A Song From the Past
Nezumi lifted his face. His brow furrowed slightly.
"What? What did you just say, Shion?"
"I said I wanted to see."
Shion sipped the hot water in his cup. The bit of sugar mixed into it made it taste slightly sweet. Sugar was considered a luxury item in the West Block. Shion himself had not had flavoured water in a long time.
"I said I wanted to watch you perform onstage."
"Why, well... no particular reason. I just want to see."
Nezumi drew his chin back, and closed the book he was reading with a rather rough snap.
"That's not an answer. If you're looking for something to kill your time with, consider other options."
"I don't have enough free time to kill. I have my dog-washing job at least twice a week, and I've promised to read picture books to Kalan and the rest of the kids. I've also started working at Rikiga-san's part-time. I'm actually about to go out now."
"Working part-time? At that old man's place? I hope it's not something as terribly respectable as taking photos of naked women."
"No, I just run errands and do miscellaneous work. Stuff like sorting receipts and cleaning the office. Rikiga-san actually runs a pretty wide variety of businesses. I never knew."
"Well, I bet my mice would sprout wings and fly before that old man starts running any decent trade. Hah! You'd better be careful, Shion. Who knows when some woman might come attacking you with a knife like she did to Rikiga."
"I don't think that would be very likely," Shion said sceptically. "Rikiga-san has been saying for a while that he's had enough of women."
"That's all talk. He loves his women. It runs in his blood. He can't live without 'em. But if you were to put alcohol and women in a balance, he'd probably choose alcohol after a long deliberation and a ton of griping."
"You certainly don't sugar-coat your words, do you?"
"I just can't whore out my kindness like you do."
Nezumi stood up. A small brown creature hopped up onto his shoulder as if it had been waiting. It was Cravat, a mouse which Shion had named for the colour of its fur.
"Is it somehow a bad thing to be nice to everyone?" Shion's words grew sharp. He felt a restless ripple deep inside his chest. The ripple made it hard to breathe. This feeling was something he would never have known if he had remained in No. 6. Various emotions writhed inside him. They cast one pattern after another like a kaleidoscope.
Since beginning his life in the West Block, Shion found himself startled by the turbulence and wealth of his own emotions. His heart was shedding its outer layer. His soul was reviving as it ripped through its tense, rigid outer shell.
Nezumi put away the book on the shelf, and picked up his cape.
"Kind words that don't hurt anyone―what meaning do they have?" Nezumi draped the superfibre cloth over his shoulders and donned his gloves. "Everything that comes out of your mouth is gentle and lukewarm. Like the chirping of birds or a chorus of insects. It's beautiful, but it doesn't lodge itself anywhere. Not even in yourself."
"Shion, you're not kind. You just don't want to get hurt yourself. That's why you take all the thorns out of your words. With no sense of responsibility, you spew words that do neither harm nor good. Admit it―I'm right."
Shion could not deny it completely. He could neither show his anger nor protest that Nezumi was insulting him. Nezumi's words were full of thorns. If Shion touched them out of carelessness, they would pierce his fingertips and draw blood. Compared to that, perhaps his own words were indeed lukewarm.
Shion didn't think that it was an evil thing to avoid hurting anyone. Nor did he think that gentleness was useless. He also knew that Nezumi was not criticizing his kindness.
Gentle words that harmed no one, and words that did not carry the weight of their consequences were rife in No. 6.
My, how pitiful. Someone should do something about it.
It's unfortunate. My heart goes out to them.
We will make our utmost efforts with our very hearts and souls.
Everyone, we must all be friendly to each other.
In such an environment, he had unconsciously grown detached from the meaning and weight of his words. But there was absolutely no value in superficial kindness and concern, promises and love. They were just repulsive. Shion had already realized it without Nezumi pointing it out. He knew, but he wished he could pretend he didn't.
Nezumi had plainly seen the thoughts bubbling from the depths of Shion's heart. He had felt irritated at Shion's lowliness and artificial kindness, resulting in his thorny words. Shion knew he deserved to be pricked by them. But―
"I'm always serious when I'm talking to you."
Nezumi turned around.
"Hm? What did you say?"
