Nezumi jumped and stared. His heart pounded in his chest, and did not slow down when he saw it was only the red-eyed boy. His reaction irked him – he wasn’t very easily startled or caught off guard. He was probably just tired.
“Back again? What is this, the seventh time you’ve graced me with your presence in two weeks? I thought you were at university.”
“Are you keeping count?” Shion asked slyly, falling into step with Nezumi, who glared at him.
“Only of how many sleep deprived nights I’ve had,” Nezumi snapped.
“Oh,” Shion said quietly. “I’m sorry, I can leave, I – ”
Nezumi sighed. The boy was always so easily offended, yet even more irritating was the fact that Nezumi found himself feeling bad. Never before had he wasted time feeling bad for others – it’s not like feeling bad would make their situation any better – and he especially didn’t see sense in pitying high class people like Shion. He couldn’t explain to himself, therefore, when he lowered his voice to be kinder and interrupted the kid.
“It’s fine. You’re already here, you might as well stay. Maybe you’ll fall in a pothole again. I could use another laugh.”
“Hey! You said you would forget that ever happened!”
“But that look on your face, why would I ever want to forget that?” Nezumi chuckled and easily dodged Shion’s fist. “So, are you so dedicated to make a fool out of yourself that you’ve been skipping school? That doesn’t seem very recommendable for someone of your class ranking,” Nezumi chastised.
Shion scowled, though in the dim light of the moon, Nezumi could tell he was suppressing a smile. “I’m not skipping. Tomorrow is my last day.”
“And yet, here you are today…”
“I’m going back! I’ve never skipped a day! On the days I’ve visited you, I just run out of my last class as soon as it ends and my driver takes me straight here, and then when you’ve gone home, I go straight back to university and make it just in time for my morning classes. It’s not that many hours away.”
“That seems like a lot of effort. Why do you even bother? You only see me for a few hours, and even less time tonight, since I came out late.”
“About that, why were you late?”
“Are you avoiding my question?” Nezumi challenged.
“Are you avoiding mine?” Shion challenged back.
Nezumi rolled his eyes. “No, but I asked you first. Why are you doing all of this? I don’t even know you.”
“You still feel that way? I think you know me pretty well. Better than most other people that I’ve known for years,” Shion said quietly. Nezumi looked over at him. His bright, white hair was blowing around his face. It looked soft. “And I’m doing all of this because that’s what friends do. You have to make an effort sometimes, and it’s worth it, in the end.”
“We’re not friends,” Nezumi exclaimed, laughing at the thought.
“Yes, we are!” Shion asserted, sounding offended.
Nezumi stared at the boy in amazement. “Every night, you somehow manage to get more airheaded. I don’t get it. How do you do it? Isn’t there some sort of limit?”
“Stop it. We are friends, whether you want to admit it or not.”
“I think it takes two people to decide on a friendship,” Nezumi countered, annoyed by Shion’s stubbornness.
“How would you know? Do you even have any other friends?” Shion asked.
“I don’t need friends. There is no such thing.”
This time, Shion laughed. “No such thing? I know you’re cynical and everything, but you really don’t believe in friends?”
“Shion, let me enlighten you a little.” Nezumi stopped walking and reached a hand out to catch Shion’s sleeve. Shion turned to face him, his head tilted and his red eyes shining with the remnants of his laughter. “Friends are supposed to be people who help you out, right? Who support you and care for you and all that great stuff, correct?”
Shion nodded, the corners of his lips turning up.
“Why are you smiling?” Nezumi snapped.
“I’m not! You just look so serious…”
“I’m giving you a life lesson, Shion. There is no kind of person who will only support you. If you get close to someone, it is a given – a rule – that they will end up bringing you down in some way. Maybe they won’t mean to, but trust me, they will. You can’t care for someone without being punished for it. You can’t let someone get close to you without making yourself vulnerable.”
Nezumi stopped talking, startled at Shion’s expression. The kid looked like he was attending a funeral.
“What? What’s wrong with you? Look, maybe that was too much to take in at one time. Why don’t you – ”
“I’m so sorry, Nezumi. I really am,” Shion gushed, taking a step closer. Nezumi took a step back, worried.
“Sorry for what?” he snapped, wondering what had gotten into the strange kid. He was acting even weirder than usual, which was saying something. He looked as if he was going to cry. Nezumi wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle that.
“You really believe that stuff you just said, don’t you?” Shion asked, sounding somewhat in horrified awe.
“What is that supposed to mean? Of course I do. That’s the truth. Maybe not so much for you princes in your palaces, but for – ” Nezumi cut himself off as Shion started shaking his head sadly. “What?”
“Nezumi! Oh, Nezumi….”
“Stop saying my name! Are you – are you crying?”
