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For an Early Thaw

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Nezumi has been quiet, these past few days.

Nezumi is always careful and calculated with his words in a way that Shion can’t quite manage, but it’s been different lately, like maybe he’s avoiding Shion and all Shion can think about is Safu, and the correctional facility, and this plan of his--theirs--and what if they don’t come back. What if the manhunt comes, and destroys everything—this room, Nezumi’s books, everything.

Shion knows that this has all happened before, and he wants to ask Nezumi about it, about the specific details, about how it's possible that this room and the theater and Inukashi's hotel have always survived the manhunt in the past, and what the chances are that they'll escape again, but he knows by now how much Nezumi hates his questions. He'll ask Inukashi tomorrow, maybe.

He stares across the small room at the stove in the corner, imagines it sputtering and crackling to life every night so that they can cook their meals with confidence. Maybe that will be gone too.

It’s unlike Shion to think like this, so he tries not to. Harsh reality is more Nezumi’s area, after all.

It’s a bit like the night when he’d made up his mind to leave, to set off for the correctional facility on his own, before he’d known of his mother’s message to Nezumi. He’d spent hours that day preparing himself, under a bright blue cloudless sky, his hands immersed in water and soap, surrounded by dogs, cleaned and waiting to be cleaned, just to be able to say goodbye. He wonders if he shouldn’t be preparing for something now - tying up loose ends, taking stock of what’s here. What if the only thing that makes sense is to think about this like it’s drawing to a close? That’s how Nezumi has been thinking about it all along, right?

But sometimes summer feels as if it’s right around the corner. So close that he can practically feel the heat and the humidity radiating off the walls, as if it’s already a part of him. He can feel it sometimes when he’s holed up between the stacks of books, or when the steam fills up the bathroom as he showers. Like the heat might not dissipate when he opens the door to the familiar sights of the room - the mice perched on a corner of the piano, watching him. Nezumi watching him too, over the spine of a thick book as he runs a towel over his head. Shion believes he’s coming back here, that they both are, because the alternatives---separation, death, estrangement--are simply unthinkable.

And so, while Shion wants summer in the West Block, desires it, and allows it to exist in his mind like some sort of strange paradise, what he doesn’t want is what has to come before it. Spring. New life breathing its way into existence, breaking free. Shion doesn’t want that at all, and yet it’s coming, faster than he could have ever imagined. Faster than he can make sense of it.

Maybe he should be wishing for it to come faster. Maybe the sooner it comes, the sooner the manhunt will come, and the sooner it will be over.

But no, what he really wants is to slow down time so that it never comes at all. Maybe if he could do that, there would be enough time to convince Nezumi that everything doesn’t have to come down to inside and outside, us and them.

And then he thinks of Safu, alone and afraid and needing their help, and he knows what has to happen, what’s already been put into place. He knows that they don’t have the luxury of time. Of waiting.

He finds himself staring at Nezumi whenever he gets the chance, taking in his mannerisms and the way they both move around in this space together with a sort of reverence. Taking stock. Shion has never thought about another person the way he thinks about Nezumi. He’s never been aware of another person’s presence like he’s aware of Nezumi’s presence. Nezumi moves around the room, and Shion is calculating, cataloging, observing, and he’s been doing this for months now. Nezumi is completely different from anything he’s known before, like an entirely different organism, an entirely new life form, but it's more than curiosity, it's a desire to understand.

Shion can tell Nezumi’s mood by the set of his shoulders as he settles onto the couch and carefully opens a book. He can’t tell the specifics, of course, but if Nezumi is agitated, Shion knows, or if he’s frustrated, or tired, or happy - if something good has happened - Shion can tell these things, and sometimes he wonders a little at it, at how something like this is even possible. But he supposes that they have been living together for some time now. Breathing the same air, eating the same food, it’s probably natural, this basic level of attunement. This, he can only surmise, is what happens when people have the freedom to choose their living arrangements, the company they keep. Nezumi may not exactly have chosen him, but Shion would choose Nezumi, over and over again, if given the chance. It’s strange, to think about it that way, but Shion knows in his heart that it’s true.

Tonight, as he stares at Nezumi – at the position of his legs as he reclines on the bed, at the set of his jaw, at the flickering of his eyes across the page - Shion senses something unfamiliar. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt before from Nezumi. Fear. It sends a shiver down his back, and makes him avert his eyes and blink down at the page in front of him as if he’s seen something he shouldn’t have.

It’s a book of poetry that he’d picked up off of one of the bookshelves earlier- a collection of different authors, many of whom he’s never heard of. Shion hasn’t read much poetry, but Nezumi had told him once that all the best authors were poets in some sense, and it had made Shion curious. He glances down at the book, at the table of contents. Across the room, Nezumi shifts his legs on the bed, and the oil lamp flickers a little. The mice are perched on top of the couch next to Shion, waiting, watching.

He begins to read. Nezumi is always telling him that words have power (usually in the context of the importance of choosing them carefully), and he's always wondered what exactly that means. He supposes that maybe he doesn't think about words in the same way that Nezumi thinks about them, but he wants to try, to understand.

