Shinjiro was leaning in his accustomed place against the end of the counter in the dorm dining room when Akihiko came downstairs. The other members of SEES were out doing their own things that Sunday, apparently, as the lounge and dining room were otherwise empty. The television, left on by Junpei or one of the others, chattered along.
Akihiko leaned against the partition archway, his jacket slung jauntily over his shoulder. "So, Shinji, what do you think of them after all?"
Shinjiro looked around, his accustomed scowl softening only a little. "They're all right," he replied with a shrug. "I'm still here, aren't I?"
Akihiko strolled over and stepped behind the counter to get one of his protein drinks from the refrigerator. "It's almost like old times, with you here," he said over his shoulder.
"Hunh," said Shinjiro. "I was just thinking it wasn't like old times at all."
They were cowed into silence by the grim spectre of the rich and famous Kijiro. Shinji had earlier speculated that he'd gotten as wealthy as he was through piracy, as evidenced by his eyepatch. Aki had snickered and kicked him as they sat waiting for their appointment with the great man.
The only thing grimmer than this unsmiling and powerful man was the well-dressed girl, about their age, who stood silently at his elbow. Aki couldn't look at her because he felt his orphan's grunge too keenly. Shinji didn't look anyone in the eye if he didn't know them.
"Sanada-kun, Aragaki-kun, this is Kijiro-san," Ikutsuki said. The boys bowed deeply to the man in the chair, and then, at a gesture from Kijiro, the pair sat together on the sofa. "Kijiro-san, these are the fellows I told you about, the ones I ran across at Port Island Station the other night. Any port in a storm, eh?"
He laughed at his own jokes, Aki thought, because no one else would.
"Ikutsuki-kun tells me that you boys have great potential," Kijiro said, looking at them keenly. "That you have walked in the Dark Hour."
They didn't look at each other. Aki just said, "Yes, sir."
"Then you've seen the things that haunt the Dark Hour," he said. "The great tower, perhaps?"
"Yes, sir," Aki repeated.
"And you have the power of Persona," Kijiro pursued.
Aki and Shinji did glance at each other, briefly, before nodding.
"Ikutsuki-kun has arranged for this dorm," Kijiro said, "for a group of special students who know about the Dark Hour, and who will use Personas to fight the creatures of it. The goal is to find a way to end the Dark Hour for all time."
Aki's head snapped up and he met Kijiro's gaze. Kijiro nodded slowly. "The two of you can be part of it, if you want. You'll attend Gekkoukan and live here."
"Yes, sir!" Aki said, and he was only mildly surprised to hear Shinji's voice echoing his.
Kijiro half-smiled in approval. "At this time, there's only one other student we know of who can use a Persona." He gestured to the girl. "This is my daughter, Mitsuru. She'll be staying here in the dorm too."
Mitsuru gave them a carefully measured bow, which both boys stood and returned.
"What do you mean?" Akihiko asked Shinji. "Not like old times at all?"
"Well," Shinji drawled, settling himself on a stool, "for one thing, we know what the hell we're doing now. And for another, Mitsuru is with us in Tartarus."
"There are more Shadows on this level than the last, Sanada-kun," Mitsuru said through the link. "You and Aragaki-kun should be careful going around corners."
"More careful than last week, at least," Aki replied cheerfully.
"You weren't the one that had to be carried out," muttered Shinji.
"No, I was the one that carried you out," Aki replied. "Lucky I didn't sprain something doing it. You've gotta start eating fewer Choco-Mons, or start training more with me..."
"Sanada-kun!" Mitsuru's voice snapped.
The Shadow darted upon them from the decorated niche they passed, emerging from the mouth of one of the staring faces on the wall. Aki and Shinji didn't have time to turn before the massive, bizarre monster hit them.
"Are you all right?" Mitsuru demanded. "Sanada-kun!"
"Yes, we're fine," Aki said, picking himself up off the floor and going to pick up his sword, which had been knocked from his hand in the fight. "But I think I'm going to take up boxing, or karate, or something. This weapon thing is a pain in the ass."
"Damn!" muttered Mitsuru in a rare moment of lost control. "I wish I could be in there with you."
Aki didn't know what to say. Fortunately, Shinji said, "We're coming back, Kijiro-san. I think Aki's too shook up to go on."
"I'm not shook up," Aki insisted.
