The Bird Dies in a Self-Created Fire
The gravestone is blank, with intricate carvings curving down its sides.
He tries to smile, places the flowers down, and walks away empty-handed and alone to meet Mitsuru for some champagne and debt-paying.
In January, twelve days to the Fall, on a bright Sunday morning, Akihiko accompanies Minako to see her parents. They are resting only five train stops and a half hour's walk away from the dorm, but she tells him she doesn't visit them often.
"I thought I should come back one more time, just to say hello," she hums, tracing a finger on the frame of the tomb on the left.
"Not goodbye, mind you," she adds, and he can't help but smile at her defensive optimism. It's like she's sure they'll defeat Nyx, and the way she has the least apprehension out of the lot of them makes her seem so surreal, like the way her bobby pins always spell out twenty-two no matter how rough and tough she gets.
The girl bends over and props her chin on her knees, inching closer to her parents. He stands behind her and claps his hand and says the sorts of formalities you usually say to people who can't hear you. All the right words are memorized in his head now, after so many funerals and graveyard excursions and visits.
"Mom, Dad, I brought someone to see you! It's the guy I love this time," Minako grins, like it's the most natural thing to say.
Akihiko nearly trips over his surprise.
"I – uh," he staggers around, not quite knowing how to strike a one-sided conversation.
Minako laughs at his uneasiness, almost like she's teasing him for his inability to talk to the dead the way she does. "Wish me luck." She blows a kiss to them, and Akihiko wonders how she can handle death so much more elegantly than him. She treats everyone like they're still alive, thriving in her head or in the music blasting for her headphones – it's times like these that he isn't sure if he's impressed or scared.
Minako steps off and returns to his side to hold onto his hand, and the feeling of foreboding is replaced by warmth. Akihiko distracts himself with happy things like the glow of her cheeks and the softness of her fingers, and everything is fine because she's the most important girl to him, and he'll protect her with all his might.
Ryoji's body is never found, his house address an empty plot of land, and his parents never alive. The only things that belong to him are the clothes on his back and his long scarf, crumpled together at the foot of the dorm's porch in the morning of the new year.
They build him a little memorial in the backyard upon Junpei, Fuuka and Minako's insistence. Koromaru graciously allows them to intrude, content to have his little kennel and bowl of water. The structure is a respectable thing, as grand as anything a bunch of highschoolers and an eleven-year old could ever hope to build.
There's a group picture from Kyoto resting in the centre of a miniature wooden shed modeled after the neighbour's bird house. Junpei is surprisingly skillful when he needs to be. Fuuka hangs the Christmas lights over the grave instead of storing them in the closet, and Minako visits Ryoji every other morning.
One day, Akihiko decides to follow her out back, where she tucks her skirt neatly under her legs before seating herself in front of the monument. She whispers things to the scarf that has Akihiko half yearning to hear and half trying to tune out. Most of the time, both options can't work because she's mumbling in an indecipherable way, it sounds like another language.
When she gets back up on her feet, he sees flecks of grass sticking to her knees, which are red and blotchy from all the weight she'd put on them while kneeling. Out of nowhere, on pure instinct alone, he leans over and brushes the dirt off her knees, and the girl can't help but blush and smile. She looks almost sad with her eyes pinned on him, hands clenched around the base of her neck.
He holds out a hand, which she takes happily. As they walk back, she turns around one more time to Ryoji's dry-cleaned clothes.
"I'll… see you soon," she whispers, and a chill runs down Akihiko's spine.
It's early in December when Akihiko should be training and struggling with the end of the world, but he can't help it when he overhears Yukari gushing over Christmas.
He paces the interior of a quaint antique shop in the back alleys of Paulownia for almost an hour, standing awkwardly under the spotlight of the hopeful looks of the aged storekeeper. It's his third time rummaging through the soft toys and porcelain figures, before he throws in the towel and dials Mitsuru's number.
She sounds delighted to hear that he's consulting her about present-picking, singing out a refined sort of laugh from the other end of the line. "I'm sure Arisato will appreciate anything you get for her," Mitsuru hums, and Akihiko sighs because he called her for suggestions, not ambiguity.
"She does seem to enjoy music, though. So perhaps you could get her something in that scheme of thought?" Mitsuru continues, stopping to listen to Akihiko's response. His eyes scour the trinkets of the shop until they find just the thing, and he's smiling widely, thanking her and reaching up to take the music box off the top shelf.
