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Beyond the Shadow of No. 6

Chapter Text

     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.

     “Doggie!”

     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.

 

     “Uh… Hi…”

     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.”

     “Mom!”

     “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.”

Chapter Text

     “You’re early.”

     Safu’s dark eyes met Shion’s purplish ones. He sounded surprised, and Safu’s mouth twisted into an involuntary frown. True, they hadn’t spoken to or seen each other in a while, but was he really surprised at her punctuality? He knew her better than that.

     Safu adjusted her grip on the plate of brownies she held. “I came straight from work.”

     He nodded, and for a moment they stood staring at each other.

     Shion wore a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, and Safu suddenly felt self-conscious in her cobalt pantsuit. Which was ridiculous, because, 1) she knew she looked great in the suit, and 2) Shion probably couldn’t care less about what she was wearing.

     She had half-expected to find the haggard teen she remembered from West Block. That person had a habit of skipping meals and handing out what he did have to the less fortunate. Some nights she got to worrying about him, about whether he was taking good enough care of himself. But she shouldn’t have worried. Shion wasn’t a fool, and Renka would never let him grow too negligent.

     Shion looked well and reasonably happy now that he wasn’t staring wide-eyed at her. He had grown taller, by a few inches at least. His dark hair was shorter, too; less of an unruly mop and more befitting of the man he had grown up to be. She liked it; she could see his eyes better and it lent his face a friendly, open aspect. As if he could get any more friendly or open. Safu pressed her lips together to squash the beginnings of a smile.

     He had become an attractive young man, she decided. It wasn’t bias, but fact. Safu swept her eyes over his shirt and jeans again. Still thin as ever. Not in the hungry West Block way, though. Just lean. She was satisfied.

     “You planning on letting me in anytime soon?” Safu arched an imperious eyebrow. “These brownies are heavier than they look.”

     The corner of Shion’s mouth quirked up and he stepped back from the door to let her in.

     Safu craned her head as they walked into the living room. She could hear Renka humming in the kitchen, and the savory scent of curry wafted through the air. Safu’s stomach gave an anticipatory gurgle, which she masked by asking, “Does Renka need help?”

     “No, she’s almost finished. She doesn’t like help in the kitchen, anyway. It stresses her out.” Shion paused, thoughtful. “Or maybe it’s just me.”

     Safu pursed her lips, but lowered herself onto the couch and set the brownies on the coffee table. Shion poked his head into the kitchen to tell Renka the guests were arriving. There was a faint smile on his lips when he plopped into the armchair across from her. Once, she would have blushed at the undivided attention, but it had been years since her heart sang when he was near.

     It had been a while since she and Shion had sat down together, a while since they’d even spoken in any significant way. Restructural Committee matters took up all her time these days.

     That first year after the government’s collapse there was so much to do, she could hardly leave the office without someone calling about an issue or to ask her opinion on a new proposal. She used to call Shion just to complain about her lack of breathing room.

     When the project to tear down the wall was put into motion, Safu didn’t even have time to complain. Life became careful talks behind closed doors, press conferences, and weeklong business trips to other city-states.

     It was difficult and time consuming, but Safu loved her work. The city needed a lot of improvements, and she liked being the one that proved these things could be done, well and within a reasonable timeframe. Her opinions didn’t always make her the most popular woman on the Committee, but that was fine. Ruffling feathers was part of the job description. She was respected, powerful, and confident. For a former West Block resident, she was doing incredibly well for herself.

     But it hit her now how much she had missed Shion.

     He had grown, certainly, but in essence he hardly differed from her memories. There were the gentle eyes, the faint smile, the aura of kindness. Time had preserved the best of him.

     Did she appear changed to him as well? Or did he still see the awkward, besotted girl he had spent his childhood with? It had been a long time since she had felt so unbalanced.

     Shion stared at her, and there was something expectant or hesitant about it. Safu felt like she should say something, but she didn’t know what.

     I guess that hasn’t changed.

     “Your hair,” Shion said at last. His eyes flitted across her face. “It’s so long now.”

     “Oh. Yeah.” She brushed her hair back behind her ears and away from the collar of her blazer.

     “It looks good on you. The suit, too. Very professional.”

     They shared a smile, and the air in the room seemed a little less dense.