"No..." If he muddled his answer now, perhaps it would agitate Nezumi's irritation even more. But Shion found his tongue heavy and unwilling to move.
I'm standing here and facing you in all seriousness. Those words were heavy―so heavy that Shion found them hard to vocalize.
Cravat chirruped from his perch on Nezumi's shoulder.
"Oh, crap. I'm late again." Nezumi's tone was calm. There was no sign of the irritation from moments before.
"See ya, Shion. Like I said, be careful when you're working at that old man's place." With that, Nezumi left. Shion was left alone―well, perhaps not so alone. Hamlet and Tsukiyo, the two mice, were asleep in his lap.
Shion stroked their heads with his finger, and took another slow sip of his sweetened hot water. It was delicious. He figured the expression "sweet nectar" probably referred to a taste like this.
The days Shion spent in the West Block had honed his senses swiftly, and without his knowledge: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Back when he was in the city of No. 6, he used to eat as much "delicious" food as he wanted, until he was full. He had been able to. If he should so desire, he was able to get his hands on any meat, vegetable, fish, sweets, or fruits with no limitations. Following his move to Lost Town, his selection of food was narrowed considerably compared to his time in Chronos, but he seldom felt deprived.
His mother Karan's cakes and freshly-baked breads were simple but delectable, and he never tired of eating them. But Shion felt that even that taste did not penetrate as deeply into his heart as the taste of this hot water.
He drained his cup. The warmth reached all the way to his fingertips, and strength filled his body.
"Alright, now it's time for me to go, too."
Shion cautiously transferred Hamlet and Tsukiyo to the bed and stood up.
"But you know, don't you think I've learned a lot in my own way since I came here? I can even sort handwritten receipts. And he says I do wipe the floor and wash the dishes as well as any full-fledged man. Full-fledged. I'm allowed to be a little proud of myself, right?"
I'm using my own body and brain to do work and earn its rewards. I'm allowed to be proud, no matter what kind of job, no matter how small the wages. Right?
Tsukiyo lifted his head and twitched his ears as if to agree.
Geez. Nezumi ground his molars. Hopeless guy, he reprimanded mentally. He was not referring to Shion. He was talking about himself. Cravat cried softly from within his cape.
"Shut up. You don't have to tell me; I already know. I just took out my frustrations on Shion back there. I know."
Sometimes―though it was very rare―Nezumi's emotions grew unstable when he was around Shion. His self-restraint loosened, and his thoughts issued unrefined from his lips. They collided, sending sparks and sprays flying. Nezumi never intended to condemn Shion. He knew that he wasn't just or strong enough himself to have the right to do so. But he wavered when he was with Shion.
His heart, which wanted to hate and reject all of No. 6, wavered.
No. 6. The most detestable city-state in this whole world. It was no utopia or holy city. Those names were but a facade. As soon as he tore away its thin hide, the monster would show its true figure.
A man-eating monster.
It never hesitated to destroy its surrounding states and massacre entire tribes if it meant prosperity for itself. It plundered, leeched, and dominated.
Someday, I'll take it down. For Nezumi, No. 6 was an opponent he had to take down with his own hands, an existence that needed to disappear from this world.
But inside this grotesque monster lived a boy like Shion. Shion had let an intruder, a VC―No. 6's term for violent convicts―into his home, treated his wounds, provided him food and a place to sleep, and as a result, had lost his secure life as an elite. Shion had lost everything, and yet still confessed to Nezumi.
No matter how many times I'd return to that night, I'd do the same thing again. I'd open the window, and wait for you.
They were bare and honest words. They pierced through his heart. For an instant, Nezumi could not help but stare at Shion without even blinking. Shion definitely did not use words of superficial kindness, and Nezumi was sure the people around him were the same.
Shion's mother harboured the unshakable belief that her son would return, and thought of him constantly while she waited. According to the mice Nezumi had sent out as messengers, the muffins and bread that she baked were so delicious, they were enough to make one's cheeks swell in anticipation. And there was that girl with her unwavering love.
Those were the kind of people around Shion―those who exerted every effort in living their daily lives. They were honest with their words, did not condescend on others, and lived without losing their dignity. Those people lived inside that monster.
