Collaboration with glorifiedscapegoat.
Shion had fantasized time and again about what it would've been like if he and Nezumi had met at a different time, in another place, a world where they weren't hunted and Nezumi had never been damaged by the horrors of his youth. He imagined they would have been softer, bolder, sweeter. The days living in the cabin after the fall of Horizon Laboratories weren't the happy and carefree ones that Shion played out in his imagination, but with every silent night that slipped into quiet morning, they were coming closer to that dream.
The first few days had been long and anxious. Inukashi and Nezumi spent more time glancing out the cabin windows than they did on anything else, their eyes constantly scanning the dense woods. Shion didn't blame them; his heart raced when the house creaked in the wind, and he startled badly whenever a pinecone happened to fall and clatter on the roof. They had escaped, but it was hard at first to believe themselves truly free. The Lab had always seemed like a deeply-rooted parasite, one that would take multiple tries and ways to kill. Even though Shion had watched the escaped VCs cut off the head of the beast and burn its body, he still felt a nagging uneasiness that some part of the Lab lived on, and that it would catch up with them sooner or later.
But as two weeks rolled by, and then three, and four, the paranoia began to recede. Shion no longer jumped at pinecones, and Inukashi stopped wandering around the woods in dog form and spent more time bickering with Rin by the fire while Aki regaled them all with stories of his mischievous youth.
The cabin had no television or radio, and the phone signal was poor, so the group only received news when they ventured into town for supplies. The first week, all the television talked about was the terrible accident at Horizon Laboratories, and the grocery patrons murmured that the CEO was presumed the orchestrator of the whole murderous event. The second week, the people shook their heads sadly at the news reports and walked on. After the third week, the story had faded into the background more and more until no one talked about it at all and the news moved on to fresher topics.
Nezumi constantly reminded Shion that just because the news no longer thought the incident was worth covering, that didn't mean that it was over. Horizon Laboratories had never been featured in the news when they were operating at full capacity; they were masters at manipulation and obfuscation. Nezumi cautioned never to let their guards down for a moment.
But after nearly a month of quietude and not a single visitor to the cabin, Shion noticed Nezumi's shoulders relaxing, his smiles and light touches as he brushed by in the mornings on his way to coffee came easier and more frequently. Despite what his anxious brain warned, somewhere inside, Nezumi was beginning to believe the Lab might finally be behind them.
Apart from the odd report about freak feats of strength or miracle healings, no breaking news aired about the discovery of superhumans or the danger they might pose. Shion realized then that the Lab must truly be gone; if the program had lived beyond the destruction of its headquarters, superhumans wouldn't feel safe enough to use their powers in the world, even in subtle ways, and the Lab agents would never have allowed them to carry on unchecked. The only pieces of Horizon Laboratories that survived were him, and Nezumi, and every other superhuman who had fought and ripped their lives from the Lab's cold clutches.
Shion settled into life at the cabin as easily as slipping into a pool of warm water. Every day, the tension in his body eased, his physical wounds healed, and his mind stopped probing the perimeter of their perfect snowglobe of existence.
Their makeshift family got along well most days, though Rin and Inukashi had their share of squabbles, over food, mostly. They had both turned out to be major foodies, and constantly called upon Shion to whip up sweets whenever Nezumi allowed them to splurge on baking ingredients. They had gotten the generator working, and Nezumi had taken up cooking the meals for the group. His creations were simple, but delicious and packed full of flavor and nutrients. His contribution to filling their bellies made Inukashi and Rin warm up to Nezumi much faster than they probably would have otherwise.
Aki spent almost every day out on the porch, staring into the woods, or reading in the armchair by the window. He fit perfectly in the home, as if he'd been there all his life, as if he was born of the forest itself. He smiled gently at the breezes that wafted in through the open windows, his beard swaying like a trail of dandelion fluff, the very picture of the retired man, happy and ready to finish out the remainder of his life in solitude. Watching him made Shion feel at peace—but it also made his heart ache. Aki's last few years had been terrible and stunted in a dark, dingy basement. He had missed out on half his life and there was no way to reclaim those years.
After the passage of a month, Shion ventured to turn his cell phone back on. The cold metal burned his palm as he watched the screen light up and a series of notifications burst onto the screen in hurried succession. Nearly all of them were missed calls from his mother and Safu, from months ago. From the first month he was gone. Then there were none from the months after; they must have realized that Shion couldn't answer, that he had shut off or abandoned the phone, and trying to reach him was useless. A sharp pang shot through Shion's chest as he imagined how that must have felt to his mother and Safu, unable to call, unable to hear his voice or know whether he was safe and well. He remembered how badly his heart ached to be home and warm in his mother's embrace on the long, cold nights traveling through the woods in those first weeks.
