I apologize beforehand for skipping around to specific events and not others, but if you've played the game, as I'm assuming most/all of you had, it shouldn't be too confusing. There are just certain events that I think fit into this plot line better than others because I don't think that some of the events would have been changed enough to include them. Plus, I don't want this to just be me writing out the events of the game because that'd be boring for everyone including me.

WARNINGS: SPOILERS! (starting at about October 4th, but this fiction might go through the end of P3P); S!LINK spoilers; angst, self-injury/depression; Minako is the female main character and, as such, is written subjectively from how I think she would react and act in the game based upon if she built up certain social links.

Disclaimer: I do not own Persona 3, Persona 3 Portable, or any of the characters and storyline from them. I also do not own some of the speech taken from events in the game and social link events that is included in events here. The writing here and certain storyline elements that differ from the game are mine.

Summary: SPOILERS! After October 4th, Minako is lost and her heart is torn to pieces. How could happiness find her again amidst all the forces vying for a chance at taking her life... including herself? One person will brave the void for her, his only hope that she won't be lost forever. Love had nothing to do with it, but maybe, in the end, it will.

Genre(s): Angst/Romance/Tragedy

Words this Chapter: 6,973

"Tick-tock Goes the Glass Wristwatch"

Rikotsu-sama

Chapter 2

"You can love someone so much…but you can never love people as much as you can miss them."

-John Green

Over the next few weeks as midterms came and went, Minako and Akihiko found themselves spending an increasingly large amount of time together. A routine formed between the two of getting up early, walking to the gym together, and spending an hour sparing or working out before classes.

The time they spent together was often quiet. Little conversation was needed after that first day. They didn't talk about Shinji, though there were constant reminders of the hole he left behind haunting them. They didn't talk about her cutting, though Akihiko liked it when Minako worked out in just a sports bra or short shorts so he could check. On days she wore sweats or a t-shirt, he worried. In general, he was still worried for Minako. She seemed all smiles and back to normal at school, not having missed a stride in class or with her friends and multiple clubs except for the week she had been in and out of class. But Akihiko watched her from time to time, and the smiles weren't smiles. They were masks, masks that she shed when with him. She didn't bother to smile or make small talk over breakfast because she knew he would call out her facade. It was some small relief to him that she would break down a small amount of her walls around him and that her cuts had healed and disappeared. Slowly, she was healing. And he hoped that he had helped with that.

In the last couple weeks of October, trips to Tartarus were increasingly frequent. Minako insisted on trips to save multiple people lost in the shadowy labyrinth and to train. Akihiko kept stride, accompanying her on each and every mission when others would grow tired and stay home. Minako's stamina had noticeably increased since the day none of them really had a name for, staying in Tartarus pummeling shadow after shadow night after night until the last minute of the dark hour. The others began to worry for her health, since she had never before had the energy or desire to spend every one of her nights training, but she insisted that it was helping her cope with the tragedy. No one questioned her again.

The evening of November 2nd, SEES assembled to discuss their last operation. Minako was considerably quieter than previous meetings.

11/3 W Dark Hour

Walking towards the Moonlight Bridge, the team is quiet.

Takaya and Jin stand still, watching as SEES approaches.

Takaya is the one to break the silence, "You know the significance of today, do you not? You claim you hunt the Shadows to prevent the disaster they bring… Yet, countless lives are lost each day without their intervention. The power we wield is not itself evil... You cannot deny that. So why don't you just admit it? You do not wish to eliminate the Dark Hour… You are merely deceiving yourselves… Refusing to answer is the same as turning your back. You are indeed foolish children… Erasing the Dark Hour is the same as erasing yourselves. Tch. Is even that beyond your comprehension? As I believed, our goals are irreconcilable. Jin…"

Jin scoffs, "Forget these maggots."

"Fate shall decide who will prevail," Takaya states, looking straight at Minako. "...Come."

Her response was instantaneous, even Takaya had not expected her to be so quick. She darted forward, not bothering to take her naginata off her back or her evoker from her hip and threw a punch straight at Takaya's nose. A sickening crack sounded as he stumbled backwards. Jin didn't wait for her to go at him next, pulling out a gun and aiming it. Minako was on him before he could fire, hitting the gun out of his grip and landing a kick to his stomach.

