Disclaimer: Persona 3 and its affliated characters are property of ATLUS; I claim no ownership of them.

A/N: ...well, I've finally done it! This story has been far too long in the making, and I can't even begin to explain how happy I am to finally be able to start this. So everyone, please enjoy, the opening act of Stopwatch!!


Stopwatch

By Pikagalmish

Prologue


It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet.

- George McDonald


Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The clock went on, the clicking of the second hand echoing through the room, long-since abandoned. Outside, the moon, just short of being full, shone through the window, illuminating the old desk, the shelves, the cardboard boxes filled with belongings that had yet to be put away. A thin layer of dust covered everything, except for the footprints on the floor leading to the window.

The man sat in a chair turned backwards, resting his arms and head on the back. The night sky, reflected in his grey eyes, hid the trouble underneath.

Suddenly, he let out a frustrated sigh, running a hand through his silver hair. The clock on his cell-phone told him that it was ten to midnight; He had been sitting there for a good hour and a half.

A sound behind him made him turn. The door creaked open slowly, a woman walking in. At the sight of him, she started, but the surprise soon turned into a warm smile.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realise this room was already occupied," she said, tucking a lock of red hair behind her ear.

From the window, the man shook his head, flashing her a grin.

"Nah, it's alright," he said good-naturedly. "There's plenty of room. I don't think Shinji would mind if it was you, Mitsuru."

Mitsuru chuckled, walking over to join him. He got up quickly, offering her the sole chair.

"Thank you, Akihiko," she said, sitting down.

"No problem," the boxer replied, leaning now against the windowsill.

Mitsuru sat back, folding her hands neatly in her lap. She turned her head to look at the man.

"Is this what you've been doing all night?"

Akihiko shrugged.

"I guess," he said. "I've just been thinking, and– what?"

The redhead had her hand over her mouth, as though trying to suppress a laugh.

"H-hey, what's so funny?" Akihiko demanded, greatly turned off by this unexpected reaction.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh," Mitsuru apologised, still looking very much amused. "It's just...you looked so serious then, while this time last year you could hardly stay still for five minutes, let alone just sit and think for over an hour."

"Is that a good thing?" Akihiko raised an eyebrow.

Mitsuru nodded.

"A very good thing," she said. "I'm glad to see you're finally growing up, Akihiko." It was barely detectable, but the teasing was there.

"Well, you haven't exactly stayed the same, either," Akihiko returned. A challenge.

"Oh?" She knew this game well.

"Yeah," Akihiko rolled back on his heels, gloved fingers tapping against the window. "It took eight months and us nearly getting killed saving your life before you finally started calling me and Shinji by our given names. But now you're doing the same for Takeba after less, and without a heroic rescue or anything like that."

"There's more than one way to save a person's life, you know," Mitsuru pointed out, gazing up at the moon. Then, more to herself than anything, "It doesn't take as much as you would expect, to really make a difference..."

Akihiko watched her, curious, but knowing better than to ask. Instead, he just turned his attention back to the window, eyes on the city that they were working so hard to protect.

"Yeah..." he muttered, breathing in deeply.

The two of them fell into silence. Outside, a cold winter breeze blew through the trees, making no noise as it stirred past the bare branches. A car sped by, headlights ablaze and the radio up at full volume. It, too, quickly passed, and the darkness and quiet returned.

"...So you come in here, too?"

Mitsuru cocked her head, surprised that he had broken the silence.

"You know, just to...think," Akihiko said, scratching at his neck awkwardly.

"Yes, well..." Mitsuru looked down at her hands, trying to decide how best to word this. "Sometimes...I just need someone to listen, or not even to listen, just sit there with me, as I sort out my thoughts. Yukari is greatly helpful, and I truly appreciate it, but the fact that I have known her for less than a year still makes a difference." She laughed, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I can't be making much sense."

"You sure about that?" Akihiko countered. "It made perfect sense to me."

"Did it?" her eyes were on him, regarding him quizzically.

"Yeah, well...I've known you for a long time," he looked away sheepishly. "I can pretty much understand anything you say by this point."

"It has been quite a while," Mitsuru agreed. "You certainly know more about me than the others. Of course, you're not always available, so..."

"So you come in here," Akihiko finished for her. "Because Shinji has known you for as long as I have."

"Yes..." Mitsuru glanced around the room, seeing it not as it was now, but rather the way it had been back during their junior-high years. Back during those happier years. "I suppose I feel as though Shinjiro is still here in this room, watching us."

"That's because he is."

Something in his voice made her turn. Akihiko had his back to the window, looking at the room with his brows slightly furrowed.

"He's here, alright," Akihiko affirmed. "And he'll be with us tomorrow night; There's no way we'll lose."

