"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.
Gosh, I wasn't expecting to really get any readers besides a few friends on here, so thanks so much for the comments/kudos/faves/whatever else! It really made my day. With all the craziness in the world right now, you'd think I'd have more time to write, but woe is me and that is not the case LOL. Well, I did put in my two weeks for one of my jobs the other day, so maybe soon :' )
Regardless, I'm bad at planning as usual, so the other two parts are probably going to be a stupid amount longer than this. I can't seem to stop myself from writing about these two, it seems. Hope y'all enjoy this chapter and stay healthy!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Not even after two weeks of joining SEES, Shinjiro could see a pattern forming. With only a day in between he found himself sitting across from Minako Arisato at Wakatsu once more. Once or twice he could understand - according to Aki, backed up by his own observations about the fact that everyone seemed to be on good terms with the field leader, she made a point to get to know everyone who she worked with. Even she and Aki were apparently pretty close at this point. That irritated him, for some reason, but he didn't want to think about why.
Instead, he shifted his thoughts, thinking about what they had talked about the other day. "This crossed my mind the last time we ate here," Shinji started, "but those guys eat on their own, right?"
Curious, Arisato looked up at him from across the table, chopsticks still holding a piece of inarizushi. "What do you mean?"
That was a bit vague, he supposed. "Well, are they doing okay?" It was obvious, to him at least, that she'd figured out how much he worried over everyone already. He likely wouldn't ever be comfortable being open about it, but if she already knew, maybe she could help but his mind at ease.
He wouldn't be there forever to watch over them. It would give him some peace of mind to know they knew how to take care of themselves without help.
Putting her food down, she looked to be deep in thought. "What do you mean okay?" She asked in return, her lips curling downwards a bit.
"Your body's your most important tool," he explained, gesturing to her. "Still, all those guys ever eat is instant noodles and stuff like that." He shook his head, turning his gaze away from her bright red eyes. "Well, Persona is supposedly the 'strength of the heart'. So I guess it might be better if they eat what makes them happy, but…" Shinji trailed off, his face warming ever so slightly. He was used to fevers, but this felt… different. More normal, perhaps.
Not like he would know.
Even though he really only knew Akihiko and Mitsuru, and he guessed Arisato a bit at that point, too, he worried. Maybe too much. He couldn't help it - back at the orphanage with Aki and Miki, he'd taken care of them and even the other kids there. He'd learned how to cook so early on for their benefit.
Constantly, in his head, was a running train of questions. Were they eating enough? Were they comfortable? Were they doing well in school? Some would probably call him a hypocrite, especially on that last point, but it mattered when it came to them. They all had futures. They all had lives to lead, things to accomplish.
He didn't. The thought didn't make him sad the way it used to. At this point, he had fully accepted his fate; that his early demise was atonement for what he had done. Whether Ken manned up and tried for revenge like he knew the younger boy should want to, or whether his suppressants killed him first, it didn't matter for Shinjiro.
The other day, he'd wondered if that had been the same for Arisato. He was used to nausea from his pills, but the sickness he felt at the thought of a girl like her dying early made him want to double early.
She, too, needed to take good care of herself. Eat properly, rest more, so she had a chance to live the life she deserved.
"You're so kindhearted," Arisato said, snapping him out of his thoughts.
Shinjiro knew that she was replying to his worries over everyone, but he couldn't help but feel like she had seen right through his silence and was calling him out on his own inner monologue. He scowled at her.
"Don't be stupid," he admonished after a moment. He couldn't help but feel something at her words, however. What that something was, he didn't know or like, but he didn't want to dwell on that right now.
There were a lot of things he didn't want to think about, it seemed. "If you get the chance," Shinji continued, "let them know. Tell 'em they need to eat better. They won't listen if it comes from me." He scowled briefly, shaking his head. "Especially Aki."
Neither of them said anything for another few moments, just finishing their plates of food. Arisato, he'd noticed, had ordered mostly fish and inari, and he narrowed his eyes when he saw that it was almost like she was avoiding her kappamaki.
"You are gonna eat those vegetables, right?" He asked, staring at her intensely. Within seconds, she moved from her inari to the kappamaki, making sure to finish the whole plate.
If he smiled again, neither of them mentioned it as they walked back to the dorm.
There was definitely a pattern forming, here.
Anytime he was available, Arisato would, without fail, come to see if he was willing to go get food with her. He wasn't sure why food was her go to, but he didn't mind. It was becoming kind of nice, honestly, but one would have to pry that thought from his cold, dead body.
That evening, just as he'd predicted, Arisato trotted over to him from upstairs, fresh out of her uniform and asked if he was busy. The whole dorm still stared at them each and every time they spoke, which was still grating on Shinjiro's nerves. He already felt like the odd one out most of the time, and the more eyes on him the more likely someone would notice that he wasn't… normal, but it seemed to come with the territory of being friends with the field leader.
He didn't really know what it was about her, but he couldn't say no to her.
Before he'd even agreed to her request, he was pushing himself off the wall. "Well then, let's -" He cut himself off, wrinkling his nose. "Do you smell something?" he felt like gagging.
Arisato paused, making a face that clearly showed him she did, in fact, know what he was talking about. She turned towards where she assumed the smell was coming from, and Shinjiro caught on in an instant.
"Is it coming from over by the counter?" He asked her, and the girl next to him paled.
"We should go check it out," she said, and he agreed, already heading over with her hot on his heels.
Walking into the kitchen, Shinjiro swore. The smell was atrocious, and at the center of it all was the SEES navigator, Fuuka Yamagishi. Through his few outings to Tartarus and during the Full Moon operation from earlier in the month, he'd defaulted to calling her by her given name, but he hadn't really interacted with her all that much. Just casual nods and hellos here and there.
Arisato, on the other hand, most certainly had. The two of them, plus Takeba, seemed very comfortable with one another, and the field leader seemed to be working out what to say to her friend. It was obvious that she had caused the mess, but it wasn't immediately apparent if she'd realized yet.
Deciding for whatever reason to take pity on Arisato, Shinjiro spoke up, doing his best to use his less angry voice. "Hey," he started, wincing as he spoke a bit too loud, "are you causing this smell, Fuuka?"
She turned around from her spot behind the stove, eyes wide and eyebrows up to her hairline. "Huh!?" She clanged a pot against the side of the stove, but her was was still louder somehow. "Does it smell!?"
"Fuuka," Arisato said with a sigh, shaking her head. "What are we going to do with you?" There was exasperation in there, but Shinjiro could also hear the fondness behind the words. He hadn't seen them interact much yet, but by the amount they went out together and how easily they worked together on the field, he knew it was genuine.
Surveying the kitchen revealed a lot. There were ingredients out and about every which way, and likely, Fuuka would destroy the hours he'd spent while everyone was at school the last few days organizing the damn place. Within seconds, he'd already spotted so many things wrong with whatever it was she was trying to make. And that was ignoring the horrific smell coming from in front of her.
"What're you doing?" Shinjiro cut in, aggravation getting the better of him.
"Um," Fuuka mumbled, taking a deep breath before continuing. "I was trying to make beef stroganoff."
Looking at the mess surrounding him, he wanted to groan. It was almost hard for him to believe that is what she had been trying to make. "What about the roux?" That was a basic part of beef stroganoff, after all, and he saw no fat around to use for it.
Then again, the kitchen was such a mess, Shinjiro was praying that he'd just missed it among the slew of other ingredients.
"Oh, I didn't use any!" Fuuka said, smiling obliviously. From next to him, Arisato winced. "I made it from scratch with flour."
Shinjiro sighed, rather aggressively, and from next to him, Arisato shook her head in shame. "Don't start acting all proud after you've burned it," he said, narrowing his eyes.
Almost as if a switch had been flipped inside her head, Fuuka frowned at the food around her. "Oh, you're right," she mumbled out, looking dismayed. "This is burnt… What should I do…?"
"Maybe we should-" Arisato began, but Shinji shook his head, cutting her off.
"You got any of those ingredients left?" He asked, already pulling the sleeves of his jacket up. Arisato quickly caught on, and gave him a grin and a thumbs up. He hadn't even told her that he liked to cook, yet, but he supposed he wasn't surprised that she had caught on so fast. He had spent their last dinner talking about how the rest of the dorm ate, after all.
"Oh, yes," Fuuka answered, nodding. "I bought extra everything."
Moving past Arisato and further into the kitchen, Shinjiro began rearranging the ingredients Fuuka had gotten out. "I'll make it," he said, tone of voice leaving no room for objection. "Watch and learn."
Arisato stood off to the side, leaning against the kitchen counter as she watched him. She was normally so talkative, at least with everyone else, that he was surprised she hadn't said much this entire ordeal.
Actually, he realized, she didn't say much when he was talking at all. Most of the time, she asked questions or answered them, but for the most part she let him figure out the pace and went along with it. Not for the first time, Shinji couldn't help but wonder just how weird she really was. Everything about her was a mystery to him.
"Arisato," he spoke up again, turning to face her directly. "You okay if we have this for dinner?" He wasn't one who liked to disrupt set patterns, but he also wasn't one to just let all this food go to waste.
"Actually," she grinned up at him, "I'm really happy!" Her cheeks were rosy when she said it, matching her eyes that he had slowly come to find more endearing then scary.
Huh, he thought, trying to avert his eyes from her own but finding that he couldn't. I wonder when that happened. Not even realizing he was smiling, he shook his head. "Don't get your hopes up like that," he said, laughing a little.
Fuuka, however, started to fret again, looking towards her friend. "I'm sorry, Minako-chan," she said, bowing her head slightly. "Weren't you going to go out with Shinjiro-senpai?"
The girl in question just gave her friend a shrug. "No big deal," she told her with an easy going smile and a wave of her hand. "Now I get to eat Shinjiro-senpai's cooking, anyways, so I'll consider this a win!"
The way she spoke, Shinji realized, Aki must've let something slip. He scowled, turning to Fuuka. "Hey, let's get started."
He wanted to end that conversation before it could really begin. No way was the whole dorm finding out that he liked to cook. No matter how tempting it was as a way to get them all to eat properly for at least a night. Arisato and Fuuka were one thing, but Iori? No thanks.
"Oh, yes! Please!"
Shinji could feel Arisato's eyes on them as he worked, but for some reason it didn't feel bad. He didn't really like Aki looming his shoulder when he cooked, regardless of it was for the other boy or not, so it was a bit of a surreal experience to not mind at all. He tried to keep it out of his as he did his best to talk to Fuuka as he worked, but teaching wasn't easy when it wasn't something he'd ever done before. Not even back at the orphanage, where he mostly stuck to Aki and - and Aki, until he'd become a Sanada for all of a few years.
"How much oil did you use?" He asked Fuuka, snapping himself out of his thoughts and instead letting himself fall back into the swing of cooking. It'd been a long while since he'd had free use of a kitchen.
Technically speaking, he could've been using the kitchen since he'd been accepted back with open arms into the dorm, but with so many people around, it wasn't exactly on his list of things to do. He'd take any chance he got, though, and Arisato didn't mind - he wondered why that even mattered, really.
"I didn't use any," Fuuka said with a smile, and Shinjiro wanted to bash his head against the counter. "I thought it would be healthier that way…"
He didn't say anything to that, and continued his line of questioning. "How much red wine did you put in?"
The blue haired girl paused, thinking for a moment. "I don't know," she finally answered. "I poured it from the bottle until it looked like enough…"
Oh, God. "How long did you pour it, then?"
"Um," Fuuka stumbled, seemingly catching onto the fact that she was absolutely no good at this whatsoever. "Two or three seconds."
With a sigh, he pushed a fork into the meat a little, trying to see if any of this was salvageable by normal standards or if he'd have to pull out all the stops. From over at the counter, he could hear Arisato giggling as she watched, and he rolled his eyes. "This meat's pretty fatty," he said, words more curt with each passing observation.
"Oh, yes. I asked the butcher for the best he had."
Glancing over at the field leader, he realized that she wasn't at all surprised at the mess Fuuka had created. Now that he thought about it, Shinjiro could remember her saying something about cooking club to Fuuka before, as the two of them carried some chocolates back from school. He wondered how the hell Arisato dealt with this on the regular.
"There's so much wrong here, I don't know where to begin," he said to Fuuka bluntly. "Don't start messing around with recipes until you've improved your basic cooking skills. Seriously," he shook his head, gesturing to the blackened thing that Fuuka had created. "Don't you feel bad at all for charring all this food?"
Hanging her head down in embarrassment, Fuuka's shoulders fell with it. "I'm sorry."
Shinjiro shook his head, making his way over to the cutting board. "Now listen up," he started, and could hear Arisato stifling a laugh. "Prepare everything beforehand…"
Launching into a cooking lesson, he barely paid attention to the girls in the kitchen, speaking as if he were reminding himself of all the things he'd learned throughout the years. Cooking was something he actually enjoyed doing - maybe one of the only things, anymore. It was something that had always came naturally to him, and as someone who hated wasting food, it was kind of like a game in some ways. Back at the orphanage, he was always messing around, trying to figure out how to make good dishes from the random shit they'd always have in the pantry. When he and Aki had been indoctrinated into SEES, he knew right from the start Mitsuru and Aki would be useless trying to feed themselves, so he cooked almost every night.
It was nostalgic, to be cooking once again in that very same kitchen. But he couldn't let himself give into that nostalgia, no matter how nice it felt. He was only here until Ken was ready to take him from this world - or until the drugs did, whichever came first. Usually he didn't even have to remind himself of that.
Even so, he couldn't help but smile a little as he worked. It wasn't like he was trying to. It just happened. Arisato, from over at the counter, didn't say anything as he went about his business, but once he put everything on to simmer for a bit he caught her gaze. The smile on her face… he hadn't ever seen her look so peaceful before.
He couldn't look at her for long. No longer did he find her red eyes intimidating, but there was something else, now, that made him want to look away. Shinjiro couldn't put his finger on it - or maybe he could, and just really didn't want to think about it - but he hated the way his cheeks burned after seeing that look.
After what felt like forever of coaching Fuuka, the food was finished. Shinjiro could practically see Arisato's mouth watering the moment he plated the dish, putting it down on the dining room table.
"Wow, it looks so delicious," Fuuka said, looking at it with delight, and he rolled his eyes.
"Just shut it and eat up before it gets cold." He did not want the rest of the dorm coming in and finding out right now. He already hated the fact that they all knew he went out with Arisato for food often.
The very same girl bounced her way into the dining room, sitting herself down at a chair. "Thanks for the food!" She practically cheered, giving him a toothy grin.
Willing his cheeks to stay a normal color, he quickly looked away. "Y-yeah."
Fuuka sat down next to her friend, curious about the food but not wanting to interrupt Arisato's first bite. Shinjiro wouldn't admit it, but he was curious, too - was he still a decent cook? Did she like it? Would she ask him to cook again?
"This is delicious," she told him, nodding in satisfaction before turning around in her chair to face him. "Thank you so much, Shinjiro-senpai!"
It was such honest praise there was nothing he could do to fight the warmth that flooded into his face. Arisato, he'd noticed, was a very genuine person. Or at least, she tried to be. When she said things like that, though, so simple and without taking much time to think of it, that authentic nature really shined. Shinjiro wasn't at all used to hearing that level of kindness directed at him at all.
Just the other night, she had told him he was kindhearted. Spending time with this girl wasn't good for his health, he was beginning to realize.
"You're amazing, Shinjiro-senpai," Fuuka agreed, watching Arisato with a smile.
This was ridiculous. "I mean, anyone could do something like-"
"No, they can't!" Arisato looked up in surprise at the noise. Fuuka rarely shouted like that, he knew, even though he'd only been around the dorm for a short amount of time. "Please, teach me again! Promise!"
