Summary: A happy ending without the ever after. Akihiko/Mitsuru, some Shinjiro/Minako, a kind of Akihiko/Minako and everything else in between. Written for 31_days, March 18, 2013: something was dead in each of us.

I love the Star and Moon for the FeMC in P3P. Thing is...Shinjiro and Minako are OTP-level for me, along with Akihiko and Mitsuru, but honestly Akihiko's with the FeMC doesn't sound right as the friendship route. Kind of like how even if you don't go lovers route with Ken, it's obvious the kid still likes you. Only...it's freakin' Aki. Also, I thrive on tragedy and my head's a mess.

Then I started typing. Never a good sign. I am so sorry. Also it should be in three parts, but I didn't feel like using three chapters because...I'm a loser, I dunno. Anyway.


the perfection of a curved smile

In the end, they win.

(In the end, they're all dead.)

-l-

Out of them, Shinji's the first to die.

No, that's not true – Minako was. And if he wants to get technical, then Miki came before either of them. Miki – Miki was the start of everything.

But it's Shinji right now, Shinji pale and bleak on the hospital bed thrice over, Shinji with a vacant clockwork-countdown pallor right in front of him, and –

"Hey. Toughen up, Aki. We all knew this was going to happen."

He resists the impulse to punch the wall and leave cracks of red behind, but only by that much.

-l-

(No, he should take a step back.

"Aki-nii! Aki-nii!"

...No, too far back. Way too far.)

-l-

It's a gentle October day, and they're just walking back from Hagakure. Minako's eyes dart from the clouds to him to the ground and back all over again, and he's only noticing because she's been so uncharacteristically silent and it's making him so antsy.

Or something.

"…What's up?" he asks, very casually.

She keeps her eyes fixed on the ground. "Nothing. I'm – just thinking."

"Oh yeah? About what?"

"Just…you know."

He doesn't, so he stays silent. Stray leaves crunch under their feet.

"About your sister," she says, with careful inflection.

"...Oh," he says, and manages to make it not sound like a question.

"I do that sometimes too, you know. Think about them." Her step is light against the cracked ground. He remembers that she's an orphan, too. Wasn't that why he thought he could tell her these things, because they were similar in that regard?

He nods and makes some kind of sound in agreement.

They walk for a little more, and then she spins on her heel and takes a little skip-step backwards, facing him. "I think they'd like to know that we're happy and doing all right, wouldn't you?"

She looks so...bright.

"Yeah," he manages. "I think so, too."

-l-

("What do you think about Arisato?" Mitsuru had asked him, three days after the new girl had summoned that beast of a Persona and was now still fast asleep in the hospital.

"She'll wake up," he said. "And when she does, then we can go out and really fight and - "

Her glare is sharp enough to chill. "Don't make me angry, Akihiko."

"I know, I know," he said, sighing. His ribs don't hurt, but it's best not to anger her. "I promised, all right, Mitsuru? I'll take it easier."

"Good," she said, and smiled.)

-l-

He hadn't been completely genuine, then - even after the girl proves she's a natural leader, even afterhe finds Junpei and they slowly but surely start to explore Tartarus, and even after they find Fuuka and Mitsuru's back to the frontlines, when their ranks start to swell -

(even though all Shinji'll talk about is how Akihiko's trying to make up for the past, as if - )

This is not enough.

He has always needed Shinji to come back before he can feel like SEES is whole. It had always been him, Shinji, and Mitsuru. Just them.

And it's not the same if they're not all there.

-l-

(All the three of them had ever really done was run around town among the red splatters and green-tinged coffins. Patrolling for wayward shadows, nothing ever too serious or dangerous.

But things like this were bound to happen.

"It's only a scratch," he protested, but his voice rose to a hiss when Mitsuru's fingers brushed against the bloody fabric of his shirt.

"Is it," Shinji said dryly. "Big puddle of a scratch, isn't it."

"Shut up." He quickly pushed himself up by his elbows and stood, but was almost immediately hit by a swirl of dizziness and, oh, hell, maybe it wasn't just a scratch -

He felt Shinji behind him, bracing him by the shoulders, and Mitsuru with a good hold on his arm.

The red-green-yellows of the world started spinning around him; he groaned, but stopped falling.

"It's okay," Shinji said. "We've got you.")

-l-

"Is there really a cut under there, or is that bandage just for show?"

"Hey," he says like he's vaguely offended, but then Minako laughs her usual laugh and he ends up chuckling along with her. They train together sometimes now, and for all his blood-sweat and determination-not-tears, it always ends like this - laughing, joking, breathing. Living.

But his life only has the one purpose.

He needs to get stronger or else he won't be able to protect anything. Akihiko says it over and over again as a mantra - I need to or else, or else - or else.

He is training with Minako, and after their run to the shrine, when they sit amidst the silence and all he can think is I need to get stronger or else, she merely looks at him, and he just - knows that she knows as well.

And quells the unease starting to build in his chest.

-l-

("I understand it's a lot to take in," the girl named Kirijo said, rings of red perfectly framing her face and her pretty red lips, which were telling him all sorts of things about a hidden 25th hour and monsters that went bump in the night and the personas within themselves.

He wasn't too shocked, not really - not after he all but panicked when he encountered the Dark Hour on his own last week, saw the eerie sky and the gleaming black coffins. And now here he was, sitting across from the most prim and proper girl his age he had ever seen and probably ever would. He couldn't believe she was also a junior high student like him - the difference was almost too great.

She sat patiently while he tried to think about everything. She didn't even fidget, kept her perfectly manicured nails solemnly in her lap and the not-a-real-gun in a gunmetal briefcase on the table between them. It was a perfect, practiced sort of detachment. Like when the adults brought her into the room and gave her curt nods before stepping out; like the heiress smile she wore, curving up just like so at the corners because it's what her smile was supposed to do.

