Chapter 56

“Just Relax”

It was the morning of a day that many felt would never come. The day after the alert, and the latest attack, and of sitting by the edge of the seat ready to abandon the city that had harboured them for years. Details were not abundant, but enough information was metered out by the military to inform the population of the close call they had all just had. It had come close to discovery, and the invaders had been misled by a deftly executed by somewhat desperate mission by the boys in green. There was no information on how the mission had been executed. By now the rumours of a powerful group of sentinels protecting the city were widespread, but there had been no leaks from the ranks of the military.

More telling was the fact that the higher command hadn’t released a list of casualties yet. There were many families hoping to hear from loved ones, and for them there had been only one cryptic statement: “Mission was accomplished better than our best projections. Casualties are expected, but so are survivors. Do not abandon hope.”

There were no people waiting for news from the military in the apartment of the Shimizu family, the hoped for word was a little different. Ran had holed herself in her room, despite her grounding not being so restrictive, and had spent the hours since the break of dawn sitting by her open window and looking at the city.

“Ran,” Miya called, knocking softly on the door. “Are you coming out for breakfast?”

Ran had been sniffing the delicious smell of her mother’s cooking for a while, but far from making her hungry, she felt her stomach turn every time she thought of the food. It was as if her innards had been twisted into knots.

“I’m not hungry,” Ran replied.

The door opened, and Miya peeked in. Ran didn’t even turn, she kept her position, looking out of the window.

“Did you eat anything after breakfast yesterday?” Miya inquired.

“I’m not hungry, mum.”

“Ran, stop sulking and come eat something.”

“I’m not sulking!” Ran replied, somewhat snappishly, and turned to look at Miya.

“If you’re not eating it now, you’ll have it cold for lunch.” It wasn’t so much a threat as a statement of fact. One thing was true for the vast majority of people in Dome City, and that was that they rarely wasted food.

Ran couldn’t help but make a gesture of disgust, and had to hold back a retching reflex. Once it had passed she shook her head. “I’m not hungry,” she repeated.

Miya’s gesture changed to one of worry, and she walked in to stand by her daughter. “Are you okay?” As mothers do, her first worry was to put her hand on Ran’s forehead and check for fever. “Do you feel ill?”

The pink-haired girl took a moment before replying. “Really now, I dunno…”

After a few seconds of maternal examination, Miya bent down and kissed her daughter on the forehead. “You’re just worried, that’s all. Really, it’s all a little scary, I know. But that’s the way things are right now. If we’re discovered we’ll have to run. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope.”

“I know mom, that’s…” Ran’s voice dropped, and she finished by merely shaking her head.

“That’s what?”

“Really now, I was worried! I wanted to find Nagataka-kun!” she said, mentally annoyed both at the fact that she had to say that half-truth, and that she couldn’t say what she was really worried about.

I want to know if they all made it back safe!

Miya mistakenly sniffed a bid for freedom, so she had to harden herself and deny her daughter. “Ran, it’s okay to be worried. But you can just go around willy-nilly chasing after him.”

“Why?” Ran said, in a more spirited tone.

“If it came to it, would you rather he come looking for you, or get himself to safety?”

“No! I mean… But… Mom! That’s not fair!”

Miya wasn’t deterred by her daughter’s protest. “What if you get yourself in trouble? You think your dad and I would not come after you? Or Nagataka-kun? Wouldn’t you put more people in danger?”

“I should just leave my friends? I’d rather die!” Ran retorted, with such energy that she shouted the last word.

Surprised, but not completely taken aback, Miya and Ran looked at each other for a few moments. There was a fierce note of defiance in the girl’s eyes, but it wasn’t directed at her mother. After a few tense seconds, Miya smiled.

“Who are you going to help if you’re dead?”

The response caught Ran unprepared; it was flat and much more grim than she had expected from her mother, specially seeing as she was smiling. She felt a chill up her spine, and found herself unable to say anything. Miya put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders and kissed her forehead.

“All I’m saying is…” she poked Ran’s forehead with her index finger. “Think before you do. You can’t help anyone if you’re not safe yourself.”

“But that’s really selfish!”

“No it’s not.” She repeated the poking gesture, much to her daughter’s annoyance. “You just have to think about it.”

Ran puffed her cheeks in annoyance and looked away, while Miya smiled knowingly and took a step back.

“Really now, just come eat when you’re hungry,” she said, still smiling and leaving the room with an easy step, carrying the satisfaction of a job well done. She knew her daughter only too well.

She heard her mother leave without looking up, and as soon as she had left she stood up. The idea of not helping her friends was unimaginable to her, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother was right. And it annoyed her.

She dropped on her bed with a sigh, putting her right arm over her closed eyes. She was annoyed, but also too tired to think straight. She was just running on emotions.

Less than an hour later there was a knock on the door to the apartment, and Miya opened it to find Ayame waiting on the other side.

“Ah! Good morning Shimizu-sama!” the girl said, bowing politely.

“Good morning. Ayame-chan, wasn’t it?”

“Yes!” she replied, clearly excited that Miya had remembered her.

“I’m sorry, but Ran cannot come out today,” Miya said, before Ayame had a chance to say anything else.

Ayame’s face changed in the blink of an eye, losing her smile and most of her enthusiasm. “What? Why? Is she okay?!”