Shion sniffed loudly and rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. “Nezumi…”
Nezumi abruptly spun around and started to stomp away. He’d had enough. He had no idea why this kid was suddenly blubbering and repeating his name over and over, but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like the way Shion was saying his name, the way his red eyes were as big as moons, the way his eyebrows arched up in the center, as if the kid pitied him. Nezumi didn’t need pity, and despised it, especially from a rich prince. He would not stand there and let that white-haired airhead feel sympathy for him. The only thing sympathy did was make the person giving it feel less guilty, and make the person receiving it feel like shit.
Nezumi was trying to get the image of silver tears staining Shion’s cheeks out of his head when he felt a light pressure on his shoulder. The pressure squeezed, and Nezumi froze. He didn’t let people touch him. No one had ever snuck up on him from behind, no one had ever laid a finger on him without his permission. But now…
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you, Nezumi. I just…I just didn’t know…”
Nezumi turned around slowly, taking in the red-eyed boy before him. Snot ran down his face and he looked even younger than before. He claimed to be twenty-two, but he was as innocent as a child, Nezumi was sure of it. He was a pampered prince, and probably cried at least three times a day. So why did it bother Nezumi, that tears were pouring down his face on his behalf?
“Don’t ever cry for me. Do you hear me? I don’t want your fucking pity. It’s a waste of time. It’s not going to change anything, do you understand that? Daddy’s not here to appease you when you cry. Mommy’s not here to take you in her arms and sing you a lullaby. Go home and cry. Leave me alone.”
“I’m sorry!” Shion repeated. He kept saying that, his voice dripping with regret. The kid was really sorry. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”
“What way?” Nezumi snapped.
“Nezumi… You have been hurt before, haven’t you? Like, really hurt. Was it your parents? Is that why you have to work so much even though you’re barely an adult? Are your parents gone?”
Nezumi stared at Shion. He felt anger bubbling inside of him, white hot against his core, but there was something else there too, a sort of emptiness, a feeling that made him suddenly tired, as if he would collapse on the street right there.
“Don’t talk about my parents.” Nezumi meant to shout, but for some reason his voice was just a whisper, lost in the night air.
“It’s not always like that, Nezumi. Not everyone will hurt you. It saddens me that you feel that way. I’ve never heard anything so sad in my entire life, and I know you believe those things, but they’re not true. You don’t have to distance yourself from everyone. You can have friends. You can learn to love again. I know you’re scared of being hurt, but – ”
“Shut up!” Nezumi roared. What was this kid saying? Why were Nezumi’s eyes suddenly burning? Why were his hands shaking? “You don’t know anything! Shut up! I don’t want to hear your voice ever again! Don’t you fucking try to understand me! You’re fucking royalty, and I’m a fucking rat! You live in a castle, I live in the sewers! Get the fuck out!”
“I’m sor – ”
Nezumi took a step closer, so that his face was an inch from Shion’s. He pulled out the knife he carried around at all times and placed it easily against Shion’s neck, the tip resting against his scar. The boy didn’t even flinch. “Don’t you fucking apologize again, or I will cut your fucking throat,” Nezumi whispered, his eyes slits.
“I understand if you hate me. And I will leave if you want me to. But I just need to tell you something. I listened to your lesson, please listen to mine.” Shion’s breath was hot on Nezumi’s face. Nezumi pressed the blade further against his neck.
“You better talk quickly, or your blood will be on the street.”
“You can’t do this to yourself. I know you think that not allowing yourself to trust anyone – not allowing yourself to get close to people, to have relationships – I know you think that will save you from getting hurt. But it won’t. It’ll increase the chances, yes. But maybe it’s worth it. Maybe you might get hurt anyway, but if you have someone there, it might not hurt as badly. Friends aren’t imaginary, Nezumi. There are people who will do anything in their power to never hurt you. People like that do exist, Nezumi, I truly believe that.”
Nezumi stared at the boy. He loosened his grip around the knife, then let his hand fall to his side. The kid was a fucking idiot. Nezumi could tell he really believed these things. He was stupider than Nezumi had originally thought. During the past two weeks, as Shion had popped up in Nezumi’s life almost every other day, Nezumi had learned – unwillingly, as the boy had talked his head off during his nightly visits – that Shion was gifted, pretty much a genius. And maybe that was true, when it came to school. But the real things, the things that truly mattered, it seemed Shion knew nothing about.
Nezumi wasn’t surprised. He was high class, after all. For some reason, Nezumi found himself forgetting this often. That wasn’t good. He must never forget. No matter how much the prince wanted to play in the sewers, he would always return back to his castle. That was what Nezumi truly believed, unlike this friendship garbage.
