"Shinjiro, I know it's your second night here, but are you up for going to Tartarus? I know the full moon is tomorrow, but…"
Shinjiro blinked, looking down at the tiny girl that was to be his leader. He still wasn't sure how he felt about all this - Ken joining SEES, him joining SEES… everything. For the last two years, he had been content to alienate himself and attempt to atone for his sins, but now…
"It's fine," he said after a moment. "You can count on me."
The girl, Minako Arisato, brightened considerably. "Great, thank you! You should get ready, then. My sources tell me someone is trapped up in Tartarus."
In that one sentence, there was so much to unpack already. Sources? Trapped? Shinjiro's mind wasn't sure which to focus on, so he shook his head instead. "I'll be ready."
After another nod of thanks, Arisato bounced off to speak to Yamagishi, who had been sitting on the couch with her laptop their entire short conversation. It would take a lot of getting used to being in the dorms again. The amount of extra bodies was already starting to drive him a little crazy. Back when it had just been him, Aki, and Mitsuru, he still had space, and plenty of it.
Everywhere he looked now there was another person, eyeing him warily or wondering what he was up to.
Shinjiro barely realized he'd zoned out in Arisato's direction until she met his eyes from her place next to Yamagishi. She shot him an easy going smile before turning her attention back to her friend. As a delayed response, he narrowed his eyes at her. Out of everyone at the dorm, she was the one he couldn't understand the most. Takeba, Iori, Yamagishi…. They all were easy to read. Somehow it was only their field leader that remained a mystery.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he headed up the stairs to his new - old - room. It didn't really matter, anyways. She'd apparently lead them through plenty of battles already, and came out on the other side with everyone in tact. That was good enough for him.
Aki hadn't been lying about her abilities. With practiced ease, she led him, Aki, and Mitsuru through Tartarus, having no trouble issuing them appropriate commands. Even Mitsuru, who Shinji knew to be picky about the way she did things, never batted an eye at any of the commands Arisato called out.
She also hadn't been lying about someone being trapped in Tartarus. The moment they had all filed into the front room, she seemingly went off into space for a moment, popping back into reality. When she did, however, she immediately instructed them to follow her, going up to a specific section of already explored Tartarus. It didn't take long to arrive where she'd told them, and lo and behold, there was an elderly man huddling by himself in a corner.
The man was clearly scared and confused, but Arisato approached him with more gentleness then he'd ever seen of the girl so far. From where he was standing it was impossible to hear the words she spoke to the man, though they seemed to make quick work of calming him down.
Shinji was flabbergasted, for lack of a better word. It was unbelievable. Even ignoring the fact that she'd somehow known where he was, known he'd been trapped there in the first place, it took a certain kind of person to be able to help another person in that state of mind. Tartarus was not a kind place, and it was not a place made to house the unprotected. However the man had gotten in there in the first place had probably caused him enough stress; let alone the creatures that lurked.
The look Aki shot him as they made their way to the teleportation device said it all. Shinji rolled his eyes in response, knowing he'd lost this round.
Whoever their field leader was, whatever secrets she held, she was certainly good at her job. He would give her that.
Talk about whiplash, Shinjiro thought to himself as he watched the scene before him unfold. Compared to the self assured and put together Arisato from Tartarus the night before, the girl in front of him gripping her fists tightly at her side was practically a different person.
Mitsuru gave her a sympathetic look, but her eyes were still hard. "We can't afford to waste anymore time," she declared, and Shinjiro watched with interest as the field leader unclenched and clenched her fists once more. "Let's go."
"It's go time!" Akihiko said before anyone could say anything otherwise, determination filling his voice.
The younger group looked uncomfortable at their older member's decision, but ultimately followed Mitsuru and Akihiko out of the command room like ducklings. Like him, though, Arisato stayed behind, watching as everyone filed out of the room. It was clear that Iori's no show was effecting her quite deeply, and though he barely knew his underclassman, he couldn't help but get it.
The person that he'd met in the alleyway, way back when, wasn't the kind of person who would just ditch the people he cared about. He'd been scared out of his mind of the gang members, Shinji remembered, but refused to leave without Takeba and Arisato. He even got punched for it.
For whatever reason, when Arisato sighed to herself and began to follow the rest of SEES, he stopped her. "Wait," he said, side stepping in front of her to block the doorway. She didn't say anything, just stared up at him. It seemed like a polite gesture, but something about her eyes told him it was anything but. "Did he say anything earlier?"