The phone service in the cabin was poor—even now his phone screen kept wavering between one bar and none—so Shion didn't bother trying to call his mother or Safu back. He had spoken to them both a handful of times from the payphone by the grocery. The calls were few and far between, because they needed real yen for the phone, but Karan and Safu were well aware, and they were happy to hear his voice whenever he could call.
Safu had been so furious and worried when she first spoke to him on the phone. She chewed him out for not letting them know sooner about his whereabouts or health, and when Shion tried to explain why he couldn't contact them, she upbraided him again for mansplaining the obvious. Shion laughed, and Safu huffed, and then the connection was suddenly filled with small sniffles and Safu's voice whispering, "I missed you, Shion. I missed you so much."
The first few calls had their share of tearful moments, gentle scolding, and soft, affectionate laughter. Shion was so glad to hear their voices, to be able to tell them how much he loved and missed them and not worry about Lab agents tapping the line and triangulating his location. He wanted to hug his mother more than anything. He wanted to taste her fresh baked bread and wake to the sound of Safu singing gently under her breath as she stocked the shelves.
He wanted to go home.
As much as he appreciated the peace and camaraderie of the cabin, the stolen kisses and languorous mornings in bed with Nezumi, Shion belonged with his family in Lost Town. He knew in his heart that his future laid in his past. He just hadn't had a chance to bring his thoughts up to Nezumi yet.
"There you are."
Shion blinked and lifted his gaze from the now darkened screen of his cell phone. Nezumi leaned against one side of the door frame, expression light and his hair loose and slightly tousled around his shoulders.
Shion's stomach flipped pleasantly. "Hey," he said, a smile slipping onto his face.
Nezumi's eyes sparkled with laughter as he said "Hey," back in the same shy, affectionate tone. "What's that you have?"
"Oh, um…" Shion toyed with the phone, and the movement activated the screen, bathing his wrists in pale white light.
Nezumi's face pinched in recognition, and he crossed the room and sat next to Shion on the bed. "Thinking about your mom?" he prompted after a moment of silence.
Shion stared down at the phone, pressing the hard contours of the case against the bones in his hands. He used the sensation to steady himself as he tried to think of the right way to phrase his thoughts and desires. He knew Nezumi wouldn't be mad, and he doubted he would be surprised; they knew each other too well for that. He wasn't afraid to tell Nezumi that he wanted to go back to Lost Town. His anxiety stemmed from wanting to ask Nezumi to come with him and stay by his side for the foreseeable forever.
Nezumi laid a hand over Shion's to still his restless phone fiddling. The charms on his bracelet jangled softly against his wrist as they came to rest, and Shion stared down at the sun charm glistening over his pulse point.
He drew in a breath to speak, but Nezumi found the words first.
"You want to go home."
Nezumi spoke simply, validating Shion's assumption that he already knew and had expected this conversation. Shion laid his phone aside, threaded his fingers through Nezumi's, and began as gently as he could.
"I love you, Nezumi. I love being with you and the others here. It's not like I'm not happy, or this doesn't feel like home, but…"
"It's alright. I get it, Shion. If I still had family, I'd want to go back to them too."
Nezumi's voice held no self-pity, but Shion squeezed his hand gently anyway, just to let him know he understood and sympathized.
"I told my mom about you," Shion said. "About us. And Safu, too." Heat crept up the back of his neck, but he tried not to betray his nervousness in his looks or tone. "I want you to meet them again—properly this time. I want us to go back together, and… And stay there."
Nezumi's expression was very still. Shion couldn't read anything in the stormy gray of his eyes, and it made his skin feel too tight. He wriggled in his seat. His palms began to sweat, and he was mortified that he was holding Nezumi's cool hand with his sweaty one, but he didn't know how to rescue it without looking like he was pulling away.
"Shion. Stop wiggling." Nezumi gave his hand a squeeze and Shion went obediently still at the mild annoyance in his tone. The color in Nezumi's eyes flickered between early morning mist and icy river blue. "Why are you so nervous?"
"I'm not sure, exactly." Shion stared at their intertwined fingers. "I guess maybe I'm worried that you'll be upset that I don't want to stay here, in your home. You have a lot of memories here and it's important to you, and you've finally taken it back."
"Nope. Try again."
Shion looked up, confused.
Nezumi narrowed his eyes. "That's definitely not what you're worried about. Tell me the truth, or I actually will get upset."
