It's rather insulting to know that Yukari doesn't bat an eyelid when he gives her a smile and showers her with indulgent compliments – but the moment a monstrous shadow looms overhead, she is brought down to her knees.

The moon is bending over the rooftop of the dorms, the air caked in a twilight of green. At his feet is the faint silver of a handgun, clinking as the mass of limbs and blank masks crawls inelegantly across the floor. He cringes at the sickening sight of the disfigured creature, eyes widening as it makes its way towards Yukari. The next moment, he has the gun in his palm – the first instinct that comes to him is to shoot the monster.

Except there are no bullets, just the eruption of sound from the muzzle of the gun, and the brief shake of his cold hands. He panics then and there, because Yukari's skirt is hitched far too high, her hair an unflattering mess and her eyes stricken with the toxin of fear. The young man breaks into a run towards her, powered only by human instinct. He trips over his shoelaces before clamping onto her wrist and hauling her onto her feet. The creature growls in protest and immediately slithers after them, and he begins yelling at the top of his lungs, if only to compensate for Yukari's silence.

Then two seniors, one with raspberry hair and the other with old, worn boxing gloves, come bursting through the door of the roof. They move together like an oiled mechanism, pressing the nozzles of their guns into the pale skin of their foreheads – a duo of gun fires, a wave of unplaced energy sweeping through the area, and the emergence of two heavenly beings from their frames.

There is a heavy, broad shouldered figure and a slim, delicate goddess – they float like halos over the boy and girls' heads.

He lets go of Yukari's wrist and stares in awe.

Ryoji takes the Evoker in his hand and feels the coolness of the metal against the side of his skull –

pulls the trigger.


Hang me from the Cherry Tree


He sees a little girl in his dreams.

She has short brown hair and eyes the colour of cherries.

She hangs herself on his dresser or on the post of his bed, swinging her feet in too carefree a manner. She paints him stories about Greek gods and goddesses and forecasts the ordeals to come, clad in a short striped dress of black and white. She laughs to herself and looks out his room window to the moon, admiring the artwork of the Dark Hour with an empty sigh.

There are nights when he shivers under his blankets, fearing the strength of the next full moon or when the winding corridors of Tartarus invade his dreams. And she is suddenly sitting on his bedsheets, calming him down with a therapeutic smile. Ryoji thinks he's mad when he thanks her, but this is a girl with hot red eyes, and now is a supposed hidden hour squeezed between twelve and one, so sanity doesn't really matter anymore.

Whenever he asks her for her name, she only waves goodbye – but one night, she caves in and whispers into his ear: 'I don't have one'.

A

Ryoji camouflages fear with courage.

It's simple enough – he lives everyday pretending to waltz with the hearts of girls, so this comes like a natural instinct to him. He keeps close to Akihiko and avoids attacking the Shadows head-on. He doesn't like full moons but he doesn't have much of any say – though he has fond memories of the night they stormed Shirakawa Boulevard, it is a story meant for Junpei and Akihiko's knowledge alone.

The dorms are an organized chaos. In the morning, they scramble out of bed and pull on their socks. At times, Junpei remembers to brush his teeth only when Yukari reminds him with stern repulsion. Ryoji enjoys the daily drill of leaping into his clothes and shoving miscellaneous textbooks into his bag, hearing the clinking and clattering inside Junpei's room as the teenager wages war with the pile of mismatched clothes he boasts. For breakfast, they swipe the toast off the tabletop in the lounge, Mitsuru alternates between peanut butter and strawberry jam every day.

And it may be a breathless dash to school, a race with the ring of the school bell, but Ryoji doesn't exactly complain. He smiles when he wants to, even more so at the ladies that giggle and wave to him. They are much easier to handle than the ones he lives with – Yukari has the advantage of good looks, but she is feisty and intimidating; Mitsuru all cultured curves and expensive clothes, but too much a bother to maintain.

Girls are likened to trinkets, things to slip on and off to maintain variety and chase off the boredom of normalcy. On Monday, he has lunch with his classmates (predominantly those with breasts, of course), on Tuesday he entertains the naïve freshmen, and on Wednesday, he sneaks into the seniors' classrooms and gets a handful of phone numbers when he is lucky. On Thursday he disappoints many a female when he strolls with Junpei to Paulownia Mall for a breather.

On Friday, he keeps his schedule open and available, but usually likes to spend the time alone, parade through town and listen to the symphony of the suburbs. The music people make when they bustle, bicycle bells shrieking, stray cats or dogs fawning for leftovers in back alleys.

His nights are dedicated to dinner dates. It's either that or the dim corridors of Tartarus – for some reason, Ryoji doesn't find it nearly as exciting as Junpei or Akihiko do, but he lugs himself along in the end. When the young boy called Ken and the dog who responds to 'Koromaru' join their haphazard team, he becomes even more wrapped up in Tartarus. He resigns to the responsibility of handling the Shadows, his Evoker strapped to his belt.