     “So, how are you these days?” Safu asked.

     “Good. You?”

     “Fine. Busy. Things at the Committee are…” Safu’s brow creased. “To tell the truth, it’s a nightmare. No one can agree on anything. Despite all the progress we’ve made, people are still acting so—” She paused, searching for a diplomatic adjective. “Backwards,” she decided.

     They might’ve toppled the former regime and ousted the most corrupt of the No. 6 officials, but the men and women who stepped up to take their places were far from impartial. They talked about improving the conditions in West Block, they waxed romantic about unity and justice and all the changes they planned to make for a better world, but Safu saw them for what they were: liars.

     They could smile and spew their paper promises all they wanted, but she caught every twitch, every careful pause, and she saw the way they looked at her and the other West Block representatives.

     Safu sighed. “I really needed this dinner.” She leaned back against the couch and peered at him. “I’ve missed you.”

     Shion released a quiet breath. “I’ve missed you, too. It’s been a while.”

     He grinned and Safu’s throat constricted. All it took was those few words to make the world feel balanced again.

     “Too long,” she agreed. “God, it’s been terrible. I used to wish you’d join the Committee—they could use someone levelheaded, someone in addition to me, I mean. So many of the No. 6 members are egocentric pigs—but now I’m glad you never got sucked into this mess.”

     “You’ve been making a lot of progress, though. Every time I talk with someone about the changes, they praise the Restructural Committee. And I’m sure a lot of the more progressive incentives are your doing.”

     “Yes, I know. It’s just getting from point A to point B that’s the headache. It’s… People are still thinking like the wall’s up. Just yesterday I saw a woman tell her daughter not to talk to kids from ‘outside.’ ” Safu rolled her eyes. “It’s things like that. The wall’s been gone for two years, why are we still differentiating between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders?’ ”

     Shion smiled sympathetically. Comparatively speaking, No. 6 was better, but any citizen who was looking could see there was still work to be done. The wall might’ve been torn down, but the chasm between No. 6 and the West Block had not been leveled entirely. The citizens of No. 6 had done much with their freedom, but they were not so willing to relinquish their relative wealth or sense of superiority, and the West Block residents resented them for it.

     But despite the tenuous relations there was more integration and exchange between the two areas than ever before. No. 6 had taken control of the medical and educational aspects of life, while the West Block had grown into its own as the arts and agricultural district. The Hiro Theater was renowned for its performances of long-forgotten classics; people from every city-state came to see them.

     “Renka has a lot of friends here in Lost Town,” Shion said. “They all shop in the West Block markets, and they agree the produce tastes much better than what’s in town.”

     Safu shrugged a shoulder, but she was pleased. At least some people were willing to go beyond their prejudices.

     “Still a work in progress,” she said, her voice carrying the chipper note of a conversation closer. “So, what have you been up to?”

     “Nothing as important as you. Gardening, mostly.”

     “Gardening?”

     Shion’s eyes flashed and Safu realized she was about to get an earful.

     “There’s this greenhouse in The Forest Park. It’s full of all these different types of flowers and plants, and some insect life, too, to keep the flowers properly. The gardeners have been showing me around, helping me learn the names, and I’ve been reading up on some of their medicinal properties. Did you know you can use marigolds to treat skin problems, like insect stings and even muscle sprains?”

     “I didn’t. I guess plants are good for more than just tea, huh?”

     “They are. A lot more. I’m thinking about going to university to study pharmacognosy.”

     Safu furrowed her brow. “Pharmacognosy?”

     “The study of plants to make medicines.”

     “Interesting. And here we all thought you’d go to medical school.”

     Shion’s smile faltered. “Oh… No… I don’t want to be a doctor. I still want to help people, but I can’t do that.”

     He lowered his eyes, and suddenly he was a boy again. It was as if the young man was mirage, and now that she peered closer, she could see that the pain had never left, that four-year-old wounds and insecurities still bled behind the illusion.

     That day in the Correctional Facility still haunted her. The flames, the gunfire, Shion’s hatred and her powerlessness—violence so complete leaves scars, and if she still experienced the echoes of shame and regret, Shion must suffer them tenfold.

     “I think my mom would understand,” Shion said carefully. “I’d still be helping people, just… from a distance.”

