"Imagine if you could control the flow of time… eliminate unwanted events before they occur." - Takeharu Kirijo
Minato bit back the urge to groan as the blissful feeling of oblivion faded. For the first time in recent memory he had felt... light. Calm. Happy. Where was he? Last he remembered, he had laid with his head in Aigis's lap, her voice lilting and soft above him as her fingers - surprisingly gentle for all that they were mechanical - carded through his hair. He had been so tired, had been tired for weeks leading up to that day. Waking had become a chore, sleep coming easily but never leading him to feel rested. Had he fallen asleep, then, surrounded by those he loved? He remembered knowing they were coming to the roof, that they too finally remembered, but after?
"Hey there. It's been a while, hasn't it?"
That voice was familiar. But how was it possible? Minato forced his eyes open, pleased that there was no bright light to make it painful. He felt swaddled in shadows, unable to distinguish anything around him, but when he lifted a hand he could see it clearly. He thought it should feel strange, floating as he was, but he could only feel calm as he raised his eyes to the familiar boy who looked to Minato with a dreamy smile.
"You remember me, then! I'm so glad. It feels like it has been forever since we last spoke. But really… it's been no time at all, has it?"
Minato felt vague confusion breach the calm that so thoroughly suffused his being. Hadn't Pharos - Ryoji, Thanatos, Nyx's Avatar, whatever name he went by - been vanquished when he'd sealed Nyx? A sinking sensation grew low in his stomach, twisting and churning and pulling him further from calm as seconds ticked by. Had something gone wrong in the sealing, then? Would the Dark Hour be returning? Had everything they had gone through been for nothing after all?
His silence didn't seem to perturb Pharos, who just rocked back on his heels with that same enigmatic smile. "Do you know where you are?"
Minato shook his head, scarcely able to breathe around the lump in his throat. He would be fine with almost any oddity by now after having lived through almost a year of the Dark Hour, but he couldn't stand the thought of the world being sent into peril once more. He'd worked so hard to make sure everything was fixed, that his friends would be freed--
"You died, you know."
That halted his building panic, leaving Minato staring ahead. "I'm dead?"
Pharos nodded, smile fading slightly. "Yes. You used all your strength fighting Nyx. You just faded away; no one could stop it. Your friends were very sad. I was very sad, even though I am hardly alive."
"Pharos… what is going on?"
The boy moved in close to him, hands on his knees and his face lit into a more expressive smile. "You're special, Minato. I'm sure you already know that, but you're even more special than you could ever imagine. And because of that…" Pharos spread his arms and grinned, and Minato found an answering smile twitching at the corners of his lips. "Because of that, you are being given a second chance."
"Chance to do what?"
"To fix your mistakes. To be with those you love. To make things right. You'll go back with all the knowledge you gained in the last year, all your strength and even your weaponry. You will be a force to be reckoned with, and you can do what most people only ever dream of - change the future."
Minato peered into Pharos's bright eyes, trying to control the rapid staccato of his heart. He was afraid it would burst from his chest at this rate. He wished to ask a million questions, to rejoice at the chance to wipe away the mistakes that had been made, to prevent Nyx's coming, to save the lives of those lost. To spare his friends pain. But he had never been one for many words, so he could only hope Pharos understood what he asked as he stared, hands shaking. "How?"
"By the divinity of the Universe."
He wanted to ask more, wanted to know how this could be happening, but suddenly Pharos was Ryoji, standing over him with a serene smile. "Let's go, Minato." And then the light came, and Minato slipped away.
4/6/09 ~ Game start.
There was no slow wakening this time, no fade into awareness. It was jarring to one moment be floating in nothingness and the next moment wake to music blasting in his ears, fingers curled around the cold metal of a pole. Minato jerked, eyes wide as he looked at the other occupants of the train car. It was nearly empty, only a few lightly dozing people scattered here and there. Minato looked down and pushed back his sleeve to reveal his watch. As the train's brakes sent a wail reverberating down the tunnel, his watch flicked to 11:58pm.
Dark Hour was near.
He remembered the first time he'd gone through this. He'd stepped out of the train and frozen as coffins replaced the people around him, fingers clenching and unclenching spasmodically. He had been seeing the Dark Hour for years, of course; from the day Aigis had sealed part of Death within him he'd had that extra hour. But he'd never let himself be out at night when it happened; he'd had so many nightmares as a child of that strange, green time that the counselors and other health personnel had told him was a dream.
Actually being out during Dark Hour had been the single most terrifying moment of his life up to that moment. He had forced an apathetic calm over his mind, reminding himself again and again that this was nothing new, stepping around the pools of blood that littered the ground, trying to reason away the strangeness with logic as his fists shook.
This time he was ready for it. He stepped from the train and his music died while the clock struck midnight. He inhaled deep and slow as the sickly glow of Tartarus's moon shone down on him. Minato paused to stare up at that moon, and he realized his fists had clenched just like they had all those months ago. He loosened them slowly, feeling the tension seep out of his muscles. He had lived through this before and he knew what to expect, knew what was to come. There was nothing wandering the streets that he couldn't take care of with his fists. He wondered where his sword was; hadn't Pharos said his equipment would come along, too?
The trek to the dorms was so familiar that he walked it on auto-pilot, for the first time considering the consequences of this trip back in time. His elation had suffocated the possible consequences, but now he took the time to think it over. What effects would changing the world have? Could he really prevent Nyx from coming? The twelve Full Moon Shadows couldn't be ignored…
He would have to die again. The thought wasn't nearly as disturbing as it should have been, and Minato shrugged a shoulder as the dorm came into sight. He could save the lives of Shinji and Chidori, secure happiness for those he cared about. He could strengthen the bonds he hadn't had the time to the first time around, and he could ensure that the world without him would be a bright place. Was there really anything else that mattered after that?
As he pushed open the door to what had been his home and met with the awkward introductions with his close friends, Minato carefully suppressed a grin. Everything would be alright - no matter what he had to do to make it so.
