Chapter 1: Late Reunions
Man, he’d had some good ideas in the past, but this one really took the cake. Junpei’s grin was feral as he paced back and forth in the front hall of Yukari’s dorm, waiting for her to either buzz him in or come down to meet him.
This was going to be so damned good.
The doors beyond the receptionist clanged and hissed open as Yukari pushed through, a confused and brittle smile on her face. “Junpei? I wasn’t expecting…Hey. What are you doing here?”
“Things are happening, the world’s moving, and Tokyo’s totally the place to be, if you get my drift,” Junpei said, edging closer with his broad smile but keeping a cordial distance. “Akihiko and I’ve been in town for a couple of days doing the whole college run. Man, Yuka-tan, it’s good to see you, and you’re lookin’ awfully fine, if you don’t mind me saying.”
It was not an empty compliment. Yukari did look good. She had regained her color, her sly vibrancy, since last he’d seen her, and she cut quite a figure with her pink scarf and lightly flared jeans. Junpei was more caught up with her eyes, though, which had a spark in them that he had almost forgotten existed.
Yukari rolled her eyes in a display of token protest, but her fragile smile never left her face. “You just had to start, didn’t you? God, you’ve been here less than a minute and you’re already getting on my nerves.”
Junpei shoved his hands in his pockets, his toothy grin leveling out into a more normal smile. “I’m just saying it like it is. Don’t get huffy.”
Yukari actually laughed. Junpei wondered mutely how he had let their relationship change this much.
He cleared his throat. “So, uh, yeah.”
“I assume that you’re here for a reason and not simply for an excuse to loiter around the women’s dorm.”
“Now, that hurts. The thought never crossed my mind. I’m here with a damn cool invitation, but if you’re gonna antagonize me, I’ll take my propositions elsewhere.”
Yukari’s smile finally dropped into sneer. “Junpei-“
“Bad word choice. Bad. Sorry,” Junpei said, waving his hands in an embarrassed plea. “I’m serious, Yukari. This is really cool. A lot of things right now are cool.” Junpei paused, trying to assemble his thoughts. “You know Risette, right?”
Yukari glared at him flatly.
“Stupid question again. Geez, I’m just full of ‘em today,” Junpei said, a little bit of panic edging into his voice. He’d rehearsed this, like, fifteen times on the way over. Where were his words?
“I know you know who Risette is. Right. I was just saying, you know how she was gone for a while? And now suddenly she’s back, better than ever, and she’s putting on a show at the dome?”
That piqued Yukari’s interest. “Yeah. That show was sold out less than a minute after the tickets went on sale."
“Yeah, I know. I totally tried to score some tickets when they first opened, and sweet lord.”
Yukari’s face fell. “Oh. Oh, sorry. I thought for a moment that you had gotten tickets or something, and I was about to be really impressed.”
Junpei grinned internally, but kept his face as neutral as possible. “Yeah, there’s no way a dude like me could afford a show like that. It’s a real bummer.”
“So you just wanted to let me know that you tried and failed?”
Junpei shrugged. “Pretty much.”
Yukari raised an eyebrow, but Junpei noticed that some of the wary happiness that had shone on her face when he had first arrived was fading and being replaced by the bleak look that she wore every time she saw him lately.
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry. Maybe next time.”
God, Junpei hated it when Yukari tried to be patient.
“Aren’t you going to hear what my invitation was for?”
Yukari blinked. “I sort of assumed that what you just said was it.”
Junpei’s mimed pain was only half feigned. “Oh, sure, thanks for your faith in me. Like I’d turn up and be like, ‘here’s a fake invitation to a concert I totally couldn’t get us in to see. Isn’t it cool?’ Jeez, Yuka-tan, I was just trying to warm the water. It was for thematic purposes.”
Yukari sighed, and it probably said bad things about Junpei that he was relieved at the level of honest frustration that sigh held.
“Okay, Junpei. What’s the invitation for?”
Junpei smiled. “Dinner.”
“Dinner. With me. And a friend,” he hastened to add as Yukari’s expression turned stormy. “Dinner with me and a friend at that Italian place we went to when you were moving in.”
“Bacchanalia? Junpei, I go there two or three times a week. It’s less than five minutes away from my dorm.”
Junpei waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah, I know. The food’s not the point. Just, please,” Junpei said, his face falling into earnest lines, “trust me? Please. I wouldn’t ask if this weren’t important.”
Her moment of hesitation hurt significantly more than Junpei would like to have believed, but he supposed it was deserved. When Yukari nodded, it wasn’t with any sort of enthusiasm. She forced a creaking smile onto her face and said that she’d meet him in the dorm’s front hall at six so that they could walk over together. She gave him a parting wave, her smile held stiff on her face, and re-entered her dorm, leaving Junpei standing alone by the double doors.
Right, well, phase one was a bust, but at least he had convinced her to go out with him. Getting Yukari to the restaurant was the only important part. Her being pissy and disappointed in him did not matter.
That was his rationalisation, anyway.
Junpei nodded at the receptionist and left through dorm’s front doors, hovering on the curb as he wondered how best to kill his time until six.
Upon deciding to catch a movie at the theater closest to campus, Junpei set himself on autopilot, letting his mind wander as his feet clopped on the pavement. This whole thing should have happened a long time ago, he thought, pulling his cap down over his eyes. It was easy to argue that there just had not been time, but those words sounded empty even to him. It had been half a year since Inaba, but the calls that should have rung across the lines immediately after…well, after…had not happened. Everyone was reeling, trying to redefine their lives around the changes they had been forced to make. Souji’s steps towards trying to make things right had alleviated much of the grief that the team had felt, but still…things had been tough, and moving on for the second time had not been much easier than the first.
Sometimes, when he let himself think about it for more than a moment…
Those were simply excuses, though. The rest of SEES deserved to know what had happened, and now winter had passed, pulling spring along with it, and summer was fast approaching. They had delayed long enough, and if anyone deserved to know about Inaba and what it all meant, it was Yukari.
Junpei fumbled with his phone in his pocket, debating calling somebody…anybody…but after a moment, he decided against it, letting his hands fall by his sides as he approached the theater in silence.
At six o’clock, Junpei met Yukari at the double doors. They barely talked as they made their way down the street towards Bacchanalia, and Junpei did not feel much need to try. He did, however, opt to walk tall and hold his head high, because he’d be damned if he gave Yukari an excuse to be embarrassed about being with him.
As they neared the restaurant’s entrance, Junpei began to squirm with excitement. This was it. He pushed through the door, a warm rush of air brushing against his hat, and scanned the room looking for his target.
Souji was there, sure enough, the back of his gray-blonde head standing out amongst the crowd, but he was not alone at his table, and Junpei felt his stomach drop in the heady acknowledgement that his plan was now royally and unrepentantly screwed.
Rise sat across the table, facing the entrance and half turned so that her legs crossed out from under the booth. She had not seen them yet, too caught up in gesturing with the stirrer straw from her coffee as she told some story to see them framed against the doorway. A wild part of Junpei realized that there was still time to salvage his plan, to get out before any damage could be done, but that thought died stillborn when he heard Yukari’s whispered, “Oh my god, Junpei. See that girl over there? I think that might be – ohmigod – that’s Risette!”
He turned towards Yukari in hopes of dissuading her, but saw that Rise had not only spotted them, but had started waving. Junpei officially gave up.
Yukari turned towards the doorway, no doubt in hopes of seeing who the Risette was waving to, and Rise laughed, rising from her seat and striding boldly towards them.
Souji, for his part, glanced over his shoulder, grinned unapologetically, and turned back to his coffee. The dick.
“Junpei!” Rise called brightly, and Yukari turned back in time to see Junpei- Junpei – enveloped in a big hug by Risette herself.
Junpei hugged back because…well…but he pulled away rather quickly, grinning despite himself, because it was impossible to not be pleased to see Rise – and to be seen in public with her.
“Hey, Rise,” he said, preening slightly. “Wow, I gotta say, I’m surprised you’re, well, here. Aren’t you swamped, what with –“
“Oh, don’t start. Don’t even mention it. This whole comeback tour thing was not my idea. I called up my manager just to reconnect and let him know I wanted back in eventually, and two days later it had exploded into whatever this mess is. I’m not even done with my year in school yet.”
“But you’re still doin’ it, right?”
“Well, I couldn’t back out once I’d seen the fans’ response to the idea. I had no idea it would be so…”
“Earnest, actually. I guess I didn’t think anyone would really miss Risette. You know, miss her and not just her boobs.”
The force of will it took not to glance down at Rise’s chest was massive, and Junpei was not quite up to the challenge. He quickly darted his eyes away, blushing. “Well, you can’t blame the guys that miss them, too.”
Rise simply laughed. “Not really, no. I mean, after CGI and padding, they were rather spectacular.”