     “I think it’s a great idea, Shion. Karan would be proud of you.”

     Shion nodded and ran a hand through his hair. It was still long enough that the mussing turned the top into a dark, spiky mess.

     He flicked his eyes to her a moment later. “So. How’s Dennis?”

     The temperature in the room spiked.

     “Dennis?”

     “He’s here, isn’t he? In the city? I saw you two the other day.”

     Safu’s face burned. “You… did?”

     A slow smile dawned on Shion’s face. “At the Committee meeting. On TV?”

     “Oh! Right. Yes. He’s here to discuss trade agreements as No. 5’s representative.” She smiled at Shion, trying to look and sound professional.

     It is professional, she reminded herself.

     “Oh, I see.” Shion’s eyes narrowed, and Safu didn’t like the playful spark in them. “It’s just a business relationship.”

     “Yes, of course. What else would it be?”

     “So he didn’t ask you out?”

     Safu’s eyes widened before she had a chance to check herself.

     Shion laughed. “Your face is completely red.”

     She shrunk down in her seat. “How did you hear about that?”

     “Well, actually… I didn’t. I was just guessing. But I could tell that there was something when I saw you two.” Shion smiled slightly. “I know what it looks like.”

     Safu looked away. Since when did he become so perceptive when it came to her feelings? If he can see it, how many other people have noticed? Her stomach twinged, but she told herself it was from hunger. Shion smiled wider when she looked back at him.

     “It was just dinner,” she mumbled. “I’m not sure how I feel about him yet.”

     “Either way, I’m happy for you, Safu. He seems like a nice person.”

     She huffed. “You’re a lot more conniving than I remember. Where’s the innocent Shion I knew?”

     He smirked and shrugged a shoulder.

     “Shion?” Renka’s voice drifted out from the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready. Has anyone else arrived?”

     Shion opened his mouth to call back, and the doorbell rang.

     “Good timing,” he said under his breath, and pushed up from the chair.

     Safu followed him to the front door. Renka had told her whom she invited, but Safu was curious to see if they would actually come.

     Shion opened the door to Kaoru elbowing Rikiga off the stoop.

     Kaoru speared Shion with a dark look and jabbed a finger at the older man behind them. “He says he’s invited. Tell me he’s not invited.”

     Kaoru’s hair fell to their waist in a dark, wavy sheet—longer than it had been when Safu last saw them. And they had certainly grown taller. Safu felt a stab of vanity when she realized Kaoru was at least an inch or two taller than her, making her the shortest member of the group. But other than that, Kaoru was not much changed. Their features were still tanned and fine and handsome in the oldest sense of the word, only now they had a more mature set to them.

     However, Kaoru still looked young to Safu. Perhaps because their mouth was twisted in contempt most of the time, or maybe because there was always a piece of hair that managed to find its way into their face.

     “Shion called me himself,” Rikiga protested, rubbing his sternum where Kaoru had prodded him.

     Shion looked sheepish. “He’s right. I did.”

     Kaoru grit their teeth. “Why would you do a stupid thing like that? He spends practically every day trying to make Safu look like a dictator. You shouldn’t even like him, let alone invite him to dinner.”

     Safu couldn’t help but smile at the accusation. If that’s how Rikiga meant to paint her in the news, he wasn’t doing a good job of it.

     “Hey! I deserve to be at this dinner,” Rikiga barked. “I’ll have you know I was very close to Shion’s mother. He’s practically a son to me!”

     “Hah! Some stepdad you are. You didn’t even remember his birthday. You were too busy schmoozing that bimbo from No. 2. Which didn't turn out well if I remember correctly.”

     Rikiga sputtered, but Kaoru was relentless.

     “What business do you have hanging out with people half your age anyway? If you think you’re getting free booze, you’re in for a long night. Renka doesn’t drink.” Kaoru side-eyed him. “I hope you go into withdrawal.”

     Rikiga’s face reddened. “You’re a savage.”

     Shion burst out laughing. Kaoru and Rikiga abruptly shut up.

     “I missed you two.” Shion looked between them and grinned.

     Rikiga’s mortified blush hadn’t faded, but now Safu could make out a dusting of pink on Kaoru’s tanned cheeks. “Missed us?” they muttered. “You saw me a week ago… And you better come back next week, because Pup needs a bath. Again.”

