It's not terribly unlike the first time he was separated from Nezumi. There are differences, of course. The first time, he had no idea if he ever would see Nezumi again, and now he has Nezumi's promise to return to him one day. Back then, the life he'd thought he'd had before him was completely cut off and he had to find a way to help him and his mother survive in a world that abruptly wasn't handed to him. There had been nothing in his envisioned future but a future of subservience to the city. Yes, that life was very different from the life he was living now.
Now, he has responsibilities to those around him. He has a city to remake in whatever image he drives it towards, and if that isn't a power to be afraid of, he isn't sure what is. He has Safu's will to live up to, he has the will of everyone whose lives he had failed to live up to, he has the burden of a city on his shoulders to lift up and the possibility of remaking the world into something that isn't stagnant. And he knows he'll see Nezumi again.
But it's not unlike it anyway.
Like that time, he stares off into gray stormy skies and thinks about the color of Nezumi's eyes. He licks his lips in the hopes of tasting Nezumi's mouth on it still even though he's unable to remember anything exact about it except the way his insides had wound themselves tight and never unwound again -- that's like the way, the first time, he'd sit and think about how warm the feverish young boy had been. He still has nightmares about being separated, like he did the first time. His mother still teases him over his dreamy sighs.
He still sleeps with his window open in the hopes that Nezumi will appear in it.
He's still lonely.
The first time he goes back to that underground room, he wonders if he is punishing himself. That room exists as the incarnation of everything he has wanted for the rest of his life, but without Nezumi in it he knows already that it'll just be a room. That without Nezumi in it, it's no longer his desire.
What am I punishing myself for, though?, he thinks as he stands in the doorway and looks inside at the low table, broken; the books scattered everywhere. A bookcase had fallen during, Shion presumes, the Hunt -- buildings above ground had collapsed and shaken everything, after all. It broke their table, knocked over their heater, blocked the way to their bed. Shion examines the wall behind the bookcase and sees cracks running through it. It's still standing right now out of the sheer pressure on it from above, but he thinks if anything happens -- no Hunt now that No. 6 has fallen as a regime, thank God, but perhaps an earthquake, even reconstructions of buildings above -- this room's likely to collapse and be buried forever.
His heart rebels at the thought.
What exactly am I punishing myself for?, he thinks again as he climbs carefully under the fallen bookshelf, makes his way to the bed he had shared with Nezumi. Here, heart thundering with love, he'd slept chastely at Nezumi's side, been kicked in the side and leg, punched in the head and chest by that restless sleeper so many times that he'd lost count of the bruises after the first week. Sharing a bed wasn't romance, just practicality; other than the chair, it was the only furniture Nezumi had owned. But to Shion it was everything he'd wanted to do with his life. He climbs into the bed now, pulls the blankets up to his mouth and nose to inhale the dusty scent of old ruined plaster from the damage to the room and behind it the scent of sweat and restless dreams that Nezumi had left on it. Am I punishing myself for letting things change? Things would have changed regardless. Assuming responsibility was the only thing he could have done, as Nezumi had pointed out. And Nezumi had needed to go, to wander. Nezumi had remained trapped here so long with only the goal of destroying No. 6; now No. 6 had fallen and Nezumi had the ache of a whole future stretching out in front of him with no idea what to fill it with now that survival and destruction weren't his only goals. Nezumi had confessed to being afraid of Shion. Nezumi had gone to sort himself out. it's not like Shion would have stopped him. Am I punishing myself because I wished I could stop him anyway?
He naps in that bed for a while, and then he brings back what books he can carry -- not many, but it's the first visit he makes of many more. Every visit he makes after that, he carries more away -- more books, the heater, the plates and cups that he and Nezumi had used -- because this room can't last forever, won't last forever, may barely last a few years at best in its current state, and Shion intends to preserve the core of it, what makes it valuable -- not its location but its contents.
So he brings them home, slowly, slowly.
