sorry about the wait, but hey, it's like a christmas present from me-ow to you! four-twenty-two is vaguely significant, I'm sure you'll get it. shinji/clocks is canon in my head. it's summer in australia but the rain keeps coming. hope you all have a loverly christmas, make sure you eat lots of pudding for me.
love love love, meowfactory


I'm reaching for the phone
to call at seven-oh-three
and on your machine, I slur a plea
for you to come home
but I know it's too late
and I should have given you
a reason to s

11. a lack of color

Death was a process rather than an event. It took a few days, though Akihiko knew it was over before it had even begun. Something about the rain, maybe, the way it started up in defiance of spring almost as soon as she was admitted to hospital. The doctors couldn't find anything physically wrong with her in the beginning, until the cardiac arrhythmia came on. Bradycardia, a word he only knew the meaning of because of his constant training. His resting heart rate was so low. Maybe that was why he hardly reacted when they discovered the fluid building up in her lungs, Mitsuru all but commanding the doctors to find the cause while he just sat there, watching the symptoms.

He felt distinctly apart from the rest of them, their tears and gritted jaws and too quiet voices, felt like no one in the grand scheme of things, an intruder in their grief. Shinji had always teased him about being a crybaby but he wasn't crying now, just held her hand tight, tighter still when he remembered she couldn't squeeze back, and held his breath as the machines that had so quickly become an extension of her emitted a distressed beeping before the inevitable flatline.

It all seemed outside the scope of his reality. Junpei almost shouting, Yukari sobbing, Mitsuru's nails cutting crescents into her palms. Shinji finally conscious and standing just behind him, Ken gripping the edge of his weather-beaten coat, the rain hitting the window pane with renewed force. A copy of a copy of a moment miles away. Noise pollution.

Wordlessly, he stood, let go and walked out the door, not caring that he could hear someone following him. He kept searching until he found a silent hallway and leaned against the wall, letting himself sink to the floor. Barely acknowledging Shinji's presence beside him, they sat shoulder to shoulder, and for the first time he could remember he was thankful for the fact that Shinji wasn't much for talking. He felt physically ill but could not pinpoint the exact origin of his sickness; maybe in his lungs, his stomach, his blood, from heart to artery, vein to capillary.

"Four-twenty-two," Shinjiro said under his breath, and Akihiko looked over to see him fiddling with Minako's watch, the one a nurse had removed to replace with a plastic hospital bracelet. Levering off the backing, Shinji deftly pried out the battery before putting it back together. He ran his thumb over the scratched glass face, watch hands oblivious to the fact that time carried on whether they kept it or not, and somehow seemed satisfied.

"That's..." Akihiko trailed off, staring intently at his face. That's hers. He swallowed, willing Shinji to look him in the eye for once. He couldn't play this game right now, couldn't afford to guess what he was thinking because Aki always ended up guessing wrong.

"I gave it to her," Shinjiro eventually said, focusing on the bridge of Akihiko's nose. That didn't stop him from seeing the warmth behind Akihiko's eyes go cold - not exactly angry, not even betrayed. It was more akin to the dull sadness of overcast days or gathering rainclouds, a quality Aki's eyes had had for ten years now. Akihiko nodded mutely, turning his head to stare blankly at the wall in front of him, and Shinjiro got the distinct feeling that this was not over, that Aki would let it fester for a while before he felt the crunch of his knuckles against his jaw.

Akihiko could hear the click-clack of Mitsuru's boots getting closer, and he didn't really want to deal with her, not right now. She turned the corner with her eyes rimmed red and her lips pressed in a tight line.

"What are you doing?"

Shinjiro was ready to field the question, to tell her to lay off, because from the corner of his eye he saw Aki do that thing he used to do whenever conversations turned to Miki. His jaw shifted and he started inhaling before he finished exhaling, his hands trembling like he couldn't stay still, like he just couldn't stand it. And for all the training regimes and powdered protein in the world Aki was still that same little kid he used to be, thin skin and bird bones and too much tendon. The difference was Akihiko kept getting orphaned again and again.

