Kaoru picked their way through the Forest Park, weaving between ladders and people with their hands full of streamers and strings of lights. There was a restless buzz to the air, equal parts excitement and stress.
It was Amity Day, the fourth anniversary of No. 6 and West Block’s union—although, technically speaking, the date was a lie.
According to the No. 6 citizens, they had opened their arms to their downtrodden brethren four years ago. But the wall had still been up then, and even while No. 6 told newscasters they were embracing the change, the people in West Block stayed tucked behind the wall, and remained there for two years before it was finally torn down.
So if they wanted to count from the point of unification, technically it was only the second anniversary. This fourth anniversary officially fell on the date the execution footage aired.
But “We Found Out Our Government is Homicidal and Corrupt Day” isn’t as family-friendly or celebration-worthy as “Amity Day,” so Amity Day it was.
Kaoru couldn’t really blame the Restructural Committee. It was human nature to want to distance oneself from the gruesome or shameful, and besides, no one was ever going to get along if they kept dwelling on the past. If they wanted to throw a party celebrating togetherness, Kaoru couldn’t care less, so long as they could be left out of it.
Of course, Kaoru never was. Being a member of the Information Bureau meant that everything was your business all the time no matter what, period. Rikiga always had them doing something: snooping for scoops, assisting with filming the events, fetching food or drink (this last command Kaoru never followed, and instead used the opportunity to escape back home for quality dog time). This year, though, they had a project of importance.
And it’s about damn time.
Not that Kaoru didn’t enjoy their usual work. People were interesting and it was fun to pick them apart, for better or worse. It was only that they were tired of being the old man’s lackey. Four years and they were still an assistant. Even the raises couldn’t make up for the amount of crap they had to deal with.
Rikiga insisted he couldn’t promote them because they were underage, but that was not an acceptable excuse anymore. Gifted Curriculum kids could hold down jobs at sixteen, even though they weren’t considered full-fledged adults, and Kaoru was seventeen now. So as far as they were concerned, with all their experience plus the fact that they were the most successful reporter in the Information Bureau, they deserved a goddamn promotion.
As a result, they were more determined than usual to make this Amity Day project a success. Just you watch, old man, this special is going to be so hard hitting you’ll be knocked on your drunken ass. The city will be howling for my promotion.
The thought brought a cocky smirk to Kaoru’s lips and they hastened down the path toward their first stop.
“Oh, Kaoru! How nice to see you.” Renka beamed at them from the doorway.
“G’morning, Ma’am.” Kaoru scratched their cheek. The warmth and softness of the older woman always made them feel a little shy.
“Come in. Would you like some tea?”
Kaoru allowed themself to be whisked into the living room and ushered into a chair.
“Lili, can you make us some tea?” Renka called.
Kaoru heard a mumbled reply from the direction of the kitchen.
Renka’s brow creased. “Lili. We have a guest.”
“Okay, yes, I’m making the tea,” the voice yelled back.
Renka sighed quietly and offered a resigned look to Kaoru. The look read, teenagers, what are you going to do?
“It’s so nice of you to drop by,” Renka said, taking the seat across from them. “How’s work?”
“It’s alright. Busy.” Kaoru played with the note pad and camera they had in their hands. Renka nodded good-naturedly.
“Tea’s ready.” Lili came out of the kitchen, a mug in each hand. She was tall for a thirteen year old and willowy. She looked a lot like her mother, and yet not. She had all the same features and proportions, but Renka was a graceful creature, whereas Lili was all youth and pizzazz.
She had on a light pink sweater and plaid skirt, and lopsided pigtails topped with bright orange bows. Kaoru wasn’t much involved in the fashion aspect of the Information Bureau, but they were well enough acquainted with their feature stories to know that this style was popular with the school kids in No. 6. Nine times out of ten, if a girl wasn’t required to wear her uniform, her ensemble included a sweater, skirt, and bow. Kaoru didn’t understand the appeal, but they had to admit, the outfit looked good on Lili.
