With a hand still laid on his hair, Nezumi was checking Shion's breathing as he slept. It was a little weak, but relaxed. It was not erratic.
―You made it through.
It was quite something. He wasn't exaggerating out of politeness or encouragement. Shion housed a lot more vitality than his looks gave away. It was a vitality that was tenacious and strong. Nezumi gazed at Shion's sleeping face― exhausted and weakened, but still breathing regularly nonetheless― and realized how tired he himself was as well. He was mentally, not physically, exhausted. He could neither understand nor come to terms with what he had just experienced. A sense of unease consumed his mind and made his very blood tingle.
No. 6. Something was beginning to brew in the interiors of what they called the Holy City. Something that exceeded the depths of human imagination was being born, and developing slowly but surely. Nezumi dug into the very back of a shelf and pulled out a petri dish. It contained something he had removed from under Shion's skin when he had cut the blister open.
―I can't believe this.
Yes, unbelievable things happened sometimes. Reality betrayed people almost too easily, and yanked people's lives at whim in unexpected directions. At times, it flung them to the depths of despair. It was cruel and violent. Absurd, even. It couldn't be trusted. Anything could happen at any time.
Nezumi knew it well. But he couldn't help being perturbed by this reality. Was it possible for something like this to happen? ―But the truth was that it had already happened. It was something that couldn't be brushed away, and he couldn't turn a blind eye to it now.
Nezumi returned to Shion's bedside. He lightly stroked Shion's hair again.
―When you wake up, will you be able to believe this reality?
Would he be able to handle it? Here was a boy who had been cradled and sheltered in the Holy City's core until the age of twelve. Until sixteen, he lived in Lost Town ― the outskirts of the city, but still part of it nevertheless ― and as a citizen, he was treated as such. Would someone who had been housed in such a protective shell be able to handle reality? Was he strong enough?
―Probably not weak enough to be crushed, though.
But he didn't know. He didn't know how much strength or weakness resided in the boy sleeping quietly before him. Whether he would withstand it, or collapse ―Nezumi didn't know. But Shion had survived, and that was another reality. To survive, you had to sink your teeth into Life and hold fast. No matter if it was unsightly or harsh ― those who desired Life most greedily were the ones that survived. Nezumi, from experience, was painfully aware of this fact. The boy before him possessed that avarice. It was far more difficult to survive in an unsightly manner than to die a beautiful and heroic death. It also held much more value. Of this fact as well, Nezumi was painfully aware.
―You'll be alright.
Nezumi moistened Shion's parched lips with water. Then he quietly opened the door and slipped outside. Dawn was breaking. The sky was lightening from black to purple, and a sprinkling of stars winked in the sky.
"No. 6." Nezumi addressed the mammoth city darkly looming in the distance. "You just wait. Some day, I'll carve out that infection of yours, and lay it out in the open."
A streak of light shot across the sky. A flock of birds took flight. The sun was rising. Morning was coming. The West Block was still thrown in the depths of darkness, but the Holy City, bathed in the light of the rising sun, glittered as if to laugh in contempt at it. Nezumi stood still, facing the City in silence.
The streets below were brimming with light. He never tired of gazing out at the morning scene from this room; that was how magnificent it was.
The orderly streets, and the lush colours of the abundant trees that lined them were beautiful. It was a place of full functionality and vigour. Nowhere could one find anything wasteful or ugly. This was a product of human hands, the highest possible―
There was a chime. A monitor set into the wall flickered, and displayed the long, thin face of a man.
"I apologize for disturbing you so early in the morning."
"No need. I've been waiting for you."
"The investigation is complete. I would like to report the results to you directly, in person."
"In person? That's rather cautious of you. Is there something amiss?"
"The suspect has escaped."
"It seems so― I've heard. But surely that's not of overt importance."
"He was involved in it. He aided in the suspect's escape."
The man on the screen pushed his glasses up his nose. They were rimmed black, and visibly old-fashioned. Perhaps he was under the impression that they suited him best, because he had not changed his frames once for the past ten years.
"Are you sure of that?"
"We've confirmed it. The vocal signatures match."
"Aiding in escape, huh... and his method?"
"I'll report all the details to you shortly."
"Understood. I'll be waiting."
"If you'll excuse me, then."
The image disappeared, and the monitor faded back into the wall. The man let his gaze wander around him, then out the custom glass panels of his window to the sky that expanded beyond. It was a deep blue that pierced his eyes. The seasons were taking their course again.
―So you've come back.
What did he return for? Why did show himself again? A single petal loosened itself from the bunch of roses displayed on his desk, and fluttered silently to the floor.
