Tsukiyo died long past his expiration date. Karan cried, and Shion blinked a couple of times. Karan wanted to bury the rat outside the shop. Shion refused, and he took the tiny corpse with him outside the city, wrapped up in a cloth in his coat pocket. He buried him in the hard ground beside the underground room, scratching up earth with hands, nails, and a kitchen spoon. After patting the dirt back over the little grave, Shion sat on the bunker’s stairs in the shade, and he took a deep, slow breath.
Hamlet and Cravat had to be dead by then, too. Shion didn’t suppose Nezumi was sentimental enough to dig graves for them, though; he had probably eaten them right after singing for them, if he hadn’t died first in the harsh, hateful badlands. It occurred to Shion that Safu hadn’t been given a grave, either.
Shion pressed his teeth together and locked his hands. Nezumi was a survivor if he had ever met one, but he was also the freest spirit the earth could produce. His business with No. 6 was done. Alive or not, he was not coming back.
In four years, Shion had settled into a new home and garnered up enough responsibilities to forget about washing dogs with his friend or helping his mother make cherry cake. It was progress for someone, even if it was lonely, and Shion had to stay with it. He had learned new things that Nezumi couldn’t have taught him, had met new people that Nezumi would have kept him from, and, most importantly, had done things that Nezumi would have hated, and had done so without remorse or fear of reprimand.
Nezumi’s name kept an ache in Shion’s chest. He still carried the syllables like a stillborn. Without knowing if the man even still lived or if he had died years ago, there was little Shion could do to grieve. His memories of him scattered, and the pain associated started to wash out of his skin. Nezumi had been instrumental in his life. He had come into his room and changed everything, made himself important, burned briefly and so, so brightly, and then he had vanished. He’d had his exits and his entrances, played his many parts, and shuffled off into purgatory, leaving Tsukiyo to die without his master.
“The winds sweep away souls,” Shion mumbled. The stair steps pressed against his skeleton and left sand on his pants. “People steal away hearts.”
Tsukiyo lay in the ground behind him, and Shion coughed the dust from his throat and glanced back at the disturbed earth.
He stood, dusted himself off, and walked back home.
Home was different from where he had grown up. The new Chronos had undergone renovations, turning a few of the old buildings into complexes or apartments, or fixing annexes to make dormitories or school rooms. Shion’s home was a second floor apartment with a new kitchen and refurbished communication system. It was clean, comfortable, and removed, even considering the downstairs office and that the other apartments belonged to more of his coworkers. It was dark by the time he returned, even though he neglected to report back to the bakery. Finding the door unlocked still startled him, but he took a deep breath of Chronos’ clean garden air, the scents of flowers, sandpaper and construction, and fresh paint, and he pushed the door open with a smile.
“I let myself in,” Torey crowed from the dining table. He looked like he had been waiting in position for one dramatic moment, only opening a bottle of wine once Shion appeared in the doorway. The loud pop stuck to the walls of the small place, and Shion chuckled in surprise.
“You gave me a key. I used it.” Torey grinned and set the wine down to let it breathe. “We’ve been working hard. You’ve been working hard. I wanted to celebrate the education bill. Where have you been all afternoon?”
Shion shrugged, moving out of his coat and setting it on a hook by the door. “West Block. I guess I missed it.”
“Yeah, well, we missed you over here,” Torey started, his smile beginning to falter. “What happened to your hands? Did you get in a fight?”
Shaking his head, Shion went to the sink to wash the dirt off of his scraped fingers, and to put away the dirty spoon from his pocket into the drying rack. “No. It’s nothing, Torey. I’m glad you’re here.” Tsukiyo hadn’t belonged to Torey, and Shion doubted that his friend would understand. Torey was too much a politician.
“Me too. Oh, and your window was already open. I just left it like that, since I assume you want wild animals to come in and steal your things.”
“It’s a nice night.” Shion laughed it off and changed the subject. “We weren’t the only people working on education reform. Did you invite anyone else?”
“No.” Torey’s smile came with some humility that time. The expression was even cute, Shion thought; Torey had the right kind of jawline, and his blonde hair was cut straight to reach his shoulders, half of it usually pulled back in some kind of careless tail. His features weren’t as delicate, and his sense of humor wasn’t as caustic, but his blue eyes were almost greyish and pale enough. “I wanted to celebrate with you. I mean, this bill was your baby, emphasizing pre-Babylon Convention history in the school curriculums, after the original No. 6 dumbed it down and restricted so much. You were really excited about the art and literature bit, so…”
Torey reached down to something hidden under the table, and Shion frowned. His heartbeat only spiked when Torey presented a small, neatly wrapped package to him.
