it.

"Well, how are the preparations going?" Kastor asked casually, leaning against the now deserted windowsill.

"Better than last year, that's for sure. Though still far from perfect." Shion answered, moving to sit down on the corner of his desk, which was placed right beside the window.

The spring festival was drawing close.

It was a stupid, vague name and had been meant to only be some sort of working title, some way to refer to the event while it was in planning, but by the time it had been due to be announced, none of the committee members had had the time or energy to think of any other name, so they went with the working title, named after the season it was held in, the 'spring festival'.

It's original purpose had been to provide some sort of entertainment for the tired citizens to relish. Four months after the fall of the walls, the reconstruction was progressing slowly, which caused a lot of frustration.

Adding to that was the still present resentment of former No.6 citizens and West Block residents.

There had been difficulties especially at the districts where those two former zones collided. No.6 residents weren't able to let go of their prejudices just like that, from one day to the other, and it wasn't much different for the people from the West Block.

Shion had thought everything would go just fine. Or at least he had pretended to think so, because deep down he had known perfectly well that the wall wasn't only a physical barrier. Its meaning, the separation of No.6 and the West Block, had been etched too deep into the minds of the people to be overcome with the destruction of the wall. Of course it wasn't heaven, just like Nezumi had predicted. On the other hand, it wasn't quite hell as well. Sure, there were problems, rather many to be honest, but there were people on both sides working hard to solve them, to overcome the boundaries that had been placed upon them by some invisible force.

Still, those early days hadn't been the prettiest, to say the least, and a distraction was very well needed. Actually, at the time the spring festival had been firstly held Shion hadn't been in the committee and had still been far from entering at all. Back then he had been sixteen years old, a fact that pretty much spoke for itself. And although in retrospective, all of this "wall-coming-down" and "lets-make-us-one-society"-business had been his to start, partly, the remnants of the city were still ruled by legal adults. And those didn't consider it helpful in any way to let a child have a saying considering the really important choices. Because that was what they had seen in him, Shion knew that much.

Still, he hadn't ever cared about it. In the first months he had been more than happy to be able to go out and help right where his help was needed, with his own hands, helping to rebuild houses, restore lives. It hadn't lasted long, though, since in the end he had wanted to influence the way how No.6 was rebuild, so that it wouldn't ever have the chance to go corrupt again, making it impossible for anyone to declare it as a parasite ever again.

At first it had been small visits to the headquarters of the reconstruction committee, where he had only voiced suggestions about which things needed to be done, where work or funding was required, which social programs should be enhanced and which weren't showing any effect at all.

And one year ago—after he had pretty much already turned into a regular member going by the number of his visits –he had finally officially joined the committee. That was half an year after his eighteenth birthday.

Since then his life had been spent inside, behind a desk, buried below papers. He was doing a good job at organizational stuff, everyone knew that, as they shoved more and more work onto him. The reward for work well done was even more work, apparently.

And just like that the organization of the spring festival had drifted into his jurisdiction as well. Shion didn't really mind, though.

Over the years the spring festival had turned from a little event occupying about one street into an unbelievably big project, that even attracted foreign tourists. During the festival, pretty much all streets from Lost Town to Chronos were filled with people. The booths lining up in the streets were selling pretty much everything, from food over jewelry to colorfully painted wooden puppets, made by children from the former West Block.

From everywhere music and laughter could be heard and at one point even a parade had sneaked into the progress. There were people in colorful costumes standing upon wagons, driving through the streets, people from No.6 and the West Block alike.

Shion remembered once reading about a festival called "carneval", that had been celebrated decades ago, a festival with costumes equally as pompous and colorful, and he couldn't help but wonder whether the former project leader had read the same books and had been inspired by the descriptions.

Sometimes, especially in late winter and early spring, in the months prior to the festival when documents concerning pre-planning issues landed on his desk more and more often, he caught himself fantasizing about Nezumi.

He imagined that, in between the crowd of people who were swarming the streets throughout the festival, amidst the colorful confetti that rained down, that there beside one of the booths that sold sweet buns Nezumi would stand. He wouldn't have noticed Shion yet, his eyes still fixed on some far away point—perhaps some musicians playing, or an amateur acting group, hired for entertainment.

A little condescending smirk would be adorning his features, maybe directed towards the poor performance he was watching or present because he thought the reason for the whole celebration was a petty one; even in his own imagination Shion couldn't tell Nezumi's thoughts.

He himself would simply be standing there, uncaring about the fact that he was practically in the middle of the street, blocking the flow of pedestrians.

There'd be curses all around him, and occasional shoves, but Nezumi still wouldn't look up, wouldn't notice him.

Shion would have the control over when and how to step in front of Nezumi.

And so he—"Hey, Shion, were you listening?"

Baffled Shion looked up at his co-worker, and Kastor only reacted with a slightly distressed shake of his head. "I take that deer-in-the-headlights expression as a no. Is the coffee not strong enough?"

"Ah, I'm sorry, I was unfocussed for a second. What were you saying?" Shion replied, swiftly avoiding the question about the strength of his coffee. He knew his co-worker well enough by now to identify it as a rhetorical one either way.

"I was telling you that the singing duo we were going to hire has quit. Apparently some sort of internal disagreement, don't know the details. But we're going to have to search for other attractions, especially for musical ones. I heard about this singer, who's been traveling through a few villages down south. He's said to have an unbelievably impressive voice, but he never stays for long. We might be able to bait him for the festival though." Sip. "The pay's quite decent after all."

"He won't come.", Shion silently replied, gaze wandering away from Kastor's frame sitting in the window to the sky. The sun had started to paint the few clouds various shades of red, yellow and orange, making for a perfect match with the blue of the sky itself.

He hadn't told anyone of his co-workers about Nezumi. He didn't see any reason to do so, after all, what would they gain from the knowledge? Actually he wanted to avoid the topic of the mysterious traveling singer. It was one that had arisen about ten months ago and for Shion it had hardly been difficult to put one and one together, since no matter how often Inukashi insisted to tell him otherwise, he wasn't an idiot.

When he first had heard it, he had been tempted—no that was an understatement, he had been desperately craving to seek Nezumi out, to follow the trail he left. But something had held him back.

This wouldn't have been right. If Shion were to go after Nezumi... he feared that if he actually found him, Nezumi would be angry with him for not respecting his wish to be alone. He was afraid he'd make it worse, that Nezumi would run from him, permanently this time, because he didn't want to have anything to do with someone like Shion, who couldn't put faith in the promise he'd been given.

The thought to lose Nezumi forever... what were a few more months, years, if they guaranteed a proper, lasting reunion?

Nezumi had told him he wasn't ready, that he couldn't stay in No.6 with Shion just yet. And thus Shion had to wait for Nezumi's return, because only his return would mean he was ready.

He told himself he was fine with that, that he would faithfully wait, and that it was okay for Nezumi to search for whatever he was searching for for as long as he needed. That he was okay with the fact that he hadn't had any saying in the matter. Still, he was bad at fooling himself on that subject. Because the thought that he wasn't bothered... it was a complete lie. How the hell shouldn't he be bothered? It was this feeling of helplessness, that crept onto him when he thought about how he was always left to wait for Nezumi to decide. He was left at his mercy, Nezumi held all the strings in his hands, pulling them like he wanted to, Shion only reacting. It was frustrating, making him want to scream all the built up irritation out.

Still, perhaps it came with age, with every day, every month, every year that passed, but he'd slowly come to accept the fact that in this matter, right there and then, he was expected to stay put.

But be warned, Nezumi. This is the last time I'm ever going to have you have your will. I promise you, once you're back, you'll see that I'm not the little, easily controllable teenager I used to be any longer. Leave me once again and I'll chase you to the end of the world.

Just try—"Shion? Seriously, dude, catch some sleep." Kastor said and the following words were muffled by the sip of coffee he took, but Shion was able to make them out as: "You're spacing out again already."

"I wasn't spacing out." Shion halfheartedly complained, although he knew exactly he was. He always seemed to be when his thoughts wandered to Nezumi.

That earned him a disbelieving glance, but since it was futile to prod into the territory any further Kastor simply repeated his question. "That singer, what makes you so sure he wouldn't come?"

"I mean, it's obvious, isn't it?" Shion started, almost absentmindedly. His voice drafted through the room, as if he was reasoning for himself rather than for Kastor. "He's been gaining a reputation over the last year, and still, any time he performs it's in some small village. There's no way those villages or tavern owners can pay him that much, and with his fame he could easily get jobs at bigger cities. Why hasn't he, when it would be bound to get him better pay? The only logical reason is that he's purposefully avoiding bigger cities. And doesn't care about money that much that we could lure him in with it."

He's probably trying to avoid being seen by too many people. He soundlessly added and an usually repressed part of his mind snarled: He's probably trying to avoid being seen by you.

Kastor still looked at him doubtingly, but stayed silent for a change.

"Well, then I guess I'll have to keep looking for other performers either way." he finally said, emptying his cup with a last gulp. "But you really should get some sleep, you know. It isn't good to work till you drop. You're still needed here, Shion."

Shion couldn't help the silent chuckle that escape him at the parallelism to the words Rikiga used to tell him. "I know that. There are just a few things that need to be done till ten, because then the council will need the documentation. It's kinda important for the upcoming conference."

"Ah, now then I won't keep you back any longer." Kastor reasoned, dusting his pants off as if thee actually was a way for them to get dirty while he was leaning against the windowsill. "God, I don't even want to imagine where we would be if it weren't for you."

Shion waved the compliment aside with a silent chuckle, a reaction that might have been caused by a slight cause of sleep-drowsiness which came scarily close to tipsiness. It wasn't as if he was particularly bashful, he simply didn't know how else to react, since even if he were able to recognize them pretty well by now, he had to yet find a way to conveniently respond to rhetorical questions beside ignoring them.

After Kastor had exited the office, the time seemed to blur and once Shion finally looked up again the sun had already fully emerged from behind the horizon. Most of the birds had ceased or at least muted their cheerful singing, and Shion knew they wouldn't start again until the moon would begin to crawl it's way onto the sky.

Though he didn't exactly intend to think that far ahead right now. No, he wasn't even pretty much able to think two minutes ahead, and only the fact that he was literally able to find his way home half to three quarter asleep saved him from waking up somewhere in the middle of the park or somewhere else on the streets.

He didn't even bother checking the mailbox or undressing. Somewhere in the back of his mind his common-sense was loudly complaining that he'd have wrinkles in his clothes the next day, which would mean he would have to put them into the laundry after wearing them only once, but a much bigger, much more dominant part told him that actually right now he didn't care. Which was quite a civil formulation, considering what Shion had heard that part say if he was tired enough.

So he simply shrugged out of his shoes, tossed the jacket carelessly over the couch, the belt followed right after and then he fell into bed, face first.

For a moment he lay there, breathing in the scent of hibiscus that came with the washing powder he used. He indulged in it, let it overwhelm his senses and make him wonder why it made him think of sunshine, of blue skies and cold water, until he realized that somewhere in the depth of his mind the memory of a day in late autumn was hidden.

It was hardly more than a blurred image, a few scents and faint feelings anymore. Because no matter how intelligent he was, how much his brain was able to keep, three years were a long time, and he couldn't store all of the days he had spent in the West Block with Nezumi somewhere where they wouldn't eventually fade. He wished he could, he really did. Sometimes he cursed his inability at doing anything creative—like drawing or even writing. He had tried. Multiple times. But the result had always been horrendous, and so eventually he had given up, had resigned himself to the fact, that there only were a few moments he would be able to preserve, to keep in his mind as clear as if they'd happened the day before. All other memories... they would be replaced once Nezumi was back. There would be dozen other to hold dear eventually, that was what he told himself whenever he mourned the fact that he was no longer able to recall the exact scent of the basement chamber or the sound the cicadas had made the first few days after his more or less involuntary arrival.

Nezumi's return... The time Nezumi will return... the day...

Shion rolled over, wrapped himself halfheartedly in the sheets and let his mind drift of.

Amidst the booths he could make him out. There was no one else it could be. He was leaning against the left wall of the narrow alleyway right across from Shion. The posture, the clothes, everything about this person screamed Nezumi. But still, there was the crowd of people in the street, separating them.

And his vision was obscured by all the confetti flying around the air, whipped up by the gust that was rushing through the streets, tugging at his hair.

"Stupid wind." He thought, as he tried to hold the streaks that had been tugged loose in place, and as an afterthought added. "Stupid confetti." Because it was the reason why he wasn't able to see Nezumi's face from the safe distance.

He was forced to move in, making his way over. He wasn't good at taking the initiative if he knew there was a lot at stake. He always needed someone to push him, to urge him to take the first step.

Well, he thought, this time it seems to be this stupid confetti.

And so he took the first step.

oOo—

Shion sometimes imagines his and Nezumi's reunion. He knows the most likely scenarios are those where Nezumi has complete control of the situation. There is the possibility of him suddenly sitting on Shion's bed one day when he returns from works, having broken in through the window or the one where he's obediently awaiting Shion on the outside of his office.

Shion actually wouldn't even put it past him to slip out from the shadows of one of the many dark corners Shion passes on a daily basis. There is the 'shocking him out of his mind once again by speaking through a robot mice out of the blue' and the 'casually knocking on his frontdoor as if he'd never been away'.

Actually the spring festival scenario, where Shion takes the first step, is among very sparse company, but still, in all reunion-scenarios he does assume his reaction to be pretty much the same.

No matter how Nezumi shows up, no matter who takes the first step or who's in control of the situation, no matter if it will be day or night, if Shion's surprised or expectant, he will always walk up to Nezumi and stand there, as his equal in intellect... and probably in height just as well.

He'd been nowhere to fully grown as Nezumi left it had turned out, and Shion is confident he will be able to look Nezumi in the eyes without stretching, without having to gaze up at him like he's looking at some sort of unearthly being that'll never even think of binding itself to someone like Shion.