―You should have stayed quietly where you were... idiot.
He crushed the crimson petal with his foot. It smeared on the lush carpet, leaving a stain that reminded him of blood.
Yamase was squatted on the floor, hugging his knees, his head bowed. He looked like a child sulking after being scolded.
"Yamase-san." Shion called over to him. There was no answer.
"Yamase-san, what's wrong?"
Yamase dissolved into tears.
"Yamase-san, don't cry."
Shion placed a hand on Yamase's shoulder. Yamase's anguished sobbing tore at his heart. It was painful just to listen to him.
"What's making you cry like this? Is there anything I can do?"
"There is." Yamase's hand grasped Shion's ankle.
"Shion, I don't want to be alone. Why did you have to get saved?"
"Come with me," he pleaded. "You will, won't you?"
The hand grasping his ankle changed colour. It was beginning to rot. Chunks of flesh decayed and fell away from Yamase's arm. Shion could see his bone peeking through.
"We'll go together... right?"
Shion's ankle was being tugged harder. He was being dragged into total darkness. Yamase's arm continued to rot as it grew in length, and wound around Shion's torso until it finally reached his neck and began to choke him.
Shion reached out as far as he could. He felt something firm and definite, and closed his hand around it, gripping hard. And he screamed.
Shion awoke with a start. His throat was painfully dry.
"No, what?" Nezumi was peering into his face with a serious expression.
"Nezumi...." Shion murmured dazedly. "Oh... I'm alive...."
"You are. Congratulations on your safe return. And I'm sorry for ruining your moment, but can you let go of my hand? You're holding on pretty tight, and it hurts."
He had been grasping Nezumi's hand, so strongly that his fingers were digging into his flesh. He had clung to this hand to escape from the darkness.
"Want some water?"
"Yeah," Shion said gratefully.
The water was cold, and quenched every corner of Shion's body.
"I remember you giving me water like this... again and again." Words formed slowly on Shion's lips, and left them in awkward fragments.
"There's a spring nearby that's not too bad. It's free, so you don't need to worry."
"You... saved me again."
"I'm not the one that saved you. There aren't any adequate doctors or medical facilities here anyway, and even if there were, they wouldn't have done any good. No one could have saved you. You brought yourself back. You put up quite the fight. I'm a bit impressed, actually. I promise I won't call you a little boy anymore."
"It's all... thanks to you..."
Shion brought his hand up to his face to gaze at it. It felt somewhat dry and rough, but there were no spots or wrinkles on it. It was still the same young hand. He breathed a sigh of relief.
"I had a bad dream...." Shion began softly. "I wanted someone to help me, and I reached out as far as I could... and I grabbed onto your hand."
"That frightening, huh?"
"Yamase-san was there― he told me I can't be the only one to be saved... his arm was wrapping around me, from my torso to my neck..." Shion trailed off to feel at his neck. It was wrapped in bandages.
"From your torso to your neck?" Nezumi gave a short intake of breath. He lowered his gaze, and moved away from the bed.
"Yamase-san was never the kind of person to say that..." Shion continued reflectively. "He would have been happy for me, that I was saved... why would he come into my dreams and...."
"Because you feel guilty about it," Nezumi said shortly, wrapping the superfibre cloth around his shoulders. A mouse leapt up onto one shoulder from a pile of books. "That Yamase guy died, and you survived. You're feeling guilty over it, and that's why you're having stupid dreams like that."
"Everything's stupid or useless to you, isn't it...."
"Whoever lives wins. Don't feel guilty about having survived. If you have time to be feeling guilty, work on living a day longer, a minute longer. And once in a while, remember the ones that died before you. That's good enough."
"Are you saying that to me?" Shion questioned.
"Who else could I be talking to?"
"It sounded like―" Shion hesitated. "Almost like you were telling it to yourself..."
Nezumi blinked. He stared at Shion for a moment, and then muttered "ridiculous" under his breath.
Shion tried to lift himself up on the bed. He still couldn't move his body as well as he wanted. He noticed that his entire torso was wrapped tightly in bandages.
"Why are there so many..."
"You were tearing at yourself in pain, that's why. Lie down, it's still too early to move around. And take the medicine by your pillow. When I get home, I'll treat you to some soup."
"You're going out?"
"I have work."
Nezumi turned his back to Shion, and briskly left the room.
Shion swallowed the white pill as he was told to. A brown mouse squeaked at him from beside a glass of water.
The mouse nodded as if it understood his word of thanks, and perched on Shion's chest as he lay back down.