From what he had seen so far in the dorm, and from what Aki had told him, Iori and Arisato were extremely close - so close, apparently, a lot of the student body at Gekkoukan High thought they were an item. If he thought it seemed a bit off that Iori wasn't there, he could only imagine how rough Arisato was taking it. Her still tightly clenched hands likely only told a fraction of that story.
Shaking her head, Arisato looked down at her shoes. "Not that I remember," she said, keeping her voice steady.
He commended her for that. Her best friend was missing in action, the shadow was giving them quite a bit of difficulty, and still she managed to hold herself together. He hadn't been worried about how this would effect her tonight, but he appreciated the reassurance regardless.
After a moment, Shinjiro let out a sigh. "Alright," he said, taking her answer at face value. If she didn't know anything about Iori's whereabouts, it was likely a lost cause. He headed for the door without a second thought.
It didn't take long before he heard the door creak open and close again behind him. Arisato had taken maybe one extra moment before following him. She had been quite the leader yesterday in Tartarus, and had shown a very different side of her tonight, but Shinjiro hadn't fully formed an opinion on her yet.
He supposed he probably would tonight.
"I know we've only fought together once so far," Arisato started, looking him straight in the eyes, "but would you mind accompanying me into Club Escapade?"
Masking his surprise with a practiced ease, Shinjiro nodded. "You can count on me," he said, watching as she smiled at him.
For all her smiles and laughs, she was tough as nails when it came down to business. He'd gotten a good view of that yesterday. Her ability to wield as many different Personas as she saw fit unnerved him to an extent, but he couldn't deny its usefulness in battle. All his life, he'd been told that a persona was a manifestation of the soul. Maybe, he wondered somewhere in the back of his head, if that meant she was having just as much trouble figuring herself out as he was.
His opinions on the SEES field leader aside, he hadn't been expecting her to ask him to join this Full Moon Operation. He figured she would've chosen the members she was most confident in, since this was quite a bit more serious than exploring Tartarus. Especially with Iori gone.
It wouldn't stop him from doing his best regardless. There was no reason to hold back any longer - sneaking a glance at Ken, he caught the younger boy glaring at him from across the room. That was fine, Shinjiro knew. It was what he deserved, and it meant that Ken already knew. There was nothing to hide.
The day after the full moon, Shinjiro yet again found himself peering down at Arisato's red eyes. "Yeah?" he asked after almost a minute had ticked by and she hadn't said anything, shuffling in place a little. Loathe as he was to admit it, her red gaze could be a little… intimidating, almost. "You want something?"
She looked down at her shoes for a split second before bringing her bright eyes back up to meet his own. "Wanna go for a bite?" She asked, smiling up at him.
Unlike the night before, he didn't bother to hide his surprise. "What, with me?" Shinjiro was sure there must've been some mistake, but Arisato just nodded at his question. "... Okay," he agreed with a sigh, shoving his hands as deep into his pockets as they could go. "I don't know any fancy places, though."
"That's okay!" She said with a laugh, brightening up considerably at his acceptance. "I don't care where we go. After you!"
Pushing himself off the wall he'd been leaning on and doing his best to ignore the pointed stares of Mitsuru and Aki - and the whole damn dorm, very nearly - he headed for the door, not bothering to check if Arisato was following him or not. He didn't have a game plan, didn't have time to stop and think of one without everyone being up his ass, so he went straight for the train. Hagakure would be fine, he supposed.
He'd thought that, but as soon as the two were seated at the ramen bar, Shinjiro couldn't help but shift uncomfortably.
"Sorry about bringing you here," he said, feeling completely out of his element. "I don't know that many places to go out to eat."
The fact that he was out with another person that wasn't Akihiko was enough to set him on edge, but he'd taken the field leader to Hagakure. The fact that he had been homeless for the last two years didn't bother him - it was practically of his own creation, anyways - but for some reason, it made him feel almost embarrassed in a way he wasn't used to.
He didn't know this girl. He barely knew anything about her.
"I like this place," Arisato said simply, breaking him out of his reverie. "It's good food, you know? I could eat here every night!" With the way she quickly situated herself on the stool, as if she'd been there nearly as much as he had, he knew she wasn't lying.
Shinjiro felt his shoulders relax a little. There was no need for him to double check her in skepticism; the way she propped her elbows up on the counter and smiled brightly at the main cook told him all he needed to know. He'd noticed around the dorm the last few days that she seemed to be a pretty casual person, but to see her like that even in public…
He couldn't help but laugh a little. Partially at her, and partially at himself at his anxiety, always making him worry over stupid little things. "You're an odd one."