"You look upset already," Shion mumbled, but he huffed at the look Nezumi shot at him and straightened. "OK, but give me a second. I haven't looked too closely at why I'm worried yet, and you've put me on the spot, so I need to think it over."
Shion rolled his lips together and gave the feelings swirling in his chest a good, hard study. Nezumi stared out the window as he did so. A light rain had moved in over the course of the afternoon, a promise of warmer days to come.
Shion loved the soft hush of rain against the roof and window panes. He had always had an affinity for nature, but after his stint in Horizon Laboratories' basement, he had come to appreciate the beauties of nature even more.
"Alright," Shion sighed, and Nezumi faced him once again. "I want to go home, and I want you to come with me."
"Yes, we've established that already."
"Shush! I'm not done."
A slight smile plucked at the corner of Nezumi's mouth, which Shion was powerless against returning. His nerves retreated a little as he shook his head and continued, "What I'm nervous about is you—your feelings, your desires. You always say you don't like people, that you enjoy being alone and far away from civilization. And you seem really happy here. Peaceful. I've never seen you so relaxed before, and you deserve it. You deserve to feel safe and happy and calm. You've lived nearly your whole life on the run; you've never had a chance to just stay still and be, and you have that here.
"If we go back to Lost Town, our lives will be different. We'll be around people all the time, and I'll have to go back to school—and, actually, you'll have to go to school… Have you ever been to school?"
Nezumi's brows drew together. "No."
"Yeah, right, see? Your whole life would change. You'd have to go to school and then get a job, and people would expect things from you all the time. Here, we make our own rules, and we live simply and just how we want to, and we don't have any responsibilities to anyone but ourselves. Life in Lost Town isn't going to be like that."
Nezumi frowned. "So… You think I can't handle living in normal society?"
"No! No, that's not what I meant. I know you can behave when you want to."
"I just mean," Shion said, ignoring Nezumi's incredulous laugh, "the life I'm asking you to live isn't peaceful like it is here, and I'm worried you won't be happy. I'm worried you'll feel...restrained. Tied down or something. That you'll feel like you're sacrificing your freedom for me."
Nezumi sobered. "I see."
His gaze flicked to the window again and Shion's stomach dropped. He's upset. I should have thought more about this and prepared a better explanation.
Nezumi carefully extricated his hand from Shion's and Shion felt like his heart was one word away from splitting in two. Nezumi, the dramatic, casual monster that he was, pulled his legs up onto the bed and spent several unhurried seconds making himself comfortable before finally, finally facing Shion.
"Shion," Nezumi said like a judge about to issue his final sentence, "sometimes you're so dumb I can't stand you."
"I mean, you're cute, especially with the new hair and eye colors, but you're dumb—sometimes. And you worry too much, all the time."
Shion tensed to speak, but Nezumi pressed a finger against his lips and chided, "Shush. I'm not done. It's your turn to behave," and suddenly Shion's indignation and fluster nosedived into arousal. He promptly shut up, and Nezumi smiled in that ridiculously maddening and sexy way that always made Shion wonder if he really could read minds as well as control them.
But the moment passed quickly. Nezumi removed his finger and released a shallow sigh. "Shion, I'm here. I wouldn't be if I didn't want to be, and I..." He scowled and took a moment to find his words.
Shion's heart softened. He knew Nezumi struggled with sentimentality. Speaking his heart didn't come naturally to him—or, perhaps, his hard life had taught him to keep his feelings locked up tight so that he would never be vulnerable, physically or emotionally. But he had been trying to break through the aversion for Shion. He had said "I love you" aloud only once so far, but Shion could see Nezumi's love for him in every look and gesture; he didn't need to hear the words to know how much he meant to him. He knew that, in time, Nezumi would find peace with his emotions and learn to say the things he wanted without fear or embarrassment. Shion was more than happy to wait.
"If I didn't care about you," Nezumi started again, "I wouldn't have stayed this long. Hell, I would have ran away the first chance I had. You're right; I've been running my whole life. I'm used to being alone, and I like being alone. It's easier that way, and I know I can take care of myself. But you're just as strong as me, Shion, and I chose to be here. I chose you. And I'm not letting you go. Not again, not ever."
Shion's body buzzed with the declaration. "I feel the same way."
"I know." Nezumi arched an eyebrow. "That's why you're dumb." Shion breathed a laugh and Nezumi shook his head. "And you're wrong. Being with you doesn't make me feel trapped. It used to feel that way, but after the Lab…" He shifted and took a deep breath. "After what happened at the Lab, I realized I was just afraid to admit how I felt, and I regretted how stupid and immature I was about it.
