lassarina: (Akihiko: Emperor)
Lassarina ([personal profile] lassarina) wrote in [community profile] hardmode2011-07-14 07:08 pm

"Our Shadows Taller Than Our Souls," Persona 3, Shinjiro/Akihiko/Mitsuru/FeMC

Title: Our Shadows Taller Than Our Souls
Author: [personal profile] lassarina
Beta: [personal profile] cypher and [livejournal.com profile] samuraiter
Media Creator: [personal profile] mitsuhachi
Media Link: Link! (Art is a spoiler for the fic; I also included it inline at an appropriate place.)
Word Count: 12,453
Fandom: Persona 3 Portable
Characters/Pairing(s): Shinjiro/Mitsuru/Akihiko/FeMC (Minako)
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Violence, the canon, spoilers for all of P3P
Summary: It's been five years since the Dark Hour ended, and they're still tripping over the memories. Then one day Shinjiro thinks he sees someone out of the corner of his eye, and everything turns inside out again.

The kitchen is his favourite part of the house.

Mitsuru's house is ridiculous, of course--Shinjiro constantly has to dodge the cook, who is convinced that he cannot take care of Kirijo-sama nearly as well as she can, and it's only Mitsuru's firm and quiet insistence that he get free rein of the kitchen that keeps her from challenging him outright--and that's not even mentioning the maids. He still doesn't understand how she lives with people constantly around. He has no idea how Aki deals with it when he stays here. Shinjiro escapes back to their tiny box of an apartment at least once a week, just to breathe air no one else is breathing.

But anyway, that's not important right now. What is important is that he has two hours to make a bad-ass Christmas Eve dinner for the three of them, and that means he'd better get started--or rather, continue.

The meat has already been marinating for beef bourguignon, so he drains it and dumps it out into the skillet to brown. It took him longer than he'd thought to pick up all the things he needed at the market, so dinner's going to be about a half-hour late, but some things you don't rush.

Shinjiro could remember the first time Mitsuru had complimented him on his cooking; he had been making this same dish and she had said that it was better than what she had eaten in Paris. He'd snorted and brushed it off, but she'd just persistently smiled at him and said thank you. Getting Aki to eat something that's not health food is occasionally a pain, but even Aki shuts up and eats what's put in front of him on Christmas Eve.

The meat hisses and spits when he turns it, and it's the work of only a few minutes to blanch the tiny onions and dump it all into a dish to bake. Once that's done, he starts the French onion soup, and while that's simmering, he washes the green beans. Mitsuru's often said that she doesn't understand how he can want to come home and cook when he's been doing it all day at work, but it's kind of like how she can't stop thinking about the Group even when she isn't there. Besides, cooking for them isn't like cooking at work. Here, he sees the people who eat the food, and he cooks for them not just 'cause he's good at it and it pays well, but because he wants them to eat well.

By the time the food is ready to serve, Mitsuru and Aki are home, and at least by now they've learned that he really doesn't want them underfoot while he's cooking. They open a bottle of wine and sit in the dining room, and Shinjiro flips on the rice cooker before he carries out the soup.

It's strange sometimes, how sitting in Mitsuru's fancy house can feel so much like sitting crowded around the rickety table in the dorm that always threatened to collapse under the weight of textbooks or food. There's less hanging over their heads now: no Dark Hour threatening to kill them, no Persona trying to claw its way out of his skull however it can and damn the consequences to him, no impending threat of a full moon.

But there's an empty spot at the table, one that's never been filled at this table, and they all look at it from time to time. Minako should be sitting there. She should be laughing with them. She shouldn't be tucked away in some pocket dimension, holding back the destruction of the world, shouldn't have given up her life and strength to restore him.

He doesn't realize he's been talking out loud until Mitsuru lays a hand over his, and then he's not sure whether to hold on tight or snarl at her to get back.

Aki puts his hand over both of theirs, awkwardly, and squeezes. Against Mitsuru's perfect manicure, his hand should look misplaced with its knuckles uneven from years of boxing, but instead it just fits. Shinjiro considers snarling at him, too, but he kind of has to strain to hear what Aki has to say.

"I know," Aki says, and there's more understanding than Shinjiro wants to hear in those two words, "but--just for tonight--"

Mitsuru nods, and squeezes his hand so the sharp tips of her nails press into his skin. Shinjiro nods back, and they keep eating, and eventually Mitsuru breaks the silence with the story of something she saw on her way home from work, and Aki laughs, and the tightness around Shinjiro's heart eases a little bit. It doesn't go away, not even later when they're all tangled up in each other and he can't breathe past Mitsuru's hands and Aki's mouth, but it helps a little, even if all of them feel the ghost of Minako with them, her absence as real and physical as her presence would have been.

#


It's one of those things that none of them really talk about: the way the nightmares sneak in quietly around Christmas and stay until March. It's during that span of time that Shinjiro starts making more excuses to stay in the apartment instead of at Mitsuru's. It's when Mitsuru tries to schedule many of her overnight business trips, and Aki pulls night shift more often than he should. Waking up alone, with his heart pounding and his chest aching like it did that October, is better than disturbing Mitsuru and Aki with his flailing. They tell him that's not the case, but they all find their ways to deal with it. Aki trains until he should be too exhausted to dream about anything, and still wakes up flailing around enough to cause accidental damage. Mitsuru just plain works through the night half the time, and runs on coffee--with the resultant misery in April as she tries to reduce the caffeine.

Usually his nightmares are of October--what would've happened if he hadn't gotten in the way of Takaya's gun, sometimes with interesting variations where it's Mitsuru or Aki or Minako that he was aiming at, not Amada--but lately they've been memories of when he was in the hospital. Obviously he doesn't remember anything that happened while he was in a coma, not really, but he does remember what he dreamed. He dreamed constantly of Minako, almost like he rode on her shoulder. For a little while after he woke up, he was sure he saw her out of the corner of his eye in the dorm, until he started telling himself constantly that she wasn't there. It had been Miki all over again.

It's disconcerting to have nightmares of Minako--wasting her time sitting at his bedside, talking to him. In his dreams then, she'd been healthy, if always a little tired from her efforts in Tartarus. Now he sees her in varying stages of death, dying, and decay. He's not a stranger to violence, or even to death for that matter, but he really doesn't need to be reliving it in a loop. He especially doesn't need it looping on her.

It's a bitingly cold night in February, the kind where he can already tell it's going to take him three tries to fumble his keys into the lock at their apartment, even though he's got his hands in his pockets, for all the good it's doing. He hunches his shoulders into the wind and rounds the last corner between him and the apartment, and just in front of him, he sees a girl step into the alleyway in the middle of the block. He's already past it, head bent into the wind, when he realizes belatedly that the girl's profile looks just like Minako's.

His scar pulses painfully, like it did when she pulled Death out of him and into herself.

He turns and bolts back to the alleyway, ignoring the older woman who stares disapprovingly at him as he races past, but she's not there when he skids to a halt. He looks anyway, stupidly checking behind the garbage bins and wandering up and down the alley twice. She's not there, but the more he thinks about it, the more certain he is that he saw her.

He goes back to the apartment and drops the keys twice before he gets the front door open. Climbing the stairs sort of gets his blood flowing again, but opening the apartment door takes another three tries. The lights are off, so Aki must still be at work. He leaves his shoes wherever they fall when he kicks them off, and huddles in his coat in the kitchen until his hands warm up enough that he can fill the electric kettle and measure tea into the teapot without spilling it all over the counter. He checks the clock and tries to remember if this is one of the nights when Mitsuru's supposed to be coming over. By the time the water boils, he's managed to warm up enough to shed the coat and his brain has thawed enough to realize that Mitsuru is at Port Tatsumi Island, overseeing the rebuilding of the research facility there.