“My, my! She’s fine, she’s just fine. But she’s a bit grounded at the moment.”

“W-W-… Grounded?” Ayame asked in surprise, and started laughing in relief when Miya nodded. “Ah! Of course! I’m sorry, I’m so silly! Eh-hehehe, sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing… Why is she- No, wait, that’s rude to ask. Sorry! I mean, of course it’s rude! I-”

“Ayame-chan, calm down,” Miya said, in the same tone she usually reserved for interrupting Ran’s tirades. It had a similar effect, and soon she had the girl’s undivided attention. “She went off on her own during the alarm, instead of coming home.”

“Of course! She-” Ayame started to reply enthusiastically, but immediately clamped up, putting both hands on her mouth and with the look of a kid caught raiding the cookie jar.

“We already know.”

Ayame opened her eyes wide in surprise. “You do?!”

“Really now, I’m her mother you know,” Miya said, smiling.

“Ah! Of course! But… Wow, I didn’t think she’d tell you. Is it really okay? I mean…”

“It’s not okay, Ayame-chan. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“W-What? No?” Ayame inquired, getting visibly flustered. “I mean, of course, it’s dangerous, but we can totally do it! I mean, um, well, we’re like a few, and… Did she tell you?”

Miya waited for Ayame to start making sense, but as the prospect started to grow less and less likely, she decided to make it easier for the girl. “I wouldn’t say that going off on her own to find Kokawa-kun was a good idea, much less without even warning us and while in the middle of a city-wide alert. What part of that is a good idea?”

Ayame listened to Miya’s explanation with rapt attention, and by the by an ‘oh crap’ expression drew itself onto her face. When she was finished, the girl fidgeted visibly trying to come up with a way to save the conversation.

I thought she knew we were Nereidas!

“I…. Well… I mean, of course, said like that…” she said, fidgeting, but Miya merely nodded reassuringly. “How long is she grounded for?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Miya said. “Her dad said a week but really, with all this madness we’ll probably let her out sooner or she’ll go crazy.” She sighed, and then gave Ayame a knowing look. “You know how she is.”

“Ah-haha, of course! Well… Could I ask that you tell her we are all okay? We’ll be back when she’s not grounded anymore.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell her.”

“Great, thanks! Have a nice day Shimizu-sama!” Ayame exclaimed, bowing and taking off.

Miya shook her head and closed the door. That girl sure reminded her of her daughter. It was no wonder they were friends. When she turned back to the apartment, she saw that Ran was looking at her from the threshold of her room’s door.

“Oh dear, I thought you were asleep,” Miya said.

Ran didn’t reply, as her sleepy eyes and pillow hair already answered the question. “Who was it?”

“Ah, it was Ayame-chan,” Miya replied, walking to the kitchen side of the room. She opened one of the cabinets and started taking a few tools from it. “I told her you were grounded. She asked me to tell you that they’re all okay. Did you-”

Miya’s question was interrupted when she heard a thud coming from Ran’s direction, and she stepped back to see that her daughter had fallen to her knees with a strange gesture of surprise on her face.

“Ran! Are you okay?” she said, rushing to her daughter’s side.

“I… I’m…”

Miya knelt on the ground in front of Ran, and put one hand on her shoulder, caressing her head with the other. “Why didn’t you tell me you were this worried about your friends? You heard the report that there had been no casualties in the city, didn’t you?”

Ran nodded, but didn’t say anything. Miya embraced her daughter, and held her for a long while until she looked like she had calmed down. When she finally did, she had a huge smile on her face instead.

“I’m not being silly,” Ran said. “It’s just…”

It’s just that I don’t want to tell you.

Miya nodded, and Ran thought her mother had actually guessed what she had been thinking. As if to confirm it, she stood up and gestured with her head for Ran to do the same. “Well, come with me then. Since you’re here, you can help me with the vegetables.”

Ran did as ordered, and picked up the gardening tools her mother handed her. Soon they were on the terrace at the top of the building, examining the vegetables they grew to complement their city-issued food allocation. It was a very common thing, and everywhere one looked edible plants of all kinds could be seen growing on the building tops. It was poor fare, as the light was low under the vine-covered dome, but being higher than ground level seemed to make a difference.

While Miya fussed over a tangled vine covered in small cup-shaped flowers, Ran kicked about bored. They had brought quite a few things, and among those were several long, thin metal poles about five feet long each. She took one, twirled it around, and before she knew it she had started to go over the basic training movements Hoshiko had taught her. Thrust, flip, swipe, she twirled around and finished with a flourish, spinning the pole several times around her wrist and finishing with a thrust.

As soon as she was done, she heard some clapping behind her, and turned to see her mother smiling and clapping at her performance.

“Very nice dear.”

“Ah!” Ran said, dropping the metallic pole as if it had tried to bite her. “Sorry! I mean, really now, I got a bit distracted…”

“Is that from your new club?”

“My new… Ah! Yes! Sure is! That’s like the basic moves and all that, eh-hehe.”

“Well, it’s very impressive.”

Ran smiled and scratched the back of her head. “Thanks mom.”

“Now, be a dear and bring that pole,” Miya said, pointing at the plants behind her. “We have to stake these.”

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