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Beyond the Shadow of No. 6

Chapter Text

     The weather was murderously hot for September.

     Nezumi blamed humanity. Even if the warfare of the past hadn’t destroyed everything, it had cursed much of the land with harsh climates and conditions. If they had just let things be decades ago, the world wouldn’t be one-quarter barren wasteland. Nezumi was just glad he had managed to snag a room at one of the many hotels that dotted the outskirts of No. 2.

     Although, calling it a hotel was being generous. The walls were dun brown, the floors were cracked and creaked every few steps, and even though the blankets on his bed looked passably clean, the material chaffed. But it was cheap and unassuming, and at least a few degrees cooler than outside. And Nezumi was moving along soon anyway.

     The bar and restaurant couldn’t help but be a dive, but it was decent enough for a drink. Nezumi planted himself at the bar and hailed the bartender for a beer. He sipped his drink and cast an eye around the place.

     The noon sun shone full blast outside, but the windows were caked so thick with dust that the light that managed to push past the glass painted the space a sickly yellow color. The air smelled terminally of stale beer and fresh sweat. Nezumi tried to be understanding—the smell of unwashed bodies was familiar among travelers—but since he just took a shower before coming down, the stench was unforgivable.

     A bored-looking waitress bustled between the handful of patrons. She was young, brunette, modestly pretty. If he was still trying the relationship thing she may have been his type. But it had been over a year since he decided that dating was a waste of time and energy. Too many strings, not enough payoff. He never would’ve tried it at all if Tsukiyo hadn’t died.

     Nezumi never considered he would die so soon. Tsukiyo was extraordinarily smart compared to other mice, so Nezumi just assumed the mouse would have a longer life span too. Even when the mouse grew whiter around the face, even when he seemed content to spend the day curled up in Nezumi’s superfibre or clinging to his hair, he thought he’d have at least a few more years left with him.

     Fortunately, they had been traveling through No. 3 when it happened, and the landscape was lush rainforests and loamy soil. The mouse received a proper burial beneath the tallest tree Nezumi could find.

     Staring at the tiny mound of dirt, dappled sunlight and birdsong pouring in from above, the heat close against his skin… That was the first time he felt lonely. The first time he let himself admit it.

     Nezumi knew a lot about walls. He had lived behind one all his life, first in No. 6, and afterward inside one of his own making. He realized it while in West Block, but while the realization had dented his defenses, it wasn’t enough to break them. After all, it wasn’t wrong to protect himself. He was the only person he could trust; nothing could ever hurt him because nothing could get close enough, and he didn’t mind, because he had chosen this wall.

     But he was wrong, on many accounts.

     His first mistake was in thinking he escaped No. 6. He convinced himself that he was stronger than the city, that he had resisted its every attempt to break him. He had prided himself on it. And that was his second mistake: No. 6 had broken him, long before he learned to fight it. Only a broken man thought burying himself in layers of suspicion and anger meant strength.

     No. 6 was a liar and a thief and a murderer, and it had corrupted him. Nezumi had always hated the city, but it took a journey to find he would never forgive it.

     He tried not to dwell on these thoughts too long, though, because they reminded him of his hatred, and he was out here to forget.

     No, not forget. Not entirely. It was more like he was trying to understand, both the world and himself.

     It was a four-year work in progress, and sometimes it hurt. A lot. Tsukiyo’s death hurt. Many of his memories of West Block hurt. He had the hindsight now to realize what a bastard he had been for most of his time there. Some of the anger was warranted, of course. Being kidnapped and imprisoned was a stressor for anyone. But there were many things he wished he’d handled differently.

     Nezumi sloshed the remainder of the beer around his glass. Contemplated ordering another. Four years... He slumped against the back of the chair. Has it really been that long?