"You should both come back anyway," Mitsuru said. "The Dark Hour is nearly over."
"Things do work better when Mitsuru is with us," Akihiko admitted.
"I still don't understand why she gave over command to that kid," Shinjiro said.
"I don't think she's ever been particularly comfortable with command," Akihiko said. "And he's pretty good at tactics, actually. It frees her up to concentrate on battle."
"It frees her up to concentrate on how guilty she feels," Shijiro riposted.
Akihiko shrugged, sipping his drink and turning a chair around so he could slouch into it. "Whatever she needs."
"That's what you always say," Shinjiro muttered.
Shinji sat on Aki's bed. "So why are you two going on this date anyway?"
Aki pulled on his best blazer and examined the effect with the red turtleneck. "Because she asked me out."
"Why did she ask you out?" Shinji pursued.
Aki shrugged. "Everyone says we'd make a good couple. Even Ikutsuki-san. I suppose it's natural to try it out."
Shinji snorted. He watched Aki changing out of the blazer and examining the contents of the closet. "You're such a damn dandy," Shinji said.
"It's better than wearing the same knit hat for a week," Aki said mildly. "Without washing it."
Shiji snorted again. "Do you think it will work?"
Aki shrugged. "I'd like to get to know her better anyway. She seems so lonely."
"It'd be better for her to have friends?" Shinji asked. "Or a boyfriend?" he finished slyly.
"Whatever she needs," Aki said, pulling the turtleneck off and donning a crisp tuxedo shirt.
"You're so solicitous," Shinji snarled.
Aki turned to him and stared. "Are you jealous?" he asked incredulously, slipping on the fitted waistcoat with the dark purple background and the silver paisley pattern.
Shinji snorted. "I think you're just getting too into her. Girls are nothing but trouble."
"You just say that because they're never interested in you," Aki said breezily, tweaking his sleeves. "What do you think?"
Shinji eyed him. "You look like a damn dandy."
Aki shrugged. "Then I look good enough for a date. See you later."
"And you always say girls are nothing but trouble," Akihiko said, draining his drink.
"They are," Shinjiro said, reaching behind the counter for a bag of shrimp chips. "Just look at that girl Junpei's gone all ga-ga for."
Akihiko scowled down at the empty bottle. "Well, she's different. She's part of Strega." He shook his head. "She's nothing like Mitsuru."
"Yeah, yeah, Mitsuru's special," Shinjiro said. "She always has been. She can do no wrong. Whatever Mitsuru needs."
Akihiko gave him a jaded look. "Are you starting that again? I thought you were over that years ago."
"What are you doing in my room?" Aki demanded when he opened the door and found Shinji on his bed.
"My TV doesn't work," Shinji explained shortly. "How was your date?"
"Funny, I thought all the equipment in this dorm was new," Aki said, unbuttoning his waistcoat. "It was fine."
"If it was fine, why do you have that weird look on your face?"
"What weird look?" Aki asked. "It was fine. Kijiro-san was a lot of fun to hang out with."
"'Kijiro-san.' Still so formal," Shinji jeered.
"GET OUT!" Aki bellowed, throwing his waistcoat at Shinji's head.
Shinji fled, laughing.
"No matter what you say, I think you've still got a crush on her, after all these years," Shinjiro said.
"I don't have a crush on her," Akihiko said reasonably. "I admire her. I've always admired her. She's so damn strong, and always has been."
"But she needs," Shinjiro said sarcastically.
"Everyone has needs, Shinji," Akihiko snarled. "Even you." He tossed his bottle over the counter, where it dropped neatly into the trash can.
They were instantly the talk of the middle school. They ate lunch together, studied together in the library, waited for each other after school to walk home together. Girls and boys alike sighed dreamily after them, though Aki was fairly certain that the majority of sighs were for Mitsuru.
"Aren't you two sweet?" Shinji asked him after school one day when Mitsuru had her private fencing lesson off-campus. "Do you have any time at all for hanging out with me? Or do you have to run and fetch Kijiro-san's laundry or something?"
"With cracks like that, I'm not sure I want to have time for you," Aki snarled, picking up his bookbag. "And she's told you that you can call her Mitsuru too."
"I feel so very honored," Shinji said. "I thought it would be exclusive for her boyfriend."
