The perfect month full of new beginnings.
Minato swallowed the oncoming feeling of anxiety. The Journey had been very difficult, and it was only going to get harder and harder during this final push. Strangely, this looming reality did not perturb Minato in the slightest. What bothered him the most, was that he was not alone in this Journey.
They had come along for the ride – unknowingly and unintentionally. There would come a time, Minato knew, when something would sever him from them, for he alone had sheltered death and he alone had to destroy it.
He only wished that they did not have to witness this transfomation.
This was their January, and Minato's December, which was quickly coming to an end.
"There you are!"
Minato reacted slightly to Yukari's relieved voice by shifting his head slightly in her direction.
He returned his gaze to the illuminated Tatsumi Island as her footsteps gently approached Minato's side.
"Minato. . . it's freezing out here."
Minato disregarded the deep worry inlaid in her voice and nodded slightly.
"I needed some air, I guess." He said, motioning slightly to the surrounding rooftop of the dormitory.
"Oh." Yukari acquiested, letting the subject go. She leaned over the brick wall, her easy going posture slightly contrasting with Minato's slight slouch-backed form
They stood in the silent night, observing the flickering lights and small cars crawling below them for minutes before Minato spoke.
"Yukari. I think I should let you know,"
Yukari turned to him, her eyes glittering below him in the dark.
"What is it?" she asked softly.
"Things. . . are going to start getting ugly from here on out."
Yukari said nothing, and slowly moved her eyes away from Minato.
"I don't care about that, remember?" She reminded him gently, her smile reaching Minato's ears.
Minato found himself struggling for words.
"I think that maybe you should."
He could almost hear the smile slip away from her face.
"I can't really explain it. . . but it's big. Real big."
Yukari turned to him and squinted up at his inpenetrable eyes.
"Are you smiling?"
Mitsuru came to a dead stop as she planted a booted foot into the kitchen. Her dark eyes first widened but then quickly narrowed into a glare.
"Freeze." Mitsuru said venomously.
Akihiko looked up with a blush sprawled out on his face, his eyes wide in initial fear of her presence.
He had been busted.
In between his fingers was a bacon strip, cooked especially, Mitsuru knew, for the canine sitting obediently below those fingers which held the decadent delicacy.
Akihiko suddenly grinned mischieviously as he let the greasy bacon slip out of his fingers and into the eager jaws of Koromaru.
Mitsuru's fists clenched in a wave of silent rage as Koromaru giddily jostled out of the kitchen with his primary goal fulfilled to his satisifaction.
Akihiko waited for the tempest to crash down on him, but somehow couldn't find the shame or the regret to wipe the grin off his face.
"Don't be so upset-" He started, getting up from his seat and walking easily over to the sink.
"We are less than one month away from saving the world, defeating Nyx, and you're feeding him fatty trash!?" Mitsuru stabbed a slim finger in Akihiko's direction.
Mitsuru's lividness rolled off of Akihiko like water on a duck's back.
"Everyone deserves a little treat now and then." Akihiko replied patiently as he finished up washing his hands and approached Mitsuru easily with folded arms.
"Let it go." He cooed, smiling knowingly at her.
Mitsuru grunted a resistant sigh before unclenching her fists.
"Just this once."
Akihiko nodded, his arms still folded.
"I need to make a brief excursion to Iwatodai stip mall." Mitsuru reported.
Akihiko furrowed his brow.
"It's 11:45. 'The hell do you need to go there for?"
"Yamagishi came to me a few moments ago reporting the flickering appearance of a shadow."
"That's really weird, Mitsuru. It's not even the Dark Hour yet. . . are you sure-"
"Yamagishi's persona hasn't misled us so far, there's no reason to doubt her. It could be nothing; it could be a shadow out of sync with Tarturus or waking prematurely due to some stimulation." Mitsuru pointed out.
"Regardless of the situation, I expect to return shortly. I thought I'd let you know." Mitsuru turned around to pick up her coat from the nearby sofa when Akihiko suddenly realized what this little snippet entailed.
"You're going alone?"
"It's a preliminary investigation. There's no need to bring anyone else." Mitsuru said evenly, pulling on her thick coat and pulling out a pair of slender leather gloves from one of the pockets.
Akihiko shook his head.
"You're not going anywhere without someone else, Mitsuru."
"That sounded like a command."
Akihiko swallowed hard enough for Mitsuru to hear, but refused to uncross his arms or ease up on his glare.
Mitsuru cocked a surprised eyebrow at Akihiko as she half-heartedly concealed a smirk. Neither of the senpai noticed the light-footed entrance of Ken Amada who, upon realizing he was walking in a precarious conversation, could not decide whether or not to back away slowly or run into the kitchen and hide. He decided the latter was the best option at this point, and did not hesitate to execute it.
"A very bold statement, Akihiko. Especially since you know how adept I am at taking down an enemy. . . or a friend." Mitsuru's tone lifted slightly at the end of her sentence.
Akihiko knew this was as close to playful banter as Mitsuru was going to get with him, so he wasn't particularly worried about her completely destroying him despite the insulting nature of his worry.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're a big tough girl and I'm a little puny baby with boxing gloves, I've heard it all before. That's not going to stop me from insisting on your bringing an escort with you, though. Like you said, we're less than a month away from facing Nyx. We can't take any chances." Akihiko said frankly, raising an eyebrow to match Mitsuru's.
Mitsuru twisted her lips in consideration.
"I see. I hope you're not suggesting I bring you along with me."
Akihiko sighed heavily, ignoring her lighthearted jab.
"Of course, I'll go with you."
Mitsuru laughed exasperatedly at Akihiko's uncanny ability to twist her words into something completely opposite of her initial meaning.
"Amada." Mitsuru called out, keeping her eyes steadily on Akihiko.
The clattering of a dish in the kitchen confirmed the presence of the aforementioned pre-teen.
"Come here, please." Mitsuru said carefully, folding her now gloved hands across her chest daringly to Akihiko.
Akihiko's glare let up as Ken timidly entered the room.
"How would you like to go for a midnight motorcycle ride?" Mitsuru asked earnestly.
Ken's face lit up.
"I'll go get my coat!"
Akihiko gave a disheveled sigh.
"Dammit, Mitsuru." Akihiko whined incredulously.
Mitsuru smiled warmly as she went to the door.
"Don't complain, Akihiko. I'm doing you a favor by bringing him with me, even though I have the capability to easily refute your 'command'"
Akihiko resigned himself to the couch and picked up one of his schoolbooks that was lying nearby.
"Tch, thanks. . . I guess." He muttered bitterly, making a big presentation of opening it and angrily flipping through the pages.
Ken quickly returned, readily dressed in his heavy coat and long pants.
"I'm ready, senpai!"
"Ah, let me pull the bike around front. Wait for me on the steps."
Mitsuru threw one last crooked smile at the back of Akihiko's head before she exited the dorm, leaving Ken alone with Akihiko for a few minutes.
"Ken, come here for a second." Akihiko said, his face deceptively buried in his book.
"Something wrong, Sanada-san?" Ken asked unsurely as he put himself next to the sofa on which Akihiko was sitting.
"I know I don't need to tell you this, but I'm going to anyway. Listen to Mitsuru."
"Have I done something wrong?"
Akihiko shook his head.
