Chapter 1: Prologue
You're warm, too…
Is he… ? Nezumi's fallen asleep on me. And look at me with my arms around him! But I don't want to wake him. It's not uncomfortable, and I know mom won't disturb us, but still, how embarrassing…
Well, I guess I've probably got more to worry about than embarrassment, helping a VC like this. But then, what could he have done? Okay alright, he's pretty amazingly strong and agile for someone my age… he'd be capable of harming someone… but he's not a bad person. It doesn't feel right. He's just a kid, like me. And he was shot, for goodness' sake! At least something had to be done about that. He could have died.
He's so small and slender… I couldn't just let him die. Especially not after I saw those eyes with the dark and light greys blending together— even silver when they caught the light just right. And even their shape… I've never seen eyes like that before. Never, not even in our special advanced biology lecture on genotype and phenotype expression, in which iris pigmentation was one of the leading examples. Geez, I almost messed up and forgot how to stitch a wound properly when I got caught up in that bad poetry in my head. His name shouldn't be "Nezumi." That's a different grey. A dirty, ratty grey. A dull grey. But… the sky at the crack of dawn? What was I thinking?
He's still boiling up. Wish he'd taken those antibiotics… But he's alive. His breaths are steady… and they're warm on my face… feels nice…
Living people are warm.
I… like his warmth.
It's just to return a favour
Just like I thought. Someone died in the park just today and they've stepped up their surveillance this much? Glad I decided to come out in person this time. Those bastards… they already knew. They've scripted out their bitter young genius stripped of his privileges seeking revenge. You won't get your way, No. 6. I'm going to rip your precious script to shreds.
With these jerks all the way up the promenade from the station, I don't even need the mice to tell me he's on his way. But by the time that space cadet notices something's up, of course it'll be way too late. He has nowhere to run. I won't let you die, Shion. Not at the hands of those bastards. I won't let that debt go unpaid.
He has to know I'm around to help, first… but I can't just knock on his door or walk up to him on the street. Who knows how he'd react, then? Yeah… it's been four years now. I wonder what that airhead will say when he hears from me? I bet it'd be something really weird. Ah, he's here to drop her off. "Up for a stretch, little guy? Take the two-way over, and let's see how that flake is doing."
Oh, so the girl is going away to study, huh? No. 6 elites really do get their privileges, don't they? But she's probably too brainwashed to—
"Shion, there's something I'd like to ask of you."
"Sure, if I can get it to you in time…"
Oh my god, check out the dropped jaw— look at him blush! She's offering sex and he's shuffling around, scratching his head like that… damnit, that is the funniest thing I have ever seen! How naïve can you be? How is it you only see her as a friend, when she's been making eyes like that at you? And he's going to wait two years for what he could have now? You're one-of-a-kind, Shion. A dope like no one else I've ever seen.
"Hey, let's get up close. I want to say something, so head up by his ear. But you're making a quick getaway after that, got it?" Okay, perfect. Listen up, Shion. I'm gonna enjoy this: "You're still as much a natural as ever." I won't let No. 6 destroy you. I'll destroy them first.
Look how shocked he is! Such a weird kid. Oops, I think I might've caught his eye for a second there, he's running this way. I guess that natural's missed me. Aww, how touching. But it isn't quite time for our reunion yet. "Let's beat it, guys."
Will this be enough, this four years of protection? I don't know if I could ever repay that debt. It wasn't just my life he saved that night, after all. He saved my faith in humanity… or at least, in one human being.
Guess I'll just return a favour, and we'll see how it goes from there.
Show me those eyes, too…
"I love you Shion, more than anyone else."
It sounded alright on the phone just now. The phone call he was supposed to have made to me, and not me to him because he forgot. But, no matter. Of course I'll wait two years for you, Shion. And yet… I already want to see you now.
I'm sure appealing to the male reproductive instinct earlier on didn't hurt, but it wasn't as effective as I'd hoped for focusing his attention. It's still divided between what's in front of him here and now, and… sometime or someplace else.
Shion noticed me first, back when we were little. He was the only one who liked how I dressed. We spent more time together than with anyone else. I thought our eyes were focused on each other. But now, when we're out in public, it isn't long before those eyes of his are searching the crowd. When I come back from the restroom, I catch him sighing into his mug of cocoa. I tried to surprise him that time, but Karan-obaasama said he isn't in the mood for company on rainy nights. But as I walked away, I looked back, and saw Shion in the open window upstairs, his forlorn gaze sent off into the distance.