He'll walk up to him, looking sternly at first, hoping to kinda throw Nezumi off-balance by making him think he's angry at him. But once he's right in front of him he'll let his mouth widen into a warm smile, the one he had been told resembled his mother's, letting all of his happiness show.

And then he'll mutter the words he's been wanting to say all this time, knowing that once Nezumi returns he'll finally be able to accept them—"Welcome home."

When Nezumi comes back he won't cry, won't give the other teen another chance to make fun of him.

That's the way Shion imagines it, tells himself it'll go, tells himself his reaction will be like.

It might be one of the best he's telling to himself, but in the end it is a lie.
Shion is Shion, and as Shion he'll always be flailing when faced with Nezumi.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: MaySkill

He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.
- Edmund Burke


There was the sound of metal clashing on metal, something slicing through air, follow by a muffled grunt. Another clash, and a huff, then a barely contained cursing, and clicking, as the epee fell to the ground.

"My hands are so sweaty, I can't keep a grip on this stupid thing!", Jem complained loudly. "Seriously, director, can't we stop it already? We haven't done anything else than fencing for six freaking hours, and there isn't even going to be any fencing fight in the next play."

The gaze the director cast him said everything, and instantly silenced Jem's whining.

With a sigh he turned back to Nezumi, wiped his hands dry at his trousers and tightened his clasp on the picked-up epee. Nezumi only looked at him with utter calmness, not seeming particularly out of breath or exhausted, but only Nezumi knew it was mostly facade. The heat had hit the city without any warning, and it had taken a toll on everyone residing in No.1. Sadly Nezumi was no exception. He only was better at not showing the strains.

"Okay, enough of the chatting, there's work to do." their instructor exclaimed and clapped his hands impatiently. He'd been hired by Anthony for the whole week, but one week wasn't that much time to learn all necessary techniques to make a fight look good on stage and still be harmless to the participants.

"Also are you the director?" Anthony, who was sitting contently on the edge of the stage, looking over some parts of the script, interjected. "You have no way of knowing if my interpretation should contain a sword fight. So get it on, we haven't got all day!"

"You've got to talk, sitting there watching us sweating." Jem muttered, but raised his hands in defends right before he could get chastised again. "Right, right, fighting, I got it." With that he cast Nezumi a glance that was probably supposed to say something along the lines of 'they simply enjoy to see us suffer, but you're not even sweating'. Perhaps a little blame lay in the gaze, but Nezumi only smirked. An unspoken provocation, a fuel to the fight. 'Come and get me, if you think you'll be able to.' his smirk implied. He earned raised eyebrows on Jem's part. And as raised the epee a little higher then the height of his waist, Jem instantly mirrored his action.

The muttered "Finally." of Anthony was gracefully ignored by both for the sake of their wordlessly decided challenge.

"Now then, here we go!", the instructor yelled, much to excited. "On three: One, two, three!"

-oOo-

Why Nezumi was still in No.1, he didn't know. There usually had been a pull which had made him leave a city or village, and this pull had always come after a few weeks at most. But now... he simply didn't feel it. He had the theater, the library, and he wouldn't have guessed—with his dislike for fish and anything else ocean-related—but he actually liked having the ocean only a few feet away.

Perhaps all those things were playing into it, but he knew for sure they weren't the sole reason, because he had had theaters and much bigger libraries elsewhere, and the ocean was by far big enough to reach a few other villages as well. Still, despite not knowing the reason, Nezumi didn't spend much thought on it. When he had set off from No.6 his only goal had been to let himself wander wherever his feet carried him. And since right about now they didn't carry him anywhere, he stayed. Perhaps that was the only reason he needed.

His way of living had fallen into a strange sort of routine, something he hadn't had since before he left No.6. He woke up when the sun started to rise, simply because he didn't want to sleep longer, not because he couldn't. His work-time was diverted between the library and the theater, depending on whether performances were drawing close which always resulted in his time being occupied by rehearsals—most of them he didn't need but was required to attend nonetheless.

When he had time at hand, not being occupied with work he wandered the city, tried to remember every aisle, every hidden footway, every nook. It was a habit of his earlier days, when a place to escape to, to hide in had been essential for survival. Right now though it was only a little occupation for his mind if he felt particularly restless. Or he went down to the ocean, and let himself forget there was a world outside.

-oOo-

"Good morning, Nezumi! How are you doing? I haven't seen you around here since forever. Have you been eating properly? You look awfully thin. I'll tell you what, if you buy proper food I'll give you an extra loaf of bread..", the shopkeeper greeted him with a barrage of words the moment he opened the door. She was an elderly lady, with a little roundish features, always a bright smile on her face. She had been acting overly familiar since the first time he had set foot into the store, which was five minutes walk from his current lodging.

He answered with a well-practised smile himself, the 'mask of bargaining', as he had taken on referring to it, because that was one of its most frequent uses. "I'm sorry I haven't had the time to come by, theater practise is going into its final stage.", he replied, his voice a velvety tone meant to persuade and lull in, perfectly fitted to make people do what he wanted them to do.

"Oh that's right, I saw the promo posters down by the fountain, right beside Marli's new café. Have you been there yet? She and her husband opened it about a week ago, I think, and I haven't had time to visit it; been busy around here. But she's selling ice-cream down there, which is definitely a good thing in this hellish heat." the shopkeeper babbled on, and Nezumi tuned her voice out, only smiling and nodding, agreeing whenever he felt it appropriate.

All the while he went around the shop and collected whatever items he needed. A loaf of bread, five eggs, a little piece of cheese. He'd had bacon a few days ago at a theater-sponsored dinner, so he decided to spare his money right now. A few vegetables went into his shopping bag, followed by two oranges. It was luxury, the way he led his life right now, to him anyway. It wasn't that he was downright wealthy, no, far from that, but his wage assured him a life devoid of the fear of starving. He was able to choose his food by what he wanted to buy, not by what he could afford to buy.

Still, he didn't spend his money freely, throwing it out of the window for meaningless deeds, because he knew its value beyond the numbers printed on it.

"Oh, dear, I meant to ask you: Could you reserve three tickets for your newest show? My niece is visiting and she's dead-set on seeing a play. She's written me the only theater in her city is currently being rebuild.", the shopkeeper's voice echoed into the crook he was currently standing in, studying the shelf there. He hadn't eaten pasta in a while, and was seriously contemplating fetching a package. "Sure, I'll tell the director." he yelled back over his shoulder.

"Oh, that's wonderful. She'll be head over heels for you, I already know it. She's a sweet girl, I'm sure you'll like her. She'll be staying here for a few weeks, perhaps you could test Marli's new café together."

Her attempts at setting him up could hardly be called subtle.

"I do for sure hope you'll enjoy the performance. A lot of hard work went into it.", Nezumi replied, diplomatically avoiding answering to the shopkeepers hopes of welcoming him as a future son-in-law. He could have lied and said he was looking forward to meeting the shopkeeper's niece, but it would end up in too much trouble later on when he would turn the girl down, which was inevitable. Lies were useful for dealing with people he saw sporadically, of whom he knew he'd only require their company scarcely and for a short time frame. Honesty on the other hand was meant for frequent, longer-term acquaintances. In small doses, for sure, and a half-truth was always a helpful thing, but telling a down-right lie that could be easily seen through at a certain point in time meant risking loosing the trust and thus a potential source for help or generosity. So he stuck to half-truths mostly with the shopkeeper or to skillfully talking around unpleasant question altogether, making the elderly woman forget what she had asked to begin with. He was a master with words and he knew it all to well.

Another one of his dead-set rules was to not talk about his past, of where he came from or where he was going. What the people in this city knew about him was shallow. He directed their attention elsewhere whenever the questions got too personal, dancing around the answers with well-practiced verbal moves.

In the end his interlocutor didn't even notice they hadn't been given any vital information.

"Tickets for the premiere?" he asked as he placed the bag with his shopping on the counter for the shopkeeper to calculate the price.

"Oh that'd be wonderful. During the premiere there's always such a special atmosphere, when the actors are all nervous and excited, and no one in the audience knows fully what to expect..", she told him while summing up the prices of the items in his bag. The shop wasn't a very modern one, and the cashier looked like it was from the last century. Probably it didn't only look like it.

Still, having to insert all calculation steps manually took its time and gave the woman plenty occasion to talk about all kinds of mundane things. Finally letting go of the theater topic she told him about how the prices for salad had been rocketing lately due to some shortage caused by the sudden heat, about how the fishers were really successful with their catches on the other hand. When she told him he should watch out for mice, because some had been seen around here he only barely was able to hold back a telling smirk.

No one knew these mice were his. It wasn't exactly that he hid them or anything, but he wasn't going to get any sort of advantage by showing them around, and so he didn't, it was as simple as that.

He was spared a reply when the shopkeeper announced the eventual price, and he placed the required coins in her hand. "Like promised.", she said with a blink and sneakily slid a loaf of bread across the counter, as if there could possibly be someone to overlook the exchange and chastise her for it.

"It was a genuine pleasure to do business with you.", he said with a charming, completely in-genuine smile and a bow that was much too deep to be taken serious, but the woman only laughed and replied: "The pleasure was mine. I hope there won't pass that much time till you stop by again. I was starting to get worried."

"How am I to know where the wind carries me each day?", he said over his shoulder, already half out of the door. "But I'll do my best to be a good sailor and control its uncontrollable flurries."

-oOo-

Nezumi thought about Shion more often than he liked or admited. The thoughts were like a lingering beast, always there, waiting for his slightest slip of caution, ready to spring forward and tear throbbing wounds into his heart, effectively shredding the facade he build around his feelings and letting his resolutions waver.

But he knew, from the moment he first saw Shion—no, probably even prior, probably he already knew from the moment he first heard Shion—that this beast would forever haunt him, this beast called attachment, this beast that was more deadly than any living beast could be, for it could make you loose control, loose common sense, and do reckless, stupid things.

What he hadn't expected though, was that attachment had made place to fondness and then had eventually grown into need. He needed Shion, but the beast was scaring him too much, was much too strong and dangerous for him to deal with it.

Befriend the beast, court it, lure it out, train it until it's your tame pet and you're the controlling tamer. Basically that was what he had to accomplish, the reason for this journey. It took him a long time to realize that fact. Perhaps it made him remain in the same city for such a long time that he had finally realized, had gained the knowledge of his goal.

Yeah, he knew well that the beast of need was by far not the only feeling he daren't face, and the uncertainty of lacking a goal after accomplishing the destruction of No.6, the lack of self-definition beyond all his self-confidence and arrogance, all these were factors.

But taming the beast was the first step, and the deed that was going to be the hardest to accomplish.

-oOo-

The cry of the seagulls seemed to travel faster and further than the wind across the unruly waves of the ocean. Nezumi had bound his hair back in a tight bun, but the wind always found ways to tug single streaks free, playing with them. He didn't mind.

The sun was just about to set and he sat on one of the few bigger rocks in the little bay which was hidden from the sights of the ordinary passenger using conventional, pre-set paths. It was no real beach he lingered on, the rocks weren't smashed and grounded enough to form sand, their size varying from the size of a finger nail to being big enough for Nezumi to easily sit on them.

Nezumi came here often, especially at dawn or dusk, because the whole bay, the whole world seemed different then, when day and night fought their everlasting battle, painting the sky red with their wounds, both of them winning and loosing once, returning to take revenge day after day, night after night. He had chided Shion for using flowery metaphors more than once, told him it didn't suit him, but now he found himself indulging in them occasionally as well.

That was not entirely his fault though, he tried to talk himself into, for sure it was this strange book that had fallen into his hands a little while ago, when he'd been sorting books back into their shelves at the library. The page he had flipped to had been about a girl saying that the reflection of the evening sun on a lake looked like the sun had cut open her wrists, and was now bleeding into the water.

But he didn't waste any deeper thought on metaphors, as his was much less depressing, and of a far higher quality than such a pathetic one.

Still, no matter how he described the atmosphere, it was unique and helped him think. The fresh air, the smell of salt, the hard, unforgiving wind lashing at his face—it had become some sort of anchor for him. He was skilled with words, and yet he doubted he'd be able to describe the atmosphere accurately without using flowery metaphors, and even they weren't quite enough.

Sometimes he only sat there, silent, thinking. But occasionally he sang, rivaling the wind and the waves crashing at the shore, competing with the seagulls. It was training as much as it was freedom. For as long as he could remember singing had been something he liked to keep private, to keep to himself. Back in the West Block it had been a strict rule of his to sing as little as he could on stage, and singing for Inukashi's dogs had earned him large sums of money—it was a job rather than a pleasure or a hobby. True, it was about the nicest and easiest job he could imagine, but it was a job nonetheless.

On his travel he had had to use his voice and songs on more than one occasion to ensure himself a roof, a bed and a meal.

But here, out here in the wildness, his voice was his once again. He sang songs he had never sung before, without thinking about it. If these songs were one's he had been taught in his earliest childhood, stuffed and forgotten in some part of his mind or if he was basically composing them the moment the tunes left his mouth, he didn't know. It were songs that weren't about the wind, but about the water, about the harshness and tenderness of nature, about endless skies and freedom.

Some of them sounded so old, so deep that they had to be a relict of his tribe, his long gone tribe, but others were similar to the tunes he had composed in silent hours in his underground abode, sitting at the piano, letting his fingers dance across the keys.

Tonight though he wasn't singing, he was practicing for his newest play, which was going to come into the hot-pre-premiere phase next week, meaning he probably wouldn't leave the theater for days.

"Well, God's above all; and there be souls must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved." he told the harsh nature surrounding him, pathetically gesturing with his hand towards the sun, as if it was indeed a bright, all-seeing eye, a specter taunting the world, the only spectator to his practice performance.

