Karan was at a loss for words. She couldn't let go of the arm she was grasping. The slender sixteen-year-old girl stood silently before her.
"Safu... what on earth are you saying? Do you know what kind of place the West Block is?"
"I don't. I've only heard that it's a terrifying place. But I'm still going."
"But― but― you said so yourself just now. It might be possible to exit the city, but getting back in..."
"It doesn't matter to me," Safu said determinedly. "Even if I could never come back here again, I wouldn't regret it. If Shion is in the West Block, that's where I'm going."
"I want to see him. I want to see Shion." Safu's eyes welled up with tears. She bit down on her lip.
She's a strong girl, Karan thought. At this young age, she's already learned how to stop her tears.
Karan reached out and embraced the girl to her bosom.
"Thank you, Safu."
"You know, I always thought I was alone. I thought I had to carry this burden all by myself... but you were right there with me. You had a place in your heart for Shion too― thank you."
"I... I love him," Safu said, her voice trembling. "From the bottom of my heart, I've always, always, loved only him."
"Mmhmm," Karan murmured in assent.
"I don't want to lose him. I want to be by his side."
"I know." She stroked Safu's back.
In the distant past, I'd said the same thing once. I'd met a man I cared about more than anyone else, and I never wanted to lose him. I wished I could be by his side forever.
But they had separated. The only thing he left in her hands was her newborn baby. 'Shion' was a name that the man had given to his son. It was his last and only gift to her.
"Women can go on living without a man, you know."
It had come out as a whisper. Perhaps Safu had not heard, for she raised her face and blinked at her as if in question. As she blinked, a single tear spilled over and rolled down her smooth cheek.
"Safu, can I ask you to believe in him?"
"Believe in him. He'll come home one day. Somehow, I just know he will. He's not as weak as he looks."
"I know that, very well."
"So please, wait for him," Karan implored. "Take some time to see how the situation unfolds. I don't think it would be good for us to act rashly."
Safu's shoulders raised and dropped as she took a deep breath.
"Madam, can I ask you one more thing?"
"Who's by his side right now?"
It was an unexpected question. Someone who was with Shion― unseen, but by his side nonetheless. Who was it?
"Is it Nezumi, I wonder?"
"Yes, Nezumi. That's the only person I can imagine."
"I wonder if he's a very important person to Shion?" Safu asked.
"I think so. Maybe even as much as you and I are to him."
Safu smiled, and announced that she was going to go home.
"Wait, Safu," Karan said urgently. "Promise me you won't do anything rash. You'll wait until he comes home, won't you? Right?"
The girl's smile didn't fade. But the light in her eyes was defiant, and harboured a clear intention.
"I don't like to wait."
"I've always been like this. I can't just sit still and do nothing while I wait. This morning, I went to do all the paperwork to get my exchange cancelled. I'm free now. So I'm going to go. I'm going to get to where Shion is, no matter what it takes."
Karan shook her head. She felt like no matter what she said, it would be of no use now. But she had to stop Safu. She couldn't let her make the foolish choice to walk right into the spider's web.
"Safu, I may be Shion's mother, but I don't know every single thing about him. There are probably more things I don't know. But― but you see, I know that surely he wouldn't want you to put yourself in danger just to see him. If something happened to you because of that, then he would suffer for his whole life. This much, I know for sure. So please..."
Safu raised her chin. She pursed her lips firmly.
"This has nothing to do with how Shion feels."
"I'm doing this because I want to. I'm being selfish, I know. But I can't just sit and wait for Shion in this state. I want to see him so badly. That's why I'm going. That's all there is to it... I'm not a mother, Madam― I can't be strong like you. I can't keep waiting out of faith. I don't want to regret anything. If― if by some chance, he ends up never coming back... I'm going to be the one to suffer for my whole life. I don't want that. I don't want to lose him."
"But Safu..." Karan said the same words again softly, in her heart.
But Safu, you know, women can go on living without a man. It'll be painful, and it might feel like your limb has been torn away, but you'll still be able to live on carrying that wound. Even with that burden, one day you'll be able to laugh again. That's why― please, don't put your life on the line for any man. Please, live for your own sake.
How could she respond to this girl's stubborn and fiercely devoted feelings? How could she convince her? Karan awkwardly but desperately struggled to find the right words. But already, Safu was turning her body away from her.
"Madam, I'm glad I was able to see you. Good-bye."
No, Safu― never say words of farewell like that.
"Next time, come by before noon," Karan called out. She willed her words to reach the back of the figure clad in grey.
"Yes. I bake bread from early morning right up to before noon. Earlier in the morning, I bake mostly rolls and loaves, but closer to noon I bake sweet breads and cakes. I'm going to bake three kinds of muffins. Do come and have a bite. I have delicious black tea to go with it, too."
There was a moment of silence between the two.
"I know," Karan continued, "Safu, if you're willing, would you be able to help me with this shop? I'll teach you how to bake bread. I've been very lonely all this time. If you would come and work here, I would be so happy."