If he had not met Shion, he would never even have imagined this. He would have continued loathing every citizen of No. 6 and wished for the city's ruin.
But he had met him.
He had come to know.
Could I still hate, even with that knowledge?
He wavered. He lost composure. He grew indecisive.
Nezumi paused and turned around. The outer walls of No. 6 reflected the fading light of dusk. Its reddish glow made him think of fire. Long, long ago, he had seen this colour, and it had burned an imprint in his memories. It was neither crimson, burgundy, nor red. It was a mixture of all of them―a colour that could be described no better than chaos.
The colour still lingered in Nezumi's vision even after he had come out of the woods and passed through the marketplace. He would probably never forget it for the rest of his life.
It was burning. Houses, trees, his newborn sister, and his mother who held her. All burning.
"Run!" his mother had screamed as she burned. Her beautiful hair, her skin, her body, was a mass of flames. His father had covered his mother's body with his own, frantically flapping his hands as he tried to put out the flames. A No. 6 soldier pointed his flamethrower at them.
More fire burst forth.
His father, mother, and younger sister were swallowed up in the flames, which burned high and fierce. Nezumi himself was overwhelmed with a shock of heat and pain and was thrown on the ground.
It hurts. It's hot. I'm scared.
Hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot.
"Run!" His father's yell pierced through the flames. "Run! Even if none of us can, at least you―"
Then, everything fell apart. Nezumi had seen everything. He was supposed to have seen everything. But he had no recollection. The only things he remembered were the colour of the raging flames and the roaring―the sound of whirling flames was just that, a beast's roar―and an old woman's back.
He was being carried on an old woman's back as she ran. Her back was bony, and even at his age, Nezumi felt it very small. But it was sturdy. Her back and her legs were stout.
The old woman ran, tearing through the flying flames, the winds swept up by them, and past No. 6 soldiers. She ran through a tangle of bushes down a wild path and crossed a swift stream.
Nezumi had lived thanks to this old woman. He had survived.
Once Nezumi had recovered from his burns enough to move, the old woman immediately began making preparations for a journey.
"We must distance ourselves from the devil now," the woman muttered as if to herself. "But we will return. We will return to exact our revenge."
While they wandered from the rocky barrens to the lower lands which would later be known as the West Block, the old woman spoke night and day.
She spoke, over and over, of the last moments of the Forest People, the inhumane acts which would later be engraved forever into the memories of a select few as an incident called the Mao Massacre. Her stories continued even after they had settled in a basement vault in the West Block. Nezumi grew up buried in books, listening to this old woman's stories. He never felt he lacked anything. But the wound on his back ached as if in response to the old woman's tales. His mother's voice and his father's screams echoed in his mind. It was painful for him.
Even if none of us can, at least you―
Each time he recalled it, his wound throbbed harder. It was like his scar was writhing about. The old woman always looked down at Nezumi in silence as he gritted his teeth and endured the pain. Her gaze was cool and sapped of emotion.
The old woman was also reaching her mental limit. Her own hatred, despair, and anguish was threatening to crush her. She was fighting dangerously close to the border of giving into death's temptation. Nezumi could sense with instinct, not logic, the storm of emotions brewing inside her.
That night, they were sleeping outside on a stretch of wasteland on the outskirts of the West Block. It was a few days before they ended up settling there permanently. As usual, they started a campfire and slept close to it. For a while after their escape, Nezumi's whole body seized up when he saw fire. That colour, that roar, those screams pierced his body, and his wound seared him.
But within a year, his fear dissipated.
Fire was essential for warmth and for roasting meat. If he kept on fearing it, he would freeze to death. Nezumi had also reached an understanding.
Humans are the fearsome ones, not fire.
It was their routine to take turns watching the fire after a few hours of sleep.
"You may sleep until dawn, when the eastern sky begins to lighten. You need not feel guilty. We older ones do not need much sleep."
It had been just before Nezumi had gone to sleep. The old woman had shown a rare smile as she added a withered branch to the fire. The flames murmured gently. It was more like a mouse's squeak than a roar.