Aki's return startles him almost enough to spill boiling water on his hand, but he manages to get the counter instead. Aki doesn't say anything, just leaves his shoes at the front door and comes into the kitchen to rummage for food. Shinjiro makes a scornful noise when he pulls some prepackaged protein crap out of the cupboard, and shoulders Aki aside to make him some real food. The silence between them is companionable; they've done this so many times before that it's automatic.

Twice, Shinjiro almost blurts out that he's sure he saw Minako. He knows Aki liked her too; hell, Aki dated her, while he was in the coma. But how exactly is he going to say that? "Hey, I saw our dead girlfriend who sacrificed herself to stop Nyx in an alleyway, but then she vanished"? Yeah, that would go over well. So he doesn't say anything, just fixes the meal and lets Aki eat in silence. He goes to bed because he has to be up early, but he tosses and turns, not sure whether he'd rather stay awake or have the dreams.

When he does fall asleep, the dream is surprisingly vivid. He dreams he's back in Tartarus, carrying an axe slung over his shoulder. The others are nowhere to be seen, but there aren't any Shadows either. Castor rumbles in the back of his mind, something he hadn't realized he's missed the past five years. He doesn't miss what Castor represents, the uncertainty of struggling against the Shadows, but he did miss that knowledge that there was something in him that would watch his back, would make sure he could defend Aki and Mitsuru. There's even an Evoker, its cold metal weight familiar and comforting in his hand when he hefts it.

It's strange to be here by himself; Minako had never been fond of sending them all off individually. "What if something happened to you and I wasn't there to help?" she'd say with a frown. "We go together or not at all." Even though they could've climbed faster by splitting up, it had made sense: nobody wanted to run into a Shadow that absorbed their Persona's attacks. It makes walking the empty, echoing halls all the creepier, knowing that he's only got himself to rely on when a Shadow shows up.

But there aren't any Shadows, and that makes his skin creep. He roams the floor aimlessly, wandering in and out of bent corners and oddly angled rooms. There are no items, either. Time's always been slippery for him in Tartarus, but right now he seriously has no idea how long he's wandered in this dream. The emptiness of the area is creepy enough that it takes him a while to realize that the entire area is virulently pink. As soon as he realizes it, he thinks of Minako, and the pink headphones she loved.

He turns a corner and the stairs loom in front of him, steep and forbidding. He's pretty sure he's been everywhere there is here, and all he's found is nothing, so he starts to climb. His shoulder aches where the bullet wound was, and his heart pounds in his chest. He's almost to the next floor--he can see it above him--when he finds the barrier. It's red and dripping, and looks like it's made of flowing blood, but when he pokes at it curiously, it's as hard as stone, and his hand comes away clean. He looks at his hand, and then looks back up, and Minako's face hangs amid the blood, her eyes wide open and sightless.

He recoils and doesn't catch himself in time, and goes crashing down the stairs, only to wake up in his own bed. He's shaking and with pain throbbing through his head like he really did just tumble down a flight of stairs, but when he touches the back of his head carefully, there's no lump or blood.

He lies awake the rest of the night, unable to get the image of Minako's blood-streaked face out of his head.

#


He dreams of Tartarus every night for the next week, and the worst part is that he can't find the stairway again. He's stuck on the same damn floor, running in circles because he can't find the way to get out of there. There are still no Shadows, which he's starting to think is worse than not being able to find the way out. There's nothing to do here but run in circles and wonder why his brain's stuck on this loop. He tries swinging his axe into the wall, but it bounces back against his hands and leaves no mark.

He wakes with a start, then, to Mitsuru pressed against his side with her arm across his chest, and Aki sitting up in the bed and staring at him.

"This has gone on long enough," Mitsuru says when she realizes that he's awake.

"Tch." He sits up, and she lets him, but then she does too and tucks her feet underneath her. He supposes it's just the way of being Mitsuru that makes her just as intimidating barefoot, sleep-rumpled, and sitting cross-legged on her enormous bed in pajamas as she is in a perfectly pressed business suit with briefcase in hand.

Not that he's intimidated.

"You haven't been sleeping well," Aki says, awkwardly.

"Tch. And you're one to talk." That's probably not actually a helpful response, but Shinjiro doesn't really think any of them know how to have these conversations. He occupies himself watching the clock beside the bed. 11:54.

"It's true that none of us have been sleeping well, but I think it's more than that," Mitsuru says. "Perhaps we could help."

He doesn't want to talk about it--doesn't like laying himself bare that way, even to the two living people he trusts most--but he's tired of keeping it all to himself. "I saw Minako," he says, and it comes out flat and dead-sounding.

The silence that greets that statement is nearly deafening.

He doesn't miss the quick glance that Mitsuru and Aki trade, and it irritates him enough that he considers getting up, getting dressed, and leaving, except Aki would probably actually try to tackle him--and, he admits, would probably succeed.

"Shinji," Aki says, and then stops. Mitsuru just waits, patient and watchful.

"I was coming home the other night and I swear I saw her. Near the apartment. She turned down an alleyway and disappeared. It wasn't just some girl that looked like her." On that, he's not going to budge. The memory of his scar burning, more than anything else, is what makes him sure that it was her.

Now that he thinks about it, his scar's been aching more than usual when he wakes up from the dreams of floors of Tartarus he never saw, but he figures dumping one dose of crazy-sounding stuff on them is enough.

Aki opens his mouth, closes it again, and stares at his hands, which are curled into fists like he thinks he's about to have to start fighting. Shinjiro wonders when the bedroom got so damn cold. Maybe it's just that he's not wearing a shirt, a blanket, or the two of them.

"Akihiko?" Mitsuru prompts him.

He moves one shoulder in half a shrug. "A couple of days ago I thought I saw her too," he says slowly, reluctantly. "Just outside of work. I figured it had to be someone else, because we all know she's--" He falls silent before the word comes out, the way they always do.

Mitsuru is frowning. "I haven't seen anything myself, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. I've been meaning to have the seal checked, anyway."

The clock ticks over to midnight, and the room turns a sickly shade of green.

Shinjiro's stomach lurches. He hasn't seen a Dark Hour since he was shot. Castor rumbles in the back of his mind, and Shinjiro's hand closes around an Evoker that isn't there.

"What is going on?" Mitsuru tries for her usual crisp tone, but he can hear the panic underneath it. Aki springs up off the bed and has his fists up like he's planning to fight, except there's nothing here to fight.

"Didn't you say she sealed the Dark Hour?" Shinjiro finds a perverse glee in being able to make his voice calmer than Mitsuru's, just this once. He's not sure why he's so calm. He decides to blame the dreams of Tartarus.

"I haven't experienced a Dark Hour since she sealed it," Mitsuru says. In the green-tinted light, her focus suddenly sharpens on him. "You don't seem as surprised, Aragaki."

He notices that she's back to using his last name--which she hasn't really done since he came out of the coma--and knows she's doing it because she's scared. "I've been dreaming of Tartarus since I saw Minako," he says.

Aki's head swivels toward him, and Mitsuru's frown deepens. The whole situation is completely fucked up, but it's almost hilarious. "You guys, too?"

"Just the last two days," Mitsuru says slowly. "Since I got back from Tatsumi Port Island."

Aki, having apparently found nothing to beat up, perches on the corner of the bed. "Since I saw--thought I saw--Minako," he says.

Mitsuru sits up a little bit straighter, and despite the pajama top slipping off her shoulder and her very rumpled hair, she still manages to look like a queen. "I will contact the other members of SEES in the morning, and confirm if they have also experienced these dreams," she says.

"What does Tartarus look like, when you dream of it?" Aki asks. He edges closer to them, close enough that he can rest a hand on Mitsuru's knee for reassurance. Her hand closes over Shinjiro's arm, and the press of her nails against his skin is familiar and comforting.

"Not like any of the areas we explored," Mitsuru says, which is surprising. "It's...pink."

Aki nods. "Did you notice the music?" he asks.

