The clouds shrouded the sun, and the land cooled quickly in the shadows. The atmosphere lost heat rapidly and the daytime weather now seemed like an illusion. The barrens were dotted with low shrubs and no tall trees; if one stood on higher ground, one could probably look out across the horizon.
The reddish soil lay exposed, and angular boulders sat here and there across the land. It was the picture of ruin and fruitlessness itself. But a number of shrubs harboured natural springs of clean water within their depths. Those thickets were marked by their green colour, a shade lusher than the others, and its bushes which yielded red fruit. The fruit was about the size of an infant’s fist and was much too tough to eat, but its vivid colour was beautiful, and matched well with the reddish-brown of the land and the green of the shrubbery.
Nezumi crouched by the spring and scooped up some water with his hands.
It was delicious. For someone who had journeyed across dry land, this water was like a rejuvenating nectar that gave him strength and sped his recovery.
“Hey, you guys want to take a break, too?” Two little mice poked their heads out of his jacket pocket. They climbed down Nezumi’s leg, and once they reached the ground they gave not so much a glance to the spring as they pounced right onto the red fruit.
The skin of the fruit was too tough to bite for humans, but it seemed to pose no difficulty for the rodents’ incisors. The mice devoured a whole fruit in moments, making cheerful crunching sounds all the while.
A mouse with light-brown fur―Shion had named it Hamlet―looked up and tilted its head as if in inquiry.
“No, that’s alright,” Nezumi told him. “I don’t think I can handle that fruit. You don’t have to worry about me; I have a lot to eat.”
Apparently satisfied with its master’s answer, Hamlet began nibbling at the fruit again. Nezumi sipped another mouthful of water, then washed his face. He shed his clothes and immersed his body in the spring.
It was far from a hot bath, but the cool water felt refreshing. The spring was deeper than he thought: if he dove underwater, he could see where the water sprang from the sandy bottom.
Several small fishes were swimming around in the shadows of the algae, which swayed lazily along with the current and made him think of an elegant dance.
Here was a world that was entirely different from the world above-ground.
“Is it always peaceful underwater?”
How long ago had it been? Shion had murmured those words once, his gaze hovering in the air.
It was in that room in the West Block. It was dawn. He remembered that the steady rain had finally let up after three days, and the night had brought a biting chill that blanketed the Block. But it was now starting to lighten.
Just the day before, not long after the sun had gone down, Rikiga had made a rare appearance at Nezumi’s residence.
“Shion, I brought this for you to eat.” Rikiga, who had braved the cold and blustering winds to get here, placed a pointed emphasis on “for you to eat” as he handed a paper bag to Shion.
Shion peeked inside and emitted an exclamation of joy.
“Wow, this is amazing! White bread and meat!”
“There are also fresh vegetables and wine. Oh, and cheese. Quite a feast, don’t you think?”
“We can hold a banquet with this!” Shion said in awe. “Rikiga-san, are you giving this all to us?”
Rikiga pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not ‘us’. I’m giving it to you. Don’t get that part mixed up. Understand, Shion? You’re going to eat this. You have absolutely no need to give it to a certain serpent-tongued and cunning actor.”
“We’ll all eat it together,” Shion beamed. “I’ve promised to have a read-aloud with the kids tomorrow. I’ll make a nice, hearty soup that we can all eat together. It’ll be a splendid lunch.”
Rikiga’s face contorted. His expression was like that of someone whose back itched terribly, but could not reach far enough to scratch it no matter how hard he tried. Nezumi stifled a laugh behind his book.
“What? What’s so funny, Eve?”
“Oh, nothing. I didn’t mean to laugh. But if you must hear it out of me, it was because you made such a cute face, old man, I couldn’t help but smile.”
Nezumi closed his book and stood up. He peered into the paper bag that Shion held out for him, and gave a high whistle.
“My, my. This is much more than your average wooing gift. If you seek you shall find, huh? Only a black market trader like you could pull this off, Mr. Rikiga, sir.”
“Who are you calling a black market trader? I’m a bonafide businessman.”