4/9/09 ~ The attack on the dorms.
"Hurry! Downstairs! We'll leave through the back door!"
Being back at the beginning hadn't been as easy as he'd thought it would be. He'd always been near-silent, so why should it be so hard to pretend to be oblivious? Meeting with Ikutsuki, that traitorous bastard, had been a nightmare on his self control. It had taken every last bit of his hard-won charm and strength to not deck the man flat in his smirking mouth. And here he was again, attempting to look entirely clueless while Yukari panicked in the doorway to his bedroom.
But truly, why was he so worried about staying under the radar? What was the worst thing they could do if he changed the way things had gone the first time, suspect he was odd? Shun him? It wasn't like time-travel would be even a possibility to them, let alone the first conclusion. These people, his friends and teammates, were used to odd occurrences. They had been living through the Dark Hour for months already. He might not be able to prevent the inevitable… but that wasn't any reason to follow the script word for word, was it?
Before he'd even known he'd made up his mind, Minato had seized Yukari's wrist and had started pulling her towards the stairs. She yelped at his grip, struggling against him and demanding he turn around, shouting that they had to go back. But months of fighting had developed his strength too far, there was no way she could break his grip so early on. Minato felt vaguely dizzy as he ran up the curving stairs, breaking into a run that had Yukari stumbling behind him, panting with the effort of keeping herself upright.
"T-the roof? Minato-kun, we have to get out of here. We need to go down, we have to get out of the building! Let go, stop--" she cut herself off as her transceiver rang, and he let her yank her arm from his grip. "Senpai? Another one?! Oh no, what should we do? Up?" Yukari stared at him with wide eyes, hardly blinking as Mitsuru relayed updates to her. "Y-yes. We will. We will cross to the next building and go down from there. I will call you then, senpai."
With her distraction, it didn't take any effort to snatch the Evoker from Yukai's belt. He ignored her shout as he ripped open the door to the roof. His body thrummed with well-missed adrenaline, fingers curling around the gun's familiar hilt. While no time at all had passed for him since that afternoon with Aigis, the month between that afternoon and the final battle had seemed like a lifetime. The normalcy of school and life without Tartarus had been… painful.
Yukari shrieked as Shadows clawed their way over the roof's low wall, the largest of them lumbering on its many arms. Minato couldn't hold down a smirk as he put the Evoker to his head and whispered, "Persona." Here he went again.
As Yukari left the hospital room with a suspicious glance back to the bed, Minato sighed. Right, so maybe it had been a bit overconfident to assume that his display of courage would not have consequences. Yukari, rather than thanking him profusely as she had the first time around, had questioned him suspiciously on his knowledge and control. He still wasn't worried, but it had stung a bit to see the narrow-eyed look on Yukari's face when it wasn't pointed towards one of Junpei's faux-innocent grins.
He hated feeling groggy. He hated hospital stays and several-day bouts of unconsciousness. He had had enough of them over the years to be sure how he felt about them, after all. He hadn't thought he'd have to do this a second time since summoning a Persona was nothing new to him, but it seemed that Thanatos's sudden and violent appearance had sapped him of his energy again despite his power levels and experience. So, just as the first time around, he was stuck laying in a hospital bed waiting to be allowed to check out, though at least his stay was to be much shorter this time. He hadn't left for almost another week the first time around. Minato pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes; perhaps it was simply that some events had to play out the same?
It wasn't like he really knew what to expect in this. Ryoji had spoken like Minato could make a real difference in coming back, but what if some things were unable to change? And if they were, what were they? The possibilities were a bit frightening.
He dropped his hands from his eyes as the door opened, and Minato's eyebrows rose. In the doorway stood Mitsuru and Akihiko, expressions tense as they came to stand near his bed. He didn't recall a visit from these two; in fact, he hadn't even formally met Akihiko until the evening after his hospital release when (that bastard) Ikutsuki called a meeting to explain the Dark Hour to him.
He tensed a bit at the glare Mitsuru was giving him, pushing away thoughts of her shy smile from months gone by. Though none of his relationships with the girls had ever gotten especially serious, he'd probably been most adoring of Mitsuru. Her maturity and real dedication to the fight and the world had always made him admire her.
"Arisato." Her voice was crisp and businesslike, her face in the studied not-frown that meant she didn't know something she thought she should already. "This is Akihiko Sanada, one of the senior SEES members and your senpai."
Minato inclined his head to Akihiko, getting a narrow-eyed nod in return, before lowering his eyes to his hands. "As nice as this visit is, I somehow doubt you came here for introductions."
Mitsuru sighed. "You're right; this isn't a social call. We need answers, Arisato. Your behavior the other night has led to a myriad of unanswered questions, and due to some speculation…" she trailed off with an uncomfortable frown.
"What Mitsuru means is that you're suspicious." Akihiko's uninjured arm was crossed over the one in a sling, and he scowled down at Minato. "Being able to wield more than one Persona is weird, but we could have ignored that. Even taking control like you did might have been passed off as a personality trait. But you preemptively took Takeba's Evoker, with no logical way of knowing what it was, and summoned your Persona without prompting. You didn't even hesitate!" Akihiko ended with a deep frown. Minato noted to himself that the expression didn't suit the older boy.
With an annoyed glance at Akihiko, Mitsuru cut back in. "The lack of hesitation gives us pause more than any other action last night, Arisato. The Evoker resembles a gun almost identically, and the idea of pulling a gun's trigger as it is pressed to your temple isn't a comfortable sensation. SEES members have to be drilled on it over and over in the beginning to not balk when it counts. Yet you managed to do exactly that, even when there was no feasible way you should have known of the Evoker's properties."
