As always, I own nothing; praise be to Atlus. All "after the end" stories are meant to stand alone, but interconnect. I write all these for my wife. Special thanks to user Emmychao for looking over the opening scenes-sorry for flooding your inbox!
[VI. Lovers] A Remembrance Carried on the Wind
(A Bond that Can Not be Broken)
She held her coffee mug and stared at him, and tried to cope.
On the day that the Abyss of Time dissolved, Yukari Takeba took Aigis's hand, and they moved forward into the sunlight together.
Some three, four years later, however, not long after dinner, Aigis vanished and never came back.
At first Yukari was irritated, but she wasn't worried. For all of her humanity, for all of her greater understanding and the lessons she'd learned, Aigis was still at least on some levels not a human, and there were times that she did inexplicable things. And so at first there was no panic, just an angry call to Junpei to chew him out for riling Aigis up with his ghost stories and urban legends.
As time went on, though, and Aigis did not return, Yukari began to panic, and so she called up Akihiko. They couldn't file a real police report, couldn't treat her as a real missing person, because there were too many issues and inconsistencies in her documentation—the Kirijo Group was good, but they couldn't create a past from whole cloth, not if she was being searched for—Hell, that first time, when they'd put her in high school, someone had confused two forms and Ms. Toriumi had read out loud to a laughing class that Aigis was a weapon. And so Akihiko and his suspicious partner kept one eye out, and Akihiko risked his job trawling files for any sign of her. But none came, and that plan petered out to nothing.
And so, after putting it off as long as she could, she called up Mitsuru.
On a late night when Yukari couldn't sleep, the door buzzer went off, and she put down her book in irritation. She couldn't imagine who would come calling on her at that hour, when she was already in her robe and halfway through the glass of wine that never seemed to help her get to sleep like it was supposed to.
She punched the intercom harder than was necessary. "Hello?" There was silence on the other end, and her nails dug into her palm. Some kid playing a joke. She wondered if she could get her bow out of the closet quickly enough to peg the kid behind the knee as he ran away. "Hello?"
"It's... It's Minato."
The lights rose, and the crowd went wild.
Japan's hottest pop idol took to the stage, and the giant screen closed in on her face, so she could give that famous wink to the folks as far back in the crowd as... well, in a Risette show, they said that every seat was a "nose bleed" seat.
She'd tried to reserve the Moonlight Bridge for this show, until the city protested—nobody was entirely sure why she'd wanted it, but her decisions had been strange ever since her comeback tour some years ago. First, she'd gone out of her way to woo back Inoue-san, her old manager, and had even done a special charity concert with her old protégé-turned-rival to prove that there were no hard feelings. It was after that, though, that the strange ideas began slipping into her career one at a time—her fans were shocked to discover that she'd lowballed her going rate to appear in a commercial for the department store chain Junes, and alongside their doofy teddy bear mascot, to boot. And yet, nobody could complain, as she'd returned with a passion and a talent that even her fans had not expected from her.
The tabloids, though, were quick to posit that it was due to the silver-haired paramour who seemed attached to her hip.
Risette slipped the microphone from its cradle and whipped the cord behind her. There was a brief pause, and the audience went silent. And then she had a new song for them.
...Dream of a butterfly, or is life a dream
Don't wanna wake up, 'cause I'm happier here
I was glad just to have you by my side
It was the only reality I needed
But it was all just a dream
Swaying and dissolving like bubbles in the dark ocean
When I woke up, no one was really there
There is nothing certain
Reaching for the shimmering shape in vain
That, I know is true in this place
What should I believe in to live on in this ever changing world?
I'm drowning (I can't believe in you)
In sadness (but I cannot forget you)
Calling out as I saw you (I will dig up my faith)
That night (and march on)
I believed (I cannot see ahead)
That it's because (but I can't keep standing still)
You are by my side (So I will close my eyes)
That I could grow strong (and march on)
I was afraid (Can't lay the blame on you)
Of sadness (but I cannot forgive you)
Crying as I called out to you (So drenched up in rain)
That day (I'll march on)
I realized (I cannot face the sun)
My weaknesses (but I cannot dream at night)
Are because of you (So under the moonlight)
They all are (I'll march on)...
