He’d been staring at the body for five, perhaps six minutes now and the cold January air was beginning to burn his cheeks.
Winter break had long overstayed its welcome and forced Minato into a monotonous tedium; inconsequential ennui only further forcing his mind to the days ahead and the onset of the Fall. Most of his acquaintances were unavailable on account of familial obligations or simply busying themselves with their other pursuits, negating Minato access to his pastime of choice or the easiest cure to his habit of isolation. He could keep himself occupied with hobbies or other ways to burn daylight, but Minato always found his mind drawn to the topic of productivity.
Things to do, needs to fulfill, people to look out for.
Even so, there was only so much preparing that he could do before he simply ran out of tasks on his checklist: he’d arranged for several of his redundant Personae to be fused into weapons at Shinshoudo, providing himself and the rest of SEES armaments worthy of facing down Death. Mitsuru had already arranged for Aigis to be maintenanced and ordered her a shipment of ammunition, and he had negotiated for Kurosawa to import the highest-grade armor available under Minato’s budget. The dwellers of the Velvet Room had little in terms of requests or demands, each visit met with Elizabeth chiding Minato to make the most of what time he had remaining as Igor simply stared forward with that same eery grin as always.
Routine — stability, normality, something to cling onto no matter how trite and frustrating it became. A walk down to the shrine near Naganaki each morning to pay his respects, though he wasn’t sure what exactly he prayed to: never much of one for spirituality, the supernatural circumstances that he had found his life defined by further severed Minato from any semblance of conviction in the spirits. Still: something to do, something to distract himself with. Something to help SEES prepare; if there was any chance that there were Gods and Goddesses listening to his prayers, then he would take every ounce of help that he would get.
He had risen earlier than normal, denied the normality of a good night’s rest by the racing thoughts in his head. Finding little point in dawdling or killing time, he opted to simply begin his routine early. Eyes settled on his calendar: Sunday, January 7, 2010. His human dormmates were unlikely to have risen by that point, and Aigis’ omniurnality would do little good (she was probably charging her batteries as she liked to do at the conclusion of each week). He would head to the shrine alone then, familiar enough with being on his lonesome to weather it for a few more hours.
With his coat buttoned up and his headphones stuck snugly over his ears, Minato stepped out onto the frostbitten steps of Iwatodai Dorm and prepared to make his way towards the shrine.
It was then that he first saw it.
It had been quite some time since spotting one of the Lost peppering Port Island’s synthetic urbanity remarkable, Minato’s past habit of utter disaffection only proving it to be less anything of note. In the final weeks leading up to the Fall it was more of a queer sight to see an area free of lethargic bodies peppering the landscape, often filling in any margins where clarity was not necessitated for walkways or other practical purposes. At school, inside of the mall, at the very shrine where Minato had intended to head… the Lost were inescapable, their overwhelming numbers a constant reminder of Apathy Syndrome’s oppressive grip over humanity and what it would mean for the Fall.
Yet for some reason Minato found himself perplexed by this particular member of the Lost slouched in a heap against his home’s front steps, vacant eyes staring off at nothing with limbs twisted against his chest and further contorted by the harsh angles of the steps. He certainly wasn’t there whenever Minato had turned in the previous evening — he must have arrived and succumbed late in the evening, or early in the morning.
Minato extended the toe of one boot to nudge the man’s head, and in turn the man weakly shuffled and released a wordless groan. Still alive, he thought, but that wouldn’t be the case for long if left exposed to the temperature for much longer. There was no telling how long he had been out there by that point, to boot: his remaining time could be a matter of hours, or a matter of seconds.
Hesitance, before his mind was flung back to various points in the past: barely two months ago, four months ago, eleven years in the past, all the times when death had reached out with its icy hand and rattled his soul. The concept of yet another dying expedited his natural goodwill, and in seconds Minato was squatting down to hook his arms under the man’s own.
The boy’s frail stature proved to provide great difficulty in lifting the man or dragging him, and the slippery ice of the steps only added to the challenge. Half a minute passed before Minato managed to half-collapse backwards into the foyer of the dorm, succumbing to the weight and falling backwards onto his rear.
As he took a moment to process just what had happened and let the pain shoot up his back, a voice called out from the kitchen.
“What the hell are you doing…?”
Minato twisted his head to stare backwards, locks of cerulean flowing in the chill of wind as it passed through the wide-open door. Akihiko stood behind the counter with a cup in hand — perhaps a shake, or coffee, or simply water. It made sense that Sanada-senpai would be awake before anybody else; likely to get in a morning run or some other form of exercise as his clothing reflected.
Several seconds passed before Minato managed to speak up, one hand supporting his weight from behind while the other gestured to the man in his lap.
