Heat. Steam. Running water.

"No.... no, I won't do it."

"You have to, senpai... they'll ask questions if you don't."

Red hair.

"I don't want to. I'll... I'll accept the consequences."

"Do it. I deserve it. What should make me so different?"

"I.... I...."

Hesitance. That was uncommon for her.

"If I'm that dear to you.... you should be even more angry with me, right?"

"...That's--"

"A breach of trust... right?"

"...."

"...Do it."

Silence.

Blinding pain.

Darkness.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Arisato. ...Arisato? Are you listening?"

Minato Arisato looked up lazily from his daydreaming. He had been dozing off at his desk in an attempt to regain some of the lost hours of sleep. He and the other SEES members had ventured into Tartarus for the ump-teenth time that month, and he was now visibly fatigued. It took him a moment to notice that it was Mitsuru who was calling out to him, looking down at him sternly with her arms folded.

"You should be thankful that classes are over for the day, Arisato," said Mitsuru in her usual authoritative tone. "I wouldn't want to have to execute you in front of everyone for such improper behavior."

"Aw, c'mon, Mitsuru-senpai! Give him a break!" called out Junpei from the seat across from them. "He's been workin' his ass off these past few nights!"

"Yeah, and besides," Yukari added as she walked over to the group, "this is the first time he's ever fallen asleep in class. You have to admit that he's been pushing himself way too hard recently." Her face looked concerned as she peered down at Minato who, in spite of all the attention, had begun drifting off to sleep again. "Especially considering what happened at Kyoto...."

"...I won't deny the truth of that," replied Mitsuru, a pained expression crossing her beautiful features for a brief moment. "He's carried so much on his shoulders in such a short time... Perhaps we shouldn't go 'there' tonight, and just let him rest for a little while."

"Honestly, I dunno how he does it." Junpei leaped out of his chair and stretched lazily. "I used to envy him in the beginning, but man! It's a lot tougher to be a leader than he makes it out to be!"

"Are you able to come back to the dorm with us, Arisato?" Mitsuru looked down at her friend in genuine concern, and he nodded sleepily as he rubbed his eyes. "Alright, then. We'll go immediately. Iori, help him out, would you?"

"Sure thing, senpai. Up ya go!" Junpei took Minato's right arm and put it over his shoulders, lifting him up. Yukari took Minato's other side, and together the four of them returned to the dorm. Akihiko, Fuuka, Ken, Koromaru and Aigis were all waiting for them as they entered, and all four couldn't hold back their expressions of concern as they noticed their leader's condition.

"...No Tartarus tonight, I take it." Akihiko said, looked slightly downcast at this idea.

"You can't honestly expect him to lead like this!" Yukari's tone was reprimanding. "Three nights in a row without complaining even once! Geez, even HE needs rest once in a while!"

"And everyone else feels fine because he alternated who he took with him into the tower each evening," remarked Fuuka as she looked into Minato's exhausted face. "I mean, he made sure everyone was in top shape before going in."

"All he needs is some good old-fashioned bedrest." Mitsuru slowly took Yukari's place as Minato's helper as she spoke, Akihiko doing the same for Junpei. "We'll let him sleep for a while in his own room, and hopefully we'll be able to go to Tartarus after he gets better."

"It is fortuitous that it is the middle of the lunar cycle," remarked Aigis in her mechanical manner. "Should Minato have become exhausted two weeks from now, it would have placed the operation at severe risk."

No one spoke at the mention of this frightful possibility, completely understanding that she was quite correct. No one noticed the shadow that fell over Mitsuru's guilt-ridden face as she and Akihiko assisted Minato up the stairs to his own room.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Minato heard the door shut just before he opened his eyes. He felt the soft bed around him, the familiar warmth of the covers, but also the scent of unique perfume... expensive, but so very recognizable..

"Forgive me for not allowing you to rest, Arisato. But... I wanted to say something to you." He had been right; it was Mitsuru. She stood near him by his bed, facing away from him. She did not notice he had awakened.

"...It's my fault. I know it is. I... push you hard because I push myself hard." Mitsuru began to shiver slightly, her left hand moving down to the bedcovers. "I shouldn't.. force you to push yourself beyond your limits. In fact, I should have caught you before you left for Tartarus, even before the third night..."

Her hand drifted to Minato's empty one, her soft fingers gliding over it. She remembered how gentle his touch had been that fateful night in the hot springs at Kyoto, how warm and comforting it was against her shivering skin.

"But... that's not what I'm here for... I can't stop picturing the... How I..." Mitsuru couldn't bring herself to talk about the execution she performed at the hot spring. She understood why she had to do it, and why she couldn't allow him not to experience it. But it didn't make it any easier for her to cope with the aftermath of it... She had psyched herself into a rage over the entire incident, how he should have been more responsible as a leader and that he was supposed to set an example for the rest of the team. It had been easy in the end to perform the execution, yet she dwelled on it afterwards. Naturally, she internalized it like she always did, and she couldn't bear to look Minato in the eyes after realizing how much pain she had caused him... only for the sake of appearances. And it had been such a wonderful moment before that... the time that she, Yukari and Fuuka had spent with him, an excuse for all three women to enjoy the closeness... with him, and with each other. After she forced herself to execute Minato, though... everything seemed to go so wrong...

"I... Do you remember what I told you before...? About how I wanted to be with you... forever...?" She was looking down, her entire body trembling visibly now. "I just... realized... In your condition, you'd die... quickly.. and I.. we... would never see our future together... And... I got so scared..." Her voice was cracking, her hand grasping his in a tight grip as it began to shiver. "...You... make me feel things I've never let myself feel before... I don't... want to lose you... I..."

He allowed his hand to close around her soft fingers. A strangled gasp emerged from Mitsuru as she turned to gaze at him in total shock, her tear-soaked cheeks red with embarassment, red eyes staring at him in longing.

"....Minato-kun.... I don't want our last memories together... to be of an execution that you didn't deserve..."

The red-haired senior lowered herself toward Minato, lips parted sensually as they met his own. A soft moan escaped her throat as she embraced him, her sorrow and regret, love and affection pouring out though that deep, moving kiss...

Looking forward... without regrets...

Mitsuru Kirijo would never regret that night.