"I think she feels that we all have the bond of the Dark Hour," Aki said in an undertone, "so we should be closer friends. She's being nice, Shinji. Why can't you be nice back?"
"I don't need people to pity me because I'm the third wheel," Shinji snarled, snatching up his own bookbag and stomping out of the classroom.
"Oh, good grief, Shinji, she doesn't pity you," Aki said, chasing after him. "She likes you. I mean, as a friend."
"Thanks for the clarification there, Aki, old friend," Shinji said, running down the stairs. Aki followed him.
"Come on, Shinji, stop being an asshole," Aki nearly pleaded. "Just get to know her. She's not like other girls."
"Says the guy who doesn't even have the balls to kiss her," Shinji jeered.
"W-w-what do you mean?" Aki said, then realized that they were the center of attention for a small mob of students. He ran to catch Shinji by the elbow. "What do you mean?" he hissed.
"Oh, come on," Shinji said with an evil twist of the mouth. "If you'd kissed her, you would've told me, or you wouldn't be able to box, or your brain would've exploded. There'd be some sign of a difference. Kissing changes things." He pulled free of Aki's nerveless grip and ran for the front gate.
"I have completely different needs," Shinjiro said, munching chips sedately. "From pretty much anyone," he reflected after a moment.
"You know what guilt's like," Akihiko said.
Shinjiro paused and shrugged, allowing that. "Whatever I need, I don't need people that way."
On the Moonlight Bridge, Aki finally screwed up his courage.
"Mitsuru-san," he said. She turned her gaze from the river to him. "I... Would you... I mean... Could I... um... kiss you?"
She didn't blush, but her brow wrinkled into a perplexed frown and she looked back out at the river. There was a long silence. His stomach sank to somewhere near his knees.
"I really do like you, Akihiko," she said, saying his name without an honorific for the first time. "I don't have a lot of people to spend time with. It feels good to go out with you." His stomach rose a little, boosting his heart with it. But she still didn't turn to him.
There was another long silence.
"I..." she began, then stopped.
Aki sighed. He opened his mouth to say something else, but Mitsuru turned to him.
"All right," she said, more nervous than he'd ever seen her. She laid both her hands on his chest and looked at him with a disconcerting intensity.
He tried to remember how to do this. They had, after all, seen that French film marathon together last week. Everyone had... tilted their heads and sort of leaned in and then there'd been...
He expected an electric shock. After all, that was how everyone described kissing the right person, right? Except there wasn't. Her lips were warm and soft. They didn't bang noses, which had been one of his irrational fears. She wore a very mild perfume, he noted, not for the first time. He wondered vaguely how long this was supposed to go on.
They looked at each other afterward, both faintly puzzled.
Mitsuru sighed. "I was worried about this."
Aki blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," she said, with a slight blush, "that I like you quite a lot, Akihiko. But... not really as a boyfriend."
"Oh," he said. They both turned to look out at the river again. "I guess," he added after a few minutes, "I feel the same. You're one of my best friends, Mitsuru."
Mitsuru smiled. "And you're one of mine, Akihiko." Then she exhaled sharply. "Well, good. We don't have to date any more. And maybe Shinjiro-kun will feel better about it all."
"Huh?" Aki said, but Mitsuru was an expert at changing the subject.
"Of course you don't, Shinji," Akihiko said tiredly. "You've never needed anyone at all. Not Mitsuru, not anyone, not even me."
"Whattaya gonna do now you don't have a girlfriend?" Shinji asked, flopping down onto Aki's bed.
"I dunno," Aki said, sitting down on the floor and leaning back against the bed. "Box more, I suppose. It doesn't mean I'm going to stop hanging out with Mitsuru, though. She's my friend, after all."
"Till you get another girlfriend," Shinji said, making a sour face in Aki's peripheral vision. "That's all the girls seem to be talking about right now -- who gets to be your next girlfriend."
"No one at this school," Aki said with a roll of the eyes.
"You sure?" Shinji asked. "There's a lot of good-looking girls. Just imagine kissing the ones you know and see what you think."
"Ugh, I don't want to," Aki said. "Like you said, kissing changes things. I don't understand all those movies and books that talk about it as some great thing."
"Really?" Shinji asked. "I can think of some people who would be cool to kiss."
Aki turned to look at him. "Really? Needs-no-one-Shinji? Wanting to kiss girls?"