"She's dead," Akihiko cut in bluntly, rubbing his eyes with the sharp of his wrist. "She's dead and I'm tired of losing -" And that was all it took, really. Admitting that he didn't much want to survive this time round, that he was done. He buried his face in his hands and cried, Shinji rubbing his back and Mitsuru just standing there for a few moments before eventually crouching down to gingerly wrap an arm around his shoulders. Her grip was surprisingly warm but Akihiko felt a chill in the marrow of his bones, felt as though he would never be warm again.

Maybe time was made of watch hands after all. If he hadn't been counting the hours, he'd have sworn he was living the same day over and over.

The rain had woken him up earlier than usual and he spent a good hour lying in bed staring at the ceiling, feeling disgusted with himself yet absently wondering just how long he could stomach lying there doing nothing. It probably should have bothered him that the answer was forever. When he did eventually pull himself out of bed and got dressed his body moved of its own accord, dragging him up the steps and to the third floor.

Akihiko waited in the open doorway of her room, and for a few minutes let himself believe that things were still okay. Her alarm clock was still set, went off at exactly six-fifty-eight every morning, and Akihiko just stood there through the shrill sound, waiting for it to die out of its own accord. The silence that followed the alarm was heavy, and Akihiko could almost feel it as a living thing, shifting and dispersing as he slowly made his way into her room, hovering nervously over her desk.

There was a sense of timelessness here, things kept untouched and preserved, like dead butterflies in glass boxes. The simple truth was that she would never again read a book cover to cover or study her reflection in a mirror. Outlived by petty objects, paper and receipts and notes in shorthand, bobby pins and elastics. Small, tiny signs of life, physical proof that she hadn't yet been ready to leave. Or perhaps that she would be coming back, and everything should remain as it was for that day.

Today was the last day of finals for the juniors, and the first day that Akihiko would start packing, filled with a sort of grim resignation, determined to be out of here before March was through. Mitsuru, whether business-minded or secretly hurting inside, saw no reason to keep the dorm open any longer, and he was inclined to agree. The sooner he was no longer here, the sooner this place was closed, the sooner it became a remote and secret temple housing the life they used to live, an hour too long... well. He absently wondered whether leaving would stop his body from dragging itself here when his mind wandered, to fall to rest amongst the dust and stillness and what was left of her.

"Hey." The voice startled him, and Akihiko looked up to see Junpei shifting from foot to foot in the doorway, nervously shuffling the papers he held in his hands. "...She lent me her notes at the start of term. Thought I should bring them back, finally." Junpei swallowed, glancing at the desk, then eventually just held the papers out to Akihiko and let out a long breath when he finally took them.

"...She really hates math, huh?" Akihiko said wryly, an unconscious smile tugging at his lips as he glanced through her notes - loopy cursive and scribbles and hearts in the margins.

Junpei snickered. "You know she actually didn't clock Final Fantasy XII once she realised some of the Marks only show up a percentage of the time. She couldn't be bothered working out the probability." Akihiko raised an eyebrow and Junpei started laughing, and even though Akihiko had no idea what Junpei had just said, he found himself laughing as well.

"We're going to be late." Another voice came from the doorway, cold and clipped - Yukari, donning her pink cardigan and absently twirling a clear umbrella. Akihiko felt the laughter die in his throat, as though he had just remembered it was too soon, and he wasn't meant to be laughing yet.

"We've got tons of time," Junpei shrugged, looking past her as she wandering into the room. "Is it still raining out?"

"Look out the window, Stupei," she snapped back, though it lacked the usual edge. "What does it look like?"

"Jeez. I was just trying to make conversation. Why do you always have to be such a..."

Akihiko had stopped listening, mainly because Yukari had wandered over to Minako's desk and picked up the final Witch Detective book, flicking through it and opening it up to random pages. She was leaning on the edge of the desk now, and Akihiko saw the rest of Minako's books shift backward ever so slightly, pushing against the base of her study lamp.

