They meet in a Babylon of tents; greying frayed cotton and rough pinching sackcloth, cheap crackling twine and plastic rope haphazardly linking the structures, letting them lean on each other like weary children lest the whole uncertain thing collapse.
They've brought him here for many reasons; basic medical expertise, knowledge in ecology enough to help nurture and replace a destroyed aboriginal habitat, a flair for navigating the heady political waters of warfare with polite, restrained ease. Bit of a maverick with a reputation for discord, though; it's said government thought best to shove him out here, on the outskirts, to be neglected, fearful of his potential burgeoning power. Groomed neat, white lab coat halo pristine against the churned-up graveyard road, his hair is an old man's but his body isn't. The war has made people used to this sort of wound, healed but discernable all the same, like the puckering scars that wrinkle and bunch on his face when he talks.
A little girl with dirty eyelids sneaks glances up at him, and gasps abruptly when he turns to look at her. His irises are livid, blaring siren shading like blood or love. Her culture told her bedtime terrors about smiling demons with eyes as his, so she screams a little. He looks embarrassed, but everyone else ignores it, immune and numbed to the sounds of fright. They speak in a sursurration of murmurs, eyes on the ground, as he tours Block 46E, West Branch.
"And this, Doctor Shion," points the official, "is what the, uh, residents, have dubbed their official theatre."
"I'm not a doctor," Shion corrects quietly, "I've not yet completed the final dissertation for a doctorate. I'm merely advanced postgraduate until then, sir. A theatre, you say?"
"Indeed. A ramshackle affair, nothing like the sort you're used to in NO.6, of course, but it suffices. We're all about making do."
The official looks, plump and cossetted, as though he's never had to make do in his life.
"I wasn't much for the theatre," is all Shion replies.
"Oh, but we must correct this! Why, we have the finest performers this side of the encampment. Some were, indeed, professional actors originally."
Originally. Everyone is - was - is something originally. When is the moment when the hinges swerve in transformation, the sparking guttering chemical, the stutter of catalyst? Probably a bomb, Shion thinks, not without a swell of feeling, there's plenty of those lurking about nowadays. Or a razing mission; that's what did these people in, dented their wills.
Maybe he's over-thinking this. Maybe it's merely the presence of the gunmen, shifting, bored, itching for an insurrection to lighten the painful enuui.
It's then that he storms out of the rickety tent-folds, bellowing fit to pop a lung, something about poetry in motion and freedom of interpretation, torture not to be endured and art for art's sake. Hair flinging about like a fine light-dark sheath, skinny angles shivering with fury. His eyes, when he stops short before the assembled party, are glaring witchery-bright. Feral gorgeous changeling boy, pulled out of his time; he turns his chin up with all the pride of a rich man, a free man, although he is neither. Long legs stutter to a halt.
He's a native tribeson. His colouring evidences it. Shion wars between open gawking fascination and uncertainty. It seems he's never seen one before, heard of them. Seen sketches, photographs, but never one moving within its own flesh with a sinuous deadly energy.
"Ah, this would be our celebrity," the official bursts out to diffuse the sudden blanketing silence, "His name is, well, he says it's Eve. We aren't sure if it's true, really, but it's better than referring to identity chips on the posters."
Eve nods sharply in agreement, face drawn tight. Everything is edges and irritation. Shion pauses, and attempts a smile. It's surprisingly genuine. Holds out his hand. It's pale and chemical-scarred and attempts to bridge an indefinable gap between their kinds.
"Shion," he says, "My name's Shion. I've been assigned to forestry restoration on behalf of NO.6's Ecology Committee. It's good to meet you, Eve."
What happens next changes depending on the storyteller -- memories do have a way of shifting themselves, moulding subjective to a person's perspective, don't they? It's not certain whether there was a pause, whether Eve considered his actions, or if he acted with the instinctive daredevilry so many had lost or feared to risk too much.
It becomes legend overnight, racing along the kilometres of the refugee camp; that Eve, their beautiful wrecked actor, poster boy for rebellion, had stood up and spat at the feet of the new director of forestry restoration.
"You are not here to help us," he snarled dismissively, as the guards leapt to action, pinning his wrists to his back at an agonising trajectory, "You never have been. You never are."