And her hands - they shook hands, when he'd first entered - are cold.

"Do you need some time to think about it?" Kirijo asked him, and he suddenly got why she was the one doing the talking rather than one of the adults - with them, it'd have been outright coercion.

His mouth opened and it was like the words weren't his own, were so assured instead: "No, no I don't.")

-l-

Time doesn't move in a linear fashion for him, not any more.

-l-

Takeba was wrong, when she yelled at him about his reasons for fighting. He wasn't even thinking about the rush of adrenaline that day, just that pleasantly cold curve of Mitsuru's lips and the stillness of her hands and the sharp, sharp gun in the briefcase.

(and how young girls shouldn't be so primly stiff and properly unhappy with burdens bending to burst - instead they should be laughing, running around outside in the sunlight with enough to eat and toys to play with and Aki-nii, Aki-nii - )

-l-

He hears a rumor that goes like Minako and Junpei and girlfriend this one time.

For some reason, the dissonance in his head is so jarring that he can't really process it, ends up spacing out the entire walk with Minako and ends up asking her about it flat out, stumbling over all of the words.

"Uh, don't get the wrong idea or anything, Sempai," she says, all wryness in her voice and laughter in her step. "We're bros for life. I mean..." She scrunches her nose, just a tiny bit. "Yeah, no. That'd just be...so weird. Like even if you took your male best friend and gender-flipped them, even if you did that, there'd just be no way you could be like that, right?"

He supposes the closest thing to a best friend that he has, besides Mitsuru - who is already of the opposite gender and, well, anyway - would be Shinji, but they've always been brothers, by everything except blood.

"Is it like that with Mitsuru?" she asks, rather suddenly, and there seems to be a devilish glimmer in those eyes of hers.

"Uh," he says, still trying to keep up.

She grins.

"...Sorry, it was just a rumor I heard," he manages. "If I hear anyone else say it again, I'll tell them it's not true."

"Thanks," she says, and does that little nose-scrunch again, like she's imagining it once more. "But yeah, don't worry about it. I mean, you know how many rumors go around here? Like even about you, Sempai."

"...I don't see what anyone would even have to say about me," he says, somewhat at a loss.

The evil little grin doesn't go away. "I know you don't. Do you want to know?"

"Uh." He thinks about whether he'd want to, and his mind blanks out again.

"I mean, you are popular, Sempai."

He snorts. "I don't see why. Mitsuru's more of everything than I am - they could talk about her instead, couldn't they?"

She laughs. "Of course they do. But of course they'd talk about you, too - maybe both of you together."

He tries to parse her words, can only think of Mitsuru's punishments for some reason, and grimaces. Minako laughs.

The two of them walk back into the dorm with her total victory.

-l-

"They're doing very well, aren't they?" Mitsuru says, on a lazy Sunday morning when the juniors aren't awake yet and it's just the two of them in the lounge. Koromaru lies at his feet and makes a contented face as Akihiko scratches him behind the ears.

"You too, boy," he says, and Koromaru wags his tail.

"We are quite blessed," she says. "Especially with Arisato. Her ability alone is incredible enough, but her tactical skill has saved us a fair number of times."

He thinks about the conversation they'd had on that - "I'm just good at strategy games, Sempai, don't make a big deal out of it or anything." - and he smiles.

Mitsuru glances at him. "So you're now a stealer of girlfriends, are you?"

He's already wincing, even though it's been at least a week since that one started. "Great, you too."

"Don't worry." She chuckles. "I didn't mean anything by it. Even I hear these things sometimes."

"She's not going out with Junpei," he says.

"And you're not going out with Arisato. I know, Akihiko, I know."

"It's just none of anyone's business." He sighs. "The rumors are just...irritating."

"Hm," she says.

Koromaru rubs his head against Akihiko's leg with a low whine.

"Sorry, boy. It's no big deal." Why is it bothering him so much, anyway?

Koromaru barks.

-l-

(Now that he thinks about it, there had been rumors back then as well, when Mitsuru started SEES and it had only been the three of them living in the dorms.

People just couldn't figure out why he and Shinji of all people were living there. He was quickly proving himself in the boxing club, and in all honesty Shinji was actually a crackshot student - but Akihiko kept to himself and Shinji managed to antagonize almost every teacher around them, and the two of them only ever hung out with each other or with Mitsuru, the school princess.

So the issue probably wasn't so much why they were in the dorms as scholarship students rather than why they were always with her. Or why she tolerated their presence.

"People will always talk, and they'll always need something to talk about," is all that Shinji said.

"But - "

"Relax, Aki. Kirijo doesn't care either."

"She probably doesn't even hear any of it," Akihiko muttered.

"Eh, you'd be surprised," Shinji said. "Even if she's Kirijo, she does still have ears."

And then came the accident, and the last bits of content normalcy in his high school life came to an end.

Shinji left his uniform on his desk when he left the dorm, Mitsuru hid her concerns behind the blade of her rapier and the roar of her motorcycle, and he doubled his training regimen and focused only on getting stronger, because most of what mattered became long gone by then.)

-l-

"It's rare for you to think about the past," Shinji says, a few days later - but Akihiko doesn't do it all that consciously, doesn't need to. The ghosts are always there.

Come back, please, he begs, over and over. (I need you to be there, not haunting me. Alive.)

Each time Shinji refuses in that same old way, he grits his teeth and does four rounds of extra training and always too late remembers that he needs to breathe.

No. He needs to fight.

-l-

("No, Akihiko, you need to rest."

"But - "

She looked at him with an expression that plainly read, don't make me angry.

"Mitsuru, I'm fine." The throb in his right side was nothing. "We need the manpower right now."