She grinned at him as their food was placed in front of them - two specials, unsurprisingly - but didn't say anything. He shrugged, turning back to his steaming bowl.
"Well, let's eat." Shinjiro barely got the words out of his mouth before Arisato started right in on her broth. Rolling his shoulders, he followed suit, only to realize it was still scalding hot. "Watch the soup, it's hot," he scolded without thinking, blowing on his own after a wince.
Arisato paused in her bite, seemingly not even effected by the heat of the soup. "Ow?" She questioned, peering at him curiously. "You okay?"
Fighting the instinct to shove her away, he sighed. "I just forgot I had a cut in my mouth," he said with a scowl. "It's 'cause Aki punched me." Truthfully, he wasn't sure why he'd bothered to say that. There were so many lies he could think of that would explain a cut in his mouth - they were literally in a Full Moon Operation the night before, after all. Now that he'd started, though, he figured he might as well roll with it. "Sheesh, the guy's gotta learn how frickin' heavy a boxing champ punches."
The curious look on Arisato's face turned into a frown, and Shinjiro found himself feeling weird about seeing it. Even last night, despite how dire the situation got, she was determined and wore a smile as if everyone relied on that alone; leading with precision and ease. "Were you two fighting?" She asked, and Shinjiro shifted in his seat.
"Well… yeah," he said, looking away from her frown and back at his bowl. "I gave him a little 'lecture' on how his fighting style's too reckless, and this is what I got in return." Shinjiro smiled a little bit at that, though it was a grim topic. "Well, we get in fights all the time. Just get used to it."
Part of him hoped she would understand and leave it at that. He had a feeling that was wishful thinking, however. Someone who Mitsuru and Aki had deemed worthy of becoming SEES Field Leader was likely not the type to let others bend her thoughts easily. More likely, she was the kind of girl who caused problems for the people around her instead of being submissive. It wasn't a bad thing - at all, really. In fact, Shinji much preferred it that way, but dealing with anyone with a backbone got tiring. Akihiko was tiring enough. He didn't need another.
"Try not to fight, okay?" She said, a thinly laced command with her eyes narrowed. "It's not good to be fighting when we're all on the same team."
Her point wasn't wrong, which made his scowl deepen. "All right, all right," he said, finding it slightly ironic that it seemed like she'd fight with him over it. "Stop glaring at me like that."
Almost instantly, her glare turned into a grin and she went right back to her bowl. After that, Shinjiro struggled even more to get a good read on her. Had she actually been aggravated about him and Aki fighting? It certainly seemed like it, but just like that, she was back to smiling and enjoying her food. It was like everything just rolled right off her back, so long as she got to speak her piece about it.
He hated to admit how refreshing it was. After being alone for so long, seeing someone who could wear their heart on their sleeve felt like a rarity. Especially in the climate they lived in, what with their lives constantly being on the line. Briefly, he wondered if that was why she was able to wield multiple Personas.
"But man," he said after a moment, "you're actually younger than him?" She nodded, not looking up from her bowl. "We're lucky that you're such a reliable leader."
She did pause then, only to smile at him widely. "Thank you," she said, and Shinji couldn't help but be glad she understood he was being serious. "I do my best."
Reaching to try taking a bite from his food, he didn't doubt it. Still, he found it was too hot, and hissed as he grabbed his water. "That reminds me… I cut the inside of my mouth the first time he punched me, too. I couldn't eat for a while because of that."
It was a precious memory, in all honesty; one that he still held very dear to him. Normally, he wasn't the type to talk about himself much - he'd known Mitsuru for years, and she still only knew whatever Aki had mentioned off hand. They weren't at all close. He wasn't really sure why he was comfortable telling Arisato this. Maybe it was that she had faith in him, despite what he'd done. Misplaced faith, yes, but faith nonetheless.
He wasn't sure what kind of face he was making, but her expression changed into one that he couldn't quite place. Her eyes had gotten bigger, almost, and her lips parted ever so slightly. Shinji forced himself to look away.
"Why did he punch you?" Arisato asked, and though earlier she had seemed so disappointed by them, she didn't sound that way at all then. Actually, she sounded almost curious.
That was a memory he wasn't quite ready to share with anyone yet. He'd told her more than he'd expected to, already. The fact that he'd grown up as an orphan and willing to steal toys for his friends at the orphanage… that was something most people couldn't understand. It was so far removed from most people's lives, after all. Even someone as seemingly patient and willing to listen as the girl next to him.
"I forget," Shinjiro eventually settled on. "It was back when we were kids." He laughed a little, hoping she'd believe him.