She knew she was being foolish. But what else could I have said? How else could I distract her heart from Shion? How can I protect her from danger?
"Thank you, Madam. I love muffins. I'll look forward to the day I can taste them."
The girl once more said her words of farewell, and stepped out into the nighttime streets. Karan silently watched her back disappear. Her arms and legs felt heavy. One sigh after another escaped her lips.
Why were girlhood loves so fluttering, anxious, and blindly devoted? Girls at this age couldn't even wait patiently with faith. Their feelings were so turbulent, so passionate with longing, and so painful.
I'd completely forgotten how it was to feel like that.
Karan sighed again.
It was after she had locked up and was about to turn off the lights that Karan noticed the baby-pink scarf. The forgotten scarf. She could almost feel Safu's agitation.
Yes, Safu was still wavering in her decision. If she had even a little bit of uncertainty, she may be able to stop her from going. It might not be too late after all.
Karan clutched the scarf in both hands, and opened the door of her shop.
She was about to exit the alleyway into the main street when she realized she had forgotten her scarf. It was a piece that was hand-knitted by her grandmother.
Right now, hand-knitted scarves and sweaters had come back into fashion because many people found the woolly texture pleasing on the skin. But back when Safu had been small, no one wore scarves in No. 6. Most people wore undergarments made of special fibre under their clothes, and all parts that touched the skin were kept at a level temperature. People didn't need to wear scarves, nor even a thin sweater or gloves.
Safu's grandmother knitted as a hobby, and she was always knitting sweaters and scarves for her granddaughter. Safu was often laughed at by classmates for them. Even though they were in the same Elite curriculum, the kids would find any small difference and mock or put others down because of it. The hand-knitted scarves and sweaters she wore became a target of ridicule.
"Wow, is that an artifact from the last century?"
"I've only seen that in a museum before."
No one understood what consideration for others was, or anything about people's souls, or people's dignity. It was because they had never learned about it. Everyone thought they were the chosen ones. The chosen ones were permitted to do anything. People belonged to classes: the chosen ones, and those who were not. Apart from an enormous amount of theoretical knowledge, in the classrooms which were outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, that was all they had learned.
But Shion was different. He knew to treat others with as much respect as he treated himself. He put himself neither above nor below others. He was an oddity. That was how Safu had felt about him.
This person is different from the others.
She didn't remember when anymore, but he had once complimented a black sweater that Safu was wearing. The sweater had had a reddish-pink trim across the chest and around the mouth of the sleeves.
"It looks really nice on you."
Safu had been checking the day's class schedule on the EL display on her desk. She hesitated a little at being spoken to so suddenly.
"That sweater looks really nice. I can tell just by looking at it that it's really warm."
"Th― thank you."
"No worries. But now I've learned something new."
"Black and pink go pretty well together. I had no idea they did."
It wasn't anything like a proper conversation. It was abrupt, and one-sided. But at that moment, in Safu's soul, the gentle-faced boy had risen and left an imprint.
What a strange person...
He was a strange person. He was different from the rest. So one day, he'll probably go a different way from the rest of us too. He'll probably leave, throwing away without a second thought everything we've clung onto, everything that we've been taught to prize most importantly.
She had had the feeling before.
So when Shion had passed the selection examinations for the High Institute's Gifted Curriculum, only to lose his privilege shortly afterwards to move away to Lost Town, Safu wasn't surprised. Her premonition had just come true. There was nothing to be surprised about. But she wanted to know why. She wanted to know the meaning behind the eyes Shion made ever so often.
What are you looking at? Who are you looking for?
Don't let your eyes wander so far away. Look at me. I'm right in front of you.
They were such simple words, but she could never bring herself to say them. They were such strong feelings, but they showed no sign of getting across. Communications devices were progressing in quality day by day, and card-type mobile phones, wearable computers and electronic paper all existed and were used in the real world― but all of them were useless to her. They served no function to communicate her soul to the one that stood beside her. It riddled her with anxiety.
She was frustrated at herself for not knowing any words of confession, and at Shion for not even trying to sense her feelings. But even so, she had bared her soul just before departing on exchange. She was embarrassed at herself for being so direct, but it was the only way she could say it.
I want you. I've always wanted you.
Simple and direct words. It was the best confession she could muster. But it had been brushed away all too easily.
I always thought of you as a friend.
What an Oscar-award-winning answer. It was so ridiculous she had wanted to dissolve into peals of laughter. So funny, it was almost painful.
You numbskull, idiot, grow up a little, won't you?
She criticized him in her mind. But she had still been able to tell him what she wanted to say. That was good enough. Her load was one millstone lighter. In two years, when I get back from my exchange, I'll start over again. I'll look at him face-to-face again, when I'll be two years more mature. Her soul would remain unchanged. She still ached for him with longing.