"You're not a burden, you're more like an anchor. You're the first thing—the only person—that's ever made me feel fixed. The Lab took everything from me; I've never had a permanent place to stay, or someone to come home to. I couldn't afford to stay still or form attachments. But I have you. I want you. And I'm tired of running."
Nezumi sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Shion's chest ached. He knew the strain of the years had been pulling at Nezumi for a long time. The only thing keeping him from fraying at the edges was his momentum, and now that things finally seemed to be at a standstill, the wear and tear of his life had caught up to Nezumi. When he wasn't in Shion's arms or making fun of Inukashi, he looked like the weight of the world was bearing down on his shoulders.
"I'm so freaking tired," Nezumi murmured. "I want to be able to stay in one place and build a life with you, but I'd be lying if I said I'm completely ready for it. I'm still anxious all the time. I feel like my blood is vibrating, or my skin's too tight. I don't know how to stand still without feeling like there's a target on my back."
Shion understood that. Horizon Laboratories had scarred them inside. The physical wounds might have healed, but their bodies and brains were irreparably damaged. Shion was reminded of this truth every time he used his power and felt that niggling fear at the back of his brain; every time Nezumi came home with his arms full of groceries paid for with stones and leaves; every time Shion woke up sweating and his heart racing from a nightmare, or noticed Nezumi sitting up next to him in bed, alert and staring intently out the window into the quiet dark.
"But you want to try?" Shion asked. "To build a life together?"
Nezumi nodded. "I want to try. I want a life, not just to live. I fucking deserve it after everything I've been through."
The words were a starburst in Shion's chest. "You do deserve it," he agreed fiercely. He grinned and leaned forward to kiss Nezumi on the cheek.
"But you have to be patient," Nezumi warned when Shion sat back.
"I can be patient, as long as I have you."
"You're so cheesy."
"I just love you a lot."
Nezumi clicked his tongue and turned away, but Shion could still see the tips of his ears burning red. "Yeah, I know," Nezumi mumbled. Then a moment later, softer, "Me too."
Aki, Rin, and Inukashi reacted to the news of Shion and Nezumi's plans just as Shion suspected they would: Aki nodded and stroked his wispy beard with his usual sangfroid; Inukashi looked perplexed and inconvenienced; and Rin's face contorted in a mixture of surprise and sadness.
"You're leaving us?" Rin asked.
"My mom and best friend are waiting for me to return," Shion said, settling back against the loveseat. He meant it to look like he was relaxing, but really, he was trying to press his shoulder against Nezumi's to leech some of his bravery and strength. "They said no agents have come by, and the news coverage has completely forgotten about Horizon Laboratories already, so it should be safe to go back home."
Inukashi and Rin's faces pinched, and the expressions hit Shion like a punch to the gut. He didn't know whether Inukashi had been born into the Lab or taken young, but they'd never mentioned their family or indicated they had anywhere to go back to. Rin's parents had given them up at birth, and from what Shion had been able to glean from their jokes, it seemed they had lived in a community home or foster care until an act of arson brought them to the attention of the Lab.
Neither of them had parents or friends to return to. The people in this room were as close as they had ever had to a family, and Shion was breaking them up.
"You can come with us," Shion offered. He felt Nezumi tense beside him, but he didn't say anything against it. It was Shion's home, after all, and therefore his call. "Anyone who wants to can come."
Rin and Inukashi frowned and glanced at one another before turning to Aki. The old man met Shion's gaze.
"I'd like to stay here, if that's alright with Nezumi."
Nezumi's brows drew together, but he said, "Of course. You can stay as long as you want."
Aki nodded and continued to run his fingers through his serpentine beard. "It's a beautiful place. I'd like to end my days here."
"Whoa. Way to be depressing, old man," Inukashi muttered.
Aki smiled. "I don't see it that way."
"But… How will you live?" Shion asked. He realized now that with him and Nezumi gone, the rest of the group would be left without a car or Nezumi's abilities to secure them food and other necessities.
"Right…" Rin blew out a breath. "Shit. We're poor as fuck without Nezumi's mind tricks."
"I have some money saved from trips to the store," Nezumi offered to Aki. "It's not much, but it might hold you over until…"
He trailed off and eyed Shion, as though asking if they were thinking the same thing. Which, they probably were. No amount of money would be able to hold Aki over, because Aki was incapable of being in normal society. One touch from him would kill a person, so he couldn't get a job or venture into town.
"We could send money back here, once we're settled in Lost Town," Shion said. "I work part-time in my mom's bakery, and maybe Nezumi could, too." Nezumi shrugged when Shion applied to him, and looked relieved by the solution overall. "That should be able to help with groceries and bills."