It's a dazzling red, though still far from the colour of Minako's eyes. When he winds the arm on the side of the box, embellished with a couple of plastic jewels, the song is one he doesn't recognize, but he's already walking to the cashier, and the old woman is brimming with joy.
The morning is still just settling in when he's walking through the port, stopping when he finds Ken standing down a narrow street. The road stretches out in front and behind him, but the boy is at the standstill, thinking. They talk about the choices they've made, and Ken is suddenly asking Akihiko if he can follow him to see his mother. Akihiko's hand tightens on the gift bag containing the music box when he nods.
"Do you… love Minako-san?" Ken twiddles his thumbs, posing the most untimely question one could ever ask in front of the grave of his murdered mother.
Akihiko feels winded, like Ken's just punched him in the gut with those little angry fists. He only lets himself falter for a second; pausing before squaring his shoulders and answering "yes" with the sort of conviction he usually reserves for Full Moon shadows and championships matches.
The boy's eyes twitch, almost like he's taken aback, like he's realizing that he's just a child with baby fat and underdeveloped tendons.
"Bye," Ken says, to the bones of his mother or to Akihiko.
After the Dark Hour steals away to the moon, an ambulance with no siren arrives for Aegis. Junpei and him help to lift her rickety body, Minako cradling Aegis' head with her symmetrical hands. Her knees are flared up with wires and sparks, thin metallic threads holding the joints barely in place. They lay her down to rest in a box with mechanisms that clamp onto what is left of her wrists and heels to keep her in place. It resembles a coffin.
Akihiko can almost feel the anxiety of the robot as the lid is placed down over her and locked tight, the worn latex of her face transfixed in what looks like terror.
Minako is a different case, because while she looks fine on the surface, she's positively lifeless on the inside right about now. Her eyes are hollow and her face is plastered with a frown for once, she sighs and sighs to herself almost as if she can smother the truth with her reluctance, and quietly asks "why?" with more shame than surprise.
Akihiko finally understands why she can speak the dialect of the dead. As much as he shouldn't be pleased by the fact that she's a medium for the end of the world, he can't help but love her unconditionally because of who she is, not what she is. Before they all return to their rooms for sleep, he approaches Minako from behind and ruffles her hair, and the relieved grin on her face is enough to make everything alright.
Mitsuru waits behind them and looks at him questioningly once Minako is up the stairs, not bothering to hide her graceless fatigue. He turns to her, and he can tell that she's searching for the answer on his face because she's torn between feeling fine and feeling aghast, and Akihiko smiles a little at her, hoping that she'll return to rationality soon.
Chidori goes mad and Medea rampages for her cause.
The Agilao blossoms out of thin air and engulfs Minako, setting off all the alarms in Akihiko's head – he's thinking: no don't be like Miki, please, his only real weakness is standing by while little girls are wrapped up in flames.
The fire chars the edges of her skirt, and he's already bolting towards her, his Evoker ironed against his temple, chanting 'diarahan, diarahan, diarahan'. Just when he thinks about Miki for the first time in the year, Suzaku rises out from Minako's shoulders and roosts overhead, wings arched and crown raised, warding away the flames.
Akihiko drops and his knees bang loudly on the pavement, exhaling a huge sigh of relief. Mitsuru eyes him from the corner of her eyes, wordlessly berating him for the chink in his armour. He'll apologise to her later.
They win like they always do, and when Akihiko sees Takaya's skeletal arm creaking and the gun cocking, he remembers Shinji and all the things he couldn't do.
Mitsuru knocks on Junpei's locked door with the bones of two fingers. Akihiko leans on the walls of the corridor, just to see what she's got to say to the boy who's mourning over a girl who died for him.
"Iori," she clears her throat and says.
There is no reply.
"You can see her one more time, Iori," she ventures, cautious.
"I've told the people to wait for a day before carrying out the necessary actions, you may go and see her at the usual hospital until then," Mitsuru clarifies, all business-like and detailed, a habit she won't ever be able to shake.
She steps back when she hears movement on the other side of the door, and before long Junpei emerges with his cap on and his hands in his pockets. He's wearing the same clothes he was yesterday night, but manages to look at his senior and say "thank you", voice tired but otherwise grateful. The hardness of her face fades off when she hears his words, and her concern for the boy seems to put her in a momentary stupor.
