3AM

The night seemed to draw on forever. Even as the Midnight Hour ended, and the next day came creeping in by slow, moonlit hours, she still lay coldly awake beneath her covers. She felt as though she was laying in a coffin, soon to be closed and locked forever.

Minako closed her eyes again, trying to draw into that dark warmth deep inside her like she had ten years ago. Yet there was no time to close up inside herself until she was ready to face the world. She only reached a sting chill. Her eyes snapped open. Again the ceiling, the restlessness, and Shinjiro's face swimming in front of her eyes.

"Don't cry, Minako...this is how it's supposed to be."

She pushed the covers off her and buried her face in her hands, massaging her temples with her fingers. She hadn't cried. It was already her policy to never cry. She didn't want to imagine the reaction of the others if she cried, even in such circumstances. Junpei and Akihiko's judging silence at such a feminine weakness, Yukari with her arms drawn tight across her chest, not meeting her eyes, Aigis' blank incomprehension and Mitsuru, gracefully ignoring her, trying to control the situation as their leader collapsed in on herself.

So her eyes remained dry, her hands steady. The actions came to her naturally, and she carried them out with mechanical efficiency. She laid a hand on Ken's shoulder. She nodded at Mitsuru and Yukari to use their healing arts as best they could, at least to hold him through the Dark Hour, and a dark look at Takaya and Jin, standing with condescension evident on both of their faces, that communicated a thousands words nobody would ever dream of hearing her say.

Forgoing her slippers, or even a jacket to ward off the October night, she left her room. The dorm was dark and eerily silent. She heard no movement from the other girls' rooms as she crept past them and down the stairs. She paused as she reached the second floor, her gaze wandering to his room. She could imagine the bed-covers, still rumpled, and his sparse possessions, still neatly boxed on empty shelves. Cooking magazines, she remembered seeing them, hidden self-consciously under his bed. Even though he never let anybody into his room, he still had hidden them. It had made her laugh. He'd just glared at her. She'd only laughed harder, when even through the darkness, she could see his face growing pink.

The memories flowed freely then, set loose like fireflies from a jar. She allowed herself to be caught up in them as she continued down the stairs, submerged in a world crafted between them over the last month.

"Oh. You're up, huh?"

She snapped out of her daydream. Akihiko stood by the kitchen door, a steaming mug held in one hand, still in his school uniform. Minako opened her mouth, slowly and stupidly, but no sound came out. She snapped it closed again. Akihiko stirred his drink with a spoon, the gentle tinkling seeming to echo and fill the entire dorm.

"We've...I mean..." he trailed off hopelessly, "There's still some more, if you want some. I don't know if you drink coffee."

"No. No, I don't, really. I wouldn't expect you to, senpai," she said. She wouldn't have expected to come down and see Akihiko looking anything like he did. He looked half his size somehow, and his eyes looked heavy and blank, as though all he wanted to do was hide away and sleep for years and years. Seeing him so shaken seemed wrong somehow, it was as though she'd intruded on something private.

He took a sip from the mug.

"Not really. Just couldn't sleep, thought I'd wake myself up and..." He clenched his free fist and flexed the arm. The gesture turned her stomach

"Sit down," she said suddenly, her voice springing up of her own accord and it had took on that solemn, authoritative air she only ever used in battle, "Senpai, you'll just exhaust yourself."

He sighed.

"it'd be pointless to argue with you, wouldn't it? Fine then," he said. They walked into the living room together. Koromaru lay curled into a ball, but his ears jerked up at the sound of their footsteps, and his head lifted. He followed them with a weary slowness, and jumped up to lay beside them, his head on Minako's thigh.

Akihiko petted the dog's head.

"Can't sleep either, boy? We should go out for a run..."

Koromaru turned away from him and closed his eyes, his tiny claws digging into Minako's leg.

"Heh, Shinji's spoiled you, with that expensive dog food of his. You'll regret it in Tartarus later if you get lazy."

"He's got the right idea, senpai," she said, "You should be asleep."

"You sound like Mitsuru. I think you need the sleep the most, Leader," he said, not looking at her, "You did the most fighting out there...well. Nearly the most."

Minako shook her head and looked down at her knees, one hand stroking Koromaru's soft fur absently, the other bunched in a fist at the hem of her nightgown, her nails digging hard into the flesh of her thigh.

"This is how it's meant to be, huh?" Akihiko mumbled.

"He said that the other night too," she said, staring straight at him. The words leapt from her mouth with sudden force, as though they'd been held too tight to restrain for any longer.

"The...other night?" he repeated, staring at her uncomprehendingly. He sounded so lost that only the oppressive atmosphere stopped her from laughing.

"Yes. We were...spending time together last night," she said. He blinked a little, and then his eyes widened in sudden realisation, and colour rose to his cheeks briefly.

"Oh. I see."

"He was acting strange. Defensive," she said, her grip tightening on the hem of her dress, and her breath drawn strangely tight in her chest, "I thought he was being shy. That would be like him."

"So it was the first time you two -"

Akihiko snatched back the final words before they could be heard, looking mildly horrified at what he'd almost just said. He looked away from her again. It was starting to annoy her – as though there was something about her he just couldn't bear to look at.

"Sorry. That's not the right thing to say at the minute."

She made a vague shrug. She would have answered honestly, she was nothing if not honest, but she wasn't about to divulge details unasked for.

"It wasn't just shyness...looking back on it, it doesn't seem like that. It was as if he knew. He must have known Ken would do something today. He must have known from the second he joined."

Her shoulders were tense and shaking, her nails digging deep into her flesh, so raw and painful it was as though everything she'd felt over the past few hours was focused in that one area.

"The idiot..." Akihiko said, "Stubborn as ever."

She didn't cry, but she sat for a long time shivering and staring down into the abyss opening beneath her feet. Akihiko sat beside her, but they were both adrift, and both alone.