notes – Akihiko-centric with a handful of everything one will expect: Miki-angst, Mitsuru-dynamic, Shinji-bromance, Minako-love/heartbreak and a personal touch. Que je croie means 'I would believe', from what little information I have to go by. Enjoy.
spoilers – throughout P3P

Que Je Croie In

He wants a bike without training wheels.

Shinji 'borrows' one from the kid down the road, the one who scampers in a proper house with an unlocked gate and the humming mother who hangs damp clothes out in the sun. The orphanage could never afford more than one set of building blocks and a collapse of rickety swings, so 'it was the only way, got it?' Shinjiro informs him with a gruff snap.

Akihiko yells at the boy with the scowl stitched on his face before going to return the bike. He receives a scolding from the woman in the old, tattered apron. It's alright though – as he takes in the experience of having an adult cross her arms over him, he thinks that he doesn't really want a bike anymore. He wants something else.

He doesn't quite get it. The people who visit the orphanage evaluate his scars and papery hair, and avert their eyes to the adorable little girls with messy pigtails and naked dolls.

So he hugs his tiny sister at his side as Shinji gives him a playful kick to the leg. It's called compromise, and he will settle. Seven-year olds aren't supposed to ask for too much.

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He wants Miki to smile.

He's won another match. His opponent lies on the ground and sprawled at his feet, caught in a daze and counting stars. He hears the crowd explode with cheers, the girls rattling in their untamed (uncalled for) fevour, his coach's yell as he is rubbed on the head. If his sister could see this now, watch awestruck as he raises the trophy and shines under the fluorescent lights of the gym, she'd grin.

Akihiko thinks she will – definitely becomes perhaps becomes maybe, and then the thought becomes 'never'.

It'd be so much easier to pretend if he could chase the crying out of his head and the smoke from his lungs, forget the strength of Shinji's arms clamped down on him. Instead it is the boxing ring, a pair of warm gloves, and a hive of middle school students whose faces he doesn't recognise surrounding him.

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He needs something to keep him sane, chase the nightmares away.

The red-haired girl with the cool, trained eyes grants it with the curve of her lips. She places it in the palm of his hand and he sees every raspberry fingernail, feels the dignified touch of opulence. Her aristocratic eyes tell him to keep mum, and the hallway of lockers is strangely emptied of students. He weighs the faux revolver in his hand, fingers curling around the handle and index finger flirting with the trigger. Akihiko nods his head.

The gun is light and sleek – and here he was thinking that adventure could only be confined to rugged scars and scrapped knees.

Those only come later when the clock strikes twelve. He finds himself under the melting moon, charging through the Shadows that rise from the ground while hanging dearly onto the rich girl's wrist. There is running and tripping, a wave of crimson and the click of expensive boots as he tries to swallow bile and fight insanity. Akihiko scratches his elbow against the walls of the quiet buildings and knocks down a sleeping coffin. It clatters onto the pavements the same time he does. When the redhead offers a cream-coloured hand, he takes it with the remnants of his pride, wiping the tears from his eyes.

Shinjiro's first time in the Dark Hour is different though. He is composure and caution weaved into elegance and broad shoulders. He scrutinizes the way the town drowns itself in twilight and spins the Evoker in his open palm, like watching a horror flick on a television with leisurely attention. Akihiko envies this control, but he punches Shinji's shoulder and welcomes him to the club anyway.

They follow Mitsuru down the midnight boulevard – a motley trio that do not fit together like friends usually should. The golden moon seems to taunt them because of this, but Mitsuru is too sophisticated and Shinjiro is too crass, neither make an effort to notice.

Akihiko just watches how their shadows blend on the sidewalk and bend apart three ways when they turn a corner.

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He wants to not-be the leader.

But Shinjiro leaves with a bitter curse and Mitsuru shakes it off, purchasing a motorcycle tricked out with tubes and buttons. She glues her hip to the devices installed and pushes a string of combinations onto the dashboard, it impresses him as much as it frightens him.

