“What would you say love is?” Nezumi asks one day out of curiosity. In his hands, he holds a script from the new play he's supposed to be running tomorrow, but he can’t quite pin down the character. Ophelia. She was a child drunk on the idea that love was somehow worth everything — but why? What was the point?
“What’s it to you?” asks Inukashi rudely. His face is twisted into a nightmare scowl. “It’s not like any of us are going to be loved.”
“This one went mad for it,” Nezumi holds up the script and swings it around. “What is it about love that has people dying for it? It’s just someone else. It’s only marriage,” he frowns and leans back against the wall, wondering. “The idea of spending eternity with someone is daunting, don’t you think?”
“I think you're jealous,” Inukashi says promptly.
“I don’t think I’d kill myself over love, Inukashi,” Nezumi would roll his eyes if he had the energy to care.
“Then love is dogs,” he tells him matter-of-factly. Nezumi scoffs.
They both look away from each other, and Nezumi’s mind wanders over scarlet hills and willow trees, dipping into sunlit waters. Inukashi breaks the silence with, “let’s not talk about love.” Nezumi silently agrees.
They do not bring up the matter ever again.
Nezumi has many books on love it’d take him years to read them all. He’s got them in every genre he could find, he bought them up when they were on sale. He scoffed at Juliet’s pathetic pleading, he laughed at Othello’s fatal jealousy, he made light of Desdemona’s sacrificial adoration. All these people died for something you couldn’t even touch. Don’t they know that life was worth more than what you could find in someone else?
Nezumi has never wanted to die, not a day in his life — to him it is something precious to live, to feel the ground beneath your feet, the sun on your face, the rushing blood in your ears when so many other people have lost it.
If you asked him he could quote to you his favourite lines, how Desdemona’s final words had been in protection of her husband — who’d murdered her. Who could be so loyal? Where does one find that? How does one inspire that?
They’re all such silly, useless questions, and Nezumi has never really gone looking for answers. He doesn’t really need them.
Rather, he didn't need to know them, until a boy with his eyes full of despair and bone-wrenching pain had called to him to let him die, because in that moment — in that very moment, all Nezumi could think of was no. Not now. Not ever.
To say it terrified him was an understatement, his hands had never shook that much in his life and he’d stared death in the face on several occasions.
When everything’s over and done with, and the boy who’d begged him to kill him — no one’s ever asked him for death before — was asleep on his bed, Nezumi had taken a moment to sit by his side and slides his fingers along his cheek.
Shiok is warm, soft and pliant beneath his rough fingers. Nezumi takes it a step further, runs his fingers across chapped lips, traces the curve of his neck with his index finger. The outlines of his collarbones are mapped out adoringly, like tracing stars in the sky.
Nezumi never actually thought he’d have cause to hold Shion like this, so — what is it, tenderly? Is this tender, what he's doing?
With each passing minute, the scar on Shion’s face grows bigger and more prominent. The faded pastel darkens to a rich peach, and suddenly, overcome with the desire to see what’s happening, on impulse he unbuttons the front of his shirt and pulls apart the layers as though unwrapping something precious.
Shion is scrawny. There’s a fine dusting of muscle on him but otherwise nothing that could serve any purpose in helping him to stay alive. Nezumi’s eyes do not linger on the finer details but skip straight to the snake coiled around his abdomen, and this he traces too with reverent fingertips.
There’s no bump nor additional heat, it’s merely a discolouration of the skin. A survivor’s badge, one could say, and suddenly he is swamped with an emotion he cannot identify, but he wants to lift this small boy into his arms — he’d be as light as butterfly wings — and cradle him gently.
Nezumi buttons back up his shirt, replaces the cloth on his forehead, and turns away from him. His touches will not linger anymore.
Shion is now almost ethereal in the sunset. Where once warm brown would have responded and turned a vibrant hue, his silver hair now catches the light of something golden and far off, like flames — or a halo, dancing around the crown of his head. His crimson eyes glow something fiery.
He looks both like an angel and a devil, like a marble statue carefully carved out and pedestaled for people to worship at his feet.
Nezumi leans back on his hands in the dirt, watching Shion twirl round and round, smiling, his mouth wide and his eyes innocent. Those hands have never hurt anything a day in their life — he still remembers his touch four years ago, the gentleness and tenderness of it all, the way he’d held him like he was something worth protecting.
In this hazy twilight, on the brink of day and night, Nezumi somehow finds the words to ask, “what is love to you?”
Shion stops twirling and instead turns to give him a contemplative look. “What love is to me? My mother, of course.”