He shrugged, not wanting to give a straight answer. It was hard for him to make promises about the future, though he didn't want to go broadcasting that around. Everyone in the dorm was convinced that not only would all of them make it out alive, but they would put a stop to the Dark Hour. They deserved to have that hope, and he didn't want to be the one to bring reality crashing down.
Instead, he resided himself to watch Arisato eat the food he'd made. If he let himself forget, just for a moment, the way he fought off shivering and how sometimes his heart hammered in his ears, Shinji knew he would've found this nice.
Maybe part of him still did.
Later on after Fuuka had agreed to clean everything up, Shinjiro and Arisato made their way back into the main room of the dorm. From next to him, Arisato patted her stomach happily, much like a child would.
Shinji, however, couldn't get Fuuka's plea out of his head. He frowned deeply. "'Please teach me again', huh? Looks like she made he promise without letting me say anything," he trailed off, quite miffed. The way Arisato was looking at him, though, made him blurt out something else - just to get her to stop. "Well, I guess I'll make something again later."
Even he couldn't deny the idea was something he was looking forward to.
"Why don't we do a party?" She asked, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Wouldn't that be fun?"
Looking down at her, Shinji raised an eyebrow. She didn't seem it out in Tartarus or fighting, but she really was so small. "A party? Here? That's kind of pushing it," he told her, shoving his hands deep into his coat pockets.
In response, Arisato huffed, crossing her arms. "I don't think so," she argued. "It would be a good way to raise morale for everyone, if we all got a taste of your delicious cooking! Plus," she paused, her gaze turning sly, "you were just complaining about how none of us eat well, weren't you?"
She was too stubborn for her own good, he was realizing. Aki hadn't been kidding when he had said she was perfect for her job. Nobody that stubborn would ever let one of her friends die during the Dark Hour, no matter the shit she'd have to pull to make sure that was possible.
That kind of stubbornness was dangerous in its own right, though. It made him almost want to hope.
"Well, you got a point," he relented, giving her a rare smile. Those thoughts could be compartmentalized and looked upon later. "Maybe it'll be okay to do one once in a while."
Shinjiro knew he wasn't exactly doing a great job of arguing, but he couldn't help it. He had missed cooking, and seeing Arisato so excited over the food he'd made was something he couldn't deny he wanted to watch again. Besides, it was only early September. Realistically, the earliest he would go was October, if Ken decided to go through with it. They had some time left.
It wasn't much, but any time was better than none. The clock never stopped ticking, after all.
Over the last two weeks of being a part of SEES again, Shinjiro was starting to notice something. Something very particular about their field leader.
Everyone was incredibly protective over her. From Aigis, a literal robot, to Koromaru, to even Aki, he couldn't escape it. Whenever she spoke to him, whenever they even so much as looked at each other, Shinjiro would feel the entire dorm's eyes on them. It had begun to grate on him on their second outing, but the worst part of it all?
He was starting to get it.
Arisato just had this air about her that made people want to get to know her. He hadn't exactly made grand attempts at friendship with anyone else in the dorm - barring Aki and Mitsuru, who both had known him far longer. And even Mitsuru he didn't speak to much.
But Arisato? For whatever reason, she had just waltzed right into his space on day one and he'd never had a chance. He couldn't force himself not to enjoy her company. He couldn't even stop himself from making himself free on nights where he really should be doing other things. He'd stopped reaching for his pills as often, since they made his mind fuzzier then he'd like when he was with her.
Tonight was one of those nights. She had come right up to him, as usual, and asked if he was busy. Iori and Takeba weren't sitting too far from them, and he could practically feel them both burning holes into the side of his head as they spoke to each other. They weren't even being quiet, it's not like they couldn't hear her asking him to hang out.
"There's some place I wanna go today," Shinjiro said after she'd asked, doing his best to ignore the glares he was getting from the other SEES members. "You wanna come along?"
With a wide smile, she nodded. "I'd love to go!" She said, doing that thing she did often where she rocked back and forth on her feet. He wanted to roll his eyes, but not because he was irritated. It was almost like he wanted to tease her, or something.
He swallowed. He hated himself sometimes. "Great, let's get moving."
The train ride to Paulownia Mall was completely uneventful. In the late evenings like this, there was practically nobody on the trains, and it's not like either of them were confused about the route. Arisato, for once, seemed content to just watch the scenery go by instead of talking. He wondered, in the back of his mind, if she always did that on trains. He supposed he'd find out later on that evening.
Once they'd arrived, she'd followed him curiously to the Chagall Cafe, blinking in recognition. He already felt out of place, the the odd look Arisato was giving him certainly wasn't helping.
"What do you want?" He asked, shuffling on his feet, shoving his hands farther into his pockets. Money, for once, wasn't an issue - he hadn't remembered how much Shadows could drop.
Pausing, she thought about it for a moment, before giving him a small smile. "Coffee, please!"
Shinjiro nodded, making his way over to the counter. It felt like the entire world was staring at him with each step he took. He knew he looked like he didn't belong there - who wore a trench coat and a winter hat in early September, anyways? "Two coffees, please," he ordered, watching as the barista started on their drinks.
Earlier that afternoon, he'd been feeling fine, but the longer he stood waiting for his drink the worse he began to feel. His chest hurt, his throat hurt, and his veins felt vaguely like they were on fire. Coughing into someone's face while they were getting an order together was rude, however, so Shinji did his best to hold it in. Once they were sitting down in the plush chairs of the cafe, however, he let it out; bringing up his arm so he could cough into his elbow. He prayed there would be no blood today.
That was something he really didn't need Arisato seeing.
After the fit was over, he sighed, sinking down into the chair a bit more. It was what he deserved, he knew, but it was so painful. Every time.
"Do you have a cold?" The field leader asked, leaning closer to him, for some reason.
Without thinking, he pushed himself back up, just to put some distance between them. In the same movement, he pushed his hat down to cover his eyes just the smallest bit more before shaking his head.
"No," he said with a sigh. "It's not contagious or anything, so don't worry." Shinjiro smiled then, but it wasn't a nice smile - not the ones that he'd been letting slip so often around her lately. No matter how much it hurts, it's what I deserve, he reminded himself again before continuing, not liking the way Arisato was frowning at him. "It happens once in awhile. That's why I try not to come to these kinds of places often."
"Is the cafe making you cough?" Arisato asked, though he could tell by the way she said it she was joking. She sat up a little, too, giving Shinji some much needed space.
Even still, his not-real smile slowly turned to something a bit more normal before his face went back to neutral. "Hell no," he said, taking a healthy sip of his coffee. "I feel bad for the workers here if there's someone like me sitting here coughing all the time."
"So why did we come here, then?" Her question this time was a bit more serious, her head tilting as she wondered.
It was kind of cute, but Shinjiro quickly squashed that thought as soon as it'd come. "I came to buy something today," he said, gesturing off to the rack that held all sorts of bags. "Ground coffee. I need to make sure I don't forget to buy some on the way out."
Arisato sipped her own mug, and he watched as she breathed in the aroma. He had been expecting her to fill it with creams and sugars, but to his surprise, she was drinking it black. Even he didn't like to drink his black, preferring to have at least one cream in his own. "What're you going to use it for?"
Another question, but he couldn't find it in himself to be agitated by it. He had told her he wanted to go out there that evening, after all. That didn't mean he couldn't be embarrassed about his answer, he realized, as his cheeks warmed up as they seemed to do often in her presence.
"It's for cooking," he said, looking down at his drink steadily. When she didn't say anything, he kept going, narrowing his eyes at the coffee. "Hey, you're the one who brought it up," he reminded her. "You said that stuff about treating the guys from the dorm…"
Arisato gave him a smile and nodded in understanding. "I'll help you out, obviously. Since I was the one to suggest it."
It was a kind offer, but one Shinjiro didn't want to take. Without her knowing, probably, Arisato had already done so much for him - and it was even more obvious how much she'd done for everyone in SEES. "No, it's all right," he told her, shaking his head.
Predictably, she didn't want to let it go without a fight. Shinjiro couldn't help but laugh a little, tugging on his beanie in a failed attempt to hide his real smile. "Don't get all offended. It's not that I don't trust your cooking skills," he said, having heard all about her truffles from Aki. "It's just that, how do I put it…"
Almost subconsciously, he thought, Arisato leaned in closer to him over the table again. "What is it?"
"You won't be able to enjoy it if you help you," he finally settled on, unsure if it was the best way to phrase it but not knowing what else to say. "Anyways, we'll do it once I decide on what I'm gonna serve. Even if it tastes awful, you better be responsible and tell everyone it's great."
Much like cooking, joking with Arisato came naturally to him - almost frighteningly so. Even with someone like Aki, who he'd known since he was a little kid, it was hard for him. Maybe, he wondered, if it was because he hadn't known Arisato for too long that he could feel this way with her. It almost felt like lying to her.
She didn't know what he had done or much about his past, but she laughed along with him as if she didn't have a care in the world. Part of him wondered if she would even care if she knew. Part of him wanted to think that, no, she really wouldn't.
Hopefully he'd never have to find out.
"I'll be good, I promise, Shinjiro-senpai," she said, giggling into her hand. "What were your thoughts on dishes, anyways? I'm not master chef, but I'm happy to give an opinion, anyways!"
The two launched into discussion about the dinner party, bouncing various food ideas back and forth until a concrete plan was starting to form in Shinjiro's mind. Before they knew it, the clock was striking 10 PM, later than Shinji had ever intended to stay out with the field leader.
"Should we get going?" He asked, sitting himself up a little in his chair, thinking about everyone back at the dorm. "They'll worry if you're out too late."
It almost looked like she was pouting as she stretched, standing up from her own chair. "Don't forget to buy your ground coffee!" She reminded, wagging her finger. "That's what you came here for, after all."
He coughed into his arm again before nodding, heading back over to the counter and wishing that he didn't like listening to her talk so much. She really wasn't good for his health at all.
I might end up upping the chapter count to 5, since I'm not sure if people would dislike reading 7k+ chapters or not since that's not the precedent LOL. Let me know which way you'd prefer if you want -- either two much longer parts, or three more normal sized chapters! All that said, thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time.... whenever that may be : D
At first I was like, oh boy, quarantine, I can get so much writing done! But then Animal Crossing came out, and P5R comes out in a few days, soooo... But I managed to finish this chapter in two sittings, so that felt good. It's not as long as I assumed it would be either, but I have a feeling the final chapter will be much longer lmao.
Anyways, thanks for your kind words and patience as always, and hope y'all enjoy some more ShinjiMina!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Arisato came up to him that Wednesday, he decided on the spot that today would be the day of the party. He didn't want any of the ingredients to go bad, and the thought of Arisato thinking he was procrastinating on something she was looking forward to left him feeling guilty. That was something he'd never admit in a thousand years, however.
So as soon as she asked if he were busy, he looked away awkwardly, trying to remember this wasn't a big deal.
"Let's do it today," Shinjiro said, definitely feeling nervous and out of his element. The moment the words left his lips, Arisato gave him a wide smile, and some of that nervousness seemed to melt away.
"Tonight!" She exclaimed, clapping her hands together as she did. "That sounds perfect!"
"You better not go anywhere, all right?" Shinjiro couldn't help the smile that tugged on his lips as he watched her, bouncing like a little girl without a care. It was sometimes hard to believe that she was the leader of their little ragtag group. "Just be patient and wait about an hour." He paused to look around the dorm. Everyone seemed to be accounted for - and as usual, everyone was looking at them as they spoke. "Tell the other guys that, too."
Arisato gave him her practically trademarked grin. "You got it! Please make it tasty."
He remembered back when he'd first starting staying at the dorm, how he'd somehow found the tiny person in front of him almost intimidating in a way. She'd smiled back then, too, but he couldn't help but think that she did so a lot more now than she used to. It felt like any time Shinji looked at her, her lips were curled upwards in some form.
It was hard to deny how beautiful she was when she looked at him like that. Like maybe he was worth something, after all.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Shinjiro told her, rolling his eyes. And this banter that flowed between them - it felt so natural. It felt like he'd been doing this for a thousand years; like something deep in his bones recognized this person as comfortable. Safe. "Sheesh," he said, shaking his head to try and clear his thoughts. "Start looking forward to it."
Teaching Fuuka wasn't easy, but at least it was something Shinjiro could handle. Cooking was, at the very least, something he was confident enough in. He refused to go easy on her, and he certainly wasn't nice about the things she messed up - she didn't know the difference between a teaspoon and a ladle - but in all fairness to her, she handled it well. Even Aki had told him in the past to be nicer to her, since she seemed a bit sensitive, but Shinji had just rolled his eyes. Anyone who was bothering to use their powers to go into Tartarus every week clearly had at least something to them.
Fuuka was no exception. She may not participate in the actual fighting, but in a way, she was braver than any of them. He couldn't imagine having to watch out for everyone else. That was why he just listened to Arisato, though.
Even though he was cooking, Shinji could feel the frown etched onto his face. Between teaching Fuuka and his nerves about serving everyone in the dorm - including Ken - it likely wouldn't be going anywhere, anytime at all. Fuuka had definitely noticed, and kept shooting him concerned glances when she really should've been paying closer attention to what she was doing with the food.
Arisato chose then to pop in, looking around at the chaos going on in the small kitchen. "I'll help, too," she said, rolling up her sleeves as she spoke.
"Nah, stay put," Shinjiro replied, the frown that had been present for the last twenty minutes melting away slowly. It always seemed to do that with her. "It's way too crowded over here. 'Sides," he continued, making a shooing motion with his hands, "we're trying to keep it a secret."
Arisato pouted slightly, moving her sleeves back down to their normal length. "Aw. I like cooking."
He'd guessed that already, but hearing her say it aloud was kind of nice, in a way. Cooking was something special to him - it was nice to think they shared a hobby, despite how different they seemed on the outside.
"I-I'm sorry, Minako-chan," Fuuka said, looking down at the mess in front of her with furrowed brows. "If only I was better at cooking…"
"Just hush up and watch what you're doing," Shinjiro chided, waving to the egg she'd just cracked. "A piece of eggshell just fell in there."
Her eyes widened almost comically as she realized her mistake. "Oh, you're right. It's amazing that you noticed that, Senpai."
Turning from Arisato, Shinji nearly groaned out loud at everything else going on. He'd seen bad cooks before, Aki included, but this was an entirely new level of incompetence. Never had he thought it was possible to be this bad at something so necessary for survival. It wasn't as if he was even making her do the difficult tasks, either; he'd started her small so she could get a feel for it as she went.
As he was trying to fix whatever Fuuka had done this time, it seemed like the whole dorm decided then and there was the perfect time to bother them. Iori, the robot girl, even the dog came down, curiously taking a peek at what they were up to.
"So Shinji's cooking," Aki mused, and Shinjiro rolled his eyes at his old friend. "Will there be any leftovers?"
Everyone he knew was an idiot, Shinji decided. "Can't you tell?"
"You're supposed to be a good friend and make larger servings when you cook in front of lots of people." He could tell by Aki's tone that he wasn't feeling too torn up about it, but the way he was looking at the food told him everything Aki's words didn't.
With a wide gesture at the food, he considered leaving it at that, but he could never not try to have the last word over Aki. "You're supposed to not be an idiot," he said, going back to his work. "Look, there's obviously more than twelve servings here."
Iori and Takeba at the same time immediately perked up. Everyone in the dorm, it seemed, was actually a hyena waiting for a bone. If he'd known everyone would be like this, Shinjiro wasn't so sure that he would've agreed. He was already feeling embarrassed at the fact that someone had outed him to all of SEES as a good cook.
Before he could say anything else, Arisato stepped him, looping her arms around both Takeba and Iori. "There's enough for everyone!" She proudly declared, looking at him with stars in her eyes.
"Shinji…!" Aki was the worst of them all, Shinji decided.
He shifted, moving his beanie to cover his eyes a bit more. "Shut up and sit down."