You used to love going out in rainstorms, Shion! What's happened to you?
I had a feeling you would take a different path from the rest of us. And then there you were in Lost Town. You're not jealous of me at all… maybe you didn't even realise it yourself. I'm glad you don't have negative feelings toward me, but we all had hopes and dreams. You still love ecology. Yet now you're flunking out of simple government-paid work training courses… and it doesn't bother you one bit? I don't get it.
If you had no hopes for the future, you'd show signs of that hopelessness. You'd speak of regrets; you'd despair. But… you're not. You're happy with how things are. You've just… It's like you've lost something. You're seeking something I can't help you find.
Is it Nezumi? You say you're not lovers, and of course I believe you, but I wish you'd look at me like that. Your eyes were so intense and hopeful as you ran away… from our last moments together. You were surprised on the phone just now that I noticed the look on your face. But I'm always noticing things about you, Shion.
I wish you'd at least noticed the way I was looking at you.
Chapter 2: What's A Lifetime?
It's my first birthday since you departed on your journey. Five years ago today, you and I met for the first time! So I was so happy to receive your second postcard. It must be nice to be staying by the sea. One day I'd like to go there, too. Maybe you could show me around.
I've received a lot of gifts for my 17th birthday. I'm kind of surprised, actually. It made me realise I've never had so many friends in my life, all at once. I am grateful for that.
And since we don't know little Shion's actual date of birth, Inukashi decided to celebrate on my birthday too! I gave them a computerised puzzle game that challenges a child's recognition of patterns in colour, shape, and musical notes. For now, it's just bright lights and sounds to a baby, but mother said I loved those kinds of toys when I was really little. I hope little Shion does too. Inukashi said I must be trying to make the kid into a "weirdo" like me, but she and little Shion were already playing with it a lot during the party.
For my birthday, Inukashi gave me a new coat! For a long time, she kept saying she'd give me back my old one after she finally "remembered" to wash it, but I guess that was just an excuse. Not only was the old one getting pretty worn, but she wanted to save it to show to little Shion one day! At first I was embarrassed, but now I'm kind of glad she's preserving it. After all, for me, that coat holds memories of my time with you. Of course Inukashi said she made sure to get a red one again because she wouldn't recognise me otherwise. (Ha ha ha.) The new coat's really nice. Brand new, and good quality. Her small parcel delivery service has really taken off, so I guess she could afford it.
I also got a basket of berries from the South Block, hand-picked by your favourite house guests (joking!); Karan and Rico. We had reading time here a couple of times but then mother introduced them to a local girl she sees in the bakery a lot and since then, I've seen more and more of those two in the neighbourhood lately. That girl, Lili, has also joined us for reading time now. She helped mother make the cherry cake for the party.
Rikiga-san sent me concert tickets. You'll be pleased (or maybe just surprised) to know he's renounced his pimping and is finding his way into becoming a promoter for touring entertainment events. (I think he's still making those magazines though.)
He apologised and said he was too busy to make it to my party or come see me today, but I think Rikiga-san is just afraid to see my mother. He still hasn't visited her even once! The concert's in a month. Think you can make it? (Hey, it's worth a shot right?) If not, I might bring my mother along. Rikiga-san will probably be there. What do you think he'd say then?
There were a few more people who came along that I know from citizens' groups and committees I've been working with. I've been getting as involved as I can in the reorganisation and restructuring of the city. I'm going to make this city a place you'd be proud to live in, Nezumi. That's a promise. But first I need to work on my speech making skills! I want to sound more persuasive. Have you got any tips for me? I wonder what a star actor can tell me about it.
That reminds me, I've been seeing your face a lot around the West Block over the last few months. Well… not -your- face really, but Eve's. We've been working on clearing and rebuilding the West with proper streets and plumbing and electricity. The theatre posters were all in very bad shape but I managed to save one for myself that only got soiled and torn up around the edges. "Shakespeare's Hamlet, featuring Eve as Ophelia." Eve is so pretty. But it's the real you that I'd really like to see again. A poster won't allow me to look into your eyes, but for now I guess it's the closest I can get.
I have so many questions— what kind of job you'll pick up in this seaside town, the food you like there, the kinds of people you meet, how long you think you'll stay… anything you don't mind telling me, really— but as long as you at least send me a simple postcard now and then, I'll be happy.