     It felt like he had barely scratched the surface. The outside world teemed with life and a vitality that still continued to surprise him even after the years. Rolling mountains and grassy plains, sparkling lakes and meandering rivers, lush oases and treacherous marshland. And there was wildlife, scattered and skittish, but alive and seemingly unscathed by the atrocities of war.

     No. 6 had always said that there was nothing between the city-states but miles of radioactive wasteland. But like everything else in that city, it was a lie.

     There were people who chose to live in the wilderness. Hundreds of them. He had suspected it was so—there was no way that the six city-states were all that remained of humanity—but it was another thing to see these civilizations and experience their lives. Some villages were friendly and welcoming, others treated him with suspicion or fear, and almost all were farming villages, where they tended fields, planted harvests, and reared livestock. And there were hordes of tanned, lean children running amuck, bright-eyed and curious about everything around them, especially visiting nomads.

     Nezumi spent most of his time in these in-between places, rather than in the cities, but he made a point to visit every one of the city-states in turn. He had battled through the vast deserts of No. 1. In No. 4 he had suffered bitter cold and felt the icy spray of waterfalls. He mourned the ocean graveyards in No. 5.

     But neither the intrigue of the cities nor the simplicity of the villages could hold his interest for more than a few months. Nezumi had changed in many ways, but he never stopped being restless. Whenever he thought he could get settled, he’d wake up the next morning with a desperate urge to move move move.

     It was starting to bug him. He thought he knew why.

     Nezumi reached into his pocket. In the right one was his knife. He had taken good care of it over the years, sharpened and cleaned it so it wouldn’t rust or weaken, and the knife repaid him by being invaluable at every turn.

     But it was into his left pocket he reached. His hand closed around the object within, feeling its familiar contours. He pulled out a stone, oblong and just a little shorter than his pinkie finger.

     He found it during one of his travels. He had been legging it in the area outside No. 1, when he had stumbled upon an oasis. Besides the city itself, No. 1 was just desert, nothing for miles and miles but cracked earth and the crushing heat. He thought the distant haven was a mirage right up until he was close enough to touch the plants.

     A crystal lake rested in the middle of the oasis, clear enough that he could make out clumps of algae swaying at the bottom. It had been days since he had a proper bath, and he was half-baked from the sun. In seconds he was out of his clothes and in the water.

     Multicolored stones coated the bottom of the lake. Blood reds, mustard yellows, cool jades—it was like nothing he had ever seen. One in particular caught his eye: a deep purple stone. The color was so vivid it felt like if he stared too long he might get pulled in. Every so often a rivulet of sun would hit it and the stone would wink at him like a secret.

     When he broke the surface of the lake, he had the stone clutched in his hand.

     It seemed silly now, his impulse to grab it and carry it with him all these years. It’s just a stupid stone. Nezumi rubbed its face, his thumb gliding over the glossy purple surface. It’s not even the same color.

     He’d had these thoughts before, many times. He’d spent dozens of days and nights frowning at the stone, wondering why he didn’t just throw it away. It was just weight in his pocket, and the moment he left No. 6 he promised himself he would be weighed down by nothing. And yet here the useless stone was, three years later. Nezumi huffed and slipped it back into his pocket.

     The TV in the corner was airing some news channel on mute. Normally Nezumi didn’t bother himself with world news, but a familiar face on the screen caught his attention. A young man stood off to the side as a woman spoke to the viewers. The woman had strong, pretty features and a delicate smile, but her eyes shone as bright and piercing as a hawk’s. It was not an unfriendly look, but an intelligent one.

     It was not the first time he had glimpsed Safu on screen. She had been popping up everywhere in the last few years as the spokesman for No. 6, and he always got a kick out of seeing her. The surly tomboy he knew had made quite a name for herself.

     She’s turned into quite the beauty, too.

     The man standing in the background took a step forward to stand next to Safu. They shook hands and he beamed at her, a few watts brighter than was the official deal-sealing grin.

     Nezumi arched an eyebrow. And it appears I’m not the only one who thinks so.