However, Shion looked desperate. His eyes were rimmed with red and still shined. He probably wasn’t used to having his ridiculous rich kid fantasies disproved. Nezumi had wasted enough energy trying to knock some sense into him, he sighed and resigned himself to that fact that it was a helpless case. Shion looked at the world differently than him. Wrongly. And that was fine. Let the kid think what he wanted.
“Okay, Shion,” Nezumi said finally, shrugging for good measure. “Whatever you say.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“You don’t believe me. Why should I be the one to yield?” Nezumi countered.
“Because I’m right!”
Nezumi laughed. “The prince is always right, isn’t he?”
“Stop calling me royalty! I hate it!”
“Well, if You Highness commands that I stop, then stop I shall,” Nezumi said, with a smirk.
Shion scowled, but it seemed as though his waterworks were over. Nezumi sighed with relief.
“Will you show me where you live?” Shion asked. His eyes were wide and bright again, but not from tears this time. His stupid enthusiasm was back.
Kid bounces back fast, Nezumi thought. He shook his head and started walking away, not surprised in the slightest when Shion followed. “Nope. You should get back to university, you don’t want to be late for your last day. Isn’t graduation a big deal for you elites?”
“I won’t be late.”
“Well, I’m tired then. Now will you leave?”
“What if I walked you home? You’re going there anyway, and whether I walk with you or not won’t effect how long it takes to get there, so you’ll have the same amount of sleep,” Shion said happily.
“That is incorrect. If you tag along, that could add up to another hour, depending on what airheaded thing you decide to do next.”
“Come on, Nezumi.”
“Why do you want to see where I live anyway? It won’t be an impressive castle like your abode,” Nezumi grumbled. Shion was always so stubborn.
“Stop it. And this is what friends do. They invite each other to their houses.”
“First off, we’re not friends. Second, I don’t see you inviting me to your castle.”
“Would you like to come to my house?” Shion asked eagerly. “I was going to invite you next week, when I finished university. There’s not really much time to see it tonight, but if you really want to – ”
“I don’t want to see your fucking castle!” Nezumi snapped, losing his patience. How Shion managed to talk so much, he could not imagine. “Fine, you can follow me back home. But if you fall behind, I’m not waiting, and I’m not walking you back, you’ll have to find your way. And you’re not allowed to talk for the entire journey.”
“Okay, yes! Deal! Oh, Nezumi, I’m so excited, I wanted to ask you last week but you – ”
“What did I tell you about the talking?”
“Oh, right, sorry,” Shion whispered. Nezumi rolled his eyes at the dorky smile plastered on the white-haired boy’s face.
With Shion finally having shut up, the trip to Nezumi’s place was quick. Nezumi was surprised that Shion managed to keep up with him the whole time, though he found that he was marginally slowing his pace, almost unconsciously. When he realized what he was doing, he felt immediately frustrated, and yet he still didn’t walk any faster, and also found that he kept glancing over his shoulder to see that the kid was still behind him.
“Here it is. My mansion,” Nezumi gestured at his apartment building, a debilitated complex that used to be made of brick, though so many of the bricks had fallen off that it would be more accurate to describe it as a building of graying slab.
“Wow. This is really big.”
Nezumi rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ve been lying to you the whole time. I’m actually filthy rich.”
“This whole building can’t be yours, can it?”
“Oh absolutely! I just work at the Onaji Hoshi because I love the company. Come on, I’ll give you the grand tour.” Nezumi held the door open for Shion and led him to his apartment. He jiggled the handle then shoved open his door – it used to require a key, but the lock had long since broken, and it wasn’t like Nezumi had anything of value to steal anyway.
“Oh. I get it. You don’t own the whole building, just this apartment.”
“You idiot,” Nezumi sighed, turning on the dim light, a naked light bulb that hung from the ceiling. It flickered ominously, but stayed on. “Did you really think I owned the whole place? I don’t even own this room. I rent it, but I’m getting behind on my – ” Nezumi cut himself short. What was he doing, talking about his problems to this kid? He didn’t need another pity ordeal.
Shion, however, didn’t seem to be listening. “Is this your bed?” he shouted, before running over and collapsing on Nezumi’s mattress. Nezumi stared at him from the doorway, leaning against it and crossing his arms over his chest. “It’s so comfortable!”
“I wouldn’t know,” Nezumi replied sullenly, annoyed as the kid rolled around on his bed like a child. “I’ve barely had time to sleep in it what with you keeping me up all the time.”
“I’m tired too,” Shion sighed, finally lying still. He lied on his back and spread his arms out. “Ah, I could take a nap here.”
“You better not! I’m not carrying you back!”
Shion sat up, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “I like it here.”
Nezumi scoffed and said nothing.
