“That was amazing, Nezumi.”
“Huh? What?” Nezumi blinked and shook his head, surprised to see the cello-playing bus boy’s face looming in front of him, his eyes wide.
“Your performance today. You’re always good, of course, but tonight you sounded even better than usual. There was something different.”
Nezumi nodded, hardly listening. There was something loud in his ears, and he wondered if he was going deaf. “What’s that noise?” he shouted.
The bus boy regarded him as if he was crazy. “Noise? Do you mean the applause?”
“Oh,” Nezumi said, shaking his head again, more rigorously this time. He needed to snap out of whatever weird funk he was in. He couldn’t think straight. “It’s louder than usual, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah. Because of you! I’ve never heard you like that, your voice was so… I don’t know how to describe it. I could feel your emotions, you know?”
“What emotions?” Nezumi asked flatly, turning fully to glare at the man in front of him.
The bus boy shrugged defensively. “Hey, I’m not the only one who noticed. Look around you. They love you. Listen, they want an encore,” he said excitedly.
Nezumi shook his head. “No encores. I’m tired.”
The man tilted his head, scratching his hair with his bow. “Are you okay, Nezumi? You’ve been acting strange all night. Are you still sick?”
“Yeah, that’s it. I’m sick.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have come to the show tonight. If you’re that sick. Today’s the first day I’ve worked here that you didn’t come to wait tables, so it must be bad. I mean, you performed amazingly, but if your health is at risk – ”
“Look, I’m fine, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nezumi interrupted. He didn’t need this, not right then. He ignored the bus boy’s expression and walked past him, a weight lifting off him when he tentatively opened the exit door to see that the alleyway was empty. He walked home quickly, staring at his feet and not allowing his thoughts to stray, though they so desperately wanted to. Every so often, he would picture those lips, almost feel them, as if they still trembled against his, but then he would roughly shake his head in an effort to disperse the feeling. He mustn’t think of it. What had happened earlier that afternoon needed to be forgotten, and forgotten quickly.
Emotions? What had that stupid bus boy been talking about? Nezumi didn’t have time for emotions. Emotions were weakness. Emotions made a person vulnerable. Nezumi couldn’t be vulnerable, not again. He was older now, more experienced, and knew he could take care of himself, much more than when he was only thirteen. But all the same, he wouldn’t take the risk. He couldn’t afford the risk.
Nezumi dragged his feet up the steps to his apartment. As tired as he was, he was already dreading having to sleep on that bed again. Just a few hours before, he had been sitting on it, his hands against the mattress, as the red-eyed boy –
“Stop it, Nezumi!” Nezumi’s voice echoed in the empty hallway. He brushed his bangs from his eyes and crossed over to his door. He was just shoving it open when he noticed the paper tacked to it, right in the center.
Nezumi froze. His eyes swam. He couldn’t concentrate, he couldn’t read the many little lines of black that probably just outlined a bunch of garbage in complicated language.
What he could read was the huge red word, stamped over the center of the paper. The ink still looked wet. It dripped slightly, from the end of one of the “i’s.”
Nezumi blinked, opening and closing his eyes slowly, willing the stamp to fade away. It didn’t.
Dread sank in his veins like ice. It was the last day of the month. It was rent day. How could he not have remembered? He had never forgotten before, not once. And yet, all day, he hadn’t even thought of it once.
But of course, Nezumi knew why. He had been distracted. He had taken the day off work to spend it with a boy who never had to worry about paying rent on time. He had been too busy wasting time with a man who’d be getting married in a week to think about obligations that would determine whether he had a home, a place to sleep, meals to eat.
And then… well, after what had happened that afternoon, how could Nezumi have had room to think about those three silver coins he had to give to the landlord before midnight? How could anything else have crossed his mind, but the soft lips, the fluttering fingers?
Nezumi ripped the paper off the door with shaking fingers. He shoved the door open and stood in his doorway, staring at his old apartment. It was completely empty, from the books on the floor to the soup bowl he’d left on the counter to the pillow Shion had sat on too many times and flattened.
Nezumi leaned back on the doorframe and sank to the floor of the home that was no longer his.
For the past three days, Nezumi hadn’t seen Shion. In three more days, the boy would be getting married. It made sense that he was no longer there to wag his tail every time Nezumi opened the back exit of the Onaji Hoshi.