     The man was some official from another city-state—he could tell that much from his polished veneer and suave attire—but Nezumi couldn’t recall which city No. 6 was best friends with these days. The man’s dirty blond hair and freckles suggested No. 5, 2, or 4, but really, it could be anywhere. The world stopped caring about demographics when everything went to hell.

     They turned to their audience with matching diplomatic smiles, and the man slipped an arm around Safu’s shoulder. From the looks of Safu’s smile, she wasn’t put off by the man’s attentions—she might have even been leaning into the touch. But these things were hard to gage accurately from miles away through a television screen. Nezumi found the corner of his mouth tugging up in spite of himself.

     Good for her.

     The screen switched to a newscaster, and Nezumi leered at the subtitles: “No. 5 and No. 6 Establish Open Trade.”

     “Damn crooks!” yelled someone behind Nezumi.

     Something hurtled through the air and smacked the TV, before plopping onto the counter. A half eaten chicken wing. Nezumi’s eyes narrowed, trading glares between it and the screen. The wing had left a greasy smudge on the glass.

     Afternoon drunks are the worst.

     The bartender’s head shot up and he zeroed in on the culprit. “That’s your last warning, Shion! You break my TV, you pay for it.”

     Shion? Nezumi half turned in his chair, and settled his gaze on a man at a table in the back. The man’s face was deeply creased, either from exposure or age, though the thick streaks of white through his hair lent themselves to the latter. His tanned skin blended with the shadows, making him appear especially sulky.

     The man’s button down was of decent quality, though it was rumpled at the moment. Either he’d had a rough time of it lately, or he’d been squatting in this bar awhile with nothing but beer and chicken wings for company. His eyes hungrily stalked every person that walked into the bar, and Nezumi could tell that he was starved to unleash whatever grievances he was nursing to the first unfortunate that crossed his path.

     “Change the channel, will you?” the man growled. “I’m tired of watching this garbage.”

     The bartender shook his head and returned to wiping down glasses.

     This guy’s named Shion? Nezumi scowled. What a loser.

     He didn’t want to catch the guy’s eye, so he started to turn away again, but a rustle over the man’s shoulder gave him pause. A crow. It was jet black, so at first glance it looked like a patch of shadow, but when it moved the light rippled across its feathers.

     The sight of the bird was surreal. Nezumi didn’t think anyone other than Yoming would want one as a pet. The crow dropped onto the table and pecked around, eyeing the man’s half eaten wings, inching slowly toward them.

     “Hey! Scram!” The man flicked his hand and sent the bird squawking, but not before it pecked him hard on the knuckle. The crow ruffled its feathers and turned away.

     And that’s when its inky gaze found him.

     “Kraw!”

     It screeched, and kicked off the table so fast Nezumi didn’t have time to flinch. It landed on the counter beside him and hopped back and forth, making guttural clicking noises. Nezumi furrowed his brow at it. Either it was excited or agitated. Nezumi really didn’t care which.

     “Get.” He waved a hand at it.

     The crow flapped its wings and gave another shrill, kraw! but didn’t leave.

     Nezumi grit his teeth. It was too late anyway. He could see the bird’s owner rise from his seat and approach.

     Nezumi smelled him before he got too close. A mixture of beer and something concentrated, like perfumed oil or cologne. Whatever it was, it was powerful and unpleasant, especially paired with the stench of alcohol.

     The man crossed his arms and gave Nezumi a lopsided smile. “Looks like Blacky here likes you. And I can see why—you’re quite the beauty. Too bad you're a guy.” He cackled.

     Nezumi held his tongue. Nuisances like these were expected when in town, but they usually went away if you paid them no mind. He swatted at the crow a second time. It squawked and retreated a little, still clicking away like a stalling motor.

     “That hair, is it real?”

     A typical question, and Nezumi was bored of the number of times his hair came up in conversation. His white hair and good looks made him popular wherever he went. Modeling jobs, acting jobs, sexual offers—he received every solicitation an attractive person tended to get.