I know you're the careful one and I'm "reckless" and "defenseless," but still… Take care of yourself, Nezumi.
I guess that does it for that letter. It's way longer than I intended, but I don't think he'll mind... I just… I wish I could know what you're thinking about these days, Nezumi.
I'm so thrilled you write and reply to my letters every so often, but I wonder if you will ever respond to my feelings. How long must I wait to see you? Will you stay with me? What will I be to you when you finally return? When can I call you by your real name? I wish I knew the answers to these questions.
But if I have to, I'll wait a lifetime to be with you again, just as you risked losing yours in order to save mine.
Chapter 3: A Debt Of Words
Ugh, it's bright… Where am I now? I'm in a nice bed, for starters. Okay that's good…
Oh right, now I remember. Garbage Town. The one in the valley. One really good market; one terribly bad odor in the air. That stink better not get into my clothes again. At least the autumn chill should help—
"Oh lovely, so you're up then, young man?"
Holy shit! What the fuck? "Ah… yes, I just woke up." What is with this lady? How does she always spring up when I least expect it and make me jump out of my skin? Since when is an old lady stealthy enough to creep up on me? And wait… did she really need to walk in on me when I'm half-dressed, and in bed? …Even if it is hers…
"Do join us for breakfast, if you will. We'll be dining at eight o'clock."
"Yes, thank you, ma'am. I'll be there shortly."
"Excellent. I'll shut the door behind me on my way out for your privacy, dear." What, now she cares about privacy? Arrgh! I hate not being able to speak freely!
I'm lucky to be here though. What I did for them was not really anything that big and yet they insist on providing me with a comfortable stay if ever I pass through this town. Even with no warning. And in the middle of the night. And they even give me spare clothes and feed the mice. These people know not to dole out ill-considered, half-assed charity like…
I could easily, easily do much worse for room and board than to stay here with this family. No, not that word, too. Another, maybe? Kin… tribe… relatives… No!
Forget it! Just get dressed already. Wash your face.
Is it like this for others, too? I didn't say a word when I bounced that thief out of the shop downstairs. In fact I made him shut up about his stupid demands. But could there be more power in the force of a word— in language— than he could ever feel from my fists, or from the threat of my knife against his throat? Could the pain be worse?
Maybe it matters where the words come from. I built part of my life on studying them; on memorising them, absorbing their meaning, reciting and singing them; on bringing them to life on the stage. Even the savages and brutes in that theatre audience shared in laughter, tears, and the strength of Shakespeare's verses. Borrowed grandeur.
My parents' advice nourished and sustained me. That old woman, shot and bleeding to death, on her deathbed… her warning became my armor. My sharp tongue has been my sword. And now there is just one other living person whose words have ever held any real meaning for me.
Six years ago, he asked me if I understood the word "treatment." I thought I knew. It was supposed to mean "deceit," or "betrayal," so I kept on guard. But his words pierced my armor. They made me laugh, and they challenged what I thought I knew about residents of No. 6.
I don't think this place is perfect…
He meant what he said about No. 6. He wouldn't have been helping me, otherwise. And his straightforward and defenseless "treatment," was actual medical care. (Far from the half-assed charity I criticised him for later on…) Believing in his words just a little back then saved me and gained me my freedom. Believing in his words four years later, however…
I'm drawn to you … There's no one I'm more afraid of losing than you …
It felt like I was walking into a trap. I couldn't respond one way or another. But why?
Two years ago, I was laughing at him for waiting two years to have the sex he could have had then, with that girl Safu. Now she's gone. it's too late for him to keep that promise. In half a year it'll be two years since last I saw him. And I have a promise to keep as well…
It's breakfast time. They'll be expecting their mealtime entertainment. The unspoken other reason they like to have me stay. Well at least I don't have to put on makeup. Shall it be a song or a soliloquy this time? Hmm… I think I feel like making my grand entrance as Macbeth today;
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time…"
I'm still not done repaying you, am I, Shion? I'm burdened with the debt of words you spoke to me. There are words I owe you in return.
Chapter 4: Though my wish may change nothing...
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
I knew I needed some time to get used to being who I was again, to the extent that is possible. I wanted to find some of the artifacts of who I was. In No. 5, I was only considered a missing person. I've found some of the people I knew here. My bank account is still active. It was the right choice for me to start again from this place.
