((Author's note: Apologies for the delay. It took a long time to write and edit this part to satisfaction. Still, this marks the last chapter, and I hope that you enjoy reading the final installment of this story. Cheers and huzzah!))
"…How much longer is it?" Mitsuru felt her jaw clench, and had to throttle the impulse to be snappish with the answer.
"Ten more minutes until midnight." Despite her best efforts, it still came out clipped, and across the table she could just see Akihiko scowl when he heard her. For a moment, she simply tried to look at her tea instead and ignore his frown. She didn't last long, and gave an audible sigh before looking up.
"Akihiko, it's only been five minutes since you last asked. Try to have some patience." She found herself looking at his bangs instead of his eyes, still not comfortable with the latter. She saw that Akihiko was also doing the same, glaring at some space just above her face. And like her, he didn't last long before his annoyance drained out in a sigh.
"…I know." He went from looking at her bangs to turning his paper napkin over in his hands. "I know, but I can't help it. Waiting to get in the ring isn't as bad as this."
They had only managed to get a block in to Shirikawa before both of them balked. In a way, Mitsuru was relieved that Akihiko had hesitated at the same moment she had. Any other time, she might have chided him for showing such reluctance, but once her eyes fell on the buildings, lit up and glowing in the evening air and with so many watching eyes milling around the streets, it was hard to convince her feet to take another step towards them. So instead, they'd stepped away, towards a late night café that sat just on the corner between the ritzy and seedy parts of the neighborhood.
Mitsuru felt her face soften as she looked at him. "Just try to last a little longer, Akihiko. Do you want anything else to drink?" 'Just none of those energy drinks.' She told herself. He was strung up enough as he was without more caffeine. As if to echo her thoughts, he shook his head.
"No thanks. All I'd want is something like Mad Bull, and I don't need to be more jumpy then I already am." She watched his hands, and saw that he was being truthful. His fingers started to methodically shred his napkin, folding and then tearing it into long and even strips of paper.
However, that didn't stop her when the waiter reached their table. "Water for him." She said, talking right over his protests. The waiter only blinked for a moment, before looking between her and Akihiko, and nodding to Mitsuru. Akihiko only grumbled as a glass of ice water was plunked down in front of him, and went from his napkin to fiddling with the lemon slice on the glass.
"It's for flavor, Akihiko. And I would feel better if you had at least something to drink." If she was any judge, he was like her and wouldn't be able to stomach any solid food until after they'd made an investigation.
She had to keep from shaking her head as Akihiko forgot the lemon, and almost drained the glass in one gulp. He didn't look up at her immediately, staring at the empty glass and bits of ice cube in it instead.
"Mitsuru, I know I asked this, but how much longe-"
"Akihiko! Relax." Another moment, and she had a hard time following her own advice. Tracing the edge of her own glass didn't help, and she found her eyes wandering from her own hands to Akihiko's. Those strips started to get thinner as he ran out of napkin and moved onto tearing them into smaller pieces.
"You realize that I still like you, right?" She suddenly said to Akihiko's gloves. They froze mid tear, and she slowly forced her eyes up to see that he was looking at her, instead of beyond her, or just to the side. His eyes still darted away from her, and she found herself doing the same. That tight knot from before was back, but it had also settled in her throat. "As…A friend." She managed to say around it, and felt it loosen just a fraction.
"I want to figure this out because I miss seeing you, and working with you…And your company as well." She also missed being able to speak to his face, instead of some point just above or below it. "And I want to get that back-"
"If we can?" She was surprised at Akihiko's words, and the tone behind them. "Don't get the wrong idea; I want the same thing." His voice sounded heavy with pain, saying that, and hearing him tugged that knot back into place. "I just…Wonder if we can get that back."
He left his pile of napkin shavings near his plate, and started reaching for a new one when everything went green. The clatter from the café and street noise all suddenly cut out, leaving them with the familiar lonely void of the Dark Hour.
"…We only have an hour to get back to Shirikawa and make the investigation. Let's hurry." She forced herself to her feet as she said that. And when she glanced up again, saw that Akihiko was already heading to the door.