"We always need manpower. But I don't need you rushing off and doing something ridiculous when there are only two of us in the first place."

His shoulders slumped. He knew she was right - felt it too, somewhere deep down. Didn't mean that the stubborn rest of him agreed, though.

She sighed. "I will patrol alone. If anything happens, I will call you."

"Not good enough," he gritted out. "I'm at least going with you, if you're not letting me go on my own."

She gave him one good, long stare, enough to start chilling the blood in his veins.

"Only if you stay on the bike and do exactly what I say," she replied.

A tch escaped his lips, but he knew it was as good as anything he'd ever get. "All right."

"You promise, Akihiko?"

A sigh. "Yeah, I promise.")

-l-

He apologizes for dragging Minako back by the wrist to the dorm after running into those girls. He is tired of people saying he's stealing other guys' girlfriends, and he doesn't want to hear the same crap about her, either.

"Don't worry about it, Sempai."

"Doesn't it bother you?" he asks.

"Hm," she says, and swings her leg forward with extra gusto, lengthening her stride. "Only if I let it?"

He thinks about how she is radiant, positive, always - even during the darkest moments in their battles, though some of the bubbling energy sometimes gives way to a fierce, dark determination that -

"Yeah, you're right," he says.

She grins at him.

(Something that matters.)

-l-

"Come back," he tells Shinji.

"No."

"Why do you have to be so stubborn?" he asks.

"I could say the same for you, Aki," he says -

And then Shinji is gone, and Akihiko's standing by himself again, again and again.

-l-

("Sometimes I would do anything to forget what I did," Shinji muttered.

"Why don't you keep using your power to fight, then? To help people. Protect people."

"The way I helped her, you mean."

Akihiko gritted his teeth. "No one else can do what you do. If you really want to pay penance, then this - "

"Is not the way," Shinji said, like he dared Akihiko to challenge him.

Akihiko didn't.)

-l-

But he finally, finally gets Shinji to return one day, and everything else goes out of mind, because now he's back and they're stronger and it's like rewinding to a time when they were all happy and whole.

"Going for a run. Wanna come with?" he asks Shinji one day after school.

Shinji gives a bark of a laugh. "Like I ever did before? I wouldn't be able to keep up anyway."

(he doesn't think about the coughing fit he thought he heard from Shinji's room last night - )

"Suit yourself," Akihiko says with a grin, and runs for hours.

He comes back, tired but rejuvenated, and sees the others sitting in the living room while Shinji and Minako talk quietly in the back and Ken sits at the kitchen table, alone.

"I don't even want to know how many kilometers you ran, Sempai," Junpei says with a shudder.

"Just enough," he says. He still feels like he could take on a whole army of shadows.

Shinji and Minako walk past them and out the door, and amid Yukari and Junpei exchanging glances and Mitsuru turning the page of her book and Ken with his back to them, he jogs up the stairs.

-l-


After the last time they go out for ramen at the start of the second term, he and Minako just stop hanging out so much. She comes by the lockers on the first floor sometimes, and she smiles and he smiles back and all, but...it just doesn't feel right, any more. They'd been so natural before. Easygoing. Had fallen into step with each other. But now...

He feels so tense.

Maybe his smile is a little chipped or his voice is a little unsure, because she looks at him carefully in a not-as-careful way before chirping, "If you're busy, we can hang out some other time - see you back at the dorm, Senpai," before vanishing up the stairs.

They still chat in the lounge a little. It's okay, he thinks, even as his insides continue to coil a little bit. He's just...

(uncomfortable with why he feels uncomfortable about her fighting, about the possibility of her getting hurt - 'cause it's not like he doesn't worry about the rest of SEES, but he really wouldn't want her getting hurt - really wouldn't want her getting hurt, and then he thinks of silver hair and fire and the only girl who'd meant anything at all to him, before - before - and - what is this, if it's not - )

It's okay, he thinks, because Shinji's back, Shinji's back and somewhere deep down he was afraid that he never would be, that the distance that emerged between them would grow too big to traverse, and it's - training and shadows and fighting and we'll make it through this, we're stronger than ever now, no one important will get hurt again -

He needs to stop thinking.

And then he sees Minako in the hallways and so very casually says hello, sees Minako sometimes at night in the lounge but doesn't look up for very long, sees Minako spending more of her nights hanging out with Shinji and closing the distance.

You're just doing this so you have an excuse to fight, have you ever really thought about what you've been fighting for rings through his head, and that tense feeling he has just gets worse and he goes and runs laps around the dorm for an hour or so more until he's just too tired to think.

At night, he sits next to Mitsuru in the lounge and manages to breathe, and if she knows what's going on, she doesn't mention it at all.

-l-

("He'll come back," he said. "He'll come back. It's Shinji. He wouldn't just - "

He thought about their time at the orphanage - just him and Shinji and Miki, how they depended on each other, how they didn't need anyone else, didn't need anyone else at all, how they wouldn't let each other down -

"He'll come back, Mitsuru."

She looked at him, like she knew more than he did, like her vision was a little clearer - like she doubted.

"Can you at least just...keep his room the way it is? Until I get him to come back?"

She closed her eyes and sighed. "Well, I doubt we'd find any other Persona users to live in it so soon."

He nodded. "He'll come back, Mitsuru. You'll see.")

-l-

Akihiko doesn't realize it's October 4th until after the mission, and then it's too late.

He curses himself, for having felt too awkward around Ken to do anything other than shut out his instincts, for not thinking about Shinji's situation any more than well stop living in the past and come fight with us again, for not realizing that something was wrong because he was too fixated on the full moon and where could they be, this city isn't so big that -

Port Island.

