March 5, 2010
The weight of sleep dulled her senses to the point she had to blare music in her headphones to stay awake in class. Food hardly had taste, and voices that once rang sweetly in her ears droned nonsensically. Only the occasional limp, heavy chains trailing behind her as she walked down the halls of school, the dormitory, or the city did not dull with all the natural sounds of life. She dreaded the moment they take her, and the consequences of the past month were harsh. Her eyes could barely focus on the mahogany box, holding the priceless memories she made over the course of the year: movie tickets, keychains, hospital wristbands, photos, drawings, rare coins, anything that could hold onto the feelings that pass with time. The box her mother gave her on her last birthday before the accident would remember when everyone else forgets.
A soft rapping at her door broke her daze, only just a little. The auburn-haired girl uncrossed her legs and slowly brought her feet to the floor. As her weight dragged her down, she drifted sluggishly to open the door. She stiffened her posture to appear normal as much as possible before inviting the guest in. “Aigis?”
The humane robot girl let out a small smile that could not draw attention from the profound melancholy in her eyes she perpetually wore since the day everyone else forgot. “I’m sorry to appear suddenly, but I need to talk to you.”
“It's alright. I wanted to talk too." Anxiety overwhelmed Aigis' blue eyes as she waited for Airi to speak first. "Do you remember anything? Like the promise?”
Those vague words were enough for Aigis’ shoulders to fall, free of the burden the two shared. “Yes! I remember everything! Oh, Airi, I am so sorry! I wanted to tell you sooner, but everyone else... I didn’t want to presume–”
“Don’t worry about it, I understand.”
Before finishing her sentence, she felt the tight, warm embrace the android gave. Having one friend remember nearly brought her to tears. Airi went on for weeks fearing she would bear the weight of that January night alone, and all she could have down was ask. Asking Aigis would have saved her the constant nightmares, could have helped her retain some of the energy that continues to slip between her fingers. Somehow with the meager strength she had left, Airi held her emotions in and patted Aigis gingerly on the back.
“Today is graduation day,” reminded Aigis, flattening a wrinkle in her friend's uniform. “We’re late; the ceremony’s already begun. I am sorry, but I couldn’t leave without you.”
“Stop apologizing.” Airi let go with the smile her friends once loved dearly. “Let’s go to the rooftop and wait for the others.”
As her newly found sense of worry dictated, Aigis studied the girl. The expression seemed as genuine as always, but her heart rate continued to beat ever slowly. Not much life resided in her. “Of course,” she replied. “Soon we will enjoy the view of the city we saved.”
Aigis’ lap was not as uncomfortable as Airi expected. For the past several months she became more and more human. Her expressions, her vocalizations, her touch: everything was natural. The sun above them warmed Airi as her senses returned gradually and receded in gentle, rocking waves. Her eyes drooped and fought to stay open. Her rapidly draining energy despite sleeping for twelve hours concerned her when she wasn’t too comfortable with the sunlight and Aigis’ oddly supportive lap. She had to wait for the others; she had to see them before she took another impossibly long nap.
“The wind feels so nice…” Aigis smiled at the flawless blue sky. “This is my first time experiencing spring.”
“It’s a happy season for a lot of people. My birthday is in two weeks.”
“So soon after you leave?" She cried out in a naturally embarrassed manner she had tried to master for months. "How could I have been so thoughtless? Happy early birthday!”
“Thanks, Aigis. Everyone's been preoccupied lately, and I nearly forgot too. It feels strange to go back home after everything...”
She hadn't begun to pack because of her exhaustion, but she had finally re-adapted to life in Japan that it felt strange to leave. Worry about the trip and the undeniable longing to see her foster family again preoccupied Airi's mind enough to forget about how her body felt ten pounds heavier than it did when she woke up.
She and Aigis were quiet for a while. From their relaxed body language, the lack of talking wasn’t very awkward for either of them.
When Aigis spoke again, she chose her words carefully. “I’m glad to be alive to see this. I wish the others were here, but this is still a precious moment.” Melancholy scrawled across her face. “After fighting alongside you as the world nearly ended, I finally began to understand what it means to live.”
