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Nezumi's feet stopped. They were standing in front of a three-storey building. At least, it resembled more of a building than the ruins that constituted the hotel, but in the sense that it was also falling apart, they were none too different.
The arched entranceway and the red brick walls had probably once carried an air of pomp, but were now strangled by vines, crumbled in places, and radiating an aura of dilapidation. Nezumi jerked his chin upwards.
There was a light in the third-floor centre window. From its brightness, it was most likely an electric lamp. That meant there was electricity running in this building.
They pushed the wooden doors open, and entered inside. There were no signs of people on the first or second floors. The stairs, which were also wooden, creaked loudly with each step they took.
If Inukashi's tip was a good one, a former reporter from the Latch Bill newspaper was supposed to be living here.
They climbed up to the third floor. There was light spilling out from a crack of the open door into the wooden hallway, which was carpeted with a thick layer of dust. In the pool of light, there were several empty glass bottles. It was easy to tell what these bottles used to hold. Shion didn't have to pick one up to check, for the strong smell of alcohol filled the air around them. In a darkened corner of the hallway, there were towering piles of bundled papers, and empty cans littered about it. Only the door from which the light was spilling was neither dirty nor broken, though it was very old. Shion raised his hand to knock, but Nezumi held him back.
"No, it's just― the air is strange."
"Air? What do you―"
Before Shion could finish his sentence, he heard a yell from inside the room. It belonged to a man. There was the sound of furniture being knocked over. A high-pitched voice screaming angrily. He could hear the sound of glass being smashed.
"Sounds serious. What now, Shion?"
"What do you mean, what now?"
"It looks like they're busy at the moment. Should we come back another day?"
There was a loud noise again. A man's deep voice yelled out for help. Shion tried to burst into the room, but Nezumi restrained him and opened the door.
The room was well-lit by a large lamp. It was the brightest light Shion had seen since coming to the West Block. The light was illuminating clearly every corner of the room. By the window there was a large desk, and against the wall was a rather unimpressive textile sofa. The floor was covered, again, with bundles of paper and books that were piled up or scattered haphazardly. But these were all things he had noticed when he had taken a good look around the room much later on. What Shion saw immediately over Nezumi's shoulder were two people entangled with each other. It was a man and a woman. The man was wearing pants, but his upper body was naked. The woman was clad all in black. Her hair, cut straight across at the shoulders, was also black. She was straddling the man. The hem of her slitted skirt had flipped up to reveal her thigh. She had well-endowed, curvy body. She had a round face, round nose and round eyes. Her face was tense.
The woman swung her right hand up.
"Help!" The man yelled. Shion realized that there was a knife in the woman's hand. Nezumi tsked his tongue shortly.
"You good-for-nothing!" The woman shouted. Nezumi moved at the same time. Soundlessly and in a flash, he was holding the woman's wrist mid-swing. Without a word, he twisted it.
The knife clattered to the floor. Shion hastily picked it up. He spotted a red knife pouch in the corner of his vision. He grabbed it reflexively, and sheathed the blade. He felt relieved.
"What the hell are you doing?" The woman screeched shrilly. She had fallen backwards on her bottom from being dragged by Nezumi.
"I don't think you should be swinging around a toy like this, Miss. It's dangerous," Nezumi said softly.
"Leave me alone. What's any of this got to do with you? This good-for-nothing, shitbag of a womanizer deserves to die."
The woman dissolved into tears on the floor. Still holding the knife, Shion looked down at her hunched back. He didn't know what to do. There was nothing in Shion's manual that told him how to deal with this kind of situation. Nezumi knelt down, and gently stroked her back as it shook with her sobs. He lowered his voice into a quiet murmur.
"Don't cry. No― you should cry. Cry to your heart's content. You'll feel better that way. Go on, cry―"
It was like a lullaby. His whisper was deep and soothing, and soaked into Shion's soul like the sound of the rain that seeped into the basement room. He could see the woman's agitation subside as its gentleness and tranquility washed over her. But there was no gentleness or tranquility in Nezumi's gaze. After taking a quick glance around the room, his gaze stopped at the middle-aged man who was gasping, half-naked on the floor. Then his eyes flicked up to Shion, who was stock-still, rooted to the spot. Shion took a step forward.