The city changes. It doesn't change just because of his own work; Shion is both sure of that and relieved by it. It changes through hard work that everyone contributes to, it changes through carefully hand-picked committees who discuss the people and care for the people and want a future for the people that won't end up like the past. It changes through people putting in values and working to make them real.
Of course, he's afraid. That's how No. 6 began the first time. Ideals rarely take into account human nature. He knows that. But it can't just be left crushed and hopeless. It has to have hope, and it has to have a guiding vision, and he'd promised to be the person to present that. So he does what he can and hopes that it'll be a good city.
During one of his visits to the old room, he unearths one of Nezumi's robot mice. The real ones, aside from the ones Shion and Nezumi took with them, have long since moved on -- mice are pragmatists and survivors, as much as they love the arts, Shion thinks, so of course they'll go where they can fill their bellies instead of staying in a place out of nostalgia. Robots have fewer desires. This one was shut off -- since they were solar-powered, Nezumi usually kept them off when they weren't in use in his underground room.
Shion picks it up with an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia, and pockets it. After he takes it home, he puts it on his window to charge, and turns it on. He's watched Nezumi enough to understand how they work. It sits up and looks around, the cameras in its eyes focusing, then when it receives no orders, relaxes and plays its little lifelike mouse idles.
Tsukiyo chirp chirp chirps and patters over to take a look at it, tilting his head this way and that way. He's getting old now, almost two and near to the end of his life span, and fat enough that if Nezumi saw him he'd have words for it, but, Shion thinks, he's an old mouse who worked hard and tirelessly for them, ignoring all his own injuries to save their lives, and frankly he deserves a retirement where he can gorge himself on bread and muffins until he eventually passes rotundly from this earth. And for now he's still lively enough if a bit creaky in his old age, eyeing the newcomer with disdain before turning to chirp chirp at Shion instead.
"I know, I know," Shion laughs, and pets him, stroking a fingertip down his round back. Tsukiyo stretches under it with pleasure, little toes spreading as he does. "I'll find you a real friend again soon. I promise."
He intends to; he's been feeding the local mice for a reason, after all, and if they're not as bright and witty as Tsukiyo, they're friendly and willing to learn, and basically good folks.
One thing the city needs, he stresses constantly, is the arts. It needs literature. It needs music and performance and dance. It does still need science too -- yes, of course it does. But they're not separate things; they don't cancel each other out.
They reach out to the other cities, No. 6 begging them for teachers and educators who can foster creativity. They have public performers on the streets. This and the schools and the medical system are the first things Shion insists must get up running as quickly as possible, with access from all parts of the city -- what had once been the West Block included. People need to be taken care of, and they need to be respected.
"I miss him so much I sometimes want to die," Shion tells the robot. It tilts its head and chirps at him as if listening, though most likely it's just in response to his voice.
"He'd mock me relentlessly if he heard that. He would," Shion says, and looks out the window at the night sky. "'What, you survive all that only to want to die from a little loneliness? Look at how fancy you've become.' As if I wasn't always like this."
"I know Nezumi can live alone and be fine. Maybe that's his talent," it's coming out softly now, sore. "But I want to scream and wreck things sometimes still. I want to tear everything up until I find him again, like a home owner trying to find the mouse under the floorboards."
Tsukiyo, curled on top of a book, chides him.
"Ah, was it a bad example? Sorry, sorry."
Of course, Tsukiyo forgives him instantly. Shion smiles, and turns his attention back to the robot mouse. It's so finely made. He thinks of Nezumi's fingers putting it together with the utmost care and attention.
"I won't," Shion says. "It's a house I've been entrusted, so I can't afford to wreck it. But I wasn't lying. Living alone without Nezumi isn't really living. Do you understand that?"
"No," Shion says. "I suppose you wouldn't."
"Look at you," Karan says fondly, ruffling his hair. "Hanging out the laundry in between changing the world."
Shion laughs and ducks his head. "I'm not just part of a city, Mom," he says. "I've got to do things for myself and my family or I'll really go insane."
"Too much time to think otherwise?" Karan asks.
"With how much I'm doing? That doesn't seem very likely," Shion says, which is the sort of truthful redirection that he'd quietly absorbed from Nezumi in the time they were together.