He finds them and he finds Takaya with a gun slinking off into the darkness (too late) and he finds Shinji in a pool of his own blood (too late) and Ken a crumpled ghost in the corner (far too late) and then Minako's there, applying pressure on his wounds because even if it's the Dark Hour and they can't do anything, she's sure as hell not gonna let him die.

He puts his hands on top of hers, feels Shinji's blood on his palms and his brother's life fading away. The others are saying frantic, panicked things but he's not really hearing them, just the deathly silence of the girl next to him and he thinks he might have felt a couple of her tears land on his hands just now and -

This isn't how it's supposed to be. Shinji's supposed to be fighting with them until the end, Shinji's the level-headed one that knows better and makes SEES whole and Shinji's a fighter and Shinji would never go down like this and this just isn't how it's supposed to be.

"I won't let you die," he hears her whisper.

No, no they won't.

-l-

("We can't let her die!" Mitsuru yelled. But there were some things that all the Dia spells in the world couldn't do - )

-l-

Shinji doesn't die.

Akihiko builds his resolution next to the hospital bed, knowing his brother may never wake up. So the doctors say. The thing is, he's long believed in forces far stronger than statistics and likelihood.

When he picks up his jacket and is about to leave, the door opens.

"Oh, Sempai," Minako says, like she doesn't think anyone would be here at this hour.

He doesn't know what to say - not to anyone, not right now - so he stays in his seat, waits for her to walk in and break the silence.

She stands next to him but doesn't say anything, just looks down at the hospital bed.

"That watch saved his life," he says. They haven't spoken to each other since the night Shinji was shot.

He could swear he hears her say that was the plan, but glances at her and only sees a girl who looks like the weight of the world almost broke against her shoulders.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," she says.

"It never is," he mutters. "He was back, and we were finally going to - we were just - "

We had the whole world ahead of us.

His knuckles turn white. Minako pretends not to notice, but he knows she does. She notices everything.

Akihiko looks down. "I'll keep fighting. For him. For when he wakes up."

"Yeah," she says, then grips her left wrist. "Yeah."

-l-

(The night's not too cold, but the air's thick with the scent of ash and charred rubble, and his sister is gone like the smoke still smoldering into the distance.

Shinji walks up behind him. "Come on, Aki."

He shivers, then shrugs further into his coat.

"Aki."

He continues to sit on the bit of pavement unmarred by the fire.

"The adults'll come soon."

"I know," he says.

Shinji says nothing, and sits down next to him.

some things, you can't ever forget - )

-l-

Akihiko never talks about it with Mitsuru.

They sit together that evening, and the next, and the next. Eventually she closes her book and hovers in the silence as though searching for the right words, finally settling for: "He's a fighter."

(are you okay?)

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I know."

(I don't know.)

-l-

He tells Minako about Miki, and it hurts all the more even as it begins to help. But she smiles, and softens, and listens, really listens, and if he's not seeing Miki in her, then just what -

Minako smiles, and his confusion only gets worse.

He sits with Mitsuru. Though they still have the other SEES members with them, it's only her and him instead of her and him and Shinji once again, funny how history repeats itself in twisted ways, and he can't explain how it is that he's feeling except that it's just so much feeling and even if he has Caesar now he goes and throws punch after punch in his room for hours and and and and and.

It's only when the others are all gone and it's just the two of them late in the lounge that Mitsuru puts her hand against his wrist, gently - and he looks at her and they don't have to say anything. It's funny how one gun in a silver briefcase lying between two people can do that.

(no, there was always more - )

Then Mitsuru leaves, and he sits in the lounge, alone. Remembers to breathe. Remembers that he made his resolution. A promise.

He promises again, and Caesar nods approvingly.

-l-

October is somehow only the calm before the storm. The truth. Yukari's father. Mitsuru's father. Chidori. The names go on and on and on and on until he doesn't know whether it's the ocean or the drops that should matter any more.

Mitsuru.

He carries her, when they finally step away from Tartarus that night. She feels so unfathomably light and paper-thin, with no impression of air in her lungs, tears in her eyes, words from her lips.

The others fan out when they get back to the dorm, and he goes up the stairs and enters her room, still holding her. She still says nothing, and this is Mitsuru, the one with such a commandeering grip on her own pain and her own self and he doesn't - he never wanted to see her like this, doesn't know what to do.

He hears a faint gasp-inhale-stir from her and feels a burst of emotion. Relief, perhaps. Or simply agony. He doesn't know.

So he sits her down on her sofa, and she ends up curling like a lifeless doll into the cushions.

"Akihiko."

He almost jumps. "Yeah?"

She falls silent, again, and after several moments of hesitation because he really doesn't know what to do, he carefully sits down next to her, and lifts his hand, and -

Moments pass.

"Hey," he says, putting his hand on her shoulder. "I'm here."

And he almost immediately regrets this because it's the same thing as saying but your father's not, he's gone forever, isn't it? - and then her tears come fast as rain and soak through his shirt and he gives her his hand to grip, just so she can channel it all into that, and even if his hand feels like it's about to break he won't let her let go, not right now. Not right now.

Akihiko stays this way for hours until she falls asleep, then tucks her into bed before leaving.

All of next week, Mitsuru is gone without one breath of communication, but he remembers how strongly she gripped his hand and he knows - she will be okay.

-l-

"You know she's tough, Sempai. She'll make it back."

"Yeah," he says, but they always make it back. The real question is - will she end up damaged like he was, or stronger like the others?

Minako stares out the window, and Akihiko turns back to mending his gloves.

-l-

No, he receives one text from Mitsuru, at last: I'll be back tomorrow.

Relief floods through his chest, and he lets out a week-long breath that he didn't know he'd been holding.

-l-

(Aki stood in the doorway. "You can't leave."

