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He felt a breeze.
He smelled flowers. The faintly sweet smell of wildflowers.
The breeze touched his cheek, and caressed his bangs.
Oh, it's that again. It's... that.
He opened his eyes.
The light stung.
A field of tender grass. The wind was still somewhat sharp and cold, but the rays of the sun were strong. Small white flowers bloomed everywhere, swaying in the breeze, and glowing in the sunlight. There were misty mountain peaks in the distance. Were those lakes on the mountain-skirts, white pools reflecting the light of the sun? Lakes and marshes both large and small dotted the land. The sky was an indigo blue. It was such a deep azure, it looked like it could colour everything else with its pale shade. But the flowers still bloomed white on the ground, and the grasses were a gentle green.
In the sky he saw blue, on the land green, and he saw the forest.
There was a forest beyond the meadow. He could hear the rustling of the trees. White-backed leaves were fluttering. Birds soared up, and swooped down again. A fluff ball drifted past Nezumi's line of vision.
He wanted to chase it.
Can I chase it?
Nezumi had lifted his face to look up. Looking up at... whom?
There was a gentle voice, and he felt his body being tenderly lifted up.
Oh, it's that again.
It steals my consciousness, and bears my soul away.
He felt like a little child. He was being carried gently. Like a small, small child.
Last time, it was summer.
He had smelled the hot air rising from the grass.
Was it springtime now? The scenery was more subdued. The wind, the light, the smells, the colours were all soft and gentle, encircling Nezumi in an embrace.
"I will teach you a song."
He shook his head. "I can do it... I can sing."
"You can sing? That song?"
"Yeah." Nezumi straightened his posture, and drew himself up.
The wind steals the soul away, humans thieve the heart
O earth, wind, and rain; O heavens, O light
Keep everything here
Keep everything here, and
Live in this place
O soul, my heart, O love, my feelings true
Return home here
The wind stopped. It's listening to the song, Nezumi thought. The wind subsided, and the balls of fluff began to fall slowly to the ground.
"I see. So you can sing."
His hair was caressed. He was gently rubbed on the back.
"Sing some more. Let me hear a little more of your song."
The wind steals the soul away, humans thieve the heart
But here I will stay
to keep singing
Deliver my song
Accept my song
His eyelids drooped. All the strength left his body.
"Then go to sleep."
Could I close my eyes like this, and drift off into a slumber?
"Go to sleep. I will take you there."
"...Where are you going?"
"To the forest."
"To the forest?"
"Go to sleep. Think of nothing, and let yourself rest."
Is it really alright for me to go to sleep like this?
His body rocked back and forth. He was comfortable. So comfortable...
"I'm going back!" he heard himself yell.
He had to go back. He could not let himself drift off asleep. He had to return to reality, where Shion was. It didn't matter what awaited him there; he couldn't let himself flee on his own.
I need to return to you.
He felt a cough coming up. The smoke and the stench of blood filtered deep into his body. A fit of coughs overtook him. He wiped his mouth, and stood up.
He could see Shion with his back to him. The boy stood with both arms dangling at his sides. The pistol was still in his right hand.
"I can't save anyone," Shion said in a muffled voice. He was repeating it.
I can't save anyone.
"―Shion," Nezumi tried calling the boy's name.
Shion, do you hear my voice?
Shion's eyes focused on Nezumi. Joy ignited within them. A smile spread widely across his face. A sigh of relief spilled from his lips. The pistol slid from his hand.
"Thank goodness you're safe. But―you're bleeding a lot. Are you alright? We have to bind that wound, at least."
Shion took off his sweater and started ripping the sleeve.
"This is all I have, but it might serve as a bandage. Give me your shoulder, and I'll bind it."
It was the usual Shion. His usual tone, his usual gaze. He was naive and foolish, ignorant, idealistic, unbelievably honest, and warm.
Nezumi's heart ached. He felt burning at the back of his eyes.
"What? Does it hurt?"
