DISCLAIMER: I don't own P3P.

WARNINGS: ridiculous overuse of run-on sentences, coarse language, sexual references, the usual October spoilers, P3P AU - no Personas, Tartarus, or Dark Hour. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.


sleeping with ghosts

Plato was right. We're all of us immortal. We couldn't die if we wanted to. Every day of his life, every minute of his life, if he could just remember that.

Akihiko is frowning, his hands in the pockets of old trousers with patched knees. He's seven years old and following his best friend and his twin sister, his heavy footfalls unable to drown out their echoing laughter. He's brooding because Shinji is meant to be his best friend, and it doesn't really seem fair because Miki's just the same as him but a girl, and Aki knows he plays better and cries a lot less.

They've disappeared somewhere in the Naganaki Shrine now and Aki's had it, he kicks pebbles at the foot of the steps and squints because the sun is in his eyes. It's summer still and autumn's miles away, the warm breeze ruffling his silvery hair which is getting a bit too long for his liking. He's a particular child, he likes to run and he hates to lose and he's not fond of eating carrots, but he doesn't mind cucumbers or celery.

He's getting a bit anxious now so he turns to climb up the steps, and suddenly there's this girl sitting right up the top, and even though she's a girl Akihiko decides he likes her alright, because she has band-aids on her knees and her hair's kind of a mess, like the birds' nests high up in the trees behind the orphanage. She's wearing a lot of orange and it's a bit strange to him, a bit too bright, since he's so used to gray and black and navy blue. She sees him staring and smiles, waves, so Aki walks up the steps while glancing surreptitiously at her feet.

"Hello. How are you?" Her cheeks have dimples and she's missing a couple of baby teeth. Even though Aki figures she must only be about a year younger than him, she seems worlds apart.

"I'm good," he stalls, not knowing what to say. She actually smells like citrus, like when you peel an orange with your hands and the zest makes you sneeze. "Umm. Have you seen my sister?"

The girl looks him up and down, taking in his gray eyes, his shabbily sewn trousers. Suddenly, he feels very self-conscious. "No, I haven't. Have you seen my brother?"

"Sorry, no." There's no one else around and he hasn't seen anyone with the same copper hair as her. He has yet to comprehend that not all siblings are identical.

"Hmm." The girl nods sagely. "That makes sense. He's dead, you know."

"...Oh." What can you say to that? It's like time stops for a second. The air is still and the trees are silent and the only thing Akihiko sees are her sharp red-brown eyes, and from here he can see that there's a ring of yellow around her irises. She stands and everything starts up again like clockwork, the warm breeze blowing his hair into his eyes.

"I have to go." She smiles again, giving him a little wave even though they're just a stride apart. "See you 'round?"

He nods, distracted, because he can hear Shinji's rambunctious laughter and Miki sulking, and he turns and sees the old priest looking vaguely disgruntled as he escorts the pair out of the shrine. Akihiko turns back to the girl to say, look, hey, that's my sister. But she's already disappeared down the steps, and Shinji's looking particularly thrilled that he's caused some form of trouble today. Miki runs into Akihiko's arms and she's giggling right up against his ear, and her hair smells like incense and summer and Shinji rolls his eyes, but he looks a little bit jealous. Aki quickly forgets about the girl with the gilded copper hair.

Akihiko learns, in a matter of days, that there's nothing you can say. She's dead, you know. Oh.

He sits at the steps of the shrine with the sun on his face until it comes to rain, and it feels like summer's already over. When Shinji finally finds him a chill has seeped into his bones. He holds his breath until his ears start ringing, then he holds his breath some more. His heart beats hard and he wonders what it would be like to have wings.

A scholarship and some hard years later, and Akihiko's in his third year of middle school, trying to shake out the adrenaline in his weary limbs. He's won another match, putting Gekkoukan on top of the leaderboard for the interschool boxing championships, and he thinks this might give him a good chance at becoming team captain come senior year. Shinji wasn't here to watch him today (detention), but he pulled through regardless, and for once Akihiko feels like he's achieved something on his own.

He took a pretty bad hit to the face though, there's a cut on the bridge of his nose and he's holding a wad of gauze against it as he walks back to the locker room, thankful that he's managed to sneak past his fanclub. Now there's something he doesn't get - girls. Always twittering and shrieking and giving him a headache. He kind of wants to know exactly what it is that makes them flock toward him, mainly so he can stop doing it. It's not that some of them aren't pretty, or interesting, but it's a constant stream of chatter with them, and sometimes Akihiko just wants someone to listen to him for once.

"You look like you could use a hand." Oh, no. A girl, probably one of them. He scrunches his eyes shut (making the cut bleed more), steeling himself for the upcoming ordeal. Pasting on a smile, he turns to get this over with. She seems different to the rest, though, self-assured and elegant, a girl with a queenly mask. Her red hair falls about her face in curls and she has sharp, timeless features, accentuated by her cool demeanour. Akihiko thinks that she's someone beyond pretty, someone you'd call beautiful.

He even surprises himself when he speaks. "I'll be fine, thank you." Akihiko turns to keep walking, but he can feel her eyes on his back and if looks could kill...

"Sit," she says, and this time he obeys, watching her use a key to unlock the first aid kit mounted on the wall. "It's Akihiko Sanada, isn't it? I'm Mitsuru Kirijo."

He's always wondered why people ask questions to which they already know the answers. "Kirijo, huh? I've heard a lot about you."

"Oh?" She says, batting her eyelashes while running a hand through her hair, and Akihiko just nods in response before looking down to examine his knuckles. Mitsuru realises she's going to have to work to keep this conversation going. "So what is it, exactly, that you've heard?" She picks out a bottle of iodine and a cotton swab.