"For mine own part-", Nezumi's voice carried on, echoing slightly off the stony cliffs surrounding him. But he didn't hold his pathos, instead let the noise trail of, shed the skin of Cassio which he had pulled on for no longer than a few minutes. When he continued his words were mere whispers, almost fading into silence, the wind picking them directly from his lips. " For mine own part-I hope to be saved."

-oOo-

This travel had changed him. The two years had changed him. The will to change had changed him.

On the outside he was pretty much the same, at least in the way he behaved and was perceived by the people surrounding him. There was a certain honesty though he had acquired, towards other people as a strategy of self-preservation and an easy life, and towards himself as a painful but successful way of progressing and growing, of evolving. He hadn't done a 180, wasn't changed that much, and he knew he was still running away from quite some problems of his, was still hiding from himself what he didn't want to hear, but the mere knowledge and acknowledgment of the fact that he did runwas prove of his honesty towards himself.

-oOo-

"Give thy worst of thoughts the worst of words.", a voice disrupted Nezumi's thoughts. He was sitting on the edge of the stage, polishing his epee—it wasn't technically his, but the director told them they should "develop a feeling for the soul of the metal so it will heed your every command.", and thus send them home with them, making sure they spend affection on the cold stainless steel, or whatever metal it was made from. Nezumi hadn't ever been interested enough in swords and the like to find out. If they cut through flesh and assured survival that was good, further questioning was only a waste of breath and of energy which could be used to train. Not to mention that an epee didn't even closely fall into the 'cutting flesh'-section.

He couldn't deny that his current director was the most eccentric he'd ever had, but he was passionate about the plays he was directing and brought a certain intensity, an innovative way of thinking to the stage.

"I know that phrase isn't part of my text, but well, it fit. So, what's bothering you?" Jem inquired, being his usual nosy self.

"Bothering me?" Nezumi replied without even looking up, instead dragging the ripped cloth over the seemingly shining silver surface. Then he held it up a little, until the rather dim light of the theater was reflected, effectively revealing any smears left.

"Yes, bothering you. You seem even more indulged in thoughts than you usually are." Jem said, leaning down, trying to catch Nezumi's gaze.

Only with lot of self-control Nezumi refrained from testing his epee's cutting-flesh-abilities, or at least threatening with testing them. Jem had an alarmingly little knowledge about essential things like personal space or privacy at all. Then again the shop keeper and Elly seemed like they hadn't ever heard of the concept of personal space—psychological and sometimes even physical—as well, which kinda raised the likelihood of this being more of a city problem than Jem's alone.

So Nezumi stayed calm, and in the back of his mind pleasantly noticed how much easier it was than it had been right after his arrival in No.1.

He was evolving, it seemed.

"Now, don't tell me the great Nezumi is suffering from stage fright!" Jem drawled teasingly, obviously trying to produce some sort of reaction.

"Stage fright?" was the only answer he was granted with, but the slightly amused, slightly affronted tone actually told much more than any proper sentence Nezumi could have found himself willing to produce.

"Ay, stage fright. By heaven, he echoes me.", Jem intoned, one hand clenched to his chest, the other outstretched in the most ridiculous over-dramatic pose. He dropped the posture once again almost instantly though, instead continuing with a broad grin. "If it goes on like this we'll have the whole scene recited. Are you going to tell me now that you'd rather cut your tongue from your mouth than saying anything bad about Anthony, but that you've observed he's a little too familiar with my dear Elly?"

"Oh, you're reading my mind, you must be a spouse of the devil. If though hast no name to be known by, let us call thee—wine!"

Finally Nezumi gave up on the echoing, resigning himself to the fact he wouldn't be able to get rid of Jem. So he fell into the dialogue of throwing slightly changed lines of the play at each other, no matter how little sense his line had actually made. It was only meant to ridicule Jem's whole recitation after all.

"And you realize you kinda confused the scenes in your attempt of mockery.", Nezumi added as a side thought.

"Ahh, damn you're right. Well, then I guess it's good that none of the scenes is actually one I'm participating in." Jem said, and as if taking Nezumi's reply as an invitation for longer company he slumped down beside him.

"But if we're already talking about wine, you gonna join us tonight? Elly and I are gathering a few friends of ours to go out for a little nice get-together. You know, celebrating that we've survived the fencing training almost unharmed, with our crazy director." Jem said with a blink, obviously in account of the shining metal in Nezumi's hands.

"Not in the mood." was all Nezumi said, hoping against all hope Jem would let the matter slip like that. Still, that hope was going to be proven wrong, and Nezumi knew it was going to.

"Now come on, you party pooper, you're always ditching. You know, even if the world would drown in water I wouldn't take your rain check serious anymore." Jem complained, and Nezumi knew that he was only a few steps away from listening to outright whining. Apparently Jem didn't spend that much thought onto coming across like a grown man. But then again he was barely two years older than Nezumi, so 'grown man' wouldn't exactly be the words of choice when describing him either way.

"Don't start pouting now. I've still got a lot to do at home, and quite some time has passed since my last shopping-trip as well. So I've actually got things to do, beside not being in the mood." Nezumi explained, and knew his arguments carried very little strength. Avoidance technique, not always successful, but always worth a try.

Jem only let out an exasperated sigh and leaned back, steadying himself on his elbows so that he still was able to look at Nezumi. "It's a shame, but I know you're a thickhead, once a no remains a no. Nevertheless, at least promise me you won't run after the premiere! We've worked so hard for this performance, so we'll all have to celebrate just as much after getting this thing finally on stage. Got it? You'll come, and if I have to drag you, you'll be there."

It took Nezumi a moment to reply. A declination was on his lips, the accompanying electrical signal of his brain already decoded by his vocal cords into muscle-movement orders.

But he swallowed the words and really thought about it. It was one of his rules to never make promises for the future, for he wasn't able to be sure he would be there the day after. Or he hadn't been able to be sure.

While thinking, the silence prolonged, and for a much needed change even Jem was silent, as if uncharacteristically sensing that words weren't called for in this situation, only raising his eyebrows slightly in a questioning manner.

"If you'll finally stop whining, I guess it'd be much less of a hassle to waste one evening than listening to you complaining for the next weeks."

That the next day would come, that he'd live to see the next day, at the same place, under the same circumstances. Never had it occurred to Nezumi that the possibility to plan would actually be a privilege. He still didn't like to be bound, and plans always were binding; he was a free soul and freedom was one of his most ulterior motives, slumbering under his consciousness, directing his every decision.

Nonetheless, he knew that the ability to accept that he wanted to stay at a place, even if it only was for a little while, the trust that one day was followed by another day and that promises weren't necessarily always bad was one of the most important skills he had acquired on his travel.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: June – Responsibility

Responsibility is the thing people dread most of all. Yet it is the one thing in the world that develops us, gives us manhood or womanhood fiber.
- Frank Crane


When Nezumi opens his eyes, he is greeted with darkness. Confused he turns, looks left and right, but nothing is there, nothing at all. "What the..." he mumbles, feeling coldness seeping into his bones. If it is the surrounding temperature's fault or a sign of fear—he can't tell.

Actually he can hardly think at all. He doesn't know where he is, what he has done previously or how he could possibly leave this place, and return home.

Suddenly, without a warning, the darkness vanishes, making way for a blinding light, and for a moment he feels like squeezing his eyes shut to hide from the mass of pictures crushing down onto him.

Within seconds though everything turns normal, and he is in a little room, with no windows and raw walls. One side is rowed with bookshelves, all filled to the burst with books, and what doesn't fit lingers on the floor, around the legs of the little couch-table, on the couch, the piano and even the bed. It is his abode and he has just walked in through the door, after a long day of hard labour.

He is expecting a gratifying silence, but instead is greeted by rustling and the smell of an excessive dose of rosemary. Over a little gas cooker a liquid bubbles happily in it's metallic confinement, its originator standing over it, leaning slightly forward as if to marvel at his work. It obviously takes him a few moments to notice Nezumi's arrival, as he jumps slightly when Nezumi throws his jacket over the piano.

"Oh, you're back already!", he says, smiling brightly. "I found wild rosemary a little bit away from the broken playground, you know, the one uphill? So tonight I made stew with rosemary aroma."

"It's not difficult to tell from the smell of it." Nezumi replies, walking over towards Shion, trying to sneak a peek at the pot's ingredients. It doesn't look all too different from their usual dinner dish, if it weren't for the smell you could think it was made like every other time.

"You don't like rosemary? I'm sorry, I guess I should have waited and asked you before using so much." Shion sounds like a kicked puppy, much to easily influenced by Nezumi's comments. It makes Nezumi's anger flare up and at the same time he feels the need to hush Shion, and tell him he shouldn't base his mood on others opinions. The fact he feels like this, like having to comfort Shion, and appease to him, only makes his anger get stronger.

And he's angry, and he's torn bizarrely, because of a petty thing like rosemary. How come he's no longer able to decide how to react? How come he's no longer able to act without feeling like he is going to do the wrong thing, no matter what he decides to do?

Indecisiveness is holding Nezumi in its grip, so all he does is look stubbornly and disapproving, which causes Shion to try—once again—to try and assuage him.

"But you see, my mother used to bake little buns with rosemary, and they tasted absolutely delicious, so I thought it might give the soup a nice flavour as well..." he hurries on to explain, trailing of towards the end.

Then he looks up from the pot and faces Nezumi with strangely... green.. eyes—Nezumi feels himself looking back, completely transfixed, hypnotized, all former thoughts and emotions blown from his mind.

Something is different with Shion, something isn't right, but Nezumi's unable to pinpoint what exactly. Is it only the way he looks like he would go out and drown himself in the nearest river should he not receive forgiveness from Nezumi for varying their dinner? No, that is pretty normal Shion behaviour, by Nezumi's standards.

"Nezumi? Is something wrong?" Shion asks, suddenly no more looking like seeking for absolution, but rather being confused and decidedly worried.

Only then Nezumi realizes he has tilted his head to the side, in thinking, and basically stares Shion down. Instantly he averts his gaze, faces down and makes a diverting scuffing sound, covering up his moment of confusion. "As long as your soup fills the stomach the taste is subsidiary, I guess."

"Oh." Shion says, taken aback. For a few moments there is silence, as Nezumi slumpes down on the bed, exhausted from the hard work. Keeping in shape is essential in the West Block, or a stray cat will eat you for breakfast, basically.

"Could you go and fetch the bowls? I left them outside to dry."

An indignant huff is the answer Shion gets. "Now, we're surely feeling all high, mighty and commanding today, majesty, aren't we? I thought you had taken on the task of preparing dinner, setting the table included." Nezumi elaborates his answer, his tone accusing, and right when the words leave his mouth he knows they're too harsh. He wonders if he simply had a real bad day today, because he is well aware that being asked to fetch a few dishes is in no way any work. It surely is no reason to complain that much, blaming Shion when he was definitely putting all his heart into making dinner, thinking up variations to please Nezumi. Actually Nezumi gets the feeling that all Shion did he did to please Nezumi, to impress Nezumi, to prove himself worthwhile to Nezumi.

And perhaps it's that notion of Shion's that drives Nezumi to being exceptionally harsh, because he doesn't want this, doesn't want Shion to be so dependent, because if Shion is dependent, he's weak, and if he's weak he'll soon be dead, and if he's weak I am weak because if he is dead I am dead.

The thoughts simply rush over him, without any warning.

He's dependent of me, and I'm dependent of him. If he's unable to protect himself he'll burden me, drag me down as well, will make all my attempts of protection useless. Suddenly the room is too small, and the air is too hot, too heavy, Nezumi's suffocating, he's not able to breathe because all these realizations take over his mind, his very being.

Somewhere in the back of his consciousness he registers Shion's voice, now sounding absolutely panicking. He distantly feels hands on his shoulders, but he shakes them off. He's pretty sure he mutters something like "I need air." or "I need to get outside.", or perhaps even an absolutely lied "I'll go fetch the dishes.", but he doesn't really care, all he can focus on is the door.

When he finally reaches it, the room is already spinning around him, and somewhere in the back of his mind a rational part of his self proclaims "This can't be right. Something's wrong. This isn't real."

Just what the hell is happening?

One step outside the door, and all the desperation falls from him, all the confusion and pain, he straightens up and sees a wide, green field. Wind is blowing gently, making the grass dance softly. It's an utterly idyllic view. Not one he would usually have time or will to acknowledge, but right now it somehow renders him immovable with fascination. The peacefulness is so unusual, so uncommon to him. He's used to war, from his childhood to his adolescence, not always fought by many, or with bodily wounds, but wounds waiting around every corner nonetheless.

I want to lay down here and never get up again.

He immediately shudders at his own thoughts. Laying down? Giving up? He couldn't. There was a goal, something to fight for. Something to live for. But what? What was that goal?

He wrecks his mind, but it is as if the wind has blown all of his thoughts, memories, goals away.

What is it I'm fighting for?

A white haired boy enters his field of vision from the left. He's smiling gently, like a mother looking at her child, a look of utter adoration.

Shion.

The name comes as natural as breathing. Is he the one I'm fighting for? But how should my fight be for him? What am I fighting?

The boy opens his mouth, speaks, but he's making no sound. "Nezumi.", he mouths, mutely.

Am I fighting Nezumi?

It takes him a little moment to realize that's nonsense, he's Nezumi, he can't be fighting himself, now can he?

When Shion takes a step towards him Nezumi realizes just how well he can fight himself, as he wants to mirror Shion's movement, but his body won't move.

"Why aren't you coming?" Shion asks and suddenly he has a voice, one that is easily audible over the rush of wind.

"Because I don't want your company. You're naïve and dangerous, for yourself and me. Get rid of that pampered self, or I'll have to." Nezumi hears his mouth say, when he himself only wants to reassure Shion that he's trying to come to him, because the distance is physically paining him.