     The man grunted when he didn’t respond. “Well, it’s nice. I don’t know why a young’un like yourself would want white hair, but, hey, we like what we like.” He scooted himself onto the chair next to Nezumi, his crooked smile hanging on his face like it lived there. “What’s your name?”

     Nezumi returned his gaze to the television. “None of your business.”

     “Hey, don’t be like that. Is it because I said you’re a beauty? I was just kidding; I wasn’t hitting on you. I mean, you’re a good-looking guy, but I don’t swing that way. I just want to chat.”

     What an idiot. Does he even hear himself when he talks? Nezumi held his eyes fast on the television screen.

     The man shifted towards him. “You’re actually watching that?” His voice had lost some of its good humor.

     The story about No. 6 was coming to an end. The newscaster grinned and announced that No. 6 and No. 5’s alliance marked the start of a new era of peace and prosperity.

     The man snorted. “Peace and prosperity? Hah! That’s their hubris talking—again. No. 6 thinks a committee is gonna stop the corruption from seeping back in? Corruption wriggles its way into every system, no matter how pure its intentions in the beginning.”

     Nezumi could feel the tension rolling off the man. He could practically smell it, mixed with his pickled cologne stench. It made his skin itch.

     The feed switched again to show Safu and the No. 5 official posing for pictures.

     The man smacked Nezumi on the shoulder, earning him a venomous glare he was too busy raving to see. “Look, see,” the man said, his voice pitching higher. “It’s already started. That girl’s been the spokesperson for the Committee these last few weeks. Every time a story airs, she’s there. Making speeches, shaking hands. I’ll bet she’s feeling a little greedy right about now, maybe thinking it’d be better if she were the only one in charge. Just look at her eyes. There’s ambition there.”

     Nezumi agreed that Safu was ambitious. Everything else was garbage. Safu was too levelheaded to fall to egocentrism, and if he had to pick a word to describe her, greedy was nowhere on the list. Patient, decisive, powerful, loyal—that was Safu. She put the greater good over her own desires, over her own heart. He had witnessed that sacrifice firsthand.

     There was no way she’d become the leader this man thought she’d be.

     “It’s the intelligent ones you should be most afraid of.” The man nodded, a cruel smirk twisting his lips. “Mark my words: that girl will push the rest of the members out and become the new ruler of No. 6. I give her two years, tops.”

     “I don’t remember asking for your conspiracy theories, old man. I didn’t come here for company.” Nezumi fixed him with his coldest glare. “Get lost.”

     The man’s forehead pinched. “Old man? That’s just uncalled for…” He frowned, and the creases in his face deepened. “Your personality is very different from how you look.”

     “Beautiful is good is a tired stereotype.”

     Something pulled Nezumi’s hair. His hand went for his knife pocket, but it was only the bird. It had somehow managed to hop onto the back of his chair undetected, and it was nipping at the strands above his ears, dragging its beak through them.

     A memory tugged at Nezumi. He had seen this behavior with crows before, with Yoming’s crow and Shion.

     Christ, is it preening my hair?

     The man was giving him an odd look. “Blacky really likes you, huh? He’s not usually this friendly.”

     Nezumi grunted and swept the bird off the back of his chair. The crow flapped irritably back onto its master’s shoulder.

     “Say… You wouldn’t be from around No. 6, would you?”

     Nezumi tensed, and he hated himself for it. The question shouldn’t have caught him off guard; the man obviously had a major hard on for the city.

     The man’s face lit up. “You are, aren’t you? You didn’t happen to be around for that Correctional Facility incident, did you?”

     This time Nezumi controlled the flinch. He didn’t think about the Correctional Facility if he could help it. The nightmares had been relentless afterwards, and the one or two tramps that made the mistake of robbing him in the midst of them sorely regretted it.