And then she slipped back into one of her old classics, and the show was an unsurprising hit. In between numbers, when there was a scheduled pause to switch out instruments and she could slip backstage for a greedy downing of a waiting water bottle, she caught glimpse of her new husband.
They'd had to marry in secret to keep the reporters away, but the important people had (mostly) been in attendance. Ryotaro Dojima and his beloved daughter, of course, and her grandmother; Yosuke had been his best man (she was a sucker for Western-style weddings—and the look of shock on Naoto's face when she'd been asked to be maid of honor had been worth all the hassle for both of them, though it eased up when they offered to let her wear a tuxedo like the boys... and yet there she'd been in a dress that her own husband had designed and stitched together himself!), and there had been an all-too-short honeymoon night in the Amagi Inn.
And when she'd woken up the following morning, and he was grilling freshly-caught fish in the suite's kitchen, she'd found her notebook open to a new page, and that song's lyrics waiting there, without comment. It had been, and still was, the only time he'd made a suggestion regarding her career; he trusted her in a way that still made her feel like a high school first year, seeing him come to her rescue with a golf club in hand that very first time. And so, she'd wanted to try the song for him. But imagine Inoue-san's shock, and (to be perfectly honest) her own, when they realized how good the song actually was.
The song for all its beauty was a sad one, and there was a brief moment that morning when she'd worried that he'd been trying to tell her something. But his face, with all its goofy earnestness as he laid the plates down on the table, had made it clear to her that it wasn't about them; it was about other pain, things that he'd told only her in the days of the Hanged Man Killings, and after.
Backstage, he smiled at her, and she only had time to wave before she took the stage again. She saw the love in the faces of the fans before her, and couldn't help laughing a little—because they loved Risette, but he loved all of her, and always would. And more than that, she loved him, and she understood him in a way that the others didn't, couldn't... because she had been the one that he'd finally told about the Blue Door, and about Teddie, and about the Boy on the Train—the one he still dreamed about some nights in an inexplicable panic, the nights when he would hold onto her, and rely on her strength the way that she'd relied upon his for so long.
She was Yukari's best friend, and yet just sitting across from each other, in that cafe by Port Island Station, she couldn't figure out what to say to her.
Mitsuru Kirijo crossed her legs, pushed some hair out of her face. With every year, she grew more beautiful. It made Yukari want to punch her in the face, sometimes. Instead, she stirred her coffee quietly, waited for Mitsuru to make the first move.
"I honestly don't know what happened." She didn't sound angry, which is what Yukari had been afraid of. Losing the last Kirijo-model anti-Shadow android weapon in existence? By all rights, Yukari should be marking a court date on her schedule right now. Instead, Mitsuru sounded as upset as the rest of them had, and it made Yukari a little sick to think.
"I figured you'd..." She flicked the stirrer with one finger. "...I don't know, send out vans and black helicopters, or something. Or that you'd have some secret recall code or something."
"Yukari..." Her voice was soft, understanding. "If Yamagishi can't find her, then nobody can."
It wasn't that she hadn't thought Mitsuru would care about Aigis, it was just... she was a person who took her job very seriously, had such a great sense of responsibility, and that had always shown in her interactions with Aigis. Even as the Abyss of Time had folded, and Mitsuru allowed Aigis to choose her own destiny, in the end she'd spoken as though Aigis had been cargo to deal with.
Mitsuru, the only one who would stand with her, when she'd tried to go back for him. The only one who was willing to damn herself without a second thought. And maybe that was the real thing that made Yukari flinch under her gaze. Not even he had looked at her that way.
"Well, you're probably very busy, so..." She stood.
