Summary: Like a dead and dying moth still attracted to a bright and burning flame. Written for 31 days, September 12, 2012: sever my last remaining breath. Shinjiro/Minako, Akihiko, etc.

Haha, so during some of Shinjiro's s-links, I had a few "…wait, really? You really just said that?" moments (much like I did with Akihiko…sigh, game, why can't they be perfect with no awkward lines), and I was waffling on his personality for a while. But then my brain went, "Hey, no, we can totally work with that."

This is typically a bad sign. Along with needing like a year and a half or so to finish this. Chose a 31_days theme to force myself to finally post it. I mean, seriously.


the physics of sacrifice

A boy with nothing dies. Leaves behind no regrets.

No, it's not that simple.

-l-

(But it could be. He's trying.)

-l-

It had always been just the three of them, and the three of them had never wanted for anything.

But then Miki wanted that doll – innocently wanted, the way that children who only knew threadbare sheets and hand-me-down toys and playtime alone in the corner of the yard wanted and dreamed and dared. Both he and Aki knew it, while knowing that there was no way they could ever afford it.

So Shinjiro took it. Filched it off the shelf without a backwards glance and got away with it. Her smile would have been worth any and all of the trouble, anyway. And even though Aki got angry, even though he punched him sorry and blue and made him take it back, crying all the while – when he was seven and impulsively, stupidly young, he didn't regret it.

He still doesn't.

Aki might regret a lot of things, like the fire and Miki's death. Might regret everything to do with SEES and Kirijo and whatever. Might regret that one fateful night when the woman died, he left, and things changed. Might be living his life in penance – working to get stronger so something like that will never happen again, so that he has the power in his hands to keep it from going that way.

No, wrong. Not penance – just a dull yet fiery sort of living in the past-present-past where he's determined to protect everything this time, this time. Shinjiro's the one who's trying to pay back such dues, trying to remember, trying to forget –

Well, it doesn't matter any more, because there's not much time left either way.

-l-

He's not surprised when Aki gets his ribs busted up while fighting – alone – during the Dark Hour, but he is when Aki tells him to swing by the hospital because he needs to talk about the recent cases of Apathy Syndrome. Oh, and that he has companions with him.

Shinjiro can tell from a mile away where this conversation is bound to lead, has "no" and "hell no" prepared on the edge of his tongue before he even walks in. Aki shrugs it off, just talks about what happened that April night and how their ranks have risen by three, then walks out right before Shinjiro can let that "no way in hell" make it out of his mouth.

"No way in hell," he mutters at the door anyway, just before it swings shut.

Then the three kids barge in. The new recruits, he guesses.

The guy in the baseball cap is very obviously intimidated by him, the girl in pink exudes a certain kind of sharp-as-nails wariness, and the other girl, the one with pins in her hair –

"What are you guys doing here?"

Aki appears, startling the crap out of the bunch. Except for the one basically unfazable girl, but that's another matter entirely.

Shinjiro can feel Castor shifting, Castor smiling, and he clenches his fist. The dosage must be wearing off. He'll have to go see Jin again soon.

He stands up. "Is that it, Aki?"

"Yeah, thanks." Except that what Shinjiro really hears is, Shinji, come back. Please.

He glances over at the three again. Maybe they're Gekkoukan students, but they're just kids. Hell. Low move, Aki.

"Tch…I don't have time for this shit."

Shinjiro looks at the girl with the pins in her hair again, stares her down. She doesn't so much as flinch.

"You…"

Her eyes are a fiery red-brown. Her expression is drawn taut. And there's something, something that –

(Castor stirs – )

"Never mind," he mutters, before walking out.

He hopes those kids knew what they'd been getting into when Aki and Mitsuru smooth-talked them into it. He really does. But it's not his problem, because he's not going to run into them ever again. And it's none of his business.

-l-

(Later on, when he looks back and remembers this scene – all right, all right, he can at least crack a self-deprecating grin. The world just had to get its last laugh in, didn't it.

Then he doubles over in a fit of coughing and – no, it's too late.)

-l-

For the next few months, he keeps rebutting Aki over and over and over. He's not going back. It doesn't matter how many members they have, how far they're getting in Tartarus, or how determined Aki is to protect anything that reminds him of the past. It has nothing to do with him, and it's hypocritical for Aki to tell him to let go of the past when he's just as tied up in it as he is.

Special power or not, he doesn't want to risk a repeat occurrence.

He tries not to get angry when Aki shows up yet again with that girl – the new leader – but he's only willing to say no so many times before he snaps.

"I'm not asking this time," Aki says, and thrusts the briefcase with his old evoker at him. "We have a new enemy. They're Persona-users, just like us."

He can't care less. This is not a fight that he's a part of any more. He walked away for a reason. The day that he loses control of Castor again –

"Amada Ken has joined our team."

Shinjiro doesn't believe it. "The hell are you talking about?"

"He has the potential. Ikutsuki okayed it. He's now a Persona user."

Bang, bang, bang.

He thinks about the night that Ken's mother died, the flashes of color in the colorless sky.

(Bang, bang, bang. You killed her, you know, you know you know you know.)

He wonders how Ken got by the past few years. Did he cry? Fear? Struggle? Hate? Does he know? Would he know? Would he hate him enough for this?

"Let me ask you one thing…was it his decision to join SEES?"

"Yeah," Aki says. "He volunteered."

He frowns. Why would the kid…unless…did Aki and Mitsuru figure out how much Ken knew? Probably not, he thinks.

But…whatever the kid thinks of him – and whatever it is, it'd be deserved – he's still just a kid. Still just a kid with a shot at something more.

Hell.

"Then, count me in," he says, though the iron in his voice isn't exactly akin to resolve, but duty. The kind that you pay back in blood.

