The remaining orange dusk light illuminated small white flakes of snow drifting down from the sky. The evening air was cold, the kind of cold that reminded Shion of being hungry, weak, and dirty. A kind of cold that he missed.
Shion had tried his hardest. He had done everything he could to make the reconstruction process of No 6 go as smoothly as possible. But no matter his efforts, people were never satisfied. Complaints and delays piled up on his desk, adding to the mountains of work he had scheduled for each day but could never finish. Every plan he made had come with problems that were almost never solved on time. With each passing week, his unfinished work became more and more insurmountable until he felt completely swamped.
He missed Nezumi. If only Nezumi had stayed with him, he wouldn’t have felt so miserable. He wouldn’t have despaired over all the setbacks, all the conflicts, all the failure. He wouldn’t have ordered a crackdown on the West Block protesters who demanded justice be returned onto the citizens of No 6 when the massive pile of corpses was discovered beneath the Correctional Facility. It had never occurred to him that a display of force to quell the protesters’ desire for vengeance would only make things worse. When the reports about the crackdown flooded in, he realized he had made a terrible mistake and resigned from the Restructural Committee.
Without saying any more than a casual goodbye to his coworkers and to his mother, he left No 6 for the ruins beyond the West Block where, almost a year ago, he had been living with Nezumi.
The cold air outside the city brought back warm memories of the days he spent living in their underground room. It reminded him of what it felt like to go to bed hungry, to have no money, to live day by day without worrying about the future. Those memories brought a tear to his eye when he entered the door and saw that everything was still there. The bookshelves, the couch, the piano. Everything had been just like it was on the day he left that room, as if taken out of a still frame in his mind. The only thing that was missing was a certain rat.
While skimming through all his favourite books, enacting the best lines out loud – that was something Nezumi always did better – he heard footsteps walking on the ground above the room. That was strange. Nobody lived here anymore, not after the wall came down.
A flash of Nezumi’s smile burned in his mind. It couldn’t be.
He dashed out of the room and looked around outside, but nobody was there. Only quiet snow. His heart sank.
The wind blew, an icy wind that cut the exposed skin on his face, but it was nothing compared to the pain of his loneliness. He tried hard to look for a figure in the looming darkness. The sun had almost set, leaving behind a dark grey sky that shed flakes of snow like icy blue tears. But he couldn’t find anybody – not even a shadow. The outskirts of the West Block were barren of life.
He was almost about to give up when he saw something on the edge of his vision, just before the wind-swept snow smoothed them over. Footprints.
The shape of those boots were unmistakable.
Heart pounding, Shion chased the trail, not caring where it led or how dark the night was going to get without a lantern. He had to find him. The chance of reunion was the only thing that kept him going, and he wasn’t about to miss his only opportunity. It was the only lead he had found in months. In the past year, despite all the people he had sent out in search of Nezumi, not a trace of him had been found.
The snow fell heavier. Large icy flakes brushed against his face. Cold little pinpricks. Wind sliced his skin like knives, but his heart burned. The only thing on his mind was the person at the end of this trail.
He found the path the footsteps took to be familiar. Excitement rushed through him as recognition dawned over his face. He knew the place that they were leading him toward.
It was the old playground.
A tall, slim figure appeared ahead. His heart jumped. He thought it would burst out of his chest, but he didn’t care if that happened, either. The only thing that mattered was the person that stood at the end of the trail. The person at the centre of the playground.
Slowly, the figure turned around.
Those features were unmistakable. The long black hair – the dark blue scarf – those piercing grey eyes. At that moment, everything around them came to a stop. The snowflakes froze in midair. The world became still. Only the light in those grey eyes remained, a pair of shimmering jewels brighter than any starlight. They illuminated a path through the darkness. His legs began walking that path on impulse, steered by an unquenchable heart.
Shion couldn’t believe the voice he was hearing. It was him. There was no mistaking it, no other person who could be standing in front of him.
“Nezumi!” Shion sprinted towards him, arms outstretched, but Nezumi didn’t look like he was going to return a full embrace. “It really is you!”
“It’s been some time, hasn’t it?” Nezumi replied, standing stoically.