He sees the hurt in Shion's face, and suddenly isn't in his body anymore. He's looking at himself, his grown 16-year-old self, and feels like he himself is five again, and childishly wants to trust someone, wants to rely on someone.

But Shion's posture changes. He straightens, and his formerly green eyes flicker, turn red.

"I understand." he says, turns and walks away.

What are you fighting for now? And against who?

It isn't his voice that's asking him this time, it's a female voice of unknown origin. And he hasn't got an answer.

Finally in control of his own body again he's able to take a step in the direction that Shion disappeared into, he wants to break into a run and chase after him.

That's when his surrounding swim, the trees change into solid walls, the grass seems to shrink, as if in a reversed growing process turning into solid ground, which then turns into gray concrete. The sound of wind and birds cease, making way to a silence that threatens to drive one crazy with its mere artificiality. The warm, bright light of the sun dulls, until it's cold, artificial light.

Just when the umpteenth 'What the hell is happening?' ghosts across his mind, he realizes that all this can indeed not be real.

There's only one plausible explanation.

But before he can fully formulate this thought, this reason, he's startled by a sound. A sound of violent sobbing, that is.

Once again the thoughts are blown from his mind and he doesn't doubt anymore the reality of what's happening. This time it's at the sight of two bodies, in a corner a few feet from him. The bunch of white hair is one he'd recognize everywhere, and Shion is holding the second body clenched to his chest, rocking back and forth. Realization strikes him, makes his blood run cold: The sobbing comes from Shion.

With staggering feet he nears the figures. What he sees next confuses him, although he thought after the last minutes nothing could confuse him anymore. The person, that Shion is holding tight like his life depends on it, whose blood stains the horrible light-blue sweater, sports hair the same shade of white. Wears the same horrible light-blue sweater. And is covered in blood as well. It's another Shion. Only that this one isn't moving. Not anymore, as it seems.

Halting his steps Nezumi simply stares, trying to maintain a neutral expression. And when Shion looks up at him, his red eyes portray all the despair his voice carries, all his fear and sadness and guilt.

All he can think of is that this is the expression of a broken soul, the expression he always wanted to see as it means Shion won't be naïve anymore, because no broken soul can be naïve, but at the same time it's the expression he never wanted to see, he can't stand to see, because it means that Shion despairs, hurts, and when Shion hurts Nezumi hurts, and the pain will drive them both crazy, and most importantly it means that he destroyed the only thing that means something to him and—

"My friend—" a dreadful sob rips from Shion's mouth. "My friend is dead;" Bizarrely that seems to be when Shion really notices Nezumi, because he looks up, his cheeks stained with tears and blood. Suddenly his face contorts and its sickening that it takes him a felt eternity to recognize it as the smile it's meant to be—a smile asking for some kind of approval—it takes Nezumi so long for he only sees the distorted mask of madness. "My friend is dead; 'tis done at your request."

-oOo-

Nezumi awoke with a startle, gasping for air like he was drowning, shivering and sweating, and he knew that the sweat didn't have the slightest bit to do with the crawling heat awaiting to grasp the city. Instantly he sat up, turned so that his legs hung from the side of his bed and rested his hands on his knees, willing them to stop their frantic spasms.

"Fuck.", he cursed, his voice dangerously weak, breaking on the single word. Somewhere between panicking and trying to calm himself—it only was a fucking stupid dream, what are you getting all worked up about?!—he only barely noticed the little booklet that had fallen from his chest to the floor at his stirring.

Seeing that sitting around didn't seem to help with calming, he started pacing, shaking his head at how pathetic he was.

He was only glad there was no one there to see him like this. When his breathing had mostly evened out, he walked over to the window, opened the shutters and then threw open the window itself, letting fresh morning air waft in.

Another advantage of being so close to the sea was that no matter how hot the days were, every morning he was greeted with cool, moist air. It was really refreshing, and he inhaled deeply, once, twice, feeling the dream finally fading into oblivion.

It was a shame, or a really cruel joke of nature that such a nightmare would probably be stuck somewhere in his memory for like forever, when the most pleasant dreams disappeared into nothing but a distant feeling of contentment and longing mere seconds after they ended.

But he was awake enough by now to be able to distance himself from the feelings of horror the dream had risen, the cold air helping.

"So much for nerves." Nezumi mumbled, raking a hand through his disgustingly sweaty hair—he'd have to take a shower as soon as possible—and as Cravat appeared beside him on the windowsill Nezumi absentmindedly stroked him. He'd never seen his mice as anything else than a way to get information, as a tool. They were the only reminder of his past with the Mao Tribe, in some way, because they were his company, shared the same origin. Still, it was a past he hadn't wanted to be reminded of, hadn't waned to think about, because who looked back was unable to see what was ahead of them, would overlook the abyss and fall, because they tripped.

No, looking back was bad, facing forward was all one could do when coping with a past that was unchangeable either way.

But since Shion... his mice carried names, they had some sort of personality—well, they'd obviously had that before, but he only now was willing to see it—and they took more of him than they provided him with. Nezumi still refused to call them pets because for him it carried the connotation of Inukashi's stinking mutts, of uselessness—not that the dogs could really be called pets, but it seemed like that to him anyway.

Still, the mere fact he was feeding his mice some of his precious food was prove that he valued them more than he had before. Actually he felt some sort of responsible to make sure they wouldn't starve, especially now that they had pups.

Outside of the window he saw the city still in deep slumber. The sun was rising already, and the seagulls' screams were carried over from the bay by the gentle breeze. In the distance he noticed the first fishing boats setting sail to make the best catch possible.

Living near the ocean probably would have been even more favorable if he'd actually liked fish, but no matter how fresh, that thing was to be despised. The little market place right in front of his flat was vacant, no living soul in view, which was quite understandable, going by the fact that even though the sun was rising it was summer, and as such it could hardly be later than 4:30 in the morning. On the other side of the place he recognized one of the promotion posters for their performance. The date printed on it paralleled the one that would be printed on today's newspapers.

Tonight their performance would have the curtains opened for it for the very first time.

Taking a last deep breath, Nezumi tried to absorb as much of the cold air and peacefulness as he could, before turning and trotting over to his bed. He picked up the booklet lying on the floor, having been thrown down carelessly. His eyes ghosted over the black shapes on yellowed paper on the page that was opened.

"To wrong'd Othello's service! Let him command,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever." he read aloud Iago's part.

I guess it's not difficult to guess what was the most significant influence to my dream.

Nevertheless he chided his brain for taking Iago's latter words said about the proposed murdering of Cassio and twisting them, putting them into a completely different context. Iago wasn't anywhere close to honest when mourning at the suspect to loose Cassio, and calling him "friend" probably was the greatest lie of all.

Remembering his need for a shower, Nezumi droped the play on the desk, where it easily blended in with the rest of books, booklets and papers, and headed into his tiny, but sufficient bathroom.

-oOo-

With his first step into the theater in the late afternoon, Nezumi felt as if he had stepped into the nest of buzzing insects.

The air was positively humming with noise, everyone shouting commands, demanding knowledge about the state of preparations or asking about last minute adjustments, and although the theater crew including all backstage personnel only counted about twenty people, it seemed like there were twice as much rushing around.

"There you are! Why are you so late?!" a disembodied voice yelled, trying to overpower the omnipresent volume filling the backstage. Then a hand grabbed him on the shoulder, making him spin around.

"You are aware of the fact that it's still more than one hour till the first customer will be allowed to enter?" Nezumi replied, harshly shrugging the hand off. Anthony could be happy he hadn't lost half his teeth for touching Nezumi like that. "We already had our final rehearsal yesterday."

"Mental preparation!" the young director chided him, as if those words were all explanation needed and Nezumi stupid for not considering them. "And physical as well, to be exact. I wanted you to do some last training with Jem. The more the better, because the scene loses it's strength if he's not the dominant fighter!"

The implication of this being difficult for the fact that Nezumi was actually more skilled at fencing hang between them.

Nezumi was tempted to answer with a defiant "It's not as if I need the training, and I'm not in the slightest mood to exercise myself for someone who does." or perhaps an "If you think you can order me around, I can as well leave.". But he didn't. It annoyed him, to be pretty much commanded to do something, and he knew he could always have walked away.

It had already bothered him on his first day in the theater, when he had been hired for not that bad money. Nonetheless, no matter how good the pay, Nezumi had sworn himself no sum could buy his compliance, his pride. Back then Anthony had been demanding. He was hardly more than ten years older than Nezumi, and even if he had been that probably wouldn't have changed the fact that Nezumi was positively pissed. And yet he stayed.

Anthony was ambitious, inspired, wanted his interpretation to be special, something new and yet be something people who knew other Othello interpretations could recognize. It was Nezumi's first time working with a director who would do anything, wouldn't fray from any strain or difficulty to get the play on stage in the best way possible. Back in the West Block, all that had mattered for the thickly director was getting money, the quality of the play that earned it couldn't have interested him less.

Artistic ambition, the want to be as good as possible and even better had always been a notion Nezumi had been alone with in the theater. But he had also been selfish, all his ambition hadn't been for the audience but for his own satisfaction. What had the opinion of others ever mattered to him? Anthony's for sure didn't, no matter how often he chose to express it. If the usual pull would have come, Nezumi would have abandoned the production, would have left. At least that's what he told himself.

All those times he was simply fed up with the director he thought about simply quitting the work, the library for sure would provide enough money to live from. But he hadn't.

And even now he didn't turn and leave out of protest, he simply said: "Not the cleverest plan, letting Jem loose with his epee when all of those people are running around, preparing." Then he turned to head for the dressing room where he knew he would find Jem.

"Direc means you're too bad to look anyhow superior to me in fencing on stage, no matter how good I'm playing the drunk." Nezumi said when entering, sitting down on the bench next to the door.

"I know, he's not trusting me in the least." Jem complained, not even halting in his movement of slashing through an invisible enemy with his epee. "So, one last training match?"

"You're going to be hopelessly inferior, just so you know." Nezumi deigned himself to inform Jem, already fetching his own epee from the locker that belonged to him.

"Jeez, you for sure know how to motivate someone, man." Jem replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.

The next hour basically passed in a blur of last-minute practice, a mass of people, voices and colors as the scenery was being build up and given the finishing touch.

And then Nezumi found himself in the dressing room, fully clothed in his costume, with Jem wringing his hands nervously beside him and Anthony shouting his "five minutes left!"—for sure his third "five minutes", but now the phrase was slowly gaining verisimilitude—and Nezumi heard the bustling audience, voices of anticipation wafting gently backstage.

It was thrilling, and Nezumi noticed something he had never once felt before a performance was about to begin: He wanted the performance to go well, and he wanted to do all that was in his power so that it would become a success. But not so that he himself could be satisfied. He felt like he was owing it to the people who worked so hard on this production.

Owing them... it was a concept Nezumi despised—the one of owe—and yet found himself accepting it, accepting that the crew, no matter whether on- or back-stage, was relying on him. He had arrived as a stranger in No.1, a restless traveler who had never halted and who didn't tell anything about himself.

He highly doubted anyone, and least of all Anthony, knew where he came from. But despite all that he had been trusted, had been given responsibility. He was in the main cast, they didn't have any stand-ins, so if he were to go like he had done before, the play would be ruined, at least temporarily.

He was far from carrying the play's success all by himself, but the responsibility lingered in the air whenever he was meeting with anyone in the theater. Blind trust and responsibility—he knew two years ago, he would have fled from the latter and made fun of the first.

"Okay, Nezumi, next scene you've got to blend in with the background crowd!" Anthony reminded him in a quiet but urging voice, as if Nezumi would actually forget his entry. The director's gaze was completely fixed on what was happening on the other side of the curtain that was shielding them from the audience's eyes.

Nezumi decided against a descending comment, instead let out an amused huff at how tense the young man beside him was.

"Relax a little, Anth, or you wont be able to direct plays for long. Because I don't think the dead are that often listened to." Nezumi told Anthony with a clap on the shoulder as he passed him on his way to stage.

The response was drowned out in Nezumi's mind as he fell into his role. The audience he saw for the briefest of moments, before the world shifted in front of his imaginary eye to the dark, sparsely lit streets of venice.

"The duke does greet you, general." he said, with respect he was actually making himself believe he was feeling laced in his voice. And thus his first play-performance in years fully commenced.

-oOo-

"Have you seen Elly? She sat right in the first row. And was that Mrs Argan in the fourth row who was waving so frantically? I'm pretty sure she only came for you. But you! You were stunning, Nezumi. Absolutely great, astonishing performance. And I'm so glad the whole fighting scene worked out, I was so nervous about it and—" The whole adrenaline bubbled out of Jem in the form of a seemingly un-stillable onrush of words that Nezumi didn't really listen to. He was covered in sweat, the performance and stage fight combined with June's early heat wave had taken their toll on him. But his own adrenaline-induced high prevented him from feeling as exhausted as he was certain he was. Even the sticking costume only bothered him to a certain degree—one that he could still tolerate.

The after-show-euphoria among the staff wasn't expressed as excessively as one might have predicted, going by the scale of the turmoil that had been going on prior to the performance. Or at least the euphoria only lasted shortly behind stage, because everyone wanted to get home and under the shower as soon as possible, because the faster that task was accomplished, the faster they could reunite to go celebrate in some bar.

"I'm going to pick you up in half an hour straight." Jem threatened Nezumi as they left the theater together.

"I'm perfectly capable of finding the way by myself, there's no need for you to do such unnecessary things." was Nezumi's indignant reply.

"Oh, the intention of this pick-up service is rather to assure you won't run. Also your flat's on my way either way." With a last wave Jem took off, making sure Nezumi couldn't voice any objections.