The girl, who has been watching him all this time, stays motionless save for a sharp glint to her eyes. Was she as much of a tactician as Aki has been saying all these past months?

What are you fighting for? he thinks, and for a moment it feels like her eyes are boring a response into him.

"Well, you do your thing, and I'll do mine," he says.

-l-

("Hey."

He looks up, startled, as a boy with silver hair holds out his hand. Behind him, a young girl clings to the back of his shirt and peers at him.

"I'm Akihiko! This is my sister, Miki. Want to play with us?"

He blinks for a second, thinks about the other kids running around nearby and childhood memories for him that shouldn't be so far in the past already.

"Okay," he says.)

-l-

It's…interesting, his first night back at the dorms. Aki's beyond ecstatic in his own way – he smiles his fighter's grin and runs off to train, going on about how they're all so much stronger now with him back in the game, and Mitsuru just smiles that one smile like she's dealing with a bunch of kids on Christmas Eve.

The juniors sitting on the sofas, though – baseball cap's obviously awed by him; pink sweater gives him a curt, yet warm enough, nod. And the other girl, who sits with them but approaches the dining area hours later –

"Hey…" He looks at her; she meets his gaze. "I haven't introduced myself, have I?"

She smiles. He remembers – her name is Minako. Arisato Minako.

"I'm Aragaki Shinjiro." He pauses, thinking about the other juniors' reactions to him. Remembering that one time in the hospital room or earlier this afternoon, and what kind of a guy he must seem like. What he makes himself seem like. "Don't worry, I've got your back."

She doesn't look scared. Maybe that's why she's the leader, this slip of a junior. What kind of courage it is that she has, though…that, he'll have to see.

"Looking forward to it," she says with a smile.

He almost smiles back.

-l-

When the clock strikes 11:58 p.m., he coughs up a storm and goes into full-out wheezing and gasping (and dying) territory.

(No – he's always dying.)

As he slams one of the pills down his dried-out throat, breathing heavily as the pressure subsides, he hopes that Aki and the others won't be able to hear him through the walls.

11:59. 12:00. 12:00.

Silence, punctuated only by the Dark Hour.

He takes a deep breath.

(Doesn't exhale.)

-l-

(Skyshines and sunbeams and silver-yellow-blue days –

"Hey, Shinji-nii! Aki-nii!"

And it echoes and echoes, the rustling of the leaves and her giggles in the breeze; newspaper kites and dandelion wishes and laughter like a million childhood promises –

A man can subsist on the happy memories. He lives on that.

He lives by that.)

-l-

(Shinji-nii, Aki-nii, we'll be like this forever, won't we – )

-l-

Later that week he waits at Hagakure for Aki, and is already waiting on his special when the guy comes striding through the door.

"I'll have what he's having," he says, suave as ever.

They sit in silence for a moment. Tick, tick. Another minute gone. The hands on his pocketwatch don't lie – or didn't, anyway, before he lost it.

He doesn't want anyone to feel like they're losing him.

"I just want to make this clear, Aki. I'll be one of your guys' comrades, but I ain't gonna be anyone's friend."

He stares. "What do you mean?"

"Exactly what I said. I ain't here to make friends and be all sappy. It's not my thing."

The cook slides two bowls over to them. Aki frowns as he snaps apart his chopsticks. "But we're all – "

"Yeah, yeah. Spare me." Shinjiro makes his voice extra sharp, though he still looks away. "I know what I'm fighting for."

Aki makes that noise, the one he makes when he's angry and failing at words, and spears a chunk of beef instead.

-l-

But Aki still won't let the subject die, so Shinjiro gets fed up and calls him out on his own behavioral quirks. "Well, aren't you being too reckless? The way you fight, you leave yourself wide open."

Aki glares. "Mind your own business."

"Hey, you're just pushing the worry onto everyone else."

He stumbles when Aki's fist rams into his jaw, and tastes iron. "The hell – "

"You of all people, Shinji," he says, eyes glinting and tone biting. "I can't believe you."

"…Tch." He leans against the wall, spits out a little blood.

But when Aki holds out his hand, he takes it, pulling himself up.

-l-

He goes out with the leader for dinner and, thanks to Aki's kind gesture, is forced to make her wait with him until his soup cools down. So the cut in his mouth won't bother him so much and he can actually eat his damn dinner.

She doesn't seem to mind, and cheerily orders a second bowl.

He laughs.

And a day or two later they go out again, the cuts heal, she smiles, he laughs and feels the weariness melting away from his eyes, and –

He stops.

-l-

Maybe he feels guilty. Well, not maybe. Anyone would feel guilty after accidentally killing someone. A young kid's mom at that. He can still see it when he closes his eyes, how she died. How he killed her.

'Accidental' changes nothing. He did it. He caused it. He killed her.

But the information he told Takaya and Jin – about Tartarus and how Aki and them wanted to end it – maybe he shouldn't have done that. He didn't think those three could cause that much trouble, and –

He can't even say that he did it to push everyone away, because they'll never even know.

-l-

("Amada Ken has joined our team," Aki had said.

Those six words.

Hell, he never had a choice.)

-l-

He goes out again with their fearless leader – she's persistent, and it's not like he really has anything else to do –

And he is all too aware of Amada's penetrating glare as they step outside, the hatred that hits his back before the door closes.

He channels it all into worrying about the other guys' eating habits and complaints about instant noodles, tells her to watch over them and make them eat healthier.

"Aw," she says with a smile.

"What?"

"You're so kind-hearted."

His breath hitches mid-inhale. "Don't be stupid," he mutters, for lack of anything better to say.

"Really, you're a nice guy. Maybe even a big softie," she says, her smile getting only wider.