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” Shion stammered, so Torey grinned and stepped forward.
“I wanted to. Please, can you just accept a gift?”
Fighting a blush and admitting a laugh, Shion took the package and coaxed the tape open, unfolding the paper. When he held a book in his hands, he stared at the cover and bit his lip.
“ Leaves of Grass , by Walt Whitman?” he breathed.
Torey shrugged and smiled, like it was nothing. “He was from way west, but he wasn’t bad.” Not bad? Shion skimmed the first pages, unable to smile without raising heat to his eyes. In the quiet, Torey swallowed. “I had it sent in from No. 2. Do you like it?”
“It’s perfect,” Shion mumbled. It wasn’t Shakespearian by any stretch, the ideas too immediate and the language too simple and direct, but it was real. These were thoughts a man had put down over the course of his life. “Are you the new person drawn toward me?”
“Huh?” Torey’s posture straightened.
“It’s… The poem,” Shion hurried to explain. He had skipped ahead and stopped on a page that caught his eye, the preceding poem of more morbid interest to him. “To begin with, take warning; I am surely far different from what you suppose,” he recited.
Torey lifted an eyebrow and smiled. “So you like it.” He took another step forward, and Shion held the book of poetry closer to his chest. “What if I am ‘drawn to you’?”
The young men had spent four years together rebuilding the city. Torey was only a couple of years older than him, and he had made no secret of his admiration, even if he kept it respectful. Shion’s lungs shrank in his ribs, but he mumbled the next lines. “Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal? Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?”
“Not easy,” Torey replied to Whitman, and he stopped barely a foot from Shion. When the younger man kept his eyes on the pages, Torey brushed his fingertips up Shion’s hand. “Worthwhile.”
Shion refused to start shaking, but his veins had been shot through with chills. This wasn’t excitement so much as nausea. “Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?” he whispered. “Do you think I am trusty and faithful?”
“Yes, I do,” Torey answered softly. He brought up a hand, cupping Shion’s jaw in his fingers. Someone more theatrical would have taken just his chin.
Shion pinched his eyes shut and forced his breathing to steady, even when Torey guided the book out of his hands.
“Do you see no further than this façade,” he choked, looking up into the wrong color of Torey’s eyes, “this smooth and tolerant manner of me?”
“What, did you memorize it already?” Torey chuckled, leaving the book on the table. When Shion’s brow twitched inward and he gave no reply, Torey frowned. “Wait, had you read it before?”
Shion bit his tongue and bore forward. “Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?” he finished flatly. “Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?”
Torey’s face was a cold, stoic wall. Then, he broke into a smile. “I love when you surprise me.”
Shion didn’t even want to smile back at him. Preoccupied with the turning in his stomach, he glanced away. Even when Torey leaned in and kissed him, Shion didn’t look away from the book on the table. He gave a half-hearted, token pucker of his lips and put a hand on Torey’s chest, signaling him to stop.
Torey stood up straight and bit his cheek. “What’s wrong?”
“I just…can’t,” Shion tried to explain. “Not tonight. Not right now.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Torey pressed, frowning.
“No! No, you were fine,” Shion assured him, adding to the awkward, softly scrambling conversation. “I love the book. This was really thoughtful. Today’s just a bad day.”
After Torey had brought over wine and poetry? It didn’t have to be a bad day, Torey’s sulking face wrote out. Nevertheless, the politician pulled away and folded his arms. A similar situation by a waterway four years ago came to mind, and Shion almost burst into tearful laughter.
“I guess I should go, then?” Torey stated.
“That… I’m sorry,” Shion mumbled. “There’s a lot on my mind.”
“It’s alright, Shion. Don’t make excuses.” Torey put on a smile and his coat. “Just let me know when you’re feeling better, alright? I don’t want to pressure you.”
Liar. Shion smiled back and hugged himself. “Okay. Do you want me to walk you back?”
“I’m literally just upstairs, Shion,” Torey laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay. Thank you so much, Torey.”
After saying their goodnights, after Shion heard Torey’s footsteps head back upstairs outside his room, Shion locked the door. Idiot, having given him a key. Yes, he liked Torey. Yes, he knew the man was likely to stay in the city, with him, with a future. He had known him for four years, more than eight times as long as he had spent with…someone else, but that was just it. Torey had been with him eight times as long and hadn’t left a tenth of the impression. No matter how badly he wanted to move on, Shion couldn’t fairly be with someone else while he was still leaving the window open at night.
