It was raining. A drizzle―a mist, almost. But rain was rain, and it drenched the nighttime streets and the people without umbrellas.
Before entering his house, Shion lightly ran his hand through his hair. Drops of water dripped from his shiny white locks. He was wetter than he had thought. The cool night air of early spring crept up from his feet. If he didn't warm up soon, he would probably catch a cold.
Shion knew he would, but he continued to stand in front of the door, unable to move. He was cold. His spirits were heavy. He felt reluctant to see his mother Karan's face.
The back door of his house was wooden. The paint was peeling in several places, and it showed clear signs of its age. A number of times, Shion had suggested replacing it with a new one. But each time, Karan had shaken her head.
"This is just fine. It's sturdy and strong. And besides, don't you think it has its own unique flavour? I think it's much nicer than those awful glittery metal doors."
His mother was concerned about the cost. But perhaps she really did not mind the hassle of renovation; perhaps she really did have an attachment to the worn back door. Shion understood that, so he never spoke of replacing the door again.
She was right in a sense. The thick oaken door exuded an ambiance not quite found in stylish, vividly-coloured steel doors. The round brass knob was also still firmly in place.
This door had not changed a bit since when Shion and Karan first moved to Lost Town from their privileged-class residence in Chronos (in truth, they had actually been exiled and not given any other choice of residence other than in Lost Town, but strangely, neither Shion nor Karan felt any lingering attachment to their old days). In fact, this whole house had not changed much at all.
Over a year had passed since the destruction of the city-state, No. 6. Confusion still remained, and everyone was still in the midst of groping at how former No. 6 residents as well as nonresidents could adapt to their new wall-less surroundings.
The terms "insider" and "outsider" (of the wall) had taken root, and each regarded the other like a foreigner who spoke a different language. The Insiders realized that they had been skilfully and rigidly controlled, and appreciated their liberation from a society of surveillance. But at the same time, they insisted that they did not want to let go of their wealth―that they did not want their current lives to be disturbed. The Outsiders criticized scathingly the crimes of No. 6, which had built itself and prospered on a parasitic foundation. They rallied for equal distribution of wealth and compensation for the abuse they had suffered.
Currently, with the Restructural Committee at its centre, No. 6 (of course, there were voices that called for a new city name, but no one could spare the time to consider names. There was also the issue of inter-city relations; for the sake of convenience, No. 6 was still called No. 6) sought to restore peace and order; to swiftly establish governing, judicial, and legislative bodies; and secure lifelines.
For the moment, they would use No. 6's governing institutions. They would designate the West Block as a special ward, and fast-track the establishment of supply systems essential for life. They would construct a temporary police force to dissolve the army and maintain peace.
There were twelve members of the Restructural Committee―former No. 6 residents, and former representatives from each Block. Under the Committee were twelve Sub-Committees, with a Committee member at the helm of each. Shion was one of the youngest Committee members.
This past year, everything had changed. Like a crashing wave, like the torrential waters of a rapid, like an avalanche, everything was swallowed up, sucked into the spiral, torn asunder, and twisted around. Things would only get fiercer in the future.
Shion exhaled, and gazed in turn at the old door, the battered brass knob, and the small window out of which spilled a dim light.
Then, there were things that never changed. No matter what path the world of mankind took, there were always things that didn't change, both inside and outside of people.
Shion, I want you to stay as you are.
Nezumi's murmur revived inside him.
Fight it. Fight with yourself.
It was no order or command. It was a plea.
Nezumi had begged Shion as he spoke those words. Shion, don't ever change.
Could I answer to the feelings Nezumi laid bare before me?
Shion closed his eyes. He visualized the bazaar. It had been restored into a free market, and it now offered a wealth of options and plenty of fresh goods, unthinkable in the past. Karan often went shopping there, too.
"It's twenty to thirty percent cheaper than shops in the city. They might not be the most attractive, but you couldn't get better-tasting produce anywhere else." Just yesterday, too, she had laughed as she proudly laid out her misshapen apples and gnarled cucumbers.
But mom doesn't know―the Hunt took place in that marketplace. No. 6's army ruthlessly fired at those people―shot them through their foreheads, their chests―not even batting an eyelash.