"Hey, you." He narrows his eyes, then looks at her quarter-full plate. "You are gonna finish off those vegetables, right?"

"Erm. I mean, yeah, of course." She's still laughing at him like it's a joke that she's playing along with, but picks up her chopsticks and digs in all the same.

He just makes sure she cleans off her plate.

-l-

First it had just been him, Aki, and Miki. When they had been children – something perfect and unblemished in his retrospective vision.

Then it was him, Aki, and Mitsuru. When they had been young crusaders in a shitty little world – just the three of them, fighting at midnight and beating the bad guys and smiling wryly over bruised and bloodied knuckles, wincing over slashed skin.

Then he'd left –

Then he'd left.

But now, now there's him, SEES, and Minako. Something he would never have expected in a million years. Something that's not quite new yet not quite old, merely rugged edges and young naïve energy all over again, and her – he can't imagine how SEES would run without her to lead them tactically. Fighting with the other two back then had never gone this smoothly. No matter Mitsuru's and Aki's talents, they'd still had a million other things to be worrying about at the same time. And no one had Minako's unique power, which saved their asses god knows how many times.

Him, Minako, and no one else. Minako smiling, Minako laughing, Minako all sunshine and sky and real and shadow and leader and girl and –

And.

Happy memories are all he needs, but he wasn't expecting to make new ones.

No.

No, he's not supposed to. New happy memories with new people means someone else gets left behind, and then for them the memories won't be so happy any more.

-l-

In the very public hospital corridor, Aki gets mad – really mad – about the pills and how Shinjiro is taking them. Has to take them. He has no way of accomplishing what he needs to otherwise.

But Shinjiro takes it in stride.

"I'm tired of your damn preaching," he says.

He gets punched. Again. Notices out of the corner of his eye how the nurses all start walking away. Christ, that guy really needs to –

Aki glares. "Don't you get it? You know the reason."

Miki, Miki, Miki.

No, that has never changed.

He stares blithely back at Aki. His jaw doesn't hurt as much as last time.

Aki frowns.

"I'm back in the fight. So let it go," Shinjiro says, though he really means something like, Fighting recklessly won't change the fact that she's dead and we're alive, or, Get a grip – what are you really fighting for?

But he doesn't say it. Everyone lives different lives. Too many people complain about everyone else, as if one size fits all. As if they know best or have the right to judge.

He says this offhandedly to Minako – I'm grateful that you're not one of them – and the look in her eyes suddenly seems so far away.

But then she smiles again.

-l-

That smile.

He thinks about it a lot during the day, sees it all the time in the lounge at night.

(It's only there 97 percent of the time behind her eyes, and he wishes he could just reach out and – )

This is not how it's supposed to be.

-l-

(Aki-nii, Shinji-nii, we're always going to be like this forever, aren't we - )

-l-

He attempts to brush her off the day after, but she stubbornly hangs around anyway – sits in the spot at the kitchen table that best faces his corner, spreading out her homework in an arc of contained madness and pointedly looking his way after what must be every problem she half-completes.

So he sighs, and walks over. "What is that, math?"

"Physics, close enough. Least it's better than literature." She scowls, but flips that textbook open too.

"Oh, is it still that one grouch of a teacher?" That man had always hated him, pegging him for a delinquent the first day of high school. Another one of the things he didn't miss about the place.

She launches into a story – how he'd been covering up for all the bullying that Fuuka faced, how unrepentant he was, how Mitsuru-senpai dealt with him – but too bad they never got to hear what his punishment actually was, 'cause that had to have been good.

He ends up laughing and smiling wryly, with the minutes passing by like quicksand. An hour or three later he finds that he's in the seat across from hers, his fingers wandering precariously close to the worn corners of her textbooks and her multicolored pens. So he pulls back, starts to get up.

She gives him a questioning glance.

"I'm getting in the way of your studying. I should leave you be."

She frowns, and jabs him under the table with her foot.

"Is that really how you should be treating your senpai?"

She does not dignify him with a response. "If I really wanted to be all that focused, I'd have gone up to my room ages ago, Senpai. Maybe I want a distraction."

He feels himself getting flustered – just slightly, okay? – and narrows his eyes at her.

She scrunches up the corner of her lip. "I mean, c'mon, it's Classic Lit. With Ekoda. You can't blame me."

"…All right," he sighs. "But you can't blame me if you fail your next exam."

"Don't worry, Senpai." She grins. "I've got it covered."

He leans back in his seat, even if he shouldn't.

(But it's just so easy – )

-l-

Amada Ken continues to hardly makes eye contact with him. Takes a lot of damn effort to do so. To focus very sternly on the drone of the evening news, to walk by like he hasn't been silently observing him from the back of the room all night, to pretend that he doesn't know what his senpai did two years ago and that he's just a normal elementary schooler with normal elementary schooler thoughts. Even during the group dinner Shinjiro prepared, the kid had acted so…cautious. Cold.

But every day, he seethes something so bitter and dangerous and determined that Shinjiro can't miss it from a mile away.

No one else sees it. Aki's too wrapped up in his own pangs of discomfort and loss and awkward attempts to successfully and simultaneously talk to yet brush off the boy, Mitsuru is too focused on the overarching mission while stretching herself ever thinner for it, and the juniors – they don't know them well enough to pick up on it, he guesses. After all, they don't know the backstory. Of course no one has told them.

Maybe he's the only one who notices because he's looking for it; though, hell, no one could miss that crawl down the spine, what with the way the kid glares at him when he thinks no one's looking.

Either way, he knows what's to come, waits for it patiently like a patient with a month left to live. And he doesn't mind.

