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By the time a week rolled around, Shion had managed to organize almost all of the books that had been dominating most of the floor. Of course, it was impossible to find shelf space for all of them, and many piles of books still remained on the floor ― but it had cleared up a considerable amount of living space.
"So what do you think?" Shion puffed out his chest proudly. Nezumi was draped lazily over the chair. He yawned.
"The emergency kit, a couple blankets, a mug, and an old heater. Is that all you managed to find?"
"That's a lot," Shion replied indignantly.
"Too bad you couldn't find an entry permit into No. 6."
Shion moved in front of Nezumi, and looked him directly in the eye. If he was going to speak in earnest, he mustn't avert the other's gaze. It was one of the things he had learned in his one month of living with Nezumi. Shion bent over, and clasped each hand around the armrests of the chair.
Shion was now blocking Nezumi from the front. Nezumi shifted uneasily in his seat.
"Nezumi, my mother is still in No. 6. She's my only blood relative. I don't care how much you laugh at me for it, but I'll never be able to cut her off. But― but let me say this. I have no attachments to life in that city anymore. Even if someone told me I could go back in time, I wouldn't want to go back to when I had the privilege to live in No. 6 as its legitimate citizen. I'm serious― I wouldn't want to return one bit."
The grey eyes on the other end of Shion's gaze didn't blink once.
"You said that my life in No. 6 was fake. Now I've experienced it for myself. And I never, ever want to return to a life that's fake, and only peaceful and privileged in appearance."
"So you're prepared to live life outside of the Holy City, is that what you're telling me?"
"Do you know what kind of place this is?"
He hesitated to answer. Nezumi's lips twisted into a cold smile.
"You don't know anything," he said softly. "You don't know what it's like to starve, to shiver in the cold, to groan from a wound that's festered because it's been left untreated too long; you don't know the suffering that follows when that wound becomes infested with maggots, and you start rotting alive; you don't know how it feels to watch someone die in front of you, while there's nothing you can do to help them. You don't know a single thing. You're just rattling off pretty words. You've experienced it for yourself, you say? You've only peeled the surface of that city and sniffed at it, and already you're acting like you know everything about it. It might be a city of lies, but in No. 6 you have a warm bed, plenty of food and clean water. You have fully-equipped medical facilities, recreational facilities, educational institutions. Everything that residents here would never be able to have, no matter how hard they wished. And you say you have no attachments to those? That's arrogant of you. So arrogant it makes my skin crawl. Either that, or you're a liar."
Shion drew a breath. He tightened his grip on the armrests.
"It might be arrogant― but I'm not lying. Regardless of what kind of place is, I still want to continue living here. It's not because I got chased out of No. 6 as a criminal. Even if I wasn't― no matter how horrible this environment turns out to be, I want to stay here."
"What's your reason?" Nezumi shot back. "If you're not lying, and if you're not trying to impress me with a model answer, what lead you to make that decision?"
"I'm drawn to you."
"You know things that I don't know. You've taught me things that no one has ever taught me before. I can't say it well, but―" he hesitated. "I'm drawn to you. A lot. That's why I want to stay here. I want to see what you see, eat what you eat, and breathe the same air as you. I want to hold in these hands what I would never have been able to get in No. 6."
Nezumi slowly blinked twice. Then, he placed a palm on his forehead and shook his head slowly in exasperation.
"Shion, I've been noticing this for some time now, but―"
"Your language ability is worse than a chimpanzee."
"I've heard before that the genome of a human and chimpanzee are only different by 1.23%," said Shion, unfazed. "I don't think you should mock chimpanzees."
"I'm mocking you. Idiot. Don't you have any idea what proper expressions to use?"
"Was there something weird about what I said?"
"Don't use words like 'drawn to' so easily. It's a very weighty, important word. You're only supposed to use it for a special, irreplaceable person in your life."
"Then how am I supposed to say it? Do I say I love you?"
Nezumi heaved a long, exaggerated sigh. "Never mind," he muttered. "It messes me up when I talk to you. Here," he pushed a thick book into Shion's hands, and stood up. "Hamlet. Read it."