Nobody remembers the original rationale for the War. No, that's not quite true. Someone, somewhere, does surely remember it: expansion, invasion, futuristic version of old-world lebensraum. The aboriginal people were the quiet peace-keeping kind, their weapons tarnished with disuse, with lack of need. They had, it is believed, an intricate utopian society, a way of working sustainably and giving back what they took from each other and the ground - a life many, in their tired-eyed offices, flex sore wrists and wonder upon.
When the guns came, there wasn't a chance. There wasn't even time to run.
Shion settles down, sugared cocoa in his grip and an illict copy of The Happy Prince. It doesn't sound as good in his voice, but it will have to suffice here, now. In the upper echelons of NO.6 bureaucracy, there are so many gaping discrepancies in accounts, expense tabs for Rikiga's 'entertainment services' and second-third-fourth residences, that a love for banned literature -- and the collecting thereof -- is seen as a strange quirk. Even if it isn't his collection. Wouldn't tell them that, though.
Shion dresses like an old man, shuffling in slippers and covering concealing cardigans, soft muted colours, beige and mulch and big creamy buttons. Carefully pressed shirts that are a little too large; these were not his clothes originally, it would be safe to suspect, and right to do so too. But they are worn and gentle against his skin, kind where out there isn't, and comforting like a circle of loose limbs, cooling sweat amongst the sheets -- and therefore, they stay.
Nezumi dresses dangerously, wrapped skin-tight in leather jacket, microfibre cloak-and-dagger with its lingering sweeping drama. Torn cargo pants peeping slivers of skin. Little teasing dips of collarbone uncovering themself from the fall of thin, thin shirt.
"Miss me?" he asks from where he leans against the balcony door, hair dripping onto the tiles. Shion tries to restrain himself from turning around, but he lost that battle long ago and merely acquiesces his defeat with good grace.
"Always, Eve," Shion remarks slyly, "I have to say, that was your best performance yet. Still, your curtain call is becoming almost cliche. The balcony, again? I'd never penned you as a romantic."
Nezumi's face wars amusingly between a grin and a scowl; it eases into the former when Shion pushes past the resistance of Nezumi's untouchable exterior, burying his face into the dip of his shoulder. He bites.
"Rough," Nezumi mutters, hand caressing milk-shaded strands of hair, easy, easy. Fingertips tracing the indent of spine beneath cotton. Hush of quiet. Breathe, breathe.
"I know what you like."
Shion nods, nose prodding at his clavicle.
"Yes. I disabled the alarms already, and the audio devices. S'pose you figured."
Nezumi smirks. "There's my boy."
There’s a brief, flickering pause.
“I wish you could stay the night,” Shion confesses. He feels Nezumi tense and curses himself in advance; true to form, Nezumi peels himself away, attempting a brusque air.
“Yeah, well, I can’t. They’ll miss me at roll call, and hell hath no fury like a camp guard scorned. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I do,” Shion replies, laced with a bitterness he didn’t realise he could show, vehement leaking acid of it.
“I just came to see if you were settling in.” Nezumi’s gaze takes in the stifling cleanliness and uniform luxury. He sleeps in the workaday theatre, Shion knows, literally living upon the boards. “And you are, I see. So. Yes. I’m going.”
“Do you think they know?” Shion asks despite himself, watches Nezumi’s sodden back halt.
“What, that their fallen wonder boy is consorting with the fearsome, accursed and highly illegal underground movement?” Nezumi declaims, with a psuedo-actorly flourish. He blinks. “No, probably not. Not to that extent. They don’t believe you’re capable of having the guts.”
Shion knows this so he isn’t insulted. It’s how he’s stayed alive.
“I didn’t mean them,” he corrects, “I meant –”
“Ah. I see.”
There’s a silence.
“You know, I think they do,” Nezumi theorises, “I think they always have. If you think of it, it sorts for them terribly well. I am a wild card. You’re a NO.6 brat turned informant. We keep each other in check; saves them the trouble of hiring close scrutiny, I suppose. Nothing on Earth closer than us.”
“You think it’s a good thing?”
“No. Don’t mistake me.” Nezumi’s eyes flash. “It also means they know what we mean, how we feel, and we have therefore divulged their weakness to them. You see, your Majesty, my sweet prince,” and Nezumi’s lips twist into a sneer at the endearment. Shion thinks it’s probably a quotation, but isn’t certain, merely watches the other boy advance back slowly, slowly, wind-stung lips and cold cold skin. “You are my Achilles’ heel.”