"Put it back," he heard himself say, without thinking, and though the voice was his the tone was new, even to him.

"Senpai?" Yukari stood up straight, still clutching Minako's book, though she seemed to understand now, her jaw slackening as she looked down at the battered copy of Witch Detective in her hands.

For so long no one had touched anything. Everything had been preserved, because Minako was the last one to finish reading that book, Minako had placed the remote to the television on the window sill, Minako had left the door to her closet slightly ajar. Yukari slowly placed the book back down on her desk, but the damage was done. He wanted to shout, maybe, to hit something, because while he was furious with the other girl he was also distinctly relieved, as though the simple act of shifting her things had broken some spell, set him free in some tiny measure. Yukari bolted out of the room, Junpei at her heels, though he did stop and almost ask his senpai if he was alright. One look at those eyes and he'd reconsidered.

Akihiko sighed, his pain receding, and he almost wished he was angry again because this emptiness was getting too heavy to bear, dulling his instincts, making him consider sitting down and not getting back up again.

There on her desk was the music box he had given her at Christmas, the rabbit doll that had reminded him of her when he saw it in a shop window. And underneath the latter, his own exercise book from a couple of years back, the one Minako had sneakily tried to get answers from when she found out Ms. Miyahara set the same homework from the same textbook every year. He let out a sharp breath, an exhale shaped like a 'ha', and opened up the notebook, turning to the back cover. It was still there. A note written in purple felt-tip marker and her messy scrawl. Of all the notes to leave him, it had to be about the weather.

He felt his heart jump up into his throat, and could barely breathe as he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialled a number from memory, placing the receiver to his ear and closing his eyes as it went straight to voicemail.

"Hey, it's Minako! Leave me a message, and I'll get back to you." Her voice was too thin, lacking the echoes, the highs and the lows, the way she was always breathless and dizzy with her own laughter.

"...It's raining, today," Akihiko swallowed, then forced himself to keep speaking. "It's been raining every day." He hung up and walked out the door, down every flight of stairs, not even stopping to grab a jacket as he left the dorm and let the rain soak through his clothes, chilling him to the bone. Water in his eyes, in his throat, trickling down the back of his neck. He felt like he was drowning.

Of course she had waited until he was hers again, completely and totally, before she left him.

He dreamt of her that night, with the rain still carrying on loudly outside. In his dream they were balanced on the very top of the climbing frame at the shrine, looking down at nothing, surrounded by black. Minako leaned toward him to press her hand against his heart and space flickered and shifted until they were on the school roof, her head against his chest, body cold and heavy in his arms.

The air tasted like salt, like the sea, and somehow Akihiko was acutely aware of the ocean surrounding them in a way he had never noticed before. His heartbeat in synch with the slow swell of the tide, each exhale drowned out by waves crashing against the shore. And though they were so high up, clearly on dry land, somehow there was water lapping at Minako's ankles, reaching out to pull her away.

"Stay," he said to her desperately, shaking her by the shoulders. He could feel the sharp sting of tears in the corners of his eyes and he wanted to turn away so she wouldn't see, but more than that he wanted to see her, to prove to himself that she was still here, that he hadn't lost this time.

"I can't. This is it. I was... we were already running on borrowed time." Her lips didn't move as she spoke, and he realised then that it wasn't real, could never be real, just his own words thrown back at him, replayed in her voice.

"But, I love you," Akihiko said quietly, petulantly, as if it could make all the difference.

She had been the one to bring up the word 'love', the first person to say it to him in as long as he could remember. He had no memory of his parents, and he and his sister and Shinji had been too young, reduced to sharing dinners and blankets and hand-me-down toys, hugs during thunderstorms their chosen currency for showing affection.

"Let me have another chance," he continued, pulling her closer, holding on tight so he wouldn't tremble. "I'd... I'd give everything for another chance."

"I know," she smiled, so sadly, running her fingers through his hair and down the back of his neck. "I know that, Akihiko. But listen. It's going to be alright."