Aki considered, his gaze drifting out toward the window. The rain had stopped and the birdsong had picked up again. "It's turning toward spring," he said, voice soft, as if caught in some happy memory. "I should be able to get a garden going. And I used to hunt, back in the day. I still remember a few tricks. I think I could do rather well living off the land."
Rin stared at him like he was crazy. "You're crazy. The hunting I could maybe see, but you do not look like you have a green thumb. Can you even touch plants without killing them? Are they 'alive' enough for that?"
Aki chuckled and shrugged. "I guess we'll see! It should be fun."
Shion and Nezumi exchanged a look. :What do you think?: Nezumi's mindspeak was dripping with doubt, and Shion knew his own uncertain thoughts were reflected on his face.
"Well, the old man can eat carrots, or whatever shit," Inukashi interceded, "but I'd like you to send money back to us once you have jobs. I'm not putting my life in the hands of a guy who's already looking forward to dying."
"...So you're staying here with Aki?" Shion asked.
Inukashi wriggled under the undivided attention, vibrating faintly. "Yeah. I'm staying here," they said to the wooden floorboards. "I don't like the city at all. It's crowded, and smelly, and dirty, and the people there either hate dogs or like them too much and try to touch me. I like it better where we are."
Inukashi's attention snapped toward the window. A squirrel had just climbed onto the open sill, and it froze when it noticed Inukashi's dark, hungry stare. Slowly, the squirrel backed down the sill and out of sight. Inukashi's nose twitched.
"Anyway," they said speculatively, turning back to the floorboards. "I can hunt pretty well when I'm a dog, so at least we won't starve, even if Aki's attempts are failures."
Shion nodded slowly. In truth, he was glad to hear that Aki wouldn't be alone in the cabin. Inukashi was quiet and capable, and despite their foul mouth and temper, Shion could sense that they cared a lot for the people around them. They would take good care of Aki if the two ran into trouble.
"And you?" Nezumi asked Rin. "Team Cabin or Team Lost Town?"
Rin frowned from where they sat cross-legged by the fireplace. "I'll stay. I can help out with the money situation. I can probably get a job at the grocery store in a year, if they don't care too much about background checks."
Inukashi raised their head a little and smirked, but Aki looked perturbed.
"Rin," the older man said sternly, "if you're staying because you feel tied to me, I'd rather you go with Shion and Nezumi. You have a chance at a good life with them. School, friends your own age, and a job one day. There's nothing for you here."
"Don't say that," Rin growled. "You're my family. I'm not going to abandon you here to live out your last days with a dog as your only companion. That's too freaking sad to think about."
Inukashi snorted and, apparently finished with this conversation, transformed into a dog and leapt out the open window. A waft of wet, cool air drifted through the room in their wake.
Aki sighed, the sound like the scratch of autumn leaves over sidewalks. "I wish you would choose a better life for yourself than I did."
Rin rolled their eyes. "Nice try, but guilt isn't going to work on me. Look, I want to stay here right now. Maybe when I'm old enough to get a job, or when you start going senile and don't even notice if I'm around, I'll leave and," they waved their hands mockingly, "go explore the world or whatever. But right now, I'd like to stay put. Besides, Shion and Nezumi are in full-on honeymoon mode, so I'd just be cock-blocking anyway."
Shion's face felt like it caught fire. "Rin!"
"Shut the fuck up," Nezumi warned, face equally flushed.
Rin tsked and waved them off. "Alright? Cool. That settles it."
Aki didn't look satisfied, but he knew a lost cause when he saw it, and so turned his attention to his latest, most favorite hobby: staring out the window from his cushy armchair.
Rin pushed up to their feet and brushed nonexistent dust off the back of their pants. "Have fun with your mom, Shion. Maybe I'll steal a car and come visit in the summer."
Shion smiled slightly. "You can come visit whenever you like, but please don't steal anything."
"Whatever." Rin screwed their mouth to the side. "Come visit here, too, sometimes. I'll miss you. You're my family, too, you know."
Shion felt tears pressing at the back of his eyes at the resigned look on the young teen's face. Rin had hacked their hair off not long after they'd arrived at the cabin, saying it was "too long and they couldn't see shit," and the ragged length made them look even younger and more birdlike.
"I'll miss you, too, Rin. I'll miss all of you, and I'll definitely come and visit."
Rin's dark eyes drifted to Nezumi. "I guess I'll miss you. But mostly because you're a good cook."
Nezumi smirked and shrugged a shoulder. "Have fun eating raw vegetables and squirrels for the foreseeable future. You may come to regret your decision—I'm wagering sooner rather than later. Shion's mom's baking is apparently to die for."