Minato's lips tightened, and he considered his options. The truth was out for obvious reasons, but he didn't want to outright lie to these people. They had been his friends, his comrades; even if they didn't hold the same memories he did, he would 't betray the trust they once had placed in him. Mitsuru especially. He and Akihiko had never been especially close, and though he vastly respected the upperclassmen, he'd just never spent time with him like he had with Mitsuru, Junpei, and Yukari. They had been more than his team or classmates, they'd been the closest friends he'd ever had.
Minato didn't meet their eyes and did not answer her, though it had obviously been a question. His silence was taken for the refusal to answer that it was, and Akihiko growled in response. "Fine, if that's the way you want to play it."
"Calm down, Akihiko," Mitsuru chided, snorting under her breath. "Keep your secrets for now, Arisato. But if you want the trust of our group, you will have to be forthcoming at some point. Now, we have to get back to the dorm. There will be a meeting tomorrow night on the fourth floor to discuss your future with SEES. Please attend."
Minato nodded and glanced up in time to watch Akihiko rub the shoulder of his injured arm and grimace before following Mitsuru from the room. Silver eyes flicked back with a challenge lighting them, and Minato had no problem meeting that look with his own. SEES wouldn't know what hit them once he got out of there.
4/13/09 ~ Explanation of SEES and the Dark Hour.
"Oh, I almost forgot. About your room assignment... why don't you just stay here, in your current room? I don't know what the holdup is, but I guess it worked out in the end," Ikutsuki said with a chuckle.
Minato gritted his teeth and nodded, trying not to say anything that was on his mind as Yukari and Mitsuru bid Ikutsuki goodnight and bowed. He hated seeing the blind trust the SEES members put in this man... but what could he do about it? He was a veritable stranger to these people, and worse yet... he was a suspicious stranger.
As he slipped from the room, he heard Akihiko's low voice discussing a new recruit with Ikutsuki. Junpei. For all that the boy drove him half mad, he was undoubtedly one of his closest friends. And now... he was hardly an acquaintance to him. At least so far as Junpei was concerned. Minato took the stairs down to his floor of the dorm two at a time, waving his hand absently at Yukari's hesitant 'good night'. None of this was as easy as he'd expected. SEES had become something like a dysfunctional, violent family to them... but now only he carried those memories.
He closed the door to his dorm room behind him and unbuttoned his pants, stepping out of them as they hit the floor. 11:53. He should sleep soon. His sheets were cool and familiar against his skin, his room dark, but he could do little but stare at the ceiling. The first Full Moon wasn't until ninth of May, so until then... perhaps he could spend that time reacquainting himself with the people he loved. It wasn't like they were gone. They were here or would be there soon, all around him.
He reminded himself of how lucky he was to have a second chance at all, closing his eyes and burrowing into his pillow.
As he drifted to sleep, though, he realized that Pharos hadn't come to him once this time around.
Minato fingered the supposed uniform he was holding. His underwear covered more than this. He shook the scrap of fabric that was supposed to be his suzumizu, wondering if there was a fold that was stuck and more fabric would appear if he did so. It did not. It was still a Speedo.
He had chosen the swim team for a lot of reasons, but the main one was that he did enough running and swinging of swords every other night in Tartarus. He'd enjoyed Kendo when he was younger, and he'd done passably well with the track team in his last go around of this year. But he'd always been a strong swimmer, and it was nice to do something so different when he attended his athletic club.
But at his last school, they'd had shorts for swimming. Yeah, they weren't long and didn't leave much to the imagination, but they'd at least not made him worry about the trim of his pubic hair. These were like something worn in serious swimming competitions, not school. Minato groaned and resigned himself, stripping the rest of the way from his school uniform and shimmying his way into the briefs.
"Oh, hey there! You're the new transfer student, right?" Minato looked over his shoulder to see Kazushi entering the locker room, activity bag over his shoulder. He grinned as he slid his bag off his shoulder and onto the bench, bowing shortly and giving a wave. "Name's Kazushi, I'm in your year. And it also looks like we're teammates, by your uniform!"
Minato blinked down at it and back at Kazushi. "Sure this is all of it?"
The boy laughed, and Minato took a moment to watch him. Sure enough, he pulled out a towel roll from his bag, exposing his own suzumizu when he unrolled it. This was nearly more flabbergasting to Minato more than anything had been in the weeks since he had come back. Kazushi had been a good friend in the end, and one of the very first relationships he'd discovered the Persona-strengthening abilities of. Though Thor was not often his Persona of choice, it had helped him a lot in Arqa's seemingly endless levels.
But more than all that, Kazushi had been in track like he had been. Why in the world was he in swimming now?
He didn't get a chance to contemplate this much more deeply, as more boys began filtering into the locker room. All the various sports clubs used the same space in the Athletics department, of course, so there were people he remembered from track already beginning stretches, boys slipping into Kendo garb, one guy was chatting loudly as he ran rosin along his bowstring. There were tennis rackets scattered over a table near the door and several fencing masks hung along one wall with cubbies. Minato really couldn't figure out why only Kazushi seemed to have changed in all this, but shook his head. Something with the Arcanum, he bet.
Minato grabbed his swim cap and moved towards the door; it was very loud in the room now as it filled, and though the pool would likely not be quiet, it was a limited number of people. Shouting in the corner caused Minato to glance back just before he exited, and he noted a group of boxing club guys laughing uproariously. In the middle of them all stood Akihiko, still in his school uniform and smiling with humor. The sight made something in him tighten, knowing how the boy hardly ever looked anything but irritated once Minato was in the room.
He shook his head and headed out to the pool.
He stopped in the hall with his hand on the handle, turning and meeting the furiously blushing face of Yukari, her bow clutched to her chest like it was protecting her. "Oh, hey."
"I didn't know you'd planned to join any clubs." Her eyes flitted down him where his flimsy modesty yukata was open to reveal his sternum. She gulped visibly and eyes flew to look over his shoulder. "What made you pick swimming?"
"It seemed like a nice change of pace."