“Really, I do. It’s incredibly messy, but it’s really cozy. Wait, are those – are those all books?” Shion jumped off the bed and started exploring the rest of the room.
“Do you read?” Nezumi asked, before he could stop himself.
“Not really. But these…” Shion picked a book off a stack on the floor and leafed through it. “These look so beautiful, so old. I think I’d enjoy reading some of these.”
“Nezumi? Could I come over more often to read some of your books?” Shion stared at him with his bright, red eyes.
Nezumi shrugged. “I don’t care,” he replied flippantly, annoyed when Shion’s face lit up as if he’d announced he was naming a holiday after him.
“Thank you!” Shion gushed.
“Yeah, yeah, calm down, Your Highness. Didn’t your parents tell you anything about retaining a bit of dignity?”
Shion looked at Nezumi strangely, then seemed to take a deep breath. “It’s just my mom.”
“I don’t have a dad. Well, I guess I must have had one at some point, but he left a long time ago.” Shion shrugged, smiling lightly. “But my mother is more than enough.”
“Oh,” was all Nezumi could think to reply. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Shion telling him all of this. “You should probably go, I have to get up early tomorrow,” Nezumi said after a moment. He felt sort of odd, having Shion in his apartment.
Shion nodded. “Okay! After university finishes tomorrow, I’ll be able to come see you a lot more often!”
Nezumi rolled his eyes. “I can’t wait,” he said flatly, but of course the boy missed his tone entirely, and his smile was so large Nezumi worried his face would crack in half.
“Are you sure you can find your way back?” Nezumi asked grudgingly, moving from the doorway as Shion walked towards him.
Nezumi looked at Shion for a moment. His hair was sticking up all over, staticky from when he’d rolled around on Nezumi’s mattress. Without thinking, Nezumi stuck a hand out and flattened it. It was soft between his fingertips, and he let his hand linger there, in that stark white cushion, weaving his fingers through the strands.
Shion’s mouth was gaping open and his eyebrows had shot up.
“What?” Nezumi asked, startled at the boy’s expression. He let his hand fall reluctantly from Shion’s head.
“N-nothing,” Shion stammered quickly, and Nezumi stared at him in confusion as the kid practically ran past him out of his apartment, a pink tinge spreading on his cheeks that Nezumi only just caught a glimpse of before he vanished out of sight.
“Just take the day off tomorrow, please!”
“No. And don’t sit on my pillow, you’ll flatten it.”
“Please, Nezumi! Please please please please please!”
“You are aware that by annoying the crap out of me, you’re doing nothing to convince me further, right?”
“I really want to show you where I live! And it’d be nice to see you in the daylight, for once. When you’re not so exhausted and cranky from working all day.”
“Cranky? Wow, you really know how to persuade a person, don’t you,” Nezumi mumbled. “And you see me in the daylight all the time. Don’t think I don’t see you at the Onaji Hoshi, dragging your mom and her friends there almost every day since you got out from university.”
“How do you see me? I never see you! No matter how many times I walk around that restaurant, I can never figure out which section you wait tables for,” Shion complained, falling back on Nezumi’s bed.
“Let’s keep it that way. I don’t need you getting me fired.”
“How would I get you fired?” Shion asked indignantly.
Nezumi ignored him and opened his door. “Are you leaving or what?”
“Please, Nezumi! Just one day, you can call in sick!”
“I can’t just call in sick, Shion. I need the money. We don’t get paid for calling in sick.”
“One day? Is that really going to make a difference?”
“Actually, yes,” Nezumi replied, sighing. “Will you please leave now? I’m about to collapse here.”
“All right, all right, I’ll leave.” Shion dragged himself off Nezumi’s bed and paused in front of him in the doorway. “If you change your mind, I’ll meet you at nine a block from the Onaji Hoshi, where that gas station is.”
“I won’t change my mind,” Nezumi replied.
“We’ll see,” Shion said happily, flashing him a quick grin before leaving.
Nezumi rolled his eyes at his back before trudging over and collapsing on the bed Shion had just vacated, the mattress still warm from the red-eyed boy’s body.
“If you’re going to be that excited, I’ll turn around right now,” Nezumi snapped.
Shion laughed. He felt a huge surge of warmth burst through him, just at the fact that Nezumi had taken off work for him. A large part of him felt guilty – he knew how much Nezumi needed money, just to make sure he had a place to sleep at night. But Shion also knew that Nezumi needed a break, perhaps just as urgently as he needed money. And Shion was determined to make this break as enjoyable as possible for the dark-haired waiter.