"Um― are you Rikiga-san? The one who used to work for the Latch Bill newspaper?"
The man raised himself unsteadily and began to put his arms through a shirt that had been draped over the sofa. Though not exactly obese, he was rather fleshy around the shoulders and waist. There was a white scar that ran diagonally across under his right shoulder blade.
"Uh― have we gotten the wrong person?" Shion asked uncertainly. "We've come here today because we heard we could meet a Rikiga-san here―"
"You've got the right one."
It was the woman who had answered. Her face was a sopping mess of tears, sweat and snot, but she was not crying anymore.
"This good-for-nothing liar goes by that name. Once upon a time he was a newspaper reporter, but now this shitty excuse for a man is reduced to making shitty porno magazines to pay for his liquor habit."
"And who's the one who had a hysteric fit when she got dumped by said excuse for a man, huh?" retorted the man who had been called Rikiga.
"What're you talking about?" the woman shot back. "You're the one who said you wanted to get married!"
"And I'm telling you, issues have come up, and I can't get married to you anymore."
"Well― ah, um― you see..."
"If you're gonna try to trick me, at least take the time to think up a proper lie. I'm not one to be messed with."
Sparked to anger by her own words, the woman's wrath threatened to boil over again. She suddenly lunged a Shion, breathing fast.
"Give me my knife back!"
"No―I can't do that―" Shion resisted. "Stop, please. It's dangerous."
"I said give the damn thing back. What 'issues', huh? Let's hear your excuse. I can't believe I'm being shitted like this. I'm gonna kill you."
"Stop, watch it―"
Nezumi stood up. With one step, he strode to Rikiga's side and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Father, is she going to be our new mother from now on?"
The woman froze. Her mouth gaped open, and her eyelid twitched.
Nezumi nodded with an affectionate smile.
"Yes. We're his sons."
"You― you had kids? I've never heard anything about that before."
The woman's voice turned hoarse. Rikiga blinked.
"Father and Mother separated a long time ago," Nezumi explained. "But Mother passed away just last month, and so we came back to live with Father. We've already heard before that Father has someone he loves. But he said he would give up getting married so that we could live together as a family again, the three of us. Right, Shion-niisan?"
"We came all the way here searching for Father, right?"
"What? Oh― yes, we have. We're his sons. Nice to meet you."
Rikiga cleared his throat a few times.
"―That's how it is. They're my sons. I've had to take them into my care now... raise these two on my own. Living will become much more difficult. I couldn't put you through that, honey. I love you, I love you so much. But these kids need their father... I couldn't burden you by asking you to be their mother. I had no choice but to ask you to break up with me."
"So that was what came up..."
"Well― pretty much."
The woman ran a hand through her hair, and sighed. "So that's how it is."
"That's how it is."
The woman ran a hand through her hair again, and picked up her coat and purse, which were lying on the floor. She looked at Shion, and drew her chin back slightly.
"You have strange hair. Is it a wig?"
"Oh, um― stuff happened..."
"More issues? Like father like son, you guys must love your issues. Oh well, fine. If that's what's going on, I'll break up with you. As if I would want a middle-aged man with kids anyway."
The woman gave an energetic wave of her hand.
"Good-bye, then. It was fun while it lasted."
The door closed. Shion let the knife in his hand drop to the floor. His palms were sweaty from nerves.
Rikiga lifted the chair and placed it upright on the floor, and began to gather the pieces of broken glass. There had probably been some kind of drink in it, for its contents had made a stain on the carpet that emitted such an overpowering smell of alcohol that it made Shion feel ill.
"Good god, she certainly let herself go," grumbled Rikiga. "It was fun while it lasted, huh? Putting on a cool face at the last minute. Geez."
