Pretty shortly after writing The Act of Vanishing I kept thinking about how the SEES members that were left behind felt. So I wrote a few drabbles of it and it eventually turned into this. You can probably understand it without reading Vanishing, so you shouldn't have to read both of them. I'd appreciate it if you did though. (Shameless plug, I know.)
Disclaimer: Despite the fact that I keep forgetting to claim my non-ownership, I still an a not-owner of the Persona series.
The Act of Missing
He thinks it's nice to know that Riichi is finally showing interest in someone. He finds it even nicer that that particular someone happens to be his best friend. Junpei pats himself on the back for introducing the two, and even if they both looked as if they had seen a ghost at the time and Ryouji spouted lots of cheesy nonsense, he thinks he did alright.
He subtly ignores the fact that both of them are spending an alarming amount of time together and the smiles that Riichi gives are brighter than anything he has ever seen before. It doesn't matter to him that while he's their best friend, every time the three of them are in the same place he feels like an awkward third wheel. He doesn't find it strange that every action they perform together seems instinctual and practiced. It has never occurred to him that it's so unnatural for the two to have such a deep understanding of the other when they had met only a week ago.
When Ryouji comes over for their daily game session, he sits and watches the back of the boy's head with a strange concentration. He briefly wonders how, even though the guy is probably the coolest friend he's ever had, will ever have (and Riichi doesn't factor in this particular scenario because she's a girl and is on a completely different level of, well anything really) it's slightly irritating that he's been able to conquer the most popular girl in school with a bat of the eyes and a few choice words. Junpei doesn't think about how he's afraid his position next to the brunette with the bobby pins and the funny bravado is being slowly but surely taken away from him. But he does think how strange it is that Ryouji's such an easy person to be around.
The boy notices that his host's attention is no longer on the game and turns around to focus a slightly curious gaze on him. Without really thinking about it, Junpei opens his mouth and asks, "So why her?"
Ryouji understands the question but doesn't seem to understand why it has been posed. "Rii-chan?" he asks, and it's more of a statement—an opening for thought—than a question because he knows exactly who is being talked about. "Well she's funny, really pretty, she's easy to get along with." These are all things Junpei knows because they are all things that everyone around the girl thinks. But it is the boy's next sentence that really makes him stop and consider.
"She's comfortable." Ryouji's gaze has returned to the television. For a moment Junpei isn't sure whether he's genuinely paying attention to the game or if he's simply trying to hide the blush that's rather obvious anyway because it's staining his ears crimson. "She feels like home, I think. I feel the best when I'm with her."
Junpei can't help his surprised gaze, and somewhere in the back of his mind he thinks, he's the real deal. But all of this is getting too serious for him and the last time this happened he ended up pouring his heart out to a girl and making her almost break a swing with him. So he picks his controller back up and after a moment of awkward silence he opens his mouth again to say,
"Have you done her yet?"
And everything is right with the world because Ryouji is looking at him with a kind of half surprise, half embarrassment, and the stuttering denials he's pouring out are making Junpei laugh harder than he has in a long time.
Yukari has always prided herself in being the one that Riichi trusts with advice. She might not be as close to the girl as Junpei is (and boy does that particular knowledge hurt like a bitch) but she is a girl and because of that she knows that it's her Riichi comes to in order to talk about gossip and boys and general girl talk.
Which is why she thinks it's only natural for them to speak about crushes and the like. So when Ryouji shows up and Riichi speaks not a word of him but the occasional comment about hanging out and 'yeah he's kind of attractive' she thinks nothing of it. But even she's starting to notice the way Riichi lets down all her barriers around the boy, and that she never complains about him touching her or holding her, and that all of Yukari's efforts to drive him away are laughed at in good humor. She doesn't want to think that there's anything between the two because that means there is a romance Riichi has not told her about, and that means the girl doesn't consider her a good enough friend to speak to her about this stuff.
But as they stand in a freaky, almost comical face-off with the boys in the hot springs she's forced to admit that there's a very good possibility of a relationship between the two. She doesn't miss the way Ryouji lacks the excitement that you would think he'd have in this kind of situation and that every time one of the two other boys' gaze wanders over to a particular girl he subtly elbows them in the ribs, nor does she fail to see the way Riichi is finding this whole thing hilarious.