Karan puts a plate of pie down next to him and watches him for a few moments. "Do you ever want to go after him?"
Shion means to say, I wouldn't know where to begin, which is true, but instead he hesitates and looks at the pie, a wet towel still in his hands and almost forgotten. Instead, slowly, he says, "That'd undo the reason he left. I have to respect him, or there's nothing I can do for him at all."
"Oh, my sweet Shion," she says. "You've grown up so well."
Something thuds in his chest and he doesn't know what it is or how to address it, so he fights the urge to yell I once murdered a man, and just smiles and hangs the towel up.
The mouse-training he's doing is remarkably successful quickly, but really it shouldn't be a surprise; he knows easily enough what they're thinking and feeling, and mice are really very patient and willing companions if you give back to them. His mother never once chides him for bringing mice into a bakery, which he's grateful for, and the mice themselves are agreeable enough to avoid eating where they shouldn't so long as he feeds them where they should.
There's a yellowish one he names Buttercream, and a black and white one he calls Othello, and a black one he calls Elie, and a small manic gray one who has a tendency to run around and chirp wildly at night; that one he names Ophelia. Ophelia's pregnant, which somehow seems thematically appropriate too. Tsukiyo treats the other mice at first with tolerant caution, then fondness, but there's still a loneliness in him that Shion can't ignore.
"I'm so messed up," Shion tells the robot. "All I can think about sometimes is all the things I know I'm able to do. Nezumi's right to be afraid of the things I know I'm capable of. Who would leave No. 6 in my hands? Maybe I always have been messed up, even if I thought I was calm and easy-going. It used to be that I could calm myself down just by looking at his eyes. I wonder if I can even call that sanity."
"But I won't run from who I am, and I won't give into it. All I can do is live that until it's true. And what would I say to him now, if I could tell him all of this? I certainly wouldn't beg him to tolerate that side of me even if I can. He taught me everything I know about living. I can't stand in the way of his life, either. I've not sorted my own head out, so how can I stop him from sorting out his? I can't."
He lifts the robot, kisses its nose like it's a real mouse, like it's Tsukiyo or Buttercream or Othello or Elie or Ophelia. "But I won't give up, Nezumi. I'll never give up. I love you, and someday it'll be okay."
And then he has to put the mouse down because he's crying, and how silly he feels over that, crying over hope when he's refused to do so over despair.
"Funny how slow they grow," Inukashi says wearily as they watch Shionn play at the park.
"Most people would say the other," Shion says. "He's already this big! Something like that."
"Naw," Inukashi says, and watches the dogs dig in the sandbox while Shionn toddles around. "Compared to dogs, humans waste so much time. It's a wonder my mother put up with me."
Shion smiles at him. Inukashi's looking healthy, with his skin mostly clear and his long tangled hair at least with a good sheen to it. He's still dressing in baggy rags, still talking like he always does, and that's his business, Shion thinks. That's him living how he intends to through all of this.
"I guess we do waste time," Shion agrees after a while. "Dogs may have a better approach to things."
"Damn right," Inukashi says. "They live simply and well. Spend a lot more time just living instead of revving up to go. Feels sometimes like humans got to get everything just right before they can really run full ahead into life."
"I don't know," Shion says. "Shionn looks like he's living pretty well to me."
They watch Shionn throw handfuls of sand at the dogs. "Yeah, well," Inukashi says agreeably.
"I still can't believe you named him after me," Shion says.
"It's so when I curse his name for being a nuisance, you get cursed too for droppin' him on me like you did," Inukashi says promptly.
"Oh, that makes sense," Shion says, and laughs.
Later, Shion tells the mice about this, the real ones and the false one too. "Is it simpler for mice too? Just springing forward into life, like with dogs?"
Chirp chirp chirp chirp. Ophelia's agitated again, running up his arm to put her front paws on his face, peering up at him, whiskers twitching.