"No, of course not, Ken. I know you like to be independent and I'm glad you can take care of yourself, but things can change really fast. You need to be able to switch gears and be willing to see the big picture if things go sour."
"Do you really think that might happen?"
"It's all about understanding the possibilities of any given situation. Listen to Mitsuru if things get. . . confusing. She keeps her head on better than anyone here. . . 'cept maybe the dog." Akihiko added dourly, throwing a glance in the direction of the wagging dog on the floor.
Ken smiled at this.
"Of course, I understand. Who could not listen to her?"
Akihiko gave a mirthless chuckle.
"You hit the nail on the head with that one, Ken."
The prompt roar of Mitsuru's bike caused Ken to jump up in anticipation, and after bidding a hasty farewell to his idol, Ken was halfway out the door.
"Ken." Akihiko was looking back at him seriously.
"I'll remember, Sanada-san-"
"I'm counting on you."
Ken froze momentarily under the newfound heaviness of this responsibility, but he quickly recovered and nodded before leaving to join Mitsuru.
The cold was unforgiving when merely standing alone, but as Ken soon found out it was much more ruthless when on a motorcycle. He wished he had brought warmer clothes, but decided he should be glad he was wearing what he was wearing. Mitsuru was silent, and apparently completely immune to even the lowest of temperatures. Ken kept his eyes lowered to the ground to avoid getting hit by any of the excess cold that Mitsuru was blocking out, and as the frost on the ground flew by Ken's eyes, he realized that it was most likely the Dark Hour now.
He looked up to find his suspicions confirmed.
Frost bitten coffins were arranged in miscellaneous positions along the street leading to the Iwatodai strip mall. Ken was reminded of a kind of cold soul-less hell as he looked up at the smiling moon.
"We're here." Mitsuru chimed into Ken's thoughts softly, looking around at Iwatodai suspiciously as she let the engine stall.
It doesn't look like there's a shadow here. . . Ken thought cautiously, looking around him meticulously, but still latching onto Mitsuru.
"Stay sharp, Amada." Mitsuru intoned darkly, as if reading Ken's thoughts.
Despite their still surroundings, Mitsuru could almost smell the scant odor of a lumbering shadow lurking in the darkness of the night. Her only hope was that he had not yet fed on the lifeless souls trapped in their coffins. Mitsuru flipped the kickstand down and slowly removed her helmet as she left the engine running.
"Just in case. . ." Mitsuru said, looking behind her to give Ken a reassuring smile.
Ken nodded and followed her lead in taking off his helmet and stepping off the bike.
As Ken went to suggest they start looking around, the stillness around them was shattered by a blood-thirsty scream that made Ken's blood run cold.
Mitsuru pulled her rapier out of the loop on her holster and warily brought it to her side, waiting for the shadow to make its appearance.
Ken awkwardly remembered that he should be doing the same, but instead of bringing out his cumbersome spear (which he had kept in separate parts on the back of Mitsuru's bike) he pulled out his evoker and waited for the shadow to reveal itself.
The silence engulfed them once again, leaving Ken to idly wonder if it was some ridiculous fluke meshed with an oddly timed coincedence that had led them here, only to have their target disappear.
Ken soon wished this to be true, as a colossal figure soon ascended above the nearby skyline that Ken and Mitsuru stood under.
Mitsuru's breathing, which was previously steady and low now choked slightly as her grip on the hilt of her rapier constricted. Ken thought he heard his senpai curse softly, but was too transfixed with the sheer ridiculous size of the shadow before them.
Even though its size alone could have been enough to squash any resisting entity, the shadow had adorned upon itself a thick layer of iron armor, elaborated only with a heavy mantle. The shadow was easily two stories tall and at least a bus and a half wide. A deep red color emanated from the shadow's hollow interior. Ken's hand was shaking wildly with gripping the evoker so tightly. He could easily have brought it to his forehead and brought Kala-Nemi to his side in order to eradicate the shadow, but. . .
Ken looked over to Mitsuru, and saw her silently calculating their current predicatment.
The shadow's movement's seized momentarily before slamming down onto the pavement. The velocity of its descent from the top of a rather high building caused the ground below to rupture and split into pieces. The ground quaked under Ken and Mitsuru's feet and the shadow began to snarl at them, having evaluated the two for only mere moments before deciding they were to be his meal.
That was all the motivation Mitsuru needed to make her decision.
"Back on the bike, Amada!"
Ken flashed over to his seat behind Mitsuru, and pulled himself tight against her back as she spun the bike around and took off in the opposite direction of the shadow. The shadow responded with a furious shriek and hurtled heavily after them.
Ken cringed inadvertantly at the destructive pounding noises behind him. He had an idea of what Mitsuru's strategy was, but he had to hear it for himself.
"Mitsuru-senpai!" He shouted, as calmly as he could, above the roar of the engine and the angry thundering of the gargantuan shadow behind them.
"Where are we going?!"
"Moonlight Bridge!" She responded just as loudly, her voice composed and collected. "Our intent is to avoid causing panic throughout the city, and the best way to do that is to lead the shadow out of the narrow streets and into a more open arena!"
Mitsuru hazarded a look into her mirror only to see the shadow charging forward and screeching like a gorilla on all fours. She gritted her teeth.
"Amada, hold fast."
If it was at all possible, Ken obeyed while Mitsuru lifted the clutch into the fastest gear available to her. Their speed picked up only slightly as Mitsuru reached for her communicator and paged the S.E.E.S. dormitory.
"Sheesh, where are they?" Yukari sighed heavily, falling back against the plush back of the 4th floor sofas. Next to her, Junpei shrugged as he fumbled with his PSP awkwardly, obviously in the throes of losing terribly to some boss.
"Beats me. . . maybe Mitsuru-senpai took Ken out for some ice cream."
Everyone laughed at this statement, knowing how inane it was for the two in question.
Fuuka finished her giggling and checked the console to see if she had missed any messages.
"Hmm . . . nothing yet." She said with a defeated sigh, pressing a few idle buttons to channel her subtle worry.
"I'm sure they're fine." Junpei grumbled, tossing his PSP aside and stretching his hands behind his head confidently.
"Hell, just watching Mitsuru-senpai and Ken walk up to them should make a shadow shit themselves."
"Ugh, you're so gross!" Yukari complained, hitting Junpei roughly with a pillow.
Akihiko chuckled at the scene unfolding before him and smiled as he leaned forward with his hands on his knees.
"I wouldn't worry too much-"
A loud series of beeps infiltrated the sanctity of the room, and Fuuka immediately turned around in her seat and pushed the button to receive the call. The room fell deathly quiet.
"This is Fuuka." Fuuka said urgently, looking down at the console gravely.
"Yamagishi, this is Mitsuru. We're being pursued by an extremely large and destructive shadow-"
S.E.E.S. shot to attention, and those sitting were immediately up and all gathered around Fuuka and the control panel.
Mitsuru was speaking loudly over the fuming noise of her motorcycle and the distinct crushing noises in the background.
Akihiko leaned over the console and cut in.
"Mitsuru, where are you?"
"We're crossing the rail bridge to Paulownia Mall, our destination is the Moonlight Bridge, ETA five minutes." Mitsuru's voice was slowly losing its composure, and Akihiko balled his fists to his side as he looked over to Minato. Minato gave an abrupt nod.
"Understood. We're on our way." Fuuka said calmly. "Yamagishi out."
Fuuka pushed a button and ended the signal.