By default, Akihiko has to lead the missions. It doesn't matter much, since it is only him, Mitsuru and the engine of the bike on quietness of the streets. But the responsibility of being in charge unnerves him, it reminds him about wrong decisions and losing precious things on his account. He would be much happier one step behind Mitsuru.

Then a girl stumbles out of a train and wanders into their dorm, a week after Takeba is forced into their peculiar extracurricular club.

He spots her through the door crack of his room when Takeba leads her up the stairs after midnight. She has red eyes and hazel hair, an air of serenity painted on her skin – it's kind of strange to think that there's someone who could look as stunning as Mitsuru without even trying.

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Yakushima boasts beautiful scenery and the greatest places to train; he wears his trunks and ignores the odd looks the females baking on the sand attack him with. Junpei is more concerned about the girls and their accompanying swimsuits. The underclassman clasps onto Akihiko's elbow and prevents him from going for a swim in the ocean, if only to make sure he doesn't come off as a pervert when the girls saunter down onto the beach. (But Junpei still stares with a rash openness when Yukari arrives in a pretty little bikini, and Akihiko decides that his presence doesn't make a difference.)

Mitsuru follows shortly, and Junpei could have passed out from euphoria at that point. On the other hand (the logical, reasonable, non-hormonal hand) Akihiko isn't the least bit fazed by her appearance. After all those years together (nights bandaging shoulders and legs and midriffs and hands while maintaining idle chatter), he's developed comfortable immunity to the charm of her polished skin.

It is what comes after the mature lady that knocks him off balance for a moment: Minako is without her headphones for once, her chocolate hair pinned up neatly as Junpei trumpets her arrival with flowery commendations.

The boxer sees the scars of Tartarus lining the peach of her skin, and the young girl notices and beams at him, as if proud to showcase the line of mending skin snaking across her stomach.

Akihiko pauses, then smiles back on impulse.

Junpei asks: "What kind of girl do you like, Senpai?"

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He doesn't show that he has problems talking to girls. Mitsuru is the closest he's ever been in contact with one of them in the last four years (and she sure as hell isn't a typical teenage girl) but he isn't inclined to broaden his social circle. He likes talking to Miki in his head and offering guilty glances to the Kirijo princess – queen, empress, whichever – when he arrives home a little later in the night, sometimes with a bruise swelling under his eye, sometimes with a limp dogging his walk. Mitsuru is all business and seriousness, Miki all figment and imagination, they are the only girls that mean something in his life; it isn't a good sign.

He doesn't exactly care. Life is not about women. It's about something else, he just isn't sure what yet, so he stares the punching bag down and does his homework with religious determination.

Junpei leaves a helpful magazine on the coffee table anyway, and Akihiko borrows it with perfect discretion.

It hardly works because Minako doesn't listen to the articles. She doesn't exactly flirt and doesn't exactly get jealous. She doesn't watch her weight or complain about it, she relishes the food he introduces her to and guzzles down bowls of ramen with second instinct. She doesn't demand for him to foot the bill and doesn't laugh when he says something stupid; only asks him what kind of girls he likes and offers to wear a swimsuit with happy eyes and a big, big smile– which only makes him like her more and more and more.

(Too much.)

When she chuckles and informs him that she isn't 'with' Junpei, he breathes a sigh of relief he doesn't remember holding in. Then he takes her hand and leads her to Iwatodai Strip Mall, assuming she doesn't know which way to go even though she's been staying at Port Island for the duration of four full moons.

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It's getting too crowded, he thinks.

Koromaru is the dog he had sworn to have and befriend as a young boy – smart and loyal, with fur you could bury yourself into and a tail you could tug on just for fun. He slips perfect squares of meat underneath the dinner table when Mitsuru is too fascinated by Junpei's dining etiquette (or lack thereof) to notice. Minako smiles under the palm of her hand and feeds the contented canine with equal regularity. When Koromaru is stumped between the two offerings, he chooses to lick Minako's fingers for some inane reason no one will ever know.