A sigh escaped Nezumi's lips as he turned to head on himself. It was followed by a rueful smile almost instantly though. He still hadn't mastered to control his sighs.

Jem would never be able make sure I won't run. He thought to himself. But when there is no reason to run, why should I?

That there were more than enough reasons to run—the responsibility he'd taken on, the feeling of slow attachment and plans for futures that should be uncertain—he let hang in the air unspoken and unthought.

Because right now those reasons to run were slowly—really, really slowly—turning into reasons to stay. Not in No.1, but one day responsibility would make Nezumi stay in No.6. Or perhaps not in No.6, perhaps in No.4, in some little village or in the vast nothingness of the prairie, he couldn't know. It all was dependant on one factor, and on one factor alone: Shion. For the only responsibility that would always override all others was the one he owed Shion.

That night, when touring through all kind of bars, Nezumi didn't look away when the little television above the counter showed a record of the spring festival opening ceremony. He didn't look away although it meant facing what had formerly been the parasitic No.6, because all he was looking at was the one person standing out in every crowd, white hair being much too easily discernable.

Shion sat in the background, and Nezumi could only imagine his face, but his hair was enough to be certain it was him, and so Nezumi watched him, for the first time on his travels allowing himself to imagine what had become of Shion and the city. The pictures he saw were colorful and cheerful, a stark difference to every face the city had ever showed Nezumi. And it was the responsibility Shion felt towards the city, towards complete strangers, that had spurred on this change.

The rest of the night no amount of alcohol, no person residing in No.1, nothing that could happen would be able to banish the picture of white hair from Nezumi's inner eye, and buried deeply inside him, akin to a little seed, longing was slowly starting to sprout.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: July – Knowledge

Doubt grows with knowledge.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When Shion got home it was late at night. He had been out discussing the plans for the library which was going to be build on the former West Block territory. For that reason he and a few of his colleagues had been at the restaurant they always frequented when any topics arose which couldn't be discussed during their usual working hours. The fact that it was located near Shion's flat was a pure coincidence, but a lucky one. It assured a short way home for Shion after their meetings, which often lasted until well past midnight.

"I'm home." he called unnecessarily. It wasn't as if the clicking of his keys in the lock wouldn't have already given away his arrival to Tsukiyo. In the darkness of his hallway he couldn't make out the silhouette of the black mouse. But he didn't need to, because a sleepy squeaking told him the mouse was sitting on the little cabin right beside the door.

"Yeah, I'm sorry for being out so long. You shouldn't have waited up." Shion told the mouse. He had long since stopped caring that he treated Tsukiyo like he would treat any human being. The mouse had such a distinct personality, Shion was completely sure he understood everything he was told.

Actually Tsukiyo's character traits were so human: He sulked, he worried, he could get annoyed and had his sassy days. Sometimes he was demanding, sometimes he was begging.

Shion couldn't imagine a life without him anymore, but the obvious signs of age forced Shion to wonder how long the usual lifespan of a Mao mouse was.

He had searched library records for any details on the species, but somehow it seemed as if not much information had been preserved. Actually the only mentioning of them had been in a book retelling some of the Mao's myths. It had been among those he had taken from Nezumi's library. Whether Nezumi had put it there or if it simply had already been in the room when he had moved in—Shion didn't know, but he somehow guessed it was the latter.

It had been surprising for Shion to find out that there wasn't any Mao-related literature in any of No.6's official libraries. On second thought though it wasn't that surprising. The fact that the city had censored all information presented to their residents was no news to him.

It was not far fetched to guess that No.6 had burned every information about the Mao along with their territory and culture, their whole tribe. Basically extinguishing them, making sure the knowledge that they had ever existed was being banished and kept from the rest of the world. They were a chapter in the No.6 history the city didn't want to be publically known. Furthermore if someone would have stumbled across information about them questions might have arisen. Questions about who they had been and what had become of them. And it was obvious to Shion now, that the thing the city had feared most were questions. Because to ask questions you must doubt a topic, you must reflect a topic and come to the conclusion the presented information isn't satisfactory. It would mean one would no longer simply believe what one was told.

To prevent this, it was the most effective strategy to destroy any evidence, any sort of hint that might have pointed to the Mao and might have brought up unwanted questions.

It was a stupid notion but Shion couldn't help but feeling robbed. Robbed of the only chance to ever find out something about Nezumi, to get to know more about the Mao without Nezumi telling him. And deep down he doubted Nezumi would do so any time soon, and while Shion wasn't the most socially capable when it came to reading atmosphere he for sure knew better than to pressure Nezumi with questions. It wouldn't get him anywhere.

There was a delicate line between the wish to get to know Nezumi better, understand him and intruding in his privacy, or rather his private past which he hadn't yet decided to share with Shion. And Shion was having a hard time determining where that line lay, and wrestling with his curiosity to stop himself from crossing it.

He didn't count the Mao tales as "crossing". They were harmless, in a way. Nezumi would perhaps make fun of him for reading children's stories, but he wouldn't get mad or defendant about them. At least Shion hoped and believed so.

"Want me to read you a story as compensation for being out so long?" Shion asked Tsukiyo, and he simply took the fast scuffle towards his bedroom as a "yes" in Tsukiyo's mousy way of saying it.

Knowing that if he wouldn't follow within the next minute he'd have a demanding mouse standing accusingly on the drawer once again, Shion quickly stripped out of his coat, threw it on the clothing rack at the back of his entrance door and placed his shoes neatly on the designated shelf.

Then he walked through the small hallway, passed the living room to his left and the kitchen a little farther to his right, before following the left turn the walls took and ending up in front of his bedroom.

It was pitch black inside. He hadn't opened the blinds that morning, for it had been before the sun set that he had had to leave his flat. Opening them wouldn't have made much of a difference.

He felt for the light switch on the right side of the door.

When the light flickered to live it did so hesitantly, only barely strong enough to chase away the darkness from the nooks of the room at once. Shion could have gotten the lamps of the newest generation, which were at full power faster than human eyes being able to register anyshadows. But instead he had opted for the cheaper, older lamp-system. He didn't like being completely blinded upon turning the lights on.

"Want me to read a tale instead of a play today?" Shion asked Tsukiyo who was sitting on his bed.

For a change he didn't wait for any answer, as the choice of the story was traditionally in Shion's hand. And it wasn't as if Shion would ever pick stories Tsukiyo wouldn't like.

On the way to his night-stand Shion pulled his vest of his shoulders and opened the first two buttons of his shirt. Why did they have to look representative today of all days, when being dressed in a suit and being wrapped up in aluminium foil and stuffed in an oven would pretty much have the same result. It was late June, and summer was just getting started, but the sun already burnt down with an intimidating intensity.

"Okay, now, where were we..." he mumbled to himself after sitting down on his bed. Tsukiyo was resting on his usual spot, perched on Shion's shoulder, as close to his neck as possible.

The feeling of the soft fur against Shion's skin tickled, but at the same time it calmed him. It had become a ritual for Shion to read before going to sleep, a 'bedtime story' not only for Tsukiyo but for him as well.

Just as expected fatigue started to weigh his body down almost instantly, but he kept his voice firm for the sake of the story.

It wasn't very long, none of them were. The average length was about ten pages. But Shion enjoyed them thoroughly. He always felt closer to Nezumi when reading them. Had Nezumi's parents read them to him when he was a child?

Shion hoped so, because the stories were fascinating and he was sure Nezumi would have enjoyed or did enjoy them.

After the story was finished, Tsukiyo remained on Shion's shoulder. One could almost believe he had fallen asleep, but Shion knew he hadn't. He was just waiting for his good-night goody. He smelled when Shion came back from the restaurant, and it always meant getting tidbits of delicious, professionally cooked food.

"Yeah, yeah, of course I got something for you." Shion answered the expectant gaze.

He had to walk all the way back to the entrance door where he had left the little bag containing the leftovers of his food which he hadn't been able to finish at the restaurant. He hardly ever was able to finish the monstrous servings. It would be his dinner the next day, probably.

He placed it on the counter in the kitchen and took out a plate from the leftmost cupboard.

"There you go." he said, placing the dish on the plate. Not the whole thing was for the mouse, he simply thought it was easier to store in the fridge if it was placed on a plate.

Tsukiyo knew the procedure, so he hopped off Shion's shoulder, eagerly awaiting his treat.

Shion chuckled silently as he cut a little piece off his dinner and placed it in front of the mouse who instantly started munching away at it happily.

His fur was turning grey, and Shion wondered if it would look like Nezumi's eyes at one point. While watching his little companion Shion couldn't help consider the possibility that even though he looked like a normal mouse on the outside he was actually a completely different race after all.

The thought had crossed his mind the first time when he had seen Tsukiyo interact with normal mice. In the labs he used to frequent once in a while they held some mice—not for experimenting harmful substances on them, but rather for studying their behaviour.

Originally Shion had played with the thought of getting him together with a female mouse, so that he would be able to keep some relatives of Tsukiyo once his time would have run out. But while his interaction with normal mice was far from being hostile, they also didn't quite intermingle. So Shion had arranged himself with the thought that Tsukiyo would be the only remainder of the Mao tribe to keep him company until Nezumi returned.

A fond but longing smile crept its way onto his features.

"Yeah, I bet you liked that." he told Tsukiyo with a chuckle to distract himself. It was late, really late, and exhaustion still tugged heavily at his body, so he didn't want to think about the inevitable loss of Tsukiyo or the longing for Nezumi.

And just as if to confirm his thought a yawn escaped his mouth. Tsukiyo tilted his head slightly, and his little black, beady eyes seemed reproachful, as if to say: "If you're tired you shouldn't stay up for so long. Go to sleep."

"I will." Shion said, and held his hand out for the little mouse to run up to his shoulder. The older Tsukiyo got the more he loved being carried around. "We both should catch some sleep."

When finally lying in the darkness of his room he was tempted to simply close his eyes and let his consciousness fade out, but as usual his mind didn't want to come to rest as fast as his body wanted to.

So Shion turned and tossed, until all the covers were twisted by his attempt to find a comfortable position that would make his body force his mind to shut down.

He noticed he had once again missed the point sleep had finally overwhelmed him, as a sudden, shrill ringing tore through the silence of his room. Upon looking up he could see the first rays of the morning sun peek through his closed curtains. Suppressing a groan Shion reached for his cell and cleared his throat once, trying to get his vocal chords ready for their impending task of forming sensible words. "Shion speaking." He said with clenched eyes, one arm thrown over them to ward off as much as possible of the admittedly quite scarce brightness. Furthermore he knew it was a somehow stupid to answer the phone like that. It was his own cell phone, so obviously it would be him speaking. But it was a question of manners to pick up with stating your name, and this brief greeting was still better than the ineloquent "Yes?" that would have been his first impulse. Actually he should have stated his full name, but the ring tone instantly gave away that on the other side of the line would be someone from the reconstruction committee. Someone he worked with and who probably only knew him by his first name either way.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I probably woke you, didn't I?" Kastor's voice droned out from the electronic device. Shion was only happy his co-worker hadn't opted to call over his communication armlet with its included holographic function. That way he only had to keep the strain of a fairly short night out of his voice instead of trying to smooth the signs out of his features.

"It's no problem. You wouldn't call me unless it's something important." He answered, finally sitting up. Speaking the words had been more of a habit, but upon voicing them he realized the weight that was to them. It wasn't all too unusual for Shion to be called in at the most ungodly hours, because no matter how strange it seemed for a mere reconstruction committee, there always seemed to be an emergency 'round the corner. Shion was by far not the only one being called in when one surfaced. He only was among the group being called most of times.

So it wouldn't do him any good to defy waking up anymore, when the chances were very high he would have to leave his flat as soon as he possibly could.

"Yeah, I'm sorry nonetheless. I know you guys were probably still out very late yesterday. But Aaron Hammock, one of the library-sponsors just announced he wanted to hold an emergency meeting. I'm not even sure what's the matter, but the whole project depends on his money. And he said the whole team had to be present, because he's coming all the way from No.3."

"I got it." Shion answered, rubbing the remaining sleep out of his eyes as good as possible with one hand. He had dealt with Aaron Hammock before. They needed all the money they could get, and Hammock was a quite wealthy man. He was a little hard to deal with, though.

"When is the meeting?"

"In ehm... one hour. I know that's kinda really last-minute, but do you think you could make it? I already called Kazuki and Yuki, they're on their way." Kastor announced, and Shion heard rustling in the background. His colleague was probably sorting his documents, trying to prepare for the short-termed meeting.

"One hour is no problem. I'll try to be there as soon as I can. If everything works out I should be there in about fourty minutes."

With that said he bid Kastor a fast goodbye. He knew it didn't take him long to get ready, but the sooner he started the sooner he would be out of the door.

When he turned to his nightstand to pull his watch on he noticed Tsukiyo watching him with sleepy, disbelieving eyes. The old mouse hadn't even got up, only barely lifted his head.

"Work's calling. Sorry to startle you." He apologized in a hushed voice, basically indicating for Tsukiyo to head back to sleep.

Apparently the mouse had intended to do so all along as his eyes immediately dropped close once again.

Seeing as his roommate was back in the sweet realms of slumber, Shion hurried to collect his clothes and leave the room, closing the door behind him. He dressed in his bathroom, at a speed that even impressed himself.

The kitchen remained un-entered for the morning. It was much too early for Shion's stomach to accept any substances, no matter whether liquid or solid. And he was sure there would be a big cup of coffee waiting for him in the office either way, meaning there was no need to bother with his own machine.

With one look at his hair Shion decided for raking the brush through it once and then tying it back.

He looked more professional with tied back hair either way.

"I'll be heading out." He told the empty corridor in a voice that was between whispering and calling concerning the volume, as if he couldn't decide whether to inform Tsukiyo of his parting or let him keep on sleeping.