"I already have."
"Then read it again. Give that crippled language ability of yours some good, hard training. Learn some words."
"Was I off-the-mark that badly?"
Nezumi's words quickened.
"You're just fascinated by new and unusual things. You're like a scholar who's discovered a new planet, or a new kind of bacteria. You're just itching with curiosity because you've met someone who's different from all the people that used to surround you. That's it. You're not drawn to me, and you're not in love with me. You're just excited about the exotic animal you've discovered. Can't you even tell the difference?"
They were harsh words. They became sharp thorns that stabbed at Shion's eardrums.
"I don't trust you," Nezumi said.
Shion raised his face, and his gaze collided with Nezumi's. He had been biting his lip without thinking.
"I don't trust anything you say. You're someone who's been living in artificial abundance since you were born. And you're arrogant enough to be able to say you can throw away that fortune easily. ―Shion," he said suddenly. "When you used to do that cleaning job at the park, you had to do that ritual every morning, didn't you?"
The ritual was always the first task in Shion's work day. He had to lay a palm on the image of the City Hall ― or Moondrop, informally ― that was displayed on monitor of the maintenance system, and pledge his allegiance.
"I hereon and ever pledge my unwavering allegiance to the City of No. 6."
"Our gratitude for your loyalty. Engage in your day's labour with sincerity and pride as a good citizen of the City."
That was it. Every morning, he had repeated the same task. It had been a sore discomfort for him. His youthful pride stung for having to repeat these banal and grandiose words, and for this ritual itself, which seemed foolish.
Nezumi gave a short laugh.
"You hated it, didn't you."
"Felt suffocated, didn't you, being forced to declare your loyalty."
"Yeah... now that you mention it."
"But you put up with it," Nezumi said. "Instead of retaliating, you recited this pledge every morning, not meaning a single word of it, and pretended it didn't bother you. Let me tell you something, Shion: words aren't things that you can toss around casually. You can't let yourself be forced to say something, and just put up with it. But you don't know that. So that's why I'm not going to trust you."
Nezumi's hand suddenly extended toward him. His palm touched Shion's cheek.
"Did that hurt?" he asked gently.
"Quite a bit."
"―I don't have any grudge against you. And I don't hate you, either."
"I know..." Shion answered quietly. "That much I can tell."
"Feel like going outside?"
His fingers caressed Shion's hair.
"You're fully recovered, now, aren't you? Feel like seeing for yourself the place you've decided to continue living in?"
Nezumi's hand slowly drew away. Several strands of white hair clung to his long fingers. Shion's hair still had some lustre despite being drained of its colour, and to certain eyes he figured it might look pretty. But he felt its beauty to be cruel. In a single night, the colour had faded from his hair, and he had been scarred with a red band that slithered like a serpent over his entire body. He had been seen by children, who had shrieked at the sight of him. He couldn't forget the look in their eyes. They were filled with dismay and horror like the eyes of one who beheld a deformed monster. But he had to go outside. He wanted to see the world he was going to live in with his own eyes, hear the sounds with his own ears, smell with his nose, and feel it on his own skin. Then, maybe, he would speak to Nezumi about it again.
No matter what kind of place this is, I want to keep living here. Rather than being surrounded by falsities, and being forced to swallow banal words, I want to live here― even if it means I have to struggle―
"We can dye your hair, if it'll make you feel better at all," Nezumi said. "Black, brown, green― whatever colour you wish. What do you wanna do?"
"No, it's fine."
"You're going to keep it?"
"Yeah, I'll keep my hair like this. White hair isn't so bad. I figure it's better than being completely bald."
Nezumi lowered his face. His shoulders were trembling.
"You're really funny, you know that?" he said, his voice shaking from holding back a laugh. "Seriously. I mean, really."
"Am I?" said Shion dubiously. "No one's ever really told me I'm funny..."
"You're a natural comedian. You should toss the theory books and study comedy instead."
"I'll think about it."
"You should. Right― tomorrow, then, I'll show you around."
"Alright," Shion agreed.
"And there's one place you definitely need to go to."
