The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.
- Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, astronaut
After Shion had finished reading the picture book, Kalan gave a sigh of satisfaction.
"That was a good story."
Rico blew out of his flared nostrils sullenly. He fiddled with the newly-changed bandages on his neck and complained.
"Well, I didn't think it was good. Stories about rabbits are boring."
"Then what kind of story do you want to hear, Rico?" Shion asked.
"Ummmm―" Rico paused for a moment of thought. "Oh, a story about bread. And― and one about soup and fried sweet potatoes."
"You must be hungry, Rico."
Kalan turned to Shion and nodded.
"He's hungry all the time. Rico gets more hungry than anyone else."
"Just a minute, then. I think I've got some soup..." Was there any soup left for him? A bowlful of soup that could sate Rico's empty stomach for a short while―
Kalan stood up.
"No, thank you. It's okay. We have to go home now." She took her little brother by the hand and made for the door. She stopped, turned, and spoke in a small voice. "Thank you for reading to us."
"You're very welcome."
"Can we come again tomorrow?"
"Okay." A smile spread across Kalan's face, and she half-dragged Rico out the door. Nezumi stretched in the shadow of a pile of a books.
"Stupid as always, aren't you."
"They say the biggest idiots are the ones who don't realize they're idiots. I think there was a proverb like that." Nezumi stood up, and draped the superfibre cloth around his neck. "You tried to give a handout to the kids. You tried to give them leftover soup."
"Is that a stupid thing to do?"
"Those kids came here to be read to. They didn't come to beg. If you can ensure that Rico will never starve again, that would be fine and dandy. But if you give him leftover soup on a whim one day, what're you gonna do the next time he starves? You wouldn't be able to take care of him all the time. If you're going to be irresponsible and abandon him halfway, it would be better not to give him anything at all in the first place. Kalan has a better idea of how things work. That girl is bright and dignified. She knew to refuse your half-hearted and reckless charity."
Shion sank into a chair. Nezumi's words always inflicted him with pain. It felt like his skin was being torn from his very body. He could almost hear the sound of his flesh being ripped from him. His foolishness, his arrogance, his heedlessness. His outward vanity stripped from him, he was left naked: superficial and pretentious― his real self. Nezumi strode in front of him and continued to speak while he pulled on a pair of gloves.
"There's a second example of your stupidity. Wanna hear it?"
"Sure. Tell me."
"You made a promise for tomorrow."
"Is there something wrong with that?"
"There's no guarantee that there's gonna be a tomorrow."
Shion took a deep breath.
"So you're saying that I can't be sure that I'll be alive tomorrow to read a book to those children?"
"Yeah. See, you're starting to pick up on things more quickly. You're on the Bureau's Wanted list, and you went wandering around outside yesterday. I wouldn't be surprised if the tracking satellites have got you already. Maybe the guys who have nothing better to do over at the Security Bureau's Law Enforcement division are heading over here right now. If they are, then you can forget having a read-aloud tomorrow. At best you'd be in a solitary cell in the Correctional Facility; at worst, you won't even be able to speak, because you'll be dead."
Shion was gazing at Nezumi's leather-gloved hands. Even when he was speaking crudely, his movements were still graceful. Shion wanted to imitate him if he could.
"What?" Nezumi said. "You're spaced out again."
"Oh.... uh, sorry."
"You really have no sense of danger, do you? I think even a newborn fawn would be more cautious than you."
"I don't want to hear it," he said abruptly. "I'm going to work."
"Do the city authorities really intend to capture me?"
"This place is adjacent to No. 6," Shion continued. "If they really set out to catch me, it wouldn't be hard for them at all... no, not even just me. You're a VC on the run too, aren't you? And unlike me, you go walking around outside all the time. No. 6's tracking satellites are able to keep detailed surveillance on one location from their stationary orbit."
"So I'm wondering why. The authorities aren't serious about trying to catch us. They certainly haven't gotten desperate about it, to say the least."