Arisato let out her own small laugh. "If you ever remember, you should tell me!" She said, in a way that made him think she knew.
He didn't say anything to that. Instead, Shinjiro just tested his own broth against his lips once more, only to find it was still too hot to eat without hurting. Why had he suggested Hagakure, he wondered, if he wouldn't even be able to enjoy his food? Creature of habit, he was indeed.
"This just ain't gonna work," he said, shaking his head with a sigh. "I'll have to wait until it cools down."
Arisato shrugged, her own bowl nearly polished off. "Sorry, I guess I should've waited with you," she said, eyebrows furrowed. "I don't mind sitting around for awhile, though!"
He had nothing to say to that either, but that was alright. Arisato seemed content to just sit there with him, while he took a hesitant sip of his broth after a few more minutes. She was an odd one, alright.
It didn't take long for Arisato to seek him out again. With only a day in between their last outing, she was in front of him in the lounge once more, smiling at him widely. Though their time together on Monday hadn't gone badly - Shinjiro enjoyed himself a lot more then he cared to admit to Aki yesterday - he was surprised to see her looking at him expectantly again. It was one thing for her to want to get to know the new SEES member, in his mind. it was another entirely to be actively looking to spend time with him.
"Arisato?" He asked in greeting, hands shoved deep into his coat pockets. Fuck, it wasn't even fall yet and he was already so cold. "What's up?"
"Do you want to go get dinner again?" She asked, rocking back and forth on her toes like he'd seen her do before. "My treat, this time!"
The eyes of everyone in the dorm fell on him just like before. He had to fight himself not to readjust in any way. It hadn't been long, so he hadn't exactly expected himself to adjust to living with so many others yet, but the field leader's undivided attention certainly wasn't helping him.
There was a part of him, however small, that was almost flattered that she'd sought him out again. He wasn't the best company in his own opinion, and he didn't think he'd made a particularly good impression of himself on Monday. It was almost comforting to know that Arisato hadn't been scared off by his gruff attitude, or by taking her to somewhere as cheap as Hagakure. Where she'd been made to wait for him to finish his food thanks to an injury he hadn't thought about.
After a minute, he finally met her gaze properly. "Well, I don't mind," he told her, trying and failing to push his hands farther into their pockets. "Where to?"
After grabbing sushi for the both of them, they both got comfortable in one of the many tables in Wakatsu, Arisato breaking her chopsticks and digging in as quickly as possible. With the way she ate, he couldn't help but think of himself when he was younger; hungry all the time and eating as much as he could when it was put in front of him.
"You eat here often?" Shinjiro asked, breaking his own chopsticks apart. Sushi wasn't his favorite by any means, but it was definitely healthier than eating ramen all the time.
"I do! I like eating here," Arisato said, waving her chopsticks at him. "It's good food."
For some reason, Shinji had a feeling she considered anything and everything to be good food, but he let it slide. "I see," he said, picking up a piece of kappamaki. "It'd be better if Aki ate here, too. That guy isn't getting a balanced intake of nutrients."
He sighed, but Arisato just laughed a little bit. "You sure seem to care about Akihiko-senpai a lot, huh?"
Instead of answering, Shinjiro brought the kappamaki to his lips. It was a good excuse not to answer her, and he tried to chew without wincing.
It was sushi, and the refreshing taste was nice, but it wasn't warm. It wasn't cold either, obviously, but he's cold. Lately it'd felt cold no matter what he did. Though it was nice to have something that felt more like real food instead of salt and MSG, it wasn't the same as having something warm and soothing in his stomach.
"Oh yeah," he said after a moment, starting up the conversation again. "About Aki. In your opinion, do you think he's fighting well?"
She paused her eating, and Shinjiro could tell it wasn't something she'd really thought about before. To him, it's all that had been on his mind since they went after that shadow together with Mitsuru. He seemed too reckless, just like when they had first joined SEES. Too willing to let himself get hurt as long as he got the job done.
It pissed him off.
"Yes, of course," she said, eyebrows furrowed in thought while she answered. It wasn't with her normal enthusiasm, but Shinjiro sighed, willing to accept her answer.
"I see." He nodded, looking back down at his plate. "You understand a lot more about fighting than me, after all. I'll leave it up to you."
He supposed if Arisato, didn't see an issue with it, he'd probably have to let it go. Maybe she'd talked to him about it before - maybe he'd somehow been even worse before Shinji had rejoined SEES. He's not sure. It's Aki, so it was in his very nature to be worried. She'd already picked up on that, he supposed, which wasn't terribly surprising. They were brothers; maybe not by blood, but that was the only word he could think of that properly described their relationship. At this point, he was all Shinji had.