Shinjiro had thought teaching Fuuka had been difficult, but in reality it was nothing compared to the awkwardness and nerves he was facing now. In the other room, he could hear all the other members chatting excitedly about whatever it was he was cooking. Both Arisato and Aki had been singing his cooking praises the entire time, riling up everyone even more so.
Whenever he'd get too distracted, he'd yell at them to shut up, but it didn't seem to deter them whatsoever. Even Fuuka had realized the uselessness of his plight, and had taken to giggling lightly whenever he did just that.
"Is… all of this for us?" Takeba asking, her mouth slightly watering as he and Fuuka began placing food on the table. Shinjiro almost wanted to crawl out of his skin when Iori followed up by asking if this was some kind of party.
"Is Mitsuru-senpai in her room?" Fuuka asked, looking around. "I'll go get her!"
He watched as she began her way up the stairs, almost wanting to call out to her for a favor. Instead, Shinjiro turned to Aki, meeting his eyes for only a moment before turning away. There was one face that he hadn't seen all night, and while he knew the kid wouldn't be happy about it, he needed to eat.
"Aki," he said, and whatever tone he was using instantly had his old friend on edge. "Go get Ken, too. It's a little late, but he's probably still up…"
With a gravity nobody else seemed to notice, Akihiko nodded. "Got it."
The others chattered on in the background while waiting, but Arisato caught his eye. In the lighting of the dining room, her eyes seemed… different. Shinjiro couldn't put his finger on it, but instead of feeling like she saw right through him as he often did, he felt then that she actually saw him. Fully.
It was a thought both terrifying and incredible all at once.
He forced himself to swallow, turning away from her to look instead at the stairs in waiting.
Mitsuru, unsurprisingly, came down first, eyes narrowed in an accusatory gaze before any of them had a chance to greet her. "What's the matter?" She asked, putting a hand on her hip. "Why are you all gathered together all of a sudden..?" Ken and Akihiko followed after, the latter with a smile on his face as Mitsuru put two and two together. "What's all this about? Did someone call a chef?"
Ken, on the other hand, actually listened to the other SEES members, even as they all spoke over each other. "Did Shinjiro-san make this?"
Shinji's eyes found Ken's, and they both awkwardly held each other's stare. The relationship between them had never been good, even before Ken had figured everything out, but now it felt like ashes on his tongue.
"Everyone, sit," Shinjiro said, remembering why he had asked the youngest member to come down in the first place.
It was hard not to feel like he was ignoring the problem like this, but everyone in the dorm needed a decent meal every once in awhile. The excuse wasn't great, and it didn't do much to make Shinjiro feel any better, but it would do for the night.
The rest of the dorm held themselves with baited breath, sitting down quickly. Arisato, in particular, kept grinning at him in that way of hers. He supposed it wouldn't hurt to have a little bit of fun with them.
"Pick up your chopsticks," he continued slowly, watching with a small smile as everyone did as they were told. Would be nice if they were like that all the time, he thought to himself, before shaking his head slightly. "And dig in."
The whole table cheered. "Thanks for the food!" Akihiko said, already shoveling piles of everything onto his plate, everyone else following suit.
Well, mostly everyone. Ken hadn't touched anything, making the nausea that Shinjiro was used to creep back up with a vengeance. Arisato noticed, too, but didn't say anything after taking one look at Shinji's face.
He wondered what she saw there. It was impossible, obviously, for her to know exactly what the issue was between the two of them, but how much did his face give away? Nobody else in the dorm had figured it out, but then again, he didn't believe anyone was as observant as Arisato.
Point in case was Fuuka, who'd asked Ken if he was going to eat instead of keeping quiet about it and putting him on the spot.
"I-I'll have something," Ken stuttered out, likely somewhat embarrassed at having been called out. "Thanks for the food…"
His words weren't anything more than a whisper, but some deep, hidden part of Shinjiro wished that they would mean something. That somehow, even if a dinner wouldn't bring back his dead mother, wouldn't erase that night from the sands of time, it would help mend it. Just a little.
Shinjiro looked down at his food. "Yeah."
Despite the sour taste that thinking about Ken always left in his mouth, the rest of the dinner had gone by smoothly. Nearly all the food had been devoured, and everyone had insisted on cleaning up so he didn't have to. Arisato got up to join as well, but Fuuka had told her to sit down and she would do her share instead.
It was nice, Shinjiro could admit, to have a moment alone with Arisato after the chaos of the night. Mitsuru had brought them out some tea with a smile that made him wary, but even he wasn't stupid enough to say no to a kind gesture from the Ice Princess herself.
"Looks like everyone enjoyed it," he said after a moment to break the silence, looking at the few plates that still remained.
When there were nights like these, he could almost believe things were normal. He could almost forget about the pain tearing at his insides, the coughs that constantly threatened to bubble up from his chest, and the pills that felt like lead in his coat pocket. Shinjiro let out a small laugh to himself.
No, no matter how hard he tried, reality was still reality. Nobody could fight time.
The look on Arisato's face wasn't what he was expecting. Instead of the grin he'd been sure would be there, a small, almost serene smile filled her face. "Let's do this again sometime," she said, taking a small sip from her tea.
He couldn't let her know. "If the opportunity comes up." It wouldn't, but it wasn't a no. She didn't have to know. "If you hadn't brought up the idea, i probably never would've done something like this." He shook his head, growing wistful. "It was so simple, and all I had to do was do it…"
There were, he realized, lots of things in his life like that. Maybe if he would've tried harder that night, or any subsequent nights, to take control over Castor. Maybe if he'd taken the time to talk to Ken, instead of hiding like a coward…
A cough tore out of his throat, and Shinjiro winced. It was going to be a bad night, he could tell. He stood up with a sigh. "Today really tired me out," he said as a means of explanation. "I'm gonna go to bed. You should head off to bed soon, too."
Minako nodded, and with that, he turned around to begin his trek up the stairs. "Goodnight, Shinjiro-senpai," she said, speaking a bit louder to make sure her voice carried.
As he stepped into his room, he reached into his pocket for his watch. It wasn't that he needed to know the time, but the comfort he found in his one true possession was something he needed that night. He searched blindly for a moment, before getting frustrated.
"It's gone, huh?" He realized belatedly after standing in his doorway and searching for what could've easily been five minutes. "Just my luck."
Shinjiro closed his door and slipped into his pajamas and then promptly into his bed. He knew, at the very least, that he'd be seeing her in his dreams again. It had been happening more and more often lately, and while he couldn't deny it was a nice reprieve from his usual nightmares, it didn't bode well for him.
Attachments weren't something he could really afford. Clearly.
It took a few days for Arisato to ask Shinjiro to hang out again, but that was alright. After the party, he'd needed a few days to himself, and part of him wondered if she had somehow known that. She'd given him smiles in passing, and had spoken to him a few times, but never tried to engage him in anything socially taxing.
By the time he was willing to go seek her out, she approached him on Friday evening, asking if now was a good time. Even though his body ached, Shinjiro agreed without thinking.
"Mind if we step out for a bit?" He asked, shifting a little. She peered at him curiously, and he sighed. "It's just, I feel uncomfortable…"
"Did something happen?" Arisato asked in response, her curiosity turning into concern.
Shaking his head, he almost regretted agreeing to spend time with her that night. "It's nothing like that," he tried, "but…"
For whatever reason, though his explanation was absolutely horrible, Arisato agreed, ushering him out the front door. Once they were outside, Shinjiro could practically feel some of the tension melt away from his body. Rarely did anybody come out there this late into the evening, and the peaceful night air made his lungs feel full for the first time in what felt like months.
"Seriously," he muttered to himself, before turning to the field leader with a slight wince. "Sorry. Those guys keep yapping at me," he said, shaking his head again.
In reply, she threw him a baffled look. "Yapping at you?" It almost sounded like she had a little laugh in her voice, now - was she that relieved that it was nothing serious?
Part of him hurt at the thought. This girl, who he'd just been getting to know, cared about him that much… and it was almost the end of September. The clock kept ticking, he could see Ken growing more agitated by the day, and Arisato didn't know any of it.
She didn't know that he didn't have time. She didn't know that she was spending time with a walking corpse; putting all her effort and energy into becoming his friend when he couldn't give her anything in return.
"You remember how I cooked for them the other day?" He replied after a moment, forcing himself to say something to fill the silence that had followed. At her nod, he continued. "They kept going on and on about how delicious it was and how I should do it again… Aki keeps pushing these requests on me, Fuuka's throwing cookbooks at me…"
It drove him nuts. Aki, especially, who should have known. He was there the night it had happened. He knew what he and Castor - him, really, he hadn't been strong enough - had done. Whose life they had ruined beyond repair.
And even still, he pretended like Shinjiro still had a future. Still had something to live for.
"Whenever I walk past the kitchen, they all stare at me like they're just waiting for me to do something," he finished with a shrug. Going into detail as to why this bothered him so much was pointless. Hopefully he'd presented himself as enough of an introvert that something as minuscule as that wouldn't seem unreasonable to be bothered by.
"It can't be helped," Arisato said with a dramatic sigh, shooting him a grin. "Your cooking is just too good, senpai. I can't blame any of them!"
Despite his feeling towards promises, Shinjiro couldn't help the small smile that crept up on him. "Well, I'm glad they liked it," he said, which wasn't at all a lie. Truly, he was glad he was able to contribute something for the rest of the team.
The silence between them became comfortable once again, and Shinji felt himself relax fully into it. It was rare that he felt so comfortable around another person. He wouldn't deny how nice it felt to trust someone like this - but also how dangerous it could be.
Back at the orphanage, he'd done his best to make everyone's lives there better. He'd done the most for Aki and Miki, and look how that had turned out. They had lost her, and now…
"Do you think it's funny that I did that? You think it isn't like me?" He started again, trying once again in vain to direct his thoughts elsewhere. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with having good memories to grow up with. We've got two kids at the dorm, anyway. One big one, and one tiny one…"
Minako hummed. She looked deep in thought, leaning against the wall as she listened to him. She took everyone's words so seriously. It was a rare thing, Shinji felt, in this day and age. No matter what he said, he knew she would always listen.
He could tell her. He could explain about Ken, about the fact that he'd have to say goodbye soon, about the pills-
Instead, he smiled at her; a smile that had already quickly become reserved just for her. "How about you?" He asked. "Did you have fun too?"
Without missing a beat, Arisato nodded. "It's all thanks to you."
The way she said something like that so casually made heat flood his face, and part of him almost wanted to scowl. What came out, however, was a gentle smile, and he fought off the urge to turn away from her. "All I did was cook for you guys," he said, as if he could somehow convince her otherwise. "If you had fun, it was because of everybody else."
"Oh?" She raised an eyebrow, almost teasingly. "And where would we have gotten all that delicious food from, senpai? It wouldn't have been the same without your cooking!" Shinjiro opened his mouth to protest, but she continued instead. "You said there's nothing wrong with making memories," she told him, giving him a knowing look. "I'm glad we all get to have the memory of eating a delicious meal with you."
He almost shook himself. The way she spoke, sometimes, made him think she knew more than she'd let on. He'd considered asking Akihiko before if he'd told her, but he knew that Akihiko would never have betrayed his trust like that.
"Making memories is important," he agreed, wistful. "People can go on as long as they have good things to look back on. They'll be able to go on without being led astray…"
The look on Arisato's face turned a bit wistful, as well. "Yeah, that's true. I think memories keep us going more than the future, anyways."
That wasn't what he'd been expecting to hear, but he couldn't help but agree. "You know, you," he trailed off, shoving his hands deep inside his coat pockets. When he felt the pills, he cringed. "Shouldn't you be doing something else?"
Arisato pushed herself off the wall to face him better. "What do you mean?"
"You shouldn't be with me like this," he tried again, struggling to get his point across. How does one tell the most social person in the universe that she could have better friends? Be spending time making memories with people who she wouldn't have to be left remembering forever? "Don't you have more fun things to do?"
For some reason, she relaxed again at his words. "It's fun being with you," she said, as if it were as simple as that.
Heat rushed into his cheeks, staining them. "Well," he was at a loss. "All right, then." Any conviction he'd had to try and get her to do something more productive with her time was blown out like a candle in the wind. When it came to her, it seemed, Shinjiro was always helpless.
"Is there anything you wanted to do tonight?" Arisato asked, eyes kind. "I'm fine with anything, so don't worry about me."
Sometimes, Shinjiro felt like he was on another planet when she spoke to him. Living on the street for two years had showed him there weren't a lot of genuinely kind people left in the world. The amount of strays with collars was proof enough of that.
Minako was, undoubtedly, different. "Might as well stop by somewhere, since we're already out," he decided on a whim, not wanting to head inside just yet. "You want some ice cream from the convenience store? My treat."
"I don't think I could ever say no to that," she said with a laugh, already starting to walk towards the gate.
Again, that night, he dreamed of her. Mostly of her smile, and her laughing at something he couldn't remember when he opened his eyes in the morning. He groaned into his hands, still lying in bed.
This was really, really not good.
That night, he decided, he'd be the one to take charge for once. "Hey, Arisato," he called out as she walked past, and she turned to face him confused. "Do you mind coming somewhere with me?"
It was a long shot, but maybe, if he put himself in charge of the situation, things might change a little. Maybe instead of dreaming about her, he'd go back to something normal. Or maybe even a dreamless sleep. That sounded like a heaven he wasn't worthy of.
Though he said so with seriousness, Minako perked right up. "Of course!" She said, motioning towards the door. "Lead the way, Shinjiro-senpai."
After the dinner party, at least, the stares they got had changed a bit. Now instead of staring at him whenever they interacted, it had shifted to staring at him when he passed by the kitchen. It wasn't a good improvement, for the most part, but now…
At least, if he smiled at her, he knew she was the only one who would see it.
"Here we are again," he said after a moment, surveying the area he used to spend most of his time in.
Their walk took them to the convenience store again - her treat this time, much to his chagrin -, and then somehow, to the back alley where they had first really interacted. Though it had been a few months, Shinjiro still vividly remembered the way Arisato had acted, the way her red eyes had turned vicious as soon as those punks had laid a hand on Iori.
He hadn't known her then, and hadn't known how strong she was. If he could go back in time and stop himself from stepping in - even if just to watch her go off on all those rats that littered the alleyways at night - he just might've. Something in him still hated the idea of letting such a small person do all the dirty work, but he'd been with her in Tartarus enough times by now.
The little slip of a girl, as his first impression had told him, was a force to be reckoned with.
"That reminds me, I met you here, too," he continued, mulling over that night in his head. "Back then, I never imagined that I'd go back there…"
The ice cream in her hand was gone at that point, only leaving the wrapping it had came in. "I'm glad that you came back," she told him, honesty dripping from her voice.
It was hard to reprimand someone who was so kind to you. Even Shinjiro wasn't that heartless all the time. "I doubt that I'm bringing that much to the team, though."
He didn't meet her gaze, however. Instead, he chose to continue looking around the area.
It was nearly the end of September. In less than two weeks, it would be the anniversary of Ken's mother's death. The murder he committed. If Ken didn't kill him first, those pills surely would.
Arisato had been making him crazy. No matter how many times he reminded himself of that fact, looked at the calendar and felt his blood on his hands when he coughed, there was a part of him - a hidden part - that wanted so badly to stay. To try and fight the inevitable. If only to have more time with this girl, who when he'd first met her, thought nothing of.
He'd even thrown a party. A party for the entire dorm. Had made Fuuka think he'd always be around to help with cooking lessons. Had made the rest of SEES think that it hadn't just been a one time event. That he was like them; a person who could make and keep promises. A person who had a future.
"You're a pain," he said suddenly, turning around to face her again. "You keep messing things up for me. I keep thinking that my life is the way it's supposed to be, but…"
"You're certainly not the first person to call me a pain," Minako snorted, waving her free hand a bit. "But what do you mean?"