     Shion’s eyes lit up. “Sure. You didn’t bring him today? Or Nezumi?”

     Safu’s heart twinged before she remembered that it wasn’t that Nezumi.

     She glanced at Shion out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t look sad, and he hadn’t faltered when he said the name. Four years is a long time… Is he still waiting? Safu could read nothing on his face, but her heart ached for him anyway.

     Kaoru pursed their lips. “Left both of them home… I thought maybe this was supposed to be a nice dinner, so…” They shrugged and picked at their pants.

     They wore a loose tee and culottes. The outfit was figure obscuring and androgynous, as Kaoru’s clothes tended to be, but it expressed more effort than Safu had ever known them to dress with. She realized that Kaoru had actually dressed up for this dinner.

     Rikiga had on a three-piece suit, but he always wore suits, so it made no difference to his image.

     “Your dogs are always welcome here, Kaoru,” Shion said. “Bring them along next time. None of us would mind.”

     “I mind,” Rikiga said under his breath, but everyone pretended not to hear.

     Kaoru nodded before their eyes drifted to Safu. They greeted her quietly.

     Safu smiled back. “Dinner’s ready. We shouldn’t keep Renka waiting.”

 

     Dinner was fun. The food was delicious and Safu was so used to dining with people with agendas, that Kaoru and Rikiga’s bickering and Shion’s quiet smiles and conspiratorial looks were breaths of fresh air. The company appeared to do Renka a great deal of good too. She encouraged them to eat, help themselves to coffee and tea, and said several times how happy she was to see them all. Even Rikiga was dealt a healthy dose of compliments and good-natured laughter. The older man was positively preening by night’s end.

     Lili was nowhere to be seen.

     “She’s out with her friends,” Renka told them.

     She wore a complicated look as she said this, and Shion frowned from across the table. Safu sent him a questioning glance, but he only shook his head.

     Safu hoped to see Lili one of these days, but for the night she was content to spend her time with Renka’s younger daughter. Karan did justice to her namesake: a beautiful little girl, with dark hair, bright eyes, and a sunny disposition. And so smart! For a four year old she had already accomplished so much, and done more than enough to prove that West Block genes were just as good as No. 6’s.

     The hour grew late, and one by one the guests dispersed. Renka insisted Kaoru take home some leftover curry, and Safu swore she had never seen someone look so thrilled.

     Safu was the last to leave, and when she went into the entryway to slip her shoes on, she was pleasantly surprised to see Shion pull his on as well.

     “I’ll walk you home,” he said.

     It was a ten-minute walk back to her apartment near city center, and she was excited to spend some more time with him.

     “That was fun,” said Shion, and indeed there seemed to be a bounce in his step as he walked beside her.

     Safu nodded. “We should get together more often—all of us. Maybe we could do karaoke next time. Karaoke parties are big in the Restructural Committee, for some reason.” She wrinkled her nose and smiled. “They never get tired of it. It’s awful.”

     Shion quirked an eyebrow. “I’ll bet. Can you even sing?”

     “I can carry a tune just fine, thank you.”

     “Oh, yes, of course. Is there anything you can’t do?”

     “There’s nothing I won’t try.”

     “I guess that’s what makes you so successful.”

     Safu clicked her tongue. “Alright, enough brownnosing. I get enough of that at work.” She looked hard at Shion. “I want to know more about your life. We barely got to talk before dinner. Tell me everything. How are Hamlet and Biscuit?”

     Shion froze. It lasted only a second; she might not have noticed if she didn’t know him so well.

     Shion stared fixedly at the path ahead. “They passed away. Two years ago.”

     Safu’s chest tightened. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

     She looked away. Of course. Mice only lived for a year and half to two years. How could I be so tactless?

     She should have known, butTwo years ago. And he never said a word. I should have called earlier—more. I should’ve made more time.

     Safu bit her lip. Shion had seemed so happy just minutes ago, laughing and joking with everyone else. But she remembered now how adept he was at shielding others from his pain. She knew his joy tonight hadn’t been false, but this sadness now was just as true. Shion had Renka and her family, and Kaoru and Rikiga and herself too, but the longer she spent with him, side by side, the more she felt he was not as happy as he pretended.

