[This fic contains minor spoilers for X12 (the fate of a particular building). In the wake of the September 11 attacks, it may be rather traumatic. Please read at your own risk. Please see my disclaimer page for copyright information regarding this story.]
A X fanfic
By Natalie Baan
Takahashi Reiko's hands were a blur under the faucet's stream. Water, soap, more water. She shook off the excess and then dried them on a towel as the sink's sensor automatically switched it off. Rapidly she swept her hands around her legs, making sure her long black skirt wasn't caught in her hose, tweaked at her collar and adjusted the bow in her dark hair. Closing her eyes, she blew out a breath, then straightened her spine and met her reflection's gaze with steely determination and good cheer.
"Waitress Takahashi, ready to return to duty!"
"Uh--yes! I'm coming!" She hurried out of the ladies' room, flicking off the light as she went. Well, all right, so maybe waitressing wasn't the most earth-shakingly important occupation, but it was a good source of money for someone trying to help her mother out a little and put herself through school. And to be lucky enough to get a job /here,/ at Le Trianon, on the top restaurant floor of the Sunshine 60 Building, one of the tallest buildings in all of Tokyo--/that/ was more exciting than slinging yakitori in some dive. She wasn't going to screw this up.
"Reiko-chan! Your order's up!" That was Chiaki, the other new girl, whirling out the door to the bar to pick up a run of drinks, though not without a toss of her cinnamony curls and a quick, conspiratorial wink for Reiko.
"Thanks! I've got it!" Hastily Reiko collected her tray from the counter, flashing a smile at the small, dusky-skinned girl who pushed it across to her. "Thank you!" The girl flushed and dropped her eyes, bobbing her white-kerchiefed head up and down as though not sure whether to bow or not, but she almost returned the smile this time. What was her name again? Reiko couldn't remember. She'd have to ask Chiaki--she wanted to have a good relationship with all of her co-workers. It didn't really matter to her if some of them were foreign. Pushing out through the swinging door, Reiko wove her way between crowded tables to table 14, where she distributed dishes and exchanged a little banter with one of the men, who thought he remembered her from the week before. Impossible, since this was only her first week, but the attention was flattering, and maybe she could flirt him into buying an extra round of drinks or some dessert. From the corner of her eye, she noticed that a new party had been seated in her section. It was so /busy!/--but then, she'd been told that this shift always was, since it was right after office closing hours, when all the businessmen in the building were looking for somewhere to go for a little social drinking and eating. Having made sure that table 14 was set for a while, Reiko hastened to table 11, which was right next to the window. Forcing herself to ignore the breathtaking, almost dizzying view, the sparkling panorama of nighttime Tokyo stretching away into the distance, she tucked the tray beneath her arm and clasped her hands before her, putting on her best smile. "Good evening! I'm your server! How may I help you tonight?"
The senior man at the table was just opening his mouth to reply when she felt the rumble, low at first, an almost subliminal vibration beneath her heels and at the back of her teeth. She had just enough time to think /what the--earthquake!/ before the full shock hit. The floor jumped and shook underneath her--she dropped the tray and clung to the back of one of the chairs, her feet spread wide for balance. She ducked her head and closed her eyes, clenching her teeth. It was like the jolt of a faulty elevator, only even more terrifying because it just kept going and going, not falling but never stable, and the motion wouldn't let her stomach settle. She could hear glass ringing and breaking, tables and chairs hitting the floor as people dove for shelter, shouts and screams, and, distant but more awful, a vast metallic groaning. The noise was tremendous, far worse than any other earthquake she'd ever been in.
