"Hey Sion, what about this?"
Sion turned and surveyed the hat that his friend Lauren was holding. It was navy blue and woolly, with small smiling waving snowmen on it. It was definitely something Sion would buy for himself, though for Nezumi….
Sion giggle as he pictured Nezumi scowling from underneath it. "He would hate it."
Lauran put the hat back, a frown on her face. "You weren't kidding when you said he was hard to shop for. I can see why you wanted to meet early." Sion made a sound of agreement. Lauran went back to surveying the items on a shelf. Sion joined her. He was glad he wasn't shopping for Nezumi alone. After moving to No. 5 almost a year ago, Sion had become close friends with Lauran and her boyfriend Ted. Nezumi didn't care much about them, but he was pleasant enough in their company.
Four years previous, when Nezumi had materialized at their doorstep on Christmas Eve during a blizzard, Sion wasn't sure what to expect from their relationship. He was extremely happy to see Nezumi again could shake the feeling that it wasn't permanent. Even now, two years later, he would sometimes dream of Nezumi leaving him again.
"What else does Nezumi like?" Lauran's voice brought Sion back to reality.
"Hmmm…." Sion's mind ran over some ideas before he gave a sigh of defeat. "you know what? I think I'll just get him a book after all. I wanted to get him something special, but I don't want him to hate his gift. This is our first Christmas here and I want it to be perfect."
"There's a bookstore near the food court. We can go there." Lauren glanced at her watch "But we better hurry. We said we'd meet up with our boyfriends at 6:30 and it's already 6:15."
Sion blushed. "Nezumi isn't really my boyfriend."
"But you two are romantically involved right?"
"Kind of…" Sion shrugged. "It's complicated." When the mood was right, they would cuddle and Nezumi made it clear he was interested in Sion. Even so, they hadn't gone farther than that. Nezumi hadn't kissed Sion since that Christmas after he had returned."
Lauren, noticing Sion's discomfort quickly said. "Well, in any case, we need to hurry."
They headed out of the small store and down the crowded hall of the indoor mall. The place was decorated for Christmas and cheerful music was playing over the intercom. The whole scene put Sion in a good mood. As they turned down another hall a jingle started playing from the intercoms. Sion paused at the sound.
Good afternoon shoppers. We thank you for choosing No. 5 Central Mall for your shopping needs. In the next ten minutes, we will be testing the new fire alarms. Please excuse any inconvenience this may cause.
The jingle played again, and Sion's cocked his head in confusion.
"I've heard that jingle before. It used to play in No. 6 when general announcements were made." It felt weird to hear it after all these years. After rebuilding No.6 the jingle was put out of use since it caused trauma. During the Holy Day, that jingle was played right before the chaos began. Sion may not have such a visceral reaction to it, but it still made him feel uncomfortable.
"That's not surprising." Lauran shrugged. "They tend to reuse stock sounds like that between all the cities. I grew up in No.3 and that jingle was used at schools when classes started and ended."
"I see." Sion mulled this over. "That makes sense." It made him feel a little better to know that. "Right let's go shopping!"
Picking a book wasn't hard. Sion had basically memorized Nezumi's whole library. It was one of the benefits of having a photographic memory. Sion knew what books Nezumi wanted and what books he already owned. He was in a very good mood as they left the book store to head towards the food court to meet Nezumi and Ted. As they started down the hall, the lights started flashing and the jingle started up again.
Good afternoon shoppers. We thank you for choosing No. 5 Central Mall for your shopping needs. We will now be testing the new fire alarms. We're are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.
As the voice died down another sound fill the halls. A high pitch alarm wailed in beat to the flashing lights. Some kids covered their ears and a little girl started crying, but most of the shoppers just ignored it. Lauran seemed unperturbed by the sound. Sion however felt his stomach clench. He knew that sound. It haunted him through many of his nightmares. The last time he heard it he was 16 years old. Sion slowed down until he stopped completely starting off into space.
"Sion?" Laura's voice sounded far away, as if she was on the other side of a long tunnel. She had stopped as well and was watching him concernedly. Sion wanted to respond to her, but he couldn't speak. He was no longer in the mall listening to a fire alarm, he was in the Correction Facility. As the sound penetrate his brain, adrenaline and fear shot through him. The alarm was going off. They knew an intruder was in the facility. Safu was dead. He and Nezumi were in danger.
Sion's legs shook as he desperately tried to reason with himself. It wasn't the Correction Facility it was a mall. The sound was probably just being reused, just like the jingle. It didn't mean anything. He wasn't there again. He was safe. He was safe. He was safe.