     Shion. Have you been suffering all this time? So quietly that no one’s noticed?

     “I’m…”

     Safu turned to him, but Shion was quiet and downcast still. Perhaps it had just been a trick of her mind and he never spoken at all. She looked ahead again. Her apartment was just coming into view.

     “That’s me there,” she said, and tried to smile. As a politician, she had become proficient at smiling through her feelings. But she could not call upon her skills as easily with Shion. The smile she arranged on her face felt strained. “You don’t have to walk me all the way. Here’s good.”

     Shion nodded. Safu waited, hoping. For a promise that he would call, an assurance that they would see each other again—she’d even take another pithy comment about Dennis. The night had been going so well.

     We’re still best friends, aren’t we, Shion? Even after all this time?

     “Well,” she said after a moment. “I guess I’ll see you around.” She turned away.

     “Safu.” Shion touched her wrist. His eyes met hers, deep dark and restless. “I’m scared.”

     “Of what?”

     “Hamlet and Biscuit are gone. So Tsukiyo…” He swallowed, casting his eyes to the side. “If Tsukiyo’s gone, too, then there’s nothing left to remind him.”

     “Shion…”

     “It’s been four years. What if he’s not… What if he’s forgotten—?”

     Safu grabbed a hold of his hand. “Don’t. Nezumi will be back—he promised, didn’t he? Don’t give up.”

     Shion shook his head. “It’s not that I’m giving up. I just can’t help but think... What if something’s happened to him? What if he can’t come back? …What if he doesn’t want to?”

     Safu swallowed the lump in her throat.

     She had hated Nezumi, hated him so much in the beginning. But after the Correctional Facility, he had proven himself not only worthy of Shion’s love, but the only possible recipient of it. She also recognized that Nezumi was nowhere near ready to admit he loved Shion back. It seemed he was even actively denying it.

     He had been too immature for love, and Shion had been too vulnerable at the time for it to be safe. Even if she accepted Shion’s feelings and respected Nezumi’s character, she had supported their separation, if only because it would give both men time to find balance.

     But she couldn’t bear to see Shion looking so broken. She hated Nezumi all over again.

     “Nezumi’s coming back,” she repeated. “If he doesn’t—”

     She clenched her jaw. She couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t return. Not after promising, not after knowing how deeply Shion loved him. His denial could never be that stubborn.

     “If it gets to be too much, Shion, tell me. I’ll find him for you.”

     Shion’s eyes widened. “Find him?”

     “I have resources. I’ll find where he is and drag his ass back here if I have to.”

     “No.” Shion squeezed her hand, hard. “Please, don’t. I don’t want to force him to come back.”

     He let go of her hand and stepped away, and Safu could’ve laughed at how strong the déjà vu was. But she felt more like crying. To believe they were acting out the same scenes, even after all these years.

     “I’m sorry,” Shion said. “I was just being selfish. I thought maybe if I told someone, I’d…” He cleared his throat. Shrugged. “But I’m fine. Really. I—”

     Safu yanked him into a hug. It was just shy of violent, the way he crushed up against her, but she wasn’t sorry. She even hoped it did hurt a little. Why did he always apologize when he was hurting?

     I was wrong. He hasn’t grown up at all. She hugged him tighter.

     Shion stood still for the first second or two, but then he wound his arms around her. He rested his chin atop her head and sighed. “Thanks, Safu.”

     “Don’t ever say you’re selfish again, do you hear me? You’re not being selfish.”

     “Okay.”

     “If you ever feel like that again, call me. You can call me whenever you want. I might not be able to answer right away, but I’ll always call back.”

     “Okay.”

     Safu fisted her hands in his shirt. What did he look like right now? Was he still hurting?

     “Shion?”

     “Mm.”

     “I love you. You know that, right?”

     Shion gave a low, warm chuckle, and squeezed her tighter. “I love you, too.”

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.

Chapter Text

     The crack in the window looked bigger today. Shion eyed it as he hefted fertilizer into the greenhouse, peered at it as he watered the daphne, and finally planted himself in front of the basil and thyme to squint at it up close.