"You protected me."
"Don't forget that. You... protected me."
Shion closed his mouth, and blinked at him repeatedly. His gaze slid to and focused on the pistol lying on the floor. Then, it moved to the man slumped lifeless against the wall. He had been shot between the eyes.
Quite something, Nezumi thought fleetingly.
The bullet had pierced the man squarely in the middle of his forehead. Despite the fact that it was at point-blank range, shooting a target without a sight was not an easy feat for an amateur.
Shion's breathing quickened. He brought his palms up to his face. He stared at them intently as if there were some cryptic letters carved into them. His palms, his arms, his whole body trembled.
"Nezumi―what have I done?"
"You protected me. You saved me with your life―"
"No!" Shion's scream resounded in the confined space. "You're wrong! You're wrong! You're wrong!"
"I'm not wrong!" Nezumi shot back. "I would've been killed if it weren't for you. He wouldn't have been sitting there bleeding. It would've been me."
He pointed at Rashi.
"I would've looked like that."
He grabbed Shion's arms. He shook the boy with all his might. Shion's head jerked back and forth. He was like a marionette dangling on broken strings.
"Listen. Listen to what I say. You protected me, do you understand? You saved me. Shion."
Listen, Shion. Grasp my words. Believe them.
"If I were you, I would have done the same. I would definitely have done it. This is a battlefield. If we don't kill, we get killed. What you did was justified."
Nezumi chewed his lip. The words crumbled and rotted as soon as they slipped out of his mouth. This isn't what I really want to say.
Then, what did he want to say? What do I really want to tell Shion right now?
"Nezumi..." Shion murmured hoarsely. "I... killed him."
He got up, and picked the handgun off the floor.
"I don't know how. But without any hesitation at all, I was able to just... kill another human being."
Their eyes met.
What do I have to tell him?
"Is that forgivable? Is that something... that's allowed to be forgiven?"
The mere 5.4-mm diameter of the barrel seemed so large to his eyes.
"You said once that No. 6 and I were very similar. I said you were wrong. But... maybe you were right. I am like that city. It doesn't matter why I did it. I coldly, ruthlessly, wrenched a man's life from him. Nezumi―"
Total length: 155 mm. Weight: 460 g. Shots equipped: 8. Rifling: 4 grooves, clockwise.
How many shots are left?
"Can I be forgiven...?"
Shion closed his eyes.
Shion? What are you doing?
Nezumi had raised a cry. Not with his voice, but with his whole body. He lunged at the boy, and punched him as hard as he could. As Shion crumpled to the ground, Nezumi straddled him.
"Stop fucking around!"
He grabbed the boy by his collar, and struck him across the cheek.
"You must ― be fucking ― kidding me !"
He could feel his palm hitting flesh again and again.
"You bastard, who do you think you are? We've come this far, and now you think you can run away? Put yourself out of your misery? Fucking bullshit!"
Shion whimpered softly.
"You traitor," Nezumi snarled. "Are you saying that you can't be forgiven for killing someone else, but you can be forgiven for killing yourself? You know that if you go on and commit suicide, you'll be murdering two people. Why don't you get it?" His last words came out like a pained plea.
Tsukiyo leapt up onto his shoulder and screeched loudly and insistently. He looked like he was trying to get between them.
Shion didn't resist at all. He looked like he wasn't even breathing. His eyes were open, but they were sightless. The edge of his mouth was cut and bleeding, and dried blood was caked on his lips.
He's totalled ― wounded all over.
Would it have been better if they had not come? Nezumi knew more than enough that once they infiltrated the Correctional Facility, it would be a battlefield. He knew, and he had still dragged Shion in. The rescue of the girl, Safu, was only an excuse for Nezumi. He wanted Shion's power. He wanted the boy's power to perfectly memorize the innards of the Facility, and to give precise orders. He wanted to borrow―no, take advantage of― Shion's power to destroy the Correctional Facility, and put a crack in No. 6's core. Shion was a good weapon to serve this purpose, and this was a happenstance more lucky than anything Nezumi could ask for.