(Castor frowns and rattles around in his ribcage –

(I am you I am you I AM YOU TOO)

– and Shinjiro takes a deep breath. He has long since stopped leaving his thoughts out in the open for his Persona to glean, but Castor seems to know how to pick up on some of them regardless. Even the ones he hasn't hammered out in steel and stone.)

But one day, he turns away from the boy and inadvertently straight into Minako's gaze, and –

He keeps his expression neutral. She looks calm and omniscient for just a fraction of a second longer before breaking out into her usual grin.

His first thought: You're not supposed to know.

His second thought: Wait, what's the chance you even do?

-l-

One more glance at her while she's staring off at the darkness outside the windows – at things that he knows she can't see out there – and he feels there's something beyond mere probabilities in play.

He looks away - too late, he was already staring.

-l-

Aki's more of the brooding loner type than he is. Honestly. The kid – what a crybaby, really.

Not that he's saying Aki doesn't get to cry over his life, 'cause half of this shit would reduce some grown men to shattered little pieces and it's pathetic to judge to what extent any one person gets to break, but – both of them just turned out differently. Aki channeled it into his hot-blooded ways and reliving memories of fire, and he…did what he had to do. With just enough happy thoughts and memories to get by.

That's how to do it, really. 'Cause he just can't spend every second so…in such darkness – he's been there, he'd been there for a while and – well. It's hard. He's not strong enough for that. Aki may very well be, but he's not.

(If he closes his eyes, he can see her body falling to the floor - )

It's funny. Aki's got a one-track mind, all fighting and stronger and really need to get stronger with a bit of oh, exams thrown in and a crippling fear of letting anyone else get close ever again – yet he pulls off just the right shade of aloof to attract hordes of admirers. Whereas Shinjiro on the other hand likes people and company, more or less – but the suppressants do wonders for making him look like a regular old cheery kinda guy, and, oh right, it's really not a good idea to get close to anyone, 'cause any day now he'll –

(Castor gets angry, really angry, pounds against the inside of his ribcage and let me out let me OUT you're a fool don't you fucking dare d– )

It wouldn't be good for them.

Yeah, it's funny, really.

-l-

(A boy with nothing met a brother and his sister.

Lost the sister.

Killed a mother.

Parted ways with his brother.

Will die at the hands of the orphaned son.

Really, it should leave him with an even, empty balance. Even and empty and easy to walk away.)

-l-

He doesn't really worry when she comes back to the dorm absolutely drenched that one day, but then she gets really sick.

When she hasn't emerged from her room even once by the end of the second day, everyone gets really worried. He does, too; taps his fingers restlessly against the counter and mentally goes through the list of things he last saw in the fridge that he could possibly use for a soup or –

"Uhm, Senpai."

He turns, and baseball cap – Junpei – is standing there, sheepish expression at the ready. "Could you…d'you think you could make something for her? 'Cause I mean, she hasn't eaten in days and all I could really make for her is, y'know, cup ramen or something, and – "

"You didn't have to ask," he mutters gruffly, standing up.

"Ah, right. I mean." Junpei does a little shuffle-step, and Shinjiro's reminded of how he was there back at the hospital all those months ago, cap over the eyes and timid stutter at his presence. "'Cause I mean, you two are kinda close, and." He trails off with a vague hand gesture.

"…Is that so."

"Yeah. I mean. All the time you two go out or spend together in the lounge, and." He looks away. "We've all got her back, but…take care of her, man."

Junpei walks away, leaving Shinjiro to stare at the empty pots and pans.

-l-

It's enough for him if the others all get their happy ending. Him – he doesn't matter. Desire to live, desire to fight, desire for – no, it doesn't really matter.

(her face, her smile, her laughter – the kind of sunshine that he just wants to reach out and touch and grab – )

Doesn't seem to stop him, though.

Damnit.

It doesn't matter what he leaves with or what he's feeling when it's all over, but her – them – the least he can do is make sure they don't hurt over it. Aki would punch him for that, he feels, and Minako would have something to say, but –

They have to realize that it's for their own good. He wants what's for their own good, and it'd be nice to get something that he wants, just this once.

-l-

("I'm doing it for myself," Aki had said the day he brought a pair of boxing gloves home with him.

"For you," Shinjiro couldn't resist saying, "Or for Miki?" And since she's dead now, ultimately for you, but –

Aki gave him a dark look, knuckles turning white.

"Everything," he said.)

-l-

He's starting to realize that he blushes around Minako sometimes – it all started with the damn meals he'd cooked for her and her ridiculous compliments – and it's horrifying. Really. Along with how her face keeps popping into his head every waking minute of the day. And he's pretty sure he said that last part out loud and – oh hell, that's even worse.

She just smiles. Smiles and laughs and makes a million thoughts run through his head and –

He takes a deep breath.

-l-

(They'd been a little late again, he, Aki, and Miki; by the time they returned to the orphanage, most of the kids had already eaten and there were only a handful of the sweet fries left. They were everyone's favorite.

He looked at the other two out of the corner of his eye. "Hurry up," he said, grabbing at a little bit of the vegetables and sandwiches that were left.

"What? But you like sweet fries a lot too, Shinji-nii!"

"I'm not hungry," he said.

Miki still refused to listen to him, and it wasn't until he resignedly took a couple for himself before dumping all the rest on their plates that she stopped tugging at his wrist.

He tweaked her nose later; she quickly got offended, and forgot all about the fries.)

-l-

They're standing a few meters away from the dorm's entrance, him and her, because he wants to avoid the hungry stares of the other SEES members. You cook a bunch of teens one meal that's not even gourmet quality, and then they ask for another and another -

"But I have my hopes up, too," she says in a half-pout, and he can't help but laugh, has the sudden urge to almost ruffle her hair; doesn't know why it's so relieving and relaxing when she says out loud what the others have been not-so-subtly hinting at for days.