Shion came to a stop in front of him. “Nezumi. I’ve missed you so much. You were gone for so long, and I couldn’t find a trace of you, which was why I came out here today to search–“
Before he could finish his sentence, Nezumi turned away, the edges of his lips curving into a sly smile. Nezumi ran towards the slide in the playground and climbed on top of it. Shion could only watch him leave, mesmerized by his graceful movement.
“Surprised to see me?” Nezumi said, stretching out his arms. “I knew you’d come looking for me around our old room.”
“Why didn’t you come down to see me?”
“I wasn’t sure if it was you or someone else rummaging through our old belongings – maybe trying to find some food. That’s why I left a trail for you. I knew you’d follow my footsteps if you saw them.”
“Of course I would! Nezumi, I’ve missed you for so long!”
Nezumi turned his head towards the sky and gave out a short laugh. His eyes gleamed, but there was no longer much aggression or anger behind them. Those eyes had become softer.
“Shion. I’m sorry I didn’t return sooner. I didn’t know if I was ready or not.”
“What were you doing this whole time?”
“Travelling the world, seeing new things. I’ve met quite a number of interesting people on my journey.” Something flashed behind his eyes. “Felt it was time to return when it got colder. As much as I enjoy living close to nature, the city is just much more livable during the winter, where there’s heat and other people.”
“I’m really glad you came back.”
“What have you been doing in the past year?”
“I’ll tell you, but can you come down from the slide first? What’s the point of standing up there?”
The smile on Nezumi’s lips grew, but remained small. He hopped down from the top of the slide, but to Shion’s disappointment, walked towards the swings instead. Feeling a little miffed, though still elated to see Nezumi again, Shion ran towards the swings and sat in the one beside Nezumi’s. He kicked the snow-covered ground with his shoe to push himself off the ground.
“I was on the Restructural Committee,” Shion began heavily. “We were rebuilding the city to create the utopia we once envisioned before everything fell apart.”
Nezumi’s expression grew distant.
“It was hard work, but I enjoyed it.” Shion swallowed, hoping that he could believe his own words. “I came up with all kinds of interesting plans. First, removal of the city’s surveillance system, so that citizens were no longer monitored all the time. Then, an overhaul of the school curriculum, emphasizing literature, and getting rid of classes that were segregated by intelligence. Also, I made plans to reintegrate the discriminated population of the West Block into the city. Fundamental to the process was the development of infrastructure in the West Block to allow people access to clean food, water, heating, sewage treatment…”
Shion dipped his head. He couldn’t shake away his failures, not even with Nezumi by his side. “My plans had seemed so perfect in my head, but I ran into problems when we began implementing them.”
“Did you encounter any resistance?”
“There were dissidents – those who were still loyal to the old regime. My subordinates on the Restructural Committee suggested to jail them, but I thought that was too harsh. I decided instead to set up programs to educate them about the crimes of the old regime…”
“So, in essence, you sent them to reeducation.”
“It wasn’t reeducation! We called it rehabilitation.” From the way Nezumi was looking at him, Shion felt he was being seen right through. Those eyes bore through his barrier of pretty words and dug down deep into him, exposing his failures. “The problem was, some of them were so devoted to their research, they couldn’t see any possible path but to continue experimenting. We couldn’t allow them to harm any more people, so I put the most unrepentant ones in jail because they were a threat to society.”
“Shion. Are you sure you weren’t abusing your own powers?”
“There was no other way. Even after I exposed the crimes of the old regime – the hell that was beneath the Correctional Facility – some of them still couldn’t feel any empathy for their victims. To make things worse, the people in the West Block started to riot when they discovered what was happening at the Correctional Facility. They wouldn’t listen when I told them that the regime had changed, that things would be different now. They took up arms and started attacking peaceful civilians!”
Nezumi’s smile turned wry. Shion missed even that sneering expression, but he felt his heart being pierced open by the growing contempt that smile bequeathed onto him.
“You understand the real world now,” Nezumi said. “I knew things weren’t going to become perfect just because the walls went down. The people in the West Block have been dehumanized by No 6 for years. They’ll definitely seek justice, no matter how you spin your story.”
