Rikiga stood up abruptly.
"Ah, um―so, d-do you still have trouble forgetting about, ah, your former husband? That is to say, um, that you're... waiting for him to come home, or... is―is that how you still feel now? Or are you, ah, free of any of that kind of... er, attachment? As in, um, if something were to happen, would it result in..."
“What the hell kind of language are you speaking, old man?” Inukashi jumped in. “I think a newborn puppy would make a bit more sense than you. Right?” A patchy-furred dog that was lying at Inukashi's feet opened its eyes a crack. It gave a wide yawn. Karan smiled.
"I'm not waiting for him, Rikiga," she said. "To me, he's already a man of the past. Of course I do hope he's still alive somewhere, but―"
An unmistakable joy crossed Rikiga's features.
"Can't get any more obvious than that," Inukashi muttered.
"That's absolutely right," Rikiga said enthusiastically. "We can't dwell on the past forever. If we're going to dwell on something, it should be the future. Tomorrow is so much more important than yesterday."
"R-Right? You think so too, don't you? So... ah, Karan, wouldn't you agree that, um... someone with whom you can live in the future is, ah, more important than someone with whom you lived in the past?"
"Yes, of course. That's why I invited you to dinner this evening. I wanted to dine with you."
An exclamation issued from Rikiga's lips that sounded like something between "oh" and "ah".
"K-Karan, is that true? Y―You thought of me, and that's why―"
Inukashi tugged at Rikiga's jacket.
"Old man, old man. Sorry for shattering your dreams, but I've been invited, too. You're not the only one. Don't you forget that."
Rikiga scowled heartily and made a swatting gesture as if to chase away flies.
"Shoo! Shoo! Show yourself the door and take that dirty mongrel with you. You probably asked yourself over with a mind to take advantage of Karan's cooking."
"As a matter of fact, I did get a proper invitation. Right, Momma Karan?"
"Yes, of course. Both Inukashi and you, Rikiga, are very important teammates to Shion. And you two are very good friends to me. That's why I wanted both of you to come. I don't have much, but I do have lots of freshly-baked bread. I also have homemade jam and stew that's been simmered nice and long. Just a minute, I'll get it prepared. Shion, can I get some help?"
Karan opened the door to the kitchen and disappeared beyond. The aroma of bread and stew wafted into the room. The two distinct smells stimulated the nose. Inukashi's nose twitched eagerly.
"I'll help, too! Being treated to a free meal goes against my morals." He chuckled. "Did you hear that? Fresh-baked bread and stew. Just the sound of it makes me drool, but then you smell it, and... oh, this is the best. My stomach is grumbling like no tomorrow. Aren't you hungry too, old ma―hm? Old man, what's wrong? Your eyes aren't focused. What're you spaced out about?"
"Karan says I was a teammate. A friend. To Karan, I was only ever just a member of a team, just one of her friends..."
Shion and Inukashi looked at each other. Inukashi tilted his head.
"Hmm. Well, 'let's be good friends' is a pretty typical rejection phrase. Dogs would be more straight up and tell you they hate your fur or that your teeth are gross, but humans like to take the long way around. Hah, but really, old man, were you planning on seriously proposing to Momma Karan?"
"... I was serious," Rikiga said gloomily. "Work is picking up for me, and I've got money enough to spare. I was confident that I'd make Karan happy."
Following the destruction of No. 6, merchandise began to find its way out of the walls. Rikiga took advantage of the chaos and bought them off at low prices.
He hoarded artwork and handiwork, electronics, paintings, jewellery, furniture, medical machines, cars, clothes, office supplies, and even toys; when things began to settle, he sold them at high prices and made a handsome profit. Now he directed and managed a publishing company and printing company, issuing a weekly informational magazine and a daily paper.
“Well, you are a rising star in the entrepreneurial business, Rikiga-san. Rumour says you're quite the power player.”
"You honestly think so, Shion?"
"Of course I do. You and Inukashi don't need fake compliments from me, do you?" Shion took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves.
"I keep telling you to stop lumping me in with doggy-boy," Rikiga said wearily. "But enough of that. So, Shion, you've acknowledged me, then? You think I'm fit to be married to Karan?"
