In the middle of the night, in a dormitory for a certain group of high school students, a scream shreds the air. Only the lightest sleeper could have heard it. Shinjiro leaves his room as quietly as he can and walks down the hallway as quietly as he can. He can barely breathe.
His muscles feel like taut iron wires. He has to stop. He sits down at the top step of the stairwell and tries to breathe deeply. His heart is beating ten thousand ticks a second. He sees red and everything is starting to become a blur. His body and his mind are burning.
He clenches his fists together as tightly as he can. His body is racing, his mind is racing, and he can't move because he'll wake up the whole building. He wants to scream again to relieve the tension, but he can't. He paces in small circles near the vending machines.
Shinjiro leaps to his feet, spins around, his fist cocked before he knows it. When he sees that it's only Fuuka coming down the stairs from the third floor, he forces his arms down by his side.
"Oh, it's you."
"A-are you all right?" Fuuka asks. Shinjiro sits down at the top of the stairwell again and Fuuka sits beside him.
"I heard someone screaming, and I was worried."
"It's none of your business," Shinjiro says. He rips open the top of his shirt, trying to cool down. His body isn't listening to him. He's not in control. That's the most frightening part.
"Shinjiro-senpai, you're shaking!" Fuuka says. "Did you have a nightmare?"
"No, nothing like that! I'm just—sweating it out, that's all. Don't get too close!"
Fuuka takes Shinjiro's wrist, and before he can ask her what she's doing, she gasps.
"Oh my god! Senpai, your pulse!"
"I told you, I'm fine," Shinjiro snarls. "Just—just—give me a second. Just need—a few seconds to catch my breath."
"Your heart is beating so fast; I—I don't know what to do," Fuuka says, looking around. Shinjiro hears fear. "Should I call for an ambulance?"
"No!" Shinjiro yells, so loudly that Fuuka nearly yelps. She looks down at her lap. "I mean, it'll pass. It's not a big deal."
"H-how do you feel? Do you feel lightheaded?"
Shinjiro snorts. He takes a minute to breathe. It's not easy. He needs to breathe, but his beating heart isn't helping any. If he didn't know any better, he might think he was having a heart attack. He shakes uncontrollably.
"I feel like hell," he says. "Like my body is gonna explode or something. This happens all the time, so don't worry about it."
"It happens all the time?"
Shinjiro stands up and takes a long, deep breath. When he finishes exhaling, he turns and starts walking back to his room.
"Go back to bed. It's late."
"Are you sure you're going to be okay?"
"I'll live," he says, and almost laughs. He takes one step further down the hallway and his legs collapse under him. His head slams against the floor.
I deserve this—
No one deserves this!
I can't change the past.
No one deserves this.
I deserve all this grief.
Fuck you. No one knows me better than you. You don't deserve this.
You're the reason I deserve this. It's your damn fault.
I AM YOU!
When Shinjiro next opens his eyes, he realizes he's lying face-up on the floor. The hall is still pitch black and quiet as the dead of winter. There's a cold rag on his forehead and a person kneeling next to him. He presses his hand against his chest; his heart is still beating fast, but it's more under control now. The voices in his head have given way to the sound of a woman's breaths nearby.
Shinjiro groans. His head hurts. "Who…"
"Um, it's Yukari."
"You're awake? Hnnh...well, whatever."
"I couldn't sleep, so I was going downstairs to get a bottle of water," Yukari says. She's still in her pajamas and her hair is all messed up. She kneels a few feet away from him, reluctant to come any closer. "That's when I saw you and Fuuka in the hall."
Shinjiro gasps. There's a blank space in his mind where the previous few minutes should be. For a second, he fears. "Fuuka?! Where's—?"
"I told her to go to bed, that I'd make sure you were all right," Yukari says. "Are you okay?"
Shinjiro sighs, relieved. Shit…so I didn't…
"I can take care of myself," he says. When he has composed his thoughts, he sits up and breathes in deeply; the cloth on his forehead falls into his lap and he throws it aside. "I'll be fine. Worry about yourself. I'm not gonna be responsible if you get sick from not gettin' sleep."
He looks around. The fire coursing through his veins seems to have faded. He lets his arms relax and rest against the floor. Shinjiro has read books about relaxation techniques. Some of them work, most of them don't. Suddenly he is so tired he can barely keep his eyes open. Still, he is restless.
"Listen," Shinjiro says. "Don't tell anyone about this, okay? They have enough shit to worry about without worrying about me."
"Are you sure you're gonna be all right?" she asks.
Shinjiro gets to his feet. He's about to say something harsh when he sees Yukari's face. She's genuinely concerned.
"Don't worry," he says, as softly as he can. "I'll be fine."
Shinjiro was a rock, and his Persona was his hard place. Castor was like an old friend he just couldn't say goodbye to. He trashed his apartment, broke glass bottles over his skull, robbed him blind, and caught a red-eye flight out of the country. Even Akihiko didn't fuck up that much. Castor wasn't a drug addict, but he needed pills nonetheless, and when he didn't get them, he started breaking shit. Castor wasn't an addict, and neither was Shinjiro. But the thought that perhaps he was kept people on streets from bothering him or running their mouths in his general direction.
That was fine with him.
Most of the residents of the dorm had returned by the time the sun set. Shinjiro sat alone at the table while the girls and the creepy kid sat and watched TV. Junpei retired early to his room with a handful of magazines, so quietly that no one but Shinjiro had noticed.
"Hey, Shinji." Akihiko put his elbow against the table and Shinjiro looked up. "You goin' to bed?"