Mitsuru stared at him, her face a mix of awe and pride and just a bit of admiration. She looked away, smiling inwardly. He really has grown up... Shinjiro, are you seeing this? Are you as proud of him as I am?

Softly, she murmured, "...I'm grateful that you're here, Akihiko."

"What...?" Akihiko blinked, not quite believing what he was hearing. "Mitsuru, what's with you? You're not acting like yourself tonight."

"I-Is that how it seems?" her face was slightly pink. "I assume it's because of tomorrow. As confident as we all may be, there is still a good possibility that we could lose. The thought of my own death coming so soon has made me wonder if I have truly shown my appreciation to those around me..."

"That..." Akihiko hesitated, but then, praying silently that she won't kill him for this, kneeled down beside her and placed his hand over hers.

Mitsuru looked up in surprise.

"Akihiko, what–"

"You've shown your appreciation, whether you think so or not," Akihiko said firmly. "And even if you haven't, you'll have plenty of time to do it after this. Weeks and months and years to do it, Mitsuru."

"Akihiko..." she regarded him sadly. "How can you be so sure we'll win? You heard what Mochizuki said, Nyx is unbeatable–"

"Yeah, it's unbeatable, but only if we think like this!" He was practically shouting now. "Of course we'll lose if all we're thinking about is our own deaths! We can't control what life throws at us, you and I learned that the hard way, but at least we can control ourselves, how we think. We have to stay positive, keep on thinking about the future. We have to believe we can win."

The outburst had stunned Mitsuru into silence, but now she smiled wistfully, gently brushing a stray strand of hair out of the man's face. The eyes looking at him now were the softest he had ever seen them, the dark orbs quivering with emotion. It confused him, how he couldn't read her.

"...I'm afraid, too," he heard himself admitting. "I really am. But I'm going to look Death in the face, just like Shinji did...like your father did."

The hand brushing at his hair stopped, and those eyes were on him again, the soul behind them clouded by those thoughts he couldn't see.

"...You're right, Akihiko," Mitsuru finally whispered. Her voice was trembling. "There's no use dwelling on such dark thoughts. We have to face tomorrow with determination, or we'll just be doing what Fate wants us to. I thought I stopped following whatever path was set for me months ago, but I realise now that I haven't changed." She swallowed, hard. "But not anymore. I will face Nyx tomorrow with my head held high. I refuse to go down without a fight."

"That's more like it," Akihiko said approvingly. He gave her hand a light squeeze. "Just keep thinking that way, and Nyx doesn't stand a chance. Not against us."

"No..." her hand closed around his, holding it tightly. "Not against us. Thank you, Akihiko. For...for everything.

"Just returning the favour," he said. Grinning, he added, "Where would I be if you hadn't been there that day all those years ago, telling me to shoot myself in the head with what looked like a gun?"

Despite herself, Mitsuru couldn't help but laugh; Akihiko had that sort of effect on her. Looking at their clasped hands, her mind wandered back to a conversation she had had with Arisato, the time they went for takoyaki together. The question he had voiced over the octopus dumplings was now flying around in her head. Akihiko had always been a good friend to her, yes, but, was there a point where friendship ended and...something else began...? Sitting there, his warm hand on hers, she wondered. Could it be...did she really...?

Mitsuru chanced a glance: He was watching her.

"Something wrong?"

She shook her head, grateful for the darkness hiding her face. The question, however, stirred up more memories: Akihiko fussing over her the night they saved Yamagishi; Akihiko defending her against Yukari's accusations; Akihiko standing outside her door, watching from a distance at Kyoto, worrying about her after her father died... All those times he had been there, had she just taken them for granted? Not to mention the countless times over the years he had helped her in Tartarus... He had always been there by her side, ready whenever she needed him. At all her various suitors and fans, she never gave more than a disdainful sniff, but with Akihiko it was different: He knew when it was best to leave her be, but when she wanted him there, he always was, and she took comfort in his presence. With him, she felt safe, secure...

Akihiko watched her silently, not noticing or not caring about the abuse his knees were getting at that moment. His eyes traced the contour of her face, observed the way her red locks fell over her face, spilled over her shoulders. He tried to keep away from her lips, but his eyes kept finding their way back there, and he couldn't help realising that this was probably as close and intimate with her as he was ever going to get, unless...

His head tipped slightly, his gaze falling on their hands. He knew how he felt about her; Hell, he had known for years, but so many things had kept him from telling her: Her status, his denial, her unknown feelings, and most of all...the fear of things changing. And not for the better. They had a good friendship going on, but if he admitted his feelings, and they were unreciprocated, what kind of relationship would it be then? So he kept silent, but now, with the fate of the world tipping in the balance, it was likely that he would never get another chance like this; It was now or never.