Rikiga looked alternately at Shion and Nezumi, and grinned.
"You saved me from the gallows. First, let me give you my thanks."
He had strong, broad shoulders and considerable height. The bridge of his nose was high, and it suited his moustache well. His face was neither handsome nor ugly. It was a face that was both energetic with optimism and worn with hardship; it was a face of cunning, and steely, resilient willpower.
"Your acting could have been better, though. Especially for a star of the show like you, Eve."
Nezumi scooped the knife off the floor and smiled thinly.
"You know about me?"
"I'm your fan. I went to see your show last week."
"That's nice to hear, but I didn't appear in any shows last week."
"Really? Well, anyway, we wanted to do a special feature in our magazine about you. We asked your manager to get an interview with you, but he turned us down."
"He probably would, for a magazine like this." Nezumi's fingers flipped casually through the pages. The cover was a photo of a naked woman. On the whole, she was rather blurry. All the other pages were somewhat similar. Naked women, half-naked men. Lewdness and provocation overflowed in the flimsily-bound pages of the magazine.
"It's the go-to for young people," Rikiga said. "Teaches them everything from birth control to picking up women."
"You should do a feature about the right way to dump a woman next, old man."
Nezumi tossed the magazine aside. Rikiga raised his hands in an exaggerated gesture.
"Ouch Eve, that was pretty harsh. I thought you'd be more of a pansy."
"Nice to hear that coming from someone who was pinned on the floor by a woman just a minute ago."
"I was drunk, alright? And she suddenly just jumped at me― but I never would've guessed that she had a knife on her. Scary things, those women."
Shion took half a step forward.
"Eve... is that your real name, Nezumi?"
"No way. It's just for work."
"Your work... so you're a stage actor."
"Nothing half as classy as that. Maybe a couple steps above this magazine."
"But― oh," Shion murmured in realization. "So that's why you speak and move so gracefully."
A spotlight shines on a dark stage, illuminating a single actor as he floats up out of the darkness. Captivating the eyes, ears, and souls of all who watch, his voice rings out― at times, with a soaring, elegant air; at times, with a pained tremor like a wind that whistles low to the ground.
"What're you imagining, Shion? We're talking about a playhouse here, in the West Block. People who've got a little spare cash to spend come out to forget their worries for a little while. We haven't got any embroidered drop curtains, decent costumes, or stage props. It's mostly impromptu song or dance. That's it."
"But it still makes people forget their worries, right?"
Shion was gazing unblinkingly at Nezumi. In these past few hours, he had experienced almost as much as― no― perhaps even more than what he had seen and heard his entire life. Of course, this was still only just a glimpse. But he had caught a glimpse of how harsh and brutal it was just to live a day, an hour, even a moment, in this world. If these people, in their brief moment of respite, chose to go to this place of their own free will, and that was where Nezumi was, then he thought it was amazing. It neither filled their bellies, nor quenched their thirst. But people still yearned for this crude stage and the tales told on it, and immersed in them, they forgot their melancholy. They clapped, wept, laughed, and bustled with noise. There was no way of telling when death might come sweeping down upon them. But in this moment, they could still live and enjoy life. They could live and enjoy life all the more because of it.
"I think it's amazing, Nezumi."
Nezumi sighed, caught himself hastily, and grimaced.
"Knock it off. It's not as rosy as you make it out to be. You've probably never even seen a stage."
"You're right― In No. 6, students weren't allowed to watch plays."
"I would've thought so. Especially for top-rankers like you, Mr. Elite. Everything you watched or read would be strictly limited― though you probably never even realized it was being withheld from you."
Rikiga stopped mid-gesture as he was bringing a cigarette to his lips. "Hey, wait a minute. Are you saying this wig-boy is from No. 6? You gotta be kidding me."
"This is no joke, old man. And he isn't wearing a wig."
"Then is it some kind of new hat? Is that what's popular in fashion these days?"
"No, it's my real hair," Shion answered. "Just― a lot of things have happened due to― uh, issues."