Akihiko threw himself at Takaya before the man had the chance to regain his composure. He got in a couple punches before Takaya had his evoker to his head and pulled the trigger. Akihiko screamed as pain shot down his spine. In moments, however, the rest of SEES had joined him and Minako.

The fight didn't last long, seeing as Strega was so vastly out numbered.

The dialogue of the two battered men she detested went by quickly, but she watched as the two swung their legs over the railing. Her eyes widened and had a sudden compulsion to stop them from their imminent action. She stepped forward, holding an unnoticed hand out slightly.

"I'd rather die than surrender to you!" Jin shouted, fury like venom inside his words, "Take a good look! This is how we live!"

They seemed to jump in slow motion. Or maybe it was more like allowing gravity to pull them down. It was hundreds of feet to the surface of the water. The impact alone would surely… Let alone the nearly-freezing temperatures of the water.

Minako dropped her hand to her side, realizing the futility of her thoughts. When someone got to that point, where giving up is the best option, there was almost no looking back. And there was almost nothing you could do for them. Her hands lifted to her stomach where the cuts had, thankfully, not scarred physically. But the sting still lingered.

Maybe that's what Shinji had done: taken the fall for something he believed in above all else. He'd stood for something and taken responsibility for his mistakes at the expense of his life. But that's where Takaya and Jin differed from Shinji. They jumped. Shinji was pushed.

"Leader?" It was Yukari's voice.

Minako shook her head and out of her thoughts. "Hm?" she asked, unsure of the looks her team was giving her.

"Why are you crying?"

She lifted her hand to her face and lifted back damp fingers. She hadn't even noticed the tears. A sad half-smile breached her lips. "I don't know."

"The shadow is waiting on the other end of the bridge and we only have half an hour left of the Dark Hour," Fuuka pointed out, turning everyone's attention back to the task at hand.

"The last shadow…" Yukari whispered.

"The operation has only begun. Our true adversary is waiting… Focus on that, right?" Mitsuru said.

Minako took a deep breath and wove past a couple of her teammates, advancing towards the shadow. At least that would distract her weary, wandering mind.

11/5 Th Late Night

Standing outside his door, Minako is hesitant to knock. Taking a deep breath to push the frog in her throat, she knocks. Quietly at first, then a little louder.

Akihiko opened the door. The sight of Minako clutching a pillow to her chest like a cross wasn't what he expected. "It's late, you can't be here…" he whispered.

"Please…? I just need to sleep with someone else in the room," she pled, looking up at him with desperate eyes.

For a few moments, all he could do is stare at her, eyes blank. Finally, he sighed, stepping aside and letting her bustle inside. Akihiko's room was tidy as always, a hung punching bag motionless in the dim light of his desk lamp. Minako plopped her pillow down on the floor next to his bed which was immediately met by Akihiko saying, "Take the bed."

Minako looked at her… friend? Could they be called that by now? They certainly spent enough time together to be viewed as such. Their relationship was still ambiguous to her, however. She honestly hadn't thought he would let her in, let alone offer her his bed. Maybe that could tell her a lot about how far they'd come.

"No, I couldn't take the bed when you're already breaking the rules to do me a favor," she insisted.

Akihiko shot her an incredulous glance. "Take it."

"We could share," she suggested. "It's not like we haven't shared a couch before."

"Fine. I have to finish this assignment, then I'll join you," he muttered, taking a seat at his desk and diving straight back into the half-finished assignment on his desk.

"Thanks…" Minako muttered, picking up her pillow and snuggling into half of Akihiko's bed. It was comforting for her, to hear him breath and scratch away at the assignment.

Akihiko finished in five or ten minutes then turned off the light, stripped off his shirt, and cautiously laid in bed next to her. He didn't know what else to call Minako… his…? She wasn't his anything. She was just… her.

"Hey, Akihiko…?" she whispered, rolling over to look at him.

"Yes?" he responded, looking at her blurry form mostly consumed by the covers.

"Do you still miss him?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

Akihiko found himself smiling sadly. "Every day."

"Yesterday, the picture we took before…" she felt no reason to mention by name the horrors that had taken place at Tartarus or the fate of the Chairman and Mr. Kirijo that had transpired the previous night.

"Yeah…"

"I can't look at it… I keep wondering where Shinji would have stood. Where his hand would have been. If he would have smiled…"

"You shouldn't…"

"I know. I just can't help it. He was just as much a part of SEES as any of us… maybe more so than many of us… I can't think of a SEES group photo without him."

