A/N: I'm still alive... I just really didn't have any time to write anything, and briefly lost interest in writing anything Persona-related. I've recently come around, though, so I managed to get this chapter done. Some of the focus shifts a little more to Shinjiro here. Not much else to say except for a very belated thanks for past reviews.
Anyways, not much editing was done to this chapter, and I apologize. This is what I get for posting at almost 1 am. .; I'll go back over it and edit when I get a chance. Please enjoy reading the chapter!
Disclaimer: Persona 3 belongs to Atlus.
Flashback: Summer 1995
She was wearing a brand-new yukata just for the occasion.
He was carrying a gold-fish in a baggie with one hand while the other tugged at her hand, urging her to come with him to the booth selling all the masks.
About three feet away from the booth, her fingers slipped through his. By the time he turned about face to look, she was already laying face-down on the paved ground.
She wasn't moving.
This had happened before; he knew exactly what to do here.
He knelt down next to her, placing his goldfish bag on the ground next to him. His small hands gently shook her shoulder. "Ma, wake up."
She didn't move. Sometimes it took more than one try.
"Ma, wake up."
Nothing. She still lay there, prone, unmoving.
Panic started to set in. He continued trying to wake her, his voice rising with each attempt.
At some point, people had gathered around, and sirens drowned out his own voice.
When he looked up, an EMT had already reached his side.
"Everything's going to be alright," he said, sounding suspiciously like a character from a children's show. "We're going to do everything we can to save your mom."
He was led by the worker into the back of the ambulance, following the stretcher. They seemed completely focused on their task, placing an oxygen mask on her face and talking quickly amongst themselves.
He was separated from her when they got to the hospital. The EMT said that the doctors were going to make her better and that he shouldn't worry.
He held onto those words the whole time, even as the long beep from her room echoed in the hall.
Present Time: Summer 1998
Orphanage 2nd Floor, Boys Room - Late Night
Shinjiro sat bolt upright in bed, hair matted with sweat and gasping for air. Bringing his knees up to his chest, he closed his eyes tight, willing himself to calm down.
His eyes snapped open, darting around to find Akihiko sitting up and gazing worriedly at him from across the dark room.
"S'nothin'," he replied, voice undeniably shaky. "Go back to bed."
The silver-haired boy only looked on for another moment before getting the message. Silently, he settled back into his bed and lay down. He turned away, so Shinjiro wasn't able to tell whether or not he had actually gone back to sleep.
The fact that Akihiko was concerned about him in the first place made Shinjiro feel that he wasn't quite so alone.
Orphanage 1st Floor, Kitchen - Morning
"Shinji, how come you're not eating?"
Reiko turned her head slightly from the dish she had been focused on cleaning. Miki, Shinjiro, and Akihiko had been the last three kids in the orphanage to come for breakfast lately. The three of them had been spending more time together recently, although the brother and sister did most of the talking while the brunet remained despondent and quiet.
What the middle-aged caretaker was seeing right now, however, was unusual.
Aragaki Shinjiro, who always cleaned off his plate without complaining, no matter what food it was, hadn't touched his rolled eggs. Akihiko's expression as the gazed at the boy was one of concern, and Miki, oblivious to the somewhat tense atmosphere between them, kept asking the same question even when met with silence.
Reiko returned her focus to washing the remainder of the dishes when she heard Akihiko speak for the first time since they had arrived.
"You okay, Shinji?"
"Yeah." Shinjiro's voice was so soft Reiko almost didn't hear it.
"But you…" Akihiko sounded like he wanted to say more, but he fell silent, apparently at a loss. After a minute, he seemed to get his courage back. "Shinji, if something's the matter…"
"I told you, I'm fine, stupid." Shinjiro's voice was louder this time. "You're gettin' annoying."
When Reiko turned to look again, Shinjiro had already gotten off his chair and was heading out the kitchen. Akihiko and Miki only looked on in silence.
Reiko sighed. This was going on for about two days now; Shinjiro's demeanor was icier than usual, and on top of that he was barely eating anything. Still, she couldn't blame him.
After all, it was that time of year again.
Orphanage, Backyard - Daytime
Apparently, when Shinji wanted to be left alone, he meant it.
Ever since he left the kitchen after breakfast that morning, Akihiko hadn't seen any sign of him. After fifteen minutes of searching, he'd given up (and he didn't want to make Miki tired, as she was following him around, as always) and decided to watch television with the other kids until he'd gotten bored and went outside.
It wasn't until he was sitting on the edge of the sandbox with his sister that a thought had suddenly occurred to him. He suddenly stood up, causing Miki to look at him in wonder.