He couldn’t help but notice, as the grey-eyed boy glared at him, that this was the first time Shion was seeing him not in his waiter’s uniform. Shion shouldn’t have been surprised to see Nezumi in a t-shirt and jeans – of course he must have casual clothing as well. For some reason, seeing Nezumi dressed like this, like how Shion was dressed, made Shion even happier. He liked that they wore the same thing, as if it was some boundary broken between them.
“Come on, I’ve got so much to show you!”
“I change my mind, I think I’ll take work instead.”
Shion laughed again and grabbed Nezumi’s hand before he could protest, pulling him to the first of many places on his long list. He was going to make this a day Nezumi wouldn’t forget.
“This is fucking good.”
“That’s the fourth time you’ve said that,” Shion observed, catching a trail of pink that was leaking down his wrist with his tongue.
Nezumi glared at him before taking a bite into his cone.
Shion laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone glare when eating ice cream before.”
“I’m a special kind of guy,” Nezumi replied coolly.
Shion nodded. “I agree.”
Nezumi rolled his eyes, but Shion hadn’t been lying. This day he’d spent with Nezumi was perhaps the best he’d had in a long while. Unlike to Nezumi, the things he’d had planned were not new to Shion. He had gone on countless ferry rides on the ocean before, he’d frequented the zoo enough to know all the monkey’s names, and he couldn’t even count the number of times he’d had ice cream from Lee’s Best Ice Cream Parlor. And yet, never before had he appreciated the feel of the salty air on his face as when he’d seen Nezumi’s smile, nor had he ever looked at the hippos at the zoo with such fascination as Nezumi had, his grey eyes wide as he pushed his bangs up from his forehead, which he plastered against the glass of their tank. Shion could swear he’d never had a better tasting cone than the one he was eating beside Nezumi as they sat in the deserted park, swinging slowly on the swings.
“I have to go soon.”
“Where?” Shion asked, startled. He glanced over at Nezumi, who was looking straight ahead.
“The Onaji Hoshi.”
“What? Why? I didn’t even get to show you my house!” Shion protested, leaning forward and ignoring the new trickle of ice cream that had snuck down his wrist.
Nezumi shrugged. “Work.”
“But you took the day off.”
“Yeah, well, I have this other thing, not waiting on tables, but something I do after that. I couldn’t miss that.”
“Why not? What is it? I thought you said you told them you were sick!”
Nezumi shrugged again, his tongue darting out to lick his ice cream.
“Nezumi,” Shion moaned. “Come on!”
“Stop whining, Shion. There are some things I can’t get out of, okay?”
“If you said you were really sick – ”
“And then show up tomorrow, miraculously healed?” Nezumi countered, still not looking at Shion.
“You could say it was a 24 hour thing!” Shion insisted.
Nezumi shook his head. “I have a contract, okay, Shion? I can’t break it unless I’m dying. Dying is not a 24 hour thing.”
“A contract for what?”
Nezumi was quiet for a long while. He and Shion finished their ice cream in silence. Shion wasn’t going to speak again until Nezumi answered his question. When his hands were free, Nezumi kicked the ground and started swinging, but only lightly, letting his feet drag in the dirt. “They weren’t going to hire me,” he said finally, his voice light.
“Who? The Onaji Hoshi?”
“Yeah. I first wanted to work there when I was thirteen. But there are laws, of course, that restrict underage kids from working. They turned me down, but I was desperate for money.”
Shion froze. He knew this was something Nezumi had never told anyone. Nezumi was always hesitant to talk about his money situation, and Shion knew he hated admitting he wasn’t well off – saying he had been desperate for money was something major, coming from the grey-eyed waiter.
“So we made a contract. I couldn’t wait tables, what people of high class would want their orders taken from a kid? But at night, the restaurant has an hour that’s closed off to the general public. Only the royalty of your class can come, for special performances – ”
“Oh, no, Nezumi!” Shion yelled. His blood had started bubbling in his ears and his skin crawled. He felt like he was going to throw up.
Nezumi finally looked at him, his eyebrows furrowed. “What? Why are you yelling? What’s wrong with you?”
“Please don’t tell me, please, you – you don’t…” Shion couldn’t finish his thought. He curled his hands into fists and stared at his lap, trying to stop himself from crying.
“I don’t…what? Wait a second… You didn’t think I was going to say – Shion!” At the sound of Nezumi’s laugh, Shion looked up warily through his bangs.
“Are you okay?”
“Did you – did you think – oh, God, I can’t breathe, I’m laughing too hard!”
“N-Nezumi?” Shion was starting to get worried. Nezumi looked as if he was having a fit. He was curled into himself, clutching the chain of the swings to stop himself from falling off. Shion watched, aghast, until he finally straightened up, letting go of the chain only to hold onto his side.
“Ow, oh boy, I haven’t laughed like that in a while. Ah, hold on, give me a second to catch my breath.” When Nezumi looked over at Shion, his face split into a grin again. “Are you serious?”