“He’s got Apathy Syndrome. I fear he might die if left out there in the cold much longer, so I opted to bring him in.”
Akihiko flickered his eyes down and contorted his face into a pained frown as he registered the man’s tell-tale symptoms — clammy skin, dead eyes, a wide-open mouth.
“Jeez, no kidding. Who is he? Doesn’t look too familiar to me.”
“Don’t know. I don’t really feel right leaving him out there to die, either.”
“Apathy Syndrome is basically like being dead to begin with, y’know.”
Minato tilted his head. “Well, yes, but if there’s a chance to preserve life I believe we owe it to ourselves to take it. Besides, perhaps he’ll wake up if we end up preventing the Fall.”
“When we prevent the Fall,” Akihiko sternly corrected with a grunt.
Minato merely turned to stare at him for a moment before looking back at the man. “I still need to get him in.”
Akihiko sighed and placed his drink on the countertop, rounding the kitchen’s island before peering over Minato and their newfound guest. “I’ll lift his arms, you get his legs. Where are we putting him, the couch?”
“Yep,” Minato replied affirmatively. “At least, that was what I had intended.”
“Works for me,” Akihiko said as he gestured for his junior to remove himself from under the man. He complied, shimmying his legs out and bringing himself to a stand. He dusted his trousers off with his palms before nudging the door shut and wrapping his fingers around the man’s ankles, looking up to Akihiko to silently communicate his readiness.
Akihiko nodded shallowly as he spoke. “All right, one, two..”
For his senpai, the act was as effortless as breathing, but Minato contributing his own effort took a great deal more exertion. The labor it took to lift the man and move him to rest on the couch winded the boy, who leaned forward with one hand on an armrest after they let go of him. Akihiko hardly broke a sweat at all, more interested in sizing up the man’s facial features than pondering any wear his weight had placed his body. He assumed a somewhat sour look, as if recognizing the man from somewhere but unable to place where. Minato met his gaze, but failed to see the issue: he wasn’t particularly remarkable looking.
“What’re you gonna do with him, call the cops and get them to take him away?”
“I guess so. I don’t think we’re particularly equipped to tend to one of the Lost, and even then I’m uncertain if any of us would know where to begin.”
“Yeah, I sure as hell wouldn’t. Get him in the hands of somebody who’ll know how to keep him breathing, unless you want to make the effort of saving him all for nothing.”
Minato nodded affirmatively and walked towards the dorm’s phone, lifting the receiver before hesitating. He turned his head to look back at Akihiko, who had returned to busying himself with his drink.
“You seem as if you’re continuing to move on with your ordinary routine, as if the events of the next couple of weeks aren’t bothering you at all.”
Akihiko shot him a quizzical look as he tipped the drink to his lips. “I mean, of course it’s bothering me. Doesn’t it bother you?”
Minato’s features grew troubled for a moment. “Yeah. It’s all I can really think about, to be truthful with you. But I can’t quite understand how you keep doing your normal things, like exercising and keeping up with classes, in times like these.”
Akihiko shrugged his shoulders casually, but turned his head to look away as if deep in thought. “I’m not gonna stop living my life just because I’m going to have to fight for it in a few days,” he said. The casual tone with which he spoke suggested that the Fall was little or nothing, or at least that he was strong enough to carry the weight. “The way I look at it, this is all to preserve our chance to live the way we want to. Not just for me, but for you, too. And everybody else. Shinji wouldn’t want me to just sit on my hands waiting for death to come, you know?”
Minato quirked his lips up at that remark. It was a trait both himself and Akihiko shared; the fixative references and allusions towards deceased loved ones. Not everybody could be perfect.
“So I’m just going to keep doing what I always do, and then we’re gonna prevent the Fall, and then I’m going to keep doing it like normal. It helps me keep my mind on track to have a plan, and also means it won’t feel weird to get back into a rhythm once this all blows over.”
Such confidence in their victory. Minato grew less and less optimistic with each passing day.
“Make sense?” Akihiko asked.
“Not really,” Minato admitted, and Akihiko managed a laugh as he tossed his hoodie over his body.
“I kinda thought you might not, but I figured you’d at least understand the part about moving forward since you’re so strong about moving past things.”
Minato didn’t correct him.
“Just find what it is you want to preserve and keep going, and focus everything you’ve got into that. It’s like fueling your will for when the time comes to burn it up.”
He passed Minato by the phone as he opened the door. “Gonna go for a jog. Later.”
With that, he was gone.
Minato arrived at the shrine a couple of hours later than he had planned, which was really about the time that he normally arrived. He placed a few ten-yen coins in the box and prayed that he would find an answer as to what he was fighting for.