I've fallen closest to Shinjiro, and I reach towards him, cupping my hand around his nose and mouth. In a moment, I feel his breath puff against my wrist, steady, even deep, as if he's only sleeping. His skin is completely dry, no bloody residue, face strained.
Swallowing, I crawl to Aigis' side, hand covering my wound. "Aigis." I'm banking on her being a machine, that she'll be harder for Ker to mess with than the others, therefore easier to recover. What was all that blood? Was it theirs? What did she do to them?
"Aigis," I say again, clumsily rolling her onto her back, her chassis clunking on the stone. "Aigis, please. It's me. Wake up." Her eyes are open, but they're blank blue panes. I touch her face, leaving bloody fingerprints, say her name, but nothing works.
I lean back, twisting my neck around to see them all. All breathing, all unresponsive.
At least we're together again.
Crawl back to Shinjiro's side, arm shaking for taking so much of my weight. Slump finally, my back to his side, pressing my ruined cheek into his sleeve. The stone's cold through my jacket, and, right now, that's all I want to feel, all I want to be aware of. I close my eyes.
Sleep won't come. I can't just slip away and return to my Seal. Not while they're lying here. I open my eyes and just stare up into the darkness. The longer I wait, the less I feel like I can move.
I can feel Shinjiro breathing, so I know the moment his breath hitches, and his fingers curl on nothing. There's the high-pitched sound of Koromaru yawning. My vision wavers.
"...my head..." Yukari half-groans. There's rustling fabric.
"Did you hear her voice too?" Ken, speaking softly. "Minako-san's. It – I couldn't think while I heard it."
"Wait, what were we – " Junpei's voice, rising and rapid. "Holy shit, what happened?"
Movement, fabric brushing against me and a dark shape looming on my periphery – then Shinjiro's hand shoots out and rolls me to my back, my vision dissolving, the cold air hitting my cheek and stomach wound. "Takeba!" he shouts.
When my vision clears, Yukari's hovering over me, fumbling for her Evoker. Junpei's further back, eyes wide. "Shit," I think I hear him say before Isis fills all my senses with light. "I can see her teeth through it."
For a moment, I think the Diarahan's going to knock me cold, it's followed so quickly by another one – but I can still hear voices, Koromaru yipping, and I think Akihiko's snapping at someone – and Shinjiro's hands stay on my shoulders, and I try to focus on that, because now, the last thing I want is to slip away quietly.
"Mina-tan?" Junpei. "Hey, Mina-tan, can you see us?"
I blink, and the light fades. My fingers reflexively dig into my stomach, and I hiss with pain – there's a fresh layer of skin there, but it's tender. Cool hands on my face – blinking up, I see it's Mitsuru. "Minako – how did you get here? What happened?" I can't answer at first, and she touches the back of her fingers to my cheek and neck, as if checking for a fever. As her skin brushes mine, I can tell my right cheek's also closed up, but it's ragged, a snarl of scar tissue.
I swallow, eyes darting around their faces. They're all awake, all crowding over me. Shinjiro's leant back so the others can see, but his hand is behind my head.
"What?" Yukari says.
I shake my head, trying to shake my thoughts back into place. "She's dead. I killed her. She's gone."
"You sure?" Akihiko asks. He's come around to my head, so I have to look up at him upside down.
"What happened?" Mitsuru asks again. "It looks like she bit your face..."
My throat's still dry. "She did. And – " Memories of the fight flash back to me. "She said you were – what happened to you all? The room was full of blood."
There's a babble of voices, something about Shadows, and then my blood (what?) trickling down the walls and slowly flooding the room. And they'd tried to stay awake, but my voice clouded their minds, and they'd lost their strength. I close my eyes a moment, unwilling to think what Ker might have done to them if she'd killed me.
Koromaru licks my mangled cheek, and my eyes flip open. He pants down, dog-smiling.
"We should give her some room," Fuuka says, adding under her breath, "and try to figure out how to get out of here."
They back off (sort of), and I stretch an arm out to Aigis. I expect her to help me to my feet, which she does, but first she presses my palm to her own cheek. I fold upwards into a sitting position, Shinjiro supporting me from behind.