"Time for battle." Minato commanded in a controlled voice the moment the transmission ended. "Collect your weapons and necessary items. We'll rendevous in the lounge and leave shortly thereafter in five minutes."
Mitsuru ended the call as they rushed past Paulownia Mall. Ken had no doubt heard the conversation, so she focused on avoiding the thrashing of their predator instead of explaining the situation to him. Mitsuru was so engaged in the flight from the shadow, she did not register the swiftly enlarging figure of a similar shadow on the horizon of the Moonlight Bridge.
Ken, however, noticed it immediately.
"Senpai! Look, there on the bridge!"
Mitsuru's eyes narrowed in as they sped toward the bridge.
"Another one." Mitsuru snarled.
"It looks just like the one behind us!"
"It's probably it's counterpart." Mitsuru gave a pained grimace, felt by Amada.
"Amada, I have an idea but it's very dangerous. On that note, there is something I forgot to tell you about riding a motorcycle."
Ken held his breath, unsure of what Mitsuru could possibly be talking about.
". . . and that is how to properly survive a crash."
They did not have much time before they reached the bridge, and the shadow behind them was quickly closing the gap.
"I'll roll the bike to the left, and at my signal, you'll bail out on the right. Tuck your head under and roll, do you understand?"
Ken grappled with this new set of instructions, wondering if Mitsuru really meant to crash her valued motorcycle. He remembered hearing about the first time it had nearly been destroyed the night Fuuka awakened to Lucia, and how hard it had been for her to get it back to normal. Ken realized then that his senpai was not immune to desperation.
She seemed to be immune to fear, though.
"W-What will you do?"
They were on the bridge.
"Do not concern yourself with such things now. Just follow my instructions, and we'll work from there."
The shadow behind them was now mere feet away from smashing Mitsuru, Ken, and the motorcycle to bits. Ken quivered as he eased up slightly on Mitsuru's waist, feeling an ominous and haunting feeling settle into his stomach.
Ken forced himself to let go, even though his brain screamed in opposition. He twisted sharply to his right and pulled his knees tightly into his stomach. Ken tumbled off of the motorcycle and seconds after heard the sick grind of the engine choking and dying.
He wondered briefly if the sound of Mitsuru's body cracking and breaking was drowned out by the noise.
Ken flew through the air for what seemed like a terrifying eternity. He was certain he was destined to spend his time spinning through this awkward limbo of fear, but Ken's assumptions were dashed when he hit the ground still rolling.
Ken thought he would open his eyes to nothing when he finally hit something hard and stopped tumbling.
Mitsuru did not allow herself a look over at Ken Amada's body for she could not afford to be distracted if he was hurt or unconcious. Whatever happened to him, it was going to be a lot worse if she didn't stay her ground.
Before her, twin shadows had collided. Mitsuru's plans had been carried out to her satisfaction, and the heavy collision, which rocked the very foundations of the bridge's support, had given Mitsuru the precious moments she needed to stall the shadows.
They fumbled around a bit, awkwardly pushing each other and causing minor tremors on the bridge as they clumsily found the way back up to their feet. Mitsuru stared at them, unwilling to make a move until the very last possible moment.
The slow movements, although agonizingly slow, did not last as long as Mitsuru had gauged them to. Both shadows, identical except for their difference in their colors, towered above her.
Her presence had been detected.
In the distance, Ken opened his eyes to see Mitsuru standing tall in the sliver of darkness between the red and black shadows. They bore no weapon, but their bulky fists were held menacingly over Mitsuru. Ken suddenly choked on the pressing feeling of helplessness as he saw how small she was compared to the enemy. Despite the growing pain, Ken clamoured up to his feet and steadied himself against the frozen concrete edge of the bridge.
"Senpai-" He cried out, wincing slightly at the pain yelling caused him.
"Your leg. . ." Ken murmured dryly.
The out-turned side of Mitsuru's leg was rubbed red with road rash that ran from her calf to her mid-thigh.
Ken became highly aware of the situation.
She had used the crash as a way to trap the shadows into a head-on crash, but had told Ken to bail out to his right, while she had pulled herself and her motorcycle a dive to the left in order effectively deter Ken from receiving the brunt of the injuries. She should be dead right now.
Ken saw the mist rise from above Mitsuru-senpai's head, her breath swirling above her.
The singing of a blade being pulled out of Mitsuru's belt reached Ken's ears.
His eyes grew wide.
"Wha- no way, Senpai- I can fight!!" Ken yelled, drawing frozen air into his lungs and snatching his evoker out of his belt.
Mitsuru was silent as she held her rapier out pointedly to the shadows that were costively coming in to crush her.
"Do not misunderstand me." She said coldly.
Ken's hand stilled in the action of pushing the evoker to his head.
"I did not ask you to fall back, but merely to stay back. From here on out, you will provide support while I launch the offensive strike."
He couldn't believe this, she was actually serious! She was going to take on two monstrously huge shadows by herself. . . Was this what Sanada-san had meant? Listen to Mitsuru-senpai no matter what? Even if it meant-
Sanada-san was counting on him.
Swallowing hard, Ken quietly held the evoker at his side and waited for the battle to begin and for Mitsuru to get hurt.
The first strike was imminent.
Mitsuru's fingers brushed lightly against the evoker in her holster, but she did not reach for it. Her eyes were steady on the red shadow, a certain feeling creeping along her spine.
Ken's lips, blistered by the cold, parted slightly.
There, at her side, Artemisia had appeared without the clarifying aid of an evoker.
Mitsuru basked in her presence.
It was a deep, throaty voice that whispered her mistress' name with utmost fondness.
"Never forget. . . I will make you cold steel."
He saw Mitsuru's hand become enveloped in ice which flowed from her wrist to the hilt of her sword. The ice continued and ran past the gaurd straight to the tip of the blade.
"Approximately 7 minutes at our current speed." Aigis reported, running briskly at Minato's side. Running closely behind them were Fuuka, Yukari, Junpei, Akihiko, and Koromaru, all pushing forward with the utmost haste.
"It's no good." Akihiko muttered under his breath.
"C'mon senpai, this is Mitsuru-senpai we're talking about! Just like Junpei said, I'm sure she's making that shadow into fish paste right now." Yukari offered, slightly winded.
Beside Akihiko, Fuuka clenched her eyes shut. "How could I missed something as big as what she was describing!? Everyone- I'm so sorry-"
"Don't talk like that, Fuuka. In fact, let's all just shut up until we get there," Junpei grunted, his long legs stretching slightly before Minato's leading force.
"We should save our strength." He finished in a huff.
Ken held back a cry as Mitsuru was sent soaring back before landing on her stomach. He threw his evoker to his temple and screamed the name of his persona.
Obeying his young master's call, Kala-Nemi spun above him and raised his mighty hands in Mitsuru-senpai's direction. She was granted a reprieve, but Ken knew he barely had one more round of healing before his spirit power was depleted. He desperately began to wrack his brain for a plan that would help his senpai hold out a little longer.
Ken could produce nothing.
"Amada. . ." Mitsuru's haggard voice connected to Ken.
"Senpai . . ." He stifled a plea for her to trade places with him. The heat of battle wasn't even starting yet, and Mitsuru had all ready suffered devastating injuries. Ken had tried his best to heal them all, but with the surprisingly quick movements of the two oversized shadows, he could only do the bare minimum to keep her standing.