There were a few ways he could answer that question, and not all the options were flattering. However, he had the feeling that lying was not a life-preserving option here. Lucky that he knew just enough about her to appeal to her vanity.

"...Que tu es la reine des neiges." Okay, so his accent isn't perfect and she chooses that exact moment to start attacking his wound with the iodine, so it comes out as more of a hiss. But she leans in close and studies him with surprise as she clears the blood away, then covers the cut with a band-aid. Pulling back, she laughs quickly, self-consciously, like she doesn't really know how.

"Ha! Très bien!" Fiddling with the red ribbon at her collar, she glances at him then looks away, makes a conscious effort to keep her hands at her sides. She speaks again and it's well rehearsed. "I do have a reason for inflicting my presence upon you," they both smile at the same time. "The Chairman of the Board has expressed a desire to introduce a 'mentor' program within the dormitories, to aid juniors and transfer students with their transition period at Gekkoukan. A new dormitory has recently opened in Iwatodai, and considering your academic achievements and participation in club activities, the Chairman was hoping..."

She's still talking when Akihiko spots a shadow in the hallway, walking away from them toward the school grounds, and as it passes under a window the sunlight illuminates the figure and he catches sight of a flash of gilded copper. He feels something snap behind his eyes. The figure moves further away, and he's struck by an inexplicable yet acute sense of panic.

"Is something wrong?" Mitsuru says, obviously not used to being ignored, but Akihiko's already standing and ready to run.

"I really have to go. But, uh, yes. To the, uh, dorm thing." He hopes she doesn't notice that he has no idea what he's just agreed to.

"A-alright, then. I'll discuss logistics with you later?" Akihiko doesn't notice her falter, he's halfway down the hall, waving in response. He scours the faculty office hallway, the front gates, the second floor corridor, but the can't seem to find what he's looking for. Maybe he's seeing things - that other guy did get him pretty good. Sighing, he heads up to the roof, since it's the first place Shinji will look for him after he gets out of detention.

There's already someone peering over the railing - a girl with willowy limbs, and his heart skips a beat. Though her brown hair is tied back neatly and decorated with colourful clips and pins, it still resonates with the memory of that odd little girl who smelt like oranges.

"Hello," he says tentatively, hoping he's not making a big mistake. "How are you?"

Her lips are already curved into a smile when she turns around, and when their eyes meet it's electric, really. Akihiko figures that this is what it must feel like to run into an old friend after spending years apart, yearning for them. He's never really had a friend except for Shinji and Shinji's always there, so it's a bit weird for him. And he can't help but notice that she's prettier now - her hair's longer and the amber in her eyes has gotten brighter over time. She's so thin though, skin and bone, it's like a gust of wind could blow past and carry her away.

"I'm good," she says, voice chock full of warmth. "Did you find your sister?"

Akihiko feels a pang in his chest, but he tries to smile anyway. "I did. But... she's dead now, you know."

"Oh. I see." The girl doesn't look away, and her eyes aren't filled with pity but with understanding. "I'm sorry to hear that." She looks like she wants to say more but she's biting her tongue, and Akihiko doesn't want to leave just yet.

"...Where have you been?" He starts, not really knowing what he intends to say. "I mean, I haven't seen you at Gekkoukan before."

"I had to move away for a while. I'm still not back for good yet." She laughs as his face falls slightly. "Hopefully, in another couple of years, I'll transfer over..." She pauses, studying him, and Akihiko can feel his ears turning pink so he looks down at his shoes. "I guess I'll know when the time's right." Raising a hand, she taps the bridge of her nose. Akihiko mimics her action and feels the band-aid coming loose. He presses down, wrinkling his nose in pain.

"At the match today - you were amazing," she says earnestly, eyes kind, and he feels his face heat up as his mouth splits into a stupid grin. His cheeks hurt from smiling. Maybe he just hasn't had enough practice. The girl turns to look at the ocean in the distance, and her expression becomes contemplative, a hopeful kind of sad. "...She seems nice."

So, she was there, at the locker room, looking for him. This makes him feel better, a little less foolish for chasing after shadows.

'Nice' isn't really the word Akihiko wants to use to describe Mitsuru, but he just shrugs.

Much to Mitsuru's chagrin, he invites Shinji to come and live with them as soon as he's settled in, mostly to keep an eye on him. He's been skipping class again and a couple of months ago, when Akihiko first announced that he was moving to the Iwatodai dorm, Shinjiro stood over Aki's bed in the middle of the night for a good half hour, motionless, while Aki desperately tried to control his breathing, pretending to be asleep.

"We should go see a doctor -"

"Fuck off."

"- about your sleepwalking."


"Shinji..." Akihiko's at his heels as he walks down the hall, almost bumping into him when Shinjiro stops in front of the bulletin board near the lounge. He holds his head in his hands for a moment, then finally looks Akihiko in the eye for once.

"We can't afford a doctor, Aki."

"I can ask Mitsuru -" He knows it's the wrong thing to say even before the words are out of his mouth. Scrunching Akihiko's clean, crisp shirt in his fist, Shinjiro pushes him back against the wall and punches the empty space right next to his head, leaving a dent in the plaster.

"Fuck you," Shinji hisses, sharp and sudden. Aki's gone limp; he knows he can fight back and win, but he's frozen in place, and for some reason it makes Shinjiro even angrier. He jerks Akihiko forward then shoves him again and the back of his head collides painfully with the wall and he's dizzy and feels a little sick and he instinctively grabs Shinji's wrist for support but the other boy just shakes him off, walks out the door as he sinks to the carpet. "You don't fucking know anything."