"I know what you mean," he whispered.

A melancholy silence separated them as they drifted off.

11/6 F Early Morning

Minako woke up first, and blinked open her eyes, the sparse light from the windows forcing her irises to contract. Yawning, she tried to stretch, only to discover she was snuggled up to Akihiko, his arm tight around her stomach. She laughed a little. She had never imagined Akihiko to be a snuggler. Nevertheless, feeling him so close to her was nice… was comforting… Like maybe he really could shield away all the pain and darkness still lingering inside her chest.

In the weeks… now a full month, since Shinji… died, the blade of pain against her heart had dulled. But the sting still crept inside. She missed him more and more each day.

It startled her when the alarm clock on the desk a few feet away started blaring. She wrenched herself from Akihiko's embrace as he grappled with consciousness. Wandering over to the clock, she punched buttons at random. Eventually, the horrible beeping stopped. With a sigh of relief, Minako looked at the time. 6:30AM. Just enough time for them to get ready and go to the gym before school. Glancing at Akihiko, who was still rubbing his eyes, she decided they could skip the gym today. Fumbling for the snooze button, she gave them an extra hour.

Climbing back into bed, she snuggled up to Akihiko again, pulling his arm around her again.

"Minako?" he asked sleepily, protesting slightly. "What about the gym…?"

"No gym today. Just sleep," she answered, feeling his muscles relax.

"Fine with me…" he mumbled before falling right back asleep.

When the alarm sounded for a second time, Minako awoke even more sleepy than before. Their roles reversed from the last time they woke. Akihiko climbed out of bed, seemingly wide awake, to turn off the alarm clock while Minako was left rubbing her eyes, squinting against the river of light making its way into the room.

"You need to get back to your room before someone else finds you here," Akihiko told her, his back turned to her as he sat on the edge of the bed.

"Right…" Minako murmured, sitting up and stretching. Even in Mitsuru's absence, she knew being found in a boy's room at the dorms would be more that slightly annoying. Pushing off the covers, she stood and wandered to the door, leaning on the frame a moment. Turning back to him, she just said, "Thank you," before cracking open the door, catching a peek, and sneaking out swiftly. She closed the door behind her, but Akihiko still felt a lingering of her presence both in the scent on his sheets and on his skin.

He didn't know when he had let down his walls for her. But, obviously, they were down. Any other person coming to his door late at night asking to "just not sleep alone" would have been turned down without a second thought. He had not only allowed her entrance, but let her share the bed. Sighing, he raked a hand through his bed head. He didn't know what was happening anymore with Minako. Nothing had changed in nearly two weeks. Still the fake smiles and somber determination during training. He wondered what had caused her to crawl to him in such desperate shape. Was it the "final" mission? In hindsight, he was surprised she had held up so well afterward considering she had now witnessed the deaths of four more people including Shinji's killer.

Frustrated with his swarming thoughts and lack of solutions, Akihiko set upon getting ready for school to distract him.

11/6 F After School

Akihiko only had a chance to catch up with Minako after school.

"Hey, Akihiko," she greeted as he fell in step beside her down the hallway. A fake smile plastered to her lips, she greeted a couple classmates or club friends as they wove their way down the hallway.

"We should talk," he said, putting a hand on her arm.

"About what?" she asked as they descended the stairs near the athletic wing.

"About last night." She glanced over at him and for a moment her smile faltered.

"There isn't anything to talk about," she murmured as they passed the persimmon tree.

"But—"

"I was feeling lonely and didn't want to sleep alone. And that's that."

"But why last night? What was different about last night compared to every other night since…" He didn't bother finishing his sentence.

Minako stopped at the door to the girl's locker room, turning to look at him with anger in her eyes. "I don't want to talk about it, Akihiko. So drop it."

"Minako…"

"I've got tennis practice… see you," she said, not looking at him again before she entered the locker room.

Standing just on the other side of the door, Minako heard him curse before walking away. She sighed. She didn't want to tell him she didn't want to be alone so she could ensure she wouldn't cut again. He already looked at her like she was damaged. She couldn't handle seeing the look on his face when he saw the cuts again. Just thinking about it churned her stomach into knots.

She laughed a little as she headed for her locker and started to change for practice. Why did she even care what Akihiko thought? She didn't even know if they were friends and she never cared what anyone thought of her anyways. What made him different?

