N.B. This story is, ideally, to be read aloud in as hammy a voice as you can muster. Even if you're reading silently, try to go a bit slower than usual and enunciate your consonants. Think Richard Burton in Camelot. I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but in this fic that's how conditions ought to be to get (IMO) the most out of it.
Disclaimer: Blah blah copyright, Gainax, Funimation, blah blah 17 U.S.C. §201 et seq. blah blah not mine blah.
"All he needs to do—"
She makes it sound so easy.
"—is to say what he really feels."
She flatters herself. "That's what I did; then I cried and stuff." Even before she speaks she can taste the lie: dusty and bitterer than baking chocolate, but she does not stumble on her words.
"What? To who?"
"To my mother and father!" By now it comes second nature and takes no more effort than her jump over the bar. There is applause when she lands, and she thinks that they are too easily impressed. You run; at the right moment you jump. It isn't, she sincerely believes, any big deal.
It is too cold, even for the end of autumn, and in shivering she scrapes her foot over something sticky. The mob of press having gone with the secretary, her parents not on terms which – making allowances for their recent history and present situation – could fairly be called uncivil, and sitting on a bench, idly gazing at a schedule of departures and arrivals having little to recommend itself over afternoon television and snacks at home, Ninamori, if pressed, would be forced to admit that there is no articulable reason why she has chosen to spend her one afternoon free of obligations at a train station. She looks down; gum clings to the bottom of her shoe.
And the floors here were usually kept so clean.
The 5:37 train to Nakano lurches out of the station. It staggers along the rails in fits and starts, and squeals and grunts in frustration as it trudges across the bridge on its way out of the city. The cars quickly slide one by one out of corporeality, first into half-transparent ghosts, then only an indefinite red glow of tail lights remains until, halfway to the other bank of the river, the fog engulfs that too. Finally, it occurs to her she has never once seen the train with a passenger. The realization does not surprise her, exactly, but in light of how few riders the line must carry, she cannot see why it stays in operation. The thought sits in her mind far past the time it deserves, but ultimately the mystery cannot hold her attention. She trusts there is an explanation, even if she cannot find a likely one. It may be that the rights to the line are of strategic, if not financial, importance to the railway and would go up for auction were the line to stop offering service. Or something like that.
If she had a flair for the dramatic, she might, as she knows a certain classmate would, think the railway existed for symbolism: remaining in operation, unused, only to prove there was no conceivable reason ever to come to Mabase. She has, in recent weeks, tried to convince herself of the idea far more than once. She concedes that the fog could be ominous, the way it swallows the town. She concedes that hanging out near river banks or burnt-down schools for entertainment grows stale. She concedes that adults here often disappoint. In her head, she has put all the concessions to paper. The sheets are stacked in an obelisk that dwarfs the hand and its iron. Twenty-five imagined tons press down on its base, leaves buckle, tear and re-form. Ink and graphite run together in spirals and streaks. There is a mountain of evidence before her, metamorphosing into the inevitable conclusion under its own ponderous weight.
Nature halts, then reverses itself.
The papers collapse, and she is awash with revulsion. She had believed it, just then: only for a moment and maybe less, but she had believed it. However senseless or alienating Mabase might be, the idea that she – or for that matter Naota, who subscribed so wholly to the view – might, for the mere fact of living there, be counted especially wretched or pitiable could only be self-absorbed fancy. It reflected his need to dramatize the world into his own personal bildungsroman; it was silly, narcissistic, and —
"Really not cool at all," she mutters.
A week ago he walks up out of the underpass entrance onto the station platform. She sits, still as stone, on the steps at the opposite end of the tunnel. He paces, then stands at the end of the platform, his neck craning at an unbalanced and intemperate angle all to look a few inches further down the rails and out of town. Of course, he trips. When he stumbles back she sees that he is all worn clothes and cramped spaces. Then, looking across the tracks and through the fence that separates the train station from the sidewalk, he spots her. It does not effect any great change in his demeanor. He is standing again by the time she reaches him, gaze returned to the end of the tracks.
"Hn?" He does not turn around.
"You look really weird without it."
"I thought you said my hat—" when he understands what has actually been said he scuffs his feet on the cement. "I usually don't have a hat. It's ordinary."
"You looked better without the hat before." After a minute's thought she adds "Never really good, just—"
"Ordinary." She cannot tell whether he has finished her sentence or merely repeated himself, but she does not need to because he continues talking. "Everything here is ordinary. Like going to school or a ball rolling downhill." After a geological epoch she hears him whisper – even when he has forgotten there is anyone but him there it is only whispered – "just something I do."