There was nothing about the girl that would ever suggest she had come from West Block.
Kaoru winced at the high-pitched screech. A small girl stumbled out from behind Lili and threw herself down on the floor.
“Karan, watch it! I almost spilled the tea all over you!” Lili glared at the four year old, but the little girl didn’t notice. She was too busy making cooing noises at the dog that was sniffing around behind Kaoru’s chair.
Kaoru frowned down at their scruffy companion. They had forgotten for a moment that the dog had come along. They usually took Pup around with them, but he looked tired this morning, so they left him home. Kaoru was so used to Pup’s excitable presence that it was easy to overlook the quieter canine.
The little dog ignored the child and made a beeline for Renka’s feet, where she curled up with a massive huff. Undeterred, Karan crawled across the floor to pet her. The dog allowed it. But Kaoru knew she’d just as soon glare at you and saunter away. She was a temperamental little thing, and some days they wondered how Shion had ever convinced them to take her in.
Kaoru could only blink when they opened their door to find Shion standing there with an uncertain look on his face.
It wasn’t that it was weird to see Shion, but it was weird that anyone was visiting them. No one ever visited when they lived with their old man, and the pattern had held when they moved out and got their own place on the cusp between Lost Town and West Block. Their old man didn’t even come to see them; he allowed Kaoru to leave because they had their own income, but it was beneath him to go anywhere near the West Block.
“Hi, Kaoru.” Shion shifted. “I have a favor to ask.”
It was then that Kaoru noticed he was holding something. It looked like a crumpled cardigan, but it was moving slightly. There was something inside, something living. Kaoru took an involuntary step back as Shion lifted the corner of the sweater to reveal a little gray puppy. Kaoru’s heart gave an automatic swoop at the sight of it.
“I found her all alone in an alley,” Shion said, rubbing at the puppy’s ear through the fabric of the cardigan. “At first I thought maybe her mother had just gone out and would come back, but I waited and she never did…” The puppy began to wriggle and Shion adjusted his hold to keep her from squirming out. “I’m worried she might have been abandoned.”
Kaoru bit their lip. The puppy was so small, barely old enough to be separated from its mother. The dog gave a plaintive cry, and Kaoru reached out and gave it a reassuring scratch between its ears.
“Will you take her?”
“Huh? Me? Why can’t you take her?”
“Renka doesn’t want any pets… Not until Karan is older, at least.”
Oh, right... Kaoru had forgotten about Renka’s other kid. She would be what now? Two or three? But dogs are great for little kids…
“I’m sorry to ask this of you, Kaoru, but I couldn’t just leave her, and I can’t think of anyone better than you to take care of her.”
If these words came out of anyone else’s mouth, Kaoru would have called them a suck up, but this was Shion. He didn’t appear to have an insincere bone in his body, and Kaoru still couldn’t understand how a person like him could ever become attached to Nezumi. The rat didn’t deserve him, not one bit.
“And Pup would have a friend,” Shion added, seeming to think this would help convince Kaoru.
And it did. Kaoru was busy working most days, and even though Pup was allowed to tag along, they worried that he wasn’t getting enough playtime. Kaoru chewed their lip harder, staring at the puppy staring at them.
Then they made the mistake of looking back at Shion. Kaoru had never seen a human do such justice to the puppy-dog eyes. Between Shion and the puppy, refusal was not an option.
So they took the dog.
And she was a little nightmare.
Shion came over to check in on them periodically, and the first time he came over after the fact he gushed over how well the dog looked. The dog always behaved like a perfect angel when Shion was around, and Kaoru had yet to decide whether it did this just to spite them, or if it was due to Shion’s peculiar gift of making everyone and everything like him on sight.
Shion made a delighted noise as the dog lapped at his face. “What’d you name her?”
Kaoru narrowed their eyes at the dog, and the dog narrowed them back. “Nezumi.”
“Because of her eyes?” Shion beamed down at the dog, and the little runt tilted her head, grey-blue eyes shining.