Akihiko just sits there for a few seconds, or maybe it's minutes, until he sees a small spot of fresh blood on the bottom of his white uniform shirt. He raises his fingers to his face and they come back red, and it's only then that he realises that his nose is bleeding.

He's going to be late for school.

He doesn't end up going to school that day. In fact, he doesn't end up doing much at all, just sits there, waiting. Shinji comes back a couple of hours before school finishes up to find him semi-catatonic, dried blood caked around his nose and mouth, and he swears at him some more before running to the kitchen to get some paper towel and a bowl filled with warm water.

Akihiko can feel the guilt coming off him in waves as he sponges the blood from his face, and this is nice in its own way, a sort of private apology he knows no one else would ever get. But he's feeling restless, angry at himself for not breaking Shinji's nose or cracking a few of his ribs. He looks the other boy in the eye, and he knows that though they are identical to his sister's, his eyes carry none of her warmth.

"There are only so many times you can say 'fuck you' to someone before you actually start to mean it, Shinji."

The other boy sets aside the water, leaning back against the wall next to Aki so they're shoulder to shoulder, and Akihiko can feel him trembling and he wants to apologise immediately, wants to take it all back and make it right again.

"There's something... there's always been... some sort of bug, some insect, crawling around in my head, Aki, pulling at the wires. And it's, it's in a fucking cocoon or something now, I can feel it, right here," he presses the heel of his hand against his temple before wrapping his arms around his knees, making himself as small as possible, "growing, and rotting, and I can't, I just can't -"

"Hey," Aki says, and his hands are shaking as he rubs circles over Shinji's back, "Hey, Shinji, listen. We'll figure this out, okay? We'll find a way to deal with it. But you have to let me help you."

"You idiot. You just don't get it." Shinji half-laughs, running a hand through his own hair, fingers getting caught in the tangles. His eyes are one big bruise and he's so pale that Aki can map the veins along his arms and neck. "I don't want you involved."

Akihiko sighs. "I already am."

And there's too much left unsaid between both of them but neither have the words to explain, or define, or admit. They stay silent as the day stretches on into night, until Akihiko can no longer keep his eyes open. When Aki wakes up the next morning, dishevelled and aching and late for school again, Shinji's already gone to find himself another life.

It's been a little under two years now and he's still not sure whether Shinji actually gets some sort of satisfaction out of sleeping on the pavement, or whether he does it because it's preferable to being under the same roof as him. This is the last thing he thinks as he drifts off to sleep, the first thing on his mind after the blinks and yawns upon waking. And somewhere in between he sometimes dreams of a girl he met a long time ago, before all this started, and in his dream she's always walking ahead of him, hand in hand with his sister, refusing to look back, and he can't call out to her because he doesn't know her name.

When he first meets Takeba, the day she moves into their dorm (funny how his mind still refuses to say 'home', because he's always a guest here, never a permanent fixture), he feels an inexplicable weariness creeping into his bones. She smiles, with her too-short skirt and dangling earrings and clinking bangles and she's so eager to please; Akihiko knows he could probably ask her for anything and she'd do it. Her arms push her breasts together when she bows, voice lilting as she introduces herself, and the only thought that passes through Akihiko's mind is something along the lines of, so, this is what it's like to be a father.

Mitsuru will later tell him about the accident ten years ago, how the Kirijo Group was directly responsible for her father's death. For now, though, his gaze slides past the junior and he lazily locks eyes with his queen, who tilts her head and purses her lips in challenge. It's on.

He raises an eyebrow nonchalantly and says, "Why didn't you tell me we were adopting?"

Being a 'mentor', it seems, entails exactly the same duties one might have as an attendant. Or a lackey.

He and Mitsuru both have a free class that morning, and Akihiko manages to convince her to stay at the dorm and help him with his Classic Literature essay. She grudgingly (not really) accepts, and Akihiko regrets it about five minutes into the 'lesson' when she starts deconstructing Wuthering Heights with a ferocity that's frightening. His cell starts beeping obnoxiously, and he's glad for the interruption until he sees who it is.

Yukari must have something against him, really, he feels like he's having an aneurysm just trying to decipher her text message. Heyyy senpai its yukari! jst wonderin if u cud bring my math papr on ur way in i totes 4got it its on my desk thnx xx. He must have been staring at it blankly for a while because Mitsuru snaps at him, asks if he's listening. Wuthering Heights brings out the worst in her, it seems.

"Yukari wants me to bring in her Math paper?" Akihiko murmurs, confused, looking between the screen of his cell phone and Mitsuru's stony face. She huffs, muttering something that sounds like 'typical' under her breath. Akihiko's not sure whether it's directed at him or Yukari, and he's not too keen on finding out either way.

"Very well," Mitsuru glances at her watch before gathering up their books. "We should leave anyway, we'll be late otherwise."

"Right," Akihiko says, texting back Sure, "I'll just go get Yukari's -"

"I'll get it," She interrupts him mid-sentence, gliding past him and up the stairs. Probably some rule about boys not being allowed on the girl's floor or something. He waits, wandering over to the bulletin board, examining the fist-shaped indentation that's still in the plaster. Mitsuru's back in moments and they're out the door, and Akihiko has to endure the longest and most painful monorail ride he'll probably ever experience. When they reach the school gates he realises his Classic Lit essay still isn't done. Damn.

"Here," Mitsuru hands him the paper, and it's looking a bit worse for wear. Yukari apparently isn't an avid lover of math. She breezes past him toward the faculty hallway, and Akihiko briefly wonders if he and Mitsuru have just had another argument. He can never quite tell with her. Shaking his head, he wanders up to the second floor hallway. Everyone's in class so the corridor is empty, and Akihiko is so busy mentally correcting Yukari's dismal answers that he ends up bumping into someone, literally.