Junpei snickered, cocking his eyebrows in acknowledgement. “Yeah, spectacular’s…yeah. Yes.”
Rise smiled, cat-like, and turned towards Yukari. “You’re Takeba, right? I’ve heard so much about you. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
To say that Yukari was stunned would be like calling the Arctic temperate. It was not just an understatement – it was simply wrong. Yukari was shaken, less by the presence of the idol in their midst and more by their role reversal and her sudden feeling of seclusion. Junpei knew Risette, knew her fairly well if their ease with each other was any indication, and Yukari was left reeling, trying to think of any possible situation that could have led to their friendship.
Regardless, Yukari had an image to uphold, and she smiled, shifting her head to the side so that her hair tossed over her shoulder, and nodded a bow. “Wow, it’s such an honor,” she said. “I’m a huge fan.”
Rise laughed. “Oh, stop. Please don’t do the formal thing. Come on, both of you. I’m sure Souji’d prefer to hide in the corner for the rest of the evening, but he’s got another thing coming to him if he thinks that’s actually going to happen. You’re such a dork, Souji,” she said, fondly, as she slipped in beside him and across from her original seat. Yukari froze at the edge of the table, uncertain, and Junpei grabbed her shoulder, pushing her gently into the far side of the booth across from Souji.
“I was just giving you time with your adoring fans,” Souji said, and Rise knocked against his shoulder, grinning. “Hey, Junpei,” Souji added.
Junpei gave Souji a long, appraising look. The guy looked…harried. Tired. No, actually, Junpei thought, there was a better way to describe him. Souji looked like he’d climbed twenty floors of Tartarus and then gone straight back down to the lobby for a healing session. He was physically fine, but he looked like he’d cast Mabufudyne one too many times. The dude was run dry.
After a brief pause, Junpei responded. “Yeah, hey to you too. So...what’s up with all this?” Junpei said, gesturing back and forth between their leader and Rise curiously.
Souji chuckled dryly, but Junpei saw how Rise’s expression turned sour. “Oh, just my parents being my parents. You know, the plan was to have them pick me up from the station, show me around and then drop me off here in time for dinner, but I guess they forgot the time at which my train was supposed to arrive. Anyway, I called them from the station a couple of times but they didn’t pick up, so I called Rise instead. I knew she had the afternoon off, so…”
“Yeah, it’s the first evening off I’ve had since I got here,” Rise said, reaching across the table to pull her coffee towards her. “Good thing too, right?”
Junpei shook his head. “First of all, your family’s made of dicks, dude –I don’t mean the kid and your uncle! – but they should have at least had their phone on if they knew their son was coming into town.”
Rise snorted inelegantly, wrapping her hands around her coffee cup but not lifting it off of its saucer. “We’re still a little vague on whether or not they even remembered that bit.”
“I made it here, didn’t I?” Souji said in a display of more emotion than Junpei was used to seeing from the guy. “It’s all worked out, but thank you both for outlining the sad farce that masquerades as my family life.” Souji shook his head, pasting on a comically fake smile. “Hi, Yukari, by the way. It’s nice to see you. How’s your day been?”
Junpei was a bit taken aback. “Geez, man. We were just tryin’ to show you some sympathy.”
Souji exhaled, his shoulders slumping lightly. “Yeah, I know. It’s just been a long day.”
“Why didn’t you call me or Akihiko?” Junpei could not help but ask. “We’da helped you out.”
Souji smiled, straightening back up in his seat. “It was half dumb panic. I don’t…so I’m not actually sure where home is going to be, exactly. Dojima said that mom and dad were waffling between two places, but I really could not tell you which one they settled on. They’re both in the same school district, so it didn’t occur to me to ask.”
Junpei hoped he did not look as skeptical as he felt. “That doesn’t sound like you, amigo. Aren’t you sort of mister must-be-informed-about-everything?”
Rise giggled, leaning into Souji’s side, and Souji pinched the bridge of his nose, a tired smile worming its way onto his face. “I’ve had other things on my mind, Junpei. Which, if you must know, is the main reason I called Rise. It’s also why I’m so damned tired.”
Junpei watched as Souji’s smile dissolved into wistful chuckles and Rise shook her head, curling an arm behind Souji and pulling him towards her with a tolerant smile. Junpei let them giggle together for a moment before what they had said clicked.
“Wait,” he said, leaning forwards against the table and eyes growing wide. “Is he…is he out?”
“He’s out,” Souji said with a drowsy grin. “I gave him the evening to explore the city without me getting in his business. We’re nearing hour three, though and thus the-“ Souji gestured vaguely at his face and rumpled hair, “-for which I really must apologize. I promise, Yukari, I don’t usually look this mussed.”
Yukari seemed to have gathered herself, and she tilted her head back, gazing searchingly down her nose at Souji. “Who exactly told you that it was okay to call me Yukari? Are you always this familiar with strangers?”
Souji’s sleepy smile lengthened into a smirk. “Only with ones I really like.”
Before Yukari could muster up a retort, Rise’s hand had jumped from Souji’s shoulder to the back of his head, fisting in his hair and shaking his head lightly back and forth. “None of that, Casanova. Back! Back to the pit from whence you came!” she said, eyebrows lowered and eyes focused despite her beaming smile. Souji, for his part, continued to smirk for a moment, before his lips sank back into a light, placid smile and he shook Rise’s hand off.
“Okay, okay, I’ll behave,” he said, but when Rise let go of his hair and looked away, he quickly shot a wink at Yukari, who blushed, huffed and looked at Junpei. Junpei recoiled.
“How is he my fault?” Junpei asked, scooting to the end of the seat in a vain attempt to get away from Yukari’s glare. “Besides, I thought overly forward guys were your type or something.”
“Stupei,” Yukari said menacingly before gritting her teeth and settling back into the corner of the booth so that she could stare at the table at large. “So, are you guys going to tell me why I’m here and what the hell’s going on, or are you just going to make me sit here and watch you talk? If it’s the second one, I’d really prefer it if you would at least make sense. Who’s ‘out’?”
Souji mimicked Yukari’s movements, leaning into the opposite corner and crossing his arms. “Right,” he said, sobering. “Sorry about that. Like I say, I’m usually not this…well, I’m a bit off balance at the moment. I was hoping to make a better first impression, but, unfortunately, helping out a friend of mine had to prioritize over my delicate ego.”
“Right,” Yukari said, lingering on the single word doubtfully. “Listen, if we could back up a bit, that would be great. I’m at a table with Risette, and somehow she knows Stupei here, and I really don’t think my mind’s quite progressed past that yet.”
“Sorry,” Rise said. “I think I might have thrown a wrench in things. I wasn’t actually supposed to be here tonight, but after picking Souji up and hearing his plans, I couldn’t help but want to meet you, too.”
Yukari looked properly confused again. “Wait, sorry. You weren’t the friend that Junpei wanted me to meet? I mean, I didn't get it at first, but he practically told me that we were going to meet Risette tonight.”
“You told her that?” Souji asked.
“No! No, I didn’t say that,” Junpei said, flushing. “I just – I was using Risette as an example. Like, you know how people you see on the news or in everyday life sometimes disappear, and you don’t think that they’re going to make a come back and –“
Souji groaned, face in his hands, and Rise erupted into a fit of giggles.
“-and…and then they do come back and they’re like before but different and-“
“Stop. Stop now. Just, god,” Souji said, the sound muffled by his hands but still more than loud enough to be heard.
“Junpei,” Rise said, her head now tilted back and sideways towards one of her shoulders as she struggled to get her words past her snickers, “what could have possibly made you think that was a good analogy?”
“Well, what would you have done?” Junpei said, his cheeks burning red and his voice pitched high. “How would you have prepped someone for a conversation like this? You want to know how I found out? I’d just woken up and Akihiko and Yuki-tan start chatting out of the blue about Ryoji and Minato like they’d all been having some friggin’ picnic together and the world was flowers and daisies, man.”
Souji groaned again. Rise’s laughter had condensed into something more resembling a fit.
“I had no warning. I was trying to give her warning.”
“Junpei. You have to stop. Now,” Souji said, raising his face out of his hands and staring imploringly at Junpei over his fingers.
“Oh my god, I’m telling everybody about this,” Rise said, pulling out her phone with shaking hands and holding it to her chest as she tried to calm down.
Yukari’s voice cut through the chaos, her words cold and steely despite the way they trembled. “What are you all talking about?”
Rise’s laughter cut off all at once, and she, Junpei and Souji all stared at the girl who had backed even further into her corner, her eyes wide and guarded. Everyone remained silent.
“What are you all talking about?” Yukari repeated, louder and angrier than before, and there was something wild in her eyes. “What do you mean?”