She looked at him weirdly but shrugged, fingers tapping against her bow. "Well, I need to get out to the archery range... but do you think we'll be- umm- going out tonight?"
After careful consideration, he had taken Junpei and Yukari into Monad within their first week in Tartarus, and the two had held their breaths as Minato decimated their opponents. It had been a great experience for them, giving them confidence and strength where it mattered. However, it had made for even more discomfort around him, his inexplicable strength making them wary.
"Yeah, I think so. Unless you had other plans?"
She shook her head and kept her eyes on his chin. "Nope, SEES comes first. See you tonight, then!"
She was almost painfully red as she dashed away, making Minato sigh. He didn't want to hurt her feelings by not returning her interest, but he also wasn't going to string her along.
He entered the pool area and tossed his yukata to the side, diving into the water and starting a slow breaststroke across the pool's length. He just needed to not think on anything for a while.
5/10/09 ~ Day after first Full Moon.
Minato was surprised by how freeing it was to have his Compendium back. Elizabeth smiled as he rifled through it, choosing a few of the Personæ he was most comfortable with to keep within him. The power of them rushed through him like Odin's lightning, electric and awe-inspiring. He had missed this. He had missed not being afraid of what laid before him. With his familiar Personæ back in his subconscious, he felt nearly invincible.
"With an ordinary summoner, Personæ are a direct reflection on their mindscape," Igor mused from behind him, tapping a gnarled finger against his lips. "But you, my boy... you are something magnificent. Your ability to summon so many aspects shows both your power and your duality. But what will you bring to this world, hmm? Will you destroy us, or will you lead us to a new age?"
Minato stared at the timeless man, eyes narrowed. "You know of Nyx, then."
"We do, indeed. Though we do not hold the memories of another timeline as you do, we are still aware of far more than the mortal mind can ever hope to. Nyx will come... and as you know, you will have a choice to make."
"Do you know, then, why I was given this second chance?" Minato asked, leaning forward in his seat.
Igor smiled, a slightly disturbing expression. "What do you know of your initial Persona Orpheus?"
"Not much. I honestly moved past using him rather quickly."
"That is to be expected," said Igor, steepling his hands. "But you must understand him to understand yourself, as he truly is your primary Persona. Orpheus, in legend, was known as the Master of Strings, who played his god-given lute with such beauty that even the rocks and flowers felt they needed to dance to his tunes. As with Orpheus, you too are a master of strings... the strings of fate. You bind people to you for strength and it is natural that they follow you; they cannot help but dance along behind you. Only you may pluck these strings. That is why you are able to have this chance. With Orpheus as your base and with Thanatos, the personification of peaceful death, tied so strongly to you as well, the Divinities were able to give you this."
Minato didn't particularly like the implications. "Then those close to me have no choice."
"What?" Igor blinked. "Heavens, no. The lute of Orpheus did not control those around him, it inspired them. And such do you. But I ask again... what will you bring to this world with your power?"
Minato frowned and stood, nodding down to Igor silently. As he left, he heard Elizabeth laugh tonelessly. "Such a flair for dramatics, Master."
“Yes! This is what I’m talking about!” Akihiko was hooting with joy as he decimated another Shadow, fist having rammed through its throat. The gore was practically dripping from him after the number of battles they’d fought already that evening. He’d hardly called Polydeuces at all, choosing to dive in head-first to the battle with fists flying. Even without the strength he’d gained by the time they’d reached The Fall, he was still impressive as he easily took down enemy after enemy.
He dipped and wove under the reach of the last Shadow, right arm yanking the Obsessed Cupid down and left elbow coming down on the back of its head. He hollered out another victory cry as it hit the floor and didn’t so much as twitch.
With a crackle of the commlink, Mitsuru’s voice snapped, “Akihiko, this isn’t a game.”
The boy snorted and straightened up, shaking his fists to free them of bits of Shadow. “Just because it isn’t a game doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy myself, Mitsuru.”
“Not when you are acting as recklessly as you are. This is serious, and it must be treated seriously.”
Akihiko looked ready to argue further, but Minato cut him off by crooking his hand. “Come on, guys. Let’s continue.”
They walked towards the newly-discovered staircase. Minato was pleased to note he could hardly hear them following, as both Junpei and Yukari had not taken easily to walking silently through Tartarus’s halls. They had caused more than one pack of Shadows to get a jump on them when they’d lapsed into bickering, and for the first weeks it had sounded like 20 people were walking with him as they tromped along.
He hadn’t taken the group back to Monad since that first time. It wasn’t good for their mental or physical wellbeing to go up in strength so quickly, even if it was a vastly better experience for them than the common Shadows in Tartarus’s lower levels. Besides, Akihiko was still at least passively suspicious of him more often than anything, so he didn’t need to add to it by giving him a chance to see the enemies there.
Not to mention that he didn’t think he’d be able to keep him from striking out and realizing just how futile his efforts were there, leading them all to realize just how much difference there was between these Shadows and those.
Just before they mounted the stairs, Mitsuru’s voice crackled in his ear again. “It is getting late, everyone. Please consider coming back down at the next available opportunity.”
Minato nodded and tapped his earpiece. “All right, we’ll be down in a few.” He wasn’t sure what floor they were on anymore, as they’d made pretty good progress that night. He flitted a look to the others. “All right, we won’t go up to the next level until next time, then. Anyone remember an exit around here?”
Yukari nodded, twirling her bow around a finger. Minato tried not to snatch it away from her and preach good weapon maintenance. “Yeah, down this way there was a portal.”
Junpei slung an arm around Minato’s shoulders, grinning and leaning against him as they started walking down Thebel Block’s checkered hall. “We’re getting pretty frikkin good at this Shadow business, aren’t we Leader man? It’s super awesome to be able to combine all this ass-kicking action and still get guns like these.” Junpei, having long since stripped out of his jacket, flexed his bicep to show his newly developing arm definition, winking at Yukari.