"Oh?" Rikiga said. "There's nothing I love more than issues. If you've really tumbled out of No. 6, you must have issues like no other. I want to hear your story. And the reason behind that hair."
Nezumi hoisted himself up on the desk, and let his legs dangle.
"Does it smell, old man?"
"Your nose twitched. Did you sniff out an interesting scoop, or what?"
Rikiga clapped a hand to his nose. Nezumi continued laughing softly.
"It's the same nose wild dogs make when they smell food. It twitched, then your nostrils flared."
Rikiga's brow furrowed, and an expression of clear distaste spread over his features.
"I've mentioned this before, Eve. I think I've had misconceptions about you. I thought you'd be more gentle and refined. I would never have imagined such a rude and brash kid. I'm disappointed, frankly."
"I thought you were my fan?"
"You can count me out from now on. Good god, I don't know what you enjoy so much about taunting adults like this."
"Karan," Nezumi spoke quietly. Rikiga froze. "Do you know a woman that goes by that name?"
Rikiga's body, beginning to show the signs of middle-aged weight gain, teetered dangerously. His throat contracted as he swallowed.
"You know Karan...? Are you acquaintances with her?"
"She's my mother."
Rikiga appeared not to understand Shion's words immediately. He sucked in a deep breath.
"I'm― oh, my name is Shion. I'm Karan's son."
"Son... Karan's son, huh... who's the father?"
"I couldn't say."
"You couldn't― don't you know who he is? Is he deceased?"
"No― I've heard from my mother that they separated shortly after I was born. It's just been the two of us all my life. I've never met my father."
Nezumi continued to laugh.
"Are you telling me there's a possibility he might be your son?"
"No― that can't be― wait a minute, er, what was your name again?"
"Shion― aster, huh. Karan did like that flower a lot. Uh― Shion, will you hold on for a minute? I'll get you a drink― ah, I mean, a non-alcoholic one, of course... what would you like? I have everything. Oh yes, here― let's move somewhere more comfortable where we can talk."
Rikiga knocked the wall behind the sofa, and pressed his right hand on it. The wall soundlessly slid to the side.
"Wow," Nezumi whistled. "Fingerprint recognition? You've got fancy gimmicks on this place. Guess it's not as shabby as it looks."
Beyond the wall appeared a rather extravagant room. The floor was lined with a luxurious carpet, and there were leather chairs, a leather sofa, and a table. There was a fire burning in the fireplace set into the wall.
"Come in, this way. I'll pour some coffee. Are you hungry? I have some excellent pie."
Shion had forgotten that he was starving. His empty stomach ached.
"What kind of pie?" Nezumi said. "I prefer meat."
"You can shut up." Rikiga waved his hand irritably at Nezumi.
"You're horrible, treating us so differently like that."
Rikiga ignored him and disappeared into a small adjacent room. The aroma of coffee soon wafted over to them.
"Coffee and pie, huh. I don't believe it." Shion had barely tasted any such savoury foods since escaping from No. 6. Nezumi let his gaze wander about the room.
"You're right. They're luxury items, for sure. And seeing how this room is outfitted... it looks like Inukashi's information was spot-on after all."
"If that's the case..." Shion said pensively. "No, that can't be..."
"What can't be?"
"Mother once told me that my father was fast and loose with money and women, and was one step away from becoming an alcoholic, a hopeless―"
"Yeah. A hopeless good-for-nothing... but she said he was really gentle, honest and straightforward."
"What's that supposed to mean? Is your Mama still attached to him?"
"I have no idea... but it fits his image, right?"
Nezumi threw a glance at the entrance to the small room, and pulled a face.
"I dunno the part about gentle, honest and straightforward, but he sure is fast and loose with women, and halfway there to being an alcoholic. Now that you mention it, I guess you guys look kind of similar around the eyes. Well, we don't have DNA testing here, so there would be no way to know for sure. ―Shion, you don't look too well."