To her thinking, the application of "ordinary" to the past months – especially the parts with the kill sat and fifty-story giant robot – is something of a puzzle. Ninamori does not raise this objection. In fairness to him, she admits she probably has not understood all the details of his opinion on Mabase; in fairness to her, she doubts he understands all the details of his opinion on Mabase.
Not long after, he vanishes into the fog like the rest of the world. Miya-jun had scheduled a parent-teacher conference with his father, or so she had heard from Masahi and Gaku.
And then she had lied. Nothing to do with the lie itself bothered her; it was not a grand lie, and she doubted it would ever be discovered, nor did it weigh on her conscience. She should not have lied, but only because what she said should have been true. It was a moot point now. Her parents had decided they would be staying together.
Since her outburst at rehearsal, she has given up denying she is a child – at least to herself. Teachers and classmates, with perhaps one exception, take no notice. The shouting, confessions and cat ears are all forgotten. By her permission, the Ninamori with whom she shares a name, class president, wise beyond her years, beloved of fashionable mayoral secretaries, remains the visible one. She still marvels at how easy the lie passes; the secretary believed her indifference so readily and unreservedly that, when the woman smiled, told her how mature she must be not to angst over her parents' separation and asked what her change of clothes was for, Ninamori could not help but suspect she had been made co-conspirator in something years beyond her understanding. She is a poor choice for inductee; there is nothing mature in her at all.
But it is true she see does not see her parents divorce as a source of anxiety; she feels it is a cosmological crisis. She quakes at the mal-ordering of the universe in the quiet, glum, hum-drum way common to all similarly-situated children. It would be normal, expected even, to tell all this to her parents. And she cannot bring herself to do it.
It was easy, when she had thought herself a a young woman, to explain the flashes of childishness. Growing up was a gradual thing and though she was an adult, certain slips – the few moments it took her to change the votes for the school play, say – were part of the normal process: nothing to suggest she was only pretending. Now, having abandoned those illusions, and determined from now on to conduct herself only as she truly was – a child – without effort to deceive herself into thinking she had wisdom or maturity that set her apart from her peers, why should she still feel pangs of embarrassment when she sits among her classmates?
Night lands like a feather. In twos and threes, the cars parked on nearby streets drive home. Of course, the fog remains. It had hummed purples and oranges earlier in evening, but now the colors cool and mute with the sunset until they settle into slate. A bulb clicks on at six o'clock, and slowly-warming light spreads across the schedule board. Ninamori looks up. Three more trains are due to arrive before the station closes; the next one is not for an hour.
She considers staying to see if it has any passengers, then begins the walk home.
Ninamori inches forward on tiptoe, straining to see out of the throng. The fog was even thicker when she woke, pressing against the doors and windows of her house. With windshields opaque in mist it was impossible for her parents – or the new secretary, a man this time – to drive her to school. She had volunteered to walk and, being so grown up, they had let her. Now she bobs along in a tide of suits and scarves that every fifty meters spills another sliver of itself into streets empty of cars.
It occurs to her, as she walks, what will happen to the town if the fog does not lift or thin.
On a street corner at the confluence of two sidewalks, the people – even those pushed onto the shoulder of the road in the approach – sort themselves into a queue before drifting into the crosswalk. The rest of the street is still empty. Ninamori eyes the curb through the line, which twists and folds back on itself in knots. She is, very soon, in a segment bordering the sidewalk's edge. It would be the easiest thing in the world to step off, run ahead, and avoid the line entirely. If she did, would people follow? The street is wider, and there are plainly too many people to fit on the sidewalk, but at least it has the virtue of everyone is walking in the same direction. One sidewalk northbound, one sidewalk southbound, no collisions. They could, in principle, use the lanes to avoid confusion when walking in the street but recent experiences with evacuating the city have not inspired any great level of confidence in large crowds. And how can she be sure someone wouldn't, blinding fog or not, try to drive and run them all over? And if people did not follow, well, that would look stupid.
At the end of the crosswalk the queue shatters into a thousand pieces and the mob flows forward. The sky still holds purple at its edges and margins, but Ninamori is running late now. There is nothing to be done, moving faster only brings her against the glacial backs of the men in front of her. It is cold out and after ten minutes more of plodding, her ears begin to scream. Reaching to cover them with her hair she remembers, as she does everyday, that she has cut it short. She eyes the curb and empty street again.
Two blocks from school, fingers sluggish and stiff and nose freezing beneath her scarf, she catches something light blue on a public bench across the street. She assures herself that it is his coat, before stepping onto the pavement. He is unbathed and forehead bandaged, covered in newspapers under cardboard boxes, sharing a threadbare sleeping bag with her.
It's a good look for him.