"Huh? Oh, I―I didn't mean it like... well, uh, I don't think my mother ever plans to remarry. She was telling me the other day how satisfied she was with this life and how she'd like to keep being a baker for as long as she can."
It was true: Karan's life had not changed much, at least on the outside. She ran her small bakery tucked away in a corner of Lost Town, chatting with regulars and kneading dough for the first loaves in the early hours of the morning.
That was her regular routine, and she repeated it every day. Even in intense turmoil, Karan continued to fire up the oven, bake bread, and lay them out at the front of the shop. The people wept through their mouthfuls of small rolls and muffins.
"The world has crumbled from beneath our feet, but this still tastes the same. There are still things in this world that haven't changed."
Those were the words of an elderly man, a regular customer. He had murmured the words over and over, his cheeks wet with tears. Shion encountered the same sort of murmur many times.
Something is here which will never change―for the people, that feeling of certainty signified hope and a reason to keep living.
"Your mother is an incredible woman," Nezumi had said, with a rare note of awe in his voice.
It was on the day he had woken up.
On the day that everything had ended―no, began―Shion had dragged his exhausted and battered body back home to Karan. After a somewhat brief reunion embrace, he had collapsed into bed with Nezumi and slept like a log. His slumber was deep enough to cut off all of his senses, and when he woke, it was already noon of the following day. It was the time of day when the sun was shining straight from above, emitting a faint reddish glow.
There was no sign of Nezumi beside him. There was one blanket folded neatly and placed at the foot of the bed. Shion placed a fist on top of the folded blanket. A strangled noise subconsciously escaped his throat.
Nezumi, have you gone? Just like you did four years ago?
Four years ago, on the morning after the storm, Nezumi had disappeared from Shion's side. He had disappeared starkly, as if everything from the night before had been an illusion.
Back then, they had only just met. They barely knew anything about each other―not a single thing about the pasts they shouldered, the future they beheld, and the emotions they kept within their souls.
But it was different now.
Yes, there were still things they could not grasp, things they still could not understand about each other. There was a chasm between him and Nezumi that he could never fill, no matter how much he struggled to.
I know. I know. I know. We knew, but we still lived together. Not in the past, nor in the future, but in the present. We lived the present together.
But now you're leaving again without a word?
Shion's thoughts got as far as that before he shook his head vehemently.
Of course not.
We've spent so much time together, and overcome hell together. He wouldn't vanish without a word. That's not what our relationship is like. And besides, it would be risky for him to move around with such a serious wound. I can't imagine Nezumi being so reckless.
He caught a whiff of the aroma of coffee and bread. It was the smell of waking up.
Shion opened the door into the living room.
"Oh, is the prince finally awake?" Nezumi was smiling with a coffee cup in hand. "I can't say much about you, though. I woke up not too long ago."
Shion swallowed his sigh of relief, and with great effort feigned a calm demeanour.
"Nezumi. How do you feel?"
"Couldn't be better. Or, at least I wish I could say so. It's taken its toll. You?"
"Couldn't be better."
The cup twirled around in Nezumi's hand.
"Confident now that you're on home turf, huh? But it's a good thing that you've got enough energy to act tough. But might I suggest taking a shower and spritzing yourself up before you start trying to be a tough guy? I think even King Lear wandering the wildness would look a little more put-together than you."
Shion peered into the mirror hanging on the wall. His face and hair were covered in streaks of blood, dirt, and dried sweat. His shirt was torn in several places, and his right sleeve looked like it was about to fall right off.
He's right. I don't even think King Lear at his maddest would look as bad as this.
He felt a strange urge to laugh.
"So, your Majesty, will you be having a bath first? Or shall I prepare a cup of the very best coffee for you?"
"What an incredible honour it is to be served coffee by you."
"Your mama just treated me to some delicious bread―the very best, I must say―and it was so good I felt like my tongue would melt. I think pouring you a coffee would be a small service compared to that."
"Your mama has been run off her feet with work since morning." Nezumi jerked his chin. Shion could feel the muffled buzz from beyond the thin wall.
"Huh? She's opened shop?"