"Ah, no... I'm probably just hungry..."
"Don't worry. Just the idea of that being my father would make me feel ill too. I'd probably break out into a fever."
"You've got a fever? Are you alright?" Rikiga set a tray down on the table. On it was coffee, pie, and a glass of whisky. Shion's mouth watered.
"Karan liked pie, too," Rikiga said reflectively. "She also liked bread and cakes."
"She still loves them," Shion replied. "She bakes bread for a living now."
"Baking, huh... mm-hmm. I see."
An idea sparked in Shion's mind.
"Do you remember about the cherry cake?"
"Cherry cake? I'm not too sure... what, do you want to eat cherry cake?"
"No, it's just... my mother told me once that the day I was born, my father came home with three boxes, each with a whole cherry cake inside. And the two of them ate it together."
Rikiga lifted the glass of amber liquid and squinted.
"Is that so... one of Karan's fond memories, huh? But unfortunately I have no recollection of that. I've never bought cherry cake or eaten it with Karan. I was never even a resident of No. 6. Shion, I'm not your father."
Nezumi swallowed his mouthful of pie and nudged Shion's shoulder.
"So he says. What a relief, huh, Shion?"
"What's that supposed to mean, Eve?"
"It means exactly what it means."
Shion fished out Karan's memo.
"We relied on this memo to get us here."
Rikiga stared intently at Karan's scribbled writing. Shion spoke.
"Shortly after I... escaped from No. 6, my mother sent this to me. She must have thought you were still here. I'm just wondering how you―"
'Know my mother' was what Shion planned to say afterwards, but his words caught in his throat. A tear had spilled from Rikiga's eye.
"Karan... she hadn't forgotten about me... she remembered me... her writing... still the same as I remember it..."
His bowed head and broad shoulders were trembling slightly. Nezumi nudged Shion on the shoulder again.
"Egh, will you look at that. This old man is a teary drunk. At this age too― talk about embarrassing, hah."
"Shut up. What's wrong with getting a little teary? You're always wailing and yelling on the stage."
"That's all acting. What, are you saying yours is an act too, old man?"
Rikiga glared at Nezumi with watery eyes, and raise himself heavily. He extracted a folder from the back of a sturdy bookshelf. He drew a single photo from it and placed it in front of Shion.
"This is Karan and I."
An image of his mother was smiling back at him, young, beautiful and wearing a sleeveless one-piece dress. Beside her stood Rikiga, much thinner and well-proportioned than now, even with a hint of boyishness in his features.
"It was taken decades ago, not long after we met each other. Karan was still a student, and she was interested in the columns I wrote, and came to visit me. The third floor of the company building was my workplace, and when I'd just gotten back from an interview, she was sitting there. It was a rainy day, and thundering outside, but she came all the way out here to see me..."
Rikiga sniffled. Shion and Nezumi looked at each other. Nezumi gave a long, exaggerated sigh.
"You used to be a reporter, didn't you, old man? Can you summarize it a little more efficiently? So basically what you're saying is that you and Shion's Mama first met on the third floor of the Latch Bill company building, am I right?"
"That's right. We got along great... I enjoyed spending time with Karan. I think it must've been love. Back in those days, No. 6 wasn't as closed off as it is now. People were more or less free to come and go. I'd just started my career as a journalist, and one of the things I was sniffing out was about No. 6."
"Sniffing out? So you had some suspicions about that city, huh, old man? You must've had a decent nose back then. Too bad it's useless now."
Rikiga fixed Nezumi with a glare again, and contorted his face in an odd half-grimace.
"Eve, I wasn't kidding when I said I was your fan. When I first went to see you, you were standing centre-stage and reciting a poem. Arthur Rimbaud, I think it was... I was captivated by your appearance, and your voice."
Nezumi licked the grease from the pie off his fingers, and crossed his legs.
"But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea! 
―Shion, know what this is?"
"A stanza from 'The Drunken Boat', if I'm not mistaken."