“You counter that with sitting on your butt playing games for hours, idiot. You’re going to end up fat.”
Junpei opened his mouth to respond, but suddenly Akihiko gave a triumphant yell. “We missed a few! Get over here and let me show you what I’ve got,” he crowed, diving down one of the hallways to chase down a small, scuttling group of Cowardly Mayas.
“Akihiko, wait!” he barked, but he was ignored entirely. Minato waved to the others and rushed after the older boy, redrawing their weapons.
The battle was quick, as they were all overprepared for this first block of floors. That didn’t make the situation any better or less irritating. Mitsuru cut in before Minato had a chance, though. “That was completely unacceptable, Akihiko. Do you want to be pulled from the field again? Not only did you move off without your team, but you ignored orders from your field commander entirely.”
Akihiko had a narrow glare on his face and he directed it at Minato as he replied. “There is no way I’m being led by this kid. We talked about this. He’s nominally in command because both Takeba and Iori’s only experience has been with him as a leader, but I have been with SEES for as long as you have, Mitsuru. I may not want to lead myself, but I’m not having some fishy Junior tell me how to fight Shadows.”
Minato’s fists clenched at his sides, nails digging into his palms. He knew why Akihiko was so upset, he did. He’d made a mistake by being so hasty that first night in the dorms. And it had only been a month since then. But it was still angry at the treatment and disrespect. “Then you don’t need to come along when we are exploring.”
Akihiko jerked in place like he had been struck, eyes widening before he snarled, striding forward and grabbing Minato’s shirtfront . “You have no right, kid, to exclude me from SEES work. I am a founding member of this group. You may be accepted because you have the ability to summon multiple Personæ, but that makes you a tool, not a leader. And you cannot tell me what to do.”
“But I can,” barked Mitsuru, sounding livid. “Get your ass down here right this minute, Akihiko. Now!”
Akihiko had a visibly hard time not cringing in fear, and Minato had felt him flinch through their connection at Minato’s chest. He scoffed and let go, shoving back on Minato as he did. “Tch, forget this.”
He strode off alone down one of the halls, leaving Junpei gaping and Yukari shifting awkwardly. She, at least, had been a witness to his inauspicious beginning with SEES, but Junpei was likely completely blindsided by the level of anger from their usually calm and collected senpai.
Minato sighed and raked a hand through his hair, briefly pushing it all back before letting it fall into place. “Let’s go.”
Time seemed to fly by, and slowly the suspicious looks faded from his companions' eyes. Even as Minato grew more tense as the second Full Moon approached, the rest of the group relaxed. The end of the Dark Hour was coming closer, to them… whereas Minato knew the damning truth.
Part of him sorely wished they could just leave the larger Shadows alone. Really, what were they in comparison to Nyx and the coming of the Fall? But that would doom the members of SEES, his friends, to years of the Dark Hour and fighting Shadows, and the rest of the oblivious world to the slowly creeping Apathy that would engulf them. He couldn't do that to them, even if it meant sacrificing his life once more to seal Nyx away.
He missed Aigis. It was still a bit over a month until they found her on the beach, so Minato squashed his impatience. She had probably been his very closest companion, not counting his short romances with Mitsuru and Yukari. They were good women. But Aigis had cared for him in the most undemanding way possible, and she was probably the only person who was totally content with his usual taciturnity. Even when she had spoken to him, she had never required response.
Here, everyone seemed to need something from him. Yukari needed someone to agree with her as she ranted about whatever was on her mind, Junpei needed someone to laugh at his jokes. Mitsuru needed a dedicated person who could lead the team in Tartarus and still keep up his academic life. And Akihiko… well, perhaps he didn't need much from him, either. But he was also the only one who had yet to trust him.
Perhaps it was manipulation that he had gotten past everyone else's shells so easily. He'd known them well, after all, and it didn't take a genius to be able to pick and choose the right words to say in a given situation with people he already knew the ins and outs of. Perhaps that was why he had yet to make Akihiko get past his suspicions. He hardly knew the older boy at all, beyond his battle skills and his motivations. They had been friends, of course, but more friends of circumstance than anything.
An exaggerated sigh heralded the arrival of Junpei, who sprawled across the adjacent couch. "Man, I am so ticked. Mitsuru-senpai won't get off my ass about my midterm grades. Like I care about that!"
Minato smirked, but hid it behind his hand. "Oh? Maybe that is the biggest problem."
"C'mon, you're telling me you care about studying? I never see you crack open a book. How in the hell did you still manage to ace the exams? Top of the mother fuc-"
"Don't be so jealous, Stupei. Just because Minato-kun has a brain and you don't is no reason to whine."
"You cut me deep, Yuka-tan. Real deep."
The girl rolled her eyes as she sat in one of the chairs that bracketed the sitting area, crossing her legs at the knees. "So, Minato, how did you manage to get top of the class? Mitsuru-senpai was really impressed."
Minato shrugged. "I just went with what felt right."
"Oh, jeez, a natural-born genius? You're shitting me." Junpei's face was disbelieving. "I swear, some guys get all the luck…"
Scoffing and ignoring Junpei's continued spluttering, Yukari smiled. "The full moon is in a just over a week, you know. Do you think you're ready, Minato?"
He raised an eyebrow at her and she blushed, mumbling under her breath.
He was lucky in the two battles he had taken them to in Monad that not a single Shadow had actually had a chance to attack and show just how strong they were. There was no way he could have explained that. He was also thankful that for all Mitsuru's talents, she could only gauge on relative strength rather than on level of prowess. He had risked taking his friends into that dangerous Hell to try to instill them with enough experience to ensure their lives continued, giving them a quick boost in the best way he knew how. Soon, Fuuka would be with them and he would have no way to hide his strength. He needed to get the others passable before then.