"It's not like you can stop me," Shinji said.

Oh yeah? Aki thought, but barely stopped the words from escaping. "You shouldn't."

He said nothing, waiting.

"It'd be like running away."

"Says the guy who already did it."

"What?!"

Shinji neatly sidestepped Aki's very impulsive, habitual punch.

"Yeah, I think you know, Aki." He stood in the doorway and sighed. "I'm not going to risk letting this thing go out of control again."

"You don't know that it'll - you can save more people with your power, so - "

"What, try harder? 'Cause I didn't try hard enough the other night? 'Cause I should have, right?"

"Shinji - "

"Forget it. Compared to your and Mitsuru's power, mine is - I'm not gonna put other people at risk." He turned on his heel, shrugging further into his coat. "You guys can keep fighting the good fight. I'm bowing out."

Aki just stood there in the now-empty room, long after Shinji left.)

-l-

"I thought it would be better not to let things get too important than to risk losing them," he tells Minako on the rooftop. "But lately, I don't think so. I just need...to protect what's precious to me. Everything, including you."

She smiles. "I'm glad, Sempai."

And he smiles, too - or tries to, but then he just feels so -

"Is something wrong?"

"N-no! No," he says. "I just - it was really fun with you before, but now I feel all - tense and on edge. It's the weirdest thing."

She looks at him, really looks at him for a moment, and all the edges in her face soften. "These kinds of things just happen. Plus with everything everyone's been going through...it just happens."

"Yeah...yeah," he says. "Sorry, I guess - I've just been sorting through everything lately and it's all still - you know."

She sits down on one of the benches, and tucks in her knees. "After my parents died... It took a long time. To be at peace with it. And you've gone through so much worse - "

"Don't say that," he says, almost angrily. "That's just stupid."

"Well, I guess I won't compare notes or anything." She looks up at the sky, and her smile seems so sad, just for a brief flicker. "But it gets better, when you have other people to depend on. So don't be afraid to depend on us, Sempai. We're here for you, just like you're here for us."

"Yeah." He takes a deep breath. "Yeah, you're right. Thanks, Minako."

She grins. "What are friends for?"

He laughs, too.

"Now pull me up so we can go get some ramen!"

-l-

It's not until after the trip to Kyoto that Mitsuru seems at peace, again.

"We were truly fortunate this year, Akihiko," she says when they're alone in the lounge. "I don't know how we could have gotten through what we did without everyone to help us this time."

"Yeah," he says, and wishes Shinji could see them now.

Silence, but he soon notices that the sound of her flipping pages has stopped.

"Akihiko," she says.

He looks up from his gloves, but doesn't know what to make of her expression.

"Thank you."

"For what?"

She stares into the distance, but doesn't seem so far away this time. "After my father died. For being there."

"I didn't really do anything."

"For taking care of the others."

"I didn't really - "

"Akihiko."

He stops and looks at her, thinks back to that younger girl with a face framed by red curls and lips curved under the pressure of her name; to cold hands and guns without bullets and no, I don't need more time to think about it.

"It still means a lot."

He just nods at her, not really trusting his voice or his words to say the right thing.

She's smiling back, though, and it's ridiculously beautiful.

-l-

On January 31, everyone in SEES charges into Tartarus, but he lingers at the foot of the steps for just a moment. So does Mitsuru.

"Remember when we didn't even have the numbers to go inside?" Akihiko says.

"Yes. To think that everything would come to this..." Her voice trails off. "We've come so far."

He looks at her. "We'll make it."

She meets his eyes, then nods, ascending the stairs. "We will."

-l-

("Why won't you just let it go," Akihiko gritted out - and immediately regretted it, knew in every nerve of his body that it was the completely unacceptable thing to say.

Shinji looked at him for what felt like an eternity, and Akihiko cringed.

"And if I said that to you about Miki?"

"You just - I - "

Shinji didn't break off his stare, and Akihiko knew there was no good answer to this question. He would be lying if he said he's never wished that he could just - forget any of it ever happened. But he would never want to forget Miki, and - it was just, the sunshine mixed in with the ashes, the laughter drowned out by her cries.

How was he supposed to treasure the good things while living with the guilt and the pain, just how -

"That's not the same thing, Shinji."

"It's exactly the same thing," he said.

Akihiko could not reply.)

-l-

During February, he feels like he's sleepwalking. Or half-awake at best.

"Perhaps it's all the studying. Sometimes I feel that way too," Mitsuru says with a smile.

The two of them sit alone in the lounge, studying together in silence for their impeding entrance exams. But he doesn't remember ever sitting with their other dormmates, not once.

"I don't know," he manages, and thinks back to when they first came here, when he first met her, and -

How did they first meet, anyway? She'd...invited him to live in the dorm, right? Because he was given a scholarship to come here? And Shinji had been here too, until the accident, but he'd...left the dorms a year earlier, and...?

"Akihiko?"

He blinks. She's looking at him with a concerned expression.

"No, it's nothing. Was just thinking about the past and...couldn't remember some things."

Mitsuru looks down. "I suppose memory has its ways."

He remembers the passing of her father, how he'd been there for her, somehow, carrying her up the steps and holding her hand, but when had they been so close?

Mitsuru looks up again, and they share the same look they've shared thousands of times - as though it's proof that they're in this together, coconspirators in some grander scheme who aren't alone.

Does it matter that you don't know, says a voice in his head.

No, he supposes, no it doesn't.

He passes by one of the juniors on the way to the kitchen, the girl with pins in her hair - Arisato, wasn't it? - and thinks nothing of it.

-l-

No, you have to remember.

-l-

Graduation day.

The memories are like breaking through the surface after being half-conscious, realizing only now that you had been drowning for months.