So what was that sinking feeling in Nezumi’s gut, as if his stomach was getting heavier and heavier every time he opened the door to an empty alleyway?
Nezumi paused with one hand on the handle of the exit door. If he opened it to emptiness again, it would be the fourth night in a row. Even when Shion had been at university, he had never let more than three nights go by without showing up to talk nonsense at Nezumi for a few hours. And after university ended, his visits had become nearly nightly. But four nights without the red-eyed boy?
Nezumi wasn’t used to this feeling that had taken root inside of him. What was it? Expectation? What was that again? He couldn’t remember having felt it in more than ten years. It was a parasite, he could feel it gnawing at his bones, rooting into his skull, scattering his thoughts. He’d even messed up a customer’s order that day, the first mess-up he’d ever had. It wasn’t the expectation itself, Nezumi suspected, that was so bad. It was what came out of it. It was what always followed expectation, what inevitably succeeded hope.
Nezumi shook his head. He jammed the handle down and shoved the door open. It would be even better if the alley was empty. He’d had enough of the white-haired boy. Since the moment he’d latched himself onto Nezumi, Nezumi had been waiting for the day he would leave. He’d known it would happen. And after what had taken placed four nights before, what with what would take place three days later, of course this would be the time for Shion to disappear, to go back to where he came from, to wash the sewer filth from his clothes and rejoin the elite in his palace, where he truly belonged.
Nezumi looked up. The alleyway wasn’t empty, after all. A pair of bright red eyes regarded him, shining in the dark.
Shion’s heart was thundering in his chest. He had come back. He’d promised himself, he’d vowed to himself, that he would not return, not to this alleyway, not to this grey-eyed waiter. He had managed to keep his promise for three nights. He’d paced his house, he’d locked himself in his room, he’d driven around familiar roads long enough for them to become unfamiliar, purposefully getting himself lost so that his mind would have something else to occupy it.
He’d baked with his mother, banishing his cooks from the kitchen to experiment on his own, learning that he knew how to burn eggs in seven different ways. He’d tried to pick up new hobbies, learning poker from Yoming, and the next day attempting to learn to knit. He’d caught up on his shows, then tried to get interested in new ones, but the plots always seemed the same. Someone saving someone else. A rich prince rescuing a locked up princess. Why was it never the other way around? What if the rich prince wasn’t happy? What if, even though he wasn’t the one locked up, he felt stuck all the same, unable to escape from the course his life was heading, much too fast for his control.
And then there was the childhood friend plot. They grew up together, they realized their feelings, they got married happily ever after.
Shion had thought that was his story. He had been sure of it. Why, then, had he – of all the things he’d been doing to try to keep his mind off the boy who now stood in front of him – refused to call Safu? She was always the person he could go to if there was anything on his mind. For the last few days, however, he’d done everything he could to avoid her, only talking to her once on the phone for a brief minute before exclaiming he had to go and hanging up.
Perhaps it was ridiculous to ask himself why he had been avoiding her. He knew why. The reason why, after all, was what he’d been doing all these new activities to try and forget. He needed to get it out of his head, the scene that kept replaying, over and over, the one that had taken place the last time he’d seen the grey-eyed waiter, four nights before. He couldn’t shake it from his mind, not the feel of Nezumi’s lips, not the heat of his breath, not the electric shock that ran through his body, shooting down his abdomen, turning his stomach into knots, making his heart stop then race then stop then race then stop then race…
“Nezumi,” he repeated. It was all he could think to say. If he dared say more, he worried what confessions might spill out of his lips.
The dark-haired boy shifted, then smirked, brushing his bangs from his eyes. “Yes, Your Highness?”
Shion couldn’t feel his body. He thought his fingers might have been shaking. He thought his body might have felt as if it was lined with live wire, light electric pulses sending shocks through his veins every few seconds. He couldn’t be sure. Everything since that afternoon, in Nezumi’s apartment, had seemed surreal to him. He couldn’t be sure what was real, what he was imagining. He couldn’t be sure if this was a dream. For the past four nights, he’d dreamt of the kiss, over and over. He’d wake up sweating. He’d wake up with his lips still trembling, his hands still shaking. He’d wake up wishing he was still asleep, for a few seconds more.
Nezumi’s gaze softened, his eyes melting, calming. He stepped forward, reached out.