"Latch Building," Shion answered for him.
It was a memo from Karan, and it was a cryptic one― Shion didn't know where it pointed to, or who was going to be there.
"Did you find out where Latch Building is?"
"Nope," Nezumi replied. "We don't have any fancy numberings for our buildings here. But once upon a time this place used to be a decent town, and I was able to get a map from then. And there's a region that's marked LK-3000."
"You looked all of this up..." Shion murmured in awe.
"Just to kill some time."
"I didn't think you had time to kill. You always seem so busy―"
"Oh, and write a letter," Nezumi interrupted nonchalantly.
"To your Mama. But keep it within 15 words. Just a simple note. The mouse here says he misses your mother's homemade bread."
"You'll deliver the letter for me?"
"More like a memo," he said brusquely. "Under 15 words. I can't guarantee it'll get there safely."
Nezumi shrank away from Shion and fixed him with an appalled stare.
"Please, can you not look at me like that? It gives me the willies. What'll happen tomorrow will happen tomorrow. I'm gonna take a shower. Oh, and before you write a letter to your mama, read the poor little guy a story. He's been waiting all this time."
Nezumi disappeared into the bathroom. Shion curled up in a chair, and opened the book he had been passed earlier. There was a faint whiff of the smell of paper. He was drawn in instantly, and soon lost himself in its pages.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
Hamlet drew his last breath in the arms of his friend. Shion slowly closed the book. There was the sound of rain. He wondered why it always seemed to seep through the walls into this underground room. It seeped through and reverberated, like the soft sound of music.
And in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain― maybe that's what living on in this world meant― to suffer in pain. And Nezumi knew this. It had been ingrained into his body. A mouse chirruped at his foot.
"Oh, sorry about that. Which one do you want me to read?"
The mouse climbed up onto his knee, and rubbed its front paws together.
"You want me to read this book to you?"
"You really like tragedies, don't you. Why don't you pick something more fun?"
He crossed his legs, with the mouse still perched on his knee.
"Read him the tragedy," Nezumi's voice spoke from behind him. He hadn't even noticed Nezumi coming out of the bathroom. He hadn't heard a sound or felt any presence.
"You have a good voice. This little guy loves to be read to. And he loves to listen to you read tragedies."
The mouse blinked its grape-coloured eyes at him. Shion guessed it was his way of saying yes.
"Okay, okay. Then from the top of Act Five―"
"Shh―" Nezumi's damp hand pressed over Shion's mouth. "I hear something."
Before Shion could ask what it was, it reached his own ears. The sound of footsteps clambering down the steps. The heavy door was being banged. Someone was knocking on the centre of the door, and its sound was frantic, though not altogether strong.
A child was knocking desperately on the door. Shion stood up, and made for the entrance.
"Not so fast." Nezumi stopped him. Under his wet bangs, his grey eyes beheld the door warily.
"Don't open the door yet."
"It's dangerous. Don't open the door without any defense."
"It's a child knocking. And it's urgent. Something must have happened."
"How can you be so sure? An armed soldier can knock on the bottom half of the door, no problem."
Shion's gaze travelled from Nezumi's face to the door.
He thought he heard a weak voice cry out in plea. He swallowed. He unlatched the door, and gripped the handle.
He opened the door. A cold draft blew into the room. It was getting dark outside, and a chill wind was blowing.
A girl was standing in the gathering dark. Her eyes were filled with tears as she looked up at Shion. He had seen her before. She lived in the barracks in the hollow under the slope. She was the girl he had not been able to forget― the girl who had shrieked at Shion's whitened hair and red scar that snaked up his neck. For the first time, in this gaze, he had been beheld like a deformity. But now, her large eyes were brimming with tears, and contained no hint of terror. Instead, they were bright with frantic urgency.
"Help me― please― he's dying."
Shion swiftly took the girl by her hand, and began to clamber up the stairs. He hastily yelled over his shoulder.
"Nezumi, bring the emergency kit, and some blankets!"
Then he burst outside, into the wood of bare branches and fallen leaves.
Read Chapter 2.