The air had been thick with despair, fear, and anguished screams of the people; everywhere was stained with the stench of blood as corpses lay left and right. An arm protruded from fallen debris; an army tank crushed a torn leg as it passed by; army boots trampled those still living and begging for help. It was the first volume of the inferno that Shion was to witness later.
Mom doesn't know that. And he was glad that she didn't. When he closed his eyes, he could recall the sights of that day, no less vivid than the day he experienced them. It was not only the marketplace. He would never be able to forget the faces of the people loaded into the cargo hold; the eyes of the man who had begged Shion to make it better; the stacked bodies and the smell of death which lingered about him; the walls of the Correctional Facility, crumbling into flames; the black smoke that rose from No. 6. He would never forget. These images had branded him for life, never to disappear.
And the fact that his index finger had pulled a trigger. The fact that he had wilfully, not incidentally, killed another man.
Shion opened his eyes and looked up at the sky. Of course, he could see neither the stars nor the moon. A raindrop slid down his cheek. It touched his lips as it rolled down his face.
Ah, I'm alive. Suddenly, he was hit with the realization that life was within him. He felt it: right now, he was most certainly alive. Its overwhelming reality almost suffocated him. He wanted to scream.
I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive. I'm alive
Nezumi, I'm alive, he spoke to the dark sky, void of light. I'm alive and waiting for you. Even in those hellish surroundings, I was drawn to your eyes, your words, your gestures, your thoughts―and they supported me. Thanks to them, I was able to survive. And right now, I'm still alive.
Can you hear me, Nezumi? I'm alive.
A dog barked noisily. It was coming from inside the house.
What? A dog? Wait, could it be―
Shion's mind was yanked from the past back into the present. His heart beat fiercely. He pushed the door open. He was met with an earful of barking. They were barks of joy and affection, not aggression or apprehension. A dog with patched fur leapt up and jumped at Shion as it barked. It wagged its tail fiercely and jabbed its snout against Shion's thigh. Its black eyes contained even more joy than its voice.
"Dogs just fall at your feet, as always, huh?"
"Inukashi! And Rikiga-san, you too!"
Rikiga made an exaggerated grimace from his spot on the sofa. "Hey, Shion. A bit rude of you to notice me after doggy-boy, don't you think? The proper way to go about it would be to cry, 'Oh, Rikiga-san!' and pounce on me, like that dog there. And then you'd add, 'Oh, Inukashi. You're here, too,' as an afterthought."
"Hah!" Inukashi bared his teeth and cackled. "Rude? Who cares? Me 'n' you don't have no need for manners, old man. Just like how my dog wouldn't need a fur coat. What do manners do? They certainly don't fill my belly."
"Shut up," Rikiga snapped. "Don't lump me in with the likes of you. You're practically half-animal. I'm a right and proper man, and a gentleman at that."
"Gentleman? Whoa, I didn't know 'gentlemen' referred to guys who can't live without money, women, and booze. Huh, well, I learned something new. Since when have meanings changed so much? What has the world come to?" Inukashi let out a long, doleful sigh.
Shion burst out laughing. It had been a while since he heard Inukashi and Rikiga bickering like this. He laughed from deep down in his belly for the first time in a long time.
"You two haven't changed at all."
"He's just got a large attitude for a mutt," grumbled Rikiga. "He has a complaint ready for everything I do."
"And you're simple-minded for a human, old man. You fly off the handle and have one of your tempers at everything I say. Dogs are way more intellectual. Actually, dogs are ten times better than humans in head and heart, anyway. Besides, I think you're closer to a monkey than a human, old man."
"Yeah, you're right," Rikiga said angrily. "I am a monkey. Just the sight of a dog maddens me to no end. Every time I see one, I feel like tearing it apart with my teeth. Roar!" Rikiga raised his arms and lunged at Inukashi. Inukashi laughed mockingly while he nimbly danced out of reach.
"My, aren't we full of energy." Karan came in. Rikiga froze. He cleared his throat purposefully and sat down on a chair. He lightly brushed some imaginary dust off the vest of his three-piece suit, and smiled amiably at her.
"But please keep it down a little." Karan lightly rocked the baby in her arms. It seemed fast asleep.
"Shh, Shion, not so loudly. I've just gotten Shionn to fall asleep, finally―hm, rather confusing now, isn't it?"