After a beat, Souji carefully laid his hand down on the table, everything about his posture screaming unthreatening as he softened his voice. “Rise, Junpei, maybe you two should leave us for a moment. Yukari and I need to talk.”
Yukari bristled, her eyes blazing as they locked on Souji. “And why would I ever want to be alone with you? Who the hell do you think you are?”
Souji’s whole body tensed momentarily before he closed his eyes, breathing out in one long breath through his nose as he let the tension slide off of him. When he opened his eyes, they were steely.
“Who I think I am, Yukari Takeba, is not only a complicated question, but it’s also none of your concern. What matters right now is who you think I am. Junpei’s handle on this has been…inelegant – sorry Junpei, it’s true – and that’s going to make this a bit trickier. You just heard two names. Those names are very important to me, and I know that they are important to you, too. I can tell you everything that I know, but that’s going to require a bit of trust on your part and a willingness to listen. Given the circumstances, I realize that that’s asking a lot.”
The hot wariness on Yukari’s face did not lessen. If anything, she seemed more guarded than before. “Yeah,” she said, her voice a fierce whisper. “That is asking a lot.”
“Alright. Out,” Rise said, scooting out of the booth and gesturing towards the door, “Both of you. Souji, take Junpei outside and…I don’t know. Catch him up? Make him less of an idiot? Whatever you think needs doing. Yukari and I are going to have a little talk.”
“Wha-“ Yukari said, her anger fading at the prospect of being alone in a booth with her idol.
“We’re going to talk, and the boys are going to get some air. Out.”
Souji stared up at Rise for a long moment before he nodded thankfully, jaw set, and climbed out of the booth.
“Hey, come on, man. We can’t bail like-“
“You’re joining me outside,” Souji said, grabbing Junpei by his upper arm and hauling him from his seat. “Come on.”
“But – yeah, okay,” Junpei said, and Rise and Yukari watched the two move down the isle and out the restaurant’s front door.
Yukari sat in silence as she watched Rise fold back into the middle of the booth. The idol twisted one of her pigtails around her finger distractedly, causing her hair to corkscrew.
“So, Yukari Takeba,” Rise said at last, settling her elbows on the edge of the table and leaning on her folded fingers, “It’s crazy to finally meet you. I mean, I’ve heard a ton about you over the last few months, but I guess I didn’t expect to ever meet you in person.”
Yukari shook her head, dazed. “Right. Rise Kujikawa’s heard a lot about me. Right.”
“I have though. Not from Souji, obviously. He…likes to live in the present. He only gets nostalgic when things get really crappy, but Ryoji’s told me plenty-“
“-both good and bad, I’ll admit,” Rise said, talking over Yukari’s muttered protestation. “Enough to put together a pretty good picture.”
“I don’t – you’re wrong. You’re just…just wrong.”
“So, you’re telling me that you don’t know a guy named Ryoji?”
“You know, cute, brunette – got a mole under his left eye?”
“-you don’t know-“
“Fond of scarves? Any of this ringing a bell?”
“Look,” Yukari said, banging a clenched fist on the table and jerking forward. “I don’t know how you know any of this stuff, but whatever you think you know, you’re wrong. What you’re saying is impossible.”
Rise sighed, reaching one hand towards her coffee cup and grabbing its handle. “Impossible compared to what?”
Yukari shrugged wildly, one hand waving in exasperation. “They must be different Ryoji’s.”
Rise scoffed, taking a long sip of her now cool coffee. “Fine,” she said after clicking her tongue. “What about Minato-“
Yukari inhaled sharply.
“-Minato Arisato. What about him?”
Yukari’s indignation was settling into something cooler and more timid. She shook her head. “This – what you’re doing – is cruel. Why would you-?”
Rise held her cup to her lips, but did not drink. After a moment, she put the cup back in its saucer.
“Like I said, I’ve heard a lot about you,” Rise said, locking eyes with Yukari and making sure the other girl held her gaze. “I know you’re an archer and that you don’t take shit. I know your element is wind-“
“-and that, once upon a time, you were in love with a kid named Minato.”
“Why would Junpei have told you that?”
Rise shook her head. “He didn’t. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I’m not supposed to know, but it’s getting difficult to keep much from me,” Rise said, tapping two fingers against her temple and then settling her chin into her hand. “That, and I overheard Souji and the featherbrain arguing about you a little while ago.”
Yukari pursed her lips and seemed to direct her attention towards the least concerning aspect of Rise’s revelation. “Featherbrain’?”
Rise smiled. “Ryoji had wings when I first met him. Also, his name rhymes with Souji’s, and it totally gets on my nerves sometimes.”
Yukari’s entire expression sunk even farther than before. “Wings…oh my god…”
“You okay?” Rise asked, her expression pinched.
“You’re – you – you keep talking like I’m an idiot and what you’re saying is completely obvious, but you don’t get it. If Ryoji’s back, then he-“
“He’s back too, Yukari.”
The table fell into one of the most awkward silences either had ever witnessed.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Yukari said at last, her voice a vicious whisper. “That isn’t funny.”
“Okay, girly, look. Comedy isn’t part of my image, but even if it were, I wouldn’t joke about something like this. Think, okay? He’s an idiot, but Junpei was trying to help you. Think for a sec about what he said.”
Yukari raised a hand to her neck, fiddling absently with her choker. Her eyes refused to leave the table as she twisted the white leather strap back and forth. “He said we were seeing you,” she said, almost petulantly.
Rise decided not to dignify that with a response.
Yukari’s face clenched, and she turned towards Rise with an aggrieved gasp and sigh. “He – he said…he said that sometimes things leave and come back again changed.”
Rise smiled warmly. “Okay, I’ll give the guy credit. If I hadn’t showed up and made his metaphor literal, that wouldn’t have been such a terrible line.”
Yukari shook her head, the set of her eyes still grim. “But, if he didn’t want to introduce me to you…why would he want me to meet your boyfriend.”
“Oh, do we look like a couple? That’s so great! Unfortunately untrue, but score!”
“You two aren’t together?”
“Not at the moment, nope,” Rise said brightly, “but we’ve got the rest of our lives, right? Actually, I’m pretty sure that Junpei was trying to set you and Souji up.”
“That is just too weird,” Yukari said, straightening up.
“What, tall, slick and handsome’s not your type?”
“It’s not that.”
Rise sipped at her coffee, waiting.
“What did you mean, he’s back?”
“Look, I’m not going to pretend that this next bit isn’t weird, and I probably should have prefaced this whole thing by saying, ‘yeah, he’s back, but it’s totally bizarre and complicated’.”
“Complicated how?” Yukari asked dryly.
Rise smiled, leaning forward. “Have you ever heard of a town called Inaba?”
“Why’d you have to bring Rise? I don’t get it. Exactly how was bringing your hot, famous chick-friend supposed to help your reunion with Yukari? In what possible world was that a good idea?”
“Are you actually upset because you think it was a bad idea,” Souji asked, leaning against the wall a few feet down from Bacchanalia’s large front windows, “or are you just upset because it ruined whatever you’ve been scheming?”
“I’m upset because you’re not making any sense. What’s up with you today? I mean, I get that Ryoji’s not up in that crazy head of yours, but you’ve been letting him out on and off for weeks now, right? What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal,” Souji said flatly, “is that this is difficult, Junpei.”
Junpei came to rest against the wall beside Souji, crossing his arms over his chest. “Yeah? I’m not saying I thought it was gonna be easy frickin’ peasy, but…”
Souji sighed. “How long is the longest you’ve ever manifested your Persona?”
“Twenty, thirty seconds tops. Why?”
Souji gave him a long, level look.
“Shit, man, seriously? Seriously. Holy-“
“Ryoji’s my shadow, and shadows and Personas are pretty much the same thing, so-“
“You said you’re on hour three?” Junpei said, his voice a loud whisper.
“You’re crazy. Mental.”
Souji laughed. “It’s not like I had much of a choice. I knew I could do it, in theory, and that made it practically impossible not to at least try. You’ve known that Ryoji was alive for months. Why is this such a surprise to you?”
“I knew he was out, but I didn’t know how. I figured there was just some door in your head, and you could just – shwoop – let him go. I didn’t know you had to summon him. Do you need an Evoker or - ?”
“It depends. Ryoji - well, not Ryoji necessarily, but one of his other incarnations – used to manage this same thing for short bursts of time. He’d show up in my room or around the dorm back in Iwatodai to talk with me and then he’d disappear back into my subconscious. So, sometimes he can get out on his own with just some extra support from me, but other times he needs a push.”
“And that works?”
“Yeah. I mean, sort of. The first time we tried, it was a disaster. Summoning him as a Persona’s not all that tough, and I had thought that simply holding a Persona in existence without forcing it to do magic or fight something would be a simple matter, but that’s…there aren’t words that express quite how wrong I was about that.”