His mind didn't listen. A loud buzzing was slowly spreading across his brain, blocking rational thought. Sion staggered to the side of the hallway, trembling like a leaf. The sound was consuming him, dragging him back to that horrible day when he had lost himself in the depths of hell. He leaned against the wall as the coldness continued to spread everywhere but his stomach, which was on fire. Sion tried to take a deep breath, but it was hard. His lungs didn't want to expand in the stale air that surrounded him.
"Sion!" It was getting harder to hear Lauran's voice. The other sounds were overpowering it. The sound of the shoppers, the fire alarm….
The gunshots, the screaming, the dying.
Sion's eyes widened in fright. There were corpses on the ground. Men and women who were dragged to the Correction Facility now lay in a pile in front of him. Sion could still make out some of their faces. He could still remember some of them. Sion gasped for air as the smell of blood and decay hit him. Staggering forward he took off running.
"They aren't there. They aren't real." The words made no impact on his mind. As his own senses continued to betray him, more images and feelings arose. Now all he could smell was rot and blood; all he could taste was stale air and copper; all he could feel was weariness and pain.
"Hey watch it!" Sion had run into someone. He couldn't tell if they were a shopper or a guard. Sion staggered back and covered his face. If he had hoped to find comfort in the darkness, he was wrong. Safu's sad smile loomed out from the depths of nothingness. She was alone. Sion had failed her. He had let her die. He couldn't do anything.
A wave of despair hit him. Why did he even come here? Why did he foolishly think he could save Safu? He couldn't do anything. He couldn't save all those innocent people. He couldn't give a dying man a peaceful way out. He couldn't even save the one person he came for. Pathetic. Weak. Sheltered.
A hand landed on Sion's shoulder and he gave a cry of fear. Turning around he saw the terrified face of the man who he had killed. Sion's stomach turned violently as renewed fear shot up his spin. That man couldn't be here. He was dead.
"I didn't have a choice." Sion wasn't sure if he was speaking aloud or in his head. The two realities were colliding using the alarm as a bridge. "You were going to shoot Nezumi! I didn't have a choice!"
"What are you talking about?" The man had a female voice. Sion dully realized it was Lauran. "Who was going to shoot Nezumi? Sion, what's going on?" Sion ignored her. He had just realized something horrible.
Nezumi wasn't with him.
Where was Nezumi? Nezumi was always by his side in the Correction Facility. Even in Sion's worst nightmares, Nezumi was present. He needed him now. He needed to see Nezumi's uncaring smirk and deep grey eyes. He needed to hear his smooth voice. It was the only thing that could fix this. Nezumi was the only reason he was able to continue moving in the Correction Facility, even when he wanted to curl up and die.
Without another word, Sion took off running again. His confused mind tried to apply the map of the Facility that he memorized to his current location. It didn't match up. Of course it didn't. This wasn't the Correction Facility. Sion gave an angry sob as he ran harder, pushing people out the way. Memories chased after him, pouring into his head.
Nezumi was crying and apologizing. Sion had killed someone and Nezumi blamed himself. It was the first time Nezumi had cried. It was the first time Nezumi had broken. No.6 couldn't break Nezumi. The Correction Facility couldn't break Nezumi. Sion could break Nezumi.
Then he was in the elevator. Nezumi had dragged Sion away from Safu. He had blown the place up. He had freed Safu from her imprisonment. He did what needed to be done to spare Sion the pain of that horrible choice. Even so, Sion had blamed him. He was such a child. He was so spoiled.
Finally, he saw Nezumi lying on the ground in front of him. Blood was pouring from his wound. Despite Sion's rage towards him, Nezumi had protected him. Now he was laying on the ground gasping and writhing in pain. Sion knew he was suffering, fading.
"No!" Sion cried out, his eyes blurring from tears. He needed to get to Nezumi. He needed to save him. He had helped him once before. He could do it again. He needed Nezumi to be alright. He needed Nezumi. Nezumi needed him.
"If he needed you so badly then why did he leave you."
The words washed Sion like a wave of cold water. He slowed down and stopped in the middle of the hall, lost and confused. Where was he? What did he do? Why did Nezumi leave? Gunshots rang out. Angry shoppers bumped into him and told him to move. Nezumi was singing in the cramped vehicle heading to the Facility. A girl was asking her mom for a doll in a display. The air smelled of spices from a nearby store. The air smelled of putrid gasses and death. He was at the mall. He was at the Correction Facility.
And Sion was alone.