"Minako!" Rio's voice snapped Minako out of her thoughts to discover she had been staring at her half-tied shoe for who knows how long. "C'mon, we're starting drills."

Minako threw Rio a smile and said, "Coming."

Practice was a nice endorphin rush considering she hadn't worked out that morning. As the sun started to set and the light turned golden, Rio called it for them to shower. It was getting chilly and her and Rio talked about how they would have to move practice inside for the winter pretty soon as they showered off they hard workout.

"So how're things with you-know-who?" Minako asked when their conversation stalled.

Blushing, Rio giggled. "Fine, I guess. What about you?"

"Me?" Minako asked, confused. The two continued to change back into their uniforms as they spoke.

"Aren't you and Akihiko… together?" Rio asked.

Minako let out a loud laugh. "No, not at all. I'm not even sure if we're friends."

"Oh?" Rio seemed surprised.

"What? Is the rumor that we're a couple?" she asked, pulling on her shoes.

"Yeah, I mean you're seemingly together every minute outside class and clubs. You come to school together every day and are always sitting together during lunch." Rio picked up her bag and began the trek out of the school.

Minako followed her friend. "I guess we do spend a lot of time together. I never noticed it was that much time."

Rio laughed. "Were you always this oblivious to when a boy liked you?"

"What?" Surprised, Minako nearly missed a step and tripped, but caught herself.

"He likes you. You can just tell by the way he looks at you."

Minako paused before replying as they exited the school, only a few other students trickling out after clubs. "I doubt that…"

He did let her sleep in his room, in his bed no less, with almost no questions. He tracked her down to see what was wrong every time something was up. Only a fool would miss the fact that he cared for her now. In the last month, he had started to smile around her. He had let down his walls for her and she hadn't even noticed the change because she was so wrapped up in her own misery. What else had she missed…?

Minako bid Rio goodbye at the gate and started home.

When she entered the dorm, Akihiko was asleep in one of the armchairs, a book open on his chest. Not wanting to talk to him, she walked by as quietly as possible and snuck upstairs. Greeted Junpei on his way down and made it to her room undisturbed.

"Great… I'm alone," she murmured to herself as she set down her school bag and taking off her shoes. Un-zipping her uniform jacket, she hung it on the back of her chair and took a seat there. Minako took a deep breath and pulled the razor from the notch in her desk, holding loosely between two fingers.

The memories rushed in like a monsoon, tightening her chest.

Boom.

The gunshot rang through her ears over and over again.

"Take a good look! This is how we live!"

They seemed to jump in slow motion. Or maybe it was more like allowing gravity to pull them down.

The sight of Jin and Takaya disappearing over the railing tugged at her heartstrings with a vicious ferocity. She… had killed them. She hadn't pushed them off that bridge, but her hatred for Shinji's murder had all but done if for her. Sure, Takaya had killed Shinji and Jin would have if Takaya hadn't, but… they were people too. Surely they had families… friends… lovers? She had taken them away from those who loved them just as they had taken Shinji from her. Was that fair? An eye for an eye?

She gasped for air as she pushed back the already falling tears.

Murdering a murderer doesn't make you any less of a murderer yourself. Just because someone deserved to die doesn't justify that. The whole world would be blind if it did…

Pushing aside her thoughts, she pulled up her shirt and made a clean cut with the razor she already held. She sucked in air through her teeth at the pain, but smiled. Concentrate on that pain, she told herself. It makes the rest disappear. She made cut after cut across her stomach until all she could feel was the sting.

Breathing heavily, she stood and looked at herself in the mirrors, again the blood marring her skin. She wiped away the blood and changed, finally apathetic.

She concentrated on her schoolwork for a few hours, getting all the assignments due the next day done before lying in bed for what felt like hours, unable to fall asleep.

"Dammit," she whispered, rubbing her face down into her pillow.

Standing, she wandered out into the hallway after shoving her room key in her pocket.

11/6 F Late Night

Akihiko opened his door to the sight of a sheepish Minako sitting on the ground against the opposite wall. "How long have you been sitting there?" he asked her, closing his door behind him.

"I don't know. A while," she murmured, hugging her knees closer to her chest.

Akihiko didn't know what to reply, he just shoved his hands in the pockets of his sweats and waited.

