Author's Note: This is almost two fics in one. Originally, it was just the italicized sections, minus some lines. I called it "In Memoriam", read it back dubiously, then ran it by my beta. We agreed it wasn't enough by itself, so I decided not to post it.
Two months later, the scene in the first and final sections hit me, and I decided to build another narrative alongside "In Memoriam". So now you have this.
Odd structure altogether. I'm hoping it reads well in spite of it. Please let me know if it's really confusing.
Disclaimer: Atlus owns Persona IV. Rating is for mild violence. Story takes place in early 2012.
She opened her eyes, just slightly, and something in the quality of the air - the lightness or warmth - reminded her that she was on the hill overlooking town. The hand on the back of her neck reminded her it wasn't she, it was they. Her own hand rested a few inches from her face, on his kneecap, her cheek pressing into cloth and thigh. His other leg hit her right at the waist, defining the curve she always hid under shirts cut for a boy. She remembered they'd been sitting there, she'd drawn her knees up, crossed her elbows on them and leaned her forehead down. As she sometimes did, and it didn't mean anything especially bad had happened, it just meant she was tired and she didn't want to talk.
She must have lain down. Something.
She vaguely remembered that she was exhausted, and she didn't care anymore, how it looked, anything.
She tried to apologize or admit she was grateful, lying across his legs, his hand tentatively stroking her hair, but it was too hard to speak.
The wind picked up, taking her attention with it. Dark clouds hung close, too heavy. Glancing to either side, she broke into an undignified jog, one hand steadying her cap. Rain pattered, then the drops narrowed into cold needles, splashing across the pavement, down her neck and into her shirt collar. She pumped her free arm, picking up speed, pushed along by the wind, hardly noticing the shopping district's dark storefronts. She should duck under an awning. There was no outrunning a storm.
Instead of coldness there was warmth at her back, steady, dry and smelling faintly chemical. She ducked her head and ran faster, but she was smarter than that, you can't outrun light, she was too smart to die in an accident.
There was no impact, the car was on her. For an instant, she could've reached up and fingered the grooves in its right front tire, felt the soaked gravel hitting her face, her flesh grinding into the asphalt. And even though it was impossible, glass sparkled around her beneath the undercarriage, pulverized, fine as the grains of asphalt, as each pore in her skin. Coolness spread through her stomach, radiating from the sharp twist in her spine. Naoto Shirogane closed her eyes and woke.
She was late to school, missing her opportunity to meet Rise and Kanji in the corridor before class. She took her seat in the corner of the classroom, avoided all glances, kept her head down, even to read the board. Her notes were meticulous. At lunch, she went to the library in lieu of the roof, rewriting each page. Because there was no need to seek out the others, she was doing just fine. This was soothing. Dreams, even bad dreams, signified nothing.
In class after lunch, her pencil slowed on the page. She found herself searching out the window, looking for shapes in the clouds, looking down to see her pencil tracing the lines on her looseleaf, forming dark brackets. She glanced around the classroom, wishing she were in any of the others - 2-2 with Rise, 2-3 with Kanji. Everything would be better if she could just look up and see one of their faces. If she needed to.
She'd never had a fear of cars as a child, had no fear now, which sometimes struck her as deeply wrong. Even worse than lying to every person she met by saying she was a boy.
Even as the last bell was ringing, she'd already jammed her books into her briefcase, stood, headed for the door. The halls were a dozen shifting tides of students, pushing their ways to lockers, calling ahead to their friends. Most of them spilled towards the front doors. She fled skyward.
She hardly remembered the accident that had killed her parents. She knew she'd only lived because she'd been in the back seat, in the middle - she always sat there so that her mother could easily glance back and check on her. She couldn't remember where they'd gone out to lunch or where they were going afterward. She didn't remember how her parents had looked that day, though she'd been five, she should be able to remember, she remembered so many other inconsequential things. She didn't remember the van, the car swinging in a tailspin, hitting the embankment, sliding back, then rocking onto its side and coming to rest.
As she'd hoped, Kanji was on the roof, sitting in front of the glare from the solar panels. Already there. He must have cut his final class. Tomorrow, she must remember to remonstrate with him. Today, she dropped down next to him, one hand lifting to rub her forehead. Her arm brushed his, and she knew that she should feel self-conscious, but she didn't. He asked her something - she didn't hear what - so she just shrugged, and that seemed as good an answer as any.