He'd been putting off training for a week now, though, wary to train more with Akihiko. The tension between them made everyone uncomfortable, even though they had never even glared in one another's direction after that disastrous first outing. They even spoke when necessary. But he had so much trepidation about taking Akihiko with his attitude as it was, even just back into Tartarus. It would get one of them, likely Akihiko himself, killed.
He was nearly sure that it really came down to his inability to truly connect with the older boy. He would have to work on that, attempt to do things the way everyone else did... without spiritual voices or past experience guiding their words. And Akihiko needed to be trained, he knew, preferably before they went to retrieve Fuuka. Her Persona's power levels had always seemed closely linked with his own, so she would be a logistical force to be reckoned with. He was already trying to come up with excuses. The best he could think of was to get everyone else as highly powered as he could so there wasn't such a shocking difference.
He couldn't just leave Akihiko back and take the others. But he surely wouldn't take the older boy near Monad, not when he wasn't sure he'd stay back and not dash in swinging at his opponents.
"So, man, wanna go to Tartarus tonight?"
Minato shrugged with a sigh. "Sure. Let's go tell Mitsuru."
"Minato-nii-chan, Minato-nii-chan, wait!"
Minato turned back towards the shrine, taking in Maiko's tiny form thundering towards him. He crouched down as she approached, taking the piece of paper she thrust towards him.
"I forgot before you left; I made you this! You should put it on your wall, since you said you hadn't decorated your room. I have to go, but come play more soon!"
She was away with the same speed as she'd arrived, leaving Minato with a faint smile. He flattened the picture and saw a crayon drawing of what could only be himself (if the mop of blue atop its head was any indication) and Maiko, holding hands with the shrine in the background. He stood to turn back towards the dorms.
Minato met silver eyes and tried not to grimace, forcing on a smile instead. The boy was in his favorite red tee with his arms bare down to his gloves, thumbs hooked on his trouser pockets. Akihiko fell into step beside him as they continued on towards the dorms.
"I didn't know you had a sister?"
Minato relaxed a bit, finally not feeling like he'd be attacked if he looked away. "I don't. I was an only child before my parents died. She's just a good kid who needs someone to spend time with her."
He could feel eyes on him and forced himself to walk casually, one hand in his pocket and the other holding Maiko's portrait of them.
"You're... really not a bad guy, are you?"
That made him stop, turning on his heel to meet Akihiko's serious expression. Minato chewed on his lip as he considered how to respond. "I don't think I am. I have secrets like anyone, and I make mistakes. But I really don't have any sort of evil plans or anything."
Akihiko propped himself against the brick of a building, still regarding Minato with intensity. "I can't say I trust you, really. But even Mitsuru likes you, thinks you're good for us as a team. If I can't trust her judgement, who can I trust?"
Minato stayed quiet, waiting.
Silver eyes turned skyward, Akihiko's head tipped back to look at the clouds. "But I'm wary. You came out of nowhere with all these skills and abilities, and I just don't know how I can trust that. I don't like coming across something inexplicable that I can't beat. If you are up to no good and you attack us, I have no chance of stopping you. I know you're stronger than I am. So what do I do with that?"
"Take it one day at a time?"
A smile now, faint but obviously there. "That's actually what my friend told me today while we were getting food. He's convinced I'm overreacting and just need to see how things go... but he's always too laid back for his own good."
A hand clapped his shoulder as Akihiko straightened and started back towards the dorms. "C'mon, it's getting dark. But I guess I'll give in for now. Fighting against the current isn't productive, and with both my best friends telling me to chill out, what choice have I got?"
Minato walked alongside him, amused that Shinjiro was unknowingly sticking up for his motives. He did have good intentions, of course, but still... Shinji had always been wary of him the first time around. Maybe, though, that was only because no one else was by the time he came to the group.
As they walked home together, Minato could only hope that this was the start of things looking up for the two of them. As he looked to the side and met silver eyes looking back at him, something deep inside of him tightened. He wasn't sure of that was a warning or a prophecy.
6/8/09 ~ Second Full Moon.
"So…" Junpei said in an attempt to break the silence as he, Minato, and Akihiko moved through the silent halls to the gym, leaving Yukari behind with Mitsuru in the school's entryway. "What d'you guys think the chances are that those two are lesbians?"
Akihiko promptly began choking on nothing at all, one hand pressed right beneath his throat and eyes rounded.
Minato rolled his eyes and sighed. There were two distinct answers he could give to that question, and he toiled for a moment over which to choose. In the end he went with a simple, "Slim to none, you damned pervert," and tried to ignore the grateful look Akihiko gave him.
"Fine, fine, maybe not Mitsuru-senpai… she's kinda nunnish anyway, for all her babaliciousness. But Yuka-tan? Hoo-boy, I could see it. And with the way she was stuttering when she followed Senpai… well…"
Minato shook his head and bit back a chuckle, not wanting to encourage Junpei any further. His eyes rose and met with silver, sharing a smirk between them. Somehow it made Minato's heart beat faster; he put it down to finally working past the tension holding back a friendship between Akihiko and himself.
"Welp, here we are."
The long shadows thrown by the as-of-yet normal full moon made the gym rather spooky, and had Minato not had months of Dark Hours to strengthen his resolve, he might have been (albeit unwillingly) jumpy. As it was, he knew exactly what to expect in fifteen minutes when the Dark Hour hit.
In front of him, Junpei shuddered. "Man, does anyone else have a bad feeling?"
"Calm down. This will be like any other mission, we will just have a different starting point. We'll be in Tartartus, find the Yamagishi girl, and then leave the way we always do." Akihiko's shoulder brushed Minato's as he passed, pushing the gym's door open more widely.
"It will be fine, Junpei."
The boy sighed heavily, tugging his hat down lower over his eyes. "For Fuuka, huh? Lead on, Oh Fearless One."
Minato tried not to grimace. He didn't want to go through weeks of Junpei's jealousy again. But then, he didn't want to see his friend break into pieces over Chidori again, either… but those experiences had helped Junpei grow. Minato sighed, shoving a hand through his hair. This time travel business wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
He looked up to see Akihiko's silver eyes regarding him. "Something wrong?"