     Shion wasn’t sure exactly where the crack came from, only that it had been there a while. One of the other Forest Park workers told him a rock must have hit the glass during the hurricane they had some years before. But since the damaged wall of the greenhouse couldn’t be seen from the park walkways, they never bothered to replace the pane. Shion was glad they hadn’t fixed the crack.

     Truth be told, he was a little obsessed with it.

     The point of impact was jaggedly circular with seven long, ruler-straight lines pinwheeling out from the center. The crack looked different every day. On good days it looked like a flower or a neuron. On bad days it was just a pane of fractured glass. Today it looked like space. The cloudy March morning warped behind the spider web cracks, making the pasty gray sky and roiling clouds into a brocade of dust mote stars over a fragile crystalline sun.

     The corner of Shion’s mouth quirked up. Today would be a good day. He pushed away from the counter to water the anemones.

     Although anemones weren’t the prettiest flowers, they were among one of Shion’s favorites, along with baby’s breath and camellia. Despite having no particular medicinal use or fragrance, the white, crimson, and blue blossoms had a powerful visual appeal, and as one of the first flowers of spring, they brought with them a sense of vigor and renewal.

     Still, even though he had seasonal favorites, Shion was attached to every plant in the greenhouse. It was impossible not to be. Things were simple with plants; what you gave, they returned indiscriminately. Tending the garden had become one of few daily satisfactions. Here he was at peace, here his hands could do nothing but help.

     “Hey, Shion, what’s this one?”

     Shion jolted and turned to Eiji. The boy had been so quiet he hadn’t even heard him come in. Or maybe he had just been too spaced out to notice. He had grown chronically scatterbrained in recent years, as Safu and Kaoru never failed to point out. Although surprised, he wasn’t surprised to see Eiji. He and Saki came by often after school let out.

     Eiji visited because he was legitimately interested in Shion’s work. He even mentioned once he was thinking about interning with the Forest Park. But Saki, even though she showed curiosity toward the botany lessons Shion shared with them, seemed like she was just tagging along these days. Despite the years and pressures of the city, the siblings remained close. Still, since Saki had turned sixteen, she was starting to spend more time away from her brother, sometimes alone, sometimes with her numerous friends.

     Today, Shion guessed, she was wandering somewhere out of sight with one such friend. He could hear faint conversation near the back behind the flower stand.

     Shion never minded when the kids dropped by—or anyone else for that matter. Even Kaoru made an appearance when they had free time. He enjoyed the company. It got lonely sometimes when he returned home and there was nothing and no one to distract him from his thoughts.

     Eiji poked a cluster of purple flowers, pretending to prick his finger on the end of the spiny-looking calyxes.

     Shion moved towards him. “That’s comfrey.” He pointed to the bell-shaped flowers. “It’s a very versatile plant. It contains a compound called allantoin, which helps your body replace cells, so you can use it to treat arthritis, broken bones, burns, and a number of skin conditions. Even acne.”

     “Weird…” Eiji murmured, his eyes narrowed at the drooping blooms. He leaned closer to the plant, and pushed his glasses up with the heel of his hand when they slipped down his nose. “So, to use the, uh, compound, do you eat them?”

     “No. It’s dangerous to eat comfrey. You use it topically, as a salve. Some plants, though, are all right to eat. Like…” Shion glanced around the greenhouse, and spotted Saki just at the end of the row. “Like that species of chamomile, over by Saki.”

     Saki furrowed her brow. “I thought these were daisies.”

     “Easy mistake. The flowers are very similar, and both are edible.”

     Saki frowned and eyed the small white and yellow flowers with an air of betrayal. “Weird…”

     “What about these, Mr. Shion?” piped Saki’s friend, a stout girl with wavy brown hair and freckles.

     Her name was either Rumi or Ruki; she was a twin, and Shion could never remember who was who, despite being told multiple times. He felt he should feel bad about his inability to remember, but mostly he just avoided calling either of them by name.

     Shion fixed the girl with a polite smile and glanced at the flowers she pointed to. He smiled for real. “Those are asters.”

     The girl beamed back. “Like you?”

     “Like me,” Shion confirmed. “They were my mother’s favorite.”

     “They’re beautiful.” She rubbed the petals between her thumb and forefinger, and glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “I can see why she named you after them.”

     Saki scoffed loudly. “That was painful, Rumi.”