There’s a moment after this line’s deliverance where Nezumi entirely stops, watching him very intently.
“My what?” Shions queries at last. Nezumi sighs, tension deflating as he gripes.
“Why does nobody bother with anything important these days? My cultural references are wasted on you. Achilles was invincible, having been dipped in the River Styx as a babe, but he had one weak spot, just one, hardly discernable – but it was there, and killed him surely all the same.”
Shion gapes at the implication; Nezumi turns to clamber up onto the balcony rail.
“Don’t come and see me, I’ll make contact first,” he orders, “Looks suspicious if you head me up. Go dig up some filth on your lab rats.” He leans, traces the shape of Shion’s scar with the barest touch of his fingertips, shiver wake of goosebumps.
“They’re not lab rats,” Shion insists, despite himself, because despite all the atrocities he’s heard described and seen implemented, he has to buy that, has to, “They’re people.”
“No, they’re not,” Nezumi says shortly, brooking no argument, and that’s half the problem, really. He wavers, balances on the rail, looking like he longs for something – to stay longer? To be touched more? Something deeper? – before dropping over, fair beyond Shion’s sight, only the ripple of microfibre cloth in the wild churning black. He can see the lights of the guard posts down at the camp, flickering uncertainly over the banshee screech of wind and rain. There will be destruction come morning.
But Shion already longs for the next rainstorm, the indent of his teeth on Nezumi’s skin fading even now.
Oh, have you not seen the statues before? They’re marvellous, my favourite piece here. Very fine, aren't they – carved from grey marble – yes, grey, specifically requested, pale as a rat’s bristly, moon-coloured fur, they say. They’re the most valuable exhibit present here in the gallery, commissioned after the walls in the refugee district of the 52nd bout of Eternal War came tumbling down. As you can see from the coroner’s photographs on the accompanying wall, they found these two lying in the rubble, barely damaged but not breathing even so, clutching, turned into each other.
We’re unsure of the first man’s identity – he was a playhouse actor and a Class A convicted indigenous, held in the West Block encampment. He seems to have had several fictious identities running simultaneously, including his theatrical alter ego – Eve – see how the artist chose to signify this by the apple he lifts to the other man’s mouth, how he supplicates but does not yield. Old-world Scripture references had quite a revival during this period, you see.
It’s generally accepted that this official codename, as an Elyurias Soldier, was Nezumi – meaning ‘Rat’, and whether this was a joke at his expense is uncertain, but he never appeared to reveal a birth name – and all records have, of course, since been destroyed.
The other, however, is more identifiable due to his status as a NO.6-born. He is Shion, an ecology professor. Very young, barely into his mid-twenties, fast-tracked, but an incident – still, so few records, but it appears to have been a discovery of him harbouring mildly dangerous persons in his late teens which demoted his privileges and his refusal of repentance which finally sent him to the outskirts area of the West Block camp. It’s suspected this is one of many examples of his early assignations as an Elyurias Soldier himself, and his harsh treatment as a consequence of this incident probably spurred him further on.
Of course, as I have said we cannot be certain; what we do know is that these two young men are directly responsible for the dismantling of NO.6’s power in the forest regions, an event which was a direct contributor the end of the war and dismantling of the infrastructure of the invading forces.
The rest of the story, you will know. It’s passed into legend, and their apparent martyrdom, as you are likely very aware, has been celebrated as an act of great sacrifice. These statues are one example of this.
There have been various scholarly criticisms speculating the nature of these two young men and their bond. Some insist they were lovers; others, strong friends. It has been questioned whether they really knew each other at all – they were of very different backgrounds, and Shion appears to have known little of Nezumi’s upbringing, not even his true name. Perhaps this was for Shion’s own good, and for Nezumi’s protection: traditional aboriginal names are easily identifiable as such. Perhaps, they were merely colleagues, strangers given a mission to partner. It’s clear the sculptor here does not take this view; note the expressions of longing, the outstretched hands, the proximity –
We can never really know. History rewrites itself with the seasons: spring does not regulate its rebirth, and society cannot do so, despite its best attempts.
Survive one day longer, translates the inscription on the podium beneath, and occasionally remember those gone. That is all that is required.
Pause. Shuffling of papers. Clearing of throat.
Now, shall we move along?