But even now that I've found a place to stay and regained some of my old possessions— grandma's knitting needle in particular— even though I'm getting a sense of who I once was again… I feel loss. Like I've lost another mother, and a part of myself.
We'll truly be separated forever? It's so hard to believe. Almost like imagining what it would be like to be dead. And yet now I live again. Our memory is fading… but I don't want to forget her voice. If I can at least remember her voice…
I thought it was my own voice. It used to be my voice.
("Your wish may be granted now, Safu. In full. You have a choice, child.")
But then my voice separated from hers:
"I know my answer… Elyurias."
I had another voice before; the one I have again now. I'm returning to how I was… before. I wanted this. I'm grateful. But I want to remember your voice…
("There will be consequences.")
"I know this. My answer is the same."
("You will be mortal.")
"I accept this."
("You will lose my knowledge.")
"As long as I retain our memory."
("Your appearance will not remain as it was before.")
Of course, right now, I am a perfect match to what No. 5 has kept on record. My abduction story is supported by No. 5's records for the rough dates of my departure and disappearance. I've only had to fabricate a reason I was gone for so long.
I seem to have no symptoms of dissociation. (Though I may still require an examination.) I believe my reunited mind and body have accepted each other well. I just feel… small. I've become such a small existence. I wonder what changes will mark me once the last traces of her presence leave me forever.
("People you knew will have changed and scattered. Many are no longer alive.")
There is only one living person who I long to see again. And I don't think I ever cried so much in the 17 years that I lived as I am now that I live again. I'm scared, excited in anticipation, saddened, hopeful, even proud… and I'm so angry at No. 6.
My specialisation in cognitive functions has allowed me to understand and pinpoint the stimuli causing the release of the precise hormones and neurotransmitters. I've logged all the physiological responses that they trigger. I know why I feel this way. The external causes and the biological processes involved are easy to identify… but…
"Safu, what you just said is all armchair theory. Humans have complex emotions. They're not like lab rats. I don't think you can explain how emotions influence people's actions that easily. It's arrogant to believe that science can explain everything about human nature."**
Shion… you knew something I did not. Though I can explain what I feel, and why I feel it, I have no adequate words to describe how I feel; this… gestalt.
("Living people you knew have now lived longer, but your mortal body has not.")
"…I will bear this."
("I recognise your resolve, Safu. You understand the extent of my power.")
Final warnings were embedded in those compliments: Once I have my own body, we can never be one mind again… and she'll never change a person's feelings. She hasn't controlled mine, she won't influence Shion's, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
("I am ready to grant your wish, Safu. Never regret it.")
"Thank you for everything, Elyurias. I'll never forget you. I won't regret this."
I remember the feel of your maternal warmth and presence. I remember your voice. I will always be grateful you're granting my wish as promised, despite the long wait. Even if nothing else changes, if I can just be close to Shion, that will be enough to make living again worthwhile.
**Shion's line is quoted from No. 6 volume 1, chapter 2, as translated by 9th Avenue Blog.
Chapter 5: Tears and Laughter
"Just when I thought everyone was gone, someone's ringing at the door! Oh wait— oh my goodness, could it be… Wait right there, sweetheart. My heart's going a mile a minute now myself, but I can only imagine how you must feel. I'll check who it is." She was right. I couldn't look… but I could listen.
"Rikiga-san! Umm… d-did you forget something?" Uh oh. Poor mom.
"Why yes, my favourite hat. Ah, Karan… sometimes it's like you can read my mind—"
"Stay right there. I think I remember seeing it— Just behind here, or maybe…"
"Karan. I'll never forget that time when you—" Well he's drunk. Maybe I should have answered the door. But we thought it might actually be her… and I'm…
It would be just like her to give me a card. I saw little actual handwriting before living in the West Block. And none was on real paper. I'll never forget that big folding paper map Nezumi had somehow procured to help us find Rikiga's old place. How old and worn it looked. The way he'd marked it up with his graceful flourishes. He made simple sets of characters as plain as "LK-3000" look gorgeous.
But this tight, precise handwriting with the occasional modest loop or swirl at the end of a line or sentence… it does remind me of her. Earnest, calm, quiet on the surface— but underneath; a passionate vitality and cheerfulness reserved only for the ones closest to her.
Happy birthday! It's been a very long time. Recognise my writing? Real handwriting was rare for us, growing up in No. 6, but I know you've seen mine. I guess you'll be shocked to read this, but I want you to know I'm alive and well. I've been set free, with her blessings.