"Miki," he addressed the girl. "Let's go back inside. I think I know where Shinji is."
Orphanage 2nd Floor, Boys' Room - Daytime
It turned out to be a bust.
Akihiko fully expected to see messy brown hair sticking from underneath a blanket on the bed closest to the window, but all he found were pillows and a balled-up school uniform.
"How come Shinji's not here?" Miki asked.
"I dunno," the older boy answered her. "I thought he would be here… but I guess not."
"Let's go… Miki's bored…" Miki frowned. "I wanna eat some azuki ice cream."
"You can't have ice cream, Miki," Aki said, "the doctor said you're…" He trailed off for a moment, thinking of the words. "L-lack-tose in-to-ler… Ugh, you can't drink milk or eat cheese."
"But Miki can have ice cream!"
"Well, ice cream is made from milk, so you can't have it. Now, come on."
As the Sanada siblings left the room, Miki snapped, "I can, too! Just watch!"
Orphanage 1st Floor, Kitchen - Daytime
Miki was glaring at her onigiri as if she were willing it to burst into flames.
"I told you so," Akihiko told her, chewing on his own food. "I'm your big brother; I'm not wrong all the time."
Miki fumed silently, but took a bite of her food.
Reiko watched the two of them with an amused look on her face.
Aki quickly noticed and swallowed before addressing the caretaker. "Reiko-san?"
"Ah, don't mind me, I'm just thinking about the old days, is all."
Miki blinked. "Old days?"
"Well, yeah." Reiko pulled out a chair next to Miki and sat down. "Seeing you two reminds me of when I was a kid, growing up with my little brother."
Miki completely forgot about her mini-tantrum as her eyes widened with genuine shock. "No way!"
"Reiko-san wasn't always a grownup?" Akihiko questioned, putting down his rice ball.
The old woman laughed heartily, as though the children's reactions were nothing new to her (except, well, they didn't know that, either).
"No, I wasn't always this old. It just doesn't seem that way to you, because you two are little." Reiko chuckled. "Anyway, the house I grew up in is gone now, but I remember always sitting in the kitchen eating the snacks my mother made. My brother and I were always talking back and forth to each other, just like the two of you are."
"What happened to your brother, Reiko-san?" Akihiko asked, giving the woman's story his full attention.
Reiko looked somber. "Well, he's gone. He died about ten years ago in an accident. In fact, I know that Suoh misses him, too."
This earned her a confused look from the children, and she quickly added, "My brother was Suoh's father. He always liked to help others, especially children; it had been his dream to open up this orphanage with me. We made it come true, alright, but, then the accident happened…" She trailed off, wiping a tear from her eye.
"I'm sorry," Akihiko said, his eyes looking misty.
"M-me, too," said Miki with a sniffle. "For getting mad about getting onigiri 'stead of ice cream…"
"That's not the point, Miki…" Akihiko sighed and shook his head, wondering to himself what was going through his sister's mind sometimes… was she even listening?
Apparently, she was, because she then asked the older woman, "Are you sad about your brother?"
"I always will be. That's one thing that will never change." Reiko ruffled Miki's hair. "But, I know that my brother never liked to see me cry my eyes out, so after a while I figured I would continue to live and work hard for the both of us. That way, I can see him and say, 'Hey, little bro. I've got a lot of stories to tell you.'"
Reiko was smiling, but Akihiko could see that Miki looked like she was deep in thought. He must have had a similar expression on his face, because Reiko turned to him, still smiling.
"Maybe it's because I'm old that I can talk this way so easily," she mused. "You're still young, still children. You may not understand it now, but you will some day."
Akihiko's mind stirred with the memories of his own parents. He looked directly into Reiko's eyes, a sense of… something he couldn't quite describe just yet… making his heart pound.
"I've decided, then, Reiko-san!" He stood up and raised a fist into the air. "I'm gonna grow up and do a whole bunch of stuff and become strong! Then my Mom and Dad will be happy, right?"
"Miki, too!" His sister raised a fist as well.
Reiko laughed as she rose from her chair. "Haha, the two of you never fail to brighten my day. Well, I better finish this up for the other kids. They'll be clamoring before long."
As she returned to check on some rice she had been cooking, the room settled into a comfortable silence. Akihiko continued to think about Reiko's story for a moment, but it quickly gave rise to an emotion he had never experienced before, so he quickly pushed it aside, shuddering inwardly. His thoughts then returned to Shinjiro, who he was sure was determined to make sure he eluded him for as long as possible.
"Reiko-san, do you know where Shinji is? I haven't been able to find him."