Minako sighed into the silence. "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"Being a bitch today. There are a million nicer ways I could have told you I didn't want to talk about why I went to you last night." When he didn't reply, she continued. "And I'm sorry for pushing you away. I know you're just being nice to me and I haven't thanked you for that. I've done nothing for you when you've worked so hard to keep me afloat the last few weeks. I've been so ungrateful and I feel horrible about that." She didn't look up from her knees until a minute had passed and he still hadn't said a word.

"Say something…" she whispered, again looking away.

"What do you want me to say?" he asked, hands still in his pockets.

"I don't know. But… will you tell me why? Why you always look at me with those worried eyes of yours and why you care so much about me and…"

"Because you're not the person I thought you were."

"Who did you think I was?"

"Another Mitsuru, to be honest."

"But you and Mitsuru…"

"Are very close, yes. But I wouldn't want two of her in my life. One is enough. You burst in with your peppy charm, natural leadership, and keen instincts in battle not to mention that ability of yours to switch personas and took over. You befriended everyone, infiltrated almost every club, and even impressed Mitsuru. I thought you were another Miss Perfect."

"But I'm not."

"And that's why."

"You care about me because I'm not perfect? How silly. No one's perfect." Minako laughed.

"But you don't pretend to be around me like Mitsuru does. She never lets her walls down for anyone… not even me. But you…" his words trailed off.

"I…?"

"You let me see you fall apart. Even if you don't mean to, you trust me enough to see you at your weakest."

Minako laughed a little as she stood. "I certainly haven't meant to… you're just always there when I break down…"

"You came to me last night…" he pointed out.

"Because I'd rather you see me break down than anyone else… I don't really know why, but I care what you think of me. I… trust you more than anyone else. When I woke up this morning, I felt safer in your arms than I had since before Shinji died." She sighed, fiddling with the hem of her shirt. "You confuse me, Akihiko."

"I'm sorry," he stated blatantly, feeling like he was somehow inconveniencing her.

"No, no don't be. I'm thankful, just not sure where we stand. Are we… friends?"

He waited a long moment before answering. "Yes, I think we are…"

She let out the breath she hadn't know she was holding. "Good…"

A silence surrounded them filled with their confessions. They just stood in the dim hallway, not saying a word for a few minutes.

"So, why did you come to me last night, if you don't mind me asking?" he wondered aloud, his eyes on her fiddling fingers.

"Because…" she began, pausing. Should she show him? He would see them sometime anyway… No use in hiding them. "This is why." She lifted her shirt, exposing the still-red cuts.

He gasped, "Minako…" He reached out for her hand, but she pulled away, letting the shirt cover up the wounds again. "When…?"

"Today…" she murmured, ashamed of her actions. "I'm sorry… I just needed a release."

"There's got to be a better way for you to cope," he said, dropping his lifted hand to his side. "...What triggered this?"

"Jin and Takaya, I think," she answered hesitantly. "I… feel responsible for their deaths. And for the Chairman and Mr. Kirijo… if only I had anticipated the Chairman's actions… or not wanted revenge on Takaya so badly…"

"There's nothing you could have done to stop any of that, you have to know that."

"But there must have been something I could have done to stop it all. I could have been stronger or more forgiving," she cried, tears pouring onto her cheeks. "And now their blood is on my hands…"

"Listen to me."

She swallowed between sobs, but didn't say anything else.

"None of their deaths were your fault. You are not responsible. So just stop the pity-party."

Minako stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, beginning to sob into his chest. "I'm sorry…"

He returned the embrace, holding her tight and resting his cheek on the top of her head.

"I'm sorry I'm so damaged… but thank you for being so nice to me. I… I'm scared of where I might be if you hadn't been here for me." Pulling her head away from his chest, she looked up at him with sad, bloodshot eyes. "Thank you…" she breathed.

"You're welcome..." he whispered, swallowing. He was keenly aware of how close they were. He hadn't even cared about how close they were when he woke up with her in his arms. What had changed in less than a day?

It happened fast enough that she had little time to react. He leaned down and kissed her. Softly, curiously. It was barely a brushing of the lips, but meant so much more. His scent saturated her senses like laughing gas, leaving her stunned.

In less than a moment, Akihiko broke away from her, muttered a good night, and closed his door behind him.

Minako was left alone in the silent hallway, dazed. "What was that?" she wondered aloud.

11/7 Sa After School

"Hey, Yukari," Minako greeted just after the bell rung. "Have you seen Akihiko today?"