Nezumi chuckled. "Racing up that learning curve, aren't you? I can treat you to a little more fan service if you want, old man. How about it?"
"No thanks. But let me say this, you were brilliant on that stage. I almost can't believe that it was the same person as this insolent brat that's in front of me. So do me a favour and stop talking."
"Don't be mad," Nezumi drawled. He uncrossed his legs, and his face turned serious. Expression vanished from his voice. It became flat and heavy. It was a voice that was startlingly different from moments before.
"In the beginning, six cities were founded, including No. 6, as model cities for the future. They were models created in the search for a way humankind could live comfortably in a land that was reduced to rubble, riddled with abnormal weather patterns mostly due to the carbon dioxide from massive consumption of fossil fuels during the wars. That was what it was, at first. The plan was that each city would take part in the research and development of things like safe energy that could be mass-produced to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power, and scientific technology that ranged from the nanometre to cosmic scales, in a way that was appropriate for the conditions of each city. This was in hopes that some day, everyone on this earth would be free of any threat to their life― whether it be war, catastrophe, or plague― and this first step toward a world of threat-free life, the cornerstone of hope, was No. 6. In all respects, this was the objective at first. Wasn't it, old man?"
Rikiga drained the rest of his glass of whisky in one gulp. He coughed lightly.
"So I guess classics weren't the only thing you could recite off by heart, Eve. Your manager told me he didn't know your real name, age, or where you were born. He said you were a wanderer that just appeared out of nowhere. But I'm not buying it― you're not just any travelling entertainer. What's your real identity?"
"Nose around my business afterwards. So during the time this picture was taken, No. 6 was still seen as the hope for all humankind, right? But you had doubts. A fine nose you must've had to smell something fishy there."
"When I became a journalist, No. 6 was already in the process of change," Rikiga said. "Research organizations were gathering all sorts of skilled labour, and their departments flourished; but on the other hand, release of information and free speech were becoming more and more restricted. I thought, is this really going to become a utopian city? I had my doubts. You and your smart mouth are right. Back then, I had a nose that could sniff out something that I couldn't see. While I was scrambling around, the barriers spread further and grew more secure, and going to and fro from outside parts became much more difficult. Soon, you couldn't even enter or exit without a permit from the city. It happened in no time. Since I was a journalist, they made sure I could never set foot in that place again. They stamped out the freedom of the press, just like that. Of course, that meant I couldn't see Karan anymore either. To tell you the truth, I think that hit me harder than not being able to do my work.
A decade and some later... you get what you're seeing now. The surroundings of No. 6 became places whose sole purpose was to service the one, central city. Agricultural lands, cattle pastures, recreational forest― and this is their garbage can. Destitution, dispute, disease, violence― the rubbish that No. 6 spits out all ends up here. You two probably don't know this, but this town used to be a small, but much more decent place than it is now. At least, not a place that's been classified and shelved away with an impersonal label like the West Block. But they've turned this place into a garbage can. What's this hope they're speaking of now? Some Holy City this is― they're doing the name a disgrace. It's more like a devil that releases toxins everywhere it goes."
"I guess humans and cities are similar, then," Nezumi remarked. "In time they forget the ambitions they set out with, and corrupt themselves to no end."
Nezumi drained the rest of his coffee, and threw a glance at the man who had just finished talking.
"What's that supposed to mean? Are you saying that I've been corrupted?"
"Can you say that you aren't?"
Shion let his eyes flit to Nezumi's profile. He felt that Nezumi was provoking Rikiga. Rikiga responded to that provocation. No― maybe he had just been lead into the skilful trap.
"You're criticizing me about how I've become a drunk, huh? How I've been reduced to making magazines full of naked pictures, drinking as much booze as I could bathe in, and to top it off, nearly getting killed by a woman."
"You sound bitter, old man. But using pretty words instead isn't gonna help you survive here."
"Everyone knows that."
"What I'm curious about is how decked-out this room is. A warm room, and good food. You can't get those things easily. I can't see all your income for this coming from those porno mags. Which means― you've got ahold of someone's purse strings. Am I right?"