After staring at each other and wondering just how they could have - wait, no time to think about it now - they race up the stairs to the rooftop, only to find Shinjiro, sitting there, cradling Minako in his arms.

Her body is still warm, and she's smiling.

And it's just - Akihiko knows, even as Mitsuru and Yukari frantically call for help, even as Aigis refuses to leave her side, even as Shinji grips her tighter, even as all the memories keep flooding back, one after the other - he knows. He's seen death. They all have. They know what the rustle of the reaper's cloak feels like as it brushes past.

Eventually they get her down from the roof and take her to the hospital, and eventually watch her fade away as the machines stop beeping.

When he thinks no one is watching, Shinji neatly flips the watch off her wrist, pops out the battery and slips it into his pocket. When he looks up, he meets Akihiko's stare, and says nothing.

"I'm sorry," Akihiko says. "I...I didn't know." And really, he didn't. Those two had spent so many nights together in the lounge and outside the dorm during that month, but he just - didn't -

(there is something about the months he spent with her after October, and - )

Did the others know? Was it just him unaware?

Shinji says nothing still, all rigid as stone and holding himself so - carefully, in a way that Akihiko's never seen before.

He watches him take out his old pocketwatch and examine it. The one cracked by the bullet that would have taken his life.

"I always thought it would be the other way around," Shinji says, and all Akihiko can do is take in a sharp breath that doesn't nearly fill his lungs with air enough, like he's not even breathing.

-l-

It's been a few days.

He's okay - more okay, this time, because he knows why Minako chose to do what she did and he gets it, he really does, and he has to move on -

"Hey, sempai! Let's go grab beef bowls!"

The restaurant doors close behind him, and the sunlight through the glass makes him think of her warmth, that glowing quality she always had.

He takes one step out of the sunlight, and it is suddenly very cold.

"Oh c'mon, don't be such a killjoy, sempai - "

No, he thinks. You are gone, like Miki. You are gone, and -

He forces himself to take one step forward, then another, eventually sinking himself into a seat.

"One beef bowl," he says, and the chef merely nods. He remembers to take a breath, and everything becomes silent except for the static hovering somewhere too close for comfort.

He exhales before the carbon-coated memories burn his lungs.

-l-

(Aki-nii, Aki-nii - )

-l-

Shinji doesn't last very long after March.

Akihiko feels pretty stupid for having hoped.

He only finds out about the brain damage a week after Minako is gone, and can only get angry about things that have long since passed. "I told you those pills would...!"

He sucks in a sharp breath.

"Yeah, and I told you I did what I had to do." Even near death, Shinji is unfazed. Accepting.

Akihiko sees the old wristwatch on the bedside table, and says nothing, is too afraid to ask for reasons he doesn't know.

Shinji looks at him, looks at where he's looking, then looks back at him again.

Akihiko opens his mouth, then closes it.

Silence.

"I'm sorry, Aki."

He lets out an angry hiss that he didn't know he'd been holding in and just barely avoids slamming his fist against something, but there is no point.

"I'll come back tomorrow," he says.

And he does, and he does, and he does.

-l-

("You'll be okay," Shinji says. "You will."

"This wasn't supposed to happen. None of it was."

"I should have died that day."

"But you didn't."

"Life goes on, Aki. Just remember the happy times. Do it for me, okay?"

"..."

"You'll be okay. I know you will.")

-l-

So the point is, Shinji dies on a Wednesday, and it's the same old Wednesday to everyone else walking around from home to school to work to bars and – it's – not. Not like that, for him.

Mitsuru's with him to scatter the ashes.

They don't say anything, really. It's just her and him sitting at the edge of the shrine – her crimson hair pulled this way and that by the breeze, and his hand on the urn, not letting go.

The urn is plain metal. There's dull sunset orange tinging the lid. The ashes -

You have to breathe.

"Akihiko."

He feels the pressure of her fingers on his wrist, gently.

"…Yeah. I know."

He stands, carefully holding the urn.

She stands too.

-l-

Sometimes he still thinks about Minako, how she faded away.

Her luck and ability had been so good that she seemed like a favorite of the gods. The lucky charms she amassed from the shrine, her peculiar power of persona.

(That's the thing about being someone so beloved, though, for they whom the gods love so much die so young - )

She'd been too bright. She'd aced her exams and brought light to everyone she interacted with, chased away their shadows and fears so that only her smile and vivacity were left, promised they would always remember each other as the blood dripped down her naginata while she stood before death, and -

- then she'd gone.

The way all those bright stars often go.

-l-

There is no and they all lived happily ever after, even if they managed a victory. Because Shinji's gone, and Minako's gone, and the happiest ending would be one where everyone's...

(alive?)

- together. Whole.

The fighting's not necessarily over, either - the Kirijo Group is still monitoring the situation, or so Mitsuru says, and the feelings that brought Nyx into existence are still out there, lurking, eternal, and the Shadows -

"Everything in due time, Akihiko," she says.

He sighs restlessly. It's only been a week since they buried Shinji's ashes in the sunset, and she knows. She knows, and her hand brushes against his wrist, and he takes a breath, and then another.

"I know," he says. In due time.

She says nothing, merely holds herself together as a pillar of support. He knows it must be excruciating for her, too. She also lost the only family she had left, and it's not like Shinji and Minako meant nothing to her.

"I know," he says, again.

Her hand falls to her lap, and they return to silence.

-l-

Like Shinji said, life goes on, no matter how much it shouldn't.

He's not numb any more, nor are the emotions burning away his insides as much as they did a month ago. But it still hurts, a kind of smiling-sunshine-laughter-fire-ashes-cinders throb that beats against his heart every single day, makes him wonder if he's weak or broken and will never be strong enough to get over it or stop other loved ones from dying.