“Shh, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
“How?” Shion whispered. How could anything be okay? How was the plot of his life supposed to go? Where could his happily ever after come from?
Could it possibly be from this grey-eyed waiter, standing before me?
“Are you crying? Shion, don’t cry. What did I tell you about crying in front of me?”
“Apologizing is worse.”
“Right. I know.” Shion sniffed and rubbed his hand over his eyes. “Could we… could we go to your place? I want to talk.”
A strange expression crossed over Nezumi’s face. “I don’t think so.”
“I-I won’t…do anything,” Shion murmured.
“That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Please, Nezumi! I need to talk. Please,” Shion begged, stepping closer. He and Nezumi were less than a foot apart now. Shion could reach out and touch him, if he’d wanted.
Nezumi sighed. “There’s nowhere to go back to, Shion. We can talk here.”
“What do you mean?” Shion’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at the grey eyes that were watching him so calculatingly.
“Don’t worry yourself, Your Highness.”
“Nezumi… I’m your friend. Tell me.”
Nezumi opened his mouth, looking as if he was going to object, but then he sighed again and rolled his eyes, shrugging. “Fine. There’s no ‘my place’ to go back to.” Nezumi’s eyes flashed and he let out an exasperated puff of air. Shion looked down to see Nezumi’s hands clench into fists, then unclench. He seemed as if he was frustrated with himself.
“What does that mean? Nezumi, what are you saying?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be a genius?” Nezumi asked, his tone light.
“What happened to your apartment, Nezumi?” Shion asked. He was certain Nezumi could hear his heartbeats. He was certain the entire world could hear them, battering loudly through the night air, assaulting the quiet of the darkness.
Nezumi shook his head marginally. “Gone.” He let out another breath of air and closed his eyes.
Shion felt himself start to shake. “Gone?” he asked.
Nezumi didn’t open his eyes. “Don’t make a big fuss, okay? This doesn’t even affect you, so don’t you dare go making a big deal.”
“Doesn’t affect me?” Shion repeated slowly, speaking through his teeth, which he didn’t seem able to unglue.
Nezumi’s eyes flashed open. “That’s right, Your Highness. It doesn’t affect you. Do you know why?”
“Why?” Shion whispered.
Nezumi regarded him, his grey eyes ice. Shion shivered. “Why don’t you answer that yourself?”
Shion stared at him. He felt as if his chest was tearing in half. He could hardly breath. The walls of the alleyway seemed to be closing in on him, and the ice in Nezumi’s eyes seemed to pin him down. He tore his own eyes away and stared at his shoes.
“Safu,” he whispered.
He could feel it, so close they stood, when Nezumi tensed in front of him.
“I’m marrying Safu. I’m returning to where I came from, and I’m getting married. And I would come back!” Shion looked up then, fiercely, ignoring the water in his eyes. “I would! But…”
The kiss. It lingered in his thoughts, even then. He knew Nezumi was thinking of it too. Wasn’t he? Did he feel how Shion did? Shion studied his face, wondering. Could a waiter who disdained his class so much ever feel the way about him that Shion felt about –
Shion gasped. What was he thinking? He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t be thinking this, not now, not when, in three days time…
Nezumi’s expression was unreadable. He licked his lips and his eyes roamed Shion’s face. Shion swallowed, his knees starting to shake. “You’re going to marry her.”
It was a statement. Not a question. Perhaps this was what made Shion finally snap. There Nezumi stood, in front of him, his face completely neutral, still with the nerve to judge him, after all this time. He still assumed, that complete bastard, that he knew everything Shion would do. He still thought he knew Shion would scamper back to where he came from just because he was high class, because he couldn’t handle Nezumi’s kind of life. Shion was sick of it, he was sick of Nezumi’s quips and judgments. He was sick of that neutral expression.
He was sick of Nezumi pretending he didn’t care.
Nezumi’s eyes flickered, a glimpse of emotion. Shion wanted more than a glimpse.
“Fuck you, Nezumi! Fuck you!”
“Why don’t you say that a few more times?”
“ARGH!” Shion wanted to punch him. Red spots hovered in front of his eyes, which were completely blurred now. He couldn’t see the boy in front of him, but he could shout at him, he could still shout. “You think you know everything!”