"What kind of work does your master do?"
"What's his name? What kind of life has he lived until now? Where was he born, and what...." he trailed off. He was getting drowsy. It seemed his body was in want of a little more quiet rest. Shion nodded off to sleep. This time, he had no dreams. When he awoke, the heaviness and lethargy in his body had disappeared. He didn't feel any discomfort other than a dull pain from the wound on his neck. His body was recovering quickly.
There was no one else in the room. It looked like Nezumi had not returned yet. A dim darkness had settled, and it was quiet. Shion turned his head to see the three mice curled up fast asleep by his neck. He rose quietly, and put on his shoes. He wanted badly to catch a breath in the outdoors. He wanted to fill his lungs with fresh air. Shion took several cautious steps. He was sweating underneath the bandages on his neck and chest. He unwound the ones around his neck. Now it was much easier to breathe. His feet were light, and he didn't feel dizzy or nauseous. Shion opened the door and climbed up the stairs. A cold draft of air stung him. The world at ground level was bathed in a reddish light. It was dusk. Coloured leaves were falling from the trees. They danced in the wind, and with a dry rustling sound, fluttered to the ground. Looking above, he could see the dark branches of the trees, mostly bare, cast in stark relief against the sky. In the distance, he could see No. 6.
Shion felt a hot pricking at the back of his eyes. It wasn't from nostalgia for the city where he was born and raised. It was the sights of late autumn, this unremarkable scene, that had tugged at his heart. The faint rustling of the fallen leaves, the smell of earth, the colour of the sky, all resonated in his heart deeply as if to coax the tears from him.
―He'll have another good laugh if he sees me like this.
Shion bit his lip to hold back his tears. He inhaled deeply.
He heard the sound of high voices raised in laughter behind him. Shion turned around, and saw three children amongst the trees, coming up the slope toward him. There were two girls and one boy. Did these children live in the ruined house that he had seen earlier? They all had similar round faces. He didn't know what they were laughing so joyously about, but Shion felt his own feelings lift just watching them. Karan loved children, and always used to hold sales that went by names like "Half Price for Children Under Ten", so the bakery was always filled with the voices of small children. That was inside No. 6. This was outside No. 6. But despite how bizarre the world on this side of the wall was, the sound of children's laughter was still the same.
The girl, who looked the oldest out of all of them, noticed Shion first. She stopped in her tracks and opened her eyes wide. Her face stiffened. Shion didn't meant to scare her. He raised his hand in greeting and spoke first.
The small boy standing behind the girl burst into tears.
"Huh? Oh, don't cry―" Shion made to take a step closer. The girl's face contorted.
"Snake!" she shrieked.
Hastily scooping up the boy in her arms and taking the other girl by her hand, she clambered back down the slope. Her shriek echoed high into the sunset. Shion stood in stunned silence.
―Snake? What did she scream for? What snake?
He didn't understand the girl's words.
―What did she see?
He turned around. There was nothing save for the scenery of late autumn. There were no snakes, or birds. There was no sign of any living thing.
―Did the shadows of the branches look like a snake to her? ...No, that girl was looking straight at me. She was looking only at me.
Shion shivered. His scalp was tingling. He ran a hand roughly through his bangs, and pulled hard. It was a habit of his when he was agitated.
Shion's breath caught in his throat. There were a few hairs clinging between his fingers. They were an almost-transparent shade of white. They caught the light of the setting sun, and glimmered.
He raked his head, pulling out more hairs. They were all the same. He felt his face. The skin under his palm was firm. There were no wrinkles or sags. But he felt a strange sensation on his neck. There was a slight swell under his skin that was winding around his neck. Shion half-tumbled down the stairs in haste.
―A mirror, I need a mirror...
He knocked over a pile of books. The startled mice darted underneath the bed. He found a wooden door next the the bathroom. He opened it, and found a space about big enough for one person to lie down or stand up. The back wall looked like a mirror. There were various things hanging on the other walls, but Shion was in no mood to check. He turned on the light, and moved closer to the mirror. His legs quaked. His hands were trembling. But he forced himself to gaze into the mirror.
He gave a faint cry of horror.
What was he seeing in the mirror? What was this... this....
The girl's shriek welled up and echoed in his ears. He needed air, else he felt like he would suffocate. He couldn't breathe. Shion staggered, and leaned heavily against the wall. He stared at himself in the mirror. His eyes were glued to it, and they would not move. He couldn't look away.
His hair was white and shining. And there was a snake. A red serpent, about two centimetres wide, was coiled around his neck. That was what it looked like. He had no doubt about it.