"Sheesh," Shinjiro said, trying to figure out if he should look at her while talking or not. "Your face keeps popping up in my head."
"That doesn't sound too bad," she replied, and he could tell just by the way she spoke she had a smile on her face. "Though I'm not quite sure what you mean."
Sheesh. If he thought he was bad at these sorts of things, it seemed she was worse off then he thought. "For a social butterfly, you're pretty dense," he said, and fought the urge to flick her forehead. "Guess we should head back. We actually have a place we can go back to."
Time never waits.
Shinjiro knew this well. Each day, the calendar changed, and it grew closer and closer to October. Closer and closer to the anniversary.
The looks Ken had started giving him told him everything he needed to know. Whether or not the younger boy could handle going through with it, he wasn't sure, but the determination was there. That much was certain, and that was alright with Shinji. It was what he deserved.
He already hurt more and more with each passing day. Shoveling down the drugs had now become a chore instead of a habit. Since he'd started living and working with SEES, he had started using less and less, but he supposed it didn't matter anymore anyways.
The damage had already been done. Most days he practically coughed up his whole lung.
When Minako approached him that day, he was tired. So, so tired, but yet… even if they didn't do anything, being in her company was nicer than he'd ever admit.
"Today," he said, as she waited for him as always, "why don't we just stay here?"
Minako blinked up at him, but nodded. "That's fine by me!"
He gestured towards the sitting room, which was oddly empty that night. Normally the dorm was bustling with the lot of them, but Shinjiro was glad for the change. "Sit over there," he said, already heading over.
The plush chairs almost felt like prisons. Normally, time with Minako was spent comfortably and it almost passed by without him realizing. Maybe it was the change of pace, but she couldn't seem to look at him or open her mouth to start a conversation.
Instead, her face was a bit flushed, and every time he thought he caught her staring at him, she'd hurried look away. He sighed, frowning a bit.
This wasn't what he wanted at all. "C'mon, say something."
"Should I tell a scary story?" She asked, and even though her tone was light, her red eyes sparkled at the thought.
Though he'd gotten to know her pretty well since he'd joined SEES, she was still mysterious in some ways. And most definitely still odd. It was good, in a way, that it hadn't changed. It made her… genuine, he supposed.
"What's up with that?" He questioned in return, but then a thought struck him - back when she and the others had went to that alley, she'd seemed to be interested in them then, too. He shook his head, smiling without realizing it. "Oh yeah. You seemed into ghost stories that first time you went to that back alley, too…" He trailed off, and at her bashful expression, couldn't help but laugh. "Seriously, you're such a kid."
She pouted, but he knew it was in jest. "I am not!" The pout was completely ruined by her laughing with him. "Fine, fine, what do you want me to talk about? School?"
"School?" He shot her a look, to which she rolled her eyes at.
"Well forgive me senpai, but I don't think I've ever seen you there," Minako told him, her red eyes narrowing for just a second. "But I didn't mean about school work. I meant like," she paused, bringing a finger up to her cheek in thought. Subconsciously, his eyes followed it's movement. "My clubs, or something," she finally settled on. "I'm pretty active with the volleyball club for example!"
Truthfully, Shinjiro didn't care about sports at all. Teamwork had never really been his thing, and he got plenty of exercise in Tartarus or when he was living on the streets. It's not like his body was in any condition to be playing them, anyways.
But he couldn't help it. Minako's whole face lit up when she mentioned it, and clearly, she thought there were enough interesting stories to tell him about it if she'd bothered to bring it up. "Lay it on me," he agreed, relaxing into the couch a bit more.
"Okay, so the captain of the team, Rio…"
Shinjiro could listen to her talk all night. It wasn't that startling of a revelation, but it wasn't one he was quite ready for. Her voice wasn't even that soothing - she was often loud, and snorted sometimes in a kind of obnoxious way. More so, though, it just confirmed what he'd been realizing slowly over the last two weeks or so.
The reason he got so warm when she smiled. Why he didn't like the idea of her and Aki being close. Why he wanted to take up more of her time, while at the same time hating himself for it. Why those red eyes had went from off putting to bright.
Why he'd let her talk for two hours about so many different things, without once feeling the need to ask her to stop or change the subject.
It was futile. It was completely pointless to feel this way for anyone, in his position. He couldn't even entertain the idea. Not when it was already the end of September. Not when some days, walking down the stairs took the breath right out of his lungs. Not when… not when he had nothing. No future, no reason to keep going. No drive or motivation.
The first few times they'd hung out, he'd noticed that she lived in a similar manner. Noticed that she seemed to want to get everything done, make sure everything was settled, as quickly as possible. As if she, too, was running from the clock. Running on borrowed times.
But she didn't deserve that fate. Minako deserved so much more. She deserved to live, to be happy and free, and…
Even if he had some sort of a fighting chance, he couldn't tie her down like that. It wasn't right. He was dead weight compared to her.
Shinjiro knew he couldn't exactly stop his feelings. Just in the same way he continuously checked up on Aki throughout the past two years, he knew it was a lost cause to pretend he didn't feel the way he did towards Minako. He couldn't stop them, but acting on them…
He could keep that in his dreams.
"Are you done?" He asked, after she trailed off on her story. A quick glance at the clock told him it was getting late, but just this once, he allowed himself to be selfish. "C'mon, tell me more. Encore, encore!"
It wasn't even just about his feelings for her. Hearing her so full of life, living that life in the way that he never had gotten the chance to… it was something that he didn't know he'd needed. The time that he spent with Akihiko and Mitsuru back then was so far away in his mind, was so different compared to the way that she seemed to live.
She was friends with everyone. And Shinji could tell how genuine it was, too. The way she spoke about everyone, with so much attention to detail and the way her face would morph depending on if she were telling a sad or happy story was telling enough.
And when he was gone, maybe…
Minako grinned at him, and leaned forward into his space just the smallest bit more. "Well, if you're not getting bored, I'm sure I can scrounge something up."
Quickly, Shinjiro shook his head. "Not bored at all," he told her, probably surprising her with how open he sounded. "If you've got more, by all means continue."
For a moment, she didn't respond; just looked at him with those big red eyes of hers. He opened his mouth to urge her on again, but before he could, she continued. "So I'm also in the cooking club with Fuuka, as you know…"
"It sounds like you're enjoying your days," Shinjiro said after she finished talking about all the different foods she'd so far tried to teach Fuuka how to make. "You look best when you laugh." He wouldn't get to be around to see it forever, but he would keep this cherished in his memory forever. "So don't cry, got it?"
Minako tilted her head. "What're you trying to say?"
Figures. He should've guessed she would question him about that. He often said things he didn't mean to around her, he'd noticed. "Just what I said," he said, looking at his hands in his lap.
Hands that would never get to hold hers. Hands that, soon, would be useless even if Ken didn't…
"Shinjiro-senpai?" Minako's voice snapped him out of his reverie, and he looked back up to see her leaning into his space again.
He couldn't find it in him to even pretend he wanted to move away. "I gotta make sure I don't leave anything behind," he explained. "No doubts, no regrets."
On her own chair, Minako's hands twitched. "Leave behind?" Her voice was barely even a whisper.
"I keep telling you what to forget and what to remember," Shinjiro sighed, not answering her at all. "What to want and to not want. I'm selfish, aren't I?" He certainly felt selfish with every moment of her time he took up.
Instantly, however, Minako's hands reached out and grabbed his. "That's not true," she said, squeezing his hands as she did so. They were so warm. "You're not selfish at all, senpai. In fact, I…"
You what? Shinjiro wanted so desperately to ask, but she looked away from him and dropped his hands. "Hey," he said instead. "As long as I'm already being selfish, I want you to do one more thing for me."
"All right," Minako agreed quickly, her eyes meeting his once again.
"You don't have to forgive me," he said, and he almost hoped she wouldn't - for wasting her time, for leaving… "But forgive everything else."
She frowned deeply, eyes searching his for some sort of an answer. He wasn't really sure what she would find in them - or wouldn't find. "What're you talking about?"
He looked away from her, this time, turning his gaze to his hands. Where hers had been for just a moment. "You'll understand later. It should be like this for a little longer. I just want it to be normal."
He smiled a little. Even if she didn't understand, he was taking a page from her book for once. Saying his piece, even if it made no difference in the end.
"Is it getting late?" Shinjiro asked after a moment, searching his pocket out of habit. "Ugh, I forgot that I don't have my watch."
Minako, surprisingly, seemed to know what he was talking about. "Did you lose it?" She replied, looking like the gears were already turning in her head.
He shrugged. "Yeah, I lose it somewhere." It didn't really matter, but he supposed after all the talking she had done that night, he owed her something. "It was a shabby old pocket watch. I got it from someone sometime ago," he trailed off, shaking his time. "Damn it."
Knowing Minako, though, Shinji had a feeling she would go looking for it. If she had better luck then him, it'd be great, but he knew better then to get his hopes up. When she didn't respond, he found himself missing the sound of her voice; even though she'd spent most of the night talking to him.
"So?" He prompted, and she turned her attention back to him. "You have any more?"
"Any more what?"
Doing his best to keep his eyes on her, he shrugged again. "I want to hear what you've got to say," Shinjiro told her. "You've got more stories up your sleeve, right?" Selfish, selfish, selfish. He'd already kept her there most of the night. "Anything's fine."
Smiling at him, she nodded. "Sure, senpai. I'm running low on school stories, so do you mind stuff from when I was younger?"
The tone of her voice had changed into something melancholy, and while he didn't know why it was like that for her, he could understand. "I said anything was fine," he said, giving her a small smile himself. "Go for it."
"If you're sure!" She sat back into the couch, staring up at the ceiling. "Well, when I was really little, I'm sure you can imagine but I was always causing trouble…"
Shinjiro listened to her talk about all sorts of things - childhood memories, stories about her old school and clubs, all the different places she'd lived. He never wanted her to stop, and even when they both eventually parted ways to sleep the last bit of the night away, part of him hoped he'd somehow manage to dream about her talking that night.
She'd been appearing in all his dreams lately, anyways. Might as well have it be something like this. Something tangible, that he could hold on to.
See you all for one more chapter, whenever that may be! Hope you all are staying safe and remember to not feel bad about not doing much with your time if you're in quarantine, lmao. Sometimes we all need a break, this one just happens to be a forced one pff
Almost exactly a month later -- sorry -- but I hope the length of this makes up for it. Full thoughts at the bottom, but I hope you all enjoy this story's conclusion!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Honestly, he wasn't sure what he was doing at that store. Fighting shadows yielded quite a bit of money, but Shinjiro had never been the type to spend recklessly. Looking around at the different items, he sighed to himself.
Buying another watch wouldn't replace his own. He wasn't even really sure why he'd come in there in the first place.
"Is there anything I can help you find?" The store clerk asked from the register, not unkindly. "If you're looking for a present, we've got a few limited edition items up here."
"A present, huh," he mumbled to himself, shaking his head. Nonetheless, he found himself wandering up to the counter, curious eyes sweeping the glass to check them out.
In his honest opinion, they all looked the same as the ones he's seen on the rack. The only real difference were the colors - until he saw one near the back, closest to the cashier.
"Can I see that one?" Shinjiro asked before he realized what he was doing, pointing to the almost pink leather wristwatch.
The cashier nodded, smiling widely, and pulled it out of the case for him to inspect closer. "This one was actually from the spring," she said, "but we still had a few in stock so we've been keeping it up here. It's really pretty, isn't it"?"
She wasn't wrong - the watch was beautiful. The face had small butterflies on it, and the pink of the leather strap was a nice, dusty color. Not too in your face. Almost instantly, his mind went to Minako, and how she would look wearing such a thing. The color definitely suited her; with her red eyes and bright disposition.
Before Shinjiro knew what he was doing, he was pulling his wallet out from his coat pocket. "Can you gift wrap it?" He asked, not giving himself a moment to second guess his decision. This was the least he could do for her after the other night, after all.
"Did you find anything good?" Akihiko asked once they'd met up again in the center, eyeing his bag with interest. "I didn't think you'd actually buy another watch, to be honest with you."
Shinjiro shrugged a bit awkwardly. "It's not for me," he told his friend honestly. "It's… a thank you gift."
In an instant, Aki's gaze turned sly. "A thank you gift, huh?" He laughed a little, patting Shinjiro on the back. "Of course it is."
Scowling, Shinji turned away from his with force. "Oh, can it. I don't want to hear it from you."
Akihiko's brows furrowed. "I don't know what you're talking about. I said her truffles were good once."
Shinjiro couldn't help but laugh. No matter how many years went by, no matter what happened in them, at least this would always stay the same.
"Hey," Minako greeted him unceremoniously, hands clasped behind her back. "About the other day."
Shinjiro blinked, fists tightening in his pockets. The watch that he'd bought for her shifted against the movement, and he was suddenly reminded that he hadn't had a chance to give it to her yet. "Yeah?" He asked, feeling oddly nervous. The other night had been… well, the first time he'd really listened to her open up like that. From the way that she'd spoken, despite how close the rest of the team seemed to be to her, it was obvious she didn't do that very often.
Or maybe he was imagining things. When it came to Minako Arisato, Shinjiro wasn't sure he had his head screwed on straight anymore.
He'd only reasonably been hanging out with her for a month, and yet she was like some sort of magnet; constantly forcing him closer and closer. There were times he'd been more comfortable in her presence then when he was around Aki, and that just didn't quite compute.
"Is this the watch you lost?" She asked, hands coming from behind her to dangle his pocket watch in front of him. "I wanted to double check with you." Minako shrugged, looking a little bashful. "It… seemed important."
"That's…!" There was no mistaking it - Shinjiro would recognize that old thing anywhere. From years of use, he knew ever scratch on its surface. "Hey, come with me, okay?"
It was Minako's turn to blink, now. "Sure thing!" She said, smiling at him.
For whatever reason, Shinjiro hadn't been expecting her to agree. It was stupid, really, considering how much time they'd spent together already, but he couldn't help it. Each time felt like it very well could be their last. Most people didn't exactly like hanging out with him. "Thanks," he told her, though it came out a little more intense then he really meant it to.
Shinjiro couldn't really help that, either. That old pocket watch held so many memories for him, and it was also a grave reminder.
Time never waits. Not for anyone.
Without thinking, he took her to the nearby park. Not many people came by there at night, and he appreciated the peace and quiet. Besides, he needed to get away from the dorms to have this conversation. It was hard talking about himself with anyone, but in front of an audience was asking far too much.
After Minako seemed to settle on one of the benches, Shinjiro sighed heavily, sitting down next to her. "Where did you find this?" He asked after a moment.
Minako shrugged. "I go by the police station fairly often after school. For a few things, like new gear, or seeing if anything turned up at the lost and found," she explained evenly. "Someone had turned it in, and I remembered you were looking for it the other night, so I claimed it for you just in case."
"I see," he said, nodding. He turned the pocket watch over in his hands, rubbing his thumbs over all the scratches on the surface. "I thought I'd be fine if I never saw this again. But I never imagined that you of all people would bring it to me."
Now or never, Shinjiro thought to himself, pulling the small box out of his pocket. "This isn't really to pay you back, but I want you to have this," he told her, meeting her stare. It was funny to him how difficult he used to find it, not even that long ago. "I was hesitating about if I should give it to you or not."
"Oh!" Minako gasped lightly, gently taking the box from him. With more care then he'd ever seen anyone use, she unwrapped the present, peering down at the now opened container. With similar care, she removed the watch from it's holder, and brought it up to look at it closer. "It's beautiful," she whispered, turning it over to get a look at the back as well.
He shifted in his seat, feeling awkward. Even as a child, when he'd get things for Miki or Aki, he never knew how to react to people opening things from him. "I thought it'd look good on you," he said, kicking the playground sand a bit.