Airi had one eye open and focused on her friend. “How so?”
“To think for yourself, to not run away, and to accept the inevitable. All things eventually come to an end. Every living thing will one day disappear. Only by accepting this can one discover what they truly want.”
Her words hit close to home. Airi smiled, happy for Aigis’ newfound understanding. She learned these things so quickly it made her red eyes turn green, but her words still bothered her more than usual.
Aigis gazed into her eyes, unafraid of speaking her mind. “I know you have struggled with accepting mortality, even when someone sacrifices himself so another may live. Please don’t feel ashamed for feeling that way.”
Airi’s complacent mood soured as she stroked the pocketwatch that rested against her breast. Its once tender, soothing effect that alleviated her depression was gone along with other sensations she took for granted. Despite her perpetually wearing it as a necklace, maintaining it for nearly six months, and cleaning the last of the bloodstains, Airi felt the morbid charm finally abandoned her. An old burning sensation in her wrist and arm socket returned as she heard the echoes of screaming students and shattering glass from only one floor below.
“Those seniors got what they deserved,” she said quietly. “But I was just like them. If I only listened to Mitsuru-sempai and gave him a chance, sempai might still be alive.”
Aigis nodded sympathetically. “I miss Shinjiro-san too, but I know he would not want us to cry forever. He renewed our resolve to end the Dark Hour, and he saved Ken-san's life. We wouldn't be here without him. I’ll always be grateful for what he did.”
Knowing her words didn’t bring comfort or changed her mind, the Aigis stroked Airi’s hair. Warmth tickled Airi’s neck; she remembered the days when her mother put her to bed every night by singing her to sleep.
“Once I knew I had to prevent the Fall for everyone’s sake,” Aigis continued, “I realized I wanted to continue to protect you more than anything in the world. I know anyone else can do the same thing, but that’s okay. You gave me purpose when I felt lost, and I believe my life is worth living.”
Her voice cracked upon the last sentence; like when the world was saved, the nonhuman started to cry. If this was her chance to be a mother, Airi felt the worry of one. Her eyes also watered in sympathy. Then she sluggishly lifted her hand to catch a teardrop from the robot’s gentle cheek.
“Oh!” startled, she sniffled and laughed it off. Aigis’ reaction was strikingly identical to Airi’s whenever she was startled. “What am I doing? I should be happy…”
“Hey! Ai-chan! Aibana!”
A familiar voice was full of boundless energy. A sea of other friendly voices blended, creating a symphony of unified compassion. Airi wished with all her heart that they were coming for her. There was plenty of room on the rooftop for everyone. The sunlight warmed her body and the wind refreshed it. It was a perfect mix of comfort, drawing the sleep closer and closer. Airi never thought the world to be so wonderful as it did now. With her friends, she saved it from the Shadows and the Fall.
But she was far from happy. A subliminal message replayed in her head for over a month and she couldn’t understand what it meant.
For what seemed to be the last straw, her body lost all sensation and her senses blurred. The nightmare began and she couldn’t shake it off. Inside, she screamed, beating against the walls of her own body as something pulled at her. She vividly heard the clanging of metal; the metal that stalked her ever since she first heard the voices. Airi screamed louder, begging for silence or inner peace. In the midst of her fight, the various noises overpowered and silenced her own. Crying children. Laughing men. Exploding gunshots. Roaring of fire. Scratching claws against flesh.
With a violent jolt, Airi returned back to the rooftop. Her body did not move from the shock and Aigis didn’t sense anything was wrong with her. It was at that last moment, but Airi finally understood what was happening.
“You are tired, aren’t you?” asked Aigis.
Airi tried to shake her head, but her muscles were too drained and strained to move.
“You can close your eyes. I won’t leave you.”
She could no longer tell if her friends were coming. The birds flying above and around them were hushed and lost their distinct forms. The heavy pocket watch was a feather. Everything was fading and going dark.
“The others… arrive… soon.”
Her heavy eyelids finally and slowly shut the girl away from the world she knew.