"Hey, uh…" Yukari took a moment to think. "No, I haven't seen him since yesterday. Why?"

"I just… need to talk to him is all," she replied, a small blush thinking back to the kiss creeping up on her cheeks.

"Speaking of which, why are you asking me where he is anyway? You two are practically joined at the hip," Yukari asked her friend as they made their way out of the building.

"I dunno, I just… Don't know. Thanks, though, for your help," Minako muttered. Maybe he already went home? No, he had boxing practice today.

"Sure, no problem," Yukari paused. "Hey are you two, like… dating?"

Minako laughed. "It seems Akihiko and I are the only ones who don't think so."

"Oh, sorry. You just look like…"

"It's fine, Yukari. I've just had a couple other people ask me the same thing lately. I'm not mad," Minako insisted.

"Oh, good," Yukari sighed, laughing with her friend.

"Well, I'm gonna go check for him in the mat room. See you later, Yukari."

"Later." Yukari watched her friend dodge through the sea of students fleeing school for the weekend. She wondered when Minako would notice that she'd fallen for Akihiko. Time would tell, she speculated.

Minako entered the mat room in a matter of minutes and scanned the pairs of people sparring for Akihiko, but couldn't find him. She asked the team manager if he was here and she said he had stopped by but had said he wasn't feeling well so he went home.

Sighing, Minako sprinted for Tatsumi Port Station, hoping to catch him, but when she arrived he wasn't there. The monorail ride was quiet and she walked slowly back to the dorms, knowing he was already there if that's where he had gone. She greeted Fuuka in the lobby and headed up to the second floor.

She knocked on Akihiko's door to no response. She knocked again, louder this time. "C'mon, Akihiko. I know you're in there!" she shouted, pounding on the door. "Dammit, Akihiko. Talk to me!" Defeated from pounding on his door for at least five or ten minutes, Minako gave up and went to her room.

Inside, Akihiko sat on his chair, staring at the door. He didn't want to talk to her. He had done something foolish, something stupid and didn't want to hear that from her too. She meant more to him than he was willing to admit, and for that reason he didn't want to hear from her too just how badly he'd screwed up. He knew full well she was in love with Shinji whether or not he was here with them. He didn't know why he had kissed her. He couldn't fill Shinji's shoes even if he had wanted to, which he hadn't. Everything was going great with them just being friends. Minako was healing despite the relapse, and that's all he had ever wanted for her or from her. To heal so that she could stay their leader, keep SEES in tact and defeat the shadows.

He growled in frustration, raking his fingers through his hair.

So why did he want to kiss her again?

11/8 Su Evening

"Why would he just kiss me and then avoid me?" Minako gushed to her elderly friend.

Mutatsu seemed amused, giving her an incredulous look. "How does a pretty, popular, smart girl like yourself not know the answer to that?"

Minako looked up at her friend, her eyes a little blurry. She had stolen one of his drinks while he went to the bathroom. Maybe that would help ease her nerves and confusion. It hadn't helped at all yet, just made her vision a little blurry and thoughts a bit muddled. Mutatsu had already scolded her for drinking it, but nothing else.

"Would I be asking if I already knew the answer?" she asked sarcastically, running her fingers through the hair she hadn't bothered to pull back that day.

Mutatsu laughed heartily. "I think the answer is simple, you just don't see that. Then again, the matter that's the answer has never been simple for anyone."

"I just don't know what to do." She blubbered, stealing Mutatsu's half-empty glass of vodka tonic and downing it.

"Woah, girl. You're really drinking to get drunk, but I don't think that will help you solve your problem," he scolded. "C'mon. Get up and get home. Let him come to you. He'll go to you when he's ready to talk. Now get."

"Alright, alright," Minako swatted away his words, but stood (albeit shakily). And was on her way with only a small goodbye.

What did that mean? A matter that's not simple for anyone? Her thoughts were mixed up and was unsure of what to think.

11/9 M Early Morning

The alarm that went off at 6:30 A.M. wasn't familiar. The sound pounded against her skull like a jackhammer and even attempting to open her eyes only made it worse. She groaned and burrowed her face deeper into the pillow as the form beside her moved to turn off the alarm. When the beeping stopped, Minako sighed. the pounding in her head lessened but didn't go away. So this was a hangover. Not an experience she would want to repeat in the future.

"Minako, wake up." She wasn't surprised that he was the one she went to the previous night.