"Looks like it. Says the only thing she can do is bake bread, so she's going to keep doing what she can. Even in this chaos, the oven is still fired up and the danishes are still baking. She says in the evening, she'll make some cravats for me."
"I see... sounds like what she would do."
Nezumi put his cup down, and his eyes moved towards the white wall. There was no smile playing on his lips anymore. It was as if his gaze pierced through the wall, focusing on Karan who bustled about on the other side. A darkness lurked in the depths of his look.
"Your mother is an incredible woman," Nezumi said. His voice was so low it was almost a whisper, but there was definitely a note of awe in it. "She's like the Almighty Mother. I didn't know there was someone like that inside No. 6. but she is one―and she's lived here as a citizen."
A person could never be completely dyed into one colour, no matter the circumstances. He may be dyed temporarily, but he would one day regain his own colour, and would always attempt to live loyal to himself. He would try to draw forth many different colours into this world.
Indeed, that was hope itself.
How much could one trust the days that lay before him, the people in his life, and hope? Eventually, this question would be posed to Shion himself. He knew that Nezumi would have to take on the same assignment.
Nezumi, could we ever completely believe in people? Not loathe, not condescend upon, not abuse, but believe?
Could we do it?
The aroma of coffee filled the air.
"But first, you need a splendid brunch with the best of bread and the best of coffee. At least take today to rest and think of nothing at all. Your mama's gutsy way of living is too much for us youngsters to handle yet, I think."
"You're pretty modest."
“This is 'away' territory. I'll watch my mouth,” Nezumi said lightly. “And truth be told, I'm a little tired. I haven’t the slightest objection to sleeping, eating good bread, and going back to sleep again. It's quite a nice vacation.”
"And you'll get to eat cravats in the evening."
"Yes, that." Nezumi snapped his fingers. "I've never had the pleasure of beholding a pastry shaped like a tie. And baked by your mother's hands. It must be delicious."
"Once you've had them, you’ll be at their mercy. They'll come to haunt you every night in your dreams."
"I imagine it'll be like how Hansel and Gretel felt when they found the house made of sweets. It's one of those things where 'pleasure and trouble come arm-in-arm with each other.'"
“I just thought of it now. And you better remember it: it'll illuminate the path to your fate.”
A cup of coffee was placed down in front of him.
"Drink up. I've made it a little strong with lots of milk, just the way your Majesty likes it."
"What? We've never had coffee together before. How do you know how I like it?"
"I just know. I told you before―you're hopelessly easy to read, and yet also hopelessly hard to understand."
"I could say the same for you."
"But I’m not as difficult as you."
"You're one to talk. You should be the last person to call me difficult."
"How the hell am I difficult?"
"It would take me until tomorrow morning to list them all."
"Huh," Nezumi huffed. "I'll entertain you with my presence until tomorrow morning, then, so let us hear all the details."
"See, that's what I’m talking about." Shion sipped his coffee. Its fragrance, bitter taste, and mildness spread inside his mouth. The rolls on the table were also delicious. As Nezumi had said, they were so good he felt his tongue would melt.
The taste soaked into the very core of his body and soul. It was the unmistakable taste of his mother’s cooking.
"One minute you're as stubborn and quick to anger as a child, and the next minute you've got sound judgment and no attachment to anything whatsoever. You're constantly changing your mind, and you're in a different kind of mood from one minute to the next. I can't see how anyone can be more difficult than you."
"Uh-huh, I see. Not gonna candy-coat anything, are you? Well, let me say my bit, Shion―"
"Go ahead. You have nothing against me."
Nezumi scoffed. "Only indecent people go on about how decent they are."
"So you're saying you don't think you're decent?" Shion retorted.
"Erm, well... that's not to say I'm not a decent person, because I always am.... Damnit, you're getting quicker with your comebacks." Nezumi twisted his mouth and narrowed his eyes.
Shion almost snorted at Nezumi's hilarious scowl.
Everything seemed beautiful―this casual conversation, the gentle atmosphere, even the rays of the setting sun coming in through the window.
It was a gem of a moment which had existed between the storm that had passed and the storm Shion was about to face. It was also a tender memory that Nezumi had left behind for him.