“About what?” Shion asked, baffled at Nezumi’s reaction.
“Did you think I was going to say something along the lines of… prostitution?”
Shion’s jaw dropped, but he didn’t reply. He felt immediate relief flood through his veins – if Nezumi thought this was funny, it obviously couldn’t be the case.
“You did, didn’t you? Shion, I can’t believe you really thought I’d have that little self-respect. I’m slightly insulted.”
“I didn’t – I never said – ” Shion’s stammers were cut off by another fit of laughter by the dark-haired waiter. Shion had no time to feel irritated with the boy, as he was too entranced by the sound of his amusement.
“Shion, I don’t whore myself out. I sing. That’s the contract. I have to sing for twenty years, every day, without fail. I like to sing, so it’s not that bad, but I hate that I have to do it because I’m obligated. I hate that I owe something to them.”
Shion’s mind was reeling. Nezumi? A singer? “Sing? As in, songs?”
“What else do people sing?”
“I-I don’t know… Could you sing for me?”
Nezumi chuckled. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” Shion asked, his curiosity piqued.
“Will you pay me?”
“Yeah!” Shion replied, already reaching into his pocket, though he froze at Nezumi’s glare.
“I don’t want your money,” the boy said icily.
“Right, I know, I know, I’m sorry,” Shion mumbled, holding his hands up defensively. To his relief, Nezumi’s gaze softened. “So…what do you owe them?”
Nezumi sighed. “The manager of the Onaji Hoshi gave me my apartment when he gave me the job. He paid for three months of my rent until I’d earned enough that I could start paying myself. Without him, I’d have been homeless. So I’ve got to uphold my end of the contract.”
“Twenty years of your life for three months of free rent?” Shion asked, appalled. “That’s not fair!”
“I needed that apartment, Shion. The manager didn’t need me. What he did was huge for me. I was just a kid. I’d been living on the street for so many years, and a week before I came to the Onaji Hoshi, I’d met some guys who…” Nezumi trailed off, and his eyes flashed. He seemed to be clenching his teeth.
“Let’s just say I had a reason to get off the street, and get off fast. I needed somewhere to stay, and the manager of the Onaji Hoshi gave me that. Twenty years didn’t seem like so bad a trade, not at the time when I was faced with a much worse alternative.”
“But now it does. Seem like a bad trade, I mean.”
Nezumi shrugged again. “A contract is a contract. And like I said, I like to sing.”
“Even when you’re sick, they make you sing? Don’t you get exceptions? Holidays?”
“Shion, when you can’t afford to be sick, you don’t get sick. You wouldn’t understand,” Nezumi replied gently. “And holidays are the days that I especially can’t miss work.”
“Do you get paid extra?” Shion asked.
Nezumi laughed, though this time, the sound was somewhat bitter. “What’s extra?”
Shion bit his lip. “I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault.”
“Don’t you feel…stuck? Knowing you can’t leave here for another eleven years?”
“Stuck? Where would I go? The world is not at my disposal, Shion. I probably won’t leave the Onaji Hoshi after eleven years, even after the contract is up and my debt is paid. I have a job, and I can’t take the risk of having to find a new one.”
“You’re going to be a waiter forever?” Shion asked, not realizing how he sounded until the question was out of his mouth. “Oh, I didn’t mean to – ”
But Nezumi was smiling ruefully, and didn’t seem angry. “We can’t all be plant geniuses.”
“I’m not a plant genius,” Shion said, slightly annoyed.
“Who said I was talking about you?” Nezumi asked, flashing Shion a grin. Shion couldn’t help but smile back. “Let’s stop talking about work, can we? Tell me about… Snafu,” Nezumi said, his expression shifting into something Shion couldn’t quite read.
“Her name is Safu,” Shion replied.
Nezumi waved his hand airily. “Right, of course, that’s what I said. You’ve been out of university for three weeks now, right? So when is the big day? A month?”
“Do you mean the wedding? That’s in a week.” Shion wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t like talking to Nezumi about Safu. Neither of them had brought her up before, and Shion didn’t like the strange feeling he was getting in his stomach now that they were talking about her.
“A week?” Nezumi looked at him sharply, and Shion regarded him curiously, though the waiter’s expression quickly turned back neutral.
“Yeah… Nezumi, will you come?” Now that he thought about it, Shion wasn’t sure why he hadn’t invited Nezumi to his wedding before. It seemed like the natural thing to do.
“To the wedding? I have to work,” Nezumi replied, almost hastily, Shion thought, unless he’d just imagined it. “Two days off in two weeks is probably not a good idea.”
Shion let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Oh, right, of course.”