She put it around her left wrist, looking at it on herself. "Thank you," she said, smiling at him kindly. "Why a watch, though?" The way she asked made him wonder if she already knew.
Looking down, he shrugged a bit. There were some people who thought that watches symbolized the beauty of time - the idea that one should cherish the time they have with their loved ones. For him, though, it was the exact opposite.
"Because it," he paused, unsure of how to say this without giving himself away. That was, of course, if Minako hadn't already figured it out on her own. "Because it keeps track of time. This is all I could think of." His lips twisted into a wry smile.
Time was the only thing he thought of most days. Minako was a welcome and unwelcome addition to those thoughts.
They both stayed quiet for a few minutes, just enjoying the song of the wind in the trees. Shinjiro wasn't sure if it was intentional or not, but Minako shifted closer to him on the bench, until their arms were lightly touching.
There was a large part of him that wished this could last forever. It was the end of the month, now, and he only had a few more days. The way Ken had been looking at him lately confirmed what Shinjiro had known all along.
It was nice, in a way, to get to spend his last few days like this. He'd never been able to indulge in this kind of peace before.
"Look after Aki," he finally said, breaking the comfortable silence they had fallen into. If this was in fact the last time he got to see Minako like this, he wanted to make sure she knew everything. Or at least most things. "You know he's an idiot."
Minako giggled a bit. "You both are," she said fondly.
"You remember the story about the first fight we ever had?" He asked, and at her nod, he continued. "It was because I stole a doll from a toy store. Aki's sister couldn't make any friends. I stole it because I thought it'd make her happy."
The field leader hummed in response. "That sounds like you, Senpai."
Shinjiro couldn't help but roll his eyes. "Aki found out about it and beat the crap outta me," he told her, shaking his head. "And he was crying the whole time. Afterwards, we both went back to the store to return it, and to apologize for what I did. The toy store's owner smacked us both." He smiled a bit, remembering Aki's righteous anger from that day. "He hasn't changed at all from back then."
"Not from what it sounds like," she agreed, leaning on him a bit more. Without thinking, he leaned into her a bit, too.
"He's stupid, honest, proud, kind… and a crybaby. That's why someone needs to be by his side."
Though he wasn't looking directly at her, Shinjiro could feel Minako tilt her head a bit. "What about you, Senpai?" She asked, voice quiet.
He held back a sigh. Somehow, she always managed to do that - to see right through him. "Of course, I'm gonna stick with him," he said, not able to bring himself to tell her outright that he didn't have much time left. That ball was in her court, now. "I ain't worried at all, though. Because I know you're with him. I'm leaving the rest to you."
Once again, they fell into a comfortable silence. It had always been somewhat interesting to Shinjiro, to see Minako like this. At the dorms she was a force of nature, as loud as the rest of them could be. He wondered if anyone else ever got to see this side of her.
Selfishly, he hoped nobody had.
"The wind's starting to pick up," he noticed, glancing at the trees. "I kinda want to stay here a little longer if we can, but aren't you cold?" He himself was frozen to the bone, but she didn't have to know that.
"Nope," Minako replied, but he could hear the shiver in her words. "I'd like to stay with you out here longer, anyways. I'll be fine!"
Shinjiro wanted to scowl at her, but it came out as a smile. "Hey, you're gonna catch something. Come here."
They'd been leaning close together for awhile, now, but Shinjiro finally took the final step. Gently, he placed his arm around her shoulder, pulling her in as she squeaked in surprise. It was an awkward gesture, and he wasn't really sure how to relax. He'd never exactly been a touch-oriented person, preferring strongly to keep to himself even before everything had happened.
Minako, on the other hand, eased into him as if she'd been waiting for him to do that. Having her this close to him felt nicer than he'd ever expected it to.
"Now we can stay?" She asked, voice a bit muffled from how she pressed into his chest.
He wondered if she could feel how warm he was getting. Nodding, he took a deep breath. "For as long as you want," he promised her.
He couldn't give her a future. He couldn't even think of a better gift other then some stupid watch. This, however, he could give her - his time, his energy, his company. Even if it was just for the next few days.
Somewhere, buried deep within him, Shinjiro wished that time could be longer.
Staring at the old watch, Shinjiro shook his head as he put it on his nightstand. Of course, somehow, it was Minako that had ended up finding it for him. He wasn't even sure why he was surprised when she'd taken it out earlier that evening. It was so like her to surprise him like that.
It was so like her to be thinking of him like that. She'd claimed she'd just happened to stumble across it, but Shinjiro bet that she'd gone out searching for it until it showed up. He wasn't sure if he was irritated by that fact or glad that she cared so much about him.
And then there was the way they spoke that night. He'd never been so… comfortable in another person's space before. He'd never gone out of his way to hold someone like this. The last time he could remember, he was still at the orphanage, and Miki had just…
But it had felt so natural. Having Minako tucked into him like that as they spoke in hushed tones about nothing in particular… Shinjiro took a deep breath. It was September 30th. He was getting carried away.
"Four more days, huh?" He asked out loud, chuckling to himself. "Just four more days."
Much as he tried to deny it, he was glad. Glad that even though he didn't have much left, he'd gotten to experience something like that at least once. Gotten to see Minako like that at least once.
Dying was a lot more painful then Shinji ever thought it would be. He only had himself to blame for that, he supposed. Getting closer to others, creating bonds that he didn't need… It only made things harder, both for him, and for the others.
He didn't want Minako to be sad when he died. He didn't want her to spend her life in regret, mourning him. He wanted her to be able to live on freely.
He couldn't keep doing this. He couldn't get any closer to her, couldn't allow himself to spend more time with her. It would only make things harder than they had to be.
They already would be, now.
"Do you know what's been up with Minako today?" Akihiko asked him that night, eyes on the field leader with concern. "She's seemed… different."
Shinjiro, in all honesty, had been trying to avoid her that day. The night before had been something he would treasure, but he didn't want to force that onto her again. Especially not when he wouldn't be there for much longer.
So instead, he shrugged. "Different how?" He asked instead, trying not to sound too interested.
Aki moved his gaze to him, a sly smile making its way onto his lips. "Well, for one thing, she got a new watch," he said, trying and failing to tell him casually. "But actually, she's just seemed… more calm lately?" It was Akihiko's turn to shrug, as he turned back away from Shinji. "I don't know. She's usually all over the place, but she seems more… grounded, I guess."
"Does she now," Shinjiro replied, now failing at sounding interested.
"You wouldn't have anything to do with that, would you?"
At that, Shinjiro scowled. The idea that he was the reason she was doing better was absurd, and not something he even wanted to consider. Regardless of his feelings, she deserved better. He firmly believed that.
So instead, Shinjiro shook his head, shoving his hands deep down into his pockets. They were cold, anyways. "Definitely not."
The next day, however, Minako was walking up to him again. Truthfully, he wasn't expecting her to seek him out again after the other day - not that he'd scared her away, or anything, but…
She was a busy person. Unlike him, she had a lot of friends. A lot of people counting on her. A lot of hobbies and clubs to go to, things to take care of, and an entire team to lead. Compared to her, Shinjiro felt like a joke. All he had going for him was a Persona he couldn't control, access to drugs that were slowly killing him, and a teammate who he'd orphaned two years ago.
Why she continued to seek him out was beyond him.
"Hey," she greeted, a small smile on her face. "How are you today?"
Shinjiro looked away, not really sure if he should indulge her - and himself - in this conversation, or if he should be doing a better job at ignoring her.
That didn't last long. "I'm okay," he said after a moment, sighing at the lost fight. "I feel better after our talk. Take care of them," he said, nodding over at where a couple of the SEES team sat in the common space. "I believe in you."
"I will," she promised easily, "but I'd still like to see you, you know. I feel like I didn't see you at all yesterday."
Without meaning to, Shinji winced. "Shouldn't you be with the others?" He asked instead of answering her complaint. He was hoping he hadn't been that obvious. "I can't give you anything or do anything for you."
Moving closer into his space, she was close enough he could pull her into his chest again now. "I want to be with you," she said, still smiling up at him as if he hadn't just told her to leave.
Sighing, he refused to look at her. Especially not when she was that close. Especially not when he'd just agreed to himself the other night that he wouldn't keep getting closer to her. That she didn't deserve that, when he was going away so soon.
"You can stare at me like that all day," he told her, shifting himself to press more up against the wall. "I got nothing for you." When she didn't say anything to that, he finally did glance at her for a moment. "Haven't you wasted enough time on me? What more do you want?"
Minako had the gall to roll her eyes. "I just told you, Shinjiro-senpai. I want to be with you," she said. Though she didn't stutter, he could tell her usual confidence was wavering slightly. She took a deep breath, and waited for him to look her in the eyes again. "I love you."
She hadn't said it loudly, but it felt like the entire world had gone quiet around them. There were a couple of others in the dorm that night, but Shinjiro couldn't even remember who. "Huh?" That couldn't be real.
In his dreams, she'd said it a few times. He pretended each morning when he woke up she hadn't, and that he hadn't thought about it in the first place. Vaguely, with all the processing power he had left, he wondered if this, too, was a dream.
When she didn't move from her spot, and he had to keep breathing, Shinjiro realized it wasn't. Heat flooded his face. "D-don't tease me like that!" He said, much louder than he intended. Though he was already against the wall, he tried to push himself back even further.
This couldn't be happening.
Minako, however, pouted and put her hands on her hips. "I'm not teasing you!" She said, eyebrows furrowing in defiance. "You don't believe me? It took a lot to say that, you know!"
Well, Shinjiro supposed, I could just die right here. "Th-that's not what I…" He tried, trailing off before looking away from her again. The only time he usually felt this warm was when he got fevers from his pills. "I mean, why just blurt out something like that?" he asked, looking around the room but not really seeing anything. The idea that anyone could be listening in on them… "Here, of all places?"
"Fine then," Minako said, still pouting. "Can I go to your room, then?"
Shinjiro's eyebrows flew up to his hairline. "What?" Again, much louder than he meant to. "You moron! I ain't a nice guy. I can't let you in my room. Don't you get it?"
The things that he'd dreamed of in there alone was enough of a reason to refuse her. Even if she was, quite literally, confessing to him right now, he couldn't do that to her. His mind was starting to short circuit, however. If she kept pushing him, he didn't know if he'd have the control to stop himself.
Minako was really in front of him, demanding to be let into his space. In his personal space. Because she apparently loved him.
It was heaven and hell combined.
"I still want to go," she said, moving her hands off of her hips to clasp them behind her back. "Please? You said you didn't want to talk about that here, after all."
He shook his head, trying to figure out what, exactly, was going on. How, exactly, this interaction had went from normal to… whatever this was. "No way," he refused. "It's not gonna happen." When Minako opened her mouth again, he continued, trying to get his point across. "Look, you need to watch yourself," he tried his best to explain. "Don't bother with someone like me."
Minako audibly gasped. "No way!" She said, shaking her own head so hard he could see her ponytail hit her cheeks. "I know you… I know you don't like yourself very much," she said quietly, looking down at her shoes, "but I still love you. I've come to that conclusion on my own. It's okay if you don't feel the same, but you can't tell me not to bother with you!"
"Idiot," he said, though this insult came out a lot more fondly then the last. "You're being serious, aren't you?"
It's not that he really thought that she was playing with him, but… it was too good to be true and the worst thing that could've happened at the same time. Not even a full two days ago had he finally sat down with himself and decided that he would no longer try and be with her or spend time with her.
That didn't last long, apparently.
From in front of him, Minako nodded, not saying anything else.
Belatedly, Shinjiro realized that he hadn't given her a proper answer one way or another. "Fine," he said, forcing the word out of his throat. It was a lot easier than he expected. "Let's talk upstairs, okay?"
The only person besides him that had ever been his room up until this point was Akihiko. With Aki, Shinjiro didn't have a reason to feel embarrassed - Aki understood why he barely had any belongings and growing up like that. He'd been adopted and become a Sanada, for however long that had lasted, but the core of his upbringing was the same as Shinjiro's.
Alone, starved for money and affection in that old rundown orphanage.
With Minako there, Shinjiro felt a little awkward. He'd put a bit together from their previous conversations about her own upbringing, but she's had a family. At least for a while, from he'd gathered.
He moved close to his desk to clean against it, looking away from her curious eyes. "So?" He asked, trying his best to sort out the number of emotions he was cycling through. "Happy now?"
Minako smiled at him, a pink dust covering her cheeks. "Almost."
Shinjiro couldn't help but roll his eyes. "You're always pushing me around all the time," he said. "You're just gonna ignore what I want, huh?"
He said that, but he was torn. What did he want? In his heart of hearts, Shinjiro knew that he wanted Minako. The feelings she'd confessed to him downstairs were returned in full, and he felt like he was about to burst from the thought of it alone.
Part of him, however, wanted to kick her out. Wanted to kick himself for even allowing things to spin this wildly out of control in the first place. It was already October. His clock was almost stopped, and Minako's… well, he was never sure with that girl, but he wanted - needed, really - her to have more time then him.
That was the truth of the matter, he'd realized not too long ago. Above everything else, above even himself, Shinjiro wanted Minako to be happy. That was why he'd let her force her way up here. That was why he was even continuing this ridiculous train of thought in the first place. He knew that even though he was essentially giving her a corpse, it was what Minako wanted.
It hurt that he hadn't been entirely honest with her about it, though. That it was a possibility that if she knew didn't have much time left, she would change her mind.
Somehow, though, Shinjiro knew she wouldn't. From the last month of truly getting to know the SEES field leader, he knew what kind of person Minako Arisato was.
Genuine, and so very stubborn. Once she had her mind set on something, there was little anyone else could do to stop her.
He sighed, finally moving his eyes to meet her gaze as straight on as he could muster. "Yeah, well, two can play that game."
For once in his life, Shinjiro Aragaki allowed himself to give in to what he wanted. Moving quickly, he stepped into her space and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in as close as he could. He could feel her squeak against his chest more then he actually heard it.
"This is your fault, you know," he continued when she didn't say anything, sighing lightly into her hair. "I'm all confused. You're all I can think about, day and night. Dammit, this isn't how it's supposed to be," he trailed off, tightening his grip on her.
Minako stilled, breathing slowly. "Senpai?" She asked, her voice a quiet whisper.
Slowly, using every piece of willpower he had left, Shinji let go of her, trying to control his breathing. "You get it, right?" He asked, nodding towards the door. "Go back to your room."
Honestly, he wasn't even sure why he was trying. He knew exactly what her answer would be. "Absolutely not," Minako replied, moving back into his space with ease. "I'm not going anywhere."
"If you don't go now, you're not gonna get another chance," Shinjiro warned.
The tiny girl in front of him scowled. "I just told you, I'm not going anywhere!"
Even though he was trying not to, he smiled. "You're a real piece of work, you know that?" He laughed a little, trying to give her one last out. She may have been serious about being in love with him, but… he would never force her into anything. He didn't know what that meant, or what she wanted from that. "I'm gonna make myself clear. I ain't holding back any more."
Before Shinjiro could even blink, Minako took both of his hands into her own. "I was serious, Senpai. I love you. I don't want you to hold back with me." Her red eyes bored into his, and any doubt at all that he'd had faded away with that one look. "Please. Please."
Instead of replying, he leaned in, pressing his lips against her own. He'd dreamed about it, a few times now, but his dreams were nothing compared to the real thing.
They were so soft. Untangling one of his hands from hers, he moved it over to hold her face.
He hadn't exactly done this many times, but for some reason, like everything else, it felt natural with Minako. His thumb moved to stroke her cheek lightly, and he had to suppress a shiver when she sighed into his lips, wrapping her arms around his neck. It was obvious that she had wanted to do this for a long time as well, and that fact just made Shinji kiss her harder.