“But they didn’t have to attack innocent people who never did anything wrong.”
“Those people aren’t innocent in their eyes. While children froze to death on the streets of the West Block, the people inside No 6 feasted on Christmas turkey and chocolate cake. They were oblivious to the suffering that city caused to its surroundings, and they did nothing to stop it. That makes them as bad as the scientists in the Correctional Facility performing their heinous experiments.”
“Shion. You realize now that things are never as simple as they seem.”
With eyes gazing into the distance, Nezumi stepped off from the swings and climbed on top of the green jungle gym.
Shion lowered his head further. His fingers felt as cold as ice from clinging onto the swing chains.
He didn’t know if he could admit to Nezumi the true extent of his failures. If he told Nezumi what he had done, would Nezumi even care about him anymore?
What he did had been a grave mistake, and to show his remorse, he had resigned from his post on the Restructural Committee. But that didn’t excuse the fact that people had been hurt and even killed as a result of his actions. In truth, he was no better than the old regime of No 6. He had acted too quickly, too cruelly, in pursuit of the utopian city he dreamed of building. He was as bad as any of the old rulers. No, he was worse. He was a monster and he couldn’t even see it.
If he told Nezumi the truth, he knew Nezumi would never forgive him. But there was no way around it. He couldn’t keep running from his crimes forever.
Whatever punishment Nezumi would inflict upon him, he deserved it. He had to tell Nezumi what he did and accept judgment from the one he loved most.
“I ordered them to stop the rioters in the West Block,” Shion said quietly. “I should never have done that. I didn’t know what kind of force the police would employ, but I never expected them to…shoot people.” Tears fell from his eyes. “Nezumi. I’m as bad as the old No 6.”
He lowered his face, waiting for the blow to come. If it ended his life, he would gladly accept it. He deserved to be killed by Nezumi for what he had done.
Seconds passed, which then turned into minutes. But the blow never came.
Slowly, Shion opened his eyes and looked up nervously.
Those grey eyes were full of wrath. Their anger could have melted the snow, cut him deeper than any knife, pierce him with more force than a bullet. Even so, they weren’t uncompassionate. Behind those eyes, there was a feeling like understanding, perhaps even forgiveness. No, he couldn’t presume that so hastily. He didn’t even forgive himself.
“You messed up,” Nezumi spoke up at last.
“I know you’ll never forgive me,” Shion said. “What I did was completely wrong, and apologizing can’t bring back the people who died on my hands. So I quit my position on the Restructural Committee. That’s why I’m here now. I guess, what I’m putting myself through is self-imposed exile.”
Shion looked back up. “Huh?”
“You couldn’t deal with the fact that what you had tried to do out of good intentions ended up with a far worse outcome. It’s exactly the same pitfall the old rulers of No 6 had fallen into.”
“I know. That’s why I’m as bad as them. If you want to kill me as punishment for what I’ve done, I’ll accept it.”
The playground was silent except for the sound of the howling wind. Snow sifted up from the ground and blew over Shion’s shoes, covering them in white dust.
He waited for his punishment.
“You realized the error of your ways, but then you did the worst possible thing,” Nezumi spoke up. “You left. At a time when you were still in a position of power – when you still had the authority to shape the future – you gave up, too burdened by the guilt of your crimes to face the people whose lives you’ve destroyed.” Nezumi stood up, his eyes growing furious. “I won’t forgive you now for what you’ve done. But if the city goes back to what it was before because you left, I will never forgive you.”
Shion’s eyes grew wide. He hopped off from his swing and walked towards Nezumi. “Are you saying…?”
“While you still have the influence, go back to the Restructural Committee and persuade them to change the way they’ve been doing things. Even though you set them on that path, you have to make sure they turn around instead of taking a further step down.”
“You’re right.” Shion didn’t need any further convincing, knowing full well what could happen if he didn’t interfere. “I’ll return there and tell them what they have to do. But it might be difficult, since I resigned.”
“That was your fault. If your immediate reaction to failure is to quit, you’ll never achieve anything substantial.”