“No,” Nezumi chuckles and looks to the rapidly darkening sky. “Not who. What?”
Shion blinks at him. “I guess it’s hope,” he says, rather distantly. He’s not altogether here, something that seems to be happening commonly since the pupa had been pulled from his neck. He always seemed a little far off, like Nezumi had to reach between dimensions to pull him back.
“Hope?” Nezumi questions. Did Ophelia have hope too?
“Yeah,” Shion smiles widely and comes back down to earth. “Love is a commitment between two people, right? So you have hope in each other, and hope in the future!” There’s a pause, then he laughs. “But I suppose you’d say,” he drops his voice into a poor baritone impression of Nezumi. “That’s idealistic, Shion. Love isn’t real.”
“Hey!” Nezumi tosses a rock his way and Shion laughs as he dodges neatly. “I don’t talk like that.”
“But you were gonna say that, right?” Shion plops himself down next to him and smiles so widely he crinkles the corner of his eyes.
“Was not,” Nezumi says under his breath.
Maybe that is something he can get behind, though.
Sometimes what Nezumi forgets is that him and Shion and Inukashi — they’re children. They were never meant to have to struggle like this, each day on each day wondering if this is when they kick the bucket, lose it all in one fell swoop. Inukashi is a child of fourteen — or so they guess, they don’t really know — and he’s terribly afraid of dying. Nezumi sometimes feels like a child of sixteen, like he's staring a gaping, black hole in the wall he cannot look away from. Shion is scared every day. Nezumi sometimes feels that if he looked hard enough, he could see Shion’s pulse in his neck, thrumming away like a jackhammer.
It is only when he is with Shion does he feel less like a child and more sure of where he is. Shion is stability. He says, “welcome home!” when Nezumi comes back burdened and tired, his shoulders aching, jaw clenched in distaste.
Shion’s presence is always felt. He leaves his books on the sofa and his jacket on his bed — he lingers even in the books — he rearranges the shelves and tidies up and is always there with a smile on his face to welcome him home.
It’s a very sudden change. Nezumi has gone from the lonely existence he’s always known to having someone always there, always ready with an ear open — and even worse, this unconditional acceptance he always carries about him. No matter how rude Nezumi is when he comes home, Shion always smiles, takes it in stride, accepts his mercurial nature for what it is, always changing.
Shion touches him gently too — a brush of fingers across his cheek when he settles down, pushing his fringe out of his face when he wants to, leaning his head on his shoulder, content just to be there. With him.
It’s outrageous. It’s addictive. It’s absolutely addictive to be wanted. Nezumi feels it like a drug in his veins.
Today, after they eat, Shion says, “teach me how to fight.”
Nezumi blinks slowly at him. “Why?”
Shion raises an eyebrow and scuffs his feet on the floor. “I’ll show you how to win,” he says, rather uncharacteristically cockily.
Nezumi rises to the bait. “Really?”
“Really,” Shion says, and promptly ends up on the floor. “Again,” he demands. Nezumi memorises the feel of holding the boy to the ground.
“I think I saw what you did with your feet,” Shion grumbles. “But it was too fast.”
“You don’t have a —“
“I do have a photographic memory,” Shion interrupts, and dusts himself off as he gets up. “Again.”
Nezumi blinks at him. Sometimes he forgets just how overwhelmingly brilliant Shion is. Grade A in his ability exam. Special Course. Intelligence doesn’t roll off him in waves, but he has an undeniable tendency to surprise with his resolve and tenacity.
After all, the boy is still alive, even through this difficult time.
“Okay,” he concedes, and takes the boy in his hands again.
But even when they fight, they are also gentle. He knows the way this boy feels when he dances with him — ah, he was light, so light, it was like he’d led a cloud, and when they’d twirled and pressed the slopes of their bodies together he felt that feeling again — the warm one that demanded more more more more of everything, everything at once — Shion had breathed onto his neck and tightened his grip and stepped on his toes but he’d moved with him. In that moment they weren’t friend or foe, Nezumi or Shion, they were a single, precious unit.
Shion ends up with his back on the floor once more, Nezumi’s strong thighs bracketing him in. They make eye contact — it feels almost forbidden — and Shion whispers, “Nezumi,” like it’s some delicate thing, and his hands slip free of Nezumi’s suddenly lax grip to come up and hold his face in his hands — this is another type of warfare, right, this is the emotional kind, right, it has to be.
Nezumi jerks free of his grasp and ends up on his ass on the floor. They stare at each other, flush, and look away.