Shionn breathed softly, wrapped in an old blanket which was so faded it was impossible to tell what colour it had formerly been. His long eyelashes cast shadows on his face, and his plump lips were parted slightly. If bliss had a physical form, then this sleeping face was it. It brought happiness to every person who beheld it.
"Looks like he's grown bigger since I last saw him," Rikiga commented.
"That's because he has," Inukashi said. "Now he's big enough to run around and play with the dogs. Soon, he'll be able to gnaw meat off the bone." Inukashi beamed and placed a soft kiss on Shionn's forehead.
"You're very good at raising children, Inukashi." Karan smiled. "I've seen many babies in my lifetime, but I feel like it's my first time seeing a baby look so happy when he's sleeping."
"Ya really think so, Momma Karan?"
"I sure do. He trusts you from the bottom of his heart, and you're able to be there for him and live up to his trust. You two really make an admirable family."
A faint blush rose in Inukashi's tan cheeks.
"When my dog came home carrying Shionn in its mouth, I was actually really pissed off," he confessed. "I thought about just abandoning it, pretending I'd never seen it. Babies only make for baggage. I really hated Shion that time for leaving his burden with me."
"―I'm sorry. I knew it was irresponsible, but... I had no other choice but to leave him to you. I knew I could trust you with him."
Inukashi's black eyes turned to Shion.
"Shion, does that mean―"
"Does that mean you trusted me?"
"Yeah." He nodded. It wasn't a front or a lie. In the confusion of the Hunt, when he had taken the baby from its young mother, the only person in Shion's mind had been Inukashi. Indeed, Inukashi was the only option that he had thought of.
Inukashi will do something about it. He'll protect this little life with everything he's got. Inukashi will. This was what he had thought.
Inukashi grinned. He raised a finger and twirled it around.
"You trusted me, and I lived up to that trust. That's what you're sayin', right?"
"Yeah. I think so." Nezumi was probably the same. He trusted you, so he left everything to you. Shion swallowed his unspoken words and shut his mouth. He didn't know why, but he didn't feel like saying Nezumi's name here.
"Hey, wait a minute, Shion. You're not saying you trusted Doggy-boy above me, are you?"
"Ah, no―that's not what I... I just didn't associate you with babies, that's all, Rikiga-san."
"Of course not," Inukashi butted in. "Because if you left him to someone like this old man, the poor little guy would be sold off the next day. Living babies fetch a pretty good price, ya know."
"What? Are you saying people put up babies for sale?" The blood receded from Karan's face. Rikiga hastily waved away Inukashi's words.
"N-No―no, no, Karan, it's not like that. I would never do that. It was just a bad joke. This one here always makes distasteful jokes. You can imagine the headaches I get. You shouldn't take him too seriously."
"...You're right," Karan said uncertainly. "You would never buy or sell babies. That's just absurd, isn't it?"
"Absolutely." Rikiga swelled his chest. "Karan, there's one thing I want you to know: I ran lots of businesses in the old West Block. Among them there were some that were―ah, not so savoury. Yes. Not savoury at all. And that's a fact."
Inukashi hunched his shoulders. "Don't you mean 'most'? I think your porno mag business was the most decent."
"Shut up!" Rikiga snapped. "Why don't you go off and gnaw on a chicken bone or something? Karan, listen to me," he implored. "I never dared use children or babies. I never used little ones to make my daily bread. That's the truth. Please, believe me."
"Of course I believe you," Karan said. "I can't imagine you looking at the young as a target for profits."
"Karan." Rikiga flushed and stepped closer to Karan. "Thank you. I feel like your trust in me is all the support I'll ever need."
"My, Rikiga." Karan retreated half a step before smiling serenely. "I never remember you as someone who could recite such a theatrical line. You spoke frankly and straightforwardly, and you were careful with your words."
"Heh heh, Momma Karan's got a good point. 'Your trust is all the support I'll need' my ass. You don't even see that line in cheap novels these days."
"Your mongrel brain has never even read a book before. No one's asking for your input," Rikiga said sourly.
"My brain is a lot better off than yours. Mine's not swimming in booze."
"What did you say?" Rikiga said menacingly.
"What? Got a problem?" Inukashi shot back.
They glared at each other.