“But you’re on hour three.”
“Yeah,” Souji said, with a laugh that lengthened the word into two syllables. “And look at me. I’ve made it to hour five before, but then I passed out and was useless for a day afterwards, so I’m not going to try that again anytime soon.”
“Does he feel the side effects?”
Souji shook his head in a negative.
“And he’s okay with you runnin’ yourself sick over this?”
“Of course he isn’t,” Souji said with a sigh, “but we have to pick our battles. I was going to do this anyway, so he’s decided to make the most of it.”
Junpei grunted, a humming sound that stuck in the back of his throat, before letting his weight fall against the wall, bumping his head in the process.
“What exactly were you playing at, by the way?” Souji asked, his eyes slipping sideways to consider his friend.
“Eh, doesn’t really matter now. You gotta let what’s passed be past, right?”
It was unfair, Junpei thought, that when Souji rolled his eyes, it looked elegant, rather than immature. “You weren’t actually trying to set us up, were you? Please tell me you weren’t.”
“Why is this such a big deal? She’s Yukari, and you’re…you! Of course I was gonna try and get you kids together. It’s obviously what the universe wants-“
“-and I’m just obeying the cosmos.”
Souji shook his head slowly back and forth, a sad smile splitting his face sideways. “Junpei…thank you. Thank you for caring, even if it’s a bit misplaced.”
“How’s it misplaced?”
With a soft grunt of effort, Souji pushed off of the wall, turning into the movement so that he faced Junpei. The evening was almost done sinking from golden twilight into dark-blue dusk, and the streetlight across the way caught Souji’s outline, making it glow even as his face fell into shadow.
“The last thing I need right now,” Souji said, “is more complication.”
Junpei was about to retort when Souji cut him off. “I’ve got enough lifetime commitments to last me for a while.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t count, man.”
Junpei could not see Souji’s face, but the disdainful snort said what expressions could not.
“Really?” Souji said, the word long and languid. “They don't count?”
“Oh, come on. You know what I mean. Stop acting like a jackass.”
There was a long pause, and Junpei wished he could see Souji’s face. In the end, Souji’s outline slumped and he moved to lean against the wall again in silence.
Junpei was not sure what to make of that. “Is that it? No come back?”
“It’s my problem, not yours to worry about.”
“Dude,” Junpei said, grinning sideways. “Sometimes you just gotta complain for complaining’s sake, you get me?”
Souji breathed a laugh.
They sat quiet for a moment.
“So Rise’s here to make sure that you don’t pass out across the table?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.”
“What, did you fall ass over tea-kettle down a flight of stairs?”
“Slumped unconscious by the shoe lockers at school, actually.”
“Ah. Well, there you go then.”
“I’m lovin’ that power dynamic, though,” Junpei said with a grin.
“We’re working on it.”
Junpei cackled. “God, I love karma.”
“Why’s that?” Souji asked, raising an eyebrow.
“This time it’s you being lorded over by a chick for a change. Justice!”
Souji froze beside him, and it took Junpei a moment to realize that the strange skritching sound was Souji scraping his fingernails anxiously against the wall behind him.
“What exactly,” Souji said, his voice quiet and light, “do you mean by that?”
Junpei grinned nervously, uncertain. “Eh? I’m just sayin’ that the rest of us had to stay under Mitsuru’s sexy heels all the damned time, but you managed to worm your way outta that, ya jerk.”
Souji nodded, his eyes distant. “Oh. Yeah.”
“You can be so weird sometimes, manfriend.”
Souji popped both eyebrows in a clear pot-calling-the-kettle-black expression.
Junpei chuckled. “How long do you think they’re gonna be in there?”
Souji shrugged indecisively in response. “I’d rather not hang on this place’s doorstep waiting for them,” he said.
Junpei pushed off of the wall, a toothy grin painted across his face. “Wanna cruise the area and see if there’s any sketchtastic old pharmacies around that sell snuff souls?”
“I’m pretty sure that they’re illegal, actually,” Souji said, standing up straight despite his words.
“No they’re not. I needed some extra cash this one time, so I peddled some off at this, like, drugstore.”
The edge of Souji’s mouth twisted down in a display of doubt. “I’m not saying people aren’t willing to take it off of your hands, but I’ve never seen anybody sell it properly. The only place that I know of to get it outside of Tartarus and the TV world is that antique shop in Paulownia Mall, and even then I had to barter for it off books. It is a drug.”
“Yeah, like if speed and caffeine had a beautiful, beautiful love child.”
Souji chuckled. “I’d check on the list of controlled substances, but I don’t have a clue what’s in the stuff.”
“Huh,” Junpei said with a sideways smile. “So, is that a ‘no’?”
“That’s an ‘absolutely’. Let’s go.”
It was not until late that evening that Yukari made her way slowly back to her dorm. She and Risette had declared the booth their territory, and had stayed long after finishing their meals and moving on to dessert and coffee. Yukari supposed that was one advantage to spending the evening with a celebrity – no one in the restaurant even considered asking them to move.
Throughout it all, Rise had shared her story, and Yukari had listened. As she thought about it, Yukari felt cold tingling in a rush down her arms and torso, and she shuddered in an attempt to shake it off.
In retrospect, she supposed it had been naïve to assume that it really could all have been over.
As she approached the curb next to the turnaround by her dorm, she saw him, sitting on an empty flowerpot by the double doors. It probably had also been naïve to not expect him.
“I guess I ruined your night,” she said, her voice strong and unrepentant. “I’m not sorry about it.”
“I woulda been surprised if you had been, Yuka-tan,” Junpei said, not moving out of his graceless sprawl, but looking up at her, eyes clear. “So you’re not even going to talk to him?”
Yukari said nothing, standing straight-backed and still on the curb.
“I know it’s tough to believe, but he’s the real deal. The genuine article – I wouldn’t lie to you about this.”
“He’s been back for months, Junpei.”
Junpei had been afraid that it would come down to that.
“Yeah, he has.”
“Then that’s the end of that,” Yukari said, moving towards the doors with purpose.
Yukari spun on her heel, eyes blazing. “I should have been the first one he told.”
“He didn’t want to worry you.”
“What are you, his advocate?”
Junpei gazed flatly at her. “So you’re not going to do anything? You’re gonna pretend like you never heard this and go on your merry way?”
“I never wanted to fight shadows. I only joined SEES to learn what happened to my dad, and now I know. I’m not going back.”
“That’s where this all leads, Junpei. You’re an idiot if you think anything but.”
Junpei pulled his hat off of his head with a sigh, scrubbing a hand through his short hair. Yukari began to walk away from him, but before she got to the doors, she was called to a halt.
“I’ve got two tickets.”
Yukari was not slow on the uptake. “To Rise’s show?”
“Yeah. I was gonna give ‘em to you and make you think Souji’d done it.”
Junpei leaned back, his arms stretched taught as they held him in place on top of the flowerpot. “To make things right. Shit. Fine. It was dumb. Just – we’re not trying to trick you. I promise. We’re your friends.”
Her eyes thinned sadly, and Junpei did not think he imagined her small sniff, but when Yukari spoke, her voice was as haughty as ever. “I hope you know that you’re taking me, Stupei, and you’d better dress up for it.”
Junpei grinned broadly. “Girl, I think that’s something even I can do.”
With a tight smile, Yukari retreated to her dorm, the mechanical hiss of the doors lingering in the air even after she was gone.
Junpei waited on top of the flowerpot for a moment longer, grinning into the night.
Chapter 2: The First Time Around
Set: The end of Minako’s timeline
“Can you promise me? Promise me that we’ll forget – that we’ll all forget? I refuse to do this if I have to remember it.”
Waking up with his arm thrown over her side, shoulder sore and the heat between them almost stifling, felt more like dreaming than anything Ryoji had ever experienced while asleep. His body bent, left cheek resting on her shoulder just above her collarbone, and he hummed sleepily, tilting his head so that his nose brushed against her neck. He breathed out slowly.
It must have tickled, because Minako squirmed, her movement slow and groggy, and Ryoji laughed lightly as she stretched. The hand he held against her side let him feel the entirety of the movement as her skin slipped tautly against her ribs. He rubbed her side as she settled, pulling his face away from her shoulder so that he could see her cloudy, sleep-laden eyes. He smiled at the red marks the pillow had left on her face and the way her hair was all flattened to one side.
He felt heady. Needy.
“’Morning,” he said, propping himself up with his right elbow and rubbing small circles into Minako’s hip through the skirt she had never removed with his free hand.
Minako blinked lazily and then smiled, a pale shade of pink dusting her cheeks. Then, groaning, she rolled onto her back and stretched out her legs, her toes splaying before she sighed, collapsing contentedly against her pillows.