"Techno," Shinjiro says, and leaves the rest unspoken: it sounded like what Minako loved to listen to. "Have you ever found the stairway?"

They both shake their heads, and that sends a chill down his spine. If they've been dreaming of the same thing, why would his be any different?

"You have?" Mitsuru asks, and even if it's annoying right now he's still impressed at how well she reads people.

"Just once. The first night." He shifts a little closer to Mitsuru, enough to feel her warmth. He's starting to think he'll never stop being cold; he's been shivering since he saw Minako, even in the kitchen in the middle of dinner rush. "I couldn't climb it all the way, though--she was there, and there was a barrier."

"What kind of barrier?" Aki asks, and Shinjiro doesn't want to remember it, but it's there in his head and he can't help seeing it in his mind's eye.

"Blood," he says slowly. "Solid blood."

Mitsuru's hand tightens on his arm, and the sudden sharp prickle of her nails is comforting and also turning him on, which creeps him out, given that it's the Dark Hour again.

He's pretty sure he won't be able to sleep while it's the Dark Hour, and he reads the same thing in them. They shift until they're sitting in a triangle, knees touching and fingers tightly interlaced, like they did a lot in the first few months when they were all still learning to use their Personas. It's strange to do it now, without the complementary feel of Polydeuces on his left and Penthesilea on his right. He's never had a chance to get used to Artemisia and Caesar.

When the Dark Hour fades and the world surges back to life, they all curl up together, something they rarely do, and fall asleep still holding tight to each other's hands, because it's easier than saying aloud that they're scared.

#


He knows from the look on Mitsuru's face that it's not good news. It's rare enough for her to come to their apartment, but to do it unannounced means they have a serious problem.

Since he doesn't want to ask, he keeps chopping vegetables for the stir-fry. Mitsuru doesn't try to start the conversation, just seats herself in the living room and pulls out her laptop to get some more work done. Since she's here, he uses plain sesame oil for the stir-fry instead of infusing it with red pepper. Her fingertips tap rhythmically on the keyboard, punctuating the sound of garlic sizzling in the wok. He finishes the stir-fry just as Aki joins them, his hair still wet from a post-workout shower.

Dinner conversation manages to be about the experiences of the day, and how it's finally starting to warm up a little bit, instead of about the Dark Hour. It feels like a bizarre echo of right after he woke up, when they would all sit together and interact aimlessly, shallowly, because they didn't know how to just be kids without doom lingering overhead. It feels like that now, impersonal in a way that rubs like an itchy shirt. They've been through too much together to be this distant.

At last Mitsuru sets her chopsticks down and folds her hands in her lap. She's put away her computer, but he knows she has every report in her mind's eye, waiting to be called up again.

"I was able to contact Yukari, Aigis, and Junpei," she says. "None of them have seen Minako, had strange dreams, or experienced the Dark Hour again. Aigis said she will set up some monitoring devices. However, a localized Dark Hour would be outside our data set; previous studies indicated it was certainly at least a nationwide phenomenon."

"A Dark Hour just for the three of us?" Aki frowns. "I didn't think to look outside last night."

"If it is the Dark Hour, it's still only affecting Persona-users," Mitsuru says thoughtfully. "There was nothing on the news this morning, and I imagine that would have made it to the top of the pile if someone besides us had noticed."

"We can check tonight," Shinjiro says, though wandering the streets during the Dark Hour is really the last thing he wants to be doing tonight. Part of him really just wants to lose himself in sleep--drugged if need be--or in the feel of skin on skin. Anything that lets him stop wondering why they saw Minako when he knows perfectly well she's gone.

Mitsuru nods briskly. "I cannot say I'm enthused at the idea of fighting again, but we cannot simply ignore the issue," she says. "I've requested the Research Division to review the data we have on Shadows and the Fall, though I'm uncertain how much good it will do. Some of the data from my grandfather's time is obviously corrupted, and I do not think the data that the former Chairman gathered is trustworthy either, given his alternate agenda."

"Then we get ready," Aki says, and gets up to go into his room. He comes back a few minutes later with his Evoker and a pair of metal-plated gloves, like he's ready for battle to start right that minute.

Shinjiro assumes that the long, narrow case Mitsuru brought with her holds her rapier, and that her Evoker's probably in there with it. He doesn't have his weapons or his Evoker, but for the weapon at least he could make do with a signpost.

The apartment buzzer sounds, and Mitsuru's mouth curls in a pleased smile. "That should be the delivery I requested," she says, and goes to handle it like she lives here. Shinjiro and Aki exchange puzzled looks until the deliveryman brings in a box whose size and shape can only mean that Mitsuru somehow kept Shinjiro's weapons and Evoker, and had them stored somewhere.

"Seriously?" Aki says, and Shinjiro's glad he's not the only one who thought that.

"Well, I could hardly leave them lying around the dorm," Mitsuru points out. "In any event, it's useful now." She pauses, and there's that look on her face like she's just backed them into a corner and is about to finish off the execution. "I notice you kept yours," she says blandly.

Aki opens his mouth like he's going to protest, and turns red. Shinjiro can't help laughing. It breaks some of the heavy tension in the room, and he gets up to move the box somewhere out of the way until they need it. The rest of the evening passes pretty uneventfully, with Mitsuru working and Shinjiro reading cooking magazines, while Aki follows up on sports news. As midnight approaches, though, they all start getting ready without talking about it. Aki and Mitsuru have kept some of their armour, and there's a piece that fits Shinjiro. He checks over his axe and his Evoker, and they're both in perfect condition--probably better than he left them, he's honest enough to admit. By 11:55 they're all standing near the door, waiting for the clock to tick over so they can go out without their weapons being noticed.

He's been hoping this is all some dumb-ass mistake, like they all made it up last night or something, but when that sickly green light settles over everything and the walls of his apartment turn bloody, he knows he was just kidding himself.

"Let's go," Mitsuru says, and is the first to the door. They don't pass anyone on their way out, but as soon as they step out of the building, he can see Transmogrified people everywhere. It's still damned cold outside, and he's glad he put on his coat before they left. Out of habit he looks up to check for the moon phase, and sees that it's almost the dark of the moon. He's not sure if that makes him feel better or worse.

Mitsuru skirts a puddle of blood on the pavement and heads down the street toward the alley where Shinjiro saw Minako, her head cocked in that way that means she's listening to Artemisia. He wonders if Artemisia has the same ability to analyze that Penthesilea had.

"Artemisia says there are no Shadows here at all," Mitsuru says, answering that question.

"What about Persona-users?" Aki asks.

Mitsuru shakes her head. "None that I can find--but Yamagishi was always better at that than I was."

Shinjiro walks into the alley, poking around out of curiosity, while Mitsuru and Aki scout the street. With no Shadows around, it should be safe enough for them to split up, but he keeps hearing Minako's disapproving voice in his head. He doesn't find her there, not that he really expected her to, but he does see a really nice pair of headphones lying on the concrete--very familiar ones. He crouches down to look and sees that they're still attached to a tiny MP3 player decorated with pink flower stickers.

He saw that MP3 player around her neck every single day.

"Shinji?" Aki calls from the end of the alley.

Shinjiro picks up the headphones and walks back to them.

"Did you find anything?" Mitsuru asks.

He holds up the headphones without saying anything. They both recognize them, too; hard not to recognize something that was permanently attached to a person you spent most of a year with. Aki runs past him to look around, and Mitsuru's eyes take on that blank, unfocused look that she gets when she's scanning with her Persona. After a moment she shakes her head, looking sad. "I'm sorry," she says, her arms crossed under her breasts and her face tilted down, away from him. "I can't find her."

"Tch. Didn't expect you to," Shinjiro says, and puts a hand on her shoulder. She leans into it.

Aki rejoins them, his shoulders slumped a little in defeat, and shakes his head. "I don't get it," he says, and the frustration is almost thick enough to touch.