"Takeba." That old formalism was so jarring that Yukari's legs tangled in the chair, and she nearly fell over. Her head turned back to Mitsuru, who had thankfully let her hair slip over her eye once again. "Let me..." Pause. "I could... set you up in a hotel. Just for a little while."
"Don't baby me, Mitsuru-senpai." Yukari grabbed her purse. "You're not my mother. I can be in my home alone." Even with the anniversary coming up. Even if it would be the first time without Aigis. Mitsuru raised her hand to stop her friend, but Yukari was already disappearing into the crowds.
And it was that night when the detective came around for the first time, that little spindly boy in the hat. Giving cause to wonder if Mitsuru was only trying to slide Yukari under the rug and out of the way. She slammed the door in the detective's face, and did so again and again in the days and weeks following; and she found it was getting easier and easier to ignore Mitsuru's phone calls and messages, too.
They stared at each other, on her doorstep.
The first place Yukari's eyes traveled, when she had the wherewithal to move her eyes at all, was to his hands, shoved deep in his pockets. The way they'd always been.
He looked like he had that day. Like he always had. And some part of her, deep down, realized with horror that she did not. That she had grown old without him in her life, and it was an old Yukari Takeba that was looking at the miracle, was being looked at from beneath and through a shoji screen of dark hair.
On a night of no particular note in the dorm, an off night, a no-Tartarus night, they'd been in the lounge like they always were. Junpei, drumming on his knees with a magazine; Fuuka, doing whatever it was that kept her busy on her laptop computer; Shinjiro, sprawled out across one couch, his beanie over his eyes, snoring loudly; and her, with her chin in one hand, half an eye on the Apathy Syndrome reports on the television.
"I'm going out." Minato was pulling on a jacket as he held the door open with one foot, Koromaru circling around his legs.
"Isn't it late? Where are you off to at this hour?" Yukari willed her head not to turn to regard him in full as he snapped a leash onto Koro-chan's collar.
"Uh." Minato scratched at his head. "You know. Errands." That was Minato. The busiest bee in Gekkoukan, some of the kids called him. For someone with his laidback walk, he seemed to have a fuller schedule than Mitsuru. Student Council, track team, photography club, part-time work at Chagall and Screen Shot, and lately he'd even been spied helping the exchange student in the Home Ec room. But it was his nights that confused her the most. The Dark Hour would be on them again in the time it took to go anywhere—what could be that important?
When the door made its familiar clacking sound, Junpei held his magazine in front of his face and said, oh-so-innocently, "Maybe he's got a date." Fuuka's typing sped up. Yukari stood, and casually drove the heel of her boot as hard into Junpei's foot as she could, turning to head to her room. As he yelped in pain, she thought she heard Shinjiro's snoring crackle into something like the rhythm of a deep laugh.
Chie used the picnic table's edge to pop the cap on her beer. "You know, I used to wonder what he did, when he wasn't with us, saving the world."
"Well, we lived with ours, so it was less of a mystery." Akihiko chuckled. He used a bottle opener on his keyring on his own bottle.
"Shhyeah. You didn't know he snuck off to karaoke all the time until I told you I caught him once." Junpei scratched under Koromaru's chin. The dog was curled up in his lap, as he sprawled out in the grass next to his wife, who was sketching quietly.
Aki rolled his eyes. "Is there anything that you don't have to take credit for?"
Chie elbowed her boyfriend. "You totally interrupted me! I was saying, I used to wonder. But, one day, I went over his house... his uncle's house, I mean, where he stayed when he was in town." She took a long pull from her bottle and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. "So, his cousin, who is the most adorable thing, she let's me in, and I go up to see how he's doing. He's building model robots! Tons of them, all over his room!"
"Awww, that's not so bad." Junpei took off his hat and scratched at his hair. "I mean, I know Minato was big into manga, and he was always playing that computer game I gave him..."
"That doesn't count." Aki winced at the taste of his drink and eyed the label. "I thought he was talking to a girl on that thing."
"He was so full of shit. He said it was our homeroom teacher."