I couldn't celebrate your last birthday with you, but I'd like to give you something now. I'll drop by to give it to you later on. Hope you're there!
I've missed you,
PS: Sorry to slip this note under your door at the last minute like this, but I thought it might be best this way, under the circumstances.
An old-fashioned birthday card discovered during breakfast time has made a real mess of me today. (More than some would say is usual for me, anyway.) But it's so very like Safu. The most rational option. She'd believe a note under the door in the morning was the logical choice. One day of stress is better than weeks, months, or a surprise visit with no warning at all.
She wouldn't want to join a party full of people she didn't know, either. So she wouldn't have come yet… not that it stopped me from being on edge very time the door chimes rang. But if it's really her— if she's alive, and I can see her— this will be one of my best birthdays ever. Almost like the day I met—
"That Rikiga's finally left now. It's just you and me, Shion. How are you doing? Did you enjoy the party?"
"Mom…" I'm still overwhelmed. I could forget about it when there were guests here to keep me occupied, but now… Am I going to cry? What if she doesn't come?
Will I have to spend my nights watching for both of them?
Mom's embracing me… she's warm. "I know. It's still very hard for me to believe, too. My, you must be afraid to get your hopes up. But whatever happens, I'm going to be here for you. You know that, right?"
"Yes." So why do I feel so awful?
"Well, you're not just scared. That I can tell. You're not just nervous. You also feel… guilty." She used to do that when I was younger too; figuring out my feelings by squeezing me in a hug. It's still so comforting, the way she strokes the back of my head. But now I'm taller. When I open my eyes, I can see the streaks of white and grey that have begun to appear in mom's hair. Like my hair… and his eyes.
"Yes. We— I couldn't protect or save her…" But it's not only that. There's more.
"I know. But you boys, and your friends— even Rikiga— you all risked your lives. You and three people who were strangers to her. You did everything you possibly could. When I realised you were trying to go rescue her yourself… I was… I still consider it such a miracle to have you with me now." Strangers? Miracle? "Oh I just realised— Shion, is the thought of seeing her again making you think of…"
"Nezumi… yes." My voice cracked. I don't want to cry— he'd laugh at me.
"The door chimes again." Another comforting squeeze. "You can still wait here if you want to, Shion." So mother goes while I'm frozen in terror at our little dining room table, because an old friend might be coming to visit?
A squeal! Mother's voice? "Safu! You're really here! You're back, you're really… alive! This is so wonderful. Shion's going to be— come, follow me." I can hear mother tearing up with joy.
I can hear Safu's laughter…
In the few moments it takes for the shadows in the hall to round the corner and find me, I've at least risen to my feet. And there she is.
"Shion!" She's at the kitchen entrance, smiling brightly.
I really am going to cry…
Chapter 6: Mirror, Mirror...
It's seven. Shion probably won't get up for a while… The weekend's nearly over. Only one more day touring the New West Block…
It still amazes me what a huge place Inukashi has here; a combined home for her and the baby, spare rooms for visitors, a great big living area for all the dogs, and the parcel service offices. It was hard to believe she was living in that rickety old hotel she showed me in Rikiga-san's photos.
Ah, as soon as I'm out of bed, here's a trap— a full-length mirror. Months later, I still can't help staring at the proof of my past connection to Elyurias. I miss my old looks, but at least there was no suffering involved for me, unlike Shion.
Two large purple loops, scooping down my back. Two double lines as wide as… my ring finger… curving down and away from each other at the coccyx and looping back together, narrowing to close the empty hollow in between as they climb up my spine, and the back of my neck, to finally converge under the hair on my scalp. Even with shoulders exposed, most of my scar is easy to cover up, at least. Inukashi thought my scar looked like a big upside-down heart— same as I do. Shion, special child that he is, thought it looked like insect wings.
"You think I look like an insect?"
"Whoa, calm down Safu, of course not! The rest of you doesn't, it's just the scar's shape— and wait, what's wrong with looking like an insect?"
Lavender eyes are hard to get used to. People stare. Even I'm gawking. My hair's kept its colour. But now it shines with an odd purplish tint…
"If anything, you've become even more beautiful, Safu." Shion's changed. He spoke those words a few months ago with confidence— though also barely a hint of attraction. Then all of a sudden last night, after Inukashi took the little toddler to bed…
"I have a promise to keep don't I, Safu? I haven't forgotten. But I really have to—"
I can still feel my eyes widening. "Shion, it's okay, you don't have to if you don't want to."