The tremoring stopped finally, and Reiko caught her breath. Around her there was an instant's hush as the restaurant's patrons and workers looked around in shock, then a rising murmur of disbelief and fear. Somewhere further off, she could still hear screaming, high and shrill. The people who were on the floor, and some of the patrons still seated, began slowly getting to their feet. The evening manager stepped up onto the raised central floor area, cleared his throat, and said, "Everybody, we appear to have just had an earthquake. Please--"
"Fire! /Fire in the kitchen!/"
The entire room leaped into motion. That haze in the air was plaster, Reiko realized--some small bits of the ceiling had actually fallen on her, into her hair, and she hadn't even felt them--but it was also the grey of smoke, and it was thickening, carrying an acrid tang. She looked behind her, caught a glimpse of an orange flicker through the windows in the kitchen doors, and then the men at her table were lunging toward the restaurant's exit with all the other customers, thrusting her before them. She tripped on a table leg, almost fell, but somehow managed to stay on her feet, partly from the crush and partly from sheer terror at the thought of that same crush trampling her. Clinging to a railing, the manager was still speaking, shouting now to be heard over the gasps and cries. "--please remain calm and try to evacuate in an orderly manner! There are emergency stairs on every corner of the building. The closest stairs are to your right as you exit the restaurant. Please, exit to your right!" Reiko glanced back once more, saw a small figure burst through the kitchen doors, allowing a momentary view of the roiling flame and thicker, blacker smoke beyond them. The figure crumpled to the floor, streaming tongues of fire.
Reiko tried to turn, got tangled with the frantic businessmen behind her, and was momentarily lifted from the ground. Twisting, she broke free and then was behind their line, in the trailing fringe of fleeing customers and staff. The manager, Sugiyama-san, was at her elbow. "Reiko-san, get out of here!"
"Hurry!" The manager turned her about again and gave her a hasty little push toward the door. "I'll take care of things here. Help get everyone else down the stairs safely!" He was already starting for the back of the restaurant, moving swiftly into the deepening smoke, dragging a table cloth from a sideboard as he went, and Reiko took a couple of faltering steps toward the door. She could see the skin of the burning person blackening, cracking and curling away, the mouth open in a soundless scream before the cloth covered it, Sugiyama-san trying to smother out the flames--
With a cry, Reiko fled into the hallway outside the restaurant. She couldn't look anymore--but still she couldn't stop seeing it.
The crowd was thinner in the wide, high corridor than it had been in the restaurant, even though all the people from the other restaurants and bars on that floor must have emptied into it. Most of them were probably wedged down at the ends by the stairs. Reiko looked around, then remembered the manager's instructions and turned right. A kimono-clad waitress from one of the more traditional restaurants ran past her, skirts hiked up, geta lost.
Chiaki's voice. Reiko found her huddled in a corner between a sweet shop and one of the elevators. Chiaki was clutching at her arm, red blood streaming between her fingers as well as from a number of visible small gashes. Stark on her skin, those rivulets vanished against her dark uniform. Chiaki's eyes were glazed, and tears streaked the plaster dust on her face. "R-Reiko-chan! I'm so scared! I'm so scared--"
"Hush!" Kneeling, Reiko tore at her apron, began winding the cloth around Chiaki's arm, trying to keep the cleaner side underneath, against the wounds. "It's going to be all right."
"Ow! The glass--"
"This will stop the bleeding." Between turns, Reiko stole quick glances back down the corridor. Only a few businessmen were running past them now, with here and there a lagging waitperson or cook. She could still smell the smoke--or had it gotten stronger, to reach them here? On top of that, she thought of the risk of aftershocks. They had to get down as soon as possible.
"Reiko-san! Chiaki-chan!" It was Ryuichi, one of the assistant bartenders from Le Trianon. His eyes were red and streaming. As he reached them, he started to cough and had to stop and bend forward, hands on knees, to catch his breath. "I'm glad I found you! How is she?" He looked anxiously at Chiaki.
"This is done." Reiko tied off the end of the makeshift bandage and stood up. Straightening, Ryuichi came around to Chiaki's other side and put an arm around her waist, supporting her. "We've got to get to the stairs!"
"This way!" Ryuichi hurried forward with Chiaki, but Reiko paused.
"He said to go ahead--he'd be right behind me." Ryuichi glanced back briefly as he and Chiaki broke into a staggering half-run, their shoes clattering on the tiles in what had become an eerie quiet. "Reiko-san, come on!"
She hesitated, then turned and started after the other two, reluctant, looking over her shoulder constantly, but too frightened to return to the fire. Surely Sugiyama-san would come around that bend in the corridor at any second. Her heart rose as another couple of figures appeared, then sank as she saw that they were unfamiliar men. She looked ahead, realized that Chiaki and Ryuichi had gotten well ahead of her, nearly to the stairs, and began to run.