"Keep talking and you'll put me to sleep."
Shinjiro was already exhausted. The events of the night before had kept him from getting any sleep.
"We're planning on going to Tartarus tomorrow night. If you need a new axe, pick one up at the station tomorrow."
"Yeah, I'll keep it in mind," Shinjiro said. Akihiko sighed and walked away.
Shinjiro sat in silence; he didn't know for how long he waited, thinking of nothing and everything. He had thought about sneaking up to his room early, but he was afraid he might run into Amada, who sometimes sat around upstairs. He didn't want to talk to him; it was still awkward looking the kid right in the eyes.
Lights and sounds turned off; feet passed by and walked up the steps. The common room was dark save for the light of the moon when Shinjiro felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head slowly and deliberately.
Yukari looked at Shinjiro, about to speak when his eyes turned to her and she nearly froze in place. "Um, senpai?"
"You don't need to seem so nervous," he said. "It's about last night, isn't it?"
"Uh huh," Yukari said, nodding. "Can I sit down?"
When he didn't answer, she sat down in the chair opposite him.
"Look, senpai…I think I should explain something to you. The only reason I—we don't come talk to you more is because—"
"You're intimidated by me."
"Well, I mean—"
"Do you really think that bothers me?"
"I don't know," Yukari said. "But I thought I should say something to you."
Shinjiro sighed. "Great. Aki always sticks his nose in my business and now I have more people worrying about me."
"I-I'm sorry," Yukari said, embarrassed. "Maybe I should—"
"Wait." Shinjiro looked up and sighed again. Maybe moving from place to place had hid his problems well enough. Living in the dorm wasn't the best place to keep secrets. But he hadn't come to the dorm because he had things to hide. He was sick of hiding. Too much work. Too much goddamn trouble.
"Listen…you don't have to worry about me. I just don't have much to say. You don't have to come talk to me if you don't want to. I won't take it personally."
"But you're a part of this dorm, too! I wish we could get to know you better. You and Ken-kun…neither of you talk much."
"I'm sure he has his reasons."
"Um…senpai?" Yukari looked from side to side and played with her hands. "Are you feeling any better?"
Footsteps started trailing from the stairway. It seemed to Shinjiro that the days were getting longer. So were the nights.
"I'm feeling fine," he said, for what seemed like the ten thousandth time. "I'm not sick."
"But last night—"
Fuuka, dressed in her teal nightgown, walked towards the table, feeling her way through the darkness. "And Yukari-chan?"
"Doesn't anyone sleep around here?" Shinjiro asked softly. He wasn't bitter; he kept his expectations low.
"You couldn't sleep, Fuuka?" Yukari asked.
"No…I heard voices and wondered what was going on. Do you feel all right, senpai?"
"I'm fine. It's not an illness." It was a while since he had started taking the drugs, but it felt to Shinjiro like yesterday. Maybe it was yesterday. Maybe he was going crazy. Every day seemed like borrowed time to him. One way or another, he was going down in flames. Sooner or later, someone would realize these episodes were becoming more frequent and more severe. And he'd have no answers to their questions.
When he looked up, Shinjiro saw the faces of two beautiful, healthy young ladies watching him through the darkness, calm but concerned. They wanted to understand him so badly, but they couldn't. He'd already come to grips with the rest of his life; it was the others who were going to hurt the most when it slipped away.
"It's the medicine," Shinjiro said finally.
"The meds. The drugs. I have to take them. There are a few side-effects. That's not my problem. It isn't yours, either."
"Are they prescription drugs?"
Shinjiro paused and nearly chuckled. "You won't find these in any stores."
"I see," Yukari said. "Sorry if it seemed like I was prying."
"They're for my nerves. Keep me from doing something I'd regret. I don't want to live my life full of regrets and anger. Plus, I don't think I could fight the Shadows if I didn't take it."
"Oh, Shinjiro-senpai," Fuuka said gently. She and Yukari shared glances.
"I have to fight. If I didn't, I'd probably tear myself into pieces. I have to work the adrenaline out of my system. Fighting works fine."
"I'm sorry, senpai," Yukari said. She reached her hand out in the darkness to touch one of his, but she couldn't find it.
"Don't feel sorry for me. You can't go around regretting everything you do, least of all something someone else does. I told you, I'll be fine," he said. "I'll live," he lied.
"Thanks for helping us out here," Yukari said. "You saved me a couple of times over in Tartarus. We would all be much worse off if we didn't have your strength."
"I do what I can," he muttered. "Besides, you're not the ones who should be thanking me. Aki was the one busting my balls over it."
Lights raced past the windows at the front of the dorm. The cool October night was quiet and dark.
"If there's anything we can do to help, just tell us."
Shinjiro rolled his eyes. "Just—take care of yourselves, all right? I don't wanna have to plan a funeral. Especially one with lots of flowers and personal tributes." He laughed dryly. "Hate that shit."
"Um—we're sorry to bother you, Shinjiro-senpai," Fuuka said. "I'm going back to bed. You should get some sleep too, senpai. We're probably going to Tartarus tomorrow."
"Hey," Shinjiro said. "Don't tell anyone about this, okay? Especially Akihiko; he worries too damn much. He has plenty of shit on his plate without hearing about my problems. He'll find out eventually. He's too smart for his own good. So just keep it quiet."
Yukari and Fuuka both nodded and answered in the affirmative before returning upstairs to their rooms.
Shinjiro, motionless and silent, watched them walk away. A police car sped through the street by the front of the dorm.
Through the window, one red light flashed briefly and disappeared into the night.