"Well, we've confirmed that the Dark Hour still exists for us," Mitsuru says. "Let's go back for now."

Shinjiro tucks the MP3 player into his pocket, and keeps his fingers closed around it like he can touch Minako that way.

#


The next night, he dreams again.

He's back in Tartarus, but instead of the pink hallways and lavender accents, it's pitch-black. He can't see anything, not even his hand in front of his face. He has his weapon and his Evoker, but he's not sure how much good they'll do when he can't see to use them.

He hears something to his left, and turns toward it. "Who's there?" he asks, gripping the Evoker tighter.

"Shinji?" Aki's voice is comfortingly familiar, and Shinjiro lets go of the Evoker.

"Akihiko?" That's Mitsuru's voice, off to his right.

"We're here," Shinjiro answers for both of them.

He hears the rustle of Aki's jeans and the click of Mitsuru's boots--not that he's not grateful to be in real clothes in Tartarus instead of pajamas, but it's still weird to be fully dressed when he knows he's really barefoot and without a shirt--and then Aki bumps into him and he feels Mitsuru's cautious outstretched hand on his chest.

"It's never been this dark before," Mitsuru says. "Sometimes it would be hard to see, but I've never been unable to see."

"How are we supposed to fight if we can't see what we're fighting?" Aki asks, and he must really be on edge, because he doesn't usually have that sharp of a tone.

"We listen carefully, and we do the best we can," Mitsuru says.

Shinjiro hopes that'll be enough.

He hears a sound like a door opening--that's wrong, there are no doors in Tartarus, just empty doorways that stretch on into infinite configurations of the same damn room he just left--and it's like a spotlight came on. Blue light, like sun through the cracks of an abandoned building, highlights the person now standing before them. Shinjiro doesn't know him, but he doesn't seem disconcerted by Tartarus, or by their weaponry. He's skinny and painfully pale, with almost-white hair like Takaya's. Shinjiro catches himself snarling, and sees Mitsuru's puzzled look. He does his best to shut it down.

"I am not here to fight you," he says, and something about that makes Shinjiro's hands itch for his Evoker. There is something emphatically not right here, in the way the guy doesn't move quite like a human, in the exceedingly precise way he pronounces his words. He's too comfortable in Tartarus. He also seems familiar in a way that Shinjiro associates with feelings he doesn't talk about, and that pisses him off.

"Do we know you?" Mitsuru says, distantly polite, and Shinjiro admits there are uses for all the layers of social polish she was raised with. Mitsuru can dismiss someone completely without ever saying anything rude.

"We've never been formally introduced. I'm Theo." He bows, but with a weird flourish Shinjiro's never seen before. "In point of fact I do not believe I've ever really met any of you, but I do know of you." He pauses, but when they all just look at him, he smiles too brightly. "I aided Minako when she climbed Tartarus," he explains. "Your friendship helped her unlock her strength."

That's where the sense of familiarity is coming from. It's the same odd feeling he used to get from Minako during the Dark Hour, when he'd catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye and it was like she wore the faces of all her Personae layered over her, blurring her own features until she was unrecognizable. The feeling of power that draped around her was like the rest of SEES, but magnified by how many she carried.

Theo pauses, as though awaiting some response, but when none of them answer him he sighs a bit and shakes his head. "Well, I look forward to seeing your progress," he says. The spotlight effect vanishes, and they're left in pitch blackness again.

"What was that all about?" Aki asks grumpily.

"What's it matter?" Shinjiro answers. "Standing here talking to him isn't getting us out of here."

Now that his eyes have adjusted again to the lack of the spotlight, he can see that there's the very faintest amount of moonlight seeping in through the open edges of the tower. It's not much--certainly not enough to see Shadows by--but it's enough that they won't kill themselves falling out a window. Mitsuru calls on Artemisia to help them see the Shadows, and it's a lot like it was in the old days with the three of them fighting side by side. Shinjiro can tell it's been a while since he fought like this, because it wears him out fast, but they keep going.

The Shadows aren't like any he's ever seen before; the numbers on their masks are invariably either thirteen or twenty-two. Most of them don't seem to be weak against Zio or Bufu spells either, and while he can do an acceptable amount of damage himself, it's slow going. Aki and Mitsuru end up spending a lot of time healing the three of them.

When they finally find the staircase, the room brightens, and it's the same pink and lavender he saw before. He looks up, half afraid of what he'll see now, and sure enough there's Minako's face suspended in a wall of blood. He swallows back the nausea that wants to rise up and puts his foot on the staircase.

Minako opens her eyes and looks at them, with the wide-eyed innocence of a child--in that moment, she's terrifyingly like Ken after Castor killed his mother. It sends a sickening shiver of guilt down his spine when his brain matches her face to one he's fantasized about more than once.

"It's so cold here," she says, and it's like her voice echoes distantly off the walls instead of coming out of her mouth. "Can't you make it warmer?"

That's not the Minako he knows, pouting and whining. Minako never once whined. He doesn't know who this face is, but it's not her.

"Arisato?" Mitsuru says, and then quickly corrects herself. "Minako?"

Minako's face smiles dreamily, and then vanishes in a splash of blood that ruins Mitsuru's perfect white blouse. The stairway is clear now.

They look at each other, and begin to climb again.

#


At least the next floor isn't dark.

That's about all he can say for it, given how the light refracts off the silver walls and dazzles him.

It's nearly as hard to see here as it was in the one before, and significantly more painful. The only thing that keeps them from real trouble with ambush is Artemisia's power. They slog through three more floors before they reach one of the ones with a barrier. There's nothing here to show them what they need to do to unlock the barrier. They sit down next to it, too tired to keep standing, and stare at the interlaced ribbons of metal between them and the next set of stairs. Shinjiro can see without touching it that the metal has razor-sharp edges.

"Do we have to wait now?" Aki says tiredly. "Minako always said that the barriers opened up after a full moon, but that won't be for weeks."

"Well, there shouldn't be any of those left," Mitsuru says, but her tone is doubtful. Shinjiro knows what she's thinking: they only fought thirteen Shadows. There could be more that they never saw.

"Guess we wait and see," Shinjiro says. He doesn't say the other thing he's thinking. In Tartarus, they always knew how to get out or could ask Fuuka for help. They have no idea where this Tartarus is, or how to leave.

Mitsuru yawns, and her eyes drift closed. In moments she's asleep, far more easily than he's ever seen her. Aki's head drops forward as he, too, dozes off immediately. Shinjiro tries to keep his eyes open so he can stand guard, because he feels like this's gotta be a trap, but then he yawns in a way that practically dislocates his jaw and falls asleep as well.

He wakes up in Mitsuru's bed with the alarm clock going off, and he's going to be late for work if he doesn't get his ass moving.

#


He sleeps badly the next two nights, but he doesn't dream of Tartarus. Neither do Mitsuru or Aki, when he corners them in the kitchen and asks. He doesn't know if that makes him feel better or worse.

When he does dream again, they're back standing outside the barrier with its sharp gleaming edges. Theo is waiting for them, holding a giant book tucked under his arm. "You have returned," he says, and Shinjiro wonders if all he can do is repeat obvious things. "But I see that you are less than you could be." He stares straight at Shinjiro when he says that, and Shinjiro scoffs automatically, the same way he does at almost anybody who tries to make himself an authority figure. Still, he knows he's not as strong as Mitsuru and Aki are. That was clear before.

"You can become stronger, if you're willing to face yourself," Theo says. His lips curve unpleasantly in a way that reminds Shinjiro of Chairman Ikutsuki. "But that would, of course, require facing the consequences of your choices."

"We've done it before," Aki says stubbornly. "We can do it now."

"You have," Theo agrees. "He hasn't." He makes a broad, sweeping gesture toward the barrier. "This barrier still stands."