Ryoji swallowed, a nervous laugh escaping him as he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to fall asleep while still in your uniform.”
Minako shrugged, her eyes slipping open to take in her rumpled blouse and knee-high socks that had slipped down to pool around her ankles. After a moment’s consideration, her eyes moved to look at Ryoji, and she snorted in amusement, throwing an arm over her face so that her eyes hid in the crook of her elbow.
“What?” Ryoji said, his frown dramatic and oh-so-fake.
“You’re still in your suspenders. Why do you wear suspenders?”
Ryoji chuckled deeply, letting himself fall back onto the pillows beside her.
“Don’t try and tell me that you wouldn’t wear suspenders if you knew you could,” he said, noticing, now that they had been pointed out, how uncomfortable the straps were. They dug into his shoulders, and he slipped his left one off, absently.
“I can honestly say that, were I a guy, I doubt I would ever wear those things,” Minako said, her face still hidden by her arm. “Besides, your point’s-“ she yawned “-‘s moot. Girls can wear suspenders too.”
“Girls don’t need them to hold their pants up, though.”
Minako let her arm fall back off of her face. She grinned. “Way to make them even less sexy than they were before.”
Ryoji closed his eyes, laughing.
Dear lord, he’d just woken up in Minako’s bed.
Ryoji ran a hand through his hair, still laughing as he attempted to make sense of the way it was falling into his eyes and around his face. He had to look ridiculous.
Minako was still smiling.
“You look like you’re doing better,” she said.
Under normal circumstances, that probably would not have been something he wanted to hear from a girl he had just woken up next to, but Ryoji knew it was warranted.
“I- yeah. I am better,” he said, looking at Minako bemusedly. He was not embarrassed by the way he had acted the night before, but that was only because keeping his doubts and fears away from Minako felt like some sort of blasphemy, because they were…she was…
Oh god, there was something so wrong with him, something that hurt more the closer he got, like a thread being wound around two spools, pulling tighter and tighter and it hurt, beyond the tension in his jaw and the heat behind his eyes. It hurt like nothing and everything he had ever felt.
She smiled. He laughed.
“You’ll want to clean up before school. Do you have time to get home first?”
Ryoji sighed. “Probably not,” he said playing with his wrist strap absently.
“Well,” Minako said, sitting up and shaking her hair out of its wrecked bun, “I obviously don’t have a spare uniform that I can loan you…although…” she said, trailing off with a smirk.
Ryoji smiled, shaking his head.
“You’re free to do what you will here, though don’t use the restroom on this floor. This is technically the girls’ floor, and I don’t even want to think about what Mitsuru will do to you if she finds you in the shower when she comes back from her run.”
“I guess I’ll have to brave the guys’ floor, then,” he said before giving Minako a long look. He did not know what to say. Thank you? Is it okay that I’m a little bit obsessed with you? Is it possible that, next time, we could get past the cuddling thing? Will there be a next time?
It had been so weird. He had been thrilled, being invited back to her room, but upon seeing the familiar lines of the walls, the way the light edged by the curtains just so, onto the checkered pattern of her bed…
Her hand had warmed his, and he realized that his skin had never actually touched hers before. He would have known if it had, because in that moment, he knew everything – everything that felt necessary to know.
There had been no real need for more, their simple contact enough to hold the wolves at bay, but he had asked for it anyway, because something in him, the only bit not struck mute, warned him that life was short and chances were fleeting. It also made him look up and see the confusion on Minako’s face.
He’d breathed a shaky sigh. “You feel it too?”
And she was in his arms, and the closer they got, the less dissonance scraped at his skin and buzzed in his ears.
She’d held him until night came and after.
“People are going to talk, you know,” She said, sliding off of the bed and walking unconcerned towards the closet. “There’s no way that this will stay a secret, and they won’t be talking about what actually happened, but what they wish had happened.”
It sounded disturbingly like she was speaking from experience, and a selfish part of him – which, to be honest, was most of him – attempted to hold back a sneer at that.
“I don’t particularly mind,” he said, tugging his long, yellow scarf out from underneath him and bundling it up into a ball. “But if you do, I promise to keep quiet.”
Minako traced fingers down the wooden shelves of her wardrobe, her eyes distant. “It isn’t that I mind. It’s probably better if we say nothing, though.”
Ryoji nodded. “Your friends might worry.”
Minako laughed softly. “I have a history of moving too fast,” she said after a moment. “And I have friends that won’t understand. They’ll think…and they’re probably right…”
“Think what?” Ryoji said, standing from the bed in concern.
Minako smiled sadly. “What would you think of a girl who started up with a new guy less than two months after her previous boyfriend fell into a coma?”
Ryoji hissed a breath, a pensive look on his face. He walked up behind her and settled a hand over hers, stilling their movements across the wood.
“I guess it would depend on the girl,” he said, softly. “I didn’t know.”
That felt strangely like a lie, but he swallowed it down.
"Do you care?” She asked.
Ryoji shook his head. “Not in the way that you think, no. I’m sorry about your friend, though.”
Minako laughed, a measure of genuine warmth in it. “Thanks, you sap. Now leave. I’m going to get ready.”
He smiled, dragging his thumb across the back of her hand between her thumb and pointer finger before pulling away, his scarf a tangled wad tucked under his left arm.
As he moved to her door, Minako spoke again. “Oh, and look out for Akihiko. Avoid him like the plague.”
“Is he one of those friends that wouldn’t understand?”
“He is that friend that wouldn’t understand.”
Ryoji nodded, his middle finger tapping four times on the door as he passed, dragging it closed behind him.
“I promise.” A hand passed through her hair. “I promise you won’t remember a thing. It will be like it never happened.”
Minako sprinted down the last of the stairs, catching Ryoji by the shoulder as he tried to leave the dorm. She turned him to face her, a scowl on her face.
“You can’t actually believe that I would do it. You don’t actually think that we’re going to kill you.”
Ryoji stared back at her, his despair tempered by his faith. “I cannot say what you will do. It is your choice,” he said, “but think. Do not make this decision without thinking it through.”
Minako shook her head. “Don’t give me that. There isn’t a choice to make. I couldn’t do it.”
“Minako, please don’t say that before you’ve actually thought about this,” Ryoji said, shaking his head. “Please. This isn’t about me, so don’t think about what you can and can’t do to me. This is…it’s about time. It’s the difference between days and years, suffering and bliss. It’s…god, time is infinite and brief at the same time and so, so precious, and you have the ability to decide when it ends.”
Minako’s eyes burned.
“And prioritizing one life – a life that will end minutes afterwards regardless of your choice, and you have to understand that – over everyone else’s is…you can’t. You cannot choose that. That isn’t you.”
“We can still fight,” Minako said around gritted teeth. “We’re a lot tougher than we look. Do not underestimate us.”
Ryoji looked like he was about to say something, jaw working and tongue popping, but he stayed silent, his eyes dubious.
Minako could feel her neck knotting. “How-“ her voice caught, and she cleared it with a cough, keeping her voice cold and steady, “-how difficult was it for you to wreck Aigis?”
Ryoji’s face crumpled, fear clawing at its edges. “I didn’t even raise my hands. She fell apart without me touching her. That’s what death is.”
Minako closed her eyes, fists clenched at her sides.
“You cannot beat her. Like I said, this isn’t about strength or dedication or even hours logged. This is you, a human, against death itself, and death will always win. No amount of team spirit is going to change that.”
“Don’t you mock us-“
“-I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I’m sorry,” he said, sinking into his scarf.
They stood by the door, grasping for words and knowing that none would come.
“Please,” Ryoji said, his voice a whisper muffled by sunny cloth. “You…please. You have to be happy for as long as you are able. I could not stand it if…”
“I thought you said not to think about your feelings or mine,” Minako said, letting her shoulders drop and feeling a long, slow ache replace the lost tension.
“I hold you to higher standards than I do myself,” Ryoji said, and the words begged for sarcasm, but it was not there.
“If our positions were reversed, could you do it?”
Ryoji blinked slowly, his eyes fixed on the ground.
“I-“ he said, looking up at her at long last, “-I don’t know. If you asked – if you thought your dying would give the world time – I might. Yes. Yes,” he said, more firmly, “ I would. If that was what it took.”
Minako nodded silently.
“I should go,” Ryoji said, turning towards the door.
“Why? Spend the last month with us,” Minako said, shrugging a shoulder back at the lounge in reference, but Ryoji shook his head, the tail of his scarf slipping of his shoulder and falling to the ground with his movement.
“They need you,” Ryoji said, eyes wide and sad, “and you need them. Think, Minako. I want your decision to be clear when next we meet.”
“If I gave you my answer now, would you stay?”
Shoulders hunched, Ryoji shook his head, turning his back towards her and heading towards the door.