"Well, hey." The voice is familiar but when he looks up it still takes him a few seconds to figure out why. It's the mystery girl again, but she's out of context - looking markedly un-orange in a Gekkoukan uniform. Her hair's longer still - she has a fringe now, and her red-brown eyes glitter as she looks up at him.

"Hey." He smiles, an irrational excitement building up in his chest. She has a band-aid on her right knee and he feels an instant sort of fondness, because it reminds him of childhood scrapes and laughing whenever you fell off the jungle gym. "You're here?" He gestures toward her uniform, and she grins.

"You know it! I transferred at the start of the week. I saw you a few times, but you were always busy." She shrugs, adjusting the bobby pins in her hair. Her eyes widen as she looks past him. Akihiko's about to say something stupid, like, it doesn't matter how busy he is in future, she should definitely come up and talk to him anyway, but she raises a hand abruptly. "I gotta jet, I'm late for class. See you later!" She doesn't wait for a response, just rushes past him, and he swears it feels like the still air trembles and shifts in her wake.

"Akihiko-senpai!" Someone squeals at him in a high-pitched, nasal-sounding voice, and he turns and ends up face to face with one of his more... devoted fangirls. The girl he's actually looking for is nowhere to be seen, and suddenly school seems a lot more exciting, because he's anticipating the next time he'll see her turn a corner. He doesn't notice the way the fangirl's face falls as he looks past her, eyebrows drawn in disappointment.

Mitsuru seems to think that one junior to take care of just isn't enough, so she finds them another one, a genuine transfer student this time. Akihiko's either studying or sleeping or scouring Port Island looking for Shinji the first few nights Minato Arisato is at the dorm, and when he does eventually meet the kid he finds that he instantly feels uneasy around him. Minato's an orphan just like him, and even though they have this common ground between them it's not something they choose to talk about. Akihiko finds that the kid never really directly looks at anyone; he's always focusing on a spot just past his shoulder, and whenever Akihiko turns to see what he's staring at there's never anything there. Actually, 'focusing' is probably an overstatement - Arisato has this blank, kind of lethargic stare, like nothing's interesting enough to hold his attention. It creeps Akihiko out.

All in all he decides that the kid is an oddball, and he's going to avoid him like the plague. Mitsuru is instantly fond of him though, and Akihiko knows he should probably feel jealous or maybe a little hurt but frankly he's just relieved.

Shinji has a way of making him feel like shit every time he comes out to Port Island looking for him, so Akihiko's brooding by himself at the Beef Bowl place, picking at his food until the restaurant finally has to close. Those jerks. He stretches, slips into his Gekkoukan jacket. It's a dangerous area at night, especially when you're parading around in a uniform, but Akihiko's just waiting for someone to throw a punch. Or a car to hit him. Anything.

He leaves the strip mall and heads to the station, wanting to apologise, because he always comes on a bit too strong and he knows Shinji wants to leave the past in the past, but Aki just can't do it. Not when his best friend has needle marks in the crooks of his elbows. Not when Shinji's leaving him behind.

There's a kid sitting on the bench outside the movie theatre wearing the same uniform jacket as him, and Akihiko can see from his badge that he's a junior. And he's really not in the mood today but he's a responsible sort of guy, so he sighs and walks over and folds his arms, trying to look authoritative.

"You should head home." The kid's shivering violently, whether it's from the cold or something else, Akihiko doesn't know.

"I'm not going back there." He responds instantly. He looks up at Akihiko from under his baseball cap and he has a black eye. There's a massive bruise on his neck, like someone threw something at him, and a large wet patch on the shoulder of his jacket that smells distinctly of alcohol. Akihiko knows this story. He remembers kids who were adopted from the orphanage only to return a month later, with broken arms and fractured ribs and a festering sadness trapped somewhere deep inside them. He sighs, wonders when he became so soft.

"What's your name?" Akihiko sits down on the bench next to the kid, resting his arms against the back. He stares up at the stars, trying to find the Gemini.

"Huh? Uh, Junpei. Junpei Iori."

"Alright, Iori. I'm -"

"Sanada-san. You're captain of the boxing team."

"Yeah," Akihiko runs a hand through his hair abashedly. He's probably never going to get used to his reputation preceding him. "Listen. We have a few empty rooms over at the Iwatodai dorm. You can spend the night there."

"Wait, wait, wait. Doesn't Mitsuru Kirijo live there?"

Akihiko sighs again. It's becoming a bad habit. "The one and only."

"And... and Yukari Takeba, too?"

Rubbing his eyes, Akihiko wants to kick himself for ever believing this was a good idea. "Yes. She's there, too."

"Dude. You are, like, the luckiest guy alive!" Junpei has this kind of excitement that should be catching, but it just makes Akihiko feel very tired, and very old.

"I know, right?" He responds dryly, kind of looking forward to the moment when Junpei realises what living with Mitsuru and Yukari is actually like. Akihiko would rather have the broken glass and imminent fist fights any day.

"So, I heard there's another transfer student..." She says, her voice deceptively casual. It's a Friday afternoon and they're out on the roof again, since it's the only place Akihiko ever ends up finding her. The sky is overcast and she seems less magical than usual, as though it's the sun that brings her to life. Akihiko doesn't much mind though.

"Yeah, Arisato. He's staying at our dorm, actually." Minato and Junpei had become fast friends, especially after Junpei realised that Akihiko took little to no interest in his fangirls and that that was a dead end street.

"Oh! Really?" It's said with such a feigned surprise that he knows she already knew. "So, what's he like?"

Akihiko frowns. He knows what jealously feels like, because he's had to share Shinji and Miki (with the other, no less) his whole life. So he registers that that's the reason his hands are curling into fists and he's grinding his teeth in his jaw. The fact that it's because of Arisato just makes it so much worse.