He bent over and covered his ears. He needed to block it all out. He needed to be stronger this time. He couldn't rely on Nezumi. He was alone again. That was why Nezumi left him. Sion had become too much of a burden. If Sion was stronger, braver, smarter, wise, more talented, Nezumi wouldn't have walked away. A small part of his mind whispered that it wasn't truer, but he could hardly hear it over the chaos.
Sion sobbed loudly crying out for Nezumi. He didn't want to be in the Correction Facility anymore. He didn't want Safu to die. He didn't want to kill that man. He didn't want Nezumi to leave him. He couldn't do it all again. It was too much, too tiring. It had been unbearable. The four years without Nezumi had also been unbearable. After the horrors of the Holy Day, his world became grey. He couldn't enjoy life. He couldn't smile as he used to. The thought of going back to waking from nightmares alone was terrifying. He didn't want to cry himself to sleep again wondering if it was all his fault that Nezumi had left. Even after Nezumi had returned and added color to his life, Sion never confronted him about his fears. It was easier to pretend Nezumi never left. It hurt less. Now he regretted it. He needed some closure.
"Nezumi." Sion wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep forever. If real Nezumi wasn't going to appear then perhaps a dream version would show up. Some version of Nezumi always came to him. Nezumi was always there when he was in danger. He always saved him.
"Please save me. Please come back. Please come back. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Sion opened his eyes groggily and uncovered his ears. His prayers had been answered. Nezumi was kneeling in front of him, pale and frightened. His eyes held the deep fear that Sion felt. Sion wanted to cry out in joy. Nezumi had come for him. He didn't leave him to go mad in the Correction Facility. He didn't leave him to grow old alone in No. 6.
"Is he alright?" another voice asked. It sounded like a man's. Sion knew he should recognize it, but he couldn't think who it belonged to.
"I don't know." A woman's voice spoke. "He just started freaking out. Nezumi what's wrong with him?" Nezumi ignored them, his eyes on Sion alone. Sion reach forward and touched his shoulder.
"Are you really here?" Sion wasn't sure why the ground was shaking so hard. It made it difficult to keep his hand steady.
Nezumi's eyes softened sadly as he gently took Sion's outstretched hand. "Yeah, I'm here. We're going to leave. Just hang on, ok?"
Sion nodded mutely as he allowed Nezumi to guide him away. Nezumi understood what was going on. He understood that they needed to escape the horrible alarm in the mall. They needed to escape the horrible alarm in the Correction Facility. The shoppers didn't understand. Lauren didn't understand but Nezumi did. He was there. He was always there.….
No that wasn't quite right either, Nezumi left him after they escaped.
A new wave of fear crashed over Sion. "Nezumi." Sion clung to his arm. "Don't leave, please. I'm sorry. I won't be useless anymore. I won't push problems onto you." Nezumi filched his words.
"Don't." He looked away. "That's not why….I won't leave you again."
"But if we escape…" Sion dug his fingers into Nezumi's sleeve. "Once we're safe…."
Nezumi turned towards him his eyes aflame. He grabbed both of Sion's shoulders and looked into his face. "Once we're safe we're going home together. I'm here Sion. I came back. Don't forget, I came back."
"You mean it?" Sion stared into his eyes, his mind working sluggishly slow. He felt like a child, vulnerable, and afraid. "You'll stay even if I'm a burden? Even though I killed someone?"
"What?" apparently the man and woman had followed them. "Nezumi what's he talking about?" Nezumi glared over at the couple before putting a protective arm around Sion.
"I will explain later. You two go doing something. I'm taking Sion home." His voice has a finality to it that was so familiar that Sion almost felt comforted. The woman opened her mouth to argue but Nezumi had already turned and dragged Sion down the hall. Sion stumbled as they melted into the crowd, the couple's cries of protest mingling with the sound of screams and gunshots.
Sion managed to make it all the way outside to the parking lot before his legs gave out. He was too tired to move. He couldn't do this anymore. He'd rather just disappear than have to struggle forward. In the distance, he could still hear the horrible fire alarm ringing from the nearby mall.
"Nezumi I can't do it. It's just too much. I can't keep fighting." He bowed his head in shame. He didn't want to see the look of disgust and disappointment on Nezumi's face. He didn't want to see the flash of anger in Nezumi's eyes. He had failed him again by being weak, just like he had failed everyone else.
Nezumi bent down next to him and attempted to pull him up. He managed to half drag, half carry Sion to a secluded corner a few feet away. When they were out of sight from prying eyes, he curled his body around Sion and pressed him to his chest.