In her confusion and fear the bloodcurdling screaming began once more. She had to wake up. She had to avoid that chaos she’d seen glimpses of. She needed to know what she did wrong to deserve this as she died. But her body was too heavy and her spirit shriveled and dissolved in the surrounding darkness.
The words she heard from the world were chillingly clear: “Don’t worry, Airi. Even if the world forgets, I will always protect you.”
Airi found herself in that familiar chair across from her two spiritual guides. Not once along the journey had she ever been able to summon herself into the Velvet Room by mere thought. Her will was still strong enough to manage such a feet, even without her Persona abilities that vanished after the apocalyptic confrontation.
Her sudden presence alarmed the residents. One expressed his shock more so than the other: the long-nosed, bug-eyed man remained neutral and unfazed. The steel elevator gates behind them remained open, shining brilliant light upon them.
“My, what a rare guest indeed,” said Igor. “It seems your resolve is far more resolute than I anticipated. What brings you back, in need of our services?”
Airi could not bring herself to look at him. Those ever-open, bloodshot eyes were the sharpest daggers cutting her. She muttered fearfully under her breath.
“Hmm? Whatever is the matter?”
Her voice grew faintly louder, though only enough to hear fragmented words.
The tall sleek white-haired man with high cheekbones, Theodore, gave his master a brief look, hoping his wish to speak would be granted. Igor did not tear his gaze from the girl. He did, however, give a slight gesture in response. “Airi-sama,” spoke Theo, “if we are to know your desire, please speak up.”
“I can't do this!”
A thunderous crack echoed throughout the sapphire-hued Velvet Room. The elevator gates bolted shut and the clock exploded, raining glass and metal. The room jerked violently as it began to descend. The once vibrantly blinding light of the room weakened with every floor they passed. It was amazing how poised Igor was, thought Theo who could barely restrain his trembling confusion.
“What is it you cannot do?” asked Igor. “You have completed your quest.”
Clenching the edge of her seat, Airi finally snapped. “It’s that demon and those damn chains! They grow louder every second and won’t leave me alone!” Upon hearing her acknowledge its existence, the heavy sound that haunted her endlessly softly emerged from the background. All color drained from the girl’s face.
Igor let out a knowing sigh. “You are afraid. Now that time is all but gone, the Seal beckons you to complete your destiny.”
“No! I never asked for this!” She looked behind her to see the twisted, corroded pieces of metal crawl towards her. “You told me that with the Universe, ‘nothing is outside the realm of possibility’!”
“Indeed I did. However, do you remember the contract you signed? ‘I choseth this fate of mine own free will.’ With your power, you brought a new hope for the world, preventing its tragic end. Is this not to your satisfaction?”
The looming chains from behind rattled like a necklace of bones. Airi cried, horrified by how close they were, “It’s not that! I ended the Dark Hour, but why must I die like this?!”
The girl jumped out of her seat. She turned to Theo, who followed his master’s example by maintaining composure. He always had the horrible suspicion of her fate; he spent months preparing for this day. Yet his heart ached deeply to see her desperation. Not seeing any outward signs of sympathy, tears erupted from Airi’s horror-stricken eyes.
“Theo, please! Why must I leave my friends? I’ll never be able to see them again! What if they never remember me? What have I done to feel and hear the pain and suffering of every human being forever?!”
The chains finally wrapped themselves around her ankles, pulling her back towards the chair. With a high-pitched wail, the Velvet Room descended faster. The fabric hugging the undisturbed door frames swayed violently, ready to blow everywhere at any moment. Darkness consumed the room.
Clinging for her life, Airi shoved the chair aside and launched herself onto the wooden table where many of her Persona were fused. Even with a soul far closer to death than ever, she dug her fingers into the wood. Great chaos pervaded the room. Any longer and the gate would shatter, the elevator crash, and the room collapse. Somehow, amongst the violent maelstrom of noise, Igor’s voice could still be heard very clearly.
“You have worn many masks and extended hope to others through your bonds, but you never seized the opportunity to help yourself. As one with the endless possibilities of the Wild Card, ‘tis a pity you have not realized your true potential.”