Nezumi smiled. It was a haughty, but elegant smile, like of one passing divine judgment.
"I heard high officials from No. 6 come here secretly ever so often."
Rikiga's mouth made a chewing motion.
"Old man, I heard you take orders from these men and bring them the kind of women they want, like the middleman in a deal. I guess your connections from your journalist days ended up being pretty useful. And the enormous payment you get from these guys pays for this luxurious lifestyle. You suck up to the guys who are pretty much at the core of the city that you just called the Devil, and leech off the good parts while you live off women who have no choice but to sell their bodies to avoid cold and starvation. You don't call that corruption?"
All expression vanished from Rikiga's face. It had no light or shadow, and looked strangely flat. The flames from the fireplace were lighting the right half of his face.
"...Where did you hear about that?"
"From a dog."
"A dog told me he heard you and some man whispering under the stairs. Afterwards, the man got in his car and drove right through the special gates of the Access Control Office, and got into No. 6 without any difficulty. The kind of people that can go between No. 6 and the West Block freely are limited. Only High Officials who have a special identification card with them can. Everyone else would get destroyed at the gates."
Shion gulped. He felt like he was watching a stage play. He could read nothing from the man's face, which was coloured crimson by the flames. Suddenly, its mouth twisted.
"How would you like to join, then?"
"No. 6 is a boring place. You're not allowed to have a disorderly lifestyle. Beggars and prostitutes aren't allowed to exist. Everyone's listless. So they come here to stretch their wings. They come, laugh at the women who sell themselves for whatever meagre cash that'll take them. The men reconfirm that they're a specially privileged class, and take joy in that again. After their short moment of fun, they go back to their boring home. Those kind of people are the ones that keep coming back."
"So business is booming, huh? That's good for you."
"Thankfully, yes. But their demands seem to have no end. They give me different orders, every time. First they want a dark-skinned girl, next they want a young girl with a tattoo all down her back. It gets stressful sometimes."
Shion had his head bowed. It pained him to listen to Rikiga talking. No. 6 was a beautiful city on its surface. Now he was hesitant whether to call that real beauty, but nevertheless, it was orderly. Its nature and buildings maintained a delicate balance, neither one over-asserting itself, and all its people were gentle and polite. Behind all of that was the truth that he was hearing now. His eyes met with Karan's in the photograph.
Mom, the place where we lived, the place where you still live now, was just a monster wearing a mask of beauty. Mom....
"And you're inviting me to join you in head-hunting for women?"
It was Nezumi's dry, brittle voice. Rikiga laughed. It was vulgar and insulting to the ears.
"Never. That would be a waste of good labour that could be put to better use. I've actually been thinking about it ever since I first saw you on that stage. You could rake in as much money as you want. It should be a piece of cake for you to sweet-talk those bored stiffs into showering you with money. What do you think? It'll pay way more than that shabby hut of a playhouse."
"Are you telling me to take customers? Has the alcohol gotten to your brain, old man?"
Rikiga sneered. "Don't try to play cool with me. God knows where you've come from and where you've been― a wandering actor like you has probably had experience with it anyway. It's no use pretending you're an innocent―"
It was Shion who had yelled. He whipped the coffee cup and its contents at Rikiga. He leapt over the table, grabbed him by the shirt, which was soaked through, and leaned in with all his weight. Rikiga gave a short cry as he fell to the floor.
"That's enough!" Shion yelled angrily. "How dare you say something so degrading! Apologize― apologize to him!"
Shion straddled Rikiga and shook him roughly. The back of Rikiga's head banged against the floor repeatedly. Still holding him by the collar, Shion closed his hands around Rikiga's throat.
"Can't― breathe―" Rikiga gasped. "Shion, please― I really can't―I'll apologize... so stop―"
"Shut up! You shameless― shame on you―"
A pair of hands slid under his armpits, and he was dragged backwards.