Everything started to fall apart, the blue sky swallowed up by too-white clouds, the sound of the ocean drawing nearer, and she started to say something else but he couldn't hear her over the noise of the earth crumbling apart underneath their feet.

He woke with a jolt as the patter of rain and the first rumbles of thunder continued on, still feeling as though he was falling even though he could feel his mattress against his back. Staying very still, he tried to control his breathing, pressing his index and middle fingers to his wrist to make sure his heart was still beating. Each pulse of lightning briefly illuminated the room, but Akihiko did not bother getting up to draw the curtains, feeling vaguely comfortable in his own element, and eventually his eyelids grew heavy and he drifted off again, this time into a dreamless sleep.

There was something about the morning after torrential rains, especially in the city, where normally you couldn't hear yourself think over the sound of cars and traffic jams, skyscrapers and flat screen televisions. For once, Akihiko could hear birds in lonely trees, the low hum of insects, maybe. Footsteps in puddles and the drip drip drip of rainwater trickling down gutters. He was wide awake and it was morning, and he was where he kept ending up, where he was meant to be.

He pulled back her curtains to let the sunlight flood in, and he could see all of the dust in the air as it swirled around him and eventually settled on things that were never really meant to have dust on them - her hairbrush, the bobby pins scattered carelessly on her desk, a small bottle of perfume. Her scarf was still draped over the back of her study chair, in case the chill spring wind was too much for her. He had been wrong after all. There was no timelessness here, just old ghosts and things left behind.

He was half-expecting Junpei again, maybe even Yukari, but today it was Shinjiro following him through her doorway, and neither of them knew what to say. Akihiko leant against her desk, trying to remain impassive as Shinji paced the length of her room, hands in his pockets, eyes always returning to the cheery red alarm clock next to her lamp. Eventually he stopped and regarded Akihiko coolly, features pulled into a scowl as he spoke.

"It's White Day, idiot. Aren't you gonna make anything for your girl?"

Akihiko didn't even hesitate, just punched Shinji in the jaw, and he knew it was the wrong thing to do even before he did it but it was the only way they really communicated these days. After all these years, Shinjiro knew how to take a punch, especially from Akihiko, who always led with his left and never held back. He took it in stride, turning his head so Aki wouldn't break his jaw, shifted his weight to throw him off balance and in the process ended up inadvertently hitting Aki in the ribs with his elbow, right where they cracked last spring, knocking the air out of his lungs.

Akihiko collapsed against the door frame, gasping, trying to catch his breath, and could just barely breathe as Shinji steadied him and rubbed his back, running rough circles over the spot where his heart was supposed to be. He flinched, wanting to pull away, to run, because it reminded him too much of the nights when she'd sneak into his room just to lie beside him, tracing her fingers over the bumps of his spine while he smiled into his pillow, pretending to be asleep. What stopped him, then, from gathering her up in his arms and telling her that he loved her?

"I loved her," Akihiko choked out, through shallow breaths, and there was a hint of something in his voice, something that took Shinjiro a while to identify - the sound of someone who wanted to cry but just couldn't. Tiny cracks too small to see or repair, not until he fell all the way apart and it was too late.

Shinji didn't know what to say so he didn't say anything, didn't know whether Akihiko had been laying off the powdered protein or what but he really looked like shit right now, too pale and too skinny, the tendons in his neck sticking out whenever he frowned, which was all the time these days. Not half the kid he used to be, dark circles under his eyes that didn't shine as bright as they used to. And Shinjiro almost found himself wishing they really were kids again because things had been easier back then, where any bad thing that happened could be warded off by a laugh or a hug or a gesture, where the only girl between them had been one they could share.

They descended the stairs and entered the kitchen wordlessly, where Shinji had already preheated the oven and whisked together a mochiko mixture, intending to make chichi dango. Akihiko more often than not got in Shinjiro's way, almost catching himself smiling while Shinji obliviously sported baking powder on the tip of his nose for a good five minutes. It was a struggle, but in the end Akihiko managed to pour mochi batter in a greased pan and pop it in the oven without any significant bodily harm.