Maybe he needs to accept that this is how it simply is.

Exam results are posted, and he managed to enter the university he'd been aiming for during the first round of testing. So did Mitsuru, but that was to be expected.

"The Kirijo Group?" he asks her.

"I will continue to manage it while attending university," she says.

Akihiko nods, and thinks about the difference between them.

Somewhere along the way the other SEES members wish them well and move out of the dorms, one by one, but he continues in his memory haze until the first day of classes approaches like a suffocating reminder that the world keeps on spinning.

"We won't be that far apart," Mitsuru says, one evening, after the dorm has all but emptied.

The train ride would take just over an hour. Could be worse, he thinks, though it still feels like goodbye. Without their battles or close proximity, he doesn't really know.

"Winter break or something, then," he says.

She sounds as though she's laughing at a petulant child. "Or something, then."

-l-

("For hell's sake, Aki, why are you being so damn persistent about this?"

"I just want you back with us. It's not the same without you."

"You've got all those new kids now. You don't need me."

"You don't get it." Akihiko glared at him. "It's not the same without you."

"Get a grip, Aki." Shinji looked away, scuffed at the ground with his boot. "Everything changes. Nothing stays the same."

"Some things aren't supposed to change."

"Well, this did."

And then he walked away, and Akihiko felt such a sharp pang of loss.)

-l-

He delays his departure over and over and over, pushing it down to the last minute possible.

Mitsuru ends up being the one who leaves first.

Unlike him, she'll be taking a private car instead of the train, and someone else will come by to close down the entire building later. Which leaves the two of them standing in the dorm lobby, alone, save for her parcels and packages.

"You didn't have to wait," she says.

"Don't say that." The rough edge to his voice surprises him.

She bites her lip mid-breath. "You're right. No, I'm – I'm glad you're the last one."

"Yeah."

Silence.

"Well, I - " and Mitsuru stops.

Akihiko can see her car outside, waiting.

"Thank you, Akihiko, for everything. For having been at my side all these years."

He wants to say that he didn't do that much, but he just nods. "Well - see you soon."

"See you soon." She smiles, closing her eyes.

And then she is gone.

-l-


At university, everyone walks with their books in their arms while chattering away, going from building A to class B in neat little circles, and he feels like such an outsider.

The normalcy will eventually kill him, he fears.

He diligently attends his classes and studies for his exams. He tries to go out with some of the guys who live in his dorm, but the alcohol disagrees with him before it even makes it down his throat, and he has nothing he can say to them that would mean anything without the context of transmogrified coffins and bright red blood.

So he retreats into his books and his personal training, which he hasn't given up - probably never will, no matter what comes. And he hears Shinji's voice in his head, scolding him for living this way and not moving on properly, saying are you even taking care of yourself, are you at least eating well, are you living for yourself now -

It's not that he never moved on, he thinks. It's that the world moved on without him.

-l-

He and Mitsuru don't chat often on the phone. It just feels...strange, when they've always been able to sit quietly and speak up on a whim in the lounge, or let the silence do the speaking for them.

So they meet up on a three-day weekend instead. She comes over to his campus, and he ignores the looks from the guys in his dorm. They do it without saying anything, thankfully, though he knows he'll get an earful later.

"I guess you don't live in the dorms?" he asks, when they are finally seated at a small restaurant some distance away from his campus.

"No. It's not as convenient for my work with the Group."

"Oh," he says. He thinks about being the heiress to a large company and only manages to envision a small girl sitting alone, with a carefully managed curve to her lips and a perfect 90-degree posture from back to hip to knee.

And the gun on the table.

"Some days, though, I just..." Her voice fades away.

"Hm?"

"I feel like - I don't really know how to say it." Mitsuru's smile turns a little self-deprecating, somewhere in the creases. "A little...disconnected, perhaps."

She phrases it more succinctly than he ever could, but he didn't - think that she would be feeling the same way. Which is kind of silly when he thinks about it, but he's been spending so much time lost in his own grief that he wouldn't have noticed.

"I thought it was just me," he says, carefully, apologetically.

She shakes her head, as if to reassure him. "So did I."

-l-

During the lazy months of almost-summer, he sees quite a few couples stroll through campus. The more daring ones walk while holding hands.

They make him think about Minako for some reason - her smile, her laugh, that little half-skip-step she took when she turned on her heel to grin at him - and the very thought paralyzes him. Because she is gone, because she is long gone, because -

(the way she applauded when he did that back hip circle on the monkey bars -

how they returned from the extra training laps he dragged her on, winded but laughing -

"Nah, you're pretty charming, Sempai - "

the way she and Shinji chatted like there was no one else in their world when they walked out the door at night -

her hands pressed over the bullet wound and the blood - "I won't let you die." -

the worn leather watch on her left wrist that she checked when she thought no one else was looking -

the rooftop, and "These things just happen, Sempai - ")

He watches the couples go by, and he's never been smart about this sort of thing, but - about this, he surely knew.

Too late, too late, always too late.

He thinks about a brightly smiling girl with pins in her hair who looked away at the darkness when she thought no one else would notice, and a boy who was his brother in all but blood. He thinks about them, he really does - and he is not crying now - he didn't even cry at her memorial or the moment the heart monitors stopped beeping or the spreading of his ashes, and -

He is not crying.

Summer can't pass quickly enough.

-l-

(It's not just Aki-nii, Aki-nii any more - now it's her plus two, her plus - )

-l-

At their next meeting he tries not to mention how he may not have the heart for university and the way it makes him feel so broken, but somehow Mitsuru picks up on it anyway.

"Is university not agreeing with you?" she asks over her cup of coffee.

"It's fine, it's just - " He sighs. "It's like I'm from a completely different world, trying to - I'll never be one of them."