“A businessman who traffics women to No. 6 officials and charges exorbitant amounts for it? Such philanthropic and saintly work you do. I am ever so humbled.”
Rikiga bared his teeth and made a sour expression.
“Shion, look. You’re free to take the meat and vegetables to make soup or make them part of your interior decor, but whatever you do, don’t let him have a bite. Don’t even let him smell it.”
Shion was not listening. His eyes were aglow as he laid out the contents of the bag on the table.
“Nezumi’s soup is top-class,” he said.
Potatoes, onion, cabbage, carrots. All were fresh. The mice squeaked incessantly from atop a pile of books.
“He barely uses any seasoning, but it’s still so good,” Shion continued. “With this many ingredients, we should be able to make the best soup ever. Everyone will be so happy. Thank you, Rikiga-san.”
“Ah... but, well, Shion. What I’m saying is that I went out of my way to―”
“Before our meal, we’ll say our graces to you, Rikiga-san. It won’t be a half-hearted ritual. I’m sure everyone will be truly thankful when they say so. Right, Nezumi?”
“Of course. We’ll say, ‘I am grateful and wish nothing but the best from the bottom of my heart for this compassionate soul. I pray that his sublime soul will forever be free of any hurt or pain,’” he said in the voice of an innocent maiden. Rikiga had a soft spot for innocent, pure, and unblemished things. Perhaps it was because he had internalized his own corruption, or perhaps they were simply his fancy, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t help but be attracted to them.
Whether it was an innocent maiden or a prostitute on the corner; a noble lady or loyal young man; a cunning merchant or an aged philosopher, Nezumi could become whatever the other person wished. If only for a short moment, he could show them an illusion of their desire with just his voice.
Just now, he was certain that Rikiga had seen the countenance of an untainted girl overlapped on his face. The eyes were connected to the heart, and so could not help but see what they want to see more than what is actually there. They also refused to acknowledge what they did not want to see.
“Damnit! Just a third-rate actor and his tricks. Don’t think you can get away with mocking me, Eve.”
“I would never think of doing such a disgusting thing like manipulating you to my every whim, old man.” Nezumi shrugged.
That sneaky fox. He’s as unpleasant as they come. Shion, why don’t you move in with me before he starts influencing you? Eve, if you don’t change your ways now, someday you’ll pay for it. I know, next time I’ll bring some butter. For you, I mean, Shion. And I’ll bring some fruits. Make sure that bastard fox doesn’t swipe them from you.
Rikiga wrapped up a lengthy rant, then went home.
“He never shuts up,” Nezumi grumbled. “The right thing to do would be to deliver his gifts and go straight home. He’s the picture of tactlessness, overstaying his welcome like that.”
“Well, I thought it was nice of him,” Shion said. “He came to deliver all of this expensive stuff to us. It’s ungrateful of you to speak ill of him.”
“Hah,” Nezumi scoffed. “Some No. 6 official must have taken a liking to a woman that the old man arranged for him. Old man got a handsome load of goods as a reward for arranging that woman, except that stuff wouldn’t have been hard to come by in No. 6, anyway.”
“But he shared it with us instead of hoarding it for himself. He didn’t expect anything in return. I think it was a noble thing.”
“Noble? Are you kidding me?”
“Am I wrong?”
Nezumi smiled with only one side of his face. He found Shion’s trusting nature at once annoying and funny. His frankness and willingness to trust were foreign to Nezumi. They were as meaningless as the frivolous embellishments on a piece of clothing.
Rikiga had done it out of guilt.
He was ashamed that he made a business out of selling West Block women to men from No. 6, and pocketing the money that came from it. On one hand, it was a sign that Rikiga’s heart had not yet been corrupted to the core, but on the other hand, it was also a sign of his weakness.
Rikiga had wanted to absolve his guilt, his own weakness, by giving Shion a part of what he had earned. He wanted to see Shion’s carefree smile, feel his joy, and draw some relief for himself. That was all there was to it. Yet, Shion could not see through this facade.