"I've wanted this for so long," Minako whispered against his lips when they finally broke apart, confirming his thoughts. She slid back down off her tip toes, but didn't move her eyes from his own. "You have no idea."
"I think I have some idea," Shinjiro replied, moving to sit down on the bed. "I told you already, you're always in my head."
Despite her flushed face, Minako beamed at him as she sat down beside him. "I want a real response, though, senpai," she said. It was so her he almost laughed.
Part of him didn't want to say those three words back to her. Not because he didn't feel them, because he did, but because that meant a true commitment. That meant that when it was his time to go, he would have this attachment that he couldn't get over. That she wouldn't be able to get over.
Akihiko had been a given, but he was strong. Much stronger than Shinjiro. He had gotten through losing Miki, after all, he could get through losing him. He knew Minako had lost her parents, so technically the same logic should have applied to her, but even he knew it would be different.
It would be very different, if they crossed that line.
But he couldn't stop it anymore. He wouldn't be able to even if he tried. After kissing her like that, he desperately wanted more - wanted to show her how deeply he felt for her. Wanted to give his last few remaining days to her as much as he could, in any way that he could.
"I love you," he said after a moment of quiet, looking down at the floor. "I love you and-"
Before he could even apologize for things that hadn't come to pass yet, Minako's lips were on his again, and whatever train of thought went flying through the window.
Shinjiro's brain completely short circuited when she pushed into him a bit too hard, sending them both down onto the bed. Minako's face was still red, and her breathing was shallow, and whatever he'd been trying to convince himself not to do with her was now suddenly at the forefront of his mind.
She let out a small yelp as he flipped their positions, hovering over her for a moment before bending down to kiss her again. Her hands went into his hair, pushing his beanie off onto the ground next to them. His coat was next to go, and Shinjiro shivered involuntarily. Whether that was because of the sudden cold or her hands now on his back, pulling him closer to her, he wasn't sure. Probably both.
Slowly, he moved his lips away from hers, looking at her with as much seriousness as he could in that moment. "If you want to stop, tell me," he told her. His head was going a mile a minute, wondering when that line would be drawn. If it was drawn at all. "Okay?"
Minako merely nodded before wrapping her arms around his neck and bringing him down to her again.
When he woke up, Minako was sound asleep next to him, curled into the blankets like it was her natural habitat. Shinjiro stared at her often throughout the day, but even though he was still blinking sleep from his eyes, he took extra care to commit this picture to memory.
The pajamas she'd snuck up to grab were clearly old and well-loved, judging from how rough the material had come, but somehow it endeared her to him more. At this point, Shinjiro reasoned with himself, he wasn't sure there was anything Minako could do that wouldn't, though.
He let out a light sigh before moving himself slowly off the bed as to not wake her. A quick glance at the watch on his nightstand told him it was coming up on 3 AM, which didn't surprise him. Shinjiro had always been a light sleeper, but the drugs made it so much worse. Quietly, he made his way over to his desk, pulling out the bottle.
Taking them made him sick, but not taking them made things unbearable. No matter what he did, he lost. Some days he wondered if he even should've started taking them in the first place, even with how out of control Castor had gotten.
On those days, he would then remember exactly why he had left Aki and Mitsuru originally, and one good look at Ken was all that he needed to take two dry.
Since he'd joined back up with SEES, he'd been taking them a lot less. As much as he hated Castor, he needed him in Tartarus or there was no chance of him surviving. That said, he'd lied when he implied to Akihiko that he'd stopped taking them completely. The withdrawal side effects were horrible, and he'd been taking such a high dosage by the time he rejoined the team that one or two every day didn't exactly do much to his power.
All they did now was keep him glued together; as if they weren't the very things that had torn his body to shreds.
"What are you doing?"
Shinjiro jumped a little, dropping the bottle back onto his desk. He swore under his breath as it made a noise, turning around to face a now very awake Minako. "Go back to sleep," he told her instead of replying. "It's late."
But this was Minako he had in his room, so of course she didn't listen. Instead, she pushed herself out of bed, eyes narrowed at his desk. It was dark in his room, but between the slivers of moonlight and the streetlight down the street, he knew her eyes would adjust too quickly for him to hide the bottle.
She frowned, creeping towards him. "Are those... Persona suppressants?" Her eyes were trained right onto where his pill bottle had fallen, and his stomach dropped. He hadn't wanted to have this conversation with her tonight - maybe not ever, seeing as it was already coming up on the 4th.
He turned away from her, snatching the bottle off of his desk before she could make a move for it. "Doesn't matter," he tried, shoving it into the pockets of his pajamas. "Go back to sleep, Minako. It's really late."
Without looking at her, Shinjiro knew her arms were crossed, and her bright red eyes were narrowing at him. "I'm not going back to sleep until you tell me what that is," she said, tone a lot less angry then he expected it to be. It just sounded… sad. "Please. I thought…"
He knew what she was trying to say even though she couldn't bring herself to finish it. I thought we were past this, after last night.
"Who told you?" He finally asked, knowing there were three other people who had seen him with them. "Aki or Iori?"
After a moment, Shinjiro finally turned around to look at Minako's scowl face to face. "Junpei," she said after he did, her arms dropping to her sides. "He told me the day it happened, but I didn't want to push you. Thought that maybe you'd tell me on your own."
Shinjiro's throat went dry at the realization. That had been early September, meaning that all this time she'd known and still sought him out. Still fallen in love with him. He swallowed harshly. "I'm sorry," was all he could think of to say. "I… I don't take enough to suppress it, anymore."
The world seemed to be moving in slow motion as Minako's hand reached out for his own before falling limply back down. "Why did you start in the first place?"
He knew he owed her that conversation, but he wasn't ready. Not when he'd already fucked up by confessing to her and then… No, he knew he couldn't do that to her. He'd already done enough damage. Letting Minako know that he was a dead man walking wasn't right.
But would it be better then not knowing? He wondered in the back of his mind. Ultimately, probably not. Either way he was going to die. Either way she'd given her heart to him when he was already heading towards the guillotine, and he'd done nothing to stop it. All of his attempts had been feeble, and deep in his soul, he knew that. He was too selfish for anything else.
"I hurt someone once," he settled on telling her. Not the whole truth but far closer to it then he should've been saying. "I didn't want to ever do that again."
Minako's frown softened. "But the side effects…"
"Don't worry about them," he said quickly, not wanting to go there. It didn't matter anyways, he knew, because he wasn't going to be around long enough to get the worst of them. What he dealt with now was manageable, considering the only two people that had ever noticed were the two people closest to him. "Let's go back to sleep now."
Luckily, Minako wasn't oblivious, and she wasn't cruel. She knew when to stop pushing him, and after a sigh, nodded, crawling back onto the side she'd been sleeping on. "I still love you, you know," she whispered, and he smiled softly at her.
"I know." Whether that made things better or worse, Shinjiro had yet to figure out.
The next day, all things considered, passed by fairly normally. Minako had left his room early that morning to get ready for class, and when she got home, while she might have spent extra time talking to him about her day before carrying on with other activities, she didn't…
Shinjiro wasn't sure, honestly. There was clearly a change - in her demeanor, in the way she smiled at him - but she didn't make it overt. The only one who picked up on it, unsurprisingly, was Akihiko, who confronted him after she went up to her room to change for the day.
"Did something happen?" Aki started off, tone already slightly accusatory. "The two of you seem weird, and Yukari said she heard her fumbling around this morning trying to get into her room."
Rolling his eyes, Shinji scoffed. "What does it matter to you?" He asked in response, tugging his beanie further down his forehead. "I don't know why you keep asking."
Akihiko scowled. "It matters to me because you matter to me," he said, fists tight at his sides. "She matters, too. You both are important to me, but you're my brother, Shinji. I just want…"
He trailed off, and Shinjiro held back a wince. It was always hard when Akihiko got like this; reminding him of yet another connection that he would hurt when his fate came to pass. It was also a reminder of how much Akihiko still needed. He hadn't been lying when he'd told Minako that he needed her to watch out for him once he wasn't around, even if he hadn't said it in that many words.
"It doesn't matter," Shinjiro said firmly. Not after tomorrow, anyways, he thought, but didn't add. "We just… talked real late last night, is all." It wasn't a total lie, and it was absolutely more than he needed to tell Akihiko. Every time he pulled the brother line, though, Shinjiro felt compelled to at least give him something for all his years of dealing with his bullshit. This was no exception.
His friend's eyebrows rose, his aggravated expression slowly melting away. "That's all, huh?" He asked, disbelief crystal clear in his voice. "Next time you want to just talk," Akihiko continued, hand going to his hip, "tell her not to be such a bad liar when confronted by Yukari."
That night, when he went to his room for the night, Shinjiro took the time to put everything he owned - however little of it - into the cardboard box he'd brought when he came back to the dorm. All the gear and cookies books he'd picked up over the last few weeks fit neatly inside, leaving plenty of space.
It said a lot more about him then he wished.
The only thing he couldn't bear to put back into the box was his pocket watch. He tried, a few more times then necessary, but it felt… wrong. Not only was it his oldest possession, but Minako had went through all that trouble to return it to him.
It held so many more memories now because of her. That night at the park, the night she'd practically forced her way inside his room were memories that he clung to in these last hours he had. Resigning himself to keep it in his coat pocket, he put the coat on his desk chair and sat down on his bed.
This would be the last night he'd look at this view. Tomorrow, by the way Ken had been eyeing him, would be his last day of living.
He thought he'd be ready for it. He thought he'd make sure he went with no regrets. Dying was harder than it seemed, even if it was a death one had prepared for.
Shinjiro sighed, dropping his face into his hands. Had he lived to the fullest? Could he really go with no regrets? So much of the last few years had been spent trying to rid himself of his guilt; wallowing in it and never letting himself move on. Akihiko had been right, and he'd been a fool.
But he couldn't just let that guilt go. He'd not only killed another person because of his own lack of control, but he'd orphaned a child. Taken Ken's mother away from him, right in front of his eyes.
It wasn't right. An eye for an eye, a life for a life. If Ken wanted to end him, so be it. And it wasn't like Shinjiro could live with the guilt, anyways. He'd tried - not really, but there had been a few attempts. But it always came back to what he did, what he allowed to happen. Even if Ken hadn't been the one to do it, Shinjiro had made sure that he wouldn't have much of a life regardless.
Finally allowing himself to lay back in his bed, Shinji closed his eyes. Hopefully, if the universe was kind to him, he'd have one last dream about Minako.
His heart felt heavy at the thought of her. She was strong, he reminded himself. She was stronger than anyone he's ever met. If there was anyone he could count on to take care of Aki after his passing, it was her. And eventually, he could help her in return.
He just had to have faith.
That morning, he was greeted by Ken standing outside his room. The look on his face was not something anyone his age should ever have to feel, and whatever regret Shinjiro felt about what was likely to occur that night fizzled up.
"Shinjiro," Ken said, rubbing his arm slowly. "Meet me in the back alley of Tatsumi Port Island tonight. Alone."
Shinjiro nodded slowly. "The one where I helped out the second years, right?" He asked, and at Ken's nod, he sighed. "Yeah. I'll be there." He wasn't surprised that was the location he'd asked for.
That was where everything had spun out of control.
Ken didn't say anything to that. Just turned on his heels and headed for the stairs. That was fine by him. There wasn't much he had to say to Ken at that moment, anyways - that could all wait for tonight, so he could say his final piece after Ken got what he needed out of him.
It was the least he could do for the kid.
"Fuuka," Shinjiro said by means of a greeting. It was Sunday afternoon, and in a few short hours, the rest of SEES would be on a Full Moon Operation. "I have something I need to take care of, so I'll join up with the rest of you later on." He felt bad for lying, but he knew that he couldn't tell anyone the truth.
His junior blinked up at him, nodding slowly. "I understand, senpai," she said, giving him a small smile. "I know you wouldn't miss this unless it were truly important. I'll make sure everyone knows."
Truly important, huh? He almost wanted to laugh. "Thanks," he replied with a nod. With every word, every step into that day, the world felt like it was closing in on him. "I appreciate it."
Fuuka was such a kind girl. A terrible cook, but an honest and hardworking person. It was no wonder Minako was so drawn to her, joining cooking club to try and help her out. Shinjiro knew she would be sad, but she, too, was strong. She'd taken very well to her role as Navigator within the group, supporting all of SEES whenever she could.
He hoped that when he was gone, she would continue to be a strong shoulder for them all to lean on.
"You came," Ken said, seemingly surprised. Instead of replying, Shinjiro just made his way closer to Ken. "I'm surprised you abandoned the operation," Ken continued, very obviously trying to make himself sound more upbeat. "Do you know why I asked you to meet me here?"
Still, Shinjiro forced himself not to reply. This was for Ken's sake, he kept reminding himself. He would let him say whatever he needed - get out whatever feelings he felt about his mother. About what had happened to her.
Ken looked down at the ground, a frown creeping up on his lips. "Two years ago today… October 4th. That was the day my mom died here. They called it an accident," he said, his voice growing a little shaky, "but it wasn't. I saw the whole thing." This was the part Shinjiro had braced himself for. He steeled his face; calmed his nerves so he wouldn't shake. Ken looked at him with a venomous glare. "You murdered her!"
Shinjiro took a deep breath, but still did not respond. Ken wasn't wrong. There wasn't anything to say to his accusations. I'm sorry would never, ever be enough.
"Since then," Ken continued after a moment, eyes going back to the ground, "it's been one bad thing after another. And all I get from people is sympathy, no matter where I go. What's the point in living? I even thought about killing myself," he said, and Shinjiro felt his stomach plummet. "But Mom wouldn't have wanted that. That's why I decided that I had to find her killer - you!"
The words hurt more than Shinjiro had expected them to. None of what Ken said was untrue. He'd killed his mother. He'd ruined this child's life. All of it, anything that Ken experienced, it was entirely on him.
"You said once that you wanted to forget what happened on that day," Ken said, looking back at Shinjiro. "So when I found out it was a full moon today, I knew I had to confront you. Today, Mom is watching over me."
Here it comes, Shinjiro thought to himself. His fists tightened in his coat pockets, but still, he did not say anything.
"I'll make you remember what you did to her!" Ken shouted, pushing himself into a fighting stance. "I'm gonna kill you!" His voice bounced off the eerie green and red walls of the dark hour, not a single living soul around to hear them.
Besides Shinjiro. "Do it," he finally said, meeting Ken's angry eyes head on. "I won't stop you." Shinjiro took a deep breath, trying to collect his thoughts. He'd known, since he rejoined SEES, that this day was coming. Hell, he'd known before that he was going to die. It was the fate he'd condemned himself to since the incident. But finally getting to confess this to Ken was something he hadn't prepared for. "You're right," he admitted. "I wanted to forget. That's why I left the group, and tried to suppress my power. But nothing I did could erase the memory. And now I find myself here - the last place I want to be."
Across from him, Ken didn't say anything, and didn't continue to hold Shinjiro's gaze. His lance lowered, but only slightly. The younger boy was breathing sharply, and Shinjiro could hear the shallow breaths over the ambiance of the Dark Hour. Shinjiro looked away then, also, doing his best to muster up the courage to say the last part of what Ken needed to hear.
What he himself needed to hear out loud. "It's my fault," Shinjiro told him. His chest clenched painfully, and it wasn't from the drugs. "This is what I deserve. But let me give you one warning."
"Warning…?" Ken echoed, raising his head once more.
These words wouldn't change his own fate, Shinjiro knew, but maybe they could spare Ken. He deserved better than living a life full of regret. "If you decide to take my life, you'll end up like me. Just remember that."
Scowling, Ken shook his head. "Is that supposed to change my mind?"
"Even if all you have now is hatred, one day you'll regret it," Shinjiro explained.
"Shut up!" Ken shouted back, raising his weapon high again. "That's a load of crap!"