The only person who keeps him happy is Aegis. Even in her robotic monotone, she shows him more affection than Yukari and Mitsuru. She says she will protect him, cling-wrap eyes flashing in numerals and voice bank fluctuating her tone to emphasize the promise. Ryoji thanks her with a hug, experimenting with the coldness of metal instead of the warmth of skin.

He still tells her she is beautiful and wonderful, though.

B

One morning an unfamiliar girl steps into the classroom. The boys stare in awe, Junpei with his mouth gaped open and one hand adjusting the cap on his head.

Ryoji takes her in, watches her hair flash a brief golden under the sunlight spilling into the classroom.

R

He starts to get up to talk to the transfer student, but Aegis is suddenly at his side, the joints of her hand clenched on his arm. It is barely audible, but he hears the hard disk installed in her head whirring with information, scanning programs and everything else wired into her. "She is dangerous," the android informs him with a thick degree of caution.

Ryoji squeezes her shoulder and pats her on the head. "Don't worry, there'll always be room for you in my heart," he reassures her and ends their conversation with that.

Junpei drags him over to the new girl's desk beside the windows when class ends. He greets her and takes in the colour of her hair and the shape of her eyes.

"Have I met you before? This feels… nostalgic somehow."

"Smooth line, Romeo," she says. There's neither Yukari's haughty disgust nor Mitsuru's condescending amusement in her voice. There isn't even a syllable that sounds flattered or coy; her words are plain, and they buzz around his ears.

"I- that's not what I meant," he finds himself saying.

She's different from other girls.

E

Ryoji knows he loves her (a genuine kind of love, none of that smile-wink-laugh act he performs for other girls) the moment she lets him hold her hand. It's the sensation of her warmth blanketing the perpetual coldness of his palm. He feels human around her, not a soldier trapped in a never-ending tower of shadows, not a poster boy for the girls who expect to be charmed right out of their sneakers.

The girl grins, she seems to flip through his mind like it's a book. It's one of the reasons he is sincere with her, and only her.

At the same time, there is a sudden tingle down his spine, a premonition that blinds him for a moment when his skin meets with hers. There is question at the back of his brain, a murmur of, 'Don't you wish you could just crack the bones of her hand?'

He doesn't summon his persona for a week after that incident, but he walks with her for five blocks and seven streets every day after the last bell chimes.


One afternoon, he takes her hand and leads her to the dorms. She hums along to the song playing in her headphones. He's heard it before, a song about brand new days, something like that.

She enters the lounge when he opens the door, stretching her arms over her head and flopping down on the couch like she lives there. Ryoji takes a step back, and thinks that she wouldn't look out of place, staying in the dorm. Playing a video game with Junpei and chatting with Fuuka and Yukari behind a secretive palm.

Her skirt swishes as she climbs up the stairs to the second landing without a word. When Ryoji follows after her and sees her standing in front of the door at the end of the hall, he asks, "How did you know that was my room?"

The girl shrugs her innocent shoulders: "Female intuition?"

A

She knits him a scarf.

It is a sunny yellow – feels familiar on his neck, like it was meant to be there –, sewn from department store yarn and bottled love.

C

Her shoulder flirts with his; she admires his room with well-timed jokes and delighted remarks. It's a plain room with a mirror he never uses and a bed that hasn't been made. She appreciates it all the same.

"Don't give so much of yourself to me." He trembles all over, his voice and his hands, his shoulders and his heart. There's something about this girl in his room – not the fact that her skirt is short and her vest is small, but the fact that she's actually here, sitting next to him with a contented smile, that drives his heart rate up ten notches. Ryoji knows why he loves her – there are too many reasons to list. She's the kind of person who would lend the class idiot her homework to copy, the sort who would climb a tree to save a nonchalant kitten, give you every part of her until all she has left is her heart in her hands.

But, for her to love him?

The girl touches the knuckles of his hand, carefully soft. Her eyelids flutter and she tells him, "You're real, so why can't I?" It's not so much a question as it is a statement.


She pokes her head out from under the blanket, and stares outside the window of the room. She pauses for a moment, twines her fingers with his before she yawns.

"The view at night must be pretty."


One week later, he finds Aegis in pieces. She is still and dull on the bridge, like a broken porcelain doll under the eerie glow of the moon. Someone had the decency to assemble her parts close together on the asphalt like a jigsaw puzzle.

There is a beautiful girl throned on the hood of a rickety car, her mile-long legs crossed, clean hands cradling her chin. There is no smile on her face, only a picture of untold memories and crumpled creases on her school skirt. The Dark Hour bleeds onto her skin, her eyes unblinking.

Ryoji wants to hold his hand out and help her down from her perch. Instead, Akihiko charges in front of him and grabs her on the wrist. The boxer twists her hands behind her back and bends her arms in ways that don't look pleasant –

She apologises to everyone in a little voice, a weak smile spreading across her sunken face.

T

They sit her down on the couch in the meeting room and surround her. She's all hunched and her hands are clenched.

The pins in her hair catch the fluorescent lights, and she has never looked more like a girl to him.