The words were bullets tearing through her skin. Her hold loosened as the chains, pulling harder and gripping tighter, coiled up her legs. She knew she only had seconds to spare before her bloody, splintered fingers could take no more. In a last attempt to plead like a spoiled child, she finally looked the long-nosed resident dead in the eyes. “Give me another chance!”
“That is not for me to decide,” stated Igor plainly.
At some point the chains would either yank her in one merciless tug or tear her in two. Somehow, nothing happened yet. Now, when her time was surely up…
“I can stop Nyx without forming the Great Seal! It has to be possible!”
For a moment the stoic resident seemed amused. “How would it be possible when the Seal has its unshaken grip upon you? Your journey has ended. Rest yourself, for your hard work has been rewarded to you.”
“How the bloody fuck is being a glorified doormat a reward?!”
As if the Velvet Room could not shake any more violently, Theo truly feared that the girl’s willpower could utterly destroy their dimension. Worse of all, undo everything she and her friends strived for. Theo’s watery eyes betrayed his stern jaw. How could the girl who once smiled so sweetly put herself through a fight she could not win? He could not bear to look at her suffering anymore.
He begged his master, “Humor her. Give her a moment to believe she has another chance.”
“No matter what can be said, I cannot guarantee she will be offered another chance.” The man’s will was clearly as stubborn as hers. “Fate can be absolute.”
“But if you pretend, my master, for just one moment, then your egos will not end up tearing our world apart.”
Igor never removed his eyes from the girl, who stood her ground quite admirably. If only she were not such a fool – ah, but indeed that was the role she played all along. “Even if you were to have a chance, you will have broken the contract and perhaps bring forth a whole new curse upon you and your world.”
“I won’t break it!” Airi had stopped crying by this point, but her face was clearly an emotional, soaking mess. “If there are endless possibilities, I’ll find the one that’ll save the world without me or my friends to die! I’ve always kept my word, and I will follow through this to the end, no matter what happens! ”
A fierce tug nearly snapped her legs off and Airi screamed. Only her pointer fingers and thumbs were holding onto the table. She could just feel the other dimension demanding her to serve her spiritual sentence as an eternal barrier maiden.
“I’ll find another way! If I can’t, I will accept my fate as the Seal. Please, Igor!”
“Words will only be words until you bear the resolve to make them reality.” The resident sighed. With a sleight of hand, a piece of paper appeared between his fingers and he held it out to her.
“What is that?” asked Theo.
“An amendment.” Igor extended his hand with the paper towards the girl. “If you muster enough strength to touch this, I will attempt to loosen the Seal’s hold enough for you to sign this new agreement. Once signed, time as you knew it will reset to end this dilemma.”
A mixture of shock, confusion, and joy spread Airi’s strained face. His words gave her a sturdy push for her to grab a steady grip of the table again. As if they were a living being, the chains writhed and screamed as their control weakened. She could finally utilize the upper strength she built up over the year. Yet her body felt stretched, ready to break in half at any moment.
But a familiar voice echoed in her head: “Mitsuru and I knew you’d be a good leader. Your skills really are incredible, but they won’t be of any use if you get exhausted easily.”
In her world she would have either glared at or smacked Akihiko for underestimating her. If only it wasn’t so true at that moment. Could she bring herself to make it? Her brief second of doubt caused her to lose three inches of progress.
“Y’know, Aibana, I’m glad I got this power. If it weren’t for you and the gang, I mighta done the wrong things with my Persona. So, thanks…”
Junpei and his stupid, goofy jokes. Another big brother helped Airi to refocus and reach further.
“Hey, since you helped me get through this crazy year, wanna get friendship rings? I’ll buy yours, and you buy mine. Oh, and promise me you’ll get a great man to buy you the one for your ring finger!”
Yukari. The skeptic’s rare moments of trust helped too, and even in times of doubt she meant well.
“Huh? Uh-oh… These tears… They won’t stop! Th-This is most unusual! Airi, why am I crying?”