Shinji blushed and looked away. "Jerk."
"Maybe you've been giving me so much grief about Mitsuru because you really want to kiss her," Aki said with sudden enlightenment. "You've been all hot for Mitsuru all this time, haven't you?"
Shinji wouldn't look at him. "Shut up."
"'Girls are nothing but trouble!'" sang Aki sarcastically.
"All this time, right under my nose!" crowed Aki, kneeling at the edge of the bed and grinning at Shinji. "Shinji likes girls."
"SHUT UP!" Shinji flung himself at Aki, tackling him to the floor.
Aki was pleased: this was more characteristic of Shinji, this sudden rage and violence. He could cope with this, had coped with it for years. It was easier than the sullen, sarcastic Shinji of recent weeks.
Shinji was in earnest -- throwing punches, wrestling Aki by the shirt, trying to stay on top -- the better to throw punches. Shinji always depended on brute force. Aki had been training, though, and he was able to wriggle aside and throw Shinji over onto the floor more easily than he had when they were younger.
He had Shinji pinned, raging, against the floor. Aki leaned there, holding Shinji's wrists and catching his breath. "You done?" he asked.
Shinji stared up at him with wild, panicked eyes, his ragged hair sprawled around him on the floor.
Aki drew back, releasing his arms. "Are you okay?"
Shinji lunged, seized Aki by the neck, dragged him down with a snarl...
... and kissed him.
Kissing changes things.
A kiss can change everything.
"I didn't mean..." Shinjiro began, then stopped.
Akihiko was silent.
Shinjiro coughed. "So, how long have you and he been, you know...?"
Akihiko startled. "What do you mean?"
Shinjiro gave him a tolerant look. "You keep watching Junpei like a starving wolf, and every time he mentions that girl's name, you look like you've bit into a lemon."
Akihiko sighed and looked away. "It happened by accident."
"It usually does," Shinjiro said with a wry chuckle.
"All I hear about now is Chidori, Chidori, Chidori," Akihiko said dourly. "Nothing but trouble there."
Shinjiro snorted. "Well, just be there when the trouble happens. Like you tried to be for me."
Aki pounded on the door. "Shinji, come on, you've got to eat. You haven't come out of there for days."
Mitsuru set the tray of food down next to the door and, with a wordless nod to Aki, descended the stairs.
Aki tried again. "Come on, Shinji. You've gotta eat! And if you're pissing out the window, Kijiro-san will keelhaul you!"
The door opened at that. Shinji looked like he'd lost twenty pounds, he was pale and his eyes were red-rimmed and sunken. He was holding a backpack stuffed full of things.
Aki smiled, but then spotted the backpack. "What the hell?"
"I can't stay, Aki," Shinji said hoarsely. "I can't. I can't fight, not with this monster in my head."
"Shinji, please," Aki said. "You can't go! We'll find some way to fix it, some way to make it better..."
"Nothing's going to make it better for Amada-san," Shinji said, voice cracking over the name. "I keep seeing her face. I see her kid's face. I hear her scream. I can't keep doing this, Aki." Tears slid down his face. "I have to go."
"Shinji..." Aki began, reaching for him.
"No!" Shinji broke past him, kicking the tray of food to scatter across the hallway. "No, goddammit, why aren't you listening to me? I can't, I can't STAY, I can't BE with you. I'm a murderer, Aki, and I'm... I'm going. Where murderers go."
Aki dropped his arms to his sides. "Where's that?"
"Hell," Shinji said, and then he was gone.
"Shinji," Akihiko said, "I still..."
"I know," Shinjiro said. "Me too. But it'd never work." He got up from the stool. "Just be good to Junpei when things go south."
"Of course," Akihiko said flatly, staring at the floor.
Shinjiro zipped up his jacket. "He'll be back, man. Who couldn't come back to you?"
Akihiko raised his desolate gaze to Shinjiro. "You didn't."
Shinjiro watched him for a moment, then shrugged. "Shows how much you know. See ya later."
"Where are you going?" Akihiko asked.
Shinjiro opened his mouth, closed it, smiled grimly, and said, "Down to the pharmacy for some stuff. Want a soda?"
Akihiko laughed shortly. "Yeah, sure. And get one for Mitsuru. She never buys them for herself."
Shinjiro snorted and went out.