"No… just thinking."
"Hm." It wasn't a staring match so much as a gaze held for uncomfortably long, and Minato was the first to break it. He wished he understood Akihiko. He had never been one of the people his psyche had drawn him to for Persona-strengthening reasons, and Minato found that he was rather lost without that whispering voice leading him and telling him when he's obviously done something right.
However, for all his silence, Minato was exceptionally stubborn… and challenges had always intrigued him. He wanted to get to know the people he hadn't had a chance to the last time around, even if he didn't have some supernatural force guiding him. This was the reality of making friends, something Minato couldn't recall ever really having.
His watch trilled, and he shoved away his anticipation. "One minute."
His teammates nodded, and Minato watched the seconds tick by. An idea struck as his watch showed 11:59:49, and he dashed forward, grabbing Junpei by the wrist and twisting to grasp Akihiko's forearm. Any complaints or questions that might have been voiced were cut off as the ground shook, walls shifting around them. And then the pain began, and everything fell to white.
A loud groan near his ear brought Minato into wakefulness, and he shoved at Junpei's heavy shoulder where it was jammed into his ribs. The distinctive pattern of Arqa's ceiling met his eyes, partially obscured by the silver-haired head that leaned over him. Akihiko put out his hand as he noticed Minato was awake, offering him a quick way up.
It took a bit of work to untangle his legs from Junpei's, the other boy beginning to curse as consciousness found him. Minato let Akihiko's leverage pull him up, breathing in deeply to keep away the lights from the edge of his vision.
"How did you know?"
Minato blinked at the abrupt question, looking down at the way Akihiko's grip had tightened on his hand. "Know what?"
"I felt like my body was being torn into a dozen directions; I'm nearly sure we would have been separated if you hadn't grabbed us. How did you know?"
He quelled the urge to look away guiltily. "I just had a feeling."
"Our Almighty Leader has good instincts, huh?" Junpei snipped, finally standing upright and straightening his hat. "Chill out, Senpai. It's not like he knows the future or some shit."
Irrationally, Minato swore his heart stopped beating, and though he couldn't be sure, the look Akihiko gave him in that instant made him wonder if his flash of panic had shown on his face.
"Aww, c'mon, why not?"
Minato sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose.
"Because, Iori," Akihiko replied for him, thumbs in his beltloops and already striding ahead. "This was your idea. You said we were going out to the arcade to spend time together 'just us guys'. We're not going to Club Escapade instead."
"Did you even see those chicks, Senpai? They were so hot that my pants are on fire!"
Akihiko and Minato exchanged disgusted glances, both turning to glare at Junpei. The boy was oblivious as he ranted. "Man, we live with some hot girls, but these are hot, normal girls. Girls who can't rip my spine out for looking at them! Be bros, dudes! What's a guy's night without some chicks to check out?"
They all but dragged him towards the arcade, Akihiko bickering with Junpei as they went. It was only once it became obvious that there were a few scattered females in Game Panic that Junpei finally subsided. They exchanged a small chunk of yen apiece for tokens and went around to examine their choices.
In the weeks since they had rescued Fuuka from Tartarus, Minato found his paranoia to be unfounded. Akihiko, if anything, had loosened up considerably towards him, never mentioning that night again. They had walked home from school a few times in peace, and now here they were having some weird group outing.
"Fine, but I get first dibs on Horror House."
Akihiko rolled his eyes and shoved the boy forward. "Fine, I'll call Punching Bag."
"So predictable, Senpai!"
Minato smiled to himself and looked down to hide it, strolling as casually as he could towards the other games.
Later in the evening, Minato found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Akihiko as they watched Junpei fail at a dancing game, much to the amusement of a group of girls he'd been trying to impress. Akihiko's elbow pressed against his bicep and Minato wasn't sure why he made no move to step away, but he stayed where he was, laughing.
And at the end of the night, if they stayed a bit closer together than either of them were to Junpei... well, Minato tried his damndest not to make any assumptions.
7/7/09 ~ Third Full Moon
The moon was full once more that night, and the group was gathering up their supplies. Minato ignored the tense fluttering in his gut, trying to push away the whispers of this being just another set of Full Moon Shadows to defeat, drawing them ever closer to Nyx. He shifted through the large box of items he kept at the foot of his bed, pulling out some of the more useful ones. He didn't think he'd need any mirrors or magic gems tonight. He did stow a copious number of medicines, though, as well as some Chewing Souls… just in case. There was nothing worse than being unable to cast a needed spell.
He wished he better remembered the Shadows to come that night. But between the number of Shadows in the months after and the fog from the spell that had been put over them…
He didn't know whether to grimace or blush. This full moon had certainly been one of the more… interesting ones. But he didn't see why it would be a problem this time around. He knew what was coming, and it wasn't like Yukari had even left the bathroom before the spell was broken. No problem, right?
They set out not long after, Fuuka's senses leading them to the seedy love hotel on Shirakawa Boulevard. He'd chosen Junpei and Akihiko to accompany him and Yukari, though he couldn't for the life if him decide why he'd been so reluctant to include Mitsuru. Perhaps it had been the look on her and Akihiko's faces when they'd returned-
"I sense a powerful Shadow on the third floor! Please head there immediately!"
He jerked his head towards the stairs, feeling his companions' anticipation. There were no Shadows yet, but their every movement was hesitant and expecting attack. He didn't pause to check the doors they passed, trying to quell the obvious unease of his teammates by getting the worst over with quickly.
The third floor came quickly. He glanced at Yukari's tense frown, smiling slightly in an attempt to calm her. She attempted to give the same in return, but it came out stiff and crooked. He moved to Junpei's narrowed eyes as he scanned the motel walls, jaw set. He didn't even look Minato's way. Akihiko was last, eyes darting and fists clenched. His boxing gloves would have made such an observation difficult, but the strain of the vinyl gave him away.