Naoto opened her eyes to the dark ceiling of her bedroom, a white haze of moonlight on the far wall. Already she'd flung her arm out for - for what? What was there to reach out for?
At some point, she'd closed her eyes.
"You all right?" Kanji asked. She had a feeling he was repeating himself.
"Didn't sleep well," she said.
She could hear people talking on the far side of the roof, the laughter jarring to her ears. Too sharp and quick, she stood, opening her eyes and walking away from the bench. Kanji called her name, but she couldn't even look at him - couldn't talk - better to just get away, even for a minute - because even if she was alone she could never leave herself. There would always be that constant.
She was being unreasonable. Must remember to care tomorrow.
By the time she was on the ground, out of the school building, she could hear that Kanji had caught up. He must have hesitated before following. She tightened her left hand, made a quick gesture. Tried to think of way to tell him to leave her alone without actually speaking or looking at him. She took a deep, inadequate breath and didn't have the energy to spare for Kanji. She just had to get out of sight.
Reaching out was the one thing she remembered. She'd opened her eyes, and the car had felt close and cozy. She hadn't considered why. She faced the right window. The sky beyond was bright blue, and a small piece of the glass had been ripped away, right at the corner. The rest was held together by an endless network of cracks, and it looked like cheap plastic, and, dreamy, she wanted to reach out and see if she could crinkle it. And as she stretched her arm, she saw the ragged gash on her hand and a dark marble of blood rolled down her skin towards her. And the memory ended, like a TV changing channels. She couldn't remember if anything had hurt.
She caught her breath when they reached the top of the hill. It was her favorite place in Inaba, and she thought she remembered Kanji saying it was his too. Or maybe he hadn't, and she knew anyway. She kept walking, strides quick and hard, right to the fence. The hill was almost a cliff. Its slope was steep, muddy after rain, lush with plants and slim trees.
Her bottom sheet rumpled as she arched her fingers over it, then rolled to her side and waited to feel something. Loss, regret, residual fear - each passed through her mind without taking hold. She ran her gaze over her arm, trying to imagine the blood, looking for a scar that hadn't been there for years.
She pulled to a stop at the fence, then dropped down, knees folding up to her chest. Staring ahead, not acknowledging Kanji as he stood next to her, watching, waiting for one of those explanations she was so good at. Then he sat, leaning his elbows on the rough bottom rung of the fence, legs bent down over the slope.
She wanted to think he didn't expect her to talk, because she wouldn't. It would be better if he just left. No way to tell him that, not without speaking. Swallowing, she folded her arms on her knees, dropped her forehead to them. She wasn't crying. She just needed the quiet and darkness, the solace of being alone.
When speaking of her parents, she knew the lack, the gap her parents' deaths had opened between her and her peers. Whenever Yosuke complained of his parents' interference, Naoto wanted to cut him off, remind him of what exactly he still had, what he must lose someday. But she didn't, because taking his parents for granted was a luxury, and who was she to open Yosuke's eyes to that? Souji, who saw so little of his parents, might have an inkling of what she felt. But he still had the assurance that they were alive, that he could call them if he ever needed to hear their voices. Kanji, having lost his father, could come closest to what she felt, but he had vivid memories of the day his father died and ragged pain he would never let heal. What would he think if he knew how little she remembered her parents?
How, in the car, with their bodies inches from her, she hadn't thought of them.
On the hill, in front of someone, she'd slumped to her side, she could vaguely remember it now. It wasn't like fainting or falling asleep, just giving up. Except that she hadn't given up, because this was only for a moment.
She opened her eyes, Inaba and the surrounding mountains blue and hazy from distance. His fingertips were on her face, light and uncertain, following the line of her eye down her cheekbone, like tear trails. She blinked. His fingers paused as her eyes opened, but she didn't look up at him. She closed her eyes, and he stroked her face again, fingers sliding to the edge of her lips. She looked ridiculous, and she couldn't make herself move. There was no point in crying, no point in pulling away from him. She felt his right leg shift against her hip, wondered if he was uncomfortable. She wasn't comfortable, his leg digging into her cheek, her fingers too tight on his knee. It was only for a moment anyway. She'd never do it again.
She waited for the tears to stop.