"Sion. What do you feel?"
"Your heart," Sion mumbled.
"That' right. I'm here. I'm not going to leave you. Relax and listen to me. Ignore the world. Just listen to my voice." Sion pressed into Nezumi's chest as if it was a shelter from the onslaught of thoughts that invaded his mind. As he got comfortable Nezumi started singing; his voice silky smooth and pleasant to hear.
The summertime is coming,
And the trees are sweetly blooming,
Nezumi's voice was soft and sweet. It filled Sion's head and pushed away all other feelings. Soon the smells and taste of blood began to disappear followed by the feeling of horror and fear. Lastly, the sound of gunshots and that horrible alarm faded to a faint echo.
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather.
Sion closed his eyes as he took a shaky breath. He listened to Nezumi's heart, beating rhythmically to the song. Nezumi was a song. He was the comfort that could soothe a dying soul. He was the comfort that could save Sion from his own mind.
Will you go, will you go?
And we'll all go together,
Sion didn't know when he started breathing normally. He didn't know when he had stopped clinging so tightly to Nezumi's shirt. He didn't know when the alarm had stopped wailing. All he knew was that he was with Nezumi. Everything would be alright.
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go?
Sion blinked as Nezumi finished his song. After all the sounds that clouded his mind, the silence was defining. It wasn't unpleasant though. The silence meant safety. It was the kind of silence he heard when it was just him and Nezumi living in the West District.
"Are you alright?" Nezumi pulled away from Sion a little to look into his face. Sion shivered in the sudden cold. He hadn't noticed it before when he was lost in his own memories, nor when he was curled into Nezumi's chest.
"I'm fine." Sion's own voice sounded false and hoarse from all the crying. Nezumi peered at him and Sion turned away. He couldn't look Nezumi in the eyes. Now that it was all over, he felt stupid. Of course, everything was alright. It was just a dumb alarm. He had overreacted.
"Don't be." Nezumi turned Sion's head so they made eye contact. "What happened in that place was traumatizing. That sound brought back unpleasant memories. You acted like most people would act if they had to go through that hell."
"But you were at the Correction Facility too! You heard the same sound as me, yet you're fine and I'm just a mess!"
"That's only because I've learned how to close myself off when I'm reliving the past. If I broke down every time it became too much I would have died as a child." Nezumi let out a slow breath. It turned white in the frosty air. "Trust me, I felt like I was in the Correction Facility too….I was afraid….I was afraid I was going to lose you." Nezumi's voice filled with sorrow. "I brought you to hell and you broke. I should have known better. You weren't ready."
"No." Sion shook his head feverishly. "I was the one who was weak-."
"You weren't weak." Nezumi cut him off sharply. "You were strong. You were able to hold on to your humanity for so long in that place. That was truly amazing."
"But I eventually broke. I shot a man. I blamed you." Sion felt panic weld inside of him. Nezumi must have noticed because he gently lay a finger across his lips.
"Don't, not now. We can talk about this later but now is not the time. You need to concentrate on the present, not dwell on the past." Sion nodded and Nezumi dropped his hand.
"Can you teach me to close myself off from my own feelings?" Sion was trembling again. He couldn't tell if it was from exhaustion or the cold. "I don't want to react like that ever again."
"No." Nezumi shook his head fiercely. "You don't want to do that. Trust me, suppression isn't going to make it go away. It'll just sit in your mind and you'll obsess over it. You need to learn to accept and overcome it."
"How do I do that?" Sion asked meekly. Nezumi hesitated.
"I don't know." His grew eyes grew heavy with sadness. "I never needed to do anything more than survive. I don't know really know how to live with my own past."
They were quiet for a few minutes. "What should we do?"
"We'll figure it out together." Nezumi gave Sion's hand a reassuring squeeze. Sion attempted a weak smile. It must have been pretty bad because Nezumi laughed quietly.
"You look like someone just kicked you in the stomach." Nezumi snorted. "If you can't smile yet then don't. With your current expression, someone's going to think I'm mugging you."
For the first time since the alarm, Sion laughed. It was a weak sound but at least it was genuine. Nezumi smiled reassuringly and let go of Sion's hand as he started to get up. Sion's mind went into a panic and he grabbed Nezumi's arm.
"I already told you I wasn't going to." Nezumi sounded sad and slightly annoyed. "Is that really so hard for you to believe?"