She blocked the crushing fist of the black shadow with her hand pressed flat against her thin rapier.
"How much more spirit power do you have?" Mitsuru grunted out, the sheer brute force of her enemy proving extremely difficult to handle.
"S-senpai, I'm sorry, forgive me, one more Diahran is all I can give you."
Mitsuru nodded to herself.
"So be it." She murmured agreeably, having all ready settled the problem in her mouth.
Her rapier cracked, and she gritted her teeth.
The blade shattered and the thousand pieces glittered in the frozen moonlight. Mitsuru fell out from under the grinding fist and slid to her knees. To Mitsuru's chagrin, the shadow immediately recognized Mitsuru's narrow escape and quickly tried to squash her with its hand.
Mitsuru blindly and hastily stumbled to the direction of Ken's voice as she ignored the annoying throbs of the cuts on her face and the persistant tearing feeling held in her stomach. She could feel the warm blood everywhere on her cold body, and accepted that there was no escape from it.
"Amada," Mitsuru said tenderly stepping up to Ken's hazy figure.
"S-senpai. . . what are you-"
"Do not think badly of me." Mitsuru said, sounding deeply wounded and closing her eyes softly.
The shadow screamed.
Ken's heart jumped into his throat as Mitsuru-senpai grabbed his coat and pulled him to her desperately. It would be an understatement to say she had entrapped him into an embrace, it was more remniscent of a death-hold. Ken tried to pry himself apart from her, but she was too strong for him. While he was not feeling smothered, Ken was feeling extremely confused and panicked.
Then he felt it.
The blistering heat of the shadow's Agidyne whipped Mitsuru's back.
Ken screamed as she fell over on top of him, effectively pinning him to the frozen ground below and protecting him from the rage of the shadows above.
"NOO!! SENPAI, GET OFF!!" Ken screeched, trying to claw at her fallen form, but finding his arms crushed beneath Mitsuru's hips.
Another Agidyne whipped at Mitsuru's back, causing her to go rigid momentarily and then falling limp again.
Ken's head was cradled underneath her bleeding shoulder, and Mitsuru's red hair cascaded before Ken's eyes, veiling the world in strings and slivers of images. The only scene available to him was the distant view of the darkened bridge.
"SENPAI!!" Ken sobbed.
Another Agidyne lapped at Mitsuru-senpai's body. Ken could feel the shadow's anger through their violence toward Mitsuru. They obviously were tired of her and wanted to get to the prey hiding below her unconcious form.
Ken felt himself going into shock.
She was going to die just like his mother and Shinjiro-senpai died. Mitsuru-senpai was going give her life so that Ken could live.
This infuriated Ken. Since when was his life so much more important than theirs? Since when was he worth protecting? He didn't understand all of this useless waste.
"I HATE YOU!" He screamed at her unconcious form in a rare lapse in to childlike behavior. He couldn't hold it in anymore. Ken began to give in to despair and allowed his body to be conquered with sobs.
Another Agidyne ripped at Mitsuru's body.
Another scream tore out of Ken's throat.
The shadows, impatient with their inability to reach Ken, finally turned to the force instead of the element. Ken heard a clear scrapping noise run across the ground.
Ken looked up and though he was blanketed by Mitsuru's hair, he sensed a fist being lifted.
He quickly shut his eyes and held his breath, waiting for the finishing blow to come-
Ken's eyes shot open in shock, as he twisted his head and peered through the strands of Mitsuru's hair to see Junpei hurtling forward and madly swinging his two-handed katana at the gigantic shadows.
Immediately, the shadows issued forth infuriated screams and both left Ken and Mitsuru in favor for Junpei.
"You guys are dumb as shit!" He yelled as he swung his sword into a crack in the shadows leg armor
Behind the targeted shadow, Minato leapt out of the darkness and drove his own-two handed katana into the back of the knee of the black shadow. The shadow let off a ravaged scream as it aimed its fist at Junpei and Minato, who, now both standing side by side, aptly slid out of the path of the fist
The red shadow pivoted and went to bring its foot down on top of Junpei, who coolly stood in its way with a cheesy grin without attempting to move out of the way.
Before the destructive foot made contact with Junpei, it was blown slightly off course by a nearby petite burnette, who had an evoker pointed point-blank at her own forehead.
"Don't forget ugly!" Yukari scoffed prettily.
The red shadow turned its attention toward Yukari and she immediately led it over to an awaiting Koromaru, who howled thirstily to the moon and summoned a striking Agidyne.
With Junpei and Minato keeping the black shadow occupied, and Koromaru and Yukari distracting the red shadow, Akihiko and Fuuka stealthily slipped out of the shadows of the bridge and rushed over to Mitsuru and Ken's prone figures.
Akihiko readied himself for the worst as he kneeled beside Mitsuru and gently pulled her off of Ken and into his lap. He was surprised at how tenaciously she was gripping Ken, but still managed to pry them apart.
"Oh God." Akihiko murmured, heart-broken in taking in her condiction.
Fuuka pulled Ken up into a sitting position and let her hands linger on his shoulders. "Ken-kun," she whimpered, seeing the angry tears that had stained his cheeks.
"Are you all right?" She asked, wiping a few stray hair hairs out of his eyes and stroking his cheek in a show of maternal affection.
Ken shook his head while looking over at Mitsuru in consternation.
"Look at you." Akihiko murmured, his voice hitching slightly as he took in the sight of Mitsuru's extremely bloodied state. He softly and urgently felt her neck for a pulse and followed with a deep sigh and a delicate nod in Fuuka's direction.
"It's bad, but she's just unconcious."
Fuuka breathed heavily and nodded before turning to Ken, who didn't look any less serious. Akihiko acknowledged his severe expression with a reciprocal sober look.
"S-S-Sanada-san. . ." Ken said fragilly, valiantly working to push back his tears and failing to notice that they were still pouring down his face.
"I-I co-couldn't protect h.. .her. . . I-"
"Ken," Akihiko started softly. "You did what Mitsuru asked of you. . . what I asked you." Akihiko said with stunning precision, not letting any tenderness ebb the seriousness in his voice.
Fuuka nodded in agreement as she gave Ken a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder.
Ken shook his head violently as he bit his lip to force a sob down.
"It's not fair! I keep getting saved-"
"Ken." Akihiko said harshly.
Ken's eyes lingered momentarily on Mitsuru's prone figure before guiltily sinking to the floor.
"The fact that your mother, Shinji, and now nearly Mitsuru, are willing to give up their lives for you means that a lot of people think that you are worth saving. Maybe you should stop fighting that."
Fuuka suddenly stood up and let go of Ken's shoulder.
"She's here!" Fuuka exclaimed to her sparring friends as she grasped her evoker in her hand. Instantly, the fighting members of S.E.E.S. retreated just as Fuuka summoned and was encased in the presence of Juno.
Ken looked at the scene, perplexed.
"Wha. . . What-"
A lead heavy hand suddenly grasped Ken's shoulder. He looked down at the silver tipped fingers and followed them all the way up to Aigis' soft eyes.
"Aigis-" Ken's eyes moistened instantly, realizing what her presence meant.
"You have done well. I will take care of Mitsuru-san now."
Aigis' eyes moved away from Ken's as she stepped around him and approached Mitsuru's body.