“What, no goodnight kiss?” the window asked.
Shion’s hand clenched on the doorknob while he remembered how to breathe.
The world stopped to reassert itself; reality stooped down to pick up its pieces, apologizing and embarrassed.
It had been bad enough when he had recognized him the first time, in the middle of nowhere, laying siege to a Public Security Bureau car. Then, with his voice coming directly from his open window, Shion was too afraid to move. If he wasn’t really there, if Shion was just imagining it, he could at least stay frozen at the door, with his eyes shut, and pretend for a minute longer.
The voice came again, a derisive snort, more concrete and clear in Shion’s ears. “I’m so terribly sorry. I didn’t interrupt anything, did I? I just heard there was a Whitman reading.”
“You were watching?” Shion snapped out. In hindsight, those were not the words he wanted to use to welcome Nezumi back. Gripping the locked doorknob, he listened to a pair of boots crest his floor and the weighted tap of his window sliding shut.
“Oh, right. I wasn’t supposed to know about him,” Nezumi growled back. “I was going to leave if you two started going at it. I’m not a voyeur.”
“Well, thank God that you almost left again .”
Nezumi fell quiet, and Shion managed to regain feeling in his feet. He turned, his back against the door, and watched the man explore his dining room.
His clothes had needed replacing, though the scarf stayed. His hair had strayed longer, with the messy bun behind his head a little fuller than before. His face and hands had been tanned under the sun, and his cheekbones seemed a degree sharper, more adult. His shoulders were broader, and he looked more muscular and better fed, though he sacrificed none of his dancer-like grace. This was him. This was his voice, just a touch deeper and rougher. Those were his eyes, more irritable than before. This was his dark, confident presence. Nezumi picked up the bottle of wine Torey had left on the table, tasted it, and grimaced.
“Young enough to be grape juice,” he mumbled. He set the bottle back down and looked across the room to Shion. “I did like your reading, though. Comically appropriate. That wasn’t the first time you two kissed, was it?”
“What about it?” Shion growled. “Was I supposed to wait here, alone, on the off-chance you got bored enough to come wandering back and visit for a few weeks?”
“I told you I would come back.”
“When? ‘Reunion will come’? In a year, when we’re eighty, when we’re both dead? And even if you came back, were you going to stay, or would you just leave me again?” Both of their voices had risen, and the tears Shion had been holding in all day made themselves known. He bristled when Nezumi started toward him. “You can’t just put me on hold for when you decide you want me.”
“So why didn’t you kiss pretty boy back?” Nezumi scoffed. His hands closed around Shion’s biceps, holding him against the door. It was a casual power he wielded, firm and cold, and Shion held off on fighting back. Instead, he leaned back against the door willingly and looked Nezumi in the face.
“Because I couldn’t stop thinking about whether you were alive or dead.”
His pride wanted him to stay angry, but he had to stare. That was the beautiful, smooth jaw, the sharp nose, the dark-framed, silvery eyes. Shion took some pleasure in watching the turmoil there, waiting for Nezumi to decide how to respond. The pale grey eyes flickered down, resting on Shion’s mouth for a second.
“When I heard at the close of the day,” Nezumi muttered, and Shion picked up quickly. If tonight was Whitman, they would make it Whitman.
“…how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d.”
“And else,” Nezumi whispered, his voice growing hoarse, “when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy. But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn.”
“When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light.”
“When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing, bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise.”
Shion was crying in earnest, shudders running through him and some of his words dulled by salt, but he continued. He could not say how many times he had sat alone in the underground room, reading this exact poem and holding himself, rocking back and forth until it didn’t hurt quite so bad.
“And when I thought how my dear friend,” Shion recited, a soft, embarrassed laugh in his weeping, “my lover, was on his way coming, O then I was happy.”
“O then each breath tasted sweeter,” Nezumi crooned. His hands loosened on Shion’s arms, and they dragged up his shirt to brush tears off of his neck. The calluses on his fingertips drew a shiver out of him. “And all that day my food nourish’d me more – and the beautiful day pass’d well.”
“And the next came with equal joy,” Shion tried to enunciate, but he had to hold onto Nezumi’s sleeves. “And with the next, at evening, came my friend.”