Her smile turns sad, and he feels rather selfish and foolish, saying that to her of all people.

"Sorry," he says.

"I don't see why you should be," she says with a laugh, and he gives her a sheepish smile in return.

The server comes by with their food and leaves. They eat in comfortable silence, and halfway through the meal he realizes that they never ate together like this when they lived in the dorm.

"We never ate together like this in the dorms, did we?" he blurts out, then reddens.

She blinks, then smiles. "No, I guess we never did. Though you were too busy eating instant ramen."

"Don't go all Shinji on me now," he says; though the words should feel more bitter than sweet, the two of them start to chuckle anyway.

-l-

("You're doing well now, aren't you?" she doesn't ask. Not like that.

He wouldn't have an answer either way. He doesn't trust himself to say "I'm breathing again" quite yet, as if doing so will drain the oxygen from his lungs.)

-l-

Final exams go by and he's dangerously close to not caring, but manages all the same. He hasn't chatted to Mitsuru for some time, but gets news about her here and there, sometimes even with a photograph in one of the high-profile magazines.

He sometimes buys the magazines.

When they finally meet up again, during the break, she breezes into the coffeehouse and apologizes for not meeting him at the train station.

"Don't worry about it," he says. "Busy with the Kirijo Group?"

"Bureaucratic procedures," she says. "Some of the board members wanted me to take certain...measures, to ensure the company's future."

"Like what?" he asks.

She takes a sip of water, and doesn't grimace. "Marriage to the head of another company. Both he and the board really wanted it."

He starts to feel - something. Anger? Agitation?

"So I drove his company to bankruptcy while making quite a profit," Mitsuru says quite serenely. "I doubt the board will bother me with this matter again."

He pauses, then laughs, unclenches a fist he hadn't noticed himself making. "Good," he says.

"That wasn't all that I was busy with, however," she says. "I've been working more closely with the Group's anti-Shadow division. The Great Seal is still in place, but we have detected Shadow activity recently. I wasn't going to tell you until we had more information on the matter, but as it stands...would you be interested in working with me on an anti-Shadow task force?"

He feels the blood run through his veins again for the first time in god knows how long.

"You didn't have to ask," he says.

She smiles. "I thought I would anyway. For old times' sake."

"Then I don't need time to think about it."

Her eyes widen, but then they start laughing together, slowly yet surely all over again.

(the world moved on without us, but let us move again.)

-l-

(The memories still surround him. A little sister dancing through sunbeams. A brother who would sacrifice everything for their sake. A girl with pins in her hair who let her naginata dance in the moonlight.

The people who he loved. Loves. Will never forget, never ever -

You have to let me go.

Then there is the lonely little girl with long red hair and cold, flawlessly curved lips, the one who held a not-a-gun so calmly to her head and asked him, Will you join me? (Must I be alone?)

And Akihiko realizes, all this time - he just wanted her to be able to smile. It might not have been the main thing that drove him all those years, but he's always wanted it. Even if he didn't know it himself.

Now, he does.)

-l-

They're standing on the station platform – he has to go back to school, and she'll go back to managing the Kirijo empire. For now. There are things that he wants to say this time around, but he doesn't - know.

Five minutes until departure.

"Mitsuru."

"Yes?"

He turns so that he's no longer just watching her through peripheral vision. "I…I just."

They are past the point where she's an heiress and he an orphan, where she comes from regality and he comes from rags. They've lived together, bled together, almost died together. Lost a lot of people together. And they know the importance of cherishing those around them while they're still there.

Still –

"Akihiko?"

He opens his mouth, but the words that he doesn't know how to say just won't come out. It's always like this. His hesitation in these moments. Knowing what he wants yet not knowing, being afraid to really know -

He bites his lip, gives one small shake of his head. I'm not strong enough for this. I'm not.

She lets out a baited breath he didn't know she was holding. It's like the pieces are all there but he doesn't know how to put them together. Just like before - smiling red eyes, empty beef bowls, you're charming, a rush of blood to the cheeks, but if it's not that I'm seeing Miki in you, then what is it -

"Akihiko," she says, and he looks straight into her eyes.

"Sorry, I - "

"When I - that is, if you..." She gets flustered and he stares; Kirijo Mitsuru, at a loss for words? Then again, he's not much better. He still hasn't said anything that means anything at all, really, hasn't tried hard enough.

"Mitsuru, I - "

He looks down at his hand, mysteriously on her shoulder, and then his fingers are hovering too close to her cheek to mean anything else, and now she's noticed too and -

He doesn't know what to make of the look in her eyes, or what it even means.

"Sorry," he says, again, and lowers his hand.

"Akihiko." Her voice is silver-sharp, but then she looks down, long lashes veiling her eyes, and the corners of her face soften. "Did you even know, back then?"

"No," he says, and lowers his head. "But I think I - I might have always - "

Her lips are like ice at first, but it's so very much like her.

She barely looks up at him after he pulls away. "I...yes."

"Yes?"

She looks down, again, and her eyelashes are so thick and her hands so small, and her fingers - far more suited to gripping a razor-deadly rapier - still at his wrist. It's funny, because finally after so many years of simply being together, after so many years of not paying attention to the right things, he thinks that maybe he understands - what she's trying to say, right here, right now.

"There is a later train that you can take, isn't there?" she asks.

"Yeah," he says, and hell if his voice isn't wavering. "Yeah, there is. I could, if - "

" - Dinner?"

"On me." He smiles.

She smiles back.

-l-

Akihiko lets the fire-smoke fade away and remembers a silver-haired little girl, smiling.

Just smiling.

He whispers to his ghosts, You can go now. I promise I'll be okay.

And maybe that's sunbeams and summer-light laughter behind him, but he keeps on walking. There is no other way.