Rin pursed their lips. "Maybe, maybe not. If I do change my mind, I know where to find you."
And with that, Rin, too, disappeared from the room.
Shion's body vibrated with an inexplicable mix of terror and excitement as Nezumi drove into the boundaries of Lost Town.
He had already told his mother and Safu they were coming by payphone a few days before, when the decision was settled and they were preparing for the half-a-day's trip back home, but he felt somehow that his appearance in the bakery would be a shock. He was afraid of how he and Nezumi would be received, even though he knew he could expect nothing less than tears, hugs, and an overwhelming outpouring of love. He couldn't put his finger on the anxiety, and it was making his stomach churn and his skin so cold goosebumps pricked along his arms.
The weather was bright and sunny in the way that tricked your mind into believing it could be summer even though the air's too cold, and people milled about the sidewalks, going about their regular lives. Nothing had changed for them. The last few months had been a blink, a blur, a stream of grocery store trips, and dentist appointments, and ferrying their children to and from school.
Shion's heart rose up into his throat as he spotted the old woman who lived two blocks down from the bakery hobbling across the street. She looked younger than he remembered, and he wondered if she still ordered a blueberry muffin every Thursday. What day was today anyway?
Where were the twin boys who always caused a ruckus skipping stones into the sides of trash cans? Were they at school now? Were they still in elementary school, or had they moved up to middle school already?
It looked like no time had passed, but Shion wondered how much he had missed. How many memories and stories had been lost to him while he was away, running and fighting for his life? The confidence he had gained and love he found on his journey had been worth every minute, but he couldn't help but feel the loss of this simple small town scene aching in his chest.
"You OK?" Nezumi asked. His eyes were glued to the road, but Shion should have known he'd be able to sense the unease rolling off of him.
"I'm OK, it's just..."
Shion meant to say something silly like, "It's just been a while," but Nezumi made a right at that moment and Shion realized they were on the bakery's street. Two minutes and they would arrive, park the car, and get out. His mouth dried up and his stomach performed a nauseating twist.
"I'm scared, Nezumi. It's stupid, because I already talked to Mom and Safu, and they seemed happy and fine, but I'm scared."
Nezumi glanced at him from the corner of his eye, frowned, and deftly parallel parked in the first available spot along the street. "You're worried about seeing them again?"
"Yeah. A little."
Nezumi considered. "Because you're not sure if it's actually safe yet?"
"No, that's not why." Shion fingered the charms on his bracelet and nibbled his lower lip. "I feel...bad. Guilty. I just left them behind without a word, and I've missed so much while I was gone, and I don't even know what I've missed. I've caused them so much pain and worry, and I feel awful about it. And I know it's stupid," he said, cutting a hard look at Nezumi. "You don't have to tell me I'm being dumb again, because I know, but I can't help it."
"Shion," Nezumi shushed gently. He took Shion's hand in his and gave it a squeeze. "You're not being dumb. I get it. Last time you were here, your mother was harassed, you lost control, and then the next moment, a devastatingly handsome superpowered stranger barged into your life and told you you had to leave everything behind and possibly never speak to your family again." He arched an eyebrow and Shion couldn't help but laugh.
"It was devastating at the time, wasn't it?"
Shion smiled softly and gave Nezumi's hand a quick squeeze back. "Yes, it was pretty terrible, no matter how pretty the messenger was…."
"Right. So it's no wonder you're nervous about going back. But your family loves you, Shion. You could blow up your mom's bakery a hundred times, and she'd still comfort you instead of feeling bad for herself." Nezumi leaned his temple against the headrest. "And if there's anything I've learned from being with you, it's that even if a place holds a bad memory, if it's a place you love, it's worth reclaiming."
Shion's heart fluttered. "Nezumi… I didn't think I could love you any more, but you just proved me wrong."
Nezumi snorted and shrugged a shoulder, as if to say "Well, obviously," but Shion could see he was pleased.
"Come here," Shion growled, unbuckling his seatbelt and leaning across the center console.
"There are people walking by," Nezumi hummed mischievously. "Old people. Who are already staring."
"I don't care."
Nezumi laughed against Shion's mouth, but slipped his arms around his waist to pull him as close as he could with the obstacles between them. The kiss was soft and affectionate, and Shion would have been very happy to stay in the car and make out with Nezumi for the rest of the afternoon, bystanders be damned, but Nezumi never let him off easy.
Shion gasped and jerked back when Nezumi pinched him in the side. "Ow?"