Nezumi shrugged his shoulders.
"Shion, in both good and bad ways, the city you were born in isn't interested in things outside of it. For them, everything's complete within those walls of special alloy. The West Block is their garbage can. Here, they throw away their waste, their pus. If you're pus to them, they probably think the West Block is an appropriate place for you. They've squeezed the pus out of their tiny wound, and thrown it away in the garbage. They're not going to come back looking for it."
"So I'd be safe as long as I stayed here."
"Who knows? It probably won't go that well, but there's a chance you will be. ―You said you wanted to go on living here, didn't you? Maybe your dream will come true."
"Until spring, at least."
He had a moratorium until spring. Once spring came, and the wasps entered their activity period, what would happen in the interior of the Holy City? Would the parasite wasps sweep the city with their dread? He had to do something before it got warmer, before spring arrived. He had to come up with a plan before they passed the winter through.
"The man-eating wasps have finally shown themselves," said Nezumi airily. "You should just sit back and watch. It'll be an interesting stage, to see what happens to No. 6. Our wasp will be the star of the stage. A tragedy like no other― or a comedy like no other. I wonder which one it'll be?"
"Mother is still inside that city. I can't stand by and be a spectator."
"What, you're planning on going home?"
"Once, before spring comes. I'm going to see if I can make a blood serum by then."
"Using your own blood?"
"Yeah. It would be impossible to make a perfect one, of course, but it's worth giving it a try."
"Hey, you might be a genius, but what can you do without any beakers or syringes? You sure can't get them here."
"I'm going to try asking Rikiga-san. He might be able to get his hands on at least the bare minimum of equipment I'll need."
"The man won't do anything unless it's going to put money in his pocket," Nezumi said flatly. "You might be the son of a girl he used to love, but try to get him to do free labour, and he'll turn away as fast as anything."
"You think so?" Shion said dubiously. "―But we'll still need a serum. Yeah, I'll tell him if it goes well, he could make some money off of it. I'll convince him someh―"
Nezumi's foot moved. Shion, chair and all, went flying across the floor. A pile of books collapsed. The mice darted away.
"What was that for?" He tried to get up. Before Shion could move, Nezumi's knee was on his chest, and his hand was holding his shoulder down.
"Shion." Looking down into Shion's face from above as he lay on his back, Nezumi moved his fingers from Shion's shoulder to his throat. Through the leather of his gloves, Shion could feel the sensation of five fingers at his neck. They tightened their grip slowly.
"Aren't you gonna resist?"
"No. It wouldn't be any use. You'd agree," Shion said calmly.
"Giving up pretty easily, huh? Don't you care about your life?"
"Of course I do."
"Or are you thinking that I'd never kill you?"
Nezumi smiled. His grey eyes, his thin lips, and well-shaped nose formed a beautiful but cruel and pitiless smile.
"Don't think too highly of yourself," he said softly. A knife appeared in Nezumi's hand as if by magic. "I remember doing something like this four years ago too. I was holding you down like this on your bed."
"I remember too," Shion said. "That time, I was the one that went lunging at you. You dodged it like it was nothing, and then the next moment, you were pinning me down and I couldn't even move."
That stormy night. He remembered the wind howling outside his window. He remembered the sensation of Nezumi's skinny body, feverish and hot. It had been four years since then.
It's been four years, and I still have neither skill nor the heart to push this body aside.
"That time, I was holding a spoon. And I said― do you remember? ― that if this was a knife, you'd be dead."
"Wanna give it a try?" His fingers moved away from Shion's throat. In their place, the blade of a knife was pushed under his chin. It was cold. Shion felt a prick of pain.
"I won't let you make a blood serum," Nezumi whispered. "I didn't save you so you could go around doing something like that. Keep your nose out of things you have no business in. Stay holed up here until the time comes."
"'Til the time comes? When's that gonna be?"
"When I strike No. 6 with its fatal blow, that's when."