“I know. At least, I have to try my best to make things right.”
Shion loved the way Nezumi could always show him the right thing to do. It wasn’t always like that. It used to be that Nezumi thought about everything in black and white, never considering a third option, and it was he who had to show Nezumi a different path. But, ever since their ordeal in the Correctional Facility, the two of them had grown and changed. Nezumi had learned to open his mind to all the possibilities that lay in front of him, and his heart to others. Of course, he still retained his cold exterior. As for Shion, he had learned about the real world, how ugly it was, how necessary it was to make sacrifices in order to accomplish his goals.
In many ways, he was still the foolish boy that had opened the window six years ago on that stormy and fateful night.
“What are you going to do, Nezumi?” Shion asked, reaching his hand out. “Are you going to stay around?”
“I’ll stay for the winter and keep watch over you,” Nezumi replied, hopping down from the jungle gym. He reached for the ground and picked up a pile of snow, packing it into a snowball. “Maybe you’ll be able to make better decisions knowing that I’ll be able to see their outcomes.”
“I definitely won’t touch the West Block if I know that you’re there.”
The light in Nezumi’s eyes dimmed. “Are you saying you’ll only spare the lives of the people in the West Block for my sake?”
Heat rushed into Shion’s face, almost making his cheeks blush. “No, that’s not what I meant! It’s just, if I do something wrong, I’ll know you’ll be there to admonish me. That’s a useful reminder to keep my power in check, you know?’
“Do you think I wouldn’t punish you now for what you’re already done?” Nezumi’s hand moved towards the knife he always kept sheathed at his belt.
Shion felt his body growing tense again. “Like I said, if you’re going to punish me for what I’ve done, I’ll gladly accept it.”
“I’ll certainly ‘punish’ you later. First, you have to get back to the Restructural Committee and make sure things aren’t going to become worse.”
As Shion began walking away, Nezumi tossed the snowball towards him. Shion watched it sail through the air and raised his arm, hoping that he could catch it.
He caught it in his hand, and he lowered his head.
So many things had happened during the time they were separated. Even though he wasn’t proud of it all, there was still so much he wanted to tell Nezumi. He couldn’t contain the excitement growing inside his heart. Nezumi had finally returned, and he was going to stay for at least the winter. They were reunited at last.
“Shion,” Nezumi said, running to catch up with him. “It’s going to be a long trip back. I’ll accompany you.”
“Thanks,” Shion replied, feeling his blush returning again. “Nezumi, I’m really glad you came today.”
Nezumi smiled, eyes gleaming, but remained silent.
The lights of the city, now no longer hidden behind walls, gleamed through the darkness of the night. Even the West Block glowed brighter than before. With all the new infrastructure that had been built, the two cities were slowly beginning the process of reunion. He hoped that it would be a peaceful and steady process, free from the grip of any more bloodstained hands.
The snow had stopped, and clouds were parting from the sky, revealing the glimmering stars.
“Oh, I just remembered,” Shion spoke up. “Nezumi, it’s Christmas tomorrow. Want to stay over at my house? My mom will make you the best cake!”
“I already have lodgings at my old theatre, but your mom’s baked goods does sound rather tempting.”
“Please, come! She’ll be really happy to see you back.”
Nezumi nodded and rubbed Shion’s head with his hand, fluffing up Shion’s messy white hair. He pulled Shion close so that their faces were almost touching.
A small gasp escaped from Shion’s lips. He loved it when Nezumi touched him affectionately like that. He leaned in intimately, embracing the warmth of Nezumi’s shoulder.
“Say, Shion – have you found anyone to spend your Christmas with, besides your mom?”
“Not in particular.”
“Still haven’t gotten any smoother, I see.”
“Nezumi. The only person I want to spend Christmas with is you.”
Shion blinked. He couldn’t believe how easily he had admitted that.
A pair of cold grey eyes turned towards him with a loving gaze.
The lights of the distant city and the stars shining above reflected in those eyes a captivating glow. They were so gorgeous.
“Then, we’ll spend this Christmas together.”
Softly, Nezumi’s lips brushed against his own.