She looks up at him with those amber-red eyes of hers, and he feels that he's almost memorized the color by now. Like her smile, her laugh, her peace, her calm; the way she twirls her pen or chews on the cap when she's studying or how she'll bat her eyes at him until he gets her a mug of hot chocolate or coffee and how the hours seem to just fly by in the lounge.

He's getting attached.

What if she is, too?

(fire and death and brittle and bones, the parents he'd never really known, the relatives who couldn't care, didn't mind when he left; Miki's name in the very twist of Aki's gloved fist for the past ten years – ten years –

and he doesn't even have ten years – )

This needs to stop.

"…Shouldn't you be doing something else?"

She blinks at him. "But I finished my homework."

He sighs, resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. "You shouldn't be with me like this," he clarifies. "Don't you…have more fun things to do?"

He supposes that if she was even more of a tomboy she'd punch him in the arm or something kind of like how Aki tends to go for his face, but she just stares him down. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't wanna be." Pause. "…Am I…bothering you?"

She's biting her lip.

"Huh? Why would you think – …I mean, you're just jumping to conclusions," he manages, and damn if he's not turning red. "…Well, if you don't mind, I don't mind."

No, wait. That wasn't what he wanted to say. He wanted to say, Well, it doesn't matter – you should find better things to do, really you should, I'm just –

(he can't say it – I'm just a dead man walking – )

She does that little victory smirk of hers, and he realizes – she's far too in control and he's in too far deep, and there is no way that this will end well. Even if he might enjoy the burn.

-l-

(A boy who gained things and lost them all along the way met a nice girl and dreamed a nice dream – )

-l-

No. Stop.

-l-

(He remembers when the three of them were seven or eight – right before the end. Sunshine streaks in Miki's hair, unsure bravado and fierce protectiveness in Aki's grip. Playing outside and being late to dinner; getting scolded by ladies in gray. Smiles like sunsets. Laughter to the clouds.

(Aki-nii, Shinji-nii – we'll be like this forever, won't we – )

Days where they would run for miles and miles and collapse in some stretch of green or another, where it was just breathing and breathing and breathing and hey, last one back buys the others ice cream – )

They're good memories. That's all he needs. That's all he's supposed to need.

He'd usually lost the races back then, but none of them had any money for sweets anyway.)

-l-

Maybe the suppressants aren't working any more or Tartarus is just too much excitement, because lately he feels like his Persona is constantly in motion.

When Castor grins, he grins, a low, rumbling twist of Shinjiro's intestines that makes him splutter and choke, makes him remember coughing on smoky ash and how the fight went out of Aki as he broke down outside meters away from his sister's burning body and the way that one coffin fell with a sickening crunch, how the corpse of a woman fell out and all the Dia spells in the world couldn't –

(You can't heal or revive the dead, this is not a game – )

He wonders: If his Persona is supposed to be a manifestation of himself, then why is he fighting against it all the time? Why can't he control it? Why is it always cutting him down to the knees?

Why does Castor seem to enjoy it so?

(Castor grins and grins and grins and Shinjiro makes another three pills go down, so slowly, so surely.

Castor fights it all the way, but goes silent.

Shinjiro breathes.)

-l-

He likes listening to Minako talk. Like right now: the two of them sitting in the emptied lounge, with her sprawled out on the sofa while he takes up the armchair.

She tapers off after talking about a funny outing the other juniors, but he just wants her to keep going. "So, any other stories?"

She looks faintly bemused. "Is it really all that interesting?" she questions him.

It's nothing I'll ever be able to experience, he thinks, with an ironic twist of his mouth.

"Senpai?"

"No, nothing." He looks away. "It might be boring to you since it's your everyday, but it all sounds new and exciting to me."

Begrudge me.

She gives a wry smile. "You're just trying to flatter me," she says – and does not get a flustered reaction out of him – but launches into more stories with gusto anyway. Tennis club, home ec, cooking – hell, some of Fuuka's failed creations she tells him about just plain old horrify him.

"If you came to school more, I could've gotten you to join the cooking club," she says wistfully. "Then I'd get to eat your cooking three times a week."

"Now that's nothing to look forward to," he says, drawling it out, but knows she won't agree.

"Senpai." Her mouth goes into a pout. How does she pull off switching from old and distant to cutesy and childish so efficiently?

"…What am I ever going to do with you," he sighs.

She grins. "Feed me?"

-l-

His throat goes dry, and he doesn't know if it's because of the pills, the coughing, or something else.

-l-

He reaches into his pocket to count down the hours, and fumbles when his fingers don't make contact with smooth metal. He'd patted down the rest of his clothing and searched his threadbare room, wondering if maybe, just maybe – but to no avail.

Trust him to lose one of the few possessions he even cares about, and the only one he wants at the moment.

Damnit.

He's running out of time.

So he browses Paulownia one afternoon, hoping to maybe find something that can replace the pocketwatch he'd lost, help him keep track of the last few hours. Nothing really grabs him, though.

But he sees a wristwatch – aged leather strap and solid silver face with a sharp analog tick-tick-tick, and he thinks of her, the way her eyes flick up to the clock in the lounge at night when it's getting late and he's trying to shoo her off and she says she doesn't want to leave.

The way they all have to keep track of time.

"…How much is this one?" he finds himself asking.

-l-

("Is this really for me?" Miki looked stunned.

Shinjiro was unfazed. "Mmnhmm."

"But - "

"Happy birthday, Miki," Aki said.

It wasn't the most amazing doll ever, but he and Aki had scrounged up for it - loose change in their pockets, trading with the other kids, that sort of thing.