“And that night,” Nezumi whispered, caressing the skin under Shion’s eyes, “while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores. I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me.”
“For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night.” Shion’s fingers dug into the worn leather of Nezumi’s jacket.
“In the stillness,” Nezumi breathed, “in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me.” His thumb traced under Shion’s lip, and his index finger hooked under his chin. “And his arm lay lightly around my breast.”
“And that night I was happy.”
The recitation was over. Nothing so mentally effortless for Shion should have been so emotionally exhausting. He had never hated Whitman so much.
The corners of Shion’s lips curled up. His arms wrapped themselves around Nezumi’s shoulders, and he heard a soft catch in his breath. Nezumi swallowed, and he took the smallest step forward, pressing their bodies together against the door. His lips looked chapped, and Shion wanted his teeth on them.
“You have to stay,” he told Nezumi, a thick whisper.
Those words broke the spell. Nezumi blinked, a shutter of fear in his eyes, and he released him, stepping back again. The same fear bubbled up in Shion’s marrow, and he reached for Nezumi to keep him from slipping away.
“Please. Please, don’t leave me again.”
Nezumi’s vulnerable posture hardened, and he crossed his arms. “What about Terry?” Shion didn’t bother to correct him. He got the feeling that Nezumi had missed the name on purpose. “I didn’t come here to steal you away, Shion. I’m not here for kisses.”
“Then what was-?” Aghast, Shion glared at Nezumi and reached for his leather sleeve. Nezumi flinched further away. “After that, you’re going to ruin this?”
“If a guy brings you bad wine and the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass and you turn him down, I can ruin this,” Nezumi snorted. “I came here to warn you, in any case. Not to break up your happy relationship.”
Warn him? Shion attacked the subject that mattered the most. “It’s not a relationship. He’s kissed me a few times, but we’ve never…”
“Been on a date?” Nezumi offered dryly.
“No,” Shion agreed, mumbling.
“So you’re leading him on. I’m not going to get in the way of something so special.” Nezumi flicked his wrist, and he went back to the table for the bad wine. “Did that part about warning you alarm you at all, or are you still that much of an airhead?”
“I deal with crises every day at work. I’m not used to seeing you.”
“So, your first priority is to tie me up here, instead of taking care of your shiny new city? I can’t say that’s admirable, Shion.” Nezumi didn’t even hint at a smile, leaning against the table and drinking straight from the bottle.
Shion scoffed through his nose, and he fixed a lock of hair that Nezumi had put out of place and wiped some of the burning tears off of his cheeks. What had he told him? That the world meant nothing without him? Shion had thought he’d made that clear.
“Fine, O alarming one. If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid, O speak.”
“Nice delivery, Horatio.” Nezumi chewed on a sigh and finally took a seat. “I met someone a few months ago. Not the same ‘met someone’ as you did, though. This guy was older, too crazy even for my taste. He found me in an oasis and started asking me questions about where I came from, if I knew about No. 6, if I knew the person in charge. Oh, stop looking at me with those cow eyes. I’m trying to tell you something important.”
Shion clenched his jaw and fixed his eyes on the tile floor. “I’m listening.”
“Anyway.” Nezumi leaned his elbows on his knees while he spoke, lacking the usual dramatic flourish. “He let me in on a little secret. He used to be a geologist here. I don’t know if he’s just crazy or not, but he had a small piece of gold, and he told me he got it from under the city. He claimed that there was a huge amount of it, ready to be mined, and that he thought there were other metals nearby, too. The rare stuff. Zirconium, indium, something like that.
“At first, I wrote him off as just some lunatic who was going to end up killing himself in a mine collapse. But…” Nezumi frowned at his hands and worked his tongue in his mouth, avoiding certain words and emphasizing others. “When I got back here, I had to go check the place he’d specified, close to where you let the cave refugees settle to the north. Had a hell of a time avoiding them, by the way. But I found where someone had been digging, following an old cliff-side. I didn’t find anyone there, but the digging was all recent, no sign of accidents. I think he had a few people in on the job, and they found what they were looking for.”
Shion caught a rock that Nezumi tossed to him. It didn’t shine brightly, dirty and unprocessed as it was, but it was gold. He thumbed over it, blinking.
“So a crazy old man comes to dig up gold under the Land of Mao, so you travel all the way back here?” Shion sorted through that.
“It wasn’t just…” Nezumi hissed through his teeth and sat up straight. “It was his intention, alright? He went off talking about how power stems from wealth, and how he wanted to kick No. 6 back down. He had a resource, so he wanted to use it and play with the holy city, now that the chaos gave him an opportunity.”