Yeah, I used Shion.
But if the results of it had been this ― this ― then, it was better if they had not come. We should never have set foot in here.
He had, of course, been prepared for a brutal struggle. He had recognized that they were waging a reckless war with less than a one-percent chance of winning, and yet he had had the resolve that they would emerge as victors; he had both the eager heart and the restraint of reason, and he had been so certain that he had it all.
And that it was we ― not No. 6 ― who controlled the state of things.
There was no battle without preparation. There was no victory without solid certainty.
There should have been nothing wrong with what he thought. He was certain he had not gone astray.
Nezumi gritted his teeth. He felt like he would almost succumb and kneel to the reality that stood before him. I never imagined that it would turn out like this.
We shouldn't have come. We were not supposed to come here. I shouldn't have dragged Shion into my battle.
It had finally dawned on him. But it was too late.
"Shion." I'm the one who should be asking whether I'll be forgiven. I should be the one begging for forgiveness, not you.
"Shoulder it," he whispered. The words tore through his gritted teeth and spilled from his lips. Shion's eyes moved slowly. They narrowed slightly, as if attempting to focus on Nezumi.
"Shoulder it― shoulder it, and live on." They were words for himself, not Shion.
Bear your sin, and live.
Shion, I'm sorry. I made you bear the burden, one so big it's making your spine creak. Would I be forgiven one day? Would you forgive me for what I did to you?
Shion let out a long breath.
An arm reached out, and a set of fingertips touched Nezumi's cheek.
"It's my first time... seeing you cry."
"It's alright, Nezumi... don't cry. I get it. I'll do as you say. So just don't cry, please."
"Idiot," Nezumi said hoarsely. Really, how idiotic can you get? Still caring for others in a situation like this. What's 'alright'? Nothing's alright. Besides, I'm not crying. I'm not like you, I don't just let my tears fall wherever and whenever I want, without hesitation―
He had reached his limit. He couldn't hold it in any longer. A wave of tears overcame him, and they streamed from his eyes. The droplets were startlingly hot. They rolled down his cheeks, dripped from the point of his chin, and landed on top of Shion.
Damnit, why are these tears―damnit.
He let his body sink on top of Shion's as his sobs spilled out.
Damnit. Bastard. Bastard.
"I don't know how to stop my tears."
"Mm-hmm," Shion murmured.
"I really... don't know. If this keeps going it's gonna be... bad."
"Yeah?" Shion said softly.
"It would be. Think about it: if Inukashi saw me like this... he'd make a fool out of me for the rest of my life."
"―That's for sure." A hand slid around his back, and patted him.
"Nezumi, let's go."
Yes. They would have to go. This wasn't the finish line yet. They had to move forward. But, how? Was there a way to escape this sealed space?
"Oh!" Nezumi scrambled up. A startled Tsukiyo dove into Shion's shirt. "Why is that?"
"Why is what?"
"Why isn't anything happening? Weren't they supposed to run an electric current as soon as the barriers were down?"
"That's right." Shion also got up. He winced in pain, likely from some wound. But his face soon smoothed into a faint smile.
"It's been almost five minutes since the walls came down completely. That's kind of a late observation for you, isn't it?"
"The hell is that supposed to mean?" Nezumi replied indignantly. Then, he closed his mouth. He glanced at Shion's face, which was smeared with blood.
"Are you saying you knew, then? You knew beforehand that nothing would happen?"
Shion shook his head.
"I didn't know. There was no way I would have known. It's just that―"
"Just that, what? We've come this far. Don't play hard-to-get."
"Right. Well, you might laugh, but I feel like we're being... invited in by someone."
Shion licked his lips, and continued in his Shion-like, awkward manner.
"Actually, the barriers should have activated the moment we burst into the hallway. But they didn't move. They only started moving when we were surrounded by the soldiers. Even though at that time, they would have been temporarily paused. That doesn't make sense. That's why they were so flustered."