The walk from the café to the hotel (He tried not to think of it as Fleurs de Champs, despite what the sign said. Something about the French name made him want to look back at Mitsuru, and he didn't want to be watching her when they were so close to the hotel.) cost them a few minutes. They had to spend a few more picking their way past the police cars and coffins gathered outside as well. "A sad side effect of the mission," was all Mitsuru said, as they squeezed between one cluster of coffins and the open door of a squad car. But all the obstacles stopped at the door; once they forced that open, and stepped inside, the only thing they found waiting for them was a long empty set of hallways.
The sound of the briefcase clicking open echoed loud off the walls. Akihiko tried not to focus on it as he handed Mitsuru her Evoker before strapping his own around his waist. With only a few more steps inside, he began to wonder if they actually needed the weapons. There weren't any shadows slinking around now. None of the scavengers stayed after the top predator was gone, and took its protection with it. That didn't keep the walls from having a sick oily after taste, though, And a faint feeling of something wrong lurking just out of sight, as much as Akihiko tried not to focus on it.
…Or maybe that was just his nerves talking, as they got a few steps closer to that room all this trouble had started in.
"Mitsuru?" It didn't feel right to raise his voice there, and he wasn't ready to move closer to Mitsuru so he could whisper. So instead he settled on staying within arm's reach.
"I…" Her voice matched his. "I didn't predict such an ambience here. But…I will admit that it is unnerving."
"Y-yeah…" He swallowed around a suddenly dry throat, and forced his words to be more even. "Let's hurry up and solve this."
Mitsuru nodded, and he fell into step behind her as she led the way down the halls and into the deeper parts of the building. Past some of the doors he knew they'd find groups of coffins, and they wouldn't be holding patrons. There was police tape tacked around those doors, with the yellow color leeched out by the Dark Hour. What was left was pale and sickly, with only the letters spelling 'Do Not Cross' still clear.
He had no problem with following those instructions, and left those rooms for a single unmarked door on the second floor. They hesitated once they cleared the stairs, both pausing at the spot where they'd met the other two S.E.E.S members.
The door in the middle of the hallway looked unremarkable compared to the fuss downstairs. It almost didn't feel right, to freeze up over seeing such a plain object, but thinking that didn't keep his heart from pounding loud in his ears. Akihiko tore his eyes away from the door, and gingerly reached for Mitsuru's shoulder. His fingers only hovered over her before he pulled them back.
"Ready?" He asked, and at her nod took one step at a time towards the room.
Akihiko held the door open, not looking inside. Mitsuru was taken back by the gesture, and for a moment just stood there, trying to figure out if he'd ever looked more out of place or uneasy. If it had been at school or the dorm, she'd be flattered, but the miasma from the Dark Hour in the air turned the gesture into something much more surreal.
"…Whenever you're ready." He murmured, his voice tight. She took a quick look at his shoulders, saw how they were tensed and hunched forward. His hands were twitching, and she realized that if she didn't go in quickly, the police would have another vandalized room to look through, this time ransacked.
"Thank you, Akihiko." She only got a grunt in reply as she passed him. Her stomach did an odd lurch as she stepped through the door, while her mind hummed with a sudden nervous energy. She forced herself to breath in deeply, and keep the buzzing in her mind from washing over her. She was going to do this search properly, and not allow any leftover emotions to get the better of her.
The carpet inside muffled her footfalls, and Mitsuru stopped short of the bed, giving it a scrutinizing look. After five seconds, all that she got was the impression that the hotel management had sunk a good chunk of their budget into velvet and satin coverings.
"Any luck?" She'd rarely heard Akihiko sound so anxious, or uncertain. She managed to shake her head. Out of the corner of her vision, she saw him start to stalk around the edges of the room, like he expected any part of it to lunge at him if he got to close. She wanted to tell him to calm down…But something about that saying that felt hypocritical. This place also felt like it was starting to play with her nerves, despite what she'd told herself.
"It's no good." He growled. "I'm not getting anything. How the hell are we supposed to figure this out?"
"I don't know!" She snapped, and instantly regretted it when he turned his back on her. The room was turning into something more like a locked box, stifling and frustrating in equal turns.