Kaoru’s lip curled back. “No. Because she pissed on my bed the second I turned my back.”
Shion seemed to find this funny. “Nezumi’s a good name,” he said in his silly ambiguous way.
It had been a year since then, and even though Nezumi could still be a little brat, it was impossible for Kaoru to hold any lasting ill will toward the dog. Nezumi’s namesake was not so easily forgiven.
Kaoru murmured their thanks to Lili as she set the tea down before them. The girl then flopped onto the couch next to her mother and began fiddling with her handheld. The ID bracelets had been phased out, and handhelds had rushed in the fill the technological hole they left. Kaoru hardly used theirs for anything but texting.
Kaoru sipped at their tea and glanced around the room. “Is Shion home?”
“No, he’s out at the moment,” Renka said. “I don’t know when he’ll be back. Do you need to talk to him?”
“No, I was just wondering… This little guy wanted to see how he was doing.”
They nodded at Nezumi and the dog sighed through her nose.
“But, anyway,” said Kaoru. “I’m actually here to see you. I’m doing a feature for Amity Day. ‘Life After the Wall,’ it’s gonna be called. I’d like to interview you about your experience in No. 6, if you’re okay with it.”
“Oh.” Renka’s brow furrowed a little. “Well, sure, if you think it would be useful.”
Kaoru had spent enough time investigating to recognize the guarded look on Renka’s face. “You don’t have to, Ma’am. I can use someone else if you’re uncomfortable.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m just a little shy… But I would be happy to help you with your project.”
Kaoru nodded and turned on the camera. “Don’t worry, I’ll start easy. So… You opened a tailor shop here in Lost Town, right? How’s that going?”
“Very well. I used to run a tailor’s in West Block, actually, when I was younger. It’s how I met my husband—how I met a lot of people, come to think of it.” She grinned, and her face looked suddenly younger.
How old is Renka, anyway? Kaoru always thought that Renka was much older than them—in her thirties or something, she looked so sad and tired all the time—but suddenly they weren’t sure.
“My best friend ran a bakery, and I had the tailor’s across the street,” Renka continued. “We didn’t do too bad for ourselves, considering. But some things happened, and I had to stop…” Her smile faded a little at the edges, and her youthful aura dimmed. “It’s nice to run my own business again. The people here are very kind. It was a little rough in the beginning, since I was new and I had no one to recommend me, but things are going well now. I have customers from both No. 6 and West Block.”
Kaoru nodded, shifting to scribble in their notepad. “You said things were rough in the beginning. What do you mean by that? Were people nice to you, or… You know, since you were the first family to move into the city from West Block, were there any problems with the townspeople? Prejudice?”
“My… You get right to the point.” Kaoru’s face flushed, but Renka waved away their embarrassment with a kind smile. “I’m not offended, I was just thinking you must be good at your job.”
Kaoru blushed deeper and sipped at their tea to try to detract from it.
“I didn’t have any problems, really…” Renka said, after taking a few sips of her own tea. “I think… Well, people were afraid of me at first. Or maybe intimidated is a better word. They saw what happened in the footage, and they knew who I was, and they didn’t know what to make of me. Everyone felt bad, but no one was brave enough to actually approach me. It’s much better now, but it was lonely those first few months.” Renka bit her lip. “Lili had a little trouble at school, too…” She glanced over at her oldest.
Lili looked up from her handheld and shrugged. “It was a little hard, but I got used to it. I have lots of friends now. I’m actually super popular at school. I even have a boyfriend.” She raised her chin like a preening peacock. “Rico and I have a date later, actually. We’re going to see that new movie, the one about how our ancestors messed up the world?”
Renka shot a sharp look at Lili. “Absolutely not.”
Kaoru blinked at the censure in her voice.
“You are not going anywhere today,” Renka said. “You’re grounded.”
Lili’s eyes bulged. “What? Still? Come on, Mom, that was days ago! Haven’t I suffered enough?”
“Last time I checked you still hadn’t apologized to Ei, so no, I don’t think you have. You shouldn’t even be on your handheld.”
