Aki met Shinji when they were both four years old. He doesn't remember it, neither did Shinji, the rare times they sat back and talked about it. But Aki and Miki had been at the orphanage first, longer, so it must have been Shinji who transferred in, the new kid, the fifth in the room. Miki had been who he liked first, Shinji liked to say, half nostalgic and half an ass: even when you were five you were a fucking prep, Aki; you honestly think I'd chose to be friends with that if you didn't also have a sister?
There was never question of Shinji and Miki marrying when they got older; they were already family anyway. They'd play that they were twins and she the younger sister and rescue her from villains and dragons and wizards (and whatever their cartoon heroes were fighting that week)—the Gemini and Helen, wars and rescue and honor. Aki couldn't remember meeting Shinji, and could only barely, fleetingly remember living before the orphanage—so, why shouldn't Shinji be the elder brother? What was wrong with being the middle child?
Mitsuru intimidates Akihiko into collared shirts and slacks without ever saying a word about it. He brings her back the evoker two days after she lends it to him, one day after he tries it, pale and for the first time—last time—in his life uncertain, at a loss; she smiles more happily than he knows what to do with and takes his wrist in her hand. Introduces him to the chairman, to her father, before he can so much as blink: there he is, ragged jeans and a tee-shirt that was probably, in retrospect, actually Shinji's—and there was Mitsuru, all tailored skirt and shirt and her father looking like rumpled clothing couldn't exist within fifty feet of him.
Mitsuru starts talking about Persona and clubs; Akihiko uses his monthly allowance to buy a shirt with a collar and wears his uniform right for the first time ever; Shinji laughs himself sick but even he shuts up the first time Mitsuru looks his way—
Then it's Akihiko—Aki—who laughs himself sick. But she makes him want to look good, look better, live up to her image—or maybe just win, some new contest with ill defined rules. Still, for all Shinji's teasing, he wasn't preppy until SEES.
Mitsuru and Shinji like needling one another, animosity masking great respect; they like needling him, too, and Aki bickers back with Shinji and pits one against the other the rest of the time; they combat fatigue and argue over who has the most bruises and sleep in the lounge half the time, too exhausted to climb the stairs to bed. Bleed on the furniture and you'll regret it, Mitsuru informs them; they all do, anyway. Somehow Mitsuru's grades don't slip, but Shinji and Aki's grades do, and Shinji uses the excuse to cut class more, dragging Aki along, c'mon, ramen tastes way fucking better when you're supposed to be studyin' calculus.
It lasts six months.
Akihiko's a teenaged boy, deep down at least, and the first thing he thinks when he meets Takeba is—wow, that's a short skirt. But it's impractical, and that's the lasting thought, and they walk home from school together, on accident, and he watches her press a hand to the back of her skirt as she climbs the subway stairs, and he wonders why she even wears it. She wears pink and flavored, sparkling lip gloss—he examines a tube she leaves lying around—nail polish and ruffles and he doesn't realize he's avoiding being alone in the lounge with her until she confronts him with it one night, before he heads out on patrol:
"Do you have a problem with me, Senpai?"
And it's the hardest question in the history of questions; he stammers a no and she taps a cheek with her finger and she smiles and it is the scariest smile in the history of smiles.
"You're shy around girls, huh, Senpai?"
"No, I'm not," he says, too harshly, the smile flickers and dies and he's amazed he got away with the lie, so he changes the subject a little, half circles around the real problem, besides how unnerving she is. "Are you even serious about joining?"
"Yeah, I am," and he wonders why she sounds offended.
He pulls out his evoker in one sharp movement, points it at her and she flinches. Shinji'd never flinched. Shinji'd thought it was cool, until he didn't think so—"Then summon your Persona already." Pressing the nuzzle against her forehead would be going too far, so he doesn't.
"I thought you wanted new members," was all Mitsuru had to say on the subject; he could never put up an argument against her and they both knew it, but he tried anyway.
"Things were fine with the three of us."
Mitsuru breathed through her nose. "Akihiko."
The argument is done there. He knows Shinji isn't coming back; she knows that's the root of it; he knows she doesn't mean to replace him, either, and they both know it needs to be done.
"Ikutsuki didn't really stick Arisato in here because of a clerical error, did he?" After a moment.
"Would a male recruit be different than a female?" She's being a little mean, but Akihiko figures he had it coming, and allows it to sit there.
Arisato lacks presence, anyway.
When Junpei joins a few days later, it's fine, because Akihiko himself found him, and Junpei wears neither pink or short skirts. It comes to light that he and Arisato are Takeba's classmates—must be something in the water in class 2-F. Things go smoothly, marvelously, for a while, and Takeba even seems to forgive him, confident with Io's manifestation. The first day Junpei waves him down in the hall at school, Senpai this and Senpai that and we should totally hang out now we're pals right, Akihiko changes his mind about this whole 'fine' thing.