"I made a door," I say, talking over the pain jabbing from my midriff. "But I don't know how we're going to climb back up. We fell so far."
"I'm not even sure where we'd come out." Junpei's still crouched nearby. He jerks his chin to the unseen ceiling. "Think that still leads up to the stadium?"
"I think we should get out of here fast," Fuuka says, walking with Akihiko to examine the seamed wall. "This... world... feels unstable."
The floor lurches. Not like back at the stadium where the floor broke apart. This floor lurches upwards.
Shinjiro's grabbed me from behind. Fuuka and Junpei've fallen to their feet. "What's – "
The floor, no longer flooded with blood, is now covered in a blue mist, cold to the touch. In a moment, it sinks below us, hardening, covering the stone like a pane of glass.
And then it jolts upwards, taking us with it.
Shattering – roaring – Shinjiro hunches over me, one hand holding my head to his chest, and, between his fingers, I can make out the stone walls splitting, splintering. Rocks clatter down, pulverized as they hit the transparent blue film we're riding. Yukari cries out, latching onto Ken, and Fuuka grabs Koromaru, grabbed, in turn, by Junpei. Mitsuru's thrown her arms over Akihiko. Aigis still stands, crouching over me from the other side.
And then we've shot past the rocks, into freezing nothingness, still rushing upwards. Oh hell. Are we going to hit a ceiling? I press closer to Shinjiro.
We burst upwards into darkness and moonlight, water falling away around us. I scream because – I don't know, that just wasn't what I was expecting – and Yukari swears. We're still rising, stars above, scattered lights in the distance – and then we fall, crashing onto water, spray kicking up around us. The misty film bucks under us, remains in one piece, carried over shifting waves.
Akihiko coughs. "Saltwater – it's the ocean!"
"Is that Port Island?" The moonlight's strong, and I can see Mitsuru's turned towards the lights. The film doesn't stop rocking, but it eases some, and I can see just how close the lights are, probably not two miles off. I can distinctly see the whirling glare of emergency vehicles flickering through the streets. The Oonishi-Sato Stadium is ablaze with lights, partially caved in.
It's – we're out. We're in our world again. Junpei breathes an oath, as if he's just realized the same thing.
"We did it?" Yukari asked disbelievingly.
"Dude." Junpei releases a shaky laugh. "One of these years, our luck's going to run out."
Shinjiro's hand comes up to stroke my hair, shaking slightly.
"It's over." Mitsuru brings her hand to her mouth, gazing at the city. Akihiko still has an arm around her.
I can't say it.
Junpei rises to his knees, throwing his fists in the air. "Take that Nyx! Take that Erebus! Take that you friggin Ker! You are! Never! Going to win!" Yukari laughs (embarrassedly), but Koromaru hauls back and howls.
Something pulls my eyes away. The others must not see it, the blue-white mist sweeping over the water. Thanatos notices, and he doesn't growl. There's a soft movement in my mind, like a heavy sigh. I cling to Shinjiro, heart thudding.
"Awesome, Junpei," Akihiko says, somewhat wryly. "Now how're we going to get back to shore?"
"Uh – well... you know, senpai, if you paddled us back, you'd get a spankin' cardiovascular workout."
Fuuka laughs, and even she's joyous. It's the adrenaline trickling back, making everyone giddy with relief.
The mist floats closer, casting no reflection.
"Mina," Shinjiro says. His hand is on my back now, and when he lifts it, he brings it to my face. It's slick with blood. My shoulders and back.
"Hey, Mina-tan," Junpei says, "once we're back, whaddaya say we – Mina-tan?"
"She's bleeding again," Shinjiro says, leaning slightly away from me to see my face. I can't bring myself to speak.
"But the fight is over." I feel Aigis touch my spine. "She should not be..." And then her voice trails off, and I can hear the realization.
"It's okay," I say over the tightness in my throat, the raft rocking as the others crawl close. "It's not like it's a surprise."
"No, no way." Yukari grabs my arm. "We've only just – this is too soon."
"We aren't sure it's over." Junpei's talking even faster. "Ker might've pulled a fast one. You – you gotta stick around to make sure she's really gone."
I'm staring past him now, at the approaching mist, remembering Elizabeth's words to me the first time I left the Velvet Room, ready to descend to Earth to fight the keres.