She tells herself it's only her imagination and she is able to hold this belief up on shaky, poorly built legs until midnight rolls around and then morning and she realizes that Riichi had not come back to their room that night. When she slyly inquires about Ryouji's whereabouts from Junpei she learns that he hadn't shown up either. The stabbing in her side grows even worse and Yukari has to remind herself once again that nothing is wrong and just because Riichi didn't tell her she was sleeping with some dense pervert doesn't mean that she doesn't think of her as a close friend.
Last night had been a blow to all of them but especially, they knew, to the slender brunette in the bobby pins. So not one of the group had thought anything of the fact that she had failed to emerge from her room that morning and that her presence was completely absent from school that day. They have their own things to worry about as well, so their leader is left in peace.
But when the clock ticks eight and no one had seen hide nor hair of her all day, Mitsuru thinks that something must be done. Taking matters into her own hands she finds herself standing outside Riichi's door. There is a brief moment in which she thinks about what she's going to say (what does one say when their friend has just lost the closest person they have ever known for the second time?) and then she knocks and crosses her arms primly over her chest as she waits. Minutes pass by in silence and the woman finds her patience growing thin. It is very unlike their leader to show such blatant disrespect. She reminds herself that Riichi has just suffered a very hard reality and that the girl might simply be sleeping. But when she knocks for the second time even her sense of propriety can't keep her from throwing the door open angrily at the continued silence.
What greets her isn't a depressed girl in a curled up ball. What greets her is an empty room and a growing sense of dread that she doesn't want to face right now. After a quick perusal of the room the fact that the younger girl is not simply hiding cements itself in reality.
Out of the corner of her eye she catches the pale blue color that clashes with the pink of the girl's comforter. Mitsuru thinks she should probably wait and read the letter in the presence of the rest of the team, but her poorly contained apprehension urges her to read it now.
I left with him. I'm sorry for not waiting to tell you guys in person. I'll be back on New Years.
The contents of the letter snap the last of the control the woman has and she finds herself bolting out of the room and down into the lobby. The rest of the team look up in surprise at how utterly fallen apart she looks and Mitsuru doesn't care because she's barking out orders of 'Find her!' and 'She's gone!' and the only thing she can think of at the moment is that their little, makeshift team is falling apart at the seams and there is nothing in her composed, regal, intellectual self that can do anything about it.
The news of Riichi's disappearance can no longer be hidden, and the rumors of where she has gone spread like wildfire. The girl is officially listed as 'visiting relatives' but the number of people who actually believe it can be counted on one set of hands.
The classroom buzzes about how sudden her vanishing act is. There is concern over her safety, curiosity over where it is she's really gone, and talk of why the need to disappear so quickly. And then someone mentions the fact that Ryouji vanished on the same day and even the threat of Kirijo herself cannot stop the floodgates.
There has never before been such a scandal and the student body takes full advantage of it. Rumors fly about how they must have known each other beforehand, or that they're now in some love nest. There seems to be no one who doesn't have a theory as to the location or relationship between the two. Some of the more courageous find the nerve to address the topic with any of the three juniors who knew her the best. Only those who have the foresight to inquire with Fuuka walk away with any semblance of pride left intact.
It doesn't take long for the excitement to fade away, and soon the shock and awe of it all is replaced with various emotions of jealousy, hatred, and regret. 'Why couldn't it be me?' and 'What does he see in her?' are only some of the questions that are now posed. Those who aren't mad at Riichi for stealing Ryouji, are mad at the boy for spiriting away the idol of their school.
Yukari is doing fairly well at ignoring it all. She refuses to talk to others about anything that has to do with either of the two, and exudes an aura of hostility that frightens off those who would otherwise push for information. Junpei on the other hand, is having a hard time dealing with everything. It's probably because he finds their fascination with the thing disgusting. No matter who it was, to have the whole school in an uproar because of a disappearing act is just ridiculous.
At the end of the day though, he's not sure if he's jealous that the two are this missed, or simply bitter because as close as the three of them were, he knows nothing more than most of his inquiring classmates.
She arranges the ingredients and rereads the recipe for the seventh time. This time for sure she will make this cake, and she will do well at it, and it will actually taste like it's supposed to. Fuuka knows that it's completely irrational, but a small part of her wants to believe that maybe if she succeeds in doing this, Riichi will pop into the room shouting 'surprise' and tell her how great a job she's done.