He was leaving, Minako realized. Regardless of what she did, he would be gone in a moment, and she needed to ask him something before he left for good.
“Why aren’t you me?” She asked without inflection.
“You only had my memories, right? So why didn’t you become me? Why does Ryoji exist?”
Ryoji stilled, his hand on the doorknob.
“I wanted to live, and you’re right – I had access to all of your memories, your sense of self, your ambitions, but…why would I want to replace you,” Ryoji said, softly, “when I could know you?”
“That isn’t an answer,” she said.
“It’s all that I have,” Ryoji said, shrugging as he turned the handle and moved through the doorway. “I’ll need your answer when I return.”
The door shut behind him with a slow creak.
“You already know my answer, you dumbass,” she said to the empty room, wishing she could take it back, but knowing that it was already too late.
“Will you remember?”
“I’ll be dead. I do not think I will care much.”
Minako sat on her bed, Ryoji’s arms wrapped around her shoulders. She had purchased a gun from Officer Kurosawa especially for the occasion. She had splurged a bit on it, spending much more than she generally did to arm the team, but if all went well, it would be the last weapon she ever bought. It sat beside her on the bed, cold and cruel and beautiful. She had never hated anything so much in her entire life.
“Will the shadows stop coming, or will they continue to attack until the Fall?”
Ryoji pulled back, giving her the full of his regard.
“There will always be shadows,” he said, gravely.
They sat together, nothing but their slow, steady breathing disturbing the air.
“I want you to have this,” Ryoji said, twisting his ring off of his left hand and passing it to Minako with little ceremony. “It will probably disappear – I hope it does, really – but until then…will you wear it?”
Minako said nothing, the ring already adorning her right pointer finger and glowing faintly in the dark.
Ryoji smiled. “Are you ready?”
“No,” Minako said even as she picked the gun up off of the bed. Its weight sat comfortably in her hand, its shape enough like her Evoker’s to be comforting. The grip warmed to her touch.
Ryoji’s eyes were closed as she took aim, and he flinched slightly as the cool metal of the muzzle came to rest against the side of his head.
“Promise me,” she said. Her shaking hand clacked Ryoji’s ring against the gun’s metal, filling the air with clinks and scrapes.
Thin slivers of blue looked sideways at her through his eyelashes.
A breath. “I promi-“
The words were lost beneath the crack-bang and the light of the gun’s flare and the pounding, oh god, and the drive of the bass and the chatter of the crowd and–
There was something that Minato was forgetting, something important, something that swirled in the back of his mind like a forgotten face or name as he moved through the packed, sunset-lit streets, but for one reason or another, that thought was comforting.
He adjusted his headphones, setting a single song on loop before continuing to make his way towards the train station.
He was okay with forgetting.
He did not think he wanted to remember anyway.
Chapter 3: Growing Pains
She knew it was unwise, destructive even, to draw lines in their mental landscape and to differentiate herself from her fellows, but sharing a life and a soul with three boys was not easy. She had been given a great chance, a way to live on as something more than a lost piece or a glorified lock and key, and she fully acknowledged the gifts that had been laid before her, but there were times when, out of the blue, she would be struck numb by the understanding that this was it – this was her life - for always, until the day they died.
She was grossly outnumbered. Her opinions were always taken into account, what with Ryoji's warm support and Souji's compulsion towards balance, but the truth was that their body was male and so were three-fourths of their thoughts. Sometimes it felt like everything, right down to society's norms, was working against her, and it grated. Constantly.
Her pride did not help, either. It wasn't like she was Yukari or something. She did not ask much. She liked music and video games, good food and good movies as much as the rest of them. Yes, she was socially conscious, but she was not obsessed or insecure. She was not trying to make them into something they weren't, but it was just…
She had been a leader, once.
She may not have led these three, but she had commanded attention and respect from her fellows. She had been acknowledged, absolutely, for who she was, not because she was a girl, or even in spite of it, but because she was Minako, a person worthy of recognition.
She had been in love before, too, and a smooth warmth burned at the back of her mind at the thought, accompanied by bored amusement and a pinch of worry. Ignoring the others, she continued to brood, dropping down further into her own mind. She had, though. Twice, and her mind reeled as she briefly considered just what was going to happen when they all stopped trying to keep people happy and at arms length and realized that, eventually, they were going to have a fight over this, and it would not be pretty.
And she would lose.
She could feel Ryoji lounging beside her, trying to pull her out of her cesspit of a mind and back toward the others, and she could feel his scrutiny, his contemplation, his offer…
It made her smile, but she shook him off, pushing him back up 'top' as she called it, close to where Souji sat, always monitoring and steadying, and she sent an apology up towards them. In the real world, she settled back, tapping their fingers against the desk and leaning into the warmed plastic of their seat.
"You okay, Partner?" Yosuke hissed from the row behind, his voice an overloud whisper in the quiet classroom.
"Yeah, fine," Souji said without her, smoothing the agitation out of his face and quirking his lips into a slightly put upon smile. "Just fine."
Minako eased away, giving Souji full control, but as she handed over the reins, Souji's continued worry scraped over her like sandpaper. Her first impulse was the rage back, to glare and spit, because she did not want his pity, but that urge was even more counterproductive than her earlier thoughts, so she pushed down on the restless, caged thing that was her temper and pulled back, retreating as far as she possibly could to the confines of her own mind.
She remained there for a long while. It was just school, anyway, and even though she did not know much about whatever they were currently studying, she knew either Minato or Souji would take notes, and she could look at them later. It was not until the dull drone of their professor's voice was replaced by familiar chatter that she straightened up, trying to join the conversation.
"-don't think I've ever seen you doze off like that during class, man," Yosuke said from where he sat perched upon his desk. "You were practically drooling."
"Sorry, I was just thinking," Souji replied, turning sideways in his desk so that he faced Yukiko and Chie as they began to pack up, and Minako wondered at the way his eyes silently tracked the girls.
"Sounds intense," Yosuke said flatly, but Souji did not turn to look at him, so Minako was not sure what expression the Magician was wearing.
"Yeah, intense," Souji said, distractedly, and he was still watching Yukiko and Chie like a hawk. Minako's stomach twisted, and she wondered whether the others could feel it, too.
"Hey, Yukiko, Chie," Souji said at last in the same preoccupied tone he had used to address Yosuke.
"Yeah? What's up?" Chie asked, her voice muffled around a pencil that she held loosely in her teeth.
"Are you two busy this weekend?"
Yosuke made a strangled, surprised noise, but the two girls just looked at each other, a strangely knowing expression passing between them as they silently communicated. After a moment, Chie pulled a face, frowning in an exaggerated manner before shrugging her shoulders and turning back to Souji.
"Actually, Yukiko and I were planning on taking a day trip to Okina sometime this weekend. It's almost spring, you know, and Yukiko wanted to find some new pretty things for the warm weather."
Yukiko pursed her lips. "That is not why we decided to go. We wouldn't have even thought of going to Okina if you hadn't needed some new track shorts," she said.
"Well, there's a certain amount of truth to that," Chie said, smiling cheekily at Souji. "I mean, I'm not sayin' you can't tag along and all, but I can't imagine you much want to stand around and carry our bags."
"Dude does it with that Ai chick all the friggin time," Yosuke supplied, helpfully. Souji shot his friend a look that only made him smile more broadly. "You do."
Souji cleared his throat. "Well, regardless of how often I do it with Ai," he said, earning himself a few giggles and another one of those strangled choking sounds from Yosuke, "I actually wouldn't mind tagging along, so long as you don't mind me running a few errands of my own while we're there."
Yukiko smiled. "I certainly would not mind. It's been a while since the three of us have spent much time together."
"Hey," Yosuke said, the beginnings of resentment clawing its way into his voice. "Are you guys planning on leaving me out of this? I wouldn't mind watching you guys shop."
Chie stared at him levelly. "No, I'm thinking this is going to be a girls and Souji trip. Sorry, Yosuke. You can be our pack mule next time."
Minako expected some token protest from Souji, or at least Minato, about being called a pack animal, but Souji just smiled gratefully. "Thanks," he said as he began to clean out his desk. "You're doing me a big favor."
Something about the way he said that clicked, and her temper rattled at its cages once more. Damn it, was he serious? He thought that her issue was going to be fixed because he was letting her go shopping? Oh, maybe then they could all paint their toenails and share their goddamn feelings-
She could feel them on all sides, and she was not sure who was sending her what message. She figured that Souji was probably the one preaching control, and she adored their front-man, but sometimes his reserve drove her crazy.
She responded with an irritated question. What's the point of worrying? What do you think you're doing?
She expected a more direct response, but instead received a strangely unanimous plea for her to wait, to give them a chance.