"I don't know, I haven't really spoken to him... Mitsuru seems to like him."

"Well, what do you think of him? From what you've seen. So far."

Akihiko thinks that the kid's a fucking psychopath, the way he's always shifting personalities depending on who he's hanging out with, saying all the things they want to hear. He's seen the guy, never disagreeing with anyone, always nodding and smiling and going to karaoke even though when he thinks no one is looking he has the most disgusted expression on his face that Akihiko's ever seen. Maybe he should flat-out tell her to just stay the hell away from Minato Arisato, since it seems like he's set on copulating with the entire female student population before the year's through. He frowns, suddenly wondering why he has been watching the kid with such scrutiny, and when exactly he formed all these assumptions.

"Um, hello?" She waves a hand in front of his face, then smiles so reassuringly that he can't be irritated any more. Akihiko shrugs, avoiding her eyes.

"He's alright, I guess."

Shinji comes back unannounced six months on, looking thinner but smiling a lot more, and the first thing he does is elbows Akihiko in the ribs and says,

"Kids, Aki? I didn't think you had it in you."

Akihiko punches him in the gut and Shinji grabs him in a headlock and they're not even playing, grappling with all their strength. Aki knows he'll have bruises around his neck in the morning, and Shinji's arm is already a bit limp, but they're both laughing, delirious, gasping for air but not letting go. Because this is what home was meant to feel like, and Aki's not going to let Shinji leave, not this time.

His surrogate family look on, unimpressed.

October's on them quickly and Akihiko's skipping club on a Saturday afternoon, all to spend some time with her. They're alone at the shrine where they first met, balanced on the very top of the climbing frame, and from here they can see the city stretched out below and Akihiko feels like a king.

"I like it here," she says quietly, and she seems subdued, a little anxious.

"Me too," Akihiko replies, "I used to come here a lot when I was a kid."

"With your sister?"

"Yeah. And my best friend." She looks away when he mentions his 'best friend', and chews her lip like she wants to say something. But she doesn't, and Akihiko doesn't know what to ask. He can see the dorm from here and her eyes follow his line of sight. She frowns, focuses on the building as though she's trying to look inside.

"Hey," she starts suddenly, "I know this is a bit sudden. But could you take me to your dorm?"

"...Why?" He asks, eyes narrowed, assuming that she's hoping to run into Arisato or something like that.

She doesn't even pause for dramatic effect, just answers bluntly. "I'd like to see your room."

"Oh," Akihiko says, and he can tell she's trying to hold back a laugh. "Uh. Sure?"

"Great! Let's go." She purposefully and unnecessarily climbs over him to start making her way down the jungle gym, and Akihiko grabs the cold metal bars so tightly that green paint flakes off onto his gloves.

They walk home in silence and he's hypertensive, her close proximity taking on a new meaning, and it's like she's going out of her way to 'accidentally' lean in too close to him when she's looking both ways to cross the street, or when she spots an oddly shaped cloud. When they reach the front door Akihiko peers inside, checking that the coast is clear, and from somewhere behind him she says, "Relax, there's no one home."

She's right and Akihiko's about to ask how she could possibly know something like that but she's pushing him inside and and taking his hair in her fist and her lips are grazing his and it's unfamiliar and a bit odd but he quickly decides that he likes it. Somehow he convinces himself to pull away and he's leading her upstairs, fumbling with the door handle when she presses her chest against his back and snakes her arms around him to blindly start unbuttoning his vest.

Two buttons down and he's got the door open, his room's in shambles but that's the last thing on his mind right now. Her eyes are on him anyway, and she reaches up to run her fingers over the bandage above his eyebrow.

"So, is this actually covering anything, or is it just here to remind people you're a boxer?" She grins, popping the last two buttons with her free hand and slipping his vest off his shoulders.

"Shut up," he replies, but he's smiling so it loses a bit of its edge, and she laughs and starts to loosen his belt, untuck his shirt. Somehow they manage to stumble over to his bed, kicking off shoes and socks in the process, and when they tumble down onto his covers he's leaning over her, and he presses his lips to hers in a tender sort of kiss. She responds by grinding her hips up against his, painfully slow, slipping her tongue into his mouth as he moans. Fuck. This is going way too fast and he doesn't know what he's doing and he still doesn't know her name... He forcibly pulls away and lies on his back next to her, their shoulders pressed together. The girl huffs, turning onto her side to face him, and casts him this questioning sort of look that sets him on edge.

"I don't even know your name," he admits defensively, and she stares at him, stunned, before bursting into laugher.

"Is that all? You had me worried for a second there!" Her cheeks are rosy and she has this dewy kind of look in her eyes, it's only when she wipes away a tear does Akihiko realise that she's laughing to the point of crying. "Well, you never know. Maybe I just don't have one."

Akihiko shakes his head and grits his teeth, agitated for a number of reasons. "How can you not have a name?"

She doesn't say anything, just pulls herself upright and moves sinuously, straddling his hips before he can object. Her hands find his, and he tries to lace their fingers together but she makes a small noise of protest somewhere low in her throat, and that's enough for him to let her grab his wrists and pin them above his head. Leaning in, she nudges his chin with the top of her head, using her lips to feel for that vein that runs the length of his neck. His heart's beating impossibly fast and when she grazes his skin with her teeth, he bites his lip and arches up against her, feeling her gasp against his neck. That's enough, Akihiko breaks her hold and sits up underneath her, one hand at the small of her back forcing her closer, the other at the back of her neck, and he's pressing down hard enough to leave bruises but she just mewls in response, slipping her hands under his shirt and dragging her nails over his ribs. He pulls her in for another kiss and it's messy and kind of perfect because they're both playing to win now; she nibbles his lower lip before slipping her tongue past his teeth and he feels kind of light-headed and there's this blinding sort of white behind his eyelids and he lets go of her neck and presses his fingers against his temple because suddenly he can hear words in his head and they're not his own.