     Nezumi folded his arms across his chest. “What’s the obsession? Another conspiracy theory?”

     The corners of the man’s eyes twitched. “It’s just that I used to know a guy. Not from No. 6, but just outside it. Blacky’s his crow, actually—or was.” His mouth shrunk when he said this. The man held some animosity towards his friend—and if he was talking about whom Nezumi thought he was, then that animosity was justified.

     “If you want to know the truth, the guy stiffed me. We had a deal, a quid pro quo kind of thing. But he didn’t pro quo, if you catch my drift. I just wanted to know whether he might’ve gotten caught up in that Correctional Facility explosion.”

     “AKA whether he’s able to repay what you lost when he didn't deliver.” Nezumi tilted his head. “Must’ve been a hefty wager. Your life looks pretty crappy from where I’m sitting.”

     The man’s expression turned stormy.

     Nezumi shrugged. “Hate to burst your bubble, but if your partner was involved in the Correctional Facility explosion, he’s probably dead.”

     The storm in the man’s eyes clouded over. He scowled, disappointed, as if he had hoped he’d been purposely jilted.

     Nezumi watched dispassionately, but his mind was a frenzy of activity. His partner was definitely Yoming. So then this guy was the Resistance supplier? The supplies had come from No. 2, if he remembered correctly, but it was a little hard to believe that this guy had been the orchestrator. He must have had other connections—and from the looks of it they soured when Yoming went MIA. Looking closer at the man's face, there was a faint scar under his left eye, slicing its way up over the bridge of his nose. Nezumi imagined it fit the trajectory of a crowbar or pistol whip, the favored blunt objects of No. 2 thugs.

     But if that were the case, why was this guy still skulking around No. 2? If Nezumi were him, he would’ve cut his losses and moved on by now. He doesn’t look like the sentimental type…

     “What’d you say your name was?”

     Nezumi stared blankly at the man. “I didn’t.”

     “I go by Shion.” He held out a hand to shake.

     “Bit flowery for a man your age.”

     “You think?” The man retracted his hand and rubbed his chin. “Hm. I guess you’re right... It’s actually my son’s name, but I use it when I need to open a tab. My real name has a bit of a reputation…”

     The man was eyeing him like he was hoping to impress or inspire curiosity, but Nezumi hadn’t even heard the last sentence.

     His son’s name? Could it be…?

     He took a closer look at the man. He seemed younger now than Nezumi originally thought. There was a brightness about him, and a lively air that made it difficult to determine how old he truly was. His eyes glinted mischievously. Nezumi thought he saw a hint of purple in their depths.

     “Your son’s name…?”

     “That’s right. Like the aster flower. He must be… eighteen or something by now?”

     Nezumi clenched his jaw. Twenty. Shion just turned twenty, you asshole.

     “It’s been a while.” The man smiled. “He was just a little baby when I last saw him. I wonder how he’s doing these days.”

     “I’m sure he’s not wondering how you’re doing.”

     The dreamy smile slipped off the man’s face. “What do you mean?”

     “You left him as a baby. As far as your son’s concerned he never had a father.”

     “I’m still his father, whether or not he knows me,” the man grumbled. “I do regret not spending more time with him before I left, though… But I thought it would be easier that way, for us both.”

     “Bullshit.” Nezumi shoved his empty glass away. “You were just thinking about yourself.”

     The man’s brow pinched. He pouted. Because he was hurt by the insinuation, not because he felt an ounce of remorse for the family he left behind. Nezumi sneered. I’m glad Shion never knew you. You are without a doubt the shittiest father I’ve ever met.

     The bartender came to take his glass. He cast a disapproving eye at Shion’s scumbag father and asked if Nezumi needed a refill. Nezumi waved him off and turned to the man.

     “You know, I actually think you did your son a favor removing yourself from his life so early. It probably saved him a lot of disappointment growing up.”