"Akihiko will accompany you," Mitsuru adds, voice soft.
Yes, Akihiko had been fine with the arrangement. Someone had to take care of Junpei. Minako had pleaded for her to follow them as well, not knowing that her smiles and optimism were what stung Junpei the most just then. Mitsuru had to decline her politely because Akihiko wouldn't have been able to.
"…. Alright," Junpei sighs, trudging down the hall.
In the silence of the Kirijo-bought hospital, Akihiko can hear his heartbeat in his ears.
Chidori is sleeping under the sheets, her hands laced like fine embroidery over her stomach, all prepared to be buried. Akihiko waits outside and looks through the window in the door. Junpei is standing not beside her, but at the head of the metal table, staring down into her closed eyes and the white of her forehead. Maybe that's the spot where he can watch over her better.
He sees Junpei's mouth moving but can't make out the words. The boy talks on and on for almost fifteen minutes, pausing four times to reach out a hand, only to retract it just millimeters from her pale skin. It's painful touching someone who can't feel it. Akihiko understands.
"Let's go, Mitsuru," he pats her shoulder.
She doesn't budge. They've already been here for an hour and the juniors are all waiting back at the dorm to go to Tartarus, they should really get going. The train ride back to Iwatodai will take them three hours. Her father's resting place is amongst his ancestors in a shy little suburb far from the economy of the city. The sun is setting in the horizon and the shadows of all the graves stretch out over the land at their feet.
Akihiko tugs her elbow. Anything to get away from the gloom of this place, anywhere that will make Mitsuru look more certain of herself.
Mitsuru doesn't respond to his shaking, to his gloved hand gripping tightly at first and then laxing when he recalls that she's just a girl no matter how strong she is. It hurts, watching her grow numb to everything around her and not being able to do anything about it.
The problem with Mitsuru Kirijo is that she lingers, she clings onto the past as much as he does. Shinji was right when he said that they were meant for each other. It's because they have the same twisted problems. Mitsuru reminds him of many things, of the mistakes he's made and victories that now feel empty, knowing that her father's blood has run cold and the Dark Hour is still haunting them.
It's Minako that tells him what's worth protecting, that there's something possibly nice about embracing the future instead of digging potholes in the past.
She takes up another incense stick and burns one end with the lighter in her palm. When she holds it out silently to Akihiko, he takes it with gentle compliance. Walking back to the foot of her father's grave, he prays with the incense burning and burning between his palms. Mitsuru joins him, churning her hands up and down, sending the skeins of smoke all around the evening air.
"I could have saved him," Minako's voice cracks apart.
"Don't say that, no one could have known." Akihiko places a hand on her shoulder when he should be giving himself a good punch in the face.
"I could have, really," the girl continues, curling up into a ball and leaning into his chest. She doesn't ask for him to believe, just needs him there to put his arm around her and tide her through the regret.
There are no tears outside the privacy of her room, just heaps and heaps of what-should-have-beens and mistakes. Minako doesn't know this, but Akihiko realises that they have similar regrets concerning Shinji.
Shinji is cremated because he probably would burst out of his coffin just to swear if he was going to be buried ten feet under, entrapped in walls and walls of soil – as if dying wasn't bad enough. His ashes are housed in a simple urn with little patterns that remind Akihiko of the ivory that twists around old gravestones. He tells Mitsuru not to be extravagant on the ceremonial necessities, and that he'll pay her back ten years later when they are older and surer of what they're doing with their lives.
Mitsuru smiles pityingly at him, like she's surprised that he thinks their friendship will last a decade, or even past graduation. Akihiko looks at her: the smartest girl school. No matter how intelligent she is, it'll take her much longer to understand the simple things, the things that actually matter. He promises himself that he's going to prove her wrong in ten years time.
Caesar clinks bubbling champagne glasses with Pethelisea somewhere in the density of the air, he can feel it.
They place the brown urn on the top shelf of the kitchen, amongst the foreign spices only Shinji ever used in his cooking. Akihiko stares at Minako staring at the urn in the evenings when she comes back from school, her eyes lingering on its shape and her lips moving, mouthing 'sorry' and 'sorry' and did she just say 'I'll do better next time.'?