When we first met, you were looking for your sister, do you remember? You were looking for your sister and you glimpsed me, when I was still free and formless as the air that embraced you. I thought you lovely then, a child so predisposed to loss, perhaps a mirror for what I could have been, had Death not hewn my heart in two. What you are, I was. What I am, you will be. I lost my youth with my last breath, for time is a grace reserved only for the living, and I saw what you would become, who you would strive to be, and I loved you. I loved you as a father, a brother, a child, a lover. Through your eyes I was formed, and in that form I learned the fleeting and desperate nature of life, and in that understanding I learned that to live is to choose, to lose what has not been chosen, to gain by loss. And now you wish me to have a name, because nameless things are always shifting, always changing, and that goes against the nature of human desire, to open and explore and define and keep and conquer...

"You alright?" She whispers, pressing her forehead against his and running her fingers through his hair and along the back of his neck.

"Did you say something? Just before?" He asks between shallow breaths, and she just shakes her head, nuh uh.

"Do you want to stop?" She leans in, speaking right up against his ear, and she's so warm, like dusk and summer; he's drawn to her like tree branches growing toward the sun. He laughs breathlessly.

"No," he says, and she smiles.

He realises, a bit too late, that he knows nothing about her except for how she makes him feel.

Someone is shaking him awake and Akihiko lashes out wildly, his forearm hitting flesh, and he hears a muffled grunt (which he promptly ignores) as he snuggles back under his covers. The aforementioned someone gives him another nudge before pulling his pillow out from under his head and whacking him with it.

"Wake up, you bitch."

"Mmm, awake," Akihiko mumbles, turning over to lay on his back. He rubs the sleep from his eyes and blinks blearily, wrinkling his nose when he sees Shinjiro towering over him with a spatula in hand. While this is curious for a number of reasons, it's not exactly what he'd wanted to wake up to.

"I'm making pancakes."

Akihiko blinks a couple of times, then narrows his eyes, instantly suspicious. "No way."

"C'mon, Aki. Would I lie to you?" He smirks, but his eyes are sincere, and Akihiko slowly lets his face stretch into a grin which Shinji mirrors effortlessly.

"I'll be down in a sec," he says, and for good measure, adds, "don't let anyone else have any." Akihiko stretches, sighing in satisfaction as the bones in his back realign. He doesn't notice Shinji rummaging through his clothes until his old yukata is thrown in his face.

Shinjiro rolls his eyes. "Look at the time, dickhead. They won't be up for hours." He's right - it's a Sunday, and a half hour before Akihiko normally wakes up to start his daily training. On a related note, it's also a good eight hours before Shinjiro's usually in the mood to speak to anyone. He almost feels special. Aki brushes his teeth before following Shinjiro down the stairs, wandering into the kitchen only to be forcibly escorted back to the dining table.

He even asks if Akihiko wants ice cream as he sets his plate down in front of him, and fuck, they're, like, proper hot cakes, none of that crepe shit. He's feeling a little giddy as he shakes his head and Shinji takes a seat across from him, sliding the small jug of syrup in his direction.

"So...?" Shinji asks, like that one word actually means something. He sneaks in and steals a pancake from the stack, managing to pull back before Aki tries to stab his hand with his fork.

"What? They're great."

"Yeah, I know. Of course they are, idiot. I made them. Who was it?" Akihiko looks at him questioningly, shovelling another forkful of pancake in his mouth. "C'mon, Aki. No one knows you like I do. You've got 'I've had my cherry popped' written all over your face. Don't tell me it was Mitsuru." Shinji's laughing like he's just told the funniest joke in the world while Akihiko chokes and splutters and despises himself for turning red. He swallows, then promptly stuffs his face with another mouthful to avoid speaking.

"Well... whoever it is, I'm glad you've got someone looking after you. God knows you need it." Shinji's looking past him to the open window but he seems content. Akihiko senses the sincerity behind his words, and it's disconcerting. He finds that he doesn't really want to tell Shinji about her, because she's his secret, someone warm and safe to hide away with. Also, he still doesn't know her name - Shinjiro would have a right laugh about that. Akihiko quickly changes the subject.

"Hey, Shinji... Remember what you told me? Two years ago, before you left?" Shinji makes an indifferent sort of noise, but Akihiko ploughs on. "I think we should go see a doctor."

"...It's fine, Aki. I'm fine. Don't worry about me." Shinji shakes his head and sighs inwardly, because even after all these years, Akihiko's still saying 'we' like they're in this together or something.

"Things like that don't just go away." He's not going to give up, not this time, and Shinji knows it. He wishes he would just leave it alone, because things are hard enough as it is and he doesn't want to argue, not today.

"...Alright," he finally concedes, "we'll go next week."

"Are you busy today?" Akihiko asked quietly. He has the nerve to look disappointed.

Shinji doesn't meet his eyes. "I have some stuff I need to take care of. I won't be back until late."

And Aki knows something's a bit off but he trusts him, and he doesn't want to ruin this, and he thinks that maybe if he just stays quiet Shinji will come home tonight instead of disappearing among the shadows of Port Island again. He slumps in his seat, pours more syrup on his pancakes.

"Okay," he says, and Shinji looks him in the eye and kind of smiles like he used to, when Miki was still around. He stands up, leaning over the table to tousle Aki's unruly bed hair, and disappears into the kitchen.