"I'm sorry, Akihiko." He stopped midstep, not quite turning to look at her but still listening, as Mitsuru fought to speak over that growing white noise in her ears. "I'm not sure what we need to do-"
A jolt snapped through her mind, cutting her words off. That noise in her head changed into a high pitched wail, and in a moment Mitsuru realized that she could just hear Penthesilea screaming a warning.
She ducked a split second later, and felt the air across her back ripple as something swished through the air, missing her by a nail's width. Mitsuru dropped to the floor, staring at Akihiko as he turned around at the sudden motion.
His eyes were wide, and for a change it wasn't because he was looking at her. Mitsuru struggled to turn as well, but she could already tell what had to be behind her; the answer was all over the shock in Akihiko's face, the way Penthesilea was trying to push into the front of her mind…And that faint hissing that started to fill the room.
"Mitsuru? I thought you said they never stuck around, after the big ones got K.O'd." Akihiko's voice was low, just barely audible over the noise.
"…I did." She whispered back. "And if I had the luxury of more time, I'd analyze this further-" Her words were cut off as that hiss rose, sounding like the air was being ripped apart.
"We can't let it out of this room; not with so many people close by…And I don't think it will allow us out, either." She hoped that Akihiko was reaching for his Evoker. The metal edge of her own was cold, just touching the tips of her fingers. And even though she knew it was better then a sword, Mitsuru couldn't keep from cursing the fact that they didn't bring their weapons.
'A bad oversight. And it might cost you dearly, if you don't move fast.'
"Yeah but…Where the hell is it!" Akihiko spat that out, although it felt like his words were cutting through a sudden fog that was spreading through the room. Mitsuru could feel the corners of her vision start to blur, worse then what usually happened in the dark hour.
"Not in front of us, clearly. Perhaps it-"
It was just a blur of motion at the edge of her sight; a patch of black that was just a little bit darker then the rest of the room. Mitsuru whirled, drawing her Evoker and putting it to her head in one smooth motion. She didn't allow herself to hesitate, and pulled the trigger as she rounded on the shape.
Over the ringing in her ears from the boom of the Evoker, Mitsuru could hear the crackle and squeak of ice as it suddenly formed. The temperature in the room plummeted, and Mitsuru felt a surge of satisfaction as the newly made ice plunged into the Shadow-
A breath later a half gasp, half scream from Akihiko cut into her ears, and the Shadow in front of her shattered in response. She was looking at something twisted and unnatural in one moment. In the next, it was gone, and she saw Akihiko getting flung into the wall.
"Mits-" He was gasping over the pain. She could barely hear him, as the way he thudded against the wall seemed impossibly loud. "Mind-"
'Mind control.' She felt a chill run down her back at the thought. 'Something took root here with that ability.'
The room seemed to ripple from where Akihiko struck the wall, as if the place had a heartbeat. And Akihiko hadn't slumped to the floor yet. In defiance of gravity, he hung there, slack and breathing hard from the attack. Just at the edge of where his body met the wall, she could see a thin thread of something dark starting to twist out through the plaster and wallpaper. As the wall pulsed like thick black vein, Mitsuru found herself wondering why nothing ever seemed to follow her plans, or cooperate.
Her feet started to move at that thought, pushing her towards Akihiko. She had to get him away from whatever was leaking out of that wall, before-
Her thoughts were slowing down, and her feet paused with them. Mitsuru could just feel panic trying to claw at her as she realized that. Penthesilea strained in the back of her mind, trying to break free of what was slowly draping itself over her.
Mitsuru's hand dropped from her head, the Evoker bouncing against her leg for a moment as her arm went numb and listless. She stared at Akihiko as he tried to thrash and tear himself loose from where he was pinned, his movements getting sloppier, and slower. And yet…All she could wonder was why he felt any need to do that.
An oily sensation was leaking into her thoughts, making her skin crawl even while her thoughts started to float in an almost blissful state. She couldn't shake off that feeling of something coating her mind, and it was building up so much that the sensation was close to making her gag. She couldn't-
She can't get it out of her throat. Even though she has her arms wrapped around Akihiko, there's still something uncomfortable around her. It sticks against her skin, and leaves a faintly rotten taste on her tongue. It makes her mind buzz, and stops up the frantic rhythm of her heart.