She sighed before realizing that she had wandered too close to the surface and that the people outside would see. She turned her head guiltily, glancing at Yukiko and Chie as they exchanged another one of their looks. Though Chie turned and smiled, neither of them said a word, and the four classmates packed up in silence. As Souji got up to leave, Minako pulled away, fading into the background without a further word.
Riding the escalator down from the top of Okina station felt like going home in a way Minako simply had not expected. Though only a few stops away from Inaba, Okina was sufficiently far out of the mountains that it lost that thick-aired, clammy-cool feeling that clung to Inaba like plaque. Instead, the air was washed out and salty thanks to the ocean that was too far away to see but close enough to taste, and Minako inhaled deeply, a small, happy smile spreading comfortably on Souji's face. Something warm and slightly painful pounded in her chest, and, as she neared the bottom of the escalator, she allowed herself a moment to pretend like she was actually, properly alone.
Her small smile spread into a grin, and she gripped the moving handrails, launching herself over the last four steps and landing gracefully on the pavement. She turned, backing away from the other pedestrians that were leaving the station and closed her eyes, letting herself breathe properly as she listened to the crowds. Their pounding feet reminded her wistfully of bass tracks, and she heard Souji's off-key humming respond to her reverie.
"Hey, Souji. Over here," said a familiar voice behind her, and Minako's careless smile turned wry. Well, that had been nice while it lasted, she thought to herself, relinquishing the reins so that Souji could take over and do whatever he had planned for the day.
Except, he was not there. She felt their body sag, leaderless.
Saying that Souji was absent was not quite accurate. She could feel him from where he had retreated to the back of their mind, and she could sense both how much he wanted to hover - and how much he was fighting that urge. She could feel Ryoji and Minato too, but they were farther back still, the lines between them blurred to obscurity as they retreated into unconsciousness.
And there she was, sat at the helm, and she suddenly realized that she'd been locked out – or locked in as the case may be. She pushed at Souji, urging him back up front, but he stayed firmly put, the light sense of unease that he felt smothered under his steadfast refusal to budge.
He was not going to take back over, and neither, clearly, were the others.
That just left her, but that was not right. It couldn't be right, because they did not do this. This went against their very defining principles. They were one thing. One unit. They had to be, even if it hurt…
"You ready to get started? We weren't sure where to head first, but I'm sure we can figure some sorta schedule out, right? What was it that you needed done, anyway?"
Minako rounded on Chie, her features as carefully schooled as she could make them, and smiled that smile of Souji's that always set everyone at ease.
"Just this and that," she said, Souji's warm baritone smooth despite its awkwardness in her mouth. In her mind, she sent a sharp barb towards Souji, asking what the hell he wanted, and was rewarded with the most vague suggestion of shirts that Minako had ever witnessed.
Oh, that's useful, she thought acerbically. What did he even mean by shirts? Dress shirts? Polos? Tees? Was there some occasion coming up that she had somehow not known about?
A bland, dazed stupor was all she got in response, and her lips twitched into a disbelieving sneer before she could stop them.
And, crap. She still hadn't responded to Chie.
"Shirts," she said, and, damn it, that had been too quick, too awkward to ever pass for Souji, but Chie nodded with a smile, rocking on the heels of her feet as she looked over towards Yukiko.
"Yeah, I think we can fit shirt shopping in somewhere. Where to first, Yukiko?"
Yukiko scanned the strip of stores thoughtfully for a moment before her eyes alighted on the privately owned boutique at the end of the left hand side. She smiled brightly, tilting her head towards the store questioningly.
"Yeah, okay," Chie said, crossing her arms over her chest. "What're you thinking, leader? You don't have to follow us in, if you don't want. There's an ice-cream shop over that'a way if you want to wait there-" Chie said, before edging closer to Souji and lowering her voice, "-but I'll let you in on a secret. Yukiko's totally helpless when it comes to shopping for herself, and she'll try on whatever you give her. Think of it as pay back for the school festival."
A bit startled by Chie's suggestion, Minako blinked, cocking her head to the side a bit to consider the short girl beside her. A more noble person – by which she meant Souji – would probably have politely declined, but Minako knew that she would not use this chance for evil. She had no personal urge to get back at Yukiko for her part in the cross-dressing debacle. Frankly, she had found the entire situation hilarious, and Yukiko had been nothing but considerate about the whole thing. That said…Minako eyed the models showcased in the front display, marveling at the way fashion had changed in only two years. That one red dress on the end was so cute…and if Yukiko was going to be a willing model…
It was a bit voyeuristic of her, Minako would admit, but then most of the pleasure in her current life was obtained by watching others be happy.
"Yeah, you know you want to," Chie said, grinning toothily. "I won't even tell anyone that you're being a Yosuke-level creep."
"Why exactly are you letting me do this?" Minako said, her face settling naturally into Souji's look of smooth doubt.
Chie simply looked smug. Twirling on her toes, she trotted over to Yukiko who had been waiting just outside of hearing range. Minako narrowed her eyes at the pair as Chie hooked her arm through the crook in Yukiko's elbow, still hopping from foot to foot in excitement.
"What'cha got your eyes on?" Chie asked as the two made their way over to the shop's entrance, Minako trailing along a few paces behind.
"Nothing in particular," Yukiko said, eyes sweeping the display case in interest, "I love this place, though. Remember last spring?"
"You wore their stuff practically every day."
"Ms Constance's designs actually fit me. I've got such small shoulders, and my legs are just the wrong length for normal sizes. I can never wear skirts from anyplace else, because they are always either unbearably short or awkwardly around my knees."
Minako could not help but chuckle. "That must be terrible," she said, and was not sure whether to thank or curse Souji's flat voice, because it made it very difficult to distinguish sarcasm from earnestness.
Yukiko took her words as the former, but she did not seem too put out by it. "I think that people should try to look their best, regardless of what their best is. Not trying does not do anyone any favors."
Yukiko and Chie turned back in unison, and Minako tried not to squirm under the unimpressed looks that they were giving Souji's blazer-tracksuit-turtleneck ensemble. Okay, she would admit, sometimes it felt like Souji closed his eyes and pointed around his room and whatever article of clothing his finger was aimed at when he opened his eyes was what he went with, but that was not her fault. Besides, Souji could pull off a neckhoody-hammerpants combo if he wanted.
Then again, she supposed that was sort of Yukiko's point. They could at least try.
"Does this place have clothing for guys too?" She asked, trying to peer through the window for a better look.
"Yup. This isn't the best example, but Naoto gets all of her pretty collared shirts here," Chie said.
Yukiko smiled. "Also, do you know Souta from third year?"
"You mean vest boy?" Minako asked, moving towards the door and pushing it open. "That kid who is always wearing vests?"
"Always!" Yukiko said, smiling.
"He's definitely got more than one for ever day of the week. Yukiko and I tried watchin' him for a while, but after he didn't repeat a single one for two weeks straight, we gave up," Chie said, following behind Minako as she moved into the shop. "Frankly, I don't want to know."
"So this is where vest boy gets his vests," Minako said, looking around the warmly lit shop. "Nice place."
The store was a fine piece of real estate, about twice the size of Be Blue V and all in warm tones with its chestnut tables, hard wood floors, paneled walls and low-hanging, golden light fixtures. The clothes racks were divided by color, and Yukiko zipped over to the reds, the metallic scrape of the hangers accompanying her light humming as she considered each garment.
Chie hung back in the door beside Minako, an indulgent smile on her face.
"Not your scene?" Minako asked quietly.
"Not even close," Chie responded, tilting sideways so that the two were crowded conspiratorially. "I don't know how she moves in this stuff. I mean, she does. She's figured out how. I just don't get it."
"But you," Chie said, "Are a different matter entirely, and if our leader needs new shirts, then we've gotta help him find them, right?"
Before Minako could nod or blink or do much of anything, Chie was off towards the strips of long, low tables covered with every color of shirt imaginable, and Minako was tickled to see that Chie naturally erred towards the greens and yellows.
Leaving Chie to do her thing, Minako walked slowly over to where Yukiko was standing, a small collection of flowing red things draped over her arm.
"Found something?" Minako asked.
"I'm not sure," Yukio said, pulling something off of the pile and holding it up to her torso. "How do you think this will look?"
Not great was Minako's private opinion. It was not bad, but it was not Yukiko, its folds and draping cords doing nothing to complement her friend's figure and personality. Minako clicked her tongue inside her mouth a few times before turning towards the racks herself, pulling down anything that she knew would work and a few extras added in for spice. On impulse, she went to the front of the store, adding the pretty, red dress to the pile with delicate fingers and then passed everything to Yukiko, keeping her affect flat.
She expected some sort of protest, especially knowing Yukiko's penchant for misinterpreting people's motives and jumping to conclusions, but Yukiko smiled cheerfully, her eyes thinning out of appreciation, rather than suspicion.