"What must we do to break it down?" Mitsuru asks him. Shinjiro can see from the way she's standing that she doesn't like having to beg for information. That's never been her way. But he can also see that she's determined to find out, whatever she has to do.

"Minako sacrificed herself for all of you," Theo says. "Surely you could do as much for her?"

With that, he's gone.

They look at each other, and Shinjiro reads the same uncertainty on their faces that he knows is showing on his own. He looks at the barrier, and thinks of how Minako sat on the edge of his bed and pulled Death out of him, into herself. How it made her look pale and bloodless, skin stretched too thin over a skull too large. She'd traded her life for his impending death.

He thinks he understands, now.

Aki and Mitsuru are suddenly silent--he's not even sure they're breathing--when he turns and walks up to the barrier. He doesn't stop to think too hard about what he's doing, just grabs one of the metal ribbons.

It fucking hurts. He's cut himself before with kitchen knives, and he's been hurt in battle, but this feels nothing like that. He can feel the strength draining out of him, faster than it should given he only cut his hand, and it's like he's being hit with all the elements at once. He's burned alive, encased in ice, hit by electricity, torn apart by wind. Darkness and light are going to war inside his skull, to judge by the splitting migraine he's developing, worse than what the suppressants used to do to him.

Somehow he's not surprised to see Death itself staring at him from across the barrier.

"Why?" it asks, and the question is so simple and so complex.

He already knows the answer. He's known it since he woke up and got there too late to say goodbye. But when it comes down to it, it's so hard to put the words together. Finally his throat opens up enough to let them escape. "She was better than that," he says. "I know she chose this, and I don't want the end of the world, but she deserves better."

Death tips its head. "What would you do for her?" it asks.

This one is easy. "Anything," he says. There are some things he'd need to limit it with--he wouldn't hurt Mitsuru or Aki--but he has the sense Death already knows his answers and just wants to make him say them.

Asshole.

"What do you regret?" Death asks.

What is this, twenty fucking questions? There's a lot of things that could go here: killing Ken's mother, leaving Mitsuru and Aki on their own for so long, not being there to help her fight Nyx, not being there to find another way. But none of those feel quite right. He looks into the empty eyes of the skull, and suddenly he knows. "That's all done," he says. "Gotta go forward."

"Then you must defeat me," Death says, and Shinjiro wants to laugh at it, cause what is this, a game or something? But he grips his Evoker in a hand slick with blood, and grins at Death.

The barrier's gone, and it's just him and Death. He has no idea where Mitsuru and Aki are. It doesn't matter. He fights better than he's ever fought, because this fight matters more. He hasn't got much in the way of healing supplies on him--can't really bring them into the dream with you--and Castor's never been good at healing, just destruction. But he fights the best he can, even after Death's claws rake holes in his shoulder and tear open his side. He almost bobbles his axe once from the blood on his hands, but then he lands a lucky blow right at the junction of Death's shoulder, and when Death staggers, he follows it up, sending Death sprawling across the floor. It doesn't move again.

"Adios, asshole," Shinjiro tells him.

When Death smiles, it's a horrifying thing. "For now," it agrees, and dissolves into a puddle of shadow.

"Shinji!" Aki's right beside him, or at least two of Aki, and Mitsuru's nowhere to be seen. Neither is the barrier. He's covered in blood, but it only hurts for as long as it takes for the soothing ice of Diarahan to wash over him. Mitsuru holsters her Evoker.

"What happened?" she asks, and she doesn't control the tremors in her voice nearly as well as normal.

"I fought Death," he says.

They don't laugh, at least.

Castor stirs in his head, and then breaks free without the Evoker to help him. Shinjiro scrambles to his feet, grabbing his axe in case he has to fight his own fucking Persona because like hell he's going to let Castor hurt either one of them, but Castor doesn't attack. Instead, he changes.

Shinjiro doesn't recognize the form, with a crown of two white feathers and leaf-green skin, but he knows him just the same. "Osiris," he says, feeling lightheaded. With the name comes knowledge, somehow, that he never learned, and he understands. He's been judged.

Osiris nods gravely, and then vanishes back into Shinjiro's head. He's not as familiar a presence as Castor--that's gonna take some time--but it feels better. Less like something beating against the bars of a cage, trying to escape.

He looks at Mitsuru and Aki, and sees understanding in their eyes. He shoulders his axe, and nods. "Let's go," he says, and they start to climb the stairs.

Photobucket


It's been over a fucking month now. The moon's almost full for a second time since they started climbing Tartarus, and they still haven't gotten where they're going. All of them have been spoken to at work, about how pale and tired they are, but there's nothing to be done about it except to keep climbing. Sometimes they get stuck on a floor, wandering aimlessly because the stairs won't show up. Those are the worst, because sometimes the stairs literally aren't there, and so when the end of the Dark Hour comes, the tower floods with blood and washes them out the windows in a terrifying plunge. The first time it happened, Shinjiro woke up screaming, a fact that would bother him more if Aki and Mitsuru hadn't done the same damn thing. (It still bothers him, just less.)

By Mitsuru's count, they've climbed over 200 floors in these six weeks. Having Osiris has been really helpful, although it's forced him to change up his fighting style, but at least they've finally had access to Samarecarm.

He finishes off another one of the Death-Arcanum Shadows and is in the lead as they round the corner. They're all pretty well dragging, though at least the full moon shining through the windows makes it easy to see. Mitsuru's got a wound in her side she keeps insisting is nothing, probably because they ran out of healing items three floors ago and none of them have the strength to spare for healing anymore. The way Aki's limping doesn't bode well either, and Shinjiro's just not mentioning the blood that his coat is soaking up from where a Shadow got him right in the scar from Takaya's bullet, because there's no damn point.

If he wasn't doing this for her, he's not sure he'd still be here. Then again, it's not like they get a choice about all this shit.

The corner reveals a set of stairs, blockaded with what looks--and smells--at first like a wall of honeysuckle. Since that seems too nice for Tartarus, they approach it cautiously, Aki taking the lead since he's the least wounded of the three of them. He stops about a foot away and sighs. "Thorns," he says.

Shinjiro knows even before he turns around that the ripple in the air means that Theo's back to annoy them some more, and the fact that he even recognizes it at this point is just one more piece of stupid shit in this tower. He's not in any kind of mood to play nice at this point.

"The moon is full tonight," Theo says.

"No shit," Shinjiro retorts before Mitsuru can come up with something more diplomatic. It worries him more than a little that she just looks at him and sighs--Mitsuru isn't passive ever, and she shouldn't just let him run over her.

Oddly enough, that makes Theo smile. "Do you know the story of the sleeping beauty?" he asks.

"La belle au bois dormant," Mitsuru murmurs. "She was cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel, and lay unconscious for a century in a palace surrounded by a hedge of thorns."

Theo's smile widens, and he gestures to the barrier of honeysuckle and thorns. "Your sleeping beauty is up there," he says. "But I'm afraid it won't be easy to get to her."

"Yeah, cause climbing this tower's been a piece of cake until now," Shinjiro mutters.

"Are you here to help us or get in our way?" Aki asks, and Shinjiro's surprised to see how crestfallen Theo suddenly looks.

"Our guest--Minako--was very important to me, too," Theo says. "I can't climb this tower myself to free her; that's not within my power. I'm not even really supposed to be assisting you. This is as much as I can do."

Shinjiro wants to say something about cryptic messages, but he makes himself shut up. If this guy can really help them get to Minako, then he can't drive him off.

"What must we do?" Mitsuru asks, and her voice is taking on that floaty, slurred quality that she only gets when she's exhausted. Shit. The entire side of her blouse is stained red. Shinjiro's pretty sure it's only pride keeping her on her feet.

Theo gestures toward the hedge again. "Make your way through that," he says, "and you will find what you seek--at a price."