"When you strike No. 6..."
"Yeah. I'm going to choke its last breath out of it."
The weight lifted off Shion's chest. Nezumi put away his knife, and wiped the cruel smile off his face. He pulled a glove off, and stroked Shion under the chin with his bare finger. A small red smudge came off on his fingertip.
"This is your blood. Don't even think of doing something foolish like making a serum. Put it to better use."
"Nezumi." Shion grabbed his wrist. "Why do you loathe No. 6 so much?"
There was no answer.
"What happened between you and No. 6? Why do you have so much hatred for it?"
Nezumi exhaled shortly. The muscles of his wrist flexed.
"Shion, do you still not understand what kind of place No. 6 is? It sucks the nutrients from the places around it, and while they grow lean, it only become more engorged. It's a hideous―"
"Yeah. So you do know what I'm talking about. Humankind is becoming more and more intent on expelling parasitic organisms. What I'm doing is the same thing. I'm going to exterminate and wipe No. 6 off the face of the earth. Once that place is gone, the people here won't have to live in a garbage can anymore."
"But what I want to hear is your personal reason," Shion persisted.
"I don't have one."
"You're lying. You're the one who told me only to fight for myself."
Nezumi fell silent, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Is it revenge?"
Silence. Nezumi didn't even bother to shake Shion's wrist off, and gazed at him as they stood face-to-face.
"Do you want revenge on No. 6? If you do― then what happened?"
"I don't need to tell you."
"I want to hear it." Shion clenched his fingers around Nezumi's wrist. "I want to know, Nezumi."
Suddenly, Nezumi started laughing. It sounded like a laugh that was genuinely full of mirth.
"Geez, you're like a brat throwing a tantrum. Alright, Shion."
"If I tell you, would you co-operate with me?"
"Would you aid me as I stab a knife into the heart of the city you were born and raised in? Would you help me bring destruction― not salvation― unto that city? I don't need any blood serum. If parasite wasps do exist, then I'll use them. I want to wreak havoc on No. 6 from the inside. I want to watch as the people that have always lived in safety fall into a panic, flee in confusion, and lead themselves to destruction. That's the kind of thing I have in mind. Will you aid me, Shion?"
Shion shook his head from side to side. He dropped his gaze from the pair of grey eyes.
"I can't do that."
Shion's fingers were shaken off.
"You're always like that," Nezumi spat. "You babble on about how you want to know, but you're never prepared to handle it. To know means to be prepared to know. Once you find out the truth, there's no going back. You can't ever go back to being the way you were, blissful and unconcerned. Why can't you understand that? ―Shion, let me ask another question."
Nezumi squatted, and hooked a finger under Shion's chin.
"Me, or No.6 ― which one do you choose?"
Shion's breath caught in his throat. He knew he would be faced with this decision one day. He had felt it coming.
Which would he choose? If he chose one, he would lose the other. He didn't want to go back to No. 6. In that sense, he had no attachments whatsoever left for that city. But with people, it was different. His mother, and Safu, who was off in another city now, and the residents of Lost Town were all within those walls. Within those walls were familiar scenery and fond memories.
If Nezumi harboured hatred toward the entirety of No. 6, its people, scenery, memories and all, then he couldn't sympathize with that hatred.
Nezumi's fingers withdrew from his chin.
"You love No. 6, and I hate it. That's why― one day, we're going to be enemies."
It was a murmur. A murmur that stabbed at his heart.
"I have a feeling that we will," Nezumi said quietly.
He had said something similar before. That time, too, Shion had said that he wanted to know. He had wanted to know how Nezumi grew up. I want to know about you, he had said. And now he was receiving the same answer as he did that time. We're going to be enemies. But that time, there had still been laughter in Nezumi's eyes, and his voice had been light with jest. But now, it was heavy. A darkness hung over the statement, and its weighty reality sank deeper into Shion. It was Nezumi's honest answer.
Some day, we'll be enemies.