She has to clink the pots together in order to create noise, because the silence is becoming deafening. Fuuka reminds herself that she's used to being alone, really doesn't mind being alone. Just because the cooking club has only one member now instead of it's normal two should not be the problem she seems intent on making it. But for some reason the home ec room seems larger than it used to, and the sounds of feet and laughing voices outside reverberate against the walls as if they were mocking her.
The recipe is checked again. She will get this right, she promised herself. A promise from a few months back resurfaces in her mind. Fuuka finds herself having to grip the edge of the counter and take a break because her hands are shaking too hard for her to do anything right. A sob bubbles up in the back of her throat, making her breathing hitch slightly.
It is not that she thinks Riichi should have asked them for permission to leave beforehand. Fuuka wants nothing to do with keeping the girl confined or taking away her free will simply because she's their leader. And it's not like she expected the girl to think that a promise to continue cooking together meant leaving for a month was violating that trust. But she does wish that Riichi had at least discussed this with her, with any of them really. The shock of the girl simply having disappeared had felt more like a betrayal than the fact that she had actually gone.
The small girl straightens up and wills her hands to stop shaking. It won't do to break down at this time. She has to stay strong, because if she doesn't she's not sure who else will be able to. If she doesn't then there is no guarantee that the whole lot of them won't completely collapse in on themselves. She has to do it for Riichi. So that when the girl comes back she can honestly say that someone was able to hold the fort, and that the girl shouldn't feel bad at all for doing what was best for her. Because it had to have been what was best for heri. Their leader wouldn't have left them like that if she didn't think that it was absolutely important. And though Fuuka doesn't understand exactly how it feels to love, she understands how it feels to lose, and Riichi is losing more than she could ever hope to imagine.
She sucks in another breath and finally starts on her cake. For Riichi, she promises herself. Because promises are all she has left now, and she doesn't want her friend to hurt even more than she must be hurting now.
There is no longer a lot of things. Like late night trips to restaurants and homework help and chats over steaming mugs of coffee. The lounge is now devoid of laughter and jokes that were dubbed 'too old for him' and various other bright things that had permeated it for as long as he can remember. All that is left in the dorm is a melancholy silence that makes him remember things he absolutely doesn't want to (like blood and bleeding and dying and ohmygod the gunshots) and curl his knees to his chest in a way that makes him feel much more childish than he wishes to be.
Ken feels he should be more accepting of the small attempts that the fluffy dog at his side makes to cheer him up, but the boy cannot find the energy to do so. He's preoccupied with wondering why oh why she had to leave and why she had to leave with him of all people. Deep down inside of him, he realizes that he's really wondering why she left without him, without speaking one word of it to him. He tries not to think about how maybe she's gone because he wasn't important. Maybe he's not as strong as he thought he was, and actually his age is far more of a wall between them than she had led him to believe. The jealousy throbs, dark and green and snarling, and Ken has to dig his nails into the palms of his hands in order to settle it.
It's not fair, not fair at all. Not fair to Koromaru, who misses her as much as the rest of them, not fair to Junpei who just lost two people, and certainly not fair to Mitsuru, who looks as if she is literally falling apart from all of this. But he can't help but think that the most injustice has been done to him because he loved her damnit, loves her now and to have this all thrown back in his face like this is killing him in the worst way.
But again he sits alone in the lounge, watches the rest of his dorm mates come home and mull around and twiddle their thumbs because no one knows what to do without Riichi anymore, and soon he realizes that he's just like them. The harsh reality comes back to hit him and he returns to the cycle of missing the smell of freshly ground coffee beans and a soft girlish laugh.
She can't study. It's not a matter of being unable to concentrate because of boredom. Yukari cannot focus because of the writhing fury that is gnawing at her insides and tearing her apart.
A part of her knows that she's not exactly justified in her anger. If she were angry simply because Riichi disappeared without a word then she would have every right. But the real reason for her fury is that she's taken the girl's silent disappearance as a sign that Riichi does not trust any of them. Why else would someone disappear into the night with some guy who they all know is screwing her senseless right now?
She knows it's not fair to Riichi that somewhere in the back of her mind she's comparing her to her mother. The two are in no way alike and Riichi isn't abandoning everything; she certainly isn't running away from it all, or at least not for good. But Yukari can't help that small part of her that whispers in her ear about how the girl chose Ryouji over them. How she ran away from the harsh reality and didn't bother to think for a minute that she's not the only one who is in pain right now.