Akihiko took a deep breath; He could just hear Shinji laughing at him now. Turning to her, he said:

"There's something I need to tell you."

They froze, staring at each other. The ends of their simultaneous statements drifted off into the air. Somewhere outside, a clock tolled twelve, and the distorted colours of the Dark Hour swept over the city. Akihiko and Mitsuru, however, did not seem to notice this.

Slowly, Mitsuru started, "Did we just...?"

"...Yeah, I think we just did."

Akihiko blinked, then laughed in disbelief.

"How's this?" he offered. "For now, we just forget about this and focus on tomorrow. After it's all over and done with, we can have all the time we need to talk."

"But..." Mitsuru stopped. Smiling at the incredulity of the whole matter, she said, "No, you're right, we'll make it through. There's no doubt about it."

"So a promise it is, then," Akihiko said. "Just between the two of us."

"I'll be holding you to it."

Mitsuru stood up, looking pleased. "It's getting late; You should rest up for tomorrow," she said, heading for the door.

"Right," Akihiko attempted to pick himself up from the floor, but unfortunately for him, his legs had long since fallen asleep, and he toppled back down with an ungraceful crash.

Mitsuru sighed, walking back over to him.

"Sanada Akihiko, you are a hopeless one," she said, offering him her hand. "Hurry up, you won't be of any use half-asleep."

"Yeah, alright," Akihiko took her hand and pulled himself up. "Thanks; I'll walk you up."

"You've come to be quite the gentleman."

"Hey, quit it..."

As the door closed behind them, a slight breeze crept through the window, carrying with it what sounded like a smug chuckle.

- - -

"Next, a word from the valedictorian..."

Mitsuru stepped out into the centre of the stage, nodding her thanks at the teacher doing the introductions. She looked down at the audience spread out in front of her: Today would be her last day standing in this school. Strangely enough, she felt as though she should have some sort of attachment to it, but she could not think of any reason why.

She shook her head, brushing away the thoughts. Stepping up to the podium, she began her speech: "This last year, I accepted an important responsibility as Student Council President..."

Her voice echoed throughout the auditorium, bringing a wave of silence upon the rowdy crowd. She continued on, speaking about her first address at the beginning of the year. All the while, the same thought kept coming up in her mind. Something's missing, but...what?

"As many of you may know, my father unexpectedly..."

She froze. Why had what she just said feel like such a lie...?

From where he was sitting in the audience, Akihiko stiffened. His head shot up, eyes falling on the woman standing behind the podium, her hand on her head. Wait...

"Sudden illness...?"

Unconsciously, he stood up. He could hear the murmurs in the crowd, surprised seniors remarking on the uncharacteristic stumble. Making his way through the aisles, he headed for the group of second-years.

Mitsuru gripped the edge of the podium, the wood digging into her hands. Slowly, the memories were trickling back to her. That's right...I remember.

"I remember..." Mitsuru focused once again on the crowd. "Yes... With my father's death, I lost my purpose in life..."

Akihiko spotted the familiar baseball cap and headed towards it. A few seats away, he could hear what sounded like Yukari saying, "Hang on, wasn't I supposed to...?"

Taking him by the shoulder, Akihiko pulled the younger man up.

"Akihiko-senpai, what's up?" Junpei was as clueless as ever.

The boxer rolled his eyes, pushing Junpei into the aisle. Up on stage, Mitsuru's speech continued on.

"But now I have something to live for." The familiar strength and power was back. "No longer will I run from the future. I will face it head on, carrying out my father's will. I am resolved and without reservation."

"Akihiko-senpai, it's been a while," Fuuka greeted them. Yukari was already up ahead, beaming at the group.

Junpei smacked himself on the head, exclaiming, "The promise!"

Akihiko resisted the urge to sock him one, instead turning his attention to the person standing onstage; She was smiling down at them.

"I owe it all to my invaluable friends," she said, eyes on the silver-haired man, "and we have promised to never lose hope, no matter what tomorrow may bring..."

There was a loud cry from the crowd as Mitsuru knocked over the microphone on her way to the edge of the stage. She leapt into the air, hair flying behind her. There was only one person in her line of vision...

Akihiko looked up, his eyes meeting hers; Her face was glowing. For a second, he was afraid that she would land in his (unprepared) arms, but thankfully, she stopped in front of him, smiling brilliantly. Akihiko returned the gesture; He was glad to see her.

"Senpai, we made a promise," Yukari said, looking eager. "Let's find him, and Aigis, too!"

So did we, Mitsuru mouthed, before turning to the brunette.

"Yes, I can hardly wait," she replied, glancing at the boxer. He nodded, starting for the exit. She joined him, the juniors following suit behind them. "Everyone, let's go!"