Nezumi rose to his feet, and looked up at the clock on the wall.
"Crap, I'm late," he said to himself. "The manager's probably pissed off." He turned his back to Shion. His voice and his eyes were wiped clean of any shadow of murderous intent. His grey eyes were bright, and his tone of voice was casual.
"Yes, yes," Nezumi said unconcernedly. "Mama is going to work now. Little lamb, you are in charge of the house while I'm gone. A scary wolf is going to come by, but whatever you do, you aren't allowed to open the door. Okay?"
"Don't underestimate me," Shion said quietly.
Nezumi's expression hardened. He drew his chin back a little, and knitted his brow.
"What did you just say?"
"I said, don't underestimate me too much."
"Are you offended because I called you a little lamb? Then why don't I give you the role of the Little Red Riding Hood? Cute and innocent Red Riding Hood. Oblivious to doubts and caution, she ends up being eaten by the wolf. A perfect role for you."
I'm not going be provoked. You can condescend me all you like. But I have something I need to tell you.
"Sometimes there are things I can see that you can't."
"I don't understand what you're saying," Nezumi said bluntly. "Oh wait, that's supposed to be your usual line, right?"
"You put everything into dichotomies," Shion continued, ignoring Nezumi's comment. "You either love or you hate. You're either friends or enemies. Outside the wall, or inside the wall. And you always say you can only ever choose one of them."
"Of course. If I stood there at the fork in the road wasting time trying to decide what to do, I'd wither away. That's what cowards and traitors do. You can't run away forever. Some day you'll have to choose one over the other."
"Don't you think that there could be a third way?"
"Shion, what you're saying is incomprehensible," Nezumi said irritably. "What 'third way'?"
"Instead of destroying No. 6, what if you made it disappear? Don't you ever think about that?"
Nezumi put a hand to his cheek, and took a deep breath. He was restraining himself from letting it show on his face, but Shion could tell he was agitated. Shion took a step forward.
"Tear the walls down. Get rid of them."
"You mean No. 6's barriers?"
"Yeah. Without its walls, No. 6 as a place will no longer exist. Everyone will be able to come and go freely. Take away the walls and gates. Then there will be nothing dividing No. 6 and the Blocks from each other, and―"
Nezumi burst out laughing. He bent over, holding his stomach. His hollow laughter echoed in the basement room. The mice huddled together fearfully and curled up into balls, making them smaller yet.
"Is it that funny to you?" Shion said tensely.
"It's hilarious. It's so funny, it's bringing me to tears. You're not just a little airheaded, are you? Do you also have delusionary tendencies? What third way, huh? Those are just pretty words, an unrealistic fairy tale."
"Nezumi, I was serious when I said―"
"I'll have none of it." There was not a remnant of a smile left in his face as Nezumi said those words. "We can't have that place disappear so easily just yet. We have to let it keep being the way it is, let it dress itself up and eat a bellyful of good food, let it grow fat. I can just imagine how great it must feel to slice that belly open with one blow. I'm going to pull out all of its gorged innards and expose it to the light. I can't wait. Yeah, spring is going to be great. I'm quite excited."
Shion lifted his chin, and clenched both hands into fists at his sides.
"I don't care if you laugh at me, I still think it can be done," he said defiantly. "I want to believe that it's possible."
"You're just looking for an escape route," Nezumi shot back. "You're looking for a way to avoid getting hurt. Say if you do get rid of the walls: you won't get any kind of heaven. It'll be hell. Tumult, disorder, fighting, looting― you don't know how much these people have been oppressed until now. You don't know how many people have been sacrificed so that city can be where it is. You don't know, and that's why you can spin fairy tales like that. Shion, it can't be done. It's not like mixing paint, you can't mingle them together and make them one. Either one will have to destroy the other, that's the only solution. That's what fate has set out. Love and hatred, friends and enemies, those within and those outside the wall― and you and I. They can never be as one, and neither can we."