Yukari grinds her teeth and covers her face with her hands. She can't think this. She won't think this. It's unfair to Riichi, it's unfair to herself. She's successfully badmouthing her best friend and hurting herself in one go, and it feels a hell of a lot more shitty than the fact that Riichi's now gone.
She remembers that she still has exams left, and the brief thought that maybe she should just forget about the damn things (because honestly, she has better things to worry about right now) is swept away because at least this is an attempt to get her mind off of how she's being left behind again. As she tries again to focus on the materials before her, Yukari wonders if maybe everything important to her doesn't feel the same way since it's apparently far too easy to leave her in the dust.
It is a shame that he has to come to a gravesite to talk about the problems he is having, but he cannot find any other place where he feels comfortable enough to do so. Akihiko leans against the headstone and thinks that if Shinjiro could see him now he'd be laughing or cursing or kicking his ass, or a strange combination of all three. Somehow he finds that it wouldn't really bother him and maybe it would actually be for the best if someone could just come on by and beat the living daylights out of him. It would certainly feel better than sitting around in this awkward stagnancy.
He opens his mouth and talks about the things the other boy has missed. He talks about a betrayal, late night walks with a panting dog and a girl in bobby pins, shenanigans in the hot springs that he never wants to remember after this, and the feeling of wanting to genuinely protect something. He talks about her. About how her lips curl like a cat's when she's teasing, how she saves the fishcakes in her ramen for last, the habit she has of doodling things with the tip of her finger when she's bored. Eventually he gets to the point where he's telling his dead friend about how at first she reminded him of Miki and then there was something more and she reminded him of her and her alone and now she wasn't there to remind him of anything.
It has never occurred to him to put anyone on the same level as Shinji or Miki for that matter, but as he keeps talking he admits that this girl is someone important to him. Halfway through he breaks down and wonders aloud why the hell he can't ever seem to protect what's really important. Why he's so damn weak that he lets everything be taken away from him without so much as a genuine fight. Somewhere along the way he briefly thinks that it's ironic he's telling someone who he failed to protect about failing to protect someone else.
By the time he leaves it is getting dark and he's pretty sure Mitsuru has called a number of times that he would rather not count. There is no closure and honestly he can't really say that he was able to give himself much piece of mind. But this was probably good for him, and when Riichi comes back bearing that apologetic smile he's sure she'll have, Akihiko thinks he'll be able smile back and tell her 'Welcome Home'.
Mitsuru had forgotten how it felt to kill one's emotions in order to get a job done. It had been a long time since she'd had to remind herself that being frantic and panicky was only going to cause further problems. They couldn't afford to be making mistakes right now, especially because the person who normally had a hand in decision making was otherwise preoccupied at the time. Or rather, was nowhere to be found.
She stands behind the counter in the lounge, manicured nails clicking softly against the computer keys. Her report, like most days, is short and has nothing of value. But she likes making these because it gives her something to do. Something to manage. Trying to play den mother for their team can only provide so much relief. It doesn't take long for the orders of Akihiko to stop being so restless, and Junpei to walk the dog to remind her of the person who used to give orders—even if her orders were veiled under sweet words and promises to go with—and Mitsuru finds herself freezing and trying not to think about how easy their leader made this all look.
There is a part of her that wonders if maybe this is how it feels to lose a little sister. Or maybe, as she grudgingly thinks, this is what it's like to give a sister away. (The thought of that brings to mind images of engagements and weddings, and the vision of Riichi in a wedding dress is both beautiful and nauseating.) She knew that the two of them had a tight bond, a special bond, but it is still strange to think that Riichi had chosen Death over coping with her friends.
Thoughts of the girl bring back thoughts of how she is faring. Is she eating right? Is she making sure to stay warm and dress appropriately? Does she have enough money between her and Ryouji to keep them properly accommodated?
Mitsuru sighs and has to place her hands on the side of the keyboard because she is pressing the wrong keys now. Maybe she is more of a mother to Riichi than a sister. She thinks that she's certainly worrying like one. She sets back to work on her report, and partway through she begins to think of how one is supposed to welcome someone who is coming home after disappearing without a word.
Someone had seen her.
"I totally saw them in Kanazawa. They were all over each other, and she was wearing his scarf. He gave her a ring!"