"It's not a friendship club," he tells him: Junpei's expression falters, and he laughs—"Course not, Senpai, see you around," and Akihiko feels vaguely guilty and decides that both the vague and the guilt are things he doesn't want to deal with, and shouldn't have to with broken ribs.
He tracks down Shinji and for the first time in a year they talk without wanting to punch one another—which is progress—although when Akihiko presses his luck and suggests Shinji rejoin, Shinji offers to break his other ribs for him.
They make him stay overnight in the hospital for observation, and Mitsuru manipulates him into agreeing by pointing out that he can use the opportunity to look for people with potential, wandering the halls and peeking into rooms for patients not in coffins. He finds an old man on life support and Yamagishi. They debate for a while about recruiting her but all arguments stop abruptly when she goes missing.
He hunts down Shinji again, for information.
"Kinda late. Your underclassman came by the other day."
They're your underclassman, too, he almost replies, but Akihiko doesn't feel like picking a fight for once. "They didn't tell me they visited you."
"Tch. Wouldn't call it a visit." He refuses to elaborate further, claiming there was nothing much to tell, informing Akihiko what he's heard about Yamagishi. He thanks him distractedly, counting hours and days—she's dead, she has to be dead, but is it possible, is it—
"Aki." He's startled when Shinji speaks again, eyes hidden under his fringe and hat. Shinji takes his time finishing the sentence, rolling a cigarette between his fingers. "She ain't Miki."
He's too startled to react or, for example, punch him: Shinji lights his cigarette and slouches off before he can.
Aegis is a welcome addition, and watching Yamagishi tinker with Aegis' casing, shyly offering to show him how, cements her status as a recruit, too, and besides, it's nice to be fighting back to back with Mitsuru again.
The robot is technically a woman but mostly just a cool machine, he figures—and he's watched enough cartoons in his childhood to think a robot with gun-hands is very cool—with so many of them, too, there are less chores per person, and the dorm is getting comfortably crowded. It makes him nostalgic enough to risk picking a fight with Shinji over recruitment again; it goes exactly as badly as expected, and Mitsuru seems amused more than sympathetic.
"Would you be this devoted if I quit?" she asks.
"You wouldn't quit."
"Fair enough." She turns the page of her magazine. "I saw Aragaki recently, actually."
"Over a different matter." She gives him a look, so he resists the urge to ask. "At least with seven members, it is not so urgent we get him back."
He grins a bit at that phrasing. "Yeah, we're turning up members left and right. Why didn't anyone bring up Aegis last year?"
"I cannot say. I honestly don't know." Mitsuru looks a bit troubled, but doesn't give him the chance to ask. "Although, I doubt you and I alone could have handled her." She nods across the lounge, where Arisato and Takeba are busily teaching—trying, anyway—Aegis to speak in slang, Junpei offering crude alternatives and and Yamagishi looked both embarrassed and like she'd like to join in.
Mitsuru quirks her mouth at him. "It makes you feel proud, doesn't it?"
"Hah." He hadn't thought of that, but now that she says it—looking over at the underclassmen— "Yeah, kinda."
It later turns out that Mitsuru and Akihiko think alike. Mitsuru, on hearing advance word that Koromaru could summon a persona, had realized that that prospect—a dog—might serve as a good bribe for Shinji's return. It hadn't worked.
A month later, when Amada joined, Akihiko started considering using the kid as a bribe instead. If he had avoided Takeba when she joined, so long ago, it was nothing on Amada—he heard her consoling the kid that Sanada-senpai was just kinda shy around kids (and girls), and he felt guilty enough that he started to make an effort.
He'd known Amada's name, of course, but that had been all. In person, the kid was a kid. But he was still grimly pleased that Mitsuru looked uneasy, too, when the underclassmen brought up Ken-kun's maturity. It was Koromaru's warming to the kid that made Akihiko really decide to give him a fair chance—he'd spent enough time watching Shinji pretend not to be an animal lover to absorb the sentiment that dogs were good judges of character.
The three of them went on a walk in early September, right after Amada officially joined, Koromaru the only one without ulterior motives, without guilt to hide. "Why did you ask to join SEES?"
Amada took a deep breath. "It's the right thing to do. If I have this power, I should use it. Mom would want me to." One reason leads smooth into the other, but each sentence feels disjointed from the others. Koromaru, tail wagging, barks at something and runs ahead.
"How did your mom die?" Akihiko tries to sound like he doesn't know.
"In an accident." So does Amada.
"Amada Ken has joined SEES," he says to Shinji.