"Your mom?" Nezumi prompted. "Your best friend? Muffins? I'm hungry, Shion, and last time I didn't even manage to take a bite before everything went to hell."
"I'm hungry too, but not for stupid muffins," Shion grumbled darkly, glaring at Nezumi's mouth.
Nezumi blinked at him, gloriously caught off guard for a moment. Shion smirked and leaned in for another kiss. Which apparently was the wrong move, because it set Nezumi back on his feet.
"Shion," he warned.
"Yes, OK, I know," Shion sighed. "Alright. Let's go." He threw open the door and stepped out into the cool air.
The bakery was just as Shion remembered, but not as he left it. The windows had been replaced, and they glistened in the sunlight like sheets of ice. Karan had even taken the repairs as an opportunity to update her sign: the bubbly letters had been painted a welcoming shade of pastel pink. Daily specials scrawled across the window panes in Safu's unmistakably neat print, and Shion murmured to Nezumi that it was his lucky day: red velvet muffins were today's featured treat.
The bell above the door jangled merrily as Shion and Nezumi stepped through, the familiar sound knocking something loose inside Shion's chest. The pastry and confection cases were lined up in pretty, pristine condition, tiny apricot thumbprints resting next to the massive half-moon cookies. The air smelled thickly of confectioner's sugar and coffee.
Tears pricked at Shion's eyes. Finally, he was home. Nezumi laid a comforting hand on the small of his back, but Shion's fears and doubts evaporated the moment he looked across the room and met his mother's gaze over the cash register.
Karan glowed, her hair tied back from her face in a pink bandana which complemented the deep chocolate hue of her eyes. Her mouth opened in a silent gasp as she realized the strange young boys who'd just walked in were ones she knew.
Shion had told her he had changed physically, but he didn't remember going too deeply into the particulars. He must not have done a good job explaining how drastic the change was, because Karan stood stunned for a full three seconds.
Karan skirted the edge of the counter and half-ran to him, their arms reaching for each other even before they were near enough to touch. Karan hugged him so tightly the breath whooshed out of Shion's lungs, and when he was able to finally pull air back in, his nose filled with the nostalgic floral scent of his mother's skin.
"My baby boy," Karan whispered, pulling back and cupping his face in her hands. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her smile was brighter than the sun. Shion's face was a perfect mirror.
He never should have doubted; Nezumi was right, his mother loved him too much to begrudge him any past mistakes. All that mattered was that he was alive, well, and happy.
"Hi, Mom," Shion half-cried, half-laughed. "The bakery looks good."
Karan laughed lightly and kissed his forehead before crushing him to her chest again. "Your hair! And your eyes! I barely recognized you."
"I know. A lot of things happened," Shion mumbled into her shoulder.
It felt so good to be hugged tight. The muscles in his body relaxed, and the cloud hanging over his head dissipated. For the first time in weeks, Shion finally let himself feel completely safe and loved, without letting thoughts of what-ifs pull his spirits down.
Karan pulled back from Shion and smiled brightly at Nezumi. "It's so good to see you again, Nezumi. Thank you for bringing Shion home."
Nezumi dipped his chin shyly, not quite sure what to do with the love pouring off of Shion's beaming, teary-eyed mother. Karan laughed at his awkwardness and pulled Nezumi into a hug.
"Welcome to the family," she said into Nezumi's neck.
Nezumi's cheeks warmed, and he met Shion's gaze over Karan's shoulder. Shion smiled at him, his own cheeks coloring with pleasure at seeing his mother so accepting and Nezumi so loved.
Something clattered behind him and Shion had barely enough time to register the sound of Safu's voice before the wind was knocked out of him a second time. Safu might've been small, but she was powerful, and her hugs had the strength of someone twice her size.
"Shion. You're here. You're back." Safu squeezed him tight, burrowing her face into his chest.
"Hey, Safu." Shion wrapped his arms around her shoulders. She wore one of the sweaters her grandmother knitted for her, and the material was soft and warm beneath his palms. "I missed you."
"I missed you," Safu said, stepping back from him and frowning. "Why is your hair like that?" Her eyes widened and she squeezed his face in her hands. "And your eyes! Are those contacts? You never mentioned any of these things to me! What happened?"
Shion chuckled and reached up to pull her hands from his cheeks. "It's a long story. And…not very fun. I'll tell you later."
"OK… Seriously, would it have killed you to call earlier? Or send a letter, or something? We were worried sick."
"I'm sorry. I already told you I couldn't turn my phone on…." Shion glanced at Nezumi, who Karan had captured in conversation. From the embarrassed look on his face, they must be discussing his and Shion's relationship.