The building shuddered again, its shaking more sudden than before, and much more violent. She couldn't think, could hardly stand--could only hear the immense, crackling roar, the dim screams of the people crowded together down at the stairs, a horrible noise of snapping and grinding and shrieking. She felt the building rock, then sway even more dramatically and not swing back--oh, it was leaning, leaning! She tottered, couldn't keep her balance with the floor slanting away behind her, and fell, landing hard on the tile. That roaring couldn't possibly get any louder, but it did, and with horrified eyes she saw the ceiling ahead of her bulging downward. It burst, and she caught a glimpse of something huge and machinelike crashing through in a tangle of wires and thick metal girders. The hole in the ceiling widened as more debris fell through it, its crumbling edge getting closer to her, and she was scrambling on hands and knees, trying to escape that approaching rain of destruction as a wave of dust rolled around her, blinding her.
She ran into hands that caught her and dragged her faster than she could crawl. Then she was lying on the floor, choking and sobbing, with the din diminishing to a fading rumble and far off bangs. As the dust began to clear, she stared wide-eyed at the heap of rubble that filled the corridor where she'd been standing, the floor around it cracked and buckled as though just barely able to support its weight. A last piece of ceiling panel came loose and crashed down, just a meter or two from her feet. She scuttled backward, ran into a pair of legs, and then those same hands were under her arms, helping her to rise. "Miss?"
It was one of the two salarymen who'd been behind her. The other moved forward and peered into the thinning dust, one arm raised wardingly before his face. "Shit! Are we going to be able to get through this?"
"Um--there's another set of stairs! It's at the next corner of the building!" Reiko's legs were unsteady, but she made them move--catching at the nearer salaryman's arm, she pulled him with her. "Hurry!" Walking on that angled surface felt precarious enough, never mind running, but she started to run anyway, back to the last cross corridor, surprising herself with her speed over the scarred, wreckage-strewn floor, even with her heart still racing from that near-miss. She could hear the other salaryman's footsteps as he caught up to them. There was no way the building could stand for long, sixty stories leaning at this tilt. She didn't know how much time they had, but she could sense it running out. They /had/ to get down to the ground before--
They reached the stairs, which were empty, though Reiko thought she could hear a confused noise of other footsteps and voices somewhere below them. The stairs were angled like the floor and harder to navigate; Reiko had to cling to the railing to keep her balance. She lost count of the levels as they went down and down, was almost dizzy with going around the tight turns.
"Miss? Are you all right?"
It was one of the salarymen. They were both ahead of her--one had disappeared around the next turning of the stairwell, the other was looking back at her. "I'm fine! Keep going!" Her throat hurt, irritated by the dust and her run. Her eyes stung too. Blinking, she looked down the stairwell, saw a clouding of the air that made her heart seize, then beat more frantically again. "Wait! Is that smoke?"
"Yeah! It's a bit smoky down here." The leading salaryman's voice reverberated in the stairwell; she could barely make it out. "It's not too bad, though. And we've gotta get out somehow! I think we can make it through here if we go fast."
"Wait--I'm coming!" She didn't want to be alone in the smoke, unable to see. The memory of fire made her legs tremble again, that and an exhaustion, both mental and physical, that was getting harder to overcome. She stumbled down the steps, hearing the muddled footsteps getting further away, the nearer salaryman going around the next corner, almost a whole floor ahead of her now, his outline starting to blur in the hazy air. "Wait...." The smoke got thicker, made her cough, and as she caught her breath she leaned on the railing, staring down the center of the stairwell. She could see only a grey smog, perhaps a flicker of motion vanishing into it, and then nothing else. She heard coughing from the salarymen, called down to them, and got no reply. Someone must have left a fire door open below them--the smoke was rising up the stairwell, getting worse.