Nezumi knew when he came home and saw the cake that this was a goodbye meal. Shion is blabbering throughout while they eat, a smile on his face, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. When they are finished and Shion is quiet, Nezumi wonders who he thinks he’s fooling.
Nezumi realises he was the one being fooled when Shion leans forward — no hesitation at all, this man seems to know no fear — and presses a chaste kiss to his lips.
It’s not Nezumi’s first, but it’s the first one that’s actually mattered. Shion smells like his bed — the musty, musky scent of books and sweat. His lips are chapped, slightly rough and cold, but they’re soft and insistent, a constant pressure against his.
Nezumi’s eyes flutter shut. He presses into it, gives it what he can, and when Shion pulls away he chases after his lips and frowns minutely when it doesn’t return.
Ah, that kiss made him so sad. His heart breaks and aches and turns to mush as he turns over the sentiment in his head. It tasted of regret, despair, and bitterness. It sung of longing.
“What was that?” he asks, softly, his eyes wide and bright.
“A goodnight kiss,” Shion says, his eyes tinged with sorrow. The corners of his mouth are tweaked downwards. HIs eyebrows furrow ever so slightly.
Nezumi lets him step out the door, barely makes it before the tear slides down his cheek and plinks onto his lap. “What a liar,” he whispers, and closes his eyes.
If this is what love is, he doesn’t want it.
As Shion dies, Nezumi holds him in his arms and does not cry. He watches instead, the weak rise and fall of Shion’s chest, the way his eyes flutter, blink and rove about, the movement of his mouth as he struggles to form words.
“What do you want to say?” he asks, and his voice unintentionally cracks on the last syllable. “What are you trying to tell me?”
Shion gasps for breath. His grabbing hands are weak against Nezumi’s chest. “Sing…will you?” he asks, his voice hoarse. “Sing…a song?”
How can he sing like this? Nezumi feels like his sorrow is going to force it’s way out of chest and spill out like vomit onto the tiles. He feels like he’s sinking beneath the pain and the weight of everything — how do you love someone when you have no hope?
Nezumi blinks at him, lost. He can’t think of anything to sing — and then it comes to him, unbidden, borne on a bird’s wings. He hears his mother’s voice, and a lullaby she used to sing to him and his restless siblings.
He opens his mouth; clears his throat. If Shion wishes it, then this caged bird would sing.
“Yurikago no uta o,” his voice is dry and scratchy. “Kanariya ga utau yo.”
Shion stirs; smiles.
“Nenneko Nenneko Nenneko yo,” ah, is Nezumi crying? His face is wet. “Yurikago no ue ni, biwa no mi ga yureru yo. Nenneko Nenneko Nenneko yo.”
“Nezumi,” Shion gasps. He still says his name like it’s something fragile, still says it like it’s sacred. How can someone make rat sound like god?
“Yurikago no tsuna o, kinezumi ga yusuru,” he sucks in a deep breath. He understands Ophelia now, he understands Desdemona, and Juliet, and Romeo. All those people who died for love, he understands. It’s so — rare and fleeting and all encompassing, isn't it? “Nenneko Nenneko Nenneko yo.”
It’s the final stanza. Shion is unresponsive in his hands now, and he can hardly see through his blur of tears. He pushes, wavering, through the words, “Yurikago no yume ni, kiiroi tsuki ga kakaru yo,” he gasps. Shion’s mouth twitches upwards, then stills. “Nenneko Nenneko Nenneko yo.”
“Shion?” he asks. “Shion!”
His love does not respond. All is lost.
Shion lies underneath him, his face covered with a heady flush. Nezumi, now granted permission, once again traces the scar that staked it’s claim on his body long before Nezumi got to.
“It’s embarrassing,” Shion whines, and tries to pull away from him, but Nezumi holds his torso suddenly in a death grip and Shion struggles fruitlessly.
He presses a kiss over his heart — where he lost him, all those weeks ago.
To love someone — ah, what is it, really? It’s not hope it’s — it’s this. Right here. It’s the gentleness with the way Nezumi runs his hands down the boy’s ribs and the adoration with which Shion looks at him,
It’s the way Nezumi says “Shion,” like it’s a prayer.
It’s the way Shion arches in response and wraps his arms loosely around Nezumi, holding him gently by the nape of his neck.
It’s that they came back to each other once the walls fell down, that they get to be here now, each one holding the other like they’re both worth more than the world.
It’s — it’s too hard to describe, to sum up in one word. He thinks back to when a naive little boy helped a stranger with no regrets, when his hands had been gentle, soft, and kind. Ah — yes, kindness.
What is love, Ophelia?