The train was startlingly crowded, for it being so early in the morning. Not that Shion didn't already expect it to be. Since quite some people of the West Block had taken on jobs in the center of the former city of No.6 there were many commuters. because even though they were working in the center they couldn't afford a flat there. At least not all. And some didn't even want to, as Shion had came to know. Most of the people of both sides had come to terms with the joining of the city and its outskirts, spurred on by misery and tragedy on both sides that connected them in their mourning. The inner city had suffered from the parasite wasps and the outside from the manhunt. Both were weakened and desperate in a way, so clinging to and supporting each other was the most promising way to eventually recover.

Yet it was obvious that that hadn't been wanted by everyone. Some residents of the West Block held onto their dislike of the city, and while they were okay with working there they wouldn't ever want to move there. Shion didn't even need to get started on some of the former No.6 citizens, because years of being told scary stories about the West Block had left them with a lot of prejudices towards its residents.
Mending the relationship of the two was hard business, and a process probably only time would be able to take care of.

But the reconstruction committee was trying their best to help the progress and spur on change.

"Good morning." Shion greeted the receptionist upon entering the office buildings. Since the reconstruction committee was keeping in contact with all kinds of organizations and people who could help the reconstruction progress, there was someone present 24/7 in case a sudden inquiry arrived.

Which was the reason why Kastor had been at the office in the middle of the night as well.

Shion repeated his greeting when he entered their conference room. He knew which one to head for because all their conferences with sponsors were held in this room.

"Good morning." Came the answering chorus from the people already assembled. Kazuki and Naoto were sitting at the table, expectedly both with a mug of coffee in front of them. In front of them Shion could see documents considering Hammock's prior donations and profiles displayed on the screens that were build into the table. They preferred working with electronic documents.

A short glance at the clock told Shion he had indeed made it within the stated forty minutes.

"Shion! Good to see you're here." Kastor greeted him, entering with three more cups in his hands. "Now only Yuki's still missing and then we're complete."

Shion quietly thanked Kastor for the proffered cup and placed in on his usual place to Naoto's left. "Is there any specific information yet as to what's the actual reason for this meeting?" Shion asked after he had taken out a few sheets of paper from his bag. They were blank, because they were meant to take notes. What good would it have done for Shion to bring any documents when he had no idea of the topic to come. All important facts about the library were stored in his head.

"Not exactly." Kazuki mumbled around his cup. After taking a gulp of coffee he elaborated his statement: "All we know is that it's connected to the library. I forwarded you his message, so you can look at it yourself. But he doesn't seem to be about to cut the money or anything like that."

Shion nodded to indicate he had understood, while logging into his mail file.

He indeed found the said message there, but it didn't provide him with any further information, just as he had expected.

So just like the rest of them all he could do in the time until Hammock would arrive was wait idly and consume as much caffeine as possible to properly wake up his mind.

To get into the matter they were going to discuss Shion ran through the basic facts in his head. The library was going to be located in the West Block, about fifteen minutes walk from the ruin of the wall. The building for it was already existent and only had to be slightly renovated because it was in an overall good state. The reason why their sponsors should support this project was their intention to bring the privilege of knowledge to the people of the West Block. Educating them would help them to get more productive at their work due to more effective production methods, allowing the city to prosper. That was the reason they told the people who had money, because it was the explanation that sounded like an investment would pay off eventually of they also invested in No.6's economy. Shion was fired up about getting the library done for a different reason, or to be exact for an additional reason, because getting No.6's economy working once again was desirable. But Shion looked forward to the time when the West Block population would be able to emerge in the wonderful worlds literature provided. And while accumulating the reasons the twenty remaining minutes passed almost unnoticed.

"I am so sorry to have called you in this early and am immensely grateful you could actually make it." was the first thing Hammock said when entering the room. His hair was dishevelled, as if he had rushed here in the utmost hurry. The present committee members stood up to greet him, and Shion couldn't help but being surprised. He hadn't ever seen their sponsor act in such an apologetic manner.

"It is no problem, Sir. If it's an urgent matter we're happy to assist you with dealing with it." Shion spoke up for the group. He had learned how to speak with sponsors in a diplomatic manner over the years. Having assisted his mother with customers before surely was a big help in that matter as well. "Please have a seat, then we can start."

"Yeah, you see, the supposed urgency of the matter is part of why I'm apologizing." The brown-haired man announced. "There simply was this idea that came to me yesterday evening, and I'm fully booked for the next month, so this was the only chance I had to talk with you about it. Even making time for this trip was a hellish task, let me tell you! I had to delay my morning appointment, and this customer of mine is so very easily offended."

Shion already knew this behaviour, the digressing while basically trying to make clear just how very important one was. It was something sponsors used to do once in a while, so Shion decided he shouldn't let him ramble on.

"I am sorry to interrupt you, but I guess since your time is precious and limited we'd rather get to the matter as soon as possible, so you'll be able to get back to No.3." he interjected.

"Yes, yes, you're right. Basically the idea I thought of was, that when we're already trying to encourage people to get to know literature once again, why shouldn't we also give them the chance to experience every aspect of it?"

The questioning faces effectively told the sponsor that the committee members didn't quite catch what he was on to.

"In the essence that sounds just like what we plan for this library to accomplish." Kazuki hesitantly replied. "But since you came here I'm guessing you thought of a specific measure."

"Exactly! You see, a problem of No.6 is—pardon me, was, as I'm certain you're working hard to change that—the problem was that the people around here accepted everything the way it was presented to them, not being allowed to question. Many didn't have an own voice. And that is just what I want to change. I want the population to discover their own passion for stories once again, show them how it is to be able to express their opinion or to dream."

Shion doubtingly eyed Hammock. The man was a business man, always flowery in his expressions and pretty skilled in avoiding getting to the matter.

"We agree with you, Sir. That is indeed very desirable." Kastor voiced their consent, because it seemed like the only thing they could do as of now.

Hammock shortly nodded to himself, as if confirming with himself that he could go on. "I'm very pleased to hear that. So before we go on I'd like to introduce you to my son, Juse." With that he gestured to the door, and as if he had been waiting outside the whole time, a teenager entered. Shion guessed he was about seventeen years old. But what stroke Shion immediately was his platinum-blonde hair combined with his heterochromia: His left eye was dark-brown, but his right one was blood-red.

"A survivor." The quiet words escaped Shion's lips without him being able to stop them. That boy evidently was from No.6. His face, and the little glimpse of a red line on the back of his right hand spoke for themselves. 'Survivor' was a rather bad term to call those who only barely came out of the Elyurias-indicent alive, because basically all citizens older than four years living in the city right now where survivors. But the term had become the standard to characterise people whose bodies had been marked. There weren't many people like that, only a handful. When the wasps had hatched, there wasn't much time that passed until the hosts were dead. So only a few were lucky enough for the hatching to be stopped at a state where their body only bore the marks but remained intact otherwise.

"Yes indeed. I am very happy that my Juse survived that horrible incident. Otherwise I might never have met him, after all." Hammock announced, patting the teen on his shoulder, a fond smile on his face. "I adopted him when he was twelve. I visited No.6 shortly after the overturn to look for my friends who were on vacation here at that time and I saw him at the orphanage. His real parents were killed, so I decided to take him in. He's a really bright boy."

Juse looked like he was a little embarrassed by all the attention directed to him, as he was facing down and shuffling uncomfortably. Shion noticed he had a stack of papers clutched to his chest.

"But I'll stop my gushing now, as I'm afraid we won't be making much of a progress otherwise. So basically, what Juse has there is the first draft of the story collection he wrote down. Juse, why don't you tell them about it."

"Sure." the boy said with a surprisingly firm voice. Then he straightened up and faced the committee members. "As you know I'm from No.6. When I was really small, my grandfather used to tell me great stories. He was older than the city, and he had moved here with my grandmother. Prior to that he had been a sailor. He told me stories about the sea, about far away countries and fairy-tales and legends about ancient or mythic creatures. I loved these stories. But No.6 forbade them after they found out about my grandfather telling them to me. That was when I was five. About one and a half year later my grandfather was taken to Twilight Cottage." The bitter tone of his voice was enough to tell them he hadn't ever seen his grandfather again. Shion couldn't help but being reminded of Safu. He always was when he heard about the institution of the former Twilight Cottage. She had lost her only relative there. And Juse had lost a very dear one.

Seeing as the teen seemed to be overwhelmed with past memories and resurfaced feelings his adoptive father placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. It seemed like a delicate topic for both of them, and somehow Shion wondered if somewhere in that bitterness of Juse's voice he could hear hatred towards the city that had taken his grandfather.

"Thanks, Juse." Hammock whispered, looking about to overtake the conversation once again, but Juse shortly shook his head, signalling for him to step back, to let him continue.

"Excuse me, I was temporarily caught up in the past. But the past is the past, and I'm here because you are changing No.6. Or more correctly already have changed it. So, this—" He held the paper he had clutched so tightly to his chest forward. "—is what I did to show just how fundamental the change is. Or how fundamentally I believe it to be. These are the stories my grandpa used to tell me. I wrote them down, the best I could remember them."

Shion stood up to take the proffered pages, looking them through quickly. There were quite many pages. Looking up again he noticed that Juse seemed to be kinda embarrassed, his cheeks tinted slightly pink.

"I don't know how good they are, wording-wise. I only started writing two years ago, and back then I was still pretty naïve. But these stories are the inheritance of my grandpa, and they made me happy when I was small. I want other children to feel that way as well. I want people to enjoy them."

There was a well-concealed passion behind his words that showed well just how important that matter was to him. He also had loosened up, wasn't as formal anymore in the way he spoke.

Not leaving the committee any time to voice their questions as to how these stories and their current meeting were connected, the sponsor raised his voice once again.

"Now you know the basics, so let's get to the real core of the matter. Juse inspired me, because he remembered these stories for so long, and wrote them down for everyone in No.6 to read them. And I think he's not the only one with the desire to do so. Going with that I think the opening of the library is a great occasion to launch some sort of competition or initiative, where we're encouraging the citizens to write down their own stories. What were their own experiences, or stories they were told in secrecy by relatives or friends, things they enjoyed. All the stories the former government didn't approve of and forbade. And we're going to collect all these stories and designate a section in the library to them. Like 'Stories from the population' or 'Finally heard stories' or something like that. Doesn't it sound great?"

For a few moments silence reigned in the room. The expressions of the present committee member's displayed thoughtfulness, trying to fully comprehend the suggestion that had been laid out before them.

"I think that sounds very interesting." Kazuki finally said, hesitantly.

"I agree." Yuki added. "That would also be a good promotion of the library, with which we might get more people to acknowledge the institution."

"Doesn't it? I think to hear all these bedtime stories from the population would be wonderful. In case you wonder why I specifically had to come and propose this idea to you: I'm very sorry, but the execution of it would probably be up to you. I'd love to organise this, but I've got neither the time nor the possibility to reach No.6's population since I live in No.3." Hammock sounded slightly apologetic.

There was a glance exchanged among the committee members before Shion decided to take it upon himself to answer.

"We understand that, Sir. And we're really grateful you chose to trust us with this issue. Nonetheless I'm sure you already expected that we'd need a little time to discuss how and whether we'll be able to do it justice."

"Oh, I totally expected that. As long as you'll think about it, I accomplished my mission."

"Of course we'll think about it." Kastor added. "And I am very sure in some way we'll carry it out."

A mutual nod of consent passed through the room.

Afterwards niceties were exchanged as Hammock had to head off once again right away. He told them to keep Juse's stories, as they'd been a copy intended to be given to them either way. After they were among themselves once again a drowsy silence fell upon them. The release of the tension that accompanied meeting a sponsor made the tiredness resurface.

"You wanna keep it for now?" Kastor asked, nodding to the papers lying in front of Shion. "You obviously know the most about literature among us all."

"I'd like to." Shion confirmed, glad to be offered the possibility to read the stories. After all, there was a chance one of the far away countries mentioned there was one that Nezumi had come across on his travels.

The following discussion quickly ended with the conclusion that they would indeed take on the task to host some sort of competition, though the details were to be determined some other time. After they had assigned rough responsibilities, they dissipated to pursue their individual work.

When Shion arrived in his office he saw the gentle light of the morning sun streaming through the window right onto his desk. It wasn't even eight o'clock yet.

-oOo-

That day Shion headed back home fairly early by his standards. It was only shortly past noon. While waiting for the train Shion started reading through the first pages of Juse's stories. Or his grandfather's stories, as the simple title 'Stories of my grandfather' made obvious.

They were fascinating, and in the process of reading Shion was for one indulging in the stories and for one letting his mind wander. Because the idea to let people write down their stories... It was a great one. And Shion couldn't help but wonder what certain people he knows or knew would write down. He had been to Safu's grave last month, to honour her birthday. Together with her day of death these were the two fixed dates he visited her grave. At first he had been there more often, at least once a month, but over the years these visits had become less and less frequent. It wasn't that he only visited her twice a year, but there were times when he didn't go to the graveyard for month and then there were months when he would go three times.

Whenever thinking about her, Shion felt a pang of guilt. It was less painful nowadays then it had been right after her death, but it was still there. No matter how unreasonable it was, Shion felt guilty for not having been able to prevent her death. He had tried so very hard, and there hadn't been much he could have done to save her, but an irrational inner voice told him it was his fault nonetheless.

Shion wished for her to be alive once again, not only to silence his conscience but because he firmly believed that Safu's knowledge would have been of great profit to the city. As a member of the special course she obviously was very gifted, and it was a great loss to not have her help during rebuilding the city and establishing a new system. Shion would have liked having her at his side in the committee or to at least hear her story. But it was too late for that. He wouldn't ever hear her story.