"But do you want to, Safu?" He really has become more confident.
"Of course I do! But I've noticed a lot over these last three months, Shion. It's even more noticeable now than it was before I left for No. 5. Back then, it was like you knew you'd lost something but didn't know what it was. Now you know very clearly what it is that you want. You've changed so much. Because… you're in love, aren't you? Now you've been separated and you want to be with the one you love… and that person's not me." It took a lot of restraint to hold back my tears. If only my voice hadn't faltered.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. An apology! Not patronising sympathy, but with downcast eyes as if he'd failed in his duty to love me back. "Maybe you won't believe me, but I think I can kind of understand how you feel, Safu… It's still up to you, if your comfortable."
"Nezumi, right? You're in love with that boy Nezumi." He didn't have to answer. His eyes, suddenly glazed over as he recalled the object of his affections, told me everything. "But where is he?"
"He's… going to come back. I just don't know when. He sends letters… sometimes." He tried to hide his face by looking away, but I'd already seen the expression there. It reflected my own feelings of heartbreak back at me. And yet, he still has hope.
"Well just look at us." Even in the midst of our turmoil, I rolled my eyes and tried to laugh a bit. Shion reciprocated with a sad smile.
"For what it's worth, Safu, I think you're beautiful. Both inside and out, you're… just really beautiful."
"Do you like girls, Shion?"
"I don't dislike them."
I laughed again, though my eyes were stinging. "That's hardly an answer!"
"I only love a man because he's Nezumi. Nothing would change if he were a woman. Male or female, I can't imagine being nearly as drawn to anyone as I am to him."
"And yet you're still willing to proposition a girl in his absence?" I teased, despite my continued pain.
"I still am, if she's interested. To be honest, I think Nezumi would more likely laugh at me if I didn't try to keep my promise than he would be jealous if we… followed through." And there it finally was. His first time blushing during this whole conversation. He's become very self-assured over these last two years, but for a moment, there was the awkward, adorable Shion I remember. An instant later, his eyes held my gaze. "But I'm not taking this lightly. You're one of the very most important people in my life. As long as it's what you want, and as long as you'll still be my closest friend, and as long as you won't regret it, I want to keep my promise. So, c-can I… can-I-still-give-you-my-sperm, Safu?" And now he was redder than I've ever seen him before, but at least he still wasn't looking away.
"Shion! Don't throw that line back at me if you can't even say it properly!" I laughed, even as tears came.
Last night was beautiful. I have no regrets. But I do have some thinking to do.
"Morning Safu. You alright? You seem to be stuck in front of that mirror. I understand though. It's hard to get used to, isn't it?"
"Yeah. It is."
Chapter 7: Reunion
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
That must be the place over there. Shion's mama is a good person but I don't think I could have handled her teary-eyed gratitude. Lucky she was upstairs, and Shion's little reading time pal, Karan was inside and knew the way here.
This place really is as big as it looks from a distance. Okay, doorbell…
...Hmm, no answer. Again, then.
Plenty of windows going three floors up, but I can't see inside. Guess I can leave a message with the dogs if I can find some out back. Wait, there are voices out behind the house…
"—standardised testing at age two anymore." Inukashi!
"So that's changed too." Strange. She sounds familiar…
"They're still revamping the whole school system. No. 6's schools were… They didn't really… They tried to control… Well maybe Shion can put it better than me—"
Figures she'd have such a tall fence around the back. They're just on the other side...
"Brainwashing," the other voice interrupted. "They were brainwashing us." Us?
"Oh yeah! You hate No. 6 so much, I keep forgetting you two went to school together there! The way you talk about No. 6 sometimes really reminds me of— OW! Fuck!"
Dogs barking. Now this sounds like Inukashi's place. So that girl went to school with Shion in No. 6 but really hates No. 6 now? Some elite classmate, like that girl.
"You know the drill, Inukashi. Money. In the jar. Now."
I've longed to see you, Shion.
An auditory hallucination? Haven't been getting enough sleep lately.
"B-but I just hurt myself— look, I'm bleeding!"
"You wanted to do this for the baby, right? No excuses."
Must be that baby Shion rescued...
"Damnit." Such an exaggerated sigh from Inukashi! Priceless. "I know, I know, I'll top it up. Please just don't give me that look."