He is a welcome addition to the team – but then, there is another who begins to tip the scale.

Ken looks at him with admiring eyes and hands fisting the edge of his jacket. The little boy reminds him of someone he doesn't want to remember. It might be the scrawny pale legs or the thin wrists, probably the vibrant youth and potential arcing on the soft lines of his face – Akihiko just bites his lip and recites multiplication tables.

The boy knows his place, sits in the corner reading picture books with happy endings (questioning their believability to a mothering Mitsuru) and swings his legs because his feet touch the floorboards just barely. Then the Dark Hour chimes and Ken twirls the spear with agile limbs. He props the nozzle of the Evoke to his forehead with little hesitation, different from the ten-year old who drinks warm milk from a ducky cup.

Akihiko knows he is horrible when he thinks that 'oh, that innocence is quite well practiced' and jogs around the block six times, but his head doesn't clear.

Just – so many people, so many faces – they all bring back memories of a dingy orphanage littered with lonely children. He wants less people in his life, wants more distance between society and his still-sore ribs, more proximity with the girl with twenty-two pinned in her hair.

In the end, Aihiko swallows the weakness and offers to teach Ken mathematics.

The child dips his head and shows him a tight grin, telling him never mind and it's alright: it's easy.

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He wants to be Shinji's brother.

They are young boys again, with no care in the world and only the top of the jungle gym as their lifelong goals. Shinjiro is always one bar higher, one second faster, a whole lot more reckless and nowhere near as kind as Akihiko. They coexist though, sharing popsicles under the summer sun and playing house with a frail girl whose smile will not be forgotten. They take turns punching sense into one another and alternate between volatile arguments and half-smiles.

Then Shinji grows into a large red trench coat, and Akihiko memorizes the texture of boxing gloves and bruised skin. It is harder to connect now, much easier to separate. But they are still the same seven-year olds inside – boy will be boys – so they don't fall out as much as Shinji says he wants them to. Akihiko knows that the male doesn't mean it, so they sit next to each other in a small restaurant and slurp noodles. Shinji stops trying to tell him to bugger off after a minute and enjoys his meal with a disgruntled 'tch'.

It's not perfect, it could be much better, this relationship with his best friend.

That's all bullshit though, Akihiko likes their friendship the way it is, as his tears mix and mingle with the pooling blood of Castor (not Shinji's, not Shinji's). He hears Shinji's heart pumping, and wants to make a joke about how it's surprising that the clumsy lug even has one to begin with.

Instead, he prays that it won't stop. He thinks about Shinji's home-cooked meals (the pancakes, the first thing he's ever made for Akihiko to try) and he thinks about the smell of the streets walking at his side, just one stride behind.

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He's never considered wanting or not-wanting love, it's not something he likes to think about. It scares him, it reminds him about little girls wrapped in flames and young men crumpled up with bullet wounds. When he's with Minako though, his imagination takes the wheel and his stomach twists in the way men in those action flicks must feel for their lady sidekicks.

She falls into step beside him, jogs with him and hides a collection of skeletons that could probably put his to shame. He's never been so uncertain about the speed of his walk or how his voice carries. He takes her to the rooftop like the magazines advise, stealing glances at the expectation brewing in her eyes. The words fumble on his tongue, but he croaks out 'will you be my girl?' with conviction (with one week's worth of practice in the emptiness of his room).

She nods and he hugs and it's decidedly awkward.

It's still perfect though, a part of everything he's ever wanted.

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Though he never admits it, Akihiko has always had this curious question nestled in his chest: How would Mitsuru cry?

Did she possess girly tears that females could shed from mere happiness or laughter alone? Or the kind that leaked from the eyes and hid behind the palm of one hand? The heiress is a battlement of posh refinery and learned conduct – her crying had been regarded as something greater than a rarity.

When it finally happens, it rivals the horror of Shinji's death.