"Well, obviously." Safu clucked her tongue. "But you're smart; you could have found out a way to let us know, if you wanted. But I suppose you were distracted." Safu's eyes wandered to Nezumi, narrowing slightly as she appraised him head to toe.
Heat crept up the back of Shion's neck. "It's not like that."
Safu raised an eyebrow. "What else would it be like? You two are dating, right? Right?" She turned to Nezumi and flung the question at him like she was throwing down a gauntlet.
Nezumi raised an eyebrow back and said, "Right. Problem?"
Safu shifted her weight to one hip and crossed her arms. "No, no problem. As long as you treat Shion right."
The heat in Shion's face reached maximum intensity. "He does," he said quickly, and cut between them to stand by his mother.
"I'm sure he does," Karan agreed. Her tears had dried, but her eyes still shined as she looked from Shion to Nezumi and back again. "You make a good couple. I'm so glad you found each other."
Shion bit his lip, but he couldn't keep the smile totally at bay. "Thanks, Mom."
Safu pursed her lips and continued to glare at Nezumi, but Shion knew her well enough to recognize the look as assessing rather than disapproving. She didn't know Nezumi yet, but she would come to know him, and Shion thought that they would be good friends. They both had cutting, clever personalities, the sort that when placed in close proximity always made conversation interesting.
"I'm not sure if you've talked about this," Karan said, "but Nezumi, you're more than welcome to stay here with us for as long as you like."
"Thank you, ma'am," Nezumi said. He spoke calmly and politely, and was a good enough actor to fool Karan and Safu into thinking he was at ease, but Shion could tell his mind was reeling.
Poor Nezumi, he thought fondly. But he's adaptable. He'll get used to it quickly enough.
Safu peeled her eyes away from Nezumi and frowned at Karan. "But where is he going to sleep?"
Karan tilted her head. "Well… I suppose with Shion."
"What!" Safu's eyes bugged out. Even Shion was shocked by his mother's readiness to allow her teenage son to share a bed with his boyfriend under her roof. His mom had always been easygoing, but this seemed another level of carelessness.
"Ms. Karan!" Safu said desperately. "You're Shion's mother, shouldn't you be against cohabitation? We're only sixteen."
"Oh, psh." Karan laughed. "What? Am I supposed to pretend like they haven't been cohabitating for months now? Just keep it clean in the bakery, you two, OK? People eat here."
Every teen in the room went flaming red and Karan laughed again. Shion didn't think he imagined the edge of impish pleasure twinkling in her eye.
"What?" his mother asked. "I was young once; I know what it's like."
Shion considered blowing up the bakery again.
Fortunately, customers walked in and put an end to the conversation. Karan greeted the young couple and their small child and hustled back behind the counter.
"Shion and Nezumi, you two just sit and rest. I'll have a few muffins and coffees sent to you in a moment. Safu, could you help these customers for me while I get that ready?"
Safu pursed her lips, obviously anxious to catch up with Shion and investigate his new boyfriend, but she dutifully crossed the room to the register and smiled brightly at the customers. Shion wondered if Safu had started working part-time with his mother in his absence.
"Your mom…" Nezumi said as he and Shion lowered themselves into chairs at one of the only indoor tables. "She's something."
"Yeah," Shion half-laughed. "She really is. Sorry about that."
"No, it's fine. It's refreshing, in a way." Nezumi cleared his throat. A faint trace of his blush still remained.
Shion smiled and shook his head. "Thank you for coming. It means a lot to me."
Nezumi met his eyes across the table, and Shion's heart stuttered in his chest. It was different, seeing him in the bakery again. He realized that they were sitting in the same spot that Nezumi had sat the first day Nezumi had wandered into his life. Shion had thought him handsome then, but he never imagined that that meeting with the handsome, silver-eyed stranger would be a pivotal moment.
He owed so much to Nezumi: for saving his life on so many occasions, for helping him find his confidence, for allowing Shion to love him and loving him in return.
Shion's throat tightened and he felt tears pressing at the back of his eyes again. He turned to look out the window, hoping to calm the swelling of emotion with the sight of Lost Town. He saw Nezumi smile faintly in his periphery, but he didn't make fun of him. A moment later, he felt Nezumi's foot skim his ankle under the table, coaxing a smile and a watery laugh from Shion's throat.
Shion closed his eyes and breathed. He listened to the sound of his mother's cooing voice, offering complimentary sweets to the child. He absorbed the feeling of soft sunlight streaming through the window and warming his cheeks, and something inside his chest slid quietly into place and went still.
At once, everything felt right.
At last, they were safe. They were happy. They were home. And they had the rest of their lives stretched before them.