The seven of them were wedged tightly between the corner of the bridge wall and Juno. While Fuuka and Juno fended off the heavy blows of the two shadows, the remaining S.E.E.S. members focused on their plan of action.
Mitsuru sat poised in her perfect posture despite the stinging lacerations on her back, most of which were currently being healed by Yukari and her strong medicine.
"Geez, senpai! Way to take a thrashing. . ." Yukari muttered, tracing her long fingers along the singe marks on Mitsuru's back.
"Pardon?" Mitsuru queried in a confused tone.
"I was being sarcastic."
"Oh. I see."
Yukari couldn't help but laugh at her friend.
"Aigis-" Minato started, being temporarily shaken by aftershock of the shadow's attack on Juno.
"My observation of the battle was short, but long enough to confirm Fuuka-san's suspicions. We are dealing with two highly specialized shadows."
Mitsuru nodded as Aigis handed her a fresh rapier from the back of Mitsuru's nearly destroyed motorcycle.
"Yes, the red shadow is vulnerable to elemental attacks, while I could only hold the black shadow back with my physical attacks."
"I assume that Fuuka-san's persona was unable to detect them due to their opposing natures. They may have counteracted each other's ability well enough to hide them from sight." Aigis finished, looking over at Juno.
Minato looked at the ground steadily as he softly ran his finger down the line of his jaw.
"Good." He finally stated.
"This means our attack will be simple and to-the-point." Minato said, bringing himself up into a standing position.
"Four people will not be able to handle these two shadows; quite frankly, I'm surprised Mitsuru-senpai lasted as long as she did. We'll break up into two teams; Team Alpha will spearhead the attack on the red shadow, while Team Beta will take on the black shadow."
"All right! We've got names! Sweeet!" Junpei cheered happily
"So that means. . ." Ken fumbled as he scratched his head.
"That means we'll have two leaders. I will lead Team Alpha, and Aigis will lead Team Beta."
All eyes went to Aigis, and for a heart-skipping moment she thought that she was going to be the subject of a boisterous falling out. Always the comic relief, Junpei clapped his hands as if to say 'hallelujah'
"Thank friggin GOD I don't have to follow your sorry ass anymore!"
Minato smiled widely.
"Good choice, Minato-kun." Yukari agreed, nodding energetically at Aigis who returned with a grateful smile.
"Mitsuru-senpai, Ken, and Yukari will join me in Team Alpha, while Junpei, Akihiko-senpai, and Koromaru will follow Aigis. Everyone still with me?"
The team nodded, and Fuuka's Juno remained solid under the enormous weight of the shadow's attack.
Minato was temporarily drowned out by their frustrated screeches.
"The teams will decide on a strategy and divide up responsibilities after we split. Aigis," Minato's dark blue eyes met Aigis' bright azure orbs in the darkness.
"I am giving you full jurisdiction over your team; that means Fuuka will take your commands as she takes mine. Use Orgia Mode at your own discretion."
"Understood." Aigis responded, the eagerness to prove herself to Minato rising in her voice.
"Fuuka." Minato turned to Juno's back and Fuuka turned her head slightly toward him.
"This, inevitably, means that you will be providing dual support. Can you do it?"
Fuuka paused, and opened her mouth to let her meek voice escape when Shinjiro-senpai's scowling face popped into her head.
"Absolutely." She responded imperially.
"Good." Minato nodded and turned back to his teammates.
"Take care of each other. Don't get cocky. I expect all of you back here soon. Let's go."
They needed no futher provocation. Aigis led Junpei, Akihiko, and Koromaru out from under Juno's left wing while Minato escaped from the right wing with Mitsuru, Ken, and Yukari close at his heels.
Aigis and her team managed to swing the black shadow's attention away from Fuuka and the shadow's red counterpart as soon as they made it out of Juno's grasp. Aigis intended to keep it that way, and led her friends to the most southward portion of the bridge.
Aigis stopped as the shadow dumbly gaped at the small group, obviously confused at the new faces, but readying for his first attack.
"I assume I need not caution you to abstain from using elemental attacks, as the enemy will most likely absorb it."
"Yeah, don't worry about it. What's the plan?" Akihiko said, cutting to the chase by slipping on his newly acquired bladed fists.
"The most effective way to bring down a heavily armored enemy is to find the point of weakness in their armor. Typically, it is found in the neck and the knees-"
"So you want us to go for those parts, eh General Ai-chan?"
Akihiko gave Junpei a succinct elbow to the head as Aigis glared determinedly ahead at the laboring shadow that was swooping in for the kill.
Koromaru complemented her statement with an inquisitive yap.
"Koromaru, I am reluctant to ask this of you two, but I need to you and Akihiko-san act as decoys while Junpei-san and I launch the first assault."
"Tch, sounds like a grand old time to me. What do you need us to do?"
"Koromaru will use his speed to distract the shadow while you, Akihiko-senpai, cover him from any attacks and attack in kind if need be."
"You got it, let's go, boy!" Akihiko gave a sharp whistle and the dog immediately pounced out in front of the shadow and started the most annoying series of yaps that he could muster. Akihiko gave a low growl as the electric shock of his evoker brought forth Caeser and a Sonic Punch.
Aigis took this opportunity to nudge Junpei into following her sneak around behind Caeser and into the shadows alongside the shadow. The noise of Koromaru's barking and Akihiko's summoning faded slightly from earshot as Aigis pulled him in close to practically yell at him.
"I will ascend the shadow's back in order to puncture its neck armor-"
"WHAT!? THAT'S LIKE FIVE STORIES UP!! ARE YOU FUCKING INS-"
Junpei's spit splattered unevenly on Aigis' open eyes. As she flicked away the droplets off of her glass lenses with one hand, she used the other to cover Junpei's huge mouth.
"While I am impairing the shadow from above, you will work on its armor around the knees." Aigis declared with a slightly aggravated stare.
She did not ask if Junpei understood, but rather gripped him tightly on his shoulder with her free hand.
"Junpei-san, I cannot do this without you. I need you behind me at every step."
After a dejected sigh and a defeated swallow, Junpei nodded. He thought about bidding her goodbye with something cool like 'come back in one piece, Ai-chan' or even better 'you're so freakin hardcore, kick some ass for me too,' but he thought the best thing he could leave her with was his trademark grin.
Aigis gave him a curt nod and, as lightly as she could, shot up into the air and hooked her fingers around the edges of her enemies thick and black armor. Junpei watched in increasing apprehension as his friend nimbly clamor up the back of the unsuspecting shadow. He gave one last gulp before re-adjusting the brim of his cap and picking up his heavy sword.
Akihiko kept a sharp eye on Koromaru as the small dog narrowly escaped the shadow's descending foot, leading him right into the waiting clutches of Akihiko.
"Come and get me, buddy! I'm right here!" Akihiko shouted teasingly, tempting the shadow with a cutting fist its heel and then dashing out of the way before he became a pile of goop with a red sweater vest.
The shadow released another shrill bellow of irritation before belching out a high Bufudyne at Akihiko. Akihiko felt the very hairs on the back of his neck momentarily freeze as he become entombed in a block of ice for a few heart-stopping seconds before he fell back flat on his rear-end.
"Damn, what a bite." Akihiko said wryly as he brushed a few ice chunks off of his shoulder. He struggled to pull himself up onto his frozen legs, but realized he needed a few more seconds (which he didn't have) to thaw out. The shadow aimed low at Akihiko, finding that its Bufudyne was more than enough to finish him off.