Hearing the voice of the last person she saw before death restored some energy into her weak, aching soul.
"Being with you guys helped me understand how I can make a difference. I-I feel more confident in my abilities. I’ll never again think that my actions and goals are doomed from the start. Thanks, Airi-chan.”
Words from her friends rang in her ears all at once, helping her to block out anything that could distract her. Even a few energetic howls from the ever-loyal Koromaru reached her.
“You really are nice, Airi-san. You don’t act like it because you think I need it or because I'm just a kid. You really are kind. I wish more people were like you.”
Memories came rushing back to her of better days. She remembered having Ken smile like a real kid for the first time in months.
“Apologize, you despicable cretin! Fujihara stands on her own feet and challenges fate with her own strength! How dare you insult her!”
The memories of her friends were there with her. The thought of them never abandoning or forgetting her, as delusional as it may be, cheered her on. It felt like an eternity, but at some point the paper was lightly brushing against her fingertips. It was her last chance to save herself.
“Hey, you seem to be feelin’ better. That’s good. The others depend on you being at your best.”
That same voice from the one who likely thought her selfish, shallow, and pathetic somehow gave her the very last piece of strength she needed. The moment her finger touched the contract, the wailing chains loosened and immediately recoiled into the shadows behind her. The earth-shattering shudders slowly subsided, and the elevator eased its descent to a stop. The pandemonium finally settled to utter silence with the Velvet Room re-stabilized. Overwhelmed by the tension to the point of nausea, Theo collapsed to his knees.
“Excellent.” The grin on Igor’s face widened intensely as he applauded. “It appears fate has more surprises to show you.”
The excited girl held the newly obtained contract to her heart as she rolled off the table and landed on the floor. A thousand angels must have blessed her at that moment as Airi sweated grenades and gasped for air. After gathering himself, Theo returned to his normal posture. His nerves were still badly shot, but at least he could stand. Moments later, Airi sat up and looked at the miracle paper. There was no writing to speak of: just one line for her signature.
“Where are the conditions?”
“It is hardly any different from before.” To Igor’s right, a mature, but stern woman looking strikingly similar to Theo emerged from the dark and stood beside him. The girl saw the heavy book she carried in her arms that bore a striking resemblance to Theo's.
Numb and faint, Airi could not read the woman’s expression or recognize her face. “Who are you?”
“This is Margaret,” said Igor. “She was ready to prepare for our next guest. Although, it seems your time has been extended a while longer.”
Margaret’s golden eyes, while almond-shaped with flawlessly full eyelashes, were as sharp as her master’s. “So it would seem,” she spoke coolly. “When you sign it, you will take full responsibility for your actions, regardless of whatever happens to you upon your journey. Time will reset until you achieve that supposed miracle. To accomplish this you will retain the memories of those lost in your failed cycles as a consequence of your playing god.”
A silver pen suddenly manifested into the girl’s hand. This seemed riskier than the contract Pharos gave her before, because at least that one had clearly written terms.
“My, you have created quite a commotion moments ago,” commented Igor. “Have you begun to regret your decision?”
“If I sign this,” Airi said, voice raspy and strained, “Will you tell me what I can and cannot do?”
“Oh, it will not be necessary. You already understand what must be done.”
Opening his mouth, Theo wanted to protest, but his master made an unconscious warning to say nothing. The attendant tightly pressed his lips shut and rebelled quietly by clenching his fists. Margaret let out an impatient sigh.
Airi had only one option, and she knew she had to try before giving up. Ink bled blue and formed the name that unknowingly tripped her into the lion’s pit. The conditions of her amended contract appeared, warning:
“I shall confront Death and thwart the Fall as many times needed until I prevent my demise. I shall not fall to despair, believe in false hope, or ponder upon doomed dreams but the reality of my own survival. I chooseth this fate of mine own free will.”
Airi could still faintly hear the comforting voices of her friends, forever known only to her heart and mind. To have everything they went through be undone and unknown to all but her left her feeling even more lonely than the moment she died. She closed her eyes and embraced the darkness pulling her from the Velvet Room and back into reality.