"Stop it, you two," Karan said exasperatedly. "Shion, don't just stand there laughing."
Karan crouched in the shadow of the sofa and gently placed Shionn down in a cradle. The cradle was a simple one made of wicker with no embellishments, but its rounded shape was beautiful in its simplicity. It looked very old, but showed no signs of wear.
A small golden plaque hung on the side.
For Shion, my beloved son.
Just that short phrase was engraved into it.
"Hm? Mom, is this―"
Karan's hand gently rocked the cradle. "Yes. I used to use this when you were a baby. You probably don't remember."
Or do I? Shion thought. I feel like I remember hearing a gentle lullaby while being rocked back and forth, back and forth....
"I didn't think I'd ever pull it out and use it again like this. I'm glad I went through the extra trouble to bring it when we moved out."
When they had moved out of Chronos, the furniture and dishes they could take with them were heavily restricted. Their house, their furniture, the services, abundance, and their top-class living environment had all been given to them precisely because Shion had been certified as elite.
Once this certification was revoked, they had to return everything that was given to them from No. 6. The personal belongings that Shion and Karan brought into Lost Town were surprisingly few. Was there a cradle among them? No. Shion would have noticed if there was.
"I secretly brought it afterwards and stowed it away in the attic," Karan said.
"Why did you have to do it secretly?"
Karan's hand stopped.
"Because this... this was handmade by your father."
Shion's breath caught in his throat. It blocked his airway. As he exhaled, his voice slid out along with it.
"What? My father?"
"Yes. Your father made this cradle for you." Karan pursed her lips and averted her eyes from Shion.
"Dad was... a craftsman?"
"No. A geologist―that was his main occupation. And I think he was very good at it. He was chosen to be a member of the revival project team, after all."
Revival project team―it was a group of individuals chosen to make No. 6 a paradise on Earth, a utopia. The mayor, who desired to become No. 6's absolute ruler, was a member; Rou, the scientist who schemed to have the Forest God Elyurias under his control, was a member.
But their aspirations and futures morphed and drifted apart: Rou became an underground man; No. 6 transformed into a monstrous city, and moved down the path to destruction.
And Shion's own father had been one of those members. Shion was stunned. That was all he could say. He was stunned.
"But mom, you said... you said before that my dad was loose with money and women, a hopeless case and a step away from being an alcoholic. But then you said he was really kind and sincere."
"I did. Because it's true." Karan pouted even more. She looked like a sullen child. "He spent all the money that came in, and drank all day. As soon as he found a girl he liked, he'd start a relationship with her without even thinking of the consequences... even after we married, he had girlfriend after girlfriend..."
"To have a lover while being married to you, Karan―I don't believe this man. Unforgivable." Rikiga clenched his fist, his eyebrows arching angrily.
"You can say that again," Inukashi commented. "He's almost as corrupt as you, old man."
"Hey, mutt. And what exactly is corrupt about me? I'm single, which is why I could get away with playi―er, having a good time with women. But if I got married―" Rikiga glanced furtively at Karan, and took a breath.
"I would love her for as long as I lived. I wouldn't even look at other women. And I would stop drinking. Not to brag or anything, but I think I would make a good family man. Yeah."
"Bullshit," Inukashi spat. "You being a decent husband is just as likely as my dog becoming a top chef."
Inukashi faced Karan before Rikiga could say anything in return.
"But Momma Karan, I can't even imagine such a slob being Shion's dad. Their personalities are way too different."
"You could say that. But he was surprisingly good with his hands, and I think Shion inherited that from him. Actually, this―" Karan gently rolled Shionn's blanket back. He was wearing a plain white collared shirt. The collar and breast pocket of the shirt was embroidered on the hems with blue thread. A vibrant blue.
"He sewed this by hand. Same with the baby clothes and bib. He finished it the day before he left us, and left them on the table with a letter that said he wanted Shion to wear them on his first birthday. So when you turned one, Shion, I put them on you. They were a little big back then. But I think they're a perfect fit for this Shionn."
This was really, truly Shion's first time hearing such detailed things about his father from Karan. Shion had never asked because his mother never seemed to want to talk about it. He had lived his fatherless life simply accepting that that was just how it was.
His father was loose with women and money, loved to drink, was a specialist in geology, a member of the revival project team, had surprisingly skilled hands, and left his family soon after Shion was born.