Shinjiro shifted slightly, about to tell Ken that he was ready to accept his fate, when he heard a new set of footsteps come out from the alleyways. "He is correct," a horribly familiar voice sounded. "There is no reason for him to feel regret," Takaya continued as he stepped out of the shadows, revealing himself to both of them. His body was jut as awful as Shinjiro remembered it. "That is the nature of revenge. Is it not permissible to kill those who are themselves killers?"
Though put off by his presence, Ken nodded. "That's right," he said, nearly stumbling over his words.
Shinjiro, across from him, continued tensing until he was wound as tightly as he could go. This could end in multiple ways, and none of them were good. "What do you want?" He asked, narrowing his eyes at the newcomer.
Takaya looked at him blankly. "The loss of Chidori has posed a bit of a challenge for us," he said, pausing to finally show his true nature. Shinjiro was suddenly staring down the barrel of a gun. "But we cannot simply ignore your meddling."
Shinjiro ground his teeth together almost painfully. "You bastard." Doing his best to do so without being noticed, he tried to catalog the things around him. Any possible escape routes, any possible ways to get the gun out from Takaya's hands without getting shot, and any potential ways to make sure Ken got out of there in one piece.
"Do not fear," Takaya said, clicking his tongue at him. "This life is but a stepping stone. Salvation shall be yours." Takaya's finger rested comfortably on the trigger as he spoke, as if to prove a point, as he moved the gun to face Ken.
"What!?" Shinjiro's heart stopped dead in his chest. Without thinking, he moved in between the two, keeping his eyes on Takaya the entire time.
Takaya raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "My," he said, speaking as if he wasn't pointing a gun at a child mere moments ago, "trying to protect your would-be murderer?" He lowered the gun for a moment, shaking his head. "You cannot defy fate. Whether or not it comes at this boy's hand, you will die tonight." Every word was said sharply, making sure neither Shinjiro nor Ken could miss what he meant.
Shinjiro shifted every so slightly, but Ken looked alarmed. "What's he talking about?!" He asked, grip on his own weapon loosening in his confusion.
Takaya didn't look towards Ken, instead continuing to keep his eyes on Shinjiro. "You've been taking those pills for some time now," he said, shrugging a little. "You don't have much longer."
"That's bullshit!" His lungs may not have been doing well, but at the very least he had another few months. Especially with how little he'd been taking them lately.
"Listen to your body," Takaya encouraged. "You know it to be true."
In an instant, Shinjiro knew exactly what Takaya was trying to do. If he was shot and killed that night, or even if Ken was the one to finish the job, he'd always have this lingering question on whether his revenge had actually done anything. Glaring fiercely at the man, he wanted nothing more than to rip that stupid thing out of his hand and tear it apart with his own two hands.
Ken looked between them. "What does he mean?" He asked, panic starting to set in. Shinjiro swore. "You're going to die? No matter what I do? That's not fair!" Ken frantically shook his head, and though it was his own life on the line, Shinjiro felt his heart break for the kid. "All this time! I've been waiting for this!"
It was murder Ken was talking about, but he could've very well been talking about losing his mother all over again. The anguish in his voice hurt to listen to. In all honesty, maybe it did feel somewhat like failing his mother. Maybe even losing her. Shinjiro was the thing that took her away, he knew. Maybe to Ken, if he died of natural - or in this case, self inflicted - causes, it wouldn't be the same as avenging her. It would feel like he had done nothing to mourn her at all.
"The cause of death is not of importance," Takaya said, waving Ken's cries away. "Besides, the breath of life is faint in you as well, child." Shinjiro's mind jumped to what Ken had told him earlier, about Ken considering suicide. Everything froze for a moment as Takaya continued talking. "After killing him, you were planning to join him, were you not?"
It felt like hours until Shinjiro had gotten the will to speak again. The idea that Ken was willing to kill himself after killing him was just… too much to bear. The whole point was that he didn't want to be in the world so Ken could thrive. "Ken, don't-"
Takaya, however, ignored him entirely. He pulled the gun back up, and Shinjiro yet again stared down the cool metal barrel. "Since you are both destined to perish, allow me to do the honors. A slight change in timing shouldn't matter too much."
Scowling, Shinjiro barred his teeth. "Go to hell!"
He felt it before he heard it. The noise was painful, ringing in his ears like a drum, but the actual pain itself had him on the ground faster than he could've ever imagined it. His brain could barely even register the small no Ken managed to whisper out as he hit the ground.
Vaguely, he knew he was bleeding. His hand was wet, and over the lower part of his stomach, so he guessed that was where he'd been shot. In all honesty, he had no idea. He'd never thought about it much, but he never imagined it to be like this.
Slowly, Shinjiro forced himself to breathe. Ken was still in danger. He'd been through worse in Tartarus - okay, maybe not worse, but he'd certainly been through hell. If he could get through two years on the streets and all the incredibly difficult battles he'd been in as a Persona user, he could manage a gunshot.
"Now then," Takaya said, continuing on as if nothing had happened at all, "with what life you have left, answer me this: there is one like Chidori among you, is there not?" Adrenaline was starting to kick in hard and fast, and Shinjiro had to take his time repeating the words Takaya spoke to himself in his head. Before he could formulate an answer, however, Takaya continued. "This has enabled you to locate and defeat those we wish to protect. Now tell me, which one of you is it?"
Neither Shinjiro nor Ken responded immediately. Shinjiro mostly because he was still trying to get a grip on the situation - being shot hurt more than he'd expected it to, even if Takaya hadn't aimed for anything vital. Probably on purpose, the bastard. Ken, however, was frozen behind him.
"If you don't expedite your answer, then this will hurt you more than it hurts me," Takaya said, slowly lifting the gun back up.
Shinjiro had just managed to make it back onto his knees before he felt himself crumple back onto the ground. Vital or not, his body was not in any kind of shape to be able to take this. He really was going to die there tonight, wasn't he? No matter what he did.
Sorry Minako, he thought to himself, heaving as he tried to once again force himself up off the ground. This was much worse then what he'd had in mind for the night.
From above him, Takaya's lips curled into a sneer. "What's the matter?" He asked, clearly mocking him. "Cat got your tongue?"
In between breaths, Shinjiro forced himself to shake his head. "There's," he started, stopping quickly at how difficult it was to talk. He'd be damned if they got to anyone on SEES though. Not through him. "There's no one." It wasn't confidence inspiring, but at least it was a complete sentence.
Shinjiro and Takaya stared at each other for moment. Something in his face must've said enough to the Strega member, because he moved his foot up to get ready to kick him right in the wound. Before Shinjiro could even think to try and move away, however, Ken stepped in front of him.
"Wait!" Ken called out, his lance falling to the ground. "It-it's me!"
Whether it was something on Shinjiro's pained face or something in Ken's tone, Takaya frowned deeply. "Is that true?" He asked, disbelief clear in his tone.
It was good thinking on Ken's part, but he froze up once again as Takaya looked him up and down. Even focusing on a bullet lodged into his gut Shinjiro could practically hear the kid gulp.
"Yes," Ken finally replied after what felt like hours. "That's the only reason they let me join." His words were rushed, forced even, but anyone might have that kind of reaction to the current situation.
Shinjiro, however, couldn't let that happen. He was a child. He had so much life left to live, so much he could still accomplish - unlike himself. "Ken," he breathed out, slowly losing focus of his injury as the adrenaline took over. "No!"
Takaya, however, wasn't having it. Walking around Ken, he sent a swift kick right into his gut, and Shinji let out a cry. "Quiet," Takaya hissed. "You had your chance."
Frantically, Ken forced himself back into Takaya's line of sight. "It doesn't matter anymore," he said quickly. "I'll never have my revenge." A small sob wracked the boy's frame, and even from the ground, Shinjiro wanted nothing more than to reach out to him. "I have no reason to live," he trailed off, whipping his head back and forth likely in an attempt to clear it.
"I see," Takaya said, surveying the young boy in front of him. Shinjiro breathed through his teeth, trying once again in vain to get in between the two. "So, you have achieved resolution." With most certainly not enough care, Takaya raised his gun to face directly into Ken's skull. "How enviable. Then you shall be first. Rest peacefully."
Ken looked down at the ground, purposefully avoiding where Shinjiro struggled. "Mom," he whispered to himself.
If asked, Shinjiro could not remember what exactly had happened. The pain he felt from the gunshot and from the kick into it was excruciating, unlike anything he had ever experienced. But when the gun was pointed at Ken, when he whispered out for his mother like he was still just a boy - he was still just a boy, a boy forced into something too big for him - Shinjiro let his body move on its own.
With the remainders of his strength, he launched himself up in between Ken and Takaya before either of them could blink an eye.
If the first shot had hurt, these two damn near killed him. At the same time, Shinjiro barely felt it. He coughed hard, his whole body wracking on the ground. He could feel the way his body strained against the movement. His vision kept going from blurry to worse, but Shinjiro kept blinking to keep himself awake.
"What is the meaning of this?" Takaya hissed out, and Shinjiro could imagine he was probably staring at his limp body. He couldn't move his head enough to check. "Why would you risk your life to save the child?"
What a stupid question, Shinjiro wanted to reply. My life had always been forfeit since I killed his mother. It was never even a question for him.
Ken, from above him, dropped down to his knees with a cry. "Shinjiro-san…!"
He wanted to reach out to the younger boy. Wanted to tell him not to worry. That this was how things were supposed to be. He opened his mouth to try, but ended up just coughing instead. Maybe later, then.
"Shinji!" Even though he was in excruciating pain, even though the buzzing in his ears was getting louder and louder as time passed, Shinjiro would know that voice anywhere. Aki.
Takaya sighed. "And now your comrades arrive," he said, aggravated and weary. "Is there any moment of joy they won't intrude upon? Perhaps another time, then."
As Takaya's footsteps faded, a different set grew closer. Shinjiro blinked, looking up at Akihiko. His best friend. His brother.
"Shinji!" He was breathing heavily, as if he'd been running for hours. "Shinji, hey!" He repeated, and Shinjiro blinked himself awake again. "Hang in there!"
Ken didn't say anything to Akihiko; just continued to stare at the blood slowly coming out of Shinjiro's body. Another set of footsteps approached, and with shaking bones, Ken followed Akihiko after them.
Straining himself, Shinjiro looked up to see a frazzled Mitsuru… and behind her, a shell-shocked Minako. "Shinjiro!" Mitsuru called out, rushing forward.
Other voices joined hers, but Shinjiro wasn't paying attention anymore. All he could focus on was Minako's face - her wide, red eyes, the way her lips were parted as if she couldn't keep herself together.
He'd never wanted her to see him like this. He'd wanted… he'd wanted to atone for his sins in peace, not get shot in the chest saving someone. Shinji's ability to concentrate was draining fast, however, and if everyone was going to be there, he might as well tell them something useful before he died.
There was no escaping it now, Shinjiro knew. He was going to die.
"Ken," Shinjiro tried to say, though it came out much more garbled then he would've liked. The youngest SEES member moved forward, looking at him with his jaw unhinged. "Why the long face?" He couldn't help but crack a smile. "Isn't this what you wanted?" It hurt to speak. Every word felt like it took forever to escape from his lips and make itself into something legible. "It's alright," he continued best he could. "Give yourself time. Let your anger be your strength."
Ken's face didn't change, and nobody else dared to speak a word. Another cough shook Shinjiro's body, but he kept his eyes on Ken's. He coughed again, feeling something wet come out of his mouth. Blood, probably.
"You're still just a kid, Ken," he reminded him, gently as he could. "You got your whole life ahead of ya." Takaya's words about Ken killing himself after getting his revenge still rung out in his head. "So don't waste it," he said as firmly as he could muster. "Make it your own. Okay?"
Ken shook his head frantically, tears spilling down his cheeks unbidden. "But I," he said, a sob forcing its way out of his throat. "I…!"
Shinjiro turned his head to Akihiko, who he hadn't remembered kneeling down next to him at all. He was much more out of it then he thought. "Aki," he said, watching as his best friend's mouth twisted from its firm line into an unreadable expression. "Take care of him."
The last time he remembered seeing such a pained look on Aki's face was when Miki died. "I will," Akihiko promised him, clasping one of his hands tightly with both of his.
Ken shifted, and someone else took his place. Much like Ken, Minako's face was wet and shiny as tears continued to fall freely from her eyes. That's not right, Shinjiro thought to himself, forcing his free hand to touch her cheek. Her skin was just as soft as it had been the other night in his room, where he'd done his best to memorize the way it felt against his own.
This was why he hadn't wanted to tell her before. Since he'd lost control of Castor and killed Ken's mother, Shinjiro had been certain of his fate. He didn't deserve to live. He didn't deserve to continue to walk the Earth while he'd taken a child's mother from him. If anyone knew how cruel that fate was, it was himself. The fact that he'd orphaned someone, when he'd lived through that life…
It was cruel. It was too cruel. This was why he hadn't wanted to get tangled up with Minako at all his own feelings be damned. She was so much more beautiful when she smiled. Crying over someone like him… what a waste, Shinjiro couldn't help but think.
"Don't cry, Minako," he told her, giving her the best smile he could manage. It was probably ruined by the blood that dripped down his chin. "This is how it should be."
He coughed again, this time harsher than before, and Minako gripped onto his hand as if it were her lifeline. "No," she whispered out, fingernails digging into Shinjiro's hand. "No! I don't want to lose anyone else!"
Everything was fading around him. "Smile for me," Shinjiro asked her, though he wasn't even sure if the words made it through. "One more time." He didn't want the last thing he saw to be Minako crying over him.
Before he lost consciousness, he felt her grip on his hand loosen, and she awarded him with one of the biggest smiles he'd ever seen from her. It was watery, and a little shaky, but Shinjiro didn't think he'd ever seen something so beautiful. "I love you, senpai," she whispered. Or at least, he thought she did.
And then everything went black.
Shinjiro didn't think this was what being dead was like.
Most of the time, he just felt asleep. Every so often, he'd dream - or at least, what he thought was dreaming. Mostly of Minako. Sometimes of the other SEES members, usually Aki or Fuuka.
Sometimes he dreamed of the night he'd spent with Minako, on the day she'd confessed to him. He'd dream of all the things they did that night, and the things he'd wanted to do but hadn't been ready for. Hadn't wanted to burden her with when he was just a corpse masquerading as living.
Other times, he dreamed of the two of them just… talking. Like they had that one night in the common room of the dorm, with him just listening to all her stories and how full of life she was. He'd learned so much about her that night - not specifics, though there were some, but just… her. Minako. How she thought and felt about the world around her.
He didn't know what she'd been through, what had caused her to jump around homes so much from when she was young until she started attending Gekkoukan High. But he did know that she was lonely, even though people flocked to her for some reason. That she did her best to appease everything and everyone, almost as if like him, she had known she was running on borrowed time.
Once or twice, he'd dreamed of Fuuka telling him about cooking. About the party they'd held, where he taught her the basics of some dishes. He knew she was in the cooking club along with Minako, and on the few times he'd dreamt of Fuuka, she'd talk about the new things that Minako had shown her how to make.
The times he'd dreamed of Akihiko were the hardest, however. Like with most of his Minako dreams, it was usually just them talking. Mostly Aki talking at him, honestly, telling him about all the shit that was going on in the dorms or with the Dark Hour.
The first time he'd dreamed of Akihiko it had started out so normal. Him talking about cutting class to eat ramen, and how Shinjiro had better invite him the next time he went. It didn't stay that way, though.
Akihiko quickly devolved into saying things that Shinjiro didn't understand. Angry at him for not saying anything back, calling him stubborn, asking Shinji to put himself in Aki's shoes for a change.
And then talking about Miki. About how since he'd lost Miki, all he'd wanted was power - the power to protect the people he cared about from ever meeting that kind of fate again. And how wrong he was. How he'd failed, and now Shinjiro was gone and leaving him behind.