Nezumi set off, and Shion remained. Their tangled and overlapping fates had separated, and were now drifting apart.
When would they intersect again?
"Hey, Shion." Rikiga's face drew nearer. "I want you to give me a hand."
"Give you a hand?"
"I'd like you to tell... well, hint to Karan―discreetly, mind you―how right I am as a marriage candidate for her."
"What? But, well... I'm not so sure I can―"
"I'm serious. I want to propose to her because I'm confident that I can make her happy. Of course, if Karan wants to keep running her bakery, she can do it for as long as she likes. I know!” he exclaimed, “We can renovate the entire place. Make the shop bigger, put in a large front window. Make it glamourous. We'll fix up the living quarters, too, and add more rooms."
"I don't think that's what my mother would want. She seems pretty satisfied with what we have already."
Rikiga cradled his head in his hands.
"Oh, Karan. What a virtuous woman, so modest in her wants. She's the very embodiment of a goddess."
"I dunno, I think she's a bit on the chubby side to be a goddess," Inukashi butted in. "But Momma Karan is pretty, and way too good for you, old man. And FYI, I think the problem with the kind of women you hang around with is that they want too much. When they look at someone, they see a gold coin where his face should be. Either way, old man, Momma Karan only sees you as a friend. The ends of her hair are a more likely marriage candidate in her mind than you. Hah, just give it up."
"Don't think a brat like you can interfere with adult matters."
"Fine, fine. Mr. Adult can keep putting up a hopeless struggle in his adult matters. Shion, let's go help Momma out. I'm dying to have dinner."
They could hear Rikiga let out a troubled sigh behind them.
Dinner was enjoyable. Everyone ate, talked, and laughed plenty.
It was fun―very fun.
If Nezumi were here―his heart wavered in uncertainty. If Nezumi were here, he would have sat across from Shion, praised Karan's cooking, and sneered coolly as he looked on at Inukashi and Rikiga arguing. He would have wielded his fork and spoon with elegant grace, and would have made Karan happy by finishing everything on his plate.
Nezumi, where are you? What are you doing right now?
I haven't seen you for a year now.
Three hours later, his companions set off for home into the night. Inukashi left in high spirits, his backpack bursting with bread. Rikiga looked thoroughly depressed.
“Mom,” Shion called out as he cleaned up. Karan, who was measuring flour, turned only her head to look at Shion.
“What is it?”
“Why did you invite Inukashi and Rikiga-san over today?”
“Hm? Well... I don't think I really had a reason. I thought it'd be nice to have some people over for dinner for once. You've been so busy you haven't even had time to sit down and enjoy a good meal.”
“So you did this out of concern for me?”
Karan turned her whole body towards her son this time, and shook her head slightly.
“It's not like that. It's just―Shion, have you noticed? You don't smile or laugh a lot anymore.”
“It's been a while since you laughed out loud like you did today.”
Shion touched his own cheek. His skin felt hard and tense beneath his fingertips. Karan was looking steadily at Shion's fingers.
“Your job at the Restructural Committee must be tough.”
“Yeah. But, I mean, we are making an entirely new organization with a new set of functions. We've got people from all sorts of positions in one place. It's not like I wasn't prepared to deal with difficulties.”
“Are things not going well with Yoming and his group?” Karan raised her chin. Her tone and gaze grew hard, as if she were challenging someone. “I imagine you two must... think very differently. Shion, are Yoming and them giving you a hard time?”
Shion was at a loss for an answer.
“I knew it,” Karan said. “I had a bad feeling when I found out Yoming was selected to be a member of the Restructural Committee.”
“Do you know Yoming-san well, mom?”
A shadow flitted across Karan's eyes.
“I thought I knew him. He's Lili's uncle, after all, and he used to come to the bakery a lot. He said No. 6 had murdered his wife and son. He taught me what No. 6 truly was, back when I still had no idea. He helped me. He's a very intelligent person, isn't he?”
“Yeah. He is smart. He organized the resistance. He's the one who gathered all the people who opposed No. 6 and made them into an organization. His actions were one of the things that triggered No. 6's fall. It's only normal for him to be chosen as a member of the Committee.”