“Are you nervous?”
“To get married? No. Safu has been my best friend for my entire life. I don’t think marrying her will make much of a difference.”
Nezumi smirked. “Well, there will be one difference, won’t there?”
Shion felt his cheeks heat up. “Nezumi!”
Nezumi chuckled, but there seemed to be something off about it, and his face turned serious too quickly. “Hey, I should get back now and get ready for work.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Shion replied, getting up quickly and following Nezumi.
“Don’t weddings require a lot of preparation? How is it that you have so much time to hang around me? Doesn’t your fiancé need you?”
Shion bit his lip. “I don’t know… No, I don’t think so. I think everything is pretty much ready. Richard is in charge of most of it.”
“Why? He’s your mom’s boss, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, but he likes to be in charge of things, especially when those things are expensive.”
“Is Sagoo royalty too?”
“Safu. And neither of us is royalty,” Shion said, glaring at the boy walking beside him.
Nezumi laughed. “You know what I mean. Is she rich?”
Shion didn’t reply, but both he and Nezumi knew he didn’t need to. The answer was obvious.
“Hm, you guys could join your castles together. Make a new Disneyworld!”
“Nezumi, please stop.” Shion hated when Nezumi made comments like these, mocking Shion’s wealth.
“Okay, okay, I’m done.”
They talked of other things for the rest of the walk to Nezumi’s place. With Nezumi, Shion could talk about anything. He’d never really been that talkative, but when he was with the grey-eyed waiter, he often found that he couldn’t be quiet. All of his thoughts seemed to burst out of him, and even though Nezumi was often telling Shion to shut up, the dark-haired boy was a good listener, for the most part.
In Nezumi’s apartment, Shion went through Nezumi’s kitchen while the waiter took a shower and got into his uniform. He didn’t own a fridge, and the cupboards were completely empty but for one can of soup, two bowls, one spoon, and a mug, though Shion couldn’t find any tea bags anywhere. One cupboard was jammed, so Shion pulled on it with all his might, and it swung open, sending Shion flying back. He sat back up and peered into the cupboard at the lonesome box that sat inside it.
Shion opened the box curiously, hoping for tea. Instead, he found five bronze coins and two silver ones. Shion stared at them, his heart sinking. This was all Nezumi had. He was doing worse off than Shion thought, a lot worse than he’d let on. Shion had already talked to the apartment manager behind Nezumi’s back, just out of curiosity, and knew the rent for a room like this – the cheapest apartment – was three silver coins a month. There was no way Nezumi would be able to afford that and have money for food.
Shion stared at the coins, thinking about the heaps of gold coins his parents had in the bank, and swallowed a lump in his throat, wishing that he could switch places if it meant freeing Nezumi from the trap he was in and wondering how he had come to care so deeply for this grey-eyed waiter.
When Nezumi came out of the shower, Shion was nowhere in sight. Not that Nezumi had expected the boy to hang around, but he’d said he would, so Nezumi felt somewhat irritated with him for lying.
Nezumi peered into his kitchen, and Shion suddenly appeared, his head and torso emerging from behind a cupboard.
“Oh, hi, Nezumi!” Shion exclaimed, a bit too cheerily, rubbing his head.
“What were you doing down there?” Nezumi asked, running his towel a last time through his hair before throwing it on a chair.
“Uh…” Shion was staring at him, and Nezumi looked down at his chest, wondering what was wrong. “I, umm…”
“Are you all right?” Nezumi asked, as Shion’s cheeks had begun to turn pink. Nezumi was used to this – he had gotten to know that Shion blushed very easily, often for no apparent reason at all. Nezumi started to button his shirt, which he’d left undone.
“Ye-yeah, I’m fine!” Shion replied, looking relieved at something. Nezumi resigned himself to the fact that he would never know what went on in that kid’s head.
“So, what were you doing?”
“Oh, umm, that… I was, err…” Shion fingers played with the hem of his shirt, then moved to tap on the counter. He bit his lip and looked around the room, as if hoping the answer was written on the walls somewhere.
Nezumi raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a hard question?” He started walking towards Shion, whose eyes widened, though he still didn’t speak. It was only until Nezumi was next to Shion that he understood. He said nothing, staring at the door of his cabinet, which hung open slightly. This particular cabinet door never closed fully unless it was jammed in.
“I’m sorry,” Shion mumbled. His voice sounded as if it was coming through a tunnel in Nezumi’s ears, which seemed to be full with static. “I was looking for tea…”
“I don’t have tea,” Nezumi replied, keeping his voice even. He turned away from Shion and walked to the door, but a second after he’d opened it, he slammed it shut again.
“Shion, don’t talk to me right now. I don’t want to hear it.”