He wonders if insanity is catching because he feels like he's losing his mind. Akihiko's been hoping that if he goes to sleep for long enough, things will go back to the way they're supposed to be, but every morning he wakes up, his weary head reshuffles the deck, and the hand he's dealt remains the same. He doesn't even bother to go to class in the morning, just makes his way up to the roof, thinking that he'll wait there until she makes an appearance. But he opens the door and there's Minato Arisato with his hands in his pockets, looking as shifty as ever. He starts at the sound, turning his head slowly to look Akihiko over with cold eyes. Even though the kid's alone Akihiko has the distinct feeling he's interrupted something. He nods in acknowledgement and turns to leave, preparing himself to go through every room in the building until he finds her.

"Wait, Sanada-san." Minato kind of beckons him over, and even though Akihiko wants to get out of there as quickly as possible he complies, standing a stride away from the kid. "Are you alright?"

Akihiko clenches his fists, bites the inside of his cheek. "Why wouldn't I be alright?"

"Your best friend's dead. He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger."

Minato says this in the same tone you'd use when talking about the weather, and Akihiko wants to grab him by the shirt collar and break his nose. He thinks he could do it, quite easily, gather his hair in his fist and smash his face down on the railing a few times and leave, and by the time they found him Akihiko would probably be long gone anyway.

"Fuck you," he says, low and hard and full of venom, the way you say it when you actually mean it. The way Shinji used to say it to him. "You don't know anything."

Minato just shrugs and looks past him, disinterested. "Maybe." Hey says, and he's not even being malicious, he's just blank. The kid seems to surprise the both of them when he keeps speaking. "He was all the family you had left, yeah?" Akihiko nods and he feels his throat go dry, remembering that Arisato lost his entire family, his mother, his father, his sister, in that car accident ten years ago.

"Are you going to tell me it gets easier?" Akihiko laughs despite himself, despite the both of them.

"No," Minato shakes his head vehemently, "because every day, I miss them more, not less. And I'm starting to wonder if the day's coming when missing them will finally be too much for me."

They're both quiet, leaning against the railing, and Akihiko desperately wants to feel angry again to ward off this insidious sort of pain that's curling up inside his chest, something he doesn't really have a name for. Minato straightens up, turns to leave, but Akihiko's dreading being alone right now.

"Arisato," he says, and cringes, because for a second there he sounded exactly like Mitsuru. "There was another student who transferred here about the same time you did... I'm not sure what class she's in. Uh, she has, kind of copper coloured hair, and reddish eyes..." Akihiko gestures to his face awkwardly. "Would you happen to know her?" He realises he's shaking, trembling even, and he can't seem to stop.

Minato goes very still and looks at him for a long time, blue eyes sharp and intense, and from here Akihiko can see that there's a ring of yellow around his irises.

"No," he finally says, voice devoid of emotion. His eyes are blank and suddenly he looks exhausted. "I haven't seen anyone like that here."

"I'm engaged," Mitsuru says, and Akihiko's not sure if it's because she wants some sort of reaction from him, or because friends are meant to tell each other these sorts of things. He nods, trying to think of an appropriate response.

"Do you love him?" He finally says, and Mitsuru recoils as though she's been struck. Akihiko can't help but feel a malicious sort of satisfaction. She stays silent for a while, and his interest begins to flicker. A dim corner of his mind starts wondering whether he would be able to make sense of what he's not feeling if he pressed the cold barrel of a gun against his forehead, or if he could stomach walking into a lake with his pockets filled with stones.

"Love isn't the issue here, Akihiko. Given the time," she starts slowly, avoiding his eyes, looking instead at the unravelling hem of his t-shirt, "you can become fond of just about anybody."

Akihiko snorts but she keeps going, like she's got something to prove.

"I did try, with you," Mitsuru says, "but you're..." She looks up at his face, taking in the shadows underneath his eyes, the way his collarbones push up against his flesh with enough force to leave indentations, if only his skin weren't so forgiving. He's all angles, the cut of his smile sinister and sharp, and for the first time she feels that there's something rotten and festering lodged in his chest, suppressing all the intimacies she'd once hoped they would share.

Akihiko knows what she wants to say even if she herself doesn't. But you're a bit too damaged to love. He could hurt her, if he wanted. But her father's dead, Shinji's dead, and maybe now it's time to finally call a truce. He doesn't speak, eyes wide open but unseeing, drinking in the colour of her but not the details. Salt pools in her eyes but she doesn't turn away, locked in an agonising stalemate, strangers at opposite ends of an empty room.

Mitsuru wants to say, 'I don't even know you anymore.'

Akihiko would only reply, 'You never really did.'

He finds her up on the roof after the graduation ceremony, drinking in the sunlight, and when she turns and smiles at him the light hits her hair in such a way that she looks like she's glowing. The gold in her eyes seems brighter and Akihiko forgets to breathe. She's here and it's now and there's nothing in the world that could be more real than this.

"So?" She says, and he decides then that that one word has infinite meaning. It's a question of possibility.

"I got an offer from a college." She rolls her eyes at him, and he smiles sheepishly. "Okay, so I got a lot of offers from a lot of colleges. But this one's in Ayanagi City. It has a good boxing program..."

"You really want to leave so badly?" She rests her elbows on the railing, staring out at the wind turbines and the buildings down below, and with her standing there looking out on it all it actually does seem kind of special.

"There's nothing left for me here," he answers, and it feels like the truth. He thinks that if he can keep charging ahead, keep looking to the future, then maybe he can finally outrun his past. It's worth a shot.

"Hey! What about me?" She replies with a grin, elbowing him in the side like she's trying to reassure him it's just a joke. He doesn't buy it.