She couldn't keep going like this. Maybe, she thought, if she went up a floor or two, she could find a rest room and wet some cloth to cover her mouth and nose. Or maybe she could make it down one of the other stairwells. Turning, she pulled herself back up the stairs, hurrying as well as she could, trying to get above the smoke. It diminished after several turns, and she stumbled out onto the next floor she came to. The floor had to belong to some large corporation--it looked as though the entire thing was all one office space, a seemingly endless expanse of desks and chairs in what had been neat rows, with a solid block in the middle for elevator banks and the building's support structure. The long sides of the floor were both lined with windows; the rest rooms had to be somewhere on one of the short ends. She began creeping along the wall, staring down the aisles between the work stations, acutely aware of the floor gently sloping toward the far end of the building, not steeply enough for the desks and cabinets to slide, but the chairs were all gone--rolled away. The floor was covered in an irregular white carpet of paper. And it was so empty, so quiet, no motion at all, no sound but a remote snapping noise, the occasional groan from the building. "He- hello?" she tried, unable to get her voice much above a whisper. She coughed, made another attempt. "Hello--"
The lights went out.
She screamed. She couldn't help it, couldn't stop, the thin shriek rising and rising, tearing at her sore throat, until she clapped both hands over her mouth. Shaking, she cowered back against the wall, a low moan still escaping between her fingers, her eyes darting left and right. A dim orange-tinged light came in through the line of windows, and she made her way to the nearest one as quickly as she dared on the downward-sloping floor, as helpless to do otherwise as a fatalistic insect drawn to a candle's flame. There was a subtle flicker to the light, she saw as she got closer. Fire after all, though she couldn't see where it was. All the building's painful noises seemed even louder with the darkness at her back, and she pressed close to the glass, staring out at the lower buildings that surrounded Sunshine 60 and at the streets far below, where she could make out strobing emergency lights. She ached with something more than tiredness, sore muscles, and fear: an empty, yearning despair. That rescue seemed so close, and yet--it was still such a long way down. And with the smoke and the fire below her--
"Oh, God." She pressed her forehead to the glass, feeling tears starting to burn her already irritated eyes. "I'm not going to make it. There's nobody else here, and I--I--"
Something was rising, moving upward through the air. Reiko blinked quickly, trying to clear her sight. So small, but getting nearer--it looked like a person, strangely enough, a tall young man dressed all in black. He soared like ash or char lifted on a strong, steady wind, one leg bent as though he was still on the rise of some improbable jump. The wind whipped his dark hair, and for an instant she thought she saw a white glimmer behind him, a ghostly pale, translucent flaring, as though of vast wings.
"/Ah! Help--help me!/" Reiko beat the flats of her hands lightly against the glass, afraid of breaking it, yet frantic to get the attention of this--person? "Oh, help, please!" He ascended past her, a little to one side, and it seemed that she saw a gleam of eyes as he glanced toward her--but surely he hadn't actually seen her, or he'd have given some sign. He disappeared somewhere above her, and she strained to see if he'd reappear, trembling with a terrible hope.
A person--a person with wings.
He didn't return. It occurred to her suddenly that there could be people higher up, people who might also need miraculous help, maybe more than she did. She thought of Sugiyama-san--had he ever made it to the stairs? Turning, she hurried back toward the stairs, following the deep red glow of the exit sign. There was faint emergency lighting in the stairwell, which lifted her spirits, and also more smoke. She climbed quickly. Oh, she was so tired, but she forced her legs to keep moving, struggled up the crooked, cracking stairs, watching the floor numbers painted on the walls. At Le Trianon's floor, she paused, reached out hesitantly to touch the door, and snatched her hand back at once. The metal was hot. Curling her fingers against her chest, she stared at the door, temporarily paralyzed. Then she started to climb again. Higher still, a last couple of levels, until she reached the end of the stairs to find an empty landing, another, narrower, set of stairs continuing upward, and a door. She pushed the door open--it was cool outside, an unusually mild summer's night, and a rush of wind greeted her, a blissful fresh air, touched only with a hint of smoke. She gulped it, clinging to the edge of the door, and stared across the Sunshine 60's lower rooftop. It was empty, except for a slim, broad-shouldered figure who stood close to the inward-curving iron fence that guarded the roof's edge. Reiko didn't see wings, but the outline of that form was unmistakable. Gasping, she released the door, letting it slam behind her as she half-ran, half-stumbled toward him.