“You aren’t going anywhere until you’ve apologized.”
Lili made a strangled noise. “I can’t believe this.” She pushed off the couch and texted furiously as she stomped from the room.
Renka clicked her tongue and stared after her fuming firstborn. Kaoru sipped quietly at their tea, trying their best to be invisible. They were no stranger to domestic disputes, but it always felt dirtier to see one unfold at a friend’s house.
“I’m sorry, Kaoru,” Renka sighed. “Lili’s been so difficult lately. At first I thought it was just typical teenager behavior, but…” She gnawed her lower lip. “She said something really awful to her friend the other day.”
Kaoru smelled a juicy bit of gossip and leaned in, anticipating. But maybe they looked too eager, because Renka suddenly went in a different direction.
“It’s only been two years since the West Block children started to be integrated into No. 6 schools. It’s hard for them—not only the schoolwork, but they deal with so many discriminations. Lili had a head start on the other West Block children, but it was hard for her, too, at first. But now that she has No. 6 friends it seems like she’s forgotten what it’s like to be scared and alone.”
Renka’s mouth pulled down at the corners. “She called Ei a sewer rat the other day, in front of all her friends. She told him to go back to the dump where he belongs.” She fixed Kaoru with hard, sad look. “Lili and Ei have been best friends since they were little, I never would have believed she’d say something like that if his mother hadn’t told me. She wasn’t even sorry when I asked her about it. Ei’s mother says he refuses to go back to school now.” Renka shook her head and looked out the window. “I think taking down the wall was the right thing to do, but we still have a long way to go before things are truly equal.”
The sounds of children playing drifted in from the street. Renka and Kaoru sipped at their tea in silence as each considered this thought, weighing the misery of the past against the trials of the present.
“You won’t televise that part, will you?” Renka said suddenly. “About Lili and her friend?”
“Oh, sure. I’ll make sure that part gets cut.”
“Thank you.” Renka’s eyes darted down to the little girl at her feet. “Karan, don’t pull the dog’s ears, she doesn’t like it. Come sit by mommy.”
“ ‘Kay!” Karan released Nezumi’s ears and crawled onto the couch to wedge herself into the space beside her mother.
Kaoru saw the opening for a change of subject. “I hear Karan’s pretty smart. The people in West Block talk about her sometimes. The first kid from West Block to get in the Gifted Curriculum; she’s practically a celebrity.”
“Oh, really?” Renka smiled down at Karan. “I’m really proud of her. I never imagined she would do so well. Her father would’ve been ecstatic.” She ruffled Karan’s hair and the girl swatted her hand away with a giggle. “But, you know, there’s talk that the Committee might discontinue the two-year-old aptitude test in the next year or so. Little Karan might be the first and last of West Block’s elite.”
Kaoru had heard this—it was hard not to, with so many elites howling about it on the Moondrop’s doorstep. Everyone in No. 6 took the Gifted Curriculum extremely seriously. A few years ago, whether or not you made it onto the Gifted track decided whether or not you had a promising future. But that was before the Restructural Committee. Slowly but surely the gap between elite and common folk was lessening, and a select few didn’t appreciate the lack of distinction.
Kaoru hoped the Gifted Curriculum got derailed. And with Safu on the Committee the odds are looking better and better. That woman is a force of nature. Kaoru didn’t have many role models, but Safu was definitely number one. She was the wake up call No. 6 wished it never got.
“Do you have any more questions?”
“Oh, um…” Kaoru stared down at their notebook. They weren’t as excited to conduct this interview as they were to begin with. “No. I think this is good.”
“Well, if you want to ask anything else, you can stop by again. Oh!” Renka’s face brightened. “I almost forgot! I was planning to have a dinner with everyone later this week. Safu will be there, and Shion. They’d be so happy to see you. And you could interview Safu. I’ll bet she’d be happy to answer your questions.”
“Oh. Sure.” Kaoru smiled. “That’d be nice.”