Her face lit up. It made everything worth it.)

-l-

He's torn between giving her the watch or keeping it forever – it would be too cruel, wouldn't it, as a gift from a dying man – and a watch of all things –

But she walks up to him one night; gives him a small, secretive little smile. He's about to shoo her off halfheartedly like he normally does, but she merely shakes her head.

Then the gold pocketwatch drops from her outstretched hand. Dangles before him, back and forth, back and forth.

Tick, tock. Tick.

Tick.

No, he should at least – tell her. Something –

"Hey. Come with me," he says, fingers reaching towards the chain.

-l-

It won't be long now, he knows – but Aki and the others will be all right. She's the most capable leader he's encountered yet.

"I'm leaving the rest to you," he says, and her grip on her new watch tightens. If she knows, she's not saying anything.

It's pulling at him, pushing him, pricking him – hard.

But then he tucks her against his shoulder as they sit with their backs to the wind, and he thinks, it's okay. It's enough. He doesn't want anything more.

"Senpai?" she says after a lull in the conversation, his arm around her shoulders.

"Yeah?"

"…Never mind."

He feels her pull closer to him, face turning inwards against the collar of his coat. It's getting late and the wind's only picking up – maybe he should take her back to the dorm.

Nagging thoughts and maybes trail down to the tips of his fingers, which he suddenly notices are perilously close to the chilled skin of her face –

(stop it.)

No, he doesn't want anything more. He stopped wanting things a long time ago.

Really. Really, he did.

-l-

(All the things he'd wanted with Aki and Miki, all the things they'd dared to dream – )

-l-

He just never thought that she would ever want something more from him.

Minako stands before him, and the damning words have already left her lips.

I love you.

But she couldn't. How could she? Towards him? So soon?

(Just like him, towards her?

No – gotta stop right there – no. Too young. They're too young, he's too hopeless, and she's too – )

He thinks this is some kind of cruel joke.

"You don't believe me?" she whispers.

"No, that's…"

He fumbles for an answer. He doesn't believe that a girl like her would ever be interested in a guy like him, no, but –

"Why would you say something like that? And – " He glances at the other SEES members casually sitting in the lounge without a care in the world, thankfully keeping to themselves and not glancing over – "Why here, of all places?"

"Does it matter where I say it?"

"Well, no, it's – I – "

She's dead serious, eyes as calm as a lake without a breeze, and he has nowhere to run. Hell, he can't even form coherent sentences.

"Shinjiro."

His breath catches in his throat, just as her fingers wrap themselves around his wrist and tug – towards the stairs. "What are you doing?"

"Going somewhere else to talk. Is my room all right?"

She's not even batting an eyelash.

Damn.

"No," he manages. "That's not gonna happen."

"Why not?"

"Because – you're – "

He can just imagine what the others would say. He doesn't want to saddle her with that.

"People are gonna get the wrong idea."

"So, that just leaves your room, then," she says, all serious eyes and steady stance and red, red lips and very loaded words.

Her, in his room. The two of them alone in his room.

Oh, hell. Who is he kidding – he's head over heels for her. She's all he can think about. And it's really not good for her. He really doesn't – no. He only has so much self-control.

"No," he says, again. And flounders. "I can't. You're – I ain't a nice guy."

She laughs. "Stop lying. Out of all of us, you – "

"Moron."

One or two of the others look up in their direction, so he lowers his voice. Tries again.

"You can't. I'm…"

(a dropout, a delinquent, a guy popping pills to keep his Persona from killing him, a guy who killed an innocent person, a guy who doesn't have all that long left anyway – )

"I can't let you. Don't you get it?"

She leans forward, just a little. Just enough.

And pulls – at him, at something at his core, just a little, just enough – before letting her fingers uncurl from around his wrist. Holds his gaze until she turns and heads up the stairs at the perfect pace.

He can't not follow her, but he knows what's going to happen. He can't really stop it any more. Worse, he doesn't know whether he'd even want to.

So he goes up the stairs.

(Want, need, have.)

-l-

Even afterwards, he still can't come to terms with everything - should and shouldn't, past and present, here and now. Especially the here and now.

She pinches his nose.

He blinks, and scowls at her. "What was that for?"

"You're zoning out into space again. Thinking. About sad or serious things."

"Why would you say that?"

"Because that's what it looks like." And she looks kind of sad when saying it. Which makes him sad and brings it full circle.

He's not sad. He's not trying to be, anyway.

"Hm," he says, and lightly tweaks her nose.

"Hey!"

"It's only fair, isn't it?"

"Mmph," she grumbles, digging further into the covers. She brushes against him and it makes him reach out on impulse, fingers ghosting over her skin.

She looks up at him, expression unreadable. One of her quiet, thoughtful and far too omniscient moments again.

He lets the white noise fade away.

"Shinji?"

"Hm?"

She leans up, letting her fingers trail along the side of his face. "I just - you know."

He stares, waiting.

"Nothing is going to make me regret this. Okay?"

"Okay," he says. She's just - he would never want to hurt her, and he knows he ultimately will because he doesn't have all that much longer, he knows, but -

He leans down to kiss her, and in that moment it's okay. In that moment it's worth it, and in that moment - he's honest. He honestly believes.

In that moment, there is more present than past.

-l-

(but not forever - )

-l-

The next day Shinjiro gets the letter from Ken, and knows, and prepares.

Normally one doesn't have to prepare for one's death, but he wants to keep it clean and simple for everyone else. Less of a mess and all that.

He sets a cardboard box on the table and starts the process. The armor for Tartarus, the weapons, the talismans. He almost slips the pocketwatch into the batch, but decides to keep it in his worn pocket. It just belongs there. And she had returned it to him, after all.