"I'm awake," she groaned as he shook her leg lightly.

He didn't say anything more, just waited, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Minako rolled over and squinted up at him. "Akihiko, can you tell me why I slept in your room?"

He sighed and didn't answer. Standing, he grabbed his water bottle and handed it to her. "For the hangover."

The air was tense. Akihiko had his guard up. What had she said to him the night before? She tried to look back, but it hurt and all her memories were of blurry shapes and lines starting from when she got back to the dorm. Damn it. Maybe getting over this hangover would help.

She gladly took the water but didn't thank him. She drank it, then handed it back.

"C'mon. Let's get to the gym," he insisted, refusing to acknowledge the awkwardness. He was trying to act as if the previous night didn't even exist.

Again saying nothing, Minako scooted off the bed and stood, suddenly dizzy. She sat back down on the bed to steady herself and looked down at her knees. Stealing Mutatsu's drinks was stupid. She knew that. But getting drunk helped him avoid his problems, she just thought it would do the same for her. Obviously that was foolish.

She dug her fingers into her pajama bottoms only to discover they weren't hers. Grey and white plaid flannel. They were Akihiko's. Dammit, why was she wearing Akihiko's pants? She wracked her memory for why, but her memory didn't go that far.

She pounded on his door with no regard for the lateness of the hour. "Open up, Akihiko!"

It took a minute of continuous pounding, but a sleepy Akihiko opened his door, half-leaning on the door. His hair was a mess. He must have been sleeping, but in her half-drunken state didn't care that she had woken him.

She barged in, pushing past him and then turning on him as he closed the door.

Her memory fuzzed out from there. She sighed and tried to stand again. Steadier this time, and painfully conscious of Akihiko's stare, she left the room without a word.

The walk up the stairs wasn't pleasant, but she managed to change into sweatpants and a fresh t-shirt as well as pack her bag with her uniform and shower essentials. Looking in the mirror she combed out most of the snags in her disheveled hair and pulled it back into a ponytail.

"Dammit," she cursed, leaning on the edge of the sink. She felt sick to her stomach and still couldn't remember what happened no many how times she ran through what she did remember in her head. But the memories were creeping back. She should just give it time.

"Minako, it's late," he said, as if that would get her to just go away.

"I don't care. I'm sick of you avoiding me!" she yelled, a few of her words a little slurred.

He rubbed some of the sleep out of his eyes. "I'm not avoiding you."

"The hell you aren't!" She balled her hands into fists.

"Are you…" he leaned forward a bit to sniff her breath. "Drunk?"

"No," was her simple answer. She didn't want to tell him she had a couple drinks. It wasn't any of his business if she was drunk anyway. "Why are you avoiding me?"

"I told you. I'm not," he stated, crossing his arms.

Minako laughed disbelievingly. "Stop lying. I see right through it. Just answer my question."

"I'm not avoiding you. I just wanted some time alone to think."

"Even if that were true, you couldn't give me the common courtesy of telling me that?" She was starting to cry more out of fury than sadness. "You've always been so nice to me. What the fuck changed to make you into this jerk you're being right now?"

"N—" he began.

"No. Shut up. I'm not finished. You have no right to do this to me. To be so nice to me, get me to trust you, then turn around on me and screw with my emotions. You have no right to shake me up like this!" she shouted in his face.

Tossing back a couple painkillers for the headache and grabbing a granola bar from the box by her desk, Minako headed downstairs. Akihiko was waiting in the lobby for her, like normal.

They didn't talk on the way to the gym.

They shared Akihiko's locker as normal and went to the same off-shoot room they always did. It felt like any ordinary day except for the miasmic thickness in the air.

Grabbing mats, they started to stretch, not looking at each other.

Akihiko's face was stoic, as if he had already steeled himself against the very thing she was saying to him before she even said it.

"Dammit, did you even mean it when you said we were friends?" she accused.

"Of course I did!" he insisted, not having seen that coming unlike the rest of her rant.

"That's such bullshit, though. Our 'friendship'—" She emphasized with air quotes. "—is such a joke. Our friendship is founded on someone's death. What's more pathetic than that?"

"Minako, that's not true!"

"But it is, Akihiko! We're here because Shinji's gone! You hated me before we lost him. If he was still here, we wouldn't be here like this. You would still hate me. I would still not understand why, but not really care because I would have Shinji."

"But we did lose him! There's no point in battles of 'what if this happened'!"