"Sorry," he apologized after he realized she had stayed quiet after that, awkwardness creeping up the back of his neck. "I know you're the leader, and I keep stickin' my nose in." That, too, was in his nature, he knew. He was aware of how it could come off to others, though. He still remembered all the fights he, Aki, and Mitsuru used to get in, back when it had just been the three of them taking on the weight of the world alone.
The smile on her face tuned into a frown. "It's okay," Arisato was quick to reply, but Shinji shook his head, not having it.
"It's not that I don't approve of you," he said seriously, trying his best to force this out. She hadn't done anything wrong, he knew, and he could only imagine how difficult it was to lead them all day in and day out. It's not like this was a class project or something - their lives were on the line every time they went into the Dark Hour. It couldn't be an easy task. "It's just how I am."
Waving her chopsticks at him again, Arisato shook her head. "It's really fine," she said, smile returning slowly. It really did seem to be constantly present. "You weren't there for it, obviously, but Junpei was pissed at me when I first was elected field leader. And we're like, best friends now, so it's water under the bridge. It's nothing I haven't dealt with before, is what I'm saying."
Somehow, that surprised Shinji. He could remember that time in the alleyway so clearly, when Arisato had been ready to kill everyone for punching out Iori. And even just a few nights ago, when the kid hadn't shown up for the Full Moon Operation. In the alleyway, Shinji had stepped in, unsure at the time if she could handle them all, though now he knew his help hadn't been needed. Despite that, she'd still thanked him genuinely that night. Imagining Iori getting mad at the girl sitting across from them when even he had heard the rumors about their relationship was odd, to say the least.
Instead of saying any of that, though, he nodded at her again. "Aki and Mitsuru both seem to be more comfortable fighting than when I was around," he said. The Iori situation seemed far beyond his reach, but he could at least try to explain himself a little better. Maybe one day he'd be able to talk to her about those sorts of things, but today wasn't that day. "Back then, we were just fumbling our way through. But your powers look like they're helping out a lot, too."
Shifting in her seat a bit, Arisato moved her red eyes away from his and back down to her food, staring hard at the maguro sushi and inarizushi she'd ordered. "I hope so," she said, chewing on her bottom lip a bit.
"You aren't confident?" Shinjiro couldn't help but crack a smile at that. "You really are trying hard."
From an outsider's perspective, he'd thought all this time she was fully aware of the kind of job she'd been doing. It hadn't been very long, he reminded himself, but she'd seemed so… assured in her abilities. The first time they'd gone to Tartarus together, his first real assessment of her leadership skills, she'd been so direct. Yeah, she'd surprised him; especially when it came to her sources and the fact that she'd pulled someone out of the tower. None of those surprises had been a mark against her, though.
His smiled grew, just a fraction, but for whatever reason, Arisato's face turned red.
"Eat up," he said, gesturing at her plate with his chopsticks. In their conversation, they'd both forgotten to finish. "It's gonna get cold." He knew it wouldn't be freezing, or anything of the sort, but he still held back a grunt as he put the now colder kappamaki to his mouth.
It was an unfortunate way to live, but that was the price he paid. His pill bottle felt heavy in his pocket.
Arisato, however, didn't need to be told twice, digging in quickly to her nigiri sushi once more.
"Is everyone eating a well-balanced meal like this?" He quietly asked himself.
He hoped so. Even if his body was a wreck, everyone else deserved to live long, fulfilling lives. Even Aki and Mitsuru were still barely older than kids, in his mind. Dealing with the world like they did, they deserved an easy retirement once all the Dark Hour stuff had been properly dealt with. While he was running out of time, the rest of them had years and years ahead of them. They didn't have to die premature deaths the way he did, regardless of their places in fighting the Dark Hour. After being back in SEES for just a few days, he had full confidence that if anyone could lead their ragtag group to an unimaginable victory, it was their new field leader.
Without realizing it, his eyes had found Arisato, and Shinjiro quietly watched her eat. This girl, too, who he barely knew anything about, deserved some rest after everything. For whatever reason, though he wasn't sure why, he had a feeling she was like him in this way - neither of them would ever stop to slow down. If he didn't know any better, he would almost say she lived like she knew she wasn't going to be around forever, too. With her constant smiles, determination to spend time with anyone and everyone under the sun... It was like she, too, was running out of time.
He hoped he was wrong.