The train arrived three pages after the end of the first chapter, and Shion had real troubles tearing himself away from the story. It had been about a big white whale, and while it reminded him strongly of Moby Dick, the colorful description of the sea and the majestic view of the whale had Shion completely entranced. And they reminded him of the style the Mao tales were written in.

That moment he came to the conclusion, that one day he would ask Nezumi to write down what he remembered of the Mao. He knew Nezumi didn't like his past, and that remembering it was painful. Everything Shion knew about Nezumi's past had been revealed in the heat of a moment, without Nezumi actually deciding to tell Shion on his own account. For him to talk or write about his past would probably be a difficult thing for Nezumi.

But he was the only survivor of his tribe, all their stories, legends, all their knowledge and believe rested in him. It would be horrible to let all this disappear from the face of the earth, just like that. Shion wouldn't allow it. And he was sure Nezumi wouldn't allow it as well, because in a way it would be part of the last rebellious act against the city that he had hated. A rebellious act of proving that they weren't able to destroy the Mao, that their control wasn't closely as thoroughly as they thought.

And even if his past hurt Nezumi, once Shion would have persuaded him to face it he would be by his side to help him with it, with dealing with his past. After all his past was precious, it defined Nezumi, made him who he was and most of all, everything that had happened had led to him meeting Shion. And Shion wanted to know everything about this past, so that perhaps he could one day thank Nezumi for having endured it. If Nezumi wouldn't have stayed as strong as he did, Shion would never have met the most precious person in his life.

Shion knew Nezumi would probably call these thoughts sappy and cheesy, but Shion hoped that somehow his gratitude would bring Nezumi to at least accept his past and decide for preserving the knowledge about where he came from.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: August – Longing

The lonely wanderer, who watches by the seashore the waves that roll between him and his home, talks of cruel facts, material barriers that, just because they are material, and not ideal, shall be the irresistible foes of his longing heart.
Josiah Royce


The first noise escaping Nezumi's mouth after waking up was a groan. He felt as if his head was bursting, a throbbing pain robbing him of any chance to wake up gently.

I was poisoned, was the first thought that sprung to his mind, and the following panic didn't do his stomach any good, if the wave of nausea was being any indication.

Trying to pull himself together Nezumi refrained from jumping up as frantically as he would have liked to. He knew he needed to calm down, and mentally will the ill-feeling away. Then everything wouldn't look that bad anymore. It might even start making some sort of sense. Right now he had to regain hi sense of orientation, that much was essential.

Closing his eyes Nezumi began humming a little melody, the tone soothing and full of parental protection. Long ago Nezumi had reasoned it had to be some sort of lullaby he'd been sung to in times he couldn't even remember anymore, yet the effect remained the same.

And despite hating any notion of his that made him confront his past he had to admit that the humming helped him that moment, although it came out sounding rather weak and broken, mistuned. His vocal chords felt raw, and his throat was that dry that Nezumi seriously wondered when the last time had been that he any droplet of liquid had made the acquaintance with his throat. Emptying a whole mug of water with one gulp seemed like the thing that Nezumi desired the most right now, regardless of how much he dreaded it might upset his stomach.

Just when at last he was feeling strong enough to possibly move, a voice announced: "Finally up? Already thought you'd never wa—" A gasp. "Dear god. I hope you'll excuse my choice of words but you look like crap."

The voice made Nezumi's eyes fly open. For the first time he took in his surroundings and noticed that no, this indeed wasn't his flat, and if his mice hadn't suddenly mastered the art of speaking of their own accord with an own voice then no, he wasn't alone in this flat. This flat that wasn't his. Which meant it had to be inhabited by someone else. And there was someone else in the room.

Nezumi felt his head go dizzy and cursed his thoughts for starting to run in circles. Actually at the moment the voice startled him, Nezumi's muscles screamed at him to finally jump up, but the sudden opening of his eyes had send the world around him spinning.

His stomach twisted in the most uncomfortable way. Ignoring the sickness he felt Nezumi pushed himself up.

"Woah, slowly. You seem as if you're still pretty tipsy." The voice again. It was closer this time, which meant the stranger was moving towards Nezumi.

All his instincts shrieked in alarm, and Nezumi, ignoring all threads of his body, spun around, taking up a defensive stance. Whoever was there, whatever had happened to Nezumi, the stranger shouldn't think he'd get Nezumi down that easily. Even if he would be wounded, poisoned, Nezumi wasn't to be underestimated. And he made that clear by the defiant, pugnacious expression etched onto his face.

But when he laid eyes on the supposed stranger, he only saw Jem stand there, hands raised defensively.

"Hey, pal, calm down. What's with that look? It's only me." He announced soothingly, looking quite shocked.

Just then Nezumi started to wonder what exactly was going on. If Jem was there, that meant this was Jem's flat. If he was in Jem's flat, how had he ended up here?

He couldn't remember a thing and his head ached at the mere thought of thinking. There was only one explanation and Nezumi felt slightly stupid for taking so long to fit the pieces together.

"You're so dead." Nezumi growled, burrowing his head in his hands. He simply wanted all the world around him to disappear, all the light and noise.

"Now, now, it's quite unwise to threaten the person in possession of all your clothes." Jem threatened, sounding teasingly. "Well, almost all."

Only then Nezumi noticed that he was indeed only wearing his underwear. The glance he cast Jem would eventually be able to kill people, Nezumi was practising a lot for it to.

Once again Jem raised his hands in defense, but this time he laughed. "Jeez, calm down. It was fucking hot tonight, your clothes would only have bothered you." he tried to ease Nezumi. Or at least Nezumi hoped for him that that was what he was trying to do. Because if Jem would try to make fun of him, Nezumi was going to make sure the other would pay for it. Painfully. Once Nezumi would be able to move without cringing again, that was.

Thus right now he only managed a deep growl, before burying his head in his hands and forcing himself to forget everything around him.

For a moment it worked, but then Jem's voice broke through the gratifying silence. "Wait here for a moment."

It's not like I'm bound to go anywhere either way. Nezumi thought bitterly, using all his willpower to keep his stomach calm.

To distract himself he decided to try to remember what had happened. He was hung-over. Pretty bad so. Good, that part was obvious. But how had he ended up so drunk that he had a hangover as bad as this? And a black-out as well, apparently.

He seemed to have agreed to go drinking with Jem, easy to figure out as well. Or perhaps he had been forced by Jem, didn't matter, in the end he had ended up out, drinking, with Jem. And potentially other people. Whom he couldn't remember at the moment.

Okay, one step at a time.

So, the biggest question was why he had drunk this much. It wasn't his first time being dragged to a pub-hopping-tour, though he had been able to limit them to only a few. Nonetheless, even when someone—and that someone almost always was Jem, most of the other people who knew Nezumi were surprisingly intimidated by him—so even when Jem got him to join, Nezumi never drank much.

What had been different?

No matter how much he wrecked his mind he wasn't able to come up with an answer. And in the progress he noticed that "wrecking" his mind surely wasn't the cure to his headache.

"There." Jem announced out of the blue only a few feet away, holding a glass out to Nezumi, who hadn't even noticed his leave. It made him cringe inside, and fear lapped at his mind. It was irrational, because even in his current state he would be easily able to beat Jem if it were to come to a fight. But he was caught off guard—no, he wasn't only caught, he was off guard, not only for a short moment. He felt exposed to another being, and defenseless.

But he had long ago learned that the more defenseless you looked, the more defenseless you were. So he told himself for the umpteenths time since waking up to pull himself together.
And just like that the mask was on. Easily fitting his features and his being. Annoyed, but confident. Threatening even. That was what Jem could read in his body language now.

"What is that?" Nezumi asked in answer to the proffered glass, just the right amount of disgust and defiance tinting his tone. The water inside the look-through confinement was strangely milky, and after waking up feeling like he had been poisoned, milky water wasn't exactly high on his list of things he wanted to consume now.
"The best cure for a hangover. At least the best I know." Jem announced with a big grin. "Come on, be a good boy and drink it. It'll make you feel better."

The mocking tone in his voice made Nezumi wonder why he hadn't shown Jem the lines he wasn't allowed to cross much stricter a long time ago. With his knife, the most effective argument he owned. Sayings like "The word is mightier than the sword." were nice and all, but that didn't mean the sword might not be a cleverer choice sometimes. When trying to make a point.

"I for sure won't drink that." Was all Nezumi bit out in response. He most of all wouldn't drink it if he was ordered to. Or expected to. No matter with how much force his former fantasy of emptying a whole bucket of water returned. No matter how damn dry his throat suddenly felt. No matter how much his head hurt.

He kept the stubborn stare on.

Jem matched his stare, as if unwilling to give in. A few seconds passed in silence, then Jem simply shrugged and downed the liquid himself.

Nezumi narrowed his eyes, wondering what Jem was up to. Even if he didn't look like it, the fellow actor could be almost as stubborn and persistent as Nezumi. Giving in like that wasn't like him.

"What? You didn't seem to want it. And it would be a shame to waste it. But if you should change your opinion, water is in the kitchen. Right beside the sink is a little package. I got the powdre from the apothecary. You know, the one three streets from the theater. Seriously, the best money I ever invested. One spoon, one glass of water and your headache is gone." Jem explained, and put the empty glass on the couch table. This was quite a difficult task, seeing as there was hardly an empty spot. If Nezumi had thought his living style to be messy, he for sure couldn't rival with Jem's. Creative chaos, he assumed. He didn't even want to begin imagining how Anthony's flat would look like.

"Ah, I guess I'd better fetch your clothes." Jem announced and immediately acted upon his words, disappearing through a doorway right to the kitchen.

For the shortest of moments Nezumi contemplated keeping his defiance up. To stay strong and not give in to the seemingly nonchalant offer Jem had made him.

But the thirst and the throbbing of his head were very effective ways of his body to say get over into the kitchen and make that goddamn drink or we won't be friends for quite a while.

So he gave in and marched over to the sink. Just as expected he found all required ingredients and after mixing them he drowned the liquid greedily in one gulp.

When returning to what seemed to be the living room he found his clothes lying on the couch he had slept on.

"Feeling better?" Jem inquired from the doorway.

"Do you think your medicine is able to work wonders? How the hell am I supposed to feel better already?" Nezumi bit back, all too aware of the throbbing of his head. "Anyway, how can you be in such a goddamn good mood? It's making me feel even sicker."

"The blessing of youth." Jem replied, fully aware of the fact he was the older one of the two, so he couldn't be the least bit surprised by the icy glance Nezumi cast him.

Deciding it was beneath him to deign Jem with any more communication Nezumi walked to his clothes and wordlessly got dressed.

After finally feeling the familiar clothing on his skin once again, he followed Jem into the kitchen, who was standing in front of the opened fridge.

"I knew I forgot to go shopping..." Jem announced.

Nezumi leaned against the doorframe, trying his best to use the nausea he was feeling for deepening his scowl. He couldn't have cared less about an empty fridge. He didn't feel like his stomach would allow any food to be consumed. Or at least wouldn't allow him to keep it for long.

"I guess we'll have to grab a bite somewhere, then." Jem reasoned, facing Nezumi. Upon seeing the scowl he added. "Don't worry it'll be my treat, so brighten up."

"I'm not hungry." Nezumi moodily replied, unwilling to move.

"I am, though. And I bet you'll be too once you see the delicious food they've got to over at the diner right around the corner." Jem told him persuasively, marching into the living room to collect his purse.

Nezumi watched him sifting through the seemingly endless piles of clothes lying around the living room. For one moment he considered simply walking out on Jem and returning to his own flat as fast as possible. There would be a herd of silent mice waiting for him. And the occasion to sleep for another few hours.

But then again it would be foolish to reject the offer of having a paid-for breakfast. Actually going out for eating, to get served dishes he hadn't bought the ingredients for himself or watched them being cooked, if not have cooked them himself was something that still felt foreign to him. When preparing food himself was that much cheaper, why waste money on such service? But Nezumi was no longer living in the West Block where he had to watch every coin he earned. Since Jem or Elly or Anthony or anyone else from the theatre occasionally succeeded in dragging him out he had been to a couple of restaurants by now.

And he had stopped by countless inns on his years of travelling, where it was obviously easier to buy a meal than make one himself.

Still, while Nezumi didn't feel as if he would ever get really used to the notion of it, he wasn't one to reject getting breakfast for free. His stomach wasn't rebelling as much anymore as well. It probably had been the hangover combined with his sleepiness that had made his stomach feel so bad.

"Ah, there you are!" Jem told his purse, before winking Nezumi over. "Let's get going. I'm starving, now that I started thinking about food."

It was only then, that Nezumi noticed something odd about Jem. The other was always rather loud and outgoing, and almost painfully happy. Right now was no exception, but his actions and cheerful words seemed forced. Not that Nezumi could actually pinpoint why it felt that way, it simply did. His head prevented him from dwelling on the thought though. Perhaps Jem was simply too proud to admit his head was killing him as well and tried to overplay it.

Reluctantly Nezumi followed his fellow actor through the hallway that was equally as messy as the living resided between them until they had left the house Jem's flat was located in. It was Jem, obviously, who broke it. "When you woke up, what was that about?" he asked, sounding genuinely curious. He could only be referring to the fact that Nezumi had reacted with his instinctive defensiveness when he woke up in an unfamiliar flat.

Nezumi had never told anyone in No.1 anything about his past, Jem was no exception. And he wasn't going to be. What should have Nezumi told him anyway? That he had been living on the edge of being killed for years since his whole tribe had been annihilated when he was barely old enough to understand what was happening? And that without a reflex like the one that had kicked in that morning he would probably be dead right now? No, even if it had been reasonable to talk about such things, Nezumi didn't like it if people were meddling with his past.

Thus he replied curtly: "None of your business."

But Jem had never been able to read the situation well and to recognized when Nezumi wished to be left alone. "You looked as if you were ready to draw out a knife and cut me into little pieces with it. I swear I've seen plenty of people's reactions to a hangover, but yours tops them all."