"Thank you, Souji," Yukiko said, putting aside the things she had collected and taking up Minako's acquisitions. "Oh, this is pretty. I'll be right back, okay?"
"Souji, over here," Chie called, grinning from ear to ear as she gripped a coat that simultaneously seemed to be a jacket and hoodie in her hands. "You have to try this on for me. Oh, and this one too!"
Stupid, frothy mirth roiled in Minako's stomach, its airiness making her almost giddly. You know what, she thought, all of Souji's rigid tension seeping out of her shoulders. Fuck it. If Souji was going to let her do whatever she wanted, he was going to have to live with the consequences.
Besides, a rogue thought whispered as she stared past Chie, catching Souji's reflection in a mirror hanging on the wall, there was something that she had always kind of wanted to do. She tilted her head, watching the mirrored version of Souji tilt his to match, and smiled, her eyes sparkling dangerously. She and Yukari had talked about it in the past, late at night in the lounge when everybody else had turned in and they were too tired to be making coherent sense. At some point in the conversation, one would mention Akihiko, and the other would giggle ruthlessly. It was a stupid daydream – not even a fantasy because no true desire drove it, only curiosity and the simple understanding that, as girls, they probably would never get the chance.
The short of it was, they had wanted to take Akihiko shopping. The guy had the type of frame that fashion designers dreamed would one day wear their clothes, and both she and Yukari had more than just a passing interest in fashion. After a year with Bebe, bent over a sewing machine and pricking herself with pins as she laid out her patterns, Minako's interest in clothes had turned academic, but she had been forced to stick to women's designs for lack of a willing male model. Akihiko had certainly not been willing, and going to Junpei was asking for trouble.
Minako brought a hand to her hair, carding her fingers through Souji's fringe until is spiked out and up. She fussed for a long moment, getting the thick strands to fall into place before surveying her work with a smirk. Without a word, she moved down the isle, grabbing anything with a color before snatching the strange jacket out of Chie's hands and moving to find a changing room.
Chie pumped her fist in pleasure as Minako disappeared behind the curtain, her entire countenance gleeful. Yukiko poked her head out of her own changing room and beamed.
It took longer than she would like to admit, but Minako did finally catch on to Yukiko and Chie's scheme. After leaving the boutique, two bags full of clothes in every color in the spectrum save gray in hand, the three began to make their way along the strip. They stopped at the ice-cream bar, the electronics mart, and a second clothes store before ending up outside of a place that sold sports wear.
"I'll just be a minute, 'kay?" Chie said with a grin, waving Yukiko and Minako down towards a bench just outside of the front entrance. "You two don't have to follow me in."
"We will see you soon, then," Yukiko said, brushing her long skirt out in front of her before she sat on the bench. She settled her bags around her feet, as Minako took the spot beside her, throwing Souji's long arms over the back of the bench and closing her eyes.
After a moment, she spoke. "I know that you two did not plan this with the boss," she said, letting her eyes dart sideways to gauge Yukiko's reaction. "So how?"
Yukiko did not even have the grace to look guilty. She smiled softly, clasping her hands in her lap. "Souji does not need to ask us for help in order for us to want to give it. We've all been worried about you."
Minako thought on that a minute, propping her ankle up on her knee as she considered Yukiko's words.
"You shouldn't be," she said at last, forcing an awkward grin on her face. She remembered belatedly that Souji would never smile in such a way, but she supposed the point was moot. "I'm not worth worrying over."
"I worry anyway, so it is not out of my way."
Minako's face fell into sad, resigned lines as she said, "We're never going to get better at this if people try to keep us separate."
Yukiko made a slight, uncertain sound, and Minako looked her way questioningly. Yukiko breathed heavily out of her nose, her lips thinning as she searched for the right words. "Better?" She said at last, looking disapproving. "I do not know what your definition of better is, so I guess I won't comment on it, but I do have an opinion on this, if you are willing to hear it."
Minako jerked her head in a nod, her jaw clenching with the first twists of anxiety.
"You and…and Minato…you – you fought your way back from the end of the Universe to be here," Yukiko said, her voice strained and louder than normal like she could not believe that she had to explain this. "And you! You did so from another timeline. I don't think either of you came this far only to fade into the background."
Minako knew better than to try to come up with a comeback for that, so she stayed silent, blinking owlishly.
"I know that this can't be easy," Yukiko continued. "There are plenty of people who won't put up with somebody changing personalities, and I'm certainly not saying that you should attempt to make everybody see the world through your eyes, but you can let loose with your friends, at least."
Minako was already shaking her head in denial. "I appreciate the sentiment, but not many people will agree with you on that."
Yukiko simply nodded. "Not even our whole friend group agrees. I doubt Yosuke and Rise will be willing to give Souji up for even a short amount of time for a while yet, but …"
Yukiko bit distractedly at her bottom lip, her brow knitting. "It…probably does not speak highly of me that I am advocating this…I realize that I am essentially banishing my friend for another's sake, but…"
Minako laid a gentle hand on Yukiko's shoulder, her words soft and earnest. "It speaks volumes, Yukiko, and every word is good."
Yukiko beamed at her.
"But why?" Minako had to ask. "Why do you care? Not to be rude, but you don't really know me."
With a shrug, Yukiko turned so that she was more fully facing Minako's direction. "This isn't the first time that we have talked," she said simply. "You think we don't notice, but we do. We aren't stupid."
Minako laughed at the hint of stubborn pride that bled into those words.
"As far as knowing you goes," Yukiko continued, "I actually know you as well as anyone, I think. Better than anyone, if I'm right about the number of times that we have talked."
The brutal truth of Yukiko's comment hit Minako harder than she could have expected. It was true, wasn't it? Her friends did not remember, and she honestly avoided interacting with them most of the time. The people she talked to most were…well, Yukiko and Chie, really. Shit.
"I'm sorry. That was blunt."
"No," Minako said, shaking her head. "It was sobering, but it needed to be said."
They sat together, side-by-side, for a minute longer before a mischievous grin stretched along Yukiko's face. "Then I guess-" she said suddenly before dropping of.
"Guess?" Minako prompted.
"I guess that I'm your best friend," Yukiko said, cocking her head playfully.
Minako snorted. "Yeah," she said, her voice dropping into Souji's deepest, wryest tones. "I guess you are."
Yukiko leaned back, trying to look casual, but her playful smile was turning predatory. Minako edged back, looking wary.
"So," Yukiko began, pursing her lips in an attempt to smother her grin. "You and Ryoji…?"
Minako groaned. "Oh, please. Don't."
"He is listening," Minako said. "He's literally hovering over my shoulder." -and he was, stirring in the back of their mind even as he tried to remain hidden – "So don't."
"Does that matter?" Yukiko asked.
A thought occurred to Minako, and she rolled her eyes in exasperation. "This is about that bet, isn't it?"
Yukiko jarred back, trying to look affronted. "Of course not-"
"Just how much money did Yosuke put down on this?"
"Oh yes you would. How much are we talking? Enough to cover that dress?" Minako said, gesturing sharply toward one of Yukiko's bags.
Yukiko sighed, resigned. "Enough to cover that dress and take you out to dinner with what's left," she said, looking hopeful. "It keeps escalating."
A slow breath hissed out of Minako's nose as she considered. "You're going to give me a thirty percent cut-"
"I knew it!"
"-and you can't tell Akihiko." Minako tilted her head to the side as she pondered that. "Well. I guess he wouldn't care anymore, come to think of it, but…still."
"Did you date Akihiko at one point?" Yukiko asked, eyes glimmering.
"No, but I, uh….I dated his best friend."
Yukiko blinked. "Mitsuru?"
"What? No," Minako said with a forceful shake of her head. "His name was Shinjiro."
"I've never heard him mentioned."
Minako smiled bitterly. "You wouldn't have. Anyway, Akihiko did not quite approve of my decision to go out with Ryoji."
"Was Ryoji before or after, um, Shinjiro?"
Yukiko smirked. "How long after?"
Minako gave her a look that sent Yukiko into a peal of soft giggles, a strange twist of eyebrows accompanied by a half grimace that told the other girl all she needed to know.
"Oh, wow, I take it back," Yukiko said, breathing heavily around her snickers. "You all really are the same person, aren't you?"
Whatever tension had still remained in Minako's chest slackened all at once. She could feel the others in her mind again, at ease and approving, and everything seemed to settle all at once. As she listened to the other girl's peals of laughter, she admitted that Yukiko was right – she did not want to disappear. She was fine with their living situation, but having someone outside of her head acknowledge her existence was…it was good. It was needed.
And who knew, she thought as she saw Chie approach them from the side, a small black bag in hand and a toothy grin on her face. The experiments with trying to let Ryoji out were going pretty well, all things considered. Maybe one day…just for a day…