Akihiko's cheek is suddenly pressed against hers, and his breath is hot against her ear. Something in her mind says to just curl against his mouth, turn around and press herself against him. But those thoughts are coming more sluggishly, and she feels like she's gone from floating to slogging through a thick, sickly sweet syrup.
Akihiko's breath goes from deep to unsteady, fluttering and gasping. In a moment, she realizes that her own is like that. There's something thick and black wrapped around her lungs, and squeezing against her mind. It's almost like a shadow, clouding her vision-
And at that thought, Penthesilea suddenly screams into her mind-
Penthesilea crashed against her thoughts, like a cold, cutting winter storm. Mitsuru felt her fingers clench, even though the pain in them felt like they'd just thawed out from a cold snap.
And her face jerks away from Akihiko in response-
Her hand snapped back up, her fingers drawing tight around the Evoker. In the back of her mind, beyond Penthesilea and the darkness trying to chew up her thoughts, Mitsuru felt her insides clench as his face went hot from anger. She yanked down on the trigger and-
That syrupy feeling is washed out of her, and the haze in her mind dissolves.
If it was cold before, then the temperature in the room could only be compared to a blizzard as the gun went off.
"You won't take me that easily." The words hissed out from between her teeth, as Mitsuru felt a wave of cold lance from her, and burrowed straight into the wall. The vein around Akihiko suddenly burst open as ice shredded and expanded through it, and finally, finally, he fell to the floor as the ice shredded at the wall.
His eyes were glassy as he stared up at her from where he lay, and Mitsuru swallowed as his hand clawed at his own Evoker, tearing it out of the holder and brining it to his head as he lifted himself half off the ground. There was no recognition in his eyes as his finger pulled back, and his head was jolted violently to the side as the gun went off.
Mitsuru felt her body give an answering jolt, as something exploded out of his head and crashed into her. Her ribs felt like they were going to break instead of bend from the force. Mitsuru realized that her feet weren't touching the ground in the same instant the floor suddenly dug into her back. It stung, making her cough as she tried to hold herself up on her arms.
Akihiko hadn't let go of the Evoker, and his eyes were still fixed on her, blank and uncomprehending. Just past him, she could see something trying to push its way out of the wall, the motions painful and jerky thanks to the hole she'd put in it.
"Akihiko, behind you! Don't-" Mitsuru wheezed as she watched him. His motions weren't his own; none of that sure steadiness she'd seen in Tartarus, OR that jerky nervousness that had been so common in the last days. Mitsuru wondered if she was about to die without actually seeing him before she went.
That was when Akihiko shut his eyes. Such a motion shouldn't have carried such a profound change, but somehow, it did. In one instant, his eyes were clouded over. And in the next, as they opened, there was a sudden focus in them, sharp and angry. She tried to say something, but then his fingers closed around the trigger.
Light exploded out from him, sudden and sharp enough to stop her heart and burn her eyes, while her ears rang and her body shook from the clap of thunder that enveloped them both. But that was the only pain she felt. And when her vision cleared, there wasn't a trace of live Shadow left in the room; just herself, Akihiko, and the tattered remains of what used to be wallpaper.
Akihiko was staring at the crisped husks of Shadow that still stuck to the wall, slowly dissolving away. His hand rested close by something that looked vaguely like a the rotting remains of a serpent's head, half thrust out of the space where the wall met the floor, and his fingers were curled in such a way that they looked like they wanted to crush bit of red mask that hadn't vanished. Even from where she was laying, Mitsuru could see the anger flashing through his face.
"…Akihiko?" The words felt like cotton in her throat and ears. He was holding himself up with just his hands when he turned to look away from the room, to her.
"…Really…Really wish that hadn't been necessary." The words leaked out of his mouth, and he gave a groan as he tried to push himself up to his knees. Mitsuru mimicked the action, not about to be outdone by him. Somehow, she was able to find more words, as her thoughts began to pick up again.