"Or are you worried, about to be a mom like you are?" Shion asks, and pets her gently. "Mice eat their young if they don't think they can provide for the full litter, right? Are you scared that even with the plenty you've got right now, it'll be taken from you?"
Chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp
"It's fine," Shion tells her. "No matter what, the important thing we have to do is make this a place where you can live. I want you to be happy here. This'll be your home, and your children's home."
Chirp chirp. That was the robot, reacting to his voice as he talked to Ophelia.
Shion laughs softly. "Even if it's a bit weird. The important thing is that you understand that this is home."
Ophelia drops her paws from his cheek and curls up in the crook of his neck with a sigh. He stays still, lets her rest there without having to worry about him moving, and gazes out the open window.
Rikiga comes over sometimes, though it took him a while before he decided to show his face, afraid of what Karan would say. And sure enough she chided him thoroughly and fed him cake and told him he wasn't allowed to show up to her bakery if he wasn't sober.
"She's amazing," he tells Shion later when Shion comes to visit him instead. "She's so amazing, Shion, it's like she hasn't changed at all!"
"I'm sure she's changed a little," Shion demurs.
"No, no, not at all. Yes, I always knew you were just like her. You're amazing too."
"Ah, Rikiga, that's too much--"
Rikiga slams a hand drunkenly into the table, tears rolling down his face. "It's not enough! You're a world-changer, Shion, you're someone who changes people's worlds. If that isn't amazing, what is? Even your survival is a miracle, let alone what you're doing with that life you kept!"
Shion picks up a bottle carefully; there are still drops left in it, and Rikiga's tablecloth is silk, after all. "I never intended to be a world-changer," he says.
"I've been making a theatre," Shion tells the robot. Tsukiyo, sleeping on his shoulder, lets a small sigh out directly into his ear, making Shion smile. "Well, making is a little extreme. I've been having it made."
"I think Eve's popularity in the West Block proved it," Shion says. "It wasn't just escapism, whatever Nezumi says. I don't believe that. It's the same as how I needed to read those books, and I didn't even know I'd needed it until Nezumi gave it to me. It's not just our bodies that struggle to survive. It's our souls. In this way, No. 6 was as starved as the West Block, or perhaps it was the one way it was more lacking. That's not much, I know -- it's a rather privileged thing to say, isn't it? Oh, sure, everyone in No. 6 could live without hunger and have everything handed to them, what suffering they must have undergone! That's how Nezumi would chastise me, isn't it?"
"But he knew it, too. However privileged it is to be able to talk about needing to feed the soul, he was the one telling me I didn't know anything about what it meant to live. That I'd experienced nothing. That all I had was knowledge without being able to see life. Creativity is life, isn't it? Music. Dance. Theatre. Eve gave life. Nezumi gave a type of survival to everyone there, and however bitterly he might talk about it, however much Rikiga and the others might talk about how Eve was conning them, ripping them out of what little money they had, life is hope. I want … there are so many people in this city who have never read the books that I got to read by being with Nezumi, and even I've never seen them performed the way they should be. I never got to see that. It's absurd, that even though almost everyone knew Nezumi as 'Eve', I lived with him and never saw it."
"So I'm building him a theatre. When he comes back, whenever that is, I want him to perform there. I'll make sure he can."
"I'm sure he'll have missed performing."
Ophelia gives birth to a healthy litter of nine baby mice, who Shion, following the advice his research had provided, leaves alone. Interfering with them would just stress her out, from what he's read, while leaving her alone to develop into her new life as a parent would be more likely to let them all be healthy, allow them all to survive.
It's a necessary period of separation, and one he forces himself to maintain, as much as he wants to peer in at them, see how the newborn mice act at all times. It's natural and it's something they need, so he calms himself and does what he must. He entertains himself with the other mice instead, and also keeps them away from her while she settles into the role of being a mother.
He's signing papers, approvals, jotting suggestions in the margins when something blocks the moonlight shining in and he looks up with wide eyes and a hope that he expects to be crushed.
Nezumi looks irritable. His old familiar clothes are dusty and covered in sand. Shion's eyes search him slowly, as he half thinks he's fallen asleep at his desk and is dreaming, and he focuses in on one of Nezumi's shoulders.