"Help--please, help me!" Her voice broke over a sob, grief and panic swelling inside her, finally released by the impossible chance that she might be rescued. "Oh, please! I have to--I have to get away from this place! It's going to fall! Any minute it's going to fall, and there isn't any way to get down!" The building shuddered once more, more subtly this time, leaned a degree further, as though illustrating her words. Reiko screamed and fell to her knees, clutching her head. As the shaking subsided, she crawled another few meters forward, choking, "I--oh, please--is there anything you can do--"
Her voice faltered into silence. The young man had turned from gazing out over the city, was looking down at her with calm, almost tender interest, as though he'd known her from long ago and was seeing all of what she'd become since then. It made her think of her father, long dead in a dockside accident, with a pang as sharp as the day it had happened, unexpected after so much time had passed. Or, no--he reminded her of a character from her junior high school imaginings, the person who'd come and sweep her away from near-poverty and the need to be always bright and smiling so that no one'd ever know just how tightly she was clinging to the school life that she loved, holding onto it until the time ran out and she had to give it up and start work, helping out in her mother's business.
"There's nothing really preventing you from leaving the building." The young man's voice was low, as intimate as a lover and as impersonal as the sea, the slow roll of a tide coming in and then sweeping out again, leaving her like a stone on the sand. "If that's your wish."
Reiko caught her breath, staring at him. He smiled at her, and she could feel everything that she was splintering at that look, so gentle and so absolutely merciless. It left a dark emptiness that went down and down inside her, hollowing out her core. In a silence broken only by the faint creak and mutter of the building settling further, remote sirens, and the thin, mourning whistle of wind, she looked past him to the fence that reared up at the roof's edge: an open barrier of close-spaced metal bars, and beyond it, sky. Slowly getting to her feet, she walked past him, right up to the fence, and closed her hands around two of its bars. She could look all the way down to the streets below, nothing between her and the ground but air. With a sudden strength she hadn't realized she possessed, she pulled herself up onto the bars, found a place for one foot, caught at the edge of the curved top and dragged herself on top of it. She froze, crouched there, her heart suddenly thudding in her chest. The wind was stronger, catching at her hair, swirling her skirt around her legs. The smell of smoke came to her more clearly. She straightened, a bit at a time, until she was standing upright, balanced against the wind's push. The building was motionless, as though it, like her, was holding its breath. Looking back, she saw the strange young man watching her, still with that smile, before he turned and with one impossibly fluid, careless leap sprang to the higher roof level and disappeared. She felt a twinge, almost of disappointment--but then, she thought, did it really matter? Did anything? She already knew her life wasn't important enough to save. Facing the drop again, she stared out over the city. Tokyo stretched to the horizon and beyond, beautiful in the night, a million lights and the darkness that surrounded them, all ugliness and sorrow hidden from view. She thought of what waited for her in the dying building: fire crisping skin and flesh, turning breath into anguish; the suffocation of smoke stealing the air; the weight of collapsing floors crushing her, or, worse, trapping her to die a lingering death, alone, never to be found by anyone.
She shivered, then spread her arms, closed her eyes, and let herself tip forward.
For an instant, it seemed as though the void would hold her up, just as it had that enigmatic young man, who she now believed surely was an angel after all, and nothing human. It felt as if she was falling slowly, so very slowly, and like a feather drifting might be borne aloft. Her mind had taken on an astounding clarity, as though she was one with the air itself. Then the wind grew stronger, blowing into her face, and she realized it was because she was rushing downward with increasing speed. There was a flash of panic, of a wrong choice realized far too late. She would have screamed, but it was too late for that as well. Tensing, she wobbled off balance, lost the air's even support--she began to tumble head over heels, and then, spinning and dizzy, her eyes still closed, she lost track of where the ground was completely. That uncanny calm returned. The wind was keening, blocking out all other noises, its cold pressure on her skin and fierce tearing at her clothes and hair the only things she could feel. A clean wind, and flight, and swift death at the end of it. Maybe, she thought, that wouldn't be so bad after all. The wind was pushing harder, a solid force thrusting up under her back, blowing her skirt up around her legs, her hair lashing past her face, her ribbon lost. She'd stopped tumbling, and it felt as though the wind was a flat, revolving surface that she was lying on, as though she was stretched out on a wheel or a merry-go-round, her arms still held out at her sides.