"Necessary? It was…The same for you, then?" He dipped his head in a nod, and tried to get to his feet.
"Mitsuru. We didn't-"
Tried to. Instead, he wavered for a moment, before falling back into a kneel. With some testing, Mitsuru found that she could get up all the way, and slowly moved over to him.
"I know." She put a hand out for him to take. "I…We didn't do anything regrettable. Or didn't just do anything that can't be healed. That's the point."
His hand gripped at hers with an impressive amount of strength when he took it. He might have said more, as he pulled himself to his feet, but of all things it was a low gurgle from his stomach that stopped him. She was grateful for the break and the opportunity it presented, even if it was making him look oddly pink.
"The Dark Hour won't last forever. When it ends, we should be somewhere away from here…And where we can both get that skipped meal." A quick turn on her heel settled that, and she walked out, eager to put the room behind her.
Still, she couldn't out pace that odd tightness in her chest.
After everything they went through, the end of that night felt anti-climatic. Mitsuru had him stop in an all-night store to get something for them to eat, passed him a few bills to pay him back, and then led the way back to the dorm. It all without much eye contact made between them. He could barely figure out how to stammer out a thanks for the money, or wish her a good night.
And even though she nodded at that last part, before going up the stairs…There was still something that stayed lodged in his stomach, and he didn't think that was due to the convenience store brand noodles. It wasn't like that tight ball of nervousness, either; more like there was a hole in him, a void that wasn't budging even AFTER he got his resolution.
…They HAD wrapped things up, hadn't they?
Things felt oddly muted after that. He couldn't even figure out some good curses to make when his alarm went off, six hours later, and the trip to school went by in a blur. Lessons also droned by, and he sleep walked through writing and memorizing notes.
His side still stung, but that was nothing compared to being stuck in a cast. And the more hours he put between himself and the Dark Hour, the more the pain felt like it was fading. Through the morning and afternoon, he kept one eye on the clock, counting down the minutes until boxing club. That at least would feel normal. And after solving things, every muscle in his body was itching for a work out, tensed and ready.
He was still watching the clock at lunch, with only half his thoughts on getting all his rice eaten. It was mid bite that both things were rudely interrupted by his phone. It rattled around in his bag, jingling away and cheerfully oblivious to his attempts to grab it. Akihiko let himself feel a moment of triumph when his fingers finally closed around it, before pulling it up.
After all that effort, the results were disappointing. Just a text message on the screen, and he was about to click it shut when his eyes caught a name at the bottom. Then they darted back to the text.
"Will you please meet me on the roof?
The heat wave that had clutched at Iwatodai was finally dissipating. Up on the roof, she could truly feel and appreciate that. A steady breeze was coming in from the coast, stirring the windmills and giving her a breath of cool air as she waited.
Mitsuru didn't turn around when the door opened and shut, or when a pair of shoes clicked across the roof towards her. She kept her eyes on the windmills instead, watching them spin and counting each rotation. She got to seven when the steps stopped behind her, and heard someone take a few deep breaths before speaking.
"…Mitsuru?" The late afternoon sun was glinting off the windmill edges, and she found herself focusing on those as she spoke.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice, Akihiko."
"Don't worry about it." He moved over to the corner of her vision, and she chanced a look over at him. His shoulders looked tense, although his face stayed blank and fixed on some point at the horizon.
"It's getting closer to finals. You've been studying, I trust?" She could almost feel him double take at that.
"O-of course." He managed. "Why wouldn't I?"
"Just…Things have been chaotic, to put it lightly. I was worried that it might have disrupted your schedule." His shoes squeaked a little as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"Maybe a bit. But it's nothing you have to worry over. I'm not going to crash and burn next week." She only nodded at that, closing her eyes and forcing her lips to tighten into what she hoped looked like an encouraging smile.
"That's good to hear. To be honest, I was concerned that it was otherwise. Considering the circumstances we had to work through." She couldn't help it, and turned to look at him. Seeing his reaction to her next words suddenly became very important.
Akihiko was still staring off into the distance, but his eyes were narrowed, almost glaring. She knew what that expression meant, that he had something still stuck in his mind and bothering him.