Minato searched his psyche, brushing against the blinding power of Helel and grasping it. He would end this battle quickly, if only to banish the trepidation. It was an extreme sense of overkill, but he didn't want this first battle to go on any further.
They burst through the door, and the large form of the Hierophant Shadow taking up a large portion of the room. Minato hardly paused as his teammates took their position, Evoker pressed to his temple. "Helel!"
Morning Star crashed into the Shadow, the power in the air making the hair on the back of Minato's neck stand on end. He ignored the flabbergasted looks from his group, turning to the large mirror on the wall even before the Hierophant had dissolved entirely.
"What are you doing?"
Minato's eyes widened as he jumped in surprise, fingers impacting with the glass. He had no time to respond as the mirror flashed and sent them into oblivion.
~Embrace your desire…~
The warmth of a tongue running up his neck, the sting of teeth against his pulse. Minato gasped, tangling his fingers in soft hair and arching towards the mouth that was giving him such pleasure. This was the most amazing thing he had ever felt in his life, the closeness of another body, his heart beating so hard that it echoed to be the only thing he could hear.
~I am the voice of your inner self... Enjoy the moment... That which cannot be felt is merely a dream... The present is all we have.~
Fingers danced along his ribs. He could hardly breathe for all the sensation that coursed through him, and his free hand gripped the sheet of the bed as his shirt was pushed up, lips moving to follow the path that fingers already had. A warm mouth ran teasingly up from his navel, hot breath making him shudder. It was good… so good. He wanted to touch the other, wanted to feel every inch available to him. His fingertips tingled as he begged for more in his mind, willing the sensation to stretch to infinity.
~The future is but a fantasy, memory a fabrication... Let your desire free you from your shackles... Such is my wish…~
Yes, yes… If he could stay like this forever, chanting his partner's name in a litany… what else mattered? He ran his fingers through short hair again, pulling until eyes met his own. Desire reflected plainly, and Minato groaned as he tugged his partner into a harsh kiss, biting a lower lip so he could deepen it further. He ran his tongue along his partner's teeth, sucked gently on the lip he had bitten, let their tongues twine and writhe as they panted.
~Pleasure is what you truly want. You stand before the doorway to bliss. You cannot deny you instincts... Embrace your desire…~
Yes… what he truly wanted… there was no need for anything else. He ran his hands down his partner's sides, slipping his fingers beneath waistband of their pants to touch the heated skin below. The other's breathing hitched in his ear, a shiver forcibly running through them both. Minato's fingers traced hips, sliding down slowly until his thumbs brushed coarse hair. The anticipation thrummed through his veins, and even the adrenaline from fighting Shadows didn't compare-
Minato shook his head, fingers freezing in place.
~Why do you resist...? Do not avert your eyes from the truth…~
He stared up into silver eyes, shocked into reality at roughly the same time that they lost their glazed look. He stared at Akihiko, trembling suddenly from something far less pleasurable than only moments ago.
Minato jerked and it seemed to bring Akihiko into awareness, as the boy leapt off of him with far more grace than the situation should have granted him. His face nearly matched his red sweater, and his jaw was dropped and moving soundlessly. Minato wondered if he looked the same. He opened his mouth to say something… apologize, rant, beg for them to take just a few minutes to try it without the fog of the spell, he didn't know… but his thoughts were broken by the light crackle that preceded Fuuka contacting them.
"Oh, I can finally reach you! Akihiko-senpai, Minato-kun, can you two hear me?" Fuuka's frantic voice came in; both he and Akihiko jumped.
The blood stayed tinting Akihiko's face, and his eyes pleaded to not have to speak yet. Minato cleared his throat and was glad what came out was only slightly hoarse. "We're fine."
"I'm sorry I couldn't contact you sooner. The Shadow was interfering with your thoughts, and you all got separated. The enemy is still in the same room. Please regroup and hurry there. ...Did you hear that, Akihiko-senpai?"
The silver-haired boy swallowed, and Minato was mortified to find himself watching the bob of his Adam's apple. "Y-Yes, Fuuka."
"Huh? Are you okay, Senpai?"
Fuuka's voice was hesitant, but she seemed smart enough to move on. "Well, Minato-kun, the others are two floors below you. If you wait for just a few minutes, they should meet up with you…"
"That's fine, Fuuka."
The connection died. The silence was stifling as they both attempted to avoid one another's eyes. He walked to the door and felt Akihiko following him, needing to get out of the suddenly too-hot room. A glance back to the rumpled covers of the heart shaped bed made his heart rise to his throat, and Minato tore his eyes away.
It took almost five minutes for Yukari and Junpei to arrive, and every minute was like torture. By the handprint across Junpei's tan cheek, Minato figured he'd gotten the same treatment he himself had the first time around. He didn't think Junpei would have had the resistance that he'd had; somewhere deep inside, Minato wondered whether the difference in his ability to resist now was in the partner.
"You guys alright?"
Yukari's face turned a predictable pink, and Minato sighed to himself as he realized that it didn't even affect him. Blue eyes slanted toward Akihiko, who was standing with pursed lips and an uncomfortable expression.
"We're fine," Junpei said easily, smirking and stretching his arms over his head. "What about you guys?"
Still looking at Akihiko, Minato watched as the boy turned a distinct red and his eyes flicked to meet Minato's. "Wh-what do you mean? Of course we're fine!"
A drawn-out, definitely awkward pause later and the group was moving, though Yukari and Junpei's eyes kept darting to look at either himself or Akihiko.
Minato lead the way as surely as he could. And if his eyes strayed more than he wanted to admit towards Akihiko? If his heart never quite stopped tripping over itself as the night went on? Well, he could deal with the repercussions and meanings of this night later. For now, they had a Shadow to defeat.
Besides... more often than not, when he glanced Akihiko's way, silver eyes were looking right back.