"This can't be..." He shed his clothes. He tried to tear off the bandages that wrapped his entire body. They had been wound tightly with care, and they tangled and knotted as if to mock Shion's fumbling hands. When at last the ends of the bandage had fallen away from his body, Shion gave a strangled cry. The crimson band that had risen up on his skin began from his left ankle, coiled up his leg and extended across his crotch and torso, wound past his armpit and reached up to his neck. It was, literally, like a snake that was strangling him. It was slithering over his naked body. A red meander scar. The strength was leaving his knees. He sank slowly onto the unravelled bandages.
White hair and a red serpent. This was the price he had paid to survive.
"Do you enjoy looking at yourself naked?" a voice spoke, so low it was almost a whisper. Nezumi was leaning on the door behind him.
"It appeared just as your fever went down. The affection is only skin-deep, it's not because your veins are engorged. Which means there's been no damage to your circulation system. Isn't that nice?"
"Nice? What's nice about this? This is..."
"If you don't like it, you can get rid of it," Nezum said quietly. "Skin grafting is no big feat in this time and age, right? As for your hair, you can dye it another colour. I don't see any problem. But just letting you know―" he shrugged slightly, "we can do something about your hair, but you won't be able to graft your skin here. We don't have the technology or facilities for that." His voice was calm and emotionless, and contained not the smallest hint of sympathy. Shion remained sitting where he was, absentmindedly gazing at the bandage that was tangled around his leg.
"Do you regret being alive?"
It took a moment for Shion to respond.
"―What?" he said vaguely. "Oh― did you say something?"
Nezumi sighed and knelt down in front of Shion, hooking a finger on his chin. He forcefully tilted Shion's face up.
"Stop looking down, and look at me. Snap out of your daze and listen to what I'm saying. Are you lamenting it?"
"Lament... you mean... like wishing it didn't happen, right..."
"Obviously. No," said Nezumi sarcastically, "I was speaking French, like la menthe, for mint. Really? Get a grip on yourself. Has something happened to that gifted brain of yours?"
Regret? Toward living? Was he lamenting the fact that he was alive and sitting here, looking as he did now? Shion slowly shook his head.
"No, I'm not."
He didn't want to die. Even if he had been struck down, he would have crawled across the ground to stay alive. He had no clear goals or hopes. He had no sight of the future. His body had changed startlingly, and his soul was in turmoil. But he still did not want to die.
Life was in the delicious taste of the water that quenched his throat. It was in the colour of the sky that spread before his eyes, the tranquil evening air, freshly baked bread, the definite sensation of someone's fingers, soft, secretive laughter; 'Shion, what do you hope for?'; the unexpected confession, uncertainty and hesitation. All these things were connected to being alive. No matter what his appearance became, he didn't want to be cut away from any of these.
"Nezumi...." he whispered. "I― I want to be alive."
The tears that he had held back until now gave way. A single droplet spilled over his cheek. He hastily brushed it away.
"It's no use hiding it, stupid," sighed Nezumi softly. "How can you cry so openly like that? Aren't you embarrassed?"
"I just let my guard down, okay?" said Shion crossly. "I'm having trouble controlling myself because I'm not emotionally stable yet. I'm a recovering patient, so stop making fun of me."
Nezumi silently gazed at Shion's face, and then reached out to gently grasp at his hair.
"If it bothers you so much, I'll dye it for you later. But it looks pretty nice on its own. And besides―" Nezumi's fingers moved to trace the red scar across Shion's chest.
"Think about it, you've got a red snake coiled around your body. Quite alluring, I'll say."
"I'm not flattered at all."
"Well I don't enjoy seeing you naked either," Nezumi retorted. "Put some clothes on. I'll treat you to some hot specialty soup and meat."
Come to think of it, it had been a long time since he had eaten any food. There was a burning sensation around Shion's stomach as hunger suddenly gnawed at him.
"What kind of soup? Need any help?"
"You bounce back pretty fast, don't you?"
Nezumi's voice suddenly dropped low and hoarse.
'Round about the cauldron go.
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmèd pot.' 
"Macbeth. The scene where the three witches are brewing newt eyes, frog feet, and bat wings in a cauldron, making their special soup. Charming, isn't it?"
"If that's your idea of specialty soup, I'll have to say no thanks."
"Instead of bat wings we'll use chicken, and instead of newts we'll toss in lots of fresh vegetables. We'll substitute the frogs for a clove of garlic. Just a moment's wait, your Majesty."
Nezumi's specialty soup was piping hot, and more delicious than anything Shion had ever tasted.
Read Chapter 5.