Why does he believe in people so easily? How does he do it? How does he keep doing it? It’s a complete mystery.
“Nezumi?” Shion blinked at him uncertainly. “What’re you thinking about?”
“Nothing, really... oh, the wine wouldn’t be a good idea for the kids. Let’s have it ourselves.”
“Sure. We’ll have a bit of cheese and bread to go with. How about we boil some potatoes, too?”
“Sounds great. This is going to be a wonderful night. Let me take back what I said earlier―I am most sincerely grateful for Rikiga-san’s incredible generosity.”
“You’re pretty material.”
“Call me liberated. Now, I’ll take care of the potatoes, then.”
“Nezumi, we only have mugs to drink out of.”
“Couldn’t ask for better.”
“We’re gonna drink wine out of mugs?”
“Hey, you don’t have to force yourself. I’ll have it all if you don’t want it.”
“In your dreams,” Shion cut in. “We’re going to divide it equally in half.”
They poured each other wine as they snacked on bread, cheese, and boiled potatoes. The label on the bottle indicated that the wine was from the western-most city of No. 3, and was quite an expensive pick. A gentle sweetness crept up from the depths of its acidity. It was delicious.
Before long, the two had emptied the whole bottle between themselves.
“You can handle alcohol pretty well, can’t you?” Nezumi said.
“Impressed?” Shion grinned cockily with a flushed face.
“Not impressed, really, just a bit surprised. I didn’t know you were a drinker.”
“This is the first time in my life.”
“This is my first drink ever. I didn’t expect it to taste so good,” Shion said thoughtfully.
“Huh? Wait, Shion, are you alright? You just had half a bottle of wine. You must be pretty drunk by now.”
“Mmmm, not really, no,” Shion said contentedly. “It just feels nice. And now I feel so stupid for troubling myself over such little things.”
“What little things were you troubling yourself over?”
“Uh, let me see,” Shion drawled, then chuckled. “I can’t remember. If I can’t remember, they must’ve not been that important in the first place. Ha ha, cheers to no worries! Cheers to wine!”
“Shion―you’re pretty drunk.”
“I am drunk. I drank wine, didn’t I? Of course I’d be drunk. Or is there some law saying I’m not allowed to be drunk?” Shion leaned so far forward that their noses were practically touching.
“Shion... please tell me you don’t pick fights with people when you’re drunk.”
“Pick fights with people? What people? You?”
“We’re the only two here apart from the mice.”
Shion stood up abruptly and put a hand on his hip.
“’We’re the only two here apart from the mice.’ Ha ha ha, how was it? Wasn’t that impression spot-on?”
“Impression of who?”
“Not even a bit.”
“Liar! I sounded exactly like you.” Shion stabbed a finger at Nezumi, and drew a circle with it. “You know, I think I’ve awakened to my talent of doing impressions. Maybe I’m a miming prodigy. I must be a prodigy. The heavens have given me this amazing talent. ‘We’re the only two here apart from the mice.’ Ha ha, see! I do sound like you!”
“...Is it fun imitating me?” Nezumi said exasperatedly.
“It is.” Shion crouched again and brought his nose right up to Nezumi’s. “It’s unbelievably fun. When I’m with you, everything is such a joy to experience. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so fun to be with you.”
Nezumi tilted his face away, drew his chin back, and tried to smile gently like a mother indulging her baby. The muscles around his cheeks were tense and refused to co-operate.
“I see. Well, that’s good for you, isn’t it? Just great. But I think you’ve let yourself be influenced a little too much by Inukashi’s dogs. We’re humans here. We can communicate without having to rub noses.”
“’We’re humans here. We can communicate without having to rub noses.’ Heh heh, how was that? Didn’t it sound like you? But y’know, Nezumi, people can’t communicate as easily as you make it sound. Compared to the number of things we understand, there’re way more things we wish we could unnerstan’ but can’t. A hundred times―a thousan’ times more things. Thas’ juss how’t is.”
“Shion... you’re starting to slur.”