“Calm down, Shion. It’s the middle of the night, you shouldn’t be shouting.”
“Stop being so damn calm! Stop acting like it doesn’t fucking matter!”
“Shion – ”
“Stop acting like I don’t fucking matter!” Shion screamed, his throat hoarse. His fingernails dug into his palms and he thrust his knuckles in his eyes to get rid of the water. He needed to see Nezumi, he needed to see that smug face of his so that he might punch the apathy right from it.
Instead of apathy, Nezumi’s expression was of anger. “What are you talking about?” he snapped. His eyes flashed, the ice shining brightly.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know! Don’t pretend you’re oblivious! Don’t pretend anymore, just for once, quit your fucking act!”
“What act? What are you saying? Dammit Shion, you never know what you’re saying…” Nezumi shouted, his jaw clenched so hard it looked like it must hurt.
“Stop it! That’s what I’m talking about! All you do is insult me! All you do is try to make me feel like shit! About my money, about my family, about my schooling, about everything! But I know the truth, okay, Nezumi? I know it, because it must be true, that you feel the same way, it can’t just be me, okay? If it was just me, I wouldn’t feel it so strongly. If it was just me, it wouldn’t be driving me insane, it wouldn’t make me want to throw away everything just to come here to this godforsaken alley and shout at you and hate you and – ” Shion gasped. He’d run out of air. He took a few deep breaths and tried to get his thoughts in order.
Nezumi was gaping at him, but stayed silent, his mouth slightly open.
“Nezumi, please. Don’t say it’s just me. Don’t say you don’t care. Don’t just tell me I’m going to be married in three days as if it means nothing to you. What happened four nights ago…that wasn’t just because of me. It takes two people, Nezumi, for it to feel like that. I know this, Nezumi, I know it, please,” Shion begged. His sight was blurred again, and he wiped at his eyes a second time. He didn’t know what he was begging for. He didn’t know what he could possibly want the grey-eyed boy to reply.
He didn’t know anything, anymore.
“Shion, I…” Nezumi’s gaze slid sideways for a moment. He was breathing deeply, like Shion was. He looked back at Shion, the ice in his eyes having melted. “I could take care of you.”
His words were less than a whisper. They floated from his lips like a breeze, barely brushing against Shion’s cheeks. Why then, if they were so quiet, did they seem to echo in Shion’s head, so loudly he wanted to jam his hands over his ears, crouch down in the alleyway, curl into a ball?
“N-Nezumi?” Shion gasped.
“I-I could. Shion…I’m sorry. I’m no good at…saying things. I don’t even know what I’m…” Nezumi sighed sharply, pulling on his bangs. “Even now, I don’t know the words, I’m not…” Nezumi chuckled bitterly to himself, a sharp sound. He seemed surprised at it.
“Nezumi – ”
“No, wait, I can…I have to try to – Agh, Shion, I don’t know how to say it. I want to…I know I’m not, you know, I’m not what you…expected? No, that’s not right. Shit,” Nezumi mumbled to himself. His hands were tugging on the end of his sleeves now, his feet shuffling.
“You don’t have to – ”
“Stop! Stop interrupting me! I have to say, I have to get it out, I have to – Agh!” Nezumi yelled suddenly, his shout echoing in the alleyway. Shion flinched. “Okay, just, listen, okay? You probably thought, I don’t know, you must have grown up expecting, what? Safu, I guess.”
Nezumi raised his hands hastily. “Let me explain! She’s, well, she’s from your, you know, your…crowd, I guess. You’ve known her forever. She’s, well, she’s the perfect bride, isn’t she? She probably doesn’t come with all this shit, that I have. She probably never insults you, makes fun of you, laughs at you. I don’t know how to be like her. I don’t know how to treat you like how she might have, and no matter how hard I tried, I can’t change who I am. I’m a rat, Shion. You’re a prince, and I’m a rat, and that’s just not how the story goes. The prince and the rat don’t end up together.”
Shion couldn’t breath. Nezumi was saying that what he had been wishing for was impossible. He was reaffirming that any sort of plot giving them a happy ending could never happen. “Nezumi…”
“No, stop, please, if you interrupt again I don’t think I’ll be able to…” Nezumi took a deep breath. He shoved his fists against his eyes and blinked rapidly. “I know it’s not supposed to be like this. I know you never thought it would be like this. But…”
Shion didn’t want Nezumi to continue. He wanted him to just shut up, but he couldn’t say it, he couldn’t move, he could only watch the waiter struggle in front of him.