They burst into the sunshine, a cloudless blue sky towering over them.

"Arf arf!!"

"Sanada-senpai! Mitsuru-san!"

Akihiko and Mitsuru turned, spotting Ken waving and running towards them, Koromaru at his heels.

"Suddenly...I just remembered!" he exclaimed, coming to a stop in front of them. "Everything, and the promise..." the boy paused, looking around. "Hey, where are Aigis-san and Minato-san?"

"We're going to find them right now," Mitsuru replied. "No doubt they're already there."

"Well, we shouldn't keep them waiting!" Ken said impatiently, already running ahead.

Akihiko laughed.

"He's right, you know," he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the roof. "We should hurry."

"Way ahead of you, Senpai," Junpei said with a smirk, taking off running.

"Hey, wait up!"

"Yu-Yukari-chan! Me too!"

"Woof!!"

The two graduating seniors watched the group go. Yukari grabbed Junpei by the collar, pulling him back. Junpei, being Junpei, tripped over himself, nearly falling on Koromaru in the process. Fuuka ran to him worriedly, while Ken dusted off a very-traumatised Koromaru.

"...Shall we join them?"

"Yeah," Akihiko nodded. His hand brushed against hers. "Let's."

- - -

"Aigis...!"

The blonde android came into view, humanity's saviour asleep in her lap. She smiled warmly at them.

"Everyone..."

Yukari ran to the pair, kneeling down beside Minato. Junpei walked up with her, bending down to grin at his friend. Fuuka soon joined them, engaging in conversation with Aigis. Meanwhile, Ken was watching Koromaru, laughing as the dog leapt up in the air again and again, trying to catch the falling cherry blossoms in his mouth.

A slight tug on his sleeve caught Akihiko's attention. Mitsuru was looking at him, nudging her head towards the fence. He nodded, moving towards it with her.

The two of them stood, looking out at the peaceful cityscape. Never had the sunlight reflecting off the sides of the buildings and the far-off water seemed so beautiful. Even the windmills, turning lazily in the wind, seemed a blessing in themselves.

"So, Mitsuru..."

"Mm?"

Akihiko reached out, picking off a blossom that had flown into her hair.

"What was it that you wanted to tell me? Way back then?" He held the delicate pink petal between his fingers, examining it with some interest.

"That's right, I never did tell you..."

Something in her voice made him look up.

And meet Mitsuru's lips.

Akihiko's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates, trying to keep his balance while registering the fact that Mitsuru– Kirijou Mitsuru– was pressing her lips against his.

"Actions speak louder than words," she murmured into his mouth.

Mitsuru was quoting proverbs.

While kissing him.

...He could live with that.

Grinning inwardly, Akihiko wrapped his arms around Mitsuru and brought her closer to him, the blossom and his jacket falling out of his hands and into the wind. He didn't notice, nor did the delighted cries of the underclassmen bother him. At that moment, the only thing that mattered was him and Mitsuru. All other sounds seemed to fade away, and they were the only two people left in the world. He leaned in, deepening the kiss, revelling in her warm breath, the faint scent of her expensive Dior perfume, the crimson curls fluttering against his face... It was what made her Mitsuru. The woman he loved.

They broke away, and the rest of the world came spiralling back at them. They could hear Junpei snickering in the background, followed by a loud smack and a cry of pain. Their eyes were only on each other: Breathless, cheeks flushed, and in awe of the sensations that had just coursed through their bodies.

"...this settles it, Shinji is definitely laughing his ass off up there right now," Akihiko said, still slightly disoriented.

Mitsuru smiled.

"Well, it will be quite some time before he can bother you about it, won't it?" she said softly, bringing her face up to his.

Akihiko laughed.

"Yeah, it will."

He bent down, and once more, the world around them disappeared.

At that moment, standing on that rooftop with their arms wrapped around each other, it was as close to bliss as it could get. Their friends laughed and talked merrily in the background, the spring wind sending cherry blossoms snowing down upon them like feathers like it, too, was celebrating the fulfilment of the two promises. It seemed as though all their troubles were finally over, and nothing more would go wrong; They would be able to live the rest of their lives in peace.

How naïve they were.

- CONT. -


As usual, beta-ing for this was done by Zwip, who must've killed at least three red pens as she was ripping the rough draft of this apart. -laughs- Midterms are next week for me, and I'll probably be busy over Break playing P4, so expect the first "official" chapter sometime in January, with monthly updates for each chapter afterwards (assuming school isn't eating me alive). Until then, I bid thee farewell!! Review if you liked, s'il-vous plait!!

- SAKU

P.S. I'll be putting quotes and sayings at the beginning of each chapter, so would anyone be interested in "mini-contests" centred around them?