“But iss great for dogs, innit? They juss hafta stick their noses t’gether ‘n’ go, sniff sniff to unnerstan’ each other. An’ they lick each other, too.”
“Don’t you dare lick my face.”
“I won’. I might bite, though,” Shion said, stretching out his last syllable in a singsong voice.
“Knock it off, you drunk. Hurry up and go to sleep. Don’t blame me if you wake up tomorrow morning with a hangover. Besides, have you stopped to think about how old you are? You’re sixteen and you have no inkling of how to drink... Shion? Hey, Shion, what’s wrong?”
Shion was leaning heavily on him. Nezumi could hear the sound of his soft slumbering breathing.
“Geez, you must be kidding me,” Nezumi muttered. “Hey, don’t fall asleep here! I’m not gonna carry you to bed, you know.”
Nezumi shifted his weight. Shion shifted along with him, and they both tumbled onto the floor. Shion’s breathing did not so much as catch. It continued on, even and regular.
“God,” Nezumi grumbled. “You stay awake just long enough to blabber to your heart’s content, then you’re out like a light. I don’t know if you could get any more ‘typical drunk’ than this.”
Cheep cheep cheep! Cravat looked up from nibbling at a piece of cheese and twitched his whiskers.
He’s hopeless, he seemed to say. He almost seemed to let out a sigh as well.
Nezumi couldn’t hold it in any longer. He burst out laughing.
He continued to laugh by himself, with Shion beside him.
He woke up.
He knew it was dawn because the air in the room had gotten even colder. The chill tended to worsen just as the eastern skies were beginning to lighten. This was also the hour when the highest number of invalids, elderly, starving children, and physically weak people drew their last breath.
Death slipped into the gap between the arrival of morning and the leaving of night and stole people away. But even so, Nezumi thought, the frigid air and starvation are much more merciful servants of Death. Much, much more merciful than ruthless violence.
The scar on his back gave a great throb.
Ruthless―these hostile flames had burnt his back precisely because they were ruthless. They had swallowed his family and turned everything to ashes.
Throb, throb. The restless pain crawled up his back. Nezumi got up and regulated his breathing. He took a deep lungful of the frozen air that summoned death, and exhaled. The cool air that slid down his airway was a sign that he was alive. He was alive and warm, which was why he could feel this cold.
Living people are warm. Shion had taught him so. Shion had taught him that living was to feel another’s warmth right beside him, and to pass on one’s own warmth to another.
Nezumi raked a hand through his hair, then inhaled and exhaled deeply one more time. For him, living had always been about revenge and nothing else. His own survival, the fact that he was alive was revenge towards No. 6. One day, one day not so far off, he would live and survive to deliver the fatal blow to No. 6―that had always been the only thing on his mind. He cared about nothing else. His hatred and loathing towards No. 6 only mounted, never waned. But he did waver.
Revenge was not the only thing in his heart. There was also something almost entirely different―something that existed completely unrelated to No. 6.
Nezumi himself could not grasp what that something was.
That’s why I waver. He wavered as he wondered about himself after he had fulfilled his revenge―would he be completely emptied, or would he still be full? Would there still be a stubborn core of hatred left inside him? He wavered.
If he wavered, he wandered. Wandering created a vulnerable opening.
Nezumi reached behind him and felt his back. The throbbing had subsided considerably. Soon it would go away completely.
Shion rolled over. Last night, Nezumi had dragged him to bed, and Shion had continued to sleep without a sound, save for his breathing.
“You are so―” he murmured to Shion’s sleeping face. “So high-maintenance, so hard to take care of... just hopeless.”
Shion rolled over again. His eyelids fluttered, and slowly lifted. There was no light source save for the dying embers in the stove. In nearly inky darkness, Nezumi could see a faint white outline of Shion’s profile and hair.
“Nezumi... did you say something?”
Despite the fact that he had just woken up, and that they were immersed in darkness, Shion’s vision had caught Nezumi squarely and his ears had sensed his words.
“I was giving you my morning greetings. Good morning, your Highness. How do you feel today? ―Something like that.”
“I feel... not so bad.”