"Akihiko-senpai, look OUT!" Fuuka's voice screamed over the communicator.
The shadow's fist lowered, brushing slightly against a few of Akihiko's erect and frozen hairs.
Koromaru suddenly appeared on the scene, and swept into the shadow's lowered head with a biting slash from his dagger. The shadow reeled for a moment, giving Akihiko the window he so desperately needed to escape.
As he got up, Koromaru pointed a disgruntled bark in his direction, as if to say 'pay attention, idiot!'
Aigis painstakingly and delicately placed her hands and legs in the niches and dents in the shadow's armor, the sheer expanse of its back causing her to frown in dismay. She was only around its midback, and it had taken her over two minutes to get up this far.
It was difficult enough to keep herself hidden from the shadows senses, but with the combined sharp movements of the shadow chasing after Akihiko and Koromaru, Aigis was finding it difficult to keep herself latched on.
"Fuuka-san." Aigis spoke into her communicator. "What is the status of my team?"
"Uh," Fuuka started distractedly, obviously beginning to fray under the pressure of providing support to two teams.
"Koro-chan's slowing down and needs Chewing Soul, Akihiko-senpai is still partially frozen but blocking attacks, and Junpei-kun is still okay, although I don't know how much longer he can hold out, Aigis!"
Aigis nodded grimly.
Everyone. . . hold on!
Junpei tried to disarm the shadow's left leg without being turned into a pancake by its other foot. He realized that his job would be a hell of a easier if this damn thing would just hold still!
"C'mon, Ai-chan. . ." Junpei muttered huskily, awkwardly throwing his katana at the back of the shadow's knee but merely tripping and falling over when its other foot brushed perilously close to Junpei.
Aigis pushed out a hefty breath of air and watched it billow above her in the cold. She had finally reached the shadow's neck. If all went well from here on out, the rest would be easily taken care of by the rest of her team with little or no injuries, or so Aigis hoped.
She exhaled another frosty breath, and pulled her out and aimed it point-blank at the shadow's scantily exposed neck.
The wise deity materialized from the expanse of cold air beside Aigis and hovered undetected by the shadow's shoulder.
A sense of relief flooded Aigis' keen senses as she looked at her persona's pallid and beautiful face.
"Pallas Athena. . ." Aigis breathed, slightly worn from her climb. "Please, lend me your strength."
Athena's gilded and darkened face frowned deeply underneath her massive helm.
"Child," she intoned patiently but with slight reproach. "I am your strength. Trust yourself," Athena lifted her brilliant ivory spear "and we will become unstoppable."
Aigis pointed Medusa flat against the shadows neck and unloaded a few rounds into its flesh as Athena struck with a vengeful God's Hand. The shadow abruptly responded by cutting short its pursuit of Koromaru and Akihiko and thrashing its hands around its neck to rid itself of the pesky fly that was attacking him.
Aigis gave a muffled cry as her hold slipped out from under her and the shadow's clumsy hands desperately swatted at her. A few of its stray fingers roughly crunched Aigis' left arm and bent it in half. She smothered a hoarse scream and reached out sharply and grasped the sharp edge of the armor with one hand. She grimaced when she felt the shadow heavily push forward as one of its hands remained searching around its neck for the interloper.
It wasn't enough.
Aigis scowled malevolently at the open-wound dancing before her as the shadow threw ice and light down at her comrades below.
Her persona bravely emerged and pointed her pointed spear at the shadow's bullet-ridden neck and unleashed a slew of brutal strikes. It slowed the shadow, but did not stop it dead.
It was still not enough.
She had only precious seconds to set things right; double or nothing.
Aigis swung her heavily damaged arm up over her and seethed in agony as she used it to pull herself up. As she carefully avoided the roaming hand of the shadow, Aigis panted heavily and brought her bullet laden fingers back to the shadow's neck.
"Releasing limiters; Orgia Mode!"
Junpei caught a flash of light escape from above his head, followed by the crisp sound of steel bullets flying and biting chips of iron.
The shadow came to a shuddering stop.
"-And that's my cue to kick some ass!"
The moment the shadow ceased its movements, Junpei lunged forward with his hands wrapped around the hilt of his katana and slashed open the back of the right knee-
"Team Beta, respond!" Aigis' voice erupted over Junpei's communicator. Junpei briefly stopped his slashing and yelled over the pained cries of the shadow.
A weary bark came shortly after Junpei's input.
"I'm here!" Akihiko bellowed.
"Full Assault! I repeat, Full Assault!" Aigis yelled in a controlled tone.
Before the transmission ended, Junpei heard Akihiko distinctly and outrageously yell. "'Bout damn time, let's get 'em boy!"
Junpei re-adjusted his hands on his katana and took his battle to the opposing left knee. The shadow had finally stopped moving around as much which gave Junpei ample room and attention to stop the shadow's laborious movements and debilitate him for good.
His brazen movements were drowned out by the sound of the quickly crumbling shadow, now his only perogative was to get out of the way-
"Junpei-kun!" Fuuka said in a high voice.
"It's Aigis! Her system's gone into hibernation after Orgia Mode-"
"Shit, what side-"
"On your right- listen, Aigis is strong but that fall is going to liquify her if someone doesn't catch her and you're-"
"Say no more." Junpei replied steadily, wiping the sweat off of his forehead.
His time was short. The shadow was quickly caving in from under its own weight, thanks mostly to Junpei's handiwork. Junpei clumsily skidded out from under the shadow just as the monster buckled under its own weight and crashed down with a terrifying screech.
The bridge quaked.
Junpei caught himself from falling over from the tremor and stole a glance over his shoulder to see Koromaru and Akihiko hammering diligently away at the down and out shadow. He looked up shortly after and searched the sky for Aigis.
At first he could not see her, but soon he spotted a slender strand of white tumbling head over heels over the bulking blackness of the shadow.
Junpei's katana fell forgotten to the ground as he danced (very comically, upon reflection) around in circles trying to gauge where exactly Aigis would land. As she grew larger and larger in his view, Junpei took one last pitch forward before sliding on his knees with his arms open wide.
"Gotcha!" He proclaimed as she folded slightly and then rested neatly into his arms.
Aigis looked up at him in dumbstruck wonder, her mouth unable to move as her system cooled down.
"Speechless, eh? Don't worry, I usually have that effect on girls-"
"Junpei-kun! Akihiko-senpai and Koro-chan need help!" Fuuka exclaimed, though obviously relieved that Aigis was unharmed.
"Oh yeah, right!" Junpei remembered, getting back up to his feet and scurrying off to meet his team with a still half-concious Aigis in his arms.
Fuuka felt like a mother with seven children running amuck in a chocolate factory.
"Akihiko-senpai, Koro-chan needs a Diahran. . . Minato-kun, keep an eye on Ken-kun, he's badly hurt. Junpei-kun, be patient and Aigis will be responsive, for now put her out of the way of the fight and she'll rejoin you and instruct you further when she comes to. . . Someone- Mitsuru-senpai needs a Patra. Look out for the Bufudyne, Akihiko-senpai. . . . ! No, Yukari-chan, use the Diahran on yourself and then on Ken-kun!"
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bridge, Minato was leading his team in an exhausting fight against the red shadow. His strategy differed from Aigis' in that he ordering his team to take the enemy on with a fierce Knock Down order while Yukari and Mitsuru provided support when needed.