"Shion, that's good enough. Any more, and the old man's gonna pass out."
Rikiga curled up and coughed.
"That was a surprise," Nezumi murmured, still holding Shion from behind. He really sounded stunned. "I never imagined you'd resort to violence. I guess even you let the blood get to your head sometimes, huh. Enough to go attacking people like that."
"...First time in my life..." said Shion, slightly out of breath.
"I can tell. Your heart is going a mile a minute."
Shion turned and impatiently brushed Nezumi's hand away.
"Why aren't you angry?"
"Angry? If I let a joke like that get to me every time, I'd be going mad all year round. I'm used to it. It's no big deal."
"Idiot? Shion, what're you getting all worked up for?"
"You're an idiot. What he said wasn't a joke. Don't say you've gotten used to it. Don't―"
His eyes burned. A tear spilled before he could screw his eyes shut.
"Shion― come on, don't cry. Why would you... ―I can't believe you're crying," Nezumi said exasperatedly.
"He... insulted you."
"He insulted you. He said horrible things― lumped you in with the filthy officials of No. 6. But you say it's no big deal. You weren't even angry about it... and that made me feel even more helpless and angry― so angry... I don't even know what to do anymore..."
Nezumi opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. He yanked the tablecloth and thrust the end of it toward Shion.
"This is all I've got, but you can wipe your face on it."
"Shion, the one who got insulted was me, and not you. Don't cry for other people. Don't get into fights for other people. Fight and cry only for yourself."
"I don't understand what you're saying."
"I guess you wouldn't― sometimes it's like we speak different languages. Look, there's snot coming out of your nose. Wipe it, come on."
"I always find it impossible to understand you. Even if we spent our whole lives together, I probably still wouldn't understand you. You're right in front of me, but at the same time, it's like you're far away. That's probably why―"
Rikiga rose to his feet behind Shion.
"I'm sorry for interrupting your moment, but I want to let you know that that tablecloth is silk. I had a hard time coming across that thing, so I'd appreciate if you didn't wipe your nose on it."
He peered into Shion's face.
"Your angry face looked just like Karan's. I felt like I was being scolded by Karan herself. Though with her, I've never been yelled at that violently."
Then he turned to Nezumi, and lowered his head in apology.
"I'm sorry. I went too far. I deserved to be punched. Looks like my morals have rotted right through."
"They haven't rotted. They're just pickled in alcohol, that's all."
Nezumi gave Shion a light push on the back.
"I think we can call it a day. Let's go home."
"Sure. But I have to clean up first."
"You really are a well-behaved little boy, aren't you?"
"Make fun of me all you want, but I'm still going to clean up."
Shion bent to retrieve the coffee cup. Nezumi also reached for the folders and plates scattered on the floor. His body stiffened. His breath was caught in his throat, and he was frozen.
"Nezumi, what's wrong?"
Nezumi's fingertips were trembling slightly as they held a single photograph. It had probably fallen out of one of the folders. Rikiga narrowed his eyes.
"What's the matter? Oh, that."
There were several men and women in the picture, with Karan at the centre.
"It's a photo from the last time I entered No. 6. It's a picture of Karan and her friends."
Nezumi pointed at the tall man standing at Karan's side.
"That guy, huh," said Rikiga absentmindedly. "Who was he again? I think he said he was in an institution for biological research― looks like a bright fellow, doesn't he? I can't remember much about him, though. He didn't really stand out. Eve, you know this guy?"
"How do you know him?"
Nezumi drew a breath, and answered quietly.
"He's my godfather."
Read Chapter 4.
- Rimbaud, Arthur. "The Drunken Boat" ("Le Bateau ivre"). Completed Works, Selected Letters. Trans. Wallace Fowlie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 135. (back)
- Godparent [名付け親] in Japanese can mean both "guardian" (the standard English meaning) or literally, "the naming parent" or one who has named the child. Nezumi is using it in both senses. (back)
- Font credit to JOEBOB Graphics for Joe Hand 2.