Mitsuru becomes a walking corpse, her skin ghastly pale and hair tousled by broken fingernails. Her tears soak her father's tie as he lies on the cold, red floor of the tower. Later on, she continues to sob (quieter, though just as coarse) on Akihiko's shoulder – he doesn't know where he summons the strength from, perhaps it is Caeser's doing – and he manages to support the both of them back to the dorms.

He leads her to the couch and the juniors shuffle past. Minako starts to open her mouth, but Junpei and Yukari coax her up the staircase. Aegis and Ken follow suit while Koromaru patters into the kitchen with Fuuka.

The night ends with him standing rigid in the middle of the lounge, tensing the muscles in his arms and peeling off the skin of his gloves.

He puts his hand on her shoulder – ice, ice, ice.

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He wants to sneak out under the cover of the night, lace her fingers with his and just remember the way the air in Kyoto feels.

Instead, he sees Ryoji in the hallway, talking to her and brushing her wrist with accidental purpose. He has a sudden urge to jump into the ring and punch his lights out. Everything goes downhill from Ryoji's appearance. It starts with him holding her hand and it ends with him holding her hand.

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Aegis speaks the language of dedication and processes everything by placing Minako at the base of all her decisions. She acts the staple of all calculations whirring in the hard drive of that robotic brain. It's not right, that a machine (who perhaps isn't as metal or as immune to pain as she reasons herself to be) can watch Minako with so much concern and uncharted understanding – so much blue in her cling-wrap eyes.

It makes him brush his girlfriend's hair behind her ear possessively – wish she was his and his alone.

He settles with smashing the Shadow under his fist before Aegis' bullets have a chance to barrel out of her oiled arms, thinking that Shinji would be calling him a bastard just then, with a smile of approval to seal the cold hard truth.

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He wants to live.

Yukari's bow digs into his hip as they struggle with their feet. It's painful – good, at least his senses haven't gone numb. He can see the sweat beading down her forehead in the light of the monstrous moon. Akihiko knows that everyone looks just as determined, just as broken. Koromaru whimpers between hoarse barks, Fuuka tries to breathe through her mouth, and everyone bows before the doorstep of Death.

But death is too premature at this point, it isn't supposed to happen – he hasn't taught Ken how to throw a right hook, hasn't seen Mitsuru laugh happy tears, hasn't had a chance to settle things mono a mono with Junpei – he hasn't even gotten shy of kissing her.

Aegis' voice pierces the air – he hears what a robot would sound like if it could cry.

Minako floats to the moon and back, smile patched together with the glue of friendship, tied up loosely with heart strings. He doesn't see the bruises of black and blue screaming underneath the buttons of her uniform, doesn't even blink when her smile falters for a split second.

Oh, how he lives –

how the memories fade until the last possible moment, with the plastic of the chair scraping his back and Mitsuru flourishing under the lights of the auditorium. The memories hit him like a train, rush into his brain. He processes them faster than they can form. The dark corridors, the towering giants and the biggest harbinger of them all, everything pieces together with the words that have been floating aimlessly in his mind.

He leaps onto his feet and pushes through the knees of the sitting students to touch Fuuka's shoulder and exchange glances with Junpei and Yukari. Mitsuru pirouettes off the stage and they rush out of the auditorium to see Aegis waiting with a patient smile under the shade of the tree. Ken and Koromaru bounce on the grass at her side – it's the reunion of a family he'd always wanted to have.

But then, someone is missing.

Akihiko runs first, leaves them in the land of the Living.

He remembers nights before December, staying up late thinking about a girl with music playing on rerun in her ears, recalls fierce battles with her naginata aiding his gloves, her brave smile and strong stance and soft lips. He remembers that he's forgotten about true love for two whole months, had ignored her as she stepped into the dorm after school, given her an obligated smile when they happened to meet in the lounge – his heart contorts and he curses as he climbs the stairs to the roof.

It's the bicycle all over again (he realizes he never wanted it). He'd wanted something so much more.

(He never quite gets it though, just barely grabs her hand and laces their fingers.)

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He doesn't want her to die.

But she does, wrapped with sunlight and crumpled in his arms.

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Third time's the charm.