He’s not entirely sure he knows what the poem he's reading means—he knows enough to know that poetry is about delving deeper than the surface, about imagery and symbols and so much more, and so he’s sure he’s missing a lot, but the words are beautiful, haunting and hopeful in a way that Shion hasn't experienced before.

Before he realizes it, he’s set the book down, and is blinking over at Nezumi, who is regarding him with interest.

“So? What is it?”

“Nothing, I just… I was reading a poem.”

To Shion’s surprise, Nezumi nods, and stares over at him expectantly. “Well, go on then.”

He rolls his eyes when Shion doesn’t immediately answer. “I’m telling you to read it. Out loud.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I want to see what kind of words there are in this world that can move your highness to such heights. Obviously.”

“I wasn’t—“

Nezumi raises his eyebrows. “You were holding your breath. And I think once you actually gasped.”

“Really?”

“Really. Which is why I’m curious, so please, put me out of my misery already.”

Shion glances down at the words on the page. The poem is short and compared to all the poems he's sure Nezumi has read, it's probably nothing special, but his heart is pounding with anticipation all the same. With the excitement of sharing these particular words with Nezumi. Maybe that’s what Nezumi had meant about words having power. Because there are plenty of things that Shion gets excited about sharing with Nezumi—the details of his day, what he sees at the market when he goes off on his own to haggle for bread or meat for dinner, but this is different. He wants Nezumi to experience this, to feel it.

While the sky turns toward its long dusk,” Shion begins, glancing up only once, to make sure Nezumi is listening before he continues, “we scramble down the crumbling bank, toward the canal to watch the ravens rise and slowly quarrel, catcall. The cattails have long surrendered their beds. Will you speak to me sometimes? This is the only river I have known.

Shion stops. He can feel his face flushing, and he glances over at Nezumi who is watching him without comment. Encouraging him with his eyes, maybe, but saying nothing.

And so, instead of letting the weight in his chest stop his words, Shion lets it propel them forward. The cadence of his voice fills the room, rising and falling steadily, like the flow of water in the stream behind Inukashi’s place.

…and somewhere quarries fill and empty with the early thaw: icy, dark and starless.

Shion closes his eyes after he finishes, fully expecting some sort of criticism from Nezumi, about his delivery, or his articulation of the words, or something, but Nezumi is quiet. It’s the same strange sort of quiet that has fallen over him so often these past few days. Shion wonders how he’d never realized until now how scared they both are. Nezumi has been through this before - he’s scared on Shion’s behalf, then. The thought makes Shion’s stomach churn a little with guilt.

“What’s the title?” Nezumi asks eventually, his voice quiet.

Sonnet for an Early Thaw,” Shion says, equally quiet, like he’s trying to not to disturb the space around them anymore than he has to.

“Never heard of it.”

“The title caught my eye.”

Nezumi just nods. He’s opened his book again. He flips a page. “An early thaw, huh,” he murmurs. “Everyone must be hoping for that.”

“No,” Shion says quickly, and he's sure that Nezumi could come up with a hundred explanations for this poem, and probably none of them would have anything to do with actual seasons, but he’s made the connection anyway, and it’s hard to let go of. “No, I think there’s more to it than that.”

Nezumi gives a quick laugh. “Well, there’s always more to it, isn’t there.”

Shion frowns and Nezumi's demeanor softens a little, like a spring uncoiling. He stretches his legs out in front of him on the bed.

“That was a real treat though,” he says with a smirk. “I guess now I know what all the fuss is about. Hamlet, and your little neighborhood friends. They’re getting the real thing, listening to you.”

“Thanks,” Shion says, though he can’t really tell if this is a backhanded compliment, or if Nezumi’s just trying to change the subject.

Nezumi isn’t looking at his book anymore, but he’s not exactly focused on anything else either. He’s shifting his legs restlessly, like he’s trying to get comfortable, and staring forward towards the door.

“I don’t think I want it to come at all,” Shion says after a moment. “Spring.”

Nezumi is quiet for a while. “I can’t say I disagree with you, but… It’s impossible. No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. We can’t just skip through nature’s steps whenever we feel like it, can we.”

“Right,” Shion says, knowing more than anything that he is right. Nature, life-cycles, organisms being born, reproducing, and dying, all of this is pre-programmed. There’s nothing he or Nezumi or anyone can do to interfere.

A silence follows, and it’s heavy at first, but after a moment he’s able to focus on the soft sounds in the background of the room—Nezumi’s breathing and the soft swish of cotton against cotton as he shifts over onto his side. The silence starts to feel lighter, easier. More clear. He’s still scared, and he’s pretty sure Nezumi is too. But something feels different, better, all the same.

“I can keep reading,” he offers after a moment.

There are a lot of other titles staring up at him from the book’s table of contents, and they all look fairly curious and intriguing.

Nezumi just shrugs, but there’s a flicker of interest in his eyes, and it’s encouraging. It makes Shion’s chest flutter a little with anticipation.

The mice are waiting too. They seem eager, and Shion thinks maybe he understands, just a little, what it must feel like for Nezumi up on stage - all of those eyes focused squarely on one thing. It feels new, and it feels good, like light cutting through a dense fog.

Nezumi calmly closes his eyes, as Shion begins again.

It's simple: it isn't over, it's just begun. It's green. It's still green.

end