He has only just slipped his coat back on when he turns to find her standing in the doorway.

"Hi," she says with a warm smile.

"Hey." He shrugs into the rest of his coat.

"Going somewhere?"

He shakes his head. "Shouldn't you be going to sleep? It's getting late."

"Mmn, soon." She walks over. "I just wanted to see you."

"...Yeah, me too." He tucks some loose strands of hair behind her ear, and already feels everything ending.

It's funny. For years it had been nothing but a steady stream of memories, moments frozen in time that had long since passed, over and over and over and over. The past was still the present, and the sound never stopped. But now at the end it has all faded into the background, nothing left but her hair between his fingers and - simple existence. Like this.

"Shinji?" There's almost a tremor at the end of her voice.

He freezes, drops his hand. "It's nothing. Where do you want to go?"

She looks at him, and he hopes that she doesn't know, god he hopes she doesn't know because he doesn't want to ruin this present moment. Not now. There's still time. Only a little bit, but it's still time nonetheless.

"The shrine?"

"Okay," he says. He lets out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding.

One last time.

-l-

Time doesn't wait.

-l-

He makes sure to avoid everyone the day after except to tell Fuuka that he'll be late to the full moon operation, and goes.

No more running away. No more being unable to run away.

"If you decide to take my life, you'll end up like me. You'll regret it. Remember that."

(Replay - an image - the body of Ken's mother falling to the ground, dead, dead, dead.)

It juxtaposes nicely with his own body falling to the pavement, gunsmoke still smoldering from an outstretched hand and a slow burn fading away into the peripheral.

"No...!" he hears Ken wail.

No, kid. It's fine. No blood on your hands, yet the ending we all wanted. It's how it should be.

There is a coffin and a fire and ashes and death all around, death always near, and finally -

-l-

(It had taken him all of his strength to hold Aki back that day, his screams and sobs echoing in his ears, in the smoke, in the sky. The knowledge that she would be gone - that there was nothing they could do -

Nothing that you can do.)

-l-

Dying feels like shortened breaths, tastes like blood. So, just more of the usual. He's used to it.

Sort of.

It just feels so finite this time around, with Castor too stunned for words.

"You're still a kid, Ken... You got your whole life ahead of you... So don't waste it." He winces; it hurts to force out air at all, let alone words. "Make it your own...okay?"

Ken makes a guttural sound of protest, but Shinjiro is fading too fast to make it out.

"Aki - take care of him - " of them -

His friend responds with quiet determination. He'll be able to handle it. Always has.

She runs over, and she's – oh hell, her eyes are shimmering already.

"Hey. Don't cry."

She ignores him, all fierce bravado and determination and despair and something collapsing at the corner of her mouth – just give me a smile, he selfishly thinks, because he'd do anything to make sure she and the others stay smiling –

"Minako…" Hey, c'mon.

"You're an idiot," she growls, putting her hands on his chest to stem the blood. He can feel her fingers pressing into shards of metal-glass pressing into his heart pressing pressing pressing pain blood everything nothing nothing at all

He forces out a few words. "This is how it should be."

"No," she says, and everything's starting to feel so cold, voices all blurs and buzzing background static. "You're not gonna die here. I'll make sure you don't."

Maybe he's too far gone, but her words aren't making sense any more. He feels another set of hands applying pressure on top of hers – Aki's? – and gasps, chokes, struggles.

Castor screams, but Shinjiro feels and hears nothing.

"I love you. Remember that."

Then everything stops.

-l-

… … … …

-l-

It's like he's dreaming, but he's not really sure.

Everything's so hazy, and he feels like he could figure it out if he'd stop for a moment, clear his mind and really think about it. But then things go blurry all over again and he gets lost in the sensation of nothingness.

And then he starts to see. Just little glimpses, moments of emotion when they fight and strive. He winces when Mitsuru crumples after the chairman's betrayal, almost a paper-red rag doll that he never thought she could be. But then the others are there for her and Aki is there for her, firmly at her side, so she's all right. She'll be all right.

He feels his heart pulled in every direction when that boy with the scarf gives Minako the choice - live peacefully for a short while, the best I can give you, or futilely and fearfully struggle until the end - and she stares off at the walls, tears not quite falling. He wishes she didn't have to make that call - though he knows she knows there was never a choice.

Finally, the whole group at the top of the tower. All of them worn and torn and fighting for breath, and her with that steely resolve in her eyes that makes her look so much older, so much –

And then it's just her, alone, facing off death.

When she falls to her one good knee, grips her naginata with blood-white knuckles and pulls back a lock of red-matted hair, he knows what she plans on doing. He gets it.

"All right. Let's do this."

She has the right to use her life how she will. To live as she will.

Just let her get through this.

He watches as she stands back up.

-l-

(you mean a lot to me, you know.

so I – )

-l-

… … … …

-l-

The IV is like cold water sloshing into his veins at a steady drip, and the sterile smell of hospital rooms that he's always hated assaults his senses.

He doesn't know what day it is or how long he's been in and out of it – he hears the doctors from time to time, snatches of conversations like such a miracle and amazing he's awake but results of those tests show that he does not have long and –

It doesn't matter. He fades in and out of darkness and personas and memories that aren't there and don't matter. Even the memories - he can still remember Miki and Aki and their time at the orphanage, but afterwards - after the fire - things start going out of focus. In and out, mostly out.

It doesn't matter. What does? What did?

Aki comes to visit him. He's the only one.

"They say they're going to discharge you pretty soon," he says with good cheer. Relief. Thank god, I didn't know if you'd ever wake up.

"Oh yeah?" he says, when he's really hearing We're afraid that there is long-term, significant damage to certain organs, and –

But he smiles, for Aki.