“Normal? Is it really? Shion, do you really think that Yoming is a suitable individual for the Restructural Committee? I... I just can't seem to convince myself that he is.”
The windows rattled. It seemed like the wind outside was picking up. It would sweep the clouds away and bring an end to the rain.
Tomorrow, a blue sky would probably open up above them.
“He hated No. 6 with a passion,” Karan continued. “And for good reason, too. It took his most precious family away from him. He wasn't blinded like the rest of us. He saw No. 6 for what it was precisely because of his hatred for it. And this was even while he was living inside the city.”
Karan ran her hand down the bag of flour beside her.
“Hatred was his energy, and it was effective for destroying No. 6. But... but that energy isn’t going to create anything new. That’s what I think, Shion.”
There was a forlorn note in his mother’s voice that made his heart ache.
One had to either throw away one’s hatred or overcome it in order to create something new. Loathing could never become a force for revival.
“Just a little before the chaos came to a head in No. 6 because of that strange disease... when we’d started to see the clear signs of destruction beginning... he came here, and we had a long talk. And he said to me, ‘I’ve lost faith in you.’”
“Yoming-san told you he lost faith in you, mom?”
“Yes. Shion, there are a lot of things that I don’t know or can’t understand. I’ve never wanted to know or understand. And that’s a very shameful thing indeed. If only we adults had been a little smarter, perhaps we could have saved Safu, too...”
“Mom, let’s get back to talking about Yoming-san,” Shion said in a firmer tone as if to cut across his mother’s mourning words. His thoughts and feelings for Safu were like a bottomless swamp. No matter how much he repented or apologized, there would never be an end for him. No matter how many tens of thousands of words he piled upon, no matter how much he kept praying, he would never be forgiven.
So at the very least, he would not forget.
He would remember Safu and the wish she had passed onto him until the hour of his last breath.
Karan blinked, and nodded slightly.
“Yes, he lost all faith in me because I didn’t agree with him wholeheartedly. He was trying to become a hero, a hero who overthrew a dictator state. I don’t know, it wasn’t for revenge, or anger at being oppressed all this time... I felt like he was being taken over by a sort of―desire?―to become a hero whose name would go down in history. Yoming said that casualties were inevitable in a world that was changing. He dismissed all the people bleeding and dying and said it couldn’t be helped. For him, if a thousand people had died to save ten thousand, their lives would not have been lost in vain―but isn’t there something wrong about finalizing it like that? There’s something wrong about converting human lives into numbers. And I think it’s wrong for a hero to stand on a pedestal built on human sacrifice.”
“Shion, can you put up a fight against Yoming?”
Fight? Is Yoming-san someone I have to fight? Is he an enemy?
Yoming’s group continued to assert that the temporarily-established Restructural Committee should be dissolved and an entirely new organization created in its place. It was clear that if they had their way, the core positions of the Committee would be dominated by members of Yoming’s group. It would be a considerable departure from the Committee principle, founded upon the idea that the Committee was a place where members of many backgrounds and affiliations could exchange opinions freely. But by now, Yoming and his group had stopped listening at all to the objections and opinions of Shion’s group, the minority.
Something has to be done. I have to do something.
No. 6 was already a proven example of what resulted when justice lay in the hands of a few and all others were banished. The damage was still raw, still throbbing; why was Yoming’s group attempting to tread the same path?
I have to do something―
“Shion, you’ve gotten so thin.” Karan’s gaze and tone turned to those of a mother. It was a glimpse of a mother’s love, the foolish, fierce, pure, and selfish love that worried only of her own child’s welfare and wished for only his happiness.
“You should quit the Restructural Committee if it’s such a burden on you. There are so many other ways to make a living. You said yourself once that you wanted a job that involved kids. Why don’t you look for one?”
“No...” Shion slowly shook his head. “I still have things left to do.”
“Mom, he told me not to run away. I have to stay here because I have a job to finish. He said I can’t turn my back on it now. I don’t want to go against those words.”
Karan did not question who “he” was. Instead, she silently gazed up at her son.
The wind grew even fiercer. The windows rattled restlessly.
Karan let out a subdued sigh.