"Oh, good," he says. "You brought Hamlet and Cravat. Tsukiyo's been lonely. I was worried he wouldn't get to see them again before he passed."
"They're getting old," Nezumi says. "It'd do them good to settle down." He follows Shion's gaze to where Tsukiyo is curled up on the desk. "What the hell did you do to my mouse? He's obese."
"He's fat on happiness."
"Funny how few people I ever knew to get fat on that," Nezumi says sardonically and hops into the room. Hamlet and Cravat scamper off to join their old friend. "You're still living in Lost Town, I see."
"It's Rose Town now," Shion says. And, "My mom said her regulars would be disappointed if she moved."
"You came back," Shion says.
"Well, you did offer me a job."
Shion stares at him. "...What?"
"You airhead," Nezumi says. "You moron. You utter imbecile. I've been wondering if you were doing it on purpose."
"I don't understand--"
"But of course not. No, that would require far too many wiles from the king of the fools, far too much planning and plotting, conniving and cunning." With a flourish, Nezumi reaches over to the windowsill he'd just been standing on, and turns the robotic mouse off. It goes still. "I should have realized. Of course, the natural airhead doesn't know. of course, everything just falls into place for you, like stars aligning to get rid of all peace and quiet for me forever. If you're going to natter at me, I thought I might as well come here so you can do it in a place where I can look at you. Since you never have anything useful to say, you might as well be pretty while you harass me."
"It was broadcasting?"
Nezumi sketches a bow to him, mocking, "From the time you turned it on, your majesty."
"Oh," Shion says. "Sorry."
Nezumi turns the heater on and sinks down onto Shion's bed, pushing books off it with his usual carelessness. "I hope you don't pour your heart out to every robot you meet, or lots of poor maintenance folks in the city must have had an earful by now."
The thing is, Shion thinks, There is absolutely no reason for you to not shut the live broadcast off, to turn the volume down, to disrupt the connection. There's no need for you to monitor your abandoned mice for when they come back online, to tune in to their signal, to never tune out, for you to continue to follow day in and day out when you realize I'm the one using it. And I could tell you all that. I could point it out.
He sits beside Nezumi on the bed, leans over, and kisses him instead.
There's just a long enough pause where Nezumi hasn't reacted that Shion can think how terribly awkward he is at this, really; he's calm enough putting his mouth to Nezumi's, of course, but he thinks of how Nezumi kissed him right before he left, the sensation of Nezumi's tongue in his mouth, of their lips meshing together, and he knows that the kiss he's giving right now isn't the one he wants; opens his mouth, tilts his head -- and Nezumi sighs into his mouth, reaches up, pulls Shion down so they're sprawled together.
Then it's hard to focus, but Shion keeps one thought in mind: he absolutely doesn't want to stop kissing Nezumi, doesn't want to remove his mouth and give Nezumi space to leave, just wants to keep kissing enough that he could crawl inside Nezumi and live there, set up space in his heart with some books and a heater, live there so Nezumi can't go anywhere without him ever again. Nezumi kisses him with a heat and a passion and a desperation he isn't expecting, a clinging neediness that isn't very much like the face Nezumi usually shows the world but is closer to the true Nezumi who Shion loves. They tangle fingers in each other's hair -- Nezumi has cut his short, the ponytail gone, and that's fine, but it's hard to get a grip without pulling, so Shion pulls just to be able to get a grip and swallows Nezumi's curses one after another. They tangle legs and mouths and there's spit running down his chin and Shion thinks that can't be attractive at all but he doesn't care, and Nezumi doesn't seem to mind either, Nezumi is wrapped around him and grinding and swearing steadily into his mouth, pulling at Shion's hair, biting Shion's lower lip hard enough it hurts, hurts his lip and his groin with a deep ache.
Nezumi breaks the kiss.