Reiko opened her eyes and saw the sky far above her and the Sunshine 60 building stretching up toward it, now some distance away. Her view of its base was being cut off by a dark, curving shadow that she was sinking past, much more slowly than she'd expected. She gasped, and then the wind shifted under her, tilting her so her feet were pointing downward--there was the ground, just beneath her toes, and she was settling onto it, a shockingly solid reality. A pair of arms came around her as her legs went limp, refusing to hold her up. "Miss?"
She froze, then gasped again, higher and with an edge of hysteria. Snapping her head up, she stared at the Sunshine 60 building, a pale, towering slant that leaned away from where she stood. The black silhouette she'd fallen past was an elevated road, the expressway that bent around the building. Something exploded on top of the skyscraper--she could see a flare of light, a great ball of smoke, could hear, very distantly, the roar. She wrenched her gaze back to the man who was helping support her, saw wide brown eyes behind glasses, pale brown hair that was stirred by a last remnant of wind. "Miss?" he asked again. "Are you all right?"
Reiko shuddered, much as the Sunshine 60 had in the earthquake, then crumpled into the man, buried her face in his chest, and started to cry. He tensed momentarily, probably in surprise, then relaxed, allowing the imposition. She didn't know how long she sobbed, only that it felt so good, was such a relief: to stand on ground that wasn't tilting or crumbling beneath her, to hold onto someone still and solid, and to let all the terror, loss, and despair come rushing out of her until she was left only with weariness. Being tired made her feel almost real again, aware of her own body heavy and tangible around her, filled with aches and strains that she was only just starting to notice, but alive. The man patted her back as she wept, her fists knotted in the lapels of his tan jacket, and murmured wordless sounds of reassurance, an almost lullaby-like croon. At last, Reiko drew a breath without sobbing, straightened up and ventured another glance at the man's face. He was smiling sympathetically--a pleasant-looking person, his expression forthright and friendly. "Are you feeling better now?" he asked.
Nodding, Reiko sniffled and wiped at her cheek with the back of one grimy hand. The man pulled out a handkerchief and offered it to her. The kindness of that simple gesture made her start crying all over again, but it was only small, hiccuping sobs and a new trickle of tears.
"Thank you," she managed finally. "I'm sorry, but--it was so awful! The earthquake--and then the fire and the building starting to fall--and I couldn't get out--"
"There, there," the man soothed. "You're out of it now. You're going to be just fine. Right?" Reiko buried her face in the handkerchief. She didn't know--she couldn't explain how it had happened that she'd survived, and she was afraid that if she looked too closely for reasons the miraculous fact might disappear, and she'd find herself falling again, or worse. So she didn't dare ask the man if he'd seen her coming down from the sky, carried like dandelion fluff on an improbable gust of wind, especially since he didn't seem inclined to say anything about it himself. It was probably best if he /hadn't,/ she thought, considering what the wind must have been doing to her skirt. She heaved a stuttering sigh. From her escape, her thoughts turned inevitably back to what she'd left behind, and sinking dread gripped her again.
"Chiaki-chan! And Sugiyama-san! I don't know if they ever got out! And all the people--all those other people--"
"Yes." The man's face grew more serious, a quiet gravity that touched her, as though he truly felt their loss and wasn't merely comforting her. "It's a terrible thing." His hand was still resting on her shoulder from when he'd been holding her. Its grip tightened, perhaps unconsciously, as he gazed up at the Sunshine 60 building. "I felt the earthquake and tried to get here, but I was too late. Now I can't get in to do anything. All I can do is wait." They were silent then, standing together in the shelter of the expressway, both of them watching the play of lights across the stricken building, the sirens of ambulances and fire trucks making a distant clamor. She wanted to go home, didn't want to see any more destruction, but a numbness was coming over her in the wake of her ordeal, and it was easier just not to move. She felt the man stiffen at last, drawing in a short, sharp breath. "That's it," he murmured, his voice flat and haunted. "It's coming down."