Shion glanced over at the cradle. He gazed at the baby sleeping inside, with the same name as his. He touched the embroidered shirt.
This was what his father left behind.
Shion sneaked a glance at Karan's profile.
So Karan's acquaintance with the core members of No. 6 had not been through Rou. And his father, as a member, colleague, and holder of the same ideals in his heart, had spent his younger days alongside the mayor and those scientists.
"And Shion's papa left the house because... well, because of those women problems?" Inukashi leaned forward.
"Hey, don't butt into other people's personal matters," Rikiga said. "Not a tactful bone in your body, is there?"
"Hah, don't even talk to me about tact. You're dying to hear it yourself, old man. You're trying so hard to impress. Heh, I can't stop laughing." Inukashi's teeth clattered together.
His comment had apparently hit the mark, for Rikiga blushed crimson and fell silent. Karan neither appeared offended nor taken aback by Inukashi's bluntness. She continued calmly.
"Maybe you're right. That might have been an indirect reason. I was young and I wanted him to stop being ridiculous. But ever since he found out that Shion was on the way, he changed a little. All his attention was on the unborn baby, and he even stopped drinking and playing around with women, if only for a short while... he picked up drinking again not long after. But I felt like if he kept on being like this, maybe he would turn into a decent family man. Inside, I was proud. That's why I know he didn't leave the family because of a woman... he had another reason..."
"Because No. 6 was changing."
Karan blinked several times at Shion's short utterance.
"You can tell?"
"I had a vague idea."
As No. 6 took shape into a city-state―a totalitarian, authoritarian state―many members withdrew from the revival project team during the process. Some were intentionally removed, while others left of their own will. Strictly in the realm of possibility, perhaps some had been deemed a hindrance and murdered secretly. It was more than likely.
"He was overwhelmed by the fact that No. 6 was gradually―no, actually, quite quickly―morphing as it developed its city structure. He was apprehensive, but he had no idea what he could do about it. Maybe he was afraid. I remember hearing him say over and over to himself, 'This isn't possible. This can't be happening.' Then, one day... it hadn't even been a month since Shion was born... he said to me, 'Let's leave No. 6. We can still escape now. But soon, we won't be able to leave unscathed from this city.' His face was so grave when he said it. He must have given up on No. 6 altogether by that time. He probably thought, 'I can't live here anymore. One day I'll suffocate, and end up taking my own life, or get killed if I don't.' That's why he tried to convince me to escape somewhere far away from No. 6, and start a new life in a strange land, just the three of us."
"But you said no, mom."
"Yes." Karan let out a long breath. "I said no. I told him clearly that I wasn't going to go with him. I just couldn't bring myself to believe what he was saying."
Karan averted her eyes and looked down as if Shion's gaze was too blinding to bear.
"When I asked him where we would go once we left No. 6, he said he didn't know. Then he just burst into a joyful laugh and... said it wouldn't be so bad to wander freely like the wind. But I had a baby that wasn't even a month old yet. Apart from the six city-states, I knew there were only barrens and tiny fields left on this earth. I couldn't bear to think of forcing such an arduous journey on a tiny infant. I supposed that as long as I stayed inside No. 6, we wouldn't have to starve or get sick. I couldn't convince myself that he could protect us better than No. 6. I couldn't trust him."
Yet another sigh escaped Karan's lips.
"I don't know if I made the right decision that day. I certainly don't regret that I didn't go with him. But the fact is that I had already become dependent on No. 6. I was trying to live a life of dependence. I lived for years and years without even realizing.... I was completely ignorant of No. 6's rotting smell, when he had been one of the first to detect it. And that―is a very regrettable thing."
"And you have no idea where dad is right now?"
"No, I don't. I don't even know if he's dead or alive. But knowing him, I have a feeling he's living freely, doing whatever pleases him."
Karan's voice dropped slightly.
"Shion, would you want to meet your father?"
"Well... I've only known you, mom, so I don't really feel any sort of yearning towards him. I don't really miss him. But I am curious."
"Curious about why you decided to talk to me about dad so suddenly. You never talked about him before."
Karan's lips moved, but no words issued from them. A short moment of silence followed. It was so still that Shionn's slumbering breathing could be heard crisp and clear.