"What is that?" Akihiko says, and the others turn, seeing it too.
I've twisted my fingers into the front of Shinjiro's jacket, over his heartbeat. "It's a ker. The Mist. Achlys."
Mitsuru glances at me, uncomprehending, and Akihiko braces on one knee, lifting his fists.
"She's renounced Ker. She won't fight us. Elizabeth – " I close my eyes. "She told me Achlys would come for me once my task was done."
Yukari's voice. "You didn't tell us."
I shake my head and open my eyes. "I forgot about her. I just thought..." I didn't think about this moment.
"You – " Aigis starts, and then flinches, eyes shut hard.
Her breath shudders in her teeth. "I – wanted to say that you're here now. You're – with us, existing off of the Seal. I want you to stay." Her eyes open. "But I know you won't. It is wrong of me to be so selfish."
I reach for her, lace her fingers with mine. "I am too."
The mist has reached the edge of the raft, matching its color. An unfelt wind ruffles across it, and, because I know what to look for, I can just make out Achlys herself, thin hands over her face.
I keep my eyes on her, not the others.
Shinjiro hasn't released me, and I can feel my back bleeding into his coat. There's a small shudder across the raft before Akihiko speaks. Maybe he punched it. "This is – " He exhales. "I can't even say this isn't fair."
"Can't we stay together just a little longer?" Yukari's voice is pleading, furious, and she's speaking to Achlys, not me. I can feel Shinjiro's breath on my cheek, shallow.
"Nyx and Erebus get her for all eternity." Even Fuuka's arguing. "Can't you give us a little more time?"
All of me seems to be constricting. "Please," I whisper, and it isn't Achlys I'm pleading with.
Shinjiro's arms unlock from around me. The cold air hits me. I tighten my jaw, refusing to look at him, but it's my last chance, and I can't help it. He's still kneeling next to me, blood down his front, mouth set, staring and haggard. I turn back to Achlys, drawing my fingers free of Aigis'.
"Minako – " Now Mitsuru's imploring. "Please, wait. Just a minute."
I can't look at Achlys now, and my gaze falls to my knees. "Even... even now I can't turn back to you. I have to just keep going ahead and trusting you'll be okay." Movements jerky, I lift my hand to Shinjiro's face, touch his jaw and lips. And even if I'm not looking, I can feel his tension, and I know all the different things he wants – to call me on bullshit, to force me to stay, to grab my hand. And none of this is helping. I'm just doing it for myself. I drop my hand, use it to push off the raft and waver to my feet.
"Hey." Junpei lunges up and grabs my shoulders. "I don't care what you said. This happened before, and it's not going to happen again. I'm saying goodbye this time." He blinks, unsure or covering something up. "Goodbye, Mina-tan."
After a moment, Yukari also speaks, softly. "Bye, Minako."
Fuuka takes Yukari's hand. "Goodbye, Minako-chan."
"If – " Surprisingly steady, Akihiko gets to his feat and reaches past Junpei to touch my shoulder. "If anything happens, let us know. If you're in trouble." His lips press together. "You never know." Koromaru leans against my leg, eyes large.
Ken touches my hand. "I'm grateful I was able to help."
Mitsuru's also stood, but she doesn't come close, face hiding behind one hand. I don't trust the evenness of her voice. "Thank you, Minako."
I jerk away from Junpei, stalking into the mist – it catches hold of me, suspends me, and I'm breathing fast, eyes closed, because it's the right thing, it's what I had to do, and I've done it, it's over, it's over, it's over.
Can't help it. Or maybe I can. Either way, I look back. They're still watching me. Junpei standing, Koromaru at his feet. Akihiko and Mitsuru, her face still half hidden, Akihiko's fists hanging uselessly. Fuuka with an arm around Yukari, their backs bent, their faces lifted. Ken reaching a hand down to touch Shinjiro's shoulder, Shinjiro still kneeling, face in shadow. Aigis farthest back, metal body outlined in moonlight.
There's something I still need to tell them. But I'll never know what.
The mist kicks up the hem of my jacket, skirt ruffling, and I'm shooting away from them, their features indistinguishable. Now the raft's nothing but an ice shard on the black water, Port Island just a scattering of bright beads. The mist shoots, streams past my eyes, and in the shifting blues, I can see things – not just the world I'm leaving. Not just Achlys. And not delusions.