"Nevertheless, there's no logical reason for us to be friends. We have nothing at all in common except we both loved Shinji!"

The memories were starting to flood back by then.

"Exercises today?" Akihiko asked, breaking the silence as he stood and put away his mat.

"I'd rather spar," Minako replied matter-of-factly, following suit with her own mat.

"Fine."

After wrapping their hands with sports tape, the two stood across from each other near the middle of the small room.

"This is stupid. You're drunk and saying things you don't mean. C'mon, let's get you to bed," Akihiko insisted, taking her arm and steering her towards the door.

"No. You have much more to answer for!" she screamed at him, wrenching herself out of his grip.

"Like what?"

"Like why did you kiss me! It's obviously the reason you're avoiding me— oh sorry, why you 'need to think'." Again, she mocked his lies with air quotes.

He sighed, frowning down at her.

"What, are you afraid to tell me? Is it because you like me? You want me for my body?" she ridiculed, fiddling with the zipper on her skirt before dropping it.

"What are you—"

"Isn't this what you want?" she jeered as she pulled off her sweater and threw it at him.

"Minako, stop!"

"Dammit fucking tell me! I'm sick of guessing!"

They looked at each other, really at each other, for the first time that morning. Gray met crimson and they stared each other down for a moment before taking their stances.

"Go!" Minako shouted, jumping forward at him.

He barely dodged her fist and didn't get even a moment to recover before she struck out again. She was faster than normal. More vicious. More intent on hitting him than the exercise. She had copious amounts of pent up anger spilling over from the previous night and hitting him was turning out to be exceptionally therapeutic.

"I don't know why, Minako!" he started shouting too, anger rising up.

"I'm so tired of you lying to me!"

"I just wanted to! That's why!"

Minako paused, looking up at him through tear-filled lashes.

"I don't know why I wanted to, though," he admitted as their tempers simmered down.

Minako's heart wrenched at the memory. This wasn't happening. Akihiko wasn't falling in love with her. And it didn't make butterflies in her stomach to think about them kissing again. It wasn't real. It just couldn't be. She had only just lost Shinji…

But it only took her one month to fall for Shinji and for them to take it much further than kissing. Maybe she just fell fast, but…

Akihiko? It was like some cosmic joke. Shinji's best friend? It was like the ultimate betrayal. She couldn't let this go any further.

The sparring continued at a fast pace until Minako hooked her foot behind Akihiko's and flipped him down to the ground. They were dangerously close. She had him pinned, hands at his sides as both of them heaved heavy breath. Her heart was beating fast both at the proximity and the work out.

It was fast. He hooked his legs around her torso and flipped her over on her back, their roles reversed. Minako didn't know how he managed to catch her every moment that she let down her guard, but he did. And now he had her pinned to the floor of the gym, her hair splayed out behind her head.

When he leaned down curiously, she knew what came next and her breath hitched in her throat. No. Don't. Her thoughts turned to Shinji.

"This is your fault, you know. I'm all confused."

Akihiko was doing to her what she had done to Shinji. Confused, intoxicated.

"Dammit, this isn't how it's supposed to be…" she whispered.

She closed her eyes just before their lips touched. When it never came, she opened her eyes to Akihiko's gray eyes staring at her, his expression unreadable.

"Akihiko?" she wondered aloud as he stood, letting her go.

"I'm sorry…" he said, turning away from her, scratching the back of his head. "I never meant to…"

Minako didn't know what to say. She sat up and crossed her legs and stared at the floor. What happened now?

"We need to go or we'll be late to school," she said, breaking the silence.

"Right…" Akihiko murmured.

And again it was quiet. They showered down and changed into their uniforms, Minako faster than Akihiko. She stood, holding her bag and wondering if she should wait for him.

"I need time to figure this out," she said to him as he pulled on this pants and buttoned them.

"Okay."

"So… please let me have my space for a while, 'kay?" she asked, no longer looking at him.

"Okay."

"I'll… see you later," she muttered before leaving without him.

Akihiko watched her go as he pulled on his shirt and buttoned it. Yeah, he had really screwed up.

TBC…

I was searching for a while there for a place to stop and just couldn't find one. Oh well. I'm really pleased with how this is progressing. And soon… Ryoji. :P

Please leave a review if you liked it, or if you didn't, let me know why. Please don't flame, though. That's just rude.

-Rikotsu