Minato had his share of hurdles. The shadow was draining Minato and Ken of their Samarecarm, not to mention depleting Minato's supply of beads. In addition to this pickle, Minato found that his inventory in general was becoming sparce.
Thankfully, the shadow was not as restless as the shadow Team Beta was fighting, but even when motionless, it could still precise stalwart attacks on Minato's team. Minato had attempted putting his friends in a four-squared position around the shadow and taking turns relaying their respective elemental attacks. Minato's main problem was not the superb elemental attacks of his teammates, but rather the shadow's persistence in honing in on one particular team member's weakness (even from behind) and then repeatedly exploiting it until the team member in question was unconcious.
The easiest target, of course, was Ken Amada, who could be taken out with one slight Mudo.
Minato wanted to give a heavy sigh, but instead he merely made a slight ticking noise with his lips before speaking into his communicator.
"Team Alpha, reassemble to your pre-attack positions to restructure our strategy."
"Understood," By the sound of it, Mitsuru was more than ready to escape the clutches of a ravaging Agidyne.
"Coming!" yelled a breathless Ken.
"Ugh, gimme a minute, will ya?"
"Now, Yukari." Minato deadpanned.
"Hold your friggin' horses, I'm actually making some progress- Hrragggghhh!!"
"Dammit, Yukari!" Minato hissed to himself, covering up the communicator and grinding his teeth.
"It's all right, I've got her. We're just around the corner-"
He frowned as Ken came rushing toward him, an exhausting expression wearing on his young features.
"Forget about using Hama skills. . . I guess I should have figured. No way a shadow that size could be taken out with one hit. . . sorry I keep getting knocked out."
"Senpai," He looked darkly over to Mitsuru, who narrowly stepped out of the way of a nasty slash attack with a limp Yukari in her arms. Ken went to her side quickly and helped her shoulder Yukari's dead weight.
"Mitsuru-senpai! You're bleeding-" Ken gaped.
"I should say the same of you, Amada. Do you have enough spirit power to perform Samarecarm?"
Ken shook his head and looked up to see Minato stepping toward them.
"I've got this one. Though we should all be careful; it will be my last one for the night."
Mitsuru nodded gravely
Minato unloaded his evoker into his head and Attis appeared to revive Yukari with full health.
"Ugh. . . oh, great." Yukari muttered, looking up at the still standing shadow.
"Next time I expect you to listen to me, Yukari." Minato said slowly, looking down at her with the slightest inkling of impatience.
"Our only option now is to keep at it until we can knock it down. Ken, do you have enough spirit power for a Ziodyne?"
"All right. Then you'll resume the role of support when you run out, use whatever medicine we have left, though it isn't much. Senpai will take over for you for as long as she can."
"She'll try and freeze its hands while Yukari will try and blow it off its feet. When, or if, it falls, Ken and I will blast it with everything we've got."
"Leave it to us." Yukari said, sidling up alongside Mitsuru. Mitsuru gave her a curt nod before extending her evoker to her head and blasting out a call for Artemesia's strongest ice attack. Her aim landed on the fringees of the shadow's knuckles, but quickly swept back to cover the behemoth's entire hands. The monster shrieked in fury as Mitsuru took a step back while Yukari summoned Isis and threw a swirling Garudyne at it's feet.
Through no talent of their own, the Garudyne stumbled over at the critical attack.
"Yes!" Yukari exclaimed as Ken and Minato flew by her and pounced.
"Now's our chance! Let's get 'em!"
"Right, everyone – All out attack, now!"
Minato ushered his team unto the writhing shadow. He was certainly aware that while his team was not holding back, they were going to be unable to finish this particular shadow off in their current states. He hacked away ruthlessly, nonetheless, willing his team to hold out a bit longer and hoping for Aigis to trust him as unconditionally as she protected him.
The smoke settled.
Yukari dropped to her knees, panting.
Mitsuru managed to stand but at the expense of dropping her rapier dully to the ground so that she could clutch her profusely bleeding chest with both hands.
Ken lay sprawled out on his stomach, with his arms curled in front of him in attempt to support himself.
The shadow leaned heavily on one knee for what seemed like a victorious moment, before steadily rising, and throwing his head back in a cruel and sickening scream.
Aigis glared decisively ahead of her as the black shadow composed itself enough to stand back up. She managed to veil her crashing system to the shadow, but her teammates saw it clearly as a the bad sign it was.
"'The HELL?! How can it be standing?" Junpei roared, resting his katana momentarily on the ground.
Akihiko sagged unto his knees, his knuckles bleeding intensely from his attempts to block the shadow's attacks. He was trying to catch his breath while Koromaru growled lowly next to him.
On the opposite side of bridge, they heard the howling cry of the red shadow.
Akihiko's eyes widened as he looked up at the monster before them. For a frightful moment, it did nothing but stand menacingly before them. This moment passed abruptly, however, when the black shadow unleashed a matching howl.
Junpei gritted his teeth at the piercing sound.
"This is not good! Those shadows are using that howl to heal each other to full health!" Fuuka's fear-stricken voice accosted the two teams over the communicator.
"What's going on, Fuuka? What do we do?"
Aigis folded her lips tightly as she kept her steady and loathesome glare on the shadow before her.
"You guys are in bad shape, you can't last much longer out there!"
"To hell with that-" Junpei spluttered, furious. "I'm not quitting just yet!" He picked his two-handed katana up in both hands and sprang toward the shadow.
"Junpei, you idiot! Get back here!" Akihiko said, leaping after his younger friend after tightening the bladed fists around his wrists.
Koromaru went to chase after them, but stop when Aigis' voice pulled him back.
"Koromaru. Wait. . . one moment, if you will." Aigis said calmly, her glare still focused on the shadow.
Minato-san. Please. . .
Minato could feel the waiting and defeated glances of his team digging into him from behind.
I didn't want to use it here.
His brow furrowed in concentration as he closed his eyes and pointed his face to the ground, the tip his two-handed sword lightly touching the ground.
I didn't want to use it at all.
"Minato! MINATO, what do we do?!"
The voice of a fearful Yukari barely reached him.
Minato took in a small breath as he looked up, resigned, at the shadow before him.
"Retreat." He said frigidly, his voice deep and raw.
Yukari's eyes widened in anger.
"No way." She said bitterly, pulling herself up painfully from her knees and onto her wobbly feet.
Minato was silent as he drew his evoker.
"Fuuka." He called out, his voice heavily remniscent of the dark winter they found themselves in.
A feathery breath came over the communicator before she spoke softly.
"All teams, retreat." Fuuka voiced hurtfully.
Aigis' eyes closed softly in relief as Fuuka's voice washed over her. She then nodded curtly at Koromaru, and they proceeded after Akihiko and Junpei.
Junpei skidded to a halt for a moment, looking incredulously in the direction of Fuuka's voice.
"Hell no, we can waste this douchebag, right Akihiko-senpai?"
"Junpei- hey what the hell? Bad dog! Bad dog!" Koromaru snarled, annoyed, as he latched on to bottom of Akihiko's pant leg, pulled him down to the ground, and began to drag Akihiko away from the shadow. Akihiko attempted to flail at the dog in an effort to unhitch himself from his jaws, but Koromaru was too fast and too rabid to pay attention to the boy.