Sion looked away. "I never told you this, because I wanted to forget it myself but after you left life was really hard. I suffered a lot from nightmares about everything that happened….I tried to distract myself by rebuilding No. 6 but once a new mayor was elected, I had nothing to do. I thought I was going mad. I would dwell on past events and couldn't get it out of my mind. I couldn't help blaming myself…I felt that it was my fault that you left…." It felt shameful to admit it out loud. Perhaps he was every bit as spoiled as Nezumi always said he was. Sion wouldn't be surprised if Nezumi scoffed at him. He didn't. Instead, Nezumi grabbed Sion's arms tightly and said in a stern voice.
"No Sion. Listen to me. Do NOT blame yourself. It was…." he looked away. "My fault. I handled it badly back there. I thought I could outrun everything, even you." He lowered his head slightly. "I know I act as if I have everything sorted out, but I don't. I was afraid and shaken after what happened. I fell back on the only thing I knew to do. I distanced myself from the problem, cutting off all emotional connections. I distanced myself from you….I blamed myself for what happened to do you in there. I felt as if I had lost you or never really knew you. I was afraid." Sion listened to his words carefully. He knew this was hard for Nezumi and he wouldn't repeat it.
Emotions swelled in Sion's chest. Now with all their feelings out in the open, it felt like a weight was lifted from Sion. The darkness that lurked in the back of his mind recited slightly and that lingering doubt grew smaller. It was nice to get some closure after all those years of worrying and stressing. He felt light and free, almost glitter.
"Nezumi." He couldn't put into words what he was feeling. He wished he had read more. Maybe then he could spout some epic poetry about the overwhelming feelings that were swelling inside of him. Nezumi was here to stay. Nezumi would continue being by his side. At that moment Sion wanted Nezumi more than ever. Passion replaced anxiety and Sion wanted to hold Nezumi close, to snuggle with him, to kiss him. The cold forgotten Sion leaned in.
"Can you kiss me?"
Nezumi stared at him. "How did you come to that conclusion."
Sion blushed. "No…I just mean…never mind." It was stupid. He didn't even know why he brought it up. His emotions had gotten the better of him.
"You want another promise kiss?" Nezumi asked.
"No." Sion tried to sort his thoughts. "I don't want the kiss to have any meaning."
"All kisses have meanings, Sion."
"Well, I want this one to not mean anything. It's not a promise. It's not a way to make sure you'll stay with me or that nothing bad will happen again. I want to kiss you because you're you…"
Nezumi surveyed him for a moment before smiling cockily. "My oh, are you hitting on me?"
"No!" Sion blushed "I just-" the rest of his sentence was cut off by Nezumi's lips. It pressed against his own, transferring all his love and caring into Sion. Sion sighed happily, closing his eyes. The taste of Nezumi overpowered any lingering memories of the taste of blood and stale air. The sound of Nezumi's heartbeat replaced the lingering memories of screaming and gunshots. The sight of Nezumi so close erased the bodies and men with guns. The feeling of Nezumi pressed against him replaced the coldness and pain. All too soon however Nezumi pulled away. Sion stared at him dazed.
"Nezumi what are we?" Since they were getting everything else out the way he might as well ask.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean are we dating? I know you don't like labels…"
Nezumi frowned thoughtfully. "Sure." He shrugged. "It doesn't really change anything but if it helps you understand that I'm here to stay then let's go with that."
"So we're boyfriends now?" Sion's eyes lit up excitedly. Nezumi rolled his eyes and flicked Sion's nose.
"Yep, now enough heart to heart. Let's get home. We can watch one of those stupid romance movies you like so much.
"They're not stupid!" Sion gasped. "They are sweet! Who doesn't like watching people fall in love? You read romance stories."
"I read classics." Nezumi corrected. Not vapid chick flicks."
"Fine if that's how you feel, then let's watch something else," Sion grumbled.
"No way." Nezumi shook his head. "You need something that comforts you. These movies are as far as one can get from reality.
A grin started spreading on Sion's face. "Ok but I get to choose the movie."
"I'm regretting this already," Nezumi said dryly helping Sion to the car.
"Oh come on, you might like it!"
"I also might like eating tacks." Nezumi rolled his eyes again. "Now buckle your seatbelt. The temperature is dropping fast and it's cold."
"Maybe it'll snow." Even as Sion said this a few snowflakes drifted down from the sky. He smiled as Nezumi closed the door and got into the driver seat. It was going to take a while but eventually, these memories would fade. Perhaps then, he would stop dreaming of Nezumi leaving him. As they pulled out of the mall parking lot, the snow picked up and drifted lazily down upon their warm car, silently and peacefully.