In spite of everything, the girl never betrays whatever fear she carries. She answers Mitsuru's analytic questions with precision and eases against Yukari's demands using patience and apology. She even squares her shoulders and tilts her chin at Akihiko when he stands over her – Ryoji thinks she is frighteningly courageous, thinks about how she would have been a much better leader than him, if she could step into Tartarus.

"What did you do to Aegis?" Junpei questions.

"She looked at me, then turned her hands and shot herself in the head."

Then, Ryoji thinks about how ironic it is, and banishes the idea from his mind.

I

"You could kill me," she says with a straight face. There is the hint of a smile on her face, the bare evidence of hesitance dug deep in the strength of her eyes. Ryoji can only concentrate on the sandpaper dryness of his throat, knowing that if he looks at her now, he won't be able to swallow his tears.

"No, no, no," he rewinds and repeats.

He feels her body shift on his bed as she nods, slow and thoughtful, with understanding. He looks up from the floor of the room to see sadness paling her face.

"Can we defeat Nyx?" His voice is scratched with hopelessness, torn with the broken pieces of marriage in a beautiful chapel and children with bright smiles and small warm hands. Ryoji feels the slightest bit of pathetic pity for himself, to resort to asking an aimless question – because, how can you trump Death? He knows it's impossible, but there is a scarce shred of hope he finds somewhere inside himself, somewhere in her eyes.

The girl raises her hands from her lap and rests them on his shoulders, adjusting the scarf around his neck with delicate, fragile fingers. "You could, if you believe in yourself," she smiles in the way she always does, with a perfected air of mystery and untouched happiness.

"Don't say that." He avoids brushing her bare skin, choosing instead to hold onto the sleeves of her arms.

"If you don't think you can, how will you?" she prods him with a sullen smile. Ryoji does not like that look on her face, and one tear escapes from the corner of his eye. "Why won't you cry?" he whispers, hoarse and desperate for her to at least pretend to be more human.

"I don't have any more tears to cry," a mumble.

The sentence wavers in her throat. Her eyes flicker dangerously, and he thinks he sees a monster somewhere in her gaze.

Ryoji takes her cheek and kisses her lips.

And he swears that there had been the twang of a harp ringing in his ears.

O

The harbinger of Nyx puts too much mock into her 'good bye'. She makes it sound like she will see them tomorrow, makes it sound like the world isn't going to end in thirty-one days. Then the door to the lounge shuts with a decisive click, and Ryoji is already dashing to the door before he can think, yanking it open only to find the lamp-lit street quiet and barren.

The next day, her desk is empty and Mr Edogawa informs the class that she has transferred with a half-hearted attempt to sound like he actually cares.

Ryoji can only sit himself down at her old place – breath in the scent of cherries and ordinary shampoo, ignore the teachers who order him to move back to his rightful seat – and stare out the window to the lawn of the school.

The next month is spent talking to a dying man on a park bench and walking Koromaru when Akihiko isn't coercing them into ascending Tartarus. The higher they go, the more Ryoji feels a weight on his back, the easier it is the slice through the Shadows – the growing difficulty to breath and keep up with everyone's enthusiasm. The closer he thinks they fall backwards into death, the closer everyone else thinks they are stepping forward with their lives.

He doesn't say anything though, he watches Yukari's determination and Junpei's resolve, and the sheer guilt he amasses becomes his fuel to bring them to the pinnacle of the cursed tower. And this isn't what a leader is supposed to feel, is it? He should be thinking about life after Nyx, about living for Feburary because that is when Valentines and White Day come out in bloom. There are hordes and hordes of girls he could wrap around his finger with the calculated wink of an eye.

There's a subtle twist in his chest, a wince that goes unnoticed by Aegis and company – a growl of amusement in the clockwork of his veins. There's this sensation that sprouts at his toes, spreads to his wobbling knees and shoots all the way up to his gut. It tells him that convenience store chocolates and disposable love aren't really the things he wants, informs him that he's just being a magnificent coward.

Ryoji doesn't quite understand himself anymore, doesn't really remember what he's fighting for. It might be for a young child in a jailcell dress and a missing front tooth – it might be for a girl that had pink lips and a complexion that blended with his bed sheets; someone who tasted like sugar and spice, everything bad.

Perhaps it's for love. The real reason is on the tip of his tongue.

In the end, as his feet clatter against the two-hundredth staircase – there's only one person on his mind, one haunting thought carved into his head.

N

She props the long, white mask onto her face and unfolds a pair of majestic black wings behind herself. "Come to me," he mouths along with her. And he finds one last smile to show the world, even on the doormat of Death.

Ryoji lifts the gun to his head.

Deep in his hollow chest, Thanatos roars.

.


final notes:
- Abreaction – a type of catharsis, reliving an experience in order to purge its emotional excesses; role reversal may sometimes aid in abreaction
- There was no female equivalent of Pharos I could find. Additionally, I wouldn't mirror the nameless girl to Pharos, because two of them have different reasons for existing (in my headcanon/fic-canon).
- The cherry tree represents 'new awakenings' and 'rebirth', and in Japan is it used to show metaphorically how life is short due to the short-lived beauty of cherries. Additionally, the blooming of cherries is also a sign of love, affection and good fortune.