Shion has a moment to almost panic before Nezumi's lips come back, this time on his cheek, and he relaxes all at once at the feeling, tilts his head back and to the side as Nezumi kisses along the red snake winding his body, lets out a moan as Nezumi's lips trace it along his throat, lets Nezumi strip the sweater from him to follow it around his chest. Shion slides fingers under Nezumi's shirt just to feel him, touches the nape of his neck down his spine, drags his nails back up just to see if Nezumi jumps. He does, looks up with his mouth just over where the snake curls on Shion's hip. His gray eyes are glittering and Shion stares into them and sees need there.
"I'll die," Nezumi tells him. "You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die."
It takes Shion a moment to sort through the books in his head, rusty from this time alone, without the constant practice at quoting back and forth.
"You will not certainly die," he replies, dragging Nezumi up with a tugging grip on his short hair, clunking his forehead to Nezumi's, breathing hard as he leans in for another kiss. "Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like--"
"Temptor," Nezumi tells him, and kisses him again, rough.
They struggle together to get their clothes off without getting up, rolling half over onto each other to keep kissing, knocking books every which way, sending mice running for safer ground with loud chiding chirp chirp chirps. They make love clumsily with groping mouths and hands and just touching each other, scrambling and rolling and digging fingers into just about every inch of flesh they can get their hands on, clawing at each other's legs and sides, grinding together. Shion keeps his eyes open wide and tries to take in every detail but he finds himself fragmenting, seeing and feeling things in bits instead of as a whole, Nezumi's hand on his pale stomach, Nezumi's hand with its long elegant fingers, he's missed that hand, he loves that hand, scars that he can touch, scars Nezumi can touch on him, here's where a bullet hit and Shion killed a man in revenge, here's where Nezumi took a bullet for Shion, here's a scar Shion doesn't know, here's the burned spider across Nezumi's back that stands in for his past and his survival at all costs, at the cost of his people. Here's Nezumi's hot tongue on a nipple, here's Nezumi's glittering eyes, not cold and hard, no wall, just his eyes with Nezumi ripped wide open behind them, just Nezumi touching him, just their bodies tangled and sore from how violently they're grabbing at each other and rolling and rolling, from the press of hips, here's what Nezumi's bony hipbone feels like pressed into his thigh, here's what the pressure of Nezumi's body feels like when aroused, here's Nezumi clawing at him and cursing him and calling him names and sucking on his earlobe and despairing as they grind together, here's the sight of his own hands over Nezumi's back, clutching desperately at his shoulders, here's the whine of Nezumi's breath in his ear, his own breath almost drowning the sound of it out, here's Nezumi's tears spattering his shoulder, here's the sharp edge of climax because Nezumi's here on top of him because Nezumi's here Nezumi's here Nezumi's here --
Orgasm almost knocks him out; he cries out and claws at Nezumi's back hard enough he knows he's drawing blood, can't help it even when he catches the edge of his scar. Nezumi hisses Shion's name at him and bites down on Shion's shoulder and comes against him silently and Shion whimpers as his consciousness starts reforming around that pain. He runs his fingers over Nezumi's back, smearing the small amount of blood there, not sure which one of them he's soothing.
They lie together panting for a little while.
"Well," Nezumi says finally, hoarsely. "I see you haven't been practicing. That was definitely your first time. It had virgin written all over it."
"Of course I didn't practice," Shion says. "I was waiting patiently for my lover to return."
"You're no maiden waving a handkerchief at a departing train. Ugh. Terrible. You're awful."
"Teach me, then."
"How demanding." Nezumi doesn't move, keeps his face buried in Shion's shoulder.
Eventually, Shion says, "You really came through my window. Even though I'm on the second floor."
"You left it open for me this long. Chekhov's gun. Not using it would be a professional insult."
"Oh, I see."
"Also, I thought that mother of yours might hug me again if I entered in the front door."
"There you go, then."
Shion rubs small circles into Nezumi's back. Nezumi still isn't moving, doesn't seem like he intends to move again any time soon. Their heater, which Nezumi had so casually turned on when he entered the room, is too hot, leaving them sweating. He doesn't want to turn it off, though.
"Welcome home," Shion says.