Junpei watched the scene with an extremely bizarre look, and just as he went to throw himself into the depths of battle, he felt his body double over as he sword was pitched forward while his butt was pulled back in the opposing direction.
"Shiiiiitt- what, ah! Ai-chan!" Junpei looked back to see Aigis' pointer finger hooked around Junpei's belt loop. She looked at him and paused for a moment before disentangling her finger from his belt loop.
Junpei opened his mouth to voice his unbelievable outrage when Aigis grabbed him by the lapels and threw him over her shoulder as she pitched forward toward the safety of Fuuka's Juno.
Mitsuru snapped her head over to Minato in shock.
"I repeat, all teams retreat immediately!" Fuuka's shouted again, this time more confidently.
Mitsuru cringed before reaching down and pulling Ken gently into her arms.
"Yukari-" Mitsuru began, making to leave.
"I'm staying right here, behind Minato."
"Yukari-" Mitsuru barked.
"You're not doing this alone, Minato! I don't care what you want-"
"It isn't what I want." Minato began softly, almost laughingly. "That comes after. . ."
Yukari looked at him, her frightened tears still drenching her skin.
He looked at Yukari with a cold frankness before turning his back on her again.
"After what?" Yukari screamed.
"Fall back." Minato was looking at her now, his glaring blue eyes ripping into Yukari with the utmost seriousness. She faltered slightly under his intense gaze and bit down furiously on her lip before she snapped at him.
"I won't forgive you for this."
"You'll want to be quick on your feet. I won't hold this back forever." Minato responded immediately, causing Yukari to fume silently to herself as she held her breath (either from the pain in her ribs or to hold back a frustrated scream) and hastily followed the limping form of Mitsuru.
Minato waited for the black shadow to advance behind him before he turned himself around so that he was flanked by both shadows.
He drew in a steady breath as he tapped the evoker to his head and softly sighed.
"Lucifer. . . Satan. . ."
He felt a cold fire touch his cheeks.
Mitsuru cracked her eyes open to be met with the relieved brown eyes of Ken Amada.
"Thank goodness. . . you've come to."
Mitsuru raised a numb hand to her temple only to have it bathed in sticky warm blood.
"Wha. . ."
"You should hold still, senpai." Ken said seriously, taking her arm and gently putting it down by her side.
"Amada. . . you're in no condition to be. . . whe. . . where's your coat? You look like you're freezing."
Ken shrugged and gave her a happy smile.
"It's behind your head. . . I really don't mind. I'm okay."
Mitsuru went to reproach him when she shot up from her spot on the ground.
"The others-" Mitsuru cut herself short as she hissed in pain. Ken pushed her back down with a chastising look.
"They're okay, I think some of them are starting to come to-"
"Come to-?! S.E.E.S., roll call!" Mitsuru shouted hoarsely from her place on the ground.
"Aw, Mitsuru. . . give it a rest for once, please!" Akihiko groaned.
Mitsuru looked over to see him lying on his stomach with his cheek pressed to the cold ground.
She glared at him before repeating herself stubbornly.
"S.E.E.S. Roll call, list your injuries as well!" Mitsuru barked.
"Aigis, reporting. I have taken heavy damage to my CPU, and several of my circuits have shorted out. I am also in need of buffing." Aigis began, her calm and controlled voice echoing off of the nearby bridge walls.
"Ugh. . . Yukari Takeba, reporting. I think I sprained my wrist and my left ankle." Yukari muttered, gently massaging her ankle with a soft hiss.
"Junpei Iori, reporting. I've got some wind burns on my face and I'm cut up pretty bad on my stomach but other than that, I'm a-okay."
A deep bark penetrated the short-lived silence.
"Koromaru says that he has a few minor injuries on his ears and tail, but they are not deep."
"Ken Amada; reporting." Ken looked down at Mitsuru with a confident smile. "I'm okay, I've just got some bruises on my arm from the crash and my shoulder's got a deep cut, but nothing serious."
"Akihiko Sanada; I'm pretty sure I have a few cracked ribs and I'm still kind of thawing out from all those ice attacks, but I'm okay too. . . just really beat. Mitsuru-"
"I'm fine," Mitsuru snapped.
"Senpai has really bad road-rash on her leg. Her scorch marks are gone, but she's got a bad gash on her collarbone that probably needs stitches, not to mention a cut on her temple."
Mitsuru muttered a thanks to the young man hunched above her.
"Fuuka Yamagisihi; reporting. I'm fine, except. . ." she said wearily, buckling under her own weight and crumbling to the ground. "I feel really tired all of a sudden." She ended weakly.
The early morning frost was beginning to coalesce underneath them on the stone bricks that made up the bridge. S.E.E.S. was beginning to grow concious of the mist settling in around them, when Junpei suddenly wondered aloud:
"Ah. . Sorry. Minato Arisato. . . reporting."
S.E.E.S. looked over to the railing of the enshrouded bridge to see Minato casually leaning up against and facing them with his arms folded leisurely against his chest.
"Are you. . . hurt?" Fuuka asked meekly.
Yukari stonily glared at him.
Minato awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck and then shook his head.
"Ah. . . no, actually."
"What?" Junpei blurted incredulously. "Not at all?"
Minato shook his head again.
"Not a scratch." Akihiko reiterated, unblinkingly.
"Sorry, not this time."
"How the hell you manage that?" Junpei asked, dying for an answer.
Minato was motionless.
"Everyone. . . I'm sorry, for getting you all hurt. I'll make it up to you all somehow."
At first, the members of S.E.E.S. waited for Junpei to attack the comment with a snarky joke, but none came. The team suddenly realized that though their leader was normally quiet and collected, this time he was dead serious.
"I'll make it up to you." He repeated coldly, more to himself than to his team.
Fuuka couldn't help but gasp when Junpei hauled her up onto his back.
"Wee! Junpei-back ride!" He grunted in a high pitched voice as he wrapped his arms around her ankles. Fuuka instinctively wrapped her arms around Junpei's chest as she let her head drop wearily to his shoulder.
"What? You looked like you were going to pass out!"
"I. . . I thank you, Junpei-kun."
"Don't worry about it. We owe you big time, it's the least I could do."
Aigis nodded as she appeared beside Junpei.
"Yes. Let us return now, together."
Ken smiled as he guided and steadied a weary Mitsuru by the elbow, eliciting a slightly disgruntled but mostly grateful frown from elder girl.
Akihiko slung his coat over his shoulder as he whistled a request for Koromaru to return to his side. The dog abidded happily, but not before tickling Akihiko's fingers with his tongue.
Yukari haughtily stepped up alongside Minato as he walked slightly ahead of his team.
"Yukari-" He began softly.
"I'm sorry." Yukari said shortly, her arms folded tightly to her chest in order to conserve warmth and her eyes narrowed angrily in front of her.
Minato couldn't help but laugh.
"You're funny." He said lightly, smiling kindly at her.
Yukari scowled at him.
"Thanks for trusting me."
Yukari sighed, but said nothing. Instead, she bathed in the silence that her teammates were walking through as they supported each other, either with arms and hands, or just with their mere presence alongside each other.
"Don't thank me for something that comes naturally."
Thanks to everyone who revied the story! I'm glad I finally decided to write it! I can't wait to read all of your work! Thanks again to Exile87, NeoChick, Preseathekitsune, Darkforce222, and Black Jackal!