Half-buried in a cupboard searching for the cookie cutters he'd seen Fuuka (mis)using all those months back, the ones in the shapes of hearts and stars and moons, he called out to Akihiko, breaking the silence.

"You're leaving?" He swore he could almost hear the gears clicking in Akihiko's head, trying to decipher exactly what he was implying. Eventually he settled on the least worrying assumption.

"Yeah," he laughed shortly, "I forgot to tell you. Mitsuru... well. There's this apartment in Minato-ku. Two bedrooms, close to the station, if you want to go back to Gekkoukan." Paid for by the Kirijo Group, no doubt. Mitsuru's words coming from Akihiko's mouth.

When Shinjiro first woke up, the doctors told him about the holes in his brain. The short-circuiting synapses. Nerve damage. Dead cells and empty space.

I'm dying. That was meant to be the first thing Shinji said to him, because Akihiko was always bitching about the fact that he never told him anything. What would he say to him now? Aki looked at him with a face he couldn't forget, the twin he had met when they were just five years old and the world was at their feet. Kings of a concrete wasteland, brothers with a secret history, small boys still.

Funny how it was the stars that eventually burnt out and died, so many pinpricks so far away that you could never really appreciate their loss, while the moon circled on in its lonely orbit, pulling at the tides. Shining stars and mortal sons - fate had never given them a chance at being anything less.

Akihiko was still waiting for an answer so Shinji nodded vaguely, placing the cookie cutters on the counter and turning to the oven so Aki wouldn't see his face. He would wait. Aki would carry this loss in his heart like he always did, and Shinji would see him through it, because that was all he could do. And then, he'd tell him.

Castor slept and Polydeuces was no longer here to lament the loss of his twin, though perhaps he didn't need to, and they had returned to the stars, finally. The distance between them no longer as great as it used to be.

It was easy enough to break into Gekkoukan on a Sunday. To tell the truth, it wasn't so much 'breaking in' as it was 'finding an open door', but Akihiko had never been one to argue about semantics. He took the stairs two at a time, letting out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding as soon as the door to the rooftop gave way.

Her ashes were buried with her family at Aoyama, a state's length away from him, a grave that had been waiting for her for ten years. It occurred to him, then, that when he passed he would be buried with his sister at Yanaka, the distance even further to cross, as if the fates had conspired to keep lonely ghosts from finding their way back home.

This was the only place left where he could be alone with her, a white box of mochi hearts in hand, the spring air slowly drying up the tiny droplets of water suspended from the underside of the railing. And for once he wasn't standing in anyone else's shadow, bathed in the sunlight, and for the first time in a long time he felt... warm. He reached for his cell phone, dialled her number from memory.

"Hey, it's Minako! Leave me a message, and I'll get back to you."

Hang up. Redial.

"Leave me a message, and I'll get back to you."

Hang up. Redial.

"I'll get back to you."

Liar, he thought, and ended up laughing, an anxious, desperate sort of sound. "The sun's..." He rubbed his eyes. "The sun's shining. I think... winter's really over."

He had his regrets but he couldn't carry this guilt forever. Memories were all that was keeping her alive but remembering was killing him, his entire existence in the hands of a dead girl. Already he was cutting, editing, erasing, construing the moments between them as he wanted to remember them, not necessarily as they had occurred. Especially when it came to the last month, glossing over the moments when she had irritated him, when he'd thought her just like any one of those other girls in his fanclub. The moments he felt pushed into, whether by instinct or design or just the need to be polite.

The simple truth was he should have loved her more in that one month they had without the Dark Hour, their one real chance at being normal. He'd messed up.

Incoming Call - Caller ID Withheld

The sound of his cell startled him and he stared at the display for a long time, almost considering letting it ring out, letting himself entertain the 'what-if's for whatever was left of his life. Yeah, right. He shook his head and answered, exhaling slowly upon hearing the familiar voice on the other end of the line.

"Hey," Shinji said, "alright?"