The way dream Akihiko had cried would stay with Shinjiro for the rest of his eternal fate. The way he'd asked what he was supposed to do if he lost him, too, almost made him regret everything he'd done. Regret going to meet Ken there in the first place.
Almost. Not entirely. If Shinjiro hadn't been there, what would've happened to Ken? Better the younger member to live his own life then Shinjiro to suffer through the rest of his. He wished he could tell Akihiko that his fate had already been decided.
It was like dream Akihiko had understood that, too, even though Shinjiro could never say anything back in these dreams. He'd told his best friend - his brother - to watch from where he was, and that he still had things to do.
That part didn't hurt so badly. The part that Shinjiro couldn't stop thinking of, even during the times where he wasn't dreaming and the world was just black, was Akihiko telling him that he couldn't carry around that guilt forever.
Minako had told him the same thing in one of his dreams. It had been one of his talking dreams, but it wasn't one of the ones where she kept it to just the things going on in her life and around her. She had told him that he was stupid.
Tell me something I don't know, he'd wanted to reply, but she just kept talking.
Telling him that he was selfish for taking on that burden by himself. That he and Ken could've helped each other and been able to overcome their grief together, had he just given himself a chance.
Telling him that he was the worst for never telling her, even though she'd suspected something and that he must have known that. That she wouldn't have hated him for his mistakes, or even taking those stupid pills. That living with that kind of guilt on your shoulders wasn't living at all.
"When you wake up," Minako had told him, voice sounding stuffy. Like she'd been crying the whole time, even though in his dream, her face had been dry and her red eyes weren't at all puffy. "When you wake up, you have to let it go. You can't keep carrying that with you forever. You have to promise me, okay? You have to let it go and you have to live. You told Ken that he had so much life to live still," she said, and he remembered that. He wanted Ken to do his best to live a good life. "You do, too," Minako said, reaching up to pat him on the cheek. "I love you, senpai, and I want you to live."
At some point, as Shinjiro faded between endless dreams and darkness, something gnawed on him. Something… wasn't right. He hurt in a way he hadn't felt since he'd been shot. The darkness that once surrounded him when he wasn't dreaming suddenly felt like it was clawing at him from all sides.
And for some reason, Shinjiro knew Minako was fighting it all by herself. Alone, she would face this darkness that now loomed over him in his never ending sleep.
"There's nothing we can do!?" It sounded like Ken, but the voice was so far off Shinjiro wasn't sure if he even heard it at all. The darkness seemed to muffle everything.
"We can't give up!" Without a doubt, though, that was Akihiko. He'd know that voice anywhere "We have to believe in her!"
Believing in Minako was something could do. He didn't know where she was, or what she was fighting, but Shinjiro would always believe in her ability to come out on top.
"Give her strength!" What sounded like Mitsuru called out. "Take my life if you must!"
Things went quiet in the blackness again, and Shinjiro waited impatiently. Was Minako alright? Was this actually just another dream? He didn't know, but he wasn't willing to take that risk. Not when it came to Minako. Never with Minako.
"Yeah, I'm willing to risk mine, too!" That one was probably Takeba. Shinjiro had never gotten to know the girl, but Minako spoke of her often back then, and always with a smile.
"She's going to face it all by herself!" Fuuka, undoubtedly. What was Minako facing, he wondered? What was she doing without the help of her team, the people who loved her?
"No, she's not alone!" Iori this time, and Shinjiro couldn't help but smile, alone in his darkness. There was once a point where he'd been skeptical of the younger boy and his friendship with Minako, but he knew the truth now: like Aki was his brother, Iori was hers. The voices were becoming more and more clear with each person speaking, which probably meant they were getting through to Minako. Good. "I won't let her die!"
Another pause, but next time a voice sounded, it was Koromaru. Aigis wasn't translating, but Shinjiro could somehow understand what the dog meant. He was there with her, too.
"I won't allow this world to be destroyed!" The robot girl yelled out, and Shinjiro knew that it was somehow his turn next.
He took a deep breath before speaking into the empty world that surrounded him. "Alright," he said, exhaling. It was the first time he'd tried speaking in what felt like years, but for Minako, he'd push past the discomfort. "Let's do this!"
Though he couldn't see her, didn't know what she was doing, he imagined giving her shoulder a squeeze. I'm with you, he tried to get across to her, to wherever she was fighting. I'm always with you.
Everything went quiet again, but Shinjiro wasn't afraid. He knew Minako could do what was needed of her, whatever that was. He still didn't even know what she was fighting, but that was okay. He had faith.
She had everyone with her, after all.
The next time he dreamed, it was not nearly so depressing. He still wasn't fully sure his last dream had been a dream, but honestly, Shinjiro couldn't even really remember what it was about.
"You know, senpai," a shapeless voice told him in the dark, "we're all supposed to meet on the rooftop at graduation." It was a girl's voice, Shinjiro thought, but not one he recognized. "I know you probably won't be awake by then, and I don't know if anyone else will even remember." She laughed, then, but it sounded fake even to his dead ears. "But I'd love it if you could come. It's March 5th, if you can remember."
The voice stopped for a moment, and Shinjiro mulled around the words in his head. Graduation day. March 5th. That sounded important, but he couldn't for the life of him remember why. Was it because Aki would be graduating? Probably, he thought.
"I'm so tired," it continued. "Like you, I'm now running on borrowed time," she said, and maybe it cracked a smile. "I'm almost out of gas, but I've gotta make it until March 5th. I've gotta have faith everyone else will remember. That includes you, you know." Maybe a pointed look. "Every day hurts. I never knew dying was so painful, even if it was meant to happen."
The voice was quiet for a long time. Long enough Shinjiro thought it had left, without anything else to say. But he knew, for whatever reason, it was still there. Still lingering.
"I love you, senpai," the voice whispered. Shinjiro waited patiently for more - for anything to identify the voice, anything that might help him remember why this random girl was telling him all of this, but nothing came.
Though he didn't remember her - who she was, or even her name - Shinjiro knew that he felt the same.
He faded back into the darkness.
The voice never took a shape. Never took the form of anything he could recognize, but it came to him frequently. Every time, it sounded more tired and worn then the last. Shinjiro's heart would lurch painfully in his chest whenever it would start to cry, or talk about things that he couldn't remember.
What was he forgetting? Whatever it was, it was clearly important to the nameless voice in his dreams. This girl his brain couldn't remember, but his heart did.
Shinjiro blinked. And blinked again.
No matter how many times he did so, the world remained blurry. That was new. Different. He couldn't remember the last time things were blurry - it was always either the darkness or it was a dream. Never this awkward in between.
Everything around him, actually, was muffled. Vaguely, Shinjiro thought he heard a beeping noise. Or something along those lines. Maybe a bird? He wasn't sure. All he knew if that he was surrounded by white blurriness, a far cry from his usual darkness, and an incessant beeping that he wanted to stop.
And then a clatter. He flinched, and something moved around him. He blinked again, trying to get any sense of his bearings.
"Doctor!" Everything sounded so far away, like his ears were filled with cotton. "Doctor, he's awake!"
Not long after, everything went black again.
The next time he woke up, it was much the same. This time, however, he was able to stay awake for a little longer. The doctors were able to talk to him a bit. Everything was still extremely fuzzy, and he still slept almost all the time, but he was alive.
He wasn't sure how, or why he'd even been in the hospital in his condition in the first place, however. But Shinjiro was alive.
He wasn't sure how he felt about that yet.
"How did I survive?" He asked one day to the doctor, as he did his best to do the stretches that were asked of him. "I was shot, right?"
The doctor nodded gravely at him. "The pocket watch on your nightstand," he said, nodding at it. "It was in your chest pocket, and the third bullet had hit that instead of your chest. If it hadn't been there," the doctor trailed off, shaking his head. "Well, I'm sure you know."
Shinjiro smiled wryly at the thing. Ironically enough, the last thing he remembered with it was that he'd lost it somehow. Whoever had given it back to him had saved his life, then.
He wished he could remember who it was.
One morning during his usual routine of a few light stretches, however, everything came flooding back in an instant. The Dark Hour. The Full Moon Operations. Akihiko, his Persona, Ken, Minako.
It was almost too much to bear, the weight of everything pouring into his head. All the burdens that he'd left behind during his coma and subsequent amnesia made him feel like he was chained down to the ground, but Shinjiro grit his teeth.
You can't keep carrying that forever, Minako had told him in a dream. But he knew now it hadn't been a dream at all - that's why he couldn't reply. She had been there, so often, in his hospital room. Talking to him, making sure he knew that she would always be with him. That she loved him still. That she wanted him to be happy.
Minako. Even just saying her name to himself hurt. Something was wrong.
That much was obvious, seeing as he'd forgotten everything that had been central to his life for what was easily months. But something was wrong.
"What's the date today?" He asked the doctor after a moment, frowning deeply.
The doctor, however, looked pleased that he was taking an interest in something. "It's March 5th," he said with a smile. "Graduation day over at Gekkoukan High, actually. My daughter is a second year, so she's not graduating yet, but she's been blabbing on about how cool the ceremony is going to be for a week now."
March 5th. March 5th. For whatever reason, Shinjiro felt like he was forgetting something important.
"I have to go," Shinjiro blurted out, making his way over to where his shoes were by the door though he was shaky on his feet.
The doctor looked at him like he was joking, but Shinjiro wouldn't hesitate to somehow fight every damn nurse and doctor in the entire hospital if he had to. March 5th. They were meeting at the rooftop. Minako.
Her name was on repeat in his head as he somehow found the strength to walk. For some reason, a sense of dread was building up within him, but Shinjiro shook it off. Minako. Minako. Minako. He had to go see her.
He didn't know why, didn't know why it was so important to see her today. In theory, he had all the time in the world now that he wasn't dead. But that didn't matter to him. He had to see her then. He had to let her know he remembered. That even if his brain was so stupid that he'd somehow forgotten that he loved her with his entire being, he remembered.
And he'd never forget her again.
By the time Shinjiro got to the rooftop, he was so out of breath he barely even noticed how fatigued Minako looked. Even on the night he was shot, when she'd been sobbing and clinging onto him like she could somehow save him - and she had - she had been full of life. Her skin was bright, her eyes were brighter, and she'd had an… aura, around her, he supposed was the best way to put it. She lived every day to the fullest, but not as if she were afraid of dying. As if…
As if she knew that she would, and she wanted to make the most of her life.
Shinjiro didn't flinch away, though. Even though everything clicked into place when he saw her: the way she used to act, used to talk. How she had told him during that dream that she was tired. So, so tired.
Minako was dying. Shinjiro almost wanted to cry. He'd almost died, had been convinced he was dead, only to miraculously wake up and still have so much life left in him. Even the doctors hadn't believed it, but with proper therapy, his lungs would heal. The coma the shots had put him in had somehow done more good then harm for his body, allowing it time to heal properly.
And now that he was awake, now that he was there and he remembered, Minako was leaving him. But he couldn't think about that right now. Right now wasn't about him. It was about Minako.
"Don't make a sick guy push himself so hard," he said, giving her a crooked smile. From where she sat on the bench, she gave him a smile back. "It's pretty pathetic of me to forget the way I did," Shinjiro admitted, limping his way over to her. When he finally reached her, he sat down painfully, and she rearranged herself much in the same manner.
He wasn't having that, though, and coaxed her into laying down on the bench, settling her head on his lap so he could stroke her hair. "But even then," he continued, "my feelings for you were the same as always." Shinjiro laughed a little, then, and Minako gave him the brightest smile she could muster. "I got one thick skull, huh?"
Nodding at him from her place on his lap, Minako agreed. "You really do, senpai." Her voice sounded as out of shape as his felt.
"The girl I saw in my dreams," Shinjiro sighed then, remembering how pathetic he'd felt when he couldn't even see her in them. "It was you." At Minako's gentle smile, he continued. "You were crying and laughing like usual…"
Part of him almost wondered if this was a dream. He'd dreamed about her so often, before and after he'd forgotten everything, that he wouldn't really be surprised.
Minako sat up, then, and Shinjiro didn't hesitate to pull her close to him, breathing her in deeply. "Senpai," she whispered, burying her face into his neck. Sitting down was at least good for that, Shinjiro supposed.
The way she felt against him, the way he could feel her heart beating in her chest… Shinjiro knew then that this couldn't be a dream. He breathed a sigh of relief, not letting up on his tight grip on her even a little.
"Yeah," he said to himself. "This ain't a dream. You're really here."
Not for long, he knew. It hurt. It hurt more then getting shot, more than killing Ken's mother with Castor. It hurt more than any of the physical therapy he had gone through, more than the time Akihiko had broken down during his coma.
Whatever Minako had done, though, whatever had led her to this fate… he trusted her. He trusted that she wouldn't just go dying for nothing. He had been so much more selfish then he'd realized, back then. Trying to keep her at arm's length for so long despite his feelings. If he had just listened to her, maybe they would've had more time…
Thinking like that now was pointless, he knew, but he couldn't help it. It hurt.
Footsteps pounding on the stairs up to the roof snapped him out of it, though, and Shinjiro couldn't help but laugh. "Man, those guys sure know how to ruin a moment," he said, and Minako laughed into him.
Shinjiro could tell, though, that her time was coming. The way she started to loosen her own grip on him, how her eyelids had fluttered closed… he wanted to cry, but he'd told her to smile. It wouldn't be fair of him.
And he didn't want her last moments to be sad. Clearly, she'd hung on this long because she had faith that he and the rest of SEES would remember. That they would come, and spend one last day in the sunlight with her.
So he smiled at her, pulling back just enough from their embrace so he could touch her cheek, much in the same way he had that night in October.
"Senpai," Minako whispered. "Thank you. I love you."
At that, he couldn't help the tears that pricked the corners of his eyes. "I'm glad I met you," Shinjiro told her, and he meant it.
Without her, he wouldn't have survived. And even if he somehow had, he wouldn't have wanted to. He would've kept going the way he had, wasting away with each passing day. Shinjiro hadn't lived in a long, long time, but now…
Now, he wanted to. For Akihiko's sake. For Minako's sake. For… for himself, too.
Minako smiled into his hand, pressing a faint kiss into it. "We'll meet again," she told him, and Shinjiro nodded. "I promise."
And as the rest of SEES slowly made their way up the stairs, frantic, Minako stopped breathing in his arms.
Finally, once Shinjiro was sure that she wasn't waking up again, he let himself cry.
"We'll meet again," she had promised him. He didn't know how, or when, or what that could possibly mean when she was dead and he was alive, but he believed her.
Somehow, someday, they would meet again. Until then, Shinjiro would live.
He had so much life left in him, after all.
Sorry, again, for the wait. I wanted to have this out sooner, but P5R, then FF7R, and then I had to write something to get it off of my mind in order to properly conclude this, but it's here. I wrote 5k of it today, actually, if that tells you anything about how badly I wanted this to get done aha.
Persona 3's ending is important to me, and I wanted to preserve it here. I knew from the beginning I would have Minako die, and I'm sorry if you had all hoped for something different. I do believe that somehow, though, in the P3 afterlife, they would meet again. There's no way they wouldn't -- that goes for all of SEES! Their love saved the world, after all. If they can do that together, I think the universe would have some pity on them. They'd sure have a lot to catch up, don't you think?
Anyways, this story was a very personal one for me to write, and I'm so glad that so many people enjoyed it along the way. Thank you for reading, and thank you for all your kind words, kudos, etc etc. It means the world to me. A really, really big shout out especially to one of my best friends Red, who was the best moral support I could've asked for while writing this. I bothered her a lot with questions and thoughts while working on it, lmao, and I'm forever grateful that she was always so willing to help out.
Thank you all though, seriously, and hopefully I'll someday write some happier ShinjiMina and see you all there when I do!