"You could come with me." She laughs but he grabs her arm and pulls her so she's facing him. His expression is deadly serious. "There's a high school there. You could transfer, live in the dorms for a while. I'll get a job, and soon we could, like, I don't know, rent an apartment or something..." She looks away, chewing her lip, and Akihiko starts to panic a bit.

"...We could do that. Or you could come with me."

"What? Where? Where are you going? And you were telling me off for wanting to leave?" Laughing awkwardly, he breathes an inward sigh of relief, even though she still looks so sad.

"Forget this place," she says suddenly. "You're more than this. You're more than the sum of your parts."

He knows, in his heart of hearts, that this is a lie. That he's always been half of a set, not worth enough to stand alone and whole.

First there was Miki, his twin, his other, three minutes younger yet still his equal. Together they were a picture painted in monochrome, milky skin and silvery hair that seemed translucent, like skeins of smoke caught in the sunlight. He had thought that Miki would be the only stand-in for 'she' he would need for what was left of his life. She was always the one who shone brighter, her soft, wet eyes staring through everyone and only ever focusing on him.

Her loss left a void at his right hand, and there was never any doubt who would fill it, for he had known even as a child that Shinjiro was the other half of his soul. It was not about friendship, nor was it love, but something far more eternal, and Akihiko knew that there were no words that could define the feeling that together, they were as enduring as the moon and the stars.

But Shinji was only human, only mortal. The world kept spinning when he ceased to exist, was still spinning when Aki fell to his knees in the puddle of his blood and pressed his cheek against dead meat and exposed bone and leaking brain matter, would keep spinning even after Aki opened the jar of his ashes and let the dust fall over his gloved hand before he was spirited away by the wind. Shinji had remained in his grasp, a thin layer of gray coating his glove, and before he could stop himself he'd started licking his ashes off his fingers, tasting charcoal and leather and bile at the back of his throat. Soot had coated his tongue and he could feel it settle in his lungs as he retched. He'd swallowed, thinking that if this was all it would take to complete him, he would take back every piece of Shinji claimed by the heavens. He'd never let him go.

He wonders why she can't see this, why she won't accept that he is a broken thing.

"If I go with you," he speaks slowly, testing the waters, "will you tell me your name?"

"Ah! So that's your price!" She smiles in that small, teasing way, like she's hiding some big secret. She shakes her head and leans in closer, and Akihiko stupidly thinks that she's finally going to confide in him. "Charon requested the dead be buried with an obol for safe passage from Acheron to Styx. I can't pay your fare for you."

"So, what can I offer, then? You already have my name." Akihiko replies, exasperated. She pulls a face, contemplative, and he has the feeling that she doesn't really have an answer. But he knows what he can give, and it's what he's been giving his entire life. It's just, no one ever stays long enough to appreciate it. "Well. For what it's worth. I can. I will. I do. In every way that matters."

And she smiles, so brightly, like Miki, like Shinji, like the sun itself lights her eyes. Maybe it doesn't matter that he needs someone else to define him. Maybe there's no right way to be whole.

"You don't want to say goodbye to anyone, first?" She smiles cheekily.

"Nah, not really." The only people that really matter are somewhere just beyond his reach, and he's never been too good with goodbyes. "We'll be coming back anyway, right?"

She lets out a breath he hadn't realised she was holding, then nods. "Yeah. We always do." They stay elbow to elbow for a few moments, but they're both the restless type, and eventually the girl turns to him and breaks the silence. "Hey. Have you ever heard of Orpheus?"

Akihiko thinks back to the tattered books in the orphanage, the Iliad and the Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn, things Shinji and Miki had been more interested in than he. "He was... one of the Argonauts, wasn't he?"

"Yes. So were the Dioscuri... but I digress. Orpheus lost his lover, Eurydice, and travelled to the Underworld to get her back. His lyre swayed the heart of Persephone, who convinced Hades to let Eurydice return with him to the land of the living, on one condition - she was to walk in his shadow, and he could not look back until they were both bathed in the light of day once more. They set off, and once Orpheus finally reached the upper world, he looked back to his beloved, not realising that Eurydice had not yet set foot on the earth, and he lost her, forever."

She's crazy, Akihiko finally decides. Definitively crazy. A girl who quotes lyrics to songs no one else listens to, or who spent too much time reading the encyclopaedia when she was little. He thinks maybe he should ask which direction they're headed - is she pulling him toward the sunlight, or are they destined to walk amidst shadows? He dismisses the thought. For the first time in months, in years, he's happy. There's a lightness in his chest and everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.

Suddenly she's behind him, pressed tight against his back, arms wrapped around his middle and hands laced over the spot where his heart is. Her head rests between his shoulder blades, and the last thing he hears is her voice, so clear and distinct that he can almost imagine the feel of her lips brushing his ear.

"So stay by my side, okay? And whatever happens, don't look back."


REFERENCES: That one line of French spoken by Akihiko to Mitsuru translates to 'that you are the snow queen/queen of snows'.

What she's learned is what she always learns. Plato was right. We're all of us immortal. We couldn't die if we wanted to. Every day of her life, every minute of her life, if she could just remember that.
- Diary, Chuck Palahniuk

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
- Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Written over the nights when my insomnia came back in full force and something in my house kept opening and closing doors and flicking light switches on and off til morning.

Ahaha, I took this quite seriously when I started writing it, and now I read it back to myself and it makes me cringe a little. I should not be allowed access to wordpad in the wee hours of the morning.

I guess this is one of those things you can interpret any way you want. I will say, conclusively, that when I started it I knew it would have nothing to do with love and everything to do with finding a kindred spirit in the world.

Anyway. Whatever happened, I choose to believe that things are okay with them, and even if they're not, they will be soon enough.