"Yeah, but, didn't one of the kids in your year romance the ethics teacher?" Akihiko put his bottle down and took Chie's. "She taught my year, I thought."
"Tomochika was even more full of shit." Junpei dodged a smack from his wife. "Yeah, I know, sorry, language." He made exaggerating grimace-faces for Chie's benefit. "He was the one who wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He was a nice guy, but completely out of it. Iwasaki had it so bad for him." Junpei leaned back. "Ohh, man, Iwasaki. Captain of the volleyball team and the tennis team. And the legs on ow ow ow-" Chidori was twisting his ear.
Akihiko handed the bottle back to Chie so that she could drink, and looked up at the stars. "I don't know... I think it makes sense. It was a lot of pressure. He probably just wanted to do something really boring." He shrugged. "Minato told me once that he spent an entire evening just playing with that print club photo machine at the arcade."
Junpei rubbed at his ear and shifted his weight as Koromaru raised up his head to yawn. "I dunno. I heard he was always going to that club, too. But always by himself. He never wanted to come play wingman for me."
Akihiko held out his arm so that Chie could settle in against him comfortably. "Well, that makes sense, at least. I know he was crazy enough to encourage you when we were on Yakushima, but if he went to the clubs with you? Takeba would have murdered him."
Yukari wasn't sure how she made it from the front door back into the apartment, but she had, and he was there, too, sitting at their dining room table (with his hands still in his goddamned pockets) and watching her.
"How about a coffee? Or, no, maybe tea..." She pulled at her sleeve.
"Coffee sounds... nice." He looked like a cornered animal. She retreated into the kitchen, and grabbed a pair of mugs from the cabinet...
...And then the world turned sideways, and the mugs were shattering in the sink, and the tears started coming.
"Are you okay?" Coming from the other room.
"F-Fine, just... I tripped, it's okay." She wiped at her face with a dishrag, and tried to keep her hands from shaking.
There was a long moment, and it was almost as if he had vanished again, that it was a late night dream that she would wake up from, a full-stop sheet-twisting dream that would send her hands to the sides of the toilet bowl. And then he spoke again.
On a late night, a lifetime ago, she thrust a short sword into Minato's hands, as the world shook itself apart.
They were almost to the back door when Mitsuru's voice reached them, and told them to try another way. And so it was back up the stairs again, and he never once asked what was going on, never broke down the way that she had so many times. There was a soft line in his neck that went hard, and that was it. By the time they'd reached the third floor landing, some part of her realized that they'd been holding hands. But then they reached the roof, and it was there that she failed him for the first time.
When Orpheus first appeared—and yes, she saw it, you didn't always see it so literally, but that time she certainly did—she'd thought it was beautiful. Even in that moment, hands clawing at the roof tar in panic, she'd found it elegant in a way that none of the others had been, not even Mitsuru's.
Later, she'd realize how much it looked like Aigis.
But of course it didn't stop there, because that other thing was buried inside of it, and it broke free, emerging from the lute player's mouth, and then was too big to be contained, shredding that beautiful image to horrid pieces. And everything was violence.
Later, he'd try to find the words to apologize to her, for scaring her he'd say, and she wouldn't know how to explain that her thoughts upon seeing Thanatos had been What have I done to you?
He didn't wake again for a week. Those nights by his hospital bed had been a prophecy. And when he looked at her again, she babbled, about her family and every damned thing. While he smiled at her.
Later, she would feel his arms around her on the beach at Yakushima, and she would push him away.
The rumors began the first day of the year, when they'd walked in together; when word got out about her visiting the hospital, the gossip exploded. The pressure was too much for her. She didn't say, not out loud and not even to herself in a way that mattered, that what scared her was if he'd heard the rumors and thought that they were funny.
Later, she'd see him with that mousy girl from Student Council, and her chest would grow tight.
When Shinjiro died, she'd wanted to go to him, to tell him that it wasn't his fault. But he'd just snap that leash on Koro-chan and walk out into the night, and leave her alone with the others.