"I've been…" She forced a deep breath through both her nose and mouth, but it did little to stop her knot from tightening further. It started to squeeze around her mind as well as her chest, and left room for only one thought; she had to talk to him, and get whatever he was keeping in his head out in the open.
"I've been wondering over what you said last night. About if it was possible to go back." She was shocked at how soft her voice had become, and how it was a struggle to get the words out. "I'd like to hear what you meant by that."
Whatever was lodged in his mind and making him scowl, her question had swept it right out from under him. His eyes were wide, staring, and she thought there was some red creeping up under his cheeks.
"I-it's just…" His hands were flexing at his sides, clenching and unclenching into fists.
"I feel…Different about you now." Something tight snapped across her heart at that, leaving a painful ache. She wasn't certain just how Akihiko could detect that, but he did. He turned to look at her, meeting her eyes for a split second. That pain in her chest faded from the shock of seeing how worried he looked.
"I don't know if this is wrong, but…I haven't been able to think about you without feeling off." He shut his eyes tight, and his mouth twisted into a frown, like he was having to claw and dig for the right words. "Like I'm off balance all the time, and can't figure out how to get back up. And sometimes I even feel sick because…" Mitsuru was certain she wasn't imagining his blush any longer.
"Because when I think back, I don't know if what I felt was just the Shadow talking to me. I-it's like-" Mitsuru found herself cutting him off, and her words came out in a whisper.
"Like there was something already there?" A dunking in cold water wouldn't have shocked him more. Her fingers were quivering, but she forced her hand to move. "I don't know if that's the case for you, but…I've been thinking about it. And starting to think it's right."
She felt her fingers brush against his hand, and that knot in her chest suddenly uncurled.
Even though she knew her face was calm, she could feel her hand shaking as it touched his. It didn't help when he almost jumped from that sudden touch, and she was about to yank her hand back. Right until he wrapped his fingers around hers, and gave them a gentle squeeze to try and steady her hand.
His grip wasn't any less tight, almost desperate. Even through his gloves, Mitsuru could feel the warmth from his hand. His fingers weaved in between hers, trying to hold them steady.
The shaking did lessen, right as she looked right at him. And to her relief, Akihiko had no trouble meeting her eyes.
"This isn't…" He still fumbled for the words. "It's not the same as before. It's just…comforting."
She could see his eyes close, right as a thought flashed across them, and before she could ask what, he drew his hand away from hers. Something in her protested when Akihiko let go. But that same something was instantly silenced when she felt his hands cautiously rest on her shoulder, and brush up against her back.
She was surprised at his touch. It was easy to associate strength with his hands and arms; she'd seen him throw countless punches before. But hesitation? That was something she never would have thought of…And yet it was there, as he rested his hands on her, just barely touching her.
"It's alright, A…Aki." The shortened name felt strange on her tongue, and she tripped over it. But it also put a little more confidence into him, hearing that. She could feel his hands relax as they pulled her closer, and she took a half step forward so they were pressed together. Mitsuru could feel Akihiko let his breath out in a sigh as he clutched at her blouse, and she matched his grip as her hands wrapped around his waist. They'd found their center, finally, after several days of stumbling about, confused and hesitant.
"I…Can't deny that I look at you differently, now. But I still value you," She focused on how his hand pressed against her back as she spoke. "And more then before. You're…Special to me, Aki."
This time, she could look up at him when she used that name, and saw that he had the beginnings of a smile; the first that she'd seen since waking up next to him at the hotel. And Mitsuru felt herself mirroring it, first slowly, and then feeling it spread across her face, along with that gentle feeling slowly curling out of her chest. Akihiko was right; this wasn't like before. In fact, her mind felt startling clear, telling her all about how strange it felt to be pressed against him…But also how oddly nice, too.
Akihiko saw her looking at his mouth, and in response he started to lean forward…Only to pause midway, watching her carefully. She could see the question in his eyes, and Mitsuru answered it by closing the distance, and resting her lips against his.
The rest of her words were lost when they settled into the hug and kiss, but as she curled against him, Mitsuru couldn't help but think she didn't need them.