(promise me you'll smile – )

- and then he whips his head around, like someone should be coming through that door, like someone's missing, like something's incomplete –

"Shinji? What's wrong?"

He blinks. What's wrong, indeed?

"Nothing," he lies. "Just thought I heard someone."

-l-

More often than not, it feels like he's forgetting something. Something important. Disorientingly so.

He chalks it up to the fact that he came out of a months-long coma with brain damage to spare, and leaves it at that, really.

(he still thinks about smiles without knowing why - )

-l-

A day or two goes by. He slowly regains his strength. During the day he either lies awake in bed or takes slow, shuffling steps around the hospital, feeling like everything's foggy and muddled and hoping it'll pass.

During the night, he dreams. A vague sense of memory and things that have passed, but images that he doesn't seem to recognize. The dorms - yes, Aki and Mitsuru, but the other students there - he doesn't remember interacting with them much, doesn't know why an elementary school kid would be there with them. The second years. A dog. A girl with pins in her hair whom he doesn't recognize at all.

He lingers during the moments with the girl - wants to, anyway - and doesn't know why.

He sees her smiling, sees her laughing, sees her walking with two other second-years and studying and participating in clubs and being a perfectly normal high school student.

Except she's more than that, he knows. They were more than that.

(They?)

He lapses in and out of consciousness in that vein, disoriented and confused.

-l-

More of the same dreams again, of the girl with the pins in her hair. Except that this time, she's not laughing, not smiling, not surrounded by friends – she sits alone on her bed, sheets bunched up around her waist as she clenches the cloth in her hands.

Her eyes repeatedly flick to the watch on her wrist, which tick-ticks as normal as ever, then to her calendar, then back again. Back and forth, back and forth. 10 p.m. to March 4 to 10:01 p.m. to March 4, back and forth and forth.

He realizes that her smiles in the past few months – they were all masking something.

This, perhaps?

He doesn't know why, but it pains him to see her like this.

"You said you didn't want to leave anything behind," she whispers to herself. "No doubts, no regrets - nothing."

He strains to make out the words.

"You said I didn't have to forgive you, but there was nothing I had to forgive you for anyway. If anything, I should have asked the same of you...but I didn't truly know what you meant, that you would - until - it was too late. "

He feels like his heart is breaking, and he doesn't know why.

"It looks like I'll be going first. You may not even remember anything before I - before..." Her voice fades away. She chews at her lip, staring pointedly at the wall.

"I miss you," she says. "I'll always..."

He wants to reach out to her. But he can't. And he can't look away from her, not even as a tear slides down her cheek.

-l-

March 5, early morning. The clock ticks once and it's like someone poured ice water down his spine, because -

"I love you, Senpai."

The full meaning of her dream-words hits him like a ton of bricks.

Suddenly, he remembers.

His eyes spring open, and he's out of the bed before he even realizes it, hurriedly throws on his clothes and is jamming on his other boot when a nurse rushes in.

"H-Hey, what are you doing? You need to stay in bed, you can't – "

Shinjiro runs past her, all but shoves her out of the way. "Sorry, but this is more important."

I'm sorry, Aki, but this is what I have to do.

-l-

He barely, barely makes it to the roof, barely gets to hold her in his arms.

Her eyes are fluttering closed, and –

(we didn't have enough time –

no, we never were supposed to have any time at all.)

He holds her closer, though he knows it won't change a thing.

"I'm really glad I met you," he says.

She's smiling, even as her breath hitches to a halt.

Was it worth it? Was this what he'd wanted, or was it what he'd tried to avoid? Having connections at the end - that would miss him? Or that he would miss?

But she's smiling in his arms and the afternoon feels warm and it almost feels like it's a moment of promise, of a chance, of a future, like it's not the end -

(Aki. Miki. Aki and Miki and the orphanage and everything, the blood the tears the laughter the sunlight the smiles the sadness the gladness the peace the fires - everything that he'd held to his heart, all the bright moments that he picked out to savor as he sat in dark rooms with a persona clamoring to get out get out GET OUT - )

The memories are everything. He can't pick and choose.

There is no point in regretting, now. Not when he still loves her this much. Even if - even if it has to end like this. They had their time. One tiny slice, but they had it. And it's more than a dying man like him ever thought he would be allowed.

Shinjiro hears the footsteps getting closer, brushes her bangs back across her forehead one last time.

"I hope it was worth it for you…Minako."

He closes his eyes.

-l-

("You're always so reluctant," she'd said while sitting next to him on the bench at the shrine, running her thumb over the watch face.

He didn't follow, and raised an eyebrow.

"To really – to spend time with us," she decided, letting her gaze drift away. "To really enjoy yourself."

For yourself.

"…I keep trying to tell you that you should have better things to do with your time," he said flatly.

"And I keep saying that it's not like that," she said with a half-pout, looking straight into his eyes. Which was a very unfair move.

He sighed, pulling her to him. "There's no point in getting too close to a guy like me."

"You're still saying that?" She elbowed him in the chest, and he tried not to look too affronted. "I thought I finally…you know."

She intertwined their fingers. Her hand was warm – or maybe he was just cold.

He didn't look at her, though he tightened his grip. "It's not like that. It's not that." She'd never know just how much he'd sacrifice for her if he had to. But if he dwelled upon it too long it would have been painful, so he didn't. "It's…"

She looked away. She wasn't stupid.

"Some things just have to be," he said.)

-l-

("I don't want you to take it the wrong way. You know I..."

"I know," she said. "Of course I know."

Thank you.)

-l-

A girl who fought for everything fades away, sacrifice already made.

A boy who needed nothing yet found something – he dies, and leaves behind –

Well, it's not that simple.