"Remember this was your idea, not mine."
Time to skip over and see the looks on their fa—
"Oi! Nezumi!" —ces. Shit, the dogs must've— "Back after two years, and this is how the rat makes his entrance? Classy. But… we do have a front door, you know." Good, she probably doesn't know how long I've been listening. "Don't know how long you've been listening, but yer already enough of a creep. Stop sneaking around and get your a— get the h— get yourself over here!"
"Seems nobody here knows how to answer a doorbell."
Fruit-bearing trees, berry bushes, flowers… this garden is huge! And a gate into the office yard on the other side. Did Inukashi arrange for all this landscaping herself?
Inukashi and the other girl are in coveralls… That one's working the soil with a spade… Inukashi's just tossed hers and stood up to greet me… "Whatever. Let's have a look atcha then. Oooh… new hair. A hat! Interesting fashion statement, Eve-san."
"Eve can correct your fashion don'ts later on, if you like. So I heard Shion would be here… ?"
"He's with the baby now." Did Inukashi just shoot that girl a nervous glance? Can't see her face under that wide-brimmed hat… "That natural, he probably didn't even notice the doorbell. He really adores that child."
"The doting daddy, huh? That would suit him.
"Daddy? More like big brother." She rolled her eyes. "Why don'tcha find the two of 'em yourself? It's not hard to find the room they're in from the double doors there. This dog here'll point the w—""
"I'll show him… if that's okay." Who is this girl?
"A-alright." Something really weird's going on here. Even Inukashi's uncomfortable. Something to do with Shion? Could she be Shion's— "Just… follow her, Nezumi. She'll point the way from the back doors."
"Right. Lead the way." Still hiding her face…
"I've a lot to thank you for, you know." What? Who the hell are you? "I'm really, really grateful for all you did for Shion and for me, two years ago."
…for Shion… and for her?
I've longed to see you, Shion.
"Yes. I look a little different now, but I'm very much alive— and I'm not Elyurias, either."
Finally, she's ditching the hat… and those eyes! Same colour as Shion's flower.
"Yes, it's me— Glad to see you again, Nezumi. Just want to be clear that I'm really, really grateful for all you did— and how you helped end No. 6. I hope you won't hold what I'm about to do against me."
"I really don't have any grudges against you myself. Honest I don't… not now."
"But I know Shion's not going to do it, and knowing how he feels, I… I apologise in advance."
It's the sleep deprivation. I must be hallucinating…
"W-what are you talking ab-AH!" Okay that sting on my cheek is very real. She slapped me! Really. Hard. My questioning look back at Inukashi is going unanswered. Judging by that gaping mouth, she's as shocked as me.
"Do you have any idea how he's felt, being left behind like that? Without any idea when you'd return? Regardless of whatever you think of me right now, I hope you'll apologise when you see him." Did I just flinch when she pointed inside? "Down the hall to the front, up the stairs, first door on the right, opposite side!"
"I…" Shion, this is one scary woman you grew up with. "You've got guts… Safu."
"I won't do anything like that again… Go on. He's going to be ecstatic to see you…" She's this close to tears despite that smile. Unrequited love.
Well it's a relief to have these lovely doors between me and that woman now. Apologise, huh? Like Shion, the day we met the old man.
Upstairs… a guitar? And a quiet, breathy singing voice… Shion?
"Then the traveller in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark.
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so."
Hopefully I won't get caught eavesdropping this time...
Shion's playing simple chords. The little girl's going to take an afternoon nap. There's only the light of the overcast sky coming through the window.
"As that bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveller in the dark,
Though I know not where you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star."
Girl's falling asleep; he's setting the guitar down in its stand. I'll step into the doorway now. Aww, he's stroking her hair back to check she's all knocked out? Cute.
Shion's hair is still so white it's almost glowing even in the darkened room. Snake's still burning bright red. He's petting the big brown dog resting under the crib, closing the window, pulling down the blinds…
Now why are you spacing out at a covered window? Turn around and look at me with those crimson eyes of yours, Shion! I'm directly behind you…
"Nezumi… !" Ohhhh, I get it—
He's finally turning around; an old mouse friend scrambling down to the ground from his shoulder. I can vaguely feel the other two skittering down my leg for their reunion. The three of them aren't so youthful as they used to be, but it doesn't seem to slow them down. There's something comforting about that. "Took you long enough. Still such a natural."