"What price?" Aki snaps, but Theo's already gone. Where he was standing, though, there's a cardboard box on the floor that wasn't there before. Shinjiro approaches it cautiously and finds some Medical Powders--not enough to set them all right, but enough to stop the bleeding. He's still light-headed from blood loss, and from their unsteadiness he's pretty sure Mitsuru and Aki are too, but it helps a little.

"Alright, let's kick some ass," he says, and tired as they all are, Aki and Mitsuru grin back at him.

The hedge seems to have grown over a chain-link fence, and there's no gaps anywhere. They all search patiently for a while, but it's pretty obvious they're going to have to climb up and over. The thorns aren't even reasonable--longer than some knives he's had--and they go right through his coat and pants like he's not even fucking wearing them. Mitsuru makes a couple muffled sounds of pain as she climbs, but she keeps going. The hedge seemed like it was only about 8 feet tall when he started, but he knows it's higher than that, because it takes forever to climb. When he reaches the top, he swears in disbelief, because it's a fucking maze and he can see the stairs in the center, but the walls are going to be too high to navigate by sight of that.

Mitsuru and Aki join him on top of the hedge, with thorns stabbing into their feet straight through their shoes. Shinjiro tries to ignore it and memorize the maze, but he's seeing double half the time and he can't tell where one path ends and the next begins. At least he doesn't see any Shadows.

"We mustn't falter," Mitsuru says.

"Let's do this," Aki replies. They grin at each other, even hold hands briefly, and then begin the painful climb down.

It's even harder than he thought it would be. They have no way to mark where they've been, and the hedges are fond of lashing out at them and leaving awful gashes. In short order, their clothes are practically destroyed, which is going to be really fucking obnoxious if they have to fight anything. After the first time a hedge nearly springs up between them, they take to holding hands, which slows them down but makes sure they don't get separated. It's only Artemisia's powers that keep them on any kind of track; she can tell where they've been, at least, and they make their painful way forward.

When the stairs finally show up, they're barely walking. Mitsuru's leaning on his shoulder, and Aki has to drop down into a three-point stance every now and again to rest so he can keep going.

"Do you need to stop?" Mitsuru asks him, in the same slurred and distant tone. Shinjiro thinks it's from blood loss, but they ran out of energy for spells a long time ago.

"I can still keep going," Aki says, and it's not technically a lie but it's not really true either.

The steps have razor blades on them. Of fucking course.

Shinjiro uses his axe to knock a few aside, giving them just enough space to tiptoe up the stairs, sort of. He tries to ignore the pain, but he doesn't think anything's hurt this bad since he got shot.

He passes out as soon as they reach the top.

He wakes up in a drift of shining feathers to find Aki, Mitsuru, and Theo standing over him. He wants to get pissy about it, but Theo raises a hand and white-gold light surrounds all of them, and suddenly Shinjiro's feeling a hundred fucking percent again. He doesn't like having to be grateful to him, but he's decided that finding Minako for real is more important than some dude who wears too many faces and lies out of all of them. He gets to his feet and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Aki and Mitsuru, and faces Theo with his head high.

"You're nearly there," Theo says, and if that's supposed to be encouraging then Shinjiro's a ballet dancer. "She's just at the other end of this floor."

He hears Mitsuru's sharp intake of breath, and a moment later, he realizes why: this floor is set up the same way as the ones where they fought the more powerful Shadows, lower in Tartarus.

"Just one more fight to go," Theo chirps.

"I have a question," Aki says, and he's not looking at any of them, which is bad. "If we find Minako, does that break the seal?"

Theo hesitates just a moment too long. "No," he says. "It won't break the seal on Nyx. I found a way to separate Minako from the Seal, leaving that intact while permitting her to return to her life."

"So what's the catch?" Shinjiro asks him.

Theo smiles so sadly that Shinjiro could almost feel sorry for him. "It's nothing you need be concerned about," he says, and either he's a better liar than Ikutsuki or he means it.

"That's not good enough," Mitsuru says crisply. "We've come so far for this--but if it means unleashing Nyx again, I'll go home and leave her here."

Shinjiro wants to protest that on some level, but he knows she's right. Aki nods along with him.

That brings more of a real smile to Theo's face. "You're wise beyond your years," he says with a hint of pride. "No, it's nothing harmful. It's just that...I'll never see her again."

"Because we'll find her?" Aki asks.

"Because that is the price I pay," Theo replies. "You've all paid your price--in blood, in fear, in tears, in climbing Tartarus all over again. I, too, must pay mine."

They look at each other, and Shinjiro knows they're thinking the same thing he is: what if they had done all this just to have to watch the thing they'd worked for slide out of their grasp?

Maybe Theo's got a reason for being an asshole. It doesn't make him less of one, just more understandable.

From out of nowhere, Theo produces a box of rattling items. "These are all I have left to give you," he says. "I hope they'll be enough." He pauses, and seems to be struggling with what he wants to say. "When you see what's next--you mustn't falter. I assure you, if you complete this fight--if you can do it--she will be returned to you as you wished it. I swear it."

That doesn't sound good. Shinjiro feels the same low, coiling dread that he had when he went to meet Ken on that full moon. Blindly he reaches out, looking for something, anything, and feels Aki's hand close tight around his, cool leather gloves soothing on his skin. Mitsuru's fingers are cold in his grip, but they always are, and she squeezes tight enough to hurt a little, but then he's holding on just as hard to them.

"I wish you well," Theo says, and bows deeply to them before he vanishes.

The box is full of powerful healing items--not as many as Minako tended to keep on hand, but they can all admit she was pretty obsessive about that kind of thing. They divide them up and check their weapons. Whatever Theo did to heal them has restored their armor, too, though not their clothes.

After one last look at each other--they don't need words, not after this long together--they walk forward.

The floor is empty. No matter how they search it, there is no Shadow here to fight, just stairs leading upward. There's not much to search, just a hallway and a room.

Above them comes the faint sound of music.

"I think we have to go up," Akihiko says.

"Then let's go." Shinjiro doesn't charge ahead this time; the stairs are wide enough for all three of them to climb together. They do so, walking side-by-side into whatever this is.

When they get to the top, Shinjiro recognizes the place they stand. He watched them fight Nyx here. For a minute he thinks it's all wrong, until he realizes it's just that he's so much taller than Minako was and his perspective was from her height before. Music's coming from somewhere, the same trance beat sort of thing that Minako loved. He wishes that didn't creep him the fuck out right now. Above them, the moon looms. It's black, not brilliant as it should be when it's full, and instead of radiating light it seems to pull light into itself, a neverending night above them. It seems close enough to touch. He's absolutely fucking certain he does not want to touch it, but something in him--the something that's tempted to start a fight because he can, the part of himself that can be cruel--yearns for it. He ignores it.

Up the stairs on the next level, he sees something gold floating.

"Are you ready?" Mitsuru asks them, and Shinjiro nods.

"We've got this," Aki says, but it's quiet and grim and not pumped-up like he usually is.

They walk forward.

The gold turns out to be dozens of cards floating and spinning around a slight figure crumpled on the ground. Shinjiro recognizes Minako's red hair and has to stop himself after he takes three running steps forward. She's unconscious, as near as he can tell, and the cards whirl around her like a shield. They approach slowly, and one card detaches itself from the arrangement and shatters, revealing a tiny winged Persona in a blue bodysuit.

"Do you understand?" she asks them, in a soft high voice that rings in Shinjiro's ears like tiny bells.

"We fight you," Mitsuru says, sounding like she hopes she's wrong.

"You sever us from her," the little pixie says. "When we are all gone, she will return to you."

The thought nearly makes Shinjiro sick. Even when he was trying desperately to control Castor, he couldn't picture living without him. Does Minako feel the same way?