She hadn't seen anything change, but she saw no reason not to believe him. Fatigue wrapped her as though she was enfolded by layers of silk kimono, burdened and insulated from the world around her by their weight. "It's so awful," she murmured again, no words enough to pierce the nightmare, but their repetition was like a ripple on dark water, showing its surface. "Nothing--nothing will ever be the same again. Will it?"
"What's your name?" She started, glanced sidelong at the man, but he was gazing up at the building, his expression gentle, serious, and focused. She lowered her eyes once more, confused.
"Ta- Takahashi. Takahashi Reiko."
"Takahashi-san." She could almost hear the smile in his voice. "I'm--" He tensed again, then said more abruptly, "/Look out!/" As she jerked her gaze up, he flung one arm in front of her, as though wanting to protect her from whatever was to come.
The noise that struck them then was entirely indescribable, like freight trains and a landslide and the raw scream of tons of strained metal being twisted about itself, all so loud that it seemed the world was being torn apart around them. Reiko knew she'd never forget that sound--that it would be a note ringing in the marrow of her bones until she died. There shouldn't have been any horror left in her, after all she'd seen, but as she watched that sixty-story building tilt over even further, too far to save, and start to fall--oh, something so huge, so towering should never fall like that, seemingly so slow, folding toward the ground with an appalling grace--she realized that there was still another level of shock and anguish she could get to, and that this too she'd never forget, so that every time she passed a tall building from that day forward, some part of her would be watching in case it started to lean, would be trying to hold it up with the force of her will. The Sunshine 60 cracked into the neighboring Bunka Kaikan building, splitting it in two, then broke in half itself, and dust and smoke went up like a tsunami striking land, curling toward the sky. As the buildings collapsed to the ground in pieces, she saw part of that cloud rushing along the street toward them, many stories high and approaching faster than a person could run. She wailed, her voice cracking under that final strain, and the man pulled her against him, wrapping both arms about her head. The gale of the blast hit them, lashing at their clothes, but by some fluke those air currents whipped in a circle around where they stood, sparing them from the worst of the grit and fumes. Reiko stared upward as the dust cloud began to dissipate and their surroundings gradually came back into view. She couldn't even tell where, moments before, the once-proud symbol of Ikebukuro had stood.
It was just--gone. As though it had never even existed.
"/Takahashi-san./" She dragged her attention back to the man's face. It was hard to do, but better than staring at that monstrously fascinating emptiness. He held her at arm's length, meeting her gaze, trembling a little, not with fear, she thought, but with earnest compassion and urgency. "/Listen./ I know. Or rather, I /don't/ know--I can't know what it was like for you inside that building. Nobody else can ever really know. But you're here now. You're alive. You made it out of that place. And now you have to leave it behind."
"They can destroy buildings." His firmness surprised her, though his voice remained as quiet as before. There was a strength to it that made her think of a stone building or mountain--no, something stronger than stone, patient enough to wear it away, something that could not itself be broken. "They can tear up the very cornerstones of Tokyo. And they can kill people--yes, many, many people. But what's inside a person they cannot kill. Not unless we let it be destroyed." How ordinary he looked, just another conservatively dressed working man, and yet, the feeling behind those words-- "The decision to live, and to protect the thing that's most important to us--that's the one power that we have. Don't let this tragedy take that power away from you." He smiled at her, his eyes bright behind his glasses. "All right?"
Reiko stared at him, and it was as if the black apathy in her parted completely at last, memories coming through those clouds like the sun: her dream of getting a degree, and her mother, who still needed her, and Chiaki-chan, who if she'd made it out of the building was really going to want a friend's support after this. And there was more, all of the life that had seemed so meaningless and insignificant at the top of the tower coming back to her with the realization that, yes, she was /alive/--
"Good." The man drew back a step, his smile softening, a glimmer of anxiety becoming visible as well, though she thought it was meant to be hidden from her. She recalled her father once more, with a sweet sting of loving memory--that was what he'd really been like, that blend of caring and concern. "Then, if you're going to be all right--I'm sorry, but I think I need to leave." He glanced back at where the skyscraper had stood, and his brow furrowed. "My friends--"
"Yes--go. I'll be fine." She was able to smile for him too, then. He looked into her eyes once more and nodded.