To his surprise, the older woman's shoulder's drooped slightly as she let out a sigh. "That kid's always worrying everyone..."
Miki, who had been peeling the strip of nori from her onigiri, looked up when she heard the words. "Who? Shinji?"
"Do you know where he is?" Akihiko repeated.
"Why do you want to find him?" The woman turned to face him, her expression serious. "I heard that little exchange this morning, and he made it clear he wanted to be alone."
"Shinji's my friend," Akihiko said resolutely. "If something's the matter with him, I wanna know what it is so I can help him."
"That's admirable of you, Akihiko-kun," Reiko said, turning away from him to drain the rice. "However, as Shinjiro's friend, there are times where you need to give him some space and let him be alone."
At first, the old woman didn't answer him. She shook some extra water off the rice, dumped it into a large bowl, and covered it with a lid. She then turned to Akihiko, her brown eyes looking right into his own silver hues.
"Tell me, Akihiko, do you plan on going to the festival at the shrine this year?"
Orphanage, 3rd Floor, Unoccupied Room - Daytime
Shinjiro's eyes slowly opened to bright sunlight shining right in his face.
Sitting up and stifling a yawn, he briefly wondered where he was before he remembered he was sitting on an old sofa in a very familiar room.
Still, he figured he had to have been in here a long time for him to have fallen asleep. That just meant that he wasn't found by a certain pair of siblings with silver grey hair yet.
Shinjiro had to admire how clean the room was kept. With the exception of the desk and chair in a corner near the door, the coffee table sitting in front of him, and the sofa on which he sat, no other furniture graced the room.
Except for the faint ticking from the pocket watch the boy held onto and his own breathing, the room was silent, and it suited him just fine. He had come up here to get away from everyone to begin with. He figured the two women knew he was up there, but they never bothered to retrieve him. That, too, suited him just fine.
He held up the watch in front of him, watching as it hung from its chain in his hand. He remembered the day he received it, although that memory had admittedly become hazy now.
Lowering his arm and holding the object with both hands, he turned over and ran a thumb over the engraved characters for his name, at the same time envisioning a pale hand doing the same.
"…of course, you can't read your own name written this way yet… but you'll learn someday…"
Shinjiro paused, his eyebrows furrowed. The words were vivid enough in his memory, but not the voice…
What did "her" voice sound like again?
Willing himself to calm down, the brunette slid from the sofa to the floor, bringing his knees up to his chest. It had been a long time since he had thought of the memory, after all. There was no need to get worked up over it. Not at all.
"Take it slow," he muttered to himself, shutting his eyes tight. "Slow… that's all…"
It was light out, he remembered. The weather was warm. They were sitting together, looking at the pocket watch. "Her" hands were pale, they always had been. "She" spoke to him, he could think of the words, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't remember the voice.
He remembered asking a question, then looking up to see "her" face…
... But "her" face wasn't there.
Tears welled up in Shinjiro's eyes. "I… no…"
All he could think of now was a thin, pale woman with brown hair the same shade as his own, sitting on the back porch of a house on a sunny day… with no face.
The boy shook his head. He couldn't believe this. It was bad enough he couldn't remember "her" voice…
By the time Shinjiro turned to the door, it had already swung open. Akihiko stood in the doorway, breathing hard as though he had just run all the way up here.
The brunette stubbornly tried to wipe the tears away, but for some reason, they just wouldn't stop. His shoulders shook, and he choked back a sob. Part of him thought he was looking really pitiful right now, but another part of him didn't care anymore.
"You were up here all this time?" Aki asked worriedly, cautiously taking a step forward.
All Shinjiro could do was nod and keep an arm covered over his eyes, although tears still rolled down his face.
"Uh…" The other boy's voice sounded very awkward now. "I'm sorry if I'm botherin' you. I ran up here soon as Reiko-san said you were here, so… Ah, Miki's still downstairs…"
The brunette sniffed, and wiped his face with his sleeve. When he looked at his friend, his eyes were red, watery, and puffy. "I-idiot," he croaked.
Aki's ears turned pink. "I am not!" he shot back defiantly. "You're the one actin' just like you did last summer!"
Shinji stood up, finding the opposite wall more interesting to look at than the silverette's face. "… Yeah. Sorry."
"Anyway, let's go back. Miki gonna get mad and come up here herself if we take too long."
Shinjiro couldn't bring himself to move his legs just yet, however. He watched Akihiko start to turn away, pause, and then turn about to face him, his eyebrows knit together. "Shinji? What's the matter?"
The brunette gulped. His eyes started to sting again.
"Aki… I can't remember her face anymore."