He doesn't get much more time to think about that, because the pixie raises her hand and the dazzle of light that means Pulinpa descends on Mitsuru. It doesn't affect her, as evidenced by the fact that her rapier attack knocks the pixie off the tower entirely, but it sets the tone for the battle. As soon as the pixie falls, another card shatters, and a graceful blue goddess appears and slings a Bufu spell straight at Aki's weakness. It knocks him on his ass, and Shinjiro can tell it's going to be a long fucking fight.

The variety of Personae that live inside Minako is stunning. They fight snarling predatory cats, dancing goddesses, towering armoured warriors, and creatures Shinjiro can't even describe. At first it's easy, because they're all very weak and go down in one hit. It gets progressively harder, though, and just the sheer duration of the battle takes its toll. Theo's supplies help, but it's a long fucking road.

At last there are only three cards spinning above Minako, and he's starting to think that maybe they'll actually survive this, when two cards break off at the same time. One is a woman wearing gold with a heart-shaped harp on her back and flowing flame-colored hair, while the other wields a sword and wears what looks like a cloak made of narrow purple shields. Something in Osiris immediately recognizes the purple one and recoils, knowing that it wields the kind of dark magic that hurts him worse than anything else. Aki's already throwing Ziodyne at the harpist, which seems to knock her down pretty solidly, but nothing Shinjiro or Mitsuru's got can do anything against Death--because he knows, suddenly, that that's exactly what they're facing. That's the part of her that carried Death around for ten years, the part that healed him and what ultimately let her stand a chance against Nyx. This isn't the shadow of Death he fought before; this is the real deal.

Every time they knock the harpist down, Death helps her back up. Every time they hit Death, it rings off his shield and does nothing.

"Come on, Minako," Aki mutters. "Give us a hand here!" He drives his fist into the harpist and knocks her back, but Death's black magic spins in purple flames around them and Shinjiro feels it stab straight through him. "Shit," he mutters as everything goes dark.

Mitsuru is quick with the Revival Bead, and as Shinjiro stands back up he feels Osiris's cold, implacable determination at the back of his head. Almost on autopilot, he raises his Evoker, and as its power lances icy and painful through his mind, Osiris springs free and unleashes a spell Shinjiro is certain he never learned--it feels like Mahamaon, but more. Dazzling light surrounds them all and splinters into nothingness. Death gives a howl of despair, and fades away with Orpheus, leaving behind only the very last card.

It is dressed in white, with spiked hair and odd limbs. Chains hold its shields--so much like Death's--on its arm, and a white pillar rises behind its back. It faces them, and its voice echoes in his ears without its mouth moving. "I am Messiah, the Sacrifice," it says.

Shinjiro hesitates, then holsters his Evoker.

"Why do you hold back?" Messiah asks.

Mitsuru looks at him curiously, her Evoker still half-raised.

"If we fight you, we undo the sacrifice, don't we?" Aki says slowly. "Nyx will return."

Messiah tilts its head toward him, but says nothing.

"But she's not back," Mitsuru says, looking past Messiah to where Minako is still crumpled on the floor. "That means--oh."

Messiah levitates upward, and Minako gets to her feet.

She's as pale and thin as she was in the hospital, but her eyes are pitch-black instead of red, and she moves jerkily. It takes a moment for Shinjiro to realize the jerky movements are because she's got strings like a puppet, and they go to Messiah's hands. Where the strings are attached to Minako, she's bleeding freely; the strings are razor-sharp and gleaming. It scares him just to look at them.

Minako stares at them blankly. After a moment, Messiah moves its hand. She nods--or perhaps her head simply falls forward, if she can't hold it up--and raises her Evoker to her temple. Messiah unleashes a Megidolaon that nearly takes all three of them out; Mitsuru's quick with a Bead Chain, but Shinjiro knows they can't take many more of those.

"What do we do?" Aki yells.

"Hit her," Shinjiro answers, and steps up. "Let's go."

"Are you sure about this, Shinji?" Aki steps forward, but doesn't have his hands up in position.

"No, that sounds right," Mitsuru agrees, and raises her rapier.

It's just like when they used to coordinate attacks after an enemy was knocked down, but trickier because Minako's still on her feet and damned agile, and for all that she's a puppet to her Persona, it controls her better as the fight goes on. Still, with three of them, they manage to get her, and it's Shinjiro's axe that slices through the puppet-strings and into her, and leaves her sprawled on the floor and bleeding freely.

Somehow, that seems right, if sickening.

Messiah bows to them, and light flares again, but this time it heals all of them, including Minako. The razor wires fall away from her and melt into fog when they touch the floor, and her skin is left unscarred. Messiah starts to spin rapidly and coalesces back into the gold-edged card, which hovers in midair and releases a web of chains that stretches across the sky to hold back the blackened moon that looms above them.

Minako opens her eyes.

"Senpai?" she says groggily. "What happened?"

Shinjiro offers a hand to help her to her feet, and as soon as their hands touch, Tartarus vanishes, and they're back in Mitsuru's enormous bedroom. Minako looks around her wide-eyed, and reaches for headphones she's not wearing.

"Senpai..." She trails off, and looks at them sort of helplessly.

"Welcome back, Minako," Mitsuru tells her.

She smiles, sort of unevenly but hopeful. "Thanks!" she says.

Mitsuru directs her to a guest room, and the three of them get ready to go back to bed. Thankfully tomorrow's Sunday and none of them are working. Shinjiro's just on the edge of sleep within minutes, but something keeps nagging at him. He knows it's something to do with Minako, but even after he slips carefully out of bed without disturbing Mitsuru and Aki and stands in the doorway of the guest room watching her sleep (and yes, it's creepy, he knows that, but he can't bring himself to leave) he can't figure out why.

Eventually he staggers back to bed, his feet freezing, and curls up in a ball on the edge of the mattress, wishing this felt more like they'd won.

#


It's been years since he slept on the streets, but he knows, even asleep, when someone is watching him. He startles awake and sees Minako hovering awkwardly outside the door of Mitsuru's room. She's looking at them with--he's not sure what it is on her face.

He hopes it's not disgust.

His sudden movement wakes Mitsuru, and she sits up rumpled and hollow-eyed in the dawn light. "Ar--Minako," she corrects herself. Amazing how even half-asleep, Mitsuru can get her wits about her and act like a hostess. "Please, come in."

Minako sidles through the door, and Shinjiro decides it's not disgust--maybe that's vanity, since she keeps staring at his chest when he hadn't bothered with a shirt--but it's that same kitten-like curiosity that lit up her face when he first saw her behind that train station. She seems more right now than she did last night. Maybe that's just the result of having enough sleep.

He shifts closer to Mitsuru to make room for Minako--they're going to need a bigger bed, if this goes the way he hopes it will--and she perches on the edge of it like a bird ready to fly away at the slightest hint of danger.

Aki, ever the deepest sleeper of them all, mumbles and drags the pillow over his head when Mitsuru pokes him in the ribs. Shinjiro's never been able to understand how he does that. Mitsuru's elbows are pointy.

"Senpai..." Minako's voice trails off, and she's looking anywhere but at one of them.

Mitsuru sits up taller, elegant as a queen, and pulls calm over her face like a mask. "What do you want to know?"

When Minako doesn't answer right away, Shinjiro reaches over to yank the pillow off Aki's head, which leads to a flurry of protest that lasts exactly as long as it takes for Aki to realize who's with them, and then the flurry of protest turns into a flurry of frantically pulling the sheet up to hide his pajamas and also trying not to blush, which Aki's as bad at now as he was in high school.

Minako just looks at him, with the same open interest she showed in all of them, and after a minute he stops fidgeting. It's at that point that she averts her eyes, looking nervous, and stares at a point somewhere above Shinjiro's head. "I don't understand what happened last night," she says at last, and the sheer certainty that has always surrounded her is gone, and that makes Shinjiro's skin crawl. "And...it seems like you're...older than you should be." She looks down at her hands, and a faint frown line appears between her eyebrows. "I seem older than I should be."