     The man huffed and straightened in his chair. “Now, listen here, kid, I can tell you have some kind of complex— daddy issues, or whatever they call it—but you don’t know a thing about me or my son. You don’t know the circumstances.”

     “I don’t need to know the circumstances.”

     “It’s not like I planned to leave him—or his mother. I loved them. I wanted to be with my wife and baby boy, really, I did, but I couldn't stay in that place.” A flicker of the familiar hatred darted across his features. “I saw what they were doing, building the wall and increasing security in the town. People aren’t meant to be caged like that. I was suffocating! I had to get out.

     “And it’s not like I just disappeared. I had my wife’s blessing. I wanted her come with me, but she refused. She made that decision, for her and my boy. It killed me to leave them behind, but I had to do what was right for me. She understood that. You understand, don’t you? You’re a traveler like me; I’m sure you’ve left things behind.”

     No, I don’t understand, and I’m sure as hell not like you.

     Yes, he had left things behind, but he never planned on leaving them for good. Who deserts their wife and newborn child? Who leaves their family and never so much as writes in twenty years?

     Nezumi took it back; this man’s eyes did not resemble Shion’s at all. This man’s eyes were as black as his morals.

     Did Karan know her ex was funding the Resistance?

     Nezumi never knew Karan, but he knew Shion, so she must have been reasonable, intelligent, and infinitely kind. How could she have loved a man like this? Does he even know Karan’s dead? Does he know he was the one who put a gun in Shion’s hands?

     Nezumi’s breath caught in his throat.

     No. He couldn’t have known Shion was in the Resistance. He knew nothing about his son but his name. But that didn’t make it any better.

     The man sighed. “I can see you think badly of me. And I suppose I deserve it for what I did, but I can’t help what happened in the past. What’s done is done. I’ve gotta think about my future.”

     He reached up to pet the crow’s breast, and even though they were nothing alike, Nezumi couldn’t help but be reminded of Yoming. Compared to this shmuck, Yoming was a pillar of ethical behavior—at least Yoming had a sense of familial duty.

     The bird allowed the petting for a mere three seconds before sidestepping the man’s hand. Nezumi held no fondness for the creature, but for a moment he felt a kinship with the crow.

     “So Yoming’s likely dead,” the man said, mostly to the air. “I guess I knew it deep down. Hmm. Then it might be safe… If I’m careful about it…” He began to mumble to himself.

     Nezumi didn’t like the sight of the man in the first place, but now he couldn’t stand him. If the guy refused to take the hint, fine, he’d remove himself. Nezumi set his hands on the counter to rise.

     “You wouldn’t happen to be heading in No. 6’s direction, would you?”

     Nezumi froze. Something twisted deep in the pit of his stomach. “Why?”

     “I was just thinking maybe I should visit the old city. See if it’s really as prosperous as they say.” He said prosperous like it was a joke, but there was something charged behind it. “It’s a long walk back, though. It might be nice to have some company. Why don’t you come along?”

     Nezumi narrowed his eyes to slits. “I thought you said you weren’t into men, old man.”

     The man smirked. “I already said it isn’t like that. I’m talking business partners. You’re the first guy I’ve met from No. 6 in a while, and you seem like a trustworthy enough person… I’ve decided to let you in on a secret.” He paused and checked the area around them before leaning in. “There’re gold deposits around No. 6,” he said, so quiet Nezumi could barely make it out. “Before I escaped, I found a strip of it running along the perimeter of the city, all the way up to that area they used to call the Land of Mao.”

     The Land of Mao. The place where the Forest People, Nezumi’s ancestors, were massacred sixteen years before.

     I’ll kill you before I let you desecrate that land a second time.

     Nezumi swallowed the bile in his throat and tried on an indulgent smile. “An interesting tale. Tell me, if there’s so much gold, why didn’t you dig it up when you first found it?”

     “It wasn’t the right time. If I dug it up then, the city would’ve been all over me. They would’ve confiscated it. I had to wait until the city fell.”