Later, Fuuka would hand her a disc that would shake her world back down to the ground, and she'd have no one to go to, nobody to share the joy and the tears with. And so she would pull him aside after class, to "apologize for Yakushima." Because damn the rumors.
And Aigis was always there. Hugging him on the beach. Appearing in his room. Watching over him when he was sick, during the storm. Walking with him during the festival. Hanging on his every word and thought.
Later, Ryoji would come. And he would start smiling again, and so she could hardly stay mad when she was sure that they'd been in the hot springs that night. And that would be the last time she'd see him laugh without forcing it.
She took him into her bed, and it wasn't as sad or as scary as she'd feared, and she didn't feel like her mother, she was just happy. Deleriously happy. And he held her so close that night, like one of them would fall through the bed and be lost forever, and being held like that was all she'd ever wanted.
Later, it would be Christmas, and they'd walk through the mall and admire the decorations together, and she'd think: Even if the world does end, right this minute, it doesn't seem so bad, because I was able to have this. And when they sit on the bench, and she gives him her gift, he would turn to her, and say, "I want to fight."
She reached the rooftop of the school, the rooftop that had been their place, and she found him sleeping in the lap of someone who wasn't her. And her anger burnt her insides to char and collapsed her knees, because she knew it was anger at herself, because... because she'd forgotten him, forgotten him, the only thing she would ever need to keep.
Later, she would hold his limp hand in her own, as she once had before, and she would make a promise.
And so, walking the corridors of the Abyss of Time, behind Aigis, the one who'd received his final gift, and had a brand-new sister to boot; walking behind the one who didn't understand what love was, but matched Orpheus so goddamned perfectly, some part of her knew that she, Yukari, didn't deserve those gifts, because she had forgotten him. And Aigis never had.
Later, there would be keys, and a choice. And she would be willing to tear the universe to ribbons if it meant saving him. Because that was what love was. And Aigis would stand strong against her rage, her violence, and her pleading; Aigis would seek instead to understand the man that Yukari never truly had. Because that was what love was.
She saw him one last time, and saw what he had done for her, for all of them; and in that moment, she felt cleansed. And with Aigis by her side, it felt like maybe they really could paper over some of the hole in things with a friendship forged in loss. Aigis became a friend, a sister, and sometimes, privately, to herself, the daughter that she and Minato could never have.
Later, Aigis would leave, without a word. And she was abandoned again.
And the others would try to reach out. Junpei inviting her to the house, where he and Chidori were building a life beyond everything that they'd been through. But Junpei had gotten her back, and Yukari hadn't gotten that. Fuuka would come over, sometimes, and try to coax her out of the house. But Fuuka didn't need someone, she'd found her own form of happiness. Yukari wasn't that strong. People at work would try to set her up with someone, unknowing. But Yukari was not her mother, a woman she'd forgiven, reconnected with, but didn't want to emulate. She had found her love, and now it was gone.
Later, her door buzzer would go off, and he would be standing there.
In the sleepy town of Inaba, there was a textile shop in the central shopping district. It did fair business, for its size, but it was perhaps better known for a small but popular line of dolls crafted by the store's owner, Kanji Tatsumi. A gruff and imposing man, he was nonetheless a surprisingly gentle soul and had a grace and delicacy in his hands that came out in the expressive dolls which sold not only locally, but online as well. If anything, they sold too well—Tatsumi had been forced to raise the price consistently to keep his order level manageable, as he would not settle for anything less than fully handmade, and his few trusted apprentices could not mass produce them any faster.
Less well known was that the same textile shop was also the home of a branch headquarters of the Shirogane Detective Agency, and that Tatsumi's wife carried the somewhat inexplicable and gender-confused sobriquet of "Detective Prince"-the rare private detective who was respected across most of Japan's police force.