His best friend is screaming, but it almost sounds like he's dying in the echo of the Dark Hour. Shinji clutches his head like it's about to burst, a gun clattering at his feet. Akihiko's shouting and trying to hold him down by his shoulders with Mitsuru, who's gasping out orders and trying to retain whatever control she has left before it slips through her manicured fingers.
They successfully drag Shinji onto his knees, but the yelling doesn't stop and Castor is suddenly thundering out of the back of his skull, and exploding into one of the houses on the side of the road.
They dive to the side and Mitsuru skids and tears her bare knees against the asphalt of the deserted road. The immediate result is blood that tarnishes her pristine skin, but Mitsuru's eyes flash, dangerous and distracted. She's already calculating the various plans of action, weighing their probabilities of success and how to cover up the whole ordeal with the least fingerprints and cleanest hands.
All Akihiko is concerned about is Shinji, who's sputtering and puking nothing but water.
He hears a young boy crying and the wood of a coffin creaking underneath the pressure of the debris. A hand hangs limply out from the crack of the lid, and Akihiko doesn't know what to think anymore. Shinji's losing his mind and Mitsuru's losing her power and he's just losing, losing, losing everything even though he's won ten gold-painted boxing trophies already.
Shinji starts laughing, bones shivering underneath Akihiko's gloves, when he sees the woman's still fingers and catches the voice of a traumatised boy. Tears start spilling from the corners of his bloodshot eyes, and this is the second time Akihiko has ever felt so powerless. They only manage to get up onto their feet before Mitsuru is back in the present, knees crimson red and instructing them where to go to hide and clean their wounds.
Shinji drags his feet against the pavement.
"You two'll be peachy fine without me," he snorts.
"We need you!" Akihiko runs after him, but his knees are still aching from bracing the road and he can't keep up with those massive strides. "It's not a big deal! Mitsuru's fine with it, she's just a little angry!"
"Yeah, I don't think so," he shouting on the streets at two in the morning. "You were made for each other, so quit wasting my time," he proclaims while flashing Akihiko the finger, stalking off down the streets, his trenchcoat no longer big enough to hide the sag of his shoulders.
The orphanage pools its entire savings together along with some donations from gracious passer-bys, and it is just enough to cover for a mass funeral for the children and a place for them to be buried. The problem is – they don't have the funds for proper gravediggers. So Akihiko's gripping a shovel in his scrawny hands, and the steel is hot under the afternoon sun.
The heat is searing, but all he does is sweat and sweat and his skin remains intact, it's like a haunting reenactment of the night Miki died. The flames were swallowing her whole, peeling off her skin and licking up her screams, she'd thrown her hands around her burning throat because she was so scared – and Akihiko had been desperately wondering why the heat seemed to slip off his skin, why the flames bundled around Miki but danced around him, why Shinji had hauled him out before Miki.
What feels like five hundred years in his head – but only amounts to five – later, they stand in front of a young girl's tomb for the second time in Shinji's life and the nth time of Akihiko's. His best friend has got his hands in his too-large trenchcoat and a grimace to hide all the remorse he's shouldering.
If he were any other person, Akihiko would probably pat him on the back. Instead, he stares until Shinji looks up and bears his teeth, demanding to know 'what's the problem?' He's a ferocious thirteen-year old.
"Get over her, man, she's been dead for so long," Shinji mutters gruffly.
Akihiko can't stop thinking about her. She's the most important girl to him.
There're two slabs of stone standing side by side, Sanada scrawled softly into their skins.
He ruffles Miki's hair until she chuckles. He hoists her up from her praying knees, wipes her tears away, and they walk back to the orphanage, hand in hand.
- Suzaku, while bearing many similarities with the Asian phoenix, Feng Huang, is not truly a real phoenix.
- I wanted to write a fic where you can read from start – end or end – start and experience different emotions/perspectives either way. You know, regeneration and degeneration – immortality and reincarnation.
- We all know about the phoenix of greek mythology, but do you know about that the phoenix is known as the Cherub or Angel in Israel? The clapping of its wings simulates the roar of thunder. It is said that the thunder is really the fearful rumble of the volcanic explosion that destroyed Paradise.
- special and grateful thank yous to dondon and inkie for their reviews concerning my p3 fic(s), who I can't reply to personally because they are anons.