"Your majesty," I bow low with a flourish, in greeting, removing my hat.
"Nezumi…" That pretty face has arrived to wet my neck and shoulder with tears as he embraces me. He's still so warm. But now he's backing me into the brightly lit hallway. He whispers: "Come on— we'll wake her."
"That baby you rescued from the Hunt. She's grown, unlike you."
"It's been… two years. Come on."
All of a sudden he's taken my hand and he's leading me— very quickly— behind the ornately carved door at the far end of the hall.
I have to laugh. "Become a take-charge kind of guy have you, Shion?"
"You could say that I guess. So welcome… to uh… my room." Cue the flush to his cheeks. "It's uh… a long way to the living room from here."
"I don't doubt it. This place is ridiculously huge. I didn't know you lived here though…"
"Well it's really only my weekend home. So I can be with little Shion of course, and… Here, take a chair. They're really comfy."
"Little Shion must love the weekends." Shion, this chair is way too soft.
"Inukashi gave me one of the master bedrooms. It's much grander than I'm used to. There's even a fridge and mini-bar inside that credenza table."
"Honestly I find it all rather embarrassing. But I love that bed. It's so big and it feels great to lie in." Bragging about the bed while I'm in your room? Still so innocent. "Nezumi, I notice you're wearing your hair down now. It's nice. I like it."
"And you seem to have started combing yours. Great look for you, Shion."
Don't smile like that at such an underhanded compliment, you natural!
"I can't say how good it is to see you again Nezumi. I knew you'd keep your promise, but it… it means a lot to me to be able to… be near you again."
I prefer Safu slapping me to this feeling. "I'm sorry, I haven't written in a while…"
"So much has happened. Did you see her?"
"Yeah, Safu. She's alive." I can still feel the evidence on my cheek.
"She's been living here too. Her room's down the hall, next to little Shion."
"It's really great you two could find each other again."
"Well, more like she found me— right on my eighteenth birthday! It was quite a shock, but I'm so thrilled to have her in my life again."
"Your birthday's always been a day of miracles, Shion." Damn, that just came out. And that smile of his is contagious…
"Now that you're here too, I don't think I could get any happier, Nezumi…" Those ruby eyes are… "I have something I want to give you."
"Isn't it customary for the traveller to bring the omiyage?"
There's a rare mischievous smile on that boy's pale lips. He's blocking me off in front of the chair; hands on my arm rests. He'd always do that when he had something important to say. Now he's leaning in; sliding his hands up my arms… knee against my inner thigh… This is an incredible reunion kiss, Shion!
"Okaeri, Nezumi." Those eyes…
"Ta… daima." I'll catch those hands and massage the backs of them with my thumbs. I'm not letting those passionate eyes escape from before me just yet. "Have you been practising? That was quite a kiss, Shion."
He looks encouraged. "Remember, I don't forget anything once I've learned and reflected on it. And… I've had two years to reflect on returning that kiss to you properly."
"Shion…" I'm a gifted performer of classical verses; I've a scalding, razor-sharp wit; I never lose an argument; I'm no virgin… but now I have no adequate words. Instead, I'll speak with fingers through your hair, trace the scar from your cheek down around your neck, and bring my lips for a moment to the spot where it meets your shirt…
There's hot breath in my ear: "Nezumi… I've missed you so much…" Nibbles and kisses from there, down my neck, across my collarbone… "Surely you're staying here tonight? If you want, I can set up a guest room… or you can sleep with me."
I have to laugh, and of course he joins in too. That natural's still talking about guest rooms now? After all we've been through together, how did I ever think I was going to be able to keep him a stranger? "Can I see just how comfy that bed of yours is?"
If the ones who survive are the winners, then we winners deserve a prize to treasure for the rest of our lives. Mine is a miracle I could never forget. The longer I stayed away, the brighter your star became, Shion, always beckoning me back. In time, maybe I can tell you these things, and more.
• "Omiyage" is Japanese for a "souvenir" or small gift travellers give friends and loved ones upon their return home.
• "Okaeri" and "Tadaima" mean "Welcome home" and "I'm home" and are common greetings used every time someone enters and leaves the home.
• The flower Shion is named for (紫苑) means either "I won't forget you" or just "remembrance." In English, it's called "Tartarian Aster." The name "aster" is derived from "star," because the flower was thought to be star-shaped.