     “Right.”

     “I have proof. I keep a piece of gold ore locked up back at my place. It’s too dangerous to flash it around in a place like this, but I can show it to you there.”

     “You keep saying you’re not hitting on me, and yet…”

     “Business, strictly business.” He shifted in his seat. “I thought my partner in No. 6 was my ticket in, and then that fell through. That was probably for the best. But I think now’s a good time to try again. The new government’s so busy rebuilding, they won’t even notice us poking around.

     “Just think, a few months of digging and we could be kings. After we’re done, we could buy No. 6 if we wanted, that’s how big this haul would be. What do you say?”

     The man’s eyes gleamed in the low light. Nezumi’s skin prickled. With every passing second he grew more disgusted.

     Not only was this man unrepentant for the past, but he was planning to return to the city just to rip it up. Nezumi despised No. 6, but he wasn’t selfish enough to sabotage its efforts to rebuild. The man seemed to forget he had a son living in that city. Not that Nezumi wanted him to remember. He didn’t want this mercenary bastard to get within one hundred feet of Shion, and he would kill the man before he let him screw with whatever life Shion had built for himself.

     Nezumi pushed himself up from his chair. “Not interested.”

     “But… You don’t want to sleep on it at least?”

     “No.”

     The man frowned, but shrugged. “That’s too bad… I hope you’ll keep what we discussed a secret?”

     Nezumi gave him the barest minimum of a smile.

     “Alright then. I guess this is goodbye.” He clapped Nezumi on the shoulder and flashed him an oily smile.

     The man had just started to turn away when Nezumi snatched the man’s wrist and yanked it toward him.

     “You robbed the wrong target, old man,” he hissed.

     A flicker of shock passed over the man’s face, but then his grin turned sheepish. “You felt that, huh? Guess the drinks made me sloppy.”

     Nezumi’s own smile was feral. “I’m glad you think this is amusing. But you picked the wrong pocket. I think you meant to grab this.” He jabbed the flat side of his knife blade into the man’s gut.

     The color drained from the man’s face. “W-wait! I’m sorry. I didn’t know—” He thought twice about that sentence and spat out instead, “I was wrong. Please don’t open me up.”

     Nezumi grit his teeth. This man barely deserved to be called human, let alone Shion’s father. If he disappeared now, no one would miss him. Nezumi tightened his grip on the knife handle. I’d be doing the world a favor. The blade strained against the man’s stomach. One hard push was all it would take.

     “Wait, please!” the man squealed. “I’m really, truly sorry. Here, I’m giving it back! I’m giving it back.”

     Slowly, he stretched his arm out and opened his palm. Nezumi didn’t take the stone from him immediately. He glared until sweat collected at the man’s hairline and began to trickle down his forehead.

     Nezumi growled. “You’re pathetic. I wouldn’t even dirty my knife with you.” He snatched the stone out of the man’s palm and slipped the knife back into his pocket.

     “Geez...” The man released his breath in a rush. “I wasn’t expecting that. You don’t mess around, huh?”

     “There are consequences for stealing, old man. You’re lucky I’m not in the throat-slitting mood.”

     “I wasn’t stealing—”

     Nezumi cut him off with a look.

     “Okay, okay. So I was snooping a little. I was just curious…” He glanced down at the rock in Nezumi’s fist. “But why are you carrying around a river amethyst, anyway? I mean, they’re pretty, but they’re worthless.”

     “You’ve lost the right to ask questions of me.”

     “I’m a rock fan, too, you know. I used to be a geologist, before No. 6 drove me out.”

     “Does it look like I give a shit? Get lost. I won’t say it a third time.”

     The man held up his hands and backed off. A few seconds later and he was gone. None of the other patrons had stirred during the incident. Only the bartender’s eyes watched as Nezumi sunk back into his chair, clutching the purple stone hard enough to turn his knuckles white.