“How long ago was this? You just got here, but he’s already made progress digging a mine.”
“Four or five months. He took a horse, okay? I wasn’t sure I should even come back, but I got here as fast as I could. I’m not as fast as a horse, Shion.”
“Don’t be so defensive,” Shion snorted. “When did you arrive?”
Nezumi held his expression, but chewed his cheek. “A week ago,” he admitted with a cold shrug. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just shouting conspiracy theories before I told you this stuff.”
“Where were you even staying?” Shion frowned against the lump in his throat. “Did you see Mom, or Inukashi? Does anyone else know you’re back?”
“One question at a time, moron. No, no one else knows I’m here.” Nezumi took a deep breath and another sip of wine, grimacing. “I went back ho-- hideout. I went back to the room. I’m surprised it’s still intact. Getting moldy, though. You should really air it out, if you keep visiting.”
“You saw me earlier today,” Shion realized numbly, and Nezumi nodded.
“You didn’t finish singing.” He turned the bottle in his hands, watching the light play off the rim. “Was that Tsukiyo, in the hole you so foolishly dug with your hands?” Shion nodded. “Yeah, well. The other two kicked it a long time before he did. Good for him.”
“You missed him by a few hours,” Shion mumbled. “If you had just knocked on the door…”
“What, you’re mad at me for not visiting the rat you named? Were you there when he died?”
Karan had called him that morning to tell him that Tsukiyo had passed away in his sleep. Shion had stopped by to pay respects and pick him up for the burial service. Shion’s face said as much, and Nezumi responded with a derisive huff.
“Hypocrite. Now, are you going to scold me for not coming to a rat’s funeral, or are you going to focus on why I’m actually here?”
“Even though you’re being a bastard?” Shion grumbled. “So, the deranged geologist. Aside from trespassing and taking advantage of our current lack of mining regulations, I don’t understand why you ran all this way to warn me. You’re even late for that, considering he’s already started digging.”
“I was worried. And if he has other people working on this with him, since it isn’t exactly a one-man job, we don’t know who else might know about it,” Nezumi defended more softly. “He could damage the land that’s already been scarred so badly, get people killed in the tunnels, maybe even buy out a few of your coworkers with the new resource. It looks like he took a lot of gold, Shion. That by itself is going to unsettle the market, especially if he’s buying support from the other cities.”
“I appreciate you telling me,” Shion said coldly, still wiping tears off of his lashes, “but this all seems too petty to interest you. I thought you didn’t care about politics.”
“Oh, I care plenty about politics,” Nezumi snorted. “Sorry if I was worried about you, your Highness.” The thought of Nezumi being concerned about him created a thrill in Shion’s chest, which he smothered quickly.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Shion stated, each syllable clean and careful like in a speech, “and I can’t imagine you care about the people of the city. But I’ll look into it. Even if we can’t punish someone for unregulated mining, since we haven’t written the laws yet, the Land of Mao is a protected settlement. I’m sure I can find some small-print to charge our crazed geologist with something.”
He would not feel overwhelmed in his own home. Shion drew a deep, slow breath and strode into his kitchen to pour himself a glass of water.
“Are you going back to the room tonight?” he asked, toneless. “It’s a long walk, and it’s already late.”
Nezumi replied with a sour smile. “I can’t tell if you’re kicking me out or offering to let me stay.”
“I can’t, either,” Shion admitted quietly.
“Tony’s not coming back tonight, is he?”
“I don’t think so.”
Nezumi considered his words, drawing on a flat expression. “Then he wouldn’t mind if I sleep on the couch, right? I don’t think I can sleep in that musty old room one more time.”
The mustiness was just fine when it was the two of them. Shion swallowed another ache and nodded. “Go ahead.”
With a gracious smile that belonged in the theater, Nezumi had the gall to step forward and trace his fingers down the back of Shion’s hand where he held his glass of water. “Thank you, kind host. To avoid dirtying your furniture, would it please you if I took a shower first?”
“Go. Ahead,” Shion repeated through his teeth.
Nezumi dropped the attempted playfulness, and he turned away and disappeared into the bathroom. Shion stood still in the kitchen with one hip pressed against the counter, and he sipped at his water to try and keep his stomach from raging.
They spent the night in separate rooms. Shion locked his bedroom door, but he fell asleep facing the window.