"No one says I won't still do it once I have a knife in reach." Nezumi grumbled, trying to act as unapproachable as possible. Perhaps he would be able to silence Jem that way.

Surprisingly Jem only laughed, as if taking Nezumi's threat not serious. It annoyed Nezumi that his words were laughed off, because while the threat was obviously not meant for real, Jem didn't even for one moment consider it to be.

A few years ago, in the West Block, every threat of his had been for real. Noone would have dared laugh at them. Although... Inukashi might have, but that would have been a futile attempt of hiding her inferiority.

Jem simply laughed because he didn't know Nezumi. Didn't know anything about Nezumi beside what Nezumi was willing to show of himself, which wasn't much.

"Gosh, you're so grouchy when hungover, Nezumi. I guess I'll make sure you end up in your own flat next time, without anyone around to help you up." Jem positively chirruped, as if he was absolutely delighted at the prospect of Nezumi waking up in his own flat, helpless and without any medicine in sight. Or any food in the fridge. It was a mystery to Nezumi why in Jem's eyes he was unable to take care of himself. It's not as if he had ever given any indication of bad housekeeping-qualities.

But that wasn't what bothered Nezumi. He didn't care about how others saw him, least of all how Jem saw him. What stung were the words "next time". Nezumi thought about how foolish it was, to still internally flinch at such flippantly spoken words, when he had months ago resolved himself to accept plans for the future. Nonetheless he felt himself going into a defensive, stubborn state of disagreement. That others were assuming there would be a next time meant they thought they knew what he would do. As if his actions had gotten predictable.

Jem obviously wasn't awaiting an answer, and with Nezumi's aversion to conversation he would be insane to give an unnecessary one that might have them carry on the conversation for even longer.

The distance from Jem's flat to the destined restaurant wasn't actually long, but for Nezumi it felt like an eternity. The heat of the late summer was burning down on them with hellish intensity. At least there was a little movement, thanks to the ocean stirring up slight breezes. It wasn't enough to prevent Nezumi from feeling as if the air was almost palpable though, one thick layer of warmth that hit him head on.

Buried in his internal complaints about pretty much everything it took Nezumi a while to notice the silence beside him. Unable to fight his curiosity he glanced at Jem, quickly and inconspicuous, so that the other wouldn't feel inclined to start talking once again.

Jem was facing sideways, away from Nezumi, his eyes loosely focussed on the buildings on the other side of the street while not looking as if they actually seeing anything. His shoulders were sagging. If he hadn't known better he would have said Jem looked nervous or as if he was deep in thoughts. But he knew better, Jem was shameless, and the shameless hardly ever were nervous because they didn't see any reason to be nervous when their actions were nothing to be ashamed of. And when Jem claimed to be nervous, he did so loudly.

Deciding not to bother with it for now, Nezumi was more than happy to let the remaining walk pass in silence, though he couldn't help relating his current observations to his former once about the forced cheerfulness. There was something off, and Nezumi wasn't sure if he wanted to find out what.

They rounded two corners, passed a little fountain where a swarm of greyish birds had settled down to relish in the water's cold and finally Jem's head perked up. A few meters ahead of them the restaurant was visible.

At the prospect of food Jem's eyes seemed to sparkle with anticipation, his stomach giving the fitting growl, and Nezumi almost wondered if the formerly perceived thoughtfulness had been his his eyes playing a trick on his slightly hung-over-affected mind.

As if to keep the equilibrium between them, Nezumi's face deepened into a scowl at thinking of food, matching Jem's excitement with its counterpart. He couldn't recall the last time that he had been so reluctant to get something to eat, something that was bound to properly feed his stomach and give him the energy to keep going. The mere thought of wanting to refuse something like that was absolutely bizarre, so Nezumi placated his complaining stomach. He kept the frown though, simply for good measure.

"That's it." Jem stated what was obvious to Nezumi. But the way his relieve and anticipation sounded awfully wrong was belying his joyful eyes and affirming Nezumi's observations. It arose Nezumi's suspicions, if they hadn't already been risen enough. Though Nezumi didn't particularly feel inclined to admit it, he was well aware of the fact that Jem's acting wasn't too shabby.

Jem's voice betraying him like that was unlike him. So very unlike him that Nezumi felt the sudden urge to halt his steps, turn around and walk away. There was no logical reason for that notion, aside from the fact that he felt something going really wrong.

Nonetheless he followed, as Jem guided them inside, arguing with all windows opened there might be a nice breeze going inside. Nezumi highly doubted that, but he saw no point in arguing. Wordlessly he followed Jem to a table to the left, quite close to the opened windows.

They sat there for approximately 30 seconds when an overly happy waitress rushed over, handed them both a menu and a dazzling smile, much too bright to be genuine.

She probably hoped to earn a smile of them in return, but Nezumi didn't feel inclined to let his features ease out of their frown any time soon, especially not when it helped keeping annoying strangers at bay, and Jem was apparently already too deep in thoughts again to even properly acknowledge the girl's presence.

When she had trotted away, looking quite disappointed, Nezumi focussed back on Jem, despite not wanting to. His eyes narrowed the slightest bit at seeing Jem nervously biting his lip, with his eyes almost forcefully trained on the laminated card, yet not seeming as if any of the information registered with them.

Nonetheless he was able to place an order instantly when the waitress arrived.

After following suit and sending the waitress away once again, Nezumi felt that his patience had run out. He was annoyed with watching Jem fiddle, so he prompted him: "Spit it out or suck it up."

Accidentally that was just the moment that Jem had made his mind up as well, suddenly facing up, his blurted out words overlapping with Nezumi's: "Who's Shion?"

All of Nezumi's thoughts came to a sudden halt, his posture frozen in disbelieve. "Excuse me?" The words left his lips on their own accord, his brain still much too busy evaluating whether Jem's question had only been the remaining alcohol buzzing in his veins playing tricks on his ears.

Jem looked Nezumi briefly in the eyes, and then let his own travel the slightest bit down, as if he couldn't stand the direct eye contact. "Who's Shion?" he repeated, much less determined, cautious even, as if having been caught kinda off-guard by Nezumi's shocked expression and now wanting to be as gentle as possible.

"How do you know that name?" Nezumi croaked out, the mortification having seemed to rob him of the physical ability to talk. The moment the words left his mouth, he knew they took a big chunk of his armor with them, cracked the carefully prepared facade of the person without a past behind which he hid himself. He knew that this question made him sound suspicious and that Jem would know there was something deeper to that name. A nonchalant "How should I know?" or a doubtful "What are you talking about?" might have left Nezumi the room to argue his way out of this conversation, to divert Jem from the topic.

But he had screwed up, and he could only blame the hangover-induced slowness of his mind for that combined with the shock of hearing such a familiar name from such an unexpected source. Also Shion's name, spoken out loud, did sound somehow strange. It had been so long since Nezumi had heard it, and hadn't only spoken it in his mind, that for a moment there was an unfamiliarity lingering around it.

"You don't remember yesterday?" Jem asked, discomfort present on his features.

Nezumi's blood ran cold, because he felt the memories lingering in the back of his mind suddenly press forward, as if triggered by the question. He couldn't yet precisely tell what they were about, but the chills he felt were like a premonition, telling him he might not even want to know.

Nonetheless he couldn't help the memories from slowly resurfacing.

He remembered the warmness of the alcohol, buzzing much stronger than the little offshoots he still felt now. He remembered the cloudiness of his mind, making everything seem logical and simply okay. And he remembered another person, close to himself.

Shion.

There was the name, embedded in the hazy memories of the last night, and only the seemingly frozen state of his features prevented Nezumi's fear from showing.

He knew why he had never gotten drunk, and why he should have stuck to that resolution. Getting drunk had made him tore down the precious walls that he had worked so hard, so long to build to protect his inner most part which was so goddamn vulnerable. And he had done it himself, on his own accord.

And now he was sitting opposite to Jem and felt as if the other could look right through him, and destroy him.

"I am kinda sorry for bringing this up, when you seem to have forgotten. It is possible the matter would have been better of being left alone. Especially since I really don't want Elly to find out... but I think it would be wrong to not talk about it. We have to sort these things out." Jem explained himself, but the words were hardly registering with Nezumi as he was too overwhelmed with the memories that were becoming clearer and clearer.

He remembered an arm, slung around his shoulders for support. He remembered a hand, holding keys to a door that wasn't his. He remembered a mouth, chuckling contentedly and silently close to his ear, in recollection of a joke he either hadn't heard or hadn't understood.

"I guess I should also apologize for that ever happening. You apparently were even more drunk than me, so I should have tried to remain reasonable. I seriously don't know what got into me."

There was the small hallway of an uncommon flat, painted only in different shades of darkness, almost devoid of all light. No fingers tried to reach for the light-switch, being much too occupied already.

"But somehow one thing led to another, and my drunken mind kinda took itself out of the equation, leaving my body to roam free."

There were jackets against his back, and hands, first on either side of his head, then suddenly on his shoulders, on his arms, on his back. The owner of the arms was no more than a shadow, blending perfectly with the rest of the environment. And yet Nezumi's mind told him there was familiarity in this figure, this mere shadow. It told him this person was safe. For a moment Nezumi felt as if crying out of relieve, because he finally had re-found the presence that was able to make him whole.

"It's not as if anything really happened but still..."

There was the illusion of white hair and red eyes, and a snake wound tightly around a pale body, only visible on the face though because everything else was hidden by the shadows. And Nezumi's hands reached out on their own accord, drawn in by the presence, like moths drawn to the light. He couldn't and didn't want to stop his arms from wrapping around the shadows neck, drawing it closer because he was afraid he would fall into endless darkness if he wouldn't keep the light as close as possible.

"But I'm digressing. I basically wanna know, if Shion is the guy I should be apologizing to."

The other person didn't shy away from Nezumi's touch, but its movements were temporarily stilled, as if it were surprised by the reaction. It didn't resist Nezumi's pull though, easily moved in until there were two breaths mingling, the only noise in the otherwise silent room their heavy exhaling. Nezumi's eyes saw black, but his mind said white. His eyes saw brown, but his mind said red. His nose smelled an unfamiliar scent, but his mind said it was a reminiscence.

"I simply want to be sure I won't have destroyed a relationship with my foolish actions."

There wasn't the slightest bit of resistance when the space between them was closed. There was only the memory and the feeling of hands on his body, and lips on his lips, and a sense of security and longing, of desperate longing. And choked up by emotion his mind conjured the name fitting the illusion, naming the desire.

Shion.

"I can understand if you don't even want him to know about it, but still, will you tell me who he is?"

"He's no one..."

When the mouth moved to his neck, a moan escaped his mouth.

"Nonsense."

But the moan wasn't shapeless like it was supposed to be, but rather it was made of sounds strung together to form a sensible word, or rather a name.

How do you know that name?

"Nezumi, you don't say a name like that in a situation like that for nothing."

Suddenly there was emptiness, coldness where moments ago there had been warmth. The lips on his neck retreated as fast as if they had been burned. "Fuck." cursed a bodiless voice and a voiceless body moved away from him, until it had almost almost disappeared from Nezumi's alcohol clouded field of view. "What are we doing? What am I doing? You're drunk, and I'm drunk, and apparently we're both taken." Nezumi could only blink dazedly, feeling as if being robbed of his safe place, the one where he could feel at ease, without strings attached.

"This person is important to you. Very much so, going by the way your voice sounded.", Jem said, finally breaking through the memories that had held Nezumi captive.

Yet Nezumi already wished he had remained in the memories, however humiliating they might be. Because every word of Jem—saying Shion was important—felt as if he was dragging Nezumi's innermost self outside. He either didn't recognize or misinterpreted the pained expression on Nezumi's face, since if he had interpreted it correctly he would have known he had long since overstepped his bounds, was intruding in the innermost parts of Nezumi's mind, the ones he always fought to keep safe and unseen.

Yes, of course Shion was important to him. More so than anything else in the world it seemed to him lately.

He was slowly able to acknowledge that to himself. But to Jem? To Jem, out of all people? Or to anyone else at all?

No, there was no way he was ready for that. In no way would he lay himself bare like that, let anyone know of the mortal weakness that had already come so close to being the end of him so many times.

He couldn't take that, couldn't take to be in Jems presence any longer, so he did the only thing he could think of and—like so often—fled.

He was out of his chair and out of the door faster than Jem could react, rushing past the startled waitress and almost taking two chairs down. Not that he would have cared. Actually it probably would have been a good thing, since that might have prevented Jem from following him.

"Nezumi, wait!"

Nezumi spun around, his eyes conveying fury because it was the best protection. It would keep Jem away, scare him away if he was lucky. "Get lost." he hissed, voice full of spite.

"I am really sorry Nezumi, I didn't meant to upset you. Or for that to ever happen. But it did. Why can't we simply sit down, talk about it, and deal with it like two grown up people?" Jem looked desperate, as sorry as he said he was and a little disbelieving at the harshness of Nezumi's reaction.

"Shion is none of you business. So stop prodding!" With that Nezumi turned and continued his way, every step widening the distance between them as Jem didn't follow him.

He only called after him weakly, once, twice, then Nezumi was out of hearing distance.

His feet didn't still until they had crossed pavement, rubble, grass, sand and finally came to rest on stone.

Wandering without a goal had led him to the bay. His bay. His refuge.

He sank down onto the stone he was standing on. The wind blew around his head and yet didn't do anything to ease the throbbing or to dissipate the heat of the blazing sun.

The salt burned in his lungs with every harshly inhaled breath.

How am I any different from when I left him, if I react like?

Slowly he laid back, until he could no longer see the sea, or the rocks, or the green grass in the distance, but only the clear blue of the sky. He had a lot of thinking to do.