This Detective Prince had taken on greater and greater caseloads in recent years, because her mentor and the Agency's "chairman emeritus" had taken ill of late. Naoto Shirogane had found herself torn in many directions, of late: her duties as a wife, as an investigator, as a grand-daughter, and as a person unto herself had all grown more demanding at an almost exponential rate since the day that Yakushiji-san had arrived in person to inform her of her grandfather's failing health.
And so it was that she found herself at her desk at home, rubbing at her eyes as a cat curled around her legs. Gouto was her grandfather's cat, and she'd agreed to take him in to ease the load on both Grampa and Yakushiji-san, but their relationship was touch and go at best. Kanji, for his part, loved anything both cute and fuzzy, and so Gouto's arrival had been welcomed instantly; he took care of most of the cat's care for her, recognizing a way to help without getting in her way. Naoto, though, for her part, found the cat to be incredibly forceful when it wanted her attention, something of which not even her husband was guilty (they'd taken time to find the right rhythm, to be sure, but now it was so comfortable she still sometimes hated herself for denying herself the opportunity for so long).
Even now, Gouto was being demanding. Absently reaching down to pet him, apparently, was not enough, and the cat jumped up on her desk. She sighed and shifted her paperwork to accommodate him. She had finally put one of her longer cases to bed, and Kanji needed an evening to finish a special order, and so she'd been blessed with a single night in which to pursue her ongoing personal investigation. The desk had been cluttered with notes and documents pertaining to the mysterious boy, and the incident in Iwatodai that he must have been involved with. The more information that she was able to recover, the less she was able to connect. It was a feeling that she had experienced only once before, and that had been the Hanged Man Killings. Which supported her theory: that it had been a Persona incident, and that the boy who could only be her brother had been in the center of it.
"Naoto?" Kanji appeared at the door to her study. "You need food?"
"No, I'm..." She realized that the sour pit in her stomach meant that she hadn't eaten in... two, three... seven hours. She winced. "Yes, that would be best."
"Good." He nodded. "I'm taking a half-hour break. Souzai Daigaku carry-out?
"I don't... their meat..." She pinched her nose. "Aiya's?"
"Yeah, okay." He knocked on her door frame once, and then left her alone. She smiled.
His shadow had been all flesh, and hers cold steel; his Persona was a towering golem, and hers would flit in the palms of her hands. Naoto had not understood the parallelism until later, when she would return to the textile shop at the end of a long case, dump her jacket in a chair and find dinner waiting for her, or a lunch of (back when she could stand it) take-out croquettes.
Hiding from Teddie and his desire to be made a woman, all that time ago, she'd slipped into the audience of a school play and found herself pondering an earlier request, from someone who wanted her to make him a man. The performances were dire, and the script a butchery, but still it prompted a remembrance of curling up with a leather-bound collection in her Grampa's study. "There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio..." What a perfect summation of that year's caseload; of the places she now walked, of Seta the crutch, and the man she didn't fully understand until Seta had gone.
A man afraid to behave in ways like a woman, and a woman hiding in the form of a man. To think: she'd stuck her tongue out at Grampa that day, saying the plays didn't have the life to them of her beloved noir pulps and mysteries. He'd been, as always, trying to impart to her a lesson that she didn't comprehend.
A shared look on the day she could have died, and it hadn't been enough. A moment of contemplation in a crowded audience hadn't been enough. The way her heart had stirred when he returned her to sense in the hospital hadn't, either, or the way she found herself looking at him when he grabbed Adachi and slammed him into the wall a day later... She'd no frame of reference. Not even when she wrinkled a love letter in her hands by the shoe boxes and spoke of love without understanding, and Seta had smiled that private, understanding smile. No, it hadn't been until she found herself so shockingly comfortable telling him her fears, and he had listened until she made her own decisions. Only then, understanding his supposed thickheadedness was a mask for his fears, the way her intelligence had been hers.
It was understanding the parallels that had made their romance possible. After that, it was only logical.