Nezumi squeezed his eyes together then opened them and stared at Shion. “Give me a chance. I’m not a prince. I’m not royalty. I’m nothing, I’m nobody, I’m fucking homeless, I’m just a goddamned waiter. But I’m alive, Shion. I’ve been able to take care of myself, and I know I could take care of you. Things won’t be the same. Life won’t be as comfortable as before. But we could make it. I have a will to survive, Shion, and that’s all I need. I’ll do it, I’ll do anything. Do you trust me?”
Shion looked away from the melting eyes. He looked down the alleyway, remembering the first time he’d been in it. Nezumi had told him never to trust anyone, him especially.
But then, he had also said that they were strangers. But that wasn’t the case any longer. As the weeks had passed, Shion had come to know Nezumi more than anyone in his life, and he felt Nezumi knew more of him as well. Even on that first day, Shion hadn’t felt as if they were strangers. There had been something about those grey eyes, something about how they’d watched him, as if they were seeing inside of him, as if they could see past what his butlers, his maids, Richard, Yoming, his mother, even Safu saw.
Shion trusted Nezumi. He knew that if he nodded his head right then, if he said yes, that Nezumi would never let him get hurt. That he would use the last of his money to make sure Shion was well fed, even if he couldn’t eat a thing himself. That he would take up extra shifts, even find another job, to ensure that Shion had a blanket to sleep under, even if he himself had to sleep in the cold. Shion knew, more than he’d ever known anything in his entire life, that Nezumi would starve himself, overwork himself, endanger himself, so that Shion might be happy.
It was just like Nezumi had said, when Shion had asked if they were friends weeks before. He had known that if he got close to someone, he’d be punished. He’d known that if he ever cared for someone, he’d make himself vulnerable. He’d known from the very start that he would get hurt, and he knew this, standing before Shion, saying these things to him, making these promises that he would kill himself to keep.
And that was why – as Nezumi looked at him desperately, his question hanging in the air, waiting for Shion’s answer as he stood with his emotions laid out naked in front of him for the first time, a gesture for Shion that must have nearly killed him – that was why Shion looked down at the ground and slowly shook his head.
“No,” Shion whispered. “I’m sor – ” Shion cut himself off in the middle of his apology. He would not demean the waiter by apologizing. Nezumi deserved more than that. “ – I mean, I just…can’t. It’s not going to work. We’re not…” Shion wiped at his eyes again, hating himself but knowing this was the only way, the only way Nezumi would believe him, even if he was believing a lie. After all, this was the lie Nezumi had believed his entire life.
Nezumi’s breath was still hot on his face, and Shion nearly backed down. Nearly.
“We wouldn’t work together, someone like you, someone like me. You were right. There is no plot where we end up together, happily ever after. I’m – ” Shion jammed his fingernails into his palm. He deserved this pain, after what he was going to do to Nezumi. He deserved more pain than he could ever inflict on himself. “—I’m a regular customer at the Onaji Hoshi. I’m high class. And you… you’re just the waiter. That can’t change. It will never change. So this, us… it’s pointless.”
Shion could hear Nezumi’s sharp intake of breath. Shion wished he could take back his words. He wished he’d just run off without giving an explanation. He wished Nezumi would yell at him, punch him, whip out his knife, cut him up. Anything, because anything would be better than the pain he was feeling then, in his chest, as he listened to the echo of his words in the small, dark alleyway.
He needed to end this. He needed to leave. “Thank you, Nezumi. You sacrificed so much of your time for me, these past few weeks, and I really appreciate – ”
Shion froze. He finally looked up, hoping Nezumi’s face might be expressionless again. It wasn’t. It was raw, it was open, it was naked, it was hurt. He jaw was taut, his eyes desperate and rimmed with red, his hollowed cheeks slathered in the silvery grey of his melted eyes.
“Just leave. Don’t thank me. Don’t tell me that you – ” Nezumi choked and gasped, then bit his lip. Shion wanted to look away, but his gaze – his whole body – was trapped. Nezumi took a deep, shuddering breath. “Please.”
He closed his eyes. Shion could move again. He left.