But Shion for the most part, had not even been looking at Safu. His soul had been captured by something else, and he had forgotten about her. For the first time, she had seen this calm and serene boy of few words being ruffled right before her eyes.
Shion's emotions had lost their equilibrium, and he had been in agitation.
She had tried to follow Shion's gaze, through the station, through the crowd of people, but she had not been able to see anything. Whoever it was that she couldn't see had probably been the person Shion had been searching for. And right now, that person was probably by his side. Although she had no evidence, she was certain it was true. It was no use wondering who that person might be. He was an unknown persona.
Is it Nezumi, I wonder? That was what Karan had said.
There was. There had been a mouse. Before they had parted at the station, a small mouse had climbed up onto Shion's shoulder.
"Nezumi." She tried saying it out loud. Only the image of a lab rat came to mind. The wind blew. She felt cold around the neck. Should I go back to get my scarf? Right as she was about to change direction, a dark shadow appeared before her.
"Are you Safu-san?" She was called by her name. A faint chill ran down her spine. These uniforms― they were law enforcement officers of the Security Bureau.
Why were Bureau officials―?
"Safu-san, am I right?" One of the men repeated his question. It was a question he already knew the answer to.
"May I see your ID card?" After confirming the card that Safu showed them, the officials looked at each other and nodded. Their tone of voice was courteous, but were not friendly in any way. It was mechanical, with no human warmth. Her chill got worse.
"If you don't mind, we'd like for you to come to the Security Bureau with us."
By the time she had raised a small cry, she had already been flanked by officials on both sides and taken by the arms.
"Please get in the car."
"No, let me go!" She struggled. Their grip didn't loosen.
"Stop it! What are you taking me for? Tell me why," Safu demanded.
"Get the hell in there and you'll find out soon." Their words became rough. It looked like they intended to forcibly escort her. Safu let her body relax.
"Alright. Please, just don't use violence on me." She took a step forward.
She pretended to trip, and let her body fall forward. The men's hands loosened. She rammed herself into the man to her right. He staggered back a few steps. Safu swung her bag around, and whipped it at the other man. She sped through the space between them.
She had to get away. If she got captured, she would never be able to see Shion again.
What it meant to be forcibly escorted by the Security Bureau― she knew by instinct, not logic. I'll never be able to see him again.
She saw a shadow at the end of the alleyway. It was too far away to make out clearly, but she could see that it was holding something light-coloured in its hands.
Her baby-pink scarf.
Her feet stopped.
Madam, no. Don't come this way.
She tried to whirl around, but she was grabbed by the shoulder. Her wrist was wrenched and twisted behind her back. A shooting pain. Her mouth was covered as she opened it to scream.
The men didn't speak a single word anymore. Silently, they proceeded to capture Safu. A feeling of terror raced through her whole body.
I'm scared. No. Help me. She struggled to get free. She heard the sound of her coat ripping. A button tore off and rolled onto the street.
Help me. No―help―
She felt a shock in her neck. Her body went numb, and she couldn't move as she wanted to.
"No... help me..." She was fading out of consciousness. The night scene before her blurred.
Before she could murmur the name, Safu was dragged into the darkness.
Karan saw the shadowy figures tangled in a struggle. She heard a small cry. She instantly recognized it as Safu's voice. She hesitated for a moment, then broke into a run. But her legs didn't move as she willed them to, and she tripped and fell, and struck her knee hard on the pavement.
By the time Karan had gotten back up, the men were dragging Safu's limp body into a car. It was like a silent shadow play performed on an empty street. But what was unfolding before her under the evenly-spaced street lamps was none other than reality. The men were not acting in a fiction― they were carrying out their assigned mission, without a single word.
Her breath caught in her throat. Curled up on the pavement, she was unable to move. It was not pain, but fear, that prevented her feet from stepping forward.
One of the men glanced this way. Or at least she thought he did. Her body shrank in horror. Karan was curled up outside of where the light shone, so in this darkness it would be difficult to see her. But with night-vision goggles, the time of day was of no concern. They could see into the darkness as if it were midday. They could probably see Karan crystal-clear.
She was terrified.
But the men swiftly got into the car. The black station wagon silently glided forward, and disappeared from Karan's sight within seconds. Karan lifted herself up and clenched the scarf in her hands.
She said her name out loud, and the real terror of it finally set in. Her hands shook. She staggered home, and locked the door. The faint smell of bread soothed her a little.
Safu had been taken away by the Security Bureau. It had almost been like a kidnapping.
Why? Why did she have to get captured? Is it because of Shion? If it is, then why is it Safu, and not me? Why on earth―
She didn't know. She didn't know anything.
A small mouse poked its head out from under the glass case. It was holding a morsel of cheese bread in its paws.
Would Nezumi be able to help her? Would he bring her salvation? Would he take the hand she extended out to him?
Toward the small animal with grape-coloured eyes, Karan extended her palm.
Read Chapter 5.