She was shocked out of her reverie when a clump of papers crashed to the floor. Gouto looked very self-satisfied as half of her files on the Arisato case were shuffled together. "Accursed cat," she muttered, and bent down to pick them up, when she noticed a particular photograph beneath Gouto's paw.
Much of her legwork on the case had been reconstructed; someone had broken into her pay locker in Okina City Station and taken her original research. That none of her other similar bolt-holes had been hit suggested that it was a deliberate action regarding this particular case, which led her to believe that it had been orchestrated by Mitsuru Kirijo, who was proving to be a formidable adversary. She had clearly, for instance, gotten to Takeba early enough that questioning her without a legal pretense had proven impossible. Sanada, as well, was a dead end—even if she could find a way to interrogate him without raising Chie's ire (skillful positioning, that), his ties with Kirijo were both too strong to give out information and too fractured to have recent news.
The photograph that Gouto almost seemed to have singled out, however, raised an altogether different possibility. She smiled, thinly, ran her hand along the cat's back, and wondered if there was anyone awake at this hour who could supply her with scholarship records.
She held her coffee mug and stared at him, and tried to cope.
He held his, and tried not to look at her.
Finally, he spoke, softly. "I can't summon my Persona, anymore."
She snorted, and the fact that she was able to do so closed the gap, just a little. "Of course, you can't. There's no Dark Hour anymore." Because of you.
"No... I meant..." He turned the mug so that the handle faced the other way. "It's... gone. All of them are gone."
And he was so much like a lost little boy in that moment, so unlike the Minato who had calmly taken her in his arms on the beach, that she feared there would be no hope for them at all.
As if he'd heard her speak, he clutched at his face. "I'm sorry... for me, it's only been two years... time dilation... two years and forever."
"I still don't understand it..." She whispered. "We..." We buried you. More than that, we cremated you, she thought to herself, and your ashes were scattered off the Moonlight Bridge. We were all there. I'd almost had to fight Akihiko, when he'd wanted to bury you next to Shinjiro and his damned sister.
He offered a weak smile.
She wanted to take him to bed. She wanted to throw him out the window. She wanted to curl up in his lap, and cry herself to sleep.
"I know I have to see everyone." He sighed, and lilted a bit, and she realized how tired he was. "Eventually. I just thought... you know..."
She felt them on her cheeks, before she realized they were coming.
The fourth floor bathroom wasn't used often, like the one by the lounge, and so Minato and Fuuka had requisitioned it together as a darkroom. She remembered once when Shinjiro had first come back to the dorm, he'd slipped in and fallen back out, rubbing at his eyes and cursing, and had almost tripped back down the stairs. She placed her hand on the door and closed her eyes. She could hear him inside, the sloshing of solution over those often-hidden hands as he withdrew each picture, hung them up on a line. Everyone else was in the lobby. She turned off the lights and slipped in the door. "Yukari?" But his initial hesitation wasn't there when his hands moved her hips up and onto the rim of the large sink, thumbs beneath her short skirt. Downstairs, Junpei was daring Ken to go upstairs and check on them, until Mitsuru silenced him with a glare.
Less than a week past that, and her competitive streak had gotten her in trouble, a hastily-made bet while playing cards in her room left her walking into Tartarus in the maid's outfit from the canceled cultural festival. Holding her bow in front of her protectively, as Junpei laughed so hard he had to grab a red-faced Akihiko's shoulder to stay standing. He just held out his hands, self-satisfied and yet somehow still so innocent. She remembered walking with Mitsuru in Kyoto, seeing him in his robes through a window, laughing with Kaz from the track team, Kenji, and that strange boy Ryoji. Wanting to be the one he laughed for. And so she held her head up high, adjusted one stocking, and walked right into battle in costume.
But sometimes, Minato would wander into the corner of Tartarus's lobby, stare into the shadows for so long they'd think they'd lost him for good. And sometimes when he came back to himself, he'd be red-faced and unable to meet her eyes for reasons that she couldn't explain.