The shouts of fury, and giggles and coos of 'how romantic' don't reach his ears. All Junpei is thinking of, is that someone had spotted them.
He's not sure, but he thinks that it has finally hit him that they really are together. Maybe because the note had seemed so unrealistic and was hastily scribbled, but a part of him had desperately wanted to believe that Riichi had taken some sort of vacation and hadn't actually run away with Ryouji. He's unsure if he should be happy for them, or pissed that not only did they abandon the lot of them, but they're happy when he can't be.
It's not a betrayal, he knows this. He also knows that they didn't disappear with the intention of leaving him completely alone. In fact if he really thinks about it, deep down there's a part of him that's genuinely happy that they were able to at least spend Christmas together. Or maybe that's just genuine jealously, it's getting to the point where he's not sure how to differentiate between the two emotions.
But whatever the case, the constant talk of the 'happy couple' is putting him on edge. Not that there's anything new about this. The mere mention of either of their name's has been enough to make his blood boil for the past few weeks. In all honesty, Junpei's pretty sure the real reason for his irritability is the slew of pitying looks he's almost always acquiring from classmates.
How does it feel to be dumped by pretty little Riichi? How does it feel to have your best friend steal her from you? How do you deal with knowing that your two best friends just up and left without you?
No one has ever asked him any of these questions straight out, but he's heard them whispering them and asking him with their probing eyes. Although he long ago stopped being bothered by the rumors of him and Riichi going out, it's still irritating to think that people are feeling sorry for him because of such a ludicrous idea. But it's the ones that aren't pitying that really get to him. The ones who are laughing behind his back; giggling because it's about damn time beauty queen stop hanging around someone so below her station. Because when it came down to it, when does the prettiest girl ever really enjoy hanging around with the class clown loser?
Junpei has to constantly remind himself that it's really not like that. And he believes it, he really does. But not having the girl here to ensure him that they're still best buds is starting to allow the niggling doubts to fester in the back of his mind, and it's scaring him. The rest of SEES are his friends, that's true. But Riichi is Riichi, and this is a different matter altogether. Though they've had their differences, Riichi was the one who he had revealed everything to. He'd already been assured that he had lost Ryouji, he didn't want to lose the only other real friend he's ever had.
She was no Chidori, but Riichi was special.
He groans, collects his things, makes the trek back to the dorm. It's not any better there, since everyone else has some issue with their leader's disappearance that they need to work out, but at least he doesn't have people bugging him about how his friends don't seem to like him enough to hang around very long. And if he kills some time, he'll be one day closer to New Years.
When the android returns, the first thing she notices is that her welcome committee is one person short.
"Where is Riichi-san?"
And this question is answered with a multitude of averted eyes and tightly pressed lips. No answer is answer enough.
Aigis isn't sure what she thinks about the girl's actions. She fluctuates between blaming Ryouji and blaming herself. She caused this, but Ryouji stole their leader away. When the explanation of New Years is given and the members of the dorm trickle away to do their own thing, Aigis sits by herself and tries to put names to her feelings.
There is confusion, she knows that for certain because that is the number one emotion she has felt for a while. It has never occurred to the android, that her act of sealing away Death would result in a love that even those well versed in human emotions could barely comprehend. It is not logical to think that one should wish so dearly to be with what will kill them.
It is strange, the feeling of wanting to be with someone. Aigis understands it well, because she wants to at all times be near Riichi. But she understands that though Riichi does care for her (of this she is sure because the brunette is nothing but gentle and sincere) she is not the one the girl longs for. Though there is a part of her that wishes she was the only one the girl looks at, all Aigis finds all she really wants is for Riichi to be happy. If that means being with Ryouji, than she's perfectly fine with her choice.
The only regret Aigis finds she has, is that she wasn't able to wish the two a safe trip.
Every second brings a new slew of memories. What started as hazy is becoming clearer and clearer as they rush from the auditorium and make their way up to the roof of the school. They are almost complete. The dog, the boy, the classmates, the seniors. They are missing some, but they're almost positive that those two are already waiting.
As they run up the stairs, no one says a word, but they know they each have the same feeling. A feeling of fearful desperation that is festering in the bottom of their guts. If they don't hurry, will she still be there? Will she still be smiling? The group presses on further and not one of them stops for breath until they crash onto the roof and all hastily stare at the figure of their leader with her head on Aigis's lap.
For the second time, Riichi leaves them without a word.