Mitsuru's cautious, picking her words like she's at a high-powered negotiation. "What do you remember?" she asks.

Minako just looks confused. "Well--school, and spending time in the dorm, and--Shinjiro-senpai, you were hurt, weren't you?" Her gaze doesn't quite flick over his scar--she skips past it--but then she goes on. "I remember we were all good friends--and then I was asleep, and you helped me up. Where was that place?"

Shit. Fuck. Of all the things Shinjiro expected--he wouldn't have put it past Theo to give them an empty shell with no mind of its own, or a rotting zombie, if he's honest--this is the one he didn't, and it hurts. Suddenly it clicks--what's missing is the multiple layers that Minako always had, the way she could be everything to everyone. She doesn't seem to know how to interact with them anymore, and it's like that part of her is gone completely.

They're all at a loss for words, and she seems to shrink in on herself. "I'm sorry for causing so much trouble, senpai," she says in a very small voice.

"No, not at all," Mitsuru says quickly. "You were--ill, and the doctors said you might have some very vivid dreams while you recovered."

"Oh, okay," Minako says, and that's all wrong too; she was never one to accept something at face value before.

He's not really a fuzzy cuddly type, but he can't stand her looking so lost, so he holds out an arm to her, half-offering a hug. She darts a cautious glance at Mitsuru and Aki, like she expects them to protest, and then slowly scoots sideways until she's inside the circle of his arm. She's soft and warm against his side, and despite having been in stasis in the Dark Hour for years, she inexplicably still smells like her same shampoo. He breathes it in and reminds himself that it's not her fault she doesn't remember.

"Um..." Minako looks at them all sort of helplessly, like a baby bird who doesn't know where the nest is. "I don't want to, um, interrupt."

"You're not interrupting," Aki says. "In fact, you're welcome to join us."

Trust Aki to have all the delicacy of an out-of-control train. Still, it seems to go over well with Minako, after the initial moment where her eyes get as big as saucers at the implication. She suddenly gets a slyly thoughtful look on her face, and the curve of her smile definitely has overtones to it. "That sounds nice," she says, and Shinjiro wonders if he's the only one of them who notices she's using that to cover up her uncertainty. He wonders how much it matters.

Mitsuru meets his eyes and tips her head slightly, and he takes the hint. He grabs a T-shirt and heads down to the kitchen to start cooking breakfast. A few minutes later Aki comes down and pours himself a glass of orange juice, looking vaguely bewildered. Shinjiro guesses it's because Mitsuru threw him out to have some girl talk with Minako, and leaves him alone. When Aki insists on moping next to the stove, Shinjiro sets him to chopping fruit for the pancake topping.

It doesn't take long for the determined, rhythmic thwack of the knife against the cutting board stops. Shinjiro keeps adding dry ingredients to the bowl for the pancake batter, waiting Aki out.

"Is she okay?" Aki eventually asks.

"I don't know." Shinjiro takes over the fruit preparation, since Aki apparently can't slice and talk. He's finished chopping all the strawberries and started the compote on the stove by the time Aki stirs again.

"She doesn't seem right," he says.

Because it's Aki, Shinjiro doesn't say something sarcastic. "No," he replies instead. Maybe he stirs the compote a little harder than is necessary, but it beats punching a wall, and at least he doesn't spill.

"Is she going to remember?" Now there's the question Aki's really been trying to ask.

Shinjiro starts heating the pan for the pancakes, mostly to give himself something else to do. "I don't know." There's silence between them, broken only by the sizzle of water when he tests the skillet. "Probably not."

Aki sighs. "Yeah, I didn't think so. That's her price, right?"

"Not just hers." Shinjiro pours batter and watches it bubble. "Maybe that's our real price."

"What, climbing Tartarus again wasn't enough?" Aki's voice actually cracks. It hasn't done that in years.

Shinjiro smiles grimly at the stove. "Everything's got a price, Aki." He flips pancakes, and they're perfectly golden-brown on the underside.

He hears Mitsuru and Minako descending the stairs, and they all gather in the kitchen, Aki and Mitsuru making sure to stay out of his way. When breakfast is ready, they move to the dining room, and it makes his chest ache when he sees the three of them around the table, just like it should have been. Minako laughs even at Aki's terrible awkward jokes. Mitsuru's participating in the conversation, but he can see the wheels turning behind her eyes.

"This is delicious, Shinjiro-senpai!" Minako says, digging into her pancakes with enthusiasm. Shinjiro grunts acknowledgment and plows steadily through the pile on his own plate.

"We'll arrange for you to complete your classes and graduate," Mitsuru says to Minako, like she's continuing a conversation.

Minako shifts her shoulders a little and smiles awkwardly. "Thank you," she says. "I won't disappoint you."

"No, you won't," Mitsuru agrees, and there's more warmth in the statement than he might have expected from her. "But we can worry about that tomorrow."

Minako smiles, and her hand brushes Mitsuru's, fluttering like a butterfly in midair. It makes Shinjiro's heart ache to see the shadows behind her smile.

She stays with them, and becomes part of their relationship, and they stop dreaming of Tartarus. But sometimes, it hurts to look at her and realize just how little they brought back.


#


Author's Note: Thank you so, so much to [personal profile] cypher for all the cheerleading sie did on Plurk!
cypher: (seeking truth)

[personal profile] cypher 2011-07-15 02:38 pm (UTC)(link)
<3 <3 <3 It was my pleasure! This is a gorgeous story, rich with emotion and faithful to the tone of the game. It was an utter treat to read. ^^

And Misha, asdkjh! Osiris! I love how you've rendered him Persona-style, and mmmn, the blood on Shinjiro's hands. lovely. ;3;
mitsuhachi: (Default)

[personal profile] mitsuhachi 2011-07-30 01:27 am (UTC)(link)
I forgot I wouldn't get comment-emails for this, so late reply is late, BUT! Thank you so much :) I'm really happy it worked alright with the story, because that scene? Kind of made me flail a lot, I love it so much. <3
synecdochic: torso of a man wearing jeans, hands bound with belt (Default)

[personal profile] synecdochic 2011-07-17 12:57 pm (UTC)(link)
Ohhhhh, man. The prices we pay, indeed.

I love this, so much. It's not an answer, and it's not perfect, and I'm sort of at the point of waving my hands around and talking about goblin fruit. (Come buy, come buy...)

electric_butterfly: (no absolution comes for free)

[personal profile] electric_butterfly 2011-07-17 07:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I like this very much. I love vividness of Tartarus, the solution for Minako, and the fact this could very easily be in a sequel. Well done!

The ending...so bittersweet. Nice touch.
shanaqui: Ellone from Final Fantasy VIII. Text: blue sky holiday. ((Ellone) Blue sky)

[personal profile] shanaqui 2011-07-28 10:03 am (UTC)(link)
Hee, I love that it starts with Shinjiro cooking. I loved that aspect of his character.

even if all of them feel the ghost of Minako with them, her absence as real and physical as her presence would have been.

*makes tiny meep sounds of distress*

When the Dark Hour fades and the world surges back to life, they all curl up together, something they rarely do, and fall asleep still holding tight to each other's hands, because it's easier than saying aloud that they're scared.

*more meep sounds*

And I love the bit where he gets Osiris.

She stays with them, and becomes part of their relationship, and they stop dreaming of Tartarus. But sometimes, it hurts to look at her and realize just how little they brought back.

meeeeeeeeeep.
shanaqui: My Habitican mod avatar, featuring me and a pile of books bigger than me. (Default)

[personal profile] shanaqui 2011-07-28 12:05 pm (UTC)(link)
I have had it in 'Read It Later' since you posted it, but have been going 'no, no, should do [x] first, must save it'. But I have done [x] -- all the [x]s! -- and so I could read it now. ♥ It made me want to replay P3P, wah. (I'm working on Persona PSP. That only makes the urge to play P3 worse.)