Junpei Iori sat on a bench outside of Port Island Station, while a woman sketched quietly next to him.
A two-edged miracle had brought her back into his life. The most tragic sort of hope. His hands worked the brim of his cap as he waited for something to reach her. The Abyss of Time had been only a few months previous. He'd seen Yukari collapse to the floor and beg to see Minato Arisato one more time, and some part of him had died. Because he'd gotten his wish, and it was all the harder.
"How's it going over there?" He glanced over at the woman, whose long red hair now covered a plain blouse and slacks that didn't look right on her at all.
"Fine." Chidori just kept shading with her colored pencil, and he reached his hand into his jacket.
"Good, good. That's good. Um. I was wondering, y'know, if you don't mind... I've got some pictures, here. Photos. Not great pictures like you make."
She sighed. "I will not remember them, Junpei."
"That's okay! It's totally okay. I just wanted to show them to you." And he held them out to her.
She hardly glanced at each one before moving on to the next. They were well-shot; Minato had not been the best photographer in his school club, but he had an eye that Junpei had envied (like he'd envied everything else). He used to wonder, if he'd had Minato's gift, if it had been something that he could impress Chidori with. But she didn't seem to care about the composition of the shots, just wanted to appease the strange boy who spent so much time with her so that he'd leave her to her sketchbook.
There were pictures of Yukari and Mitsuru in Kyoto, of Junpei and Fuuka in the park when they'd all played baseball. Akihiko and Shinjiro wrestling in the lounge. And less personal shots, too, just well-framed views of the shrine or of people walking in the mall. One of Junpei's old favorites had been the candid shot, taken from behind a planter, of Officer Kurosawa attempting to eat a giant sub sandwich.
She kept flipping through them, faster and faster, and then stopped.
Junpei looked over, and frowned. It was a picture of Shuji Ikutski, asleep on a couch in the dorm lounge. Minato had taken the picture because Junpei had drawn all over Ikutski's face in magic marker. Yukari could be seen off in one corner, laughing her head off. Not even Mitsuru had gotten mad at them over that one. He had forgotten all about it until that moment, when her finger tapped the sleeping Ikutski.
"Who is this?"
"Uh." Junpei wiped at his mouth. He hadn't wanted to push her that hard, would never have kept that photograph in the stack if he'd realized it had been in there. "Well..."
"He is a bad person, isn't he?" Barely stated as a question at all.
"He was, yeah." Junpei gently placed a hand on her shoulder. "He was. But he's gone, now."
"That's good. Yes." She handed him back the pictures. "...Thank you, Junpei." And she rested her head against his shoulder.
He breathed in the scent of her hair and closed his eyes, not wanting that moment to end.
Junpei thought about Yukari, and Aigis too, losing the one who had given their life meaning, and realized, that he could wait as long as it took. One day, she would remember the things that mattered. And until that day there dwelled within him a spring of life, a hope that she had given him and that would never go out.
"Come to bed." Yukari took his hand.
"Are you sure?" Minato placed his other hand over hers. "I don't want to... I know this is hard."
"It's okay." Her other hand found his face. "It will be okay now. I don't know how, but... It will."
She lightly pulled him to his feet, and his arms wrapped around her, and all of the doubts and fears fled like weak shadows.
And then there was a thump upstairs, a loud bang, and the arrhythmic stomps of a familiar duck walk. Aigis had come home. They released each other slowly, clasped hands, and turned to the stairwell doorway to greet her.
There were nights when everything was quiet.
When a man hung up his hat, laid down next to his wife, and praised God again and again in thanks.
When the idol, and her idol, curled up, and took turns being the strong one, and the one who shivered through the night.
When two police officers couldn't sleep, but shared private smiles as they made their rounds.
When a tailor would drag his wife to bed, and she'd lie awake, so glad for her new, growing family and yet terrified for the one that was slipping through her fingers as the wheel of fortune turned again.
And when a woman watched the boy sleep, the boy who defined her, always praying that this time he'd remember to wake up.