"Wait a minute, I dunno what you're getting at. So are you saying that the computer monitoring the security system was buggy? That it conveniently stopped working for us? ―Well, I dunno whether I'd call being trapped in here convenient. But we were saved. We were rescued by a coincidental computer malfunction― is that the deal?"
A No. 6 computer malfunctioning? No, there was no way something like that would happen.
Shion shook his head again.
"It's not a coincidence. It was by will."
"Will? You're saying the computer had a will of its own?"
A third refusal.
"No. It could be operated a certain way based on one's will, but the machine itself wouldn't have one."
"Shion, explain it to me so that I can understand. What're you talking about? What do you mean by being 'invited in'?"
"I don't know," Shion said slowly. "I can't put it into words very well. But that's the only way I can explain it. Someone is calling us―"
"And that someone operated the computer and rescued us of their own will. That's what you figure?"
"And who's that someone? That girlfriend of yours?"
"Safu―could it be her? But..." Shion dragged his feet to the wall. There was a part that was a different colour than the rest. It was a shade lighter.
"That's the elevator, right?"
"Yeah. The only path that leads to the top floor."
Thirty metres to the right. Shion had meant to tell him to run in this direction. There were no buttons to be found on the wall that would operate it. There wasn't even a single projecting part. It probably activated by a sensor responding to a special ID chip.
"How do we get into this thing?"
Shion had turned his face back to stare at something. Nezumi followed his gaze, and landed on Rashi's body.
"He might have a special chip embedded in his body," Nezumi said hastily. He put into words what he figured had been on Shion's mind. He didn't want to let Shion utter any words related to that body. Shion glanced away, and held his palm up to the sky.
"No― that won't do. This system will activate only if it senses life. The chip is useless unless it's inside a living, breathing human body. A corpse won't do."
I see. Nezumi muttered silently, and cast his eyes down.
The madness that had driven Shion to nearly shatter his own skull had already been wiped clean.
It has to sense life.
A corpse won't do.
How could he say those words so casually after such an intense emotional disturbance?
Nezumi shifted his eyes to his feet. Maybe I haven't just made him shoulder it. Maybe I've also hauled it out―hauled out what was dormant in him until now.
Shion, what's lurking inside you? What do you really look like, Shion, the you that I don't know?
A chill ran down his spine. The wounds on his shoulder and thigh throbbed as if in answer. Until now, he had completely forgotten about his gunshot wounds.
"Is there any other way?" he asked, short and to the point.
"I think someone will come fetch us," came the equally short answer.
He heard a faint mechanical noise. The elevator was coming down. The door slid open almost soundlessly.
Two shadowy figures stood before them.
Nezumi tensed for a moment, then realized quickly that it was a reflection of themselves. The entire wall in front of them was a huge mirror.
"Nezumi―you're getting on, right?"
"You kidding me? Of course. I'm not stupid or rude enough to turn down such a welcoming."
"Yeah. I figured."
He took one wide step into the elevator. Throb. His wounds stirred again. He would probably not be able to push himself much further, considering the amount of blood he had lost. And, as Rashi had pointed out, he could no longer use a knife with this hand.
No use mulling it over, though.
He could not predict what lay ahead of them after the elevator stopped. He couldn't foresee the future, so there was only one choice―to face the here and now.
He let his gaze wander. There was nothing of note apart from the mirror. The walls were smooth with not a speck of dirt to be seen. There were no buttons, switches, or touch screens. It was a sterile, bright, inorganic space.
The door was closing.
Right in front of them, he could see Rashi with his legs thrown out and his head tilted to the side. He could see the soles of the soldier's boots, the soldier who had called his mother in his last moments.
Shion's fingers moved to chest-level.
Are they going to clasp together in prayer? Nezumi thought.
But Shion's fingers only clenched into a hard fist.
That was it.
The door closed.
Read Chapter 5.