"Don't give up," he said. Then he turned and began running toward the fading dust cloud, moving more quickly than she'd expected. In moments, he'd vanished into its gray swirl. Reiko stood beneath the silent overpass for a long time, watching the spot where he'd disappeared. The cloud thinned further, letting her see another block, and then another.
At last she shook herself and sighed.
She wondered if the trains were running. Probably not, after the earthquake. She didn't have her purse anyway--no train card, and no money for a taxi. She'd have to find a phone and call her mother, who was probably terrified for her anyway. Reiko started walking along the street that ran beneath the expressway, which was choked with abandoned cars. Their owners must have been frightened that the raised highway above might collapse. At the next cross street, she looked toward where the Sunshine 60 had been, but all she could see was dust and smoke. She hesitated, wondering if she should go back to the building and look for her co-workers, or try to help somehow with the rescue efforts--but she really had no practical training. She'd only get in the way. A few people were emerging from other side streets and buildings to stare at the spectacle, and a thin but steady stream of walkers was drifting away from the site, dazed looks on their faces, many of them covered with gray dust or ash. A business-suited man stopped and leaned against a lamp post outside the Toyota Amlux. He clutched his leg, grimacing with pain. Reiko hurried over to him--she didn't see any blood. It was probably a sprain, maybe a minor break. She put an arm around his waist, got his arm over her shoulder, earning her a startled look. "The hospital's only a couple of blocks away," she told him. "Think you can get there with a little help?"
"It's going to be all right," she added, helping the man to his feet. They started together along the street to the Ikebukuro Hospital, hobbling at his slow pace. "We got out of that place, so we're going to make it.
"We're going to survive."
There really is a Le Trianon restaurant on the top two floors of Sunshine 60, although it probably bears very little resemblance to my depiction of it. (I've merged it with a restaurant floor like that found in most Japanese department stores, which I don't think exists in reality.) In case you're interested, you can see the restaurant's web page (complete with nighttime Tokyo view) at http://www.princehotels.co.jp/bin/r_view.pl?0907 .
I also bent a couple of other corners of reality to make it fit this story. I've never been in an earthquake, so my description comes largely from my own imagination. I think any deviation from a typical earthquake can probably be explained by the fact that Fuuma and Nataku are actively attacking the building. My timing is also a little wonky--I'm not sure Reiko would really have had enough time to go up and down all those stairs before Kamui arrived at the building, and I think I added an extra tremor and lean. Still, it's hard to judge these things precisely from the manga, so I decided a little poetic license might be allowable. Finally, RE: the implication that Seiichirou isn't able to enter Subaru's kekkai, I'm working under the theory that 1) a Dragon can break into an already raised kekkai if he or she is of roughly equal or greater power to the caster and 2) any Dragon can include him- or herself in a kekkai while it's being raised, regardless of power level. In both cases, though, the Dragon can't leave unless the kekkai is released by the caster. I think this manages to cover pretty much all instances of kekkai-entering, from Seiichirou entering Karen's kekkai in book 13 to Sorata and Arashi managing to be inside Subaru's kekkai in book 8. (This is actually my attempt to construct a bridge between my old theory of kekkai, which was that nobody but the Kamuis could get in or out of one once it was up, and more recent events in the manga, which kind of blew that to heck. I suspect that in the end we'll learn that any Dragon can enter any kekkai, but they just can't leave.) This also assumes that Subaru is more powerful than Seiichirou, but it seems to be a fairly common fanon assertion that Subaru is second only to Kamui among the Seals.
Thanks go to Kristin O., Jonna, and the members of Charmurai, especially Sandy, Ali, Monica, and Shanti for all their comments and help. This story would be far poorer without them.
This fic is dedicated to all the rescue workers of New York City, both the living and the lost.
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