“I can help you…”
Nezumi turned around. He was going to yell at Shion, but suddenly felt exhausted. He walked to the bed and fell on it, sitting on the edge and staring at the wall in front of him so he wouldn’t have to look at those fucking red eyes.
“Please, you can pay me back, with interest, if you want, but just for this month –”
“Do you really want to keep talking?” Nezumi asked mildly. Shion shut up. Nezumi wasn’t sure how long he sat there. He needed the help. He needed this money. He had been lying to himself that he would be able to make it, denying that the box was more empty than usual. He usually picked up enough extra shifts to be able to make it – just barely, but always enough – but this month, at least towards the end, there had been another factor involved.
A factor that made Nezumi, for the first time, lie to himself that maybe he wouldn’t need to pick up that extra shift. A factor that made him too tired to pick up shifts early in the morning because he hadn’t gotten to bed until one or two o’ clock. A factor that made him want to work less because he finally had something to look forward to in his life that work would take him away from. A factor that made him think that maybe things could change, maybe he wouldn’t be stuck anymore, maybe he could escape from his mundane cycle of a life, at least for a little while.
A factor with bright, white hair, a snakelike scar around his body, and those fucking red eyes that were always so wide when they looked at him, as if they could see something he couldn’t, a part of him he never knew existed.
“Yes. I want to help you. You don’t want my help, but I don’t care. I need to do this for you. After everything you’ve done for me…”
“For you? I’ve done nothing for you, Shion. Don’t lie. Don’t pretend. I’ve done nothing,” Nezumi’s voice cracked at the end. He stared harder at the wall. He wished he could go back. He wished he never met this red-eyed boy, that he’d never taken Ann’s shift and waited on his table many weeks before. He wished he wasn’t so confused, he wished it didn’t hurt so much, in his chest, where he’d promised himself he’d never let anyone hurt again. He wished he was back to his mundane life where he’d only imagined that there could be something missing, instead of in this strange new break from the routine where he knew exactly what was missing, where he knew what would always be missing, where he dreaded the day he would have to return to the old routine.
Because that day was coming.
In one week.
“Wha – ”
Nezumi felt Shion’s hot breath brush his mouth a second before his lips did. They were soft, and Nezumi could feel them trembling slightly as they pressed against his own. Nezumi leaned back, startled, but the lips followed him, and he realized he didn’t mind them. They felt nice, even though their pressure was accompanied by a swooping feeling in his lower abdomen that spread throughout his entire body and made him feel as if he was going to explode.
He was not new to this feeling, but never before had he felt it so… potent. Never before had it caught him off guard. Never before had he been scared of it.
There were fluttering fingers, cold, against his neck now. He flinched, amazed and frightened even further. How could his guard be so down? Why were these new pressures on his skin coming as surprises? Nezumi didn’t get surprised. He was supposed to know everything that was coming. He was supposed to see every touch in advance, so that he might avoid it, so that he might fight it off.
But he didn’t want to fight these soft lips off. He opened his own lips, just slightly. He wanted to push back, to return the pressure, but didn’t dare. That would be stupid. He must keep his head.
The soft lips opened against his. Nezumi’s eyes were closed. Hot, wet breath tickled his tongue, mixed with his own breath. Nezumi could feel his hands on the sheets of the bed where he sat. He wanted them to be on the boy in front of him. On his face. In his hair. His hair was so soft. Like the soft lips.
Nezumi lifted his tongue. He wanted to feel more than the hot breath. He wanted to trace the soft lips, to linger on the edges of the boy’s front teeth, to taste his tongue. He wondered what it would taste like. Strawberry, probably. Shion had gotten strawberry ice cream. Nezumi remembered watching his pink tongue stick out to catch a trail of it, slipping down the underside of his wrist.
But before Nezumi could taste this strawberry ice cream for himself, the pressure of the soft lips was gone. Nezumi closed his own lips, opened his eyes. A pair of red eyes stared back at him, wide, fervent, bright. Shion’s fingers still lay on Nezumi’s neck. Nezumi could feel them, not as cold now, still trembling.
Nezumi tore his gaze from Shion’s eyes. He couldn’t look at them any longer. He looked down. Shion’s lips (they’d been so soft) were still open, and he seemed to be breathing through them. His face was still close enough that Nezumi could feel him exhaling, a light breeze against his cheeks.
“I have to go,” the lips said. Nezumi still wouldn’t look back at the red eyes. He didn’t nod, nor respond.
A moment later, the pressure was gone from his neck, and Shion had disappeared out his door. Nezumi sat alone on his mattress and lifted a hand cautiously from the sheets. He brought his fingertips to his lips and touched them gently, wondering why they still tingled, as if waiting for Shion’s soft lips to return.