“Oh. Not hung over? Looks like you and booze will get along. If you don’t be careful, you’ll turn out like the old man. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You can’t get hung over from wine. It’s fruit-based, so it’s gentle on the body.”
“Is that true?”
“Yeah. I feel like I heard something along those lines from someone... maybe it’s just me.”
“Not very reliable, are you?”
“I’m not. I’m pretty unreliable―I’ve finally started to realize that.”
“So you’ve discovered yourself. Congratulations,” Nezumi teased without meaning it.
Shion always explored his own self thoroughly, diligently, and persistently. He always tried to face off squarely with what was inside of him.
And that was worthy of awe and praise, was it not?
Nezumi knew right down to his bones how difficult it was not to run away from oneself. He even felt a sort of reverent fear towards this high-maintenance, hard-to-take-care-of, hopeless boy.
Shion lifted the upper half of his body up and let his gaze wander in the air.
“Do you think it’s always peaceful underwater?”
“Underwater. Like in the sea, or in a river, or in a lake... is it always peaceful in the water?”
“What’re you talking about? Did you dream of something?”
“Yeah. It was the most vivid dream I’ve had in a while. I wonder if it’s because of the wine?”
“Was it a wine-coloured dream?”
“No... I was swimming underwater, along the bottom. I could breathe just fine. I just kept swimming on and on.” Shion shifted and gave a small sigh.
“That’s it. I was just swimming. It was so quiet and beautiful, and I felt so happy. It seemed like such a peaceful place, with no fighting or invading....”
“Impossible.” Nezumi smiled wanly in the dark. Naive, aren’t you? “Of course there’s fighting underwater. It’s just as much of a dog-eat-dog world as it is above ground. I thought you specialized in ecology.”
“I was supposed to specialize in it.”
“Either way, it doesn’t matter. I thought ecology was a field about the interaction between organisms and their environment. Didn’t you learn that predation exists underwater, too?”
Shion shook his head. “I know that. I’m not saying that it’s Paradise underwater. I just thought, since there are no humans...”
“There would be no meaningless fighting. There wouldn’t be murder for the sake of murder, or any atrocious killings.”
“That’s what you were thinking about while you were swimming?”
“Yeah. It was so... beautiful. It was sandy on the bottom, and it stretched on and on. There were jade-coloured stones here and there in the sand, and they would glimmer from time to time, though I didn’t know how. I reached out to pick one up, but I changed my mind.”
“The stone was so beautiful, I almost felt afraid to touch it. I felt like if I touched it, the world would fall apart.”
“I didn’t know you were such a romanticist,” Nezumi commented. “You sound like a blushing maiden.”
Shion squirmed. “Yeah, I’m a little embarrassed, too. But I can’t really help it, can I? That’s just how I felt. But I kind of regret it now. If I was going to wake up anyway, I should have picked one up.”
Nezumi almost burst out into a laugh again. He wondered if he was losing the ability to rein in his emotions.
“You should go back to sleep,” he said. “Maybe you’ll be able to have the same dream. Then, you could pick up as many rocks or coins as your heart pleases.”
“I guess. Hey, Nezumi.”
“We swam when we escaped No. 6, too, didn’t we? But that time, I was concentrating too much on swimming that I didn’t have time to stop and feel much.”
“We were swimming in sewage. That’s completely different from what you dreamed about.”
“But... it’s true that I’ve seen... so many beautiful things... here in the West Block...”
Nezumi could hear the other boy lapse into quiet breathing as he fell asleep. He could feel Shion’s warmth. He felt like this warmth was all he needed to get him through the frigid winter days.
What am I thinking? That’s absurd. Those who could not live by themselves, those who could not stand up to fate on their own, simply did not survive. It was how things worked in the West Block.
I don’t need any warmth.
Nezumi got up and filled a cup with water from their stores. He drained it in one draught. The cool water slipped down through his body. Shion muttered something unintelligible.
“Did you manage to pick one up?” Nezumi said to him. There was no answer. Only the heavy groan of the blowing wind echoed in the air.