He pulled in a shuddering breath that seemed to resonate throughout his chest, as though his lungs had expanded to fill the void where his heart was still beating. Something fluttered within the cage of his ribs, unfurling slowly but insistently, all in its own time.

"Yeah," he said, feeling a little older. "I'm okay."

Spring was here, the sun was shining, and today really was the most beautiful day. Yet he felt like autumn leaves, just moments before a breeze.

He dreamt of her again, and though he knew it wasn't for the last time, not by a long shot, the dream had a sense of finality that was almost frightening. Somehow he knew she would never again appear in such sharp focus, that she would eventually be the victim of a slow and inevitable erasure, a series of moments rather than a whole person. A copy of a copy of a memory of a girl.

He had been walking along an empty road when he saw her, waving to him. She was sitting in front of a house he couldn't consciously remember, though it had a place in his heart. A house that held a mother, a father, a sister. A home. He joined her on the porch, sitting shoulder to shoulder, and she was so warm, really, just as he remembered, her head falling to rest on his shoulder as she laced their fingers together.

"You are everything to me," he said. "Come back and I'll show you."

She shook her head against him. "Let me go," she whispered, biting her lip, tears welling up in her eyes. "You have to let me go."

"I can't," he almost shouted, grabbing her tightly by the shoulders and pushing her back so he could see her, memorise every little detail, commit it to memory, like the photographs they never took. His eyes were instead drawn to the house behind her. And looking at that place, he knew, somehow, that if he went through that door he'd never come back. He felt his shoulders sag as she raised her hands to his, loosening his grip, pulling off his gloves for him. Old scars and new scabs, busted knuckles and too much tendon. It was almost funny how his worst weapons could make him look so fragile.

"I love you," she said, mapping the old wounds, tip-toeing her fingers in the dips between his knuckles.

"I know," he swallowed, closing his eyes, and asked whoever was listening not to wake him up just yet.

"We used up all our second chances, huh?" She grinned sheepishly, adjusting the bobby pins in her hair, but he just shook his head solemnly.

"It's not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere."

She laughed, pushing him lightly, laughing even harder when Akihiko grabbed her wrists and pulled her closer, her face nestled in the crook of his neck. "Hey! Don't quote Witch Detective at me!"

"I'm not quoting it at you, I'm quoting it to you."

"And what did I tell you about being smart with me, huh?" They both dissolved into a fit of laughter, Minako's arms around his neck and her hands in his hair, Akihiko's grip on her waist too tight as usual. It was all so familiar, so perfectly in focus. He pressed his forehead to hers, the tips of their noses touching, and for the first time in years felt vibrantly young, like he was still growing into the person he was meant to be. It was enough. Pulling back, he took her hands in hers and squeezed tightly.

"I have to go. I'll... see you soon?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew that he wouldn't be counting down the days. That he could wait, and that he'd be okay. He stood and made his way back to the pavement, only turning back to look at her when he had both feet firmly on the ground.

She smiled softly, like she knew. "I can't promise I'll always be here. But I will always find you. You'll be alright." She waved though they were only a few strides apart, and he felt his heart swell, wondered how it was even possible to love someone so much, to the point where it ached.

Walking away from her, he had the feeling that if he turned to look back she would still be there on the porch, still waving, a tiny figure on the horizon. He took a deep breath and kept walking, feeling light and heavy all at once, his feet moving of their own accord, his chest weighed down by the tension he'd been carrying all his life. Stepping away from something as well as making his way back toward something familiar, the place he'd always return to as long as his heart was still beating.

The sky had no texture, flat monochrome, either the precursor of a coming storm or another remnant of a rainy day. Dull gray, like metal, like concrete, like a mirror in which his eyes were reflected, barely shining half as bright as they used to.

He'd never been much of an optimist but he wouldn't back down from a fight. And walking down that endless road, underneath a dead sky, he pushed away the thought that this was the start of something that might never cease, a cut that would never scar over.

He found himself hoping that when he woke up, the sun would be shining again.