It's the wreckage of the stadium, Mitsuru picking her way along the edge of a ruined wall, a tight grimace on her lips. Her eyes flicker with impatience when a man with a microphone approaches. As he lurches through the debris toward her, Mitsuru's face gradually relaxes into a smile, her eyes lit with confidence. Before he even opens his mouth, she says that she is hard at work searching out the anti-Kirijo faction. And she expects great success. Then she gives him a slight wave and walks on.
It's a sunlit studio, light burnishing Aigis as Yukari fits a length of fabric around her hips. They're surrounded by dress patterns and fashion sketches, a portfolio with Yukari's name leaning against one wall. Suddenly Aigis pulls away from Yukari, taking the fabric with her as she leans over the window ledge, gazing at the sun sets on unfamiliar roofs and church steeples.
It's spring. Ken's over six feet tall, and he and Fuuka are running across a college campus, he with a slack backpack thumping against his shoulders. She's lugging a briefcase and flailing with her free hand to point out different buildings, talking excitedly.
It's winter, fat snowflakes falling outside a different studio, and Junpei is helping Chidori off with her heavy white jacket. He goes to the back of the studio to hang it up, and Chidori hastily gathers up her art supplies, hiding a sketch of Junpei wearing a suit and standing by an altar.
It's fall, leaves crackling on pavement, and Akihiko's striding hard and fast, chasing Shinjiro down an alley. Koromaru canters ahead, barking at them to hurry up, and Shinjiro's face is set in a grim smile. Akihiko gestures quickly, gold flashing on his finger, and tells Shinjiro to stop being so stubborn and just accept Mitsuru's offer and be her chef. Shinjiro says that working for Kirijo would be bad enough, but he's not going to wind up working for Akihiko too. Akihiko punches him.
It's a house I don't know, a bedroom, a young man sitting cross-legged on a low table, watching TV. He looks quickly over his shoulder as I pass, gray eyes meeting mine, and he smiles in relief.
The mist quickens, pushing me past even these, and now I can't see anything, just swirling blue strands, darkness, and stars. I lean my head back, letting it carry me.
Quickly – but gently – Achlys falls away from me, and I'm standing in darkness, hair falling back to my bare shoulders. I no longer even have the outfit Igor gave me. Pale scarred flesh twists over my stomach.
I pad across the darkness, light drawing me toward a more familiar mist, a golden haze. My own. There's a distant roaring, not Thanatos, but one I'm familiar with anyway. Erebus.
I've never seen the Seal from this angle. The barbed wires are snarled but still in place, waiting for me. I step forward and touch the golden surface, warm as my own skin.
The light shimmers and Theo appears next to me. He's paler than I've ever seen him, but I don't see any gaping wounds or deep scars. "Ah. Minako-sama."
"I'm really sorry I took so long." I want to cry, not just for him. I don't.
"It is of no matter." He takes my hand between his and bows over it. "I am glad you've returned safely."
"The Velvet Room stopped appearing." My voice is uneven, and I try to calm myself. "I couldn't – there was no way to save my friends from seeing me again. Igor didn't – he –"
Theo regards his hands clasped around mine. "My master wants what is best for you."
"He's a bastard."
"You chose this fate yourself, but that is cold comfort. I am sorry for it." He presses my hand and releases me. "You will return to the Seal now. Do you think you'll forget what you've gone through?"
"Why would you think I could?"
He smiles. "Then your friends are lucky. Their memory will live on until the end of time."
My hand jerks to my heart, unsure where to rest.
He bows again, this time from the waist. "No man may know the future, but I hope I will someday see you again. Good night, Minako." He steps past me, opens an invisible door in the darkness, and walks through, shutting it softly behind him.
I press my palm back to the Seal. My blood rushes. My edges spread, square off, solidify. Wire wraps around me. Everything fits into place.
Erebus casts himself against me, claws gouging. My surface glows, restores itself. Nyx presses against my back.
Thanatos turns over in my mind, curling up, growling softly, consciousness slipping from mine. Content.
Sweet dreams, Death.