     Rumi glared at her friend. “What?”

     Saki shook her head and joined her brother near the comfrey. Rumi’s ears pinkened, but she said nothing and flounced away from the asters.

     Shion cleared his throat. “Asters are a powerful nervine. You can use them to treat pain, nervousness, and hysteria.”

     He held the light smile on his face until he turned back around to fiddle with whatever plant was behind him. After that he wasn’t sure what face he wore.

     Shion sighed, quietly, and his energy slipped out with the exhale. He no longer felt like entertaining guests. He wanted to be alone with the hush of flowers or curled on the couch with a book. But he commanded himself to bear it and appear at least amicable while the kids were here.

     I’m alive, he reminded himself. I’m alive and I’m safe and I’m healthy. That’s more than enough. That’s more than some people have. He drew in a fortifying breath.

     “Shion?”

     He turned to see Saki standing at his elbow, and Eiji not far behind.

     And I’ve got to stop spacing out, or I’m going to give myself a heart attack one of these days.

     Saki stared at him a moment before she said, “We’re gonna head out.”

     “Oh.” Shion’s stomach swooped in relief. “Are you sure? You’re welcome to stay...”

     “No, that’s okay. Rumi and I are going shopping.”

     Rumi had still been scowling a few feet away, but she perked up when she heard that.

     “And Eiji needs to write a seven page report. Due tomorrow. That he hasn’t even started on.”

     Saki’s face was nonjudgmental, her voice neutral, but Eiji flinched as though he’d been struck. His cheeks flushed red beneath the rims of his glasses.

     Shion gave the pair a genuine half-smile. “I see. Well, thank you for stopping by. It was nice to see you.”

     Eiji ducked his head and promised to come again soon. The group filed out, and Shion was once again left to the silence and scents of the greenhouse.

     And now he couldn’t tell if he was grateful or disappointed. Shion raked a hand through his hair and sighed. His mood swings were an enigma he’d stopped trying to understand.

     He grabbed the watering can from the counter and paced the circumference of the room, checking that all the plants were properly tended to. The sun had poked its head out from behind the clouds, and as he approached the counter, the crack morphed again into a dewy spider web.

     Halfway through the watering the herbs, Shion heard an excited shout. It sounded a bit like Eiji, but it could have been any one of the children outside. He could see them through the glass, playing in the park, laughing and hollering to one another as they ducked behind shrubs and chased each other around the fountain.

     He remembered the hours he and Safu spent as kids weaving through the rubble around the hotel. It seemed eons ago.

     Shion pressed his mouth into a line. And now, at the age of twenty, I’ve already turned into an old man... He chuckled drily to himself and tipped the watering can over the basil.

     “With a name like ‘Shion,’ I guess I should have seen this coming.”

     Shion’s mind blanked.

     That voice.

     He heard it all the time—in his thoughts, his dreams, in every walking hour he was left alone. But he had always known it wasn’t real. He knew now for sure that that voice had never been real, because this time, it was so clear and close Shion realized the voice in his memory had been all wrong. Its timbre was richer, the cadence smoother.

     God, that voice.

     Water started to dribble over the side of the pot he was watering. He could see it, cascading in rivulets down the ceramic, drops hitting the floor with a thump thump thump. Shion’s heart pounded in his chest, and each beat had his blood singing with feelings and hopes he hadn’t dared bring out in the light of day.

     He eased the watering can to the table, and turned.

     A flush of heat raced down his body when their eyes met. It had been so long since he’d been pinned by a look so sharp and dazzling and teasing, and so right Shion couldn’t feel his legs beneath him.

     Shion’s gaze wandered—from his tanned skin, to his pale feathery hair, to the coy smile—but he couldn’t concentrate on any of it for more than a few seconds. He kept returning to his eyes.

     Everything he had stored in the hollow between this second and the last were in those eyes. They were moonlit nights. They were hurricanes and butterflies, and tears folded into the pillowcase. They were snowstorms and Shakespeare and curling cold in the sheets.

     “Shion?”

      The sound of his name on those lips was enough to make Shion’s breath hitch, and the smile it was coupled with knew everything it was doing to him.

     It was that—the playful insolence—that convinced him the moment was real.

     An answering smile curled Shion’s lips.

     “Welcome home.”